( Chapter 15 )
Wufei hoped he had successfully concealed the flash of panic he felt at those words. *What do I tell them? What don't I tell them?!* He cleared his throat. "All right... tell me what you want to know. I may or may not answer."
Heero got in first. "I want to know about the shuttle accident. I want to know what you meant when you said 'Duo had a bad night'. What happened to all his stuff? Why--"
"Heero? One at a time?" Relena said gently.
"...Right. Sorry." Heero sat back, simmering.
Wufei raised an eyebrow at the apology, but didn't say anything out loud. *I don't think I've ever heard Yui apologise before,* he thought. *...I wonder if Duo has?*
"I would like to find out more about the shuttle accident, too," Quatre said. "Duo mentioned it in one of the e-mails we found, but didn't give many details... except that that was when he lost his laptop. Was he actually in danger?"
Wufei's mouth twisted. "Oh, yes. I looked up all the shuttle accidents that happened around the time Duo mentioned, and only one fit his description. Shuttle NJ812 from L3 to Earth, on August the eighteenth."
Relena gasped. "I remember that! But... but his e-mail only mentioned it in passing. The people on that shuttle were nearly killed! They were losing air and had to re-enter the atmosphere faster than was safe, they lost a quarter of their heat shield... half the passengers were hospitalised for anoxia and heat stress!"
Heero swallowed and clenched his fists under the table; Quatre paled. "We... we nearly lost him and never knew it?" he asked, horrified.
Trowa's eyes were wide. "The e-mail he sent us did say the shuttle almost went down... but the way he put it, it sounded like a joke. He went straight on to griping about having to use an internet cafe." He swallowed, then continued, almost in a whisper. "How many times did we almost lose him?"
Wufei shrugged. "He didn't say whether or not he was injured. I looked up the passenger and casualty lists, but that didn't help; whatever alias Duo was using, it wasn't one I recognised. If it's any consolation, I'm not surprised you didn't realise it was that bad... when he told me about it, he just said 'cargo accident'. He didn't care that he'd almost died. The only thing that mattered was that he'd lost his laptop, so he couldn't hack into the systems at the Foreign Ministry and WEI to bypass all the secretaries and contact you directly."
Everyone winced. Quatre groped for Trowa's hand under the table; Relena blinked quickly, trying to clear her vision as tears began to spill down her cheeks.
"As for how many times we nearly lost him, I think he was almost run over once. His bag was run over in a carpark, at least, and I doubt he was far from it at the time. And if we hadn't found him when we did..." Wufei stopped, swallowing and looking away.
Heero pinched the bridge of his nose, blinking fiercely, and cleared his throat. His voice was suspiciously rough when he spoke again. "What... what about the rest of his things? His CDs and player... he had more clothes..."
"He probably lost a lot of stuff along with the laptop," Wufei replied quietly. "Half his CDs were broken when his bag was run over. The rest were stolen from a hotel room, along with his player. All that money he had... he gave it away, to charities and people on the street. He said... when he told me about it... he said 'they deserved it'. That..." His voice broke, and he had to pause.
"That says so much about his state of mind. The money he got from Captain May... He gave his last fifty credits to those kids when he was half starved and ill, because he thought they deserved it more than he did. He thought losing touch with all his friends was somehow his fault. He--" Wufei swallowed hard. "Duo actually thinks he must have done something to deserve every bad thing in his life."
"But... but he didn't even have his cross," Heero choked out desperately. "He wouldn't-- did... did he even give that away?! It-- it can't have gotten so bad that he would even give that away!"
"He was mugged," Wufei said flatly, closing his eyes. "The day before we found him. He didn't have anything else of value, so they took the cross. Damn it, Yui," he burst out angrily, opening his eyes to glare, "of course he wouldn't give it away! Did you think he got three cracked ribs and all those bruises by accident?! Maybe he walked into a door? No! They beat him up because he tried to fight them even though he was that sick and weak!"
Heero was shaking. "Who?" he whispered. "Who did it?"
"Some gang in that area of L2," Wufei snapped. "Forgive me for not getting mug shots and names!" He suddenly shoved angrily at the table wedging his chair against the wall, starting to stand up. "Move this thing, damn it!"
Wufei struggled out from behind the table and began to pace, running shaking hands back over his hair to tug at his short ponytail. Behind his back, Heero and Trowa exchanged a wordless glance. Trowa raised an eyebrow, face set and hard; Heero was white and almost crying, but managed a firm nod back.
"All right, my turn," Wufei said abruptly, still pacing. "I've got a question. Why... why," he demanded, wheeling to point accusingly at Heero, "did you change all your contact details? All of them, all at the same time! You left no way for Duo to contact you except through Relena's office, and we know how successful that was!"
Carried away by emotion, angry on Duo's behalf and exhausted from lack of sleep, Wufei went on without waiting for a reply, saying far more than he'd intended to. "Of all the things that happened to Duo, that hurt the most. I don't think even losing his cross hurt him as badly; by the time that happened, it was just icing on the cake. The one person he needed the most cut him off without a word. The one person he thought wouldn't abandon him, did. Just thinking about you hurts! He got up and walked out of the room when I was talking to you on the phone! He has nightmares every night now, and sometimes he calls out in his sleep, asking why you left him. How could you?! Why?!"
"Duo could always find me," Heero whispered brokenly, closing his eyes as tears rolled down his cheeks. "Always. Even when I was trying not to be found... if he wanted to, he just turned up, or I'd get a call... I never even thought about it. He never had a problem contacting me before. I never considered that that might change..."
"Obviously," Wufei snarled. "He had resources during the war that he doesn't have now, Yui; if you'd thought for a second, you would've realised that!"
"There was a reason behind it, Wufei," Relena broke in defensively. "A reporter bribed someone in my office and got all of Heero's contact information -- all of it, all of his numbers, his e-mail and his home address. He was one of those awful tabloid reporters, the ones even my press liaison dreads because they ask questions that you can't answer neutrally. It's amazing how even the most innocent statement can be twisted into something disgusting... He was calling and e-mailing twenty times a day to demand information on Heero's relationship with me, making the most awful insinuations, turning up on Heero's doorstep with a photographer..." She winced, reaching out to rest a gentle hand on Heero's back. "I asked Heero to try to ignore him. If you give those people anything to work with, they make your life a thousand times worse--"
"I wanted to make him eat his fucking recorder," Heero muttered hoarsely, wiping at his face without much effect.
"--and if you threaten or harm them, they publish it and make it sound like they only asked one polite question and you threatened to burn them alive while drinking babies' blood from a pensioner's skull," she finished tiredly.
"That's... a very vivid image, Relena," Quatre said, looking slightly sick.
"I've had extensive experience with the type," Relena said, making a sour face. "I have many more vivid images that I thought up while smiling sweetly at someone who just grossly insulted me. I don't plan to share any more, don't worry."
"Thank you," Quatre muttered faintly, unconsciously rubbing at his chest. "I know the type, but I don't think my experiences with them have been quite as bad..."
Relena winced again, hand moving in soothing circles over Heero's shoulders. "Some of his... speculations... were extremely embarrassing. So long as he didn't actually publish any of them, it seemed best to try to ignore him; if we'd tried to take legal action against him for harassment, we would have had to explain why it was more than journalistic privilege could cover. Even in closed hearings, something always leaks out about court cases... well." She shook herself, returning to the main thread of her story.
"Anyway, he did eventually give up, but either he held a grudge against Heero for stonewalling him, or he wanted to get something for all his trouble. He sold the contact details to every tabloid reporter, sensationalist news program, and scurrilous freelance reporter he could. Heero was getting hundreds of phone calls and e-mails a day, his neighbours were being harassed for information, his landlord threatened to evict him because there was a permanent group of at least a dozen reporters lying in wait outside his apartment building and pouncing on anyone who looked even remotely like him... so he moved, and got a new e-mail address and unlisted phone numbers." Relena sighed. "I never thought it would cause problems with Duo, either. After all," her voice grew bitter, "there were so many other ways Duo could get in touch... Wufei, I'm surprised you didn't already know about this! We managed to keep it out of the mainstream news programs -- my press liaison called in a lot of favours -- but it was mentioned in the tabloids quite a few times."
Quatre nodded. "We use a media monitor service to find news items about us or people we know; it turned up in the clippings."
"I don't read tabloids," Wufei said coldly, "I don't hire media monitors, and nobody told me this was happening."
"We assumed you knew," Trowa said quietly.
Wufei swore viciously in Chinese. "Ta ma de! Everybody assumes too much! I assumed Duo was in touch with you, you assumed he was in touch with me, everyone assumed he could contact us whenever he wanted! Can we stop now?!" Taking a deep breath, he rubbed at his face and continued in a softer tone. "During the war, we never assumed everyone had all the information they needed to complete their mission. Were our missions really that much more important to us than each other?"
Nobody answered; he sighed, waving one hand vaguely as if to dismiss the question, then let it drop to his side.
"I... can understand why you did what you did," he said slowly, "but... I don't know if Duo will, at least to begin with. He knows about Taarnby and your secretary, but... he's not ready to think about the subject rationally. It's going to take time. He--"
Startled, Wufei glanced at his watch. "I've got to go; I told Duo I'd be back at a quarter past twelve, and I am not going to be late!"
He walked out without another word.
There was a long pause as the other four teenagers stared down at their hands or at the ceiling, reluctant to be the first to speak.
Finally, Relena cleared her throat and stood up. "Well," she said awkwardly, "we wanted answers and we got them. I think... all we can do for now is wait."
"Until Duo is better?" Quatre asked.
"Until he's ready to think about what happened, and decide whether or not he can forgive us."
Quatre swallowed hard, blinking. "It's not going to be easy, just sitting back and waiting..."
"There's plenty we can do while we wait," Trowa said abruptly, standing up and holding a hand out to Quatre. "Don't forget Taarnby."
"True," the blond boy agreed, eyes glittering briefly.
"I'm not finished with Marie," Relena said quietly.
"And I'm sure Heero and I can think of something to occupy our time," Trowa finished.
Heero nodded, looking up, cold mask firmly back in place. "I'll book shuttle seats."
"I'll be ready when you are."
Relena looked from one to the other, confused. "But... where are you going?"
Her fiance smirked, getting up. "Guess."
"...oh. Oh, good!"
Trowa flicked his cell phone open and hit a speed-dial button as he moved towards the door. "...Ninke, hello. ...Yes. I want you to get me some information. It doesn't exactly come under the heading of 'WEI business', but I'm sure you'll be able to track it down..."
* * * * *
Huddled under the covers and clutching his braid, Duo almost didn't blink as he watched the small digital clock that sat on the floor next to the futon.
< < 12:02 > >
< < 12:03 > >
< < 12:04 > >
*He said 'about quarter past',* Duo thought, glancing towards the bedroom door and shifting slightly. *Not long.* He looked back at the clock.
< < 12:05 > >
*He could be a little bit late... I shouldn't worry if he is. He said 'about', not 'before'. There might be traffic. If he's a few minutes late, I'm not going to be stupid about it. It'd upset 'Fei if he came home a couple of minutes late and found me panicking...*
< < 12:06 > >
*He could be early.*
Duo pushed the covers back and stood up.
At precisely 12:14, Wufei pulled into his parking spot and turned off the Blazer's engine. *I hope Duo didn't worry too much,* he thought, climbing out and slamming the door. *I didn't call, in case he was asleep. Maybe I should have...*
Automatically glancing up towards his apartment as he turned towards the entrance, Wufei stopped dead in his tracks.
Duo was standing at the window looking down at him, braid clutched in both hands. As Wufei watched, wide-eyed, he lifted one hand in a tiny wave, then moved back into the apartment.
Wufei bolted for the door.
*Has he been standing there the whole time I was gone?!* he thought incredulously as he took the stairs three at a time. *He was in exactly that position when I left! It's been three and a half hours... it's cold and drafty by that window... is he all right? He shouldn't be standing up for that long!*
Duo opened the apartment door and peered out into the hallway as Wufei emerged from the stairwell; the Chinese boy relaxed a little as he saw that Duo didn't look any worse than that morning, but wasn't entirely reassured. "Are you all right?" he asked anxiously as he closed the door behind him, reaching out to brush gentle fingertips over Duo's cheek. "Were you standing there all morning?"
"No..." Duo blinked at him, looking a little surprised. "I was in bed. I knew you were due back now, so..." He shrugged.
Wufei sighed in relief, hand cupping Duo's cheek for a moment before slipping away. "Sorry. I saw you at the window, and... never mind. Are you hungry? Did you eat anything?"
Duo shrugged, then shook his head, looking away.
"Okay then; I'll get lunch. Is there anything in particular you want?"
After lunch, as he was clearing away the dishes, Wufei looked at Duo and frowned, concerned. "You look tired... would you like a nap?"
"You look pretty tired, too," Duo said quietly. "Maybe you should have a nap."
"I'm fine, really," Wufei said quickly. *The last thing I want is for Duo to worry about me!* "I just didn't sleep very well last night."
"That sofa's not long enough," he said abruptly... almost accusingly.
*Oh, hell. I have got to stop blurting out the first thing that comes to mind! He thinks I've been sleeping on the sofa -- he'll blame himself for my not sleeping, because he's using the bed--* "It's fine, really!" Wufei insisted, trying desperately to think of a reason for insomnia that Duo couldn't blame himself for. "I just-- uh--"
"I'll nap on the sofa," Duo said stubbornly, getting up and walking over there. "I fold up better than you do. You go nap on the futon."
"Duo, no! I'll be fine on the sofa-- Duo!"
"I'm asleep," the braided boy announced, curling up on the sofa and pulling the blanket over him. "Go away."
One violet eye opened and glared at him, then closed again. "Go to bed, 'Fei."
Wufei slumped, defeated. "All right! I will, just this once. If you need anything, call or come get me, okay?"
"Sure," Duo muttered, eyes still closed. "Go sleep."
Wufei went, but didn't sleep... yet. He took his time over getting changed into a T-shirt and sweat pants, then sat cross-legged on the floor by the bedroom door, listening.
Nothing. He couldn't even hear Duo's breathing over the soft sounds of traffic and birds from outside.
*Not yet,* he thought, checking the clock and smothering a yawn behind his hand. *He won't be asleep yet... or if he is, he'll wake up as soon as he hears me. I need to wait until he should be really asleep...*
When Wufei finally crept out of the bedroom to check on Duo, he was asleep, breathing softly and evenly. Wufei stood by the sofa for a long minute, looking down at him.
*I could probably pick him up and move him to the bed without waking him,* he thought eventually, reaching down to brush his fingers through the messy fringe. *When he's deeply asleep, I think I could do almost anything without waking him...* He pulled away and turned to go back into the bedroom, sighing. *No. I said I'd sleep on the futon this time; if I go back on that, I'll just make him really upset with me.*
*He's sleeping peacefully. Now I can sleep.*
Half an hour later, Duo's breathing changed as he began to dream. He didn't cry out or even whimper; he just curled into a tighter ball under the blanket and shivered.
*...Where'd everybody go?*
"Heero? You there? I can't see..."
A soft sound came from somewhere nearby; a scuff of shoes across rough ground, a rustle as something small was kicked away.
"Heero? That you?"
Duo strained to see something, anything, in the blackness; then a familiar voice spoke coldly, shockingly close.
"He hasn't got anything we want."
A sudden yank at his neck, a stinging pain as the chain broke and pulled away--
Duo jerked awake gasping, clutching at his aching ribs. "It was just a dream," he whispered, eyes darting around the room. "Just a dream. It didn't happen like that..."
Clutching the pillow to his chest, blanket wrapped around him like a cloak, he crept into the bedroom and crouched by the futon, staring at Wufei's sleeping form.
After a long minute, he sighed very quietly and curled up on the floor next to the bed.
A soft cough nearby brought Wufei sluggishly awake, reaching automatically for Duo. "'s all right," he mumbled, hand patting vaguely over the blankets to his left. "'s okay... jus' breathe..."
The cough came again, from his right, and he blinked his eyes open, frowning blearily up at the ceiling. *What's Duo doing over there? ...wait a moment, wasn't he out on the couch?*
Struggling up out of the blankets, Wufei looked to his right. Duo was curled up on the floor between the futon and the chest of drawers, huddled under a single blanket and shivering in his sleep; as Wufei reached out to him, he grimaced and coughed again, muttering something incomprehensible before burrowing his face into his pillow.
"Duo? Duo, what are you doing there -- you're freezing!" Wufei exclaimed as he touched the shivering boy. "Are you all right?! Wake up!"
"Mmnh?" Duo pushed himself up onto his elbows, blinking at Wufei.
"You'll make yourself worse! Quick, get into bed where it's warm. What were you doing?" Wufei scrambled off the futon and soon had Duo tucked up in the warm hollow his body had left. "If you wanted something, why didn't you wake me up?"
Duo wouldn't look at him, apparently fascinated by a flaw in the weave of the sheet. "Didn't want anything," he muttered, picking at it with a fingernail.
*...so why were you lying on the floor?* Wufei thought, confused.
A few more moments of thought gave him a possible answer. *If he woke up and wanted reassurance, he wouldn't just climb in with me... he'd be afraid that I'd wake up and be angry. And he wouldn't want to tell me if he thought I'd react badly to the reason... if I thought it was foolish, or weak...*
"Did you have a nightmare, Duo?"
Duo flinched, shoulders drawing up defensively. The flaw in the sheet suddenly required an even closer examination.
"It's all right," Wufei said seriously, lifting Duo's chin and making him meet his eyes. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. We all have nightmares sometimes. I still have nightmares, about... the war, and... other things..."
"I'm not going to tell you to pull yourself together, or anything stupid like that," he continued hastily, sliding his hand up to cup Duo's cheek; he almost lost track of what he was saying, looking into wide violet eyes, but managed to stay focused. "It's not something you can control. But... if you ever want to talk, or just have company... it's okay. You can wake me up, or-- or whatever. All right? I won't mind, I promise. I would rather you woke me up, instead of trying to stick it out on your own."
Duo nodded slightly, then closed his eyes and nestled back into the pillow.
* * * * *
For Wufei, the next couple of days seemed to be repeats of Thursday... except for a few very important differences. He wasn't waylaid at his desk by ex-Gundam pilots demanding situation updates, for example, and he managed to conceal his continuing fatigue. As a result, Duo didn't force him into any more naps on the futon, which meant there was no possibility of finding him shivering on the floor.
Duo kept having nightmares and clinging to Wufei when he tried to sneak out of bed.
Wufei kept sneaking into bed with Duo to soothe his nightmares, getting almost no sleep and having to pry himself loose at six A.M., terrified that Duo would wake up and find out what he was doing.
Leah kept threatening people, with varying results. Wufei was rather impressed by the way she never repeated herself; he was tiredly amused when she discovered a stash of files hidden under an unused desk and reached new heights of inventiveness, adding 'boiling in oil' and 'being nibbled to death by rats' to her repertoire.
And Duo was always waiting at the window when Wufei came home.
Sunday was Wufei's day off; he didn't dare sleep late, in case Duo woke up first, but he dozed for a couple of hours on the sofa before Duo got up. Sally had requested another checkup; when he took Duo in, she wasn't as pleased with his progress as before, but was still cautiously optimistic.
"You will have periods where you don't improve much, or don't improve at all," she explained. "You can expect to have the occasional relapse, too; as long as they're only minor, they shouldn't be anything to worry about. Wufei, I think you can stay on mornings only for the next week; I'd like to see you two again on... let's see... next Tuesday, that's the day after Christmas. Is that all right?"
"Yes, thank you," Wufei nodded; Duo was silent.
In the Blazer, on the way home, he spoke up quietly. "I'm sorry."
Wufei shot him a quick sideways glance, genuinely puzzled. "What for?"
"Not getting well faster. Being a bother..."
"We knew when this started that it would take a while," Wufei pointed out, reaching across to squeeze his hand reassuringly. "I don't mind. And you're not a bother at all."
Duo didn't look convinced; Wufei tried another angle.
"Relena, now... looking after her would be a bother," he said, returning Duo's hand to his knee with a gentle pat. "I'd have aides and security guards and secretaries tromping in and out all day. Politicians. Reporters hiring cherry-pickers and ladder trucks to get up to my window, trying to get a photo of the Queen of the World on her sickbed. I'd hate that.
"Heero would be even worse." Out of the corner of his eye, Wufei saw Duo stiffen, but kept going. *You've got to think of him sometime, Duo...* "Relena would insist on staying by his side, so I'd get the whole circus that comes with her; the only difference would be that the reporters would be trying for a photo of the Queen of the World's rumoured lover on his sickbed. Relena might also, in a moment of insanity, attempt to cook for him, which would destroy my kitchen. I'm sure Heero would be a terrible patient, as usual, and any virus that would lay him low would probably infect anyone in a ten-mile radius.
"Quatre would be marginally better, I suppose," he continued, pulling out to pass a truck. "Trowa and the Manguanacs would be hovering. At least Quatre's a good patient, and Trowa can cook... It would be worse if Trowa were the ill one. The Manguanacs would still hover, because they go wherever Quatre goes, and Quatre can't cook! Catherine would be sure to turn up, probably bringing half the circus with her, and I draw the line at having a lion or two making sickbed visits.
"I'd simply refuse to look after Sally," Wufei went on, sneaking another sideways glance. Was that a trace of a smile...? "The woman is a doctor, and she's bossy. Everyone knows that doctors make the worst patients. She'd be forever telling me I was doing it all wrong. I'd probably get daily lectures on the proper way to shake down a thermometer... trust me, Duo, you don't even come close to being a bother!"
It was a smile.
At breakfast on Monday, things were looking better.
"Duo, I need to go shopping for a few things. It would be simplest for me to get them on the way back from work... but I don't know how long it will take me, so I can't make any promises about when I'll be home. I don't think it will take any more than an hour, but I can't guarantee it. Is... is that okay?"
Duo looked worried for a moment; then he nodded. "It's all right."
Wufei smiled in relief, stroking a hand down Duo's braid as he passed behind him on his way to the sink. "Thanks." *He must be getting more confident that I'll keep coming back... and this means I can get his Christmas present without him finding out! One of those little live potted Christmas trees, too...*
At one P.M., however, when Wufei arrived back home, he knew something was wrong as soon as he looked up at the window.
Duo wasn't standing there waiting for him.
*It doesn't have to mean anything,* he thought as he ran up the stairs, trying to convince himself. *He could be asleep. He could be feeling secure enough not to watch. He doesn't have to hover at the window looking for me... He didn't know exactly what time I'd be home today. He could just be in the bathroom, damn it!
Wufei felt a moment's relief as he stepped into the apartment and saw Duo curled up on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket; but it faded quickly as Duo didn't react to his presence.
"Duo?" he asked anxiously, pulling the blanket away from his face.
"'Fei?" Duo said groggily, face flushed. "You home 'lready? I di'n't think you--" He was cut off by a violent coughing fit.
"Hell," Wufei swore fervently, supporting the braided boy as the coughing fit went on and on. He could feel the heat of Duo's fever even through the blanket.
"Oh, hell. Hold on, Duo," he said desperately, rubbing Duo's back and feeling useless. "I'm taking you to Sally..."
end 'Reunion' chapter 15
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