Author: Saro
see part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Chasing Shadows + Part Three

"Have fun at Wal-Mart?" Duo asked me sometime later. By then we were both wearing sunglasses against the harsh winter sun that reflected off hazy, thin clouds and a grey-brown landscape.

I couldn't think of a witty rejoinder to that, so I shrugged. "I found what I needed. If you want, I can give you your things back?"

He chuckled at that. "No rush. I'll get them off you eventually."

A blush crept up my neck and into my cheeks. I did my best to ignore it. In the confines of the car, I was only too aware of my companion. I could hear his breathing, and the small shifts of his body against the leather upholstery. His eyes tracked along the side of my face, my shoulder and arm and thigh, and where his attention went, my skin crawled not-unpleasantly.

I looked in Duo's direction, and he didn't bother hiding the fact he was staring. The hair on the back of my neck stirred. My hands tightened; I opened them deliberately, drumming fingers across the steering wheel once, then again. I felt him follow the motion.

He didn't say anything, and I sincerely wished he would. I wanted the distraction that his words might have provided.

I thought about his lips pressed against my palm. I thought of his eyes, dark and empty in the alien green light off the dashboard.

I thought of the coffee girl's animated pink smile as she told me about the murders.

The reaction was physical. Not fear, or arousal, but a sort of nervous energy that charged my muscles, buzzing in the back of my head like an adrenaline rush. A shiver that could have been anything ran up my spine, and I felt a cold sweat start between my shoulders and under my arms. My foot rode heavier on the gas, and the BMW's engine purred.

Cutting another look at Duo, I saw his eyebrow cock wryly, head tilting. "Hey, Heero," he said finally.

"What?"

"Not that I really care since I don't have to pay your insurance or anything," he said, "but if you're going to speed, you want to at least watch the road?"

My attention snapped forward and sunlight slanted into my eyes, bright enough to sting even through my sunglasses. I could see the broken white passing line vanishing under the hood of my car. Biting back a curse, I pulled the car back into the right hand lane. Only after I was back where I should have been to start with did it occur to me to be embarrassed by my distraction.

Duo grinned. "If you want, I could drive for awhile."

"No," I told him shortly. "I'm fine."

He shrugged as though it hadn't mattered to him in the first place. "Your choice. Just thought I'd offer."

This time I didn't take my attention off the road. The needle on the speedometer eased back down to sixty-five. I engaged the cruise control. After a moment, I made a sound to show I'd heard him. I couldn't really think of anything to say.

I heard leather creak and stick, the seat and his jacket. "You know," he said, "when I was a kid, my mother said I could talk more and say less than anyone she'd ever met. I think I was complaining because some kids at school bought their lunch, or got those prepackaged snack cracker things, and I didn't. She said she could buy me crackers and cheese and lunch meat if I'd rather have that than PB and J. I tried to explain that wasn't the point, it was the package that was important. She told me it was cheaper her way."

I had to stifle the impulse to look at him. I didn't have a clue where he was going with this line of discussion. In the days since I picked him up, he'd never been inclined to tell me about his childhood.

"She was right," Duo continued, and the sound of paper and plastic crinkling marked him drawing a cigarette out of the pack in his pocket. His lighter opened and a flame hissed to life. I smelled the cigarette take. The lighter clicked shut. "It was cheaper that way. And that was important. I think that was the first time I ever really realized that we were poor. I was maybe six. Did you ever get those prepackaged lunches, Heero?"

"No."

"No?" His voice rose at the end, questioning.

"My mother thought they were frivolous. I bought school lunches." I didn't know what this had to do with anything.

"Ah. Yeah, that makes sense. You don't strike me as the kind of person who was raised frivolous." He took a drag, the paper burning down with an audible crackle. "Where was I?" he asked, then pressed on without giving me a chance to answer. "I was maybe six when I figured out that my mom and me were white trash. It just clicked."

I risked a look in Duo's direction. He was still watching me, thumbing the butt of his cigarette thoughtfully. His sunglasses helped hide his expression, but I imagined it would be as inscrutable as the dark lenses of the aviators.

"So," Duo said finally, "if I give you shit about never going to Wal-Mart or anything, try not to take it personally. I'm just kinda an asshole that way."

I checked the road, then returned to Duo. He waited for a response, apparently relaxed but his interest fixed. Some of my tension evaporated. I asked him, "You're not very good at apologies, are you?"

He blinked behind his glasses, and his mouth made a slack little oh for an instant before he recovered. Then a grin split his face. "No, not particularly. It's a character flaw. But I have so many, there's usually no reason to focus on that particular one."

"You say that as though you're proud of it."

"Pride's a sin, Heero. That's even better than a character flaw." I think he would have winked at me if I could see it.

"You go to hell for sins," I said. It was the first thing that came to mind. I had never been religious. I'd gone to church as a child, but I'd never had much faith.

"Only if you die."

A cold prickle touched the back of my neck when he said that, faded quickly. I let out a long, slow breath. Smoke scratched the inside of my nose and my throat, but it didn't cover Duo's smell. It couldn't. The cigarette smoke was stronger, but that odd, suggestive scent was still there. I leaned back in my seat and sighed. More of the anxiety drained out of me, left me feeling hollow.

I thought about asking Duo for a cigarette. I don't know that I really wanted one, but it would have been familiar. It would have been warm.

"You don't plan on dying, I take it."

"Not if I can avoid it." He chuckled. "So far, I seem to have done pretty good."

I shook my head, too tired to fault his logic.

+

We stopped at a chain hotel late in the afternoon, agreeing that a shower and a bed were more attractive that sleeping in the car. This time Duo chose a single. I don't know what I felt when he did that. I don't think it was even a real emotion--like the feeling in the car, it was baser than that. A wave of sensation that rode down my spine and nested low in my belly; a slow, lazy stirring that warred with the chill.

The man who gave us our room keys studied Duo and I before giving a huff and turning away. It wasn't hard to guess what he made of us.

I took the first shower, turning the water on as hot as I could stand and thickening the air in the bathroom with steam. When I was done, I put on my new clothes and finger combed my hair. Thumbing the sparse stubble over my lip and on my chin, I decided it wasn't worth shaving. I didn't have the energy to worry about a few whiskers or scraggly sideburns. I couldn't see my face in the fogged mirror, anyway.

The television was on. I could hear it through the wall after I turned off the tap, though not loud enough to make out what was being said. It was talk. There were no explosions, nor sound effects or music, just talk. Maybe he was watching a drama, or the news. I couldn't tell. A picture of Duo half-curled on his side, head propped up on one arm while he divided his attention between the screen and the bathroom door lit up in the back my mind as though by lightning--more afterimage than sight.

I would have thought he was the type to sprawl out on his back, maybe lacing his fingers behind his head. This was natural to him, though.

Shaking my head to clear it, I opened the door and stepped into the room. Duo looked up from his spot at the bottom of the bed. It wasn't quite how I'd imagined him, but it was close. I swallowed hard as his eyes caught me, taking in the new, Wal-Mart clothes in one broad sweep. He smiled and declared them, "Not bad."

"So glad you approve," I said, scowling.

The smile morphed into a cutting smirk, but what came out might have been a joke. "You know, if you're not nice to me, I won't let you play with my nipple ring later."

"Is that a threat?" I asked, and sat down behind him on the bed.

"You seemed to like it," he pointed out. He didn't turn toward me when he said it. His braid lay in a pile. This close and in the light, I could see that he already had grey in it. Not much, but it had threaded the brown hair at his temples prematurely.

"I did like it," I said, reaching out, slipping fingers under his shirt. Normally I wasn't that forward, but now was different. I'd left the person who would have waited behind. His skin still gave me a hot-cold shiver.

Duo hissed at the touch. He grabbed my wrist and guided my hand straight to the piercing. I looped my index finger through the ring and gently pulled him over so he was on his back looking up at me.

"I could pierce yours, y'know," he said. The throatiness of his voice made it hard to catch the sarcasm. His blue eyes tilted mischievously. "Since you like mine so much and all."

I matched his gaze. He looked so sure I'd take it as a joke, that I'd say no. I said, "Alright."

His eyes became instantly round, his expression blank and open while he tried to catch up with my answer. It was the first time I'd ever seen him so transparent. He was younger than me, I realized. I don't know how I knew, but I could see it. Despite the grey and the lines that edged his eyes and his smile, he was less than twenty-five. Hard lived, but still young.

He hid it well.

"You'd trust me to do that?" he asked, his voice serious now.

Realizing I did, I nodded.

His breathing sped under my hand. I released his nipple ring, let my whole hand splay across his chest. The muscles were hard, his torso tapering down from broad, bony shoulders. Curiosity replaced confusion in his face, but the expression remained honest for a long moment before hardening into something almost predatory. He pushed himself up in a deliberate motion.

"Now?" he asked.

"Can you?"

He nodded, never breaking eye contact.

"Then yes," I told him.

His lips twitched up at the corners, back towards a smile. He leaned forward, kissed my mouth softly, tongue flicking out to taste me before pulling back. "Alright," he said. "I'll get some ice."

Standing, Duo turned away from me, and left. He grabbed the bucket from the dresser as he passed, arms snapping out while his eyes remained forward. I was left alone on the bed, wondering what I had just agreed to.

It felt like I waited for a long time in that blank, conservative hotel room. When the droning of the television got on my nerves, I turned it off. I understood that when Duo got back, he was going to do something which seemed to me ought to be very painful, something which ought to be done by a professional, if it were going to be done at all... and I didn't have a problem with that. My stomach rolled, but I wasn't afraid. The skin on the back of my neck prickled, my palms grew sweaty, but I wasn't anxious.

The time stretched out, as though it was slipping sideways. I was aware of the nap of the carpet under my bare feet, the fabric of the blanket under my hands, water dripping from my hair and down my back. It was cooler than in the bathroom, thinner, and the moisture from my shower cooled still clinging to me.

I listened to my own breathing, counting the minutes in the slow rush of air in and out of my lungs. In the quiet, I could hear Duo's footfalls coming down the hall. The sound came closer. The door swung inward on oiled hinges. He came back in and set the ice down on the nightstand, then went to his duffel bag. The zipper was loud. He didn't speak while he rummaged through his things. I watched him, waiting to see what magic he'd produce.

He found a pair of heavy safety pins. A muscle in my chest twitched, and I licked my lips.

"Are those clean?" I asked, the question coming from somewhere far away, where I still thought of things like that.

"Not yet," he said, taking a seat across from me on the bed. "But they will be. Take off your shirt." He paused. "You might want to lay down for this."

I hesitated only briefly before obeying. I was already in. I couldn't see a reason to get squeamish now. After pulling off my sweater, I lay back on the bed. Whatever happened next was on Duo.

His lighter appeared, flicked open. He ran the pins through the fire one at a time, until both were blue with oxidization. He shook them out afterward. The pins were set on the pillow beside me. I tried to swallow. It took three tries.

Apparently that was all the preparation Duo needed. He brought the bucket onto the bed and pulled out a chunk of ice. "This is going to be cold," he warned me, rolling the ice through his fingers.

"Yes," I agreed. "It's ice."

He snorted, an eyebrow lifting to a wry angle. One side of his mouth curved in half a smile. Then he pressed the ice to my nipple. I hissed sharply, reflex making me pull away, but he grabbed my shoulder and held me steady. He didn't need a witty comeback. The chunk of ice melted on my chest, sending a stream down my side. I gritted my teeth and tried to relax while the cold became less biting.

He switched sides, and I managed not to flinch.

Water dripped down my ribs.

Finally, he took the ice away and threw it back in the bucket. "Think you're ready?"

If dark could shine, that was what was in his eyes. The hand on my shoulder traveled down to my stomach, and I wondered if he could feel it fluttering.

I nodded.

Duo shifted, pulling one knee up on the bed, then sliding over so his thigh touched mine. He shook his head. The braid tried to fall over his shoulder, only to be caught. He muttered something; I didn't hear what. Then, all of the sudden, he was over me, straddling my legs and leaning forward to look me in the eyes.

"I think this will work better," Duo said, and picked up one of the safety pins. His hand moved up, pinching my nipple and holding it tight. I could barely feel it, half numb from the ice, but the pressure was there. I wasn't sure if it was water or sweat that tickled the back of my neck, but the pillow was already damp. My hands wanted to fist in the blankets.

Duo fixed me with his eyes. "Take three deep breaths, and let them out slowly," he commanded. The pin touched the tight skin on my chest, then positioned itself at the base of the nipple. I inhaled.

As I let out the first breath, he moved suddenly. The rest of the air left my lungs in a rush. I was surprised enough that the pain took a second to catch up. It felt like being bitten. Hard. Then it was done, and Duo clipped the pin closed. I blinked owlishly as I looked down at it, the pin through my body and my mind not knowing how to process that fact. An endorphin laugh bubbled up my throat, stronger than the ache in my chest. I tried to hold it in, but it came out anyway, chuckling at first but growing stronger.

My hands were relaxed now, lying flat and calm on the bed.

Duo's body was hot above me, even through two layers of denim. His fingers slid into the hair by my ear, his thumb tailing over my cheek bone as my laughing fit petered into something too high and too sharp. He looked down at me, his chest rising and falling at quick intervals. There was a flush staining his face.

Picking up the other safety pin, he let the point trail across my chest heavily, raising a narrow red welt. "The other one?"

I studied the red line, oddly distracted. It wasn't bleeding. Not quite. The blood was trapped just under the skin, a line of heat beneath the surface. I could feel my pulse everywhere in my body, throbbing through every vein and pounding in my newly pierced nipple. It seemed I could feel it from Duo, the warmth of his blood tracing maps through his body.

"Yes," I said. My voice came out harsh, as though I hadn't spoke in a long time. Hooking my hands behind his knees and pulling him closer, I repeated it, louder. It almost sounded normal.

He nodded. I kept my eyes locked on his while he placed the pin. His pupils were wide, the color vivid between black and white.

It hurt more the second time. I was expecting it, paying attention to it. I bit back a groan, wincing as he tugged the pin through. Then it was done, and Duo and I were both panting. I gave the backs of his thighs a languid squeeze.

He leaned in slowly, stopping when his lips were by my ear and his breath was fanning my neck. "Do you have any idea how much I want you right now?" he asked in a lazy murmur. His tongue touched my earlobe, then his teeth.

I turned my face toward him, smelled his hair. The scent was strong there. Letting go of his legs, I grabbed his face and pulled him into a kiss, tasted his mouth. Cigarettes nearly hid the flavor, but not entirely. I could still find it here and there. I looked for the places it was strongest--the tang of it sour-sweet and metallic.

Duo's braced his arms on either side of me. My dream flashed through my mind, but was overpowered by the immediacy of now. I wanted him. Wanted him so bad my fingertips itched, and my mouth tingled. I could feel it pulling at my gut and pressing against the hard cloth of my jeans.

His shirt dragged across my chest, catching on the safety pins and pulling at too sensitive flesh. I gasped as pain flared, and then receded sullenly.

Duo laughed low in his throat. Playfully, he asked, "Want me to kiss it and make it better?"

"Dear god, no," I said. His fingers plucked at my jeans' button fly and I arched up, seeking more contact.

Whatever was wrong with me, the last thing I wanted was for it to get better.

+

The pressure was building, burning. I rocked under it without the strength or the will to resist. I moved with it, swept away in the pull. I was part of it. A part of the heat, a part of the dark. Rain or sweat pour down my body, ran down his while he moved over me. Air and rain moved through the leaves.

My back bowed and I clutched Duo over me. I heard him say something that didn't make sense. His body clenched around mine.

When I came, the thundering of my heart stopped.

I woke abruptly, late in the morning. My pulse was crashing in my ears, too loud and reassuring. Duo lay pressed against my back, one arm across my stomach. In his sleep, he muttered something into my shoulder. His fingers drew a few clumsy circles over my belly.

I calmed down eventually, but I didn't get back to sleep. At eleven, I woke up Duo to pack and check out.

+

My nipples were sore and uncomfortable beneath a tee shirt. They distracted me periodically while I drove. I wasn't used to the way they felt. I didn't dislike it, but I wasn't sure yet if I liked it. It was different, and nagging.

Duo was silent and had been since we left the hotel. The smell of his cigarettes was strong, even with the windows down; he'd been smoking for the last two hours or more, lighting a new cigarette as soon as the last burnt down. He fidgeted with them more and more openly as time passed. I didn't know what he was nervous about, but I could feel it. The atmosphere he made was palpable.

I thought about starting a conversation, but the few attempts I made died in infancy. I didn't understand it.

The radio provided noise for awhile, but it didn't make the quiet more comfortable. Even with music, it was quiet. Even with wind rushing in through the windows as I sped down the freeway. It was not, however, still. I found myself choking the steering wheel, and forced my hands to relax. My stomach flopped, maybe hungry. I didn't have much of an appetite, so I ignored it.

Duo lit another cigarette, took one drag, then resumed playing with it, flicking ash that wasn't there.

"Are you alright?" I asked finally.

He snorted. "No. I'm not."

I waited for him to explain, but he didn't. I let it be. If he didn't want to tell me, I wouldn't pry.

Sometime later he asked me to pull over at a rest area. I glanced at him, hiding his face behind his sunglasses. There weren't any clues in his expression. He wasn't smiling. He wasn't frowning. I shrugged and took the next exit.

The parking lot was nearly empty. A yellow Civic took up the only other occupied space. I noted it incuriously, saw the bags piled in the back. A kid who was going home for the holidays, I guessed. It was about that time.

I thought of my own family, probably worried about me, probably frantic. I pictured my mother's living room without a tree, or the few other tasteful decorations she allowed to clutter her space. My brother would be there, comforting a woman who gave no outward sign of being scared. Mother would be sitting on the sofa, her hands neatly folded in her lap. Her left hand would be on top, her diamond visible and catching the light. The tension was there, but only if you knew were to look: the corners of her mouth puckered slightly, her eyes swollen beneath her make up, and a frown line just barely cracking her brow. My brother looked harried in my mind's eye. I felt a pang, but I couldn't hold onto the guilt. It faded almost as soon as I recognized it.

Duo opened his door and stepped out, stretching, then slammed it closed without locking it. He walked around to my door and opened it. "Come on, Heero," he said with a jerk of his chin.

"Why?"

"You could use the air."

My eyebrows lifted a little. I drew back, a retort shaping in my mouth, but the look on Duo's face stopped me. He wanted me out of the car. Now. If he had to drag me out by the hair or by the balls, then he would. I doubted he was actually strong enough to overpower me bodily, but that look said he was willing to try, just with the slight flare of his nostrils. I unbuckled my seatbelt and got out on my own.

He led the way across the parking lot toward the restrooms, and I followed. I was confused. I have never enjoyed not knowing what was happening. "What are we doing?"

"Waiting," he said, still walking. He sucked on his cigarette, then dropped it to the ground.

I expected him to go into the restroom, but he didn't. Instead, he stopped just outside. He took off his sunglasses, and then shoved his hands in his pockets. I copied him unconsciously. The air smelled like sage and sand. Overhead, the sky was getting darker. Sunset was a ribbon on the western horizon, and the moon a thumbnail sliver to the Northeast. I wished I hadn't left my coat in the car.

What are we waiting for, I wanted to ask. Why are we here? What the hell's got into you?

Wind stirred Duo's bangs, tugged at my hair. It sounded like a snake slithering over the ground and shaking the dry brush. I remembered Duo's tattoo, the article in the paper, all my dreams, and the warm shape of his body pressed against my back, all in a rush.

The door to the women's bathroom opened and a girl walked out. She was tall, taller than either Duo or me, with skin the color of coffee and too much creamer. The door closed behind her.

"Watch," Duo commanded me. His voice rasped more than normal. Then he walked toward the girl. He smiled, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. "Miss," he called to her, and she turned. "Just a minute."

Her features took on a wary cast, but she stopped. I doubted she was really afraid of Duo. She struck me as the kind of girl who was used to being able to take care of herself, the kind who regularly beat up her brothers and ruled over her boyfriends. She wasn't stupid, though. She knew she was alone. She had her car keys between her fingers, and looked ready to punch Duo in the face if he made the wrong move.

Duo's smile didn't falter as he approached her. He reached out slowly, like he was going to touch her shoulder. A friendly gesture. The girl started to back up, to move out of range.

The next move was too quick for me to follow. Duo grabbed the girl's right wrist pulled her around, pressing her back to his chest. His other arm wrapped around her middle, holding her tight.

She screamed once, then he covered her mouth holding her immobile with one arm.

"Get over here," he yelled to me as he manhandled the girl.

There was a moment that seemed long at the time, where I considered pulling him off that girl, demanding to know what he was about. I considered leaving. In reality, I doubt I waited more than fifteen seconds before I walked over to join him, subdued as a scolded puppy.

He held her at an awkward angle--her height forced her to bend backward to accommodate their position. The girl's eyes were wide, white showing all the way around the iris, but she wasn't struggling. I didn't believe that Duo could have really held her like that if she had been, but she wasn't. Duo shushed her like she was fussing child, blowing "Shooshshoosh" by her ear.

"What the hell...?" I didn't know what to say or where to start.

"Watch," he told me, meeting my eyes. His were flat, and glittering-hard. Then he bit her. I heard the girl whimper, but she didn't scream again, even when Duo's hand moved down her to cup her chin and tilt her head to the side. Blood welled up around the seal of his lips, beaded and ran down her neck in a thin trickle of red over warm mulatto skin. It seemed like forever he stayed that way, mouth clamped on her neck and very little blood flowing down. His throat worked slowly while I stared.

Something in my head clicked, but I didn't want to believe it.

Duo was breathing hard when he came up again. Blood stained his lips, filled the spaces between his teeth. My chest tightened. I think my heart trembled. The bite on her neck wasn't like the movies, not two neat little holes. It was ragged, and ugly, and nearly human shaped. But human teeth can't break through skin like that; they press and bruise, until the skin rips. A word came to mind, but I didn't want to hear it. It hung in the air between us, ignored while Duo watched me expectantly, waiting for me to make a decision.

I came back to the wound on the girl's neck again and again. The thing must have hurt, but she wasn't crying. I looked at her eyes and found them glazed. She wasn't seeing me.

Blood spilled over skin.

It wasn't really a choice.

I moved slowly, unsure. One of my hands landed on her shoulder, steadying me, the other went to her hip, as though we'd dance. I leaned in slowly and covered the bite with my mouth. I tasted blood, the same as it had always been. At first hardly more than saltwater, then developing a coppery, metallic tang. It tasted like sweat and pennies. I shivered and leaned in closer, pressed my body against the girl's and crushed her against Duo. The hand on her hip moved to his, tugged them both closer. My body knew what it needed, no matter how it tasted. My mind blanked to a perfect, focused, white.

I know that the girl's knees gave out at some point, and that Duo kept her upright. I could hear a soft whimper in her throat, and her respiration become labored. I heard her pulse strain. When the flow of blood in my mouth slowed, I licked the wound, then scraped my teeth across it.

She gasped. Made a move against me. Her heart faltered, then resumed a new rhythm. I think I realized in some part of my brain that she had passed out, but I didn't really care. My throat worked thickly, felt coated. The flavor became cloyingly bittersweet, like the aftertaste of too much sugar. Heat spread through me gradually, warming first my chest, then my abdomen, and finally extending into my arms and legs. I could feel it in my fingers and in my toes.

My stomach churned in protest. I let go suddenly, staggering backward. My hand went to my mouth, touched my lips and came away tacky and red.

Duo let the girl slide out of his arms. She fell to the ground in a limp heap. I watched her, and my throat tried to close. Nausea invaded my stomach. The sick-sweet taste was in my mouth. I tried to swallow, but I couldn't clear it out.

I retched, and knew I was going to throw up.

I made it as far as the grass before falling to my knees and heaving. Nothing came up. Fluid stuck in my throat, as though my body was unwilling to give up what it had taken. I coughed and spat blood and saliva while my stomach wrenched mercilessly, but it didn't happen. I couldn't make my throat relax enough. Struggling to breath, I knelt there while spasms rocked me.

I couldn't throw up. I couldn't. My head pounded and my eyes stung, my nose burned. Those damn nipple rings throbbed painfully.

Duo sat down next to me and lit a cigarette. He waited while my stomach slowly settled, leaving me wrung out and useless. I panted for a long time afterward. I finally stopped wheezing. My body cooled. I still shook, but I finally sat back gracelessly.

"I don't really have many answers," he said at last. "I wish I did." I looked at him, turned to me in profile. He'd cleaned his face. I wiped mine on my sleeve.

"What..." I began. I didn't know what to say though. Shaking my head, I snatched his cigarette. The taste in my mouth stuck, too real. I brought it to my mouth and inhaled, then choked. While I coughed, he took the cigarette back.

"Tastes like shit, doesn't it?" he asked, then laughed ruefully.

"It didn't--"

"Taste like that when you smelled it? On me?" he finished.

I nodded.

"I know."

I took a deep breath. The night air cleared my lungs and my nose, but the taste of blood remained. "Why do you smoke those?" I asked.

"Because I can." He shrugged. Finishing off the cigarette, he stood and dusted off his jeans. Offering me his hand, he said, "Now, I really hate to rush you, but we should probably be getting out of here."

I looked at the hand he held out. Tattoos circled the wrist. The hand was long fingered, square palmed and capable. I'd felt that hand on me last night, and the night before in the car. It had been real, callused, solid. Accepting, I found it the same. Still warm, still hard, still real. I didn't know how it could be, after what I'd seen, but it was.

His grip was firm as he hauled me onto unsteady feet. I let him take my car keys from me, and didn't protest when he tucked me in on the passenger's side. Duo climbed into the driver's seat, adjusted the mirrors, moved the seat back just a little. The key slipped into the ignition. The engine turned over. Duo backed the car out of the spot I'd parked in, then shifted easily into first. A few minutes later we were back on the road.

+

When we stopped at a twenty-four hour gas station around one in the morning, I was no more enlightened. Duo didn't volunteer information, and I wasn't ready to ask for it. I had run my tongue over my teeth several times during the course of the night, and they were the same as ever--normal, blunt human teeth. Duo's weren't. They couldn't be if they could break skin as easily as they had. I tried to remember if they'd felt sharp when I kissed him, but I couldn't.

"Hey," Duo said, pulling me out of my reverie, "We should change your shirt. There's blood on your sleeve."

I blinked, looking down at my arm. A rusty, red-brown stain smeared across the white fabric. The shirt was probably ruined. Duo plucked at my collar. I took the hint and stripped out of the tee shirt, changing into a grey sweat shirt.

Taking the stained shirt from me and wadding it up into a little ball, Duo asked, "You want a bottle of water or anything while I go in to pay?"

I started to say, no, but changed my mind. The aftertaste of blood clotted in my mouth. "Water would be nice."

"Okay, buddy," he said, and patted my shoulder. "I'll be back in a minute."

I nodded and watched distractedly as he got out. Shivering, I hugged my arms to my chest, then winced as I caught the safety pins through my nipples. I shivered again. It wasn't cold.

I remembered the girl's car, her things in the backseat, and tried to feel guilty. I didn't know if she was dead or not, but we'd left her bleeding on the ground. I should ask. I should know in the first place.

I didn't feel guilty, though. I felt good. Once my stomach had settled and the pounding in my head quieted, I felt better than I had in a very long time. I wasn't tired, or restless, or sick. I didn't hurt. And I didn't have to go to work in the morning, or deal with my family. I could go to New York, or San Francisco, or New Orleans. I could go wherever I wanted. The only difference was how long it would take to get there. If I wanted, I could sell my car and get a plane ticket. I had enough money, still, and I thought Duo had taken whatever cash that girl had had on her. I could go to Spain, or Thailand, or Brazil. I could be there in a matter of days.

I wanted to feel guilty, but I didn't. So I shivered.

Lost in thought, I almost didn't hear the first tap at my window. It came a second time, and I looked up. Standing on the other side of my door was a policeman, his uniform looking crisp and official. He motioned with two fingers for me to open the door. I did, and the world seemed to crystallize around me.

"Can I see some ID," he said.

My wallet was in the pocket of my coat, in the back seat. I fished it out and gave it to the officer. He looked at the picture on my driver's license, compared it to my face. I sat still for his scrutiny, trying not to frown.

"You're Heero Yuy?" he asked. He sounded oddly like he didn't believe it.

"I am," I said, meeting his eyes. He returned my wallet.

"Did you know that you were reported missing in the state of Washington?"

The gripping, brittle stillness shattered. I smiled, chuckling, and told him, "I imagine I am, yes."

"If you could come with me so we can get this cleared up..." He didn't make it a question. I would go with him, whether I liked it or not. Whether I liked to or not didn't make a difference to him. My smile vanished.

"Sure," I said. "Let's get this cleared up." The officer moved so I could get out of the car. I did so in no hurry. I considered raising my hands, but I doubted he'd be amused.

Duo appeared out of the store, two bottles of water hanging from his hand and a receipt between his fingers. He froze when he saw me standing with the cop. His expression changed immediately, like a mask had dropped over his face. It was a casual, nonconfrontational look.

"Is there a problem?" he asked.

"No," I told him, meeting his eyes. He might have flinched away from the look, but his persona was too complete. "No problem. I just have to take care of some things."

He nodded his comprehension: we weren't in trouble, so don't start any. My jaw tightened.

I went with the policeman, getting in the back of his cruiser without any complaint. The door locked from the outside, trapping me. Fear flashed through me, cold and brief. If they discovered the college girl's body, would I become a suspect? There were other bodies though, a serial killer, and I had been at home, no where near the first two. They couldn't think that I was responsible. They couldn't pack up and send me back to my family, either. I think that frightened me more. After getting away, they'd send me back.

I wouldn't go back. I couldn't bear the thought of going back to the offices and the gyms, seeing my brother and my mother again and pretending everything was perfectly normal. Because it wasn't perfectly normal. It wasn't a serial killer. It was a vampire.

My throat nearly closed at that thought. I could still taste the blood in my mouth.

Duo had...

The realization hit me with all the force of a bullet. I couldn't go back. I could go wherever I wanted, but I couldn't stay there. I couldn't have a job, or a family, or a life with other people. I had drunk that girl's blood. I'd needed it. I didn't know how, but I was like him now. A vampire. A killer. I didn't feel guilty, and I knew I would do it again.

My mind spun in slow circles while I rode in the back of the cop car. All I could think was that I wasn't free. I had broke out of one prison, only to have Duo give me another.

"So how did you find me?" I asked the officer, pulling my mind out of things I couldn't deal with at the moment, addressing something I could.

"I ran the plates on your vehicle," he told me. Then he added, "You know, I don't think I'd trust a kid like that driving such a nice car."

He'd fallen for Duo's pretense. Suddenly, I wanted to punch the window just to watch it break. My hands clenched at my sides, and I forced them still.

"Thanks, but it's a little late for that," I said.

+

The police couldn't detain me. I was an adult, I was sane, and I was there under my own volition. While I might have my doubts about two of those three points, I didn't see a reason to disillusion anyone. As far as they were concerned, I was rude and irresponsible, but I was no longer a missing person. Duo was waiting patiently across the street from the police station when I got out, sitting on the hood of my car.

I was ready for some answers now. Gritting my teeth, I strode toward him. Duo stood at my approach, hands in his pockets, eyes hidden behind his aviators despite the fact dawn was still hours away. He looked concerned when he met me.

"What was that about?" he asked, tilting his head to one side.

"I'm no longer missing in Washington," I said tartly, not in the mood to explain further. "Give me my keys."

"Heero?"

"Now," I said. Anger simmered in my gut. It wasn't all for him. Most of it was frustration from having to wait through police procedure when I wanted to know what was happening to me. Enough of it was directed his way, though, that I wouldn't feel bad about taking it out on him.

Duo brought my car keys out of his leather jacket and handed them to me. I almost wished he hadn't, but he didn't give me an excuse that easily. I took the keys and shoved them into my pocket. I inhaled slowly in a conscious effort to control my temper.

"What did you do to me?" I demanded, finally. His eyebrows shot up over the rims of his glasses. "What are you?" I couldn't keep the temper out of my voice. He heard it. He might have looked hurt for an instant, or angry, but it was hidden behind a smile before I could be sure.

"I didn't do a damn thing to you," he answered. "Nothing you wouldn't have done to your own damn self eventually, anyway."

"I don't believe you."

"Then don't believe me, but it's the honest to god fucking truth." He started to turn away. I grabbed his arm.

"What did you do?" I repeated.

Duo looked at me through dark lenses. I could feel his eyes, taking in my face, reading the frustration in my expression, deciding what to make of it. I wanted to take the glasses away from him. He pulled them off, folded them neatly, and hooked them onto the collar of his shirt, beating me to it. "I found you. That's it."

"Found me?" I shook my head. That didn't make sense. I'd picked him up. "What the hell are you?"

His eyes narrowed. "What the hell do you think I am, Heero? What do you think you are?"

"Don't play games with me," I said. Neither of us had raised our voices yet.

"I'm not. I told you I don't have many answers, and I meant it."

We matched each other stare for stare for a long moment. Finally, Duo sighed dramatically. "Walk with me, Heero," he said. "I don't feel like having this conversation in front of a police station."

I resisted the urge to argue with that just on principle, and agreed. This wasn't the place to have this conversation. Wandering around in the dark didn't seem like a huge improvement, but I nodded. Duo chose a direction and start that way. I followed a step behind until he let me catch up.

"So, Heero," he said when we reached the end of the block, "what do you think we are? If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's a goddamn, blood-sucking duck, Heero."

"What if it's more likely that you're some fetishist who gets off on pretending to be a duck?" I asked. "What if that's more likely, because ducks don't exist?"

"I know you don't think that."

"No," I ceded reluctantly. "I don't. I wish I could."

We walked for awhile without speaking. Our footsteps sounded heavy on the sidewalk. There were some early morning commuters out already, but mostly the streets were empty. Finally, I asked, "Why did you do that? Why show me like that?"

"Would you have believed it otherwise?" Duo shot back. His voice was hotter than I expected. Harsher. "If I had said, ‘By the way, buddy, I drink blood, and it's really the way to go,' would you have believed me, or would you have thought I was a sicko? There are worse ways to find out."

"Like?" I asked, turning toward him. "You assaulted a girl in front of me!"

"Like you could have had to figure it out on your own. Like you could have been restless and starving, craving something for months, and not knowing what," he hissed at me, throwing his hands in the air. His mask cracked and I could feel his irritation crackling around me like electricity. I could smell it, sweet and rotten. "Like you could have had to work up the nerve to try it for yourself. You could have had to knife someone, because you couldn't bite them. I'm sorry if I'm not too good at this, but I'm doing the best I can."

"What do you know?"

"I know that you don't want food, and sunlight hurts my eyes. I know cigarettes don't taste the way they should, and if you drink alcohol, you'll be the sickest you've ever been in your life," he said. "I know that a few months ago, I was cutting people, and now I don't have to."

"That's not enough," I said after a minute of silence.

"No, it's not," he agreed. "But it's what I got. I'm figuring this stuff out as I go. Take it or leave it."

I sighed, eyes drooping closed for a moment. I couldn't even be properly angry. I wanted to be angry, really, screaming angry. Or scared. Something so I could storm off and go home. So I could choose to leave it. Shaking my head, I opened my eyes. There was a phone booth on the corner. I fished through my pocket for change. Duo frowned when I stopped and started dropping quarters into the machine.

"You're making a phone call?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes," I told him. "And it's long distance, so he better wake up."

The phone rang three times, and I thought I would get the answering machine. I frowned; I'd wanted to say this in person. Then someone picked up, and a sleepy, female voice greeted me. My brother's wife.

"Ellony." I couldn't keep the displeasure out of my tone.

"Heero!" She was awake now. "Do you know what time it is? Where are you? Jin has been worried sick."

"Let me talk to my brother," I told her, ignoring her questions.

There was an extended instant where I'm sure she was considering yelling at me herself. Then she answered, "Just a second. I'll get him."

"You calling your breeder brother?" Duo's lighter snicked behind me. He sounded amused.

"Shut up."

"Hello, Heero?" my brother's voice came over the phone. He sounded tired, but alert. It was still the middle of the night where he was. Alert was all I could ask for.

"Hello, Jin," I said, considering what to say next. I could feel Duo's attention on my back. "I just wanted to call and let you know that I'm alright."

"You're alright?" he repeated sluggishly. "Heero, where are you? What the hell are you doing?" Duo snickered. My brother heard. "Who are you with?"

"Don't worry about it," I said. "It's not important."

"I'm hurt."

"Heero, who is that?"

"Just someone I met," I snapped, glaring over my shoulder at Duo. He flashed a grin that could have cut glass.

Pause. "That was a man's voice."

"I know that."

"Heero, what's going on?"

"I wanted to let you know that I'm fine, Jin," I told him firmly. "I'm sorry I left, and I'm sorry, but I won't be coming back."

"Heero?"

I was getting sick of hearing my name. "Goodbye, Jin."

"Wait! Are you going to call back when... when you know where you'll be? Let us know how to contact you?"

I hesitated only a moment. "No, I won't. Tell Mother goodbye for me."

I didn't wait to hear his response, hanging up the phone before he found the words. For a long while I stood there, staring at the phone. When I finally turned around, Duo wore a smug smile. I shook my head resignedly and led the way back to the car.

Fin

[part 2] [back to Singles l - z]