Chapter Eighteen

by June

We went down to New Orleans
One weekend in the Spring.
Looked hard for what we'd lost.
It was painful to admit it, but we couldn't find a thing.
-Mountain Goats, "The Mess Inside"

"When we get out of this, when we see Howard again, I am going to make him his favorite dinner--from scratch with all fresh ingredients."

"What's his favorite dinner?"

Duo swiped the key card to our room and pushed open the door when the lock disengaged. "Jamaican jerk chicken. I have no idea how to make it, but by God, I will figure it out because I owe him big time for this."

The money that showed up in the Maganacs' account had done considerable work to loosen Duo back up after we'd been forced to skip L2. Howard had done business with the Maganacs before--according to Duo, it was some time during my first year at RCNP--so the money transfer shouldn't have been in the least bit suspicious. Or at least, if anyone was watching Howard, it shouldn't have thrown up any red flags. That's what Duo said, but I figured there were probably enough red flags up around all the people Duo had been in contact with before he'd sprung me from the hospital. No more were needed.

Duo tossed the duffel, our only luggage, onto the bed furthest from the door. "Wanna get some shuteye before we head out? The night cycle is pretty far along."

I nodded. "It'd be better to approach Dilawar's sister in as non-threatening a manner as possible. Daylight would be better for that."

"Yeah. Okay then, mind if I take the bathroom first?"

I shook my head and he grunted a thank you, taking his kit in with him and shutting the door.

I gave the room a quick once over, feeling along the walls and behind the curtains for anything out of the ordinary. It was highly unlikely that anyone could have beaten us here to plant bugs or cameras, but in my experience, it paid to be paranoid. The room had two double beds, and I tossed the blankets and mattress of the one closer to the door. Unsurprisingly, I found nothing. When the shower continued to run, I checked over the other bed, wondering whether Duo would want to sleep together or separately. Scythe hadn't had a big enough space for us to be together comfortably, so we'd each taken a bunk. The same had been true on the Maganac's ship, though even if there had been room, I didn't think Duo would have made such a statement about our relationship in front of so many others. I wouldn't have wanted to either.

But beyond simple space constraints, since the scare with Howard and after I'd revealed a bit more about what Karl had been to me, Duo had taken a sizable step back. I suspected it was because he hated being surprised. His affection was still there in the way he almost touched my back when we walked together or when he leaned close to murmur some sarcastic observation, but these inclinations embarrassed him now. He didn't know what to do with them. And I wasn't much help.

He finally emerged from the bathroom, damp and grinning. His hair was clean and pulled back in a loose knot at the base of his skull. When he stood by the bed with his duffel on it, he dropped his pile of clothes to the floor with obvious triumph. He looked at me and laughed.

"Isn't gravity the best? Look, they're staying exactly where they fell!" He pointed and then, to demonstrate, he bent to pick up his shirt and drop it again.

"I would have thought you were used to zero gravity with all the traveling you do."

He gave a full body shiver. "That was longer than usual, man. And I'd gotten spoiled hangin' out on Earth with you there at the end."

He rooted around in his bag and pulled out a clean pair of underwear, tugging them on underneath his towel. Then he let the towel drop, chuckling to himself as it too landed and stayed on the floor.

"You'd be a cheap date if you're this easy to please," I said, smiling.

He pulled on a new t-shirt, speaking after he'd worked the collar over his hair. "Hell, I don't even need dates. I find myself plenty amusing."

I swallowed and pushed the words out of my mouth before I could convince myself that I didn't need to know where we stood. "What about a date with me? Would not even that be..." I trailed off, quickly losing both steam and courage as Duo's mouth quirked in an unsure grin. "...amusing enough?" I managed to finish.

He scratched his elbow and huffed a short laugh.

I felt my face get hot and abruptly stood, reaching for his duffel to grab my own kit and then run for the bathroom. Before I could make my escape, though, he slid sideways to close off the space between the two beds.

"No one's ever asked me on a date before, you know."

"That wasn't an invitation," I said, looking over his shoulder. "That was a question as to whether the pleasure of your own company was superior to mine."

"I didn't even go on any dates with Hilde," he continued, undaunted.

I met his eyes then. "Not even with Hilde?"

He gave me a lopsided grin and gave the back of his neck a quick, sheepish rub. "No, I just moved in with her. We breezed right past that whole 'dating' phase."

"Why? Girls love that phase, don't they?"

He laughed again. "I'm not prepared to make that sort of generalization. I...I think I just shoved my way into her life because I wanted to be with someone. Dating never occurred to me."

I raised an eyebrow at him and waited for that to sink in a bit further. "But she must have enjoyed your company a great deal."

"She never said 'no,' but I probably didn't give her much of a chance to. Ha, well and then she kicked me out, kinda like you did." He gave a belated shrug.

"I refuse to feel guilty about that, just so you know. Though I'll pay the rent money I owe you as soon as I have access to my savings again."

He shrugged me off. "Whatever. Hey, I'm suddenly feeling a little depressed here. Maybe you should take your shower now so you don't have to see it."

I grabbed his bare elbow and leaned in to kiss him, even if he was realizing that he could be selfish and needy and oblivious. I didn't like him any less because of it. And he appeared willing to put up with me, despite all of my flaws and my readiness to point out his. I pushed my tongue into his mouth and hooked it against the backs of his teeth, and he grunted low in his throat tilting his head, opening his mouth against mine. Then he pulled back just far enough to speak, saying against my lips, "Go out with me? Let me buy you lunch and drive you home from school?"

My stomach did a few flips. "That's ridiculous."

"Ridiculously fun?"

"Implausible, more like."

"What's more likely to happen?"

"When we're both finally out on parole, I'll kick your ass until it's routine, three times a week, and then maybe cook something for you afterwards."

He leaned back to look at me, clearly skeptical. "Really?"

"And when you can fight at a level that's not embarrassing to me, we can exercise that starved brain of yours. You can read your first novel. Aloud. To me." I let go of his elbow and sidestepped around him toward the bathroom. "I am perfectly capable of getting myself home from school, thanks, should I for some reason decide to keep going."

"You're perfectly capable of reading on your own, too."

"Shut up; this conversation has gone on far longer than necessary."

Dilawar Said had lived in what could only have been called a respectable neighborhood. The homes were clean and new, set close together, even though they were built in the traditional style of the culture--low and sprawling. We couldn't go to Dilawar's house because his family was gone, casualties of past Alliance cruelty. The Said family home now belonged to a new family. Dilawar's sister lived with her husband's family, so that was where we went.

Asmaa Said did not answer the door when we knocked. Her older brother-in-law, who introduced himself as Nadir, brought us into their home. He took us through the house, introducing us to the nieces and nephews, the sisters and aunts, a set of grandparents, and finally the mother, who didn't say anything to us, but nodded her head, indicating her tolerance of our presence. Asmaa emerged from somewhere further inside the house, greeting us quietly and with not a small amount of suspicion. We kept our eyes lowered as she came closer. Looking at her sandaled feet, I felt rootless and blank. I couldn't even remember the feel of my mourning clothes, the tight tail at the back of neck or any of my extensive schooling with my masters. Everything in this house was ancient and I had no traditions of my own. I wondered how Duo felt.

He spoke first, addressing Nadir. "We've come from Earth, Rome specifically, looking for the truth about the death of Asmaa's brother, Dilawar. We wanted to express our sincere regret for your loss, but we were hoping that she--or you--could tell us a bit more about him and about what happened to him."

I wondered how much preparation he'd done for this meeting, whether he'd had to brush up on his etiquette, or whether he'd always known how to address practicing Muslim women. He'd never struck me as someone who worried if he was rude or not, but I knew that he also hated surprises.

After a moment of awkward silence, during which Nadir and Asmaa may have had a silent conversation we couldn't see, Asmaa laughed. "You may address me directly, though thank you for your tact. We keep many traditions in this house, though not all of them. Before I talk to you about my brother, however, I would ask for your names."

We both looked up then and I could feel Duo relax a bit beside me. Then I bowed to her and gave her my real name, not the one on the documents that had gotten us onto the colony. "Chang Wufei."

I half-expected Duo to extend his hand, but he didn't, instead giving her a short nod. "I'm Duo Maxwell."

She smiled at him, though it came with a raised eyebrow. "I know who you are, Mr. Maxwell. Your face was all over the news a few years ago. You were quite the poster boy, though not the kind you hoped for, I'm sure."

Duo grinned ruefully and shook his head, reflexively reaching under his braid to rub his neck. "No, ma'am. The cameras caught me on a bad day."

Then she turned to me. "And I imagine, I've heard all about your deeds as well, though there hasn't been a face or a name to put with them. Do you mind if I ask which one of them you were?" Even then, even there, off-planet and in another person's home, I had to fight down the reaction I'd had for the last two years to any mention or questions concerning my involvement in the first Eve War. I'd always dealt with them quickly and loudly so that everyone knew the topic was not up for discussion. Asmaa would not have appreciated such a disrespectful reaction and her brother-in-law certainly wouldn't have.

"I came from L5," I said stiffly. "The part of it that's no longer there."

"I see," she murmured, nodding her head in sympathy.

It was quite the leap to make, assuming that the boy traveling with Duo Maxwell was another former pilot, but I didn't comment. If her brother's involvement in the war was anything to go by, then it seemed this family was more politically savvy than most. I already liked her quite a bit.

"We came here with a pretty specific goal in mind, actually," Duo spoke up. "Could we talk with you privately about it?"

At his forward tone, Nadir stiffened, but Asmaa turned to him and said something sharp in Arabic. The man then turned to scoop up one of the children crawling his way across the floor, pushing a toy truck ahead of him, and plopped him into Asmaa's arms. She hugged the surprised little boy close and then gestured for us to follow her into an adjacent room.

It was clearly a child's bedroom. Several small people could have slept in the big bed in the corner. A brightly colored quilt covered it and that was where she sat, putting the boy back on the floor between us. Across the room from the bed, there were two small desks against the wall, with colored paper and crayons scattered across the top. We each took a chair and when we were seated, she looked us over again with that shrewd, assessing gaze. "So, what specifically was it you wanted to know that you would come to my family's home when my husband is away at work?"

We'd agreed before we left the hotel that Duo would do most of the talking. He was less intimidating and certainly more charming to anyone who appreciated such a trait. We'd also agreed to go straight to the heart of our questions, not wanting to waste any time feeling out Asmaa's willingness to talk. We figured she'd make it clear more or less from the beginning whether she had anything to say to us.

"Asmaa, we want to know what sort of relationship your brother had with Quatre Winner, if or how they knew each other." Duo said it openly and earnestly with wide serious eyes and posture that indicated his keen interest in her answer. She wasn't someone who struck me as particularly susceptible to charm, but she also appeared willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe she just really wanted to talk about her brother.

Lines appeared by her eyes when her face twitched downward into a frown. "My brother knew lots of people in our community. Quatre Winner was an acquaintance."

"But did they know each other?" Duo sat forward in his seat.

She shrugged and looked down at the child spinning in a circle on his knees, running the truck along an imaginary road. "They would have been hard-pressed to avoid each other, but they didn't share many ideas. The only interest that overlapped for them was the preservation of our community, the strengthening of local bonds. They both cared about that equally, I think."

"Was this part of your brother's effort to keep Arabic as a spoken language in this quadrant?"

Asmaa gave him a wry smile. "You've been researching my brother's activities, have you?"

Duo nodded, undaunted and unabashed. "We know he was a vocal critic of Alliance involvement with the colonies. We know he was part of the resistance before the war finally broke out. We want to know what was going on with him when he was killed."

She nodded. "And what would that have to do with Quatre Winner?"

"They died within a week of each other and Quatre was supposed to meet Dilawar during that week, at least according to his schedule. Would it have been to talk Dilawar's language project?"

She shook her head sharply, no. "It's true they both cared about their home, but they differed greatly as to how. Dilawar wanted to preserve an identity he saw as threatened. Quatre Winner wanted to bring the quadrant on board for something a bit more ambitious."

"Like what?"

"My brother said it was a sort of community watch organization but on an inter-colony scale with the populations assuming more responsibility for their own well-being, keeping closer watch for signs of unhappiness and unease."

"Did Quatre want your brother to be a part of this?" Duo asked.

"He wanted everyone to be a part of it, but Dilawar was a good representative for this area."

"Would their meeting have been to talk about that, you think?"

She shrugged. "I don't know anything about that meeting. Perhaps. My brother always had a bit of a temper. Something about this initiative--and Quatre Winner wasn't its only powerful advocate--rubbed him the wrong way. He felt that he was being watched and that he was being asked to watch others. The whole thing was too coercive for him."

Duo glanced at me and the excited glint in his eyes told me that my sweating palms were warranted. "Asmaa, did this community/colony watch organization have a name?" Duo had both feet hooked around the legs of his chair, and he was twitching his heels up and and down.

She watched him nearly vibrating in his seat with amused dark eyes. "I'm not actually sure. The project never got off the ground, not after Quatre Winner died. My brother's death also led to a significant loss of support in this neighborhood, even though the project was supposed to prevent the kind of thing that happened to both of them. It was odd how quickly the wind went of the sails."

"When he was killed, was there any reason for you to suspect something fishy, that your brother was in trouble or that he had any enemies?"

She looked down at the child again, who had fallen asleep with his face pressed against two of the truck wheels. "I know that he was unhappy, that he was troubled by where he thought we were headed. He worried about what could happen to our way of life if we were all watching each other for anything deemed suspicious." She shook her head. "He was proud and good. He wouldn't want me telling you his problems."

"I've been under close surveillance for the last two years," I volunteered, "for my involvement in both wars."

Her gaze lifted to mine as Duo snorted a sharp laugh. "Turns out I have been, too. It'd make anyone go a little nutty."

She nodded. "He tried talking to someone about it, someone that Quatre Winner recommended, actually, but I don't think he liked going to see that man."

"Quatre recommended a therapist to your brother?" It was out of my mouth before I could haul it back.

She nodded, not offended by my incredulous tone. "It was soon after the community watch organization had been proposed, when my brother had voiced his strong objections to it. Quatre Winner made the gesture out of what I'm sure he considered to be good-hearted concern."

"Who was it?" Duo asked, pulling a pad of paper and a pen out of his coat pocket.

"He never told me; that wasn't the sort of thing he'd tell anyone."

He nodded his understanding. "What about the names of the other people who supported that initiative? That'd be real helpful, too."

She exhaled and frowned. "Well, that's a bit easier. All the important figures in this quadrant were on board when--"

The sound of Nadir's raised voice stopped all of us mid-breath and startled the child awake. He sat up and rubbed his cheek, which had tire tracks imprinted upon it. Asmaa bent forward to pick him up and nervously eyed the door. Another man's voice sounded from inside the house.

"We just want to talk to Asmaa; we're not here to cause trouble."

"You're causing trouble barging into my house uninvited and entering without my permission. I will notify the authorities if you do not leave this instant!"

I sat very still in my chair, even as Duo sprang to his feet. "I know that voice," I said.

Asmaa's sharp eyes flicked to mine. "You children should go now," she said, her voice low and sober.

"Have there been others, Asmaa, other people asking around about your brother?" Duo demanded, taking an aggressive step toward her. I grabbed his wrist to keep him back, struggling to stay ahead of what was happening.

"No, Duo," she said, "but there have been men here looking for you."

He tensed and spun around to face me, jerking his hand out of my grip. "Were we followed? We couldn't have been; we were so careful. We made sure."

I closed my eyes and saw Karl standing at the foot of my hospital bed holding a Preventer's badge--dirty, and manic with his new freedom. I saw him dressed in a crisp white shirt, telling me that he missed me and that I had to be careful wherever I went. I saw him tapping a folder against his leg. "This is where you should pick up, Wufei."

"We weren't followed," I murmured. "He knew we would eventually come here."

"What? Who?"

I finally stood up from the tiny desk, straightening my clothes. "Karl knows what we know. He knows everything you've done for me, Duo. He's been through every file on your computer."

"You both should leave now," she said again. "Out the side door."

"How do we get there?" I asked.

"Out to the left, then another left, all the way to the end."

I pushed Duo ahead of me toward the doorway. The voices were getting closer. "Thank you for talking to us," I said in a rush. "Though I don't know why you would help us, if you were already being harassed."

She smiled and stood, hoisting the child higher on her hip. "Because you're just boys. And my brother always supported what you stood for."

I bowed in acknowledgment and farewell and shoved Duo out into the hallway. "Come on," I growled. "Time to run." Judging by the volume of the voices, Nadir had stalled Karl and the men with him in the main room where Asmaa had first greeted us. Duo stumbled ahead of me and I grabbed his arm to keep him upright. "Let's go," I hissed. "We can still stay ahead of them." We both looked over our shoulders as we turned the corner and I knocked right into Duo when he stopped dead, hand on the wall to keep me from dragging him out of sight.

He was standing in the hall, just a little out of breath. Even from several paces away, I could see that he was in one of his bad spells. He probably hadn't slept more than a few hours in the last week. But his blond hair was cut shorter and neatly parted on the side. His clothes fit his lean frame, though they were a bit wrinkled. His eyes were nearly swallowed in dark circles. He smiled wide enough to show me that his broken teeth had been fixed.

"How long have you been planning this?" I gritted. "How long have you been using me?"

"Don't jump to conclusions, now," he said. "Not when you've already come so far so quickly."

I felt Duo let go of the wall and turn to face Karl full on, though he stayed at my back. "Are you here to turn us in?" he asked. We weren't armed; we'd agreed we couldn't be when entering Asmaa's home and asking her for help. We weren't prepared for a fight.

Karl's lip curled just a little as he lifted his eyes to Duo's. "Depends on whether you're still useful, I guess." He looked at Duo with open contempt and I was sure that if I turned around, I'd see his expression mirrored in Duo's.

I took a half step forward, wondering whether I'd even once intimidated him in the two years I'd known him. Now wasn't going to be the time to start if I hadn't. "Tell me what you want from all this. Tell me why you betrayed and lied to me."

He looked down at my balled fist, his answer pitched low. "I don't think there's time for me to answer those questions given your circumstances. But would you believe me if I said I just wanted to stay occupied--that I wanted to avoid rotting in that cell?"

"Yes," I hissed.

He exhaled a laugh and looked up to me again, blinking his dark smudged eyes. The blue in them stood out more sharply by contrast. "Well, that'll have to do for now."

Duo was growing tenser by the second at my back and when Karl spoke again, he only wound himself tighter. I could feel that he was ready to spring.

"But in case I never get the chance to say this, I wanted to thank you for accepting me so quickly, given that toward most everyone in that place you were aggressive and belligerent. You're smart and passionate and uncompromising, but I felt that we were like partners. For a while, I felt like I could have been one of the five. Sorry, I mean four."

I reached behind me to put a restraining hand on Duo's arm. Karl watched me do it and his grin widened. This was what he excelled at; he'd told me many times. He wasn't much of a fighter, but he could rip a person apart verbally with admirable economy.

"I even look like him, right? I was hoping that just once you would have said his name instead of mine, maybe when we were in the showers toge--"

Duo lunged for Karl even as I spun around to grab his waist. "No, Duo," I said in his ear. "Let's go; let's just go. He can't stop us both."

He shook his head and snarled, "Such a slimy--"

"It's good to see you've found someone who's still willing to defend your honor, Chang. It wasn't something I could ever be bothered with."

"Because you had none to begin," I snapped over my shoulder, still fighting with Duo to get him around the corner. "You are a disgrace to Kushrenada's memory."

When the two men who'd come with Karl finally made it past Nadir, I saw a momentary slump in Karl's shoulders. I couldn't tell whether he was relieved or disappointed, but in the moment before we finally turned and ran, I raked my eyes over all three of them, finding nothing to mark them as Preventers. Then Duo grabbed my arm and shouted, "Go!" So we went.

"Hey, up there, quick!" We switched directions, darting between two houses and scrambling up a bunch of pallets to reach the roof. Duo made it before me and turned to haul me up after him. "You okay?" he asked breathlessly as we took off again. "How's your back holding up?"

"It's fine for now," I grunted. The roofs were all flat and wide, and with the houses so close together, it didn't take too much skill or strength to jump from one to the next. But every time I landed, I felt like there was a 50-50 chance that my knee would give out.

Duo glanced back over his shoulder and cursed. "Dammit, those guys are hard to lose. Bergsen's not with 'em, though." I chanced a quick look and saw them hoisting themselves up onto the roof where we had a minute before. We were pulling ahead because we were younger and quicker, but they weren't giving up. And they had guns, which tended to make the distance between two people shrink very quickly.

"Karl's a smoker and he's out of shape," I said. "And I'm sure he'd consider this below him."

We made it to he next house and I bit down on a sharp cry, just managing to keep it behind my teeth. I struggled upright and kept going.

"When the fuck did he get out of prison, anyway? And what makes you think he's been through my stuff?"

"After they pulled me out of the coma and before they took me off morphine, he was in my room I think three separate times."

"What? Why didn't you say something?" Duo turned to briefly glare at me.

"Because I thought I was hallucinating," I snapped. "He had a Preventer's badge the first night; I thought he was Quatre the second night; the third time he said he had all the names and information that you'd been collecting since you'd been living with Sam. None of it made any sense."

"Shit, you think he's with Preventers? You think those guys are Preventers?" He looked over his shoulder again and grimaced.

"All I know is that someone who I thought was a hallucination showed me a badge that he was very proud of. Maybe that part was a hallucination and the rest was real. I don't know." I pressed my hand against a painful stitch in my side. Running and talking weren't supposed to go together. "But if he was in Rome the same time you were, if he was out, then I think the information he wanted to show me that night was real. And if the people who were watching you knew you were headed to L4 to get in touch with the Maganacs, and he's with them, then he could guess that we would investigate one of the deaths that happened closest to Quatre's home. He wouldn't have to follow us; he'd know where we'd start--"

"Wu, that guy's actually gonna take a shot!" Duo interrupted.

I turned in time to see one of the men go down on his knee, raising and steadying his gun with two hands.

"We gotta get down from here," Duo shouted breathlessly. "Lose 'em a different way."

I nodded and reached for him, pushing his head down even as the gun fired. We tripped and stumbled to the edge of the roof and then dropped to the ground. I tried to roll when I hit, but this time I couldn't keep silent when my back and knee protested the strain I'd put on them. It came out a sharp barking whine and Duo was at my side in the next second, pulling me to my feet. I could barely put any weight on my knee and my back was on fire.

"You have to help me," I gritted.

"Okay," he said, securing his arm around my waist. Then we heard another gun shot. They were already on the ground, trying to flank us from the right. Adrenalin came to my rescue once again and the pain faded far enough into the background that I could run.

We stopped finally when we were both completely out of breath, turning down a side street in one of the more empty, run down parts of the quadrant. We found a bit of shadow and collapsed back against a plaster wall, bent forward over our knees to keep from passing out. I was numb pretty much from the ribs down and the fact that I was still able to move was definitely encouraging, but I knew I'd be a mess by tonight. I probably wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. I couldn't remember ever being as tired as I was right then. But we'd lost them about fifteen minutes back and had kept running just to be certain.

I jumped when Duo grabbed my elbow and shoved me upright. I tried to take a step back when I saw the angry glint in his eyes, tried to put a more suitable bit of space between us, but my heels were already backed up against the wall. Duo kept hold of my arm and pushed hard, scraping my shoulder against the rough plaster.

"What was he to you?" he gritted. "I know you were more than neighbors. I know he was fucking... playing with you from the second I saw you together, but were you... were you with him?" His body language was aggressive, his expression a little wild. He was just as high as I was on adrenalin and fear.

"Yes," I spat out between heaving breaths, not feeling that I needed to cushion any of it right then. "We were together." Trying to catch my breath, I coughed up and spit out phlegm. The air was thinner on the colonies and my lungs weren't used to it yet. None of me was used to it yet. "He was a target for a bunch of Romefeller thugs who kicked the shit out of him as part of their Wednesday afternoon free time and so I stepped up and claimed him. I protected him."

At my words, Duo's face contorted with hurt and jealousy. His throat worked around something that he wanted to shout at me but couldn't quite get out. He was still leaning into me, one hand painfully fisted around my bicep. I slid my shoulder blades down the wall as far as he'd let me, cocking my hips out toward him. I smirked up at him, oddly detached from the words that came out of my mouth. I blamed it on stress and pain overload.

"He was like this every time we screwed. He wanted me closing him in; he liked to feel cornered. He liked it when I hurt him a little, shoved his head against the cinder blocks."

Duo looked at me like he was afraid of me.

And that was one thing that was different between the two of them. Even though I'd always been the one to fuck Karl, even though I technically protected him, I was never in charge. I never felt that I had any power over him, not like I had over Duo right then.

"You fucking asshole," he said between his teeth. "You knew that I--"

"That you what, liked me? Wanted me?" I laughed, still a little out of breath. "I thought maybe you did, but what good would that have done me in that place? The men saw you, they saw how you looked at me and touched me, and that only made it worse. You were something to exploit. Karl and I could be partners of a sort, but if you wanted me, then I was a faggot. They saw that fucking bandanna and it was like a goddamn banner that said I was off-limits, even when you weren't there. It was a banner and an invitation."

He swallowed hard and looked a little sick. "You never told me. You never said anything!"

"How could I? You came to see me all the time and you were so goddamn persistent and you kept touching me, getting closer every time, I didn't know what to do."

"You could have told me to back off!"

"I didn't want you to back off!"

"Then why did you go to him? Why did you let him touch you and get his claws in you? Why did you let him change you? Why didn't you wait for me?"

And even though we were on a roll by then, my breath caught in my throat momentarily at the destroyed look he was giving me.

"Because I could keep him safe and he could keep me safe. And he was like me, Duo; he distracted me from everything I wasn't allowed to have. I couldn't just decide that I was with you. And you're fucking more naive than I thought if you think that's the way it worked in there."

Anguished blue eyes finally broke from mine and he hung his head, leaning back from the wall, away from me. But I grabbed him by the belt and jerked him forward again, fitting our hips together and pulling his mouth to mine with a hand on the back of his neck. He grunted a protest and tried to pull back but I growled a warning into his mouth and spun us around, smacking him up against the wall in my place. He looked at me wide-eyed and dazed, but only momentarily, his brow sloping down into a fierce scowl.

"You really want to know what he was to me?" I asked, feeling mean and in control and liking it more than I should have. "I can show you right now." We stood nose to nose, and he held himself very still against the wall as I pushed my hand down the front of his pants. He was hard and he didn't look at all happy about it. With my other hand I undid the button and zipper of his jeans, forcing his underwear lower on his hips with my wrist. "You're bigger than him," I observed. "And uncut. I always thought his looked strange--naked without foreskin." I jerked him off, quick and rough. His breath sped up and he didn't take his eyes off me. "He didn't like me to stretch him much before we had sex either, and I think it was because he was used to other men giving it to him a lot more cruelly than I did." Duo was squirming against the wall, his fingernails scratching through the plaster. "He liked it when--"

"Do you miss him?" Duo said in a rush, slipping out of his anger like he couldn't help it. "Do you wish you could still be with him, even after everything he did? That's all I care about. I don't want to know the rest."

I looked into Duo's eyes and couldn't think of an answer. I closed my own, shutting out Duo's handsome, healthy features and really tried to remember Karl, every broken smile, every cigarette, the curve of his spine when he arched away from the wall, the ugliness of his betrayal in the sick room, the ugliness of my own anger when I forced him over the table in the library carrel. I opened my eyes to Duo's wary gaze. My hand had slowed. He swallowed and then sniffed.

"I don't want to forget him. That's all."

He nodded.

"What do you want?" I asked, looking at my hand on his cock. "Do you want me to stop?"

He shook his head and took a slow breath. Then he smiled a little wickedly. "You're different. Than you were, before. You're mean and a little manipulative," he said, voice rough. "But that's still you, somehow." It was a peace offering even though it didn't sound like one.

I tried to smile and grimaced instead. "We finish now or we don't at all. I can stand for maybe five more minutes."

Duo's laugh was dry and tired. Gently taking my arms, he reversed our positions again, putting my back to the wall. I leaned against it with a heavy grunt, but Duo stole the sound out of my mouth as he pressed close and kissed me, fumbling with the fly of my jeans by feel alone. I tried to help him, but he batted my hands away, finally managing to pull my pants low enough that he could grab both his erection and mine. He broke the kiss long enough to spit into his hand, offering his palm to me with a mumbled apology that his hands were rough. Not really caring by that point, I followed suit and spit into my own palm. He grinned when we resumed jerking each other off, our combined saliva serving as lubricant.

"You like it when I'm manipulative?" I asked into his mouth.

I felt him shrug. "Not really. Only in retrospect, when I've figured out whether you're just fucking with me or whether you're serious."

"I thought I was being serious."

"We probably wouldn't be doing this right now, if you had been. Nngh. Chang, shut up for a bit."

We tried to be quiet, but the sound we made, thrusting into our circled hands, was obscene and erotic and soon Duo was gasping curses into my ear, telling me exactly how close he was to orgasm. "Sshh," I hissed distractedly, trying to focus on the itch in my lower abdomen that meant I was close, too. I didn't have any more adrenalin and I was about to run out of lust and when that happened, Duo was probably going to have to carry me to a bed, but I refused to worry about that as Duo finally wrung the last of my energy out of me. I came with an exhausted groan just before he did, slumping further down the wall until he took a shuddering breath and helped me straighten, speaking low and quick in my ear.

"God, I swear I won't let anyone take you away again. I'd go anywhere you wanted, just--"

"Just get me home," I said fuzzily, anticipating the time when the pleasant buzzing in my fingers would change to searing pain in my back and leg.

My eyes already closed, I felt Duo hesitate before setting about cleaning us up the best he could. Then he turned around and went down on his knees. "Climb on, buddy," he said.

I fell forward onto his back and then he carefully stood up, hooking his hands under my knees and hoisting me higher up above his hips. I wrapped my arms around his neck and lay my head on his shoulder. "Are we going home?"

He hesitated as we stepped out into the bright artificial light of the colony day cycle. "I don't really know where you mean, Wu."

Find more of June at her Livejournal.

On to part nineteen. Back to part seventeen.