Duo sighed softly as the lights went down on L2 colony 341. First the Sunwards, then gradually down the commercial district, the space docks, all the way through the slums, a giant tide of darkness rolling towards him. No longer confined by the greying metal cage of the day cycle, it seemed the whole colony was truly suspended in outer space, strung up with gaudy neon stars.
The braided boy never thought the day would come, but he wished for a mission.
It was a terrible joy to be home. Few people had old friends on this colony; just enemies waiting to happen. Yet he felt somehow relieved that his justice was useless here. There was only the brutal rule of the streets. No pressure on him alone to strike the killing blow. Of course, there were the ghosts... but when weren’t there? All the friends he could remember were corpses waiting to happen. Even his current bunch, the Gundam pilots-which of them really expected to live to twenty? Or even sixteen?
Duo began to make his way back to the scrapyard. Maybe Quatre. The tragedy was that Quatre was least likely of all of them to make it, and he knew it. So sad that the blond boy had been raised to the future, and was giving it up to ensure the future of humanity.
‘Well, hell, that sounds lofty. And what were you born to, Little Rattail?’
Duo smirked as he recalled Solo’s nickname for him. The memory of his friend still stung, especially so close to their former territories, but these days it was a comfort in the eerie silence of his Aibo, his Shinigami.
‘The God of Death, huh. So high up, I’m getting a nose bleed!’
‘Too bad,’ he answered the voices in his head. ‘I’ve been stuck here for days! What I want more than anything is a mission.’
‘Shit. I sound like Heero.’
The scientists had done their jobs, Duo figured. He wasn’t quite to the level of automatic killing machine, oh not as bad as Heero Yuy, but he’d been drilled enough to feel that aching need to do something, to fulfill some objective... All he was doing was hiding out, while outside the war raged on.
Duo’s street senses registered danger a split second before he was knocked down.
The mass which had bowled him over wasn’t very massive at all. Duo heard the skitter of sneakers as the small boy stumbled to his feet. The kid’s stance was all wrong for a pickpocket... and there was something else about the way he moved...
"Run," the boy said hoarsely.
The stench of blood reached his nose in the next second. Duo’s hindbrain kicked in. He grabbed the kid, half-dragging him through the nearest backalley. Duo’s mental map of the place also kicked in-they had to climb, there was a dead end up ahead.
He jerked the kid’s good arm. Understanding, he got in position for Duo to boost him up a fire escape. Then the boy reached down for Duo. They almost fell onto the garbage heap below when Duo’s fingers slipped on the steady rivulets of blood flowing down his arm.
"They’ll follow us, with that trail," Duo hissed.
"No time," the boy said. There was a rasp of pain in his voice, but he kept moving steadily. "You shouldn’t have followed me. I don’t want them to kill you."
"Believe me, kid," Duo said, slipping through an open window, "I’m the best shot you’ve got. You’d never make it around with that. If those guys don’t get you, some other predator will."
The boy stifled what sounded like a laugh. Swinging lightbulbs made his hair shine darkly blond. As he casually wafted past the open doorways of strangers engaged in illicit activities, Duo thought he heard him whisper: "And do I look like prey?"
Duo raised an eyebrow. He helped the kid out another window. The boy was so painfully young that Duo forgot they were about the same height and build. A cheerful, rounded face, with eyes which were scanning the street with a practiced ferocity. Still, he was obviously not from around here.
"I think we lost them," Duo said after another ten minutes. The boy hadn’t spoken. Though the blood flow had stopped, the Gundam pilot wasn’t certain they’d make it to the scrapyard.
"No," he said quietly. "Take us the roundabout way you wanted. I’ll hold out."
"You’re gonna bleed to death," Duo gritted.
"I won’t... come too far..." The boy faced him, wide eyes at half-mast but still sharp. "It’s just a little pain."
"Do it. Or I’ll kill you."
Duo almost stopped short. The boy was doing something with his hand, his bleeding one, but it was too dark to tell.
"I’ll take you, then. But I’m not afraid of death."
The boy laughed lowly. It was a sweet laugh, and for a moment Duo was reminded of Quatre, who could annihilate armies of mobile suits and yet laugh with pure joy at the slightest antic. "Neither am I," the boy whispered. "Neither am I."
The dull haze around him was slowly clearing. He felt clean and safe, which was an improvement from the past... how long had it been?
"He’s waking up."
"Good. I was afraid we’d overdosed him. Sally just doesn’t label these drugs!"
A snort. Reminded him of Ken, annoyed. "Well when you get these things on the black market, they don’t exactly have warning labels. Anyway, he’ll be hungry. I’ll heat up something."
Bright. Room. A giant starmap, with the moon in its center. Odors of soup and fresh flowers... flowers... Omi’s blue eyes shot open. Whatever dream he’d been having was shut off in favor of the overwhelming mission mode.
Morning! It was already morning! He gave a little cry and turned to the dark-clothed, longhaired figure to his left. "Time! Oh god, what’s the time?"
"1339," said the other boy. "What’s the ru-"
He used military time, a part of him noted. The rest of him was panicking. "Oh... no. No! They can’t have... wait. There was another shuttle-" Futilely he kicked at the covers tangling his feet, trying to sit up without jarring his injuries. The other boy was on him immediately, keeping him down.
"Where the hell do you think you’re going?! You’ve been shot in the shoulder!"
"The shuttle! I have to catch the shuttle out!"
Amethyst eyes looked at him sadly. "You’ve been out two days. The Express is only once a week."
Omi lay back, dejected. "Damn it. That means they left." He surveyed his surroundings for the first time. It was a private bedroom, but bits of the scrapyard had accumulated on several workbenches. He was most interested in the soldering iron and the gleaming laptop.
"Who is ‘they’?"
The evasion was so smooth, Duo wouldn’t have noticed it if not for his training. Omi smiled sunnily, his eyes widening with emotion, and said, "I have to thank you for saving my life."
Duo quirked his lips at Hilde, who was just coming in with the soup. "Gee, thanks for threatening my life, too. You’re lucky I get that all the time from my friends. So what’s your name, anyway, short stuff?"
The young blond boy almost rolled his eyes at the moniker. "Omi. Omi Tsukiyono."
"Duo Maxwell. And this is Hilde Shriebeker."
"I can’t thank you enough for helping me out. It didn’t seem like the best place to look for help."
"But I bet it’s a great place to look for trouble." Duo held up a glittering dart. Improbably, Omi’s eyes grew even wider.
"Don’t touch that!"
Duo chuckled. "Poison? I knew that. I carry some less lethal models myself. Same brand, you have good taste."
Hilde interrupted. "Here, why don’t you eat this?"
"And here we were, just talking about poison," muttered Duo.
"Not funny, baka!" Hilde whapped him. "It’s not poisoned, Omi, really."
Omi grinned. "Oh, don’t worry. It smells great, I’m sure it’s wonderful!"
That charmed a smile out of Hilde. "At least some people in this house think so!" She said, leaving the boys to talk ‘business.’ She and Duo had been speculating about their young charge for those two days. The Gundam pilot had decided that if the boy had anything to do with any side of the war, he was a security risk, and off-limits to Hilde.
Omi for his part tried to stay calm as he ate. His shoulder was aching, but at least it wasn’t his shooting arm. Unusually quiet, Duo toyed with the dart for a minute. Omi was almost sure he’d discharged the poison, but it still made him nervous. His benefactors didn’t seem to mean him any harm; he could tell they both felt sorry for him. That didn’t make them less dangerous.
But the mission... Omi cringed inwardly. They couldn’t come get him for another few cycles. Weeks in Earth time. There was no way they could lose the target at this late date, not with the war alliances shifting continually.
Duo was making different calculations. ‘He’s so young! Like one of the kids at the orphanage. I hope he’s got nothing to do with the war. But the equipment... and the training... it’s not inconceivable. Damn it, I got into this so kids like him wouldn’t have to fight!’
"So." Omi looked up at Duo. "What do you plan on doing with me?"
"You’re not allied with the Underground, are you?"
Omi saw no reason to lie. There was something about this guy which screamed operative, but negative answers were innocuous. No one knew about Kritiker, not even the Ozzies. "No."
Omi actually giggled. "What, are you crazy-"
"Okay, okay," Duo grinned. Nothing in the handbook covered alternative interrogation methods, like straight out asking the captive and getting straight answers. "Just being thorough. In any case, I take it if you were part of some secret organization you wouldn’t tell me?"
Omi put the soupbowl down. Something clicked from his hours of surfing the nets, and their briefings on the war. He stared at Duo. Then his eye fell on an object on a far workbench. A detonator button.
A mobile suit detonator button.
Duo followed his gaze, and paled.
"Just like you wouldn’t tell me anything, 02," Omi said quietly. "It would violate orders, wouldn’t it?"
"How did you-"
"You’ve been leaving tracks. Like say, when you were captured? Wanted posters everywhere. I wasn’t even in space then, and I saw the bulletin."
Duo frowned. This kid was definitely not as harmless as he looked.
"Don’t sweat it!" Omi said suddenly. "I won’t blow your cover. Besides, what else can I do? I can’t get very far with these injuries. And you can’t get very far with the Ozzies and White Fang looking for you."
Duo caught himself grinning. Harmless? Hell, the kid was infectious! He felt a sharp pang. How could he be in this business, anyway? He was obviously a professional, yet he hadn’t forgotten his smile...
"So, what are you gonna do with me?"
"Sell you to the highest bidder," said Duo absently.
Omi gasped. "WHAT?"
Duo laughed. "I’m just kidding, kid, geez. You’ll be okay here. If I have to leave, the Sweepers will take care of you, and of course Hilde will keep an eye on you. Just... don’t bring anything down on my friends, you got that? I know you’re weak, but I assume you know how to disappear."
Omi nodded somberly. "Of course."
"And if you do bring trouble to Hilde’s doorstep," Duo whispered. "You know I’ll come after you."
Omi nodded solemnly. Duo left him to rest. His thoughts were whirling. The mission was still on, as far as his brain was concerned. He glanced at the laptop again... maybe...
An hour after Duo and Hilde started their shift, Omi got on the Net. He was extra careful not to trip any of the countermeasures of either the enemy or Duo’s own network. It was worth the work. Maybe he couldn’t go with the rest of Weiss, but he could make himself useful.
"Aha," he breathed. "Gotcha. Romefeller file on Genichirou Hashiba, mobile suit designer."
"We gotta go, dude."
"Don’ wanna get up."
A callused hand crept up his thigh. A quick kick dislodged it, but it also made the sheets slip off, and now it was cold in bed.
"Come on, we’re gonna miss our launch window." Soft lips replaced the hand, kissing a trail over his hips.
Touma Hashiba opened his blue eyes a sliver. "We’ll take Tenku."
His dark haired friend chuckled against his skin, raising goosebumps. "You’d get shot down for sure."
"Ryo," muttered the blue-haired boy. "At the rate you’re going, I’m getting up. But we’re going to miss our launch window anyway..."
"Funny." Still, Ryo was nosing around Touma’s chest. His soft red sweater swirled over Touma’s bare thighs.
"Think we’ll find him?"
Ryo shifted, nuzzling his way to Touma’s collarbone. "We’d better. Shin’s still upset about L5."
Touma pulled Ryo up into a desperate kiss. Ryo returned it with equal heat. They had all felt Shuu’s anguish over the armor link. He had been one of the scant few warriors given the choice to leave the Dragon Clan’s colony before it sacrificed itself. For several agonizing hours, the Warrior of Hardrock had elected to stay. Spread out as they were through the Earth Sphere, it had taken all their energy to keep the armor links open to convince their friend to leave.
At the last minute, Shuu had finally taken off in a diplomatic shuttle. But he had still been in visual range when the explosion destroyed his home. He was with Shin now at Yamaguchi in the JAP sector. His nightmares still echoed through the yoroi bond: every night, the afterimage of a soundless fire, consuming empty streets and crowded houses.
Touma resisted the impulse to contact Shin and Shuu. He needed to save his energy for any trouble ahead. He dressed quickly, watching Ryo in the mirror as he picked up a few more items to pack, and sighed.
That damn fool Seiji Date had dropped out of their link two days ago.
It was bad enough he was on an L3 colony, which had been a focal point of skirmishes throughout the Alliance period. The fact that he was distantly related to a prominent Sanc noble family made it even worse. No matter that no one could exactly figure out where Sanc stood in all this; Seiji’s heritage made him a juicy hostage for just about any faction.
"I can’t understand why he went alone," Touma said as he keyed on the security system. "It’s a damn warzone up there."
Ryo backed the car out and tore down the street. "You know Seiji," he said.
"He should’ve called one of us!" Touma rolled down a window. He needed to feel his element, and Ryo, perpetually warm, didn’t mind the cold blast.
"It was an emergency. The dimensional rift happened pretty quickly, and he was the only one in orbit."
Though the demon Arago was a distant memory for the five Samurai Troopers, the Youjakai was still causing problems. Kayura-sama and the MaSho could only manage to control a small portion of the vast realm. And with the bitterness and bloodshed of the war, the ankoku spirits were gaining strength. They were breaking through again into their world, the Ningenkai.
The war. Touma snorted. The war would be a moot point if evil youja destroyed the world. But there was just no convincing people since Arago’s appearance had been wiped from human memory.
Ryo fiddled with the radio till he got a working satellite. J-rock. Heaven forbid any side of the war were to destroy the soldiers’ favorite music sources. Cut off broadband communications and bring the Net down, sure, but leave the oldies stations playing.
Touma’s cel beeped. "Touma here, what’s up?"
He flipped off the station. Ryo was about to object when he choked out, "Mom?!"
"I was wondering if you’ve talked to Genichirou-kun lately? The wire services have been buzzing about increased activity in L2 sector 5-"
"Mom! Isn’t that supposed to be classified?"
"Oh, really, Touma-kun, you know as well as I do that all it takes is an expensive telescope and a starmap and anyone can figure out where the war’s moving! So have you heard from him?"
Touma shook his head. "No, I haven’t heard from Dad lately. His work doesn’t exactly let him send postcards."
"Research my foot. The only research that pays off these days is weapons design."
"Mom, he does not do that! He designs information systems."
"You’re just like him, so smart yet lacking common sense." Touma rolled his eyes. "I’m the reporter in the family, and I smell war connections. Well, that’s his decision. I just want to make sure he’s okay."
"We’re headed into orbit now, Mom, but we can’t-"
"What did you say? Why in God’s name are you heading up now?"
/Smooth, Touma,/ Ryo sent through the armor link. Touma flicked him off. "One of our friends is in trouble."
"Touma, you’re going to get yourself killed!"
"Yeah, Ma, that’s a new one." Since the armors were passed down through generations, their families knew about their other life as Troopers. It didn’t make dealing with them any easier. "Besides, Ryo’s coming with me."
Namiko Hashiba’s voice jumped a register. "Oh! That nice young man Ryo? Studying to be a naturalist? He’s just a darling boy, why don’t you ever bring your friends to visit?"
Touma winced. There were times when he wished he hadn’t come out to his family. Instead of pestering the girl friends he didn’t have relationships with, they pestered the boys who did. "Mom, we’re at the shuttleport. They don’t allow working electronics, I have to shut down the phone."
"Well, once you find your friend, go get yourself a ticket and see if Genichirou-kun is okay, all right? You can use my press passes, they’re all in order and even White Fang will let you in-!"
"Mother! Don’t say that! This is an OZ-controlled port! I swear they probably picked that up in Kyoto."
"Oh, sorry, I forgot cel phones can be tapped. Good luck and don’t get yourself too badly hurt, okay?"
Click. Touma stared at the phone. "Oh my god."
"Hey, don’t sweat it, man." Ryo set the alarms and programmed the long-term parking lot’s console. "You’ve never met my dad."
"Let’s go find Seiji." Touma swung his duffel over his shoulders.
"And then maybe we can check on your dad."
"Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine. The lab he works at has always been protected."
Ryo frowned. "Yeah, but, Touma... d’you ever wonder why?"
"Look , the crazy kook would never get into something like that. Not the war. He’s a pacifist at heart."
Ryo shrugged, then wound an arm around his blue-haired comrade. "We have time to book a flight to L2. Might as well clear the paperwork as soon as we can." He glanced over at Touma’s pensive eyes. "Hey, he’s all right, ne, Tou-chan?"
"Yeah," Touma said quietly. "I’m sure he is."
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