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by: Caroline

Houseboat Haven + Part 2

Duo opened his eyes, wincing as the afternoon sun streamed in through the cabin window. For a long while he stared up at the low ceiling, trying to remember where he was. He felt weak and couldn't seem to concentrate. If only he could get the room to stop moving.

His eyes flew open as he realized that the room actually was moving... rocking back and forth. Memories of the last few days came flooding back - the mission, the escape, the drive down the mountain, the boat. He groaned and rolled to one side, curling up as tightly as possible. The last thing he remembered was Wufei throwing him on the boat and then being sick in the little hallway.

'Oh God! Wufei must've found me and cleaned me up,' he thought, mortified. 'He must really think I'm weak.'

Duo would have been happy to remain under the blankets, hiding from the world forever, but his bladder was protesting. And unless he wanted to ignore it and cause the Chinese pilot to have to clean him up again, he would have to get up. Gingerly he sat up, hissing as every muscle in his body groaned in protest. It felt like he had been running a marathon, his muscles ached so much. 'Just how sick was I?' he wondered as he struggled to sit up.

The ceiling above the bed was lower than the rest of the cabin. Duo was concentrating on getting his body to move that he failed to notice. Subsequently, he sat up too fast and knocked his head against the low ceiling.

"Ow!"

"Duo? Are you all right?" came Wufei's voice as the Shenlong pilot stuck his head into the small bedroom.

'I must be sicker than I thought. Wufei actually sounded worried.'

He rubbed his bruised noggin and looked up at his partner. "Hey, 'Fei," he said weakly. "The ceiling decided to attack me."

Wufei hurried over and sat down on the bed next to him. "Are you all right?" he asked again. "How are you feeling?"

Duo looked at him as thought he had just grown another head. "Why the sudden concern, Wu-man?"

"Duo, you've been unconscious for three days."

The American's eyes grew as big as saucers. "Three days?" he squeaked, hardly daring to believe it. "What... what happened?"

"I don't know. I was hoping you could tell me. I checked you for injuries but couldn't find any. You just... collapsed when I put you on the boat."

Duo winced at the word 'boat'. "I'm sorry, 'Fei. I just have this little problem with water."

"Little problem? Duo, you started to go into shock! That's more than a little problem."

Duo closed his eyes and started trembling. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "Please... I don't want to talk about it right now."

He felt a gentle hand on one of his own. He opened one eye to see Wufei looking at him intently. "It's okay, Duo. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. Are you hungry?"

The boat chose that moment to roll again. Duo swallowed hard and shook his head.

"You have to eat something," Wufei insisted. "How about you go clean up and I'll fix you some soup."

"'Fei, I'm not hungry. Really."

"Don't be ridiculous. You've not eaten anything in three days. You need to start rebuilding your strength."

He stood up, pulling Duo up with him. The American's knees threatened to buckle underneath him. Duo reached out to steady himself, using the nearest thing - Wufei - for support. The Chinese pilot caught Duo before the boy could fall and helped steady him on his feet. Duo tried not to blush as he realized how close they were now standing, their faces only inches apart. Wufei's sweet breath tickled his nose. Duo closed his eyes and inhaled the heady scent deeply.

"Duo?"

Violet eyes flew open as Duo stepped backwards. "I... I... sorry... I'm okay. I'll go clean up. Soup sounds good. Thanks," he stammered, turning away from the other pilot in embarrassment.

He stumbled the few feet to the miniscule bathroom, locking the door behind him. He flipped on the overhead light, grateful to spot a toilet in the room. He quickly relieved himself, then moved to the sink to wash his hands. He caught sight of his reflection in the tiny mirror above the equally tiny sink. He frowned at his appearance. His skin was pale and he had dark circles under his eyes. His hair looked like a rat's nest. He lifted one arm and sniffed.

'Great. I smell too. Wonderful impression you've made for Wufei, Maxwell,' he thought ruefully as he turned on the shower. Idly he wondered how much hot water the boat had available. He almost laughed at the irony. He hated water, but he reveled in long, steamy showers.

'That's because with a shower, the water's falling on you like rain,' he thought as he stripped out of his boxers and the T-shirt Wufei must have dressed him in. 'And unless my hair clogs up the drain, the water disappears before it gets too deep.'

He sighed dejectedly, grabbing onto the wall as the boat rolled again. 'Showering while trying to keep my balance is going to be such fun,' he thought sarcastically as he stepped into the coffin-like stall. 'At least if I hit my head and knock myself unconscious, I won't be able to fall and drown. There's barely enough room to turn around in here.'

He sighed again, grabbed the shampoo, and went to work.

Wufei rummaged through a drawer in search of a can opener. He threw a worried glance toward the bathroom door as he went about preparing plain chicken broth for Duo. The American was worrying him. He was obviously hiding something from him, but he knew better than to push for the information. He respected Duo's privacy, but wished that the braided pilot would open up to him and let him help.

He'd been on the verge of panic when Duo hadn't awoken the first day. He'd almost broken down and taken Duo to a hospital, but OZ troops were still in the area, and the nearest hospital was a military one. He couldn't risk it, no matter how much he wanted to. So he'd done the only thing he could do - take care of the seriously ill boy and pray to his ancestors that Duo would wake soon.

He hadn't realized just how worried he had been until Duo had awakened and he felt a wave of relief wash over him like the cool waters from the lake. His hands shook as he prepared the soup on the small stove. He'd been so afraid of losing Duo, and he didn't know why that thought bothered him so. He gripped the counter and closed his eyes, trying to get his thought and emotions under control.

The door to the bathroom clattered opened. Wufei blinked and looked down, cursing as he realized that the soup was about to boil over. He turned the heat off and yanked the pot off the burner. Grabbing two soup cups out of the cupboard, he poured them both a modest portion. He was just setting the cups on the table when Duo reappeared. Wufei's breath caught in his throat as he watched the American walk unsteadily to the table and sit down in the far corner, away from any view of the lake through the cabin windows. Duo had changed into a pair of almost scandalously short blue jean shorts. He wore a loose T-shirt that hung off one shoulder. The shirt was clinging to his still wet torso, molding itself to his lithe form. He had his hair wrapped up in a towel, the sopping ends hanging out of the top. Even when not at his best, the boy still looked beautiful.

Wufei felt heat rush across his face at the unbidden thought. He didn't know where these strange, yet not unfamiliar thoughts were coming from. Duo Maxwell was a fellow Gundam pilot, nothing more, nothing less. He just had to keep telling himself that over and over. Maybe after a while, he'd even start to believe it.

The American was staring at the table in front of him, hands wrapped loosely around the cup of soup.

"Eat."

Violet eyes looked up at him, startled. Wufei braced himself for an argument, but the long-haired pilot lifted the cup and sipped at the warm liquid. Wufei did the same, and the two drank their soup in silence for several long minutes.

"I almost drowned once."

Wufei looked up sharply, not quite sure he'd actually heard the softly spoken words. Duo hadn't moved from his position, and was gazing down into his cup.

"How did it happen?" he asked gently, not wanting to scare Duo into not talking again.

"I grew up on L2," Duo began, clutching the cup tighter. Wufei's eyes widened. L2 was one of the poorest of the space colonies. He'd heard stories about it growing up, how only the rich could survive. The rich were all thieves and murderers and drug dealers who ruled the colony with fists of iron. The poor didn't stand a chance. They were all exploited in some way, and none could ever hope to make enough money to leave to find a better life, no matter how they may have wished it.

"Go on," he prodded softly.

"Water was like gold on L2. The rich had it. The poor wanted it. The rare times the environmental controls broke down and it would rain for hours at a time... it was like Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one. The adults would set out buckets to catch it, and the kids would strip down to play in it. It only ever happened a handful of times while I was at the orphanage. Sister Helen would make us kids set out row upon row of buckets, then forming a kind of... fire brigade line to empty them into large barrels when they got full. I loved the rain, but I hated what happened when it stopped."

Duo paused to sip his soup. Wufei sat in silence. He hadn't been aware Duo grew up in an orphanage. And the way he spoke that woman's name, she must have been a terribly important person in the American's life. But there was also sadness there. Wufei wondered what had happened.

"After it had stopped raining, Sister Helen would make us kids strip down for a real bath. She'd fill a large tub with the rain water, and we'd all have to share it, using it one at a time. Usually she was in there with us to make sure we scrubbed every nook and cranny, but that last time..." He swallowed hard, and Wufei could see him trying to hold back the tears. "One of the little ones was crying. She left me in the tub. I must have slipped... I don't remember. I went under, hit my head... I don't remember much about what happened after that. I remember struggling, trying to breathe and couldn't. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor, naked and wet, coughing like mad. My lungs hurt for days afterward. And I couldn't go near water again. The next time Sister Helen tried to give me a bath, I had a panic attack and ran. They didn't find me for two days. I had been hiding in the chapel, on the cold floor. By the time they found me I'd caught pneumonia. That was the last time she tried to give me a bath." He looked into his cup and sighed. "Of course, she never got another opportunity."

Wufei stared at the braided pilot. He wanted to ask Duo to go on, but didn't think it would be wise. He must have had to build up a lot of courage to even tell him that much. He now understood why Duo was deathly afraid of water. Anyone would be under similar circumstances. And the life the young pilot must have led before becoming a Gundam pilot was totally foreign to his own. His respect for the American grew. Anyone who could survive living through the hell of the slums of L2 and emerge with a cheerful and sunny disposition had to have a strong will and an even stronger heart. He'd misjudged Duo, but planned on making it up to the boy somehow.

"Thank you for telling me, Maxwell. You do me an honor for placing your trust in me."

The violet-eyed boy looked up with a questioning look in his face. "Duo."

"Excuse me?" Wufei asked, perplexed.

"You called me Duo in the bedroom. Please call me Duo now."

Wufei looked at him for a long moment before bowing his head in agreement. "Very well. So long as you remember that my name is Wufei. Not Wuffie, Wu-man, or any other cute nicknames you can come up with."

Duo grinned. "Okay, 'Fei."

The Chinese pilot rolled his eyes but let that one go. Being called 'Fei was better than some of the other names Duo had come up with in the past.

Noticing the Deathscythe pilot was finished with his soup, he took the cup from his hands. "Why don't you go fix your hair while I clean the dishes," he suggested, moving towards the sink.

Duo nodded and stood. He disappeared into the bedroom, leaving the door open behind him. Wufei quickly washed and dried the few dishes and put them away. He was closing the cupboard when he heard Duo curse loudly from the bedroom. He rushed into the room to find Duo sitting on the bed, clutching his stomach.

"Duo? What's wrong?"

"I think I'm gonna be sick again."

Realization struck the Shenlong pilot, and he hurried back to the little kitchenette. He returned a moment later with a glass of soda and some pills.

"Here, take these. I found them in one of the cupboards. They'll help you with your motion sickness." Duo looked at him gratefully, swallowing the pills as quickly as he could. He handed the glass back to Wufei, and the Chinese teen noticed how tired Duo still looked.

"Why don't you take a nap? I can handle things out there for a while."

Duo sighed. "I need to comb out my hair first. Hand me my brush?"

Wufei handed Duo the brush, then settled back to watch in rapt fascination. He'd always had a secret fascination with Duo's hair. It was beautiful, the way the light would sometimes play over it, causing the copper strands to glow like molten metal. And it was so long and silky. He'd often wondered what it would feel like to run his hands through it.

Duo cursed again as he hit a snag. He tried yanking the brush through it, but the knot wouldn't budge. Without thinking, Wufei reached over and took the brush out of Duo's hand.

"Allow me?"

The American looked at him, startled. For a moment Wufei was afraid he would say no. But then Duo nodded and turned around. Again, Wufei felt honored. He had a feeling Duo didn't let just anyone play with his hair.

Gently he worked through the tangles, brushing out each one as he came to it. As he worked, he made a mental note to buy Duo some conditioner next time he ventured into town for supplies. Not that he'd mind doing this for Duo every day, but he thought the other teen would appreciate it. When he was done with the tangles, he ran the brush through Duo's hair, noticing how relaxed the other pilot was becoming. Duo had his arms wrapped around his legs, his eyes closed, head leaning against his knees. He heard the boy sigh in contentment as he continued to brush. Finally, just as Duo seemed about to fall asleep, he separated the hair into three equal sections and braided it, tying it off with a band he found lying on the nearby dresser. He helped the sleepy boy lay down, drawing up the blankets and tucking him in.

"Sleep well, Duo."

"Thanks, 'Fei," Duo murmured before drifting off to sleep.

He never felt the tender kiss placed on his forehead.

[part 1] [part 3] [back to Caroline's fic]