Wildflower : Reflections
by Becca Abbott

Chapter 13

"What the hell were you thinking?"

Heero stood silently in front of J, not moving a muscle. He thought about all the times in the past when he'd been in this same spot, sometimes to be praised, other times not. A chill ran up his spine. "You weren't, were you? It's Lowe, the asshole! Him and his damned "follow your feelings!'" J sat behind the desk in the library, scowling at his protégé. "I'd expected better."

"Why? Was my reaction too human for you?"

J reached up and stroked his moustache. Lamplight reflected off the lenses of his goggles, turning them to bright gold coins. To Heero's astonishment, he smiled. "Sit down."

"I'm not sorry I took him."

"Sit down, Heero."

Heero sat.

"Do you think MDI intended harm to the child?"

Heero remembered the small nursery. It had been painted in bright, primary colors. There had been mobiles over the crib, toys in the playpen nearby. When he'd picked up the baby, he'd smelled perfume, as if the nurses had held Odin often.

"Didn't it occur to you to leave everything untouched and deal with it later, after some planning? There was a time when, even if you were angry, you would have automatically considered your actions in relation to your mission. Exactly what have you accomplished?"

Heero gritted his teeth and stared woodenly back. "Shall I tell you?" went on the old man, inexorable, "You've created a great deal of disturbance and all without achieving your original objective. If this was the war, I'd send you back for retraining."

J was right and, for some reason, perversely, it only made Heero angrier and more resentful. Damn J! He hadn't been there, hadn't seen those tanks and the things growing in them.

"Was I like them?" he asked through stiff lips. "Those -- those things?"

He sensed a sudden stillness in J. The old man leaned forward, elbows on the desk, metal claw tapping softly on the polished wood. Heero met the opaque stare without flinching. "When did I look -- normal?" he asked.

"After about 48 days."

The anger grew. "Didn't it bother you that you were designing slaves?"

"We weren't designing slaves. We were designing machinery, farm equipment."

"That just happened to look human!"

J was silent

"Odin is not going to be the first of a slave race," said Heero.

"Odin, eh?" J fell back in his chair. He looked as if he might speak, then slowly, reluctantly, he grinned. "I wonder what Lowe would have thought of that?"

Heero gritted his teeth. The old man shook his head. "You did what you did. We'll deal with things as they happen, that's all. I'm here to run a few preliminary tests on the new synth -- on Odin. Seems a shame to waste such an opportunity, don't you think?"

"You're really not going to tell me to take him back?"

"No."

"The tests won't hurt him, will they?"

There was a look on J's face Heero had never seen before. When the old man spoke again, his voice was oddly gentle. "You can be there, if you want."

Heero nodded shortly.

"Well, then," Dr. J said, standing up. The scientist walked around the desk and to Heero's astonishment, put an arm around his shoulders. "Let's go. You can introduce me to my old friend's namesake."


Heero stood over Odin's crib, looking down at the sleeping baby. Absently, he rubbed his arm where J had drawn blood for testing. There was a bit of gauze on Odin's plump right arm in exactly the same place.

It made perfect sense that J should get blood samples, but Odin's cry of fright and pain had gone straight through him. The crying had stopped after Heero picked him up. He'd held Odin for the rest of the tests.

"I'm done for now," said J, getting up from the desk on the other side of the nursery. He looked narrowly at Heero. Heero looked away, back of his neck prickling. When he had been small, he'd been sure J could read his mind. It was a belief he'd never really been able to shake, even after he'd grown and known such things were impossible.

"You've grown attached to the tyke, haven't you?"

It was hard to know what J thought of that. The goggles gave nothing away. "Duo likes him."

There was a short laugh from the old man.

"I - I do, too," admitted Heero. J nodded. "Is he really like I was?"

"Very much."

"He smiles a lot."

"Yes. I noticed that." J's voice turned sad. Then he straightened and turned away, waving his metal hand. "We're done for now. Take a break. I'd like to do a few more tests tomorrow morning, so don't make plans."


Heero found Duo asleep in their room, the television on full blast, a newsman droning on about manufacturing subsidies. Heero stood over him, heart full at the sight of that loose-limbed form sprawled across the covers.

"Hey," he said, leaning over and bouncing the mattress. "Duo!"

Duo's lashes fluttered and his eyes opened. Once, he would have come awake with a start and a look of wildness in his eyes. Now he just stared at Heero a moment, then grinned lazily. Sitting up, he ran a hand through tousled bangs, looking Heero over.

"Turn around."

Heero was mystified but did as he was told.

"Your ass is still all there."

"Why wouldn't...oh."

Duo ducked a half-hearted swing. Heero dropped to the bed beside him. "It wasn't bad. There's nothing he said to me I didn't deserve."

"Did he try to tell you to return Odin?"

"No."

"Good. So, where the hell have you been all afternoon?"

"Running tests on Odin with J."

"Oh, yeah? What kind of tests?"

"He took some blood and we ran them through some preliminary screens. Heart rate, respiration, that kind of stuff.."

"Find anything interesting?"

"Maybe."

Duo smacked his forehead, then leveled a look of exasperation on Heero. "Well?"

"Some stuff in the genetic mapping. J thinks it might just be artifacts because Sally's equipment isn't really meant for anything more than basic medical diagnosis."

"And it took you all afternoon?"

"Sorry."

"Right. Sorry. You, Odin, Sally, Wufei -- everyone had something to do but me."

"Chang? What was he doing?"

"Sniffin' around Kushrenada's clone."

"What?"

"You heard me. I went to find Wufei, to make sure he'd go to bat for us if J started throwin' his weight around, and I found 'em out doin' martial arts together. You'd think I'd walked in on them fucking, the glares I got."

"You must be mistaken. Wufei?"

Duo shrugged. "Anyway, are you done or does the old fart have more tests?"

"The old fart has more tests."

"Why? What the hell are you guys doin' to the poor little guy?"

"I told you. The first tests had strange results; he wants to run them again."

"Great. So that means you'll be busy for another few hours." Annoyed, Duo rolled off the bed and began pacing around the room. "Maybe I'll go out to the bar and get drunk."

"You know we shouldn't leave the section, remember? We're hiding."

"I'll wear a disguise," retorted Duo, sulky.

A warm feeling bubbled up in Heero. There were a number of ways he could handle this, and looking at the bored, sexy man beside him, he knew exactly which one he wanted to use. He leaned close. "Is there any way I can persuade you to stay here and be patient?"

"You could wear that dress ag....ack!"

"Pervert." Heero pushed Duo back onto the bed. "No dress."

Duo opened his mouth to object, but Heero set about methodically unbuttoning Duo's shirt. "Don't worry. We're going to do the testing in the morning. Tonight, I'm all yours."

Sitting up, Duo grinned at him. "That's more like it!"

Heero reached around to grab the long braid. Whisking off the tie, he began to unravel it. The feel of soft, bright hair slipping through his fingers made him smile. He slipped off the shirt and spread the silky mass across Duo's bare shoulders. Duo's grin wobbled a bit and his already high color deepened.

"Heero..."

"Shhh. I love looking at you."

"Me? Heh. You're the gorgeous one. Them eyes of yours..."

Heero reached out and set a finger against Duo's lips. Duo laughed shakily, acutely self-conscious.

"I think you look great." Heero said. "Why does it bother you?"

"Well -- 'cuz -- I mean -- my nose is too short, I got about a billion scars..."

"You are the most beautiful person I've ever seen," said Heero flatly. "Inside and out." He slid from the bed and held out his hand. After a second, bewildered, Duo took it and was pulled after him. Heero led him across the room to a tall, gilt-edged mirror. Setting Duo squarely in front of it, Heero said, "Look."

"Jeez, Heero..." Duo's laugh trailed away; his eyes met Heero's in the mirror.

Heero let his hands slide across Duo's back, the skin smooth and warm, all that hair tumbling around Duo's shoulders. Heero put his mouth against the curve of one shoulder, tasting his lover's salty-sweetness, breathing in the scent of him. He left kisses along Duo's shoulder, watching him in the mirror through lowered eyelashes the whole time. Sweeping aside the chestnut mane, he licked and kissed his way up the nape of Duo's neck. Duo stared into the mirror, mesmerized.

"You asked me the other night why I love you," Heero whispered. "This is another reason. Because you look like this."

Wrapping arms around him, Heero caressed Duo's chest, teasing his nipples, sliding his fingers under the waistband of the other man's jeans. "Beautiful," whispered Heero. "See what I see, Duo."

Duo wet his lips; his chest rose and fell quickly. He watched, rapt, as Heero unzipped him, pulling his jeans and briefs down around his hips. Sliding a cupped hand up the length of that long, thick cock, Heero caressed its sensitive head.

"Maybe we should take this to the bed," Duo suggested, voice low and unsteady.

"No." Heero sank to one knee, helping Duo step out of his clothes. Then he was up again, getting rid of his own. Hands resting lightly on his lover's hips, he held Duo squarely in front of the mirror. "Stay," he said. "I'll be right back."

Duo stayed. When Heero returned, he was still there, head tilted, pensive, fingertips tracing the line of an old scar. Heero froze, watching those fine, mercurial features. Then Duo saw him and the moment was gone. He smiled into the mirror, body shifting saucily, fanning the flames already heating Heero's blood, daring him to take it further.

Heero took the dare, pulling Duo hard against him, pushing a knee between those long legs, forcing them apart. Duo's eyes were wide and wild. He shivered when Heero slid a slick finger up into him. Heero inserted another finger and he gasped.

Moving closer, stretching, prodding, Heero put his mouth against Duo's ear. "You're going to watch me fuck you," he whispered. Duo swallowed hard. He was covered with gooseflesh. Helplessly, his hands gripped his cock.

He groaned when Heero finally took him, staring through glazed, half-closed eyes at the image of himself impaled on his lover's cock, his own sex caught firmly in Heero's callused fist. Mine, Heero thought fiercely, exultantly. Only mine.

Climax came like an explosion of suns, buckling their knees and leaving them weak and sweaty on the floor. Heero finally found the strength to roll over, to lay his hand over Duo's.

"I wish we could stay here forever," said Duo finally, voice faint and breathless.

"Me, too."

"Fuckin' MDI."

"It's going to be all right."

Duo grinned. "Since when did you become such an optimist?"

Heero rolled over and sat up. "Since you exploded into my life, Maxwell. As long as we're together, there's nothing that will defeat us."

Damn, but he really, really loved that smile.


Chapter 14

Treize lay flat on his bed, chin propped on his fists, looking at the screen of his laptop. Mariameia hadn't cut him off from the family database yet, or perhaps she'd merely forgotten; whatever the reason, he had been able to pull up the old Oz files on the Gundam pilots. He stared now at the younger face of the man who he had come to think of as his friend. Chang Wufei. It was a prison photo. Such pictures were just about the only visual records available of the pilots during the war.

For the first Treize, the young rebels had been both a headache and a delight. "The Peacecraft bitch has a watchdog," the General had written in one of his journals. "Wing Zero's psychotic beauty. My Lady has video of him from his detention cell. Such fierce eyes. What would it be like to feel that gaze upon me? Would it go through my very soul, purifying all the rot as it passes? Somehow, I know that before all is done, I will have the opportunity to find out."

He'd been talking about Heero Yuy, who now lived only a few hundred yards away. Treize caught glimpses of Yuy now and then around the estate, usually in the company of Maxwell. Then there was Wufei. Lifting himself onto one elbow, Treize quickly tapped in a code. Another journal, another date:

"His face and form persist in my memory. I sit at meetings, discussing tactics, while my mind wanders to a youthful, haughty gaze and features as delicate as a girl's. But, ah, there is little of the feminine in that young dragon. He all but breathed fire at me for daring to spare his life! How irresistible! I must see him again!"

Treize shut down his computer and rolled over, staring up at the ceiling. On Chang Wufei, he could agree with his forerunner absolutely. These past weeks had been like no others in his life. Learning the way of the warrior, as Wufei put it, had been exhausting and exhilarating.

While an adolescent, the General had already learned several martial arts, but although White Rose had forced those memories on him, Treize's body didn't share the knowledge. Wufei's tutoring helped make the connection and he was learning quickly -- very quickly, according to Wufei. Even now, alone in his room, remembering Wufei's astonishment and approval warmed him.

Suddenly restless, Treize rolled out of bed. Clad only in pajama bottoms, he made his way through the silent cottage, letting himself out the front door. The holographic sky showed a moon just past full. Barefoot, he walked across the lawn toward the ornamental pond. Taking a seat on a stone bench beside it, he stared into the dark water. He saw again Wufei's narrow face, the black eyes, the delicate features.

That morning, as they had gone through the fencing exercises together, Treize had become aware of Wufei in a way that unnerved him. Seeing the grace and speed of that lithe form, the small smile of excitement and exhilaration that had hovered on Wufei's lips, a hunger had seized Treize. What would it be like to make love to him? What would it be like to touch the bronze skin, to see those proud eyes grow soft with desire?

Had he been alive, the first Treize would have bedded the beautiful young man by now. Never mind that Wufei Chang had tried to kill him, that they had been enemies; the first Treize would have found that all the more exciting. War and sex. Even as a youth, the General had craved them both.

Maybe Onogro was right; the Kushrenada line was inherently dangerous. Maybe they were absolutely correct to bind him with every possible restriction. Treize could feel the strong tug each time he and Wufei stepped out onto the fighting floor together.

Suddenly, Treize realized something. He hadn't thought about Damon in days.

"Aren't you cold?"

Chang!

"Not really," Treize managed steadily enough. "Out for a walk?"

Wufei settled down beside him. Treize deliberately looked back at the water. He was very much aware of the slim body, however, and the way Wufei's hair fell so straight and silky-black across his shoulders.

"Do you want power?" the pilot asked suddenly.

"Yes," Treize answered without hesitation.

"Why?"

Treize laughed. "Because I have none, of course. It was why he wanted it, too."

"You know things like that?"

"In a way. I know the things that happened to him when he was a boy. I know how angry he was, how badly he wanted to remake the world."

In the pond, a fish rose to the surface, sending little ripples across the shining surface.

"Are you glad he's dead?" asked Treize.

Wufei stiffened and, for a moment, Treize was afraid he'd gone over the line. But the other man only leaned forward, elbows on his knees, head down. He clenched his fists. "No," he said finally. "No, I'm not."

"He was responsible for untold death and suffering. The people hated him so much the UESN is afraid even to let them know we exist."

"That's not why your existence is a secret," replied Wufei. "Not really. It's the people who loved Treize, who were fanatically devoted to his cause, that the UESN fears. And -- other reasons..."

"The murders," agreed Treize. "The damaged clones of Milliardo and Relena. Milliardo told us about them in the hospital. But they're dead and the rest of us are all right. The doctors said so."

Wufei opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked away.

"If Treize, the first Treize, was alive today, do you think you would be friends?" persisted Treize.

"I think it would be possible."

For some reason, Treize's heart began to beat faster. He looked down at his companion who frowned thoughtfully into the silver pond. It would be so easy to grab a handful of that long, black hair, to pull Wufei's head back, to kiss his mouth, his throat.

Wufei looked around at him and Treize could not breathe. Of its own accord, his hand lifted. He wanted nothing more than to feel that smooth, tanned cheek under his fingers. Wufei's eyes were enormous, luminous in the moonlight; it seemed that he, too, was holding his breath.

Common sense returned in a cold flood. Treize's hand fell and he looked away. After a moment, he felt Wufei rise, heard the other man's murmured goodnight. Out in the pond, the fish jumped again.

The Dragon belonged to the first Treize, the warrior king who had set the universe ablaze. This Treize, the clone thought sadly, would have Chang only on the white pages of his sketchbook.


"J and I are going to the moon tomorrow," Heero announced the next day.

"What? What for?"

"He wants to run the tests through some of their equipment."

"Fine. Let 'im. Why are you goin'?"

"The other docs are there, too. I'll be bringing them back here, along with some sort of cargo J wants stored here.."

"What sort of cargo?"

But Heero only shook his head, having no idea.

"Did ya ask?"

"No."

Duo shook his head. "Why don't you ever ask, for chrissake! This ain't the war! You don't work for J anymore!"

Heero scowled and a stubborn look descended over those handsome features. "I'm the best pilot available," he reminded Duo.

"There's Wufei..."

"Wufei's leave is almost over. He's going back to Eo soon. Besides, I'm better than Chang."

Duo glowered right back at him. It was the truth, damn it, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

"How long will you be gone?" Duo asked finally.

Heero shrugged. "Just a couple of days."

"All right. I think it sucks, but all right."


Chapter 15

Maybe, thought Wufei, he should go back to Io a day or two early. Surely his restlessness was a natural effect of being confined to this small, if luxurious, section of colony? He insisted to himself that he was only bored, that he missed test flying the T-Gundams.

So why was it that he thought of none of these things? Why was it that his mind kept circling over and over to the other night -- to that moment when he'd been frozen in Loki's moonlight, certain he was going to be kissed by the clone of Treize Kushrenada? Most disconcerting of all, why did he grow so warm and his heart beat so fast when he remembered it?

It's not the real Treize, Wufei told himself fiercely as he watched the handsome redhead go through his fencing exercises. Treize is dead. This man is a copy and a flawed one, at that.

And yet, who was to say whether it was the copy or the original who had been flawed? Was it the man who had been responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands, who had destroyed cities, torn apart lives? Or was it the man who liked to paint, to discuss philosophy and fence?

"Are you all right, Chang?" The cool voice broke apart his preoccupation. Wufei started. Treize was looking at him with a puzzled smile, the tip of his fencing foil tapping lightly against his ankle.

"I'm sorry," Wufei replied with a stiff little bow. "My attention wandered. Please. Go through it again."

Treize sighed, but walked back across the polished wood and assumed his beginning stance once more. Light poured through the tall windows that lined the ballroom, setting his long, red-gold hair afire. His posture was perfect, elegant and relaxed. Those distinctive eyebrows were drawn together in a frown of concentration. The tilt of his wrist was precise and the angle of his hip...

Something inside Wufei twisted around and around, making him weak-kneed, making him think thoughts he had no business thinking.

"You're heart's not in it, Chang. Maybe we should do this tomorrow."

"Maybe you're right," agreed Wufei. "Tomorrow then." He nodded and practically ran from the room. Reaching the safety of the study, he let go of his control, ramming his fist into the wall with a shouted curse. The pain lanced up his arm, making him hiss, jerking his mind for a heavenly instant from what he absolutely was not thinking!

Fool! Have you lost your mind?

Cradling his bruised fist against his chest, Wufei went to the desk and sat down. Desperate for something to do, anything to take his mind off Treize, he opened his computer. Une had given him files of old, unsolved cases to look at while he was on leave from the Preventers; he might as well do so.

A half hour later, he was still staring at the same file without a clue of what it said. A knock on the door made him start. "Come in," he called before thinking.

It was Treize. He had changed from his exercise clothes to the same thing he'd worn when Wufei had first seen him, slacks and an oversized sweater.

"What's the matter, Wufei?"

"Nothing," Wufei said automatically.

"It's not like you to lie," came that soft, merciless voice. "It's him, isn't it? In the end, you just can't get past the original Treize, can you?"

The truth of it stuck the denial in Wufei's throat. Silence lay heavy between them.

"I'm sorry. I would have liked to be your friend."

Wufei said nothing. Treize's handsome, familiar face was completely still.

"Under the circumstances, it would probably be better to discontinue the lessons. It was a bad idea anyway. What we were doing was illegal and, in the end, it was just making me more like him. I never ever want to be like him!"

The last few words shook as Treize lost the iron grip on his composure. He caught his breath and managed a choppy little nod. "Thank you for all your hard work." And he was gone, leaving Wufei staring at the empty doorway.


With Heero gone, Duo had little to do. He hung around with Odin, the two of them swimming or watching TV. They went on walks around the estate, Odin riding in a back-carrier, Duo's braid in one hand, his rattle in the other, babbling away to the back of Duo's head.

"You sure you're not my clone?" Duo laughed at one point. "Heero never talks as much as you."

The Peacecraft's private section was a little over a half mile square, beautifully landscaped. There were small hills, grottos, ponds and streams. Copses of trees stood artfully here and there.

Duo and Odin decided to take a walk up by the fake ruins. Duo loved the ruins. "It's the ultimate rich person's thing," he told Odin, spreading out a blanket on the grassy hilltop. Carefully he shrugged out of the backpack. "You know you have too much money when you deliberately build a place that's already wrecked. Ouch! Leggo of my braid!"

The cook had given them a picnic basket. Duo sat Odin on the blanket and poked through it while Odin watched, rattle in his mouth.

"Grapes!"

"Da!" approved Odin, flinging the rattle away. He and Duo sat contentedly among the tumbled, moss-covered stones, munching grapes and surveying their surroundings.

The ruins were at the section's highest point. From here, the main house was visible, surrounded by its full, miniature oaks. He saw the guest cottages scattered about, and further in the distance, the long, low apartment building for the estate's workers. The stream that ran throughout the section started here, too; he could hear it burbling somewhere nearby.

Growing up in a place like this must have been something else, Duo decided. Never having to worry about where your next meal was coming from, or whether you'd have a safe place to sleep that night -- what sort of difference would that have made in his life?

"It's a crazy world," sighed Duo.

"Da!"

"Can you say crazy? Kray-zee?"

"Do-Doh!"

"Very funny."

The sun-lamps were on high and the breeze sluggish. Stuffed full of lunch, Odin fell asleep. Duo stretched out beside the baby, folding his arms behind his head. Closing his eyes, he let the bright light warm his face. It wasn't like Earth, but it still felt good.

He started awake some time later. The shadow of the ruined wall fell over the blanket. Odin was nowhere to be seen. Shit! Shitshitshitshit!

"Odin!" Heart in his mouth, Duo began hunting through the ruins. He found the stream, bubbling out of a pipe artfully concealed in a tumble of rocks. No Odin. "ODIN!"

Back and forth down the hillside he zigzagged, growing more frantic by the minute. "Odin!"

At the bottom of the hill, the stream widened into a pond and Duo's heart was beating so hard it was all but strangling him. He burst out of some underbrush and onto a low bluff overlooking the water.

"DA!"

Relief made him collapse to the grass. Odin's wide grin glowed back at him. The baby was covered with dirt, especially his hands and knees, twigs and bits of leaf in his tousled brown hair. There was a suspicious amount of dirt around his mouth, too.

"Having trouble keeping track of this young man, Mr. Maxwell?"

Treize Kushrenada, in jeans and tank top, sat beside Odin. He had a sketchbook on his knee which he quickly shut. Odin also had a sketchbook. The infant was happily engaged in making jagged lines of bright purple all over the paper and himself.

Duo opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

"He came crawling out of the bushes," Treize offered finally. "He seemed to be enjoying himself... Are you all right, Mr. Maxwell?"

"D-Duo. C-call me Duo." Duo got up and, on wobbly legs, came to join them.

"Do-Doh!" demanded Odin with an imperious, if spastic, wave toward the sketchbook.

"A fuckin' masterpiece." Duo agreed dazedly. Then he looked over at Treize. "Jesus. Thanks, man! I owe ya!" He stuck out his hand. Treize stared at it a moment, then took it. Duo pumped it enthusiastically.

He turned back to the little traveler. "And when did you learn to crawl, you son of a bitch? You scared the shit out of me!"

"Da!" Maybe it was Duo's imagination, but that sure looked like Heero's smug grin.

"Mrs. Kline's gonna kick my ass. Look at your overalls!"

Treize chuckled. Odin dropped his chalk and crawled over to Duo, getting up into his lap. Duo hugged him, still shaky. To cover it, he looked again at Treize. "So whatcha drawin'? Doin' a picture of the pond?"

Treize shrugged, but color suddenly appeared along his high cheekbones. "Actually," he said, "I'm more of a portrait artist. I like faces."

"Can I see?"

"Oh, they're not very good..."

"So? They're probably a lot better than I could do."

The drawings were really good. Duo's eyes widened as he turned the pages, occasionally lifting the book out of Odin's reach. There were a lot of pictures of Damon, Zechs' clone. Treize had done a few of Regina, too. Seeing that face smiling back at him sent a shiver through Duo. Most people thought Relena's murderer was dead, including the murderer herself, and, in a way she was. Zechs had spent a fortune to repair the damage White Rose had inflicted upon her. Regina had no memory of her first "life," no memory of being horribly burned or of killing Relena.

Duo quickly turned the page past her pretty face and came upon several pictures of Wufei. Treize had caught the other Gundam pilot with devastating accuracy, the pride, the elegance, the loneliness. He stared in amazed admiration. "This is incredible," he said finally, looking up. His next words died, unspoken. Treize was looking at the picture, too, and the expression on his face said more than words.

Christ, thought Duo in horrified sympathy. He's got it bad for Chang!

"Um, thanks." Treize seemed to give himself a little shake. He smiled and took back the book, getting quickly to his feet. "Good luck keeping Odin out of trouble."

Duo stared after him as Treize strode off through the woods and out of sight. "Damn, Odin!" He shook his head. "Who needs TV with all this shit goin' on?"


Chapter16

Wufei saw the giant MDI research complex as their shuttle came in over the barren mountains of Io. It dominated the lunar plain, a wheel of envirodomes and long, plazsteel-encased train-corridors. The Hub formed the wheel's center, the massive dome housing nearly a thousand administrative, executive and executive staff. Some distance away were the research clusters, nine groups of smaller domes, each group connected to the Hub by its own cross-plain corridor.

Access to the complex was tightly controlled. Small, sleek fighters patrolled the skies over the plain. As they approached the Hub, Wufei got the signal from Port Admin to surrender control of his ship. He did so, sitting back as their computers began to adjust their approach..

"Are you sure you're all right?"

He started. In the co-pilot's seat, Sally was looking at him, a small crease between her brows.

"I'm fine."

She shook her head, but didn't push it. "I hope Duo doesn't have any trouble with Odin."

'He seems to know what he's doing." Wufei had a brief image of Duo, Odin under his arm like a sack of rice, striding down a corridor in Zechs' mansion, the child squealing ecstatically.

"Mrs. Kline is there," Sally muttered to herself.

"You don't think Duo is capable of providing adequate care for the infant?"

"He's very good," she replied, but Wufei could see doubt in her honest face.

"Is it because he's a man?" he needled gently.

She gave him a sour look and he chuckled.

Getting back into the complex was always a time-consuming process, a succession of inspections and interviews, of long waits in offices. It was one of the reasons people rarely left. Wufei's interviews lasted longer than usual, having previously disappeared without authorization of any kind. MDI was especially anxious to know his point of origin so he glibly lied, claiming that he'd been on Esheng, a small colony close to Loki. He flatly disavowed having spoken to Heero or having any knowledge of Heero's whereabouts. When he asked why they wanted to know, he got evasions.

Sally sailed through her own interviews and met him afterwards at a small coffee stand just outside the port. They went together to the train terminal and, after another lengthy delay while Wufei's reinstated ID was double-checked, caught the #9 train to the T-Gundam cluster.

They were the train's only passengers. Sally pulled out her phone and began talking quietly to someone. Wufei stared at the drab walls and empty seats, but he didn't see them. Treize's clone had never been off Earth before going to Loki. Wufei had a sudden memory of that day, of that eerily familiar face alight with the completely unfamiliar expression of awe. His heart twinged. He wondered what Treize would think of Io, of Gundams.

He hadn't even left a brief note, the barest courtesy.

"We have a welcome party," Sally said, pocketing her phone.

Wufei scowled.

"A good one," she qualified and smiled.

Each cluster had a hub of its own, the Commons, a large dome given over to recreational facilities, the main dining room and medical clinic. Surrounding the Commons were residential domes, laboratory domes, domes for offices, hydroponics, test chambers and, in the case of the T-Gundam project, a small space port with an adjoining hangar where the ten T-Gundams were stored.

The train came straight to the Commons and it was there that he and Sally were met by Quatre, Trowa and Hilde. He suffered through Hilde's exuberant hug and went with them to their usual coffee stand on the Commons' second tier. There, amid a profusion of giant potted plants, Wufei and Sally were eagerly pumped for information on Heero.

He gave them the general outline of the situation, but neither he nor Sally mentioned Heero's hiding place. Unsurprisingly, the news of MDI's treachery outraged them.

"I can't wait for the project to be finished," Hilde announced indignantly, "so we don't have to work for those kinds of people anymore."

"What makes you think we'll be free of MDI?" asked Quatre. "They're funding the project, remember?"

"Then you fund it, Quatre!" she exclaimed. "You're rich, aren't you?"

Wufei snorted and Quatre grinned. "Yes," he agreed, "but most of my free capital is tied up in reconstruction projects around the Sphere. It's the same with Zechs -- it's why we didn't fund it in the first place. Maybe it was a mistake, but..."

"No!" Hilde, looking contrite, shook her head so hard her short hair flew. "You're right. Helping people put their lives together important, too."

"We just have to stay alert," Sally said, "and make sure MDI never tries to use the T-Gundams for anything other than defending Earth Sphere against the Dzril."

Hilde nodded. Then her eyes brightened and she leaned forward. "So tell me more about Odin," she begged Wufei. "I'll bet he's a real cutie!"


Heero missed Duo. It had been only a few days since he'd left Loki and already he ached. It had been like that on Io, too. Once the test flights were over, when the debriefings had broken up and the technical classes were done, the same hollow, disoriented feeling had come over him. He'd found himself marking all his time around the bright fulcrum of his visits home, of seeing Duo again.

Heero stared across the elevator car at the grey wall, its paint chipped and dirty. It swayed gently as it descended through the moon rock. Once, this part of the facility had been an Oz prison. Relena and the UESN High Council had ceded it to the docs after the war "in recognition of their contribution to peace." Now, suddenly, Heero was reminded of another Oz prison, this one deep in the colony where Duo had been held during the war. This place had that same grey, grim, hopeless feel.

The car stopped and the doors opened, creaking. Outside, lights flickered on, illuminating a long, low corridor lined with doors.

Years ago, a cold, lonely boy had prowled up a passage much like this one, intent on murder. Even as that boy had calmly, icily, ticked through the steps of his mission, even then, a part of him had writhed in rejection at what he had known he must do.

There were the numbers on the doors. Heero found the one J had specified. He tapped out the lock's code and it slid open. Overhead, the single recessed bulb glowed to life. There was no slim, battered figure backed up against the wall. It was just junk, boxes, unused equipment, stacks of print-outs. He headed toward a file cabinet in the corner.

Heero hadn't spared Duo's life out of mercy, comradery, or honor; he'd spared it because, at that moment, his gun pointed in Duo's face, he'd had an epiphany. There, staring back at him, barely able to stand, was his one chance at happiness. So Heero had disobeyed his orders and his better sense. He'd risked both their lives on the wild, foolhardy flight out of the prison. And even when he'd believed Duo guilty of Relena's murder, deep down inside he had never regretted that day.

Was this really love, he wondered sometimes -- this blinding, helpless, single-minded need? Or was this part of his inherent design? Heero wanted to ask J, but he never got up the courage. He didn't want to find out that this warmth and this longing were just part of a genetically-programmed fixation on an owner.

"Heero?"

Heero pulled his pager from his pocket. "Yeah?"

"I've got the results." It was J. "I think you should have a look."

"Hn." Heero opened the cabinet. Inside, among the stacks of disks were three numbered boxes. He took out the one J wanted and started for the door. Halfway there, however, curiosity made him stop and, after a moment, set the box on a nearby trunk. He opened it. Inside were several small data disks, neatly bundled printouts, and some photographs. The top picture stopped his breath.

It was Odin, or rather, Odin as he would probably look in a few years. The child stood in front of a large flowering bush. A glimpse of a pillar and stairs in the back of the picture suggested a shrine of some sort. Standing beside the youngster was a man, dark-haired and narrow-faced, wearing an ill-fitting suit. Both child and man were grinning at the camera, the man looking as boyish and mischievous as the child whose hand he clutched. The photo was old, greying at the edges.

Heero found the docs in a small conference room. The table was covered with coffee-rings, data disks and print-outs. The four old men were talking to each other in low voices as Heero walked in. They broke off when he approached them.

"What is it?" Heero asked.

"Look here." J stabbed at a print-out. Heero set down the box and obeyed. He recognized what he was looking at -- a gen-matrix -- but he had no idea what it was showing. Seeing his mystification, the scientist said, "The data we got on Loki were not artifactual after all. This is a human gene."

"Human? How? I thought that was impossible!"

"Damned if I know." There was reluctant admiration in J's voice. "They've succeeded in creating a human-synthetic hybrid. It's amazing!"

"Manufacturing synthetics is controversial enough," O pointed out. "I wonder what society would say about this?"

"The UESN would shut them down faster than you can say ethical nightmare." J stared at the printout. "I would think that MDI would do anything to stop the information from getting out."

Heero heard that with alarm. "We shouldn't have left Odin and Duo behind."

"They're safer there than anywhere in the sphere," J said, adding under his breath, "for what that's worth." He opened the box Heero had brought him. Heero watched him pick up the photograph with his steel claw.

"Is that me?"

J nodded.

"Is that Odin Lowe with me?"

The old man shook his head and took out the disks that had been under it.

"Who, then?"

J looked up. The fluorescent lights flashed on the surface of his goggles. "Me," he said.


Chapter 17

Treize kept away from the main house. He tried to tell himself it was for the best. He needed to stop seeing Wufei before his heart became engaged. You're an idiot, he told himself as he drew yet another image of Wufei in his sketchbook.

Finally, however, he could no longer stand it. He ventured through the wall of evergreens to the mansion, both hoping and fearing to see the dark-haired man.

There was no answer to Treize's insistent knocking on Wufei's bedroom door. The study where Wufei had set up his office was empty, his computer gone. Uneasy, Treize ran upstairs to ask Sally and found her office empty, as well.

He met Duo coming out of the nursery, Odin on his shoulders. "Chang? Yeah. He and Sally had to go back to work. They left the day before yesterday."

"Left? Left Loki?"

Duo nodded, the gesture mimicked at once by Odin. "He didn't tell ya, huh? It was pretty sudden."

Treize mumbled his thanks, and left the main house.

Gone. Without even a note. Well, of course not. He'd made sure of that himself!

Treize returned to his cottage and threw himself onto his bed, arm across his eyes. He saw an image of General Kushrenada from some old newscast, confident, arrogant, radiating power, even in two dimensions.

"It's you that fascinates Wufei; you he wants," Treize whispered at him. "It's you everyone wants -- or fears. All I do is remind them of that, over and over."

Restlessness seized him, and the familiar anger. He jumped from the bed and, pausing long enough to get his fencing foil from the next room, left the cottage by the back door. It was raining, light and steady, but he didn't care.

Not far from his cottage was a large pavilion with a Chinese style roof. It was probably meant for outdoor dancing or seating a small orchestra, but he and Wufei had used it frequently for fencing practice. He went there now, just to prove to himself that he could. His footsteps echoed on the wood floor. Ignoring the ache in his chest, he assumed the en garde position.

In spite of himself, Treize imagined Wufei standing in his usual place by the steps, leaning gracefully against a pillar. Go!

He leapt forward, banishing Wufei's image, replacing it with a faceless enemy's. Step, step, feint, parry, thrust! His invisible opponent came at him again and again. Again and again, Treize beat him back. Sweat ran down his body. His hair came loose, falling into his eyes. He forgot Wufei, forgot the General, forgot everything in the focus of performing each move as perfectly as he could. It was only when he stumbled, when every muscle sang with fatigue, that Treize finally stopped, letting his sword arm fall heavily to his side. His chest rose and fell rapidly. His breath burned his lungs.

"So," came a harsh, all-too-familiar voice behind him. "It would seem my suspicions were correct."

Heart lurching, Treize spun around. Standing at the top of the pavilion steps, gun drawn and pointed straight at him, was Officer Onogro.


"How the hell did he get into the section?" Duo asked, angry and dismayed.

"His ID was good.." Bryce, Zechs' head of estate security, looked uncomfortable. "We had no authority to turn away a legitimate law enforcement officer armed with a warrant."

Warrant. Like Duo cared about warrants. He scowled at the Security Council rep, who scowled right back. "We caught Mr. Kushrenada red-handed," Onogro said. "With a sword!"

Good move, Wufei, thought Duo. Aloud, he said, "So?"

"You know that's strictly prohibited. There will be an investigation, of course. At the very least, there'll be a hearing into Peacecraft's fitness as a guardian to the clones."

Fuck yourself, toady. "Where is Treize?"

"Outside, in the car with my men. We're taking him back to Earth."

Duo's tenuous hold on his temper began to slip. "You can't do that! Does Ze -- Milliardo know?"

"He'll be notified."

"It's not fair! Treize ain't a danger to anyone! What can he do with a fuckin' sword?"

"Kushrenada knew the rules," retorted Onogro, and it seemed to Duo as if there was a note of glee in the man's voice. "Unfortunately, like the first Kushrenada, he thinks he's a law unto himself. As the world has seen, to its everlasting regret, that kind of thinking in the wrong man can be disastrous. If it had been up to me, he would never have been given life, but he was and now we must make the best of it and protect ourselves against him as best we can."

"You guys are nuts," snapped Duo. "You don't even know him! He's nothin' like the first Treize! Nothin'!"

"And you knew the first Treize Kushrenada?" asked Onogro coldly.

Duo had no answer for that, of course. He hadn't. The man smiled grimly. He addressed a stone-faced Bryce. "Thank you for your cooperation, Captain Bryce. We will be on our way now. I trust there will be no problem in leaving Loki?" This last was said with a pointed look at Duo.

"None," replied Bryce coldly.

"You'd better treat him okay," snapped Duo.

"We are not Oz, Mr. Maxwell."

"Yeah," Duo muttered to his back. "So you say."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Maxwell," Bryce said when the man was gone, "but it would have brought trouble to His Majesty if we had refused to honor the warrant. I'm sure King Peacecraft will be able to straighten things out."

"Yeah, yeah. I know." It wasn't fair, damn it! It just wasn't fair!

After Onogro had gone, Duo went up to the nursery to check on the kid. He let himself in quietly, tiptoing across the room to the crib. Odin slept soundly, mouth ajar. If the UESN could treat the White Rose clones like that, what would happen to Odin if they found out about him?

Shit. When did life get so fucking complicated? Once upon a time, all he needed to know was that Oz was evil and he had to destroy it. Now one of his former enemies was a good friend. The people he'd worked so hard to put in power were not as righteous as they'd seemed. There was only Heero, an anchor in a life spent at the mercy of tides and winds Duo never saw coming until it was too late.

Footsteps running up the corridor made him look around. The door burst open. Bryce!

"We're under attack," said the man shortly.

Duo heard gunfire coming from outside somewhere. "You're kiddin'? UESN?"

"No, sir, we don't think so. They're dropping from the roof -- dozens of them. It looks like the invaders managed to bypass the colony's hull security sensors and come in through the emergency airlocks."

Duo didn't have to guess too hard to figure it out. "It's probably MDI, then. They want Odin."

Bryce looked quickly at the baby. "I suggest going to Main Section. My people haven't seen anyone there yet and you'll have more cover. We'll keep 'em busy here."

Odin was awake, hauling himself up to stand, wobbly, at the crib rail. There was more gunfire, closer now, and lots of shouting. Bryce nodded tersely, talking rapidly into his radio.

"Da!" Odin said and reached anxiously for Duo.

Bryce lowered the radio. "Charlie is waiting for you by the east entrance in a jeep. He'll get you out of the section. The invaders are almost certainly at the gate, so here." Bryce thrust an armored vest and gun at Duo.

Duo pulled Odin tight to him and wrapped the vest around the baby. Grabbing the sheet, he tore a long strip, improvising a sling to hold the infant against his chest. Odin squirmed and whined, not liking the confinement.

On the first floor, they ran into two armed men in camouflage. Duo shot one; Bryce the other. Another of the security staff appeared. "All clear from here to the door," the man told them grimly. "The house is surrounded. They have sharp-shooters. We've lost a man already. Stay safe."

Damn! Was Forbes out of her mind? No way this would go unnoticed by the UESN!

Charlie was right where Bryce said -- hunched down behind the wheel of a jeep. Duo threw himself and Odin into the back seat; the guard took off before he even got the door closed.

"Stay down!" Charlie shouted over his shoulder. His command was followed immediately by the back window shattering. Duo yelped, rolling off the seat and onto the floor. Odin started wailing. Charlie swerved wildly and gunned it.

"Shhhh." Duo forced himself to keep calm, sitting up on the floor behind the driver, gun in one hand, the other stroking the baby's soft hair. "Keep it together, buddy. I've gotten out of stickier situations than this one."

Another window shattered. He bent protectively over Odin as bits of glass showered down on them. They were off the road briefly, bumping and bouncing. Then, "We're going to ram the gate! Brace yourself, sir!"

Shit! Wrapping himself around Odin, Duo braced himself between the back and front seats. There was a crash, a violent jolt. The back of the jeep swung wildly and they were through. More bullets hit the vehicle, taking out what was left of the windows. Duo heard Charlie curse.

The engine didn't sound so good, knocking loudly. Duo heard another sound over it -- helicopter! Charlie, cursing nonstop, hunkered as far down in the seat as he dared and careened onward. From his place on the floor, Duo saw the tops of Main Section's buildings.

Suddenly Charlie cried out and fell forward across the wheel. The jeep swerved one last time. Duo's heart leapt into his mouth. He held onto Odin tightly as it drove up over a curb and came to a bone-jarring stop. For a second, Duo sat, dazed. Then, shaking off the glass that covered him, he kicked open the door, half-falling from the vehicle to the sidewalk.

Charlie's door had popped open at impact. The man was dead, eyes open, neck bent at an unnatural angle. The smell of gas was thick in the air. Reeling, dizzy, Duo staggered away from the wreck, down the dimly lit street as lights came in some of the windows of the surrounding buildings. Odin was quiet as a mouse.

Back up the street came the screech of tires. Duo looked wildly around. There was an alley; he ducked into it and ran. He heard the whup-whup of the helicopter somewhere overhead. Main Section wasn't safe either. The sheer magnitude of the operation took his breath away. MDI had pulled out all the stops.

"They're risking one hell of a lot of bullshit to get you," he said to Odin, advancing cautiously on the end of the alley. "Zechs is gonna go berserk when he finds out about this and believe me, Odin, you do not want to be around when that guy gets pissed. MDI may be the biggest corporation in the UESN, but they just made one big-ass mistake."

Odin didn't venture a reply. His eyes were wide and round, thumb firmly in his mouth. "Sorry, buddy," Duo sighed. "I know this sucks."

What to do? Loki had two other sections, mostly offices and a tech plant. If MDI was here in such numbers, they were almost certainly in the rest of the colony, as well. It was a matter of staying out of sight, of keeping one step ahead of their search units. Alone, he could do it, no sweat. With an infant?

"Hey! There he is!"

Damn it! They'd spotted him. Duo wrapped an arm protectively around Odin and ran.


Chapter 18

Treize Kushrenada shifted in the seat of the shuttle, looking up the aisle at Onogro and the other agents. They talked in low voices to each other and didn't look happy. They hadn't looked happy for about two hours now. Doubtless, the fact that they had been sitting in the docking bay for the entire time had something to do with their unhappiness.

At the front of the cabin, the cockpit door opened and the pilot appeared, looking grim. He came straight up to Onogro, bending over to whisper something to the agent.

"What?" barked Onogro. "Who the hell are they? By what authority do they prevent us from leaving?"

Treize leaned his head against the window, staring out, depressed. What would Wufei think when he found out Treize had been taken away? Would he even notice? Probably not. If so, he would probably be relieved.

"This is ridiculous!" Onogro's voice raised in annoyance. "Go find out what the problem is!"

Two of the agents got up. The pilot returned to the cockpit while they opened the door and jumped out onto the deck. The third agent stood in the doorway, gun drawn, scowling out into the bay.

Onogro rose and came back to stand over Treize. "If this is some trick by your friends to thwart the law, it won't work," he snapped, adding as if to himself, "That Maxwell punk was a Gundam pilot. They were psychos, the lot of 'em. He might just..." Abruptly recalling his interested audience, Onogro broke off, harumphed and returned to his seat.

For a moment, Treize wistfully entertained the novel idea of anyone storming the transport to rescue him. Then his attention was caught by movement outside. A group of men ran between two large cargo transports docked several hundred feet away. They didn't look like Loki security personnel. They wore dark, unmarked clothing and disappeared quickly from sight.

Suddenly, through his window, Treize saw the flash of energy fire while, at the same moment, the man guarding the transport door shouted and started firing out into the bay. Onogro scrambled from his seat. "Stay where you are!" he shouted at Treize.

The agent at the door screamed and pitched forward. Onogro cursed and hurried to his aid.

Now! Go now! Even as his gut lurched in apprehension, Treize was on his feet and flying down the aisle at the distracted government agent. Onogro had barely time to look over his shoulder before Treize kicked him in the back of the knees. The man went sprawling. Treize lifted his heel over Onogro's neck to deliver the killing blow -- and froze.

The General would do it. The General would kill the man.

He wasn't the General.

Treize leapt over Onogro and dove for the door. Some half-memory from the first Treize's adolescence made him drop when he reached it, rolling out of the shuttle to land hard on the steel deck four feet below. Something whizzed past his cheek. He jumped to the right and stopped dead. A man in black stood with his gun aimed straight at Treize's head.

The man's eyes widened; his jaw sagged. "Holy shit! G-General Kushrenada? Is it -- is it really you?"

Treize's heart was banging so hard he wondered that the man didn't hear it. His mouth was dry as dust, but somehow he kept his composure, sauntering toward the man with that arrogant stride he'd seen on so many videos. "You there," he said, hoping his voice didn't sound as thin to the man as it did to him. "What is the meaning of this?"

The man was still gaping when Treize punched him in the jaw, laying him out, and stole his plasma rifle.


MDI's forces were everywhere. Duo hunkered behind a wall of metal shipping containers, listening to the thud of boots go past. Further away, he heard the whine of an energy gun and shouting. There must be hundreds of MDI's soldiers swarming through the colony. It was a full scale invasion! Halia Forbes really was out of her fucking mind!

Odin squirmed and made a small, unhappy sound. He needed changing, but even if Duo had a clean diaper -- which he didn't -- he didn't dare take the child out of the bullet-proof vest. "It sucks, I know," he commiserated, jiggling the baby a little, trying to distract him. "It's all their fault. We need to find a good hidin' place and figure out how to kick their butts."

Odin leaned back his head. A pair of deep blue eyes fixed on Duo's face in a grave, heartbreakingly familiar expression of trust. Duo's throat tightened. "Jesus," he muttered.

It had been coming home to him this past hour or so as he fled through Main Section, dogged by MDI's troops, that there might only be one way out of this mess. Now, staring across the vast expanse of metal dock, at the dozens of spacecraft sitting in the bays, he tried to reckon the odds of getting to one and on board without being seen. They weren't very good.

Several meters away were more shipping containers and beyond them, a ratty looking transport. The deck was clear between them. Duo took a deep breath and sprinted for the containers. Crouching behind them, he waited for his heartbeat to slow.

The transport had been in the midst of being loaded. At the moment, several of MDI's soldiers stood by the ramp while more soldiers searched the ship. The crew were not happy about it, standing nearby and glaring.

Duo looked to the next ship. It was a long-range shuttle, a luxury craft. Not much chance of stowing away on that one. He looked back to the transport. It needed a paint job badly, and its hull was covered with dents and dimples. The name and registration were so faded it was hard to read in the dock's low light. However, it was small enough that it probably had tolerable pressure and some heat throughout, even in the holds. The cases stacked up by its ramp had bio stamps on them.

"That's our ride, Odin," he whispered. "We just gotta wait until MDI finishes searchin' and sneak on board."

Odin worked a hand free at last and got a long strand of Duo's hair. He tugged and cooed.

"Shhh."

MDI's thugs came out of the ship shaking their heads. Their leader shouted and the soldiers fell into formation, trotting away toward the next ship. Duo waited impatiently as the transport crew, bitching and glaring after the soldiers, resumed loading the cases.

"Well, well, lookee what I found."

Duo's heart stopped. He jumped up, only to meet the triumphant grin of a soldier on the top of the containers. The man's gun was aimed at him, laser-sighted, the red, pencil-thin targeting beam squarely on Duo's forehead.

"You're Maxwell, aren't you? Guess it's my lucky day. You're on our list. Put down your gun and bring the kid over here. Try something funny and I'll splatter your brains all over it."

Horrified, Duo dropped the gun and kicked it away. His mind raced, looking for a way out. From the corner of his eye he saw the crew of the transport gathering outside their ship, watching.

Then, unexpectedly, the soldier straightened and spun around. Duo didn't waste any time seeing what had distracted him, but leapt across the deck toward his own gun, putting his back between Odin and the man. He grabbed the weapon in time to hear the soldier's rifle fall noisily to the deck. He spun around, mouth dropping. The soldier swayed a moment atop the containers, then fell after his weapon.

Up on the containers appeared a familiar, elegant, red-haired figure. Ragged cheers rose from the watching transport crew.

"Treize!"

"Hello, Shinigami!" Treize jumped lightly to the deck and grinned. "Are you all right?"

"Where the fuck did you come from?"

"I escaped." Treize seemed rather proud of himself. "I saw you a ways back and followed you. Why are you here? And with Odin!"

"It's a long story," replied Duo, eyeing the transport. The crew was still watching them. He looked at Treize. "Running away, huh?"

"Escaping," corrected Treize, lips twitching.

"Feel like comin' with us on a trip?"

"Me? Come with you?"

"Actually," muttered Duo, "I'm going to need all the help I can get."

"How? Where?"

Duo looked over at the transport and the crew who continued to watch them curiously.

"They don't look very trusting," Treize observed doubtfully. "Do you think they'll take us?"

"Better hope so. We'll never get back into the colony without getting caught. Are you in?"

Treize nodded, eyes a-gleam. He followed Duo over to the transport. The crew watched suspiciously.

"Hey," Duo called with a friendly smile. "You guys got a minute?"


Chapter 19

Halfway to Loki, the distress call came in. The colony was under attack. J, in the co-pilot's seat, swore. "Turn around!" he ordered. "Get the hell back to the moon!"

Heero ignored him, opening all thrusters.

"HEERO!"

"Security will have it under control," Heero replied, while his heart pounded and Duo's face flashed in front of him.

"We can't risk MDI getting either you or this cargo, damn it! The mission, Yuy! The mission!"

"The mission," replied Heero, "was to get the cargo to Loki. You told me so yourself."

"Yes, but not if Loki is in the hands of the enemy!" J reached for the override. Heero hit the accelerator hard and fast, too fast for the ship's artificial g. J, who had foolishly failed to belt in, floated out of his chair and bumped against the roof. Cursing flooded the cabin. Heero ignored the old man's clumsy attempts to right himself. A quick flurry of code removed the override option.

"Son of a bitch!"

But Heero was right. By the time they reached the colony, Bryce, Zechs' security chief, was in charge and in no good mood. They docked to the news that Duo and Odin were missing. It felt like someone had driven a knife into his gut, but Heero only nodded coldly. Duo could take of himself and he sure as hell could take care of Odin. There was no time or reason for panic. Focus.

"Is the colony secure?" O barked by way of greeting. Bryce, a flush darkening his swarthy face, nodded crisply.

"Yes, sir, Professor. Completely secure. I've authorized the deployment of two more units from Earth and brought more weapons. MDI will not get past us again, I swear my life on it!"

"That'll be exactly what you're doing," agreed O shortly. "We'll need help moving out the crates and be careful, damn it! That's delicate equipment!"

"There are a few small problems."

O froze and turned slowly, ominously around. Bryce shifted and looked away. "The agent from the UESN Security Council, Officer Onogro, is still here."

"Security Council? Why?"

Bryce told him, adding, " Onogro is threatening a Council investigation."

Dr. J arrived in time to hear that and swore. "Unacceptable," he snapped. "Find the damned clone as soon as possible. Give him to Onogro and keep the UESN the hell off this colony! The last thing we need is government inspectors swarming all over the place!"

"How long since you resumed control of Loki?" Heero interrupted.

"Six hours."

Duo might be hiding. He might not know that Bryce had re-established control. "Duo and Odin," Heero interrupted. "Where were they seen last?"

"The docks."

Heero stared at him. Surely Duo wasn't that crazy?

Surely not.


Halia was clearly expecting him. There were guards stationed inside the lobby of the administration building, a lot of them. One of the larger specimens stepped up to block Zechs and Wilder from the elevator. "Just him," the man said to Wilder. "You wait here."

Zechs nodded his assent and stepped into the glass-walled elevator alone.

Admin was the tallest building in the Hub. Zechs watched as the surrounding buildings fell away below him. This was Halia's private lift, whisking visitors directly to her penthouse office. Out on the flat lunar plain, Zechs saw the brightly-lit clusters, each joined to the Hub by its glowing ribbon of tram-corridor.

Zechs stepped out of the elevator into thick carpeting and an office with walls and ceiling of clearest glass. From here, he saw the T-Gundam cluster, already in the shadow of advancing evening. Halia stood before the windows, face tight. "You've been sheltering him and you didn't tell me!"

"You violated our agreement," he retorted, knowing exactly who she meant.

"The infant is not what he seems, Zechs! Yuy had no right to take him."

"You had no right to use Yuy's tissue without his permission! Or to send a small army to attack my colony! If you wanted the baby back so badly, why the hell send troops with live ammunition? He could have been killed!"

"The attack was not my idea," she said shortly. "There were a few members of the Consortium who lacked courage and vision. You needn't worry, however. They've been neutralized. It won't happen again. You may send the expenses of repair and reconstruction to central accounting."

"That's not the point!" He stopped and drew a long breath. He should be accustomed to her by now. "There was an agent from the UESN Security Council there, did you know?"

She shrugged "I can buy agents," she retorted. "I want the infant returned."

"Halia..."

Turning her back on him, she wrapped arms around herself. "Tell Yuy this. If he brings the child back, I will take no punitive action against him. He may resume his work with the project as if nothing has happened -- after, of course, he promises not to interfere in other MDI projects."

"Why don't you just give up on it? You can see how unpopular the idea of synthetic slaves has been! Even if he brought the clone back, you'll just have to give him up when the court makes it's ruling."

He might not have spoken. She went on, voice hard as diamond. "And if he does not bring the clone back, Zechs, MDI will immediately assume control of all aspects of the T-Gundam project."

Shocked, Zechs met the gaze of her reflection in the glass. He could see the strain in her face, in the shadows beneath her eyes. "You wouldn't dare!"

"Wouldn't I?" Halia smile was cold and brittle as ice. "I will have MDI01 back, Zechs Merquise. There is nothing I will not do, no promise I will not break, to achieve that goal."

"Very well," he said finally, now thoroughly alarmed. "I'll give him your message, but the decision is his alone. As for taking over the T-Gundam project, think long and hard about whether you really want me for an enemy."

"One more thing," Halia said, still not turning around. Zechs waited. "I read something interesting in a report. One of the soldiers that took part on the Loki assault swears he saw Treize Kushrenada."

"Treize is dead," replied Zechs and left her.


Chapter 20

Treize drifted along the narrow corridor, moving over against the wall to let one of the Jellyroll's crew whiz past. The crewman grinned and vanished around the corner, leaving Treize to push open the door to the cabin. He hit the control to activate his shoe-anchors and his soles hit the deck.

The cabin stank of disinfectant, but at least Duo hadn't been sick again. Treize heard a groan from the bunk and made his way over. A white face, eyes sunken and shadowed, looked back at him from the gloom. "Damn," came Duo's voice, barely audible. "This sucks."

Treize agreed. He was pretty sure that the first Treize had never cleaned up vomit in his life, nor had to improvise diapers from a collection of clean, but oil-stained rags. The thought, perversely, pleased him. It was one more thing to make him different, to set him apart from his namesake.

Duo did what he could to help out, but the poor man was sicker than a dog, retching constantly, even with nothing left in his belly to expel. An inner ear problem, he'd said.

"How's the little guy?" Duo rasped.

Treize looked over to the big, built-in drawer that doubled as a crib. The infant had eaten prodigious amounts of mashed potatoes and gravy for supper, some of which remained on his face. "Sleeping like a log," said Treize. "I brought you some water."

"Oh, no," Duo buried his face in the scratchy blanket. "I can't."

"You've got to. Even I know that becoming dehydrated won't help. A mouthful at a time." Treize tried to mimic the general's commanding tone. It worked. Duo cursed him, but struggled up on an elbow and took the requisite mouthful. He fell back then and closed his eyes.

Treize settled down beside the bunk. Craig, captain of the Jellyroll, had told him they had another four hours to their destination. He looked anxiously at Duo and hoped the man would make it.

"Hey. Kushrenada." Violet eyes were open again, cloudy but alert. "Thanks a million, buddy. If you weren't here, we'd be really screwed. Didn't know it would be this bad..." His voice trailed away, ending on a groan.

"Don't mention it," replied Treize. "If I weren't here, I'd be on my way to St. John's."

"What's that?" Duo's mouth tightened, a spasm of pain crossing his face.

"A kind of prison -- for people who haven't done anything wrong but who the UESN doesn't want running around free."

Duo stared at him for a long time. "I knew the government insists on you guys bein' a secret, but they'd go that far?"

"That's what Mariameia told me." And how she had loved threatening him with it, too. Treize shook his head at the memory.

"You're kiddin'? They'd put you there for just bein' you?"

"We can't have the dreaded General Kushrenada loose in the world again, can we?"

"That's some serious bullshit."

Treize smiled at the emphatic tone. He pulled his knees to his chest and rested his chin on them. His future was filled with danger and uncertainty, but he'd never felt more alive.

"Hey, Treize..."

"Duo?"

"This place we're going -- L2? It -- it's pretty rough. I grew up there and...well, when we get there, just watch yourself, okay?"

"I've got a gun. Chang taught me how to use it."

"Yippee." Duo didn't sound altogether happy. "Just make sure you don't shoot us."

Treize grinned.


Wufei stood on the deck of the Oz ship, Shenlong towering over him. The ruins of the elegant stateroom lay around him. He faced Treize Kushrenada, the general straight and proud, resplendent in his blue and white Oz uniform. They raised their swords in salute. Wufei's arm seemed heavier than Shenlong's.

The fight began, silent, with only the sea and the Gundam looking on. Each movement required enormous effort and yet, in spite of it, Wufei drove his enemy back. He forced Treize over fallen timbers and debris until, with a final terrible effort, Wufei disarmed him.

But it was not the coup de grace he administered to his vanquished foe. Instead, he threw away his sword and was caught up in a fierce, powerful embrace. He lifted his face and had kisses pressed upon it. The mouth that possessed his was demanding and sweet. His body burned, every part of it aching with desire.

It was not the General who held him so possessively, whose mouth ravished his with such hunger. Oh, no. This handsome, sensual creature was the Treize who could have been -- should have been -- the Treize Wufei wanted more than anyone he could imagine.

"NO!" Wufei woke, his own cry lingering in his ears. "Ancestors!" he whispered, shaken. He was sweating and his sex was hard. Rolling off his bed, he staggered across his small bedroom to the compact lavatory. Turning on the shower, he forced himself to stand under the icy water until his insane, dangerous lust had shriveled.

Wufei had always been lonely. When his people had vanished into history, he had accepted it as his destiny. The thought that he might be wrong was both tantalizing -- and terrifying.

I don't want him! It was just a dream!

Naked, wet and shivering, he returned to his room. Pulling a robe around himself, he reached over to the wall and activated the shutter control. With a muffled thump, the roof shutters slid back, revealing the distant, transparent arch of dome. It was later than he'd expected, perhaps an hour past dawn. Jupiter was a gold sliver on the horizon.

He went to the small shrine on the other side of the room. Kneeling on the cushion before it, he lit a cone of incense and made his obeisance to those who had gone before.

Meilan. In the soft ribbons of fragrant smoke he imagined he saw her, young -- so very young -- proud and vulnerable. His princess.

Help me, Meilan! Help me be strong. Help me not to disgrace you by desiring our enemy!


Chapter 21

L2. The armpit of the UESN. Duo sat heavily on the bench outside the grimy spacedock, dizzy and still slightly nauseous. Odin whined, straining in Treize's arms toward Duo, but Duo was too weak and shaky to risk carrying the baby yet. He was feeling better, though. Gravity. Damn, but he loved it.

"Are you feeling okay?"

"Yeah." Duo wiped sweat from his brow. Sticking his hand in his pocket, he pulled out his wallet. Broke. Great. He didn't dare use his debit card. His account was almost certainly flagged.

"So what do we do now?" asked Treize, settling a restless Odin on his knee.

"Find some shelter. Have you got any money?"

Treize shook his head.

"That's what I thought." Duo stood up. It wasn't too bad. If they went slow, he could walk. "C'mon."

"Where are we going?"

"Someplace I'd hoped I'd never see again."

The war had been over for five years, but you couldn't tell by the streets of L2. Duo's feet knew exactly where to go, taking the dark, familiar streets through gloomy tenements, abandoned warehouses and bars. Everything had the same seedy, down-at-the-heels look, windows boarded up, storefronts long since shuttered, broken glass sparkling on the littered sidewalks. There was a better section a few miles up the ring -- he'd stayed there with Hilde near the end of the war -- but most of the colony was still like this.

Odin began to whimper. Feeling stronger, Duo took him and had his braid immediately seized. "Oww! Odin!"

But Duo hadn't held him for the whole trip and Odin wasn't letting go. With the braid securely in hand, the infant surveyed the interesting new world from the safety of Duo's shoulder. Treize stayed close as well. At a street corner they stopped to let traffic go by.

"Did the first Treize do this?" asked the clone in a subdued voice. He was staring at everything.

Startled, Duo shook his head. "Nope. Not directly, anyway. He never set foot here, as far as I know. The residents are responsible for this shit. Pathetic, huh?"

Treize looked relieved. "Where are we going?"

"Someplace we can hide out for awhile-- if it's still there."

It was kind of disheartening to see the blocks of condemned buildings still standing. He could remember the day the authorities had rounded up all the kids who'd been hiding out there, Duo and his gang included. The plan had been to tear down the ruins and put up new apartments, but like so many things during the war, the project had foundered and died amid the violence. Duo thought about the church. The last he knew, they had rebuilt it, but he'd never gone back. It had always seemed wrong somehow.

"We're going there?" Treize exclaimed in disbelief, staring at the tenement.

"Yep. Got your gun?"

Treize nodded emphatically.

The place was as horrible as Duo remembered it, littered hallways, broken and defaced walls -- worse even than the safe house on Earth. He saw the small signs of habitation, the graffiti warnings, the locks on some of the doors. Undaunted by the squalor, Odin held onto him tightly, making faces at Treize who followed closely.

"What are you looking for?" Treize asked, voice low. He might not have been the real Treize, but he was still a rich boy and this was way out of his league.

"A defensible hideout."

"These places -- they look like people live here."

"Yep. Prob'ly do."

Treize was silent.

The place Duo had in mind was on the second floor. It was near the fire stairs, which were still standing, thank god. If necessary, a drop to the ground from the windows would be survivable. Of course, others had figured on the same thing. All the second-floor apartments were shut tight, some barricaded with junk, others with doors locked. Duo stopped in front of one, looking around at the floor in front of it. Injector caps. Dozens of them.

"Someone lives there!" whispered Treize when Duo tried the door.

"Not here," replied Duo shortly. "Take Odin and stand back. Way back."

Treize took the baby and moved down the hall. Duo drew his gun, took a few steps back from the door and kicked. There was a loud crack and it sagged inward. He had his gun up and ready by the time a big man appeared in the doorway.

"Get everyone out," Duo said while the man stared at the gun, jaw sagging. "Gonna have to find somewhere else to shoot bliss, asshole."

It was a pretty big bliss-house. Duo counted sixteen addicts who came stumbling out of all the rooms, some of them alert enough to curse him, most just staring with dilated eyes, shuffling down the hall to the stairs and out of sight. Some were young, young as he had been. He jerked his eyes away from their frail, stick-thin forms and vacant stares, motioning for Treize to come.

The place was foul. Treize stood in the entrance and had to be coaxed inside.

"Yeah," Duo said, "we've gotta clean it. Can ya handle it, Kushrenada?"

"I handled you puking your guts out," retorted Treize, but he looked pretty green. "Is there -- is there water?"

"Nope, but I think I can fix that. Brace the door and don't let anyone but me in."

Going into the cellar lifted the hair on the back of his neck. The place smelled like dead bodies. He remembered how scared he'd been to come down here in the old days, how Solo had always ragged on him about it.

Solo. God. He hadn't thought about Solo for a long time. For a moment, Duo saw the other boy, the slim, wiry form, the bright, fearless gaze... His throat tightened. Hey, bro, I'm back.

The old plumbing stood behind its cage, just like always. There was a big lock on it, old but still strong. Duo grinned. He pulled the wire from his braid and had it off in minutes. Slipping inside, he had a look at the control panel. Solo had been one for just knocking off the valve regulator, but that had always brought the city workers within a few days. Duo had more finesse now. He got the cover off the panel and after studying the controls, figured out how to program it. Hopefully, the building was still connected to a water line.

He got back to the apartment and Treize let him in. In the disgusting kitchen, a turn of the faucet handle brought a fearsome rattle, then a spurt of rusty water that ran clear after several minutes.

"Good," Duo said, pleased. "Okay. Start cleanin', Treize. I'm gonna go get us some supplies."

"Wait! You're not going to help?"

"We need food, diapers, lamps, all kinds of stuff. Just start it, okay. Toss all the crap out the window. I'll be back soon with soap."

"But we don't have any money!"

Duo winked. Treize's mouth opened, eyes getting round, then he shut it again and grinned. "Good luck," he said.


To Heero's great relief, a message from Duo showed up within twenty-four hours.

"Hey, buddy! We're alive and well and kickin' back at home. T is with us. The old neighborhood ain't what it used to be, though. Come get us when you can. D."

Home. Heero laughed aloud in relief. That son of a bitch! He was on L2! The note had an attachment. He accessed it and found a photo. Duo and Odin mugged it up for the camera, both of them looking just fine. Behind them, he saw a street sign and a low building with a distinctive, bubble-shaped heater housing on top. Good. Sending an answer, he erased Duo's mail and sent a scrubber program back along the message's route.

Duo was safe enough for the moment. More of Zechs' people were on their way from Earth to reinforce Loki's security. Once they were in place, the colony would be a fortress. Then he'd go pick up the three fugitives.


Chapter 22

Duo was a competent thief. The number of things they had acquired in such a short time was astonishing. There were blankets, changes of clothing, a hot plate and tiny TV that Duo hooked up to a stolen generator. He even found a fold-up travel crib.

"Not bad for a hideout, huh?" Duo beamed. "This place looks pretty good."

"You are joking, right?"

"Hey! It ain't bad. It's got a lot of good memories."

Treize stared at him. "You've been here before? In this apartment?"

"Sure. It was one of the places we used to live when I was a kid running with the gang." Duo walked over to the wall and peered closely at it. He pointed at a faded, almost undecipherable scrawl among the mass of graffiti. "My name. Solo wrote it down for me once."

"Solo?"

"He was our leader: the closest thing I had to a big brother, really." Duo's voice held a sad note. He touched the wall. "He died of the plague. A bunch of 'em did."

A strident yell at their feet distracted them both. Odin was tugging at Duo's pant leg, demanding to be picked up.

"Okay! Jeez!"

Odin didn't think much of his cold water baths, but afterwards, clean and in fresh diapers, full of mashed carrots, he was more than happy to snuggle up to Duo and play with his new set of giant plastic keys. The two big boys had noodles and egg rolls washed down with beer. There was a sturdy two-by-four across the door to discourage unwanted visitors and a small travel-lamp to throw a cozy glow over everything. Duo was right. It was pleasant.

"If you were a street kid, how the hell did you end up piloting a Gundam?" Treize asked idly.

"Dumb luck," sighed Duo. "That's my life, ya know? Really good luck or really shitty luck. Nothin' in between."

"Right." Treize's blue eyes gleamed. "I guess we know which is in ascendancy now."

Duo grinned. "What about you? Ever had the urge to pilot a Gundam?"

"I try to keep impossible dreams at a minimum. Cuts down on the frustration level."

"Don't be doin' that shit!" Duo waggled a finger at him. "You can't let 'em hold ya down!"

Odin, observing the gesture, had a go at it. Treize chuckled. "All right! All right! After all, the first Treize had to struggle against adversity to get what he wanted."

"Oh, puhleeze. When did General Treize Kushrenada ever struggle for anything."

"Did you know his father hated him?"

Duo straightened. "No!"

"His mother died giving birth to him, something his father never forgave. Treize would write in his journal about wearing suits and long-sleeved shirts on summer afternoons to hide the bruises. When he was sent away to the academy, he said that it was like being reborn."

"I had no idea," admitted Duo thoughtfully. "I just figured he'd always had it easy."

Treize shrugged and swiped the last bit of beef from the bottom of the noodle carton. "Sometimes I think that if his father had loved him, maybe he would have been different, nicer. Not so driven."

"Then you probably wouldn't exist."

"True, but..." A lot more people would.

Odin decided it was time to be the center of attention again and began whining and attempting to crawl away. Treize watched Duo pick him up, watched the little one wrap his arms around Duo's neck.

There were noises outside, sirens in the distance. Someone went by in the corridor, pausing briefly to try the door before moving on. Treize eyed it uneasily, but Duo didn't seem particularly worried. He set the yawning infant into the travel crib, then lay back on Treize's more-or-less clean floor. Odin stuck a thumb in his mouth and promptly went to sleep. Treize himself didn't remember the end of the movie.


Zechs and Wilder arrived on Loki to find it swarming with Peacecraft security forces. Pargan met them outside the private dock with the car.

"Is Yuy's clone back?" Zechs asked straight off.

Pargan shook his head. "Alas, sir, no." The servant explained the current situation to Zechs. "I'm afraid Mr. Yuy has not been particularly forthcoming about their whereabouts."

Zechs nodded, heart sinking. He looked at Wilder, who looked back, handsome face giving nothing away.

"And Yuy?"

"Expected back any time. He and the scientists have been bringing cargo over from the moon. They made another trip last night."

"Cargo?"

"Machine parts, I believe, Majesty. The garages are quite full at the moment."

Machine parts?

"Are any of the doctors here?"

"Dr. J, I believe, and Dr. G."

J. Zechs frowned. That old fox. What was he up to? The machine parts were almost certainly the components for the T-Gundams' faster-than-light drives and major weapons array, but why bring them here?

"Better here than on Io," murmured Wilder.

They ran J down in the library. The room was a mess. Pargan gave Zechs a woeful, apologetic smile before leaving them with the old man.

"Ah, there you are!" The scientist waved a claw carelessly in their direction. "Saves me the trouble of summoning you."

Zechs lifted an eyebrow. Summoning? "Where's the clone?" he asked.

J didn't seem surprised by the question. "Have a seat," he invited them.

Wilder chuckled softly; Zechs looked around in disbelief. Most of the furniture had been hauled out, the rugs rolled up and dragged away. Several mismatched tables had been pulled together at the far end of the room under the tall windows. The fine wood was covered with computers, print-outs, e-tablets and arcane bits of machinery.

"The clone is with Duo and Treize. It's been rather lively here. I take it you got our message about the attack?"

Zechs nodded grimly.

"Interesting," J said, watching him closely. "Doesn't Forbes' behavior strike you as odd?"

"She wants him back before the UESN gets wind of it."

J said nothing.

"You think there's more to it, though, don't you?" Wilder said suddenly, gaze fixed on J.

"I think we should move up our timetable," replied the man. "We can't wait to finish the T-Gundams; we must take them off Io now."

"What's so special about this damned clone?" demanded Zechs. "She still has Yuy's tissue! She can make another!"

"He's part human."

Zechs stared.

"You must return to Io at once," the doc said calmly, "and inform the others that Operation Robin Hood has begun. I'll speak to Heero when he returns. The clone must go back. If nothing else, it will pacify Forbes and give us breathing room."

"But -- we're not ready!" Zechs stared back at the old man, appalled. "We haven't had time to brief the pilots on the plan yet, nor..."

"It doesn't matter. If Forbes is threatening your control of the project, than she's probably been thinking about it for awhile. The time to move is now."

J was right, but, "Even if we can pull it off on such short notice, there is no way we can hide ten Gundams in the sphere," he said flatly. "The government will get wind of it. They'll send Preventers, and MDI certainly won't take the theft lying down. There will be fighting, killing..." The worst of all possible futures yawned before Zechs. "War." He shook his head. "We can't do it, J. Those Gundams were built to repel alien invaders, not to fight fellow humans!"

"There are other ways of defending ourselves," J said. "We have a plan. All we need is a little time and you to get the Gundams here when we're ready."

"Will Yuy give up the clone?" Wilder asked.

J looked down at his metal hand. His face was grim. "Yes," he replied. "Yes, he will."


Chapter 23

They were being checked out by a local gang of thugs. Duo's theory was borne out a few days after they'd arrived on L2. It was early evening and the colony lights had just dimmed for the night. He and Treize had just finished a couple bags of hamburgers, feeding the french fries to Odin, when a banging came at the door. Treize gave Duo a startled, apprehensive look.

"Neighborhood watch," Duo cracked. "Go put Odin in his crib, then get back here. Keep your gun handy."

Treize grabbed the baby and vanished. He returned a moment later, followed by Odin's outraged wails. Duo jerked his head toward the wall beside the door. Treize moved there at once.

"Don't let anybody in alive unless I say so."

Gun in hand, Duo went to the door. The pounding started up again; this time it didn't let up, growing louder until the door shook. Duo aimed his weapon six inches up from the bottom of it and fired.

There was a howl and the pounding stopped. Immediately, Duo opened the door, stepped out, and shut it behind him.

Six men stood outside. One was lying on the floor, hands clutching his bleeding leg, moaning. Most had knives, but one had a crude, homemade gun and it was pointed at Duo. The man's eyes narrowed. "D-Duo?"

It took Duo a moment. The man was tall and rangy, with thinning red hair and long nose that had been broken once and inexpertly set. He remembered the nose. "Tony?"

"Shit! It is you! Holy fuck! I don't believe it! You son of a bitch! You're still alive!"

"Heheh." Duo saw the gun lower, then go back into Tony's pocket. He lowered his own. "I could say the same about you, you fucker. What the hell's goin' on?"

"Oh, same old shit, Duo, same old shit. You livin' here?"

"Not really. Just passin' through. You running the neighborhood these days?"

"Yeah." Tony smirked. Jesus. He looked exactly the same as the little kid who had run with their gang all those years ago. Then, however, he'd been a scrawny little scaredy-cat, content to let Duo and Solo run the risks for the rest of them.

"Cool," Duo said admiringly. "Come on in -- just you, though."

That was fine with Tony. He gave his men a curt command to "keep an eye out" and followed Duo into the apartment. He started at the sight of Treize standing by the door, gun trained on him.

"It's okay, Treize. He's an old friend."

Treize nodded and lowered the gun.

Tony looked around. "Not bad, man. You got some money, huh?"

"As if."

Tony hooted and slapped Duo's palm. "Still the best fingers on L2, eh? Who's your friend?"

"Treize, meet Tony."

"Treize, huh? Where've I heard that name before?"

"Who knows," shrugged Duo with a wink at Treize. "It's a common name."

"Is that a baby, dude?" Tony heard Odin's strident protests. "You're married?"

Duo shook his head. "Nope."

Tony blinked, but took it in stride. He settled himself on the rug in front of the tv. Duo went to get Odin before he burst a blood vessel.

"Cute kid," approved Tony. "I got a girlfriend. She's always talking about havin' kids, but shit, man, that's a hell of a lot of responsibility. Never figured you for that, actually."

Duo pulled beers out of the cooler and Tony cheerfully downed several, regaling Duo and Treize with stories of his rise from street rat to street bully. He didn't seem to know about Duo's career as a Gundam pilot and Duo was in no hurry to fill him in. Instead, he made much of his time with the Sweepers and fabricated a tale of being pursued by a rival salvage gang over a dispute on a job.

"Don't you worry about it," declared Tony. "We're the protection in this neighborhood, Duo. We'll keep an eye out for ya. If you need anything -- anything at all -- just holler and ol' Tony'll get it for ya."

Tony left after that, slapping Duo on the back and repeating his promise to keep an eye on the place. After he was gone, Treize shook his head. "You're full of surprises, Maxwell."

Duo grinned, picking up Odin who was trying to get the last few drops of beer from one of Tony's empty bottles. "Let's just hope all of them turn out as good," he said, and carried the drooping baby off to bed.


The new machines were superior in every way. Even though they were still incomplete, Wufei found piloting them a joy. The T-Gundams were far more responsive than the older models. It was easy to forget you were encased in gundamium, so effortless were the controls. When the heavy weapons and FTL drives were installed, nothing would stand in their way. It was at once exhilarating and terrifying.

The T-Gundams were more beautiful than their forerunners, too. Pulling off his helmet, Wufei looked up at it, shaking back sweat-damp hair. Taller than the old Gundams, it was slimmer, more graceful in appearance, more human in shape.

"Nataku," he whispered.

"Chang!"

Turning, he saw Quatre swinging down from his unit. The other pilot landed lightly on the concrete and came over to him. He followed Wufei's gaze.

"You seemed distracted out there today," he said finally, voice light and nonjudgmental.

Wufei opened his mouth to deny it, then, "You're correct, and I apologize. Next time I'll pay more attention."

"What's wrong? Sally says you've been in a funk since leaving Loki. Are you sure everything is all right with Heero?"

"Heero has Duo," said Wufei. "As long as they're together, Heero's happy."

Quatre looked at him, an odd expression in his blue eyes. "Yeah," he said finally, smiling a little. "Love always makes things better."

Later, while everyone sat in the debriefing room and discussed the day's test results, Quatre's words spun around and around in Wufei's head. Love always makes things better.

Except when it made things worse.


Chapter 24

Immediately after leaving Loki, Heero picked up a tail. It was a personal cruiser, the kind some rich kid might own. Whoever it was hadn't done a very good job of disguising the disrupters, however. He lost the ship right away and, once he was sure no one else followed him, doubled back and headed for L2.

It was colony night when he got there. The run-down space dock was almost deserted, a couple of transports sitting in their bays. He caught a cab outside the dock. The cabbie told Heero straight out that he'd only take him as far as Second Street, no further.

"Got robbed three times in the Pits," he said. "Even the cops stay away."

Heero had been to L2 a few times during the war and while working with the Preventers, but he'd never been down here. He kept his hands in his pockets as he walked, his guns at his fingertips.

This was where Duo had grown up, in all this squalor and filth. Heero had himself lived in similar places after Odin had been killed. With only hazy memories of J and the others, he'd often holed up in slums and abandoned buildings before they'd found him and brought him home. Duo never talked much about life here. What childhood stories he told were of Maxwell's Church or later, when he'd hooked up with Howard and the Sweepers.

Most of the street lights were burned out. The holographic sky showed a half moon, but it flickered, as if there was a short somewhere. Heero's eyes adjusted and he could make out the dark hulks of buildings and the darker slices here and there that were alleys and doorways. He kept a wary eye on them. A few buildings showed lighted windows; a bar stood alone on a block, neon sign flashing crazily in the night. Mostly, however, it was dark and quiet.

Heero remembered those few months after Odin Lowe's death. It had been terrifying. He'd never been afraid for his life -- not exactly. Even then, young as he was, he'd known how to take care of himself. It was rather the loneliness, the sense that you mattered to no one, that you were invisible among the rest of the garbage.

Did you feel like that, too, Duo?

Just before leaving Loki, he'd studied colony maps and found the street named on the sign in the picture. It was a little livelier than the rest of the area, with more lighted windows and even a few people sitting out on one of the stoops. Raucous laughter rang up and down the street and he heard tinny music.

His heart lifted at the sight of round heater housing on one of the buildings. There were a couple lighted windows. Duo would choose somewhere with an escape route...like that window on the second floor.

"Hey! Gorgeous!"

The call came from the stoop full of people. A girl in a short, tight dress, leaning against the handrail, called to him. He kept walking.

"Hey! Buddy! She was talkin' to you!" This time, it was a male voice. Heero didn't slow his pace. He wasn't very surprised to hear people getting up and low, unpleasant laughter. In his pocket, he slipped the safety off the gun. He considered the hand grenade, but decided to wait. No point in attracting the wrong attention.

He stopped and turned around. The gang was heading up the street toward him. He saw the flash of a knife held close, the surreptitious flaunting of a few crude projectile guns.

"'Scuse me." Their leader stopped, a big fellow with a crooked nose and an easy grin. "We're the local cops. Don't get many strangers here. What's your business?"

Heero considered them. There were eight, not counting the three women giggling back at the stoop. He dismissed the possibility of legitimate law enforcement here. Were they organized enough for sentries? He looked up at the windows in the ruined and half-ruined buildings around them. A lot of them were boarded up; others had lost their glass a long time ago. There was no movement, no reflection of light off metal, no one watching that he could see.

If he took out the leader, the rest would probably put up only brief and minimal resistance. He whipped out the gun and pointed it at the young man's head. The thug froze, eyes going wide.

"I'm looking for a friend."

"Uh, yeah. Sure..." The man dropped his gun and lifted his hands. He took a hasty step back. "Not a problem, mister." Heero motioned toward the stoop and, after a moment, the idiot figured it out and, with his men around him, slouched back to it, trying to pretend that it was his idea anyway.

It didn't take long to find Duo's hole; it was on the second floor corner, just like Heero had figured. He stood in front of the apartment a moment, heart beating a little faster. He heard Odin's squeal and Duo's laugh. His throat was tight and he leaned his head briefly against the door. Then he heard another voice, deeper, vaguely familiar. Kushrenada's clone. Stepping back, he knocked: three short raps, a pause, then two more.

There was sudden silence in the room beyond. After a moment, the door opened slowly. A violet eye appeared, widened, and vanished again. The door flew open. "HEERO!"

He was grabbed and pulled inside. The door slammed. Heero had a brief glimpse of Treize standing in another doorway. Then Duo engulfed him in a bear hug and everything else shifted to the background.


Odin was ecstatic to see Heero, screeching until Treize put him into Heero's arms. Duo grinned happily, watching Heero briefly nuzzle that thick, dark hair. But when Heero looked up, there was something in his face that made Duo's heart skip a beat.

"We need to talk," Heero said, looking over at Treize. "Alone."

So Treize took a loudly protesting Odin into the next room and shut the door. Heero sat, cross-legged, on the rug. After a moment, Duo sank down beside him.

"What is it? We're not going back to Loki, are we?"

Heero shook his head. "I'm returning to Io with Zechs. I'll be taking Odin back, too."

For a moment, Duo wasn't sure he heard right. "Takin' him back? Why?"

So Heero told him. Duo shook his head. "This is really stupid. I've been talkin' a lot to Treize. Did you know the old Treize and Forbes grew up together? He says he's read all about her in Treize's diaries. She was one of the Oz people who helped overthrow Kushrenada toward the end of the war, too. Even the old Treize said she was a shark! It's fuckin' crazy. She's not gonna let you just fly away with 'em."

"Since when do you have a problem with crazy?"

Duo opened his mouth and shut it again. He felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under him.

Heero pulled his knees to his chest, looking straight ahead at the stolen TV. The puppet show Odin had been watching was still on, two terry-cloth dragons telling jokes, their jaws flapping in pretend laughter. His face was curiously still.

"We have to get the Gundams away from MDI for the sake of everyone in the sphere," he said quietly. "I know you understand this, Duo."

Duo clenched his fists in his lap. He wanted to curse Zechs for getting them all into this situation, but he couldn't. Not in any fairness. Zechs had made his devil's bargain partly for Heero's sake.

"With Odin returned, it should give us the breathing space we need to do it."

"And that's it?" Duo said thinly. "We never see Odin again?"

Heero's jaw tightened. "We'll get him back, Duo."

"HOW? We almost didn't get you back!" Duo was on his feet, fists clenched. "This is insane! He's a convenient distraction, so we throw him away?" The familiar pain came, clothed, as always, in anger. "Acceptable loss?"

"Do you have a better idea?"

Duo didn't. Stealing the T-Gundams from the powerful, well-armed corporation was going to be dangerous; lives would almost certainly be lost. Heero was absolutely right, they needed all the breaks they could get. But Odin! To return him to the laboratory, to abandon him...

"Ah, shit," he muttered, collapsing back to the floor beside Heero. "It's like fightin' in the war again. No good options. I've got a real bad feeling about this, Yuy. DAMN IT!"

"We'll get him back, Duo."

"Yeah. Sure."

There was no answer, only that strange, stretched looked in the face of the man he loved. "I wish I could help!" said Duo finally, bitterly.

"I wish you could, too. Most of the test pilots are pretty good, but you're better."

"Was better."

"They'll figure a cure out someday. I know they will."

Duo hesitated. Then, "There's somatine."

"NO!" Heero glared at him in outrage. "Are you out of your mind?"

Duo's mouth wobbled. He burst out laughing. "That look of yours..."

"Don't you even think about it!" Heero's blue eyes were black with genuine anger. "You know what they said about that shit!"

"Okay! Okay!" Taken aback, Duo held up his hands in mock surrender. The ferocity of Heero's reaction gave him a warm feeling. "Jeez."

Heero expelled a long, angry breath. "Baka."

"So what do I do while you're off savin' the world again?" Duo asked, finally. "Head back to Loki?"

"Stay here."

"Huh?"

"It looks like you have a good set-up." Heero looked toward the door. "What about him?"

"Treize? Hell of a good guy, actually. Probably nothin' like the first one. He's been a lot of help. I couldn't have got here without him."

Heero seemed to be thinking about something.

"Why?" asked Duo suspiciously.

"Nothing," said Heero. "I'm glad there's someone here to watch your back."

Silence fell between them. Then Duo leaned against Heero, tucking his arm into Heero's and laying his head on Heero's shoulder. He sighed. "I really wish Wilder hadn't killed Arcane."

"Why the hell not?"

"So I could kill him," Duo replied, meaning it utterly. "Real slowly."


Chapter 25

It was almost time to leave for the resource satellite of B19 and his rendevous with Heero. Zechs took the helmet Wilder handed him and hit the shuttle's hatch control. They were alone in Loki's private space-dock, the scientists hard at work elsewhere in the colony. "I should be coming with you," Wilder said.

"J and the others need you here, you know that. No one else can answer their questions. I'll be all right. Once Halia has her damned clone, things should go back to normal. She may insist that Yuy be banished from Io, but I can probably talk her out of that."

Wilder looked troubled. "I hope you're right. I wish I could touch her, find out what she's thinking, but she never lets me near. There's something -- off -- about the emotional backwash I get when she's around. If only this body didn't inhibit my telepathic abilities so much!"

"The devil!" muttered Zechs. "Your powers are disconcerting enough as it is!"

Wilder opened his mouth to retort, but Zechs hooked an arm around his neck and pulled him in for a long kiss. "We'll all be back here with the Gundams before you know it," he whispered into Wilder's ear. The alien's arms came around him and tightened.

"You'd better be." Wilder leaned back, regarding Zechs soberly. "In this body, the pain of losing you would be insurmountable. Worse, if you fail, my own sorrow will be insignificant before the sorrow of human-kind. Without those Gundams, the Dzril will sweep over this system like a wildfire."

"They may not even care," Zechs replied. "We're only one insignificant little star system. Why should they even bother with the effort of mounting an invasion?"

"Because you are a threat."

"How? Look at us! Without your technology, we'd still be bound to our solar system!"

Wilder was silent for a long time. Then, "They won't let you alone. They can't."

"Why not?"

"You take for granted that thing you call a "tool-making" ability. You assume that because you live in a fiercely competitive ecosystem, all forms of life must do the same. In fact, both circumstances are very, very rare."

"I don't see..."

"You know about the Eight Hundred?"

"Yes." It was the number of sentient species under Dzril domination. Wilder had told him this and other things about the Dzril's far-flung empire.

"On the home worlds of the Eight Hundred, there was no battling for survival, no need to develop technologies to provide shelter or get food.. The ecosystems were symbiotic, cooperative -- not competitive. Can you even imagine it? I'll bet not. To you, the worlds might have seemed like small pockets of fantasy, perfect utopias, no violence, no wars. And when the Dzril came, most of them never even thought about resisting."

"But your world was different, wasn't it?" Zechs reminded him. "You resisted." He brushed back a lock of wine-colored hair that persisted in falling into Wilder's eyes.

"And were conquered."

"Yet you survived."

"Yes and no." Wilder looked troubled. "What would you say," he asked finally, voice low, "if I told you that I am like Yuy? A created thing, destined to serve."

Zechs stared, hands falling to his sides.

"It's said that our creators were much older than the Dzril and had evolved away from the desire for empire. Their worlds were as peaceful as those of any uncompetitive species. But when the Dzril came, instead of surrendering at once like all the others, the creators reached back into a past as violent as your own and fought them.

"The war lasted for a thousand years. I've heard that it all but destroyed the Dzril, but in the end, it was my creators who were slaughtered. Those like me were spared because, after all, we were just another piece of the vanquished enemy's technology, to be used like their other machines. Some of us were turned into Protectors. Others were taken back to the Dzril home system, and became the High Kinthe."

Zechs knew who the High Kinthe were. They acted as intermediaries between the mysterious Dzril and their subject species, collecting taxes, moving through the Empire as the Dzril's eyes and ears. According to Wilder, seeing a High Kinthe was almost as rare as seeing a Dzril. Wilder himself had never met one. Only the Protectors' highest lords had that privilege.

"The Dzril will have no mercy," continued Wilder. "You Terrans were forged in the fires of violence just like my creators. If the Dzril leave you alone now, they will have to face you later."

Zechs stared into the lowered face. Without a word, he lifted a hand to cup one lean cheek.

"And I," Wilder said, voice lower still, "led them here."


On to part three. Back to part one.