Author: Maldoror
Disclaimer: The usual, Gundam Wing belongs to it's owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. Not a single peanut.
Rated R for language, lots of violence, sexual content
see chap. 1 for more notes

AN: Thanks for the reviews. To answer some questions: Yes, Fen is Zechs, I thought his (annoying) habit of blowing himself up and then reappearing alive afterwards suited the Phoenix. And his stupid helmet does look like a chicken mask (thanks Reb, I hadn't even thought of that!). I don't know if any other GW character will show up, to be honest, I've not thought that far ahead. It could happen.

And yes, I realize that the huge mystery that is Heero is starting to drive people nuts. He is going to grow a bit of personality in the coming chapters but not much. He becomes very important towards the end (very far away still) and we'll finally see his POV at that point. Despite the fact that Heero is very, very much in the centre of all this - more than the other characters realize - this is not a Heero-centric fic because he's pretty much machine-like for most of it. My apologies to Heero fans. You can go read Whispers if you're feeling frustrated, I guess.

Thanks to the War Room, particularly Casey for vetting (and laughing at) the Duo-ism, and Sol, who's poking me (I owe her anyway...)

UPDATE: Sorry I try very hard not to revise chapters already published but in this case...big thanks to Sol for helping me out on this one! (Now I really owe her)

The Source Of All Things + Chapter 19
Shi No Kami

Duo trotted out of the shadows of the road to find Heero's wrist-guard pointing at him menacingly.

"Whoah buddy! Just me!" Duo said quickly, trying to look harmless and thinking back longingly to the days when someone pointing a clothing accessory in his direction wasn't a death-threat. This Dragon scale nonsense was certainly making life interesting.

Heero grunted and left his hand pointing at him for just a second longer than Duo liked. Then he turned towards Trowa who was staring back up the road to Fen's keep. They had travelled three hours from the fort, until they'd reached a widening in the road that was backed by a cliff. The vardo was up close against the rocky face, and a fire crackled nearby, its weak light flickering over stone and the wood of the caravan. The strange cry had echoed all the way to their campsite, making the defensible location seem not so protected or safe in finality.

"Ye gods what was that horrible noise?" Duo asked innocently and was ignored.

Trowa frowned then rubbed his face. He was looking older and worn and Duo felt...(/iee!/keikaku ni shuuchuu suru!/)-... No, he couldn't afford that. Not now. He had to concentrate.

"I don't like this." Trowa muttered. "That's the direction of Fen's keep. If it came from, it must have been very loud...There are just too many weird things going on around here. Heero can you stay here and watch Quatre and Duo? I'm going to go back up the road and see if I can find out what that was. I think...I think we should have looked a bit closer into Fen and why Quatre attacked him. Er- Heero?"

Heero had crouched next to Quatre. He was staring at the healer, at his head. As they watched, he scowled and rubbed a trace of ochre paint from Quatre's forehead. It smudged like dried blood.

"Heero. Stay here with Duo and Quatre-" Trowa started when the sombre man stood up, still staring at the healer.

"It still won't come off." Heero said suddenly, scowling at Quatre.

Both Duo and Trowa glanced down at the pale young man in the bedroll. "It's only ochre, Heero." Trowa said tiredly. "It'll come off with some ­ hey?!"

Trowa was talking to Heero's back as the warrior walked briskly up the road, back to the keep.

Duo gave Trowa a grin as he hid his feeling of eagerness. "Looks like ol' stony face wants to go with you. You guys be careful, okay? Don't worry I can watch Quatre until you get back." He barely managed to refrain from making a shooing gesture. Go!

Trowa's face creased with worry but he finally ran after Heero and disappeared into the darkness. Duo could follow his reasoning; the shaman's Walk along Quatre's lines had probably shown him nothing but weirdness. Investigating Fen would be a smart move in light of that. Duo knew Trowa could run fast and tirelessly and could be back there in less than an hour. At that point he would discover that Duo had destroyed the drawbridge. This would be an obstacle for the shaman. It might not slow down Heero though...Duo didn't like the idea of Heero stumbling upon a recovering Phoenix, but he also desperately needed to deal with Quatre, so this opportunity of some alone time with the healer was too good to resist.

Quatre looked hopelessly young and small, lying on the makeshift bed near the fire, a thin cover drawn up to his waist. Trowa had attempted to Walk his lines under moonlight when his powers were at their peak. The shaman had painted ochre lines and primitive symbols over Quatre's bare chest, his forehead, the palms of his hands and on a circle on the ground around him. Duo couldn't interpret the shamanistic figures, or read lines very well, but he was willing to bet Trowa had seen nothing but a messy superposition of the barest of Quatre's vital signals and the morass of zero's interference.

The braided man crouched on the edge of the bedroll, wishing he were better at all this mental stuff. Knowledge was one thing. Ability was another. He touched Quatre on the forehead with a tentative finger, closed his eyes, plunged beneath the surface. And recoiled at the tangle of the spell and the healer's mind. He groaned and retreated, reaching out as an after-thought to double-check his shihai was still in place.

"Man, what a mess, Q." He muttered. "Why'd you go and do that for?"

What, use what you imposed on me to save my lover's life?

Duo started so badly he tangled his legs and landed on his butt with a thump. "What the fuck!?"

Surprised, Duo?

Duo's eyes were wild as he stared at the still form. Quatre was still deeply unconscious, looking young and helpless in the firelight patterning his creamy skin in red and gold. For a fleeting instant Duo thought he'd imagined those words, dripping with bitter amusement. But...no, he had not imagined them. Duo had many, many voices in his head, and he knew them all, better than his own. This had not been one of them.

"No way." He ground out, his face taking on a dangerous look as he felt out with his mind once more. "No way you can turn my shihai."

You mean this mental control you have over me? You're unfortunately right. I can't turn it or break it. It can't stop me from thinking though.

"Well it fucking well should! I put you under after you pulled that dumb stunt with Fen! Damn it you should be in a coma!"

Well sorry to disappoint you, Duo.

The mental tone of the thoughts was cold, a bit remote, and seemed to be contemplating Duo's words as if they were bugs pinned to a board.

"Disappoint-...This is for your own sake you- baka! The less you interact with zero the better-...oh."

Yes. 'Oh'.

"Oh Quatre, don't. Don't even go there."

Too late, I'd say.

Duo savagely scrubbed his face with his hand. "Quatre, that thing is not for you. You were only supposed to be the carrier, the passive carrier. You're not supposed to use that shit! It's gonna kill you, man!"

That is one possible outcome, yes.

"Q...oh gods. Why did you go and do that..."

You sound sorry.

"Well...yeah...I never meant for-"

But you would have done it anyway.

"W-what?"

Even if you'd known it would end like this you would have done it anyway.

"...N-no, I would have- iee. Zettai nai. Watashi-...Ha- hai-...demo- keikaku! Keikaku ni shuuchuu suru! Iee-"

Huh...interesting...Do you always spout gibberish when you get angry?

"K'so! Katoru! Kiite kudasai! Zero-" Duo leapt from his position on the ground, spun and slammed his fist into the bare rock. The fire crackled and flared.

Temper temper. The voice in his head sounded coldly amused.

Duo's snarl slowly eased. His eyes lost the wild look that had possessed them when the Old words had started ripping through his control. He rose slowly and looked down at Quatre.

"Yes. I wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice you if I needed to. But not in this case." He said quietly. "If zero kills you, I lose you, I lose zero, I lose Trowa. I might even lose Heero ‘cause I'm damned if I understand how that weirdo is wired together." He added in a mutter.

Honesty? I'm reeling with shock. Oh no, I'm not, am I. Since you won't allow me any control over my own body..

"...is this zero speaking?"

Zero is a spell. It can't speak.

"You...just don't sound like your normal self."

I just got screwed over by someone I considered a friend and I have a good chance of going insane or dying. I'm entitled to a little bit of annoyance.

But it was more than that, Duo thought. There was a coldness, a remove in the healer's mental voice, and a good deal of steely, determined strength. He thought it was zero's influence. He wanted it to be zero's influence. But deep inside, in the small part of Duo that interacted with and cared about people, a though occurred; that he'd always wondered if there wasn't a bit more to the gentle healer than he, or even Trowa, knew about. Quatre was compassionate, and kind, and loving, and disliked confrontation. But Duo had never been able to dismiss him as meek...He'd never looked into it though, Trowa, Svale and Heero were already as much as he could handle. Maybe he should have-...He shook his head abruptly.

"Before you unleash the full force of your sarcasm on me, Q, I'll remind you that you weren't supposed to merge with zero. My shihai should have restricted you and protected you from it. At that point the only way of getting zero from you and waking you up would have been to imprint it into another carrier, and Wing would have been the only option. It would have forced Svale and Heero to use it on Wing, to remove it from you. Then you'd have been okay." Well, bar some massive confusion, a hole in his memory, and a severe headache.

Nothing could stop zero coming into contact with part of my psyche while it was imprinting itself on me, even your 'shihai'. And nothing could stop me using it if the alternative was to watch Trowa die protecting me.

"Er, you, you weren't supposed to be, erm-"

Smart enough to use it? Ah, well you underestimated me, Duo. Zero is a challenge but I managed to grasp enough of it to be able to let its influence get past your restrictions. It allows me to still think despite your ‘shutdown' command. It also showed me how to use your ‘shihai' to talk to you.

"Oh man..." From what he knew of zero, that put Quatre's intelligence and abilities at way above those of most people he knew. He'd never suspected...damn!

You took other risks as well. If you had been using zero yourself, it could have given you an estimate of the probability of your plan blowing up in your face. Did you want to know the odds?

"Not rea-"

You made a mistake, Duo.

Duo's eyes narrowed dangerously.

You made a mistake and you're about to make another.

"What do you-"

A distant clatter alerted him. Duo gave the recumbent form a glare ­ uncertainty mixed with exasperation ­ and turned to face the darkness, his dagger flicking into his hand.

Trowa and Heero came into sight, walking quickly, eyes on the night around them.

"That was quick..." Duo said weakly, trying to hide his unease. He couldn't help glancing at Quatre again. The mental voice he'd heard was using the shihai to communicate, but Duo's control mark locked down every other one of the healer's functions. He could feel Quatre's frustration simmer in the nearly quiescent mind; he wouldn't be able to warn Trowa.

"A planet hopper landed not far from here." Trowa said, quickly gathering Quatre in his arms and heading towards the vardo. Duo felt a growl of frustrated anger from the paralyzed healer's mind echo through the shihai. "We saw it from the top of the hill."

"Oh?" Duo frowned. "Are we sure it's related to us?"

"Do you want to stay here and find out?"

"Not particularly. It could be some buddy of Fen's or something." Duo shrugged, glad to avoid one more complication to his day. "How you gonna drive the vardo though, it's too dark to -" Trowa turned towards him, the moon-touched eye glinting. "Yeah. Never mind. Let's burn."

Heero was already kicking out the fire. Wing was murmuring and slithering up and down his arms from the wrist-guards, and the head-piece was occasionally sparkling. Trying to feed him information, Duo knew from Howard's work on mechas. Heero had been leery of the headpiece from the start. Duo had hoped that merging zero with Wing would force Heero to use the suit to full capacity. Damn what a mess...He ran to get the horses, pausing to listen a bit nervously to the sounds of Trowa carefully making Quatre comfortable. If he extended his senses along the shihai, he could feel Quatre's feelings as his mind beat helplessly at the barriers around it, trying to warn Trowa and failing to even get near. Duo winced slightly as the result of Quatre's frustration poured into his mind. He'd never have guessed the gentle healer knew that kind of language.

He wanted another chance to tackle the zero issue. He had to force Quatre under for good, away from zero and start untangling them. He didn't think Quatre would be able to actually control -...no. No surely not. The healer was hallucinating, he didn't understand zero at all, couldn't control it. He was talking nonsense. Duo had to separate them. Leave Svale to remove zero, and hope that it would remove this part of Quatre's memories as well...

"Tro?" Duo led the horses over to the shaman as the later came out of the vardo. "Want me to watch Q while you drive? Might as well, I'll just stub my toes in the dark."

"Yes, I'd appreciate-" Trowa twisted, shoved Duo and threw him to the ground.

Duo gasped and wrenched himself away, preparing for a follow-through. Had Quatre managed to communicate after all? To his confusion, Trowa's bow was unslung and ready in his hands but he was pointing it away from Duo and at the swell of hills on the other side of the road. And then Duo realized there was a small piece of metal stuck in the wood of the vardo roughly where his chest had been. "What the-"

Heero was powering up Wing, and Trowa ghosted back two steps to shelter in the angle of the caravan. The horses, still hobbled fortunately, were whickering and trying to get away from the sudden tension in the air. Duo quickly scrabbled to join Trowa. He glanced at the piece of metal in passing. Taser bolt. Techno. High level. It would have expended most of its energy into his armour but that would have led to some very awkward questions from Trowa and Heero afterwards.

"Thanks, Tro." He whispered, quite honestly. "How did you-"

"It's hard to get the drop on a Nightwalker, especially when the moon is shining. They have some kind of magic field dampener or I would have felt them coming a mile away."

"A mana sink?" Duo asked weakly. "Here, on Centre?"

"They must be desperate."

"Or very, very stupid. Should we do anything? Or just wait for some arcane disaster to blast them to smithereens." Centre reacted violently to many pieces of technology. Mana sinks were the proverbial lighting rod in the thunderstorm.

"We're pretty far from any source, here, and the night is calm. They might get away with it. I wonder why they took the risk though. And I'm also wondering why they shot at you."

"Er-"

Steps echoed, approaching the caravan from down the road, quite openly.

"Heero wait!" Trowa snapped as a man stepped out of the shadows and into the silver light bathing the road. Heero's eyes narrowed and he kept his wrist pointed at the intruder but he didn't fire.

The man was short and sturdy and walked like a sailor, bowed legs rolling with long strides. He was dressed like a cabalist, in a lightweight pressure suit that outlined the bulges of his round body. He was bald, like most people who lived in space and didn't want to mess around with hair when slamming on a helmet during catastrophic depressurisations. His features were hard and grim, his brown eyes steady. He appeared to be in his forties. He had a gun at his side, and he held a small globe in one fist. To Duo and Trowa the object seemed to warp the air around them as it interfered with their ability to tap into Centre's ambient magic field.

Trowa moved forward slowly until he was level with Heero. "Why did you attack us?"

The man stared at him, then at Heero. He appeared to be weighing them.

"As I thought. He lied to you too, didn't he." The man smiled with savage confirmation.

"Who lied to us? What do you want?" Trowa's voice was carefully neutral, he almost sounded bored.

The man just smiled but his eyes darted towards Duo, who, senses muffled by the sink, reacted a bit too late.

"Che!" Duo bucked and writhed to try to break the iron grip of the man who had sneaked up on him ­ on him! ­ from around the vardo. "What the hell! Leggo!"

"You two gentlemen have a choice." The man's voice was jubilant, with a hard edge that spoke of impatience to deal with Trowa and Heero and get on to the main business, which was bound to be unpleasant. His eyes were on Duo. Another man had joined the first, running up past the vardo. They had circled around the trio while the other man distracted them. Trowa's eyes narrowed and his crossbow, held at chest heigh, pointed at the leader menacingly but the bald man continued to talk regardless. "You can either let us go about our business or you can die. There are two snipers in the hills now, and they have you in their sights. But before we get excited-" Heero had tensed and started to scowl "-let me just tell you that you have no idea who you've been travelling with. You have no reason to die for that creature. You'd best be on your way."

Trowa smiled slightly. "I'm sorry but I don't feel like leaving without my friend, unless you -"

"Friend? Shinigami has no friends." The man snarled. "He only has puppets."

"Shinigami?" Trowa said slowly.

Shit...Duo glared at the man towering over him. They'd dragged him out from the shadow of the vardo into the moonlight. The man behind him was a cyborg, he could tell by the absolute immobility of the arms holding him like steel shackles. The man leering down at him...Another techno cabalist, younger, in his thirties, pressure suit stretched over hard muscles, with a very square face, thick lips and shorn brown hair. Duo didn't like the look in his fixed eyes. At all. Lunacy, cruelty and sick desires seem to jostle for dominance.

"Trowa? Heero?" Duo licked his lips. "D-do something. Hey!"

The man had grabbed his chin, and brought his face closer.

"He's very pretty, isn't he..." he said to no one in particular. His voice was bland. His eyes were not. The cyborg behind him grunted.

"Just a minute-" Trowa snapped, glaring at the sadist then at the leader.

"Stand down." The leader told him softly. "This is none of your business. Shinigami owes us a lot of deaths, a lot of money, and a lot of pain and grief. Ranke over there has a particular axe to grind." His mouth twisted with slight distaste. "I'm in no mood to refuse him if he decides to take his payback out in...in kind."

Ranke dropped his hand to Duo's leather vest and jerked. His smile broadened as the leather, which looked worn and a bit tattered, didn't give in the slightest. He lazily drew out a serrated knife, edges sparkling in the moonlight. Duo tried to shove back against the cyborg but it was like trying to topple a mountain. "Trowa!"

"If you have business with my friend, I would accept that you settle this in a court of law." Trowa said tightly, eyes flicking towards the hills around them. "But I'm not about to let you-...do this uncontested." Besides him, Heero, eyes fierce, slowly put his hands together and cracked his knuckles. Wing seemed to hum in agreement as well.

Duo's voice rang with relief. "Yeah, this is a stupid mistake! Honest! Let's take this to an adjudicator, or hell, anybody! I've got references, I've got friends! They'll tell you I'm not Shi No Kami! I'm just a hunter from the Reg, I-"

His words faltered. Heero had spun around and was staring at him. Duo felt his heart clench under the fierce scrutiny. "H-Heero...?"

"-killed our master, stole our most valued artefact-" the leader was talking to Trowa with the intensity of a fanatic. Many techno cabalists took their worship of machines to a degree that most religious fundamentalists would balk at. "We'd take him back to our mothership for execution but we can't risk transporting him. He's tricky as well as powerful. He hides himself well too. It took us ages to find him. We've been following every trace of major power signature around Centre for a year. He finally slipped up tonight, threw a blast that showed up on our dials, allowed us to track his mana residue to -"

"Duo's been with us, or just down the road, for the last twenty four hours." Trowa said sharply. "He's not- hey, stop that!" Trowa turned as Ranke stuck a big hand over Duo's shrieks and slowly slit the ties of his vest, one by one. "Leave him or-" The crossbow leapt to his shoulder and he sighted down the shaft.

Heero put out his hand and slowly lowered the bow's point.

Trowa stared at the silent man. So did Duo, over Ranke's stifling hand.

"Heero-" Trowa started.

Heero hooked a hand under his elbow and dragged the shaman a few steps away. "Leave them."

Duo squirmed and twisted his mouth away from Ranke's hand. "Heero! You're not gonna let them hurt me?! I swear I'm not this guy they think I am! Heero, please!"

Heero turned towards him slowly. "No, you're not the man they think you are. Shi No Kami."

Duo froze, staring at Heero. He didn't even flinch as Ranke cut the rest of his vest and shirt open with one slice of the knife, exposing his pale chest.

"Heero?" Trowa whispered tightly. "What's going on? We can't let them hurt Duo."

Heero merely crossed his arms. His eyes on Duo were blank, uncaring. He appeared to be waiting for something.

Duo slowly sunk his head and bit his lip. And, very faintly, along the link of the shihai, he could hear Quatre laughing...

"Hear that, Ranke?" The leader smiled but he kept a careful eye on Trowa and Heero. "Apparently you can go ahead. These two gentlemen won't mind. And the dampener will keep him nice and quiet and in our grasp this time. He won't slip away from us. Get him to tell you where he hid the sacred sphere.

"Then have fun killing him slowly."

"Heero-" Trowa hissed.

Two thuds, a meaty ripping sound, a gargled scream-

And a lazy drawl. "Couldn't go much slower than that with those two losers, friend. But it was fun while it lasted."

The cyborg was flat on his back, his face smashed in leaving a mosaic of flesh, blood and bone as a grim parody of features. Ranke was on his knees, the gurgling scream dying as he grasped his slashed throat with one hand and his ripped abdomen with the other, a sheen of gut glimmering in the moonlight. He spasmed and fell over to his side, twitching like a hare in a noose, blood splashing with each convulsion.

Duo straightened up. The hand that was still lifted from the blow that had connected with Ranke's jugular was - Trowa made a sound in his throat - empty but the short leather glove gleamed as if it were made of glass and razor blades. Trowa blinked. No, it was only blood glinting on the soiled leather. Which didn't explain how Duo had ripped the man's throat out with his bare hands.

"Don't move!" The leader shouted and made an urgent gesture with his fist. His eyes were wide and enraged in the moonlight.

Two small red dots appeared on Duo's slim chest. They danced a bit and settled, trembling, over his heart.

"Oh yeah, the snipers." Duo said absently, looking down at the spots. His eyebrow twitched.

The dots suddenly flared and light shot back up the sighting lasers' beams like two bullets made of fire. The dots on Duo's chest winked out just as a panicked shot echoed through the hills.

Something whined in the air and pinged off of a worn, leather jerkin as if hitting tempered plate mail.

Trowa knew, without having to check any lines or anything, that no further shots would be forthcoming.

Duo absently rubbed his chest - the bullet had impacted just above the heart - and turned slowly towards the leader. The leather jerkin rustled, and suddenly twisted under its own volition and started repairing the slashes Ranke had left, knotting up its own ties. Its owner bestowed a dangerous look at the man who had attacked him.

The leader had drawn his gun and was pointing it at Duo's head. His other hand clutching the mana sink trembled as he realized that you could count on it to reduce a mage's power down to almost nothing - but that 'almost nothing' was a very relative concept when you were dealing with a particularly powerful mage. "Stay where you are!"

"Hmm, no." Duo said, with a wide grin, and took a step closer.

The leader's hand trembled. "You won't get away with this." Duo's grin broadened and he took two more slow steps. "Others will come. We will hound you until we retrieve the sacred sphere of Ophed from -"

"Nai no- " Duo's eyebrows shot up as he stopped his slow move towards the man. "Is that what this is about? Hell man, I fenced that piece of junk for the price of a bad beer over a year ago! You really ran halfway across the galaxy for-"

The leader's face twisted in a snarl of anger and fear. The report of the gun cracked and echoed against the cliff behind the vardo.

Duo's hand was in front of his face, palm out. The bullet had ricochéd off the short buttoned glove and off into the darkness.

The man's face tightened but before he could fire again, the violet eyes dropped to the mana sink in the man's hand. Heero suddenly jerked Trowa back and spun him around to place himself between the shaman and Duo's attacker, Wing's energy shield rippling. The sink glowed briefly, overcharged and exploded like a grenade.

Lines suddenly leapt and curled in Trowa's perceptions as the sink's effects disappeared. The carcass hit the ground with a thud, no vectors left from that fragment-ridden corpse. But there was a dangerous geometry in the air as Heero shifted his position, standing between Trowa and Duo, and slowly raised his hand. Wing clicked and rustled.

Duo smirked but his eyes were hard as they lighted on the bracer pointing at him with deadly intent. "So that's how it's gonna be, is it, Heero?"

Heero said nothing. Power started to dance along the wrist guard.

Duo turned slightly, dropping into a defensive stance. But his expression was thoughtful. "Heero...Yuy...Heero Yuy. The one and only. I can't believe I missed that. Trowa told me your name but his accent stinks."

Trowa took a careful step sideways so that he could fire his crossbow while still staying within Heero's area of defence. His mind was whirring.

Heero said nothing.

Duo's eyes blazed. "Anata wa dare desu ka!"

Heero showed no signs of comprehension.

"Kotaete! Answer! Dare desu ka!"

Duo's eyes narrowed dangerously at Heero's unbroken silence.

"Dare-...Goddammit I know you understand-....Who are you!?" Duo snarled, glaring at the bracer threatening him. "And put that thing away if you want to keep your arm!"


Heero snorted very softly. His voice, when he spoke, was as cold and unemotional as always. "Release Quatre."

Duo's eyes narrowed. "What makes you think I'm responsible for his condition?"

Heero said nothing. But his arm slowly tensed as he sighted down it.

Duo smiled, a cold movement of the lips. "You know, I like a mystery as well as the next guy but now you're getting annoying. I wasn't anywhere near Quatre when he went haywire and attacked Fen so why should I be blamed for-"

"The word on his forehead, ‘shirushi'. It's keeping him asleep." Heero's voice dropped to a menacing whisper. "Take it off ­ Shi No Kami."

Duo's mouth continued to move on automatic for a second but his voice had vanished.

"...okay. I'm kinda intrigued now." He finally said. "When did you see the mark? You were tied to the wall when I had to force him under." And Quatre had been pre-programmed to attack Fen as soon as they were about to leave, with or without zero. The mark was only briefly visible when control was challenged or exerted...

In a blinding flash Duo remembered Heero rubbing at Quatre's forehead earlier. Had he been rubbing at the shihai, and not the ochre? But...that made no sense! Could he see it all the time? Why hadn't he said anything before, then? Like, ‘Hey, Quatre, what's that thing you have scribbled on your forehead?' Ah no, he never asked questions. Huh. So not only could he see the mark, but he'd been able to read it; the symbol was shirushi, ‘control', in the Old Tongue. Heero had also associated it with someone who bore a name in that same language.

Duo was more than intrigued. And reminded once more that Heero's short, incomprehensible sentences were no indication that he was stupid.

"Trowa. Leave." Heero said quietly.

Duo eyes widened a bit. "Let's not be too hasty, 'Ro. I'll release blondie if you tell me how you can see my mark."

Heero sneered and fired.

Duo cursed and dodged the nearly invisible wave of force with a speed that left even Heero staggering to adjust his aim. Duo threw himself forward, rolled -

"Heero don't kill him! It might not free Quatre!" Trowa shouted, finally recovering from the shock of the attack.

- Duo leapt like a cat dodging another low bolt aiming at his legs and -

Trowa blinked and gasped. Duo had become a blur of motion, avoiding a short blast and Heero's fist. He was suddenly behind Heero, slender arms wrenching Heero's armoured ones up and back, one elbow bent inward and pressing on Heero's spine. His hips were turned slightly and shoving Heero forward, putting him just enough off balance where he couldn't use his body weight to break free.

"Right!" Duo gasped. "Won't say that wasn't one of the best workouts I had in awhile-" he was panting a bit, and his muscles tensed under the jerkin as Heero snarled and tugged his arms forward "- but I can't afford to get fried right now so just relax and-"

Heero smiled.

Duo was smart enough to let go and try to move back but even he wasn't fast enough; the blast emanating like a wall of force from Heero's entire body picked him up and shoved him back hard. Heero staggered forward as Duo relinquished his hold but recovered quickly, twisting on himself to level a bolt at the braided man on the ground behind him.

Trowa fell back a step, mouth open in protest. The explosion shook the vardo besides him, sent the horses scurrying down the road on their hobbles. But Duo wasn't blasted into small chunks. He'd been rolled a few feet over the hard ground and he was shaking his head, stunned, but he was mostly intact. For a few instants his black leather outfit seemed to ooze and twitch, then it solidified again. It was like Dragon scale, a bit, but even more organic, Trowa thought, stunned. It had apparently absorbed the impact.

Duo rose slowly, eyes incandescent. Heero stood still, waiting. And the small smile on his face was familiar to his observers; he was pleased with himself. And he was expecting a good fight from Duo. Before he killed him.

"Heero," Trowa hissed, "remember Quatre, Duo needs to-"

"He will." Heero's voice was soft as he let Wing rustle over his hands, the smile lingering as he watched his prey.

Trowa looked back at Duo uncertainly. Too many questions...the biggest one being, could Heero actually take the braided man down without killing him? Trowa couldn't begin to interpret the lines he was now reading from Duo, he thought they were being warped in some way. It made the reading uncertain. But looking at him...

Duo was standing straight, arms at his side, face unreadable as he looked at Heero. Blood trickled down from a deep gash high up on his arm where he'd been dragged across a spur of rock by the blast, but he appeared not to notice. As Trowa watched, the jerkin suddenly melted and flowed again. It lanced up from the gloves, it curled around Duo's torso, trickled down his legs repairing tears here and there. It solidified after a few seconds. Duo was now wearing a tight sleeveless top that went higher up his neck in a smooth material that looked like the finest calf's down - but probably wasn't. The cloth seemed to swallow the moonlight, a patch of darkness deeper than the night, a far cry from the much-patched, ragged leathers he usually wore. His pants had also smoothed and adjusted, tight on the leg with reinforced areas on hips and knees, with buckles tucking the material in - not that that was needed, Trowa had by now realized. The material would fit itself to Duo's form as much as it needed to. The entire outfit looked like it was meant for stealth, quick movements and hand-to-hand fighting. His gloves had lengthened up his arms until they were only a few inches from the shoulders. The left one rose a little higher to squirm over Duo's wound. When the dark material receded the injury was partially healed.

"Ne, Heero...you look like you're having fun." Duo drawled, though his eyes were still hard. The half smile on his lips was chilling.

"Hn." Heero dropped into a defensive stance, an invitation to Duo to do his worse.

"Unfortunately, I can't afford to fight you right now, Hee-kun." Duo smiled, eyes like shards of glass in the moonlight. "You see, I don't want to hurt you." He added solicitously and grinned as Heero snorted.

Duo lifted a graceful hand, flexing the fingers slowly. Trowa got a better look at the gloves. The fingers were cut short halfway up the first digits. Trowa felt a sinking feeling as he noticed that the palms had circles cut out of them. Typical caster gloves. Damn, he wasn't only as fast and deceitful as a weasel, he could cast magic as well. This day just couldn't get any better...

A hum in the lines around him, shifting the nexus of the situation's control from Heero towards Duo, accompanied by the echoes of an achingly familiar pattern, informed Trowa that he'd probably just jinxed himself.

Quatre was standing at the entrance to the vardo, looking incuriously at the scene before him. He seemed tired but otherwise fine. Trowa knew - he could feel the lines strangling his lover's - but his body reacted instinctively; he threw himself forward, intending to grab Quatre and take refuge behind the vardo's pitiful shelter-

"Trowa!" Heero barked.

Quatre's face was placid as his hand leapt up and blasted Trowa full in the chest just as the shaman reached for him.

Trowa didn't feel his back hit the ground, couldn't feel anything, couldn't breathe...His last thoughts clung to the corrupted but still recognizable pattern of his lover and his graceful steps as Quatre walked around him to disappear from his faltering senses, heading in Duo's direction. Darkness swamped him, illuminated by the agony of a sudden breath of air hauling itself into his injured lungs - causing a flicker of surprise, he'd assumed his chest would be a gaping hole by now. Weakened blast, he thought dimly. Hurts too much for me to be dying...Duo, don't-...Quatre-...

The distance between Heero and Duo was fast becoming a no-man's land of hostility and tension. Heero's fists flexed but his eyes flickered towards Quatre, now standing at Duo's side, and Trowa's still form. See, if he had zero, Duo thought lazily - ignoring Quatre's fury and horror pouring back up the shihai - he'd know how to break this deadlock. Or he'd have some idea on how to act. Now he's just standing there waiting for my move like a lump of rock. Che, mimizu.

"Well that's left you with only a few options, Heero." Duo said with an easy smile as he crossed his arms on his chest. "I can't begin to understand how you think, sometimes. I don't know if you can learn something from someone, or listen to advice, but here it is anyway. There's more to fighting and winning a war than being the strongest. The important thing is knowledge. Recognising the places to apply your strength, to the best effect. I am not your enemy, Heero. I know you seem driven to perfect your fighting skills. And you would learn a lot by fighting me, if I didn't kill you. But we would be so much stronger together. Your strength is considerable but it isn't yet enough for what's coming. Know how and where to apply it. We'll be seeing each other again, Hee-kun."

Duo's smile became impish as he lifted his right hand and waved a cheeky goodbye with a waggle of his fingers, then he spun, touched the hand to Quatre's forehead for a second, and vanished as if the darkness had momentarily vanquished the moonlight and spirited him away.

Heero blinked at the empty space, eyes widening.

Quatre choked, stumbled and fell to his knees. Then he was up like a shot, staggering towards Trowa. He continued to squirm forwards, eyes on the shaman's still form, even when Heero intercepted him.

"Wh- lemme- I have to-" Quatre's face was pale and twisted in panic.

Heero's hand gripped his chin firmly and tilted the healer's head left and right under the moonlight, his eyes on Quatre's forehead. A puzzled look crossed his features but he relinquished the healer who darted over to Trowa and put trembling hands on his chest, healing the injuries. Heero remained where he was, staring off into the darkness. He began to scowl but someone who knew him would think the expression was a bit less confident than it usually was.

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