4-2-2002

Title: The Killing Tide 10/?
Archive: Kikotei's archive at http://kikotei_fic2.tripod.com & Ais's Archive at http://www.dreamwater.net/mikaaislin/dalton/index.html
Author: Dalton (AngelDalton6@aol.com)
Rating: R
Category: AU only because this takes place 10 years after Endless Waltz.
Warnings: Swearing, angst, violence and death.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing is the property of Sunrise, the Sotsu Agency, and Bandai. No infringement is intended upon their rights.
Special thanks to Nicole and Lilias for picking the bugs out! If any bugs remain, it's all my fault. (4/2/2)
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By the time Duo Maxwell got his weary self home, it was late evening, or early morning. He wasn't quite sure of the time, but he was sure of the long hours of darkness that finally persuaded him to make his way back.

He had spent the day driving nowhere in particular, feeling the need to move in any direction away from the bitter truth at home. When he had gotten too careless for the road, he pulled over onto a graveled shoulder, parked the car, and began to walk. He didn't know where he had been headed, he just knew where he ~didn't~ want to go: the circus, Quatre's house, Preventer Headquarters, home. He didn't need to be slapped with gruesome reality thrice in one day. He had been willing to wander aimlessly until he could accept what every fiber of his being found unacceptable.

However, subtle reminders of his unfortunate friends kept filtering through the forced barricade he had erected in his mind and heart. The smell of burning leaves had brought back memories of last year's bonfire when Trowa's troupe was in town, and Duo had helped him rake a clear area for the tents. Every smiling, tow-headed person Duo had encountered on his soulful trek made his chin sink lower behind the makeshift blinders of his upturned collar. Neither angry curse nor shuddering sigh of disbelief could have drowned out the overwhelming sense of helplessness Duo felt. It was too much to take in. Too much lost in so little time. If a truck had hit him during his distracted travels, it would have made less of an impact than the blow that continued to crush his heart.

What the grieving young man needed and brutally shunned was human contact. Howard had paged him from the Market before the proverbial shit hit the fan, but Duo chose to ignore the page and the trivial reminder of work. Duo felt miserable, as miserable as an old sneaker, gnawed by canine teeth and muddy from prolonged burial. When he got home, Duo found the apartment abandoned and was filled with a selfish sense of relief. Heero and Hilde would have their own demons to deal with; Duo wanted to be alone to wrestle with his.

As he entered the living area, a reminder of his morning's outburst met his boot with a squishy sigh. Glancing down at the remains of the piece of fruit, Duo almost laughed.

Almost.

Duo took a good look at the rest of the ransacked room and felt the urge to bury himself under the mess. Instead, a need for a return to some sense of normalcy took over, and Duo decided to focus his restless energy on cleaning. Picking up and replacing things, Duo sarcastically wondered if Humpty Dumpty would have fared much better staying away from walls. With a swing of his braid, Duo got down on his knees and began to shuffle stray pages of notebook paper into a pile. He worked without turning on the lamps, using the filtered outdoor safety light and the colored computer screen as aids. It was more comforting in the dark, and if he happened upon a certain set of prints during his clean-up, he'd be deprived the sight of their dead images.

Something small and hard clunked to the floor and skittered across the hard wood as he nabbed a magazine from the futon. Duo muttered some unintelligible sleep-deprived curse and tried to reach for the fallen gun, but only succeeded in pushing it further under the desk. Using a convenient throw pillow as a headrest, Duo briefly sprawled out on the floor to look where the object hid. Once he was in a prone position, however, he lost his objective. The floor and pillow were too inviting. Duo moaned face-down into the pillow, and thought a little nap wouldn't hurt. He needed a rest from the tormenting selfishness of death, so he plunged, arms wide open, into blissful oblivion. For the first time since December 195, Duo Maxwell fell asleep before affirming all was right with his little world.

Some time later, Duo was jolted back into consciousness by the shrill ringing of the telephone. He grimaced, pulling the pillow on top of his head to lessen the sound, but this left his cheek bare against the cold, hard floor. With a grunt, he hefted himself up onto the couched futon, shoving random items out of his way and ignoring the continued peals of the phone. As predicted, the answering machine picked up on the third ring, filling the dark room with the pleasant cadence of Hilde's recorded voice. What followed the beep was not as pleasant a sound. A chorus of animalistic grunts brayed across the machine's speakers.

Mumbling a groggy curse, the annoyed napper slung a leg over the side of the futon, and was almost standing when the prank caller hung up. Wishing the punk kid a pleasant stay in whatever Hell was destined for him, Duo scooted back into the warm hollow he had made on the couch. Having a cop for a roommate invited the most original of prank calls, and Duo briefly wondered, not for the first time, if he shouldn't have Wufei compose their answering machine's welcome. He was sure he could irritate his staunch pal enough to produce a proper growl behind Wu's clipped words of greeting. That would be just enough to deter future prank callers. Duo chuckled deeply, tossing his braid over the other shoulder as he twisted onto his side.

The green lights of his electric alarm clock blinked 4:08 AM at him, and he blinked back. Hilde's computer was still on; a comical hooded figure shuffled across the screen with bony finger extended, dooming the poor soul who called forth his screen saver existence. Next to it Heero's laptop remained black, lost in the boring world of "stand-still." A cursory glance around the room confirmed that things had not changed since he arrived. Hilde had not come home yet.

Hilde wasn't home, and he had fallen asleep.

Duo drew the yellow throw pillow into a tight embrace as his body folded into a feeble mockery of fetal security, and he waited. He was still staring at the Floating Death screen saver when the phone rang again an hour and a half later. The pillow flew to the floor and magazines slid out from under his feet as he twisted off the couch and slipped in his mad dash for the phone. Berating himself for his flightiness, he willed himself to remain where he was, bent on one knee at the foot of the futon, until his heart rate slowed. If it was Hilde calling, she wouldn't hang up; and if it wasn't her, he needn't break his neck racing to answer. Two rings later and Duo felt he had found his center enough to handle whomever and whatever the call might be.

Braid swinging serenely behind him, Duo reached for the phone--but must have miscalculated the number of rings. Hilde's recorded message began, but before it could finish, Duo picked up. "Ignore the message; live man talking. That you, Hilde?"

A hog call answered his question: "Sueee pig pig pig. Sueeee!"

Duo's eyes narrowed dangerously. Someone was going to meet his maker.

Duo never had a chance to respond before a chuckle ended the taunting noise. "You sleep too much, mobile boy. It's a loss of time, and I do believe you have lost something, if not time. Oink, oink."

There was a click before the dial tone declared the call over. Duo growled into the phone before yanking the cord from its base and stuffing the receiver into the bowl of fruit on the bar. Someone with nothing better to do at the ass-crack of dawn wanted to play games, but this little piggie wasn't in the mood for fun. Duo ran a hand through his rumpled bangs, trying to decide whether to shower or try to get more sleep, when he froze mid-stroke. Duo looked at what was left of the hanging phone, recalling what the guy had called him: "mobile boy."

The mystery caller hadn't phoned to harass Hilde; he had called for Duo.

Duo's eyes darted to the front door as his hand fell away from his tangled bangs. He had assumed the pig prank was because of Hilde's profession, but the caller hadn't meant the prank for her. The "mobile" reference could have been for either one of them, since they had both piloted mobile suits during the war, but that was years ago and some random troublemaker would have to have done some research to know what the roomies' former occupations were. Scratching out that possibility, Duo decided to take "mobile" for its base meaning of something or someone in motion, and that fit his career to a "T."

The puzzle pieces fell into place. "Oooooh, not again." Duo snatched up the keys he had left on the counter and made a beeline for the door. "Dick!"

Dick, or Richard Starkey, as he was formally known, was a fellow space courier with a wonderful sense of humor, a quizzical taste for two-toned shoes, and an unbelievable passion for getting one up on the equally mischievous Duo Maxwell. Three months earlier, "Tricky Dick" had removed every seat in Duo's transport just before a run, leaving the unhappy pilot either a tool box or the seat's remaining metal shaft to sit upon for the duration of the haul. Duo's hindquarters thanked Dick for being kind enough to leave the box.

On the way to the shuttle port, Duo wished once again that the vintage beetle could transform into his old buddy, Deathscythe, and make more happen than the restrictive 60mph and rapidly-dwindling gas tank could. It was about a half-hour drive to the Market, if he really pushed it, and that was too much time for his stray thoughts to reapply their pressure on his already heavy soul. Images of questioning green eyes and kind blue ones kept slipping through the pranks he was imagining as revenge for Dick's recent activity. A blast of cold air and loud music helped him survive the rest of the journey, and by the time he got to the port, the demons were momentarily squelched.

"Yo, Maxwell, what's up?"

"....pissant went...Hey, D-man, how's it doin'?...'n told 'em to deliver to...."

"Mmph, mornin'."

The waves of greeting passed over the unusually somber-faced young trucker as he worked his way toward the part of the Market that housed his transport. Of all his haphazard feelings, annoyance began to make its way to the fore, and Duo wasn't sure he'd be able to restrain the violent urges that had gripped him since the morning before. His emotions needed a release, and though hitting someone would not help in the end, Duo wasn't thinking long term as he barreled toward Richard's bay.

What he saw when he got there pulled him up short, like being splashed with ice water on a hot day. Richard's area was empty. Duo reached out and grabbed the first person he saw. "Where's Dick? Dick Starkey?"

The beer-bellied, forty-something grimaced and shrugged his shoulders. "If he's lucky, he's sleeping like I wanna be. Uh, wait. No. I think he's got that L1 run. 'Prolly floating around X10539 by now. Check the logs with Demeter. I'm outta here."

Duo frowned as his fellow trucker began to step away. "Have you seen Howard?"

"Am I his mother?" The older man sighed and looked longingly toward the exit. "Check with Demeter, Duo. I'm plum busted--just got back from the Mars Cluster. Ya should take it easy, kid, you look as tuckered as I feel." With that, he clapped Duo on the shoulder and shuffled away.

Duo stood with his hands on his hips, staring at the empty dock where Richard always kept his transport. Now he was really confused. Dick might have screwed with his gear before he left, but the man was too cheap to place an expensive call to Earth from X10539 just to get his jollies. With a sigh, Duo let the whole thing drop and started off toward his own bay. If he remembered correctly, he had a run later this morning--and since he was here, he might as well double-check everything and pick up the stats from Demeter. Duo had wanted to run away from yesterday's events, and work was a wonderful escape.

Good ol' D-2 sat where she should've been, and looked as blessedly the same as when he had left her two days ago. Duo patted the hull in a loving greeting as he made his way inside. His eyes took in the unaltered seating in the front pilot's cabin. A couple of magazines lay on one of the bucket seats--Howard's usual collection of women posing on various motor vehicles--but there was nothing out of place in the cockpit. Duo scratched at his temple in thought, then pulled his hand away in curiosity after feeling it slide wetly against his skin. His brow wrinkled as he looked from the tacky substance on his fingers to the headrest of the pilot's seat. Duo rubbed his hand over the black upholstery and encountered more of the mahogany-colored drops. At first, Duo thought it was a remnant of oil from Howard's hands; his partner could have been repairing something and left his typical stamp of completion behind, but the drops had a different feel to them. Duo brought his stained fingers up to his nose and smelled an odor that had been prominent in his past. The metallic scent of blood wasn't an easy thing to forget for a man like him. Using the clean side of his palm, Duo hastily swept his hand over his temple to see if he had somehow cut himself, but his wiping only managed to clean the spot his soiled fingers had made.

"What in the world?" Duo looked around the small cockpit, his stained hand held away from his body. He hadn't cut himself; he wouldn't have even known how he could have, so the presence of blood on the back of his pilot's chair had him completely perplexed. Then he saw it: another spot of browning blood on the frame dividing the pilot's area from the main hold. Duo grabbed a rag from the pocket on the back of his chair and wiped his hand clean before he used an edge of the fabric to smudge the mark on the wall. Spread out on the gray surface, the glob revealed a rosier hue, confirming that it was more of the mystery blood. Something was very wrong here.

The usual clutter of sounds and images within Duo's mind was banished as the former gundam pilot opened his senses to take in the immediate situation. Switching into "business mode," Duo got ready for the game. Like a baseball player taking his turn at bat, the background cheers and catcalls stifled, Duo prepared to give the pitcher his sole attention. All he lacked was a bat, a problem that the clever young man could easily remedy. Laying the used rag on the back of his seat, Duo turned slowly around to the hold area, his eyes turning a tad faster than his body. The hold was littered with various metal containers and barrels destined for their new home on Epsilon Station. The cargo space was a wonderful place for someone to hide. Unfortunately, Duo was hanging out on home plate, open to a clear shot from the cheating, hidden pitcher.

That didn't faze the primed young man as he took a step into the hold, casually trailing his hand along the top of the dividing frame. His eyes roamed over the crated goods, caressing each surface like a Romeo trying to engrave the features of his lover deep within his mind. Nothing seemed to be out of place. Nothing was new from the last time he had checked his load. Nothing moved, and nothing responded to his presence in the entrance. Duo's hand stopped its play along the crevice as his fingers met with a cold, hard object. Death's grin stole across his face as he withdrew the secreted Browning--a former terrorist's best friend. Whatever space hobo had decided to grace the D-2 with his presence was going to wish he had chosen another means of transportation. If, as the bit of blood confessed, the game's mystery player had a darker purpose for being there, Duo was prepared to show him the error of his ways.

Duo was still batting a lucky thousand when his retrieval of the hidden weapon caused no reaction from the silent hold. He had a moment of self-doubt, wondering if the peaceful years hadn't caused his inner "danger" alarm to suddenly go off at nothing. The smile wavered on his face just a little as he made his way toward the first line of shielding containers. Sure, there had been some blood hanging out on the back of his pilot's chair, but Howard could have left in a hurry to take care of a cut and forgotten to return to clean up. Duo eased into the shelter of the large crates and held his gun barrel-up toward the ceiling. There was still not a single sound coming from the shadowed area, but the metallic scent of blood seemed stronger, as if a smidgen had been left on his face to toy with his nose. The grin on his face had already shifted into a downward curve; Duo's doubts couldn't talk the tiny hairs on the back of his neck down from their rigid stance.

"Dammit!" he screamed into his mind. "If there's nothing there, why's everything screaming that something is wrong? BAD wrong?"

He squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to focus on what his senses were trying to communicate to him. It was then that he finally heard it: a light plink, like a drop of water from a leaky faucet. Duo's eyes slid open as all his senses zoomed in on the foreign sound. Howard and he had carried liquid cargo before, but this load was strictly dry and solid goods--nothing that could leak or melt.

The noise gently plopped into Duo's consciousness again. It was coming from further back, toward the loading doors; Duo chastised himself for not checking the outer lock on that beforehand. Shrugging off the irreparable error, Duo let the old adrenaline rush of the game thrill through him before he moved. He was an adaptable player. The intruder could perhaps escape through the back door, but he'd have to be faster than Duo, and Duo was pretty fast. This time, however, Duo chose to go slowly, moving carefully between the stacked goods, peering into their darkened grottos. He still had no idea who or what he was dealing with. There had been blood--that was all he knew. Some guy in trouble with the local authorities could have passed out while hiding in the storage space. It wouldn't have been the first time a transport was used that way. Duo might have felt sympathy for the renegade, having been in the same situation a few times once upon a bloody war; but Duo wasn't going to underestimate a free-loader like unfortunate others had done in the past. Similar backgrounds or not, no one messed with Duo's gear, and the young man gritted his teeth as he inched further back toward the rear doors.

As his heart pushed blood through his veins in a dizzying rush, Duo followed a path through the cargo to where the agonizingly slow dripping beckoned. He was not far from the back wall when his booted foot smacked into a shallow pool of dark liquid. The light was dim, but Duo knew a pool of blood when he saw one. Without a pause, Duo rounded the corner of a towering crate, following the widening pool, and immediately stopped.

A sharp pain flared across his shoulders toward his heart as the unexpected sight robbed Duo of his breath. His lower extremities also seemed to have been affected by the shock, as he slumped against a wall of boxes and stared at the dead body before him. Rigged tightly between the crates was one of Howard's handy hammocks, but it hung like a cocoon, nylon netting wrapped tightly around the person inside. Duo hadn't expected a pitch like this. The other player in the game had distorted the rules and made the hitter come for the ball. The "ball" was equally unexpected, and took Duo down like an expertly maneuvered curve. It struck Duo all right; it struck him so hard that his mind and body shut down in horrifying revolt.

"H…H…" Duo's mouth moved around soundless words, as he stared at the victim's familiar dark hair and disarrayed uniform. Another drop of blood from the corpse's slashed neck joined the pool below, filling the silence till Duo's voice found its way back. The crowded chamber reverberated with the scream that came out: "Hilde!"

The keening sound of the final vowel was still pinging off the inner hull when the rear bay door clamored into life. The broken madness in Duo's large eyes shifted from his roommate's bound carcass to the opening hatch. He acted without thinking, his mind still clamped upon the incomprehensible discovery, and pulled his "bat" into play.

"…over. This game is over…." Duo's voice was flat and rough from his prior eruption. The gun followed the rise of the bay door. "Game over. Game's fucking over!!!"

Then the shots rang out, slicing through everything.

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(tbc)