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The Next Time Around

K. Huntsman


That's the first thing they tell you when you wake up.

You don't know how many of yourself there are, but you know they're out there. Know there're others with your face. Your body. Your voice.

You hate them.

You hate yourself.

Gods, not even to be your own individual person.

To be the clone of someone who died five years before you were even created. To be gypped of the first ten years because you're just a clone. To be programmed, mind and body, inside a tank of H2O3, for ten years... and then just disconnected. You open your eyes for the first time, and they call you "clone 123." You're everything you will ever be, because you've been programmed and hardwired that way. You have no choices. You've never had any. You never will have any.

How can anyone else ever understand that?

You open your eyes and look at the four who you've ended up working with. You laugh to yourself. You're named after numbers, all of you. One-two-three-four-five. You have a right to your name; it was the name of your "original," after all, but you wonder how many of the others do. Wufei; the first kanji of that is "five." You know because you know Japanese and the character's the same in Japanese as in Chinese. Quatre; the fourth son of his father. The only one to survive, though. Trowa, or Trois. Three in French. You doubt that's his real name, though. And Duo. Who knows why Duo's got his name, but he does.

And they're all originals.

You're the only one who's a cheap copy of a dead man.

You know Duo and Quatre, at least, wonder about you. So does that girl, Lilina. What would they say if they knew the truth? If they knew you were a clone? If they knew that you weren't even unique?

You wonder what the other 122 clones before you are doing. Are they all the same age as you, or are some older? Are there any versions of yourself that are younger? Probably. What are they all doing? What missions did they get programmed with? Will you ever run into any of them, or are they all that dead and scattered?

You want to go back and blow up the labs, but you can't. It's where you were born, even if you were born as human cattle.

Even if you have no choice.

Because you have no choice.

Your original was a pacifist; how does that fit in with the death you give, the delight you feel in it?

Maybe it's because it hurts humanity that you like it. The damned humanity that couldn't leave well enough alone but had to create you. The humanity that couldn't deal with things on its own so had to make artificial people to do its dirty work.

You hate humanity as a concept.

Certain humans aren't so bad, though you want to kill them too.

Duo, for being so friendly. How can he be that way, when it hurts you so much, reminds you of the difference between him and you? You have to believe it's because he's such an ignorant fool.

Trowa you don't know what to make of. He's a mystery, an enigma. At times you think he might be like you, but you're never sure.

Quatre, the innocent. You want to hurt him sometimes for being so blind to the pain around him. You want to make him see even more than you want to force the truth down Duo's throat.

And Wufei. You respect him, even if he's weak. Weaker than he thinks. Maybe the weakest of the five of you.

Then there's the girl. Lilina Dorian.

You don't know what to make of her.

You can't kill her like you're supposed to. Every time you try, something stays your hand. Why?! You can't understand it, not at all.

You want to tell the truth and have your world crumple around you for good. You want to retreat into the darkness that you remember before you woke up. You want to enlighten them all to the corruption in the things they fight for.

But you can't.

You have to fight for the same things too.

Until the mission is over - until there's no longer need for you - you have to hold it in. Keep it inside.

Then, let it free, and die.

Maybe if you have a soul after all, if there's mercy, you'll be released from this. Maybe you'll come back in another lifetime. Maybe you'll meet up with them again and be given a second chance.

But you can't be sure.

Can a clone have a soul?

No way of knowing.

You look back at the four of them again.

Brothers. More than the others that you've never met who're identical to you in every cell, these are your brothers. And Lilina?

Who knows.

Altogether they're not such a bad lot, any of them.

Even Duo.

Even Lilina.

You hope you do get to meet up with them in another lifetime.

You hope you get a better chance, a better deal then.


The next time around.

* * *

"Yo, Hiiro!" Duo called, weaving through the crowd and trying to catch up with Hiiro. "Hey, wait up!"

Hiiro didn't pause in step or stride, nor slow to allow the other Gundam pilot to join him. But he heard Duo's laugh as the cheerful L2 boy ran to join him.

"So, where'd'ya wanna go for lunch today?" Duo asked, grinning at him.

"We're 'working'," Hiiro replied. As far as he was concerned, "lunch" was a secondary concept. It wasn't like he hadn't gone through training that allowed him to ignore little things like hunger. And Duo'd probably starved enough times that he could stand to wait a while too.

"You have no sense of priorities!" Duo announced, grabbing at his arm and dragging Hiiro off the crowded sidewalk and to a cafe.

"What--?!" Hiiro asked, instinctively fighting the pull. "Stop it!"

"Heh," Duo laughed, "I'm making sure we eat! Two for lunch, please, miss," he told the hostess, holding up two fingers.

"You bastard..." Hiiro growled.

"Sit," Duo commanded. "We'll just eat fast. Oh, and don't worry, this's on me." He smiled up at the waitress as she handed them their menus. "Two tall ice teas to start with, please? It's a hot day."

Hiiro glared at his menu as if doing that would make Duo vanish. They were in the middle of a mission! Lunch wasn't included in the time allotment for what they had to do!

"Hmm, the cold roast beef sandwich sounds good, what do you think, Hiiro?" Duo mused, poring over his menu. He looked up. "Ara?"

He was staring over Hiiro's shoulder. Hiiro turned and followed that gaze.

"Hiiro, I didn't know you had an older brother!" Duo said.

Hiiro stared; he'd never expected to meet any of the others of himself.

"I'm Hiiro Yui number 46," the other said softly in Hiiro's voice, studying Hiiro back. "And you are?"

"Number 123," Hiiro automatically replied, wondering how much older 46 was. Logistically, not more than five years. But he was definitely older. A little taller. His voice a shade deeper. Wearing a business suit. What was his mission?

"Hiiro?" Duo's voice, his question, was secondary.

The other Hiiro Yui took a step closer, smiling. "May I join you for lunch?" he asked. "It seems we have things to discuss."


* * *

Duo stared at the two brothers. He hadn't known anything certain about Hiiro, so Hiiro having an older brother couldn't surprise him. But the two of them looked so damn much alike...!

"Hiiro never told me he had a brother," he said. "My name's Duo Maxwell; I didn't catch yours...?"

Hiiro's brother smiled. "I'm also Hiiro," he said. "Hiiro 46."

"You mean your parents named you both Hiiro?!" Duo said incredulously. "Jeez, that must have been confusing around dinner time!" He signalled the waitress. "Miss, make that three ice teas, please."

Her nod, pretty though she was, wasn't enough to make him miss the significant glance exchanged by the two Hiiros. A glance that kicked his suspicion instinct into high gear.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"Nothing," the younger brother replied, eyes hard as he met the elder's gaze, not even bothering to look at Duo.

The older Hiiro looked at Duo for a minute, then cocked his head to the side and asked something of Hiiro in a language Duo didn't understand. He'd never bothered to learn any of the Germanic languages, concentrating instead on the Asian ones. But he knew what they sounded like.

Hiiro replied in that same language, and the two started to have an argument. It was, Duo thought, a little bit like being a spectator at a tennis match, watching the words bounce back and forth between the two. The waitress arrived with their drinks while the brothers debated and he thanked her, placing an order for three different of the lunch specials, guessing that Hiiro and Hiiro would have to end up subjected to his taste after all since neither of them seemed inclined to drop whatever they were discussing.

Finally, the two seemed to settle the subject, the older Hiiro winning and the younger getting as close as he could to sulking about it. Interesting, Duo thought, that Hiiro's brother was evidently nowhere near as parsimonious with words as Hiiro. Duo leaned forward, chin on his knitted fingers, smiling pleasantly. "So," he asked, "can I ask what that was about?"

The older Hiiro paused, then murmured in a low voice, "You seem to have gotten an erroneous impression of our relationship, Maxwell-san. He and I aren't brothers; we're clones."

"NANI?!" Duo jumped to his feet, knocking his chair backwards as he looked at his Hiiro for confirmation of that fact.

Hiiro's cold eyes didn't even bother with telling him the truth. That's how he knew it was the truth. Anything else would have been a lie.

"... Holy shit..." he whispered, looking back and forth between the two identicals. "Cloning's illegal, it's been that way since they developed the technology... everyone knows that...." He blinked and let his rational mind, the militaristic side, take over. "Who cloned the two of you, then, and why?"

"Sit down," "his" Hiiro commanded. "You're making a scene and the last thing we need is to attract attention." He turned his attention to the other version of himself. "So what's your mission, 46?"

Hiiro 46 smiled. Strange to see that, Duo thought as he straightened his chair and sat back down. A Hiiro, any Hiiro, smiling?!

"I work at one of the corporations that manufactures Mobile Dolls. I imput design flaws and weaknesses into them. You, 123?"

Hiiro's eyes were ice. "I pilot a Gundam."

"So you're that one." The other Hiiro paused. "I knew it was one of us," he confided in a low tone, "just not which one. I'm in contact with five other Hiiros; we can meet so long as it isn't more than two or three of us at a time. Most of us were programmed to be saboteurs from the inside. Not you, apparently...."

"Programmed?" Duo asked, not liking the way that sounded. "Wait a minute, you people are not only cloned, but you're brainwashed as well?!"

"You could put it that way," the older Hiiro agreed, looking at him with eyes that looked too weird in that they weren't cold. "We each have missions to carry out; the scientists who created us...."

"Work hand-in-hand with the ones who built the Gundams," Duo's Hiiro said. "It's all nothing but a plot to undermine OZ and the Federation."

"And the house of cards comes falling down when the table trembles," Duo said. "Jeez, Hiiro, why didn't you tell any of us about this?!"

Hiiro looked away, at his double. "Why should I have?" he asked flatly.


* * *

Hiiro waited for the remark as they planted the time bombs. He knew Duo; he knew it was coming. He only had to wait.

"Hiiro, is that why you are the way you are?" Duo asked softly, not looking up from connecting the wires together.

"Yes." Hiiro finished his own connections and stood. "I'm done."

Duo stood. "Me too. Let's blow outta here before this place meets the sky."

Hiiro wondered what was going through the other pilot's mind as they ran, a ten-minute countdown behind them. He could guess, but couldn't know how correct he was until Duo spoke again. Shinigami's pilot was strange to him; he couldn't always understand what Duo might be thinking.

At minute four, just after they'd cleared the grounds, Duo turned his head and smiled disarmingly at Hiiro. "You and I are going to have a long talk," he announced, then kept running.

"You make saying 'good morning' into a long talk," Hiiro pointed out, then was quiet and kept running himself. He found himself wondering now how many of the other Hiiro Yuis he might have killed. If they worked for the other side... it was entirely possible he'd killed himself before now. Many himselves. More than possible; probable.

That thought kept him absorbed for a long time, until the plant was on fire and he and Duo had long since slowed to a walk.

"So, ya wanna tell me about it?" Duo had laced his fingers behind his head as they walked.

Hiiro glanced sideways at Duo. "No."

"Tough, I wanna hear."

Hiiro managed to ignore Duo's fixed stare for several more meters while thinking. Then he made the decision that the damage was already done; Hiiro 46 had told Duo what they were. "I was grown in a tank of H2O3 for ten years, programmed to speak and think by subliminal tapes. Then they woke me up and trained me to operate in society and to operate a Gundam."

"That's it?!" Duo had stopped and was staring at him. "You mean you've only been awake for five years?!"

Hiiro didn't stop. "Yes."

Duo ran a little bit to catch up to him. "So you're technically only five, then!" he said with a laugh in his voice. "Can I call you 'junior'?" He sobered after a few seconds, and spent a while in silence. Finally, he asked, "Do you want me to tell the others?"

Hiiro let a small shrug be his reply; it didn't matter to him. And even if it did, it was none of his business. It wasn't part of the mission or his orders. He'd never been specifically instructed on whether to keep his clone origin a secret or not; until told otherwise, he didn't care.

* * *

Now that Duo knew where Hiiro came from, he worried more about him than before. One thing to maybe be hiding a soft side; another to be brainwashed into not having one. He already knew that he hated the people who had done this to Hiiro. What they'd done had let their cause overrule their humanity; Duo found that unforgivable. Even while doing what they had to do, he and the others had never let that happen.

Except Hiiro.


Even Trowa's mask of detachment was only a mask; if put to it, none of them would be able to commit a moral atrocity like cloning and programming.

... No, not even Hiiro would be able to do that. Duo had seen him go into shock before when he'd done something that he felt was terribly wrong. He wouldn't be able to betray whatever self he had and pervert nature like his creators had. Hiiro was human, and had a soul, and fought for a cause he believed in, even if he still had no sense of humor.

Duo moved like lightning and had his braid held between his hands, pressing against Hiiro's throat, stopping him from walking any more.

"I always knew there was a reason I never cut my hair," he remarked in a casual tone. "Didja know that a braid can be a perfectly acceptable weapon if you want it to be?"

"So are you going to kill me?" Hiiro's lack of care echoed through his voice even more than Trowa's had ever done.

Duo grinned, though Hiiro could not see him. "Nah. Not enough people around who like half-and-half swirl ice cream to waste 'em."

"So what are you doing?"

"You know," Duo remarked, "you must really trust me not to be on your guard so much, to be caught like this. If I'd been anyone else, you'd be dead by now and your instincts don't allow that."

"I could still kill you."

Duo shrugged. "But you won't. We both know that. But you not even trying to defend yourself or kill me kinda signifies a couple things, Hiiro. It means, even if you're a jerk about not admitting it, that we're friends. And I don't give a damn about what you were 'taught' before you woke up. I say if you can have friends, if you can be a friend, which you are, then you're human, and as deserving as the rest of us. It doesn't matter that you're a clone." Duo paused. "What do you think of that?"

Hiiro was silent for a long moment. Duo wondered what was going through that head of his. Finally, Hiiro shrugged and said, "As you wish." The coldness was there, but there was something under it too. Something faint and undefined. Something anyone else might miss. But Duo, knowing what he did and listening to what he heard, caught it.

He grinned and released his hold on the braid stretching across Hiiro's neck, putting an arm across the other boy's shoulders. "Come on, let's go home," he said. "It's Quatre's turn to cook dinner tonight, and you know how good his food is!"

* * *

Hiiro didn't bother to shake off Duo's arm as he might usually have. He was confused and trying to sort his mind out didn't appear to be working well. The questions and problems kept multiplying every time he tried to answer them. Finally he asked one that seemed to be somewhere near the top of the jumbled pile. "How can you be so damn accepting?"

Duo grinned and cocked his head to one side, looking at him. "I'm a orphan thief," he replied. "You're a clone. Trowa's lying and we all know it, Quatre's a 'yasashii' rich boy, and Wufei's... well, Wufei's Wufei. We all got problems. Why should I let it bother me where you came from? It's where you are now that matters. And now... well, you're the best damn Gundam pilot among us, smart, the best hacker I've ever seen in operation, and not too bad of a guy altogether. Sans the attitude problem, that is."

Hiiro shook his head. "I really don't understand you."

Duo shrugged. "Who said ya gotta? Just let you be you and me be me, and things work themselves out."

For some reason, that logic made sense to Hiiro.


Those who have freedom, who have always had it, cannot truly appreciate it. But neither can those who have never had it, who have only dreamt about it. In a world where death and morality dance hand-in-hand, only those who seek freedom from both ends can ever truly grasp its concept....


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