“Do you vote?” Duo asked.
“I didn’t think I was allowed.”
“Yeah, they passed that bill back when Quatre was the Foreign Minister. It was his big thing, expanded franchise. The last expansion was convicted felons and illegal aliens who could prove residency for ten years.”
“I don’t think it’s my place,” Wufei said shortly.
“It’s your government too. You’ve got more to say even than most people. Most people don’t know what government-run maximum security prisons look like. Don’t you want to vote for someone who’ll improve the system?”
“Way to sell out your fellow prisoners.”
“I feel nothing for them.”
“You don’t feel even a little obligation of citizenship?”
“I was a citizen of L5.”
“Look,” Wufei said, his patience at his end. “I don’t feel connected enough to anywhere to make that claim or feel that obligation.”
“Well, that’s an ignorant attitude,” Duo retorted tartly.
“I can live with that.”
“That’s just selfish. You may think your life isn’t worth much, but you owe what’s left of it to certain people and ideas and suck it up, whiner.”
Duo had a way of saying things that made sense, if one could overlook the packaging. Wufei wasn’t inclined to be that charitable, but he couldn’t reasonably argue with that. Fifteen year old boys didn’t agree to pilot Gundams if they didn’t already believe they owed their lives to something bigger.
In the end, all he could grumble was, "You need taking care of, stupid." Duo stuck out his tongue, and Wufei pointedly ignored him.
They walked the empty boardwalk for an hour before vendors arrived to open their booths and set up for the night crowd. The heat finally began to fade as evening descended, and a cool breeze off the water helped cool everything pleasantly. Duo had a habit of entering every store they passed, wanted to touch all the touristy knick-knacks on the shelves. Once he produced a handful of crumpled bills from his pants pocket to buy a bag of Australian humbug candies. Wufei had not yet thought to ask if Duo had— what his money situation might be. Obviously he didn’t work. But neither did Wufei have to. They had been granted pensions by the government, even Wufei and Trowa, and it was enough to live on, if one was frugal— or didn’t have a rent to pay. He couldn’t quite imagine Duo collecting a cheque every month, though.
By the time the sun was setting, they’d exhausted all the good stores and kiosks selling tee shirts and sunglasses. Duo had a tight hold on his hand again, but seemed content to be aimless. He was in a better mood than earlier, but his cheerfulness seemed forced, as if he were intent on ignoring their argument at the beach. For his part, Wufei was reluctant to remind him of it. They were nearing the end of their day. For all he knew, Duo might let go and be gone without even a good-bye, and there would be only twenty-four hours of memory left in his wake. He at least wanted it to be good memory. So he kept quiet, kept his thoughts to himself. Kept Duo happy. It wasn’t hard, after all. It seemed to go much better when he kept his mouth shut.
“Souvenir for anyone?” Duo asked idly. He led Wufei to a booth of pretty glass trinkets. The wrinkled old man who sat firing glass rods under a blowtorch spared them a glance, as if wary of stealing. Wufei supposed they were a ragged pair.
“I don’t have anyone to buy for,” he answered. Duo’s brown fingers slid light as air over blue-tipped wings of a glass bird, followed the swirl of a fragile flower stem. “Do you?”
“I like this one.” Duo plucked it carefully from the black foam pad. It was a rhombus, a swirl of topaz, purple, garnet. There was a little gold loop at the top for a chain. “Kinda girly, but it’s neat, you know.”
“Yes.” He took it from Duo and held it under the booth’s magnifying glass. It was pretty. Competently made. It was only fifteen dollars. “Do you want it? Souvenir for you.”
“Nah. I got limited space.” Duo pointed with the hand holding Wufei’s. “Look at those beetle things. What are those?”
“Weevils.” He replaced the rhombus, and guided Duo’s eyes to a shelf of bowls and vases. “I like this. ‘Ocean Currents Collection.’”
The old artist pinched off a rod in the middle and set the halves aside. “Every piece hand-made,” he said. “The glass colours change when you mix ‘em. Chemistry. That black there in the middle is white, until I mix it with teal.”
Duo seemed delighted by that. “How you get the white flecks then?”
“While the glass is hot I dip it in a special solution.” He rose to reach for a bucket behind him in the booth and showed them. “Then I blow it and shape it.”
“I like it,” Wufei repeated. “Do you?”
“You’ve got an unhealthy obsession with water.” But Duo was smiling, and that made Wufei smile, too. “Look, there’s fish the…”
“Duo?” He turned to follow Duo’s gaze. “What is it?”
Duo’s face was still and alert. Then, like a shot, he took off running.
“Duo!” He lost precious seconds in his surprise. And he was not as quick as Duo, unable to run like that. Duo came back for him, second surprise, grabbed him by the wrist and hauled him along at a crazy clip. They rebounded off people in the crowd, wove and shoved through with Duo in the lead, catching him whenever he stumbled. They turned a sharp left into an alley strung with Japanese lanterns. Duo pressed him into an alcove created by the open back door of a restaurant kitchen, and held him there, trapped against the wall.
He could barely breathe. His chest was on fire, his skin burned. His duffle dug into his back, and it hurt, but Duo held him up, pressed against him chest to chest. They were panting in sync, Duo’s every exhale hot against his cheek.
“Why,” he managed finally.
“They’re following me.” Duo’s manic grip on Wufei’s shirt released, then tightened anew.
“Who?” The pain was easing. His sweat stung on his forehead and neck. “Who’s following you.”
“I saw them. Two of them.”
“Two of who.”
“They follow all of us. I warned the others but no-one listened, so fuck ‘em, time to get out of Dodge.”
“Which others? You mean us? The pilots?” He tried to look, but Duo prevented him, held him tight. “Who is it, Duo?”
He felt Duo swallow, they were standing that close. “Preventers.”
He had half feared Duo was imagining, hallucinating. He was actually relieved. "They follow me also,” he said. “I have my own pair."
“They're all fuckers. Think they have the right."
"They do." That was one law he did know about; they’d been at pains to inform him, when they’d let him out of prison. He’d signed form after form agreeing not to do this and not to do that, and chief amongst those agreements had been agreeing not to dodge his watchers. Sometimes the agents changed, but they were always there. He didn’t even look for them anymore. "They must be very bored. There's nothing for them to see."
Duo wasn’t listening to him. He was locked on the head of the alley, taut and humming as he stared.
"Ignore them," Wufei said.
"They go through your trash. Your mail."
"There's nothing for them to find. Relax."
There was anger behind Duo’s eyes, in the way his lips pressed flat. "Then when you really need help, need protection, they won't give it. They're not here for us, they're here for humanity, and humanity would rather us dead than thinking dangerous thoughts."
Wufei studied him, intensely. He was more perceptive than Duo, he believed— he had never had the ability not to think, to overthink. ‘Too many mind', one of his teachers had said. Too many mind, and he was absolutely sure there was something behind Duo’s sudden attack of paranoia. Something that explained everything about Duo, starting with yesterday, starting, maybe, from years and years before Wufei had ever been out of prison. He asked softly, "What happened to you?"
Duo didn’t answer. Didn’t hear him. He was staring at a man who had stopped across the street. His hand hovered at his hip, just reaching behind him a bit, where a holster might rest.
"Be still." He laid his hand on Duo’s arm. "Stop looking at him."
Duo’s eyes flicked to him.
"He's nothing. He has no power over you unless you give it to him."
Their eyes held. He tried to convey that he understood; he tried to convey that it was not a request, but a command. He squeezed Duo’s arm.
"You're wrong,” Duo mumbled. “He has power of life or death."
"You've done nothing wrong."
Duo looked away. Wufei gave him a tiny shake.
"I want to go. Let's go."
“We'll go, then." This time, he took Duo’s hand, sliding his palm down Duo’s wrist until he could grip Duo’s fingers. They were limp in his. Duo was quiet, now, gone internal, lost in his own head. But he walked when Wufei tugged him along. They exited the alley much more calmly than they’d gone in. Duo stared at the man across the street; there was a woman with him, who Wufei had overlooked, but neither particularly troubled to hide themselves. The woman even nodded to him.
"Where should we go?" he asked Duo. There was a bus stop at the next corner. Maybe they ought to go back to his flat after all.
"Not the bus,” Duo said abruptly. “They can follow a bus."
"We can't lose them, Duo."
"I can make them work for it, and I can make them uncomfortable. It's worth my time."
"Let's go home."
"Home. Neither of us have a home, Wufei, it's the first thing the two of us agree on."
"I have a place.” Duo’s palm was sweaty. He tried to ignore it. “We could share it."
"A place under surveillance,” Duo said harshly. “It's one thing to know they're watching and another to live under their eyes."
"Why do they worry you so much?"
"They're sub-human goons."
"They're nothing. Soldiers without a war. They can't touch us."
"No, they won't touch us! They won't touch us and they watch and they watch while everything falls apart! It's their fault!" He went half crazy while he yelled that, fighting Wufei’s restraint so he could shout it over his shoulder at the Preventers trailing them.
If he hadn’t already sensed Duo had problems, that would have confirmed it. He caught Duo by the waist as Duo tried to squirm past him, and physically dragged him into the restaurant on their right. A bell clanged as he shoved Duo through the door. There was no-one at the hostess stand, and he didn’t slow to wait for someone to see to them. He aimed Duo at a booth along the far wall, away from the windows, and he pushed Duo onto the bench and trapped him there by sitting next to him on the aisle. Duo was agitated, shaking; Wufei could feel it when he held him by the shoulders to stop him twisting to look at the door. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded. "Look at me. Talk to me."
They’d been noticed. A waitress in a white uniform came running to their booth. She complained, "You can't just sit anywhere you like, sirs. You're supposed to wait to be seated."
That, for whatever reason, caught Duo’s undistracted attention. He stilled, and let out a deep breath. “I’m sorry, miss.”
"May we sit here, please?” Wufei asked her. He gestured around the restaurant. “There are dozens of empty tables. There was no queue.” She was unhappy, but Wufei did not back down, reflecting her rudeness by looking her unblinking in the eye. “We need a moment, please.”
"Sorry,” Duo repeated. “Look, we'll order a meal. Big meal. Drinks, too."
“Thank you,” Wufei added pointedly. “We’ll take menus.” He held her eyes until she reluctantly turned away, and left them huffily. "Stupid woman. Duo, are you going to tell me what's wrong with you?"
Duo rubbed his hand over his face. "Twenty years they've been following me." He chewed his thumbnail, then dropped his arms to the table and put his head down. "Enough to drive anyone a little nutty."
"They follow us all. You've said so yourself." He put a tentative hand on Duo’s back, between his shoulder blades.
“It's more than that."
They were interrupted again. Wufei barely concealed his irritation. It was a new girl, younger, and smiling. She had their menus, bright red cardboard emblazoned with gold letters spelling ‘Ginger’ in a vaguely Asian print. Her round Australian face was cheerful. “Welcome to Ginger. How you going tonight?" she asked them brightly.
Wufei smiled tightly, but kept the scarred half of his face to Duo. "Two specials. And a coffee. Thank you."
If she was surprised he never touched the menu, she didn’t say it. “Two specials,” she repeated. “Coming up.”
“Now,” he said to Duo.
But the interruption had destroyed whatever momentum they’d gained. Duo was silent. He sat up, but only to overturn the bowl of sugar packets. He picked through for the blue substitutes, until Wufei covered his hands and held them down. "Now."
Duo wouldn’t look at him. "I can't."
"Why can't you?"
"You don't know what it was like." Duo wouldn’t look at him, and he spoke as if he could barely chew the words. "They were always there. At first they claimed it was for our protection. It was after the war, after the Rebellion. But that wasn't the truth. They lied about everything."
He’d had more than enough of Duo’s punishing brand of honesty to comprehend at least some of the vast bitterness he heard; but not all of it. They were dangerous men. Or had been dangerous men, and who would ever believe they would never be again? Mad, dangerous men, who took lives, destroyed worlds. "They made the Preventers because of people like us,” he said slowly. “Half of the world hated us. They...”
“Don’t say it.”
“How much can we really blame them?"
The girl was back. She set two glasses of water in front of them, and a cup and saucer for Duo, a creamer and spoon. She didn’t interrupt, but left with only a muted smile. Duo wasted no time ripping open two of the blue packets and emptying them into his cup. Wufei poured the cream for him, hoping the ritual would calm him. He didn’t press any further. The spoon made tiny ceramic clinks as Duo stirred, and avoided Wufei’s eyes.
He said, "Do you remember Hilde Schbeiker."
The name was familiar. He had met her and could recall a fuzzy sort of image of her, a slim girl with dark hair. "Your friend. The woman who defected from OZ."
Duo rotated his cup a full turn, and set it carefully on its saucer. "I lived with her, after. We lived together."
Wufei had already been in prison, if that meant the Barton Rebellion. "I hadn't been aware."
"We lived on L2." Not acknowledging his comment. "We had a house there, a real house, nothing amazing, not big. We had a business in scrap together. We were even--" He scraped the edge of the cup with a torn nail. "We even talked about a family, one day, maybe, if neither of us met anyone else."
"What happened?" His hand was back on Duo's again. He didn’t think about it as he did it, but he realised, suddenly, that he had. His thumb stroked the back of Duo’s hand, swept the bumps of his knuckles, stroked down the bone of his wrist. A cycle meant to soothe; soothe one of them, at least.
"Living on L2, there was a lot of activity there, you know,” Duo said. “Political activity. Rebels a lot, White Fang a lot too. Mostly people there, you live and let live. A woman." He sat back on the bench as if steeling himself. "A woman started following us. At first we thought she was one of the Preventers. They were always loitering. She broke into our cars, she left us messages at work, at home. Threw a brick in our window. Left a dead cat on our step. We knew the Preventers knew who she was. They had to, right? They knew. I begged them to do something about it, but they said no, they said they couldn't. The truth is they wouldn't."
"You can't know that.” He was trying to keep still, let Duo talk. It was the most Duo had said to him in one go, it was the only personal thing he thought Duo had said to him at all. He focussed himself on Duo’s face, trying to read the little expression there, the tiny flex of muscle, flutter of thick eyelashes. There was a very pale, thin scar to the side of Duo’s eye, new scar, not tan like the rest of him. Looking at it took him away from the words, though, and he lowered his gaze. “It doesn't make any sense."
"She broke into the house when I wasn't there. Hilde wasn't feeling well. Went home early. She broke into the house while Hilde was there, and killed her. Stabbed her to death."
That hit him like a punch to the gut; it forced the wind out of him. Oh, he knew that feeling. Hadn’t he known that same shattering of the logical universe? Hadn’t he held a dead girl in his arms and cursed the cowards who attacked those who were smaller and weaker? He had been prepared to share Duo’s pain, but hadn’t known they would share something so acutely tragic. He licked dry lips, and squeezed Duo’s hand. "Why? Why would someone do such a thing? I-- I'm so sorry."
"Revenge for us refusing to join White Fang." Duo freed his hand and hid both in his lap. "That's what she said. She was crazy. Someone who does that, they're just crazy. It was Hilde she was after, not me, really."
"They put her away for a long time, I imagine."
"No. I told them it was her. They said they hadn't seen anything. Bullshit." He laughed, a hard and bitter noise. "All they do is watch, and they don't see anything. I killed her. Wonder if they saw that."
"You what? That's-- you can't have."
He lost the air on his protest even as he said it. Duo could have. He very probably had. He’d murdered a woman for vengeance.
Duo met his eyes finally. “It was right."
"Perhaps." He swallowed dryly. He made himself touch Duo again, an open palm on his shoulder. He squeezed. He believed that Duo believed that. Maybe it was even true. The Preventers watched, yes, annoyingly omnipresent, even arrogantly nosy. But he also knew that Duo’s senses were— overtuned. His perceptions were skewed. It would be hard to say it wasn’t justified, if one were Duo.
"That's why you've been running.” Pieces began rapidly falling into place. “It's why you fear them so much. Isn't it? You think they know?"
"Of course they know. Prove it is something else." Duo drank half his coffee in three large swallows. "It's been eight years. If they were going to take me in, they would. They wait. They watch. Maybe someday I'll let something slip."
He was almost grateful for the waitress. She was sensitive to their tension, and didn’t speak as she refilled Duo’s cup with fresh coffee, and left a basket of bread on their table. Duo went through his ritual of preparation again.
The restaurant was filling up. It was dark outside, now. If the Preventers were still out there, they wouldn’t see much, not through the tinted windows.
"If they knew, you'd already be serving a sentence." He tore a piece of the brown grain bread in half, scattering crumbs over the basket. "We both know they can find evidence if they want to. They follow you the way they follow all of us. Nothing more than that."
"And haven't we earned real freedom? Haven't we paid whatever price we were supposed to?"
He kept his eyes on his hands, his scarred hand, his fair hand, the fingers clenched on each other. "I'm not expecting anything."
Duo shook his head. If it was a ‘no’, though, he didn’t voice it. He drank his coffee silently.
"You can stop running now."
"Stay, stupid." Though it occurred to him, with a touch of Duo’s paranoia, that it might make those Preventers out there nervous, if two Gundam Pilots started living and travelling together. He ignored the thought, and said, "I want you to."
They looked at each other simultaneously. Duo’s mouth quirked, and then he laughed. "I'm rude," he said. "And messy."
It was a tease. Wufei had said the same to him, yesterday. Only yesterday.
"I'm morose and impatient." He said it challengingly, daring Duo to top him.
Duo had a faint smile now. "I'm gay."
"So am I." It tore its way out of him. It was not an easy thing to confess.
"You sure?" Duo asked gently.
He felt a slight— not so slight— sensation of suffocation. "A man learns a lot of things about himself in prison." His mouth was dry. He sipped his water, rubbed his palms nervously on his trousers. "There were men. Trowa at first. I was sure at the time he… staked a claim to protect me. When he was gone, there was another. It was the done thing. I didn't fight it." It was like tearing off an itchy scab. It hurt, and it bled a bit, but there was relief in it, too. "It was sex. I didn't hate it. But I hated them."
Duo said, "You were raped."
"That's a very strong word."
"Words are words."
"Words have power."
"Have you had sex since you left?"
He’d met no-one and didn’t intend to. He would die of shame before he hired a prostitute. He was too ugly for pickups in tea houses and bars, and too fastidious, anyway. "No," he said.
"Maybe you don't want to." Duo propped his chin on his hand. "You're not gay if you're not doing anything."
"They're not beating a path to my door, Duo."
Yet another interruption, timely at least. The waitress arrived with their food stacked on a tray. "All right, two broiled rockfish with brown rice and wilted spinach." She hesitated with a large plate in hand. “You two going to stay with those seats?”
“Yes,” Wufei said. "Thank you."
“Sure.” She set the plate in front of Duo, and then the second before Wufei. “Anything else?"
He shook his head. "It’s fine. Thank you." She tossed them a smile, and left them alone. Watching her retreating back, he asked Duo, "Do you need more room? I can move to the other side."
"It's all right." Duo poked the rockfish fillet with a finger.
“Fork,” Wufei said, and demonstrated with his own silverware. He sliced his fish and made a forkful of the flesh and rice. Duo mimicked him slowly, as if it were a foreign activity. Maybe it was. There’d been a time when he’d had a low opinion of Duo Maxwell’s supposed civility. It would be ironic if his childish superciliousness had been correct after all.
But then Duo said, "Swallow the bite."
He obeyed, and wiped his mouth. "What?"
Duo cupped his cheek, startling him. That was nothing, however, to having Duo kiss him. It wasn’t a long kiss, it wasn’t intense— it was— tender. He had never— he had never had a kiss like that.
And then it was over. Duo stroked Wufei’s cheek, and then he let go.
"Why--" He cleared his throat. "Why'd you do that?"
"Now you're actively gay." It was a weak joke.
His hand shot out as if it had a mind of its own, catching Duo by the back of the neck. He pressed his lips to Duo’s, hard, roughly, more pressure than— than cling, like Duo’s kiss had been, the only way he knew how to do it. But Duo’s mouth stayed soft under his, and he could taste Duo, breathe Duo, everything changed. He mimicked the way Duo’s lips moved, shuddered when something warm and wet traced his teeth, touched his tongue. His hand slid from Duo’s neck to the stubble on his jaw, rough against his palm, the flutter of Duo’s pulse. It was racing.
He wasn’t sure which of them moved. But they were both sitting back, staring at each other.
"No,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Now I am."
Duo laughed in surprise. “Yeah. I guess you are.”
Back to chapter two