Stifling a yawn behind one gloved
hand, Une paid the taxi driver and slowly made her way up the path to her front
door, following Sally. Several fat snowflakes drifted down into the bright
circle cast by the porch light, and she glanced up.
Looks like we're going to get a few more inches of snow, she mused, eyeing the faint glow of the city lights, reflecting off of the clouds overhead. At least it held off until after all of the fireworks displays were over... and without the cloud cover, it would have been much colder. There wouldn't have been nearly as many people down by the lake enjoying the--
"All right, where did you hide it?" Sally called, leaning back out the door.
Une sighed. "Coming, Sally."
"You can stay out there as long as you like; just tell me where you put the present," Sally told her, grinning. "Maybe you don't want to open it, but I do!"
"If I didn't want to open it, I wouldn't have hidden it from you," Une retorted, kicking ice and snow from her boots before stepping over the threshold. "I'm just as curious about it as you are. The only difference is that I don't want to open it early."
"Well, it's officially New Year's Day now," Sally said, pointedly checking her watch, "so it's not early any more. Give!"
After Une shed her coat and boots, and retrieved the present from the bottom of the laundry basket, they settled themselves on the sofa with the package on Une's lap.
"Maybe it's a painting," Sally guessed, poking at the flat rectangle. "Or a dartboard with our faces on it. Or--"
"We'll know in a second," Une pointed out, pulling the ribbon off. "I somehow doubt it's a dartboard, though. I don't see how that would be related to New Year's, and Duo always made sure that his 'seasonal' presents matched the holidays."
"Well, what would match New Year's? It doesn't have any sort of presents traditionally associated with it."
"Neither do Waitangi Day or Bastille Day," Une said, carefully folding the wrapping paper back and starting to unwind the layers of tissue paper underneath, "but Duo still found appropriate gifts for them. He has Wufei helping him, too, this time, so-- oh my."
"Let me see!" Sally squeaked, bouncing slightly. "Let me see! It's my present, too-- oh. Wow."
"This is beautiful," Une breathed, carefully lifting the stained glass picture out of its wrappings.
Part of the design was painted, but most of it was formed from differently shaped and coloured pieces of glass, held together by a delicate metal framework. It showed a fireworks display over a lake; the sky was full of multi-coloured firebursts, reflected in the dark water below.
"...Okay," Sally said eventually. "I admit it. That fits New Year's."
"And it must have cost a lot." Une put it down on the coffee table with exaggerated care. "Where should we display it? It should be in one of the windows that gets a lot of light, but not one we tend to open--"
"What's this?" Pulling her eyes from the picture, Sally picked a small envelope out of the tissue paper in Une's lap. "I thought we already read the note?"
"We did. It said 'don't open this yet'."
"Obviously, that one was the instructions," Sally muttered, pulling the flap open. "Let's see what this one says..."
'Dear Une and Sally,/ Hope you liked your present! We would have gotten our Gundams out of mothballs and given you real fireworks, but we figured Quatre would be a little annoyed if we shot up his party. Even with coloured shells. This will have to do as a substitute./ Maybe next year!/ - Duo and Wufei'
* * * * *
Wufei slowly drifted awake, late on New Year's morning. At first he just lay there, drowsily enjoying the sensation of Duo's sleeping form snuggled up to him and basking in the knowledge that this was one morning he didn't have to get up and go to work. Eventually, however, he was awake enough for his memories of the night before to be clear.
The last time I woke up next to Duo after necking on a balcony, I bolted in panic, he thought soberly, pulling back slightly to watch Duo's sleeping face. Well, I'm certainly not going to do anything like that this time! I can't tell myself it was only the alcohol, for one thing, and I don't have a hangover scrambling my thought processes.
I said we were starting again... and this time, I'm doing it right.
Duo sighed and shifted, screwing up his face as he rubbed at an itch on his nose; then he yawned and stretched, slowly blinking his eyes open. "Mmh... 'Fei? G'mornin'..."
"Good morning, Duo," Wufei replied. Acting on a sudden impulse-- and wanting to make this morning even more different from that earlier one-- he shifted forwards and kissed Duo gently. "Happy New Year," he added.
"Um... Happy New Year," Duo stuttered, sounding a little startled. "Um... aren't you going to be late for work?"
"Public holiday," the Chinese teen said happily, relaxing further into the futon. "Normally, I'd be rostered on, but Preventers on light duty are specifically banned from working late shifts, overtime and holidays."
"So you don't have to get up?"
"Precisely." Part of Wufei was quietly marvelling at his uncharacteristic willingness to laze around doing nothing. Most of him was far too busy appreciating the fact that he could laze around doing nothing, with Duo.
"Good," Duo whispered, curling one hand around the back of Wufei's neck and pulling him closer.
It was Wufei's turn to be startled as Duo closed his eyes and kissed him, slowly and thoroughly. He hasn't initiated anything more than a peck on the cheek before, he thought, responding automatically, and opening his mouth as he felt Duo's tongue against his lips. Is this because of last night? Maybe he wants to start over, differently, too...
So much for lying here, doing nothing --
Duo's hands were starting to wander, stroking tentatively down his back, and he forgot about being startled. He forgot about his earlier resolve not to go too far, too fast, as well, sliding his tongue into Duo's mouth as his own hand roamed downwards, fingertips dipping under the waistband of the other teen's boxers.--
--and Duo's stomach gurgled, sounding shockingly loud, startling them both out of their absorption in each other.
"Hungry?" Wufei asked breathlessly, and immediately winced at how incredibly stupid that sounded.
Duo opened his mouth to answer, then giggled helplessly as his stomach gurgled again. Then Wufei's stomach growled, and the Chinese teen couldn't hold back a snicker of his own.
I swear, the universe is plotting against us, he grumbled to himself, half-laughing. Quatre, phone calls, fireworks, our own anatomy--!
"I'll take that as a 'yes'," he said with as much dignity as he could muster, starting to disentangle himself from Duo and the bedcovers. "I think breakfast is called for, here. Would you like yours in bed?"
"As if I'm going to let you try to carry a full tray one-handed," Duo scoffed, rolling his eyes. "It's not as if I'm still sick."
"Try telling Sally that."
"No, thanks. Um... how about if I make breakfast?" he offered tentatively. "I do pretty good pancakes, and I know we've got all the ingredients."
* * * * *
That day was wonderfully peaceful; the only thing that interrupted their quiet enjoyment of each other's company was a phone call from Une and Sally, thanking them for the present. The next couple of days continued in the same vein; even with Wufei away at work during the mornings, the feeling of being on holiday persisted. They kissed and cuddled often, too, though one or the other always drew back slightly before anything more serious could happen.
The holiday ended on the fourth.
"Chang?" Leah poked her head into Wufei's sheltered little corner of the office. "Lady Une wants to see you. She said 'when you have a minute', but if I were you, I'd get in there now. She has an appointment at ten, and this guy always turns up fifteen minutes early and expects to go straight in."
"I'm not doing anything I can't interrupt, so I may as well," Wufei nodded, locking his computer down and standing up. "Thanks. I... McKenzie, is everything all right? You look... rather frazzled," he said, hastily substituting a milder description instead of 'half- dead'.
"Amanda's coming back next week, and I am trying to make sure everything's in order for her," Leah sighed, half-heartedly trying to poke straying tendrils back into the braids wrapped around her head. "Lady Une let it slip that her doctor wanted her to take at least another week off, so I don't want to dump half a dozen administrative emergencies in her lap the minute she gets back!"
"Are there half a dozen administrative emergencies to be dumped?" Wufei asked quizzically, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh yes. I fix one and another damn thing pops up," she growled, giving up on her hair with a frustrated noise.
"Let me get that," he said abruptly, and began deftly tucking the annoying strands in. "I don't think you have too much to worry about," he continued. "None of those emergencies have been getting far enough to effect the rest of us, so you must be dealing with them well, hm?" He gave her a quick, almost shy smile, tucked in one last wisp, and walked off.
Ye gods, she thought, staring after him. Chang's acting human. He noticed I wasn't myself, he was concerned, he didn't sneer and give the impression he thought I was a failure... That Maxwell kid's been good for him!
"You want me to go where?"
Une winced inwardly, hoping it didn't show. She'd known he wasn't going to take it well... "Resource satellite B-7699. It's a transfer station, handling manufactured goods moving from Earth to the colonies, and raw ore coming in from the asteroid belt to various processing facilities."
"For a week," Wufei said flatly.
"Chang, I realise that now is not a good time," she said wearily, "but we're incredibly short-handed. You are the only person we can spare who has the rank and skills needed for this job... and frankly, if you weren't on light duty at the moment, I would probably have had to assign you to something else already. I am doing my best to keep your workload to a minimum, for the sake of Duo's recovery, but this is one case where I don't have anyone else to send!"
Wufei didn't agree, but he didn't start arguing either. Une hoped that meant he was willing to be convinced, and went on.
"We have to establish a Preventers branch office on that station as soon as possible. It has a tiny permanent staff and a huge transient population, which gives smugglers the perfect environment to operate in. What little information we've been able to gather indicates that they're taking full advantage of it; everything from drugs to information to some very heavy weaponry is sold through there on a daily basis." She sighed, resisting the urge to rub at her eyes. "We were planning to move in late this year, but we weren't aware of the scope of the traffic until you-know-who gave us that disk," she added wryly. "I had to revise a lot of priorities on the basis of that information."
"So, you need to set up an office. Why am I the only person who can do it?"
"I don't need you to actually set up the office. I need you to get the station management to agree that we can set up an office, and hammer out an agreement with them that allows us the same freedom of action that we have here on Earth or the major colonies. It's a privately owned station; we have no authority there if they don't give it to us." She smiled coldly. "Of course, we could raid them for contraband, if we had concrete evidence it was there and if we had the manpower to run a raid a week, but we need a permanent presence. As to 'why you'... You have the rank to negotiate an agreement without calling me every five minutes to have clauses verified and approved. You have the skills needed, unlike Noin. You have the social rank and attitude necessary for you not to be intimidated, pushed around or ignored, unlike Barton, and, unlike Zechs, you aren't afraid to use them. You're a permanent Preventer, unlike Barton or Yui, you don't have their level of other commitments, and you aren't already on another mission. You're all I've got. Sally could do it, but she's coordinating so many things that sending her away for a week would cause complete chaos."
"Does it have to be face to face negotiations?" Wufei asked. "Why not just call them? Are they that touchy?"
Une grimaced. "No, but their communications are... sporadic, at best. That's the other problem you'll face; you'll be very lucky if you can get one call out in the week. It took me three days to get a call in, to let them know I was sending a negotiator, and I was cut off after ten minutes."
"I'll have to talk to Duo," he said abruptly, standing up. "I can't give you an answer until I know how he feels about it."
"That's fair enough, but Chang?" she called, stopping him at the door. "Threatening to resign won't get you out of this one. We really are that short-handed. I have nobody else to send. If you decide you can't go, you'll have to resign for real."
* * * * *
Something's wrong, Duo thought uneasily, watching Wufei pick at his food over lunch. He's hardly said a word, and when he does talk, his mind's not on the conversation. He isn't eating... something's really bothering him...
Duo tried to ignore the paranoid doubts in the back of his mind, but he couldn't suppress them completely. Maybe he's changed his mind. Maybe he doesn't want me here any more. Maybe he's just been letting me stay because he feels responsible for me, and that's wearing off. Maybe he's trying to work out how to tell me he wants me to leave...
He wouldn't do that! He promised. 'Fei doesn't lie. He said we were starting again.
"'Fei, is something wrong?" he blurted out eventually, huddling in on himself as Wufei looked up, startled. He's going to say it--
"I'm sorry, I haven't been good company, have I?" Wufei said sheepishly, reaching across the table to take his hand. "There is something that Une brought up today... I need to talk to you about it."
"O-okay," Duo stuttered. Une? Something at work?
"Have you finished? We could sit on the couch, get comfortable..."
Duo nodded, starting to clear the table quickly. By the time he had everything lined up on the kitchen bench and was settling gingerly onto the couch next to Wufei, he thought he had a pretty good idea of what was wrong.
"Is Une sending you somewhere?" he asked quietly, perched on the edge of the cushions with his hands clenched in his lap.
"She wants to," Wufei sighed, settling back and reaching out with his free hand. "Come here," he said gently, coaxing Duo nearer until the braided teen was cuddled against his side, head tucked under his chin. "That's better. She wants me to go to a resource satellite for a week, to negotiate with the management. If I go, I probably won't even be able to call you."
"Do you have to go?" Duo asked in a tiny voice.
"No," Wufei assured him, mentally crossing his fingers. It's true enough. I can say 'no'... and it's not as if I don't have plenty of money saved, he thought wryly. If I end up resigning, I wouldn't have to find work for a few years. He felt a guilty twinge at the thought of leaving the Preventers,-- they did need him and his abilities,-- but suppressed it ruthlessly. Duo needs me more.
"Is it dangerous?"
"Probably not. I wouldn't be investigating anything. Besides, if Une thought it was dangerous, she wouldn't send me with one hand tied," he added, wriggling the fingers of the hand that was strapped to his chest.
Duo burrowed closer, trying to stay calm. I can't be clingy. He'll get disgusted if I go all clingy. It's just for a week. I can handle a week..."S'okay," he muttered quietly. "I'll be okay."
Wufei stroked the back of Duo's neck gently. "Are you sure? I can stay if you'd prefer..."
"I'm sure," Duo said, trying to sound confident. He wasn't sure how well he'd succeeded; the little voices were starting up again...
He's going to leave again. He's going to leave me. Maybe this time it's just for a week, but sooner or later he'll leave for good. Why not? Why would he want to stay? I don't have anything to offer him.
He left once before, didn't he?
* * * * *
A week later, Duo drove Wufei to the
'port in the Blazer. Wufei was intensely uncomfortable, both mentally and
physically, and trying not to show it. Mentally, because despite Duo's attempts
to put on a cheerful face, he knew the braided ex-pilot was miserably unhappy.
Physically, because Sally had taken the strapping off his arm and shoulder just
the day before, and the weakened muscles hurt.
I may actually leave it in the sling as much as she wants me to,he thought, kneading his biceps surreptitiously with his other hand. I wouldn't be having nearly as much trouble if she'd let me get out of the damned bandages earlier!*
...well, I wouldn't be having this much trouble
now, he admitted to himself. I would merely have gotten it over
with before today.
It was early enough in the morning that only a faint lightening of the sky to the east indicated the approaching dawn, and the streetlights were on. Turning slightly towards Duo, he watched as the passing lights alternately illuminated his face and silhouetted him.
He won't admit it, but he really doesn't want me to go, he thought sadly. He's got his expression under control, but the muscles around his mouth and eyes are too tight. I saw enough genuine smiles from him before this mission came up that I can tell the difference. I don't want to leave either, but... he says he'll be okay, and I have to trust him. It's the same as when I went back to work for the first time after I brought him home. I can tell him 'I'll come back' until I'm blue in the face, but part of him won't be able to believe it until I do it.
I can't just go, though. I have to do something to give him more confidence in me, or he won't be able to handle this week.
They didn't speak much, sitting in the waiting area, holding hands. Wufei was biting his tongue, forcing himself not to remind Duo to eat, to take his medicine, to look after himself, to sleep, to call people if he needed help... Sally gave him all the advice necessary yesterday, he told himself firmly. I can't act as if I think he'll fall apart without me there to look after him! He's not helpless. He's been looking after me as much as I've been looking after him, since I got hurt...
< < Final call for shuttle flight JB73, > > came over the speaker system. < < Could all passengers who have not yet boarded please proceed to gate nine. Shuttle flight JB73, final call... > >
"You'd better go," Duo said quietly, managing a half-smile. "Une'll kill you if you miss it."
"And leave herself even more short-handed?" Wufei joked. "She's more likely to sentence me to filing duties, or training raw recruits."
"Ah. The traditional fate worse than death."
There was an awkward silence with Duo looking everywhere except at Wufei's face, and Wufei trying desperately to think of something, anything, he could do to make Duo feel better.
"You'd better go," Duo repeated, swallowing past the lump in his throat.
I'm going to have to say it sometime, Wufei decided abruptly. I've been telling myself I'd do it when he got better, but... he needs to hear this. I need to say this!
"Wo ai ni," he said softly, taking Duo's face between his hands and making him meet his eyes. He kissed him gently, lingering, ignoring a surprised laugh and a wolf-whistle from somewhere off to the side.
"I love you, Duo," he whispered, pulling back just far enough to speak; then he stepped back, stroking fingertips gently down the line of his jaw as he released him and walked through the gate, leaving Duo staring wide-eyed after him.
* * * * *
He left. He's gone. He left me behind...
He said he loved me.
He might not come back. Anything could happen.
'Fei doesn't lie.
He could meet someone else. He could get tired of having me around...
'Fei loves me.
The nagging little voices fell
silent at last.
* * * * *
Duo was never quite sure how he got back to the apartment. He drove, obviously, because the Blazer was back in the right parking spot, but he couldn't remember the trip. He spent the rest of the morning in a blissful haze, replaying Wufei's words over and over in his head. Even after the first flash of joy faded and the nagging doubts and fears began creeping back, that memory was a shield, stopping him from falling into depression.
He didn't feel like going anywhere or calling anyone. The apartment seemed cold and empty without Wufei, but nowhere else was going to be any better. Besides, Wufei might be able to get a call through, once he arrived on the station, despite their bad communications... so when the vidphone rang, just after two PM, Duo flung himself across the room and hit 'call accept' before the first ring tone stopped.
On screen, Une blinked in mild surprise. < < Good afternoon, Maxwell. I thought I'd call and-- ah-- ask if you needed anything. Sally has to run a few errands on her way home; she said one or two more wouldn't be a problem. > >
"I'm fine," he said automatically. "We went shopping yesterday."
< < Well... all right then, > > she said, a little awkwardly. < < If you think of anything, though, don't hesitate to call one of us. Ah, do you need our numbers? > >
Duo held up a good-sized piece of paper, covered with phone numbers. "And Mrs. P is just down the hall," he said quietly, almost smiling. "I think I can manage."
< < Yes, well, I should have guessed that Chang would remember that sort of thing, > > Une muttered. < < I won't keep you; I just wanted to make sure... I wouldn't have sent him if I'd had anyone else, > > she added abruptly. < < Goodbye, Maxwell. > > *Click*
That night, Duo slept curled around Wufei's pillow, trying to pretend that he wasn't alone in bed. He had nightmares again, and without Wufei there to soothe them away, for the first time in weeks he woke up shaking. Awake, he could tell himself ''Fei loves me', but that defense didn't work against the dreams.
* * * * *
"Do you think it's too early to call Duo?" Quatre asked, eyeing the clock doubtfully.
"Ten o'clock? I doubt it," Trowa replied.
"Well, he might be sleeping in... I don't want to risk waking him up." The blond teen hesitated a moment longer, then took a deep breath and typed in the number. "If he is asleep, I'll apologise," he muttered, tapping his fingers as it rang.
< < Chang residence, > > Wufei's recorded voice said brusquely from the blank screen. < < Leave a message. > >
"...Duo?" Quatre said doubtfully. "Are you there?"
"I guess not. Um, I'm just calling to see if there's anything you need. Call me back, okay?"
"Preventers, Une speaking."
< < Lady Une, have you spoken to Duo since Wufei left yesterday? > >
Une blinked, glancing up from her paperwork. "Winner? Yes, I called him yesterday. He seemed fine... why?"
< < I tried to call him a couple of hours ago, and got Wufei's voice mail, > > Quatre told her, looking worried. Trowa could be seen at the edge of the screen, leaning on the wall behind him. < < I left a message; I thought maybe he was in the shower, or had gone out for brunch, but... well, he hasn't called back. I tried calling again, just now, and got the voicemail again. > >
"I can see why that would worry you, but-- hold on, I have another call," Une said, spotting the blinking red 'PRIORITY' light in the corner of her screen. A couple of button pushes later, Quatre was on hold and she accepted the new call.
"Une speaking-- ah, good morning, Minister Peacecraft."
< < Lady Une, good morning, > > Relena said, polite but seeming tense. < < I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm concerned about Duo Maxwell-- > >
"You tried to call him this morning and got Chang's voicemail?"
< < ...Yes. How did you know? > >
"You're not the only one," Une said dryly, switching over to a conference call. And there's Yui lurking in the background... Perhaps I should get Sally in to stand behind me, to complete the set? As the picture on the screen split and Quatre reappeared, she sat back, fidgeting with her pen. "All right, so Du-- Maxwell isn't answering the phone," she said, trying to stay professionally calm. "What if he's just out shopping?" But he said he didn't need anything...
< < I realise we could be overreacting, > > Quatre said earnestly, < < but I really don't want to take any chances with Duo's well being. He isn't completely recovered yet, we know that much. > >
Relena nodded; behind her, Heero shifted uncomfortably.
"So what do you suggest we do? Go over there and break in?"
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER
"We're going to look very stupid if we kick the door in just as Maxwell comes back from the laundry," Une grumbled.
"That's why I brought these," Heero said, crouching down in front of the apartment door and pulling out a set of lockpicks.
Relena sighed and gently pulled him away. "Let's try the legal way first, shall we?" she said, knocking firmly.
"Your turn," she told him, pushing him back towards the lock.
"I won't say 'my pleasure'," he said grimly, inserting a pick.
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