Arbiten Station loomed in the view screen. Warning lights flashed across the aft hull. Zechs input the security code and the lights went from red to green. Ahead, the docking bay door opened. In the seat beside him slumped Wilder, gaze turned inward. Was he using his telepathic abilities to track his clansmen? With humans, those abilities were limited but who knew how it was between the Protectors.
Professor G was waiting, bushy hair covering his eyes, grinning hugely as he ushered the king and his alien lover from the docking bay to the shuttle that would take them to the station's high-security docks.
It was a well-kept secret, Arbiten Station. An insignificant piece of real estate in the massive Peacecraft portfolio, Arbiten had most recently been an Alliance military outpost, abandoned early in the game because of its remote location and small size. Now it housed Wilder's Typhus -- among other equally illegal things.
The Typhus stood in lonely splendor in the main bay, a towering, alien thing, much like a Gundam, but more graceful, more biological. Wilder's eyes went to it at once and Zechs saw the wistful light. He sympathized. There as nothing quite like being master of a machine like this. It was almost better than sex.
"Is it ready to go?" Wilder asked.
"It is. We've modified the cockpit to accommodate your greater size, as requested." G looked unhappy. "Are you certain about this? What if it's destroyed? There's so much more we can learn..."
"I'll need a flight suit," Wilder cut him off.
"Oh, very well." G pulled his phone from his pocket. "Bring the Typhus' flight suit," he instructed some unseen tech. The professor looked over at Zechs.
"And I'll be needing Epyon Prime," Zechs told him.
G started. Wilder's brows drew sharply together.
"It is ready, isn't it?"
"Well, yes -- theoretically. But we've not actually tested it..."
Wilder's narrowed eyes fixed on Zechs' face. "You aren't thinking of coming with me, are you?"
Across the bay, a set of inner hydraulic doors slid open with a thunderous, echoing crash. Zechs heard Wilder's sharp intake of breath and grinned.
It was magnificent. Larger even than the Typhus, the Epyon Prime was a hybrid of Earth and Protector technology. It had the same graceful lines as the alien craft, but according to G and the other engineers, it should outstrip the Typhus in terms of speed, maneuverability and firepower.
"Zechs?" Wilder sounded as if he were strangling. "This wasn't part of the plan. The object was to avoid revealing Earth's existence. If you show up, too.."
"The minute you took the body of that child on Elion you brought danger to Earth." Zechs met the lavender gaze squarely. "You're a rebel and an outlaw. If your clansmen will not agree to leave you alone, if they become curious about where you've been and the origin of the body you wear -- will they simply turn around and go home, leaving that curiosity unfulfilled?"
The alien stared at him a long time. Zechs half expected the touch of that mind to his and all but held his breath. But Wilder finally nodded and, as a tech came running up behind him, turned to take the flight suit.
"Duo! Duo, wake up!"
"Nnng." Duo slapped at the insistent hands shaking him.
"They found us."
That woke Duo in a hurry. He sat bolt upright. It was late in the afternoon -- almost suppertime. Looking around, he saw only the cabin, fireplace burning merrily, the remains of their earlier card game still scattered across the scarred coffee table. Heero was shoving something at him -- the old down coat.
His lover was cursing, a slow, monotone of profanity that sent chills up Duo's spine. He dragged on the coat and looked for his shoes.
"What'd I do?" he asked, reckoning he was to blame for this. Maybe someone had spotted their tracks on the beach..
"Nothing," came the harsh response. "It was my fault. DAMN IT!"
Duo winced, fumbling at the coat's zipper. Heero in a towering rage was an intimidating force. The boy was shoving things into a backpack -- Duo couldn't see what. Face pale, mouth tight, Heero glanced impatiently at Duo.
"Sheesh." Duo found gloves, hat and scarf. "How'd they find out?"
"MDI had a trace that got past my sniffer program."
Duo, heart banging painfully, ran to the door, flinging it open. The cold front had moved on. Outside, the melting snow lay in patches on the wet ground. He heard a distant buzzing that grew louder and louder.
"Get in the car!"
Heero reappeared, shoving his laptop into his bag. Duo ran outside and through the beaten snow to their rental.
"I'm driving!" he called, pulling open the door.
"Fuck that!" Heero was there, pushing him over in the front seat with strength Duo couldn't overcome.
Damn! Damn! Damn! Duo stared regretfully at the cabin, its homey little ribbon of smoke winding up from the chimney. He'd really liked the place. Heero threw the car into reverse and backed into the drive.
They reached the road a minute later and Duo saw them -- a crowd of ATVs roaring in their direction. Heero jerked on the wheel, sending the back end of the car sliding madly on the slushy surface. Then the wheels caught and they surged forward.
They reached a highway. A line of police cars were strung across it to the left. Heero turned right. Two cars separated from the roadblock and came after them.
Five miles on, with flashing lights and sirens screaming on their trail, they rounded a curve and Heero jammed on the brakes. Ahead, a helicopter hovered above the road. Heero threw open his door.
"We run," he said.
Duo twisted around in the seat as the cop cars appeared in the rear view mirror. He, too, jumped out. Heero was already across the road and scrambling up a ditch into the surrounding woods.
Tracks, thought Duo, they'll follow the tracks, but he ran anyway. The hell he'd just stand there and wait to be taken!
Luck, of a sort, was with them. It began to rain, a light drizzle at first, then a steady downpour. In minutes, Duo and Heero were soaked through, but at least it would hide their trail.
"Take my hand!"
Duo did so, willingly. As the rain came down harder, visibility became almost nonexistent. He was pulled through the wet, twilit world, glad of Heero's enhanced senses. If he'd been in the lead, they would have run into numerous trees by this time.
On they ran. Breath rasped in Duo's throat, burned in his lungs. His feet were icy and the old coat clung to his body, the feathers inside wet and heavy. He made no complaint, however, thumping doggedly after Heero, panic like a vice around his gut, squeezing.
Gradually, the sound of pursuit died away. The day waned. Did the fucking woods go on forever? Just as he was sure he was going to embarrass himself by collapsing, Heero slowed, then stopped.
"Thank god," gasped Duo, bending double, the stitch in his side something alive and vicious. He heard Heero's labored breathing and saw his lover, indistinct in the fog, looking at him. Duo straightened. "Shit," he said, through chattering teeth. "This bites."
It was getting colder as evening approached. Heero's fingers tightened briefly. "We have to find shelter," he said.
"Right." But where?
All around was the deep silence of the woods, broken only by the drip of rainwater from branches overhead. Duo's nose itched and he sneezed. His throat tickled. Great. Getting a cold.
They went hand in hand. Visibility worsened, confounding even Heero. Finally Duo felt a tug on his numbing fingers and was jerked sideways. Branches scraped his face. He swore. Underfoot, the ground steepened. Roots and branches grabbed at him. A moment later, they were out of the trees. Another road lay before them, this one of dirt and looking little traveled.
It was almost dark, but the rain was slowing. Heero finally released Duo's hand and started down the road. Duo trailed after him, wondering what the hell they were going to do when the sun set and it got really cold.
The answer, fortunately, was not long in coming.
"Look!" he said suddenly, pointing through the mist.
Among broken, winter-sere weeds stood the burned-out shell of a gas station. Upon investigation, they found its roof mostly fallen in, but a corner of it still intact. Shelter. Sorta.
"A fire?" Duo asked hopefully, arms wrapped around himself. His jaw ached from trying to stop the chatters.
"No," Heero said. "They'll be watching. We can't have gone more than ten miles or so -- if that."
"Right," Duo sighed, looking around. There was nothing but heaps of dead leaves, pine needles and bits of crumbling concrete. He sat down in the corner. A moment later, Heero joined him, arm going around Duo's shoulders.
"Sorry," he said. "I should have been more careful."
"It had to happen sooner or later," Duo replied. "It's MDI we're talkin' about, remember?" He sneezed again. The tickle in his throat was getting worse. "So now what?"
"Wait until morning," said Heero. He sounded as tired as Duo felt.
"Guess we're going to have to cuddle for warmth, huh?"
He could barely see Heero's face in the dark, but the sudden flash of white teeth signaled a wan smile.
Night came in earnest, the dark swallowing them up. Duo drifted in and out of a nightmare-ridden sleep, glad of the broken walls and roof that at least kept out the wind. He woke at one point to find Heero gone.
"Hey!" he rasped. Then movement nearby made him sag back against the wall. A moment later, he saw a spark and then a flame licked up. Heero was building a small fire!
"I thought you said..."
Dark eyes flashed at him. They were filled with worry. "We have to risk it."
Duo nodded, crawling forward to join Heero. He stripped off his wet gloves and held chilblained hands to the fire, so cold that twenty-thousand MDI men could have descended upon them and he wouldn't have cared.
He managed another couple hours of restless sleep. Heero shook him awake to a gray, damp dawn. It seemed a lot colder.
"We should be moving on. You ready?"
"No, but let's go."
On they went. The dirt road ended at a highway. They went back into the woods and followed the road from the safety of the trees. Several times, Heero pulled Duo down as a car or truck passed. Once they heard a helicopter, but never saw it.
Duo began to lose track of things in the endless, monotonous necessity of placing one foot before the other. Odd thoughts and fancies began to crowd his tired brain. His throat hurt so much he didn't bother to speak, and he wondered vaguely if he would ever be warm again.
"Duo! Duo!" It was Heero's voice, sounding alarmed. Duo forced himself to pay attention and found that he was on his knees in the slush, shaking.
"Oh, shit, Duo! Why didn't you say something? You're sick!"
"Not sick," Duo denied hoarsely, and was promptly overcome by racking coughs.
Heero collapsed to the ground beside him, heedless of the wet earth and sodden leaves. He put his arms around Duo and held him tight. Even that tiny bit of warmth was like heaven.
"We have to get you to shelter," Heero mumbled, face pressed against Duo's neck.
Then Heero got up, pulling Duo back to his feet. Sliding his shoulder under Duo's arm, they went on.
Lights winked in the dark. A house!
"Duo," Heero said quietly, moving back into the shelter of the trees, crouching beside his lover. The white face turned toward him. It was snowing again and the temperature continued to drop. "There's a house ahead. I think we should try it."
A fit of coughing shook Duo's slender body; he tried to muffle it behind his fist. His skin was hot and dry. Swallowing on the lump of fear in his throat, Heero helped his friend up again and stumbled on through the dark. He could no longer feel his feet and twice he went to his knees, the world dimming. Somehow, some way, they made it to the house.
At the door, he stopped and settled Duo against the wall beside it. There was no sound from the boy except the harsh wheeze of his breathing. Increasingly desperate, Heero knocked. At his second attempt, the door opened. He lifted his gun and pointed it straight into the old man's face. "Do what you're told and you won't get hurt."
The old man stood, mouth ajar, face whitening. Then his eyes slid sideways and down. Bushy gray brows drew together at the sight of Duo huddled there.
"Get him inside," Heero said.
"Bill?" A woman's voice from somewhere else in the house. Heero snarled. The man gave him an anxious look.
"It's okay, Beth! Just some kids who got lost. I'll be right there." To Heero, he said, "Don't hurt her."
"I don't want to," replied Heero shortly. "Don't make me."
Mouth set in a grim line. The old man came out and with Heero watching like a hawk, got his hands under Duo's arms and pulled him inside. The warmth hit Heero like fist and made him gasp. The old man crouched beside the semiconscious boy.
"Yes," said Heero and, in spite of every effort, his voice broke. The old man's head came up sharply. Keen blue eyes met Heero's. The dark-haired youth schooled his features to a fierce scowl, but the old man's expression had turned thoughtful.
"We'd better get him into bed," he said. "You can put the gun away, son. I'll not turn anyone out on a night like this, especially not a sick kid."
Heero's hand trembled. Every instinct said to shoot the man and his unseen wife, end the risk, but he truthfully did not want to kill anyone. So, heart thumping, he lowered the pistol and nodded.
"I'll get my wife."
"She was a nurse before she retired," the man said calmly.
"Okay." But Heero went with him, hand on his pocket in silent threat.
"I'm Bill Wright," said the man. "Hurt Bethie and you and your friend can rot in hell."
Beth Wright was mixing something in a large, blue bowl. She was plump and gray-haired, with deep laugh lines creasing her face. Her eyes grew wide at the sight of the disheveled youth standing with her husband, dripping mud and snow on her clean kitchen floor.
"Bill?" Alarmed, she looked to the old man, who smiled at her reassuringly.
"Couple of kids ran their car into a ditch. One of them seems pretty sick. I'm going to put him into the back bedroom. When you get a chance, have a look at him, okay?"
"Sure. Poor things." She smiled kindly at Heero. He nodded, every nerve on edge. Another doubtful glance at her husband made the boy come to his senses somewhat. He found a smile from somewhere.
"Thanks," he said. "I didn't think we were going to make it."
"It's horrible weather," she agreed. "Do you boys live in that new subdivision up the way? Is there anyone you want to call?"
He shook his head.
She washed her hands and dried them on a towel with blue daisies on it. Then she followed the men back into the front room. Duo was a pitiful heap near the door. He had regained some of his senses and was trying to stand.
"Oh, dear!" she cried then, all apprehension forgotten. She rushed to his side, forcing Heero to quell another involuntary surge of panic. "Bill! Help me!"
"I'll do it," Heero said quickly. He picked up his lover, holding him close, and met her gaze. Her smile softened.
"So that's how it is," she said with an indulgent smile. "This way."
The back bedroom was small, but the bed was big and there were plenty of covers. The old man went to find a vaporizer. Heero was ordered to undress Duo and tuck him in.
"You're lucky you found us," she said as he lay Duo onto the mattress. "It's pretty isolated out here."
The sheets were pristine and smelled like morning. Heero scraped wet hair from Duo's face. His hands trembled. "Yes. Lucky," he whispered, realizing belatedly some answer was required.
"Stay with him," she said, but he wouldn't. He followed her from the room and watched as she took things out of a medicine cabinet.
"Give them to me," he said.
Her frown returned and she handed him the bottles. Cough medicine and an antipyretic. He handed them back, nodding curtly.
Duo was conscious when they returned to the bedroom. The old man was there, setting up the vaporizer. He looked intently at Heero and his wife, but she shook her head, smiling, and went straight to the head of the bed. Duo's too-bright gaze fixed on her, uncomprehending.
"I'm here," replied Heero, abandoning plans to use fake names.
"Okay." Duo smiled then, his cheerful, crooked grin. His eyes tracked slowly to the woman. "Who're you?"
"I'm Beth Wright," she replied. Like almost everyone Heero had ever met, she was not proof against that smile. Her own deepened and warmed. "You're a sick young man. Whatever were you thinking, going out on a night like this?"
"Couldn't be helped," he croaked. "Whazzat?"
"Does it taste bad?"
"Horrible. Open up."
"Shut up and do what you're told," snapped his beloved.
Duo sighed, coughed, and opened his mouth, grimacing at the taste of the medicine. He swallowed the aspirin, too, then fell back, exhausted into the pillows. His eyes closed. Beth lay her hand on his forehead.
"Sister Helen," Heero heard Duo say, very soft. The woman looked at Heero, puzzled.
"He spent some time in an orphanage," Heero said, not sure why he was bothering to explain. "The nun was kind to him."
The woman studied Heero a moment, then looked back down at Duo. Duo appeared to be asleep, his breath shallow but regular. Beside the bed, Wright got the vaporizer working.
They were, for the moment, safe.
Suddenly, Heero was exhausted. The adrenaline that had kept him going seemed to drain away all at once. His legs gave out under him and he collapsed beside the bed.
"Oh, you poor thing. You're done in. Bill, help me with him."
"No," he heard the old man say, still wary. "Leave him be."
"Absolutely not! The dear boy! Trying so hard to protect his friend. Let's get him out on the couch..."
Their voices ran together, words losing meaning. He mumbled, "I can walk," and managed it -- barely. There was a gaping, empty space in time and then he was on the couch, a blanket settling over him.
"Your friend is perfectly safe," came a voice from far away. "Go to sleep, boy. We'll talk in the morning."
Duo opened his eyes. He was tired and weak, but the nagging pain in his chest had eased. He lay, staring blankly into a white, sun-dappled ceiling. It was very quiet. Slowly, he turned his head. Chintz curtains in front of a frosty window. He turned his head the other way. A fat, square device was pumping a stream of mist into the air. It smelled kinda like menthol.
There was no sign of Heero and he could not remember where they were.
"Heero!" Duo sat up and the room tilted wildly. He struggled to push off the blankets, but his limbs shook with weakness.
The door opened. He gasped, flinching against the headboard at the sight of a stranger filling it. An old man bent a grave look on him. Vague memories told Duo he'd seen the stranger before. Then there were running footsteps. The old man stepped hastily aside.
"Heero!" Duo collapsed back into the pillows.
Heero dropped to his knees beside the bed.
Duo stared, bewildered. "Hey. What's the matter, Hee-chan?"
"He's been very worried about you," came a third voice, a woman's. Duo's eyes got saucer round as a grandmotherly figure appeared in the door. She was carrying a tray that she set down on the night-table. "And," she added, "he's very tired. Your fever was dangerously high last night and he didn't sleep well. He was checking on you every few minutes."
Duo reached unsteady fingers to stroke Heero's hair. He looked at the old man and woman standing in the doorway. "What -- where is this?"
"Apple Falls," said the man. "About sixty miles from Lake Michigan."
Heero lifted his head, then stood up, squaring his shoulders. He fixed the old couple with red-rimmed eyes. "Thank you for helping us."
The old woman smiled. "That's quite all right, young man. You make sure that Duo eats something."
They went away then. In silence, Duo watched them leave, then: "What the hell's goin' on, Heero? How'd we get here?"
"Walked," replied Heero. He lifted the dishtowel from tray. "Your favorite," he added with the glimmerings of amusement. "Oatmeal."
"Don't remember walkin'," Duo sighed. He looked askance at the steaming bowl. "Plain oatmeal?"
Heero sank to the edge of the bed, picking up the bowl and stirring at the goop inside. "Looks like cinnamon and raisins and sugar, butter, cream..."
"Oh." Duo brightened. "Sounds pretty good."
"Open." Heero ordered. Duo obeyed. Heero's smile appeared, relieved.
"Ya know," Duo said through his mouthful of oatmeal, "I can feed myself."
"Okay." Heero handed him over the bowl and spoon, but stayed where he was, watching Duo like a hawk.
"Who are they?"
"Just some nice people." Heero hesitated. "They know. They know and it's okay."
Duo nearly dropped his spoon.
"We made the news. Wright -- he didn't believe I wasn't real."
"You are real," Duo said shortly. He had another mouthful of oatmeal.
Heero managed a little smile. He looked utterly spent.
"You stayed up all night makin' sure I was okay, eh, Hee-chan?"
A tired nod.
Duo finished off the oatmeal, then he moved over. "C'mon."
Heero shook his head. "You need more sleep, Duo."
"And you don't?"
The dark-haired boy looked toward the rest of the house.
"Oh, c'mon," Duo coaxed. "You're the one who said they were nice folks."
"Yes, but...." Heero gave in. He started to stretch out on the covers. "Maybe for a few minutes. Just until you feel like sleeping again, ne?"
"Hm." said Duo.
Heero apparently decided that was an affirmative and was asleep almost at once. Duo bent and kissed the dark hair gently, then struggled to get the blankets over him. As weak as he was, Heero's dead weight was impossible to move.
"Need some help?"
Warily, Duo watched the old man come in. In spite of his gray hair and lined face, the man was large and healthy. But the work-roughened hands were gentle when he lifted Heero, letting Duo pull the covers out and re-arrange them over the exhausted youth.
Heero murmured, snuggling close to Duo, some of the stiffness in his body relaxing. Duo directed an anxious look at the man. Bill, his name was?
"On the news, they're saying he's an android and that something's wrong with him," the old man said quietly. "That he could go berserk at any minute and start killing people."
"They're lying! You won't turn us in, will ya? Please? I know he can be kinda scary, but -- he's just scared."
"Of course he's afraid," said the man calmly. "I would be, too, if someone wanted to make me a slave. MDI is wrong. Even if what they're saying is true, even if this young man was manufactured, he deserves the same freedom and respect as any of us."
It was his illness, Duo told himself, that made his eyes water.
The old man smiled and patted his knee. "You sleep, too, son. You're safe enough for now. Once you're both feeling better, we'll decide what to do."
"'Kay," said Duo.
Wright stood up. "Call if you need anything," he said, and was gone.
Duo slid back down and pulled Heero against him. He heard music coming from somewhere else in the house. In a little while, he drifted gently back to sleep.
Zechs and Wilder hung on the edge of the solar system while Zechs gathered his courage. According to Wilder, the Protectors waited for them somewhere in the Orion belt. The impossible distance that lay before them gave Zechs the chills.
"Scared?" Wilder's voice held a hint of malice. The alien was still angry. Too bad.
"A little," the king admitted evenly, "but I trust you and my engineers. Are you going to send the coordinates of the meeting place or must I rely on my hunting instincts?"
He could almost feel Wilder consider leaving him behind. Zechs' heart thumped with excitement. Faster than light -- the Holy Grail of spaceflight was at his fingertips. If this was successful, if the simulations proved correct, the dzril had damn well better look to their empire.
"What are the dzril like?"
The coordinates arrived. Zechs watched the numbers scroll past.
"I've never seen one," admitted Wilder. "They never leave their home system, wherever that is. They deal directly only with the High Lords of the kinthe races. I've heard their appearance is monstrous."
"If you're not dzril, you're kinthe. The Protectors are kinthe. Humans are kinthe." Wilder fell silent. The FTL monitor flared. Coordinates input. "Second thoughts?" he asked.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Fool." The Typhus winked out.
Zechs felt his pulse leap. His finger trembled above the control. He closed his eyes, hoping Wilder had given him the right coordinates and touched the button.
The universe winked out. There was a nauseating moment of vertigo, a sense of total confusion in which Zechs lost all sense of himself. Then he was blinking dazed eyes at unfamiliar space, at constellations that seemed subtly out of line. Some distance to port, he saw the Typhus.
"Alive and kicking," reported the young king.
"Another hop should take me to the system where my clansmen wait. Please. Stay here. Let me go meet them alone."
"Please!" Wilder's agitation was clear in the harsh voice. "At least stay back until I determine their intentions!"
"Which system?" Zechs asked, committing to nothing.
There was no answer. The Typhus vanished. Zechs' eyes narrowed and he smiled faintly. Did Wilder honestly think he could escape the Lightning Count? Leaning forward, Zechs touched another control. The Typhus' beacon lit up on his nav monitor. Zechs watched the tiny blip move across the screen, noting its direction and the distance from this point.
"Just try to lose me," he grinned, and was after Wilder like a shot.
The old truck had a broken transmission. Heero sat, parts spread out on the garage floor around him, and looked askance at the solenoid valve. Its hinge was broken and the vehicle itself was so old he doubted whether Wright would be able to find the part. On the other hand, he'd seen an acetylene torch in the clutter by the workbench. There was enough junk lying around that he could probably rig one.
He got up and went to the bench, rummaging around until he found what he needed. An old pair of safety goggles, a match, the torch and some random bits of metal and he was soon busily welding the piece together.
Beth was calling from the house. He turned off the torch and shoved the goggles onto his forehead. Going to the side door, he looked out. The old woman waved at him. "Lunch!"
He nodded and left the garage, trotting across the snowy yard and through the back door. Duo was up, his first day out of bed, seated at the small kitchen table. There was a sandwich in front of him and he was wearing a milk moustache. Legs wrapped around the chair, he smiled cheerfully at Heero.
"Fix it yet?" he asked.
"It's so kind of you," enthused Beth, setting down a plate before Heero. "It would have cost us thousands to get that transmission replaced. I keep telling Billy that he needs a new truck, but he claims he wouldn't replace it any more than he'd replace me."
"It's the least we could do," Duo announced. "You've been pretty kind yourselves."
Heero nodded and ate, listening to Duo chatter with the old woman. Bill came a little while later, arms full of groceries, complaining about the condition of the road. "There's only the four of us that live out here," he groused. "The township figures they can wait until last to plow us out."
"You have a tractor with a plow," Heero said. "I could take care of your driveway, at least."
"Thanks, Heero, but the two of you have already more than paid us back," replied Bill. "Good Lord -- you've been here six days and already you've adjusted the furnace, got the ice out of the gutters, cleaned the sump, and I don't know how many of our small appliances Duo has managed to repair. All we did was give you a bed and something to eat for a few days."
"And kept our secret," Duo added soberly. "You dunno how much we appreciate that."
"No problem," Bill said rather grimly.
"Speaking of that," Heero interrupted. "We should be moving on. Sooner or later, they'll find us and I'd just as soon we weren't here when they do."
"Oh, surely not yet!" Beth was appalled, looking over at Duo. "He's not recovered!"
The American grinned. "I'm fine, Beth, really. I'm tougher than I look."
Heero peered suspiciously at Duo. The other young man was still pale and his cough lingered, although it was much better than it had been. Reluctantly, he was forced to agree with their hostess.
"You think you're tougher than you look," Heero said, "and you don't look all that tough. Beth is right."
"Thank you, Heero Yuy," muttered Duo with a look of mock ire.
Beth laughed. She bent a smile of approval on Heero. "Good man," she said. "Now if you could only convince him to stay in bed."
Duo opened his mouth to say something, colored furiously, and popped the last crumbs of his potato chips into his mouth. Heero's lips twitched.
"I'll see what I can do," he promised.
"I don't wanna stay in bed," Duo snarled. "Damn it! You're right. We should be outta here!"
Heero looked down at his rebellious lover. Duo was adorable. Half dressed, having been wrestled out of his shirt by a determined Heero, he clutched it to him now, glaring up, eyes snapping.
"Don't even try," Heero advised cooly. "You're not fit to travel. Now do what Beth tells you and rest!"
Duo made a small sound of discontent, throwing his shirt at Heero and flinging himself down into the pillows. "They don't even have a TV," he added rather churlishly. "I'm fuckin' BORED!"
"Then go home."
Duo sat up. "What?"
"You shouldn't be here, anyway. Wilder could have taken care of this infection of yours in no time. This is dangerous for you. I'll leave. You can call Trowa or Quatre after I'm gone to come get you."
"Oh, right. And it ain't dangerous for you?"
"I'm not the one whose immune system is compromised!" Heero retorted, exasperated.
"Nothin's wrong with my immune system. I got a freakin' cold, that's all!"
"That was no cold. It was damn near pneumonia." Heero paced to the window and looked out.
Duo sat up and hugged his knees to his chest. "I know what you're thinkin'," he snapped. "I ain't goin' back. If you try to sneak out, I'll follow you. I couldn't stand it -- not knowin' where you are, what you're doing."
Heero didn't look around. "Let's face it, Duo. You're slowing me down."
There was a shocked silence. Then, voice trembling, Duo said, "You're kidding, right? I can fucking keep up with you, Heero Yuy! Just try me! You are not going this alone, damn it!"
Heero rounded on him, eyes blazing. "And what if get you sick again?" he asked, voice low and shaking with emotion, "If we get caught outside again, how long will you be able to last? I can take the hardship. I'm designed for it. You, on the other hand aren't."
Duo ducked his head. He looked like he was trying to speak and couldn't. Savagely, he punched his pillow then flung himself down, pulling the blanket over him, his back to Heero.
"Leave me alone," the boy said thickly. "You're gonna ditch me? Fine. Everyone does sooner or later. It doesn't mean I have to like it, right?"
Heero took a deep breath and didn't answer.
Duo flung himself back around and sat up. "Just warn me, okay? Don't -- don't just disappear. Okay?"
Mutely, Heero nodded. Turning on his heel, he left the room and closed the door quietly and carefully behind him.
Heero fixed the transmission. It took him the rest of the afternoon to put the engine back together. Finished at last, he came into the house. He looked in on Duo, but the bedroom was dark, his boyfriend a lump in the covers, only his braid visible. Heero hesitated a moment, then slipped in for a closer look. Duo's breathing was deep and regular, but the dismaying wheeze was still there. Troubled, he went in search of their hosts.
Bill was sitting at the kitchen table, paying bills. Beth was somewhere in the house; he could hear her singing.
"Finished already?" Bill asked, startled.
"Sure. It's pretty simple, really, but your wife is correct. You need a new truck."
"Nonsense," Bill retorted. Then he leaned forward, fixing Heero with his sharp, wise eyes. "You're worried about Duo, aren't you? You're afraid he's going to get hurt."
"I know he's going to get hurt," replied Heero. "I'd like to go on alone."
"It's his choice, you know."
"Yes, but..." Heero hesitated. He liked Bill Wright. The man was kindly, practical and smart. If he hadn't looked into the heart of the dangerous, frightened youth on their doorstep that night, Duo would probably be dead. He was also a man of honor and courage. Although there was no television in the house, there was a radio. Wright knew damn well what he sheltered.
"Duo's not in the best of health," Heero said finally, keeping his voice low. "Some -- some things happened to him a couple years ago and he's never really recovered. If we have another two days like we did before we found you, he won't make it."
"And what about you?"
"Me? I'm hard to kill."
The old man's eyes softened. "I know you care about him a lot," he said quietly. "And if you decide to sneak away and leave him here, Beth and I will do everything in our power to protect him. Hell, my wife is half in love with the scamp as it is. But I think you would be foolish to cut yourself off like that. Maybe you really are synthetic, but I've been watching you, young man. I have a feeling that you need him even more than he needs you. He keeps you sane. The two of you are stronger together than apart."
The perception in that remark took Heero's breath away. "I don't matter," he said through stiff lips. "Only Duo matters."
"I imagine Duo would have something to say about that."
But Heero had made up his mind. Duo wasn't going to have anything to say about it. He watched Bill head off to his basement workshop. Beth was doing laundry. He could smell the perfume of the fabric softener.
Duo slept heavily in their bedroom. This was for the best. Heero gathered his things and let himself out the back door, running around the house and out onto the drive.
Duo was going to be furious -- and hurt. Heero regretted that absolutely, but warning Duo that he was leaving was just plain stupid. Kuso! He knew the baka, knew what the chances were that Duo would let him take off alone. Snowballs in hell -- as Duo himself would say.
He'd made it ten miles down the road when he heard cars coming -- fast. Quickly, he jumped into the bushes along the shoulder. Police! There were several squad cars and a van -- all heading back in the direction Heero had come. He stared after them, realizing in horror who they were, where they were going. Whirling around, no longer caring if he was seen, he ran with all his might back to the Wrights' house.
He was too late. Racing up the drive, he saw tire tracks everywhere and the yard was churned and muddy.
"Duo!" he shouted, yanking at the front door handle. "DUO!"
It flew open. Beth stood in the doorway. She was crying. Heero stared at her, then looked past her into the living room. He saw an armchair overturned.
"They took him!" she said. "Oh, Heero! They were looking for you! They took Duo and Bill! They said Bill was aiding and abetting!"
"I -- I don't know. The sheriff was with them. They might have gone into town..."
"Can I borrow the truck?"
"What are you going to do? Your friend has been arrested!"
"It's me they want."
"You -- you're going to turn yourself in?"
Heero smiled grimly. "Only if it comes to that," he said. "The keys?"
Duo stared down at his shackled hands and listened as the footsteps grew nearer. There were several people coming, their tread heavy and deliberate. He thought suddenly of being on trial in Sanc, of sitting in that cold, lonely cell waiting to learn his fate.
Where was Heero? Far away, Duo hoped, because if he wasn't, Duo was going to find the son of a bitch and bash his head in.
He took a deep breath and slumped back against the wall. The door rattled. A cop opened it, then stood aside to admit several more visitors. One was the lawyer who had come to Sanc. With him were two large men in suits who arranged themselves impassively on either side of the door. The cop shut it and Duo heard the clunk of the bolt being drawn, followed by the cop's footsteps moving away. He tried to swallow, sitting up straight on the steel bench and presenting a defiant face to the newcomers.
"Duo Maxwell," said the lawyer.
"Hey! It's Grayface."
"Where's our synthetic?"
"Heero ain't your synthetic."
"I have a judge's order that says he is. Now where is he?"
"I don't give a fuck about some asshole judge. Where's Bill?"
"We sent Mr. Wright home. He was very stupid to help you two. MDI may decide to press charges, but that will also depend on you. Where is Yuy?"
"I don't KNOW. He left me, okay? The fucker just took off! I don't know where he went and I don't fuckin' care!"
Grayfield's thin lips curled. "You're lying. You're his lover. Our research department assembled a full dossier on you both. Now - where is Yuy?"
Duo scowled and looked down at the floor. He never saw the blow coming. It knocked him back into the wall, splitting his lip. He saw stars. Even so, he smirked.
"Gonna beat me, huh? It won't do you any good. First -- I don't know where he is and, second, I've been kicked around by experts, so fuck you!"
Grayfield examined him narrowly for several long minutes. Then he smiled. "I see. Well, as I mentioned, we have a full dossier on you, Duo Maxwell, from the moment you were a street rat busted in L2 to the raid on the White Rose base in Bavaria. What I find especially interesting is your stay on Elion. Were they the so-called experts?"
Duo gulped and tried desperately not to let his apprehension show.
"You didn't come out of that experience very well, did you, Maxwell?" Grayfield lifted a hand and one of his companions stepped forward, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a pair of latex gloves. Duo's gut shriveled.
"You were Yamada's sex slave, his little pussy. I imagine it must have been hell."
Shit! How did they get their hands on that? It was part of the sealed trial proceedings.
Duo tried not to look at the big man towering over him. He couldn't have answered if he wanted to.
Grayfield moved away, giving the second man room to approach. The first had stripped off his suit coat and rolled up his sleeves.
"What are you gonna do?" Duo didn't want to ask, but the words tumbled out anyway. One of the men, blond and husky, reached down. Seizing Duo's collar, he hauled the boy upright. Duo kicked out, catching the bastard in his kneecap. With a howl, Blondie staggered back into Grayfield's arms. The lawyer cursed.
The goons were on him then. While Grayfield watched, they tore off Duo's clothing, fondling him roughly, pushing him up against the bench.
"You'll have to let me know if you've experienced anything like this before."
"Stop it!" Duo struggled, but they were much bigger. Blondie's mouth came savagely down on his. Panic shook the young man. Desperately he tried to pull away, but strong teeth sank into his split lip and tears filled his eyes.
No. Not this. Please, not this!
"I don't know anything!" he cried when Blondie released him. He tried to cover himself, but the men only grabbed him, pushing him to his knees, bending him face down over the bench. It was a position he knew all too well.
"Where is he?"
The ugly little cell dissolved and, for one horrific moment, Duo was back in Elion. There was a sudden, razor-edged streak of pain across his buttocks and in front of his streaming eyes appeared the long blade of a knife. The edge was red.
"You're already well marked," the lawyer's voice came to him through the rushing in his ears. He tried to look around, but a large hand pressed his face to the steel. "Let's see how many more scars we can give you."
Another cut, another sharp, bright burst of pain, another and another. Someone's hand swept over his bleeding buttocks. A gloved finger slick with his own blood pushed into him. Duo made a strangled sound, trying to swallow the pleas that rose, unbidden, in his throat.
"So -- he's going to be stubborn." Grayfield's voice held only impatience. "Fine. I'll leave you to it. Let me know when he's had enough and is ready to talk."
Duo pressed his lips together and listened to the door open and the lawyer leave. Then one of the men said something obscene and they both laughed.
On Elion, such brutality and humiliation had been visited upon Duo almost every day. He waited now, heart in his mouth, bracing himself for that unique, savage agony to which, at one time, he had become almost accustomed.
It didn't come. Instead, he heard shouting. The hand holding him in place fell away and he collapsed on elbows and knees, ass throbbing. With a crash, the door flew open.
The shot was deafening, a roar that bounced off the bare walls. Another shot followed. Duo twisted around to see Heero in the doorway, smoking pistol in his hand, face white as milk. Grayfield's goons were lifeless heaps on the floor. Duo looked up in shock and quailed at the fury in those dark blue eyes. Heero extended a hand.
Heero swore and pulled Duo to his feet. His expression was terrible to see. He had keys, unlocking the shackles. He grabbed the thug's abandoned suit coat that was lying nearby and draped it around Duo, then dragged the dazed boy from the cell. A body sprawled -- another suit. It wasn't Grayfield, unfortunately.
Blood was running down the back of Duo's legs. "Y-you came back!"
"Shut up and run."
Duo clamped his jaw on the pain and ran.
They got to the end of the corridor. Apple Falls was a small town, with a small jail. At the barred gate, now standing open, a cop was handcuffed to the bars. He shouted at them, but Heero never slowed.
Outside, the bitter cold knocked the breath from the shaken boy. He gave a little cry of dismay as the suit jacket slipped off, but Heero kept going, pulling him down the dark sidewalk and into an alley.
"Oh, my god!"
Bill was waiting there. He stripped off his long coat at once, putting it on Duo. There was a black scowl on his normally kind countenance. He shoved something at Heero.
"Here's some money and the keys to the truck. Take them and get out of here. I can get a ride back to my house."
"You'll get in trouble."
The buzzing in Duo's ears was getting louder. He was so cold. Whatever Bill responded, he didn't hear.
They were moving again. Sure enough, there was Bill's old truck parked against the curb at the opposite end of the alley. The passenger door was thrown open and Heero pushed him in. Duo slid to the floor and huddled there, feeling vaguely bad that he was getting blood all over Bill's upholstery.
Heero slid in behind the wheel and the engine roared to life. A savage slam of foot to fuel pedal and they were gone.
Zechs waited, eye simultaneously on the chronometer and the nav beacon. He'd not have put it past Wilder to decide to change the plans. Sometimes the alien showed the same disconcerting tendency to rash action that Zechs himself possessed.
The Epyon Prime handled like a dream. It skipped from one gravity-well to the next, unfathomable distances flashing past in the wink of eye. Zechs quickly became accustomed to moving in and out of FTL. The vertigo didn't go away, or the queasiness, but they were now expected, and so, easily ignored. Flash in. Flash out. At sublight, it would take thousands of years to come this far. Every time he thought about it, Zechs marveled.
Wilder's indicator suddenly signaled a full stop. Another flash, a wink in and out of reality, and Zechs beheld yet another new sky. A giant orange star lay off to port.
The Epyon Prime's sensory array was a modified version of the Typhus' with a range that covered twice the area as the original. Zechs began a sweep of the system.
At first he counted four planets and a host of large asteroids, some of the latter circling the planets, others on decaying orbits headed into the sun. The planets appeared lifeless, nothing more than massive balls of rock eternally pummeled by the asteroids.
His sweeps also picked up five distinctive readings besides Wilder -- more Typhuses. They lay just off the north pole of the fourth planet. Zechs instruments caught a sudden flare of energy. Beam cannon fire. Damn! So much for negotiations! Another explosion. Zechs hit the shield controls. The stars and planets rippled for a moment, then he was moving ahead fast..
Sweeping around the planet's curve, he came out into a relatively asteroid-free area. Sure enough, there was Wilder, returning fire, the beam glancing off an opposing Typhus' shielding. The docs had installed modified versions of the Typhus guns for the Epyon. Zechs knew his were twice again as powerful as the original.
He got off a shot before they realized he was there. The augmented strength of his beam cut through the shielding of the closest Typhus and sliced it in half. An explosion lit up space, debris hurling outward.
Do I have your attention? Zechs thought as the familiar adrenaline rush filled his veins. He fired again, and another Typhus was gone.
"ZECHS!" Fury, fear, dismay came from Wilder's Typhus. Even so, the alien didn't hesitate to take advantage of the confusion, firing and taking out a third.
One of the attacking suits was larger than the others. It spun around and Zechs found himself hurling backwards to avoid a much heavier and more powerful beam. So -- there were various grades of Typhus. Well -- it still had to match Zechs for speed.
The Epyon Prime went into a spin, arcing up, guns cutting a wide path before it, heading straight toward the remaining two Typhuses. Another beam rocked it, glancing off the shielding. Zechs laughed, dodging the next round. Then he was in close range, drawing the energy sword -- pure Earth tech, this -- and cut through the third Typhus.
"Stop! They're calling truce!"
Zechs sneered, lining up the remaining Typhus in his sights. Then he hissed, cursing, and drew back. Wilder, the fool, had darted into the line of fire.
"Please! Zechs! Wait! It's my clan's High Lord, Azrin! He wants to talk! There's a Protector transport nearby. He says to follow him."
Zechs opened his mouth, then shut it again. Energy build-up -- the readings were coming from the big Typhus.
"WILDER! GET OUT OF THERE!"
He didn't even stop to think. Zechs sent the Epyon Prime soaring so fast the lights on the console flickered. Laser fire -- or something like -- burst from the enemy mobile suit, aimed straight for Wilder's back.
Zechs fired, his beam intersecting the other's, deflecting it -- but not enough. In horror, he watched the left arm of Wilder's suit fly off and the MS go spinning out of control, heading toward the fifth planet.
Anger poured into Zechs', cold and lethal, at the treachery. He sent his MS hurtling toward the big Typhus, firing repeatedly as he went, oblivious to return fire. The Epyon shuddered, sparks flew and he heard the ventilation unit falter, then kick back in. All stimuli came at him as if from a great distance. His only focus was on taking out the Typhus that loomed in his view screen.
He fired and the end came suddenly -- a small sun bloomed where the enemy MS had been. Zechs swore and veered away to avoid the hurtling debris.
Without looking back, he streaked toward the planet and Wilder's crippled Typhus.
Heero drove west, his anger so intense that it literally hurt. He forced himself not to look over at Duo. They needed to find a place to hide, somewhere he could deal with this. Heero didn't even want to think about the possibility that he hadn't been in time to stop a rape.
Finally, after several minutes of hard driving, the sun just peeking up over the horizon, he found a back country road and an abandoned house. Driving Bill's truck into the sagging garage, he stopped and forced himself to calm. Only then did he dare look at Duo.
The boy crouched awkwardly on his knees, clinging to the seat. His white face was streaked with tears. His mouth trembled, but he said nothing.
Heero swallowed his guilt and misery. "Duo?"
There was a small, incoherent sound, but nothing more. Heero set a hand on one rigid arm. "Duo," he said, voice as soft and gentle as he could make it. "Let me look."
He helped the boy up from the floor. Laying Duo face down on the seat, he lifted the blood-soaked hem of Bill's coat. Five ugly gashes ran across Duo's buttocks, three still bleeding sluggishly. The boy remained still as Heero shifted awkwardly about, pulling open the glove box. Inside was a first-aid kit. Grimly, he used the wet towelettes to clean away as much of the blood as he could and clumsily bandaged the wounds. One was deep enough to require stitches -- damn them!
Not once did Duo say a word, even though it had to hurt.
"I'm sorry," Heero said then.
The boy's voice was thready. "God damn it! Why'd you leave?"
Heero couldn't find an answer. All the great reasons he'd used to convince himself before vanished like smoke.
"Promise me," Duo said. "Promise me you won't leave me! Not for any reason!"
"Duo..." Heero heard the hysterical edge in Duo's voice, his heart thumping.
"Don't you understand? I'm not a baby. I don't need to be coddled and protected. Have enough God-damned respect to honor that, at least!" He stopped and took a deep breath. "I mean it! Quit makin' my decisions for me. Walk out on me again, Heero Yuy, and you can just forget about coming back. Got that?"
Heero saw the febrile glitter in those eyes and worried all over again. It wasn't like Duo to go into such a panic. In his mind's eye, Heero again saw his lover on the floor of the tiny cell, naked and bleeding, hands shackled. Duo had been wearing the same look Heero had seen on Elion, when Yamada had offered him to a crowd of partygoers.
"I won't do it again. I promise."
Duo nodded then, satisfied. Carefully, Heero helped him into the back seat. Rummaging around in his bag, he found a shirt and some loose sweat-pants. It was a struggle to get Duo into them without starting his cuts to bleeding again. Afterwards, Duo lay on his belly, coat over him like a blanket, face buried in the crook of his arm. Heero fought for control, managed to achieve it, and started driving again.
The sun rose higher behind them, shone for a little while, then was swallowed by clouds. They reached Lake Michigan, that vast, fresh-water sea, and headed south, around the bottom of the lake toward Chicago. Heero stopped once to replace the truck's fuel cell. From time to time, he looked over his shoulder. Duo was curled into a small lump under the large coat, seemingly asleep. He was coughing again.
It was well after dark and they were deep in the industrial sprawl of Michigan City when he finally pulled into a small, grimy motel. He used some of the money Bill had given him for a room. Duo didn't resist when Heero helped him out of the truck and inside.
On the sagging double bed, Heero lay his lover down, carefully removing the coat and sweat-pants, closing his eyes briefly on the angry slashes under his makeshift dressings. Duo gave a little sigh, perhaps finally accepting that he was safe. Heero bent over and kissed his cheek. A small, crooked smile was his reward.
Heero said, "I ran back to the house as soon as I saw them coming, but I was too late. Beth told me they'd taken you and Bill. I'm sorry. I fucked up."
"Sure did," sighed Duo, but the smile deepened. "Guess I'll forgive you."
"Did they -- did they..."
"Nope. Talk about nick o'time." His mouth tightened briefly.
Heero bent forward then, relief nearly making him sick. He felt those cold fingers on his. "I'm going to have to leave and get some stuff to sew up those cuts."
"Oh, great. Dr. Yuy. Now I'm in real trouble." Humor glimmered in the faint voice.
Heero kissed him again, then pulled the blankets over him. "I'll be right back."
There was an all night drug-store a couple blocks away. Heero bought more bandages, disinfectant and a needle and thread. When he returned, Duo hadn't moved, but he was still awake, watching as Heero approached the bed with his plastic bags.
"Take this," Heero said, handing Duo a couple cough tablets. "I couldn't get anything stronger on such short notice."
"S'okay." Duo obediently swallowed the pills and lay his head back down. He watched Heero from eyes in which purple was swallowed by black. Heero sank down beside him and stroked the other boy's long hair. The gentle rhythm of his touch soothed his wounded lover and Duo's slim body gradually relaxed. Blue-veined eyelids drooped heavily.
Duo woke again in a hurry when Heero started cleaning and treating the gashes. Even so, the boy made no sound beyond an occasional gasp. Afterwards, Heero climbed into bed beside him. He rolled Duo carefully onto his side and smiled a little when the boy's arms came around him.
"Thanks," whispered Duo. The gratitude in that voice twisted the knife of guilt a little deeper in Heero's heart.
Duo fell asleep, but Heero lay awake. No more leaving Duo. He'd been stupid to think that the bastards wouldn't use his lover to get to him.
Heero turned on the television. It was the first time since they'd left New Port City that he'd had a chance to watch it. With Duo a warm, solid presence at his side, he stared unseeing at the screen. After awhile he dozed, only to wake at the sound of a familiar voice.
The late news was on. Heero lifted his head in astonishment. He recognized the scene a moment later -- Apple Falls! Reporters were clustered around the steps of the police station, microphones and cameras aimed at a single individual -- Bill Wright!
"... lies," the old man was saying angrily. "Those boys don't want any trouble! For years I fought in the military for Earth, for freedom and for justice. I cannot tell you how disgusted I am by corporations who would rob a man of his rights for no other reason than because a clever scientist managed to create him in a laboratory!"
"What about the injured cop?" someone yelled.
"He wasn't injured! Only handcuffed," retorted Bill. "The supposed "synthetic" risked his life to save his friend from MDI's goons. If that's not evidence of humanity, I don't know what is!"
"What goons?" someone else shouted.
The picture switched and Heero gritted his teeth. Grayfield looked somberly into the camera. He appeared to be standing across the street. The man denied meaning any harm to anyone.
"The synthetic is very valuable to us," the lawyer said, "and MDI certainly has no intention of mistreating it. However, people must understand that, for all its appearance, the Brannigan Synth is not human. It is a construct that was developed to perform high-risk jobs, such as those involved in colonization. Last year, for instance, four hundred construction workers were killed on Eo. That's four hundred human beings who won't be going home, won't be hugging their children or making love to their wives. If the Synthetics had been in place and doing those jobs, human lives would have been spared."
"Maybe you should be implementing mandated safety procedures!" someone hollered.
Grayfield looked annoyed and started attesting to MDI's long history of commitment to worker safety. Heero hissed in disgust, having seen the truth buried in their databases. There was some comfort in hearing the antagonistic tone of the reporters.
"What about this claim that MDI agents were torturing the human boy -- Maxwell?"
"Ridiculous. Other than myself, there are no MDI agents in Apple Falls," Grayfield lied brazenly. "And I didn't lay hands on the young man. Just ask the sheriff. Perhaps Mr. Wright has his own agenda here."
The sheriff, standing beside Grayfield, looked decidedly uncomfortable. Heero turned off the television.
Morning came. Duo was better, although he admitted to being very sore. Even so, he was cheerful, making smart remarks when Heero checked and re-bandaged the cuts.
"You could kiss 'em and make 'em better," he said at one point, sly. For the first time in a while, Heero smiled -- and obliged. The sight of Duo lying naked on the bed before him had its usual effect, but he forced himself not to go there, afraid that Duo's brush with Grayfield might have resurrected old ghosts.
They left the motel and got back into the truck. Soon the skyline of Chicago rose before them and a labyrinth of highways led them into the heart of the town. Heero drove around until they found the university. He pulled the truck into a parking lot and turned it off. Their funds were limited. Spending them on a room would deplete them quickly.
"Call Quatre," Duo said. "Maybe the guys can lend us some money."
"MDI almost certainly has them under surveillance."
"We could steal something. Doesn't MDI have offices around there somewhere?"
Heero gave Duo a sardonic smile. "Old habits die hard?"
"Hey! It's not a habit. I haven't stolen anything since -- since Elion."
"Hn." Heero thought about it. "We need a computer."
"How about the university library?" Duo pointed to a large, imposing building.
"They have locks on their machines."
"Oh, puhleeze. You could hack through those easier than breathin'."
Heero thought some more. "Okay."
They parked the truck on a side street and went inside where they blended easily with the other young men and women that crowded the place. Still limping slightly, Duo strolled over to the help desk at the front of the public computer room and distracted the girl seated there by flirting while Heero got out into the net.
Heero found the MDI system, hacked in swiftly to their financial operations department and had some luckless manager transfer money to a cash machine. He wanted to stay and snoop around, but remembered all too well that their security had overridden his sniffers once before. So he logged out at once. He walked swiftly to Duo, who was leaning over the desk and telling the starry-eyed girl there that he absolutely loved romantic movies.
"We're going," growled Heero.
The girl paled at the look he directed at her. Duo smiled apologetically. "Sorry," he said. "My friend's in therapy -- working on his interpersonal skills."
She giggled nervously as Heero dragged Duo away.
"Do you really like romantic movies?" Heero asked when they stood outside the library among a horde of students coming and going from classes.
"Me? Nah." Duo grinned. "Girls like 'em, though. Where's this money machine?"
They found it without too much trouble. Heero punched in the pass code. The machine helpfully spit out a handful of ten-credit chips. Duo's eyes got very round. Heero divided the credits between them.
"How 'bout food?" Duo asked. "I'm starving."
"You're always starving," Heero scoffed, but he looked up and down the street. There was a MacDonald's halfway up the block. "How about there?" he asked.
In line at the hamburger place, Duo was busy paying for several big bags of food when Heero noticed some young people staring at them.
"I think we've been recognized."
Duo nodded and handed Heero a bag. Making no effort to look in that direction, he walked out, Heero right behind him.
"They're following," Heero said tightly.
"What do they look like?"
"Hmmm." Duo slowed to let Heero catch up. "Where to?"
"Let's get back to the truck," he said.
"Too late," said Duo then.
Two boys and a girl were walking quickly toward them. Every muscle in Heero's body tightened as his instinct for defense jacked into high gear.
"Excuse me," said the girl, looking from one to the other. She was clearly excited, as were her two male companions. "But aren't you that guy they're saying is an android...?"
"No," Heero said and started walking again.
"Wait! We want to help!"
Heero might have kept going, but Duo chose that moment to break into a fit of coughing. By the time it was over, all three students were there, grouped around them.
"Why?" Heero asked, knowing his only other choice was to knock them down.
"Because it isn't right," said one of the boys indignantly. Then, in the same breath, "Shit! Is it true?"
Muttering something in Japanese, Heero stared at them, wondering if he could lure the three into an alley and take care of the problem that way.
"I'm a reporter," the girl said eagerly, "for the campus newspaper. I'd love to interview you -- get your story out there."
"Yeah!" added one of the boys, a tall, stocky youth with short red hair. "The fucking corporations are gettin' away with murder, goddamn it! They need to be exposed every chance we can get."
"Sure," Duo said before Heero could turn them down. "We'll do it. You got someplace where we can stay tonight?"
It was if Duo had handed the trio a million credits. Their faces lit up. Conspiratorial gleams appeared in three pairs of eyes.
"My apartment's not far," said the red-headed boy. "There's just me and Stu here, so you'd be safe."
"Duo," whispered Heero, appalled. "Have you lost your mind?"
"Just go with it, Hee-chan," was Duo's retort.