Evasions (cont)

I blinked up at him, shocked by the question, "Prey with an edge," I told him before I had a chance to think about it. "I'm not a threat but I understand the rules of the jungle."

He just sat and stared at me. It wasn't necessarily a glare but it made me feel like I was being stripped down to the bone, weighed and measured.

"Then you should be the one to go out," he said and I was left blinking some more.

I didn't know whether to grin or frown. Half of me was floating a foot off the ground from the mere implication that he might possibly, maybe, trust me to know what I was talking about. While the other half was asking me just what in the hell I had gone and done.

"Heero!" Quatre snapped, "if it's all that dangerous out there, you can't just send him off by himself!"

"He is the... expert here," Heero said softly and I was so busy for a second trying to decide if that was a derogatory remark, that I missed part of what Quatre said next.

"... Damn it! You are letting your personal feelings against Duo... " He was flaming pissed if he was cussing.

"Qat!" I cut him off sharply, afraid of what he might be about to say. I lowered my voice when I had his attention.

"I'm sorry... " I told him, "I'm not trying to say anything against your abilities. If we were going into some high powered political meeting or... or dealing with a negotiations situation; you'd be the point man. But... this is different. This is outside your realm of experience; that's all."

He mulled it over, glared at me and finally said, "I don't think it's safe for you to go out alone."

"I will actually draw less attention by myself," I assured him.

He turned those cornflower blue eyes on Heero again and I was only relieved to have them off me.

"I just want to state that I am totally against this," he gritted, "and just what are you and I supposed to do? Sit here on our hands while Duo does all the work?"

"I am intending on doing some reconnaissance work after dark when the likelihood of running into... "

I laughed. I had not meant to and damned if I didn't have both their eyes on me again.

"Uhmmmm... Heero," I ducked my head, "After dark is when things start to happen in a neighborhood like this. You'll do better to wait until three or four in the morning."

I got a slight rise out of one eyebrow and a grunt. I took it as acknowledgment of the information.

I decided to quit while I was ahead, "I'm going to go see if I can put an outfit together," and I went to get my duffle bag.

There was no rush; there wouldn't be any point in going out for hours yet. Though I suppose I could find someplace to pick up some warmer clothes for the two of them while I was waiting for the local street life to stir.

I pulled out my clothes and looked things over, trying to decide who I was going to be; my Max persona wasn't right for this kind of situation. I was guessing that I was going to end up playing either Dodger the hustler or Helio the streetwalker. I was hoping for Dodger; I don't even like Helio. I finally concluded that I didn't have the right clothes for either one of them. I checked the clock; almost ten. I'd probably be able to find someplace to buy some clothes and recon the neighborhood a little before much was stirring. I dug into my stash and counted out enough money to buy what I needed plus a little extra.

"What are you doing?" I heard Heero say behind me and turned to find the guys watching me curiously. Well, Quatre was watching curiously. Heero was just watching.

"We need some stuff," I told him, shoving the money into my front pocket, "I'm going out."

"Duo," Quatre came toward me with something in his hand, "Heero and I discussed your going out alone. I'm still not happy with it and we decided that you should at least wear a wire."

I straightened and looked at what he was holding, "You have surveillance equipment?"

"Some," Heero admitted and I had to bite back on the urge to ask him just what the hell else he was holding out on us.

I looked the little bug over when Quatre laid it in my hand. It was a transmitter only; they wouldn't be able to talk to me. It was actually pretty state of the art; I recognized it and knew it had a range close to a mile.

I quirked a grin at Heero, "I'm impressed."

Of course, I only got a grunt in return.

I mulled it over in my head, weighing the possibility of getting caught with it against the stress this whole thing seemed to be exerting on Quatre.

"All right," I finally agreed, took off my shirt, dug out my repair kit and proceeded to undo the seam on the collar. I tucked the little transmitter inside and stitched it carefully back up.

"There." I raised an eyebrow at Quatre as I slipped the shirt back on, "Happy?"

"Not really," he grumbled, "But I guess it will have to do." Then he turned to Heero, "Test it," he said tersely.

Heero went into his room without a word and I gave him a moment before I began intoning, "Testing...testing... testing... " Like some monotone robot.

He came out a minute later with a tight nod and I shut up.

On a sudden thought, I turned back to Quatre, "Now you listen... there's a lot of talk on the street that sounds... serious, that just isn't. People push. People test. You are not to panic unless... " I thought about it for a minute, "Unless I start talking in Japanese. Understood?"

He nodded and somehow only looked more upset. That was what would get him eaten alive outside this little house; everything he felt was written across his face in six foot, flaming letters.

"I gotta teach you to play poker." I muttered and grabbed my jacket and turned to go.

Quatre's fingers came to brush my arm, "Be careful," he murmured.

"Just stay cool," I told him, "I'll be back."

Then I was out on the street and turning my jacket collar up against the wind. Damn but I hate the cold.

The house to the east of us was boarded up but you could tell that someone was slipping in and out of it, "Looks like we have squatters living in the house next door," I told them as I ambled along, letting my eyes scan everything. Might as well pass along a little information while I was out here.

"Stop glaring, Heero," I chuckled, "A lot of street people talk to themselves... it's no big deal."

"Stay clear of the third house down, our side of the street," I warned, thinking about Heero's plan to be out after dark, "Looks like they raise pit bulls. You go in that back yard and you won't be coming out with all your body parts." I'm sure they could hear the savage barking in the background. I shivered; I'd seen dog fights before.

"Nasty little pieces of work," I muttered to myself, "Give me a nice golden retriever or a German shepherd any day."

I got quiet while I worked on my walk; God it had been years. I hunched my shoulders and crammed my hands in my pockets and stopped trying to walk like a soldier. Blend in, Maxwell; I chided myself. Stop striding. After a few minutes I remembered to pull my hand out every so often and wipe at my nose. Harmless... think harmless.

"I been hangin' 'round you guys too damn long... " I muttered, thinking about Quatre hunched over the receiver back at the house, "This is harder than I 'member."

I dug through my memory, pulling up a mental picture of the kind of person I was pretending to be. I remembered the guy clear as day; Ganor... his name had been Ganor. Everybody called him Gimpy because he had this rolling walk that was almost a limp. I could hear his voice in my head. I had the walk down within the next half block.

"At's better," I murmured, practicing the talk, "Don' you be callin' me Gimpy to my face... my name's Ganor. G. A. N. O. R.," I intoned, just the way he used to say it. I always thought it was probably the only word he knew how to spell.

Ganor had walked and acted like he owned the fucking block but everybody knew he was a nothing nobody and paid him little mind. Most people thought he was a loon.

"At's odd... " I said to nobody in particular, "Ol' gray house with the big ol' porch... she got a brand spankin' new front door."

I continued that way, doing Ganor as I made my way toward the business district. Muttering and murmuring to myself and verbally pointing out things that stood out to my mind as something odd, like the car that looked a little too nice for the house it was parked in front of and the only other person I saw stirring that early in the day.

The houses gave way to apartment buildings within a few blocks and I began to pass businesses and bars. Some of them boarded up; few of them open. It took me five blocks of wandering before I finally found a second hand clothing store.

I went inside, snuffling and rubbing my nose, which really was a little runny from the cold.

The clerk glanced up only long enough to give me an appraising glance, counting me as no real interest and went back to her Playgirl magazine. It didn't take long to find where the better stuff was and I began digging around looking for enough to put together an 'evening' outfit. I had decided I would probably do better as Helio, much as I would rather have not... but I hadn't seen too many places where Dodger could ply his pool hustler trade.

I picked up a couple more sweaters and an extra jacket because I didn't think that Quatre had one and went slouching up to the counter.

The clerk raised her eyes and glared at me.

"This here jacket's gots a hole in it"' I whined and she only rolled her eyes.

"That's why it's called a second hand store, honey. Get over it."

"I ain't payin' no full price for no jacket that gots a hole."

She went back to her magazine, "Then put it back, sugar."

"Come on, man." I whined a little more and reached to rub at my nose again, I caught the flick of her eyes at the movement and I let my hand tremble as I put it back down and shoved it back into my pocket. "I ain't got much... and I got to save some... "

I had her full attention now and her whole attitude changed. The money she made off the clothes went to somebody else. The money she made from selling... other things under the counter was all hers.

"What's a'matter, sugar? You look a little wasted." The sympathy in her voice held absolutely no reality in it.

I ducked my head down and to the side the way I remembered the real Ganor doing it. "I needs the clothes and I ain't got much cash... "

"Well... " Her eyes never left mine and I forced a shiver, "Maybe we can talk price if you're interested in something else."

I gave her a hungry look and we got down to the real dealing. She was careful not to mention anything by name but a small bag appeared on the counter next to my pile of legitimate merchandise. I got a much better deal on the clothes.

I left the store with a couple of plastic bags full of clothes that would all have to be washed and something else tucked inside my jacket pocket.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got a couple of blocks behind me, "Jesus Christ," I blurted, forgetting for a second that Heero was probably sitting there with Quatre, "This is bringing back a whole shit wagon full of crap I would just as soon not remember."

I deliberately worked my way back to the house using a different route and continued my litany of observations as I went.

"There's something strange over here on fifth street. There's a building here that looks too new. There's something not right about it... it almost looks like somebody was trying to make it look old."

It was afternoon now and I was seeing more people. I deviated once from the route I had intended to take because I spotted a small group of punks hanging around a street corner. 'Punks' and 'hanging around' usually meant bored. They weren't bored enough to come down two blocks to follow me.

I was getting antsy this close to my goal and found myself rambling to Quatre as I wove my way between obstacles, surprised at how quickly old instincts came back.

"Old piece of street wisdom, Qat. Never go where you don't have at least three ways out," I was prompted to say as I briefly contemplated and rejected going down an alley to shorten my route.

I came to the corner just two blocks up from the house and had to decide between going down the north or south side of the street. On the north, the owner of the pit bull service was outside in his front yard and would have to be passed. He looked like a sullen bastard and wasn't doing a whole lot of anything but he had one of his dogs with him. On the south side there was a pair of youngish looking punks in colors sitting on the hood of a car passing a joint back and forth, laughing uproariously.

"Great," I murmured, "Hell or high water. Ok... let's decide based on the rules set before me as a child; never failed me before. Rule number two, Qat... it's the quiet ones who'll give you the most trouble."

So I stayed on the south side and only had to endure the hoots and catcalls of two guys too stoned to want to get up off their asses to give me any grief.

I made the front porch of the safe house with that spot between my shoulder blades itching like a son of a bitch and having to make myself not run.

I had been too long off the streets, had forgotten the constant tension, I knew I'd have trouble sleeping tonight with the monsters of my childhood hunting me through the dark.

The door flew open in front of my face before I had a chance to reach for it and Quatre fairly pulled me inside, falling all over himself trying to ask me questions. I laughed at him, a little of the tension easing now that I was under cover.

"Let me get these clothes in the bathtub to soak and then we'll sit down and talk."

He gave me a puzzled little frown, "But Duo... you just bought them... "

"And they're probably full of vermin coming from a place like that," I told him and his eyes flew wide. I passed Heero in the hall on my way and grinned at him, still a little bit high on adrenaline.

"If you have the map of the area, I can mark some stuff we should probably check."

"Meet us in the kitchen," he said and I grinned wider. There hadn't even been a glare with that line!

I ran the tub full of scalding hot water and poured in a liberal amount of the harshest cleanser I could find. By the time I got to the kitchen, I had put Ganor completely behind me and was able to sit down with them as Duo.

When Heero spread the map out, I could see that he had already marked the place with the dogs and to tell the truth, it rather surprised me that he had thought enough of my observations that he had noted it. I went over what I had noticed and marked things off on the map. Heero actually asked me a couple of questions and I hated myself for the warm feeling his attention gave me.

Heero decided he wanted to investigate the house with the obviously new door and the building on Fifth Street; possibly that very night.

When we were done talking tactics, Quatre jumped all over me, "What was going on in the clothing store? Why did that clerk suddenly change the way she was talking to you?"

I chuckled lightly, "You just heard your first drug deal go down, Qat."

"But... " He sputtered and I laughed some more and explained about how much more difficult it was to make charges stick if the seller never actually makes a verbal offer. I showed him the stuff and marvelled again at how wise and naïve he could be all at the same time.

I caught a slight frost in the air and glanced at Heero to find him looking at me in a very odd way, "What are you planning on doing with that?" he asked in a voice I had not heard before and I had trouble deciding what the tone was.

"Depends," I told him blandly,"'If I have to go out as Dodger... I may try and sell it as part of my cover. If I have to be Ganor again... God forbid... I'll probably just carry it as a prop. Otherwise it goes down the toilet."

There was a subtle change to his features but it was beyond me to read him most of the time.

Quatre was confused again, "Dodger? Ganor? Duo... I don't understand."

"My personas," I told him, "cover identities."

"You have them already made up?" He looked a little incredulous.

"It makes it easier to pull one out of my hat when I need to be somebody else in a hurry," I explained and he just shook his head.

"Who are you going to be tonight?" he finally asked.

I ducked my head and rubbed at the back of my neck, a little embarrassed, "Unfortunately; after looking around... I think I'm going to have to be Helio."

"Helio?" Heero questioned with a frown.

"Uhmmm... yeah. Heliotrope... Helio. He's a... streetwalker."

That brought a shocked gasp from Quatre and he blushed a bright red. Heero had that unreadable expression again and I sighed. I had a feeling I was starting to seriously give him some shivers.

I ignored what I couldn't understand and turned my attention to Quatre, "Don't worry, Quatre... I have no plans of taking on any... clients. It just affords me the opportunity to converse with a lot of people while blending in."

"But... " and his color escalated to an even brighter shade of red, "Won't it blow your cover if... I mean what if somebody... "

I laughed out loud. "You just set a price that's ridiculous and send them on their way."

He didn't look convinced and I reached to pat his hand. "Don't worry so much... there's plenty of fish to pick from out there... no reason to push the issue with one skinny little, nothing street rat."

He blinked up at me and his mouth popped open. "Are you kidding? Duo, you're... " and then his mouth snapped shut. I am not at all sure what he had started to say but he was red again and he never did finish it.

I finally decided I'd had enough of the question and answer session. "I'm going to go rinse the clothes out." And I left the room.

I rinsed the crap out of the new clothes and I'm pretty sure I did see some little dead somethings go swirling down the drain. I rung the water out of them the best I could and took them outside to freeze them the rest of the way dry.

With luck, they'd be ready by evening.

When I came back in the house, Heero was on the couch working at his laptop and Quatre was making lunch.

I bypassed Heero and went to sit in the kitchen to talk with Quatre while he worked. No sense pushing my luck with Mr. Mission; if I wasn't careful, I'd forget myself and cross whatever line it was that only he could see.

Quatre was making soup and sandwiches and just generally hanging around the stove more for warmth than anything, I think. He kept stealing glances at me and I finally sighed in exasperation.

"Listen, Qat... if there's something you want to ask me; just go ahead."

He flushed and ducked his head. "I just don't understand... things, I guess." He muttered.

I bit down on the urge to tell him that was exactly why I didn't want him going out but only asked, "What things?" Wishing that he could learn to be a little more blunt.

"How did that woman know"' he stopped, searching for words while he slowly stirred the soup.

I closed my eyes for a second and slipped back into Ganor's head. I got up from the chair and made my way across the room toward him, doing the walk, doing the tremble, doing the sniffle and the whole attitude.

"Why... dat woman... she's a pro-fess-on-nal. She knows her work... she knows the signs."

He almost knocked the pan over whirling around to face the stranger that suddenly seemed to be in the room with him.

"Damn; Duo!"

I chuckled in a nasty, Ganor way, closed my eyes and when I opened them I was Dodger.

Dodger's a punk, on the ragged edge of dangerous. He's all angles and attitude. I came out of the slouch and cocked my head and my elbows. I seem larger when I do Dodger; you stand up straight and tall and just imagine yourself occupying more space than you really do. I continued toward him.

"S'matter pretty bird?" I drawled and let my eyes run over him the way he would get looked at if he dared wander out of this safe place into the streets. I got in his space and he gave ground with his eyes wide.

I pushed it until he croaked, "Duo?" I heard in his voice that he wasn't sure. I'd genuinely scared him. Good.

I flashed him a pure Duo Maxwell grin and reached passed him to take down the soup bowls from the shelf. "What, Qat?"

He just blinked at me as I turned to set the table.

Heero was standing in the doorway watching us. He had that expression again; that one that can only be described as a total lack of expression. Not for the first time, I wished I could read his mind.

Then Quatre surprised me with a question I wasn't prepared for, "Which... which one of you is the real one?"

"Sometimes I'm not sure," I heard come out of my mouth before I could stop it, even as I was standing there still staring at Heero and I saw the surprise wash across his face.

Ouch. Ok... maybe I'd taken this game a little too far. I turned away from them both and set the table.

The subject got dropped after that and I was careful to stick with just being Duo Maxwell the Gundam pilot.

When I brought in the clothes after lunch, I left a sweater and the jacket on Quatre's bed. Then feeling like a damned little kid sneaking where they didn't belong, I carefully folded and put the dark gray sweater I had picked up for Heero on the foot of his bed. I have no idea why I keep making these damn gestures; I'm not normally the type of person to pick up rattlesnakes just for fun.

Then I busied myself with getting my 'outfit' ready and trying to convince myself to pull Helio out of the box.

There's an assumption that people make about you when they figure out that you grew up, not only on L2 but as an orphan running the streets. It's an automatic conclusion that you had to have sold your body to have survived. Nope. Sorry. Not always the case. Yeah, some of the kids did; but you want to know a nasty piece of truth? Little kids trying to be hookers do not live long. If you survived the physical damage, you weren't likely to survive the diseases you were going to get from the type of people who were looking for a roll with a pre-pubescent anyway. I am as virgin as the new-driven snow. I am not innocent. I know how it works; I know the tricks and the secrets. I've had to lie quiet as a mouse in my packing-crate shelter for the night with girls plying their trade not twenty feet away. But I came through those years pretty much untouched. Solo saw to it; saw to it with all his 'rat children'. I don't know if he ever had to go that far, I sometimes wondered because he was very vehement about the subject. None of the kids in his gang ever even thought about it. He made damn sure we understood how that would just get us dead.

Helio is based on a girl named Azure. She took her trade name from the color of her eyes. She had the most beautiful blue eyes. I suspect that I will be able to see those eyes when I have forgotten what the rest of her looked like. She wasn't one of us kids, was older... probably fifteen or sixteen. Seemed as old and wise as some ancient Oracle. She was... a bitter piece of work. I avoided her as much as possible; she made me uncomfortable. Sometimes if you caught her in the right mood, you got a glimpse of the person she might have been. It ate at me.

I sincerely don't like Helio. I guess sometimes it just comes home to me how close I had come to being Helio.

Quatre sat and watched me slice artful holes in denim for a while, nibbling at his lip and refraining, thank God, from any more questions.

Heero worked at his laptop, doing searches on the building on Fifth Street and coming up empty, which only served to peak our interest about the place.

Then there was no more putting it off and I went to the bathroom to change. It was getting late and the nightlife would be starting to stir.

I started my disguise with black spandex. Shut up, ok; I don't want to hear about it. Black leggings and a long sleeved, form fitting shirt; a veritable body stocking. Over that went a pair of acid washed jeans that were so slashed there wasn't a whole lot of places where slinky, black spandex wasn't showing through. A matching denim shirt, not buttoned but tied at the waist and equally slashed. My black combat boots and a black leather jacket. I took my hair down, brushed it until it shone and pulled two locks from either side of my face to tie back behind my head. I thought of Relena with a dark chuckle.

I surveyed myself in the mirror with a bit of a shock. Shit. I wasn't quite the scrawny little street kid I remembered. There was some muscle on the frame I found in the looking glass.

My transmitter had been transferred to the shirt I had on and there wasn't any getting around it; it was time to go out.

I made eye contact with Helio in the mirror and growled to myself. "Damn I hate you."

In the mirror, Helio gave me a saucy wink and just grinned.

I came out of the bathroom trying not to blush and failing miserably when I found the drop-jawed look on Quatre's face.

"Duo!' he gasped, "You can't go out looking like that!"

I laughed until the tears threatened to run down my face. "Qat... it's kind of the whole point."

Heero came out of his room then and I could feel him looking at me. I didn't have the nerve to turn and see what expression he was wearing; I had a feeling it was going to be that frozen one again.

"Heero?" Quatre exploded, looking to our partner for support and finding none.

"Will you still be using the same Japanese code if you experience trouble?" he asked and the glare he got from Quatre was scathing.

"Yeah." I told him without turning and Quatre got so pissed he stormed off to his room slamming the door when he got there.

I finally turned to where Heero was setting up the receiver and caught him looking me up and down appraisingly. It kind of irritated me somehow. Or embarrassed me, I'm not sure which but a tiny bit of Helio peeked out and I raised my arms and turned around to display the goods. "Do I pass inspection?" I purred and was gratified to see him blush and turn away.

I wrestled with things to say, I knew if I got into any serious trouble I was pretty much on my own. There wasn't going to be a whole lot they could do for me. I wanted some assurance that they wouldn't do something stupid trying to bail me out. But then I remembered who I was standing here with and I realized what an idiotic notion that was. I finally muttered, "Take it easy on Quatre... he's just... out of his element here and it makes him feel helpless. It's in his nature to worry."

I left before he had a chance to bite my head off.

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