( Chapter 6
Sally's eyes widened in disbelief as she saw the frail figure bundled up in Wufei's arms, eyes closed, one thin hand clutching at the lapel of Wufei's coat.
"Duo?!" *Oh my god... what's happened to him?! I was expecting him to be his normal, hyper, argumentative self no matter how injured he was -- what did he go through to end up like this?!* "Okay, Wufei, sit him on the table--" *damn, I hope he can sit up!* "--and get that blanket off."
Watching as Wufei carefully disentangled Duo from the blanket, Sally was relieved to see that he could sit up without support -- but that was the only good point in her quick assessment.
*He's lethargic, nonresponsive -- migod, he's silent -- severely underweight, probably slightly dehydrated... that's a bad bruise on his jaw, he may have other injuries. And his breathing sounds laboured...* "Duo, have you been coughing?" she asked, frowning in concern as she laid the back of one hand on his forehead and felt the slightly fevered, dry skin. *I don't like his colour, either...* "Duo?"
There was no response; Wufei answered for him. "Yes, he has."
Sally shot him a sharp glance, but didn't comment... yet. "Okay, Duo, I need to get you out of some of these clothes and take a proper look at you. Everyone else, out."
Duo's hand shot out and grabbed Wufei's sleeve.
"Oooookay... maybe not," Sally conceded. "You can stay, so long as you don't get in the way." She turned around to pick up her datapad and found the other four teenagers sitting down or settling against the wall. "No, I meant just -- oh, never mind!"
Duo slowly released Wufei's sleeve and hesitated; then he sighed slightly. *They're on a guilt trip, 'poor little Duo'... get an eyeful of this, then!* he thought as he shakily fumbled at the buttons on his coat; he wasn't getting very far, though, and Sally was about to help when Wufei stepped forwards, gently moved Duo's hands away, and did it himself. A darned sweater and ripped T-shirt followed the coat onto a nearby chair, and Sally heard Relena gasp as Duo's torso was bared.
Black and purple bruises were mottled down the left side of his ribcage and across his back, contrasting with older greenish-yellow smudges. More bruises striped his forearms, and his skin had an unhealthy grayish tint where it wasn't bruised, drawn tight over bones that were far too visible. Ribs and collarbones poked out sharply, and his arms were so thin that his wrist and elbow joints looked swollen.
Sally swallowed, but managed to keep her face reasonably under control; Wufei wasn't so successful, horror and guilt clearly visible before he brought up a hand and rubbed roughly at his face, forcing it back into a less revealing expression. A soft, muttered oath came from behind Sally, and she was sure that if she turned around, she'd see similar expressions to Wufei's on the faces of the other pilots.
*Guilt, is it?* she thought, reaching forwards and picking up Duo's wrist to check his pulse. *How did Duo get into this state? This certainly didn't happen overnight, or since you reported him missing!*
Duo just sat there, slumped, eyes fixed on the floor.
"All right then," Sally said, letting go of Duo's wrist and making a note on the datapad. "Duo, I'm sorry, but I need a blood sample. I know how you feel about needles, but--"
Without looking up, without saying a word, he lifted his left arm and held it out to her.
*Who are you and what have you done with Duo Maxwell?!* Sally thought incredulously, almost blurting it out loud. *Good God, the last time I tried sticking a needle into him, he acted like I wanted to saw his leg off without anaesthetic!*
There was a brisk knock at the door as Sally finished labelling the blood sample. "Who is it?" she called, fitting the vial into a sample rack and setting it in the small dumbwaiter that would take it to the lab for analysis; a list of the required tests was clipped to the rack and labelled 'URGENT!'
"Une," came through the door. "May I come in?"
"Hold on a second," Sally replied, then turned to Duo. "Do you mind?"
One shoulder lifted in a brief shrug.
The door opened slightly and Une leaned in. "Rumour, running at its usual speed, tells me Chang is back, and-- Maxwell?!" She stared in shock at the thin figure on the examining table as Duo raised his head and looked at her, an expression of mild surprise flickering briefly over his face and then fading.
"Well," Une said, and cleared her throat. "It's good to see you again, Maxwell, though I could wish for different circumstances... Chang, Yui, Barton, can I see you in my office for a moment? If you please," she added, the tone of her voice clearly indicating that they had damn well better please.
Duo's hand jerked up towards Wufei as the Chinese boy turned towards the door; Wufei hesitated, then turned back. "I won't be long, Duo, I promise. And--" he lowered his voice "--please, talk to Sally, all right? She's going to need to ask you more questions, and I won't be able to answer most of them. Okay?"
Duo nodded very slightly, dropping his gaze back to the floor, and Wufei followed Une with a worried backwards glance.
"What the hell is going on here? How did Maxwell get into that state? When you told me he was missing, Chang, I imagined him gleefully skipping from colony to colony with mayhem on his mind, not--" Words failed her for a second, and she settled for glaring at them, then took a deep breath and started again. "Exactly how long has he been--"
The door slammed open and Noin and Zechs burst in, both talking at once. "We heard that Maxwell's back!" "What's he been up to?" "What's he up to now?!" "Can I lock the hangar?"
"Duo Maxwell is in the infirmary, looking like a recently exhumed corpse!" Une snapped, silencing them. "I sincerely doubt that you two have anything to worry about from him. I, however, am another matter! Get out of my office, close the door quietly behind you, and the next time you want to come in, KNOCK!"
"Ah-- uh-- s-sorry, ma'am!" *click!*
"I should think so," she muttered, glaring venomously at the door; then she transferred the look to the three ex-Gundam pilots standing in front of her desk. "Since you all seem to have forgotten the entire concept of regular progress reports, I want a full verbal report. Now." Heero stiffened angrily, glaring back at her and opening his mouth to retort; she lifted a hand and cut him off. "Whatever you're about to say, Yui, you may wish to reconsider it. I am fully aware that you and Barton are special agents, working only in emergencies; 'foul-weather Preventers', I think, is the current term among the regular staff. My authority over you is necessarily limited. However. You have been assisting in a Preventers operation -- without notifying or asking me, I might add -- and are both in Preventers uniforms, which means that right now, I hold your leash." Leaning stiffly over the desk, she matched Heero stare for stare. "Nobody leaves this office until I am satisfied, gentlemen, so start talking."
Duo mechanically responded to Sally's questions and requests, shifting or turning or giving one-word answers as required. That part of him was running on autopilot; his mind was occupied elsewhere.
*Okay, so Relena... Relena didn't mean to cut me off,* he thought slowly. *She really did seem angry at that bitch. I guess she honestly didn't know... and she said I was second on the list...* He slid his gaze up surreptitiously, peering at Quatre's feet from under his lashes. *So if it was Relena's secretary, not Relena, maybe Quatre and Trowa too...?* His gaze dropped again and his mouth tightened. *It would have to be a lot of secretaries, though. And... eight months? They didn't notice I wasn't calling for eight fuckin' months?*
He didn't think about Heero. He was working very hard not to think about Heero.
Sally's voice broke into his thoughts. "I want to get x-rays of those ribs, Duo. The machine's just a little way down the corridor; are you okay to walk there?"
Duo nodded and slipped forwards off the examination table, but his knees buckled and he slid downwards, clinging dizzily to the edge of the table for support. Cool hands clutched at his elbow, lifting him, and worried voices buzzed distantly in his ear; then his vision cleared and it was Quatre's face bending close to him, Quatre's hands on his arm--
An angry snarl twisted Duo's face and he wrenched his arm free, shoving the other boy violently away from him. "Fuck OFF, Winner!" he yelled, hoarse voice cracking on the last word, then winced and tried to smother a cough.
"I--I'm sorry, Duo," Quatre whispered. "I only wanted to help..."
"I don't need your fucking help," Duo growled, getting his feet under him and shakily pushing upright again. "I don't need your fucking pity. I told you, I don't want you to touch me!"
Sally nearly choked, eyes wide in shock. *What the hell happened?! What could Quatre have done to make Duo this angry?* She sighed. *Much as I want to know, now is not the time to ask. I'm sure Une is getting the whole story; I'll pry it out of her later.* "Okay, that idea's not going to work," she said in a soothing voice, reaching out to steady him. "You just sit down and I'll go get a wheelchair--"
Duo swivelled his head around and gave Sally a flat, vicious stare; then he turned back towards the door and took a wobbly, determined step forwards.
"Duo... may I help?" Relena asked timidly. He shot a sideways glance at her, then shrugged slightly; she carefully ducked under his right arm, away from the worst bruises, and they slowly shuffled out together. Sally shot an unreadable glance at Quatre and followed; he stood alone in the examination room for a long moment, then drew a shuddering breath and went to join them.
Wufei walked behind Heero and Trowa, eyes fixed firmly on the floor. The three boys were all silent, feeling mentally battered and bruised; after dragging the entire story out of them, Lady Une had spent some time dissecting their character flaws and personal failings, individually and as a group. It had been a... painful experience. She had been especially scathing about Heero having changed all his contact details without leaving Duo any way to get in touch, but had neglected none of them.
*She still could have been much harder on me than she was,* Wufei thought morosely. *I deserve it.*
Absorbed in self-flagellation, he nearly walked into Heero's back as the Japanese boy stopped abruptly. Forced to come to a sudden halt himself, Wufei looked up angrily. "Yui, what--" Then he saw what Heero was looking at and choked the question off, pushing roughly past and nearly running down the corridor.
Duo was making his way slowly and painfully back down the hall from the x-ray room, supported on one side by Relena and on the other by Sally. His face was flushed and sheened with sweat, eyes nearly closed and mouth open slightly as he gasped for breath. Quatre was walking behind him, hands hovering just centimetres away from Duo's back as he held himself ready to catch if the braided boy fell.
"Duo!" Wufei exclaimed as he reached the little group, reaching for Duo without even thinking about it; Relena ducked out from under his arm and moved away just in time as Wufei took her place. "Damn it, onna, why isn't he in a wheelchair?" he demanded accusingly.
"I tried," Sally snapped. "He refused. Argue with him, if you think it'll work!"
Wufei hesitated, looking down at the top of Duo's head as the braided boy sagged against him, legs trembling but stubbornly remaining upright; then he sighed, defeated. "All right, no wheelchair," he said, bending to gather Duo up into his arms again, taking infinite care to avoid the bruises. "But you aren't walking, either!"
Duo didn't answer; he just sighed and relaxed completely, resting his head on Wufei's chest and closing his eyes.
Ray Anders sat in the small treatment room and waited for the resin cast on his arm to set, scowling as a number of bruises, scrapes and muscle strains made themselves felt.
*It was supposed to be Chang's mission,* he thought resentfully. *He did the investigation. He did the planning. Then he took off after this Maxwell person, leaving all his work for someone else to finish, and I got to be the poor schmuck who was fed into the grinder. The little prick probably would've sailed through it without a scratch, he's such a Mr Perfect.*
The male nurse checked the cast and nodded, satisfied; Ray growled out a grudging 'thank-you' and limped towards the door.
*What was up with that, anyway?* he thought, reaching for the knob. *He put in the missing persons report himself, and then got assigned to the case? That's not normal procedure! And what made it a Preventers job in the first place?*
Anders opened the door, stepped into the corridor, and was nearly run down by the object of his thoughts, carrying a limp, battered body in his arms.
*Whoa! Looks like he found him... waitaminnit. That kid's been beaten -- and there's no way all those bruises are less than four days old.* He watched through narrow eyes as Wufei carried his burden into an examination room, followed by some other people that he didn't really pay attention to; then he smirked nastily.
*Well. Looks like Mr Perfect has a skeleton or two in his closet after all. Now... what should I do about this?*
Wufei set Duo back down on the examining table, one hand lingering on Duo's shoulder until he was certain the injured boy was steady; his fingertips stroked briefly down the thin arm as he drew away.
Sally snorted softly under her breath as she watched out of the corner of one eye. *Pathetic. He doesn't even realise he's doing it! If he did realise, it would be sweet; as it is, it's just clueless.* Turning back to the computer, she checked her mail -- just in case -- and raised one eyebrow. *The blood tests are done already? I guess that little 'talk' I had with the technicians last week about 'urgent means URGENT, not when-we-come-back-from-lunch' had an effect after all!*
Opening the message, she scanned quickly down the results, pausing several times to frown and make a quick note on her datapad; then she called up the x-ray scans and studied them for a while. Part of her attention was still on the quiet one-sided conversation going on behind her as Wufei hovered by Duo's side.
"Are you all right? What happened?"
"Ah." Sally could almost hear the sour, understanding grimace on Wufei's face. "No doctor has ever been able to adequately explain to me why, if they are x-raying damaged ribs, they insist that you twist into the most uncomfortable positions possible."
"Yeah." A pause, then: "Started me coughing."
"Oh. Are you all right now?"
A silence that probably involved a nod or a shrug ended the exchange.
*Normally it would be Duo doing all the talking,* Sally thought, *trying to drag words out of Wufei. It's an interesting role reversal, but I hope it doesn't last!*
"Okay, Duo, I've got all the results now," she said, turning her chair to face him but well aware that she was really giving a report to the other five people in the room. They were watching her alertly; Duo didn't lift his gaze from his feet, seeming totally unconcerned.
"You're about thirty pounds underweight and suffering from malnutrition," she said bluntly. "You're anaemic, have major bruising over most of your torso and arms, and have three cracked ribs on the left side. You have a nasty case of bronchitis -- I'm amazed you haven't been coughing more than you have -- which, luckily, has not yet progressed to pneumonia, and to top it all off you seem to be running three minor viral infections at once. The good news is: You will recover fully. The bad news is: Eventually."
Pausing for a moment, Sally covertly surveyed her audience. Duo didn't even twitch; the others reacted with various degrees of pain, guilt and poker face. Wufei swallowed painfully, reaching towards Duo's shoulder and then pulling back. Quatre and Relena looked as if they were going to cry. Trowa seemed to be studying the floor between his boot toes. Heero... just closed his eyes briefly, his expression remaining cold and focussed.
"The first thing I'm going to do," Sally continued, "is give you a couple of injections; just a multivitamin shot and a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Then, I'm going to admit you to the infirmary here. I want to keep you under observation for at least the next few days, until I'm sure that you're well on the road to recovery, and you need total bed rest, so..." She spread her hands and trailed off.
Now Duo reacted.
Wide violet eyes flicked up, staring beseechingly at Wufei, a hint of desperate panic in their depths. A faint whisper escaped him, almost involuntarily.
Wufei stared back, stunned. *That's the first genuine emotion I've seen in his eyes today... besides hate and anger.*
*I guess I'm the lesser of two evils. Or... maybe...*
He tore his eyes away from Duo's and glared at Sally. "No. I told Duo I was taking him home, and I meant it. I'll look after him."
Sally glared back. "I really think it would be better, for Duo's sake, if--"
"Can I see you outside for a moment?" she said abruptly, standing and moving to the door without waiting for an answer.
"I'll be right back, Duo, and then we'll leave," Wufei growled, stalking after her. Heero was only a step behind him, Quatre and Trowa bringing up the rear, only to be brought up short as Sally closed the door firmly in their faces. Heero scowled and opened it again, but Sally refused to yield. "Not this time, Heero," she said coldly; when he didn't immediately let go, she drew herself up to her full height, eyes flashing dangerously. "Do I have to make that an order, Agent Yui?"
He let go of the doorknob as if he'd been stung.
Outside in the hall, Sally drew Wufei a couple of steps away from the door and lowered her voice. "Do you realise what's going on? What he's been doing to himself?"
He just looked at her blankly; she sighed, pushing a strand of hair back off her forehead. "Wufei... I don't know what happened to cause this, and I don't think he realises himself what he's been doing... but Duo's essentially been committing slow suicide by self-neglect."
Wufei squeezed his eyes shut, swallowing; then he opened them again, determinedly. "I'll deal with it."
"Can you? Can you watch him every minute? What if he decides to do something that's quicker and more direct?"
She looked at him incredulously; he made an impatient gesture and continued.
"You said it yourself, you don't think he's doing this consciously... and Duo once told me that he could push a self-destruct button in the heat of battle, but any other form of suicide was a coward's way out. Whatever else he is, Duo's never been a coward. Besides, what other option is there? You saw how he reacts when I walk away! I seem to be the only person he trusts right now--" *gods only know why* "--so do you honestly believe he'll get better alone in hospital?
"...all right. All right!" she burst out, throwing her hands up in surrender as she stepped aside to let an agent with one arm in a cast pass. "If you insist, then all right! I won't admit him."
"I do insist." His voice was cold, but he looked at her gratefully. "I'm taking him home. Just tell me what care he needs, and I'll deal with it."
As he turned a corner down the hall, Ray Anders glanced back, face carefully blank. Hanging around had been worth it; he'd only caught the very end of their conversation, but it was enough.
Everyone but Duo looked up expectantly at Sally as she marched back into the examination room, going straight to her desk and punching a com code into the computer. Duo glanced sideways at Wufei, still looking a little fearful, as the Chinese boy came to lean against the table.
"It's all right," Wufei said softly to him, eyes on Sally as the call went through.
< < Yes? > > Une asked.
"Wufei will be taking Duo home with him," Sally announced without preliminaries. "He's going to need a few days off, until Duo's over the worst of this."
Une raised an eyebrow. < < I see. Well, then... > > She looked slightly to the side, reading something in another window on her screen. < < Tomorrow is Sunday, which is Chang's rostered day off at the moment... not that he ever treats his days off as anything other than a normal work day... hm. I can give him until Thursday. > >
"That... should be enough to start Duo's recovery, yes," Sally nodded.
"We'll see," Wufei cut in.
< < If it isn't, I may not be able to give you more, > > Une warned. < < We are very short on experienced operatives right now. > >
"I can always resign," he said darkly.
< < Again? > > She snorted. < < You would, too. We'll see. > > *click!*
Twenty minutes later, they were ready to go. Quatre was carrying Duo's battered duffel bag; Relena had a plastic bag holding several pill bottles and a list of what Duo had to take when; Wufei had Duo, dressed once more and bundled up in the blanket.
As they left, Sally held Heero and Trowa back with a hand on each of their arms. "Just out of morbid curiosity, gentlemen," she asked calmly, "if you tried to touch Duo right now... would he react as violently as he did to Quatre while you were in with Une?"
Heero wrenched his arm free and stalked out, face set and cold; Trowa looked down at the floor, swallowing, and followed.
"Silence will be taken as assent," Sally said quietly to the empty room, then left to go talk to Une.
* * * * *
"It's amazing how much he's changed," Une said moodily, stabbing at the ice in her glass with her straw. "The few times I met him face-to-face during the war, he was so alive... I could be holding him at gunpoint and he'd still laugh at me. His eyes laughed. Now... that's all gone."
She and Sally were sitting in King O'Malley's, an Irish-style traditional pub that had become their bar of choice. It seemed to be becoming the semi-official Preventers' bar, too, which made sense; it was comfortable, the prices were reasonable, the food and drink were very good, and it was five minutes from HQ.
"When I think of how I reacted when Wufei asked if he could bring Duo in, I could just cringe," Sally told her. "I mean... I was joking, but..." She sighed, reaching for her own drink. "There's no way he got into that state in just four days."
"Eight. Months," Une snarled softly, stabbing harder.
Sally nearly spat rum and coke all over the table. "W-what?!" she sputtered, grabbing for a napkin.
"You heard me."
"Eight months?!" Sally whispered, shocked. "Duo was missing for that long and they only just started looking for him?!"
"They didn't realise," Une hissed, stabbing so hard at the ice that her straw split and bent.
One explanation later...
"Well," Sally sighed, sitting back and signalling for a refill, "it all makes a little more sense now. It's stupid, and sad, but it makes sense."
* * * * *
"I'll buy a hairdryer tomorrow, Duo," Wufei said quietly. There was no response; Duo was leaning sideways into the back of the couch, and seemed to be falling asleep.
*I'm not surprised,* Wufei thought, deciding that Duo's hair was dry enough to be plaited and setting the brush aside. *It's late, he's exhausted... he didn't sleep at all on the shuttle, and it hasn't exactly been a peaceful day! He didn't eat much, but I can start working on that tomorrow... just bathing seemed to exhaust him, even with me helping.*
Carefully tying off the end of the braid, Wufei gently touched a thin shoulder. "Duo?" Still no response; leaning forward, he saw that Duo's eyes were closed, breath coming in soft puffs from between slack lips. "Come on, Duo," he whispered, gently scooping up the sleeping boy. "Let's get you to bed."
After settling Duo onto his futon and pulling the covers up over him, Wufei hesitated for a moment, one hand reaching out to gently brush the spiky bangs back from his forehead; then he pulled away, moving to the wardrobe to get out a spare pillow and blanket.
Trying to get comfortable on the too-short sofa, Wufei set his jaw determinedly. *I'll fix this somehow, Duo,* he thought. *I'll make it better. And whatever happens, I swear, I'll never hurt you again.*
end 'Reunion' chapter 6
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