( Chapter 13 )
"Duo?" Wufei asked tentatively, taking a slow, careful step towards the sofa. For a moment it seemed as if the braided boy hadn't heard him; then Duo wiped the tear away with one shaking hand, and held out the brush.
"...brush my hair... please?" he whispered.
Several minutes passed before Duo spoke again. As Wufei slowly pulled the brush through his hair, he gradually relaxed; his breathing evened out and some of the tension went out of his muscles. Wufei kept silent, waiting for him to settle, and pretended not to notice how often Duo wiped at his face.
Eventually, Duo whispered: "'Fei?"
"Mm?" he enquired softly, still brushing.
"Do you think... was that true? Quatre and Trowa didn't mean to... to..." Duo stuttered to a halt, then started again. "They never got my messages?"
"Quatre's never lied to me," Wufei said quietly, "and I don't think he'd start now... especially over something this important. Besides, he's a terrible actor; the only time he can fool anyone is when he's putting on his 'calm businessman' face. He can hide emotions, but he can't manufacture them... and you heard how upset he was."
"So... it was all accidents and mistakes?"
"It looks that way. I think so."
There was a long pause.
"If it was like that for them... and... Relena didn't know what her secretary was doing..." Duo swallowed. "Do you think... it was like that with Heero as well?"
"It's... very likely," Wufei said slowly. "I honestly can't imagine him doing that on purpose. Not to you."
*No matter how I feel about Yui's actions,* he thought grimly, *he wouldn't deliberately cut Duo off. He cares about him. Of course, there's still the matter of letting eight months slip by without a word. That, Yui and the others still have to answer for. Much as I'd like to, though, I'm not about to accuse Yui of things I know he wouldn't do.*
Another minute slipped by.
"I don't want to think about it," Duo said abruptly. "Not now. I... I'm too tired."
"That's all right. If you're comfortable, you can go to sleep right there. I won't stop." Wufei set the brush aside as he spoke and started running his fingers through Duo's hair once more.
*He runs and he hides,* he thought with a sad smile. *It's all right, Duo. You can come out and face it when you feel stronger.*
* * * * *
"Une?" Sally called upstairs. "Coffee's ready."
"Coming," came the reply. "Give me a moment."
Sally continued on her way into the lounge, carrying Une's mocha coffee and sipping at her own herbal tea. After a minute or so, she heard Une coming down the stairs.
"I've got to try to lower your coffee intake," Sally called out. "You know, most people can't drink it too late at night, or it stops them sleeping..."
"And drinking a minimum of one cup an hour is a Very Bad Idea, yes, I know. You've told me before," Une said calmly as she walked in. She was dressed in silk pyjamas and a warm robe, hair still damp from her shower, and carrying a large archive box.
"What's that?" Sally asked curiously.
Une flushed slightly as she set it down on the coffee table. "Souvenirs from the war... otherwise known as 'Maxwell Memorabilia'."
"He sent you more than just the roses?"
"The roses were only the beginning," Une said dryly. "In the last year of the war, I got presents for every major holiday and several minor ones... including a few I'd never heard of before."
"Go on then, open it!" Sally exclaimed, bouncing slightly with glee. "Show me! I may get jealous, though; I mean, I was on his side, and I never got anything!"
"Well," Une said, sitting down and lifting the lid of the box, "I'm sure you'll recognise this one. It wasn't actually a gift to me, but Treize-sama didn't want it, so..." She lifted out a small plastic sword with a bedraggled feather taped to the end. "I pressed one of the white roses... he sent me this little green teddy bear for Saint Patrick's Day... an orange Jack O'Lantern mug for Halloween, full of chocolates..."
"I don't see any chocolates in here," Sally teased, taking the mug and peering inside.
"Of course not," Une said loftily. "They were good chocolates. I got fluffy bunny slippers for Christmas -- yes, Sally, they're very silly bunny slippers--"
Sally nearly choked on her giggles. "It's the -- oh dear -- it's the *snicker* crossed eyes on the left one, and *snicker* the carrot cigar -- oh, my, I can see why you don't use them..."
"I use the fur-lined gloves he gave me for Saint Stephen's Day, though," Une said, mock-glaring at Sally as she carefully set the leering slippers to one side. "The ones you keep trying to borrow."
"Duo gave you those?!" Sally sat up abruptly, eyes wide.
"Oh, yes. He has very good taste, when he wants to. Of course, he didn't actually pay for any of this himself; I got this note with the gloves."
"'Hey, Une-chan,'" Sally read. "'Happy St. Stephen's Day! Sorry about the slippers, but I couldn't resist. I dare you to wear them in front of Treize. I used OZ money to pay for them, after all... I don't think OZ properly appreciates you, so I'm doing my bit to redress the balance. Love ya, Duo Maxwell.' ...When is Saint Stephen's day?"
"December twenty-sixth," Une said, taking the note back.
"Boxing Day? Why didn't he just say 'Happy Boxing Day'?"
"Because that was what I expected, I think."
"...Fair enough. What else do you have in there?"
"A lot more notes. He developed a habit, when he infiltrated bases, of leaving them stuck to doors, addressed to me. If I had rooms in the base, he'd leave them there; if not, he'd stick them to the base commandant's door. With a knife, sometimes." Une displayed half a dozen wicked little knives and a sheaf of papers.
"'Saw you on TV last night; lookin' good, babe!'" Sally read, riffling through the notes. "'Hope you liked the chocolates.' 'When are you gonna dump Treize and join me and the other good guys? Come to the Light Side, Une-chan!' 'You didn't have to hit me so hard last week...' 'You owe me a paint job, Deathscythe is actually scratched...' Um... Une? An awful lot of these end with 'love ya'..."
"If you're wondering, Sally, no. I don't think he had any sort of 'crush' on me," Une said calmly. "Bear in mind that this is the same boy who kept referring to me as 'the psycho bitch from hell', and told me to my face that he'd rather face Satan, himself, than me on a bad day. Then he asked me if I had PMS. It was rather like having a bratty little cousin; frequently infuriating, and I wanted to take him apart, but amusing at the same time."
"That's a relief." Sally abruptly sputtered, holding up a sheet of paper with a Polaroid photo stapled to it. "'But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Une-chan is the sun... nice PJs, babe!' He got a candid shot of you in your pyjamas?!"
"Standing at a window yawning, yes. I was not looking my best."
"'Say 'hi' to Treize and Sexy Zechsy for me'? SEXY ZECHSY?!"
Une laughed out loud. "I never actually passed that message along, though I admit I wondered..."
"I don't believe that boy," Sally said, shaking her head as she passed the notes back. "No, wait a minute; we're talking about Duo Maxwell, he who scalpeled my picture to the wall and drugged my goldfish. I believe it. And I'm jealous!" she exclaimed, reaching into the box. "I want this plushie dog!"
"Not a chance!" Une protested, grabbing it away from her. "That was my birthday present! I walked into my quarters and found it lying on my pillow. Don't ask me how he found out my birthday; we never found any sign that he'd hacked into my personal file."
"Maybe he e-mailed Treize and asked," Sally said half-seriously, pulling the box closer.
"Maybe," Une agreed, setting the floppy dog to one side with a surreptitious pat. "It would be very like Maxwell... and I can imagine Treize-sama telling him."
"What else have you got in-- ew! What's this?" Sally asked, holding up a large green pendant on a chain, staring at it in horrified fascination. "It's grotesque!"
"It's a tiki from New Zealand. Ugly little thing, isn't he? He rather grows on you after a while, though."
"So does athlete's foot," Sally muttered, tapping the grimacing little figure to make it spin. "What's it made of?"
"I can see that. What's the stone called?"
"Greenstone!" Une insisted. "New Zealand greenstone is a type of nephrite. Jade, Sally. It's just harder and darker than most northern-hemisphere jade."
"...Right. So, what occasion does this little horror represent?"
"February sixth, Waitangi Day. It celebrates a treaty signing, or something like that."
"Duo did find obscure holidays to celebrate, didn't he?" Sally mused, setting the tiki down with a mild shudder.
"Oh, yes. And not so obscure ones. On Bastille Day, he sent me this little miniature scythe and apologised for it not being a guillotine. Australia Day was a little chunk of red rock. For Thanksgiving, I got this." Une brandished a rubber turkey. "Valentine's Day, I got a balloon bouquet and a bag full of candy hearts. For Secretaries' Day, I got a nice pen set and a note saying, 'Please don't take the whole secretary thing as an insult. I know you're not a secretary, but unfortunately there's no such thing as Henchpersons' Day. Maybe we should start a new tradition?' For O-Bon, the Japanese day of the dead, he sent me sweet rice cakes and a little lantern on a boat; and on the Fourth of July, he shot up the base I was at with modified shells. The explosions were very pretty."
Sally laughed, delighted, as Une pulled object after object out of the box. "That's Duo, all right. What about that little stone plaque? What's that for?"
"Aztec New Year."
"I'm serious! He may have been kidding, though."
* * * * *
Wufei finished the dinner dishes and walked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands. Duo was sitting on the sofa, technically awake but nodding sleepily.
"Duo, why don't you go to bed? You look tired... and don't forget, Sally wants to give you another checkup tomorrow. If you're going to be travelling, you need to be rested."
*And the day after tomorrow, if Sally says Duo's well enough to be left on his own, I go back to work,* Wufei thought unhappily as he helped Duo stand. *I want him to get better soon... but I don't want to leave him alone all day! Especially if he's going to be worrying that I might not come back! And yet... if I do go back to work, having me come back every afternoon might eventually reassure him that I'll keep coming back. I have to go sooner or later; the only real question is, 'how soon is too soon?'*
Carefully helping Duo settle onto the futon, Wufei reached out to brush his fingers through the messy bangs, but pulled his hand back and awkwardly tugged the blankets a little higher instead. "Are you comfortable? Warm enough? I can turn the thermostat up..."
"I'm fine," Duo said quietly, almost shutting his eyes but watching Wufei through his lashes.
"Good. I'm going to have a shower before I go to sleep, okay? If you need me, just call or bang on the door."
Reluctantly, Wufei left for the bathroom.
*That was stupid,* he berated himself as he turned the water on and quickly undressed. *What if he'd misunderstood? Thought I was trying to start something? I've got to control myself better than that. I can't stroke his hair or touch him whenever I feel like it. I don't want him to get the wrong idea and feel pressured!*
Stepping into the water, he froze as another thought presented itself. *That's not the only possible misunderstanding. What if I do control myself, and I don't touch him... and he feels rejected? He could end up thinking I don't really want him around!*
*I think... that would be worse.*
"Much worse," he muttered, scrubbing at his face with wet hands. He blew water away from his lips, blinked his eyes clear, and reached for the soap as he continued.
*Duo's a very... physically affectionate person,* he thought slowly. *All through the war, if he hadn't seen us for a few days, we'd almost get tackled to the ground when he charged in for a hug. He'd ruffle Quatre's hair, flip Trowa's bangs, tug my ponytail... no matter how badly I reacted when he touched me, he never stopped. He needs to be touched when he's hurt or upset; it soothes him out of nightmares, and brushing his hair calmed him down today.*
*...Right. He needs to be touched, to reassure him that he's wanted. I can do that.*
*Purely for Duo's sake, of course.*
Somehow, he couldn't quite bring himself to believe that.
Later, clean and dry, Wufei wandered back out into the living room and reached for the neatly folded blanket that was sitting on the end of the couch; then he paused, frowning.
*I should probably just get in with Duo as soon as I'm sure he's asleep. In an hour or two, he'll almost certainly start having nightmares again; if I'm right there next to him, I'll know straight away, and I can settle him before they get too bad. If I'm out here, I'll just lie awake listening, anyway...*
*...or am I making up excuses?*
Silently, he crept to the bedroom door and eased it open, looking in at Duo's sleeping figure.
*Is this really for Duo's benefit, or do I just want to be as close to him as I can?*
Duo was lying on his back, one hand fisted around his braid, the other arm stretched out across the futon. Even while asleep, he wasn't completely relaxed; a slight frown creased his forehead, and his fingers twitched.
Wufei slowly crept closer, finally going to his knees beside the bed. Reaching out, he smoothed one finger gently across Duo's forehead; the frown melted away, and the sleeping boy sighed.
*Never mind my motives,* Wufei decided. *Never mind whether or not I want to do this. Will it be best for Duo?*
As he pulled his hand away from Duo's face, the frown returned and Duo shifted in his sleep, breath catching in his throat. "Don' go," he muttered, free hand reaching for Wufei. "Don' wanna be alone..."
Without a second thought, Wufei pulled back the covers and lay down beside Duo. As he reached out to pull Duo close, he found the braided boy already curling up around him, tucking his head in under Wufei's jaw and relaxing completely.
*...All right, I think that settles it,* Wufei thought dazedly, carefully easing his arms around Duo. *Until Duo is a little better, I can forget about sleeping on the couch.*
*I'm not going to let him find out what I'm doing, though!*
* * * * *
[Early Wednesday afternoon]
Still doing Amanda's job (and developing more respect for the woman by the day), Leah was busily bringing order out of chaos. In other words, she was tidying up the file room.
*Considering how tough Amanda would have to be to succeed in this job,* she thought grumpily, *either she's fallen victim to a new super-virus, in which case we mere mortals are doomed, or she finally got fed up and is having a quiet vacation in the Bahamas. No normal bug could possibly get her down.*
Slotting the last file back into place, she dusted off her hands and sneezed for the umpteenth time. *Don't the cleaners ever venture in here?! Are they afraid they'll get stuck putting these damn things away?!* Pulling the ever-present list out of her pocket, she scrawled a note in angry capitals.
"Oh cool, Leah, you're here," a cheerful voice said from the doorway. "Put these away for me, would you?" The smiling agent dropped his stack of files on one of the tables with a loud 'thud' and turned to go. "I've got some more back at my desk; I'll just go fetch them for you!"
"..." Leah said.
"It's really nice of you to do this," his voice floated back to her. "Should I ask around, find out if anyone else needs a hand with their filing?"
"Ohhh, no you don't... asshole! GET YOUR LAZY BUTT BACK HERE NOW!" Leah screamed at the top of her lungs, storming out after him. Framed in the doorway, she pointed an accusing finger at his back as he froze. "If you think I'm going to clean up YOUR mess, just because your parents never got around to housebreaking you, THINK AGAIN!" she roared. "This organisation does not have maids to pick up after you, idiot! We don't even have clerks! YOU are the lowest of the low, AGENT Torg, and you are NOT going to get away with pushing the boring bits of your job off on other people!
"AND THAT GOES FOR THE REST OF YOU, TOO!" She glared around at the wide-eyed Preventers in the main room. "The next time I find files dumped on the file room tables, I will NOT be putting them away. I will find out who had them last, and HUNT THEM DOWN! Have I made myself CLEAR?!"
"Yes, ma'am!" a frightened voice squeaked from the back of the room.
"GOOD! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go have a word with the cleaners while I'm in an appropriate state of mind." Leah stalked off, head high.
Lady Une's office door was open, and Leah's voice carried well. Unseen by anyone, Une got up from her chair and gave her a quiet standing ovation.
Half an hour later, a nervous group of cleaners hurried in and started to dust and vacuum the file room. Thoroughly.
*It's really easy to tell the people who usually put their own files away,* Leah thought, torn between lingering annoyance and amusement. *The agents who pick up after themselves keep smiling at me and saying 'thank you'. The ones who don't are trying not to meet my eyes. For example, these jerks.* Arms full of files again -- giving them out instead of putting them away, this time -- she swept past Ray Anders's desk and snorted softly to herself as the now-permanent little cluster of men all looked away and Anders pointedly buried his face in a file. *Then again, they could just be hoping I won't give them any more work.*
As she dropped files on various desks, Leah kept one eye on Anders and his friends. *I don't know what they're up to, but I'm sure they're not plotting to make a surprise donation to their favourite charity. Those guys don't have any higher feelings. So-- hm? What's up now?*
Anders was suddenly agitated, hissing at his friends and shooting quick glances towards the front of the room. One by one, the other men stared in that direction and then crouched lower, muttering excitedly. Curiously, Leah took a look in that direction herself.
*It's Chang! I thought he wasn't coming back in until tomorrow -- wait, who's that?* The thin figure being supported by Wufei turned towards him, and a long chestnut braid flicked into view. *Hey, that's the guy the APB was out on... Maxwell, that's it. I knew he'd been found, but I didn't know Chang was looking after him. No wonder Chang needed a few days off; his friend looks like he's in pretty bad condition...*
Absorbed in watching the two teenagers carefully move off down the corridor that led to the infirmary, Leah almost forgot to wonder about Anders's behaviour.
"See? I told you so!" Anders hissed, inwardly gloating in triumph. "Look at the poor kid! There's no way he got that thin and beat up in the four days he was missing. And look at his hand! He didn't have anything wrong with his hand when Chang brought him in on Saturday, but now it's bandaged up. That bastard isn't even waiting for him to heal before he starts hurting him again! You just wait and see. If we don't do something about this, as soon as Major Po stops calling him in for checkups Chang will really start in on him again. Are we gonna let that happen?"
"Damn, Ray," Ivan said as the other men shook their heads vehemently. "I thought you were just -- uh -- you know, kinda imagining things, but... damn! That kid can hardly walk!"
"So, are we gonna do it?" Anders prodded. "The way we discussed?"
Ivan nodded slowly. "Yeah. You're right. We gotta."
Standing at the coffee machine, Noin and Zechs stared down the corridor at Wufei and Duo's retreating backs.
"Damn," Noin whispered, shocked. "I thought... when I heard he was missing... I never imagined he was in trouble! I just thought he was plotting some fantastic prank. Probably on me," she added sourly.
Zechs nodded solemnly, raising his mug for a sip. "Same here. Makes you feel guilty, doesn't it?"
"Oh yeah. Definitely." Noin winced.
"Excuse me," Sally said politely, moving in beside them to pour herself a cup.
"Um, Major Po... you're giving Maxwell a checkup, aren't you? That's why he's here?" Noin asked tentatively; Sally nodded, savouring her first mouthful. "So, um... could you let us know how he is?"
"There is the small problem of doctor-patient confidentiality," Sally pointed out; when Noin sagged, disappointed, she relented slightly. "I won't give you any specifics, but I'll let you know in general terms how he's doing. How's that?"
"Great! Thank you, Major."
"No problem. I'll see you later, Noin..." Sally dropped her voice to a low murmur as she passed Zechs, shooting him a wicked sideways glance. "...Sexy Zechsy!"
Caught taking a mouthful, Zechs choked and nearly sprayed coffee all over the wall, *Oh god!* he thought desperately as he coughed. *Don't tell me Maxwell gave her the other disk!*
"Are you okay, Zechs?" Noin asked, helpfully thumping his back. "What happened?"
"Nothing!" he gasped hastily. "Nothing... just *kaff* went down the wrong way. Took me by surprise!"
Sally followed Wufei and Duo into the examining room, a calm smile covering her worry. *He almost looks worse! He's pale, and Wufei's nearly carrying him...* "So, how are you feeling, Duo?" she asked.
"That's fairly non-specific. Was that a 'fine' shrug, a 'not good' shrug, or what?" *Is he still not talking?*
"Like Deathscythe fell on me," Duo said quietly, a faint smile quirking one corner of his mouth.
"Oh dear," Sally said automatically, inwardly heaving a sigh of relief.
"He has been better," Wufei said sourly, one hand resting gently on Duo's shoulder. "We were behind a truck that seriously needs an overhaul at an intersection; the smoke when it accelerated made Duo start coughing."
"I see; in that case, I won't ask if your ribs hurt. How about your stomach? If you've been coughing much, your abdominal muscles probably hurt too."
Duo nodded, rolling his eyes.
"Right, then. Let's see how everything else is progressing..."
Sally kept up a flow of questions and commentary as she examined Duo, making pleased noises when she discovered that he was better than he had been. "Your general condition is improving quite nicely," she said eventually, handing him back his shirt. *And you're a lot more responsive than you were four days ago!* she thought happily. "Progress will be slow to start with, but it has started. How much of a problem is the cough?"
"It's getting better," he said quietly.
"He hardly coughed at all yesterday," Wufei added, "and he was fine today until we ran into that damned truck."
"Good! Keep up with the antibiotics, though, and don't worry too much if you lapse back for a day or two. Bronchial infections often ease off for a little while and then come back. Other than that, all I can say is 'keep doing what you're doing'. You've already gained a little weight; it will take time, but you're recovering. And you're right, Wufei, the glass cuts on that hand are healing nicely."
Sally waited until Duo was dressed again (noting with interest the frequent almost-caressing touches from Wufei as he helped), then cleared her throat. "Well, Duo, you are well enough for Wufei to come back to work, but I'm going to recommend that we take it slowly. For the next few days, I think it would be best if Wufei only worked a half-shift in the mornings; then he can go onto a short day schedule. Say, work nine to noon, take an hour for lunch at home with you, then work from one to four in the afternoon. That can continue until I'm satisfied that you're completely recovered; and I'm sure that Wufei will be staying home on his rostered days off, not treating them like a normal work day the way he usually does. Is this acceptable?"
Both boys turned to look at each other. Duo looked unhappy; Wufei looked worried.
"It's okay with me," Duo said, looking away.
"If you're sure..." Wufei said tentatively; Duo nodded, and he sighed. "All right then -- so long as Une understands that the arrangement will change if there are any problems."
"I doubt she'll argue," Sally said cheerfully. "By the way, Duo, I wanted to ask one thing. Why did you send her all those presents during the war? She's got a box full!"
"She kept them?" Duo asked, surprised.
Sally nodded. "Even that hideous little tiki-thing and the rubber turkey."
Wufei's eyes were huge; Duo shrugged. "She never looked happy," he said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "I wanted to cheer her up."
"I think you succeeded," Sally grinned.
As they were slowly making their way out, Une's door opened and she stepped out, mug in hand. "Sally, have you-- oh, good afternoon, Maxwell. Chang. What's the verdict?"
"Plan A," Sally said calmly. "Mornings, then short shifts."
Une nodded. "Excellent. Your absence left a nasty hole in our ranks, Chang, but I'm sure we can work around it again if circumstances change. I'll see you tomorrow."
Duo was staring at the bright orange, bulbous mug in Lady Une's hand; then he leaned slightly to one side and looked past her to where a floppy toy dog was sitting on top of her filing cabinet. She shrugged, a faint blush spreading across her cheekbones. "It seemed a waste to leave it all sitting in a cupboard."
A faint grin appeared on Duo's face. "See ya, Une-chan," he said, very softly.
end 'Reunion' chapter 13
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