5-6-2001

Title: Pavlov’s Dog, Swimming In A Sea Of Stars
Author: Robert (robert2413us@yahoo.com)
Category: drama, crime, romance
Rating: R
Warnings: serious violence, shonen-ai, yaoi, mild lemon, language
Pairings: 2x1
Feedback: welcomed at the above address

Notes: ‘...’ = thoughts

Legalities: I don’t own the characters. This story is not for profit.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Bonnejeanne, FractalForge, and Vonecia (in alphabetical order) for helpful and detailed C&C.

Draft 1.5 5/5/01

~Pavlov’s Dog, Swimming In A Sea Of Stars~

(Sequel to “Interlude: The Mile-High Club”)

A GW Fanfic by Robert

[This fic is the third in a series that began with “Lamb” and continued with “Interlude: The Mile-High Club.”]

======

The seemingly endless trip from Nepal was finally over.  The two ex-pilots arrived grubby, travel-worn, and, to their fellow disembarking passengers, inexplicably happy. Duo was virtually glowing, and Heero’s face wore something resembling a smile. Of course, except for one observant flight attendant, no one knew how the boys had occupied themselves on the trip, or that the “mile-high club” now boasted two freshly-minted, exceedingly athletic members.

The two spent a week decompressing in Duo’s little apartment before dealing with Heero’s current state of unemployment. They spent an inordinate amount of that time in bed, continuing to make up for two years of lost opportunities.

It didn’t take Heero long to get comfortable living at Duo’s place. The weight set in the living room and the paperback mysteries on the bookshelf started to seem like old friends. But Duo was due back at MacTavish Salvage, and they had some important decisions to make.

“Hmmm,” said Duo. “There’s not too much in the help-wanted ads for ex-Buddhist-monks. But I think I know an outfit that’s looking for a few competent ex-military people.”

“You mean the Preventers, I presume,” said Heero. “I think I remember enough of my old skills to make myself useful to them. But you would have to apply too. Otherwise, we’d be separated, and that’s the worst idea I’ve had in...”

Duo could virtually see the wheels clicking in Heero’s brain.

“...one year, eleven months, and twenty-four days.”

“OK, Heero,” acquiesced Duo. “I’m willing to give it a shot if you are. I think I can get Wufei to help us get in. As you know, he and I had a teeny little misunderstanding shortly after you left, but we’re all better now, thank you.

“I’m just wondering if it’s really a good idea for you to do this, though,” continued Duo. “You’re certainly not the same person you were two years ago. Are you sure you really want to go back to the military life?”

“The Preventers are more like peacekeepers, are they not?” asked Heero. “I think I’ll be alright if I don’t have to get back into a mobile suit and start killing again.”

“Well, the mobile suits are just scrap and junk now,” observed Duo. “But the time will probably come when we’ll have to start shooting. There are still bad guys out there.”

“I am willing to deal with that when it happens,” replied Heero. “Meanwhile, I think we should go ahead and apply.”

======

Wufei’s intervention, plus Une and Noin’s combat-honed appreciation of the ex-pilots’ skills, quickly got them a place in the Preventers’ officer training program. The academy was located at the main Preventers headquarters in Vienna and required the two young men to give up Duo’s cozy apartment in the U.S. in favor of a shared flat on base in Austria, close to the Sanc kingdom.

The Preventers’ command hierarchy was well aware of Heero and Duo’s relationship. Like all other enlightened military organizations, it did not discriminate against same-sex couples in any way. In fact, there were certain high-ranking officers who believed that the Spartan ideal of lovers fighting side-by-side improved the efficiency of the corps. Accordingly, Heero and Duo were assigned to work together after they had satisfactorily completed their training, three months after moving to Vienna. Fall had turned into a chilly Central European winter when they faced Noin, ready to take on their first real assignment.

Special Director Noin didn’t much care for her desk job, but tolerated it as unavoidable. The massive antique mahogany desk that separated her from the ex-pilots lent an air of authority and gravity to the briefing.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “we have received word that Lucinda Peacecraft-Smyth has disappeared. She is a six-year-old child who doesn’t yet attend school, so she is almost always at the Peacecraft-Smyth estate in Maiernigg. Ordinarily, this sort of thing would be entirely within the jurisdiction of the local authorities within the Sanc kingdom, but Lucinda is also Relena Peacecraft’s second cousin. We therefore must accept the possibility that the disappearance is politically motivated. Perhaps someone with a grudge against Relena Peacecraft has chosen this means to attack her indirectly. Your mission, therefore, is to proceed immediately to the Peacecraft-Smyth estate as political observers. You will determine if there is a political dimension to this disappearance, and you will report to me immediately if there is. Meanwhile, please offer the local authorities any assistance you can.”

M’am,” said Heero, “our training is military. We have no special competence in criminology or detective work. I want to be very clear on the parameters of our mission.”

“I don’t expect you to solve this case,” replied Noin. “Leave that to the local detectives as much as possible. You are to assist them, and to work with them to try to determine if any terrorist, military or political group was involved. If so, the Preventers will have to intervene. Is that understood?”

“Yes M’am,” replied Heero.

“I’ll contact the local authorities and tell them to expect you. Good luck, gentlemen.”

=======

The Peacecraft-Smyth estate consisted of a four hundred year old mansion of stone and mortar, standing on a large plot of mostly wooded land. The manor itself was surrounded by a half-hectare of lawn, whose smoothly groomed expanse was interrupted by ornate flowerbeds and phantasmagorically trimmed hedges. The overall effect was that of old money, indulging its eccentricities with an almost reckless self-confidence.

Winter had done its expected work on the landscaping. The lawn was a brownish green, awaiting the arrival of a still-distant spring, and the flowerbeds had been covered with protective tarp. There were occasional piles of sooty, half-melted snow sitting on the frozen ground. Beyond the lawn’s perimeter, the leafless trees stood skeletally in the winter afternoon’s half-light, their trunks and branches merging into a gloomy tangle in the depths of the woodland.

Heero and Duo arrived shortly after the local authorities, who had been busy interviewing the family and servants. The two young men were greeted at the door by a gray-haired cop in his mid 50s.

Aah...you must be Maxwell and Yuy. Please come in,” said the officer, offering his hand in turn to each of the Preventers. “I’m Detective-Inspector Johann Himmelfarb.

Heero didn’t waste any time. “Detective-Inspector,” he said, acknowledging the introduction with a brief nod. His eyes flicked around the room, briskly absorbing the understated opulence of the interior décor. “Can you tell me what you’ve learned so far?”

“What is it you want to know?” countered Himmelfarb. “The Preventers liaison told me you were coming to investigate possible political aspects of the case. I’m not altogether certain what that means, or why the Preventers need to be involved in a local matter.”

Duo fell into the unaccustomed role of peacemaker. “Not to worry—we’re not trying to step on anyone’s toes here. We’re not glory-hounds,” he said. “As you surely know, Lucinda Peacecraft-Smyth is a second cousin of Relena Peacecraft. Relena has plenty of political enemies, and Special Director Noin thought this disappearance might have political overtones. Maybe someone is trying to get to Relena by attacking her extended family. We don’t know yet, but we want to be involved in case Director Noin is right. We’re happy to offer you any assistance we can.”

‘Hmmm. Perhaps these boys are not as politically naive as they look,’ thought Himmelfarb. ‘I would have thought that ex-pilots like these would have egos as big as their Gundams, but they’re handling themselves well so far. I probably shouldn’t give them a hard time unless they provoke me.’

Duo was gratified that Himmelfarb looked mollified. “Alright, fair enough—this is what we know so far,” said Himmelfarb. “Mr. Peacecraft-Smyth is Chairman of Smyth Industries, and he left for his office routinely this morning at 08:30.”

Aah...’ thought Heero, ‘...this must be the same Smyth Industries that was alleged to be a major munitions maker during the war. Supposedly, they would sell to anyone with hard currency. OZ, White Fang, the Alliance...it didn’t really matter to them as long as the money was good.’

“When I look around here, I’m most impressed,” observed Heero to Himmelfarb. “It seems that war paid very well indeed.”

“Well, be that as it may,” replied Himmelfarb, “they seem to have adapted to peace with no problem at all. They still have their hands in a lot of businesses—sophisticated organic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, even vehicles.”

‘Time to loosen up a bit,’ thought Himmelfarb. ‘These guys will work more smoothly with us if they know I’m not about to bust their balls.’

He allowed himself a smile. “In fact,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one of those little Aston-Smyth JA800s. Those babies are fast!”

“Considering what we get paid as Preventers, a bright red JA800 is just a dream to me,” said Duo. “But yeah, I hear ya!”

That was all the small talk that Himmelfarb was willing to tolerate. “Mrs. Peacecraft-Smyth had a social engagement in mid-morning—her bridge club,” he said, steering the briefing back to business. “Evidently Mrs. Peacecraft-Smyth was an enthusiastic and expert bridge player. So at 10:00 Lucinda was left alone with the housekeeper, a Mrs. Kleindienst.

“According to Mrs. Kleindienst, she checked on Lucinda in her bedroom at 10:30, and everything was fine. She was playing with her toy stuffed animals and her dollhouse. At noon, the housekeeper called Lucinda for lunch, and there was no answer. She went upstairs to Lucinda’s room, and the girl was missing. She searched the house and the immediate grounds and there was no sign of her. She called Mr. Peacecraft-Smythe at the office, and he immediately called us.

“We did a thorough search of the house and grounds, but we found no sign of the girl and no evidence of what might have happened to her. Since it was a suspected kidnapping, word immediately went out on the wire to regional law enforcement. I imagine that’s when the Preventers picked it up.”

“Has there been any word from a kidnapper? Any ransom demand?” asked Heero.

“Not yet,” said Himmelfarb. “But it’s only been three hours since she’s been missing. She may have just wandered off, although that’s very unlikely—that would be completely inconsistent with her personality and usual behavior.”

“What’s your next step?” asked Duo.

“We’re bringing in some dogs to help do a wider search,” replied Himmelfarb. “They should be here within half an hour. There’s thirty hectares of woods out there just within the estate, and most of it is tangled up with underbrush. We could spend days in there and walk within ten feet of her and never see a thing. But we have some very well-trained tracking dogs, and, with any luck, they can pick up her scent and give us some idea where she went.”

Duo had some time to think about the situation and to watch Heero. He was getting some strange vibes from the taciturn pilot. Duo took Heero aside.

“You look a little off-balance,” said Duo quietly. After all, it was Heero’s first encounter as a Preventer with a potentially tragic case involving civilians. Given Heero’s recent history, Duo was concerned about the mental well being of his partner.

“I’ll be alright,” said Heero, not entirely convincingly. “Somehow, this whole situation just feels odd. But it shouldn’t bother me. I just need to focus.”

“Why don’t you read the case file while you’re waiting?” suggested Himmelfarb to the two Preventers. “We haven’t been able to assemble a whole lot in three hours, but you’re welcome to examine what we have.”

“Thank you, Detective-Inspector,” replied Heero. “Duo and I will study the files until the dogs arrive.”

Twenty minutes later, three big dogs—two 40-kilo Rottweilers and a German shepherd—arrived with Anton Kohl, who was not only the dogs’ trainer but also the officer in charge of the K-9 corps. Upon being introduced to the beautiful female German shepherd by Kohl, Duo immediately took to the noble animal. “Awww, good girl,” crooned Duo, stroking the dog’s back and scratching behind her ears. The feeling was evidently mutual, because the dog looked up at Duo and started licking his hand.

He looked up her trainer. “What’s her name?” he asked.

“Peggy,” replied Anton.

“Peggy? Isn’t that sort of an unusual name for a German shepherd?” asked Duo.

“I named her after Peggy Lee,” said Anton. “She was an old-time American torch singer who was always singing bluesy songs about men who got away. This pooch’s job is looking for people who get away and finding ‘em. So she’s really the lady Peggy Lee wished she were. Aren’t you, girl?” he said, stroking the dog’s shiny coat.

“That was before the colonies, wasn’t it?” remarked Duo. “Mid 20th century? Every once in awhile I like to kick back with an old movie from back then. Tracy and Hepburn. Bogart and Bacall. Those old stars sure had class...”

Himmelfarb interrupted the socializing. “OK, enough reminiscing,” he said. “People, let’s get to work searching the woods before the daylight fails. I’ll go with Marshall and take the 120-degree arc centered north. Kohl, you go with Berger and take the southeast arc. Maxwell, since Peggy seems to like you so much, why don’t you and Yuy take her and work the southwest arc?”

Himmelfarb reached behind him and held up a little toy animal. “Lucinda loved stuffed toy animals and she has a big collection up in her bedroom,” he explained. “According to Mrs. Kleindienst, this little toy guinea pig was one of her favorites, so let your dog get Lucinda’s scent off it before you start out.”

“Peggy is well trained,” said Kohl. “She’ll let you know if she’s following a scent. Just let her take the lead.”

“Got it,” said Duo.

After giving Peggy a chance to become familiarized with the missing girl’s scent, Heero and Duo set off with the leashed dog towards the edge of the woods southwest of the house. Peggy walked quickly, nose to the ground, scanning for a trail. After traversing about 70 degrees of the arc, she barked and pulled at her leash, urging the two Preventers into the woods.

“Heero!” exclaimed Duo. “I think she’s found something. Let’s go!”

Peggy pulled hard on the leash, leading the two young men through the thick, denuded underbrush. Dead leaves and sticks crunched underfoot as Duo and Heero pushed their way through the dense growth. The sun was low on the horizon, and the light was already dim under the spiderweb-like maze of leafless branches that formed a canopy above their heads. They were constantly dodging obstacles, following Peggy over rocks, fallen branches, and patches of unmelted snow left over from a month-old storm.

Peggy kept panting and pulling hard on the leash. Clearly, she was sensing something as she dragged the two Preventers into the dimming light.

The search party heard the brook before they saw it. Although its banks were covered with ice that extended partway into the water, the center was open and frigid water ran swiftly through it, bubbling and swirling against the rocks. Peggy sniffed anxiously back and forth, but it seemed that the trail ended there.

“We’re going to have to cross this,” said Heero. “I see a fallen tree bridging it about thirty meters upstream. I hope your balance is good.”

“Heero, give me a little credit, will ya,” replied Duo. “Somehow I managed to pilot Deathscythe in zero-gee. I’m not gonna worry about slipping off a damn log!”

True to his word, Duo led the way, coaxing a reluctant Peggy to cross behind him. Heero followed up to the rear. “Seek, girl!” Duo told Peggy, and the well-trained German shepherd aimed her nose toward the ground and started padding down the brook’s bank, back toward where the trail first disappeared. About 25 meters downstream, her ears pricked up, she barked, and then pulled on the leash again. “She got it!” exclaimed Duo.

The dog moved rapidly through the woods for another 40 meters. Then, suddenly, she stopped short.

“Merciful Jesus Christ in heaven!” gasped Duo in horror.

Heero felt his emotions spiraling out of control. He had seen dozens, if not hundreds, of similar scenes during the war. But those were soldiers, and that was before his conditioning started to break down. He watched in icy detachment as the contents of his stomach spewed onto the frozen ground in spasm after spasm.

In the dim light of the woods, the boys saw something that looked like a broken rag doll. What was lying there seemed to bear little relationship to the innocent little girl who had loved to play with dolls and toy animals. Her water-soaked frock was tattered and frayed. It was pulled away from her lower body, which was bruised and bleeding from some sort of obscene, unspeakable violation. Two meters from Lucinda’s pathetic remains, a filthy toy dog was resting on the ground. Part of its white stuffing protruded from a violent tear in its belly, and one little button-eye was missing.

Duo’s shock was interrupted by a howl of anguish from his lover. It sounded like something that had come from the deepest, animal part of him, beyond the borders of rationality. Duo could never remember having been so frightened by a sound, or so frightened for the man he cared about more than anything else in his life. Startled, Peggy whimpered and pulled against her leash. She had never heard this sound from a human before, either.

“Heero!” shouted Duo. Dragging Peggy behind him, he ran to his shaken partner and put his leash-free arm around Heero’s trembling shoulders.

Trying to bring himself back under control, Heero began the calming, deep-breathing exercises he had learned at the monastery. “Oh my god, Duo!” he panted, as much to himself as to his partner, and forced himself to take deep, slow breaths.

“Heero—you’ve got to pull yourself together!” pleaded Duo. “We need to deal with this situation as officers. You can’t fall apart now!”

Heero’s face was still pale, but he seemed calmer. “I’m sorry, Duo,” he said. “This...this scene has caused me great pain. There are personal reasons. But you’re right, of course. We have a duty to perform. Call Himmelfarb.”

‘Oh crap,’ thought Duo, ‘this isn’t good. I’d hoped Heero’s mood swings were getting better, but that one was nasty and we’ve got a job to do.’

Duo dialed Himmelfarb’s number on his cellphone. “Himmelfarb! This is Duo. Very bad news. We’ve found her, and she’s dead. Looks like a sexual assault. Very ugly. You’re going to need a forensic team in here. We’re not trained in that sort of thing, so all we can do is to stay away from the body and not disturb the scene.”

Duo held the phone away from his head for a moment. “Heero! What are the coordinates here?” he asked.

Heero pulled out the mobile GPS receiver from his kit and read off the latitude and longitude to Duo, who repeated the numbers to Himmelfarb. “OK, Himmelfarb, we’ll stay right here until your team arrives,” Duo said. “Oh, by the way, you can tell forensics to ignore the recycled lunch on the ground. That was me. Civilian casualties look bad enough from the cockpit of a mobile suit, but it’s amazing how much worse they look when you’re up close. 45 minutes? All right—see you then.”

“Forensics will be here in less than an hour, Heero,” Duo informed his partner. “Meanwhile, there’s really nothing more we can do but wait. We need to keep the scene as unspoiled as possible.”

“Duo,” said Heero angrily, “why did you tell them that you lost your lunch? I thought you never lied. You don’t have to protect me. I mean, why is that so important?”

“Well, I never lie if it would hurt someone else or give me an unfair advantage,” explained Duo. “But this was just a little white lie, and I don’t feel bad about it at all.

“In fact, I think it’s important I said it because Noin and Une are watching you. There are rumors running around headquarters that you cracked up after the war, and I don’t want to give them any ammunition to use against you if they want to blow you out of this job. As far as our commanders go, you still have to come across as the perfect soldier. I’m just the crazy baka anyway, so I can get away with a little regurgitation in the normal course of business. But with you, they’d interpret it as a sign that something wasn’t right, just because you never did stuff like that back in the war. They wouldn’t understand that it’s the downside of struggling to grow, or that I like you a thousand times better now than the way you were then.”

“You know, Duo, maybe I was better off then,” sighed Heero. “I may have been an incomplete human being, but at least I had my self-respect and a sense of purpose.”

“These things that happen to you—they’re just growing pains,” replied Duo. “Every time you show some human weakness and true emotion, a little bit more of that old conditioning cracks and breaks away. That’s a good thing, Heero. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Well, I am embarrassed, Duo,” said Heero petulantly. “I hate not being in control.”

“Just give it time,” said Duo. “What you’re doing is really difficult. Every day you grow, and...” Duo squeezed Heero’s shoulders. “Every day I love you more.”

“I don’t know why you even tolerate my weaknesses,” replied Heero.

“C’mon Heero, don’t even go there. Just cut the crap!” replied Duo testily. “You know we’re bound together by one of those invisible red ribbons. I put up with you because...well, there doesn’t have to be any ‘because’. There’s just us.”

Hn,” observed Heero.

‘When you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bullshit,’ thought Duo in frustration. ‘There’s no way I could really put into words how I feel about him. I’ll just have to keep on keepin’ on and hope that, somehow, he understands...’

=======

The forensic team had arrived as promised and had gone about its business. There are few things sadder than a child-sized body bag, particularly when it is fulfilling its intended purpose. But an autopsy was unavoidable, so Lucinda left the place of her death ignominiously, surrounded by darkness.

Heero and Duo returned to Preventer headquarters to make their preliminary report and to await the results of the autopsy. Around 20:00 Duo’s phone rang; it was Himmelfarb.

“Well, Duo, we have some good news—as if any news can be considered good in this situation,” reported Himmelfarb. “The monster who did this thing left a calling card. We have a semen sample, and that means we could do DNA matching.”

Starting in AC110, every child born under ordinary circumstances was required to supply a DNA sample for national databases. Privacy advocates had screamed at first, but after the databases had yielded the solution of some particularly brutal crimes, DNA matching became as accepted and ubiquitous as fingerprinting had been two centuries earlier. Some ninety years after the databases had first been established, the results were more reliable and quicker than fingerprint matching had ever been.

“We already have a match,” continued Himmelfarb. “One Joseph Berger. He lives at 29 Grabingerstrasse, flat 3B, in Wuermla. I think it would be a good idea if you and Heero accompanied us as political liaisons. We still don’t know what Berger’s motivation might have been. Meet us at the corner of Grabingerstrasse and Kirchenstrasse at 21:00. It’s about two blocks from Berger’s flat. We’ll have a search warrant and we’ll go together on foot from there. Be discreet—we don’t want him to run.”

=======

An hour later, Himmelfarb’s crew, Heero, and Duo made their way up the stairs to flat 3B. The lights were off but Himmelfarb pounded on the door anyway. “Joseph Berger! Open up! Police!” he shouted.

There was no response. “I think I can help,” said Duo. “You have a search warrant, right? No need to break down the door; lock picking is one of my specialties.”

Looking somewhat embarrassed, Duo pulled out a series of small picks from his braid. “I keep them there for sentimental reasons,” he explained to the bemused officers.

In a few moments, Duo had the door open and the search party entered Berger’s gloomy flat. “Lock the door behind you and don’t turn on the lights. Work with your flashlights only,” commanded Himmelfarb. “If our suspect comes home unexpectedly, we want everything to seem normal from the outside. We don’t want to scare him off.”

The officers started a through search of the untidy flat. There were the usual artifacts of a bachelor’s existence, but nothing incriminating. There was, however, a locked closet.

“Duo, would you do the honors?” asked Himmelfarb.

Duo picked the flimsy lock in record time, and opened the door. “Christ!” he exclaimed as he got his first look at the walk-in closet’s contents.

The door might as well have been the portal between a dimension of utterly ordinary banality and the ninth circle of Hell. Every square centimeter of the wall was covered with kiddy-porn—pathetic Lolitas servicing menacing, degenerate adult men. A data terminal and attached printer were installed in the cramped space; Berger evidently did his “research” through the global network.

“Well,” said Himmelfarb dryly, “I think we’ve found our man.”

“I thought I heard something,” murmured Heero. They all immediately shut up. In the abrupt silence, they could all hear the metallic scratching of a key fumbling to engage a lock.

“Take him as soon as he enters the flat,” whispered Himmelfarb. Marshall and Kohl drew their weapons and moved quickly and quietly into position.

The door opened and a man entered the dark flat, still holding his key in his right hand. He pocketed the key and switched on the overhead light.

“Joseph Berger, you are under arrest for the murder of Lucinda Peacecraft-Smyth,” growled Himmelfarb. Berger froze in confusion and dropped the small bag of groceries he had been carrying under his left arm. The officers heard the tinkle of shattering glass and the scrunch of breaking eggs. “What...how...!?” stuttered Berger.

With a snarl of rage, Heero launched himself at Lucinda’s murderer. He would have done severe damage to Berger if it weren’t for Duo’s throwing himself between the two to prevent a debacle. Duo went down hard as Heero collided with him, and Heero’s face turned white with shock when he realized what he’d done to his slender partner. In the resulting confusion, Berger turned to flee the flat, but was tackled and handcuffed by Marshall and Kohl.

Jesus, Heero! That hurt!” moaned Duo as he lay sprawled on the floor. “What’s gotten into you, anyway!?

“Duo—are you alright!?” mumbled Heero, furious at himself for his loss of control and his loss of face in front of his colleagues.

Duo inspected himself cautiously. “Well, nothing’s broken, but I’m going to have some major bruises tomorrow,” he said. He got on his feet gingerly. “Ow! Shit! You don’t know your own strength, Heero.”

The ringing of Himmelfarb’s cellphone interrupted Duo, but he couldn’t make out Himmelfarb’s lengthy, murmured conversation. He finally broke the connection, looking grimly satisfied.

“Well, everything’s pretty much fallen into place,” he told the assembled officers, making sure that Berger heard every word. “Our database mining revealed that Berger was formerly married to Mrs. Kleindienst’s sister. They divorced two years ago.

“We sent a detective to confront Mrs. Kleindienst back at the Peacecraft-Smyth estate. It wasn’t hard to get her to spill once she found out that Lucinda was dead. Evidently Berger came to her to propose a kidnapping plot. All she had to do was to leave the front door unlocked and to hear nothing when he entered the house and grabbed the child. In return he promised her a share of the ransom.”

Himmelfarb turned and looked contemptuously at Berger.

“Of course, he was just using her to get to the child,” he continued. “He never intended to carry out his side of the bargain, or to go through with a ransom plot at all. The only thing on his mind was molesting her.”

Berger was sweating. “No! It wasn’t that way at all. I swear!” he blathered. Himmelfarb glared at him.

“You moron!” he snared. “You’re nailed. We have semen samples. We have a DNA match. You’re never going to see the outside of a prison again. And if I had the choice, you’d be dangling on the end of a rope. But we’re civilized now. No more death penalty—too inhumane.

“You know, there’s only one thing that gives me comfort. I think your time in prison is going to be very short. In cases like yours it never takes long before some inmate decides to deliver a little rough justice. It’s almost a matter of honor with those guys,” he finished, looking grimly satisfied. Berger, on the other hand, looked like someone has just kicked him in the gut.

Himmelfarb turned back to address Heero and Duo. “It wasn’t a bad plan. He assumed he could count on Mrs. Kleindienst’s silence because she was involved up to her eyeballs. But he didn’t consider two things: first, that the child wouldn’t survive the rape, and second, that Mrs. Kleindienst had a conscience and some degree of love for Lucinda.”

He turned around to face to Berger, who was cringing away from him. “After all,” said Himmelfarb, revulsion painted on his face, “you told her that Lucinda wouldn’t get hurt.”

Addressing Marshall and Kohl, he ordered, “Take this piece of shit out of here.”

The two officers marched Berger out the door to await his inevitable fate. Meanwhile, Duo took Himmelfarb aside. “Detective-Inspector, a word if you will,” said Duo. “You know who Heero is, of course.”

“Yeah,” replied Himmelfarb. “He’s the kid who saved our collective asses—twice. You don’t see genuine war heroes too often but Heero certainly qualifies.”

“What are you doing, Duo?” interrupted Heero. The drift of the conversation was making him distinctly uncomfortable.

“Just trying to reach an understanding with a fan of yours,” replied Duo. He turned back to Himmelfarb.

“Heero went through a lot of shit in the war, and every once in a while it still gets to him. Like tonight, when he went off on Berger and I got in his way. Look, Heero’s a good man, and I’d appreciate it if you left that little incident off your report.”

“Duo!” said Heero, tightly.

“No problem,” replied Himmelfarb. “For a while I was in the military with the Treize Faction, so I’ve seen how mobile suit combat can affect good people. I don’t think anyone with a conscience can go through that experience that without taking a few nightmares with him when he leaves.”

Heero just stared at the floor, mortified.

“I think you gentlemen can go home now,” said Himmelfarb. “There’s no evidence that there’s any political aspect to this case at all. It was just one freak and one greedy, naïve woman. And one poor, dead little girl.”

“Thanks, Detective-Inspector,” said Duo.

“Thank you for your understanding,” added Heero tensely. Only Duo could sense how humiliating it was for Heero to have to thank a fellow officer for overlooking his screw-up. The two young men left the depressing flat in a somber mood.

The trip back home seemed to drag on forever. “That was way too easy,” complained Heero morosely. “You love those mystery novels where it takes a whole book to work out who done it, and human cleverness always gets the mystery solved by the end. But it was a computer that nailed that freak Berger. It’s as if humans aren’t even necessary anymore.”

“We were just doing our jobs, Heero,” replied Duo. “The Preventers needed a political liaison with a certain amount of smarts; tag—we were it. You and I are soldiers and pilots. We’re not professional detectives. That was Himmelfarb’s crew’s job, and they did it well. The computer was just a tool for them.”

“As for Berger,” continued Duo, “he got careless and slipped up. I’m surprised he wasn’t caught doing some other bit of nastiness before now. Yeah, I like to read detective stories, and I read a lot of them in the two years when you were gone. But real-world crime is usually much more boring. We should be glad that this one got wrapped up as easily as it did.”

“The whole thing was just humiliating,” grumbled Heero. “Other than your breaking and entering skills, our only contribution was finding that poor little girl. And that was just the luck of the draw. We might just as well have found ourselves assigned to one of the other quadrants. Then we wouldn’t have contributed anything at all. We would’ve been nothing more than Relena’s little functionaries, sitting there with our thumbs up our butts.”

He turned away from Duo in embarrassment. “I bet those cops are laughing about us right now, cracking up about the big bad Preventer who lost his lunch the first time he saw a dead body on the ground.”

“Heero—for God’s sake!” said Duo, getting more and more exasperated with his depressed partner. “Stop beating up on yourself! Given our assignment, we did the best job we could. Noin didn’t ask us to solve the case. She just wanted to know if it had something to do with the Peacecraft family. We can report—accurately report—that the crime had no political motive. So just calm down, guy!”

Hnn,” was Heero’s only reply, and the rest of the long ride home was spent in silence. Duo was becoming progressively more concerned about his partner’s state of mind, knowing that his crumbling wartime conditioning was still capable of causing him major psychological problems.

By the time they got home, Heero was pale and sweating. “Duo, I don’t feel very well at all,” he choked out as he paced restlessly back and forth in their little bedroom. His hands were balled tightly into fists so tight that his fingernails cut little bloody arcs in his palms.

“Heero,” said Duo anxiously, “does this have something to do with your conditioning?”

“I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know!” gasped Heero. Rivulets of sweat were pouring off his face and he started to tremble violently.

Duo was frantic with anxiety. “What do you need, Heero!? How can I help!?

But Heero had gone beyond the point where a rational reply was possible. Without warning, he stripped off his sweat-soaked clothes and threw himself on the bed. Lying there tense and naked, he stared at his standing lover with anguished eyes. His pupils were dilated and his skin was pale.

He sucked air in through his teeth with a little hiss. “Hit me!” he gasped, as a tidal wave of blistering remorse swept through him. “I killed them! I killed them all! Beat it out of me! HURT...ME!”

Duo twisted around, shocked by Heero’s sudden transformation. “Who did you kill?” he demanded. “I don’t understand! What’s happening to you!?

Heero’s face was frozen with guilt. Something foreign in his brain had commandeered his consciousness and yanked it through a pitch-black corridor into a featureless chamber of horrors, cold as death, and perfectly concealed within him. Trapped there, it replayed the murder of small children over and over. There was the one in that bleak wintry woodland, of course, but also the countless others torn apart in the war, the images of their brutal violations repeating like an endless, blathering loop in his memory.

“Make it stop! Make it stop!” he moaned. Images of tattered frocks, bloody limbs, tiny, torn bodies, and blank, dead eyes swirled through him. He was tortured by the image of a cursed carousel’s spinning out-of-control, tilting and weaving in the garish lights of a devil’s carnival. Every wooden horse had been replaced by a child’s broken body, and they were all whipping up and down, dancing to the shrieking music of a broken, gibbering calliope and whirling about like vengeful ghosts summoned up by a Satanic priest at a black mass.

Duo stiffened and looked at his suffering lover in horror. Panicked, he stared directly into Heero’s eyes and gasped out, “Oh sweet Jesus! What’s wrong, Heero!?

Duo’s heart was pounding and he felt overwhelmed with fear. He thought, ‘Oh my God! The last time something like this happened, I lost him for two years. I almost lost him forever. This can’t be happening again! It can’t!’

Blind instinct thrust him to his lover’s side, so quickly he scarcely seemed to move. Throwing himself down beside the bed, he put his arms around Heero’s trembling, exposed form. Duo thought of St. Sebastian, his martyr’s body wounded and bleeding from the sting of myriad arrows. Only this time, the wounds were internal; it was Heero’s psyche that was bleeding.

The words spilled out of him without conscious thought: “Heero! Don’t go! Not there, Heero! Not again!”

Heero stared blankly at the ceiling. “I can’t stand it! They’re all dead! I did it! HURT ME!” he pleaded rawly to his unseen lover.

Horrified, Duo thought, ‘What if Pavlov weren’t just a scientist who conditioned dogs to drool when they heard a bell? What if he were a monster who used his subjects without regard for moral consequences? What if Pavlov’s dog were self-aware? What if Pavlov’s dog had been trained to kill, yet had a pure heart? What if Pavlov’s dog had a brilliant mind, and a conscience, and a will to atone for his sins? What then?’

Acting on purest emotion, he shook Heero’s shoulders and choked out, “NO! I will not hurt you! You don’t deserve to be hurt, Heero!”

He moved his face close to Heero’s. “Heero,” he pleaded, “come back to me. I’m here.”

Duo stroked Heero’s cheek. With all the warmth he was able to muster in his voice, he repeated to his shaken lover, “I’m here.”

Slowly, Heero’s shaking lessened, and he took a few shuddering breaths. “Duo?” he said weakly, finally able to look into his lover’s eyes.

“I’m here, Heero,” came the simple, perfect reply.

Heero reached out and gently pulled Duo, still fully clothed, next to him on the bed. He looked exhausted. He took a wobbly breath and tossed his head as if to expel the darkness. He looked at Duo and gave a tired sigh. “Damn! Every time I think I have this craziness under control, it turns out I really don’t,” he said shakily. “I keep wondering if it’s ever going to stop.”

“It’s getting better, isn’t it?” asked Duo anxiously. “I mean, this time you’re not going to run off to kill yourself or become a monk or something, are you?”

Heero gave Duo a wan smile. “No, not this time. Leaving you is the last thing on my mind,” he said.

Duo slowly let go of his panic. As his adrenaline high dissipated he felt as if he were made of rubber and was about to sag into Heero like a creature with no bones at all.

“There’s a big difference between then and now. Now I look forward to seeing someone I love when I come home,” continued Heero. He sighed softly, as if he were purging the horrifying visions from his brain by exhaling them into the room’s light where they no longer had any power. “And now I can tell the difference between reality and the nightmares and visions that were left over from my broken conditioning. Each time I go through one of these seizures, I feel freer when it’s finally over. So yes, I think it’s slowly getting better.”

Duo stroked Heero’s hair. “We’ll get through this together, Heero. God knows, there’s no shortage of nightmares in the real world,” he sighed. “It just sucks that you have to have extra ones too. Fuck J. Just fuck him!”

Heero looked at Duo, hoping he would understand. “Sometimes it takes me a while to come down after a really bad attack,” said Heero, still a bit shaky. “This is the first brutal one I had since I was at the monastery. When I lost control back there, the monks thought I was an imperfect student. They could give a good goddamn about brainwashing and behavioral modification. You’ve never seen a group of people with so little tolerance for bullshit!”

Duo chuckled weakly at the mental image Heero’s remark invoked. Monks and bullshit just didn’t seem to mix.

“I’m sure it was that poor murdered child who set it off this time,” sighed Heero. “And that little torn up toy dog was just the icing on the cake.”

The usually talkative Duo sensed that Heero needed to unburden himself. He sat quietly rubbing Heero’s shoulders and just listened.

“Duo, I want to tell you about something strange,” Heero said. “Ever since the war I’ve been haunted by the ghost of a little girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. During a firefight with OZ I killed her and her young dog by accident. Now her ghost sometimes haunts me when I’m sleeping. She’s not a scary ghost—she’s just sort of poignant and sad. Her puppy’s always with her. Maybe the dog’s a ghost too.”

Heero sighed as if disgusted by his weakness. “A girl and her puppy. It sounds like a picture that should be on some frilly greeting card,” he said. “Or maybe in a shoujo-manga. But I think her ghost is angry at me—it’s been years now, and she won’t leave me alone.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” responded Duo. “Even Shinigami was really never more than just the berserker part of me. I do believe in the power of guilt, though. It’s so supercharged that you could run an entire colony on it! You know what I think? I think that little girl’s just another thing you use to beat yourself up.”

Heero looked sad. “Someone needs to remember her, Duo,” he said.

“Yeah, Heero—but there’s a big difference between honoring her memory and torturing yourself over her,” replied Duo. “Maybe it’s something you should mention the next time you talk to Father Wernicke. After all, he’s been a military chaplain. He’s more likely to understand how much accidental killings can torture your conscience when you’re an honorable soldier.”

Duo looked wistfully at his love. “I think most soldiers carry ghosts around in their heads,” he postulated. “I’m here to tell you that I have a few of my own. After a while I think they just become part of you, ‘cuz that what they really were all along.”

For a short time both young men were content to just lie together quietly, with Duo’s arms around Heero. Heero’s heart rate slowed and he allowed himself to relax as he accepted the fact that his panic attack was truly over. As Duo felt his lover’s mood lighten he said, “Well Heero, I guess we made it through another one. I feel good—sorta like I did when we came back from kicking OZ ass and I felt invincible ‘cuz I knew we’d beaten the odds again.” He flashed his patented grin at his partner. “I’m here to tell ya that there’s nothing like surviving massive panic and total chaos to make ya feel all alive and tingly!”

Heero looked seriously at his lover. “While we were riding back, I had some time to think,” he said. “The monks taught me that all life was sacred because even the lowest forms of life can eventually reach higher levels through multiple reincarnations. Although I was unable to find a solution for my own problems through Buddhism, its teachings about the sanctity of life felt true to me.

“That experience back there in the woods hit me very hard, even though two years earlier I would have shrugged it off,” he continued. “You know something? I believe I want out of the death industry. I don’t want to consort with death myself and I don’t want to bring it on others. I had way too much of that in the war. I simply don’t want to see any more corpses in the course of business, even if we’re on the side of the angels. So I was pondering whether I really wanted to be a Preventer.”

“What do you mean, Heero?” asked Duo anxiously.

“It seems to me that sweeping and salvage isn’t such a bad career,” observed Heero. “It’s different every day. And if we went back into space, we could use our piloting skills again, but with one huge difference—nobody would be shooting beam cannons at us!”

“Well of course I like doing that kind of work,” replied Duo. “And I think I agree with you about the Preventers. It’s probably time to retire Shinigami permanently. Hang up his jersey and get him outta here. Salvage can be a little dangerous, but mostly if you get careless. I think it’s way safer than being in the Preventers, ‘cause sooner or later someone’s gonna be shooting at us again. And I don’t want to lose you. I don’t even want to think about losing you.”

“Noin and Une aren’t going to like it,” said Heero. “And I think Wufei is going to be really angry considering that he pulled all those strings for us.”

“Granted, they gave us a chance, and we owe them a lot. I just hope they understand that we’re together now, so we have a lot more to lose,” replied Duo. “I think we’re simply going to have to be forthright. We need to spell out how you’ve changed and why this isn’t working out.”

“Admitting that to them is going to be very hard for me,” said Heero. “But you can’t cover up my lapses forever. It’s obvious from today’s events that I still have some healing to do, and it’s clear that a military job is the wrong thing for me right now.”

Duo responded by giving his lover a quick hug. “It takes a lot of guts to stand up in front of the world and tell everyone that you’re not perfect anymore,” he said.

“I never was perfect,” replied Heero. “I was just the perfect soldier. There’s a huge difference. As time passes I understand it more and more.”

Duo stroked Heero’s hair, which was once again becoming its old unruly, sexy self after three months of new growth. Duo liked it that way. He was glad that the Preventers hadn’t required military haircuts—he himself would never have sacrificed his braid to a barber’s shears.

“Anyway, I believe we’ve just made our decision,” continued Heero. “When we think about our future, another thing to consider is that salvage pays well. I don’t know if you’ve heard about genome fusion technology. It’s brand new.”

“I must have missed that one,” replied Duo.

“From what I understand, two males can now father a child together,” said Heero. All the lab needs is two sperm samples and a lot of science, and nine months later, there’s a kid to take home and raise. Some people consider it akin to what Dr. Frankenstein did in those silly old movies you like, but I think it’s just amazing. I thought we might want to do it a few years down the road. It’s still really expensive, though, so we’d have to make good money and put a lot of it away.”

Duo’s violet eyes got shiny and intense. “Oh YES, Heero,” he sighed, “I’d love that so much!”

He grinned at Heero. “And furthermore, I volunteer to help you extract your sample. Of course, that’s only if you help me get mine. I can just see us in some cozy romantic little booth together with two plastic cups and a bunch of totally useless girly magazines! Dog-eared girly magazines. With funny stains. And photos I don’t even want to think about! Lions and tigers and beavers, oh my!”

Heero smiled back at his braided lover and kissed his cheek. It was obvious that something else had entered his mind besides career opportunities or dam-building, flat-tailed rodents. “Stay right there, Duo,” he commanded. “Don’t even think about moving.”

Disentangling himself from Duo, Heero stood up from the bed and strolled over to his duffel bag, casually naked. ‘He’s so oblivious to his beauty,’ thought Duo. He wolf-whistled and hooted “Hey, hot stuff! You could give a guy a heart attack, runnin’ around with all those muscles and that tight butt! Better be careful, or someone’s gonna jump ya!”

Heero tore through his duffel bag, finally finding the small white box he was searching for. Duo got the full frontal treatment as Heero sauntered back to the bed and opened the little box.

Duo was obviously enjoying the view, a fact not lost on his lover. “Sit up, you hentai,” growled Heero with mock seriousness. Duo sat up and, before Heero could dodge out of the way, he kissed the end of Heero’s nose. In return, Heero rewarded him with one of his rare, full-on grins. He then reached out for Duo’s face, and placed one hand on each of Duo’s warm cheeks, gently steering Duo’s gaze straight into his intense cobalt eyes.

“We spent a considerable amount of time together during the war,” said Heero. “After a two-year absence—which was far too long—we have been with each other almost constantly for the last three months. During that time I have become more and more certain of something I feel.

“I was going to get you a ring,” Heero continued. “But I decided this had a higher priority. You gave me something precious of yours and now it’s time for me to give something back.”

At least figuratively, Duo bit his tongue. He could feel that something important was about to happen. His intuition told him that banter should wait.

Heero reached in the box and removed a gold cross on a fine chain that was nearly identical to the one Duo had given him at the monastery. He carefully threaded Duo’s braid through the chain and then placed it around his neck. The cross gleamed in the light like a benediction.

Heero clasped his right hand into Duo’s left. He said, “Duo, please consider this cross as both a symbol of your faith and a symbol of my love for you. I want you to remember today as the day when I asked you to marry me.”

Duo’s face lit up. “Heero, if that was a proposal, the answer’s yes. YES! I’ll be whatever you want me to be. I’ll be the bride; I’ll be the groom.” He stopped and snickered for a moment. “Actually, if ya wanna be realistic, I’ll probably be ‘none of the above’. I’m flexible. I’m creative. Whatever works for you works for me! I never thought you’d actually ask me and I am so happy!”

Duo pulled Heero to him and gave him a big, wet kiss. The contact felt electric to Heero, and its effect on him was obvious and almost instantaneous. “Hey there, soldier boy,” grinned Duo, “that thing wasn’t nearly so huge about two seconds ago. Is that big ol’ thing just for me, or what?”

Heero smiled and looked into Duo’s eyes. “You and no one else, ever,” he replied, and smiled slyly.

Rubbing the bulging crotch of Duo’s uniform with the palm of his right hand, he asked, “Are you sure you’re not feeling a little light-headed right now? Could it be that your blood just rushed from your brain to some place a little lower? Or am I the only one with that problem?”

Duo chortled and said, “Yeah Heero—this is a serious medical emergency. Call the ambulance! Turn on the red lights! Crank up the siren! Ya better loosen my clothes before the family jewels get crushed and I pass out. In fact, for the sake of protecting my delicate health, you’d better get those clothes off me right now. Hurry, before it’s too late! I think I’m a goner! Heero—save me! Gaaaakkk!”

Heero lost no time in playing doctor. He made short work of Duo’s belt and the buttons on his shirt, and in a few moments, the two young men were naked in each other’s arms, lovingly celebrating their betrothal.

======

Who can explain how an act whose broad outline changes so little can feel so different each time it happens? Perhaps it’s the endless variation of mood, or the little details like the pressure of a caress, or the scent of a body’s natural musk, or the pattern that tongues make when they duel in the heat of a kiss.

How did it happen that those busy tongues caressed every secret opening and portal, regardless of propriety or rationality or convention, if such caresses would bring bliss to each other? Why did Duo feel so much better when filled with Heero than with anything else? Wouldn’t something else less demanding—less full of life—do just as well? Why was it so important for Duo to be locked to his lover’s eyes when Heero took him? Or for Duo to be consumed by Heero and lost in him and owned by him, while Heero knew all along that Duo owned him too? For Duo to feel Heero’s sweating, glowing body lying on top of his own, a barrier protecting him momentarily from the world’s harshness?

Why did Heero love the taste of Duo more than anything he had ever savored? And why did Duo’s essence satisfy Heero so completely when Duo gasped and cried out Heero’s name? Why did it make Heero feel drunker than the finest single-malt Scotch whiskey, or higher than sinsemilla bud? Why did he grow dizzy, as if the bed had dropped away and he was floating in some strange, exotic ocean of pure sensation?

What, then, of this special night when Heero first allowed himself to be taken completely—to let Duo fill him as a gift to his love and a symbol of their decisive joining? How did it feel to be lost in Duo’s eyes and to drown in them, as he felt Duo’s ecstatic thrusts inside his body and then shivered in delight as Duo’s shuddering climax filled him? And what was it like for Heero to be so aroused by his lover’s completion that he responded by immediately spilling himself onto his belly and onto Duo’s, his release binding them together?

And how, finally, did this night differ from all the others—from the first fumbling, clumsy couplings during the war, to the darkest of all nights when love fought death to an uneasy standoff, to the playful encounter under a blanket at 10,000 meters? Only in this: for the first time, there was balance in ecstasy. Both partners in this marriage finally knew that their union had been sealed with equal commitment and a wholly reciprocal love. Their lives had become one, and their wedding vows were true:

“I will love you as long as our lives drift like conjoined leaves on the river of souls. May it sweep us along in its currents from this instant onward. May our spirits run through its rapids and cascades, and float on its calm, deep waters. May it carry us along through the days and nights of our existence until the moment when, in the fullness of time, we finally reach its end. May it then cradle us in its essence and carry us off with infinite gentleness into an endless sea of stars.”

=======

In the afterglow of their lovemaking, the young men lay intertwined, naked and alive on this quiet wedding night. It was after midnight and their joining seemed to have exorcised the ghosts of the innocent dead, if only for a moment.

“Ai shiteru,” Duo murmured to his beloved. Heero replied by brushing his lips across his lover’s forehead.

Peace crept over them like an indigo shadow sneaking across a snow covered, moonlight meadow. It engulfed their tangled limbs as two gold chains melted together in the darkness. Heero laid his head on Duo’s warm, slender chest and the braided boy’s fingers caressed Heero’s tangled hair. Duo’s gleaming new cross lay on his chest next to Heero, and it occurred to Duo that he could easily worship both, each in a different way.

Duo’s voice snuck into Heero’s sleepy consciousness like a lullaby or the cadence of an ancient hymn. “Rest, Heero,” whispered Duo, as Heero’s breathing slowed and steadied. Ever so gently, Duo rested his palm on Heero’s cheek.

“I’m here,” he said.

“I’m here.”

 

~Owari~