Author: Maldoror
Genre: Action, Drama, Humour (some)
Pairings: 1x5x1, others tba
Rated: NC17
Warnings: Violence, language, sex, adult situations
Spoilers: Yes, quite a lot for end of series (no EW though)
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Disclaimer:Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. Not a single peanut.

AN: ALL PRAISE my beta Dawna, who cranked out the beta to this in absolute record time, considering the length! Thanks to all my GW Addiction reviewers, you guys make my day!

The Arrangement + Chapter 38
The Distance Between Need And Want, Part I



"To attract good fortune, spend a new coin on an old friend, share an old pleasure with a new friend, and lift up the heart of a true friend by writing his name on the wings of a dragon"

Chinese saying.

---

Wufei checked the bag automatically after shrugging on the spare clothes in the men's room of the train station. Fake ID, money, cards to a secret account, a small palm top with some nasty hacker software -

-...hadn't Heero given him that...-

- a change of clothes if he needed to get rid of bloodstains, a medical kit, and coded information on the cell that had got him out of Beijing discreetly, just in case he needed them again.

All the pilots had these bags near to where they lived. Wufei had shot out of the house in his loose training pants, his boots and his jacket, without even his wallet or keys, which were upstairs in his room. He'd run until he was clear and could hitch a ride - jacket zipped up - to the small train station with simple code-combination lockers where he'd stashed these emergency supplies over a year ago. No one knew the exact contents of his bag, anymore than he knew the contents of - of any of the others. No-one knew what fake name he could assume, or what accounts he might dip into. It was an old habit from the war, this ability to disappear nearly instantly, in a way that even if they interrogated -...one of the others, the enemy could never find him.

His mind was entirely focused on the mechanics of escape. He felt a momentary surge of anxiety at not having a cell phone, though. Could he call from the shuttle-port - no, that would be counter-productive, to leave such an obvious trace now. But he needed to check-...He let the thought slip from his mind, and instead he concentrated on getting off planet. Then he ran into another problem in front of the ticket counter.

Where to go?

Quatre? No. Too soon, too...difficult. Trowa was gods knew where, either on a mission or with the circus or with Quatre. That only left...Damn. Oh well.

It was only after the long trip to L2 and when he’d rapped twice on Duo’s door that he realized there had been no compelling reason to stay with a Gundam pilot at all.

Too late now. He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation that was going to ensue. But he needed some place to stay, to regroup. Someplace he could feel safe. If only he’d known where Barton was. He’d have rather stayed- something flashed before the spyhole, and Wufei lifted his head proudly.

The door opened, and Trowa stared at him.

Wufei stared back, tensing automatically as any warrior did when faced with the unexpected.

Trowa leaned against the doorjamb, then started and drew back, letting him in without a word. Wufei accepted the unspoken offer without thinking, mind blank.

He knew Trowa was looking at him with those calm, green eyes that understood a lot without judging, without asking for more. Just like after Treize-

"Shit, if that's some evangelist type at the door, they're gonna be meeting the God of Dea-"

Wufei's mission-mindset shattered like a glass dome hit with a hammer. A nearly naked Shinigami with his jaw around his - bare - navel could do that.

Duo's hair was wet and straggling down his back and over one shoulder. He had a very small towel knotted low around his hips for a minute amount of decency.

How do I always get myself into these situations?! Wufei's mind felt like it was going to crack under the sudden barrage of revelations these past few hours.

A scar, ragged like a lightning strike, traveled up from the edge of the towel over Duo's hip. He'd put on some muscle since the war.

This is why I went for the whole 'solitary' thing to start with!!

Duo had some very interesting bite-marks over one shoulder and around one nipple, light red traces that were already fading. Not that Wufei really needed an illustration of what was going on here.

I should have gone to Beijing! I know the networks there, they'd have hidden me-

Trowa was also only half dressed - Wufei had spun away from Duo's slack jaw, wide eyes, and growing blush. The ex-mercenary had a few scars across his chest under the shirt he'd not buttoned. Wufei realized, to his embarrassment and confusion, that Trowa had opened the door in partially unzipped jeans and an open shirt, and he was only just now noticing-

A hand slammed across the doorway, barring his way out.

Wufei's bag crashed to the floor as he fell into a fighting stance, shocked at Trowa's aggressive move - as well as his own impulse; he'd barely realized he was making for the door at high speeds. Again.

The full force of the last twelve hours finally slammed home, turning Wufei's vision red.

Get. Out. Of. My-

"Go ahead," Trowa whispered, so quietly it cut right through the screaming storm of feelings that were tearing Wufei's mind apart. "Punch me, if it'll make you feel better. I guess I owe you one at that. But you're not going anywhere."

Wufei licked his lips. His vision cleared. He- he'd done enough harm-...he couldn't lose control of himself like that.

"I'll leave. I don't want to disturb..." he made a stiff and uncomfortable gesture at a neutral spot, half-way between his two partially undressed friends.

"Don't be stupid," Duo's voice was just the right side of relaxed, as if there were nothing odd or excruciatingly embarrassing about this situation, as if this were just a funny thing they'd be telling the blokes at the bar later on. "You're staying. Tu casa es mi casa."

"You just said that Wufei's home is your home, Duo," Trowa said in much the same tone. "Very badly, I might add."

"Well, then, this place is his, and I'm only temporarily renting it, so he definitely needs to stay!" Duo sniffed, rubbing his nose.

"But-"

"I was just leaving," Trowa supplied smoothly, forestalling whatever objection Wufei might make.

Wufei glared, some of the old fire returning. "Barton, just how dumb do you think I -" he broke off when Trowa jerked a thumb over his shoulder at two big bags and a knapsack waiting near the door. "Oh."

Embarrassed, he glanced at the two men from behind the curtain of his hair - stupidly enough, his bag had not contained a hair tie. He caught the tail ends of a Look between them. He knew it well. Not what it meant, per se, but what it signified, the near silent communication of two people who knew each other better than well.

So, this wasn't a one-off thing. Or even a casual affair. These two were intimate.

Why wasn't he even surprised? And what about Quatre? The thought drifted through his mind. It was suddenly too hard to fight it all. He was going to stay; between the two of them and this sudden bone-deep weariness, he wasn't going to be able to get out, so he might as well accept it without a fuss. Though he was rather glad Trowa was leaving, however unjust or petty that might sound. It would be hard enough to be around even one of his friends in his present state.

He turned and walked towards the kitchen area. Duo lived in a bachelor pad that was fairly big and airy, probably because it was on the wrong side of town and not too far from the scrap yards. There was a nice wood counter, fake wood, this being the colonies, but a good imitation. Wufei sat himself on one of the high chairs and leaned against the counter. Duo had vanished after that intense look, presumably - hopefully - to get dressed. Trowa had, Wufei guessed, silently agreed to stand guard until Duo was ready to take over.

Trowa said nothing, the same soothing nothing as the last time Wufei had been defeated. It had the same effect, too. It was like a shot of anesthetic, dulling the pain and allowing him to step back from it and examine it with some sort of detachment. He almost wished it was Duo leaving, but that, of course, was a bit too much to hope for, as well as being downright rude after Duo had offered to make Wufei's home his. Or whatever.

Maybe it was Trowa's presence, or maybe it was just that his subconscious knew he'd stopped running and had gone to ground, but finally the memories of the past few hours started to unfold, not screaming through his mind like a freight train, but with some semblance of method.

He wished some things unsaid and undone. But he’d been right to leave. He hoped.

He writhed with shame at the way he'd exploded - so much for self-control - but it had been too much to bear calmly, to have his weaknesses dragged to light, to learn that the one person he'd trusted utterly had been manipulating him these past weeks, just because he needed a good partner at his back. Trying to wring his secrets out of him while he slept; it reminded him too much of Susan. And what made it worse - Wufei realized he'd hit rock bottom as he let himself acknowledge this with barely a tremble of denial - what was worse was that on some level he'd enjoyed some of the things Heero had said and done recently, and he'd been hoping it was a sign of something evolving between them.

So ironic. At one point, he'd have gladly chopped off a couple of fingers to hear Heero say that he needed Wufei, in that intense way.

...When had that become no longer enough? It was so tempting to blame Susan and her drugs, but not even Wufei could lie to himself that thoroughly, he thought with some disgust.

He heard Trowa say a soft goodbye to Duo, voice quiet but so warm. He didn't turn around, left them some privacy. He didn't expect Trowa to say goodbye to him; the ex-mercenary knew him better than that.

Then Duo was busying himself around the counter, hair still wet but braided. He was dressed in dark jeans and a large black tee-shirt with 'Kiss My Gundam!' written on it. He set some water to boil without comment and then, as an afterthought and without looking, tossed Wufei an elastic for his hair. Wufei hesitantly gathered the strands back and tied them, feeling a bit better, a bit more in control. The silence was soothing as well. He was further surprised when Duo reached up to the upper part of a cabinet and blew the dust off of a pack of Wufei’s favorite tea. Shinigami was momentarily defeated by the lack of tea-bags in the pack, which apparently caught him off guard; he dug around his drawers for a few minutes before producing a beaten-up tea-strainer from somewhere under the sink.

They sat in silence, on either side of the counter and near opposite ends, Duo deliberately staying out of Wufei's overly-sensitive space. Wufei sipped the tea - the flavor had faded a bit but it was still good - and tried to start thinking constructively again. Duo was obviously leaving him the room to work this through; there wasn't even the hint of impatience from him as he drank his coffee.

But Wufei's thoughts quickly came back to a standstill again. He knew that sooner or later, he'd have to talk to Duo. If only to break out of the blind loop he'd created for himself.

“Why were you so...loud during the war?”

Duo nearly spurted coffee on the counter. "Huh?!" That had obviously not been what he'd expected as a way to break the silence.

"Why were you always so-...in your face. Teasing us. Acting like you really didn’t care about anything."

"Hey," Duo looked like he was a bit offended but trying to hide it. "I can be thoughtful, when a buddy's in trouble, you know."

Wufei stared at him for a few seconds, and then realized where the misconception was coming. He waved a hand in vague apology. "I know that, I saw what you were like when we were on Peacemillion. You cared. Probably only Winner cared more. But why act like a-“

“Like a street tough? 'S what I am, buddy. Product of L2. When you see so many people die, like you do in the slums, you can either take life seriously and join them, or stick your finger in the air, tell God to swivel on it, and go off like a rocket. Die the same, but a hell of a lot louder. I guess I was never one to die quiet."

Wufei snorted into his tea.

"And I like company. Makes it nicer when someone can hear the noise you make when you go, and get drunk over the crater you left! But you guys didn't play by the rules! It's kinda like a wolf pack. You either mate with it, or you outrank it, or you eat it. I got used to working with gangs, living in one...you constantly test and poke each other, ya know?"

Oh, Wufei knew very well. Yeah, that made sense, in a way that was like a light switching on. Duo had been reaching for the same edge as Wufei and Heero, the same adrenaline rush, the same urge to prove to yourself that you were still tough, still alive, by baiting death - or Heero Yuy - again and again. He'd just used a different language, a different technique- Wufei had felt the edge of this explanation before, when he'd seen the real Duo aboard Peacemillion, but he'd never been sure of it, simply because it seemed just too impossibly suicidal, in the midst of an already murderous war, that Duo would choose to tease and bait two such dangerous killers for his adrenaline rush.

"You were- you were riding me?" Despite this confirming his suspicions, Wufei still felt a bit dumbfounded. "Me and- you were playing us, just for fun? Seeing how far you could push us without actually getting hurt?! I can't believe-" you could read us that well. And that Wufei had missed it so completely back then.

Duo's grin became positively lurid. "What, that I survived? Well, I never got hit, now did I?! Either I'm a better player than you can ever believe, or I'm insanely lucky!"

Wufei stared, and suddenly something in him loosened. Oh, what the hell. If Maxwell could survive the war and not end up as that aforementioned big loud crater in the ground, Chang Wufei was certainly going to get over his latest mishaps.

"You little shit, Maxwell," he growled to hide a weak chuckle, and Duo beamed like it was the greatest of compliments.

The silence settled again. It wasn't the leaden silence of crypts though. It knew it was about to be broken and didn't fear it as much now.

"So...you're here," Duo finally said.

Wufei found himself nodding at his tea cup.

"...you okay? I mean, physically?"

Wufei glanced up in surprise. Duo was looking him over very carefully.

"Why shouldn't I be...?" Wufei asked, puzzled. Duo's gaze dropped away.

"Well...that bag's an emergency evac kit if I ever saw one, your, erm, hair was loose, the knuckles on your right hand are bruised, I know you could be walking around with two bullet holes and barely show it, and...and if nothing else, I know what Heero’s reflexes can be like..." the last was added in a whisper, Duo staring at the counter top, tracing a grain of fake wood with his forefinger.

Wufei took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Duo, can I ask a favor of you?"

"Anything."

"Could you please…call Yuy? Without letting him know I'm here? I..."

Duo was moving to the side-table. He lifted the vid phone and placed it on the kitchen counter, by his coffee mug.

"I hit him," Wufei could barely lift his voice above a shamed whisper. "He tried to stop me from leaving. I need to make sure he's- but I don't want-..." oh, what the hell was he doing! He should have called from the shuttle port! He should have gone ho- back to the house and checked himself! And damn his need to- to get some space to think. To get away.

Duo was silent for a moment, and Wufei stared at the teacup, not wanting to see what was in his friend's face. Finally there was a beep of numbers being typed.

"Quatre?"

Wufei glanced up in surprise, he couldn't help himself. Duo's face was calm, set.

//What's wrong?// Quatre's voice was immediately tense.

"Quatre, can you do me a favor? Without asking me any questions?"

There was no answer, directly. But Wufei heard the sound of someone standing up from a chair abruptly, stepping across a room. A door closed, and then a beep through the speaker and a fizzle indicated a communication filter being set up. Duo's mouth twitched.

//Secure, go ahead.//

"Not quite that dramatic. It's nothing much. I just need someone who can tell a little white lie convincingly, and of course I immediately thought of you."

//That's nice,// Quatre countered, with a small measure of dry amusement in the tension.

"Can you make up some good-sounding excuse and call Heero? He should be reachable on his cell."

There was silence at the other end of the line. Then Quatre's voice. //Can do. You okay?//

Duo smiled. It was small but very warm. "Hey, I said no questions," he whispered.

//Cut it out, Duo-//

"I'm fine, I'm fine. Something came up."

//What am I checking?//

"...that he's answering his phone," Duo replied softly.

There was a silence on the other end of the line, followed by Quatre's terse voice. //I'll call back in a few minutes. Love you.// The last was said distractedly, like 'goodbye'. There was a click that coincided with Duo's wince.

Wufei stared at his teacup again as if it were the most fascinating object he'd ever encountered. It was, for the record, plain white, cheap, and it had a small chip on the edge.

Duo laughed, it was the slight chuckle that didn't indicate humor though it made a good imitation of it. "You’ve probably got a loaded question."

Wufei's eyes became blank as he eyed the cup, not that it was offering to help. "So do you, I should imagine..."

"Ah. Well." Duo toyed with the end of his braid. "Maybe I'll start. Just so you know. Quatre, Trowa and me, we're sleeping together."

"...the three of you."

"Yep!" The mask of 'Who? Me? Care?' was back, but Wufei was pretty sure Duo did care, and would take any signs of disgust or reproof like a blow. The way his shoulder tensed, he was almost expecting it. It made Wufei a bit sad that Duo thought his old ally might attack him over something so trivial that was really none of his business anyway. Or that Duo would let it hurt him.

"Maxwell...Duo..." Wufei rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. "I thank you for your honesty and trust. Please allow me to return it. As it happens...and to be quite clear on the matter...my own personal life is such an utter fuck-up these days that if you were sleeping with Barton, Winner, every one of the Maguanacs, and a couple of goats, I still wouldn't have the luxury of being unpleasant about it."

Duo exploded into startled laughter, spilling his coffee. "Good god, Chang! When did you go and grow a sense of humor!"

"I always had it," Wufei sniffed, a bit morosely. "I try not to use it with my friends. It's...not nice." He'd only ever used it against Heero. Just how screwed up was that, when you took a step back and considered it from a normal angle?

Duo's laughter died, and he sighed as he finished his coffee. "Yeah. Yeah, I remember." He reached without looking for a tea towel and wiped up the spill as if this required his entire concentration.

The silence settled again. It was dying by the second, as was Wufei; his nails bit into his palm. Surely Quatre would have called back by now if Heero had answered the phone right away? Any minute now, Quatre would have to conclude that Heero wasn't answering at all, and he would start calling around, trying to find him at work. Then call Une, Sam, Sally...how soon before someone could drive by the house...? Wufei was well aware he could kill someone with one well-aimed blow. In his ragged memory of the past hours, he couldn't remember how hard he'd hit-

"He'll be okay. Guy's indestructible," Duo muttered. It sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

"...I'm surprised that you...you still want me in your house." Heero was also Duo's friend.

"Why? Because you're human and lost your temper, and we're trained to be dangerous in those kinda conditions?" Duo growled, glaring reprovingly at Wufei. "I don't know what happened, Chang, but I do know that I've never seen you let fly at a friend unless extremely provoked. And if I tried to stop you from leaving when you really want to leave, I'd fully expect to find myself with a few teeth knocked loose. It's our way. Think I've never done anything in a moment of stress that I didn't regret later? You think I get in Quatre's way when he's got a full head of steam? Tro's not the same, he'd hurt himself if you crowd him, makes me double quick to dodge him and give him his space when he needs it. We just...there's rules, ya know?"

Yeah, Wufei knew exactly what Duo meant, even if no-one else outside their little group would. There were rules. If Heero had been storming out - not that that was conceivable - Wufei would have tried to stop him, too. If only because he'd be furious at Heero for walking out on him, especially if he was winning the argument. But he wouldn't be surprised or particularly resentful when he woke up in the emergency room later. Angry, yes, but not-

The phone rang. Please gods-

"Quatre?"

//He's okay.// Quatre said quickly. Wufei's head spun with relief, and he braced himself discreetly against the counter.

"Of course he is," Duo snickered. "Just a false alarm. Okay, thanks-"

//Is Wufei there?//

"What?" Duo's body stilled in the middle of an over-the-top gesture of relief. To his credit, his eyes never even twitched towards Wufei.

//Sorry. Sorry, you said no questions.// Quatre sounded harried. //Well, never mind. Heero's fine. He's got a bruise along the jaw, but hardly anything to worry about. Nothing, really. He's rather concerned, though. Apparently, Wufei and he had some kind of argument. Heero's been trying to find him.//

"Oh, for the love of Mike, I feel like an answering service," Duo muttered. Wufei reminded himself it was uncivil to glare at one's host. But Duo was right. He could understand Duo not calling Heero - Duo didn't like to lie, and Heero would have asked some pretty pointed questions, if not leapt straight to conclusions - but Quatre already knew Wufei was there, he was ready to bet.

"Why didn't you tell me...?" Wufei's voice was soft, but it cut through Quatre's berating of Duo's lack of sensibilities.

There was a silence, then Duo, with a 'let's get our cards on the tables' look, swung the vid screen towards Wufei.

Quatre didn't even bother looking surprised; his eyes went carefully over Wufei's face and what he could see of his body. He looked tense and worried.

//Are you okay, Wufei?//

"Why does everyone keep asking me that...?" Wufei grumbled. "Why didn't you tell me, Winner? That Heero had heard what I said?"

Quatre was silent for awhile. Then he sighed. //Because Heero said he would tell you himself.//

"And you believed him-" Wufei started acidly.

//I don't think Heero intended to eavesdrop. I was furious too, at first. I knew he was the last person you wanted to have heard that - but I think that he needed to hear it. And then he needed to think about it and internalize it. I was hoping he'd come to you when he'd thought it over.//

"And in the meantime, you decided to just let me flounder around in the dark! And-"

//Maybe I was just following your own repeated request to stay out of your business and not interfere in your relationship,// Quatre pointed out in a neutral voice that nonetheless managed to pack quite a punch.

"Oh, smooth," Wufei muttered. Well, it didn't matter now. "Fine, you can continue being discreet and stay out of it now."

//Sure, now that I've made your call for you, and found out you didn't accidentally kill your boyfriend, I'll butt out again,// Quatre countered sharply. Wufei's cup nearly cracked beneath his fingers. He stared at it - 'watch out; shards on the floor' - feeling the blow whip through every one of his shattered barriers. The tap of Duo's fingers against the screen snapped him out of his stunned state.

"Steady on, lover. Let's let things calm down before we start shooting at them with both barrels."

//...I'm sorry. I know you didn't mean to hurt him, Wufei. I know how our reflexes-...I was serious, he's barely bruised. And he is worried-//

"Okay, okay. Let Auntie Maxwell's Broken Hearts Column take care of the rest." Duo turned the vid phone around and grinned into it. "Or rather, Uncle Daniels."

//What?! Duo, that won't solve anything-//

"I seem to recall it did! I'll talk to you later," Duo's eyes held a vibrant warmth that removed any sting from the curt dismissal. Wufei heard a grumble from the vid - something about 'being adults' - and then the disconnect beep.

"He's one to talk," Duo commented as he fished around a cabinet near the TV. "Do you know how long it took me and Trowa to drag him into bed before he self-destructed out of various layers of guilt and god-knows-what? Months! Nearly had a fucking nervous breakdown! Twice! Finally had to get him drunk - deadly thing, fruit punch, when Trowa makes it. Right." A bottle and two small glasses landed on the counter half way between them, as Duo took up his spot again, outside of Wufei's personal space.

"I don't drink, Maxwell."

"Well, in these kinds of situation, I do!" Duo proclaimed. Wufei noted, with his investigator's eye, that the bottle was brand new and the glasses a bit dusty. Apparently these kinds of situations didn't occur very often.

Wufei was quite prepared to drink the entire bottle if he knew for certain that it would tell him, once and for all, if he'd done the right thing or not. He was normally so certain of himself...but not with his own emotions. Never with his own emotions. But he didn't think Mr. Daniels would be much help, except by giving him something else to worry about for a few hours, and Wufei wasn't such a coward that he had to escape pain that badly. He wasn't even sure he deserved that temporary relief.

If only he could think straight...

"I wouldn't mind some more tea before you get shit-faced, Maxwell," he muttered.

"Water's over there!" Duo replied with a toothy grin, jerking his chin at the sink. Wufei snorted and helped himself.

"...you know...I’m not surprised that Quatre said he’s worried," Duo said, after Wufei had gotten his tea, and Maxwell had knocked back his first shot with the ritual 'whee!' afterwards. "...just to get one thing clear, you do know that Mr. Nerves-of-Steel, like, needs you, right?"

Wufei flinched. His hand jerked, cut off any additional words abruptly. No, don't go there. That was the source of the pain.

Duo licked his lips and poured another shot. The scent of the alcohol wafted from the glass he was turning in his fingers. He didn't seem in any hurry to down this one.

"It's just...well...you two-"

"Don't get all starry-eyed on me, Maxwell." Wufei meant it as a growl, but it came out a bit flat. "I got enough of that from Winner."

"Quatre is very perceptive, ya know," Duo said carefully.

"'Really worried', is he? Do you think Yuy actually said that?"

"Not a chance in hell," Duo agreed immediately. "But Quatre would know, talking to him,"

"Well, I didn't talk to him, but let me run something past you. Quatre said the bruise was small," and didn't that say something a bit pitiful about Wufei's so-called warrior reflexes, however thankful he was at this point.

"...yeah?" Duo looked at him suspiciously over the shot he'd still not drunk.

"We don't have a vid phone at the house, Maxwell. There's only one place that Yuy can plug his cell into a vid screen, or have access to one where Quatre could get a hold of him that quickly. Do you want to take a guess where that is?"

Duo said nothing. His gaze had dropped to the counter, and he looked sad and troubled.

"So, let's take Quatre's nice picture of the young man whose, you'll forgive the term, 'boyfriend' just walked out on him after a fight sufficiently serious that it would leave him with any kind of bruise. He's so broken-hearted that he goes straight to work, to his desk which has a convenient vid-phone attachment for his cell-"

"Okay," Duo interrupted hoarsely. He didn't seem to think this was funny. Maybe because Wufei was sort of poking fun at Quatre, and Duo was getting defensive. Good gods, Duo, Quatre and Trowa were in a threesome! Wufei didn't even know those actually existed in real life. He had the strange but oddly funny urge to ask Duo all sorts of questions as to how that worked exactly. If nothing else, Duo's reactions to that would probably be amusing!

It was easier to think of that than to think of Heero, sitting in Ops, working at his desk...

How can I be absolutely not surprised...not in the slightest...know he's like that to the deepest part of my being...and still let it hurt me...

"Don't look like that, Maxwell," Wufei snapped, before finishing his tea. "You're giving Winner a run for his title of 'best wounded puppy imitation'."

"You were right about your sense of humor," Duo muttered, then tossed back his shot. Wufei shrugged. At this point, what did it matter?

"I knew what I was getting myself into. Anything that happened after that was my fault," Wufei elaborated softly. Heero had been nothing but himself - well, bar that parody these last few weeks - and it was Wufei's own weaknesses that had betrayed him at the last. There was a certain justice to it. Oddly, it made him feel better. It made it more something that had been fore-destined, and thus not avoidable by any actions on his part.

"Yes, but it's not like either of you had a choice."

Wufei glanced up at Duo in surprise. He got an acid glare in return. "Don't go thinking I'm a chump. Neither is Quatre. We've been through the same shit you have. Which is probably why you're here instead of getting wasted in some bar in Brussels."

Wufei glared at his cup, wanting to argue just on principle, but he knew Duo was right. Quatre had known enough not to say anything about their arrangement unless asked, and still try to help them anyway.

"I don't imagine for a nano-second that you guys have the world's greatest romance. In fact I'm amazed you didn't kill each other three weeks after getting started. But even if you had blown yourselves up, along with most of your neighborhood, that would still have been better than the alternative, being alone. All five of us..." Duo's voice was suddenly soft, and almost amused, in a wry way. "The five of us, we're damaged goods, Chang. We're fucked in the head. We had to be practically from the start, to be pilots. We're seventeen-year-old ex-terrorists, we killed more people between us than a plague, and we carried the weight of the world on our shoulders. The whole fucking world, just the five of us.

"And it crushed us. We can't stand on our own any more. Not even Heero Yuy."

Duo shrugged and downed another shot. He was only filling the glasses up half way, Wufei noted. Then again, Duo probably wasn't any more used to drinking than any of the rest of them. Wufei wondered what a drunk Shinigami would be like and decided to get Maxwell to slow down.

"Just don't go thinking that we can't understand that you needed each other while still ending up in some kind of fucked-up tangle. If you need any kind of illustration, look at me an' Quatre an' Tro. Think that was easy? Think that was written in the stars? Think we even had so much as a choice?"

Wufei looked at him, puzzled, and Duo snorted a chuckle into his empty glass and then wrinkled his nose, probably startled at inhaling the fumes. "Get real. I mean, hell, I'm not asking for much. You give me three hots and a cot, and I'm in heaven. Nothing like the L2 slums to lower your expectations in life. You add two lovely bodies - guys who can actually understand why you wake up fighting every third night - and I'm in fucking nirvana. But the others...? Tro would rather not care for anybody, except it's too late for that now. He's stuck. With us. Even after all we did to him during the war, Quatre shooting him down and me dragging him back again. At least he's bi! I mean, well, he's a merc. And he's picky for a merc, which means, he prefers his lays with two legs. But to tell you the truth, if Tro had his way, he'd only sleep with prostitutes. Pay and leave. Middle-aged female prostitutes, too. Funny, heh? He prefers them to be a few years older. Okay, not middle-aged, say, twenty-three, twenty-five...I donno, maybe he's got some sorta fetish, he never said. But at least he'll sleep with a guy! Quatre was straighter than a poker! God, it took a long time to get him into bed. Did I mention the fruit punch? And he still won't bottom, and we've been together almost six months now. Er..."

Duo looked at Wufei who'd finally managed to make his strangled coughs loud enough to attract attention.

"What's wrong, Fei? Too much information?"

"...a bit, yeah." Wufei cleared his throat and cast around for something neutral to say. "So, you guys have only been together a few months?"

"A few months?" Duo echoed, looking at him owlishly. "Six! For guys our age, that's like a fucking marriage."

"Well...I assumed...I thought, aboard Peacemillion-"

"God, we were barely sixteen, about to die, and with enough baggage to choke a horse! Not a chance- waitaminute-" Duo stared at him incredulously. "You're not saying- I mean, you and Heero hooked up when you went to Brussels, right?"

Wufei didn't bother to ask how Duo knew they'd hooked up in the first place. Quatre had probably told him. It had rather been assumed Duo knew during the entire conversation and indeed since Wufei had shown up on his doorstep.

"Since when have you two been together?!" Duo stared at him, amazed at the lengthening silence.

Since a bed in Italy, white comforter curling beneath awkward fingers-...

Well, no, that wasn’t the beginning-

Since a savage screw against a wall in the grip of battle bloodshed and lust-...

Well, okay, but technically-

Since his back was slammed onto the floor, smell of old wheat and engine oil in his nose, feeling affronted and embarrassed-

Really? No, that didn’t count-

“Since near the start of the war,” Wufei answered curtly.

"You're shitting me?!" Duo choked. His eyes were perfectly round. "You guys - all that time - you- aboard Peacemillion- you-....whoa."

There was a stunned silence for a few minutes - well, stunned on one side. Then Duo poured himself another shot. Wufei went to get more tea and wondered about the curative properties of alcohol.

"That's like...two years," Duo suddenly said, sounding awed.

"If it took you that long to do the maths, Maxwell, then maybe you should stop drinking."

"It just struck me..." He seemed both amazed and impressed.

Two years. But Wufei remembered the prickle of what he now recognized as jealousy, as he watched Quatre and Trowa embrace passionately; the warmth in Duo's eyes as he looked at his lovers.

"It's not the same thing," he muttered. "It was need. Pure and simple. Heero only asked me because he knew I had the- " Wufei's lips curled " - the 'emotional detachment and focus' to not let it become something else."

Duo wisely said nothing. The words 'but it obviously did' hung around them in silence.

"Can't say I understand what 'emotional detachment' means," Duo finally said diplomatically. "But as for need, well, as I said, that explains why me and the others are in our slightly unusual situation. We needed each other. Mind you, if something else falls out, we'll not throw it away..."

Wufei remembered the looks exchanged, the warmth he'd sensed. He had the feeling that something else than raw need had 'fallen out' and that they'd taken it and kept it safe. "...are you happy?" he asked, almost against his will.

"Me, Quatre, and Trowa? When we're not feeling guilty about it, or shell-shocked, or cut off from real life, or bleak, yeah, we get by. Ain't no fucking Romeo and- Romeo and Romeo! But we're there for each other. That's probably more than we deserve, I'm sure a lotta dead people would say. Tro said it nicely when we were all in bed together at one point - that doesn't happen often, it feels kinda weird, even for me. Erm, too much info again, I take it. Here, use the tea towel, it already has coffee stains on it, tea stains won't hurt it. Anyway. Tro told us about this saying they had in the merc group he was in. Three boughs can be snapped but not if you weave them together. It’s supposed to mean you stick by your unit to be strong, which is kinda ironic when you consider what happened- anyway, that’s what we have. Alone, we'd snap. We can only make it together. So happy, or not...well, we'll take what we get but that's not what matters. We went through so much, we ain't strong enough to survive this bloody peace and the after-effects of the war by ourselves. So...we weave around each other, support each other. If there were just two of us, we'd feed off each other and drive each other crazy, s'good thing we managed to drag Quatre in. Did I mention the fruit punch?"

"Did I mention you should stop drinking now?" The liquid in the bottle had taken a bit of a dip.

Duo shrugged, threw back the shot, and poured another.

"Now you two...you and Yuy, you're like an egg."

"An egg."

"Yeah. You know, the white and the yoke? Self-contained, not...blending, not mixing up or borrowing bits from one another to strengthen your weak spots, but...you're a whole, nonetheless. Right? Can't really imagine one without the other now. Not on a battle field."

Duo stared into the glass, and then his face twitched with a faint sheepish grin.

"Of course, when I say an egg...I don't mean the fragile kind with a cute little mother bird fussing over it, right? Definitely hard-boiled. Very hard. Like, forty minutes in boiling water, could-use-it-for-ammo type egg...Can you cook eggs in a pressure cooker?"

Wufei leaned slowly across and discreetly moved the bottle out of reach. Duo, staring thoughtfully at his glass, appeared not to notice.

"Or what was that...what do you Chinese eat? Thousand-year-old eggs? That tough."

"Really." Wufei found that even his sarcasm sounded tired.

"Yeah. What is that stuff anyway? Don't eggs go bad after awhile?"

Wufei stared at the bottle.

"Saw a picture of one once." Duo continued dreamily, twiddling the shot glass in his fingers. "In the window of a restaurant in Piniang before a job. Looked like a rock. But surely if it's fossilized, it can't be edible. I mean, I know the Chinese eat some strange-"

"They're not stone."

He felt Duo pause in his motion to reach for the bottle.

"Thousand-year-old eggs are normal duck eggs treated for a hundred days in a mixture of lime, ash, salt, and tea." Wufei's voice sounded neutral and scholarly to his own ears.

"...sounds grisly."

"Yes. It's a pretty rough treatment," Wufei agreed distantly.

"...and this is edible." Duo drawled.

"They ferment, I understand. It tastes a bit like cheese. It's an acquired taste."

"No shit."

"The lime and ash stain and pit the shell. They can look like stone and the name suggests fossilization. But in actuality..."

Wufei stood, shoving the stool back, and picked up his bag.

"In actuality, they are quite fragile. I have to go."

Duo looked up blearily from where he was glaring at the bottle with suspicion, as if he was wondering what it had to do with his current state of fuzziness.

"Say what?"

Wufei picked up his bag and headed towards the door.

"I have to go home."

"Huh?! But you just got here!"

Wufei knew that all too well, and was calling himself an 'idiot' in every language he knew for wasting his time on a useless trip to L2, but that was not going to stop him from doing the right thing.

"Er- Wufei! Wait!" Duo's stool nearly toppled and he leaned against the other end of the counter. "It's past nine at night, and this is L2. You won't find an earthbound shuttle at this hour."

"I might catch the last one. When was Trowa's?"

"Erm," Duo looked sheepish. "Tomorrow morning, early. He's, ah, probably found a motel by now."

Wufei started to glare but then decided he didn't have the time. "I'll see what they have, otherwise I'll-"

"Hey, Heero's fine, remember?! And he'll be there when you get there. Maybe you should take some time. I know what it's like, to want to get away from a situation, just for a bit. I mean...you were pretty shook up. Maybe-"

"It's not-" Wufei took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm not saying I was wrong, and I'm not saying I'm going back for good. I might show up here again tomorrow night. If-...if you don't mind."

"I won't even bother answering that," Duo sniffed.

"But we...I asked him a question, and I didn't wait for-...we need to talk. We both hate to, and it'll probably get ugly, but that's not- look, I just have to go."

"I know." Duo had sighed during Wufei's attempts to get a straight sentence out, and he was now rummaging in his back pocket. He tossed a small set of keys towards Wufei across the room. "Here. You won't even find a taxi around here this time of night, and I can't drive you. Car's in the street out front, just leave it in long-term parking, I'll pick it up tomorrow. Yeah, yeah," Duo waved away Wufei's attempts to refuse and focused on the vid-screen, running through memorized numbers. "Just go. I don't think you'll catch the last shuttle, but just stick around the information desk, okay? I'll see if I can arrange a ride before tomorrow."

"Duo-"

"Go!"

[chap. 37] [chap. 39] [back to Maldoror's fic]