by Cassima
Disclaimer: Wishes aren't horses, so I must walk. In other words, look elsewhere for ownership of the characters in this fic.  "Prayer of the Children" was written by Kurt Bester.
Series/Sequel: Yes. Chapter 3 of the "If I Should Die" series.
Pairings: 2x5; 2xOC; 1xR.
Rating: PG13-ish. 'Cause of the swearing, and more thinking-about-sex.
Summary: Duo and Wufei look at Duo's issues.
Warnings: Hello, angst. Hello, boy-on-boy-ness. Hello, AU. Goodbye, reality.

Many huge, huge THANKS to the ever-wonderful, all-powerful Bronze Tigress for the spectacular beta, and my one-woman cheerleading team, Kat. You guys don't let me get away with anything.

If I Should Die... + Chapter Three
First, Do No Harm

"It's not magic, it's chemistry. You can tell by how damn slow it is."
--Buffy the Vampire Slayer
 

*Well, in case you failed to notice,
*In case you failed to see:
*This is my heart bleeding before you;
*This is me down on my knees.
*These foolish games are tearing me apart...

--"Foolish Games," Jewel

+


Duo went to bars. He didn't particularly like bars--too smoky, too full of drunk people, too pricey with the vodka--but he went to them anyway, mainly to pick up chicks. He didn't particularly like chicks, he was learning, but he picked them up just the same. Picking up chicks beat the alternative--which was unthinkable, so he didn't think about it.

The Fuck of the Night was looking to be the cute dumb blond in the corner, complete with legs and a nice rack. A very nice rack, stuffed into a very nice shirt. He glanced over from his spot at the bar; she was still over there, laughing giddily with some guy with a goatee, but he had a feeling she'd drop the Goatee in a heartbeat when Duo returned with the promised shots.

Duo winced as the karaoke machine in the corner began playing a newer pop love ballad, and a few of his drunken college compatriots climbed up on the pool table with the microphone and began warbling along in a bad falsetto. They sounded horrendous, but the rest of their group cheered like they'd paid for this performance; Duo decided he'd need another drink or three before it began to even slightly resemble music. And, if the bartender would step up the pace a little, he could have 'em, too.

One thing he could say about Tienen college folk: they certainly knew how to drink.

"Hey," a deep voice purred.

Duo glanced at the man, took in his "come-hither" stance and his tight mesh shirt and fuck-me leather pants. Hell.

"What are you doing tonight, sailor?" The man leaned against a nearby post with a sultry smirk, flipping his blond hair over his shoulder.

Duo looked over at the girl with the rack.

The guy seemed to sense Duo's conflict and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "Come on, just a quickie. My ass is hotter than hers."

Duo tilted his head. Took a considering glance. It was true. Very true. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, it compared unfavorably to Wufei's ass; he put that thought away.

"My name is Todd," the guy said, and licked his lips. "I'm not asking to bear your children, here."

Duo imagined the feel of Todd's body pressed up against his, hard planes with the softness of his thighs locked around him and those teeth grazing his neck as Duo pounded into him. He looked at Todd's curly hair--tried to figure out what it would feel like to card his fingers through it. Wondered what his lips would feel like. Wondered what it would be like to screw him out in the alley, pressed up against the brick wall, standing next to the dumpster, hearing the broken glass on the ground grind under his shoes as they fucked.

Duo was intoxicated.

"Not my thing," he told Todd casually. "Sorry."

Todd was still leaning into his space, uncomfortably close; Duo felt the warm rush of breath on his ear every time the other man exhaled

"Liar," Todd whispered, and, despite the noise of the bar, his voice rang more clearly than anything else.

Duo wondered what it would feel like to pull Wufei close, to be pressed against him.

"You caught me," Duo agreed, just as quietly, and laid his hand on Todd's waist, cupping it. Felt the way the man's stomach didn't curve quite like a woman's. It gave him a rush.

Todd didn't say anything after that, just gave him a quick nod and a sly look and took Duo's hand from his waist, pulling him around the throngs of people cheering as the karaoke singers began a drunken strip version of the chicken dance.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen, he silently acknowledged to himself as he followed Todd out the back door into the alley.

+

After his encounter with Todd, Duo stopped going to bars and picking up chicks--stopped going to bars, in fact.

He told himself he couldn't afford the cheap booze.

+

Duo's very early hours were plagued with nightmares.

It was the same old, same old shit he always dreamed about: the war, death, slaughter, etc., etc., plus one amazingly vivid picture of a small boy with dark, tousled hair standing in the ruins of his front yard on a blood-spattered sidewalk, half a sandwich clenched in his hand as he looked up at Duo. He woke with a gasp into sudden alertness, as usual. His roommate, Jordan, slept through it all, the lucky bastard, and Duo checked his clock.

Six-o'clock, which meant Duo had a good half an hour before Wufei was up and doing his kata in the common room. The boy with the sandwich flashed through his mind again, and he slipped his sandals on and quietly slipped out of his room and down the hall to wait. He turned the lights on and moved the furniture for Wufei, finally sitting in the semi-comfortable chair and pulling his legs up after him.

Waiting.

He came here almost every day--as often as the nightmares woke him. Every morning, without fail, Wufei was up and doing his morning workout. There was something nice about it--dependable, maybe. Wufei didn't take days off, didn't rest for fucking holidays or anything, better than the mail service with their stupid "rain nor snow nor dark of night" crap. And Wufei never asked him what he was doing there, or why he didn't go back to bed when he started yawning. Some days, they didn't even talk. But Wufei never indicated that he wanted Duo to leave, or explain himself.

There were days when Duo had to talk, needed it as badly as he needed to breathe; he felt a pressure building up inside his head when he didn't--the urge to talk wasn't triggered by anything in particular, nor did it center on anything deeper than whatever skittered across his brain in passing--and Wufei let him, listened, didn't try to shut him up or ignore him. It was kind of strange--almost like being back in Maxwell's church, in a way--but he tried not to question it too much.

So in some ways, Wufei was like coming home--but different, too, because Wufei was smart like Duo'd never experienced at home. Sister Helen, Father Maxwell, the kids on the street--they'd all been nice enough, but none of 'em could've been called the sharpest crayon in the box, or the most ed-u-ma-cated. Wufei was an honest-to-god scholar, complete with glasses and all the book smarts and school and discipline. At times, Wufei seemed almost alien in his scholarly background, with the importance he placed on studying and learning things the right way; other times, Duo could see something oddly reminiscent of Meiran, mainly in his values and morals.

And boy, did Mei have values and morals, though she also had nothing even remotely resembling humility with which to temper them. She'd fucking pissed Duo off a lot of the time--though he'd (of course) gotten his own back in snide remarks--but he and Mei'd worked well together. Kicked some serious ass. Idly, he wondered how the Preventor gig was going for her.

Duo was saved from his musings by the prompt arrival of Wufei, who smiled his thanks when he noticed Duo'd moved the furniture for him already. Wufei slipped off his shoes, laid his towel and his keys on one of the small tables, and began to do the breathing thing. Duo let his breathing fall in synch: deep and easy, calming. Duo practically had Wufei's entire form memorized, knew when each push was supposed to go, where it was supposed to go, knew how the moderately-muscled body would turn. Wufei had a few different katas, but the one he was doing seemed to be his favorite. It felt very basic to Duo, in an almost hypnotic way. Wufei's morning goals were his own, but Duo himself always found himself more at peace.

Wufei finished up around quarter after seven, as usual, and picked up his towel, giving the sweat on his arms and face a half-hearted swipe. He turned and smiled, utterly relaxed. "Good morning, Duo."

Duo smiled back. Wufei's good humor and serenity were contagious. "Good morning, Wufei. Sleep well?"

Wufei nodded. "Better than you, I imagine."

Duo shrugged.

Wufei raised an eyebrow, but didn't push. Duo liked that about him.

The Chinese boy reached back and pulled out his ponytail holder, combing his fingers through his hair and scratching his head. Duo thought he looked suddenly, inexplicably nervous.

"Duo," Wufei said after a moment, "do you want to go see the new Sang-li flick with me tonight?"

Duo thought about it. No, he didn't really want to see the movie. But, with Wufei? He glanced over at the Chinese man, remembering how he moved through the movements of the gentle kata, deadly maneuvers as slow and graceful as a dance. Duo wondered if Wufei'd ever killed a man--if it was possible to dance like that if he had. "What time?"

Wufei began to move the furniture back; Duo got a conveniently pleasant view of his ass as his pushed the table back into the center of the room, and noticed the edge of a scar running across his shoulder, down his back. When Wufei was done with the table, Duo was already up, helping him move the couch and pretending he hadn't been staring at anything he shouldn't have.

"Eight?" Wufei said when they were done with the couch. "We should be able to get there after dinner if we catch the number twelve shuttle."

"What about midterms?" Duo asked.

Wufei made a face. "Aren't you always telling me I study too much?"

Duo nodded, smirking a little. "Good point."

+

The movie was about as bad as Duo expected it to be, but Wufei didn't seem too disappointed. And, really, Duo was glad he went; the change of pace was nice.

He glanced over at Wufei next to him as they walked back to the bus stop, trying to hide a grin and failing.

Wufei, no idiot, caught his amusement and poked him in the side. "What is it, Maxwell?"

"I can't believe you wanted to go see a bad kung fu movie!" Duo finally let free the laugh that had been threatening since the stunt wires on the actors had gotten tangled. "You, someone who can probably do all those stunts for real!"

Wufei laughed and rolled his eyes. "I cannot jump quite that high, Duo."

"Or run on air?"

"Or move that fast." Wufei's smile faltered a little. "I'm not really that good, Duo."

Duo snorted. "Yes, of course. The person who practices every morning right down the hall from my room is some other Chang Wufei. I forgot that you're his incompetent identical twin."

"Being imperfect is a far cry from being incompetent."

"You're always like this," Duo said, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets. "Anytime I say anything nice about you, you slam yourself. I know fighting, Wufei. I know you're good. I know biology, and you're good at that, too."

"You don't know me," Wufei said a little stiffly. "You don't know what I'm good at."

"I don't know you?! What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Wufei crossed his arms, not looking at Duo, and walked a little faster. "Just because I practice doesn't mean I'm good."

"I don't get you, man!" Duo said loudly, drawing attention, and he took a few quick steps to catch up. He continued more quietly, "I know good fighting when I see it, Wufei. What the hell is this whole 'I'm not worthy' complex you've got going on?"

"Just drop it, Duo," Wufei said with a sigh.

"You have some serious issues. That's all I'm saying." Duo pulled his jacket a little tighter.

Wufei made a rude noise. "Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black."

Duo tensed; one thing they never talked about was their issues. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Fine. Neither do I." The look on Wufei's face said differently, but they both let it drop and continued walking in silence.

Duo knew Wufei was angry at him. The Chinese boy didn't look at him, and the silence between them was heavy enough to feel. Duo tried not to stare, but instead snuck glances out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge Wufei's mood. He was the only real friend Duo had at school, and a good friend, besides; Duo wondered if he should offer an apology. He didn't want to lie to Wufei--actually tried not to do the lying thing at all, for all the good it did him--but the past was too close to talk about. Even after two years.

Duo wondered if he'd ever be ready to talk about it. Then he wondered what Wufei's problem was.

Wufei finally slowed to a stop, still looking a little stiff. He turned towards Duo, face almost unreadable. "Is this where I say goodnight?" he asked. Duo thought he heard a hint of a challenge in Wufei's voice.

"Huh?" Duo asked, and at Wufei's pointed head bob towards the building they'd stopped in front of, looked up at the sign. Merl's Bar. Oh. "I thought you didn't like bars?"

Wufei's look didn't change.

Oh.

He remembered Todd's body in the alley, hard and soft, demanding and eager. If he thought about it, he could remember the way Todd had leaned against the brick wall, grunting and groaning, and the way the air had smelled cold and slightly vile. He shook his head, clearing the image as abruptly as it came. He felt a blush building in his cheeks and curling around the tips of his ears, sure the memory had been visible in his eyes, and took a quick look through the window. Men dancing with women. He felt only partially relieved, and strangely disappointed. "No, I'm good. I, uh--" --liked it too much to do it again. "--I decided it wasn't helping."

Wufei studied him for another moment before giving him a curt nod and walking again.

Duo, suddenly apprehensive, wondered how much Wufei knew. "I'm sorry."

Wufei sighed, looking over. "You have a tendency to do dumb things, Duo."

Duo chuckled nervously. "Yeah, well, I'm trying to quit." He scratched his neck, feeling how his ponytail stopped a few inches down his back. "What about you?"

Wufei smiled, albeit thinly. "This isn't about me."

Duo begged to differ, but kept his mouth shut.

After a moment, Wufei continued. "You can't keep going like this."

"What are you, my mother?" Duo bit his cheek, trying to give himself a moment to organize his thoughts. "Let's just drop it, okay?"

"Fine," Wufei said after a moment.

"Fine," Duo responded. The pause between them was awkward.

Wufei gritted his teeth. "Actually, no, it's not fine."

"Fine, it's not fine. Whatever."

"Duo--" He stopped whatever he was going to say, stopped walking, eyebrows heavy with frustration.

Duo stopped next to him and a little in front. "You're too hard on yourself, Wufei." His voice was quiet, and more intense than either of them expected.

"You can't let go of the past, and it's killing you," Wufei shot back, although something in his eyes softened it.

Duo nodded. "We're pretty fucked-up, huh?"

Wufei nodded slightly and shifted closer. To Duo. They stared at each other for a moment, framed by the glow of the yellowish streetlight and the fog of their breath in the night air, the moment made crisp in the way only cold air can.

Duo thought he might touch Wufei; he thought Wufei might touch him. Duo thought many things, all in one big flash of hurt comfort need warmth suffering friendship cold peace contentment need need need--

But he swallowed and stepped back, let Wufei step forward and they walked again, side by side. They'd had a moment, yeah, and Duo was pretty sure that they both knew it, but it'd passed too quickly.

Moments tend to, he mused.

+

The pew was hard; he remembered that much as clearly as if he was back in Maxwell's poor, broken-down chapel. Pews were designed to be hard and uncomfortable because, in the words of Sister Helen, it kept certain people--"Who shall remain nameless," insert pointed look here--from snoring during the service. Duo didn't think it helped anyone else pay attention, either, but he'd kept that thought to himself.

He was all the way in the back of the balcony, far from everyone else, and he liked it that way. He felt distinctly separate from the rest of the audience, despite the crowded chapel and the extraordinary number of students, faculty, and citizens packing the room. It made him feel guilty in a way that was almost better than feeling better, and that made him feel perversely guiltier. He could see the darkness outside through the large windows, and the string quartet at the front of the chapel, on the "stage" area, quietly played something nondescript as everyone finished taking their seats. Candles flickered in the large windows, the flames gently bouncing in the whirr of the fans for the recycled air. It was times like this that he missed Earth; it was somehow more real down there.

But the strings finished and the speaker stepped up to the podium, and Duo remembered that he hated it on Earth and would pay money to avoid going back. "Two years ago," the guy said into the microphone, "the war ended. Two years ago the senseless deaths ended. Two years ago we decided that peace was the only way. This is not the time where we celebrate that glorious peace, but the time when we remember the needless destruction and agony of the war."

Yes, a ceremony to remember how shitty it felt to watch people die. Only on L-4.

Wufei slid into the pew next to him as the speaker continued. "I couldn't find you," he whispered in apology or accusation. Duo wasn't sure which.

Duo'd actually intended to chase his demons alone tonight, but he didn't have the chutzpah, or the cajones, or the energy to shoo Wufei away. He was saved from having to respond when the speaker invited everyone to stand and sing. Duo wasn't much for standing and singing, but he felt obligated.

The song ended. They sat.

It was midway through the sermon--the lecture, the speech, the whatever you wanted to call it--that Duo realized he was completely numb. He'd hoped that his guilty conscience would find this cathartic somehow--that sitting here and wallowing in everyone else's pain would help. And somehow, the emptiness that he felt that should have magnified his guilt and hurt only made him feel more numb, isolated even from Wufei next to him.

What had it all been for, anyway? The war, the violence, the death--hell, his childhood, if he wanted to go that far. Nothing had been gained and so much had been lost, and he woke up dreaming about dead people he hadn't even killed, people he hadn't known or any of that. And the guy up there just talked about it, like he knew what war was, screw everyone else.

Duo wasn't even hearing the words anymore, but the numbness was fading, giving way to something that built inside him uneasily, anxiously vibrating and pulsing in waves of hot-cold, hot-cold. The speaker kept talking, though, and Duo thought maybe he could get through it without yelling or screaming or throwing anything by the end of the service. He could've held the tension in the room in his hands; it was thick enough that it was hard to blink his eyes or scratch his knee, and Duo was in the back, pews away from anyone other than the calm--if pensive--Wufei.

The speaker finished and sat; Duo could hear people weeping in front of him, below him on the main floor, but he remained oddly untouched, the tension in him beating on his mind but not breaking through. The choir stood, not quite in unison, and he looked at the mass of dark purple robes at the back of the stage. He glanced down at his program before looking up again, feeling oddly resigned and still listening without comprehending anything but the hot-cold, hot-cold behind his eyes, between his ears, up and down his throat.

As one, the choir began to sing, "Can you hear the prayers of the children on bended knee in the silence of an unknown room?"

And they sang and they sang, and Duo felt the music yank hard at something. He closed his eyes, felt a hand on his arm. Opened his eyes, looked over at a blurry Wufei. Struggled for breath. Closed his eyes. Opened them again.

"Duo," he heard Wufei whisper, and it was all it took for him to lean in and bury his face in Wufei's shirt, trying to bury himself, and finally his sobs, in Wufei's shoulder. Wufei's arms were around him, smoothing gentle circles in his back as he trembled and wept. It was remarkably violent, like everything Duo did, and he gave himself up to it, letting himself ruin Wufei's shirt with snot and drool, letting himself clutch Wufei like he was a pillow, not a living, breathing human being.

He felt like he was dying.

He felt like he was being reborn.

And Wufei made quiet noises, like the ones made to soothe babies, a "Sa, sa, shh, it's okay," kind of rhythm--nonsense, meaningless, but Duo'd stopped listening to meaning after the speaker began his talk.

"I couldn't save them," he muttered hoarsely at one point, half out of his mind and relieved he'd finally told someone. "They died because I couldn't save them." He wasn't even sure who he was talking about.

Wufei just held him tighter. "Sa, sa, it's okay, shh, sa."

"Can you hear the children's prayers?"

+

She punched the button on the phone, turning to the viewscreen with a snarl ready on her face. "Chang. What?"

Quatre, on the viewscreen, held up his hands in a display of innocence. "Should I call back?"

Meiran took in a calming breath, willing some of her anger to dissipate. "Sorry, Quatre. I've been on the phone with the Chancellor all morning."

"Ah." Quatre nodded knowingly.

"If Heero and Relena invite him to the wedding, I won't be there." She pushed her work aside and turned to give Quatre her full attention. "Did you find him?"

Quatre sighed. "I've looked everywhere I could think of, Meiran. I've had my people looking, and their people looking, and some people distantly related to Raj, my sister Rehana's husband, looking. No one's been able to dig anything up."

"Where did you look?" She sat back in her chair, scowling a little. Maxwell could be such a pain in the ass.

Quatre shuffled around on his desk, finally finding a long list. "Salvage yards, sports shops, France, mechanics... I can send you the list if you want."

Meiran shook her head. "I don't have time. Do you think he's hiding?"

"I just don't know," Quatre said with a sigh. "After the war, he just dropped out of sight. If we had something to work with--his bank numbers, an account name, a definite sighting somewhere--but this is like throwing darts in the dark at a moving target."

She grimaced. "There are times when I think we should just give up. And then I wonder if I think that just because it's Maxwell."

Quatre glanced down at the table. "Don't tell Heero, but I'm not sure if there's much worth finding, anyway. Towards the end of the war, Duo got very..." he searched for a word. "Duo was a little creepy. Not on purpose, mind you--but I could feel it." He patted his chest. "Every time he smiled, every time he laughed... it was so angry and empty."

Meiran nodded. "It was dark for us all, Winner."

"I know." Quatre shifted uncomfortably. "I have to go. I have a lot of paperwork before I go home for the night. I'll let you know if I hear anything."

Meiran nodded. "Same here. Chang out."

She stood and stretched, feeling her back creak and pop as everything fell into line. With a half-hearted rub of her eyes, she gave up on the reports for the moment, choosing instead to head across the hall to Sally's office.

"You look terrible," Sally said as Meiran walked in and plopped down in one of the chairs.

"Is that your professional medical opinion?"

"Yes," Sally said, ignoring the dry tone. "Did you eat lunch?"

Meiran looked at the time. Six-thirty. "I think I had a glass of water. And a donut sometime before noon. I bet that was better than you."

"You'd win that bet," Sally said with a sigh, letting her pen roll from her fingers. "You know, when we decided to put the Preventors together, I didn't expect quite this much paperwork."

"I envisioned more ass-kicking," Meiran said with a straight face.

"Sounds like some cheapskates are ready to hire an administration," Une said from the door.

Sally crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it at her.

"An administration," Meiran said with a sigh of longing. "Would we ever have to do paperwork again?"

"What about saving money?" Sally objected. "I thought we agreed we didn't have the resources to hire anything but the bare essentials at the moment?"

"I think a little more help in the administrative department is beginning to qualify as essential." Une gestured to Meiran. "Point in case."

Meiran groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. "Let's do it. I never want to answer the phone again."

Sally laughed. "Chancellor again?"

"And then Winner." Meiran pulled her arm off her face, sitting up a little. "No news. Maxwell scares him and he wants to give up."

Une began to laugh. "He actually told you that?"

"Quatre's gotten lazy in his old age," Sally said with a giggle.

"Oh, Maxwell could be scary," Meiran admitted, watching Sally stand, stretch, and pick up her coat.

Une smirked.  "But I think Winner's forgetting his own bout with insanity. That was scary."

Meiran groaned. "Please don't remind me."

"Time to go, Chang," Une told her, holding out a hand to help her to her feet. "We're going to try out Micalli's tonight, remember?"

"Best pizza pie in town," Sally said with a dreamy sigh. "They say the crust alone is as thick as your finger..."

Meiran's stomach grumbled, and she accepted a hand up. "I suppose, if we must."

"Get your coat. Sally's getting impatient," Une said.

"Me?" Sally put her hands on her hips. "Wait a minute!"

Meiran wandered into her office and turned out the lights, sending one last reluctant look at the hated paperwork. Taking her coat off the rack, she wrapped her scarf around her neck and buttoned her coat up. She was halfway down the hall when she called out, "Last one to the elevator pays!" and began to run.

"Hey!" Sally yelled as Une took off. "I paid last time!"

Meiran laughed, and was just about to respond when the elevator dinged and the doors opened.

Zechs, long hair waving gently, grinned. "I knew you'd still be here!"

"We're off-duty," Meiran said, but she automatically donned a more professional demeanor.

"What is it, Zechs?" Une asked, also adopting a more somber attitude.

"I was just dropping off this paperwork," he reassured them, taking a file out of his briefcase. "My assistant has the flu. Very messy. I thought you'd appreciate my personal touch in this matter." He winked. "I try to keep things personal between us."

Sally laughed, accepting the papers and walking them back to her office. "You scoundrel. What do you tell Noin?"

His grin was mischievous. "About as much as she tells me."

When Sally returned without the papers, they all rode down to the lobby together. "So, how is Noin, anyway?"

"She loves school," Zechs said. "She promises to be home for Christmas, despite having to come all the way back to boring old me. Do you think I'm boring?"

Meiran rolled her eyes at his pout. "It's never a dull day with you around, Marquis."

Zechs smirked. "I'll tell her that."

"Do," Une said dryly as the elevator opened.

They crossed the lobby, wishing the security guards goodnight. "But she's got her major all planned out; when she finishes, she'll have a job all ready for her in the government--so it's nice."

Outside the doors to the complex, Zechs bowed slightly. "This is where I say goodnight."

They waved. "Goodnight, Zechs."

They'd only taken a few steps away until Zech's voice stopped them. "Oh, should I reserve a ticket for Duo on the same shuttle as Noin?"

Meiran, Sally, and Une turned as one. "Huh?"

"For between semesters," Zechs said. "He will be coming back for Relena and Heero's wedding, right?"

Merian blinked. "You know where he is?"

"Of course. Noin's seen him around campus." Zechs picked at a hair on his suit coat, removing it with a disapproving frown. "So should I reserve the seat or not? It fills up pretty quickly around the holidays."

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