by Bronze Tigress

Strawberry Swirl + Chapter 5

Apr. 10, AC197; noon et. passim
Preventers Headquarters environs

Lunch is a pleasant event. The news that Duo has joined the Preventers is well received, and both Heero and Quatre confess that they are strongly leaning towards the idea as well. Heero is further convinced by news that the new separate department is a definite fact, and neither seems to mind the fact that they would end up as partners. "Why not? Strategy and tactics are both required; we balance each other there."

They are a little more surprised to hear that Duo and Wufei have agreed to a joint apartment. Wufei smoothly cuts in before Duo has a chance to speak, saying, "Bah, Une-san assigned us as partners because we have the most demolitions experience, and I did not wish to be wondering what had become of him."

Duo startles at that, then grins, and seamlessly picks up the verbal gauntlet. "You want to keep track of me? Oh, that's a good one, Wufei. If anything, I need to keep track of you! Who's the one who was always showing up late for our little parties with the forces of evil, wearing the wrong dress?"

"Oi! Maxwell..." There is a warning in Wufei's tone that is not missed by anyone, and an amused glint in his eye that only Duo bothers to look for. "I am not some woman to wear a dress into battle."

"Please, guys, we shouldn't be fighting amongst ourselves!"(1)

"Ah, Quatre, Wufei's just so much fun to tease, though..." Duo doesn't look terribly repentant, and he smiles brightly, and then stretches and slouches down into his seat. It is not by accident that his feet land on either side of one of Wufei's, nor that he gives said foot a quick squeeze as he adds, "Isn't he just so cute when he's all flustered?"

"Maxwell!" But Wufei brings his other foot in to return the gesture just the same.

"Yeah, yeah, enough, I know... So, Heero, how's the missy doing? You get her all settled down again last night, or has she still got her feathers in a bunch over what you said?"

Glad for a safe topic, Heero launches into a mission report concerning the dinner and after-dinner conversations of the previous evening. As it turns out, Relena had expressed the opinion to several people that "her Heero" would be there to rescue them all, and she had been quite embarrassed when he had claimed his grief over Sally's "death" at that advanced decibel level. In the end, it had been Quatre who had been able to soothe her, and she had been fairly well recovered this morning, although Heero hadn't seen much of her.

"So, Duo, what about you? Heero's more or less in the good books again, Trowa's gone to settle things with Cathy. How are things with Hilde? Have you called to tell her you're staying yet, or what?"

"Eh, I'm catching a shuttle out to L2 to break up with her. She's a big girl, got her own business and I'm sure she'll be fine without me - for all that I've hardly been there what with all this saving the world we've been doing in the meantime. Who'm I kidding - she needs someone solid, quiet, dependable even. She doesn't need me, that's for sure."

"Duo? What happened? You and Hilde, I mean, I thought you guys were a done deal, picket fence and kids and all?" Quatre looks troubled, genuinely concerned for his friend.

"Nah, Quatre, she's like my saintly twin sister, you know? All the light and bright I put on like a mask every morning in the war? She's like that for real. I... It's like looking in a mirror and seeing what I could have been, if - and I can't deal with it any more. She's a sweet girl - and she doesn't deserve having to live with what I've made myself into." This time it is Wufei who squeezes Duo's foot first.

"You think she'll stay there on L2 then?" Heero sounds rather curious, and Duo files the information away.

"Who can tell, with her? She was a cadet for OZ before she decided she was going to help us - well, help me, I guess. She might stay there, she might not. I'm going to tell her I'm going to be working here. Who knows, she might decide to follow me here as well." Duo shrugs. "Not like the Preventers couldn't use more people. I guess we'll just have to see."

"Well, she can find her own place to live if she does come chasing after you like a puppy again. I am not putting up with two of you, Maxwell," Wufei grumbles, sounding thoroughly put out, although his face is carefully expressionless. "One of you is all I need..."

"Oh, Wufei," Duo breathes, in a remarkable imitation of a southern belle's drawl, "can't ya sound a little happier when ya say mushy romantic stuff like that ta me, honeyp- Ow! Yeesh..." Duo subsides, pulling a foot into his lap and rubbing at it.

"If you're quite done playing, now?" Wufei's tone implies that Duo really should be done playing now, as he is wandering into dangerous territory. Quatre picks that moment to clear his throat and change the subject to something other than various peoples' love lives. Shortly after that, their lunch party breaks up, since Quatre needs to get back to the palace in time for a conference call.

Once they are back in Wufei's jeep headed back to HQ, Wufei clears his throat. "I am sorry about the ankle, Duo; I did not think I had..."

"'Salright, Wufei - you didn't; it just kinda tickled. No, no; wasn't you. The painkillers are great except if I forget and try to turn my hand over - and I did just that 'cause I was startled. Not your fault, really."

"Ah. I am glad to hear it. I would not like to have carelessly undone my efforts at getting you better, after all."

"Don't think you have to worry about that; I'm causing myself enough troubles. I think that went rather well, though, don't you?"

"The conversation?" Wufei grins. "It was intriguing, sparring like that. I meant that, by the way - if your Hilde does come to Earth after you, I do not intend to offer her a place to stay. You may know her well enough, but I do not - and I have no wish to share the intimate details of my life with someone I barely know."

"And I'm the only one for you, too, huh?" Duo grins at Wufei's startled flush. "'Sokay, Wufei. In case you hadn't realized, I've only been chasing ater you for the last year and change - and I've gotta say, it's been quite a challenge. I mean, I tried to keep tabs on all four of you, but even Heero wasn't so hard to track down as you made yourself. Even he can't change the backup copies of the stuff he's hacked. And Quatre and Trowa were always pretty simple to find. You, however. You I've spent nights agonizing over, wondering where you'd gotten yourself to this time. I don't think you could have done a better job engaging my curiosity if you'd been trying. You weren't, were you?"

Wufei shakes his head minutely, but Duo doesn't seem to have needed the confirmation. "You were always such a puzzle to me, Wufei. And now I'm seeing more little pieces of you, the real you under all that anger and confusion, and I really like the pieces I've seen. Sure, you're all puzzles. Heero was the neatest thing -somebody else just like me, you know, when I thought I was the only one. That boy has some issues, though, that I couldn't begin to help him with. Honestly, Hilde might be good for him, if she comes; best I've been able to do is make sure he didn't wander off into trouble alone. Tro's got some funky shit to deal with too, but again - nothing I can do. I kinda made him a promise, when we were all on Peacemillion together, you see? Quatre's such a sweetheart; it was always so nice to hang out with him. He's gonna be fine, I think, if he can keep on being useful while he finishes sorting out the guilt." Duo trails off then, gazing pensively out the window.

Wufei smiles softly, and they drive in silence for a minute before he asks, "Then you are up to walking about? I had thought to show you around the headquarters building this afternoon."

"I should probably check about getting a shuttle back, first, Wufei. The longer I put off getting back to talk to Hilde the harder it'll be, after all."

"You will at least stay the night, though? It is a long journey, and you do not sleep well on the shuttle."

"And you have no ulterior motives, either, hmm? Alright, I'll see about getting a shuttle back tomorrow morning then. That fine? The sooner I go, the sooner I get back."

Wufei smiles, then. "Of course."

There isn't a shuttle until the following morning, fairly late, in any case - at least not a direct hop. And the only reason that one is going non-stop is because there are some samples being transported on it that wouldn't withstand being poked at by Customs officials on the Moon. Duo arranges to be on it, and then the two set off to tour the rest of the facilities.

+

The afternoon passes quickly, and the pair soon head back to Wufei's quarters to make dinner, and chat idly about the workings of the Preventers HQ building. Duo leans against the fridge or counter, moving just enough to keep out of Wufei's way as he pulls things from their places. He listens avidly as Wufei explains the workings of several of the departments, and outlines a few things he thinks likely to be put into place for the new department. Duo visibly winces at the mention of paperwork, not having ever had much chance to practice his handwriting, but most of it can be filled out through computerized forms or printed and attached, which he finds rather a relief. "Besides, I doubt Une is going to require quite the same level of bureaucracy from us as from the rest of the crew - most of whom were trained as soldiers. Could you rinse these for me?"

"Uh, sure, I can do that. They don't look like they need it, though."

"Perhaps not, but it is usually safer to do so. Has Hilde taught you nothing of the domestic?"

Duo snorts. "How to sort the laundry, dust, vacuum, that sort of thing. For some reason she didn't seem to want me in the kitchen though."

"Well, you are in here now. What say you learn a new use for a knife?"

"I think I'd like that."

"Very well. Stand there and watch, hmm? I doubt you are up to much practicing just yet."

Duo is fascinated by the way the onions actually jump in the pan when Wufei first puts them in to cook, and has to be told more than once to stand clear. Watching Wufei's knife work is a revelation. Watching Wufei at work - just watching him for the pleasure of watching him, not trying to time an action or anything else - is another one.

"All part of the training of a scholar, Duo. It is not only philosophy and literature, but a little bit of a lot of things -music, painting, calligraphy, the medical and martial arts... I do not believe Meilan truly appreciated what she was getting, somehow."(2)

"Shit, I appreciate it, Wufei. I can do a lot of stuff, but most of it just isn't so useful once you're off the streets, you know? Well, maybe some of the bedroom tricks, I guess, but there's not much call for a pickpocket or a cracker in respectable circles..."

"Bedroom tricks? Where would you learn such a thing?"

"I spent four years largely in the company of the street whores, Wufei. Some of what they taught me saved my ass a few times. Literally. I'd rather not talk about it though; not right now."(3)

"Ahaa. Very well then. I will not ask. Come, you should be able to stir this. Slowly, and so that the spoon covers the entire bottom of the pot so it does not stick, with smooth motions so nothing splashes."

"Like this?"

"Mmm. Just so, yes."

+

After dinner, and clearing up, and yet another dose of painkillers - "tomorrow, only one of these every four hours, Duo" - Wufei sets the vidscreen for a news channel and beckons Duo after him to the couch. "Come on, let us see what the world has been doing today," he says, catching Duo's hand, and drawing him down to sit as well. When Wufei has them arranged to his satisfaction, he is wedged into the corner of the couch, and Duo is nestled up against him, head pillowed on Wufei's shoulder, three legs stretched down the couch and one of Wufei's dangling off the front edge. "Comfortable?"

"Very."

+

"Hey, Wufei? Are you sure you're not a pod person and the real Wufei's, oh, floating in space somewhere?"

"Why do you ask such a question, Duo?"

"Oh, 'cause, well... This is not a complaint. This snuggling on the couch thing doesn't seem much like you, though. Or at least, not a whole lot like the angry young warrior who was so obsessed with strength and justice I met a couple of years ago. What's happened to you? I mean, I'm guessing some of it's because we're alone and in private so it's okay, but..."

"That is indeed part of it. There is also the not insignificant matter of your permission. It is also, partly, the fact that I have made a few realizations about peace and justice - and strength - and I no longer need to focus on those. I have worked out a large part of my anger, and made some peace with my past." Wufei shrugs, the movement registering against the back of Duo's head. "Mostly, because I can, and we both want to - yes?" He waits for Duo's affirmative nod before concluding, "and before, I could not. That is all."

"Ah." Duo wriggles just a little, snuggling in just a little closer.

+

"Oi, Duo. Wake up, time to go to bed."

"Do you have any idea how silly that sounds?"

"Ai... Still. Up."(4)

"Okay, okay... Oooh. Okay, no more napping in these pants, ouch..."

"Pajamas or a towel?"

"What?" Duo blinks confusedly at Wufei.

"Never mind, I'll find you some pajamas..."

Duo stares after Wufei's retreating form until he disappears into the bedroom, then mumbles "Towel... towel? Oh! Oh, I get it... yeesh," and shakes his head before following.

+

"I was right, before, Wufei. You, my friend, are strange... Towel, indeed. And thank you, these are nice," Duo says, gesturing towards the loose pants he now wears. The bright blue colour is nearly a match for his eyes, although at the moment it is hard to see that behind the downturned gaze and bangs.

"A little short, though," Wufei remarks, standing back and making a critical appraisal.

"Won't matter," Duo smiles back. "Bed now?"

"Bed now." There is a bit of rustling, as Duo slips beneath the covers. Wufei snaps off the lights, then pads quietly over to the bed, where there is a little more rustling as he, too, slips under the covers, and then says, "Goodnight, Duo." A moment later, there is a warm chest pressed closely up against Wufei's back, and an arm wraps itself firmly around his chest. "Oof! Duo? What are you doing?" Wufei doesn't sound upset, so much as confused, and a little grumpy at being confused.

"My turn to hold you, right? Good night, Wufei; sleep well."

"Ah." //Well, this is different... nice, though... warm...//Wufei wriggles a little, into a more comfortable position, and tries to let himself drift off. //But not working...// He loosens Duo's grasp enough to squirm over onto his back, earning himself a sleepy grumble of protest, before tucking Duo's head onto his chest and wrapping his arms around Duo's shoulders. //Better...//

+

In the morning, they are still curled around each other like a pair of kittens, legs tangled together and arms around each other. It is the slight tickle of warm breath against his collarbone that wakes Wufei. Once again, he notices how light the room has become, with a small start of surprise. //So, why am I awake? No dreams, no alarm... Huh.// He lets his head fall back onto the pillow and his eyes fall closed again, just enjoying the feeling of Duo's warm, wiry body in his arms, and unable to resist the chance to lightly run his fingers across Duo's back, tracing the lines of ribs and spine and shoulder blade, idly seeking the scar he knows is there.

"Mmmnn. Whatcha doin', W'fei?" Duo's sleepy voice questions, somewhat muffled by the fact that his chin is nestled into the crook of Wufei's shoulder.

"Hmm? Trying to find your scar - the one on your shoulder that I woke up to yesterday. There..."

"Oh. Tha's a real old one... mmm..." and Duo snuggles back in close, hugging Wufei's ribs a little and then relaxing again. "'Znice, W'fei..."

Wufei smiles, and resumes tracing the ridges across Duo's back. //I think I could quite happily do this all day... Although we don't have all day... In fact, we should probably get up... Much as I don't want to...// "Duo? We really do need to get out of bed at some point. I do not think Hilde would be impressed to learn you had delayed your journey to spend the day in bed with me," Wufei says, with a slight chuckle.

"Oi! True," Duo says, all traces of sleepiness melting very quickly out of his voice as he braces his arms over Wufei's chest and begins to push himself up, then winces, having forgotten about his wrist brace and tried to put his weight on it. "Efff... I have got to stop doing that." He turns sideways, then, and pushes up with only his left arm to sit.

Wufei, now that Duo is no longer in his line of sight to the alarm clock, glances over at it. "Ah, no great hurry, Duo. Your shuttle is not until 1030hrs, correct?"

"Mmhmm. But if it's okay with you, I'd really like to wash this hair - which is going to take a while with this wrist all by itself - and it takes a while to dry, too. If I braid it while it's still wet, it'll stay wet and still be damp when I reach L2. Not so good. So, if you need the bathroom, best go..." He tugs at Wufei's shoulder a little awkwardly with his left hand, trying to get him into motion.

"Oh, ho, so that is the way of things this morning? Very well," Wufei grins and gets up then.

Duo enjoys the view of Wufei's retreating back side for as long as it lasts, then pulls the band off his hair and begins unwinding the strands of his braid.

+

It is only forty minutes later that the two are seated at breakfast in the cafe. Duo's hair has been combed out and loosely braided for the occasion, with the promise that it can come down and be allowed to dry properly after they have done eating, but Duo does need to take his medicine on schedule. This morning's breakfast conversation is much less an exercise in soul searching than the previous day's. Instead, Wufei has been retelling the legend of Nataku, as part of explaining why his wife, and subsequently his Gundam, had also borne that name. The legend itself, he spins out with all the skill of a master storyteller, but his conclusion is very brief, and toneless. "Because women were not considered able to become warriors, she declared herself to be Nataku - who was neither male nor female - and no longer a woman. She died protecting that Gundam, and so her spirit dwelt within it." He shrugs, then, and asks if Duo needs more coffee or if he is ready to go.

+

Duo has very little to pack; his tools have already been replaced in his duffle bag, and only the hairbrush remains, pending a final use. Duo decides against replacing most of the paraphernalia in his hair, although the lock pick and torsion bar are left out of the bag to be slipped back in once it has been rebraided. Wufei undoes Duo's loose braid and fans the hair out, running a comb through it as it finishes drying, just for the pleasure of running his hands through it. Duo practically radiates a contented purring.

All too soon, however, it is time for the pair to find their official jackets and head for the shuttle dock. Duo arrives in plenty of time to board, although, he notes, it will be weird to not be piloting. He introduces himself to the Agent in the cockpit as a new recruit with a lot of piloting under his belt, just in case, and the fact that Wufei, behind him, nods solemnly in agreement is duly noted by said Agent.

Wufei hefts Duo's bag down to a storage locker in the small seating area, and then produces a book of Chinese legends from an inside pocket of his jacket. "It's a fairly good translation, although many of the puns and inferences are of necessity left out. Still - it is a long trip back to L2, and you probably do not want to spend all of it worrying about what to tell her."

"Thanks, Wufei! Wow..." Duo grins brightly, and very nearly hugs Wufei, but stops himself in time, clasping one of Wufei's hands instead.

"Go on, get yourself seated. You will be taking off soon, and I must disembark before that happens. I do not think Une will be terribly impressed if I am a day late for work because I ran away to L2 with you," he smirks, then gives Duo a rather deep bow, and turns to go, leaving Duo to chuckle as he wedges his way into one of the window seats and straps in for the ride, book clutched in careful fingers. He is already engrossed in the first legend by the time the shuttle taxis for takeoff five minutes later.

Wufei, left alone on the tarmac, stares after the rapidly-dwindling shuttle until it disappears, before turning to go inside.

~Owari~

++

(1) References suggest that a Chinese Scholar was expected to be the equivalent of a Renaissance Man - skilled in a broad area of subjects, and reasonably competent in all of them. Since food, medicine, philosophy, and the martial arts are all interrelated, the Scholar was expected to master all of these branches of knowledge, as well as music, calligraphy, visual arts, and so forth. There are references to the Scholar's preferred musical instrument and preferred sword (which, oddly enough, is not the heavy, curved, single-edged _niu wei dao_ Wufei is shown to use, but a straight double-edged _jian_ that has more in common with Treize's rapier than anything else), and even to the use of a scholar's writing brushes as potential weapons, with a distinct art form all their own. Wufei is quite a catch, no?

(2) The author speculates, based on the usual fate of 10- and 12-yr-old street children and the probability that life was better in a slum the size of a Colony.

(3) No, it's not the same 'ai'; it's just an affirmative.


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