by D.C. Logan
This was bad. I heard the broken glass crunch under the boot closest to my face. At least that one was still on the ground. Its partner had already introduced itself with some force to the softer parts of my anatomy. The good news was that no one was holding me down any more. The bad news was that they didn't have to. It was all I could do to draw a shaky breath through my broken jaw, and it felt like my testicles had retreated up into my abdomen, or had they been kicked there? Focusing on the not-so-simple effort of breathing consumed all my attention and took considerable effort. They were finally going to kill me this time, and I didn't even have the strength to taunt them into making it quick. I watched the light film of dust move with my breath. Only the left eye was working properly. The right was crushed to the ground with the rest of my face and I felt the pressure of a shoe on top of my skull, and an increase of force as my ear was ground deeper into the pavement, and then released.
Mar looked down at me and lifted his heavy boot threateningly, watching for a reaction on my face. I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. My life was worth less than my clothes, and had been since I'd been dragged from my hidey-hole under the 14th street laundry. I thought I recognized the glass-filled alley behind Taxoline's on 16th, but I didn't remember much of the trip. His entire gang had turned out for the party, and I was the evening's entertainment (oh rapturous joy). If it was just another beating, I'd probably survive, but Tekka had his blades with him tonight, and I'd marked him with one of mine last time we'd met. He looked unusually pleased to see me, and his strange yellow eyes almost glowed with banked excitement. I was in for some permanent hurt tonight, no doubt about it.
They'd already taken my boots (Shren had been coveting them for weeks), but I couldn't have run even if glass wasn't littered over the ground. I was pretty sure the left knee was shot, it had bobbled strangely after Delta had kicked it out from under me. Yup. No doubt about it. This was bad and getting worse. And Tekka was moving closer now that Mar had finished laying me out for him.
The scene paused for a moment as middle-aged couple walking on the street hesitated and peered into the alley as they passed by. I caught the quickly stifled gasp and the increased rate of their stride as they removed themselves from the situation. Smart people. Mar's gang would have cheerfully flayed them in seconds. This wasn't a tourist attraction. Far from it.
Tekka walked around me, I saw the flash of insanely grinning teeth in the dim light. He stopped and crouched in the crackling glass next to me on my blind side - probably to frighten me more. (Yeah, it was working.) I felt the tickle of a blade sharper than wind at the back of my neck, and groaned involuntarily. I could feel him smile in response. He shifted and pulled the blade away, neatly parting the remains of my jacket and the shirt underneath. Now that I knew for certain how sharp his blade was, I felt marginally better. I'd heard that bleeding to death wasn't as painful as being beaten to a pulp. Maybe this would be over sooner than later.
Another couple paused at the entrance to Glass Alley. They were backlit by the main avenue lights, but they were male and female and the silhouette said young. Tekka shifted his knee to the small of my back for balance, and Mar turned to the intruders and yelled at them to get lost. How eloquent.
I could see the shadows looking at each other through the gap between Mar's boots. They hadn't left yet. I blinked my good eye. Hot damn, it looked like they were walking towards us. The girl reached into her coat and pulled out a gun. Colony-side, that means military or a cop, civvies can't get a permit to carry. This was bad news for all of us; Mar especially, since the colony cops had been looking for him. He and his gang froze, she and her boyfriend kept on moving. Mar moved to the side as Tekka ground the full weight of his body into my right kidney. He drew back and sent one of his blades at the couple to distract them.
The guy wasn't expecting an assault, and I saw his body dip as he took the long blade in his side. That pissed his partner off, and she yelled a warning and sent a round into the wall above Mar's head. This time everybody ducked and stopped moving. I heard the remains of a broken bottle hit the wall, and the pelting of shod feet down the opposite side of the alley. Better to run and risk being shot than stay peacefully and spend the next six months in a juvie clinic I guess. That left the five of us in an awkward standoff.
Mar looked down at me and shifted his glance to Tekka. The cops were still ten meters away, so they had a chance. And they took it. The pain of the knee ground into my kidney was replaced by the agony of a blade savagely angled between my ribs. So this was the end. I wished I had time to come up with better words. I heard more shots, and then sound faded and the world went quiet and dark.
I felt clean soft sheets against my skin. The sensation was so foreign to my recent past that I opened my eyes. Well, eye, anyway. The right one was still swollen mostly shut. There were voices speaking in hushed tones next to my bed. I counted three of them, one male, two female. The younger female voice had a slight accent, but I couldn't place it. I shifted onto my elbow and immediately wished I hadn't. The world tilted at an appalling angle and I felt the bed lurch under me. The older woman made a 'tsking noise and reached over to pin me to the mattress. Her face swam in circles for a moment or two and then settled into the familiar arrangement of eyes, nose and stern mouth. The young couple who I assumed had saved my ass peered curiously over the edge of the bed as well.
I made a valiant attempt at speech, but my "hello" came out as a dry whisper. The jaw hurt like hell, but moved normally. I guess they fixed that among other things. I swallowed, licked my lips, and went for round two. "How am I?"
The medic squinted into my face and answered my question in a raspy voice with a rather irate tone. "You're alive anyway. But you won't stay that way unless you listen to me because I'd rather not have to fix you more than once." I blinked up at her. Was she insane? I wasn't capable of lifting my head from the pillow and she thought _I_ was going to go out and do more damage to myself on purpose?
"He didn't throw the knife Rep, the guy holding him down did, and then shoved his spare blade into him before taking off." That was the young woman talking, but I wasn't going to take my glare off of the medic. No way. Well, until she moved away from the bed anyway. Then I _had_ to take a glance to see if the young woman was a cop I knew. The stranger was looking me over, I didn't recognize the insignia, but the fact that she had one moved her from cop to military. She had short dark brown hair, large expressive eyes, and reminded me of an eager, good-natured dog. Then I took a one-eyed look at her partner. He was wolf to her dog - rangy, elegant, and dangerous. Medium tall, brown hair, and wearing sunglasses, even in the soft light of the room. The older woman, Rep?, returned and glared briefly at me before stripping the sheet back and poking at my bandages. They looked clean and very white against my purpling skin; I have dark skin, and always did bruise easily. It hurt my head to watch, so I stared at the ceiling and counted the tiles and tried not to react too much when she probed the tender parts. Then she pressed something unexpectedly painful, and the room slid sideways and back into dark again.
I woke to a body leaning over me. The guy's face loomed into view, his long bangs were hanging straight down, exposing the features of his face. At least he looked sort of friendly, which was a good thing since I was mostly out of options at the moment. He saw that I was awake and grinned broadly. "I'm Duo, that's Hilde, and you've already been assaulted by Rep. Once she gives the okay, you're coming with us." It wasn't a question, and it didn't leave me with any alternate recourse.
Great. Just what I needed. But I'd heard that at Juvie, at least you got fed. And if you were bigger and meaner than your cubemate, maybe you could get out of the system without too much damage. I'd never been all that big really. More wiry and brainy than large and strong, but stupid usually ran with the size XL combination, so I wasn't complaining much.
But I was in for a surprise. A good one actually. As I laid in that bed over the first two days of semi-conscious, drug-induced sleep, I found out that one of my rescuers was with the Preventer's space patrol, not regulation military as I'd assumed. And instead of a detention center or an orphanage, Duo was planning on taking me back to his apartment until my stitches were ready to come out. Since anything was preferable to crawling back into my hidey under the laundromat, and I'd rather be stripped and dipped in rocket propellant than be incarcerated at Juvie, going home with a stranger with a do-gooder complex was strange, but certainly the least of my evil choices.
It had actually taken four days before Rep (short for "The Repairman" I'd found out) decided that I'd survive away from her less than tender ministrations. So when she gave me the thumbs up, I dressed carefully in the clothes Duo had bought for me and waited in an uncomfortably hard metal chair for him to pick me up.
While I waited for him, I shifted the fabric of my new shirt between my fingers. Soft cotton, red, with the creases still strong in the fabric's weave. I'd never had new clothes before, at least not that I could remember. It felt like a sin to put new clean clothes on a body as filthy as mine. Duo had asked me my sizing for the things that mattered, I'd been ashamed to tell him I didn't know. Underclothes I'd never had. Jeans, shoes, shirt and coat had been more of a priority and didn't carry sizing tags from where I'd found them. Random socks had been easy to come by at the laundromat; I'd never had a matched set before today. And no, I'd never even considered raiding an unattended machine... well, maybe once. The blanket had been soft and new and the exact color of newly pressed steel, though it looked infinitely softer. For someone sleeping in a nest of abandoned socks in the warm crawlspace under the dryers, the urge to purloin it had been almost irresistible.
The shoes felt stiff and uncomfortable on my feet. I couldn't tell if my difficulty in walking came from my wonky knee, the pain in my back where the healing agents were still doing their work, or my new boots, low and black and dangerous looking - but not at all friendly to wear.
A click of the door latch announced Duo's arrival. He looked different somehow, and I realized it was the first time I'd seen him when I wasn't horizontal, it changed my perspective somewhat. He even came through the door smiling. What was it with this guy? He seemed so balanced and happy with himself. I wondered if he was on something. But he didn't have any of the twitches or habits I looked for in a habitual user. It just didn't seem genuine somehow, he must have an angry and bitter old man locked up in a closet somewhere like Dorian Grey. Weirdness.
"Yeah, it's as good as any I suppose." His expression bled over into doubtful for a minute, but then the beaming smile returned full force. He held out a hand, which I ignored as I climbed my way onto my feet. The room was still a bit unsteady around the edges, but stabilized well enough after a moment or two. Duo didn't offer his hand again, but he waved to Rep as he opened the door, and gestured for me to precede him out of the clinic.
The bright daylight hit me like a smack in the face. Duo put his shades on. It weirded me out a little since it made it harder for me to read his expression, but if I'd had sunglasses, I'd have done the same. And then he reached into another pocket and pulled out a second pair that he handed to me. They were a little big, but brought instant relief - which showed I guess, since he beamed in response. Yeah, he was a strange guy all right, but he was definitely growing on me. And anyone who hung around the Preventers had to be on the positive side of the law, so I could rule out 'extreme pervert' with some conviction. And to my surprise, once my legs remembered how to walk, moving wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared.
Nine blocks. Duo chattered the entire distance, (lord he loved to hear his own voice) but I mostly tuned him out to concentrate on walking in a pseudo-straight line. Last week I could have run the distance and had energy to spare. Today I had to concentrate on carefully placing one foot down after the other in some semblance of rhythm. Once we reached his place, I had to brace myself against the frame of the door while Duo hunted through his pockets for the right key. The building was one in a number of identical prefab structures in the metal-trading quarter. His was neater than most and had a couple large warehouses along with the smaller office and living quarters building he couldn't find the key for.
He shrugged finally, traded a wry grin with yours truly and reached up along the building trim for a hidden spare key. My jaw dropped, and I quickly shut it. I couldn't believe that he'd just revealed that in front of me with nary a twitch. This guy was far too trusting for his own good. It had been a long time since someone had blindly assumed the best about me; it felt strange, but oddly welcome.
He called out to his roommate as we entered the building, but there was no answer. I was fairly reeling against the walls by this time, and Duo grabbed my arm to steady my progress as he led me down the hall to a small bedroom. Obviously a guest room, but with the surprising luxury of a private bath with a tiny shower. Duo pushed me towards the small bed and moved to shut the blinds. I sat on the bed. Unmoving, wondering what was next. But he simply turned to look at me with an open and relaxed expression, and pushed me back on to the mattress with a gentle shove of his index finger. Then he matter-of-factly pulled off my boots and pulled a striped blanket off a neighboring chair and draped it over me. "Take a nap, you look completely wasted. Rep said you'd be feeling kinda out of it for a while. The knitter-type meds do that to you." He grinned, again. "When you wake up, come find me and we'll go eat something."
And with that, he was gone; and sleep proved too much of a lure for me to ignore.
I crawled out from behind my closed eyelids hours later, but it was still bright outside behind the pulled blinds. I'd been dreaming again, and had kicked the blanket off sometime during the duration. The end of the nightmare was still circling like a bad taste in my mind; I shook my head to clear it before I was fully awake. Boy was that a mistake I won't be repeating anytime soon. Ouch. The bathroom was too much of a novelty for me to pass up. Duo had anticipated my needs, and had left a change of clothes and a large soft towel the color of sunlight on the chair next to the window.
Twenty minutes later, tired, but clean as I'd not been in longer than I could comfortably remember, I poked my head out from the bedroom door.
Voices. Thataway. I'd been a little too out of it when I arrived to get even a first impression of Duo's place so I took my time walking through it now. It was neat, orderly, and quaintly average based on the number of homes I'd seen in my fairly short lifespan. Apparently Duo wasn't much for ornament or decor, a couple framed prints, but that was all. I respected that. A simple lifestyle had a great deal to offer (and yeah, I would know).
I did my best to triangulate the source of the voices. Two, no wait, three people were talking conversationally. Hmmm. Kitchen maybe. My stomach grumbled at the thought of food. I'd had one of Rep's protein drinks early that morning, and though filling and no doubt perfectly nutritionally balanced for my every organic requirement, it didn't qualify as "real" food by any stretch of even my imagination.
I turned the corner into the kitchen and stopped dead in full view of the table. Me in my bare feet, hair dripping and wetting the back of my new shirt. In my new jeans with all the horizontal creases in them. Completely dumbfounded.
Oh. He was _that_ Duo. I guess I could blame the knitter meds or some such for the inexcusable lapse in sanity. I mean, how dense can you get really. He'd mentioned a friend named Heero once or twice on the walk here. I just hadn't the candlepower at the time to align the little bits together. I must have looked a sight with my jaw dropped down around my knees like a comic book character. Problem was, I seemed to have lost all voluntary control. How in the nine hells of abysmal humor _had_ I wound up here?
Duo kicked a chair out from under the table and turned back to the guy sitting next to him. Obviously I was expected to sit. What I felt like doing was running like hell. But I scooped my jaw up with a quick mental hand and took the proffered chair - trying not to look too awed by the company I suddenly found myself keeping. The conversation stopped briefly while everyone got a good look at me. I nervously finger-combed my hair off my face and did my best to act like I sat with renowned war heroes every morning to break my fast thankyouverymuch.
"Another one of your strays Duo?" This from the dark-haired man with the wicked eyes sitting next to him. And I'd thought Duo a wolf. Silly me. That must be Heero.
"Eight to one odds are a little steep for anyone," was Duo's quick reply.
I thought about contesting that remark, but after a quick glance at the people around the table, I thought better of it. Apparently I was accepted based on Duo's simple say-so and his general umbrella of protection. And it looked like I wasn't the first to find myself so. I bit back a wise-ass remark and kept quiet, a tactic I should probably use more often.
A smiling blond man with an open innocent face and experienced and ancient eyes asked first before pushing an empty mug in front of me and filling it with a semi-solid fluid. And gave me enough time to match a name to that face.
"Quatre Winner? Right?" He smiled and nodded at me, pleased I think. The man sitting next to him frowned at my friendly overture and I pulled my drink into the circle of my hands and stared across its surface in retreat.
The conversation resumed around me, the four of them trading quips and comments fast enough and obscure enough that I gave up on following it and instead blew across my coffee to cool it. Cooling coffee. Maxwell's demon. I stifled a nervous giggle, but not quickly enough to escape Heero's attention. He gave me a totally unexpected commiserating smirk and dove back into whatever he was debating with Trowa (who else could the fourth guy be really).
I took a tentative sip of my coffee, manfully resisted the urge to spew it across the table, and swallowed hard and painfully. (It was very hot.) Was it supposed to taste like this? I looked around; no one else was hesitating. Either this was what it was supposed to taste like, or else they were so inured to the flavor that it made no difference to them. I drank a little more and decided it wasn't so bad after all. And a knife in your upper back just itches a little and doesn't hurt all that much, really. Yeah, sarcasm. My trademark.
Apparently this was either a test or some kind of bizarre hazing ritual, because when I replied with a casual "sure" to a refill on my cup, all four of my heroes turned to look at me and Trowa even gave me a genuine smile. It made me immediately uncomfortable though, and I felt like I'd unexpectedly done something wrong. My belly felt cold, and I studied my coffee some more.
Quatre and Trowa didn't stay long - just through that second cup of coffee and another round and a half of friendly argumentative discussion. Heero stayed on through the meal though, and after I got past my reservations, the three of us sat, elbows on the table, waving forks, with all of us talking over small things. I rather suspected that the two of them were holding back until I left the room to cover their real topics though.
Heero was the one who caught me nodding off into my plate. He looked aside at Duo, "Knitter meds?" Duo turned and looked carefully at my face with some concern, "Hey Snapp, you need to crash?"
I took a quick inventory, and pushed back my chair, bracing my hands flat on the table to maintain my balance. Yeah, I was wasted. I excused myself with a nod and wandered back down the hall to my temporary room. Reeling off the walls a bit, but not all that bad considering...
When I woke, hours later, Heero had gone, and though it was difficult for me to judge in the short time I'd known him, Duo seemed happier after his visit. He smiled at odd moments for no reason I could see, and hummed tunelessly while brewing a pot of coffee - and startled easily when I pointed it out to him by inquiring after the tune.
*This* coffee was wonderful, and when Duo caught the expression on my face, he laughed out loud and replied, "Yeah, coffee's not one of Heero's better talents - but he makes up for it in other ways." I had to think about that. Was he implying what I thought he was implying? Huh, none of my business I suppose. I could sort of see the attraction though, hell, they'd been through war together - it was bound to give them an opportunity to find things in common. How many people out there could really understand what the Gundam pilots had been through, I mean really?
The next few days were quiet ones. I slept through most of them, but woke up enough to eat the food Duo pushed at me and ingest my meds. When Duo carefully examined the neat rows of stitches on my head and back and proclaimed them ready for removal, I was more than eager to get off the damn knitters (they gave me strange dreams). Stitch removal was much less painful than I'd thought it would be; snip, tug; snip, tug - until I lost count of the knotted plastic bits on the table. Duo was meticulous, careful, and took long drags of his coffee at random intervals during the process. He ran a cloth that burned over the narrow lines of punctures before pronouncing the task done, and swept the pile of sutures into the trash bin with the side of his hand.
I rubbed my hand curiously over the side of my head; I'd grown accustomed to the prickly edges of the stitches through the growing stubble. It felt strangely smooth now, and my stomach gave a twist. He'd kept to his promise, giving me a place until I healed. Well, now what was I going to do with myself? Suddenly my stash under the laundry didn't seem like much of a home. I doubted there was anything left there for me anyway - Mar wasn't exactly the forgiving type.
Something of my thoughts must have shown on my face, as Duo snagged a second cup from the sink and filled it after topping off his own mug. And pushed the fresh cup towards me as he took a seat opposite - watching me absently stroke my head in indecision.
"What next? Well, I'm hardly going to toss you back out onto the streets Snapp. So don't worry about that."
Hell, had I been that transparent? I must be losing my touch. Damn. I guess that showed as well because Duo laughed outright at the expression on my face and shook his head.
"We'll find some place that suits you. Ever had a job before?"
"Uh, not really. Ran some errands for a shop once. Shelved books at the library for a few weeks..." I thought some more about what I wanted to admit to having done. "Cleaned a warehouse down at the shuttleport until they closed it."
Duo looked thoughtful. "Well, something will come up that'll work. 'Til then, you're welcome here." He grinned and nodded toward the cup, "That's the cinnamon stuff you like, drink up."
It wasn't until another week had passed and Duo took me to one of the local restaurants that that 'something' came up.
The place didn't look all that impressive from the outside. Didn't even look like a place to buy a decent cup of coffee - nonetheless the wonderful meal Duo promised and had been bragging continuously could be found here. A red door with the name of the place written in three languages in black marker. "Wong's." Yeah, the outside of the place wasn't impressive, but as I preceded Duo through the door, the wave of good-food scents hit my nose and wakened my stomach with a vengeance. Duo grabbed something card-like from next to the door and used it to wave at a woman standing behind a long counter. She walked out from behind it and happily towards Duo, enveloping him in an enthusiastic hug before stepping back to take a better look at me.
"And what have you brought for me this time Duo hmmm?" Duo moved to the side and I finally got a good look at the person he was speaking with. She was this huge woman with a pile of red hair perched on top of her head like a large curled dead cat. I didn't care for the suspicious way she was looking me over. As had been the case with Duo, I got the distinct impression that she was seeing more than she was letting on. She motioned me forward. I looked up at Duo first, who nodded and waved me onward.
"And so, you are how old?" I shrugged in reply. I really didn't know. "Hm. And by what name do I call you then?"
"Pick one. I'm easy."
The large woman threw a glare at Duo, and made sure I saw her expression. Duo grinned back at her with attitude. I respected that - it took guts. She was scary. Duo held up the sign he'd pulled out of the front window and waved it under her eyes. "Oh, so that's what you're up to then." She stared hard at me, and I suddenly got it.
I held up my arms in a warding gesture and started to back for the door. But Duo was quicker than I gave him credit for, and snagged the sleeve of my new jacket in a firm grip. No way was I leaving without that, so I stood and let him drag me forward again.
"Okay, okay. Snapp. Just Snapp."
The sleeve was released and I shrugged the jacket back squarely across my shoulders and glared at Duo. Damn he was quick.
"Mom Wong, may I introduce Snapp. Snapp, this is Mom Wong." Duo made what I suppose were the appropriate hand gestures, but I spent the moment examining the woman in front of me. She didn't look the least bit Asian. Weird.
She returned the examination with interest, but I think she was looking for different things than I was. "Give me your hand then." What? well, okay. I extended it, and it was accepted, turned over, and examined carefully; I don't know what for, but apparently she saw something there she approved of, as she let me take it back and nodded. Satisfied. "Sit at my counter and eat, both of you. And we'll talk."
Duo slanted a look down to me, "Hungry?"
"Sure" Of course I was hungry, what kid my age wasn't perpetually in search of food?
"Good. You'll like this."
He was right. I'd never had noodles before. I had a new favorite food now.
Mom Wong walked over to us as we finished our meal. Chopsticks were beyond me, I had to twirl my noodles around a fork and watched Duo's ease with the narrow sticks with envy. I wanted to learn that skill. She watched me scrape the bottom of my bowl with approval, and then offered me a job. My first. I looked a question at Duo, and he shrugged back. He'd given me the opportunity, but the decision was mine.
I felt a moment of rising panic, recognizing a crossroads moment. From this point onward my life was my responsibility again - and then I nodded. Mom Wong smiled broadly and reached out her hand, which I gingerly accepted. But it was firm and welcoming, and made me feel instantly better about the risk I was taking. More was said after that, a day and hour set to start, wages offered, and Duo's restated promise of a place to stay until I'd found one on my own. Most of what was said blurred into a confusing mass, but Duo helped me sort it out over coffee when we got back to his place.
It wasn't until months later that I found out a little about why Duo had helped me out. Mom Wong wandered back into the kitchen after a good lunch crowd in the shop. She was chatty and more agreeable than usual; and I asked, carefully, about Duo.
She gave me a sharp stare to let me know that she knew what I was up to, but gave into my request anyway. "No, you're not the first stray he's brought around. He's often alone, and lonely I think, and he's got a 'good' streak that's a mile wide."
She settled an ample hip against the counter and continued. "Did you know that he grew up on the streets?" I shook my head. "Then he was moved to an orphanage and did some studying to be a priest? Well, that's how he was brought up anyway. But he became a terrorist for the benefit of the colony cluster, and took up his Gundam again in the Eve War of AC 196. And well, I think helping you and others in need of it is his way of giving back a little of what he used to be like. Makes him feel good about himself again I suppose." She stacked the dishes I'd just washed with an economy of movement I'd not yet attained, but I wasn't breaking nearly as much - it had been three days since I'd last dropped a glass.
She snapped a towel at me and moved to the door of the kitchen to let me know she was done answering my question, "Anyway, you get off now. Plenty to do tonight yet, but go settle yourself into that new room of yours and come back before the supper rush." She stopped just short of the door and looked back at me before adding, "Someone, somewhere...figured things just right so you two would run into each other. My advice to you is to not waste that opportunity, as it rarely comes along a second time."
I stood there for long moments, shifting cutlery under my fingers, and thought about what she'd said as she left. Opportunity. Think of the opportunities... Yeah, I could do something with that.