( Chapter 16 )
"It's all right, Wufei," Sally said calmly, reading Duo's temperature off the digital thermometer and making a note.
"All right?! Woman, how can you say that?!" Wufei demanded. "He's coughing his lungs up, he can hardly breathe--"
"But if he weren't already run down, he'd barely notice this bug," Sally pointed out. "It's just a relapse. I warned you this sort of thing could happen, and I promise you, it's not as bad as it seems. His temperature isn't dangerously high."
"Not as bad as it seems?!"
"Get a grip, Chang, and stop repeating what I say," Sally said dryly. "Now could you please let go of Duo long enough for me to get a blood sample? I think this is the same bronchial infection flaring up, not a new one, but I need to make sure."
In between coughing fits, Duo made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snicker.
While they were waiting for the blood test results to come back, Sally handed Duo an inhaler. "Here, this will help your breathing. Take two puffs now; in future, take one when a coughing fit starts."
"Why didn't you give him that before?!" Wufei demanded.
"Because he didn't need it before today," she said sweetly. "You were concerned about not overmedicating him, weren't you? I only prescribe Albuterol when a cough is bad enough to interfere seriously with someone's breathing."
He blushed slightly. "What's it do?"
"Calms and relaxes the bronchial passages," she said, handing him a large bottle of something syrupy. "This will loosen the phlegm and make it easier for him to bring it up. Congratulations, Duo," she said cheerfully, turning back to the braided boy, "you're going to be spitting green and yellow for a while."
"Oh, yay," he wheezed, giving her a dirty look. "My favourite pastime."
"See, the Albuterol is working already!" she chirped, smirking at him with a sympathetic glint in her eye. "Five words in a row, with no coughs in between."
There was a knock on the door. "Sally?" Une's voice sounded worried. "I saw Chang's Blazer in the parking lot, and the security guards said he brought Maxwell back in... is something wrong?"
Sally rolled her eyes at Duo. "Your Valentine is here. Can she come in?"
Duo snorted with laughter, coughed, winced, and nodded.
Duo waved the inhaler at Lady Une as she poked her head in the door, but had other things to think about than saying 'hello'. "Sally," he croaked, making a face, "this stuff tastes like shit."
"I know. It means that people hardly ever overdose on it. Good afternoon, Une; nothing serious, just a minor relapse."
Wufei scowled at the 'nothing serious' and 'minor' comments, but managed not to say anything out loud.
"Sally," Une said dryly, "your idea of 'minor' frequently differs from your patients'. How minor?"
"Oh, you mean the way your idea of 'overwork' differs from everyone else's? Well, it depends a little on whether this is a new infection or the old one coming back, but--" Sally's computer beeped as the test results came back. "--Good timing! It's the same bug. Wufei should probably stay home tomorrow to monitor Duo's condition, but I expect him to be improving again by tomorrow afternoon. 'One day, miserable but not life-threatening' sort of minor."
"Well, in that case..." Une borrowed the computer for a moment, bringing up a staff roster. "Hm... I can switch your rostered day off to Tuesdays, Chang... I have someone who wants to change to weekends. That gives you tomorrow off. It would mean you'd have to work on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day is a holiday and you'd have Saint Stephen's Day off instead."
"Saint Stephen's Day?" Wufei asked, confused.
"Boxing Day," Une, Sally and Duo chorused, smirking.
Wufei looked down his nose at them, crossing his arms over his chest haughtily. "Hn. It's unjust to flaunt in-jokes at other people."
Sally's and Duo's eyes widened; Une raised an eyebrow. "Major Po," she asked formally, "would you be so kind as to check Chang's temperature next? I think that was a joke."
"Woman, don't even think it," Wufei warned, abandoning his pose and backing away as Sally advanced on him with a thermometer in her hand and a glint in her eye. Duo snickered softly, ducking his head to hide the grin.
"I told you I was a bother," Duo said ruefully as Wufei started the Blazer's engine.
"Oh?" Wufei quirked an eyebrow at him. "Are you saying you did this on purpose? You decided to have a relapse?"
"Well then," Wufei said calmly, driving out of the parking lot. "To be a bother you'd have to be annoying, and you're not. To really be a bother, you'd have to be annoying on purpose. I'm not worried."
Back in Sally's office, Une turned away from the window. "I see you're back to being called 'woman'," she commented.
Sally snorted, putting things away. "So long as Duo is happy with the way he's being treated, I could care less what Wufei calls me."
"How is he?" Une asked seriously. "Really?"
"I wasn't lying, Une. I'm not particularly happy about his relapse, but I'm not worried, either. He's still better than he was to start with; Wufei's taking good care of him. Emotionally..." Sally smiled. "The Duo Maxwell we knew -- and were exasperated by on a daily basis -- seems to be on his way back. He's talking a little; he's appreciating jokes; he can't be still acting completely paranoid about Wufei being separated from him, or Wufei would have refused to come back to work. Of course," she added, "he could be concealing a lot... pretending to feel better, for Wufei's benefit. There's no way to tell without doing a proper psychological study, and I sincerely doubt either of them would cooperate with that idea."
"You're so reassuring."
Sally looked sympathetic. "I find that sort of thinking just as annoying as you do, Une, but I've got to consider it. Most likely the truth is somewhere in the middle; Duo's making some progress, and faking a little more to make Wufei feel better. I'll settle for that... for now."
* * * * *
Sally's prediction that Duo would be improving by Tuesday afternoon was correct, but the cough hung on stubbornly. The coughing fits were fewer and less severe, but they kept happening, and he tired far too easily for Wufei's peace of mind. When Wufei mentioned that he planned to ask Lady Une for more time off, though, Duo turned stubborn again.
"I'll be fine," he insisted, sitting up in bed. "It was only a problem yesterday because it was a surprise and I didn't have anything to take for it. I'll sleep lots and drink lots and eat when I'm supposed to. Go back to work."
It was shock at the length of the speech, more than anything else, that convinced Wufei to do as he said; and Duo was all right without Wufei there in the mornings.
The next four days passed quickly. Work took on a new dimension for Wufei; he found new sympathy for some of the agents he'd previously scorned for being 'clockwatchers'. Only some of them, though. Now that he had someone to return to, a reason to go home on time, he understood how someone could insist on packing up and leaving on the dot and still be a good agent. The ones who took off to go clubbing and get drunk, on the other hand...
He was mildly disappointed when Leah stopped publicly berating offenders against filing etiquette. It had been amusing, but she didn't have to any more; people started taking her threats seriously after she 'accidentally' broke the arm of one of the worst offenders during an unarmed combat practice session. (Sally was heard to say that she felt rather sorry for Agent Torg; he was a nice guy and a good agent, but there seemed to be a fundamental connection missing from his brain when it came to paperwork. He didn't hold a grudge, though, and his friends had to admit that nothing less drastic would have worked on him.)
Keeping this in mind, Wufei was careful to water his fern on a regular basis.
He also bought a second futon, setting it up on the floor of the lounge room every night and folding it up in a cupboard during the day. He didn't get any use out of it, of course, but it stopped Duo from worrying about him sleeping on the too-short couch.
Leah continued to keep an eye on Ray Anders and his friends, but although she was sure they were up to something, she couldn't get any concrete information about what it was. It was blatantly obvious that they were discussing something important at every opportunity -- usually clustered around Anders' desk or at a back table in King O'Malley's -- but it's not easy to eavesdrop on a group of people when they're talking quietly in the middle of a large room with no cover. This is especially true if they know and dislike you.
*The back of my neck prickles whenever I look at those jerks,* Leah thought, frustrated. *I know they're not just goofing off; they're far too serious for that... but I can't exactly go to Lady Une and tell her 'I don't like those guys and they make my skin crawl, therefore they are up to no good and should be investigated'.*
"Tomorrow's the day, guys." Anders smirked. "It's Christmas Eve and Sunday; it'll be perfect. I got a look at the rosters. Une's finally approved some leave, so HQ will be running on minimum staff, and Chang's rostered on that morning. He leaves at twelve on the dot; we know where he's going to be and when... there's no better time for it."
*Finally, you little prick, you're gonna get yours!*
* * * * *
As Wufei walked into Preventers' HQ on Sunday morning, his mind was more on future shopping plans than work.
*Perhaps I should ask Sally Po,* he mused, walking towards his desk and absent-mindedly acknowledging a couple of Merry Christmases. *She might know where I can find a good tiramisu for Duo... that or 'Death by Chocolate', I know he likes that as well.*
*...on second thought, not 'Death by Chocolate'. It might be a bit too much right now, even by Duo's standards! He still isn't over that damn relapse.*
Wufei stopped short, staring in surprise. *What's Quatre's assistant doing here... and in a Preventers' uniform?!*
On closer inspection, it wasn't Ninke Assink that was standing talking to Leah McKenzie, but there was certainly a startling resemblance. Tall, slender, with short white-blond hair and Nordic good looks... not to mention the nametag, 'N. ASSINK'.
"Good morning, Chang," Leah said, noticing him staring. "Can I help you with something?"
"Ah, I beg your pardon, McKenzie, no. Forgive my rudeness," Wufei said, flushing slightly as he turned to the man, "but... are you related to a Ninke Assink? He works at Winner Enterprises..."
The man grinned. "He's my little big brother! I'm Nicklaus; pleased to meet you." They shook hands. "I just transferred in from L2."
"'Little big brother'?" Leah asked quizzically, raising an eyebrow.
"He's two years older than me, but I'm two inches taller than him," Nicklaus explained. "It's a bit of a family joke."
"...I see," Wufei said dryly, looking up (and up) at him. *Which would make Ninke about... six foot four. Very little.*
After a few more pleasantries, Wufei made his way to his desk, clutching a mug of bad coffee.
*That was... surreal,* he thought, sitting down and turning on his computer. *I've got to get more sleep; for a moment there, I had a weird feeling that if I turned around, everyone behind me would have turned into Assink clones.*
His vidphone beeped. "Chang here," he said curtly, glancing up at the screen as he hit 'accept' -- then froze.
< < Good morning, Mr. Chang. I'm from Foreign Minister Peacecraft's office-- > >
"Let me guess," Wufei interrupted, staring at the screen in horrified fascination. "Your last name is Assink."
The familiar-looking man blinked. < < Why, yes, sir. Karl Assink. > >
"I've... met Ninke and Nicklaus," Wufei said slowly. "The family resemblance is... um..." *At least this one's name doesn't start with 'Ni',* he thought, then had to hide a sudden grin behind his mug as he remembered an old comedy film Duo had dug up from somewhere during the war. *The knights who say 'Ni!' were all Assinks!* he thought, suppressing semi-hysterical caffeine- and fatigue-induced giggles. *Maybe I should offer them a shrubbery...*
< < Yes, we all look alike, sir. They're my big brothers. > >
"Older or just taller?" Wufei managed, voice a little strained.
< < Both, sir. > > Karl grinned. < < I'm the baby and the runt of the family. > >
"Big big brothers, then." *Shut up shut up shut UP! Oh gods, I'm going to laugh in his face...*
< < I see you've definitely been talking to Nicklaus, Mr. Chang; he loves that joke. I didn't call to inflict my family's running jokes on you, though, sir. Miss Relena is on her way to a meeting right now; before she left, she asked me to call you and confirm what hours you're working today. > >
"Nine to twelve. Why?"
< < I believe she and some of your mutual friends are planning to visit you at work to ask your opinion of the presents they've bought for Mr. Maxwell. If they have time, of course; their schedules are rather crowded. > >
"I'll be leaving right on twelve, no matter what," Wufei warned. "I have plans." *Like finding Duo a good tiramisu and getting home before he has time to worry!*
< < Miss Relena understands that, sir. > >
*Yeah, but does Heero?* Wufei thought sourly.
< < I'll pass the information along. Thank you, and Merry Christmas! > >
"Merry Christmas," Wufei echoed automatically.
He sat back, staring bemusedly at the blank screen; then he leaned sideways and peered between a bookcase and his fern, looking across the room to where Leah was showing Nicklaus to an empty desk.
*How big is that family?* he thought, sitting back and reaching for his cooling coffee. *And how many more of them are going to show up?! Do the women all look alike too, or are they cloning ridiculously tall blond men somewhere in Holland? At least they have different-coloured eyes; Ninke has blue-grey, Nicklaus has grey, and Karl has blue... maybe that's how they tell each other apart? That and the height difference.* Wufei snorted softly. *'Little' brother, my left foot...*
The rest of the morning passed without incident. No more Assink siblings (identical or otherwise) turned up; the only problem Wufei encountered was the nearly uncontrollable urge to mutter 'Ni!' under his breath whenever he went past Nicklaus. He managed to suppress it, though, probably saving himself a lot of explanations.
Leah glanced up from her paperwork and scowled as she saw Ray Anders casually sauntering out of the room.
"Trust him to sneak out for an early lunch," she muttered, glancing at her watch. "Ooh, only fifteen minutes early! I'm impressed by his restraint... or I would be, if I thought he was coming back before two-thirty."
Ivan was starting to have second thoughts.
"Uh... guys?" he said nervously, watching as the others cracked their knuckles and grinned at each other expectantly. "We're just gonna threaten him, right? Maybe push him around a little, so he knows we're serious... but that's all, right? I thought that was the plan..."
"Sure it is," one said easily, patting him on the shoulder. "This is just in case, you know? He's a tough guy; he might think he can punch his way out of trouble. We gotta be ready for that."
"...Okay," Ivan said uncertainly, turning away.
"Don't worry about it," the man called after him. "It'll sort itself out. Just follow our lead!"
Out of sight of Ivan, he pulled a set of brass knuckles out of his pocket and slid them onto his right hand.
"'Push him around a little'," Anders sneered quietly, moving to where his car was parked. "Yeah, right..."
Unlocking the trunk, he reached inside, closing his good hand around something cold and metal.
Shutting down his computer and stuffing papers into a drawer, Wufei picked up a scribbled note and squinted at it, muttering. "I knew I should have asked her to tell me the address and written it down myself. The woman is a doctor; of course her handwriting is indecipherable!" He peered closer. "Thirteen... no, fifteen... no, eighteen Oi... Onu... Onurday? That's ridiculous. On... Onondaga? That's a street I know, and that squiggle at the end could be 'ga'... Right then, this bakery that sells great tiramisu is at eighteen Onondaga Street. Probably."
Thrusting the note into a pocket and draping his coat over one arm, he made for the door, still muttering. "Onondaga Street isn't that far from my route home; I can find this bakery -- assuming it is on Onondaga, and not some other street that can be writtten as 'O-squiggle-loop-tail-squiggle' -- buy Duo's tiramisu, and get home before twelve-thirty..."
"Chang? A moment, if you don't mind."
Wufei stopped, took two steps backwards, and peered into the office he'd just passed. "Yes, Lady Une?" *I am going home. Now.*
"See that this gets to Maxwell, would you?" she said coolly, handing him a neatly wrapped cube.
"Ah... certainly, Lady," he said, carefully tucking the smallish present into one of his coat's large pockets. "Er... Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Chang," she said, apparently absorbed in her paperwork once more. "Now get out before something blows up and I'm forced to try to keep you here."
Crunching his way across the thin layer of trampled snow that coated the path outside, Wufei chuckled softly to himself, hefting the coat over his arm and feeling the extra weight. *I wonder what she got him? It could be almost anything... I'm sure he gave her some pretty weird presents during the war. Sally said she had a box full...*
*That's Duo, all right,* he thought, walking around the corner of the building and starting to cross the carpark towards his Blazer. *Always trying to make people happy...*
"All right, Chang... we want to have a little talk with you."
Wufei stopped short. Men -- Preventers, in uniform -- were emerging from behind cars all around him; he counted half a dozen, and could hear more closing the circle behind him.
*Damn,* he thought, glancing around, quickly checking faces and hands, looking for signs of concealed weapons. *I must be more tired than I thought, to walk straight into an ambush this sloppy. If I'd just been paying attention...* He frowned slightly. *I've seen most of these men around HQ, but... I don't think I've said more than two words to any of them! Why are they coming after me?*
Shifting his weight slightly, Wufei fell into a defensive posture. "Is there a problem here, agents?" he asked coldly. *Ex-OZ soldiers with a grudge? Brass knuckles, shot gloves... that one may have a knife, but he hasn't drawn it... no guns that I can see.*
"Damn right we've got a problem with you, asshole," one said, stepping forward. "It's time we had a little chat about that Maxwell kid and what you did to him."
*What?!* Wufei nearly staggered with surprise. *How-- why-- how'd they find out it was my fault he left eight months ago? And why do they care?!*
"Yeah, Chang," another sneered. "Where do you get off, beating that kid like that? It's no wonder he ran off!"
*...wait. Back up. What did he say?*
"...'beating'?" Wufei said carefully. "You think I beat Duo? What the hell gave you that idea?!"
"Ray spotted it first," the first speaker said, "and we got a look at him the other day. No way did he get in that bad a shape in four days, you prick. You were beating him up and he ran away; that's why you put out the APB, to get him back so you could beat on him some more. Well, you're not getting your sick jollies that way any more, right, guys?"
"I HAVE NEVER LAID A FINGER ON DUO MAXWELL!" Wufei roared.
"Um... you haven't?" someone said tentatively from behind him. "Uh... but... Ray said--"
"Go tell it to someone who might listen," someone yelled, lunging forward.
Wufei ducked the first blow, threw his coat into the face of the next attacker, then dropped low and swept the first man's feet out from under him.
*The footing is bad,* he thought, bouncing to his feet and slipping slightly on the thin layer of dirty snow, *but that affects them as much as it does me. They don't seem particularly skilled... but it's ten against one, and I'm not in the best of shape--*
Someone punched him in the shoulder from behind, and he spun to face the new threat.
Ivan held back, wide-eyed and aghast, as the others lunged forward or circled Wufei, looking for their chance to attack.
"Guys, no..." he protested weakly. "We shouldn't... this... this isn't the plan! This isn't what I agreed to!"
"God, you're thick," one of them said scornfully. "You really didn't get it, did you? It's not like we could come straight out and say 'let's beat the crap out of him'. Someone might have heard! You just never picked up on the hints, idiot. If you're not gonna help, stay out of our way!"
Ivan swallowed miserably, watching as Wufei dodged and blocked several more attacks. *Did they... is that what was going on? Is that what they meant?* Remembered comments flickered through his mind.
*'...teach him a lesson...'*
*'...let him know how we feel about it...'*
*'...make sure he knows we're serious...'*
*And then they'd nod, and grin... I am stupid.*
*Now what do I do?!*
As he dithered, he saw Anders step out from behind Wufei's Blazer, grinning viciously as he raised something long and metallic.
"No..." Ivan whispered, horrified; then he ran forward, yelling. "Ray, no! Chang! LOOK OUT!"
Wufei blinked, hearing the warning but not sure where it came from. *Look out for what?!* he thought, automatically ducking and starting to turn. *Something behind me?*
Pain exploded across his back as something hit him, throwing him forward onto hands and knees; then a boot caught him in the stomach, driving the remaining breath from his lungs and kicking him over onto his side.
*I really am tired,* he thought dazedly, wheezing as he struggled to breathe again. *I didn't spot that coming, either...*
"How's it feel, you little prick?" a smug voice asked. "You've had this coming for months."
Looking up, Wufei saw a single man standing over him; the others seemed to have pulled back now that he was down. The man had a cast on his left wrist, and was holding a long tyre iron in his right hand, jiggling it slightly up and down.
"Mr. Perfect," he said, grin widening. "I think I'll break your arm first..."
Wufei tried to move, to roll away or raise an arm to block, but a stabbing pain from his right shoulder and back froze him for just an instant. The tyre iron swung up and came down at him--
There was a cry of pain, but it wasn't his.
"Ray, don't!" a large man gasped, crouching protectively over Wufei. He'd blocked the blow with his right arm; blood was starting to spread over his sleeve and trickle through his fingers as he clutched the obviously broken limb to his chest.
*Open compound fracture,* Wufei noted automatically, slowly and painfully shifting his weight, trying to get his legs and good arm under him so he could get up. *That's got to hurt... and there's definitely something wrong with my shoulder. We're in trouble.*
"Get out of my way, Ivan," Ray said threateningly.
"Ray, you can't do this! It's too much! I thought we were just gonna warn him off... we don't have to beat him up if he just leaves the kid alone!"
"This isn't about the kid!" Anders snarled. "It never was! I don't give a good goddamn about the kid! This is about Chang being Mr. Perfect, the Preventers poster boy, always showing people up and being used as an example. Maxwell's a good excuse if we get caught, that's all."
"So... the school bullies are going to beat me up for being teacher's pet?" Wufei said painfully, making it up onto his knees. "That's so childish, it's embarrassing."
"Oh, shit," one of the other men said, dropping his fists and backing off. Several others exchanged looks and started drifting backwards, but three men -- Anders's closest friends -- just grinned.
"Don't tell me you're all wimping out now," one said, grinning mockingly. "You were all fired up to beat Chang into a bloody pulp this morning!"
"Yeah, when I thought it was the right thing to do!" one of the others yelled.
"Screw this," Anders said impatiently, waving the tyre iron at one of his friends. "Jack, get that idiot Ivan out of my way. The rest of you better keep your mouths shut, or we'll take care of you, too. Got me?"
Leah tapped at Lady Une's open door and stuck her head inside. "Is there anything else you need before I go to lunch, ma'am?"
"Hm? No, no," Une said, glancing up at the clock. "Nothing that can't wait an hour or two. Go on, you're already late."
Pulling her coat on, Leah strode out the front door, nodding to the desk guard as she passed. *I hope the food court at the mall isn't too crowded,* she thought, turning left towards the smaller parking lot. *There's probably a lot of last-minute Christmas shoppers; maybe I'll go to that little cafe instead...*
"...never... on Duo Maxwell!" came faintly from behind her.
*What the...? That sounded like Chang!* Leah stopped, looking behind her. *The other car park is that way...* She took a couple of steps in that direction, straining to hear over the sounds of the wind and traffic.
"...no! Chang! Look out!"
Leah ran back to the door and slammed through it, shouting at the startled desk guard. "Get security to the west parking lot now! Something's going on, I think it's a fight--" The closing door cut her words off as she bolted towards the sounds.
*I'll just bet Anders has something to do with this!* she fumed, pelting along beside the building. *A fight in a carpark would be just his style, and he was staring at Chang when he brought Maxwell in for a checkup... damn! If I'd just put two and two together, even if I didn't have proof I could have warned Chang to be careful!*
Skidding around the corner, she saw the cluster of men half-way across the parking lot, and ran towards them.
*Ten against one and an ambush. They're so brave!* she thought scornfully. *Looks like some of them are having second thoughts, but it's a bit late now--*
There was a yell of pain as one of Anders's friends dragged another man out of the central cluster, and the rest closed in.
end 'Reunion' chapter 16
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