Wildflower
by Becca Abbott

Prologue

He was being followed.

The boy slid his hand into his coat, slim fingers wrapping around the piece of pipe stuck in his belt. He kept walking, not looking back, glancing only infrequently at the security mirrors that were placed at intervals along the narrow, dirty corridor. Most were broken or defaced, but those that still functioned showed the same rat-faced man behind him.

Mouth dry, heart pounding, the youth quickened his pace. He ran desperately through his mental map of Zoe Mining Station, its maze of service tunnels, catwalks and no-grav zones. He'd be damned if he would be anyone's party favor, thank you.

Small, slight and, beneath the grime and sullen glare, astonishingly pretty, the boy was a frequent target of station rape gangs. He was tough in spite of his size and rarely taken. Every once in a while, however, they were too many or he was careless. So far, he'd survived those harrowing encounters. He knew his luck wouldn't last forever.

Zoe was the absolute armpit of the universe, a deathtrap of suddenly failing seals and environmental controls. Only the most desperate came here, out on the very edge of civilization. Some came to eke out a miserable hand-to-mouth existence in the refinery. Others were simply washed up like debris on Zoe's bleak metal shore, twice as dangerous for having nowhere else to go.

Ahead and around a corner was a service corridor. It led to an air purification facility that had long ago failed. An old claw-lifter blocked the entrance. Once out of sight of his pursuer, the boy quickly slid around the rusting hulk, barely able to fit his slim body through the narrow space. He rested his head against the machine, waiting for his racing heart to slow, praying that they didn't know about this corridor, whoever they were, and that they would hurry on past and leave him be.

A hand locked around his braid. The boy nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun about, twisting from that grip and hurled himself, shoulder first into the shadowy bulk of his attacker. There was an "oof" and a pithy curse.

He yanked his pipe from his belt. It was dark, little light making it past the lifter. The boy realized he was surrounded. With all his strength, he lashed out and caught someone a glancing blow. A howl of pain rose and a shadow was gone, but there were more! Who were these guys? He fought, doing far more damage than his size warranted. Usually that was enough to send the cowardly bastards screeching in all directions, but not tonight. It came to him then that these were not Zoe's usual variety of thugs. He was in very deep trouble.

The blows came from all sides, but he barely heeded them. Doggedly, he defending himself, trying to work his way past them and into the relative safety of the old plant. Then someone's truncheon got through, landing hard between his shoulder blades. He stumbled, falling, rolling frantically. Recovering at once, he was up, pushing past two more bodies. The way was suddenly clear in front of him. He staggered, caught his balance and ran.

Too late, the boy heard the faint whine of an energy weapon powering up. Part of him cursed the fool for using something like that here, where a ruptured hull would cause disaster to more than just himself. An instant later, pain streaked up his leg, a firestorm of it. He went hard to hands and knees on the icy metal decking -- heard the pounding of feet behind him. They kicked his pipe out of reach, raining blows and profanity on him. After that, mercifully, everything went dark.


Part 1

The little girl was dying. She lay in the abandoned apartment among the refuse of other transients, looking up into the moisture-stained ceiling. In the distance, she could hear SB shouting at Lioh. Lioh wanted to have her coat when she was dead. SB was telling him he was an asshole. She smiled faintly and, for a moment, was very sad. Like herself, they were street kids. She did not want to leave them. They all needed each other.

The girl vaguely remembered parents, smiling faces and gentle voices. Sometimes, she thought they were a dream. She remembered other things, too, stories that were fragments of that life. Her thoughts were dimming. Some half-forgotten words came to her. Her small blue lips moved:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray to God my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take...

They were magic words. The little girl's eyes were suddenly filled with white light, and the terrible cold that had been stealing over her limbs vanished. Blissful warmth enveloped her. She saw an angel, bright and beautiful, eyes filled with gentle sorrow. The little girl smiled joyfully and was taken up into that loving embrace.


Black hair, golden skin, gaze as blue and darkly unforgiving as cobalt -- the killer was breathtaking. He moved with the fearless grace of the warrior, a man's iron will in an adolescent's body. For a moment, Michael Yamada entertained himself with a vision of that spare, muscular form naked on his indigo sheets. At the last moment, the vice lord refrained from licking his lips and instead looked up at his lover and second-in-command.

Arcane stood at Michael's elbow. His flawless was mouth arranged in the sweetest of smiles. Sensing his lover's gaze, he put a hand on Michael's shoulder.

As always, Arcane's merest touch sent a shock through the vice lord. For a moment, he forgot Heero Yuy, forgot the hunt, forgot everything but the cold beauty of the man who stood at his shoulder. Then Arcane's hand fell away, ending the moment, and Michael returned his attention to business.

The assassin stopped before the desk and bowed.

Michael permitted himself the smallest of smiles. "I understand you were successful."

"Yes."

"No regrets? He was, after all, a fellow Gundam pilot. You fought Oz and the Alliance together. Such things make men brothers."

"The war is over." Nothing moved in those eyes.

Michael leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head. Through the tall windows behind him, the colony atmospherics were shifting into sunset. The cavernous room filled with shadow.

Reaching into his jacket, he took out his jeweled snuffbox. He opened it and shook a bit of crystalline powder onto his thumbnail. Inhaling it with a practiced twist of his wrist, Michael waved Yuy toward the chair in front of his desk.

The assassin sat, at ease but not relaxed. The sharp point of the drug hit Michael and the edges of things began to glitter. His lover set a light hand on his shoulder again..

"Do you have any loyalties at all, Master Assassin?" Arcane asked softly.

As always, there was that subtle change in Yuy when faced with Arcane. Was the boy attracted to him, wondered Michael idly? It was more than possible. Arcane's beauty was enough to take one's breath away. His languid nature covered fire, passion and utter ruthlessness. It was that banked flame beneath the ice that drew Michael and perhaps the assassin, as well.

The boy shrugged, looking away, back to Michael.

"If you pay me, I'm loyal."

Arcane murmured, "How times have changed."

Arms on his desk, Michael leaned forward. "Simple. Straightforward. I appreciate uncomplicated arrangements. As it happens, I'm more than satisfied with that loyalty -- so much so that I have decided to give you a bonus."

The colony atmospherics were malfunctioning. There was too much red in the sunset. It bloodied the floor and peeling wallpaper. Michael shivered, feeling the somatine kick in completely. He touched a button on his terminal. To his left, double doors opened and four of his men came in. Their footsteps echoed in the long, otherwise empty room. They escorted a prisoner. Filthy, bruised and battered, the unlovely creature was thrust forward into the fading light.

He was bent under the weight of his chains. Shackled and fettered, such precautions seemed ludicrous given his slight build, but the reports claimed that he was a tiger. One of Michael's militia was dead and four more injured transporting the creature here. Even regular beatings didn't seem to cow the boy for long.

The drug sang through Michael's blood. He watched, holding his breath as both assassin and prisoner faced each other.

The latter shook back a tangle of matted hair. Violet eyes glinted. Battered lips curved into a crooked grin.

"Heero Yuy," came the soft, hoarse voice. "Long time no see."

Suddenly Yuy was on his feet, a blur streaking across the room. Michael watched in disbelief as the prisoner's smile vanished and he stumbled backwards, chains tripping him up. He went sprawling. Yuy was on top of him, smashing his head against the floor.

"Stop them!" shouted Michael, taken utterly by surprise. He spun around. Arcane was smiling.


Part 2

Duo knew he was within a breath of losing his life and so he remained very still, a shadow against the wall. Heero Yuy stood at the window, staring out into the dark. It took every ounce of strength Duo still possessed to remain on his feet. He hurt everywhere, was hungry and thirsty and numbingly tired, but there was no way he would show weakness to Heero. No way in hell.

They were in his apartment. At least Duo figured as much. The main room was lit by the single, overhead fixture. It was the sort of place Duo would have expected from Heero, minimal space and sparsely furnished. Not one goddamned personal touch in sight.

Heero turned from the window. Duo tensed, hands clenching at his back when the other youth walked to a tall cabinet and opened a drawer. Without surprise, Duo saw the pistol. He swallowed the protest that rose automatically to his lips and closed his eyes.

Nothing happened, and finally he opened them again. He met Heero's dark, inimical grin and would have laughed except for the blow that came out of nowhere. Shit! The son of bitch was even stronger than he remembered!

"I will kill you," promised Heero softly. The gun clicked. Empty.

"Yeah, yeah. Heard that before," replied Duo, exhaustion roughening his voice. "Just fucking do it for a change, 'kay?"

"Not until I hear your reason."

"Say what?"

Duo saw the next blow coming. He could do nothing more than turn his head, letting those hard knuckles glance off his jaw. The pain made him hiss and filled his eyes with water. This time, nothing could keep him upright and he slid down the wall to crouch at the other pilot's feet.

"Tell me why you killed her."

Oh, god.

"I didn't . . ."

Heero didn't give him time to finish, kicking him. Reality faltered and Duo had dim hopes of being knocked thoroughly unconscious. But, like most of his life, there was no such luck.

"WHY?"

The misery and anger in Heero's voice gave Duo a rush of false strength, pushing him back to his feet to stand, wild-eyed, facing this man who had every reason to want him dead.

"I DIDN'T KILL RELENA!"

"You lying bastard!"

Down he went again, this time under another right hook. Shaking now, the edges of the room fading in and out, Duo nevertheless faced the rage that blazed out of those dark eyes.

"I didn't kill her, Heero, I swear to God I didn't!"

"Shut up!"

Duo clenched his jaw and was miserably silent. He could not believe this! When his abductors had piled him into the filthy hold of a small transport ship, he had figured that he'd be sold off to some other shady mining operation. The last thing Duo had expected was to find himself on Elion and in the hands of Heero Yuy.

"Why the hell are you working for Yamada?" he asked finally, when Heero had lapsed back into his more characteristic silence. "I thought you were working with WuFei, Noin and ...."

"Chang is dead," Heero said shortly.

"W- when? How?"

"In combat, doing his duty as a Preventer. He died with honor. You'll die a murderer and slave."

"Not anytime soon though, huh?" retorted Duo.

Wu Fei dead. Shit.

Heero gave him a long, unreadable look.

"Get up," he said.

Duo started to shake his head, saw the raised fist, and got awkwardly back to his feet. It was touch-and-go now. His knees seemed made of water and he was having a hard time focusing. He wished he knew what was behind the eyes glaring out at him from under the spikes of black hair.

They'd both grown in the last couple of years, but Heero was every bit as beautiful as Duo remembered -- and just as deadly.

"Turn around."

Mutely, Duo obeyed. Heero unlocked his shackles, then tossed the key to him. Correctly interpreting the tacit command, Duo sank back to the floor and unlocked the chain binding his ankles.

Maybe it was foolishness born of exhaustion or simply a last, desperate attempt at freedom. Duo gripped the chains and lunged to his feet, lashing out with them.

Alas, he was in no shape to fight a superman, especially one who had been able to kick his ass even when he had been in peak condition. Heero swore, neatly removed the chains and with a careless blow, sent Duo stumbling across the room to fall over a chair and land in an untidy heap on the floor.

"Had enough?" Heero asked dryly.

Was that a glint of amusement? Duo had to use the chair to get back to his feet. He leaned against it, catching his breath, trying to ignore the multitude of new aches.

Heero stood and from the small table near the door, picked up the large packet lying there. Opening it, he took something out. An injector, larger than usual.

"Come here."

Duo knew what it was. His throat tightened.

"No way. I don't like shots..."

Heero took a threatening step in his direction. Duo swore and didn't move. He kept very still when Heero came to him, putting the injector barrel against his shoulder. There was a snapping sound and a flower of pain bloomed there. He kept his groan between his teeth. It felt like his heart was breaking, although that couldn't be. That particular organ was already in shards and had been for a long time.

"You know what that is?"

Duo nodded and didn't look up. Control pellets were routinely injected into fractious prisoners -- or slaves. They could be programmed to sound alarms if the wearer strayed from a certain area. What made them especially devilish was that you couldn't just dig them out -- they sprouted tiny bio-organic filaments that wrapped around nerve endings and blood vessels. Only a special instrument could remove it. Anything else and you'd be lucky if you just lost your arm.

"There's a shower in there," Heero went on, jerking his chin toward that closet-sized chamber. "Go clean up. You stink."

Duo rose and with a mocking bow, turned his back on Heero. Shutting the door behind him, he locked it and stood a moment, resting his forehead against the faux-wood.

I can't do this. I've got to get out of here! What the hell happened to him?

Fingering the metal lump under his skin, he grimaced and stripped off his coverall.

The feeling of the hot water was heavenly. There was plenty of soap and shampoo, and, in the little shower cupboard, unused, a bottle of detangler. He scrubbed and scrubbed, sighing happily, woes temporarily forgotten in the novelty of being clean again.

Then he simply stood under the shower, determined to enjoy it as long as Heero allowed. After the initial objection of all his bruises, the heat relaxed him, loosening muscles held rigid for far too long. In the end he collapsed in the corner of the shower stall and let it beat down on him, feeling his eyes grow heavy.

Heero. He belonged to Heero! Of all the goddamned, fucking irony. Too bad he wasn't in the mood to be the butt of cosmic jokes.

A pounding on the door announced the end of Heero's patience.

"Heh! I'm getting out!"

The pounding stopped. Duo got up, half expecting the door to splinter inward, but nothing happened. He turned off the water and set about the tedious business of combing out his hair. When it was finally braided, he dressed and left the bathroom.

Heero was seated in the small dining alcove, eating from a tray. The smell of real food made Duo's stomach cramp. He remembered, vaguely, being dragged past a big kitchen.

The other boy looked up as Duo approached the table. For just a second, Heero's eyes widened. Then his mouth turned down. He pointed Duo into the empty chair opposite.

"Where have you been since you killed Relena?"

"I didn't kill her." Duo's anger, washed away by the shower, now returned in full force. "Go right ahead and keep asking me that. I'll keep givin' you the same damn answer!"

"Where have you been for the last year and a half?"

"Zoe."

Heero frowned. "The natural resources satellite?"

"Yeah. It wasn't that bad -- got a job running scut. It paid okay, too.."

Duo stared down at his hands and the fine, white scars there. Eranium extricated from its ore was dangerously unstable. Running scut, one of the few jobs not left to machines in asteroid mining, meant following an extraction-bot through the new tunnels, collecting the tiny pieces that fell behind. You had a special container to put them in before they blew up. Find a big enough piece, be too slow in getting it into the container, and you lost a piece of yourself -- quite literally.

Looking up, he saw Heero's eyes on him and shrugged as if none of it mattered.

"I'm really hungry," he said plaintively, not wanting to think about Zoe anymore. "Is starvation part of your plan to get me to confess?"

He ventured a small, hopeful smile. Heero said nothing, only gave him a hard look, then dug into his pocket and pulled out a foil packet. He threw it at Duo.

"Dinner."

Resigned, Duo tore open the packet and took out the nutrient capsules. He stared at them a moment, then popped them all into his mouth, grimacing. "Yum."

"You can starve if you want," Heero said shortly.

Duo said nothing, swallowing the pills. For a moment, he thought he would be sick. Since being in Yamada's clutches, he'd eaten only once, a candy bar given to him by one of his kidnappers.

"I'm giving you back to Yamada." The flatness of Heero's voice sent chills through Duo. "I sure as hell don't want you."

Duo blinked and wondered why, even after all this time, Heero's cold rejection had the power to hurt him.

"Suits me just fine," he retorted.

"Really?" Heero lifted his head, eyes narrowing. "He'll probably kill you."

"He can try." Duo met that look with a defiant smile and a shrug.

"Get out," said Heero.

Throat tight, Duo turned and walked from the room. When the door slammed behind him, he went a few steps down the corridor, then stopped. He leaned wearily against the wall. So Heero didn't want him. Like that was a huge surprise. What did he do next? What did he know about Elion -- considering he managed to get out of here? He knew it was one of the older, fringe colonies. Like Zoe, Elion was a wreck that should have been condemned long ago. The urban sector outside Yamada's complex was the only one still habitable. If Duo remembered right, there was only a single docking bay still in use and it was here, attached to the complex. If only he could snatch a transport and get the hell away.

And where would you go? You have no friends left. Everyone wants you dead.

He'd seen that much in Heero's glare. If Heero still hated him, then probably the others did, too. He was smart to have kept away from them and out of communication. For a second, Duo hovered dangerously on the edge of despair.

Fuck it. When hadn't he been alone? When hadn't life been a matter of looking after himself? Those few moments of kindness and comradery were blips on the radar, accidents -- nothing a guy could or should count on. There was him and there was the rest of the world. Get over it, Maxwell.

The corridor was empty. What lay to the left Duo already knew, but the right... He told his heart to quit pounding so hard and, since Heero hadn't actually, precisely, told him where he should go, Duo loped off in the latter direction.

The corridor ended in stairs. Duo slipped into stealth mode. Soundless, a shadow among shadows that clung to the edges of the stairwell, he reached the top and a door. Locked. Duo lay his ear against the metal and heard nothing.

The latch was old and rusted. Duo considered it a moment, then shrugged and opened it with a quick, hard blow. Stepping out onto the roof he took a deep breath. Overhead, the station's inner hull showed in patches through the artificially-generated "sky." It was cold and he wrapped his arms around himself. The rooftop was littered with junk, mostly the remains of drinking parties. He kicked a can aside, walking to the edge.

The city spread out before him. He saw plenty of abandoned and ruined buildings, but there was traffic moving sluggishly through the sector's dilapidated streets. Elion was dying, but it wasn't dead yet.

From the looks of it, Duo reckoned he was on the far right of Yamada's walled complex. To his left, there was a building identical to the one upon which he stood. Connected to both was a huge structure that merged with the colony's outer hull. Most of that was space dock.

Once the complex had been set in a small park. Now Duo saw only bare earth and pavement, junk scattered about and cars parked willy nilly.

Slowly, he walked the perimeter of the roof, glancing down from time to time, making note of where the gold-uniformed security guards stood and how many there were. What he saw was a fairly tight operation, with plenty of muscle and lots of paranoia. The last fit in real well with Yuy's presence here. Heero Yuy. For a moment, Duo had the ridiculous notion of going back and trying to talk that block of ice into keeping him. Given enough time, he was sure he could convince the other pilot that there had been a terrible mistake. If Heero was on his side, there was a real chance of getting to the bottom of Relena's murder, of finding the creature that had killed her. A chance to stop running.

A chance that Heero might actually look at him as a.... shit! Don't go there! Duo closed his eyes as every damned daydream he'd had since meeting the other pilot rushed back to confound him, to make him bite his lip until the pain drove those memories back into the dark where they belonged.

He found a fire-escape hanging by loose bolts to the alley side of the building. Duo stared at it for a long time. There was only one security guard in sight, leaning against the wall, smoking, facing the street. Duo fingered the pellet in his shoulder.

Damn it! He had to escape! There was always a way -- he simply had to find it. And the first thing he had to do was to test Heero's claim. He touched the lump in his shoulder again.

His mind made up, heartbeat accelerating, Duo clambered over the roof edge and, keeping his eye on the security guard, started down the fire escape.


Part 3

"Your plan has failed," Michael snapped.

Arcane opened drowsy eyes and watched him pace.

"Yuy has given him back."

"He has indeed," Arcane replied, yawning. The man sprawled, shirtless, among the cushions. Did nothing upset him, wondered Michael irritably.

"We need the punk, damn it, but . . ."

"I told you it would not be easy." Arcane sighed and sat up, pale hair in a cloud around his face. "He's a gundam pilot."

"So is Maxwell."

"Maxwell's heart is purer." Long, black eyelashes drooped. "It would take too long with him."

The room was filled with the lingering scent of dream jasmine. Michael began to feel its effects in a weighting of his limbs.

"We could bring Maxwell under our control, but only by breaking his spirit," Arcane continued. "Yuy, on the other hand, has already lost his honor by killing Chang. The fall will be shorter."

"I don't like it." Michael crossed the room, dropping to the cushions. Arcane reached for him, but he pulled away. "And you forget -- Maxwell killed Relena Peacecraft. Not much honor in that!"

Arcane's mouth tightened. Something flashed in his eyes, something dark.

"Don't be so sure," he said softly. "No one actually saw him drive the knife into her. Patience, my dear Michael." Arcane pushed the silver plate across the table. "These boys must be led -- gently some in some instances, cruelly in others. They are not ordinary by any sense. Heero especially..."

Michael looked up to see his mouth tighten.

"What of him?

"Let him deal now with the shock of finding Maxwell within reach and later..."

"Later?" "Later we move the two of them into the next game position."

"I grow weary of delays!"

Arcane fluttered his fingers at the plate. Slim gold tube to his nose, Michael obediently inhaled most of the line squiggling across it.

"We're close," the vice lord growled.

"And yet, true knowledge eludes us." Arcane fell backwards onto the cushions. Silver hair poured over the tumble of color and fabric.

"We're wasting time and money on this useless hunt of yours. We should just get on with it!"

"But if I'm right, think of all the time and effort we'll *save*," Arcane replied, unfazed. "Patience, dear Michael. Patience."

Michael bent and inhaled the rest of the drug. "What if Yuy never accepts Maxwell?"

"He'll accept that imp." Arcane smiled broadly at the ceiling, lost in his own, mysterious world. "All we need is patience and, occasionally, a small, encouraging push."


The cellar room was very quiet. SB pushed the last fragment of fuel biscuit into their homemade burner and lit it. Usually, that was enough to bring the others, all of them pushing and shoving for a place closest to the warmth. Today, however, no one moved. Everyone remained along the walls, scraps of blankets around themselves against the chill. Only Wildflower came, holding frail hands to the glow. He watched her, uneasy too, but not willing to show it before the others.

SB, like all street rats, was skinny and undernourished. He thought he was probably thirteen, although he claimed to everyone else that he was fifteen. His parents were a misty memory; he had a scrap of photograph, much creased and faded. It didn't matter that little was legible. SB had long ago memorized their features.

"It's okay," he said bracingly. "It's just Wildflower, for chrizakes."

"She was dead," retorted Lioh.

"Obviously not," SB said, holding onto his temper with an effort. "Are ya dead, Wi?"

The little girl lifted enormous eyes to SB's face. "Uh-uh."

More scowls from his raggle-taggle little family.

"Oh, come on," he continued, exasperated. "What are ya? A bunch of superstitious dorks? Well?"

This was the last thing he needed, thought SB irritably. Bad enough that Yamada was on the rampage! Now SB had to deal with Lioh and his overactive imagination. They needed to pull together, not go off like a buncha loonies.

"You're just mad because you wanted her coat," he added before he thought about it.

Lioh's scowl grew darker. He got up and, kicking at the debris at the edges of the room, stuck his hands in the pockets of his tattered, too-large coverall. "She was dead," he persisted stubbornly.

"She's not dead," spoke up Ripper. The boy, with an uncertain look at SB, stood up and came to sit beside the girl. She smiled at him and, after a moment, he smiled back and draped a friendly arm over her shoulders.

"Why does she look like that then?" Lioh asked sullenly as, one by one, the others came to the burner.

"She was sick," SB sighed. "Crize, Lioh! You know that!"

"She had water-fever." Lioh was not giving up without a fight. "Everyone dies who gets it."

Candy spoke up. "Maybe she had something else."

Once upon time, she had been the daughter of a physician. The physician was dead, murdered with his wife on their way to Earth. The hijacked shuttle had been brought to Elion to add to the vice lord's spoils. No one had seen the tiny figure that crept from it and out onto the dock -- no one but SB who had been scavenging around there that night.

"She could have had something else," Candy continued. "There are a lot of things that look like water fever. Pneumonia, for instance."

SB sighed as Lioh finally accepted the situation. Even so, the younger boy chose a spot well away from Wildflower, who hugged her skinny knees to her chest, small pointed chin resting upon them.

In truth, SB didn't blame Lioh. Wildflower had certainly looked dead. Even now there was something different about her. She seemed not all there. He wondered if that was normal for someone recovering from such a dire sickness.

"So what we gonna do?" Louis piped up. The twelve year-old, SB's lieutenant, picked a cigarette butt from his pocket and held the ragged end on the burner's red-hot grate. SB thought about telling him to put it out, then bit his tongue at the last minute. Tense as things were, he didn't feel like getting into a fight with Louis, too.

"We gotta find another hideout," he replied.

"But they ain't found this one!"

"Maybe. Maybe the goldies just never bothered."

"They're bothering now," Erica muttered. She was next oldest, maybe even older than SB. "I got chased away from Frankie's. They never come around Frankie's. If they come there, they'll come here."

A gloomy silence fell over the squalid room.

"I guess that means we'll have to find somewhere else to get food," said SB finally.

"Yeah, but where?" Louis wanted to know.

"I'll find someplace," said SB. "Don't worry."

There were solemn nods all around. The looks the others bent upon him were trusting. SB's stomach knotted, but he stood up, pretending nonchalance, and brushed off his threadbare shorts. No point in scaring anyone more than they already were.

"Louis, you got watch duty. The rest of you -- be careful!"

"Where are you gonna look! Goldies are all over the place!" objected Lioh.

"Hell. Been dodging those morons for years! I'm thinkin' Restaurant Row."

"But they're all over that place!" objected Suzy.

"They were," agreed SB. "And mebbe they've even got a sentry still. Don't matter to me. I know how to work around that crap."

"You're nuts!" said Lioh in awe.

"That's why they call me Squirrel Bait," he replied and, tipping his cap jauntily, headed out into the perilous streets of Elion Station.


Part 4

Heero was right. The pellet set off alarms. Duo made it all the way into the next block before a small army of boneheads was on him. They beat him senseless and threw him into a metal cell. There he stayed, wobbling half in, half out of consciousness.

When things made sense for more than a nanosecond, he wondered where Heero was, then remembered.

I don't want to see you again.

Fuck you, too, Perfect Heero.

Since standing was probably out of the question for awhile, Duo crawled across the grimy floor to the wall. He hunched against it, taking slow, shallow breaths, and examined the damage. Bruises, cuts -- his coverall was a ruin. So much for good first impressions. Reassured that there were no serious hurts, he leaned his head back against the wall and waited for the worst of the pain to recede.

Getting out was going to be tough. Damn. Chances were good that he was gonna pay a lot for this little disaster. He would have laughed except it hurt too much.

Heero Yuy.

Shit.

A few hours later his solitude ended with the arrival of five burly guards, all of them with an attitude. They chained his hands, and drove him through the complex, knocking him around and jeering. Then, abruptly, he was outside again. A small courtyard surrounded him, with high walls where the buildings didn't fence it in. It was paved, garbage cans lined up along one side near a gate now closed and firmly bolted. In the middle was a steel pole with heavy rings attached. Dread clamped a vise around his stomach.

A group of people were bunched up at one end of the courtyard. They wore uniforms of a sort -- black trousers and sleeveless shirt -- and were completely silent, watching as the guards drove Duo across the cracked pavement to the pole. His arms were dragged over his head and fastened to the nearest ring. It was obviously set to accommodate a man of ordinary height. Duo was too small and he ended up dangling, toes barely touching the ground. Fighting for calm, he felt hands on his collar, then the coverall was ripped away to hang around his hips.

Duo thought his heart might actually succeed in forcing itself up through his throat. He wrapped icy fingers around the chain, knowing what lay ahead. Closing his eyes, he leaned his forehead against the cold metal and tried to relax.

Behind him came a soft whine. Oh, fuck...

Someone approached the pole. He opened his eyes. It was the man who had been standing with Yamada when they'd given him to Yuy. Arcane. The one who looked so much like Zechs. Who'd have thought that the prince had a psychotic double?

Duo clamped down on his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering and managed a defiant glare. He saw no sign of the vice lord himself.

"Tsk, tsk." Arcane smiled down at him. "You were warned, Maxwell."

"Yeah, well -- I didn't think I'd be much good at this slave crap."

"You'd better get good," purred the man. "Has anyone ever hit you with a force-whip?"

Duo couldn't answer. His throat was shut tight. He shook his head.

A slow, almost sad smile touched Arcane's patrician features. He reached a languid hand to stroke wisps of hair from the boy's forehead. "Such beautiful creatures, all of you."

"Huh?"

But he walked away, giving a careless wave to the guards.

The first blow made Duo catch his breath, gritting his teeth. The next was worse.

Gimme a minute --- catch my...AH!

The lash fell again and again, giving him no time to recover, to marshal his swiftly dwindling strength. Stripes of liquid fire were laid across his back until he could no longer keep silent. The onlookers became a blur of shadow in front of him; he could not make out individual faces through the tears. His screams echoed against the walls, body jerked helplessly with the relentless rain of blows. When it was finally over, he hung in the chains, barely conscious.

Uncaring hands released him from the pole and left him huddled at its base. Duo was dimly aware of the bystanders shuffling past him and into the complex. He stayed where he was, unable to move, lost in a haze of agony from which he had little hope of escape.

He had no idea how long he lay there before someone finally came. They had to lift him and he was unconscious again before they got him off the ground. When he woke, he was on a narrow table, bright light all around. People in white coats hovered over him. Their low voices came and went within his uncertain awareness. The pain continued, relentless and although he tried as hard as he could to stay silent, again and again their attentions made him whimper. Finally, they left him alone. He lay, eyes closed, hands clenched, knowing that they had bound him in place with leather straps to keep him from sliding off the table. As he drifted in and out, he heard footsteps.

"Not very wise, little one."

Arcane again. Duo tried summon rage and simply hadn't the energy.

"Why...not -- not jus' -- kill me?"

Arcane gently wove his fingers through the boy's thick, tangled hair. Duo blinked and blinked again.

"Why?" Arcane's mouth was at his ear, sending shivers through him, making the pain worse. "If Yuy agreed to protect you, you would be safe. Why not beg him to take you back?"

Now Duo was really afraid. He saw a maze ahead, traps set with razor teeth, but were they for himself or for Heero? He couldn't think. It hurt too much. He closed his eyes and swallowed his misery.

Heero.

"No," he whispered. "Never."


Restaurant Row. SB hunkered on the rooftop of Mallory's Pizzeria and scowled. There were fuckin' goldies everywhere. He'd never seen anything like it. What the hell did Yamada want with all the kids?

Biting his lip, the boy considered his options. In a few minutes, a patrol would be coming up to the rooftop. He'd been dancing with them for three hours, moving from one building to the next. Every nerve was on edge.

Neither had SB seen any other street rats. Usually you were stumbling over them around here. He thought about the rumors that Arcane was snatching 'em up and selling 'em to whorehouses on Earth.

"Hey! You!"

SB spun around, heart in his mouth. Shit! Two goldies had come up the fire escape. He turned and bolted for the door, but there were more there. Had he been seen from somewhere else?

Fire escape was out. Stairs were out. SB looked frantically around. Rusting heater houses stood on either end of the building. It was the last resort. He bolted for one. Flinging himself against the flimsy door of the shack, he fell into it. He heard them shouting. Ripping at the grill covering the exhaust conduit, tearing his fingers until they bled, the boy got it open just as one of the men reached the shack. For a half-second, he stared into the black pipe, then dove in, head first.

Once before SB had been forced to such a drastic escape route. That time, he'd almost died trying to find his way out of cramped, moldy exhaust tunnels. This shaft was a little wider, which meant it was easier to breathe -- and faster to fall. He went rattling down it, doing his best to slow his descent by pushing against the sides with his bleeding hands.

Suddenly the walls of the shaft were gone and it was instinct that made him twist frantically to avoid landing on his head. Even so, he lay, dazed by the impact. Muffled shouting still reached him, so he forced his aching body up and, on hands and knees, scrambled down the nearest tunnel.

Several minutes later, he came to the first vent, peering down through it to see a room filled with boxes and barrels. There was no one around. He kicked the grate away and dropped to the floor. Luckily, the door wasn't locked and he scooted out.

Restaurant Row was too hot. SB put it behind him, hitching a ride on a trolley across town and getting all the way to Second before the engineer saw him. Leaping off, SB raced away into the crumbling buildings, the man's curses following. Once safely in the warren of empty streets, the boy stopped and dropped to his haunches, sides heaving.

The net was tightening. For a moment, fear clogged his throat and stung his eyes. He would be caught and sold as a fuck toy. The thought terrified SB, but worse was thinking of his brothers and sisters suffering such a fate. He was tough. In the end, he could take it, but Sammy? Or Wildflower?

Blinking fiercely, he got up. It was time to go home -- check on things and figure out what to do next. There was one more place he could try, but it was dangerous as hell. No way he'd let any of the others try it.

SB was careful going back, taking a roundabout route through mostly abandoned buildings. Moisture dripped from overhead. Something leaked high above them. The rotation of the colony brought the unscheduled "rainstorm" around once a day.

Ahead was his street, rusting cars blocking it. Some sixth sense made him slow and keep to the alley. He peered around the corner Home was in sight. It looked normal, but...

"SB!"

He spun around, heart in his mouth. It was Wildflower, clutching her duffel bag, scrunched down between the broken wall of the building and an old garbage bin. Her eyes were enormous and in the shadow of her niche they seemed unnaturally bright.

"What?"

"The goldies came," she whispered. "They took everyone away."

He heard her with a sense of unreality. Suddenly shaking, he hunkered down beside her, one eye on the street. There was a livid bruise on her forehead. Her thin cheeks were streaked with dirt and tears, but her eyes were fierce and curiously thoughtful.

"Everyone?"

She nodded. "I was in the attic. I heard 'em coming, so I climbed out and down the fire 'scape." There was a gulp. "A guy was waiting. He grabbed me and -- and said he was gonna...."

"Oh, shit." SB put his arms around her and held her tight while she shivered against his shirt. The goldies had come and he hadn't been there. He hadn't been there! Sick at heart, he pried her gently loose.

"I gotta go see," he told her. "You stay here."

"NO!" She clutched at him desperately. "They'll get you!"

"Not me," he said grimly. "Stay PUT!"

SB didn't wait to see if she did as he told her. He slipped around the corner and into the abandoned building. On the roof, he peered over. There was Wildflower, obediently crouched in the shelter of the bin.

The buildings were so close together a good jumper could make it from one to the next, easy. SB was good jumper. He went from building to building until the next one was home. Just in time, he saw the goldie patrolling the roof. Swearing under his breath, he crept down through the old tenement and jumped through a window and into his building. Peering out, he saw another goldie lounged on the front stoop.

SB ghosted through the empty rooms, sick at the sight of their belongings flung everywhere, precious bits of junk trashed by uncaring boots. By the time he made it back to Wildflower his own eyes were burning.

"What are we gonna do?" she whispered when he settled down beside her, trying to swallow over the lump in his throat.

"We see if we can find 'em, of course. Didja see which direction they went?"

"That way," she pointed, colony east. "There's nothin' there -- just the dead zone and it's all sealed up."

But Wildflower was adamant. He sighed, thinking. Most of the buildings near there were derelict. Yamada might have set up some kind of holding place before shipping kids off colony.

"We'll check anyway. Then we'll find a place to hole up for awhile. Someplace they'll never think of looking for us."

"Where's that?"

"Yamada's complex."

Wildflower nodded soberly, rubbing her eyes. "I wanna go there," she said. "I didn't think you could get in."

Startled, he stared at her. Her small features were deadly serious, almost adult in their focus. He had a sudden, unsettling feeling that he was looking at someone else. Had Candy been right? He remembered her pulling him aside after his confrontation with Lioh that day, her voice low, face worried.

"Y'know -- sometimes when there's been a long fever, you can get brain damage," she'd told him. "Wi seems kinda confused. I'll keep an eye on her, okay?"

Had the fever somehow scrambled Wildflower's brain?

"There's a way," he said now, hoping she had the sense to listen and do what he told her. "I found it once, a couple years ago. If we're really quiet and careful, we can live in the walls for a while -- 'til the sweep ends. But you gotta be real careful!"

"I'll be careful," she promised. "Can we go there now, SB? Can we?"

"We'd better." He stood up and held out his hand. "And we'll find the others. I promise."

She took it, fingers icy in his. He managed an encouraging smile and with her in tow, headed up-colony toward the vice-lord's domain.


Part 5

Yamada did not stint when it came to outfitting his pet assassin. Heero had been given a very nice little cruiser with decent armament and an efficient engine. As always, he thought of Wing Zero as he set the coordinates for D-19.

Once free of Elion, there was nothing to do but keep an eye out for fellow travelers and his thoughts circled back to the vice lord's gift. Maxwell. Shit.

As the man's hired killer, Heero was frequently called upon to act as bodyguard during business meetings and the entertainments that inevitably followed. In the past three months, he'd been witness to an astonishing variety of sexual activity. Maybe that was why his thoughts kept tangling up in violet eyes and a lean, graceful body.

Dr. J. had been more succinct.

"Careful, boy. I've some knowledge of Elion and its ruler. You'll be at risk for more than discovery there. Remember, sex is a powerful conditioning reinforcer. You've got good control, but you're still an adolescent."

Heero had heard a similar lecture when he'd guarded Relena. Even the docs had never understood that it had been different with her. She had been a symbol of what the world could have been, the reason they were fighting. Just looking at her had brought peace to his soul. His love had been the knight's pure love for his queen.

A failed knight. A dead queen.

Now he had her assassin in his hands and did he kill Duo at once as he should? No. Instead, all the old feelings had come rushing back, the ones he could never acknowledge, at least not during the war. Heero trembled, hands tightening on the arms of his seat.

No! he told himself fiercely. Think of the mission.

D-19 was a half day's travel from distant Elion. He got in at station night, the dock empty except for a few security guards. Yamada's larcenous subordinate was located and dead by dawn. Next, Heero broke into the dock administration offices, hacked the arrival and departure logs, programming the computer to delete all his data as soon as he was clear of the station. He lined himself up for the next departure slot and headed back to the ship.

Heero set the coordinates to Earth and slept, waking when the alarm signaled him to begin landing procedures. Noin hailed him on a secure channel soon after he entered the atmosphere.

"Heero!" After two months, her familiar voice lifted his spirits. "We were starting to worry. Head straight for Sanc -- the lodge."

Technically, this was not a Preventer operation. He and the others were unofficial "advisors," to the prince, but the authority they wielded went far beyond that customarily awarded to mere consultants. Heero often wondered what the other leaders of Earth Sphere would do if they learned the true function of this elite group.

The Peacecraft lodge was built on the side of a mountain, surrounded by forest, in an area that had escaped the depredations of the recent war. There was a small, but adequate landing strip on a ridge nearby. He was greeted by none other than Milliard himself, Sanc's reluctant head of state and brother to the murdered Relena. Only the people gathered here called him by his other name, the one Relena had hated -- the one he preferred. Zechs Marquise.

They shook hands, the two warriors, both still so young. Heero wondered how Zechs bore it. He had to govern, to substitute statesmanship for combat, a different sort of battle where intrigue, lies and deception were the weapons of choice. It was ironic that in this particular mission, Heero, too, was forced to use those weapons. At least it was only this mission and not for the rest of his life.

"Who's here?" Heero asked as Zechs waved him into a jeep. He breathed deep of Earth's air, the richness of it, the scent that no station's processor units could duplicate.

"Noin, of course, Quatre, Trowa, Wu Fei and Dr. J."

Heero nodded.

"Wu Fei is getting impatient," added Zechs with a grin. "Being dead doesn't suit him."

"Being Yamada's assassin doesn't much suit, either," Heero retorted.

Everyone was gathered in the lodge's library, a room of mellowed wood paneling with windows that overlooked the heavily wooded estate. Dusk was filling the valley with shadow and a mist rode the treetops. Heero settled into a chair at Dr. J's right hand, wondering as always what lurked behind the goggles.

Noin smiled at him, as did Quatre. Trowa nodded and Wu Fei simply stared.

"Well?" barked the scientist.

"I have Maxwell."

It was not what they expected, any of them, and they sat with their mouths open. Tersely, Heero recounted the past events. Zechs, who had gone chalk-white at the announcement, stood, trembling with emotion. "Bring him here at once!" he commanded, every inch the aristocrat. "Justice is too long overdue!"

"Duo? Is he all right?" Quatre, eyes wide and anxious, rose as well. Zechs gave him a disbelieving look.

"Who cares? He murdered my sister!"

"Maybe he didn't."

It was an old argument. Quatre was always the kind one, the one who refused to believe ill of any of them.

"There is only circumstantial evidence," the young Arab insisted stubbornly. "Remember, Relena had all the electronic surveillance equipment disabled back then. None of us has even had a chance to ask him his side of the story!"

"How could we?" Wu Fei asked. "He ran."

"There was the fight they had," reminded Noin. "Both Hilde and I heard Duo shouting at her!"

"But not what was said! And what was his motive?"

"He ran," persisted WuFei.

"Enough." Dr. J's voice was sharp. Zechs remained standing, obstinate.

"Sit down, boy!" the scientist snapped, exasperated. "Of course he mustn't bring Duo back yet. We've not obtained the mission objective."

"As soon as this is ended then," insisted Zechs. He bowed slightly to Heero. "I am in your debt."

"He gets a trial." Heero's gaze was cold, not flinching from Dr. J.'s scowl.

"We need to know why the vice lord wants gundanium. It's not often we get some fringe outlaw attacking our secure transports." Dr. J's voice took on that particular edge that had, in the days of Heero's training, meant swift and painful discipline. The boy's jaw tightened, but he refused to back down.

"And I can't concentrate on the mission with that bastard right in front of me. Maybe it would be better just to kill him."

"No!" cried Quatre, distressed. "Not without a trial. Heero! Promise you won't!"

The others started talking then, arguing, exclaiming, until Dr. J screamed at them to be silent. He glowered at Heero who glowered back.

"It's good that you've found Maxwell," the scientist grated, "but you haven't completed your mission. Have you seen nothing suspicious?"

"Everything is suspicious," snapped Heero before thinking. He took a deep breath. "But yes. I finally got those hidden files hacked. It looks like there's a rehabilitated section of old dock right in the middle of Elion's ruined section ?? the dead zone. It's got top of the line security and can be reached in about a minute and half by Yamada's two Tauruses once the alarm is raised."

"Look into it," said Dr. J. "It sounds promising."

The doc hesitated, then continued. "Whatever your personal feelings in this matter, they must be subordinate to your duty. Acquire the data we need, then concern yourself with Maxwell's fate. Now go. Return at once to Elion before your absence arouses suspicion."


Part 6

Duo had to admit that as menial, unrewarding jobs went, handling the Complex garbage beat scut-running all to hell. For one thing, when the incinerator got going, the long room warmed up nicely, which was more than could be said for Zoe. Add several torn blankets -- discards from the complex laundry -- and a guy could be almost toasty. There was also very little chance of anything blowing up in his face, although compactor number four was making some suspicious noises.

His job included rolling sheets of plastic and sorting other types into barrels. He compacted, then melted down metal and glass into blocks, all of it for shipment off-station to a nearby recycling facility. The old incinerator burned anything not recycled.

The waste water purification unit was in the next room and was also his responsibility -- unfortunately. Only two of its three primary filtration tanks worked and even those limped along only because he fiddled with them constantly.

It had been almost a month since his disastrous escape attempt and Duo had nearly healed. He'd seen nothing of Heero, although he heard plenty. Everyone in the complex, from the meekest slave to the vice lord himself was afraid of the young assassin. And when he found out why, he found out something else, as well.

"Aye. He killed Chang Wufei -- another one of you Gundam brats. Just before you arrived, come to think of it. That's one Preventer that won't be giving the boss no trouble."

Bordo, Yamada's tall, laconic steward, grinned widely, revealing missing teeth. "Took out Chang and a couple o' others without even raising a sweat, they say. Yuy's one guy you don't wanna mess with, kid or not! Now get them pallets stacked for shipping before the transport gets here or I'll decorate your back again!"

Of all the treacherous, hypocritical assholes! Wishing he had the other pilot there to strangle, Duo barely noticed the weight of the pallets he dragged across the room. WuFei dead. Christ. Sure, the Chinese pilot had been a prickly son of a bitch, but he'd had courage and he'd fought at their sides.

Damn Heero! Duo raged. To give him shit about killing Relena was too fucking much! And he was innocent! For a long time, he sat by the metal compactor as it did its noisy job, staring at nothing, profoundly depressed

Still, it was not Duo's nature to remain despondent for long. He tucked the anger where he put everything that hurt and concentrated on learning about his new world. The whipping not withstanding, escape was still very much on the boy's mind.

The security pellet's limits allowed him to move freely around most of the complex, the most notable exception being the space dock. He could and did stand in doorways, keeping out of the way as much as possible, watching the ships that came and went, the guards' shift schedules, checking out who was maintenance and who was security. He'd suggested to a disinterested Bordo that a better use of his skills was in Mechanics, but the steward would have none of it.

"Nice try. No way a gundam pilot gets any where's near spacecraft, tracker pellet or not. Mr. Arcane warned us against it specifically."

The complex housed a staff of respectable size. There were the thirty men and women who served as Yamada's personal guard and a full complement of mechanics to maintain his small fleet of fighters and cargo haulers. There were domestics, cooks and kitchen help, maids and janitors. Most were hired, but some were slaves, debtors paying for drug or gambling habits gone out of control.

It made for a lot of garbage.

The waste management facility was at the lowest level of the complex, nearest to the station's outer hull. It got fearsomely cold when the machines weren't going. Few came here who didn't have to. It was dirty, lonely work, but Duo made a discovery that brought his spirits -- admittedly at an all time low -- right back up again. One afternoon, as he was attempting to repair the incinerator's failing exhaust fan, he pulled the crumbling pipe away from the wall and found a small metal plate beside it. It read, "Putnam-Gray Habitats, Inc."

Elion was a PGH satellite! Duo scraped corrosion off the letters with a suddenly shaking hand.

Before falling into the clutches of Dr. G., Duo had run salvage. His first job had been with a company breaking down an old colony wrecked by a passing meteor. That colony had been a PGHS and the crew had been given the manufacturer's specs to aid in efficient dissembling.

Unlike modern colony design, Elion was divided into four great sections. Each could be sealed off, which had saved Elion section when disaster struck. There were docking facilities in each section. He could see the specs in his head.

General access codes tended to be the same from satellite to satellite, too. If he could get the tracker pellet out of his body without raising the alarm or killing himself, if he could get himself a space suit and out into one of the abandoned sections, he could dodge them awhile. And if he could find some sort of wrecked vehicle there he could repair in a hurry...

If. His plots grew more fantastic by the day.

So the time dragged by. Duo's life settled into a numbing routine of sorting, stacking, hauling, fixing and burning. One night as he sat in his spot next to the incinerator, he once again considered appealing to Heero. Heero's rooms were in the upper levels, still within Duo's limited range of movement. If only he could get into the other pilot's good graces.

Fortunately, whenever he started think stupid crap like that, he remembered the look on Heero's face when the other pilot banished him to this netherworld.

Don't think about Heero. Don't think about those big, dark-blue eyes or the endearing, bewildered look that crossed his face every time he was forced to deal with something that wasn't written down. Don't think about any of the pilots he'd once had as friends.

Christ. He missed them all so much.

"Quit it, you fool!" Duo said aloud, but the memories, once released, couldn't stop.

He remembered the safe house in Chicago where Trowa and Quatre had first become lovers, remembered his own wistful attraction to their Perfect Soldier. Foolishness, of course. Everyone had understood about Relena. Duo even remembered, with some embarrassment, his clumsy attempts to seduce WuFei. WuFei! God. What had he been thinking?

Still, those had been great times. They had been on fire with enthusiasm and idealism, ready to conquer their world, to be heroes. Duo smiled sadly, hugging his knees to his chest and resting his head against them. So much for the dreams of children.

"Someday," he said to himself, "you'll learn. Some people get what they want in this life and some people don't. You're one of those who don't."

As he sat, bound by his past, a strange noise intruded on the thuds and bangs of his present. It sounded like a crash from the water purification room. He shook his head. Great, now he was imagining things.

But when he heard a childish giggle, he straightened, peering around the corner of the incinerator. A kid?

Sure enough, a boy of about fourteen came warily into the sorting room with an undernourished girl of eleven or twelve in tow. Both were scruffy and ragged. Duo moved back, pulling the blankets up to his nose, reckoning any glance into the shadows would show only a row of large, numbered recycling barrels.

He was wrong. As the pair tiptoed past him, the girl suddenly stopped. Tugging on the boy's hand, she looked between the barrels and directly at Duo. He stood up at once, feeling slightly foolish under her wide, somber gaze.

"Shit!" the boy stared, then would have turned and bolted if it were not for the little girl. "Wildflower!"

"Relax," Duo said quickly, holding out open, empty hands. "I'm not gonna hurt ya."

"Damn right!" The boy tried shoving the girl back toward the storeroom, but she only dug in her heels. Her eyes were the same color as Heero's, Duo thought irrelevantly. They held the same intensity and he found himself struggling to hold steady under their regard.

"My name is Wildflower," she announced. "Who are you?"

"He works here," the boy hissed. "He's gonna yell and bring someone. C'mon!"

Still she remained, this time stubbornly holding on to the incinerator.

"C'MON!"

"I'm Duo and I'm not gonna bust you," Duo said. "Why the hell should I?"

The boy pushed the little girl behind him and glared. Duo shrugged, leaning back against the wall, arms folded over his chest.

"I won't tell on you," he said. "Won't help you either. Good luck."

This time, however, it was the boy who lingered.

"You -- you haven't seen a bunch of kids, have ya? They woulda been -- woulda looked kinda like us."

"One of 'em has purple hair," the girl added hopefully.

"Sorry, no."

Their faces were so stricken that he quickly added, "but I can't go everywhere, you know? Like the docks or machine shops. Why would be your friends be here?"

"But you can go everywhere else?" Wildflower ignored his question.

Duo shrugged, more curious by the second.

"Why would they be here?" he asked again.

"Who knows?" The boy sounded bitter. "Yamada's been yanking kids off the streets for the last two months."

"We think they're bein' sold," announced Wildflower, matter of fact.

"Wi!"

"He's a good man," Wildflower said calmly to her companion. "We can trust him."

"How do you know that?" Duo asked cooly.

She smiled and he was caught. "'Cuz I just know. You'll help us because you have a kind heart."

Stunned, Duo felt his face heat. Gruffly, he said, "Well, I haven't seen your friends. If I was Yamada, I wouldn't be taking kidnapped kids around where anyone else would see him, anyway."

"But there might be some clues to their whereabouts. Could -- could you help us look?" the little girl asked.

"It's none of my business," Duo pointed out.

Shit. The last thing these kids should be doing was bumbling around the complex looking for their pals. "Take my advice. Look somewhere else."

The boy's eyes narrowed sharply. He looked again at Wildflower who nodded solemnly.

"You might need a favor someday," the boy said.

Street barter! Duo recognized it at once. He considered the boy thoughtfully. If he sort of supervised a search, kept them out of trouble, maybe he could get this notion out of their system and them out of here. The streets were much better for them than the complex!

"I might, but you don't look like all that much. What good are your favors?"

"I know my way around the city."

"Can't see where that's all that useful to me." Duo touched the lump in his shoulder.

"You might get lucky. It would suck if you got out and didn't know how to dodge the goldies."

Duo grinned. "Okay, deal. I'll help you look. In return, you owe me a favor. Now -- just one thing. When we're running around this place, you absolutely, positively do what I say, understood?"

They nodded solemnly.

"How the hell did you get in?" he asked curiously.

SB smirked. "Walked in. There was a bunch of kids coming back from school. While the guards were staring at the teenage girls, we got past."

Duo laughed out loud.

"Mister?" Wildflower piped up. "We can't stay outside in the city anymore. Is there anyplace in here we can hide 'til we find our friends?"

"Jeez. You don't ask for much do you?"

"Wi! We kin find something on our own..."

"Shut up," Duo said as the two glared at each other. "I might know of someplace."

"Really?" Wi exclaimed. SB shut his mouth with snap and scowled, but he was listening.

"It's back in the water treatment room," he said. "It doesn't smell real good, but there's a maintenance closet that runs behind the walls. It's just for the filtration room, so it doesn't actually go anywhere. Still, it's a decent size. You could do worse."

They followed him into the next room. SB wrinkled his nose as they passed the sewage tanks. It was a huge place, however, and the closet was way in the back. There, the smell was marginally better, although it was still damp.

In his early explorations, Duo had found the access panel, one of the very few around that wasn't sealed shut. It was dark inside and moisture stained the metal walls of the chamber. It was designed for men to move about while they worked on the plumbing. These days, that was him. The room was six feet high, ten feet long, and four feet deep and would easily accommodate two small bodies.

"I've got some stuff going out with the recycling you could use," he offered.

So back they went to the main sorting room where Duo rummaged through containers and crates until he found them blankets. Wildflower came away with several cracked, but otherwise functional pots and bowls. SB found a toy truck with a wheel missing.

Duo pulled the boy aside.

"If you go outside to the stairs by the elevator and go up two levels, the food stores are just inside. There's only one camera that works, and it's the one right over the door. It tracks back and forth, so if you're fast, you can get past. The only thing you have to watch for is night shift cooks or kitchen staff."

"Gotcha," agreed SB.

"And remember. If you get caught, we don't knew each other."

"I'll go start arranging our place," Wi announced happily. "Thanks, Duo!" The kids disappeared, Wildflower to arrange their new home, SB to get some food. Duo settled back into his place, oddly light-hearted. He doubted very much that the kids' kidnapped friends were here. Duo had been all over the place -- at least most of it -- and had never seen a sign of them.

It was just past midnight and he was tired. Tomorrow he'd see what more he could learn about his guests. The little girl was the odd one. Much too grown up. Duo yawned and set the incinerator to burn another six hours.

Still, it would be great to have someone to talk to for a while.

Wait until they find out who you are.

He closed his eyes tightly. Maybe they wouldn't find out. Hell, they might not even know who Relena Peacecraft had been. Out here, it probably didn't make one damn bit of difference who was in charge Earth Sphere. Ah, well, he told himself. Deal with that if it comes -- in the meantime, live for the moment. He nestled up to the warm incinerator and pulled his blankets tight around him. Closing his eyes, he smiled. For the first time in a long time, Duo Maxwell looked forward to the next day.


Part 7

Two members of a rival drug cartel were on Heero's slate for extinction. He ambushed one on a lonely space lane between New Greenland and Argus Colony 6. The other was messier. Heero had planned for a quick hit in an alley behind a nightclub favored by the target. Unfortunately, noncombatants wandered onto the scene. They got away with their lives, but with a scare that would probably stay with them forever.

Sloppy. His mind wasn't on his work.

Heero returned to Elion. Neither the vice lord nor his lieutenant, Arcane, was available, so Heero filed his report electronically and went straight to his rooms. Once there, stretching out his legs and settling his computer in his lap, he thought of Maxwell for an undisciplined moment.

Duo standing, white as a ghost by the dining table, listening to Heero pronounce sentence. Hearing all the loathing and fury in Heero's heart.

The baka had tried running, of course, and ended up on the wrong end of a force whip. Arcane had invited Heero to watch. He hadn't gone, of course. Arcane was one sick bastard. For a second, Heero imagined Duo bound and helpless against the steel pole and felt slightly nauseous. The reaction appalled him. Why did he care? Duo deserved all of it and more!

Later, he'd heard they'd put the other pilot to work in the waste disposal center, somewhere in the bowels of the complex.

God, thought Heero wretchedly. He had to get out of here!

Every week that passed, it seemed, the stain on his soul grew blacker. Elion's gaudy corruption ate at him as he stood bodyguard to the vice lord during Yamada's orgies of sex and drugs. It consumed him as he took life after life at that vermin's command. Never mind that his victims deserved their fate ten times over. It was murder and Heero knew it. Only Quatre seemed to sense the danger he was in.

"Leave it. Come home. You'll get yelled at, but so what?"

Yeah. So what? This wasn't the war! He wasn't Dr. J's property anymore. It was up to him now to decide when he'd had enough of anything, when the cost exceeded the reward.

And I've damned well had enough of this slime pit!

He went to the window, staring out at the crumbling buildings, the distant, moisture stained walls. He thought of Duo again. Why?

WHY?

It was that question, that lack of clear motive for Relena's murder that continued to confound Heero, to let doubt creep in where once he had been so certain! The impulse struck him to go down and find the bastard, confront him again, demand an answer.

But Heero had been trained to quash impulses, to rein in the sudden flush of emotion before it jeopardized his mission. He turned away from the window and by the time he returned to his seat and his computer, he had put Relena's killer right out of his mind.


Duo helped the kids look for their friends throughout the complex, but after four days, they had exhausted his territory. It was enough time to learn that their street-smarts were as well-developed as his, but that didn't stop Duo from worrying when they began venturing further afield without him.

They were good kids. Fiercely loyal to each other, SB and Wildflower were determined to find the rest of their little family. Duo could not blame them, remembering Solo and the others. It had been a long time since he'd thought of those times.

Still, as the days crept by, they always returned, sometimes filthy from crawling around little used corridors and rooms, and always with long, disappointed faces.

One night, Duo came out of the storeroom to find them sitting in his spot near the incinerator, wrapped in ragged blankets .

"No luck today, huh?"

Their long faces tilted up. He hunkered down beside them. "Hey, what's wrong? You can try again tomorrow, right?"

"They aren't here." SB sounded like he was ready to cry. Wildflower looked grim.

"We've searched and searched," she acknowledged, "and there's no sign of any of 'em."

Duo reached over and pulled his own blankets from their nearby heap. The incinerator was out and he could see his breath. Automatically, he reached up and turned it on.

"Sorry," he said finally. "If I was like this friend---this guy I know, I could hack into the system, but I'm not that good -- not for Yamada's security, I guess. Already tried."

There was no sound for a while except the whooshing of the heating elements inside the incinerator and the distant clunk as, next door, the disposal tube at the bottom of a filtration tank opened. "So what are you going to do?" Duo asked finally.

"I dunno," SB said. "Can we stay here for a while longer?"

'You can stay here as long as you want," Duo replied, unable to stifle the little leap of happiness. "It's okay with me."

"Just long enough for the heat to die down," SB said. "'kay?"

"Maybe they're somewhere else in the colony?" Duo suggested.

"Where? Elion's the only liveable section and we've looked all through it. Everything else is dead zone."

They were gloomily silent.

"Hey! It sucks about your friends, but you know what? You're alive -- alive and well. You gotta keep thinking about that! Survival's the best revenge, after all!"

He gave them a bright smile and watched their faces lighten. SB nodded. Wildflower, after studying him for several long moments, suddenly scooted over to cuddle up against him.

"Thanks," she said. "For helpin' us."

It had been a long, long time since anyone had been that close to Duo and meant him no harm. The simple gesture of trust and approval had the unexpected effect of raising a lump in his throat. He looked at SB who was staring miserably at the floor, clenching and unclenching his fists. Duo remembered the day he accepted Solo's death. He remembered that he'd had to face that alone. He lifted Wildflower and set her on the other side of him, then reached over and put his arm around SB's thin, slumped shoulders.

"It really sucks," he said. "Sorry, dude."

SB sat rigid and Duo thought maybe he shouldn't have touched the boy, but a few moments later, SB slid over and buried his face in Duo's shirt. He began to cry. Then Wildflower was crying, too.

Duo held them both until the sobs quieted. They were asleep quickly after that, exhausted by their grief. He smiled a little, brushing damp hair from Wildflower's high, pale forehead. Gently disentangling himself, he made sure they were well covered with the blankets. Then one by one, he carried them into the next room and tucked them into their now-homey little niche behind the wall. He turned on the old space heater he'd found and fixed, then returned to his place.

Pulling his own blankets close, he thought about the future, such as it was. The kids needed to get off the colony. That should be their next priority, not just sitting around waiting for the chance to go out into the streets again. But what could he do about it?

Yawning, he tussled with the problem, eyelids growing heavy. He was almost asleep when the sound of the door opening brought him back to alertness. Heavy footsteps made him jump to his feet. Who the hell was coming all the way down here?

Goldies!

He froze, staring. There were three of them. One curled his lip and jerked his head toward the door.

"The boss wants you, pretty boy."

"W-what for?" He didn't move.

"What do you think?"

There were three of them. They all guffawed loudly and when one advanced on him with shackles, he knew absolutely what they wanted. Memories of Zoe overwhelmed him and he started punching. They punched back until one of them shouted that Arcane "didn't want no bruises!"

Then Duo remembered the kids. Shit! They might come to see what all the commotion was about.

He stopped struggling then and with the goldies muttering threats under their breath, went where they told him.


On to part two.