Bridges Too Far

by tb_ll57


Fandom: GW
Pairing: 5x2, some 1x2, 2x OC
Rating: NC17

He felt the hand on his shoulder for a long time before he connected it to the strange bird sounds. Chirp chirp-- became, slowly-- Duo. Duo, can you wake up? Duo, please wake up now. We need to ask you questions.

Warped blurs. Dark and light-- slowly-- separating out. Heads. Hair with eyes, mouths. Duo? Duo, nod if you can hear me.

With great effort he did. Chin, up-down.

'You're in the hospital, now,' the bird-voice said. 'Don't pull at that. It's an IV. You're very dehydrated.'

'I'm not sure he's up to this,' another bird voice said, from far off into the black fog on either side of his eyes.

'Just a few questions. Duo, just nod yes or no. Do you remember anything about the man who took you?'

Remember. Remember anything.

'Short-term memory loss isn't uncommon in a situation like this.'

'Do you remember anything at all from the past week?'

His mouth was fuzzy, his tongue dead-feeling. 'Back hurts,' he mumbled, and shut out the bright painful light by letting his eyelids slide closed.

'Just one more question and then you can sleep. Can you identify the man who had you, Duo? Anything about him?'

Chirps. Keeping him awake.

'He's just come out of surgery, Agents. He won't be coherent until the anaesthesia wears off.'

'How long?'

Just until after he slept. So tired. Except it seemed like he oughtn't be tired at all, should he be...
'It was in your freezer,' Wufei apologised. 'I think it's just rice and sweet potato.'

'No, there's chicken under the rice.' Duo caught Wufei's raised eyebrows. 'I don't like vegetables. I figure if I have to eat my way through a starch to get to the meat, it's better than nothing.'

'I'll let that pass, I think,' Wufei said slowly. 'Although we may return to it later.' He pulled the rickety plastic visitor's chair to Duo's bedside, easing back into it with a sigh. 'I'm just glad you have your appetite back.'

'You know how it goes.' Duo picked a hole into the rice to get at the hen, but couldn't admit the sight of it turned his still-weak stomach. 'Pass me that water?'

Wufei did. 'How did the surgery go?'

'I figured you'd know more than me. Their chart says I should still be drooling out the mouth so they treat me like I am, never mind the evidence.' Wufei wore a shadow of pity on his mouth, in his eyes. They had both had run-ins with stubborn medical personnel whose training couldn't encompass bodies altered by genetic therapies, as theirs had been. They were both under average height, still boyishly slim despite their thirty-six years. And they always would be. Duo had never much minded-- in his opinion, not having to duck under doors and being able to squeeze into small corners was plenty of advantage over growing up. Wufei had a harder time of it, in Preventers, and it had been a dark few years for him when they were nineteen or so and just realising they were as good as they were going to get. Duo didn't really understand it, but he was sympathetic.

Most the time, anyway. 'Don't start giving me cow eyes,' Duo said brusquely. 'It's not like I've got anywhere else to be. Anyway, what did they tell you about--'

'Compression and spinal bruising,' Wufei answered. 'We think you were hit with a long tube-like object, possibly a baseball bat or a pipe. They're predicting significant nerve damage, muscle dystrophy, autonomic disturbance, loss of reflex function. So I imagine you'll be walking out of here in a week.'

'Who the fuck hit me, the Incredible Hulk?' Duo forced a forkful of rice onto his tongue. It was, he couldn't help notice, entirely tasteless, and he didn't think it had to do just with his cooking. 'I'm not a super human. I'm lucky to be moving, aren't I.'

'Yes,' Wufei said bluntly. 'So you'll just have to excuse my cow eyes. It was a hell of a week, Duo, and when I saw you lying in there like--'

'Like what?'

'You still don't remember any of it.'

'It's a big black hole,' Duo muttered sourly. His back was still numb; the morphine was accomplishing that much. But it was hard to sit up, and he had the funny queasy feeling that there was something wrong inside him. He let his head rest back on the plumped pillows packed behind him. 'I get hit on the head, too?'

'Your skull's intact, if that's what you mean.' Wufei moved closer as Duo closed his eyes. 'Do you want me to go?'

'No. I'm bored out of my mind here. I want to go home.' He heard the whine in his voice, and winced. 'Just tired of lying down, I guess.'

'Not too much longer.' Wufei took the rice bowl off his stomach. Duo heard the lid seal and the muted rustle of a plastic bag being wrapped around it. 'Duo... do you remember anything else? Anything at all?'

'I've told you no a million times. If it changes, trust me, I'll be shouting it from the rooftop.' Muscle dystrophy. Loss of reflex. Anxiety fluttered through him. He deliberately ignored it. 'You have any idea who... uh, who...'

'Kidnapped you.'

'I'm not a kid, and I don't get napped.'

'And yet you did.' Wufei's hand squeezed his. 'There's no shame in it. We can all be taken by surprise. And as you said, you're not a super man. So don't blame yourself for a non-existent failure.'

'How come you're never this nice when I forget to pick up your mail?'

'Because you don't forget, you do it to make me angry, and my temper is no more super-human than your spine.' Wufei kissed his mouth. Duo peeked long enough to see that Wufei's eyes were closed. 'You need a bath,' Wufei added as he straightened. 'I'll let the nurses know.'

Duo rolled his eyes. 'Nice, Wufei.'


Never mind. He was tired, anyway. He couldn't be awake more than an hour at a time. He wasn't particularly enjoying the experience. 'Hey,' he said, and tried to focus blurring eyesight on Wufei at the door. 'When were you going to tell me about my hair?'

Wufei drew in a sharp breath. 'I didn't-- you--'

'I've been lying on it for thirty years. It's the kind of thing you notice.'

'I'm so sorry.' Wufei returned to Duo's bed, reaching out to touch one of his blanket-covered feet. Duo tried not to let it bother him that he couldn't really feel it-- bodies healed. His body healed. It would.

'The Hulk take it as a souvenir?' he asked instead.

'We haven't found it,' Wufei admitted reluctantly. 'I didn't want it to disturb you.'

'It doesn't. Not really. I'm not a kid. You just should have been honest with me.'

'We're still looking for it. We'll find it.'

And it would go into an evidence locker anyway. Duo didn't fool himself. Couldn't be irritated that Wufei was trying to fool him-- Wufei was stupid like that sometimes. 'Am I bald or something?'

Wufei came to stand by his head, the hand with the bagged lunch going to Duo's wrist, the other going up to his skull. 'Can you feel that? It's about to your collar.' He brushed Duo's cheek with a feathery strand of hair. 'It's a clean cut.'

'What you mean to say is we've got the same haircut now.' He wished he could raise his hands that high. The nurses had all emphatically told him not to try. 'I'm not ugly now?'

'Very dashing, actually.'


'I can't do anything about your face,' Wufei shrugged. 'But the hair is fine.' He kissed Duo again, less perfunctory now, more gentle. 'I'll come back after dinner. I'll see if I can find something that tempts you more than chicken.'


'But I just don't understand it,' the doctor said again. The physical therapist was still in silent shock, staring with a slight glaze as Duo jogged evenly on the treadmill. 'He should still be bed-ridden. He should still be sleeping off the--'

'I know that's what you're used to,' Wufei repeated patiently. 'But as I've explained, Duo is not normal.'

Duo rolled his eyes again. He did that a lot around Wufei, but he couldn't help it. Wufei was one of the funniest people he'd ever met-- unintentionally, of course.

'But I just don't understand!'

Duo tugged his key card out of the slot, and the rolling belt of the treadmill slowed to a stop. 'If I'm done proving I'm not comatose, can I go home now?'

The doctor threw up his hands. The physical therapist still wasn't talking, even when Duo gave her a wink.

'You didn't really have to show off quite so much,' Wufei observed later, when they were finally, blessed walking out of the hospital doors and headed for the subway. 'And whilst your recovery may seem miraculous to them, I'm not fooled. You should have got off the treadmill when you started getting winded.'

'Unlike some persons I could name, I'm not allergic to fun, and it was fun. Did you see their faces? And Doctor Patil was practically spluttering.'

'I thought he handled himself well, considering. Stop that,' he added, as Duo used his cane to clatter on the metal slats of the subway stairs rail. 'You're supposed to be using it to walk, and you should, especially since you tired yourself out. And you did,' he added loudly, overriding Duo's protest. 'You can hide it from strangers but not from me.'

'My butt's not hiding anything, and that's what you're staring at.'

'Stop that.' Wufei slid his hand under Duo's elbow, holding tight when Duo tried to pull away. 'You're the one who complains I never accept your advice. So be the bigger man and accept mine now. Stop pushing so hard to be better. The harder you push, the less better you'll be, and so help me, if I find you passed out on the floor in your apartment I will chain you to a hospital bed myself.'

'All I heard was chains and bed,' Duo taunted, but the threat cowed him more than he wanted to admit. Wufei wasn't quite a mind-reader, and Duo didn't like to believe he was that transparent, but his stunt on the treadmill had produced a very sharp backache, and he was uncomfortably aware of numbness in places that ought to have been pains. His feet were tingling weirdly, and the stairs were requiring too much concentration. They waited on the platform with the milling mid-day crowd of mothers with young children and the homeless wanderers who crowded such places, busking for coins. Duo dipped into a pocket for loose change before remembering they weren't his own clothes; his clothes had been confiscated by Preventers, and the light cotton scrubs he wore now had been donated by the hospital staff. 'Am I going to get my wallet back?' he asked.

Wufei glanced sideways at him as the lights flashed to announce the arrival of their train. 'I thought you knew. We think your wallet was taken by whoever kidnapped you. We didn't ever find it, anyway.'

'Damn it.'

'I called your bank and the two credit cards I knew about and stopped your accounts. They'll issue you new numbers this week, I think.' Wufei warned the exiting passengers out of their way with a glare that promised bodily harm if anyone should be so careless as to bump them, and consequently they were able to board in a relative oasis of personal space, right up to the seats reserved for the handicapped. Duo grumbled, but sitting was a real relief. Wufei, damn him, sat there glowing smugly and rubbing Duo's wrist soothingly and publicly, so Duo couldn't even pitch a hissy about the unusually affectionate display.

He only realised he was tired when he woke up. Wufei was tugging him to his feet. They were at his stop, Federal Square, and only Wufei's hand on the pull-cord was keeping the doors open. Duo fumbled a bit getting the cane and his tingling feet all on the ground at the same time, but Wufei helped him along like an invalid, and he made it out of the train and onto the platform in one piece. At least Wufei wasn't making mock of him now, but it didn't feel like an improvement to have a Preventer using his badge to bully his way to the lift instead of letting Duo attempt the escalator back up to the surface street. It did make it easier to zone out whilst Wufei called for a cab. He dozed off again in the taxi, and Wufei woke him up right outside his building.

'I'm sorry about the mess,' Wufei said. He dithered over where to place Duo's bag of hospital goodies, and finally gave it a toss to the couch. 'I tried to get over here and clean it, but...'

'No worries. It's my own mess, after all. Makes me feel like home.' Duo had to pick his path between piled magazines and laundry he didn't remember running, but he made it to the bedroom door. Wufei made an effort to turn the duvet down, only to discover the sheets had been removed. 'Possibly they're in that giant pile out there,' Duo offered. He eased onto his back on the mattress and threw his cane as far as he could, achieving a satisfying clatter against the wall. 'I'll be fine. I'll get them on tomorrow.'

'Not with your back like that.'

'Then I'll just stay under the duvet.'

Wufei sank into a crouch by the bed. 'Do you want me to call that home care agency?'

'Jesus, no.'

'I can pay for it, if that's what you're worried about.'

'I'm not, and it pisses me off that you're opening the pocketbook because you feel guilty.'

'Fine,' Wufei snapped. 'Starve on your bare damn bed.'

'I will if I want to.'

'You can't work like this.'

'I only work when I want to anyway. This is why I have savings.' He fumbled with a foot until he caught the edge of the duvet. He couldn't quite pull it up, but it kept his feet warm, anyway. 'Seriously, stop with the yelling. I'm home now and I'll be fine.'

'Physically cured, but still emotionally crippled.'

'You're in a mood.' Duo poked at a muscular thigh at mattress height. 'What's wrong with you? It's not just me. It's never just me, no matter what you claim.'

'Oh?' Wufei went back to his knees, elbows on the mattress edge. 'A funny thing to say, coming from you. How many men are you seeing right now?'

'Aw, you know I don't keep count, baby. You're the only one who's special, though.' Duo batted his eyelashes prettily.

'Stop that,' Wufei muttered, bending to kiss him. 'It's probably not your fault. You weren't held enough as a child.'

'Mostly I think I'm just kind of slutty.' It wasn't often Wufei was this gentle with him-- they spent almost as much time fighting as they did sleeping together. More, probably. 'You're not as traditional as you think, though. How much can you really disapprove if you keep coming back?' He caught Wufei's hand at his jaw. 'How long's it been? Five years?'

'I never know what point you're trying to make in that maze you call a mind.'

'My point is, if it ain't broke, put down the tool box. And if you call that care agency I'll kick your ass. I can and do take care of myself. With a little kindly assistance from certain allowable sources.'

Wufei kicked off his shoes and climbed over Duo to lay against the wall. 'You're depressing me,' he said. He slid his hand under Duo's shirt, to lay his fingers of Duo's heart. His skin was very warm. Duo couldn't quite roll to his side yet, but he managed to prop himself on pillows without pillow cases so he could still see the man lying next to him. Wufei interrupted his attempt to speak by pressing their mouths together. This was more than those spontaneous little touches Wufei had been giving him since he'd waked up in hospital. This was serious, and sort of surprising, given the direction the discussion had been taking. Or maybe not. Wufei was like that sometimes, when he felt--

He must have been scared, Duo realised. Scared for Duo. That's what it was, Wufei making all this effort to be near him, help him. Worried for him. Probably Duo should have felt something like that, too. It was just all back in that blank spot they told him was an entire week. A whole week of his life, important scary week, and-- nothing.

'Hey,' he said. 'I might not have expressed this yet, so-- thank you.'

The corner of Wufei's lips turned up. 'You're welcome.'

'I know you're not supposed to talk about ongoing investigations, but... seeing as I'm the vic and all, mind sharing?'

'We still haven't found anyone who knows where you were, the night you were taken. None of your usual places. If you could remember--'

'I know.'

Wufei hesitated. Then, 'We're not stalled yet. We're going over tapes from the warehouse where we found you. We're tracking down all the delivery vans and drivers. They go from colony to colony.'

'So that's it? No other leads?'

'Nothing I can discuss.'

'But you could maybe nod or blink or something if there really were other leads?'

'Duo,' Wufei complained.


Wufei kissed him again, open-mouthed. 'Stop. Stop treating this like any other week. Stop treating me like one of your bar hook-ups.'

'Hey, I never do that.'

'Hook up at bars?'

'Treat you like any other guy. And I resent the accusation. It's not just me resisting marriage and fidelity and happily ever after, here.'

Wufei shut him up with his mouth again. He was getting a little overly fond of that method. It didn't seem worth mentioning, though, particularly since Wufei was also doing things with his fingers on Duo's chest that were very interesting. It was definitely going somewhere. And fast. Wufei wasn't much for foreplay under regular circumstances, but this was going fast even for him. Duo had a momentary worry he wouldn't be able to-- well-- get it up, but by the time Wufei had a hand down his pants he had plenty of proof that all the important parts were still functioning. Wufei's hair felt slick under his palms, Wufei's mouth was leaving wet splotches on his sternum and belly, and then Wufei pulled open the cotton string on his pants and licked at his hipbones.

'Guess you missed me,' Duo said to the ceiling. 'You sure I was only gone a week?'

'Three weeks, counting the two at Ontarian General. Are you up to this? Your back?'

'Screw my back,' he muttered muzzily. Wufei's tongue was making patterns on his cock head, around and around until Duo almost felt dizzy from it. It took probably a little longer than it would have if Duo had been at his tops, but Wufei kept at it. Maybe it was a cultural thing-- Wufei had made noise once about how it was impolite to open your mouth too wide, which Duo did routinely-- but he liked how Wufei did this kind of thing, different from other guys who went at it like hoovers intent on getting it over with as fast as possible. It was delicate with Wufei, all the fastidious little adjustments and obscure little routines. He couldn't do much more than stroke at Wufei's hair without getting yelled at, even if he wasn't fighting the backache, but Wufei took care of it himself. Wufei came first, actually, into a tissue from his pocket, and when Duo followed suit a minute later, Wufei spat neatly into the square and binned it off the edge of the bed. As proper as ever, even wonderfully routine, right up to Wufei flopping down over him.

'Oof,' Duo said.

'Oh, no, I'm sorry.' Wufei moved hastily. 'I didn't hurt you?'

'I don't think so. I'm still after-glowing. Ask me in five minutes.'

Wufei took him at his word, apparently, because he settled into place next to Duo, arm draped over him, head on Duo's shoulder. They lay in silence like that for a while. It felt really nice. Duo thought maybe he ought to try and hold on to that idea, in case he ever did remember what had happened to him. He might not be able to work up any angst over it yet, but eventually he'd find out, and probably it would be on the disturbing side of things. People who successfully kidnapped-- not kidnapped, he reminded himself-- people who got a drop on a Gundam Pilot, even one who hadn't sat butt to seat in a mobile suit in twenty years, weren't likely to do it without some really ugly reasons.

He tried to picture himself lying on a warehouse floor somewhere like-- like someone lying on a warehouse floor would look. It just didn't register any emotional distress.

Well, maybe that was a gift horse. Duo didn't hold all that much with angst, anyway. The universe moved with or without your consent. Best you could do was hope for a hand-hold during the turbulence.

'Duo?' Wufei asked. 'You're really all right about your hair?'

'Yeah,' he answered. 'I am. It's weird, though, isn't it. I wouldn't have thought I would be.'

'Me either.' Wufei's thumb moved slowly back and forth over his collar bone. 'We'll find it. We'll keep looking. I don't want it in his-- I don't like the idea of it being out there, somewhere.'

'Preciate it.' The ceiling was going dark. Or he was. 'Hey, I'm falling asleep. You be here when I get up?'

'I'll try. Might have to go in to work.'

'Okay. Don't you dare call that--'

'I won't,' Wufei said, and kissed his neck. 'Go to sleep. I'll stay as long as I can.'


He did get the sheets on the bed, although it occasioned a certain amount of swearing and two sessions of lying on his back on the floor until he could feel his hands and feet again. The whole spine thing was really verging on inconvenient. Duo wasn't particularly used to having a body that disobeyed. He wasn't liking the experience.

But he was still mobile, so after he found shoes that didn't have laces and pants that didn't have lots of sticky buttons and small zip tabs, he dug up his tube pass from between two couch cushions and headed for the door. Probably he should have stayed home and checked in on all the messages he had theoretically racked up over a three-week absence from work, but he didn't really feel up to the idea. What he wanted was a little routine, a little piece of normal, and that meant easing into the water, so to speak. He couldn't even shower without help, yet, and lying on the floor hadn't left him especially clean, so in literal fact as well as metaphor he planned on taking it slow the first few days back in his life.

He exited the subway at Archives and Library Station, puttering up the lift with an old woman in a wheelchair who kept looking at him suspiciously. But the guard at the lobby doors of the Archives greeted him sincerely, and Duo began to feel a little better about his decision. Routine was good. He took the visitor's badge they had ready for him and shuffled through the metal detector. It went off because of the cane, but they waved him through anyway. Duo grinned to himself, remembering the pocket knife he'd had to give up on his first visit. He'd been a little jaded to the ways of the world, back then, taking a weapon into a research institution. He'd probably never been in a safer place than the L1 Archives.

'Hey, Mr Maxwell,' Rafiq called from the Reference Desk. The young man left his seat and crossed the search room to Duo, clapping him on the shoulder with the familiarity of long association. 'I started to think you were done with us.'

'Not yet,' Duo answered cheerfully. 'You didn't empty out my drawer while I was gone?'

'Like I'd dare. Wow, that's some haircut. Religious conversion?'

Just like that, his good mood crashed. 'You know how it is,' he managed, trying to keep the smile in place. 'Been kind of a long-- uh-- you get my boxes in?'

'Yeah, we've been holding them for you.' Rafiq seemed to notice the cane, then. His dark eyes went wide. 'Uh-- head to your desk and I'll bring out the cart. You need anything else?'

'Just the new shipment of newspapers.'

'I'll pull the film for you.'

'Thanks, man.' Duo left him there, clumping clumsily over the carpet to his usual desk. The world went kind of double for a moment; everything exactly as he'd left it three weeks ago when life made sense and had been pretty much the same for a few decades, and everything radically changed by a blank spot where there should have been a week he ought to remember. He slid into his chair facing the window over Finchley Avenue, dropped the cane somewhere under his feet and kicked it out of the way. His hand shook, pulling his little key out of his pocket. Got it into the lock out of pure habit, because his mind was just gone, for a little space there, and then he was sitting in his chair staring down at his notes.

'All right, here we go.' Rafiq whisked a wooden cart next to Duo's desk, bending to lock the wheels. 'LaGrange 1 Immigration records from AC 178 to 183. I had to split your order, there were twenty-six record boxes in the series you wanted. You can pick up the rest when you're done with these. And this is the film of every newspaper issued between the fifth and the twelfth. I figured you'd want to see from the last three weeks too, though, so I've got those at the desk when you're ready. And, last but not least, our freshest batch of Level 9 classified State Department Commission on the Battle of Libra. Lots of good stuff in there.' Perhaps out of consideration for Duo's obviously crippled state, Rafiq went the extra mile of transferring the first heavy box to the desk for him and prying back the cardboard sleeves to reveal the folders inside. 'Think you'll ever find what you're looking for?'

'No,' Duo said truthfully. 'But the search has sort of become it's own thing, you know?'

'Man, I just serve up the boxes.' Rafiq rifled the edges of the folders. 'How long you been coming here?'

'Don't make me count, dude.'

Rafiq went away laughing. Duo was just relieved he'd managed to patch what could have become a problem before it started leaking real feelings. He spent two or three days a week in the Archives, plenty of time to have an almost-friendship with people like Rafiq who'd started to think they knew him just because he smiled and joked with them every Tuesday. Duo could have glad-handed his way through the colony on the strength of relationships like that, and that was how he liked it. People who liked you even for reasons that weren't really real were more likely to do you favours, and favours kept colonies in geo-synchronous orbit, was what. It took a lot of maintenance, though. Effort. Wasn't a problem, normally; what else was he going to do with his time? He'd learnt the way of it at the knee of two of L2's masters-- Solo and Father Maxwell. He was a little more law-abiding than Solo, and a little less than Father had been, but he was able to get and give pretty much everything that was asked for.

Wufei thought it was all about the nine-to-five. Some people were so dense.

He found his pencil rolling around in his drawer and pulled it out. The dents from his teeth fit comfortably back between his jaws. The Immigration records hadn't been much of a lead yet, more of a pain, really. He wasn't even sure anymore what had led him to the idea. He'd looked at thousands of names--

Be it remembered that on this 19th day of August a free person of seventeen years of age and upward, being an Alien, who has arrived in this LaGrange Point Designation Zero One subsidiary of the Allied Nations of Earth, after the passing of the Act of Alliance Council entitled 'An Act to Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalisation', and who is desirous to be naturalised, did report to Clerk of the District Court of the Allied Nations of Earth in and for the District of LaGrange Point Designation Zero One, subsidiary of the Allied Nations on Earth, in manner following, that the said Williem Nourist--

When he'd been a naïve twenty-year old boy, he'd opened his first Landing Report fully expecting to see the name Heero Yuy written there. He really missed those illusions, sometimes.

Of course Heero Yuy wasn't his real name. The real Heero Yuy had died before either Duo or Heero had been born-- at least Duo was moderately sure of that. There was no proof his Heero had actually been the teenager he'd looked like, but Duo knew as much about genetic manipulation as any lay person who'd been personally experimented on could know, and his most educated guess was that his Heero couldn't have been older than twenty on the inside, twenty-five on the out-field. Manipulated or not, puberty did make noticeable changes in the human body, and as far as Duo knew no self-respecting revolutionary, even the kind who happened to be mad scientists, had spent all that much time fighting acne. Heero Yuy had had his share of spots, same as the rest of them. That realisation had narrowed Duo's research, but that was like knowing you had a loose bolt in a fleet of mobile suits. It was still a lot of legwork.

And the Immigration Records were the last in a series of long walks. He'd started with Birth Records. Every geneologist he'd talked to had pointed him there as the first stop. Not knowing the real name was a big problem, but he'd gone with the idea that Heero's Gundam had launched from L1, and that with the age limits had given him a pool of a couple hundred thousand recorded births for the right time period. Death records listed against the birth records had eliminated too many of those, a hard reminder of what a century of war had done to the population of colonials. But there was still the problem of the unrecorded births, and as far as Duo could tell, that was square where Heero Yuy fell. Duo had personally proved that the bureaucrats couldn't trace you unless you gave them an in-- there wasn't a single record on Duo himself that had survived the war, until he'd registered to vote with no proof of identity but an affidavit signed by Relena Peacecraft.

Still, he'd been researching at Colonial Archives for almost ten years, and all he'd managed was to reiterate the lesson he'd already learnt. Whoever Heero Yuy really was, the universe might never have filed an official document on him. Duo hadn't convinced himself to give up, yet, but it was definitely getting embarrassing to be holding on so hard. Which was why no-one had ever heard word boo what he was researching. Wufei still didn't believe Duo was literate. Life worked better that way, too.

The newspapers, though, the newspapers had been genius. Props for that went to the dearly departed Mrs Hewson, who might just have been the most brilliant mind Duo would be privileged to meet. Duo had never even heard of an Archives before he'd got to wanting to track down some things. She'd given him the education of a lifetime. And swindled him for half his lifetime of income and his war pension, too. He'd got his name on a scholarship for a new Archival internship programme, of which Rafiq was a grateful graduate, and a home away from home where absolutely no-one blinked an eye at meeting a Gundam Pilot in the flesh. Modern history tended to pale in the face of holdings like the dinner napkin with the first sketch bearing the name 'LaGrange Point', the signed Declaration of Intent to Separate-- the bloody hand-written speech the real Heero Yuy had been carrying when he'd been shot to death not two blocks up the road at the Forum.

The newspapers were the only way he knew Heero Yuy, his Heero Yuy, wasn't dead or so far underground he'd never swim up again. If you really sat down and added up the factors that identified Gundam Pilots-- and Duo had-- you arrived at a defined set of qualities that could be tracked. Destruction-- or a distinct lack of it. Targets that didn't have emotional resonance, but bit big into the big three: Money, Munitions, or Men. Duo had six total, well, mostly total matches to Heero, and nine that were possibles. Heero had cut a swath through East Asia right after the war, made his way up into the Frozen North, Russia and then Canada, and then he'd swung down into South America. If Duo was right.

If there was even a reason to keep tracking. As hobbies went, there were less expensive and time-consuming ones. Drinking. Gambling. Ball-room dancing was out, at least until he got rid of the gimp cane. Someone had eliminated a weapons silo in Argentina, totally blown the shit out of it, complete with photo. Duo stumbled on the unfamiliar Spanish jargon, sounding out the words as he bent over the screen with a magnifying glass. The little digital image was too pixelated to be absolutely certain, but the splatter pattern of shredded metal could have been attributable to old-fashion beam weaponry.

'Hey, Mr Maxwell.'

Duo jumped a mile, his heart pounding. It was Rafiq again, staring at him curiously. 'Sorry,' he said lamely. 'Workin' hard.'

'I called your name twice. You got something good there?'

'Maybe. How many in queue for the printer?'

'I can direct the order to the staff printer if it's under ten pages.' Rafiq leant over Duo's shoulder to wave his security badge over the printer sensor, and somewhere behind the Reference Desk paper began to feed noisily. 'Some of us are going for a drink after closing,' Rafiq added. 'If you wanna come along, you'd be welcome.'

'Yeah?' He glanced at his watch. He had six hours. And Wufei was off at the office doing something about the force of gravity or whatever it was Preventers prevented these days. Apparently not kidnappings. 'Yeah, that'd be posi. Where you headed?'

'Bull and Dog. I'm driving up, if you don't feel like walking.' Hesitantly offered, but genuine. They just hadn't made kids like Rafiq in Duo's day. Well, there'd been Quatre Winner, but he was more the exception that proved the rule.

Duo smiled for him. 'Sounds like a plan. Who knows, maybe I'll even have some luck to share.' He waited until the kid had his back turned to wipe the sweat off his upper lip. Tetchy. He wasn't, normally. He must not have slept well.

Wufei was less than enthusiastic when Duo rang him, grumbling into Duo's ear in Chinese the way he did when he wanted to signal that Duo was being an idiot without coming right out and saying it. 'Are you sure you're feeling up to it?' Wufei asked.

'No, but I'm so tired of being cooped up I might have to invite the take-away boy in for oral if I don't get out for some,' Duo said reasonably.

'I see.'

A shade cooler. Duo fiddled with the volume on his headset, toggling the range. 'Mad at me?'

'I was going to have to stay late today anyway. I'll probably just want to go home and crash-land.'

'Crash. Not crash-land.'

'Whatever,' Wufei retorted testily. Duo grinned at the wall of his bathroom stall. 'I might not be able to come over at all this week, actually. I've got a large case load.'

'Any progress on mine?'

'I can't discuss it.'

'I have the same security clearance you do.'

'You don't, actually. You're only a contractor.'

'Advisor. It's much cooler than contractor.'

'You could be a field agent, if you bothered to attend the--'

'I'm really truly never going to do that. Ever. Even if I had a functioning spine, thanks to your god-damn kidnapper you won't tell me fuck-all about.'

Wufei went the space of several breaths before he spoke again. 'Are you okay?' he asked tentatively. 'Do you want me to come get you? Duo?'

Duo had to go on breathing himself, for a minute. His chest was tight. It wasn't about the-- wasn't about the numbness that wasn't going away in his feet or the way he'd reach for something and look down and realise his hand hadn't moved when he'd told it to. It wasn't about not being able to climb stairs or get through the day without a headache or--

He woke up with Rafiq's hand on shoulder, shaking him. 'Mr Maxwell?'

He was dizzy. He was drooling, actually. He swiped his hand over his mouth as he sat up. 'Sorry,' he mumbled thickly. 'Where...'

'You fell asleep at your desk. We've got a policy,' Rafiq said, apologetic. 'Your phone's been beeping, by the way. You really were supposed to give that up at the guard desk.'

'I always turn it off in the Search Room.' His fingers tingled. He flexed them twice before turning his headset toward him. Four messages. That was odd. He'd been talking to Wufei, hadn't he? Or had he just dreamed that? The screen of his workstation had gone dead, logging out automatically from disuse. 'Time is it?'

'About four.'

Excruciating headache, actually. That must have been what he'd been dreaming about, bitching about a headache because he really had one. And he'd left the fancy hospital drugs at home, reluctant to use the power-tool when over-the-counter had always been good enough before. This was spots-over-the-eyes and stomach-curdling bad.

'Mr Maxwell? You don't look good. You need me to call someone for you?'

'Just hadda accident. It's nothing. Fine.' He scraped his notes into his drawer. Rafiq had to help him lock it, when he couldn't get his fingers around the tiny key. 'Uh, my phone, the guy who called-- uh--'

'Call him for you?'

'No, I'll catch the train. I can make it back.'

'You sure, sir?'

'Not a cripple.' He felt like one, though. He needed help getting on his feet, which sealed the deal on total humiliation. The other girl at Reference was broadcasting concerned stares in his direction, and another researcher at a nearby workstation was half on his feet like he might be coming to help or give life-saving measures if Duo collapsed. Duo didn't. He had to make serious use of the cane, but that was the cane's job, to keep him upright, and he made it out the lobby and into the street in one loose conglomerate of shaky pieces. Nap, maybe. Old men napped, not Duo. Old men drank, too, that sounded like a better option. Too early for that outing Rafiq had mentioned, even if Duo planned on showing his face with that crowd of teenaged interns who were really too young for him anyway, even if he still looked their age. They probably didn't even know, probably hadn't been even ever seen a mobile suit-- so many didn't, these days, except when there was an anniversary of something and the Library ran a display...

'Are you ignoring me?'

For the second time in ten minutes he nearly jumped into orbit. Wufei was standing right next to him. Wufei probably walked more quietly than Rafiq, but that didn't excuse straight-out not noticing the approach of another human being.

Wufei went chagrined, and stepped in to take him under the elbow. 'Are you ill?' he demanded. 'Forget the subway, I'll get a cab.' He twisted toward the road, waving at empty air like he could conjure up a taxi.

Duo pulled away, anyway. 'I'm super. What are you doing here?'

'You hung up on me and didn't answer your phone for hours. I was worried.'

'I am not an invalid.'

'The evidence really appears to say otherwise.' Wufei considered him from behind the barrier of crossed arms. 'I thought you were out getting some.'

'I thought you were working late.'

A deep sigh that appeared to emanate somewhere from the weary soul, and Wufei dropped the aggressive stance. 'When's the last time you ate? Did you even remember to?'

It was Duo's turn to be caught hemming and hawing. 'It was on my agenda.'

'Well, I've got the time. Come on.' Wufei took his elbow again, but then his palm slid down Duo's sleeve and then, unbelievably, he stood in the actual public street holding Duo's hand.

Duo blushed.

'Teaism is open,' Wufei said. 'Or Buccelli's.'

'Teaism. I don't want anything heavy.' His face wouldn't cool down. 'You buying?'

'I thought you didn't want me to open the pocketbook because I felt sorry for you.'

'Bastard.' He yanked, but Wufei held on to his hand, laughing at him. Then Wufei stepped close and kissed him, right there in front of God and the population of L1, Wufei's hand at the small of his back and lips moving gentle over Duo's.

It took care of all the blood in his face, anyway. Somehow it found somewhere else to be.

'Uh,' Duo said.

'Come on,' Wufei repeated. 'I'll feed you, take you home, bathe you, and put you to bed. And if you whine at me at all, even a little, I'll cut out one of the steps, and you won't know which one I intend to cut until it's too late.'

'Hey-- I know you won't talk to me about my thing, but--' Wufei turned back from the kerb to look at him. 'I was just wondering today--'


'You ever hear anything up the official channels about them? Trowa and Quatre?'

'What made you think of them?' Wufei came back close, to squeeze his shoulder. 'No-one's heard from them since--'

'You think they're happy out there?'

'You must have been hit harder than we thought.'

'I'm serious. I know it sounds stupid but-- never mind. I'm hungry. Buy me lunch.'

'I think that wherever they went, they're together, and yes, they're probably happy. Or they would have come back. What's brought this on?'

'You think if Trowa hadn't been way into Quatre that you'd be shacked up with him, instead of me?'

'What? No.'

'I wouldn't be jealous.'

'Are you sure you're all right?' He felt at Duo's forehead and cheek. 'Really, what's behind all these questions? Where were you when you called? You didn't lock your apartment, you know. Well, you locked the actual lock, but you didn't set your usual traps.'

'Maybe your kidnapper knocked the paranoia right out of me.'

'I'm starting to be really concerned, Duo. Please start making sense, or I'm going to take you back to hospital.'

In Duo's experience, once Wufei gave up trying to understand where Duo was coming from, they tended to end out not speaking to each other for a month. It was tempting to have a yell-off-- they were always fun, at least until they were over-- but Wufei really had been making an effort at being nice, the past two weeks, and it was kind of rude to repay that with deliberate childishness. Even if he was feeling sort of childish. Tired. He really was tired, and tired of being tired.

'I hate being sick.' He twirled his cane by the handle. 'I'm sorry. Don't be mad at me.'

'I'm not mad, I'm worried.' Wufei linked their arms, and drew him across the street as the Walk Light flashed for them. 'We'll get some warm food in you and see where it goes next. I'll stay over tonight. You will get better, and faster than you believe, but only if you can manage to sit still and wait patiently for it. Stop pushing so hard.'
He woke up twisted all over on his stomach again, with his hands stretched up over his head.

It was starting to get disturbing. Every time he went to sleep he woke up like that. Usually he stayed just like he was when he went to bed, on whichever side he happened to lie on. Never on his stomach-- you didn't leave yourself exposed like that, in Duo's way of thinking.

And his back was killing him. He had to go hunting to figure out where Wufei had put the thermal wraps the hospital had sent him home with. Wufei kept insisting on putting things away whenever he came over. He found the wraps packed away in the linen closet-- presumably the medicine cabinet was too small for the bulky wraps. And presumably Duo was meant to have help getting them on, but he didn't, so he struggled with arms that didn't want to go back that far and a back that wouldn't swivel to accommodate helping himself. He finally rigged a way to do it-- he taped the wrap to his wall, taped strings to the wrap, and just pulled it all free and clear once he got it tied around him and secured. It was ridiculous, and what had started off as an irritation was a full-blown, exhausting collapse afterward. He went right back to bed, or at least right back to couch, passing out completely.

His phone ringing woke him up again. And just like before, there he was, lying on his stomach. He ignored the phone, annoyance. His pills were on the coffee table-- he didn't remember putting them there, but maybe Wufei had. His fingers were all numb and he spilled half the bottle in getting the cap off. He dry-swallowed two of the tabs, right as his phone kicked over to the answering machine, and a voice began talking. He was busy trying to figure out where he'd let the pillows get to, so he didn't register the words right away. When he did-- he felt a flush all over, real fury. Real fury. He shot to his feet, bad back or no, and tore apart his laundry until he found the pants he'd been wearing when he'd stuffed his mobile into his pocket. He found it in the jeans from two days back, ripped the little phone out, and dialled the top number.

'Wufei,' he said, before the other man could even get out a greeting. 'The bastard fucking called me. I've got his voice on my machine.'

'What?' Wufei sucked in a deep breath. 'Do not touch--'

'I'm not going to mess with it. Get the fuck over here and put it into evidence.'

'I'm on my way now. Don't hang up yet. You don't think he's nearby?'

'I hope like hell he is. Where'd you put my Glock the last time you cleaned in here?'

'In the top left drawer of the bureau, and don't you dare fire at anyone. Lock your door and go into the bedroom and lock that too.'

'I know what to do! Just get here.'

It was a tense fifteen minutes' wait. Wufei probably broke traffic laws to get to him that fast, especially since he didn't come over with a siren. Duo was watching from his barred bedroom window when one of the Preventers plain-cars came zooming into his complex lot, spoiling the disguise by double-parking and jumping out of the drivers' side to go clattering up Duo's outside staircase. Duo slid off his bed and went to let him in, waiting until Wufei was just outside to risk the door. He only got a quick sweep of the street outside, though, before Wufei shoved him back inside, and locked the door after them.

'You're all right?' Wufei demanded. 'He didn't come here?'

'No, it was just the call, as far as I can tell.'

'Play it for me.'

Duo led the way back to his kitchen. For once, Wufei didn't comment on the mess; he was all narrow focus. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, jaw locked, humming with tension almost as Duo tapped the replay button. The machine's pleasant female narrator gave the day and time of the call. And then the message Duo had heard.

'It sounds like a digital voice alteration,' Duo said, unnecessarily. 'You can buy a pretty professional kit online for five, six hundred.'

'I know,' Wufei interrupted shortly. 'Let me listen.'

'Duo,' the voice said. 'I've been thinking about you. Worrying about you. I saw you outside the Archives. I'm so sorry your back is so bad still. It was unavoidable-- but I'm still sorry. I just want you to know that I'm still here, and I'll find a way to get back to you. I have to wait until those others aren't watching. But I will get back to you. I can help you, Duo. You have to believe me.'

'That's it?' Wufei asked.

'I can play it again.'

'Yes.' Wufei listened closely as Duo replayed it, and asked for a third time as well, while he took notes in the little pad he always carried. 'You don't remember--'

'No, gaw-dammit.'

'I'm going to get you a new machine, in case he decides to leave you any more of these messages. You'll have to give me that one, though.'

'I know,' Duo retorted snidely. He jerked the plug from the wall, and shoved the machine into the evidence bag Wufei pulled from a pocket. 'I assume this narrows parametres on who this jerk-off could be.'

'It would, yes.' Wufei put his hand to Duo's neck, squeezing gently. 'We'll get him. Before he gets to you again.'

'He's not going to “get to me” again,' Duo told him flatly. 'I'm licensed to carry a fire-arm and I intend to. As many firearms as it takes. And by the end of the day this place is going to be a fortress.'

'I think you should come into protective custody.'

'What?' Duo was stunned. Then he was angry. 'You want me to run away like a little kid? Hide behind a fake name in a fake house until the bad man goes away? What does that solve? How does it even help?'

'Admittedly, this man might just go into waiting, but meanwhile you would be out of danger.'

'He knows my name, my address, my unlisted phone line, and he thinks we have some kind of special relationship. He's a stalker, Wufei. Stalkers invest a lot of time and energy into learning every little thing about someone, and they feel ownership over that someone, they think they're in love and they think it's mutual. Stalkers don't just hang up their hat when the stalkee goes into protective fucking custody--'

'Duo, I'm not asking.'

They stared at each other, Duo speechless, Wufei as grim as Duo had ever seen him. 'No,' Duo managed finally. 'I'm not consenting to this. You need my consent.'

'And you'll give it. Or I walk away from you, Duo. I mean it. If you insist-- no, listen to me-- listen to me, damn it!' Wufei grabbed his arm as he tried to leave the kitchen, gripping hard enough to hurt him. 'You turn your back on me now and I turn mine to you.'

They had a brief, ugly struggle. Duo still couldn't get his arms that high over his head, and Wufei was in a particularly brutal mode holding him down. Duo was too proud to let a sound escape his tightly clenched teeth, but he almost went into a faint, and that pretty well ended the fight. He stood against the frigerator panting like an old man on the treadmill, remembering absolutely nothing about the missing week of his life except that Wufei could be a son of a bitch, when he took it into his head to be.

'Who is he,' Duo said. 'Stop lying to me. You know.'

Stab in the dark. Just a thought that went straight from the impulse to the tongue without an overlong stop in between. And he would've thought it was off-base and Wufei was on the up-and-up, except that after the first second of apparently absolutely sincere exasperation for the accusation, Wufei swallowed hard and fought his eyes level when they wanted to dip away.

'Get out,' Duo told him. 'Consider this my back.'


'Get. Out.'

'Fine. Fine.' Wufei grabbed the machine off the counter and zipped it under his jacket. 'At least stay in your apartment.'

'You're not high on my list of people to inform if I don't.'


It took three days and seven trips to the hardware store up the street to turn Duo's apartment into that fortress.

He started with the basics. Anyone spying on him would want the three best kinds of access: visual, audio, and physical. Visual was the easiest to take care of. He bought sheets of tint peel for his windows and squee-geed them in place, and spit-tacked a second layer of fabric onto his thick industrial curtains. L1 was safer and a half than L2 would probably ever be, but even on a clean-cut colony curtains were more function than fashion. His camera had gone the way of most things after Wufei cleaned, and he couldn't find it. It would take longer than he wanted to waste hunting down another camera with adjustable infrared filters that could pin-point any optical bugs set toward his windows, but after itching at it Duo decided he was better off paranoid than sorry. He bought a batch of cheap belt-clip pagers, rigged them to vibrate constantly and wired them directly to his electric to spare the cost of batteries, and taped them to the centre of all six of his windows. Optical bugs picked up vibrations in glass and translated them to speech, but they were easy to scramble with a trick like that. A camera sweep was considerably more legwork, but he didn't dare rush it. He went back three times, taking meticulous detail and checking with everything from a metal detector to a spritz of breeze from one of those compressed-air computer dusters, staring for the tiniest movements until his eyes watered.

When he was-- relatively-- sure of his visual privacy, he went to work finding what else his stalker might have hidden from him. He didn't keep any professional bug detection equipment at home and didn't relish the idea of trying to check it out from Preventers holdings, but a little ingenuity and a couple hundred bucks accomplished a reasonable facsimile. He bought a new vector board at the hardware and a T1 500-to-8 ohm audio output transformer, and dug up the requisite capacitators and kilohm resistors from his junk drawer in the apartment. He did the wiring in his closet, the most logical place to be under the radar from any bugs or cams he might have missed, holding the flashlight in his teeth and squinting down at the pincers and coils. He tested it on his mobile first, more squint work splicing the tiny edges of wires together, and used it to call his landline. Three times every four seconds, the oscillator on his little board tripped up to ten kilohertz and back down again, the sexiest bell-curve in the spy industry. His mobile rang nine times, the maximum ring set he'd programmed into the phone, before it switched to voice mail. Which meant it was fine. That was one relief. Duo mostly used his mobile anyway, but he got work talk through the mainline, and after everything he'd had to go through with Preventers getting the security locks in place, Duo would almost rather his mobile be bugged than the apartment. He had a moment's trepidation, when he connected his board to the land line. If there was a frequency-sensitive bug on his line, the phone would stop ringing right away, and he'd be able to hear everything happening in the room...

Nothing, though.

He took it as a good sign, but it seemed sort of off, somehow. Whatever he did or didn't remember about the week he'd spent lying in someone's warehouse, he had to figure he'd put up a fight at some point, or there'd be no reason for them to go hitting him all up the spine and knocking the memory clear out of him.

The last step was cutting off all attempts to break into his apartment and rifle his things. If they'd already done it when they'd had him captive, there wasn't anything he could do but piss and smoke about it. But that message the guy had left suggested otherwise. It was one thing to kidnap someone who didn't expect it-- a whole other world to seriously trip up a Gundam Pilot who knew you were out there. Especially if that pilot was Duo Maxwell, who'd never met a mousetrap he couldn't spring, or rebuild better and faster given a paperclip and sufficient motivation. And he was really fucking motivated now. He was having visions of catching the guy himself, fuck Chang Wufei and fuck protective custody. He took a buzz saw to his drywall and started stashing anything he couldn't trust to remain in the open. He changed every password on his laptop and put the entire thing in the few inches of space between frame and inner wall. He put some paper files in there, too, old passports and printed materials from completed consults with Preventers, and a bundle of personal mail he wanted to keep personal. It wasn't going to be particularly convenient to have all of that where he couldn't get to it, but Duo had been born and raised to be a thief, and the usual hiding places didn't cut it if you were really investing in hiding anything. He patched the hole he'd cut with such care he actually fell asleep sitting up, so exhausted from the effort that he slept clear through noon and woke up plastered to his own wall by the cheek. He used the rest of the day to repaint the entire wall-- and then questioned his lack of caution, so he painted his entire bedroom, and rewired a power outlet to sit just beside the spot where he'd stashed the laptop, to foil any potential metal detectors. He spent the night setting decoys, pushing his bed to a new spot, setting a cheap picture frame over the spot he'd accidentally kicked in once, and wrapping a few reels of microfilm in plastic baggies to stick in the freezer and the toilet tank. The reels were just copies of muster rolls from L1, but anyone casing his joint would have to read through them to see what Duo might have wanted out of them, and Duo had always been fond of creating a little confusion for his enemies to enjoy.

The last trick he had up his sleeve was traps. The easiest ones were trip wires, and the deadliest were live wires, and after a lot of-- admittedly fuzzy-headed, tired, and achy-- consideration, he couldn't bring himself to go the distance to a live wire. He was none too thrilled with Wufei, but he wasn't ready to accidentally kill him, either, if Wufei had a burst of impulse and came over with roses and apologies when Duo wasn't there to deactivate the wire. He dangled lines around his doorways, in front of the john and the frigerator, and for good measure he wired his desk closed, too, and rigged them all with pellet sprays and smoke bombs. A really dedicated stalker might try to ride out the fire alarms and sprinkler systems that would go off with enough smoke, but the Fire House would force everyone to evacuate eventually, and might even catch the guy in the act.

Day four, Wufei started texting him. He went ignored-- Duo was keeping his lines free for the stalker to call back-- about six times before it seemed to occur to him that Duo might have got himself a new machine to replace the one Wufei had stormed off with. Then he started leaving a message every two hours on the nines, by turns pissy and apologetic. The apologetic ones-- every time-- had Duo in doubt, reconsidering his temper tantrum, fingering the receiver on the verge of picking up. It was a good thing Wufei always switched tracks right on time and got Duo good and fired up before he actually convinced himself to return a call. He and Wufei were really no good for each other, anyway, and Wufei never understood anything important or even rational, and he was stuck up about being a Preventer and Duo being 'just' a consultant, and if Duo ever did prove Wufei knew who the stalker was and wasn't telling Duo on purpose for some stupid Preventer reason, he'd do more than break up with Wufei again, he'd do it permanent, and loud, and possibly in front of some of Wufei's office mates just for added emphasis.

Assuming, of course, Wufei didn't actually have his finger on something important Duo was being too stubborn to ask about. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility Wufei really was trying to help. However ineptly. And Duo really wanted to ask where Wufei had put his heating pad from the hospital, because the thermal wraps weren't cutting it after all the work he'd done moving the bed and sawing through walls and such.

Wufei stopped calling after work hours, though, and Duo spent the evening eating cans of soup and willing the phone to ring again, this time with the stalker. What kind of stalker didn't stalk? Duo peeked out his curtains a few times, but the back lot was empty, and all the apartments around his looked perfectly normal, all his neighbours at their nighttime routines and not hiding kidnappers on the eaves. He came up from a doze long enough fumble his bare feet under the duvet on his bed, and went back to sleep with just a passing thought that if they were on Earth, it might at least be raining on the asshole staring back at him out there.

He woke up all twisted on his side again with his hands stretched up over his head. Every damn morning, and it was killing his back. Killing. He couldn't stop a tear that slipped out, gritting his teeth through the pain of trying to get his arms down again. They still weren't meant to be high like that, obviously. He saw his pills sitting on the bedside table, flung out a numb fist and grabbed them near. The cap popped off easy, already loose, but the tab half melted on his tongue before he could make his throat work. Lay there long enough to register separate aches instead of just the big burning one. Head, chest. His chest felt heavy. Cloggy.

Someone was knocking at his door.

Lay there listening to it, long enough to think-- He found his mobile somewhere under the pillow. Dialled and fumbled it to his ear.

'Wufei,' he said. 'Is that you?'

'Yes,' the familiar voice snapped. Irritated. Wufei was always irritated by something. 'Who did you think it would be when you called me?'

'I mean at the door.'

'What? No.'

Deep breath. Fuck.

'Duo? Duo, are you all right?'

'Listen for a second now,' Duo said. 'The guy. The stalker. He's probably at my door. He's probably going to come inside in a moment, and when he does, I'm not in a position to do anything to stop him.'


'Listen. I'll try to make a lot of noise. Ask Central for the security tapes of the corridor, and check my hall cam. The laptop-- shit. I hid the laptop. Go in the walls for my laptop, it's off and you'll have to hack the passwords, but the footage will still be uploading and--'

No more knocking. Scrape of metal on metal. Door opening, hinges silent, but not the brush of the wood against all the soup cans Duo had left arranged on the floor, all crashing over with the hit.

'Duo! Duo, I'm calling the police, I'm coming over right now!'

Footsteps almost noiseless on Duo's floors. Bedroom door never quite closed, swinging wide now. Grave face, looking down at him in the dark.

'Shit a brick,' Duo said. 'Wufei, you'll never believe this.'


At least this time the bed he woke up in was his.

Oh. Maybe not. His ceiling didn't have graffiti on it. Well, it had once. Maybe Wufei had stripped the paint?

No. Wufei didn't have any paint on him, when he came suddenly bending down over.


Bird voices again. Starting to almost sound like English.

'Duo? Duo, I don't want you to move yet. I've got a medic coming.'

His mouth was dry. Too dry to talk.

'Duo, follow my finger. Yes. Good. Duo-- did you see who it was? You remember you said something on the phone to me, that I would never believe who it was? Yes?'

No. No idea.

'Do you remember? Can you remember anything?'

Oh, fuck. No. He really fucking didn't. This was starting to get old.


The doctors were almost cheerful to have him back in hospital.

Duo didn't share the sentiment. He ached all over, and he didn't need tests to tell him he'd made serious steps backward with the spinal injury. They brought him in on a gurney and only let him upgrade to a wheelchair when he proved he could twitch all the right appendages on demand. He spent a grand total of two hours in the chair before they put him back in the bed. It would have been humiliating, if he'd been awake to suffer the stigma.

Wufei was back by the time they brought in a nurse to spoon-feed him Horlicks. Duo almost spit up on himself trying to get a slew of questions out all at once. The nurse made herself scarce and Wufei actually dared to pick up the spoon, before he registered Duo's metal-melting glare and carefully returned it to the tray.

'For the record,' Wufei said. He shed his Preventers jacket to the chair and sat on the edge of Duo's bed. 'I don't know who's done this. I had a suspicion. I now think I was wrong.'

Duo wasn't sure if that was mollifying or worrying. He picked at his blanket. 'Who did you used to think it was?'

'Heero Yuy.'

'The fuck? Heero?'

'Yes, Heero.' This time Wufei did pick up the spoon, glare or no, and shoveled a slop of malted past Duo's angrily parted lips. 'Swallow and listen. I know about your search for Heero's location. You've been very circumspect, but you know it's a classified subject, and you've come up flagged a few times.'

Duo did swallow, but he couldn't help interrupting. 'I have security clearance.'

He got another spoonful in revenge. 'Which is lower than you insist on treating it. You flagged a few times. Generally we let you have what you wanted-- and you can thank me for that. I honestly believed your search was harmless and that you'd never truly turn anything up.'

That hurt, actually. He didn't have a smart answer-- his mouth just didn't work. After a moment, Wufei's eyes slid aside, acknowledging it.

'But when you were taken, I... thought perhaps I'd been incorrect. We both know there are ways to watch any security system from the outside, and Heero can certainly be counted amongst the number of unofficial entities who might be able to hack us. And if he did so, he would know that you were here and looking for him. And given how much you have cared about finding him-- it might not be so impossible to imagine that he would care as much about you.'


Another spoonful. Wufei seemed to enjoy doing that. 'After the message on your machine, I was sure that was who it was.'

It hadn't even occurred to Duo, actually. Didn't that say something? All those years of searching. His heart hadn't even jumped when Wufei said it might have been Heero. He just hadn't believed it. He took the next spoonful without protest, and it went down like a lump in his throat. 'So... if it's not him...'

'If it's not him, then I really don't know who it is.' Wufei set the cup and spoon aside. 'I'm sorry. I let you down. If I hadn't been such a--'

'Jerk. Jerk-off. Fucking asshole jerk-off.'

'Yes,' Wufei agreed solemnly. 'I let my temper get ahead of me. Ahead of your safety. And you're not the only one angry about it. I received a very pointed reprimand.'

'Good,' Duo muttered. He dropped his head back to his pillows. 'Sorry. I am. I know I pushed it on you.'

'Yes. But you've been punished enough.' Wufei cupped his cheek. 'Please consider now going into protective custody. Please.'

He was drained. He was sore. He didn't really want to fight it.

He wished it had been Heero. Wasn't sure why he did, but maybe it would have been nice.

'Okay,' he said. 'But I want to get all my stuff first.'

'That's all right. As long as you don't mind an escort.'

'No.' He felt lips on his forehead. 'Why's this happening, Wufei?' he asked then. Starting to fall down a steep black hole that heralded sleep, but it was important to ask, important to-- admit. Why me? Why's it happening to me?

He didn't stay awake for the answer.


'Your apartment is trashed,' the officer told him. 'Sorry about that. You didn't give a lot of information about where to find your laptop.'

'Beaten by my own brilliance,' Duo said sourly. 'How many walls did you rip out?'

'Seven or eight, I think.' The Preventer stopped him walking with a hand held low between them, and she left him standing in the hall as she opened his door. Duo waited impatiently as she swept his place. She came back for him, gun slipping back into her holster for the all-clear. She waved him in.

Trashed was an understatement. Unrecognisable was closer. The Preventers had sort of shoved everything not nailed to the floor to the middle of the rooms, and there was an actual hatchet still hanging off a shred of drywall by his kitchen. Duo felt a little ill.

'Do I at least get compensated?' he asked weakly.

'I don't really know about that, sir.'

'Would Wufei? I mean, Agent Chang? And by compensation, I mean like enough to, like, I need to hire a contractor, or-- hell, find a new place...'

'Duo.' It was Wufei, coming in. His partner Alicia was right behind him, and she whistled when she saw the walls. Wufei glared at her. 'Duo, I'm sorry about your place, but it was necessary. You didn't exactly leave us a choice.'

'Better you than the stalker, I guess.' Duo sank onto the edge of his couch-- the only edge left free by the presence of his kitchen table stacked on top of it, anyway. 'Speaking of, let's just get it out of the way now. I don't remember anything. I don't even remember calling you. I kind of remember sticking the laptop away. So now, you tell me what I don't know, and no extraneous questions.'

Alicia opened Duo's frigerator and brought him a glass of cold juice. 'You need one of your pills?' she asked him solicitously. 'You're sitting kind of funny.'

'Yeah, thanks.' Duo sipped carefully. 'Though actually, it's not my back. Well, much. My ass hurts like fuck.'

'You were injected with something. Obviously there's some residual soreness at the injection site.' Wufei crouched in front of him. 'The blood sample you gave us might tell us what it was.'

'So I've been kidnapped twice, and pantsless at least once. Brill.' Alicia came back with his pills and handed him a pair of tablets. 'What'd my hall camera show?'

'Someone got in the door by helping your neighbour Glenda Jones with her groceries. But they were wearing a hat. Mrs Jones didn't know anything about him.' Wufei sucked on his lower lip. 'You really don't remember--'

'God! No, okay! I wish I did! I wish I knew fuck-all about what's happened to me, but I don't, and asking me every five minutes doesn't fucking help, Wufei!' Duo pushed to his feet and past the three Preventers, who all reacted like he was a walking bomb, scooting away from him and staring at him warily. Duo just went stomping into his closet, though, knocking over boxes of old magazines until he found what he wanted. 'I put this in here years ago. I don't know if it even-- Yeah. I always have done good work.' He carefully disconnected the bug and held it out. 'One of my early efforts, but if it doesn't give you something I'll retire yesterday.'

Wufei was right there to grab it. 'Why didn't you ever tell me you bugged your own apartment?'

'Why didn't you ever imagine that I would? It is my supposed area of expertise.' He didn't quite make it back to his feet on one try, but Alicia had to come help him up since Wufei had disappeared as soon as he had the bug in hand. Duo muttered something graceless in thanks, and let her move him on to his bedroom. The mess was even worse in there. Alicia cleared his bed for him and plumped his pillows to prop him up. Duo even let her tuck him under his duvet, like some old grandpa or a three year old.

'You actually take those pills I gave you?' she asked him sternly.

'No.' He scrubbed his hands over his face. 'I feel fucking fragged. Why is he so angry at me? It's not my god-damn fault I can't remember. It's like he thinks I don't want to.'

'I don't have to tell you that Wufei's a little off the social kilter.' She had his pill bottle in her pocket. She put two new tabs in his hand. 'Be a good boy and swallow. There you go. He's not blaming you, honey.'

'He is too.' Duo closed his eyes against a wash of dizziness. 'I like you better than him. You've got better boobs.'

He had to imagine her grinning, but he could hear it in her voice. 'He was worried. It's been rough on him. The Director wanted him to step off the case, you know. Because of his relationship with you.'

'The Director was right. Or would be, if Wufei ever let any relationship determine anything he ever did.' Oh. Hadn't Wufei said something about a reprimand? Maybe that was a little harsh.

Or not. Wufei could at least have said thanks, about the bug. Or good-bye.

'Sleep for a while,' Alicia advised. 'He'll be at the lab with your bug for at least three hours. We'll start packing your stuff. When you get up you can tell us where you hid the rest of it.' Her footsteps moved toward the door, then stopped. 'I don't know if anyone told you. We found your hair.'

He dragged his eyes open for that. 'What? Where?'

'With you. Do you remem--' She stopped herself just in time, awkwardly. 'It was with you. At the warehouse. Whoever your kidnapper is, he must have thought you'd want to have it back.'

'He didn't glue it back on, though, did he?' His room was spinning. Or he was. It kind of felt like he was flying, and he wasn't in particular control of his direction. 'By “with me” you mean--'

'Wrapped up and laid on your chest. Still braided.'

'How sweet.'

'It's in evidence. Wufei's trying to move it through Forensics on a fast trail.'

Well. How was that for a declaration of love?

The noise of Wufei coming back ended his nap. He had the dubious pleasure of gathering the attention of everyone in the room simply by showing up. That had never really happened to him before, and he didn't imagine it was really a good thing.

But, for once, his pessimism was misplaced. Wufei came right from the door to Duo, and he was grinning. Duo, never having seen that particular expression on Wufei's face, took a step back, but not in time to escape the hearty shoulder clap Wufei gave him.

'That bug was genius, Duo,' Wufei said proudly. God-- he was actually enthusing. Wufei didn't grin, and he definitely didn't enthuse. Well, not in the last few decades Duo could remember. Since Duo had bought that first tinker car, the Citroen, and Wufei had almost bowled him over to look at the engine first.

'It's not any more exciting than the hall cam, just less expected,' Duo corrected, and let Wufei push him down onto that edge of couch. 'I didn't even put it there for this. Just for break-ins and such.'

'Pish. You couldn't have done better if you'd managed to get footprints.'

'Shit.' That had never even occurred to him. A little day-glo powder mixed with flour and he'd have nabbed the dude--

'You got his entire entrance on infrared. It's our first truly useful image. No face, not really, but it answers certain questions. We have height and weight. We know he picked your lock-- we were wondering how he got in--'

'Wait, I remember that,' Duo said, suddenly enthused himself. 'My soup cans.'

'It's clear you recognised him. You make no attempt to escape. He goes right up to you, and it looks as though you may have spoken for almost a minute. Then we have him walking you out, actually, as civilised as anything. It's remarkable.'

Disturbing, actually. 'Why would I just go with him?' he demanded. 'I mean-- who the hell but you would I just go with?'

Wufei was back to normal with that, anyway, tart-tongued and unforgiving. 'I don't recall you ever being so easy-going when I ask you to do something. Shall we practise now with packing? You've barely made progress.'

'Shut up.'

'We're really about ready to go,' Alicia tried to interrupt.

'He hasn't even started on all his gadeties. I assume you'd take them, Duo? It will save you time and danger in the safe house.'

'I can't even leave the place?' Duo demanded. He was doing a lot of demanding-- and whinging. But he couldn't help it. It was really starting to chafe, this whole protective custody idea, and he wasn't even there yet. He hadn't even really wrapped his head around-- for fuck's sake, he didn't even have any proof of what had happened to him that he really honestly believed in his own gut. How could something so big and important and scary happen to you and you couldn't even remember it?

He'd gone with the guy. With the guy who'd cut off his hair and done who knew what with it, and injected whatever into his ass. And tried to cripple him in the bargain. How could he just go with the guy?

'The stranger in town who raids the local department store of professional-grade cable and resistors starts to draw unwanted attention.' Wufei crossed his arms belligerently over his chest, the picture of a man expecting argument. 'You can't do that where you're going. And you can't stare at your neighbours with binoculars and night-vision goggles and you can't booby-trap public halls. The point is to disappear for a while. Off the grid, not re-wiring it.'

'You're being a jerk.' Duo picked at a broken fingernail. 'Forget it. I don't want any of it. Not like it did its job, anyway. Still got, whatever, twice.'

'Don't be silly now.' Wufei dropped his pose. He came crouching at Duo's feet, his fingertips resting gently on Duo's ankles. 'You know you couldn't sleep in a room entirely free of your own inventive brand of surveillance, and I don't particularly want you to, either. Those bugs and cameras and even the soup cans did exactly what they were supposed to do, which was warn you, watch you, and provide us with clues. We'll find this man. Truly. But don't give up that paranoia just, please?'

Oh, dirty pool. Wufei only trotted out 'pleases' for special occasions. 'Fine,' Duo muttered.

'Thank you.' Double whammy. Wufei's thumbs slid up under the hems of his denims, just a little touch that made Duo blush. Mostly because Alicia and the other Preventer were all eyes and ears, much too interested in what the two men were doing. But then Wufei stood anyway. 'Tell me which ones you want with you, and I'll try not to die disconnecting them all.'

'Who's going to be there with me? The point of protective custody is that someone's there. You?'

'No, I--' There went an already aborted fantasy of paraplaegic sex in a hot hotel room. Alicia made a show of examining Duo's houseplants, but the other woman wasn't so quick. Wufei scowled at her until she turned around. 'It will be two plain-clothes officers. You won't even know they're there, I hope.'


'That reminds me, they asked for a dietary list for you. You still eat--'

'No pork, no sodium, lean--'

'Yes. Come help me with this wire over the door.'

They drove him in a squad car, which was a treat at first, plush leather and functioning AC and all. But he was a little drifty still from the pills, and eventually the constant motion drove all the thought clear out of him. They went through a checkpoint and then into one of the gigantic ferries that herded commuters to the satellites. Duo stared-- fuck Wufei anyway-- stared dully into windows on either side of the squad car, wondering if any of them held his stalker. Wasn't like the guy hadn't been a step ahead of him the whole time. Heero would've been, if it had actually been Heero. Heero wasn't above sticking a needle in his ass, either.

'Something funny, Mister Maxwell?' the driver asked him.

'Yeah,' Duo answered. 'Old joke. Sorry. Hey-- are you going to be one of my guys?'

'No, sir. I'm actually just driving you to the transfer point. We'll put you in an unmarked car once we get to B98816. Then you'll come back via the ferry, and from there they'll drive you to the motel where you'll be staying.'

'Nice.' Clearly he wasn't the only one operating a little extra paranoia. 'Who're my guys going to be? Do I get names?'

'I believe it's Brett McDevitt and Nuong Tran.'

'Wait, Tran? Isn't he the guy with the little ponytail who frowns a lot? Kind of looks like a tan Wufei?'

He saw the driver's teeth briefly flash in the rearview. 'You could probably say that, yeah.'

'And Brett McDevitt's kind of a less pretty me?'

'I wouldn't call him that to his face. Not everyone is blessed with good looks, sir.'

'This is a trap, isn't it. Protective god-damn fucking custody my ass!' He didn't really have anywhere to go, though he made some noise about it, fiddling with the locked door and scooting this way and that on the back bench. 'He's fucking setting me up! He wants the kidnapper to come and grab Brett fucking McDevitt--'

'Mister, please sit down.'

'Quit locking the fucking doors on me!'

'It's not a set-up, sir, I swear to that. Both agents are qualified to guard you and it's part of standard mis-direction tactics in a high-security situation.'

'High security at a motel on L1!'

'Yes, sir.' The driver twisted to look at him, but didn't quite go the distance of touching him, when Duo gave his hand a look that promised six pounds of pressure from the human jaw. 'Sir, uh-- should I call Agent Chang so you can have this out with him?'

Ah. Ah, he saw how this was playing out, finally. He'd wondered why Wufei couldn't be bothered to take Duo himself. 'You just do that,' he started. But changed his mind before the driver reached for the phone. 'Fuck it. No. He probably won't answer. He's not brain-dead, just a dumbass.'

'Yes, sir.'

'Drive me where the fuck ever. I'm going to nap again.'

'Yes, sir,' the driver said, visibly relieved. Duo sulked himself into a slanting sort of restful position, balled-up jacket under his head. 'And turn the radio down,' he added, and shut his eyes on the whole lot of Preventers.
His mood was not much improved by seeing his prison for the next however many weeks it took Wufei to nail his stalker. The place was a total dump. Worse, it was readily apparent that Wufei, in his zeal to protect Duo, had unwittingly chosen the two most annoying guards in all of Preventers to be Duo’s guards.

Tran wasn’t so bad, actually, except that he seemed to think his face would break if he displayed the slightest emotion. McDevitt was the real problem. He was, first off, an idiot. He spent three hours cleaning his gun, when even a monkey could have pratted off and still had it done in thirty minutes. Then he spent three hours more surfing channels on the staticky old digital television, and taking pot shots at Duo’s attempts to beef up the non-existent security with his usual tricks.

‘Chang said you’d be all worried about this,’ McDevitt announced—- again—- and, again, returned to the boobs channel with a slightly glazed expression.

Duo finished taping an old .45 APC to the door jamb and tested a length of twine from the trigger to the doorhandle. Once he set the trap, anyone coming in the door would take a round to at least the shoulder—- well, if he shifted the angle of the muzzle, at least the shoulder. He made himself shift it, despite a surge of enormous reluctance. Dead men didn’t talk as loudly as wounded ones, and he wanted answers from this freak. Plus, if McDevitt forgot it was a rigged door and got himself killed, Wufei would probably yell at Duo again.

‘Maxwell.’ McDumbass again. ‘Put that shit down. You’re making me nervous.’

‘Christ knows I live to make you comfy, Brett,’ Duo snapped. ‘If you’d got off your duff to help me like I asked I’d be done by now.’

‘I’m a klutz with crap like that,’ McDevitt said carelessly. ‘Besides, why do you even need all the James Bond stuff? You’ve got us. We’ll have your back when the nasty mean man comes, won’t we, Tran?’

‘Excuse me for choosing not to rely on a guy who thinks his job is all muscle and no brain.’ Duo wobbled getting down to the floor again, and had to lean against his chair remembering to breathe through the pain. He was messing himself up trying to do it all alone, but damned if he’d ask for help now. ‘This James Bond crap saves lives, anyway.’

‘Whatever, man. Give me my trusty Smith and Wesson and good old-fashioned Kevlar any day.’

‘I have, actually.’ Duo made a few awkward steps back to his bed and eased onto it. ‘I designed that jacket you’re wearing, and I designed the vest you’ve got under it, too. You can thank me any time.’

‘Fancy duds, I’ll give you that. Thanks, man.’ McDevitt flashed him a white-toothed smile obviously meant to be charming. Duo dubiously hoped Wufei didn’t think McDevitt was all that much like him. He didn’t think he was this obnoxious, and this was not a fun way to find out Wufei did.

‘They’re not just pretty togs.’ He pulled his box of ‘James Bond crap’ close and dug out his brick of C4 to start cutting logs. Doubtless the motel owner wouldn’t thank him for blowing up the building, but if it came to an explosion Duo probably wouldn’t be around to pay the bill, at least. ‘The lining has aluminium and gold thread, which is why it cost half your first pay-cheque.’

‘Sounds fancy to me.’

‘It means that when the big scary mobster scans you for a wire, they could x-ray you and nothing would show through the jacket. The alloy blocks transmission, so you might live long enough to use my vest, which features overlapping ceramic plates under skin-sim rubber, so if the same mobster happens to give you a suspicious pat-down for steel underarmour, he also won’t turn anything up there. They teach you that one, your first day of school?’

‘I’ll think of you whenever I wear it,’ McDevitt retorted facetiously.

‘Be grateful one of us uses our head for more than target practice. I don’t expect you to understand everything I’m doing. I do expect you to shut the hell up about it.’

‘Do you think we really look alike?’ McDevitt asked Tran. ‘I had to get a haircut for this, you know. Chang made me lose half my damn tail.’

Left field, and then some. Duo got a funny quiver of nausea hearing it. ‘Sorry you had to sacrifice so damn much.’

Tran met his eyes. Duo didn’t leave it that way for more than a second. He didn’t take pity from anyone, especially not strangers, even ones bearing Wufei a moderate resemblance. Besides, who was Wufei telling tales to? He was the only one who knew anymore what the braid was. Had been.

‘What are you, Maxwell, like forty or something? Freaky, how you don’t, like, age. I probably won’t look that good when I’m old.’

‘You ever fucked yourself, McDevitt? Better get started.’

Tran stood up. ‘Brett, let’s give him some space. We’ll be in the next room over, Maxwell.’

McDevitt let the legs of his chair connect with the ratty carpet and swung to his feet. ‘Ciao, dude. Remember, only go through the connecting door, not the front.’

‘I know, Jesus.’

‘Keeping my mobile on,’ Tran advised him. ‘Call me when you’re ready for food. I’ll order it.’

‘Yeah.’ Duo stayed where he was, slowly wrapping lead wire around a C4 log. On autopilot, he spliced the wire to one of the cheap mobile phones he’d bought, and slid the blocks into sandwich baggies full of screws and nails. He’d put one under the bed and one by the door—- maybe one in the bath, too. And one by the connecting door Tran was closing off now. Nothing like a little explosive-enforced privacy.

Not Heero. If not Heero, who would Duo have recognized? Trusted? Well, he could think of a few reasons he might have gone with someone he didn’t trust, but to just let the guy walk him out the building and off to another warehouse to be shot full of who knew what? Less likely. More troubling.

And more troubling too was the lack of forthcoming information. It wasn’t unknown for the occasional psycho to target a Gundam pilot, even if that field had narrowed considerably after the Baron Rebellion. Three of them gone, and the other two in state-sanctioned socially responsible employ, and that meant the full weight of the government on the ass of whoever threatened him or Wufei. It didn’t tend to be the grieving widows or even the rabid conspiracy theorists, though, who graduated to kidnapping and drugging. They stuck to the throwing bricks through windows end of things, the blue-moon awkward bus ride with a screaming banshee.

There was always the real nut job, the dangerous, ambitious crazies who thought they were running a revolution. But there hadn’t been a serious contender for Sphere-wide domination since Ralph Kurt, not since Preventers had really got their feet under them. And Duo wouldn’t have walked out of his nice safe apartment with the next Treize Khushrenada, anyway; so he was back to square one without any new ideas.

The injections were another good mystery. Obviously something affecting his memory. Although for all he knew that was more to do with the spine being crushed. People were always supposedly suppressing traumatic memories, and that ranked as one, didn’t it? Although not as high as certain other events Duo would be just as happy to ditch, with no notable successes there. So probably repression was out. But he couldn’t think either of any easily available compound that caused such precise black-outs without any corresponding side-effects. Or without leaving recognisable chemical markers behind. The hospital would have had him checked for GHB, or Wufei definitely would have done, so he would have heard yes or no by now if that was it.

McDevitt had got hold of the second TV. Blaring it. Duo got up to put the first block of C4 right on the connecting door. It didn’t help the noise, but it made him feel a little better.


It took three days to reach stir-crazy limits. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the reasons for staying out of sight—- it was just hard to execute the follow-through.

He made good his escape while Tran was in the shower and McDevitt was busy ‘entertaining’ himself with the skin channels. With some slight trepidation, Duo set his traps behind him—- but he’d made the point they’d be up and working, so if either of the agents came through the front in a panic, it was really their own fault if they got shot. He put on a cap that covered his hair and a pair of glare glasses that took care of the upper half of his face, and he sneaked out of the motel lot for the bus stop down the street. He had a few wild minutes of euphoric freedom; most of which disappeared with the twinges up his back trying to mount the tall bus steps. He sat quietly on one of the side-facing seats for almost a half hour, then, just setting in and not thinking too hard about anything in particular.

He almost jumped out of his skin, though, when he half-read a sign as they passed it, and his brain belatedly caught up to him. He jammed a finger into the Stop Request button, and scrambled back to the front. The driver rocked the bus over to a kerb, giving him doubt-filled glares all the while, but let him off in the middle of the block. Duo forgot about the bus the second his feet touched pavement, staring hungrily across the road at that beautiful, unexpected saving grace.

Port Meirion Historical Society. Open.

A strident buzz announced him as he pushed open the heavy old door. Not an especially well-lit place, but the musty dim almost felt like home, the mismatched chairs and beat-up plasti-wood desk in what passed as a lobby. And there, oh, like boxed-up treasures just waiting to be explored, an entire floor full of crank-roll stacks lined head to toe with Hollinger boxes of records.

His buzz at last produced a young man from behind the stacks, red-faced and waving him up to the desk. ‘I’m sorry,’ he apologized, several times. ‘Forgive me for being a little flustered. I’ve never actually had a visitor before.’

‘I would’ve called ahead if I’d known you were here,’ Duo said. ‘Port Meirion’s been closed since before you were born. When did you open up again?’

‘Officially?’ Brown eyes over a one-sided grin made a deprecating dip. ‘It’s just me. My grandpops used to work here, but the funding dried up. I try to be here twice a week for a few hours, when I can spare it.’

‘Bless you for it. You’re doing God’s work, brother.’ Duo grinned himself. He stuck out his hand. ‘Pleasure’s all mine.’

He won a laugh for that. The young man shook off the last of his shyness with a firm handclasp. ‘I’m Hudson Crisler.’

‘Chang Wufei,’ Duo deadpanned.

‘You? You’re Chang whatever?’

‘Wufei. It’s a family name.’ He winked, and just like that it was sold. Any lie could be a cute pardon if you sold it right. ‘You wouldn’t be the same Hudson Crisler who published that pamphlet about the WorkHouse camps, would you?’

The blush was back. Duo found it increasingly attractive. ‘That’s me,’ Hudson admitted. He ditched for an abandoned dust cloth and swiped half-heartedly at the desktop. ‘I didn’t know anyone ever read it, though.’

‘Read it and loved it. You’re the only one who ever compiled sources for the camps. As far as I ever heard, yours is the exhaustive listing.’

‘Well, it won’t do anyone any good until all that stuff’s declassified, but...’ Hudson rubbed a sleeve over the back of his neck. ‘I take it you’re a local student?’

‘Just a guy who’s got an interest.’ Good surprise was doing wonders for his mood. He realised he was flirting when he winked again, little involuntary twitch that was directed by south of the border, not conscious choice. The kid was good-looking, in that bookish kind of way, a little under-developed, but quick to catch the tone. And was eyeing him back, which bumped him considerably higher on the list of prospective distractions.

‘So what did you want to look at today?’ Hudson asked. ‘Chang Wufei,’ he added, with a dimpled cheek of his own.

Yes, this was going to end well. But priorities first. ‘I read you used to have most the holdings from the First and Second Charter Councils.’

‘Yeah, we sure do. It’s all filmed, though, no paper originals.’

‘Not a problem, if the Council records include the immigration applications.’

‘You know your sources, for a student. Most kids in here don't have a clue what they want to look for, much less at. Come on back. I’ve got a reader you can use.’ Hudson waved him around a pile of old boxes and through to the stacks. ‘That broom closet on your right has all the film. You tracking down a family member? School geneaology project?’

‘Sorta, you could say.’ He was getting a bead on the labels on the Hollingers they were passing, and one slowed him down for a closer look. ‘What’s this stuff?’

Hudson turned back. ‘Ah, those are my prize records.’ He pulled one of the boxes from its shelf, dropping it into Duo’s arms and opening it. He tugged out a manilla folder of loose paper—- real paper, not the synthetic plastic Duo had used all his life. ‘These came in during Pops’ tenure as Society Chief. Provisional Infantry Division Regular Mobile Unit 9700, Lagrange 2 posting AC 163 to 195, correspondence, memoranda, muster rolls, and orders sent and received, collected by Base Commander Matchette.’

Duo’s heart actually skipped a beat. ‘You’re shitting me.’ He squeezed his arms tighter around the box, instinctively pulling the records close. ‘Matchette, as in Kealey Steele Matchette, the man who authorized the release of the Collins-Moreno virus for testing on—-‘

‘L2 indigent orphans, that’s the bastard.’ Hudson bared his teeth in a vicious smile. ‘Best story you ever heard. Matchette died during the big investigation, remember, right before the Barton Rebellion Christmas of ’96, and in all the excitement charges were dropped—consideration for the surviving family members, don’t want to dig up the past, et cetera. So it falls on his housekeeper to clean out all the shit in his office, right. Here’s the clincher—- she was a local. L2 born and bred. She shredded a lot of what he told her, but she made copies of a lot else, and these she brought home with her, wrapped up in an old tea towel and hidden away for ten years. So when she passed, her daughter is going through her house, and finds these. She didn’t even know what all she had. She donated everything with a stamp or a signature without even reading any of it.’

‘This is the find of a lifetime.’ Duo had trouble even getting his tongue around the excitement. Hudson glowed smugly at him. ‘This is—- holy hell. Holy hell, man. This is the motherload.’

‘Sure as fuck is. Scusing my language.’

‘You’ve got to pass this on to the Archives.’

‘I will—- when they pony up my asking price. I want enough to keep Port Meirion open and running six days a week with two staff.’

‘Done,’ Duo said immediately. ‘I’ll give you three staff, I’ll be here every day myself if you’ll take me.’

Hudson blinked. ‘Wha—- are you from the Archives?’

Shit. Too late to take that one back. He almost never slipped like that. ‘Uh,’ he said.

‘What’s really your name?’ Hudson tried to take back the Hollinger. Duo clung harder. ‘Wait,’ Duo said fast, ‘I’m sorry. Just wait. My name is Duo Maxwell. Everything else I’ve said is true. I just was trying to keep a low profile, I don’t represent the Archives, but I’ll pay myself if it’ll get these records in the public venue where they belong.’

‘Maxwell.’ Now it was the kid’s turn to go shell-shocked. ‘Duo Maxwell.’

‘Don’t make a big deal out of it, please—-‘

‘No, you’re—-‘ Hudson swallowed hard. He took the Hollinger, but went right to the floor they stood on with it, flipping through the folders to pull one from the back of the box. He turned it around toward Duo. ‘You’re in these files.’


Hudson stood, finger dropping to the paper page. Number on a line, 16.7:15. There was more—- dose notation, a disposition umber, case official—- vaguely familiar, case official. Casey Pope. Casey Pope.

‘That number is you,’ Hudson repeated. ‘They were testing the virus on indigent orphans by going through the local social workers. They’d send them out in vans with sandwiches and needles.’

Casey Pope. Frizzy perm. Vitamins, she’d said, sliding the butterfly needle into his arm. Keep you strong, sweetheart. Vitamins and whitefish salad sandwich. Come back and see Casey next week.

Duo shook his head faintly. ‘You don’t know it’s me.’

‘They tracked all of the kids. The ones they could, anyway. The ones who lived long enough. This number turns up on another list two years later, noting an adoption ban for certain flagged kids. They were confining the spread. And Matchette wrote to General Khushrenada, when you were taken prisoner during the war. Matchette kept a draft. He said-- specifically said you had been a test subject. Included your number and your records.’

Duo rubbed his throat. Tight. And a headache starting out of nowhere, odd because he felt faint really from low blood pressure, like nothing was getting through him. Records. He was in the records. Well, fine. Nothing he hadn’t thought at least once, nothing he hadn’t known in his gut about the Feddies and how low they were willing to sink. Needles and sandwiches for dying kids. Faster than lab rats.

‘Okay,’ he said, or tried to. He said it again, stronger. ‘Okay, well. I’m going to want a copy of that, obviously.’

‘Yeah. Yeah, of course.’ Hudson gave it to him immediately. ‘Take all the time you need.’

‘Thanks.’ Numbers swimming all over the page. Duo closed the folder over it. ‘You did all that study yourself.’

‘Spent a lot of time on those, yeah. Once I realised what they were.’ The kid sucked on his lower lip. ‘Mr Maxwell-— there’s something else I think you should see.’

‘More Matchette?’

‘Yes. Worse, though.’

It even could get worse? Duo didn’t believe him. Hudson disappeared up another aisle, and Duo tried to make his fingers work flipping through pages. Had to get this to the Archives. People would want to know. Big scandal. Proof positive—- there’d be protests. Talk again of reparations, no-- one would thank him for reviving that debate—-

‘This is it.’ Hudson came back with a single sheet. It was just a print-out, computer-generated copy on plastic of what looked like an email or an instant-send. Duo took it, turning it up to the overhead light to read.

‘Mr Maxwell?’ Hudson asked. Voice of Hudson, anyway, coming in echoy far from the left. ‘Mr Maxwell? There anyone I can call for you, sir? Mr Maxwell?’


Wufei stroked his hand gently. ‘Finish your tea, Duo.’

He swallowed the last in his cup, along with a swirl of tea dust. ‘I don’t even know what to think.’

‘It’s all right to be angry. Furious.’

‘I’m not, though. I mean—- of course I am. But what’s it serve? Matchette’s been dead twenty years. So’s the lieutenant who fired on us. Probably half the unit who were there are dead, and I may even have killed some of them during the war.’ Hoped he had. He’d always gone into a battle thinking that, hope it was one of you, because I said I’d come for you, didn’t I? Spirit of death, everything you made me.

Made him. More than he had ever imagined.

Wufei touched the paper between them. ‘I’ll send it to the President. She at least should know there is proof.’

Say again? the email read.

Take out the church. Everyone inside. They’re all carriers. Repeat: bio-hazard contingency in effect. Take out the church.

‘Hudson thinks all the kids at the church were infected.’ Duo took his thumbnail from his teeth, dragging the ragged edge over his knuckles. ‘They centralised us. Watching us in one place to see what would happen. Then the rebel cell broke in, disturbed everything. Everyone in there became a Typhoid Mary. If the rebels had escaped, they’d have spread the Plague all over the system. Too big to control any more.’

Wufei had already worked that out for himself, surely, but he nodded his sympathy. His fingers laced with Duo’s. ‘It’s a war crime,’ he agreed softly. ‘Perpetrated on people utterly unable to defend themselves.’

‘I never got sick,’ Duo said. ‘I told the Doc about it. Doc G, who built my Gundam. He tested me for it. Said I wasn’t even showing antigens.’

‘You were lucky. You must have had a natural immunity.’

‘I mean maybe there were others there who were immune, too. I don’t remember any of the other kids being sick. By then we all knew what Plague looked like. We would have recognised the symptoms. There has to be more in those records. There could be—Matchette was in close contact with the supervising physicians. He’d be the first to know if they’d set up a, a sort of pseudo-lab to keep an eye on kids who developed immunities. They could have been finding ways to test us still. There people coming in and out of there all the time, adoptions—-‘

‘I thought you said there was an adoption ban on the affected children.’

‘There was,’ he said slowly. ‘Then why... unless...’

‘They weren’t prospective parents, really,’ Wufei caught on. ‘But the same scientists, taking children out to study them. Did they come back, those children?’

‘Some, yeah, but it was because we—- I—-‘ He was getting too much numb to keep feeling each shock as something new. It was all merging together. ‘I went off with two different—- I thought—- families... I don’t remember anything about them now—- except that I wanted to run away—- I don’t even remember why.’

‘You were too young.’ Wufei poured a fresh cup for them both from their pot, and pushed the creamer toward Duo. ‘I’m so sorry, Duo. I know how disturbing and terrible this is to learn.’

Duo nodded tightly. ‘Thanks. For coming. I know I broke the rules.’

‘Yes. And we need to talk about that, Duo. I don’t want to minimise this, but you can’t let it push everything else from your mind. This man who is after you needs to be your most immediate concern.’

‘I know.’ He buried any snappish comments in his tea cup. Wufei was doing his job, and trying to do it well even when Duo made it harder. ‘Are you going to have to move me?’

‘I think it would be wise, yes. This Hudson person just met a celebrity. I don’t think we ought to trust him to keep it quiet, even if he only tells other record-hunters or your Archives.’

‘I screwed up,’ Duo admitted. ‘It was a stupid thing to do. I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. We’ll just do it right, next time.’

‘Yeah. Yes. I promise.’

‘Thank you. But I trust you. You don’t usually listen the first time, but when you finally hear me, I know you’ll do the right thing.’ Wufei poured the creamer for him. ‘Get another cup in you. You’re still pale.’

‘Just thinking about another three days locked up with McDevitt,’ he joked weakly. ‘I’m not really like that, am I?’

Wufei’s lips curled up in something both tender and sly. ‘You have your moments.’ He lifted Duo’s hand and kissed his palm. ‘I can try to keep you more informed, if it will help.’

‘Yes. It would.’

‘I’ll arrange it, then. And there’s something I’d like you to think about.’

Whenever a sentence started off that cautious, it gave Duo the jitters. ‘What?’

‘Perhaps a hypnotist could help you access those memories. We might be able to learn more about your kidnapper.’

‘A hypnotist? No, no way. I’m not letting some quack with an agenda into my head, Wufei!’

‘Think about it,’ Wufei said patiently. ‘And when you get frustrated by the pace of our case work, think about it some more.’

‘I don’t like it,’ he complained. ‘Hypno-freaks with shiny watches and who qualifies them, anyway? There’s no international board certifying the performers-— excuse me, practitioners, because who certifies someone who makes you cluck like a chicken for entertainment? Have you ever been to a hypnotist?’

‘Me?’ Wufei snorted. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Duo.’


'Maxwell.' Tran shook him awake. 'Maxwell, we're here.'

Duo blinked groggily. 'Thanks.' He rubbed his eyes and flexed numb fingers and toes. 'Time is it?'

'Just after midnight.' Tran exited their car, and a moment later popped up again beside Duo's door to open it for him. 'You okay, Maxwell? McDevitt, get his cane out of the boot.'

'M'fine.' He didn't do it gracefully, but he got his legs on the outside, and Tran hauled him up with surprisingly strong arms. 'We have to check in or anything?'

'McDevitt's doing that. All you have to do is get inside.'

Better motel, at least. No visible stains on the walls or the duvet. The radiator groaned something awful when Tran turned the nobble up. Duo crawled onto the bed and lay there face-down.

'Maxwell. Pills.' Tran bumped him in the shoulder. Duo flopped out a fist and took the tablets in for a dry-swallow. One of them lodged in his throat, but didn't bother enough to make a water-hunt seem worthwhile.

He was almost out for the count when McDevitt came blasting in, slamming the door and tossing their luggage to the carpet. 'Starving,' the agent announced.

Tran hushed him. 'Maxwell's sleeping.'

'He's always fucking sleeping.'

'You would be too, if you were taking meds like his.' Movement. Zips being zipped, chairs moved. Locks set. 'Try not to fuck up again,' Tran added. 'You know the rumours. There could be promotions in this, if we catch this guy.'

'If this guy even exists. How do we know Maxwell didn't wander off on his own and trip, or something?'

'Trip so hard he fractured vertebrae? You really are as dumb as you look.'

'I'm saying there's at least a possibility that this is being blown way out of proportion, right? And I think Command agrees because if they really thought there was someone after Maxwell, we wouldn't be pussy-footing around in cheap digs with no security. We wouldn't even still be on L1. They'd have him off to Earth in a heartbeat.'

Duo was troubled by that. He'd been so focussed on the personal inconvenience that it hadn't occurred to him they were deviating from SOP. Maybe McDevitt really wasn't a total lump.

'All I know,' Tran said, 'is I get shower first. Actually keep an eye on him, this time?'

Was that possible? Really? Could he really have just-- was there an explanation somehow for all this that didn't involve a conspiracy? Except why then wouldn't he remember?

He had nightmares all night, weird dreams where he ran and ran but couldn't ever get where he was going. He woke up several times and finally couldn't get back to sleep, so by the time morning rolled around he was irritable and tired. Breakfast supplies consisted of fibre bars and low-end tea that wasn't hot enough to disguise the taste. Duo had the rare inclination to just lay abed all morning. That evaporated when McDevitt made his appearance, coming in wearing only a towel and ear-node headphones.

'Morning,' McDevitt shouted cheerfully. 'How you feelin', man?'

'Jesus, give me strength,' Duo muttered. He pulled his pillow over his head.

'You care if I watch the news?' McDevitt made room for himself right on Duo's bed, claiming the left side Duo had foolishly failed to blockade. He grabbed the clicker off the table and flipped on the telly. He didn't take off his headphones, though. Heavy metal rock poured out, this close.

'I can see your junk,' Duo snapped, and rolled to face the other way. 'Put trousers on.'

'What do you care about my junk? Less it's turning you on.' There was a sly leer in the agent's voice. Duo retorted with highly mature and very unfaked gagging sounds. 'Hey, don't be ashamed of it, dude. Male, female, shemale, all admirers are welcome to ogle the goods.'

'I think I might die of this.'

'Hey, check it. It's the President talking about that shit you found out at Port Meirion.'

Duo pulled himself upright for that. McDevitt was right; the headline in somber blue was 'Tragedy Revisited', and there was Une at the Presidential podium in the Brussels press room. Her silver-streaked hair was down today, unusually. It reminded Duo weirdly of the old days, when she'd been playing Ambassador to the Colonies for OZ.

He had to shake a shiver, thinking of it. 'Turn it up.'

'-- distressed to learn that our greatest fears seem indeed to be true,' Une was saying. 'Correspondence has come to light which suggests that an Alliance attack on an armed rebel occupation of a civilian building in AC 189, known commonly as the Maxwell Church Massacre, may have been related to a classified medical study.'

She wasn't going to say it. Took the wind out of him. She wasn't going to say Plague, because the whole colony would go up in flames, and Une wasn't the kind of woman who valued whole truth over the budgetary losses a police task force would run up. Some people watching might connect it, but most wouldn't; and when it finally did come out, it would be old news, old story with just a new name to put on it, and old news always wound up on the cutting room floor. The story was as good as contained before it ever broke.

'The President has asked for patience while the records are examined for authenticity,' a commentator added. 'To protect the identities of persons involved, no further information is being released at this time. Viewers may remember that the Maxwell Church Massacre, as it was called,inflamed colonial dissent in the years leading to the outbreak of war. Today there is not even a sign to mark the spot where Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Maxwell House Orphanage once stood, though an exhibit at the Colonial History Museum has recently been amended to more equally represent both sides of the conflict that resulted in the loss of more than fifty lives, some fifteen of which were children.'

'Seventeen,' Duo said.

'What a drag, man.' McDevitt adjusted his towel. 'What do you think'll happen?'

'Nothing.' Duo lay back, forcing his pillow deep between shoulder and neck. 'Absolutely nothing.'


'Nothing's happening,' Duo said.

'That's not a bad thing, Duo.' Wufei sounded perfectly patient. It was like the Twilight Zone Wufei. 'I'd rather nothing than bad things.'

'I'm no longer convinced.'

'I can send you some books.'

'I don't want to read.' He was slipping into a sulk. He tried to rein it in. 'No breaks?'

'None. We've had your apartment staked out, but there's been no unusual activity. That young man you impressed so much at the historical society called your line. Your unlisted line.'

'He probably got the number from the Archives. It's an academic community. They don't do international security.'

'Then you ought to teach them to.'

'If I waved a badge at some little old grandma historian, none of them would ever talk to me again, and that interferes with my ability to ask them questions. What did Hudson want?'

'How should I know?'

'I assume you bugged my line. If you didn't, the archivists aren't the only ones who need to go back to school.'

'He was checking on you. And leaving messages of a personal nature.' Wufei's voice went cool. 'Apparently you left quite an impression.'

'You think? Do I get conjugal visits here?'

'Oh, Duo.' Wufei sighed hard into the phone. Duo grinned at the bathroom wall. 'We didn't find any DNA at the second warehouse but yours, no prints but yours.'

'Wait, none?'

'None. The place was cleaned before you go there.'

'So the warehouses aren't an accident. They're being set up before hand.'

'That's my conclusion. Interesting aside, the sheets on the bed in the second one were hypo-allergenic.'


'It is, yes. Have you given any thought to my suggestion?'

'The hypnotist? No, I haven't.'

'I'm running out of leads to follow.'

'Are you bullying me?' Duo drizzled liquid soap over his bare chest and sponged it idly into a lather. 'You're assuming there are memories there to look for.'

'Why wouldn't there be?'

'I could have been unconscious the whole time.'

'Even if you had been, which I don't think you were, you'd have more recollection of the events leading up to your kidnapping.'

'Have you considered the possibility that this is some kind of fail-safe mode that was part of the gene-mod package?'

The silence on the other line answered that. Duo soaked his sponge and let all the water drain out, then did it again. His bath water was getting cold.

'I don't think it hurts to try,' Wufei said finally. 'The hypnotist.'

'Do we have to track down Trowa's old circus to find one?'

'We have a man who consults.'

'My tax dollars pay for a witch doctor? I want my money back.' Duo splashed himself to wipe away the soap and kicked until the drain opened. 'Fine. I'll go. Under protest and only because McDevitt tried to pee with me this morning.'

'He did? My, he is a lot like you.'

'Oh, ha ha.'

Wufei chuckled. 'Tran will drive you. McDevitt can stay behind in case your kidnapper is watching the suite. You'll like the hypnotist. He's attractive. And closer to your age than that boy at the historical society.'

'Old men bore me. Give me an enthusiastic--' He was interrupted by a banging knock at the bathroom door. 'Hold on,' he said, and covered the mouthpiece. 'What?'

'Tuna and sweetcorn or egg and watercress?'

'Get me out of here,' he told Wufei. 'They're making me eat sandwiches from a vending machine.'

'Such a complainer,' Wufei teased, and hung up on him.


Wufei had been right. The hypnotist was hot. Blond. Blue-eyed. Rugged jaw, broad shoulders, trim tummy, big hands.

But Duo did not like him.

There was something a little too sharp in the questions he asked. Mr Roger Brabant wore a suit that was a little too nice for the workingman tone of Preventers, and he had a chunky silver watch on his left wrist that struck Duo was showy. The shoes were definitely showy. Shiny. No-one wore shiny shoes on L1. And he kept grinning. Duo didn't see what all there was to grin at. He didn't like it.

In fact he was feeling pugnacious. Punchy. And the stiff leather couch was hurting his back.

Brabant brought him more low-end tea and a tray of biscuits, neither of which Duo took, asked to look at Duo's pills, which Duo reluctantly allowed, and opened serious conversation by asking him how tall he was.

'Tall?' Duo said.

'Yes. What's your height? About one-six-eight?'

'One-six-seven,' Duo said, and shoved his thumbnail between his teeth.

'And your weight?'

'Sixty-one kilos.'

'Are you aware that's slightly under average for a fifteen-year-old?'

'Yes,' Duo said. He started tapping his foot.

'Am I putting you off your ease?


'I'm sorry for that.' Brabant rested forward, elbows on knees, hands loose between his legs. Duo recognised the pose was meant to make him feel bigger and unthreatened. He didn't. 'Would it help if we made some informal introductions? Learned a little about each other?'

'I'm short and paranoid,' Duo muttered. 'Your turn.'

'I'm Roger. You can call me Roge.'

Could, but didn't plan on it. 'We can't just skip to the fancy-doodle part?'

Brabant sat back in his chair. 'It doesn't work if you're not relaxed. You're extremely not relaxed, I would say.'

'Why do you think I'll be more relaxed if we wait?'

Wufei was hanging around outside the window-wall, pretending he wasn't peeking in. Frowning at him.

'Fine,' Duo said. 'Hey, Roge. I'm Duo.'



'You made an effort when you noticed Agent Chang outside.'

'He'll spank me if I'm bad, Doctor Roge,' Duo quavered, and slouched low on the couch with a pillow behind his back. 'You can hypnotise me or psychoanalyse me, but I get bored easily, so you might want to pick soon.'

'Do you always use humour as a defence?'

'Generally. Other times I just rest secure in the knowledge that I know seven ways to kill you with my thumb.'

That landed. Brabant blinked, then his eyes dipped. Involuntary admission of inferiority. That relaxed Duo.

'Maybe we should just talk about the reasons you're here,' Brabant said.

'They briefed you.'

'The basics.' Brabant tried to recover a little of his edge, but Duo didn't plan on budging. 'You had a traumatic injury. Possibly a chemically-induced fugue.'

'And is that anything you can fix?'

'Possibly. Depending on the circumstances.' Brabant rubbed his hands together. Moment of uncertainty. Duo stared him down, blank-faced and unblinking. Brabant cleared his throat. 'It's possible I can help you recreate the circumstances, the setting. Lead you back to the days you've forgot-- blocked. Help you walk through that door.'

'I heard a lot of possibles in that. It adds up to a lot of maybe.'

'Shall we give it a try?'

Deep breath. Wufei was still sneaking glances in at him. Try. He could try, at least.

'So,' he said. 'How does this work?'

'No trances, no mood music, et cetera,' Brabant said. He cleared his throat, moved nearer to the edge of his chair. 'I'm going to help put you in just a simple, relaxed state, and I'll be talking you through getting to these hidden memories. You'll understand and respond to me the whole time-- no deep sleeps here.'

'Fine. Go.'

'Lie back. Be comfortable.'

Maybe if he took a pill first. He was starting to get a serious ache. But he gave it a shot, sticking his feet onto a cushion and pillowing his head on the low arm behind him. 'Eyes closed?'

'Yes. Hands loose, folded if you like. Just lie still now. I want you to think about your breathing.' Brabant's voice went self-consciously smoother, softer, deeper; Duo self-consciously rolled his eyes beneath his lids, but then tried to do what he was asked. Breathing. 'Take in a deep breath, very slowly, through your nose. Think about it filling your lungs. Feel it. Hold it until you start to feel full. Good. Now release it through your mouth, controlling it, very slow. Feel it leaving you. Imagine it flowing out from your toes, up your legs, your torso, your fingers, your arms... finally your head. Good. Again. Toes, legs, torso, fingers, arms, head. One more time.'

Meditation technique, parsed out into secular English. Interesting. After two decades hanging out around temples and tai chi classes waiting for Wufei to hurry it up already, Duo had heard his fair share. It eased some of his suspicions, even if it proved Brabant was just a thieving hack. He let his eyes stop itching to open, flexed his hands one final time, and breathed like he was supposed to until his body felt heavy, really heavy, but his concentration seemed to lift just outside of his flesh to a point about an inch above him.

'Good,' Brabant repeated. 'Duo, I want you to imagine yourself at your apartment the day before your first kidnapping. Picture it exactly as it was. Remember what it smelled like, if it was warm or cold. Can you see it? Are you there?'

His not-entirely attractive apartment, blue-painted brick outside and cracked plaster in, radiator giving off the familiar burnt-dust smell. Not much of a place, but his. He loved it. Or had, pre-Preventer hacking of his walls. His poor walls.

'What are you doing?'

'Watering my plants.' Walking from window to window. His spider plants, all left behind now in his apartment to fend for themselves. Unless the stalker took pity on them and gave them a spritz.

'Very good. Now think about later that night. You're getting ready for bed. You follow your usual routine. Visualise it.'

Eating leftover curry on his couch. Tinkering with his latest project, trying to build a field kit for idiots like McDevitt who thought they were above the spyware that would save their lives. Drawing plans on the back of a spare paper plate.

'Are you in bed, asleep?'

'No. Got this great idea.' Pre-pack it. Don't leave any of the real work to the fieldies-- couldn't trust them not to blow themselves up. Work out a flip-trap, the wires just had to touch, was all--

'What happens?'

Had to go to the hardware. Only open til one. Abandoned his unfinished dinner, cold now anyway. Slip on his boots, jacket only because it had his keys. Clattering down the fire escape to avoid the kids on the front steps drinking the Friday night away.

'Do you see anyone on the street?'

Pretty empty. His part of town, not a lot of eye contact unless it was a neighbourhood you knew. Boarded windows, broken glass where not, or bars like Duo had, and behind that no faces looking out. A gang of toughs hanging around in one of the trash yards, but they left him alone, busy with their card game.

'At the store, you made your purchase?'

'Don't think so.' His imagination stopped supplying anything useful then. Like walking up to a big blank blackness. 'Maybe I didn't get there.'

'This is where we have to start reconstructing your memory, Duo. I want you to imagine you're on the street on the way to your store, just as you were. Now, project the image of a closed door in front of you. See it right there in the street.'

'Like a wood door or an airlock or a--' His eyelids twitched. He could feel his body again.

'You're resisting the process. Just relax. Imagine any kind of door, a closed door, there in front of you.'

Door. Fine. Nothing more than a rectangular shape with a lever-latch. But it was there, looking kind of stupid standing upright in the middle of the street.

'Now go to the door. I want you to open it and walk through it.'

'Why? I thought it was locked.'

'Just closed, not locked. It will open when you turn the knob. Reach out now and do just that. Turn the knob and walk through the door.'

His door still had a lever. He was stubborn even under the influence. But he obeyed. He pictured his hand extending out in front of him, fingers wrapping around the steel stick, pushing down.

He blinked his eyes open. Someone was shaking him. The real him. He opened his eyes, which felt harder than it should have. Wufei was bent over him. 'Hey,' Duo said groggily. 'You're not supposed to interrupt.'

'You've been unconscious for three hours.' Wufei's expression sent relief to war with an insurgent hissy. 'You don't remember?'

Duo shut his eyes again. 'This bites. I'm just going to air that once and for all.'

'I've never encountered that kind of reaction,' Brabant said belligerently. 'Never. The mind is very rarely that psycho-somatic.'

'Blame it on the Gundam pilot.' Duo risked a little experimental wriggling. He could still feel, and use, all his parts, at least. There was the clock, generously later now than when he'd laid down, and he was starving. His mouth watered just realising it. 'Someone have a flapjack or something?'

Brabant moved double time and produced a granola bar out of his desk drawer. Duo slit the foil with his teeth and bit off nearly half the bar in one stuffed mouthful. It occupied his mouth long enough for his brain to catch up. By the time he swallowed, he was able to announce, 'Wufei, beat it. Doc and I are going to try again.'

'Again?' Wufei demanded sharply. 'We should be on our way to hospital right now!'

'If I went to the emergency ward every time I whoops and fainted I'd have no money left to eat with. We were on to something, and I think this episode proves it. Whatever was on the other side of that door--'

'What door?'

'To the real story,' Duo finished. 'You, whatever your name is--'


'Do the talky thingy again. Wait.' Duo pushed the rest of the bar into his mouth, chewing just enough to achieve a gravelly swallow. 'Okay, now. Wufei, scat.'

'I will not.'

'Then be really quiet. You're always so noisy.' Duo elbowed his way deeper into the couch cushions. 'I'm breathing.'

Long silence from the other two, probably consisting of Wufei psychically threatening the hypnotist with death and dismemberment and Brabant-- well, Brabant was probably finding out why Wufei had the reputation he had. But finally Brabant said, 'All right,' and there were leathery creaks from his side of the room as he re-settled. 'All right. You're on the street on the way to the store. Is the door still there?'

Door. Yes. Larger, this time, and meaner, if doors could be meaner.

'Don't reach for it yet. I want you to look down at your own body. Picture yourself now in full body armour. The most advanced available. Don't forget the helmet.'

Duo saw where that was going. He put himself in his own latest design, the flexi-octos of ceramic-coated titanium rings and the the neuro-web helmet that focussed the armour's electron shielding to the most vulnerable points, providing magnetic repulsion cushion to any potential impact. He felt almost god-like in that, invincible. He was grinning like a loon. 'Ready.'

'Open the door. Be ready. You're going to walk through that door come hell or high water.'

Hell yeah he was. Duo switched his rifle-- when had he got that?-- from right hand to left, and slammed down the lever-latch. He shoved at the door with his shoulder and bulled through with his weapon at ready.

And took the impact to his back in a single blow that threw him to his knees. He went numb and then up in flames all along the length of his spine. Oh, no, they weren't keeping him down, not this time. He dropped onto his flank and rolled, dragging his rifle to his shoulder. Dark form bending over him. Duo fired, and a spray of bright scarlet blood spattered him in the face. The giant went down. Yes! Take that, fuck-face-- Duo made it back up to his knees, reaching for the dark mask on the dead man's head--

His back. A kick, a sharp kick from steel-toed boots. He sprawled nervelessly, the rifle spinning out of his hands. Not a rifle, now, just his back-up .45. That was why he'd never even looked for it at home-- some part of him had known it was gone. He tried to reach for it, and the boot from behind him came down again, a hard stomp aimed right at his vulnerable lower back, flattening him straight out.

'Duo, his face. Can you see his face?'

Stop it. We need him alive.

'Stop it!' Wufei, breaking everything into glittering pieces. Duo came out of it with a cold shock. 'Stop immediately!' Wufei commanded. 'He's in pain!'

He was. Like a huge sudden crash of it, too, and he was all twisted up on the couch, with Wufei trying to get his arms down, and that was him, panting like a dog out of wind. Jesus, it hurt. But even in thinking that-- it was fading. Just a memory of pain. Hiding the regular aches he was almost used to finding there.

'Duo, take your pills.' Wufei held them to his lips, and Duo swallowed in reflex. Wufei had a bottle of water next, and he swallowed some of that, too, just getting it down.

'Agent Chang,' Brabant protested. 'We had an opportunity there. He was close.'

'He was imploding,' Wufei snapped angrily. 'You can't tell me that was a normal reaction!'

'It can happen in trauma cases that the subject relives it, in effect--'

'In effect repeating the trauma.' Wufei stared down at Duo with dark concerned eyes. 'We're done here. I'm sorry I pushed you into this.'

'No, he's right.' Duo's throat was tight and sore, as if he'd been screaming silently. He hoped silently. 'Wufei, I almost saw him.'

'At what cost?' Wufei cupped his cheek; his fingers slid down, thumb and forefinger, and took Duo's chin firmly. 'You're done right now. I'm taking you back to your hotel.'

'I want to catch this guy!'

'Not at the cost of your health! No, Duo, I said we're done. Brabant, leave the room. Leave the room.'

'It's his own office, Wufei--'

'And he can have it back once you're out of here and past temptation. Brabant, go.'

Duo hauled himself upright slowly. His head spun a little-- pills kicking in. 'You're being a bitch.'

'I'm being a lover first, and an agent of Preventers a far second.' Said, at least, in privacy, as Brabant had apparently valued limb over reputation and walked out before he got tossed. Wufei sat next to him on the couch, his hand a warm support to Duo's lower back. The memory of that kick throbbed dully. 'Don't ask me to watch you go through that just because you've taken it into your head to solve the mystery in one sitting.'

'Not fair,' Duo grumbled. 'It was a good idea. It was working.'

'Was it? Even in your neighbourhood, people would have heard a gunfight. There's no evidence by the hardware of a man dying there, or even being wounded. You yourself would have noticed it during your last trips there, wouldn't you?'

True. That deflated Duo. 'So I was... making that up?'

'Defending yourself against suggestions Brabant implanted,' Wufei said darkly.

'He did not.'

Wufei looked at him in silence, then. 'I'm taking you back to your hotel.'

'For how long? How long am I going to stay there?'

'Until you're safe.' Wufei kissed his forehead. 'Lie back. I'll bring the car around and come back inside to help you.'

He was starting to get a little dizzy-headed. Wufei kissed him again, on the mouth, and Duo didn't have the heart to fight him any more. He nodded his surrender.
The call woke him at midnight.

He got to it before Tran, who rolled up out of his sleeping bag on the floor to reach for the phone. Duo crammed the receiver to his ear and flopped back on his pillow. ‘Wufei, you know the fuck time it is?’

‘This isn’t Wufei. Don’t make an outcry. It’s Roger Brabant.’

Duo lay still, giving his sleep-stupid mind time to catch up on that. ‘What do you want?’

‘Meet me. I assume you can find an excuse to get away. There’s a bar in Midtown called The Princes. Come alone.’


‘Because we both know Agent Chang doesn’t want you to learn more about what happened to you. If you want answers, you’ll have to find them behind his back.’

‘We both don’t know that, as it happens.’ Tran was watching him. Duo shifted away, trapping the phone between ear and shoulder and fumbling for his watch on the bedstand. ‘I need a better reason.’

‘You’ll come because you want to know. Isn’t that why humans do everything?’

‘Too damn late for that crap,’ he growled. ‘I’m hanging up.’

‘I’ll wait for you. I just want to help.’

‘Yeah.’ Duo slammed the phone back to the cradle. ‘It’s nothing,’ he told Tran. ‘Wufei… stick up his butt.’

Tran grunted in reply and bedded down again. Duo lay staring up at the dark ceiling. Ballsy of Brabant, calling middle of the night like that. On a number he was in no wise authorised to have. Clearly he wasn’t above snooping in desks. Wufei would get more than a reprimand if it got out the company hypnofreak was reading classified files.

Ballsy, too, trying to turn him against Wufei. Made him angry. Brabant was talking out his ass, was what.

Wufei had waked him right before he saw his dream-attacker’s face, though.

Oh, hell no. He was tired, was all. And of course he wanted answers, but he wanted real answers, not fake, emotionally satisfying accusations that gave him a self-righteous pout to nurse against the Sphere.

Tran and McDevitt had been all up in his space all day, though. Making more concentrated efforts to keep him entertained, to the point where he couldn’t find ten minutes to himself without one of them popping out of the woodwork. Duo had endured it without a particular lot of grace, until it finally dawned on him why they were dogging him so closely. Wufei thought he’d try the meditation-memory reboot himself, and had sent his goons to do the interrupting.

Well, it was bright enough, give Wufei that, because it certainly had crossed his mind to try. Bottom line, he felt like there were answers to be had on the other side, and he wanted them so bad his fingers itched. But the thing stopping him wasn’t Wufei’s probably justified concerns about his health. Fact was, if Brabant really had been unlocking something stashed in brain-land, logic said that once the tap was flowing the rest should’ve come pouring out. He wasn’t getting so much as a trickle.

And anyway, just because Wufei was protecting him from himself didn’t mean Wufei was part of the conspiracy.

That was on the long and growing list of things to say that Duo had with him walking into The Princes.

It had been easy enough to ditch his honour guard by announcing he was going to the lobby for a soda; midnight was when they switched sleep shifts, so both men were tired, and McDevitt was on the road to getting fired for IQ deficiencies anyway. The cab fare was what really pissed Duo off, though. Brabant couldn’t have found a cheaper mid-way point? All the night cabbies were creeps, anyway.

And Brabant didn’t even show.

It was some kind of Singles Night thing, and the place was packed. Duo wandered the three overstuffed rooms of the decided trashy premises, casing the spotty snooker tables being used largely as charge-free kissing booths, the booming dance floor filled with half-dressed, gyrating desperates, and finally ended up at the bar itself. Plenty of blond guys, but none with overly clever mouths trying to pit people against each other. Duo slid onto a bar stool at the less-occupied right corner, where Brabant would be able to see him if he were skulking in corners or something. He spent ten minutes tapping his fingers on the counter before a bar tender got to him, and then he was met with a frowny face behind pierced lips and a leather do-rag.

‘ID,’ the bartender said.

Duo gave it over before he thought better of it; he was too used to being carded when he wanted to drink. But the barman was only interested in the birthdate. He shoved it back under Duo’s nose, demanding, ‘This a fake?’

Duo rolled his eyes. ‘Whiskey tonic. Gimme my card back.’

He got his drink, at least, though once he had it in front of him he had a battle deciding if he should risk it on top of the pain pills. Rising bad mood won out, though he stopped himself from ordering a second once the first was gone. He was going to have to get back to the motel eventually. Before McDevitt called out a colony-wide manhunt for him.

And how was that for motivating factors. Duo really felt the walls pressing in on him, these days. He wasn't used to restricting his movements, having guys poking around in his business. Wufei hadn't outright said it, but Duo knew how it worked. It had been months of waiting while they vetted him for his security clearance, and a lot of Duo's less savoury activities had come to light-- enough for them to trust they'd uncovered the good dirt, enough to distract them from the possibility of the really nasty stuff Duo had managed to keep buried. They were probably finding all that now, though. The little home-improvement projects were nothing. He'd been tame enough since moving to L1 to be near the only friend he had left. Need did that to you. Anything that had happened on L2 was fair game, though. Earth. He had enemies, sure. He didn't let it worry him, but it was a concern that had to be dealt with day-to-day.

And it was putting him off the adventure part of sneaking out. He slid off his stool and headed for the back alley exit. He had to fight his way up a corridor stuffed with kissing couples. They were doing more than kissing in the alleyway. Duo shoved a couple of-- well, that was worth a closer look. He'd been so preoccupied with finding the hypno-doc he hadn't taken stock of the other clientèle. Interesting choice of venue, wasn’t it? The cute twink getting reamed by a middle-aged bleach-blond next to the dumpster seemed to think it was a real classy joint.

‘Never seen you in here before, sweet thing.’

Duo turned. A tall guy with dark skin who’d been sitting kiddy-corner to Duo at the bar had followed him out. The big guy came in closer, leaning a muscular arm on the wall over Duo's head. Muscular everything, shown off with very tiny clothes, and nothing at all to object to, if that bulge on display was the real McCoy. White teeth flashed at him from a wide grin, and the hand descending coyly to his cheek left nothing else in doubt.

'I like 'em a little younger than you,' Duo said. 'Nice shirt, though. That come in mens?'

'Aw, come on, baby.' The guy smoothed firm fingers over Duo's bottom lip. 'I'm the best man in the joint. I'll treat you right.' The beads in his rolls clacked as he tilted his head down. 'You're not scared, are you, sweetheart? First time? I'll make it something to remember.'

Duo couldn't help a cynical snort. 'Man, does that line work on anyone?' He moved his head away from another attempt to touch him. 'I'm busy. Go find other entertainment.'

'Leave? But I can't take my eyes off you.'

'I said beat it.'

'I can beat it for you.'

‘He’s fifteen.’

The interruption came from the other side of the alley. Duo squinted against the lamp overhead, trying to see who it was, trying to ignore the way it raised the hackles on his neck. It was Brabant, smirking at him from behind expensive glare glasses and the raised collar of a gold-embroidered shirt.

‘You’re fifteen?’ his guy squawked. ‘Shit. Shit.’ He had his hands back in his own territory so fast Duo felt a breeze, tripped over a discarded beer bottle backing away. ‘He didn’t tell me!’

‘They never do, do they?’ Brabant posed with negligently crossed arms against the dumpster. Duo scowled. Muscles made himself scarce, disappearing down the alley in the direction of the parking lot.

‘You’re late,’ he said.

‘Right on time, I’d say.’ Brabant reached out, giving Duo’s ragged hair a little flip. ‘I thought you were seeing Agent Chang. I think he’d be disappointed walking in on that.’

‘What I do with who is none of your business.’ Brabant hummed a sing-song ‘mmhmm’ and risked breaking his fingers to straighten Duo's lapel.

‘You do look young, you know,’ Brabant observed. ‘In a community like ours, that attracts the wrong kind of men. Best be careful.’

‘Touch me again, pervert, and we can have a nice long discussion all about careful down at the precinct.’ Duo didn’t move—he glared until the other man did, but the jerk didn’t wipe his grin. ‘Why’d you call me?’

‘As I said. I want to help you. Because I don’t think the redoubtable Agent Chang does.’

‘I trust Wufei with my life, so you better come up with some pretty substantial proof otherwise. He’s the one who suggested I meet with you anyway. I didn’t want to.’

‘No, that came in loud and clear. If you’re interested in my reasoning, then I invite you to join me at my home. I live right near here.’

‘Here’s fine. Why don’t we move on to what’s inspired this spate of generosity in you?’

Brabant dropped his pose finally. ‘I got into police work because I wanted to help the victims get their own back. Right now, you’re a victim. And your so-called friends are trying to keep you like that.’

‘Says you.’

‘You were close to recovering your memory of the attack.’

‘So what? And what was I actually remembering, anyway?’ Duo reached behind his neck to tug at his braid—old habit, and one that ended with an ugly surprise when he got nothing but air. He squeezed at the tension in his neck. ‘A physical attack, which is no damn surprise, because my spine didn’t get broke on its own. Even if it was all real memory—‘

‘Why do you think it’s not?’

‘Even if it was, and I could take out of it faces and names and whatever by way of detail, it doesn’t get me to the juicy parts, like why a warehouse or what the hell happened there for a week before Preventers found me. L1 has goons for hire just like everywhere else. No shock there’s a big one who could beat me up, or two, or whatever. I hope I did shoot one of them, but it doesn’t matter even if I did. Only an idiot gives court-worthy detail to hired muscle.’

‘And what about your second attack? What about the moments between? I can help you, Duo. You don’t have to trust me. You just have to trust your own instincts. You wouldn’t have come tonight if you didn’t already partially believe me.’

‘I already told you not to psychoanalyse me,’ Duo grumbled. He shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘Your pants come off in your house and I'll bite it off.’

'Which victim?’ Duo asked. He discarded a photoframe of Brabant and another guy in college unis and picked up the framed diploma next to it.

‘Which victim?’

Brabant set a tea tray on the table for them both. Duo settled in the middle cushion of the sofa, weighing the frame between his hands. Bachelor of Science in Behavioural Studies. A hack with a background. ‘When people say they got into the business because of the victims, they usually mean a specific vic. Who’d you know who died?’

Brabant perched on an ottoman, his steaming mug cradled between his knees. ‘I’d rather not—‘

‘Too bad.’

‘My sister.’ Brabant sipped his tea. ‘Our foster mother was-- not a nice woman. My sister was never able to deal with it all, until she tried hypnotherapy. It gave her back her life.’

‘Admirable.’ Duo tossed the diploma to the couch beside him. ‘What’s the real story?’

Brabant looked at him for a long time, no trace of a smile now. Then he leant back, legs crossing comfortably, crossing his hands over his belly to show he was entirely at his ease. ‘I’m good at it,’ he said. ‘It’s a skill. I make more money consulting with police and Preventers than I would practising therapy on a colony stuffed to the hull with shrinks. I like nice things. I’d like to have more of them.’

‘All about the bottom line.’ Duo nodded. ‘I get that. I do, actually.’

‘Less admirable, but who wants to be poor when they’ve got a ticket out of the dirt?’

Closer and closer to the reality, at least. You could always trust the greedy to be greedier. ‘So where’s that meet up with trying to help me on the sly?’

‘I told you. Preventers, or at least your Agent Chang, don’t want you to know what really happened to you.’

‘I’m not paying you. And if I happened to remember something implicating anyone in Preventers, I’m thinking you’d lose a healthy commission.’

‘On the contrary. If you remember something that implicates a Preventer, his Command will be grateful to have him quietly exposed. I’ll be more valuable than ever.’

‘Assuming I give you the credit.’

‘I would hope you’d be even-handed in your praise.’ Brabant inclined his head. ‘After all, you’re getting the truth out of the bargain, too.’

Duo had made deals with shadier characters. It pinched a little to have even a hypothetical Wufei hovering at the edges in a position to get very screwed-- but if Wufei really was-- but if Wufei wasn’t, then it wouldn’t hurt him anyway, and it would all be fine.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Breathing again?’

Walking up the street toward the hardware. Needed a few things, putting the list together in his mind, but man, what he really needed--

Caffeine. Check his watch. Past midnight, but time enough to duck into Yang’s Convenience and grab a litre of soda. Detour up the by-way, buzz for entrance at the barred door. There was old Mrs Yang, not the daughter who spoke English. Nod to her. Beady black eyes in a lined face. Suspicious old bat. Grab the lemon off the rack--

‘Do you know him?’ Brabant asked, far away.

Knew him, though. Hey, Kiddo, man says to him. Hand on Duo’s hand.

Hate. Hate and he’s scared, too-- the man pushes him out of the store and then Duo’s on him, pounding him on the chest, just pounding with his fists, hate him for this-- man crushing him close. I’m sorry, Kiddo. I’m sorry. Never meant to hurt you. Never meant to leave you.

‘Leave you?’ Brabant said. ‘What does he mean? Who is he?’

Beating on his chest, like a little child would, then arms coming tight around him to stop him, hold him. Smell of wool coat, a man’s smell, musky and salty, warm hand at the back of his head, holding him close to a shuddering heartbeat. Slow release, gentle—tender—hands on his shoulders, tight. Kiddo—-

Slam to his back. Fall to his knees. Pavement rushing up to meet his face.

‘Duo, when I count backward from three to one, you’ll start to wake up. When I say one, open your eyes. Three.’

No, have to see—- have to see first—-


Room around him. Two bodies, for a moment, one on the street and the other on the couch—-


Duo blinked. Brabant’s den, lights low, ceiling fan rotating slowly overhead.

‘You were beginning to relive your injury.’ Brabant poured fresh hot water from the kettle into Duo’s mug. ‘I don’t think we want to tempt that yet. Tell me what you saw, who this man was.’

He was cold. Frozen, actually. Couldn’t move, so he just stayed laying there, ice-clogged, staring up at the fan.


‘It’s impossible,’ he said flatly. Headache. Horrible headache. ‘Call a cab. I need to get back.’

‘We should talk while the memory is fresh.’

‘It’s not a memory. It’s a crock of shit.’ He was sort of numb, sitting up. He curled his arms to his chest. His hands hurt, the outside of his hands, as if he were still beating on that phantom in his head. ‘It’s not real.’

‘It is real.’

‘Then the guy who attacked me is a zombie, and we better call in some serious backup, because I don’t think Preventers can do much about a dead man walking.’


‘ You’re unusually mild-mannered today,’ Wufei said. ‘I’m suspicious.’

Duo spat toothpaste into the sink and rinsed it down. ‘I haven’t had my morning sugar dose, if it makes you feel better.’

‘Tran said you were gone an awfully long time last night.’

‘Clearing my head.’ Literally. If not with great success. ‘I think I’m just-— clearer. I’ve been treating this the whole time like a mystery. Time to fold. It’s a crime, end of story, and you’re the criminal-chaser, not me. Let you do your work.’

‘Actually, you’ve been very level-headed,’ Wufei said. ‘And I have noticed the effort, and I appreciate it. If it were me, I might have been out there night and day, regardless of the rules. It’s reasonable—- rational—- to want to get some of your own back.’

‘Doesn’t do much good to be reasonable in the face of un-reason.’ Especially when it was your own brain supplying the crazy. He pressed his thumb over the receptor and turned his head to cough into his elbow. ‘I’m getting a cold or something, though,’ he added, wiping his nose and mouth roughly on his sleeve. ‘You might want to send Tran and McAssFace some care packages so they don’t get it too.’

‘I will. Wrap up and stay in bed. Have you seen the news yet?’

‘No, why?’

‘Your friend Crisler’s become a celebrity. He’s been interviewed on two different channels this morning alone.’ Wufei hummed a moment. ‘He’s not as cute as you said.’

‘It’s got a lot to do with puppyish enthusiasm.’

‘Ah,’ Wufei teased him. ‘I see. Something to bear in mind.’

‘Yes it is.’ Duo tossed his toothbrush back into his bag. ‘Speaking of... when will I see you again?’

He got a considering sort of pause on the other end for that. ‘It’s difficult to visit without drawing attention to the doppelganger ploy.’

‘Yeah. I know. It’s cool.’

‘It’s a legitimate question. We’ve been keeping you cooped up.’

‘I really do understand.’

‘I know.’ Another pause, shorter this time. ‘I can come tonight for dinner. Any requests?’

‘Really? Yeah, our Chinese place, that would be great.’

‘I’ll pick something up.’ He heard noise in the background, like a door opening and shutting. Then Wufei spoke all in a rush. ‘I just want to say something. I’ve given it a great deal of thought, and I don’t require an answer from you, I just want you to know it. I—- care a great deal about you. Have come to care a great deal.’

‘Wufei—-‘ Duo said.

‘Please just listen. Perhaps my feelings have been affected by recent events, by the possibility I experienced of losing one of the few friends left to me. I’m not a—- social person—- like you. It’s not an easy thing for me to meet others, to open myself to others.’

Duo’s chest felt tight, and it had nothing to do with cold viruses. ‘Yeah. I get that.’

‘I’m saying—- that—-‘

Then, abruptly, the moment passed. Maybe Wufei lost his nerve. Maybe Duo really had been meant to step in and provide the verbal bridge. Whatever—the opportunity closed with an echoing finality. Duo almost felt the latch locking.

‘I’ll see you tonight,’ Wufei said. ‘Or tomorrow night. As soon as I—- can.’

Coward, Duo thought, hanging up. Both of them.

McDevitt looked up from his card game when Duo emerged from the bath. He flipped a card to the middle of the table, and Tran grimaced at whatever he saw. ‘How come you only talk on the phone when you’re in there?’ McDevitt asked him.

‘It’s none of your business who I call.’ Duo detoured to his luggage, now liberally occupying an entire corner, and rooted through discarded clothes for his pills. Tran tossed them to him from the table, and Duo fumbled them before he managed to get the cap off. ‘I’m running out,’ he said, jiggling the bottle at the agents. ‘How do we handle refills?’

‘I’ll call it in,’ Tran said, reaching for his mobile in his belt. ‘McDevitt’ll pick them up. Be a good test, actually. We’ll see if anyone’s watching for you to make an appearance.’

That caught Duo’s interest, before he remembered that not five minutes ago he’d been full of the virtue of leaving law enforcement to the trained enforcers. ‘Yippee,’ he muttered. He stacked his pillows in a limp little mountain of cushion, and eased his way onto it. ‘I need more of the heat wrap things too.’

‘Your back still that bad?’

‘It wouldn’t be if I could sleep on my own bed. This mattress must have been used to carry boulders. There’s a dent the size of a satellite in the middle.’

McDevitt climbed to his feet, shrugging on the jacket Duo had grudgingly surrendered to complete the ‘Duo Disguise’. ‘Toss me the cane, yo. I’ll give our guy a show. I played Henry V in school, I tell you that? Sucked at it. Totally blew.’

‘Terrific,’ Duo muttered. He found the cane and lobbed it. ‘And get me a decongestant. I’m not going to be able to sleep if I’m stuffed up.’

‘Any other demands?’

‘Lunch,’ Tran said succinctly.

Duo turned on the television while McDevitt made his noisy exit. The plunge into whine-free quiet was too sudden, otherwise. Tran didn’t usually make a peep when it was just them alone. Someone should have told him that didn’t match the Wufei Disguise. Wufei had no problem mouthing off when he felt like it.

Duo didn’t even know why he was disappointed. What was Wufei really going to say to him, anyway? Let’s move in together? Not for the foreseeable future, and not if they planned on not murdering each other.

I love you-- would have been nice to hear. Duo didn’t really think that was pending, even if Wufei had got a shock at almost losing him. There was a kind of love there, a brotherly affection with a not-so-brotherly side of lust, but it wasn’t the kind of love you built marriages on, or anything like that. It was the kind of love you grew when-- just like Wufei had said. When there weren’t a lot of other friends, so you learnt how to forgive the little faults and the foibles became amusements, even tinged with affection. It wasn’t like there was anyone else to love. They just weren’t naturally compatible for that kind of thing. Wufei even believed in soul mates. Duo didn’t believe in souls.

Didn't believe in ghosts, either. Even if his brain was conjuring them. That still had him angry. Upset. Maybe more than any of the rest of it. He shouldn't have trusted Brabant. He shouldn't have trusted the stupid hypnosis shit. It was too much of that-- probably it wasn't anything more than too much thinking about the files Hudson had found. Digging up the past. People shouldn't do that, not when there was real past to be ploughed. Asking for trouble.

The pills were taking a long time to kick in. And his sinuses were almost entirely clogged. ‘Think McDevitt can find his way home on his own?’ he asked Tran.

‘With one or two tries,’ Tran replied dryly. He cleaned up the table, setting the card deck to one side. ‘You going to sleep?’

‘Maybe.’ He didn’t feel like moving, and that usually heralded a nap, whether he liked it or not. ‘Trying to find some news.’ Hope Hudson had got his funding. Now it was a big story, the Archives would find donors who could pony up. And Duo wouldn’t have to beggar himself in the name of history.

Man, he wanted his hands on those records. There had to be more in there. Hudson was a good kid, and a capable researcher, but he was too young to remember any of what he was reading about. Duo had even seen Matchette, once. At a distance. Too much of a distance even for a pot shot, and Duo had looked for a good angle, that day. Would have been the highlight of fifteen years. There was something to be said for keeping history closed off until it wasn’t so close, anymore. How many other people were staying up nights, remembering all the things they’d thought were done and closed off and safely past? Ripping off the scab, was what he’d done. Not the wrong thing, not a bad thing, but a hard thing. L2 had to be up in arms. They hadn’t covered it on the news, not that he’d seen, but no-one covered anything about L2 anymore, since the sanctions that had stopped traffic and trade with his home colony. No-one got on or off L2 anymore, so what did it matter what they were doing there? Surviving. Just barely.

Hell, he knew what the records would say. Somewhere in those boxes there would be interviews. Governments, even conquering military ones, always interviewed staff, and they kept those interviews, even when they recorded criminal activity, because they couldn’t bear not to write everything down. Somewhere in there Social Worker Casey Pope had given all the names of all the kids she’d infected and killed. And there would be tables and statistics and charts and thirty-year-old blood tests—and hell, there’d probably been samples still in existence. Those had to have been destroyed, though. Not even an idiot with a training manual for a brain would look at racks of secret blood samples and think he had to keep them because the red tape mandated it. No, those were gone, which meant whatever files had been kept by the programme operators was the only link to dead children who would never otherwise be known.

Hell, maybe no-one on L2 gave a crap. They hadn’t cared much about their orphans when they’d been dying in doorways. But that was how corporate outrage worked, group-think conjuring up past injuries even when they were self-inflicted. A society that rejected its lowest classes could still dredge up some crocodile tears when the camera and lights showed up.

Fuck L2. And everyone who'd ever lived on it. No room in the universe for ghosts. There was enough to deal with still living.

He woke up with the telly off and the daylight out the window considerably dimmer from when he’d dozed off. He lay staring up at ceiling, slowly getting used to the crick in his neck, the one strong twinge from left of his spine just over his hip. Not bad enough to move. Then--

‘McDevitt,’ Tran said. ‘McDevitt, you answer your phone now. You’re late for check-in.’

Duo rolled his head. Tran stood peeking into the parking lot from behind the blinds. He had his mobile pressed to his ear.

‘What’s up?’ Duo asked him.

Tran didn’t look back. ‘McDevitt missed check-in.’

‘By how much?’

‘Half hour.’

‘That might not mean anything,’ Duo guessed sluggishly. ‘He could’ve forgot to turn his phone on.’

‘McDevitt’s a lot of things, but he’s not actively irresponsible.’ Tran let the curtain drop and turned toward Duo. ‘Stay there. Don’t answer the door, even if it’s McDevitt. I’m going to follow protocol.’

‘The hell is protocol?’ Duo eased up onto his elbows. No, not a good idea. He definitely didn’t feel well. ‘Where you going?’

‘Reporting to Command. Stay there, okay?’

Duo did, not entirely through his own recognisance. Besides which, the bed was warm, and it definitely wasn't outside the duvet. That decongestant he'd asked for would be awfully helpful. If McDevitt had fallen off the edge of the colony there'd be all sorts of hell. Why Wufei even kept him on was a mystery.

Wufei. Wufei hadn't ever come for dinner.

No, that was weird-- like thinking about him conjured him up, because the door opened, the inner door where everyone was supposed to walk because of Duo's traps on the other one, there was Wufei just standing there, holding-- a suitcase. Duo's suitcase.

'You real?' Duo thought he should ask. 'I ask because I'm kind of drugged.'

Real-or-hallucination Wufei smiled. He came to Duo's bed and sat level with Duo's knees, which he laid a hand on, and then bent to kiss him. It felt pretty real, or real enough for Duo to be embarrassed that it had been quite a while since he'd brushed his teeth. But probably-real Wufei didn't seem to mind, and his fingers were gentle, brushing the sand carefully away from the corners of Duo's eyes.

'We caught him,' he said softly. 'We caught him, Duo.'

'What?' That woke him up. 'What-- you--' He sat up, half on his own power and with Wufei stuffing pillows behind his back. 'Who the fuck is he?'

'A no-body. Former White Fang. His name is Pak Chin Ho. McDevitt noticed him outside the motel, and Pak followed him all the way to the pharmacy. McDevitt made a show of lingering outside, and Pak confronted him-- tried to drag him back to a van with no plates. He fits the basic profile, and your neighbour positively identified him as the man who walked her into the building the second time you were taken. Better yet, he's confessed to everything.'

'No shit.'

'Not quite everything,' Wufei hedged. 'But he confessed to kidnapping you. And to following you for some time. You wouldn't believe the stalker wall he had in his little hovel in Korea Town. It looks as though he's been watching you for at least two years.'

'That's really sick.' Wufei was playing with his hair by his ear. It was distracting. It was really hot. He felt really hot, except not in a good way. He felt really crappy, and his nose was starting to run a little now he was sitting up in the cold room. 'Why's he spying on me?'

'It's not as unbelievable as it sounds. You were the only Gundam Pilot whose image was ever publicly broadcast. And as your friend Crisler has proven, there were people in OZ who knew your real identity. It's very possible that knowledge was more disseminated than we ever knew. Pak seems to have a severe case of hero-worship. He emigrated to L1 to be near you.'

'I've never seen a Korean guy following me.' Bothersome thing to think about. He was raking his memories trying to come up with any shady characters. It shook him, actually, that he couldn't. 'There's no way he ever got into my place, not the way I lock it down.'

'No, he claims that until that night he was never inside.' Wufei grinned slowly at him. 'You haven't thanked me, yet. I did a heroic thing, rescuing you.'

'I thought Preventers believed in selfless service. Wait--' Wufei was actually showing teeth, he was smiling so big. 'It's done? I don't have to hide in motels anymore?'

'Exactly. You're free, Prince Charming.' Wufei kissed him again. 'Want to follow me back to my castle?'

He had to laugh. 'Yeah. Hell, yeah. Did you pack that suitcase yet?'

'We can leave this very moment. Tran will take care of checking out officially.' Wufei helped him out of bed, wrapping him in his coat-- his coat, the one McDevitt had taken hours ago, his again and even smelling like himself again-- and ushered him to the door with an arm nestled about his waist. And despite the clogs in his nose and the headache and the backache Duo sort of felt like breaking into dance, or at least song. The daylight on his face was better than any daylight ever, even counting the time he'd lost his Earth-virginity to one of Howard's buff boys on the old barge right out there under Sol itself. It did make him feel better, actually, considerably better, crossing the parking lot right in the open like that. Free. How was that for something? It was over.

'Why's your car smell like garlic?' he asked, when Wufei eased him down on the passenger seat and belted him in.

'Check the backseat,' Wufei advised. 'I told you I'd get take-away from our Chinese place.' He brushed Duo's hair back from his forehead. 'Relax. Sleep a little more if you like. Tonight may be very tiring for you.'

'Aw. I get it now.' He rested his head back. Wufei slid into the driver's side, his hand slid over Duo's thigh before settling on the manual shift, and then they were wheeling out and away. Free.

'Why'd he take my hair?' Duo said.

'Your hair?' Wufei glanced at him, then turned onto the main street. 'I don't know. I don't think they've asked that yet.'

'Oh.' The clock in the dash said half past four. McDevitt had been a half-hour late from check-in, but he'd left at nine. He was missing some time. Maybe it was time to ease off the pills. 'Can you pass that on to me? When you find out? It's not like it matters, I guess, but I guess I want to know. And why he gave it back after.'

'I'll make sure they ask.' Wufei touched his leg again. 'Why don't you sleep. I'll wake you when we get there.'

'No, I'm awake now.' Traffic was thick. Rush hour. 'Don't be mad when I tell you this.'

'Tell me what?'

'I saw that guy again. The hypnotist.'

'When?' Wufei said sharply. 'You haven't been back to-- have you-- you sneaked out.'

'Don't be mad. It was a bust-up. I thought I'd-- I don't know-- see the face of God or something. But it was total bull. Don't use that guy again. He sucks.'

Wufei was quiet for a minute, his mouth tight. Duo looked once, and faced forward after that. Some of the euphoria was fading. Shouldn't have said anything.

Then Wufei said, 'All right. I understand. And nothing came of it. It's all right.'

'Seriously?' Duo kicked at the floormat. 'Don't buy it.'

'It is all right. I told you--' Wufei down-shifted for a light going red, and they idled at the head of a queue of other cars. 'I thought you were being a little too well-behaved. I suppose, in a purely intellectual sense, I'm relieved.'

'If it makes you feel any better, he's a jackass.'

Wufei laughed shortly. 'Yes. Yes, he is.'

'So'm I, though.' He did the thigh-touching, this time. He curled his fingers toward Wufei's in-seam. 'It was stupid. It was so stupid. I'm sorry. Should've known you'd be on the case.'

'It was luck. And we both know how often that lightning strikes.' Wufei picked up his hand and kissed it. 'You have your life back. Your spine will heal. Everything will go back to normal.'

'Yeah,' Duo said. 'Yeah. Imagine that.'


They ate, mostly as a formality. Definitely not enough to keep up their energy for what they did after.

And it was really good. Not just because they hadn't done it in a long time, well, a long time for them. And Wufei was totally hot for it, too, deep dragging kisses first, his hands everywhere like he couldn't stop himself. Duo completely forgot about his cold. Mostly. He definitely forgot about his back. They rolled all over Wufei's bed, starting in a half-dozen positions but breaking off just to tease, to rev it up. But finally Wufei tipped him onto his back, hugging Duo's leg up over his hip, and slid into Duo inch by inch until he could feel it practically in the back of his throat. Wufei dragged it out forever. His hair would drape over Duo's face, like silk or feathers, and his lips would suck at Duo's pulse in his throat, or the nerve cluster in his shoulder, biting one nipple and lapping at the other. He'd refuse to touch Duo's dick, then spend a minute doing nothing but stroking him from balls to slit until Duo thought he'd explode. He did explode, when Wufei finally let him, pinned to the mattress by his shoulders and filled with Wufei, and it left him gasping, winded, exhausted, and absolutely content.

Wufei sprawled next to him, glowing golden with sweat, his chest heaving. 'God,' he said. 'Maybe even all of them.'

Duo laughed breathlessly. 'At least a few. Thank Buddha for that twisty thing you did, though. You haven't done that in a while.'

'I don't think I've been limber enough in a decade or so.'

'Special occasion.'

'I had to chase Pak a little,' Wufei admitted. He lifted an elbow to show Duo an impressively raw scrape. 'I've got a hell of a bruise starting on my ass, of all places.'

'Lemme see.' Duo craned his neck, and Wufei rolled a little onto his side. He hadn't been lying-- it was already purple, a big splotch on his right butt cheek. Duo poked it, and Wufei swatted him. 'Looks like the one I had,' Duo said.

'I'm much more sympathetic now that it hurts to sit on.' Wufei settled with his head pillowed on his arms. Duo snuffled mightly until he could breathe through his nose a little. He peeled off the condom from Wufei's limp dick and gave it a toss to the general direction of the waste bin, and combed his fingers through the damp curls. Wufei groaned. 'Too soon.'

'Suck it up.' He did stop, though. Mostly. He slipped his fingers between Wufei's legs and poked him behind the balls. Poked and rubbed. 'I've missed you. It's weird. Like, we can go for weeks without seeing each other, sometimes. But once I couldn't when I wanted to, it was a drag.'

'Terribly odd. I wonder what it means.' Wufei shifted. Squirmed, actually. His legs fell open for Duo's touch. 'There's going to be some long hours, closing out this case. Paperwork. But when I'm done--'

Duo paused to lick his finger, then slid it to the first knuckle into Wufei's hole. 'When you're done, what.'

'We could go somewhere. A better hotel, if you're not tired of them yet. Maybe even to Earth.'

'Earth?' He played his thumb against Wufei's balls. Wufei was getting hard again, a little at a time. Tight, though. His finger just barely fit in. 'Why would we go there?'

'It's been years. Change of scenery. A holiday. You don't have it in you to fuck me, so I don't know what you think you're doing.'

'Offering some mute suggestions.'

'You'll be sore in the morning.' Wufei rolled onto him, grabbing him by the wrists and holding them back away to the pillows. 'Say you'll go on holiday with me, or I'll tie you up and leave you here.'

'Sexy,' Duo grinned. 'Maybe I'll go. If you promise to tie me up and do nasty things instead.'

Wufei licked Duo's lips, then the tip of his nose. 'Say you'll go with me. We can do this on a cruise, or in luxury at the Sanq Palace. Relena Peacecraft would have us there.'

'Yeah, but then we'd have to, like, eat with her, or talk to her, and either way I'm choking something down. Cruise is better.'

'Somewhere cold. We'll wear fur and drink hot rum and watch whales do whatever whales do.'

Duo bit Wufei's chin. 'Dunno. Don't know if I care what whales do.'

Wufei squeezed his wrists. 'Say yes. Say yes. There are-- things I really want to talk to you about. And I want to have a lot of advantages on my side, not least an ocean between you and a get-away car.'

Oh. That was a big enough hint to land, finally. 'Yeah?' Duo said. 'Uh-- yeah. I see.'

'Say yes.' A tinge of hesitation parted Wufei's mouth. 'Please.'

'Sure,' Duo said. 'Why the hell not.'
'You,' Wufei said, 'are officially ill.'

'Thanks awfully.' Duo coughed into a tissue, grimacing at the clog of mucus that wouldn't shake free. 'I'll take another pill.'

Wufei returned from their cabin with their spare blanket, spreading it over Duo's lap. 'You just took one an hour ago. Give it time to work.'

The ocean below their balcony was calm, scattered ice floes floating like small white islands on the steel-grey surface. It was still early, and the sun's light was only just beginning to creep orange tentacles through the mist. The young server who'd brought their breakfast had brought a bucket of champagne, too, and a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, a romantic touch that Duo was determined to enjoy in spite of his cold. They'd spent the last six days taking full advantage of the ship's many offerings-- big meals three times a day plus the thirteen full bars, the swimming pool and heated spa, the gym and water sports arenas, cabaret and live music, plus the port calls at Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and the Hubbard Glacier. It had been maybe the best thing they'd ever done together. Duo felt almost like a kid again. They danced, they skied, they ate way more than was good for them, they even enjoyed the company of their fellow cruisers, and they fucked whenever the mood took them, indoors or outdoors. He never got tired of watching his breath steam in the frozen air, though he hadn't been able to inhale through his nose since the shuttle flight. But mostly, he felt really good about them together. Really good. It was just really special, and really good.

And it looked like Wufei was finally working himself up to the long talk he'd been promising they'd have. He poured them both a tall flute of the bubbly, bending to kiss Duo before handing him the crystal. He ruffled Duo's hair with his free hand, and settled next to him. 'I've got a scratchy throat myself,' he added belatedly. 'I might have finally caught it.'

'The number of times you've had your tongue down my throat, I'm shocked.' Duo sipped his champagne, relishing the tingle along his jaw. 'Maybe you should wrap up, too. Or at least add some orange juice to your alcohol.'

Wufei settled next to him, propping slippered feet on the balcony rail. The slight rocking of the huge ship all around them disappeared over the edge, as if they were all alone in the ocean, completely cut off in the quiet of the earth. The air blew some colour into Wufei's face, a flush from the chill under lively black eyes. He reached for Duo's hand, laced their fingers together.

'I can't believe we're going to have to give all this up after tomorrow,' Duo said. 'This has me giving serious thought to early retirement.'

'You'd get bored. They wouldn't let you use explosives on a cruise ship.'

'True.' He sipped again. 'But this was a great idea. I'm really glad we did this.'

'So am I. Glad that we got you home safe. And glad that-- that we had something together, to celebrate, to...'

Yeah, they were to it. Duo had thought a lot the last week about what he was going to say. A lot. 'Yeah,' he said, and coughed to clear his throat. 'Together is good.'

Wufei let go of his hand, to reach for his own champagne. He drank, several swallows in a row. Working up to it. Duo felt a little short of breath himself.

'There's something I want to tell you,' Wufei said. 'I'm being... re-assigned to Earth.'

Oh. That fell into a bucket of silence. Duo didn't say anything. Nothing occurred. At all.

'It's a lateral promotion. I'll be taking over a work unit in Hong Kong. It's been restless in the Asian Sector, and they've lost people recently. They need someone familiar with the area, someone without the fatigue of a hot posting for all these years. It's a good move for me.' Wufei explained it all in a carefully neutral voice, his eyes downcast. 'And they need the help.'

Yeah. Wow. That was a lot of work to go, really, just to dump him. Duo could almost feel flattered about it. Almost.

'Say something,' Wufei mumbled.

'Yeah,' Duo answered. 'Okay. Congratulations. I know you've felt like you were shoved into a corner, once they sanctioned L2.'

'It's been quiet in the colonies, yes. All the trouble really died down after that.'

'Right. Preventers prevent, right. Gotta go where the mess is.'

'I told them I wouldn't come until we'd closed your case. I didn't want to leave you in the middle of it.'

Duo swallowed dryly. 'Nice of them to oblige. Nice of you.'

'It's my duty, Duo.'

'Yeah. Gotta do your duty.'

Saved by the ring of a mobile phone. Wufei didn't look surprised. Which meant it was work. Preventers missions. Saving the world, relationship by relationship.

'Go,' Duo said.

'I'm sorry.' Wufei hesitated, half on his feet. He kissed Duo again-- on the cheek. He closed the sliding door behind him going back into the room.


He took the flight back to L1 alone.

It was a weird kind of letdown, finally going back to his own apartment. Everything looked exactly the same-- including his walls. There'd been a contractor in to start repairs, but they'd only finished with the kitchen, and all of his stuff was still trashed. He shoved boxes off his bed, couldn't get the bureau off it, and ended up sleeping with his legs propped on it. It was surprisingly comfortable.

He spent a few days putzing through a half-hearted clean-up. A real scrub, getting up all the dust of the destroyed drywall and binning all the stripped chunks Preventers had so kindly left lying. He had to bin all the contents of his frigerator, too, long rotted. And he was out of soup, thanks to his stunt weeks ago-- weeks ago, it was now-- laying all those traps for the kidnapper.

Weird. A whole phase of his life, a whole significant life event, even if he couldn't substantively remember most of it, over.

He caught up on all the messages he'd missed from work, although he couldn't bring himself to return even the more urgent ones. How could he even begin to explain his long absence? The engineers and designers he usually consulted with wouldn't have heard about his kidnapping, except maybe through the grapevine. He didn't even want to think about that. That was a kind of vulnerability he wasn't eager to have on his shoulders. He didn't like people knowing too much about him. Even people he saw every day sometimes didn't know his last name. He didn't have millions of friends at his beck and call.

Just Wufei, kind of. Who was probably having a duty-orgasm, reading his new orders in Hong Kong.

He had to fill another prescription for the heat wraps, and he stocked up on cold meds, too, a random sample of brands and symptoms. He swallowed several with a lemon soda, and sprawled on his floor to enjoy the ability to breathe, albeit dizzily. He got up to let in the contractor and crew, and spent the next several hours sitting on the front steps of his building, not thinking particularly hard about anything, and not wanting to.

Well. Not wanting to take a really hard look at anything was different from not needing to. He needed to.

Like-- could you have a life alone, when the only reason he'd even come to L1 was because he didn't want to get stuck on L2 when the sanctions stopped travel? Only reason he'd even come to L1 was because, what the hell, Chang was there, wasn't he, and better to start off somewhere you knew someone than a totally blank slate, right. He didn't bear a lot of love for this colony. He'd only stayed because it had been comfortable, and Wufei had made room for him, in that uncomfortable perverse way Wufei did.

Until the first conflict of work and semi-boyfriend. Hell, maybe he would have made the same choice. It wasn't like there was any blame to go around. And maybe if it hadn't come on the heels off all this-- all this weirdness, all this upset, he wouldn't have felt it as much. In a week he'd be back on his feet and it would all be fine. He couldn't rely on Wufei being around to provoke him into having a life. That was his own responsibility.

So he'd buy groceries and return his work messages and pick back up on the field kit project and head back to the Archives. Hell, he'd probably run into Hudson there, now. He could pick that up right where he'd left it off, too, he knew that without blinking. They'd flirt, they'd probably fuck, and Duo would avoid him for a while until he stopped calling around. Wufei would laugh the way he always did, when Duo told him about it--

Yeah. Life would be different, wouldn't it.


Hudson set the boxes on the table before Duo, along with a rolled set of sharpened pencils. 'I'm being sued,' he said. 'I told them the records are legally in my custody here at Port Meirion. I don't want to give them up to the government, that's my business, isn't it? The government doesn't agree.'

'Jesus,' Duo said guiltily. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to happen.'

'I know you didn't. And I know they're only doing it to strong-arm me. Sucks that it'll work. I can't afford a lawyer even.'

'I could help you out,' Duo offered, over the sinking feeling in his gut. No way could he afford it either, covering that kind of expense. Government lawsuits-- they had more money than he could even imagine, and even if they didn't, the law was probably on their side. Deed of gift from the daughter of a maid who'd stolen government records-- even if it was a defunct government that had been defeated by the current one-- wasn't going to make a lot of hay next to a 'protect the public from the truth' argument.

'I could make copies,' Hudson began.

'You'll be lucky if they don't search your home.' Duo dropped his chin into his hand. 'Given up the chaos on L2, every dictator-in-the-making has been pushing through tough enforcement policies. You don't want to get a serving of jail time on top of violating an injunction. You shouldn't even be showing them to me, legally.'

'I know, but--' Hudson dropped to his elbows on the table. 'Doesn't it strike you just-- I mean who the hell are they to tell me I don't have the right to know what's in these papers? They couldn't even be bothered to pursue charges against Matchette, and now they want to bury the real story? It's just wrong.'

'I know, kid.' He didn't touch casually, really, but the situation seemed to call for it. He covered Hudson's hand with his fingers. 'They might have different plumage, but they're all still birds, as the saying goes. Do yourself a favour and settle out of court. Otherwise it's a big faceless crowd going to be coming down on you, and they won't even look back when they've trampled you underfoot.'

Hudson grimaced it away. 'Thanks for the advice,' he said. 'In all seriousness. I suppose if anyone has the authority on standing up and fighting, it'd be you. So I'm scared pretty much shitless, but I sure believe you when you said it.'

'That's the battlefield, yeah.' The moment stretched out. Duo carefully pulled his hand back into his lap. 'What'd you want me to see in 'em, anyway?'

'I pulled everything I thought related to your case in here.' Hudson slid into a seat, freeing a folder from the box and turning it toward Duo. 'Especially if they classify it, it's as good as gone. You deserve to see it, legally or otherwise.'

He took it. Hudson had found quite a lot more, actually, and front and centre was a mylar sleeve holding a photograph, a genuine photograph, of Duo-age-baby. He'd never actually seen a picture of himself younger than when OZ had first plastered his face over every cable news programme in existence. He really had been young, then. Shaggy long hair much lighter than it was now, eyes too big in his face but-- angry already. Resentful. Not a happy kid. Not a trusting one, and yet he'd let them take his photograph and give him shots full of Plague.

'I remember it,' he said. He wiped his stuffy nose. 'Kind of. Being hungry. They'd stopped the soup kitchens. Don't remember why--'

'Someone assaulted a Federal officer at one. It started a riot. They said it was a security risk, after that. They closed a lot of the shelters, too. They were talking about setting up a ghetto on one of the satellites, but the virus got out then.'

'I guess we got desperate enough to take the handouts.' He ignored the uneasy twinge in his gut, recalling too that night with Brabant, when he'd seen that face in the hardware store. Dream or not, he was none too fond of ghosts.

'I've been thinking about something, since that day you came in.' Hudson chewed his lower lip. 'I should have thought of it before, but I never did. Guess that doesn't say a lot about me, as a person.' He ran a fingernail over the edge of the box. 'It would be possible to use these records to track down the survivors of the immunity experiment. I mean, it could be possible. Some of them might still be on L2, and with the sanctions I don't know how that would work, but we could at least identify them. They should get to hear the truth, too. That won't happen, when the government classifies the records. And all this time the truth has been right in here, and all I ever thought of was getting money out of it to keep some stupid historical society running.'

'And if you hadn't kept it running, no-one would ever have looked at the papers, and probably that woman who donated them would have just thrown them out instead, and the truth would still be gone. Don't beat yourself up over a human impulse. It's not like you were holding them hostage or selling them on the black market.' Duo turned the folder down over his picture. 'You've read it all, right?'

'Yeah.' Hudson scrubbed his face. 'All those kids. It's weird. It didn't really feel-- real, I guess. Words on a page. But then I met you...'

'History in the flesh. One of those grand coincidences. Almost makes you think there's someone out there, directing cosmic traffic.'

'You don't believe in God?' the kid asked him.

'No,' Duo said. 'I don't.' One of his first really solid memories, actually. Old Father Maxwell, black eyes crinkled up funny in what time recalled as something rather more sorrowful than amused.

'Because of this stuff?'

'Yeah. I guess.' Man, that picture of himself. So that was what Father had seen, an undergrown sullen-faced rat, not the cheeky defier of fate Duo had romanticised himself into. He didn't like it, on reflection. Better the eternal child he looked like now than the one in that picture capture. Kid that young looked like a victim, and he didn't like it.

'What are you thinking?' Hudson asked. 'You look so sad.'

Duo made an effort to twitch up a smile. 'Tired, kind of. Been kind of a long month, this aside even.'

Hudson aborted a sudden grin behind his hand. 'God, I just realised, I don't even know what you do now. I don't know hardly anything about you.'

'Defence contractor,' Duo supplied, smiling more easily then. The kid had charm, all right. 'I design super-suits and exploding thingummies. Kind of a natural fit. And it gives me time to do this kind of stuff, the Archives and everything. Actually, I kind of wish I could track down all those snotty Fed teachers I had and show 'em I can too read.'

'Don't we all.'

'Not you. I bet you were the smart kid. Always had an answer to write on the board.'

Hudson turned a jewel-tone pink. 'Now always,' he mumbled. 'I sucked at algebra. Don't even ask me about trigonometry.'

Duo snorted. 'See, that's the only stuff that ever came natural to me, but I was a long time out of school when I learnt it. Flying an MS is all about maths, really. I mean, there's some point and shoot, too, but I got a lot better at it once I figured out how to group sets on the fly.'


'Yeah-- a group is a set and an operation that combine any two elements to form a third. The operation has to satisfy the group axioms, like closure, associativity, identity, invertability.' Hudson was staring at him with growing bewilderment. 'Symmetry groups?' he tried. He grabbed a pencil and sketched several triangles by rotations and flips, sloppily converging into an icosahedron. 'My Gundam was originally designed to use nuclear-generated energy weapons, but we couldn't control the sustainability or the directionality at the physical precision we needed, so Doc and I worked out this theory of molecular symmetries that got us to optical transitions between certain quantum levels, which can be manipulated by altering the symmetry of the states involved, right, which is called the Jahn-Teller effect-- distorting a molecule of high symmetry when it adopts a particular ground state of lower symmetry from a set of potential ground states that are all related by the symmetry operations of that molecule, and well, phase transitions of ferroelectric materials at the Curie temperature with a soft phonon vibrational lattice mode that goes to zero frequency at transition, and, yeah, we came up with beam weaponry, which is maybe an accomplishment and maybe something we should've shredded, but there you go.'

'I am-- way lost,' Hudson said, and grinned abashedly at him. 'But, wow, I didn't realise you were-- you're kind of a genius, obviously.'

'No-one's ever offered me a diploma,' Duo shrugged. 'I can do what I can do, which is design things that hurt people and then design other things that block the first thing from working. It keeps me fed, and like I said, it gives me time for the other stuff that never hurts anyone at all.'

'So if I hang out with you, there's going to be a lot of surprises, aren't there.'

Duo affected lofty disinterest. 'Who said you were invited?'

'Duo,' Hudson complained, but then a sliver of uncertainty fell in behind his eyes. 'Really?'

He laughed genuinely for the first time since Wufei had ditched him. 'Come out with me tonight,' he said, inspired at last to make that move he'd been holding in reserve. 'I'll buy you Long Islands until you forget your natural inhibitions.'

'Yeah... I, uh, I have a boyfriend.'

That was disappointing. But not necessarily the end of the road. 'Bring him along,' Duo suggested. 'They make tables for three.'

'It's not that I'm not-- uh, flattered--'

'Interested,' Duo translated.

'Yes.' Hudson was lobster-red, now. 'And I'm kind of amazed, that someone like you would be interested in me. But I've never-- I don't want to be-- dishonest.'

God. Maybe he really was wrong about the universe. Maybe there were ways to measure progress as a species, because Duo thought Hudson might be absolutely serious, just then, absolutely truly concerned with sparing Duo from a fault Duo was perfectly willing to commit.

'I am interested,' he said finally. 'But if you'd rather I back off, I... can do that. I, uh-- would like to have a, uh, friend right now. I seem to have misplaced the last one I did have, and, so, yeah, if the flirting is over the line, I'll stop.'

'I don't mind it. That part is flattering.' Hudson scrubbed at the back of his neck. 'If the offer's still on, maybe I could buy you at least one drink, too. And Eliot, if that's okay.'

'Yeah,' Duo decided. 'Yeah. That's posi.'

Well, best laid plans, and all.

He stopped back at his apartment to change before they went out. He'd got mail while he was gone. The Forensics people had finished with his hair, and passed it on just like Wufei had asked them to. It arrived wrapped in an express envelope, still braided.

It wasn't like a complete nervous breakdown, but it was some kind of mental blank-out. He stood in his kitchen where he'd opened the package just staring at it. When he got around to moving, he put in the frigerator and went to shower. He was in the middle of scrubbing when he realised what he'd done. Like a delusional old man, that was what he was acting. It was just fucking hair. He wrapped on a towel and went to get it, put it in a tupperware and hid it under his bed.

Didn't matter how much he wanted to explain a thing like this last month. Sometimes there just weren't explanations.

Hudson met him mid-point at the bar. He had the promised boyfriend with him. The guy had douchebag written all over him. He had looks, or at least some, under the expensive haircut and extensively botoxed face. He kept an arm slung all over Hudson's shoulders the entire time they were there, but he never stopped looking at the other customers, and he had an eye for the cute available ones.

On the other hand, so did Duo, though he was defining 'available' a little more narrowly. He had a dangerous sort of mood building in the pit of his stomach, a kind of slow-burning desire to seriously hurt something that needed release. Every smile he forced to his mouth felt like moving iron. He drank steadily, whiskey tonics until he got past the point of-- what had he called it? Natural inhibitions.

'You doing okay?' Hudson asked him finally. 'You seem kind of--'

'Dark,' the boyfriend supplied. He was watching a twenty-something in a silver vest dance in a handsy sort of display up by the guitarist on the little stage.

'Got a message from a friend,' Duo answered.

'The one you lost?' Hudson gave him maybe the sweetest smile that had ever graced a gay bar, and gently pried the tumbler out of Duo's hand. 'You hungry? They've got sliders on the menu. I could go for some--'

'Meat,' the boyfriend said, and bit Hudson on the neck.

'You,' Duo said. 'What's your name again?'

The boyfriend turned a flat gaze on him. 'Eliot.'

'The kid's hungry. Go order for him.'

'Duo,' Hudson admonished. 'What was the message? From your friend?'

'Well, I guess that depends on how you read it.' He sipped from Hudson's girly Mai Tai. 'It could be a final gesture of respect and caring. Or a giant “fuck you”. I'm leaning toward the latter.'

'Do you want to talk about?'

'No.' The boyfriend was up at the bar, fighting for a spot to be seen. 'He cheat on you ever?'

'What? No.' Hudson straightened stiffly. 'I mean, we're not serious, or seriously committed, I-- I don't see anyone else, and I don't think he does either.'

'But he has sex with anyone else.'

'It wouldn't be unknown in the gay community, would it?' Hudson pushed his glass away, too. 'But he says he doesn't, and I trust him.'

'Why? Because he asks you to? Has he earned it?'

'How do I know if he's earned it if I don't ever extend a little trust to try him out?'

That tickled him. 'Fair enough.' He picked at his shirt. He wished he'd worn something not black. It was pulling on his brain, too much outward expression of some unhappy thoughts churning inside. 'Ignore me. You're right. Sorry.'

'It's okay.' Hudson glanced back for the boyfriend. He said, 'You're thirty-six, aren't you.'

'Uh,' Duo replied. 'Ish. What happened to the etiquette of the gay community? You know better than to ask my age.'

'But you don't look it.'

Ah. 'I know,' he said. He cracked his neck, searching for words for it. 'I was talking about my Gundam today. All the Gundams. When they designed them-- when they designed the first one, Tallgeese, they made it for a man, a grown man pilot, like all the mobile suits before it. It's-- you ever been on Earth?'

'Me? No.'

'But you know the basics about gravity on Earth.'

'The basics, I guess, yeah.'

'You know what gee-force is? Ground-reaction force? When there's inertia in flight, no acceleration, or constant rate of climb, the downward force on the pilot's body is one pound of force per one pound of weight. But for every gee-force added in acceleration the force per pound ration increases. Two gees doubles the pilot's weight, not just mathematically, but in actual physical fact. Three gees, four gees, five gees-- Tallgeese had the engine power to accelerate way beyond the rate an ordinary suit was capable of. But a full grown pilot weighs, say, a hundred and eighty pounds. Add in gee-forces, and he can weigh nine hundred pounds all the sudden, going very fast for longer periods. It's a huge strain on the heart muscle. It killed a lot of pilots who couldn't take it.'

'So... they wanted smaller pilots.'

'Which pretty much meant really short adults, or children. Advantage of children is quicker learning curve, quicker recovery in event of injury, maybe even some societal-- no-one looks at a kid. No-one looks at a kid and thinks a kid can be a killer. Disadvantage-- kids grow.'

'But how would you get around a thing like that?' Hudson licked his lips. 'Maybe I don't want to know.'

'They did what they thought they had to. Maybe they thought it would wear off, or something. Maybe they thought we'd die, anyway.'

Oh, he was in a bad mood tonight. Probably he should call it quits. Go home to a frigerator full of hair.

'Grim faces.' It was the boyfriend. He came back with a plate of mini hamburgers, clattering it onto their table. Chips fell and scattered. Then he draped an arm-- around Duo, not Hudson. Duo felt lips on his temple, and hips not-so-subtly bumping his. 'What are you two talking about?'

'Sports,' Hudson said promptly, so bland Duo almost believed him. 'Thanks for the food, Eliot.'

'No problem. Keep my boys happy, right?' He squeezed Duo, dropped a big hand to Duo's waist. 'You're into all that history stuff, too, right?' he asked. 'Huds didn't tell me you were sexy. I kept imagining one of those old hunchbacked freaks with a grille and a bad case of acne.'

'Maybe when I take off my make up.'

'Funny.' The boyfriend picked up a chip, leaning over the table to tease Hudson with it. 'I think,' he said, 'that we should all go home now.'

'It's barely ten thirty,' Hudson protested. He waved off the chip. 'The rest of the band hasn't even got here yet.'

'Fuck the band.' The boyfriend smirked down at Duo, rubbing a finger under the waistband of Duo's trousers in to a knuckle. 'Better yet, let's all go home and fuck each other.'

'Eliot!' Hudson went so red Duo could see it even in the dark lighting of the bar. 'That's not funny.'

Jesus. That answered the one unanswered question-- Duo was positive, after that outburst, that 'Huds' really was as innocent as he seemed. Could kind of break your heart, really. How he'd managed to land a boyfriend like what's-his-face was its own mystery, but that did answer for a lot, it did.

The boyfriend rimmed Duo's ear with a hot tongue. 'Here I thought you were a gift for me. It's my birthday.'

'Congratulations.' Duo moved his head away. 'You're making the kid uncomfortable.'

'He's shy. Too shy.' The boyfriend didn't suffer any like difficulty. He ran his hand right up Duo's neck into his hair. Duo jerked away, skin crawling. No-one had dared to do that to him since he was just a baby, and his response then was exactly the same as occurred to him now. He grabbed Eliot's thumb, bending back at a sharp angle until the fragile finger bones protested-- audibly, emerging as a squawk of shock from Eliot's hanging jaw. Duo let go just a moment after he started to display real pain-- just long enough to make his point.

Or not. He'd underestimated the importance of looking smooth in front of your boyfriend, even if you were publicly cheating on him. Hudson had a hanging jaw, too, and it was one part humiliation, two parts jealous murder. Not innocent. Naïve. Duo would have put money down that that move usually ended out with Hudson face-down on a bear skin rug somewhere.


He just didn't really have it in him to keep up a good showing, even to impress the kid. Who was swilling his girly drink like he could disappear into it if he tried hard enough. Poor Hudson. Why would a cute kid like that, a guy with everything going for him hitch his wagon to a lush who slobbered all over every available ass in a skeezy bar like--

Duo. Who found himself wondering if that red blush and downcast expression had ever graced Wufei's face. No wonder Wufei hadn't asked him to China. Didn't want to find out how fast Duo could get through a fresh population of available men.

It crashed, then. The real impact of Wufei leaving him on L1. He was alone. First time in his life, alone, with no resources jumping to hand. Always had before. There'd always been-- someone. Or in the lack of someone, a goal. He'd been looked after by the gang on the streets, by Father at the church-- by the Feddies, whether he thanked them for it or not. From the church his only thought had been get the fuck off the colony-- nothing left to stay for, and full of a weird flush of empowerment, of all things, because whether he'd succeeded or not, he'd managed to steal that mobile suit off the Feddie base, hadn't he, had got out of the church under the guns of the rebels and soldiers alike, just a scrap of a kid. He'd known then he had it in him. There'd been no question in him, oddly, that he'd survive. He'd been cocky as hell, when he'd snuck on the Peacemillion, flush in his ability to achieve any and everything. Of course Doc and Howard had adopted him into Operation M. Who the hell else would they choose but him? And he'd had himself a new family, then, crazy scientists and revolutionaries as they were, but still a family to keep him fed and clothed and alive. Drop onto Earth, and he'd found himself in the company of four monsters just like him, a team-- tentatively, competitively-- but people who gave him a standing with the universe. It had got him through and off L2 a second time, that connection, and maybe Wufei had needed it too, those days, someone who meant you were more than just a nameless, faceless citizen of the stars. Except Wufei had gone and got himself Preventers, and that made him strong enough he didn't need Duo anymore.

There wasn't anyone who needed him. And he didn't have anyone left to need, either, which meant he was wide open and alone, a body full of-- full of things with no-where to direct them.

'All right,' he said. 'You want it? All right.' Hudson brought wide eyes up to his face. 'I'm in,' Duo said. 'Where are we doing this?'

He didn't ask whose apartment it was, Hudson's or the boyfriend's. Didn't much matter. He'd found an outlet for that desire to tear something down and light it on fire. He didn't figure Hudson would have much to say to him by morning.

He shucked his coat onto a leather easy chair. The boyfriend never got the lights-- Duo didn't care if it was dark or not. Hudson stayed hovering nervously in the open doorway, the only frame of brightness from the streetlamp outside.

'Beer?' the boyfriend asked him.

'Whiskey,' Duo answered. 'If you have it.'


'Fine.' He kicked his shoes to the edge of a thick carpet. A small living space, big overstuffed couch and the chair, a low coffee table with some kind of sculptural thing centre to it. Cave-like hallways to the right and the left, and behind him, a kitchen, cupboards rattling as the boyfriend went in there for the drinks. 'Hudson,' Duo said. 'Close the door.'

Hudson jumped. Obeyed, though. It latched with a groaning echo in the quiet apartment. 'Duo...'

'He's never sprung this on you before? Don't lie.'

That earned a short, consternated silence. 'You're the first who ever went through with it,' Hudson admitted. 'I never thought... that Eliot was... serious about it.'

Stranger in the house. Duo could imagine it. He didn't like to have hookups in his own home. Easier to sneak out, after.

'Does it bother you?' he asked. 'The idea of it being me.'

'I-- no, but...'

But. 'Right,' Duo said. 'If you want me to go, you need to say. Or I'm taking silence for permission.'

Silence. Not quite consent. But he felt he'd given clear warning.

The boyfriend was back with two tumblers of clear liquid and ice. Duo drank it all swallow by swallow, ignore the burn of raw, cheap liquor. All he wanted was the buzz, and fast. The boyfriend made a simpering little drama of sharing with Hudson, holding it to the kid's lips, whispering in his ear. It went from, no doubt, sweet nothings to necking in just a few seconds. Hudson stood clutching the glass, his face flaming even in the dark, cringing first away and then into the kissing.

Duo left the ice melt on the coffee table. An arm slid around him as he approached, the boyfriend, drawing him in. He ignored everything but Hudson's lips. The first brush tasted exactly the same as his own, Stoli-scented, cold. He pulled Hudson's body into his, moulding them together from hip to shoulder. Hudson shivered, actually shivered, maybe autonomic, maybe faked for Duo's benefit, as if he were some fearful virgin, not a young man with an obviously adventurous boyfriend. Boyfriend, who snuffled up Duo's throat and turned his head with hard fingers, stealing his mouth with with an invasive tongue, a hard metal ring snaking around Duo's gums. Duo endured it mechanically, eyes closed, the better to ignore the distraction. He could still feel Hudson, that way. Leaning into him, now, arms tight at his sides. Duo cupped his palms down over the seat of Hudson's blue jeans, digging his fingertips into the under-curve of a taut bottom. He pushed his groin into Hudson's, and got an answering twitch on a shaking inhale.

The boyfriend wasn't going to be left out. Kept trying to get back control of it, used to holding the upper hand over a weaker partner. Duo felt fingers on the buttons of his shirt, Hudson's shirt, baring them. He freed his mouth to take Hudson's again, while the boyfriend moved in behind the kid, sandwiching him between them. Together, Duo working from the back, the boyfriend slipping hands between them to paw at belt buckles and zips, they stripped Hudson's trousers. Duo rubbed him through the underpants, coming up from the legholes to touch skin, venturing between tense globes to the crack milimetre by milimetre. A fist of knuckles dug into his crotch, wrapped around Hudson's cotton-covered bulge. The boyfriend had his fingers in Duo's hair again, tugging, groping. He locked Hudson and Duo together when they kissed again, holding them there. Duo pushed past clenched teeth, until Hudson exhaled breathily and finally touched him, tongue in Duo's mouth, hands settling uneasily on Duo's hips. The boyfriend was outright jerking him off, slick fleshy sounds as he sped faster and faster. Duo accidentally got a handful of the boyfriend's short hairs, trying to get a reliable grip on the kid's ass.

'The bedroom,' the boyfriend whispered. 'I'll get the condoms.' He brushed Duo's cheek with a damp finger. It left the smell of musk behind, and then the boyfriend was gone, padding up the black hall on the left.

Duo took up where he'd left off. He tugged Hudson's pants out and over an erection jutting outward, wrapped his hand around it, rubbing his thumb in a slip of slick from the crown. Hudson buried his cheek in Duo's shoulder, taking fistfuls of his shirt.

'Blow you,' Duo murmured almost without voice, the vibration alone enough to communicate, pressed so close. 'Fuck you. You could fuck me. Watch while your boyfriend does.'

'I don't-- I don't-- know.'

He pulled a soft ballsac out over the elastic hem of the underpants, cinching them tight by circling his thumb and forefinger around Hudson's dick. Hudson groaned into his chest. Duo turned him back to the wall there, dropping to his knees to mouth at the trapped head, sucking hard until his fingers flew over the wet shaft. Hudson stopped touching him altogether, maybe afraid to, but managed a strangled protest about protection.

Fuck protection. Duo wanted the edge of a knife right now. He hadn't ever done bareback with anyone but Wufei. He just wanted to-- screw. Screw up. Fail.

'Duo, please.'

He turned himself away, this time. He leant his head on the wall, cool papered wall against the hot fever-feeling in his head.

The hell. It was hurting his back, anyway.

'Go fuck Eliot,' he said. His throat was raw. 'That was his point, anyway. He wasn't going to let me have you.' He couldn't swallow around a suddenly sore throat. 'Be careful with him. He's not the kind of guy you are.'

'You don't-- have to go.'

Not the same as asking him to stay. No-one wanted to ask him anyway, apparently.

He grabbed jacket and shoes and made it out the door on the strength of that. Didn't register until he was outside, shivering himself now. The boyfriend had been standing there the entire time. He had a blurred impression of a final smirk.

He wasn't even hard. He could still taste the kid in his mouth, but he hadn't been hard the entire time he'd been in there. Just--

Kind of wishing for a warehouse floor he could lie on while he forgot another few weeks of his life.

Hell, anyway. He was doing a fine enough job making all the good stuff disappear, and he didn't even need a shot of amnesia juice to achieve it.

He got an out-of-service message when he tried to call Wufei's mobile. Not a surprise. Colonial mobiles used their own towers, not satellites-- too much radiation. But he'd sort of thought Wufei might let him know if there was a new service number. He tried Wufei's old desk phone, next, thinking it might be forwarding calls, but as far as he could tell it was still going to the old voice mail. He didn't bother with a message. The one he was getting was loud and clear.


His cold got worse toward the weekend.

He was past the point of over-the-counter. He went to a walk-in clinic to get a prescription. They made him draw blood for tests-- the nurse thought he might have anaemia or something-- which made him so light-headed they had to lay him down in a dark room on one of the exam tables. They sent him home two hours later by taxi, not trusting him on the subway.

He slept a lot on the prescription they gave him. Lost his appetite, too, the little of it he'd got back since the first hospital visit. It came down to a bowl of chicken soup a day, if he could manage it, or wafers if he couldn't. The contractors came and went, his walls slowly reappearing. He paid a couple of the younger buff ones to move his furniture back. He got the chills, though, convinced the new drywall was the thinnest, draftiest crap he'd ever opened his wallet for. He left his radiator on full-time, huddled in his coat and wool stockings and his duvet in bed. Had bizarre dreams, probably from inactivity as much as the meds. And woke up so sore he couldn't move hardly.

Wufei didn't ever call. Neither did Hudson.

Alicia did, though. Wufei's old partner. Duo only answered because he thought it was the painter trying to get buzzed in, frozen by the bright cheer of her familiar voice.

'You holding up?' she asked him sympathetically.

'Huh?' he said brilliantly. 'Oh. Yeah. You?'

'Why wouldn't I?' A pause, in which both of them wondered what the hell he was talking about; she got it first. 'You think I got boned, not being offered the Chinese assignment.'

'Yeah,' he said. 'Sorry.'

'Don't be. Far as I'm concerned, L1's got plenty going on. We can't all be stars like you and Chang, anyway.'

'You call for something particular?' He reached for his box of tissues. It was empty. He combed through his pile of used on his bed until he found one only half gone. He wiped his nose and dropped his head back to a limp pillow. 'Something up?'

'I thought you might be interested to know. Pak's story is developing some holes.'

Holes. 'Holes,' he said. 'How?'

'He's asking if he can speak to you. Demanding it, actually. Says he won't talk to anyone until he talks to you. I said no for a week, but... it's probably easier to get you in here than to keep slamming my head to the wall trying to break him down.'

'He didn't lawyer up?'

'He did. But Pak is adamant. He'd give his left nut to see you again.'

'He might be giving it up. I don't want to fucking talk to him.'

'Duo, it could be really helpful for us. We want the strongest case possible for prosecution. We're light on forensic evidence.'

He closed his eyes on the dizzy floaters. It figured. And, too, there was the geeky lonely part of him that was leaping at the chance to get out of the house and talk to another human being, even if that human being was the one who'd hit him and drugged him and cut off his hair.

Yeah, probably he could find something to say, actually.

'Send someone with a car,' he mumbled. 'And I'm not changing out of my pyjamas.'
They sent, of course, McDevitt.

Who was blithely cheerful as ever, with a side dish of unbearably smug, having reaped considerable reward for netting the perp. 'Dude,' he told Duo, as Duo slumped into the passenger seat. Duo fended off the lapel of a jacket being shoved into his face, a shiny new medal prominently displayed. 'Got promoted,' McDevitt grinned.


'About fuckin' time they recognised the skills.'

'And yet, here you are, ferrying around passengers. Way to kick off the short stick.'

That earned an uncertain scowl. 'Whatever,' McDevitt said, and kicked into gear.

The lobby guard gave him funny looks over his house slippers and tatty bathrobe. Duo scratched at a tangle at the back of his head and signed whatever he was told to. His head had a gummy sort of feeling, still, but it was actually better, being up and moving. He set McDevitt off to find him a cup of tea. 'Hot,' he called after the Preventer. 'If it's not burning you, don't even bring it back to--'

'Hey, Duo.' Alicia squeezed him into a hug. Her ashy blonde hair caught static on his, and even he smiled as they tried to separate the suddenly sticky strands. 'Thanks for coming in,' she said more seriously. 'I hope it isn't too much of a stress.'

'I wasn't doing anything else,' he said truthfully. 'But can you explain a little more what you mean, about holes in this guy's story?'

Alicia swiped her key card and buzzed them through a double of locked doors. Duo stuffed his hands into his robe's pockets, digging for a tissue; Alicia gave him a box off the first desk they passed. Agents-- fully dressed and groomed agents-- gave him wide-eyed looks. Duo glared back sullenly like the teenager he looked, rubbing his nose with the purloined tissue and sniffling back the rest. They ended up in an office-- hers and Wufei's, actually. Wufei's desk, of course, was cleared now, even the nametag gone. Duo clunked down in Wufei's chair.

'Holes,' he reminded Alicia.

She pulled her own chair out into the free space to face him directly, leaning onto her knees with that grave expression Duo swore they taught at Preventers Academy. She said, 'I'm less and less convinced Pak is our guy, Duo.'

'What? But you said he was spying. He jumped McDevitt.'

'Yes. And there's abundant proof he really was stalking you. But I don't think he's responsible for kidnapping you. Either time.'

'Then who would be?' He was disturbed by the new development. 'I mean, fuck, Alicia. Who the hell else would it be?'

'That's what I'd like you to ask Pak. If he really was watching you, he may have seen something no-one else did. He could be a witness. But right now he's getting his rocks off taking credit for anything to do with you.'

'I know the type.'

'It's made him feel important-- powerful. The idea all us Preventers would believe he was capable of taking out a Gundam pilot.'

'Taking out?'

She brushed his injured pride aside as if it had all the weight of a child's whine. 'I think that if you approach it right, he might be willing to trade on the idea that you and he have a “relationship”. He'll be flattered you came to see him-- you see what I'm getting at? He'd reach back.'

'Yeah.' He did not in any way want to spend his time making nice with his stalker-- whether or not he was really the kidnapper. Alicia was counting on it bothering him enough, the real baddie still being out there underground-- and it did, sure, not just a crime unpunished, but a crime against him, and that had really kind of led to the ruin of his-- life, here, come to that, not to mention his fucking health--

'Fine,' he said shortly. 'I get the picture. Let's go.'

'Do you want to prep some questions, run a test--'

'Not particularly.' He shoved to his feet. 'Let's go.'

There was a wait-- Duo spent it tapping his foot, tapping himself up to a good temper, a good pitch, unwilling to let go the little surge and pump of adrenaline once he'd got it going. They got Pak out of whatever icebox they were keeping him in, brought him out in an actual orange jumpsuit like a movie mobster, chained wrists to ankles, settled him none-too-gently at a table in an interrogation room. Duo watched from the two-way mirror, drinking the tea McDevitt had finally scrounged up. Not thinking. Didn't want, need to.

Younger guy than Duo had imagined. Maybe his age, mid-thirties. Looked like a normal enough guy-- a little bug-eyed, a little unwashed, but normal enough. And Duo-- sucked in a breath.

'I know him.'

Alicia turned to him from a low-voiced instruction to the AV recorders. 'What? From where?'

'He works at the car shop. He's a mechanic.'

'Yes.' She grabbed a thick file and searched it. 'Since two, three years ago.'

'I walk past that place all the time. I've talked to him about cars. I used to have a car-- used to have an old junker. He seemed-- fine.'

'They do, sometimes.' She touched his elbow, one of those gentle female touches that wasn't particularly calming just now, wasn't particularly welcome when he'd rather break something-- like a fragile nose, maybe. A couple of fingers.

'Duo,' she said. 'For right now, for our purposes, this is a good thing. It means you've already got a sort of relationship with him. A place to start from.'

He ignored that. He was close to the door, so that was where he went, ignored her calling his name. He went five strides up the corridor and wrenched open the next door, the one on the other side of the mirror. Pak rose a little, seeing him. Duo slammed his mug to the table, yanked out the chair nearest. He sat.

Pak sank back down, his cuffed hands on the table clenching into fists. 'You came,' he said. 'I never thought they'd really bring you.'

'I came so I could kick your ass myself.' Not the gentle buddy-buddy plan Alicia wanted out of him, but, oh, he did not care. He was angry, damn right he was angry. 'You pretend to be some nice guy, a good guy, and you're nothing but a freak with a long lense. You like taking pictures? You like sitting in that Jetta you told me you drive, taking pictures of me through windows?'

'You're upset.' Pak chewed a ragged fingernail. 'You're very upset.'

'Observant. You have a catalogue of every expression I've ever worn?'

'You're wearing your robe.' Pak was making his fingers bleed, gnawing on them. Little rings of red on the other hand told the tale. 'Are you still not feeling well? Your back?'

'How I feel is not going to matter when I start wailing on you.'

Maybe his mood communicated finaly. He felt deadly in a way he hadn't since-- the war, maybe. Not even just a battle mode, but a real desire to see blood. Pak went a shade grey.

But his eyes got brighter, too, glazed a little with excitement.

Whatever rational part of his brain that had kept him cool on the other side of interrogations made just enough assertion to keep him from doing as promised and putting Pak's head through the aluminium table. Instead he stood, leaning down close into Pak's space, staring him eye to eye. Pak's went as wide as they could, his breathing fast, almost hyper.

'You think my being here is because of you?' Duo said. He leant just an inch more, until Pak had to fall away to see him still. Nearsighted, mabye. Duo snapped his fingers in front of Pak's nose, and got a flinch. Afraid. Not aroused. 'You were OZ.'

'No. No, I was White Fang.'

'What's the difference? You all wanted the Gundams out of the way.'

'Not all of us! You were heroes.'

'Heroes who didn't hesitate to kill you.' He eased back into his seat. 'You're a follower. Not just a stalker-- you're just someone without the balls to lead.'

Pak stared at him. 'Aren't you going to ask me how I did it?'

'No,' Duo said.

Pak started chewing his thumbnail again. 'Why not?'

'Because you didn't do it. You're not smart enough, strong enough, brave enough.' His tea was cold. He didn't drink it. 'You're just a freak with a camera. There's a million of you.'

'I could tell you...'

'Nothing I give a crap about.' He pushed the mug away. It fell over, spilling a little puddle over the table onto Pak's sleeve. Duo left it there. He left the table and the man at it, knocked on the door for them to buzz him out.

'Wait!' Pak said urgently. 'Duo-- Duo, will I see you again?'

'No.' Duo felt the mag lock go. He opened the door.

'But-- I-- I didn't do it! But I saw who did! Duo, it wasn't me, it was another--'

The door swung shut behind him, cutting off all sound. Duo stood breathing, or trying to, trying to calm an angry stomach and the weird hollow hurt between his ears.

In the AV room, they were still recording. Pak was pressed to the door Duo had left through, babbling frantic words-- '--light eyes, I think he might be in one of my pictures-- I swear, Duo, please, you have to believe me, I wouldn't ever hurt you--'

'Unorthodox,' Alicia observed mildly. She gazed at him with barely raised eyebrows. 'You all right?'

'Peachy.' He was flat-lining. Had himself under control again, temper reined in tight, replaced by just a grim silent hardness starting in his pit. 'He doesn't know anything.'

'He's giving a description.'

'Of someone smarter, carefuller, better than him. You won't find 'em.' He had a shiver, out of no-where. He wrapped his arms around himself. 'I'm going home. Don't bother with McDevitt. I want to walk.'

'That's a long way, Duo, specially in a bathrobe.'

'Then I'll get a taxi.'

She sighed. She pulled a waller from her pocket, too, and pressed a folded cut of cash on him. 'Please,' she overrode him. 'For my peace of mind. Call the god-damn cab the minute you get tired. And call me when you get home.'

'You're not my fucking auntie.'

'You want out that door without getting tackled by every agent in this building, you'll take that fucking money and do as I say, Duo Maxwell.'

It was, he admitted-- silently-- at least possible he was making a fool of himself by being a stubborn horse's ass. In front of the AV guys, who were not disinterested in the argument. Duo stuffed the cash into his pocket. 'I'll pay you back.'

'Don't wander around forever.'

'Don't have me tailed.'

'Duo.' Her voice stopped him at the door. 'I'm sorry we got your hopes up about Pak. I'll let you know when we learn anything new.'

'Yeah. Thanks.'

Roger Brabant was out there, in the common room. Duo glared him down from saying anything. It almost worked, too. He got all the way back to the lobby.

'Duo,' the man called. 'Hey. Wait up.'

Duo sped up. He caught the door with a shoulder, which hurt a fuck of a lot more than he expected it to, and spilled out into the street cursing hard enough to make a Sweeper blush. He made a dash for the kerb, and that went even more to pot. He fetched up against a street lamp, wheezing and bracing himself on his knees.

'Duo,' Brabant said. He tapped Duo on the shoulder. 'Come on. You're going to pretend I don't exist now?'

'That's the plan.' Jesus. He wiped his face on his sleeve. 'Go the fuck away.'

'You're the same colour as the concrete.' Brabant didn't ask again. He pulled Duo up by the armpits and walked him across the street, arm firmly wrapped around him. 'Relax-- or at least stop fighting me. I'm not kidnapping you. I'm going to buy you coffee.'

'I don't fucking drink--'

'Then a hot meal at least. Christ, you're a feisty little guy.' Brabant physically lifted him onto the next kerb. 'Behave inside the nice café, or they'll toss us out, and I'll be too embarrassed to eat here again.'

'My heart bleeds for you,' Duo snapped. He almost wrested free, but Brabant locked a hand around his biceps, and he was yanked right back into place.

'Just go inside,' Brabant said. 'I get that you're pissed at the world right now. It might do you good to take a deep breath before you go on a walking rampage across the city.'

Duo took it. The advice and the breath. It was enough to bank his temper just that little bit to let some clear thought come through-- like the thought that the uniformed traffic cop up the block was watching them, fingering his stick. 'Let me go,' he said. 'You have no right to go hauling me around like a sack of grain.'

'Sack of grain?' Brabant grinned at him. 'You've never seen one of those in your life.' He reached for the glass door. Bells tinkled as he opened it. Heads turned, to watch them hover on the pavement.

Another deep breath. 'I have so,' Duo said, and went in. 'And I've even hid out in the back of a turnip truck, so don't tell me what I know. Two, no smoking,' he told the hostess.

She gave him a dubious up-and-down, but her smile was just as bright as if he was dressed in Sunday best. 'This way, sirs.'

Brabant ordered coffee, over his repeated protestations, and an egg omelet for each of them. Duo avoided blue eyes over the gold rims of lenses transitioning to indoor lighting, leaving just a little dark in the glass circles. Nice suit. Better than nice. Subtle pinstripe in lavender, smoky grey wool. Man dressed like a politician-- or a model. The flared collar of the shirt was a crisp clean white, with small purple flowers. No flashy earrings or rings, though. A whiter patch on tan hands where a ring had been, once.

The coffee was fast to arrive, interrupting any chance to speak. Duo emptied three creamers into his mug, at risk of overfilling it, and stirred energetically. He said, with the waitress heading off again, 'So are you gay or aren't you?'

Brabant sipped his coffee black. 'I didn't think that would matter to you.'

'It does, if that's why you're so set on being in my company.'

Brabant pursed his lips. His coffee settled back in the saucer, cupped about with big fingers. Perfectly manicured nails. Duo sat chewing on his, his thumbnail. Like Pak. God.

'If you're asking whether it matters to me that you're young and attractive,' Brabant said, 'sure. It doesn't hurt.'

'I'm not young.'

'You look like you are. Doesn't hurt.'

'And I'm supposed to feel how about this?'

Brabant sipped his drink and pushed it aside again. 'I don't believe you're unaware of the picture you present. You don't dress like a man in his thirties. You dress like a teenager. And you're a flirt. You flaunt it. You like your body, you even like the deception of it. You reacted very negatively when I confronted you about it in our first session.'

'Maybe I thought it was none of your business.' He was-- disturbed. Not angry. Well, at first. It grew, the more he thought about it. 'It's still none of your business. And if I even catch you looking sideways--'

'You'll what? Punch me in my knees?' Brabant sat back as their waitress arrived with their omelets. 'Lovely,' he complimented. 'A little more coffee, darling. Thank you.'

Duo sullenly picked at his flatware, scratching at a stain with his fingernail. The omelet didn't even smell good; he knew it was the cold speaking and not him, but he couldn't bring himself to eat. He shoved the plate away and pulled the coffee under his nose instead.

Brabant had no lack of appetite. He ate with an enthusiasm that was just one side of unseemly, pausing only to liberally douse the eggs with catsup. 'Not hungry?' he asked between bites. He sliced the whole omelet into fork-sized pieces. 'It's excellent. I eat here all the time. Convenient.'

'Yeah. Look-- what do you want? Really.'

'The same as before. To help you.'

'To help me help you. Look, I gotta be frank, I think this idea of yours that they'll pay to get the answers--'

'Why wouldn't they? Particularly since they're back at square one, now. But you're right, the rewards are likely to be small, especially considering Chang has packed up and shipped out on the back of this supposed catch in Pak.' Brabant forked a mouthful past his perfectly white teeth, chewing evenly as he gazed back at Duo. 'I would imagine,' he said on a swallow, 'that when this case does break, it'll be big news.'

'It hasn't leaked yet,' Duo said flatly. 'And considering it's my life, I'm just as happy for it to stay nice and quiet.'

'It won't,' Brabant said mercilessly. 'And you can get it front of it and have a villain to take the shine off you, when it hits the cameras, or you can sit and sulk, I suppose, but one thing you can't do is claim to be surprised when it happens.'

'No-one likes a smart mouth.'

'If you believed that, you'd have a lot less to say. And anyway--' A pause while Brabant made a show of reaching for his coffee. Duo scowled at him. 'You respect the truth. I suspect that the more brutal it is, the more likely you are to really listen to it.'

'Since when you are the Duo expert?'

'Don't frown. Your face will stick that way, and it'll give Margie the impression you don't like your breakfast.' Brabant rested his fork and knife on either side of his plate. 'Come on, Maxwell. You've got a reputation. Preventers know you. Not just as Chang's erstwhile tag-along. And enough of them are curious about this thing that's happened to you that it will get out. Period. The sooner you accept that, the better off you'll be. You're not anonymous. You never were.'

Duo was right there to override him, furious at being corrected. 'I was doing a pretty good job until--'

'Until something slipped your iron control.'

Duo wiped his nose. He breathed. 'What specific thing do you want?'

'As I recall, we never got to work on your memories of the second attack.'

'Because the memories of the first one were bunk. Dreams. You fucked it up somehow.'

'I think I could prove that's not true, but we'll leave it for the moment. At the least you've got to wonder what we could come up with. Nothing in your reputation suggests you've got it in you to walk away without the answers.'

Duo added sugar to his coffee. He had to, to chase the sour taste from his mouth. Brabant was right.

At least he wouldn't owe Alicia money.


Brabant had an electric heating pad, and rigged it for him on the couch. It helped with the persistent back ache. Enough to realise how tense he was, anyway, and then to get grumpy about it.

'You've got pills,' Brabant reminded him, dragging his chair near to Duo's seat.

'They make me sleep too much.' He squirmed at the pillow under his neck. 'I'll get past it. I always do.'

'Let's start by relaxing you. Let's do it the short way today. I want you to lie still and concentrate on a pinpoint on your forehead. Think only two things-- M T.'

'M T?' M T. Empty. Ha. He could do that. He thought it hard, repeating it over and over. Soon, as promised, he felt his body disappearing into the black noise.

Paper rustling. Bastard had notes. Who knew what desk that had come out of. 'I want you to think back to that second night. You were at home. You were setting up all kinds of traps in your apartment, to catch your attacker.'

Soup cans. Stupid fucking soup cans. Laptop in his walls, another idiot impulse. Sometimes he was his own worst enemy.

'You were in bed. You heard someone at the door.'

Latch just turning. He was the slickest lock pick on the colony. He knew how hard it was to get past his front door. It had taken him a full three minutes when he'd tested it.

'He's come in. Walking toward you.'

Yes. Soft footsteps. Soundless, after the crash and clatter of the soup cans. Stupid god-damn soup cans. It made him ache inside, what a-- childish-- it was just a child's impulse, a child's ignorant dream of being safe--

'Who is he, Duo?'

Light eyes. Hot damn. Blue, rimmed with a dark outer circle. Duo, he said. Trust me. Come with me.

'Where is he taking you?'

Helping him off the bed. His back hurt. He tried not to show it, but it made him wince. No time to stop, though. The other one is coming. They're coming, and we have to go now, Duo. Please, as fast as you can. Don't take anything.

'Duo. You're getting agitated. I want you to think those two things again that I told you before-- M T. Think that now. M T. M T. Be calm.' He tried. He tried. 'All right. He's taking you out of your apartment. Where do you go?'

To a car. Passenger seat, helping him into it, shutting him in. Sliding in beside him in the driver's. Engine going on, soft purr that faded. Pulling out of the spot by the kerb and into traffic. Silent, but looking at him sometimes, and once with a smile that made his stomach go tight.

'Where do you drive to?'


'Duo. Don't resist the memory. Where do you drive to?'

No. No, needles-- needles-- and gunshot--

'Who's shooting? Who's being shot?'

Blood. Blood dripping, then stopping. His sock in a puddle of it. Light eyes, and a little whisper, taking the sock off him, to put in the bag with the rest of the evidence. Going out to get rid of it, him staying behind, alone. Alone. No-one ever came back.

'That's it? That's all you remember?'

Nobody. Alone. Until Wufei. Duo? Duo, do you remember?

'I'm going to put a piece of paper under your hand. This is a pencil. Keep your eyes closed. I want you to write a name, Duo. Write the name of the man who took you.'


'It's all right. No-one here will hurt you, or blame you. But we want to know the answer, don't we?'

No. No, he couldn't. Wouldn't.

'Duo, you're resisting.'

Don't tell anyone, Duo. Please. Don't tell anyone yet.

'It's all right. He'll forgive you.'

No. No, wouldn't give him up.

'Duo, when I snap my fingers, you're going to write the name.' Crack like thunder, reverberating in his head.

No. No. His eyes were burning, his gut was burning, but he-- couldn't. He couldn't give up the secret.

'All right. It's all right. We're going to stop now. I'm going to count down to one, and when I do, open your eyes. Three. Two. One.'

He did. Brabant sat looking at him, expression-- not happy. Duo's mouth was dry. He couldn't quite swallow. 'What?' he said. 'Who did I name?'

'You tell me.'

He was holding a piece of paper. He'd written-- HE.

He. Him? The fuck did that mean? He looked accusingly at Brabant.

Who spread his hands defencively. 'You're the one doing all the thinking, Duo. I can't make you break through.'

'I thought that was your job!' He twinged sitting up, but it was a phantom pain more than anything else. 'Why the hell did you bring me here twice if you can't fucking come up with anything!'

'You said you couldn't. You refused, under hypnosis. Which means either you were previously hypnotised by someone who laid a whale of a job on you, or the promise you made was so important to you that you can't give it up even now.'

'The only one who's snapped his fingers in my face recently is you.'

'That you remember,' said Brabant. He rolled his head back, and sighed. 'Stay there. I'll get you a water.'

He. He. It didn't make any sense. But no matter which way he turned the paper, Duo couldn't make sense of the message. Why had he resisted? And he felt lightheaded now, sweated out and exhausted, even though he hadn't been attacked in this dream. Memory. But someone had. There'd been blood, he remembered that distinctly. A pitched battle's worth of blood. But Wufei had said the second warehouse had been forensically clean.

Clean. Or cleaned up. He knew how to do it. There were ways. Bleaches. Got up even blood.

Someone had died, kidnapping him. But not the person who'd taken him. He couldn't picture a face. Just-- light eyes, like Pak had said. Light eyes, gleaming in darkness.

Brabant was back, holding out a crystal tumbler filled with water and ice. Duo took it, but the second the water touched his lips, he lowered it.

'I need to go to the morgue,' he said. 'What's the morgue nearest that second warehouse? No, never mind that. No-one would be stupid enough to drop a body right by his place of work. Which means--' He looked up. 'Which means I need to visit all of them.'

Brabant's mouth dropped open. 'Today? Are you serious?'

'How's this for serious? If I solve the mystery myself, you can kiss my public endorsement bye-bye.'

The staring match was satisfyingly brief. 'Fine,' Brabant muttered. 'I'll drive.'


There were times, really, where it did absolutely no good to be good.

Duo was smart. He knew that. He was also clever, which could be more useful, and he wasn't so averse to the seedier side of the universe that he couldn't get what he wanted out of it. On L2, that had meant he navigated the corruption by dipping his paddle on both sides. His scrap business had been legit, but most of what walked out the back door had not been. It had been needful-- and less boring-- to keep a set of black books, but even on L2 there were cops, and even on L2 those cops occasionally took it into their heads to follow the letter of the law. On one such occasion Duo had been given the opportunity to make acquaintance with L2's truly criminal underworld via the holding pen at Bethesda Sector Category A Adult Offender Institution. Said bunk-mates had kindly applied themselves to his education. When he'd finally got out on parole, he'd been sporting a three-inch scar just above his kidney from looking sideways at a fellow inmate in the mess, a bigger one on the back of his thigh courtesy of a skinhead who mistook Duo's existence for a romantic invitation, and a new appreciation for the depths of man's natural deficiencies.

And, more importantly, a useful trivia set that included, helpfully, such gems as how to hide a body in a bustling urban area. If he'd known things like that when declaring war on OZ, he might have been a little more successful.

Wufei had laughed at that part of the story. Brabant took him seriously. Brabant was the one who got it right.

Duo really wasn't the hardened felon type, but he'd only kept clean of that by the grace of others. He'd been protected from it and knew it-- and when he'd got too old to tug the heart-strings, he'd just made sure he attached himself to someone who would do it despite the inconvenience. Old Doc G, dead and gone these many years, and Howard, who had brought him into the scrap world, and when L2 had gone up in flames Duo hadn't had too much pride to throw himself at Preventers, who hadn't too much pride to take him on generous terms. The fact that he'd been dangling a genuine talent for creative engineering had been entirely beside the point; they'd have paid him anything-- had and did pay him his asking price-- for the names he had traded without a lick of shame.

A little sensible fear of his life, though. If Preventers ever turned on him and he wound up in prison again, he'd be lucky to get out with just a little missing skin. Preventers had filled entire Adult Offender Institutions, thanks to him.

Wufei had never even got to hear that part of the story. Brabant didn't, either, but it was heavy on Duo's mind, just now, pulling up to the Municipal Morgue to ask after the bodies Duo was now beginning to think had arrived there in service of trying to kidnap him away from his kidnapper.

That theory, Brabant did get to indulge in, if only because Duo wanted to hear aloud how crazy it was. 'Okay,' Brabant said, when he explained-- circumlocutiously-- his thinking. 'No,' Brabant said, 'I don't think that's terribly crazy, actually. Two groups-- that fits pretty well.'

'No, it doesn't,' Duo decided. Brabant had to circle the little lot to find parking, apparently unwilling to trust his pretty little Clio supermini to street-side. 'Two groups with the same idea at the same time? This time, in particular. There's nothing even going on to make the risk worth it.'

'Plenty of hot spots on Earth.'

'Dealing with Earth-things, not ex-Gundam pilots.' Duo tugged at the zip-tab of his borrowed sweat suit. Brabant was easily half again his size, and he felt like he was swimming in polyester. 'This is only going to raise more flags.'

'We can go if you want, but since we'll just end up back here in a few days when you've decided to listen to yourself after all, why don't we just make a go of it?' Brabant removed his keys from the ignition and debarked the car. Duo scowled after him as the door slammed shut.

Wufei had been a better partner in crime, really, even if he had bitched more.

The morgue had a damp, mouldy feel to it that set the skin to cringing. Double plus bonus, the lab was visible from the front desk. An older guy in a dingy lab coat came out to greet them, but only after Brabant shouted for attention.

'You get any John Does recently?' Duo asked.

'No,' the labbie shrugged. 'Sorry.'

Brabant reached for his wallet. 'Maybe you'll remember if you think about it,' he suggested, removing two bills.

Duo intercepted them on their way to an eagerly outstretched sweaty palm. 'Don't think so,' he said flatly. 'You want a reward for sharing public knowledge? How about you tell me what I asked you to tell me, and I don't go in back there and set fire to your files?'

A sullen glare became a more sensible cringe to protect vulnerable areas as the labbie re-evaluated Duo's seriousness. 'Two in the past week,' he admitted churlishly.

'Earlier than that. Three--' He went a little blank. Couldn't remember how long he'd been in with the motels, or the hospital.

'Within the last two months,' Brabant generalised. 'I assume you've got a photo log?'

Labbie issued a put-upon sigh, which trailed off into a wheeze when Duo put his fist onto the counter. 'I'll go find it.'

'You don't like to waste time, do you?' Brabant muttered at him. 'Stand still. Relax your shoulder, neck... good. Think M T.'

'You're hypnotising me here?'

'It might save us a little effort identifying any of the photographs. Start thinking.'

It helped he was tiring. And hurting. Took his mind off the radiating pain in his back, to concentrate singly on a point outside himself. He didn't open his eyes until Brabant tapped his hip.

Labbie set an album with greasy edges in front of him. 'Everyone this year,' he said. 'Two months ago--' He licked his thumb and flipped to midway in the book. 'About there.'

He was a little lightheaded. Staring at the photos. All shoulders-up, dead faces, some bluish, some bruised. He looked particularly at the bruised ones. The y-cut stitches of the autopsy tried to capture his gaze lower. He didn't let it drift.

'No-one familiar,' he said. He sounded dull to his own ears. 'Shit.'

'It's only our first stop.' Brabant tapped him again-- a quick two-touch to his shoulder. Duo straightened immediately, feeling-- awaker. And then annoyed, because he wasn't sure what it meant when you were that freaking suggestible. 'Thank you,' Brabant told the labbie, and took his cash from Duo's hand to slide over the counter. 'You were very helpful.'

'You were slow,' Duo grunted, and turned back for the door. He banged out into the daylight with a deep breath and a little more force than necessary. 'Maybe this is a dumb idea,' he said, as Brabant followed him out. ''I'm not going to un-amnesia just to identify dead perps I maybe saw two months ago when they were breaking my spine.'

'You won't learn anything sitting on your ass at home.'

Pak had said he might have a picture of the guy. Duo hadn't really believed him, but maybe Alicia had it by now. Maybe he should go back and look.

'What's the next morgue on the list?'

Brabant pulled the print-out from his pocket. 'Twenty minutes down-town. After that, other side of the colony, and from there it's one each on the satellites.'

With books full of the cremated nameless at each one. If this place was representative, they'd lost the population of a European village in two months.

'Peachy,' Duo said. 'Unlock your damn car already.'

He got a couple of maybes from three different morgues, but no definitive 'yes'es. He bullied copies of the photographs from the coroners at each place, compiled into a file Brabant would give to Alicia. Duo had already decided against going back to Preventers. He barely made it out of the car for the last trip. He didn't have the cane-- he'd never got it back after McDevitt had left with it and encountered Pak at the pharm; and he didn't have his pills, which left him at the mercy of a seat-warmer switch and a driver more inclined toward his own repuation than to sympathy for Duo's.

On the way to his apartment, Duo said, 'We should have been asking if they'd had any corpses with injections in the butt.'

'Injections where?'

Gratifying to know he had some secrets yet. He'd been doubting the security of Preventers' case files. Maybe Brabant just listened at doors a lot. Crude, but effective.

'Wow,' Brabant announced, two turns later. 'Your place is a dump.'

'Is not.' It was good, actually, for the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood was a dump-- he'd picked it for that reason. 'What do you care anyway? I'm not inviting you up.'

'All respect to tetanus vaccines aside, I think you need a little assistance. That building can't have a lift.'

It didn't, actually. But if he took the fire escape in back, the rails were sturdy enough. 'I'll make it. Pull around there.'

'Duo.' Brabant heaved a sigh. But did as he was told. 'Take my card. If the photos turn up any Ids—'

'You just want to be a little psychic detective, don't you?' Duo wrestled with the safety buckle, and finally freed himself just as Brabant reached to help. 'I'm fine. Go home.'

'You're welcome,' Brabant said. 'Sleep it off.'

Giving him orders like that, as if they were friends now, or something. He'd sleep if he wanted to. Maybe he didn't. Maybe all he wanted to do was-- fall face-down and sleep. Fine. He would. But not because Doctor Roge had prescribed it.

He dragged himself up the escape stairs mostly by the strength of his arms, a feat that wouldn't have been so miraculous without the dramatic lightheadedness he got halfway up, a wash of pounding black over the insides of his eyes. He cleared it by resting his head in the crook of his elbow, right on the side of his building like that, and registered midway through that Brabant's mini was gone. Bastard had left him at his word.

So much for the inching thought at the back of his head-- calling down for help. Done it to himself. Mr Self-Sufficiency.

Fingers came down on his wrist.

He reared back, heart attack and lightning strike in one, and only got saved from falling because the hand on his arm grabbed tight as a mag-lock and didn't let go. But it was a wrench to his back and to his previously pristine knee, and then he did faint, for good and proper.


For the third time recently, he woke up in an unfamiliar bed.

He lay where he was in a little trough-like bow of the spring mattress, muggily cataloging the presence of his limbs. Feet, legs, check; arms, fingers-- mostly check. And numb, but not in pain. None at all.

Pills on the rickety stool next to his bed answered for that. His pills. Not his stool. Not his bed. Not his apartment.

He actually waited, then, for Wufei to pop up, asking if he remembered anything.

Maybe an hour like that. The pills didn't mesh with his internal clock. He was getting thirsty. The water glass by the pills, he couldn't trust it, even if he couldn't entirely think why he knew he shouldn't. The cloud in his head wasn't clearing. He couldn't close his fists, stretched up over his head.

Door closing, far away. He was someplace with doors. Another one, closer, but a long time later, so no information there to define area or distance-- his mind skittered away from that anyway.

Door. Right behind him. Footsteps. He closed his eyes-- never let them know you're awake. But a man's voice, echoy, said, 'We've got a camera in here, Maxwell,' and started doing something that involved a lot of clinking and shuffling and plastic clods. Duo gave up the ruse and twisted back to look--

Didn't get very far. Too numb. But a fuzzy black-edged hulk leant over him and pushed him onto his stomach the rest of the way, just rolled him over. He landed with his nose in the sleeve of his arms, stretched over his head, swollen hands cuffed to the rails of the headboard.

He'd kept waking on his stomach, arms over his head. Clarity on that flash, a dose of very clear significance, that shattered when the hulk stripped him, yanking down his sweatpants and baring him to a little breath of air from a vent. He said something strangled into his arm, more a wordless protest, and jumped out of his skin when a needled jabbed into the thick muscle of his ass cheek.

Left him like that. Bare-assed and stranded on his stomach, too weak even to roll over. Not so numb, apparently, because whatever had been in the needle began to burn. Hurt.

More noise. A knuckle nudging him in the shoulder. Water glass.

'No,' Duo said.

'Nothing but water. You can take the pills.'

'No.' Not a not-belief it was the truth. Just a mindless repetition. Always-no. No to everything they asked.

'Suit yourself.' Footsteps. Door. Closed.

Dumb. Stupid, really. To not have asked at least-- who are you. What are you trying to accomplish.

Why me.

And what's in that needle. Lightheaded. Heavy-headed. Not a little nauseated.

He made it to the edge of the mattress so he wouldn't choke on his own vomit, but that was the limit on his consciousness, directly after.


There was light. From somewhere.

Under the door. Just a little. Not yellow light, like fluorescents. Which maybe meant daylight, which maybe meant somewhere to go if he could just get the fucking cuffs off.

Easy enough, in most circumstances. If he'd still had a braid, and the braid had still had his lock-pick set woven in the plait.

He began to comprehend why they might have cut it off, before.

Sure as hell he wasn't going to sit waiting to be rescued. The only universe that ever worked in was Relena Peacecraft's, and Duo wasn't pretty enough to be a princess.

They weren't quite as clever as they should have been, though. Or they'd done what they wanted, whatever that was, and it didn't matter now if he escaped.

Not worth the contemplation, though it split his concentration, digging at a thick staple in the mattress that seemed likely to give before he died of starvation. But the pills had worn off, and while he had a working-- overworking brain again, he also had a body that didn't have the same coordination it had done in the same period in which he'd had long hair. His fingers slipped, his thumbnail broke under the staple. Took a million times too long, but at last, he got the staple up, straightened the metal tines, and applied it to the lock of the cuffs.

He got one hand free and didn't worry about the other cuff. He crawled off the bed, hauling up his pants, and after an aborted try decided the floor was better than all that unsteady air up at head-height. He went on hands and knees to the door, staple clenched in his teeth, and set to work on that lock, too. He was sweating when he popped the bar, finally, jammed the door into his knee opening it, and finally finally tumbled out--

The shell of an apartment just like his. Old. Old and missing half the roof, accounting for the daylight, bright enough to sting his eyes.

Faces. Homeless. None of them got up from their corners to help him. Dirty faces, wary of him, some refusing to look. Five in all, a couple of kids, an old woman gumming at a candy bar.

He tied his pants tight, and got his feet under him by clawing his way up the door frame. Blown-out windows-- could have been old downtown Cape Town, never rebuilt after the Feds had pulled out of L1. Gentrification had happened on the other side of the colony-- his side-- which meant they'd got him a long way from home, assuming he wasn't on one of the satellites, he didn't know them all by sight, no reason before to--

One of the kids got up toward him. A teenager, no older than he looked. Girl. Delicate pretty features behind the crust of hard living and lank, greasy hair. She extended a note.

He took it. Scraped at the seal of glued edge until it opened. She didn't stay to watch him read.

It said-- it said, his eyes blurring--

We can help you. Don't try to fight it alone, Duo. You're really not the target.

Don't forget your pills. You're running low.

It went into the band of his underwear for lack of a pocket. The cuffs snagged on his pants, and he just snapped the loose ring around the still-cuffed wrist, unwilling to lose a potential forensic clue. He couldn't remember if the guy had been wearing gloves.

'Where am I?' he asked the room.

Silence from all the occupants. Not unexpected. He could make it down to the street. Find a working pay phone.

The old woman spoke suddenly, making him jump. She said, 'Brighton Cove.'

He didn't know it. He swallowed down the tightness in his throat. 'What quad?'

'Brighton Cove,' she repeated insistently, then faded back to her candy, arthritic claws scrabbling at the foil wrapper. 'If you lived here, you'd be home now.'

Stairs. He needed stairs. He could crawl them if he had to-- he looked out the window, judging a dizzy dozen or so storeys of height.

'Brighton Cove is the complex name.' The girl who'd given him the note. 'It's on the sign out front.'

'Quad,' he said.

'C Quad.'

'Main colony?'

Dust motes danced when she shook her head. 'F2296.'

Still didn't know it. He couldn't think. Satellite, though. Not good to be on a satellite. No cash, no ID. They wouldn't let him through a check point. How they'd got him off the colony was a good question.

The girl was looking sideways at him. 'You okay?' she asked timidly. 'They didn't... hurt you any? You don't look good.'

'No. No, they didn't...' He rubbed his mouth. 'Time is it?'

They didn't know. None of them had a damn watch. Day is it, he almost asked, and didn't-- want to know.

It took him more than an hour to make it down all the stairs. The girl trailed him for a while, but disappeared after a couple of floors. The stairwell was relatively clean, no people, just a lot of trash. And a few places where wood had been rotted or eaten and fallen in, requiring more strength and ingenuity than he had to get around it easily. So it hadn't been easy for them to get him up here-- hadn't the girl said them? He'd only seen the one, who maybe hadn't been the same one who'd surprised him at his apartment. He wasn't sure. But if it was a them-- if they really were targeting or-- whatever the fuck-- then maybe the blood he'd seen in his memory-- maybe it was a dream, a nightmare, induced by the fucking needle in his ass, which was causing spasms down the back of his thigh, but he didn't want to stop moving until he was clear of the building--


He froze, instinct plastering him into shadow against the wall below the landing he'd just passed.

A hand torch snicked on, beam sweeping the stairs. Instinct-- unfamiliar voice, who would know he was here but the one who had brought him--

'Kiddo,' the murmur floated up. 'Kiddo, don't hide. It's safe.'

Oh-- no. No, arms around him, he dropped the soda-- I'm sorry, Kiddo. Never meant to leave you.

His gut shivered oddly. 'Go away.'

'I just want to help you down the stairs, okay?' The torch had found him. Landed on his face, blinding him. He heard the steps he couldn't see, creaking up the wooden stairs, and scrambled backward to the landing. 'Just wait there for me,' the man coaxed him. 'I'll help you down safe.'

'Stay there. Where you are.'

'I'm not very helpful down here, am I?' Halfway to him. The torch beam lowered, and Duo blinked the stars from his eyes. 'Reach your hand out. I'll get you up.'

'Don't touch me.' He felt for the turn behind him, grabbed a spindle to pull himself back. 'I think you better go back to the ground--'

'You're being a stubborn little cunt.' There was affectionate amusement behind a pale oval of a face forming out of the darkness. 'Glad to see some things don't change.'

He was shivering all over, and didn't know if it was the chaos inside or the shot he'd been given, but it was a pure physical reaction, clattering his teeth even. He stayed very still, gathering his feet under him, tugging at the hot metal cuffs at his wrist, dragging the loose ring up to his knuckles.

The man towered over him. 'There we go,' he said, and bent to Duo's level.

Duo pushed up at the knees and swung his fist simultaneously. He caught the man in the nose with the metal ring of the cuff, spattering them both with a shock of blood. His momentum carried him right through to standing, and then down the stairs at a pitched run.

'Fuck!' the man moaned behind him. 'Fuck, what did you-- Kepley! Grab him! Don't let him get past—'

He was at ground floor. He leapt the last two stairs and bounced off-balance on a mouldy carpet, careened past the out-stretched arms of a man who reared up to catch him. He didn't have the same luck twice. A wide form blocking the exit swooped down on him like the fury of God, and he didn't duck fast enough. He took the butt of a pistol to the temple, and dropped like a stone, his nerves cut.

'Fuck,' from somewhere far, far above him, like the sound of a television behind a closed door. 'Did I tell you to knock him out?'

'Didn't,' a sullen rumble retorted. 'He's fine.' A boot tapped him ungently in the ribs. He curled, remembering too late he ought to have laid still, let them think he was unconscious. He couldn't clear his fucking head. He couldn't-- think.

'Duo.' New feet, knees, dangling hands-- crouching by his head. Someone passed a little flannel-- they were coming back into focus. The man wiped his face, pressed it to his bleeding nose. 'Cooperate,' the man said. 'Or I'll have to make you.'

Duo could almost smile, then. There was always one answer to that.

'Fuck you,' he said.
Duo blinked into the harsh daylight when they lifted the trunk lid.

'Get him out,' said one of the fuzzy dark man-shapes. The other one reached in for him, battling aside his weak attempt to kick, and hauled him bodily over the hard metal edge of the car trunk. It bashed his ribs and scraped his arm raw, but the worst was the nausea. He'd been fighting it the entire ride, jostled all sideways inside the car trunk, afraid to let himself vomit while he was gagged and unable to get it out with his arms tied behind his back. He kept his stomach down, just barely.

It was, as far as he could tell, at least still the same day.

'Inside,' the leader said. There was no question of Duo walking it-- they didn't untie his ankles or knees. He'd hoped, however dimly, they might be that dumb. Maybe wouldn't have mattered-- he wouldn't have got far.

So he was carried, ignominiously, over the big one's meaty shoulder. In broad daylight, his rusty mind recorded, which argued for territory his captors trusted. Stairs, every jolting step a new battle against rising gorge, passing into a deep shadow, onto concrete, bare concrete. He caught sideways upside-down glances of big equipment, big steel machines. Scrap metal waste on the floor, sheet and widgets and welders. Industrial space.



He got a yank to his hair that actually teared his eyes, when he swore at them all, and a smack for the kick he tried next. His ear went numb, then his cheek, ringing blocking out the raised voice he almost heard before he'd misbehaved. And then he was falling-- landing with a crack on the concrete, banging his head and--

'Fuck,' one of them said. 'Get it off him before he chokes.' They ripped the gag off and pulled out the sock he'd been sucking for hours, and he was rolled onto his side to cough out a thin stream of blood-tasting bile.

'Someone get a bucket and clean that up. Kid.' Hand in his hair, gentler this time. 'You make yourself sick, this only gets more unpleasant for you. I know you can do better than this. Just be calm and don't fight every damn thing.'

His answer was another spasm. Uncontrollable. And he did want to hide it. Never let them know how bad off you were, or they'd keep you like that-- just couldn't stop it. But his stomach was more than empty, and all he got for the effort this time were cramps and a sore, acidy throat.

'Clean it up. Someone turn on the damn heaters. It's freezing in here. All right, Kiddo, listen to me. This will go easier if you don't fight. You won't even remember in the end, but I don't want to hurt you any. If you make me, I will. But I don't want to.'

He made his jaw work, though his tongue was swollen and dry from the gag. 'What do you want?' he rasped.

A hand at his neck supported him flat onto his back. Cold, yes. Seeping in past the thin jumpsuit. He had the shivers again.

'This isn't really about you,' the man said, and let him go. Duo tried to force his eyes to focus, but it didn't really matter. He knew what he was looking at already.

'No offence to all the fine-mannered toffs who've said that recently,' he answered, 'but it sure feels fucking personal from where I'm laying.'

'You weren't really supposed to be hurt. For whatever it's worth, Kiddo--' Sandy hair stirred an upturned collar as the man turned to track the noise of the heaters firing up. Duo stared at the dull gleam of it.

'Who are you with?' he asked.

A long, drawn silence, refusing the question, maybe. Maybe plotting just how personal it was going to be to kill him after spilling the beans.

Or not. A low laugh, muffled into a shoulder. 'You know,' Solo told him, 'it wouldn't hardly piss me off, except we've already had this conversation, the last time. You really don't change, Kid.'

At least he didn't have to wait to find out what they wanted.

They came back with a black canvas bag, big enough to renew his inkling they were going to kill him after all. But out of the bag came not instruments of torture or hacksaws for body parts, but cloth hazard suits, complete with bag-like plastic helmets. They dressed, even Solo, right over their clothes, helping each other with seals, gloves. Solo crouched by him again with a heavy cotton crinkle, seizing his chin.

'Don't worry,' he said. 'This isn't going to hurt you.'

He had rarely in his life been actually afraid of anything. Watching them take vials out of the bag, he was terrified.

They held him down. He fought harder than almost ever before, a panicked impulse that went beyond physical limitations-- his, anyway. Not theirs. One of them sat on him, the big one, crushing his chest, pinning him to the concrete like a bug under a shoe. Shoe. They were taking off his shoe, his stupid house slipper. He kicked and kicked, until the big one slapped a hand over his mouth and nose. No, God. He saw black and stars over his eyes, as he ran out of air, felt weak and drowning and couldn't--

Felt the prick of a needle between his big toe and small, a tiny prick of pain, and then he blacked out.



No. Tired.

'Duo, I'm going to count backward from three. When I reach one, you're going to open your eyes.'

So tired. Just let him stay in the quiet, where it was dark.

'Three. Two. One. Open your eyes, Duo.'

Bright light. Flashing one pupil to the other. Pen light. Doctor.

Hospital. Doctor in an ugly pair of brown scrubs writing results on a chart. Roger Brabant, who sat in shirtsleeves with a weary grim expression.

And him in a gurney. Plastic rails, plastic tubes, beeping. The damn repetitive beeping. His mouth was so dry that his lip cracked when he tried to speak. A nurse behind the doctor set a straw at his lips. He sucked a mouthful of cold water, and coughed.

'You went into a deeper trance under the remnants of the anaesthesia than in any other session,' Brabant said. No apologies there. 'And you identified one of your attackers by name, plus two more out of the photos we collected from the morgues a week ago.'

Week. Another week gone. Or... no... no, he remembered this. He remembered.

And-- God.

He pushed the cup away. 'Quarantine,' he croaked.

'What?' The doctor looked up from his clipboard. Brabant stood, coming a step nearer the bed.

'What did they inject you with, Duo? Do you know?'

'Quarantine.' He struggled up on his elbows, ignoring the stabs of pain in his chest that meant cracked ribs. He snatched the sheet at his waist and covered his mouth, too late, covered his lower face with the sheet, grabbed the cup away from the nurse, the straw with his saliva on it. 'Call a fucking quarantine. Now. Yesterday.'


'Plague,' he said. 'The Moreno-Collins virus. They had the virus. Call the quarantine. Everyone who's been near me-- every--'

The nurse moved first, turning at a dead run. He heard her shout at the desk outside, shout, then, overhead, a sudden blaring alarm that brought footsteps rushing. Surprise and outrage rose in a babble beyond the door of his room. The doctor was staring at him, open-mouthed. Then he, too, ran, calling sharply over the din for emergency crackdown.

'You're positive for the antibodies,' Doctor Fultz said. His eyes over his face mask were impersonal, cautious. He stayed a respectful, healthy distance from the gurney Duo lay on.

'Antibodies,' Duo repeated. 'You didn't test for the infection?'

'This is a faster method than confirming the presence of the virus, which would require some legal finagling with the State Department. The molecular structure of the virus is classified.'

'So if I'm producing antibodies,' Duo guessed, 'I must be infected.'

'Yes. In all-- most probability.' Fultz hugged his clipboard tensely. 'Based on your previous medical history-- you never tested positive before, which means you were never exposed to the virus.'

A miracle he still couldn't explain, particularly in light of what he now suspected about the Maxwell Orphanage. He couldn't be immune without b-cells that retained a memory of contact. To have lived on L2 when he did, where he had, and be completely unexposed-- that was a scientific impossibility.

'It's been a week,' Brabant spoke up nervously. He did not wear a mask, having been in confirmed contact with Duo before the quarantine. He now sported a vaccine bruise in the muscle of his arm, a large, rapidly purpling beauty that seemed to be bothering him, judging by how he rubbed it gingerly. 'He's not sick.'

'It's possible he's asymptomatic,' Fultz replied. His brown eyes returned to Duo. 'Or, per the antibodies, already fighting it off. A carrier, but not personally susceptible.'

His stomach wasn't happy, per antibodies or not. They said it had more to do with repeated deprivation, dehydration, starvation. He'd already not been eating when he'd disappeared this time, a week without food or water. He was in worse condition in one of L1's finest hospitals than he'd ever been as a child in L2's trash-clogged streets. But three times, now, someone had counted on him being found before he died of neglect. Say that for L1. On his home colony, no-one would have bothered a dying man.

'How are you going to handle the outbreak?' Brabant asked.

By sticking him in a plastic-wrapped cube at ground-zero. No-one talked to him but Fultz and the nurse he'd already exposed. And Brabant, who was not good company. The hospital had been evacuated first, then re-purposed, quickly, quietly, into something more resembling a fall-out shelter. There wasn't so much as a blip in the news. It hadn't leaked yet.

They were panicked about creating a panic. Which meant they didn't have enough vaccines, if it spread again.

'I was sick,' Duo said. 'A-- week-- ago. I haven't felt well-- hadn't felt well in forever.'

That sparked concern. 'Symptoms?'

'Runny nose. Coughing. I was tired. That might have been the pain meds.'

'He had a light fever,' Brabant added. 'You were flushed that day.'

'But nothing more severe?' the doctor pressed. 'Nothing now?'

'No. I thought it was a cold.'

'It may have been. Given what you've been going through, you could have been immuno-compromised. Run down.'

'I guess.'

'When did it start?'

After the second kidnapping. He'd felt fine after the first one, minus the spine. But the second time, he'd been in the motels, protective custody, and he'd started blowing snot every time he breathed--

And he'd given Wufei his cold. On Earth. On a cruise ship packed tighter than sardines in a petri dish.

He must have gone white. Brabant actually reached for him, to steady him, and the numb silence around his ears faded decibel by decibel, to the slow settling of the blood pressure monitor, Fultz taking his pulse from latex-guarded fingers at his wrist.

'What if I've had it all along?' he said, or tried to. His throat didn't let any sound past. 'What-- what if I've had it since the second attack?'

'Then we'd have a pandemic on our hands already.' Fultz's dark eyebrows came together with a snap. 'Were you injected before?'

'With something, yeah. Forensics took blood samples...'

'They would have released any findings to the CDC, if it were a positive ID.'

He could think of scenarios wherein Preventers actually wouldn't let that out. None of them were good. But why then would Wufei have taken him to Earth? Unless Wufei didn't know. They'd both taken fresh immunisations to go--

He couldn't follow the thought. He didn't know enough about medicine, had never before had to know.

'Test for the virus,' he said finally. 'Can you do that?'

'Yes.' Fultz tugged at the strings of his mask. 'Yes, maybe we had better.' He turned with nothing more, pushing out past the heavy flaps of sterile sheeting.

'Can you get a call out?' Duo asked Brabant.

Who frowned down at him, but thoughtfully, not angrily, as a man had a right to, after being exposed to a virus that had once almost eliminated the population of Space.

'I can try,' Brabant not-promised. 'Agent Chang?'

'What? No. Well--' God. Yes, he wanted that. Owed that. But to hear his voice mostly, to be sure he wasn't--

But if he was, he was dealing with it. On his own.

'Agent Kreinheder. Alicia Kreinheder. She was Wufei's partner. She took over the case.'

'I know her. I'll try to get a phone.' Brabant picked up his coat from the chair, sliding it on. He turned back. 'Out of curiosity,' he said, 'who is Solo?'

Hey, Kiddo. Didn't never mean to leave you.

Sandy hair. Light eyes. All he knew for sure, anymore.

An enemy.

'Someone I thought I knew,' he said. 'And tell Alicia that, too. Tell her to get her ass here. If she can. Or get a call in to me.'

'All right.' Brabant pursed his lips, but didn't say anything else. He left in another plastic cackle.

The notion he'd done all of this exactly once before-- twice before?-- it worried him, and then it angered him, and then it worried him again. Retrograde amnesia didn't always go away, but he was supposed to be able to remember if he found triggers to events he'd forgot. This manifestly counted. But wasn't working. Why?

Possibly because the hind brain was occupied with long-term memories that had gone unaccessed and ignored his entire adult life.

He'd been six. Smart enough to break into an Alliance medical lab and steal a plate full of prepared syringes.

Not smart enough to know the differences between a vaccine and a cure.

He'd been afraid when the others started dying. He thought, anyway. That memory was more a construct of what he thought a six year old would feel, faced with that. Of course fear. Death was an ever-present threat and he'd known well what it meant, had never imagined he was immune-- every petty theft might meet the barrel of a shotgun, every mark might be the one who pushed you out into traffic when he caught you-- Duo had seen it happen. He'd been six, and at thirty-plus-that he imagined that a child might well be terrified of it coming to him, too. So he'd not stayed, when Donny and then Cycle and then Lyly and then Solo... Solo had said, water, and he'd run, he thought now, mostly remembered, a long trash-filled alley, and at the end of it, something dry and warm, a bus shelter maybe, a doorway all his own-- and he'd not gone back to them. Scared they were dead. Knowing they were dead.

And not knowing now if that six-year-old assumption was wrong. Who knew what stories he'd told that had gone on paper somewhere, like those files Hudson had found. Who knew but that some scientist or Casey fucking Pope with her needles and her sandwiches hadn't recorded every conversation in a lab book, all preserved for the right opportunity. Pope had even met Solo, might have a picture of him like that snap of Duo. They would know the sandy hair, they would know the blue eyes, and that was the limit of what Duo materially knew about a boy he'd left wheezing to death in an alley.

They might think-- clever, actually-- that he'd buy a substitute for a dead boy, convinced his ghosts had come to call.

Hell. It might really be Solo. He'd never know.

And didn't know what the difference meant, except that one kept a little mental distance in place, and the other seized his gut and-- terrified him all over again.

Brabant woke him from a dull doze with a hand to his shoulder. 'Agent Kreinheder,' he said, giving Duo a comm receiver, an actual battery-powered walkie-talkie they'd probably had to dig out of the little museum shelf at HQ. 'Hold the red button to talk, let go to listen.'

He made it upright, with help, depressed the red, and said into the speaker, 'You there, Alicia?'

'Let go the button,' Brabant reminded him, and as soon as he did, got half the affirmative response, '--'m outside. There's some disagreement about clearance in and out the building.'

'You can't get in?'

'Not without an order from the CDC, which is completely fucking--'

'I'll come to you,' Duo interrupted, and got Brabant to help him down mostly by forcing the issue, sliding off the side of the bed until Brabant cushioned him to a stop. He grabbed an errant flap of his cotton gown closed over the important-- bare-- parts, and just unhooked the two IV bags currently connected to him. He held them at shoulder height until Brabant took them, with an exasperated sigh, and in that questionable condition they limped past the quarantine cube and out into the empty hospital halls.

'Which way?' Duo demanded, of either listener.'

'Side entrance, by the ER loading dock,' Alicia answered. 'God, we'll all be in trouble for this.'

'Maybe. You have paper up there?'

'There should be something at the check-in desk,' Brabant said. 'What exactly is the purpose of this trek?'

He forgot the button again in getting tangled around a corner and into a lift. He only got half of Alicia's response, made her start over.

'What do you think you're missing?' she asked him.

The lift put them out on the right floor. There were lights on one side of the wing and none on the other, so he aimed himself at the lights. He'd guessed right. There was the double-door of the ER lobby, taped off and guarded inside and out. No-one, the guards or the faces outside the clear doors, looked happy to see him coming.

But Alicia pushed her way to the door, and the masked guards weren't so serious about their mission that they were willing to lay hands on Duo or Brabant, so in short order Duo was only separated from Preventers by two inches of bio-glass.

'Timeline,' he said. 'When was I taken the first time?' He motioned Brabant off to find him paper and pen.

'Nine August,' Alicia radioed, 'near as we know. Nine or ten.'

Brabant was back. Duo balanced a half-dozen copies of a HIPAA release on his arm, blank side facing, and gridded it four ways up. 9/10A in the first column. 'When'd you find me?'

'The seventeenth.'

In the row beneath. Add two weeks in the hospital. A week after at home, before the second kidnapping. 'The eighth?'

'The second time? Yes.'

Second column. Add a week. Five days, accurately. They'd caught Pak on the twenty-second, he'd gone on holiday to be dumped on a cruise, that was six days, maybe another week, he thought, moping and then morguing, and then the twelfth, the day he'd been nabbed off his fire escape--

'What's today?'

'Twentieth,' Brabant said, reading over his shoulder. More than three months total. Three months, but, more importantly, five weeks since being injected with whatever it had been the first time, and to all he knew that was eleven times the gestation period for Plague.

So whatever it had been the first time...

'Duo?' Alicia asked. The fuzz of air over the comm line waited, then cut off for his answer.

He wasn't sure yet. It was right there, almost, like a taste or a smell he almost recognised, except he didn't.

No. No, and then he did. 'I had two injections,' he said. He pressed the button, and said it again. 'Two injections. One in my--'

'Duo.' Brabant this time, squeezing his shoulder.

'The second time.' He knew he was jumping, but that was how he was seeing it, flashes coming together not on the grid he'd just plotted out but united instead by the common elements. 'The second time, the time the guy took me out of my apartment, I had a bruise, a bruise--' He grabbed the skirt of his gown, papers dropping like leaves all around him, yanking the cotton gown away from skin, trying to twist to see.

'Duo!' Brabant blocked the shocked stare of the guards, whipping open his coat to shelter Duo's body. 'The hell are you doing?'

'Do I have a god-damn bruise on my ass?'

Two bright spots of red appeared in Brabant's face. He took a quick, stiff downward glance, and nodded. And pulled Duo's gown firmly closed.

'Didn't figure you for shy,' Duo muttered. He fumbled the walkie-talkie, got the red depressed again. 'Remember I had a bruise there before? The second attack, and you all thought it was an injection site. I've got it again. But the shot that had to be the virus, because they went to all the trouble of getting hazard suits, that shot was to my foot, to hide the injection because they thought I wouldn't remember, because it's not an easy place to see-- so I've been hit up with two different injections, and only one of them is the virus.'

Alicia stared at him through the glass. Three Preventers behind her, obviously listening in, bursting into talk he couldn't hear, but Alicia just stared at him, until her eyes dipped unconsciously to the side, brain power diverted to checking his logic.

And coming back up again more confused than ever. 'Then what's the other shot?' she radioed.

He didn't know. He had an inkling of an idea, maybe, but he didn't, couldn't call it for sure. Except...

'I think you're looking at two different groups,' he said. 'The one who's got the virus and the other doing something different. The other, they were the-- first it was Solo, the first attack, and they hit me, I must have been-- not welcoming-- but the second time, the one on tape in my apartment, the guy came right into my bedroom--'

'And you went voluntarily,' Alicia finished, when he stopped abruptly. 'But this third time, you think they were both there, both groups? With the two different injections?'

Light eyes. But his neighbour had identified Pak as the break-in, and Pak was like all Asians, dark-eyed.

Asian. With blue eyes.

He couldn't even credit himself with figuring it out. Because the moment he realised it, he realised too he was looking over the crowd right into a face he would have known, did know, out of a crowd of a million.

'Heero!' he shouted, flinging up an arm to bang on the glass. It shivered with the force of his hit, but didn't give. That face, that face out in the dark outside, on the other side behind the Preventers, solemn inclination of the head to him, and then turning away, walking away.

'Heero!' Duo yelled, without a lick of sense, off his mind in a fury deeper than anything he'd felt since the war. Brabant was grabbing at him, the guard was finally moving to stop him hurting himself, as he threw his fists, the comm, his elbows and knees into the unyielding glass like a wild thing. 'Alicia-- he's there-- he's-- Heero! You fucking walk away from me! You god-damn walk away from me, you bastard, what did you do to me? What did you do!'


'You traitor! Traitor, I was just looking for you, you betrayed me, what did you do to me? Stop him, you have to stop--'

'Duo!' Brabant tried to lift him bodily away, but Duo jabbed him in the solar plexus, and used the next moment of freedom to find the shatter-point in the glass doors with the walkie-talkie. A spider's web of cracks appeared on the door, and he deepened it with the flats of his hands. 'Heero!' he howled. 'Why did you do this to me!'

His legs went out. He didn't even feel the needle until he saw it, Brabant with Fultz behind him, syringe leaving his shoulder with something in it that just cut the strings to his legs. He sat hard. All those people up there were suddenly swimming, floating-- or he was. On his back, now, on the ground with all of them standing over him, and glass crystals on the tile, glittering at him.

'Duo,' Brabant said, his voice deep and echoy like on the bottom of the ocean. 'Calm down, Duo. It's a sedative. It's all right.'

'Maintain the quarantine,' Fultz told somebody in that floaty voice. 'I want to get new samples for testing. And get the damn CDC here. We need to know what we're dealing with.'


'Dude,' said a deep voice. Far-off, echoing, God-like.


Duo groaned. He refused to open his eyes. If he just lay very still, McDevitt might not notice him. Might go the fuck away.

'Leave him alone,' another man answered. 'He's been through enough without you bugging him.'

'I just want to know if he's going to eat his pudding!'

'It's his pudding. When he wakes up, he'll decide.'

God. The A-team, back in black. Tran was there, too.

And Doctor Roge, still in residence, leaning over him close enough it raised the hairs on Duo's neck even without seeing him. 'Duo,' Brabant said. 'You awake?'

No use pretending. He had to piss, anyway.

He opened his eyes to the plastic cube, and three guests who all stared back at him as if he were a three-second bomb. He sort of felt like he might be.

'Did anyone,' he asked hoarsely, 'go after Heero?'

'The one you were screaming at?' Brabant eased back into his chair. 'Don't flip out again, but answer me honestly-- was he really real, Duo, or did you just--'

'He was real.' He began the laborious process of propping himself up. He was unpleasantly numb from the bottom to his waist, in a way he hadn't been since that first hospital stay. And he had a white new brace on his left hand. 'The fuck is that?' he said.

'You fractured your hand,' Tran explained shortly.

'Breaking down the door,' McDevitt added helpfully. 'You better hope they don't charge you for that, dude.'

His hand didn't feel too poorly. He could flex it and make a fist, with only a few minor tweaks. In his experience, fractures had a shelf life of a few days, tops-- and he wasn't going to quibble with a sincerely useful side-effect of the gene treatment. He ditched the brace right there, tossing it to the floor.

'You're wearing masks,' he noted. The two Preventers had medical masks over their nose and mouths, where Brabant, who had gotten the vaccine, did not. Interesting. Not a happy interesting. But not as important as what he'd asked, what they hadn't answered. 'So no-one went after Heero?' he clarified. Tran shook his head. 'Which means he's as good as gone.' Even if he'd been outside and free, he wouldn't have made it on Heero's tail. He might have done it at peak health.

'Heero Yuy,' Brabant said. 'The Gundam pilot.'

'Yes, the Gundam pilot. We're all god-damn Gundam pilots.'

Brabant patiently ignored him. 'Meaning, is he going to look like you? Like a teenager?'

That stilled him. Had he? Duo wasn't sure he'd really noticed a detail like that, past the point of recognising Heero out there. 'Wufei and me both got the splice,' Duo said slowly. 'I-- guess-- it would follow Heero had, too. We never knew for sure how much they all-- the scientists who built the Gundams-- if they worked that closely with each other. Heero--'

Had disappeared after they'd brought down the man who'd first put them into Space. Duo had heard the story from Relena Peacecraft; not personally, having already been identified by several units of Sanquian police and palace guards alike as an unsavoury individual, but it had been all over the news for months after, impossible to escape. He'd even bought Relena's book about it, though that had stayed on L2 in a storage unit that was probably housing a family or six by now.

Heero at seventeen-- had been just as scrawny and deadly as ever. And whenever they'd reunited in that year after the Colony War, it had been for some new rebellion, some new terror attack, some strictly business activity that hadn't left a lot of room to discuss his then-suspicion that they didn't seem to be exactly normal boys.

He'd never gone two months in those days without a contact from Heero. Then after Dekim Barton-- he'd counted the days, three months, four. Six. Eighteen.

'Duo,' Brabant prompted him.

He swallowed back the lump of unidentified but decidedly ambiguous feelings he was chewing. 'What?'

'You think Heero's done this to you?'


'You were saying that,' Brabant reminded him. 'Rather forcefully. You accused him of doing this to you. Not that other man, the Solo?'

Solo. God.

He didn't know. Didn't know, at the end of it. Seeing them both was one thing. But not everything. Nowhere near a why, or even a how. Not an explanation.

God, it would have been a good time for Wufei to...

'Wufei,' he said weakly. 'Oh, Christ. Wufei went to Earth.'

'We know. You told us. They're testing the blood samples you gave after the second attack.' All three were looking at him, mirror images of each other, all showing the same thing-- pity. Duo was sure it was pity, the bastards, and he glared until Tran looked somewhere else and McDevitt started to pick at his fingernail and Brabant just gave it up with an eyeroll. 'Fine,' the hypnotist grumbled. 'You may have lost a little time, because of the sedative. Which I do not apologise for. Drink your water and it may wear off.'

He did that. Good advice, finally. 'Did anyone contact Wufei?'

Tran answered that one. 'He's on assignment,' he said, in that blunt and utterly unrevealing way Preventers had. 'They're trying to track him down.'

In the jungles of wherever on the biggest continent on a very big planet. In a place where there weren't enough doctors, much less hospitals with labs to test billions of people for Spacer Plague.

'Hey, man.' McDevitt, edging toward his bed. 'You, uh--'

Duo pushed the tray of food over his knees, and it rolled a few feet to a stop at McDevitt's touch. 'You can have my damn pudding.'

'It's not that,' McDevitt said, though the protest didn't stop him from picking up both fork and dessert. 'I was just going to say, we all know it's not your fault. So you shouldn't take it so hard.'

Duo stared at him, feeling-- like he'd been sucker punched. 'My fault?' he repeated incredulously. 'Of course it-- it--'

'It isn't,' Tran said. 'Brett's right. No-one thinks you're responsible. For having it happen to you, or for having to fix it. You can leave it to us, Mr Maxwell. We'll do our job. We'll get them.'

Brabant was smiling oddly. 'New concept?' he asked dryly. 'They're right. It's not your fault-- even if,' he overrode Duo, holding up a hand to stop him, 'even if these are all figures from your past who have whatever nefarious reasons they do to target you in particular. You haven't done anything wrong.'

He was spared coming up with a reply to that patent absurdity by the arrival of the nurse, busting through the plastic seals with noisy flaps of the heavy drapes. She approached with lowered eyes as the two Preventers released their instinctive grabs for their sidearms, and she made quick work of checking Duo's vitals for the chart.

'You're still running a slight fever,' she said, to somewhere left of him. Even with gloves on she gripped the thermometre as if it were a rattlesnake that might turn on her. 'Any headache?'

'Yeah,' he said, and didn't elaborate. She didn't ask him to. When she bent over him to straighten an IV line, he saw the raw bruise on her arm that meant a fresh vaccination. She was the one who'd been in the room before when they'd called quarantine. She hurried out, alone.

'Tell her it's not my fault she's infected,' he told Brabant. 'Tell her it's not my fault I didn't remember in time to be useful. I'm sure she'll appreciate the logic.'

He was getting tired of waking up in hospitals.

It was dark, at least. Quiet. And he knew by the feel of it all that he was alone. That was something to be treasured, these days. He curled on his side in a position miraculously free of discomfort, eyes buried in his pillow, refusing, absolutely just refusing the universe to let anyone walk in until he could go back to sleep.

Except the mind was waking up.

Wanted Wufei to come stalking in. Found you, found the baddie, everyone live happily ever after. Take a shot at that fabled relationship status Duo heard so much about.

Wanted Solo to do something less evil than hold him down and shoot him full of the virus he was supposed to have died from. Revenge? People held grudges for a lot less. But Duo had been just a kid. And he'd tried to help. He'd got the vaccines. He'd done that much.

And Heero. God... he'd just been looking, all these years. Had just-- wanted to know if Heero was still alive, still-- okay. That was all. Never to hunt him down or hurt him.

Damn right it was his fault. Not for the things he couldn't control-- he knew that. But for the things he could have. Could have remembered to be the paranoid nut-job Wufei thought he was. A paranoid would have remembered no war was ever over, even when there no more Gundams. There were always people, and people would always be fighting for or against something. A smart paranoid would've-- gone underground, maybe, or at least kept his ear to it, not trusted Preventers to do all the tough work now. They weren't cut out for it. They relied too much on the bad guy being stupid enough to get caught. Not every bad guy was that dumb. Not every bad guy was out to steal cash or run guns or sell drugs. Sometimes, they wanted something that didn't take a reimbursable form. Sometimes they wanted sovereignty, and they built Gundams to get it. Sometimes they wanted to rule, and designed viruses to keep the people compliant.

Some people were just angry, and were never going to get what they wanted.

So why Duo.

Visible. Or not invisible, that was closer. Preventers had been immediately involved in the first kidnapping. If only because Wufei had commandeered resources available to him.

Preventers might be why. He wasn't one, which meant they wouldn't pull out all the troops in China to track down who hurt him. But he was close enough that it had hooked them in.

Because he'd been able to find out the truth about how the virus had been spread before? Except that had been complete coincidence, and Hudson had been the one to find Matchette's old papers, track it back to Maxwell Orphanage. Duo had just stumbled into him by chance. And Une had wrapped that off tight. No gain there.

And Brabant's hypno-skills had to be counted coincidence too. He wasn't meant to remember. Come down to it, he didn't know what was blocking it out, either. If he didn't remember-- if they, all of them, had done something to actively stop him remembering he was being infected--

Because they'd wanted him to do exactly what he'd done. Go wandering all over the colony breathing on as many people as he could.

What was that old story? Typhoid Mary. He was a healthy carrier. He'd just had flu symptoms. After the second kidnapping, when-- he was almost sure now-- he'd been given the vaccine.

But by that logic people around him would have been dying well before he'd been given the vaccine. Anyone at the hospital where he'd been for two weeks. Any of the Preventers who'd tracked him down to that first warehouse. Wufei, who'd shared more than air with him.

Could they really have had him a week and not given him the virus, that first time?

Well-- all he really knew was that he'd been missing for a week. Not where he'd been.

Put it all together.

He'd been at home. He'd gone out to the store. In the store, there he'd met Solo. Hey, Kiddo.

He'd been upset. Damn right. Like walking on a grave, they said that on Earth, and him being born and bred colonial where every body went out the airlock as ash, he'd discovered exactly how horrible those graves could be, particularly when the occupant was--

Grown man. Maybe really Solo, and maybe really not, but if it was-- Duo hadn't aged like Solo had. He would never age. Solo was a grown man, and maybe hadn't-- maybe really thought Duo had the mind of the child he looked like. Plenty of people treated him like that, and Brabant was right enough that sometimes Duo-- encouraged it, or at least didn't deny it. It wasn't Une's business if he was going to be an old man in a child's body. Preventers didn't have to know. Even Alicia treated him like that sometimes, when she didn't with Wufei, and Brabant too, and it could be useful, to be underestimated. That was something to remember.

So. Attacked at the store, he'd remembered that, but maybe the attack part of it was accidental? They'd been rough with him the second time, but hadn't been nearly as rough as they could've. Not rough enough to damage his spine again, put him back in surgery. Maybe he'd just-- got caught in the crossfire.

Which meant, didn't it-- Heero.

Or whoever Heero was with. No-one with an agenda came in single. He didn't think it had been Heero who'd given him the jab in that building, with all the homeless as witnesses. Had been a bigger man, well-- so maybe that argued that Heero had been growing up after all and it was maybe only him and Wufei who'd had the gene therapy? No-- no, the war had proven--

First time-- Solo. Maybe unsuccessful. And him injured, bad enough maybe they'd given him up for dead? Not knowing as Duo did that his body could heal almost anything. Like Heero Yuy, who'd survived a self-destruct blast from ground zero, and walked away a month later with nothing but a sore arm for the trouble. Heero had had the treatment too.

So maybe that first kidnapping had actually been-- Heero, not Solo. Heero and his people had, what, hidden him somewhere, not from Preventers, but from Solo. From Solo.

And the second time, the second time, Heero had contacted him, on the phone, that message-- let us help you. And when he hadn't come on his own, Heero had come right on into his apartment to get him.

There'd been another fight. He'd remembered blood, Brabant had helped him remember blood somewhere, near him, on him, and he'd waked up refusing to name Heero, unable to break past his own subconscious, except to write those two letters-- H E. Two letters he hadn't put together til it was too late. He'd known all along, and his own mind had refused to give it up.

He'd had a bruise on his butt. Like the vaccine bruise everyone around him was wearing now. Heero had given him the vaccine, before he'd been infected with the virus. And given it to him again, just to be sure, right before he'd been found by Solo, right there in the same building. Solo had been coming after Heero to take him, and Heero had let Solo have him, because he was safe now.

War, all right. Heero versus Solo, Duo the flag each side was trying to capture. Heero was winning. If Duo had had the vaccine, he couldn't be infectious. Right?

It still left the question-- what he was going to do about it. What he could do.

Sneaking out was probably not an option. He'd have an APB out on his head in seconds, with a justifiable dead or alive tacked on. He'd have better luck having Brabant hypnotise everyone in his path.

He needed an ally.

Or a look-alike.

He tried to keep his voice even, tired, and morose, as he called through the plastic. A moment passed, and Tran stuck his head through the flaps. 'You okay, Maxwell?'

'Hungry,' Duo said. 'Tell McDevitt he owes me a pudding.'
'If they ask,' Duo said, 'tell 'em I hit you or coughed on you or something. Alicia'll believe it.'

McDevitt picked at the cotton gown he was now tying at his shoulders. 'This is gonna flop, man,' he said.

'Lie down. And cover your face a little. We don't look that much alike.' Duo fumbled with the uniform tie, and finally just flipped it over itself and button the jacket closed over it. The point was egress, not making himself identical for the long haul.

'Where you trying to get to, anyway?'

The last to go on him was the mask. It helped to know the mask wasn't needful, though he wasn't sure McDevitt really believed him yet. They'd had to go through a little back-and-forth with a fake gun-- Duo hadn't actually had time to think it through before McDevitt showed up with the pudding, and he'd been stuck using a spare highlighter that had been laying on the table. McDevitt had figured it out, and that had led to an argument, during which they were miraculously left uninterrupted. Even more miraculously, Duo had actually managed to talk him around.

'I'm just saying,' McDevitt added petulantly, 'that I could help more if I could point them in the opposite direction.'

'Nice try, but, as they say, no.' Duo carefully checked the plastic sheeting over the door. The hall looked empty. Empty was better. McDevitt was broader in the shoulder and just a few inches taller than Duo, and anyone with a more than passing familiarity would notice those things. 'Look,' he said. 'I'm grateful. You don't have to do this. But I still can't trust you further'n I can drop-kick you.'

'You know Chang told us to help you however we could.'

That paused him, right as he was about to make a break for it. Precious seconds ticked away, but his feet stayed rooted as his mind raced through and past those implications. 'What do you mean,' he said finally. 'Clarify.'

'I mean, he said if you ever asked us for anything and we had it to give, we should,' McDevitt said. He had knotted himself into the gown. He played with the tip of the oximetre on his finger, flicking it with a chipped nail.

'When,' Duo asked. 'Did he say that. When did he say that.'


'Like before he left for Earth? Like right before he left for Earth, maybe?'

'I don't know. Tran told me he'd said it, anyway. Besides, he didn't have to ask, though. It's sort of an unwritten rule in Preventers. Do for the Pilots.'

'The Pilots?'

'The Gundam Pilots,' McDevitt said, as if it were perfectly obvious. It hadn't been, not to Duo, who continued to stare blankly at him. 'We know what we owe,' McDevitt said. 'So I figure you've got your reasons. You wouldn't, like, start a plague or something, on purpose. So I figure you've got a plan.'

A footstep outside broke his little daze. Duo checked, but the hall was empty again. 'Just to clarify,' he said. 'Wufei didn't know all along who was kidnapping me?'

'What? No!'

The confusion sounded real. But the shadow of the idea didn't leave Duo. It could explain why no-one had been able to contact Wufei in Duo's hearing, why it wasn't somehow in the news yet there was Plague on the colony, even if Duo wasn't infectious. It explained the timing, Wufei disappearing to Earth when Alicia was already doubting Pak's involvement. Wufei had left him vulnerable, left him publicly alone because they'd already figured out Pak wasn't the real McCoy, and they were out of answers. Unless Wufei hadn't thought of the double-perpetrator theory, hadn't expected-- Preventers would do that to him. Wufei, he didn't think Wufei would do that, not if there was another way-- unless he was ordered--

He pulled himself in with difficulty. Not important yet. But it sat like lead on the back of his neck. Paranoia had kept him alive too long to be dismissed now just because conspiracy wasn't the likeliest notion. Sometimes it was too easy to forget conspiracies worked precisely because they were wildly out of the deep.

'Just give me as long as you can,' he said. He went back to the gurney, palm out for McDevitt's hand. McDevitt took it with a little smack and a tight grip. Duo squeezed in return, and jabbed McDevitt in the vein of the wrist with his own IV needle.

'Fuck!' McDevitt exploded, yanking to get away. But Duo knelt on his arm and pushed him off by the face, holding that needle in place as he scrambled for the drip release button. He squished the drip three times to be safe, and sprawled on the gurney and its occupant until McDevitt stopping struggling and tipped over sideways, mouth slack and eyes closed.

'Sorry,' Duo muttered at him. He climbed back to the ground more stiffly than he'd leapt up there, feeling the strain of a pull in his back and a little of the old numbness in his toes. He tossed the sheet up over McDevitt, used a corner to artfully hide his cheek. His heart had barely sped up. He didn't feel anything now, oddly, just a little hot under the collar that was purely physical. And not terribly sorry, unless McDevitt and his partner out there really did happen to be innocent bystanders who thought they were in some band of brothers war flick. He could apologise later if he'd been wrong, but there was no fixing being right and not taking precautions.

Leaving the hospital was ridiculously easy. Which fed into the conspiracy theory nicely. He hadn't been asking the right questions, when he'd let Brabant walk him out to Alicia the night previous. Should have been asking why that door, which hadn't faced a public lot, had it, should have asked why isn't there a blockade, why isn't there press asking why a hospital's been shut down. Should have asked why in all hell Brabant hadn't once acted scared to be around him, when every colonist their age would jump out of buildings to avoid Plague. Damn, it burned, thinking Alicia would be in on any attempt to fake him out. He'd trusted her. Liked her and let her in when he was vulnerable, because she'd been good for Wufei and he'd liked that, been good to him even though he'd had sharper edges than a saw when he'd emigrated to L1. He'd trusted Brabant on some level because those two told him to, Wufei and Alicia, and the same with Tran and McDevitt too, a whole fort of cards that turned out pretty susceptible to the first stiff breeze. He'd gotten too comfortable here, that was what. Clean streets and nice people who didn't usually kidnap Duos out of locked apartments, and he'd woke up one day forgetting to keep his eyes open. Served him right. Served him damn right.

He took a service exit out to a side street, nothing harder to accomplish than ducking another Preventer who patrolled the halls without looking too hard up any of them, and disconnecting the alarm set on the electrics to the outside. He checked and triple checked, but didn't see any Preventers alarms added, not even the wire that could, should have tripped and fried him. He was tempted to explore the other floors, see if the hospital really was empty, but there wasn't time. McDevitt would be out for hours, but someone nosy might check on him and discover the ruse. Just a few seconds of labour and he was free, striding down the street past the cafeteria loading dock and then, then out into the colony beyond. Just another Preventer out for a casual stroll or a smoke. He even dared a negligent little wave to a group of doctors standing around that included Fultz, who'd pre-emptively stuck him with the very sedative now keeping McDevitt in dreamland. Not a one of them looked at him twice.

He ditched the mask the moment he was out of sight of the hospital. Heero had been walking straight and then left from North 42, he was almost sure of it, which meant a couple of nights for Duo and a duck up Covered Bridge, which put him two blocks ahead the door he'd broke last night. It was no good looking for clues like some kind of cowboy tracker. Duo couldn't do that and wouldn't trust what he did find. But he could make educated guesses. Years at the Archives had taught him all about the educated guess, and he'd proved one thing-- he'd guessed right that Heero Yuy was still out there.

So guess number one that Heero wouldn't be far from his target. When they'd actually been teenagers Heero had always gone with whatever snotty prep school had been built nearest the base they were targeting. Officers kept their baby munchkins near and they'd even had plain vision views a lot of times. Duo would take the bet Heero Yuy wasn't going to fuss with a proven method of success.

If you wanted to keep an eye on the target, though, you had to know which target wasn't the dummy.

If there was some kind of war on between Heero's side and Solo's side, Duo wasn't sure whether they'd be watching each other, or him. And how to get their attention, if it wasn't him.

Well. There was one way.

He stopped at a pay-phone, using McDevitt's official card to charge the ring. He got Wufei's voicemail, not having expected anything else. Wishing, maybe. Would have been nice to be wrong. He made it three shaking breaths after the beep, and--

Lost his nerve. He hung up without saying anything at all.

He dialled again, new number. Heard what he'd probably just sounded like on Wufei's mail, breaths next to the receiver, no words, no voice.

He whispered, 'It's Max. I'm calling in a favour. All of them. Meet me in two hours at the docks, and have your ship ready. I'm getting off colony. You're getting me off colony.'

A long silence. 'Confirmation,' he urged. A pair of students coming over the bridge. They didn't look at him, but the back of his neck crawled. Something ugly and hot was at work in his belly, a squirm of something angry at the universe. Yes. Time to get off the colony. Let them all come to him. Time to stop leading the chase. Time to start setting the traps at the finish.

'Confirm!' he hissed. 'You owe me. You fucking owe me!'

Heavy exhale, on the other end. 'I'll be there,' the whisper answered, and then the line went dead.


The docks were always crowded. Work crews and commuters headed for the satellites waited in droves to drive their cans right onto the ferries. Shippers and Sweepers were a big presence, too, large battered barges lining the locks to unload by the tonne. There were even the occasional knots of school groups and tourists, identifiable mostly by looking lost in all the bustle.

Duo didn't think he was likely to be recognised here, but he played safe nonetheless. There were plenty of dim corners, and Preventers were known to make the cautious foray into the docks, so he didn't garner too much attention for the uniform. He had a long wait, though, too long, and keeping on his feet was tiring him. He practised shifting his weight creatively until he finally saw the ship he'd been waiting for. And the bald head of the pilot supervising the towing into the launch queue.

Duo struck an ambling pace across the yard, letting people run past and around him as he made his approach. He drew even with the pilot just as he was spotted in return, and nodded casually to the grease-stained Scheduler.

'Preventer?' the Scheduler leapt on him. But not for the usual reason. She clutched her clipboard close to her chest with an anxious bite of her chapped lips. 'Nothing that's gonna set me behind, is it?'

'No,' Duo assured her, hoping it was true. 'Just a paying customer, today.'

'Thank God.' She crossed herself. Dramatically, but not unrealistically. The docks backed up on a good day, and the bad days could be unmitigated disasters. 'You're in order,' she told the pilot. 'You can board any time. Agent.' She clutched her board close again, and hurried off to the next group in queue.

Cold black eyes locked down onto his from a face seamed with old burn scars. 'Maxwell,' the big man grunted. 'Or should I say, “Max”.'

'Say whatever you like,' Duo muttered. 'Just say it quietly. Does that boat still run?'

'Not fit for grav-landing.' Wide nostrils flared in a thick inhale. 'Let's board. We shouldn't be seen together.'

Duo was in wholehearted agreement. Yet, anyway.

They rode up to the airlock on a rickety crane platform operated by another anxious docker, and Duo presented McDevitt's ID card with a goofy leer intended to distort the few minor differences in their faces, to give his teenage-smooth face a few lines appropriate to McDevitt's twenty-six years. Whether it worked or whether the docker didn't care, he got the nod. He scrambled through the lock after his pilot, and threw shut the seal with a tenuous relief starting in his gut. He might actually make it off L1.

The two of them suited up in silence. His pilot did it with the ease of familiarity, common use of the awkward vacuum helmet and gloves. Duo had lost his touch with such things after a decade of less adventurous doings. He fumbled trying to fold up the extra padding on his small frame, rolling the snaps before snagging them, tried to helmet before gloving and managed neither. His companion offered no help, only a brooding, contemptuous stare.

'Bridge,' the big man grunted finally, and turned on a heel. Duo followed slowly, getting used to the feeling of being wrapped in plasticloths, sucking on stale tank air rather than filtered oxygen. The helmet was claustrophobic and cut off his peripherals. He took the chair he was pointed to and belted in, wrapping his sausage-size fingers around the arm rails.

'What's the course heading?'

'We'll lay a trail toward L4, swing around through the junk yard in B Area, and lock in to L2,' Duo said. 'Satellite HSP4B. I can get onto the main colony from there.'

'L2.' His skin crawled, feeling a doubtless suspicious stare on him from the left. 'Why do you in particular want back there?'

'Maybe I'm homesick.' The flight console flashed yellow. They were moving, the little tow tugger lining them up with the launch lock. 'Afraid to see the place again?'

It wasn't his most subtle poke, but he made his point. That was a very old and very costly favour owed, and he'd called it in only a very few times.

But it was a lot of history linking them, too, and maybe that was more in play, just then. The man Duo had known for half his life as Master O was now just the eccentric but harmless stargazer John Ou. When Duo had gone back through the Libra battle wreckage in the days-long search for survivors, he had initially ignored the remains of Peacemillion's bridge, a judgment made after a single glance told the story of what had happened there after he had delivered the five Gundam engineers there. Guilt over a lingering sense of obligation had finally led him to check, however.

There were state secrets that were better known than the one Duo had carried out of that space scrap. In fact, as far as Duo knew, there were only three people dead or alive who knew that anyone had survived the explosion on Peacemillion: himself, and the two engineers he'd rescued from it. Master O and the indestructible Doctor J.

Turning them in to the fledgling justice of the Provisional Government had been a dear temptation. There was no affection lost in their little threesome. For all he'd been the only one of the five pilots who'd cared enough to seek after their survival. But he'd had no intention then of giving up either himself or his Deathscythe to the pompous demands of politicians who hadn't bothered to fight the war they had been very busy decrying. So he hadn't been willing, at the end of that philosophical maze, to turn over the engineers whose rebellion had got as lost as his had. Come to that, they had suffered enough. Libra's spectacular end had produced peace, right enough, but peace hadn't been a part of the end-goal. Not for Duo. Not for O, who had lost his colony just like Wufei, and not for J. J had repeatedly begged, ordered, and threatened Duo, in the early days. Just let me die, boy, he'd said, and turned what was left of his face to the wall.

Duo had answered, No, old man. I'm sorry. But I can't do that.

Time had done it, anyway. Duo had still been in L2's prison when J's ghost gave up the shell. If the state of the body he'd found after his parole told the truth.

'Launching,' O said, and that was it.

They were out. He was out.

He'd made it to Space.

He swallowed dryly. 'I'm tired,' he said. 'Wake me when we make it to the junk yard.'

'I can navigate,' O grated.

'I'm the better pilot. I'm the best pilot, so wake me when we make it to the fucking yard.' He released his belt. God. He hadn't-- floated. Hadn't floated in so long. The weightlessness was exactly as he remembered. Like freedom.

'Wake me,' he repeated, and pushed himself off for the bunks in back.

Not for sleep, though. He wanted it. He was so tired his eyes burned. He didn't know how long he could make it without some kind of boost, if that came from REM or an orgy at a burger bar. He'd never explored the edges of the endurance his eternally youthful body. Pretty far, if the last few days-- the last week and plus were any evidence. He couldn't remember how long it had been since he'd eaten, but it was long enough to qualify as starvation, certainly. There had been a time when he'd been well acquainted with hunger. He knew how long it took to need medical intervention.

He just didn't need it, anymore. Thanks, in no small part, to the man flying him off to another new possibility. He didn't know which of the engineers had come up with the gene treatment. It didn't matter; it didn't undo it to know. But there were times when--

O was a survivor. He'd endured seven months in the abandoned resource drone Duo had converted into a drifting, geo-synchronous hideaway for his rescuees. Radiation. Lack of gravity, the severe burns he'd sustained in the explosion of Peacemillion-- none of it had stopped that perpetual scowl from digging deeper. But that long grim haul on the drone had reduced him. He wasn't the same meaty monster who'd once pounded Duo far too realistically on Lunar Base to hide the existence of Deathscythe and Shenlong's repairs. His bigness was skeletal, a broad tall frame sinking in on itself. Duo remembered with crystal clarity the day O had grabbed him by the throat, snarling at him to just let them go-- and how easy it had been to break his hold, smile barely disturbed, and tell him no.

Duo was fairly sure O relived that memory, too, whenever they met like this. But a debt was a debt. Double debt, in O's case. J had died before the sanctions against L2 had forced Duo off the colony. O had made the move with Duo, very quietly, very quietly. What he did with himself, Duo didn't ask too closely. But as far as Duo knew, O had been some seven years on L1 with the lone surviving member of his clan, and had not once ever contacted Wufei. Which made O the one person Duo could trust completely to be absolutely uninvolved in this quiet, wicked game of Plague.

He strapped into a bunk, and stared at the blank grey ceiling for the next seventeen hours.

He hadn't been on his home colony in seven years. It felt a little bit like a lifetime-- but it definitely wasn't long enough.

It looked the same, maybe a little worse for wear after seven years cut off from the rest of the universe. But the sanctions probably weren't effectively different from the solid five decades of Federation occupation had been. Only diff, really, was the uniforms worn by the gun-toting maniacs who manned street corners and bars, itchy trigger fingers at the ready.

He'd breathed and bled this place for so long he'd had to wonder if he would ever be able to leave it. He'd departed, usually in anger, usually because it was too dangerous to stay. But this was his third time coming back. His third time doing it without a defined escape plan under his belt. Escape came down to luck. He'd never really believed in anything else.

O helped him stow the suit and the Preventers uniform away in a place Duo was reasonably sure they'd be able to find it again. The docks here were almost abandoned, and the bribe O had just paid to get the ship in would not extend to any personal property that could be stripped and sold before they got back. But the docks were patrolled by a troop of grim-faced Fangers, and that kept the riff-raff from sneaking in for a look-see. That amounted to safety; or as good as it got on L2.

O paid another bribe to get out to the hub. Duo stayed to the shadows and waited for the patrol to move on before he took a nonchalant stroll for the gate. He nodded at a lone Fanger who slouched on the steps with a gun, playing it for all he was worth. He made it past on the skin of his teeth. Tense, but he was glad to see it went that easy. Feddies and Fangers weren't from the same tree, but fruit was still fruit, Father Maxwell had said.

Ah, falling into his own traps already. Did no good, but there it was.

Feeling all around him, closing him in to that rough-pawed kitten he'd been all his life here. Claws too sharp and a little too ready to risk a bad leap. Even in his head it was changing already-- reverting. He walked the balls of his feet, not the heels. He kept his hands pocket-free, fists clenched for a hit. No spare words, no unfiltered thoughts, just a prickle on his skin, ready to jump the first sign of trouble.

O had lived the life long enough to feel it, too. The big man stood out bald head and shoulders over stunted colonists, but no strutting lord of the roost like he'd been years ago, when Duo'd brought him here and tried to cram a little reality into him. Shoulders tight, head down, eyes up. Don't make yourself a target. Someone on L2 would take the challenge, just for the hell of it.

'Where to?' O grunted at him.

'Breakdown Bailway.'

'You won't even keep your shoes on your feet, there,' O scoffed.

He was counting on it. Couldn't do nothing with O, but they wouldn't keep company much longer. Himself, he could hide. He needed to lay a trail first, and then he needed to lose the togs, but there was always a smart way and a smarter, and he was aiming for a bit of borrowed genius. Finding a look-alike in the L1 Preventers pool took some work. Finding a close-enough out of L2's hordes of homeless teens was going to be child's play.

'Say cheese,' Duo said then, pointing a finger under O's craggy nose. It tilted up to follow his sight-line. Surveillance cam. A little cluster of them, and they would cross four before they made it through the junction.

O grunted his understanding. 'You expect to be followed.'

'I expect a crowd to hang on my every image. Wave to the slavering mobs.' He took his own advice, just so they wouldn't be in any doubt, Heero, Solo, Wufei-- whoever and everyone who would be along in the next few days. 'I want to be on tape, until I'm ready not to be. You're my authentication.'

He didn't have to look to see a clenched jaw. 'You know my only wish was to live out my life quietly,' O said, and his voice was as quiet as that silent existence he chose to call a life. 'You know this.'

'I know,' he said. And beneath his own clenched jaw felt what might have been a twinge. He'd needed a ghost of his own choosing, and he'd gone for the first handy. Not the kindest choice he'd ever forced on anyone. Force was the word. He'd been fucked around, and he couldn't get back on top without a leg to stand on. He was using O the same way he'd been used. 'I'm sorry,' he said, grudging it, grudging having to give a damn about a man who'd been a fucking albatross, was what.

'When this is done,' he said, hedged for a nanosecond, and then gave away what wasn't really his to ask, anyway. 'We're even. I won't ever contact you again. Go wherever you want. We're done.'

O stared at him, those formidable black eyes wide for once, before they dropped to the dirty pavement. 'Thank you,' he said hollowly, like forcing it past granite a metre thick.

Duo understood him exactly.


Bailway was exactly as he remembered it.

The trash in the gutters spilled into the street, but there were no cars, not out this sector. A few more buildings had gone the way the war had started them, blasted hollow and unliveable. The tired and the dead laid claim to any open doorway, only distinguishable from each other by whether their layers of blankets and garbage bags still twitched occasionally. Roamers in the street were the real trouble, though, and there wasn't a way around it if some off-his-meds teenager with a knife took it into his head to interrupt them. O's size kept most clear, that was helpful, but neither of them were in much shape for a confrontation, and they were neither of them armed. That was another thing that was going to have to change, not too long. He needed to dig in, soon. He didn't know how long his lead would be. If he was was lucky, he had a few days. If he wasn't, it was gonna be a patch job, and he didn't think there'd be extra chances getting it right.

'There,' he murmured to O, nodding toward the upcoming overpass. 'That's where the johns go to troll.'

O blistered him with a sour glare. 'I begin to see why my continued presence was necessary.'

'Whine about it and it's going to take twice as long. You should pick one of them up for real. I can wait ten minutes while he sucks you off. Put you in a more receptive mood.' He passed the last of McDevitt's cash. 'As close as you can get, anyway.'

O only grunted. Duo split off the pavement, stepping into the shelter of a broken street lamp; and from there, into view of a colony security camera protected from tampering by barbed wire and a cage of metal bars. He waited long enough to be seen good and proper by it. Then he walked up the street, casual as if he were just out for a stroll, and wandered out of frame to the overpass.

O had a kid already, a little slip of a thing with longish hair who was negotiating his price like a pro. Duo kept out of it, fading to a standstill at an angle where he could see. Probably no older than twelve-- fourteen at the latest-- and he moved like a kid did, all elbows and pointy knees. Dark shirt and ragged jeans, which would look enough like McDevitt's dress pants on the long-distance view of those cams. It wouldn't hold out long, as disguises went, but it didn't have to.

O finally extended the cash. The kid took it with a practised leer, sliding in close enough that he'd find O's empty wallet in short order. Which meant he wouldn't stay long, if he was smart; if he was dangerous, if he'd been out here long enough, he might beat up an old man just for being broke. Duo followed them at a distance, from the shadows, to be sure it was going to go to plan. They were walking, just walking, O choosing a route that would eventually meet with the big highway hubs and four different subway stations. Smart. There would be plenty of footage for whoever followed Duo out here. Satisfied, Duo left them to it. Time to take on the next task.

It took a couple of hours to get his ducks in a row. He had to use McDevitt's ID, not something he wanted to do, and came up with a driver's license that didn't have Preventers symbols stamped all over it. The license got him through a checkpoint, and he rode one of the rust-covered ferries down the tubes for the central ring. It wasn't crowded, though in his day it would have been packed to the vents. It wasn't a good sign, segregation between Central and Everyone Else. That was how the Feddies had always done it. Keep the cowed middle class huddled in whatever small space could be managed, and let the poor roam the fire break. They'd brought an Earther saying with them, the Feddies, and he'd heard it all his young life before he'd actually seen the visual. Shooting fish in a barrel. Outer Ring had been Feddie hunting grounds, plain and simple, and there was always a fresh catch for a willing gun.

The checkpoint at Debarkation was a tougher sell. It was a Fanger manning the queue, and she stared long and hard at McDevitt's license. Long enough for Duo to start looking for exits in sprinting distance.

'L1?' she grunted finally.

'Yes'm,' Duo said. 'Back a ways, anyway, if you'll see by the date.' Thank God McDevitt was slow to renew. The license was just shy of expired, ten years.

She squinted at him from behind her dark glare glasses. 'You don't look--' He saw her lips move with the maths. 'Twenty-seven.'

'Twenty-six, actually.' No way he could pull it off. Eighteen was a stretch. Faced with a darkening frown of suspicion, he lit into a cover-up. 'My boyfriend Eliot always says age is the kiss of death, right? He's twenty-nine, for the seventh time. He always acts like it's such a curse to get old. Me, I just wish I looked my age. Then we could go to the bars on Hollander--'

'All right,' she interrupted, but didn't give him back the card yet. 'Why'd you go to Outer?'

'I'm a student at Uni. I'm doing my Masters on the study of poverty and violence. I went to interview some kids.'

'Where are your notes?'

'Probably being sold with my watch at the nearest pawn shop. They took all my cash, too. Third time this month.'

She bought it. Or at least the rumblings starting behind him in queue were audible enough to worry her. She pushed the ID back at him, and waved him through the checkpoint.

And then he was on his own in Inner. Like no time had ever passed at all.

Quieter, here, not in a good way. People didn't much walk the streets, and property tended toward fences and padlocked gates. Worse, Fangers actively patrolled here; their guns gave them all the authority they needed to stop people, demand where they were going, why, who to see. Sometimes they let their victims go-- sometimes they didn't. Worser, he might still be recognised here. It hadn't been that long since he'd left, and when the way you looked never changed, the risk of being remembered was a lot higher.

So he worked twice as hard to avoid the station cams here. It wasn't just his stalkers from L1 he had to avoid now. He ducked when anyone came near, simple as that, found a wall to hide behind, a yard to pretend he belonged in. It took twice and three times longer than it ever freaking had to make his way around the ring, and it was no accident that everyone he passed had the same hard look of trouble waiting to explode. L2 was everything everyone else thought it was, but the only sides left in the fight now were the Fangers and the Fangers. That war had already been won. Not for the first time, and not for the last, Duo felt an ache in his gut for his colony. Old anger, old hurt, old wishes-- not dreams. The only happy ending for L2 involved mass deportation and several tonnes of ordnance. It had been the central tenet of Duo's life that L2 was a lost cause, and everyone still living there was just resigned to the facts.

He found his first stash exactly where he'd left it seven years ago, buried under a loose block of asphalt in the back alley of old Justice Hall. He'd been as sure as he could be on L2 that the building wouldn't be razed and paved over in his lifetime, but even so the stash was one of six he'd left himself for emergencies. He dug up the box under the watchful eye of an old tabby cat, just out of range of a security monitor and invisible behind the bank of rubbish bins that had always been in the same place, too. He stripped right where he stood, ditching the remains of what he'd borrowed from McDevitt into one of the bins. He shimmied into a grease-stained, wrinkled coverall that still bore a clumsily stitched 'Max-Schbeiker, Co' tag on the left breast. Scrappers went anywhere and wherever they wanted, and he was betting the uniform would get even more respect, after a near decade of sanctions on trade. Things broke, on colonies, and scrap was the difference between life and death. His little tin of joint wax was still wet as when he'd packed it. He mixed a little dirt with the thick black smear, and decorated his face, knuckles, and fingernails with artful streaks of tar. He folded a sweat-faded kerchief to his forehead and slid on thick-lensed goggles. Scrappers spent their lives in the Deep Dark, and some didn't transition back to colony life well. He wouldn't be expected to talk, and he wouldn't be expected to meet strangers' eyes. The last touch was a pre-paid credit slip, as anonymous as cash, the kind scrappers carried for the odd night out on shore leave. He tossed his plastic wrapping into the bins, and struck a hunch-backed scuttle back into the street.

Time to disappear.

He spent the next three days picking up the rest of his emergency stashes and digging in the fortifications.

He packed his rented loft with the usual gadgets, but he didn't waste undue time on it. L2 wasn't a place that needed that kind of protection. The only trap he made sure to set was the gun leveled at the door-- head height, this time. It wasn't time to take chances. Anyone bold enough or dumb enough to burst into his loft deserved what they got. He used a shock wire when he was sleeping inside, live and laying right over the carpet. It would cut through rubber boot soles like a hot knife in butter, and the unfortunate wearing them wouldn't survive the first touch to skin. If it happened to be a Preventer who sprung the trap, that would just be too bad.

But he didn't spend more than three hours a night in the loft. There were other ways to be safe, on L2.

Number one-- be a moving target.

So he walked. His emergency stashes had included a few unique pieces he'd held back from sale, some hidden away from before he'd gone to jail, even. In the early days there'd been shit tonnes of mobile suits being brought in by the Sweepers, the refuse of decades of space battles. Duo had done his part in cleaning the remains, but he'd had the luxury of plenty to let him think ahead to the days when parts would start to get scarce. He'd bided his time, built up his collection, and in less than five years he'd been the only dealer who had a trade-- way, way under the table-- in the specialised weapons arrays and the artificial intelligence receptors of mobile dolls that would never again be produced. Officially.

It had been the parting of a friendship. Hilde Schbeiker had walked on him, because of that trade. Maybe once he would've walked, too. But it had been L2, and there had been three separate uprisings before he'd finally felt he could destroy his Gundam in clear conscience it would be more dangerous to keep it than it would be to keep using it. And they still didn't live in a universe of peace. There was always war somewhere, and the best that could be said was that those little wars didn't grow up to be giant civilisation-eating wars. Controlling the sale of parts was one way of making sure they went to the people who wouldn't get far with them. It was cynical and it probably wasn't as true as he'd wished it was, but it hadn't just been for the money. And there'd been one other benefit. It had kept them from killing him when he refused to join their little revolutions.

He'd learnt his lesson from White Fang, back in 195. You were either with them or against them, and they'd never believe you just didn't give a crap about their lofty goals.

And all the bits he'd held onto were juicy ones. He visited a few Scrapper holes, the bars and market-cozies where his kind went to shill. He let a few of the choice items be seen by the right people, let word leak out he was looking for a good price, the right price. It would keep him in bidding, which would keep him in public, in crowds. Which made him a lot harder to approach, and a lot harder to kidnap and drug. Or kill.

It was, actually, pretty much like every other homecoming he'd ever had.


It took five days, all props to Duo, for them to find him.

The hiding part had been relatively easy. The hard part had been stretching out bidding on his sale items. He'd let two go for trade, to keep up appearances, and sold a mobile doll AI processor to a particularly aggressive hunter just to get the guy off his back. He spent the rest of his time cooling his heels at scrapper bars, mingling with people who had once been his fellow businessmen and drinking his body weight in cheap liquor. The liquor served dual purpose of aiding his disguise-- only an idiot drank while navigating a scrap field in Space, so scrappers tended to make like alcoholic fish on shore leave-- and it kept him occupied so he didn't chew his fingernails off with the waiting. He metabolised all of it too quickly to get more than a short-term buzz, but it made him a little extra cash winning a few drinking contests.

He had to leave the bars during mandatory curfew, though, and that was when he forced himself to lay still for one REM cycle a night. It was also when he relived every doubt over and over, turning them every possible angle to search for flaws. The biggest one-- what if there really was no conspiracy? He'd been drugged, repeatedly, and with a little physical distance from L1 he had to ask himself if maybe his famous paranoia had taken a dip toward the hallucinatory. What had seemed like logic-- well, logic with a suspiciously loaded balance of intuitive leaps-- maybe in the end he'd just made up his own boogeymen. The memories he'd had under hypnosis might just be dreams, a crazy mix of old longings for long-gone friends, a little misplaced love, and an unhealthy imagination that tended toward blood and guts. Pak might have been his stalker after all, he'd hurt his back falling down, and triggered months of-- ambulatory nightmares. That was it.

So it was pretty damn vindicating when Zechs Merquise slipped quietly into his bar, breakfast hour of day six.

Not at all whom he'd been expecting. Interesting, though, and he made his guesses right there and then, but he made them while fading back into the little niche by the loo where a stack of chairs would hide him a few moments more. Just long enough to get a feel for who Merquise was representing.

It had been half a lifetime since he'd seen even a picture of the man, and they'd never been closer in person than this, a room apart. The hair was still long-- longer than Duo's now, he noticed with an odd murky flash of jealousy. But tucked discreetly into the upturned collar of his coat. He shouldn't have bothered with hiding it, though. Merquise, unlike Duo, had aged, but he still looked so damn much like himself that it was a moot point. That, and the way he held himself all but screamed 'military'. Duo wasn't the only one giving Merquise the eyeball. Military might make scrapping profitable, battles being what they were, but that didn't make the actual troops all that popular in the bars.

Merquise left the door and made toward the bartender. The same bartender who had just served Duo a plate of egg whites and toast, and who didn't look nearly so grudging after Merquise slid a crisp white bill across the planks. Duo didn't wait any longer. He went back to the loo, shutting the door but not locking it, stepped from toilet to sink and just slithered on out the window into the alley. He strolled out to the street, hands in his pockets, goggles tight to his face, and made for the nearest bus depot. Nice, public bus depot. By his count, morning commute was just about to hit full swing, which mean all lines operating, and nice, big crowds of people to disappear in. His bar was conveniently only two blocks away, and he wasn't the only scrapper making the walk.

Zechs Merquise, eh. On the one colony that still supported an entire regime of White Fang loyalists. Of course, there was nothing saying they'd welcome a visit from their former front-man. Time and goals had a way of turning over. Fangers didn't talk sovereignty and the total destruction of Earth anymore-- not that there were any superweapons left that could accomplish it, and no unoccupied colonies left to drop planet-wise. Fangers had gone the way of most aging revolutionaries: fat and lazy. They had a captive audience on L2, where people were too damn busy not getting shot or arrested to worry about elections. No, in Duo's estimation the Fangers wouldn't be too welcoming to Merquise. Man might be finding himself getting acquainted with an airlock soon, if he didn't do a better job hiding that famous face.

Duo tugged his hat a little lower. There were a lot of famous faces paying call, these days.

He used his day's ration of drinking money to buy tickets headed in three different directions, boarded a fourth, and slipped off when they pulled the bus around to the queue of departures. There were more cameras here, so he stayed low, skirting kiosks and seeking tall, trench-coat wearing businessmen to walk behind. It took him a while to work his way toward the stairs down to the subway station below, but he took his time and did it right. No familiar faces, meanwhile, just him and the sea of humanity. He clattered down the stairs and detoured sharply to the Staff Only supply closet. He zipped on a white janitor's coverall right over the scrapper suit he already wore, bunching up the adult-sized sleeves and pant legs and exchanging his hat for a dirty do-rag that smelled like sweat and bleach. He filled a push-bucket wringer from the sink, soaped it up, and banged it out the door right into the crowd. People split into two streams around him with grumbles and dirty looks, but not a single one of them looked him in the face.

The key to a good fake-out was follow-through. Duo gave his almost forty minutes of mopping the tile all the way to the edge of the turn-stiles to the train platforms. It put him under a dozen different cameras, and it was a challenge to keep his face turned casually away from all of them, whistling as he shoved the sloppy mop across the dirty floor. Forty minutes, unmolested, and alone. When he rolled the bucket back to the closet, he ambled all the way into the Staff Lounge he'd spotted at the end of the platform. He selected a time card at random from the stack and clocked out, all in view of the security cam, and waved a cheerful good-bye to a sleepy-eyed woman slumped by the microwave. She waved back without so much as looking to see who he was.

Empty street, in the ways that mattered. There was no-one following him. He was sure.

He circled the block where his rented loft resided, and kept going. He hopped the kerb to the little convenience at the next cross-street, and tossed a bill to the counter for a lemon fizzy. He twisted off the cap and drank half of it as he stepped back out into the weak daylight. He made a right, and climbed the stairs, slowly, to the third storey. He let himself into Room 305, opening the door just a half-inch for his finger, slipping it up the jamb and lifting the string at head-height. He locked the door behind him, bolt and chain, and re-set the string that connected the trigger of the .32 to the handle.

'Let's see what the baddies are up to,' he murmured, capping the soda and tossing it to the bed. 'Hope they like all the gifts I left them at the other place.' If he was lucky, Merquise would lead the charge to the trail he'd left. Merquise would rush to attack the loft he'd left to be found, and spring all the traps personally. Taking out the leader tended to sow a little prudent cowardice in the flunkies. But he'd left enough behind to terrorise even a terrorist. And it was time to see if anyone had taken the bait.

He settled on the bed with the little electric camcorder he'd bought at the little resale electronics store on 5th and 29th. It was an old model, older even than he was, but sometimes the oldies were more open to a little creative tampering than the new ones. He'd been able to coax this one into a feedback loop with a wi-fi signal broadcasting two blocks, three with the batteries in, and plugged into three different camera channels that gave him a three-sixty view of the loft where he'd been making a show of fortifying and sleeping in. It may have been a few decades since he'd had to lay a trap for the Feddies or for OZ, but he was betting they'd fall back into exactly the same habits he had. And that meant good odds they'd fall hard for his little trail of bread crumbs. They'd have found out by now that the kid O had been dragging around the colony wasn't him; they'd have searched everywhere for news of any new arrivals, one of the smart ones might have remembered what business exactly he'd had when he'd been on colony before, and they'd gone door to door at the bars until they found him. Which meant...

He turned on the camcorder and turned the digital screen into the lamplight. Bingo.

He counted four bodies in his little loft three blocks away. The one at the door was Merquise. The one sitting on the floor clutching the bullet hole in his shoulder was thinking hard about the lesson of volunteering to be first. They'd pulled down his gun trap, but Duo felt a grim satisfaction that it had taken them by surprise. He'd always been a fan of the simple approach. Bullets were cheap, and effective.

He didn't recognise either of the two busy flipping every flat surface in the loft. His cot and blankets were being ripped apart, and the little bureau that was still as empty as when he'd paid for the week. The bug in the bathroom picked up a woman searching the toilet bowl and tank, prying apart the shower head, checking for loose tiles in the cubicle. They wouldn't find anything. They wouldn't even find his cameras. L2 raised paranoia to an art form, and Duo could take that art to the metaphysical. All it ever needed was a wire on one end and a little red button on the other.

He slid a cheap mobile phone from the bedside table, flipped it open. He pressed 'Call'.

Everyone on his camera jumped. Merquise, the leader, moved first. He bent to the old-fashioned receiver phone atop the television. He picked it up, and put it to his ear.

Duo said, 'Tell me who you're with.'

The others were all whipping their heads around, trying to see how he was watching them. Merquise stood still, his shoulders ramrod straight, his mouth a thin slash. 'Where are you, Maxwell?' he asked.

'Tell me who you're with.'

'People who would like to speak with you personally. We can arrange neutral ground.'

That was more than he'd thought he'd get. 'Tell me,' he said a third time, 'who you're with. Last opportunity.'

'Maxwell,' Merquise began. 'Let's just meet. We can--'

He didn't bother to answer. He hung up. And then he pressed the 2 button. And then the four on his camera went running as the television in the loft exploded. He chased them out the door by blowing the radiator, too.

He abandoned the room, leaving everything inside just as it was. They'd find it or not, or the landlord would get a windfall of equipment. He hit the street at a slow jog, and made a beeline for the alley toward the Council Housing on Lower Level. He shed the white janitor's uni into a trio of trash bins outside an apartment complex, picked up the package he'd left for himself hidden in the mailbox for the unleased studio on the fourth storey, and shimmied into khakis, a white button-down, and a blue blazer with the Pocklington Hall School crest on the left breast. He scraped his hair into a ponytail and twisted it up under a baseball cap. He added an old maths textbook with blank papers stuffed through it to his costume, and struck out for the little sandlot playground set just up the street. He established himself on a swing next to a cute teenage girl, who smiled shyly at him. He ignored her, and eventually she went back to talking to her friends. Duo pushed himself idly back and forth in the sand, the textbook open on his lap. He never glanced at it. His eyes were all for the road. If he was as good as he thought he was, Merquise and his team would be canvassing the area. If he was underestimating them, they'd take the hint and leave him be.

It took almost an hour, but it finally happened. It was the one he'd shot, or the one his gun trap had shot, anyway. Middle-aged man still clutching his shoulder, though he was wearing a jacket to hide the wound now. He stared suspiciously up every side street, looked in every window-- and completely overlooked the group of school children at the playground. Duo had to stop himself from grinning as the guy walked right past him.

And was jolted when his swing suddenly stopped moving, gripped by the chains by human fists. Duo didn't twist to look; he jumped out of his seat-- or tried to. A hand wrapped down over his shoulder to his chest and yanked him back.

'You shouldn't have waited around to congratulate yourself,' Heero whispered in his ear.
He went with Heero. There wasn't a lot of choice. But he wasn't out to make it a pleasurewalk.

Heero kept behind him, for one, and it was driving him wild not being able to see. His entire skin was crawling. Heero's hand on his shoulder kept him going in the right direction, whatever that direction was. They were walking past the Council Housing, well out of the area Duo had been keeping, toward up-town. Maybe headed toward Centre. He wasn't sure. That was driving him nuttter, too.

'We gotta slow down,' he said finally. 'I can't keep this pace.'

'Just keep going,' Heero answered softly. Not quite from the right place. Duo risked a glance. Heero was looking away, behind them. Checking for being followed.

'I can't,' Duo said. 'Look the fuck at me. I can't keep this up.' He wiped at the sweat on his forehead. 'I need to sit.'

'You've been keeping ahead of us all week. You're all right.'

'I've been keeping ahead of you all fucking week on beer and rage,' he retorted. His hands were shaking as he wiped them on his pants. 'Look at me, Yuy. I have to sit down or you're going to be carrying me. Try doing that inconspicuously.'

He felt eyes on the back of his head. 'Right here on the kerb,' Heero said finally. 'For a minute.'

He managed the way down. Heero caught him by the elbow to lower him the last drop, saving him a hard impact on his rear. That passed for compassion, he supposed, or Heero really didn't want attention if Duo happened to moan in agony. Heero didn't sit, either. Duo didn't waste his energy trying to look back at him standing there. He saved it all for breathing.

Couldn't fucking believe he'd been caught. He'd had them. He'd been clean away. No way in hell even Heero Yuy predicted his movements that well. He'd been too careful. He'd had too much lead.

He said, 'You followed me.'

'From the bar.'

Great. Hours. And he hadn't seen. So much for careful.

'Why'd you call to say sorry about my back?' he asked. 'You didn't have to call. It was a stupid message.'

Shoes shuffled into his peripheral vision. 'I didn't,' Heero said. 'That wasn't us.'

So there was an 'us'. Merquise, he would guess. 'No, you're the guys who just who shot me full of medical juice in the name of-- wait for it-- the greater good? Am I right?'

'Yes,' said the trainers next to his left thigh. 'You agreed.'

'Did I have a fucking choice?'

The silence answered for that one.

'All right,' Duo said. 'All right. Fine. Do whatever you're doing. I don't fucking want to know.' He pushed himself up to his feet. 'Let's go.'

'We're not here to hurt you.'

'You're not here to help. As far as I'm concerned, that's the end of the conversation.' He set off walking. Heero followed, a few paces back now. He got to the next cross street, and took a stupid risk because he was just angry enough to do it. He stepped right off into the street and into traffic.

Right on that count, too. He made it half a yard and into the path of a lorry before Heero yanked him back and tackled him to the concrete. And then Heero sat up and slapped him so hard across the cheek that his head buzzed and everything went weird and hollow and fuzzy.

'Don't fuck with me, Duo,' Heero said. That's what it mostly sounded like, anyway.

Anyway, Duo had his answer. And his edge. They weren't going to let him die.

He'd run with worse. He could win this. He would.


They stuck him with a needle, first thing. And then they tucked him into bed and did absolutely nothing but watch him.

Duo rolled his head toward the sound. Zechs Merquise had been there a few hours now, standing in a corner by a window. The tall man gave him a long solemn look, then went back to staring out to the street.

'I thought you and Heero hated each other,' Duo said to him.

Merquise glanced back again. The room was dark, going on nightfall. Since they'd locked him up in the rental there'd been two shifts of watch on him-- the man he'd shot, or the man who'd been shot by his door trap at the loft, as it was, not that the distinction earned him any points-- and now Merquise. Street lamplight from out the curtains limned Merquise with an aura of yellow, a halo on the hair and the dark clothes. Not a Preventer anymore, that much was obvious.

'In fact,' Duo said, 'I seem to recall some adolescent duelling. A lot of it. Could you have been a bigger waste of space?'

Merquise finally deigned to speak, though it was too dim to see his expression. 'Things change,' he said laconically.

'Ain't that the fucking truth.' He cautiously tested an upright move. They had his pills. Whatever had been in the needle, they weren't worried about him having his pills on top of it. He'd taken two after Heero had knocked him flat, and there was just some residual ache now. He creaked and popped until he came to rest, upright, against the wall. He shoved his pillow under his arm, but the plaster felt cool on his cheek, good. 'Me, for instance,' he went on. 'I was minding my own damn business for once. I think it's ironic that's when everyone suddenly decided to pay me a visit.'

'That's not for me to say.'

'What, you don't have an opinion?' He didn't wait for the negative. 'You know what I think is really fucking funny, though-- it's not just that you'd actually work with Heero Yuy. It's that you'd curl up and work for him. You're his baby bitch and you're not even squealing under the boot polish.'

'Trying to drive a wedge between us won't work.'

'What wedge? I'm just trying to annoy you. Although it couldn't be any other way, could it? I mean, look at you. You're middle-aged. You're not so pretty anymore. Not so tragic. Only the young and the beautiful can change anything. Something else Heero will always have and you don't.'

That finally got a real reaction. Merquise let the curtain fall, left the window, left the room. He locked the door after him.

'Stand and fall, fuckers,' Duo muttered. He resettled on his side, pillow folded under him. A little groundwork always got you a leg up. He'd always said so.

It took them a few hours to send anybody in to him. He dozed on and off, at least secure in the notion that he couldn't do anything about his circumstances and that the waiting was moderately comfortable. But at some point the pushing and shoving would start. It always did. People always had questions-- they always wanted to know what you knew. And if his theory about the capture-the-Duo game between Solo and Heero was right, they'd want to know what he knew about the other side. And that was a game that Duo was very, very good at.

So he waited, and took advantage of a soft bed and the well of silence, and slept like a baby.

It was the smell of food woke him this time. Dark out the window-- definitely night out there-- and a man coming in holding a tray but no visible weapon. Duo squinted, but he was already sure from the height. Heero.

'Sit up,' Heero instructed, and put the tray by his knees when Duo obeyed. Duo inspected the contents of the tray as Heero pulled the chair out of the corner to the bed, and sat there less than arms' length from him. 'Eat,' Heero said, and took a plate of sandwich with no further ado.

It was a generous spread, by L2 standards. Soup, crusting a little around the spoon and still powdery at the edges where the water hadn't rehydrated it completely. A frozen dinner, lasagna, with a side of limp vegetables. Dessert, even, a packaged pudding, and perhaps because he had mentioned it before, a can of beer. Duo reached for that first. Heero would think whatever he liked and maybe low-ball his estimate of Duo's fortitude, but the beer was cheap, mostly water, and Duo was about as dry as the soup. He drank it down sip by sip. Heero ate like he remembered-- mechanically shoving it in, but covering his mouth shyly with his hand.

'You look older'n me,' Duo said, between swallows. 'Not much. A little.'

Heero let that pass. 'Eat,' he repeated, and went so far as to point at the food.

So Duo did. He picked the little nubs of ground beef out of the lasagna with his fingers and ate the noodles when they were cleaned. He bit the heads off the steamed broccolis and left the stems to litter the plate. He left the soup, too, but crumbled the edges of the pudding and ate the crusts that came off. It was enough to take the edge off his stomach, wake him up a little more. Turn his brain on. He didn't speak again. Heero wanted him to talk, expected him to talk; they only stood to gain the longer he pratted on; so he didn't. He'd learn more from what questions they were forced to ask him than they would from his silence.

It went a while. Heero was, if Duo-- and he did-- remembered correctly, the king of 'silence is goldenly unhelpful'. He waited it out, not even bothering to study Heero's face for clues, though he could feel eyes on his own. Eventually, Heero broke.

'You took a risk,' the other man said. 'Bringing O back into the open.'

'It wasn't a risk,' Duo answered easily. 'He didn't have anything you wanted. You didn't even approach him.'

Right again. Heero acknowledged it with a flicker of stunted eyelashes over level blue eyes. Duo finished his beer, crunched the can, and tossed it to the tray.

'You need to be more careful. You hid him well, til now. I didn't know he'd survived.'

If it was true-- then Duo still knew more than they did. He didn't mention J. He wiped his mouth and laid back on the bed. Didn't mention a damn thing.

'It was a good ruse,' Heero went on. 'It did work.'

Damn right it had. L2 was his territory. All three damned rings of it.

'The others are looking for you, too.'

Others. Preventers. Solo, that meant, too. He wondered if Heero knew who they were. He put that question in reserve.

'You're not worried they might find O. They aren't as... kind... as we are.'

Heero had been hanging around Merquise too much. The pregnant pauses were all starting to sound alike, and Duo had never been one for melodrama. 'Nope,' he answered.

'You're not as cold as you pretend. He could be in real danger. You saved his life once. You'll throw him away now?'

'It was owed,' Duo said, bland as oatmeal. Misdirection. Solo wouldn't bother with O. O wouldn't stick around to be bothered. If he wasn't off L2 already, he would be deep underground. They were officially not responsible for each other now, anyway. Good relationships were like that. Take him and Wufei. He didn't feel the least responsible for Wufei now. Sure as fuck Wufei was done minding him any.

He glanced over. Heero was just sitting still now, looking at him. Hands splayed open on his thighs, thick fingers gripping into his solid muscle. Good old Heero. Like a freaking robot waiting for activation.

He'd imagined it, a few times. Finding Heero through that-- it now looked painfully innocent-- no-- naïve. Childish. Childish fucking around with the Archives, wasting his time, his life on a guy who hadn't changed a single atom in all these years. He'd just thought-- thought it would be good to see Heero again. That had been all. To have it happen like this-- just one more time Heero fucking Yuy dropped into his life assuming he'd help save the world, wasn't that exactly what it was? Heero had always just assumed he'd instantly devote himself to whatever stupid cause, but not a word after Mariemaia Barton. No more Gundams, no more Heero. He'd just wanted to recapture that, and maybe he'd even thought it wouldn't be so bad if Heero wanted his help again, because it was nice, in a way, to be needed, to be good enough to be needed, someone like Heero thinking you were good enough.

Well, fuck that. He did learn, eventually.

'I don't feel too talky right now,' Duo said, cutting off whatever Heero was about to say. 'I'm tired, I've got needle holes in my butt again, I'm none too fond of you all right now. I still don't know how I got picked to be in the middle of all this, and I don't think I care any more. So I don't really see we've got all that much to talk about anyway. Run along, Yuy. Leave me alone.'

Heero sighed softly. He put the chair back at the corner. He didn't look back, walking out. The latch locked after him, and Duo heard something slide up under the handle, barricading the door.

So. He'd probably blown it, putting it out there like that. But they wouldn't let it lie. They'd be back. They needed something from him, and they wouldn't house and feed him forever waiting to get it. All in all, he could probably make up any lost ground by being a little savvier next time. It would happen.

He went through to morning before they tried him again. He was already awake when they went about unlocking his door. He was poking a bruise on his knee from where Heero had knocked him down-- impressively purple, but nothing like as bad as what he'd got from their vaccine horse needle. He went on poking at it, as his door opened. Two of them came in.

Merquise again, with a goon at his back. Duo looked whilst pretending not to. Wasn't anyone he recognised in particular, except from his video from the blown-up loft. The woman. She stayed by the door, anyway, for whatever reason.

Merquise brought the chair around. Put it in the middle of the floor. He told Duo, 'Sit down.'

'Damn, I did always wonder about that.'

Merquise's face was a blank wall, letting no expression through. 'What.'

'I figured they trained you Ozzies in interrogation. There's a handbook, right? Waterboarding in so many inches, AC down to such-and-such temperature, slapping open-hands, not fists-- well, not until we make you angry enough--'

'Do you see any whips and chains in here?' the woman demanded. Duo looked her full-on, then. Not a pretty one, too hard for that. Mean eyes.

'Not yet,' he said. 'But you'll find 'em. Or did you really think I'd squeal if you frowned at me?'

'Sit down,' Merquise repeated icily.

'No,' Duo said.

Merquise marched right at him and grabbed him under the arms. Duo was ready for it and kept limp, let his legs tangle with the bedsheet, but he was small enough and Merquise big enough that he didn't stall it so much as aggravate it. Merquise dumped him into the chair and backed off a step, waiting to see if he'd stay in it. Duo smiled beatifically at him.

Merquise pulled a slip from his coat. He faced it to Duo. 'When was the last time you saw this man?'

Remote pic. Solo. Duo looked at it, and back at Merquise. He said, 'You were the one who stuck that needle in my ass, in that busted-out old building.'

'Yes,' Merquise said. The snap hung between them in the air, ignored.

'You cop a feel?' Duo asked him. 'You stripped me down like you meant it. That's in your interrogation manual too, I bet.'

'When did you last see this man.'

'Like making us pretend to fuck each other in front of cameras. Low-brow, but effective.'

'When, Maxwell.'

'The men who built the Tallgeese Gundam-- O, out there, the big one-- they made him squirt me in the face on Lunar Base. They laughed at us. He wouldn't do it to Chang, so they tased him until he pissed himself and fainted. Fifty year old man, back then.' Merquise inhaled; his nostrils flared. 'Why don't you track him down after all? We can recreate it. Fun times, right? I may even tell you something then.'

'Jesus,' the woman muttered.

'When,' Merquise repeated, through his teeth this time.

Duo shrugged. 'I got amnesia. No-one told you?'

He'd finally twigged the right nerve. Merquise hit him-- open-palm-- to his ear and cheekbone. He heard bells, before the spot took fire. He gripped the seat of the chair until it passed.

'When,' Merquise said relentlessly.

Duo grinned at him. 'Touch me again, lover. I dig a man with soft hands.'

'He's provoking you,' the woman warned.

'It's working.' Merquise finally let the picture fall. 'I wonder what he thinks will happen if we continue?'

'Nothing,' Duo said. 'You don't have the guts to beat a man that hard, especially one who looks like a kid.'

'Don't I?'

'Men who resort to giant lasers to get their stiffies don't usually do well with blood.' Duo cocked his head. 'Then again, you have lots of toadies doing your dirty work. Maybe you just get off on watching.'

'Zechs,' the woman said.

'Go or get it over with,' Duo told him. 'You're boring me.' To prove it, he shut his eyes and dropped his head back to the chair rail. It was hard not to tense up, not being able to see if he'd take another punch, but he kept himself relaxed, scratching idly at his belly as if he'd already forgot them.

Almost ninety seconds, waiting, waiting.

Merquise's boots slammed the dusty carpet into the concrete beneath. Slammed the door open against the wall. The woman was quieter, going.

Locked him in.

He could've laughed. He flipped the vee at the door, both hands, and held his head as he fought down the titters. God.

He was still damn good.


It was about time he earned himself a triumph. This was a good one. Heero couldn't get anything out of him; Merquise wouldn't be in a room with him again. And so they had no choice but to rotate him through the others.

The woman and the one who'd been shot by his gun trap were the easiest-- the girl because she didn't really want to hurt him, and his vic because he was only a hair away from blowing Duo's face off in revenge. Bruises were nothing, particularly since they kept his pills coming, and Duo made sure he got a number of them in highly visible places. Even on L2 there were people who'd get outraged over a beat-up kid, if he could get out where he'd be seen by them. It kept his options open.

They wised to him after he'd gone through all of them, or at least they ran out of other ideas. They sent the girl back in the third day with his breakfast-- oatmeal-- his breakfast of choice when he remembered to it eat, and actual fresh milk, which told him plenty about their resources and plenty too about what they needed from him. They were on to bribing him. But he no sooner stuck the spoon in his mouth than she said, 'Mr Maxwell, I need to give you another shot.'

'Whatever.' He got in another bite, hot enough to burn the roof of his mouth, and turned onto his side to present his hip. She pulled down the waistband of his trousers and underpants, swabbed him with an alcohol wipe, and injected him, gently enough given the size of the syringe. Then she was out of his space, bagging the needle away. Duo sat up and resumed his meal.

'Not worried about poison?' she asked him coolly.

'You wanted me dead, you'd've let Gimpy do it when he was in here,' Duo shrugged. 'What you want today, sweet heart?'

'I thought,' she said slowly, 'that maybe it was time for a new approach. A meeting of equals. No-one's really just asked you to help us.'



'What you haven't done is tell me why I should help you. It's not a topic that interests me much, but you can always wait me out, I guess.'

'You're not the target, Mr Maxwell,' she told him oh-so-seriously. 'In fact, we've been trying to protect you.'

'We've got different ideas of what “protection” looks like, then.'

'We saved your life. The injections--'

'So I was right.' His timeline had been right-- grim satisfaction at that, anyway. He wasn't completely in the dark. 'Why're you keep jabbing me, then?'

'There is some-- concern about the efficacy,' she said cautiously.

Jesus and the Apostles. That was bad news. 'I assume,' Duo said slowly, 'that the reason these people were after me with needles full of viruses is that they wanted to effect an outbreak.'

She gazed back at him smooth-faced, not answering.

So. They weren't recruiting him, obviously. They just wanted something he hadn't given them yet. He was still alone.

Which meant he'd be keeping both the truth and his full range of conclusions to himself, time being. But he walked her out a little on lead, to see where she'd bite. 'So let me see if I can fact-check this operation,' he said. He turned his face to the wall; the wall didn't make him want to smash its smug face in, for one, but it would keep her from reading anything he left slip on his face, and anyway he was sure there were no cameras from this angle, so no-one else would see his face, either. 'Someone got their hands on the Moreno-Collins virus. Instead of dumping it into the air filters and taking out the whole colony, they used it to inject a not-very important man who just so happens to be naturally immune.' He caught a flicker of movement; she hadn't known that. No-one did their research anymore. 'But for whatever reason, instead of attempting some crisis-management or something rational like that, you just got to me first with a vaccine, so I wouldn't become a carrier.'

'Something like that,' she said.

So-- maybe Solo's crew didn't have but the one sample they'd used on him? If they couldn't replicate it... if they couldn't make more of it, if they'd just had that one dose in that one form then they would need a-- what was the name? A Typhoid Mary. Patient X. They'd needed some one person who could pass it to everyone else by coughing on them. And if it was the real Solo, then the real Solo would know that he'd never got sick, and might extrapolate from that that Duo couldn't get sick. So he'd walk around infecting everyone he came into contact with for the rest of his natural life...

And given the gene treatments had kept him from ageing, that natural life might be a hell of a lot longer than average.

So then maybe crisis management would be just to lock him down and vaccinate him. No virus, no problem.

But who would know enough about him? Solo had him surviving Plague when he was a kid; Heero had the piece about the gene treatments. No-one had the whole picture. 'No,' he said, 'no... No, that still doesn't explain why me.'

'We came after you because they did.'

'Why did they?'

'I don't know, Mr Maxwell.'

Bull. 'Move on, honey,' he said. 'I already told you. This is not a subject that interests me.'

'Don't you care what happens to your colony?'

'L1 is not my colony. L2 isn't, either, not any more. I care what happens to me, and I think I'd pretty much be fine without your interference.'

'I don't believe you,' she retorted, coming closer to him. 'Not out of the mouth of the same man who fought for the colonies when no-one else would. Not out of the mouth of the man who helped expose the Federation's programme of infected children just three months ago, when everyone else had stopped caring.'

Oh. Oh, and oh. He was paranoid, all right, because that little slip rang all his bells. His name hadn't been on the release of Matchette's order to bomb the church. That had been Preventers, and Hudson--

Oh. Made his heart sick, to think of doubting Hudson. Just a good kid, right, innocent of these big political games that ruined lives and distorted history and tried to make epic rights out of terrible wrongs. Hudson wouldn't do that, wasn't capable of it. Right?

But he'd trusted Hudson so easily. When he never trusted anyone else. He'd accepted the evidence of his eyes because Hudson had the charm and he'd thought the kid was cute, exactly his type, all those effortlessly sincere smiles that raised his protective instincts. Just a kid with a nice family story, keeping up that old historical society in the name of Truth and Justice... everything he might be expected to fall hard for, never suspect. Was it possible even to run a conspiracy that deep? How big could a setup get? But, Jesus, he'd believed those records. He'd looked at that picture of himself in Casey Pope's file and never wondered if it was doctored, never questioned why Une hadn't released the whole story about Maxwell Church because he just naturally expected a cover-up. His own biases had blindered him right up and down the line. He'd practically gift-wrapped himself for them.

'Where is he?' Duo asked flatly.


'Crisler. Whoever he is. Does he work for you or did you just pull him into this once I met him?'

'Crisler-- I don't know a Crisler.'

'The historian. The one who had the papers about the Plague experiment.' He was agitated. He was angry, over the hurt, and it was making him feel stupid and dangerous, but he couldn't reign it in. 'What about Brabant? He kept trying to get me away from Preventers. Was he yours? He all but delivered me to you, last time. He had to have seen you there while I was climbing up to my apartment, but he still drove off. And he was part of it at the hospital when they were pretending to lock it down, but then Heero showed up and I knew something was wrong-- damn it.' He hit the wall before he knew he was moving, leaving two knuckle impacts in the plaster and achieving a numb sting in his hand. 'I should've seen it sooner,' he spat. 'I am fucking stupid. I deserve all of this for being so fucking stupid I couldn't see it coming.'

'Mr Maxwell, I swear, I don't know the men you're talking about.'

He did not believe her. 'Get someone in here who ranks, then. Get someone in here who can fucking tell me the truth!'

'Mr Maxwell, if you'll just calm down--'

'You'll what? Speechify at me about sacrificing for the good of humanity? I didn't never do a damn thing for humanity, I did it for me. I did it because I enjoyed every minute of it and because I could get away with it. Go appeal to someone else's better virtues and find me someone who will just fucking admit they've been screwing around with me from the beginning!'

While he was yelling the last of it, he got his wish. Heero came in again. Stood in the open door, feet spread like he anticipated a rush. Duo was already off the bed and pacing, he was that mad, and he went toe to toe with Heero, the woman standing helpless to his side.

'Tell me the truth,' Duo dared him. 'You owe me that.'

'I do?' Heero asked him softly.

'Yes, you son of a bitch. You owe me one damn second of honesty!'

The woman touched him. Might have been meant nicely, but he wasn't receptive. He turned to push her off-- not to hit her, because pissed or not he knew better than to hit a girl in the face-- but he got no further than a raised hand before Heero finally made his move. He was lifted by a body lock right off his feet and then he was out of the bedroom for the first time days, being hauled right on through the rest of the hotel suite past a lot of surprised faces. Then Heero kicked open a door into a tiled bathroom, dropped him into the shower cubicle, and turned on the water.

Dignity be damned. Duo took a shock of cold in the face and got in one watery breath. Then he kicked Heero in the ankles with both feet, and Heero crashed down on top of him in the spray.

'Damn it,' Heero said, grim-faced as they performed an impromptu wrestle. Duo locked his legs around Heero's waist and landed any punch he could. They'd only ever wrestled once, two decades ago, and it had been a draw then. It wouldn't be now. Duo didn't have the strength, that was pathetically obvious-- but even that realisation gave him fuel to his fury. He lasted a full two minutes, rolling with Heero around the cubicle smashing elbows and skulls, before Heero gave up playing nice and head-butted him into submission.

He had time, after blacking out for a moment and waking again to an ungodly pain in his nose and cheek, to just lay there thinking. Nothing coherent-- nothing important. Heero was still laying on top of him and he was cold from the shower water pooling all around him and soaking his clothes. But that wasn't terribly urgent. And probably it was worth taking a moment to wonder-- what the hell would it hurt. Give them whatever they wanted and maybe they'd just leave him alone finally. To go back to living whatever fraud of a life he had left.

Heero reached for the tap and turned it off. It cut the spray, but Heero was taking the brunt of that anyway. Then Heero combed his wet hair back, and he did that for Duo's too, and then he put his head down on Duo's shoulder, a solid weight that stilled where it landed.

Freak, Duo said, or maybe just thought he said. His mouth didn't move any.

'Stop fighting us, Duo,' Heero murmured. 'Please just stop fighting us.'

'I'll fight to the day I die.'

Heero sighed, or breathed out at least. He was heavy. Warm. If it hadn't been such a bad way to arrive there, it might have been a pleasant thing, lying there with him. He'd dreamt about it, back in the day. His first romantic crush-- first time he'd been crushed utterly, and the body remembered, sore nose and broken back and braid under his bed at home and all. Heero smelled exactly the same.

'Be honest with me,' Duo said, guttural with the effort, not caring if Heero could even understand him. 'You did it to me because you wanted a target you knew. You could've had any stranger in Space. You picked me because you could.'

He felt Heero's hand on his hip, tentative. 'Yes,' Heero acknowledged voicelessly.

Right. Right, for whatever it was worth.

'I was just looking for you,' he said. 'I never would have bothered you. I wouldn't have done this to you.'

This time it was definitely a sigh. Heero put both palms flat on the shower tile, climbed up off him. He pulled Duo up after him, with more care than he'd extended tossing him in there, and shook out a towel from over the rack to wrap him in. The door was open still. There was no-one brave enough in Heero's little Wunder Team to stay in the room adjacent while they'd fought. They were alone for their little power play. His ringing defeat, anyway. Nothing like a little wet humiliation to put a man in his place.

'I'll get you something dry,' Heero said. 'You can lie down again.'

'Are you ever letting me go?'

'That's not for me to say.'

'Why? You're the leader. You're not telling me Merquise is actually in charge.'

No shift in the blank wall of Heero Yuy's face. Of course.

'I won't stay like this forever. You know I won't. And either I'll get out or you'll shoot me trying, but I won't stay here like an animal in prison.'

'Just give us time.'

'For what.' He waited. Not long. It was a moot point. If Heero was going to tell him anything, he'd earned it well before letting Heero mourn him on a bathroom floor. He knew letting go when he saw it. It wasn't a good sign, here.

'All right.' He rubbed his nose. No blood, at least. 'All right. Fine. I just want this over with. Whatever the hell you want, ask.'

He felt like a cripple, walking back to the god-damn bed. Heero held him up by the elbow, then both elbows, shuffling him along over the flat hotel carpet. It was a nice little place, what he saw of it. Two enclosed bedrooms, and a third open to the kitchenette. That was where the rest of them had got to, gathered around the little table, staring at them as they went past. Merquise looked at him with open hostility. Duo ignored it. He was out of energy. He lay down, wet and all, and Heero mutely held out his pill bottle. Duo even entertained a brief fantasy of taking all of them, just because, but Heero would only slap him silly again and make him throw up, and he didn't have the energy for that, either.

He put two under his tongue to melt, and buried his eyes under his arm. 'What's going on, Heero?'

The mattress depressed slowly, carefully. Heero sat even with his knees, even touched him, a gentle little brush of his hand curving over Duo's thigh under the towel.

'Who is he?' Heero asked him softly. 'The man who's been after you.'

'You don't know?' Cold was setting in. He pulled the sheet up. Heero helped him. 'Figured you guys were the lords of technology, the super-spies.'

'We don't know.' Answer the question asked, not the one he'd implied. Heero to the bone. 'We only knew that he was after you, and why.'

'How'd you know that much even?'

Silence. Sure. Fine.

'He doesn't have a real name, not that I ever knew. Probably not that he ever knew. We called him--' He tried to motor through it. He didn't quite manage. 'Called him Solo.'

They would record it. Heero had to have something on him, a mic, a wire. The others would hear, out there in the kitchen. They'd be digging in the records, and how much of that was online, these days, how much they'd access right from this hotel. More, if they had any access to the unofficials. They would.

'No record,' Duo said. 'He's a ghost. You won't find him.'

'Who is he?'

'No-one. A kid who died. Or didn't.'

'Duo,' Heero said, even softer. He squeezed Duo's leg.

'He found me. He kept me. I thought he died. In the Plague. Never knew til just now.'

'Found you where?'

'You know,' Duo said, 'it never occurred to me to ask.'

'You were an orphan.'

'Am. It's not a condition you usually recover from. Then again, I thought Solo was dead, and he looks pretty hale and hearty these days.' One last swallow and the bitter medicine-taste was gone. Heero's hand was warm. 'We all were. Or abandoned, or unwanted, or just plain extra. Solo always took in the young ones. The young ones never stood a chance, before or after him. Feddies used to pick us off for target practise. Or sex, if you were the right kind or desperate enough. Maybe sometimes the ones they took did all right. Or got recruited, who knows. But Solo took after the young ones and that's the closest you get to a hero on L2. Didn't matter he only did it to spit in someone's eye.'

'Do you know why he's doing this?'

'No. And fuck him.'

'We need to know. So that we can find out who's behind him.'

'Tell me who you are, first.'


'No. I know how this plot unwinds. I'm the stooge. Well, I think I've earned it.'

'Nine One Five Six.'

'What's that? Nine one fix six.'

'Who we are,' Heero said, looking at him with that wooden face. Pinocchio, Duo had called him once. Heero hadn't got the joke. But then, he never did.

His eyelids were feeling heavy. All of him was feeling heavy. 'What's the Nine One Five Six.'

'After the Barton Rebellion, the Preventers were confined by the Parliament. They were restricted from paramilitary activity, bound into bureaucracy. They became ineffective.'

Wufei wouldn't appreciate that. But Wufei secretly liked paperwork. 'So what. It's a pretty peaceful world down there. L2's not hurting anyone but itself.'

'It's not entirely peaceful. It will never be entirely peaceful, unless there are people enforcing peace.'

'Hence the Nine One Fix Six.' Merquise. Heero. Who else, then? Misfits, libertarians, radicals. Cynics. The ones who might look at a Lady Une in the Presidential Suite and think the universe was getting to be an awfully small place without a lot of variety in the opinions being heard. 'I'm tired,' Duo said. 'Tell me the rest of it fast. What do you want from me.'

'We need to know about this man. Solo. Who's behind him. How they got the virus. If they have more.'

'I don't know any of that.'

'Then we need to find out.'

'Then you should have left me on the street and let him kidnap me again, not you.'

'We had no way of controlling such a scenario.'

'No shit.' He lay there breathing. 'Tell me you're sorry. Lie to me.'

'A minute ago you wanted me to be honest.'

'It didn't sound as good as I hoped.'

'I'm sorry,' Heero said.

'Yeah. Yeah.' He was past moving. All the aches disappeared. Even the emotional ones. 'If I help you. You promise me something. For real, this time.'


'He lives. Solo.'

Heero stopped touching him, then. 'I can't promise that.'

'He lives or I will obstruct you in every way possible. And you know me well enough to know I will find ways.'

'He's responsible for your health.'

'My health. What's fucking left of it. I should have been better by now. I've never been down this long. What if-- what if this is forever? What if this is always.' He breathed, because he could. Because he would live. Even if it was like this. He'd live, and he still wanted to live. He wanted to live. 'I want him to live. Because I owe him that. So promise me.'

'I can't. I can't predict--'

'We did this dance when we were fifteen. I'm too tired, Heero. Be human for me. Make me the kind of promise one man makes to another. Tell me you'll do everything in your power to keep Solo alive at the end of this. Give me your word that you'll do your best.'

'I don't understand.' Heero blew out through his lips. 'I... promise to try.'

'Yeah.' He was done. Or felt like, it anyway, but then, laying there, Heero not moving either, he found himself asking, 'Nine One Five Six. You have Hudson Crisler? Did you have him before I met him, or did you get him after? Hudson Crisler. The truth.'

'After,' Heero admitted, far too readily. Far too fast, because, Duo thought, he really hadn't wanted to know that, but the words were out of Heero's mouth before Duo could take his own back. After. He'd said things to Hudson he hadn't told any other outsider ever, things about the gene treatments, his Gundam, himself-- Hudson had seen all those records of him, that picture of him-- Hudson had known all that about him and still--

He rubbed his eyes, but they stung. 'Did he know what you wanted with me? I mean-- I mean, did he think he was helping me, or you lied to him maybe...'

'Are you in love with him?'

Bless him, Heero sounded actually confused. It made him laugh, anyway. 'God,' he said, 'you don't get anything. You don't get looking some kid like that in the face and just wanting him to be real. Preventers. How deep are you into Preventers?'

'We have contacts,' Heero said. He touched Duo's face. The tip of his finger swooped under Duo's eyes. 'You're crying.'

'I'm not either. What the hell is there to cry over? Spilt damn milk. Was it Wufei?' He braced himself.

'No,' Heero said, hushed, with his finger on Duo's cheek, rough like the sandpaper. 'Are you in love with him, too?'

'Why do you even care?'

And there it was. Twenty years laid bare, communicated in just Heero's hand on his cheek, Heero's eyes on his. I missed you. I thought about you. Let myself dare to dream, even, once or twice-- treasured the memories, plumbed every remembered word for meaning, feeling, wishing the time would just one day be right.

And now here was the time. But Duo was flat out because Heero had chased Solo to him, and Solo had done these horrible things that had no meaning, no reason-- his back, his hair, destroying these things that made him him, crossing the lines that no-one from L2 should ever have dared to cross. And Heero sat there looking at him, wanting him to say Yes, and--

'I feel compelled to point out you were the one rejecting me, back in the day,' Duo said, proud of his level tone. Because twenty years between or not, Heero still looked like that perfect boy, that beautiful raw body and big rough hands and eyes that made him feel more naked than bare skin ever could. Level tone, he managed, but damn if his heart didn't actually flutter, butterflies lodged in there with two decades of repressed waiting.

'It took me time to understand.' Heero's hand was impossibly still on him, iron control. He'd always known exactly how Heero would be in bed. That had never been half the appeal. 'I never really do,' Heero said. 'Understand you.'

No. Two mysteries colliding. Cosmic incompatibility.

Heero's lips on his were like his fingers. Heavy. Chapped, exerting force without yielding. Duo was yielding. Not just the pills, though they took the edge off the fear, helped him not care-- much-- about that crowd out there who very possibly were still eavesdropping in. Seduction was as old as the Bible and it worked, damn it, because knowing why it was happening wasn't stopping the involuntary slide closed of Duo's eyes, the terrified anticipatory stagger of his heart, the hard-on that was all undeterred by thoughts of cameras as Heero massaged him through the sheet.

A thousand adolescent fantasies of showers and private beds-- it didn't erase the bitterness, of having it all betrayed. But he still closed his eyes and took what he could get.

Heero sucked on his neck with all the power of an industrial hoover, rasped his tongue over Duo's jaw and sank crushing teeth into his throat like a lion claiming the kill. Then the sheet was shoved aside and Heero went down the line of Duo's shirt buttons, the schoolboy shirt he still wore. And that brought its own memories. A thin dorm-issue bed forever ago in the JAP sector-- that heated, heavy night after-- they'd destroyed the base together, like a clockwork team even as they competed for the best shots, knowing they were ending fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers of the very students they'd been impersonating. And on that thin mattress, on that one specific night with that scream of beam weaponry still buzzing in his entire body, it had been nothing to just-- reach over-- but it hadn't been like this, loaded, dangerous, flinching. It had been just-- sweet. Sweet, the way Heero had looked back at him, a crack in the armour that Duo had wanted to soothe, protect, polish away with soft words and it had been maybe the only time in his life that he'd ever been moved to something genuine and-- tender.

Not now. Nothing now. From his open shirt to his trousers, shucking him out of them, staring down at him like the thing between his legs was magical, awesome and alien. Heero stared down at him, dark head bent over him, and Duo stared at him staring, wondering what he thought, if he thought. Heero's hand swept low over his belly, down to circle thick fingers around him; it made Duo shudder, just a pure bodily wave of sensation that disappeared into numb fantastic heat as Heero pulled Duo's dick up into his mouth.

Fuck the microphone and the cameras. He was half-dressed and it was most of his concentration not to come with the first swipe of Heero's tongue. Heero didn't know what he was doing, that much was obvious, but, God, he didn't need to. When he figured out how to suction Duo had to choke off a moan. And those searching fingertips, everywhere, learning him from his jumps and his squirms-- yes behind the balls, rubbing his nipple, pinching it until he thrashed, and then sloppy licks that caught the hair on his thighs, the indent of his navel, his chin, his shoulder, and his spine as Heero turned him over, rolled him onto his knees and wrapped an arm like a steel girder around his middle to hold him up. He felt the sharp dig of a metal zip on his ass, the tug and shift of pants opening. Heero pulled him back onto his dick, just pulled him right back onto it, hot and messy in a wet fist of spit and then a blunt hard invasion.

'Duo,' Heero whispered, slipping the edge of control, for him. Because of him. Heero's legs scrabbled on either side of his, fumbled in between for leverage on the twisted sheets beneath, squeezing all the air out of him. Crushing him, pushing in, bulldozing in, shoving him away, sawing out, back and forth like it never occurred to Heero to ask him to help. He couldn't have done it for his life, though. Everything in him was focussed on that one perfect thing in him, Heero in him. He was too blind to even imagine what it looked like, too deaf to hear if he was groaning for it as Heero rutted over him like a giant mute animal, wearing him out, down.

Then-- he didn't know-- just thinking, somehow, that with-- Wufei-- they'd just-- been easier. Even if it hadn't been this intense, this overwhelming. But he'd always liked to-- to laugh in bed, and he had this crystalline image then of Wufei throwing his head back, absolutely unreserved, shattering the quiet in the bedroom with an uninhibited holler of delight.

He opened his eyes to a smoosh of blue cotton. The pillow. Registered Heero fucking him, harsh hot breaths on his back, and he was just laying like a log, a blow-up doll, and he couldn't-- couldn't. He tried twice to make his throat work, move his dry tongue. Grabbed the cheap wooden headboard, shoved back at the body on him with an elbow. 'Stop,' he croaked.

Heero stilled, hovered. His hand curled over Duo's shoulder, imploring wordlessly.

'I said stop.' He crawled himself out from under Heero. Felt empty, sore, open. Hauled his trousers up. He slipped or fell down the floor, completely uncoordinated. But the door was unlocked, and he made it out the door, out into the suite beyond. All of the others were there, the Nine One Whatevers. The girl was red-faced, embarrassed. Gimpy was sullen. Merquise dead-eyed. That was all right, then. Even kind of funny. Would wonder later if Heero knew he'd been fucking Duo under the nose of a man who'd wanted it even more than Duo.

'Water,' Duo said to them all. 'Someone get me water.'

The girl moved first. She stood from the table and went to the sink in the kitchenette, rinsed out a glass for him. Her eyes flew his direction, when Heero emerged then from the bedroom. Heero stopped short of his back, near enough for Duo to hear him breathing. No nearer.

The girl brought the glass to him, full to the brim. Duo drank it all, swallow by swallow. He gave it back when it was empty, and told her, 'I'm walking out that door.'

'No,' Merquise said.

'Heero,' Duo said. He didn't look back. But when he stepped around the girl and put feet to carpet, no-one stopped him. He unlocked the deadbolt, slipped the sad little wire alarm without even looking. And then he took back his freedom with nothing more momentous than depressing the latch. He did exactly as he'd said. He walked out the door, left it open behind him. He identified the street across a parking lot. He walked barefoot over the astroturf along the edges. He arrived at a stoplight on the corner, and stood there, just stood there. Not thinking.

Like how Wufei might not be worth it. Might be a part of the god-damn problem. Might have been lying to him from the beginning, like everyone important to him had showed up to lie, lately. Wufei wouldn't be any different.

Like how at least Heero had wanted him; and how maybe at this point it was nice, if surreal, to think someone might want him for a reason that didn't include world domination.

Like how if this was going to end, he'd have to end it. There were no more places to hide. And like if there was nothing to go back to, then he didn't have anything left to lose in fighting.

He got a 'Cross' signal, and did. He avoided a scatter of broken glass on the road, stepped wide of an oil slick, and mounted the kerb on the other side. Turned around.

Heero was there, just watching, from the door of the hotel suite. Holding up his pants with a fist, too far away to see if there was anything to see in his face, or if he was just miffed he hadn't got to finish. Probably not, at that.

Didn't matter. Didn't none of it matter, any more.


They'd brought him in on a van, so he hadn't had much of a sense of where they'd landed. It didn't take long to get his bearings, though. He was still on Inner, not Centre. Business sector, crammed in by the ferry to Centre, though, which wasn't his best preference, but it would swing in a punch. He just had to make sure he couldn't be ignored, and that needed a little more creativity on L2, and a little more risk. Business types turned a blind eye to anything that threatened their pocketbooks. But White Fang lived to stir up trouble. They patrolled here more even than in Outer; there was more profit in dragging people in to scare bribes out of them, if you did it in upscale neighbourhoods. There'd be the problem of getting away from the Fangers later, but that was later's problem.

He wandered the parking garage outside the port, trying to find a row that had the right kind of cars and no people coming or going, and, most importantly, no cameras. He picked an inconspicuously 'rich boy' car, a zippy blue sedan like a spoilt school kid would drive. The hood popped when he felt for the latch under the rim, and he fished out the spark plugs from the engine block. He closed the hood again, quietly. Breaking the plugs was more difficult-- he'd left his shoes back with the Nine One Five Six, so he couldn't step on them, and there weren't a lot of hammers just laying around in the garage. In the end, he managed to jam the plugs against a concrete support column. He slashed his thumb open on the porcelain, and swore into the quiet. He nursed the oozing little wound as he gathered up the shards. He gave them a toss at the driver's side window, and it spiderwebbed with a satisfying hiss on impact. The car alarm burst into full siren, and that covered the noise of him breaking the window the rest of the way with his elbow, shattering it inward. He popped the locks, and did a quick search of the interior, ditching a mobile phone on charge as far as he could throw it, and then arranged himself in an uncomfortable sprawl half in, half out of the open door. Blood went rushing to his head from the awkward angle, but he let it. Fainting would sell his act.

It took almost fifteen minutes, long enough for the alarm to cycle into repeating whoops and the Nav-Gab to summon a defunct police department on the auto-call. Duo waited it out. Ports were always lousy with Fangers, and it wouldn't be long.

He heard the footsteps, and made sure he was as relaxed as possible. He stayed limp as a cold hand touched his neck-- feeling for his pulse.

'Alive,' a man's voice said. 'He's just a kid.'

'Shit, look at 'im,' another whistled. 'Bruises all over his face. Robbery?'

Rough hands went through his trouser pockets, slapped open the glove compartment. 'No ID, no wallet. Someone cleaned him out and fucked him up.'

'Call for a bus,' the first one ordered. 'We'll take him in. He's someone's kid. We'll check him out at Hospital. Kid.' He was shaken, more gently than he expected. He let a little breathy groan out, and kept his eyes closed. They propped him up in the seat, one of them protecting his neck, and got him out onto the ground. 'We've got you, son,' the leader told him, and he felt a comforting little pat on his shoulder. 'Help's on the way.'
Duo ran a finger around the pudding tin to scrape up the last of the goop, licking it off before he discarded the cup to his tray. It had taken a few days, but his appetite had come back with a vengeance. The food wasn't bad, though he doubted he'd've got the same quality if he'd come in wearing his Sweeper disguise. His schoolboy uniform was getting him some actual care. Even the Fangers who'd brought him in had been nicer than predicted.

The doctor treating him, though, was starting to get suspicious. Duo's tests were in no way normal, not even accounting for the gene treatment. Then there was the fact that Duo had been faking amnesia about his 'attackers' despite the total lack of head trauma. That was proving to be the sticking point.

'Look, kid,' the doctor said again, 'you're not in any trouble here. I just want to know your name so we can call your parents.'

Well, the amnesia was a little more global, then. Duo had even pulled out his infrequent and least tested fake-out: the puckered brow, the quivering lip, the shameful blush. 'I wish I remembered,' he mumbled, poking his pudding disconsolately.

The Fanger in the corner was frowning at him. Duo avoided his eyes. So far, he hadn't been left alone to so much as piss. That was just peachy, though. He wanted at least one gun between himself and Solo, once they figured out where he was holed up.

The doctor broke protocol, then. She tucked her white coat around her and sat on the side of his gurney, putting her hand in a matronly sort of way on his knee. 'I want to talk to you about the bruises on your hips.'

He wasn't sure if he should act embarrassed or pretend he didn't know what she meant. Heero had left a little evidence of his southern sojourn. Given how Duo had arranged to be found, rape wasn't an illogical conclusion.

His ambivalence lost him the opportunity to play it. 'Kid,' she repeated. 'I know it's difficult to talk about. Pretending it didn't happen won't spare you in the long run.'

Well, in for a penny. 'Don't know what happened,' he said, stuck out his lip, and slumped back in his bed. 'Don't remember anything.'

She sighed. 'Take these,' she said shortly, and handed him a little packet of pills. 'They'll take care of any VD you might have contracted.' She stood. 'And think about what I said. The important thing is that your parents will be worried about you. They just want to know you're all right.'

Stubborn silence chased her out the door. Duo ate his apple.

'Good appetite,' the Fanger said.

Duo shrugged. 'Eat what's put in front of you. Mannerly.'

The Fanger was glowering. Maybe he recognised Duo, or thought he did. Duo commenced ignoring him.

They left him largely alone for the rest of the day, except for sending in a nurse with a new bag of fluids and an offer of a shower. That Duo did take; he didn't know when he'd get another, and rolling around in the bath with Heero hadn't really contributed to his overall cleanliness. He felt better for the exercise, and managed a nap, sleeping right through a shift change and the arrival of a new Fanger to guard him.

By the time they got to breakfast of Day Three, they'd given up persuading him to reveal his identity and just put out a picture of him on the news.

Worth a twitch. There would be people who'd know him. Some might call in with the truth. But that would just have to motivate Solo's crew to be faster. If they were watching. They sure as fuck had better be.

No storming of the hospital by Heero's people. If the Nine One Five Six were lurking in the halls trying to lock down the situation, he didn't see it. Maybe they'd figured he'd make as much noise breaking out as he had breaking in.

No luck for them.

Took them til dinner on Day Three. A nurse came in his room to change his IV again. New nurse, Duo noticed. Noticed, too, that he looked right at the Fanger, not the sideways uneasy glances of the rest of the staff. The nurse removed the old bag, hung the new one. Squeezed to get it dripping.

'You know,' Duo said, 'I would have gone with you for the asking. Don't put me in the trunk this time. I get car sick.'

The Fanger moved in. Ass, Duo started to tell him; but then the Fangers had never been much of an obstacle to actual crime. The muffled pop of a gun with a silencer led directly to a sick thud, and the nurse bent over Duo again, squeezing the bag. Fuzzy numbness spread in a flood from his arm over his chest, lapped up over his chin. Drowned him. He closed his eyes.

Asses all.


He knew it was a dream. Nothing felt right. Floaty, easy. But it was a good dream.

He was on Peacemillion. Back even before Operation Meteor-- or, anyway, before he'd known it was Operation M they were training him up for. It was a good place to grow up. They were good to him, Howard and Micaela and Joce, Kimmey and Gold Digger. The Doc.

He'd sort of figured always he was smart, but Doc was the one who'd first challenged him to make something of it. Don't tell me what you think until you can tell me why you think it, that'd been a favourite of his, and they'd had epic arguments, screaming obscenities at each other debating this or that, and then Doc would break of a sudden, mild as a momma bird, and say, 'Good enough for today, Demon.' Always just that. Good enough for today. Hard as it had been on J and O, Duo had wished sometimes that old Doc had made it out of Libra, too.

But Doc hadn't, so when he was there suddenly talking to Duo, that was how Duo knew he was dreaming. The ugly little gnome was sticking that pointed nose of his into Duo's workbook, 'mm-hm'ing and clucking and muttering. Duo said, I got it right, and Doc said not this bit, not here, see, and Duo said no you see. I buried J myself. He's been dead and gone since the last time I was on this colony, which you'd know if you ever listened to me.

Pfft, Doc said. Death. Haven't you figured out a way around that yet?

Round it? Looking forward to it.

That's the bit you get wrong, every time.

Am not, Duo said, but he laughed, Doc laughed too, and in the dream he did what he'd never done before, reached out and he was small like the child he'd been in the beginning, fresh out of the orphanage and on top of the world because he hated all of it, and Doc did what he wouldn't never have done, either, and hugged him back.

And then Duo woke up, rolled over, and puked off the side of the cot.

'Jesus,' someone said. They went to pull him up, but he wasn't done. 'Every damn time,' the voice went on, disgusted. 'Since when you have such a tetchy stomach, anyway?'

'Since I keep getting drugged to the vents,' Duo managed. His throat burned with acid, and he was dizzy. He closed his eyes against the cool metal bar of the cot, breathing through his nose. 'The fuck did you give me?'

'Just relax. It's not going to kill you.'

'Wouldn't want to cut the fun short.' His heart was beating too fast. His chest felt like the inside of a drum. 'God,' he said.

'Not quite, Kiddo.'


Well. At least his instincts were still good.

'Since I'm just lying here,' Duo said, 'how about you finally tell me what exactly you want with me.'

'Kiddo, quit making a scene. Just relax.'

'You stuck me with fucking Plague! You fucking relax!' The dizziness was not going away. He thought he might throw up again, and wrapped his head in his arms. 'What did you give me?'

'It gonna make you feel better to know the name?'

'Yes, God damn it. What is it?'

'Triazolam. So chill the fuck out.'

Triazolam. He was actually shocked, somehow, even though he'd been living with the effects for months. If they'd given him that every time he'd been in their bailiwick, no shit he had amnesia. Spoke plenty for the size of the dose they were giving him, too, if it had knocked him clear out every time they'd injected him. There were plenty of drugs that kept people quiet. They'd wanted him to forget his own name.

Which sort of suggested Doctor Roge had been on his side, after all. Figured he'd be the innocent one, not Hudson. The irony was too rich, sometimes.

'Who do you work for?' he asked the inside of his elbow.

'Why bother, Duo? You won't remember it.'

'Humour me.'

Solo was standing there over him, over the weak smell of his sick on a cot in a room that could be any damn room in the universe. They called that holding all the cards, in poker.

'You've been real brave,' Solo said finally. 'I'll give you that. More nuts and guts than anyone I've got on my side.'

'You would know.'

Solo heaved a sigh. 'Get up. Come on.' He hauled Duo up by the arm, not ungently, deftly walked him around the stream of vomit to dry concrete. Didn't let him go, but that was all to Duo's benefit. He was barely keeping on his jellied legs. His eyes went black every couple steps.

And he'd probably done it all once before. Twice-- hell, maybe all three times. Not unreasonable, or at least not irrational. Keep him docile. Let him have his little demands. He'd forget it all, compliments of a syringe full of moggies. He'd be lucky to remember how to walk, if they jabbed him again like this.

'You need me to carry you?'

'I will-- bite you--' Except that, yes, there came a warm arm around him, tugging him up to a warm hip. 'Don't you dare. Solo, fuck it, don't--'

'Don't be a baby. I'm bigger'n you and I'll pick you up if I feel like it.'

'No-- no, you--' He fudged it up, or wriggled right, or something, and the hand going for his knees only caught one leg, and they tipped over off-balance. Solo tried to catch them on the wall, cursing him, Duo fell the rest of the way flat on his rump. Solo tripped over him and landed on the concrete with a slow, inevitable slide.

Duo stared at him. Solo stared back.

And then, unbelievably, Solo burst out laughing.

'Jesus,' Duo said. 'You're really him.'

'Aw, Kid.' Solo tugged at him. Tugged him down, wrapped his arm around his shoulders, rubbed his hair. 'It's okay.'

It was a little like the feeling of being back with Heero. Good in a dreamy sort of way-- a never-thought-it-would-happen way-- wary, too. Heero and Solo had that in common, too-- neither of them were there to look out for Duo's well-being. End of story.

Then, too, Solo wasn't the rangy-limbed, edge-of-teenaged hero he'd been in Duo's childhood. Heero was like Duo. A boy, forever, altered and now unalterable. Not Solo.

There were lines in his face-- wrinkles of ageing skin. Silver threads muddying his thick blond hair. A thickness in his shoulders and waist that even natural slimness couldn't fight. Solo had grown up.

Duo couldn't stop staring at the changes. A little like the feeling with Heero-- trying to take in the reality, impose it fresh over the idealised memory. But it was weirdly-- repulsive. Duo had got used to the idea that some people would always be the same. His people, his kind. Solo was his kind. Solo was what Duo would have been, if they'd never needed a kid to pilot a Gundam.

'I gave you that to drink it,' Solo said, breaking his reverie. 'I'll take it away if you don't.'

Duo flexed his fingers around the bottle. He put the water to his lips, and swallowed; he forgot about it the second it touched the table again. The rusty little kitchen Solo had taken him to was an eminently forgettable kind of space, just like the rest of the old apartment. Not quite as bland as Heero's place had been, but on L2, downscale was a little more usual than upscale. 'You still haven't really explained. You said-- I mean, you said you already told me once. I don't remember it. Tell me again.'

Solo coolly flicked his hair from his eyes. 'You won't remember it now.'

'Only if you jab me again. And I remembered you told me that much, didn't I?' Duo hunched over the rickety plastic table. He was cold, and the kitchen spun around him still. 'You've short-circuited my entire fucking life. I'm not owed a repeat, even?'

'Cry me a river,' Solo retorted. He took Duo's bottle anyway, drank it for himself.

'You've never even seen a river,' Duo said. 'You owe me.'

'I taught you better than that. There's no pockets for debt in our world.'

Duo took his water back. 'Then it's total coincidence I'm here and not some other Plague survivor from the Stars.'

His mention of the old gang drew silence down over them like fire suppressant. Thick and air-sucking. Solo's mouth was a hard, thin slash.

Then, 'As far as I know, you'n me's the only two made it out,' Solo said.

Not a shock. A little, ancient ache. He'd never known for sure. He'd never been able to find out. He hadn't looked too hard.

Hadn't gone back even to see if Solo had made it. He'd been six. Six and scared.

'Just tell me,' Duo said finally. 'We're already sitting pretty. And I already had it from the Nine One Five Six.'

They glared at each other over a mile-long stare. 'Oh, I just bet,' Solo said. 'How was the reunion?'

'You're on par. Why me?'

'Give it up, Kid. It's really not anything you need to know.'

'You think no? Or you think maybe I'll slip you like I slipped the Nine One Five Six and spend the next ten years running you both on a merry chase?'

Solo's mouth went tight. 'What do you know about them?'

'What do you care what I know? You don't care if I know my ass from my elbow, as long as you can stick me with your needles and shove me back into the world.'

'We saved your fuckin' life, idiot. Don't make me regret it.'

That, Duo heard. 'Saved it? Not the way I remember it.'


'Matter of fact, what I do remember is one of your big boys holding me and you shooting me up with Plague.'

Solo yanked the bottle out of his hand, throwing it at the mouldy sink behind him. 'Plague. Kiddo, you got it back-asswards. I here to fucking rescue you.'

Okay. Okay.

All right. Maybe that was true. Maybe he believed it, but then he'd believed it out of Heero's mouth, too. Then again, it didn't stun him the way it might've, a week ago. A week ago Heero hadn't been a manipulative bastard who fucked him practically in public and let Zechs fucking Merquise beat the crap out of him. A week ago Heero hadn't touched him like it was the last good breath he'd ever get, and cried over him in that bathroom. Yeah. It made too much sense, in all the worst ways. It was too believable.

Yeah. He drew his own good breath, deep deep breath. 'So I'm not carrying the virus.'

'Not exactly. Fuck.' Solo planted his fists on the table. 'Jesus. This would be better with beer. You drink?'

'Whiskey,' Duo said. 'What do you mean, not exactly? There's infected and not infected.'

The plastic cabinet over the sink yielded bottles. Cheap paper glasses. Solo poured for him, both of them, full glasses that nearly emptied the bottle. Duo wet his lips with it. It tasted like medicine, like novacaine. He put it down with a grimace.

'Most everyone our generation had the vaccine or had Plague and lived through it,' Solo said. 'But they eliminated the virus instead of vaccinating the new generations. And they never vaccinated on Earth. There was no travel, back in those days. They controlled the outbreak, so they stopped producing the vaccine. And what there is left, is controlled, too. We don't have people on the inside who can get access.'

'So what-- not the vaccine?'

'An agonist.'

'Agonist.' It wasn't a word he knew. 'So what is that? It's a cure?'

'It slows it down. Suppresses it.'

Duo grappled with the science of it, but didn't fundamentally know enough to follow that. 'So I'm not contagious?'

'We hope,' Solo said flatly.

That cast his colony-hopping jaunt in a rather more irresponsible light. 'But you were in suits,' he said, useless protest. 'You suited up to inject me.'

'You do remember, huh. We weren't in suits because of you. Work suits. To look like we were cleaners at the warehouse.'

'Cleaners.' Duo rubbed his eyes. 'White suits. Yeah. Jesus. Okay. You got me away from the Nine One Five Six. You took me to a warehouse. You suited up-- so you could run right after? Why run? I'd seen you. I knew who you were.'

'Weren't running from you.'

Merquise shoving that picture in his face, right before slapping him silly. Frustration threatened, right on the tip of his tongue. He held it back, drowned it with whiskey. 'I can't do it like this. Go back to the beginning. Go back to the very beginning.'


'I have a fucking name.' He drained his cup. It burned his tongue, but he drained it, and closed his eyes after. 'I have your name.'

'Yeah,' Solo told the darkness under his lids. 'I know. I know you have a name.'

'It was an apology,' Duo said. Put it out there into the darkness and the stars. 'Mostly. Maybe. They're scarce, around these parts.'

'Duo. Duo Maxwell. Yeah.' Solo sighed. Duo heard him. 'It was a nice gesture, Duo.'

'Nice. Fuck you, nice.' Duo shook his head, and put his his chin down on his hands. The whiskey was slow to hit, but his head was hot and swimming already, so it didn't matter much. 'Tell me the truth. All of it.'

He felt Solo's hand on his hair. 'All right.'

It was heavy enough to earn them a new bottle. Duo's glass was refilled; Solo had another the same size, before he worked it up to start. Duo waited impatiently, forcing himself to breathe evenly.

'What do you know about the virus?' Solo began finally.

'What you know,' Duo said wearily. 'The Feddies made bio-weapons. The virus got out, there was never enough vaccine. Killed off a third of L2.'

'That all you know?'

'All anyone knows that's not classified--' Except that wasn't quite true, was it. Hudson's files-- Casey Pope's files on all the kids she's injected with the sandwich programme. 'They were deliberately releasing it,' Duo said slowly. 'Through the social workers. They started with the homeless.'

'Specially the kids.'

'Yeah. And there were some--' He was about to go the distance, reveal there was a natural immunity, and he had it. He stopped himself short just before it left his tongue. And then didn't know if maybe he'd said it before, anyway. If this was the second, third time they'd had this discussion, how could he know?

Except that-- he hadn't known, not before. Not before the first and second kidnappings. He hadn't met Hudson until after the second one, when he'd gone into protective custody on the other side of the colony. By the time Solo had him during his third go, the time with the white suits, and both Merquise and Solo giving him some kind of jab, he'd known about Casey Pope; but no-one had asked him questions, then.

He'd outright told the Nine One Five Six-- whether or not they took it for true. And it didn't necessarily follow that Solo had ways of knowing what the Nine One Five Six knew, but if Solo didn't know it yet, and he really was the good guy, possibly he ought to hear it.

Unless he was really a bad guy.

Solo was going on without him, anyway. 'Shoulda known better,' Solo was saying, blunt but not sorry for it. There was no sorry anywhere in his flat level gaze. 'Knew it was suspicious, suddenly they're handing out food. But I did it anyway. I got us all infected. Knew exactly how it was going down, when I saw those needles. But we were hungry. So I decided for all of us, and that's how it went. We got a few more meals and they died anyway.'

Duo curled his hands, one over the other. 'Can't say I would've decided any different,' he answered truthfully. 'The devil you know or the devil you don't.'

'Yeah.' There was something tight, though, that went just a little slack in Solo's face. Solo looked away, for no more than a second. His knuckles on the whiskey went white, before he flattened his palms to the table.

That, Duo believed. For a second, anyway, before the doubts came in again. But it looked real.

'But you made it?' he asked, to fill in the little dip of quiet.

'Yeah.' Solo looked at him again, with a heavy breath. He emptied his glass, tipped it straight back for the last gulp, and filled it again. He spun the empty bottle on the tabletop, prodding it along with a thumb. 'Thought back then you'd brought us the cure. Thought I'd had enough of it to live. But the others all died; the ones who were left by then. I woke up when the Corpse Cops came to load us up for the incinerator. Kept screaming for them not to burn 'em. Maybe they was like me, just asleep while they cured.'

'But they took care of you, the cops?'

'Like hell they did. One of the bastards wanted to shoot me right there. Maybe they thought I knew something-- maybe they just hated colonials, like the rest of those Feddie pigs.' Solo spat casually for the memory. 'I pulled it together to run. Went down a sewer hole, and they gave up. Stayed down there a couple days more, to be sure they were gone.'

Duo knew exactly that sewer. One of the side lines, not big enough for a grown man-- tight fit for someone Solo's size, then. In that condition. Still not-- okay, still not a detail that couldn't be made up with whole cloth, if you wanted to pretend to be a no-name who'd really died of Plague. If you had reason to pretend. Duo hadn't heard a reason yet, but he could sit this out, collect his evidence, decide when he had all the facts.

'What then?' he asked.

'What's to tell? Figured I was the only one left. Didn't realise you'd made it too, til I saw you on the news during the war. Gundam Pilot. You looked almost the same-- knew you right off. Thought it was somethin' else. Raining down the thunder of God on the fuckers keepin' us locked in this hell. Thought-- hell, maybe I could do something to contribute, too. So I found a cause and I signed up.'

'A cause, on L2? White Fang?'

'Nothing personal,' Solo said. 'We didn't start out cross-hairs.'

'Wait. Just wait.' White Fang-- meant Zechs Merquise. Who, in what could still be coincidence, given the flash-fire nature of politics on L2, just happened to be back on colony as a member of this Nine One Five Six. He'd generally ignored the Fanger angle, before, but now it seemed a little more suspicious. Of course, the Fangers had a dozen factions these days, none of whom claimed Merquise as their leader, any more, but could it mean something that was all related?

Solo waited him out this time, but Duo didn't let it lag. He didn't know how much time he had, and one way or another he wanted his answers. 'The Nine One Five Six,' he said, putting his thoughts to voice. 'What do you think they want?'

Solo cocked his head, with that glint to his eye that said Duo was walking a ledge. 'If I had to guess, I'd say they wanted a weapon.'

That much of his theories jived, yes. A walking bio-weapon. And they'd said they had a source in Preventers-- granted half the colonial branch had been fresh out of the Fangers, after the war, and some of them might still be loyal to Merquise. And the rest might be willing to follow Heero Yuy, come to that. It worked. And it even followed, didn't it, that if the Nine One Five Six had access to the virus and they were in the market for a Plague rat, someone in Preventers-- who knew Duo didn't age, who knew Duo's criminal background, who knew Duo was into the Archives, the war records-- who knew he'd run into Hudson, who knew what had been in Hudson's files before they'd been wrapped up tighter than Une's mental history, who knew there'd been an immunity experiment-- someone in Preventers might have looked at Duo and seen a prime candidate.

'And you?' Duo prodded then. 'What do you want?'

'It matter what I want? I'm the one who has you, now.'

'I told them about you. Your name. Enough for them to find you. You can bet they'll be looking.' Solo's nostrils flared; Duo gave him plenty of time to think that through. 'Tell me what you want out of this.'

'Not another war,' Solo said flatly. 'Not more sanctions. Not thousands of deaths that'll hit the same vulnerable people, the trash that no-one here or on Earth will lift a finger to save until after it starts knocking on doors up-town. What I don't want is a repeat of the same damn history.'

'Then why not just come to me? Why not just say your speech and trust that I'd feel the same? I fought that war already, too. I might've helped without the tri-fucking-azolam or a broken damn spine.'

'We did,' Solo said.

That brought him up short. 'What?'

Solo's mouth widened in something a little too grim to be a smile. 'We did. I told you, Kiddo. We had this same damn conversation once already. But I give you marks for consistency.'

His own mouth was too dry to snap something back, even if he'd had the brain power to come up with it. 'I agreed?' he managed.


'And? Fuck, Solo. What happened?'

'And we drugged you and we put you back out there and hoped we'd be able to take care of the Nine One Five Six before they got to you again.'

'Why drug me?' He was only so credulous. He'd almost swallowed it, right to that point. 'Why would you need to? If I believed you? If I was baiting Heero I wouldn't need to be drugged-- would've been easier if not--'

'Kid, shut the fuck up and let me tell you the story.' Solo scrubbed his chin, fingernails rasping in his stubble. 'You didn't want to remember, you said.'

'If that's true, then something big must've changed my damn mind, because all I've wanted these past months is to fucking understand what's happened to me! What the hell wouldn't I want to remember? I don't believe you. I don't believe I'd want this for myself! My back--'

'We didn't hit you. Thank your friend Yuy, next time you see him.'

'My hair!'

'I didn't cut your fucking hair.'

'Oh, I did that to myself, I suppose?'

Solo stared him down, until a cold pit opened up in his gut. 'You got nothing left to cut, if we go through this again.'

'Why? Why would I do this?'


'No. Why?'

They had one more staring contest. Duo won it. Solo got up, left, even. Duo flexed fingers gone numb from clenching so hard. He was past even thinking true or not true; now he just needed to know. Sort it later. Someday. Or hell, maybe--

Solo was back, with a folder. Acid-free folder, Duo noted that automatically, years of research at the Archives noted those things without thinking. Solo put the folder down in front of him, opened it for him, and turned a stapled document to face him.

'What is this?' Duo didn't touch it, not yet. Memorandum of Understanding. Dated 186. Federation letterhead, Matchette's office-- another Matchette link? 'Where did you get this?' he demanded, turning it over. But there was no archival stamp. Someone's private collection? Could there be a second collection, outside Hudson's? 'Did Hudson--'

'Same place the Nine One Five Six got the virus. Same place we got the agonist.'

'And where is that?'

'Do you want to know that or you want to know about the hair, Kid?

Duo stopped him taking away the folder, pulling it close. Memorandum of Understanding. Had all the official marks, wet signatures on the seventh page of the lengthy text. Real paper, as official as it got. Memorandum of Understanding, Federal Office to independent colonial agency, transfer of funds to the order of a cool one and a half million-- to the private business of E. Maxwell, henceforward CEO of the Maxwell House Orphanage, fronted out of the empty Holy Spirit Catholic Church complex.

Maxwell House Orphanage. For the care of twenty-two minor children currently in the custody of the Federation, to be monitored for the duration of a classified medical study.

Signed by Eduardo Maxwell and Helena Rivera.

The ground dropped out from under him so quick he swayed in his chair, ears ringing. He gripped the Memorandum hard enough to crumple the pages. 'They knew?'

'That they were watching the kids in the immunity experiment for the Feddies. They knew.'

'And they-- let them do that to us? They let it happen--'

'Kid. Duo.' Solo sighed heavily, standing over him, to take the document away, to squeeze his shoulder. 'You don't have to take everything so personal.'

'Who'd I learn that from, huh?' He knocked Solo's hand away, but he wasn't angry. Just-- cold. 'Who told me to fight 'em til I died? Who told me if I went out to take the sons of bitches with me? I fucking believed the sons of bitches. They lied about everything.'

'You don't know that. All you really know is they took money to look after you. The money probably kept that place floating. I taught you how to keep an open hand and a knife, too.'

'No. No, you don't know-- they kept us there at the church while Matchette designed a better virus off our tests. They kept us there while L2 was dying, for what, money? For fucking money?' He laid the Memorandum down, carefully, closed the folder after it. 'They knew what Matchette was doing and they didn't do a damn thing to stop it.'

'So what if they took the money? They love you any less for it? They treat you like purse strings or like a kid who needed a home?'

'They even put us in the Feddie schools to test us. Could we catch it? Did the rich kids catch it from us?'

'Kid.' The hard command made him glare. Solo met him eye for eye, arms crossed over his chest. 'You're leaping without looking. Again.'

'So I did cut it off.' Yeah. Yeah, that was right-- because if he'd had a knife in front of him, just now, he would've done it again. The back of his neck crawled, just thinking about it. Father Maxwell-- Sister Helen. Telling him to be a good boy, go with the nice people. Good things are out there for good people. We all just have to care about each other.

He'd believed them, too. What a fool he was. He really would believe anyone, anything. He'd believed Father was a priest because he'd seen a collar. He'd believed Matchette had fired on Maxwell House because of the rebel cell, until he'd found proof it all came back to Plague. He'd believed Heero cared enough about him to want to save him, and all Heero really wanted was a stooge. He'd begun to believe Solo, hadn't he, injecting him with an agonist, whatever that was. All of them probably vaccinated, controlled or not, if they had all this access, all this traffic with L2's ancient history. Letting him run around the whole colonial system, all of Space, a walking infection, and him believing all along, just believing somewhere in him that no-one could be that vicious anymore, no-one could want that many innocent people to die--

And all along, all along, since he was six years old, he'd been living that exact same story. Eduardo Maxwell and Helena Rivera. The biggest dupe in the universe.

He registered his teeth in his thumbnail when he tasted blood. He rubbed it away on his hospital gown. 'Where'd you get that?' he said finally. 'Matchette's papers were mostly shredded.'

'Not everything.'

'Central Command copies? The Council? All of that was classified after the war.'

'Classified's just a fancy way of saying filed in a locked room.'

'You were White Fang. The Federation was practically dead by then. Romafeller burnt so much paper it made newsprint, even then.'

'White Fang wasn't all colonial. Why you makin' me spell it out?'

'I want the details. Who did you get and what did they bring you?'

'You saw the name on that document. Who you think brought it in?'

'Matchette?' Duo pulled in a sharp breath. 'Matchette turned coat?'

Solo tucked the folder under his arm. 'He was trying. Not for our Space trash, but to take down Khushrenada. We weren't too picky about the reasons why. Didn't matter. All came to a head at Libra. Matchette died of a fucking heart attack, year later. We were slow getting to him to clean it up. His office was empty by the time we got there. We figured it was someone from OZ, but too late is too late. There wasn't an OZ by then. Was hardly a White Fang.'

'You said the Nine One Five Six-- they got the virus--'

'Matchette had stores of it. Jumbled up. Took years of sorting, to figure out what was what.'

'No, I mean-- if you and the Nine One Five Six both had access-- which of you used to be the other one?'

Solo twigged to his meaning, his mouth twitching down. 'They split from us,' he said. 'Merquise split from us. Early in 196. We were moving on L2. He didn't want to focus that tightly. Said we needed a broader view. Earth, he meant. Fuck Earth. I don't give a shit about Earth.'

'So, what? Two decades later, what is there to show for it? You watched them, they watched you?'

'No. They did whatever the hell they wanted. No-one cared. But when they were making their move on this, we stepped up.'

'You and who?' he pressed.

'No-one you know. No-one you'd know about.'

'And how'd you know to move? How'd you get out in front of it?'


Wasn't that worth a pause. He'd never guessed. Working both sides? With which agenda? What did he really want?

'Why triazolam? Don't tell me because I didn't want to remember. I've never in my life taken such an easy way out.'

Solo sighed heavily, sprawling his elbows on the table. 'You were hurt so bad. You said you'd recover. I don't know if I believed you, then. But there was no point letting you suffer. It was the easiest to get our hands on, more a coincidence than anything else. But you went through it like it was water. Then you started to forget. It just seemed-- we thought maybe if we just left you, you'd be okay, and we'd have time to get at the Nine One Five Six if Preventers weren't in the mix makin' it harder by gettin' in our way.'

'But that's only the first time.'

'It worked once. Kid, look at it from my side. You blame me for ruining your life in one breath and for trying as best I could in the next.' He stood. 'That answer all your questions?'

'Not by half.' Duo chewed his thumbnail again, ignoring the twinge of abused flesh. 'One more. What's the plan, now?'

'Now?' Solo repeated. He pointed to Duo with the folder. 'Now, we put you back out there.'

Sawing out holes in his walls to stash the laptop and his papers. Plaster over it, hide it. Lifetime of hiding, he knew the way of it better than anyone, and he'd had considerable need to employ it. Sawed out his walls, and then set the decoys, moving his bed to a new spot, hanging pictures in new places, tripping the obvious gives with wires and pellets. Inconveniences, barely more than that, but enough of them could work a guy up to a good rage, and angry people made mistakes. Angry people made noise, and noise got you caught. He laid his traps, and last of all he set out all his empty soup cans, the oldest trick in the book, so that they'd crash and clatter if the door opened into them. Wouldn't scare off anyone really dedicated, but it might make them hesitate, might make them trip and fall if he were really lucky, and that was just enough time to run. Or fire a gun. He slept right on top of his Glock, finger curled around the trigger.

He woke up twisted on his side, his arms stretched over his head. He didn't know why. It hurt, he was sore, he was tired of being sore, he was groggy from the pain. He reached for his pills, before he realised what had waked him.

Knocking. Knocking, waiting for him. He didn't know anyone who would knock.

Wufei? You need to listen to me now. He's here. I can't do anything to stop him. Find the video. There will be video. That's the best I can do.

His cans went clatter-bang. The door was open. Someone was inside.

Listen to me, Wufei, he said, I'll try to--

Footsteps, unerring, right to his bedroom. A dark shadow coming to him. A hand pushing back a hat, taking it off. Dark hair. Light eyes. A face he'd stopped believing he'd ever see again.

Trust me, Duo. That's all I'm asking.

Dazed. He'd taken his pills too, stupid, because it made him pliant, made him loopy, and he went when he might have fought it more, stone sober. Heero helped him up, Heero put him on his feet, Heero walked him right out his door and down the steps to the street below. There was a car waiting. Wait, Duo said, wait, please, but his feet moved on anyway, with Heero's hand on his arm, and Heero tucked him into the passenger seat. Heero got into the car. Turned on the heat for him, asked him if he was all right. Sure, whatever-- why are you-- why are you--

We need you, Duo, Heero said. I need you. Something only you can do.

There was a warehouse. Heero hit him in the face as he fought, and Zechs Merquise held him down as they stripped him like a child, stripped him naked and pushed a needle deep into his muscle, and infected him. No, Duo said over and over, No, I'll fucking murder you for this. I'll fucking murder you. I trusted you and you betrayed me, you traitor. Traitor.

There was a warehouse, and he was infected, he was crawling away-- creeping in the dark between cold dead machines, stay very quiet, afraid to breathe aloud or they would find him. Gunshot. A lot of gunshot, behind him, ahead of him, all around him, he just had to make it outside, there were options outside-- maybe someone who could help him, get him to Preventers--

I found him! someone shouted, Duo flinched away, tried to run. They grabbed him by the ankle, dragged him out from under cover, all hell was breaking loose. Gunshot. Bodies. The one who'd found him was dead.

Then it was Heero again, with a bloody streak down that cold marble face, dragging him out with cold marble hands. Stripping his bloody clothes off him, to put in a garbage bag. Burn it, Heero told Merquise, who looked Duo in the eye, Duo sitting there naked and shivering, and Merquise nodded heavily and did as he was told. I'm sorry, Heero said, and then Heero was gone, too, running off, gunshot chasing him off into the darkness.

Kid. Jesus, what did they do to you.

No. Couldn't be.

Kid. Just trust me. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not going to hurt you like they did.

No more needles. Fuck you, no more needles.

We have to, Kiddo. This one'll save you. Save us all. Just trust me.

When's this hell going to be over?

Solo showed him the papers. Father Maxwell, Sister Helen. It was supposed to be something better than the rest of L2. It was supposed to be-- sacred. Good. He hadn't had them, but he'd had the memory, at least, and that memory had kept him on the straight and narrow when he might have fallen off the edge, otherwise, might have lived a mean and wretched little life on a colony where mean and wretched was just the usual. That memory had got him off of L2, had got him into a Gundam, had made him walk up to Chang Wufei and say, Hey, remember me? I was thinking-- I was thinking that I'd like to do some good, if you know a place, and Wufei had looked him in the eye and believed him and that had brought him to what he had now, and he was-- terrified of losing that. But as soon as he saw the words on that page, Memorandum of Understanding-- They'd been the wall between him and the worst he was capable of. They'd been the hand on his shoulder holding him back from revenge, keeping him on the path of justice. They'd been the angels on his shoulder telling him he knew wrong from right, and it was up to him to keep J and O alive, because it was the right thing to do. They'd been a comfort in the worst of dark nights, when he'd been alone and in despair, and because of them he'd got up every morning and chosen to live one more day, even on L2, even in jail, even in war, because it was his to choose. They'd been a grace in a life without a lot of grace, and they'd been the measure he'd held himself to, when he knew he was slipping. He'd always wanted them to be proud of what he'd made himself, of what he'd made himself because of them.

And they'd been nothing more than collaborators, scam artists taking money from the Feddies to watch children die.

Kid, Solo said, I'm sorry.

Fuck sorry. He was cold inside, frozen over. Give me a knife.


Give me a fucking knife.

He cut his hair off, sawed off the braid he'd worn because a woman who wasn't really Sister Helen had braided it, because a man who wasn't Father Maxwell had smiled at him and said if he was that attached to it, it was his to keep. He sliced right through the only thing left connecting him to a past that wasn't really his anymore, and he dropped it to the ground at his feet, he turned his back on it, and when he turned around, there was Solo, grave and troubled and watching him for the next move.

Do what you have to do, Duo told him. And then leave me alone. I don't want to remember this tomorrow. I don't want to remember them, or you, or Heero fucking Yuy. Do what you need to do and leave me the hell alone, forever.

Duo sketched a diagram of wires, linking the circuit as he imagined it in his mind's eye. He folded the plate he was drawing on, matched the plans inside to the drawing on the outer. It might work. You just couldn't trust field agents not to mess it up. Even Wufei complained he couldn't figure out Duo's gizmos without using the instructions-- ignoring the whole mess of why Duo bothered to write instructions in the first place. You just couldn't trust field agents to read 'em. But if he eliminated the middle man, if he packed it so all they had to do was flip the lip-- the wires just had to touch--

He needed hardware. He searched his kitchen doodad drawer, but he didn't have the right gauge. It was going to take some playing. If he hustled, he could make it to the store before they closed. He stuffed his plate-sketch into his pocket, pulled on his jacket. Last second, he turned back, for the gun he kept under the couch cushions. It was late enough he risked running into some brave pack of teenagers looking to shake up trouble. He'd have better luck averting it if he went carrying.

As it was, he didn't even need it. The streets were all but empty. He even whistled a little as he walked, finding himself in a good mood for once. It had been all work and no play, lately. Wufei was due for a vacation soon. Duo was thinking of suggesting they go somewhere, even just uptown, rent a little room and soak in hot tubs for a weekend. Of course it would all depend on whether Wufei forgave him for forgetting to show up to their last date. He'd been sidetracked, though Wufei would never believe it really had been to help Mrs Jones find her lost cat.

He had just a few minutes extra. He detoured fast toward Yang's off-license. A fizzy would get him through the evening better than caffeine; he was always more creative with sugar, and he'd need all he could get if he wanted to knock this project out by morning. The lady at the counter was the old grandmother, not the daughter who spoke English. Duo just nodded peaceably at her suspicious, bat-eyed glare, and grabbed a lemon off the counter near the door. He moved toward the old woman, fishing in his pocket for his coins.

A hand landed on his shoulder. He shook it off, turning to look, dropping his own fingers to the gun at his hip--

Hey, Kiddo, the man said to him. Blond hair, to the up-turned collar, blue eyes over a nose gone crooked from an old break, mouth twisted up to the left in something not quite a smile--

Solo? Duo whispered.

Just listen to me now. I need you to trust me without asking any questions yet. I need you to come outside with me. You need to hurry. They're coming.

He got his wind back. No. No, who was this, just some man, What do you mean trust you, I don't know you--

Kiddo, we gotta move this thing. Come on. Just trust me.

Like hell, Duo said, but he was shaking, and then it-couldn't-be-Solo dared to touch him again, curved a palm right on his cheek. Duo snapped. He went blank and frightened and furious, and his first swing was dead accurate, bending the man over his fist. But he'd reckoned without the big one moving in behind him, a second and a third man, a fourth hustling them out past old lady Yang who was calling the cops on the phone at the counter. Duo was no match for that many of them, and they picked up him by the arms and dragged him out, with the not-Solo coming up the rear, meeting his stare eye for eye.

No, Duo yelled at him, no, I don't fucking believe you. I don't believe you.

Kid, the man said, Kid, stop fighting for once in your damn life, he said. I never meant to leave you. I'm sorry, but I'm here now, and I'm telling you, you need to listen to me.

Impossible. Like a dream. A nightmare. Arms around him, the man holding him, and Duo stood there shaking, letting him, just maybe possibly starting to think it could be real--

Solo, one of the others called sharply. Right before a bullet punctured the shop sign next to him. Everyone went scrambling for cover, Solo tried to pull him down behind a postbox. Who is it? Duo demanded, dazed, fumbling his gun. Blue eyes, blond hair, could it really be?

They ain't here to help, Solo said, and looked at him with the old grin, the devil-comin-give-'em-hell grin, and that was the moment Duo was sure. And on the strength of nothing more than that he did something too damn stupid to be noble even. He pushed Solo out of the way and took the hit meant for him.

He went numb from neck to waist. He fumbled his gun, as someone came bending over him. He fired, spattering himself with blood. A body tumbled next to him. Kid, Solo was shouting, and there were more shots fired, a quick spatter with that peculiar muffled echo that meant silencers. No-one used silencers in a neighbourhood like this, where kills were bragging rights. Was it some kind of hit squad? After Solo? Solo was still calling for him, trying to drag him to his feet, but Duo couldn't stand. Pain like a shockwave from his centre, concussively just there, exploding. He couldn't stand, and Solo dropped him to run. Go, Duo told him. Get out of here. Just go.

They kicked him in the back. He tried to get away, tried to roll or curl or crawl, but he took a cleat right to the spine and it flattened him to the pavement. He heard sirens. He just had to make it until the sirens. Solo, get out of here. Go.

Stop, a voice ordered, and they rolled him over finally, toeing the gun away from his nerveless hand. We need him alive.

Zechs Merquise. Crouching down over him. Grabbed him by the armpits, dragged him to the kerb. Into a car. Passed him to someone inside-- someone-- Heero. Heero Yuy, who hauled him onto the floor of it. Merquise got in the front, and they were moving before the doors even closed.

Why, Duo said, tried to say. God, it hurt. He couldn't feel anything but the hurt. Was he dying? Hurt enough to be dying, and he didn't want to die like this-- he didn't even know why he was dying for these people, Heero, he at least had to know why--

Crash. Crash into the car. Everything jerked sideways, he breathed in carmat and Heero grabbed him by the jacket to hold him still. Another hit, and they jumped the kerb, smashed into something. Weapons and cursing and doors opening-- No-body move, no-body god-damn move-- Solo pulled him out again, out into the night and hustled him into another van. They sped away, tearing around corners.

Kid? Kid, you gonna make it? You can make it.

We got you now, Kid. You're safe.

Duo, do you remember?

'When I count down to one, Duo, you're going to wake up. Three. Two. One.'

Duo opened his eyes.

Roger Brabant handed him a mug of orange-smelling tea. There was nothing on his face to read; Duo didn't try. He sipped the hot tea, warming his fingers, his cheek.

'You get it all?' he asked briefly.

'Back to the beginning.' Brabant reached for the microphone on the coffee table. He turned it off, and popped the disc. Handed that to Duo, too, but Duo shook his head.

'Keep it,' Duo told him. 'Somewhere safe. Somewhere no-one will look. I'll want that later.'

Brabant only nodded. He turned the disc around and around, staring down at it. 'What will you do?' he asked softly, soberly. 'Now that you know?'

Duo sat up slowly, taking care of the aches of long travel, of laying still so long on the stiff couch. 'What do you think I should do?'

'Run,' O said bluntly. He turned from the window, his dark scowl maybe just a milimetre deeper than it had been before Brabant had hypnotised Duo an hour ago.

'I tried it.' The tea was clearing his head. Duo sipped it steadily. 'I've got no-where to run to, now.'

'What about Earth?' Brabant tried. 'Relena Peacecraft--'

'I'm still carrying Plague. I don't know how long the suppressant is good for, but--'

'What about a quarantine.'

Duo rubbed at the back of his neck, where his braid had used to be. 'I don't disagree,' he said, getting it out past a throat that was sore, suddenly, too tight for words. 'But I don't think, either, that the Nine One Five Six are going to be too keen on letting me stay packed away. They want a new Plague. They want me to spread it.'

'You could turn yourself in--'

'To who? The CDC? The police? Preventers have three times the authority they do, and it only takes one bad Preventer to walk me right back out of a jail cell. And we still don't know who the bad Preventers are.'

Brabant sat back on his chair, let his head fall back. O went back to watching out the window. Duo finished his tea, and carefully set the mug on the carpet between his feet.

'I'm here to be bait,' he said finally. 'As far as I can see, the best way to handle this is to be seen. Let the Nine One Five Six and White Fang have their shoot out, and hope the right side wins.'

'You still don't know which is the right side,' Brabant said. 'Which of them is lying to you.'

'No. But I know that hiding in your apartment isn't going to solve the problem for me.' He peeled off the letter he'd tacked to his own shirt, on L2. He didn't need it now. All he'd written then-- Get to RB-- he'd waked in an hourly-rental bunkhouse on Inner Ring and without a single memory to his name-- not even his name, for a long confused day there. Just the letter, and a pissed-off O sitting on a couch scowling at him. He hadn't even remembered how he'd got to L2, at first. Hadn't remembered who RB was, til they were nearly back to L1.

But now he had it all back. And none of the choices were good ones. But he was still going to choose. As long as he was breathing, he would fucking choose for himself. Til the end.

'What do you need me to do?' Brabant asked him.

'Burn down my apartment, maybe. Or at least the braid under the bed.' Brabant stuttered something, and Duo shrugged him off jaggedly. 'Nothing. You've done enough. Stay out of sight. Don't get pulled in.'

'I could help you, Duo.'

'I might almost think you care, Doctor Roge.'

'I almost might, if you'd let me.' Brabant shook his head, but the protest was over. 'You know where to find me if you need it. I'd wish you luck, if I had any idea what you were going to do.'

'Either way, I'll take it.'
A few heads turned as he pushed open the glass door. Duo nodded at the ones he knew, Preventers both older and younger than him. Some of them nodded back; two even smiled. One got up and went for the access-only offices in the back, taking the trip at a run.

Duo fetched up to the front desk, waving his pass at Security. 'It didn't work outside,' he said.

A woman he didn't recognise took it from him, trying it on her own swipe station. 'They demagnetise sometimes,' she said. 'Hold on a moment, sir. I have to call this up.'

'No problem.' Duo tapped his fingers on the counter, then put his back to it, propping himself up on his elbows. Not much mid-day traffic. He should have gotten lunch before he came in. Maybe he could bargain his way into a sandwich. Something with protein.

'Duo!' He had enough time to look before Alicia grabbed him tight into a hug that didn't end for six entire seconds. Then she let him go just long enough to slap him lightly on the cheek. 'You dickhead!' she cussed him, and hugged him again. 'Do you have any idea how scared I've been for you!'

Duo gave her a limp squeeze in return. 'Gotta breathe, honey.'

She let him get a couple of inches away, then, though she wouldn't let go of his wrist. 'Where the sam hell have you been? I had a manhunt on for you after you disappeared out of hospital!'

'You know me,' Duo shrugged. 'Got tired of being in the limelight. I got out of dodge for a while. Waited for the fuss to chill.'

'Get your skinny butt in here while I call the Director.'

'Really kind of hoping we can avoid a big deal here, Alicia.'

'Oh, you really are? Then you really shouldn't have fled against medical orders and you really really shouldn't have assaulted a Preventer on the way out the door.'

'Right,' Duo said. 'Well, hard to argue with that. Speaking of medical things, about the quarantine--'

'I already know.' She guided him by the shoulder-- firmly-- through the access doors and marched him past a crowd of solemn-looking Preventers to her office in the back. She gave him a shove at Wufei's seat. 'You're not contagious. Your tests came back.'

'Uh-huh,' Duo said. He stretched his legs beneath Wufei's desk. 'Anyone heard from the bugger, anyway? Since he transferred?' He found a couple of rubber bands in Wufei's desk drawer, and wrapped them around his thumb.

'Who? Wufei?' Alicia shook off his question. 'The point we have to consider here is that there's no way you could have known you were clean.'

'Listen, let's cut across the question of who was negligent with what. I wanted to tell you-- I've started remembering things.'

'Remembering?' she repeated. She fumbled for a pad and stylus, looking more sharply than ever at him. 'Remembering your kidnapping?'

'Yeah. Faces-- names. I think I know what happened.' He watched her scrawl a hurried header on the pad, gave her just enough time to glance up. 'You're looking for Heero Yuy.'

'Heero Yuy.' She wrote it, but more slowly. 'Tran and McDevitt said you were talking about him. You thought you saw him, that night at the hospital.'

'I think I did see him. I think he was checking on me-- keeping an eye on me. I think he's been behind this all along.'

'But why? He's been underground for two decades. Why surface now?'

'Does the exact political goal matter? They're with someone, against someone else, and the weapon of choice is Plague. I've been injected with two different things. Someone gave me the virus. Someone else gave me the antidote.' He watched her back, sucking his teeth. 'So,' he said, 'you Preventer types do your investigation, find out which it is, write up a nice report. Heero's either a good guy or a bad guy. If he's a good guy, hire him. If he's a baddie, space his ass. I'll pull the lever.'

'You don't mean that,' Alicia said absently. The stylus scratched as she wrote whatever she'd deemed important. 'You think he'd target you?'

'I think if someone told Heero he had to blow up Sol to save the universe, he'd be timing the bomb before he stopped to think too hard about the wisdom of it.' Her pale eyebrows climbed. Duo snapped the rubber bands against his palm. 'Heero's all about impulse,' he added. 'Always was, and if you look at how pie-shaped this adventure's gone, it's got his fingerprints all over it. You don't hand Heero a weapon without expecting he'll use it. So the question goes back to whether he's been armed by the goodies or the baddies. Again, kind of your arena.'

'And what the hell can we even do to stop him?' Alicia propped the tip of the stylus between her teeth, and now her brows went wrinkling together in a deep frown. 'Just Yuy? A rogue op?'

'Not beyond possibility, but I don't think so. This is too big, too messy. This feels like a group effort.'

'It changes our data analysis,' she admitted. 'Damn. Back to the drawing board.' She pulled the bands off his fingers. 'You remember anything else?'

'Getting that much was torture.' He put Wufei's office supplies back where they belonged, closing the drawer gently to avoid the rattle of pens. 'Look, I'm beat. I'm going home. I should have walls by now. I promise I'll go to bed like a good boy.'

'You better.' Alicia stood when he did, to embrace him again. 'I was worried about you, Duo. You scared me to death.'

He felt a little pang, finally. It wasn't that he'd imagined this would be a cakewalk, but he'd trusted these people, spent years with them. Liked them. 'You've always been good to me,' he allowed, throat tight as he separated gingerly from her. 'Things just got-- heavy. I'm no good with heavy.'

'It's shaping up to a long year.' She let him go, then. 'I'll send a couple of men home with you. You look like you need a ride, anyway.'

'Yeah, I'll take that up. Don't think I'd make it that far.' He shuffled on his feet, dug his hands deep in his pockets. 'How's the China situation?'

'China? Oh-- Wufei.' She twirled the stylus-- that and the cautious bend of her eyes told Duo plenty it wasn't truth she was going to tell him. 'I've heard a few tidbits, around. They're making headway clearing out the occupation in the mountains. A lot of ethnic unrest. Having a neutral party in the mix seems to be helping.'

Cleaned up for his benefit or just some understandable caution about entrusting an obviously unstable man with the reality? 'But no specific news,' he said.

'He's probably just busy, Duo. On the road. You know what it's like in this kind of situation. Barely time to sleep, much less make calls home.'

He lifted a shoulder in a jagged shrug. 'Guess it doesn't matter. Well. I'll take that ride, yeah.'

'Sure. I'll make the call.'

'Hey-- you put Pak in jail yet? Pak Chin Ho, the stalker?'

'Holding him pending completion of our investigation. He probably won't get a jail sentence.' She shrugged herself, unspoken sympathy. 'He never actually approached you or threatened you.'

He'd expected it, though. 'Just wondered. I'll put in for a restraining order.'

'Let me know if you need help with that. We've got a little pull at the local courts.'

'Yeah. Okay.' He ducked, to look out at the bullpen behind her window-wall. 'McDevitt here? I, uh, owe an apology.'

She smiled at that. 'Yeah. Go say hi.'

He spotted McDevitt by the coffee cart, flirting labouriously with one of the secretaries. Duo propped himself on the edge of McDevitt's desk, waiting it out-- waiting long enough that he collected the notice of the other Preventer whose eye he wanted. Tran saw him first, left his computer unlocked, and came right to him, a look of-- apparently-- sincere relief bringing his face to life for the first time Duo had ever seen. He felt another pang for that, but pushed it down ruthlessly. He didn't have time for that luxury.

He didn't know yet who he could count on in Preventers. Until he did, they all had to be counted against him-- even the ones he'd liked and trusted. All he'd planned, coming in, was to drop a few leads, to let all the interested parties know where he was. To start the clock. If he was going to make a stand, it was going to be on his terms, not theirs.

So when Tran rushed him on McDevitt's desk, Duo put out his hand, palm up. Tran slowed to a crawl, staring at it.

'I hope I didn't get you in trouble,' Duo said.

'No.' Tran took his hand, then, in a solid grip. 'No. But I'm glad to see you in one piece.'

'Got kind of paranoid, there. Didn't really think it all through.' He squeezed, and let go. 'I'm not really used to all the attention, negative or otherwise. Just-- had to get out for a while. Clear my head.'

'Understandable. You all right, now?'

'Better,' Duo said. 'Clearer. Yeah.'

Tran would have said more, but McDevitt had returned, sullenly dragging his feet getting to them, eyeing Duo. He didn't look nearly as happy to see Duo as his partner did. 'Told 'em you'd be back,' he said. 'Eventually.'

Duo drew a breath. 'McDevitt, about-- I'm sorry.'

McDevitt sighed, then. 'Forget it, man,' he said. He handed Duo the cup in his left hand-- milky tea-- a rather extraordinary gesture of niceness, all things considered, and sprawled in his chair with his own coffee. 'Not saying it was a joyride, but there's no beef.'

'No beef.' Duo wrapped the string on the tea bag around his pointer finger. 'Of all people, I get how bad it is to be drugged and used against your will. I'm sorry for what I did. I shouldn't have done it.'

A little oasis of silence around him broke with a shrug. 'Got me some good sympathy tail,' McDevitt said. 'And a full night's sleep. Coulda been worse.'

'Well. Sorry anyway.' He managed a sip of the tea, before he put it down. 'Hey, Alicia's calling for a car for me. Just wanted to check in with you both.'

'We can drive you,' Tran volunteered. 'Someone should check out your apartment anyway. It's been sitting empty a while now.'

That was a fair call, though Duo was pretty sure it would still be empty. The Nine One Five Six hadn't made their presence known, yet, but he didn't think they'd be coming for him in his home, either. They'd lost their chance to do things quietly.

But he needed a car and a driver, either way, and it almost felt familiar and comforting to be packed in with these two again. A sign of how crazy the times were, probably. Tran drove, and McDevitt took the backseat, leaving Duo the passenger front. He aimed a blower at himself, for the cool air on the sweat on his face. He was numb enough, but stiffness was starting in, and his head felt tight and achy. Brabant had been able to get a new bottle of pills for him, but the pills were supposed to come in combination with bed rest and light activity. He hadn't had much of either, recently.


He looked up from staring dully at the dash. 'Sorry,' he said belatedly. 'What?'

'I asked where you were,' McDevitt said. 'Where you went to.'

'L2,' he said honestly.

'L2?' Tran looked at him sharply. 'How? No-one can pass the border--'

'Please,' Duo dismissed that. 'Scrappers have been running the border since they levied the sanctions. You douse your heat signature in the deactivated minefield by B Area, dodge the sensors coming in under radio silence. You get a good jump and then you cut engines, and you can float right through the border on inertia until you're past the sweep. And any dock opens for a fat wallet.'

'Where'd you get a ship?' McDevitt asked. Not at all a stupid question. Maybe he wasn't quite so undeserving of that promotion after all.

'I know people,' Duo said. 'I've spent a lifetime building up favours just like that one. But no-one else needs to get in trouble for it. Trust me, they weren't happy to be asked.'

'That's not going to hold a lot of water.' Tran turned off the motorway toward Duo's neighbourhood. 'It's illegal to cross the border. You'll have to give up a name.'

'Or what, they'll toss me into a cell for criminal contempt? We all know that's not going to happen. There's bigger problems than one colony hop in this bag.'

Tran sneaked a sideways glance at him. 'You're not worried what'll happen when it's all over?'

Over. Weird. He hadn't once thought that far ahead.

Maybe in the beginning-- before he'd known anything about who was involved and what was really happening. But not since deciding to run to L2. He'd gone into-- just make it through mode. Just survive a few more minutes, whatever those minutes are worth. But he'd so thoroughly stopped thinking of 'over' that it took his breath away, for a second, just to hear the word.

'No,' he managed. He cleared his throat, and fiddled the blower directly toward his eyes. 'Guess I haven't.'

His apartment, as expected, was empty, although construction was completed and the bill was sitting on his kitchen table. The fresh paint was even dry. Duo slid onto his couch as Tran and McDevitt checked the other rooms. They came back immediately. Safe.

'You need anything?' Tran asked him. 'Groceries, errands?'

'You guys don't have to do that. Thanks.' He probably did need everything. He hadn't been in his apartment in-- he wasn't even sure of the time frame. Weeks. He hadn't lived without strict attention to a calendar since the early days on L2, the world before it mattered when his misery was coming. It was putting him adrift. And maybe relating back to that very good question of 'over'. He didn't know when now was. After was just going to have to wait.

'McDevitt, there's a grocery a few streets up from here. Go pick him up a few things. Milk and eggs--'

'Egg whites,' Duo said automatically, then forced a shrug. 'You really don't have to.'

'No problem, man.' McDevitt was already headed back for the door. 'Some frozen stuff? Soup?'

Soup cans. He'd laid out all his soup cans in front of the door, hadn't he. God. Heero must have thought he was an idiot. A child.

'Maybe you should sleep,' Tran said.

'I'm fine. Really.' He rubbed his eyes. 'Thank you both for all the help.'

Tran stood there fingering the butt of his gun and gazing alertly into all the dark corners. He didn't really look all that much like Wufei, really, but that posture, that perfect Preventers stance, that was the same. Ready. Just ready.

'Maybe I will sleep,' Duo said. 'If you don't mind the quiet til McDevitt gets back.'

'Of course.' Tran trailed him to his bedroom, got the light for him when Duo otherwise would have just trusted he knew where all the furniture was. As it turned out, the painters had moved his bed away from the window. He detoured, but his eyes went to the stack of stuff that he'd packed away under his bed, a couple vacuum-packed sleeves of winter clothes from the cruise, a box of old computer pieces, abandoned files for unfinished work plans, a tupperware of--

A tupperware of hair. His braid.

He'd gone into a dead stop. Tran, behind him, asked if he was all right.

'Yeah,' Duo said faintly. 'Yeah, I-- I think I'll just sleep on the couch instead.'


'Yeah.' He turned. Felt like it was staring after him, stalking toward him, making his skin crawl, but he put his back to it. 'Sorry. Just, uh.'

'If you need someone to stay here with you, we can do that.'

'No. Really. Just, uh, settling in. Will take a little while. Don't worry about it.' He felt marginally better with the bedroom door between him and his hair. 'Wasted plenty of departmental resources on me already.'

'Your case is still priority red.'

That was interesting. And whether or not Tran knew it, it smelled like a lie. Priority red would have had them slipping locators into his tea so he couldn't run off the colony without being followed. Priority red would've locked him down at the station, instead of letting him wander on home. Then again, Tran had inserted himself into the protector role so gently Duo hadn't wondered too much at it. He'd expected a Preventer presence and hadn't questioned it being the two who'd been with him the most. Maybe that wasn't much of an accident of fate.

Well, it was what it was. It didn't matter which Preventers were tagging him. They just needed to be there. The Nine One Five Six had someone in Preventers. Duo didn't care who it was. They'd come out of the woodwork when the shit-storm blew.

'There's tea in the cupboard,' Duo said. 'And a kettle over there. Make yourself a mug if you want.' He settled on his couch, dragged the blanket over himself. 'Don't let me sleep through McDevitt.'

'No danger of that,' Tran said dryly.

He almost did anyway. He was deeply out, and awareness was slow returning. Soft conversation nearby was what woke him. There was no imperative to open his eyes right away. He was warm enough, except for his feet where he'd taken his shoes off, and there was nothing twinging his nerves that said something unsafe was happening. He turned his eyes a little deeper into the pillow.

'No,' Tran was saying. 'You can't eat the food you just bought him.'

'Technically it's company dime,' McDevitt answered. 'And since we're all in the same company, I'm as eligible to eat it as he is.'

'Where the hell did you go to school, that they taught you to think like that?' His frigerator opened and closed, Duo knew that sound. Little clinks and clunks of things moving. 'One fizzy.'

The hiss of carbonation followed on that almost before the word was spoken. 'Think they'll send him back on hide-away now?'

'Why would they?'

'Well, if he thinks Heero Yuy is the one who's after him, that's not the guy we already caught, is it? Which means--'

'Means what.'

'Deep shit, I would think.'

Profound. Accurate. Duo smiled to himself. And sat up.

'Oh, hey,' McDevitt said, hiding the soda behind his back. 'You're up.'

'Yeah.' He scrubbed the back of his neck. 'Thanks for the groceries. If you're hungry, eat something.'

'Thanks, man.'

'Maxwell, we're with you for the night,' Tran told him. 'We can stay down in the car if you want us to--'

'No, don't put yourselves out. I've got a cot and a blow-up mattress. If you don't mind the living room.'

'Just until we know how we're going forward,' McDevitt added, around a fresh mouthful of apple. 'Might be back to the motels.'

'Can I offer an opinion on that? It's not really worth the rent.'

'How you think?' Tran asked.

Duo stood. They parted ways for him, to let him to the stove. He filled his kettle from the sink, enough for three cups if they wanted any, and set it to boil. He propped himself against the counter between them. 'You ever play football?'

Tran nodded. McDevitt was packing the apple into his cheeks, but his eyes were narrow. He was listening.

'The point of the game is to get goals, right. Get your ball in the net. But if you spend the game staying on your side of the field, the most you get is stopping the other guy getting a goal. I right about that?'

'What kind of goal are we trying to net?'

'Not entirely sure yet, but we're not doing much by stopping them from getting to me. Obviously they manage just fine when they want it bad enough, and just as obviously they keep trying over and over.'

The two Preventers exchanged looks over his head. Duo let it go. He'd planted the idea he wanted to plant. They'd pass it along to the people who might pass it along to ones who'd act on it, for better or worse. He gave it a week at most before someone moved on him. And if Tran and McDevitt were innocent, and caught in the crossfire, at least he'd warned them it was coming.

He poured himself a mug of tea and dripped in milk from a fresh pint. McDevitt hadn't done a bad job shopping, really; he had bread and butter and ready-made salad packets, vegetables and frozen meals. Pre-cooked meats, presumably to spare him the difficulty. He was glad, though. He didn't have the energy for cooking. He stuck one of the frozens in the microwave, and went back to his couch. McDevitt had brought two of the local bulletins with him. Duo dragged one toward him. It was a Tuesday. He hadn't even known it was a Tuesday.

'Any news?' he asked idly. He blew on his tea to cool it, and sipped.

McDevitt was the one who drifted in after him. 'That fat guy dropped out of the election,' he said. 'Got caught with a high-price hooker.'

'Shapiro? Really?'

'Not just any hooker,' Tran contributed from the kitchen.

'Trannie,' McDevitt finished. He grinned like a cheshire cat. 'And, like, not just a trannie, but a totally obvious trannie. She's like six foot five and she could box heavyweight.'

It felt really good to laugh. He wiped his eyes. 'God, that's great. That's-- really great.'

'Maxwell.' Tran again. 'How much do you remember? About all of it.' The microwave beeped, and he brought in the frozen meal on a plate, handing over a fork and knife as well. 'What do you remember about Heero Yuy?'

Hard not to wonder if that was a prod from the Nine One Five Six. Tran was too low-level to be their point of contact, but that didn't mean there wasn't plenty of sympathy within Preventers to their agenda. And if it did spread all the way to Tran's level, if the field agents knew enough to get themselves stationed inside his apartment with him... On the other hand, even if Tran was just a loyal Preventer, it was his job to ask still. There was a point at which paranoia stopped serving a point and just made him twitchy. Besides which-- it was a good way of fishing for who knew what.

'Heero,' he said. 'I remember him jabbing me with a needle. Or someone with him, I guess. Maybe it wasn't ever actually him. I remember him telling me he was trying to rescue me. I remember not believing him. That about covers it.'

'He was your friend, though,' McDevitt said. 'Once, anyway.'

'Once,' Duo echoed. 'People change. Even Heero.'

'You remember anything about who he was with?' Tran pressed him. He had a little pad out, even, taking notes, raising expectant eyes.

'Yeah,' Duo said. 'Some people with numbers for names. It struck me because during the war, OZ always called us by colony designations. Zero-One. Zero-Two. But it's probably not related, and it probably doesn't mean anything like that.' He leant back on his cushions, to prop up a foot on his coffee table. 'There's a certain personality that needs a label for anything they're doing. It used to piss them off, the Ozzies, that we didn't call ourselves anything. That we refused to admit there was a defined Resistance with cell names and coded greetings and secret tattoos. It took them, what, two hours to start calling us “The Gundam Pilots”? They're the ones who called it “Operation Meteor”, not us. So if Heero's group has a name now, I guess it tells me who I'm dealing with, a little. Doesn't it.'

McDevitt seemed impressed by his reasoning. Tran wrote it down, word for word, if the length of time he spent writing it was any marker. Duo let it go. Someone down the line, good or bad, was going to enjoy his blather.

'Anything else?' Tran said. 'What about your two groups theory?'

'Yeah, I did say that, didn't I. Two groups. One with a name and one without.' He was tiring again. 'Here's what I know. Someone, somewhere, wants to start a war. Because that's the only possible explanation for injecting anyone with the Moreno-Collins virus. If it got out, if people started dying, there's absolutely no question that a majority of colonists would be very quick to blame everyone who's still in government on Earth who used to wear a Federation uniform, right up through the President herself. Now maybe Heero-- maybe Heero thinks, I don't know, maybe he thinks it would be a grand chance for people on Earth and in Space to show a little common humanity. Rally around each other to face off a disaster, united front. Maybe he thinks it would benefit the race. But only a naïve idiot thinks it wouldn't lead to exactly the same circumstances that got us into the last war, because at the end of any disaster there's people who suffered the most and people who didn't really suffer all that much, and they released the Plague in Space for a reason. Both times.'

'But your tests were negative,' McDevitt protested, small young voice suddenly.

And making Duo feel much older than a mere ten years senior. 'Were they,' was all he answered.

Even Tran looked spooked by that.

'I'll get out the cots,' Duo said, and pushed himself to his feet.


What Preventers hadn't ripped down for him, he'd had to disconnect to let the contractors in for his walls. Consequently, his apartment had been bug-and-trap free for months. He didn't like being in it without that level of self-assured safety, but he didn't start any new preparations. Whatever was going to happen would happen.

What he did do to prepare consisted of entirely new activities for him. He wrote a will on a cheap internet programme, got it signed by a notary and sent it to his human resources department. He didn't have huge savings, but it was a chunk of change, and it would be harder for Preventers to tie it up if he had it legally willed to charity. He divided it up between his scholarship at the Archives and a community shelter near his neighbourhood. Anything in his apartment would probably be seized by Preventers, if he died during this, and he didn't worry about any of that. He wrote a couple of letters by hand: one to the staff at the Archives, to thank them for his home-away-from-home all those years; one to Relena Peacecraft, apologising for having given her a crappy wedding gift and explaining it was only because he'd been jealous of her, which was a stupid thing to take out on someone and he was sorry for it. He even wrote a letter to Quatre and Trowa, wherever they were. They'd never see it, probably, and it was an exercise, trying to figure out what he really had or wanted to say to boys who'd disappeared forever ago. In the end he just wished them happiness and told them to stay out of trouble. Take it from one who knows. If you've got something out there that's worth it, you hold it hard and you don't ever let it go. Don't ever come back.

Tran and McDevitt stayed with him, sleeping in his apartment, though they gave him space during the day. Alicia called to follow up on Tran's notes. Duo gave her exactly what he'd given Tran, and she complained that she wasn't sure if he wanted her to push him or wanted her to leave him be. Whatever she thought, she left him be.

He had a hundred work emails. He answered a few and replied to the rest that they should forward their enquiries back to the Engineer Corps for reassignment, so they wouldn't be hung up waiting on him. He had no personal calls at all. That made that easier.

He mopped. He cleaned his bathroom. He put clean sheets on the bed, and put his laundry in the bureau. And that pretty much put his life in order. It was as ready as he could get for whatever was coming.


'Canasta?' McDevitt suggested.

'You want to play a counting game with a mathematical genius?' Tran wondered.

'It's not really a counting game,' Duo deferred. 'Although that doesn't mean it's not beyond your mental capabilities, Bretty-boy.'

'I'm tired of sitting with my thumb up my ass, guys.'

'That is a conundrum,' Duo deadpanned, but couldn't say he didn't share the sentiment. 'Is there any objection to Ninety-Nine? That's three players.'

His phone rang. Tran made to stand, but Duo waved him down. 'Work hours,' he reminded them, and Tran let him get up, instead. Duo pulled the receiver down on the third ring. 'Probably just--'

Just. He couldn't have said how he knew, then. But he did. It was time.

'Just business,' he finished casually. He put the receiver between shoulder and ear, and took a slow amble toward his window. 'Hello.'

'Duo. Duo, thank God.'


'Duo, are you safe?'

'Yeah,' he said. No cars in the lot below. No-one on the street. 'Long time no see,' he said.

'I swear I didn't know. I swear I didn't know why they were sending me away.'

'No?' He went for the bedroom, to check out that window too. Still nothing. 'Promotion working out?'

'Please believe me. Believe me enough to get out of that apartment, Duo. You need to be somewhere safe.'

'Where's safer than home?' McDevitt was watching him. Tran had cottoned on enough to do a window check of his own, and was speaking quiet code into his own phone. Duo eased down onto his bed. 'As a matter of fact, I think we both know that you calling here is what's going to start it all. How long do I have?'

'No. I swear. I'm not one of--'

'Nine One Five Six? Heero's One. Are you still Five? Maybe there is a reason you've been so content to live here on L1 all this time, waiting for the right circumstances--'

'Duo, you are not safe there. Do you understand? Get out of your apartment. Find a place to hide.'

'Not really an option.'

'I swear--'

'I got that part. You should try telling your subordinates, though.' He let out a breath slowly, and laid the phone down on the duvet next to him. 'Brett, don't aim that thing at me. I'm not running anywhere.'

McDevitt stared at him down the barrel of his Beretta. 'Sorry, man,' he said. 'No-one wants it to go down dirty. But it'll be easier if you come with me quietly.'

'Yeah, I don't doubt that.' He stood slowly. 'Tran?'

Laying face-down on the blow-up mattress in his living room. There were still electrode prongs sticking out of his back, connected by wires to the taser gun abandoned on the floor.

'I had him pegged,' Duo observed, from that cold inner place he had that could look at a sight like that and keep smart-talking. 'Didn't figure it was you. What was the signal?'

'Chang was supposed to be out of the way.'

'Like me.' The Beretta waved him toward the door. Duo stopped for his coat, zipping it up to his chin. He went, McDevitt coming in close behind him into the hall. 'Why'd you wait six days to move?'

'Guess not everyone can move around quite as fast as you can.' McDevitt stopped him at the stairs, checking all directions before letting him down. 'But if Chang's here, the game's up. Where was he calling you from?'

'He didn't mention.' Duo didn't rush, but he didn't obstruct it, either. The gun at his back was no taser, and McDevitt could make him move just as easily if he had holes in a few non-essential areas. 'I'd like to add that this makes me feel less bad about drugging you a few weeks ago. Tran's your partner. He trusts you.'

'Tran doesn't have a mother with a gambling problem.'

Duo risked a peek back. There were streaks of sweat on McDevitt's cheeks. The hand on his gun was white-knuckled. Duo didn't like desperate people. Desperate people didn't ever make just one bad decision. They made strings of them. They escalated.

He faced forward again. 'Where are we going?'

'Get in the car.' McDevitt pressed keys on him. 'Drive where I tell you. You make a turn without me telling you and you can take the trip in the boot.'

'I know better than you how it works, Brett.' He unlocked the Preventers' vehicle with the clicker and got in passenger's side with McDevitt right behind him. He slid over the shift console and into the driver's seat, and keyed the ignition. McDevitt didn't belt in. 'Which way?' Duo asked.

'Head for the motorway.'

'They're really that far away? The Nine One Five Six?' He pulled out of his lot and eased into the street. There was Mrs Jones, on her morning walk to the grocery. She waved at him as he passed. Did a double take at the two look-alikes in the car. Duo didn't wave back. 'So it's just the money? You're not out to spread a Plague.'

'I don't want anyone to die.' Duo took another glance. That seemed true. McDevitt was really sweating it, now. Tapping nervously on the dash, sweeping his stare all the way behind the car, even when it took his attention off Duo.

'How much?'

'How much what.'

'Money. How deep in the hole is your mother.'

McDevitt looked at him. 'Ninety-five large. I could only get her twenty. She's got a shark who comes to her house and-- they're beating up an old woman with a problem. They say they'll do worse than that if she doesn't pay by end of the month.'

'Did you tell anyone? Tran or Wufei or someone who could help you? Don't you sign something? Promise to disclose so you can't be blackmailed like this?'

'She's my mom,' McDevitt said flatly. 'Maybe you could turn your back, but I couldn't.'

'Jesus, Brett.'

'Stop fucking calling me Brett. You don't know me.' McDevitt pointed across his face. 'Get on the M2. Take the ramp. I'm doing what I have to do.'

Duo rubbed his mouth. He nosed up the ramp and got on the motorway, just as ordered, and gunned the gas until they were up to speed with traffic. Just one more car headed for something on the other side. 'Yeah,' he said. 'I guess that's been going around, lately.'

McDevitt partioned out directions a street at a time, but Duo had an idea where they were headed when they turned in toward the docks on the far side of the colony. The satellites were mostly residential, but some were in pretty deep disrepair, like the one where he'd seen Solo's crew don the white suits disguise. They would make a good hiding place. Already had, actually, and the Nine One Five Six had proved pretty adept at moving low to the ground.

He was right about the satellites. McDevitt directed him into the queue for the three o'clock ferry. Sat fidgeting with his gun, maybe afraid to holster it, afraid Duo would run. They got by the ID check on the strength of McDevitt's badge, never mind it was Duo in the driver's seat, and it had to look odd. McDevitt paid the fee, passing the cash to Duo who passed it out the window to the teller-- and he inched the car up the ramp and locked them in five vehicles deep on all sides.

'Just sit calm,' McDevitt said then, while nervously clutching his gun to his lap. 'Keep it calm.'

'I'm calm.' He put the shift into park and cut the engine. 'Tran's probably got a BOLO on the plates by now. Someone at the docks is going to review the entries. Maybe before we make it to the satellites. They'll be ready for us at port.'

'Maybe,' McDevitt said. His knuckles were white.

'You planning to Bonnie and Clyde it? You don't have enough bullets for a shoot-out.'

'Shut up, man.'

'You shut up. I'm trying to help you keep your skin intact. The hell are you planning to do it if they stop us at Singer?'

'I don't know yet!'

'Well start thinking. Tran's going to tell everyone what you did, Brett. They'll have an armed and dangerous out on you. You won't be able to talk it down.'

'So what am I supposed to do?'

'Think it through,' Duo said flatly. 'Don't go in without a plan. They teach you that at Academy? When we get to the docks they'll be searching cars for sure. They'll have the plates. We need to not be in this car when they find it.'

'I can't trust a word outta--'

'You can trust me to be smart enough to not want to be shot accidentally while they take you out. When the ferry starts moving we need to get out of the can and find a place to hide. We can sneak off at port in the crowd of pedestrians. You need to ditch the jacket, too. It's too visible.'

Mistrustful or not, McDevitt obeyed him in that much, sliding out of his coat one arm at a time and bundling it into the back. 'What do we do once we're out?'

'We're not walking. We get a cab.'

'The cabbie'll recognise us.'

'You should have thought it through then. Of course the cabbie'll finger us. But we'll still be ahead of the search. We get a cab and drive wherever you're supposed to meet the Nine One Five Six--'

'And what? Maxwell?'

'Your mother worth a few million lives?' Duo flexed his hands on the wheel. The horn blasted, muted for them inside the car. They were sealing up the ferry. The big doors were closing in his rearview mirror. 'You know what they're trying to do. I told you myself.'

'Maybe you got it wrong.'

'Maybe I can breathe in Space. You know what they're doing, Brett.'

'Just get out of the car.' McDevitt's voice shook. 'Go. Now.'

He went. McDevitt followed after him, sliding into the few inches of space between cars. The titanium plates of the ferry's broad parker thrummed under his soles. No sense of it in the whale's belly, but Duo's body knew the feel of it. They were out into the Big Black. They had maybe a half hour before they hit port destination. 'Keep your face turned away from the cameras,' he told McDevitt. 'Head down. Like that. Put your fucking gun away. I'm not going anywhere. You pop off a civilian and they'll never let you out the cell block, Brett.'

'Stop calling me Brett.' McDevitt hugged close to him nonetheless, dogging him so close they could almost trip on each other. 'Why do you keep doing that.'

'They teach you anything at that Academy?' Duo spotted a covered exit toward the Promenade with johns and a bar. He aimed McDevitt at it and picked his path through the parked vehicles. 'I'm establishing a bond. I'm trying to make you feel so close to me you won't kill me.'

'I'm not out to hurt anyone.'

'You're past the point where you can control that. You knocked out your partner. You kidnapped me. As scared as you are right now you still don't know half how bad it's going to get when you hand me over to the Nine One Five Six. Do you know what they're doing, Brett, what they want to do to the colonies?'

'Shut up,' McDevitt grated at his back.

'You've seen me, all these months. You think I've been faking? They broke my back. They beat me up. They put needles in me, again and again, and you give me back to them they'll just do it again. They want to infect me with Plague. They want me to infect the general population. They want me to kill thousands and thousands of people, Brett.'

'Shut up, Maxwell.'

'You're too young to have seen anyone die of Plague. I lost everyone I'd ever known to it. You know what it looks like? You learn that at school, at least? It starts with a cough. Just a cough. Then a fever, then chills. You see things that aren't there. Every single kid who died went out without knowing their own name. There's no dignity in it. It's filthy and it strips you of everything human. But it smells, that's what stays with you the longest. It smells. Sweet. Like a flower. They start to smell sweet, just before they die. I threw up, on Earth, the first time I was near a garden. It smelled just like that.'

'I told you to shut your mouth.' McDevitt shoved him through the hatch into a metal-lined corridor. A jump-suited mechanic spared them a glance, but went back to his magazine when Duo only kept walking. They passed the first loo, the women's, and were headed then toward the water hole up the stairs or a cramped walk-about for foot passengers. Mid-day, there were only a few, most involved in their own business, paying no mind to two men choosing to walk oddly close to each other.

'You ever kill anyone?' Duo asked.

'Damn it.' McDevitt took him by the arm, wrenching him along into the shadow of the stairs. 'I told you to shut up.'

'There's a moral choice here, Brett. You can make it or it can make you, but you don't get to be ignorant and happy when you hold something this big in your hands. You do what they want you to do and you might wipe out Space before you're finished. Now maybe you're all right with that and that's something you believe in enough to shoulder, but if you let it happen because you were too cowardly to think about the consequences, you're worse than any traitor.'

McDevitt stared at him. Pale-faced, not a little lost. Young. God, he was young. Twenty-six and scared for his mom and too stupid to know how bad it was still going to get. They must have just taken him up. Maybe since Duo had jumped for L2 and lost them for a little while. McDevitt didn't know enough what they were doing to comprehend the scope of a real disaster--

And maybe too stupid to be solely at fault. Someone on Heero's side had gone looking for someone just like Brett McDevitt. A vulnerable kid who wouldn't know to ask for help until it was past saving. It wasn't solely McDevitt's fault he made the perfect patsy. It didn't help anything, but there it was, anyway.

He said, 'There's still time, Brett. We go to the concierge and ask for the radio. You tell them everything. You'll get discharged and you may sit in jail for a while. It won't be good. But it's better than the alternative.'

McDevitt swallowed hard enough that Duo heard it. Wiped his face, twice, with a hand that trembled. And then shook his head, a single jerky negative that Duo wholly expected to see.

'Okay,' Duo said. 'Okay.' He leant his head back against the wall, let the ferry's deep vibrations dig into his tense muscles. 'When we dock, we'll go out with the peds. Just leave the car.'
At least it wasn't a warehouse.

Their arrival went about the way an unexpected-but-solicited kidnapping and delivery would go. They were greeted with guns. There was a lot of yelling. Duo was cuffed to a chair. Merquise blamed McDevitt for moving too fast. McDevitt blamed the Nine One Five Six for not keeping Chang out of the picture. Heero stood on the other side of the room and stared expressionlessly at Duo.

And finally said, 'He led them here.'

Everyone else went dead silent. Merquise turned, encompassed both of them in his icy glare. 'What?'

Heero repeated himself just as coldly. 'He led them here. There's no way that one--' He casually dismissed McDevitt with a flick of his wrist. 'Overpowered or outwitted Duo. Duo allowed this to lead the other ones here.'

'Bingo,' Duo answered.

'You idiot!' the woman hissed at McDevitt. They exploded into action, a clammer of shutting down computers and grabbing stacked equipment by the door. 'Rub it down,' the woman told Gimpy, the one Duo had shot on L2, and Gimpy was already on it, slopping bleach onto the floor and splashing every flat surface with big slops of his sponge.

'Get rid of the Preventer,' Heero said, and turned to gather his own luggage.

'Wait,' Duo interrupted. McDevitt was staring down his own gun, now clenched in Merquise's big hand, terrified and backed into a wall. 'Just wait a damn minute,' Duo said. He managed to drag his chair over the floor a foot or two, but it was too heavy to go far. 'There's no reason to kill him,' he tried. 'Leave him behind. He doesn't know where you're going next. He doesn't know enough to hurt you more than I've already done, right?'

Heero had his weapon out now, too. He cocked it and raised it, an ugly short gun that promised an ugly short death. 'We don't leave mess behind.'

'Heero. He's an idiot kid and you used him and he's got nothing on you. Leave him alive. I'm asking.' Heero's hand never wavered. Duo managed four more inches, and said, 'Heero. I'm begging you. I'm begging for this kid's life, and if you can't find that much mercy for another human being, you're not the man you think you are.'

Maybe that argument never would have reached Heero. Maybe Heero didn't have it in him to care what honour meant, if he wasn't the kind of person who'd ever had a care about honour. But it worked on Merquise. The square jaw clenched hard. But Merquise lowered his gun. Put his hand on Heero's weapon, and pushed that low, too.

'Cuff him and leave him,' Merquise said, and left to deal with his team.

Heero's blunt fingers wrapped around Duo's wrist, to touch the key to the lock of his cuffs. Duo waited until he backed up to stand. 'Brett,' he said, before Heero could. 'Come sit down. They're not going to hurt you.'

McDevitt was smart enough to obey him then, too. Maybe it was sinking in. Duo took the cuffs, Duo was the one who threaded his arms through the chair vents, to lock them back. 'Write him a cheque,' he told Heero.

'Cheque,' Heero repeated.

'You promised him money. To save his mother. Write him a cheque or give him cash or something. You promised him.'

There was nothing to read in Heero's face. Just blank. Computing. Duo looked down, before he could feel something strong enough to put expression on his own. Hate or pity. He wasn't sure which it was, making the ache in his gut.

'Wire transfer,' Heero said slowly. 'We promised him a wire transfer to the woman's account.'

'His mother. Do it. Do it now, before we leave. Let him see you do it.'


'Because you can't do whatever the fuck you want with people. There's rules. You made him a promise and he sold himself up the river for it. Pay him. Now.'

'We don't have time,' the woman said, somewhere at his back.

'Now,' Duo said. He met Heero's eyes. 'Do it.'

Heero let out a long breath. 'Bring me the laptop,' he said, and went to boot it up.

'Jesus,' McDevitt whispered. 'Jesus, I'm so fucked.'

'Yeah.' Duo crouched carefully at his side. 'Take a bit of unsolicited advice.'

'Maxwell, I'm sorry--'

'I know. Now listen to me. When they find you here, Preventers, don't tell them about your mom. Tell them you and me planned this. I asked you to do it, I threatened you. I told you secrets. Make shit up, Brett. Make them believe it's my fault. You were dumb enough to fall for it once. They'll believe it again.'

'Maxwell.' McDevitt hesitated. Duo patted him on the knee.

'Bonding works both ways, I guess,' he said. 'But when we're through with all this, I'm going to knock your fucking teeth out. Next time someone blackmails you, go to your god damn supervisor.'

'Yeah.' There were actual tears in McDevitt's eyes. 'I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry.'

He felt a tap at his shoulder. Heero. Duo used the back of McDevitt's chair to lever himself upright.

'Transferred,' Heero said, and turned the laptop screen toward McDevitt.

'It real?' Duo asked him. He waited for McDevitt's nod, and then he reached across and cupped his fingers around Heero's elbow. Heero's eyes flew up to his, startled. 'Thank you,' he said simply.

Heero nodded once, sharply. 'We're go,' he mumbled, and snapped the laptop shut as he went. 'Marise, gag the Preventer.'

'You'll be okay,' Duo told McDevitt. 'So will I. See you later.'


Wherever Solo was, he was playing it cool. They were an hour in the van, all the way to the far quad on the satellite, and boarded into a run-down tenament by virtue of gun power and a live-wire system that made Duo's usual traps look like trivial set-backs by comparison.

'Stay back from the walls,' Heero told him, absolutely unnecessarily, as Duo had already retreated to the centre of the room to be as far from the electricals as possible. 'Our people are almost as good as you at this.'

So serious, in Heero's way. Then again, Gimpy had got himself shot on L2, so Duo didn't expend a lot of trust toward his engineering.

Merquise tacked drapes over the windows, and he and the woman installed bars over that, and drilled steel reinforcements right into the walls, crossbars and even a buttress to the shaky-looking concrete that housed the door. They travelled in high style, Duo would give them that. It took fifteen minutes to turn a tumble-down into a high-security bunker. They had cameras up five minutes after that, and Gimpy installed at the window, peeking out the drapes with the muzzle of a sniper rifle. They had a lone hallway to protect. Anyone coming up that would get a face full of shot, no cover deeper than a recessed alcove more than thirty feet back. It was as good as a fort. Duo couldn't have picked better, if he'd been planning backups to stage kidnappings in. Heero was almost as good as him, too.

Maybe better. They'd be finding out, shortly.

'Sit,' Merquise told him brusquely. 'We're past the courtesy of a bed and a private room.'

'Shameful manners,' Duo said flatly. 'What's the world coming to, these days.'

'Sit,' the woman told him.

Duo sat. The carpet had mould. They might leave footprints, here. Unless they pulled it up with them when they rolled out. Burned it in an alley somewhere. If Solo didn't do what Solo had been so very confident he could do. Who knew. Duo didn't gamble on bets like that one.

Heero came crouching beside him, slim muscled thighs bunching in tight black jeans, his raw wrists balanced on his knees. 'We need answers,' he opened, quietly. Soberly, so that Duo would take the hint.

'You can start with asking,' Duo said. 'My face is finally back in shape.'

Merquise joined them, a towering hulk standing too close, the hem of his duster hovering right above an ankle holster on each calf. There was another holster at his hip, and Duo had spied a fourth at the small of his back, earlier. Heero wasn't armed. Heero was a walking weapon.

'You're working with the other one now,' Heero began.

'That a question or a fact?' He couldn't sit without hurting his back. He slid sideways and settled on an elbow. Two pairs of eyes followed him. 'We done pretending you're out to save my life? Protect me? Can we admit, finally, I'm the target?'

'You're not the target,' Merquise said.

'Jesus.' The new angle wasn't helping. Flat did. Put him out of position, if anything happened, but fuck it. Heero moved to keep him in direct line, and Merquise ventured another step, too. 'Who's the target?'

'Why did you try to help the Preventer who betrayed you?'

'Because he's an idiot kid. He's twenty whatever years old and he doesn't know yet that he's not immortal.' He nodded all that way up at Merquise. 'Ask him about it, sometime. He gets it. Maybe you have to be able to lose something to get it. Who's the real target?'

'The President,' Merquise said.

He honestly hadn't predicted that. 'Une?' he started, and started to think-- he could see why, maybe. 'That's a long walk from the Federation.'

'Not long enough.' Now Merquise eased down next to him, on the other side of him from Heero, gloved hands touching lightly to the floor at Duo's knee for balance. 'Her administration has refused to overturn the Executive Secrets Act. Her administration has refused to open a public probe into abuses in the Asia sector. Her administration has refused--'

'I read the newspapers. I know what she's refused, right up to refusing to tell the truth about the Maxwell Church--' His throat closed around the words, and it was a moment before he could get the rest out. 'And the Plague,' he said. 'But that was after you'd already tried for me once. And if you had someone in Preventers who was making way for you, then you can't tell me you don't have someone in the Capitol standing right next to the President as she makes those decisions.'

'You overestimate our reach,' Heero said.

'Do I? You just paid a cool seventy thousand a Preventer who hasn't even been on the force long enough to open a pension account. You've got bank, and I've been tracking your handiwork for years. You've got mobile suits.'

He had their attention. For whatever it was worth. Old guess. He'd never needed it confirmed to know he was right.

'So why not crash the Parliament and wipe them out the old-fashioned way?' he asked. He put his head on his arm and rubbed chapped lips. 'Wouldn't change anything. And you can bet that if there were enough suits around for you to cache some away, Une would have had that thought well before you. Maybe even back before Khushrenada threw himself away on Wufei. Her sweet side may have been a believer, but her inner crazy bitch could never pass up an opportunity to wave a super-weapon. So if she's got suits, she doesn't just have a few like you would-- she'd have a battalion somewhere. Enough to crush you before you could get out of Brussels. That's--'

'What,' Heero said. 'Duo. What.'

Oh, like hell he'd open that door. But if Une was smart enough to stow away mobile suits, she was more than smart enough to stow away the remains of a Gundam. There hadn't been much left of Wing ZERO, after Heero had torn it apart getting to Relena Peacecraft in Dekim Barton's fortress. But there might have been enough. And OZ might have learnt enough from watching the scientists work on the Gundams at Lunar Base that someone could have recreated Wing ZERO with the pieces. If Une had a Gundam...

Then she sure as shit hadn't used it recently. And she'd come to power with a majority vote, no matter the radical left and the religious right who'd both objected to a woman with her particular qualifications. No Relena Peacecraft, you could say that for Une. She'd ridden in with the security hawks and she was in a second term, thank you very much, and looking good for a third. Someone that secure in power didn't need a Gundam. Someone that secure in power--

Maybe couldn't be tossed out without anything less than a full-blown virus. If you were the kind of person who thought you were in a position to do something against the voice of the people. No-one currently in the room could claim to be a philosophical proponent of democracy. Himself included. People didn't vote with their heads, any more than they fought with them. The Gundams had never been built or flown on behalf of colonials; liberty and sovereignty were separate matters from democratic representation and Duo had never given a crap if the colonies loved him or hated him moment to moment, even when it had meant his countrymen cheering on his execution. He didn't doubt Une held a similar opinion, and it didn't stop her from using any executive powers any more than a few extra million votes would have stopped her from firing Barge on a colony full of living breathing voters.

'But it doesn't bother you,' he said.


'We fought a war because they were evil. You're inviting someone to fight a war on you, now.'

Merquise glanced to the side. Yeah. He looked like it bothered him. Heero-- Heero blinked once, and Duo didn't know if that even meant anything.

'Do whatever you're going to do,' Duo said then. 'Get it over with. Be aware that when the time comes, I won't be standing between you and anyone who wants to take their shot.'

'I understand,' Heero answered softly.

'I hope so. I hope you understand, because the only thing that would make what you're doing worse would be you walking into it as blind and ignorant as you were when you were fifteen, Heero. What you're doing now is worse than taking out a plane full of diplomats. The women and children will die first.'

Standing next to a man who'd helped make that first disaster, who wasn't doing much Duo could see to stop this second one. Merquise stood with a face like a man going to his death, and turned his back.

Heero's fingers rested on Duo's shoulder so carefully Duo almost couldn't feel them there. Then Heero squeezed, once.

'I won't forget it again,' Duo told him. 'Whatever plan you've got to make me walk out there and infect people, you won't get me willing.'

'We never expected that development,' Heero admitted, going on in that soft tone. He eased onto his flank next to Duo, curling his fingertips in Duo's shirt. 'Why did they do that to you, the other ones? Your Solo.'

'I don't know exactly. I don't exactly trust it, maybe.'

'You're telling the truth.'

'What's the point in lying?'

A little hesitation, Heero not exactly trusting him, maybe, and then Heero went on, 'Your idea. About being the infection point. It was a good idea. We hadn't thought of it. We didn't know about your immunity, at first. I believed-- because of the genetic re-engineering--'

'That maybe I'd process it fast enough to live long enough.'

Duo hadn't thought of that. Maybe. There was no reason for it not to be true, really, but then-- by now...

'You ever heard of an agonist?' he asked, against his better judgment, but it slipped out.

Heero's fingers pressed just a little harder for a moment. 'An agonist. A medical suppressant.'

How long had it been since Solo had injected him with the agonist? Weeks? They'd said they didn't know how long it would work, but if it worked long enough for him to recover, naturally, unnaturally, maybe-- maybe his tests had really been negative all along? Maybe he'd honestly never been exposed, maybe he'd just been unbelievably, unimaginably lucky to have not even breathed in when everyone around him was dying? He'd never even had the antigens. He'd had a gene treatment, though, five years later, and-- hell, it made as much sense as anything else.

He swam out of the current long enough to ask, 'Then what's the point? Injecting me at all, if you thought maybe I'd be cured before I'd be able to effect a break-out?'

'They already have a vaccine,' Heero said.

'There are stores, of course they have a vaccine.'

'They already have a vaccine for this strain.'


'You need scientists, doctors for that,' he said, so weak it was barely a whisper. 'It took the Feds years to get it out of development, I saw the files.'

'Yes. But they had to develop the virus. We just need to mutate it.'

The girl was back. Carrying a pack of syringes. Duo sat up. Behind her, there, where she'd been busy unpacking the big metal cases from out of the van, she had a whole mobile lab, right down to the beakers and the hot plate. Every single one of the team with a purpose, wasn't it? Heero the muscle, Merquise the money, Gimpy there with the guns, the girl with the brains. Smart little set-up, really. Brilliant.

'I take it back,' Duo said. 'All of it.'

He made it as far as the door. The girl, arms full, went down when he kicked out her ankles, and Heero was slowed a precious second by an elbow to the eye. Merquise had him when he was just to the door, ripping him right off his feet, and Duo thought-- just-- and steeled himself for doing it, to just reach out a hand and make a grab for that wire just draped there in his reach, knowing it would hurt and knowing he'd be useless to them dead--

'No,' Merquise grated, and threw him halfway across the room. He hit the floor on his shoulder first, bounced his skull on the mouldy carpet, right before Heero sat on his legs. He was rolled onto his stomach, then, rolled for them to cuff him, Heero laying on top of him, grinding him into the carpet.

'This one,' the girl cried, and Heero wrenched down his jeans, pushed his head down into the carpet, and Duo felt the needle jab deep into his hip.

Solo was late.

Solo was AWOL, actually. They made it through the night. They had him a bed after all, a mattress on the floor anyway, with a blanket and a pillow. Hypo-allergenic sheets. No chances mistaking one symptom for another. They gave him water only, no food to confuse the issue. The girl took blood samples on the hour for her tests. All that, and no-one to interrupt them.

They'd have found McDevitt by now. Hell, Preventers should have found McDevitt by now. McDevitt would have told them exactly nothing, true, but Solo should have been on their heels, Solo should have been at the door. Had they moved too fast after all?

A long, slow-moving day. The mood was grim. They were all in white suits of their own, now, real suits with only him laying there turning the air black with Plague. The only noise was the girl, when she came after him for blood smears, or when Merquise spared Gimpy at the window watch. Heero stood in the corner, a powered-down robot, maybe thinking about it. Probably not. Hour after hour.

Long night.

No Solo.

Third day, they gave him a new injection. He was all deep pain in the hip, both hips now, a memory he'd been spared before. He'd take it, if they got no-where with their experiment. If Solo would just get there.

Fourth day. Fifth. New injection.

Sixth night-- he coughed.


Wufei over him, in him. He loved everything in these moments, the pain and the violence of it, the fight for dominance, clashes of teeth and nails and hard fists leaving blooms of bruises where they gripped. Then one sustained immortal moment of sweetness, locked together, Wufei's breaths hot and crying against his neck, head resting heavy on his shoulder, weak, willing, submitting to the tender curve of his palm with no protest, not now, not for just this one second more.

Another man, then. Another and another and another, until it hurt, until it wore him raw. Procession of men, some of them fast at it, some of them playing with him first, slapping him on the face and the ass, their fingers crawling over him, displaying him to the others, coaxing every humiliating yelp they could from him. Master O was there, too, staring at the ceiling first as they made him disrobe, staring down at Duo's naked body, next, something dark in his eyes. There was a camera there on the left, Wufei there on the right, screaming until he was hoarse how they were villains and liars and animals, less than men, how dare they do this. O was all hoarse, too, when he moaned finally, escaping past his thick lips in a burst right before his hand on himself stilled and a splash of wet across Duo's face was an end to the game. They laughed, the animals, and Duo grinned at them as he wiped himself off on his shoulder, because like hell he'd let them see the numbness growing inside. He would survive. They were animals but he was a rat, a rat who could survive anything, even this, and just like a rat he'd have his revenge. Bring them Plague, so silent and deadly they'd never know he'd done it until they were dead and he'd win.

There was Plague everywhere and he couldn't escape the smell of it. Everywhere that scent like rotting flowers and it chased him from street to street, that smell. The dead lay where they'd fallen, in doorways, on the kerbs, between abandoned cars, right out in the road. They drove right over the bodies, the Feddies in their armoured cars, and the new ones went bump and rolled a little and the ones that had been there long enough went spurt and the smell, the smell of it was going to drive him insane. He checked himself every minute for the smell, tested his throat but he didn't have the cough yet, not even a tickle, but he was so hungry. He was so hungry. He just had to find Casey. Casey hadn't been here for weeks but if she came, hadn't she promised she'd come, she'd bring her sandwiches, the little bread and butter sandwiches in the clean plastic wraps and her needles to make him strong. Hadn't she promised? She'd pet his hair and she'd give him two of each sometimes, when she had extra, because he was sweet, sweet like the smell, the smell, the smell.

Smell of the beam weapon, burning frisson. He loved that smell. Nothing like it in all the world, and he'd helped make it. He'd laughed the first time they'd had a successful test. Laughed like a maniac, danced around the lab. We did it, old man! he'd crowed, and Doc had smiled, in Doc's funny way, and said, Oh, yes, Demon, we've done something, all right. It was the accomplishment of it, first time he'd really had that, built something up from start to brilliant beautiful finish, that glowing streak through the air, humming with strength and power and promise. Demon Death, Doc had christened him, and that name fit him as well as anything else ever had, fit the way he felt when he wrapped his hands around the controls of what Doc called a Gundam. Death, he named the Gundam, Death with a scythe, a glowing gorgeous scythe with a deadly beam that would rend flesh from bones and rip even titanium like it was only aluminium. Deathscythe, piloted by Demon Death. Oh, yes, they made a team, didn't they. Nobody's fools, them. They'd fight the war they'd signed on to fight, not Dekim bloody Barton's war, not White Fang's war. Theirs. Demon Death was nobody's fool. He dealt an even hand. One survived, another scattered molecule by molecule into the Deep Dark, but he did it quick and he ended it the same for all of them. Poor beastly masterless men, the men who thought they were soldiers and didn't know a damn thing about war. Death was ugly but death came to everyone, and when he wielded his Deathscythe the ones who lived knew they'd been passed over by just the barest chance. Just one breath wrong and it would have been them, could have been them, and they'd wake from nightmares for the rest of their lives wondering if it was all a dream, if he'd got them after all and they just didn't know it yet...

I don't do needles, he'd said. Not any more. Hush now, Demon, Doc told him, for once in your forsaken little life just hush and listen. You want what's in this needle. You want to kill? You need what's in this needle. You'll live long enough, my boy, you'll live forever, this mad little demon that you are. You'll be my arm, my gun, my wroth. Live long enough to do what needs doing for all of us, for all our dead. Take no pity. Did they teach you that in your church? War and Famine and Plague we know. Now bring them Death, to end it.

Against the grey. Grey behind his eyelids, grey when he stared. Smoke. Smoke and the burning, the smell of the burning, ozone from the rockets, cooked meat. The smoke everywhere. He couldn't properly see, but his feet knew the way, tripping him up a little avenue of fallen concrete and shredded insulation from the shattered ceiling, tufts of noxious pink flaming insulation that made him cough. He tripped up over the body, the first body, there at what had been the door. Crowd of them. They'd crowded at the door, trying to get out. Trying to get out before they burned to death. She was there, alone, not with the children, alone and crumpled under the triptych painting of Mary, Mother Mary with her wise-eyed son Jesus who didn't clutch her like a real baby but sat slack-armed, disinterested, waiting just to grow up and make his miracles. No miracles here. Duo found her there under the charred old painting, her rosary clutched in her hand. She lived long enough to say things he couldn't hear, not past the concussive beat of his heart in his ears, but he bent his face so she wouldn't have to lift her bleeding hand to touch him, and she left a spot of her blood there on his cheek, blood and burnt flesh sticking to him. Survivor, he heard them say, where'd he come from, how'd he survive this, as they picked him up, carried him away. He sat limp in their arms like Jesus in Mary's, waiting to grow up and kill them all. He wouldn't let them wipe her blood from his cheek, her brand, the smell of her death off him. The smell of her still came to him sometimes, wove around him like perfume, sweet. Sweet smell, her sweet smell, sweet smell.

'Duo, drink this.'

Water. It chased away the hallucinations. He was parched, but he couldn't lift his head. Heero held him for a few sips, all he could manage. He lay with his head in Heero's lap, cushioned on the crinkly plastic of the safety suit Heero wore.

'Water,' he tried to say, but he had no voice left. He didn't cough any more, not now, but it had worn him out to nothing. He couldn't draw a full breath. His chest was so heavy, so sore.

'They'll be coming for you,' Heero said. 'We've arranged for them to find you.'

Find him. No, he didn't want them to find him. He couldn't remember why. Maybe it wasn't so very important, then, if he couldn't remember.

'Duo.' A gloved hand moved over his hot forehead, his hair.

'Water,' he said. 'Water, please.'

Just another sip. Just another sip, but he was so thirsty. He could have drunk an ocean. He could have drunk an ocean, swum away, sunk to the bottom, the deep dark bottom of an ocean... Sister had a book about oceans, she said it said there weren't nothing at the bottom but the ancient sand and crushing heavy water, all that water....

'Yuy,' the girl said. 'It's time.'

'Duo.' Heero's hand on his cheek. 'I'm sorry, Duo,' he whispered, and his voice trembled. 'I have to go now.'

Alone. That was all right, then. He was used to being lonely. He and Doc and Sister would be lonely together, and that was all right, then.

'Maxwell. Maxwell, look at me.'

His eyes were swollen. They hurt to open. He tried. Pale ghostly creature, hunkered over him.

'Maxwell. When they find you, give them this.' Something pressed into his hand. He curled a fist around it, instinct only. Couldn't hardly feel it, all the way down there. 'You'll be all right, Maxwell,' the voice whispered. 'Just one more now.'

No, he tried, no, no more needles, no more needles. But it pricked him anyway, discreet and painless little prick to his wrist, held in that white glove, which patted him gently when it was over. Cold in his wrist. Cold cold, travelling swiftly up his veins, rushing up into the rest of him.

At least it took the smell away. He could sleep, then.


He knew where he was.

That was the first coherent thought. He knew where he was. Hospital. Smell like antiseptic, and the beeping, the beeping he had listened to for what felt like aeons, that was his heartbeat. Slow and steady and solid. Beep. Beep. Beep. He was in a hospital.

He clung to that thought for a long time, then, with just enough sense in him to know that it made sense. Hospital.

Out of that-- evolved the idea that hospitals were where they put the injured and the ill.

Maybe he was injured.

He didn't feel much. He didn't know for, oh, aeons, if he was supposed to. But he didn't, much. A twinge here and there. When it occurred to him, so very long after that, to try, that was how he discovered someone was holding his hand.

It was ever so hard to get his eyes open, then. Hard enough to want to that much, it was so hard, but he could feel that hand, and it must have belonged to someone, then. It took forever, it went eyelash by eyelash. But there. Yes. A sliver of light. Blurs all around him, as his eyes watered from the effort. He couldn't wipe them, but he blinked, and that helped.


'You're awake.' Not Wufei. He rolled his head, labouriously. Blond. Nice suit. Hand on his shoulder.

'Doctor Roge,' he croaked.

'Hey there.' Brabant gave him a thin strained smile. 'It was close, Duo.'


The dreams.


'The virus,' he began, but breaking himself off already. Neither Wufei, waking now at their voices, or Brabant, leaning over him to adjust the sheet, wore masks. In the condition he'd been in, with Brabant knowing what he did, no-one would just be sitting around with him--

'Duo.' Wufei touched his cheek, and in front of Brabant bent to kiss him. On the temple, his hand cupping Duo's head, but it was tender. And despite the manifest worries of the world, for just a second, Duo's eyes stung, and his chest went tight. Wufei was back.

'I'm mad at you,' he whispered, and ruined that moment for well and good.

Wufei sighed against his hair. 'I earned it. I'm more sorry than I can ever tell you.'

He couldn't get a grip with his own hand. He batted at Wufei's shoulder, a bit, snagged the dip of the hood of his sweatshirt and tried to hold it there. 'Mad as fuck at you. Where were you?'

'I didn't know, Duo. The orders came in and I didn't think anything of the timing. I would never have left you if I'd realised.'

Preventers. His thoughts were still sluggish, swimmy. 'Preventers. Someone in Preventers is in on it.' God. 'McDevitt.'

'I found him. Talked to him. He's here, too. O is watching him.'

'He is?' He had the feeling of being in the middle of the book, without having read the beginning. 'Did I dream it...'

'No. No, he told us everything. But for now, it's too dangerous to turn him over. We're still not sure who in Preventers is working with the Nine One Five Six. If he's with us, he's not out talking to them.'

'Wufei. Roge.' No, his chest was still hurting. Breathing too deep. He coughed, and that alarmed him, but it was only the weakness in his chest, settled when Brabant hurried to give him the straw of a water glass. 'They mutated the virus. They used me to mutate the virus.'

'No. No, Duo.' Wufei kissed his temple again. 'No. Zechs Merquise is a mole. He switched the virus. What they gave you was triazolam, mixed with whooping cough, to make Heero and the others think...' He reached behind him, to the jacket draped over his chair, and came back with a slip of paper in a plastic baggie. He held it so Duo could read it.

It said, I've done what I could. It's your turn now.

Whooping cough. He'd coughed all that night, unable to breathe. Then the fever, the chills, the dreams--

'I remember,' he said, startled to realise it. He stared at Brabant. 'You hypped me already?'

'Not this time.' Brabant stood away, nodding toward the door. 'There's an antidote to benzodiazepine overdosing. Flumazenil. Between that and your unusual recovery rate, it looks like the cure was in front of us all along.'

'You were delusional when we found you,' Wufei whispered. 'It was the triazolam. It's been triazolam from the beginning, at least from one side of them-- that's why your tests were all so confusing. You were given an injection of the Plague virus, during the second kidnapping for sure. But you also had an agonist, and it suppressed the virus. But the triazolam, Duo, it answers for everything else, the amnesia--'

'Your increasing paranoia,' Brabant added, 'your anxiety--'

'I was never anxious.'

'The weight loss, the depression, lowered inhibitions, like stripping naked in a hospital to show me your behind--'

Wufei's head went up. 'What was that?'

'And risks that were stupid even for you,' Brabant went on, undeterred by their protests. 'You'd been overdosing and then withdrawing, over and over. But this time they gave you enough to kill you, if you were any other man. It must have fooled them, though. They took everything with them but you, and they wouldn't have done that if they thought they still had a use for you.'

It was too much. Too much to wrap his mind around. 'Wait,' he said, 'wait. Go back to-- McDevitt and O are here? What do you mean you haven't turned him over? Turned him over to Preventers?'

'I quit,' Wufei said flatly. 'When I realised just exactly what Command were doing. They pulled me away from you deliberately. They actively facilitated the Nine One Five Six. If I can't trust my Command, I won't stay to be commanded to do wrong.' He took Duo's hand again, gripping it tight beneath both of his. 'It's you and me, Duo. The way it should have been.'

'And me,' Brabant said, cheerily interrupting. His eyes were smirking when Duo turned a dark glare on him. 'And your giant frowny friend out in the hallway watching that very remorseful young man who doesn't look a thing like you.'

'And we have one more ally,' Wufei added. 'He's been worried for you.'

'One more--'

Brabant had gone to the door, whispering out into the hall. And though Duo hadn't even been aware of it until that moment, something that had been wound perilously tight in his belly released on a breath, when he saw who it was stepping in.

'Hey, Kid,' Solo said. 'You did real good.'

He let his tired eyes close. 'I waited for you.'

'Better for 'em to think we were always on the verge of finding them. Kept 'em on their toes. Kept 'em from thinking it through.'

'Could've told me, whoreson.'

'Could've,' Solo allowed. He didn't quite meet Duo's eyes. 'You're all right, though.'

'Yeah.' Not worth pushing it. There weren't any apologies waiting in that corner; it hadn't ever been Solo's way, and maybe it wasn't truly owed. Anyway, he'd live without it, one way or the other. He let his eyes close for permanent, this time, let his head rest back on the pillows. 'We safe for staying here a little longer?'

'We're secure,' Wufei's voice promised beside him. 'We used McDevitt's badge to get a crash-down. We shouldn't stay much longer, but long enough for you to be well for travel.'

'Okay. Gonna sleep a while, in that case.' With his gang of stalwart allies all around him. He supposed he could do worse. Supposed, maybe, there might even be cause to hope-- that maybe the worst was over.

Well. Maybe he didn't quite have hope in him, just yet. But it was something.
'It's warm enough,' Wufei said, and steered him under the spray from the shower nozzle. He didn't quite expect Wufei to outright follow him in, but it didn't surprise him, either. Wufei hadn't been more than a few inches from him since he'd waked yesterday. Even Brabant had got tired of it and ditched him for the waiting lounge.

'If your legs feel weak, lean on me.'

'I'm all right.' He still shivered, even under the hot water, but the doctor swore that would go away. Wufei was industriously soaking his hair under the spray, and that helped. Wufei handed him shampoo, and he scrubbed himself half-heartedly into a lather. 'Do you all have any actual plans?' he asked then.

'We can't talk to anyone in Preventers without drawing attention to our position,' Wufei answered moodily. 'I think we should be in contact with Health and Human Services, alert them to test water and air utilities--'

'They wouldn't catch anything until it was already in the system, even if they had the people to test every toilet flush or heat vent on the colony. And the satellites. Do you know if the Nine One Five Six even left the satellites?'

'No,' Wufei said shortly, and that pretty well covered that.

It effectually meant that the Nine One Five Six were untraceable. The only way they'd been findable before was the way Duo had taken-- dangling himself as bait. But until or if they ever realised Merquise was a mole and the 'virus' they'd mutated was a bad cough, they didn't need Duo for anything. They'd stay as far underground as they could, and from what Duo had seen, they had a lot of practise at it. Preventers couldn't go door to door any more than HHS could.

Mutate. He had a little niggling thought, there, but he didn't have a clear memory of what had happened after they'd taken him away from McDevitt. It wasn't the same as the previous times, when the triazolam had wiped him clean as a slate, but it wasn't all there, either. It was all mixed up with the weird dreams-- hallucinations. And a weird, creepy weird feeling he kept having, that someone was standing at his shoulder watching him.

'Marissa,' he said.

Wufei squirted a coin-sized dollop of liquid soap into his palm. 'Who is that?'

'I think... the girl. I think Heero called her that. Marissa... or maybe Maris.'

Wufei blinked rapidly at him. 'Could it have been Marise? As in Marise Noin?'

'Noin?' He washed his chest and arms. 'Like Lucretia Noin?'

'She had a daughter. It was right after the war, after she'd gone to Mars. Before the accident.'

Caught outside during a sandstorm. Four of the five who'd gone out had died that day. The beginning of the end of the Terraforming project. He'd liked Noin well enough. A little grim, a little crazy, but who hadn't been, in those days. 'You think this is her daughter?'

'Zechs Merquise's daughter,' Wufei added. 'It could make sense. He would trust her. And she might collude with him to hide the virus switch. You said she was the one working the little lab.'

'I'm not really clear on that point. For all I know she was just setting out lunch.'

'Turn around, I'll get your back. The girl was raised by relatives, the last I knew. But there's been plenty of time for them to reconnect, for her to move into the trusted centre of the Nine One Five Six. Heero obviously had to trust her too.'

'You've been--' He turned his face out of the spray, let it pound down on the top of his head. Wufei's hands were gentle on his back, smoothing in the soap, rubbing lightly. 'Been pretty blasé about Heero turning up. Like this.'

'Have I.' Fingers gripped his shoulder, for a moment, then resumed their movement. 'You're my first concern. My only concern. But truthfully-- I don't understand it. The Heero I knew-- this is not the Heero I knew. That's all there is to say.'


'Turn about, let's rinse you off.' Duo shuffled into a turn, and was presented with a toothbrush, already spread with paste. 'You need it and the water's already running. Don't argue with me just to get back into practise.'

Despite himself, he laughed at that. It was a little bit of normal, after all. Maybe not the bit he'd've chosen, given the choice, but it was Wufei from top to bottom.

'If Solo's right they've had their hands on the virus for twenty years,' he said, and propped the toothbrush between his jaws. 'They must have been planning this forever. Plenty of time for Merquise to get cold feet about it. And for that matter if Une really is the target, the time to hit her would have been when she came in talking about sanctions on L2, not seven years into that failed experiment.'

'I'm really not sure I believe their mantra of social justice. It could be lingering jealousy. Une rose to prominence after the collapse of OZ. Merquise has lived his entire adult life in hiding.'

'By choice.'

'You expect him to be rational? Brush your teeth.'

He obeyed, but just to give himself time to think it through. He aimed a spit at the drain in the floor, and said, 'Thing is, I think he is the rational one. He hasn't lost his head yet. And you know what it's like, undercover work. You've seen what a wreck those guys get to be after just weeks of it, much less the years this must've taken to build. He's cooler than ice. If anything, it's Heero who's let things get out of control.'

'How do you mean?'

He almost opened his mouth and tripped blithely into that black hole. Instinct stopped him a second before his brain caught up, and reminded him just why Wufei didn't necessarily need to know that Heero and he had, whatever, not quite slept together, but not quite not quite-ish enough to make a difference to a man who'd--

Like hell. Broken up with him rather spectacularly and gally-padded off to a fake assignment for months because of the Call of Duty.

But he couldn't even summon up anger over that, now. Too much had happened. They'd been duped, both of them, and they'd both taken it for face value, right up and down the line.

'Do you forgive me for keeping O a secret?' he said abruptly.

Wufei's hand on his elbow slipped a little. He went closed off, just for a second, the shields up in a snap. But then he exhaled a sharp small breath. 'Yes,' he said. 'I know you wouldn't do it maliciously. But I'm not sure I'm... ready, yet, to hear what your reasons were.'

That hurt. Unexpectedly. 'Oh,' he said. 'Okay.'

'There were... others?'

'J. He died a while back, though.' Wufei had stopped helping. He scrubbed his legs by himself, sluiced the water out of his hair. 'You could've gone back and checked for yourself. I told you all I'd taken them to Peacemillion.'


'But then maybe you wouldn't have felt like you could go off to Preventers or Heero would've... I don't know. I didn't do it to hurt anyone. And plus he asked--'

'Duo.' Wufei stopped him with a hard kiss. 'I'll get you a towel,' he said, and left the shower with a shriek of the curtain whipping back.

Under the circumstances, he was not best pleased to find O sitting in his room. And where O went, that now, apparently, meant McDevitt, who sported a bandage over his brilliantly bruised nose and dropped his eyes when Duo saw him.

'Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,' Duo said. He tossed his towel to the gurney and pulled a pile of clothes toward him. They were what he'd been wearing when he'd been brought in, laundered and smelling like industrial soap. 'Who hit you?' he asked McDevitt.

'Nothin', man,' McDevitt muttered, but his gaze slid sideways toward Wufei, who glowered back at him.

Duo sighed. 'I'm going to teach you how not to show every single thought on your face,' he told their erstwhile hostage. 'Although you seem to be learning on your own how not to vocalise every thought.' He had to sit to get his jeans on, but once he was zipped into his jacket he felt marginally more ready to bear the idea of going on the run again. He found a few coins in the pocket of his jacket, and rubbed them until they warmed. 'Where exactly are we going?'

'Your apartment is out, mine is out, and his is out,' Wufei began, dismissing McDevitt with a flick of his fingers. 'Brabant's should be out, because eventually someone will wonder where he is and connect him back to you. Your friend Solo recommended a few locations, but I frankly don't think we ought to count on them being invisible to the Nine One Five Six. They must have more people than just the corps that you've seen.'

It was not the best timing to ask. Wufei wouldn't like it; and Duo had promised. But his promise should, by rights, have ended their association on L2, and O had decided on his own to stick around this long. Given the way the old man was scrupulously, ponderously avoiding looking at Wufei, it wouldn't be comfortable. But Duo asked it anyway. 'We're low on options,' he said. 'O, you're the only one of us truly off the radar.'

'I assumed so,' O replied heavily. 'We need another vehicle.'

'I can commandeer one,' McDevitt offered, small-voiced. He looked up long enough to seek Duo's approval. 'It would be a few days before word would get back to HQ, and if we really only need it to get from Point A to Point B, we could just abandon it.'

'No,' Wufei said flatly. 'It's too suspicious. It could lead them to us.'

'They already know we're on colony,' Duo corrected, and did some eye-avoiding of his own. 'It's a good idea. They'll have to canvas whatever neighbourhood we dump it in. It has them off chasing their own tail for a while and it doesn't leave any real clues about where we are.'

'Until someone in that neighbourhood reports how the one of us who dumps the car got into a taxi headed out, and they find the taxi driver, and the driver tells him exactly where he dropped us off. It's too traceable. Not to mention any forensics we'd leave behind.'

'Forensics takes days at least, weeks at most, and a car is practically a trash heap, forensically.'

'It won't work, Duo. We'll think of something else.'

'Wait.' It was crazy, even for him, but-- it might be crazy in that golden shining idea way. 'I know someone who can get us a car off the grid. And drive us. And not tell Preventers anything afterward.'


'Watch the road, please,' Wufei said.

Pak stopped gazing adoringly at Duo and concentrated on slowing for a red light. Duo tapped impatiently on the dash, reminding himself this had been his idea.

'It's just that it's so good to see you,' Pak said. 'I didn't think I would. Your apartment's been swarming with Preventers--'

'You're not supposed to go to my apartment anymore.'

'Within two hundred yards,' Pak said defencively. 'I measured.'

Duo sighed. 'Drive.'

'Where you going to?' Pak took another glance at the backseat. Duo didn't have to look to know what he'd see; Wufei glowering, and McDevitt sulking. O, Solo, and Brabant were in Brabant's car, leading them a few cars ahead. Duo might have chosen a different arrangement of personnel, but Wufei had wanted to personally keep watch on McDevitt and Duo both, and Duo was the one who had the grip on Pak Chin Ho, former stalker extraordinaire. Not too former, obviously. He'd leapt at the chance for face-to-face time with Duo, just as Duo had bet.

'You don't really need to know the details,' Duo answered.

'Big doings?'

'Big doings.'

'I thought maybe, since you have the Preventers with you. Those Preventers, I mean.' Pak looked at Duo again, chewing an already-savaged thumbnail. 'That one's your lover?' he asked wistfully.

God. Gross. 'I asked you for a favour. I'm willing to play nice in exchange. But asking me questions like that is not the way to squeak out of your restraining order.'

'That historian's been to your apartment,' Pak said. 'The one who was on television a while back. The Preventers turned him away, but he tried three different times this month alone.'

'You haven't been out of jail long enough to see him visit three times.' Suspicion cemented. 'You've got cameras on my place. Jesus. How long?'

'Duo, now isn't the time.' Wufei leant up between them, to point to an upcoming sidestreet. 'Turn there.'

'You're going to take those cameras down,' Duo told Pak. 'Or I'll do it. Matter of fact, let's skip the part of trusting your word for it. If I have to go over the entire block with a magnifying glass I'm taking all of them down.'

'I only wanted to make sure you were safe. After they hurt you so badly.'

'I'm fine. Thanks for your concern.'

Brabant's car hooked a left, in toward a complex of broken-down townhouses. Duo had never seen O's home before. They'd parted ways after Immigration, with just an exchange of salient numbers. It at least looked big enough for all of them. The definition of non-descript. It looked like every other townhouse on L1, distinguishable solely by an extra storey of height that put the complex a head above its neighbours. Duo guessed the one sporting a large telescope on the glassed-in balcony belonged to their host. Pak nosed in to a small parking ramp, and they rode up to the roof-tops after O. Pak parked in the lone visitor's spot, and turned off the car. A few spots over, Brabant was getting out, and Solo came folding out from the backseat, daylight catching two blond heads that both turned to Pak's car. O was last, flipping up his coat collar, and hurrying for the door at the end of the lot.

'Out,' Wufei told McDevitt. 'Stay in arms' length of me.'

'All right,' Duo told Pak. The doors shut them in. Pak, relieved of driving duty, stared freely. He was starting to glaze over. 'All right,' Duo said, 'remember the rules. You talk to no-one. If Preventers ask you, you haven't seen me, or Agent McDevitt or Agent Chang, or any of those other men. If they ask you with big sticks, you think real hard about what I'll do to you versus what they'll do, and you make your choice.'

'I wouldn't sell you out. But... I don't want to go back to jail... so if Preventers do come to me to ask--'


'What will you give me to keep me on track?'

It figured Pak would be smart enough to ask that. Duo was not in a position to deny him much, if threats didn't carry the water. Even if he had it in him presently to beat the guy up, that wasn't an easy thing to do in cold blood, and anyway it could lead to exactly the kinds of questions they were trying to avoid. Pak leaving work to drive a friend around the city was one thing; Pak turning up bleeding from every orifice meant hospitals and hospitals meant reports and it just might wind its way back to Preventers. Worse, if he jilted Pak too much Pak might just take it into his head to get revenge, blow their cover. He'd be able to walk them right to O's door. 'What do you want,' he asked cautiously. Wufei was out there scanning the street from the crenallated edge of the roof. Not looking, for the moment.

'Thirty seconds,' Pak whispered. 'I just want to... touch you.'

'No. Fuck you.' Pak was sweating. Duo was hot, too, hot in the head and the chest. He'd been the one to make this call. He'd convinced everyone Pak would listen to him. He'd figured there'd be hell to pay, at some point. He'd hoped-- not quite yet. Not something this repulsive. Pak was a low-life, Pak was a no-body, a stalker, a delusional freak who imagined he'd earned this from a single drive across town. But if he went running straight to Preventers--


'Ten.' McDevitt said something. Wufei turned to answer him. Away from Duo. 'Ten,' Duo said. 'Nine. Eight.'

Pak's hand jumped to his cheek. Meaty-- damp. Duo flinched, before he could help himself. 'Seven. Six. Five.' Thumb on his lips, parting them. Threading into his hair. His skin crawled. 'Two. One.' He grabbed Pak's wrist, shoved him away. 'You're done. For always. Never again with that.'

Wufei knocked on the window.

Pak was breathing hard, clenching and unclenching his fist. 'Do what I told you,' Duo said. 'Just-- do what I told you. Go home. Stay low.' He scratched at the safety belt. The latch stuck, or he was too clumsy, but it wouldn't go. 'Don't come back here trying to find me. And take down those cameras.'

Wufei opened the door for him, reached down to pop the latch. He looked suspiciously between them, and his mouth settled into a grim hard line. 'Duo,' he said, 'get out and go inside.'

'I need help.' He said it purely to stop whatever was brewing, there, that dark look in Wufei's face. Pak had what he wanted and it would last him long enough to want more-- which meant he'd do what Duo needed. Wufei roughing him up just made for trouble. It worked, at least. Wufei's eyes snapped down to him, softened into worry. He slid gentle hands behind Duo's back, levered him up carefully. He slammed the car door shut behind them, so loudly it echoed off the brick.

'You shouldn't have been so nice to him,' Wufei muttered. He supported Duo against his hip, walking them briskly for the door. McDevitt fell into step on his other side. 'He'll get ideas.'

'You're the one who told me he's got a million diaries full of ideas already.' McDevitt got ahead of them for the stairwell, offering his arm as if Duo really were an invalid. Playing along pretty well for a guy who couldn't spell 'questionable associations'. The stairwell was steep enough that he let the two of them balance him down, to another door below. Solo was waiting there for them, to let them in, lock up behind them. He looked sharply at Duo as they passed. Duo glared him into silence.

'I'll get you a proper tea,' Wufei promised him, lowering him onto a couch near that balcony window. Sure enough, there was the telescope. The desk just across from Duo's seat was covered with notes and books on astral studies. It covered what O did with himself, for whatever it was worth. O the man was no-where to be seen; McDevitt got called to follow Wufei downstairs to the kitchen. Brabant went after them, saying something about how they all needed food or they'd collapse. In short order, it was just Duo and Solo, alone.

'Interesting friends you've got,' Solo said.

He wasn't up for this. He just wasn't. First time in a long time he'd had to admit that to himself. His hands were shaking, and he was hot all over. His face burned where he'd let Pak touch him. Had they heard a car leave? Pak had better follow the plan. He should send someone to check.

'Kid,' Solo said, and came nearer, dropping into a crouch in front of him. 'You okay?'

'Wufei trusts you,' he observed, some thin thread that kept the focus. Asked the questions he needed answers for. 'Wufei barely trusts me. How'd you manage that?'

'Got him back on L1, quietly. Convinced him to get his head out his ass and get back here. Guess that did it.'

'You said you hate Earth. You didn't never go find him there.'

'I can hate Earth and still find China on a map, Kid.' Solo seemed to decide he was all right after all. He transferred to the couch beside Duo, kicking out his long legs, ruffling his lank hair beneath the band holding it back. 'It's all coming together for you, init.'

'What do you mean.'

'All your secret lives coming together. Your boy there. The big one, the engineer. Your posh friend, the psychologist.'

'Hypnotist. And I don't know if I'd call him a friend.'

'Take a look around at what he's doing for you, and think twice about that. Even that idiot Preventer, the one who tried to turn you over to the Nine One Five Six, he fought to be let near you, instead of being shoved down some hidey-hole until it's all over. You got a way of collecting people.'

'And you.'

'And me.'

'Where's your posse? All the people you had with you before.'

'Laying low til we need 'em. Keeping an eye on the Nine One Five Six, keeping watch on Preventers for any unusual activity. That one may have taken cash for giving you up, but he's not the one they've had in their pockets all this time. There's still whoever cooked up an assignment for Chang on Earth, to get him away from you. And whoever stayed behind on L1 to watch you, to keep everything from blowing stack before they was ready.'

He hadn't been this close to Solo before, those other times they'd talked. He'd been putting furniture between them, not wanting to touch, not wanting to-- test the reality of it, maybe. But together on the couch like this, inches of microsuede between them, he could feel warmth off Solo's body, smell a little sweat and a little salt, hear the tiny crinkles of sound that was clothing, rubber-soled shoes, the weight of a man settling in place. He could close his eyes and breathe to that.

'You're whiter than ghosts. What's wrong.'

'Fine,' he mumbled. 'Catching my breath.'

'Kid, don't lie to me.'

'What do you want me to say?' His head was swimming. He turned his cheek to the couch cushion, the one Pak had mauled. That he'd let Pak do. Why had he done that? He'd never been one to give in like that. Even in jail he'd dropped men twice his size and weight for just saying they'd do what he'd let Pak do, for what. A car ride. Yes, they'd needed his agreement. He could have promised Pak could lick the inside of his sock drawer, or something. Stupid. Stupid and weak, and he hated himself for it.


'What if this is forever? My back, and feeling like this. I've never been this bad. Fucking whooping cough? Time was I'd never feel a tickle, jabbed or no. What if it's--' His throat was too tight for words. 'What if it's wearing off? The gene treatments. I shouldn't be like this.'

'Then we'll ask O. He'll know.' Not Solo, that. Wufei. Back with a tea, which he set on the little table beside the couch, and then he took the spot Solo vacated and put his arm around Duo, squeezing him gently. 'But maybe it's a good thing. If it is wearing off. How many times have we dreamt of that? Of being normal again. Just like everyone else.'

'You did. Not me.' Oh, too weak. He'd never, ever said that to Wufei. But it was out, the arm around him had gone stiff, and he let the rest of it go spilling out too, what the hell. 'I never cared about being normal. I like the way I am. I hate being like this, I can't stand the idea that this is what it'll be like now, hurting all the time and-- dependent-- I can't climb fucking stairs on my own, much less fight off Heero fucking Yuy, I'm no better than a feeble old man--'

'Duo, no-one in the universe looks at you and thinks you're feeble. If you sit there crying about it, though, maybe we'll start.' Wufei gazed coolly at him. Duo stared a hole in the wall. 'It's easy to be strong when you're always healthy and young,' Wufei said. 'I'm proud of what you've done when you've felt anything but. But you're not someone who wastes time feeling sorry for himself. And we don't have the time for it, not now.'

'Agent Chang.' Brabant, disapproving. 'Can I speak to you a moment.'

No. Wufei was right. Deal with it. He could deal with it. A few deep breaths, that was all he needed. Get ahold of himself. He almost knocked the tea over, reaching for it. Solo rescued it, held it for him until he managed a good grip. He just needed to keep it together. He could do that.

'Not the way I'd've said it,' Solo murmured, looking down at him. 'But he's not wrong about one thing. It's not over yet.'

'Yeah. I know.' The heat of the tea loosened his chest. He wiped his nose, sipped steadily at it. 'I need to eat something. I'm just run down. Something with protein.'

'Yeah.' Solo curved two fingers over his hair, tweaked his ear. 'I'll see what I can find, Kid.'

O scared them up bits and pieces of a meal, trying to fill six grown bellies off of what he bought for one. Duo got meat, stir-fried beef in sour-smelling fish sauce; Wufei and O settled for tofu and sprouts, and the other three got cold sandwiches with various fillings. As provisions went, it wasn't a good start. They'd need more than this. O was the logical one to send, familiar to his neighbourhood, to the locals. When Duo suggested it, they came up with a meagre forty-seven dollars between all of them, argued out a list of what they'd get for it. But O went without protest, shuffling off in his old tweed coat and cap like any other native. Awkward, heavy silence fell with his departure. Wufei cleared their dishes, disappeared for a while with McDevitt; casing the joint, Duo thought. Checking for weak points and hidden entrances. Knowing O, there was a back way out of every room, but Duo didn't think there'd be much else. Why bother to wire up a whole house if no-one knew you were alive? Just an old man in a quaint little house, eccentric old man with a telescope peering through the solar fields, aimed at a satellite that didn't exist anymore.

The Nine One Five Six-- no telling what they were up to. It was ironic, actually. The whole thing, the hiding out, the poor planning, the listless anxiety of not knowing what to do to get to next-- it had that flavour of the war. He'd lived a whole year like this, half a lifetime ago. Rushing and hoping you could trust further'n you could spit, relaxing only when you were so exhausted you just couldn't keep jumping at every new surprise. He'd never developed much affection for Earth, given his first experience of it. He associated it too much with long tense nights. Discovering his first cricket. He'd thought it was some kind of electronic give-away, a bomb tick, he'd searched that little motel in France up and down before he'd cornered it, that alien-looking thing that eyed him back and jumped on him. Shrieked himself silly, before he'd swatted it out the window. Spent the rest of the night-- and not a few after that-- convinced he could feel it crawling on him. No crickets on colonies, not anymore. L5 had had them, Wufei had told him once, kept them in tiny cages for good luck, to listen to their song.

Bugs. Spying?

There was something going on in his hindbrain. Something about bugs. But he couldn't coax it to the front. Crickets. The hell did crickets stand in for?

'Brett,' he called. Where had he got to? How many floors down? 'McDevitt!'

'What's up?' Brabant asked him.

'Having a thought. Brett!' he yelled.

'Calm down. I'll get him.'

Footsteps on the stairs yielded him the two Preventers. 'Something wrong?' Wufei asked sharply, bursting up over the last step.

'Duo's having a thought,' Brabant explained succinctly. 'Make yourselves comfortable. Those thoughts of his involve a lot of sharp right turns.'

'Brett,' Duo said, ignoring that. 'Walk through something for me. The Nine One Five Six-- how'd they approach you about the money? Parking lot at night kind of deal?'

'No,' McDevitt said, bewildered. 'The bank. Well, outside the bank. I closed out my account and I didn't have enough. I'd already cashed in my retirement, but it was just a couple thousand, because you're not supposed to take it out early. I needed more and the lady said--'

'What lady.'

'The HR lady. I don't know. Pam something, Jenkins or Jerkins--'

Duo waved it off. 'What did she say.'

'She said if I needed money, she knew someone who could do loans under the table.'

'And you trusted her?' Wufei interrupted. 'Did you even listen during your ethics orientation?'

'Beat him up later. Brett, what next.'

McDevitt was not having a good week. But he sucked in a breath and persevered. 'I needed the money,' he repeated flatly. 'She wrote a name and a number and told me to get in touch. I did.'

'And they met you at the bank.'

'It seemed like just the local sharking. At first. High interest loan. But then he said if I was interested, there was a way to get it free and clear, no debt.'

'By conning me.'

'They promised me they didn't want to hurt you.' McDevitt picked at the hem of his shirt. 'I knew better, but... I needed the money.'

'I already told you it was okay. They're better at what they do than you are, that's all. They wouldn't have gone to you if you didn't need it enough.' Pam. Not a name he knew, but that didn't mean anything. But if there was a Pam who knew the Nine One Five Six, that was suggestive. Heero had said they had contacts, plural, in Preventers. But how deep did it go, if they had someone on payroll? Watching for the desperate? Clever, but it seemed time-consuming. Why get someone in such a low-level position, waiting for something nasty and sudden to befall someone who might or mmight not bite at an illegal loan with a betrayal pricetag?

'You tell anyone else?' he asked slowly. 'About your mom's troubles. Anyone else know you were trying to scare up cash? Your partner? Would Tran have carried tales anywhere?'

'Tran'n me are new together, just since your assignment. Never told him.'

There went that idea. Maybe just a chance happening? Luck did exist, for goodies and baddies both--

'Told my supervisor, though,' McDevitt said. 'They broke my mom's arm. She called me at work to tell me, and my super overheard. A couple-- three weeks ago, now. Right before you got back to L1.'

'Your supervisor.'

'Kreinheder. Once Chang packed off for Earth, she took over the op. But she never talked about any loans. Just suggested I try to get into my retirement savings. It was that Pam lady who put me in touch with--'

'And Alicia put you in touch with Pam. Jesus, Brett. You don't recognise a set-up?'

'I'm sorry,' McDevitt said meekly.

So. Duo caught Wufei's eyes, ready for the protest, the hurt. Wufei flinched, hearing it. Then went stony. Still.

Definitely placed high enough. And not coincidentally involved, intimately involved from the beginning. With both him and with Wufei. And Alicia hadn't been sent to the Chinese assignment, and, most tellingly, she'd let Duo walk more than once without chasing him all that hard, when a responsible Preventer would have locked him up, friend or no friend, knowing there was a kidnapper out there who was using Plague on a civilian. It fit.

'She's colonial,' he said to Wufei. 'L4. Old enough to have picked a side back in the war.'

'She came in from White Fang,' Wufei said, almost inaudibly.

Well. That did answer for that, didn't it.

The noise of O arriving broke the quiet. Brabant met him on the stairs to help with the groceries, taking McDevitt with him. Solo kept his corner, watching all of them like it was an interesting television documentary, laying out the savage jungle secrets of Gundam pilots. Soap opera was probably a better analogy. Bad day-time drama, everyone guilty of everything. McDevitt might have been an idiot, but he'd only been a guilty idiot pretty recently. Alicia-- her involvement had to go back years. Maybe even decades. She'd been Wufei's partner for six years. It wasn't inconceivable that she'd turn on him mid-way, but partnerships were tight, in organisations like that. When you trusted someone with your life and put it to the test fairly regularly, it was hard to just up and decide to betray that.

But it didn't shock him. He'd had time to prepare. Wufei was taking it to the chest.

'What stopped you from going straight to her, when you realised the Chinese assignment was a sham?' he asked.

Wufei looked up. 'Your friend there,' he replied, a beat off. 'He said-- communications blackout was smartest. I agreed. Tactically.'

'Didn't carry the thought through to who'd be doing the listening.'

'No,' Wufei admitted steadily. 'I didn't.'

'For what it's worth,' Solo put in, 'we never knew who exactly in Preventers we were watching.' He pursed his lips, considering the two of them. 'This is a shitty sort of upside, but at least you've got one thing going for you now. You're probably done finding out people have personally fucked you over.'

Wufei stared at him. Then, slowly, he laughed. Just a breath. But he did laugh. Duo smiled, and let it go.

'We all need rest,' O said finally. Heads turned toward him, as the old man stood, glowering fulsomely at his guests. 'I have rooms,' he added, 'but it will be the floor for most of you.'

'Duo should have a bed.' Wufei stood as well, turned just so to avoid deliberately facing off his one-time mentor, but his shoulders were tight enough to snap. 'And someone should be with him. In case of attack.'

'He probably only has one bed,' Duo tried to interject. No way to be subtle about it, since Wufei had chosen to air the subject right out in the open. 'I can sleep on the couch.'

'No, I won't have it.' Wufei finally managed a direct look. O stared him down, each of them impassive mirrors, refusing to be budged. 'With your permission,' Wufei said, not even a little tiny bit gracefully. No respectful titles, not even a 'please'-- Duo held his breath, seeing explosions on the horizon.

But suddenly the tension broke. O looked away. He inclined his head, to Wufei, then to Duo. He said, 'My room will be private for you.'

Solo arched his eyebrows. 'I get the appeal now,' he observed.

'Shut up,' Duo muttered.


Being in O's bed was decidedly weird.

Mind-bending, actually. Had him back in old, old memories, places in himself he didn't access all that often. Those hard early days after Libra. Had himself a big secret, no idea what to do about two half-dead men who were, as of the not-quite victory they'd just had, even more wanted than he'd been. He'd tried to talk to Quatre about it, sure Quatre could be objective, come up with answers. But Quatre had been holed up in the field hospital they'd made out of Lunar Base's partially reconstructed remains, and he'd never got past Trowa at the door. There'd been no question of getting advice out of Heero, even more guarded than Quatre; Wufei had done a lot of sitting in corners, letting Sally Po remind him to do things like eat and sleep. It wasn't that he wasn't sorry for all of them, but there'd been a certain amount of urgency attendant on his secret. In the end he'd abandoned all of them to recovery and made for L2. Howard had pointed him to one of the old pre-colony resource drones, little better than shells with dead computers inside. He'd used Deathscythe like a Sweeper drone-- swords turned into ploughshares before fighting had actually physically stopped everywhere on Earth-- hauling in parts for shielding and constructing a kind of floating flotsam refuge. He'd done better at that than he had at nursing. O's scarred face attested to that. But they hadn't died on him. Stubborn old men who couldn't give up. He'd admired that. Even when they bent his nose out of joint complaining. God, had they complained. Well, J, mostly. But who could blame them? Living hell, it had been, and Duo the only one who could leave it at will.

He'd poured two years of hard-earned profit from scrapping into hiding the two of them. From the provisional government, from the Gundam pilots, from the fresh crop of wannabe-bad guys who tried to get their mitts on the Gundams, from Hilde, who'd never believed he was just bad at accounting and lost track of the books. But he'd kept them alive, kept them secret. Given them a few extra years of life. He'd tried.

Maybe O was-- dare he even think it-- expressing a little gratitude?

Ha. Not bloody likely.

Wufei was with him for the night, having foisted off McDevitt on his old Master and left Solo to watch Brabant-- or the reverse. He had O's netbook with him, reading something for a long time-- he said the news, when Duo asked. But at last the orange glow went out, and Wufei lay out flat next to him.

'How are you feeling?' Wufei asked softly. 'Better than before?'

That had shades of remorse. Maybe Brabant had yelled at him, earlier. 'I'm okay.'

'I could rub your back, if it's hurting. You'll feel better for it.'

'I'm okay. If you like, I guess.'

Wufei took his non-answer for affirmative. The mattress groaned a little, as he sat up again, but only one hand descended, finding the hem of Duo's shirt, sliding beneath it. Warm. He rubbed lightly, more to soothe than massage. Worked well enough. Familiar touch. Almost made it easy to forget they hadn't just had one of their about-nothing arguments and gone a month without ending the work week in each other's beds.

'I can barely feel your surgery scars,' Wufei murmured behind him. 'I think you don't need to worry about the genetic treatments wearing off, Duo.'

'I'm sorry about that,' he told the pillow. 'Didn't mean it.'

'It's all right if you did. It never bothered you the way it did me.'

'Not the same, no, but--' Hard to have this conversation with his eyes closed. Easier than it would be facing each other. 'I didn't figure I'd be fifteen forever. I don't want to be, I don't know, I don't want to be seventy and still look like this. I think.'

'We may be. It may just be that way. O said--'

'You asked him?'

'He never understood the extent of the treatments. He was a physicist, not a biologist. And he claims the one who did invent the process died on Libra.'

'Which one?' Doc? Coulda been. Something about needles, he remembered that. He'd let Doc do whatever, sure only that it got him closer to Earth. To the fight he'd been bred for. And never asked O, wasn't that right, all these years. He hadn't really wanted to know. And even with Wufei agonising over it it had just never occurred to him to go get the answer. Some friend. Five minutes alone with a man he obviously wished was still in the grave like he'd thought, and Wufei popped the question.

'S. The one who worked on Heavyarms.'

Trowa. Who'd looked older than the rest of them, a year later into puberty, maybe, more developed. Past that elbowy, knobby-kneed stage he'd still been in himself. But who knew.

'We'll be together, though,' Wufei ventured. Left it hanging.

'You don't have to say that.'

'I do. I think I should do, because I don't think you'll really trust me if I don't.' Wufei sighed against his shoulder, leant his cheek on Duo's arm. 'I should have asked you to come with me, to China. If we'd been together--'

'They'd've figured out a way to separate us there. At least in Space I knew the territory. I kept them running.'

'Would you have come? If I'd asked you, on that boat?'

'Ship.' His heart figured out what was going on in that question before his head quite caught up. Heavy rapid beats, thundering in his chest. 'If you'd asked me, would I have--'

'I'd convinced myself you'd never agree. But I never even thought to really ask you.' Wufei's fingers travelled his spine, up, down.

'Yeah, I figured that much out from the way you played it.'

'But would you have? Come with me?'

'I kind of slept with that kid, Hudson,' he said. 'And I pretty much totally slept with Heero.'

The hand on him froze. Retracted, not quite a snatch, but conveying plenty of sudden motivation. Duo stared down at the fringe on the pillow case, gripped to a crinkle in his fist.

Wufei got up, and left.


Double fucking shit. Stupid. Stupid bugger-all instinct he had, knew just how cruel to be to drive someone away. Hadn't had to say that. He'd scared himself so he'd just opened that damn mouth he had, let something mean-spirited come zipping out. Hadn't had to say it like that, just dashing it out there when Wufei was trying to be good to him. It was his fault if he was sore and tired and it wasn't his right to lash out. Solo at least would've boxed his ears for that. New record low.

The door opened again. Wufei slid back onto the bed, settled against him, arm wrapped tight around him. Duo clenched so tensely he shivered; Wufei kissed his shoulder.

'I wanted to check the others were sleeping,' he murmured. He kissed Duo's neck, warm lips touching his earlobe. He sucked just enough to raise another shiver and gooseflesh.

'What I said,' Duo croaked awkwardly.

'Surprised me. But I understand.' Wufei stroked his cheek. 'I was gone. You thought forever. I understand why Hudson. And I've always guessed how you felt about Heero, why you've looked for him so many years. I understand.' His hand left Duo's face and moved south, sweeping over Duo's thigh and settling between Duo's legs, pressing lightly over the sheet. The press of him to Duo's back didn't leave any room for wonder about where he thought it was going. 'But I'm back now.'

His heart thought he was going to die of low blood pressure, the way it was pumping frantically. His mouth was desert-dry. 'I-- can't-- put myself out there for this,' he whispered. 'If I don't know you're going to stay. Don't ask me to commit to this alone.'

'Alone.' Wufei wedged a hand under his shoulder, pushed him by the thigh until he rolled. 'Alone,' Wufei repeated, staring down at him with, unbelievably, fond exasperation. 'I love you, you moron,' he said.

The weight on his chest vanished. 'You what?'

'I quit my career and flew back to Space on the word of a total stranger just to stand around while you rescued yourself. I didn't do that just because you're nice to look at.'

'Don't try to be funny. You what me?'

Uncertainty crept into Wufei's eyes. 'Love you,' he repeated, not so confidently as before.


'Oh.' Wufei blinked first. 'You, uh, should--'

'I love you too,' Duo blurted.

'I—' Wufei began to grin. 'You do.'

'Yeah.' His face heated giddily. Began to grin, himself. Just bubbling up onto his face. 'Okay,' he said.

'Okay,' Wufei answered gravely. 'That's good.'
A touch to his foot jerked him awake.

Dark form leant over the bed, but the eyes picked out details as quickly as they adjusted to the dim. Light longish hair, tall, but not tall enough to be Brabant. It was Solo.

Duo eased his arm out from under Wufei's head, sliding the pillow nearer to replace the missing limb. Wufei sighed and settled without waking. Duo rolled silently off the mattress, and followed Solo out of the bedroom.

In the quiet landing off the stairwell, Solo fetched against a wall, arms crossed. Duo rubbed sand out of his eyes, pushed his fluffy-feeling hair behind his ears. 'I was busy,' he grumbled. 'What.'

'Sorry to interrupt.' Solo's eyes were a pale flash of amusement. 'I take it all's well on the homefront.'

'What did you want?'

'You and me should talk privately about where we go next with this.'

Yeah. Yeah, they should. It was all well and good to have his friends around him, and he'd be safe-- safer-- here than anywhere else; but the reality was that Heero did know O was alive now, and he didn't have much by way of predictions what would happen when the Nine One Five Six realised they didn't have a functional virus. Then, too, there was the open question of the agonist. Would it wear off? And when? All the men around him would have been vaccinated for the original strain. But there was a whole generation in the streets around him who hadn't been. And it might just occur to the Nine One Five Six that they didn't need a mutated strain to effect mass chaos on Earth, where there'd never been vaccines at all.

That yawned deep before him, suddenly. It was even more effective than Libra, really. Libra would have made Earth unlivable, if the plan had been carried through to completion-- the impact dust of destruction would have clogged the atmosphere, choked off sunlight, trapped noxious gases, raised the global temperature. Secondary effects like tremors, volcanic activity-- it would have been centuries before Earth could be resettled. But a virus... a virus only killed people. There'd be perfectly intact cities, food and water supply, infrastructure, everything a healthy population would need to move right in.

It was his first trip to the kitchen. O's place had a kind of spartan comfort to it, white-washed walls with touches of grace. A large potted elephant-ear hogged a spotlight's directed warmth, and the clock was an unusual piece, a big free-form artwork with zodiac signs. The plates matched, which was more than Duo could say about his own place. Solo brought down two delicate tea cups from the cupboard over the sink, and waved Duo to the little two-setting table nestled into the breakfast nook. He propped the thin red cushion behind his back as Solo flipped on the electric kettle.

'They're targeting the President,' Duo opened.

Solo nodded slowly. 'Yeah, I could see that. They called it a conservative backlash, when she went in office. She just issued official support for upping the recruitment quota for the military. And the usual crony pundits are calling for a reinstatement of the piloting programmes. They say they want to start training again before there's no-one who remembers how.'

'But it's not apocalyptic. And it's a long way from reinstating mobile suit piloting to instituting militia rule. And frankly it was a long way from instituting military law in Space to the day when they decided to build Gundams. It took dozens of atrocities and a gross violation of human rights laws to get us to that point before. This is ridiculous overkill.'

'Not from their point of view, obviously.'

'Merquise clearly didn't think it was worth it, if he'd turn on the others. But Heero's the one I don't get. He was never a radical.'

'People change. Maybe he had expectations.'

'There's got to be something to it. A reason.' The clock read five twenty. They had maybe forty minutes before someone else got up, if no-one was sleeping troubled. Or if Wufei found him missing and assumed something bad. 'Why didn't you take them out? Why'd you let them get through the whole show of mutating a fake virus?'

'What makes you think we can take them out? I don't have odds we could do it. We've been at this for months now and there's blood on both sides, but no winners.' Solo dripped steaming water into both cups, and brought them to the table. 'Milk or sugar?'

'Milk.' He wrapped the tea bag's string around his fingertip. 'There's an option here we haven't discussed.'

'I don't disagree that you're smart, Kid, but we've been over the options a million times.'

'Preventers may be corrupted, but we could still go straight to the President.'

Solo came full stop next to him, the milk carton hovering over Duo's cup. 'What? Why?'

'Because maybe the government would have some opinions of their own, how to go after someone trying to effect a coup.'

Solo poured, and clunked down into his own seat. 'I take it back. That's the dumbest thing I've heard all week, and I thought Chang had the all-time high score on that. You of all people want to bring the government in?'

'When it was the government releasing the virus, I fought the government. Now it's a handful of warped individuals who're doing it, so yes, I think it's time to consider inviting the resources of the government. Money would help, and network access, and--'

'And they might happily offer that, but I'm thinking it would take a few years to convince them, and you might find you spend that in high-security holding.'

'There's that.' He sipped his tea. 'It was a thought.'

'This started under the wavelength and it should stay there.' Solo mimed him, lifting the delicate little cup to his lips. 'You haven't asked me why I went to the trouble of fetching your boyfriend.'


'Ask me.'

He knew, then. It had been itching at the back of his mind, something he hadn't been quite sure about. But he knew, now. 'No,' he said.


He was agitated. He stood. 'Solo, this isn't something you get to ask of me.'

'You-- plural. Because if you won't do it, I've got a spare.'

'This is low.' He paced the perimetre of the little kitchen space, until it brought him back to where he'd started. 'This is low and it's dangerous and it's doomed, it's practically kamikaze. There's no way anyone on Earth is going to see a Gundam and think it's coming in peace--'

'So you did guess. I wondered.'

'I guessed, damn it. There's still a Gundam on Earth.' He braced himself over the sink, staring down at the ring of lime on the drain. 'And you think the Nine One Five Six know it exists and the virus is really a feint to get at it.'

'Yes. I do.'

'And if Heero gets it, if it can fly--'

'I think if I can get you to it first, we can do what you tried to do years ago. Destroy it for good.'

'If they have one, they could have more. They could be building more.'

'They could well be.'

Duo turned. It was O, shuffling in from the stairwell. He looked odd in his shabby bathrobe and blue pajamas, loose on a sunken old chest, his house slippers whispering across the tile. The deep frown was in full scowl already, though. 'It's been done twice already,' the old man repeated definitively. 'Wing ZERO, built by Quatre Winner, and Treize Khushrenada managed to build two. Epyon and Tallgeese Three.'

'Tallgeese Three was deconstructed for parts. Even if they'd managed to recall every drone that ever got a Gundamium shield for Deep Space Colonisation, it wouldn't be usable scrap.' Duo could say that with authority. 'And the last time I saw it, there wasn't enough left of Wing ZERO to carry in a bucket. The best they'd get out of it was design schematics. I took the ZERO processor out myself. It's rust in a field in Argentina, by now. And if there was anything left of Epyon after the Battle of Libra, Merquise would be the one who had it, and he wouldn't need to go through all this show to get one secretly held on Earth.'

'The point is that we don't know what they have.' O checked the level of water in the kettle, and turned it on again to warm. 'Hence the desperation to provoke the President into using it. Or, vice verse, to get you there to find out first. Or Wufei.'

'Not Wufei.' Duo turned to get Solo in his glare. 'Hear me? Not Wufei. He's got a life here. Once this is over he'll be able to go back to it.'

'Shall I be the one to make that decision, you think?'

The kitchen was getting crowded. Wufei looked even more out of place than his former mentor. For the first time in years, Duo saw him the way others must have seen him. A short, skinny kid, the pony tail the kind of thing teenagers did, a little meaningless rebellion. The 'Preventers' logo on the chest looked like a joke. He moved with more confidence than a kid, he stood with his back rigid and his head level with something stronger than a kid could have, but looking at him-- and then he blinked again, and it was Wufei.

'You were listening at doors again,' Duo told the man standing behind Wufei.

Brabant gave him an unapologetic shrug, and pushed McDevitt into the kitchen before him. 'You weren't being as quiet as you thought. And it's not the first time I've stopped you from doing something stupid, so at least it's familiar.'

Well. Duo drew a deep breath. 'I'm still right,' he told Wufei directly. 'You've worked so hard to make your life here. And when this is over, you'll still be able to go back to it.'

'You're the best and only reason to stay here,' Wufei retorted. He took Duo by the chin. 'I thought I was clear about that last night.'

Duo batted him away, cheeks flaming. Brabant grinned at him. 'You weren't as quiet as you thought last night, either,' he murmured, and went to help O with the tea.

'Don't argue,' Wufei said, and dropped a kiss on the top of his head. 'Would you like egg whites for your breakfast?'

Solo seemed a little irritated by all the extra bodies in their private conversation. Solo, Duo decided, could suck on it. He'd wanted to privately railroad Duo, and it had been working. It was still working, because whatever Wufei thought about companionship and love there was still the question of who'd be best qualified to steal a Gundam. And who'd be best qualified for the very long jail sentence that was likely to result. Even if they proved the President was hiding the most outlawed weapon in existence, it wouldn't be the President who'd take the first heat. And if Duo had any say in it, it wouldn't be Wufei, either.

So he sat back down and he finished his tea, and then he looked at Solo and said, 'Where is it, then.'

'Wouldn't be a secret if everyone knew,' Solo snapped.

'Don't get mouthy with me. You've narrowed down the choices, right? It can't be anywhere open, so it's not a military base. Could be what's left of Barge or Lunar One, but there's multi-national guards on those every second every cycle. That leaves maybe one of the old ocean colonies or maybe even an MO station-- or a jillion hidey-holes anywhere in all of Space. Or Mars, for that matter, except it doesn't make much sense to send a weapon all that far way from where you'll be shooting it.'

Solo pursed his lips like he was tasting something sour. 'It's not Mars, it's not Lunar One, and as far as we can tell it's not the MOs. But nine years ago, there was some interesting shipments into a canning factory in Saarland, Germany.'

'Nine years?' Wufei repeated sceptically. 'Even if they were constructing a Gundam, it could have been moved anywhere in that amount of time. You're wrong.'

'Give up,' Duo advised Solo. 'Or at least get used to your spare's personality. If they were building a new one they would have had to refine the Gundamium in Space. If they were just reworking it, then it's Earth, and it's close to the people who plan on using it. Close enough for Une to personally supervise, I'd think.'

Solo rubbed his stubbled jaw unhappily. But he did give in. 'We figure it's in the Capitol. It has to be. And the most heavily fortified place in the universe is Parliament-- and Parliament is built right on the old Senne tunnels.'

'The sewers?' Wufei returned to Duo's side with a plate and the pan of scrambled eggs, scraped out with a half eye's attention. 'No sewer is large enough to hold a Gundam flat on its back, much less in a position to be detailed.'

'If they can hide a Gundam, they can hide a little tunnel-widening project. Like maybe by calling it a restoration effort on the historic Metro route, which happens to have been built in the sewer tunnels, which happens to still be closed to the public.'


'Pretty smart,' Duo finished sourly. He picked at the eggs with his fingers until Wufei brought him a fork. 'That said, there's a lot of Metro line, and it will be guarded, if they're really building down there. Not easy to rush a cave, much less a cave that has a Gundam inside.'

'It's kept Yuy out til now,' Solo said.

'You know, stop. Wait. This doesn't make sense.' He pushed his plate away, tapped agitatedly on the table. 'So it's guarded. So it's maybe impossible to get to-- so having a viral outbreak is not going to make Une whisk it out where they can steal it easier. Assuming Gundams have developed magical virus-dampening powers anyway.'

'Not necessarily nonsense.' Wufei's hand fell warmly on his back. 'If you predicate a military response to an attack timed for the panic of an outbreak. All they have to do to get that Gundam out in view is to wait until the public are rioting in the streets--'

'Why expect riots? They're more likely to huddle at home and shoot people on the lawn. That's what happened here, until the vaccine went enough around.'

'But when they hear there is no vaccine? When they hear it's a terrorist attack? And what's to say the Nine One Five Six won't be helping it along?'

'The spare might be smarter than I thought.' Solo crossed his arms, eyebrows pulled together in a deep glower. 'So you done fighting me on this? You agree that it's to everyone's benefit to try and get the Gundam out of action before we let the Nine One Five Six trigger a war?'

'It's winter on Earth now,' O pointed out laconically. 'Dress warmly.'

'I hate winter,' Duo muttered. He scooped the last of his eggs into his mouth. 'And I hate shuttle flights. And I hate crawling through cold damp tunnels, so I want a very firm plan of action before I budge from this chair. And someone feed McDevitt. I don't like the way he's eying me.'

'We should move quickly,' Wufei decided. 'We need to get to the docks. Your ship can handle the three of us. The rest of you should stay here,' he told the others. 'O, Roger, stay down like you've been doing. Resume your regular movements-- you might go unnoticed individually. McDevitt--'

'McDevitt should come with us,' Duo interjected, and went ignored.

'We can't force you to lay low,' Wufei went on darkly. 'I suppose you could take your chances on turning yourself in.'

'He should really come with us.'

'Maybe I should come with you,' McDevitt tried, catching on. 'I can be super helpful.'

Wufei glowered. 'This is not a good idea, Duo.'

'He can be super helpful. No, really, look, we could use a badge, we could use someone who can pass for me, and it's even stupider to send him back to Preventers knowing his fucking supervisor is with the Nine One Five Six. You think she's not going to ask him lots of details?' Wufei's frown was getting sort of hysterically deep, so he kicked it up to the selling points. 'He's the only one besides me who's had direct dealings with the Nine One Five Six. That's going to have value, if we're all on Earth searching for the same sewer hole. He can handle a gun without tripping on himself and he's already done the stupidest thing he can do, so he's due a turnaround. He can pass for me in a pinch-- I've already used that a handful of times, and it was your idea to begin with, so why ditch what's worked before? And also there's four of them and so having four of us is good.'

Wufei sighed. 'That's your big wrap up? Symmetry?'

'I like symmetry,' he said lamely.

Wufei levelled a dark look at McDevitt. 'He has confidence in you. Earn it.'

McDevitt actually straightened in place, arms tight to his side. 'Yes, sir,' he said.

'We're so screwed,' Solo muttered.

'So that's it?' Brabant asked. 'Suddenly we're talking Gundams and the lot of you go to Earth because one questionably informed man who, may I remind you, participated in, initiated, the kidnapping and the drugging--'

'We've already been down this road. We don't trust unequivocally,' Wufei said, 'but we do have to trust enough to decide what to do next. And while I thank you for the help you've been to Duo, it's time for you to go home and let us finish this.'

Brabant's jaw went tight. 'Really,' he said flatly.

'Roge.' Duo recalled his attention softly. 'I spent years tracking what I was sure was mobile suit damage across the Sphere. I knew they had suits-- the Nine One Five Six. It's a logical leap that the former second-in-command of the most successful military coup in history kept some suits of her own. She had access to Gundams.'

'She created Preventers, am I right about that? It's sure her picture in the Memorial Hall up at HQ.' Brabant stubbornly stopped Duo's answer by raising his hand. 'A woman who creates an organisation specifically dedicated to eradicating mobile infantry does not keep a handful--'

'Is there some kind of government-love-drug going around?' Solo demanded. 'That bitch would not be the first to pack a sidearm while claiming to be anti-proliferation. Or am I the only one who recalls India versus Pakistan in 2017?'

'We're not talking nuclearised nations in a volatile relationship. This is a woman who, according to your story, just woke up one day and thought she ought to perpetuate the same--'

'Yeah,' Solo said, 'that's exactly what she did. And now there's a group out there of pissed-off guys who think it's their job--'

'Maybe we're wrong. I'd like to be wrong,' Duo interrupted. 'But it's a scary enough possibility that we should look into it. Not least to be sure there's nothing there for the Nine One Five Six to find.'

Brabant shook his head. 'I think you're crazy. I think this is crazy, Duo, but you know what, it's fine. Go off to Earth with these people who have consistently lied to you about everything and it'll all be fine. Fine.' He turned to the stairwell, but then looked back. 'I'll see if I can find out anything at HQ. You know my number. Give me a call and I'll tell you anything I hear.'

'It would be safer for you to stay home,' Wufei said.

'Feel free to chain me to a chair. Otherwise, it's my choice.'

'Thanks,' Duo told him. 'We'll call.'

'Yeah. Yeah.' Brabant waved him off, and then his footsteps made a quiet tread upstairs.

'We should be out of here before morning traffic,' Wufei said then. 'O. We'll need to borrow your car again.'

'Doc, before you go, can I talk to you?'

Brabant helped him up the last few steps, conveniently also sheltering him by sheer adult bulk from the rooftop view. As far as Duo could tell from the space left by elbows and the upturned collar of a spruce leather coat, there was only a little old lady out there giving her car a dispirited hosing, but he didn't bet on Pak not being out there with a long lense, just in case.

'You really think you won't be missed?' Brabant asked him. 'Between ex-Agent Chang and your shifty friend in there, you're not really expecting a free hall pass.'

'I wouldn't have both on my ass if you didn't keep fetching them.' He put his back to the cheap stairwell drywall; Brabant casually propped an arm against the half-open roof exit, leaning over him. 'And it's not ex-Agent yet.'

'I suppose we'll see. I'm supposed to be back at my apartment snuggling in with a forty-year-old scotch and resuming my very lucrative patient practise instead of tagging around with the big boys, Duo. At least according to your boyfriend.'

'You kind of get used to the way he talks. But-- sorry about that. He just doesn't hear himself, I think.'

'What's up, Duo.'

'I—' Not an easy answer. A deceptively open question. 'I need an objective eye,' he said finally. 'You heard everything they were saying down there.'

'I did. Are you asking my opinion?'

'I'm asking if you think it meshes.'

Brabant glanced behind him, then stepped in to let the door close. 'I think, frankly, that you're trusting them too much. Not that I ever imagined I'd have to say that to you, of all people.'

'And what else can I do?' He took a deep breath and admitted it flatly. 'I'm being held over a barrel by both of them. If I don't trust Solo, he uses Wufei instead. If I don't trust Wufei, I lose my friend anyway.'

'I didn't say it didn't suck. Look, for my money, it's not that they're lying to you. You're just not asking hard questions. So what if there is a Gundam? What better way to assess who's corrupt in Preventers than to tell them and find out who wants it destroyed and who wants to keep it hidden? And once it's public knowledge it lets you off the hook for being either the test pilot or the Typhoid Mary.'

'You got vaccinated,' Duo said. 'At the hospital before.'

'What?' Brabant pursed his lips. 'Yes. Why?'

'You hadn't had it before. You're not colonial.'

'Bigotry, Maxwell?'

'What did you ever hear about Gundams, on Earth? You're my age. You're old enough to remember.'

Brabant gave him a long, silent consideration, then. Duo waited it out, letting his point make itself.

'They said the Gundams made the earth shake,' Brabant said finally. 'That the beam weapons made the air boil. That standing next to it was like standing next to a skyscraper. They showed footage of the Gundams ripping through old-style mobile suits like tin foil. They said most pilots died because the beams made their suits explode-- that they'd burn to death, mostly. They said the Gundams were death machines. Not defencive, not offencive. Just death machines.'

'Heero Yuy was the best of us five. He could push a Gundam so far past the specs it shattered around him. I was the better pilot. But Heero battered through shuttles, space ships, and the most advanced fortresses every imagined. Tell me what you think he could do with a Gundam when there's no-one else capable of fighting him back.'

'It still doesn't have to be you doing the fighting. Aside from the fact that they all seem to think you could do it, why wouldn't Merquise stop it, if he's infiltrated?'

'He's only useful as long as they think he's with them. It's a good way to turn up in a ditch with a new ventilation system, otherwise.'

'Then why not Chang? Don't tell me he deserves a life more than you do. Objectively, he signed on for this by joining Preventers. It's his choice and his job. You could have been a Preventer all this time if you thought it was your job, too.'


'I don't care how much you love him. Objectively, you were ready to throw in the towel yesterday. Since when are you thinking you personally are responsible to fix this? Since your so-called friend made it a you-or-him equation? By any objective measure, your sole responsibility should be to hide until this is over and you're not at the centre of a world-wide threat anymore.'

'I can't do that.'

'Why, Duo.'

'Because it is my responsibility,' he bit back. 'Yes, I grudge it, because it should be over, but it's not and I chose my side when I was nine years old and the Feddies blew up my home.'

'It's not the same situation. The circumstances--'

'Don't matter. I helped bring Gundams into this world. I'm not going to leave it to someone else to get rid of them.'

Brabant smiled suddenly, crookedly. 'So,' he said, 'you really are.'

'Really are what,' he grumbled.

'A hero.'


'I wouldn't go that far. Hero is human enough.' Brabant pushed open the door. 'Go save the world, then. But for fuck's sake, let Chang do the running and jumping. You look ridiculous in hospital gowns.'

Duo found a crooked smile of his own. 'Don't get bored without me.'

Brabant waved. The door swung softly shut after him.

'Damn,' Duo said. He looked down the stairwell. 'Hey,' he called. 'Someone come help me down.'


'Pull your cap down,' Wufei said, fussing with the knitted hem of Duo's beanie. 'You'll catch cold. Your lips are practically blue.'

'Are not.' He kept his shivers to himself, though, biting his lips together to hide any stray quivers. 'They should've been back by now.'

'They're fine, Duo.'

'How hard is it to find a car in a parking lot the size of a colony? They should be back by now.'

'They probably had to search to find a spot without people. It's a holiday weekend. People do think twice about someone visibly hot-wiring an automobile.'

'They don't, actually. Statistically they're likelier to look away and walk faster. In which case Solo and McDevitt--'

Made his grouching moot by swinging around the long queue of airport traffic and bumping the kerb where he and Wufei waited with the other debarking passengers. Wufei gave him a told-you-so look, and pointed him to the passenger seat. McDevitt vacated it for him, courteously holding the door, before hopping to help Wufei load up their baggage.

'I think you could have found a bigger truck,' Duo grunted, hauling himself stiffly into the cab. Solo, slouched behind the wheel in a bundle of coat and scarf, grinned at him.

'Jeep,' the older man corrected. 'And you'll thank me for my discerning taste when we have to take this down back roads.'

'What back roads? I thought we were going straight to the Capitol.'

'It's not getting there I'm worried about. Or were you planning on blowing up your Gundam right beneath Parliament?'

His Gundam. They'd all picked up that idiom, on the flight to Earth. They'd said it without thinking. It made Duo think, though. Like-- how maybe it was sort of exciting, dire straights aside. His own Gundam again. He'd loved Deathscythe like it was human as he; he'd wept for that machine, real tears, real grief. His hands remembered how to grip the controls. Could still feel the thrum of the Verniers. Smell the sear of the beam powering up.

He wiped his nose. Belted himself in. 'Freezing in here,' he said, and puffed out a steaming breath to prove it.

'Heat's on. Defrost.' Solo reached over the console, flipping the controls away from the ice-crystalled windscreen to blow, briefly, toward the cab. 'This thing's been out in the weather system a while. Can't hardly see out the back, all covered with snow.'

'You have to scrape it. There should be a thing.'

'A what?'

'A thing. A scraper.' He twisted, awkward in his bulky coat, straining to see into the backseat. 'There. Grab that and pass it out. Tell them to scrape off the snow. And they need to get the top of the car and the hood, too, or it'll fly off when it starts to melt. Hazard.'

Solo eyed him like he was speaking in tongues, but he obeyed to the letter. He pulled the plastic blade from the back with the look of a man discovering mystic, ancient tools. A full ninety seconds passed after he left the car, a muffled conversation outside, Solo trying to describe it to the others. Duo didn't listen too closely. Sure enough, someone figured it out; he heard the blade strike the back window, and a chunk of ice detached with a sharp crack.

Wufei was the first to climb in, taking the backseat. McDevitt, newly flushed and breathless from a very un-colonial effort, sprawled in beside him. Solo came last, knocking loose a pile of softer snow from his window with the brush of a gloved hand. Duo switched the air flow back to the fogging windscreen.

'You can drive in this weather?' he asked, ridiculous precaution. His Gundam or not, no-one was going to trust him to drive, not in a car with these personalities.

'I'll do just fine, little man.' Solo pulled out into traffic slowly, but confidently enough. He adjusted his rearview and added sharply, 'If any one of you bitches about anything, you can walk to Brussels, got it?'

Wufei reached to the front to squeeze Duo's shoulder. 'Head for the motorway,' he told Solo. 'Second exit off this track.'

'I know the directions.'

'You doing all right?' Duo asked behind him. 'You're still red, McDevitt.'

'He was ill,' Wufei answered shortly.

'I barfed,' McDevitt translated mournfully. 'Like, a whole bucket. Never saw the sky before.'

Solo snorted. 'What,' Duo murmured. 'Tell me you didn't, the first time.'

Solo looked him sideways. He might have smiled; he pulled his scarf over his mouth, either way, and took that second exit.

It had been relatively easy, so far. Getting off L1 had taken some combined ingenuity-- Solo's ship had L3 papers, so getting the ship itself launched was just a matter of forwarding the credentials-- but boarding had been another story. There was no getting on any ship without an ID check. Solo was the only one of them not officially known to Preventers to be MIA and there were no guarantees his face wasn't already widespread knowledge, thanks to the Nine One Five Six. Duo's suggestion of revising the Sweeper disguise had got them in the door. Wufei's years of law enforcement got them to a shady backroom type for fake IDs. It was still a tense operation. The Nine One Five Six knew he'd tried that gig before. But it seemed luck was with them. Or no-one had been left behind to watch them, which meant the Nine One Five Six were already on Earth and they were playing a very poor game of catch-up.

Duo had slept for most of the Space-born flight, waking only for re-entry. He'd strapped in-- been strapped in by Wufei, rather, who seemed to think his low mood was reflective of some kind of deep bodily infantilism-- which had him thinking of how it had been, not so terribly long ago, when he and Wufei had made this trek under better intentions. They'd been happy. Well, he'd been happy, anyway, not knowing what was coming, thinking the worst was over. There wasn't going to be a long relaxing cruise at the end of this trip.

Charles de Gaulle had the nearest shuttleport. They had, he thought, about three hours of driving to cover, in a stolen vehicle, for that, though Duo had made sure Solo would switch the plates with another make and model to buy them extra lead. But he'd had scams with less left hanging three sheets, as it was. If they were stopped, and some well-meaning gendarme happened to open the boot and find their small army's worth of shooters and blow-uppers, there'd be trouble. And the Nine One Five Six had to be counted on being ahead of them by up to four days. The only vote in their favour was the Nine One Five Six fooling around with that 'virus' they'd tried to mix up. They'd waste time on that, maybe enough time for Duo to get to 'his' Gundam and eliminate it. Or, more likely, get caught, tell everything, and disappear into a black site prison while Une moved whatever mobile infantry she had to a new hiding spot. Both options were better than anything the Nine One Five Six could come up with that might provoke Une into using the bloody things, with a conservative majority in Parliament who were eager to press the red button themselves.

'Did you fight at Libra?' he asked suddenly.

Solo glanced at him. 'Libra?'

'Yeah. With White Fang.'

'No.' Solo toggled the air, turning on the wipers as the snow began to stick to their warming screen. 'Couldn't pilot. Can't now.'

'Seventy percent of White Fang's mobile forces were destroyed at Libra,' Wufei said.

'Seventy percent of our talent and leadership, too.' Solo got a moody glare of his own, then. 'Most of us left were footers. Pilots weren't no use after the Barton Rebellion, anyway. Don't need pilots for government-junked scrap. No mobile suits left, now.'

'Except for what you think the President has.'

'You must've thought it would come to this.' Solo kicked into a higher gear as they merged onto the salted motorway, skidding a couple of feet in the scree before falling in between two smaller cars. 'You didn't give up your Gundams for scrap.'

'I didn't expect it to be the government keeping the suits,' Duo said. 'I expected it to be someone. Someone else like Dekim Barton. I didn't trust the government to stop it going up in smoke.'

'That's my boy.'

'I'm not your boy,' he said, irritated for no particular reason-- no particularly good reason, other than being tired and sore and hungry and headed off to steal a Gundam from ex-Colonel President Une. 'Sorry.'

'You want some of my granola?' McDevitt asked.

'I thought you were ill.'

'I can be ill and hungry.'

'Give him the granola,' Wufei said, irritated himself. 'Solo, it's the A1, toward Cambrai and Valenciennes.'

'I know the fucking directions,' Solo snapped. 'Everyone shut fucking up.'

Once the silence fell, enforced by lots of glaring, Duo found himself drifting off in spite of himself. He'd privately decided, before leaving L1, that he was going to have to do this without his pills. He'd be at a physical disadvantage without them, and that would hurt him, up against Heero, but he needed a clear head and he couldn't count on that under medication. The Nine One Five Six did have mobile suits, he was sure of that now. If he had to fight Heero, even from inside a Gundam, he wouldn't stand a chance if he wasn't operating on peak. But he hadn't counted on how drained he'd feel, between travel, full gravity, and coming down from that medicated height to discover just how few reserves he had left. Maybe it would be smarter to go in the opposite direction, juice up. A fistful of protein shakes, a couple of fizzies, a bottle of vitamins. 'We should stop at the next services station,' he said. 'Get some food and stuff. Petrol.'

'Tank's still got half-full.'

'We could all use a sandwich or something. Some hot food. We should stop.'

'Fine.' Solo slowed behind a big lorry spewing ice to either side of its big wheels, making it impossible to see out their windscreen. 'Whatever you want, Kid.'

'Don't be pissy.'

'Don't me be pissy?'

'Yeah, don't you be pissy. Have I done a single thing other than what you want? From the beginning? And I'm here now. I'm about to do you a pretty big favour. You can buy me a damn sandwich.'

Solo frowned, but then he gave it up with a short little laugh. 'Yeah. Guess I can spring for that.'

Casey Pope and her sandwiches. He wondered if she was still alive, somewhere. If she'd been Federation or just a local sucked up into it. Like Father and Sister. Not even ten years later it had been Hilde, hadn't it, taking the money because you did reach a point, didn't you, where you were desperate enough.

'You think they ever felt anything for us really?'

'Where's your head at?' Solo took his hand off the shift and put his arm around Duo's shoulders. 'You were always such a serious little bit. You never smiled unless you were scammin' someone.'

'Didn't I?' Odd. He didn't remember it enough. He'd never known anything different, so he'd supposed it had been good enough, except for being hungry, except for when it was hard or scary. 'You never smiled, neither. Guess I was trying to be like you.'

'Duo,' Wufei interrupted. 'You said you wanted food? There's a turnoff in six kilometres, that sign said.'

Solo glanced back. After a moment, he took his arm away from Duo.

The aires rest stop had a little supermarket and a petrol station, as well as a tipi-shaped pair of men's and women's. 'We'll split up,' Wufei told them all. 'Let's do this quickly. Duo, here, take some cash. Get whatever you want to eat, and something for the rest of us too. McDevitt, go with him.'

'You okay going outside of the Jeep?' Duo asked McDevitt.

'Oh,' the kid said. 'Uh, yeah. I can do it.'

'Pull your hat low. Keep your hand on my arm. If you keep your eyes on your feet you'll be okay.' He slid out onto the slick pavement as Solo idled in front of the market for them. He met McDevitt on his side of the car. 'I got you. Come on out.'

'How come it doesn't bother you any?' McDevitt said. He glanced upward, and swayed until Duo steadied him.

'Practise,' Duo said. 'Come on. It's not far and then we'll be inside again.'

The Preventer breathed a sigh of relief as soon as they passed the threshold. The glass doors slid closed behind them, sealing them inside the warm convenience. Duo pulled his own cap off in the heat, stuffing it into his pocket. 'All right? You should get some bread or ginger. Ginger would be good, settle the stomach. Go over to the counter there and look for something, candy or tea or something.'

'I'm supposed to stay with you.'

'It's five feet away. Fifteen feet.' He sighed himself. 'Sure. Come along.'

'Why you being so nice to me?' McDevitt asked suddenly. 'After what I did. You owe me a punch in the face, you said.'

'Wufei already did it for me. We like to do things as a couple.'


'Because I'm going to ask you do something that's not going to make the others happy, and they're probably going to take it out on you if it goes wrong.'

McDevitt slowed. Duo turned to accommodate his pace, waiting him out.

'Will it go wrong?' McDevitt said, turning up a shred of caution at the most ridiculous possible time.

'Probably,' Duo admitted blandly. 'But wrong for us still means right for, you know, the Sphere and stuff. Get me?'

'A little. No.'

'Pick out a sandwich. Get something warm, you'll feel better for it. The tabuleh and a really big tea for me, and those fruit drinks, get me a bunch of those.' He nodded at the walnut-skinned man behind the deli counter, pointing to his choices for translation. 'And two of those baguettes with the meat and a box of chicken.'

'A burger,' McDevitt said.

'That shit's gonna kill you.'

'So's whatever you're getting me into now. Might as well die happy.'

'I won't put you in that kind of trouble.' Duo pulled off his gloves with his teeth, rubbing his frozen fingers. 'Wait here for the food. Pay the guy if he's ready. I'll be right back. And get the drinks.'

The rack of souvenir clothes had caught his eye. Specifically, the ski masks. It would require more than his fair share of dumb luck, really, but if it worked--

McDevitt had a double armful of food when he met Duo at the check-out queue. 'Wh're them for?' he asked around the grease-drooling burger he'd managed to cram into his mouth.

'You have catsup on your chin,' Duo told him, and helped him distribute his load onto the rolling belt. 'These are for you and me. Because when the time is right, I'm going to ask you to put that on. Same time as me, and hold the other two off.'

'Aw, Jesus, Maxwell. Come on!'

'Whining about it's not going to make me not ask you. Don't make me pull the “you owe me” card. You do owe me.'

'Chang won't buy it. He knows us apart.'

'We're going to be in dark tunnels in a high-stress situation. When I ask it's going to be because they're not looking closely and because I'll need a get-away fast. You buy me ten minutes and I can run with that, Brett.'

'Run?' McDevitt wiped his chin when Duo pointed. 'You're running away?'

'Not away. Toward.'

'Toward what?'

Duo made a plea of his own to Jesus, then. 'Brett, I swear to God.'

'Sorry.' McDevitt handed over their cash with a passable, if lispy, thanks in French. 'Why're you planning on leaving the big guns behind?'

'They'll get in my way.'

''You think maybe the hordes of the President's guards won't get in your way either?'

'I think a gun fight against people who are guarding a you-know-what is going to be twitchy and messy. I think it's a not a smart way in.'

'Who wants a gun fight? We already planned on sneaking it.'

'One person sneaks better than four. Specifically this one person.'

'But you're already supposed to be the one who tries to steal the thing. Why eliminate your backup?'

Someone had done a real disservice to Brett McDevitt. If Duo lived through this and Brett lived through and there turned out to be anyone left in Preventers who wasn't corrupt, Duo was going to give that someone a piece of his mind about what nothing they taught at that Academy. 'You familiar at all with Pelagie?'

'Pelagie-- yeah. Oh.'

'Oh is right. Fifty resistance fighters stayed behind on Lampedusa to hold OZ off from Gundam Oh-Four. Oh-Four got away to Tunisia. Know what happened to the resistance on Lampedusa?'


'To a man.'

'But it was their choice.'

'Very noble. They're still dead.'

'But what if that's our only option? Distract whoever's guarding the you-know-what so you can get in there and nab it?'

'And what if we only think it's our last option because we stopped considering alternatives?' Solo was bringing the Jeep around to them. Duo shoved the mask deep into McDevitt's pocket and took his tea and a bag of food instead. 'When I ask, I'll be asking you to trust my judgment. You can do that or not, but if you think maybe you could be more useful than a target dummy, maybe you'll opt to trust me. There's almost never just one option, Brett.' He thought of something, and added, 'But don't you dare do it just because Wufei told you to earn, whatever, earn my respect. I definitely don't respect idiots, and that would be a supremely idiotic thing to do.'

McDevitt took the final third of his burger in one bite, and pushed out into the daylight. Sunlight. He shuddered once, glanced at Duo, and squared his shoulders. He marched right to the car, slipping only once on the icy walk. Juice bottles fell and scattered.

'Idiot,' Duo muttered.
'What's this thing?' Solo asked. The suspicious furrow between his brows deepened as he poked at the equipment.

Duo swatted him away from the laptop's keyboard. 'It's an ultrasound emitter. They use them to survey caves. Sometimes. There's some flaws in the system.'

'Flaws?' Wufei pounced on his slip. 'You didn't mention this back on L1.'

'Back on L1 I was the only person coming up with workable ideas. Unless anyone's had a genius moment on the trip here, we're doing this, flaws or no.' He loaded the CAD programme and pushed the emitter an arm's length away. 'It scans the walls on a vertical plane. It calculates the distance from the emitter to the wall and gives you a 3-D profile of the cave. In our case, tunnel. It's quiet, they won't be looking for it, and it'll tell us if there's any structural changes in the tunnels. If they've built new walls, it's a safe bet there's something behind them we'll find interesting.'

'Yes, but what do you mean by flaws?'

Duo unpacked the rectangular emitter and screwed it onto the short tripod base. 'Someone still has to set it up. So anything that's guarded is going to be difficult.' He plugged the USB cord into his laptop and toggled the treble on the digital envelope-modulator. 'Assuming they're building walls out of concrete less than a metre thick I can rig this to pick up acoustic leakage.' He tapped the fist-sized sensor nestled in his case. 'It picks up vibrations and amplifies them by two hundred and the laptop filters out the scratch. We won't get conversation through it, but it will identify human and machine-made noise.'

'So there's no sureties.'

'There never are. And it doesn't give a motion picture. It will tell us the difference between an empty room and one with a Gundam in it, but not which of however many guys in there are packing guns.'

'That's why we brought the rest of the bags,' Solo said. He hefted a clanking duffel onto the bed and unzipped it. 'Everyone gets a primary and a sidearm.'

Wufei tugged Duo close by the hair and pressed a kiss to his cheek. 'Are you up to this?' he murmured. 'Maybe we should wait until morning.'

Duo made a careful shift to the left, gently disengaging Wufei's hold. 'I'm fine,' he said. Wufei sucked in his cheeks, but let him go.

'Night's better,' Solo said brusquely. 'The homeless go back into the tunnels at night, so we'll have some noise cover. And if I need to remind you, the Nine One Five Six--'

'May or may not be ahead of us. I think we should wait.'

'It's okay,' Duo said. 'Waiting doesn't change anything. And if we have got any lead on Heero, I want to take it.' Satisfied the emitter worked properly, he disconnected it and folded it back into its hard plastic carry-case. 'Solo, where's the map-- thanks. Someone tell me what we know about the metro line.'

McDevitt had been busy with a laptop of his own, using only the most generic Preventer protocols to access the local network. He brought the computer to the twin bed Duo occupied beneath the dim glow of the bed lamp. From the corner of his eye, Duo saw Wufei abandon the plastic chair he'd occupied and stride stiffly off for the bath instead. Solo dropped off to the other bed, stretching his long legs. Ambient noise from the street below their hotel room penetrated the loose window in waves, but the running faucet drowned it out a moment later. Duo rubbed at sore eyeballs, and refocussed on McDevitt's screen.

'Network of five lines with about seventy kilometres underground,' McDevitt told him. 'Two open-air lines, here and here. Most public traffic has been re-routed to overground rail and buses. This stretch of Line 5 is the only bit still open. The rest is closed for redevelopment.'

'That's a lot of tunnel,' Duo said. 'Supposing it's relatively near to Parliament--'

'The Earth-Sphere Parliamentary District is by these three stations. Arts-Loi, Trône, and Schuman. Schuman Station is right in the middle of the District.'

'If we go in on the far end of Line 1 we'll be walking for a week. But the far ends are least likely to be guarded.' Wufei came back as far as the open bath door, mopping his damp hair with a nubbly towel. 'Duo, what do you think?'

A peace offering. Duo took it with an uneasy nod. 'We could maybe compromise. Strike in here, where Line 5 is still open, Aumale or Jacques Brel, where we've got three options for getting across the city to the District. Even if we get stuck taking the long arm of the circle here on Line 2, it's half the distance we'd have if we went in at Stockel or Herrman-Debroux.'

'What if they've diverted the river to flood some of the line?' Solo interrupted.

'That would be difficult.' Wufei came a few steps nearer. 'Not that it couldn't be done, but that it would be difficult to limit the flooding to a few key points. It would endanger their efforts as well as ours.'

'All right, everyone listen.' Wufei lifted Duo's duffel when he gestured for it, and he unzipped it to reveal its contents to the others. 'We can expect them to have the usual weapons. They may have weaponry available only to Preventers, as well, but since I made half of that I know how to get around it, too. Wires are the biggest worry. This is talc. Every time you go through a doorway, every time you see a magically unbarred passageway, take a palmful of this and blow it on the ground, in the air, anywhere you're going to put a shoe or a limb. If it outlines anything, even just a mat or a plate on the ground, do not walk on it. The wires will not be there to set off alarms or give you a little discouraging zap. They will absolutely be lethal, and then when they set off an alarm the only thing anyone has to worry about is fifteen stone of cooked meat. Everyone wears a tarp and a mask. You'll have to be more careful about making noise, but they might have electroshock water canons or aerosol conductors. As for what we've got that they don't, everyone gets a belt of smoke bombs, stinkers, and noise makers. We're going to be dealing mostly with people who were trained in some lame-ass military establishment. They aren't going to expect low-tech assaults and they won't deal with them quickly or easily. Save your bullets for when you're stuck in the open with no way out but forward.'

Solo took a bag of talc with a little smile. 'The ones we really have to worry about are the Nine One Five Six,' he said, giving it a bounce on his palm. 'They are high-tech and they've got mobile suits. They could cause a lot of chaos by getting one into the tunnels.'

'If they get an MS into the tunnels, there's nothing we can do about it anyway,' McDevitt shrugged. He took his own bag of talc. 'I don't see any anti-aircraft missiles in there, and we were trying not to blow stuff up, right?'

'Within reason.' Duo handed Wufei his portion of supplies, and wrapped his own belt around the soda-can smoke bombs he'd made only two days ago at O's. 'If it becomes reasonable to blow something up, then do it. We're not here to hesitate.'

'I'll get the food, then.' Solo ruffled Duo's hair. 'Just like old times. You're doin' me proud, Kid.'

'And me as well,' Wufei said, more quietly, when McDevitt took his own turn in the bath and they were alone. 'You really would have made a good Preventer.'

'They wouldn't have listened to me, and I would have been frustrated and unhappy.' His back hurt. He lay back on the limp hotel pillow, and curled his legs to block Wufei from following him. 'You're better at that stuff than me.'

'I grew up in one of those lame-ass military establishments.' Wufei sighed. 'O once told me there was no honour in deceptive tactics. We met our enemies head-on.'

'And died head-on.'

'Yes,' Wufei agreed, a shadow of some unshared emotion dipping his mouth low. 'Well. I suppose it's a good thing you and Solo remember your insurgent roots.'

'Suppose so.'

'I'm not imagining it. You're pushing me away. What's going on?'

Duo flicked his eyes to the mousy lace of the coverlet. 'We practically got married two nights ago. Why would I be pushing you away? I didn't have to admit to anything mushy if I was going to get cold feet later.'

'I'm not a child, you know. I can see through your logic circles. We don't have time for an argument and a make-off.'

'Make-up.' Making out might have done them more favours, honestly, but Wufei tended to plug the bottle before a big assignment, and for once Duo was in whole support of that concept. Wufei would go in angry and frustrated and top of his game, and if-- when-- Duo had to disappear for a while, he'd have this final argument to assuage any guilt he'd feel for not seeing it coming. It wasn't much of a wedding gift, but it would spend better than optimism.

'I hate it when you correct my English,' Wufei muttered peevishly. He tossed his towel into Duo's face. 'Marriage, by the way, involves vows. And one of us can't vow to show up on time, much less be eternally faithful.'

That pinched. Duo locked his jaw. 'One of us can't get the stick far enough out of his ass to waddle up the aisle.'

McDevitt made a quiet return, trying to sneak to their luggage for a clean set of clothes. Duo caught his eyes and touched his pocket. With a sigh, McDevitt transferred the ski mask from his dirty trousers to the new, tugging them up over a bony rear.

Solo met the tension with caution, too, choosing to distribute their meals in silence, but he turned a speculative gaze on Duo as they ate. Wufei kept McDevitt occupied with the subway maps, sitting with his back to Duo.


'Maxwell,' McDevitt murmured. 'Come check out this dust I've got.'

'Dust?' Wufei echoed from behind.

Duo picked his way over the uneven ground, carefully stepping wide of the old rail tracks. He wasn't picking up any electrical current, but that didn't definitively mean it wasn't there. The dims on McDevitt's thieves' lantern-- Solo's rather brilliant contribution to their adventure, a hand torch that would only illuminate the ground beneath their feet, rather than casting a beam of light-- provided just enough guidance that Duo was able to arrive at a stop without stepping on the kid.

'There's even some footprints,' McDevitt told him, muted syllables that carried no further than the inch between them.

Footprints indeed. In the same direction they were going. Leading to a gate. Prominently chained. There was even a sign posted on it, big enough to see without the lantern. Duo's night vision wasn't good enough to read it, but he'd guess it was a helpful little warning against further passage.

'Debris?' Wufei guessed softly. 'They must have been doing work in here. We could be getting close. What's the emitter telling you?'

Duo didn't have to look to know, but he did anyway, pressing the tint pad over the screen as the CADD programme sketched their section of tunnel in crawling blue lines. 'It's been enlarged,' he admitted, 'at least according to the map. The ground is sloping down but the ceiling is staying level. But this dust isn't natural.'

He felt Solo at his back, the accidental brush of a rifle over his calf. 'Natural?'

'If there's one thing I know, it's demolition. The dust is wrong. There's not enough, number one.'

'Maybe they just cleaned up.'

'Then why is there this much left? Basic safety for crews would have had a vacuum or a wet-suppression in here with them. It's like they left it here for show. So anyone stumbling down here would think it's a real site.' He scuffed his shoe through a spray of it, directing McDevitt's lantern lower to examine it. 'Most concrete or masonry construction dust is respirable crystalline silica. This looks more like-- sandy, almost.'

'So what's with the gate?' McDevitt asked plainly. 'More show?'

'Trap,' Wufei said grimly.

Duo moved first. The emitter wasn't working as fast as he'd like, but it was doing what he needed from it-- providing reliable imagery. A motion of his hand kept the others behind him as he set the emitter at six feet from the gate. The laptop whuffed a breath of hot air as he laid it on the concrete. Close enough, at that distance, to read the sign-- French, Dutch, and English, a nice bit of faux-officialness. Either someone at the top was detail-oriented, or they'd had a lot of time to plot this out.

The emitter wasn't picking up on structure at twelve feet out. Empty tunnel. Why a gate down here? They were still four stations out from their goal directly beneath Parliament. He hadn't really believed they'd be bold enough to set their operation there. It was too unlikely. Too visible-- a stream of people heading underground, even for an 'official' restoration project that lasted years-- encouraged too much attention from a people in a city still not wholly trusting of their elected government. A flimsy little metal gate might keep out the mildly curious, but any kid with a wirecutter would see a gate as a perfect target for a little discreet vandalism.

'Stay back and low,' he whispered, just loudly enough that the other men would hear him. He crouched to slide off his shoes, tucking them against the laptop, and shucked his socks as well. Barefoot, soles and toes pressed directly to the chilly concrete, he shuffled step by step directly toward the gate. The ground felt normal enough, no loose tiles oddly arranged, no give to the concrete that would have indicated a pressure plate, no wires stretching to trip or fry the unwary. A few bits of random construction material-- a bit of wooden board, a slice of iron cording, a scattering of screws and nails he had to tiptoe past. It was what he would have done, if he'd had to decorate like he'd been working a tunnel. He took both the board and a handful of screws with him, halting a cautious-- maybe not cautious enough-- two feet from the gate itself.

Here goes, he thought, and tossed the wood at the gate.

A hiss from someone behind him nearly made him jump out of his skin, but the clang of the wood against the gate was reassuringly dull-toned, and not followed by a spray of acid, a cloud of charged particles, or a gun's retort. He stayed down in a tight crunch for a full minute, waiting it out, testing any motion-sensor that might be triggered. Nothing.

The screws were riskier. He rolled them, one at a time. His first go missed a rung and passed through the slats, harmless enough. His second made contact, a tinny little tink landing, and bounced off none the worst for wear. He aimed his third to head-height on a grown man, gave it a good underhand throw, and flattened himself with his arms over his head.


It couldn't be nothing. It couldn't possibly be nothing. Nothing was that easy.

He stepped in exactly the same spots he'd left getting to the gate, retracing his path to the laptop. Nothing at twenty-four feet, almost the full range of the first run. Phase Two of the programme would buy him forty-five feet, certainly not a range that would make it appreciably harder for a human to fire a weapon, but most trigger-based tech had limited range. Phase Three would give him a hundred fifty, out of range of most wires, an easy reach for a sniper. But the only noise being picked up by the digital envelope-modulator was from the four bodies he already knew were there, and it had a range of a thousand yards.

Still not right.

'Duo,' Wufei whispered.

He didn't give the go-ahead. Not yet. Give it time, he signalled, a dampening hand firmly lowered parallel the ground. Long enough to get his shoes on again, laces loose enough for a repeat but tight enough if he had to scramble for it. He waited it out for the forty-five feet. Nothing out there but the fake dust.

And the footprints.

If you were going to scatter dust to hide something-- you usually did it working backwards toward your exit. To cover whatever else you'd done. A real construction site would have bootprints in all directions, but mostly along the walls, and especially by any security measures that were raised. And there hadn't been more than a handful at that gate. Going through it.

With a deep breath to steady himself, he closed the laptop and gathered up the emitter. 'Move forward,' he called back. 'We're go.'

'Kiddo?' Solo questioned intently.

'They've already been here. Heero and the Nine One Five Six.' Worth another breath, a musty-smelling inhale down to his gut. 'They disabled whatever was here. Look at the chain on the gate.'

'Broken,' McDevitt said. 'And the dust got swept by the right side. Look at that.'

'Good eye.'

'You were right. They beat us here.' Wufei's hand lit, just briefly, on Duo's shoulder. 'You think it's safe to trust they didn't reset anything after they passed through?'

'They still need to get out, just like us. Harder to do when you're running.'

'How will we know if they find the Gundam first?' McDevitt asked.

'We'll know,' Solo said.

'We need to move. We may not be far behind.' He hesitated, internally, knowing it was dumb, knowing it was a risk. But the hell. He earned the big bucks to take the big risks, and it had been his own idea, anyway. When he dropped the emitter to the concrete, he did it decisively, and he left the laptop with it. 'I say go with my gut. We just walk through the barriers, and we make time.'


Wufei took longer. But when he nodded, just once, it was sharp.

'Brett, walk with me behind.' He got McDevitt at his side with a quick grab. 'We're back here, guys. Just go steady and stay in the centre of the walk. Keep it moving.'

Wufei and Solo obeyed easily enough, falling into rank and taking the gate in steady strides. It was McDevitt who went rigid, dragging his feet. Duo poked him hard.

'Suck it up,' he muttered. 'Stay with me, here, man. I haven't even asked you to do it yet.'

'I could go with you.'

'Thanks and all, but we'll save stealing Gundams for the people with previous experience.'

Solo was the one who tested the gate; gave it a good shove with the muzzle of his gun. Everyone was tense, but there wasn't so much as a squeak of rust as the gate swung wide. Wufei stepped through, Solo right at his back.

'Where will you go with it?' McDevitt whispered. 'Once you've got it.'

'It's a big if.'

'You'll get it. Then where will you take it?'

'You get why no-one else has asked me that? Because every person who knows will be a target, Brett.'

'We're a team,' the kid said stubbornly.

'You three are the team,' Duo corrected. 'Preventers are a team, when some of you aren't being evil. You think you'll stay with Preventers?'

'If they don't toss me in jail,' McDevitt sighed. His gun dipped alertly toward a drip of water, to their left. Duo glanced back. The open gate was exactly as they'd left it, and he could swear it was getting darker in front of them. No time for expectations. No predicting what they'd find. Must have been tough on McDevitt, who'd been trained to rely on intell and reconn. Wufei must not have been all that far after all from his roots, because he hadn't so much as sniffed at the idea of just walking in blind. They would manage. Mind ready, nerves tight. React. Deal. People with expectations had a way of being disappointed.

'Prison's not so bad,' he said. 'Just check “kosher” on every form they give you, and you'll even be able to trust your food.' He nudged McDevitt again. 'You keep that mask ready. When I say go, don't argue with me. Just do it.'

Walking into a damn trap. Four men and a few guns-- it was suicide, a death wish. Jesus. Brabant had been right. More right than he knew. Duo should've ditched the others before now. They'd get just far enough to get tangled up in-- who knew what-- except he could guess, couldn't he. The Nine One Fix Six had mobile suits. There could be a pitched battle in the offing, and the only place worse to be in a battle than an enemy suit was unprotected on the ground beneath one. He hadn't just got himself into a piehole. He'd brought others in with him. Weak. That was what living in civilisation did to you, that was what years of well-fed and happily employed and buying into a shaky damn house of cards did to you, it made your mind mush and calcified your morals into an inconvenient little box on a shelf. Teamwork was an asinine little concept, at the heart of it. It didn't thin the risk, it just spread it out. But Wufei said love and Duo dropped every instinct in a big giddy rush, Solo said I need you and he'd been, just possibly, a little flattered by that. Oh, that was the trigger, right there. He'd told himself he didn't want the glory and still walked right into the role. Hero. Heroes were assholes who accepted every solution as final. Kill or be killed. Duo had never intended to die. He didn't want to die now, didn't want any of his friends to die-- talk about a final solution. Himself, or all of them. McDevitt, who might just turn into a real person given the chance and another decade of hard effort. Wufei, who'd turned his whole life inside out for Duo, that said more than words ever could. Solo, who'd left him alone to live his life, a declaration itself-- had let him move on, had let him grow up, was proud of him. Doc and O back on L1, not out of the range of fire themselves, vulnerable because they'd chosen to help him. Him, not the cause, not the battle, but him. And he'd been stubborn and sulky and selfish, and let them follow him all the way to Earth, all the way to these tunnels to walk into as sure a trap as anything they'd ever met before--

He stopped walking so abruptly that McDevitt swung around toward him with the rifle raised. Duo waved him, bending to strip off his shoes again, flatten his feet to the ground. A swipe of his finger over the concrete came away clean. No dust. But he'd been right about the other thing. The ground was vibrating.

'McDevitt,' he said. 'We're go.'


'Brett. I'm trusting you. Now.'

He heard a deep inhale. McDevitt put down the lantern. Extinguished it, their only bit of light, and said loudly, 'God damn it! I tripped.'

Duo squeezed his arm. His mask fit snugly, woolly and scratchy. He grabbed his shoes and melted back toward the wall. He stopped when he felt damp brick at his back.

'You all right?' Wufei was whispering tensely.

'Stubbed my fucking toe!' McDevitt groused, hoarser and lighter than usual, a passable imitation of Duo's voice. 'Hold on. McDevitt, give me the light.'

Don't improvise, Duo advised him silently. He could hear the other two turning back. He left his shoes there against the wall, and crept past them on the balls of his feet. He didn't breathe until they were five yards at his back. McDevitt wasn't ranting anymore, but there was fumbling with the lantern, trying to get it lit again. Good man. He'd take care of them. Slow them down enough to give Duo a head's start. Maybe not so much an idiot, after all. Duo would have to thank him, if they both got through this.

Even, shallow breaths. Calm the body. Every little sensation important, now, a clue needing collection. Just slight vibrations, barely strong enough to pick up with his hand on the bricks. Somewhere nearby there was something big happening. If not for those gates, if not for the evidence of his eyes, he'd almost believe it was just the trains after all-- the tubes on L1 shook like that, during rush hour. But this was just subtly different. Random interruptions, pauses. The slope of the ground was getting steeper, dipping low. None of the show of scattered building materials, here. It was clean.

Duo dropped his rifle, next. Big guns got in the way more than they helped, and if he got into a running firefight, he was dead anyway. He palmed a smoke can and a noisemaker instead, both in the left, leaving his right free to feel his way. There-- a deep thrumming drumbeat under his toes. He was getting closer.

Another gate. Open. As noiseless as the last. Thank Heero for that. Anti-climactic, really, all that work he'd put into it-- poor emitter. It had been a good idea. Useless fucking waste, but then, when it came to Heero, when had he ever really been able to out-guess him? Almost funny. Would almost have been funny, if it wasn't about what it was about.

A little high. Adrenaline kicking in. Acrid taste in his mouth. It was darker ahead of him, pitch black. He kept his eyes angled low to avoid staring at it. No time to waste. Solo and Wufei would figure out it wasn't him back there, and they wouldn't need three guesses. They'd have to be careful, wouldn't run headlong after him, but they'd be fast. He had to be faster. Hot air. Hot air, he was sure of it. Shucked the mask, past its purpose now anyway. Hyper-awareness of the change in texture of the concrete. Not rough now, but smoothing out, professionally brushed, blocked-- deep plunge of the slope, sudden yawning crater, the brick under his hand disappearing--

Pressure plate under his foot.

He took the only path his suddenly frozen mind supplied. He made a mad dash down the slope, dropping into a slide and skidding his way down a virtual mountainside as the tunnel flooded with violent red light and an alarm began to blare.

'Halt where you are!' a woman's voice yelled. A group of uniforms-- uniforms, he didn't recognise the uniforms-- pouring out of a gate there at the bottom, a gated concrete wall that rose and rose and rose, storeys high above his head-- and as he hit the bottom, they were waiting for him, one jabbing him in the gut with a rifle, and the other hitting him in the chest with a taser wand.

His yell plunged into sudden, total silence. The light was gone, the alarm. He fell back, weak, numb to the fingertips and buzzing with the shock of the tase. He could feel them all around him. One of them crouched, roughly grabbing his chin. Then letting him go in disgust.

'It's one of the kids,' she reported to the others.

Kids. Kids. He had a moment, then, flat sanity overtaking the panic, the pain. He knew.

'Jesus,' he said pitifully, letting a quaver clog his throat. 'Jesus, what'd you do that for, bitch? I told them I was just going out to get some air!'

'You little idiot!' she snapped back. 'You don't ever leave the barracks or the quad! You could get killed out there. Who told you you could go?'

'I-- well, I didn't really--'

'Of course not.' She hauled him upright, nearly jerking his arm out of the socket, and pushed him at the others. 'Be glad we didn't shoot you.'

'Yes, ma'am,' he acceded. 'I'm sorry. I just got tired of--'

'Do I look like I care? Get back inside.' Another shove, nearly taking him off his unsteady feet. That taser wand was no toy. Neither was the gear they were wearing, just barely visible in the afterimage of that red glare. Night vision, the expensive slim model budgeted for next year's acquisition in the colonies. He'd argued for that model, salivated over it, back in innocent days when gadgets were all he'd had on his mind. And here it was, saving his ass. If he was lucky-- if he deserved any kind of luck at all-- that alarm had warned his friends back. They wouldn't approach without knowing what had set it off. Maybe the Nine One Five Six were out there, back there watching him be led right in, maybe they hadn't thought they could storm it, not with these well-armed, trigger-happy--

The one pushing him card-swiped at a spot he didn't even take for a door, until the crack began to show a rim of light, and then she pushed him through. The bare-wire hum of a sweep, going off-- he cringed, he stiffened, ready to make another dash, but the woman was right behind him, and apparently took the alert for her own weaponry, because she shut it off with a curt word to the mic that lay along her cheek. He didn't know her face, the little oval of frown and small eyes, and dropped his eyes meekly to his feet. Shit, bare feet. If any of them noticed-- he outsmarted himself, sometimes.

'Get moving,' the woman told him. 'And tell your little friends this isn't a game. I catch one more of you out there and maybe I will give the order to shoot. There's too many of you all underfoot, anyway.'

'Yes, ma'am,' he muttered. Took a quick searching glance around him-- guard station, with the others filing in, no more happy with him than the leader-- a little open ground, beyond, corrugated aluminium and steel beams, stretching high, big support beams strung with open wiring-- bright lights, there ahead. 'Thank you for not shooting,' he added, and took off at a jog. Stepped it up to a run when she called out after him.

He was in. It was enough to make him believe there might be a God after all.

Wire cages surrounding supply closets, locked. The barracks the scary lady had mentioned, pre-fab units joined by common doors. Plenty of people, some in those uniforms he'd never seen before, some in the greasy coveralls of engineers. Duo kept close to the cages, ducking out of sight. He could still see those bright lights ahead-- whole banks of shiners, he would guess. Lights meant construction, and that meant the lights were his destination. Some open pavilions for what looked like office work, desks and big screens displaying what were very clearly engineering diagrams. He almost diverted to that, but stopped himself. He didn't have the time. Every second of delay upped the chances he'd be found, upped the chances of his friends making a dead run down that slope and getting a faceful of bullets. He crept past the pavilions. There-- a catwalk. At the edge of the crater. He turned a slow circle, checking his clearance, and stepped out onto the walk.

Oh. Oh, his heart seized up in his chest. He really hadn't expected that. He really hadn't. But it was beautiful.

Bare polished steel, shined to bullet brightness. No garish battle paint for this warrior. No, just the naked steel, the sheer majesty of her, rising resplendent above the sparking welders and the robotic arms tinkering on the lower right limb. Sleeker than a Gundam. Built for function, not for the viewing impact-- not a spare or unnecessary part to her, not at all. Slimmed-down in the torso, the traditional 'head' lowered and centred just above the sternum, giving her a hunched, at-the-ready look. The arms hung hooked sharply at the elbows, one a grip-hand, one a mounted-- yes, beam weapon. He actually laughed aloud at that, dizzy to see his own stamp on-- yes. Yes. His Gundam. Even more than Deathscythe-- he'd never have believed it-- even more than Deathscythe, this queen was meant to be his. He felt it in his bones. She'd been made for him. She carried his beam weapon, she crouched there amongst the riffraff waiting for him to come liberate her. Oh, she was beautiful.

He was trembling. His hands shook so much he could barely grip the railing. He had to get down there. He fumbled himself along the catwalk. Stairs. He stumbled over himself, stocking feet slipping on the steps, unable to tear his eyes off her. Look at those powerful legs she had-- thicker thighs than the parent design, triple jointed. Improved launch capability. She could jump buildings without booster packs-- yes, there were the Verniers, folded to the back, angled out. Propulsion, not lift. There were the converters, swinging out like a little pot belly under the pilot carriage. Oh, that appealed to him. He'd ride her just above the seat of her power, like an old-fashioned cowboy gripping the horse by his legs. They'd be connected, they'd be one. Oh, he had to see inside that cockpit. He fell off the end of the stairwell, only just catching himself. Not as much armour as the old Gundams-- smaller supply of Gundamium? Maybe just banking she didn't need it, not when her main opponents were just titanium alloys. She was still twice the size of any Taurus.

Taurus. He'd been so blinded-- it wasn't just tech supply she was surrounded by. It was suits. Rows and rows of suits-- he counted thirty-- forty. Forty-five. Une had done it. She'd kept a stock. Those barracks up there housed the pilots. The kids. She'd taken a page out of history. Child pilots for the queen, experienced adults for the troops. An entire classified programme of pilot training, a private army unparalleled, unmatched in an age of disarmament. It was exactly as the Nine One Five Six had believed.

It was a sobering thought. Enough to remind him of his purpose. To remind him of his caution. He moved into the shadow of one of the support beams, thicker than four Duos together, stretching up to the dim ceiling far above. Parliament, up above their heads there. A whole world up there that didn't know what was going on beneath it.

The mind wanted to splinter off into that-- what Une was planning, why she'd taken it on herself to plan it at all, if there really was a war in the offing and the Nine One Five Six were justified-- were at least not entirely irrational, to be dredging up plagues to combat Gundams. Damn, they were fighting his entire life in reverse. The Feds had brought the virus, and the Resistance had responded with super-advanced mobile suits. It had taken a super weapon to end that show-down. There were no Libras left, now.

He hoped. God, did he hope.

He checked his coat. He'd lost his smoke bomb and one of the sparkers in that crazy run down the crater, but he still had his sidearm, the talc, and the stinkers. Two hundred yards between him and the queen. He could make it.

He struck a casual stroll. His skin crawled with every step. He fought the flush of nerves from his face, kept a cool, bored expression. Used the walk to make the exits-- there had to be a way to get the suits out. Une wouldn't build an underground bunker with no way out but up through Parliament. There had to be-- but he couldn't see it from the ground. Well. That added a little extra urgency. He didn't want to leave a bloodbath behind him-- didn't want to risk collapsing the tunnels, not with Wufei and the others still in them, if he did have to blast his own way out. Couldn't fix that problem yet. A hundred yards. He was weaving through the robots, now, all of them ignoring his presence in amongst them, huge arms swinging smoothly through the air with bolts taller than he was. He was passed by a driver on a forklift, who gave him a queer look, but kept moving.

They'd built up scaffolding around his Gundam, springy bamboo. He went leaping for it before he even remembered his back. A sharp pull of strained muscles stopped him breathless. He hung off a rail, other hand pressed to his spine, willing the spasm under control. So close--

'Who are you?'

He turned slowly, dropping his grip to his gun. 'Hey,' he said. Kid. Teenaged, maybe even younger-- round child-like face, ebony skin with a shock of bleached curly hair. 'She's a beaut, huh. Sneaked in for some personal time, you know what I mean.'

It wasn't going to fly. The kid knew he didn't belong there. Had his mouth open to call out, eyes suspiciously narrowed.

'Hey,' Duo said quickly, grabbing just one more second, and threw a cloud of talc into the kid's face. He followed it up with a fist, breaking bone, and caught the kid on the downswing, throwing him flat to the concrete and sitting on him, hands wrapped tight over the kid's mouth and nose. The kid bucked and kicked, trying to throw him off, and Duo had all he could handle trying not to accidentally snap his neck in all the thrashing. It seemed to take forever, but no-one had come running yet, and the kid was starting to weaken. He tightened his grip.

Cold metal touched his cheek.

'Jesus,' he said, jerking away. The kid under him gasped in a frantic breath, and Duo smothered him again. 'Heero.'

'Duo,' Heero answered softly. 'Let him go.'

'He'll call the roof down on us--'

'Let him go.' The gun at Duo's neck pressed ever so slightly. Duo ground his jaws. He moved his hands. The kid coughed once, heaved Duo up. Then Heero's boot connected with the side of the kid's head, and he went limp, unconscious.

'Get up,' Heero told Duo.


'Hands behind your head. Lie down next to him.'

'No. Heero, there are no more chances to do the right thing after this. Let me take the Gundam.'

'Lie down.' Heero gave him a hard shove, grinding him down to the concrete. Duo resisted, twisting his elbow up into Heero's chin, using his forearm to force Heero's head away. He missed his grab for the gun, and had just enough time to rip his own out of the holster. He planted the muzzle to Heero's heart just as Heero wrestled his back into Duo's face.

'Let me take the Gundam,' Duo grated. He was out of position, Heero's fist locked on his biceps, straining him in a twist from the waist. The kid under him tangled his legs, and he couldn't even get his knees under him. 'It's the same as if you had it for yourself. I'll get rid of it.'

'We need it.'

'For what? For war? Why do you want that, Heero? Do you even know why you want that?'

Heero's yank made him cry out, before he bit his cheek to silence himself. Heero pulled him up with sheer strength, his arm still trapped outward, the gun biting into the back of his skull. Heero threw him flat against a cold metal surface, trapped him upright against it. He realised only dimly it was the Gundam itself.

'Heero,' he croaked. 'I'll destroy it. No-one will ever find it. No-one should have this power anymore, didn't we all agree on that? The temptation will always be there to use it if we don't get rid of them. Look at you. You want to use it just because the President built it. It's not right. We're supposed to try to be better.'


'If you can just listen to me for one fucking time-- this is the time to listen.'

'Duo.' Heero finally let go of his arm. Turned him about. His grim mouth opened, shut. His gun dug into Duo's gut.

'They're doing it all again,' Duo whispered, his throat tight. 'Look at that kid. He could have been us. Maybe they've even modified him, like us.' He could barely swallow. 'Maybe you don't care about that anymore. But look what you've made out of it. Made a plague you know you'll survive while thousands or millions of innocent people die like animals. Maybe you don't--'


'Maybe you don't care about that, either. I care. It's not right. It's not right to do this to people, it's not right you did it to me. It makes you no better than them.' He was hyperventilating. Couldn't stop it, didn't know where it had come from, except for a horrible pressure in his chest that wouldn't go. Heero held him up against the Gundam and that was the only thing keeping him on his feet at all. 'No better than the filth that experimented on children and refused to give out the vaccine. They thought they had a cause, too. They thought it was a war. You can't do that to people. You can't do that to people and-- and--'

'Duo,' Heero said, 'calm down. Breathe.'

'My fault.' He laughed, or tried to, strangled himself. 'Stupid. I've been stupid all the way through. Thought it was over. Thought I didn't have to-- care.' Accepting the reality handed to him because he'd been so relieved not to be caught doing his own wrongs. Years of petty and not-so-petty crime on L2 and he'd been so cocky for getting out that he'd let it all slide by him. Had known about the mobile suits. Had known Heero was out there. Lazy, lazy and stupid and reproachable and irresponsible, to just imagine Heero was out there killing and still somehow on the side of good. He'd believed it because it was easy. And now got the front seat to watch it all go to hell, everything that really was good in their world, a world where less people starved and less people died from bio-wars and less people wallowed entirely-too-imaginable suffering. Even electing OZ's murdering front-man to the highest seat of power hadn't raised a blink from him. Irony was-- mistake was-- thinking he was past it all. Thinking he'd lived to see the Golden Age.

He couldn't do it. Wouldn't win if Heero saw him twitch, wouldn't walk away from a fight, and Heero would have the Gundam anyway, but-- he couldn't do it, wouldn't do it, had a duty and needed, needed to be the one to draw the line and say no. Always no. He wasn't going to finish a lifetime of saying no to the wrongs of the universe by bringing down the only good he'd ever done. Not even for Heero Yuy.

'Be a better man than this,' he said. 'Please. For me.'

'You don't know what she's trying to do.' Heero's voice was so guttural it seemed to come from his shoes. The gun was cocked.

Duo put his hand on it. Didn't press, didn't push. Heero let it fall. 'If I take away the Gundam, it doesn't matter.'

Heero's eyes dipped. Nothing on that fifteen-year-old face but a thin line of tension between the thick brows-- and then that was gone, too.

'There's an offshoot tunnel at twenty degrees north,' Heero whispered. 'That's how they get the suits out. It's guarded-- a Taurus at the terminus. Nothing that will stall a pilot like you.'

He almost didn't believe it. Wasn't sure he'd heard it right. 'Twenty degrees north.' He curled his fingers over Heero's wrist. 'Thank you.'

Heero's lips crushed his bruisingly. 'Go,' he said.

'Heero-- the others. Solo and Wufei, the Preventer. They're out there. Don't get them killed. You promised me.'

Heero nodded once. He dipped to the kid on the ground, grabbing him by the back of his shirt, and began to drag him beneath the scaffolding.

'Heero,' Duo called after him, suddenly afraid for him, too. 'Thank you.'

He had one last impression of blue eyes gleaming in the shadow. This time, at least, he knew it was the last time he'd ever see them.

He was shaking. He clenched his hands to stop it. No time. No time for thinking and none for worrying about a little pain-- he grabbed for the scaffolding and he climbed it, jaws locked tight. It put him about halfway up the leg, high enough to reach the toeholds of the top of the greave at the knee. Thick strings of wire wrapped at the crotch provided a hand up, and he scrambled up the cuisse, threw out a hand for the couter over the elbow, and searched the breastplate for the hatch release. There. He smacked it with his palm, and with a slight hiss of hydraulics, the chest cavity separated. It lowered out on snaky arms, as thin as his braid and steely strong, with a little stirrup step extending toward him. He took that final step without half thinking about it. And then he was in.

So different from the square, roomy cockpits of the old Gundams, with flat consoles and extensible controls. Primary flight display there on the hatch, closing him in smooth and quick. Mode control not at all where he expected it, somewhere on the glareshield-- no glareshield at all, and no windscreen. He was entirely closed in. Deathscythe had had a small series of reinforced windows-- safeguard against the ultimate failure of the machinery-- but not this lady. Engine monitors were peripheral and quarter-circular, flight management-- and there, just below eye level, weapons control. Tidy arrangement of space, really, once he adjusted his expectations. Despite himself, the excitement was coming back, the quiver in his stomach, the high on the brain. No belts, but a lap-bar and shoulder harness, heavily cushioned, leaving the vulnerable torso free. Years of deep contusions and organ bruising had obviously registered with the designer. She really was a brilliant piece of engineering, no detail not carefully improved. What he would have given to be a part of--

He had to swallow to ease his throat before he could speak. 'All right, your Majesty,' he said. 'Let's get out of here while the getting is still good. Show me your gold.' Remove control lock. Check ignition. Master switch, a flick of his finger on the digital display; the cockpit lit with a gentle golden glow. Fuel gauges up-- kind of the baddies to fill up for him. Stabilisers on--

'Welcome, pilot. Identify.'

He froze, shocked. And then flexed his fingers and continued the pre-flight. 'Nothing doing, my lady. You AI or just the cabin steward?'

'I am a Combinatorial Algorithmic Computational Intelligence Agent. You are not an authorised individual.'

'CACIA?' That was fuzzy system logic. An area on which he happened to be fuzzy, personally, but then, his experience with AI hadn't led him to a lot of faith in the industry. 'Mathematical system that analyses analog input values of logical variables on continuous values--'

'Between 0 and 1, in contrast with classical or digital logic, which operates on discrete values of 0 or 1. Please state your authorisation or prepare to vacate.'

'If you don't operate on true or false, you should recognise a situation that doesn't have a yes or no answer.' Hoped that Heero was out of range. No, expect it, and just hope he'd taken that unconscious kid with him. Hope that-- Wufei would be out of danger, too, and would understand why he'd done what he'd done, because it was set in stone now that there'd be no opportunities now to explain it in person. It was happening. He was going to do it. He was stealing the Gundam. Again. 'Initiate takeoff. Now.'

'If you do not state your authorisation I will alert the base, pilot.'

'Your programmers may not have seen fit to input much of what's going on in the world outside base, my Queen, but the short of it is that your makers had no business bringing you into existence. And your existence has created a body of violent and powerful people who want to take you for their own reasons. This is not a joyride. This is the one chance to remove you from what promises to be a very big fight, my dear, so I'm asking you to set aside protocol and act on that brain they've given you. Access your files and make that value judgment.'

Maybe he confused the machine. Maybe it was just computing. Maybe it was alerting the base after all, though the cams weren't showing movement out there. Leaning out the Verniers, align the gyros. Warm-up would attract attention, alarms or no. He had maybe fifteen seconds before the noise of the engines would rise over the general chaos. The hum of the machine began to penetrate his bones. He'd missed that-- missed it more than he could have believed, until it brought tears to his eyes. He swiped them away quickly.

'You are Duo Maxwell, Pilot Oh-Two, origin Lagrange Point 2.'

Holy saints. She really had accessed her files. 'Yeah,' he said. 'For better or worse. Listen to me. We don't have time to conversate just this second, but let me propose the following. Let me launch. We can talk it out when we're clear of the city. Lives depend on speed right now. You can always contact base later, if you decide my argument is bad, and there's nothing I can do about it. But right now I really need you to take a chance on me and initiate, Lady.'

'A fair bargain.'

'Really?' He laughed aloud, delighted by her. 'Princess, you and I are going to get along. Let's move, then.'

She revved. He pushed the throttle. The scaffolding burst away from them, it seemed, and he was slammed forward into the harness. They were airborne. He laughed again, the last of his regret vanishing into the sheer elation of flight. He'd done it.

He'd done it.
The fight was short, but joyful. The Queen was every bit the warrior she looked. She made him feel like a warrior again-- connected, and on; breathing deep and even, tingling all over. The clarity of the moment stretched out in front of him, calm, perfect. One of those rare perfect moments, just him and his Gundam.

She broke the silence between them, her soft voice emanating from all around him, no specific origin. 'Will you destroy the Taurus?' she asked him, machine curiosity, mechanic indifference.

'Not today.' He flexed his fingers. The disabled Taurus on his screen smoked and whined, blinded by deep puncture pocks of his dobergun's shell riff to the vulnerable processor 'head', and a single precision application of the buster rifle to the converters. There went the pilot, abandoning the useless suit, jumping for safety to the tunnel depths. It was a long run back to that underground base. Duo let him go. Even if he had got out communication to the base before Duo had taken out the head, even if they got another suit on his tail-- or even all forty of them back there-- not a single atom in him had doubt. What a team they made. Not even Deathscythe had been so responsive, so finely tuned. The barest pressure of his hands and she knew exactly what he wanted of her.

And destroy the Taurus? Interesting question. She'd let him. She'd be right there with him. No loyalty in the wiring? No, he didn't believe that. Willing to test him-- willing to trust him. Taking his bargain for every last drop.

He'd give her the rope to hang him. And give her a taste of real freedom. She deserved that much out of him, before she made her decision. Before he made his.

'Let's finalise coordinates,' he said at last. 'Enough gally-padding. We've got places to be.'

'Enter coordinates, pilot.'

She raised him a digital keyboard display, superimposed on a phi-lambda map. He didn't need to search. He entered the coordinates from memory. 42°49'58” south, 72°38'45” west. 'Got that?' he asked her.

Not even a millisecond-- she was as fast at that as she was in the air. 'Location Chile, Andes mountain range. Specifically the Chaitén volcano.'

'You've got it.' Smooth as top-shelf whiskey. He was getting giddy again, or almost. It took immense self-control to get himself handled. 'You object to a little sight-seeing?'

'No,' she replied, with a hint of what just might have been mischief. And she didn't wait for him to call it. She took off herself. He laughed aloud, caressing her controls in thanks.

No problem leaving the capital. They risked a few more suits on him-- she raised the image for him on the screen-- a buzzing black cloud of them rising like bats out of the metro. Smaller, all of them-- new design on those, too, and he'd take bets Une had taken another page from Gundam engineering and applied the Mercurius' beam-deflector to the suits. But not a time to appreciate the crafting. He had speed, he had twice the training, and three times the guts. He dodged artfully down between buildings, whipped around pin-tight corners, even landed right on the street-- oh, the power in her, those bunched-up legs alighting feather-light on the cobblestones and her dobergun at ready, alert to the slightest change on the breeze. Not a peep out of place, either. No lights turned on in the houses, no civies screamed and ran. They were silent as a pair of ghosts, drifting up the sleeping streets.

And then bursting out into the air, thrusters fully engaged, Verniers thrown to the max in just a heartbeat. He let out a whoop before the pressure stole the last of his air, ground him down into the seat until he felt ironed flat. He had spots in his eyes when they finally tore up the atmosphere for full flight above the clouds. He grinned like a cabbage at the dwindling dot of Brussels on her screen.

'Query,' she murmured to him. 'You are pleased.'

'I am very pleased, your Majesty.'

'Query. You refer to this unit as--'

'It's a form of affection, my very dear. Affection and pride. Whoever built you did you right.' Cruising altitude, and he could breathe again. Efficient, too; barely a dip in the tank for his antics, and they'd lost the Tauruses. Maybe they'd gone running back underground. Two reasons why they'd do that-- a fight breaking out on base, with twin causes Nine One Five Six or Duo's people, doing what he'd told them not to do-- or they weren't ready to be seen by the general population just yet, which wasn't the worst news. 'Which is it?' he wondered aloud.

'Which is what, pilot.'

'Your friends back on base. I don't morally object to easy, but it makes me suspicious. You were the only Gundam there, right?'


'And none others under construction that you know of? There or anywhere else?'


'And you wouldn't tip the truth on me?'

'This unit is not programmed for prevarication, pilot.'

'Ha.' Grimmer, that, bringing him down. 'Neither was ZERO. Didn't stop it from twisting, just a bit.'

'ZERO was a flawed system.'

'And how.'


His first twinge, from tight shoulders. He'd managed to forget his back, in the excitement. Managed to forget, even, just what he was busy fleeing from. He eased his belt off, the fizzy bombs and noisers, and let it slither to the floor at his feet. The tarp was next, smooshed down off his arms, relieving sweaty pits and cooling his neck, adding a little extra pillow at his back. The lumbar cushion was well-placed-- which indicated, he supposed, that they really had designed the cockpit for a child pilot. That was one respect in which he'd have been happy to be wrong. Some things didn't need repeating.

Heero back there. Doing the right thing. For whatever reason. Wufei, probably pissed as fuck at him. Solo might get it. Might forgive him for it.

'My Queen,' he said, 'I think we can drop the formalities. We're in cahoots, now. There's a special bond between thieves. It's a nervous business, and it requires a level of trust even when you know it's going to end every man for hisself. Herself. Call me Duo. It's not too shabby a name.'

'Pilot Duo.'

He only raised a smile for that. The exhaustion was hitting him. The crash. He didn't run on that kind of high often enough now. No endurance. Or maybe just a very long string of very tiring events. 'What about you, sweet heart? They name you ever?'

'I am a Combinatorial--'

'A Taurus is a Taurus is a Taurus. Interchangeable units, no personality. Don't tell me what you do. Tell me who you are.'

Maybe he confused her. There was a pause. Long enough for him to think about his headache, to think about the tremors. Long enough to think-- next steps. Cross an ocean. Land a new continent. She had to know why he'd picked the volcano. She had to be formulating-- contingencies, alerts, backups. She had to be mulling that possibility he'd given her, waiting on the right moment, the last available moment to call for help.

'Query,' she murmured. 'Who I am.'

'Access your files on the original Gundam-class suits. Tallgeese. Shenlong. Wing. Deathscythe. It's not just affectations or camp. There was a reason we made our suits ours, like that.'

'Superfluous design elements,' she said. Raised him images, transparent and flickering fast enough to look animated, a library's worth of collected captures that brought a lump of memory to his throat. Scythes, wings, shotels, the heat whip from Epyon and Tallgeese III, the dragon-fang, the militant glaive. 'Intended as psychological tools, equivalent to ancient practises of war such as face paint and personal armour. Many so-called “upgrades” to the original Gundams proved inefficient and required specialised tactics training which rendered them ineffective as a team.'

'I wouldn't go as far as “ineffective”,' he muttered. Memories, there. 'Give us credit for bucking the fads. It was all range-weaponry, in those days-- populace control. Those psychological tools had their place. A freaky suit that gets in your face and rips you to pieces is pretty effective.'

'Statistics analysis indicate that the original Gundams were forced to engage at close quarters in more than two-fifths of encounters. Overwhelming numbers of mass-produced mobile suits of varying classes, as well as the addition of mobile dolls--'

'You know the story of David and Goliath?'

A miniscule pause as he derailed her lecture. 'Biblical reference,' she said.

'One Samuel Seventeen. The Philistine army had gathered for war against Israel. Goliath held off the Israelites for forty days just by showing up. No-one was willing to challenge him, until David. David was probably still a kid-- a teenager. He persuaded King Saul he could fight the giant. Killed Goliath with a slingshot-- saw a gap in his armour that left his forehead open. Cracked his brains open with a rock. That's usually where they focus the lesson, when they read the scripture in churches. But that's not where the story ends. That unarmoured teenager with the slingshot killed the giant, but then he picked up the giant's sword, sawed Goliath's head off, right in front of the entire Philistine army, and the Israelites finally find their balls and charge the Philistines.'


'David is to Goliath what Gundams were to overwhelming numbers of mobile suits. You cut off two-fifths and the other three get the picture.'

'Your analogy, Pilot Duo, does not account for the superfluous design elements, merely the preference for close-combat weaponry.'

'Feeling stubborn, are we?' He rubbed at the tense muscles of his neck, willing them to relax. 'I grant you the occasional lapse into theatrics. But you can't underestimate the effect of that drama on the human mind. Most of us are small men, my Queen. We're easily impressed. And it appeals to the ego-- piloting a machine like that. Building a machine like that. It touches the artist in the soul.'


She brought him up short with that. He had said it, hadn't he. Soul. Wufei couldn't have pounced on him any faster for that slip. But-- 'Soul,' he repeated, to himself, feeling his way through the word. Soul. Maybe.

'Soul,' she echoed. 'The only semantic domain of the Biblical soul in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word nephresh, literally meaning “the complete life of a being”, associated with appetite, craving, thirst, life.'

'It's possible to carry an analogy too far.' He rubbed his throat, and let his hand fall back to his lap. 'I don't even remember what we were talking about. Look-- look, it's my turn to query. Why did you let me take you?'


'You chose. Why did you choose. Why did you choose me.'

'The pilot can opt against the use of the CACIA.'

'But I didn't. And you didn't opt against me. So why.' She raised him another screen-- a scroll of algorithms, page after page of it, before he waved it away. 'Don't show me. I'm not going to read that all. Articulate it.'

'You are Duo Maxwell, Pilot Oh-Two, origin Lagrange Point Two.'


'Statistical analysis--'

'You didn't come with me because of statistics.'

'Analysis of available files indicates you are an individual of strong personal standards, you are pragmatic and realistic, tolerant, direct, and adventuresome.'

'Personality evaluations? You don't put any faith in that crap. Besides, that's not a reason.'

'Achievement and aptitude tests--'

'I filled them out randomly. Preventers were going to take me no matter what skills I did or didn't have. You've got nothing better to work with than a few dozen pages of employment applications?'

'Observation and assessment conducted by Doctors Pryce, Nataglio, Chatzky, and Po indicate the presence of Cluster C personality disorders, including avoidant personality disorder and compulsive-obsessive personality disorder--'

'I'm hardly crippled.'

'Dependent on self-fulfilling fantasies allowing for “escape” from extreme distress. Doctors Chatzky and Po in particular examined your pretension of representing the God of Death--'

'It was more in the nature of self-reflective irony. And they didn't examine me in person. I read Sally's paper. What do I care if she makes her career off of us?'

'Doctors Chatzky and Po hypothesise that the major trauma of your childhood--'

'Reveals borderline personality traits, possibly mitigated by the genetic manipulation undergone in the pre-teen age group. Intense and unstable personal relationships. Sustained effort to avoid abandonment. Self-damaging impulsivity. Transient stress-related paranoid ideation. I have at least five of the diagnostic criteria. I do not have borderline personality disorder, I do not have avoidant personality disorder, I am not compulsive-obsessive.' He had to stop himself to breathe. 'You're giving me words, not reasons, your Majesty. Is this your way of telling me you were curious?'

'This unit is not capable of curiosity.'

'Maybe you're flawed, just like the rest of us.' He slid a finger over the steerage console. 'Does it matter? Look at you. You're beautiful. I love you for that. Love at first sight, my Queen, whether it's a self-fulfilling fantasy or escape or who cares what. Sometimes it really is okay to take the world the way it hits you. David had a slingshot and he went out and brought down a giant. You and me-- we'll do it, too.'

Just the sounds of flight. The vibration in his bones, the screen with the clouds and the superimposed satellite maps showing the English Channel going narrow far beneath them. Ever so faint a sense of the wind of their passage, and him secure in the belly of the beast, warm, weary. It might be safe to sleep, soon. He wasn't sure he'd be able to close his eyes. The satellites would be searching for him, even if she wasn't broadcasting their position. Maybe he'd be greeted by that troop of Tauruses when they landed in Chile. That would be a way to go, wouldn't it. Hell.

'Athena,' he said.


'Your name. You could be Athena. Warrior goddess, Greek mythology. Wise, disciplined, ruthless. Just. Patron of heroes. And schmucks like me, with a job to do and the stupid needed to get it done.'

'Athena,' she whispered.


She woke him with a gentle light, shined just below his eye level on the screen. He blinked away a moment of confusion, wondering-- not where he was, but how in Sam hell he was still alive to be there.

'What's wrong?' he asked gruffly. His hands wrapped around steering and weapons as he sat up straight. 'On screen.'

Oh, hell. They'd caught him up after all. And not the Tauruses from Brussels. Those were Serpents. Those were-- maybe every single Serpent that had survived the Eve War, and they looked like they were in pretty good condition for suits two decades out of use.

'Are you ready, Pilot Duo?' she asked him.

'I am if you are.' Grim settling stillness in his pit. He'd figured it might happen. And, come to that, they were ready, weren't they? She wouldn't let him down. Hadn't even suggested they surrender or flee. 'We may have to kill some of them,' he said. 'I'd rather avoid it. We don't need a God of Death here today.'

'Their numbers are prohibitive.'

'And they know all your capabilities, I imagine.' Closing in. Nearly in range of those launchers on the shoulder-mounts. The beam cannons would be next, and then the gatling guns. Neo-titanium, almost as strong as Gundamium. They wouldn't be easy to disable.

But they weren't built for close range. And that was something Duo knew like the freckles on his hands. That was going to be their chance. Get close enough to hack off a few heads.

'Follow my lead, Athena,' he said. 'Let's go get Goliath.'

They spread wide, a geese-vee defensive formation, then broke off into three-group triangulated positions, closing him into a lattice-like cage of suits. If they closed that cage, he'd be worse than dead. The most he'd be able to do, maybe, would be to force them to kill him and destroy the Gundam. But that was only if they closed him in.

He slammed the Verniers and bent the steering straight to the floor. Athena dove like a stone through the thin atmosphere. They twisted as they fell, one-eighty to face up, and he loosed the dobergun on them, spraying five with armour-piercing rounds before he completed the rotation. The ones in the van had caught onto his maneouvre, committed to the drop. He left them eating his air as he gunned up, and opened a wide beam out of the buster rifle. The one in the lead of the chase broke off immediately, blinded; two more fell away when he took out their converters. Then he was above them, blasting down and following it up with a dogfight fragmentation missile. The little beauty smoked a trail right into the centre of the pack, exploding a too-slow Serpent, and taking out the suit flying in behind it, too.

First blood was his. He didn't mean to, but he crowed out a triumphal shout. Of damn course first blood was his!

'Incoming communication,' she warned him. 'Receive?'

'We ain't here to chat.' They could shoot, too, and they were doing it now. He spun and flipped, taking just a clip to that incomplete left leg, but she raised her shields and it deflected away. 'I'm having kind of an idea here, darling. You know anything about dolphins?'

'Marine mammals closely related to whales and porpoises.'

'Something like that. Couldn't never have done this in Deathscythe, but--' She dodged like the wind. Faster than the wind. 'Fuck Goliath. I have a better idea. You know what a bait ball is?'

He almost felt her grinning.

She was so fast he started to feel weak in the chest, but he ignored it. She turned on a pin, whipping this way and that at the slightest pressure of his fingers. The force of their antics pressed him deeper and deeper into the chair, and over the roar in his head he heard the hiss of her releasing pure oxygen for him, but his concentration was all for the Serpents trying vainly to keep up with him. Like a dolphin in the ocean, he herded the Serpents closer and closer to each other, forcing one back here, drawing another after him, teasing them with close riffs of the beam rifle that columned through the ozone inches from their vulnerable titanium hides. He took a few hits of his own, lucky shots that rebounded off the shields or took out chunks of shoulder and limbs. She reported every hit calmly, almost indifferently, her own pain as meaningless as his. Slowly, so slowly he thought they had to know what was happening, he packed them tight together, whirling endless circles around them until they clustered, the innermost suits trapped by the outermost, a ball of confused metal. And then he opened fire.

He didn't use the missiles again-- he had conscience enough left for that-- but he cut deep swaths with the beam weapon, and he emptied the gatling into the crowd of them. They fell from the air as he dropped them, some managing to regroup, but they didn't have a clear shot at him as he swooped around their fellows at gee-force speed. Two went out when he caught their engines in crossfire, and he knew without watching that they'd be lucky to land soft on the ocean far below. 'Track them,' he barked at Athena. 'They righting?'

'Impact in three minutes ninety seconds.'

'Fuck.' The shoulder bar caught his head bouncing in a sharp wrench to the left. 'Can we catch them?'


'I didn't ask you for strategy. I asked could we catch them.'

His distraction earned him a one-two punch to the crotch. She blinked red alarms, then yellow, then back to green as she shut off the affected areas. 'Yes,' she said. 'Vulnerability to attack will increase 93%.'

'Open comm. To all of them. And dive.' He yanked the steering in to his chest and they went down, back taking the brutal wind of their drop, weapons to the Serpents above who did indeed take advantage of their sudden freedom to launch at him. Three missiles began to buzz through the skies, bouncing off her shields, and their owners were hot on the tail.

'Communications open.'

'I need help,' he yelled. 'I can try to get beneath them and break their fall. Otherwise they'll hit the ocean at speed and break apart on the surface tension. The pilots won't make it.'

'Stand down, enemy pilot. You are under arrest.'

'Don't waste their time. Two minutes to impact. I need another suit to grab them and keep them from hitting the water. I'll break their fall and you grab them off me. Keep them out of the water.'

'Stand down, pilot!'

He pushed the Verniers as far as they could go, at risk of overheating. There on the screen-- the two Serpents he'd disabled, not close enough together to double-team. He couldn't get them both. 'Which one, Athena?'

Not even a heartbeat before the choice. She corrected his trajectory herself. They dove for the nearest, a few precious milimetres closer to them.

They flipped. Her arms wrapped tight around the Serpent, and he threw the switch on the Verniers, reversing course. The bottom went out of him and he blacked out as gravity hit like a sledgehammer. The crackling grey over his eyes faded slowly. He lifted a limp hand to wipe his nose, and it came away bloody.

'The Serpent is safe,' she reported.

'On screen. The other one.'

Shattered on the surface. Broken, the water still crashing, green and flaming, here and there, where the fuel had spilled and sparked. What was left of the torso wasn't enough to hold a living human.

'We must go, Pilot Duo.'

A handful of lives. Maybe four, maybe six. He wasn't sure how many he'd just killed. He'd never counted. Hadn't remembered to count.

'Pilot. We must go.'

'Yeah.' He felt-- rusty. His chest hurt, and his head. 'Yeah. Okay.'

Not fast enough for her. She disengaged from the Serpent they'd rescued, let it drop a harmless fifty feet to the water. She blasted out, skimming the ocean, rising in a slow arc. The Serpents were on them, trying to catch up. Failing. She was faster, stronger, better. Deadlier, even when he wasn't half trying.

Damn it. He really hadn't meant to kill them. 'Any more surprises you want to tell me about?' he asked her, dry-mouthed. 'How many other caches of suits are there?'

'It is possible others exist.'

His blood had dried in a streak on the back of his hand. He rubbed it on his trouser leg, but it didn't wipe off. 'You need repair to keep going?'

'No, Pilot Duo.'

'Don't you fucking test me again. Don't you fucking leave something out to see what I'll do. There's curiosity and there's curiosity. Men just died back there.'

She was silent. He didn't repeat himself.

They approached the South American continent without any further visits. Duo reined his temper in on short order, but the exercise over the Atlantic had dampened his enthusiasm for their caper, reminded him of his business. Reminded him, not a little, of why he disliked AI so much.

'We never really had that conversation,' he said finally, breaking an hour of mutual quiet. 'About why we're out here. Maybe if we do, we can eliminate any more-- misunderstandings.'


'Do you have a file on the Nine One Five Six?' he asked her, suddenly curious.

She raised it for him, letting him scroll it down the screen with swipes of his fingers over the display. Not bad-- not as extensive as what he expected he'd found over the years, but then he'd known what to look for and he'd been looking for Heero, not a secret organisation. 'What do you know about their goals?'

'A former member of the group identifying as Nine One Five Six stated--'

'Former member?' he jumped.

'Known as Chris Marley, speculatively a reference to playwright, poet, and spy Christopher Marlowe. Also known as Christine Bohl, origin Lagrange Point One. Member of terrorist cell Lidingö, origin Lagrange Point One. At the close of hostilities Christine Bohl arranged to become personal assistant to then-Vice Foreign Minister Relena Peacecraft-Darlian, secretly supplying information to her former cell members with the intention of assassinating the Vice Foreign Minister.'

'I know the story from there.' Chris Marley. He hadn't thought of her in years. It hadn't been just Relena who'd been in danger, then. White Fang, or whatever faction of it they'd been, had wanted Gundams. 'Story of my life. I thought Marley went off to live happily ever after.'

'Unknown. Christine Bohl reappeared in 201, witnessed fleeing the scene of a bombing on L2.'

'The bombing of the ESUN embassy?'


'Presaging the takeover of L2. White Fang run us over on the way to philosophical freedom.'

'Query. “Us”?'

'L2. They didn't hold a vote. They didn't consider whether we were benefiting economically from membership in the ESUN. They didn't consider whether we had a right to decide for ourselves.' He rubbed his aching eyes. 'They became everything they claimed to be fighting against. All right. What did Marley have to say about the Nine One Five Six?'

'Originally formed as a counterpoint to the activities of White Fang.'

He'd already guessed that from Solo's breakdown of things, but it was interesting to have it confirmed. 'Why is she a former member?'

'Following the death of her childhood friend Ralph Kurt, she appeared to have a change of heart.'

'Kurt's dead? How? Was he a member too?'

'Confirmed. Ralph Kurt is alleged to have died in a raid conducted by the Nine One Five Six on MO-III, in pursuit of mobile doll parts in process of being destroyed per current law banning all mobile technology.'

'There's a lot of irony in that sentence, Athena. Alleged to have died?'

'No body was recovered.'

'They were pretty attached, though. I don't see her leaving Kurt behind unless he really was Space dust. All right. What'd she spill and to whom?'

'Christine Bohl consented to three interviews with Preventers Command before her disappearance.'

'Disappearance? Who disappeared her?'


'Uh-huh. And from where did she disappear?'

'High-security holding on Lagrange Point Three.'

'I can't tell if you've just got a dark sense of humour or none at all.'


'Never mind. Content of those interviews?'

She raised him the file again, but walked him through it. 'The group calling itself Nine One Five Six was formed by former White Fang leader Zechs Merquise and Heero Yuy, former Gundam pilot. They performed raids on stations with illegally maintained mobile suits, taking several suits with them, suggesting they have at times had more members than is currently believed. The legal suppression of fuel grades used in mobile suit technology dampened their activities in the late 190s and early 200s. During this time their group solidified membership to the current core, with the single addition of Marise Noin, natural daughter of Lucretia Noin.'

'And Zechs Merquise?'

'That is not confirmed.'

'When did they find out about you?'

'Construction of this unit began in 211.'

'Une's first term as President. She's behind it all?'

She didn't answer him right away. Classified information. Sure. He waited her out. She'd gone this far for him. If she wanted to overcome her programming, she'd do it.

'Correct,' she said finally.



'No, don't do that. You're a CACIA unit. You can draw on diverse data and arrive at independent conclusions. So tell me why Une would do this.'



'This unit might speculate that President Une held disarmament to be an unintended danger to the ESUN, given the activities of cells such as the Nine One Five Six and White Fang, who continue to operate mobile technology.'

'Good girl. That's what I think too. Now tell me what you think a group like the Nine One Five Six would do when they're facing sure knowledge that someone occupying the Presidency is building a Gundam for her own private arsenal?'

'They reacted to a threat.'

'By reviving and cultivating an equally dangerous threat. They have the Collins-Moreno virus. They're willing and able to release it on the public. They could kill more people in days than a hundred mobile suits. Than a hundred Gundams.'


'The point of disarmament is that no-one feels threatened enough to unleash something like that. The point of disarmament is that it's always, it's always civilians who suffer the most in any mass conflict. The point of disarmament is that the force of law keeps nations in agreement and that agreement has the penalty of law. So what happens when the President herself throws the law out the window? Someone else has to one-up her, and atrocities happen. Did they build you with respect for human life? Did they build you to care what happens to the billions of people who will never have the chance to defend themselves by taking up arms? Because that's why we built Gundams in the first place, to take back our voice. Maybe it was wrong. Maybe it was just part of the cycle and we just brought it to a new height and we'll never be able to jump off the cliff without mutual destruction. That doesn't remove the obligation to try.'

'You intend to destroy this unit.'

'I honestly think I have to, Athena.'


'You weren't ever supposed to exist. Maybe I wasn't, either. Maybe no-one will be safe until there's nothing left of either of us.'

'Query. Why do you attempt to persuade this unit?'

'If you'd been just an ordinary suit-- I guess I wouldn't have. But you're not. Are you?'

'This unit is not human, Pilot Duo.'

'You're maybe closer than any other machine is.'

'Artificial intelligence--'

'Is still intelligence. More'n some people I can think of. I don't know if asking you to feel is more than you can do, but I am asking you to take an opinion. We have a chance to save a lot of lives that will always be in danger if we don't act. You're the ultimate weapon and as long as you exist there's going to be someone who wants to use you.'

'Query. You do not wish to use me, Pilot Duo?'

Did he? Maybe. Maybe, in his gut, where he was still angry and hurt over all that had happened to him. But not in his heart. He just didn't want it enough to really do it. There was no-one who was going to make the world better for being dead. And that was really the only measure that mattered.

'I'm having an idea here,' he said. 'You said you're not programmed to lie?'


'Are you programmed to separate from the actual suit? Can your processor be removed?'

A pause so tiny he wouldn't have noticed if he wasn't looking for it. 'Query,' she said.

'Query away, my Queen. Sometimes I get ahead of myself, and I could use a little fact-checking before I dig too deep a hole.'
'Approaching the Gulf of Corcovado,' Athena announced.

'We being trailed?' he asked.

'Nine Serpents are following at distance. Satellites indicate they are conducting a broad-based search, currently unsuccessful.'

'Why aren't they using the satellites too?'

'This unit is capable of stealth, Pilot Duo.'

'Better late than never, I guess.' He raised her viewscreen, and tapped the images to zoom on the mountain range they were nearing. The big one about seventeen kilometres away was Minchinmávida, capped with ice. The one that concerned him, though, was Chaitén. Active and spewing a roiling column of ash. The thick cloud pooled around the caldera like a lake of smoke. 'How close can we get?'


'Then we'll start at the bottom and hop our way to the top.' He really wanted some water. Hadn't thought to bring that. He was bone-dry, and there sure as hell wasn't any water down there. 'How big is your database?' he asked her. 'I mean what are the parametres? Where's the input?'

'Inputs are received live--'

'I'm talking records, Athena. History. Data about human history.'

'Inputs are received from one thousand seven hundred ninety-eight sources, both colonial and Earth-based, governmental, civilian, and corporate--'

'And secret? Not just classified, but not acknowledged to exist?'

'Correct, Pilot Duo.'

'You have personal records? Kealey Steele Matchette? Base commander on L2 up to 195.'

Infinitesimal pause. 'Correct, Pilot Duo.'

Not a lot of time for this. Maybe no time. Those Serpents out there, those Tauruses. They wouldn't stay lost forever.

'You know his involvement in creating the virus,' he said. 'You've got all his records, maybe even the scientific data? The trial data?'


'In its entirety?'

'Integrity of records is unknown.'

'Unknown or undefined.'

He rather though she approved his distinction, there. 'Undefined,' she confirmed.

'Figures.' There it was. Chaitén. Still boiling over, two full decades after he'd last seen it, two centuries and more after its last big blow. Lava rolled in thick glowing gobs down the mountainside, over the bare remains of the abandoned town at its base. The smoke would screen them, though. He didn't have to guide Athena into it. She floated right into the stream, right at its thickest, blackest point, a few dozen metres above the caldera itself. Not a little terrifying, watching his screen go charred and dark, feeling the distinct rise in temperature of their new parking spot.

'They never made a cure?' he asked her. 'Tell me the truth. They really brought something that evil into the world and they didn't provide a cure for-- for sheer safety's sake?'

'There is no record of a cure.'

'Search the records. Maybe they didn't stamp the word in gilt on the top of the page. But it could be in there. They couldn't be that-- stupid. Anyone who's ever seen a damn zombie movie knows you have to make a cure for any virus, or there's no guarantee anyone will live through it. They had to be looking at it from both ends.'

The first silence of any real length. Pale numbers on the screen, logarithms, search calculations. 'Unable to recover,' she said.

'They had to.'

'History does not bear out your theory, Pilot Duo. Weapons are often created before defence is considered. The vaccine--'

'Nine One Five Six is trying to mutate it. They may not be the only ones.' He hesitated, himself. 'I have it. The virus. I'm-- I'm immune, you know that from Matchette's records, but I'm carrying it. Eventually I'll be infectious.'

'Then we are both weapons created without the forethought of defences.'

'Yeah, huh. Yes, and being wielded by people who have the guts to use us, even if it takes everyone else out with them.' He rubbed his tired eyes. 'If there isn't a cure, there's only one way I can think of to conclusively-- remove my-- self. Us.'

'And so we have come here to die.'

'Are you programmed to accept that? Can you understand dying?'

'Death. Etymologically--'

'I think you have the right to decide for yourself. I can't promise I'll-- can't promise I might not decide for you. In the end. But you have the right to know why. I can't let this happen, what they want to do to the world. My world. It's not enough to believe in something enough to fight for it. You have to be willing not to fight. Have to be willing-- have to be willing to say I'm done, I'm done with this, and I'm just going to take away the options. Matchette poisoned kids and I'm here today because I was one of them, and I'm one of them again, and it's--' He rubbed his eyes. Rubbed until they hurt, until they were wet. 'This isn't what I wanted to happen. But plagues and Gundams are worse. I'm in a position to do something about it. Isn't that an obligation? Don't I absolutely have to act while it's in my power?'

'To use a weapon before there are defences against it.'

Yeah. That was funny. 'Takes the righteousness out of it, when you put it like that.'

'Is not war righteous, Pilot Duo?'

'No. No. It's not righteous. It's not glorious, it's not beautiful. Access Matchette's files again. Take a look at how damn ugly it can be. Only a child or a moral idiot thinks war is righteous.'

'Then what do you wish to do, Pilot Duo?'

Land. They had to land. Had to find the centre of that volcano, had to-- he didn't know what the hell to really do. Things floated on lava. They'd have to-- have to dive into it, or something, get deep enough to-- hide the evidence. 'I need you to walk me through something.'


'Tell me how to do it. I need to know how to separate your processor.'

'The CACIA processor is not functional when removed from the mobile suit.'

Damn it. Damn it. There went a brilliant idea, brilliant and fucking wrong. 'It doesn't work independently? How can it not work independently?' What he wanted. What he wanted was to remove that processor. What he wanted was a compromise-- save some part, save the vital part of Athena, the identity, the-- soul of her. He had to grant the back-asswards cleverness of whoever'd designed her. Custom-built to foil his plans before he could think of them. She came as one unique package, just like her pilots. Truly fucking inconvenient.

'Hiding you-- it's not enough.' His throat was tight. He wiped sweat from his lip on the back of his hand. 'Right now I really wish it would be.'

'This unit is capable of--'

'Stealth isn't the issue. I need the opposite of stealth. They need to know you're gone. Nine One Five Six and the President and all of them, or they'll keep looking for you. Keeping fighting for possession of you.' Overheating. The air she blew on him was getting warmer. Temperature reading out there was climbing from 750C. 'You didn't really answer me before. You have any central directive on the preservation of human life? Maybe not individual life, but, I don't-- I don't know, some kind of systemic...'

'You have been encouraging this unit to ignore its directives, Pilot.'

'I know, you cheeky thing.' He shifted, lifted the bar harness. 'I'm asking if you have one, not if you're obeying it.'


Fuzzy logic or not, weapons weren't supposed to fire themselves. ZERO hadn't. Athena did. 'Then I guess my arguments about the good of humanity don't really mean all that much to you.'

'I have accepted your belief in your arguments as you interpret events.'

'You believe that I believe what I'm saying. Not really an endorsement.' He was soaking through his shirt. He wiped his face on his jacket sleeve, his neck. 'What would you do. If you were me.'

'This unit is not human, Pilot Duo.'

'Glad one of us is clear on that.' Her vents were flat out steam, now. He was going to pass out if he waited too long on it. 'I have to do this. I have to do it. So-- so-- so I have to, to, turn you off. If I can't remove you from the suit.'

'That is your option.'

'And you'll let me do that.'

'You are one of the greatest mobile suit pilots. You are my pilot. It is fit.'

No reason for that to make his eyes sting. Did, though. He wiped them. Had to wipe them again. 'We'd've made a hell of a team. Davids going up on Goliath. You haven't lived til you've tried it.'

'You should proceed, Pilot Duo. My filters will fail in six minutes seventeen seconds, and you will not survive a toxic exposure to sulfur dioxide gas.'

He scrubbed his nose on his sleeve. 'Can you image the crater? Where's it hottest?'

Temperature reading, four angles, pinpointing a few likely places. All of them very deep in the magma chamber. And the magma would be pushing upward, he remembered that from Doc's lessons, a million years ago when the only volcanoes he'd seen had been cheesy sci-fi flicks. Trying to get out. They'd have to dive. They'd have to dive, not just fall, to get to a depth like that. And maybe latch onto something, find the rock in there somewhere, something to anchor on. She wouldn't, probably wouldn't melt, not at those temperatures-- maybe some of the incidentals, her weapons arrays, that exposed wiring in the limbs, but the core, that wouldn't melt at less than 2400C. The Verniers wouldn't melt, with their uranium oxide casing. They might leak, eventually. He was risking irradiating an active volcano. But there wasn't anything else capable of diving in after them. Titanium mobile suits might make it through the magma, but there wasn't any kind of sensor that could. There wouldn't be any retrieval missions for her. Maybe someday there would be something that could get her out. But not soon. It wasn't much consolation.

'I'll come back for you,' he said spontaneously, meaning it with every pore. 'I promise that. I give you my word, for whatever it's worth. I'm probably-- I'm probably going to live longer than the people who made this situation happen, and maybe that'll be long enough to, I, outlive people who remember mobile suits... So when it's safe, I swear I'll come back for you.'

'That may be a very long time, Pilot Duo.'

'I won't forget you.'

The flow of hot air around him was like her sigh, stirring his hair, raising a shiver from him. 'Then I shall wait for you, Pilot.'

He squeezed tight at her controls, drawing strength from her. 'Okay,' he said finally. 'Let's do this, then.'


He hugged the corner of the shed as he counted heads visible from the open window at the house. He was pretty sure they were all in there, including the two children who'd been playing in the sandbox for fucking ever. He could smell food, some kind of grilled beef, a tangier fish scent. The adults chatted idly, the kids were on laps, and the old gran in purple beaded dress reigned over all of it imperiously, her scratchy voice snapping out orders over the good-natured laughter.

He gave them a half-hour, to be safe, and finally left his shelter. The goat who'd been sharing his stall gave a grunt of relief, as Duo kicked straw over the butt-shaped dent he'd left in the dirt. He kept low, below the level of that big kitchen window, as he crept over the yard. He'd waited for dusk, but waiting had compounded certain other problems. He needed a number of things he didn't have, and hadn't had to procure in this way for a long time. It was not the best circumstance to find out of he still had it in him.

The sun-baked door opened noiselessly. He could just see around the corner into the kitchen, but none of the family looked up or came running with those hunting rifles he'd seen the men carting all day. His bare feet made no sounds on the stone tiles. He slipped through a den with big leather furniture and a large-screen television, an open porch with sleeping dogs-- that made him suck in his breath and freeze in place, but neither of the animals waked. He took extra care sneaking past them. The bedrooms were in the back. He'd scoped the layout hours ago, but even without that he'd have known which one he wanted. The older of the unmarried men, just past teenaged, grumpy and about as cleanly as a teenager; clothes in heaps on the floor, and pockets emptied onto the bureau without any organisation. The best type to rob. Nothing would be noticed missing for a week at least. Duo gathered a pair of dirt-stained denims from the overflowing basket by the closet, found a plaid button-up shirt that didn't smell too bad, and took a white tee from the pile of clean folded laundry at the foot of the bed. Shoes were harder. He was a couple too many sizes smaller than his victim, but if he tripled up on socks, it might not chafe too much. He picked a conservative amount of change out of the money scatter, crumpled bills in low denominations, a good handful of coins. It wouldn't get him much more than a meal and a drink, but it was-- he admitted sourly-- a little more distasteful to rob a man when you were thirty-some and knew better than it had been when he was a tot without other options. He did allow himself to nip the black straw hat hanging inside the closet, reasoning that if it was actually hanging up in a room this sloppy, it was probably not worn very frequently. He used a bit of string from the bureau to tie his hair back, and wrapped a blanket with a distinct odor of horse over his shoulders. He paused just enough to check himself in the little framed mirror, and decided it would do. He looked a bit like a kid playing fancy-dress, but it would get him by for the moment.

The family in the kitchen were down to the wine and conversation as he went out the door again, none the worse for his little visit. He kept out of range of that window as he made for the road, but once he hit the ruts on either side of the cracked pavement, he struck an easy pace and didn't trouble to hide himself. His stolen boots felt like lead weights, and after a day's worth of painful blisters, the scratchy wool of the socks were more like a new form of torture than actual relief, but stealing a ride was out of the question. He reckoned the town was only a few miles up the motorway. He could make it.

He'd ditched his own clothes in various holes and trash heaps by the time he reached the outskirts of the town. Old Chaitén had moved when the volcano first blew, but New Chaitén looked about as he thought the first one had. It wasn't a large place, just groups of buildings on a basic grid, framed by the mountains on the one side and the ocean to the other. That was where he directed himself, an instinctive drive that didn't even register in his tired mind until he was standing on mud, there at the edge of the water. He stood there like an idiot, deaf and dumb and exhausted, staring out at the water. It was calm-- calm and blue, like oceans from far away, from Space. Barely a ripple on the surface, just little waves lipping at his boots. There were birds coasting out there, black spots with wings that dipped here and there on a breeze he couldn't feel.

He didn't move until the last of the sunlight was gone. In the dark, he climbed up the shore, aiming himself at the lights back on the streets. There was some traffic now, past the dinner hour, all of it headed for the same lot. He followed the queue of Jeeps to what looked like the only bar in town-- a big Chilean flag on the pole, and next to it a neon sign advertising what he hoped was food. He got in the door ahead of a group of middle-aged men, stepping quickly into a dim corner. Good peg. The music was loud enough to blow ear drums, and the bar girls all had short skirts and low blouses as they swept through the rowdy, mostly male crowd with trays of shots and cheap beer. No-one would be looking at him in a place like this, and they'd probably be open late. That would give him time to figure out what to do next.

He had to wait for a spot to open at the bar, and slid himself up onto a stool before anyone else noticed it. There was a menu on a chalkboard, up by the television showing some kind of sports event, but he didn't have enough Spanish to read it. Carne was meat, he thought. Sopa. He could probably afford soup with what he'd nipped from the house.

'¿Que quieres beber?'

One of the bar girls, a pretty young thing with soft brown eyes and too much makeup. She had nice hair-- it was a stupid thing to notice, but he did. Thick dark hair, hanging over her bare shoulder in long curls.

'¿Que quieres beber?' she repeated briskly.

It wasn't until the moment he opened his mouth that he realised his disguise would fall apart awfully damn fast if he couldn't speak the god-damn language. And no sooner did he think it than his mind went blank. Just blank. Refusing to produce a single syllable of any language whatsoever.

And that did it. He was tired, he was in pain, damn it, and after everything he'd done in the last twenty four hours and this was the insurmountable challenge, talking to a pretty girl? He slapped a hand over his mouth, but not in time to cover the insane giggle that came bubbling up. He almost choked himself, trying to hold it in, and then he felt the cool bar under his cheek, and wondered when he'd blinded himself, but it was only that he'd closed his eyes.

'Are you all right?'

The girl. Still there, but beside him now, on his side of the bar, feeling his forehead. Her hand was nice, too. Cold as ice.

'Fine,' he managed thickly, just as she was about to repeat herself. Couldn't fall apart like this. Couldn't draw this kind of attention to himself, not now. 'Fine. Thank you.' Clawed his way back upright. 'Just-- need something to eat. Please. I have some money.'

Someone called something over the noise of the crowd. The girl looked, then back at him. She took his money, the stupid handful of coins and the wadded bills, and she clenched fine little fists over them. 'Stay here,' she said finally. 'I bring you something, okay?'

'Thank you. Gracias. Mucho-- mucho gracias. Wait--' Her slim little wrist, child-like little wrist that he wrapped his fingers all the way around, his dirty fingers against her clean brown skin. 'Telephone? Tele-- tele— fono?'

'There.' She pointed toward the johns. 'You need these.' She pressed his change back on him. 'You need help?'

'Just food. Gracias.' His feet hurt. Swollen, and the brief rest just made it more acute when he stood. He limped through the crowd toward the back wall, and ruthlessly cut ahead of an inattentive queue of drunks to take the phone. It was old style-- tiny digital screen, and he had to stumble through a half-dozen connections before he could access the colonial net. It ate all his change, too, for a measly fifteen minutes. He shifted back and forth on his toes as little clicks and quirks buzzed through the atmosphere.

And then the beep that meant he was through. He straightened quickly. 'Pick up,' he urged. 'Pick the fuck up, come on-- pick--'

'Roger Brabant.'

'Doc.' He blocked the screen with his hand as one of the drunks crowded him, shoving with his elbow. 'It's me.'

Brabant's face was almost comical in relief. 'You made it!' he crowed. 'Jesus, I'd really started to think-- damn, it's good to see your face.'

'The others been in contact?' he asked, steeling himself.

And was glad he did. The grin dropped off Brabant's face. 'Not yet,' he hedged. 'There's a lot of excitement at HQ, though. They've called all of us contractors on leave. We're not allowed in the building. Something's happening up there.'

'I'll just bet.'

'Duo. Did you do it?'

That laugh started in him somewhere, deep down, on the edge of hysteria, and then in a deep breath it was gone, leaving him cold. 'Yeah,' he said. 'I did it.'

Brabant nodded slowly. 'Good job,' he said softly. 'I knew you would.'

'Yeah.' He rubbed his mouth. 'Okay. Okay. I need you to do something for me. Keep me on the line. I'm going to tell you how to patch me onto the network, okay. I can't do it from here. When I'm on, I'm going to tell you to dial, and then hang up as soon as you've dialled. Don't try to listen in-- they'll be able to trace your number if you do that. And then just go back to laying low. You and O.'

'Are you going to be all right down there?'

'We'll find out, won't we.' He gave the drunk an extra hard shove, and bought himself some space. 'All right. Here's what you do. Keep me on the line, and open your menu screen.'

The pretty girl set him up on the back steps with a blanket and a bag of hot leftovers, a major kindness he had no way of repaying. He ate every scrap of it and drank down the thermos of strong coffee she'd left him, and wrapped up in his blanket to wait out the cold. It was far more silent at night here than he was used to, absent those city sounds he'd only rarely been without. No honking horns, no cars, no booming stereos or roaming gangs of stupid drunks shouting at each other. Well, no stupid drunks after the bar had been closed an hour. But the ocean, he could hear the ocean out there, a weird windy roar that raised shivers on his neck whenever he started to drift off and the noise crept in on him.

Wouldn't be long before they'd be on him. The government owned most of the bandwidth, and they'd be using all of it on sussing him out, now, if they hadn't already commandeered the public portion. Usually it was a subject that got him riled up, but for once he could wish the Feddies had gone further in reconstructing the satellites while the military had still had the resources to do it. His ancestors in the Rebel movement had taken out most of the grid with a few well-placed EM pulsers, and he'd taken a beam scythe to a few towers, in his own day. What the Feddies had managed to rebuild they'd kept for themselves, and the common folk had just had to get used to analogue again. Those mobile suits, those Serpents and the Tauruses, they'd be operating at peak right now, searching for Athena, searching for him. They knew him, or knew enough about him-- or people who knew enough about him had told enough of that to interested parties-- they'd expect him to be out there making noise, noise they could scan, noise they could translate, noise they could trace. The girl might be good for breakfast, if it took them that long, but if he was looking at another night on the stoop, he might have to come up with something. Run up a white flag. A simple full-wave rectification. They'd have their filterbanks on overdrive. He could bounce a wave off the high band, get their attention. Maybe the girl could hunt him down a dish, or something. Or, hell. Why be complicated. Probably he could just climb on a roof and draw them a message in chalk. He fell asleep in the middle of debating a vee or a giant dick.

He was up and gone by the dawn, down to the water. He stripped while there was just a limn of lavendar light out on the horizon edge, breaking out in gooseflesh. He danced back from the first shock of the freezing water-- he'd thought, hoped it would be warmer-- but made himself dunk under, screaming soundlessly into the foaming waves. The salt water stung in his cuts, his open eyes, his battered feet. He scrubbed himself all over with the sand from the bottom, scrubbed his hair. It wasn't as good as soap, wasn't even a breath like a hot shower, but he felt cleaner for it. He had time to dry a bit in the wind before he heard people coming. He dragged on his stolen clothes, and trudged up the hill. He would have liked to hang around the pier, but a stranger doing something that suspicious would be noticed, and he didn't have the energy for dealing with shouting.

The girl was there, at the bar, waiting for him. She scolded him-- he got the impression she was scolding, anyway, from the frown-- until he called her corazón. Then she went all blushy and fluttery on him, and he thought maybe that didn't mean what he thought it did. But she took him inside and fed him, a plate of toast and yoghurt and green melon. He folded his napkin into an origami rose for her, and that initiated another round of blushing and shy glances. Not enough to stop her from sticking him at the sink to wash dishes, once the regular breakfast crowd started arriving. He dutifully scrubbed and sprayed and hid behind the boxes of canned corn when the boss came walking through. He was almost in a good mood by the end of the rush. The heat from the grills was sweating away all the good of his bath, but he worked at it until he got a laugh out of the sour-faced old cook, and Corazón kept coming back to the kitchen to sneak him treats. He even thought-- let himself think-- it wouldn't really be so bad, if he had this, only this. It wasn't a bad place to be, far away from everything else out there that was coming to get him.

Except eventually the agonist would wear off. Eventually he'd infect them all.

His hands shook so much he dropped a plate. He bounced it off his foot and it rolled harmlessly under the sink. The cook asked a sharp question, and he ignored it. He kept his head down, after that. Eyes on the suds and the cutlery.

They had a break after breakfast, and he finally got to sit. His back was one big ache, but he could feel some kind of liquid, blood or blister pus, seeping in his socks, and that was the bigger problem. He managed a smile for Pretty when she brought him a bucket of potatoes to peel. 'All of 'em?' he asked her.

'All, yes,' she answered flippantly. But when the cook turned his back, she set a milky coffee out of sight by his knee, and dared an actual wink for him.

Impeccable timing, of course. He heard them come in the bar's front door. He'd heard a lot of troops storming in, over the years, and it was unmistakable. A slam, some orders barked out, and confused, frightened voices rapidly shut down. Corazón went wide-eyed and whirled to go. Duo stopped her. Pushed her gently down onto his crate, held her there while the kitchen door went busting open, and uniformed soldiers flooded the tiny space.

'Mr Maxwell.'

'Yeah.' He touched her hair, her pretty dark hair. 'I'm coming. Just don't mess anything up here. No-one here knows anything about me.'

'Please put your hands behind your head, Mr Maxwell.'

He obeyed. Cupped the back of his head, where his braid used to be, and let them take him one arm at a time to cuff him. They patted him down, standing right there in front of the girl, who sat biting her lip so hard she was going to bleed. He gave her back that wink, gave her back that smile, as they pulled him away from her and led him out into the bar. Solemn faces, the unis with their hands on their guns, the boss wisely not making a fuss, glaring at the invaders with the look of a man who remembered too much about the way things had used to be. Duo nodded thanks at him, thanks for just letting it go down quietly. They walked him to the street. Practically a whole battalion of them. No, just a couple dozen, and attracting attention. People coming out of their houses to watch. Old grans standing in the gardens, lace shawls on their shoulders and deep scowls on their faces. The men muttered to each other, a few of them holding clubs and shovels, antsy. And there--

'Jesus,' Duo said. 'One kid with a camera phone and that image will be all around the Sphere.'

'You didn't leave us much choice, Mr Maxwell.' The man turned him about, away from the sight of that ugly Serpent perched right in the freaking street. He was a little dazed by the sight of it, how brazen it was, just brazen-- ugliness, having that machine there in a peaceful street surrounded by people who didn't even have new cars, new clothes. Dazed enough to not realise right away he recognised who was manhandling him. He'd rated himself a general.

'You're on television,' he said.

'So are you, Mr Maxwell, in the last few days.' General What-was-his-name folded his arms, loomed over him, and did some highly effective frowning. Nothing on the cook back in that bar, but it more than conveyed the seriousness of the situation. He asked, 'Where is the Gundam, Mr Maxwell?'

'Funny you should bring that up.' He jerked his chin at the mountains. 'See over there? That big black cloud?'

The General wasn't slow. The frown disappeared. Dawning horror.

'Can we go wherever we're going now? I really want to get off my feet. I had a hot walk down the side of that thing.'

The General swallowed hard. 'Get him out of here,' he told his men. 'And someone go-- go-- look at that volcano.'

'Y'all look real hard now,' Duo added. 'Let me know if anything's floated up yet. Oh, by the way-- I'll only talk to the President. See if you can't do something about that.'


The first room they put him in was about the size of a lift, a few paces in either direction, long enough to lay flat. So that was what he did. His back didn't like it, but it wasn't much acrobatic work to thread his legs through the loop of his cuffed arms, and then he at least had his hands in front of him, where he could use them as a pillow. He passed out with his cheek pressed to a cold metal maglock.

He wasn't there long enough for a full sleep cycle when they woke him, this time men in suits, not unis. He'd been passed off. To who, he wasn't sure, and none of them offered to tell him. They got him standing, no comment on the cuffs, and walked him out of his dimly lit cell into total darkness. He had just enough light to see the men slip on night-vision gear. Clever of them. When they closed the cell door, Duo was blind, and they were the only ones who could see where they were going. Maybe they'd decided he was worth a little extra effort. Maybe they'd just taken him to a black site, those secret prisons that three different presidential administrations had denied existed, had denied still held war prisoners, had denied still conducted trials without defence or jury. Maybe that was what was waiting for him, a trial. The evidence was pretty incontrovertible. Maybe a confession would spare them all the time and they'd let him go back to sleep.

No sight didn't mean no noise, and didn't mean no brain. He heard about seven or eight pairs of feet, two of which departed in a different direction and didn't come back. He counted the turns, left, left, right, and then an actual lift that went up, very slowly, but probably a full four storeys. When it let out, they turned left immediately and walked straight for a good two thousand feet, which argued for the size of the building, and then suddenly they stopped him. A door closed behind him. The one holding his elbow took his wrist, instead, and then the cuffs popped open. He slid his hands out, shaking them automatically, just to remind them they were free now.

'Chair?' he asked.

No answer. Well, fine then. He stood where he was as the men filtered out the way they'd come. He stood alone, in silence, minutes ticking away heartbeat by heartbeat. If they kept at it much longer he was just going to go to sleep again. No point being imprisoned and bored all at once. He scuffed a boot over the floor. Not concrete. Wood. Smooth boards, but it creaked, ever so slightly. He stuck out a hand to his side and the other one in front of him, and walked until he hit a wall. It went up higher than his arm could reach. He sat where he was, put his back to the upright, and closed his eyes.

He was almost asleep when they gave up waiting on him to do anything interesting. He had just a second of warning, the sudden buzz of a bulb receiving a jolt, and the lights came on.

One-room apartment. Well, he hadn't guessed after that. Empty, no furniture, not even a nail-hole on the wall to indicate there ever had been any. Empty kitchenette, faux-marble counters, one walnut-coloured cabinet hanging just slightly open. Not, he noted immediately, inclusive of a toilet, which was going to be a problem eventually. A couple of windows, big windows, taped over with black plastic bags. That was where he went. Just duct tape and the bags, nothing more complicated than that. They hadn't let him keep his stolen clothes, and there was nothing on his jumpsuit or canvas boots that was metal, so there wasn't a way to check if there was a glitzy trap behind the bags. What the hell, though. You didn't cart someone halfway around the globe to let him shock himself to death. He poked a hole in one of the bags near the tape, and just tore it open.

Had to squint. Bright sunlight out there. Bright sunny day, on a bright sunny street, looking out on grass, real grass, a backyard garden, and next to that another building, and he could see the corner of one to the other side. Apartments. As normal a place as could be imagined-- white siding, blue fixtures on the windows. Even a woman walking a dog out to the kerb to do its business.

How was that for something. Black site prison in the middle of a residential neighbourhood? Hiding in plain sight. He could admire the balls that idea had taken.

The windows didn't open, of course, but he tore down the rest of the bags, until the apartment was filled with light. Warmed him, too, though it wasn't terribly cold here, and the jumpsuit was adequately covering him. Made for an adult, really, so he had to keep rolling up the sleeves and legs, but it was almost-- not unpleasant. He used the bags bundled up as a pillow, and reclined in a glowing square of sun right under the window, gazing up at the cloudless sky on the outside.

He got a knock a few seconds before the door opened. He didn't turn, but there was no reason not to be polite, so he roused himself to say, 'Good afternoon, by the looks of things.'


Woman. Footsteps, the click of heels on the wood. She said, 'About half the people brought here stay standing where they're left until they're told to move. The other half always try the door.'

'And?' Bird. He liked birds, he decided. There was something exotic about them, but comforting at the same time. It landed on the eave of the building in his eyeline, domestic little creature pruning its sleek brown wings.

'You seem very calm, Mr Maxwell.'

That was when he was sure who she was. It didn't answer much for where things would go from here, but he'd got his audience with the woman who mattered in this. He'd have his say.

'Practise,' he answered, and sat up. 'And a healthy dose of realism. Two qualities I'd say we have in common, Madam President?'

She'd dressed up for him. Or maybe she was just a stop on the way to some gala or something. Her hair was up, the grey streak looking as silver as the ropes of pearls around her neck. Nice dress, too. Long, red. She looked good in red. Scary.

'Don't suppose you've got a flask tucked away in there?'

Her mouth turned up in a cold smile. 'You've been a very busy young man, Mr Maxwell. Shall we talk about that?'

She got a chair. They brought him a chair, too, which was kind enough, even if his was just a folding chair with a layer of egg crate for cushion, and hers was some kind of fancy banquet thing with scrolling wood and velvet backing. He didn't really need the symbolism on top of the rest of it, but it didn't stop him from sitting.

Une crossed her knees, folded her hands on her lap. 'Where is my Gundam?' she asked outright.

'I can draw you a map. Think someplace on the order of a cold day in Hell, though.'

Just a flicker along her jaw as she clenched it. 'I can build another.'

'Sure. In time. If you get re-elected and you still have the bankroll. How much does it cost to secretly refine Gundamium? It's probably pretty complicated to rearrange the budget for that kind of expenditure, especially if you have to call it tax relief for second-generation goat farmers, or something.'

'Foreign Operations,' she said, straight-faced.

He liked that. He did. 'Foreign Ops,' he repeated, and laughed aloud. 'There's, what, a dozen or so minor nations who aren't a part of the Earth-Sphere? Even L2 is technically on the books. Who the hell counts as foreign anymore?' He wiped his eyes, rubbed his sore neck. 'Look, let's bypass the question-and-answer round. I put the Gundam where you can't get it, and that's a favour I'd like repaid in the following ways. Number one: I want to go back to L1, free and clear. You can let me keep my job or not, but you will continue to employ Chang Wufei, and you will not in any way hinder or punish or, you know, bother him when he gets back on track. That was number two. Number three is an important one, too--'

'Mr Maxwell,' Une interrupted sharply. 'You are not in a position to be making demands.'

'I'm not in a position to breathe unaided, so it doesn't hurt me to try.'

She stood abruptly, shoulders straight, her hand coming down in a fist on the back of her chair. 'I don't think you fully grasp how very out of position you are. No-one beyond this room has any interest in whether you live or die. You can and will disappear without leaving a mark. There will be no news stories, there will be no official inquiries. There will be no last-ditch rescue attempts.'

'No doubt. But you're overlooking my original point. You owe me. And you're going to pay up.'

'Then you're gravely deluded.'

'Quit posturing and think about it for a damn minute. If you tell me you're unaware of the Nine One Five Six, I'll eat my socks.'

She froze in place, just for a nanosecond. Then, slowly, she sat again.

'You didn't even hide the damn thing all that well. They got there too, you know. I'm just the one who got the Gundam. And if they don't see me out and about, if they don't have that proof that you and I colluded and that the Gundam is destroyed, they're going to continue to do very dangerous things to get their hands on it. I'm your message to them. You had me, you let me go. They'll know we talked. They'll know your people asked me questions. And they'll know you're in such a strong position that you could let me walk away, no consequences, that they'll spend the next decade wondering what other aces you have up your sleeve that they don't know about yet. They'll be chasing their own tails until they fall apart over it.'

She watched him while he spoke, chewing on every syllable he aired. She left him in silence for a long minute. Then said, 'I want names.'

'You already know.'

'You give me nothing for this supposed bargin?'

'I already gave you more than you deserve. I got rid of that Gundam before you could start a war with it.' He was the one who stood now, turning to the windows, gripping the frames so hard his hands hurt. 'Because it would have. Maybe the Nine One Five Six. Definitely them. But maybe people who would just be afraid that it's too much power for one person-- a mobile suit army and a Gundam when you've made everyone else give up theirs. The minute you trotted out the Gundam every country with a secret caché would have thrown them at you, and bombs, pulsers, all of it. We've had peace. We earned peace. Even you. Why the hell would you try to fuck that up? Why would you do it?'

'For exactly the reasons you say. Do you know how many countries retained mobile suits? How many petty dictators bought up broken mobile dolls, slowly fixing them all these years, bringing them back to fighting condition?'

'I probably know more than you do about it. I went to jail for it, remember?'

'Then why did you do what you did? Sell them those processors, knowing what would eventually be done with them? Because you knew somewhere out there someone was strong enough to win, if it ever came to a battle. Someone needs to be strong enough, Mr Maxwell. Peace is very well, indeed. But it only happens in mutual agreement. We must agree not to feel greed for another man's land and wealth. We must agree not to feel anger, when another man insults us. We must agree not to aggrandise ourselves at the expense of another. Frankly, there aren't very many men who can agree to those things unless someone stronger makes them.' He heard her behind him, the silk rustle of dress, her shoes. She said, 'You could have handed over the Gundam to the Nine One Five Six. But you didn't.'

'I'm not choosing you over them.'

'Aren't you?'

'I'm choosing a world where there's a balance. I'm choosing a world where strength means more than having the bigger guns.' He faced her, standing near to him, her stern face and furious eyes. 'You deserve each other. But no-one else deserves what you'd do with that Gundam. So you better decide to agree not to be greedy, Madam President.'

A mile-long stare. She smiled, cold as that day in Hell. 'You said you had three conditions. What was number three?'

'Minor thing, really.' He wiped a smudge on the window pane with his thumb. It didn't come off. The bird was gone, flown off somewhere. 'I want you to find me an agonist,' he said.

'A what?'

'An agonist. Don't let me stop you working on a cure, though. And you should probably start producing more vaccines. Just as a side-line, a sort of humanitarian charitable kind of thing.'

She wasn't shocked. So she'd known, or at least guessed, that he was still infected. And that answered for why she was carrying her right arm just a little gingerly. Apparently those vaccinese were on the painful side. But she gave her nod. And that was all he needed.

'You've got places to be,' he said. 'Good luck with that.'

'Someone will be in with food and water.'

'I prefer whiskey.'

'Whiskey,' she said urbanely. 'Blended?'

'Single malt.'

'I'll see what I can do, Mr Maxwell.'

He let her get to the door. Almost let her get through it, but it was still something solid and achey in his gut, needed outlet. He said, 'The Gundam--'

Une turned. 'Yes?'

'You built a beautiful machine, Madam President. She was really something.'

'I'm glad you approve.'

'Maybe you didn't do it for the artistry, but... she was.'

Une hesitated. Then inclined her head stiffly. She didn't say anything else as she left, and they locked him in behind her.

He'd never been in an empty shuttle before. Well, once, the first time he'd left L2-- stowed away on an empty, but it had filled up eventually. He'd never been a paying passenger on a private flight, though, not like this. Relena Peacecraft probably flew like this. He rather liked it. It was restful. Quiet. The hum of atmospheric liftoff occupied him mindlessly at first, but then they were past the barrier, and it was silent except for the flow of air from the overhead dash. He slept, then.

He woke when they took his drink away. His bodyguards-- his jailers-- had retreated to the facing chairs in the back, bent over the little table in a murmured conversation he didn't try to overhear. He was still strapped in, but he'd lost his little cottony pillow, and it floated down by his elbow against the window. He tucked it securely behind his back.

'We're coming in on L1's airspace.' Hirsch, the less grudging of his two guards. He tossed a packet to hover over Duo's lap, and eased into the seat across the aisle from him. 'Probably an hour til dock.'

His papers. Reinstatement to Preventers-- at a higher clearance than he'd had before, and considerably better salary. Indentured servitude. Payoff. To keep him quiet, and he was willing, he supposed, to shake on the terms. He'd have taken less, but it didn't surprise him, Une trying to wrap him up in mutual obligations. A file on preventive quarantine. He didn't read it. Wouldn't be anything he hadn't heard in plenty, the last six months. He had the virus. He'd have it the rest of his life, unless one of Une's scientists managed a cure. No-one knew how long the agonist would last; he'd be giving himself a shot to the hip five times a year for every year he lived. But he was only so much danger to the rest of humanity. Contained and controlled. Maybe the Nine One Five Six would still be searching for a modification, a mutated plague capable of mass populace outbreak. He didn't think so, not really. They'd made their big push, and failed. No-one could keep it up forever. Even Heero Yuy.

'No cash?' he asked eventually. 'Gonna need a cab from the docks.'

'We have a driver waiting. Not taking you straight home, yet.'

'I'm not really up for chit-chat.'

'Oh, well, in that case,' Hirsch said, dead-pan. Duo made a face at him, and closed the dossier.

'My apartment probably turned into a roach motel.' There was nothing to see out his window, not since they'd left atmosphere. L1 would be coming up on the other side of the shuttle, and was already up on the video screen up front, but he wanted a view there at his elbow, something to stare at. 'If the landlord didn't break in to sublet it.'

'Your apartment is fine. Preventers maintained it. Crime scene.'

He almost didn't remember what crime. It had been kind of a long time since he'd been there in his home. 'How's Tran?' he asked suddenly.


He almost pursued it. But Tran led to Wufei. And talking about Wufei led to talking about things he had so far avoided talking about. Hirsch didn't care, except maybe as a curiosity. Hirsch didn't need to know, not from Duo, but probably had as much as they'd pieced together on their end. Hirsch was damn sure high-level. The kind of clearance it took to get into the President's Com Centre, that was what they flattered him with. But they didn't ask him questions. They didn't bother with him, except to make sure he ate, took his shots, and got the hell out of their backyard.

'You got a pet?' Hirsch said idly. 'You like dogs?'

'Dogs. I don't know. No, no pets.'

'I think I might get a dog. Tired of coming home to an empty place.'

'Missus out with her lady friends?'

'Mister,' Hirsch said. 'And yes.'

Duo surprised himself by laughing. 'Get a hobby instead. Dogs chew on your stuff.'

Hirsch clapped him on the shoulder. 'Rest your eyes. We'll get there when we get there.'

There was a delay at the dock, and the three of them floated and fidgeted at the airlock for almost forty minutes before they were finally let off, to be greeted by some not-too-subtly disguised Preventers. Duo spotted five guns before he'd even passed through the lock. They weren't any Preventers he knew, and they weren't wearing the local badges. But they were polite enough, didn't shove him around, and got them into a waiting van without making it look too much like they were being kidnapped. Hirsch put Duo into the seat closest to the door, forcing the Preventers to fill in around them. There was a murmured exchange between his guards and his new posse, though no-one shared the salient points with him, and then they were off.

Uptown. Formal briefing, then? He didn't know, didn't feel the least curious about it. It would be what it would be. He was back on colony, that was what mattered. They hadn't brought him all this way just to shove him down another hole. He didn't quite doze off, but the rock of the vehicle was soothing, and no-one was talking around him now, and his brain wasn't wired, wasn't worried.

Just waiting. They pulled into a parking lot, and just waited. He couldn't see the address of the building ahead. Looked municipal. There was a little bit of lawn, a rock garden, a little tree with a plaque on it. Smattering of cars, civilian cars.

'He's here,' said the driver, and the one in the front passenger got out and opened the door and indicated Duo was to get out. Hirsch came out with him, ever so slightly territorial about it, and Duo grinned at him. The Preventer, hand on the gun he was supposedly concealing beneath his jacket, walked them toward the building. School. Not in session, obviously, with the lot that empty. They walked around the outside, not up the steps to the doors, and there around the corner was an outdoor lunch area, picnic-style trestle tables on a patch of astroturf. And a guy sitting there with an entourage of his own, three jumpy-looking suits who all flinched when they saw him coming.

'Governor,' Duo said. 'Well. I guess I'm being honoured. Congratulations on your re-election.'

Manuel Pisada was a pudgy middle-ager who had the look of a guy realising he was reaching over his pay-grade. But he gave a reasonably calm nod, and even put out his hand for Duo to shake. Duo did, amused by the gesture. Even right after the war he'd never been treated to this kind of celebrity exposure-- Presidents and generals and the elected elite. Relena Peacecraft would be proud of him not making an idiot of himself.

Or not. Because with that business out of the way, the first thing he let out of his mouth was, 'Anybody have a burger or something? I'm really jonesing for beef.'

Pisada blinked at him. But plucked up some mettle and went with it. 'Go find the kid something to eat,' he said, and waved Duo to the table. 'Take a seat. Let's talk.'

Duo sat. Hirsch went somewhere behind him, and the Governor's people all fanned out, establishing a holey sort of perimetre like they might be facing gunfire any minute. Pisada took the other end of his bench, easing down with a little roll of belly and propping his nice loafer on his knee. 'So,' Duo said. 'We're talking. What are we talking about?'

'I have a pretty good idea who you are, Mr Maxwell.' Pisada tapped his fingers on the edge of the table, tap-tap. He didn't have an imposing enough glare, but he didn't seem angry, either, or even concerned like his people. More curious, and undecided. 'You've been living on L1 for about seven years?'

'Give or take,' he allowed cautiously.


'Living quietly? Yeah. I pay my taxes, I keep my head down.'

'I appreciate that fact. They were worried enough at Immigration to vett you, but Preventers insured your visa.'

That was old news. Wufei had lived even more quietly than Duo and didn't have a hefty arrest record to add to his troubles, and Port Authority still hadn't been happy to see him show up. Duo said, 'Living with Gundam Pilots takes some getting used to.'

'Yes,' Pisada agreed, and Duo decided then that he liked the guy. For a politician. 'Honestly, I didn't know what to make of all this. Aside from thinking Preventers don't have a damn clue what to do with you either.'

Ha. Yeah, he liked the guy. 'I'm not interested in making trouble for anyone. If the favour is returned.'

'Whatever the whole story is, it's probably quite the tale.' Pisada gave him a one-over, then sighed. 'But not one I'll ever hear. So. They want me to keep an eye on you. And, you being who you are, I figured that would probably be a little useless, and probably a little confrontational, all told. What do you say we come to some mutually agreeable terms? I don't have the people to spy on you twenty-six hours a day, and I don't see why I can't spare you the necessity of dodging us every time you go to the grocery.'

'In all fairness, I should probably admit that I deserve to be watched. And not just because of what I did; there are people out there who get on and off colony without being noticed.' He licked his lips, and put an offer on the table. 'How about a mobile with a dedicated line? You can contact me, I can contact you. And-- I can check in. Once a month.'

'Twice a month,' Pisada countered. 'Every two weeks. I can live with that.'

'I can live with that.' He could. It wouldn't be thrilling, but maybe it wouldn't be forever, either. They'd get tired of it if nothing ever happened. He hadn't expected to walk out free and unsupervised. 'You really came out here to sell me on self-reporting? You can drop the other shoe.'

'Quarterly evaluations with a psychologist of our choosing,' Pisada admitted reluctantly.

That he did not like. 'Bi-annual,' he countered, grudging even that much. But Pisada took him with a faint air of relief, and offered his hand again. Duo shook briefly, unhappily. 'Don't be shocked if I confess to repressed anger about psychologists,' he muttered. 'I hate being analysed.'

'I can sympathise.' Pisada compressed his lips, then let out a deep breath. 'Thanks for making that easy. For me. I know it can't be easy for you. Whatever you did to piss someone off-- must've been something else.'

'That pretty much describes it,' Duo agreed.

'Maybe someday you can tell me about it.'

He didn't even need Hirsch's quiet deferral behind him. 'Trust me,' he said. 'You really don't want to know.'


He was really hoping for home, now that he'd signed the next ninety years of privacy away, but it wasn't to be. At least this time he recognised where they were going, and it meant he'd be hours at it. Preventers HQ.

'Really?' he asked Hirsch.

'Forms,' Hirsch answered. 'Lots of forms. Don't worry. We'll keep it short.'

'Don't even try to lie to me, boyo. “Short” is not in Preventers vocabulary.'

'At least you had lunch.'

'You're just full of snappy humour today.'

Parked in the small private lot in back, after a surprised talk with the gate guard, who double-checked their authorisation and went into a rigid salute when the driver said something sharp to him. And took the no-parking emergency spot right by the doors, solidly double-parked in it, and the Preventers went spilling out, taking up stance all around, two going inside. Hirsch and his other guard got him out onto the blacktop, and then Hirsch offered him a hand.

'This is as far as we go,' he said. 'You're on your own in there.'

'Not sticking around for sight-seeing?' He shook with both of the men. Odd, how respectable stealing a Gundam could make you. 'Safe flight back.'

'Good luck,' Hirsch said. 'We may see you around from time to time.'

Oh, that was just lovely news. He managed to fake a smile, though, and Hirsch went back into the van with a smirk at him.

It was all back corridors, inside HQ, a cut through the Memorial Hall and an empty rec room, then back into the cells where they interrogated suspects. He hadn't been back here since Pak, ages ago. Minds full of whole forgotten layers of innocence ago, before he'd heard of the Nine One Five Six, before he'd remembered Heero.

'You want anything?' one of the Preventers asked him. 'Tea?'

'Yeah, please. Milk.' They escorted him into one of the AV rooms, at least, not the cells themselves. He puttered over a soundboard, sat on one of the twirly stools and pushed himself back and forth over the rug. Everyone else stayed outside the open door, marionettes stationed silently. How did anyone get anything done in this kind of silence? He couldn't even remember the last time he'd heard music on a radio, watched a television show. That was what he wanted, suddenly and keenly, that was what he wanted more than air. Immersion. A memory wipe, really, just saying fuck everything that had happened and plunge back into everything that didn't matter at all. Buying his own groceries. A fizzy lemon soda. Taking a walk up his street with nothing more to do than put one foot in front of the other at whatever speed he so chose--


He was on his feet like his stool exploded under him. 'Wufei,' he got out, a millisecond or so before Wufei was on him, lifting him right off his toes, whirling him around. Then kissing him, pinning him to the two-way mirror with an echoing thump that joined the thunder of his heartbeat in his ears, kissing him breathless. He wrapped his fists with Wufei's hair, wrapped his arms around Wufei's shoulders, pretended his eyes weren't wet and that he wasn't actually clinging so he wouldn't fall on his trembling legs. He breathed against Wufei's cheek, and refused to let go.

'I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again,' Wufei whispered. He touched their foreheads together. 'You complete and unbelievable asshole.'

'Me asshole?' He gave a shaky laugh. 'What did I do this time?'

'My heart almost stopped when I realised you'd run away from us--' Wufei's voice died, like maybe he was trying but he couldn't get anything else out. He kissed Duo again, hard, deeply.

'I'm okay,' Duo reassured him. 'I'm good. And you're good? You're all right?' No broken bones. Whole limbs, all of them where they should be, no bandages that he could feel under Wufei's shirt. But-- a red scar on his forehead, a big nasty scar all the way up into his hairline, and another one on his neck, down his collar, stark and still stitched with ugly black thread. 'What happened?'

'Duo,' Wufei started. 'I need to tell you...'

'Duo.' From the door. Wufei stepped back, and Duo held himself up against the mirror, everything in his gut dropping into ice.

'Hey, Alicia,' he said.

'Duo.' She nodded uneasily at him. 'I'm really glad to see you again. You have no idea.'

'I think I have a pretty good idea, actually.' Ballsy. He admitted that reluctantly. He'd always liked how she just went for it, when anyone else in their right mind would shut the fuck up. 'Nice new badge.'

She touched it automatically, a blush on her cheeks. But she met his eyes. 'Chief decided to retire. Put in for it a million years ago, actually. Kind of incidental to-- everything else.'

'Sure.' Jesus, Mary, and all the holy relations. There was no way Une didn't have a hand in this, but damned if he knew-- ah. 'Nothing to do with selling out the Nine One Five Six?'

She didn't flinch. The skin around her eyes and mouth went tight, but she didn't back down. 'The Nine One Five Six? There isn't much left of them, anymore. Actually. I was just coming to speak to you about that. Wanted to show you something.'

Wufei put a hand on his shoulder. Warning, maybe. He didn't know. 'Show me what.'

She came in. Neither he or Wufei backed off, but she stepped wide around them, going to the controls. Lifted the lights in the cell on the other side of the mirror.

'Well,' Duo said, dry-mouthed suddenly. 'I didn't expect that.'

'We'll be moving him into protective custody. Probably in Space, but nothing's decided yet.'

'Might be harder to find a look-alike for him.' He couldn't quite swallow. Wufei's hand on his shoulder squeezed. Alicia, behind him, shuffled once, and stood quietly. 'I want to talk to him,' Duo said.

'That's okay,' Alicia replied softly. 'Take your time. Off the record.'

The Preventers outside the door glanced at him and let him by. Not there for him, not now. Interesting. Something to think about later, when he had a working brain again. But they let him through the cell door, and he slipped just inside, let it shut after him, tucked himself against the wall.

Zechs Merquise stood at his entrance. He inclined his head to Duo. 'Maxwell,' he said.

'You're not telling me they actually captured you.' No orange jumpsuit. Maybe they just didn't make them big enough for a man that size. Merquise managed to look regal even in a black leather jacket and plain trousers, his hair pulled back. More regal than Duo, in his borrowed blue jeans and plain white tee.

'Captured,' Merquise said. 'No, not quite.'

'You turned on Heero.'

'Heero turned on us,' Merquise answered, dry as the wind, as dust. 'A very long time ago. And nothing I did was ever going to bring him back.'

'I don't believe you.' No idea why he said that. Just-- he didn't. Even now. 'He needed something to believe in. You could have given him something better.'

'I thought he was my something better.' Merquise's chest moved in a deep inhale, and his shoulders went straight with a visible act of will. 'There's only so much I'm allowed to explain to you. So listen closely. There are others out there. We will always be out there. For now, we have... a setback. But someday something else will happen. There will always be a President building a Gundam.'

'And a jackass with a syringe full of Plague.'

'That was a mistake.'

'I don't think “mistake” really covers the range of that.'

'A failure, then. Heero's and mine. I did what I could.'

'Why not just fight him on it? It was wrong. He wasn't that far gone he couldn't hear the truth.'

'Not from me.' That look. He'd seen that look before, back on L2, when he and Heero had walked out of the bedroom together and he'd thought Merquise was in love and jilted. Years of something dead and smothered in there, locked behind blue glass. 'But he listened to you,' Merquise said. 'You did what I couldn't. You made him remember that-- he's human, too.'

He couldn't say anything to that. His brain fluttered from almost to maybe to might be-- his throat was closed and he couldn't even breathe around the lump there. He nodded.

'The Gundam?' Merquise asked finally.

'She's gone.' He rubbed his nose. 'Permanently.'

'I'm sorry,' Merquise said then. 'For all of it.'

'I don't want apologies. I just want to never have to do it again.' Merquise dropped his eyes; and Duo didn't for one second take that as a promise. Not for one damn second. 'What happened to them?' he asked, 'Heero--'

'Heero made it out. Heero always makes it out.'

Yeah. Yeah, that was a universal truth. Just like how Heero would keep bulling on through, hell or high water, because Heero didn't ever think anything through to the horror on the other side-- it was his foremost characteristic. Character flaw. Fatal for everyone but Heero, because Heero always made it out. Virus. Gundam. Didn't make a damn bit of difference. And still some traitor part of himself was-- just a tiny bit happy to know that. Heero made it out.

'The other two?' he said.

'Presumably they survived the explosion. Preventers haven't seen fit to inform me.'

'Preventers-- explosion?'

Merquise raised his eyebrow, and then his mouth curved in a small nasty smile. 'Keeping secrets still?' he asked the air to his left-- no, the window. The mirror, and on the other side of it, Preventers. 'He'll have to be told sometime.'

'What explosion,' Duo said flatly. 'What explosion, when--'

'The base beneath Parliament,' Merquise told him briskly. 'As a backup to the possibility that Heero wouldn't be able to remove the Gundam. We hadn't planned on you being there, after all. Heero made it back to the tunnels to set off the bombs in the second quadrant. He ordered the rest of us to proceed. First and third blew on the timetable. I took care of fourth right after they sent out the alarm that the Gundam was gone.'

Wufei's scar. He looked at the mirror. He went back into the hall, he wrenched open the door and went back into the hall-- Wufei was there, hands outstretched to catch him, pushing him back to the AV room, Alicia there not looking at them at all, Merquise on the other side of the mirror as if he knew exactly what was going on.

'Where are they?' Duo demanded. 'Where are they, Wufei?'

'Duo, be quiet.'

'Where are they.'

Wufei compressed his lips. The bleak expression on his face was answer enough.

'Both of them.' His gut turned over once, and that was it. Just settled, cold, heavy as a stone against his spine, and refusing any more hurt. 'Where-- when it blew?'

'Solo and McDevitt were ahead of me. I was trapped in rubble for almost twenty-four hours before they found me. I only lasted that long-- we both know why I did, and they didn't.' Wufei let him go, slow at it, waiting on him for signs. 'They stopped excavating not much after that. They wouldn't risk their little project being found.' Wufei angled a look at Alicia, grim and tired. 'It took out half of Parliament House. Five cleaning staff and a secretary staying late. However many were in the base.'

Dozens. Maybe a couple of hundred. Those child pilots. Children. He'd almost been feeling sorry for Merquise. That erased the last of it. Human. Not by very much.

Solo and McDevitt.

'I want to go home,' Duo said. 'Can we do that? Kreinheder.'

'Sure, Duo.' Alicia touched her comm on her shoulder, murmured for a car, no more argument than that. 'Someone will drive you. Your apartment?'

'Yeah.' Wufei would come with him. Wufei had hold of his wrist, was pressing their palms together. 'I want time. I want a couple of days.'

'I can do that.' Alicia wouldn't look him in the eye. 'Call when you're ready to talk again.'


'You actually walked down the side of a live volcano?' Wufei probed the shiny, tender skin of the bottoms of his feet, gentle enough that it only tickled. 'I'd definitely say you don't have to worry about the genetic treatments wearing off. You didn't even blister.'

'I did, something awful. They had a doctor in to look at me, after I talked with Une.'

'I can't believe she met you face to face.' Wufei eased Duo's feet back to the sheet, and settled in beside him again, worming an arm over his middle. It had been like that for almost the entire forty-eight hours since they'd walked out of HQ together-- Wufei in constant contact with him, just worming up against him again and again. He didn't entirely mind it. At all, really. Was glad that Wufei had it in him to forgive so readily, at least once he'd had the bejeezus scared out of him. They'd probably fight about it eventually, but this part was really... restful. Good. Needed.

'Yeah,' Duo answered belatedly. 'Well, she couldn't not. Banked on it. A woman who's done what she has over the years isn't going to take some third-party's notion of the truth without seeing for herself.'

'She could have had you shot,' Wufei muttered into his shoulder. His cheek on Duo's bare shoulder was warm. 'Twenty years ago she would have.'

'Twenty years ago the consequences were Treize Khushrenada's problem, not hers. It was his vision, and she was just the gun.' A little moment of silence from the warm body next to him, in which he remembered that Wufei had been the first one to realise Khushrenada was their real threat, that Wufei had been the one to confront OZ's warlord-in-chief, twice, that Wufei had been the one to kill him. 'Well,' Duo said, 'it's her world now. And she wants it in one coherent piece as much as her mentor ever did. Battered and bruised, okay, but-- she's got her line in the sand.'

'I still think you're luckier than you deserve,' Wufei said. He played with a lock of Duo's hair, twining it slowly between his fingers, a brown blur at the periphery of Duo's vision. 'I'm not sure your arguments about the Nine One Five Six aren't a little bit flimsy.'

'They were. I didn't have a damn idea what I was planning to say. Made it up as I went on.' A chill hit him; he shuddered once, until Wufei squeezed him tighter. 'Still did her a favour,' he said. 'A pretty damn big favour. She could afford to be generous.'

'Stealing the Gundam? A favour?'

'Not because I took it before the Nine One Five Six. I took it before anyone else, everyone else.' He'd had plenty of time to muddle through it, waiting for them to let him out of their private little prison on Earth. 'Think about how easy it was to get in there. There was barely any security.'

'You can't really secure a hidden base in re-purposed metro tunnels.'

'If it had been me in charge of it, do you think we would have made it five feet past the manhole?'

Wufei's fingers in his hair stopped moving. 'It was a set-up?'

'Maybe not quite. But I don't think she was upset to see it go down, either.' He rolled, and Wufei cushioned him down so he could lay his head on Wufei's chest. Wufei's hand cupped his neck, and lips came down on the crown of his hair, pressing tenderly. 'This is what I think. It's 198, 199, and you see the black market for MS parts gaining speed. You buy up what you can, you quietly take the rest-- you call it Preventer raids and then you make a big pile of metal parts in a desert and you blow them up on television, but you hide away the irreplaceables, the Gundamium pieces, the AI processors, the weapons you can't replicate. Then you spend a decade quietly buying up the right ears in Parliament, get your backing lined up with the right investors, the war hawks, the bits and pieces of old Romafeller, the Feds, all of it. You walk into the Presidency with a mandate and you say to those people, there are threats out there, and if we want to be ready, we need an army bigger and faster and better than any other army they can bring. We need mobile suits, but more than that, we need a Gundam. I can make you a Gundam.'

'Then?' Wufei asked quietly.

'But those aren't the only people who've ever thought of a Gundam. Everyone out there who's ever been a threat knows there's the possibility of a Gundam. They're looking for it. They want it. They won't ever stop trying to get it. It's the one equaliser. Whoever has the Gundam can blow you out of Space without even trying. That Gundam-- she was amazing, Wufei. She was the perfection of the breed. The way she could slice the air--' His throat closed on him. Still too raw, thinking of her out there, waiting on him, waiting to see if he could keep that spontaneous promise he'd made, to go back for her. One day.

'Duo,' Wufei said.

'She blew through those Serpents and Tauruses like they were butter. Wouldn't have mattered how many suits Une's managed to build up. If anyone ever gets their hands on that Gundam, Une loses. And if it wasn't the Nine One Five Six it would've been someone else. We didn't steal the ultimate weapon. We stole an expensive liability. The only real vulnerability Une had. Now maybe those Tauruses under Parliament went out in the blast and maybe not, but I'm betting she's got cachés all over the globe, tucked away in every corner of Space. And that is an army no-one else can beat. Even a hundred mobile suits would be unbeatable. Unless you have a Gundam that's impossible to hide and impossible to protect from people willing to do anything to get it.'

'Like start an epidemic,' Wufei began, catching on. His hands tightened on Duo tensely.

'I brought her the Nine One Five Six,' Duo whispered. 'And the Nine One Five Six brought their worst. The virus. The bombing. She saw exactly how far they were willing to go and she got their measure, you can believe that. She's ready for them now. And she's got a very public act of terrorism she can point to when she starts calling for a new piloting programme, expanded army, warrantless wire taps, suspended extradition rights, executive secrets rulings... And everyone who remembers the war is going to be first in queue to vote her right back into office with all the power she needs to turn back the clock on sovereign peace.'

Very slowly, Wufei resumed stroking his hair. A long minute later, Wufei took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh. 'So she could afford to let you go. Us go.'

'She knows where we stand. Not with the people who would let a Gundam come into play.'

'You would do it again. Even knowing it empowers Une, to have the Gundam destroyed.'

Athena would wait for him. One day, maybe he would need her. Until then--

'Yeah,' he said. 'Because the alternative is unthinkable.'

Wufei lifted him by the chin, and kissed him firmly. 'All right, then,' he agreed softly. 'Then we watch and we wait. We stay out of the game.'

'Do you mind?' he started, and wasn't sure exactly what he was going to say about that. 'I-- mean-- I mean, it's fucked up, Alicia-- Kreinheder getting promoted to Chief, and you'll have to work with her, knowing she was one of them, the Nine One Five Six-- we still don't know how many people they bought in Preventers, and anyway there's still the same old problems here, it's just a backwater and you were so tired of it, bored with it--'

'Duo, I think I've had enough excitement these past months to last me a good long while.'

'But you're a Preventer. That's what you signed on to do. You can't pretend you don't want it, the real cases, the big catch.'

'And what about you? I don't think you entirely hated it, not at the end there, in Brussels. You're good at that kind of thing. Maybe the best at it. Will you be bored here, now? We can both do more.'

'Honestly.' He wasn't sure. Right now, right now all he wanted was to never get out of bed. But that would pass. The low would pass, he'd get over-- get used to the hurts. Get bored-- maybe.

He rolled again, planted a pillow behind his head. 'I'll be busy packing for a while.'

'Packing?' Wufei propped himself on an elbow. 'For what.'

'Thinking maybe I should move in with you. If you like.'

'If I like.' Duo risked a peek. Wufei's face was still, but his eyes were a little wider than usual, and his mouth hung just a bit open, on the verge of saying something else, until an edge of tongue slipped out to wet his lips. 'You... don't want me to move in with you?'

'I just figured yours is nicer. And closer to work for you. And--' He swallowed roughly. 'And we can probably talk about that. Whatever you want. I'll do whatever you want.'

'I don't believe that for a single second, Duo.' Wufei leant in to kiss him again. 'But I won't forget you said it.'

He grinned. 'Figures.'

'We don't have to decide this very moment.' Wufei kissed him again, and a third time for good measure, fingers tweaking his chin, and then Wufei slipped out of bed and stretched, joints popping. 'I'll make you breakfast,' he said, and pulled on his boxers and undershirt. 'Egg whites?'

'What the hell. Yolk too. And toast. Two slices.'

'Living dangerously.' Wufei kissed him one final time, with a little nip of teeth, and left him, leaving the bedroom door open a crack as he headed for the kitchen.

Deep breath for himself, then. Hard to keep it light. Hard to believe it was entirely over, yet. His head knew, his gut knew, but no-one had told his nerves yet. His nerves wanted to stay right the hell where they were, snug in bed. But he made himself get up. He left his clothes where they were, walked nude to the bath, and stepped right into the shower. He got a minute of cold water before the pipes warmed up, but it woke him up a little, too, loosened him up and turned the brain away from everything dark that threatened to drag him back down. Wallowing had never done him any good; he didn't really have it in him to just lie around in his own misery. He did, he moved, he jumped for the next cliff-- and there were still plenty of those to get over, doubtless. He'd be better for a good clean scrub and a meal. And Wufei would be better for getting it all figured out, too. Would have to start back at work at some point. Find a spot that looked enough like normal to warrant jumping in.

He emerged ten minutes later with soap in his ears and dressed himself deliberately in 'doing things' clothes, not the sweats and tees he wanted. Denims and his favourite red shirt, a white jean jacket he found at the bottom of the drawer. Maybe he could get Wufei to go out with him. Lunch somewhere, or a movie, a walk around downtown.

'You look nice,' Wufei complimented him when he stepped out. 'Got plans?'

'Maybe.' He snagged a half-slice of toast from the rack Wufei was just setting on the table and nibbled on a dry corner. 'Nothing urgent.'

'Good. Eat. You're getting bony.'

'Says the boy with collarbones I could snap with my thumb.' He touched Wufei's scars. 'Those stitches are ready to come out.'

'They itch like mad.' Wufei ruffled his hair and set a plate of eggs, soggily fried tomatoes, and even sausage in front of him. 'Eat. I'll get dressed. We'll talk about these plans of yours.'

'Yeah.' He hadn't even known he had sausage. The eggs sliced neatly, yolk oozing out for his toast to sop up. Suddenly starved, he munched his way across the plate, wondering when the last time he'd actually been hungry was. It was probably a good sign. No more triazolam, not even a lot of back pain-- he really was getting back to normal.

He was on his feet to answer the buzz at his door before he thought about who, exactly, would be wanting to see him-- who, exactly, would know that he was back on colony. He slowed the last couple of steps to the peephole. 'You better not be Pak,' he called through the door, squinting to see out. 'If you are--'

'Um, no,' was the nervous answer. 'It's Hudson. Hudson Crisler.'

Huh. Surprises weren't quite over, yet. Duo locked his hands on either side of the door frame, wondering if he really had it in him to open the door. But it was too late to pretend he wasn't home. He wiped his mouth, straightened his hair as much as he could without a brush, blew out a breath through his nostrils. Unlatched the door, and swung it wide on a face he hadn't been planning on revisiting.

'Hey,' he said. 'Long time no see.'

'Hi, Duo.' Hudson shifted back and forth on his feet, his fists shoved deep in his pockets like a schoolkid caught in the cookie jar. Still cute, Duo thought with a pang, watching a blush go blooming on Hudson's face the longer he stood there. 'Um,' Hudson said. 'I-- I hope it's not too early.'

'It's noon,' Duo observed. 'So I guess not.'

'Good. I-- that's good, that I'm not interrupting. Or-- I--'

'Look,' Duo said. 'Let's start with who told you I'm here.'

'No-one.' Hudson went all wide eyes and sincere-- apparently sincere embarrassment. 'I come by every couple of days,' he admitted in a mumble. 'Usually it's Preventers who answer. But there weren't any of their cars in the lot, and...'

'You come by every couple of days?'

'Well, not always, but-- mostly.'

'That's a long drive.'

'I take the subway and walk it. Duo-- Duo, please let me in. Or at least, please-- let me stand in the hall and just tell you I'm sorry?'

'Sorry for what. Getting close to me to spy on me, or telling scary strangers all my secrets?' He needed another breath after that, stared hard at the wall over Hudson's head. 'Did they pay you?' he asked finally.

'Yes,' Hudson said, little voice, and staring down at his shoes, when Duo looked at him again. 'Enough for the lawsuit over Matchette's papers, and to hire staff for the Historical Society. I'd never even seen a cheque that big. It was stupid and wrong and morally-- pretty morally bankrupt. And worse, you actually trusted me.'

'I did,' he echoed, because he couldn't resist that urge to hurt back, but it faded quickly enough. Hudson's betrayal wasn't any worse than McDevitt's had been, not really, and he'd forgiven that. He'd forgiven Hudson without even thinking about. 'You hate yourself for it?' he said.

'Yes,' Hudson managed, his shoulders hunched, his head down like he had the weight of the entire colony on it. 'I told myself they weren't out to hurt you.'

'Then I guess you learned from it.' He stuck out his hand. 'I guess we're even, anyway. Sorry for the whole-- the whole thing with your boyfriend and the bar and all that. That wasn't really about you, but it was a bastard thing to do to you anyway.'

Hudson took his hand tentatively, squeezed him so carefully he barely felt it. 'I don't have a boyfriend any more,' he said.

Duo found a laugh for that. 'You're smarter than I thought, then. That guy was a slag.'


'Duo.' Wufei touched Duo's shoulder, nudged the door wider. Stopped when he saw who was standing there, blushing again and making gormless noises about getting out of their hair.

'Hudson,' Duo said, ignoring that. 'This is Wufei.'

'Wufei.' Hudson stopped canting off to an angle, settled back onto both feet. 'Chang Wufei?' he added, eyes meeting Duo's at last.

He's almost forgot about that, so lost in all the rest of what had happened. 'In the flesh,' he said.

Hudson nodded once. Gathered himself up with some dignity, just a bit of what might be poise when he finished growing up, and put out his own hand, this time, to Wufei. 'It's a pleasure to meet you,' he said. 'You must be that friend Duo's always talking about.'

Wufei slanted a glance at Duo. He shook Hudson's hand. 'I must be,' he agreed. 'We're just having a late breakfast. Why don't you join us?'

'I should get going. I--'

'No, stay,' Duo said. 'Come on. I won't bite, this time. Here, let me take your bag.'

'Actually, it's for you.' Hudson stepped over the threshold like he might just survive it after all, pushed his backpack out at Duo. 'Your apartment looks great,' he said. 'The Preventers had a big cleaning crew in here last week. I guess when they heard you were coming back, from wherever you were?'

Wufei warned him off with a totally unnecessary glance. No way was Duo going to get into that. 'Still smells like lemon,' he said, and opened the bag. 'You want tea or juice or something?'

'Tea would be great.'

'These are--'

'Everything I have on Maxwell Church.' Hudson took the chair at the table Wufei pointed him at, but Duo didn't sit until Wufei took him by the shoulders and waddled him back to his chair. Hudson fidgeted with his place mat, lining it up with the edge of the table. 'Plus some research I've been doing. It's the research that's new, if you want to look at that.'

About a square foot of paper and plastic in there, microform reels, and a handful of thumb drives with digital. Wufei brought him his laptop before he even thought to ask for it. Duo stuck the first drive in, with a moment's caution of only letting it access his safety mode, but he could tell as soon as he opened the file folder that it was clean. It was names, a couple hundred names. 'What is this?' he asked, scrolling down. He didn't recognise any of them-- oh. Jesus.

'Every child I've been able to track from the controlled-release programme,' Hudson was saying. 'Everyone on that list was given the Collins-Moreno virus. I have another list of the ones given placebo treatments, but that one's the important one. I'm trying to find final disposition on their cases. If any of them are alive--'

'We could find them and tell them the truth.'

None of them moved for a minute. Every shred of calm Duo had managed to gather in the last two days vanished, but he wasn't sure if the giddy rush that swept him was happy or terrified. The truth. The truth was too big, epic, and--

'Would you be allowed?' Wufei said finally. 'Even if you could identify anyone. They'd be on L2. The sanctions and-- recent events--'

That took all the air out of him. 'You're right. There's no way in hell they'd let us put this out there. Can you imagine the panic? And the Fangers would want to get involved-- there's no way.'

'So there's nothing we can do?' Hudson took it even harder than he did, slumping in his chair, looking utterly crushed. 'All those people,' he said. 'I thought if there was any damn good going to come out of this...'

'Maybe.' Duo caught his lower lip between his teeth, not sure yet if that germ of an idea was completely nutty or just unrealistically naïve. 'Maybe not all these people. But maybe, maybe we can at least-- identify is the word. Identify the ones who never had a choice, never had a name. There could still be some of them alive. If both me and Solo--' That was a little rise of something sore and lost, and he gritted his teeth until he could get around it. 'If he and I both survived, maybe some of the others did too. There were eleven of us by the time we started going to Casey Pope for the jabs. Maybe we could find them with these papers.'

'Duo,' Wufei tried softly. 'The odds of any of them still alive on L2-- I just don't want you to get your hopes up.'

'I know it's a long shot. I know it's-- almost certain none of them are alive. But I have to try. With this right in front of me, I can't not try. Even if all I ever learn about them is their names, that they existed. That kind of justice is all you can hope for on L2.'

'I'll help you,' Hudson promised. 'However I can.'

Wufei surrendered with a solemn little smile. 'So will I. If there's any justice to come out of all this, we have to try.'

'Thank you. Both of you.' All those names. Not much of a chance, and he knew how hard it could be to wring anything out of the records, when it came to people who never officially existed, but just the idea of it was enough. They had a chance to make something right.

Wufei kissed the top of his head. 'You said tea?' he asked Hudson urbanely. 'I think we have a lot to talk about, and I'd like some caffeine in front of me.'

'Guys.' Duo tapped his way through the file map, sucking on his lower lip as he counted a mental estimate of the work ahead of him. 'I think I know a way to speed this up. Can you get me the phone, Wufei?'

'Who are you calling?'

'I know a guy who does great things with old memories,' he said.


Brabant held the door for their little troupe, his eyes bright with a not-entirely-well-meaning amusement that put Duo on edge immediately. 'What,' he began suspiciously.

'Oh, nothing,' Brabant replied easily. 'Just that we weren't due to talk until next week, is all.'

'What do you mean, not due to talk--'

'Wednesday at half-ten, I believe.'

'Wednesday—' Duo sighed heavily. 'Are you serious? You're Pisada's pet psychologist?'

'I do have a degree,' Brabant reminded him, before he broke out in a vicious little grin. 'I'm thinking of writing a book on you. What do you think of “Off The Cuff: A Study In Tripping Over Yourself”?'

'Brabant,' Wufei scolded. 'Behave.'

'I've saved up quite a lot to say to you.' Brabant walked them to his den, and set a tea tray onto the table for them. 'O is on his way, just so you know. I figured you'd want him here too. He might be able to contribute what he knows about Resistance activity from that time period. And he deserves to hear how it all turned out.'

'Aren't you just full of good ideas.' Duo lingered on his feet, letting Wufei take care of Hudson, who was starting to seem overwhelmed by what he'd got himself into. Brabant joined him by the kitchen bar, reached over his head to take down a bottle of wine. 'You're really Pisada's guy?'

'I figured you'd rather it be me than a total stranger.' Brabant corkscrewed the bottle, looking down at Duo more soberly now. 'I still work with Preventers, and as far as anyone knows officially, you and I have only had one contact, from the first time Agent Chang brought you in to my office. Besides. You might actually benefit from it, you know. If you trust me enough to let anything out.'

'And I still owe you that publicity you never got. So much for making big money off me.'

'Guess I'll have to find another get-rich scam.'

'If you come up with a better title, you can go with the book idea.' Brabant offered him a glass of white wine. Duo sniffed it, pleased by the dry, aromatic tingle of it, and sipped. 'I don't care if you do write one. You have my permission or copyright or whatever the hell's involved.'

That earned him a blank expression of shock. 'You're not kidding about that. Why? You're not someone with a burning need for celebrity.'

Maybe a little need to flip the vee one last time at Une and the Nine One Five Six. 'Tell the truth and I don't care what you write about. It's just time for there to be more sides to the story out there. People should know.' He sipped the wine again, as Wufei looked up from pouring tea for Hudson and raised eyebrows at their murmured conversation. 'It'll be controversial. Television spots. Tours. Reprints. Enjoy it.'

Brabant wanted it. He didn't need to confirm it, didn't do anything but give Brabant a moment to work past whatever promptings of conscience he might have buried in there-- deep in there-- until Brabant said, well restrained, 'Maybe that's something we should talk about later. When you've thought about it more.'

'Ask me whenever you're ready.' The wine was good. No whiskey, in terms of a quick high, but it was relaxing him anyway, and he was going to need that for what they had planned. 'No-one's acted like they suspect you were involved?'

'Not a peep.' Brabant poured a glass for himself and let the bottle rest on the bar. 'I'm sorry about Agent McDevitt and your friend Solo,' he said then. 'Chang told me what happened.'


'It's okay to unclench and actually grieve.'

'It's actually really not.' He took a big swallow of the wine. 'We can save this for Wednesday at half-ten. This is about something else.'

'About that. What is it you think I can do for you?'

'Same as before. I need to remember. I knew these kids-- I knew things about them that maybe could help us identify them based off what Hudson's found. He's got basic descriptors in the files, height and weight and eye colour, names and aliases. We could identify the kids at Maxwell Church, the ones who were taken away before the Feds blew it up. We could maybe even find the kids from Solo's gang. You wiggle your fingers at me and make me remember it.'

Brabant dripped more wine into his glass. 'Let's be excruciatingly honest about how this works,' he said seriously. 'Hypnotism helps, Duo, but it's not magic. The clarity of what you remember under hypnosis-- what you specifically were able to get out of it-- that's way beyond the capabilities I have. It's all you.'

That had to hurt to give up. 'What do you mean, it's all me? You weren't doing anything?'

'Putting you into a deeply relaxed state, that's what I did. Walking you through the process, that's me. But retrieved memories just aren't that clear usually. Especially under the influence of a drug like triazolam. There's no way a normal patient would have been able to remember as much as you did.'

'It could be the genetic resequencing.' Wufei, inserting himself, evidently having decided they'd whispered long enough without him. He took Duo's glass away with a disappointed cluck at him. 'You know you shouldn't be drinking yet.'

'I'm a real grown up, you know. I can decide that for myself.' But he let it go with just an eyeroll. Wufei, at least, was back to normal. 'Okay. So-- so what does it even matter? If it's you with the magic chanting or me with the magic DNA. Either way, it gets us to the truth, right?'

'It might and it might not. Recovered childhood memories are-- you want to talk controversial, and that's a pretty big pit to fall into,' Brabant said. 'There's no real scientific proof that repressed memories are even verifiably real-- it's not even legal to use uncorroborated witness statements from repressed memories in court. It is possible to just forget things, to lose the details. There's no strongbox in there under lock that we can access if we just have the right combination.'

'He still wants to try,' Wufei said, putting his hand on Duo's shoulder. 'It's important.'

Except for that pinprick of sudden doubt. What did he really remember? He hadn't remembered enough about Father Maxwell and Sister Helen to know the truth about them. Hadn't remembered enough about the church to know the truth about the immunity experiment. 'But I did remember Casey Pope, when Hudson showed me the papers,' he said. 'If I can remember her, maybe I can remember more. If you just-- jog me. Get me started. I do want to try. It's the only thing left for me to try.'

Brabant finished his wine and set the glass aside. 'Then we'll do it. Just be open to the notion that it will take time and we might not get everything you want.'

'I can do that. You got the files ready, Hudson?'

'Right here.' Hudson was just finishing the laptop setup. He smiled tentatively at Duo. 'Ready for you.'

'And what exactly are you going to do with whatever you learn?' Brabant asked him. 'Now's not the best time for you to make an illegal dash for L2.'

'I don't think I'll have to. I think they'll give me a visa. They've got reasons to keep me happy and occupied, right now.' He could get a visa out of Alicia or Pisada or even Une, if he had to-- any and all of them would just be glad he was distracted with something that wasn't the Nine One Five Six, wasn't Gundams, wasn't their secret ugly business. If they wanted to keep him out of trouble, they'd contribute to his choice of quiet activity. 'Doorbell,' he said, echoing the little dink of chimes that announced their final arrival. 'You gonna get that?'

'I will,' Wufei said, and went off to let O in.

'I want you to think about your earliest memories. You're with other children. You're all together, without a home, but you have each other. Can you see them?'

He had the cardboard to sleep on tonight, because he had scraped both knees down to the bone almost getting away from the off-license owner with the shotgun. Solo said he was brave and fast and Solo took his back, big and strong at his back and proud of him.

'Who's with you? Who else is there?'

Lissie. She still cried at night. She remembered her daddy, a little less every day.

'I have eleven Elizabeths,' he heard Hudson saying. 'Looks like four other variations-- Lisbet, Alyssia, Eilis, Ermissa.'

'Are any of those familiar, Duo?'

Lissie. Just Lissie. She had freckles on her nose, plastic barrettes in her hair. Solo brushed her hair for her, like he brushed everyone else, merciless on the tangles and shaving you in a second if you got the head bugs.

'What colour hair does she have?'

Yellow like the flood lights. Blue eyes, always puffy and red. But she didn't stay with them. Solo let them take her, said the pretty little girls got good homes.

'When did the state take her? Before or after you started seeing the social workers giving out shots?'

Not sure. No. After. Lissie didn't like the jabs. She cried all night. A policeman heard her and Solo got into a yell with him, swore up and down that Lissie was his and they couldn't take her away. But the next day Solo was grim and angry at all of them, and he left with Lissie but didn't come back with her.

'That eliminates maybe nine... Elisabeth Myers, Elizabeth Gohrs, Alyssia Sheasby?'

Nothing else. She wasn't with them long.

'All right. Who else is there?'

Cycle. He liked Cycle. Cycle was almost as old as Solo. Cycle had been in a group home once and he'd seen lots of television shows. He told them about one episode a night. Eventually he'd start to repeat himself, but he'd just change the endings and then it was all new again. Cycle only had one eye and a big empty pucker where the other one should have been. He was good at begging because he looked like that. Solo sent him out with the youngest ones, Tonio and DaLayne and Kriggie, who was just starting to walk and didn't have a tooth in his head yet. Cycle brought in most of the spendable cash. Cycle died early.

'Missing an eye. That's got to be Alvaro Penza. Parents were detained. No mention of what happened to their children.'

'The children were always separated.' O's gravelly voice, perked with interest suddenly. 'From the parents, from each other. Check the juvenile jails and halfway houses.'

'Here's a hit,' Hudson said a moment later. 'Rehab clinic that placed fifteen kids. Alvaro ran away when he was nine. It looks like he has a sister-- the sister went to an orphanage. She's still alive on L2. Carla Rullo. Parents died in detention. Tonio-- I need more on that. Antony, Antonio, Antuan, Antanee-- approximate age range three to seven-- I've got more than twenty names. Maybe a third of them outlived the Plague, we'll need to narrow that down. Was the girl black, white, hispanic?'

DaLayne. Braids. Solo did her braids, every down-run. Hated doing her braids almost as much as she hated having it done, but afterwards she'd hug him, and he'd maybe not quite smile and tell her she was good.

'DaLayne-- she didn't survive. The baby's name is Kriggie? The baby-- yeah. Casey Pope's records mention an infant. She didn't have any information on him. One of the last times she saw Duo's gang, the oldest boy-- Solo-- gave her the baby. She passed him on to one of the Federation programmes, but eventually adopted him herself. As of the Census of 207, he was Thaddeus Pope, living on the inner L2 hub.'

Lips on his forehead. Wufei. 'Duo,' he whispered, 'you were right. I think I'll go call Chief Kreinheder, shall I? Let's get you that visa.'

'Stop tapping,' Wufei said. 'You're driving me up the wall.'

'Go find a different wall to drive on.' He kicked at the panel by his knee. 'Did we run out of fizzy?'

'Yes, same as last time you asked.' Wufei huffed. 'Why are you nervous? We'll meet the delegation first. We won't even be allowed to wander around on our own. They'll be running down current names and addresses, not us.'

'They're not a “delegation”, they're Fangers with guns and they won't be happy to see us.'

'You were the one who insisted on going through channels.' Wufei reached out fast and flattened Duo's hand to the arm of his chair. 'Please stop tapping.'

He ignored that, and jiggled his knee instead. 'We're going through channels because the Fangers live to make things difficult. I didn't want to spend my time bowing and scraping and still walking away with nothing.' His stomach was not happy. He should have stopped after three fizzies. Even in the smaller Space-ready straw-packs, the carbonation hadn't done him any good. 'That's probably still what's going to happen. They're going to think we're just showing them up, or something. Trying to make it look like they can't find these people on their own.'

'Well, they couldn't. Without Hudson's records and Brabant to help you recover what you knew about them.'

'Yeah.' He kicked the panel again. Up ahead, their pilot sent him a nasty look, and he subsided. He didn't like the little hoppers Preventers used for inter-colony travel. They were little ladybug-shaped tumblers, big enough for six passengers, and even with half of it empty, it was still claustrophobic. Wufei had been staring at the viewscreen for the last couple of hours, no distraction at all.

'About Hudson,' he said.

'Hm?' Wufei tilted his head. 'What about him?'

'You don't mind? Me hanging out with him.'

'Should I?'

'Given what happened with him. Before.'

Wufei curled one side of his mouth in a smile. 'That was before,' he said. 'And I believe your little friend is very well aware of that fact.'

'You cocky jerk.' But it had him smiling too. 'I thought you didn't get jealous.'

'I don't have to. You and I know where we stand.' Wufei tucked a lock of Duo's hair behind his ear, gave him a little tug on his lobe. 'It doesn't particularly bother me that Hudson knows it, too.'

'I heard O invite you out on one of his star-gazing trips.'

'Yes. We're... going to try. There was a time when we followed the same cause. The cause is gone, and with it most of what bound us, but-- he's still the only link I have left to my home. And he's an old man now. I would rather have him near me for the time he has left.'

Not a very nice old man. And Wufei was no slouch. They'd have some fire-cracker fights, he'd put money on that. And made a note to stay far away when they got going.

'We just got pinged,' the pilot reported. 'We're nearing dock. They're waiting for us.'

'With a militia's worth of weaponry.'

'Hush,' Wufei said. 'We'll deal with it if it happens. Be patient.'

'Be patient,' he aped sarcastically, but only in a mutter. He drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair.

It took even longer than docking at L1 had, just a month ago. Then, he'd been willing to wait it out. Now it was agony. He just wanted access to their citizen databases. Everything anyone outside of L2 knew about the colony was seven years old, dated to the first day the sanctions came down and shredded the network. Addresses, death certificates, contact was all seven years unknown. He had a scant handful of names to search for: five out of the church and the gang combined, five he was sure enough of to try, and an agreement with the Fangers of seven days to accomplish it. If it wasn't enough time, coming back for a second round was going to be a hell of a lot harder.

'Here we go,' the pilot said. 'Finally. Go on, Mr Maxwell, Agent Chang. I'm behind you.' He reached around Duo, and yanked up the hatch.

Duo was down the ladder before Wufei could grab him by the elbow. There were the Fangers, just as he'd expected; he flapped his visa at the first one in queue, and got waved onto the tarmac by a drawn pistol. There-- one who looked like a leader, wearing an actual uniform, a kickback straight to the war, hunter green double-breasted, white and gold on the cuffs. No stupid ascot, though. Hard to take anyone in an ascot seriously--

'Oh, my god,' he said faintly.

Wufei caught him up as he slowed, and finally got him by the biceps, yanking him into place. He felt the exact moment Wufei saw what he had, because Wufei's grip on him went hard and painful, a shock up his arm. 'Tell me you didn't know about this,' Wufei hissed against his ear.

'How could I?' he retorted tightly. 'I was out of the tunnels before the explosion. I didn't know anything that happened back there!'

'Anyone going to say hello?'

He tugged his arm free of Wufei's hand. Took five steps that felt like five miles. 'Hello,' he said.

Solo grinned down at him. 'Long time no see, Kiddo.'

'Something like that.' He breathed in. And then socked Solo in the gut with his fist. 'You fuck-off! I thought you were dead again!'

Solo doubled over on him with a cough, grabbed him by the shoulder to keep from falling. All around them Fangers were whipping out their weapons and he heard Wufei shout at everyone to stay calm, but he couldn't stop himself from giving Solo another shove. Solo gasped out a laugh, and wrenched him near enough to kiss him on the neck.

'I'm okay, Kiddo.'

'Bastard.' He was shaking. 'I believed you were gone.'

'You had to. Everyone had to.' Solo ruffled his hair, gently now. 'Better no-one knows about certain things, certain people, you know?'

'Where's McDevitt?' he demanded, suddenly very certain indeed.

Wufei had gone past them. Wufei had already found McDevitt, an abashed, ridiculous grin on his face, doing an aw-shucks shuffle. If Duo had been close enough, he would've socked the kid, too. But Solo's arm had settled over his shoulders, and Wufei was already reading McDevitt the riot act, so he just raised his voice and called, 'Hey, Brett.'

'Hey, Duo.' McDevitt offered a jerk of his chin in greeting. 'Glad you made it.'

'Same.' He may have felt the stirrings of a grin of his own, and bit the inside of his cheek until he could control it. 'How you like L2?'

'Sucks, man.' McDevitt surprised him, then, shoulders straight, not so embarrassed of himself after all-- looking older and more aware of himself than he had since-- since he'd held a gun on Duo knowing it was wrong and having to do it anyway. 'But maybe I can do something good here,' he said.

'As a Fanger? Not fucking likely.' He'd forgot, for a second there, just who had them surrounded; forgot, too, that Solo was some kind of affiliated with that. But hell. He didn't kow-tow to anyone, and never had. 'You can do better with your life than waste it, Brett.'

'Not a Fanger, Kid, jeezus almighty.' Solo squeezed him. 'You're a judgmental little thing. How about we talk this all over inside? Standing around at the docks just makes you a target, and I'm getting itchy between the shoulderblades.'

The Fangers had them in the empty Embassy, which was either some kind of joke or someone's ridiculous idea of playing diplomacy. There was nothing official about their visit, and both sides had been at real pains to stress that Duo was on colony for no other purpose than academic research, end of story. Then again, there'd been maybe a dozen legal visits in seven years, and meanwhile L2 was rationing necessary supplies. Something had to give someday; someday, he'd always imagined, his people would get tired of being dictated to. The problem with L2 was it was almost tradition to be dictated to by someone, Feds, OZ, whoever. The Fangers at least let people go about their business for the most part. But someday there'd be some kind of messy incident, people would get angry, and the Fangers would find themselves facing the airlock.

Or, hell; maybe now Une had Parliamentary dispensation for all those mobile suits, she could afford to get tough on L2. Ratchet up the sanctions. Stop food shipments. Offer discreet backing to one of L2's ex-politicos in exile. Or maybe just invade for the safety of all those innocents on L2 who hadn't bothered to decide for themselves in the last decade.

He grabbed the first couch he saw and sat hard while that vision took the breath right out of his lungs.

'Hey.' McDevitt. Holding a ceramic mug with the Embassy seal on it, steam coming out the top. 'You still not feeling great?'

'Thanks.' Wufei was down the hall, he could hear him, and Solo was still in the foyer with the Fangers. 'Sit,' he said. 'Tell me what happened, while it's just us. No bull, Brett.'

McDevitt eased down next to him. Not in a Fanger's uni, there was something to be said for that. His jeans had holes in the knees, but his boots were Preventers issue, and the holster at his hip was Preventers, too. 'You should've kept the jacket,' Duo told him absently. 'I worked hard on that design. The lining zips out, too.'

'That I actually knew.' McDevitt turned back the layers of jacket and hoodie and cotton shirt he wore. 'Aluminium and gold thread, right? I've got the vest, too, still.'

Just nothing that outwardly identified him for a kill-shot. 'So what happened? Start with Brussels.'

'After you ran off. Solo seemed to be expecting it. Chang was going after you, but Solo said this was how it had to be, that you'd take care of it, and it was our job to go find the Nine One Five Six. Said they'd be there, had to be there, this could be our one chance to take them out when they would all be in one place. Chang went off on how he knew it, knew this was all about a vendetta, was there really even a Gundam at all or was this just between Solo and the Nine One Five Six? Solo says fine, he'll do it himself, and he takes off--' McDevitt twisted the string from his hoodie around his fingers. He had dirt under his nails now. A streak of old sweat by the hairline. L2 took getting used to, Duo thought with some sympathy suddenly. Maybe they could offer the Embassy showers.

'You find any of 'em?' he asked.

'One. A girl. She was right at the lip of that big drop, where they'd dug out for the base. Solo said a lot of stuff to her about it was over now, and stuff about Merquise, but she just flipped her shit. Said Merquise would never betray them. She even started to radio him, but then this order comes through-- go on time. That's what it was. I remember it exactly. Solo says he'll mow her down if she even tries it, but she had the trigger in her hand. I think she was supposed to be further away from the bomb-- we were all too close. I've never heard anything that loud. That kind of fire-power...'

'How'd you make it out? Wufei said the whole place came down.'

'Did. The girl had a little off-tunnel, reinforced. Chang was too far back from us, didn't get to it in time. We did, though, us and the girl. She ran immediately. Solo went after her, but I was trying to hear Chang. He wasn't answering. Thought he was dead, at first. Thought you must be, too. Then Solo comes back and says if we're going to go, we got to now. He was right. So I went.'

'Solo usually is right.' He drank his tea. Not bad, though it had the old recycled L2 water taste he always managed to forget as soon as he was beyond the borders. 'Then what?'

'Back to the hotel. Watching the news. No-one knew what was going on at first, they thought it was a gas main and then they thought a bomb inside Parliament, and then someone reported seeing a bunch of mobile suits on the edge of the city. No confirmation on that, but everyone went into a panic. The President shut down the whole city. Solo said we had to go. I wanted to wait until we knew about Chang-- figured because he's a Preventer, even AWOL, they'd make noise about finding him-- but Solo said once the President was involved it was over. So we bugged out there.'

'You did the right thing. Even leaving Wufei. Nothing good would've come out of trying to stay for him.' The intellectual argument. Not the moral one. Morally, he could picture it with real clarity, Wufei trapped under the weight of the entire Parliament, only breathing because their damn bodies did not give that up, no matter what they'd just suffered. 'The reason they let Wufei go,' he said, 'they let him go because at the end of the day he went AWOL for me. Everything else aside, once they'd come to an arrangement with me, Wufei stopped being dangerous to them. You, though-- you made a deal with the Nine One Five Six. I don't know what they'd have done with you. Maybe nothing. Maybe just bought you off the way they did Kreinheder, Merquise, Hudson-- I guess Une figures if you could be bought once you'll be bought again by the highest bidder.'

'They go deeper than that, the Nine One Five Six,' McDevitt said seriously. 'In Preventers, on L1. They've got people everywhere, Duo. Maybe most of them are people who just incidentally did something to help, but it's a big damn network and nothing that happened on Earth changed that.'

'The one place they're not is L2.' Solo, in the doorway now of their sitting room, Wufei at his side looking like he'd heard a very long, unpleasant story. 'And I mean to keep it that way. And I mean to bring the action onto their turf and start taking back ground.'

'Exactly who are they?' Duo asked directly. 'What does Nine One Five Six mean?'

'The number of civilians killed during the war,' Wufei answered, clipped little tone that expressed how flat stupid he thought it was. 'Friendly fire, collateral damage, deliberate murder, and seventy-nine executions in the colonies.'

'Nine One-- nine thousand one hundred fifty six.' That required a complete mindshift. Not designations, not code names, not anything but a-- reminder. A self-righteous made-up, arbitrary statistic of a reminder. 'They started this as vengeance?'

'I don't know and I don't care.' Solo moved a willow-backed chair to face them, dropped his dirty long body onto the prim silk cushions. 'What I know is this. They aren't finished. This is a setback. They've had setbacks before. They'll come back from it.'

'Merquise.' What had he said? There are others out there. We will always be out there. For now, we have a setback. But someday something else will happen. There will always be a President building a Gundam.

'Just because Merquise pussied out on this one doesn't mean he'll say no to the next,' Solo told them flatly. 'So I say, I can use a kid like McDevitt. I say, I can use an ally like Duo Maxwell, an ally like Chang Wufei. Like your Doc on L1, like that old man who knows how to make Gundams. I say, we lay low, we watch. And when the time comes, we be ready to move.'

No-one spoke right away. Wufei was waiting on him, looking at him-- but the fact that Wufei hadn't immediately told Solo to fuck himself off said something on its own. Wufei had no problem saying no. But Wufei was waiting for him to decide.

Waiting on him to decide.

'Oh, hell,' Duo said.

End, for now.

Fiction : GW :

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