by Bronze Tigress

Strawberry Swirl + Chapter 4

Apr. 10, AC197; morning
Preventers Headquarters environs


In fact, Duo doesn't seem to have much to say for the rest of the morning, appearing lost in thought. He silently helps stack their breakfast trays, and just as silently trails after Wufei to drop them off. He is only half a step behind Wufei as they leave the cafe, and by the time they are in the hallway they are moving together with the ease of long familiarity.

//He did not say no. That ought to be a good sign.// "Here we are," Wufei says as they reach his door. "You could just wait here while I get the laundry things, rather than deal with the shoes?" Duo nods, and leans against the inside of the door frame, keeping his feet carefully inside the small tiled area obviously designated for shoes. It takes Wufei less than a minute to fetch the hamper and retrieve a box of soap from its place. In another minute, they are walking down the hallway in the opposite direction, and down the stairs to the laundry room.

Their conversation in the laundry room follows much the same pattern. Duo quietly moves to take a seat at one of the small tables in the corner while Wufei starts the washing. He does look up and smile softly at his friend when Wufei slides into the seat across from him, then drops his gaze to the cross he is once again fiddling with. //God, what do I say to him? He never showed much interest before - or was it there and I just never got to see it? Was he just not ready to think about it himself, because of her?//

Wufei takes a few minutes to study Duo's face; deep in thought, a faint crease marking his brow, and occasionally catching his lower lip between his teeth, he is far more still than Wufei is used to seeing. The silence of the normally ebullient Shinigami is unnerving. Abruptly realizing he is staring, Wufei sits back, closes his eyes, and reaches for the stillness of his own meditations. Calm eludes him, however; having poured his heart out on the breakfast table, and bereft of any input from Duo, Wufei is now in an emotional limbo. //Well, what did you expect, Chang? Heartfelt declarations of undying love? Get real!//

It is not until Wufei returns to his seat from tossing their clothes into the dryers that Duo speaks, startling Wufei by asking, "you do know about my curse, right?"

"Curse, Maxwell?" Wufei's expression is puzzled.

"I'm Shinigami, Wufei - because everyone the God of Death loves, dies." Duo's tone is almost resigned.

"Sooner or later, everyone dies, Maxwell, cursed or not. And, if that is the nature of your curse, then surely I am Shinigami as well. My wife, my family, my teachers and classmates, my clan, my entire colony - all lost, all so much rubble between the stars."

Duo blinks, then resumes his nervous fiddling. //But... How... He's right, but... Not so soon... Although... But!// His thoughts whirl as he ponders Wufei's words.

After waiting a few minutes to be sure there are no further questions immediately forthcoming, Wufei once again tries to still his turbulent thoughts. One in particular keeps returning, however. //Everyone he loves dies... everyone he loves? and he warns me of that?//

Neither speaks again until they are back in Wufei's quarters, where he asks Duo whether he wants to wash his hair, given his wrist, or if it would be better to have it pinned up instead.

"Pinned up, I guess - if you've got something I could use for that?"

A quick search of the small casket on his dresser provides a pair of small, tasselled picks, which Wufei brings back into the living room, along with Duo's now clean clothes and a fresh towel. "Sit down for me, then. These are probably a bit small for the task, but I should be able to get them to hold for long enough." Duo obediently sits, putting the small bundle of fabric in his lap. Wufei takes a moment to study the problem at hand before tucking some of the loose strands of hair back into the braid, then folding and wrapping it into a short, thick bundle that he pins as firmly as possible to the back of Duo's head. "There, that should hold, as long as you do not shake it. Call if you run into problems." And then Wufei walks into the kitchen to put the kettle on, leaving Duo to pat lightly at his new style before standing up and making his way to the bathroom.

By the time Duo emerges, freshly scrubbed and dressed, the tea is ready and Wufei has set it on the table. Duo's brush has been laid out beside the cups, and Wufei has evidently just picked up the teapot to pour out. Duo pads softly to his appointed place, folding himself gracefully down onto the floor. He waits for Wufei to pour his own tea and take a sip before picking up the cup that awaits him. He sips the hot tea carefully, then puts the cup down on the table with a small *click*.

"Wufei?" Duo asks. Wufei lifts his head, looking questions at him. "Thank you. For everything." Wufei smiles, and nods once, before turning his attention back to his cup, which has a fascinating pattern painted about its rim.

"Wufei?" This time, Wufei raises an eyebrow as well as his eyes. "I was just wondering... Why?"

"Why what, Maxwell?"

"Why you're doing all this for me."

"Because I want to?"

"I guess that's my problem, Wufei. What is it that you want? First you take me home and look after me, now you want to room with me. And sleep with me, if I'm inferring correctly. Which I'm not complaining about, really. I just wanna know, if it's just... I mean, nothing comes free on L2, and I already owe you for..." Duo breaks off, obviously frustrated at not being able to find the proper words.

"No, Maxwell, I do not intend to collect a payment for this past evening. I have yet to finish paying off the debt of care I have already incurred with you, and yet I compound it by asking for your continued company. This caring for each other, is this not what friends and comrades in arms do? Were our positions reversed, you would do as much for me, and ask less in return. Have done so, in fact."

"Yeah, I guess so. But I think of you guys as my brothers, you know? Family, gang, whatever. I didn't think you felt the same way..."

"I am not entirely certain that I do, _zhan you_. My brothers were enough older than me that I rarely saw them, and we were never very close. And I do not feel quite this way for the others. What?"

Duo's face is twisted into a very puzzled expression. "I'm sorry, Wufei. My knowledge of Chinese is, well... very small. You didn't just call me a babbling infant, did you?"

Wufei blinks, thinks back, then chuckles. "Just enough knowledge to be dangerous. No, it is... a 'comrade in arms', I believe is the proper translation.(1) The intonation is quite different, but if you are not used to hearing that..." Duo shakes his head. "Besides, you have been doing nothing even remotely resembling your usual babbling today, and I am rather missing it," Wufei continues, then pauses and adds, "oddly enough," almost as an afterthought.

"As for sleeping arrangements - I do not want from you that which you are not willing to give. I am proposing that we take an apartment with two bedrooms, after all - in case I misinterpreted your words earlier and you do not wish to repeat last night's arrangement. I have been forced to accept one unwilling bedmate already; I would not voluntarily do so again. I am quite certain that I still have dents in my shins from my wedding night..."

Duo laughs briefly at the image, then sobers to ask, "so... you meant just sleeping, then, not, uh, anything else?" He flushes slightly as he gets this last part out.

Wufei raises an eyebrow. "I would be more than content with that, but I leave it entirely to you to decide. Should you choose to continue sharing, however, we should definitely consider buying a wider bed." He drains the rest of his tea, and sets the cup down. "Was there anything else you wished to know?"

"Not right now. I need to talk to Une first..."

"Very well, then. Are you ready to have your hair brushed out again? I doubt you wish to appear before her with it swept up like that," Wufei points out. In fact, one of the picks has come loose, the other has slipped position, and the whole mass is in danger of falling.(2)

"No, I probably don't," Duo agrees, before handing the brush over and scooting around to sit with his back to Wufei.

+

Perhaps half an hour later, as they are walking down the hall towards Une's office, Duo asks, "you know I can't really decide anything until I've talked to her, right?"

"Of course, Maxwell; it is only logical." Not quite what Wufei wanted to hear, perhaps, but he knows Duo's motto well enough to realize that no, he can't promise anything yet. Duo only nods, and knocks on Une's office door.

+

When Duo comes back out, Wufei is still hovering anxiously -although it looks to casual observers very much as if he is merely waiting impatiently and with some annoyance. Duo's first words are hardly encouraging. "Wufei, I have one more question to ask you..."

"Hmm?"

"You always call me Maxwell; why? Is it that you are being polite, or is it just a habit, or do you really hold that much respect for me? I... really need to know."

Wufei blinks. "In the beginning, it was politeness, and habit, I suppose. But I have grown to respect all of you as my fellow pilots. You should know that if I did not respect you, I would hardly have asked you to share a dwelling with me, much less... Ah..." He glances around at the busy office, but no one is particularly paying them any mind.

"Ah. That's good." Duo smiles then. "But from now on, you call me Duo, okay? I don't think I could stand waking up with someone who won't use my given name." He gives Wufei a lopsided grin. "Go on, I think you need to see her now - about that apartment."

Wufei's eyes widen, and a smile threatens to take over his face for just an instant before he turns to walk very soberly into Une's office to make the request. "Of course, Duo... as you say. And perhaps some time off for moving in at the end of the month as well, while I'm in there."

Left outside to wait, Duo smiles.

+

When Wufei comes back out of Une's office, he is smiling again. Oh, it is not a large smile, and it is very far from the manic grin Duo has been known to wear, but it is, very definitely, a smile. His eyes, moreover, hold a bright sparkle. Spotting Duo, he casts about for a private space next; he ushers Duo before him into the nearest unoccupied office and locks the door behind them.

"What is it, Wufei?" Duo is, to put it mildly, confused by his friend's behaviour, and the *snick* of the lock is not particularly reassuring to the ex-street rat.

When Wufei turns around from the door, however, his smile is a rival for Duo's grandest, and he nearly skips with glee as he crosses the room.

"Wufei, man, you're freaking me out here. When did the pod people put 'joy' into your file of expressions?"

A flicker of concern dims some of the glow coming from Wufei, and he stops, then says quietly, "it has always been there, Duo. I have had few causes to use it recently, and fewer places. Forgive me? I did not think I could keep this inside until we could reach a more appropriate place for such an unseemly display." And then he bows, deeply.

A look of shock crosses Duo's face, as several realizations flood through him. Before he can consciously think about it, he steps up and pulls Wufei awkwardly into a tight hug - or as tight a hug as possible, given Wufei's clasped hands and bowed head. "Shh, shh, it's okay, Wufei, I was just surprised; I've never seen you like this before. If you've always been waiting until you were behind a locked hatch to smile... Ha! If I felt like you looked just now, I'd be out there," he frees an arm just long enough to gesture briefly towards the main area of the office, "up on a table in the middle of the room dancing around and yelling 'whoohoo' at the top of my lungs. If you need to be in private to do that, then I'm guessing it's quite a privilege to be in here with you, hmm? So, what are we dancing about?"

Wufei lifts his head then, and unclasps his hands enough to rest them against Duo's shoulders, pushing him back just enough to look into his face. "I am forgiven, then?"

"Nothing to forgive, Wufei - but if you're going to drag me into a locked room with you I definitely think I deserve to hear why, don't you?"

Wufei's smile returns, and he slips his arms down to rest at Duo's waist. "Very well, then. We need to stop by requisitions first; they are in charge of those leases. You need to go there anyway, correct? We can sign now; we take possession on the first, and we will have the day off to move and arrange matters. But that's not the best part. The new department is a go; she has at least the four of us, and... you and I have been assigned as partners; we are first call on threatened bombings, Barton and Merquise will be first call on political and military threats. She seems to have been quite impressed with your resume."

Duo grins. "That's great, Wufei! She didn't mention partners to me. Cool!"

Wufei smiles again, then slides his hands around Duo's back in a gentle embrace, almost as if he is afraid that it is too much, going too far, but unable to stop himself. "I am glad that you approve of my request."

"You did? Chang Wufei, the Lone Ranger, asked for a partner?"(3)

"No, I requested that I be partnered with you. It is good to have backup, no?"

"Yeah." Duo smiles brightly and returns the hug, then, surprising Wufei with the strength in those slender arms. "Ouch." He unwraps himself again.

"Duo?"

Duo's voice is somewhat rueful as he admits, "just my wrist again. I keep forgetting about it. Hey, listen, did you set up a time to meet with Quatre today or should we call him about that?"

"I suppose we should call him. Would you be up to talking with him and Heero over lunch, or would you prefer a later time?" Wufei also steps back, reluctantly releasing Duo, and turning towards the door.

"Lunch will be fine. We should have time to get to requisitions between now and then, right?" Duo is only a step behind his new partner as they step out of the office and head towards the area where Wufei's desk is. There, they contact the palace and arrange a lunch-time meeting with their friends. With an hour to spare, they head down to the requisitions department, where the smiling clerk on duty has already pulled the necessary forms for apartment #17, thanks to a call from Lady Une, and has even filled out most of the spaces for them. He is also quickly able to pull a set of uniforms and equipment for Duo, and waves the pair off again with a smile.

"So, back to your place, Wufei, or do ya wanna try and find mine?" Duo asks as they climb the stairs from the basement towards the living quarters. //Why do these places always seem to be in the basement? Ugh!//

"Your place? Ah, Une gave you keys? Let me guess, for #202? It would suit her new sense of humour. Merquise is in the rooms next to mine, and for some reason she has been avoiding giving out the first few units on my floor..." Wufei sounds as if he would be laughing if he were not attempting to balance a pile of jackets, shirts, pants, regulation sidearms and initial ammunition allowances while navigating the stairs.

"Um..." Duo carefully shifts his handful of footwear and his parka to balance on his splinted wrist in a way that won't aggravate the injury, then digs through his pockets with the other hand, emerging with a set of keys an instant later. He looks at the tag, then snorts, "yup! Right the first time... So. Which will it be?"

"Mine, I think. Harder to forget them when we move, especially if you take longer to finish your business or your transport gets held up and I have to move it all myself. You were not planning to start until you got back, correct? So you will not need any of this until then. Besides, we need to get you another dose of those painkillers before we go for lunch." They have reached the proper floor, by now, and Wufei waits while Duo, who still has one hand mostly free, opens the door. "Keys in my left hip pocket."

"Already got 'em, Wufei," Duo chirps as he bounces ahead to unlock that door as well.

"How did you... I didn't..." Wufei stutters as he comes through the door and bends to place his pile of things down on the carpet beyond the doorway, beside the small heap of things that Duo had been carrying.

"L2 taught me many things, Wufei. My earliest memories include learning to pick pockets and dodging angry soldiers. I was behind you the whole time up the stairs, and it wasn't hard to see where they were - or to grab them. Don't worry; I've given up stealing. I just didn't think you'd appreciate having me patting your backside in the hallway." Duo stands up from taking his shoes off, winks, and hands the keys back. "There you go. How long have we got until we need to leave for lunch?"

Wufei closes his mouth, which had fallen open, opens it, closes it again, and then shakes his head. Then the last question registers and he checks his wrist. "Not much longer; another ten minutes or so. If we do not leave by then we will be late."

"Good! 'Cause I need to use the bathroom, and then I hafta ask you something," Duo says, and disappears.

Wufei has a distinct flash of deja vu at those last words. He picks up the bundle of Duo's uniforms and shifts it to an out-of-the-way spot, then does the same thing for the rest of his equipment. Finally, he heads into the kitchen to retrieve the bottle with Duo's painkillers. He emerges with them just as Duo is exiting the bathroom, and hands them over with a gruff "here, hold these," before brushing past him and closing the door.

"Um, okay..." Duo makes his way to sit down on the couch to wait. Wufei doesn't take long, and Duo hops up again to wait for Wufei to come a little closer.

"So, what was this latest question, Duo?" There is the faintest hint of a sardonic lilt in Wufei's voice, but he seems vaguely amused, as if discovering some of the consequences he is about to be reaping.

"Um. I was just wondering what you wanted to tell Heero and Quatre about, er... us, I guess..." Duo hesitates, then continues, "I mean, I don't know how much you want them to know - and I sure don't want to say something that's going to make 'em think something that's gonna embarrass you, and I'm not sure where that line is, so..."

"Ah, good point. We tell them you will be working with me, and that we have agreed to share an apartment - and we invite them to help us move in on the first. I believe that is the correct procedure, is it not? I am not seeing the problem, yet there is something that you are dancing around, Duo. What is it?"

"Um," Duo blushes, "well. You wanna tell them we'll be sharing a bed? With what that might be considered to imply?"

//We'll be sharing...// "I do not think they need to know that, do you?"

"Yeah, well, they're gonna figure it out if we only have one in there. And I don't want to have to explain it either, really."

"Then perhaps we should set up the guest room at the same time. Two people, two bedrooms, two beds. Simple, no? And no need to explain anything. Come, they will be waiting for us. We can discuss this more later."

++

(1) _zhan you_, literally, a war friend, or friend made during the war; suggested by one source as a possible translation for a brother-in-arms. The same syllables, with different intonation and completely different kanji, also translate as Duo did. The author pleads guilty to knowing exactly enough Mandarin to be thoroughly dangerous. ;)

(2) Trust me. The regular-sized picks are not sufficient to keep that much hair(1) _zhan you_, literally, a war friend, or friend made during the war; suggested by one source as a possible translation for a brother-in-arms. The same syllables, with different intonation and completely different kanji, also translate as Duo did. The author pleads guilty to knowing exactly enough Mandarin to be thoroughly dangerous. ;)

(2) Trust me. The regular-sized picks are not sufficient to keep that much hair under control.

(3) somehow, I don't think any of the characters ever called each other by the same code names we do - and it figures that Duo would pick one of the solitary heroes of his own ethnicity's mythology!

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