Title: January Thaw, part 3 of the Survival Arc
Author: Cassima
Ownership: Survival Arc? Yes (this fic included!). Gundam Wing and all its characters and plot and such? Nuh-uh.
Summary: Seven years after the end of the war, the charade is abruptly over. "Endless Waltz" never happened, so I guess it's kind of AU.
Rating: PG-ish... nothing really worse than what we've seen before in the Survival Arc.
Warnings: Angst. Stuff. Whatever.
THANK YOUS AND POCKY go out to Bronze Tigeress for catching the silly miscommunications between my brain and my hands. All mistakes that you find are my own. Mine! Mine! ::clutches them to her chest with a wicked laugh:: III.
JANUARY THAW: The title of a chapter in the Sand County Almanac, by Leopold. The book is basically a shrine to nature, and may be interesting in parts, but is evil for a class assignment. Gosh, I still remember, from all those years ago... (Side note: I live in Michigan. We kind of have a Feburary Thaw... and then a Feburary Freeze... and then a March, May, or June thaw... so I can't really relate, but hey, in Michigan, we don't really have seasons, we kind of just go with the flow.)

I touch the fire, and it freezes me.
I look into it and it's black.
Why can't I feel?
My skin should crack and peel.
I want the fire back.

--"Once More With Feeling", Buffy the Vampire Slayer

January Thaw + Part 1

Duo struggled against the urge to cry. He could feel the tears building up behind his eyelids and blinked furiously. He finally gave in, using his shirt sleeve to mop at his eyes. "Wu, you're heartless." He snuffled piteously.

Wufei, unperturbed, continued to chop the green peppers. "You offered." He seemed almost amused.

"Yeah, well, you didn't have to accept." Visciously, he hacked at the onion again.

"Think of it as a character-building experience." Looking even more amused, he scooped up the chopped peppers and carried them over to the pot.

"You think I need more character?' Duo had to grin through his onion-induced tears. "Alright, but you're not allowed to complain later."

"More character?" Wufei smirked. "I think you need different character."

"Oy!" Duo cried, clutching at his chest dramatically with the hand not holding the knife. "Right in the heart! Wu, you've wounded me!"

"You're making a mess of that, Maxwell," Wufei returned, but Duo could tell he was still enjoying himself.

"How can you mess up chopping a vegetable?" Duo demanded.

Slipping up behind him, Wufei carefully put one hand over each of Duo's, guiding the knife against the onion. His front nestled comfortably against Duo's back. "Make slices," he murmured in Duo's ear, chin settled on the American's shoulder. "And then you go across... and then the other way."

Duo shivered a little as Wufei's warm breath tingled on his ear and neck. Wufei was a few inches taller than him; genetics had been kind to Wufei, and Sally attributed Duo's lack of height to malnutrition in his early developing years. It didn't really bother him. Duo was used to being short.

"Are you getting distracted?" Wufei whispered against Duo's neck.

"I think you'll need to teach me again," Duo replied slyly. "You know how slow I am in the kitchen."

Wufei pulled away, shaking his head and walking back towards the stove. "Incorrigible, that's what you are."

Duo pinched his butt. "Don't incorrige me."

Wufei yelped and sent him a dirty look, but the smirk he was struggling to contain indicated he didn't really mean it. "Add the onions. After that, the sauce has to simmer for 20 minutes. I'm pulling out the bread; you mince the garlic."

"Yes sir, Captain Wu-chan." Instantly, he knew he had given himself away in that; he'd been too casual for a cooking lesson, too--something. Wufei was sure to pick up on it--Wufei always picked up on that kind of thing. Duo dropped the onion chunks in the pot of spaghetti sauce and carefully stirred it, hoping Wufei would let it be. He pulled the garlic out of the cupboard, shelled a few cloves with a careful hand, and began to mince.

"Duo..." Wufei began hesitantly, and Duo checked to make sure he wasn't doing something stupid, like chopping the garlic skin, that he could blame it on. Finding nothing obvious, he raised his eyes to meet Wufei's; despite their recent banter, Wufei had a serious air about him.

The Chinese man looked at him for a moment. "Nothing." He looked unsure of his answer, and stirred the sauce absently.

It wasn't nothing, but Duo didn't debate it, choosing instead to start into a story about one of his students, a girl who'd chosen to pull a paper off the internet and pass it off as her own. "It wasn't even on the right book," Duo concluded to the laughing Wufei. "And, of course, her parents are furious with me. Stupid dumb rich kids. It's like dealing with OZ again, 'cept I'm not allowed to blow 'em up this time. I mean, the paper's grammar alone sent me into hysterics... and I'm not supposed to laugh while handing back papers. The kids take offense and tell Marissa, and then she has to reprimand me... it's just not pretty."

"That's what you get for teaching high schoolers," Wufei returned, slathering the garlic butter on the loaf of bread. "At least the idiots I'm stopping are adults. By the way, Une still wants you in the Preventers."

"Tell her the uniforms are too tacky." The continual job offers were a running joke between Duo and Une.

"Why don't you just tell her you're not interested?" Wufei asked. "Spare me this eternal message boy duty."

Duo winked. "And break her heart? Nah... it's more fun this way."

The front door clicked open; Duo could hear the jangle of Heero's keys as he tossed them in the basket on the table.

Heero walked into the kitchen, heading immediately to the pot and tasting the sauce with the stirring spoon. "Needs basil."

"No, it doesn't," Wufei replied, taking the spoon away and rapping at his knuckles.

"Hullo to you, too, Hee-chan," Duo said with a smirk.

"I hate Relena's groupies," Heero replied, moving so Wufei could place the garlic bread in the oven.

"So what else is new?" Wufei asked, checking the pasta and slapping Heero's hand away from the sauce again.

"Why don't you just quit working for her?" Duo asked, pulling out a few plates.

Wufei smirked. "Une doesn't want to hire Heero, remember? Besides, Relena has him wrapped around her finger."

Duo laughed as Heero growled. "She does not! And, at least I don't work with teenagers.

"I like kids," Duo protested, but it sent a funny ache through his chest. Wufei flashed him another concerned look, like his stifled speech earlier, but let it pass unchallenged.

"You are a kid," Heero returned, not noticing the exchange. Duo felt another ache in his heart. Heero never noticed.

Seven years after the war, their arrangement hadn't changed. They lived together, slept together, ate together, and worked separately. Sometimes Duo wondered how long the charade could continue.

+

His hands were shaking, and he reached over to crank up the heat to maximum blast. Damn it all! Stupid, stupid, stupid...

The heat was all the way up, but the car still felt cold to him. He just needed to get home, get under a blanket, get a mug of hot chocolate, or tea, stick some logs in the fireplace, crank up the heat...

Oh, and maybe take his medication. Yeah. That might help, too. The war had hardened him, he'd discovered a few years after the end of the fighting. Not as much as it had Heero or Trowa, but more than Quatre or Wufei. Death was an end--almost a release in some cases. Way back before they had electricity (and possibly the wheel; he taught English, damn it, not history!) this Greek guy, Lucretius, wrote a long poem entitled "The Nature of Things". Basically, it detailed his theory on atoms, and how they comprised the natural world.

Lucretius thought that, when a person slept, their soul loosened and escaped the body, snapping back in place with wakefulness. Similarly, death came when the soul never returned. Even if Duo had believed in souls--which he didn't, because of the whole not believing in God thing--he would think this was some kind of bullshit, simply because there were living people wandering around out there in this fucked-up world without souls. They were intelligent,

*too intelligent. No one so young should be so intelligent*

but their eyes held a vacancy Duo had seen in Heero's eyes when he was on the Zero-system. And, these people couldn't blame it on some insane scientists.

He pulled into the garage and breathed slowly, resting his head on the steering wheel and wrapping his arms around himself. Damn.

The expression in Derrick's eyes as he'd pointed the gun at his classmates--he was consumed by the power. That vacuous look of soulessness just consumed his face.

*Jesus.*

It was too much, after the stress of the past few days. Luckily, Marissa, in her infinite wisdom, had noticed the expression on Duo's face as he'd handed the terrorists

*children with guns!*

over to the police. He'd given his statement and been immediately excused. Marissa knew how he got sometimes, when the weakness in his body came back with a vengance.

"Go home," she told him. "Take a few days off. Get it together."

The house was quiet and dark, and he shivered a little. He tossed his keys in the basket, but didn't bother to remove his scarf, gloves, and coat. The light next to the phone blinked a few times, and he stared at it. He should call Heero and Wufei. Let them know what was going on.

Wufei's number came easily to hand, despite the clumsy large fingers of his gloves, and as the phone rang he struggled to breathe, to relax, to sound like he had it all together.

"Chang."

"Hey, Wu." He bit his lip as his voice cracked, and sat down heavily in a kitchen chair.

"Duo?" Wufei sounded surprised and only a bit concerned; evidently, he hadn't heard about the school yet. Surprising, actually, considering the way reporters trumpeted high to heaven any shred of violence involving children, packaged into a neat little sound bite. Duo felt suddenly ill.

"Hi." It was nice just to hear Wufei's voice. He breathed in again, feeling kind of soothed and kind of stupid for feeling soothed.

There was a pause. "Duo, are you okay?"

Duo laughed, but he sounded hysterical, even to himself. "Yeah. I... there was a shooting today at school. Don't worry," he interupted Wufei before the other man could get out more than a syllable. He traced winding patterns on the table top. "No one got hurt. I stopped the terrorists. I just wanted you to know that I'm okay."

"Terrorists? Duo--"

"They were kids, Wufei." They were the same age the boys had been when they piloted their giant Machines of Death. When Duo had been Shinigami. These kids would be branded as insane killers for the rest of their lives, without having killed anyone--thanks to Duo's quick reflexes--while their teacher, who had killed thousands

*more? God only knew how many*

was hailed as a hero. It boggled his mind.

"Duo..." Wufei's breath whispered over the line, and Duo knew it was time to end the call.

"Marissa sent me home for the rest of the week. I just wanted you to know, in case you heard. I'm fine."

"You want me to call Yuy and let him know?" Wufei asked gently. Duo wondered how he could call his lover by his last name, then wondered what Wufei called him behind his back.

"Yeah, that would be great." Suddenly, all Duo was was tired. "I think this phone is dying. See you tonight."

"Take care, Duo," Wufei said. Duo could hear the hidden meaning behind the words. I know you're not doing well, and we will discuss this later.

"Yeah, Wu. Think I'm gonna take a nap."

"I'll see if I can come home early."

"Don't worry about it."

The phone fizzled and died in his hand, and he stared at it blankly for a few moments before taking it over to the cradle and letting it fall in. Some days, he thought, it just didn't pay to get out of bed.

Medicine, he remembered suddenly. It was a new prescription, still fresh in the white pharmacy bag, stashed under the sink in a hurry when he'd gotten it. Sally had prescribed it at his last appointment; she knew a colleague who was working on developing medication for the survivors of the latest L2 plague, and so he always got the improved version. No more injections for him, just some gel tablets and an inhalor.

He pulled the bag open, reading the list of side effects, directions, and precautions stapled to the outside of the bag.

The last appointment had not gone well.

He held the bottle in his hand, looking at it without really seeing it. His lungs were permanently damaged, which meant...

He popped the safety cap and swallowed two of the blue pills, washing them down with a glass of warm milk. The pills would stop the shivering, stop the coughing, stop the ache in his lungs, stop the dizziness--that was what Sally said, anyway. It took them a while to work, but it was okay; Duo was miserable, but not that miserable. He wished the blue pills could take away the pain in his heart, but there was no such thing. If only...

A million completions ran through his head at that thought. If only the little blue pills could make him stop loving. If only Sally could wave a magic wand and fix his lungs. If only children could stop picking up guns, and leave the adults to fight amongst themselves. If only he could make a difference. If only Wufei and Heero weren't together. If only they would love him like they loved each other. If only Wufei was here to hold him, and stop his hands from shaking, and his eyes from watering. If only he had an onion to blame his tears on this time.

He hiccoughed, suddenly, and shivered. His favorite brown blanket. He needed his blanket.

+

"Yuy."

"Hello, Yuy."

"What's wrong?" Heero tensed, hearing the tone in Wufei's voice.

"There was a shooting at the school. No one got hurt, but Duo went home."

"Who was it?"

A sigh came over the telephone line. "Children, Duo says. Students, I'm assuming. The Preventers haven't been called in. It's police jurisdiction."

"Right." Heero clicked his pen a few times. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Realizing what he was doing, he set it down and glared at it.

"I'm going to see if I can leave early."

"I'll see you at home then."

"Right."

They hung up. Heero frowned, looking at his calendar. He could maybe clear that last meeting with Relena from his schedule and make it out a few hours early... they could watch old movies and eat popcorn.

Yuy smirked a little. It was a good plan. He'd surprise his lovers. He didn't get a chance to surprise Wufei and Duo very often. His hours were longer; Wufei and Duo usually collaborated on the dinner effort, which left him little opportunity there, and his taste in movies was entirely different than his eclectic lovers', so surprising them with entertainment was difficult as well.

He folded his arms on his desk and considered. It was almost spartan in appearance, without Wufei's odd talent for picking up knick-knacks, or Duo's continual clutter that just seemed to follow in a large, congealed clump wherever he went. There was an inbox, an outbox, a pen, a picture, and his laptop; the rest was all in the drawers--including his spare guns, of course. Heero lived by a creed that included the phrase, "and you can never have too many pieces of automatic weaponry, although a letter-opener will do in a pinch." He kept his letter opener in the top drawer, with his pens.

His eyes came to rest on the picture, and he picked it up from the corner of his desk and brought it closer. It had been taken at the celebration they'd had when Duo'd landed his teaching position. He'd been estatic, and Heero and Wufei had been fairly pleased to have at least one person out of the dangerous, gun-weilding business of protection. Not that Duo wouldn't jump if Une had a mission that required his services, but on the whole, he seemed to be pleased with his lot in life.

The picture had Wufei sitting in a wooden chair, arm resting on the back of it. Duo was leaning on the table behind him, arm slung over the ex-Shenlong pilot's shoulder and along his chest, grinning wildly at both the camera and Wufei's wry look of reluctant amusement. Heero stood a bit behind Duo and to the side, looking--well, he wasn't smiling, but he was relaxed.

His fingers traced the image of his lovers, and he allowed a half-smile to creep upon him. They were special, those two; he wished he had what they had. It was special, whatever it was. It wasn't something that could be learned, or manufactured, or brought to life--whatever it was, it was simply there between them. It was a closeness, an understanding. It was something that he knew he could never have with either of them alone. Occasionally, listening to them banter in the kitchen, or during a movie, or over Une or just anything, he would feel a small hint of jealousy manifest. It was easy for them, something they had that he could never have. He wasn't used to talking, or joking, and he knew that Wufei got a bit morbid whenever Duo left them alone for some "bonding time", as Duo termed it. Heero wondered what Duo thought they did in that time; Wufei wasn't a great starter of discourse, and Heero could hardly be called a wonderful conversationalist in his best moments.

It hurt, to see the light that flickered between them and not be able to grasp it. He couldn't even understand it.

He was so deeply entrenched in his thoughts that he almost didn't notice when the mailboy came by. An odd look of smug satisfaction was on the boy's face, and Heero set the picture down, warning bells ringing with full intensity. He studied the boy, frowning.

Fifteen minutes later had the boy pressed up against a wall, scared--literally--shitless and pouring his pathetic disgruntled heart out. Why was it always the boys from the mail room? Pathetic losers. With a sneer, he clocked the kid across the head. It was like fighting OZ again, except the terrorists were stupid terror-happy brats. Relinquishing the smelly moron to Security--well, the Security guards with lesser paychecks, actually--he walked over to Relena's office and walked in, ignoring the protesting secretary. As usual, he didn't bother to knock.

And, as usual, he caught Relena at a particularly bad time. "Um, Heero!" she squeaked, pushing Dorothy away from her neck. "Is there something wrong with Julie's intercom?"

"Johnson from the Mail room put a bomb in my house. I'm going home to defuse it." He glared at her and Dorothy, who shot a nasty look back and hooked her arm around her girlfriend. "I wish you'd just formally announce your relationship already. Morons are still trying to blow me up for 'leaving you for another man'."

"I'm working on her," Dorothy replied wickedly. "If you don't mind leaving now..."

Relena pushed her away, a worried look on her face. "A bomb? Really? Do you need back up? I can formally request Preventor support from Une--not that Wufei couldn't round up some people if needed--"

"Don't worry," Heero said, a tad smugly. "It's on a timer. It's going off in a month. I have plenty of time to get rid of it."

"You know I'll let you go right away to get rid of it, right?" Relena asked, relieved. "Are you sure he was telling the truth?"

Heero snorted. "That boy talked so much I practically know his life story. He's a bomb expert, and a horrible liar."

"Where'd he put it?" Dorothy asked, perching on the corner of Relena's desk.

"The chimney, of all places." Heero chuckled. "Who puts a bomb in a chimney?"

+

"Who puts a bomb in a chimney?" Wufei asked incredulously. "Are you sure he wasn't just messing with your head, Yuy?"

"Positive," Yuy replied.

"The chimney!" Wufei said, shaking his head. Then, realization struck from behind. "Oh, the chimney..."

"Chang?"

"Duo had another attack." Wufei shoved his papers aside, pulling his jacket off the back of his chair and stuffing his arms in the sleeves. "I'm leaving right away."

Heero cursed. "Me, too. I'll be home as soon as I can."

"Right. Chang out."

"Right."

Wufei hung up and dashed out of his cubicle, pausing only long enough to give his excuses to Une. She protested, he growled about protecting his family, and she let him leave. Standard Operating Proceedure. They only went through the routine because it suited their strange friendship. Wufei still wasn't sure how it was that he came to be working for his former enemy. That part of his life was a little hazy... but it involved fast talking on Une's part and the offer of a large salary. Wufei thought he remembered swearing, too, but... He hopped in his car, loosening his tie with one hand as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed their home number.

After a few rings, a calm voice informed him that, "the number you have dialed is not responding, or temporarily out of service. Please try again at a different time."

He swore, jamming his keys in the ignition and putting on his seatbelt before calling Duo's cell. It rang for a while, and he eventually just gave up, pulling out of the parking lot of Preventor Headquarters, straight into--

a traffic jam.

He could feel himself slipping into battle mode.

+

[part 2] [back Cassima's fic]