9-7-2002

NOTES: Erm… okies, so it’s been a really long time. *coughs* Since last April to be exact, and Sephy and I are very apologetic. Well, I’m apologetic and Sephy took her sweet ass time with the last Duo bit. I finished mine in May. *humphs* But I’m not bitter, oh no.

Sephy: Excuse me?! I’m sorry but I have a life here. And graduation and admission to graduate school to deal with… Plus, like 7 other fics, thank you very much. And I hate to point fingers, Amet, but where the hell is the next chapter of Dr. Yuy anyway? *sticks out tongue*

AMET: Post production. Nyah!

Sephy: A likely story! At least I’m actually still putting stuff out! Nyah! *takes deep breath… Okay, I’ll be the mature one here. We actually had this done about a week or so ago and have both been terribly lazy and not put it out until now. And it was indeed my fault we were delayed. I’m sorry, I’m a bad Sephy. Happy?

AMET: Oh please, you just realize you’ll never get any if you don’t behave. *coughs discreetly* Anyway, we’re done. Go us. There’s lots and lots of Duo angst from everybody’s point of view we could think of just to make up for all the waiting. *bows obeisance to Sunhawk* Hope y’all like it!

TITLE: Violent Indigo 2/God only knows how many… (It’s back! Mua ha ha!)

AUTHORS: Amet & Sephy

ARCHIVE: And because I know you’ve all probably forgotten this, the first part/prologue/whatever lives here: http://www.angelfire.com/scifi/amethystmaiden/viprologue.html or http://www.angelfire.com/id2/avalon/violentindigo0.html

DISCLAIMER: We don't own 'em, never will. We just like borrowing them even if we can't promise not to scuff the merchandise. Oh, come on. Like Duo doesn't enjoy a bit of scuffage now and then? ^_~

PAIRINGS: 1x2x1, 3x4x3

RATING: R-ish/NC-17

WARNINGS: Graphic descriptions of murder, language, obsequious Relena, eventual lemon, violence, dark bits, major character death, excessive angst, bad things happening to good people -- you know it, we've got it.

FEEDBACK: Please? Well, this is assuming you're not with the pitchfork and torch crowd. If so... *points off to the right* They went that a way!
(amethystmaiden@hotmail.com,
persephone_elysian@yahoo.com)

Chapter 1

 

Une was of the opinion that the man who had first coined the phrase ‘silence is golden’ should be drawn and quartered, a project she was more than happy to undertake if only to extricate herself from under the weight of one preternaturally calm indigo gaze. No, there was nothing wonderful about this particular quiet, the oppressive thickness that hung in the air between them like an unpleasant stench, wrought with undertones of hostility and affronted betrayal. Maxwell was still, face schooled to hardened indifference as he regarded her with something approaching boredom even as his eyes betrayed impending violence should her explanation fail to satisfy him. She fought the urge to excuse herself, settling her glasses higher on her nose as she fingered the file in hand and regarded her quarry with equal intensity across the cluttered expanse of her desk. Une was no skittish civilian, she was the Ice Queen of Preventer and she refused to allow herself more than minor discomfort in the face of a twenty-one year old kid, former Gundam Pilot or no.

Speaking with Maxwell required delicacy, of that she was painfully aware, and after the incident with Catalonia she had thought better of her original plan to bring him up to speed on hospital grounds, opting instead to make the ten minute trip to Preventer Headquarters in the hope that he would be more malleable in a controlled environment.

But Maxwell, as ever, was unpredictable.

The gradual abatement of his agitation gave way to this unsettling calm and the closer they came to their destination the more finite the emotion allowed to cross the normally over-expressive face, a phenomenon as alien as the hardening of cotton to granite. The subtle alteration in demeanor informed her that her move had been unwise, that their relationship had somehow shifted from allied to adversarial and she wished for a moment that she had not let her hair down, that he were still a skinny five foot child instead of the nearly six foot, well toned man he had become. Her triviality annoyed her, she hated feeling cowed and Maxwell had always unnerved her. His easy acceptance of everything from his own crimes to the torments her men had inflicted upon him during the war both amazed and unsettled her, his innate unpredictability more dangerous than even the calculating mind of Heero Yuy himself. Even after five years, a lifetime past and her entire outlook changed, he still found new ways to set her on edge. Not by grinning like the demented jester he had forced himself to be during the war but by a stoicism that rivaled her own.

It made her want to call her therapist.

Une prided herself a realist, and the cold, hard reality of the situation was that she had no idea how to begin to deal with Maxwell. Even so simple a matter as how to address him involved such careful consideration it bordered on lunacy. During the war he, as well as the other pilots, had been identified simply by their number designations. It was easier to dehumanize a number, to pull her punches and sleep at night without full knowledge of what the Colonel did in her waking hours, and in the end, it was the very breakdown of that mentality that rendered her helpless now. 04 had been easy, Quatre was Quatre and insisted that ‘Mr. Winner’ referred to his late father. 03 was similar, the Barton name rolled uneasily off her tongue, and Trowa was more comfortable with his borrowed first name unless they were in a professional situation. 05’s bearing and unwavering efficiency had always commanded a modicum of respect even from his superiors, and Chang Wufei was always Chang Wufei or Agent Chang without fail. Not even she would risk courting the stern Chinese man’s ire.

But 02 she had no idea what to do with. Duo was too personal, she didn’t know him well enough to gage how he would take such familiarity, and somehow the idea of calling him Mr. anything seemed skewed on one so irreverent. Just calling him Maxwell seemed a slight, and she found herself wondering if she could simply avoid directly addressing him until she were better able to gage his reactions.

She shifted, rearranging a sheaf of crime scene photos and holding her breath as she attempted to gather something resembling composure, glancing surreptitiously through lowered lashes at the violet gaze still locked stubbornly on her form. She wondered idly how Mr. Treize would have handled the situation, thoughts of her former lover had always brought great comfort even in the face of their accompanying grief. ‘Steady, Lady,’ his voice whispered across her mind, ‘You must never falter in the face of your enemy, for like dogs, they can sense your fear.’ At least on that level she understood Maxwell, she had a more than healthy appreciation of the intricacies of grieving, that horrible aching nothingness that ate at her soul no less heartily than it had with the death of her lover more than six years before. No, the grief she understood, and the pain that shadowed that adversarial gaze, the shadows clearly visible within weary amethyst. She saw it in her own eyes every time she looked into a mirror, in her child’s limpid azure gaze whenever they visited her father’s grave. In the end, no matter what monstrosities any of them had committed, they were all laid bare before the alter of death and loss, even Shinigami himself.

Shinigami, who was still staring and eroding her very last nerve.

It was at times like this that she missed the Colonel, as insane as that sounded, the comfort of retreating into a stronger presence when the world became too callous for her to bear. In the end, she supposed she had used the Colonel to fill a role that might have been Treize’s, to protect her when she could not protect herself, and by extension, her lover. For he like any man had been a child, fumbling through life in pursuit of whatever idealistic goals stuck his fancy at the expense of everything else, his own well being included. She wondered if there was a woman standing behind Maxwell, someone to arrange his rooms, or remind him to eat as he threw himself wholeheartedly into whatever new project caught his eye, who would willingly stand in the shadow of Death himself.

Who would willingly stand in the shadow of Death’s lover.

She remembered quite well the dynamic between Maxwell and Heero Yuy, the coded glances and ephemeral touches they barely hid from their comrades and wouldn’t be bothered to hold in the presence of enemies such as herself. She had thought them lovers, or close to, but something had happened somewhere along the way because as time passed after the great wars the few occasions she had seen Yuy he had been alone, and Maxwell had disappeared completely until she stumbled onto his name and number in Chang’s contact file. To look at Maxwell now, the self derisive, weary coil to his stance, this was not the look of a sated man. Something was wrong, very wrong where Maxwell was concerned, and if what she had observed of his former compatriots were any indication, it had bled to them all. It made it harder to truly dislike him, even in her discomfort, and she quite suddenly found herself meeting his gaze easily, allowing herself a rueful half-smile.

“I’m sorry.”

And she was, for the brusqueness with which she had woken him this morning, the horrible news he had been hit with when he arrived, the hospital staff that had forced him to fight his way to his injured friend, the way the whole situation seemed to have leveled his world, driving that former spark of vitality from his eyes.

Which was evidently the wrong thing to express, as his glare only intensified. He shifted impatiently in his seat, brows knit together in something dangerously close to rage. “I didn’t come here for platitudes,” he hissed, flipping his hair over a shoulder. “I want to know what happened.”

His anger was hollow, rolling off her even as it was bit off, the underlying anguish was more than exposed now and she found herself feeling a strange sort of kinship with the man, her former enemy and current problem. ‘At least he’s not swearing,’ she thought, ‘if I’m lucky it’s a sign that he still recognizes my authority.’ Losing herself in the impersonality that had made her a legend among her men, Une leaned slightly forward, plucking a duplicate file from a slightly less cluttered corner of her desk and dropping it unceremoniously in front of him, narrowly avoiding collision with Marimeia’s latest school photograph. She fingered the silver frame momentarily before continuing, glancing up at Maxwell to be sure he was paying attention before launching into a summary of the facts she had been handed on the current crisis.

“This is Edward Tressalian,” she declared, flipping her own folder open to reveal the two week old autopsy report. “Upstart politico and textbook zealot, the kind of man who wholeheartedly believes that even we are a threat to Miss Relena’s vision of a pacifist state. Bothersome, but harmless.”

Maxwell looked up. “Even a zealot pacifist is still a zealot. Absolute faith carries with it the potential for violence if that faith is challenged.”

“Perhaps,” she acceded, “but I think it’s safe to say that this particular fanatic will not be a continuing threat to anyone, given the circumstances.” She flipped the page to confront the main report, a sheaf of interior shots of the man’s many lacerations and the coroner’s verdict emblazoned at the top of the third paragraph. ‘Cause of Death: Strangulation.’ The man had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a heavy plank of wood, a splintered, dried out thing that Chang Wufei had discovered lying in the alley behind one of the city’s trendier nightspots where Tressalian was found. The man had endured enough of a beating to disable him before his killer apparently straddled his chest and strangled him with their bare hands. Not a pleasant way to go, and the political unrest kicked up when the pacifists learned that a gruesome crime had taken place close to inside one of their favorite haunts expounded the pressure to identify the killer in ways none of them had been prepared for.

“And I’m thrilled, really,” Maxwell replied, frowning absently as he picked his way through the autopsy photographs, “but what does that have to do with what happened to the guys?”

“Chang and Po were assigned to the case,” she replied, setting the autopsy aside and moving on to the preliminary report of the latter crime scene. “And due to unprecedented pressure to solve the murder, Barton and Catalonia were soon to join the team.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Maxwell held up a hand, “CATALONIA?” He choked, “As in the psycho bitch from Hell?”

“Yes,” she replied dryly, “but I think she prefers Dorothy.” Maxwell’s eyes narrowed, and she closed her folder, setting it down on the desk momentarily as she held his gaze steadily. “What do you know about Agent Catalonia’s position here?”

“Agent?” He seemed almost subdued, repeating the word as if digesting its meaning, pulling his plait back over his shoulder and playing with the ends.

“She is Barton’s partner.” Une explained, leaning forward and punctuating every word in that peculiarly gentle yet authoritarian tone she used on Meia whenever she needed something vitally important explained to her. “Has been for over three years, since she came here. Most people are reluctant to work with Barton, and equally reluctant to work with Catalonia, so I teamed them together. Not the most amiable partnership, but productive.”

“You made Trowa, our Trowa, whose lover was skewered by that bitch back in the war work with her? What were you thinking? Better yet, what idiotic impulse made you let her into Preventer in the first place, she’s a fucking psycho!”

‘So much for that civility,’ she thought, biting back a groan as Maxwell’s skin flushed to a shade startlingly similar to his eyes. “I actually wasn’t entirely pleased about the situation myself, but then I received a rather interesting visit from Heero Yuy,” she watched him pale at the name with some satisfaction, “who reminded me that of all of us, I am certainly the least qualified to determine another person’s mental health, and that in the end Dorothy could be quite useful to this organization. A prediction that I’m happy to report has come true in every sense of the word in the past few years. Though Miss Catalonia is a far cry from the textbook model agent, she has an incredible aptitude for the job, and even in the face of almost overwhelming enmity from her coworkers has managed to outperform them all, excepting of course Chang and Barton.”

Silence fell upon the room, and she glanced up to find Maxwell hunched forward in his seat, legs spread slightly as his fists, as well as his braid, dangled in between them. He looked younger somehow, and wounded, eyes shut slightly as he stared at the patterns in her office rug. “You’ve seen him?” he asked, the near whisper seemingly aimed at the carpet.

She nodded automatically, then realizing that his current position kept him from seeing, added a noncommittal, “Yes.”

He looked up, amethyst eyes impossibly wide as he regarded her honestly, wringing his hands together in uncertainty. “Was he… was he okay?”

The voice was so small, so broken she could hardly reconcile it with the roar of scarcely a minute ago, moving her in ways she was unprepared for. “It was three years ago.”

Maxwell nodded.

“He seemed to be doing fairly well, as well as can be expected, but…” she trailed off, uncertain if it was wise to continue.

“But…?” he prompted, leaning forward in his chair.

“He seemed,” she paused, frowning, “not exactly sad, that doesn’t feel right. He was fine, almost amiable in comparison to what he was like once, and he spoke a great deal more. But there was this weight on him, you could see it. A weariness about him that made me wonder if he was as well adjusted as he pretended.”

A shuddering sigh, and Maxwell turned away, blinking rapidly. He giggled drunkenly and turned to pick at his hands. “Heero Yuy, well adjusted teen. That just doesn’t jive right.”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t,” she answered, slightly uncomfortable at the raw emotion in his voice. She wasn’t the only one who was unstable, and she was looking at a man whose faith had been shattered, the very zealotry he spoke of in Tressalian had been his own obsession with his partner. An obsession that held no more basis than Miss Relena’s devotion to the Wing Pilot, the enthrallment of an idea more than the man behind them. Ideas were intangible, and reality was a harsh teacher, somewhere along the line she supposed Maxwell had realized that the man he’d clung to was nothing more than a shadow of the actuality, a hard lesson she had more than learned herself. It was a lesson Relena herself would have to learn one day, but in the end Maxwell had more to lose in the destruction of his dream, to know that he had had the object of his desire within his grasp before he’d fully realized his mistake, and in that mistake, destroyed him.

He shook it off with frightening speed, though he surprised her. His newfound reanimation had a thoughtful air, none of the humorous mask she had expected to fall in his defense, and he reopened his file, flipping to the preliminary report and clearing his throat noisily. “So Sally, Chang-a-lang and Barton-boy took a late night trip to the crime scene. Where’d the fuck up happen? And why is the psycho bitch in one piece when Q-bean’s tied down in the psych ward?”

She fought the urge to roll her eyes at the nicknames, half wanting to reprimand him for talking in code. “Chang, Po, Barton, and Winner were all sighted at around eleven-thirty last night discussing something quite seriously over drinks at a local establishment. Due to the general visibility of Winner’s public face their movements weren’t terribly difficult to track. It seems that they left the restaurant somewhere between midnight and twelve-thirty, heading in their respective vehicles to the site of Tressalian’s death, an alleyway in back of a club called, quite appropriately, Narcissus.”

She flipped the page and frowned at a rather graphic shot of the alley wall, huge chunks of brick and grouting gouged out where bullets had struck and splattered with blood and flesh. Chang and Po had been standing directly in front of that wall.

“They arrived somewhere between twelve-thirty and one, though no one can tell me what exactly they were doing there. Catalonia claims that they wanted to bring Winner in as some sort of consultant on the case, and suspects they went over on their own after she refused to go along with it.”

Maxwell nodded. “He was doing his psychic friends impression then.”

“Perhaps,” she answered, “It wouldn’t be surprising given the number of leads the team had to follow up on.”

“Which was?”

“Exactly none, and it was a high profile case. As project leader, Chang was under a lot of pressure to produce a miracle.”

“So they played their Hail Mary pass.” He shook his head. “Gambled and lost.”

“Indeed,” she said. “The call came in at one-thirty, a neighborhood resident heard the shots and called in local law enforcement. They were first on the scene, and managed to completely decimate most of the more delicate physical evidence in the rush to get Barton and Winner medical attention. Near as we can tell, Chang and Po were at the mouth of the alley, while Barton and Winner continued farther back, perhaps looking for something earlier sweeps might have missed. The first shots hit the front wall, from an angle on the rooftop to their left and pushed back towards the end of the alleyway. They never stood a chance. Barton however, managed to tackle Winner to the ground even after sustaining several shots to the back and extremities himself, pinning the other against a dumpster and the wall to avoid most of the shots. We think the only reason he was struck at all was a second shooter on the roof of the club itself, someone inexperienced who hesitated and made mistakes enough to repair the damage to Barton’s body.”

“We’re not entirely certain what is wrong with Winner, he was nearly catatonic when they found him, he made no move to get out from under Barton, and until his pulse was checked the arriving officers thought he was dead. It was when they moved to separate the two that the screaming started, he was panicking incoherently as they were bringing Barton into surgery and after injuring an orderly and two hospital security guards it was determined that he would need to be confined.”

“It is really not a good day to be a security guard,” Maxwell intoned, flipping idly through the rest of the report. “You called me a couple hours later, right?”

“Yes.”

“You must have known I’d want the case,” he continued, raising his eyes to regard her steadily through a heavy curtain of bangs.

“I knew it was a possibility, yes,” she replied, “but I called you because you were listed after Po, Winner and Barton in Chang’s contact numbers.”

His eyes widened, but he let his wonder drop, opting instead to raise his head defiantly. “I want this case.”

Inwardly Une smiled. She had expected this, actually, counted on it really. She was down three integral members of her staff, desperate for leads and less than thrilled about the possibility of doing fieldwork again until she could reassign someone competent to a case that had just gotten a whole lot trickier, and Maxwell was more than capable of picking up the other pilots’ slack. Better not to let him know that, however, giving in too easily virtually guaranteed that she would have no authority over him.

He took her silence as dissent and slapped the file down on the desk. “What’s the problem, Lady? You were all but begging me to join up five years ago and now that I’m here, volunteering to save your ass on a case nobody wants to take you hesitate. Where’s the sense in that?”

“With all due respect, Mr. Maxwell,” she straightened her spine and allowed the condescension to slip into her voice, “It has been five years. Neither of us is the person we were, and you never were one to follow authority even when you were following military procedures. I’m not certain it’s wise for me to hand over such a delicate case to someone with no diplomatic skills whatsoever, talented though he may be.”

He surprised her again. She’d expected anger, or humor, but all he did was sit back loosely in his seat and raise an elegant brow in her direction. “I’m offering to work with you here, Lady, I don’t want to lock horns with you at every turn. But you know that if you won’t let me do it officially I’ll go after these fuckers on my own.”

“Point taken.” She crossed her arms, fiddling with her glasses and pretending to consider it. “I can’t let you run around out there on your own, if the press catches you we have to have someone there who can deal with them in a manner becoming of this organization and you, charming as you can sometimes be, are not that person.”

He smirked. “No, probably not. People who stick their noses in my business have a tendency to break them.”

“But I suppose if you had a partner…”

“Oh sure, someone to show me the ropes, protect the reporter ladies from the ol’ Maxwell charm,” His hand moved to the back of his head, yanking at the braid absently. “Sounds good, chief, when do we start?”

She swallowed the predatory smile that threatened to worm its way onto her face. She had the perfect person in mind, though Maxwell was not going to be pleased. Clearing her throat as delicately as she could manage, she added, “Think long and hard about this now, I reserve the right to choose your partner and you get absolutely no say in the matter.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Sure, sure Une-baby, I’m a people person! I like everybody!”

Une wondered if Dorothy would let him live long enough to regret those words.

***

The photos were a black and white nightmare. She grimaced, running steady fingers around glossy edges, her eyes glued, whether she willed them or no, to the grainy horror noir contained therein. Concrete walls spattered with blood, a stygian dark stain made all too noticeable by the camera's flashbulb, the soft fuzzy outline of a body in the corner of the picture. The picture next to it a closer view of the corpse, in this case, what was left of Sally Po. The same dark splash on the wall pooled around her body, most heavily around the cranial region. Her face was turned to the side, giving Dorothy only a glimpse in profile of the dead woman. It wasn't needed. She had only to close her eyes to call up the crime scene she'd stumbled into earlier with perfect clarity, each image so sharp it cut to call them up. So she relied on the pictures to guide her, feeling her throat dry and tighten as she moved from one to the next, an endless succession of tawdry, impersonal reflections. Except, she thought as she gnawed at her fingernails, that they were all too personal. These were not nameless John and Jane Does; it was the blood of her coworkers adorning those dirty walls with liberal care, people she worked with every day, who she had seen hours earlier when they'd signed off for their shift. And whether by contrivance or twist of fate, she had escaped, unharmed, if not unscathed and it should have relieved her.

Instead, she found herself towing the fine line between fury and guilt, a niggling twitch of grief wanting to creep into the mix and blacken her mood further.

She had already combed through the initial witness reports, such as they were, and would have to wait a little longer yet before forensics handed her their findings. That left her only with the photos and the files from past cases to keep her company, her tired eyes were pained and sticky as they flitted from one item to the next. Her throat constricted fully as she came to the next picture, almost unable to breathe from the bile threatening to choke her.

The shot was her partner, sprawled over Quatre, in what she could only term as a protective gesture, visible holes in his back and lower legs. That wasn't what made her almost flinch; it was Quatre Winner's empty eyes staring out at her from around Trowa's shoulder, his face stained with a mask of blood, the same fluid caking his clothes and gumming up his hair. The last time she had seen that face, it had been so animate, so full of life and well, love, she admitted to herself. It was no secret, at least to her, that Barton and Winner were lovers, had in fact, been lovers for some time. Anyone with two eyes and half a brain could, to use a very tired cliché, see the near visible sparks fly between them. It was in every near touch, every glance, and most definitely in the none too friendly change in Barton's demeanor every time she got within five feet of the little Arabian, almost the only emotion he graced her with when he wasn't shutting her out.

'Five years,' she reflected. 'Five years since the war, since my duel with Winner and despite my small role in aiding the fight against Dekim Barton, I'm no closer to being accepted than I was back then, not by my partner, not by anyone.' At least during the war, there had been a clear enemy, a clear side to choose. This world of peace, of the Peacecraft's making, was one where she was forced to tread uneasily, uncertain of her place in it, of what she could contribute to it. Preventer was a viable outlet for her skills and training but overcoming the mindset that had been beaten into her from the day of her birth... Well, that was something different. Especially when no one was much interested in giving her a chance to break that mold. People were tiresome in that they looked for, were only interested in, the predictable. They didn't want a reformed Dorothy Catalonia, they wanted the old, bitch goddess striding through and cutting an uncaring swatch in her wake. They didn't want to entertain the idea that she might have fears or doubts like any other woman because in effect, they'd stripped her of all femininity and humanity by elevating her to the status of a waking demon. Something to point out to their dear little children and cluck their tongues over, whispering in sotto voice about the dangers of nonconformity and the evil Catalonia monster who was sure to be waiting in the closet to kill them while they slept.

Well, fuck them. Fuck all of them. She had little patience as it was and saw no need to waste it on fools.

'Unfortunately, I don't have that option. I have a whole gaggle of fools to deal with in a few hours,' she groaned, wanting nothing more than to lay her head against the desk. She was tired, bone tired but it wasn't likely she would be getting any sleep even if she tried. Better to work, to prepare herself for the press conference, searching through file and photo for an answer that had eluded them all thus far. Pretended superiority aside, she didn't kid herself on the odds of coming up with some new earth-shattering bit of evidence on her own. In fact, she was very much afraid that if forensics didn't come up with something new for her to work with, their only hope of anything concrete would come when another body turned up. Not if, but when. She wondered how many more dead bodies were going to be upon her belated conscience's head before this ended.

It was almost enough to make her laugh, that one thought so forlorn and self-pitying. How she would have despised that sentiment in herself during the war. People died, it was a fact of life and it mattered little how or why. The strong, they survived and they changed the world. The words were so close, just below the surface of this new persona and her concerns. She rubbed her forehead, the rote of her grandfather's lessons coming unbidden. Sometimes, she had the very real feeling of being two people -- one shaped and molded from the hour of her birth to be a soldier, the girl who had been taken to her grandfather's knee at her parent's death and taught that weakness was not to be allowed, more over that it was inexcusable. The other was this confused, emotional ... creature who didn't understand the world around her, who had no experience of dealing with people as people but was expected to anyway and actually felt guilt for the very things she was brought up to do?

It was easier to be the first Dorothy, easier to slip away into the coldness of being analytical and quarrelsome. She didn't have to think there. She had never been expected to think beyond the perimeters of the mission, beyond what her Grandfather or Mr. Treize or Mr. Milliardo had required of her. Her decisions had been made for her then and she needed only to decide on the execution for her course of action. And now she just stumbled from day to day, trying to figure out where the hell she was going and not getting one jot of help from where she had been. How did normal people handle it? How did they make it day after day without going stark raving mad? She'd only been at it a couple years and there were times when she felt the very real urge to crawl out of her skin.

'And speaking of crawling out of your skin,' she closed her eyes, feeling her head throb in time with the slamming of Une's office door. She didn't have to look up to know that trouble was bounding her way, a meter length braid swinging like a pendulum with each irrevocable step. She could already feeling the muscles in the back of her neck tensing in response, more out of anticipation for the migraine to come rather than a repeat of earlier. Maxwell was known to be difficult, if not downright capricious, on the best of occasions and this was hardly the best of circumstances. He'd already let her know with his little display at the hospital that he felt she was not to be trusted. It wasn't very likely that a session with Une was going to change that impression.

He did not disappoint.

"I talked to Une-baby," he announced, his shadow falling over her pictures, obscuring some of the detail. She fought the urge to snatch the photos and files back as he leaned over, his rope of hair brushing her arm.

'Une-baby? And she actually let him walk out after saying that? What drugs is she on and where can I get a prescription?' She snorted.

"How exciting for you," Dorothy kept her voice even, seeking for the sake of peace to keep the irritation out of her voice. She worked hard not to add the 'And I care about this, why?' that just begged to leave her lips. She already had a pretty good idea of where this conversation was going and the only thing that remained to be seen was how big a hole Maxwell's mouth was going to dig for the rest of him.

"She's given me the case," he continued, blithely unaware of her knuckles whitening as she gripped the edge of her desk. "I just thought maybe you could bring me up to speed on what 'Fei and the others were doing up 'til tonight, if that's not too much trouble."

'Fei and the others?' The words chased themselves around in her brain, already beginning to see scarlet at this lasseiz-faire, careless attitude of his. They belittled her position and her abilities, reducing her to the role of some dim-witted Girl Friday. Coupled with the realization that by their very actions, Chang, Sally, and Barton had more or less relegated her to that image, it was enough to give her long thoughts about taking that braid and seeing how good a garrote it would make.

"I see," Even she was impressed with amount of ice she managed to fleck into those two words. Maxwell frowned, peering down his nose at her as if he didn't know what the fuck to make of her. Which, Dorothy thought, was probably more true than she knew. She leaned back, her swivel chair groaning ominously. Wonderful. Falling back on her ass was all she needed right now. 'I'm already the joke of the office,' she reflected. 'I might as well give them something else to smirk about.' "So then I take it, Une didn't give you much of the particulars?"

"She gave me a few but I thought it might be better to come find out how far you had gotten on this evening's... events... before I needed to backtrack and re-examine a few things. You know just in case something was missed this. I'm guessing things were chaotic earlier, it would have been easy to do."

'So now I'm not only stupid, I'm incompetent. Une, did you want him in one or two pieces when I'm through?'

"Uh huh. Well, I haven't heard from either ballistics or forensics yet. Maybe I should tell them to forward their findings to your desk ASAP," she purred.

Sarcasm was lost on him, she noted watching as he relaxed, apparently relieved that things appeared to be going so well. "That'd be nice, yeah."

"And then maybe you'd like it if I went and got you some coffee and let you slap my ass while you're at it?"

His eyes widened, mouth lowering as his mind tried to work with the image her words produced. She let him, deriving a minute amount of pleasure in the consternation starting to settle in those amethyst eyes before deciding to appropriate the conversation. At the rate he was going his foot was going to choke him before common sense prevailed.

"Let's get a few things straight from the outset, Maxwell," she left off the honorary 'Agent'. When she saw a badge and maybe a swearing in ceremony, then she'd give him that modicum of respect, something he had summarily denied her. "You're on this case, I expected that. However, as I have neither been summoned to the Colonel's office nor notified otherwise, that means I'm still on this case, too. And as the senior officer, that makes you my partner."

A dark flush stained his neck, creeping upward as he leaned forward nearly nose to nose with her. "Now, wait a damn minute--"

"I'm not done yet," she snapped. "I realize that tonight's been a shock. It has for all of us. And because of that I'm going to give you some leeway but--" She put her hands on the desk and half stood so that she was staring him in the eye. "If you ever openly disrespect me like this again, I'll put my foot so far up your ass, my toes will be wiggling out your nostrils. Understood?"

'If looks could kill…' She studied him in open fascination, almost entertained by the rapid shades of red and purple his face was suffused with until he was very near the color of his eyes. A vein in his forehead all but popped out at her and from the way his muscles flexed and unflexed, she wasn't all too sure he wasn't going to deck her. She glanced over to see Une's brown eyes peeking through the blinds of her office and if Dorothy was reading her aright there was something akin to amusement dancing there. She rolled her eyes, all too aware that her superior officer was probably giggling madly in the safety of her office.

"Listen, I've worked too damn long and hard on this case to let some flyboy breeze in and muck it up. You have a problem with me? Fine, take a place in line but don't you dare let personal feelings cloud the issue. Like it or not, there's not another person in this department that knows more about this than I do. Not anyone alive or conscious anyway." She took a breath and nearly growled. "This is my goddamn case and you are going to work with me or I'll burn every shred of evidence in the building until you decide to stop acting like an asshole and cooperate.

"I am not working with you," Duo spat out. "The last time I crossed paths with you, you were hell-bent on taking us all out. For all I know, that's still the plan."

"Fuck you, Maxwell. It was never about you."

"You skewered Quatre!"

"We were in the middle of a goddamn war. What the fuck was I supposed to do? Send him flowers and rainbows?"

"This is pointless," He crossed his arms, trying to tower over her. She stood her ground, supremely unimpressed. "There's no way we can work together. I don't how anyone could work with you in the first place."

"Barton managed," she mirrored his action, allowing a chilly smirk to take over. "Are you saying you're less of a man than he is?"

He didn't haul off and punch her. She'd give him points for that. Instead, his eyes went dark, almost frightening in their intensity. Goosebumps rose up and she almost took a step back. The change was so sudden, so complete that she knew it wasn't Maxwell before her anymore but the Shinigami. She'd heard whispers of those men who'd actually faced him in battle and survived -- some of them were still haunted by it even today.

"My friends are dead," his voice was calm, almost light. "I don't have the time to wonder what colossal fuck-up put you and Trowa working together in the first place and I don't have time to care. If you have something important to say, then I suggest you get started before I get tired of waiting."

'And all we need now is the dramatic music and an "or else",' she almost giggled, high on adrenaline and lack of sleep. "And then you'll what? Kick my ass?"

He shrugged, his smile never breaking nor reaching his eyes.

"I might take you up on that one day. Look, it really doesn't matter what you or I want. Une's already made her decision and no matter what we think, she's not likely to change her mind. You can go argue with her if you want but she's probably ready for that.

She paused, rubbing her face. "I'm fucking tired and I haven't slept well since this whole thing began. If you want to fight, I'm up for it. But between the two of us, I'd really like to solve this damn case before someone else dies. And in light of that, I'm willing to do just about anything -- even work with you, complete prick that you are."

That seemed to rattle him, as if he couldn't wrap his mind around her being reasonable. And so he did what any wounded animal might and lashed out. "When the fuck did you start caring? About anything?"

Dorothy shook her head, more disappointed than anything else as she slapped a stack of folders into his hands. "That's right, Maxwell, I don't. I'm a heartless bitch and you're a loudmouthed airhead. That's what everyone else thinks about us. And if so many people agree on it… Well, they must be right because the majority of the people could never be wrong.

"You do what you want," she slung her jacket on her shoulders. "I have a press conference to prepare for and I'm sure Une would appreciate it if you made an appearance. Just for a little show of team solidarity. You do remember what that's like or have you spent so much time running away that part escaped you?"

She didn't give him a chance to respond, to wound her further, wheeling away from him and nearly slamming into one of her fellow Preventers. The man cursed, nearly pushing her away from him and for once she didn't fight back. What was the point anyway?

***

Despite what most people believed, Heero Yuy was not, nor had he ever been a fan of discomfort. He did not enjoy being slammed about in his flight harness, or shot, or being forced to snap his bones into alignment after a particularly nasty injury. His comfort had simply been a secondary concern to his mission during the war, a mission that he would gladly endure to insure peace, and doing so without complaint did not make him a masochist. At least with injuries there was clean, sharp pain, which he missed dearly in this case where all he had to cling to was the slightly squishy feeling in his dress shoes and a sinking sensation that they were beyond repair, even as he asked himself for the hundredth time if it was really worth skulking along a grungy, slimy alleyway in the middle of the night just because the object of his search was too backward to own a cell phone.

Well, as much as one can skulk in penny loafers.

It was slightly ironic that he would go to such lengths for a moment of that same levity that had always fueled his criticism of the other man, for a glimpse of the ever present vitality in those violet eyes that he had cursed as ineffectual during the war. But he had wanted and been denied for too long, his wishes once again pushed aside and ignored in the five long years that followed, pining away like the love struck teenager that he was supposed to be, and in the end, he supposed he was.

It was a time of endless possibilities. Peace had been a constant since the last rebellion and Heero and his compatriots had seemingly been given a second chance, handed the remainder of their lives with a quick congratulatory pat on the back and sent into the world with the significantly greater funding they’d pilfered from various OZ reserves, ready to make their way in a world that demanded far less of them than the one they’d been raised in.

No one had bothered to wonder how they would survive in this alien world, and rightly so, they were masters at survival. But it took far more to learn to live, a completely foreign concept that Heero himself had painstakingly familiarized himself with only to find that living in and of itself was intertwined with the interconnectedness of basic human societies; families. Whether biological or otherwise, actual living seemed to depend on the connection with and affection received from like minded individuals. There were plenty of people willing to give Heero affection of one sort or another, but for all his attempts, nothing had managed to reach him past a certain point, that corner deep in his soul reserved for his former comrades and that level of tacit understanding that only they would ever reach.

Even in his imposed exile, he yearned for that, for permission to speak of his former life without concern of reprisal. Physical harm was irrelevant, the layperson who would do him serious harm did not exist, but in the realm of simple companionship, of sharing his thoughts without watching the other shy away – no, he had made that mistake before. Friends, confidantes, even councilors; a simple method of trial and error had taught him that he could not afford to turn to any one of them for support were he to require it. He thought that Duo would laugh, that the boy he had long thought completely incapable of leaning on another human being would deign to ask mere mortals for companionship, but in the face of his ostracism from the others it had once seemed a viable recourse.

But that, it seemed, was denied him, just as the one thing he had yearned for in his short existence had been summarily denied him. He learned early on that the very freedom he had been promised when the campaigns ended hinged on his own ability to be silent, that no man could be trusted with the whereabouts of the notorious 01, whether they reacted violently to his story or took him into their care, that sooner or later something would slip and give away his position. There was no normalcy for him, no idyllic home or promising life without its facilitating deception, the very thing that ate at his soul and forced him into a deprivation more devastating than that notorious self-monitored emotional deficit he carried during the war. His very identity was stripped from him, from the well worn codename J had graced him with all those years ago to the affect he had cultivated during the long years of training. Every gesture, every inflection reevaluated and remolded until he hardly recognized himself, blending in his last feeble defense against a world that wouldn’t allow him the time to understand it before forcing its way in.

To let the world in was to let Her in, and Heero could not abide that.

He could feel Her presence trailing his every step, breathing heavy at his back. His natural paranoia was overtaxed, stretched to even its not inconsiderable limits by Her relentless pursuit, grown only more ravenous in the years since the end of the great wars. The peace he had fought so ardently to safeguard became his prison, returning the world to a playing field where She was the master, the native, and he the alien, an exotic but utterly useless participant who floundered in the face of his own ignorance of the rules. He did have one small advantage; She had clearly underestimated his capacity for adaptation and in doing so provided him with ample room in which to maneuver around her endless machinations. But it was little compensation for the overbearing pervasiveness of Her presence in his life. He could go nowhere without wondering if She or one of her minions would see him, if somehow he would slip and give himself away. She had succeeded in making herself a permanent part of his life and in some humorless stroke of irony, utterly destroying whatever chance he might have had to truly leave the violence of his old ways behind.

Heero shook his head, weaving through a mass of half contained trash spilling from a nearby dumpster, marveling at the supreme unevenness of what the media proclaimed their brave new world. Not five feet from him the rich, their cohorts, and the tasteless politicians he and his compatriots helped bring to power spent inordinate amounts of money each night to alleviate their own sense of boredom and banality. The dingy wall to his left shook with the manic pulse of a bass beat pumped high enough to shake dirt from its peeling gray paint, a glaring reminder of a world that the residents of the bulk of this neighborhood would never hope to join. He stepped neatly around an unconscious drunk and the shattered remains of a bottle of cheap whiskey, glaring at the puddle of thick amber liquid as it coalesced with the more innocuous grime covering the alley floor. Within those heaving walls lay Her world, a veritable orgy of hedonism and excess. Without, lay his own world, ruled over by violence and chaos, even in these lighter times.

It was as disgusting and painful as it was familiar, though he found a certain sense of reassurance in the knowledge that he was once again allowed to defend himself with far more potent weapons than camouflage and silence if threatened within its borders. It wasn’t pretty but it was far more real and its inhabitants more intelligent and mature than their enviable counterparts. It was one person in particular who drove him onward even as he cringed at his decent into that long abandoned world, at the hidden meaning in his rapidly escalating ease with its culture. A man he’d thought long lost to him forever, and a chance at some semblance of reparation that brought him out of that more comfortable lie, face to face with the truth of his own existence, that long buried shadow of himself and the life they’d shared together.

He paused, melting back against the wall as he approached his destination, hyperaware of the play of shadows across the mouth of this new alleyway as light from a nearby streetlamp hit the webbing of police line at its entrance and the pulsing beat beneath his fingers as he pressed back against the stone. Preventer had left its mark in more than just the warning line, evidence markers were scattered among the prerequisite alley refuse, interspersed with three relatively clear areas in which tape had been set down in rough outlines of bodies. The walls on either side were riddled with bullet holes, gouged out nearly a hand’s width deep in some places, the mark of a professionally powerful weapon. The only objects in the space demanding attention were an old dumpster near the far wall with several concise dents in it that were visible even from twenty feet away and a rickety fire escape that swayed in the early morning breeze and the heavy beat still emanating from his right.

Heero squinted in the shadows, wishing for a moment that he had thought to bring some small source of illumination as he stared at the decidedly unimpressive scene before him. A sudden movement caught his eye and he tensed, breath catching in his throat as he recognized the lone figure. There, squatting authoritatively over a dark stain by the far wall that could only have been dried blood was a painfully familiar figure, lithe frame folded neatly in on itself where it faced away from Heero, plait hanging low over his buttocks to dangle between crouching legs. His skin shone ivory in the moonlight, adding an unearthly pallor in counterpoint to the umber of his hair.

‘Duo…’

His throat seized, biting back a whimper even as his muscles locked against a near stumble. Vision fogging, he moved to right the wire frames of his glasses as they slipped from his nose, unable to temper the flow of memories, echoes of times long past, of violet eyes alight with trust and wanting. A lifetime ago Relena had told him of her belief that each person was created with a perfect mate, a single soul molded in counterpoint to their own. She believed that to be with any other was to court unfulfillment, that when completion was found it must be fought for. At the time he had dismissed the idea as statistically unsound and stalked off to reassemble his weaponry, but time and isolation had stilled that sentiment, stirring it into something sharper, needier. He refused to utilize such wistful analysis of his situation but as time provided only more poignant detachment from those who should have been his intimates his thoughts strayed more and more often to memories of fleeting kisses in the halls of the Peacemillion, to phantom caresses that threatened to overwhelm his psyche with a force more powerful than even his weariness of Her.

As much as he hated to agree with any of Relena’s philosophy, Heero Yuy was convinced that he had a soul mate, and he was more than willing to fight for him.

He had allowed the separation. Knowing even then how it would tear them both he had allowed it, frozen in horrified compassion as his would-be lover boarded a midnight shuttle to parts unknown. Duo was frenzied in his need to escape himself, more disoriented by the true end to the violence that had driven them than Heero had ever expected, and he would deny his partner nothing. The idea seemed more practical than gallant, even in his terror at his sudden solitude and utter impotence he realized that had he trapped Duo, time would teach his love to hate him, destroying whatever life they might have built in deference to some unclaimed freedom. Better to let that freedom bear its weight on Duo now, that its crush would drive them to unity. Heero could only hope it had.

He pressed himself into shadow, circling carefully around the alley wall until he stood facing the crouched figure, frozen in indecision as shade still sought to hide its features from him.

“Did you really send Dorothy to Preventer?”

Duo’s head never moved, still bowed resolutely as he fingered an evidence marker in front of him. His voice had deepened slightly, a slight pang in Heero that he had not been there for the change, but still held that sense of barely checked sarcasm he remembered so vividly from the war.

“Yes,” he answered simply, automatically, shifting slightly forward into a pool of tepid light emanating from a half-dead neon bulb protruding from the wall.

At his silence Duo rose, straightening to a full height that was still stubbornly even with Heero’s own as if determined for some physical manifestation of their equality. “I was wondering when you were going to show.” Violet eyes widened as Heero stepped fully into the light, raking over his form in ardent disbelief, as if he were only half believing of the reality of Heero’s presence.

Before he knew it his lips were on Duo’s, sucking hard and nipping almost violently until the other responded, opening his mouth and moving his tongue hard against Heero’s. His hands sunk into the familiar softness of that braid for the first time in five years, clutching almost desperately as he moaned and thrust his tongue as far into Duo’s mouth as he was able. Duo’s hands were tangled in his dress shirt, their owner choking out soft, whimpering noises from the back of his throat as he sought to pull Heero closer, delve deeper, pull harder. Heero was loathe to end it, but there was so much to say, so little time in which to explain so much and the need to speak drove him from his partner’s lips, panting hard and painfully aroused, gasping in huge, heaving gulps of air as he wrapped Duo in a loose embrace and pulled him against the length of his body.

Duo’s hands were still fisted in his shirt, breath puffing lightly into the juncture of his neck as he ran soothing hands over Duo’s back. He pressed his nose against the texture of Duo’s hair, inhaling the familiar scent as he pulled the pliant body closer, nuzzling into softness and long forbidden familiarity.

“Why?”

The light whisper barely penetrated the fog that had descended on Heero’s overloaded mind. ‘Why’, he wondered, ‘That can mean so many things. Why did I let him go, why did I leave myself, why did I kiss him…’

He pressed a kiss to Duo’s temple before releasing him enough to meet amethyst eyes, cupping his face and smiling softly, ruefully. “Why what, Duo?”

Duo refused to meet his gaze, eyes flicking to a point somewhere beyond Heero’s right shoulder. “Dorothy. Why did you send her?”

Heero frowned. “Because she has talent. Because she can be a great asset to the organization and she was wasted wallowing in her own self pity.”

His tone was hard, calculative, matter of fact and reminiscent of a person he could barely remember, and the look in Duo’s eyes as it crossed his lips was almost painful. Duo tore himself from Heero’s grasp, moving back a few paces to turn towards the wall, visibly shaking. “Most people think she’s just a world class bitch.”

Heero was at a loss to track the sudden shift in the conversation, inwardly wincing at the accusatory harshness in Duo’s words and reeling from the sudden loss of contact. He wanted Duo in his arms. Now. Five years and an innumerable distance later, he didn’t think it was that much to ask and he couldn’t begin to understand how Dorothy Catalonia had suddenly factored into their relationship.

“Most people think you’re an idiot and I’m an unemotional machine,” he hissed, reflexively lashing out, “People are wrong, Duo.”

Heero watched Duo’s shoulders tense, watched him raise slender arms around himself to ward off some metaphysical chill. “Are you sure?” he murmured, shoulders slumping slightly, “Are you so certain that we’re not?”

He didn’t turn, but Heero could feel the weight of the expectant gaze currently leveled at the crumbling wall in front of them, suddenly ashamed of himself. He should have expected this, hell, he had expected Duo to lash out, to push against him at the first opportunity and he should have learned by now not to react. The silence now was deafening, louder than any of the useless words either of them had uttered and he felt its call. ‘Prove yourself,’ it roared, ‘Prove to me that you mean what you say. That I’m not alone anymore.’ He could feel it now, the wary coil of Duo’s muscles, the adrenaline rush of fear at the prospect of exposing the massive wound that was their relationship to the harsh elements of acknowledgement.

His expression softened as he turned his eyes to the night sky, cocking his head contemplatively at the ethereal, nearly full moon just barely visible above the alley wall. This had been their connection during the long days of separation during the war, a drawling narrative from his sleepy partner at one of a dozen boarding schools had driven him to contemplate the beauty of the peculiar heavenly body that from space was merely a rock, a barren wasteland exploited as a way station for some of OZ’s most nefarious schemes. He had looked for reassurance within the patterns of the moon, within the smiling countenance that Duo insisted was there, knowing that each night, whenever able, his friend was doing the same.

He had spent so many nights since then contemplating the beauty of that sentiment and the man who gifted him with it, wondering if his love still looked to the moon for comfort on the longest nights, even within the vacuum of space.

“It’s funny,” he murmured softly, closing his own arms around himself. “The war seems like a dream, or a nightmare, and this is the reality.” He looked back to Duo, unsurprised to find himself the subject of bewildered scrutiny, and sighed. “I’m not sure I like it.”

Duo was still staring, eyes raking over his form in ardent disbelief as if only now noticing his appearance, and he wondered what he must look like to his partner now. The change had certainly been significant, his physical attributes had been sacrificed to his now required anonymity as much as his mannerisms and he could imagine the shock of returning after five years to a completely different person in his place. His physical appearance was his own, he drew the line at surgery or dye, but he had grown considerably, leveling off at nearly six feet to stand eye to eye with Duo. He had filled out some, which after reexamining his general emaciated appearance in several of the photographs Quatre had taken back then he could safely conclude was saying something.

He had begun to dress according to other people’s temperature tolerance levels instead of his own, which meant jackets and pants in the current cooler weather and the more familiar shorts ensemble relegated to his morning jog when no one wondered at his ability to handle the chill. At the moment he was still in his work clothes, comfortable khaki pants he’d broken in a year ago and a dark blue dress shirt, though the weather required a jacket he’d run from the house the instant he’d found that Duo was near and forgotten it in his haste. He wore glasses now, delicate looking things perched snugly on his nose, with thin, false lenses that did more to hamper his sight than help it, but were necessary given his reluctance to do anything more permanent to alter his appearance.

His roommates were forever telling him he looked like he taught third grade.

That thought brought a smile to his face, and he watched with satisfaction as after a few hesitant seconds Duo matched it, crisis over. Head cocked slightly in a mirror of Heero’s stance, his braid swung wildly in the morning air as he raised one elegant brow and pushed at the spray of bangs that had fallen into his eyes. “That’s all well and good, Ro,” he answered, gesturing at Heero’s clothing, “but what’s with the getup?”

Heero’s smile widened. “The waking world doesn’t approve of spandex. I had to give it up sometime.”

Duo chuckled, shaking his head in further disbelief. “Humor now? Where’s the taciturn bastard I worked with for two years?”

“Where’s the effusive punk I fell in love with?” Heero shot back, suppressing his own chuckle, relieved that whatever standoffishness Duo had been cultivating seemed to have bled away.

He was completely unprepared for the shuttered look that erased the emotion from Duo’s face, stance tensing and freezing in position in an instant. “That’s not what this is.”

“Isn’t it?” He demanded, stabbing a finger in Duo’s direction as he felt the anger rise. “You say I was so distant, do you honestly think I went around making out with people I didn’t give a damn about?”

He knew he was pushing it, knew before he’d come that Duo was liable to be unstable, and though he’d hoped for something of progress in his love he’d realized that he’d be lucky to get the man to talk to him, let alone allow him into his life again. But in the end, frustration overwhelmed reason, his already frayed and overtaxed nerves unable to take the strain of this new worry and after years of silently railing at his situation he was completely unable to reign in the impulse to lash out.

“That was five years ago,” Duo insisted.

“That was five minutes ago!” he shouted, “Would be now if you weren’t backing away from me!” He paused, breathing hard, choking on anger he knew was directed at anything /but/ the man he was taking it out on and added, quietly, “I never stopped, Duo.”

“You have a funny way of showing it, Ro.”

He snorted. “Hey, you took off first, remember?”

“And you were supposed to follow!”

“And do what?” he hissed, stepping closer. “Force myself on you? I know what that feels like Duo, and I wouldn’t do that. Not to you.”

“Heero-” Duo looked uncertain, but Heero wasn’t about to let him finish.

“You know, no one’s called me that since the wars,” he informed him, voice calm and unwavering. “I can’t use my own name, Duo, she’ll track me in a minute if I try it. I haven’t heard it cross someone’s lips beyond oblique references to my namesake in history class in five years. Do you have any idea what that’s like?” He turned away, sparing his partner a brief glance over his shoulder. “I can’t get a driver’s license, or a credit card, I can’t appear in too public a place or walk anywhere near an embassy without worrying about her popping up. She’s stolen my life, my chance at inner peace because of her selfish emotions, a little girl with too much power, the only person I could never escape unleashed on me by my own inability to pull a trigger six years ago. I can’t really blame her, she doesn’t understand, and I can’t hate her. I can’t convince myself that I should have killed her. But I can’t love her, and I certainly can’t forgive her for all she’s done.”

Another glance, and Heero went cold at the look of unadorned sadness that swam in Duo’s eyes. He was allowing his personal problems to contaminate their relationship. Duo had no idea what the past years had been like for him and could not be expected to allow for such outbursts. He sighed softly, pulling off his glasses and pinching at the bridge of his nose.

“Which is not the point. I didn’t come here to fight with you. I didn’t come here to complain about Relena, or push the issue, I didn’t come here for this.” He gestured vaguely with the hand still holding his glasses. “I came because I had to. Because for the first time in five years you’re close enough for me to reach out and that was too much of a chance for me not to take it.”

He sighed again, replacing his glasses and looking up to catch Duo’s gaze and hold it, continuing softly. “Look, I mean it Duo, I don’t want to force you. Tell me that you don’t have any feelings for me and I’ll leave you alone.”

He swallowed, watching those amaryllis eyes widen as if in slow motion, allowing the silence to stretch and bear down around them like a living thing. It cloaked them, and in a horrible way the terror of that uncertainty was familiarly comforting as he watched the gamut of emotions flicker across Duo’s face, vying for purchase. It finally settled, seeping in between them as he watched horror dawn on those beautiful features, staking its claim in infinitesimally widened eyes and fearfully parted lips as Duo seemed to light up with emotion and freeze in place all at once.

“No,” he murmured, quietly, as if afraid to shatter the silence. “No,” he repeated, louder this time, “No, dammit, no!” Suddenly Heero found himself struggling to keep them both upright as the other man bodily threw himself against him. “I don’t want you to go! Fuck Ro, that’s the last thing I ever wanted.”

Strong arms wrapped around his neck, holding tightly, lips sought and found each other as mouths opened and tongues entwined. Heero moaned as he felt himself pushed against the wall behind him, the electronic bass beat thrumming through his entire body as Duo pushed against him, answering with a groan that radiated through his chest like the purr of a satisfied cat. They broke apart, and the look of utter shock on Duo’s face made Heero wonder if he might pull away again, but an instant passed, a breath of time in which Duo’s arms only tightened around him and he buried his face in the crook of Heero’s shoulder as if he were afraid to let go. Heero went back to the soothing motion of earlier, stroking Duo’s back as he cradled the other man in his arms.

“You haven’t made any progress in our time apart at all, have you?”

The arms tightened around his neck, and he moved his own to squeeze Duo’s waist, trying to reassure that his question was a rhetorical one. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he thought, trying to impart his emotions in his actions. ‘I don’t care how fucked up you are as long as you’re mine.’

“Unbelievable.” The word was a muffled exclamation into Heero’s shirt before Duo’s head snapped up, eyes alight with rueful irony. “We’re five feet away from puddles of ‘Fei and Trowa’s fucking blood and you bust out with the psychoanalysis.”

Heero smiled – a soft, comforting thing that bloomed over his features lazily, moving to brush a hand through Duo’s bangs and cup the side of his face. “It’s okay.”

Duo blinked at him in wonderment, allowing himself to lean slightly into the caress of Heero’s palm. “Who are you? I keep expecting the real Heero to jump out of the shadows and inform me that you’re a pod person or something.”

He laughed at that, smile becoming something more sentimental. “You missed a lot Duo. I’m loveable now.”

Duo was shaking his head before Heero had even finished his sentence, moving to press a fleeting kiss to his lips as he choked back a laugh. “Stop it with the humor, man, you’re creeping me out.”

He pulled Duo against him again, content to feel the rhythm at his back and the heat of the man in his arms, happily returning to running his palms along Duo’s back and pressing kisses to whatever was within his reach. This was heaven, everything missing from his life in the past five years encapsulated in the space of a moment. The simple act of holding another person in understanding and affection, just being with another human being in the most intimate sense of the word had been denied him. It made him angry, nagged him with regrets of promises unfulfilled, and he would have stood with the comfort of Duo in his arms forever if he could have, if only to make it right.

If only he hadn’t looked at his watch.

“I don’t have much time,” he murmured, speaking into Duo’s hair as he pressed an apologetic kiss to his temple. “I’ve been here too long already.”

“I know.” Duo gave him a shaky smile, running his fingers through Heero’s hair. “Wouldn’t want Stalker Chick to crash the party now, eh?”

He whimpered into Heero’s kiss; small, almost distressed noises from somewhere in the back of his throat as Heero urgently mapped the planes of his mouth, seeking to erase Her overbearing presence in familiar wetness and warmth.

Duo pulled him forward enough to press their foreheads together when he tried to pull away, nuzzling softly as he steadied his breath. “Are you coming to the funeral?” He asked softly, voice torn between fear and hopefulness.

“I’ll be there,” Heero promised, “You may not see me, but I’ll be there, I promise.”

That seemed to satisfy Duo, who ran an appreciative hand down the center of Heero’s chest as they kissed a final time, using its purchase to shove him toward the alley entrance when it ended. “Then go, before one of her cronies stumbles out the back door to puke.”

Heero rolled his eyes at Duo’s characteristic bluntness, stumbling backward drunkenly as he fought to maintain eye contact and continue to keep his balance. “I love you, you know.”

Duo threw him a crooked, apologetic smile. “I missed you, Ro.”

Perhaps another person would have been insulted or discouraged, but to Heero the soft-spoken words said volumes to what Duo wished he could say. The words ‘I miss you’ implied a certain amount of time devoted to thinking of a particular person, whereas ‘I love you’ took the analysis a step further to target the causality of such a sentiment, not entirely dissimilar responses to the given stimuli. Which pretty much meant that Duo didn’t want to cheapen the latter sentiment by using it before he was sure he’d really mean it.

‘He runs, he hides…’

It meant they had a chance. That Duo understood what it was he was asking and was willing to work at getting there. It was all Heero would hope for, and if necessary, fight for.

***

'Fucking hell,' Duo squeezed his eyes shut and leaned against the nearby wall, Heero's kiss still burning in the back of his throat. His world had spun around more than once this evening and if this day ever ended, it just might again. He'd prefer to be upright and not on his ass should it choose to do so. He'd already been caught flat-footed more than once this evening, and Heero's sudden appearance, as expected as it was hoped for, had nonetheless sent the world on one of those skewing angles again. The initial euphoria, the high from just seeing his old partner again, faded and he was left alone with the impressions he'd pulled, the weight of this day and every day for the last half decade weighing down on them.

Heero had changed, was different. Had grown up, maybe? The words chased themselves around, not quite capturing what they should have conveyed. Sure, five years was a long time but… How was it that he had missed so much, that the love of his life had rounded several damn corners and he hadn't quite managed even one yet?

What had he done in the last five years? Had he taken anywhere near the strides that his friends had? It was enough to make him feel antiquated and useless, suddenly plopped in a world he'd helped create but had taken no part of and because of that, had no place in. There were people here, people he cared about and now he would never be able to tell two of them that. And why? Because he hadn't been with it enough to get his head out of ass and deal, for fuck's sake! Heero's resurfacing was a sweetly bitter reminder of what he might have had, if he had just gotten it together. Was it through his own arrogance and selfish fears that he had stalled the man's life, left it in a sort of limbo? If so, then Heero deserved better, far better, than Duo Maxwell could even hope to give him.

'I can't think about this now.' Later maybe, when he had a chance to catch more than a few hours of sleep, when his body wasn't so jumped up on adrenaline and caffeine, enough so that he couldn't guarantee he wouldn't pull a gun on the first drunk that stumbled out the back. 'Une would just love that, now wouldn't she? She'd probably bust my chops the way she wanted to back in her office. The only reason I got off half as easy there was because she had a loaded Dorothy up her sleeve and sent poor unsuspecting me to face her.'

Making a face, he glanced around, half-ready to pick over the alleyway again, his flashlight radiating a steady searchlight from where it lay on the ground, deserted at the sound of that long-missed voice. Somehow, it had angled just right, the light unflinching enough to illuminate the faint tracings of an outline, smudged by those stomping back and to through the crime scene, the scruff of the gurneys making dodgy streaks as they loaded the bodies up and away. He'd already been there tonight, that penultimate site where most murders made it just before the finality of the grave and he had no desire to return their, either in body or mind. Three people had died in this alley, one strangled and the other two cut down by a sniper, most likely positioned on the roof. A pacifist and two Preventer agents -- what was the common denominator? From Une's words and the files on him, Duo surmised that Tressalian was little better than an overzealous witch-hunter. Before his death, he had been responsible for no less than three raids of the agency's files, several internal affairs investigations and the sheer tenacity and regularity with which he leveled accusations of wrongdoing at Une was breathtaking. The man didn't just object to her and the function of a Peacekeeping task force, he loathed them, loathed the idea and the President appointing a former top-ranking OZ officer had done nothing but aggravate his outrage. Oh how 'Fei and Trowa must have loved the irony of being assigned to investigate the death of one who had not only belittled their sufferings but their very right to exist at all. 'Thank God none of us were born a few hundred years earlier or it would have been the chop for us,' he thought then added with a rueful smirk, 'In the name of peace, of course.'

People did so many damn stupid things in the name of peace. Take weapons out of the hands of the people and the problem was solved right? Sign a few treaties and people are just going to naturally forget any differences they might have had in the first place and have a campfire sing-along? What a load of bullshit! Just because the war had ended, didn't mean everyone was happy with the outcome or the 'New World According to Relena Peacecraft' they were being force-fed daily courtesy of news vids. The spacers were still unhappy, were still suffering shortages that Earth Gov was slow to address, let alone amend. And the prejudice the Earthers felt towards the colonies… Well, that had just up and vanished over night! Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight. All that was holding the new government together was gum and the fact that the common people seemed to buy into what Relena was selling. Because, and he had to swallow the bad taste the admittance left, Relena was earnest, because she meant everything that she said. She well and truly thought she knew what was best and that innocent self-assurance appeared proof against even the worst leveling of her opponents. The President, bless him, was little more than figurehead and the one act of importance he'd managed in his time was the act leading to the creation of Preventer, for once over-ruling and outmaneuvering a Peacecraft. However she had been convinced to throw her support towards the act, the Vice Foreign Minister had kept her mouth shut, neither supporting the agency or defending it.

'And now we're having to clean up her mess… Again.' Duo was proud of himself--he made it five whole seconds without rolling his eyes at the thought. He'd spent more time during the war, trying to clean up Relena's problems, chasing after the damn girl because Heero believed in her, than anyone had a right to expect. He'd been plagued by more self-doubt and insecurity due his relationship to Heero because of her and he wasn't in the mood right now to be conciliatory.

'None of which matters right now.' If it he let it, his passions could rule him, could suck him back into that dark wretched place he had been five years ago, a place he'd shut out, buried in a mountain of work and by plain just not thinking about it. If he let it, he could well and truly find himself caring again, not that distant muddled warmth occasionally accosting him. Duo could feel it gnawing at the edges of all the walls erected over the years, a flickering of what had been felt back in the morgue and hospital, not the empty rage fueling him now but something deeper. Something that might take root and grow if he let it, if he didn't kill it along with the weeds.

Une hadn't called him back for some spiritual and emotional awakening. She wanted him because he was ruthless and efficient and damn well relentless when push came to shove. She wanted him on the team because she knew that short of a bullet, short of Shinigami ushering him home, nothing would ever stop Duo Maxwell from reaching his intended goal. And as heartwarming and timely as this little lesson in self-realization came, it could also get in the way of him doing what was needed. He couldn't afford to be either rosy-glassed or panic-stricken, two things that Heero seemed to inspire in him with a glance. It would make him a hell of lot happier if Heero would just keep his distance and let him get on with things.

'Nice to see I still suck at lying-- I'd hate to have to change my tagline after all this time.'

He was missing something, they all were. The realization gritted, irritating like sand caught in all the wrong places. People didn't just waltz in and mow down Preventer agents…not with the amount of firepower reviewed in those reports he'd read and not be noticed. 'Fei and Trowa would have been on them like a ton of bricks if anyone had gotten within shooting distance. You couldn't not notice the type of weaponry they had to be carrying; it was too bulky, too conspicuous, not some jumped up Saturday Night Special any hood off the street might barter for. Access to the roofs was limited outside of a chopper and someone would have noticed that. That left only the retractable ladders, ancient and narrow, a relic of better times, when this place hadn't been so run down. Why the rich were attracted to the seediest of playgrounds for their enjoyment, he would never understand beyond some weird attraction of opposites.

He studied the nearest ladder, lowered it and winced as it squealed, rust flaking to dust his slacks and hands. Slapping his hands in a rough rub, he darted one last glance around before pulling himself up the ladder, resigned to the fact his pants would probably need to be trashed after this. Still, it might get him out of that damned press conference if nothing else. 'After all,' he smirked, reaching for another rung. 'We wouldn't want a Preventer looking less than their professional, jackbooted best.'

Okay, so he still had massive authority issues. And now he was supposed to be a part of that authority? There was something really fucked about that. Hell, there was something fucked about this whole scenario -- beginning with 'Fei and Sally in the morgue segueing to him being assigned to Dorothy Catalonia. Heero-- Well, that went pretty much without saying.

He swung himself over the side of the building, hands sweating as he did so, his feet making a soft thud against the loose gravel. Aside from the stairwell door, there really wasn't anywhere to hide or enter the area from. So barring a chopper, someone had come up from the ladder or from the inside. There were problems with both. If it was from the ladder, then the assassin had to be up there before Trowa and the others arrived, possibly staking out another target which led to the monumental task of trying to figure out who had been on their hit list before another corpse landed in their lap. If they came from the inside, then the whole building was going to have to be re-questioned because apparently no one had seen anything. No one knew anything. It was just amazing how eager they were to all volunteer that little bit of information followed up by demands to see a warrant or their lawyers in short order. 'Such is the milk of human kindness. People die and we only care in so far as it affects of directly. Only some of us have enough money to make sure they're not inconvenienced no matter what.'

Tromping across the rooftop actually accomplished very little beyond the feeling of just doing something, he acknowledged. Flashlight bouncing from spot to spot, it was very hard not to feel discouraged. Too many people had been tramping and out of this place already and it was unlikely that he was going to find anything here that they missed, the defeatist in him reasoned. If he had been here before, when the first murder had committed, then maybe…

But he hadn't been and there was no going back. Rather than re-tread that ground he turned his focus outward, circling the stairwell a few times, examining scratches and marks that might just as easily been made by police officers as well as their assassin. The roof across the way was just as barren, a few antennae and crushed beer cans made visible as he strained the flashlight across the empty space. There was white powder everywhere, evidence of earlier dusting, probably for footprints. He'd need to check if they'd gotten anything pertinent in that department. Forensics was would probably have something ready in a couple more hours; Une would be dying to have something ready for the press conference, no matter how inconsequential.

He pivoted and was confronted with sight of the city at night, so many lights glittering in the darkness, the sounds of cars and alarms blaring in the distance. Skyscrapers from the financial district were visible from here, blurred names and designs. Somewhere over head, a shuttle was coming in, flares of descent already flashing in the atmosphere. Duo went still, taking it all in, the wind playing with loose strands of his hair.

Suddenly he kicked the top of the nearby drainpipe, resentment washing over him. There were so many people down there who were able to sleep and go to movies and do all the damn mundane things he never could fully enjoy because of them, because of their sacrifices and what thanks did they get? 'Fei and Sally were dead, Trowa was in ICU, Quatre was more or less catatonic and Heero… Heero was still covert ops guy because Queen fucking Relena had a crush on him and couldn't get it through her thick skull that all of Daddy's money wasn't going to buy him.

This world was not his world. All he knew was death; the war had taken that and given it an outlet and he had found a sense of purpose and certainty in the midst of turmoil. He had fit, had found a place, and people he belonged with and when it had ended, the security had gone away. The violence was still there, the rage and the fear were still present. All he had done was stave it off for a little while.

He found himself desperately wanting out, wanting to board the next shuttle back to L2 and to hell with all of it. This wasn't his place. He didn't want to be dragged back into this. It wasn't that he feared dying or the rest of the world discovering the truth about him. It was the fear of failure that haunted him. What if Une's and Heero's faith proved misplaced? Fuck, he wasn't sure he could deal with this, with the weight of expectation riding on him. That sucked more than anything else, knowing that he was being counted on because there was no one else who could do the job except for maybe Heero and there was no way Une would be able to pin him down long enough to ask. Heero had found his happy little niche somewhere and the rest of them weren't included. If he hadn't surfaced to offer his services before now, then he had no intention of getting intimately involved. And despite Heero's earlier assurances, Duo couldn't help but wonder if Heero hadn't stayed away all those years not out of deference to Shinigami's doubts, but due to his own. It was all very well to profess love in the heat of the moment but love was fickle, an emotion not to be trusted or looked for. Every chance he'd ever taken at reaching for love, for the softer emotions of comfort and stability had been met with blow after blow. That he was used to, nay, comfortable with being met by outright violence and hostility was more than sad--it was tragic. But he couldn't deny that there was something in him that feared rejection, specifically Heero's rejection, feeling as if it had already come, far more than being alone.

He needed to let this go, needed to submerge himself in that reckless, feral side of himself that had served as armor and shield during the war. He had lived without death for five years but it had never left him. The only way through this was going to be to embrace those darker forces within himself, to embrace the pain and the blood, allowing it to fuel the persona that sent so many men to their graves without thought or care.

Duo was at a loss to say when Shinigami had first taken up residence, perhaps one of those cold night on L2, huddled against the other children, his face aching from the butt of a rifle smashed against cheek and jaw because he had dared steal bread. Maybe it was earlier than that. Wandering lost through the streets, abandoned by a mother he couldn't even remember, surviving for days and never once crying, not even when the rats (as hungry as he was) nibbled and gnawed at him, his young skin so easily broken by their jagged teeth. He still had the scars from those days, long skeins of flesh, now little more than pink and silver tracks on his legs and arms. It really was a wonder he hadn't gotten rabies or some other damn disease and died from it. Later, the tables had been turned and he'd been the eater, taught by Solo and the older boys in the gang how to catch the horrid little creatures and skin them for those winter nights when food simply couldn't be stolen. His smile became humorless. He could just imagine the oh so perfect expression of horror on Miss Relena Peacecraft's pert face at that revelation. The woman really had no idea of just how bad, bad could be, of the lengths someone would go to simply survive. Rats weren't palatable but they were filling and abundant which was more than could be said for the supposed handouts of the Alliance.

Or maybe Shinigami had been well and truly birthed in the fires of Maxwell Church, staring out through Duo's eyes as Sister Helen lay broken and dying in his arms, screaming his promise of vengeance with Duo's hoarse voice. Whenever and whatever the circumstances, Shinigami was part of him, the piece of him that could deal with the blows, uncaring of how they cut save as a way to fuel the vindictive glee with which he fought. Shinigami's causes were Duo's causes because the specter protected Duo and Duo alone. Shinigami believed in nothing -- not love, not despair, joy or sorrow. There was only the dead and the living, the quick and the fallen. And that was part of the reason Duo ran -- because he wasn't sure that after living with him for so long that Maxwell could banish Shinigami.

After five years, he knew it was impossible. Death walked with him, stared at the new world with eyes older than any knew and he waited, biding his time, knowing that there would be a time when he would be called again. Until then, his shade lay quiet, coiled and ready in the back of Duo's mind, silent but still felt.

He'd be lying if he said it didn't scare the shit out of him, wondering just how far he would go, if he would ever cross that invisible line where that Duo could never come back from.

Something glittered as he leaned forward, catching his attention from the corner of his eyes, the drainpipe rattling in hollow protest as he rested one booted foot against it. Shifting, he squatted down running his hand then a light over the serrated aluminum opening. A glint of sliver hung off a broken gap of piping, dangling from a thin strip of black cloth. Patting his pockets, he produced a half-torn tissue, setting about to remove the item from the tight hold of irregular metal. It took some work, the fabric holding it aloft caught at an awkward angle but at last it gave way, dropping a heavy circular disc in his grasp. Duo sat back, careful not to snag himself against the drain spout, lifting his flashlight to examine what he'd found.

A pin, about as big as the pad of his thumb and intricate in design and craftsmanship winked back at him. The design wasn't one he was familiar with although the language of the inscription was one he had passing familiarity with--Latin and something far beyond his menial skills could translate but he was willing to be he could find someone who could do the job. He turned the pin around and around, careful not to let his fingertips touch it. Such a little thing and so easily missed. He wondered if its former wearer had even realized they'd dropped it.

Well, then. He'd just have to see about returning it, wouldn't he?

 

End of Chapter One