by: Aoe

Strangers in Paradise + Part 4

Wufei carefully maneuvered Nataku into the underground cavern beneath the Winner mansion. Rashid had met him at the door and invited him in to greet Quatre, but Wufei had insisted on seeing his Gundam properly concealed first. Rashid had obligingly given him directions to the cavern entrance, which Wufei had to admit he wouldn't have found without the assistance. It was well disguised.

He walked the massive green Gundam slowly into the dimly lit bunker, unsurprised to encounter row upon row of the sand-colored mobile suits the Maguanacs used, each with it's own number stenciled elegantly on one ‘shoulder.' He moved Nataku toward the deeper portion of the cavern, where he could see the shadowy bulk of two other Gundams. As he got closer, he could see that it was Sandrock and Deathscythe standing at attention against the rock wall. As he moved Nataku in beside the bat-winged Gundam, he noticed the cockpit hatch was hanging open and a few of the body panels had been removed, apparently for repairs. He wondered if Duo had come ahead of Heero and Trowa, or if Quatre was having the Maguanacs work on Deathscythe.

Once he had Nataku properly situated and powered down, Wufei opened his own hatch and had his question immediately answered. Duo's unmistakable voice wafted from the interior of the boy's Gundam. He was singing in English, some song unfamiliar to Wufei. But that described pretty much everything Wufei had ever heard Duo sing. He listened with half an ear to the lyrics as he rode the lift strap down to the floor and crossed over to Deathscythe's massive feet.

"Crashing silent, broken down... fallen into night... who gave up and who gave in, I'll go without a fight... cut me down or cut me dead, cut me in or out... kiss me blind time after time, take away my doubt... fix me now, I wish you would... bring me back to life... kiss me blind, somebody should, from hollow into light... " Wufei frowned at the words. An odd song. He rapped his fist sharply against Deathscythe's gundanium plating.

Duo's singing immediately stopped and he called out, "Geez, Ahmed, everybody's a music critic, huh? Do I complain when you're singing Desert Rose?"

Wufei felt a smile forming on his face. Oddly enough, considering their last encounter, he had missed Duo. The American's good-natured teasing and perpetual high spirits were refreshing in the middle of a war. The last time he'd seen Duo, that aspect of his personality had been almost completely repressed, and Wufei had been a bit worried that the laughing baka was gone for good.

"Maxwell!" he barked sharply upwards, interrupting a muttered tirade about censorship and personal expression. Duo was silent a moment, then a familiar head appeared at the edge of the cockpit hatch, and a familiar braid dangled over the side.

"Wufei?" Duo asked incredulously. "Is that really you?"

"Who were you expecting, Khushrenada?" Wufei asked sarcastically. Duo laughed merrily in reply, and Wufei smiled again. It seemed his worry for the American had been groundless. "May I come up?" he called.

"Sure!" Duo yelled back, and the lift strap began descending before Wufei could even begin to locate the ground level control. When it reached him, he climbed on, settling his foot into the loop as the strap reversed direction.

He stepped onto the platform set into Deathscythe's chest, where he saw Duo had most the cockpit instruments spread out in varying degrees of assembly. He raised an eloquent eyebrow in question. Duo shrugged and muttered, "Young Master Winner fucked up all the calibrations and then managed to short circuit half the systems." Duo's tone was light, but Wufei thought he detected an undercurrent of tension. He settled into a lotus position out of range of any spare parts and studied the American for a moment.

Duo returned his scrutiny, pulling his legs up to his chest and offering his best wide-eyed innocent expression. The one that fooled no one who had known the boy more than an hour.

"So, how are you?" Wufei asked without preamble. His relationship with Duo was an odd one. They weren't exactly close, and they had nothing in common, but they shared a certain bond. You couldn't almost die with someone and not feel a connection to him. Duo made the reserved Chinese pilot uneasy with his open manner, but Wufei respected Duo's honesty. In return, he knew Duo was sometimes perturbed by his admittedly archaic sense of honor, but appreciated his fairness.

At the same time, they both rather enjoyed seeing each other squirm. It was a somewhat adversarial friendship.

But it was a friendship, nonetheless, which made Wufei wonder at the sudden coldness in Duo's eyes at his simple question. The wide-eyed expression became more closed, almost defensive. The arms wrapped around his knees tightened.

"Been talking to Quatre?" Duo asked, his voice cold. Wufei frowned. This was an odd reaction.

"No... " he said slowly. "I haven't seen Winner yet. I am just now arrived."

"Oh," Duo said, sounding surprised, and his posture immediately relaxed, his smile returning.

"So, how are you?" Wufei asked again. His curiosity about Duo's first reaction was overwhelming, but he would bide his time for an answer.

Duo shrugged in reply. "I'm okay," he said offhandedly, glancing off to the side as he spoke. "Heero and Trowa are off picking up their Gundams," he continued before Wufei could open his mouth. "They left three days ago. Should be back in a couple more. Right now it's just you, me and the Maguanacs."

"And Quatre," Wufei added, watching closely for a reaction.

Duo frowned as though he'd tasted something bitter. "Yeah, Quatre," he muttered, looking away again.

Wufei ached to ask the question. Instead he tried a different topic. "Did Yuy get around to apologizing for his reprehensible behavior?" he asked calmly. Wufei had been rather bewildered by the whole situation at the time, but upon reflection, he'd decided that what the Japanese boy had done to Duo had been unjustly cruel.

Duo blinked in surprise at the question, then a slow, more genuine smile began to spread across his face. He lowered his legs, shifting to sit Indian style. A far less defensive position, Wufei noted. "Yeah," Duo said slowly, "yeah, he did. In fact, we're kind of...together now, and... oh, hell you don't want to hear about that," he interrupted himself, a crimson blush staining pale cheeks.

Wufei felt his eyes widen slightly, but managed to repress any further reaction to the news. After all, he knew the two had slept together once already. It wasn't all that surprising they'd worked out their differences, especially with Barton there to act as the much-needed voice of reason. He'd actually hoped Maxwell and Yuy would get together. He'd decided they would be good for each other.

Still, one wasn't certain exactly what to say.

"Ah... well, congratulations," Wufei offered hesitantly. It seemed to be acceptable. Duo beamed happily at him.

"Geez, Wu-man, you're being really cool about this," he declared in an amazed tone.

"Am I not always... cool?" Wufei asked archly, his dark eyes twinkling. Duo laughed heartily at the remark while Wufei pretended to be offended, sticking his nose in the air and scowling.

Finally Duo calmed down and wiped the tears of hilarity from his eyes. He was now sprawled out on his side, looking up at Wufei from beneath his eternally too-long bangs. "I missed you, Wu," he declared softly. Then he sighed and rolled over onto his back, staring up at the shadowed roof of the cavern. "Okay," he said firmly. "You can ask."

Wufei pondered this permission. There were so many questions... but first things first, he supposed.

"Your recovery goes well?" he asked calmly.

Duo's lips tightened slightly at the question, but he simply shrugged again and replied, "As well as can be expected. Yeah, I'm doing okay, Wu."

Wufei nodded in acknowledgment. "That is good," he declared, feeling relieved.

Duo turned his head, frowning over at the Chinese pilot. "You believe me? Just like that?" he asked suspiciously.

Wufei frowned. "I have never known you to lie, Maxwell. Are you saying I shouldn't believe you?"

"No! I just... " Duo turned his face back to the ceiling, frowning softly. "I guess I'm just out of the habit of people not thinking the worst of me," he concluded bitterly.

"What happened?" Wufei asked softly. He hated to pry, and if Maxwell refused to answer, he would let the matter drop. But if there was something troubling the American that Wufei could help him with, he hoped to be permitted the honor.

Wufei had been quite surprised to discover how Duo had been supporting the group of them back in the city. He'd also been astonished to learn of the boy's history of drug abuse. In his shock, he had hesitated to defend Duo from Quatre's angry statements, and when he had been spurred to protest, he had been less than enthusiastic in his arguments. Since he'd left the group, Wufei had taken time to meditate upon what he had seen and learned during that strange week they'd spent cooped up together. His conclusions had left him ashamed of not sticking up more strenuously for the American when Duo could not defend himself.

Then he had contacted Sally Po, and they had had a very long and informative discussion about drug addiction and recovery, which had left Wufei quietly amazed at Duo's inner strength. Considering what Sally had told him about situations and emotions that could trigger a relapse into drug use, Wufei thought it was frankly amazing that Duo had resisted at all. And the behavior of his friends had been less than supportive.

No longer, though. Wufei was determined he would repay his debt to Duo. The American had put himself at great risk for his friends, and such an action deserved loyalty and support. He would not shirk his duty again.

All this passed through Wufei's mind while Duo stared at the ceiling and chewed his lip, apparently contemplating the answer to Wufei's final question. After another few minutes of contemplation, the braided boy sighed heavily, and began to speak.

"Well, in a way, I guess I brought it on myself, cuz I shoulda known better than to kiss Trowa goodbye in Little Lord Winner's mansion... "

Wufei listened in amazement and dawning horror to Duo's account of Quatre's attack on his character three days earlier. It didn't seem possible that the gentle Arabian, usually the peacemaker of the group, would be so deliberately hurtful to one of his closest friends. And Duo had been the closest to Quatre of them all, having been the one to spend the most time with the blond other than Heero, and Maxwell's nature being more open and sociable than the Japanese boy's was.

Of course, Wufei reflected irritably, where Barton was involved, all bets were off with Quatre. The blond's strange fascination with the tall, quiet boy was really no less baffling than Relena Peacecraft's obsession with Heero. And Trowa gave Quatre even less encouragement than Heero did that crazy girl.

But, infatuated or not, it was unconscionable for Quatre to treat a friend and fellow pilot the way he had Duo. There was simply no excuse to stage a surprise attack on a man's weak point, and then kick him when he was down.

Wufei sat quietly, seeking control of the simmering anger Duo's words had kindled within him. He could tell from he American's dismissive attitude toward the event that Duo did not wish to make an issue of it. This was probably at least partially due to the unavoidable fact that the five of them had to work together or they would surely fail in their mission. Wufei admired Duo's ability to swallow his pride in order to prevent a schism within their ranks, since Heero, and probably Trowa as well considering some of what Duo had said, would be less than thrilled with the Arabian if they learned of the episode.

But Wufei was also certain that Duo's motives for keeping the matter to himself were not completely logical. He'd known Duo for a long time now, they all had, but Wufei had perhaps had a bit more experience with a certain aspect of the American's psyche than the others.

It was inevitable in a relationship such as theirs, where the status quo was a semi-constant state of friendly antagonism. You learned, better than even much closer friends, your opponent's weaknesses. You learned which buttons you could push to produce a certain reaction. You learned that which irritated, that which enraged...and that which truly hurt.

Duo knew these things about Wufei, and, to a lesser extent, he was certain, Wufei knew these things about Duo. Not that they had made an involved psychological study of one another, but such was the nature of their interactions. Offhand comments and deliberate insults, the results of which were carefully observed and catalogued. They knew how to get beneath each other's skin, and by silent agreement, since they really were friends beneath it all, they avoided topics that hit too close to their hearts.

But this accumulated knowledge, which he would never have put to such use, allowed Wufei to realize how deeply Quatre had actually hurt Duo. He had struck at the American's most vulnerable point, his sense of self-worth. Wufei had some issues in that area himself, as they all did. They were adolescents, after all. But Duo's insecurities were more deeply ingrained than most. Wufei had known this for some time, and thus carefully avoided any comments that could be taken as direct belittlement of Duo's worth to the group. Considering all that he had learned of Duo recently, Wufei could now more clearly understand where that insecurity stemmed from.

He was certain that at least part of Duo's desire not to make an issue of Quatre's cruelty was the result of the American's doubts and fears. Part of Duo, Wufei was grimly certain, was probably in complete agreement with Quatre's assessment of him.

Wufei sighed, releasing his anger with his breath. His anger was useless to Duo.

"The Maguanacs... they have treated you poorly as well?" Wufei finally asked hesitantly.

Duo rolled back onto his side to face Wufei, frowning slightly in obvious confusion. "No, actually they've been really cool," Duo replied, sounding puzzled. Wufei felt greatly relieved at this statement. At least Duo had not been stranded alone in a completely hostile household. Duo shook his head. "I don't get that, really. I mean, those guys worship Quatre. But even though his Imperial Blond Majesty has been giving me the cold shoulder for days now ­ not that I want to talk to him anyway ­ they haven't been jerks or anything. And, like, they let me eat out here in the hangar with them, and I've been hanging out in the barracks, trading war stories... They're nice guys."

Duo still looked puzzled, but he seemed more relaxed speaking of the Maguanacs' kindness than he had been since Wufei had arrived. Wufei bent his head to his chest, concealing a small smile. He remembered watching Duo with the rowdy pack of mechanics who had manned the Peacemillion. Duo had been well liked by them all. The other pilots didn't associate with the crew much. It didn't surprise Wufei that Duo got on well with the Maguanacs. He was truly the friendliest of the group. Quatre the Maguanacs adored and followed, for some strange reason Wufei had never quite learned, but Duo just had a way with people. Quatre held himself apart, he was Master Quatre to these men, despite being a boy of fifteen. But Duo mingled cheerfully with anyone and everyone. No one was below, or above him, for that matter.

Which, Wufei suspected, was an aspect of Duo's personality that rubbed Winner wrong on some level. The blond had been raised believing himself better than most people, and being considered an equal by a street kid from L2 probably didn't strike Quatre as the honor it had come to be to Wufei.

A loud voice interrupted Wufei's musings. "You okay up there, Duo?"

Duo grinned and hung his head over the side of the platform. "Yeah, I'm cool, Kalid. Why?"

"Well, when the caterwauling stopped, we started to worry you passed out from lack of oxygen up there or something," the voice called back sarcastically.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't realize you liked my singing so much that you'd miss it! I'll start singing again, I promise ­ and I'll be loud this time!"

An agonized groan issued from floor level, and Wufei chuckled softly at the exchange. Yes, the Maguanacs had obviously remained friendly with Duo, and were apparently keeping a concerned eye on the boy as well. Some of his guilt over having put off travelling to the mansion was assuaged. He still wished he had been here to defend Duo from Quatre, or at least to comfort and reassure him afterwards, but at least Duo hadn't been completely alone.

That would have been a situation with potential for disaster.

Duo finished his exchange of insults with the Maguanac below, and was informed that dinner was ready, if he cared to join them. Duo glanced over his shoulder, raising a brow at Wufei. Wufei nodded in return. He felt no desire to go into the mansion and eat with Quatre.

"Okay if Wu comes, too?" Duo yelled down.

"The more the merrier," Kalid replied affably.

"All right! Let's eat!" Duo declared happily, jumping to his feet and beginning to scramble down his Gundam, not bothering with the lift strap.

"Maxwell! Are you crazy? You could fall to your death!" Wufei yelled irritably down at the boy as Duo swung himself down from Deathscythe's hip to its leg. Duo just laughed in reply, sliding down to the floor.

Wufei shook his head. "Yuy's bad influence," he grumbled to himself.

+

Quatre pushed his mu shu pork around his plate with his fork, frowning slightly. From the corner of his eye, he could see Rashid, standing silently against the wall, wincing as the sharp tines of the fork scraped against the expensive china. Ignoring Rashid's discomfort, Quatre turned his gaze to the untouched plate congealing beside him.

"Do you think he got lost?" Quatre asked, a wistful note creeping into his voice. Duo hadn't shown up for meals with Quatre since their... disagreement. This had troubled Quatre, reinforcing his theory that Duo was still in denial about the extent of his problems. Quatre knew he'd been a bit harsh with the boy, but... it was all for Duo's own good. Tough love. Upon reviewing the scene he'd observed from the hallway, Quatre had finally remembered that Trowa hadn't responded to Duo's advances, but had simply turned and left. Obviously, the tall pilot hadn't wanted to upset Duo by yelling or pushing him away, but just as obviously, Trowa hadn't really fallen prey to Duo's manipulations.

Once he realized this, much of Quatre's initial anger had dissipated, allowing his concern for Duo's health and well-being to occupy his thought again. He'd expressed some of his concerns to Rashid when a day and a half had passed with no sign of Duo. Rashid had given Quatre a rather strange look, hesitating a moment, then informed him that Duo was out in the hangar, working on Deathscythe. The Maguanacs were watching over him. Rashid had also pointed out to Quatre that the mansion was fairly well isolated, so there really wasn't any danger of Duo using heroin at the moment. There wasn't any around.

Quatre had been somewhat skeptical of that idea. True, he was pretty certain Duo hadn't been using the drug before their time in the city, but then, one never really knew. They all spent a lot of time alone, on solo missions. Who knew what Duo did for recreation? And it was always possible the American kept an emergency stash in his Gundam, although Quatre had checked everywhere he could think of in Deathscythe's cockpit.

Rashid had refrained from replying to any of these comments. He had simply given Quatre another odd look, his lips pressed together in a thin line.

They hadn't discussed the situation further.

Quatre had been quite busy for the past few days with Winner Enterprises business, but he still occasionally found time to worry about Duo, or Heero, or, most often, Trowa...

But today he had finished up his paperwork for a while, and then Wufei had arrived. Quatre had been thrilled. Finally, a rational human being he could talk to. Wufei, he was certain, would share his concerns about Duo, and perhaps between them they could figure out how to make the American face up to reality. Quatre had sent special instructions to the chef, and had been looking forward to sharing a nice, friendly dinner with the Chinese pilot.

But Wufei had never arrived. According to Rashid and the servants, the Chinese boy hadn't come back to the house after asking for directions to the underground hangar.

It occurred to Quatre that Rashid had never answered his question. He turned to the large man with a frown, but just as he did so, a familiar slender figure in white stepped into the dining room.

Quatre smiled brightly in greeting at Wufei, not put off by the Chinese boy's dour expression. Wufei was as bad as Heero when it came to dark looks.

"Wufei! It's so good to see you! Did you get Nataku put away?" Quatre asked, deciding he wouldn't make an issue about Wufei's rudeness in not coming in for dinner. The plate of cold food made an eloquent enough statement on its own.

Wufei stared flatly at Quatre for a moment, then answered shortly, "Yes."

Quatre's smile faltered slightly at the brief reply, but he recovered quickly. Wufei was not terribly sociable, and they'd never really been very close. None of the others were outgoing really, except... Quatre's smile faltered again, and again he forced it back to its original brightness.

Wufei stared at him flatly for a while, then announced, "I've been speaking to Maxwell."

Quatre decided the smile wasn't worth the effort. He let it fade, an expression of mild interest taking its place. "Oh?" he murmured inquiringly.

Wufei's dark eyes narrowed, his hand twitching near the hilt of his katana. "I would like to hear your reasons for attacking him, Winner," Wufei said quietly.

Quatre blinked in surprise. "Attacking him?" he asked. "Is that what he told you? Really, Wufei, would I treat a friend and teammate like that? I just said some things to him that he needed to hear, but he doesn't want to acknowledge the truth, so ­ "

"Some things he needed to hear?" Wufei repeated incredulously. His eyes widened again in amazement. "He needed to be told he was using sex to manipulate Heero? That you, one of the few people whose opinion matters to him, have no faith in his recovery? That in your eyes he's... what was it exactly? A fucking junkie and a whore?" Wufei glared challengingly at Quatre, who felt his stomach twist painfully at hearing his words thrown back at him. Somehow... somehow he'd blocked out how very... cruel he'd actually been. He'd just been so angry...

"This was what he needed to hear?" Wufei demanded in a tone of quiet menace.

Quatre's mouth opened and closed several times, but no sound came out. He wasn't sure what he was trying to say. Considering Wufei's angry misinterpretation of events, he wasn't sure what he could say.

But is it really a misinterpretation? some small part of his mind whispered. He's only repeating the things you said. You know you said them. You were there.

But they had to be said! Quatre argued with himself.

Why?

Quatre dropped his gaze from Wufei's scowling face, baffled by that faint internal question. Why had he said all those things? It had been out of concern for Duo... hadn't it?

Was it? Or was it... his mind dredged up a flash of memory, Duo's lips pressed gently to Trowa's... jealousy?

No! Quatre denied sharply. "No!"

Wufei blinked in surprise, and Quatre realized that he'd voiced his vehement denial aloud. He flushed slightly. He wasn't jealous, damn it! But he could hardly explain the train of thought that had produced his statement to Wufei...

"I... perhaps I was a bit... harsher than I should have been," he murmured reluctantly. He wasn't certain at all that that was true, but the statement seemed to placate Wufei a bit.

"Perhaps you were," the Chinese boy snapped irritably. "Perhaps you ought to apologize."

Quatre stifled a frown. Why did no one else see... But of course, they were all taken in by Duo. The American was obviously a highly skilled manipulator, to convince people who'd seen him in the midst if his drug-induced frenzy that he didn't have a problem.

It would do no good to argue with everyone.

"Perhaps I ought to," he replied slowly.

Wufei relaxed visibly at that, a small, pleased smile appearing on his face. "I think he would like that. I think it would be a great help," Wufei declared, nodding firmly. He waited for Quatre's nod of reply, then turned and walked silently from the chamber.

"Master Quatre," Rashid rumbled behind him, a note of approval in his voice that Quatre abruptly realized had been lacking for a few days. "It takes a strong person to admit when he has been wrong."

Quatre made a murmured noise of assent to the platitude, and dismissed Rashid for the evening.

He sat there for a while longer, playing with the congealing food.

It did take a strong person to admit when he was wrong.

Precisely why Duo couldn't do it.

And while Quatre acknowledged that he had been sharper than he'd intended with Duo, he wasn't convinced that that was a bad thing. Still, it was possible that he ought to apologize.

But that didn't mean he would.

[part 3] [part 5] [back to Aoe's fic]