by Bronze Tigress

Strawberry Swirl + Chapter 1

Apr.9, AC197, approximately 2030hrs
PHQ Residency Quarters, apt. #205
(Current home of Preventer Chang Wufei)

Duo trails quietly after Wufei to his vehicle, having decided to keep his mouth closed until whatever that injection was wears off somewhat. He manages to avoid the puddle getting back into the jeep, and in a moment he and Wufei are on their way. They drive back to PHQ with only minimal conversation, stopping for takeout food - as Wufei puts it, "American Chinese; that should suit us both, no?" - on the way. Duo only nods, and leaves the ordering up to Wufei.

It is only after Wufei has ushered his fellow ex-pilot into his small quarters in the single residency wing that the prevailing silence is broken. By Wufei, at that. "Do come in, Maxwell. I can take your coat?" Wufei has already slipped his shoes off and put the bag with their dinner down to take his own jacket off.

Duo drops his duffle bag, then slips his jacket off and hands it to Wufei. He looks around the small living room area as he bends down to take his own short boots off. A counter divides off a small kitchen area, and two doors evidently lead to a bedroom and bath. A desk with a straight-backed chair, a low table, and a narrow, almost bench-like couch are arranged in the living room area, and a tall stool is tucked under the counter.

The decor is rather spartan, but very orderly. The one sign that someone lives there at all is the bookshelf, which holds a rather broad assortment of books, and a number of empty spaces which give the impression that the owner intends to fill them in, soon, but hasn't found the right packing box yet. Wufei hangs both jackets on the same hook, picks up their dinner, and drops it off on the table on his way past. He heads directly to the kitchen to fetch plates and serving spoons. He calls over his shoulder, "would you like a drink? You should take some of that medicine soon, as well..."

"Nice place, Wufei. Um, water? Please?"

Wufei smiles and returns with two glasses of water balanced atop the plates, presenting one to his guest with all due ceremony, before distributing the plates and beginning to open cartons, mentally checking off the contents against their order.

"Thanks. MMmmm. The water always tastes different, here, somehow. So, Wufei - obviously enough there's really only room for one of us to bunk in with you here - why me? Not that I'm unhappy to be rescued from having to stay at the palace, but..."

Wufei arches one elegant eyebrow. "A man is not allowed to miss his friends now? I spent seven hours in a shuttle with Winner and Barton earlier, and Yui seems to feel that it is his duty to always be around in the shadows near Relena somewhere, so I see him fairly often. Not that we talk much - he doesn't tend to, as you recall. Call it curiosity regarding how things have been going for you lately, if you like." He picks up one of the spoons - all Western-style metal ones in mismatched patterns - and slides it over, handle first, beside Duo's plate before taking up another to begin serving out the rice and small portions of the other dishes. "Here, I thought with that wrist you might fare better with a spoon; my apologies, I have never needed to have forks before."

Duo smiles his gratitude, relieved at not having to choose between handling his chopsticks with an aching wrist or his off-hand, and digs in to his dinner with awkward enthusiasm. In between mouthfuls, he begins detailing his life in the last few months, after first going back to fill in the gaps about the time in between the two wars, which he spent more or less visiting with and helping out Hilde - in between their various 'missions' to keep the world safe from terrorists and Gundams alike. //So much for keeping your mouth shut! Oh, well...// When the peace was declared again just before the New Year, he had gone to help her with her business again, on a more full-time basis. Working in the scrapyard, however, really just isn't the same as piloting, and... he misses that.

"So I've been spending more and more time out, spacewalking outside the colony, mostly just - it sounds bad, I know, but just to get away from her. Oh, she's nice enough, but she doesn't understand. I can't talk to her when one of the nightmares comes. And, well, she has this cute little dream about a happy little family, and, well, I'm not interested in her that way; never have been, really. She's like a kid sister, y'know, or at the least one of the other kids at the orphanage or in the gang."

Duo pauses, and appears to be searching for a suitable metaphor before coming up with, "she's getting to be worse than Relena was in the beginning about Heero, you know? Did you hear about that? She's always cooing at me about how great it is that we're together now, and she understands about me wanting to wait for the wedding," Duo practically snorts at that thought. "'Cause now she's got her head in the clouds and fluff about weddings. I'm what, probably almost 17? That's what you are, right?" Wufei mumbles an indistinct affirmative. "That's a little young to be picking out someone to spend my life with!" Wufei winces, but Duo misses it, being engrossed in chasing an elusive bit of carrot around his plate.

Duo gives up on the obstreperous vegetable for the moment, and pauses to take a sip of water before he continues. "Besides, I don't want to have somebody so hung up on me that she goes off trying to impress me with stupid stunts; Hilde, she isn't that street smart, and she really doesn't know when to back down from bad odds. You saw her on Peacemillion - nearly got herself killed trying to play the hero? Well, she's still doing stupid stuff like that, getting herself into situations she ought to have the brains to stay clear of. I don't want to have anyone else getting hurt because I wasn't there in time, you know?"

Finally he comes to a stop, commenting rather ruefully, "you'd think I'd have had enough excitement before to last a lifetime already, but here I am, ready to jump at the first sign of excitement again. Stupid, I guess, but I can't seem to help it; I can't let people get hurt through standing back and doing nothing; I've just got to be in there trying to fix the world. So, what've you been doing with yourself, Wufei?"

Wufei takes a moment to re-parse the question before beginning to relate his own recent adventures. He notes that working as a Preventer is very fulfilling, and "Sally is still as cool and competent as ever, although lately she has been worse than my elder sister Ling ever was about mothering me. Which is fine, I suppose, although it would be nice if she would stop treating me like I was still halfway a child." He pauses and gestures with his chopsticks here. "After all, I was considered man enough to be wed at 14 -not that I disagree with you about that being very young to choose for one's self. My clan elders, however - they were another matter altogether. They were the ones in charge of such choices, and of when those marriages would be held."

Wufei pauses for a sip of his own water, then continues, "I was a scholar before the war, did you know? Justice was always Nataku's goal, but when she died, I took up her fight, her ideals. I should have known better. I did know better, in fact, but," he shakes his head, unable to find a conclusion for the thought. "I think perhaps it is like you with the spacewalking - I cannot let the fight go, now, any more than I could turn back to my studies then. It is good to be working with the Preventers now; I have the opportunity to do both - to fight the good fight, for peace and for the people, and yet I am also needed because of the skills I gained as a scholar. Are you done?" On receiving a nod from his guest, he checks the takeout boxes for any remnants to put away, stacks the plates, and stands up to clear the table.

Duo tries to stands as well, but Wufei waves him back down with a "sit. You are injured, and I believe I am strong enough to carry two empty plates back to the kitchen whence I brought them." He smiles, as if laughing at some private joke, before bustling away to the small kitchen. Various clankings and scraping noises later, he emerges with a small amber bottle in one hand and a pair of teacups in the other. He is reading the label on the medicine bottle as he walks. "It's a mild muscle relaxant and a strong pain reliever; not narcotic this time, though. I suspect it should make you a little more comfortable, without being so fuzzy. Take With Food in big green letters - that would be now, or as soon as the tea is made...?"

"With the tea, I think," Duo replies. "I'm out of water, and... I suppose it isn't really imposing here is it? Sorry, too used to having to pay for it." He makes a wry face at the thought, then observes, "you know, I could get spoiled here..." Wufei smiles at that, but makes no comment as he turns back to the kitchen to pour the now-boiling water for tea.

The food and conversation have helped Duo get his third wind, and by now the mild synthetic narcotic he was given at the clinic is definitely beginning to wear off, as his clearing head attests. So, as he is observing his host walking back to the kitchen, Duo has the sudden, surprising thought that Wufei really seems to be enjoying having someone to look after. Might even need to have someone to look after - and apparently something as vague as "the colonies" or "the people" isn't doing it for him any more. Curiosity and cats being what they are, and his splinted wrist being sore and awkward, the fact that his hair has been wisping into his face for the last two hours gives him an excuse to test his theory.

Of course, what he has in mind... requires a certain degree of faith in his friend. //If I'm wrong, though, it's still a reasonable favour to ask, under the circumstances, and I could do it myself. Fine, then. Let's see how well I've got you pegged, Chang Wufei.// Getting up from his spot at the table, he walks over to where his overnight bag has been dropped, near the door, and bends down to open it. After struggling briefly with the zipper, he rummages one-handed in it and emerges with his hairbrush.

By the time Wufei comes back in with the teapot, he is seated again, but holding the brush up for Wufei to see. "Would you mind, Wufei? I could do it myself, but between the wrist and the splint, it'll be a pain and a half." He gestures vaguely towards his dishevelled hair as he returns to the table.

"Of course. Medicine first, though; it will take some time to have any effect. Here, two now, and the tea is still quite hot..."

"I'll be careful, I promise!" A familiar cheeky grin accompanies the words, but the sparkle of good humour behind Duo's eyes is something that Wufei is less familiar with - although he is glad to see it.

Medicine taken, Wufei moves them to the couch, settling Duo at one end and seating himself behind his friend. He can't remember having ever seen Duo's hair down before. Even when the five of them spent time cramped aboard Peacemillion, with a single common room and cramped bunks, Shinigami always retreated to the relative privacy of his own berth to repair any loose ends to the ever-present braid. He is duly careful, therefore, with the honour that is apparently being bestowed upon him.

After easing it gently off the end of Duo's hair, Wufei hands the elastic to Duo, who loops it around the handle of the brush for safekeeping. Then, with careful fingers, Wufei begins to unravel the metre-long braid, unwinding the sections individually. He is surprised when he finally reaches the base of Duo's skull to realize just how long his hair is, as the ends pool on the couch behind Duo's straight back. With all the twists of the braid undone, then, Wufei carefully runs his fingers through the mass of spun chestnut, loosening the sections until they fall as a single rippling wave down Duo's back. In the process, he pulls loose several small bits of metal, and no less than three small fusebombs. //It's as well they don't have metal detectors on the residential wing doors; this much hardware could have set one off. Useful trick, though! I'd never have checked there without this excuse.// He lays these carefully on the table as he finds them, then taps his friend's shoulder, open hand extended. "Brush?"

"Oh! Right, here," Duo says, handing the brush up before beginning to speak again, quietly passing along the story of his braid, his time at the church, and his happier memories of the people who raised him there. Wufei begins his brushing with the ends, but soon realizes that the braiding process has mostly kept the tangles away, and the main part of his work will be those parts near the top where the hair has escaped and been awkwardly tucked back in. With that in mind, he begins drawing the brush gently over Duo's scalp, not pulling too hard. Sure enough, there are the knots, right where the wispy edges ravel. Wufei works the tangles out with a light hand, holding the hair firmly between Duo's head and the snarls where possible to prevent the brush from pulling as he picks through the knots and brushes it all out smoothly. Satisfied with the condition of the edges, he turns to just brushing through the main part, enjoying the soothing rhythm of the brush strokes and of Duo's low quiet voice.

Duo, for his part, is mildly surprised by the apparent accuracy of his conclusion. Nataku's pilot was never particularly interested in being gentle, but evidently Preventer Chang Wufei has found that part of himself again. Somewhere in the middle of the process of brushing out the tangles, Duo realizes that sitting here on this narrow bench with his friend's hands in his hair, he feels... safe, and at home, for the first time in a very long time. Since the Church, actually.

Because he has been talking, the fact that he feels that same peace and safety now is duly noted. After all, Wufei deserves to know that his efforts are being appreciated. Running out of stories from the year he spent at the Church, Duo moves on to say he really missed that sense of 'home', after, and being out on the streets again was different when he was alone. Sure the ladies on the street were nice but it was always cold at night because that was when they went to work. Working with the Sweepers wasn't much better, either - he could never let himself get close to them, because of his curse, and he sure as hell wasn't going to take any chances on sleeping with any of them, after what he'd learned from the walkers about how they'd likely take the phrase.

Wufei startles slightly at the vehemence in Duo's tone as he says that, and it takes him a moment to check his understanding. //Not sleep with them so they wouldn't sleep with him? What the..?// He realizes that he has missed a few sentences, and hopes that they weren't something critical, because Duo has moved on to speak about how he is just starting to realize now how much he has missed being with all the guys, after the wars, when he was back on L2. They had become almost like family to him - a new gang, really, he supposes. And speaking of that, why didn't Wufei come get Duo himself?

Wufei, lulled by the brush strokes and the low meandering voice and the somewhat confessional mood, says, "I needed you. You are the only one I know who could have defused an atomic device, and I know you could handle anything less. But, much as it shames me to say so, I was quite rude to you the last few times we parted, and you - I believed that you were upset with me, with my admittedly pessimistic outlook.(1) After my part in the second Operation Meteor, well, I would not have been surprised if you had just refused outright to come with me, so I sent Sally. Granted, I was behaving in a rather unbalanced manner through most of the last two years. I am surprised that you even wanted anything to do with me at all, much less put the energy into keeping up with me that you did. Things have changed now, though. I have said my goodbyes - to the reason I started fighting, to the reason I kept fighting, to my past, to my colony. I believe it is time for me to start over, now, is it not?" Wufei's hands have gradually stilled throughout this speech, and they rest now on Duo's shoulders, brush loosely clasped between one forefinger and thumb.

"Aaah, I see. Hmm..." The sound is half contemplative, and half pleased hum. "If you're done brushing, Wufei, could you braid it again, please? It tangles pretty quickly if it's left loose. And while the meds are helping my wrist, they're not doing a thing for my back. It feels like one of Zechs' little buddies there used it for a floor mop - all wrung out and twisted up tight. I'm kinda looking forwards to getting to lie down again."

"I could work that out for you, too, if you like? I know a few things about fixing tight back muscles," Wufei offers, as he leans over Duo's shoulder to place the brush gently in his lap. The motion has the effect of bringing his mouth very close to Duo's ear.

//Was that the faintest hitch in his voice?// Duo wonders, even as he nods and Wufei, having already straightened up again, begins gathering his hair at the nape of his neck preparatory to dividing it into its sections and rebraiding it. The fingers that brush through Duo's hair and against his neck are still gentle, but are they lingering just the slightest bit or is it only his imagination?

Duo sits quietly while his hair is being plaited, but his thoughts are running very quickly. It seems as if Wufei is finally owning up to - or at the least, succumbing to - the loneliness and the purely physical human need for contact that he has probably neither acknowledged nor indulged since he came to Earth the first time. Certainly Duo has never seen the L-5 pilot so tactile before. It doesn't surprise anyone when Duo is exuberantly physical, but Wufei has always seemed rather untouchable, holding himself apart. Maybe this end to his mourning - for how else is Duo to interpret his having finally bid goodbye to his Colony, that has been so much orbiting rubble for over a year now? - has helped him more than even he realized? For surely contact with another is a basic human need. //Or perhaps it's just that this isn't a public place? I remember something about that...//

++

(1) reference to Battlefield of Pacifists, Blind Target, and Ground Zero; in each case, Wufei leaves rather quickly after the crisis has been resolved, and Duo seems disappointed with him over his attitude. At the end of EW they do not even speak to each other onscreen, although surely Duo knows what Wufei is doing. And yet, in every instance of their meeting and working together, it is obvious there's some sort of understanding and mutual respect between the two. Besides - who else, in the whole Earth Sphere, would Wufei kibbitz in a chess game for?

[prologue] [ch. 2] [back to Bronze Tigress' fic]