Author: Calic0cat
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Fragments + Chapter 19

I was beginning to get extremely anxious. The time continued to tick away and the factory continued to be dismantled but I still hadn't located Max. And much of the ventilation system had turned out to be inaccessible; the duct work narrowed to the point where only a small child might manage to wriggle through. I was going to have to get out of the ducts and find a new disguise so that I could search more freely.

I backtracked through the ventilation system to where it had opened into an office near the loading dock area. Once those ships loaded with weapons and manufacturing equipment left, there would be no evidence to prove Mattis was doing anything illegal. It would be strictly his word against ours and with Max in his custody he would undoubtedly make sure to eliminate at least the witness that he had ready access to.

'But if the ships can't leave, at least not immediately...' A smirk tugged at my mouth as I kicked the grill out of the duct's opening. No one would notice the noise; the racket made by the bins and carts loaded with machinery as jitneys towed them down the hall would hide it easily.

Dropping down into the office, I waited inside the door, impatient but well aware that I could not afford to get caught. I held my position - and my breath - as a security guard stomped past, muttering his displeasure at having been ordered to make extra patrol rounds. Once he was gone, I darted out into the hall and hitched a ride on a flatbed cart loaded with machinery. Slipping between two massive pieces of equipment, I crouched and rode right into the ship's hold undetected. I wasted no time getting away from my ride once inside and it didn't take long to find a lone worker to "donate" a new disguise for me.

I was careful how I disabled the ships. I used a different method for each and hid the traces of my tampering as well as possible. Hopefully it would not be immediately obvious that sabotage was involved. One ship should completely fail to start and the other's engines would start but then the controls would be completely dead. On the third ship, a small space yacht that obviously was Mattis's personal craft, I pulled an entire circuit board out of its controls then hid the board on the ship. *That* fast little craft with its remote control to open the doors for the launch airlock was going to be our ride out of here; I couldn't afford to do anything to it that we couldn't fix in mere minutes.

Despite the fact that I still hadn't been able to locate Max, I was determined that it would be "we". I had no intention of leaving without him.

Before leaving the loading bay completely behind me, I looked back down the hallway at that small, fast ship one more time. I doubted that my partner would be in any shape to pilot it but it was just the kind of ship he'd like. 'Duo will be highly annoyed that I get to fly it instead of him.

'Duo...'

I staggered and rammed my shoulder against a doorway. The pain cleared my mind long enough to duck inside the room and out of sight while more memories flooded back.

'Duo... Not "Max"....' I fought to breathe as more fragments of memory snapped into place. 'Oh god... I shot Duo...'

Duo. One of the first friends I'd ever made, though I'd held him at a distance for so long that when I finally *would* have let him get closer, he no longer even tried. The only person to ever last more than a single mission as my partner in the Preventers; anyone else I'd been paired with had refused to ever work with me again.

The memories kept coming and my throat tightened painfully. I finally had the answer "Odin" had wanted so badly.

I'd fallen just as fast and just as hard the first time around.

But the training had interfered; I'd been terrified of the consequences if J had found out how I felt about Duo. That I'd fallen in love with a fellow pilot. That I'd fallen in love with *anyone*. Soldiers weren't supposed to have emotions, after all. Especially not J's "Perfect Soldier".

Looking back, I didn't know how I'd thought that J *would* find out as long as I wasn't dumb enough to tell him. Or for that matter, how I'd thought he'd actually get his hands on me for "retraining" if I'd refused to go. I could have snapped the bastard's scrawny neck without even trying; how the hell would he have forced me to do *anything* by then?

I didn't know why I'd thought the way that I had back then. Perhaps J had had absolute control over me for so long during my formative years that he'd become all-knowing and all-powerful in my mind. At any rate, the conditioning - both against disobeying J and against showing emotion - simply was too fresh and ran too deep for me to break free of it at that point.

So I'd pushed Duo away time after time. Occasionally, I would weaken and let him a bit closer, but then I'd remember how dangerous emotions could be, how high a price revealing them could carry, and I'd freeze him out again.

I'd shut him out over and over, telling myself again and again that J had *promised* that when the war was over, I would be free. That he'd leave me alone. I told myself that then I'd be able to do whatever I wanted. To act on my feelings.

At the time, it had made perfect sense. Just wait till the war ended, then stop shoving Duo away and let things progress from there. No more conflict between my heart and my training. Between the soldier and the human being. No more reason to deny my feelings and keep my distance. Instead of pushing him away, I'd be able to let him in.

But I'd never bargained on Duo giving up on me. On him shutting me out just as thoroughly as I'd shut him out.

Oh, we'd ended up as quite efficient partners before the war ended. He'd kept his distance from me sufficiently that I didn't even have to push him away anymore; something that I'd been foolish enough to be grateful for at the time. And we'd eventually become friends when we ended up as partners in the Preventers. It had taken a damn long time to happen though. And he'd never let me as close as any of the others. He kept me at that same careful distance. Close enough to work together as a nearly perfect team but no closer.

Right at the exact point beyond which I'd always frozen him out before. He had it calculated to perfection.

I'd had no idea how the hell to change things. He never showed any signs of wanting anything more from me. At least not anymore, that is, though I didn't think that the signs I thought I'd seen during the earlier part of the war were entirely my imagination. And I'd discovered that the fact that I didn't have the threat of retraining hovering over me didn't mean that I could just forget all that damn conditioning. I was completely unable to open myself up enough to make the first move, especially when I had a sinking feeling that it would not be welcomed. That I'd permanently destroyed any interest Duo might have had in me with my wartime behaviour. And the few occasions when I *had* managed to try to at least deepen our friendship bore that feeling out. Suggesting a trip to a ballgame or motorcycle race or some other activity that I knew he liked would inevitably result in a polite refusal and an excuse.

In the end, I'd reluctantly decided that I'd lost my chance and resigned myself to settling for a damn good working partnership and a slightly distant friendship. And that was the way things had been when we were sent on this mission.

It had been sheer torture from the very beginning. Duo was one hell of a good actor, a natural at undercover work despite his aversion for lying, and he'd taken on his role as my spouse with his usual very professional enthusiasm. He'd been in more physical contact with me in the first day of the mission than he had in the entire past *year*.

Sticking to the very impersonal kisses that we'd agreed on had taken a lot of willpower on my part. I'd been extremely careful not to do anything that would seem out of line yet I'd also made damn sure that I did not do anything to discourage anything that he did. To do nothing that might chase him away. I didn't care that it was just pretend; I'd take what I could and hope that maybe a bit of his more open attitude towards me would carry over when the mission ended. That maybe the "torture-mission" would turn out to be an opportunity.

And it had been, though not at all in the way I'd expected. I remembered quite clearly how Duo had opened up to "Odin". How attentive and caring he'd been.

How he'd told me that he loved me.

But then the fucking training had ruined everything once I started to remember. I'd pushed him away, hurt him, the same way that I had during the war and he'd started to close himself off again. I'd doubted him, mistrusted him.

And I'd shot him.

The shooting he might actually forgive me for; forgiving myself would be more difficult. The doubt and mistrust would be harder for Duo to forgive; that struck at the root of our partnership, the faith in each other that was part of what made us such a good team.

And freezing him out again... That I wasn't entirely sure that he *could* forgive. He'd lowered his defences and I'd responded by shoving him away and hurting him the same way I had in the past. Even if he wanted to forgive me, I didn't know whether he'd let me close again. Whether he'd be willing and able to take that risk.

Whether I even deserved to have him do so.

I forced my mind away from the subject and back to the task at hand. Duo's feelings towards me would be a moot point if I didn't find him and get us the hell out of here. Once I had him safely out of Mattis's reach and had treated the bullet wound I was responsible for *then* I could worry about treating the emotional wounds I'd caused.

Setting my jaw grimly, I made sure that my weapons were accessible but hidden, checked for patrolling guards, then slipped out of the room and down the hall again. I had a rescue mission to complete.

[chap. 18] [chap. 20] [back to Calic0cat's fic]