< < Well... he's sure changed. > >
"Changed? What do you mean, he's changed? What's--"
A hand came over Wufei's shoulder and twisted the phone away from him. "Where are you?" Heero growled.
< < Uh... in low orbit. > > There was just enough of a pause to make a point, then he continued. < < I'll be landing at New York Port in about three hours. > >
"Where did you see Duo Maxwell?"
< < L2 -- > >
"We'll meet you at the port." *click!* "Duo's on L2. We're meeting this guy at New York Port. Who is he?"
"YUI!" Wufei was shaking, furious. "Why the hell-- I was asking him about Duo, damn it!"
He sneered, beginning to turn away. "We'll find out what you've done to him soon enough."
Heero staggered back a step, but didn't fall; he wiped at his mouth, looked at the smear of blood on his hand, then glared at Wufei. "That was your one free shot. Wanna try again?"
Quatre leapt in between them, shoving them apart. "Not now," he snarled, eyes cold and hard. "This isn't going to help Duo!"
Wufei didn't even seem to notice Quatre; he stared past him at Heero, white-faced and trembling. "What I've done?" he choked out. "What about what you've done, Yui? You were his best friend, nearly his brother, his lover -- what made you drop all that and ignore his silence for eight months? You only tried to find him when you wanted him for something. In eight months, you never once thought he might have wanted you?"
Heero started forwards, fist raised, but Relena clutched at his arm and hung on. "Heero, NO! Quatre's right, this isn't going to help!"
Trowa spoke quietly, hanging up the phone. "Quatre, your shuttle will be ready to go whenever we are. I've arranged priority clearance from New York to L2 as well; we'll get jumped to the head of the departures queue." He glanced calmly over at the frozen tableau. "If you two are finished for now, we should get our stuff and get ready to go."
When Captain May walked through the gate from the cargo section of New York Port, he nearly turned around and walked straight back out. It was a perfectly natural reaction, considering what was waiting for him.
Quatre and Relena were sitting down, wearing civilian clothes, and just didn't seem threatening anyway; but Heero, Trowa and Wufei had changed into Preventers uniform before leaving for the port. Trowa stayed leaning against a pillar when the captain came in, but Heero and Wufei both tensed up and glared as if they were about to pounce. (They'd been doing this to everyone who came through the gate for the last half hour; a lot of people had quickly examined their consciences to see if the Preventers might possibly want them for something, one man who was wanted had tried to run and been collared by Trowa, and five people had gone to the port administration to complain.)
"You'd be Chang Wufei, then?"
"Yes," Wufei said tensely. "Captain May?"
"That's me." The captain was about forty-five or fifty years old, a 'comfortably padded' man with a friendly, cheerful face. His grey-streaked brown hair was plaited in a thin tail down to the middle of his back, and his short beard had two white streaks running down from the corners of his mouth.
"We've reserved a small meeting room," Quatre said, standing up. "If you'd come this way...?"
Comfortably settled in the meeting room, introductions made and hands shaken -- well, Quatre's and Relena's, anyway -- Captain May planted his hands on the table and looked around. "Well then. Before you start asking your questions, I think I should ask one of my own. Is Barton -- Duo Maxwell, whatever his name is -- in any sort of trouble? Because I'll tell you, all this," he indicated Heero and Wufei sitting stiffly, arms folded, and Trowa leaning against the wall at the back of the room, "isn't what I was expecting from the alert. It said 'missing person', not 'wanted dead or alive'."
"Duo's not in any trouble that we know of," Quatre assured him quickly. "He's a personal friend of all of us and we're worried about him. That's all."
He raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Do the Preventers usually assign people to look for their own friends? Come to that, isn't this a police job? I don't know that much about the Preventers, seeing as you're new and all, but I don't think missing people are what you look after."
There was an uncomfortable pause before Trowa spoke. "Quatre told you the truth," he said, "but you're right; if this were a normal missing persons case, the police would be handling it. It isn't, and they aren't. That's all we can tell you."
The captain thought about that for a moment, rubbing his thumbs along the edge of the table, then nodded. "Right. What do you want to know?"
"Everything," Heero said coldly.
"'Everything' is rather a lot, Mr Yui. Could you be a little more specific, or do I start with 'One day, mummy and daddy May decided they wanted a baby boy'?"
"If you could just start from how you met Duo, that would be fine," Quatre put in quickly, hoping to head things off before either Heero or Wufei could snap and start choking the informant.
"About five p.m., day before yesterday, he came into the cargo section here, looking to work his way to L2. One of my crew is--"
"Here?!" Wufei almost shouted.
"That's right. I've got a short-term contract for several runs from New York to L2."
"My flight arrived here at four-thirty on Tuesday afternoon," Wufei said slowly. "Heero and I must have been walking out... just as Duo was walking in."
Trowa walked over to the table and set his laptop down, flicking it open. "I'll check the security camera records," he said quietly. "Go on."
"'One of my crew is'," Trowa prompted.
"Ah! Yes. One of my crew is currently serving thirty days for a drunk-and-disorderly; the 'Jenny's only a three-man ship, so that's a serious manpower loss. Besides that, he's my mechanic, and the only person who's ever been able to keep the 'Jenny's cargo lift working smoothly for more than two hours at a stretch. Sometimes I think he's rigged it to act up so's I can't fire him... anyway, your friend turned up just as the damn thing jammed for the tenth time. 'Are you any good with this sort of thing?' I asked, 'yes,' he said, and I told him 'all right, make it work long enough to load the rest of the cargo and you're hired'. Ten minutes later, it was working perfectly, and it hasn't broken down since; so I took him along with us to L2." He grinned. "Along the way, he fixed every damn squeak, click and whine he could reach without going EVA; we didn't have a suit to fit him, or I think he'd've realigned my secondary communications array as well. It's only a ten-hour trip! That boy's good."
"If you left for L2 two days ago, why did you say over the phone you'd last seen him 'eight hours ago'?" Wufei asked.
"I gave him fifty creds to stick around and help us load for the return trip, in case the cargo lift started playing up again. It didn't, but he hung around and helped out until just before we lifted."
"You said he'd changed. What... what did you mean by that?" Wufei swallowed painfully, looking down at his clasped hands.
"Well... you said the picture was only ten months old, right?" At Wufei's nod, he continued. "He looks to have lost some weight. I'm not sure how much; he wore this ratty long coat the whole time, even when he was crawling into one of the maintenance spaces. I would've thought he'd appreciate a square meal, but he hardly ate a thing when we had dinner along the way. And he looked like he hadn't had a good night's sleep in weeks."
"Did he say why he was going to L2, or mention any places he was planning to go?" Quatre said, after it was clear Wufei wasn't going to ask any more questions.
"No. Hardly said ten words the whole time, and that's including 'I need a berth to L2'."
Quatre and Relena stared incredulously at each other, then looked back at Captain May as if he'd grown a second head. Heero glared at Wufei; Wufei just sat, head still bowed over his hands, and closed his eyes.
"Found him," Trowa said calmly. He immediately had four people looking over his shoulder.
A figure wearing a ragged black trenchcoat and a baseball cap, facing away from the camera, looked up at an illuminated signboard; then he flicked a long brown braid over his shoulder, and moved off to the left.
Quatre pushed forwards and tapped at the keyboard, rewinding to the point where Duo first appeared on the screen. "Come on, Duo, look at the camera!" he muttered.
Trowa shook his head. "He doesn't. This is the only clear view of him before he moved out of the passenger area into areas that aren't covered by cameras. All the other shots were blocked by departure boards, pillars, or people."
The blonde sighed, straightening up. "Well, avoiding cameras was second nature to Duo during the war; we shouldn't be surprised that he's kept up his old habits."
"You didn't hear that," Heero snapped, glaring at Captain May.
"Hear what?" He spread his hands, smiling innocently.
A soft gasp from Relena pulled Heero's attention back to the screen, to see himself and Wufei pushing through the crowds. "You were right, Wufei," she whispered. "You nearly walked straight into him. Two minutes earlier..."
Wufei turned away.
As his shuttle taxiied out onto the runway, Quatre leaned against the window, gazing moodily out at the snow flurries that had begun falling harder.
*Snow... Duo hates being cold, but he can have more fun in the snow than anyone else I've ever met.*
"Come ON, Quatre, hurry up!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming! I can't find my gloves!"
"Here," Trowa said, holding them out in one hand; the other hand was still holding a book in front of his face.
"Oh, thanks! Do you two want to come?"
Heero looked up from his laptop and Trowa lowered the book slightly; their eyes met, and they traded identical smirks. "No," they chorused, returning to their respective occupations.
"Oi, 'Fei!" Duo yelled up the stairs. "Wufei! Wu-man! Wu~u~u-chan!"
"What is it now, Maxwell? And--"
"--your name is WuFEI, yes, I know, but it got your attention, didn't it?" Duo grinned. "Wanna come with Q and me? We're building snow forts and having a snow fight!"
"I don't think so, Maxwell."
Duo shrugged carelessly; Quatre almost missed the disappointed, hurt look that flashed over his face. "Your loss, Wuffie. See ya!" And he bounced out the door.
It didn't take them long to build their forts, a carefully-measured snowball's throw apart, and soon they were exchanging volleys, shrieks of laughter and shouted threats. As he ducked behind his fort to avoid an extra-large slushball, Quatre glanced over towards the house and glimpsed Heero and Trowa standing at the window, watching; then as he bounced up to return fire, the front door opened and they emerged, shrugging into their jackets.
Trowa smiled at Quatre as he strode over, Heero joining Duo. "It looked like you two needed reinforcements."
"What I need right now is covering fire," Quatre grinned.
"WAHAHAHAHAHA~!" Duo cackled, jumping on top of his snow fort; amazingly, it held together. "The Icicle Alliance has received reinforcements! With Sir Heero's able assistance, victory is assured! Shinigami will ACK*pfft*!" Quatre had gotten him full in the face with a well-aimed shot; Duo teetered, swayed, then toppled backwards, landing flat on his back in the snow.
Being officially 'dead' didn't shut him up, though.
"Aagh! I am slain! The flower of young manhood is cut down in its prime. I regret that I have but one life to give for my snow fort!"
"Baka," Heero growled, flicking a couple of shots towards the opposing forces; Quatre could still hear him even after he ducked down again. "This is a snowball fight, not an opera. You don't get a dying soliloquy."
"Hee-chan!" Duo sounded aggrieved. "You could at least swear to avenge your fallen comrade!"
"Oh shit," Quatre said.
"Yep," Trowa agreed.
Heero vaulted over Duo's crumbling fort and charged.
"Eep!" Quatre squeaked, throwing snowballs as fast as he could snatch them up; Trowa was doing the same, but Heero jinked and dodged as he ran, avoiding them all, then swept both hands forward and launched a deadly-accurate double shot, forcing his opponents to duck.
He didn't stop running; he shoulder-charged Quatre's fort and tipped it over on top of them.
When Quatre floundered up out of the debris, sputtering and wiping snow out of his eyes, Heero was marching back towards the still-prone Duo; he stopped by his 'fallen comrade' and smirked. "Ninmu kanryou."
"Oh Sir Heeee~ro," Duo exclaimed dramatically, "have you truly avenged my death?"
"Yes. And I'll give you a decent burial, too."
"--what? AAGH! NO! Hee--" *FWUMPH!* Heero had picked up a large chunk of the derelict fort and dropped it on top of him.
Duo jumped up, plastered with wet snow, and leapt at him. "ROWR! The Abominable SnowDuo rises from the grave to get you, you--"
Heero sidestepped and grabbed his braid as he lunged, tugging him to a halt. "Hn. Duo, you're wet, your lips are blue, you're shaking like a leaf, and your bangs have turned to icicles. Get inside. ...I'll make you hot chocolate," he added grudgingly.
"Cool! Thanks, Heero," Duo said cheerfully, moving as if he was going to sling his arm around the other boy's shoulders-- then he dropped a handful of wet snow down Heero's collar, and bolted.
Heero jerked, eyes wide, and squirmed as the slush trickled down his back; then his eyes narrowed, and he followed. "Duo... omae o korosu!"
"Not 'til after I get my hot chocolate!" Duo yelled back.
Quatre laughed breathlessly as Trowa pulled him upright, then tramped towards the house in their wake. A movement at one of the second floor windows caught his eye, and he glanced up in time to see Wufei turning away, a look of mingled longing and regret on his face.
Quatre sighed, looking out over the city through the snow as the shuttle climbed. *It's 'winter' on L2 now, so it'll be cold... but they don't have snow there.*
Trowa spoke up from his seat next to Quatre, aiming his words out into the cabin as a whole instead of at any one person. "Duo knows every bolthole and hiding place in L2. We'll never be able to track him down before he leaves again. We've got to work out what he's here for, where he'll go, get ahead of him and wait."
"I thought he hated L2," Quatre said, turning away from the window. "What would make him go back? Trowa, did he go to L2 at any time in the last eight months?"
"If he did, I didn't find out."
Heero frowned, thinking; then he flicked his laptop open, quick fingers typing in a search command. He spun the computer around so the others could see the screen.
"This is what he's there for."
Quatre's eyes widened as he read the headline of the old news article. 'MAXWELL CHURCH AND ORPHANAGE BURN -- ONE SURVIVOR.' "Of course..."
"The eighth anniversary is the day after tomorrow," Heero said.
Relena leaned forward, reading the article, tears welling up in her eyes. "Oh. Oh no. How terrible..."
"There's a lot that never made it into the official reports," Heero said grimly. "All the news articles said it was an accident, but it wasn't."
Wufei was reading over Relena's shoulder, eyes wide. "I knew he was an orphan, but... what do you mean, it wasn't an accident?"
"Duo was there, and what he told me bears no resemblance to the official story. His version involves terrorists. Are you saying you don't know any details?"
Wufei stiffened. "Duo and I didn't talk about... personal matters," he said in a tight voice.
"You mean every time he tried to get closer to you, you pushed him away. Isn't that it?" Heero said dangerously.
"Yes," the Chinese boy snapped. "With the best of intentions. Since I thought he was with you, there was no point in letting him get close enough to find out how I felt!"
Trowa raised his voice and cut in. "Excuse me. We now know where Duo is, what he's there for, and where he'll be. Shouldn't we be coming up with a plan? You two can argue about what was, what might have been, and who did what why afterwards."
* * * * *
"This is your plan?!"
"I didn't hear you coming up with a better one, Chang," Heero growled.
"You're acting like he's a wanted criminal!"
"He's been hiding from us for eight months; it would be stupid if we finally found him and he ran away again. This way, he doesn't get a chance to. And I still say you shouldn't be with us when we talk to him."
"Like hell I'll--"
"Shut up, both of you," Trowa said coldly. "You've been sniping at each other for a day and a half; I'd think you'd be tired of it by now. We certainly are. Now be quiet!"
There was silence for a few seconds; then Heero muttered softly, "This isn't over, Chang."
"Of course not, Yui."
Quatre sighed and covered his eyes with one hand; Trowa was turning, mouth open to snap at the two, when Relena 'eep'ed softly. "There!" she hissed, pointing down the street. "Is that-- could that be him?!"
The five of them were hiding in an abandoned building, across the street from the overgrown remains of Maxwell Church; they'd chosen it because most of the windows still had tinted glass in them, so they had a good view of the street without being seen themselves. In the washed-out morning light, a thin figure was slowly trudging down the footpath towards them.
Heero was about to deny that the slouched figure was Duo-- *no it can't be, Duo doesn't move like that* --when he turned his head to glance behind him, and a familiar braid swung out into view. Heero's indrawn breath rushed out in a wordless sound of surprise as his hand clenched on the windowsill.
"Oh Allah," Quatre whispered. "It is him!"
Wufei spun and headed for the door, only to be brought up short when Trowa's hand snaked out and grabbed his arm. "Not yet," the taller boy hissed. "Follow the plan."
"It's Yui's plan, not mine!" he snapped back, trying to twist free of the bruisingly tight grip.
"You don't have a plan," Trowa pointed out, tightening his hand even further. "His is the best idea we've got."
Duo walked slowly, hunched over with his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his head bowed. The tattered black coat flapped around his legs in the chill breeze, and his cap was tugged low over his face; he seemed to be studying the pavement just in front of his cracked boots. When he reached the broken gateway, he paused for a long moment, looking in, then began picking his way across the rubble. Most of the burned debris had been hauled away, but nobody had bothered to knock down or break up anything that was still solid; the foundation was still there, with the lower parts of a couple of walls sticking up. Yellowing weeds and grass were springing up everywhere, and one corner of the ruin was being taken over by a climbing vine. There were a couple of sheltered spots, and Duo sat down in one, easing himself down with a hand on a large block of stone.
"He's moving like he's hurt," Quatre said softly, worried.
"What's he doing?" Relena asked. "He's got something... oh! Candles!"
Duo set up three short white candles in the sheltered corner, and lit them; he sat quietly for some time, head bowed, then crossed himself and got up. It was a slow process; he pulled himself up on the same chunk of stone again, and leaned on it for a couple of breaths before moving away. He stepped carefully back to the gate, looked searchingly around at the street (cap still hiding his face), then walked back the way he'd come.
"Come on," Wufei snapped, making for the door. He was brought up short when Heero stepped in front of him.
"What do you mean, 'no'?!"
"You saw him. He's in bad shape, and you're the last person he's going to want to see. Go back to the hotel and wait. Better yet, go back to Earth and stay away from Duo completely! We'll send you a postcard," Heero sneered.
Before Wufei could respond, he was shoved sideways into the wall with the breath knocked out of him. He gasped for air, reaching automatically for his gun; then Trowa's hand closed over his collar and lifted, pinning him helplessly against the wall with his feet not quite touching the ground. Belatedly, he realised that Heero was dangling beside him, receiving the same treatment.
Trowa glared at them both impartially. "We are all concerned about Duo, and don't need you two raising our stress levels even higher! You can settle matters between you later. In private. After we've dealt with the important stuff!" He dropped them onto their feet and turned away. "I am sick of being the voice of reason here!"
Quatre hurried out after him; Wufei yanked his jacket straight and stalked out in their wake, without looking at Heero. *Heero's right. But I've got to--*
Heero straightened his uniform and looked up, to find Relena gazing at him with an angry, disappointed expression. "...What?" he said finally.
"Just because you feel guilty is no reason to try to make Wufei feel worse," she said softly.
"This is all his fault!"
"If you really believed that, you wouldn't be acting that way." And she walked out the door.
As they moved through the streets behind Duo, the four ex-pilots automatically fell into a protective formation around Relena. Maxwell Church's remains were situated in a rundown area of L2; the area they were moving into now was worse.
Relena's eyes were wide as she took in the surroundings. Half of the buildings looked as if they were going to fall in on themselves; some were boarded up; a couple were burnt out. Bums, drunks, gangers and hookers vanished into doorways and down alleys as they saw the uniforms. Dirty street kids were a little bolder, calling out to Relena with their hands outstretched, begging for spare change; she shuddered as she saw one small girl with a festering cut on her cheek. Groping behind her, she caught Quatre's hand and pulled him up beside her.
"How... how can a place like this exist?" she whispered. "How can people let other human beings live like this? Can't we do something?!"
"We are, Relena," Quatre assured her. "Winner Corporation is basing a lot of new industry on L2, bringing in new jobs; and you've started a lot of poverty relief programs. It just... takes time." *And some areas are harder to reach,* he thought, watching narrow-eyed as a clump of armed men drew back into an alley. *It's a good thing Relena dresses formally and does her hair differently whenever she makes a public appearance... not to mention that nobody would expect the low-profile Queen of the World to be walking through an L2 slum. They're more likely to recognise me!*
"We need to do more," she whispered harshly, then fell silent.
They paused with Trowa peering around a corner, waiting until Duo got far enough ahead for them to follow without being obvious... which meant, considering the commotion they were causing and who they were following, waiting until he turned another corner. "Bunch of kids just stopped him," he reported. "He's shaking his head... they look disappointed... he's moving on."
"Can you pick the kids out again?" Heero asked; Trowa gave him a 'duh!' look, then turned back to watching.
"He's gone into an alley," he said eventually. "Let's go."
As they walked down the street, Trowa nodded unobtrusively towards a group of five children. "Those ones," he said. "I'll track Duo; you catch up." He lengthened his stride and pulled ahead as they came opposite the kids.
"Quatre?" Heero said softly; Quatre pulled a handful of loose change out of a pocket and tossed it at the children. As they squealed in delight and scrambled for coins, Heero took one long step forwards and grabbed one by the back of the shirt.
"Hello," Quatre said calmly to the screeching, squirming bundle Heero was holding out at arm's length. The others had vanished with astonishing speed, taking all the coins with them. "We aren't going to hurt you."
"Yeah, sure, that's what they all say," the boy said sceptically. He tried for one last kick at Heero, then subsided, dangling like a kitten. "Whaddaya want? A trick? Drugs? We don't deal, but I can point you at someone."
"Information," Quatre said. "You and your friends stopped a man in a black coat just now. Why?"
The boy spread his hands. "Just wanted to ask if he had any more to spare."
"Any more what?"
"Creds! The guy came through day before yesterday, gave each of us ten creds. He said it was his last, but we figured if he was throwin' it around that easy, he was expecting more. Worth a try. He said no, though."
"Four, heads up," Wufei said warningly, eyeing the alley where the other children had disappeared; they were back, and at least two of them had knives.
"You look after each other, I see." Quatre smiled. "That's good." He pressed a bundle of small bills into the boy's hand, and nodded to Heero to put him down.
When they caught up with Trowa, he hadn't moved out of the alley; he was peering cautiously around the corner of a building. As they approached, he pulled back from the corner and came to meet them.
"He went up the fire escape and got in a window on the third floor," he reported. "What was up with the kids?"
"He gave them money," Quatre replied, his face set; all trace of the smiles he'd shown the boy was gone. "Fifty credits, the day before yesterday... that has to be the money Captain May gave him. And he said it was his last. What has he been living on?!"
"Nothing, so far as I can tell," Trowa said. "He certainly isn't renting the room. Didn't you see the sign as you came around the building? It's condemned."
"Fire escape or front stairs?" Quatre asked, raising an eyebrow at Heero.
"Front stairs, if Trowa can pick out the right room," he decided; at Trowa's nod, he led the way back to the building's main entrance.
Half the boards covering the door had been ripped away; they ducked under the 'CONDEMNED' sign and found that the ground floor had been turned into a drug squat. Filthy mattresses and passed-out bodies littered the floor, blocking the way to the stairs.
"I can see why Duo didn't come in this way," Relena whispered, holding Quatre's arm for support as they picked their way through the mess, avoiding broken syringes and puddles of vomit. Heero and Trowa led the way, occasionally kicking an unoccupied mattress to one side; Wufei brought up the rear, glaring at the few conscious and mobile occupants. The stairs were easier to negotiate, with less trash and just the occasional somnolent drunk sitting cradling an empty bottle.
The third floor was quiet; a few of the apartment doors had been broken in, but most were still solid. "There's another reason why Duo didn't come up the stairs," Quatre muttered to Relena, trying one of the doorknobs quietly; it didn't move. "They left all the doors locked when this building was abandoned. Picking the lock on your own front door every time you want to go in or out would be a pain; and he certainly wouldn't want to leave it unlocked. The fire escape is a lot less obvious; I'd bet none of the crowd downstairs actually know Duo's here." His voice was calm and analytical, but his eyes were cold and hard.
Quatre was Not Happy with the situation.
Trowa walked up to one of the closed doors. "This is it. Do we knock?"
"What, and give him a chance to run?" Heero snorted.
"Maybe... we should let him," Relena said tentatively. "If he wants to stay away from us this badly--" her gesture took in the building around them and, by extension, the neighbourhood "--do we have any right to force ourselves back into his life?"
"At the very least, I'm going to apologise to him first," Wufei said determinedly, stepping forward and banging on the door.
No answer. No sound of anyone climbing out a window either, which was a plus.
Wufei stepped back and settled into a ready stance, focused on the spot just by the doorknob where his kick should land to have the most effect. He breathed in, centering himself--
--and Quatre leaned in front of him and wrenched the doorknob around, a loud *SNAP!* proclaiming that he'd broken the lock. He pushed the door open and walked in; the others followed, exchanging looks of various degrees of surprise.
Duo was standing on the other side of the room, still wearing his coat; he hadn't even bothered to look at the door, instead staring listlessly out of the window towards the alley below. His arms were wrapped tightly around his ribs, the end of his braid twisted around the fingers of one hand.
Without moving, he spoke up in a rusty, painful voice.
"What the fuck do you want?"
end 'Reunion' chapter 4
This Web Page Created with PageBreeze Free HTML Editor / Web Hosting