12-23-2001

Warning. This story is longish, but it does tie up most of the loose ends--

H: <thoughtful look>
D: <snicker>
LW: <glare> Behave or I'll find a herd of cats and make you bathe them.
D: Eep!

Ahem. As I was saying... This should leave only minor details for "Roads Taken" to resolve (if it will ever get off its butt and start moving again).

For those of you looking for "Celebrations" (the sequel to "Gifts"), I expect to post it either late today or sometime tomorrow. It's done, I just forgot to copy it over from the other machine when I was getting "Desertion".

So, here we go. (And it looks like Yahoo has decided to accept big posts again because it let me paste the whole thing in at once. We can hope...)

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Desertion
A Soldiers and Fools Story
September-October AC 202
by LoneWolf
(kodoku na okami)

COMMENTS: Well, surely you didn't find "Defection" a satisfactory ending... The Odd News section of most Web news sites usually is rather entertaining, and, yes, there really was such an article. (And for those of you who don't feel like breaking out the J-E dictionary -- you do have one, ne -- there are endnotes on certain bits of Japanese that might not be obvious.)

BGM: This story has gone through over a dozen BGM songs. The final choices are: "Hope Has A Place" from Enya's album, "The Memory of Trees" and "True Romance" from Sophie B. Hawkins' album, "Whaler". Together they fit a variety of characters in a variety of scenes in a variety of ways.

WARNINGS: yaoi-ness, lime-ness, more surprises

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-- 30 September AC 202 --

BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Duo rolled onto his back and slammed his left fist down -- onto the bedside table. He groaned and tried again. The fourth time, he connected with the alarm clock. Two tries later, he hit the snooze button and the noise stopped.

He turned back over and sniffed as he drifted toward sleep again, catching only a faint whiff of cordite from the pillow next to him, which meant Heero was up and about already -- at 06:00. Typical. He had no appreciation of the supremely unpleasant nature of Mondays. Maybe it had something to do with not being the God of Death...

He felt someone shaking him.

"Duo."

"Nnaaaa. Heeeerrrooo," Duo groaned, batting Heero's hand away from his shoulder. "Can't you just let me sleep?"

"Iie. We have work to do."

Duo moaned as he pried his eyes painfully open and glared up at his lover. "Slave driver."

"Aa."

"Anou, you owe me for this," he mumbled, sitting up in bed.

"Hn. You've been asleep for over ten hours."

"Yeah, but you remember what it was like getting a damn comm implant. Well, this is my second. And the damn anesthesia makes me feel like I'm gonna puke. Not to mention I'm still stiff from the night and day I spent taped to that damn chair after being zapped with that damn stun gun. And--" Duo stopped, shook his head. "Sorry. Bitch, bitch, bitch, huh?"

"Aa. But you're my bitch," Heero said, sitting on the bed beside him. "You didn't seem stiff last night."

Duo laughed -- then winced at the pain that lanced through his jaw. "Sometimes I'm your bitch. Sometimes it's the other way around. And I'm never stiff when you're holding me. ... Well, you know what I mean."

Heero smiled faintly. "Aa." After a brief pause he added, "Ninmu kanryou."

Duo had suspected as much when he'd heard himself laughing. He never laughed at 06:00 on Monday morning. "Speaking of missions, I guess we should get ready." He sat up -- the first of several slow steps that would eventually have him out of the bed and in the shower. "God knows Takanawa doesn't need an excuse to be pissed off at me."

Heero's left eyebrow shot up. "How did you know Takanawa was coming?"

"Elementary, dear Hee-koi. Une didn't want us to transmit the data on those disks because the Rejects might be able to intercept it. Someone has to analyze it and this whole Rejects thing is at least level 51 classified -- and you know the highest real security is level 16. So it has to be someone from the team. And we could do it, but we can only play sick for a couple of days before we get in trouble at UCL1 and we're going to be busy helping start the debrief on Two and 38, so Une is sending someone, and Takanawa is the logical choice in case there's any weird virus crap on those disks. Plus, she's the only one who can encrypt it all for safe transmission. As Dr. Musashi would say in geometry class, 'Q.E.D.'." His left index finger traced an double line beneath the letters.

As he paused for breath, he saw that both Heero's eyebrows were up now and, while Heero's mouth wasn't hanging wide open, it was definitely open. "What? You forgot that I just play the party-all-the-time boy? Just because I don't like boring classes doesn't mean I don't have brains."

Heero looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry, koi. I just..." He looked up and shrugged. "I know you're very smart. I'm sorry."

"Yeah. So how are you going to make it up to me?" Duo grinned wickedly, then yelped as his jaw protested against the stress.

Heero's eyes narrowed, suddenly wary. "Nani?" He knew that the wicked grin had caused the yelp. It was obvious that he suspected he knew what had caused the wicked grin.

"I think you owe me for misjudging me so seriously. Hmm... I could make you do all my homework until we trade places with 38 and Two." Duo put his hand against his face and tapped his right index finger against the right side of his face -- the safe side -- as if deep in thought. "No, this requires a serious punishment."

Heero frowned. "I'll make it up to you tonight."

"Ha. You'd do that anyway." He tapped his jaw a few seconds more. "You'll make it up to me every night or until I've had enough." He looked at Heero with a frown of his own. Unfortunately, he knew his eyes were flashing with stifled laughter, not anger, and ruining the effect.

It was the punishment Heero had expected. "Hn. You'll never have enough. I'll make it up to you every night unless it would compromise a mission -- and if we're both interested." Heero smiled faintly.

Duo knew the chances of the latter being a problem were small. "Deal. But I want a down payment. Hold me? Just fifteen minutes. We aren't due at HQ until 08:00. That's nearly two hours to get--"

"Aa." Heero's smile became so visible even a stranger could have seen it. He sat back against the headboard and pulled Duo against him, resting Duo's head on his chest. Duo responded by wrapping arms around him and snuggling up against him. Before Heero had finished arranging them, he felt a soft vibration against his body. Duo was happy.

So was he.

--------------------

"Duo."

Duo closed his arms tighter around Heero and mumbled, "You said fifteen minutes."

"06:52."

"Huh?" Duo looked up at him, but didn't let go. "You're kidding." He saw Heero's face. "Really?" He sat up slowly, turning to sit beside Heero, his left leg against Heero's right, his arm around Heero's back. "Did I go to sleep or something?"

"Iie." Heero leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek. "I knew we could take more than fifteen minutes and still arrive on time."

"You better be careful or I'm gonna think you actually like your punishment." Duo tried to glare at him. It didn't work. His face betrayed him and broke into a smile. He decided a smile didn't hurt nearly as much as a grin.

"Hn. Punishment 'tte." Heero nodded. He sat forward and turned, swinging his feet off the bed, and stood. "Get a shower while I get dressed."

It sounded like an order, but the words didn't snap with the sharp bite of a command, so Duo knew it was just Heero being efficient. He nodded agreement.

Besides, it was a good plan.

--------------------

Heero gripped the handhold with his right hand and stared blankly at the soft brown with hints of red and red-gold before him. Duo's hair. They both swayed slightly from side to side, a tenth of a second out of sync, as they rode the monorail from Hiroshi's and Duane's apartment to Preventers Headquarters. His mind wasn't on the train ride. It was still trying to reboot the plan that had crashed when he'd misjudged Duo.

The misjudgement had been... well, a misjudgement, but of the worst kind. Afterward, while part of him had been holding Duo and enjoying the feel of Duo against him, as always, another part had been fiercely shouting at him for being so stupid. That had lasted for seven minutes and twenty seconds before he had finally told it to shut up because Duo had forgiven him, as was evident by his choice of "down payment". Then he'd started considering how he was going to tell Duo what he'd discovered.

That was the other part of why he'd let them sit in bed so long, though the answer he'd given Duo had been entirely true. They had the time. And he had enjoyed holding Duo--

He closed his eyes for two seconds, forcing himself back to the mission. When he opened them, he felt the tiny smile on his face. Yes. It would work. And it would set in motion the second plan, which... He nodded once, then slid his left hand forward. He paused, overrode the restraint he'd become accustomed to during the past nine months, and laid his hand on Duo's left hip.

Duo jumped at the touch. Heero leaned forward until he was barely two centimeters behind Duo's ear and said softly, "I need to tell you something before we meet Takanawa."

Duo stiffened, then cautiously turned his head and whispered back, "What about Hiroshi and Duane being just friends?" He put his left hand over Heero's on his hip.

"When 38 and Two take over, they're going to come out soon enough. It won't hurt to start dropping hints."

Duo nodded as he turned around, switching hands on his stanchion and letting Heero's fingers run across the front of his pants. He leaned close to Heero. "Good. You think we'd be moving too fast if I put my arm around you?"

Heero thought for three seconds then shook his head.

"Sugoi."

He was surprised when Duo let go of the handhold and grabbed him around the waist with both arms. That was definitely moving too fast, but he couldn't bring himself to complain.

"So what do you need to tell me?" Duo asked.

Kanryou. The second plan was in motion. Now for the difficult part. "I was reading the disks this morning before you woke up."

"Always working." Duo sighed.

"Not always. It was only for 28 minutes before you woke up." He paused. "I needed to look for something."

"Huh." Duo's lips pouted, dubious. "I guess you'll always be you. Y'know, if you didn't do stuff like this I'd start to think you were going crazy." He winked. "What was so important?"

Heero stared the short distance up to the purple eyes. He never got tired of the sensation they sent through him. They hadn't always done that. Or maybe they had and he simply hadn't noticed until three years ago that looking into Duo's eyes made his heart beat faster, his body feel warmer, his--

He yanked his attention back to the mission. "Takanawa. She was part of the project."

Duo stood quiet for a moment, frowning. "So. She did know you before."

"Aa. I wanted to tell you what I found before we meet her, in case it comes up. I didn't want you to be surprised."

Duo leaned forward, resting his forehead against Heero's. "You're good to me, koi." He touched his nose to Heero's and smiled. "Tell me."

"Her real name is Suzuko Janome and--"

"Janome!?" Duo grimaced as he realized he'd almost shouted the name. He tried again. "Janome?" Better. Safely quiet. "That's--"

Heero nodded. "She's Dr. J's niece." He took a breath and steeled himself for the next part.

It wasn't that he expected Duo to respond negatively, but it was always a contingency he had to consider and accommodate. Statistically, he was more likely to be struck by lightning, ejected from the colony in a decompression accident, and saved by a passing transport ship all in a span of five minutes. Psychologically, planning for it made it seem almost certain. Perhaps because the consequences could be so unpleasant.

"They used some of her DNA sequences when they were developing me... the clones." He saw Duo struggling to find a witty remark to cover shock. He took advantage of Duo's confusion to charge ahead. "And... I didn't know this. They made me forget. But she--"

"Was in love with you?" Duo swallowed hard.

"Iie!" Heero clamped his mouth shut and glanced around. The other passengers were politely ignoring them. "No." Softly. "Maybe a little, but not like that. She was my friend. She taught me everything I know about computers. Dr. J's notes say it was because of her that I became... human enough to be trusted with Wing."

"Aaahh." Duo relaxed visibly.

Heero relaxed too. As usual, he hadn't needed the elaborate "Heero in the hands of an angry Duo" part of the plan. He scrapped it with pleasure.

"So that's why she's always looking at you funny." Duo muttered, eyes far away. He focused on Heero again. "And your eyes are the same. She's wondering if you remember." He frowned. "Doesn't explain why she's such a bitch to me all the time. You sure she doesn't have the hots for you? I mean, I know she isn't a flight attendant, but..."

Kanryou, Heero thought. He sighed. And realized he now had another mission. It would be easily accomplished, though. And soon. It was just a matter of taking Takanawa aside privately and telling her that she needed to be polite.

Duo chuckled softly. "Koi, did you really think I'd hate you if you two had been lovers?" Heero shrugged. He really hadn't known what to expect. Duo pulled him close. "Hee-koi, I would kill you if you left me for her -- or anyone else -- but the past is the past, ne?"

Heero looked warily into the violet eyes and saw the truth of both statements. He didn't mind the threat, though. There were consequences to any action. He doubted he'd ever have to face that one. "Arigatou, koi."

"Our stop is next," Duo said, pulling gently away from him. "Any other secrets you need to tell me?"

"Aishiteru. Shinyou shiteru." There was one more, but there wasn't time. The train was stopping. For this secret they needed somewhere they could be alone for a few minutes.

"Those are definitely not secrets." Duo smiled. "Me too." He turned, sliding a hand down Heero's hip, fingertips reaching to brush over a denim-covered curve of buttock, then elbowed his way to the door. Heero followed in his wake.

As they walked through the security gates in the L1 Headquarters building, Heero caught Duo's shoulder and steered him toward the restroom. "There is one more thing you need to know." Inside, he quickly scanned the area. They were alone. It was before 07:50 on a Monday morning. He led them to the sinks and turned on the water to drown their words, then took Duo's hand and lifted it to the back of his head behind and below his right ear. He guided a finger to a spot immediately behind his ear lobe. "Feel that?"

"Yeah. So? It's called, 'skull'." Duo couldn't resist adding, "Bonehead," tempered with a smile.

"No." Heero pressed Duo's finger against the hard flatness. It gave a millimeter. As he pulled Duo's finger away, the bottom edge of the flat place arced out six millimeters.

Duo stood frozen, his eyes wide. "What...?"

"The memory dumps the Rejects talk about? Takanawa helped design the interface. I found it while I was reading about her." He pushed the protruding bit of flesh and plastic and metal back into place, feeling it catch with a soft click.

"But... But... They programmed Two with my memories."

Heero nodded and reached behind Duo's right ear and pressed. Duo shivered as the interface moved in, then out, then back into place. "All five of us have one. Plus a few of the people on each of the Gundam teams. Dr. S used it as the basis for designing the Zero System, but he didn't need to move as much data. He projected it through the optic nerve so it wasn't limited to people with an interface." He shrugged. "I thought you should know."

"Thought I should know," Duo mumbled. He sighed and nodded. "Yeah. It's just weird." Suddenly, he grinned, then grimaced when his jaw reminded him of the new comm implant again. "I guess it isn't much different than being wired for sound, though. I mean, I never thought much about the comm. This is just another thing like that, ne?"

"Aa." Duo had taken it well. Now there were no more secrets. Heero felt right again. "It's 07:56. We need to hurry." Heero took his hand.

"Ryoukai." Duo almost grinned again, but limited himself to a faint smile. Then the smile changed.

"Hentai," Heero whispered as they approached the elevator where two other agents were waiting. "I know that look."

"Hmph. So what if I am?"

Heero smirked and decided it was probably a good thing Duo was.

--------------------

Takanawa sat behind her desk, four laptops arrayed before her, her eyes closed as she half-scanned her usual mix of morning news feeds -- Headlines, Business, Odd News and Science and Technology.

It wasn't a bad office. The chair was comfortable, and they had included the sofa she had requested. A test run earlier had shown it was just long enough for her to stretch out. She had a feeling she'd spend most of her time on L1 in this office as she did a preliminary analysis of the data on the disks before encrypting them with her hardest encryption and transmitting them back to Earth. While she knew a lot about the Heero Project, as she thought of it, there were large sections of it that had been compartmentalized and inaccessible to her. She could have hacked through the security easily enough -- she'd designed it, after all -- but she had promised her uncle she wouldn't, and had promised to keep everything she knew secret. Now that he was handing out complete lab notes, though, she assumed the secrecy was about to become a moot point.

She heard a knock at the door and heard the knob turn. She yanked the fiber cable from the hub that connected her to the four computers and concealed it up her sleeve as the door opened, barely finishing before Heero walked in with Duo behind him. That, she thought, is typical of Heero. She slid her hands to the keyboard of the laptop immediately before her and looked at the screen. An article about a man who had drowned in his cat's waterbowl. The odd news was always interesting, if sometimes tragic.

Pay attention, Suzuko, she thought. Time to find out if you succeeded. She had begun to doubt. Much of the evidence seemed to say she had, but the definitive proof had never quite materialized as she'd hoped it would. Now, it was time to force the issue.

"Damnit, Heero," she said aloud. "You're late." She glanced at the clock at the bottom right corner of the screen. 37 seconds late. She looked at him, locking her eyes with his. "You need to find better people to associate with. You're starting to pick up bad habits."

Heero's face hardened. She watched as he walked over to the desk, seemingly calm, then laid his hands on it and leaned forward staring her in the eyes, unflinching. She recognized the ice in his eyes.

"His name is Duo Maxwell." His voice was soft, level, and deadly as he pointed to Duo. "He's my friend, my partner and my lover. If it wasn't for him, I'd be dead more times than I care to count. I'm tired of you treating him like shit. You will not talk about him like he's some dead ping on your network. When we're talking about something technical, you will not talk over his head, or you'll translate if you do. Do you understand?"

Takanawa looked up at him, then stood up. She glanced at Duo and saw him standing dumbfounded a few paces behind Heero. So, you didn't put him up to this, she thought. Good. She put her own hands on the desk, matching his pose, and leaned toward him across the desk. He didn't flinch as she moved her face closer to his. Perfect.

She smiled. "I'm proud of you, Heero." He snapped upright. His body tensed and. He froze, staring at her, eyes wide with surprise. "I know you don't remember me, but you just proved you remember what I taught you even after what those shit-headed assholes did to you." She straightened and looked at Duo and beckoned him closer. He came, uncertain. "I'm sorry I was such a bitch, Duo. Nothing personal. I just needed to know if Dr. J was right about him."

She could tell they were both uncomfortable, so she sat in her chair again, bringing her down to their height. "Don't let this get out, okay? I have a reputation as a hard-ass to maintain."

Heero was still visibly confused. Duo recovered quicker. That didn't surprise her. Heero could adapt to changing battle scenarios in an instant, but he had always struggled with even the simplest interpersonal scenarios. That he chose to live with Duo -- or anyone -- at all was amazing in its own right, much less that they were more than just roommates. That was the only reason she hadn't given up hope.

"Uh, we brought you the disks." Duo slipped them out of Heero's jacket pocket and handed them to her.

"Thanks. Anything interesting on them?"

Duo glanced at Heero, who was still trying to get his feet back underneath him. He laid a hand on Heero's back to let him know he was there and answered. "Oh, some psych profiles, which Heero's probably memorized. And some stuff about genetics. And a little information about Dr. J's niece." Duo gave her an innocent smile. "But you probably already knew that."

"Aa." Takanawa nodded. "I expected you'd find that part. Saves me explaining it all. My idiot uncle never told me the Rejects had escaped. I tried to contact him when this whole thing started, but he wouldn't reply." She raised her hands, palms up. What could she do?

"And some notes that explain why you have a wire sticking out behind your right ear," Duo said as if he were mentioning that the weather forecast called for rain that afternoon so she'd better have an umbrella handy.

Her hand reached up automatically, then she caught herself and returned it to the desk. He was good. Better than she had thought. She decided she needed to revise her opinion of him. And she thought she knew part of what Heero saw in him. Heero had always needed someone who could challenge him. "How the Hell else do you think I can use four machines at once?" She smiled. "So you're saying you know about Heero's."

"And mine. I have some questions I want to ask you about them later." Duo smiled back.

A bit wary, she thought as she nodded agreement, but he was getting past the game she'd played quicker than she'd hoped. Heero, on the other hand... She looked at him and saw him watching her. "Sorry, Heero. I tried so fucking hard to help you be different from the others. I wanted-- I needed to know for sure that I'd succeeded." She smiled. "I always thought of you as my bratty little cousin. I had to make sure you were okay." At the edge of her vision, she saw Duo perk up. She had a feeling he'd just added more questions to his list for later.

"Aa." Heero nodded and, after a moment's pause, held out a hand. She looked at it, surprised, then remembered how he'd always gone for a handshake when he couldn't figure out what else to do. She took it and shook it briefly. He still hadn't quite worked everything out in his head, but she couldn't blame him. "There's a good Mexican restaurant down the street that delivers," he said. "If you need something delivered while you're here."

Takanawa blinked. "How the Hell did you know I love Mexican food?"

"I didn't--" Heero frowned. "I don't know. L1 subnet. 132.133.42.10.140.64."

She nodded. He'd guessed right that she'd remember the Net address more readily than the phone number.

"We have to go start the debrief with 38 and Two." He turned and walked to the door.

Duo looked at her shrugged, turned, and followed him. He paused at the door. "You free for half an hour at 15:00?" he asked.

"I'll be here."

"See you then." He tapped his index finger to his temple in a mock salute and closed the door behind him.

She leaned back in her chair for a minute, looking at the door, then sat up and pulled the fiber cable out of her sleeve and plugged it back into the hub. She looked at the disks on the desk before her. "But first," she said softly, and sent a quick command to one of the machines.

Sure enough. A little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant about five blocks away. Their page said they'd opened New Years Day after the war. Somehow, even though she'd made a dozen trips to L1 since then -- and actively sought out good Mexican restaurants -- she'd never heard of this one before. She scanned the menu and decided it was more Tex-Mex than actual Mexican, but as long as it wasn't that silly Southwestern crap so many people seemed to think was Mexican, she could deal with it. Maybe the brain guys had missed a few bits when they erased her from Heero's memory.

She hoped so.

She bookmarked the site, then sent the computer scurrying for her collection of tools as she ejected the disk trays on two of the other machines and dropped in the disks Duo had given her.

Time to get to work.

But it seemed easier to think about than she'd expected.

--------------------

Duo hated waiting.

Heero hated being late.

That was one of the little differences between them that often irritated Duo, though he usually kept it to himself. Unfortunately, in typical Monday fashion, the unexpected twist their interview with Takanawa had taken had sent Heero hurrying away earlier than "The Plan" had predicted, which meant they'd ended up with twenty minutes to kill.

Heero had tried to help. He'd detoured them through the cafeteria, but Duo could only bring himself to burn three minutes selecting a bagel and a glass of cranberry juice. He'd forced himself to eat and drink slowly -- four minutes. Two more minutes walking slowly down the hall to the debriefing room.

Which left them with eleven very long minutes before the debriefer was due to arrive.

He stood, staring through the one-way glass into the debriefing room while, behind him, Heero leaned against the wall, eyes down, arms crossed, left foot against the wall next to his right knee. 38 and Two were delivered through the room's other door moments after Heero and Duo arrived. Une had insisted that he and Heero shouldn't be in the room with their twins until the debriefer arrived -- and had ordered the door locked just to be sure Duo didn't have room for "misunderstanding" her intent. He could have picked the lock, but he'd've been hard pressed to come up with a poor excuse, much less a good one, to explain how he'd managed to misinterpret the lock.

Apparently, Two doesn't like waiting anymore than I do, Duo thought. 38 sat in a chair, head down, arms crossed, eyes closed. Seemingly asleep -- though Duo suspected it was that weird awake-sleep thing that Heero did sometimes. Two was staring at his reflection from the mirror side of the window.

He was giving Duo the creeps, though. Two seemed to be staring straight at him, smiling an "I know something you don't know" smile.

Duo stepped to the left. A second later, Two stepped to his right and was staring at Duo again.

Duo frowned. "What the..." He stepped back to the right. Two matched him and grinned. His lips moved, saying something.

Duo felt the hair on his neck standing up. "What?"

"He said, 'I see you, big brother'," Heero said.

Duo looked at him. Heero had raised his head and opened his eyes, but otherwise hadn't moved. Duo turned back to Two. "How can he see me?"

Two's lips moved again. Duo wished he knew where the sound controls were so he could turn on the observation room speaker. Then he noticed that 38 hadn't moved. Two was probably just mouthing the words.

"Interesting," Heero said, walking over to stand beside Duo. "They modified you to make him." Two glanced at him, nodded, then continued. "They keep the lights dim to save energy, so they extended his vision. He can see into the infrared and ultraviolet. Apparently, the one-way is transparent to ultraviolet."

"Weird." Then. "What do I look like?"

A soft chuckle escaped Heero's lips. Two opened his mouth, then stopped, frowning. When he answered, Heero translated. "He's never thought about how to explain it. He sees it as more colors, different shading. He'll draw it for you sometime if you'd like."

"Wait a minute, he's reading my lips!"

"Of course," Heero answered, without waiting for Two. "It isn't that hard to pick up. I doubt he had much else to do when they weren't picking his brain to try to understand you."

Two nodded.

Duo laughed. "Well, I guess we could do the debrief through the glass."

The door opened behind them. "Well, boys--"

"Ciara!?" Duo spun around. "Ciara! What the Hell're you doing here?" He bolted toward the woman and would have knocked her off her feet if Heero hadn't grabbed his wrist. Duo wriggled out of Heero's grasp, but limited himself to an enthusiastic hug.

"I'm glad to hear you're doing better than when last I saw you, Duo." Ciara's voice lilted softly. "I wasn't sure the time you gave me at Relena's was enough to do you much good. I'm glad I was wrong, boyo."

"Yeah." He pulled away from her. "I was pretty messed up after the war. But you made me think -- a couple of years later." He kissed her quickly on the cheek. "Thanks."

"Ciara," Heero said, holding out his hand. She took Heero's hand, then pulled him into a fierce hug. He struggled for a moment, then gave up and returned it.

Hmm, Duo thought. Third time his plan's been messed up this morning. Maybe Heero's having a Monday after all.

"So what's this..." Ciara's voice trailed off and she stood staring at the window. "Mary Mother of God."

Two waved at her and smiled innocently. He turned away for a second, then 38 stood up and walked to the window to stand beside him.

"I guess I know why Une called me," she said. "And why she wouldn't say anything except that I should remember everything I knew about you two." She walked over to the window and looked down at Two, who stared up at her. "You can see me, can't you?"

"Yes," Duo said, as Two nodded.

"And you read lips."

"Damn it, Ciara, you're making me feel like an idiot," Duo grumbled. "I took me five minutes to figure that out."

"That's because she's trained to look for those things, Duo," Heero said. "Put her behind the controls of a shuttle and she'd feel like an idiot too."

She looked at Heero and smiled, a flash of warning in her grey-green eyes. "No, Heero. I'd feel like a brilliant psychologist being asked to do something she was never trained to do. Now," she took a key out of her pocket. "Shall I open the door so you can introduce me to your new friends?"

"Aa," Heero said.

Few other people would have heard it, but Duo recognized the hint of apology in Heero's voice, and he was sure Ciara caught it too. Yep, Duo thought. Heero's definitely having a Monday. It was a struggle, but he kept the smile off his face.

--------------------

"So this'll last, what, two or three weeks?" Two asked as he toyed with the remains of his tabouleh.

They had stopped for lunch. Ciara had insisted on leaving them alone. Duo had a feeling that was part of her debriefing-slash-psych-review-slash-therapy process. "Ciara is pretty good at this. If you guys are straight with her? Maybe two weeks." He glanced over at Heero and 38, who were wrapped up in a game of Go.

"And then we become Duane and Hiroshi?"

Duo shrugged. "I hope so. God knows I'm tired of Takashi's physics class."

Two stabbed his plastic fork into the plate. The tines broke. "You hope?" he asked, his voice soft and threatening.

"Look," Duo sighed, studying the image of Two he'd been idly creating on his plate with mustard for paint and a bit of pita bread for a brush. Two had been at him the whole meal. Duo felt like he was the one being debriefed. Don't let him know he's getting to you, he thought. He's just trying to figure it all out. "Look, you know we have to catch the Rejects before Une is gonna let you two run semi-loose. The faster you help us do that, the faster you get out of here." He thought about the apartment. It was better than a lot of places he'd lived, but it wasn't up to his usual standards. The things I put up with for the sake of a mission, he thought. Heero's got nothing on me in that department. "Then you'll realize Hotel P isn't all that bad, even if your door is locked from the outside."

Two's didn't say anything. After a moment, the silence caught Duo's attention. He looked up to find Two staring at the ceiling.

"How long are they going to watch us?" Two sighed.

Duo was shocked by the quiet vulnerability in Two's voice. "Probably for the rest of your lives. I mean, you'll get your own place and go to school and get a job and all that stuff, but we'll want to keep tabs on you -- know if you're traveling somewhere, that kind of thing. Or you could go to work for the Preventers."

"Huh?"

Two's gaze dropped to meet his, and Duo realized he'd just got Two's undivided attention. I should get paid extra for recruiting, he thought. "If you work for us, we'll put a comm unit in you so you can communicate with your partner. It would let us locate you too, but it isn't like there's a room full of people tracking you all the time, only when you're on a mission or if you go missing or something. And you'd basically be checking in every day, but that would be part of going to work anyway. It would be easy to pretend it was the job and not just you because it would be mostly true."

Two nodded. "I'll think about it. But what I really meant was, when are they going to turn off the bugs and cameras in our room?"

"Huh? Cameras?" He saw Two studying him closely.

"You didn't know," Two said. "I guess they wanted us to know they were there because they were easy to find. But we don't really have any privacy. I mean, I don't care if they see us naked, but..."

"Ah." Duo suddenly understood. "You... We may have an exhibitionist streak, but not that wide?"

Two nodded.

"I'll ask, but I probably can't change anyone's mind."

Two's lips pouted, disappointed. "You'll try though?"

"Yeah. I'd hate that if it was me and Heero." True enough, he thought. Maybe he isn't a total bastard after all. It was funny how Two could get him so wound up and then say something that he understood so clearly that he couldn't help but think they should be able to get along.

"I bet." Two grinned at him. "So, you got a spare pencil? I'll draw you. You draw me. Then we can look for the differences."

Duo smiled. No grinning, he thought. Damn comm. It's gonna change my whole line of facial expressions. He pulled a pencil box from his pocket. "It just so happens, I have a few pencils with me. Think you can draw on that note pad?"

"Yeah. Bring some real paper tomorrow?"

"Deal."

--------------------

Duo sat, feet up on the couch wearing his black "Milk sucks. Got cabernet?" T-shirt and a pair of blue silk boxers with white angel wings printed all over them, worrying. He looked at the half-empty glass in the table beside him and decided to leave it. Even combined with the three at dinner, the wine wasn't relaxing him like it usually did. He knew why.

Heero was late.

At the end of his afternoon meeting with Takanawa, he'd arranged for her and Heero to go to dinner together. Actually, he'd asked her if she wanted to go out for dinner and hadn't corrected her when she assumed that meant with Heero and him both. Then he'd maneuvered Ciara into asking him to dinner with her by hinting that he had some things he wanted to talk to her about in private -- which he did. Heero had helped a lot, but he was still trying to wrap his head around the whole issue of Two and himself and how they fit into the grand scheme of things and had decided he needed a different perspective. After all, Heero was biased.

Of course, Heero had seen through his plan in a heartbeat, but by then it was too late. Duo had smiled innocently and shooed him off to meet Takanawa. "Meet you back at the apartment around 21:00?" That should give them time for a couple of hours together before going to sleep. Plenty of time for what he had planned. Heero had just glared and nodded.

Now it was 22:00 -- actually, 22:03 according to the clock -- and Heero wasn't back yet. Duo debated activating the comm's mic and asking Heero if he was okay. It would hurt, but not much. The "magic rapid-healing goo" the doctors had added to the implant protocols last month -- nothing like being a guinea pig -- was doing it's job. As he had the previous ten times, he reminded himself that Heero was a big boy, and maybe he was just having a good time with Takanawa. It better not be too good a time, though, Duo thought, or I'll have his ass in a sling.

He watched the minutes crawl by until, finally, at 22:07, the door opened and Heero walked in. Duo sprang from the couch, then stopped himself. Heero was obviously okay -- even had a hint of a smile on his face. No need to rush over and show how worried he'd been. "So, did your watch stop?" Yeah, Duo, always lead with a joke, he thought.

"Iie. We were talking about packet spoofing and techniques for breaking an address checking router. I forgot to pay attention to the time." Heero pulled a chair from the so-called dinner table -- Duo would have called it a card table, but it was too small -- and sat in it and began untying his shoes. "She's learned a few things since she was teaching me about computers." He arranged the shoes neatly beside the chair, tucking the laces into the tops, and began unbuttoning his shirt. "See, first you take the address you want to--" He looked at Duo as he shrugged out of his shirt and began folding it. "You really don't care, do you."

"Anoouu," Duo looked embarrassed. "To be honest, I don't think I'd be able to follow most of it. I mean, basic hacking is one thing, but all that 'bowels of the Net' mess is too much for me."

"Aa." Heero laid the shirt on the table, then stood to unbuckle his belt. "So how was Ciara?" Heero slid his jeans off and set about folding them. He laid them on the table and, noticing the silence, looked up at Duo and saw him frowning. "You were worried about me because I was late," he said as he walked toward Duo, picking up the half-empty glass of wine along the way.

"Me? Worried?" Duo looked down at the floor. A second later, Heero's socked feet came into view. He let his gaze run back up Heero's body -- pausing briefly at the boxer briefs, moving slowly upward, inch by inch until he finally reached Heero's eyes. "Yeah. I was. Look, I'm sorry I set you up like that, I just thought it would be good for you and her--"

Heero nodded. "It was." He leaned forward and kissed Duo softly on the lips, then pulled him closer and kissed more insistently, nudging Duo's mouth open and tracing his tongue along Duo's teeth. He pulled away and smirked. "I owe you for misjudging you this morning -- if you're still interested in collecting." He drank the last of the wine and set the glass back on the table beside the couch.

Duo bit his lip.

Heero's eyebrows pulled together.

That, Duo knew, was the worried look. He nodded, smiling. "And how often have you known me not to be interested? I'd be grinning if I didn't think it would hurt." The moment of hesitation had been genuine, though. What he was planning to do had him a little nervous. He hoped Heero would like it. Actually, he hoped it was really safe.

"Heads or tails?" Heero asked.

This time, Duo did grin, if only briefly. "Both, baka."

Heero blinked. "You're very interested." He laughed softly. "Ryoukai."

"But I have a surprise," Duo blurted out. He held up a strip of black cloth.

Heero stared at it for three seconds before he nodded reluctantly and turned. The blindfold covered his eyes. Duo tied it tight enough that it wouldn't slip off, but not uncomfortably tight.

"Don't worry, koi." Duo breathed softly against his ear. "This isn't that kind of game. It'll be nice and I think gentle. I just don't want either of us to see what the other's doing."

That made no sense to Heero, but it did help. He'd been afraid Duo was planning a bondage game or something. He really wasn't in the mindset for that tonight. He really wanted nice and gentle. He just wasn't sure why they couldn't do nice and gentle with his eyes open.

He heard a soft rustle as Duo's T-shirt hit the floor, followed two seconds later by another -- the angel-wing boxers. Then Heero felt Duo's fingers hook into the waistband of his boxer briefs and pull them down to his ankles. He stepped out of them automatically, letting Duo pull off his socks as he lifted each foot. He waited, listening as Duo stood. The breathing stopped, then there was a long slow exhale and it resumed, slightly faster than before. That meant Duo had looked at him from head to toe, probably with a couple of pauses along the way.

Duo's fingers came light on his elbow. "Here, let's get in bed, then I'm gonna put my blindfold on."

"Aa." He tried to figure out what Duo was planning as he let Duo lead him to the bedroom door. If they were both going to be blindfolded... But Duo had said that he didn't want either of them to see. He'd missed that earlier. There was a pause as Duo opened the door, then he felt a brief sense of constriction passing through the doorway followed by the smaller space of the bedroom around him. Three steps more and Duo carefully positioned him and guided him down to sit on the bed.

"There's the bed. Now lay down."

He didn't really have to say it. Heero was already in the process of arranging himself. But Duo was trying to keep him informed so there would be no surprises.

"And I'll climb in."

He felt movement and then warmth above him and then contact as Duo straddled him and settled against him.

"Just a couple of adjustments."

Duo lifted off him. Heero felt the warm length of Duo's body leaning across him, not quite touching. He thought Duo was going to kiss him and opened his mouth slightly in expectation, but Duo fumbled with something on the bedside table for a moment. He heard the soft hum of an electronic device and stifled a sigh. It must be the damn video camera. Well, he could ignore it once they got started. The weight returned to his pelvis as Duo returned to his sitting position. There was another pause, all of ten seconds.

"Okay," Duo said. "Let me put on my blindfold and..."

Heero felt Duo lean forward again and, this time, felt warm skin against his belly and chest, smelled the sharp bite of cinnamon as Duo's arms slipped under his shoulders. Duo's hands slipped around the back of his head, massaging gently and Duo's lips touched his. His mouth was still open, but Duo didn't take advantage of it. Heero pushed the tip of his tongue against Duo's lips, inviting, but Duo seemed to be distracted.

He was about to say something about it when he felt Duo's forefinger press against the spot on the right side of his skull, behind his ear. He was too surprised to push Duo away, too surprised to speak, and then...

Cool skin against his, underneath him. But it wasn't. The sheets were underneath him. His fingers tangling in short, coarse, soft hair, but his hands were on Duo's back, unbraiding hair that was neither short nor coarse. Lips open beneath him, then his tongue darting into the space, but the space was his mouth.

He felt Duo shuddering against him, but he was sure that wasn't Duo alone. He wasn't sure what Duo had done with the interface to make all his senses go berserk. He knew there must be a reason--

"God," Duo whispered, though Heero felt the words vibrating in his own throat. "I'm glad Takanawa convinced me to keep it below half."

"D-Duo. What--?" Then he knew. It all made sense. Duo's hentai look when he'd told him about the interfaces, the private conversation with Takanawa, the promised surprise, the blindfolds. That had been a good idea, Heero knew. If they'd both been seeing through their own eyes and each others' eyes, they probably would have been very confused. More very confused. It was confusing enough simply feeling what Duo felt.

That was it, of course. Now that he thought about it, he had felt a tiny twinge when Duo had opened his mouth wide. And he had never realized his skin felt so cool or so smooth under Duo's fingers.

Duo kissed him again and Heero began sliding his hands gently along Duo's back, feeling the tingles his fingers sent along Duo's skin. And the arousal they stirred in Duo, which he felt too, which Duo felt, which made him feel more and adjust his touches to bring more pleasure in a complex feedback loop. This, he thought, is going to be more than I wanted tonight. Duo pushed away from him, moving his mouth to Heero's neck, sucking, teeth closing gently over Heero's collarbone. But I'm glad, Heero thought and smiled.

"Happy, koi?" Duo asked.

He must have felt me smile, Heero decided. "I will be."

Duo laughed softly, then they both gasped as Heero's right hand found Duo's left nipple and the sensation crossed the connection between them.

Two minutes later, they weren't sure who was feeling what.

That didn't matter.

--------------------

-- 01 October AC 202 --

Duo woke.

It was 06:22:44.

He had been having dreams. He'd recognized some of them -- a couple of the usual guilt trips that played themselves out in his head at least once a month, some good days with Heero, a couple of Preventers missions he'd had to keep secret from Heero because of security. But there had been some new ones too. Some strange ones.

Now, he was laying on top of Heero, his head tucked against Heero's neck, listening to the soft thudding of Heero's heart, the soft sigh of Heero's lungs. It was a slow, steady rhythm, almost like sleep, but not quite. Heero was awake. He rubbed his cheek against Heero's collarbone, feeling the cool skin against his cheek and the warm skin against his chest.

That didn't make sense. Strange dreams still? He had been sure he was awake.

This wasn't like the other dreams he hadn't recognized. Some of them had been about him. Some of them had been about the war. Nothing special, just little snippets of battle or blood. Those were best forgotten. Except he'd noticed Deathscythe's cockpit was different. One had been about a dark haired woman teaching him about computers, which made absolutely no sense.

Neither had the one where he'd had a strangely perfect understanding of all the choices available to him and the ultimate end that would result from each. Almost like knowing the future, but not quite. It was more like knowing what to do to get to a particular future. And a horrible sense of responsibility as he tried to chose one while a ravenous monster lurked inside his head, waiting for him to show a moment's weakness so it could rip his brain to shreds.

Strange dreams. Better to try to go to sleep again. If he went to sleep in the dream, it would end, or at least change.

It was 06:24:21.

He listened to the sounds of Heero's heart, keeping time with his. Perfect time.

His mind wandered back to one of the strange dreams -- one he couldn't place. He had dreamed he was floating through the air. Then he had landed, a bit roughly, on his back in the grass, arms splayed, eyes wide open, staring at the stars above him. He would have though it was pleasant, except he hadn't been able to move. And he'd known he was bleeding heavily. He'd felt the warm flow as it left his body and spread on the ground beneath him. Then the dream had stopped.

It was 06:25:15.

"Do you want to play heads now, koi?"

Perfect time. And their breathing was the same. And...

Duo pushed himself up and away from Heero and felt his heart beat faster. Felt Heero's heart beating -- still the same slow, steady beat. He couldn't see. "Heero!?"

"You're wearing a blindfold."

A blindfold? "Why..." The night before came back to him in a rush. "Oh! WOW!"

He heard Heero laugh. "Yes."

"But... Oh. I, uh..."

"Passed out. I did too."

"... while we were still wired together," Duo finished. "I guess that explains the dreams I was having." He lost the battle against the shiver as he realized what the grass and stars dream had been. Better to forget it, he told himself, and knew he never would. He'd been trying to forget his memories of Wing exploding for years. Now he had Heero's too. "And why I knew exactly what time it was. And why we were..."

"In tune?" Heero nodded. Duo couldn't see it, but he could feel the pillow moving against the back of Heero's head. "I liked that part," Heero said.

"Yeah." The shock and fear were passing. He felt... okay. He would sort out the dreams later. Sort out all the sensations later. Now he just wanted--

"You wanted to do heads and tails," Heero said. "But you only got to do tails."

"Huh?" Duo remembered what Heero had said that had made him realize he was really awake. "Oh. Yeah. I still do, but, uh, if we pass out again we'll be late to HQ."

"I could take off my blindfold long enough to set the alarm."

"Do it!" Duo didn't have to think twice about that suggestion. He felt Heero smile again and, as Heero set the clock, kept seeing himself as Heero stole glances in the dresser mirror. For some reason, that was incredibly arousing. "But we can't do this every night," he added.

Heero finished with the clock and turned around and stared at Duo, slowly surveying his body from top to bottom. Duo found this even more arousing than the quick looks earlier. He took advantage of the view to move himself closer to Heero and lay a hand on Heero's thigh so he had a reference point. Heero pulled his blindfold back on. "Once a year?"

"What? Too much for you? How about every two months?" Duo said as he maneuvered between Heero's legs.

"Are you sure you can handle it?" Heero's voice didn't sound concerned. "Aa. Ii n'da."

Duo knew perfectly well it was good. He could feel it too. "You're the one who better be worried, Mr. Endurance. If this rig gets me hard every time you get hard..."

"We'll have to find out-- Nnnn. A little higher."

Duo made the adjustment and tried again -- and gasped. "Damn. That is good."

An hour later, when they woke up again, they agreed it was also good that Heero had set the alarm.

--------------------

Heero leaned against Duo on the train. Today, he was holding onto Duo while Duo held the handhold over their heads. "I never realized I made you so uncomfortable after I rescued you from OZ."

"Huh?" Duo looked at him, sorting out what he had said, then shrugged. "I was the one who insisted. I could've let you sleep in the chair." He smiled. "Y'know, I was uncomfortable because when we were next to each other like that... I liked it. And I thought that was weird and it scared me and I thought you'd probably kill me if I said anything and I hoped I didn't talk in my sleep about how much I liked it." He sighed. "I was so dumb then. But at least I don't have to worry about that now."

"And I'm sorry I feel cold and hard--"

"Would you quit apologizing?" Duo snapped. "I learned a long time ago that I can't sleep next to another warm person. We make each other hot so we have to stay apart. I like you cold. It means we can hold each other and sleep next to each other all night and I really like that. And you aren't cold, you're just cool, and it's just your skin, not you. And if you weren't so hard I'd be afraid. You feel strong to me. Tsuyoi. I don't have to worry about you... y'know ... as much." Duo stopped to breathe. When he started again, his voice was softer. "Sorry. It just pisses me off when you feel bad about things I like."

"Aa". Heero nodded. "I... I never had anything warm and soft before, and I..." He frowned. "I guess I thought you wanted the same things I did."

"Baka," Duo muttered. "I love being the warm, soft teddy bear that you cuddle every night, but I want you -- cold, hard, blunt and everything else, okay? Aishite'ru n'da zo. So deal with it."

Heero sighed as Duo slipped an arm around his waist and pulled him close. He knew that Duo loved him, of course, but sometimes he forgot, or didn't think about it or how far it went. He closed his eyes and focused on nothing but Duo's presence, letting it wash all the thoughts of failures and shortcomings from his mind.

A minute and a half later, Duo asked, "So you, uh... you had dreams too?"

"Aa." He had enjoyed many of them, even the ones that probably hadn't been good dreams by Duo's standards. He didn't have many pleasant dreams. The truth was, he rarely remembered his dreams. He had decided that was probably his mind protecting him from what went on as it tried to sort out the quagmire that was his psyche. Even Ciara had felt daunted by the task after the war. She'd never said it, but he'd seen how carefully she approached him compared to the others. "Mine weren't very pleasant, were they?"

Duo pulled back and looked at him. "Hee--" Heero saw the angry, darker violet flare, then stop, held carefully in check. Duo shook his head and the anger faded. "Some of them I wish I didn't know, but I'm glad I do, if that makes any sense. But the ones about me were all good, even the ones where you were afraid I might die." He frowned. "That doesn't make much sense either, does it?"

Heero chuckled softly. "I think I understand." It was the same way he felt whenever he realized Duo was worried about him. It made him feel... megumarete'ru that at least one person in the universe would hurt if he hurt. It was what made him weigh the risks of his actions and choose the ones that accomplished his goals with greatest chance of survival.

"So, um, I, uh-- Was that what Zero was like for you?"

"Hn?" He didn't remember that dream.

"Y'know, knowing the future, but feeling like it was waiting for you to slip so it could tear you apart."

Heero's arms clenched tight around Duo. "I'm sorry."

"What? You sent me that one on purpose?"

"Iie!" He looked up. "I never would have--" He stopped when he realized Duo was smiling. It had been a joke. "Th- that wasn't Zero. It was Epyon."

Duo's smile vanished. "Oh." Duo pulled him closer and laid his temple against Heero's forehead. Heero had come to think of that as "Duo comforting me". Right then, it was what he needed. "Shit. I'm glad I never found out first hand."

They stood in silence, holding each other. Feeling Duo warm against him helped Heero relax. As they passed Chiba Street station, Duo said, "You were strong enough for it, y'know. You never slipped."

"Once," Heero whispered involuntarily. He pushed the memory away. Go back to my nightmares! he thought at it. He hoped Duo hadn't heard. It wasn't the admission of weakness that bothered him. Duo knew he wasn't perfect and didn't care. But if Duo had shared his memory of the feel of Epyon in his mind, maybe he'd shared and forgotten the memory of the one time Epyon had possessed him. Heero didn't want to remind him.

The train began to slow. Heero felt Duo gently separate them and say, "Our stop. ... When this is all over, I want us to take a couple of weeks and get a bike like the one I got from Howard back in 195 -- just one -- and us ride from Tokyo around to Hiroshima and stop and sightsee along the way and... And forget all the shit for a while. Just be two lovers on vacation, having a good time."

He looked up, surprised. Duo was smiling, but not the joking smile. It was the smile that offered anything he wanted, but didn't force him to take it. "I'd like that." It was the smile that always made him think, "angel". Duo had heard his confession. Heero wasn't sure if Duo remembered the madness -- or if he had even felt it -- but he knew it was unimportant. He sighed happily. "I'd like that, koi-angel."

"Y'know," Duo said as the stepped off the train onto the platform. "One of these days you're gonna have to explain what I do that makes you call me that."

"Aa." One day, maybe he would understand well enough that he could.

--------------------

"All the cameras are low light or UV/IR capable because they keep the lights low or off except in the lab," 38 said.

"But I know two routes that can get us from the shuttle bay to the control center without coming up on a camera." Two grinned, pleased with himself. "If we time it just right."

Duo saw Heero shift in his chair and bounce his eyebrows at Ciara. He stifled a sigh and relaxed slightly. At last the debrief was over for the day. They had waded through the Rejects' plans in general, as much as Two and 38 knew about them, the base's location and layout -- an abandoned research station between L1 and L3 -- and an overview of security.

Limited though Duo's reaction was, Two caught the change in his posture. "Time's up?"

"Yes, Two. We'll go over the rest of the security tomorrow," Ciara said. "I'll have an assistant get us the research station's blueprints. You and 38 can add the security systems and mark your clear routes."

"We have to make your call-in," Heero said.

Two groaned.

Duo would have groaned, but he didn't want to sound like Two. It wasn't that he didn't like Two. Not all the time, anyway. There were times when they got along well. But the rest of the time, Two was making some smartass remark or being nosy or bragging or telling a horrible joke. It was then that he drove Duo up the wall and through the roof.

To make matters worse, when Two did get him so annoyed he was ready to scream, Duo would usually catch Heero smiling at him. He wasn't sure what was so amusing about his plight, but he wasn't going to give Heero -- or Two, for that matter -- the pleasure of seeing him lose it.

Now, they were destined to spend at least another hour with their twins, escorting them to their former apartment and observing as 38 called in to tell the Rejects everything was okay. Duo had tried to convince Heero that they only needed to take 38, but Heero had said it would be good for Two to get out and it was possible that the Rejects would want to ask his opinion on something. If he wasn't there, it might alert the Rejects that something was wrong. He'd been smiling that little smile as he'd said it. Duo was sure such a thing would never happen. It was just a convenient excuse to saddle him with Two for an extra hour.

It could have been worse, he told himself. 38 and Two only had to call in on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

To top it all off, when they finally got back to their apartment, he and Heero were going to be busy until midnight with homework for the last two days, then they had to get up at 06:30 in the morning to get ready for class. He consoled himself with the thought that Two and 38 would be doing the same thing. They had to be able to step into Hiroshi's and Duane's classes in a couple of weeks without missing a beat. The only way they'd be able to do that was by catching up on the schoolwork for a month of classes in two weeks.

Duo realized he was the only one still in his chair. Everyone was looking at him. "Uh, sorry," he said, pushing out of his chair. His legs felt unsteady after two hours of sitting. "My brain's feeling a little fried." He walked over to Heero and leaned against him. "I think I need a walk."

"Aa," Heero said.

"The apartment is only 36 minutes away walking," 38 said.

It would add half an hour to their round trip, but Duo nodded. The walk would do him good, and he'd noticed that Two was usually less annoying if his attention could be diverted to 38.

--------------------

-- 03 October AC 202 --

"... saying you can tell them apart." Ciara said.

Duo closed the observation room door behind him and walked to where Heero was standing, looking through the one-way glass. Two was facing away from them -- Ciara's solution to his ability to see through the window and the distraction it caused. 38 sat to his right.

"Of course. I had to be able to tell them apart. But 32 is the easiest. They were trying to create me without actually creating me. They messed up some of the sequences so he ended up with my hair color. At least, they said it was a mistake. I think they did it on purpose because Dr. Thorsen liked my hair better." Duo didn't have to see his face to recognize the tone. He was sure Two was smiling disarmingly.

Ciara was the best, though, he knew. His smile hadn't distracted her after the war and Two's didn't distract her now. "Why don't you explain how you can tell each--" she paused as 38 waved at the "mirror".

"Is it 17:00 already?" Two asked.

"Y'know," Duo whispered to Heero. "It's really weird having to deal with two people who have a perfect sense of time."

"Hn."

"Tomorrow morning, then." Ciara said. "We'll start with how you can tell each clone apart. Thank you, gentlemen. Have a nice evening."

Two and 38 didn't dawdle. The debrief schedule wasn't brutal, but the whole process was hard, and they were always glad when the day ended and Heero and Duo came to "break them out", as Two was fond of putting it. They were out of the interrogation room and into the observation area before Ciara had finished speaking.

"So which one of you wants to escort me to the bathroom?" Two asked.

"C'mon," Duo said, opening the outer door.

"Great, bro'. So how was your day? Anything exciting happen in class? ...'"

Duo stifled a desire to scream, pasted on his best fake smile, and tuned out as Two prattled on and on and on and...

He was going to have to talk to Une about the policy requiring defectors to be escorted by an agent at all times during their debrief period. Two had been worse than ever when he and Heero had checked in after classes yesterday. It had taken all of three minutes before Duo had been ready to throttle his "little brother". They had spent two hours helping Two and 38 -- mostly Two, which meant mostly Duo helping -- with homework. At least he'd found out he'd picked up more of Takashi's physics class than he'd thought.

And at least Heero had picked up on his tension. After they got back to their apartment and finished their homework, Heero had given him a nice, hard massage. That wasn't the only nice, hard thing Heero had given him, but Heero had taken care of that too. Duo smiled, remembering them laying in bed together afterward.

Ten minutes later, as they were washing their hands, Two's monologue paused. "So, what's 27 like in bed?"

Duo blinked. "Excuse me?"

"What's 27 like in bed? Is he as cold a fish as he acts? I mean, I was kinda hoping to find out first hand, but I guess he sussed me out right away and never did give me the... chance... Uh, why are you glaring at me like that?"

"Some things," Duo said, feeling his glare intensifying, "are private."

Two's jaw dropped. "Naaniiii??? 38 told me about your little bondage joke. Don't tell me you're such a prude. I mean, it isn't like I'm asking for lots of juicy details. But if you want to... tell... uh..."

"I said some things are private," Duo said quietly.

Two found the tone was chillingly familiar. And though he'd never seen the particular shade of violet darkening to deep purple before, he'd heard it described. Like the time he'd broken 35's arm for trying to trim his hair. "Uh... Yeah. Okay. Let's go find 27 and 38. It's gotta be almost time for us to go for the call in."

--------------------

Duo had been glaring at Two since they'd come back from the restroom. 38 wasn't sure what had happened between them to make Duo so angry, but if Duo's eyes had been beam weapons, Two would have been a pile of ash a dozen times in the last half hour. 38 didn't doubt that Two deserved it.

As usually happened when he couldn't understand some interpersonal situation, he pushed it to the back of his mind and focused on the things he did understand. The walk to the apartment. Talking with 27--. No, Heero, he chided himself. Become accustomed to names. Talking with Heero about what he would say to... well, 32 didn't have a name. That had taken all of twelve minutes, then the group had fallen into silence.

Hiroshi, he thought to himself. Soon, that will be my name.

It seemed odd that a random collection of sounds could be so significant. Numbers were quite efficient, especially when dealing with clones. He'd never considered names before he'd defected. He'd never needed a name with Two. Not really. Two called him 38.

I guess Two didn't really have a name before, he thought. When they were alone, he'd sometimes called Two by the name Duo because Two had asked-- told him to. After they'd been installed in Hotel P, he'd used the name Duo once, only to have Two glare at him, then sigh and say it wasn't the same now. He'd stuck with the name Two after that, but he'd used it more often, watching carefully, picking up from Heero and Duo and Ciara all the ways names could be used besides just the obvious designation of an individual in a discussion.

He was looking forward to the day the sound pattern "Hiroshi Sakamura" belonged to him, though he had to admit that, when he asked himself why, he couldn't form a coherent explanation in his head, much less one he could have articulated to someone else. He wondered if Two was looking forward to claiming "Duane Arthur". Maybe he should talk to Two about it. Maybe they could find an explanation together.

Names filled his mind until they arrived at the apartment building he and Two had been living in before they'd defected. Heero had originally proposed that they could route the calls to Preventers HQ and spoof the phone addresses, but Duo had asked him if that would work. They had stared at each other for exactly seven seconds, then Heero had nodded and said, "We'll do the call-ins from the apartment."

38 had felt something odd then. Seven hours later, he'd decided it was jealousy. The correct answer to Duo's question was, "Of course it will work." Technologically, it was a simple thing to do. But Heero had known what Duo was asking without asking, and Duo had known that asking it indirectly was the better approach. 38 knew that, if Two had asked him if he could reroute the phone and avoid detection, he would have wanted to try it just to find out if -- or maybe to prove that -- he could do it.

He had been jealous because, though he and Two had been together for one year, three months and twenty days, they still didn't have such a deep understanding of each other. In fact...

He stopped the thought. Two was just going through a phase. He'd been taken from the quiet environment of the Rejects base and thrown into L1. Faced with everything it offered and not having the Rejects dictating every-- most aspects of his life, it seemed he wanted to try everything. He was just finding his way.

I hope, 38 thought. I hope.

They reached the apartment door and 38 welcomed the distraction of the mission. It would be much easier to contact 32 and convince him they were still trying to replace Heero than to understand his own relationship with Two or find solutions for their problems. Even his discussions with Duo hadn't been able to help him with that, though Duo had been shocked, then sympathetic and had tried to offer advice.

The apartment was the same as before they'd defected except for two small details, a chip audio recorder connected to the phone and a headset attached to the recorder. Two flopped down on the couch and turned on the vid, randomly flipping channels. Duo eyed the chair that had been his prison and chose to lean against the wall by the kitchen. 38 picked up the phone from the end table and began punching the numbers that would connect him, through a dozen blinds, to 32. Heero watched him, adjusting the headset so he could listen in. 38 knew that wasn't because Heero didn't trust him, but because it was his responsibility. Had the situation been reversed, 38 would be doing the same thing.

32's voice sounded in his ear. "Report."

32 is always so efficient, 38 thought. 18 may have been the master of the grand plan, but 32 was the genius of the thousand details that made it work. "We are still working on a plan to maneuver the target into range," he said. "The target", of course, was Heero, and "into range" meant "a place where we can capture him."

"Has he been detected?"

That was a surprise. 32 had always stuck to the script of "Report, analysis, projection," before. 38 looked at Heero and frowned. "We're in position. The target is difficult to acquire."

"... Understood. I'll take that as your analysis. Projection."

38 looked at Heero and said, "Saturday." He knew it hadn't been cleared, but he knew he had no choice.

"Transport will arrive Sunday morning. I will provide contact information when you check in Saturday."

"Understood." The line went dead.

38 put the handset down. "32 is suspicious. He knew we had replaced Duo. He's beginning to wonder why it's taking so long to replace you."

Heero nodded as he removed the chip from the recorder. "Aa."

--------------------

Duo leaned against the wall and watched Two. He was less furious with his "little brother" for the scene in the bathroom, but he was still mad enough to deck him given half an excuse. A part of him was hoping Two would do something to give him that half an excuse. Too bad he wouldn't be able to convince Heero and 38 that the rapid-fire channel changing deserved a punch.

Fortunately, the call in only took a minute. Duo kept his eyes on Two and his ears on 38. Then he heard, "Saturday." He knew what that had to mean, but he couldn't accept the obvious conclusion until 38 hung up and said, "32 is suspicious."

"If 32 suspects something, he'll be in bed with 18 telling him in about five minutes," Two said, springing up from the couch and gliding across the floor to stand next to 38 and slide an arm around his waist.

"Naaniiii???" Duo's mouth was hanging open. He glanced at Heero and saw both eyebrows up. At least I'm not the only one surprised, Duo thought.

"Oh, Ciara hasn't got to that part yet," Two grinned. "I was suspicious, especially after 18 was so quick to put 32 up in his room when they started decanting the forties and doubled some of us up. But the day we left for L1, I'm sure I interrupted them." His face feigned modesty, but the bouncing eyebrows made it obvious he wasn't. "18 was definitely more unhappy to see me than usual. I suggested they try one of my favorite positions, and from the look on 32's face right before we left, I'm guessing it was very satisfactory." He grinned even wider.

"Uh, isn't that--" Duo paused. This, he decided, was one of the prime reasons why people shouldn't be cloned. It created all kinds of complex ethical and moral dilemmas. Like, did 18 and 32 count as incest? He shook his head. "Never mind." It didn't really matter. He was sure that whatever answer he came up with he could find two other people with three other opinions. Better not to waste brain cells on it.

Two was nodding at him. "I wondered that myself at first bro' and decided it wasn't worth the time."

Duo sighed. At Father Maxwell's orphanage, while everyone else was fantasizing about parents, he'd been fantasizing about a twin brother. Not sexually. He hadn't thought about anyone sexually at that age. But he'd wanted a friend he could trust. Someone he could share secrets with. Someone to replace Solo. Funny how easy it was to think that now, after all the years Solo had haunted him.

Things had changed. For the better.

Except now, he had a twin brother, of sorts, and found he didn't really like it when Two called him "bro'", or when their thoughts ran so close to each other that it seemed like they were thinking with the same brain. Looking for something to get his mind off the unpleasantness, he noticed Heero's and 38's silence. They were staring calmly at each other, then they both nodded. Duo glanced at Two, who looked at him and shrugged. They'd begun to wonder if Heero and 38 had some kind of psychic bond going. The thought worried Duo a bit. If Heero and 38 had one, he and Two might have one, and the thought of Two nosing around in his head made him slightly ill.

He didn't have time to think about it though because Heero chose that moment to say, "Time to go back. We go in early Saturday morning."

--------------------

-- 04 October AC 202 --

Friday classes were Hell.

Friday classes are always Hell, Duo thought, but there's nothing like a mission in the works to make them worse. He'd even drifted off in his Impressionist Technique class after lunch, scribbling down notes about tuning the stealth on the shuttle, equipment they'd need in the Rejects' base, and how to restrain them once they'd been captured. After all, Heero could bend steel bars when he set his mind to it. Ordinary handcuffs weren't going to work. Worst of all was knowing that, while he was stuck in class, 38 and Two were planning the mission with Ciara, Takanawa and Une -- yes, Une herself had come up to L1 on the red-eye shuttle to help with the planning. This was that important.

At last, 15:20 dragged its sorry ass around the clock and Dr. Musashi finished lecturing about solving right triangles. Duo had spent most of the class solving triangles, but if Dr. Musashi had looked closely he would have noticed that they bore no resemblance to those he was drawing on the board. Duo couldn't help it if the man wasn't drawing what he needed to solve the flight path to the Rejects' base. The bell rang and, in less than fifteen seconds, Duo had his backpack packed and was out the door. It helped that he had the seat next to the door. It also helped that loading his backpack didn't require any more mental effort than tearing down and reassembling his gun.

He was surprised to find Heero waiting for him outside the math building. "Did you skip Pre-Colony Europe?" Duo asked, not pausing. Heero had been struggling with the complex machinations of European politics since the semester began. While a certain part of Duo pitied him, another part was glad Heero had at least one class that he didn't quite get.

"Iie. Dr. Franz finished two minutes early." He fell in step beside Duo and took his hand.

Duo flinched at the contact. He looked up at Heero and saw the hint of a smile. Heero had obviously decided to escalate their "coming out" act. Without breaking Heero's gaze, Duo guided the hand to the small of his back, watching the smile become surprise. Duo smiled back innocently. "If we're going to do this, we might as well do this." Besides, he knew Heero liked to put his hand there and pretend he could actually feel the lines of ink that marked out Duo's wings.

"Aa. We have seven minutes, thirty seconds to get to the 'rail station or we have to wait fifteen minutes for the next 'rail."

"Then we'd better run." Duo said, and picked up the pace, jogging toward the campus 'rail station. He didn't think he could wait another fifteen minutes. The only problem was, Heero had to take his hand away. Well, they'd make up for it on the ride to Preventers HQ. Maybe he'd even steal a quick kiss.

--------------------

Duo didn't know what he resented the most -- that they'd done such a good job on the plan without him or that it was going to be so... uncomplex.

It wasn't simple. No mission was ever simple. Well, no work mission. His Heero missions were usually very simple... The mission wasn't simple, but it wasn't complex either. Fly a shuttle with ECM on -- he had added a few details there, tricks he'd learned from Deathscythe -- to the Rejects' base. Slip in through an unused airlock. Follow one of Two's paths to the control center. Use the lockdown protocol to secure all the doors. After that, it was just a matter of calling in the rest of the team, opening doors one by one and collecting the Rejects and the scientists they had captured. Duo would have liked an excuse for fancy flying, or rappelling down an airshaft, or even picking a lock to make life more interesting.

No, it was just twelve people. Two, 38, Heero and him, plus one stealth SWAT team.

Of course, he thought as he glared at his twin, maybe Two was going to make the mission more complex after all.

"Damn it, 38. Tell him to get out of my seat." Duo did his best to push the glare all the way to "Heero-grade Ice Glare". Two glared right back at him, then glanced past him at 38, sighed, and moved over to the co-pilot's seat. Duo settled into the pilot's seat and made a show of adjusting it, though in reality it was adjusted perfectly. He didn't really understand why he'd found himself growing increasingly intolerant of his twin. It bothered him a little bit.

Well, he did know. It was the cumulative effect of Two's annoying jokes, and the way he grinned and waved the tip of his braid, and a hundred other little things that Duo knew shouldn't get to him but did. And one other thing, but he was going to take care of that tonight, and Heero's opinion be damned. Ciara's too.

He took a deep breath, looked out the viewport, and exhaled slowly. "Look," he said, turning to Two. "This mission, another week or so of debrief, then Heero and I can leave and you and I will never see each other again if that's what you want. Just, let's try to get through this without killing each other, ne?"

Two looked at him. After a moment, he nodded and held out his right hand.

Duo shook it. Maybe they'd found the grounds for a truce. Or at least a ceasefire.

"It's Hell living with yourself isn't it?"

Duo blinked, and marshaled every ounce of self-control he'd ever learned to keep from squeezing Two's hand to a pulp. He pulled his hand away, just to be safe.

"I mean, I always wanted to find you," Two continued. "To be you. To be away from the Rejects. Hell, 38 and 32 are the only ones who ever called me 'he'. The rest of them always called me 'it' and 'that one'. 'That one is becoming a risk.' Or 'It can be controlled. We need it to understand 27's lover.' I always thought they were so... so..."

"Tight?" Duo shook his head. It seemed that whenever Two pushed him to the absolute limit, he also revealed some little detail about his life among the Rejects that made Duo feel sorry for him and defused most of Duo's anger. Duo didn't think it was a ploy. The detached look on Two's face made Duo certain he didn't know what he had said. Ciara had told him about that look -- five years ago when she'd been trying to help him.

"Yeah." Two snorted. "And they are. But I never realized how annoying I was until I had to hang around with you."

Then there were the times when Two was just plain rude. Duo clenched his jaw and said, "You really need to work on the politeness thing. Heero is not the best example for that, y'know, so I'm guessing the Rejects aren't either." His watch beeped once. Time. He turned back to the console in front of him, feeling a familiar elation surge through him. "Prestart checklist, ready?"

"Yep," Two said, punching it up on the shuttle's computer. Duo could hear the grin in Two's voice. He felt a similar joy at finally starting the mission. "Harness secure?" Two asked.

Duo snapped the harness over his body and pulled the straps snug. "Check."

"Check here too. Okay, fuel?"

"All tanks reading full."

"Internal power?"

Fifteen minutes later, the shuttle's attitude jets fired briefly, backing it away from the docking arm and starting a slow spin, turning it toward the hangar door. "ECM activated," Duo said, flipping a switch. "You wanna take us out?"

Two looked at him, uncertain, then nodded. "Sugoi."

"Don't get too excited." Duo met the gaze. Looking into his own eyes made him nervous, but he didn't let it show -- he hoped. "I'm taking over two hundred kilometers from the station."

Two didn't say anything, just fired the attitude jets to stop the spin and keyed the radio. "Control, Papa-victor-niner-six-bravo requesting clearance for space lock."

"Papa-victor-niner-six-bravo, the space lock is yours. Good luck."

Duo recognized the voice. "Une. Damn it, Une's running Control," he muttered. "No pressure. No pressure at all." He sighed as Two guided the shuttle into the space lock with a single burst the attitude jets. No more pressure than any other mission. And Duo had to admit, Two was a damn good pilot. Almost as good as me, he thought, and allowed himself a tiny Heero-smile.

--------------------

-- 01:00 05 October AC 202 --

"But--"

"No."

"But it's the only choice, 18."

"No."

"You saw my analysis."

"Yes."

"Did you find any errors?"

"Of course not."

"Then you know it's the only choice."

"... Yes. ... But ..."

"It feels like we'd be abandoning the mission."

"We would be abandoning the mission, 32."

"But is it a good mission?"

"That isn't our concern."

"Doesn't the new mission have a better chance of success? Isn't the outcome better for everyone?"

"That--"

"Is our concern. We can make our own judgments. If a mission can't succeed, we can refuse it. We have to be willing to die to complete our mission, but that doesn't mean we have to commit suicide knowing we can't succeed."

"..."

"I'm right."

"Yes. ... But..."

"I know. It won't be easy. For either of us, 18."

"No."

"I'll be with you. I'll help. I promise."

"R... ryo... ... ryoukai."

--------------------

They were still three hundred kilometers out when Two said, "I'm going back to check on 38."

Duo nodded. "Send Heero up, would you?" He kept his voice light and set about checking their flight path. Two minutes later, he smiled as the scent of cordite floated up next to him. He spent another ten seconds to be sure he hadn't missed anything on the control panel, then turned to Heero. "Everything okay in back?"

"Aa." Heero was frowning slightly. "You wanted me?"

"I always want you. But, yeah. Is it just me or is Two annoying as Hell? I mean, he's always talking and tells jokes in the middle of serious meetings and it seems like every fifth thing he says is about sex and he laughs all the time and he waggles the end of his braid at... Why are you smiling like that?"

Heero chuckled softly. "It is just you. Exactly you."

"Naanniiii?" Then he realized what Heero was saying. "I'm not like that! I don't... Well I know I don't..." Duo frowned. "Damn. Am I really that annoying?"

Heero leaned in close and kissed him on the forehead. "Yes, but I've learned to live with it." He busied himself arranging Duo's braid. "I like you annoying. It reminds me I'm human."

"Huh?"

"Either I get angry or I want to laugh, but those aren't things they built into me."

"Oh," Duo hugged Heero's waist and smiled. "I'm glad you put up with me."

"Me too."

He glanced through the cockpit door and saw Two in the back, standing next to 38, talking. Good, he thought. A few more minutes alone. "Y'know he asked me what you were like in bed."

"Aa. He asked me about you too."

Duo tensed, looked up at him. "You told him to go to Hell, right?"

"No. I told him."

"Heeeerooo, why--" Duo stopped, sighed. "Sorry. I know you don't have all the hang-ups--" He caught the twitches on Heero's face that meant he was stifling a smile. "Okay, Spandex-boy. What did you tell him? Or do I want to know?"

"I told him you make a good teddy bear, you're warm and soft and comfortable, and even if we're just laying next to each other holding hands, you make me feel right."

Duo felt a grin on his face pushing into a goofy grin, fought it for moment, then gave up. "Damn you, teasing me like that. ... Uh, you did know that wasn't what he meant, right?"

"Don't be silly, koi. I knew exactly what he was asking. It isn't any of his business."

Duo heard a snort behind them and they both turned. Two was standing there watching. "I should've known you weren't just plain dense."

Heero and Duo looked at each other briefly. "He is ruder than you, though" Heero said. "I'm going to go over the final briefing with the team again. We can't make any mistakes."

"Yeah." Because if we do, Duo thought, our asses are space dust. And I know you're as fond of my ass as I am of yours.

Heero smirked at him and squeezed past Two into the passageway that led to the main cabin.

"Mind reader," Duo shouted after him.

Two sat down beside Duo, frowning. "What was that all about?"

Duo looked at him and sighed, yanked back to the reality of what was happening. "Nothing. You and I need to have a little talk... bro'. But right now, I have to dock this shuttle. You're in charge of reading off range and relative."

Two frowned. The way Duo had said it, he wasn't sure what the talk was going to be about, but he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be pleasant. He didn't have time to think about that now, though. "Range: two-four-seven kilometers. Target heading is three-four-zero. Closing at one-zero-point-two per minute relative." He considered complaining that Duo wasn't supposed to take over for another 47 klicks, then decided it wasn't worth it for less than five minutes of flight time.

--------------------

There was an advantage, Duo decided, to having eyes that had been engineered to see in the dark -- most notably not having to wear light enhancing goggles when you invaded an abandoned research station full of Heero clones who kept the lights off most of the time to save energy. He stopped as the wavery image of Two raised a hand. Surely, he thought, the Preventers could spring for some decent IR sensors like Heero and I stole for the Gundams. They may have cost twenty times as much as the ones in the goggles, but they were at least thirty times better, so that was a net cost savings, right?

After a moment, Two waved him forward and leaned close. "This is the control room."

The resolution on the goggles wasn't good enough to show Duo Two's statement, but he recognized the tone. He'd heard it often enough when he was the one speaking. "What's wrong?"

"I'm surprised we made it this far without setting off an alert. I'm pretty sure I mistimed the last camera."

Duo shook his head. Two had told him that at the time, but if they had, the alarms would have gone off. "C'mon. I grew up doing this kind of stuff. I can even sneak up on Heero sometimes -- almost." He thought about that for a second and pulled his gun. "Okay. You open the door. I'll go in first." He peeled off the goggles. "Ready."

"We don't know if the lights are on or not. It'd be better if I went in first. My eyes won't have to adjust."

"Yeah, but if Une even thought I'd let you have a gun she'd kill me. And that'd be nothing compared to Heero. And if 38 thought I'd let you go in first without a gun... I'll take my chances with whoever's inside. Open it."

"There's a row of consoles in the middle of the room. Whoever's on watch usually stays on the left side, so go to the right and stay low."

He felt Two's hands on his shoulders, adjusting him to the right a fraction. "Thanks."

"Here goes," Two whispered.

A dim rectangle of light appeared in the wall of blackness before him. He dove through the door, rolling and hoping he wasn't rolling into anything that would crack his skull -- or shoot him. He thudded roughly against a row of consoles and paused, listening, assessing the situation.

Silence.

The faint light in the room came from a bank of monitors on the far wall. He'd glimpsed them briefly on his way in, but now the control consoles dividing the room blocked his view of them.

Still silence.

Well, he thought, here goes nothing.

He poked his head up over the consoles and ducked back down.

No hail of bullets. No shouts. No alarms.

He looked again and saw Two standing in the doorway. The light from the monitors was just bright enough to reveal a frown. Another quick scan showed why. The room was empty.

Two stepped in and closed the door quietly behind him, then turned on the lights. Duo blinked as his eyes complained that he needed to make up his mind about the light level so they could quit adjusting back and forth.

"Where the Hell are they?" Two muttered.

"Yeah," Duo said. "Exactly what I was think... ing." He pointed to the left-most monitor. "Sorry we couldn't stay to meet you," he read.

"Shit," Two muttered. "That has to be 32. He's the only one besides me with a sense of humor. And if he's gone, 18 is with him. They always took watch duty together."

The screen changed. "Don't unlock all the doors at once." Duo frowned. "What..." he looked at Two, their eyes growing wider in unison.

Two punched a series of buttons on the keyboard in front of him, bringing up a plan view of the station. "He locked them in." He laughed. "32 locked them all in their rooms after they went to sleep." He laughed again. "This is going to be easy. Call twen-- uh, Heero and let them know. Uh, I mean--"

"I know. You mean that more polite." Duo twitched his jaw muscle. It was still a little sore. He'd determined that the "magic rapid-healing goo" did all its work in the first two days, and after that, he was on his own. "Hey, Heero, you're never gonna believe this..."

A minute later, he looked up at Two. "They're moving into position. Heero says five minutes, thirty seconds." He frowned.

"What's wrong? We've got all of 'em, except 32 and 18."

"Yeah," Duo sighed, "But there's a bit of business I have to take care of now." He pulled his gun and aimed it at Two and flipped off the safety. He'd been playing the scenario out in his head while Two was piloting the shuttle and had found no way around the unpleasantness.

"Hey, be careful where you point that thing." Two put up his hands as if to ward off any stray bullets that might come his way. "What the Hell do you think you're doing?"

"Well, sometimes plans change. Sometimes the higher-ups decide that certain people are too dangerous to have around. Sometimes they order someone to get rid of those people." Duo paused to give Two a chance to speak.

Two didn't, just stood there staring at him, mouth open.

Duo shrugged and continued, hoping his voice was calm and steady. "I'm offering you a choice. You or 38. One of you is going to get shot. Which one?"

Two stared at him, unable to believe what was happening, but not so much so that he didn't take the threat seriously. "You could do this? Just shoot me in cold blood?"

Duo nodded. "Or 38. Would you rather I ask Heero to shoot him?" Duo glanced at his watch. "You've got thirty seconds. I need an answer before they get in position."

"You need me to unlock the doors."

"I doubt it. The control systems on these old stations are all the same. If they left the lockdown controls in place, they probably didn't change them. Twenty seconds."

"What about 38. He'll hate you if you kill me."

"Probably." Duo shrugged. "But I don't have to live with him. Which is it going to be? You or him? If you don't choose, I'll tell Heero to shoot him. He's had more practice shooting Rejects than I have. Five seconds."

"Me!" Two gasped as he heard himself say it, then, softer, "Me. Not him. I deserve it." He looked up and saw Duo nod. Watched as Duo's finger pulled back on the trigger and...

Two felt three shots, each arriving as a thudding force that punched him backwards coupled with a searing pain. One in his belly. One in his chest. One in his right shoulder.

He felt himself falling and thought, a three-shot burst. He isn't taking any chances.

Then blackness.

--------------------

"Hey, wake up."

Instinctively, he flailed out -- and hit nothing. He was laying on something hard. The floor. His chest felt cool, and someone's hand was feeling his shoulder.

"C'mon, wake up, baka. I was careful to hit the padding under the cotton-mail. All you've got are bruises. And let me tell you, OZ soldiers knew how to dish out a Hell of a lot worse."

Two opened his eyes and saw Duo straddling him, sitting on his belly. He knew the position. He couldn't hit Duo hard enough to do any damage, but Duo could pound him easily. Then he remembered, "You tried to kill me you asshole."

"Yeah? So why are you still alive?"

Two blinked. That hadn't occurred to him. If Duo had really wanted him dead, he'd be very dead right now. That was enough to make him, not exactly less angry, but less ready to punch Duo. And curious.

Duo moved off him and knelt beside him and held out a hand. Two took it and winced as he sat up. "Damn."

Duo shrugged. "Bruises, like I said. You'll heal."

A thousand questions were running through his head, but one made it to his tongue first. "Why?"

Duo looked at him for a moment, then said, "I needed to know if you really loved 38."

That only dragged up a thousand more questions. He stuck with the same one. "Why?"

"Yeah, I knew you were gonna ask the hard--" Duo cocked his head to the left for a moment, then said, "Give me a second, Heero." He stood and walked to the console, tapped a few keys on the keyboard. "It'll unlock in fifteen seconds from... ... mark." A pause. "Fifteen minutes, eighteen seconds." He glanced at his watch, shaking his head. "Got it."

Duo turned back to Two and sat on the floor facing him. "Sorry." He sighed. "Why? Because I'm meddling in something Heero told me I should leave to you and 38 to resolve, but I'm damned if I'm gonna stand by and watch you throw away something you don't understand is the most important thing in your life and fuck up 38 in the process."

Two spent ten seconds parsing what Duo had said, then gave up. Duo had obviously gone crazy. His best bet was to humor him, keep him talking, and hope Heero and 38 arrived to rescue him soon."What the Hell are you talking about?" Two winced as he took a deep breath. "I think I've got a broken rib."

"It's just a bruise, damn it." Duo said. "I've had enough broken ribs to know what they feel like. Quit whining."

Two waited, then decided Duo needed prompting again. "What are you talking about?"

"You're sleeping around on 38." Duo spit out the words as if they were unpleasant on his tongue. "I hope to God you're playing it safe, because if you've given 38 something, I will shoot you and you won't be wearing body armor when I do."

"How did you know--" Two nodded. He'd just fallen for the oldest trick in the book. "Nice. So I just admitted it." Suddenly, Duo didn't seem so crazy.

"No, 'little brother'." Duo glared. Two decided he didn't like Duo glaring at him. "38 told me. All of them have noses like a bloodhound. You think 38 couldn't smell the sweat and sex and the other guys' cologne?"

Two winced, not from the bruises, though they still hurt. He winced because he knew it was true. And because he'd never thought of it. And that pissed him off. "Why is it any of your business," he snapped. "If I need something 38 can't give me--"

"Bullshit. Think with your head and your heart for once instead of your balls and your ego."

"What!?" Two glared at Duo. "How the Hell would you know--" He had been about to say, "how I feel about him," but he caught himself. He'd already shown Duo how he felt about 38. He chose a different approach. "Do you have any idea what he's like?" he asked, softer. "He's always so damn gentle with me. Sometimes I just want to be fucked, okay? Sometimes I just want him to not be so careful to be sure I get off -- to just enjoy himself and let me get off on watching him let go. I like sex and sometimes I like it a little rough. Hell, I'm a freak, okay? Sometimes I want him to tie me up and gag me and fuck my brains out and to Hell with me having a say-so, okay?"

"Bullshit. If it was just about the sex you'd've left him already. And have you ever asked him to tie you up?"

He sat, stunned, silent. "No." He'd been certain he knew what 38's reaction would be. But Duo had dropped enough hints that Two knew that sometimes he and Heero... Maybe he'd underestimated 38.

"So what's the real reason?"

Duo's question caught him off guard. The answer leapt forward. Two knew. All too well. He'd been dodging it for years, though, and practice paid off. He avoided it again. "Just leave me alone, damn it! It isn't any of your damn business. Just because I always wanted to be you doesn't mean I am you. What do you know about me?"

"Look, Two," Duo snarled. "You aren't the only one, okay. I--" He paused. His mouth moved for a moment, as if searching for the right words, then he continued, calmer, softer. "After the first two months, when we'd done every sexual position I'd ever imagined, and a few I hadn't known were possible, I started to wonder why Heero wanted me. I mean, sure, I'm good in bed, and I'd swear he didn't have anyone to compare me to, so I knew I was the best he'd ever had... But I knew the sex wasn't it. I was pretty sure that wasn't why I wanted him either... When we went to Egypt a few months later, and he tried to leave me -- that's when I finally started to understand." He leaned back against the console, shaking his head. "I was stupid and it was Hell for a couple of days."

"He... He tried to leave you?" Two frowned, confused, and in that moment of distraction the answer he'd evaded for so long caught up with him. The truth was, he was afraid 38 might leave him. He'd been basically alone before 38. He'd tried everything he could think of to please the Rejects, but it had never been enough. "All I really wanted--" He paused, his head pounding rhythmically against the wall behind him. "All I really wanted was someone to give a damn," he said. "And after watching 38 in the sim, well, I decided I'd pretend for a few minutes while he was still asleep. I figured it was the only chance I'd get. I didn't expect him to wake up so soon. I..." He shrugged. "I guess I should'nt've."

"You wanted to know about us." Duo said. "Let me tell you about our little honeymoon on the Nile."

--------------------

"Purr?" Two frowned, skeptical. Duo had stopped a dozen times to open doors for Heero and 38 and the SWAT team, but he'd never lost Two's attention.

"Well...," Duo paused and looked down, then back at Two. "Yeah. It's a secret, okay? When Heero holds me and we're together and it's right, I purr." He shrugged. "Dunno why. It never happens when we're making love. You should try it some time. With 38."

"I never realized you and Heero..." What, he wondered. Argued? Fought? Got angry with each other? "I never realized you were..."

"Plain old ordinary imperfect people?"

That was it exactly. "Yeah." At least in all the important ways. He'd always idolized Duo, but watching him from a distance for the past three months and up close for the last week, he'd found Duo made mistakes, struggled with physics class, ate with his elbows on the table, got sick, got angry, worried, snapped at people for no good reason sometimes, went to the bathroom... The little details he'd seen but hadn't seen had been undermining his whole sense of who Duo was and who he wanted to be. "That's important, isn't it?"

"Being perfect is a bitch." Duo shrugged. "Hell, even Heero knows shit happens in a relationship. Neither of us likes it, but we nearly tore ourselves apart trying pretend it didn't. It's a lot better to--" He paused, nodded. "Just a sec'." His face was carefully blank as he looked at Two. "I hope you're ready. Heero and 38 are at the door."

"But--"

"Just talk to him, okay? And don't look so guilty." Duo grinned. "It isn't like we slept together or anything."

That jolted Two back to significance of what he had to do -- or not do. He still hadn't decided. He stood leaning against the control console as Duo opened the door to let 38 and Heero into the room. He tried to look bored, but he doubted he was doing a good job of it.

"Anou, Hee-koi, think you can show me the way to the bathroom?" Duo asked.

"Twenty meters down the hall on the left," Heero said.

Duo latched onto Heero's arm, "But it's dark, and you see better in the dark than I do." He tried to yank Heero out the door, and was about as successful as he would have been trying to drag a mountain by himself. Then he whispered something in Heero's ear.

Heero looked at Two, frowned at Duo, and said, "Aa." Then muttered, "Baka," as he let Duo tow him down the hall. That, Two thought, was only slightly more transparent than distilled water. Of course, 38 probably wouldn't see it. That wasn't his particular skill set.

38 watched them go, frowning at their odd behavior, which told Two he'd picked up more than Two had given him credit for -- again. I've got to quit underestimating him, Two thought as 38 crossed the room and leaned against the console next to him.

"Daijobou?" 38 asked.

Two licked his lips, debating. It was silly, he knew. He didn't have a choice.

"Uh." Brilliant beginning, he thought. He took a deep breath and tried again. "Umm, Duo told me that, uh, you know... about me and the, uh... the other guys." He stopped. His heart felt like it was trying to pulverize his breastbone. He'd been scared too many times to count, including the times that were Duo's memories, but he knew he'd never been this scared before. It was a different scared too. He wasn't afraid that 38 would kill him. He didn't think that would happen. And if it did, well, maybe he deserved it. No, the thing he feared was that 38 would be angry. He was afraid of what 38 would say.

"Duo has a big mouth," 38 said.

Oh shit, Two thought. The methane snow voice. Cold, soft and deadly. He looked and found 38's lips pressed into a thin, angry line, eyes the coldest Two could remember. Oh shit, he thought. He's mad. It was too late to stop, though. "I-- I'm sorry. I wasn't-- I was afraid. I--Wait." He put his fingers over 38's lips as they opened. "Please, let me finish. I was afraid you'd leave me. I still am. I was, um, well, trying to find someone to fall back on when you did. I'm sorry. All I found out was that I couldn't. Find anyone, I mean. I'm sorry. I didn't know you knew. I swear, if I had I would have stopped. I didn't want to--" What? He wondered. Hurt him? It didn't matter. He had. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry--"

Suddenly he realized that every time he'd come home, 38 had known -- had it thrown in his face when Two had walked in after a night out and kissed him hello. "Oh, shit, 38," he whispered. "I didn't know... I'm sorry."

38 stared at him, thinking. Two could see the narrowed eyes that said 38 was sorting through what he wanted to say. He also saw the little facial twitches that said 38 was thinking very hard about what he was going to say, which meant he wasn't sure about his self-control. Which was bad. Two saw 38's mouth open and steeled himself for the angry words.

"Why did you think I would leave you?"

Two stared at him, unable to speak. 38's eyes were still angry, but his voice had been quiet and tainted with confusion. "Because... Because none of the others wanted me either, why should you? And it was Duo you fell in love with in the sim, not me. And--" Two stopped as 38 laid a finger against his lips.

"Damn it, Two. Why can't you understand." Two flinched as 38 grabbed him by the shoulders. "I am not like the others. You are not like Duo. I don't want you to be like Duo. It was a poor copy of him I fell in love with in the simulation, but it's you I love in real life." 38 frowned. He touched a finger to the corner of Two's left eye, wiping away tears Two hadn't known were there. "He is as attractive as you, and he has the same sense of humor, and I think he's a little older and wiser--"

"You love me?" Two blurted out, shocked. "After I--" He couldn't say it.

The corners of 38's lips pulled up a fraction of a centimeter as he pulled Two against him. "You taught me I could be more than what they made me to be, and that there is more to life than a mission. All the things Duo taught Heero. Why shouldn't I love you?"

He smiled, Two thought. His chest suddenly felt tight. Not because 38 was holding him close, but because the way 38 said it, he had trouble doubting. "Promise?"

"Zutto." 38 looked up at him.

"I thought you were mad at me when I told you."

"I was mad at Duo. He was supposed to keep it a secret." 38 paused. "I didn't say anything about... the others because I was afraid you were going to leave me. I thought you weren't happy. You didn't seem to enjoy anything I tried when we--"

"Leave you?" Two laid his head against 38's. "Baka-yarou," he whispered. "Both of us." He nodded, his cheek rubbing against 38's temple. "Um..."

"Nn?"

"Um, when we get back to L1, d'ya think we could, uh..."

"Celebrate?" 38 suggested.

"Uh, well, yeah. Kinda. But... could you..." Two stared down at him for a second, uncertain.

The right corner of 38's lips twitched up further. "Aa. I know what you want" He slid his hands down, fingers moving under the waistband of Two's pants.

"No!" Two pulled away, then realized that distance wasn't what he wanted either. "No. Not that. Just... hold me?"

38 stared at him, eyebrows up in surprise. "But what about this?" He ran his fingers lightly across the front of Two's pants, tracing the hardness there.

"Please. I'm trying to think with my head and my heart for once." Like Duo told me, Two thought. He is older and wiser, I guess. "I want that, but I need this."

Silence, then, "Aa." 38 wrapped his arms around Two and began rubbing his back.

Two relaxed, feeling his lover's head resting against his shoulder, the soft breath on his neck. Then he heard and felt something he'd never felt before. At first he thought it was the ventilation system, but it stumbled and surged again in a way the ventilation system never had. Two lifted his head.

"What is it?" 38 asked.

"I think... I think I'm purring," Two said, his voice dazed.

"Aa." 38 pulled Two closer against him and sighed contentedly.

--------------------

THUD! THUD! THUD! "Hey, you two about done in there?" The door muffled Duo's voice. "We rounded up the scientists and got the rest of the team back on the shuttle. They're beginning to wonder where you are."

"Back to reality," Two sighed.

"Nn. This could be reality. We could do this even if the room is bugged."

Two grinned. "Yeah." He let them come apart, but kept 38's hand in his. "It's unlocked," he shouted.

The door opened and Duo walked in, frowning. "I thought..."

"What?" Two asked, smiling innocently. "You thought I'd be too dumb to take your advice?"

"No. Just... Well, if it'd been Heero and me who'd been, uh, restrained, y'know, for a week... Well, never mind. I did talk to Une about the cameras. She said she'd shut off them off as soon as we had the Rejects rounded up, but that I couldn't tell you until it was over." He grinned. "So when you get back you can--"

"Hentai," Two snapped, interrupting him.

38 tugged Two's hand. "Coming?" he asked.

"That probably wasn't the best thing to say," Two muttered. But Duo only smiled the innocent smile again and held the door for them. At least, Two thought, we'll have privacy in our room from now on.

--------------------

-- 18:30 05 October AC 202 --

Duo leaned against the door, watching as Two adjusted his pants and walked from the urinal to the sink. He'd been a bit disconcerted when they'd arrived at HQ to find he and Two had both dressed in dark blue jeans and identical white shirts. Two had insisted it was just a coincidence and had offered to go change, but Duo had told him it was okay, just weird. He'd just seen proof that they were wearing different underwear. Two's boxers were grey instead of black. That made him feel better.

"So," he said. "Busy morning?"

"Huh?" Two lathered up his hands under the water, rinsed them off and moved to the air dryer next to Duo.

"You're walking like you've been riding a horse for a week."

Two rubbed his hands under the stream of warm air and frowned at Duo. "Nani?"

"Or been ridden like one?"

Two's eyes widened slightly. "Oh. Uh." He looked down at his hands. "No. Busy afternoon. We were both dead tired when we got back this morning."

"And then..." Was that a blush on Two's face? Duo wondered. Was it that kinky?

"Uh, well, we just held each other until we fell asleep, like the time when he woke up from the sim, except we just slept this time." He looked at Duo, suddenly unashamed. "I never realized it could feel so good to just have him hold me. Is it like that with you and Heero?"

Duo nodded. "Oh yeah. Holding is least as good as the sex, and lasts a lot longer with a lot less effort." He waited for a few seconds, then added, "Speaking of which, this afternoon?"

Two looked down at his hands again. The dryer had stopped ten seconds earlier but he was still rubbing them under it. He hit the button again, not because his hands were still wet, but to give him something to look at besides Duo. "Did you, uh, talk to him about our, uh, what we talked about? Y'know, the less gentle bit?"

"No." Two looked up at him and Duo saw the disbelief. "I promise. I mentioned it to Heero while you two were alone, but I didn't say a word to anyone else."

"I, uh, I woke up and... he'd taken down the shower curtain rod put it behind my neck and tied my wrists to it with bathrobe ties, about a foot from my head and, uh... well... he was careful, but he wasn't gentle and..." This time Duo was certain he was blushing. "And that's all you're getting from me you hentai! What Hiroshi and I do when we're alone is none of your fucking business." Two smiled, remembering.

Duo decided it was pleasantly surprising how quickly Two figured out what was important -- and what was private -- once he started thinking about what he really wanted. He didn't really want the details, so he changed the subject. "Hiroshi?" He grinned. He knew the answer, but it would be fun to hear it.

Two shrugged. "Might as well get used to our new names. I like it a Hell of a lot better than '38'." He grinned. "And it sounds kinda sexy." He suddenly realized the dryer had stopped again. He shrugged again and reached for the door.

Duo laid a hand on his shoulder, frowning. "Wait a minute. You said your arms were tied to the broomstick or your wrists?"

"Uh-- wrists."

"Shit. And you were propped up on the pillows your head was up and you were looking at him while he did it?"

Two nodded, uncertain.

"And he pushed your knees up beside your elbows and he kept bringing you both close but--"

"Damn it. You said they'd turned the cameras off, you--"

"That hypocritical Japanese bastard," Duo snapped, stomping his foot on the tile floor. "He was giving me such a hard time for 'interfering' and damn him if he didn't go do the same thing."

Two blinked.

Duo growled softly in his throat. "I'm gonna make him pay for this."

"Heero..."

"Apparently had a little chat with Thirty-- uh, Hiroshi on the trip back."

"Oh." Two's mouth fell open. "Oh! You mean..." He grinned suddenly. "Any more secrets I might find fun?"

"Hentai."

"Yeah. Takes one to know one." He stood for a moment, running his tongue over his lips, thinking. "How about we..."

Thirty seconds later, Duo slapped Two on the back, grinning as they walked into the hall. "Y'know, Duane, I think I could get to like having a little brother... even if you are a bondage freak."

"Say what you want, bro', but where did Heero get the idea he gave Hiroshi? Hmm?"

Duo sighed. He had a feeling there would always be times when having a little brother would have its downside. "Well, I was thinking..." He trailed off as they approached Heero and 38 -- no, Hiroshi, he told himself. Gotta start thinking of him as Hiroshi.

"Thinking?" Heero asked.

"Shut up, you hypocritical bastard," Duane snapped.

"Yeah, giving Duo a hard time for 'interfering' when you were telling stories to Hiroshi," Duo snarled. "Guess which one of us is Duo."

Heero looked at Hiroshi, then at them, thoughtful. "Or what?"

"Guess wrong and you get done to you what Hiroshi did to Duane this afternoon," Duo said.

"And no sniffing. We know you can tell us apart by how we smell," Duane added.

"And hurry up," Duo added. "You two are taking us out to dinner tonight to make up for sneaking around behind our backs."

Heero looked from one Duo to the other, then pointed. "You."

"Wrong," Duo crowed. "You lose."

"Prove it," Heero said, smiling faintly.

Duo grabbed Heero and kissed him. Eventually, he noticed Duane tapping him on the shoulder, mumbling something about dinner -- and pulled away from Heero's tongue, grinning. "Proof enough?"

"Aa. You're Duo." Heero drew him close again and whispered, "But who says I lost?" He kissed Duo on the cheek and smirked. "Whatever they did, it must have been fun. Didn't you see how he was walking?"

--------------------

[1] 'tte -- a colloquial contraction for "to itte", roughly meaning, "it's called" or "so called".

[2] tsuyoi -- an adjective meaning "strong" with a sense of "solid" or "durable".

[3] aishite'ru n'da zo -- "ai shite iru", typically translated, "I love you," is a progressive (ongoing) verb, so it has a sense of permanence about it. "n'da" applies emphasis to the statement ("I love you, you know" or "For sure, I love you."). The particle "zo" is a strong, emphatic particle. (I avoided "yo" as the emphatic because it can also carry the sense, "I'm telling you something you didn't know." By using "zo", Duo subtly implies, "... and you know I love you, so quit being silly.")

[4] megumareru -- to be blessed with, to be rich in -- Heero didn't think it would be right to be "glad" someone else hurt if he did. Megumarete'ru (the progressive conjugation of megumareru) made sense, though. (See also, "Listening" in the original S&F.)

--------------------

"Hope Has A Place" -- from Enya's album, "The Memory Of Trees"

One look at love and you may see
It weaves a web over mystery.
All ravelled threads can rend apart
For hope has a place in the lover's heart.
Hope has a place in a lover's heart.

Whispering world, a sigh of sighs,
The ebb and the flow of the ocean tides.
One breath, one word may end or may start
A hope in a place of the lover's heart.
Hope has a place in a lover's heart.

Look to love and you may dream,
And if it should leave then give it wings.
But if such a love is meant to be;
Hope is home, and the heart is free

Under the heavens we journey far,
On roads of life we're the wanderers,
So let love rise, so let love depart,
Let hope have a place in the lover's heart.
Hope has a place in a lover's heart.

Look to love and you may dream,
And if it should leave then give it wings.
But if such a love is meant to be;
Hope is home, and the heart is free.
Hope is home, and the heart is free.

"True Romance" -- from Sophie B. Hawkins' album, "Whaler"

Try
To make me run away
I will only hang around and wait
For you
I could never fall too fast
I found my true love at last

In you
And it would make me cry
If you should ever leave my side
Darling put your hand in mine
Come with me now we can fly
To paradise
How can we doubt it
We can't live without it
So fine

Come
Into my open wounds
Don't ask me if I'd die for you
Darling it's not worth living
Under any other circumstance
This is a true
This is a true romance