A Soldiers and Fools Story
January - September AC202
by LoneWolf ( kodoku na okami )
-- 29 January AC 202 --
"Hmm… I wonder if this class will work," Duo muttered as he studied the catalog for the University of the Colonies at L1. He had waited until he was on the shuttle to work out his schedule. In part because crunching course options and course availability was tedious, but mostly because he *really* didn't look forward to pretending to be a college student, and the longer he could avoid it, the better.
"We need to talk," Heero said quitely.
"Huh? It's just a generic art history class. I'd love to take the class in--" He stopped when he saw Heero's face, deadly serious. Duo decided Heero couldn't be that serious about which classes he took. After all, the whole college student thing was just going to be their cover on L1 while they were looking for Dr. J. It had to be believable, but it wasn't like they were going to be around long enough to actually graduate.
"When we get to L1--" Heero paused, frowning slightly. "When we get to L1, we can't let anyone suspect we're more than just friends."
"Of course," Duo said. He'd helped create their new identities. Hiroshi Sakamura and Duane Arthur were a pair of 18 year old boys from Los Angeles. They'd grown up across the street from each other, had roomed together their first semester at UCLA and decided to transfer to UCL1 together. Most significantly, their made-up histories included a number of romantic entanglements that demonstrated they were entirely heterosexual. That was one of the details Duo had added. He wasn't sure how long it might throw off any Rejects looking for them, but every little bit helped.
"We have to be careful."
"Heero," Duo whispered softly. "I'm not going to blow our cover. No touchy, no feely and no kissy in public. I got it." He saw the completely bland expression that, in this case, meant Heero had doubts, but didn't want to hurt his feelings by saying so. "Look, I'm fine with it. … Well, okay, I can live with it. As long as it doesn't extend to the apartment."
Heero's jaw tightened that tiny bit that told Duo he was about to get to the unpleasant part. "Une will arrange dates for us occasionally."
Duo blinked, then blinked again. "Ah." He nodded. "I see." He shrugged. "Y'know you didn't have to get Une to pimp for us. We could find our own dates."
"I meant girls." Heero sighed. "They'll be Preventers agents."
"Girls and agents. Score two right for me. In case you don't remember, the girls were always after me when we were at that school together. I could give you a few pointers." He fluttered his eyelids at Heero, who was staring at him as if he'd just sprouted two extra heads.
"You don't mind?"
"Hell yes I mind." Duo flicked the end of his braid at Heero. Sometimes, he thought, you can be a *total* idiot, Hee-koi. He didn't think that was a good thing to say, though. Heero was always concerned about anything he thought might affect their relationship. It was one of the things he did that told Duo that Heero loved him as much as he loved Heero. "But I know we're only doing it because it's part of the mission. We have to maintain our cover." He leaned close and whispered, barely audible above the shuttle's air circulators, "And if you so much as *look* at one of them more than I think you should, I'll rip you a new asshole. And I promise you won't enjoy it." He leaned back and smiled pleasantly. Heero always liked to be reminded that he could be the jealous type.
Heero looked at him, eyes narrowed, then nodded. "Ryoukai." The corners of his lips a tenth of an inch above flat. It qualified as a smile.
Ah, back to normal, Duo thought. "Now that we've got that settled… If Une's gonna get us dates, d'ya think I could convince her to bribe my advisor so I can get into this senior-level class on art glass?"
-- 24 September AC 202 --
Something was blocking his light.
Duo looked up from his notebook to find Mr. Takashi, the graduate student who taught his "Physics for Artists" class, standing over him. "Excellent drawings, Mr. Arthur. Too bad none of them are inclined planes. See me after class."
Duo stifled a groan. It wasn't that he couldn't do physics, it was just so boring to have to show his work. He could solve the problems in his head -- well enough to blow Mobile Dolls out of the sky or dock a shuttle on manual, anyway -- but that kind of solving didn't produce the kind of results Mr. Takashi demanded. I shouldn't be in this damn class anyway, he thought. This whole college student cover has lasted way too long. We were supposed to have found Dr. J before the spring semester ended.
On the page before him he saw dozens of little Dr. J's, some detailed, some quick studies, even one chibi-Dr. J. It didn't really surprise him, though. He and Heero both spent a lot of time thinking about Dr. J and how they might find him. They'd been searching L1 for nine months and were no closer to finding the man and were both more than a little frustrat--
Mr. Takashi cleared his throat and Duo looked up. The man's glare was unnerving. Duo grinned sheepishly and turned the page and began quickly scribbling notes and drawing pictures of inclined planes.
Curiously, most of them looked a lot like Dr. J's nose.
After class, Duo stood, fidgeting from foot to foot as Mr. Takashi flipped through his notebook. "You seem to be preoccupied with this character with the odd glasses. Who is he?"
"Uh, just an old guy my friend Hiroshi knew way back when. They, um, used to email a lot when we were in high school." Duo mumbled. He still didn't know why Mr. Takashi, who was about the same age as him -- well, as his real age, not the 19 he was pretending to be -- always made him so… nervous.
"Really?" Mr. Takashi looked at him thoughtfully. "He's an old friend of mine too."
After ten seconds, Duo realized there wasn't a punch line. "You *know* him?"
"Uh, could you tell us how to get in touch with him? Hiroshi kinda wanted to meet him." That was an entirely true statement. They wanted to find him, but neither of them would have been looking for him if they hadn't needed the information they thought he had. In fact, Duo was pretty sure Heero was going to punch the man when they did find him -- and Heero could throw a mean punch. Duo rubbed his belly remembering that time on X18999 back when Marimeia--
"He travels a lot, but I can give him your number."
Duo snapped back to the conversation, suddenly realizing they finally had a good lead -- and *he* had found it, sort of. "Sugoi! Let me do a quick sketch of Hiroshi so he'll be sure to remember him." Just in case he doesn't see through the fake name, Duo thought. It took him all of two minutes to draw a picture of Heero and add their phone number. "Here." He handed it to Mr. Takashi.
"I'll see him this weekend." Mr. Takashi smiled at him. "And you pay attention in my class. It isn't like this is the hard physics class. You have a natural aptitude for solving the problems, but you must be able to show how you set them up and get your answers."
"Thanks." Duo grinned. "But I'm not exactly detail oriented."
Mr. Takashi held up the drawing of Heero. "Mr. Arthur, if this is a 'quick sketch', I find that hard to believe. You're dismissed."
There was something about the way Mr. Takashi was looking at him. Suddenly Duo wondered if Mr. Takashi really knew Dr. J or if his professor simply wanted his phone number. Well, if he tried that, he might be in for a surprise. Cover or no cover, Duo would put him in his place -- if Heero didn't beat him to it.
"Oi! Hiroshi! Chotto matte!" Duo yelled, hurrying across the quad from the science building. He had to admit, he liked being in a place where Japanese was considered commonplace. Heero slowed down, but didn't stop. It was enough for Duo to catch up. "Sorry I'm late. Got caught doodling in class."
"Aa." Heero was surprised it had taken so long -- a full three weeks into the semester. He kept the thought to himself, though.
"But it was a good thing. Takashi knows, uh, your old friend."
Heero stopped. "Nani?" He turned to face Duo, frowning.
"I was thinking about how we could find him, so I was drawing him and Takashi recognized him."
Heero's face hardened into a genuine glare. "Come with me." His hand latched on to Duo's wrist and began pulling him along the sidewalk.
"Ow. Hey, lighten up. That hurts. You don't have to drag me." Heero's grip relaxed enough that Duo didn't feel like his wrist was in imminent danger of being crushed. He quickened his pace to match Heero's then glanced around to see if anyone had noticed his "friend" hauling him along by the arm. Apparently not. That was good. And Heero was always worried about *him* causing a scene and blowing their cover.
By the time they reached the cafeteria, Heero had let go of him and everything seemed to be back to more or less normal. Duo knew it wasn't. The blank look covered a multitude of feelings, but Duo saw the subtle furrowing of Heero's forehead that said he was covering up "not even vaguely happy". When Heero steered them to a small table in the corner, his analysis was confirmed. "Damn it, Duo," Heero whispered. "You just blew our cover."
Duo sighed. This again. He'd suspected as much. "Heero, do you really think I'm that dumb?" It seemed that they had this conversation at least once a week. The first time, they had spent an hour shouting at each other and another four hours sulking around the apartment before finally apologizing for being asses -- both of them. Over the course of the next two months, they had whittled it down to four lines. Now, it was almost a rote recitation.
Heero looked at him for a moment as if considering. "No. I'm sorry."
"About what?" Duo smiled.
Heero glanced down at his plate of broccoli over rice, then said, "Tell me what happened," and began eating.
Except, Duo thought, it isn't just by rote because Heero really means it when he says he's sorry and I really mean it when I forgive him. He detailed his encounter with Mr. Takashi, except for his fleeting suspicion that Takashi was after his phone number. He didn't want Heero to think he was vain. "So, whaddaya think?" Finally, he got to dive into his cheeseburger and fries. It wasn't his usual fare, but every now and then, the craving hit him. He had been pleasantly surprised to discover UCL1's cafeteria did a decent burger. Not as good as Heero's, though.
"I don't think Takashi was after your phone number." Heero looked at him and smirked faintly, which told Duo Heero had guessed what he was thinking. "I think he knows Dr. J is in hiding and is being careful. I wish I could remember him."
"Huh?" Duo finished chewing and swallowed. "You know Takashi?" He shoved half a dozen french fries into his mouth.
"He teaches my quantum physics class. We've had some interesting discussions on star drives. He's doing his doctoral work on subspace phenomena and quantum fields." He decided to ignore the look Duo gave him, but move on. He'd get the same favor in return when Duo started in on some esoteric aspect of art and he wasn't in the mood for it. "There's always been something about him that seemed familiar. If he knows Dr. J, he must have been involved with the project somehow."
Duo frowned. "You think this might be a trap? I mean, maybe he was with the project and hooked up with the Re-- uh, the others when it was all over."
"Iie." Heero shook his head. "Everyone on the project wanted peace, even if they had to use war as the means. None of them would have tried to start a war just for the sake of a war."
"People change." You being a prime example, Duo thought. But he was glad Heero had changed. He knew Heero was too.
Heero shook his head again. "Even if he had, he would have recognized me from the beginning and they would be here. We would have caught them by now if they had been watching us that long."
"Good," Duo said, savoring his last french fry. "Then it looks like we have Dr. J."
"Hn. You think he will call us?"
"Nope." Duo grinned as he licked the last traces of salt and grease off his fingers. He was ahead of Heero on this one. It wasn't unheard of, but it was rare enough that he kept Heero in suspense for a few seconds so he could enjoy the feeling. "But I think Takashi will meet with him this weekend."
Heero looked at him, thoughtful, then nodded. "Aa." He smiled faintly. "We'll do the plan tonight."
"Shit," Duo muttered. "Lecture day in Impressionist Technique." The actual art part of the class wasn't that bad, but Mr. Miyazaki's lectures were mind numbing.
"See you at the gym at 15:30." Preventers HQ had a better gym, but it fit their cover better to use UCL1's gym after school rather than trekking to HQ for a workout, then back to their apartment.
Besides, the sooner they got home, the sooner they could start on the plan.
And the sooner he could kiss Heero.
-- 27 September AC 202 --
Two clicks. The attention signal.
Heero responded. "Aa."
"I have him. Moving counter-spinward."
Heero walked counter-spinward down the street. One block to his left, Duo was tailing Dr. J along the waterfront.
The plan had been simple, and like most simple plans had worked well so far. They had followed Takashi and let him lead them to a bar on the waterfront. Then they had waited, Heero watching the back of the bar, Duo watching the front. Takashi had come out an hour later. They had waited again.
Now, Heero paced Duo and Dr. J, ready to pick up the tail if Dr. J turned. If he did, Duo would go down one block, then cut over and get ahead of them, ready to take over from Heero if needed.
"Coming to you," Duo said over the comm.
Heero ducked behind a dumpster, waiting for Dr. J to pass in front of him so he could casually fall in behind him. Then he heard, "What the--" and a whining ringing hissing that tore through his implanted earpiece, followed by silence.
"Duo?" Nothing. "Duo?" He forced his mind to stay blank and not think about what might have happened as he ran around the dumpster and down the street toward the waterfront. He was blowing the tail, but he didn't care. Maybe the old man had spotted Duo and done something… No. There was Duo, running toward him. "What happened?" He was surprised to hear the relief in his voice. He had thought he had the fear contained. He stopped and stood waiting, reasserting his self-control.
"Some bastard zapped me with a stun gun. He didn't hit me good enough to knock me out, but it must've fried the comm."
Heero felt the glare on his face. His ear was still ringing faintly from the noise of Duo's comm shorting out. Whoever it was had not only attempted to attack Duo but had fucked up the mission. That person was going to be sorry when Heero got his hands on him. "Where is he?" He wasn't going to do anything illegal, but the man was going to think twice before he tried to mug someone again.
"I'm okay, just a little shook up. He took off when I put up a fight. Did you see where Dr. J went? He turned down this street."
That brought Heero's attention back to what they were supposed to be doing. "I didn't see him." He looked back down the dingy street. Warehouse walls lined either side of the street. On their side, the wall was an uninterrupted expanse, but across the street, a door stood half hidden behind a line of garbage cans. Heero pointed to it. "There."
It was a simple door and a simple lock. Duo fumbled in his pockets for a moment and pulled out a tiny case, from which he selected two picks, almost dropping one in the process. Heero was concerned. Duo wasn't usually so clumsy. Maybe the shock from the stun gun had been stronger than Duo thought. Twelve seconds later, Duo turned the doorknob. "After you."
"Wait here," Heero said. Then, seeing Duo's mouth opening. "Let me handle this. You stay here in case I need backup." And it means I don't have to worry about any after effects of the stun gun affecting your ability to perform, Heero thought. I'll need all my attention for Dr. J.
"You? Need backup?"
If the voice wasn't sarcastic enough, the fake, wide-eyed wonder on his face was. Heero caught both. "Dr. J is resourceful and dangerous. He was able to build Wing and produce me and the Rejects while the Colonies were occupied by the Alliance and the resources he needed were under tight control."
"Yeah." Duo sighed. "But, uh, remember. We want him alive."
Heero nodded. "Aa."
Duo pushed the door open and Heero ducked in. Duo followed before he could close it, but took up a position beside the door. Heero took that as a sign he was going to follow instructions and scanned the area before him. It looked like an ordinary, if small and shabby, living room -- a small apartment for a live-in watchman. Dr. J was nowhere to be seen. Heero stood, listening, thinking, memorizing the layout of the room. And giving Duo's eyes time to adjust to the darkness.
His gaze landed on a thin sliver of light. A door. Heero cat-footed over to it, listened, then laid a hand on the doorknob. It turned. He opened it two centimeters, revealing a flight of concrete stairs leading down to a dimly lit basement. At least he didn't have to worry about them creaking or clanging.
He scanned the space as he descended. Halfway down the stairs, he spotted Dr. J sitting in a chair at a low worktable. Heero realized he was looking at a small lab of some kind -- one designed for Dr. J, who found climbing up onto lab stools difficult. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he stepped forward, pulled his gun, aimed very carefully at Dr. J's body and laid his finger on the trigger.
The gun chirped.
Dr. J glanced back at him. "Ah. Heero. I've been expecting you. I didn't think you would wait for me to call."
"Are you sure I'm Heero? I could be someone else. 26 maybe. Or 29."
Dr. J sighed loudly. "I was afraid they would find you." He slowly swiveled the chair to face Heero. "I had hoped they would accept the peace. They should have--" He paused as Heero slid a second hand around the butt of the gun and locked his arms. He knew Dr. J would recognize the threat -- his training had stressed the importance of using a two-handed grip when possible. "I'll give you the information you want, Heero."
"What if I told you I'm 22."
"We made a mistake on 22. His fingerprints didn't match the gun. In theory, you could be 26, but there never was a 29. You were the last. May I show you something?"
"I met 29." Heero steeled himself for the next words. "I killed him."
Dr. J sat silent for a moment. "I was afraid of that too. A few weeks after OZ captured me, members of the biogenetics team started disappearing. I didn't catch on until after the war was over. I hid them, but half of them were gone by then." He shook his head. "So, they're producing new clones."
"So for all you know I could be 28."
"No. You're 27." He smiled a twisted little smile that was half smile, half regret, then turned slowly away from Heero. He picked up a thin cable and plugged it into a socket in the glasses that were his eyes. An image of the table before him appeared on a small vid screen to his left. "Watch." He turned and looked at Heero. The image on the vid screen zoomed in on Heero's hands holding the gun, then the color faded out and the image's contrast began to change.
Suddenly, Heero saw it. On each of his hands, a faint "27" getting whiter and whiter. Dr. J unplugged the cable and the image vanished. "The skin is lighter, not enough to see with the naked eye, but quite visible with enhancement." He tapped his glasses. "I had to be able to tell you apart."
"You. Bastard." Heero's finger tightened on the trigger as he watched Dr. J nod. Abruptly, he snapped the barrel up, pointing at the ceiling. Ten seconds passed before he moved his finger off the trigger. He lowered the gun and slid it into his waistband. "Why me?" It had nothing to do with the mission at hand, but it was the question he'd asked himself often since halfway through the first war. He'd thought about it, even talked with Duo about it. He'd never found an answer that satisfied him. After he'd learned he was one of many, he'd asked it even more. The answer was the only thing he'd ever wanted from Dr. J after the war ended.
"You just demonstrated why." Dr. J leaned forward in his chair. "When we finished your training and conditioning you had the emotionlessness and detachment we needed in our perfect soldier, but you also had the capacity for being human that would keep you from becoming a monster. You weren't just the best solider, Heero, you were the best human of them all. It's why the others are so dangerous. They don't have the humanity--" He stopped, frowned, looking past Heero. "Duo Maxwell." It wasn't a question.
Heero stiffened at the voice. "I told you to wait." He wanted to say more, but he needed to stay focused on Dr. J, and getting into an argument with Duo was not a good way to do that.
Duo moved to stand next to him. Heero glanced over and saw him looking sheepish, hands in his pockets. "Sorry. I just wanted to hear what Dr. Jerk had to say for himself, playing God with you like that. Dr. G may have been a pain in the ass, but at least he didn't fuck with me."
Dr. J laughed softly. "Duo, have you ever noticed that all the Gundam pilots are short?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, we had to be small for the cockpits."
"But Heero hasn't grown since you met him. And you've only grown four or five centimeters when most young men your age would have grown at least three times that."
Duo was silent.
"We manipulated all of you. I had better bio-scientists than everyone except S -- and he couldn't very well produce clones of Quatre under the Winner's noses -- but we gave everyone except the original Trowa Barton drugs that limited your growth. Except Heero. We built that into him."
"Why you--" Duo stopped as Heero laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Not yet, Duo." Heero said. "What else did you do to him?"
"The drugs also slowed, maybe stopped, your body's aging. All of you. We didn't know how long the war against OZ would last. We needed you to be able to fight for…" He shrugged. "You're whole lives, really. When you're ninety, you probably won't look or feel much older than you do now. I doubt you'll live unusually long lives, but it served our ends and we thought that, if you survived, it would be a little something in return for putting you through the war. We weren't total bastards, boys."
"Hn." Heero snorted. "Is that why you killed fourteen clones and the original boy?"
Dr. J fell silent again. "Did the other one -- 29 was it? -- tell you that?"
He frowned. "It sounds like the kind of lie 16 would make up." He looked up at them again. "16 was fascinated with death and creative with the truth. He would do anything for 15. And 15 was very aware of the power of information, or misinformation." He stopped, shaking his head. "I have the data you want. Complete genetic and psychological profiles of all the clones that survived. Notes and documents describing the project."
He levered himself creakily out of the chair and walked through the dim room to a filling cabinet against the wall, then opened a drawer and extracted two disks. "Here," he said. "This is everything. Nearly six terabytes." He turned and walked back to Heero and Duo. "I can't promise it will help you track them down, but this is all the data I have on them and should help you understand how they might operate." He handed the disks to Heero.
"Unfortunately, I don't have any data on the clones they've produced, but you can be sure the teens are in charge. Except for 16, they all had strong leadership drives." He limped back to his chair and leaned against it. "Now, I have to get ready to move. If you found me, they might be able to find me too." He raised a hand, "And don't offer me Preventers protection. I know too much to be in the hands of anyone, even the Preventers. It's better if I disappear again."
Heero stared at the disks in his hand. He had what he had come to get, and the answer he'd wanted for so long. He looked at Dr. J and suddenly didn't want to kill him anymore. Somehow, he felt sorry for him. The man had been critical in bringing about the peace, but now, in success, could only hide and hope no one found him. "How can we contact you?" For some reason, understanding that and the feelings it stirred in him made him feel better.
"Hmm?" Dr. J looked up. "Oh. Just tell Four." He laughed suddenly. "I mean Takashi. He thought he was being followed tonight, but he couldn't find you."
"Takashi is… Four?" Heero felt his eyebrows shoot up.
"I told you they'd made up the story about us killing them. The first three died before they matured. Takashi didn't. We lost 5, 8, 9 and 12 too, but all the others survived. We kept tuning them one by one until we had the base we wanted with 15, then we started growing batches of three. We had--" He stopped. "I could spend a month talking to you about this Heero, but it's all on the disks. Go. You know how to find me if you need me. I've learned to travel lightly, but the few things I keep, I don't want to lose."
Heero nodded, then turned, seeing Duo glaring at Dr. J with his best Shinigami glare. He nudged Duo. They walked back toward the stairs. But Heero was certain there was something Dr. J wasn't telling him. Whatever it was, he knew it would be on the disks. He would just have to find it.
Heero didn't look up from his computer as Duo walked out of the bathroom, a towel around his waist, hair down and still wet from its nightly washing. "Hey, Heero, you gonna sit at the computer all night?"
Heero didn't respond. Duo tiptoed over to him and leaned forward, draping his arms over Heero's shoulders.
Heero breathed, looked up, and frowned slightly. He quickly regained control and closed the document he had been reading. "Sorry. You type up the report and I'll brush your hair."
A minute later, they had switched places. Heero looked at the damp hair as he brushed it. Long, rich brown, and straight as a laser beam. It was perfect, he thought. The feel, the length, the shade, even the reddish-brown highlights that ran through it. So was the skin underneath it. Soft, warm, pleasant to the touch. Pale, but with the hint of tan that kept it from being pure white. Strong muscles flitted underneath his hands as nimble fingers moved over the keyboard.
He glanced up at the screen. "You forgot the part about 22's fingerprints not matching the gun." It was truly amazing, he thought. He had seen 29, of course, but he had known 29 was a copy of him -- until he'd learned the truth-- so he had never realized how easy it was to be deceived. And if this… *copy* had killed Duo, he would break its neck with his own hands.
He quickly forced his face to bland, thankful he was behind the copy, and pushed his thoughts to more constructive territory. Duo couldn't be dead. He had to be alive. That was all there was to it.
It was a good copy, though. He never would have guessed this wasn't Duo if it hadn't been for one subtle change. The cinnamon scent had a subtle burnt tinge to it. At least, he thought it wasn't Duo. Maybe it was. Maybe he was imagining it. Maybe the stun gun had been real and the burnt smell was from that.
There was one way to be sure. But, for now, he would finish brushing and braiding the perfect hair before him and warily pretend this was Duo. If it was, Duo would forgive him. If it wasn't, his only hope of getting Duo back was this copy. He wasn't sure how, but he knew he was right.
Half an hour later, the report finished, Heero tied off the braid. "Anou, Heero, you always do such a good job with my hair." Duo -- he forced himself to think of this as Duo -- stood and faced him, running a hand through his hair and down his nose to his lips, where the fingers teased gently before moving to his chest. "It's been a long night. Are you tired?"
"Iie." He wasn't tired. It was impossible to be tired when faced with a threat situation. His body was programmed to keep him alert with a complex brew of adrenaline, seratonin and other chemicals.
"Good. Then let's go to bed and make it a longer night." The towel slipped open, offering a glimpse of what lay inside.
"I need to send the report to Une and make arrangements to get the disks transmitted to Earth. And I want to finish reading the psychological profiles on the teens."
Duo sighed, then walked over to the bed, turned, dropped the towel and sat, facing Heero. "You sure?"
"Aa. Maybe tomorrow." Heero reached up and touched the switch on the lamp, then turned back to the computer, its screen the only source of light in the room. He heard the disappointed sigh behind him and almost gave in, but he remembered the not quite right smell of cinnamon, and what Duo had said about 29 that night in Tokyo.
Twenty-eight minutes later the soft snoring started. Heero read for another two hours, quickly scanning each screen of information. Finally, he finished the teens. He considered reading the rest, but realized he was trying to avoid a necessary unpleasantness. That strengthened his resolve. He stood and walked to the bed where Duo lay asleep on his back, and watched.
Five minutes passed. He was delaying again. Duo was clearly asleep. Heero went to the dresser and dug the penlight out from among his socks, then returned to the side of the bed.
The eye twisting purple light played over Duo's chest. Heero glanced down and saw the small, glowing mark on his own chest, but there was no matching mark on the body before him. He frowned. "I'm glad you marked us both, Duo," he whispered. "Now I have to find you." He looked at the figure on the bed before him. "And you will lead me to him if I wait long enough. They wouldn't trust you alone. Your partner has Duo." Had to have Duo. Duo couldn't be dead.
He turned off the penlight and hid it again, then stood at the foot of the bed. Watching the sleeping figure before him, he moved his left hand to head height, palm out, arm bent slightly at the elbow, right hand closer in at chest height, the fingers curled, facing him, left foot slightly forward of the right. Ten minutes later, he flowed into another posture. Then to another ten minutes after that.
The tai chi postures kept his body occupied as he tried to form a plan, but his mind wouldn't stay focused. Instead, he kept thinking about Duo hand how he must have felt in the garage with 29 -- very nervous, very afraid, very uncertain. And he worried about Duo and how he would feel when he knew there was another him. Probably like I felt, Heero thought. Probably uncertain about who he really is or what he really is or even if he really is. Who knows how many of them there are.
And I almost didn't catch it, he thought. If I hadn't… He shuddered and let his eyes focus on the copy again, his last pretense of concentration destroyed as he imagined himself sharing the bed with the copy, making love with him, not knowing he wasn't Duo -- and wondered if Duo had considered that back in the garage. He hoped Duo hadn't. It was one of the worst things he'd ever felt in his life.
He had moved through two more stances before he remembered what Dr. J had said and realized the situation wasn't quite the same. Dr. J was the only one who had developed clones. Duo, his Duo, was the original. It wouldn't have mattered to Heero. Duo was the only Duo he had known, the one he loved. His serial number was insignificant to Heero.
Heero smiled, remembering Duo saying something similar that night in Tokyo.
No. This copy must have been created by the Rejects. They wouldn't have created many.
He dropped into normal standing, feet slightly apart, hands by his side, palms inward. There would be one, maybe two. Spending all those years alone among the Rejects, how would that affect someone like Duo? He looked at the figure sleeping in the bed. So familiar, but wrong. "I won't kill you if I can avoid it," he whispered. He wasn't sure why. He didn't know if it would be possible. But he would try.
Once again, he found himself not wanting to kill someone he'd thought he wanted to kill. Once again, it felt good. He wasn't sure why he kept wanting to kill people recently. It worried him. Many things were worrying him now. Maybe that was the problem. He was worried and he needed someone to talk to.
He needed Duo. If Duo was here, they would talk and hold each other and he would relax and everything would be okay.
Shaking his head, he walked silently to the computer and began reading about the twenties. He was still worried and he still didn't have a plan, but he knew he wouldn't solve either problem by beating his head against it. Duo had taught him that long ago. The plan would come when it came, and when he had Duo back he wouldn't be worried.
Better to be productive while he waited.
-- 28 September AC 202 --
Something was obviously not right. Almost a minute passed before Duo realized what it was. He opened his eyes and found a pair of cool blue eyes staring back at him. For just a moment, he forgot what was wrong, but when he tried to reach for the face before him, the duct tape kept his forearms from leaving the arms of the chair.
Then his jaw started throbbing. He winced.
"Here." Hands that looked familiar but belonged to a stranger offered pills and a glass of water. "Aspirin."
He debated… then decided he might as well trust his captor. He nodded.
"No shouting for help."
He nodded again and stifled a yelp as a strip of duct tape was pulled off his mouth. At least I inherited the no-facial-hair gene from someone, he thought. He opened his mouth for the pills, then drank the water as the clone held the glass for him. The water was welcome in its own right, wetting his mouth and throat so they felt alive again.
"What should I call you?" Duo asked. Might as well try to get on semi-friendly terms. He was going to have to go to the bathroom soon and it would be a Hell of a lot easier if the clone trusted him enough to let him loose.
"How did you know I'm not 27?"
"You mean besides the fact that my arms are taped to a chair?" He couldn't stop himself from grinning at the surprise he saw. For some reason, the clone hadn't thought of that. "I mean, Heero and I play games like this sometimes, but we don't knock each other out and we use bathrobe ties and chair arms get in the way." He watched carefully as he said it, expecting the clone to be embarrassed or at least moderately surprised. "And we don't wear clothes." Just in case the clone didn't get it.
"Huh?" Duo was slightly miffed that his little revelation hadn't brought a stronger reaction. He'd gotten both eyebrows all the way up from Heero the first time he'd sprung the idea on him. And, as he'd suspected, Heero had found it a fun little game once they got into it.
"Oh." He sighed. Well, time to try for a little reconnaissance action. "Um, I need to go to the bathroom, and that's gonna be a bitch if I'm tied to this chair. So how about I promise not to try to escape until you tie me up again?"
It took great effort to keep his jaw from dropping when 38 said, "Of course. You never lie."
Only once that counted, Duo thought. But Heero forgave me for that, thank God. "What's telling people I'm Duane Arthur?" He wanted to kick himself. One of these days, Duo, he thought, your big mouth is gonna get you in trouble.
"Hn?" 38 raised an eyebrow. "Part of the mission, and the truth. Every system I checked shows Duane Arthur is you. You just happen to be Duo Maxwell too. Now, I'll let you go to the bathroom and in return, you'll let me photograph your tattoo."
This time his jaw did drop. "Naaniiii? … Why the Hell do you think I'm gonna let you take pictures of my ass? And why the Hell do you *want* to take pictures of… my…" Duo stopped, seeing the faint smirk he knew too well. Oh. Shit. He knew what was running through 38's mind.
38's smirk abruptly vanished, replaced by the usual, bland, down-to-mission expression. "My partner needs a copy of it to pass."
"Pass? For what?" Something about the way he said, "partner" wasn't--
"For you. Remember? He looks like you." 38 sighed. "Likes to pretend he is you, really. I wish he--" He frowned, eyes focusing on Duo again. "I need to make a copy of it."
"Aa," Duo muttered, remembering. He had been concentrating on tailing Dr. J when someone had grabbed him and yanked him into an alley. In the brief moment before the stun gun had knocked him half unconscious, he'd seen his own face on the other end. He twitched the appropriate muscles along his jaw. Nothing happened. "Damn it, you fried my comm."
38 nodded. "It makes you easier to trust alone in the bathroom." He began untaping Duo's arms. "There's some leftover Thai takeout in the refrigerator. Gai pad prik, pad--" He stopped. "You don't understand Thai."
"I guess the other me does?"
"Aa. Spiced chicken, vegetables, steamed rice. I'll microwave it for you."
"Umm, if you have a pan and a stove, I'll heat it up that way," Duo said, working the kinks out of his right arm while 38 worked on releasing his left. He saw the black shirtsleeve on his arm and realized his twin had swapped clothes with him. It made sense. They'd had no way to know what he was going to wear, and if he'd suddenly changed clothes, Heero would have gotten suspicious.
His belly grumbled and he turned his thoughts back to the prospect of food. "Uh, anyway. It tastes better that way and thanks to you I'm gonna have to get my comm replaced and that means I won't be able to eat for a week." Bastard, Duo thought, but didn't say. He usually reserved that name for Heero.
"Aa." 38 looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. "You know, you're very much like him. I've had to remind myself that you aren't three times since you woke up."
"And that's supposed to be a compliment?" Duo asked, pushing himself up and regretting it as his knees and the muscles in his legs protested that they weren't ready for such punishment after being bound to a chair all night. He winced.
"Yes, it is. Mostly," 38 said as he put a hand on Duo's shoulder to steady him. "Please don't try to escape. We may be on different sides in this matter, but I would regret it if it became necessary to kill you."
"I won't. For now." And what the Hell did you mean that was "mostly" a compliment, Duo wondered.
38 nodded and turned and walked toward the tiny kitchen.
Duo studied the dead-bolted door across the room, then sighed. He had promised he wouldn't do that, and, enemies or not, he wasn't going to break his promise. He went to the other door and found himself in the bedroom and paused to study the sketchpad that lay open on the bed. "Hmm." He flipped through a half-dozen pages, then turned back to the page he'd found it on. "I thought so," he muttered. "Partner in more ways than one." He walked through to the bathroom, wondering if what he'd seen might prove useful.
As he was washing his hands, the face in the mirror over the sink caught his eye.
The water was still running and he was still staring at the mirror when 38 came in to check on him, gun in hand. "Is something wrong?" 38 discretely slipped the gun into his waistband behind his back -- as discretely as possible anyway.
Duo looked at him, shell-shocked. "I just… He's a clone, isn't he? There's another me running around."
Duo sighed and reached to turn off the water. He was beginning to understand a little better how Heero had felt when he'd faced 29. Why he'd been so… lost afterward. "Uh, I'll be out in a minute." God, he wondered. Am I umpteen of a gazillion?
He struggled to hold the shiver until 38 had turned away.
Ten minutes later, he walked out of the bedroom into the living room and the aroma of chicken and Thai spices. "I said I'd--" he stopped and stood staring, mouth still open, when he saw 38 spooning vegetables and chicken out of a pan onto two plates of rice.
38 looked at him. "I am not going to feed you like an infant."
"Huh?" Duo realized he was gaping. "Uh. Yeah. Okay. I just… I didn't think you'd know how to cook." Duo blinked. "Hey was that a joke?"
"Hn." 38 put the empty pan in the sink. "Sit," he ordered and did so himself.
Duo didn't have to be told twice -- especially since it was after 09:00 and he hadn't eaten since a very early, very light dinner the night before. With effort he restrained himself and didn't inhale his food. He knew he'd appreciate it more and would feel more satisfied. Besides, it gave him a chance to think about his situation. After two minutes, the silence began to irritate him. If it was Heero sitting across the table from him, he'd be chattering away and getting the occasional "Aa" or "Hn" in response.
He glanced up at 38 to find the other watching him. He looked back down to his plate. Another minute passed.
He gave up, then mentally kicked himself for being so stubborn. Of course he wanted to talk to 38. "So, uh, what can you tell me about yourself and your friend without having to kill me?" He looked up at 38 again and smiled. A little humor never hurt. And 38 had made that lame attempt at a joke earlier.
38's eyes slipped toward a glare, then softened. "What do you want to know?"
Duo blinked. A chance to interrogate -- well, sort of -- one of the Rejects. He'd never expected that. Of course, 38 might refuse to talk about some things, and he'd have to get out with the information once he had it. Better to deal with one thing at a time and get some information that might be worth getting out with, he thought. "How about telling me how you two ended up together." That should be safe.
"18 assigned me to this mission. They sent him with me to provide insight into you. After we lost 39--"
"Uh, that isn't what I meant."
Duo suddenly realized he'd jumped in at the deep end. He probably should have stuck with mission stuff. Oh well, nothing to do now but swim. "I saw the sketch book. And I saw the way you were looking at me when you were thinking of him."
"You're really stuck on him, aren't you? I mean, I can understand that. I *am* gorgeous." He grinned. "And I have a great personality. It's only natural that you'd fall--"
"After I was shot in Marimeia's bunker--" 38 shook his head. "Wrong memory." He closed his eyes for a moment, then, "They imprinted me with 27's full memory from the day before he left L1. For all the others, they edited it. I got the whole memory. They kept me unconscious and plugged me into a VR simulation of the War and Marimeia's Rebellion. They wanted me to be like 27. They felt it was essential to their plans that one of them think like him." He stopped for a moment, moved food from his plate to his mouth, chewed, swallowed. "They didn't have anything else they would trust him with, so they assigned him to monitor me in the sim. After it ended, they added memories so I'd know what I was and where I was." He paused to process another bite of food, frowning. Duo recognized the "choosing words" look. "When I woke up, he was laying next to me, holding me, about to kiss me. He almost jumped out of the bed when I kissed back." 38 smiled. "Almost."
Well, Duo thought, for Heero it would count as a smile. He nodded. "Yeah, I can see that being a surprise… Hey, are you saying that if I'd gone after Heero then…"
38 shrugged. "I don't know. We're very like you and 27, but we aren't the same."
"Yeah, he speaks Thai. So you two met like Heero and I met?"
"No. I met you in the simulation. I met him when I woke up and kissed him. He isn't you, and I'm not 27. Don't forget that." He looked at Duo thoughtfully. "How did 27 kill 29?"
"Shot him in the back of the head when he wasn't looking." Duh, Duo, he thought, berating himself. No one has eyes in the back of his head. He saw the frown on 38's face. "Fair trades, huh?"
"Okay, I'll tell you what happened, but I wanna finish eating first?"
38 nodded again.
"So while I'm eating, why don't you tell me what you two are doing here?" He really wanted to pursue what 38 had meant about the simulation versus waking up and the differences between them and… But he had a feeling he'd get a chance to do that later. He had a feeling they'd be spending a lot of time talking until Heero came to his rescue.
If Heero came to his rescue.
No, he told himself. Heero will figure out the other one's a fake and he'll come save my ass -- because he likes it so much. He has to.
He just has to.
A plan had finally formed in Heero's head at 05:37.
It had been relatively easy to plant tracking chips under the insoles of Duo's shoes and another in his wallet. Heero had debated slipping one into the copy's breakfast, but had decided that was too risky. The copy might bite down on it and that would ruin the plan. He spent most of the morning trying to read the project history overview and identify the major players, but his mind kept slipping to the plan and Duo and the copy -- who spent the morning skimming the news on the Net, listening to music, and huffing every ten minutes because Heero was ignoring him. It was only by dint of his training and constantly assuring himself the plan would work that Heero was able to wait until 13:00 before saying, "I need to go out for a few hours. I have an assignment I need to work on." He had chosen 13:00 for two reasons. First, it would give the copy plenty of time to get impatient and ready to do something. Second, it gave him a few more hours to think about other options, risks he might have missed, anything that might make a difference.
He walked out of the building and down the street, cutting into an alley as soon as he was out of sight of the apartment window. He only needed ten seconds to pull off his jacket, reverse it to show blue denim instead of brown canvas and slip back into it. A baseball cap from his pocket pulled over his head completed the disguise. He had considered changing pants too, but there was enough traffic on the street that someone might see him pulling his pants down in the alley. Attention was something he definitely didn't want, so he hoped the nondescript nature of his blue jeans would be enough to throw the copy off. After a quick check of his gun, he slouched back up the street to browse at the newsstand.
Fifteen minutes later, he was in the middle of an interesting article on the new space drive technology that Winner Technologies had developed three years earlier. They had a small prototype ship that could make the run from Earth to Mars and back in two weeks, a lot better than the four months each way that had been the best they could do before. Just as he began reading the sidebar outlining plans to begin building a colony on Mars by mid-203, he spotted the copy heading away from him.
The rest of the article would have to wait. He shoved the magazine into his back pocket, slipping into tailing mode and hurried after his subject. His hand closed around the palm comp in his jacket pocket and felt it vibrating. It was locked on the tracking chips. He kept the clone in sight, checking the palm comp every minute to be sure the chips were working correctly. Technology was great, but it wasn't always reliable. After twenty minutes, the copy was stopping at windows, looking back up the street. He knew he had a tail. Heero dropped back from ten meters to twenty, then to thirty. At thirty-five, he lost the copy.
The doorknob rattled once.
Duo, bound to the chair again, watched 38 drop into a crouch behind the sofa, gun aimed at the door. It was the same fluidity, same serious expression, same sure grip he always saw from Heero.
A voice from the other side of the door. "It's me." His own voice. He shivered as 38 glided across the floor, unbolted the door, then held the gun ready. The door opened and Duo saw himself walk through, look calmly down the barrel of 38's gun and grin. "Told ya it was me."
"Hn." 38 holstered the gun and closed the door. "Were you followed?"
"Oh, come on, koi. Give me a little credit. I thought someone was on my tail at first, but I couldn't find anyone. I spent two hours making sure I was in the clear."
"Aa. I have copies of the tattoo. They're only temporaries, but they should be good enough until we capture 27. Then we won't need them."
"Is that all I get after being gone for--" He stopped, seeing Duo, and frowned. "Oh. I forgot we have company. When can we get rid of him?"
Duo stared at them. "Huh?"
"After we capture 27," 38 said as he walked to the desk behind Duo to get the temporary tattoos he'd made from the photos he'd taken.
"Uh, hey, uh, 38, I thought you said you weren't going to kill me."
38 looked at him, his face utterly blank. "I said I didn't want to kill you. After we replace you both, we'll send you to the Rejects so they can interrogate you. I don't know what they'll do to you when they're done. I suggested they put you in cold sleep until they accomplish their mission. Once the war starts, it won't matter if you're free. And if you side against them, they might find the fight more interesting."
Duo knew it as the "Heero reciting a mission" face. It didn't tell him anything about what 38 thought of the mission. Except--
The door thudded open and in all of a heartbeat, Heero was in the room, kicking the door closed, his gun leveled on Duo's twin. "Ugoku na ... kisama."
Duo didn't have time to register surprise. A chirp sounded next to his ear, followed by, "Yamero!" He saw Heero glance at him, then up, then force his attention back to the duplicate Duo, all in a second. "I *will* kill him, 27," 38 said.
Heero nodded, but his gun didn't move.
Duo had been expecting Heero to show up and try to rescue him, but this was definitely *not* what he'd hoped for. Oh well, he thought, your best skill is improvising, Duo, so improvise. He waited until he was pretty sure his voice wasn't going to crack when he spoke then ventured, "Uh, guys. Let's not do anything anyone'll regret." Even as he said it, he knew it was lamer than a three-legged dog. He paused as he felt the muzzle of the gun brush against his ear. But it didn't go off. Relief rushed through his body, and he realized, his original plan might still work, with a little modification. He looked at his twin and said, "What should I call you?"
The clone frowned at him. Duo remembered that 38 had said he liked to pretend *he* was Duo. "How about I call you Duo?"
"That would be confusing." The clone thought for a moment, running his tongue along his upper lip. "Call me Two, for now."
Duo nodded. "Two, if Heero puts his gun away, do you promise to sit down and listen to my plan and not try anything?"
Duo could see Two evaluating his options -- sit down and talk or get shot. Two looked at 38 for a moment and nodded. "Yeah."
"38, same deal?"
There was no hesitation. "Aa."
Duo sighed, relieved. "Heero, safety the gun and put it away."
"Shut up and do it, okay? They promised. They'll do what they said." Heero didn't move. "This is **my** **head** about to get blown off, y'know."
Heero looked at him, uncertain what to do, but certain he had no choice. Duo could see that, and that Heero wasn't happy about it. Heero's finger flicked the safety. The muzzle dropped to point to the floor. A second later, Duo felt the barrel pressed behind his ear move away. "Now, all of you sit down. I think I know how to get us all out of this alive and reasonably happy." He wished he had his hands free. He always talked better when he could move his hands.
Two snorted as he settled on the sofa. "Yeah, right. And I-- OW!" He glared at 38. "Watch where you put that elbow, willya?"
Duo ignored the exchange. He put on his most sincere expression and looked at 38. "How would you like to switch sides?"
Heero sat against the bed's headboard holding Duo close against his shoulder. After the past twenty-four hours, he was reluctant to let his lover out of his sight. He knew he'd have to, and probably soon, but he didn't have to yet. He wasn't worried now either. Duo liked being held and he liked holding Duo and while he was doing that he couldn't make himself to give a damn about the rest of it.
Duo nudged him.
He leaned his cheek against the top of Duo's head. "Duo Maxwell." Duo had been asking him to say that frequently since they'd made it back to the apartment after securing Two and 38 at Headquarters.
Duo sighed and pressed closer against him. Heero wasn't sure how. Duo was getting better, though. It had been ten minutes since Heero had last said Duo's name. Two hours ago, it had been every minute. Heero decided it was time to distract him from the identity issue. "How did you know they'd defect?"
"I saw Two's sketchbook. I knew it wasn't you who'd been posing naked for him. And he called 38 'koi' just before you busted in. … And 38 and I talked a lot. I mean, there wasn't much else to do. Which reminds me, I need to talk to Two about--"
"You need to stay out of their problems and let them work it out themselves."
Duo sat quiet for seven seconds, then said, "Can we argue about that later? I really don't want to be mad at you right now."
Which, Heero knew, meant Duo was going to do what he damn well pleased. But he didn't want to be mad at Duo right now either, so he acquiesced. "Aa. What else?"
"Huh? Oh. The real giveaway was how he kept talking about 'them' and 'their mission' and 'their plans'. They, they, they." Duo shrugged. "I thought it was worth a shot. If nothing else it'd give me a few more minutes to try to come up with something better." He shivered. "I was scared, koi."
Heero ran a hand through the cinnamon brown hair. "It's over. I'm here." Duo nodded, or maybe it was nuzzled, against him. Heero didn't really care which. "Still, I'm surprised they agreed to help us."
Duo shrugged again. "38 was… well, human. He treated me well enough, even if he did keep me taped to the chair most of the time." He pushed himself up and looked Heero in the eyes. "They didn't just load the memory dump Dr. J took before you left, they stuck him in a VR sim of the War and Mariemeia's Rebellion. They wanted him to be like you."
He reached around Heero and pulled closer against him. Heero felt Duo's body begin vibrating with the soft purr. A definite improvement. "I think they were more successful than they wanted to be, though," Duo said. "He came to the same conclusions you did. War isn't the answer." Duo laughed. "Besides, I find it hard to believe a clone of me *wouldn't* want out of a group of umpteen maniacs bent on starting a war, no matter how hard they tried to brainwash him."
"Those maniacs are like me."
"No." Duo pushed up and turned his face to whisper in Heero's ear. "They aren't, koi. Not by a long shot. You're the only one who is or ever will be my maniac." He sat quiet for three seconds, then chuckled softly. Heero looked at him. "Okay, I get it," Duo said, shaking his head. "You planned that, didn't you?"
Not exactly, Heero thought. He'd only planned a diversion. Even so… "Ninmu kanryou." It didn't matter how the mission was completed, only that it was.
They sat, looking at each other. It was, Heero knew, one of his favorite ways to pass the time. That was another reason the morning with Two had been so difficult. He'd catch himself looking and suddenly remember it wasn't Duo, and that knowledge had made the looking feel, not simply "not right", but… warui.
"Y'know, your eyes are different from 38's," Duo said. He kissed Heero on the cheek, then pulled close to him again and laid his head on Heero's shoulder. "I just hope Two pays better attention in Takashi's class than I do. Y'know he got the Arthur bit right off when I was telling him about Duane."
"It's an old story about a king and a bunch of knights and a round table. Everyone knows him as Arthur, but his real name was Macsen." Duo waited.
Heero tried to parse what Duo was getting at, but finally raised an eyebrow in question.
"Hn!" Heero snorted. Duo had a thing for bad puns. "So now you're a king?"
"Every king has a hero--"
Heero groaned. He should have quit while he was ahead. "Duo--"
"-- who wields his sword at his king's command."
"I don't have a sword."
Duo chuckled. "You're right. A sword is way too big. What you have is more like a dagger. " He slid his hand around the particular "dagger" he had in mind. "But your dagger fits quite nicely. And I think it's dying to stab someone."
"Shut up, Duo."
"Is that anyway to talk to your-- mmph."
Heero knew Duo always liked being shut up that way. He felt Duo's mouth opening under his and decided he liked shutting Duo up this way too. He pulled away and smiled. "Shall I sheathe my dagger, m'lord?"
Duo frowned, then grinned as he understood where. "Kudasai."