Chapter Nine

by June

It made me remember the sunflower
That popped-up outside my window one morning in Norwalk.
It was bright yellow and it was real inviting
And I almost forgot that it was an intruder.

And I saw you against the soda machine.
I saw you leaning there.
-Mountain Goats, "Chino Love Long 1979"

Onur's shoulder bumped up against mine as I neared the cell block. Almost all of the men had returned to their rooms by that point and I knew the doors would be locking in another minute or so, but I had to see Karl. Tapping through cinder blocks would not suffice tonight. The adrenalin still slamming through my blood stream would not allow it.

"Is Karl back yet?" I asked.

Onur's gaze slid to mine and then away just as quickly. "I don't know," he answered. "I didn't stop by the room before I went looking for you. I figured you'd be sticking your nose where it didn't belong and, what to do you know, there you were, inside the caution tape, no less."

I itched to get back to the room, to tell Karl what I'd seen. "There was no caution tape."

"I was speaking figuratively," he growled, eyes sweeping over the cell block with a protective glint. "You were with your incredibly dangerous friend openly disobeying the orders blaring over every speaker. You were--"

"I was trying to find out who's having us killed off," I said between clenched teeth, just loud enough so he heard me over the continuing buzz of men talking.

He shook his head and rumbled, "I was very afraid you were going to say that."

I looked up at him. "Yeah? Have you been thinking the same thing, Onur?"

His dark eyes narrowed. "Of course not. Your paranoia is staggering and, thankfully, not contagious. But I know you, Chang. I know what being around your friends does to you, what you're like when they're here."

I snorted in disgust at the sheer audacity and inaccuracy of a statement like that. "You know nothing of my friends and you know nothing about what I'm really like," I spat. "You--"

"I think that I do," he snapped back, voice heavy and thicker with subtext. I stopped and turned narrowed eyes on him. He didn't look angry; he looked frustrated and a little resigned. "I'm not threatening you and I'm not scolding you; I am warning you to be careful. You think that everyone avoids you because you've built a reputation for yourself and that is surely true to some extent. But you're not as much of a mystery as you think. Maxwell's face was all over the news when he was captured during the first war. Barton and Yuy are the same kind of person. Winner was--" I stiffened in anticipation. "Winner completed the set. He made you a whole. I know they're your good friends, no matter what I might think of them personally. They wouldn't want to see you hurt, wouldn't want you putting yourself in the position where you could be hurt."

I could feel the rest of the lecture about to drop, so I preempted it. "That's a funny thing for you to say, an L4 White Fang volunteer. Because your gang had so much more chance of success than mine."

He flinched but then shrugged. "I had no family left when I made that decision. And I'm still not sure it was the right one. It has marked me for a lifetime. The choices you make here matter as much as the ones you made before, though it may not seem like it."

I left him standing there outside our cell and entered Karl's doorway, pausing to call over my shoulder, "Lock down is in a minute. I probably won't make it. This is a choice I'm comfortable with."

His expression tightened and he looked away. "You are--"

"Not listening," I said with a finality that he could not ignore. His jaw clenched and he disappeared into our room without another word, shoulders hunched around a disappointment in me that he could never seem to let go. I turned to see Karl regarding me from his bunk, one of his accounting books propped up in his lap, one pale eyebrow raised in question.

"You could do a lot worse than listen to Onur," he said. "You could listen to me. That would certainly be worse."

In the few weeks since I'd made my intentions toward Karl known, he'd often pointed out that it wasn't the smartest move I'd ever made nor the safest. I argued differently and even if I eventually got him to see it my way by the end of the conversation, he still sometimes looked at me with an expression of deeper knowledge and sadness that told me he thought I'd made a mistake throwing my lot in with him, like he thought that he was ruining something for me, something important. Onur appeared to agree whole-heartedly.

And I was sick to death of feeling the judgment of others for my choices. They may have been shitty decisions, but they were mine to make and they were my consequences to deal with. And I didn't make them recklessly, no matter what anyone thought.

I strode the rest of the way into his room and stopped at his bunk, reaching up to grab his ankle and tug his legs over the side of mattress. He smiled at me and sat up, closing his book and spreading his knees so that his feet swung on either side of me. I slid my hand up from his ankle to his calf and then to his kneecap, a possessive touch, the kind I was getting used to making more often so that others could see who he belonged with. I looked up at him and his smile widened.

"I don't listen to you either," I said.

"Sometimes you do."

I tugged hard on his pant leg and he slid down from the bunk to stand directly in front of me. His eyes were bright with the knowledge of the chaos all around us. Basker and O'Malley's deaths were not weighing heavy on his mind. I could see that he was elated. He never looked this excited just to have me in his room. The frenetic energy of all the inmates seemed concentrated in his wiry body. It vibrated out of him in waves that smelled of sweat and relief.

"You're glad they're dead," I said, sliding one foot forward between his, angling our hips a bit closer together.

"I'm not sorry," he replied, resting his head against the bunk, back bent, inviting me to lean forward over him.

The loudspeakers finally fell silent then, after what felt like hours of blaring warnings and reminders, and the rush of quiet that followed was startling, despite the continued low buzz of inmates' voices. It lasted for a few seconds, during which I watched the door where it stood open, counting down in my head, looking away when the bell sounded and it slid shut and locked. I turned back to Karl. "Looks like I'm stuck here for a bit."

"You better hope it's not Brandt who comes to get you out of here." Karl said the name as though it had a foul taste to it. He never spoke of the other inmates with whom he'd involved himself with such disdain. He didn't really speak of them at all, which was fine by me; I didn't want to know about them. He reserved all his disdain for Brandt. Whatever the reasons for our relationship, whatever form it took between the two of us and in front of everyone else, I knew Karl did not miss having Brandt observe from the corner of a library cubicle.

"He's a worm and he has no power over you anymore."

"Doesn't mean he won't find ways to make your life miserable."

I rested my hand on the small of his back and pressed lightly against him. "This was the right thing to do and I don't regret it."

Karl pushed off the bunk and brought his mouth close to my ear. "You have a way of always sounding certain about things even when you're not."

I turned my nose into his jaw and rubbed it against light brown stubble. We were safer together, openly in a relationship, than we were alone and that was a good enough reason for both of us, but these intimate touches soothed a lonely ache that I'd been living with, and that feeling was probably more of a factor in my motivation for being with Karl than I wanted to think about. "Fools enough people," I muttered against his skin.

"Here's one to throw you off then," he whispered. "Why haven't you fucked me yet?" He bit my earlobe and then chuckled when he felt me shiver. "You made your claim, made yourself the only person allowed near my ass, and all you do is jerk me off after I suck your cock. Not the smartest move you've ever made, is it, Chang, taking me off the market and then not taking advantage of what you got." He pushed his hips into mine and of their own accord, mine rolled back into his. "Afraid you'll catch something from me?"

I shoved some distance between us and pushed his shoulders back against his bunk. I took a breath. "Yeah, pretty much." His hair had flopped into his face and he twitched it aside.

"I won't be so easily insulted," he murmured. "I've seen you looking at the condoms I keep by the sink. When are you going to fuck me?"

The fact that I was stronger than him, that I could easily dominate him physically, had not meant that I automatically wanted to be the dominant one in the relationship. This, however, was what was expected. I avoided talking about it when I could.

A nudge of his thigh against the inside of mine, even from the greater distance between us made my throat close up on whatever I was about to say. I swallowed and took another breath. "There are other things we should be discussing right now," I said, trying for authoritative.

"Like what?" he asked, as though there really was nothing at all to talk about besides why we weren't currently fucking.

"How about that neither Basker nor O'Malley's deaths fit with the pattern of Benji, Vasil, and Quatre?"

Karl rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. "Sure they do. They were both leaders, just not of the good kind. As I recall, we made a list for them. O'Malley was even on it."

I shook my head and felt it clear a bit, distancing myself from the sensations below the waistline of my uniform. "But they were more thugs than real leaders. They drew people to them out of fear; they could never bring anyone with brains. Once their sentences were up, they would have been out for a grand total of three days before assaulting someone and ending up in real prison. The state punishes people like them with incarceration; it doesn't assassinate them under the guise of a knifing in the storeroom."

Karl gave me his lopsided smirk and shrugged again. "Very good. So, they don't fit our previous pattern. Vasil and Benji and Quatre could have rallied hundreds or maybe thousands around them with the right provocation and the right words. These two clearly could not. So where do they fit?"

"They don't fit," I snapped. "Not unless we're widening the net to anyone who's dangerous, which would include basically everyone in this fucking place, excluding, of course, my roommate."

Karl appeared to turn this over in his head. "Hmm," he nearly purred, jerking me forward so that I pressed against him again. "I'm not feeling particularly safe for the new regime right now; are you?"

I put my hands on either side of his head, gripping the metal frame of the bed. He liked it when I did this; he liked to feel boxed in, though I didn't think it was because he actually liked to feel trapped. I thought it was because he liked watching others feel as though they were dominating him. It made him feel in control when he might otherwise not have been. Because I didn't particularly feel like I was in charge, this posed a challenge to the dynamic he was used to.

"Try and be serious, Karl."

"I am being serious."

"Then are you afraid you're next? Basker and O'Malley didn't start all those fights--you started a few with them. Are you scared now?"

"I don't know." He paused. "I don't think so. What do you think?" He looked up at me through his hair, and I gave a sharp shrug, forming my answer carefully. We'd never considered adding our own names to the list because in no capacity whatsoever could we count ourselves as leaders here. During the first war, Karl had worked alone or with a small team of elite specialists and I kept basically quiet about anything before my role in the second war. And anyway, I was more concerned for Duo's safety than my own. At this point, he was more of a wild card and a potential leader than I. The point was, while neither of us were "safe" per se, we wouldn't have fit the pattern. I couldn't compare myself to Quatre in this way; though Duo and perhaps Heero, if he spoke up more often, could. "Well," I finally ventured. "If we're talking both influence and power, you clearly have no influence here. That's certain." I watched for his reaction, but he only smiled. "But power? Sometimes I think you're three-quarters of the way through a plot to bring this place to its knees." His smile widened to a grin.

"Burning blades of grass with matches is just the beginning. Wait and see," he said. Standing within the relative shelter of my arms, his pale eyes seemed to glow a bit in the dim light. His body felt sharp and dangerous pressed up against mine. "Do you want to know what I think of you, Chang--whether I think you could be next?"

I shook my head. "Not really."

Images from the crime scene flickered behind my eyes. The bodies became any number of people I knew or had known in the wars. They became Karl and Quatre, then Heero and Trowa, then Duo and I. I looked down on them with the critical, practiced eye of a Preventer. I felt Heero's grip on my wrist and the urgent need to understand why this was happening to us. I didn't want to know exactly why Karl thought I could be one of those bodies because whatever he said would probably be close to the truth.

I tried to be taller, tried to make it so that when I said "not really" he listened and didn't say what he intended to say, but it was just posturing. I knew how to manipulate a giant robot, and to a lesser extent, someone who functioned similarly, someone like Heero, but Karl would always be beyond me. But I could hurt him if I really wanted to.

I gripped his arms, digging my fingers into his biceps, and shoved him sideways along the bunk until we reached its edge. He stumbled along with me, trying to keep his feet under him, until the support of the bed frame at his back was gone and then he tripped backwards, fetching up against the cinder-block wall with a sharp grunt. "Say it," I hissed. "Go ahead."

He reached up to rub the back of his head and the pads of his fingers came away smeared with a bit of blood. He glared a challenge at me, daring me to listen. "You know what I think? I think you're more dangerous than most the rest of the men and women here put together. But only under certain circumstances. I think you're dangerous when your friends are here, for one, because they make you a whole person instead of a cranky, belligerent, and insecure literature geek. But more than just making you better, they make you remember who you really are. And when you remember that, you are doubly, triply dangerous because then you remember what you stood for, what you still stand for."

Onur was right--I was a fool to think that my past was a mystery before the second war. I should have known that Karl would have figured out, probably the moment I got here, exactly who I was and what I stood for. I grabbed him by the shaggy hair at the back of his neck and tilted his head back, a growl rumbling up from my chest. But he kept his eyes locked with mine and didn't stop. "Do you want me to tell you what that is?" he whispered. I saw his Adam's apple bob up and down as he swallowed.

"Tell me."

His arms came up slowly until they rested on mine, sliding along my forearms. Then one was around my throat, long fingers wrapping almost the whole way to the back of my neck. I had my thumb pressed against his carotid in the same second, but my heart still hammered against my ribs in surprise. I would have thought I'd be used to this sort of thing from him by now.

"Chang," he started, and I could feel the vibrations of his vocal chords against my palm, "Here, in this place, when you remember who you are, you are chaos and rebellion and violence." He said this with a slight sneer.

"Sounds about right, coming from a Treize loyalist," I sneered in reply. His fingers tightened around my throat and I pressed my thumb harder against the artery.

"And hope and maybe freedom," he finished.

I dropped my hand and tried to step away from him, but he grabbed the collar of my t-shirt and pulled me into a hard kiss. When he broke it, he kept his lips against mine. "You were the only who could have killed him," he whispered, breath entering my mouth and feeling like it might be poison.

"I was the right person to kill him or you figured out that I was the only one who could have done it?" For some reason, it seemed terribly important that I make the distinction. And I didn't need to ask him who he was talking about.

"Both, of course." His tongue trailed along my upper lip, tasting the sweat that had gathered there. "Are you going to fuck me now? I know what you are--I could tell everyone here what you did, that you are more of a terrorist than even the most depraved zealot from White Fang or OZ. You killed my leader. You've killed thousands."

"So have you," I whispered.

"Yes, but you actually pulled the trigger. You'd be dead by lunchtime tomorrow if they knew exactly who you were, who you are."

"What makes you think they don't know already?" Karl looked like he had an answer to that, but I cut him off, not really wanting to hear it. "And you want me to have sex with you so that you won't broadcast my history to the entire facility?"

He leaned back to look me in the eye. "No, I want to fuck because I like you."

I blinked and realized that it was impossible to know whether that was sarcasm or sincerity.

"Are you a bad person, Karl?"

Now it was his turn to blink at me. "Do you really care?"

After two years of semi-friendship and nearly a month of something else that might have been deeper or might have just been unforgivable weakness, I didn't know why I thought expressly asking the question would lead to an answer.

"Of course I care."


His expression was conflicted as he regarded me from such a short distance. The mask of self-assurance, of confidence in his own mental superiority slid and flickered across his features, but the nervous movement of his eyes said that he was genuinely curious.

"Because I don't have sex with bad people." He searched my face and I hoped that it was because he couldn't tell whether that was sarcasm or sincerity.

He shifted against the wall, rubbed at a scab on his chin, tapped the middle finger of his left hand against his thigh a few times. Then he twitched a shrug. "I don't think I'm a bad person. But it's hard to know sometimes." I thought he believed that, that he meant it. He smiled. "So, this is a personal code of yours--no sex with morally ambiguous characters?"

My mouth pressed into a thin, answering smile. "Moral ambiguity I can handle. I draw the line at utter corruption and moral depravity." Line drawing had never been difficult for me. There was justice and there was injustice. It seemed that, after two years, the lines were either getting wider and blurrier or I had completely lost the ability to draw them.

"Oh, we should be okay, then." He cocked his head as though reconsidering. "I think."

The small bit of space between the bunk, the adjoining wall and the sink behind me was the only bit of privacy we were going to get, locked as we were in a cell. So, we kept our clothes on and stayed standing just in case, and hoped that room check wasn't for at least another ten minutes. We hoped that the dead bodies and the Preventer stubbornly refusing to leave without recording every detail of the crime scene in his photographic memory, were enough to distract the staff from what we were doing.

He had condoms, and not surprisingly, cheap lubricant, so we did it right and I didn't think it hurt him, though the only real indication that he might have been enjoying himself was the strength with which he bit down on the knuckles I'd shoved in his mouth to keep him quiet. I watched his face the whole time and forced his eyes up to mine whenever he tried to look away, wondering if this time, if the fact that it was me and not someone like Eddy Koch, would be enough to keep him focused and present, if maybe he'd look like he was participating. But his eyes were blank like always. His body moved with mine and his wiry arms strained to hold himself up--one pressed against the wall, the other gripping the bed frame. He was clearly exerting himself; his skin was flushed and he'd begun to sweat, but the eyes that watched me stayed flat and kept me at a distance. I gripped his ribs through his t-shirt and increased our pace, and the sound of his shirt and the back of his head rubbing up and down against the cinder blocks for some reason was one of the more erotic sounds I'd ever heard. His legs tightened around me and it grew difficult to breath. I couldn't tell whether he was close to finishing or not, but I winced when his teeth finally broke the skin of my knuckles.

"Karl," I managed.

He pushed my fingers out of my his mouth with his tongue. "You should finish," he said, breath hitching slightly.

"So should you," I bit back.

He flashed his crooked grin. "I will."

With the threat of an immanent room check hanging over our heads, he finally met my gaze for real, appearing to fully be present for what we were doing. He watched me watching him and then carefully removed his fist from where it had been pressed against the wall, supporting his weight. I took a half-step forward and pressed him harder into the cinder blocks, straining to hold him and keep up our rhythm. He reached between our bodies to touch himself and that was all it took for the both of us.

He was asleep in seconds, barely taking the time to retie the sleeves of his uniform around his waist and kick off his shoes before passing out in his bunk. I rested beside him, watching the door and waiting for my forced removal from his room. I hoped they'd be discreet, as it was not often, usually only after I got him off, that Karl fell well and truly asleep.

I waited and thought about how I wasn't breathing a word of this to Duo the next time he visited, no matter what Heero had said... or implied. Or whatever it was he'd done. We would limit our conversation strictly to the new dead people we had to add to our list. Dead people were far more interesting than my personal life anyway, and far more important.

My eyes had started to droop when, finally, the room check came around, a pair of harried guards--thankfully neither of them Officer Paul Brandt--spotting me absent from my room and in Karl's bed. The barred door slid open and they both stepped inside, not waiting for me to get down on my own. I barely managed to slide off the bunk and grab up my shoes before one took me by the elbow and the other gave me a good shove between my shoulder blades. This sort of thing happened fairly regularly--we were hardened war criminals after all. We couldn't be expected to follow the rules all the time. I decided that was what I'd tell Onur, if he asked what I'd been thinking when I violated curfew. Still, a small jolt of anticipation of punishment slid up my spine as they marched me next door and inside my room.

"Extra laundry duty this week," one of them grunted as they left, nodding to Onur before the door slid shut behind them.

"Lovely," I muttered, carrying my shoes over to my bunk and dropping them underneath. Neither Onur nor I spoke up for the rest of the day, even when dinner was brought to our cells and I handed him his plate of food. I spent the evening studying in my bunk, spine pressed against the cool cement, conscious that I was lying nearly back to back with Karl.

When I worked in the laundry, I unfolded Duo's bandanna from a strip of cloth to a large triangle and tucked all of my hair up into it. If the yard was like a blast furnace in the summer, then the laundry was a swamp that smelled of static guard instead of mud and had giant stacks of towels instead of dead trees. The washing machines were large open vats of detergent and scalding water that required constant attention so that the towels and uniforms didn't get wound around the agitator in the middle, keeping the rest of the wash from getting clean. When the water drained, leaning over the edge of the machine to scoop out the laundry required enough balance not to fall in and enough strength to lift heavy mounds of material from the wash to the cart with the long paddle used for stirring the wash when it was running.

And I got to do it every day this week, which meant that I didn't get free time for visitors, which meant that I couldn't talk to Heero about what he'd been able to see or Duo about what this meant for our so-called investigation. There was only Karl and he was still floating above the ground with the knowledge that his longest and cruelest tormentors were finally gone. He wasn't yet interested in talking to me about the case--namely that whoever'd done it had tried to make it look like Benji's death, but had really been caused by something else, something that Heero had hopefully been able to see before Prescott had him escorted from the premises. Or locked up. Or shot.

I stirred the clothes in the wash and admitted that my paranoia was perhaps getting a little ahead of itself. Even though the Preventers didn't have power here as law enforcement officials, they were still civilians, and Heero would not have been harmed for wandering in a place he shouldn't have been. Surely not.

Still, a visit would have been nice or a phone call from Trowa or something. But, no, I was stuck in the swampland from Hell, washing towels. My friends could be showing up to see me right now, during my regular free time and they'd be turned away with no other explanation than "He's not available today." And then they would know that I was being punished for something I'd done and Heero would assume that it was his fault and feel guilty about it without telling any of the others or seeking confirmation from me. He'd think it was his fault when really it was that I'd stuck around past lock down in my friend's room so I could get laid. It was quite odd, in fact that, three days after Basker and O'Malley's deaths, I had heard nothing from Prescott or anyone else about my being at the crime scene with Heero. Not a word about the consequences and, somewhat less surprising, not a word about the crime itself. The past three mornings I'd awoken expecting a summons to her office and gotten nothing but the cold shoulder from Onur and a few hours of laundry duty to look forward to.

I wouldn't, of course, do much to clear up the misunderstanding with Heero, except maybe to tell him that it wasn't his fault without revealing the real reason why. Maybe I'd lost track of time in the library while studying, if he pushed for an answer, which he wouldn't, because he didn't ever. I hefted clothes from the washer into the cart and shook my head at that particularly pathetic fib. I'd only just informed Heero that I devoted nothing more than the bare minimum to my studies. Maybe I'd tell him that I'd been with Karl, relating to him what I'd witnessed from the scene of the murders, and that would basically be the truth. I wouldn't have to fill in any of the details because Heero never asked for--


My back went rigid bending over the washing machine as I heard and then very suddenly felt the presence of another person somewhere close behind me. My fingers flexed on the grip of the paddle and readied for a fight. No one snuck up on me in the laundry unless they wanted a fight. It was the best place for it, with the most places to hide and the dull roar of the machines drowning out the sound of footsteps and breath.

My jaw clenched and I spun around, keeping my hand firmly on the paddle behind my back, ready to swing if it looked like--

"Duo!" He grinned at me. "What the fuck are you doing here?" I tempered my initial shout to an urgent hiss, casting my eyes over the laundry room at the few other men bent over the washers or amongst the mounds of towels, folding and stacking. With the constant whir and hum of the machines, none of them appeared to have noticed his presence. I looked back to Duo where he stood at the base of the washer and he was still smiling cheekily, eyes glittering under the brim of his cap.

"They wouldn't let me see you, so I came to find you myself. I figured you'd either be in the kitchen or the laundry." He called this up to me where I still stood, flabbergasted, on the metal platform at the top of the washer. As his voice reached my ear, it clicked that he was shouting to be heard over the machines.

"Would you shut up? Someone will hear you!"

He rolled his eyes. "Would you come down here, so I can stop yelling?"

"Gah. Yes, just be quiet." Dispensing with the formality of steps, I slid under the railing and jumped over the side of the platform, dropping the six or seven feet to the floor and landing right in front of him, forcing him a step back.

"Jeez, Wu!" Then he squawked a curse when I grabbed his arm and dragged him between two mounds of unfolded towels and uniforms. He stumbled to a stop when I let him go and took a moment to straighten his overalls and cap. I took that moment to stare at him and wonder how the hell he'd made it here without being spotted. He didn't appear as though he'd had a tough time of it. His cheeks were flushed with the moist heat and his bangs stuck to his forehead under his cap, but he wasn't too tense. He'd probably enjoyed himself, finding his way here.

He'd clearly come straight from work, the loose denim overalls dark with grease at the knees and hips--the latter most likely from where he'd wiped his hands. The dark blue shirt he wore probably used to be a t-shirt, but the sleeves and neckline had been cut out, so that I could see a bit below the notch of his collarbone; and his shoulders were exposed, his skin darkened to a freckly light brown. I could see the shirt clinging to his chest underneath the bib of his overalls. He looked healthy and excited and strong. He looked really good.

"I take it you weren't seen getting in?" I said, keeping my voice low.

He shook his head. "Nah. You definitely got good security around here, buddy. But nobody stops Duo Maxwell from getting into some place he wants to be." He crossed his arms over his chest and sniffed. "It's fruitless."

I glared at him. "You're insane."

He shrugged. "Yeah, well."

"And you could get us both into big trouble. I don't need to tell you this."

He shifted his hand to his hips, posture indignant. "No, you don't need to tell me that. You should start by telling me what the fuck happened that Heero got bitched out by Une on Monday for coming here and seeing you, why Ms. Francesca Prescott called Une and bitched her out for letting Heero come here and snoop around, why Heero called me up two days ago to tell me that two Romefellar flunkies were strangled to death in the store room, and finally--and most importantly--why, when he tried to get in touch with you afterward to tell you that the cause of death was strangulation and not loss of blood, he couldn't get through."

My throat had gone dry at the very beginning of his list and now I felt like, not only had all the moisture left my mouth, but every drop of blood had also drained from my face. I scrambled for something to say. "He couldn't get through because I had extra laundry duty this week," I managed lamely.

Duo snorted. "Yeah, I know that now, but Heero was assuming the worst, as he usually does, and thinking that it was something he'd done by dragging you into the middle of it. He told me the two of you went together to get a look at the bodies and that Prescott was super pissed when she found you both were there. He thinks he screwed things up for you and that you're--"

"He actually told you all that?" I asked, momentarily distracted. Duo snorted.

"Course not--about half of it. I inferred the rest, as per usual."

I nodded, debating what to tell and what to keep quiet. "He didn't screw anything up for me," I finally assured him. "I was the one who dragged him into the middle of it. And the extra laundry duty isn't because of that. For some reason, there haven't been any repercussions from that day. My extra laundry shifts were for something else." I figured setting Heero's mind at ease was much more important than concealing the real reason for my unavailability this week.

"What's it for, then? What'd you do?" He searched my face with wide, concerned eyes. He only wanted an answer. He only wanted to know why the last few days had been so chaotic for his good friend and, presumably, for me.

"I was out past curfew with Karl. That's all. We were talking about Basker and O'Malley--the Romefellar flunkies who were strangled in the supply room," I added because he wouldn't know their names. The word 'strangulation' was giving me some trouble. How had that not been obvious when Heero and I were examining the bodies? Why didn't I see marks? When had Heero? "We both knew them. They were bullies and they'd given us trouble in the past--lots of trouble in Karl's case. We had a lot to talk about."

He gave me an unsettlingly shrewd look. "... Ah." He didn't trust Karl. They'd barely spoken a complete sentence to each other since Duo had begun looking into our case.

It wasn't a lie, what I'd told him. It wasn't.

"Any leads? What did he think?"

"Uh, well, to be honest, he was too excited by the fact that they were dead and couldn't beat the shit out of him anymore to take the conversation too seriously." Still not lying.

He sniffed and then wiped his nose with a grubby hand, leaving a smudge of oil grease on his upper lip, like the shadow of a mustache. "Guess I can't blame the guy. I saw a few of those bruises. These guys musta been real assholes, huh?"

I nodded, relieved. "They were two of the worst. So," I started, looking to change the topic, "is Heero okay? He didn't, you know, really get into any trouble, did he?"

Duo gave a sharp shrug and abruptly dropped down to sit on the floor, propping his elbows up on his knees. "He'll be fine once I tell him you were unreachable because you missed curfew, not because of something he did. But Une was real serious about him not being allowed to take up the case and he's really not happy about that. His voice was even tighter than usual when we talked."

I sat down across from him. "And what did you tell him?"

He shook his head. "What do you mean?"

"For example, did you mention what you're doing for Karl and me--using fancy software to uncover private information about war leaders who have died or were killed for potentially political reasons?"

He gave a flat humorless laugh. "Oh, that. Yeah, you think that might be of interest to a Preventer?"

"It would. And I know, outside of Preventers, Heero would want to know, would, I'm sure, want to help in any way he could, but--"

"He'd lose his job in a second if he did or if anyone found out he was looking into it."

"We couldn't ask that of him or Trowa," I agreed. After what had happened, it was clear I'd made the right choice going to Duo for help.

"Not that I've been much of a help so far," he muttered, following my train of thought, "in place of an entire organization with access to resources I have to spend hours trying to hack into. I've got some shit to show you, but I can't bring it with me and handing you a list of names isn't doing shit to keep you safe." He looked down at his knees, clearly frustrated with himself and the bind we were in.

"Preventers hands are tied; yours are not and you don't have a boss to whom you feel obligated to report what you find," I replied. When this didn't appear to help his mood, I added, "And I trust you more than, I think, anyone." Now he looked up. I felt the need to try and wipe away the smear of dirt on his upper lip and clenched my fists in my lap. More than anyone in the world, you are my truest, most loyal friend, I finished silently.

Duo shook his head and grinned. "Sometimes, Chang, you outdo yourself."

Thankfully my face was already flushed from the heat of the laundry and I was able to grumble, "Keep your expectations low and anything other than spiteful rudeness will be a pleasant surprise." He laughed and the mood was becoming dangerously sentimental, so I cleared my throat and returned to the more pressing matter of what Heero had been able to gather before he'd been kicked out of the storeroom. "Erm, Duo, did he say anything else to you when he called, anything at all?"

His grin shrank and then disappeared, and he nodded. "Yeah, he said a bunch of discouraging shit that you probably already know. He said that your keepers aren't releasing the bodies for an official autopsy and that they will be the ones to alert the victims' families. Heero said they were taking care of all it and handling the investigation themselves like they did with Benjamin Bennett."

"That sounds about right. RCNP is state run, but it's got its own people to manage every facet of something like this. Karl and I are realizing just how little oversight there is here." At Duo's look of incipient panic, I added, "But, I don't think it's so Prescott can make up arbitrary rules. I think it's so that we remain outside political influence. There are plenty of people who disagree with the whole idea of this place, and so Relena Peacecraft and the others who designed it wanted it to be safe from those who would try to change the way it was run, to turn it into something else."

Duo frowned. "Sure, but if there's no publicized code and no way of getting rid of anybody who might be abusing their power, then Prescott's got full discretion and no real rules to break."

"Pretty much, though she probably doesn't see it that way. And neither would Relena."

"This is scaring the shit out of me; you realize that, right?"

I looked up. "Duo..." It came across as patronizing. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm fine. I'm not a target like they were, like Benji was."

He ignored my slightly condescending tone. "What about Quatre?"

I looked away, humbled. "And I am certainly not like Quatre."

"Bullshit, you're not," he snapped and I flinched. We started to argue, the surest way to express and mask helplessness.

"How could you possibly compare me to him?" I snapped back. "There are maybe a handful of people who will tolerate me sitting near them at lunch much less look to me as a friend, or even less realistically, as a leader."

Duo didn't appear to believe me in the slightest. "You don't think the clans of the L5 cluster would look to you for leadership if you offered it? The Long clan was one of the most powerful to ever to every settle out there. They would respect where you came from and what you've done for--"

"I don't care about the L5 colony cluster and they wouldn't care in the slightest for me. I did what I did for justice, not for colony independence or for some definition of rights and duties. I did what I did for Meiren and for Master Long. It was for me and for what I thought was right. And Quatre was not like that. He was an inspiration to all of us, everything he did--even Zero. He was brilliant and kind and selfless. He was unflinching. I am none of those things. I doubt myself all the time--I did during the wars when I didn't know whether to join you or not, to fight for anything other than myself, when I killed Treize, when I joined with Dekim Barton. Quatre was better than all of us and he was certainly better than me."

Duo watched me speak, searching for something in what I said, the brief flare of temper between us, already faded and gone. "Why do you idolize him like that?" he finally asked. "Because he's really not so different from you--you came from the same background as him; you fought for the colonies just like him, even if you claim it was for your own definition of justice. Hell, you were even twin angels of vengeance after his dad died and your colony self-destructed. He was totally screwed in the head after all that, just like you, and he--" Duo's throat closed on his words and he swallowed before trying again. "He couldn't get along in the new world any better than you could. He did worse than you; he ended up dead."

For a moment, we were right back in his office, hunched over his body, trying to shake him awake, realizing that he didn't have a pulse, that his hands were cold, though his face and his chest were still warm. Duo tried CPR, practically beating on his breast bone. He yelled at me to breath for him and I did, watching his chest rise as I blew into his mouth, lips chilly and soft against mine. But he was gone and when we talked to the doctors at the hospital, they told us that his blood was so full of sleeping drugs, no amount of electric current would have woken his heart up again.

I felt like he lay between us now, just an outline and a glimmer of bright hair. I felt like he'd been haunting me since I'd gotten here.

"We all loved him," Duo insisted. "But you... I think maybe you were in love with him, whether you knew it or not."

I looked up from the floor, away from the ghost of a pale hand resting near my knee. "You shouldn't speculate about things like that," I said, trying to sound threatening instead of shaken.

Duo shrugged and appeared contrite. "Sorry, I guess. I've just been wondering about it for awhile, you know? You spent a lot of time with him when those charges were first brought against you and I know he was prepared to put all of the Winner family's resources at your back." He lowered his voice so that I had to lean in to hear him. "Which is why it makes no sense that he killed himself when he did. And if Quatre--if he didn't drug himself to death, if someone else did it to him..." His brow wrinkled down into a fierce scowl. "Shit, if he was murdered, then, Wu, I see you in that same boat. Powerful family, even more powerful convictions--you and he were made of the same stuff."

"Why are you not including yourself, Duo?" I asked softly. "The L2 White Fang members wanted you as their leader so badly, they would have sold off what little territory they had for you."

He snorted and shrugged me off with practiced ease. "Please. I'm not ashamed of where I came from, but I've got no illusions about it either. I'm just space trash who happened to fall into an expensive hunk of metal that made me famous for about fifteen minutes."

"You were the best pilot of all of us."

"I'm nobody," he muttered with finality. He looked me in the eye. "And that's fine. I never envied anything Quatre had or where you came from, the fact that you had a whole fucking clan; I never cared. Figured it kept me safer. Nobody would try to take what I didn't have. And I couldn't miss not having it. But I, uh, I fucked up because I did have friends. And it's pretty fucking low to try and take those away, but they did it anyway." He rubbed the back of his hand in his eyes and blinked furiously, whether from the grit he'd just rubbed into them or from tears, I didn't try to guess.

"I don't care what you say, Chang; you're not safe here, whether you're like Quatre or Bennett or not. And I just wish there was something I could do to protect you. If I could get in here every day to make sure you made it back to your cell at night, I would do it. When Heero called to tell me that there'd been two homicides, I about had a heart attack. I yelled at him for, like, ten minutes for letting Prescott shove him out the door, for not barricading himself in your room with you, or at least leaving a gun under your pillow. And Heero, of all people, doesn't need someone yelling at him."

Maybe it was how upset Duo had gotten that made me do it or maybe it was my friendship with Karl and my increasing familiarity with how to touch someone, but before I could think better of it, I slid forward on my knees and grabbed him into a hard hug. He returned the embrace with equal strength, releasing a sharp breath against my neck and tucking his chin so hard against my shoulder that his pointy jaw dug painfully into the muscle.

"I can't take it, you being here. I feel like one of these days I'll just lose it and do something really stupid and--"

"Duo, shut up."

"I am so fucking serious right now, Wufei."

"I can tell and the thought of you ghosting through the ventilation system to rescue me and pull me out from under Prescott's nose does have a certain appeal, since both of us have a flare for the dramatic, but try to at least think it through a little more before you make us both fugitives from the law. Again." It was easier to say these things facing the pile of uniforms behind him, rather than looking him in the eye. I could feel his heart thudding steadily in his chest and his breath beginning to slow as it puffed against the strands of hair at the back of my neck. His arms tightened and loosened with periodic spasms.

"It'd be something to see," he murmured. "If only I still had Deathscythe, I could just step on the fence and you could walk out. I would make your exit one hell of a show, give all these punks something to remember you by."

I laughed for his benefit and then drew away from him. "It was really foolish of you to come here like this," I scolded, though my voice didn't hold much rancor. "I have to get the next load in the dryer and fold all this mess by dinner."

Duo sat back on his heels and took off his cap, raking his fingers through his hair and recomposing himself. "I can help you. It'll go faster that way."

"That's an even dumber idea than sneaking in here."

"I used to help you fold clothes when we lived together."

I flushed and got to my feet, turning to grab a towel. "That was different and I didn't want your help then, either."

"You still want it now, right?"

Tired of the relentlessness of this conversation, I whirled on him with a growl ready, only to find him folding a uniform in entirely the wrong way. He didn't look up from his effort to roll the top half of the uniform down over the bottom.

"Even though I'm not a forensics expert and I don't have access to Preventer's military personnel files?"

I snatched the uniform out of his hands and went to the metal table set up for just this purpose, folding the legs at the knees, then the sleeves back at the shoulders, then folding the whole thing in half and in half again, so that the tag showed and the collar was straight. "Don't be an idiot. And quit with the self-pity. It doesn't suit you at all."

I felt him behind me and then I heard a low chuckle close to my ear. I finally looked his way when he draped one arm across my shoulders and leaned the other on the folding table. "Such a charmer." He'd managed to go from maudlin to--what was this, seductive?--in under fifteen seconds.

"What part of 'don't be an idiot' didn't you understand, Maxwell?" I said this while staring at the muscle that joined arm to shoulder to chest, wondering inanely whether the brown hair curling in the shadow of his underarm was as soft as it looked.

"Be safe, buddy," he murmured, "and get to bed on time so I can come see you without sneaking in through the ventilation system."

I looked up from the odd distraction of his armpit. "Wait, you really came through the--"

He laughed and I felt his fingers deftly untie the knot of the bandanna at the base of my skull. "Someone's coming," he whispered.

I turned to look, shoving him behind me, catching the bandanna as it slid out of my hair. I watched a cranky older inmate shuffle by with a cart full of folded uniforms. He didn't so much as glance up as he passed. When I turned back to find Duo, he was gone.

Letting out a great gust of a sigh, I flopped over backwards into the pile of towels, pulling several of them over my head. "Fuck," I said, voice muffled and intimate in my ears. I stayed there until I started to sweat in earnest and then got up to switch the wash to the drier.

I pressed him up against the slippery tiles of the shower wall, holding his hips steady with mine, boxing him in with my elbows on either side of his shoulders. He ran his hands up and down my sides, resting them at the base of my spine. "Anyone every tell you you've got an amazing body?" His pelvis thrust shallowly against mine and I lowered my head to his shoulder.


"Well, it's true, though you're probably better off not hearing it from too many people. Your ego would swell up beyond your control. It would need to be deflated somehow and deflating an ego isn't fun, though I've gotten pretty good at it over the years."

He was rambling a little, which was fine. He was trying to distract himself and me from the noises coming from the other corner of the shower. Four days after Basker and O'Malley's deaths and already their shoes had been filled. The poor kid up against the far wall probably had only gotten a week's rest and Karl knew it could have just as easily been him were it not for our arrangement.

"Yes, if there's one thing I know how to do, it's--" I raised my head and kissed him and he moaned into my mouth, more to block out the sound of the kid's strangled shout of pain than to express his enthusiasm for what we were doing. I hated putting on displays like this, but the benefits were worth it. I felt the men watching us, felt their evaluative stares, judging my ability to protect him, my ability to protect myself. I lowered one arm to pull his left leg up around my waist. I broke the kiss and kept my mouth by his ear.

"I think I'm probably gay," I admitted. "And I thought you'd want to know."

He spoke against my jaw, and I felt him smiling. "Damn. You mean I wasn't enough to get straight-as-an-arrow Chang to bend a little?"

The abruptness of the confession somehow wasn't phasing either of us. "Sorry, Karl, but I guess I was already bent."

Find more of June at her Livejournal.

On to part ten. Back to part eight.