Authors: TB and Marsh
Rating: M15ish
Pairings: past 2x3 and 2x5

Six Seconds To Gone + Part 1

It was definitely Duo.

'Six different bullet wounds,' the coroner said. She lifted the sheet over the legs and pointed the knee. 'Blew it right open. Three up here on the torso, one in the collar that clipped him. Official COD is this one. You can see the gun powder residue. I figure four, five feet away at most.' She reached for a plastic straw and carefully inserted it into the wound. 'Angle's about 80, 85. He would have been lying on his back, with the shooter aiming down. Execution. Ruptured the aorta, as if the rest of it wasn't going to do the job.'

Wufei's throat was too dry to swallow. They'd left Duo's face alone, at least. He'd hoped, he'd somehow expected, that Duo would just--look like he was sleeping. He looked dead. His lips were bloodless. Even his hair looked lifeless. His cheeks were starting to sink.

'You know him?' the coroner asked.

With that many wounds--they'd toyed with him first. Or just kept at him, again and again, until they slowed him down.

'Yes,' Quatre said. 'We know him.'

Quatre was red-eyed. Had been, since meeting Wufei at the shuttle port. He and Duo had always been close. But he hadn't been Duo's--

The bang of the swinging door made all of them jump. The coroner twitched the sheet over Duo's body.

'I didn't know Preventers were on this case,' the uniform in the doorway said.

'We're not.' Wufei made himself turn. Kept a professional expression--not hard. He couldn't feel a damn thing.

'Then you'll pardon me,' the uniform said, 'if I ask what the hell you're doing here.'

Twangy L2 accent. Local police. 'Agent Chang,' Wufei introduced himself briefly. 'I'm not here to steal your investigation. I'd like to observe. Duo Maxwell is--was--a Gundam Pilot. You can imagine this attack is a matter of inter-Sphere interest.'

That eased some ruffled feathers. 'Inspector Harper, L2 Police.' Harper nodded to Quatre. 'You'd be Mr Winner. Have you been to the house yet?'

'No.' The coroner was rolling the drawer back into the freezer. Wufei did not turn to watch her shut the door on Duo. 'If you have the time, please, I would appreciate a walk through the crime scene.'

Quatre's mobile buzzed. 'It's Heero,' he said, low-voiced. 'I'll catch up.'

'Any suspects?' Wufei asked Harper.

'We found four large blood samples beside the victim's at the house.' Harper glanced at Wufei. 'Beside Maxwell, I mean.' He had a car outside the morgue, and gestured Wufei into the passenger side. 'No hits on the database. We put out a notice to all hospitals and shelters. We think Maxwell either severely wounded or killed some of his attackers. We didn't find his weapon, or any of the weapons used on him, but we did recover three types of bullets from his body.' L2 had strict traffic control, so the roads were almost empty. Wufei stared out the windscreen as they whizzed through the downtown and into a tunnel toward the residential neighbourhoods. 'The boy is missing.'

'That much I know.'

'We thought he might have run to one of you. There's no evidence of a struggle.' Wufei didn't react. When Trowa had called with the news, the first thing they'd each agreed was that Six was safest, at the moment, if no-one knew his whereabouts. Harper continued, 'On the other hand, the murderers trashed the house. We're treating it as a kidnapping until there's proof otherwise.'

'Have you contacted Hilde Schbeiker?' Wufei asked. 'His mother. She and Duo separated seven years ago.'

'We would, if we knew where to look. No living relatives except the kid, and no-one around here seems to know where she took off to. Think it's possible the kid knew?'

The tunnel let out into the amorphous daylight. Wufei had taken this trip a hundred times. His foot knew when to brake, his hand twitched as if moving the gear shift. Harper didn't take the back street short cut.

'We have four minutes' worth of video,' the inspector said. 'From the security camera of the convenience shop across the street. We've got Maxwell going through the street, interrupted by gun fire. We've got a body that falls into frame and doesn't move for about two hours. Then a couple of men come back and pick it up. The image is too grainy to be specific, nothing we could salvage. There's shit to go on, here.'

The entire street was marked off with crime scene tape. The neighbours couldn't be happy with that. Why hadn't they heard the gunfire? Why hadn't anyone called the police? L2 wasn't the quietest of colonies, but battles in the streets were hardly routine.

'I want you to be clear--' Harper parked a good fifty feet from Duo's house. 'There's no evidence that this was anything to concern the Preventers. No evidence the murder isn't a local matter, and there's no reason yet to think it isn't.'

'There's no reason to believe one way or the other. That's limiting. Limited thinking makes men miss things.'

Didn't like that much. Harper said, eyebrows a dark stormcloud over his beady eyes, 'When I need help closing this case, I'll be sure to let you know. Meanwhile, keep your nose clean and out of my way. A Gundam Pilot of all people ought to understand that colonial business is colonial business.'

It would have been easy enough to pull rank. A call to Headquarters on Earth would put him in touch with the President herself if he wanted to take it that far, and he did want to take it that far, wanted to cut right through the petty my-cock-is-bigger territoriality that plagued every inter-colony operation these days. Duo would have laughed at his frustration.

And a million times had been the source of his frustration. All those rules. Not a word until Six was in bed for the night, and be back in the guest room before five so he won't know what Daddy and his friends do. Wufei had never dared to complain, had never been sure if he was miffed at the Machiavellian sensibility of the solution. 'It's one thing if you were living here and he saw you all the time and we could be dating,' Duo said, and brooked no argument, left no room for any. 'I don't want my kid introduced into adult sexuality by finding out his dad sleeps with some dude who visits every few months.'

No, don't tell the boy the truth about anything. And when he's old enough to ask, Wufei had said, to which Duo shrugged, just shrugged it away. Non-issue.

When Quatre arrived by cab Harper sawed through the seal on the door and let them inside. It smelled still, all the lights out for so many days. The spider plant by the front window was dying.

'Front door was unlocked, but the back door was jimmied,' Harper told them. His shoes scuffed over the tile, clack of the heel and shuffle with the toe, the rolling walk of people used to the lighter gravity of Space living. 'Everything was trashed. They took the hard drive from the computer, but left two thumb drives full of stuff, and there's plenty that was networked between the computer here and two more at Maxwell's shop, most of which we recovered from internet storage. Bedroom was largely left alone, kitchen... Basement was ripped to fuck. We found a closet that locked from the inside. Open. My feeling is Maxwell stashed his kid in there during the attack, but for whatever reason the boy opened the door afterward.'

Quatre stayed at Harper's back, solemn-faced and quiet. He touched nothing. Neither did Wufei, no more than he would have at any crime scene, except that his fingers reached on their own, wanting to right the fallen photo frame on the table by the wall there, to fix the rug where someone's step had ruched it. The desk drawers had all been turned out, the computer smashed to pieces. A maths text lay on the rug, still open to a homework assignment that would never be completed.

'First shots fired out here.' Harper gestured around the small brown back yard, the half-fence shattered at man-height. 'We found shells, from what we presume to be Maxwell's gun. We didn't recover any weapons, but the shells don't match any of the bullet types we got from Maxwell's body.'

In the alley between Duo's and the neighbour's-- 'Maxwell would have been standing here when he took his first hit. From the prints, I reckon it was the knee; I think he was limping and slowed down.'

A doctor lived there. Dr Goodman. Why hadn't he reported the noise?

Prints in the dust, all marked by small yellow flags. Running away from the house, running away from the fragile pre-fab walls that would have melted under a bullet's force. 'We've got more blood here, not Maxwell's. A pint and change.' Two full blocks away on the grid, headed further out, away from the homes, toward the tunnel. 'And right here around the corner, blood and brain matter, again not Maxwell's. He took down at least two.' And at the back alley of the convenience shop, 'Our third and fourth blood samples, and you can see here where they chipped a bullet out of the plaster.'

'They were very thorough cleaning up after themselves,' Quatre said. 'This wasn't a random home invasion.'

'No, it wasn't. It's not the most sophisticated clean-up I've ever seen, but they definitely had a basic to moderate knowledge of criminal forensics.'

Last stop, marked by a lone flag of orange. Middle of the street. In plain view of a dozen windows.

'This is where a neighbour found Maxwell,' Harper said, 'approximately twelve hours post-mortem.'

Rust-coloured stain in the concrete. Executed, right in the middle of the street.

Quatre put his hand on Wufei's shoulder. He felt it, distantly. He tried to raise his head, but it was too heavy.

'Duo was...' Quatre's voice was scratchy, fading. 'Very important to both of us. Please, if you could give us a few moments?'

Harper's feet turned point-out in answer. 'I'll be back at the house. I'll give you a lift back uptown, when you're ready.' Perhaps even with sympathy, 'Take your time.'

'Thank you.'

Then, into the silence, 'Wufei, I'm sorry.'

He blinked. Made himself keep his eyelids closed. Internal peace to extend to the external, even if he wanted to scream. 'They don't know anything.'

'Or they know everything.'

Not like Quatre, to say that. And yet it was.

'Something feels wrong about this, Wufei. To me, anyway. What are your instincts telling you?'

'That it's a very good thing Six didn't advertise where he went.' He shifted gently from Quatre's hold and made a slow swivel, counting those facing windows, counting the houses, the occupants who had been, for whatever reason, deaf and blind that night. 'And strange as it is that he went to Barton, I think it may be providential.'

'He's his father's son.'

An explosive kind of rage threatened at that. Quatre seemed to realise it was cruel, and added nothing further, beyond pressing his lips together until they whitened under the pressure.

'You haven't asked me to move in,' he'd said, the last time he was in that house.

Duo had shrugged, bare-shouldered, red-shouldered from working in the shop by the forgers all day, red-knuckled. 'I haven't asked if this is a relationship, either.'

'Why haven't you?' Ask me, Wufei had wanted to say, tell me what I'd like to hear from you. 'Bring Six. Move in with me.'

Never agreed, but didn't disagree, and sometimes that said more about Duo than the words that were spoken. 'I don't know if I want Six in an Earth school,' he'd answered. 'All that propaganda. You really want a brainwashed rebel in the home?'

'I need advice.' Wufei put his hands in his pockets and put his back to the spot where Duo had died, and concerned himself solely with what had happened while Duo was alive. 'He was keeping an eye on a group of Sweepers he'd been in contact with. Who had contacted him, more precisely. They wanted Gundamium.'

The other man nodded his understanding. 'You think these Sweepers are responsible? There's no market for Gundamium. There's not enough left, that hasn't been seized by--' His eyes flicked up. 'Preventers?'

Still quick as ever. 'He believed there was a Preventer involved. He was trying to-- you know Duo. He was trying to get close enough to find out.'

'It probably got him killed.'

'I don't believe the locals know. I don't believe they were involved, either, but my instinct is still to keep this silent.'

'I agree. Is there anyone inside you can trust with this?'

'Half the original corps have moved on. Duo never found the rat. Or didn't have time to tell me. I could call in some I trust, but they've been out of the system too long to be immediately useful.'

'I think we're on our own.' Quatre fiddled with his tie. 'We need to know what was on Duo's computer that they might have taken. Obviously they realised he was spying on them.'

There was a little comfort, treating it like a regular case. But his stomach still ached.

'Did Duo keep a backup?' Quatre went on. 'You have to know his habits. Even the secret ones.'

'I'm positive he would have kept copies. It's a question of where.'

'Would Six know?'

He had considered that, frantically, since Trowa's call. 'He would never have endangered his son. Not even to tell him to take anything with him, if there were trouble.' Not that it made Six any safer. Duo's attackers would surely assume that Six knew. It was no accident the house had been raided. It even made sense that they'd hesitated long enough for Six to escape. It meant they weren't that organized, and it meant they'd be more likely to panic and bring themselves into the open.

'Children are smart,' Quatre said, with some irony. 'They notice everything. Even if Duo didn't explain what he was doing, Six may have seen things.' His hand closed on Wufei's. Then, without permission, he put his arms about Wufei.

For him? Or maybe Quatre just needed it for himself. He enclosed Quatre to him with one hand to the small of his back.

'One of us should go to Trowa's. Maybe both.' Quatre cleared his throat. 'I just... I don't like the idea that they're here, tearing through his things. Destroying whatever evidence might be here.'

'I know.' Wufei eased away. 'And I don't think it's wise for all of us to go tearing off to L3. Harper will notice, if not Duo's-- attackers. Harper would expect me to stay. I've already antagonised him. I can keep his attention on me while you go to Trowa and Six.' He only let out the next sentence because there was enough bearing down on him, and Quatre would at least understand why he'd rather say it now instead of in front of Trowa himself. 'Why do you think he went to Barton, of all people?'

'We don't know what Duo may have said to him. Trowa probably seems like an exciting, romantic figure to Six. Given the way he lives.'

'God.'

'I know. I love Trowa, but he's not the best choice for a refuge for the boy.'

Wufei did not, then, say that he did not love Trowa, and he didn't say that he wished Six had gone anywhere else. Instead, reluctantly, he said, 'I suppose an eleven year old won't stand out at a circus, at least.'

Quatre smiled, a little. 'Be that as it may.'

'Let Harper drive you back into town. Get a flight to L3.'

'All right.' Quatre turned toward Harper's car, then looked back. 'Did Duo make any arrangements? Did he have a will?'

Wufei could only shrug. 'Not that I know of.' One of many things they'd just never got to.

'Do you know what his wishes might have been?'

Impossible to think about. Impossible to think.

Quatre thumbed his cheek. 'We don't have to decide this now, Wufei. They probably wouldn't release the body to non-family. It's possible he had something on record. If there were anything, my lawyers will find it.'

'All right.'

'Let's go have some lunch.' Harper was waiting for them, had to be annoyed with the delay. Wufei couldn't see his face for the shine off the windscreen. 'Both of us need some time.'

'I can't even think of eating, Quatre.'

'Do you need some space?'

'Are you asking me for space?' Wufei had asked Duo.

'Time,' Duo had answered.

Wufei rubbed his chapped mouth. 'No. Forgive me, Quat. But somewhere quiet, please.'

'The hotel? Room service appeal? We'll thank Harper, take his card and promise to be in touch.'

Wufei nodded his assent. 'That would be good.'

+

The third night, they found out Six had nightmares.

Kathy beat him out of the sleeper, but only because Trowa stopped to grab and load his gun. He was just a second behind her, bursting out the door into the relative brightness of the den. Kathy shrieked when he aimed at the window, and then smacked him soundly on the shoulder. 'You told me you got rid of that!'

'Pretend you didn't see it,' Trowa retorted. Six was all huge eyes in a pale face. But there were no banditos breaking in, no fire in the hatches. It was sinking in what had waked him, once instinct was taking input from the other senses. 'Kathy, go back to bed. I'll get this handled.'

She pulled her robe tight, hesitating square in his path to the couch where Six was--quietly, now--freaking out. They made a real scene, all of them, undressed and wild-haired. The clock over the stove in the kitchenette read three am.

'I'll put milk on the stove,' Kathy said. 'Make him drink some.'

Six had obviously been crying before Trowa had frightened the crap out of him. His face was still wet. Trowa ejected the clip to put in his pocket, then changed his mind. It wasn't the worst thing in the world, being prepared.

Still, he regretted it, especially when Six said, through a clogged nose and the sleeve of one of Trowa's sleeping shirts, 'I thought I heard shots.'

He put the pistol in the back of his pants. 'Sorry. About frightening you.'

'It's okay.' The sleeper door went quietly shut behind Kathy. Trowa propped his behind on the table facing Six's couch. 'I didn't mean to wake you up,' Six said.

'You don't have to apologize for every little thing, kid.'

'Sor-- okay.'

The body had time to remember it had been asleep, just a minute earlier. And to be cold. Trowa closed his arms over his bare chest. 'Want to talk about the dream?'

'I didn't know it was a dream. I thought I heard-- and it was dark. It was really dark. I was in the workshop.' Jesus, the kid's chin actually quivered. But then his face went hard and he rubbed a fist across his eyes. 'I wanted to see my dad. He said he'd be right back. He said-- that's the last thing he said.'

There was nothing good to say to that, or at least nothing that occurred to a sleep-deprived man who wanted the impossible answers for himself, too. 'He would have if he could. He tried,' Trowa rasped. Cleared his throat, and went again. 'Want me to stay and talk a while?'

It was funny, but Six really didn't look a thing like Hilde. Probably that helped. He was all Duo's boy, that stubborn chin, the upturned nose. The eyes.

'It's okay. You can go back to bed. I'll be quiet.'

'Want something to eat? Drink? I think Kathy keeps a stash of secret cookies in the top cupboard.'

There was no kid who didn't want cookies, middle of the night or not. That got a hint of interest. Besides which--Trowa had his share of nightmares. Six wasn't going back to sleep any time soon.

'Hey,' Trowa said. 'Grab your shoes.'

'My shoes?'

'Yeah. Your shoes. I'll get the cookies.'

There was a box of caramel digestives on top of the fridge, as it happened. Six pulled on his jeans and sneakers while Trowa ducked back into the sleeper to grab a hoodie. Kathy was still awake, sitting up on her bed. Trowa kissed her cheek and didn't wait for the scolding.

'Ready, kid?' He tugged his hem over the gun and belted his trousers. He stuck a cookie in Six's mouth. 'You know I was in the war,' he said, suddenly awkward. Didn't generally talk to kids-- attempted to avoid them at all costs, usually. Having one underfoot the past three days had nothing on trying to connect with one, though. Six just stared at him, obstacle two.

'With your dad,' Trowa continued, belatedly. He kicked the door open and swung to the grass below without waiting for the electric step to extend. He caught Six by the waist and put him on the ground. 'I've had a lot of bad dreams about that. Some nights the last thing I want to do is fall back asleep. When that happens I like to come out here and check on the cats."

'The big cats?'

It figured that got the response. 'Yeah. The pens are over that way. You cold? They just started seasonal cycles on L3 two years ago.'

'Don't have 'em on L2.' Six was close at his heels going through the trucks and trailers. No-one so much as stirring, including security, who was flat on his back and snoring at the perimetre. They ducked under the canvas tent flaps. There were the cages. He flicked on the orange overheads rigged from the cross-beams, and there was a lion right at the bars, growling at their smell. Trowa acquired an eleven-year-old on his hip. He tried not to wince as Six trod on his foot.

'You know anything about the war?' he asked Six.

The lion prowled the corner of its cage, huffing and grumbling. Six's head made the same slow revolution, following its path. 'I didn't until we started history studies in school. He never told me anything.'

That surprised him. Not like Duo had anything to be ashamed about. 'Probably, uh, there were a lot of things about the war your dad didn't enjoy remembering.'

'Maybe.' One of the lionesses had waked and joined her mate, sniffing the air with her big dark nose. Six didn't flinch away, this time, but he pressed closer to Trowa's leg. 'Maybe--'

'What.'

'Maybe it would have helped more if he'd ever told me stuff.'

'Maybe.' The cats recognised Trowa. Shiraz and Tikka had come to the bars of their pens, too. Alone, Trowa would have pet or fed them, maybe even gone in the cages, but that wasn't something he needed to accidentally teach the kid. A little fear was healthy sometimes.

Almost as quickly he regretted thinking it. Six had plenty of fear, now.

'Do they have names?' Six asked. Subdued, who knew from what. He went to grip Trowa's belt. Trowa felt him find the gun instead, and wished he'd anticipated that, too. Chilly little fingers traced over the handle where it stuck out of Trowa's waistband. Just made a fist, then, in the belt, right next to the metal.

Trowa forced a dry swallow. 'He's Sahara.' He pointed at the lion. 'He's only four. You can tell by how long the mane is. These two, they're brothers. Even younger. That pretty lady is Rakesh.'

'Rakesh.' Tasting the name. 'They sound like aliens.'

'A little. But we all are, sort of. Aren't we?'

Duo would have laughed at that. Probably had, aeons ago, standing right in this spot with his arm wrapped around Trowa's shoulders. Duo never had understood that. Duo probably felt at home wherever he went. He was gifted that way.

Had been.

'You won't send me back?' Six demanded suddenly. His fist clenched on Trowa's belt. 'Because I'll just run away again. I know how to do it now.'

'No, Six. And it'd scare me shitless if you ran away, so please don't.'

'Don't swear.' Six's head came to rest on Trowa's ribcage, like that was even remotely natural to experience. It made him feel-- peculiar. Sure as hell not like a-- father. But God, he was responsible for this little life that for some strange, unknown reason-- trusted him. Needed him, now. He'd made it to thirty without ever being needed by a single other human being, had really bought a stake in that alien idea, if he wanted to admit it. He didn't. But it was still scary, letting it go.

'Sorry.' He draped the edge of his hoodie around Six, which stopped the shivers. 'You wanna go back in or should we go tell the elephants goodnight?'

Movement of soft hair against his bare chest. 'Would I be able to see them tomorrow?'

'You're going to be here a while. You can see them every day.'

'Tomorrow, please, then. And maybe the horses too?'

'Absolutely. I bet if we talk to Raoul you can even get a job with the horses, if you like them.'

'Okay.' Almost happy. One good guess, at least.

'Kathy probably made cocoa,' he said. 'She'll give me hell for taking you out in the cold. Let's go in and let her.'

+

There were tourist shops in the shuttle port. All the shirts seemed to have logos on them, and Heero didn't know how Six would feel about an L3 footballer or the Colonial University of Mission Bay. All the shoes were in bright colours with irrelevant straps of velcro or plastic. He didn't like any of it. He didn't know Six's size, anyway, couldn't imagine what he was likely to choose for himself--certainly not when all he could see behind his eyelids was Duo, and he looked down to see a shopping basket full of black.

Katherine was waiting for him by the Arrivals lot in the same decrepit Jeep Sunliner. She waved for his attention, though he'd already seen her, and endangered his feet by zooming too quickly for the loading kerb.

'Why so many bags?' she asked him.

He stowed his duffles and the shop bags carefully under the seats in back. 'I bought him some things.

'Bought who-- Six?'

'Yeah.' The passenger-side safety belt didn't lock. Katherine didn't give him time to fix it before she wrenched the Jeep back into traffic. Horns behind them honked, but she didn't acknowledge them. Heero gripped the edge of his seat. 'Because he had to leave all of his behind.'

Her face went soft. 'That was really sweet, Heero.'

His knee was jiggling. Heero made a fist, pushed down until his heel dug into the dirty car matt. 'He's settling okay?'

'Some fits and starts.' She pushed dark glare glasses onto her face. The breeze from their speed flung her bright curls into a jumble, caught on the decorative hem of her vest. There were goosebumps from the chill on her bare legs. Heero noticed that, then turned his face to the road. It helped reduce the queasiness from her driving. He wasn't used to high-speed vehicles any more.

'Trowa will be good for him,' he said.

'Well, I'm glad someone thinks so.'

He glanced back at her. 'What's that mean?'

'Everyone calls. And even if they don't say it, I can hear it in their voice. Quatre even asked when he could take Six back to Earth. Back to Earth, as if the poor child's ever even been there.'

He doubted the veracity of that. Katherine could be very defencive of Trowa. Besides which-- 'He should stay here.'

'We agree on that. He's safe here. No-one even knows he arrived from L2-- we've put it out that he's actually Trowa's little boy.' She flashed him a wicked white smile. 'Mis-spent youth.'

It took a moment to recognise the joke in that. Heero curled his lips obediently. She laughed, then, which he didn't understand, and reached across the shift to pat his knee. He tried not to move away too quickly. 'What's Trowa saying?' he asked instead. He hoped she wouldn't make a habit of touching him. Women who touched him made him nervous. He was already nervous enough.

'Oh, he never says much of anything. But I think they get each other, if you can believe that. Oh, Heero, it could break your heart. When I think of how him and Duo were barely even-- Well, not my place, I guess. But I think, I hope, it's good for them both. You'd never believe he isn't Trowa's. He's just fearless. Trowa took him on the trapeze today-- not the high fliers, but with the net and a line-- well, he laughed for the first time since he arrived. Oh, my God, have you heard how he got here? He snuck into the luggage hold of a shuttle. When I think he could have suffocated or frozen to death--'

'But he didn't.' For a moment cresting the highway they had a view of half the colony, all the way to the misty distant curve of the ring. Then they dipped down the slope again. 'Trowa gets people. He just doesn't talk about it. He pulled my ass out of the fire more than once and never made me feel like it was anything but normal.'

He wasn't quick enough evading it. She squeezed his knee again. Then wrenched the Jeep two lanes to the left to the exit.

'You drive like a maniac,' Heero said, disturbed. A shouted curse trailed them as they zoomed around the curve.

'Oh, you know what traffic is like in the colonies. Anyway, we're in the area for the full month, at least, so there's no pressure to pick up and move again.'

'And after that?'

'Are the police even looking for Six? What about his mother? I don't know what kind of woman walks away from her own son, but good riddance.'

'I didn't know her at all,' Heero said.

'I shouldn't judge.' Her thigh flexed as she tapped the brake. 'It's not like I haven't watched Trowa suffer, all these years. What that war did to all of you. To everyone. It's something, having Six here. I never realised how different kids today could be. Somehow you never really realize that the world we grew up with is just a story to them.' She exhaled. 'Well. Listen to me prattle on, I haven't even asked about your flight. Heero, how are you?'

It was obviously a question about how he was with Duo's death. He didn't think there was really much to say to that that she couldn't answer for herself. So he didn't say anything at all.

Katherine filled the silence, anyway, after only a few seconds had passed. 'When we talked to Wufei and Quatre last, they still weren't sure if the police would let them have the-- Duo for a funeral.'

That stirred him. 'Why not?'

'If you ask me,' she said, 'it's because they know we've got Six. Well, by 'us' of course I mean all of you. They want Six, and they're holding Duo until we produce him.'

She wasn't stupid or na´ve, though Heero had once underestimated her for her emotional response to matters of the mind. But no body in a morgue was Duo. It wouldn't be Duo, and a funeral wouldn't change that. Death was the end.

Duo had thought that, anyway. Heero remembered it very clearly. After the Battle of Libra, after OZ and White Fang had been disbanded and Romafeller had signed the Treaty of Sanq with the colonies, they'd had only one funeral to attend. For the scientists who had built their Gundams. It was small, only the five of them, the pilots, and a few others like Howard who had been a part of the history. They even had two bodies to inter, recovered from the wreckage in orbit. Duo had been antsy. Agitated. Heero had noticed because Duo was so rarely out of sorts. There was a soldier-priest performing the service, and Duo had been glaring at him, fingers tapping on his arms where he hugged them to his chest. 'They're not here,' Duo had railed later. 'And even if their bodies were it doesn't mean anything. It's just dead tissue. When I go, I want someone to jettison me out of an L2 trash chute. God-damn.'

He had been remembering many things about Duo since Trowa's message. He knew it was a natural part of processing the news. He knew it wouldn't always be painful, but he was glad that it was. Duo might have hated the funeral, but he had grieved, noisily-- he was still Duo, after all-- painfully.

Katherine turned off the road into a big grassy lot filled with cars and buses. The big wheel and a small roller coaster were running, and the carnival was packed with people. Heero could hear the noise even over the engine and the wind as they bounced through ruts in the dirt at the same break-neck speed from the highway. She ripped the Jeep behind the aluminium fence labelled 'Staff Only'.

'I hope you don't mind, but we're getting low on space in the trailer. We've got a tent, if you want to be close, or we can help you find a hotel. There's a bunch right up the road.'

'A tent's good.'

'It's a really good tent. Trowa had a hiking phase, forever ago.'

'I'm used to roughing it.'

She did slow, finally, weaving between the trailers where the staff lived. She parked at one indistinguishable from the rest except by the deformed bird feeder on the roof. 'Here we are. There they are.'

Trowa. He looked the same as he had when Heero had seen him last, half a decade ago. And the boy. Heero clenched his fists on his knees.

Pins went flying through the air. Juggling pins. Clumsily, but they stayed in the air. 'Miss Kathy!' the boy yelled. 'Look what I can do!'

Trowa was grinning. That in itself was something.

'Look who I found at the port,' Katherine announced.

'Hi,' Heero said.

One of the pins slipped from Six's hand and dropped. 'Hi,' he replied. Shy. Only a very little bit.

Heero held the shopping bag out at arm's length. 'Brought you some things. Since you left most of yours on L2.'

He could have been Duo's twin, this close. Eyes were wider, though. Open, in a way even Duo's hadn't been.

'Thank you,' Six said politely. He peered into the bag. 'That was real thoughtful, sir.'

'You can call him Heero.' Trowa's hand landed on Heero's shoulder. The world expanded again. Heero swallowed, and his heartbeat normalised.

'Heero?' Six looked up. 'Heero Yuy?'

'Yeah. Sorry. I wasn't sure if you'd remember me. I haven't seen you since you were five.'

'We read about you at school. My dad says I met you once. He says I threw up on your shoes.'

He was startled into a laugh. 'I forgot about that. Too much popcorn.'

Katherine slipped deftly between them before it became awkward. 'Let's go check out your new booty, honey. Be a relief to wear your own things, right? We can give Trowa back his tee shirts.'

'Take a walk?' Trowa asked him.

He swung his duffles to the ground by the trailer. He could see Katherine and the boy through the window. The sleeves of the football jersey were too long.

'How was the trip?'

'Short,' Heero said.

'Where were you?'

'Mining asteroid. In system, at least.'

Trowa nodded. He was watching Heero from peripheral vision as they walked through the trailer lot. His eyes turned forward when Heero caught him. 'Sucky reason for a visit, huh?'

He should get used to hearing that, he thought. Everyone would want to commiserate. Everyone would want the comfort of sharing their mourning. That was natural, too. But he still didn't want to talk about it. He said, 'Six is older.'

'Kids grow up. I never met him til he showed up on my doorstep.'

Heero had forgotten that. 'You were the easiest to access. Shuttles to Earth have more dedicated security. He might have thought Preventers wouldn't believe him, if he thought to contact them at all.'

'I'm glad he found his way here. Kind of a minor miracle he found me. Scary.' Trowa walked with his hands in his pockets. That indicated he was at ease with his surroundings, not worried about safety, even if Heero could see the bulge of a gun holster at the small of his back, and another at the left ankle. 'Maybe he was right not to trust the Preventers.'

'You never trusted cops,' Heero observed.

'They usually don't deserve it. Listen, who'd you tell Six was here?'

'No-one. Katherine said you're pretending he's your son.'

'Yeah. It's the simplest story. No one will question it.'

'He could pass for yours. His hair is lighter than Duo's was.'

'He's a good kid. I'm keeping him.'

'He may not be yours to keep.'

'Whose is he then?' Trowa demanded in sudden aggression. Heero hunched his shoulders. 'Hilde's? She's dropped off the face of the earth.'

'She won't come.'

Trowa looked at him sharply. 'You've spoken to her?'

'Not for half a dozen years.'

'How can you be so sure, then? If she knew Duo was dead, she might want the boy.'

'She's dead, too.'

Trowa blinked rapidly. Then said, 'Shit. Shit. When? How?'

'Suicide.' Trowa was surprised. Heero concluded, 'Six didn't tell you. Maybe Duo never told him.'

'I don't think he knows. Shit. Look, maybe he shouldn't.'

Heero could understand that decision. It was good that someone was stepping up to make decisions on Six's behalf, until he was old enough to make them for himself. 'Has he been-- all right?'

'Hell, would you be? I'm not all right.' Trowa kicked a clump of dirt apart as they passed a choppy patch. 'He has night terrors. He didn't see it, but he heard.'

He tried not to register that to his face. He put his hands in his own pockets, then.

'Sorry. I didn't ask how you were, Heero.'

'Surprised.' They met another stretch of fencing. There were teenagers on the other side, mothers and fathers, screaming children. Flashing lights and brassy blasts of horns and music. Overwhelming distraction.

'So was I,' Trowa said. 'That he died first. The war's been over so long. I thought all of it was over, these days.' He paused by Heero. 'It's easy to get lulled into a sense that everything's normal. Peaceful. Under control. I think Duo's the only one of us who accepted that it never would be.'

'Then why didn't he prepare better? Why didn't he prepare Six?'

'I couldn't answer that.'

'Are we walking to anywhere in particular?'

Trowa looked at him. 'I figured if you had anything to say, you might feel more comfortable saying it out here, away from Kathy and Six.'

He didn't. And he didn't think that was why Trowa had guided him away from the two people he wanted to protect from his own emotion. Heero waited silently.

It took longer than he thought, but it burst out of Trowa in a torrent of anger. 'I dunno, Heero. I dunno. It's fucked up. It's like he was up against a stacked deck, and now we are, unless we just pretend it didn't happen. Only now there's this kid in the middle and he's not going to be safe until this is handled.'

Cheers erupted from a booth where children fired water guns at targets. 'Then we handle it.'

'So you're in? It might take all of us. Quatre's coming in, and Wufei's interfacing with the police on L2 to find out what they know. Together--'

'All of you have lives to lose now. I don't.'

'You've been singing that song for fifteen years. It was bullshit then, it's bullshit now.'

'I didn't write the song.' Heero watched a clown pass a large stuffed animal to one of the children, who displayed it proudly to her fellows. 'You have a child to protect,' he said. 'Quatre has a whole world of his own on Earth. Wufei has regulations to follow. These things matter.'

'Just because you're not attached to anything doesn't mean you're valueless.'

He faced Trowa, looking up to meet his eyes. 'When this is over, you can argue with me about relativity.'

Trowa's jaw clenched. 'Fuck you.'

'Not recently.'

He stared a second. Then laughed, and the anger leeched away from him. 'You and me both, sister. Let's go in. Kathy's probably having kittens in there. You know she cooked all afternoon.'

'Cooked?'

Trowa grinned at him, tiny lines forming at the sides of his mouth. 'She's actually improved. A little. You're safe. Mostly.'

He had dried vegetable jerky in his bag. He was very glad he'd thought to bring it.

'It's different, isn't it.' Heero let a breath out through the nose. 'Knowing he's gone forever.'

Trowa jerked in a sharp breath as Heero finished his exhale. He said, 'It's fucking unbearable.'

[prologue] [part 2] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]