Evasions (cont)

I went out the back door and slipped through the yards, ghosting out to the street and I finally figured out what the odd noises were I'd been hearing for the past hour.

"Looks like our pit bull buddy is running a dog fight tonight." I murmured, 'Watch yourselves... there'll be a lot of drunken nasties wandering around the neighborhood for hours."

I shut up then, realizing that I was talking only to Heero unless Quatre had come out of his room after I left. I couldn't maintain the same banter unless I felt like I was talking to the more sympathetic of my two partners.

Besides, I needed to get Helio out of his box in my head and get him tried on.

Slow down the walk; need more of a saunter. Stroll... don't stride. Eyes up and scanning; looking for potential clients. Swing the hair, flash the smile... accentuate the positive. God I hated this.

I managed to swing by the house with the odd repairs and muttered into my collar, "Still no lights at target A. No sign of activity."

By the time I hit the business district, Helio was firmly in place and enjoying himself; swinging his hips and smirking his ass off.

Have I mentioned that I don't like Helio?

The strip was like a place transformed; the grates were pushed back from all those places that had been closed that morning and there were people just fucking everywhere.

I passed a bar and got a catcall. Where I would normally have ignored it and walked on, as Helio, I turned and flashed the guy a bright grin, tossing the hair and giving him a wink. I was here to make contacts and find information after all.

The guy wasn't really interested though and backed down when he got a response from me. I walked on.

I wandered like that for a while. I could tell the regulars from the appraising stares I got; somebody new in their territory. I got a couple of propositions and used the high price tactic to blow them off; entered into a couple of absolutely nothing conversations.

It took an hour before one of the local girls got in my face; just a little territorial pissing. In this business, you need a lure... something that makes you stand out. For me... I mean, Helio... it was the hair and the eyes. Violet is a very rare color.

For this girl, it was also her hair. Mine was better.

Hers was long but not as long as mine and flaming red where mine is a light chestnut. Usually when I'm doing Helio I have it streaked but I hadn't had access to a lot of supplies.

I briefly debated getting into it with her but decided to at least give a friendly exchange a try. I went straight for the jugular and complimented her hair. She preened. I lamented my boring, mouse brown color and raved a little about her hair color. She preened some more and we bonded.

I had to keep myself from shaking my head.

It wasn't as hard as all that; we really weren't in any serious competition for clients. The kind of johns that would be interested in me wouldn't be interested in her anyway. I think she only got in my face to start with out of boredom.

I got her to talk to me a little bit. The clichéd hookers with the hearts of gold really do exist. They usually don't last long... but they exist.

On closer inspection, I realized that she was a little older than she had looked at first and I played to that, managing to get some maternal instincts going with a calculated show of a little trepidation.

"Now you listen here, Honey," she told me after we'd talked for a few minutes, "You stay away from the 'Red Dog'... them people is just plain mean. They don't care nothin' about marks."

You got scarred up in her line of work and it dropped your street value. Most johns will at least honor the face. Some like it rough and will sometimes get carried away but they will usually stay away from the face.

I nodded in understanding, appearing to hang on her every word, even as my eyes were scanning the street, looking for things that were out of place. A lot of this kind of surveillance work is pure instinct.

She went on in that vein, warning me away from this or that person; letting me know which ones were the gay bars, until a car cruised by and she got a nibble on the hook she was dangling in the water. She forgot me like yesterday's news and was gone, sidling up to the car and engaging the man behind the wheel in conversation.

I wandered on.

There was a small altercation after that, from a... gentleman who approached me from a bar. Before I quite knew what he was up to, his hands were slipping through the gashes cut in the back of my jeans and he was kneading my spandex covered ass. As Helio, I had to smirk and simper instead of breaking his damn arm.

I finally managed to work my way free with a teasing, "you go much further and I'm going to have to start charging, sweetie."

We did the price thing and he got a little pissy with me. I thought it was going to get rough but he finally backed down and went away muttering to himself about high-priced hookers.

I couldn't keep the shaky, "Shit," from passing my lips after he was gone.

Then I spotted something that made alarms go off in my head. Like I said, a lot of this job is instinct and the guy I saw making his way down the street was kicking my instincts right in the head. This was a predator... but wrong somehow. Like finding a tiger shark trolling through the Sahara. Damn dangerous... but out of place. People were giving him a wide berth but eyes were following him from all over the street.

"Well... this is interesting," I murmured to my shirt collar and put myself in the guy's path.

He was hunting; I just wasn't sure what. His eyes snagged on me and homed in. I smiled, keeping my body language inviting without making too much of a statement. I wasn't sure what this guy was after yet, I didn't want to commit to being one thing only to find he was looking for something else.

He stopped and I could see the people around us writing me off for dead. Shit. I hoped this guy didn't have a reputation for snuff jobs.

I cocked my head to the side and looked him up and down. His clothes were a little better than this part of town usually saw but they were nondescript to a fault. The guy was freaking huge; a good six inches taller than me and probably twice as broad. Good looking in a crew-cut kind of way. And that thought brought it home to me; military. He fairly reeked of it.

In some distant part of my memory I heard Solo's voice tell me, "Run, you fucking idiot."

I let my eyes roam back up his impressive height and made eye contact with a grin. And saw him dismiss me.

When he walked on, I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or weak-kneed relieved. I just stood and watched his retreating back trying to decide between the two until a quiet voice at my elbow said, "Damn, honey; you really are new at this."

I turned with a start to find my earlier redheaded acquaintance standing beside me, I opened my mouth to speak but she didn't wait.

"Don't you know bitchin' bad news when it almos' runs your ass over?"

I leered in a typical Helio way. "But he was damn fine lookin' wasn't he?"

She actually reached up and smacked me in the back of the head; 'Fine lookin' don' mean nothin'!' she snapped and walked away as though I was obviously just too stupid to talk to.

So I started to follow Mr. Military without seeming to, stopping now and again to respond to whistles and offers but always keeping a close eye on my quarry.

He was looking for something with a little more spice to it. He completely ignored the few who bothered to approach him but actively sought out the ones who were obviously avoiding him. He wanted at least the illusion of a little bit of fight; the thrill of the hunt and all that. He was looking for a challenge. And he was looking the guys and the girls over with equal interest. I tailed him for close to an hour and was pretty sure by the time he finally connected up with a girl who looked desperate enough to risk him, that I understood what it would take to get his attention.

I called it a night and began my meandering path back toward the safe house, things were starting to thin out anyway; it was near two in the morning.

Even though I was getting tired, I made a point of going down Fifth Street and was rewarded with the sight of lights in our second potential building.

"Target B seems to have a third shift," I murmured softly, a little more leery of talking to myself out here in the night. The loons generally wandered around in the daylight hours and holed up someplace safe when it got dark.

"There are lights," I observed for my silent listeners. "But only on the lowest levels. No vehicles either... curiouser and curiouser."

I briefly toyed with the idea of going in for a closer look but decided that wasn't what Heero had assigned to me and I would just piss him off if I overstepped his instructions for no better reason than 'I was in the neighborhood'.

Out here, away from the relative, semi-safe 'business district', I felt like I was creeping through a minefield. I was strung tight as a bowstring and jumping at every little shadow. I was within a couple of blocks of the house and needed to decide which route I was going to take.

"Sure wish you guys could tell me how long the damn dog fights have been over," I murmured, thinking how much faster it would be to come right down our street. If I circumvented that area, it was going to add four or five blocks to my path. I settled on the direct approach and picked up the pace a little bit.

The dogfights had obviously not been over long enough and two blocks from 'home' a rather large, drunken, dog lover suddenly loomed up in my way. From his attitude I was willing to bet his dog of choice had lost.

I stopped and cocked my head to the side, looking him over and preparing some flippant remark but this guy was so far gone there wasn't any preliminary; he just grabbed for me.

"God damn it," I muttered and danced out of his reach.

He kept coming, forcing me to sidestep or attack him. Drunk as he was, he probably wouldn't have felt any punch I might have connected with, so I settled on sidestepping... right into the waiting arms of his buddy who'd been hiding in the bushes.

I realized then that the first one wasn't quite as drunk as he had seemed to be. Well didn't this just suck? I couldn't believe I hadn't seen the second man.

They weren't playing around, there wasn't any toying with me. The guy who had me by the arms was twisting so hard I thought for a second he'd broken something. There was a flash of burning pain across my shoulders as ligaments stretched to the limit. The original dog-boy came in and punched me hard in the stomach and when my breath exploded out of me, bush-boy let me fall to the ground.

I had my knife out of my sleeve the moment he gave me the opening to do it, but kept it tucked up tight to my body while I sucked for air and tried to get my bearings. Then they were hauling me to my feet by the back of my jacket and I brought the knife into play.

"Back off, asshole," I wheezed and had the blade at his throat before he knew I even had it.

"Shit!" dog-boy yelped and let go of my jacket.

We stood and stared at one another for a minute.

"What the hell do you want?" I growled and bush-boy, who didn't have a stiletto under his chin, was more than happy to talk to me.

"Fucking little whore!" he snarled and I suddenly recognized him as the guy who had grabbed my ass earlier in the evening.

"Well isn't this just a happy little coincidence," I drawled and shifted my stance to get them both on the same side of me.

"Think you're so God damned hot... " bush-boy was saying and I cut him off in true Helio style.

"Oh, sweet-cakes... I am damned hot. Damned expensive and damned worth it. But the likes of you will never know." My voice dripped utter contempt.

I could tell that dog-boy had only gotten involved out of boredom and some misdirected desire for a little excitement. He was regretting his choice to throw in with bush-boy and I shoved him away from me hard enough to send him sprawling in the dirt, turning my attention to my real problem.

"You wanna dance?" I asked him in my coldest voice, letting the knife weave while I beckoned him with my free hand.

"What?" he blurted and I swear to God for a second the guy actually thought he still might get a piece of me.

"I am most definitely not speaking Japanese," I told him roughly, delivering another message to my waiting partners at the same time. "I said... do you want to fight me?"

He mulled it over, looking at me, looking at the knife. I heard dog-boy getting to his feet and scrambling away.

"I ain't easy," I told him, hoping to speed his decision, "I ain't cheap. And I sure as hell ain't no push-over."

His eyes were following the blade in my hand and he must have finally decided that I knew how to use it, because his hands came up and he backed off. We maneuvered around each other and he let me go on my way and I let him go on his.

"Gonna take the long way back," I sighed into my shirt collar when I was satisfied that he was headed back toward the business district. I couldn't take the chance that I might lead someone back to the others and so walked on by the house without even looking at it. I wasn't sure if bush-boy had followed me somehow, without my seeing him or if my running into him out here really was just a coincidence. I took another damn hour to work my way around and make absolutely sure that I wasn't being followed before I made my way up through the yards to the back door.

"Coming in the back," I breathed, just to make sure I didn't get my head shot off, and again, the door was opened for me when I got there.

I was surprised to find them both there, Quatre hauling me inside while Heero shut and relocked the door.

"I thought you were going out?" I exclaimed to Heero before I had a chance to think better of it.

"Don't be ridiculous!" Quatre snapped at me, wide eyed, "He couldn't go off with you in danger!"

I stared at him for a minute. "I'm not in any... "I began and got a full-fledged Quatre death glare. He'd been practicing.

"We heard you being attacked," Heero said flatly, "Are you injured?"

I shook my head; unable to think what to say in the face of this... pissed off concern? Whatever the hell it was.

"They hit you,"Quatre accused. "We heard it."

"Will you guys calm down?" I blurted, "I got careless and got jumped. They only landed a couple of punches. I'm fine."

There was a moment of strange silence and I decided to break it in an effort to change the subject.

"You're not still planning on going out are you?" I questioned.

"It is too late now." Heero said and made it seem somehow like it was my fault. "It will be light soon."

"I'm... sorry. I didn't realize you were waiting on me to come back," I said sullenly.

A look was exchanged between Heero and Quatre and I suddenly realized that he hadn't gone on his recon mission because Quatre had not let him. I sighed heavily, imagining what the last couple of hours had been like in this house.

"Look." I tried to keep my voice steady and reasonable. "We're not doing anything else tonight. Let's just get some sleep. I think I might be on to something, we can go over everything in the morning."

Heero only grunted, turned on his heel and went to his room.

"He is the single most pig-headed God damn son of a bitch... " Quatre hissed through gritted teeth.

"Qat!" I gasped at him and suddenly his face crumbled and he was throwing his arms around me.

"Duo... " he blurted, "I was so damn scared! I didn't really believe you about what it was like out there! Those people are so... "

I wrapped my arms around him and held him close, using his need for comfort to answer my own need for just some damn physical contact.

"S'ok little brother." I grinned where he couldn't see it anyway, "I'm all right. I was only in over my head for like... maybe ten seconds."

The joke fell flat but the new little nickname made him draw back and smile up at me, a little reassured.

"Go to bed," I told him gently, "It's been a long night. I'm going to shower. I really, really feel the need of a shower."

He nodded and retreated to his room.

I went to the bathroom and stared at Helio in the mirror for a minute. "You're going to get my ass killed one of these days, Helio," I told him and he just grinned.

I showered in water as hot as I could get it and scrubbed until my skin was raw. Then I went out to get a little sleep on my couch and about fell over when I found a blanket folded and lying there.

Well damn. It had to be from Heero; Quatre didn't have a clue I was sleeping out here. I rolled up in it and tried to stop grinning. And no, I am not that stupid; I knew it didn't mean a damn thing. But I was just so hungry for him to... hate me a little less... that it meant the damn world to me. Especially after the night I'd had.

Faces and voices swam in my head. I couldn't stop thinking about Mr. Military; trying to figure out what he had to do with all this. Mulling over my observations, thinking through my strategy for making a connection with him. Wondering if I truly wanted to make a connection with him. The man looked like he could tear me in half without breaking a sweat. What if I managed to get him to proposition me? What then? How the hell far was I willing to go for the mission?

I remembered the feel of bush-boys hands on my ass and I shivered. I flopped over on my side and let my hand fall on the pile of denim and spandex on the floor by the couch, I fingered the material and tried to follow that scenario through. Nope. Not that far; I knew I wouldn't be able to go through with it.

I wished Heero weren't so damn... tight assed. I could really use somebody to talk to right now and I just could not talk to Quatre about this. He was already so upset he was on the verge of imploding. He'd never met people like the ones prowling around out there. Fighting against faceless pilots in mobile suits is one thing; these were civilians and were not supposed to be a threat. I don't think he had known that there were people in the world who were that close to being animals. It had scared the crap out of him and it was about to drive him insane that I kept wading out into it. That and the fact that Heero kept sending me.

I rolled over onto my stomach and ended up jabbing my bruised abdomen into the corner of the couch cushion and hissed in irritation. With a muttered curse, I threw myself back over onto my back and stared up into the dark.

My shoulders ached from where bush-boy had damn near ripped them out of their sockets. I heaved another sigh; I wasn't going to get any sleep tonight at this rate.

Across the living room, I heard the door to Heero's room open quietly. His shadow came silently out and padded toward me. He stopped beside the couch and just stood there for a minute. I blinked up at him and waited for him to speak. What the hell?

"You are injured," he said and I could not have told you if it was a question or a statement.

"What?" I asked brightly.

"I can hear you muttering and cursing from the other room.' It held a hint of accusation.

I thought about what I had been doing since I had lain down here. Surely I hadn't been that damn loud? "Well excuse me; I'll try to be quieter."

There was a long silence and then, his voice sounding cold; "I need to evaluate your condition."

"I'm fine," I growled.

"I will be the judge of that."

I was pissed. And well aware that it was driven by the unreasoning fact that I wanted him to come out here and care if I was all right. Wanted it so damn bad I could taste it. I wanted him to sit down next to me and say my name and ask me if I was ok and truly fucking care what the answer was. This... this cold, detached checking of my status as it related to the mission was enough to just about push me over the edge of... whatever the hell I had been sitting on the edge of all night.

He turned away only to flick the light on and then turned back to face me, 'Show me,' he said, voice was angrily sullen.

I threw the blanket off and flung myself to my feet, spitting mad and for a minute I couldn't even speak. He just ran his eyes over me; calmly looking for wounds.

"Where?" he asked after a minute.

I had to take a couple of breaths before I could open my mouth without snapping at him, "I took a single punch to the stomach. I may have strained some shoulder muscles. Nothing more," I gritted.

He stepped in toward me and it was all I could do not to jerk away. It was probably the surreal unlikelihood of his hands on me that kept me standing there, still as a stone, as he pressed on my abdomen checking for internal injuries. He turned me around and checked my shoulders, making me raise my arms up against the downward pressure of his hand. He was efficient and thorough and the clinical coldness broke me in a way I had not expected. My anger washed away on a rising tide of pain.

"Satisfied?" I said coldly, my back turned to him.

I got the standard, "Hn."

"Then leave me the fuck alone."

He quietly turned the light off and walked away. I didn't move until I heard his door close. I didn't dare. When I was sure I was alone, I balled the blanket up and threw it on the floor, then balled myself up into a shivering lump on my couch. I always have had a penchant for slicing my own nose off just to spite my damn face.

"The wounds are on my fucking soul, you bastard," I whispered into the dark and silently cried myself to sleep.

It was out of my system by morning. I'm funny that way; sometimes I wonder about my sanity. I'm thinking about willing my psyche to science when I die. They can put my brain up on display in a jar labelled 'Abby Normal'. Should make an interesting exhibit; the universe's only naturally coal-black brain. Ok... maybe it wasn't completely out of my system.

I opened my eyes to see Heero through the kitchen doorway, making breakfast, his back to me. My blanket was off the floor and draped across my legs. He was wearing the sweater I had bought for him. My first thought was just pure shock that he had come that close to me without waking me. The second was that he was obviously some sort of psycho, split-personality lunatic. I give up. I just fucking give up; I won't ever understand the damn son of a bitch if I live to be a thousand years old. I can't read him. I can't figure out his reasoning. I quit.

I rose, folded the blanket and carefully took it back to his room. If I left it out in the living room, I would have to explain it to Quatre. Nothing more to it than that. Yeah.

I killed a little time in the bathroom, braiding my hair and dressing in my Dockers and a turtleneck. Maybe I could get my black sweater back from Quatre; I was freezing to death. I had a feeling that I might just as well face up to the fact that I was not going to be warm again until this damn assignment was over. I rinsed my mouth and scrubbed at my face and met dark circled, blood-shot eyes in the mirror. I had to grin; maybe tonight Helio wouldn't get quite so many offers. He looked like shit.

I stayed in the bathroom until I heard Quatre stirring, then emerged and waited for him so that I didn't have to go into the kitchen alone.

It was as though the previous night had never happened. We ate and went over my observations and suspicions from my stint as Helio.

Heero seemed a little... subdued. I suppose he hadn't gotten much sleep last night either; I knew how late he had been up, after all. Quatre was so openly curious about everything, that he seemed to have forgotten how pissed off he was at Heero. I found myself dominating the conversation as I warmed to my theories, telling them about Mr. Military. I dug out some paper and did a quick sketch of the man, describing his clothes and expounding on my idea of approaching him. The room went rather icily quiet.

I looked up from my drawings to find two pairs of blue eyes drilling holes through me, "What?" I asked, unsure what in the hell I had done wrong now.

"Duo," Quatre said quietly. "Isn't that the man that lady warned you to stay away from?"

All I could do was stare at him. He turned his gaze on Heero for a second; looking for some support before deciding he probably wouldn't get any.

"The man is obviously dangerous!" he snapped at me and I just lost it. I felt like I was being assaulted on the one side with Heero's cold-hearted disdain and on the other with Quatre's heart-wrenching fear and anxiety. I had been waffling back and forth between them, opening myself to Quatre's emotions, trying to keep him reassured and calm but then having to throw the shields back up with every encounter I had with Heero. I think I just overloaded my system; pain, comfort, pain, comfort. Isn't that a torture technique?

"No fucking shit, he's dangerous!" I yelled, "I am ninety-five percent sure he's a damn Oz agent! That sticks him in the dangerous category just on general principal! That is kind of the whole God damn reason we're here!"

Shock registered on Quatre's face and Heero's turned to stone. I was flaming losing it and couldn't seem to get my mouth to shut.

"I don't know about you two... but I'm a fucking soldier here to do a God damn job! I thought we were a team. I thought we were supposed to be working together. But you are about to mother hen me to death... you're making me do shit that I wouldn't ordinarily do, just to keep you from worrying!" Mouth just would not shut up and my momentum turned me in Heero's direction. "And you! I want to know what your God damn problem is! You do not treat any other member of the team the way you treat me! I have never failed a mission. I have never refused to do anything you have asked of me. I'm sick of you treating me like I'm some kind of... of... baka!"

Ever kicked a puppy? Unless you are a severely twisted individual you will regret it pretty damn quickly. I was sorry almost before the last words were out of my mouth. I found that somewhere in there I had stood up so fast that I'd knocked the kitchen chair over and I was standing there panting and glaring at both of them. I threw my hands up in that 'no threat' gesture and backed away, turning to brace my arms on the counter and letting my head hang down while I got myself back together.

So much for having all the clutter out of my system.

"Duo... "' Quatre ventured and there was a world of hurt in his voice. I was opening my mouth to tell him how sorry I was when Heero spoke.

His voice was calm and very quiet. "He's right."

I couldn't help it, I had to turn around. He was just sitting at the table, looking down at his hands.

"I have been letting my... emotions affect my handling of this situation."

I wondered if my eyes looked as wide and round as Quatre's did. Somebody find me a calendar; I need to mark this day down.

There was a frozen moment when not one of us knew what in the hell to say next. I toyed with 'I'm sorry' but I really wasn't... it had needed saying. Perhaps not at that volume, nor laced with quite that many swear words... but it had made Heero Yuy admit that I was right about something. Later, I would let myself think about the fact that he had just admitted that he truly didn't like me.

Heero finally broke the stillness. "You have shown yourself to have good instincts and strong powers of observation. I... trust your... evaluation of the targets."

It took Quatre a minute to realize that meant that Heero was going along with my plan to approach our possible Oz soldier. He opened his mouth but then his eyes flicked in my direction and he shut it again.

I moved to pick my chair up and sat back down at the table, I took a deep breath and just tried to get back into mission mind-set.

"We can't afford to waste another night"' I said to nobody in particular, "The recon of target B can't wait until I'm done with my scouting mission."

Quatre was trying hard to focus as well and when his voice came, it was calm and totally objective. "I disagree. The two missions should not coincide with each other. Duo might need backup."

I turned to Heero. "You're the mission leader." I told him, dumping it in his lap.

He grunted and the look on his face flashed irritation for a moment but quickly stilled. "I have had no contact with the operative in question. I can not make a judgment on your ability to handle him." And he dumped it right back in my lap.

I started to speak and then thought better of it for a moment. I had been reacting with my gut for the last couple of hours. I needed to really think about what he had just asked me. My eyes flicked down to the rough sketches I had made. I remembered the man towering over me. Thought about what his eyes had promised for whoever ended up accompanying him for the night. Yes... I was afraid of him. But was it merely the thought of what he intended to do to me... to whoever... that was unnerving me? The mental picture of the man overpowering me and... pinning my naked ass to the wall? Why was that any more frightening than getting shot or knifed?

"In an out and out wrestling match?" I said at last, "I'm dead; he outweighs me by a good hundred pounds. But I think I can keep the situation from coming to that."

Heero nodded sharply and I think I earned points for blunt honesty.

Quatre saw the vote go in my favor without having to be told. "Do you have anything that would allow me to contact you in the event Duo gets into... trouble?" he asked Heero and only got a shake of the head.

He looked at me then, not ready to give up just yet, "Could you possibly come in earlier than you did last night?"

I considered it; "I can't control that"' I said at last, "It's going to depend on Mr... .the target. It was fairly late before he made an appearance last night."

"He might not show up at all," he said then, a bit of emotion trying to thread its way into his voice. "How about you call it a night and return to base if you haven't made contact with him before... say; 2:00?"

"That seems reasonable," Heero agreed before I could speak. I felt an instant's irritation but I had to remind myself that he was the team leader here.

Quatre eyed me warily, something in his face I couldn't quite read, "What makes you think you can attract his attention?" he asked me suddenly, "He didn't seem to have any interest last night."

That one caught me rather flatfooted. "I... followed him. I watched to see what attracted him and what didn't."

"And?" he prompted.

I sighed and ran a hand through my bangs; he's a persistent little shit. "I was too forward last night... he's the kind of guy who's looking for... a little challenge."

"Challenge?" he asked and I wondered, not for the first time, if Quatre had any sexual experience at freaking all.

"He's an intimidator. He wants his... " I thought about wording. "Partner to be afraid of him."

That got me another one of those looks from Quatre and it was all I could do not to bang my head on the table.

"Can you do that?" Heero asked softly before Quatre had a chance to open his mouth.

"No problem whatsoever." I grinned at him. "Six foot three, two hundred pounds, shoulders out to freakin' here... probably Oz; I think I can work up a little nervousness."

I did not get the laugh. I didn't even get a smile. I sighed again.

"Look." I said before things went any further, "I am not going to sit here and play sex education teacher; do we have a plan or not?"

Quatre reddened and Heero only grunted.

"Fine. Then if you guys don't care, I'm going to try to get some more sleep. I'm probably going to be out late." I glanced at Quatre. "Mind if I use your bed? It's in the back of the house."

"Go ahead." he murmured and I was rather pleased with myself that I managed not to go running from the room like my ass was on fire.

The dark of Quatre's room was a nice comfort. It was pure bliss to stretch out on a bed and have a real blanket to roll up in. Even if the bedclothes did smell a little... musty.

I hadn't lain there two minutes when there came a light tap at the door and it opened to spill light and Quatre into the room.

"Duo?" he said softly, holding something in his hands, "Heero sent me to look at your shoulders."

"What?" I asked, totally agog.

He slipped into the room and flipped the light on and I could see the thing in his hands was a tube of liniment.

"Quatre, I'm fine," I told him with a sigh.

He only grinned at me, coming the rest of the way into the room. "Oh shut up and take your shirt off. I wanted to talk to you anyway."

I threw him a half-hearted glare and sat up with an exaggerated sigh; pulling the turtleneck off.

He sat down on the bed behind me and poked at my shoulders for a minute. "You've got all kinds of broken blood vessels back here. Hurt?"

"Not all that bad," I told him, "Just a little stiff."

I heard him rubbing his hands together briskly and I had to grin; only Quatre would think to warm the stuff up first. Then he began to gently work the ointment into my sore muscles.

"Duo," he said softly after a minute or two of rubbing, "I'm really sorry... "

"No," I interrupted him before he could go any further. "I'm the one that should be sorry. I had no right to yell at you just for being concerned."

"I shouldn't argue with you over your every decision."

"It wasn't... you." I sighed, feeling the liniment beginning to warm my skin, "I just feel like things have been... running hot and cold for days."

"Tell me about it," he muttered.

"I just... " I stopped and let a sigh escape me, feeling my shoulders relaxing almost against my will, even as my stomach was starting to knot again.

I wanted to throw my arms around him; someone who could understand what I was feeling. I love him, I wanted to say; the words were right there in my mouth, I love him so much it hurts... and he hates me and I don't even know why! That's what I wanted to say. Instead I smirked and whispered, "Pinch me, Qat. I cussed Heero Yuy out and I'm still alive!"

He laughed with me and I put the pain back on the shelf where it belonged. Sure, I could talk to Quatre about it but what good would that do? Only upset him further and might actually push him enough that he would try to make things better by talking to Heero. Now that would be a very bad idea.

His hands worked over my shoulders and I felt my head sagging forward almost against my will.

"Did you mean what you called me?" he blurted suddenly.

"What?" I thought back, trying to remember if I had called him something... rude when I'd thrown my little temper tantrum.

"Little brother?" He said it very quietly, an odd sound to his voice.

"Yeah, Qat." I told him firmly. "I did. I... kinda think of you as a younger brother."

There was a moment or two of silence. "You know I've got enough sisters to start my own Country... but I don't have any brothers."

I snorted a soft laugh, "Well... I think I might look a little out of place at the next Winner family reunion... but; there's more than one kind of brother." I didn't tell him that was how I'd originally imagined the five of us, together; like a band of brothers. That was obviously not meant to be.

"I'd like that," he said simply and he finally stilled the movement of his hands, "Better?"

I rolled my shoulders and had to grin at him. "Yeah; it is. Thanks."

"Then go to sleep." He laughed at me and I reached for my shirt.

"Qat... I really am sorry for yelling earlier; I was completely out of line."

He smiled, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "If you can't yell at your little brother; who can you yell at?"

It gave me something warm to hold next to my heart when I lay back down in the cold bed to sleep.

I had weird-ass dreams but didn't really remember much when I woke up that afternoon. Something about black spandex and Relena Peacecraft; all I know is I woke up chuckling so evilly that I kind of scared myself.

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