Wufei sat down to his solitary dinner, picked up his chopsticks, and found himself staring across the table at The Picture.
*What... oh. I took it down to clean the glass last night; I must have forgotten to put it back up.* Dinner forgotten in its turn, he reached across to pick it up.
It was the only picture in his tiny apartment; Relena had taken it at the very beginning of Quatre's party celebrating the end of the war, before anyone had a chance to get drunk.
*Before Rashid started mixing those blue things,* he thought, one corner of his mouth twisting up wryly. *Before I screwed up.*
The five Gundam pilots each faced the camera in their own way. Heero was in the centre, not glaring; Relena had caught one of his rare smiles, but glares were definitely still an option. Trowa and Quatre were to the left of the picture, standing close together with their arms around each others' waists; Quatre was smiling one of his hundred-watt smiles, and Trowa was looking down at him with a gentle expression half-hidden behind his bangs. Wufei was at the extreme right, body language radiating disdain for this foolishness but his face surprisingly open, glancing sideways with his smiling mouth half-open as he made some comment. And Duo... Duo was between him and Heero, arms slung around their shoulders, eyes sparkling directly into the lens as he laughed.
Wufei sighed, tipping the frame for a better look at Duo's face.
*It's been eight months. I'm sorry... I wish I could take back what I did. I wish you'd come back.*
*I'm sure you're fine. You didn't make it through the war without being a survivor. But... are you happy? Where are you?*
*Do you still hate me?*
* * * * *
A thin figure in a ragged trench coat picked his way along the street, steeping over trash and around the huddled forms of drunks and hobos. He paused and glanced upwards, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets, as a sprinkle of smog-grey snowflakes swirled down out of the overcast sky.
As he lowered his head and stepped forwards again, a scruffy girl-child bumped into him. As she mumbled an apology and moved away, he snaked out one hand and caught her by the wrist.
"That was pathetic," he said, voice hoarse and rusty with disuse. "You're way too slow, and that pocket doesn't even have my fake wallet in it. How the hell do you expect to eat if your dip's that bad?"
As she gaped at him, too startled to even think of running, he pulled something out from under his coat and shoved it into her hand. "Get some practice, for fuck's sake."
Then he just walked off.
She blinked, confused, then looked at what he'd given her.
*Holy -- what kind of nut catches a pickpocket and then just GIVES them fifty cred?!*
He stood in a run-down hotel room, stuffing his few clothes into a battered duffle bag. Finished, he slung it over his shoulder and stared out the window, twisting the end of his braid between his fingers.
"How ya doin', 'Fei?" Duo whispered. "Still hate me?"
* * * * *
"Chang, aren't you going to lunch?"
Wufei shrugged, not looking up from his paperwork. "I want to finish this first. I'll go later."
"You've said that every day this week," Noin said, "and every single time, you worked straight through--"
He lifted his head slightly and glared at her.
"--not that it's any of my business," she said, turning away. She stalked off, muttering. "I said he was a kid three years ago, and he's still a kid now. I swear, it's like trying to get a four-year-old to eat his broccoli..."
Wufei had written two lines in blessed peace when his vidphone beeped. "Chang here," he said, not looking up.
< < Yui here, > > came the response, just as curtly. He raised an eyebrow, looking up at the screen, and discovered Heero with his eyebrow quirked. They stared at each other for a second; then both smirked and said "Hn" at the same time.
A hand smacked Heero lightly on the back of the head. < < Will you two stop mirroring each other and just talk? And no, Quatre, I am not going to wear pink, I don't care how much you like it! I'm sick of pink! > >
Heero turned to glare at her.
< < Don't you give me that 'omae o korosu' look! I swear, even if you don't shoot me one day, you'll still be the death of me... > >
Wufei's smirk widened. "More wedding plans?"
Heero rolled his eyes. < < I'm beginning to regret the day I proposed. > >
"How did she pry it out of you, anyway?"
< < I presented it to him as a mission: be my permanent bodyguard, > > Relena said, leaning into view. < < He accepted. Then I batted my eyelashes and said 'does this mean you'll protect me forever?' and when he said 'yes'... > > She shrugged.
"Ah," Wufei said with a straight face. "How traditionally -- and unromantically -- Japanese. At least he didn't ask you to cook for him for the rest of your life."
She chuckled. < < It would be a very short life if I was doing the cooking! In any case, Wufei, since my fiance could take hours to get around to the point of this call, I'll ask you. We want to ask Duo to be the best man; could you either give us his com code or ask him to call? > >
"What?" Wufei blinked, confused. "I haven't heard from Duo since he... left. I thought he was keeping in touch with you." A hollow feeling that had nothing to do with his missed lunch settled in his stomach.
Heero and Relena looked surprised. < < No -- we thought-- > >
Quatre pushed in on Heero's other side. < < What do you mean, you haven't heard from him?! > > he blurted out, looking incredulous. < < He had to be keeping in touch with you of all people! > >
"What do you mean by that?"
< < Damn it, Wufei, because he was in love with you, of course! Everybody knew! > >
"...what?!" Wufei choked out.
Quatre stared at him. < < You... didn't know? > >
"...what did you say?"
< < Oh, shit. You didn't know. > > Quatre ducked sideways, out of view. < < Trowa!>
Relena leaned forwards as Trowa came into view over Heero's shoulder. < < Wufei... you honestly didn't know? > >
He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then spoke through clenched teeth. "Relena. Could you please explain to me exactly what it is I was supposed to know? I seem to be operating without a script, here."
< < Duo was in love with you. > >
< < Yes! > >
"And everybody knew this... except me."
< < Well... apparently, yes. > >
"Nobody thought I might like to know?!"
< < I thought you did! > >
Heero broke in. < < He was afraid to tell you. He didn't know how you would react, and thought you might hate him if you found out. > >
*That's exactly what he must have thought when I walked out. And then I avoided him because I was afraid he hated me...*
*What have I done?*
He scrubbed the palm of one hand over his face, then looked back at the screen. "He... hasn't contacted anyone?"
< < He called Quatre and I once, about a fortnight after he left, > > Trowa said. < < I think he said he was in Memphis. Which Memphis, I don't know. > >
"Nothing after that?" *I thought he was just avoiding me! I didn't know I'd driven him away from all his friends!*
< < No. > >
"We have to find him."
Quatre leaned back into view. < < How fast can you get here? > >
"Which of your properties are you at? I can be on the next plane. > >
< < New York. > >
Heero stretched out a long arm and pulled his laptop over to him; a moment later, he spoke. < < There's a flight in an hour and a half. I'll book you a seat, and pick you up from the port. > > He looked up and shot a glare at Wufei.
< < We need to talk. > >
Wufei almost ran down the corridor to Lady Une's office and slammed through the door.
"I need to take some leave, starting right now."
Lady Une looked up from the file she was reading. "Good afternoon, Chang. I'm afraid I didn't quite catch that; would you mind repeating it? Slower, this time, and without the door slamming in the middle."
He flushed slightly. "I need to take indefinite leave. Now."
"Out of the question! You know how understaffed we are, and we've only been fully operational for two months. Nobody is taking leave yet."
"Fine. I quit," Wufei snarled.
She raised an eyebrow adnd put the file down. "Chang... what is so important that you have to ask for leave, and quit when it's not granted?
"Duo Maxwell is missing."
Her eyes widened. "Ah. Oh my. We can't have that. Duo Maxwell, ex-Gundam pilot, wandering around the universe unsupervised? It's a frightening thought. So. Your resignation is not accepted; this is very definitely Preventers business, and your new assignment. Use whatever resources you need... within
reason, of course."
He nodded shortly. "I'm leaving for New York in just over an hour."
"Very well. Send me reports."
After he left, Une sat for a while, staring blindly at the wall.
"Duo Maxwell on the loose... oh my."
NEAR THE END OF THE WAR
Lady Une stalked into the high-security OZ base with the base commandant fawning at her heels, babbling compliments. She cut him off with a wave of her hand.
"I'm here to take the Gundam pilot into my custody, not make a social call," she snapped as they entered the command centre. "Your report was deplorably lacking in detail. Exactly which pilot have you captured?"
"Ah, pilot 02, ma'am. Duo Maxwell, I believe his name is--"
"Maxwell?!" She spun to glare at him. "Is he under observation?"
"He is in one of our maximum-security cells, ma'am, with two guards outside the door."
"That's useless! Maxwell's only safe when he's drugged or unconscious! Get those guards inside the cell now!" As the commandant scrambled to obey, she considered for a moment, then muttered, "Actually, I wouldn't trust drugs either. They might make his exploits worse..."
"Ah, sir, the guards aren't responding... and we can't pick up anything from the monitor cameras in that area."
"Send a squad to the main cellblock immediately!"
"Too late," Une sighed.
Alarms went off all over the base.
< < Sir? The guards are inside the cell, stripped to their underwear and tied together with one of their uniforms. The other uniform is missing and the Gundam pilot is gone-- > > The voice over the intercom abruptly cut off, replaced by... music?
< < I'm a bloke,
I'm an Ocker
and I really love your knockers,
I'm a labourer by day, I piss up all me pay,
Watching footy on TV, just feed me more VB,
Just pour my beer and fetch my smokes and go away... > >
"What the hell is that?!" yelled the commandant.
"Turn. That. Off," Une snapped.
"We're trying, ma'am! We seem to be being overriden from elsewhere in the system-- um, I think it's playing on every intercom and PA system in the base!"
Another soldier performed the fastest database search he'd ever done in his life. "It seems to be a song from the end of the 20th century, called 'Bloke' -- a parody of the song 'Bitch' by Meredith Brooks. It's from Australia. There, ah, doesn't seem to be any coded significance..."
< < ...When you think
You've got me figured out
The season's already changing
(From footy to cricket!)... > >
"Coded significance?!" Lady Une snarled. "I'll tell you the coded significance! It means Maxwell's sitting somewhere in this base, thumbing his nose at us while he plays with our systems!"
That was when all the computer screens fuzzed out with static, then cleared to show rows of llittle chibi Duos and Deathscythes, performing a very silly-looking dance. The song coming from the intercom changed too, matching the rhythm of the dance.
< < Hey~y, Macarena! > >
Une spun around and headed for the door, but it opened before she got there and a soldier ran in. "Sir, we-- oh! Ma'am!" He snapped to attention and saluted.
"Never mind that! What's the matter?"
"Uh, ma'am, I'm on duty on the east gate and the intercom seems to be, uh, out of order so I came to report in person..." He trailed off, staring around as he became aware of the all-singing all-dancing chaos around him.
"Sorry, ma'am! Uh, we have delivery vans from five different pizza restaurants pulled up at the gate, all saying they have twenty pizzas they ordered. At least it was five vans when I left, there might be more now. We, uh, didn't know what to do about it -- it seems to be a legitimate order, but nobody warned us and they're demanding payment..."
Two more soldiers ran in. Lady Une held up a hand to stop them before they spoke. "I'm beginning to get the picture. Which gates are you from and how many pizza delivery trucks are there?"
They looked at each other.
"North gate, ma'am... eight trucks."
"West gate. Ten trucks and one florist's delivery man on a motorbike."
She turned to the commandant. "Should I wait for the messenger from the south gate, or don't you have one?"
"We don't have one, ma'am."
"Fortunate man." She turned and stalked for the doors.
As she swung out into the (momentarily empty) corridor with the commandant on her heels, she was already formulating new plans.
"He'll be hoping to escape in the confusion. If you send runners to the gates immediately, we may have a chance to--"
"Hey, Une baby! Long time no see!"
Running footsteps sounded behind her as she spun, grabbing for her pistol. She had a brief glimpse of the commandant falling to the floor and a lithe figure in OZ uniform leaping towards her; then long legs wrapped around her waist, trapping her arms, and Duo Maxwell grabbed her head and dove for her lips as she staggered back into the wall.
Brilliant violet eyes, sparkling with manic energy and wicked humour, winked at her from barely an inch away as he pulled back from the enthusiastic glomp/kiss; then he released her and ran, twirling the commandant's gun around one finger. "See ya! Gotta go! I am SO outta here!"
And he was around the corner and away.
Lady Une stood stunned, one hand pressed to her lips, as the commandant scrambled to his feet and yelled for reinforcements. The corridor was abruptly awash with soldiers, running in different directions and shouting questions back and forth.
Through the chaos, a single soldier walked with a giant bouquet in his arms. He stopped in front of her, saluted, and offered the flowers. "Ma'am? I'm from the west gate. The pizza delivery men all want cash on delivery, but the flowers turned out to be pre-paid, so... here. They're apparently for you."
Automatically, she accepted the bouquet and looked at it. *White roses and stephanotis. How nice... Treize-sama prefers red, but these are really quite lovely...* She smelled them, smiling bemusedly at the sweet odour, and fumbled for the card.
The message snapped her out of her shocked daze:
Sorry I had to leave in such a hurry! Maybe these will make up for it?
All my love,
Duo Maxwell. :-)
The flowers trembled in her white-knuckled grip as she crushed the card into a small ball, shaking with fury.
Une shook her head as the memory faded. "Oh, my. Duo Maxwell on the loose. The mind boggles..." She reached out and pressed a button on her intercom.
"Amanda? Put out an APB on Duo Maxwell as a missing person, please. Use Chang Wufei's personal com code as the contact number."
* * * * *
NEW YORK 'PORT
A ragged figure in a black trench coat moved through the crowds.
Duo squinted up at an illuminated signboard, twirling the end of his braid in his fingers. A blinking arrow under the words 'SHUTTLE DEPARTURES' caught his eye, and he moved off to his left.
Two minutes later, Heero and Wufei pushed their way through the crowds, coming from the right, and left through the main doors.
Heero glanced sideways at Wufei's profile as he pulled out of the carpark. The Chinese boy was staring straight ahead through the windshield, face fixed in the cold mask that Heero knew meant he was hiding strong emotions.
"What happened at the party, Wufei?"
The muscles along Wufei's jaw knotted briefly before he responded. "A... misunderstanding."
"A little more detail, if you would," Heero said coldly. "Duo was planning to stay near us all, go to school and build a real life for himself. It would take a pretty serious 'misunderstanding' to change his mind to the point where he didn't want to see any of us any more."
There was a long, painful pause.
"As I said," Wufei said in a tightly controlled voice, "there was a misunderstanding. Afterwards, I... avoided him, because I thought..." He swallowed. "I thought I had made him hate me. I now believe... that made him think I hated him."
"So he left."
"Because of you."
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you now."
"I need to apologise to him first."
Quatre opened the door to them, Trowa standing at his shoulder. "Wufei! It's good to see you face-to-face, it's been too long--"
Wufei marched straight past him. "Where can I set up my laptop?"
"Oh-- we're all in the east study. It's--"
"I know where it is." He turned a corner and was gone.
"--yes, I see you do," Quatre said ruefully. "Heero! How was the--"
Heero stalked after Wufei with his face set in its old 'stone cold killer' mask.
Quatre and Trowa looked at each other.
Relena looked up eagerly as Wufei and Heero strode in. "Welcome back! ...oh." She looked anxiously back and forth between them. "Heero...?"
"...all right. Would you like some coffee, Wufei? Quatre's butler just brought a fresh pot."
"No. Thank you." Wufei dropped his laptop on a convenient table, and looked up as Quatre and Trowa came in. "Trowa, you check spaceports, atmospheric flights and other transport records. Heero, you know all of Duo's old bank accounts; check their activity and look for any new accounts he may have started. Quatre and Relena, start your people looking and contact anyone else Duo might have called -- Hilde Schbeiker, Howard and so on. I have the clearance needed to search police and hospital records without having to hack in, so I'll take those. All right?"
Relena blinked and glanced at the other ex-Gundam pilots to see how they reacted to Wufei taking charge; she was a bit surprised when they all just nodded, but nodded in her turn and went to the vidphone.
THE NEXT DAY
Heero flicked a single sheet of printout onto the table. "That's all the activity in Duo's accounts since the end of the war. I have automated search programs looking for any new accounts he may have opened, but i don't expect to find any."
"Why not?" asked Quatre.
"Here," said Heero, leaning forwards and pointing to the top of the page, "these are the totals Duo started with."
Trowa raised an eyebrow. "Pretty impressive."
Heero snorted, a brief smile flickering across his face. "Duo and I had a competition going during the war, on who could hack the most money out of OZ accounts. I won, but it was pretty close; and we passed a fair amount along to you," he nodded at Trowa and Wufei, "but there was a hell of a lot left over. Now, here -- and here, here, and here -- these are all very large withdrawals. I tracked them, and they all pass through a few simple cutouts and then go to children's charities as anonymous donations."
"Charities? I see... that makes sense," Relena nodded, leaning forwards to look at the paper; then she gasped. "But -- that's almost all his money!"
Heero nodded grimly. "He cleaned out all his accounts one by one. The last transaction was on L3, four months ago; he drew out thirty thousand credits in cash, and closed his last account. I can't find any sign that he's started another account, hacked into any to get money, or been paid electronically by anyone. Unless he's been getting cash without going through banks, he's been living on that thirty thou ever since; and judging by what I've been able to pick up on where all these transactions originated from, he's been moving around a lot. The sort of travel he's been doing is expensive."
Trowa nodded. "He's difficult to track, but that fits in with what I've found so far."
"Hold on," Wufei interrupted. "What do you mean, 'what you've been able to pick up'? Can't you track the transactions?" He was trying hard not to think about that thirty thousand credits; it might sound like a lot, but he knew from experience how fast it could melt away while you were on the move.
"No, I can't," Heero snapped. "I can follow the money trail no problem; he wasn't trying to hide what came out of the accounts, except when he drew it out as cash. He shuffled things around just enough that the charities wouldn't have a name attached to the money when it arrived; they aren't going to look a gift horse in the mouth anyway, so they wouldn't try very hard to track it back. But what went to the accounts, the instructions to transfer the money, that I can't track.
He passed through so many cutouts and blind info drops -- it's a maze! A couple of times I think he spliced his laptop into a phone wire and hacked into his own accounts! I'd have no hope of tracking his location from these transactions even if his accounts were still active." He slapped his hand down on
the sheet of paper and glared at Wufei.
"He wasn't doing this for fun. He took more precautions than he did during the war. He wasn't doing this to hide from the charities; why bother? He doesn't have to hide from OZ any more."
Heero leaned forward over the table, cobalt blue eyes boring into Wufei's, and growled the next sentence.
"He was hiding from us."
end 'Reunion' chapter 1
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