Author: June
Rating: R
Pairings: 5xOMC, eventual 2x5x2
Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam Wing or its characters, or Mountain Goats lyrics
Warnings: um, I'm just gonna rub my hands together and cackle. How's that.

Note:Takes placed IMMEDIATELY after the last part of the chapter 14. You might want to read it for a bit of a refresher. And uh, sorry for the delay. I got distracted by Nabari no Ou. What, it's got ninja! How could I resist?

Reformation/Reaffirmation + Chapter 15

You headed out to the getaway car
and hit the open road
I saw something written in tall clear letters on your face
but I could not break the code.
We had hot caramel sticking to our teeth
and the only love I've ever known burning underneath
I'm gonna miss you when you're gone.

- "The Recognition Scene"

We walked down the hall side by side, and I'd been on this route enough times since I'd been here that the guards left us alone so long as we promised not to leave the floor. It looped around anyway, so we could make a complete circuit without having to turn back. Two weeks without Duo had me making this trek alone more often than not, although, in the beginning, Heero had walked it with me, working on my endurance. Duo stayed close now, right by my elbow, even though it was obvious that I didn't need his help. But he hadn't seen me since I'd been able to take more than a few steps on my own, so he probably half-expected me to keel over when a new muscle gave out. I didn't bother to correct him and every time his elbow brushed mine, I found myself looking down at our hands to see just how close they were.

After one loop made in silence, he handed me the bottle of iced tea he'd grabbed off the table before we'd left the room. "Oh, yeah, here. This was for you, but I got a little thirsty on the way over from Kathy's." I took the bottle, and saw that he'd only had a few swallows of it. "It's that fancy kind you like."

It was jasmine, unsweetened, and I did like it. "Thanks."

He kept his eyes straight ahead and smiled. "Yeah, drink up. Don't wanna get dehydrated with all this exercise you've been doing." Then he did turn to look me over. "You look good, ya know? Almost like before you got sick and all this shit happened."

I took a long drink from the bottle. The tea had gotten a little warm, but it was much better than the watery cranberry juice I'd been drinking for over two weeks. "It's all thanks to the high calorie protein bars Barton shoves down my throat and the number of hours Yuy has invested in my muscle rehabilitation." It was also due to the additional exercises I did at night, between the midnight and three a.m. nurse checks. T'ai chi with Heero, along with other flexibility exercises, had worked to get me healthy again, but they weren't making me stronger, not like I'd been before I'd gotten sick. The routine for the last two weeks had been sleeping until about one and training myself until half past two, or until I was ready to drop, whichever came first. And it was working. Not only was I making quicker progress, but I was also so tired by the end of it, that I could pass out right afterward and not have to think about the next ten months of my life. I was not looking forward to living with Rorty at night and bringing him coffee during the day, and I was certain Duo would hate the idea, too.

"But thanks," I added, flushing a little. I drank more of the tea and waited for him to talk.

"So, uh, it's protective custody, then?" He finally said, reaching around to rub the back of his neck and giving me a sidelong glance.

I nodded. "I see I don't have to give you the good news."

He shrugged. "Heero told me when I got back in town."

I snorted a humorless laugh. "Did he mention his proposed alternative?"

Duo returned the laugh. "Yeah, the three of you living together for nearly a year? I mean, if only that was how the world worked, you never would have come here in the first place."

"So, you don't think the solution of protective custody is the right one?" I was fishing for more from him, and he could probably tell.

He shook his head. "I don't think you're ready to go back there at all, let alone live with the administrators who you think orchestrated this whole thing."

His tone rubbed me the wrong way, like he thought I really couldn't handle living at RCNP again. "What do you mean, 'not ready?'" I snapped, feeling secure in my newly reacquired 130 pounds and not entirely opposed to the notion of proving it to him.

"I mean, you just got cut to ribbons, and now they're sending you back not four weeks after it happened!" He turned to look me over again and his eyes flew wide just as I stepped into his space with a mean smile and twisted his arm around into a solid hold, shoving him neatly up against the wall and kicking his legs apart in the kind of time that would have made any Preventer proud. And all this without dropping the iced tea bottle. Moving like that didn't hurt, and I wasn't out of breath. It was a stupid display of testosterone, but I didn't care. It felt good to do that and not have an officer breathing down my neck, telling me to 'ease off,' and 'get back to your cell' and, 'you can look forward to extra kitchen duty this week, Wufei.'

Pinning him in place like that, I felt his sharp breathing in the way his back pressed against my arms and I quickly let him go, stepping back as he straightened himself out. His neck and ears were stained bright red, which I'd learned meant he was really embarrassed. "You were saying?" I drawled, and he stuck his tongue out at me, tugging on his sleeves and running a hand through his hair.

"Yeah, okay, so you can be intimidating again -- big deal, Chang," he grumbled. "You're honestly gonna tell me you're not scared to go back? You're not scared at all?"

I held his gaze for another few seconds and then frowned down into the tea, taking a small sip, and thinking that maybe I shouldn't have used so much energy so soon. I felt like I'd just stood up too quickly getting out of bed.

He was right of course -- I would be an idiot to feel no trepidation in returning to RCNP. But -- "About that, Duo." I paused, scanning the corridor for a chair.

"About what," he said irritably, looking both ways down the hall.

"Duo, I've -- since you've been away, I've had to confront the fact that, if Prescott had really wanted me dead, she wouldn't have had me flown here, and she certainly wouldn't have authorized Regen." I made my way over to a small waiting area and lowered myself into a chair, feeling a little better. I looked up to see Duo standing in front of me.

"So, what are you saying?"

I shrugged. "I'm saying that Prescott told me she was putting me in protective custody because Karl told her my identity as a Gundam pilot had been leaked. I'm saying maybe she put me in Regen because she really does want me to join Preventers after this is all over."

"And that she really doesn't give a shit that you and Karl thought she'd been behind the deaths of Bennett and Wasyliw?"

"Maybe she doesn't even know. Maybe Brandt never told her. I don't know, but, Duo, think about it -- why would she save my life and authorize the miracle fix for organ and tissue trauma if she wanted me dead?"

Duo didn't answer right away, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking at the floor. I started to stand up, about to suggest that we go back to my room, when I experienced another wave of dizziness so severe that I had to sit down again. Duo looked up and then scanned the hallway again.

"I think I overdid it," I said, and my voice slurred a little. "I need to get back to my room to lay down for awhile."

He was at my side in the time it took me to blink, taking the bottle from my hand and sliding his arm under mine. "Okay, buddy, take it easy. Told ya you weren't ready."

"Bite me, Maxwell," I grunted, trying to focus my blurring vision.

He ignored me and hoisted me to my feet without another world, steadying my arm around his shoulders, holding on tight to my wrist. "Lean your head on me, alright?" he said when I was settled. "We'll be there in a second; just keep it together until then."

We walked as quickly as I could manage, and I was grateful that it was dark and that most of the visitors and staff had gone home. The shift had changed shortly before we'd started on our walk so there wouldn't be a nurse waiting to scold me for over-exerting myself. The halls were mostly empty and when we reached my room, the two night guards were leaning back in their chairs with their eyes closed, not even looking our way. Duo's other arm was wrapped tightly around my ribs and it felt warm and secure there. I was getting a little chilled and when I shivered he tightened his grip.

"Easy, Wu. Just had to insist on a walk, didn't ya."

We shuffled over to the bed and he had to shove my legs up onto the mattress. I could barely move them, but I realized, as he straightened them out in front of me, it wasn't because of muscle pain or weakness. In fact, nothing hurt.

"Duo, something's wrong." I turned to watch him drag a chair close to my bed, his blue eyes dark and hooded. "I can't feel my legs. You should go get the nurse."

He met my eyes and then took my hand where it lay limp beside me. I could barely feel him squeeze my fingers, even though I really, really wanted to. Then he shook his head.

"...You're not going to get the nurse?"

He squeezed again. "No, Wu."

My eyelids drooped and I forced them open again. "Why n -- " I saw the near-empty bottle of tea on the table and fought to return my eyes to his. They were impossibly heavy by then, even though my brain was trying to shoot my limbs full of adrenalin. My heart thudded loudly in my ears but I felt nothing. "Those guards are asleep, aren't they."

He nodded, "Yeah."

I licked my lips, my tongue thick and heavy in my mouth. "You donno what you're doing. You donno what this'll mean for you."

He squeezed harder and I just barely felt it. "I know exactly what I'm doing. What I should have done a long time ago."

I fought to put together the last words I knew I'd be able to get out before the drug put me under. "Duo, why didn' y'just ask me?"

Surprise registered in his eyes the moment before I was out.

+

The gentle rhythm of a moving vehicle was the first sensation I became aware of, followed by the warmth of the sun on my face, and then the feel of a seatbelt across my chest and waist. I tried moving my fingers and felt fabric upholstery under one hand and fake leather under the other. My cheek was pressed against similar material and when the vehicle went over a bump in the road, my head lolled from side to side before coming to rest again. Whatever road I was on, there were lots and lots of bumps, along with tight curves and steep slopes. I heard gears down-shifting and then cranking up again, heard the vehicle struggle up the hills and roar back down.

My mouth was dry and disgusting, and I was cold. I tried to hug my arms tighter around myself and found that they could move, and that they were clothed in an unfamiliar, but comfortable shirt. I wiggled my toes and found them inside sneakers that were a little too big. And I realized I was wearing jeans for the first time, ever.

I finally cracked an eye open and saw that I was outside -- really outside -- for the first time in over two years. The window was down far enough to allow a cool breeze on my face, and I breathed it in, smelling mountains.

"You awake?"

I grunted a rough, "No," before opening the other eye to get a good look at the view outside the window. The mountains were big and covered in green. A few trees had turned bright red. "Where are we?"

Beside me, in the reflection of the glass, I could see Duo chuckle. "Smack in the middle between Milan and Venice and headed north to the foothills of the Alps." He handed me a bottle of water, and I turned to glare at him. "Nothing in this one, I promise," he said, as though drugging me before had been only the tiniest of violations.

I stretched in my seat and took the bottle, sniffing it before taking a few swallows. I didn't feel too hungover, just like I'd had a really good night's sleep. "How long was I out?"

I shoved the water bottle into a cup holder in the console, and he down-shifted to get around a steep, downhill curve. "'Bout twelve hours."

"Have you slept yet?" It was something to fill the space while I got myself together, but he laughed and shook his head.

"No -- why, you offering to drive?"

I rolled my neck and blinked a few times. My eyes were gritty and my limbs still felt heavy. "Not unless you're planning on taking us into one of these ditches or down the side of a mountain. Because I think I could manage that." He laughed again and fell silent. "Where are we going, anyway?"

"Gonna go pick up Scythe where I stashed her."

"Where I imagine she's hidden by your illegal cloaking system."

He grinned straight ahead. "You got it, buddy."

"And where -- "

"Hey," he cut me off, turning to give me a nervous grin. "Let's not spoil it, okay?" I raised an eyebrow at him and he reached over to pat my knee. "Just trust me."

I looked away out the window at the dramatic scenery whizzing by in a blur of green and brown. "Funny thing, I do."

+

"Duo, are you out of your goddamn mind? Did you wake up and just forget to bring along your usual capacity for rational thought? What could you have been thinking? Do you have absolutely no sense of self-preservation, no concept of consequences or repercussions? Did you even think about what would happen to you if you got caught drugging two guards and kidnapping me from the hospital? What -- How could you -- Why didn't you just...? Aarrgghh!"

"Now he's awake."

"Shut up. Just shut up. I need to think. I need to figure out what the fuck I can do to fix this. You know, you never change, do you? Two wars, one of our best friends is dead, I am -- I was -- incarcerated, and you still operate like you're invincible, like nothing can touch you. I just realized you're the biggest egomaniac I've ever known to think that you could pull off something like this."

"Am I not pulling it off?"

"Are we on your ship yet, safely speeding through outer space with no Earth Sphere officials on our tails?"

"No, but -- "

"Are you absolutely certain that we won't be followed or pursued or hunted no matter where we go from here on out?"

"Of course not."

"Can you guarantee that neither of us will be thrown in prison for the rest of our lives if we're caught?"

"Well, that seems a little drastic, don't you -- "

"Can you?"

"No, Wufei, I can't guarantee that the two of us won't be in deep shit if we're caught."

"Then, no, you're not pulling it off! You are far from pulling it off. You are so far from pulling it off that we can't even get to your ship, because someone followed you here when you dropped it off. And now we're stuck here at the bottom of the hill, in this piece of shit truck, which has made me carsick, with at least three vehicles full of Preventers swarming around the top of the hill with your ship in the middle of it."

"Sure, but they can't get in. Only I can get in."

"...How can you be so calm about this?"

"'Cause I've got you to help me bust her out."

"Duo, let's try to be rational here, for just a few seconds, okay?"

"Okay."

"You are a Preventer. Even if you don't have a badge, they pay you to help them. You cannot fight them in order to get onto your ship. You cannot shoot Preventers if you are a Preventer."

"So, what, you wanna go back to the hospital and just say, 'Sorry, my friend tried to spring me from prison. But I didn't wanna go, so I'm back now. Go 'head and take me in?'"

"Yes!"

"Well, I can't do that. Remember, right before you passed out, you said, 'Duo, why didn't you just ask me?'"

"No, I don't remember that."

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You were pretty far gone. But you did say it, and then I thought for a minute that maybe I hadn't even needed to drug you, that you would have just walked out with me. Why do you, all of a sudden, want to go back to prison?"

"You'd drugged me; how could you expect me to be thinking straight? And it's not a prison; it's a rehabilitation facility."

"Ha. Ha."

"And I don't want to go back."

"Then why -- "

"I don't want you to end up there with me, you dimwit, or worse, somewhere I can't see you -- or, look out for you, somewhere I can't look out for you."

"...Oh."

+

"It's time to make a choice, Wu," he whispered, keeping his eyes on his ship -- or where he knew his ship to be. The six Preventers circling around it were tossing stones at it to figure out its dimensions. "You either help me get my ship out of this mess, or you do somethin' real ugly to get these guys to take you back to Rome."

I crouched next to him on the rocky slope and watched the officers circle what appeared to be nothing in the middle of an old gravel lot. "I'm not ready to make that choice yet, so keep talking a little longer. Tell me how they followed you here when your illegal cloaking technology was functioning perfectly."

He shifted closer and sat back on his heals. "Ah, well, unfortunately, I don't think it's a very interesting story. Scythe's not a noisy ship, but she runs pretty hot -- keeps me warm in space, ya know? And, more importantly, she runs less efficiently in Earth's atmosphere, so she leaves a heat trail for those who're lookin' for it. Which, apparently, somebody was."

"You weren't figuring that anyone would track where you went?"

He shook his head and then winced when one of the agents tossed a larger rock out of what appeared to be sheer boredom. It clanked noisily against metal and then rolled a few yards away. "Rome's a busy spaceport, and I told'em I was just taking her to Sam's for some maintenance. They don't usually track small vessels traveling domestically, not until you reach another port town and they latch onto your codes -- which they wouldn't have anyway 'cause I was cloaked."

"And yet..."

"And yet."

"So, why aren't Yuy and Barton here? You'd think they'd be the first to arrive if Preventers knew it was your ship."

"Maybe no one told them."

"Or maybe, they're doing the smart thing and distancing themselves from you, since you've abruptly turned felon."

He shook his head and turned to give me an angry stare. "Wufei, if you don't decide what you're gonna do in the next few seconds, I'll have to decide for you, and that's probably something you'll resent me for in the future, so either shut up and think or tell me you'll help -- "

"Hsst! Listen!"

He shut his mouth and I could see him straining to hear the agents' conversation, but his eyes didn't leave mine, even as what the men said reached our ears.

"...next shift'll get here in about thirty minutes."

"Finally; I'm takin' off now, then. Been here since dawn, and I gotta get some sleep before my next shift. Tony, you comin'?"

"Are you sure you want to leave before Barton and Yuy arrive? You know how they get about that kind of thing."

"Oh, shit," Duo hissed.

"Eh, they're half my age and half my size. They can kiss my fat ass if they wanna make trouble for me."

"Now what?" I whispered. We both jumped at the sound of car doors slamming and an engine roaring to life, tucking ourselves further behind the rocks and waiting for the car to wind past us on its way down the hill. I hoped our truck was far enough out of sight that the two agents who'd just left wouldn't spot it.

"Four agents, two vehicles and twenty minutes," Duo murmured, twisting around to root in the duffel he'd brought along.

"Will they turn you in?" I asked. "Would they do that?"

He turned back to me and grabbed my hand, pressing a loaded Glock into it. "What do you think?"

My hand closed around the grip and it felt like I'd held a weapon like this in a distant, previous life -- certainly not my own. "Is that a rhetorical question, because I'm not sure of the answer. That's why I asked you."

"Okay, look," he whispered, tucking his own weapon into the back of his jeans and then taking hold of my arm. "I know you were in a place whose MO was to train all of this out of you, to make you forget how to do this, to make you believe that it's wrong to do what I'm about to do. So, I understand why you're scared, and I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do. But I'm gettin' the hell outta here and I'm taking my ship with me, and I drugged you and your guards so that I could take you with me, because I believe that it's wrong to put you back in that place where you could be hurt or killed without any of us able to do a damn thing to stop it. So I'd really like it if you came along, because I broke a few laws for you and I'm about to break a few more."

He scrubbed his free hand under his nose and then reached for his bag again, pulling out a black cap and tugging it down over his hair. "So, this is the plan, and if you wanna help me pull it off, that'd be great. First, I have to take care of their radios. Then I have to take care of them. The first part, I can handle on my own. The second part would be a lot easier if you could get the jump on 'em from behind. I'll draw their attention; you go for the quick and sneaky. We do it before our buddies get here and then we don't have to worry about whether they'll turn us in or not. Sound good?"

I looked down at the gun in my hand and then up at Duo. His face was partially hidden in the shadow of his cap, and he cut a familiar figure, crouching on the ground beside me. Even that daredevil grin was lurking in the corner of his mouth. "You won't kill those agents."

The grin spread across his face. "Those guys? No way. I'm crazy, but I'm not stupid."

"Because if you kill them, it's all over. We can never -- "

"Pssh, who do you think you're dealing with?" he interrupted, squeezing my arm and then pulling the brim of his hat lower on his face. "You stay here, and wait for your moment. You'll know it when you see it." Then he turned away and crept off along the hillside, taking his duffel with him.

"Hopefully, not the God of Death," I murmured belatedly.

As soon as he was out of sight, the haze of disbelief that I'd been holding around myself against this entire situation cleared. The strange sounds of birds chirping and tree branches blowing together in the breeze, along with the feel of damp earth and vegetation under my knees was enough to make it all very real. I was here; my senses weren't lying to me.

I thought of roughly twelve more things I wanted to shout at his retreating back. I almost stood up and yelled at him right then.

Where are we going to go from here? Have you thought about what you've done to us? What are we going to do now?

I drew a breath to shout every curse I knew, in every language I knew, and instead leaned my head back against the rock and reached for my center, tried to find a bit of balance and quiet before I committed myself to the kind of life I'd been in RCNP to avoid. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of four Preventers' feet shuffling through gravel. I listened to them speak about the nature of Gundam pilots -- what kind of threat we posed to public safety and security, as well as what kind of people we were, at heart.

"They're wild cards -- unpredictable, dangerous and incredibly influential. They're icons, and in this day and age, they're the wrong kind."

"They're just kids. They're boys, and I don't think they're so unpredictable."

"Oh, so you saw this coming?"

"They want to live their lives. They want a future. They're brothers, and brothers love each other. I'm surprised this didn't happen sooner."

"You're getting soft in your old age, Denton."

"I would tell you it's because I'm a mom, but that would only weaken my case in your eyes. So, I'll just stick with the usual, 'You're a pig.'"

I heard another set of feet on the gravel and knew that Duo had made his presence known.

He'd made his choice long before that moment. I'd realized only after I'd woken up in the truck, that Duo's moment had been two weeks before in the hospital when he'd pressed his forehead to mine and told me to wait for him. The future had opened up in front of him then, and he'd chosen his path with a clear head.

It was laid out in front of me now -- what I could choose -- and it was exciting and wide. The prospect of it quickened my breath. Duo had forced my hand, but I didn't feel helpless. I felt angry, but I felt like this, now, was the first choice I'd ever had to make, really on my own. I felt exhilarated because I wasn't sure I'd ever been fully conscious and in control of a choice before.

I heard them speaking again. "Keep your hands in the air, Maxwell."

"I haven't done anything wrong. I just want my ship."

"You've installed banned technology on your vessel, and you're currently parking it on private property."

"That hardly warrants two handguns aimed at my face."

"Safety first, Maxwell. I know what kind of person you are."

I pushed myself to my feet and turned to hoist myself up onto the rocks, bringing the confrontation on the gravel lot into view. Two Preventers faced Duo -- Denton and her partner. The other two were on the far side of the ship, headed silently for the bow, weapons drawn. I was in plain sight if they only turned around, and I was sure that Duo did see me, though he gave no indication of it, not even a blink. But his eyes were hidden by his cap, and standing their alone, he looked suddenly younger and smaller. They would know that he was armed; he carried himself with the easy posture of someone who didn't fear the future. He stood there, assured of his endless supply of good luck. He was a Death God, after all.

My lips moved even as his did; I knew what he would say before he said it. "You don't know anything about me."

Denton put out a conciliatory hand. "My partner's not looking for a fight, even though his posture says he is. We can't let you leave, Maxwell, but this doesn't need to get ugly."

His tone was light, but it wasn't fooling anyone. "This was ugly the second you followed me here and started throwing rocks at my ship."

I'd heard enough, turning away and climbing back down the rocks. My borrowed sneakers struck the damp earth with a muted thud, and when I circled around to come out from behind them, I felt like the rest of me belonged to someone else as well, like I was borrowing everything in order to be able to do this. I held the gun loosely in my hand and walked out into the lot on the far side of Duo's ship. I distantly heard his voice get a little louder.

"Did someone tip you off, or have you been watching me this whole time?"

"You honestly thought you wouldn't be watched?"

He was talking his way into a fight, as far as they knew. I knew he was waiting for me to decrease their number by half.

I drew up behind the first agent; she hung back on her partner's flank as he used Duo's ship for cover, approaching his fellow agents from the side. About three steps away from her, I shoved the gun into the back of my jeans and closed the distance between us, clamping a hand over her mouth and jamming my knuckles into pressure points down her shoulders and back. She still struggled against me, until I pressed the side of my arm hard against her carotid, holding the choke until she went limp and I could lower her to the ground. Her partner whipped around at the sound of shifting gravel, ready to scold her for making noise, then started in surprise, eyes bulging as I straightened and took four long steps toward him, deciding to leave Duo's gun at my back, even as he drew his. He watched me approach him unarmed, and his moment of hesitation cost him. He finally aimed and fired, but I had already moved into his space, pressing his arms up so that the shot went wide. He stepped back and I forced my left leg between and behind his, gripping his right arm and rocking back away from him. He had to follow me, and when I pushed forward again, he went sprawling onto the gravel. I dropped one knee to press firmly on his chest and then brought my fist down on his temple. He went limp just as the sounds of a struggle erupted out of sight on Scythe's stern. A weapon discharged and I heard a familiar voice grunt in surprise. I pressed a hand to my breastbone as I rose to my feet, feeling the bullet as though it had hit me. I came around the nose of the ship, bringing the scene into view and found two unconscious agents on the ground. My best friend was swaying on his feet, fingering a hole in his shirt and looking at me with wide blue eyes. When he spoke, his voice was pained, and filled with disbelief.

"That guy shot me. He shot me in the chest."

I hadn't stopped since I'd left the cover of the rocks, so I kept moving before I could think or feel anything I wasn't ready for, walking right up to him, grabbing the hem of his ugly gray shirt and tugging it up to look for the hole in his chest that should have killed him. My fingers ran into Kevlar, and I breathed again for the first time in what felt like at least ten minutes.

He laughed and then winced, and then his knees went a little wobbly. I grabbed his elbows and helped him to the ground. "Duo -- "

"He fucking shot me. I thought -- I thought that -- "

I pushed his shirt all the way up and fumbled with the heavy velcro straps holding the vest together, finally getting the thing apart so that I could shove the front panel aside, exposing his pale chest and ribs. And there, over his heart, was a large red blotch, spreading outward even as I watched, like an angry sun.

He coughed. "Shit, that hurts."

"Well, this isn't paint ball," I finally managed to croak, strapping him up again and pulling his shirt back into place.

"I fucking hate paint ball. Why would you want to simulate something like that?"

I pressed a hard kiss to his forehead, and he looked up at me, a little shell-shocked. "I don't know," I answered. "I never played it." Then I grabbed his elbows again and pulled him to his feet. "Come on, outer space and pain killers in just a few minutes if you can keep it together long enough to get me on your ship. I'll even drive."

He blinked and snapped out of it like I'd flipped a switch. "Like hell you will, dude. Scythe likes what I do for her; she's gotten attached, if you know what I mean."

I held onto him as we walked. "I don't think it's entirely appropriate to refer to your ship in that manner."

He gave me a small, careful laugh in return for my attempted joke. "Not like I've seen any other action lately."

"Please don't say things like that about a hunk of metal, no matter how close you are."

"Come on, like you didn't feel that way about your Gundam?"

"Just keep moving, Duo. Yuy and Barton will be here any minute."

Duo pressed a hand to his chest and grimaced. "You think they'll understand? Think they'll forgive us?"

I met his eyes, and I must have still looked pretty angry.

"Forgive me?"

I looked away and gave his arm a gentle shove. "Open the damn door."

He nodded and reached for a remote device on his wrist, punching in a lengthy code. The air around his ship shimmered like the yard on a hot day, and abruptly, there was a ship parked in front of us with a hatch dropping out of its belly. Scythe sat pretty low to the ground, so we both bent nearly double getting under her and up the short ramp. In the few steps it took to get inside, Duo had regained full control of the situation, leading me through the small living area -- consisting of two bunks on the closer wall, a wide couch along the opposite, and a low table bolted to the floor just in front of it -- and into the cockpit. He dropped into his seat like he was coming home, and I took the copilot's chair, waiting silently as he leaned forward over the console, powering up the fuel cells and waking up the main computer.

He took off his cap and tossed it onto the console, as though it were the dash of his truck, and scrubbed a hand through his bangs. Even over Scythe's soft hum, we both heard the sound of car tires on the gravel road, and when I looked to Duo, his tanned cheeks had paled under his freckles.

"We're gonna fly low and fast for a bit before we take off, so you've got about a minute."

I pushed myself back out of the seat and tapped the headrest of his chair as I left the cockpit. "Just get us out of here."

He nodded, and called to me before I'd stepped through to the living area, "We're cloaked again, so they won't be able to see you."

I strode across the small room to one of the four portholes set in the walls, crawling up onto the second bunk to get a look outside through thick, reinforced glass. I braced myself against the wall and the thin mattress as the ship rose smoothly above the lot, displaced air lashing at the two figures standing by their car. Trowa stood with one hand on his waist, the other holding his hair back off his face. Still, several strands escaped and whipped at his cheeks. He looked exceptionally frustrated and angry for someone whose expressions generally ranged from studied indifference to mild disapproval. Heero stood beside him, his face turned up to us, following the sound of the ship. When he raised his hand in farewell, I pressed my own to the glass in return, even though he couldn't see it.

The question of whether or not they'd immediately turn us in was more or less answered when they both leaned back against the hood of the car to watch us, or rather to listen to us rise higher in the sky. I watched them grow smaller until I couldn't see their faces anymore and then turned to slide off the bunk to the floor, trying to keep words like 'enormity,' 'ruined,' and 'future' from tripping me up, instead focusing on how we would make it out of Earth's atmosphere without leaving an easily followed heat trail.

+

"That's where we're going?" I forced myself to let go of the console, wiping away the sweaty hand prints I'd left behind.

"What better way to get to space than the Southern Alps Spaceport?" Duo said with a grin, spreading his arm wide to encompass the bustling facility spreading across two towering peaks.

"You picked the most populated area in the region to get through Earth's atmosphere."

Duo slid a glance my way, but kept his attention on our approach to the bustling spaceport. "You gotta stop thinkin' like a convict and jump-start that terrorist brain I know is still in there somewhere. If you were tryin' to get Shenlong off-planet, where would you do it? Burning shitloads of fuel on some carrier, looking like a comet on any Earth Sphere official's radar, or..."

"I'd hitch a ride, though I'd probably limit myself to a more inconspicuous approach."

He kept his eyes straight ahead, but he was grinning his approval as we came in close to one of the two metal spires pointing to the sky. The larger civilian transports traveled along these tracks until they gained momentum to make it beyond the atmosphere and into space. Judging by the angle of our descent, we were aiming for the hulking ship slowly gaining speed as it traveled up the left-hand spike.

"We're going to have a long discussion after you pull this off," I said, as calmly as possible, gripping the sides of the chair as he dipped us down into a steep dive.

"Whatever you say," he murmured, eyes locked on our approach as we dropped below the transport and then angled back up to come at it from below.

"I'm serious, there are some things we really need to talk about before we strike off into the unknown."

"Sounds good, just... be quiet for a minute. Gotta concentrate."

I heard Scythe's landing gear drop, felt the ship come into sync with the transport's ascent, and then we were abruptly stuck to its side, landing gear retracted, and powerful magnets in Scythe belly anchoring us.

We accelerated quickly after that as the transport climbed through the clouds. I checked the seat restraints across my chest and legs for the third time. I'd made the jump from earth to space before, of course, but never as a stowaway outside the vessel. Beside me, Duo's shoulders were tensed, and I could see perspiration at his temples and along his upper lip. Outside the air was growing thinner and turning the color of twilight. I felt the burning warmth of the atmosphere through the glass as it passed over the heat-resistant nose of the ship, and beside me, Duo wiped his sleeve across his forehead. I had visions of the atmosphere scraping us from the side of the transport like a bug off a windshield in a car-wash. But then, finally, thousands of stars popped into stark relief around us and the cockpit darkened as we left the blue glow of Earth. The transport barreled through space on its own power now, headed for L1.

"This is where we get off," Duo muttered under his breath, punching in the command to release the magnetized feet. "Hold on."

The ship lurched and came loose, decelerating rapidly. We were thrown forward in our seats, but then Duo had the controls in hand, moving us forward and in the direction I knew L2 to be. He accelerated again with such easy confidence that I relaxed back against the head rest, tracking the progress of the transport with one eye, and glancing at the sensors every few seconds to see if we were being followed. As we sped off toward Duo's home colony, it looked like we'd made a clean break, due, I was sure, in no small part to our friends' delay in reporting our escape.

When Duo finally blew out a great sigh and unbuckled his safety harness, I reached down to undo mine as well. He got to his feet and stretched his arms over his head, exposing the Kevlar vest he still wore.

"I'll help you get that off," I said, rising out of the co-pilot chair. "They weigh a ton and itch like hell."

Duo nodded and tugged his shirt over his head, reaching for the first of the velcro straps as he came over to me. I rested my right knee on the seat, leaning back a bit to work on the one side of the vest while Duo continued to struggle with the other. He nearly elbowed me in the nose when one of the straps finally came free, and he huffed a short laugh.

"Sorry. Who knew these things were so hazardous to take off?"

"You've never worn one before?" I grunted, tugging the second strap free and pulling the front and back panels apart, exposing a side view of his ribs and waist, before tackling the last.

"Nope. Never felt like it."

I looked up at him and then leaned a little further back in the chair when he jerked his second strap through its loop. My left leg was now practically between his. "Not even during the war?"

He shrugged, and looked a little sheepish, working on the last one.

"You didn't think you needed it, did you."

He looked away when I pushed his hand from the velcro and helped lift the vest off him.

"Why did you this time?"

He crossed his arms over his bare chest. "There were other variables in the equation 'sides me."

I glanced down at him, and the sight of his naked torso gave me a jolt. I jerked my eyes back up to his. "You sound like Heero."

Duo shrugged again. "Sometimes it's easier to say things in Yuy-speak."

I frowned. "You were worried about what could happen to me, but, I'm not that kind of variable, Duo. I can take care of myself. I was taking care of myself before you -- "

Duo exhaled loudly, dropping his arms. The new bruise on his chest stood out vividly against his pale skin. "Let's not do this yet, okay? Let's just... not."

I realized that I could feel his body heat, standing this close to him; I could feel the tension in his muscles in the nervous energy he exuded. "Then what -- "

He took that last partial-step forward, well and truly invading the space I'd been leaning further back to keep, forcing me to half-sit in the co-pilot chair. "Just -- " Then he put one hand on my shoulder and leaned in to kiss me. He watched me with wide eyes while he did it, finally closing them when I didn't push him away. I closed mine when he tipped his chin up, tilting my head back in his eagerness. I reached out a hand to steady myself and grabbed the underside of his arm, felt sweat-slick skin and squeezed. He was leaning forward at the waist to kiss me and he put his other hand just under my ribs when he brought his torso and legs closer to mine, lifting one knee to rest on the seat between my legs. He made a small sound in his throat and changed the angle of the kiss, sliding his hand from my shoulder to the back of my neck. It was easy to circle my other arm around his waist and pull him down into the chair with me.

It didn't appear so easy for him, though; his back tensed and his lips stilled against mine as he held himself over me. Then he shifted his weight, moving one knee to the outside of my hips and lifting the other up so that he straddled my legs. He opened his eyes and looked down at me. I rested my hands on his thighs and felt the adrenalin rush of our escape still slamming through him. I met his gaze and his eyes were sparking with it. I saw painful awareness of what he'd done to us. He'd known exactly what he was doing, but the weight of it was still heavy, and his body under my hands felt like a live wire.

"We're not going to run into anything in the next few minutes, right?"

By reflex, he glanced over his shoulder, but when he turned back, he shook his head, giving me a nervous grin. "You're letting me kiss you."

I pulled him further into my lap, and he hissed when I boldly pushed up against his him. "I'm kissing you back."

He rolled his hips forward, and I felt tension there, too. "Shit, I've been wound so tight these last couple weeks, being away from you."

I slid my hand up his spine, fingers splayed wide to feel as much of him as I could reach. "Where did you go? Why were you gone for so long?"

He leaned down to kiss me again, starting a gentle rocking rhythm between us. "Lotsa places, tryin' to work this out. I wanted to be ready."

"Is this what you wanted to happen?" I grabbed his braid where it hung down the center of his back and wished that I wore fewer clothes so that our chests and stomachs could touch.

He chuckled. "I don't know. Maybe. Yes?" He exhaled sharply against my neck, ducking his head and pushing harder with his hips. "Fuck, that feels good." Pulling the tie from my hair, he rolled it over his own wrist and slid his fingers up along my scalp. He touched a dozen pressure points, raising goosebumps along my arms, and I shivered. "Are you cold? Am I hurting you? Shit, Wu, how's your back? Should I get off?"

I released his braid and wrapped my arm securely around his waist. "Don't move. Don't you dare move." I spoke against his chest as he made to pull away from me, and when he tried to shift back a second time, I closed my teeth over his nipple, biting down just hard enough so that he jerked in my arms like he'd been shocked. "You're not hurting me," I said, a little frustrated that he would think I'd still be so fragile, that I'd ever been so fragile.

He laughed again, nervous. "You're pretty amazing, you know? I wish I was half as -- "

I pulled him hard against me, and the feel of his body -- so like mine, with the same angles and planes, the same kind of heart beating crazily inside his ribs -- it was like wanting another version of myself. Duo was and he wasn't me, but I felt like I recognized everything in him.

"Wu, I -- hngh!" He suddenly arched forward against me, grabbing hold of both my arms and turning his teeth to my neck, gasping out a choked, surprised breath.

I couldn't help the smirk that twisted my mouth when he breathed an embarrassed laugh into the seat. His tensed muscles sagged in my arms, and I heard him lick his lips before speaking. "That wasn't quite how I pictured it." He pushed lazily against my hips a few more times before backing up off the chair and pulling me after him. His grin was relaxed and happy. "So, what was that conversation you wanted to have?"

I raised one eyebrow and opened my mouth to protest his timing, but then his grin turned wicked and he reached forward to palm my crotch through my borrowed jeans.

"Just kidding. I can at least do right by you before you come to your senses and bite my head off." Then he grabbed me by the belt and pulled me into the main room of the ship, pushing me down onto to the wide couch.

When he bit the skin over my hip bone, I laughed at the ceiling.

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