Author: June
Rating: R
Pairings: 5xOMC, eventual 2x5x2
Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam Wing or its characters, or Mountain Goats lyrics

Reformation/Reaffirmation + Chapter 19

Long winding Canadian highways,
innumerable evergreens.
Weather forecast on the AM radio
says we'll be expecting highs in the low teens.
When I mouth my silent curses at you,
I can see my breath.
I hope the stars don't even come out tonight.
I hope we both freeze to death.

"Family Happiness" Mountain Goats

The muscle cramps started that night, and while I lay awake, struggling to breath through them, I passed the time trying to reproduce the pamphlet's and my doctor's exact warning after the muscle regeneration had been completed.

"Muscle regeneration has proven very successful, returning full motor function to those who have lost it due to traumatic injury. However the proper amount of recovery time must be observed. The regenerated muscle is new, fragile, and foreign in your body. Therefore, a careful muscle rehabilitation schedule should be kept. Overworking the new muscle can cause significant soreness and muscle spasms. Severe strain can cause the new muscle to detach from the tendons, and in the worst case can cause internal hemorrhaging. So it is of the utmost importance that you treat this new tissue very carefully."

Heero would have been a good bit more brief about the whole thing. "You should have known better, Chang. It's only a miracle fix if you follow the rules."

There wasn't any hemorrhaging. Duo and a mirror had satisfied that concern. But the muscle spasms were frequent and paralyzing, stealing my breath and my voice. When it became apparent that this was not a quickly passing problem, that the cramps were likely to continue through the night, I carefully pushed myself into a sitting position and leaned over the side of the bed to collect my loose-fitting sweats. I pulled on my clothes and then shifted on the bed to lean against the wall, situating the pillow at my lower back. In between the spasms, I felt weak and shaky and knew that, without significant effort on my part, the spasms were likely to recur more and more often as I tired further.

Lightly resting my hands on my knees, I slowed and deepened my breaths, systematically relaxing downwards, starting with my eyes and facial muscles.

Duo slept beside me, oblivious. We'd relocated to a different hotel, though, as I'd suspected, we met no trouble at the old one. In all likelihood, Karl didn't know where we were staying. Still, our new room felt safer.

It took a few minutes for Duo to realize that his sleeping arrangement had changed, but when he did notice, he sucked in a quick breath and sat up. The second I blinked my eyes open to look at him, my concentration broke, and a sharp cramp in my hamstring forced me into motion.

"Wu? You okay?" His voice was thick with sleep, but he got to his knees when he recognized the nature of the pain in my leg. Not waiting for an answer, he leaned forward to help me straighten out my knee, putting firm pressure on my thigh while I took slow breaths through my nose and put pressure directly on the cramping muscle. The pain warped my sense of time, and I didn't know how long we stayed like that, wrestling for control over a muscle that felt like it had a mind of its own. Eventually, I felt him sync his breathing to mine, and the shared rhythm restored a light meditative trance so that the cramp eventually eased. I heard him retreat back onto his heels and scratch a hand through his hair. Refocusing my attention on releasing the tension in my shoulders and chest, I was grateful when he left me alone. I heard him slide off the bed to go to the bathroom and exhaled downward, picturing my lungs gently pushing out and down against tense muscle.

More time passed without incident and when I next opened my eyes, Duo was again seated next to me on the bed.

Into the silence of the room, he murmured, "Can I get you anything? You want water, or something?"

I sat forward a bit, carefully rolling my shoulders. "An epidural would be nice."

"I don't have one of those. I've got morphine, though."

I raised an eyebrow at that. "Why the hell do you have morphine? You hate that stuff."

"I didn't know what kinda shape I'd find you in when I busted you out. I wanted to be ready to dope you up if I had to."

"I'm really glad you didn't. What else have you got stashed in that duffel - bodies?"

He grinned lopsidedly. "I don't have to incriminate myself to you, Chang, even if we are sleeping in the same bed. Do you want the morphine?"

I sat back against the wall again and reassessed my situation. The meditation had done significant work to relax the cramping muscles, but I still felt ragged and weak - like the smallest muscle twitch or tremor could turn into a spasm with only the slightest provocation. "I'm all right for the moment, though I probably won't be sleeping much tonight."

Duo slid over to sit next to me. "That's okay; I'll stay up with you. No fair if I get my beauty sleep and you're the only grump in the morning."

I nodded my thanks, and we were still for awhile. I thought maybe he'd already dropped off again when I felt him giving me an uncomfortable look.

"You think you did anything permanent, running like that for so long?"

I carefully shrugged. "Not sure, though I think I'd be able to tell if there was something really wrong. I probably just set myself back a week or two. Time should be enough to get over this."

He groaned. "Yeah, and we have none of that."

I couldn't disagree with him on that point so stayed quiet.

Beside me, Duo worried a hangnail on his thumb and blew out a breath that ruffled his bangs. "You think Asmaa was bein' straight with us today?"

I focused on keeping my neck and back relaxed and continued to face forward when I spoke. "I think she was. Do you?"

He nodded, and I could hear his smile. "Yeah, she's a fighter like her brother was. She knew the difference between the two of us and the thugs who showed up with Bergsen."

"Sure, but she was expecting us."

"But it was obvious she didn't like those guys; they weren't welcome in her house. She knew what sort of people they were."

"Right. But do we know what sort of people they were? If Karl is actually a Preventer what does that mean?"

I turned the slightest bit to see Duo glaring at the ceiling for a moment. Then his expression settled on unease. "One of two things, I guess. Either Preventers itself is a corrupt agency and there's no hope for us, or just the part that hired Karl is. Or, a third possibility, maybe this is how the law works these days and it's you and I who are out of sync with it - which wouldn't be too surprising."

"Or Preventers is trying to find out who's behind all this by using us to draw the fire. Karl said as much when I saw him in my hospital room. And he did let us escape Asmaa's house."

Duo scowled. "He didn't let us escape; he just didn't chase us himself."

"But he did say we were still useful. You especially have been useful, Duo, more so than I. You - " As I turned a bit more to face him, my back cramped and I quickly faced forward again, holding a hand over the contracting muscle. I tried to let go of the tension, to let my body regain control over all its parts by relaxing as much as I could, but all I could think was how stupid I had been to ignore that only a few weeks ago I had nearly died from a knife in the kidney. My carelessness with my health was costing us too much time now.

This spasm was worse than the others because I was so tired. It held me rigid on the bed until I finally opened my eyes long enough to nod to Duo. His jaw clenched and then he slid off the bed to fetch his duffel, returning a moment later with a small bottle and a syringe.

"You have done this before, right?" I said, voice as even as I could make it.

He pushed my sleeve up my arm and felt around for a good vein. "Course I have, though only on myself when I was already out of my mind with pain and injury." He huffed a laugh as he stuck the syringe into the bottle and drew back the plunger. "If I could do it then, I can do it anywhere, right?"

I nodded my assent. "Hurry up."

"Okay, okay," he grumbled, pulling my arm into his lap and smoothly inserting the needle. I looked away as he did it because I'd never done well with needles and I liked even less the feeling of the fluid going into my arm. But, as he'd said, Duo was no novice when it came to pain and injury. He slipped the needle from my arm and handed me a bit of gauze to hold over the spot, before taking the syringe and bottle to the bathroom. The relief was almost instantaneous, nerves dulling and knotted tissue relaxing. I lifted the gauze to see that the needle site was clean with only the faintest red mark as evidence. Duo came back to the room empty-handed, wiping wet hands on his t-shirt.

"That is a narcotic, you know, and I'm pretty sure the housecleaning staff is required to report it, even if - ."

"The 'Do Not Disturb' sign is already on the door, Wu. And I'll clean it up by morning, I promise," he grunted. "Try to sleep, okay? You're more useful on your feet than on your back." He bypassed the bed and went straight for his laptop where it was charging on the dresser. He stood staring down at it, stretching one arm over his head and grabbing his elbow to stretch out his shoulder. "You really think he's been through everything?"

"Karl?" Duo nodded. "Yeah, I do. He's as good as you in that department. Maybe as good as Heero. A mobile suit designer working directly under Treize - he had access to every kind of training he cared to take advantage of. And I've never known anyone as curious or as self-serving as Karl. He would have taken advantage."

He let go of his elbow and twisted around to look at me, pulling a sour face. "You probably don't want me to kill him, do you?"

I returned his sour expression. "I hope you'll never see him to have that opportunity. I hope we can figure whether there's a connection between Said and this bizarre community watch initiative that no one I know has ever heard of, a connection that goes all the way to Earth. Then we can tell Une about it, and she can sort out this mess with Karl so we don't have to go anywhere near it."

Duo picked up his laptop, unplugged it, and then brought it over to the bed, opening it and sitting cross-legged beside me. "Hopefully, it was a one-time hack," he muttered. "He better not have put any shit on here to leave my ass hangin' for just anyone to see, or I really will go after the little creep."

I snorted a laugh at that image. "You're good enough to find it if he did," I said, still half-smiling when Duo turned to give me a strange look.

"Damn right I am," he said. He booted up the computer, fingers flying over the keyboard, so that I couldn't pick out more than a few letters and numbers of the long password. "That's something else that's different about you, buddy," he said to the screen. "You're meaner, yeah, which isn't surprising, but you laugh now, too. And you didn't before. Did you really grow a sense of humor in that place?" His eyes met mine briefly before returning to his laptop, where he was running some scan, doubtless to check his computer for hacks or holes.

I didn't answer because I didn't have anything more to say than, "I don't know, maybe?"

"I mean, were there actually people funnier than me there?"

I laughed again and Duo turned to watch, eyes traveling over my face, like he didn't mind this change. "There were plenty of funny people at RCNP. And there was more time to find them funny. When you came to visit, there was more time to find you funny. It wasn't one of those 'either laugh about the situation or get pissed' things - it was..." I still didn't have a real answer.

"It was that you didn't feel like the world was going to end if you took thirty seconds out of your day to laugh. You'd already prevented the world from ending."

"Maybe that was it." I realized the morphine was starting to take effect when muscle weakness turned to dull numbness. My body was heavy on the bed and I finally felt nothing.

"There were lots of pissed off scary dudes there, but they laughed, too. You know, I think I probably only ever saw Heero laugh when he was visiting you. How's that for shitty?"

I closed my eyes and could put myself right back in the common room, seated around Benji's table with Karl and a few others, playing cards right until the end of our free time. Everyone laughed at his table. When Benji could persuade Onur to sit down with us, mostly we laughed at him. He never took offense because he never cared what we thought of him; he was busy making his own future. We thought that we probably weren't going to get much of one, even with this supposed opportunity at our fingertips. Maybe that was where the time and space to laugh had opened up.

I wondered at what moment Karl had seized his opportunity, when he had chosen his path, if he'd done it before or after we met, before or after Duo had started his own work on the case. "He's after you now, too," I said blearily, startling myself with the sound of my own voice. Duo jumped as well, looking away from his computer to regard me with a raised eyebrow. "You've proven yourself more useful than I with everything you've done for our case. With Said and all those other men. Whether he was using me or really wanted me dead, he now surely wants the same for you."

Duo nodded, but didn't reply, turning back to his laptop. I saw that he had opened Dilawar Said's file and was now typing up what we'd learned today. I finally fell asleep to the sound of the keys. I dreamed of lists of names.

+

I woke up in a cool, dark room, knowing that I was alone. The bed was unfamiliar, the tiled ceiling could have belonged anywhere, and the walls were nondescript. The quiet hum of the vent by the window could only have belonged in a hotel. And I knew exactly what Duo meant when he'd said that if I wanted to go home, he didn't know where to take me.

I rolled onto my side and switched on the lamp by the bed, then carefully sat up and swung my legs to the floor. I tried walking and found that I could, though my back and knee were painfully stiff. I hobbled across the room to the window and drew back the heavy curtain, letting in the bright light of what looked to be midday. I ran a hand over my cropped hair. None of it was long enough to get tangled, but it felt dirty. I didn't need to sniff under my arms to know that I smelled even worse than I looked.

I made a slow circuit of the room, brushing my fingers against furniture and walls as I passed. I stopped by the bathroom door, noting the pair of crutches as well as the folded wheel chair, both leaning against the wall. My stomach lurched at the sight of them, but I kept going, shuffling into the bathroom and closing the door to a crack behind me. I put toothpaste on my toothbrush and while I scrubbed the night and previous day's scum off of them, I turned on the shower. I was too grimy to take a bath, as appealing as submerging myself in hot water sounded.

Duo had left the seat of the toilet up, so I put both it and the lid down before I sat down, elbows on my knees, to finish brushing. My stomach was about to start rumbling; hopefully Duo was just out getting food. Hopefully he hadn't decided to do something stupid like go back to Asmaa Said's to finish our interrupted conversation.

I stood and spat out my toothpaste, gritting my teeth against the twinge in my back as I bent over the sink to rinse my mouth. Then I stripped and stepped into the shower. I leaned against the wall for most of it, not trusting myself to be able to stay upright for the whole thing. Dried sweat and street dirt came off with a bit of scrubbing and then I just stood there, wondering if this hotel had a kitchen or if I would have to venture out for food. I wondered if Duo would be back by the time I turned off the water.

I wasted about twenty minutes thinking that way.

+

I opted for the crutches instead of the wheelchair. If I found Duo, I could smack him over the head with one of the crutches, whereas I wouldn't be quick enough to run him down in the wheelchair. The wheelchair would take practice. With these admittedly childish impulses driving my actions, I swallowed a few aspirin, pulled on a jacket and went out in search of food.

The hotel was in one of the busier parts of town, so it wasn't difficult to disappear in the lunch crowd. The street one block over was closed to everything but foot traffic at midday, the sidewalks lined with food and craft stalls. It occurred to me as I made my way past them that this was to be my first purchase in over two years. I was about to buy my own lunch and then eat it whenever I chose. I could get any number of dishes, many of the stalls selling the foods one would expect in this area - falafel, hummus, grilled zucchini, different kabobs - but there were also Pakistani places, even Thai. The prospect of real spices and fresh ingredients made my pulse quicken until I remembered that this was L4, so fresh foodstuffs had a long way to travel to get here. But that didn't really matter since I had all afternoon to look for exactly what I wanted. I didn't have to fight with pushy inmates or harried guards telling me to get a move on or get out of line. For the first time in two years, I was a consumer.

I ended up with a veritable mountain of food, most of it meat, all of it, except for some flatbread, very spicy. Feeling absurdly proud of myself and my purchases, I sat at one of the public tables to eat it, watching the residents and workers stream by. Most were dressed in variations of the traditional garb of the culture, but many of the men, and a few of the women, wore suits. I looked down at my jeans, plain-colored t-shirt and hooded gray jacket and wondered if I should invest in some clothes of my own. I didn't particularly care for these anyway. I took a large swallow of iced tea to wash down a bite of spicy lentils and potatoes and decided that, no, I didn't think I was ready for more shopping.

When I'd eaten my fill, I packed up the rest of the food and put it back in the bag, looping it around my wrist and heading back for the hotel. If Duo had returned, I'd force-feed him a few of the hot chilis. If he hadn't, I'd stick the food in the mini fridge and eat the rest for dinner.

He'd taken his laptop with him, wherever he'd gone, so when I returned to the room, I picked up the printout of Said's file, returning to the bed with it and carefully spreading out on the bedspread. I looked over all the information Duo had gathered on him, adding in pen "Colony Watch" and "Karl Bergsen."

Duo and I still didn't know who exactly was pursuing us. We were both leaning toward Preventers. International and inter-planetary fugitives were usually theirs to find.
Standard operating procedure for Preventers, working with RCNP, would have been to send a team after us and alert the appropriate satellite offices where we might be headed. Duo had definitely been followed in his preparations for springing me from the hospital. And Karl had definitely carried a badge when I saw him. Additionally, Preventers were already wrapped up in my affairs. Une knew what was happening with me at RCNP often before I did. If I added this new civilian organization that was supposed to span entire colony clusters, and slid Karl's name as well as those who'd tailed Duo into that column, then a new potential culprit emerged. Except that supposedly the organization hadn't gotten off the ground after Quatre and Said's deaths. I rolled onto my back. Maybe its work had already been done by that time, or maybe the organization had since evolved into something else.

+

I heard footsteps outside our door and then a key in the lock and figured that Duo was either warning me that he was coming in - because he never made that much noise - or someone else had decided it was acceptable to enter our room without knocking. I scrambled up from where I'd been lying on the floor - wishing fervently for Heero's assistance while stretching out my back - and hoisted myself the rest of the way up using the crutches. Duo's gun was on the bed, directly behind my right thigh and, as the door opened, I leaned down to grab it, holding it loose and ready. Duo entered as though it were the middle of the night, after he'd made all that noise outside, stepping with cat's feet and quietly closing the door behind him. I knew that he'd seen me standing there, armed, at the end of the bed, but he didn't meet my eyes.

Then, when the door was shut, he turned around with a big grin on his face, like he expected me to be happy to see him.

I dropped the gun back on the bed, limped forward on my crutches, and then, leaning heavily on the left one, shoved the rubber foot end of the right firmly against his breastbone. His grin turned sheepish and then faded when he bumped back against the door. I held him pinned there and glared at him.

"We don't need to fight about this, Duo, because I'm sure you already know that what you did was very stupid. You already know that it's not something you do to a partner or a friend. It's not something you do when there's a crazy, smart man who may be a Preventer after you, not when he's got friends with guns. It's not something you do."

I pushed a little harder and he winced, shrinking in a bit around the end of the crutch. I realized I was probably pressing right where he'd been hit through the flak jacket and dropped the crutch, turning away to lean them against the wall and lower myself to the bed.

He stepped away from the door, rubbing his chest through his shirt, that grin already returning. "I'm sorry, Wu. I know I shouldn't have, but I - "

"You're sorry? Duo, you're smiling; how sorry can you be?"

He shook his head. "I know, I know, but we're not fighting, right? You just said we didn't need to."

"I'm not actually sure I meant that."

"Wu, I went back to Asmaa."

I groaned, and he came over to the bed, kneeling down in front of me.

"I went back and she gave me names. She gave me all the names of the guys who were on board for this colony watch thing. That lady's got a mind like a steel trap. She knew names, she knew families, she knew family problems. She even knew the other dead L4 vets I mentioned to her just on the off chance she'd heard anything."

He reached up to excitedly shake my knee and I froze, staring down at his knuckles. The skin was broken and bloody. I grabbed his hand before he could jerk it back, and he flinched.

"Hey - "

I held him by the wrist, scanning the underside of this arm, finding a torn sleeve and a bloody elbow, along with some gravel stuck in the heel of his palm opposite his thumb, just above my fingers. "Was Karl there? Were you caught in that house again? Asmaa should notify the -"

Duo pulled his hand out of my grip and stood up, shrugging out his sweatshirt. "It wasn't at their house; it was on the way back here. And it wasn't Karl."

I checked him over for other injuries when he stretched his arms over his head to pull off the soiled garment, but I didn't see any. "Who was it then?"

He gave a restless shrug, twisting his arm around to tentatively prod the road rash on his elbow. He hissed at it. "Hell if I know. Probably part of the same posse, though. Just said, 'We only wanna talk to you, Mr. Maxwell.'"

"I take it you didn't talk?"

He shook his head. "I ran. They split up. The one guy who got the closest turned out to be more of a runner than a fighter. He caught up to me, but I swear I only tapped him a couple times and he went down like a total lightweight." He sucked on his palm, wincing as some of the gravel came loose. He leaned over and spit it into the basket by the bed.

"Did you find anything on him?" My voice was starting to sound desperate even to me.

He shook his head. "A wallet confirming he's definitely from outta town - the UK specifically - but nothing beyond a civilian ID. They were waiting for me not far from Asmaa's house. Her husband was home this time, and he said he'd notified the local police that Karl and a few others had been harassing them. And there were actually officers staked out watching the place."

"That's encouraging, I think."

"Yeah, I talked to' em - much to their annoyance - and they said they hadn't seen anything suspicious. But the guys who jumped me did it about two blocks from the house. If they were Preventers, then they're in deep enough cover that they couldn't let local cops know they were looking for us, not looking to hassle Asmaa Said." He went into the bathroom then and left the door open, turning on the faucet. "So basically, I know a lot more than I did when I left here this morning," he called over the sound of the water, "but nothing conclusive. Just more stuff to check out."

I nodded, bending forward and reaching with my crutch to catch the loop of his smaller knapsack, inside which I found his laptop. "Did your computer weather the chase?"

He chuckled. "Yeah, that thing's been through much worse. Honestly, whoever's after us right now isn't trying too hard to catch us. That's twice we've gotten away on foot." He emerged from the bathroom with a wad of wet toilet paper over his elbow. "And if they were waiting for me, why didn't they stop me before I made it to Asmaa's? It's almost like they're giving us time to figure' em out."

I pulled the computer into my lap. "Maybe they are."

"Well, open it up and we can get started checking out who these guys are."

+

We opted for the wheelchair instead of the crutches, though I didn't let Duo anywhere near the back of the chair to push me. The trolleys that transported local traffic through the neighborhoods were all handicap accessible, so each time we boarded, I had to wait for the ramp to flip down before I could follow Duo on. It was a little annoying and attracted a lot of attention, but there was no way I could have walked or stood for as long or as far as we went that day, and I refused to be left behind.

The first two men Asmaa had named - Khaled Habib and Abdul Rahimi - had proven to be most unhelpful in what they said, but hinted at a lot in what they didn't. Habib was a pediatrician who told us that he didn't have time for a lunch break let alone a few minutes to talk with us. And no, he didn't want us contacting him at his home. When we asked him about the colony watch initiative, he only shook his head. "No one's spoken about that in years. Everyone in this community is far too wrapped up in their own lives to take responsibility for each other."

Rahimi owned a small chain of restaurants and turned us away cold, even though he was only sitting drinking tea when we entered his business.

"Please, Mr. Rahimi, we just want to know more about this program you supported along with these other men. You know them, right? Ehsan Aman, Khaled Habib, Ahmad Farookh, Khalil -" Duo held his pad of paper out as though it would mean something to him. I was embarrassed at how out of place we were, how much we obviously stuck out amongst people who had no obligation whatsoever to be open with us. Duo had no inside contacts, he had no favors to call in. The only person who could have helped us - Auda, our escort - was more or less off-limits if we didn't want to drag the Maganacs further into our problems.

"Either buy something or leave, boys, but I don't tolerate loiterers."

"We'd be happy to buy a meal from you, sir," I said, rolling my chair to Duo's side. "If you would talk to us for a bit. We'd like to know why the initiative you supported didn't become law, why the community didn't support it with you. If you could - "

He stood from his table and pointed to the door. "I am very busy and it is rude of you to come into my place of work demanding my time and causing trouble. Please do not come back. Your business is not welcome here."

We didn't want to cause more of a scene than we already had, so we left, feeling like the entire neighborhood was staring at the backs of our necks. And given what had happened already, they probably were.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on a train to the very edge of the quadrant to meet with Ahmad Farookh, whom we had called ahead. He was an investor and a property owner - pretty much everything the Winners didn't have a hand in, Farookh owned, especially at the outer rim of the quadrant where he lived. Like all of the other men Asmaa had mentioned to Duo, he had avoided direct involvement in the war. And like about half of them, he had contributed monetarily to the Alliance military, siding with the many colonists who hadn't wanted to anger the Earth Sphere by making a bid for independence.

His home did not have wheelchair access, unlike most of the others which had doors at street level, so I left the chair by the side of the house and walked with Duo, trying not to limp too obviously.

Farookh wanted to show us that he had money and power. He did the former by leading us on a circuitous root to a small but lavishly decorated parlor, showing off the entire first floor of his house and in the process, wearing down my already thin temper. He did the latter by answering our questions with the kind of attitude that indicated it didn't matter if we knew the truth or not. Something like truth and falsehood amounted to the same thing to a person who could buy whatever they wanted.

"Quatre Winner was a man to be feared in this part of space - generally, what he wanted, he got. And he very much wanted that initiative to go through."

"Why?" Duo asked.

"He tried to hide it, but his health was failing." I stiffened at that and Farookh saw it. He smiled and looked a bit like a large predator as he did it. "After the wars, the consensus was peace, but the colony was still divided as to who was sovereign. Were we to remain colonists or should the Earth Sphere recognize our independence? Winner wanted to foster a sense of public responsibility. He wanted everyone to feel invested in each other, to empathize, if you will. He thought if all the colonies could foster such an attitude, we would all be able to determine what was best for ourselves. It was an ambitious project, one that he wanted to leave as his legacy, something that would last amongst the people he cared so deeply for."

"I'm getting the sense that's not what you envisioned," Duo said dryly.

Farookh smiled again. "You sense correctly. I wanted security and thought this was a good way to go about getting it. Turns out very few were as idealistic as Winner, but neither were they so paranoid as I. They turned out to be apathetic."

"That's what Dr. Khaled Habib told us this afternoon."

A scowl flickered across his features and was gone. "Yes, I would put him in the idealistic camp with Winner."

"Mr. Farookh, did you know Dilawar Said?" I asked.

His eyes slid to mine. "No," he said after a pause. "I did not have that pleasure."

"What about Bahram Farhad? He lived nearby and was killed almost on your doorstep."

Farookh's eyes narrowed. "I know where he lived, thank you. But I was not acquainted with him either, though from what I understand he was a terrible neighbor and a bit of a zealot. What does this have to do with your earlier questions?"

"Potentially nothing," Duo cut in. "But those two men, along with Quatre Winner all died right around the same time, when this community initiative was being hotly debated. We've been looking into their deaths, looking for possible causes other than those listed in the police files, so any help you could - "

"I have nothing to say about either Bahram or Dilawar, other than it is unfortunate what happened to them. And now, I've told you everything relevant to your questions, so I'd appreciate it if you left me the rest of my evening."

+

The train ride back to our hotel was quiet. Duo was sullen and pensive. I was cranky, sore and tired of feeling like a cripple again. Asking Farookh about the two men who had been killed around the time of Quatre's death and in the thick of debates surrounding the community watch initiative had been risky, but also necessary if we were going to get anywhere with our case. Unfortunately, the bodies were all too long in the ground and the usual channels of authority were not available to us. Riding home, I thought that the magnitude of discovering a tangible link between this strange initiative which had supposedly gone nowhere, the dead bodies Duo had collected, and Quatre's suicide was dragging both of us down. And that didn't even touch what had happened at RCNP, what had happened to me.

That night, Duo revealed that he was thinking along similar lines. The room was dark, the heavy curtain pulled across the window, and the sound of the fan was just starting to lull me to sleep when I felt Duo slide closer under the blankets. I felt his breath on my neck, between my shoulder and ear, and shivered.

"If we really have found the link between Said and Quatre, and maybe this other vet, Bahram Farhad, and maybe any number of other guys who didn't go along with this paranoid turn in colonial politics, then these guys who so strongly supported it are the key. A network of people with closets full of meetings and deals and connections. And maybe one of those connections goes all the way to Earth. Maybe the colonies are where this started, with a bunch of concerned citizens and political heavyweights, but the real work is figuring out everyone in the network, figuring out where the power goes, beyond just this quadrant."

I stayed staring up at the ceiling. "Wherever the power goes, we find the bodies."

"Lucky for us, we've already got bodies. Now we just need to trace the power backwards from you."

"Makes me feel small."

"Makes me feel like we've got too much to figure out."

I turned to face him. "Should we ask for help?"

He hesitated. "You mean from the guys?"

I nodded. "Heero would believe us; he'd help us."

"I don't want to mess with him and Preventers. He and Tro are so new in their positions. We could really screw things up for them if we dragged' em into this."

"Sometimes I forget what you did to get us here. I forget that it's something we're not allowed to do anymore."

"I wish I could."

His voice was close and intimate in the cool darkness of the room. I reached for him and ran my hand across his ribs, sliding my fingers between the ridges of bone. He made a small sound in his throat, part laugh, part something much more needy. I pulled him closer and then slid over him, holding myself carefully on my forearms.

"One thing I learned in prison is that it's still possible to do this."

He leaned up to kiss me, and I could tell that he was smiling. "Thanks for the tip."

+

The next few days bore a striking resemblance to the previous. We traveled extensively through the quadrant, seeking out and attempting to talk to all the men Asmaa had said were big-time supporters of the community watch initiative - CWI for short, since were tired of talking about a program that didn't have a name. Reactions generally fell into one of two categories - real disappointment that nothing had come out of the campaign, or stiff refusal to talk about it. And no one wanted to talk about the bodies.

We didn't see Karl or any of the men who'd jumped Duo, but we always felt watched. We walked - or in my case, hobbled - down the street in the middle of the day cycle and we spoke openly with several of the most powerful individuals on the colony. We were seen by anyone who cared to look. And still, no one interfered.

+

After a week of precious little advancement in the case, Duo got antsy.

"So let's say that these guys we've tried talking to really did get in over their heads, supporting an initiative that would encourage people to watch each other and turn each other in for suspicious activities. And let's say these guys realized the potential danger of the thing when dissenters started ending up dead. CWI gets the ax and as far as anyone knows, that's that. No more potentially dangerous program, but also no more political enemies. For a lot of these guys, CWI did exactly what it was supposed to do in the short amount of time it lived. Both Dilawar Said and Quatre would have made formidable enemies - this Braham guy, too, by the looks of it."

"But even if all that's true," I said, "it doesn't get us to Earth, to what happened to Benji or Wasyliw, or to you and me. Where did the decision to drug all the inmates the night Benji was killed originate? Who decided that you should be followed? We would need to trace the mentality behind CWI - if not the program itself - to Earth in order for any of this to be related."

Duo heaved a frustrated sigh. "Quatre would have known. If he was in at the ground level, then he would know everyone involved, including anyone who'd taken the idea to Earth to try it out on the population of RCNP."

I nodded. "But like pretty much everyone else who would be useful, he's two years in the ground."

Duo's mouth hardened into a grim, stubborn line. I sat up from where I'd been resting on the bed, recognizing that look. It was the one I'd failed to spot just before Duo had disappeared for two weeks to arrange for our flight from Earth.

"But his sisters aren't," he said, voice low. "A few of them were just as active in colony politics as Quatre. They might know what he knew."

I shook my head. "They would also already have been contacted by every single governmental and non-governmental agency currently on our tail. When Karl learned we were headed for L4, the Winners would have been the first place he'd check for us."

"Sure," Duo admitted, forcing some cheer back into his voice. "And they'd find that we weren't there, and hadn't been there since we arrived. The Winners might not be under such close watch by now."

"Duo," I said, voice as stern as I could make it. "We agreed that any attempt to get into Quatre's home or his business would be too dangerous - "

"Yeah, but we're running out of options. If the CWI guys won't talk to us - which they haven't really so far - then - "

"Then we go to the families of the men you've already singled out. Asmaa Said was our biggest break because she wanted to talk about her brother. The families of the dead always want to talk. Braham Farhad is a good place to go next. Maybe there's a connection between him and Farookh."

Duo didn't answer, glaring down at his laptop. The stubborn line of his jaw hadn't changed.

"We can't go there on our own, Duo," I said. "You especially can't Don't be blindly stubborn about this. Going to see the Winners, we'd be walking into a trap. If I was supposed to die at RCNP, then you are surely in as much danger now, too. "

He met my eyes long enough to nod, then stood and went over to his duffel, moodily throwing clothes into it. "We better be ready to move in the morning,then," he snapped, "because this part of town has outlived its usefulness."

I sank back on the bed and didn't answer him, knowing that nothing I said would help.

We fell asleep that night without speaking.

+

"What's the first thing you'll do when you're out?"

Wufei rolls to the side to look down to the lower bunk, finding Duo on his back, arms behind his head, an ankle propped up on his knee. The slate gray coveralls make his skin look washed-out and sallow. Duo smiles up at him and asks again. "What will you do?"

Wufei rolls onto his back. "I'll drink lots of fluids and go to use the bathroom as many times as I want, without asking." Below him, Duo laughs. "I'll park my car across two spaces. I'll write cranky letters to the editor every week. I'll eat fresh produce and fish every day. I'll grow out my hair and never wear mourning white again. What about you?"

"I'm thinking food, too. Mostly I just want to buy something and eat it out in the street, with cars speeding past and people shouting at each other because they're crabby and late for work. A hot dog maybe, with lots of mustard and relish."

Wufei swallows. "I can almost taste it, and I don't even like hot dogs."

"Hey, will you miss me?"

Wufei sits up when he hears the barred door slide shut, his answer stuck in his throat when he sees Duo already on the other side, hands cuffed behind him, being led away by two guards. Duo doesn't look back and Wufei is so lonely he can barely move. He huddles on his bunk and tries to stay warm.

+

I woke up freezing cold, cursing and thrashing in the bed, finally throwing off the blankets to confirm that the knot of dread in my gut wasn't unfounded. Duo was gone again, along with his computer and his duffel. The room was void of his presence. He'd even taken his toothbrush. I kept moving before I could start thinking, throwing on my clothes and barely remembering to grab the room key before sprinting down to the front desk. I was shouting at the clerk before I even opened the door leading out of the stairwell.

"How long ago did he leave? You saw him go, right? When was it; when did he leave?" I reached the desk to see a young man, barely older than me, sitting there with a greasy breakfast sandwich halfway to his mouth. His eyes were wide and red. He'd probably been drunk the night before. "Dammit, answer the question!"

"I - I - "

I reached right over the desk and grabbed the sandwich, smacking it down on its paper wrapper and getting ketchup on my hand in the process. I grabbed the kid's collar, smearing ketchup on his neck and chin when I hauled him forward. "Tell me. When. Duo. Left." I cursed inwardly, remembering that wasn't the name he'd rented the room under. And for the life of me, I couldn't think of the name he'd used.

"I don't - I just - "

"Skinny, young, long braid, loud? Ring any bells?"

"IjustcameontwentyminutesagoandIdidn'tseeanyoneohGodI'msorry!"

I replayed that a few times before it made sense, then shoved him back into his chair, wiping the rest of the ketchup on his shirt. I decided I had everything I needed already in my pockets; the crutches and wheelchair would only have slowed me down. My back and leg had improved a lot over the week because I'd been resting so much, and I hoped that they would hold out for the length of time it took me to get to the Winner mansion.

He'd left no word of where he was headed, but the stubborn set of his jaw and the restless glint in his eyes from the previous night told me everything I needed to know. As I pushed through the lobby door and emerged onto the sidewalk, I tried to rationalize why he would leave me behind again, after I had made it clear that such behavior was both dangerous and insulting.

He would do it because he was sure he was right. He'd do it because he was cocky and thought he was invincible, that laws didn't apply to him, that all he needed was luck. He'd do it because he thought he was protecting me.

The day cycle was just starting, the gray light of fake dawn signaling the beginning of the work day. I wondered how I'd become such a sound sleeper that not once, but twice, Duo could extract himself from the bed we shared, dress himself, gather his possessions and leave the room without my so much as stirring. I wondered if we'd both gotten too used to the dynamic we'd had at RCNP. Duo always left, and I waited for him to return. If this day ended as I thought it probably would, he would have many fewer opportunities to pick up and go whenever he chose.

I ran after the local trolley that I knew headed in the right general direction, reaching and just managing to grab onto the rear rail, a big man in a suit and modest turban laughing and reaching down to catch my arm and haul me the rest of the way on. Already out of breath, I gasped out a thank you before bending over to steady myself. My doctor would have had an aneurysm if he knew what I was doing to myself, how I was wasting the amount of time and money he'd put into my body. Except I wasn't wasting it. Without his help, I'd have still been maneuvering my wheelchair out of the hotel lobby. I'd never have escaped Karl when he showed up at Asmaa's house. I'd never have been able to help Duo get his ship off the ground.

I'd have to write him a thank you note when I had the time - most likely when I was back in my coveralls.

I tried to picture Duo in similar attire and the image sprang to mind as though I'd already seen him dressed like a convict. I tried to picture him living the life I had led, shuffling through food lines in the mess hall, heaving mounds of clothes out of the washing vats and into the dryers, surviving the showers with that stupid braid and honest grin. He faded and became insubstantial then, a blurry outline of Duo. They'd shave his head, so he wouldn't even have the braid. Duo may have grown up a destitute thief, but he was always free in that he could go where he wanted, a prince of territory that nobody cared to claim. But in a gray jumpsuit, he would wander the grounds and get into trouble for not being at work when he was supposed to. He'd be sentenced to more time in the damp hell of the laundry. He'd get into lots of fights, many of which he wouldn't win. Someone would hurt him once and they'd spread it around that Duo was easy, and that'd be the end of him.

I almost jumped off the trolley before it had started to slow down for the next stop, but the man who'd helped me get on grabbed my arm again to keep me still until the trolley had stopped moving. "Stay out of trouble!" he called as I bolted for the nearest pay phone. I nearly fumbled my change before shoving a bunch of coins into the slot. I waited impatiently until the option for inter-colony/satellite calls came up, then punched in Heero's number, and didn't know whether to hope that he would answer or whether it'd be better to leave him a message. His voice message picked up after five rings, asking in his nasal monotone for a name and number.

"Yuy, Maxwell's in trouble. I expect you're a week away from us, on Earth, but if for some reason you're swinging by L4 territory, Duo's trying to play hero and he'll throw his life away before anything good comes out of it. You have to talk to Une to work out a deal. You can't let him do any jail time for this. It was my idea to begin with; I coerced him into coming out here. If you get this, we're at Winner mansion. Maybe there's someone you can send, someone you trust." Then I hung up because I was saying stupid, useless things to someone who very likely could do nothing to help. We'd passed out of Heero and Trowa's sphere of influence when we'd left them behind on that gravel lot.

I started to run again, calling up the layout of the quadrant and hoping that I was still headed in the right direction. I ignored the strange looks I received from pedestrians and cyclists and focused on keeping my body in even, easy motion. If I could keep my hamstrings from cramping up, then I'd be in good shape to fight if I had to, even if it was only to deck Duo before he did something stupid.

I finally slowed and then stopped about a block from the Winner estate. Up until that point, it had been difficult to see more than the next house ahead of me - they were all set so close together - and I had despaired of finding Duo before he made it to the house. There was just too much ground to cover, too many places to keep out of sight until it was too late. Now, as I came upon the estate, I found a wide-open space all around the house. It made the mansion appear separate and special, and it gave anyone inside a clear view of all who approached.

I hadn't really thought much beyond this point. As I stepped out onto the broad, green lawn, I thought only of surrendering to whoever was surely waiting for me inside those doors. If Duo could be kept safe and out of an institution, then I would do whatever they asked. Approaching the mansion, my heart was even and strong. I was ready to accept the consequences for our actions. I took a slow, deep breath and thought that, really, this felt only like making arrangements to go home. This time with Duo hadn't been real freedom anyway.

While my mind and spirit may have been prepared for whatever lay inside the Winner mansion, my body was not prepared for two strong hands wrapping around my forearm and tugging me to a stop. Those hands were heralded only by the faintest scuffing of a boot on pavement and then Duo stood in front of me, a hand on my chest to keep me from going any further. My reaction was not one to be proud of. His cheeky grin vanished when I grabbed his arm and threw him over my hip, smacking both his shoulder blades onto the ground.

He grunted in surprise and pain as I knelt over him, keeping one hand pressed into his shoulder, holding his wrist in the other.

"Wu - !"

My calm was abruptly elsewhere. I turned my wrist, twisting his arm dangerously close to breaking. He went white as a sheet and froze, not even breathing.

"You were waiting here for me. You knew I would come."

He dared to nod.

"Why? Why would you bother?"

He shifted his shoulders and I twisted harder. He whined and tried a few times to swallow. "I didn't want to break my promise to you," he finally managed to gasp out. "I wouldn't go in alone, like you said."

"I know what I said," I hissed, bearing down on him a moment longer, until I saw real fear there, and then easing back. "This is not okay, what you're doing, how you're treating me."

I stood up and didn't offer him any help. He pushed himself into a sitting position, cradling his arm close to his chest. "I - I know," he stuttered. "But we weren't getting anywhere. I was tired of waiting to happen upon the right person when we knew where we had to go to get answers. I was tired of - "

"Of being cautious? Of being smart?" I folded my arms across my chest. "Just what do you think is going to happen to us when we're caught? Where do you think we'll go? House arrest with Yuy and Barton? Weekend community service? I went to one of the nice places, with allotted free time and literature classes. We very likely won't be going to a place like that."

I wasn't scaring him, no matter how hard I was trying to. He scrambled to his feet, glaring at me like he couldn't believe how stubborn I was being. "Or we might find no one at all! Iria Winner could be waiting inside with tea and answers! We could be out of there in an hour! We could go home!"

I laughed out loud and grabbed his elbow, pulling him toward the house. "That's a fantastic idea. I'm tired of this, anyway, tired of running with you. Let's get this over with so we can both go home."

He pulled his arm out of my grip, hissing softly as he tugged on the arm I'd almost broken. "Wu, look," he said, pointing toward the front entrance, then carefully massaging his elbow. "It's her; it's Iria."

I looked up to see that he was right. Quatre's closest sister stood in the open doorway, watching and waiting for us, arms wrapped around her middle, posture stiff and wary. Whether it was because she was just anxious to see us, or because there were Preventer agents directly behind her, I was too far away to guess. As we drew closer, Duo touched my arm, leaning closer to speak so only I could hear. "Look, I'm sorry. You're right that I haven't been treating you like I trusted you. I haven't let you help me. It seems like all we do is fight and I - "

"Save it."

I felt him hesitate, felt his next words on the tip of his tongue, but he decided finally to listen to me and fell behind a step, letting me lead the way. We were within a few paces of the front entrance and I debated whether or not to even ask about Quatre or CWI. I could simply turn us both in, asking her to call the police as soon as we were inside. But beyond seeming fatalistic and cowardly, that would also have been more cruel than I could manage right then, however angry I was with Duo.

So when we reached the steps, I only bowed to her. She returned the greeting with the sort of poise that came from years of training. "Thank you for agreeing to see us," I said. "It means a lot given the nature of our call."

She nodded and stayed firmly in the doorway, neither inviting us in nor turning us away. "My brother spoke so highly of you, Wufei. He was crushed when he couldn't help you further with your trial. It was something he regretted deeply and mentioned often."

I lowered my eyes in acknowledgment. "I couldn't have asked for a truer fried. It was an honor to be with him for that short time."

Finally she turned sideways, beckoning us to enter. "He would want me to help you," she said quietly. "I'm only sorry I can't do more."

Both Duo and I hung back for a moment, exchanging a quick glance before following her. I could see that he was excited, despite our angry words. I couldn't decide whether to be furious or worried as we stepped into the house.

Entering the mansion, we could see immediately that something was off. The place was silent and empty of all life. Not even a servant approached to ask for our coats. We walked through one opulent room after the next and saw no one. There was no music, not even the sound of a television from any of the doorways we passed. I knew that many of the Winner sisters lived in the mansion with their families. There should have been children getting ready for school. There should have been a small army of housekeepers and cooks, preparing the richest family on L4 for their day. But there was no one.

Iria spoke abruptly, glancing quickly over her shoulder. "What was it you wanted to know about my brother?" she asked. "Duo, you didn't say much when we spoke last night."

I waited for Duo to start, but he didn't, so I jumped right in. "We wanted to know what sort of involvement Quatre had with many of the local business and public figures around the quadrant in organizing a civilian initiative to keep watch and look out for each other. It was part of a widespread push between all the colonies, or at least it was supposed to be, but as we understand it, it didn't really get off the ground. We also wanted to know whether he knew anything about Dilawar Said's death, since it happened very close to his own and they were both actively involved in the planning of the civilian initiative." I paused to judge her reaction. She'd been nodding slowly as I spoke. "That's what we came here to discuss." I looked back quickly to see Duo give me an encouraging nod. "And since, aside from your pursuits as a doctor, you worked closely with Quatre in much of what he did politically, we thought you might be able to help us."

Iria paused before stepping into what appeared to be a study. We were now deep inside the mansion. I could see an inner courtyard through the windows of the room ahead of us. Duo and I stopped, waiting for her to speak. "You're not wrong to wonder about that time right before my brother died," she finally said, voice barely above a whisper. "My sisters were all trying to understand what he was feeling in those final weeks, but he wouldn't let us close to him. His empathy was so strong and his heart so weak, if we got too close and our concern for him was too obvious, it sent him into a fit. We stayed away from him, even though it broke out hearts to do so. But I know that just before he died, this initiative that you speak of mattered to him a great deal. I know that he both loved it and was deeply troubled by it. I only know the Said name because, when I did see Quatre, when he was feeling well enough, he mentioned that name with great concern." She took a slow, deep breath and squared her shoulders. "That's all I really know of either of your questions. I'm sorry."

Duo spoke at my back. "If it's not too much trouble, Iria, could we sit down with you for a bit? We want to talk about our friend, and we've traveled so far to see you."

She looked us both over with large sad eyes, clearly hesitating. "Today isn't a very good day," she said vaguely. I tensed up, but Duo persisted.

"Please."

She looked over her shoulder, into the study and finally nodded. "Follow me."

Duo nudged me forward when I also hesitated and, together, we walked into the lavishly furnished room. But Iria didn't stop in the study. She continued through to an adjacent room, a smaller, windowless chamber that appeared to be for conferences. Still ahead of Duo, I stepped through, lifting my eyes to the walls to see them lined with men, a few of whom I recognized. They stared at me with blank eyes, eyes that said they were prepared to carry out something unpleasant. I stopped cold by the large table in the middle, even as Iria kept walking, her shoulders still rigid.

The noise I tried to make got stuck in my throat, too undecided between alarm, anger and fear.

I whipped about to see Duo, still in the study, looking around himself, also in shock as more men flooded in through the door we'd just entered and closed it behind them. He looked back to me just as Karl went to the door connecting the two rooms and pushed it shut. Then we both shouted and finally forced ourselves into action. I ran for the door just before it closed, trying to get myself through in time to rejoin Duo, but I wasn't fast enough.

"Don't fight them!" I shouted too late. Karl stood with his back against the solid wood door, his hand firmly on the knob. He still looked like hell, though I'd only seen him this excited back at RCNP, after the two men who'd bullied him so cruelly had been found dead. I aimed a strike for his throat, ready to skip right to the part where I killed him if it meant escaping. He wasn't a fantastic fighter, but he'd always had good reflexes, twisting out of the way of the strike, but keeping his hand on the knob. I followed the jab with my knee, but he managed to protect his middle, turning and taking the hit on the side of his leg.

"No, actually he should fight," he said in a rush, before I could strike him again. "Those men didn't come to talk."

I hesitated. Through the door, I heard the first sounds of a struggle. Something struck the shared wall hard enough that pictures shuddered. I heard a loud curse that was definitely Duo. Then I heard another that definitely wasn't.

"Who are they?" I asked, drawing back my fist.

He looked up at my hand and smiled. "They are all the people you've managed to scare this week with your snooping around."

"No," I snapped. "I've never seen any of them before. But I have seen you, you and two of these men. I imagine the rest are the bullies who've been harassing Asmaa Said."

He put his back to the door once more, daring me to try and hit him again. I wasn't sure whether to step back or throttle him.

"You're correct on that count, but as for the men currently beating the snot out of your partner..." He sneered when he said the word. "I was being perfectly serious. You've made enough enemies in seven days to warrant the most powerful men in the quadrant contacting me with their concerns. Luckily, I knew where you'd eventually turn up so they could send their thugs to do the dirty work for them. But they're not here just to rough him up enough to scare him off the colony."

I raised my eyes to the door, as though I could see through to the other side. I didn't say anything, but Karl could read me like a book. He'd always taken pleasure in that.

"After what happened in the laundry, you'd recognize an execution squad when you saw one, wouldn't you?"

It was becoming difficult to breath. I stepped back as though struck when a body slammed into the door, rattling the latch. Judging by the number of men shouting, Duo was holding his own. But then a gunshot sounded, sending the body that had just hit the door, flying back into it. I heard Duo's voice then - harsh, loud, furious, in pain - just as, behind me, Iria started to cry.

"You lied," she said, brokenly, her voice shaky through her sobs. "You said you were here only to apprehend them, to take them back to Earth. You said you weren't going to hurt them."

I snapped, then, seeing as clearly as if I were there Duo slumped on the floor, bleeding out from a gut shot, a dozen men circled around him, doing their masters' bidding, making sure he didn't get up again. I shoved Karl out of the way and snarled an ugly laugh in his direction when he stumbled and fell. Another man moved to stop me, lunging at me with his first. I twisted sideways as the strike went by my cheek, catching his other fist when he tried to punch me again, twisting it and dragging him down, right onto the sharp side of my hand as it met his carotid. Another man grabbed me from behind, and I shoved both elbows back into his ribs, dropping down and shrugging out from under him. I turned to face him, blocking a kick aimed for my groin and managing to get an arm under his calf, pushing up and throwing him off balance. I followed him backward and shoved him hard in the chest. His head cracked on the table as he fell, and I was already at the next man's throat, stepping between his legs and twisting him down to the floor. The sound of a firearm being drawn stopped me a hair short of snapping his arm. Iria choked on a scream and I looked up to find a fourth man pointing a gun at her temple, daring me to keep fighting.

"You lied," she said again. "You said you were from the Rehabilitation center, but what kind of people would do this?"

"We didn't lie," Karl grunted, pushing himself to his feet.

"We are from RCNP," another voice spoke, "here to collect one of our own who's strayed from the pack."

The lights were dim in the small conference room and, for the first time, I looked to a shadowed corner, across the table in the middle, to see a man stepping forward, the last I would have expected.

"Rorty?"

The prison counselor stood before me, as real as Karl, looking tired and frustrated. For the span of several seconds I could only stare at him, thinking back over everything Duo and I had suspected and found together, questioning all of it as I was faced with evidence that, really, RCNP had simply come to take me back, that Prescott had sent Rorty to bring me home. There was no conspiratorial secret organization that was quietly eliminating old war leaders. There was only Rorty and Prescott, making sure that I completed the program, that I didn't screw up my future beyond their ability to help.

But Karl, perhaps unwittingly, had saved me from that admittedly comforting notion. He'd said that all those men in the other room, the ones beating and shooting at my best friend, worked for the men we'd questioned this past week. I looked at Rorty and knew that he wasn't here to save me or to take me home. He was here to make sure that he finished what he'd started when - I looked to Karl - when he'd told Karl to rally a bunch of his old, easily manipulated fuck buddies and take me out - right after I had gone to him to confess that I thought Karl was about to get me in trouble. I looked at him and realized I'd found that missing connection between Earth and L4. The connection was someone I already knew.

"You were Quatre's shrink. You were the one he recommended to Dilawar Said. You - " I hesitated when Rorty turned to the man holding Iria at gunpoint.

"Get her out of here," he said. "And watch her. Make sure she doesn't get hurt."

I could have slipped out with them. I saw my opportunity the moment the door was open. I could have darted out ahead of them and helped Duo, gotten him out of that room if by some miracle he was still alive. But when I heard the click of a safety, I abandoned that prospect, knowing who I'd find with the gun. I turned to see Rorty aiming his handgun at my face with the gall to look sorry that he was doing it.

"It was you wasn't it," I repeated, hoping that Rorty would want to talk, would want to gloat. I edged closer to Karl. "You worked in the colonies before you came to RCNP. Your resume was posted on the website. Anyone could see it. They were so proud to have an experienced counselor working at the brand new rehabilitation facility, one who had worked with PTSD patients, someone who knew how to pick out the troublemakers, who could identify the leaders that might pose a political threat if given the chance."

Rorty's gun didn't budge. He looked so sad that I briefly considered apologizing. But that was his talent, getting his patients to realize their own guilt and repent for him. For peace.

"What happened with Quatre?" I asked. "He may have come to you because he was an emotional wreck by the end, but he would have been your most dangerous patient. As an empath, he would recognize you for what you were; he would have known your soul the second you felt anything strong enough for him to latch onto." My throat threatened to close when I pictured what Quatre must have felt when he realized what Rorty intended, how he intended to use the community watch initiative that Quatre had loved so dearly. I had no doubt that Rorty had played a large part in what that organization had evolved into. Karl had confirmed that for me. "What did he find out that forced your hand?" I pressed. "Was it Said? The man he'd put in your sights? The man he unintentionally helped you kill?"

I paused, trying to calm down, trying to find my center again. I strained my senses but now heard nothing from the other room. For all I knew those men had gone already, leaving Duo behind. Or worse, taken him with them if he wasn't dead, retribution for his prying. Their employers would want to know everything he knew about them.

Rorty lowered the gun marginally, to about chest level. "Are you finished?" he asked.

"No," I spat. "I have one more question."

Rorty smiled, slow and kind and attentive. He'd been a good counselor; even I had liked him. "Ask away. I can see this has been very productive for you."

"How'd you get him to take all those sleeping pills?"

Rorty looked as though he were proud of me. "They were in his food. With his condition, he had a remarkable appetite. He always cleaned his plate."

It was true. Any time we were together during my trial, Quatre ate like an adolescent boy, not someone weak and sick. "You poisoned him," I said softly, the image of Quatre eagerly consuming his lunch and then falling asleep shortly afterward, unsure of why he was suddenly so tired, coming to me unbidden and unwanted. Still, I was glad, even then, to know that Quatre hadn't been so desperate as we'd been led to believe, that, given the chance, he would have kept fighting.

"He was infinitely more dangerous than any of the rest of you," Rorty said, lifting the gun again. "You always walked a dangerous edge, Chang, one I wanted you to stay clear of. If your friend Maxwell hadn't been so closely involved with you, I imagine we wouldn't be here, doing this. But we are, and it ends today, now. I am happy to perform this service for the peace."

I regretted that I hadn't been able to tell Duo he was right. I regretted that Duo had faced down a dozen men alone, only able to guess and fear what had happened to me. I regretted that Heero and Trowa didn't know what sort of peace they were defending. I regretted that I hadn't completed the program at the rehabilitation center, that I wouldn't get to live in the world I was being reconditioned for.

The gun fired just as a body's full weight slammed into my side, knocking me down and pressing me into the floor. I landed hard on my shoulder and bit back a groan, protecting my head with my arms when the gun fired again. The body on top of me jerked and labored breaths wheezed loudly in my ear. Then the door flew open and I heard shouts of "Preventers, no one move!" and "Put down your weapons! Put them down now!" "Keep your hands where we can see them. Now, turn around and face the wall, both hands on the wall!" Several pairs of feet entered the room, stepping over and around us where I lay stunned and Karl lay shot.

I stared up at him as he struggled to breathe. He smiled at me and it was ugly, his teeth already pink with foamy blood, blood from his lungs. He coughed feebly and some of it sprayed on my shirt and face. The feel of it, warm and sticky, finally ended my paralysis, and I carefully slid out from under him, helping him to sit up, feeling under his clothes for the wound. He groaned in pain and coughed some more when I found a messy entrance wound on the right side of his back. I felt bits of chipped rib and fought back a wave of nausea.

"It's okay," he rasped, leaning heavily against my side. "That's why we have two lungs, right?"

"You don't want to have just one lung, Karl," I said, pressing my hand against the wound, feeling his blood pulse out over my fingers. "You'd have to quit smoking."

"Mm," he confirmed. "It'd be the kick in the pants I needed."

I glanced up at the chaos around us and then back out into the study. I didn't see Duo anywhere. "Thank you for saving my life," I said, quickly finding Rorty and just as quickly looking away from him. He was staring at me. "How many times is it now?"

His head had fallen against my shoulder. With my other hand I ran my fingers through his hair. He really looked nothing like Quatre. In the commotion, I sought anyone that could be a medic, but everyone was busy pointing guns and slapping on handcuffs.

"Oh, at least twice. I told them not to kill you in the laundry. I told them to make it look like they meant to. I'm sorry about Onur." He hacked and wheezed, and I tried to hold him steady. "I'm so sorry. But I had to get you out. Rorty told me to get rid of you, so I had to."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did. Three times."

"Why didn't you tell me when I wasn't so doped up I thought you were a hallucination?"

"You had to figure it out. You had to find the connections. Rorty wouldn't tell me anything; he didn't trust me enough. You had to draw the fire."

I heard several familiar voices then, one of which I nearly wept for. "Preventers waited too long to come help us," I said, angry that he was in such pain. "Why didn't they stop Rorty before he shot you?"

He didn't respond, only pointing to his leg, where, when I bent down to pull at the cuff of his pants, I found a wire. We'd all been used, all three of us.

I looked up when I heard my name, seeing Duo propped up between Heero and Trowa, his left leg heavily bandaged and already bleeding through. He was gray and shaky with blood loss, and he had rapidly swelling bruises on his jaw and over his eye. His left wrist was splinted. Since Heero couldn't grip his arm, he braced a hand on Duo's chest as they came forward. Trowa looked at the amount of blood Karl had gotten all over me, and showed a moment of real fear before I shook my head and mouthed, "I'm fine."

"Are you free of all this now?" I asked Karl, keeping my voice low, for only him. I finally saw the Preventer medic squad approaching, probably just having packed up their supplies from helping Duo.

Karl wheezed a laugh. "Definitely not. I've got a long career with Preventers to look forward to. I didn't have much say in my recruitment. What about you?"

I watched my friends' careful approach as they stepped around handcuffed men being read their rights. "I have no idea. But I'll let you know."

When the three medics arrived, pushing a gurney through the doorway, I handed Karl over to them with a murmured goodbye. He was fading in and out by then and didn't hear me. Then I turned to Duo who was stubbornly trying to get Trowa and Heero to release him. I saved him the trouble and strode up to him, drinking in every last breathing and cursing inch of him. I nodded to them both and Trowa let go of Duo's arm so that he could rest it heavily on my shoulder, and lean most of his weight on me. He looked at me, expression relieved and pained and contrite.

I pressed my forehead to his, hesitant to touch him with the hand covered in Karl's blood. "I thought you were dead," I murmured, letting the words fall from my mouth like a terrible burden.

He touched his nose to mine and nearly groaned, "Likewise. That's twice now. Please stop it."

However, before I could agree to Duo's request, we were interrupted by not one, but two irate women.

I spotted Une behind Trowa and quickly backed away from Duo. When I saw Francesca Prescott beside her, looking just as pissed, I dropped my eyes to the floor. It was remarkable that even though I now knew I'd been working for them, I could still feel chastised and cowed by a look from either one. I realized Prescott was glaring at Rorty when he brushed by us as he was led from the room, a Preventer at each elbow. Then she turned her gaze back to me.

"We owe you a great debt, Chang."

I started at the use of my family rather than my given name, a mark of respect she had not yet afforded me.

"We would never have been able to discover how far Rorty's network of contacts extended without the work you and Maxwell did."

I looked down at Duo's bandaged leg and then to the medics quickly wheeling Karl out of the room, one holding an IV bag, another compressing an oxygen pump over his mouth, a third pushing the gurney. I couldn't bring myself to answer her.

"But until we can get all this sorted out," Une began, nodding to Heero and Trowa, "we have to take you both into custody. It's only temporary, and it's for your own safety."

Duo's head snapped up, and his expression revealed he clearly hadn't been expecting that. I felt only numbness and relief.

"We don't need to use the cuffs, though, right gentlemen?" She glared at Duo, who then looked to me, eyes wide and questioning.

"No, ma'am," I answered for the both of us. With another stern look and a nod from Prescott, the two women turned away to oversee the removal of the remaining men, leaving the four of us alone. I took Trowa's place at Duo's side, ducking under his arm and supporting him under his ribs.

"Easy," he said with a forced grin. "Duo got knocked around a little today."

I loosened my grip a bit. "Maybe you wouldn't have if Preventers had been a little faster with the back up."

Heero immediately stiffened and Trowa's mouth pinched into a straight line. "If it hadn't taken you so long to get all that out of Rorty, we could have been there sooner. As it was, I had to keep Heero from breaking down the door too early."

"Hey, we understand, right, Wu? It's all water under the bridge now anyway."

We started for the door, Heero and I practically carrying Duo between us. As we passed out of the room, I touched Heero's arm across Duo's back. "And we're both very glad that you did come," I said. Heero nodded and his posture relaxed. "Though you should disregard the message I left on your phone. I wasn't really thinking clearly."

"Indeed," Trowa murmured.

"What message?" Duo asked. "When did you call Heero?"

"It's not important now," I muttered.

On our way back to the front of the mansion, we passed a still-teary Iria, speaking animatedly to two more Preventers. She paused to watch us go, lifting her hand in a small wave. I didn't wave back, but saw that Duo did, lifting his fingers against my shoulder.

The front lawn was full of police cars and vans. As we walked down the front steps, several of the vans pulled away, visibly loaded down with the men who'd been lying in wait here for us. Trowa pointed me toward a car with its rear doors open, and I helped Duo into the car first before sliding in after him. Just before Heero shut the door, he leaned over to look in on us.

"Don't worry," he said.

I gave him a tired nod as he tapped the roof of the car and it pulled away.

[ch. 18] [ch. 20] [back to Singles a - k]