Pairings: 3x2, 6x2, 1+2, 3+4, 4+R
Rating: R/NC17 in parts
Notes: This is the first part of the 'Heero' section.
'You're making a mistake,' Heero said.
'Okay.' Duo swigged his beer and put it down very precisely in the ring of condensation it had already marked on their table. 'I didn't tell you so you could go all grim pronouncement on me.'
'I don't know why you did tell me. You're not usually an idiot. It warrants pointing out.'
'Heero—' Duo sucked air into his cheeks, and blew it out slowly. 'All right. All right. Here's how we proceed. I appreciate the sentiment and I know it comes out of friendship, but this is my life. The end.'
'Your life to screw up.'
'Do I tell you how to live?'
'No, damn it.' Heero lifted his own beer, swallowing steadily, knowing already it wouldn't help. He metabolised it too quickly. Even if he didn't, he'd need far more than one light beer to erase tonight. He pushed the bottle aside in disgust. 'Forget it."
Duo pretended cheerfulness, smiling brightly. There were too many teeth. 'Already done.'
He wanted another beer. 'So am I supposed to get you a housewarming gift, then?'
'I could use new potholders.'
'Heero.' Duo's smile became a more normal thing, a small curve of his lips. He patted Heero's wrist on the table. 'Chill,' he advised softly. 'Okay? It'll be good with Trowa. And if it's not, I can find the door.'
'After you're cut open and bleeding,' Heero muttered. Their waiter passed them with a wide and cautious berth, sensing trouble, and Heero dropped his hand rather than try to flag him down. Duo was tapping on his knee, a rapid rhythm of irritation, and staring off at the television over the bar. 'He's changed,' Heero said then. 'From the war. He's not who he was then. You know what he does now. For money.'
'Heero, cut it out. Okay? I listened to as much of this as I'm going to.'
Heero inhaled sharply, and held it. 'I'm finished.'
'Okay. Thank you.'
'I wish you happy. Both of you.'
'You're a good friend. The best friend. Even when you try to lie.'
'I'm not. Just let it go now.' He tried again to get the attention of their waiter, and gave up in frustration. 'I hope when you've been sleeping with him for longer than two weeks it will still be fresh and wonderful.'
Duo began to laugh. At first it still held annoyance, but soon it was only forgiving. He patted Heero's wrist again, and his touch lingered, warm like his grin. 'You're a sweetheart,' he said. 'But I won't tell anyone.'
It was impossible to stay angry. He didn't think Duo did it on purpose, but it was impossible, facing that, and Heero wanted to be angry. He would be angry, when Duo left, because when Duo left he'd be going home to pack his apartment and move across the city to live with Trowa Barton, of all people, of all idiotic impulses, and of the many stupid things he'd seen Duo do on nothing more than an impulse over their years of friendship, this ranked. But sometimes Duo could be bullied out of it and sometimes he was a stubborn damn fool and there was no reason Heero would see why he'd even been summoned out to dinner to be told this. Duo had to know that no-one would be thrilled about it. Trowa Barton.
Maybe it was possible to stay angry.
The bartender changed the channel on the television, switching to the debates. 'It's Quat,' Duo noted. 'I forgot he was on tonight. Shit. I meant to tape it.'
'They're posting the debates online.'
'That's true. It's exciting, right? Our golden boy is making good. Finally doing something with himself.' Duo caught Heero's look, and laughed again. 'I'm kidding. He's a doll, of course.'
'Of course.' The waiter had disappeared. Heero sat back in his chair, feeling it creak with his weight. On the television screen they were introducing the parties. Quatre was standing in with several Progressives to present the party platform. His introduction was quick to note-- of course-- that he'd once flown a Gundam in the name of colonial sovereignty. Duo didn't blink for it, but his fingers began to tap again, just the pointer and middle fingers.
'We can go,' Heero started to say, or wanted to say, but it never quite left his mouth. He must have made some noise, though, because Duo tore his eyes from the screen. He pushed his beer at Heero. Heero sipped from it, and returned it carefully to the table.
'He looks good.' Duo looped a loose lock of hair behind his ear. 'Smart. Some politicians just look dumber than a doornail, you know. I love listening to Quat talk. He doesn't talk down at you, he doesn't shout at you, he just talks smart, and-- your pager is beeping.'
He was already reaching for it. 'Yes.' It was Wufei's number. 'I need to ring him.'
'I think I saw a payphone by the john.'
'It's cool. Go.'
There was a line of women queuing by the toilets, girls really with hair piled atop their heads, eyes heavily outlined in dark colours, blues and greens shadowing their eyelids. They watched him with pursed lips as he approached them, and Heero turned a shoulder to them as he took up the pay phone. He dug in a pocket for change, sorting dimes and pennies of American currency that was only partially familiar, nine moths after coming here.
Fingers nudged his elbow. He didn't jump, but his muscles tensed as one, and he grabbed the hand that touched him, gripping hard.
It was one of the girls. Her red mouth dropped open. He eased his hold immediately, dropping his eyes in apology. 'What.'
'Fifty cents, mister,' she mumbled, and shuffled away from him as fast as he let her go.
Coins. Heero released a breath, and dropped them into the slot. He tucked the receiver to his ear, and dialled Wufei's number.
It rang only twice before Wufei answered, with typical brusqueness. 'Chang. Is it you?'
'Me.' Heero angled his shoulder further against the women and propped an arm against the phone. The leather of his jacket creased coolly against his forehead. 'What's up?'
'What was Duo's news?'
'He's—' It left a wretched taste in his mouth even thinking it. 'He's moving in with Trowa. He wanted to tell us.'
'Trowa?' It was gratifying that even Wufei could be surprised. 'When did-- how did this come about? I didn't know they even spoke to the other.'
'Apparently quite a lot more than speaking.' He scratched at the back of his head and smoothed his hair down over it. 'That's why you paged me?'
'No. I'm downtown. We have a case.'
'It's our night off.'
'Tell that to the criminals.'
There was finally a new beer waiting for him when he returned to their table, though now he couldn't drink it. He hesitated before sitting, but pulled his wallet out from his back pocket and peeled cash from the slot. Duo's eyes flicked down to it, and took the cue.
'Trouble?' he asked.
'I have work,' Heero told him. 'Someone killed a priest.'
'Dude, work on your segues. Really?'
'Yeah, really. Burned him in his car.'
Duo seemed impressed by that effort. 'Sick bastards.'
Duo propped his elbows on the table, eyes lively now that business was being discussed. 'You got a perp?'
Two beers, plus the one Duo had drunk. He left a ten, until Duo pushed it back at him with a shake of his head. That figured. Duo's typical form of apology, trying to run around cleaning up messes he hadn't actually made because he couldn't do anything about the ones he had. 'No perp,' he said. 'Not yet.'
'Wow,' Duo commented. He leaned back, folding his hands over his stomach. 'What you don't see in this city.'
'Yes,' Heero said. He traced a drop of cold water down the side of the new bottle, and wiped it away on his jeans. 'You see a lot,' he agreed. 'You see so much more on Earth than in the Colonies.'
'Do we? Maybe it feels that way. I don't know. You couldn't drag me back to L2 at gunpoint.' Duo considered him. 'You okay? You're not exactly rushing out the door.'
'Wufei's already there. He'll deal with the preliminary transfer from the local police.' He wanted to drink the beer, and it wouldn't matter, in the long run, but regulation said he shouldn't, not now that he knew there was a case. Beer never did him any benefit, anyway. It was only a tactic, a hiding blind, and it wouldn't fool Duo, who saw entirely too much, and always had. Heero peeled at the damp label with his fingernail, and said stonily, 'There've been killer cops before.'
Duo's eyebrows climbed. He chewed on his lower lip the way he did when he was thinking, but then he only shrugged and nodded his agreement. 'Lots of them. Vigilantism is an occupational hazard.'
Not asking why Heero had raised the subject. That was nice of him. Sometimes Duo was good enough not to bully his way to what he wanted, too.
'Have you seen it?' he asked instead. 'In Homicide? Or Narcotics?'
Duo nodded again. 'We just had a guy in Narc who got caught. He was on the take for, like, six years.' He rubbed his nose. 'Talk about losing your path, you know? I mean, we've got the lowest of the low, the guys who sell their own kids for another hit, and somehow he went from catching them to feeding off them. How do you do that?'
'I don't know, Duo. Maybe it was their nature all along.'
'I guess. There's definitely people who are just born bad.' Duo watched him for a long minute, a minute that ticked by in silence but for the noise of the bar, the debates on the television. Duo said, 'You shouldn't have tried to go back to L1. Space isn't for us anymore. You didn't feel at home there, and it shook you.'
Heero grimaced. 'What does that have to do with anything?'
'Doesn't it?' Duo grinned, but he looked away, and Heero did, too, scratching at his neck again. 'Well, want me to drive out with you?' Duo asked suddenly.
'Wufei's my partner.'
The instant it was out he realised how awful it sounded. Duo's face had gone still, and his eyes stayed resolutely on the television screen, as if he were actually interested in Edam Lehaye had to say about economic growth.
'I'm sorry,' Heero said.
'No, it's cool. You're right. I was just saying, you know, I would drive out.' Duo laughed. 'It's all right.'
Heero pulled the beer bottle near, to stare down into the neck of it. Pale bubbles. 'How well do you know him?'
'Know who? Wufei?' Duo laughed again, but it was uncertain now. He looked at Heero curiously. 'Against all odds, he’s a good friend. We were closer before I moved to Narc.'
'I always thought he was a lot like you.'
Now it was Heero's turn to laugh. It didn't sound natural, like Duo's, didn't sound easy, and he gave it up in the space of a breath. Duo's expression softened.
'I made a funny?' he murmured.
Heero smiled grimly. 'Yeah, I guess.'
''I left my Heero-to-English dictionary at home, sweetcheeks.'
He sat back with a scowl. 'Is it that damned hard to understand me?'
'Not all the time. I'm better at it when I've had more booze.'
He stood and tucked in his chair. 'Why don't we go for a ride?'
'They really had to tape off three blocks?'
'They've been more cautious lately.' Heero followed the wave of the rookie who parked him near the police cars, all still running flashing lights, though sirens were silent. 'Do you see Wufei?'
'I think I spot some olive and brown up there. You have your badge with you?' Duo checked, undirected, in the glove compartment. He tossed the badge at Heero. 'You want me to stay here? I can nap in your car.'
'Yeah?' Duo cocked his head. 'Thanks. I'll keep my head low.'
No, he wouldn't, and they both knew it. But for some reason it made Heero feel better about a great many things.
They both had to display identification at the perimetre. Narcotics agents didn't carry badges, only cards, and the rookie who checked them in had clearly never seen that kind of card before. But for Duo it was only an opportunity to pull out the charm, to put on the show that he gave to all civilians who never knew anything about Preventers but the hot-shot pilots on camera and the scowling detectives who showed up to commandeer cases away from the hard-working local police. Duo was polite, explaining his credentials; Duo was deprecating, downplaying the miscommunication; Duo was funny, making jokes about interdepartmental crossfeeds; and the rookie was dazzled. Heero had seen it before, all the way back to the days when they'd been disguising themselves as schoolchildren while secretly they attacked their classmates' OZ parents by night. Heero was not charming, but no-one ever seemed to expect him to be. They didn't look him in the eye, or not for long.
They were finally let in under the 'crime scene' tape, and they followed the steady stream of foot traffic around the corner. From there, it was hard to miss it. It had been a car, once. Now it was a smoking wreck, the charred metal frame smouldering still. Even the building it was parked beside had been scorched. Fire suppressant almost masked the smell-- almost.
Wufei was there, wearing his uniform jacket over suit pants. He carried a notepad, his pen waving the air, inscribing something as he spoke to a policeman. He was frowning. When he spied his two friends nearing, his frown deepened.
Duo made a jaunty wave. 'Howdy, cowboy. How'd you land this level of excitement?'
'Luck,' Wufei said succinctly. 'Why are you here? Special assignment, Maxwell?'
'I was kinda in the neighbourhood.' Duo clapped him on the back, and peered around him to the car. 'You caught an interesting one. Standing upwind, I see.'
Wufei's frown transferred to Heero. 'Wouldn't you?'
Duo tossed them both a quick smile. 'I'm gonna go look.'
Wufei put up a warning finger. 'Don't. Touch. Anything.'
'Come on, Wufei,' Heero said softly. 'He knows his way around a crime scene.'
'It's okay,' Duo shrugged. 'I know he just doesn't trust anyone but his own incredibly anal self.' He ducked the grab Wufei made for him, leaving just an impression of a grin, like a Cheshire cat fading from view as he jogged ahead. Heero shook his head as Wufei slashed both hands angrily through the air.
'Why's he here?' Wufei demanded again.
'He's been in the field investigating longer than either of us,' Heero said. 'He might catch something we missed.'
'He might. Or we might be perfectly adequate to the task. Did you bring him solely to keep him away from Trowa?'
'Don't.' He put his feet in motion, crossing the pavement. The police had already marked forensic evidence with orange cones, a footprint, a broken butane lighter. He crouched over the lighter. 'This could have been here a year or more.'
'It's a well-travelled street.' Wufei pointed to security cameras installed at the corners. 'Wrong angle. It's unlikely we'll have anything covering this exact spot. Maybe the red-light camera from the intersection, but I'm guessing it's out of range.'
'Agent Scarab?' One of the policeman approached. 'The city coroner is here. You said you had special instructions for her?'
'Yes.' Wufei tapped Heero on the shoulder with his pen. 'Go mind Duo. He is not to touch anything.'
Duo stood at the car, by the driver's door-- what had been the driver's door. His posture was relaxed, one boot canted up to rest on the other, his fist in his pocket. He fidgeted with his braid, tugging at the weave just below his shoulder. 'Hey,' Heero said, just to alert him someone was near. Duo didn't look, but his finger, caught in a loop of his hair, paused momentarily.
Heero halted beside him. The corpse in the driver's seat was still recognisable as human, though all features had been destroyed by the flame. The lower jaw had fallen free. Leaning in, Heero could see it had dropped to the seat. If there was anything else in the car, it wasn't immediately obvious. The seats, plastic or leather or whatever combination it had been, were slurry now, totally gone. The dash had melted. Just the body for evidence.
'What do you think?'
Duo didn't answer right away. When he did, at last, his voice was hoarse. 'Thing, uh, burned pretty good. You thinking there was accelerant?'
'I smell something. I don't know. It could just be the vinyls in the car.'
'It's a '98 Chevy.'
'And there were cases a few years back. Remember they called it the car bomb scare? Exploding Chevy.'
'This isn't one of those cases. It's in too good shape. Those sprayed shrapnel for a hundred feet.'
'The fire's completely contained. The wall there only melted from the heat, not direct contact.'
'He died in the fire?'
Duo's voice was odd again. Heero looked at him, but Duo's face was turned away, shadowed by the bright lights erected by the police. 'Don't know,' Heero said. 'The coroner will make the determination.'
'Anything about this case you do know? Why's it under Preventers? Do you even know if this is a murder?'
'He was under suspicion of some very unpleasant things. The logical suspect went missing a few days ago.' Wufei had walked away with the case file, but one of the detectives hovering nearby, and patently listening in, was quick to supply it when Heero turned. He passed it to Duo. Duo held it upside down and then nearly dropped it, while Heero tried to rescue it. 'Are you all right?' Heero asked.
'Yeah. No. I mean, yeah.' Duo strung his fringe behind his ears, and got the file open without loosing the pages. Heero looked about, and found Wufei prowling the street behind them, on his department mobile phone and evidently having an argument with someone on the other end of it. Wufei nearly stalked into a cop. He stopped and glared until the other man moved.
Duo rubbed his eyes and gave him back the file. 'My eyes are funky, I can't read it.'
He folded it under his arm. 'You can stop by the office if you want to look at it later.'
Wufei came striding toward them then, swinging his phone at his side. 'We're to wait for our own coroner. Duo? You saw the case file? Serial paedophile. Accused but never prosecuted-- you know the type. He was moved from parish to parish, though there was one large settlement in 193 with a family whose boy killed himself. The locals were investigating an allegation that several boys under the priest's care in an after-school programme had been victimised. Two of the boys were wards of the state. War orphans. One was colonial. And the colonial boy disappeared two days ago.'
'He's person of interest number one,' Heero said. 'Thirteen. Old enough to fight back. And known to have a temper.'
'Yeah, well, maybe he's dead, and you're barking up the wrong tree. Thirteen is still a kid, guys.'
Wufei sighed. 'Fair enough. But we have to follow procedure. Victim he may be, but he's also the likeliest suspect. The timing alone is suspicious.'
'Yeah,' Duo said. 'Yeah. God bless the violent ones.'
'That's not funny,' Wufei retorted shortly.
'You gotta laugh or you cry, right?'
'Or be furious. They're hypocrites, the violent ones. The police were taking his case seriously. They were preparing to arrest the priest. Why do you always leap to take the victim's side? That's not our job, Duo.'
'Because preparing isn't the same as doing.' Duo cleared his throat. 'I'm gonna-- I don't feel well. I'll be right back.' That abruptly, he was leaving.
Heero faced his partner. 'What's wrong with you?'
Wufei turned on him just as coldly. 'What's wrong with you? You brought him here, to a crime scene with a dead priest? Of course he's sick. Do you ever think?'
'What does that matter--' He remembered why only slowly, and dropped his head back on his shoulders. 'L2.'
'Don't let him stand here staring at the corpse all night.' Wufei's mobile rang. 'I'm trying to get the coroner here. Drive him home and get back when you can. We'll be hours at this.'
'And let him alone about Trowa.'
'Answer your phone, Wufei.'
Duo was only gone a minute. Wufei had no sooner walked off than Duo was back, carrying a bottled water, his face and hair damp. Heero studied him closely, but could identify nothing more than a slight redness of the eye that could have been just smoke exposure. His own were itchy and irritated, and he took the offer of the bottle when Duo gave it, splashing his hand and wetting his face. He dried his eyes on his sleeve.
'Sorry,' he offered tentatively. 'You okay?'
'Oh, yeah, I'm fine.' Duo smiled at him, an expression that offered no information and let nothing whatsoever in. 'Hey, one of the cops over there told me there's some junk in the trunk. Mind if I take a look at that?'
Wufei had delivered his orders. Wufei was senior partner. Wufei was also not there to see him disobey. 'Yeah, of course,' he said. 'Come on.'
Someone had propped open the boot of the car with a jack. The twisted flap and burnt-out carpet bottom made it hard to distinguish, but Heero saw what Duo did almost as quickly. Melted glass. And something that looked as if it had once been powder. Duo pulled his jersey sleeve over his finger and rubbed up a line of it. It came off black, but he sniffed it and examined it in the light. 'Well,' he said, 'you're working with Narcotics now.'
'The only reason this is a Preventers case is the colonial angle. Drugs in the trunk of a car that may or may not be connected to the dead priest may or may not have any impact on the colonial angle, and that's a pretty tenuous reason to bring in Narc.'
'Until we know for sure what is or isn't connected, you're stuck with us. God knows there's a lot of colonial hands in the drugs business.' Duo found a tissue in a pocket and carefully scrubbed his shirt of the powder. 'I'll call it in. Quick and dirty guess, it's meth. Glass means equipment, car means transport. Maybe your priest is a dump-job. Or maybe he was driving the goods and the junk blew him up. It's not exactly a stable grocery item. Either way, someone sold someone else the goods, and a lot of the sellers around here are colonial, since Parliament was so kind as to open up the borders two years ago.'
Heero touched the tip of the orange evidence cone, rocking it once and letting it go. He decided, 'I'm glad you're in on this. You see things.'
'I see me making your job harder.' Duo's mouth turned down uneasily, but then he looked at Heero and the smile returned, as if it had never gone. The real smile. 'But it's in my lap, so I can probably keep the case.'
'I don't want to hand it off entirely, but I'm amenable to a joint investigation.'
'Joint investigation, huh?' Duo mimed sinking a basketball. 'Maybe I want it all to myself.'
'It's our collar.'
Wufei was back, joining them as he finished his latest phone call. 'Give it to him if he wants it.'
Duo stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled. 'Repeat that? Never seen you give up your turf. Is this a newer, gentler Wufei? One who shares his sandbox?'
'No, it's the one who doesn't think this case is going to bring anyone anything rewarding. Take it. Homicide will ride second.'
'Sure.' Duo put out his hand, and Wufei handed off the case file. 'Wow. I think I might be sleepwalking, or something. Pinch me, Heero.'
Heero felt a little like that, too. Wufei was not looking at him, and he didn't know if that meant it was an order from above and Wufei didn't like it, or if this was some way of making Duo feel better about the crime scene-- although how could it be, making him take on a case that was bound to raise more personal ghosts? 'Just keep us in the loop,' Heero said slowly.
'I look forward to reading your reports, gents.'
'Insufferable,' Wufei said. 'Attitudinal... you knew he'd be like this, didn't you?'
'I just hate to disappoint you, Wufei.'
'I'll handle the coroner,' Wufei told them. 'The body is still Homicide's to worry about. Get a team here sometime tonight? I want these locals gone before they contaminate the crime scene walking all over the bloody thing.'
'Love you too, baby.'
Wufei left them with a soft growl. Duo laughed at his back, but quietly. Heero knocked his fist into Duo's shoulder. 'You can be such an ass,' he said.
'Ah, he likes it.'
'He didn't look happy to me.'
'I gotta be honest with you, I don't think I've ever seen him happy.' Duo turned back to the trunk. He unclipped the pen from the case file and used it to nudge at the melted glass. It broke at the lightest touch, and Duo stopped with a grimace.
'He's happy,' Heero defended his partner. 'Occasionally.'
'Must have blinked and missed it.' Duo clicked the pen at him. 'Could you give me a ride to HQ? I do need to get a team together. I'll need to check the duty roster and see who I can get.'
The trip was silent. It was still early enough, not quite ten, but the night had the stretched and weary feel of the early morning hours. He was tired in the mind, but his body knew it wasn't done yet and wouldn't relinquish the adrenaline. His fingers were locked on the steering, and he drove just a little too fast. He deliberately slowed. Duo was silent, and Duo was many things, but silent was rarely one of them. When he risked sideways glances, Duo was still, as well, staring out the windscreen, unblinking.
'What's wrong?' Heero asked him, when they came to rest at a red light. The car hummed quietly, and Heero thought of the other car, the burnt car, and its dead occupant. How Duo had looked, standing there before it. A man alone with his thoughts, the way Duo always preferred to be. Duo had his reasons, and they were his.
Duo came to life for a brief smile. It reached his eyes, but faded quickly. 'I think I'm just tired.'
They acquired a line of traffic behind them, five more cars in quick succession, two in the lane beside them that played music so loudly it penetrated even their closed windows. Heero flexed his hands on the wheel. 'It's because he was a priest, isn't it?'
'You know, I don't think it was. I don't know. Somehow that's not the part that bothers me.'
'The missing kid?'
'I don't know. I can't put my finger on it.'
'When you do... we could hash it out.'
This time, the smile stayed. 'Thanks,' Duo said. 'We will.'
'You can be quiet if you want to be.'
'I think I might have told you this already tonight, but you're a really good friend.'
The light turned green. Heero released the brake, and drove through the intersection. One of the vehicles behind them sped up and zoomed around him, brushing a little too close in his eagerness to get ahead. Heero flashed his lights, but the incident went ignored. He pulled into the right-hand lane anyway, to take an off-ramp to the highway. It was shorter than sitting through all the lights, and he didn't want to put Duo through a longer drive than necessary. Duo preferred to be busy.
Duo. Duo reached out and put his hand over Heero's, on the shift between them. It just rested there, his fingers curled warmly down over Heero's. Heero couldn't look at him, couldn't even swallow suddenly. His hand twitched, numbly.
'Sorry,' Duo mumbled. 'I didn't think.' He let go, and put his hands in his lap instead.
'No, it's okay.' Heero wet his lips. 'I don't mind.'
'Oh, hey, don't miss the exit.'
He almost did. He was going too fast to pull off, and the tyres complained shrilly as he wrenched the wheel. A horn trailed them as he pulled just wide of the barrier and took the exit for SOMA. 'Sorry,' he said tensely.
He shook his head, the only answer of which he was capable. They didn't speak again as Heero bypassed Rincon Hill and turned toward Mission Street. Preventers Headquarters had become not so much a single building as a sprawl of loosely connected offices in the same neighbourhood, and when Duo had moved to Narcotics he had moved as well from the office that housed Homicide. It took conscious effort not to drive to his own office. Duo didn't make a peep to remind him.
Then, abruptly, it was over. He found parking right in front of Duo's building, and pulled into the spot. Duo coughed, and stabbed at his safety belt. 'Um,' he said. 'Thanks for the ride.'
'Yeah.' His own voice was rusty now. 'No problem. Let me know if I can help with the case. I'll be-- I'll be headed back now to help Wufei with the body. For Homicide. Unless you need a ride.'
'No, I'll catch an outgoing with one of the guys.' Duo opened his door, and the cabin lights came on, dim and orange. Duo sat looking at him, one leg out the door on the pavement below, his teeth digging into his bottom lip so hard it was white from the pressure.
He said, 'Just so you know, I didn't throw up or anything.'
Heero blinked. 'I didn't think you did.'
'Okay, it's just that I'm telling you because-- sanitation issues, or something--' Duo stopped talking, and put his hand on Heero's cheek. He leant across the shift and kissed Heero gently.
All he felt at first was confused panic. Duo was kissing him. He didn't know-- he didn't know, ever know, what it meant, except that it did mean, mean, something, because it was Duo and Duo was always meaning something that Heero didn't understand and that was all he ever damn well knew. But he fumbled out a hand from the wheel and was touching, was touching Duo's throat, skin that was sandpapery with stubble, making him suck in a breath, shivers breaking out over him. He sucked in a breath, and then his mind went clear and clean. He kissed Duo back. Clumsily, hungrily. Their teeth clacked. He closed his eyes.
Duo ended it. He shifted away, just turned his head away, but only enough to press their cheeks together. Heero realised his heart was beating horrifically fast. His mouth was wet from Duo's mouth. He licked his lips, and dropped his head to Duo's shoulder. The cool cotton of his shirt was a relief to the heat of his head. Duo let him rest there, let him stroke with the pad of his thumb just above the vee of his collar.
He felt Duo swallow. Duo whispered, 'I shouldn't have done that.'
His heart was just starting to slow. It skipped a beat, now, a sickly little lurch. 'Maybe. It's okay. It was-- nice.'
Duo's breath stirred his hair. 'Yeah.' That was his warning, and he sat back. Duo was slower, easing back into his own seat. The world expanded. They were in the car. His car. His left hand was still on the wheel, and Duo's door was still open to the street, and there were night noises, traffic noises and people noises, not the deaf void he'd been sitting in where all of that had vanished.
'I appreciate it,' Duo said, as if it were somehow deadly important. 'Appreciate you. Having you looking out for me.'
Heero nodded, because he didn't know what else to do. 'We, uh, have history.'
'Yes. I like our history.' Duo scrubbed suddenly at his face. 'Damn it,' he groaned. 'I'm a bastard.'
'Rewind about two point five minutes.'
'I'd rather not.' His hands were damp. They'd never done that before. He dried them on his jeans. 'I mean-- I don't want to take that back.'
Duo stared at him. 'No, me neither, just-- me neither. I just shouldn't have done it.'
'You don't have to do it again.'
'I always kind of thought that if it was gonna be one of you guys, it would be you.'
He breathed. He went on breathing, must have, because he didn't die. It felt like that, though. His hands had been stone dry the night he'd self-destructed his Gundam. 'Guess you were mistaken.'
'Trowa. He's more-- what you want.'
'He's just more ready, Heero.'
'Yeah.' He breathed. He was the one to lean across the seat, this time, the one to kiss Duo, this time. Less clumsily than before. More deeply. He slid his hand into Duo's hair, into the weave of the braid, to cup his jaw, to touch the whorl of his ear. Duo gripped his jacket, Duo sat still for him, let him. It was tender and sweet, not what he'd ever imagined, if he'd ever really let himself imagine it. There was heat in his belly, already dying.
He let go, and sat back. Duo caught his hand as he dropped it, but didn't stop him when he tugged away.
'I guess I'm not him.'
'You don't want to be.' Duo pushed his fringe away from his face and sighed. 'We'd get ourselves into trouble. And I want you to always be my friend.'
Duo looked at him for a long time. He thought Duo would touch him again, but the moment had passed. He didn't invite it. Duo didn't dare it. Duo pushed at his own hair again, an angry swipe, a helpless gesture. He stared out the open door.
'It's late,' Heero said. 'You should go in before shift change.'
'Okay. Right.' Duo swung his legs out. He hesitated before he rose, and hesitated again after, one arm propped on the door, looking anywhere but inside. He said, 'Good night, Heero.'
'Good night,' he echoed.
'That site's gonna be a bitch to clean up,' Cuartero said. 'Chem lab found contaminates thirty feet past the car. Must've been a windy night.'
'That'll be expensive,' Duo noted. He twirled a pen between two fingers. 'There go the Christmas bonuses.'
'Toxic waste,' Alvarez explained to Heero and Wufei. 'Every pound of meth produces about five or six pounds of waste. And when it explodes, it sprays. Could be a hundred, hundred fifty thousand to clean up that street.'
The Narcotics office was smaller than Homicide, considerably better appointed. Each agent sat at a fine cherry-stained desk, stocked with a sleek flat-panel computer monitors and ergonomic keyboards. Heero had been on the list for a teleconference phone pod for two years. Wufei's analogue mobile phone had been the product of strenuous negotiation, and they only had the one between them. Duo had a wireless headset and a digital camera that he was currently using to upload pictures of the meth lab from the dead priest's car.
And yet Heero and Wufei were the only two wearing suits. Cuartero had a nice leather jacket, and that was the best that could be said. Duo wore tatty blue jeans that left his knees poking out from wide tears and a faded blue tee shirt that sagged at the shoulders. He was chewing on a string of hair loose from his braid. Alvarez looked even worse than that, in a bandana and stained wife beater.
'Any leads on the drugs?' Wufei asked.
'I'm going to the Castro later to meet up with some guys who might have some information.' Duo turned his screen toward them and pointed the pen at an indistinguishable smear of black powder and sooted car trunk. 'Our lab is backed up about six weeks, so there's no way to put a rush order on anything without more than a dirtbag dead guy pushing for it, but you kind of learn your way around the residue. Could be brake fluid. Flammable and corrosive. We're not going to get any kind of brand name or anything, but we might be able to trace any bulk buys or steals. This over here was probably sodium hydroxide, and there's a little bit of plastic left in here so it looks like it was being transported separately. Honestly, I don't think our dead guy was cooking. At most, he was driving the ingredients. I think someone lit the junk and let it burn itself out. Whether the explosion killed old Father Benito or whether Benito was dead already, well, I guess we'll have to wait on the lung biopsy.'
Heero noted that in his pad. 'Lung biopsy?'
Cuartero nodded. 'If he was alive when the meth burned, he probably died from asphyxiation. Ammonia, butane, hydrochloric acid, all that shit sears the lungs bad. If he breathed it before he died, we'll know when we get the results from the coroner. If he was dead when he was dumped and the perp burned the car to cover it up, then we've got more work to do.'
'I'll tell you what, though, if he was using, our nasty priest was likelier to be an abuser,' Duo added abruptly.
Wufei's pen paused in writing. 'What?'
'Don't you read the FAQs we send the other departments? Meth use increases the risk of child abuse and domestic violence.'
'Child abuse is a bit of a walk from paedophilia,' Heero said cautiously.
'Not that much.' Duo slouched low in his seat, fiddling with the cord connecting the camera to the computer. 'All I'm saying is we shouldn't rule out a connection.'
'There was never any hint that Benito was connected to drugs,' Wufei protested slowly. He flipped his pad closed. 'Look, if anything, it's more probable it's the missing boy. You're the one who pointed out the colonial angle with the local drug rings. An orphan in an abusive situation is likelier to reach for a convenient... solution. A priest hiding a drug habit, especially an addictive one like meth, is too easily exposed to his congregation.'
'Much easier to hide a few decades of child molestation,' Alvarez muttered.
'Probably,' Heero said.
Duo's mouth was tight. 'First this kid is a murderer just because the man who's fucking him turns up dead. Now he's a meth mule because there's drugs in the car. How about we wait until we find this kid to start lynching him?'
'Duo,' Cuartero said. 'Que está bien. Tu necesita pa calarse.'
The look Duo shot him was mulish. But he listened. Wufei looked on uncomprehendingly, ignorant of Spanish or unable to follow Cuartero's thick Caracas dialect. Heero listened, and filed it away for later consideration.
Alvarez cleared his throat. 'Homicide get anything from the guy's suite in the church rectory?' he asked.
'Treasure trove of the usual disgusting type,' Wufei answered. He flipped the case file to the evidence log. 'Video tapes. Kiddie porn, mostly, although we're still plowing through it. There's a few interesting tapes in which he appears to be confessing to the camera what a monster he is. He describes his grosser acts in some details. If they'd been found while he was alive, it would have guaranteed prison time and hefty settlements from a number of his accusers.'
'It's called aversion therapy,' Heero commented. Duo was winding the cord of the camera around his finger, over and over again. He avoided Heero's eyes. 'He's supposed to watch the tapes of himself and masturbate until he associates the guilt of confession with sex.'
'Obviously not too successful,' Duo said. He scrunched his nose at the ceiling, and sighed. 'But nothing about the boys from his church.'
'Jessie Olmeda and Micco Rodelan.' Wufei nodded for permission, and went to the white board the Narcotics agents used to track their open cases. He used clips to post pictures of the two boys, and uncapped a marker to neatly etch their names beneath each slip. 'Olmeda was the first to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse. A schoolteacher noticed blood on his shorts and confronted him. When he was pressed, he admitted it had happened at the church, during the after-school programme. Not surprisingly, Benito rallied a few loyal staffers and attacked the boy's story, called him a liar, said he was disturbed. Olmeda claimed that Rodelan would substantiate his story. But Rodelan didn't trust the police, and there was some kind of altercation at the station when they brought him in for interview.'
'They dragged a thirteen-year-old kid to a police station to say all the adults are calling you another lying colonial bitch, and would you be so kind as to prove your friend's innocence while you're at it.' Duo shoved to his feet. 'It's amazing how this story never gets too old for another repeat. And they didn't think him not trusting authority figures or exhibiting unusually aggressive behaviour were classic signs of abuse?'
'Apparently not.' Wufei capped his marker and tapped it against his palm. 'They held him in juvenile lockup overnight and returned him to the orphanage. Which returned him to the church-run after-school care programme.'
'What about Olmeda? They can't have put him back there, not without investigating it further.'
'No, Olmeda's been withdrawn from the programme. He's also still at the orphanage. We've asked for an interview, but he has a lawyer now, and the woman is stalling.'
'I'll bet she is, with Benito burnt to a crisp.' Duo joined Wufei by the board, glaring up at the pictures. 'What's the timeline on Micco disappearing?'
'A full three weeks after the police heard Olmeda's allegations. And only two days before Benito turned up dead.'
Duo turned, crossing his arms over his chest. 'And the meth is really the only surprise in all of this. The meth is the only thing that doesn't make sense. So if we track the meth, we figure out who really did this. And maybe we find the kid.'
'Maybe,' Wufei said dubiously. 'And maybe the meth is a red herring, and means nothing at all.'
'We'll know when we solve the case then, won't we.' Duo pulled Rodelan's pic from the board and strode past Alvarez and grabbed his jacket from his chair. 'I'm going to head into town and start talking. The longer we sit on this the harder it's going to be to find Micco. We're already past forty-eight hours. Are the locals looking?'
'They've put out an official missing persons,' Heero said. 'But he's an orphan in a big metropolitan area. It's not a priority case.'
'Good thing we have other resources.' Duo pocketed the picture. 'I'm out. I'll check in later. Cuartero, follow up with the lab and stay on the heist angle for usual meth ingredients. I still think we're gonna get lucky if we just follow the trail of pharmacy robberies down California. Alvarez--'
'Colonial trade, cartel activity, and human trafficking,' the older agent finished, already heading for his desk. 'My favourite holy trinity.'
'God bless us, every one.' Duo cocked his head at his friends. 'Appreciate the briefing, guys. There's a nice cafeteria downstairs if you two want to grab lunch before you had back to your office. They have a good vegetarian chili.'
'Who are you going to interview?' Heero asked curiously.
'Talk to,' Duo corrected. He untucked his braid from his jacket and dropped it loose. 'Some people who run a little left of the law. They don't know I'm an agent, so they deal with me.'
'Ah,' Wufei guessed. 'Connections from your undercover work.'
'Bingo.' Duo laid a finger alongside his nose. 'I won't get anything official from them, but they'll be able to tell me who else to talk to.'
'I'd like to come,' Heero said.
Everyone else blinked at that. Not Duo, but it was there in the way Duo very much did not blink, held himself very still for a moment. Then he breathed in deeply, sucked in his cheeks, and said, 'Um. It's not really the kind of place where, um. You're a little--'
'Asian,' Duo said.
'I can't go because I'm Japanese?'
'It's not a friendly neighbourhood,' Duo said lamely.
'You're white,' Wufei pointed out coolly. 'If race matters, I don't see why it's fine for you to go and not us.'
Cuartero whistled silently and walked away. Alvarez watched, grinning widely.
'What, now it's both of you?' Duo rubbed his neck. 'I said this badly. But the point stands. I can't go where I'm going dragging two men who look the way you look. I've spent years in Narcotics building an identity they can work with. They know me, okay. They don't know you, and it's not going to be all right for me to bring you.'
'I let you come last night,' Heero said. 'Sometimes we do things we shouldn't do.'
That landed. Duo swallowed.
'What's your undercover name?' Heero asked.
Duo parked. 'Duo,' he said.
Heero looked at him. 'You use your own name?'
'The first time I worked undercover I used a ready-made ID, and I gave it up in about two hours. I don't have records or a past that Preventers have to bury with fake passports and altered computer algorithms, anyway. As far as anything before 195 is concerned, I'm a ghost.' Duo pointed up the street. 'We're headed for that restaurant. A friend of mine goes there for lunch most days. When we get there, I talk, not you, okay? Even if he asks you questions, I answer them for you. You don't open your mouth even if he threatens to shoot you in the kneecaps and boil you.'
'Is he going to do that?' he asked, quite practically, he thought. He only had his sidearm and his ankle holster, and Duo appeared to be-- well, it was Duo, so appearances were only so much of the story-- unarmed.
'Roque? Nah,' Duo shrugged. 'But I want you to act like he could. Because he could, and no-one would find you, got me? He's a powerful man and you're going to be respectful. But with your mouth closed.'
'I understand, Duo.'
'It's a good thing Wufei got too high-and-mighty to come after all.' Duo knocked down the sun shade and took his wallet from it. 'If I asked him to shut up he'd read me the Oration On the Dignity of Man just to show me he could. You'll actually listen.'
'It would be easier to listen if you didn't talk so much and say so little.'
Duo looked at him. Heero did not return his gaze. He unbuckled his safety belt, and opened his door. Or would have, but Duo reached over him and yanked it shut.
'Don't get out until I do,' he said. 'And if you want to be pissed at me about kissing last night, that's fine, but we do that off the clock.' He opened his own door, and exited the car.
Heero shoved the door wide, and stood out onto the pavement. He hadn't quite believed Duo's noise about the neighbourhood, but they were already gaining notice. San Francisco had a number of ethnic ghettos, but there was silent hostility in the stares that were coming their way. The old men loitering outside a dilapidated laundry grumbled to each other harmlessly, but the teenagers who stood on the corner opposite had an air of danger to them.
'Gang?' Heero asked Duo, who gestured him to follow. They crossed the street together, weaving between the cars that slowed for a red light. Heero let his hands fall loose and ready in case he needed to reach for a weapon.
Duo did not-- he walked with his hands in his pockets, and that could only be deliberate. But then, looking at him, he didn't look any less dangerous than the teenagers. There was something about the set of his shoulders. He wasn't afraid.
'Probably,' Duo said. He glanced, and shrugged. 'ALKN. They're not the ones we're worried about. Benito wouldn't have been involved with them, or at least not the young ones like that.'
'But maybe the ones like Roque?'
'Roque is way too high-up for a yucko like Benito. Questions later, okay?' Duo mounted the kerb in front of Birreria Tepechi. 'Did you bring your badge?'
'After what you said, I didn't think you'd want me to.'
'Yeah, but I figured you'd have it anyway.'
'It's in my wallet,' he admitted.
'Man, Preventers have really ground you down, Heero,' Duo said. 'Come on.'
Heero had more or less expected the restaurant to be a front, or at the least a laundering business for gang money. It might well have been that, but it was also a nice-looking establishment, brightly painted in the lobby and bar, welcoming yellows and blues accented with warm inviting music. Waitresses in flamenco skirts and blouses brought loaded trays of food to guests in the booths. The margaritas seemed to be selling well.
'Two for lunch, senores?' the hostess asked them.
'Two for the bar, senorita.' Duo laid his hand over the lip of her podium, and a folded bill slid almost invisibly beneath the edge of her appointment book. She noted it with a dip of her long lashes. 'Is he here?'
'He's here.' She looked behind Duo to Heero, looking him over from head to foot. 'He won't be happy about that.'
'Don't I know it.' Duo nodded for Heero to follow. 'Back this way. Roque likes the enchiladas here. It's always the first place I look for him.'
The bar was through a large archway to the left and around a second seating area of booths and tables. Duo led the way confidently, and Heero stayed close, knowing he was meant to, knowing by now that Duo had been very serious about the likely reaction to his ethnicity. They were not in friendly territory, even if Duo knew his way through the negotiations.
There was only one man seated at the bar. Roque. He was young, not much older than Heero and Duo, and though he was a lean fellow, the thin cotton of his tee shirt left no imagination about the heft of his muscles. A ponytail of shoulder-length black hair left a tattooed neck visible well into the low collar of his shirt. Definitely gang, and likely extensive prison time, if the blurry ink and imprecise artistry was any indication. Juvenile offender, and someone who had emerged to a position of relative prominence, if he was someone Duo sought for information.
'Mi amigo,' Duo called, and the dark head lifted from a plate of food. 'Ha sido un rato. ¿Cómo estás?'
'Duo!' The other man slid from his stool to clasp wrists with Duo, pulling him into a rough embrace. 'How you been, cabron? Where you been hiding?'
'I'm good.' With the permission of a friendly gesture, Duo took the stool next to Roque. 'Been laying low. Mi vida loca, you know?'
'Not hardly.' That earned a wry smile. 'You never tell me the whole story. You look better than the last time I seen you. You got that arm out the cast, at least.'
'Just last week.' Duo obediently rotated his left arm, to prove it worked once more. 'Still sore.'
'So you ever gonna tell me who you crossed that beat you two miles outside of Death's door?' Roque looked at him cannily as Duo only mutely shook his head. 'Not this time, huh. Well, you call me if you ever want help taking care of whoever it was. 'Berto didn't like seeing you like that. I didn't like seeing you like that. You have friends with us. Wouldn't be no favours owed, not for that.'
'I appreciate it,' Duo said. 'I am actually here to ask after a favour. Not that favour, but still a favour, if you'll hear me out.'
Roque had noticed Heero. Roque had likely noticed Heero before he'd even begun talking to Duo, but he looked, now, acknowledging it in the opening Duo had left, and it was clear he was not pleased. His mouth, smiling before, had gone flat.
'A favour that involves bringing a cop to my favourite restaurant,' he said in English. It was aimed at Heero as well as Duo. 'You really are loco, Duo.'
'He's not a cop.' Duo snapped his fingers at Heero, and Heero allowed himself to look cross at that; Duo wouldn't be that irritating without meaning to make a show of it. 'Show him your badge,' Duo said. 'He's a Preventer.'
Heero reached into his coat for his wallet. And suddenly a half-dozen men at the tables behind them were standing, shoving their chairs back. Roque didn't look, but made a quieting gesture with his hand. Duo didn't seem surprised by it, either, and now Heero was cross, for not thinking it would happen. He'd already been assuming Roque was someone important in a gang, and now it was obvious that whatever gang he was in was a major player in the city. Whoever Roque was, he was no lone soldier. He ranked a bodyguard.
Heero showed his empty hands to the air behind him, and reached again, slowly, for his wallet. He kept it visible while he opened it to the badge clip. Roque eyed it solemnly.
'Preventer,' he repeated. 'Preventer, cop. Not sure it makes much difference. What's a Preventer got you hopping for?'
'There's a kid missing. Connected to a case Preventers are working on.' Duo pulled the picture of Micco Rodelan from his jacket. The bodyguards, Heero noted, didn't care what Duo went reaching for. They were sitting down and resuming their meals and didn't twitch for him. 'He's colonial,' Duo said. 'So Preventers came to me. Thinking maybe I could help run down some connections.'
Roque took the picture, but he only sighed. 'Man, they're playing you,' he said frankly. 'You think they gotta go to a Gundam Pilot for every missing colonist? They trying to pull you in, Duo.'
That was the puzzle piece Heero had been missing. It wasn't just that Duo used his own name for undercover work; he was himself, and that was its own form of currency in a world that knew and perhaps respected the Gundam Pilots still. He had fought a war, but wouldn't be recognised here for heroics-- he'd be feared for his deadly capability and self-sufficiency. In the underworld of San Francisco Duo's L2 past wasn't a hindrance, but a badge of honour. His notoriety as a Pilot gave him a kind of celebrity that could be useful, in the right context. He could be known to the 'right' people and still be expected to live a shady life, a life that would connect with both Preventers and gangs alike.
And he could see too that Roque's perspective was sensible. Without all the facts, it was a reasonable presumption. And, though Duo wouldn't thank him for it, it was an opening that Heero should pursue, if it would give Duo the cover he needed to get Roque's help.
So he stepped forward, quickly enough that Roque and Duo both sat back in startlement. 'Never mind,' he said brusquely, grabbing for the picture.
'Hey,' Duo protested. But caught on quickly, and pinned the photograph before Heero could get it off the bar. 'I told you I was in. Go order a drink, Agent.'
They pretended to glare each other down while Roque watched with great interest. Heero broke first, with a huff of annoyance, and shuffled to Duo's right, taking up an awkward stance against the bar. Duo rubbed at his neck as if he didn't like feeling Heero standing so close to him there, and heaved a deep sigh of his own.
'Look,' he said, 'Roque, I know and I don't care. The missing kid is colonial. You know more than I could tell you what it's like to be in a city like this where la policia don't give a flying shit about any kid from the block. He's my people. If I can help, I gotta try, don't I?'
'Not if you start thinking with this and not with this.' Roque touched his chest first-- his heart-- and then his head. 'What do you even want me to do? Why bring this to me?'
'That's the favour part. Put the kid's picture around? If he's just run away, he might turn up in places the police and Preventers won't be looking.' Duo rubbed a folded edge of the pic. 'Kid got fucked around real bad on Earth. There was a priest. Jose Benito. He took advantage, you know what I'm getting at. Preventers think the kid is guilty of taking vengeance. I'd like to find him before they decide he's guilty and put an arrest warrant out instead of a BOLO.'
'What if the kid is guilty?' Roque asked.
'Then I'd like to find him so he's safe,' Duo said simply. 'Not to lock him up. You know I'll defend him.'
'I don't know that they'll listen.' Roque jerked his chin at Heero. 'And I don't know that you'll make 'em listen by wishing, man. I think you're better off washing your hands of this.'
'All I can do is ask you to trust me.'
'Ahhh.' Roque tugged on his ponytail in a way that reminded Heero sharply of Duo. '¡Bien! De acuerdo. Give me the photograph.' Duo passed it eagerly, and Roque looked at it again with a shake of his head before he pocketed it. 'Don't get your hopes up, Duo. Odds aren't gonna be good we find the boy.'
'I'm not much for hope or for odds,' Duo admitted. 'But I also don't believe you get anywhere unless you keep trying. Gracias, Roque. Amigo en la adversidad es amigo de verdad.'
'You been talking to my abuelita again,' Roque reproved him. 'She already likes you better cause you watch her damn stories with her.'
Duo grinned. 'I'm always a hit with the old ladies. Seriously, Roque, thank you.'
'No more cops, Duo. No more Preventers neither.'
'He's already gone.' Duo stood, and crooked a finger at Heero. Heero stood. Roque and Duo shook hands, and then it was done. Roque turned back to his meal, and Duo was moving for the door at a rapid pace. Heero kept up with him by dint of longer legs, and managed to get the door opened for the both before Duo went bowling through it.
'Car,' Duo said.
They crossed the street. Many of the same faces were there as before, clearly waiting for their reappearance. A few of the young toughs had moved closer to their car, but as they neared it they dispersed rather than confront. Heero kept his hand near his weapon anyway, even as Duo unlocked the doors and they climbed in. Duo stuck the key in the ignition and started the engine. With only a quick glance for oncoming traffic, he pulled out of parking and into the lane, and revved up to speed immediately.
'You didn't ask about the meth,' Heero said.
'Preventers ought to do at least a little of the investigating, don't you think?' Duo adjusted his rearview mirror. 'We can handle that in Narc. And if it is a colonial angle, Roque won't know anything about it anyway. Almighty Latin King Nation mainly deal in cocaine, crack, heroin. Marijuana at the lower levels. They don't bother with meth.'
'Maybe they did this time.'
'They don't. ALKN are way more structured than other gangs. They don't go outside their hierarchy and if their members break the rules, the Crown Council deals with them. The meth is way more likely to be colonial.'
'If you say so.'
'I do. This is what we do in Narcotics, you know. Study this stuff.'
'I know.' Heero pulled his sunglasses from his inner pocket and put them on. The morning fog had totally cleared and it was getting painfully bright in the afternoon. 'Who is Roque? Why'd you go to him?'
'Abelino Roque. It took me about a year and a half to get to him. I had to get myself arrested and sit in jail for three weeks before we met up while he was being transferred for a parole hearing.' Duo made a sharp right, and after a short trip through a dank alley they were suddenly out of the Latin quarter and back on the Castro. Heero let himself unclench from the idea of having to be ready with his ammo. 'He's a good guy,' Duo was saying. 'Smart. And old-school Kingist. He lives by the Manifesto. No prejudices, no dehumanising labels, no horizons between races. It's the inherent social injustices in system that's the problem, and that's why he's going to care about a missing kid.'
'And about you. Maybe it was good that I was there.'
'It helped,' Duo allowed. 'I hadn't anticipated he'd go for that angle on it.'
'He's not wrong about it. You care more about the kid than the rest of the case.'
Duo rubbed his nose. 'Micco is still alive. The priest is dead and the priest was the baddie. I think my priorities are well in order, Heero.'
'Your priority is objective investigation.'
'This is because you're pissed at me.'
'This is because I care about you and you care about causes.' Heero turned his head to the window. 'The missing boy is a cause and maybe Trowa is a cause too. I don't know. You're the only one who can know what's happening inside your head. But Roque was right about that, too. You don't think with your head, even when you should be.'
'Heero,' Duo said, and then didn't say anything else. When Heero looked at him, he was staring at the road with a grim expression, his jaw locked and his hands tight on the wheel.
Zechs and Duo:Warning:drug use, implied non-con, graphic
'And we're such noble friends that we owe this debt to each other,' Zechs said acidly. 'You put me away for my own good. I go because conscience demands it.'
'If not conscience, how about regulation?' Une retorted. She tossed her gloves to the table and followed them with her scarf, scattering wet from the heavy snowfall outside to her desk. 'No-one here will cover for you. No-one can, even if we wanted to. You make it impossible, Zechs. Since your return from Mars you've been rubbing it in our faces.'
'I only returned from Mars because you recalled our mission!' He forestalled his own rising temper by raising both hands, cutting her off. 'I'm fit. I'll take-- and pass-- any physical exam.'
Une planted her palms on the desktop, staring him down. 'Empty your pockets,' she said.
Zechs set his jaws. 'You have no call to invade my personal privacy.'
'And you have no call to refuse me, unless you're hiding something.'
'Preventers don't give up their citizenry just because they take up the badge, Une!'
'You gave up the right to protest search and seizure of any personal property related to the badge, including the uniform you're wearing, the office you wear it in, the car you drive to get here, and the hotel you're sleeping in while you're on Earth. That's part of the oath.' Une stared him down eyeball to eyeball, daring him to say he rescinded that oath, daring him to walk out on it.
It had been easy, once, to ignore her. To avoid her, because she was just one more of Treize's projects, his pets, albeit a crazier one, a dangerous one, and she'd been the one to do the things Zechs wouldn't, couldn't. To look at her now was to think it impossible-- impossible that this woman, this woman had ever worn a uniform that wasn't proud, that came with bloody history on its sleeves, a uniform that was born in treachery and murder and buried itself in vainglorious empire. He'd been inside it, that world, that society, that secret. Been inside it and walked away from it, to something that was arguably worse; and Une had let him back in when they buffed it bright, put a badge of Law on it, called it Prevention, and called it Good.
Mars had been more or less the end of his human contact, his emotional attachments. Noin had followed him back to Earth because she was Noin, and he'd almost begun to expect it. But he'd left everything else buried there. The life he'd been born to and hadn't lived, the family who'd died without him, the sister who'd been better than him and would carry on their name the way it was meant to be, not dirtied as he'd made it at Libra. He'd left quite a lot of himself there, too, and he wasn't so far gone he didn't know what Une meant. He hadn't gone a day without a pill since before leaving Mars. He hadn't gone an hour without one since arriving on Earth. If Une hadn't confronted him on it, he wouldn't have tried to stop. Not a life. Not a life the way most people who were twenty-five and handsome and healthy would recognise it, but he was not most people, and he hadn't been, not since he was six years old and watching tanks roll past the gates of Sanq Palace.
He sat in the chair before her desk, the one near the window. The leather was cold, and it wrapped him in a chill. He said, 'Years ago you would have gone running to him in joy over this.'
Une released a derisive little exhale of air. She sat, as well, sweeping her skirt beneath her, leaning back with crossed legs. 'He wouldn't have believed it. He never did. Even at the end, he still believed you had a grand plan.' She shifted the papers on her desk, and found a small card. She extended it to him. 'But he still would have offered exactly what I'm offering now. Go to the clinic. It's a discreet program. You'll spend a month there and we'll call it some kind of reconnaissance. No-one will be the wiser.'
'And I'll be a good little soldier then.' He took the card, but tossed it away. 'Forgive me if I suspect your charity, Une. We have no good will between us.'
'No, we don't. But there's a great deal of good will between myself and your sister, the Princess Relena.'
'Relena?' Zechs sat up stiffly. 'She knows?'
'My God, you do actually care.'
'Damn you,' he said tightly. 'Double damn you if you carried tales.'
'I didn't tell her,' Une answered him calmly. 'As I said, Zechs, you hardly trouble to hide your habit. The tale carries itself. Or do you forget that you're not an invisible character here? There are plenty of people who are very interested in what you do and who you buy it from.'
Zechs shoved himself to his feet. 'Send me back to Mars.'
'No.' Une regarded him indifferently, unintimidated, though he tried it, looming over her desk, scowling down at her. 'You'll go to the clinic,' she said. 'And when you're finished there you'll behave yourself admirably in public. And in private, where it intersects with your work.'
'And you'll be the arbiter of what does and doesn't intersect with my work.'
'Yes,' Une said. 'As it happens, I will. And you know the only alternative to that.'
Zechs inhaled sharply. 'Give me the address,' he said through gritted teeth.
They had to cut open the suit to get to me, Treize told him. His eyes were pale, looking inward, on the memory, not at Zechs and Une and Noin who sat with him. The fire in the hearth was dying, the embers only barely glowing. The wine in their cups was low as they sipped it gone, except for Treize's cup, barely touched, forgotten in his hand. His fingers stroked rhythmically at the hidden wound in his thigh. I was trapped. It's every pilot's worst nightmare. I heard them cutting the suit open, but I knew it was too late. I knew I would die.
But you didn't, Zechs said, reaching to cover his hand, stilling it with gentle pressure. They reached you in time.
But I had already accepted my death. Treize inhaled as if only then remembering how. I surrendered to it. I held my flesh in my hands-- my blood-- and I accepted that it would be my end. And I thought of... I thought of nothing but--
Noin stared uncomfortably away at the breeze stirring the drapes. Zechs stared at the hand he held, clenched now in a fist, the nails digging into the palm, the knuckles white. Une stared intently at Treize's face, though, her own eyes vivid with excitement. What? she whispered, rapt.
Treize looked up. They sent us there without cover, you know. Cadets and junior officers into an ambush-- but it wasn't an ambush. We had actionable intelligence. We had warning, and they sent us in anyway. They said it was probably a hoax, probably a lie, and they sent us there to die. The colonials, they don't care if they kill children in uniforms-- they prefer it. It's a war of attrition. The more of us they kill as cadets, the fewer of us there are to fight as fully-fledged soldiers of the Alliance. And the truth is that our commanders simply don't give a damn. They're corrupt or they're lazy or they're secretly in league with the Resistance-- it doesn't matter. They sent us in there to die for reasons we'll never know, but fifty of us flew in that day and only seven of us came out. That's what I was thinking. That's all I could think. It's all I can think now. If we want to live, if we want to win, we do it ourselves. Without them.
We're with you, Une said immediately. You know we're with you.
With you on what? Noin demanded, turning back in surprise. It's not that we don't agree, Treize. You know we do, and I think what happened to you is awful. But what can we do except what we already agree on? Try to rise the ranks as quickly as possible and change things from within.
No. No, that's not good enough. Treize set his wine aside, covered Zechs' hand with his. It must be more than that. That's why I wanted to speak to you all tonight. The Alliance has become a monstrosity. A father turning on its own children. We have one clear choice. To defend ourselves. I don't say it will be easy. But we begin our plans now, tonight, and keep our secrets well, and one day we can turn on this monster and cut it off at the head.
Une stood. We're with you, she said.
Treize nodded. Thank you, old friend. And you, Lucretia? Will you think on it?
She was silent for a long time. I don't know, Treize. What you're talking about is--
Necessary. You know it. You believe it, in your gut. In your heart.
She bowed her head. I'm with you. I'm in.
Zechs? Treize gripped his hand tightly. Without you, I'm nothing. I will fail without you with me.
Zechs brought his other hand to Treize's, and they held each other close, bending to touch their foreheads. He felt Treize's shaky exhale against his cheek.
To the end, Zechs promised him. To hell and back, my friend.
He woke abruptly from a roiling nightmare. His pulse was hammering, head pounding. He was clammy sweat from head to toe, soaking his sheets. His cell stank with it, echoed with his ragged gasps. He struggled free of his bed, pitched forward onto his feet. No, not a good idea. He had no balance, had no--
Had no vision beyond his nose; everything vanished into a strange dark blur, his hands seeking the wall, his hoarse call for-- no. He had pride yet. He wouldn't call for help. He could do this. Crawling like a child, if he had to. He had to. His bare knees scraped the floorboards, his palms itching and aching. He found the door to the bath by feeling along the corners. In serious trouble. But must not, must not let them see him weak. Must not let them see him fail. He shoved at the latch, clawed it until it opened, and he fell to the toilet and fumbled up the lid and emptied the paltry contents of his stomach into it.
He coughed until he could breathe again. His knees hurt, on the cold bath tile. He'd gone out of bed in only his underwear, and now that was soiled with his own sick. They'd offered him a slow drug-controlled detox and he'd disdained it, sure he could weather this like a man, but the headache... his stomach wouldn't stop turning, empty as it was, and he heaved again, dry as a bone, heaved until he choked helplessly, clinging to the damn wretched toilet.
'You gonna flush that anytime soon?'
He jumped, or tried to, jangled nerves sawed rough. His eyes were tearing and he couldn't see more than a brown wobble in the door behind him. He wiped his face, and the figure resolved.
'I know you,' he rasped.
'Not Biblically.' A boy. The one with the braid, who had piloted the Gundam with the scythe. The boy reached over Zechs' shoulder and emptied the toilet. 'You okay?'
Zechs stripped paper from the roll and wiped his mouth. 'I didn't hear knocking.'
Maxwell. That was his name. Duo Maxwell. He looked at Zechs for what felt like forever, but was probably only seconds. He lifted his foot and kicked the door with his heel, twice. Knocking.
'Nobody home.' Zechs tossed the paper away. His head was awful. But his stomach was settling. Maybe. He'd made a mess on the floor. He tried to rip more paper down for it, and pulled the roll off the wall. It went away into the bleary nothingness beyond his tunnel vision.
'I was having a pretty shitty week,' Maxwell said, 'but, in toto, this makes me feel better.'
It occurred to him only slowly. 'You're here,' he said. He pulled a towel down from the rack to cover himself, to wrap himself against the cold and the shivers that had taken him over. 'You're here.'
'No. Here.' He couldn't say it better than that, frustrated. 'You're like me.'
'Preventer,' Maxwell said, and bent to help him with the towel. He tucked a corner into Zechs' hand, draped an edge over Zechs' bare leg. 'War hero, or war demon, depending on who you ask, I guess.'
Their eyes met. Maxwell looked away first. He rose to his feet. 'I'm not like you,' he said briefly. 'Clean yourself up. They take care of the rooms, but they do expect us to wash ourselves.'
His hands were trembling. He rubbed his wrist over the sour taste in his mouth, and gathered himself together. He could stand, if he tried-- he wouldn't crawl again, not in front of Maxwell. If anything, this was better. With an enemy to fight, he could stand taller than alone with the tatters of his dignity. 'Then you can go away,' he said, using the toilet to leverage himself upward. The towel slipped, and he only just caught it, holding it awkwardly. 'You can leave feeling refreshed. Or superior. Or whatever it is you feel at this moment.'
'I have a hunch I was already superior.' Maxwell flipped on the bath fan.
'Is this part of therapy?' He managed the sink, even if the water emerged icy cold. His fingers went numb, and he shuddered as he splashed his face, his hair, his chest. He rinsed his mouth and spat it out. There was a toothbrush and paste on the ledge. He dropped the brush before he managed to get the paste uncapped, the paste smeared on the brush, and dropped the towel before he could brush his teeth. He almost gave up in despair, but for Maxwell's presence there, judging him.
'What?' he ground out.
'Waiting to see if you collapse on your way to a piss.'
He spat a thin mouthful of froth. 'Did Une send you to watch me? I already agreed to do her damn programme. She doesn't have to send spies.'
'I'm not here to spy on you, Lord.' Maxwell kicked the door wide and stepped back. 'They were talking about the new guy in the cafeteria. Sounded familiar. I wanted to see for sure.'
'And now you've seen.' He took advantage of the space Maxwell had vacated and brushed past the smaller man. His knees were weak, and he collapsed back to his bed rather than sitting, as he planned to, but he supposed it was a moot point anyway. He dragged his damp sheet up over his chest. 'Is there any possible chance you're carrying something other than a big mouth and a bad attitude?'
He meant it mostly as sarcasm. He was still mostly convinced of his first guess, that Une had sent him as a watcher; it might have been paranoia, but the entire world was on a crazy tilt, at the moment, and it felt as possible as anything else. But Maxwell stood there, ghost-like at the edge of his vision, wavering on the edge of hallucination and reality. He nudged closed the open apartment door, and hesitated there just a moment longer. Then he tossed a small plastic baggie to Zechs' bed.
It took a moment to realise what it was. Pills. Pills, partially mashed to dust. He didn't ask why. His fingers were so spastic he struggled to pull open the bag, and he scattered more than he managed to spill onto his palm. He licked it onto his tongue, a handful of the mess, without so much as asking what it was. It hurt his gums, tabs catching dry against his throat, and he coughed as he reached for his water glass. He swallowed thickly until he managed to get them down. But the relief. The sweet relief was instantaneous, cool as ice in his veins, beating back the headache, soothing the raging nausea in his belly, deadening the mad ants who itched under his skin. He buried a sob in his arm, pressed his hot face into his pillow.
'They'll know in the morning you had it.'
Maxwell. Maxwell was still there. He'd forgotten. It had been hours, it seemed. Or seconds. Only microseconds.
'Mandatory tests,' Maxwell said. 'They'll know in the morning. You hear me? If you tell them it was me I'll tell them you're lying.'
He had to unclench his fist from the baggie, and shoved it to the floor. The pills rolled and fell. 'I don't care.'
'You get three strikes before they kick you out.' Maxwell opened the door. 'Let them help you through this part next time. Methadone is better than dying in your own vomit.'
'Thank you. Get out.' He curled, sluggishly pulling at his blanket. His mind was going fuzzy. Whatever the pills had been, it was blessed numbness now, and his body was too wretchedly worn out to fight it. His hand dropped, nerveless.
Maxwell laughed. It echoed in Zechs' ears, a soft bitter chime. Maxwell covered him with the blanket. He bent sweep up the pills, and hid them away in a pocket. He set the waterglass near, and crouched to look Zechs eyeball to eyeball.
'You owe me,' he said, and that was the last thing Zechs remembered.
They did find him out. They woke him for a urine sample at six in the morning, but it never even went that far. The very fact that he wasn't a wreck spoke for itself.
It earned him a stern lecture from the director, Purceli, and an interrogation from the duty nurses, who were almost as good at their business as OZ's trained specialists had been. But if they knew it was Duo Maxwell, they didn't bring up his name. If that had even been real. He wasn't entirely sure, now, what had been dreamed and what had been true. He didn't think he'd conjured a Gundam Pilot, that Gundam Pilot in particular, out of whole cloth, but it didn't make sense that Maxwell would be here, either, and would be moved to help him for no reason at all. Not with their history.
But he seemed to have used up any compassion he'd been owed by the staff, who put him through a punishing day in retaliation for his crime. He was set on a structured detox with methadone without much choice in the matter beyond a brief instruction to sign a paper. He did it, recognising, at least, that while he might be able to do it alone, it wasn't worth the suffering, and Maxwell was unlikely to rescue him twice.
After half a day in the clinic getting poked and prodded by the nurses, he was thrown at a counselor, who pitilessly dragged him on a tour of the centre. The methadone tablets made him drowsy, made his mind feel flat and his body oddly disconnected from his thoughts, disobedient to his commands, but he went where he was told, resigned to it. The dormitories, of which he'd been only barely aware last night, already detoxing when he'd checked in. The clinic, on the two floors below, and a wide green courtyard with a small garden and even a pretty limestone fountain framed with snow that drew his dull stare. The annex where he would spend the majority of his forty-five-day sentence here, learning, he was told, how to live without acting on his addiction. He tried to pay attention, to at least glean a little intelligence about what that would impose on him, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
'You get lunch and two hours of free time before afternoon sessions,' the counselor told him. 'You may not feel like eating right away on the methadone, but you should try to get something in your stomach. Not eating doesn't help anything. Tea and toast is a good choice. Introduce yourself around if you like, or just sit and take advantage of the quiet. There's a library corner over there by the big windows.'
'Do you have the news?' he asked, dredging up the will to speak for the first time in hours. 'Internet? Can I at least check on my cases?'
'Not allowed here,' the counselor answered promptly. 'All of that ties in to what got you here, wouldn't you think? Take a break, Mr Merquise. You might even find you like it.'
'You can keep to yourself your guesses about what “got me here”,' Zechs told him flatly, and went to stand in the queue for tea.
It did make him feel better, if only for the ritual of something familiar. He filled a plain ceramic cup with hot water and chose from the teabags available-- only decaffeinated, he noted, annoyed at what seemed to be the pervasive attitude that the Centre had to control every choice for them lest they make the wrong one even by chance-- and settled on an innocuous orange pekoe, mostly for the pleasant smell. Une's choice of facility had a certain institutionalness about it, which no doubt suited her notions of what such places were supposed to be. No country club rehabilitation here. This place smacked of work ethic and accountability. He was a statistic here, not Agent, not even-- he could admit to reluctant pleasure in this one aspect at least-- Prince, which was all too possible. The war was only a few years over, and he was recognised all too often. What had that counselor just called him? Mr Merquise. Bland enough name for someone who was indistinguishable from anyone else who couldn't control their baser flaws. Reduced to his own lowest denominator.
He stood sipping his tea and staring about the cafeteria for nearly ten minutes before he realised what he was staring at. Duo Maxwell was here.
He left his tea on the return counter and crossed the room slowly. Yes. Definitely Duo Maxwell; so he hadn't imagined it. And, now that he was clearer than the night before, he was fairly sure he'd known that Maxwell was on Earth, and had joined the California Headquarters unit of Preventers. Une had been pleased at landing a Gundam Pilot for permanent employ, after finding so many of the former Resistance openly averse to participating in her pet project. Colonials were suspicious by nature and not many had been willing to join Preventers long-term after the last major conflicts of war had died out. She'd wanted Chang Wufei, but the boy who'd killed Treize Khushrenada was not yet a welcome addition to a group that hosted so many former Specials officers. Maxwell had been safer for testing the waters, Maxwell had been willing, Maxwell had been savvier to the politics and had known what he was getting into, she'd said, and Zechs had shrugged, because he'd been on his way to the Mars posting and had never expected to have to care, one way or another.
He took the leather easy chair beside Maxwell's couch. There was bright sun outside, reflecting on a blanket of fresh snowfall over the grounds. He squinted away from it as it pained his eyes. Maxwell was curled into his chair, making himself smaller than he should have seemed at-- what, twenty. Nineteen. He wore a baggy black sweater that left him pale-faced and grey-eyed. He chewed relentlessly at his finger, already bitten to the quick of the nail.
'Une sent you,' Zechs said.
Maxwell didn't turn. There was a thin line of blood on his finger. He bit with his teeth, and stared out the window.
'Maxwell,' Zechs said. 'Une sent you.'
Maxwell blinked. 'What?'
'Une sent you,' he said a third time, impatient. 'She must have. Why else would we both be here? She wouldn't be so foolish. She'd be duty-bound to preserve our anonymity.'
'That's our job, not hers.' Maxwell took his finger out of his mouth, but only to replace it with his thumb instead. 'Maybe she's teaching us a lesson about not shitting where you work.'
His head was too swimmy to pursue that. 'I know what I know,' he said stubbornly.
Maxwell finally glanced at him. 'You shouldn't wear blue,' he muttered absently. 'It's not your colour.'
He swallowed back an angry retort. 'I wasn't packing to go on the prowl.'
'I'm a little busy here. What do you want?'
He was no longer sure. Whatever he'd thought he could accomplish, whatever he'd thought he could get, it wasn't on offer. Maxwell's face was as closed to him as a statue's. It wasn't even a power play. It really wasn't. Maxwell stared out of the window, his teeth picking deeper into his thumbnail, lost to his surroundings.
Zechs stood slowly. He cleared his throat and said, 'Nothing worth taking you away from your busy day.'
Maxwell inhaled. 'What? Oh. You.'
Zechs had the distinct impression he was forgotten as soon as he stepped away. He looked back, but Maxwell sat where he'd been left, unmoving.
He made an effort to be persuaded by common sense. If Une had sent a spy, and by the time he'd forced himself to eat dinner he'd passed most of that suspicion, then he had to think said spy would at least attempt a few spy-like activities. Maxwell stayed ensconced in his corner for their free time and went to his evening appointments, which were on a different floor than Zechs', and ate dinner at a different table, went to the night nature walk rather than the inside film activity as Zechs did, and disappeared into his own room at lights out. Zechs knew because he marked Maxwell's comings and goings obsessively, which, he had to admit, made him look rather more like a spy than Maxwell.
His morning methadone came with a new schedule. Exercise at seven, followed by breakfast with the A Group, on what appeared to be a binary rotation between the residents, in order to manage the number of them without crowding the cafeteria. That explained why they'd been hustled out precisely on time the night before. Group therapy for a nauseatingly long session, a full four hours. Classes in the afternoon, all of which struck him as judgmental in title-- Preventing Relapse. Habit Breaking Behavioural Study. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous Introductions. Integration and Goal Setting. Building Confidence. A generous enough amount of that promised free time, called “reflection hours” on his rota. And a full list of insipid choices he apparently had to make to fill his open afternoon slot. That was worst of all, and he could only imagine the smirk Une must have had for herself when she'd read over the options. Pet Visit. Zechs was not particularly drawn to animals and never had been, even as a child. Worse was Crafts, though. He had no intention of knitting his way to sobriety, even if it meant his freedom. Book Reading Club. Bingo. Hiking had some brief promise, though he had only wan interest in leaving the building, and then only because it would get him away from the inanity of the rest of his so-called sentence here. Resume Writing and Interview Skills. He might want a different job, after this was over. Yoga and Nutrition. Church service. With a grimace, Zechs selected the yoga. It was like enough to exercise that it might occupy his mind away from the dreariness of the rest of his days here.
Maxwell had chosen the hiking. He remembered that, right as he handed over his paper to the counselor who waited on it. She walked away before he could reconsider. Well. Maybe that was for the best.
He was itchy under the skin, and the methadone didn't cover it was much the second day as it had the first. He had a tinnitus-like buzz in his head, preoccupying him so much that he only managed a few wrist curls and leg pumps in the gym, a fraction of his usual workout. He would be out of shape by the time he left this place. At breakfast he barely swallowed his eggs and toast. He had a bad mood building, and it wasn't all grump about the morning's poor direction. It was about the way the morning was going to end. Group therapy. Talking. He could kill Une for that alone. He had nothing to say to people he'd known his entire life, if there any of those left alive any more. Less than nothing to say to strangers, much less deep, dark confessions.
But he would survive. It was what he did. Even when he was determined not to.
So he followed the wall placards to Room 1109 and chose a chair at random from the circle in the middle of the room. He did not read the no-doubt inspirational posters; he did not avail himself of biscuits or coffee from the refreshments table; he did not look at the other members of the group he'd be stuck with for the next month as they arrived. He sat, and he prepared himself to sit here for as long as it took. He'd done unpleasant things before. This wouldn't be any worse than cleaning latrines as a cadet. Easier than ordering men into battle knowing they wouldn't return. Easier even than the endless boredom on Mars, where even when he wanted to be alone the vast emptiness of the colony ate at him. He'd get more than his fill of people here. He'd learn a little gratitude for the mystic silence of the Red Planet.
He almost had a handle of himself, thinking that, until he looked up and found Duo Maxwell taking a seat across from him.
He tried to swallow it down, but the night's paranoia came racing back. Maxwell in his therapy group? Present to listen while he bared his soul, forced to recount detail after detail of his drug use? So it could go into Une's file. She wasn't above illicitly collecting information on her subordinates, just as Treize had taught her.
He had no chance to pursue it before one of the Centre's counselor's entered, calling order by clapping her hands and taking an open seat at the circle. 'Good morning,' she said, offering a bright smile about the room. 'Do we have everyone?'
'Riggs is in the bathroom,' Maxwell answered, and pulled his feet up to the seat of his chair, tucking his knees under his chin. 'He says it's food poisoning.'
The counselor heaved out a breath. 'Again. Well. How remarkable. York, would you look in on Riggs? Tell him we're starting, but don't wait for him. Come right back.' She marked attendance in a notebook, and stopped when she got to Zechs. 'Good morning,' she repeated, laying down her pencil to look at him directly. He gazed impassively back at her. 'I'm Sofia. I'll be leading the morning sessions. You're our newest member.'
'Yes,' Zechs said.
She waited, but he didn't supply anything, determined to make her ask for it directly. He wouldn't negotiate, and he wouldn't provide any information voluntarily. Her smile faltered a little as she realised. Maxwell, Zechs noted, was watching. His lips quirked, and he looked away when Zechs tried to catch his gaze.
'Why don't you introduce yourself,' Sofia urged him.
'Zechs,' he said shortly.
'Where are you from, Zechs.'
'I'm not a local,' he answered carefully. 'I'm here because my work is nearby.'
He was aware of the other people in the circle gaining interest in him, if only because he was fighting the process. Perhaps he'd made a mistake in that. If he'd just provided some bland answers, he might have gone under the radar.
But Sofia at least seemed to have decided not to engage with him just yet. York, a mousy middle-aged man hiding behind large glasses, had returned alone, and shrugged at her; so whoever Riggs was, he wouldn't be joining them. A woman at the coffee table that he'd taken as a participant left quietly. So. A counselor in disguise, or just a guard of some kind, watching for trouble, off to deal with the recalcitrant Riggs. Maxwell had seen it happen, too. He still refused to meet Zechs' eyes, though Zechs tried again to catch him at it.
'Let's get started,' Sofia said. 'Zechs, since you're new to this, we start by suggesting a few topics and see what takes. Chime in when you can. I'm not marking your contributions for quantity or quality, but a certain level of participation is required as part of the programme. Understood?'
'Not precisely,' he replied coolly. 'What's the difference between not marking me for the number of times I speak up and marking me for the number of times I speak up? Are you keeping a tally or not?'
'We're just looking to see if you're actively engaging in the process.' Her smile was fixed and unrevealing. And she turned deliberately away from him before he could follow up with further questions. 'I think today would be a good day to talk about the payoff. What's the payoff for substance abuse? What are we trying to replace? What are we missing? Lamorne, you have something to say?'
'Yeah, I mean, I do,' said the older black man sitting beside her. He hunched forward for her attention, turning his coffee around and around in his hands. 'It's obvious, right? God.'
Zechs set his jaws together. Forty-three days left of this.
'Lamorne called it,' a dark-haired girl said. 'For my two cents, he's absolutely right. I know I'm always thinking about God when I'm snorting.'
'Okay,' Sofia interrupted. 'Let's keep on track. It's a good answer, Lamorne, but it's a personal answer for you. What else? How would it be different for you, Janey?'
The dark-haired girl rolled her eyes. 'What's it matter? If I had it, I wouldn't need coke.'
'We're here to learn how to replace drugs with better things. Healthier choices.' Sofia tapped her pencil slowly against her knee. 'When's the last time you talked to your sister?' she asked then. 'You said last week you were close when you were little. Are you close now?'
Janey suddenly found her hands very interesting. 'Not recently. She went to college. I'm not smart, like her. What do we have to talk about anymore?'
'I think you're very smart. You read all the time, and you built a beautiful model car during Crafts.'
'Out of a damn kit,' Janey muttered, but her cheeks tinged pink.
'Duo?' Sofia asked. 'What about you? What do you think you're looking for, trying to replace?'
Maxwell had his thumbnail between his teeth again. He looked up at his name, but lost interest immediately. 'It's classified,' he said.
Zechs pursed his lips. That was an amusing dodge. He wondered if it was true. Given Maxwell's past, it was possible. In fact, given his own past, and given how much of it had made it into the files in Une's safe, he thought he just have found his own answer.
Sofia had clearly heard it before. She waited a moment, almost as if she were going to move on, but then abruptly chose to challenge it. 'You've been here almost two weeks,' she told Maxwell sternly. 'That excuse doesn't fly, Duo.'
Maxwell looked her full in the face. 'Put in a Freedom of Information request,' he retorted. 'I told them at the front desk.'
'Can you at least try to answer in a general way?'
Their battle of wills lasted almost a minute. Sofia didn't give. Maxwell did. He bit down on his thumb, and said, 'God.'
It took Zechs a week to finish the methadone. There was no especial joy to end it, however: for as little as he'd liked the process, he hadn't realised how much it was masking the actual symptoms of withdrawal. Without the methadone to dull the craving, he was aware of it like never before. The first night without it was agony. He lay awake all hours, thinking longingly, achingly, of codeine, valium, even a cigarette-- anything to take away the edge of need. He dug his fingernails into his palms until he left bloody half-moons, bit his tongue until he tasted copper. He had dozing nightmares, half-dreams in which he re-fought the worst of his duels from the war, tasted frisson of nuclear energy and beam weaponry as mobile dolls and Heero Yuy and Quatre Winner and Alex and Mueller and a dozen half-remembered faces came after him again and again, but whenever he awoke he knew the truth. Sobriety was no cure. He was going to go insane here.
The days went by in a blur. He listened to Maxwell, but it was more a habit from those first unsure hours, sure that Maxwell was there to listen to him. Maxwell said, if anything, even less than Zechs did. When pressed, Maxwell always retreated behind the line that his answers were classified. Zechs mimicked him, because it was easier than thinking of his own excuse, easier than fighting his own war on the staff, easier than figuring out what he would do when Maxwell left and Zechs would be alone here without someone paving the way for him, intentionally or otherwise. Then, too, he was certain of one thing-- Maxwell was still using. Maxwell had given him drugs his first night, and since Zechs had been thoroughly searched on entering the property, he had to assume Maxwell had been too, which meant Maxwell had got the drugs somewhere in the Centre. And Maxwell was just not suffering as much as he was. He refused to believe it was because he was weaker, because he was a lesser man. Even with a two-week lead on detox Maxwell should have shown signs of struggle. And he didn't. He was still using.
In his better moments, his most bitter moments, Zechs knew he was becoming obsessed with Maxwell. He knew why, of course. They were trapped here together, and Maxwell was by far the most interesting thing about the Centre. A Gundam Pilot, which made him at least equal to Zechs in skill and tenacity. A Preventer, which gave them similar background and goals. But more than that. Someone who'd fallen to the same disease. No. Same failing. They were the same in that, and it made Maxwell a mirror. It made Zechs a narcissist, for wanting to stare into it constantly, but he couldn't stop himself. In those endless days at the Centre all he had to distract himself was Maxwell, ticking away the hours of his sanity.
Treize had spent years in physical therapy to treat his injuries from that bad engagement in the colonies. He'd never quite walked right after it, never run again, never fenced at the top of his game, never piloted as well as he had before. For every loss there'd been a gain in determination, though. For everything Alliance had taken away there'd been a tally made, a scorecard written that would be evened out one day. Treize was like that. Personal pain writ large on the scale of history. Zechs had been his brightest pupil in that. He supposed Treize had known it before he had, why they'd gone head to head at Libra. He bought every book that was published about it, but he couldn't bring himself to read them. One day, when it didn't bite so badly. As it was, he used the books as target practise. He could pick off his own name in print at twenty-four paces.
It was still pain, but it was different pain. He wasn't sure if that counted for anything.
'It's classified,' Zechs said flatly.
Sofia pressed the pencil to her lips as if physically gagging herself from speaking. Everyone else in the group was apprehensively still, watching warily.
'Duo, Zechs,' she murmured, 'we need to talk outside. Everyone, take a ten minute break.'
Zechs rose slowly. He'd been expecting this; he'd known they wouldn't get away with it forever, not with both of them pulling the same trick. Maxwell rubbed his eyes wearily, and slouched out after Sofia without waiting for Zechs. So. No last-minute alliance. But that was as Zechs had been expecting, too.
In the hall, Sofia wasted no time on making herself clear. Maxwell leant on the wall, and Zechs put himself at parade rest. Their counselor hugged her book loosely to her chest and looked at them without warmth.
'I've told the Director about your obstructionism,' she said. 'You'll go see him now. Margie will walk with you.'
'We can't be trusted to walk across the campus?'
'No,' Sofia said. 'And you're not welcome back to this group until you change your tune. People come here to heal. Either you make yourself a part of that or you don't, but you don't get to screw it up for other people.' She motioned, and Margie, the other counselor who sat in on their group sessions, stepped forward. 'Go.'
Director Purceli's office on the second floor looked out over the fountain, though it had no other comforts to offer. It was stuffed with books and papers, plain metal file cabinets, and the furniture was cheaper by far than, say, Une's, or even the pre-fab plastics they'd had on Mars. A very old sofa upholstered in worn green velveteen was the sole comfort, and that was where Purceli gestured them to sit. It was a tight fit for the two of them, even with Maxwell curling away from him. It was the closest they'd been since his first night in the Centre, a night that had taken on too many shades of unreality to be remembered whole. He inhaled and could smell Maxwell's shampoo, taste it on his tongue. He breathed more carefully then.
'Tea?' Purceli asked. 'I try to cut myself off at noon, but some days I just need the extra boost.'
'No,' Zechs said.
'Duo? I know you like the apricot zinger. I have a sachet of that.'
Maxwell looked up from his thumbnail. All his fingers were ragged, now, chewed bloody. 'Um,' he said. 'Yeah. Thanks.'
'Of course.' Purceli poured steaming water from an electric kettled plugged in by his window, and handed Maxwell a mug with the Centre's logo. With his hands occupied, Maxwell at least managed to stop chewing on himself. Clever, Zechs thought grudgingly.
Purceli dragged a rolling chair to the sofa, and sat. He was a heavy-set man in his late fifties, at least, putting him more than double either of their ages, and he had a world-weary look to him that seemed sincere enough. Given what he did for a living, he likely heard enough to earn it. That didn't incline Zechs to spill his story for the asking.
Purceli sipped his own tea, and set it on the carpet beside his chair. He said, 'Sofia tells me there's some difficulty with your group therapy.'
Maxwell stared down at his mug and didn't answer. Zechs did. He replied, trying for a polite tone, 'It's not appropriate to have us in a group with housewives and B-list rockstars.'
'You're here because of your disease, not your work habits,' Purceli countered.
'I was here to detox. I'm finished.' He dropped the 'we' for that declaration, knowing he was no longer speaking for them both. Maxwell didn't twitch, didn't indicate by so much as an eyelash that he was guilty of cheating the programme. If it was even a lie-- if he was even listening. His breathing was slow and shallow. He wasn't blinking.
'You've got more than thirty days left in your time,' Purceli noted. 'You don't strike me as a man who makes commitments and fails them. Wouldn't you rather get something out of your time here?'
Zechs clenched his jaws. 'I'm finished with group therapy.'
Unexpectedly, Maxwell's head came up. He said, 'Suck it up. Everyone does group.'
Zechs was left gaping at him. 'You're no more cooperative than I have been,' he protested. 'Why are you--'
'I may not talk about myself but I discuss when it's their turn. It's not just about you. There's ten other people in there.'
'Ten people who are not my problem.'
Purceli didn't seem to know what to make of that venom any more than Zechs did. Finally he said, 'Look, there's a central issue here. I've spoken with your commanding officer. I'm willing to negotiate on the issue of dealing with classified events. We can have private sessions, if you continue to attend group every other session in the meanwhile.'
Good God. That was worse than before. Zechs tried not to show his revulsion on his face, but it was difficult. 'Must we-- must we speak?' If after everything he was going to wind up back at divulging all manner of personal detail before Maxwell, who would after all be in a position to reveal it to Une--
'You have to participate,' Purceli told him unequivocally. 'Where you're able to. Not just willing to.'
Maxwell stuck his nail between his teeth. He dripped tea on his shirt.
'I'll let you know the new schedule when we work it out.' Purceli looked at Zechs then. 'And while you've been extended certain privileges, Duo's right. You're a part of the group here. You can give support and get it, if you're open to it. All right?' He waited, and repeated himself when neither man spoke. 'All right?'
'All right,' Maxwell mumbled.
'All right,' Zechs grated.
'Take the rest of the morning as free time,' Purceli said then. 'Maybe the two of you should try spending some time together. We thought it might be beneficial for you to be in group together, given your similar experiences. Take some time to talk.'
Zechs had been rising to go, but caught himself halfway to his feet. 'Excuse me. You're the one who put us together here?'
'In group, yes.' Purceli sipped his tea. 'The group is always selected based on the personality profile, the addiction profile, professional background, and a number of demographic factors.'
'And the fact that there's only thirty people here?'
'We'd have smaller groups,' Purceli said. 'Like two. As we'll do starting tomorrow with you two.' He rescued Maxwell's mug as it began to droop. 'Have a good morning, son.'
Out in the hall Maxwell pulled ahead of him, his shorter stride working harder on the tile to move faster. Zechs stalked quickly after him, and pulled even within a dozen feet. He caught Maxwell by the arm, holding on even when Maxwell attempted to wrench away from him. He pushed Maxwell against the door of the utility closet, trapping him there with his own body. Maxwell stubbornly glared anywhere but up. Disgusted, Zechs let him go.
'How are you fooling the drug tests?' he demanded.
'You wanna talk a little louder there?'
'Oh, please. No-one but you could hear me.'
Maxwell stuffed his hands into his pockets and headed for the stairwell. He clattered down rapidly, and Zechs set after him again. He met up with Maxwell at the lobby landing and followed him to the cafeteria side doors, to the courtyard and the fountain. It was cold, almost frigid, but the snow beneath their shoes was crisp, not wet, and there was no standing sludge or melting puddles. Zechs almost suggested they stop for their coats, but Maxwell's trajectory had purpose in it, and his stride didn't slow. Zechs tugged his collar up against the breeze and fluffed his hair over it. He followed.
He remembered, as they walked, that Maxwell knew the grounds from his hiking, though they left the obvious path quickly once they neared the woods. The trees had caught most of the snowfall, and soon they walked on fallen leaves and loam, not white ice. Shrub and fallen logs accounted for most the visibility between them and the Centre. And it was silent. An earthly kind of silence, a silence of air whispering and birds chirping sleepily and crickets, but no human noise other than their breath, their passage. Despite himself, Zechs felt the week's tension fading. It wasn't better, exactly, but it was different.
Maxwell stepped wide around an ancient oak and settled between two gnarled roots. Zechs perched uneasily on the damp wood, catching his boot beneath him for support. Maxwell's head was turned away from him, his face dappled with shadow.
'The tests,' he said. 'Answer me.'
Maxwell sighed. 'They say the tests are random, but they're not. I figured out the pattern. It's three-one-three. I know what I can take and when to have it out of my system by the time they come collecting the piss.'
'Why are you still using?'
'What, now you want to share?' Maxwell asked snidely.
'I want to know what you're doing here if you don't intend to get well.'
Maxwell reached into his shirt. His hand emerged with a baggie. Zechs looked keenly at him. It was just like the first night-- a little plastic bag, with pills. Pills like the ones dispensed at the nurse's office inside. Maxwell held it out, and Zechs took it. He held them to the light, but he was already sure. It was a wide assortment of medication, all of it official, all of it prescription. It had to come from the desk. Vicodin. Oxycontin. Xanax and Halcion and Librium.
'How are you getting them?' he asked. 'Who's your seller?'
'I don't have one.' Maxwell picked at the bark of the tree, wearily dropping his head back to the trunk behind him. 'I don't sleep well. My first night I was walking the building. I caught the night nurse raiding the supplies. He's running some kind of scam, probably checking out meds for patients who aren't here but are still technically on the books.'
'Why didn't you turn him in?'
'Why would I? They'd have to kick me out of the programme.'
'That doesn't make any sense.'
'Think like a Preventer,' Maxwell said shortly. 'They'd have to kick me out while they investigated it. Which means I'd have to come back some other time or go somewhere else, and either way it drags this shit out. I keep my mouth shut and some asshole makes a few hundred bucks without hurting anyone.'
'And you keep yourself supplied.'
'I already told you I'm not like you.' Maxwell flung a strip of bark at him. 'I'm an alcoholic,' he said. 'If he'd been trading in Jack Daniels, I'd have a problem. You want a free high, though, be my guest.'
He'd thought that he would be the one confessing. He hadn't really considered what it would be like to hear it from someone else; hadn't truly listened during the group therapy when those other people had confessed their little sins. It hadn't mattered from them. But Maxwell had said it so casually. Alcoholic.
'You're not,' he said, unsure why he even disagreed. 'Or if you are... if you are, why fight it so much here? Why wouldn't you want to be fixed? Cured of your disease?'
Maxwell closed his eyes. 'Why would I want to be fixed? The problem was getting through the day without a drink. Alcohol makes it tolerable. If I can function drunk, that's my business.'
'Exactly. Yes, that's it exactly.' He clenched the baggie in his hand, feeling the pills round against his palm. 'So why did you throw it in my face that I won't participate in the group?'
'Because it's not just about us. Whether we like it or not we're stuck here, and those people do care about getting well.'
'And how is that my responsibility? How does my silence or my addition to discussion change any of that, especially if I don't give it willingly?'
Maxwell opened pale eyes, looking at him directly for the first time, perhaps, since the night he'd come to Zechs' room and given him another bag of pills. He said, 'You still owe me.'
Zechs licked his lips to wet them. 'What do you want?' he asked slowly.
'Just reminding you.'
'Keeping a tab?' He pried open the bag and sorted the pills with a fingertip. His mouth went dry on contact, then watered. He could have it again. No more dull days, no more fitful, long nights full of unfulfilled needs. All for an unnamed price. He looked up at Maxwell's face, and asked himself, really asked himself this time, if it was going to be worth it. His hands were starting to tremble. He could numb the dreams, if he could just numb the dreams for a few nights, it would necessarily mean he'd have to give up this new sobriety...
For whatever good it did him. Maxwell had already said it. It wasn't the high that was the problem. The high made everything else possible. It allowed him to forget what he lived through every time his head hit a pillow at night. The dreams where he climbed out of the wreckage of Libra by clawing out of his own suit were bad, but the dreams in which he suffocated slowly were worse. Sometimes he let himself die, chose to go down with the weight of his own sins, and sometimes Heero Yuy was his executioner, bringing him a swift end as Chang Wufei had done his old friend and enemy Treize. Sometimes he dreamt of battle, of the day he'd been ordered to his own suicide against a thousand mobile dolls, and the dreams were nothing but an endless horde of beam weapons flashing, cutting flesh and metal indiscriminately, a terrifying onslaught that ended only when his body gave out and he awoke gasping in fear and exhaustion. Worst of all was the dream in which the horde was not dolls but suits that held people, soldiers under his command, soldiers who had once been his, OZ and Alliance and Resistance and White Fang, men and women who had been his until he'd turned on them in madness. In that dream, he sent the mobile dolls after them, just as he had at Libra. He sent the mobile dolls after them, and he watched the slaughter from Libra, just watched it happen over and over and over again, and enjoyed it. He always woke from that one desperate for the very relief he held in his hands right now, and he'd never stopped to think about it before.
Why think about it now?
He picked out two large pieces of what had been codeine tabs, and crushed them further between forefinger and thumb. He rubbed the powder against his gums and swallowed the largest crumbs dry. It tasted like acid on his tongue, slow to fade. If he felt any regret about it, it disappeared into the jolt of dizziness that swept him. He closed his eyes, gripping the root beneath him until it passed. It left euphoria behind, painfully sharp, painfully sweet.
'How-- how long do we have?' he managed to ask.
'Forty minutes, maybe,' Maxwell said, sounding far away now. Zechs forced his eyes open. Maxwell sat forward to take the bag away from him, and was licking his finger. Powder. He'd taken something, too. But where Zechs felt alive for the first time in a week, Maxwell went relaxed and sleepy, sitting limp against the tree, his face slack with it, the bag forgotten in his hand. Zechs flexed his fingers, to catch the tingle that filled each of them. He closed the bag and tucked it away in Maxwell's pocket. He sat on the cold ground beside Maxwell, their knees pressed together, birdsong and wind rushing in his ears. Tablets wouldn't last long, he knew, and knew as well that he was only feeling it so strongly because he'd been detoxifying for a week beforehand, but it felt so good in that moment. It felt so good, and it had been a long time since he'd felt good.
He traced a white scar on Maxwell's hand, following the broken curve of the lifeline on his palm. He said, 'Are you all right.'
Maxwell swallowed. With an effort, he turned his head, but his eyes didn't open. He mumbled, 'They'll look for us. Would've... would've had longer if Purceli... hadn't been on our asses.'
There was another white scar, only barely visible, but long, on Maxwell's jaw, smooth against his fingertip. No hair at all, as if he were a boy of twelve, not nearly twenty. Zechs slid his own palm against it, against the cool silk of Maxwell's hair. Maxwell turned his head away. He stretched flat on the dirt between the roots, settling his arm over his eyes to shade them. Zechs lay down beside him, staring up at the bare winter canopy above. The slow rocking movement of the brown branches mesmerised him, but so, too, did the smell of Maxwell's shampoo, so near him, and the warmth of his body, and when he shifted his arm just an inch to the right, his hand touched Maxwell's, wrist touching wrist, hand touching hand. Zechs swallowed, and fire flowed through him from chest to groin. He rolled, and lowered himself over Maxwell, covering him.
'We’ll have to hurry,' he said.
This close, he could see the translucence of Maxwell's skin, the blue veins of his eyelids, the fine shade of red in his eyebrows and the long strands of hair that brushed away with Zechs' touch from his forehead. He never said yes. But he never said no, either.
Zechs lifted the hem of Maxwell's shirt and pressed his lips to Maxwell's warm belly, dragging his tongue over skin, mapping ribs, navel, the thin trail of dark hair that led to the hem of his jeans. He shifted away to pull at the button and zip, left an accidental scratch in Maxwell's pale skin as he dragged at the jeans and the shorts beneath them. Not a hairless boy here, and that was enough to harden him, just the sight of it, the scent of another man. He'd been too long without it, with Noin standing guard at his door, hangdog guard always warning away every possible opportunity with her mournful staring. But she wasn't here now to ruin this. He rubbed Maxwell with his hand, dragged his fingers through the crinkly hair of Maxwell's crotch, mouthed him until it rose against his lips. He fumbled at his own zip and grabbed Maxwell's hand, cramming it against him. Not enough. Not enough, but they had nothing with them outdoors like this.
He might have disdained it in better days, but it wasn't better days, not any more, and he knew what he needed. Knew they might not have another opportunity away from prying eyes. He spat into his hand, three, then four times, enough to slick himself. Maxwell was supine when Zechs rolled him, took Zechs' arm about his middle and the intrusion of a finger with nothing but a breath of air. When Zechs climbed over him from behind and pushed into him, Maxwell fisted the dirt and clenched against him, suddenly and painfully resistant-- why? Surely he couldn't be surprised by it. But almost as quickly he was pliant again, and Zechs dropped his head to Maxwell's shoulder, to muffle his noise against Maxwell's shirt. He dug against the ground with his shoes, dug rivets to get the leverage for each thrust, but he didn't need many. Maxwell was a tight tunnel, and the starfield behind his eyes became freefall all too soon. He panted his release, and released Maxwell's arms surprised to discover that his hands had gone numb from the force of his grip.
He found himself on his back again some time after that, gazing up at the trees. He could see hints of the sky beyond them, bits of blue peeking through. One of the better things about Earth. There was nothing like that on Mars. No trees. Red storms, and sand. No blue, and he did like blue. There was freedom in blue. The wild space of sky and ocean, untamed and uncolonised by man.
A shiver wracked him. He was cold. He was cold because he was half bare. He felt about him for a patch of grass, and found enough to rip up a handful. He cleaned himself as best he could, and propped himself on an elbow to look after Maxwell. He lay where he'd been left, his shirt rumpled at his shoulders, his jeans at his ankles. There were bruises on his hips, already beginning to show. Zechs swallowed drily.
He wiped Maxwell down with the grass, and dressed him. As Zechs snapped the jeans button back into place, Maxwell rolled away from him, curling onto his side. If his eyes had opened once at all through any of it, it didn't show.
'You shouldn't sleep out here,' Zechs said, uncertain of him.
'They'll just think I had a psychotic break and reverted to my childhood,' Maxwell mumbled, rubbing a hand over his nose.
'They'll extend your stay to ninety days.'
That was evident motivation. Maxwell pulled himself up slowly, combing a finger through his long fringe, plucking dead leaves from his braid. He climbed to first one knee and then the next, brushing dirt from his clothes. He glanced around him from under lazy lashes, and wandered off without looking back at Zechs.
'Maxwell,' Zechs called.
He tried to think, but if there were words for what they'd just done, he didn't know them. He closed his own eyes. The happy delirium of the codeine was already fading, gone.
'Nothing,' he said.
'Exactly,' Maxwell answered, and trudged away, disappearing between the trees.
'When did you have your first drink?' Purceli asked Maxwell.
Maxwell dropped his head back to the green cushion behind him. 'I don't know. Always ago. Drinking was never a thing. Everyone drank. There's no clean water on L2. You drink alcohol because the alcohol is cleaner than the showers.'
'All right.' Purceli let that pass without taking offence; he was used to their ways and rarely rose to provocation, even when it was just Maxwell venting his temper in snippy little rejoinders. 'So,' the director asked instead, 'when did drinking become a thing for you?'
Zechs bit back a sneer. He was tired, to the bone. Their new schedule demanded a seemingly endless amount of thinking and talking and thinking about what to talk about. Between their sessions with Purceli and their enforced time in group therapy, it seemed to Zechs that he was being swallowed by words, drowned by them. He was a silent person by nature and it was an effective torture.
Relieved only slightly by the new form of recreation he'd discovered. He didn't think he liked Maxwell very much, on the whole-- and he was in no doubt whatsoever that Maxwell did not like him-- but the only peace he felt was the few minutes after they slept together. And he could, now, sleep. He'd slept four whole hours last night, in Maxwell's bed, before Maxwell had rolled over and kicked him out to beat the morning shift of nurses.
'You ever heard of a cronk,' Maxwell said finally, his voice muffled around his fingernail. There was a thin line of blood there, before he licked it away. 'Cronks and moonies.'
'No.' Purceli made a note with his pen, a quick dash. 'What's a cronk?'
'That's what they used to call colonials. Like, a century ago. Longer. Moon-men and shit. That's what they call me, my unit.'
'You don't like being called that.'
'I don't like old-fashioned racism dressed up as fake comradeship and phoney old-boy bullshit.' Maxwell clenched his hands into fists. 'They act like we have different DNA. Maybe we do. Maybe they're hoping they have an opportunity to spill some blood and find out.'
Zechs stirred. 'That's not fair,' he said. 'You don't know that.'
'Neither do you. You're like that, too.'
'Boys,' Purceli said mildly, and Zechs turned away, gritting his teeth. 'Duo,' Purceli added then, 'have you ever reported harassment?'
'To who?' Maxwell stuck his thumbnail back in his mouth, worrying at it with his sharp teeth. 'Biggest Ozzie of all runs the damn Corps. What's she going to tell me? I knew what I was getting into. It'll pass when they get to know me, trust me. They're just acting out because they're scared of change. I know the rules. I gave my word I could handle it.'
'You didn't give your word not to negotiate changes where changes can make improvements that help everyone.' Purceli might have been waiting for an answer, there, but he didn't get one. 'Have you ever talked to anyone?' he asked. 'A friend, I mean?'
Maxwell snorted. 'I'm not really in a position to make a lot of casual friends. Who do I know, anyway?'
'Who do you know, really? Who would you trust with your life? With your back?'
That seemed to catch Maxwell off his guard. 'In Preventers? No-one. They said they were going to bring in Chang, but that hasn't happened yet.'
'Not in Preventers, no. In the Resistance, perhaps. Or from before that.' Purceli leant in, balancing his elbows on his knees. 'Members of your old cell. People you wouldn't hesitate to share something this important with, people who would know you, and care that you're here. Is there anyone?'
Zechs already knew the answer to that. Of course he did. The Gundam Pilots. It would have to be. OZ had always believed they came as a unit, even with the reports of in-fighting, and Libra had proved it to him. They'd fought as one. They'd traipsed off into the peace as one. Who knew. Maybe as two. Maybe that was why Maxwell was hesitating. He couldn't claim that was classified.
'Quatre,' Maxwell said slowly, mumbling it around his hand. 'He would care. He cares about everything, that's always the joke. He'd care about the lack of air in Space if anyone pointed it out to him... It'd be good to see him, you know. Talk to him about things. But--'
'But?' Purceli prodded.
'But—' Maxwell bit his lip until it whitened. 'But if anyone's gonna make good it's him, right? He's got family and a career and a big place to take care of. I show up, I drag him down with my shit.'
'You don't think he'd want to be a part of your shit with you?'
'You shouldn't swear,' Maxwell. 'You don't really put enough emphasis on it. Whenever you say shit you're really supposed to be thinking fuck. When you say fuck, you're really supposed to be thinking fuck you, you motherfucking piece of--' He swallowed, and stopped himself. 'I told Quat that once. I got him up to “fart monster”. He's really great. He'd care. I just-- I just don't want him to-- I don't want him to know. I don't want to him know, okay.'
'You want him to look up to you.'
'Yes,' Maxwell agreed grudgingly.
'What about someone you look up to? Is there someone out there you could talk to?'
Maxwell gnawed at his thumb. 'Heero's in the colonies. I'm not sure which one, but he leaves clues. I haven't ever figured out if he does it because he wants me to find him or if he's just sloppy and figures he can handle whatever comes out of the woodwork.' A ghost of a smile touched his lips, but faded before it quite reached his eyes. 'I don't think he'd really get it. I don't know. Sometimes he looks at me like I'm a moon-man, too. Maybe Chang would be better, if he's supposed to be joining Preventers, but he'd judge, you know. He'd make it out like I'm the weak one for not handling it better, and he's right, isn't he, so what's the use in that? Barton...'
'Which one is Barton?'
'Trowa Barton.' Maxwell smeared the blood from his finger across his palm, staring down at it. 'I think he'd get it. Wanting to be someone else, somewhere else. Barton's not really his name-- he took it from a dead man. And he's really the one who should be joining Preventers, not Chang. It's not about honour and catching bad guys and putting out the flames of evil, not anymore. It's about following the bribes and the drugs and the mobile suits and the bodies. Barton knows about that. And how it gets to you. He used to hide out at a circus. I always thought that was really funny, you know? It's all a circus out there. Why not make it a circus at home, too. At least the only thing gonna kill you there is the hot dogs.'
Purceli smiled obediently. 'Why don't you call him?' he suggested. 'We have a visitor day coming up. Barton could be your guest.'
No. Zechs knew the answer to that one, too.
'No way.' Maxwell clammed right back up. His knees came up tight to his chest, and he crammed his thumbnail back between his teeth.
'If one of them knows, they all know.'
'You don't think he'd keep a secret for you? Or that if he did tell, they wouldn't just be concerned for your health? Want to help you?'
'What the hell help is there?' Maxwell demanded. 'I'm here. Fat fucking lot of good that's doing me.' He shoved to his feet. 'We're out of time. I have to meet the group for AA.'
Purceli winced as his door slammed against the wall with Maxwell's passing. He sighed.
Zechs rose more slowly. He didn't say anything as he left. But he heard Purceli sigh again as he closed the door behind him.
He passed his three-week mark at the Centre with little fanfare but for bad weather. It rained for a solid two days, keeping him from making his escape to the woods outdoors. Morose, Zechs loitered as much as possible in the cafeteria, to be near the windows, but staring at the rain only made it worse. He drank so much tea he felt as soggy inside as it looked outside, and finally gave up in disgust. Wandering the halls made him feel like a lunatic, but it was a least motion, exercise, movement.
He was dreaming constantly. Even when he dozed he dreamed, and it was all wild, a jumble of memory and nightmare. Treize figured prominently, and Noin, and even Relena, whom he had tried diligently to forget. Sometimes she was the tiny baby he'd held in his arms, with his parents smiling proudly down, and sometimes she was the brave young woman who'd confronted him, not yet knowing she was his sister, the survivor of a purged and murdered line. He'd seen her only twice since the war-- once before leaving for Mars, feeling he'd owed her the good-bye and glad to be leaving her behind, glad to be leaving her if it meant she'd live out the rest of her life, their Peacecraft life, the way it was meant to be. Once after coming back, and then only by chance, a meeting that had lasted for an awkward minute, a press of hands, her lips warm on his cheek, leaving a promise to talk more. He'd slipped away, glad, then, to be able to leave without fulfilling that promise. They weren't really siblings anymore. They didn't know each other, they had no bond. They owed nothing. It would be easier to forget.
It would have been easier to forget a great many things. That was less and less possible here, where he was asked to dredge it up for public consumption at every turn. Maxwell was better at that, playing along until pushed to some mysterious edge. Some days they went well beyond what Zechs would have thought were his boundaries. Other days his fuse was short, and it took hardly anything to set him off. His reactions could be startling and violent, those days. Once he overturned a lamp, breaking the ceramic base and cutting himself on the shards; he'd been suspended from public activity for that, and Zechs hadn't been able to find him until after lights out, when he'd been summarily dismissed from Maxwell's door.
But when he talked he could talk with surprising candour. After the years of secrecy in OZ, the secrets Zechs had kept for himself, and the secrets he'd kept for Operation Daybreak, that kind of radical honesty had never been Zechs' way. Yet he remembered how Heero Yuy had spoken with almost confrontational openness to him, how confounded it had made him feel after those many years of deliberate obscurity. Maybe it was nothing more than the difference between colonist and Earther, or Rebel and Ozzie, differences he felt more keenly than ever in those sessions on Purceli's couch. But it made him think in ways he'd never thought before.
'Zechs,' Purceli said, 'you haven't shared much today.'
Zechs pressed his thumbs to the spot of sore pain between his eyes. He'd had a headache for days that refused to be chased away, even with the pills in Maxwell's magic bag. 'No,' he said briefly.
Purceli politely pressed him. 'I think you ought to try. You haven't been very talkative in group, either, and we've been clear that you need to contribute. So let's try together. Duo's talked about his drinking. Let's talk about why you started using codeine.'
Maxwell's head turned toward him, though Zechs stayed stiffly facing the window. 'I'd prefer not to,' he said.
'We can do question and answers, if that would help.' Purceli folded his notepad over to a fresh page. 'It was an injury, yes? The initiating incident.'
Even if he'd wanted to he didn't have words. His mind was blank. 'Initiating incident.'
'An accident?' Purceli prodded. 'Or something that happened during the war?'
Zechs swallowed drily. 'A war-- injury. Yes.'
Purceli waited, then led him into it. 'When?'
When he hesitated, Maxwell blew out an annoyed breath. 'Libra,' Maxwell said.
They both looked. Maxwell hugged one of the green deflated pillows to his chest, picking at the loose stitching.
'Obviously,' Maxwell added. 'That was the last major MS engagement you were involved in. You have scars all over your chest. Old scars, but not that old. Libra, right.'
Purceli pursed his lips. 'It was the Battle of Libra?' he clarified. He made a note in his pad, as Zechs set his teeth together. 'That was years ago now.'
'Three.' Three years and eight months. Christmas was near. He wanted to be gone by Christmas, back to the Red Planet where no-one marked that holiday but for the small details like tinsel and fairy lights, not lives lost and treaties written and history redrawn.
'And you received injuries during the Battle?'
'My suit was crushed,' he explained reluctantly. Almost the exact same injury that Treize had suffered, years earlier, in Space not far from where Zechs had waged the last engagement of the Colony War. Treize had been trapped in a crushed suit and had been rescued by crewmen. Zechs had clawed his way out, though it had taken hours, hours of panic and-- Treize had called it the certainty of death. Acceptance. Zechs had never understood that, until he'd experienced it for himself. He'd never really believed he could die, would die, even in moments when he'd arguably been closer to death. But trapped in Epyon he'd really believed he'd die there. He still woke to the suffocating pressure of Gundamium crushing him against his pilot's chair, ripping muscle and skin as he pried himself free. He'd pulled an arm from its socket, punctured a lung, broken ribs. If he hadn't been found by loyalists he wouldn't have survived the internal bleeding. As it was, he'd barely survived the loyalists, who'd wanted him to lead them in a new resurrection of White Fang.
'The codeine was to manage the pain,' Purceli said. 'Did it help?'
'It was better than the alternative.' Zechs folded his hands around his knee, gripping tightly. 'I had skin grafts and multiple surgeries. I spent months underground in sub-par medical facilities, and half a year after that working with friends in White Fang to stomp out radical activists trying to seize remaining mobile dolls to advance their little causes. Then I took an active post with Preventers. Codeine takes the edge off the pain. I wouldn't call it “managing”. I'd call it getting through the day.'
'Understandable,' Purceli nodded. He wrote notes, his pen flowing from one side of the page to the other and starting over again. He glanced up, and kept writing. 'You've been here for three weeks?'
'According to the cupcake they gave me in the cafeteria,' he answered coolly.
Purceli smiled. 'I like those. Angela makes the carrot cake from scratch. Good thick icing.'
Purceli rested his pen. 'My point is that you haven't had any pain medication for three weeks. You haven't asked for anything, either. You haven't limped, or acted sore, or in any way evidenced pain.' He tapped his fingers on the pad. 'I don't think that's a revelation. I think you realised that a while ago.'
'Your point,' he repeated. His knuckles were white, and he tried to flex his fingers. He couldn't. They were numb from the force of his grip.
'You have nothing but time here, Zechs. It's worth thinking about your root cause. Until you confront it, it's going to weigh on you.'
He only just stopped himself from rolling his eyes. Purceli noted it, he was sure, watching him like a hawk. Like an Academy instructor of old, alert for every failure, demerits just waiting to be logged. 'I don't believe in root causes,' Zechs said flatly. 'There's no one reason. For anything. Anyone who reduces men and history to a single impulse misapprehends the complexity of the human experience.'
Maxwell snorted softly. 'God,' he muttered, and stuck a fingernail in his mouth. 'I hate agreeing with you.'
Purceli chuckled. 'All right,' he said. 'So explain the complexities to me. We have time. Nothing but time.'
Time. It yawned before him. He stared longingly out the window at the rain. 'I wouldn't know where to begin.'
'Meissner?' Purceli proposed. 'You seem to do better at this when you have something to debate. There's a psychoanalytic theory of addictive personalities. These days it's a dead issue; no-one in the psychoanalytic community believes Meissner's reduction. These days we consider drug abuse to be both a defensive behaviour and an adaptive one. The theory is that you adopted your addiction to codeine in direct response to a problem of overwhelming anxiety about something else, something you couldn't solve through other means.'
Zechs struggled not to frown. 'I don't consider my personality to have anything to do with my-- problem.'
'No? For the sake of argument, let's consider it. Did this really start three years ago, just because of the pain you were in after your injuries at Libra? Or was Libra itself a sign of something?'
Maxwell shoved the pillow at him abruptly. 'Libra was sure as hell a sign of something,' he said, and left the couch. He went to the electric kettle and turned it on. It began to rumble immediately.
Zechs pushed the pillow away. 'Libra happened because I couldn't support the direction of OZ once Romafeller became involved. They dangled Treize by the purse strings. He changed. His pretty words about revolution and change evaporated.'
'What would you know about it?' Maxwell countered. 'You spent half your time trying to track Heero down and make him duel you. Trowa told me. You dragged them and their Gundams to the Arctic to hide them from Romafeller. If Relena hadn't shown up you'd still be there beating the crap out of each other.'
'Why were you so focussed on Heero Yuy?' Purceli asked.
Zechs rubbed his head again. His headache refused to fade. 'I wasn't. He was an obstacle and I-- wanted to understand him. Wanted to know what we were facing in the Gundam Pilots.'
'You had two of us,' Maxwell pointed out. 'Three. You captured me. And your pet Ozzies just tortured me for some crap intell and then they were going to execute me on prime time television. If you really wanted to understand us you could have spent that time talking to someone who doesn't answer in grunts like Heero.' He showed Zechs the long scar on his hand. 'Instead I walk away with this shit and you walk away with a stiffie for White Fang. How'd you overlook the fact that they were obviously anarchists? Treize missed a little polish with you. At least Une developed a personality that knew how to negotiate.'
The kettle began to steam and whistle. Zechs dug his fingers into the aching muscles of his neck. 'I don't feel like talking,' he began.
'You never do,' Maxwell muttered. 'You have a theory for people who go non-verbal when anyone asks them a direct question, Doc?'
Purceli gazed thoughtfully at them. 'Duo,' he said, 'does Zechs know where you grew up?'
'Me?' Maxwell stopped in the act of picking up the kettle. It wouldn't stop whistling, and Zechs discovered he was grinding his teeth. 'L2. He knows that.'
'Where on L2.'
Maxwell inhaled, and held it. 'No.'
'I think you should tell him.'
'No,' Maxwell said again, a hard edge to his voice. He grabbed the kettle and poured a mug of hot water for himself, but his hand was shaking. He spilled, and cursed. He brushed the water sloppily onto the carpet, wiping his hand on his jeans. He clenched his fingers around the burn. Purceli rose to help him, grabbing a clean flannel from his desk and wrapping Maxwell's hand. Zechs watched, confused by the way Maxwell had reacted to a simple question. But the answer wasn't hard to deduce. It wasn't a simple question. There was something old and painful behind it, and-- no. Not hard to deduce at all. Maxwell's root cause, on display. Maxwell was pale in the face and red in the eyes, angry and embarrassed and ashamed.
Zechs swallowed, and said, 'I witnessed their murder.'
Purceli looked up. Maxwell looked up, and wet his lower lip, biting it.
Purceli resumed his seat, touched his notepad. He didn't write. He said, 'Who?'
'My-- parents.' Zechs dropped his eyes with difficulty. Maxwell had become a soft-edged blur, and he had to make himself blink, though his eyes felt strange and salty. 'There were soldiers,' he said, forcing it out hoarsely. He'd never said it aloud, not to Relena, who had asked and who could never hear the truth, not to Treize, who had probably guessed long before Zechs had confessed his identity. He didn't say it to Purceli, who didn't matter and wouldn't ever matter to him. He said it to Maxwell, who knew. Maxwell stood so still it was as if he stood in Sanq Palace with Zechs, watching it happen. 'We were hiding in the kitchens. Trying to get out through the back halls. They found us there. They were flooding the Palace, and we couldn't get out. Father put my sister and me in a cabinet, one of the locked pantries, and then they were inside. There was shouting, and I didn't understand it. I don't remember it now, only that it seemed to last forever and no time at all. They made them kneel, my mother and father both, and they shot them in the head. One of the soldiers took pictures, and another took their rings and signets. They were laughing and joking. They opened bottles of wine and drank them there, over my parents' bodies.'
Maxwell dropped his flannel into the garbage pail. 'You want a medal?' he asked rudely. 'Sympathy?' But he breathed out, a soft sigh. 'I'm sorry,' he said then. 'It must have been hard.'
Zechs swallowed against the acid taste in his mouth. 'I said I didn't want to talk. I don't want to talk.'
'I said I was sorry. You should talk about it. I won't--' Maxwell ventured back to the couch, though he didn't sit. He held out the tea mug. Zechs turned his face away from it, and a moment later it lowered.
Purceli said nothing to interrupt them. So, Zechs thought dimly, the plan was afoot. Getting them to fight for each other, or against each other, if it made progress. He wasn't sure it felt much like progress. His head was killing him. The nurses begrudged even an aspirin and he didn't want the bother of signing out for it, but he might have to. He wouldn't have the chance to try to sleep it off until after dinner. His stomach was unhappy, too, turning on itself and bottoming out. He felt faint, even.
'I never knew anyone who knew their parents,' Maxwell said softly. 'At least you had that.'
'I was privileged in a lot of ways by your standards,' Zechs replied stiffly. 'Maybe it's different when you have farther to fall. Maybe it's not.'
'Think they're proud of you?'
'They'd be appalled.'
'I think so too. About mine. My--' Zechs glanced up from the corner of his eyes. Maxwell turned the mug in his hands, about and about. 'They'd hate that I'm here. What I did to be here. And that I'm fucking up my chances here.'
'It's a memory,' Zechs said, and took the tea away from him. Maxwell's hand was raw and red from the burn. It would need ointment. 'Memory is just a choice. Choices are just control. Or thinking we can gain control. Maybe that's an illusion, and we're helpless. Wouldn't that be an irony. Our Gundams, our battles, our superweapons. All an attempt to gain some hallucinatory vision of control over our own lives, and at what expense.'
'Don't,' Maxwell said.
'Be like that.'
He looked out at the rain. It was getting worse again. He couldn't even see the grounds outside, or the woods beyond. 'It was horrible. But then I'm sure you endured as much or worse.'
Maxwell didn't answer immediately. 'It's not a competition,' he said finally, dubiously. Not even he believed it. Zechs laughed rustily.
'Ancient history,' he said.
'Yeah,' Maxwell agreed. 'At least, what... a year or two ago.'
'The days feel like centuries here.'
'Yeah.' When Zechs looked, he found Maxwell staring out his window, too, his face long and drawn. 'Yeah,' Maxwell said. 'I know exactly what you mean.'
Purceli cleared his throat. 'I don't want to keep you past lunch,' he interrupted gently. 'Take a break. And then let's meet back here afterward. See you in an hour fifteen.' He rose to open the door. Maxwell came to life slowly, looking about as if just remembering where he stood. He nodded awkwardly to Zechs, and left without waiting for him. Zechs was slower gathering himself, reaching for his jacket, shrugging into it, finding a place on the many books and magazines on the table to place his tea. When he neared the door, though, Purceli stopped him. 'A moment, please,' the director bade him.
'Yes?' Zechs watched warily as Purceli closed the door again. 'Private sessions in addition to the rest of this?'
'Only a moment of your time.' Purceli leaned on the wall, while Zechs crossed his arms and waited impatiently. He said, 'Duo's seen your chest?'
Zechs blinked, caught off his guard. 'My chest?'
'We discourage patients from becoming sexually involved. It's one of the conditions you agreed to; you signed the paperwork.'
Zechs dragged in a long breath. 'You are-- misapprehending the-- situation. Maxwell and I-- sparred. In the past. He's a Gundam Pilot. As you're surely aware. You're the one who put us together because of our, quote, similar experiences.'
'Consider this a friendly reminder of the rules,' Purceli said. 'And a reminder that if the staff here do have any reason to suspect inappropriate contact between attendees, we'd be obliged to take steps to stop it.' He reached for the latch and opened the door. 'You did good work just now, Zechs, the two of you. I do think you can help each other. But only if you're careful about it, and mindful of what you're getting into. You need a friend who can support you. That should be where it stops.'
Zechs felt something rather like hate for the mild smile Purceli turned on him then. He clenched his hands, digging his fingers into his palms. Not the smile. Purceli only dared it because Zechs was powerless-- and that was what he hated, not the little man who exercised his small authority over Zechs because of it. This place, this bargain he'd made with Une, felt less and less worth the effort. Twenty-four days to go.
'Thank you,' he said hollowly, and left.
Maxwell sucked on him, his mouth hard and hot and wet all at once. His hair was soft in Zechs' hands, twining loose and cool around his fingers, catching against the zip of his trousers. Maxwell cursed, buried against his hips, and they fumbled awkwardly until they freed it, panting in the dark.
'More,' Zechs pleaded, the most he could articulate. 'Please.'
Maxwell wrapped a fist around him and pumped it. 'We should have waited,' he whispered. 'People are in and out of here during supper.'
'We won't get caught if you finish.'
'If you finish,' Maxwell grumbled, and swallowed him down again, his tongue making aimless circles around Zechs' girth, his lips closing tight on just the head. Zechs tried to urge him down, pressing on his head with both palms, and Maxwell shoved him away with no uncertain aim. With an effort, Zechs confined his hands to the wall, instead, gripping the toilet paper dispenser to the one side and the handicap bar to the other. The bob of Maxwell's head in his lap was mesmerising. Fingertips rolled his balls, and he bit down a groan that would have given them away for sure. Their choice of the single toilet on the lower floor away from the dining hall would give them some guarantee of privacy, but only if they did nothing to draw suspicion to a door that had no lock.
His legs shifted restlessly, toes tingling. 'I'm close,' he managed.
Maxwell brushed his braid back over his shoulder. He pushed Zechs back by the shoulder, to make him lean away, hips tilting up. Zechs obeyed, catching at Maxwell's hand. He pressed his own open lips to the scar on Maxwell's palm, let his tongue touch the indented edge of it. Maxwell shivered, looking up at him. He brushed a path down Zechs' belly, and cupped him close again. This time, when he put his mouth on Zechs, it was softer, gentler. His fingers caressed Zechs' bare thigh up to the crease at his hip. Zechs flushed hotly, opened his mouth to warn him, and never did. He came, strangling his outcry by pressing Maxwell's palm to his mouth.
Maxwell moved first, afterward, climbing to his feet from the tile, knees cracking in the silence. The bulge in his jeans drew Zechs' languid gaze, and he tugged at the hand he still held. Maxwell shuffled near when he pulled. He massaged Maxwell through his denims, rubbing him slowly, enjoying the feel of warm flesh, human nearness. Maxwell stood over him, straddling his knee, twisting a button on Zechs' shirt and gazing at him with an odd expression.
'What?' he croaked, and cleared his throat. 'What is it?'
'Thinking about what happens when we leave here,' Maxwell said. 'When I leave first. If I'll pretend I don't know you. If you'll pretend.'
'Do you want me to?' he asked. He lowered Maxwell's zip, wormed his fingers inside. 'Outside... outside it could be different.'
'What, like, we'll magically like each other?' Maxwell checked his watch. 'If we're going to eat we should go.'
He released Maxwell regretfully, but understanding that was a dismissal. He wiped oily pre-come from his fingers on a strip of toilet paper, and used more to pat dry his groin. 'If you don't prefer me, you should say so.'
'I don't have any problem saying anything.' Maxwell zipped himself, fluffing his shirt out over his erection. 'Like... sorry.'
'About earlier? You already told me. Purceli is the one who should be sorry. He's playing with us, and it's bound to be ugly.'
'That's his job.' Maxwell stepped away, to the mirror to check his hair. He glanced back at Zechs. 'I'm, um, thinking that I'm going to stop picking up those pills.'
Zechs stopped in the act of dressing himself. 'Why?'
'He kind of had a point. Purceli. He gave me a book to read.' Maxwell leant on the sink, not quite looking Zechs in the eye. 'This guy, Dodes. He says a lot of shit about how addiction is about, um, control. Not feeling helpless because you get to make the decision, even if it's a bad one. It kind of jives.'
'And if this were some grand eye-opener for you, I'd believe your sudden turn-about.' Zechs stood, buttoning his shirt. 'But you already knew this. You already told me-- it's about getting through the day. Why give up what works?'
'I shouldn't have brought you into it.' Maxwell looked at the floor, then abruptly met his eyes. 'That was wrong. You had detoxed. I should have left you out of things. What you said today, you could, you know, you could get through--'
'What?' Zechs pinned him to the sink by putting an arm over him, using his superior height to trap him there. Maxwell glared, but he didn't try to escape. 'What makes you think I don't treasure control as much as you? That I didn't make the exact same choices? And that I'm not fully cognisant of the choices I'm making now?'
'Denial is a choice,' Maxwell said. 'A bad one.'
'But still mine. And you will take that choice away from me with your good intentions.' He pressed his thigh between Maxwell's legs, but didn't like how it felt, so overtly manipulative. He sighed, and adjusted Maxwell's collar instead, to lay it flat. He stroked a tangle of hair flat against Maxwell's smooth cheek. 'I didn't say a single thing today for myself. I said it for you. I don't know if I could even tell you why, except that you seemed to need it. Maybe you need someone to fight for.'
'Maybe you do.' Maxwell brushed his hair over his ear impatiently. 'I don't need rescuing. I'm not offering you a deal.'
'Then why not just remind me that I owe you, and make this your demand?'
Maxwell bit in his lower lip, holding it in until it emerged white from the pressure. 'Don't make me do that,' he said quietly.
'Then do what you want. I can't stop you.' He stepped away, and finished buttoning his shirt. He took his jacket from the peg and shrugged into it. 'You smell like sex,' he said. 'We should be more careful. Purceli suspects.'
'How?' Maxwell frowned, and faced the sink to run the faucet. He splashed his face and washed with soap. 'He didn't say anything.'
'He did, to me.'
'Why?' Maxwell caught his eyes in the mirror. 'Why just to you?'
'Because I'm older?' Zechs caught the wet towel that Maxwell tossed him and scrubbed down his hands and neck. 'Because I'm more responsible. Because, of the two of us, I know it's wrong.'
Maxwell made a face at the water. 'Whatever.' He dried himself and flipped off the spigot. 'Give it a couple of days, then. If we don't act weird, they won't report weird.'
'You have no idea what's good for you, do you.' He had no idea what was good for himself, either. He reached without stopping himself. Maxwell's plait was smooth, the braid tightly woven. He traced it with the pad of his finger, wrapped his fingers over the elastic at the tip.
Maxwell turned, and opened the door. 'I'm sorry about today,' he said, and left. Zechs flexed his hand, and left after him. They walked in opposite directions.
It made for a slow week, without access to either Maxwell or to Maxwell's pills. The days dragged, and he felt as useless as he had in his first week with the methadone. He constructed a truly sad birdhouse in Crafts, and tripped over his own feet in Yoga, twisting his ankle and sidelining himself into the clinic. Maxwell ignored him more than usual in the group sessions, refusing him even direct eye contact-- not that Zechs ever got much of that from him. That was strangely difficult. He wanted Maxwell to look at him. He wanted Maxwell to want to look at him.
They had writing assignments that week, letters to people in their lives they'd hurt in the course of their addiction. They were given extra time to write the letters, and free reign of the grounds to find a private space. Zechs went to their spot in the woods, hoping Maxwell would go there too. But Maxwell had either suspected he would try that or perhaps had just never thought that spot was special at all, because he never showed.
After all the rain they'd had the woods were wet still, the dirt damp, the leaves shivery with droplets that splattered Zechs whenever he bumped them. He used his jacket as a blanket, propped his dirty boots on a root, and propped his pad of paper on his knee. Letters. He'd never written a letter in his life. Maybe as a child-- half-remembered details of thank-you cards to aunts and uncles who had perished with the rest of his family in the fall of the Sanq Kingdom. He had probably only signed his name to a formula, the same few diplomatic phrases painstakingly printed by fountain pen. He'd been a proper prince, and princes did things the proper way.
But he'd ceased to be a prince when Miles Pargan had rescued him from that locked pantry and sent his sister in one direction and himself in another. Relena had been adopted by the Darlians and Milliardo, too old to forget his identity, had gone masked and vengeance-minded to a series of hide-aways, never secure enough rest easy. Treize. Treize had been his first friend, the first tentative trust he'd formed after years of looking over his shoulder, always half-way convinced he'd be found out, murdered in his sleep. Treize had guided him toward the military, where anonymity would protect him. Treize had been the guiding hand that brought him into the Specials, where he'd had the training to build his skills, the authority to do what he wanted with them, the lax supervision to hide his minor crimes. He hadn't written letters then, either. Memoranda, when he'd had to, when he'd absolutely had to report on his activities. Treize had done most of it for him. Really, Treize had done most everything for him, from the very beginning. All Zechs had ever been required to do stand prettily beside him, pilot to the best of his considerable ability. Follow loyally.
Until he hadn't. He still didn't know if he regretted how he'd left his oldest friend. Lover. Protector. Treize had been many things to him, things Zechs had repaid poorly-- things he had never been wholly grateful for, really, until Treize had been dead and it was no longer possible to express that he was-- grateful. He'd lived to adulthood in no small part because Treize had taught him how. But without Treize at his side, he'd felt lost in a sea of choices he didn't know how to make. White Fang. Preventers. Pills. Duo Maxwell. He didn't know.
He swallowed against a lump in his throat. He uncapped his pen, and wrote Treize's name in his best cursive. He took great care with the slant, angling it to the precise fifty-two degrees he'd been taught, drawing the capital T with its fish-hook tail, the sharp corners of the lower-case zed with its fine wide loop. He looked at the name on his page for a long minute, brushing away a drop of water that dripped on him from overhead.
He tested the pen against his thumb, and inhaled deeply. He set the pen to the page and drew a comma beside Treize's name. Treize, he wrote, I wish that you were here. I wish that we could talk. I didn't always feel clearer when we talked, but I felt calmer.
He dug the pen into his thumb.
He added, I miss you.
Well. That wasn't much about the harm he'd done, but Treize had been there for all of it, anyway. Treize had never had any patience for a re-hash of failure.
Noin. Lu-cret-zi-a. She was harder to think about. He knew he'd taken advantage of her. As teenagers, as adults, even now, letting her follow him back to Earth. Her wordless support had angered him, at times, because Treize at least had challenged him, demanded more of him when he had protested he had nothing else to give. But...
He wrote, You were my conscience when I had none left.
The effort of just those two letters wrung him dry. And he hadn't exactly fulfilled his assignment. Zechs dropped his head back to the tree trunk behind him.
What was Maxwell writing in his letters? Confessions to the other Gundam Pilots, probably. He'd said they didn't know about his drinking, but surely that was more to Maxwell's pathological aversion to revealing anything personal. What, after all, did Zechs know about him after weeks of the most personal contact imaginable? He knew that Maxwell shivered when Zechs touched him behind the knees, that when he yelled he went hoarse, perhaps the result of inhaling exhaust fumes from mobile suits. He knew that Maxwell had the pale skin of a man who hadn't seen natural sunlight in his formative years, that his small frame and light bones owed as much to malnutrition and neglect as they did to a Spacer's eligibility for a Gundam Pilot programme. And Zechs had his guesses about L2. Maxwell had been right about one thing. Zechs had been exposed to enough of the Pilots to understand something of their zeal. Everyone had their reasons for fighting. Treize had fought because he'd seen a universe in disarray and believed he was the man born to right it. Zechs had fought for his own agenda, until that agenda had been abruptly achieved, his vengeance satisfied. Then he'd fought to stop Treize in his agenda, or perhaps to facilitate it; he still wasn't truly sure. But he could guess why a boy from L2 would rather fight a kamikaze war, accept a suicide mission. And find himself bereft and purposeless when that war ended and a peaceful world needed detectives, not soldiers.
He put the nib of his pen to the paper, and wrote D U O.
They shouldn't have slept together. He could admit that. They shouldn't have done it high, and they shouldn't have done it sober. Not for the integrity of the Centre's programme, but for their own. It had been a vulnerable moment, series of moments, and they'd leapt into it for the worst reasons. It had been a kind of duel, a kind of mutually assured destruction. Like battling Heero Yuy in the Arctic. Debt. It was about who owed what, but not bean counting over petty obligations. There was an almost cosmic scale between them. A war, and decades of entrenched abuse between their peoples before that, and victimhood on a national level that had become inevitably personal. Sanq. L2. They were both failed states that would never be what two young boys had needed. It had caught them up in something greater and then left them behind, locked them out with needs that could never be answered. They'd tried to fill the hole with booze and pills. Now they'd try to fill it with each other.
He wrote, When we leave this place, we shouldn't see each other. I'm sorry. He ripped the page from the pad and folded it in thirds. He tucked it into his pocket.
As it happened, he never had a chance to deliver the letter.
The morning news was playing when he came down for breakfast. He paid it little attention; he'd passed the point of obsessively listening for word of the Outside. What he did notice was the covert glances of staff members as he walked his tray from the buffet to the tables. They were watching him. And they were whispering amongst themselves.
'Did something happen?' he asked Janey, setting his tray on the table. He never ate with the other patients, and she eyed him with surprise and even suspicion. As it was, Zechs hesitated to sit, but a nurse, passing by, saw him and frowned. Zechs sat.
Janey hugged her tea near. Away from him. 'You should eat somewhere else,' she mumbled.
'Eat somewhere else, man,' Miguel repeated defencively. 'You heard her. We got enough to deal with.'
Zechs rose slowly. 'I didn't mean to offend anyone. I just wondered-- there seems to be something happening this morning.'
'Just the past catching up to you.' Miguel shoved his tray at him. 'Celebrity guests don't get any special breaks. Move on.'
His gut had that particular still feeling to it that meant instinct catching up with premonition. All this time he'd thought Une had put Maxwell here to watch him. But it hadn't been Maxwell. It had been the staff after all. That innocuous comment from the nurse the first day. Mr Merquise. He'd assumed they didn't know him. But Purceli had known he'd been at Libra, and hadn't asked which side he'd fought with.
They knew who he was.
He abandoned his breakfast and strode for the nurses' station. If he hadn't already felt the itch of the truth, he knew it by the way they scattered when he approached. Only the head nurse stood her ground, rising to greet him.
Zechs planted his palms flat on the window at the station. 'I want to know what's happened,' he told her.
'Why don't we stay calm, Mr Merquise,' she began.
'Do I appear to be anything other than calm?'
She swallowed. She was pressing a call button, not far enough out of his sight line to hide it from him. 'You should really be talking to the Director.'
'And no doubt he'll be here shortly. I want to know what's happened.'
She rubbed her hands nervously, then made her decision. 'Follow me,' she said shortly, and left the station. Zechs turned the corner impatiently, waiting for her to exit through the locked door and secure it again with her key code. She was headed for the nurses' rec room. Zechs followed quickly.
As with the duty station, the rec room emptied of occupants as soon as they saw him. He deliberately blocked the door, making them squeeze out around him; no-one met his eyes, and everyone was careful not to touch him. The head nurse turned toward the wall-mounted television, already playing the news. The news. He looked, as she took up the remote control and flipped through the channels, but his eye was caught by the papers open on the table. The nurses had been reading it. He pulled them near, his stomach already sinking. There were pictures. Long-lense, a little grainy with the newsprint ink, but very recognisable. He and Duo, walking the grounds together. The caption named the Centre.
He sucked in a breath. 'Who leaked it?' he asked.
'There's more,' she said.
More. Zechs wiped at sweat that broke out on his upper lip, from where he didn't know. Why. He blinked, and made himself look up at the television.
It was one of the entertainment shows. Light gossip, the sort of thing he'd never minded, the sort of thing he'd never had to pay any attention to, because someone else had always been watching it-- Treize, usually. Treize had always had an eye on who was sleeping with who and what implications it might have for their political, their military goals, and Treize had always had an eye for what was most effective in his campaigns, because Treize had always been playing the long game. Treize had collected his players so carefully, getting himself a Lighting Count who happened to be a secret Peacecraft, and he'd waited-- what, almost seven years after declaring silent war on the Alliance to assassinate the guardian of the other secret Peacecraft, bringing them both into play at the exact moment he needed them both. The Knight and the Queen. Treize must have been so amused by that...
He was drifting. He recalled himself with difficulty. The television.
'Rumours have surfaced that Gundam Pilot Duo Maxwell and the former leader of separatist group White Fang, Milliardo Peacecraft, have been seen together at a northern California drugs and alcohol treatment facility. Obviously these are two notorious individuals, Gennifer, and at that these are names we haven't heard in a while. What do you make of the fact that they're turning up now and in such a fashion?'
Zechs rubbed his head. His head ached. 'Turn it off.'
'There's more,' the nurse said. She changed the channel again.
Zechs straightened. They had an image on the screen, a voice narrating the contents. It was one of the letters he'd written, only four days ago. The letter he'd written to Treize, apologising for the past.
'How did they get that?' he demanded. He reached, and grabbed the woman's arm. 'How did they get that? That was in my private room!'
'Zechs.' It was Purceli, entering the rec room quietly, closing the door firmly. 'Is there a problem?'
'You're damn right there's a problem.' Zechs levelled a finger at the television. 'Which one of your people talked to the press? Which one of them searched my room and stole my personal property? Which--'
'I don't deny that this is a grave violation of your privacy here.' Purceli invited him to sit, and Zechs waved him off in agitation. Purceli grimaced over the newspaper, and folded it closed. 'I've already ordered my staff to look into this. I'm going to get to the bottom of this. We do not disclose patient information. I look on this as a terrible misdeed with real legal implications, and I give you my word that I will pursue this to the full extent of the law.'
'Am I to be mollified?' Zechs demanded. 'They have my-- they have my real identity. How does anyone here know anything about me beyond what I told you at the door? I should be no-one but Agent Merquise of Preventers to you.'
'You have a face that millions of people saw, Agent,' Purceli replied, almost politely enough that Zechs didn't attack him for daring it. The head nurse stood as near to the door as she could without fleeing through it, and she flinched when Zechs began to pace, furiously tearing up the floor with his strides. 'It's possible that someone here recognised you.'
'And used it,' Zechs spat. He shoved at a file cabinet in his path, then stopped abruptly. He whirled. 'Does Maxwell know?'
Purceli tugged at his tie. 'I don't believe so,' he answered. 'I-- haven't seen him yet this morning. As I believe we would have, if he did know.'
'I'll tell him.' Zechs grabbed the paper and tucked it under his arm. 'I want an injunction taken out against those television shows. They can't be legally disclosing your patient lists.'
'No,' Purceli agreed quietly. 'I've already contacted our lawyer. We'll do whatever we can to correct this, I promise you that.'
'You can't correct it,' Zechs pointed out flatly. 'All you can do is clean up after it. Move. I'm going to find Maxwell before he accidentally sees this.'
'Please tell him I'm here if he has questions. In fact-- maybe it would be a good idea if the three of us sat down together, this morning. I'll clear my schedule. Your schedule.'
Zechs only waved a distracted hand at him. He let himself out into the hall, thinking he should try the cafeteria first, in case Maxwell had just been late to breakfast, but Maxwell often chose not to eat. He checked the gym and the community room and even, dubiously, the chapel, before swinging back to Maxwell's room, but all were empty. He hesitated in Maxwell's room. Their possessions had obviously been raided by some enterprising employee, but he'd never noticed any disturbance. They had so little here to begin with, just clothes, really, a few books from home or borrowed out of the library. It had to have been a recent crime, if they had found Zechs' letters.
God. If they had found the letter he'd written to Treize, they had found the letter he'd written to Maxwell, the letter he'd never quite found the gumption to deliver. He'd left it in the top drawer of his bureau. He all but ran to his own room, throwing open the door. He yanked open the bureau drawers, feeling under, between all his shirts. It wasn't there. He checked all the other drawers to be sure. It was gone.
The last place he checked was the nature path outside. The relatively benign winter weather had turned grim at last, and it was an ugly storm, fit for his mood. Maxwell shouldn't have ventured out in it, but if he'd heard, it might have been the sort of thing he'd do, in a temper. Zechs wrapped himself in a coat and scarf, but that was inadequate protection. He was soaked through from frozen rain before he'd made it beyond the courtyard. He shivered and slogged through ankle-deep slush as he made his way into their woods. Some journalist had got close enough to get a picture of them doing this, he remembered warily, but shook it off. They had their story already and there wouldn't be anyone waiting out there in this. And if they had worse pictures... if they had worse pictures of things they'd done in those woods, it was too late to stop it from breaking.
The trees gave him some protection, but only a little. He wiped his face on wet wool, and left the path only when he found solid ground to walk on. There. The big oak that Duo preferred. He clambered over the roots, half-invisible with snow. 'Maxwell?' he called. 'Duo? Where are you? Duo--'
He'd guessed right, finally. Duo was there. Wearing just a shirt and denims. Zechs stripped out of his coat immediately and knelt to wrap Duo up in it, rubbing at his arms and back to warm him. 'You're a fool,' he said gruffly. 'You'll get hypothermia out here.'
'Don't care,' Duo mumbled. He shuddered once, all over. He was blue in the lips, far too pale. Zechs tucked his face into his own chest and pulled in his bare hands as well, chafing them briskly.
'You heard, obviously,' Zechs said finally. Yes. There beside his own paper, another, almost transparent from wet. He crumpled it with a swipe of his fist. 'It doesn't mean anything. Purceli already told me he's getting an injunction. They won't be able to print anything else.'
'They have our sessions.'
'They have our sessions.' Duo's voice was hoarser than usual, but he put a shoulder to Zechs and wormed away. He reached for the paper and shoved it at Zechs. 'Everything we said. They got Purceli's notes and someone's claiming they have tape. Everything we said.'
He tried, but couldn't get it out right away. 'I-- what? How could-- how could they have that? We would have had to agree to be recorded. I know I never signed anything like that.'
'They lied!' Duo stumbled to his feet, clinging to the tree for balance. 'I should have known better. I told them things-- I told them things I've never--'
Yes. Things he'd never said to anyone else. Zechs brushed at his wet hair, but he hardly felt it. Numbness was setting in.
'Stupid,' Duo said viciously. 'God, I'm so stupid. This is what I deserve for thinking there was any god-damn point to any of this. I was falling for it! I'm such a fucking idiot.'
'Excuse me,' Zechs said dully, rising to his feet. He was frozen through, but he hardly felt it. The sound of Duo cursing at life and fate disappeared into the storm quickly enough, as he trudged back toward the Centre. How long it took him to return, he wasn't sure, but he was too cold even to shiver by the time he made it back. The heat of the cafeteria slammed him like a physical shock when he entered through the courtyard-facing doors, swaying him momentarily. He left puddles behind him, but there was no-one left to see. The patients and staff had moved on from breakfast, and it was empty.
He climbed the stairs again to his room. He'd done this barely half an hour ago, but it felt like a weary lifetime. He dragged his suitcase from beneath the bed and laid it open. He packed his clothes, his toiletries, his books, checked his wallet to be sure of its contents-- nothing there seemed to have been disturbed, though he hardly trusted it. He kept one card out on the duvet, leaving it ready for when he'd need it. He showered, suffering the pinpoint pains of iced nerves coming back to life under the hot water. He dressed himself in fresh trousers, a long jumper. It wasn't quite armour, but he felt stronger for it, protected. He tucked the card into his pocket, locked the suitcase, and carried it downstairs with him.
There was only one staffer on the front desk, at this time of the morning. Zechs set his case on the floor beside the desk, and told the young woman, 'I'm checking out.'
The lady blinked at him. 'I, uh... sir, I don't think you're due for another two weeks.'
'You're mistaken,' Zechs replied levelly. 'I'm checking out now. If there is paperwork, I'll fill it out. If you dither over it, I'll leave when my cab gets here.' He reached over the counter and picked up the phone reserved for residents. He used his card to dial the only number he cared to use now. A taxi company. 'Yes,' he said, meeting the staffer's eyes. 'A cab for one at 1002 North Madison. As soon as possible.'
She was on her own phone before he could finish. She turned away from him and whispered, but he ignored it. He knew who she was calling, and it wouldn't matter.
Their reaction time was admirably fast. Wherever Purceli had been, he came puffing at a run to the lobby only three minutes later. 'Zechs,' he called. 'Zechs, please. Please reconsider this.'
'I don't think so.' Zechs picked up his suitcase and headed for the front doors, where he could see the drive outside. 'I might have been persuaded on the point of thievery and press leaks, though I shouldn't have been. But secretly taping patient sessions is a step too reprehensible for my taste.'
'You should read the entire article before you go rushing to your lawyer.' Zechs faced the director. 'And sweep your office. I'm willing-- just barely-- to believe you were unaware of this. But if someone's planted a recording device in your office, you have more than just a little legal trouble. I will be suing. And I'll encourage anyone else who was caught up in this to sue as well.'
Purceli was pale, but he held it together. 'You have that right, and in your shoes I'd do the same thing,' he said. 'I can't blame you for leaving. But please let me at least recommend a place with a-- more trustworthy reputation for you to complete treatment.'
Zechs set his jaws together, staring out the windows at the dark day outside. 'It isn't the reputation I'm concerned with. Maybe... maybe it's too much temptation for anyone. Milliardo Peacecraft has secrets a lot of people would like to see splashed across the headlines, and revenge is as decent a motive as any. How can I expect to find a place where some staff member wasn't touched by the war?'
'You need treatment, Zechs. You were doing well, but it's a long road yet, and what's happened to you today is going to make it harder. I'm ashamed to admit to that, but it will be true.' Purceli came a careful step closer. 'And if not for your sake, for Duo's. He respects you and he watches you. If you leave, I'm very much afraid he will, too.'
Zechs looked up. 'He doesn't know I'm going. I didn't tell him.'
'He'll find out. I don't have any means of stopping him.'
Zechs swallowed hard, and shook his head. 'You have it wrong, anyway. He doesn't respect me, even a little. He's made that very clear.'
'I think that perception comes more from your own self-loathing than from reality, Zechs.' Purceli saw it the same time Zechs did; the cab was arriving, just nudging up the long road from the highway. Purceli spoke urgently. 'It's been very clear to me these past few weeks in our sessions. He'll go where you go, and if you go down a dark road, he'll follow. Please consider what this means for both of you. I can give you names. If you're not ready today, then call me tomorrow, or the next day. Tell me where to call you. He wants to get better, Zechs, I think that he really does, but he's struggling right now and he doesn't think he deserves it. Help him.'
Zechs lifted his damp hair off his hot neck. 'I don't see that being here helped him,' he said. 'But... if he asks... if he seeks me out when he's finished here, I'll do what I can. But I don't think he will.'
Purceli pressed a card on him. The taxi company card, and his own card, with a personal phone number inked on the back. 'My home number,' he said. 'Call at any time. Even if it's just to sue. I'm sorry beyond what I can say.'
Zechs took it reluctantly. He inclined his head, and pushed out through the door.
The cab pulled around the circular drive, the wipers on the windscreen working furiously against the rain. Zechs jogged the short distance between the dripping overhang and the car, and slid into the backseat just a little battered by the wind and rain. Just a little dazed. It was over, and he was really leaving.
And Une would have nothing to say about how it had ended.
He swallowed. It seemed to be more difficult every time. 'Preventers,' he began, and his voice emerged on a rasp that was almost unintelligible. He cleared his throat. 'I'm sorry... downtown San Francisco. I just want a hotel in downtown San Francisco.'
'That's a long way,' the driver said, watching him in the rearview mirror. He twisted to look. 'You sure you want to go that far? Big fare.'
Zechs removed his wallet and passed forward a credit card. 'Just drive.'
The driver shrugged. 'Sure thing.' He swiped the card, and passed it back. 'You got any hotels in mind? I can recommend something.'
'Something... something with a waterfront view. I want to see the ocean and the sky.'
'Sure. Can do.' The driver put the car in gear and they crunched through gravel and slush. 'Some storm, huh?' he asked casually. 'We'll have to go a little slower in this kind of weather. Be a couple of hours, maybe. Maybe three.'
'That's fine.' Zechs wiped his face of rain, and shoved his suitcase away from him. 'Do you have radio? Anything without words.'
'Yeah. You look like a classical type of guy.' The driver found an opera and turned up the volume. 'You visiting someone at the Centre?'
There was a newspaper on the front seat. Foreign, Greek, perhaps, like the driver's accent. Maybe it hadn't had the story. Zechs tried to swallow, and couldn't. 'Visiting,' he echoed. 'Someone I used to know.'
The cab was slow on the dirt road out of the Centre, finding every pothole and dip, jolting him every time his body started to calm. He didn't allow himself to question, and he didn't, exactly, question what he'd done-- he'd had to get out of there, wasn't safe there, there was no question of that, but it had happened so quickly, and the cab had no damn air in it, was so hot, and he tugged at his collar, ripped it open as he began to sweat. He needed water, but didn't have any. He could make it a few hours, but he felt wrung out, as if he'd fought a battle through all hours of the night, not just a few strange, surreal minutes.
Something hit the car. 'Jesus!' the driver exclaimed. 'The hell?'
Zechs twisted to look. 'Stop,' he commanded. 'Stop a minute.'
'Some kind of animal?'
'Just stop!' He pushed open his door and stood out into the rain. 'Duo?'
He was there. From the woods, still in Zechs' coat, bedraggled and soaked. He'd run after them, and he was muddy from shoe to knee, his hands where he'd hit the car to get their attention. He stood wavering on the roadside, his breath steaming in the cold.
Zechs shook his head. 'You should go back,' he said.
Duo overrode him. He said, 'You owe me.'
'You owe me,' Duo repeated. 'You owe me, Zechs. You owe me and all I'm asking for is a god-damn ride.'
He hesitated. It felt like eternity, but, really, he knew what his decision was. He felt relief in every centimetre of himself.
'Get in,' he said. 'You like a drowned rat in the middle of a jailbreak.'