It always gave Duo a twinge of cynical amusement watching a certain kind of people try to say his brother's name with a straight face. Une, for one, who had very firm notions on the proper way to name a bondwolf.
(It was obvious the only one she'd been acquainted with was her precious General Treize Kushrenada's pampered beast, because the enlisted could get pretty crude or silly, especially with how many shits the wolves didn't give about mouth-noises to start with.)
Wasn't very funny today, though, the way she winced subtly as it passed her lips, because the rest of the sentence was soft and quiet as an assassin's knife sliding home.
"Doesn't Killer want to belong to a pack?"
"Now that's a low blow," he said, almost admiring.
Une smiled thinly, cool eyes dissecting him right through the view screen and almost three hundred thousand miles of hard vacuum. Considering the communication lag between Earth and L2 she must have anticipated his reaction, too. Or maybe no matter what reaction he showed, that 'You know I'm right' face would have been appropriate.
'Fuck that noise,' he wanted to tell her, 'we've been working solo every day of our life, where was your pack when we needed help oh right, on the other side of the battlefield.' Or 'there's something very freeing in being a mere concerned civilian when shit goes down and also your laws and regulations suck.'
Or 'stop trying to buy me with your fucking salary.'
Only right outside the trailer that served as office there was a grayish furmonster sprawled in the dust with his huge, long-muzzled head propped up on the wobbly step, one who spent his days half-asleep nowadays because after the first week there had been not a single low-life on the whole colony who was stupid enough to try to steal from the Schbeiker-Maxwell Salvage yard. One whose face should have been masked white, and was flecked black with machine oil instead, and now everything in his world smelled like old machine parts and gasoline.
She didn't need to say anything, Duo could say it to himself. Good job, Maxwell. You've taken a warrior-wolf and made him into a junkyard dog. Guess no matter how much they get their greedy fingers on, gutter trash will always return to the gutter in the end, and never mind what they drag along for the fall, eh?
"I'll think about it," he said, and ended the call before he could see her face changing with triumph.
It felt like running away, like defeat and shame. It felt like being slapped in the face by something he had known from the start and had refused to accept.
The scent of ozone and burn wires was so strong it had his head jerking up, instinctively scanning the office and its littered paperwork for the engine in mid-overload before he realized. He groaned, threw a sideway look at Killer's massive head, lifted just enough to give him an unimpressed honey-gold stare over the doorstep. "We gotta see about changing my scent name, buddy. One of these days I'll be working in the yard and something will blow up in my face because I'll think you're just nagging at me again."
The wolf snorted, flicked a dismissive ear. Ozone and burnt (plastic-and-copper) wires and a sparking engine was pressed onto his mind again with mulish determination and a tiny pinch of offended hurt. Duo sighed, turned in his chair, foot tucked under his thigh, leaned sideway against the backrest. Sorry, he sent back, and hot asphalt and rust on steel and mineminemine and his love, as a better kind of apology, because mouth-noises just sucked sometimes.
Killer's tail thumped once in the dirt, half-hearted. Duo's vague smile fell.
"I'm the shittiest brother, ain't I."
Squirrel running in circles and chittering, and smacking straight into a glass door. Stop talking bullshit again. He let out a dry chuckle. "Okay, okay."
"What are you beating yourself up about now?"
Hilde was coming from the yard, machine-grease-splattered and several wrenches and spanners stuffed into various pockets of her overalls. She didn't even clink as she walked somehow, which meant she'd been practicing her stealth on him. And it had worked, which meant he and his brother were falling asleep on the job. Duo groaned and let his head thump against the backrest. "Nothing, nevermind."
He glowered a bit at Killer for not warning him; Killer returned something like a mental raised eyebrow. Of course Hilde was around, where else would she be? Did Duo want him to track her like she was prey?
"How'd the call with the Colonel go?" Hilde asked, as she grabbed the edges of the door so she could step over Killer's head and haul herself in.
"How do calls with ancient evils ever go? Even just chatting with her it feels like I've sold my soul already."
Hilde snickered in her hand. "I'm pretty sure she's not that much older than we are. Maybe in her mid-thirties?"
"Not disputing the evil part, I see."
"Trying to convince you someone who blew up your Gundam back in the day wasn't evil? I don't like beating my head against walls that much."
He tracked Hilde by ear as she crossed to the partitioned room in the back, the one they'd dubbed the archives. Water -- hand washing? And then cloth and muffled metallic thumps. Probably getting out of her overalls. He didn't even want to bother teasing her about it. Ooh Miss Schbeiker, not even closing the door, adventurous aren't we?
Not in the mood.
Oh, fuck you too.
"Blargh. Everyone has a place in the Preventers, Mister Maxwell, even ex-terrorist child soldiers who were on the opposite side from, oh, just about everyone else, this will not cause any problems at all the Preventers are not a military organization Mister Maxwell or even a paramilitary one for that matter just think of us as an international police force true there's a lot of ex-military in our ranks and also half the people there still call me Colonel even though I'm technically not anymore but honest this is not the Organization of the Zodiac bis repetitate--"
"Duo, stop being a melodramatic ass one minute, if you can. I know it's hard, but honestly!"
Killer snorted. Wolf howling at the sky, flying boot to the head!
Yeah, that's about it. I get no respect here, do I?
Killer lolled his tongue at him.
Duo didn't know if that was a wolf thing -- that silent laugh, mimicking a human's laughing grin -- or whether to canids it just meant they felt relaxed, and Killer had picked it up from him because he didn't know any better, because Duo and Hilde were all the socialization he got.
(Mary hadn't laughed that way. Much. At all. Ever. Then again neither did her brother.)
"Hey." Hot-asphalt-rusted-steel, soft voice. "Do you want a pack?"
'Pack' brought to mind fleeting memories, of big rough gentle hands ruffling puppy fur and no, bad, pee outside and little treats, of men who smell like soldered metal and vacuum suits and old pack leader but we only listen because we're not big enough yet. It brought up hesitant, wistful hints of cordite and nitroglycerine and blood and a city summer breeze and bird up in a tree and, dubious, wisps of old whiskey.
Did Killer want a pack? God, he wasn't even sure what it was. Duo wanted to laugh. Maybe cry. No, that's my packs. My human friends. Allies.
Allies, Killer returned, notions cautiously shaped into almost-words. Fight-with. Pack.
No, no it wasn't. Most of them were humans, and wolfless. Their only links to his brother were through Duo, and via nothing but words and maybe some backslapping and shared beers. Even a city summer breeze and bird up in a tree weren't pack, only cautious circling and might-have-beens.
Taurus oil and strawberry shortcake?
"She can't hear you," Duo replied out loud.
Hilde popped her head out of the other room. "I can hear you just fine. You can relay it."
"Oh yay, all I ever wanted to be in my life, a relay tower! Krr-skrsh, Killer Duosbrother, this is Strawberry Shortcake, stop, I really like you, stop, will you let me scritch your scrumptious ears, stop, pretty please, I have chocolate, over."
Killer's ears perked up. Duo hadn't relayed jack shit, but oh man did he understand 'scritch' and 'chocolate'. In the next second about four hundred pounds of wolf were climbing to their feet and shaking the dust off and oh-so-just-happening to wander in a Hilde-wards direction.
Hilde was pretty good, at that. Not a hint of fear, though her hand could have disappeared up to mid-forearm in Killer's maw with room to spare (quite a few other people's arms had, only unlike Hilde they'd never get them back.) Honest affection. Respect, too, she never treated Killer like he was stupid just because he wasn't human, like he was a pet poodle to pet and be amused by until you were bored with it. She even smelled nice, relaxed and caring, fingers gentle, practiced. Duo closed his eyes to enjoy those echoes of fur ruffled in just the right way.
But she wasn't pack. She was so wolf-deaf half the time she couldn't even hear her name as Killer yelled it at her. She could only speak back with her voice and her body.
Honey-gold glare over a dusty shoulder. Taurus oil and strawberry shortcake! Killer pressed on him, a slap of scent that was the equivalent of a growled mine.
I'm not asking you to let her go, brother, Duo thought back, only maybe he would be, in a way. He was raising a child with bandaged eyes and letting it think it was blind.
... Cub? Not a cub!
In the next second, narrowly warned by that flush of intent, Duo was pitching out of his chair and diving through the door. He rolled to the side immediately, pressed up against the metal wall; Killer burst out on his heels, rocking the trailer with his leap.
Mexican stand-off. Human on one side, chest-high furmonster on the other one. They started circling. Duo tried to resist the urge to go dun dun dunnn.
In a real fight against a bondwolf Duo would use a knife, which massively evened out the playing field. He did not have a knife now, not even a fake one for combat training; it was just roughhousing.
He was smaller, which meant even with only two legs to push off of, he dodged faster. He managed it once, a whirling sidestep as the wolf lunged, and then pushing up on his spine to flip over his back, so jaws snapped closed on the wrong side. A shove to wolf ribs with his foot managed to move the beast, oh, two steps to the side, which really wasn't bad considering Killer outweighed him by roughly three hundred pounds and Duo could tell when he was being humored.
In the next second he had been pounced on, and was flat on his back in the dust with way too much lean muscle and moth-eaten fur crushing his legs into paste. He gurgled and wheezed as he tried to wriggle free and went exactly nowhere. Killer gave him a smug look and settled in more comfortably.
"... Fine, fine, I give!"
Big manly dog-wolf.
"You sure are that, stud."
Ear scritches now.
"Yes, your Majesty."
... and chocolate.
"No, that's bad for you."
Killer just happened to coincidentally move in a way that dug his elbow into Duo's bladder.
"Ghhk. I will not break under torture! -- fine, okay, I give."
Hilde was watching them from the door and shaking her head in despair. Duo gave her a winning grin and managed somehow to squirm his way free. One of his boots stayed behind under Killer's barrel. Duo wiggled his toes thoughtfully and decided to climb on the wolf instead, so his sock wouldn't get dirty. "Come on, get me back to the trailer now."
Killer turned his head and eyed the human straddling his back with eyes sparkling in evil contemplation. Duo wondered how long he had before the wolf flipped over and steamrolled him.
Instead, with a heavy, put-upon sigh, his brother climbed to his feet and carried him back. Duo was reminded once again why wolfbrothers did not usually ride their wolves. They had really sharp spines and they pitched and rolled like boats at sea, and the long fur made things way slippery. Or maybe it was just that Duo sucked at riding. (Where the heck would he have learned, though; in the slums? At the church? (yeah, poorest orphanage ever, keeping a pony in the backyard on that nice threadbare artificial grass.) Maybe on that good old Sweepers smuggler barge the old goat G trained him and Killer in?)
Roughhousing was always fun, but... It'd probably be more fun for Killer to do it with someone in his weight class. Last longer, for one thing. He dismounted with a sigh, sat on the threshold, Hilde's steel-toed boot against his hip. She smelled like engine grease and that cheap flowery liquid sap and honest work-sweat.
He liked her a lot. She was probably one of his best friends. Also she was fun in the sack (not that that happened often considering how Killer whined and squirmed about it.) Also she needed him to help run the yard...
... Yeah, needed him to man the phones on a Sunday, not because they even needed to work Sundays anymore, but because they were both workaholics and they got bored at home with nothing to do, so bored they started saying stupid shit like "Man, I miss piloting a machine of death through a bloody battlefield".
And meaning it. Which was the stupidest part.
She had the other employees well in hand now, anyway, had gotten their respect as someone who knew what she was talking about and not merely as a chick not even twenty yet who just happened to be backed by a wolfbrother.
She didn't need them. She had other friends. Maybe she'd even get a date if Killer stopped being there to greet hopefuls at the door.
She'd miss them, though.
He looked down at his wolf, who had slumped back in his previous position, flat on his side, his back to the gap under the trailer, head propped up on the step.
Everything was dust and oil and motor grease and electric fires, truck exhaust, nose-burning burnt plastic. Nothing was worth exploring. There was no risk to take.
Everything was gray.
"We're taking Une up on her offer," he said, socked toes digging and curling into fur.
Hilde was sad, as predicted, but she wasn't surprised.