by girl starfish
Two days later preparations were almost complete. The pilots had decided that they would tell Duo of their plans tonight. It was not something they were looking forward to.
It did not go well.
There were tears, pouts, pleading and sulking--and that was just from Quatre. Duo behaved a lot worse.
"But why won't you take me with you?" he wailed, clinging to Quatre. "Did I do something wrong? Do you not like me anymore? I'm sorry about the freezer--that was an accident--"
"The freezer?" Heero asked.
Wufei detached the child from Quatre before the blonde pilot could give in. "Think about this," he said to Duo, trying to calm him. "We can't take a child into a war zone. It's far too dangerous."
"I'll be really, really good," Duo said. "I promise."
To Heero and Quatre's considerable surprise, Wufei hugged him. "I know you would, but that's not the issue. No matter how well behaved you were, you would still be in danger if you came with us. Now, we've found a friend of ours who is happy to take care of you until we come back and--"
"If you don't want me anymore you could just say so," the kid said, pulling away from Wufei resentfully. "You don't have to lie to me."
"Wufei doesn't lie," Heero said. "We're going to come back for you."
"Whatever," Duo said. "Like I haven't heard that before."
"Duo," Quatre pleaded. "We care about you a lot. That's why we want you to stay behind where it's safe--"
"If you cared about me you wouldn't be leaving me!" Duo screamed at them. "I hate you all!"
He ran to his room.
"Oh dear," Quatre said. "Maybe we should--"
"NO," Wufei and Heero said in unison.
"He'll be fine with Howard," Wufei said. "He seems very capable."
Heero was worried about something else. "Do either of you know anything about the freezer?"
The basement was under twenty centimetres of water.
"Oh dear," Quatre said. "It's too late to call a plumber now."
"Leave it," Heero said. "There's nothing important down here."
They went back to the kitchen where Wufei was sitting with the Wind in the Willows. "He doesn't want a bedtime story," Wufei said. "He's really upset by this."
Quatre nodded unhappily. "I hate leaving him like this, but what can we do? The operation needs all of us--"
Heero was silent. Was his Duo out there, waiting for them to find him? Did he feel equally abandoned?
None of them slept well that night.
Wufei had been given the task of taking Duo to Howard's. Heero had been ruled out on the grounds of Duo not liking him, and Quatre because neither Heero nor Wufei thought they could trust him not to give in to the child and let him stay.
Duo sat on his bed maintaining a sulky silence as the pilots packed an overnight bag for him. While Wufei chose his clothes and Quatre agonised over what toys to include, Heero filled a box from the pantry with canned food in the hopes that it would make Duo feel better.
He ignored Quatre and Heero when they said goodbye to him, and didn't even look enthused at the prospect of riding on the back of Wufei's motorbike.
He was silent throughout the stringent safety check Wufei did of his bike, and through having a helmet buckled on him. "Everything all right?" Wufei asked him as he settled Duo on the bike.
Wufei rolled his eyes. "You're behaving like an onna."
The ride to the docks where Howard was waiting went smoothly. Wufei parked the motorbike then lifted the child down. "Howard will be around here somewhere," he said. "I'm sure you'll like him, even if he has no dress sense."
"Spare me, Wufei. You're abandoning me," Duo said coldly. "Don't try and be nice."
Wufei knelt by the child. "Is that what you think? We brought you here to abandon you?"
"It's not like it hasn't been done before," Duo said.
Wufei was thrown. Duo's jaw was set, he didn't think it would be any use trying to reason with him. Just as Pilot 02 was stubborn, once Duo made up his mind, very little would persuade him to change it.
Fortunately Wufei had an idea. He went back to the motorbike. He had a bag packed with his own essential travel items, Quatre and Heero taking the rest of his stuff with them. This bag he brought hack to Duo.
"It would be useless to try and argue with you," He said. "So instead I'm going to prove to you that we're coming back to get you." He drew his prized katana blade from his pack. "You see this sword?"
Duo rolled his eyes. "Yes."
"This was given to me by my father. It belonged to his father, who got it from his father and so on. It is irreplaceable," Wufei held it out to Duo. "Take it."
Duo stared at him. "You're not giving this to me?"
"You are correct," Wufei said. "I'm not. However, I will offer it to you as security. I'm going to trust you to look after it until I return to get it and you."
"Seriously?" Duo asked, taking the sword at Wufei's nod. "Man, Wufei--"
"Just don't try using it as a can-opener or anything? And don't drop it. And don't hurt yourself with it--and above all else don't--" Wufei fell silent as Duo took his hand. They were friends again.
Howard walked into the dock, scanning the lounges. They'd agreed to meet in the part of the building set aside for the passenger craft. Ah, there was Wufei, watching as a flock of seagulls were fed chips by a child who looked an awful lot like--
Howard raised his sunglasses, but the apparition didn't go away.
So was he going crazy in his old age or what?
The kid spun around, running back to Wufei. The Chinese pilot shook his head and pointed and the child ran off in the specified direction. Howard replaced his glasses and walked over to Wufei. He hadn't imagined the kid. Which meant--
He didn't know what that meant.
"So," He drawled once close enough to Wufei. "They cloning you pilots now?"
Wufei shook his head. "It's a long story. The child has not been told how much he looks like Duo, and you and your crew must not inform him."
Howard whistled. "That's going to be hard. From what I saw, even at a distance the kid's the spitting image of him."
"He's rather more than that," Wufei sighed. "Let's just say scientists and alternate universes do not mix, and leave it at that, shall we?"
Howard raised an eyebrow but didn't get a chance to comment further. The kid was back.
"I found the rubbish bin" he announced then spotted Howard. "Is that--?"
"This is Howard," Wufei said. "He has very kindly agreed to let you stay with him while we complete our mission."
"Hi," Duo said. "What happened to your hai--"
Wufei slipped a hand over Duo's mouth. "He's a little shy around strangers," he said. "You'll take good care of him."
Howard looked from Wufei to Duo, struggling to free himself and raised an eyebrow. "You got all your stuff?"
"He has his backpack and this," Wufei handed the box to Howard. "I'm afraid I must leave you now, Duo. Take care and behave well for Howard."
Duo nodded. "You'll be back soon, right?"
"As soon as we can," Wufei bowed good-bye to Duo and Howard and left.
Duo watched him until he disappeared among the crowds of people.
Howard was investigating the contents of Duo's box. "Canned food? Why'd they give you canned food? And who needs 5 cans of creamed corn anyway?"
"Quatre says it's important for me to eat my vegetables," Duo said, his voice wobbling. Although he believed Wufei it was very hard not to feel worried as he was left with a stranger for who knew how long.
Howard snorted. "Vegetables, hah! Real men don't need vegetables--hang with us kid, we'll put you right."
Duo ventured a smile. Maybe Howard would not be so bad.
"It will be another hour before Trowa arrives for the rendezvous," Quatre noted that evening. "Until then--well we can order something or go somewhere else and come back."
Heero shrugged. "Up to you." Although the pub was a little too noisy for his tastes it was a lot warmer than it was outside. It was also where Trowa would be, and there was the chance that he might arrive early.
"You know--I might phone Howard. We've got the time--and I do hope
Duo is settling in okay."
"Good idea," Heero said. It would be well to take advantage of the anonymity of the pub's phone while they could.
He watched as Quatre dialled. "Hi Howard, is Duo around? Hi Duo--how are you?"
Heero paused. There was something ever so slightly wrong--something just out of place--
"That's good. So what have you been doing?"
He scanned the bar. Most of the patrons seemed to be engrossed in their own activities, chatting or watching the TV screen but one--one was watching him.
"That sounds rather dangerous. Are you sure Howard's okay with that?"
He was an older man, grizzled and dour looking, thumbing a well-worn photo. He tucked the photo away as he approached Heero and sat down at the table opposite him.
"Maybe I should speak with Howard--"
They eyed each other a long moment, then the man broke the silence.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"I don't drink," Heero said.
To his surprise the man chuckled. "Didn't think you would. That's what he said."
"He?" Heero frowned.
"I met him a few months ago--don't know when exactly, I don't keep track. He needed a favour, knew I held a grudge against OZ--well, we came to an arrangement. I have some rather important cargo, cargo that OZ would love to get their hands on. He said to deliver it to nobody but him or the person who could give me the other half of this photo."
He put it face up on the table.
Heero knew the photo instantly. It's been taken from an assignment that had required both Duo and him to infiltrate an OZ function--both wore tuxes. Duo had said this was an occasion they couldn't let pass unnoticed. Photo-Heero was remarkably not scowling--he looked quietly satisfied.
The reason for this was made clear as he brought the other half of the photo from his pocket. Duo, his arm looped through Heero's grinned at the camera. He couldn't remember now what Duo had said, only the feeling of warmth it had provoked in him--the same feeling as when, the next time he'd had to leave on a solo mission, Duo had presented him with his half of the photo. "We'll each keep a part," he said. "So you know that I'm thinking of you, and so you can look at it and think of me."
"That's him all right," the man said with satisfaction. "Get your friend and we'll go."
Heero went over to Quatre. "We need to leave."
Quatre nodded. "We'll talk about this later," he told Howard. "What is it?" he asked Heero as he hung up. Heero jerked a thumb towards the older man.
"He has something of Duo's."
Quatre's eyes widened. "Let's go."
The man led them out of the pub, down a couple of streets. "No names," he said. "Better that way. You can't betray what you don't know."
"Did our … colleague give you any information?" Quatre asked as he and Heero followed.
"Said he needed to go underground for a while, had some stuff he couldn't take with him. He knew about my daughter--asked me if I wanted a chance to really piss off OZ. How could I refuse?"
Heero caught Quatre's eye and nodded. That certainly sounded like Duo. But what would he have left?
"Here we go," the man said. "One of my warehouses. I run a freighting business. When OZ moved into the area they wanted me to do a contract for 'em. Didn't get a chance to say no. Then one of the bastards roughed up my daughter. What can you do? Police have been disbanded, not a court around who will accept a case against OZ--afraid." He waved them inside. "This is under my brother's name, OZ doesn't know about it. So--" he hit a light.
The place was bare apart from a pile of crates in one corner that almost reached the ceiling. Heero tried to hide his disappointment. He'd hoped that Duo might have hidden himself here--
"What's in the crates?"
The man smirked, patting one of them. "You see here, gentlemen, about three hundred crates of pocky."
"Pocky?" Quatre asked, confused.
Heero, who knew what pocky was, and knew Duo, sighed. "He asked you to guard pocky?"
"Naw, the question you should have asked is not what is in the crates, it's what is under them." The man smirked and stood back.
Exchanging glances, Heero and Quatre stepped forward and lifted a box out of the way. Beneath it a black metallic surface gleamed.
"I didn't hear that," the man turned his back. "I don't know about anything other than the pocky."
"Is there anything else?"
"Nothing at all to my knowledge," the man shrugged. "He hasn't contacted you?"
"Not recently," Heero said. He nodded to the man. "I'll organise someone to collect this in about a week or so. Will it be all right till then?"
"Not a problem," the man said shutting the door as the pilots filed out.
Quatre and Heero walked back to the pub in silence.
As they neared the building, the Arabian pilot asked "Are you okay, Heero?"
Heero grunted in the affirmative. His mind was already racing through the possibilities. Duo had been here--
Duo had been here.
Howard groaned, burying his head under the pillow and trying to regain his sleep, but the beeping of the monitor would not go away. Throwing his pillow at it did not help. Mumbling something rude, Howard hit the on button.
"We've completed our mission," Heero said, appearing on screen.
Howard was not impressed. "You woke me up at six in the morning to tell me that?"
Quatre pushed Heero out of the way. "Actually we woke you up to tell you that we would be arriving, soon. Where are you?"
"We left port two days ago, we're currently anchored off the coast of Japan. You want the co-ordinates?" Howard asked, smothering a yawn.
"That would be great," Quatre took them. "We'll be there in about half an hour--we're travelling by shuttle. Oh," he added as an after thought. "Tell your men not to be surprised when a shuttle bearing OZ insignia lands, okay?"
Howard was too tired to even raise an eyebrow. "Yeah, sure. Now let me get some sleep."
Half an hour later, still yawning, Howard watched as the pilots disembarked from a shuttle that did indeed bear OZ insignia. "You pilots sure get around," he commented.
"We thought you might like it," Quatre said. "You can take it apart for its parts--payment for the mobile suits parts."
"Aw, you don't need to do that," Howard said. "I don't need nothing--"
"You've done us a great service by minding Duo," Wufei said. "Allow us to make this gesture of our appreciation."
"The little tyke's a pleasure to have around," Howard said. "Anytime you guys need a bunk for him, he's welcome here."
"How is he?" Heero demanded abruptly and Trowa nodded.
"Sleeping. He won't be up until breakfast is served--ya wanna check on him?" Howard was rather surprised as all four pilots nodded. "This way."
The pilots filed silently after Howard as he led them through the Sweepers' sleeping quarters. Only Heero had seen them before, and the bunks and their occupants were pretty much the same as when his-Duo had been staying with them.
"We set him up a little corner of his own, so the guys wouldn't disturb him when they change shifts," Howard said, leading them to a corner that was partly screened from the rest of the dormitory by a partition. A hammock had been hung up, and within it, curled in a nest of blankets, Duo was sound asleep.
"Aw--ain't he cute?" Howard observed. "At least till he wakes up."
The pilots were silent, busily scanning Duo for signs of ill treatment of injury. Not that they didn't trust Howard--but some habits were hard to break.
Duo's belongings were untidily spread out around the hammock. On a bench that was being used as a shelf, stood a few of Duo's toys, some unidentifiable mechanical bits, and a radio that was blaring away quietly.
Wufei reached out to turn it off automatically but Howard stopped him.
"But won't it disturb him?"
"Other way round," Howard said quietly, leading the pilots away from the sleeping child. "See," he said, once they were in the corridor, "When Duo--Shinigami-Duo--first turned up he had real problems sleeping unless he knew there were other people around. Used to give us all sorts of problems, eventually started dragging his sleeping gear into the bridge to sleep there. We figured it out over time--he can't sleep unless he knows he's not alone. So we started putting the radio on in his room and letting him fall asleep to it--problem solved."
"I should have thought of that--" Quatre said. "I should have picked up on--"
Heero interrupted Pilot 04's latest angst attack with a demand. "Where's the nearest computer port?"
Howard pointed and watched as Heero marched off with laptop in that direction. "Does he never relax?"
"We found a lead to finding Duo," Trowa explained. "Heero's determined to follow it up."
Howard was no longer surprised. "What say the rest of you tell me about this over breakfast?"
They were still at breakfast when Duo turned up. "You're back!" he announced at full volume, throwing himself bodily at Quatre. The blond laughed as he hugged Duo.
"Yes, we are--how are you?"
Duo beamed at him. His hair was neatly brushed back and plaited, beneath a black cap. Although he was wearing a pair of shorts that Quatre had bought him, he wore a singlet top that was far too big for him. Despite the way it hung off his skinny frame, Duo wore it with obvious pride. "I'm an honorary Sweeper! See my cap? And I was allowed to help take apart a mobile doll--look at my bruise? Isn't it cool? I fell off the--"
Wufei smiled as he put a plate in front of the child. "You can slow down, you know. We're not going anywhere."
"Hey, where's Heero?" Duo wondered.
"He's here. He has some stuff to take care of," Trowa replied.
"Oh, okay," Duo sat down to eat happily. "I got an even cooler bruise but that's kinda faded now. What did you do?"
"Oh, stuff," Quatre said vaguely. "We stopped OZ from sending a lot more weapons into space."
"Good," Duo said viciously. "Did I tell you that Jake took me for a ride in a Cancer?"
The pilots had enough time for Duo to take them on a guided tour of the Sweepers' ship before they left. Holding on tightly to Wufei and Quatre's hands, while Trowa watched amused, Duo showed them the bridge and workshop, telling them all his adventures as he did so.
He had been busy. There did not seem to be a member of Howard's crew, a mobile suit or a piece of machinery he was not personally acquainted with, or a part of the ship he hadn't explored, played in, or fallen off.
In fact, they had a hard time getting Duo to leave until they promised that he could see Howard and the guys again next time they had a visit.
"Quite a turn around, don't you think?" Quatre said to Wufei with a smile as they gathered Duo's belongings. Trowa was watching with awe as the child insisted on saying goodbye to every member of the crew in person.
"He's shows great adaptability," Wufei agreed. He'd just found his sword--in perfect condition.
"Now," Quatre said. "Do you want to try and detach Heero from his computer, or should I?"
"Really? You're not just saying that to make me eat my vegetables?"
"No, we don't mind watching the Sound of Music with you, after tea," Quatre told him, smiling. It was so like Duo to expect a catch--
Duo grinned. "All right!"
"But you have to eat your vegetables anyway," Wufei told him.
Duo looked at his plate then at Wufei. "Howard said only girls eat vegetables."
The meaning in his tone was clear.
Wufei put his fork down. "So eating vegetables makes you an onna?"
Wufei made a big show of checking his hearing. "Pardon me, but did I just hear you insult Barton and Yuy and me?" He pointed towards them with a fork. "Barton just got second helpings of peas and Yuy always eats what is put in front of him."
Duo cast a look across the table. Wufei he could take on. But Trowa and Heero …
Trowa blinked at him, Heero frowned. They were both somewhat surprised to find themselves put in the 'threat' category. They were even more surprised when Duo started eating his greens.
"I'm done," he announced, hurriedly. "Can I go to the bathroom?"
"Swallow," Wufei said "Then you can go."
Duo pouted. How come Wufei knew all his ploys? He swallowed the last mouthful of veggies, then went to the bathroom where he made a big show of brushing his teeth.
Unfortunately the display was wasted on the pilots who had more pressing matters to concern them.
"What was that about?" Trowa asked.
"You made it sound like we were scary," Trowa said. "I resent that."
Heero had a feeling he couldn't say anything. "Hn."
Quatre was sulking. "What I don't understand is why you didn't mention me."
Quatre's eyes watered. "You guys are mean!" he whimpered. "I can't believe you would--food fight!"
"Wha--" said Wufei as Quatre threw his broccoli at him. "Injustice! This means war, Winner!"
When Duo returned to the kitchen it was to find Quatre, still giggling weakly as he helped Heero get the potato off the ceiling while Wufei and Trowa wiped all available surfaces. He looked pointedly at the pilots. "You done playing with your food? Cause I have a video I want to watch."
It was one of those moments loved by photo companies. Duo sprawled on the couch between Quatre sitting on Trowa's lap, and Wufei, polishing his sword. Heero, his laptop in his room, sat on the floor. The movie was watched in companionable silence and interrupted only so Quatre could fetch hot chocolate and biscuits.
"We ought to do this more often," Quatre said.
"No, spending time together. Like a family."
Were they a family? Heero wondered. He had no experience with one--
"Can we watch it again?" Duo asked hopefully.
"No!" all four pilots said at once.
Duo pouted, and went to unpack his things.
Trowa stretched as Quatre began gathering mugs. Heero saw that Wufei was putting away his sword and decided that if he wanted to ask, now would be the time, before the others dispersed.
"Quatre--how much did you mean that?"
"The family comment." Heero kept his features set, betraying nothing of his uncertainty.
"Well--a child does need a stable home--and I'm very attached to you all. I guess I thought--" Quatre trailed off awkwardly, not encouraged by Heero's blank expression.
"I think of you other pilots as, if not family, something more than friends," Wufei said. "At any rate, you're more like family than anything I have left."
Trowa squeezed Quatre. "You know about this than I do," he said simply. "I'll follow your lead on this."
Quatre smiled. "Heero?"
"I've never had a family," Heero said. "I don't know how to act in one. I'll let you down--"
"Don't be silly, Yuy," Wufei told him. "You've done great with Duo--"
"I still don't know," Heero said. "I need to think."
He went to the bedroom, mind churning with everything he knew--or thought he knew about families. J hadn't seen fit to include them in his training--
Maybe a quick computer search would help?
Heero opened his laptop--and paused. He'd left it on--but not on the page it was now. His earlier search had been erased.
Someone had used it? Not the pilots--they'd been in the lounge. So that left--
Heero had a data log running that recorded whatever activity his laptop did. His internet history pages had been accessed, flicked through at random--Heero followed up the pages. It appeared to be done at random. Duo, getting curious perhaps?
Heero flicked through the pages, scanning them for restricted information. Although he'd been searching for his-Duo, the search terms used were general, not likely to mean much to the kid. Then Heero hit the last link.
The page that appeared in the browser was the one that Heero least hoped to see.
"Maxwell Church--one survivor."