( Chapter 9 )
Duo sat on the bench by the customer service desk, huddled into Wufei's long winter coat, eyes fixed on the end of Aisle 8. His eyes widened and he leaned forward unconsciously as Wufei came into view, pushing a shopping cart; then he settled back again, a disappointed breath puffing from his lips, as the object of his attention vanished into Aisle 9.
He was so engrossed in watching for Wufei, eyes flicking from 9 to 10 and back again, that he never knew Sally was there until she spoke, reaching out towards him. "Duo, what in God's name are you doing here?! You should be in bed!"
Duo jerked and gasped in shock, yanking away from her hand, then made a pained noise and hunched over, hand pressed to his cracked ribs. Sally swore under her breath and sat next to him, mentally berating herself for startling him.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have surprised you like that. Are you okay?" Reaching out to press the back of her hand lightly against his forehead, she frowned. "You're still feverish. Why are you here?"
Slowly straightening up, he flicked a quick, unreadable glance at her, then looked back towards the shelves. "Shopping," he said softly.
"Oh, for... where's Wufei?"
Sally blinked, then followed Duo's gaze to the end of the aisle in question. There was no sign, however, of a teenage Chinese Preventer; she opened her mouth to ask another question, then paused as Duo leaned forward slightly, suddenly intent. A moment later, Wufei swung out into view, then vanished back into the depths of Aisle 11.
Sally raised an eyebrow, settling back and watching Duo silently. He seemed to have almost forgotten she was there, totally focussed on the last place he'd seen Wufei.
*No,* she decided, looking at his posture, *he's leaning slightly away from me... and he's shifted around so he's subtly turned his back on me. He knows very well that I'm sitting next to him, and he doesn't want me here. At least he isn't swearing at me; I guess I'm semi-accepted. Perhaps because Wufei asked him to cooperate with me?*
As she watched, Duo's gaze switched to the next aisle along.
*Has he got Wufei timed?* she wondered. *Or is he just guessing when Wufei is likely to finish an aisle? Timing him wouldn't work very well; depending on what each aisle holds, he'd take more or less time to--*
Duo leaned forwards, intent, an instant before Wufei came into view again.
*However he's doing it, he's frighteningly accurate!* Sally thought incredulously.
Wufei pushed his cart into Aisle 13 and let it coast to a halt, looking around apprehensively. In the other aisles, he'd had a general idea where everything was, even if he wasn't exactly shopping for his usual groceries. This aisle, however, was one he'd never had reason to enter, and he was out of his depth.
He had entered... the Cookie Zone.
*Normally, there's no way I'd buy Duo anything that had sugar as a main ingredient,* he thought. *But things aren't normal, and... ye gods! How many varieties of these things can there be? I've never even heard of half of these. I'll just look for things I remember Duo eating... um... lots of types of chocolate chip cookies, I think, and Oreos. Definitely Oreos...*
*"Wu-man, you have got to try these! They're the best!"*
*"I don't think so, Maxwell."*
*"Ah, come on, man! Live a little! Here I am, offering to broaden your horizons by sharing some of my precious stash with you. This is a sacrifice! The least you could do is take one and make a polite comment, even if you do loathe 'empty calories'. Dunk it in milk, that's the best way."*
*"I've told you before, Maxwell, I--"*
*"Hn. Not bad."*
*"Heero, you jerk! I wasn't offering-- hey! Give that back!"*
Wufei shook himself clear of the memory, a faint smile on his face. *Yes... definitely Oreos. And milk.*
Cruising slowly along the aisle, scanning the shelves, he grew increasingly frustrated. *I'm glad I have something specific to look for. There's so many different varieties, I'd be in serious trouble if I actually had to make a choice-- ah! There!*
With a relieved grin on his face, he reached towards the stack of blue packages, then froze, a look of horror slowly overtaking his features, as he saw what was sitting next to them.
*Regular... Double Stuffed... and Christmas Oreos?!*
As the minutes ticked by with no sign of Wufei, Sally watched Duo begin to fidget nervously, twisting the end of his braid through his fingers.
*He's never taken his eyes off the end of Aisle 13,* she mused. *However Duo's keeping track of Wufei's movements, he obviously believes that's where he's stopped... well, I want to have a talk to that boy anyway. I can prod him back into motion while I'm at it, and save poor Duo from getting an ulcer!*
Getting up from the hard bench, she dusted off the back of her skirt, eyeing Duo concernedly. "Duo, I'm going to go talk to Wufei. Will you be all right on your own?"
He gave her a Look up from under his bangs. It was a very expressive Look; it managed to fit 'Of course I'll be all right. I was perfectly fine before you got here. Now go away,' into the half-second before he turned away again.
"Ah. Yes. Silly me," she said, and walked off.
As Sally walked along past the checkout lines, she glanced over towards Duo, still gazing steadily in the same direction. *Well, since Duo thinks he's here, here is where I'll look first,* she thought, approaching the aisle in question. *I wonder what could be keeping him...? Oh, I see. Cookie Country. As far as Wufei is concerned, this is uncharted territory. Here There Be Ding Dongs.*
Snickering slightly, she turned the corner.
Wufei was standing transfixed in front of a display half-way down the aisle, a look of anguished indecision on his face. A lock of hair had escaped from his hair tie and fallen into his face; as Sally approached, he reached up impatiently and shoved it back, muttering to himself.
"--can't believe I'm obsessing over cookies," she heard as she came quietly up behind him. "I could always just get a pack of each... no. No, that's a really bad idea. It's already going to take me an hour just to put all this away! So... aagh! I'm babbling again! To hell with it. Duo always says 'more is better', so double stuffed it is." He grabbed a packet and almost threw it into the trolley, then looked up directly into Sally's stern face.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
A strangled yelp escaped Wufei as he froze in shock, eyes wide; then he straightened up, trying to regain his composure. "Shopping," he said, voice half an octave higher than usual.
"So I see," Sally said dryly, eyeing the contents of the shopping cart. "Interesting selection you've got here. Frozen pizza... pasta salad... dairy desserts... creamed rice... three flavours of ice cream... Pixie Stix?"
"Duo likes them," he said defensively.
"I'm glad to see you also have some more conventional foods to accompany the ice cream... and Pixie Stix. And while we're on the topic of Duo, exactly why did you drag him out here when he should be in bed?!"
"I didn't drag him!" Wufei protested. "He wouldn't take no for an answer! When I came out of the bedroom after getting changed, he was over by the door with his coat and boots on. I was scared he'd follow me on foot if I left him behind! Damn it, Sally, he looked at me!"
Suddenly struck with the memory of the vicious glare Duo had favoured her with the day before, not to mention the eloquent Look she'd received five minutes earlier, Sally lost a lot of her righteous indignation. "Well... you may have a point. His eyes are incredibly expressive, aren't they?"
"Yes," he emphatically agreed, sweeping the loose hair back from his face again. "Sally, how long will it take for him to get to the point where he can eat more than a few bites without exhausting himself? I mean, I can make him a lot of small meals, that's not a problem, but he's also sleeping a lot and I don't want to keep waking him up to eat."
"At this point, so long as you're getting some food into him, sleep is more important," she said slowly. "The amount he needs should decrease soon, though it will remain significant. From Tuesday, I think you could start waking him for meals; if he needs to, he can just go back to sleep after he's eaten. As to the size of the meals, all I can advise is 'don't rush him'."
"I'm not. I won't," Wufei said seriously. "I figured if I got stuff he likes, stuff that I can give him in small servings, that will make it easier. I mean, I know some of this stuff is total junk, but..."
"I think only the Pixie Stix really fall into that category," Sally said, poking through the contents of the cart. "After all, you can always give him a glass of milk with the Oreos. They're better dunked, anyway... I think you have enough for now, unless you have something specific in mind."
"Uh... milk, and some clothes for Duo. He can't keep wearing my workout pants and t-shirts forever."
"Good point. Now get a move on. Duo's been keeping track of where you are, and if he doesn't see you soon he's going to twist the end of his braid right off."
Wufei snorted, starting to move away. "And you still asked why I brought him with me?"
* * * * *
Nearing the end of her shift, Leah was developing a much greater appreciation for Amanda's skill and stamina.
*How she manages to handle all this work and still keep a smile on her face all day,* Leah thought, *is totally beyond me. Okay, maybe she doesn't hate filing the way I do, but still... the woman never slows down! I swear, I'd bet anyone a week's pay that she could take the assault course or do a cross-country run and leave half the field agents in her dust.* Dumping her armload of files on one of the tables in the file room, she scowled at the scattered folders on other tables, left there by agents who couldn't be bothered putting them back themselves. *Not to mention that it's got to take serious willpower for her to come in here every day and see that, and still be polite when she reminds everyone to put the files back where they came from. I mean, she knows who's working on which cases; it doesn't take much thought to work out which agents never learned to pick up after themselves. I'd start planting car bombs after a week.*
Picking up one file that was teetering on the edge of the table, she raised an eyebrow and smirked sourly. *Look at this, for example. I gave this one to that jerk Anders this morning. I don't see any of the others I gave him, though... don't tell me this is all he's done today!*
By the time everything had been put away (though Leah was tempted to leave everyone else's files out and just drop nasty notes on the desks of the people responsible), it was well past time to go. About to drop a half-empty bottle of water in her drawer to wait until Monday, Leah remembered Chang Wufei's neglected fern, still unwatered nine hours after she'd noticed it; the water went into the plant pot and the bottle hit the inside of Chang's trash bin in a perfect three-pointer.
Dusting off her hands with a triumphant smile on her face, she turned back towards her own desk, only to do a double-take at something halfway across the room.
*What the...? I would have expected Anders to bolt out of here one second before shift change. What's he still doing here--* she checked her watch *--nearly an hour after? And his jerk friends, too. What's so fascinating that they're staying late to discuss it?*
Watching the huddled group of men around Anders's desk, intent on their low-voiced conversation, Leah felt a chill run down her spine.
*I'm starting to get a really bad feeling about this.*
* * * * *
Once Duo was comfortably settled on the sofa, wrapped up in a blanket with a snack pack of chocolate pudding and the TV remote, Wufei started unpacking the rest of the groceries. Picking up one particular blue packet, he scowled at the Oreos before shoving them into a cupboard.
*I cannot believe that retail consumerism has gone so far that there are Christmas editions of cookies,* he thought, then paused with a bag of grapes dangling from his hand. *Christmas. I have to get Duo a Christmas present... I'll think about it later. It'll be easier to shop after I go back to work, anyway...*
*Shit. Work. If Duo reacts like that when I'm just going shopping, what's going to happen when I go back to work?!*
*I can't take him with me. I may have to blackmail Lady Une into giving me more time off... well, that was always an option and she knows it. Like I told her, I can always resign. Not that I really want to, but if Duo needs me...*
*I'll see what happens. There's three days to go before I have to make a decision. If he settles down and doesn't react so badly when I need to go places... if he starts eating more... if he gains a little weight...*
*If he starts talking...*
*I think that's the worst part, really. Duo wasn't designed to be quiet.*
Thirty seconds of silence later, Wufei blinked and looked at the bag of grapes he was still holding. *Babbling and daydreaming now. I'm getting worse!*
* * * * *
"I'm telling you, aren't I? I saw that Maxwell kid when I was in the infirmary wing getting this done." Anders waved his cast and continued, voice low and intense. "It was right after Chang brought him in. He can't be more than fifteen or sixteen, skinny little kid, looked half starved and he was covered in bruises. Most of 'em were old bruises, too, and the APB was only up for four days before Mr. Perfect found him. There's no way he got that beat up and thin in only four days."
Ray Anders and several of his Preventers friends -- some who had heard the story already, some who hadn't -- had taken over a corner table in King O'Malley's and were talking over beers, falling silent and glaring whenever anyone looked like they were coming into earshot.
"So what are you implying here, Ray?"
"I'm not implying a damn thing, Ivan. I'm saying that kid went missing 'cause he got away from Chang and ran like a rabbit. I'm saying he had good reason to run. I'm saying Mr. Perfect Chang isn't so bloody perfect at all! Major Po wanted to hospitalise that poor kid, and Chang wouldn't let her; said he was taking him home. What do you think?"
"Well..." Ivan said doubtfully.
"Come on, man, it's right in front of you in black and blue. That prick Chang is beating Duo Maxwell, and Une and Sally Po either can't see what's right in front of their eyes -- or--" his voice dropped and he leaned forwards "--they know and they don't care."
"Oh, hey, come on! Why wouldn't they stop it if they knew?!"
"Because Chang is their precious golden boy," Anders hissed, eyes narrowing. "Chang is the teenage prodigy. Chang is the Perfect Preventer. Chang is the eighteen-year-old prick who out-fights, out-shoots, out-thinks and outranks everyone! They've been using him as their example of what every new recruit should aspire to since the Preventers started; you think they want his nasty little secret to come out? What do you think the politicians would do if they found out one of the most respected Preventers is a sadistic teenage paedophile?! They'd shut us down. The whole organisation is Une's baby, she's not gonna let that happen. We have to take care of this ourselves.
As the others nodded, muttering agreement, and the last objector fell silent, Anders hid a mean smirk behind his glass of beer, silently toasting himself.
*I don't give a shit what the real story is,* he thought viciously. *You've had a beating coming to you for months, you perfect prick!*
* * * * *
Sally walked into King O'Malley's, passing a group of uniformed Preventers on their way out, and paused, glancing at her watch. *Ten to six; I'm early. Une won't be here until--*
"Sally, excellent timing."
"Une?" Sally blinked, turning to face the other woman. "Don't tell me you're finally listening to me and working less than twelve hours in one day!"
"Yes, I left early--"
"--by your standards," Sally muttered.
"--but I'm not planning to make a habit of it," Une said dryly. "I confess, your message made me very curious. It wasn't quite up to Chang's standards of brevity, but it came close. 'Meet me at O'Malley's if you want news of your favourite ex-enemy'... I assume you meant Maxwell?"
"Of course. Do you honestly think Wufei's messages are shorter? I was rather proud of that one."
Une snorted. "I think he would have used 'for' instead of 'if you want'; and he certainly wouldn't have said 'favourite'. So, what's your news?"
Pulling out a chair at a convenient table, Sally chuckled. "Were you aware of Wufei's tendency to babble under stress?"
Halfway through sitting down, Une froze. "Babble?" she said incredulously. "We are talking about Chang Wufei, aren't we? Ex-Gundam pilot, silent under torture, puts himself into a meditative trance if you try to get data out of him using drugs, master of the fifty-word mission report? Scorns 'useless chit-chat'? That Wufei?" Slowly, she sat down and put her bag to one side, folding her hands in front of her at the table. "No, Sally, I was not aware of any such tendency, stress or no stress. Would you care to elaborate?" A faint smile twitched at one corner of her mouth.
"Well," Sally said, eyes sparkling mischievously, "I'm not surprised that you haven't encountered this phenomenon before. It takes a special sort of stress to trigger it. Duo-related stress. That boy has Wufei wrapped around his little finger, and neither of them has worked it out yet."
"Interesting," Une nodded solemnly, keeping her face straight with an effort. "And how did you collect this data? I thought you intended to check up on them on Wednesday, not today."
"I went shopping. They were at the supermarket."
"They. Wufei did, apparently, try to leave Duo behind at his apartment, but Duo looked at him."
Une sighed, reaching up with one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose, eyes squeezing shut for a moment. "You're determined to force me to parrot important words back to you, aren't you? What exactly do you mean, Duo 'looked' at him?"
Sally laughed out loud. "All right, I'll stop. Believe me, Duo may not be saying very much at the moment, but he's making up for it with his eyes. His looks speak volumes; from what Wufei said to me in the supermarket, I'd guess the one that persuaded him to bring Duo along said something like, 'If you don't take me with you, I will follow your car on foot'. You'll know what I mean after he hits you with one."
"I'll take your word for it. Can we get back to Chang and his newly-acquired verbal diarrhoea?"
"I found Wufei in the cookie aisle, holding a semi-incoherent conversation with himself over which Oreos to buy for Duo. At one point, he even informed himself that he was babbling. It didn't stop him. When he started talking to me, he just switched the babble to a new topic; Duo, and how to get him to eat enough. Not only that, but he was wearing casual clothes, his hair was coming out of its tie, and he called me 'Sally'."
"Are you sure that was Chang Wufei? Would you like to change your story? Personally, I'm starting to favour alien abduction and replacement with a badly-programmed clone as a working hypothesis. It's more plausible."
They shared a quiet chuckle, then Sally sobered. "One thing still worries me..."
"Duo is... seriously fixated on Wufei. Dependent. And Wufei isn't in any shape to discourage it."
"Is that really such a problem?"
"Une, Duo essentially forced Wufei to take him along, even though Wufei knows he's in no shape to go anywhere. And he was tracking Wufei from aisle to aisle like a hawk; when Wufei spent longer than usual in one aisle, Duo got agitated. When I was examining him yesterday, Duo grabbed at Wufei every time it looked like he was going to leave the room!" Sally sighed. "That really isn't a good mental state for Duo to be in."
"I understand your concern, Sally, but..." Une frowned, organising her thoughts. "Duo Maxwell has been alone for eight months, and for most of that time he believed that all but one of his friends had betrayed and abandoned him. He still believes that -- well, he may not believe it of Relena any more, but... What I'm trying to say is, now that he's back with at least one of his friends, isn't it natural that he'd be... clingy? Especially since he's in such bad shape physically? If he's still acting this way once he's fully recovered, then I'd worry."
"Yes, but..." Sally grimaced. "He's refusing to interact with other people. It's understandable, even reasonable, that he doesn't want to have anything to do with the other Gundam pilots right now, but if he won't even talk to people who had nothing to do with the original problem..."
"He answered my e-mail."
"I added a P.S. to an email I sent Chang, thanking Duo for the roses. He sent back 'you're welcome'."
Sally let out a deep breath, leaning back. "Well... that makes me feel a little better. We'll see how it goes."
* * * * *
*they've cut the air off...*
*I'm going to die. I made it this far, survived everything they could throw at me...*
*...called myself the God of Death...*
*...now it's my turn.*
*...what about 'Fei?*
*No. Not 'Fei. Can't let them kill 'Fei... my 'Fei...*
*...never got to tell him... I...*
*can't stop coughing*
*want to tell him but I can't stop coughing*
Wufei jerked awake on the couch, heart pounding, hearing strangled coughs from the bedroom.
*Damn!* he thought as he scrambled to his feet. *He hardly coughed at all today, I hoped he was already getting better-- hell, that sounds bad--*
Duo was tangled helplessly in the covers, back arching as wracking coughs shook his body. Wufei pulled him up into a half-sitting position, cradling him gently as he tugged away the confining blankets and rubbed Duo's back.
"Shhh... shh, Duo, it's all right, just breathe... breathe, Duo... shh... I'm here..."
"...shh, Duo... breathe..."
Warm arms pulled Duo up against someone, rocking him gently.
"...it's all right..."
*'Fei? They turn the air back on?*
"...shh... just breathe..."
*yeah... it is easier... guess we're not gonna die just yet, huh?*
*Thought I was gonna die. Wanted to tell you so bad. Didn't want to die without letting you know.*
*We're Gundam pilots. I could die any time. I might never get another chance...*
"...love you. I've always loved you. Didn't want to say... in case... Do you hate me?"
Wufei heaved a sigh of relief into Duo's hair as the braided pilot's breathing gradually settled. The movement of his hands slowed and gentled, unconsciously shifting focus from rubbing Duo's back to stroking his plait.
Duo mumbled something into Wufei's shoulder.
"...hm? Duo? Are you awake?" Wufei ducked his head to peer into the other boy's face. *No... he's still asleep. What did he say?* Leaning closer as Duo muttered again, Wufei caught the end of it.
"...Do you hate me?"
Wufei choked. *My dream... that was in my dream! Duo was fading away and I couldn't call him back-- no! Not this time!*
He clutched the limp boy to him, one hand grasping Duo's braid possessively.
"I don't hate you, Duo. I could never hate you. No matter what!"
Duo sighed and tucked his face against Wufei's neck, one hand knotting itself into the shoulder of Wufei's t-shirt.
end 'Reunion' chapter 9
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