December 5, 2002
Many thanks to torch, Jintian, and Hal for their comments, suggestions, and encouragement during the many stages of this story's development. All mistakes are mine.
Additional story notes at the end.
For a Strange Country
"Do you have any pliers?"
Quatre didn't look up from the sky-blue plush chair, next to a window overlooking the reflecting pool. He sat straight with his arms resting on the sides of the chair as if he were waiting for something, and his eyes had the focus of someone lost in thought. He was like a small version of someone much older, but Duo thought that the faint crease in his brow was a recent addition.
"Quatre? Pliers?" Duo asked again from his position on the floor. He lay on his stomach, a soldering iron and the parts of a signal amplifying device arranged randomly around him. He'd put down an old sheet he'd found in a rag pile in the kitchen to keep the parts from being lost in the thick carpet. Just as well for the carpet, he thought, since the sheet had already collected a fair share of melted wire bits.
The room they were in was small, and had the feel of one reserved for family and friends, unlike the more elaborate sitting rooms near the front door---ones that Quatre had ignored and Duo had seen only in his initial exploration of the house. Duo imagined Quatre and his family sitting here in the evenings watching the sun's light fade to orange and pink in the water of the pool, reading or talking to one another; maybe Quatre did his homework on the large oak coffee table in front of the couch.
Then again, he didn't know if Quatre's family, or Quatre himself, had ever been to this particular house. He had the impression that there were several such houses scattered across the Earth.
Quatre noticed Duo's attention and turned. "What? Oh." In the few weeks he'd known him, Duo had found that Quatre met other people's eyes with a clear and direct confidence that seemed as natural to him as breathing; but now he glanced, vaguely worried, at the parts strewn on the floor. "I didn't know it was broken."
"Well…." Duo wondered what to tell him. "It wasn't broken, exactly, but it wasn't working as well as it could have."
"I think it was miswired in the first place," Duo said, resting his chin on the palm of his hand. "The coupling capacitor wasn't bypassing one of the resistors properly. We were getting distortion in the upper frequencies."
"Oh," said Quatre politely. "I hadn't noticed."
"It wasn't exactly noticeable," Duo admitted. "But I do need some pliers."
Quatre tilted his head. "There's a shed in the back courtyard, through the atrium doors near the kitchen. There are tools in there."
"Gotcha." Duo scrambled up and left the room, down a short corridor to a high-ceilinged hall that echoed. The floor was made of wood with stone tiles along the edges, and arched windows looked out over thick carpets of grass and flowers well into their spring color.
They had taken the carrier south and west when they left the Maguanac base, and it was hotter here than he was used to; the house was in a region caught between desert and jungle, though neither dared to fully encroach. Quatre had lent him a pair of loose-fitting pants and a shirt more suited to the heat, made of a thin material that looked like linen but felt like cotton on his skin. The cloth swished between his ankles as he made his way through the house.
The house was bigger than he was used to as well. Back at the school, back with Howard and the others, there had been a section of road on the bus ride from the school to the village off of which the barge stood anchor; along the road were the estates of those who did business in the city but preferred not to live there. Some of the houses were hidden from view, but most loomed grandly from the tops of grassy inclines. He remembered one strange concrete concoction that looked like an armaments factory, and a friendly looking brick Georgian with tall pillars blanketed in vines. He would compare them from the bus window as they passed; he liked the more traditional styles best, and there were quite a few he would have taken down and rebuilt out of pure agony at the architectural design.
Quatre's house was larger than any of those estates, but it was less imposing. Quieter. It suited what he knew of Quatre.
The shed was partly hidden in the strange mix of palm trees and oaks that bordered the courtyard, and Duo spent several minutes rummaging through shelves and yellowed cardboard boxes that contained a variety of miscellaneous parts. The overhead bulb sent out a faint wavering light, so that he had to squint to see properly. He found a new-looking transistor that would work well as a replacement for the amplifier; not that its transistor necessarily needed replacing, but it couldn't hurt. There were enough parts in here to build an entirely new amplifier, and Duo thought about that quite seriously before deciding that Quatre might find that as worrisome as taking apart the old one.
He found that he didn't like it when Quatre worried.
He wrapped up the parts that he needed in a cloth rag from the corner of the room, and found a pair of needle-nose pliers on a shelf next to the door. Leaving the shed, he blinked in the hot light and saw one of the caretakers, Aliya, walking toward him. He caught sight of Duo and nodded.
"The perimeter system is out," Aliya said in greeting as he went past Duo into the shed. He was older, as all of them were---Duo had met him the first day he and Quatre had arrived, along with the four others who took care of the house's upkeep. There was another caretaker and a cook, and two maids who washed the sheets and provided new ones, and seemed to know whenever he had touched or moved anything because the rooms looked exactly the same each morning. He'd seen only one of them since that first day, and so far she seemed to have a rather low opinion of him. He didn't have any particular opinion of her, except that she was nosy and kept asking why he didn't have any belongings with him, and how exactly did he know Quatre, anyway?
But he'd found the caretaker interesting and relatively friendly. Duo returned to the darkness of the shed, where Aliya had pulled a box from the shelf and was sifting through its contents. "Fuses," Aliya said in explanation.
"What's wrong with the system?"
"It's old." Aliya found the box of fuses, and glanced around the shed, looking for a small crowbar he found a few moments later in the far corner.
Intrigued, Duo followed him to the front gate, and then down the fenceline a hundred yards or so to a large metal box in the earth overrun with weeds and the vines of a nearby tree. Aliya pulled them away until the front access panel was visible. "I should have cleared this out years ago."
Duo put down his own bundle after carefully tying the ends of the cloth, and began pulling weeds. They were surprisingly strong. He wished he had gloves with him. They cleared enough open space for Aliya to pry open the panel.
"The whole system should be replaced," said Aliya as he studied the rows of fuses in the box, comparing them to the fresh ones in his hand. "Meant to do it with the house overhaul last year. Here, hold this."
Duo opened his hand for the burnt fuses Aliya dropped into it.
"Cable wires should be checked, too, I don't doubt."
"Do you want help?"
"Nah. I'll do it tomorrow." Aliya glanced up at the sky, barely visible through the thicket of branches above them. "It'll be dark in a couple of hours. No sense starting on it now."
"Tomorrow's just as good for me."
"Well." Aliya looked at him from the corner of his eye. "If you're so inclined."
"Sure," Duo said. Tomorrow would be the same as today; no plans, no objectives, no resolution. Quatre's house might be as pleasant a way to spend this time as he could have hoped for, now that OZ's threat to the colonies had rendered the gundams useless, but he was running out of things to fix.
Aliya replaced the necessary fuses and took the burnt ones from Duo. His knees cracked as he stood up. "I need to restart the power, but it should be set to go, at least for now."
Duo nodded and followed him back to the courtyard. As they approached, Aliya nodded toward the house and Quatre inside. For the first time since Duo had been there, his brown eyes showed curiosity. "So there's more than one of you, huh."
Duo nodded. "Five of us," he said. The desert sun had drifted low, but the dry air was still warm. It was so different here---from his life on the barge, from the school, even. They seemed very far away from this strangely sheltered world.
Duo paused at the atrium doors, and corrected himself. "Four."
"I tell ya, Heero, they never told us how much *work* came along with this deal."
The soldering iron was making the palms of his hands damp, and he'd almost branded his forehead with an ill-advised swipe at the sweat dripping in his eyes and clinging to his hair. He'd tied his braid into a knot at the nape of his neck to keep it from flipping forward into the open access panel on Deathscythe's left hand, which had revealed a misshapen lump of melted wire and fused connections on their return to the barge. The attack on the ship had left Deathscythe rather worse for wear, and the entire section needed to be replaced.
"Duo, try the jammer control again," called Mik from the floor next to Deathscythe's back. Duo checked his newly-restored connections and saw that they would hold, then crawled down his gundam's raised arm to the open ramp of the cockpit. He leaned over the control panel and pulled the lever to activate the scrambling sequence.
"Shit!" he heard, along with a burst of electrical sparks. Duo reset the lever and scooted down to the edge of the ramp until he could see the top of Mik's head.
"Did you remember to reinitialize the base codes?"
"Yes," Mik said sourly.
Duo glanced over at Heero, who was engulfed in Wing's open cockpit. Heero was hunched over the controls, his profile smooth and unbroken, and he didn't look as if he'd ever broken a sweat.
They were in the largest cargo hold in the barge, the only one with a retractable roof, and the gundams still made the space look small and cramped. From the outside, the barge looked like it had been built by a whimsical craftsman out of a variety of spare parts that didn't quite fit the original design. It was a patchwork of metal, shades of contrasting grey battling along the hull. The starboard deck was built up to half again the port side, and Duo couldn't help but think that it had the look and feel of an extremely large river boat of wandering tinkers.
He climbed down from the platform to where the beam scythe lay flush against the wall. It had its own power generator, but until he had the thermal connections working again on Deathscythe's left hand, its power wasn't going to last long uncharged. There was no safe way to test the connections now, however, not with the gundams in here like two overly large men stuck in the back seat of a compact car.
Mik was squatted beneath the bottom edge of the protruding jammer packs, his hands disappearing into the access panel above him. He had a smudge of grease on his cheek, and ash from the electrical surge dotted his forehead and hair.
"Hand me that spanner, would you?" he said as Duo approached.
Duo sifted through the assortment of tools on the floor beside Mik. "I thought *I* was disorganized." But he found the spanner and handed it to Mik, who took it with one hand while the other held something together above him. Mik nodded his thanks, then tilted his chin in the direction of the other gundam, where Heero had jumped down from the cockpit ramp and was adjusting something on Wing's propellants.
"You sure you trust him?"
Duo thought about it, and shrugged. He did trust Heero not to raid Deathscythe for spare parts again, or not to do it without telling him first; or at least not to do it unless another urgent mission came up. He shrugged again. "He's all right."
Mik looked skeptical. "You've got strange friends, Duo."
Duo grinned and said pointedly, "Tell me about it." Mik snorted. Duo glanced around the hold. "Where is Howard? He was here when we first got here."
"He's on some new meditation kick, something one of the fishermen told him about last week," Mik said. "Disappears to his room for hours at a time."
"Anything to get out of a little work," Duo said, not really meaning it.
"No doubt." Mik closed the access panel and consulted a crude computer console hooked into the packs' operating system by a long black cord. He punched in a few numbers and looked pleased with the results. "Okay, then. Let's try it again."
Duo scrambled up to the cockpit and tried the jamming lever again. This time the light signaling on-line status lit up on the control panel. Mik appeared to be satisfied on his end and declared that he was going to bed.
Duo thought this was a very good idea. He could have Mik check the thermal connections later, when they were able to open up the roof for more room. He looked over at Heero, but saw only Heero's legs and feet protruding from underneath the curved edge of one of his gundam's wings.
"I'm going to bed. There are some empty cabins in the lower deck, if you want to catch some Z's." He grinned, even though he Heero couldn't see him. "I'm thinking we could both use the sleep."
Heero was silent, and Duo crouched beside Wing and peered under the flat section of the gundam's propellant. Heero was a vague shape in the shadows, stretched out on his back with a thin flashlight in his hand, skimming the light slowly over an open panel.
"Heero, it's fine. Leave it for the morning."
Heero glanced down the length of his body at him. "If you open the roof, I can take Wing out."
Duo shrugged. "Just leave it here. It's safe enough. Besides, OZ is going to be checking the area after what we did to that ship. If you leave now, you're only going to attract attention to the barge."
For a moment Heero looked about to argue, then turned back to the panel above him. Duo took his silence for acceptance, though he was never sure with Heero.
"Well, I'm going to bed," he said, and stood up. He wondered what time it was; it had been past midnight when he'd taken Deathscythe across the ocean to the bay off the coast of the school, and Heero had arrived only a few minutes after his first quick hit to the ship. He'd lost all sense of time during the mission, and they'd been repairing the gundams for several hours---at least that, he thought, trying to reconstruct the time.
But when he left the hold, he bypassed the room he'd been using while on the barge in a last minute realization that he was still too wired for sleep. He headed for the mess hall instead, which was more like a sitting room attached to a small kitchen, and was the only room on the ship that wasn't strictly utilitarian. Esaim was in one of the armchairs by the small tv monitor that picked up about three static-laden signals if they were lucky, coffee mug and newspaper in his large hands.
Mik they had recruited from Earth, but Esaim had been part of the original Sweeper group, from long before Duo had joined them. He'd only known him a month or two before Esaim left for Earth to join up with Howard here on the barge, but Duo had been glad to have even that slight familiar connection when he first arrived from the colonies.
It was later, then, than he had thought, or rather earlier---well enough into the morning for Esaim to have gone and come back from the mainland with supplies and the paper. He poured coffee and wished there were muffins or something. His stomach echoed the complaint, but Howard was the only decent cook on the ship, and he seemed to be otherwise occupied.
"So what did they say about us?" he asked, gesturing toward the paper as he took the chair across from Esaim.
Esaim handed Duo one of the discarded sections of newspaper scattered around him. Duo frowned when he saw it was just a blurb, and on page twenty-six. 'Cargo Ship Explodes, Fuel Leak Detected,' he read. He snorted. "Cargo ship. Yeah, right. I'd say they had some rather choice cargo." His sensors had identified enough parts and material for more than thirty mobile suits. He sipped the coffee and skimmed the blurb, which didn't reveal anything more interesting.
He looked up from the paper. Esaim had folded over the section he was reading and peered evenly at him over the top of it. "There was a communication for you from the professor yesterday. Howard told him where you were staying."
"Oh, yeah? What did he say?" Duo shifted in the armchair more comfortably and let the newspaper rest in his lap.
"'Tell that boy that schools are for children. I didn't put all of that effort into him so he could read poetry and moon over girls.'" Esaim put down the folded section of paper and picked up another one from the floor. He glanced at Duo from around the corner of it. "How is it at that school?"
Duo shrugged. Blending in, he'd told Heero, but in truth he rather liked having kids his own age around. The consistency and order of the school was still a novelty. And as a cover for their rather un-schoolboy-like activities, it wasn't a half-bad idea. He had to give Heero credit for that one. If he thought he'd be there forever, or that he'd never pilot his gundam again, he likely would have found it as oppressive as most of his classmates seemed to think it was. But as things were, it was, well, fun.
"The chemistry teacher wears the same blue blazer every day, but each time with a different color scarf. Yesterday it was bright pink with green spots, like slugs. And a couple of the guys asked me to go sailing with them last weekend. They keep *boats* there, Esaim. One boy even has a small *yacht*."
"Did you go?"
"Nah." Duo grinned. "I told them I got seasick on boats."
Esaim's broad face wrinkled in a laugh, then his eyes, caught by some movement, shifted to the door. Heero was standing there. Either he'd already memorized the layout of the barge from when he was there before, or he'd followed Duo and he hadn't noticed. Heero's eyes flicked to the pot of brewing coffee but he didn't take any. He seemed restless, his hands empty and idle.
"Hey, there's a story about us," Duo said, holding out the paper.
Heero glanced at it but showed no further interest. "We should go," he said to Duo.
Duo shrugged and tossed the paper section back on the floor near Esaim. "We've already missed our first class," he pointed out. "And curfew last night. Our asses are already in the fire, so we might as well wait a few more hours and come up with a good excuse."
Heero shrugged, those concerns apparently inconsequential in Heero-world. "I'm going back."
"What are you going to do, swim?" Duo said, realizing at the same time that Heero would probably do it; either that or blow a hole in the roof of the cargo hold to get Wing out. He sighed. They could catch a bus at the village off of which the barge was anchored, and from there it was only a forty-five minute ride back to the school. "Esaim, you want to take another trip to the mainland?"
Esaim shrugged. "All the same to me."
"You do know that we'll have to go to calculus class now, right?" Duo said to Heero as he took his mug back to the kitchen and dumped the remaining coffee in the sink. "Don't tell me---you didn't even do the homework."
Heero looked at him with all of the concern of a snail contemplating a rock.
"You're earning yourself quite a reputation with the teachers, fly-boy. How'd you make it in that other school, anyway?" Searching the kitchen drawers, he found some paper and a pen and scribbled a note to Mik about the thermal connections.
When he returned from the kitchen, Heero's brows were drawn together in impatience, his eyes hard and unyielding. His arms were crossed on his chest, and he looked like a miniature gundam, Duo thought. All sharp planes and angles covered by cold expressionless metal skin. Duo wondered if he was made up of tiny gears and circuits instead of tissue and blood, and what Heero would do if he asked him that.
"Don't worry," Duo assured him. "I'll let you copy mine."
Quatre was still in the living room, though he had moved from the chair to the floor between the couch and the coffee table. He glanced up as Duo entered the room.
"Did you find everything you needed?"
Duo nodded and sat down next to the dismantled amplifier. "It's a regular candy store in there. Ever think about going into the parts business?"
"Hm," Quatre said absently. He looked down at the floor next to him, and Duo noticed that he had a small portable computer terminal there. "I've been scanning OZ channels for updates."
"Anything new to report?"
The crease in Quatre's brow deepened. "They're sending a large number of the Taurus suits into space. And shuttles have been launched."
"No, passenger shuttles."
Duo unwrapped his cloth bundle and studied the parts and tools acquired from the shed, picking out those he needed for the moment. "It could be just another decoy. A trick, like New Edwards."
Quatre shook his head. "I don't think so. The shuttles weren't announced on public channels. And they know that we don't dare fight them, not now. I think they're sending OZ officials into space."
"I don't know." He sounded frustrated.
"There's not much we can do about it, anyway."
"I know. I just wish we knew how to contact the others."
Duo shrugged and picked up a screwdriver to tighten the panels of the circuit board. "Heero's dead, Quatre." The screwdriver slipped in the groove of the head and scraped the side of his thumb, and he swore under his breath. He reset the tip of the screwdriver.
Quatre was silent, and Duo tightened the screws on the panel and looked over. Quatre was studying the computer screen, his hair falling over one eye, and Duo thought he might be shaking a little.
"What about that other pilot, the one with the red gundam? Didn't you know him from before?"
"Trowa," Quatre said quietly. "I haven't been able to contact him."
Duo put down the screwdriver and the amplifier and moved closer to Quatre, so he could see the computer screen. It was a list of hastily typed notes on OZ's latest activities, filled with a discouraging amount of blank space and question marks. They'd had some difficulty getting through to the military channels lately; OZ had been tightening its communications security.
"It looks like they're abandoning the remaining Alliance bases," Duo said, running his finger down the list.
"Yes," said Quatre. "I can't figure out why. Either they're simply biding their time, or they're going to redirect elsewhere."
Duo looked at him. "Like space."
"Yes," Quatre said unhappily.
"We still can't do anything to stop them."
Duo went back to his amplifier. He thought he could have it nearly fixed before the natural light faded; it was difficult to work on the smaller components with only the room's lamps to see by.
They were both silent, engrossed in their respective tasks, until Duo realized that he could barely see the amplifier at all; but there, the last plate was fitted, and he could test it in the morning.
Yellow light angled down on his face and hands. He looked up, and Quatre was standing by the floor lamp next to the couch. The light filtering through the shade contrasted with the shadows on the other side of his face, but Duo could still see the tinge of helplessness that colored the set of his mouth and the shadows under his eyes. Duo felt the knot in his stomach, the one that had been forming over the last few weeks, tighten a little more.
"Are you hungry?" Quatre asked. "We should get something to eat."
A bell rang in the distance, slow and cheery and echoing. "Dinner time, Heero," he said.
Duo made no move to get up, however. The sun was warm, the grass beneath him cool and scratchy. His school uniform was doubtless acquiring grass stains and wrinkles, he thought, pleased.
The Seisen Academy for Boys and Girls was on a low-rising, grassy hill dipping down to a stone and concrete wall that bolstered the land against the encroachment of water from the bay. The engraved stone plaque above the front gates claimed that it had been built even before the construction of the colonies, "serving Earth's children for over two hundred and fifty years." Duo had no trouble believing that. From what he could tell, most of the students could trace their family lines to before that time as well.
He liked the school, the crisp white limestone buildings that made him think of confection, the cared-for lawns of congruent strips of green and paler green. Until recently, his time on the Earth had been spent largely at sea; he found that he liked it here on land as well. He thought about the layers of earth and rock below him, miles deep, but it was difficult to imagine anything so rooted and enduringly steady.
It was so different from the colonies, but he liked it. He didn't mind that the grass made the backs of his hands itch, or that rain fell at unexpected times. He liked the way the sun looked rising over the ocean, like a mouth sent to swallow the earth whole, and the way the skin on his arms tightened when a breeze swept over the water.
A fly tickled his nose, and he reached up to swat it away. He squinted up at Heero, who sat stiffly next to him, bleached by shadows and sunlight.
"You're scaring away the wildlife, Heero." He rolled over onto his stomach and cradled his chin on the back of his forearms. Heero was staring past him, to a group of second-years who had gathered by the courtyard fountain and were slouched against the fountain wall, talking and dipping their hands in the water, and generally acting like teenagers freed for the afternoon with no desire to do anything in particular.
Duo could understand that. He *did* understand that. His own afternoon was clear of any pressing activity, school-related or otherwise. That this had corresponded to an unusually mild and pleasant day he considered an extraordinary piece of good fortune.
"They won't hurt you," he said to Heero, nodding toward the group at the fountain. "I'm sure they'd find you the life of the party." Heero, as per usual, didn't rise to the bait. Duo wouldn't have minded so much if he could confirm that Heero at least knew he was being baited.
The gardeners were planting azalea bushes along the edge of the stone wall that looked out over the water, and he could smell recently-dug earth mixed in with the salt of the bay. Two girls wearing field hockey uniforms passed a few feet away; one of them waved to Duo and he waved back, trying to remember her name. Jennifer. She was a student in their year, pretty with dark hair and an upturned nose. She sat next to him in chemistry and had lent him her notes from the beginning of the term. They had been written in purple pen, the letters wide and flourishing.
He looked over at Heero, who was leaning back with his arms stretched to the ground behind him. It would be nice to have another pilot to really talk to, Duo thought wistfully, someone who understood. But thus far Heero had been annoyingly uncooperative.
"I picked up some Alliance SOS signals from that base in Brisbane; it looks like OZ's notched another one on its belt," Duo said. "How about it, Heero? Up for another mission?"
Heero was silent, his eyes fixed on some unidentifiable point in front of him, then he dipped his head and looked at Duo. "It's too far," he said.
"Not for Wing," Duo pointed out. "And I've still got that carrier from New Edwards stashed away in an air field north of here."
Again there was a brief pause. "We need to be more cautious."
Duo rolled his eyes. Heero Yuy, advocating caution. "We've got the firepower," he argued, "and the objectives. OZ isn't going to wait while we pick and choose which missions are most convenient." He rolled a grass stem between his index and thumb, then tossed the result a few feet in front of him, watching it disappear into the grass. "Boom. In and out before they can wish themselves elsewhere. I say we go for it."
Heero's eyes narrowed. "This isn't a game."
Duo sighed. "You've gotta lighten up, Heero," he said, but with no particular expectation. He ran his hands through the grass and found a weed the gardeners had missed. It had a long stem and a thick, oval blossom at the end, and if you looped the stem around the tip and pulled, the fluff from the blossom would gather in a cluster, like a miniature bush or tree. He studied his creation then released the stalk, blowing on the feathered tips to make them float gently up then down to the ground.
He thought he might go for the Brisbane base anyway, without Heero's help. He'd managed perfectly fine working solo missions before now. Heero was slowing him down, he decided. Maybe he needed to get out on his own again, go back to the guerrilla tactics and just try to hit as many bases as possible before he was caught.
It was his original mission, after all. But that particular strategy was rapidly losing its appeal.
He stood up. "Let's eat," he said to Heero. He held out a hand to help him up. Heero stared at him for a slow second then took his hand abruptly, getting to his feet. Heero's hand was warm and dry, and his grip made Duo's fingers ache before they were quickly released.
"I'm starving," Duo said as they crossed the courtyard, "and the cook was making pies earlier. I'm thinking we can weasel at least a couple of extra slices, especially if Mia's working the line. I think she's got a crush on me," he mused. He gave Heero a sidelong glance. "You should know about that, Heero. What are the signs? I hope she won't start following me across the country."
Heero disappeared at some point during the meal. Before he could search him out, Duo was sidelined by a group of students from class and followed them back to the dormitory; a laughing, energetic clan who had accepted him readily when he and Heero had first arrived at the school. The sky overhead was pink with the setting sun, and the light caught the red hair and gold bracelets of the girl walking next to Aaron, a boy who sat in front of him in calculus. Duo didn't recognize the girl.
"She's a *cow*," she was saying, with the affront of a put-upon fifteen year-old. "She's made it due next week, and I already have an essay to write, and that awful trig thing."
There were five of them walking back to the dorm. Aaron and the girl with red hair were ahead, and next to them and slightly behind was a girl with darker hair and a heavy brown bookbag. Duo trailed a few feet behind them with Ryu, a boy he knew both from class and the afternoon games.
"What is she talking about?" Duo asked him in a low voice.
Ryu shook his head. "Contemporary history, I think. I'm not in that class."
In front of them Aaron paused for a moment to pull an assignment sheet from his bag, and then resumed walking just before Duo and Ryu stumbled into him. He held the sheet in front of him. "In three to four pages, discuss the impact of the Bauxite Colony Conflict on the political relations of Suriname and Guyana," he read. "I don't even remember the Bauxite Colony Conflict."
"We talked about it last week," said the dark-haired girl. She wound the ends of her hair around her finger as they walked. "We spent four days on it. How can you not remember?"
Aaron shrugged. "I don't remember anything from that class."
The stone walkway forked, and they took the left path toward the dormitories.
"It's *dull*," said the first girl. "Something about trade agreements. The Suriname colony traded something to Guyana, and pissed someone off along the way."
"No, the Suriname colony traded the bauxite it had gotten from Suriname to the Guyana colony," the other girl corrected. "And Suriname and Guyana were at war."
"I didn't think any of the nations were at war then," said Ryu, raising his voice slightly to be heard by the others.
The dark-haired girl paused and turned, giving him a considering look. "Well, they weren't exactly peaceful."
Aaron stared down at the assignment sheet in his hand with a lost look on his face, and the girl beside him steadied him on his feet before he tripped on a crack in the stone path. "What the hell is bauxite?"
Duo turned to Ryu. "I don't get it. If the colonies were trading just with each other, how were the earth nations involved?"
Ryu shrugged. "They were still their colonies, I guess."
Duo snorted. "The colonies don't belong to anyone."
Ryu looked at him strangely but said nothing.
"…so damned boring," the first girl was saying. "Who cares, anyway? It's just the colonies."
They had reached another fork and the group lingered for a moment. The path to the right led to the girls' dormitories, and to the left was the boys'. "Come on, Nayen." The red-haired girl tugged at the sleeve of the other, who frowned and shrugged, but let herself be led down the path. "If you figure it out," she called to Aaron over her shoulder, "let me know."
Aaron turned to Duo and Ryu as they continued on to their dorm. "I'm failing half of my classes," he said morosely.
Ryu laughed. "You are not. Not getting the highest marks doesn't equal failing."
"Yes, but still."
Ryu tilted his head up, and the sun's light glanced off his hair and the side of his cheek. "Seven more weeks to go," he said. "I can't wait for the term to be over."
Duo looked at him curiously. He hadn't thought about it that way, the school closing at the end of the term, classes coming to a halt. "What will you do then?"
Ryu shrugged. "Go home, I guess. My father will probably have some kind of summer position opening in his firm. I hadn't really thought about it."
"What will you do, Duo?" Aaron asked. They had reached the door of their dorm building, its glass reflecting pink and deep blue from the sky, and Aaron paused with his hand on the door.
Duo shrugged and grinned. "I'm sure something will come up." Aaron opened the door, and the three of them headed up the stairs just beyond the entrance.
Ryu groaned as they reached the landing of the second floor. "We've got that test on Friday, don't we. I'd completely forgotten."
"Yes, the one on derivatives," said Aaron.
Ryu left to study, and Duo said goodbye to both of them as they disappeared behind the door opening to the hallway of the second floor. He continued up the stairwell to the third level and walked the length of the hall before he reached his room.
His room was dark, but he left the light off and crossed to the window that overlooked the bay. The sun had drifted below the horizon, but he could see in the lingering light that there were still a few salvage ships circling the spot where the ship had been. It had raised quite a commotion in the school, and for a few days the bay had been thick with the local coast guard, likely manned by more than a few OZ military personnel. The majority of the remains had been towed away, probably to a local shipyard, but independent salvage operations had lasted for days afterward.
He turned from the window. He had an essay due in his ancient Earth history class, and although he didn't necessarily need to start it just yet, a long and uneventful evening loomed as the alternative.
The library was back toward the cafeteria, so he retraced the path he'd taken with the other children. Lamps along the walkway glowed dimly but brightened as the night around him darkened. There were still a few students making their way through the campus; to their respective dorms, in and out of the main hall. There were evening activities that took place in the classrooms, but most had already begun and the courtyard was deserted, its fountain turned off for the night.
The library was past the courtyard, between the square of classroom buildings and the main hall. The chairs and desks on the first floor of the library were filled, but he went to the second floor, a thick maze of bookstacks and randomly placed cubicles for study, and there were only a few other students, most of them older and unfamiliar.
He checked the computer catalogue next to the stairwell for books he thought might be relevant to his paper. *Forms of Roman Legislation* and *The Roman Assemblies from Their Origin to the End of the Republic*. He wondered if the authors intended them to sound as dull as they were, if there was some kind of unspoken competition for the least palatable title.
He found the first one on a back shelf in one of the corners, and leaned against the stacks of books flipping through it, dutifully reading without paying attention to the words. His shoulder cramped after a dozen or so pages, and he went searching for more comfortable surroundings. He saw Heero in one of the cubicles, tucked between two shelves, a laptop and notebook on the desk in front of him. Heero was writing in the notebook, looking up to consult the computer screen at frequent intervals.
"So this is where you disappeared to," Duo said, putting his book down on the desk of the adjacent cubicle.
Heero didn't look up from what he was writing, and Duo watched him for a few minutes, then sat down in the chair next to him. Heero had hacked into OZ's military database, and diagrams of numbers and system schematics dotted the laptop screen. Heero was copying them into the notebook, drawing lines between some of them and adding his own notes in the margins.
"Scoot over," Duo said, pushing at his arm. Heero looked at him, and the pressure on his arm might have been the beating wings of a butterfly for all Heero noticed it. But then, with a faint squeak of wood on linoleum, Heero moved his chair over to the far end of the cubicle desk.
Duo arranged himself in front of the computer screen. The numbers were troop deployments, and the schematics were those of the Leo and Aries suits. Glancing down at Heero's notes, he saw that Heero was calculating the numbers of suits at each OZ-controlled base location and augmenting the schematic information with what were likely his own observations.
Duo scrolled down to the next page, and began reading off numbers in a low voice as Heero wrote them down.
"Looks like they've cleared out Corsica---only a skeleton crew left to command it. No troops." He paused, thinking. "That was a base hit by one of us, right?"
"Yes," Heero said, and continued writing.
His voice muffled by the shelves of books around them, Duo went through each base, relaying the information and adding his own comments at times. He was annoyed to note that Heero rarely wrote those down.
He wasn't sure how much time passed before Heero held up a hand for him to stop. He flipped the notebook back to the beginning and began reading silently through his copied information at an unhurried pace that left Duo twitching. He turned back to the computer screen to see what else of interest he could find.
He found a database labeled "historical archives," and on impulse typed in "Bauxite Colony Conflict."
The information was sketchy at best. The date at the top of each document was AC 138, so OZ must have transferred it from Alliance networks, and the Alliance seemed to have taken a black marker even to its own classified reports. On the surface, the information reiterated the gist of what the other students had said, then Duo followed a column of numbers and three-letter abbreviated codes listed down the right side of the screen.
"Twenty thousand people," he said, and there must have been a particular tone to his voice, because Heero looked up.
Duo pointed to the screen. "The Alliance supplied arms to Suriname to launch missiles at the Guyana cluster colonies, which in turn used Alliance-supplied arms to retaliate against the Suriname colony."
Heero frowned at Duo then at the screen, and his face cleared in understanding. "Yes, I know." He turned back to his notebook.
"Twenty thousand *people*, Heero. Two colonies in the cluster completely destroyed, and one of the Suriname colonies made unlivable with radiation leaks. The Alliance didn't even send ships to help the colonies evacuate."
"You shouldn't let it get to you. It was a long time ago."
Duo wished, quite seriously, that he still had the gun he'd left in his room on the barge. "Yeah, you're just in it for the thrills, right? Not everyone can be as indifferent as you, Heero."
"It isn't that." Heero sounded surprised by the accusation. He put down his pen. "You just shouldn't let it get to you. It will keep you from doing what you need to do."
Duo left the history database to return to the military intelligence listings, and leaned back in his chair. "I don't see why you're fighting, then, if it isn't for the colonies."
"I am fighting for the colonies." Heero closed his notebook. "You can shut down the connection, now. I have everything I need."
"Yeah, whatever," Duo said, but he backtracked through the system, isolating and eliminating any traces of their presence, absurdly gratified that Heero wasn't bothering to check his progress.
Heero stood up when Duo finished. He retrieved the laptop and tucked it under his arm, and Duo left his book on Roman legislation on the cubicle desk and followed him out of the library. The smell of brine from the bay was stronger now, and the glimpse of night beyond the lit walkway to the dormitories was dark and depthless.
Heero's room was on the third floor as well, but nearer the stairwell than Duo's. Heero paused after unlocking his door and swinging it open, just enough for Duo to catch a glance at the interior. He'd never been inside. From what he could see, it was exactly like his own: grey walls, one window, one computer, one bed---void of any personal belongings. Duo had evaded the other children's questions by claiming a shipping delay of his things from his previous school. He wondered what Heero had told them, then decided that no one would have dared ask in the first place. Even more likely, they'd never seen past the outside of his door, either.
"You shouldn't listen to them, Duo," Heero said. "We don't belong here with them. You know that, or you should." He closed the door behind him.
He was, Duo thought as he stared at the plain wooden face of the closed door in front of him, perhaps the most frustrating person he'd ever known.
A few ship lights still shone on the bay when he returned to his room. Duo watched them for a few moments, then pulled the curtains closed and flicked on the small lamp on his desk and booted up the computer. It was school-issue and slow, so he leaned back in the chair and felt the tendons in his neck twinge in protest as he craned his head back to stare up at the ceiling. He thought about the schematics he and Heero had accessed; it was a simplistic design compared to the gundams, but he'd already known that. There were a lot of them, however, and numbers made a difference.
There was a message waiting for him from the professor, on the secure channel he'd set up to keep in touch with Howard and the others. He checked the time index; he'd missed him by only an hour or so.
"Duo." Professor G. said his name with fond distaste. His hair was a halo of wispy grey snarls growing haphazardly over his eyes and parting around the narrow beak of his nose. There was a yellow stain on his collar that looked like it had set days ago.
"I do hope you're not abandoning your missions to play schoolboy," G. continued. "If you can spare the time, and I see by your absence that you must be busy with far more important matters, I do have a new project for you."
Duo leaned forward and grinned. The smile faded as he scrolled through the attached schematics of the newly designed Taurus suits, listening to G.'s accounting of OZ's transport plan at the same time. OZ had hardly been twiddling their thumbs the last few months. Self-learning capability linked to a high-tech combat analysis system; he whistled appreciatively. The design was impressive, and he would have loved to have taken one of them apart to see exactly how OZ had done it, but ultimately dangerous and even a bit terrifying. He wondered if OZ had any sense of the consequences of their progress.
The message played to its completion and the professor signed off with an abrupt farewell. Duo sat at the computer for a few minutes, staring at the blank screen, his mind bounding through attack scenarios and discarding most of them in the space of a few seconds.
Two transport routes, ground and air, one of which had to be a decoy. Heero had very likely received a similar message from whomever directed his missions from the colonies. They were going to have to work together on this one.
He worked through a few more likely plans as he stripped off his school uniform, folding it on the bed with a precision that would have astonished Sister Helen back at the church. He changed into his more familiar black clothing and looked at the uniform on the bed: slightly grubby, wrinkled, its style suited for someone much younger.
Duo wiped his hands on the sheet. He was hungry after all. "Sounds good to me." His hands still felt dry and at the same time sticky, so he brushed them against the sides of his pants as he followed Quatre to the kitchen. Lights set to an automatic timer flickered on around them, and dusk shifted into bright normality.
The cook had gone back to his home in the nearby town for the night, but he had left bread on the counter, and Quatre found half a cold bird in the refrigerator that tasted like very lean and well-smoked chicken. They set their findings along with some assorted fruit arranged as a centerpiece on the kitchen table, which was long and wide and made for several more people to sit around. Duo and Quatre took up a small corner of it.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Quatre lowered a piece of half-eaten bread to his plate. "Do you really think he's dead?" he asked wistfully.
Duo paused in his chewing, and swallowed. Heero's death made him want to move forward, look to the moment in front of him, the next thing to do and the next. But Quatre, he thought, kept looking back. "I don't know," he said.
"I can't believe that he is."
Duo leaned back in his chair and speared a piece of the meat with his fork, rolling it back and forth on his plate. "Does it matter? I mean, either he is or he isn't; it doesn't matter what we believe."
"You're wrong, Duo," said Quatre, and his voice had an unexpected confidence and conviction. Duo met his eyes, and Quatre held them seriously before Duo looked away. "It does matter."
"Even if Heero is dead," and there was a catch in Quatre's breath as he said it, "it means something. We ought to make it mean something."
Duo rested his fork on the edge of his plate and looked up, past Quatre's head to the window on the far wall. Night blackened the glass, and the pale light overhead did little to ward the rest of the room. "But maybe it doesn't mean anything, Quatre," he said carefully. "What have we really accomplished? We've slowed OZ down, sure. Maybe we've even made them vulnerable. But they've won."
"I don't think they have, Duo," Quatre said. There was a sharpness to the set of his mouth.
Perhaps it was just stubbornness, Duo thought. He would have liked to believe him, if only so that the waiting---for OZ, for the others, for the colonies to give some sign of unity---would be over. He'd heard the pilot of the red gundam---Trowa---telling Quatre on the open com that without resolution they could not fight. But without fighting, Duo thought, perhaps there was no way to form that resolution.
"If OZ slips," he told Quatre, "we'll be there to take advantage of it." He tried to sound more confident than he felt. "You're right. No sense in calling it before it's over."
Quatre smiled at his attempt at reassurance, but he looked grateful as well, as if he found the gesture itself significant.
And Quatre, Duo thought, had the kind of smile that made you want to do anything for him. No wonder the Maguanac followed him. But despite Quatre's new-found confidence, Duo thought they would likely end up waiting months for OZ to make any crucial mistakes, if even then.
And whatever meaning Quatre tried to impart to Heero's death, it didn't change anything; dead was dead.
They finished the rest of the meal in silence, and afterward Duo helped Quatre to clean up the remains. It was still early, but they parted as they left the kitchen, in unspoken mutual agreement, and Duo returned to his room. On the nightstand there were several books he had taken from the house's library a few days ago, rich brown leather volumes, and he picked one up idly then put it down again.
The room Quatre had given him was small and the furnishings plain, but it was bright and clean and caught the morning light, and smelled like sheets dried in the open air. He got ready for bed slowly and thought about going for a walk, liking the idea of the still night air and silence.
Instead, he retrieved the discarded book and fell asleep only a few pages into it.
He woke while it was still dark in the room and silent, except for the occasional protest from the hardwood floors as the house shifted and settled. The imprints of a dream lingered, then disappeared as he tried to recall it; its passing made him feel lost, and a strange kind of sorrow.
He hugged his knees to his bare chest. Outside his window the wind had picked up, and the shadows of rocking trees played across the ceiling and walls in a wild dance. His chest was tight, and for a moment he thought he did remember the dream, as an image passed through his mind then dissolved. He thought it had something to do with Heero.
His hands gripped into fists, and his hair, loosened from its braid, fell forward. It hid his face and he closed his eyes against the shadows and the wind, and the fierce, cold ache in his chest that tightened.
The small campfire released a hiss and crack of air. It was cold, and the trees surrounding him, deep in the wilds of Eastern Europe, were made invisible by the contrasting light. He tossed a few more sticks onto the fire, using one of them to shift the others until the flames picked up again.
Deathscythe was safely secured with Wing in the carrier about fifty yards away, in a small clearing they'd spotted on the scanner. A nice landing job, that, he thought with pride. He'd rigged Deathscythe's jammers to cover the carrier's trace as well, so unless OZ was planning a little late night surveillance directly overhead, they should be safe from detection.
He was surprised that Heero had agreed to come with him this far on the carrier; he had conceded in the end only when Duo pointed out that it would save Wing's fuel supply. They would separate in the morning in any case; Heero was attacking the air transport route at its last checkpoint near the Siberian base, and Duo was hitting the ground route after it passed through the desert from Victoria.
It felt strange to be planning a mission so carefully. It made him nervous. Establishing a plan beforehand allowed for something to go wrong with the plan.
Sparks floated above the steady purr of the fire, the only sound until he heard a distant, lone howl that raised bumps on the back of his neck. "What the hell…?"
"It's just a wolf, " said Heero, entering the circle of the light carrying more wood. He knelt by the fire and arranged the sticks carefully on top of one another.
"Yeah." Duo rolled his eyes. "Just a wolf." He wrapped his arms around his chest, telling himself it was from the cold. "You still have that gun on you, right?"
Heero built up the fire then sat down across from him, seemingly unbothered by either wolves or the cold. Which was unfair, Duo thought, particularly since he was wearing half the amount of clothing Duo was.
He had to admit, though, that the wilderness around them, while foreign and utterly unlike anything he was used to, had a certain quality that he recognized. It was like piloting Deathscythe in battle: the thick smell of woodsmoke, the sharper air beyond, had a life and energy to it like a heartbeat, and there was an unexpected rhythm in the rustle of leaves and creaking whine of trees in the wind.
"A mobile suit that has access to every battle strategy in its database, and the ability to react accordingly," he mused aloud, thinking back to the Professor's message. "It's going to be fun trying to fight *that*."
Heero gave him a sharp look, but said nothing.
"What do you think they're going to do with them? Do you really think they can design a suit where the pilot isn't even necessary?"
"Anything can be designed."
"True." Duo kicked at the dirt at his feet and unearthed a small hole, likely the previous home of a snake, or even a rabbit, with the toe of his boot.
He took two of the blankets, pilfered from a storage closet back at the school, and crossed to where Heero was sitting. Heero accepted one without a word and draped it over his shoulders; Duo did the same and sat down next to him. The remains of their dinner lay wrapped in plastic and weighted down with a rock a few feet from the fire. He'd taken the food from the school as well as the blankets, and both excursions had made him feel almost guilty. It had been a while since he'd put those particular skills to use.
"You should leave a few hours before dawn," Heero said, "and wait for the transport to cross."
Duo frowned and thought back to the transport information the professor had sent him, pulling the blanket around him more tightly. "It isn't scheduled to make the first check point until a little after six, local time. That leaves me plenty of time to hit it before it reaches that point."
"It will allow you to establish a better position."
Duo shrugged. "I don't need a better position." He grinned and stretched his legs out in front of him. "Deathscythe and I can take care of contingencies just fine."
Heero gave him a serious, measuring look. "OZ has been too successful in defeating the Alliance bases. They're overconfident, and they're expecting a direct attack. A defensive strategy will catch them unprepared."
"But not a strategy suited to Deathscythe's skills," Duo pointed out. "Or mine. OZ will be prepared for us in any case. Am I supposed to twiddle my thumbs for hours while you swoop into the Siberia base like death-from-above?"
Heero stared into the fire, his arms crossed on his knees. Firelight and shadows danced over him, and Duo couldn't see the expression on his face. The rest of him was hidden beneath the blanket. The silence between them stretched, until Duo could hear the trees move and branches sway on the breeze. Heero said quietly, "I'm not questioning your courage."
Duo frowned and picked up a discarded stick to prod the fire, nudging a larger block of wood that rested precariously on two smaller pieces until it fell, smoldering, deep into the heart of the fire. Sparks drifted up in the dark sky.
He thought of Deathscythe, lying next to Wing in the cramped cargo space of the carrier. In truth, he was surprised they'd even made it this far. A small part of him, and one he didn't think about very often, had been sure his first mission would be the only one, that his faith in his gundam's abilities would prove unrealistic.
"When I was a kid we used to sleep outside like this," he said, tilting his head, "when all of our usual bolt holes were taken. Sometimes even when they weren't." He added in afterthought, "There were a lot of abandoned houses on the colony." Scratching at the dirt in front of the fire with the end of his stick, he wondered why he was telling Heero this; it wasn't as if Heero would particularly care.
"I used to look up---you know how clear the colonies would get at night? The air filters kick in to take care of the smog from the day, and you can almost see to the other side." He laughed a little. "I used to wonder why the buildings and people didn't crash down on top of us, you know? And I'd think there was probably some other kid up there looking down at me wondering the same thing."
Heero's eyes were closed, his shoulders hunched in the blanket, but Duo didn't think that he was sleeping.
"Are you ever afraid of dying?" Duo asked abruptly.
Heero was silent for so long that Duo wondered if he had, perhaps, been sleeping after all. Then the light of the fire glanced off his face, and Duo saw that his eyes were open and fixed on the flames in front of him.
"I used to sleep outside too, sometimes," Heero said, and it was as if he spoke from far away. "When it was allowed." Duo blinked and turned back to the fire. When Heero spoke again, his voice had reverted to its usual evenness.
"Someone told me a story once." The way he said "someone" made Duo shiver and wonder who it had been. "In the story, there was a general who drew his enemy into an attack by retreating. In his retreat, he carved the name of his enemy on the bark of a tree, and wrote below it, 'here he will die.'"
Heero leaned down to pick up a stone at his feet, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger as he spoke. "It was night, and when his enemy caught up to him, he saw the writing on the tree and struck a match to read it, and as he read the words was immediately shot down by the general's archers, who had been instructed to shoot at the first sign of light."
The fire crackled, and Duo drew patterns in the dirt. "It isn't often that one sees his own death written beforehand," Heero continued. "For some, the knowledge would make them unable to fight. Sometimes it makes it easier." He stood up, and the blanket was a ragged, uneven cloak around him. "I'm going to bed." The stone was still clutched in his hand. He walked a few feet away until he was hidden in the shadows, and laid down on the ground with the blanket wrapped tightly against the cold.
Duo sat still for several minutes, then banked the fire and scooped dirt over the wrapped remains of their dinner. That and the plastic should deter any animals wandering too closely to the camp, and they could dispose of it in the morning. He picked up the folded blanket and crossed to where Heero lay sleeping.
Heero showed no signs of awareness as Duo laid down next to him. The extra body heat was welcome, and if he'd dared he would have reached out to assure himself that Heero was really there; in body, at least, if not in spirit. He lay on his back and looked up at the night, wishing for a moment that he was back in space, where the stars were like a cradle of brilliant lights grounding one in that time and place, not these small distant things. And where the earth was far away and unimaginable.
Additional notes: The story Heero tells Duo is an adaptation of
a story used by Tu Mu to illustrate one of his commentaries on Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
The commentary text reads:
In 341 B.C., the Ch`i State being at war with Wei, sent T`ien Chi and Sun Pin against the general P`ang Chuan, who happened to be a deadly personal enemy of the later. Sun Pin said: "The Ch`i State has a reputation for cowardice, and therefore our adversary despises us. Let us turn this circumstance to account." Accordingly, when the army had crossed the border into Wei territory, he gave orders to show 100,000 fires on the first night, 50,000 on the next, and the night after only 20,000. P`ang Chuan pursued them hotly, saying to himself: "I knew these men of Ch`i were cowards: their numbers have already fallen away by more than half." In his retreat, Sun Pin came to a narrow defile, which he calculated that his pursuers would reach after dark. Here he had a tree stripped of its bark, and inscribed upon it the words: "Under this tree shall P`ang Chuan die." Then, as night began to fall, he placed a strong body of archers in ambush near by, with orders to shoot directly they saw a light. Later on, P`ang Chuan arrived at the spot, and noticing the tree, struck a light in order to read what was written on it. His body was immediately riddled by a volley of arrows, and his whole army thrown into confusion.
The title is taken from a line from Appollonius' "The Quest of the Golden Fleece":
Father and home---I left them
For a strange country.