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Lone Wolf and Pilot

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The next month was strange for Duo -- the routine of classes and awkward interaction with the trainees' sub-pack made only a little more awkward by Heero's by turn too-forthright and too-erased presence, made a lot stranger by the knowledge that the whole Preventers corps was waiting for Mary's heat to drop.

Mary seemed not to care, or not to mind, or to enjoy the way even the senior agents' much-older wolves would follow her with their eyes, their noses, their attention.

Heero seemed not to care either -- to not even notice -- but Duo knew he was faking it.

The longer it went on with nothing happening and the more Duo wanted to start a fight, just because that might bleed some of that strange tension out, or because at least something would be happening.

But nothing happened but the routine of classes, training, and sitting in a bar or in the cafeteria and getting to practice his small talk.

--

Getting to practice his 'dealing with higher ups who were actually invested in how well he and Killer fit in', too, which was...

Well, it was happening whether he wanted it to or not, and knowing old man Rosca was, in the end, on his side, didn't help how badly Duo wanted to slam the metaphorical door in his face sometimes.

"Bazookasbrother was right," Rosca was saying, dispassionate and pitiless. "Get your wolf to explore alone."

Duo winced, sneaked Killer a look. He and Rosca were sitting on a bench under a gallery by the admin building; Killer was on the grass with a handful of other wolves, circling cautiously as they all orbited Folha. The ancient queen wolf lay on her side on top of a decorative bit of stone, probably some kind of memorial. It barely reached mid-thigh on Duo and was the highest point in the courtyard and Duo was surprised she hadn't fallen over climbing it.

The only reason Killer was letting the other wolves sniff him was that Folha radiated contentment to have the lot of them around her, and he didn't want to disappoint her by leaving or by scaring off those strange unknown wolves.

"You're thinking 'what if he leaves the compound.'"

Duo didn't lie, because lying to a guy linked to his mind was pointless, and also offensive, probably. (Also he didn't lie as a general rule.) "Well -- the security might stop him..."

Yeah, you could only open the doors to the outside with a pass card. That was totally going to stop Killer going up to the second floor and jumping out a window onto the street, if the fancy took him. Urgh.

"Is he too stupid to mind the cars?" Rosca said dryly.

"Of course not!"

"There you have it."

Even if he gets out into the town, Rosca's thought shared, so what? badge to his neck, police knows/has wolves, civilians like wolves (too many pettings? oh no!) when he comes back the front desk see a badged wolf, oh hello yes let me open the door for you.

Urgh. Duo leaned back, arms crossed, tried not to glower sullenly at the pack outside. One of the male wolves was starting to kind of... twitch forward-backward to Killer like he wanted to play.

"In fact, let's start now," Rosca said, and stood without warning. "Come with me, let's walk for a bit."

"What? But--"

"Folha will handle it. You will not get a better setup for a first attempt."

Awgh. Duo stood reluctantly, started walking, couldn't help but throw little glances back. Killer, ears tilted dubiously, was still standing firm on his feet and looking at the other wolf like he had no idea what the fuck. At least he seemed engaged. And it wasn't like he couldn't track Duo's scent if he needed to find him...

The second they turned the corner Killer abandoned the group to come galloping after them. He bounded around the corner, stopped in a spray of gravel, and stared at Rosca, who was meeting his eyes with an eyebrow up, fearless in the face of several hundred pounds of pony-sized suspicious wolf.

Danger? Killer checked, eyes flicking to Duo briefly. Folha's human was making Duo feel weird-nervous-bad. Damn, Duo had thought he'd been shielding better than that, and that Killer had been sufficiently distracted.

No, buddy, we're walking, Duo replied, trying for reassuring . We're not going far, and we're coming back. Stay with Folha.

Killer snorted. You don't feel right.

It's human things. Silly things. It's fine. "Go on, shoo."

Killer lowered his head, still eyeing Rosca suspiciously, let out an image of Rosca's calf and his jaws snapping closed on it. Folha's human, he wouldn't kill, but if anyone touched his human...! Bite, he said firmly, and turned away with his tail high to trot back to the pack.

Rosca had both eyebrows up when Duo glanced over to check. Argh.

"Well. I see this isn't one-sided."

"... I did trigger it with all that worrywarting," Duo admitted, sighing.

"Still." They took a few steps; Rosca seemed deep in thought, wrinkles deepening between his eyes, around his mouth as he frowned. "The way you take turns being the protector is... hm. Has it always been like that between you?"

Duo shrugged. "Dunno. Since the war? Not when he was a puppy, obviously, but after the -- after my... my orphanage burned down, he started getting bossy, yeah." He tried to pretend to himself he was talking about a TV show he'd seen; it was harder than just being flippant, than ignoring his own reaction to laugh at how freaked out the other person got, but being flippant to Rosca wasn't happening somehow, the words just didn't want to come out that way. "I kinda put it on the now-a-teenager thing. Also the fact that -- well -- we'd lost, you know, everyone else, we'd almost lost each other and... Yeah."

"Yes, probably he was responding to your own feelings of insecurity at the time, and was never given a clear signal that he could stop -- huh. Wait."

"Uh?"

Rosca was frowning at him. "How old did you say the two of you were at the time, again?"

"Uh." Duo thought back. "Me, about eight, eight and a half, and he was... not quite two?"

Rosca's frown deepened. "So he was entering adolescence -- gangly limbs, growth spurts, losing his baby fur...?"

"Oh -- yeah, he'd been doing that for a while. Why?"

Rosca let out a long sigh and started walking again, looking all ... philosophical and enlightened, which was a bit annoying. It was like he'd deciphered the whole thing in about a second, and damn but that was irritating. If it were that simple--

"It's still not going to be simple to fix," Rosca said, gently amused. "But I just realized that while he was becoming an adult, you were still a cub, and stayed a cub in his eyes for another three to five years. No doubt you were a bossier, smarter cub, but there was a period of your lives -- a period without anyone who outranked the two of you, to make it moot -- when he was the adult and you were the puppy." He clicked his tongue. "No wonder neither of you seems to know who's in charge half the time."

Duo blinked, half baffled and half annoyed. "I know it's kind of weird, but I don't know why it's even such a surprise, I mean, I talked about this before." Come to think of it, they had reacted weird about it...

"Maxwell, of course it's taking us some time to absorb all the implications. Even the Vikings didn't allow a young man to approach a wolf cub until he was at least thirteen. Even then the median age for a first bonding was sixteen. There were reasons for that."

Duo frowned, and then winced. Yeah, he suspected that no one really wanted a nine-year-old in the middle if a bitch decided to go into heat. He supposed he'd been more lucky than he knew that they were pack-less for so long. Eugh.

"... More reasons than just that," Rosca told him in a quiet, gentle voice. "Though that's still a dang good reason."

"Yeah, it's...not a bad one. Kind of irrelevant in our case, but. Yeah. Okay--"

For a second he was almost glad to be interrupted, and then he wasn't. A flash of image, the kick of adrenaline -- a wolf was pouncing on his wolf.

He broke Rosca's sudden grasp on his elbow, almost followed through to break his wrist, froze still holding on to the man's arm.

No one must hurt, Folha was radiating. Gentle mouth.

The other wolf was play-bowing to Killer, yipping quietly in excitement.

Kind of... like... a puppy? A big puppy.

Killer knew he should be nice to puppies. But was this really...?

The other wolf darted forward -- Folha said trust and fun and nothing hurts -- Killer danced back, pulling his paw free of slightly-too-slow teeth.

It really didn't hurt. Huh.

'Better if you're not around for him to defend,' Segura had told him. Killer felt wary still, not sure how to respond -- not hostile, though, or not much, fading fast.

Okay, so. Maybe everyone's advice had been right. Which stuck in Duo's craw a bit if he wanted to be honest, but he would deal with that.

Duo stuck his hands deep in his pockets and made himself walk away. After all, it was going to take a lot more playing around with people not Duo before Killer stopped being too dangerous to allow into a mating frenzy.

--

"Oh yeah? I'd like to see that."

Oh god, Duo thought.

"All right," Heero said, one hand on the gym's tallest climbing wall. (Oh god. This was going to be good. Or horrible, but then again Duo had a horrible sense of humor.) "Mary."

Duo could have told everyone what would happen, but it was a lot funnier to stand back and grin as Heero flung the rope up over the top bar of the wall, hopped and lizarded up to drag it down so the two ends would be level, flicked Mary one of them.

Instructor Segura looked up from the tangle of wolf rappelling harness he was trying to fix. Mary was already halfway up the wall, hanging from the rope by her maw, paws walking slow and steady up the wall even though her claws were far too dull to have any meaningful purchase. At the foot of the wall Heero was... well, way too light to counterbalance her weight from merely hanging on, so he had flipped upside down so his feet would be up on the wall, braced against the bottom of two climbing holds, and his body held stiff at a sharp angle toward the floor, the rope wrapped slow and steady around one of his forearms.

It was totally ridiculous, and kind of really fucking awesome.

"Holy crap. Can you do that too?" one of the trainees asked Duo, voice a bit shaky.

"Haha, you're kidding. Nah, Heero's the only one of us who can bench-press his own goddamn wolf." The abs he must have -- actually the muscles everywhere, to pull that stunt, to keep his body so straight...

"She's only four hundred and seventy pounds," Heero said without looking, his eyes still fixed on Mary's tail. Could bench press two of her/a thousand and ten pounds max ever registered/(would ache hurt injured). In about fifteen seconds he'd pulled her up fifteen feet; the top of the wall was approaching fast. "And the pulley lowers the strain."

Jesus that's not normal, Duo felt, pinging between several wolfbrothers. He's thin like a stick.

"He's not that thin," Duo opposed without thinking. When clothed Heero looked to be a bit on the slender side -- though at least he had widened at the shoulders since the war because yeah, that had been a stick -- but none of his flesh was fat, Duo never understood how the guy didn't freeze to death in the softest breeze.

"I was genetically altered," Heero said, bland and uncaring, and Duo couldn't figure out if he was answering Duo or the rest of them. He was doing the ghost thing again.

Segura was standing near the wall with his head craned up and an expression of weary doom on his face. "If she falls--"

Heero cut him a quick glance, looked back up. Mary's front paw were touching the top of the wall. "She could handle it."

Segura chewed on the inside of his cheek, Bazooka flicking her ears back doubtfully. "She altered too?"

"Some." Not as much as me, Duo felt breezing by, but more like an echo than like deliberate communication.

At a signal neither of them showed, Mary curled her hind paws on the wall and kicked off, swinging wide over the void, and Heero hauled hard, his back arching until his head brushed the floor. Mary flipped around as she swung back, landed on top of the wall hindquarters first, balanced herself somehow.

"Jesus Mary Joseph. You guys are crazy."

"You haven't seen how Barton does it," Duo said through a grin. Wangai and Lombardi stared at him.

"This is very nice and all, and I won't at all get reprimanded when the highers up find out I allowed one of the wolves to pull that stunt without a security harness -- regulations, Yuy -- but." Segura ruffled his hair, looking mildly harassed. "Can you get her down the same way?"

"If I had to," Heero said, fallen sitting on the floor after Mary's side of the rope had gone slack. He climbed back up to his feet, glanced up.

Flying now! Mary threw all over the room, both imperious and excited, and launched herself off the wall like a blonde rocket.

She sailed over the group, arced down, and landed smack dab in the middle of piled-up gym mattresses. She was rolling off them straight away, bouncing back up on her feet in the next second and standing tall, ears pricked up proud.

Duo clapped politely. Mary came back to the group at a smart trot to get sniffed over.

Me too? Killer whined, nosing at Duo's hip. Flying too?

"Not even in a dream, buddy."

"Do I even want to know how you'd...?" Segura started, eyebrows scrunched in despair. Duo snickered.

"I'd make him a harness with the rope, if we had no equipment with us. Then climb first with some rocks and jump over the wall to act as a counterweight, probably. It'd take longer, seeing as I might have to make several trips to gather enough rocks, but that's exactly why I usually had harnesses and motorized pulleys with me, I don't get what the other guys have against technology."

Segura chuckled. "Very reasonable. And Barton and Chang...?"

"Trowa got Coyote to balance on his shoulders," Duo said, and shook his head in mild despair. "No idea how he didn't knock him off. Crazy acrobat. And I've never seen Glen and Wufei work together, so I have no idea. Probably Glen was trained properly."

"Wufei has to have taught him tricks outside of the standard training," Heero said conversationally as he rubbed at the slightly reddened palms of his hands.

Duo tried to imagine what kind of tricks Wufei might come up with, but a wolf handling a sword seemed a bit too silly and nothing else came to mind. "Yeah, probably," he conceded, and made a note to ask, if only because it might be funny.

Segura sighed through his nose, and then straightened up to face Heero. "Alright, that was enlightening. At the same time -- never do it again. It's a horrible example for the rest of them, for one thing."

Heero gave him a look like he was wondering why anyone would ever get that idea, and then looked over the rest of the group. They were watching him, Lombardi muttering something to Anders; Makisig grinned awkwardly and rubbed the back of his head. "Well. It did look really awesome, but..."

"It doesn't work if your wolf's jaw strength doesn't allow them to support their own weight for the time it takes to bring them up," Heero said, frowning a little like he was wondering why he had to point out the obvious, "or if they have bad teeth, or their backbone is weak or injured."

"Or you're not superhuman strong," Duo pointed out, teasingly, because he was pretty sure everyone else was thinking it but none of them were going to dare bring it up after this display. Not that there weren't ways to get around the--

"You could get around it with a good pulley system," Heero said, now frowning at him, for letting that little detail stop him, until he realized it was another social thing he'd missed. "The time limit of your wolf's bite is non-negotiable, though. Mary's cervical muscles are very strong as well. I wouldn't recommend it unless time is short and the mission critical," he allowed.

(... Not civilians but still fragile,) he thought deep down, a little dismayed. It wasn't like he'd forgotten, just...

Backup slowed me down so much last time, Duo couldn't help but echo. But yeah they'd fall whoops. If you ever take a team on the field gotta factor in the harnesses.

If I take a team on the field they'll start the mission already in harnesses, Heero pointed out, sending him a flash of a Preventer wolf in full rig, kevlar panels included.

Ugh heavy, can't run, Killer interjected, disgruntled.

If they give you a jacket you are damn well going to wear it, buddy.

... You too , Killer said, side-eyeing him, sending out an image of Duo and Killer both stuck in huge tactical vests, limbs splayed out and waddling like geese .

Hoist by his own petard. ... Urgh. Yeah, deal.

They make pretty thin kevlar bodysuits now, Heero flashed him, with some specs -- they'd never have built any small enough for their teenage selves back during the war, but nowadays... Still get cracked ribs but better than a bullet hole.

Duo thought about a wolf in a surfer-style skintight bodysuit and snickered.

"--Maxwell, your turn."

--Oh. Oops.

Interesting that they were going first, but -- oh, yeah, most of the other wolves hadn't yet figured out that they would eventually be going up the wall too, but Lombardi's Bianchi's was sniffing at the wall all nervous, remembering the last training session (she'd had to drop out when she got pregnant with her litter, but she'd had time to try the wall and freak out,) and surely there would be less of a chance of her panicking the whole mini-pack of trainees in advance if she got to see wolves go first who were totally cool with the process. At least Segura hoped so...

"Sure thing, boss." Duo took the rappelling equipment Segura was handing him and saw about putting it on Killer first, and then on himself, testing every single strap twice. One of them had to do it by the book, after all, at least today.

Boring, Killer sighed, but I will tell lavender-in-the-sun all about how boring it is.

Good boy, Duo replied, ruffling his ears, and shimmied up the wall to set up the electrical pulley.