Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for notes, warnings, disclaimer

Beautiful Symmetries + Chapter 2
2's Company.

It took awhile but I managed to put it all out of my mind. I went on a few easy missions. Une had offered me a break but I had declined, I'd not needed or wanted one. What was I going to do anyway, lie on a beach somewhere and rot? Over the next few months and several successful missions I managed to reaffirm to myself that I didn't need anybody.

Unfortunately, someone needed me.

Une looked like she was trying to spoon-feed broth to a hungry tiger when she approached me after I got back from one of my solo missions. I thought she wanted to saddle me with another lame-ass partner. But I let her speak, encouraged her with a nod even. It wasn't that I was hoping that Heero might have need of me for anything, but...Hell, the woman was my commander, the least I could do was listen. Right?

She took a good ten minutes getting to the point, explaining how the undercover mission was of utmost urgency and importance. That I was the only person in the world she could think of that could ride shotgun on this one. That the other person on this assignment was really the only one who could do the delicate job of infiltrating and hacking required. A full team of OZ interrogators would have taken a few weeks to get me to admit that at that point my heart had jumped a little. I mean, there weren't that many people that she could be talking about, right?

"So who is this paragon of excellence you want me to partner?" I finally asked, a bit sharply as her unusual circumspection was getting on my nerves. I wanted to know- I just wanted to know what the hell she was on about.

Une put both hands on either side of her desk as if she were about to dodge under it, cleared her throat and said: "Duo Maxwell."

Huh. A few emotions went to the back alleys of my brain to fight it out bare fisted, but for the most part I took the news with equanimity, even a little interest. "And when do we start?"

"Wuffers! You mean you'll do it?!"

I shot out of the chair as if electrocuted as the space behind me, which I could have sworn on my life was completely empty of any threat, suddenly rang out with a well-remembered L2 accent. And the mangled remains of my name.

"Maxwell?!" I hadn't seen him since the war either, and had managed to forget how damnably good at stealth he was. There he was, larger than life, as always. A bright cheery grin on his face, gleaming prussian blue eyes, long swinging braid, hands raised in the air. Hands raised-...? That was when I realized I'd half-drawn my gun instinctively. There was a hesitant look in those normally confident eyes. It was well-hidden behind layers of brash cheer but I caught a glimpse of it. It was something almost like hurt, and sadness. Maybe that's why someone as obtuse about other people's feelings as I am noticed it; it was such an unusual expression for Maxwell.

It was gone in a flash and I thought I'd imagined it. I still took my hand off my weapon though, relaxing, showing him that the reaction had been mainly due to surprise rather than anger.

He rubbed his nose in a well-remembered gesture, and grinned. "Still a bit jumpy, are we?"

"Yes, and still allergic to anyone who doesn't have the brains to remember my name correctly."

He grinned in delight. My tone had been acid but a lot less than usual, that is, a lot less than during the war.

"Oh I remember it, Fei, it's just I think it's so much cuter to call you Wuffers. Or Fei-fei. Or-"

"May my ancestors help me." I made a show of rolling my eyes towards the commander. "I'll partner him until he finishes the mission or until I kill him, I can't promise you more, ma'am."

Une looked hesitant but somewhat relieved as she gave us our mission details and let us leave.

It turned out I was supposed to put the braided annoyance up for the night as well, as he'd arrived a bit late to book a hotel. The whole mission was rushed, it was probably a good thing he was staying with me; we had a lot of ground to cover before leaving the next day. We ended up reviewing the mission details, papers spread out on the kitchen counter, over a late-night take-out feast of over-salted chow-mein and tepid pizza (in a fit of madness or amnesia or both I'd let Maxwell take charge of supper while I got the spare bed ready).

"So, Fei, I heard you still have it!"

"Have what?" I asked, puzzled, as I picked through profiles of the hackers in the ring we needed to break up before their cracker codes and viruses caused serious harm to the Earth Sphere economy.

"IT! Heero kept going on and on about that mission you were on together."

I dropped the papers, quickly picked up the empty cartons and turned to put them in the garbage. "Oh." Was all I could find to say.

"Ten days in the jungle with soldier boy and you managed to do more than keep up with him. I'm impressed, and so was he! Rather you than me, man, I prefer the more civilized areas." He tapped the mission specs with a quick finger. The hacker ring was strung out in cyberspace and all over the place in real life, but they had a central cell of several key figures in a holiday resort in the L4 colony cluster. Duo had been bubbling on about the place since we started reviewing the parameters. It was a clever location; a lot of people coming and going, powerful computers dealing with the tourist trade and the casinos and shops, a lot of cash moving around, many businessmen who would pay bribe money to stop things happening to their computer systems. And a lot of opportunities to play for the more fun-loving of the ex-Gundam pilots.

"Why did Heero-" Damn it, once more the question I hadn't meant to ask. I didn't even know how to finish it or withdraw it gracefully. But Duo didn't seem to notice.

"Why's Heero not being my backup? He's on a mission with Trowa, trying to break up this mercenary gang that are playing rough back on earth. He's been gone a month already. This new problem just came up, and Une wants it dragged out into the daylight and shot before the hackers make too many friends and colleagues out in cyberspace. I don't have time to wait for Heero to come back."

He was pulling his plastic chopsticks through the gummy noodles of the chow-mein, making doodles with them, violet-blue eyes on a small shrimp curled up in a nest of soggy vegetables. "I'm rather surprised you agreed to back me up, Wuffee. Glad of course! But even Une wasn't sure she could talk you into it."

"You need backup." I snorted, my tone of voice the same as if I'd said 'you need a babysitter'. Duo grinned, his usual response to one of my barbs. He was silent for a moment, but I knew it was impossible to hurt his feelings as it was impossible to get him to say my name correctly.

I could imagine he was surprised I'd accepted. But really...I fished around for something to say as I watched the slightly bowed head, the eyes still fixed on the innocent shrimp, and felt the silence lingering.

"We were both under a lot of pressure during the war." I finally said because the silence was strangely getting to me, in a way I couldn't define. "But you were a competent ally and a fearsome fighter, and as long as you can refrain from molesting my name any more than necessary I think we can get through this mission without too much physical violence."

His head shot up and he blinked several times, at my tone as much as my words. I'd spoken dryly but without my usual bite. I was being honest after all. The grin in response was also more forthright than any I'd gotten until then.

"I guess we can try! Say, what if I called you 'Chang'? Not much I can do with that! Besides, Heero says it's a mark of respect."

It was, when Heero used it. I was damned if I could explain the.unease, the slight regret that ran through me when he said that though. I fell back on my usual sniff, which I softened with a hint of smile. "Respect? From you? I should call weather report, it must be snowing in hell. Can't you manage a two-syllable word like Wufei, Max- .Duo?"

He stared at me as if I'd sprouted a second head, either because of my tone, my smile or the use of his first name - and I certainly hadn't been calling him Maxwell out of respect! Then he smiled - not grinned, smiled, and it made him look older and more...I don't know. But it suited him. We said nothing more on the subject. We didn't need to.

I was telling the truth, I didn't mind working with him. A lot of my annoyance towards him during the war had come from my own situation, it hadn't been his fault. Sure he was aggravating sometimes, but...

But in the months that had followed the war, with Sally's respectful friendship and everybody else in the Preventers acting like they were afraid of me - hell, they were afraid of me. Sometimes I thought back to the light-hearted jester who had tried to draw me out of the shell of anger and pain and self-directed hatred I'd wrapped myself in. I felt...a bit bad at the way I'd treated him at times. Sure he was annoying but...sometimes he'd been very funny and I'd still cut him down each and every time. I didn't want funny back then. I didn't want someone to help me, to alleviate my depression, to make me feel better. I'm surprised he still tried, time and time again. I'd wondered...well, since I had finally gotten my own head a bit in order, I couldn't help wonder what it would be like to meet the braided ben dan again. Was he really as annoying as my tainted memories suggested? Everybody else seemed to like him. Hell, what was I saying! Apparently he and Yuy were lovers! That had to be proof positive that I'd overlooked a lot back then.

So I went on the mission with some curiosity. And a little trepidation. Not about Duo; I remembered quite well that however funny he was, he was still an efficient, deadly fighter and very, very serious about his missions, however many jokes he cracked. My trepidation was on my own account. I'm...not a people person, and Duo is. I was afraid my own short temper or black moods would get the better of me, and I'd dishonour myself by losing my temper with my partner when I should be supporting him in a difficult mission. I decided to be very careful about that.

The curiosity was to see what it was like, partnering Duo Maxwell now that we were no longer at war, no longer the damaged children of battles. And also...I was curious to see who this person was, that Heero Yuy could have fallen for.

We arrived at the resort as a couple of friends on spring break from university. Duo was, of course, the brilliant, personable, cool computer genius who would get the hackers, young adults themselves for the most, interested in him. I was his invisible friend who was far from cool, had no computer savvy, but kept up with him and made sure no-one stuck a knife in his back.

The Chang Wufei who had fought during the war would have self- destructed rather than have to tag along with Duo as a friend in a holiday resort, doing all the fun things that friends are supposed to do.

I do try to be honest with myself, and I had to admit, it was...fun.

Duo was a lot less hyper than I remembered. In fact, I realized he hadn't changed that much, it was my tolerance for his antics - which were a lot more amusing and relaxing than I remembered - which had grown. Besides, Duo's greatest efforts during the war had been to 'draw me out of my shell'. When it became established that I was now virtually shell-less, he fell back to the warm easy friendship he shared with Quatre and Trowa. And Heero, presumably, once he, like me, had opened up a bit to the endless charm and wit that seemed to flow from the braided man.

It took us only a couple of weeks to get in to the hackers' circle, in large part due to Duo's remarkable talent for infiltration. He could be anybody's best friend in less than five minutes. I must admit sometimes I was almost jealous of these people he would shower with his charm. Well, jealous was probably not the right word. I wasn't actually jealous of....forget it. Besides, I preferred working with the real Duo, who still joked and smiled and laughed and, yes, occasionally mangled my name, but had a core of steel resolve in him, of intelligence and ability that attracted me. Well, attracted was probably not the right-...Forget it.

"Sorry to leave you with the mess, Duo." I said, although of course I was in a hurry to leave now that the core cell of hackers was behind bars. Yes, I was in a hurry to get back to my routine, my solo missions, of course I was.

"No you're not!" Duo gave me his great big smile, eyes showing he wasn't criticizing me. "You know it's going to be a nightmare to untangle their encryption and files and figure out where the rest of the gang is hiding out. It'll probably take weeks! Unless I get so bored I pull a Shinigami."

"What do you mean?" I asked, suddenly worried, eyes shifting to the people in the shuttle port around us.

"Oh you know, order in five pizzas, ten bottles of soda, three tubs of assorted ice-cream, sit down and spend forty-eight hours going all out and hunting the buggers through cyberspace like rats in a maze!"

"How does that qualify as being the dreaded god of death you so arrogantly claim to be?" I smirked, and the barb was not serious. We'd developed a sort of play-sparring that I actually enjoyed. It challenged my wits and my tongue.

"On account of how I feel when I wake up with the bastards behind bars and my body presenting the tab. Maybe not the god of death but certainly the angel of death warmed over."

I snorted, okay it was maybe an actual laugh, and Duo's grin became feral.

"You know what I'm going to do now, right, Wufee?"

"Does it involve ice-cream?" I asked sardonically.

He opened his mouth as if about to say something, and stopped with a cheeky grin instead. He'd done that frequently over the past two weeks. I'd say something quite innocuous, at least to my ears, and he'd look like he was about to say something funny but he'd stop - maybe he was going to make fun of me and stopped himself before he did. The thought of being mocked by Duo...felt a bit strange, almost sad. But he'd always give me the grin to erase the awkwardness of those sudden silences, and joke about something else, and use my proper name for at least an hour so...I don't know. I don't know why I cared either.

"No, it doesn't involve ice-cream." He said a bit heavily and his eyes turned inward slightly, as if admonishing himself. Then he smiled - and it was still breathtakingly charming, until a little devilment crept in.

My reflexes are as fast as any Gundam Pilots but Duo Maxwell can pull off a hug even faster than Heero Yuy can draw his gun. I staggered a bit under the very unfamiliar feeling of a warm body pressing against mine and I felt a searing heat shoot through me as lips brushed my skin near my ear.

"I - Have a good trip, Wuffers!"

I was staring at a disappearing back, braid swinging madly as he ran away with his usual boundless energy. People were smiling at him even as he crossed their path, that joy was infectious. My arms felt cold where he'd hugged them, as if regretting the absence of warmth.

"...Goodbye, Duo." I said, stupidly since he was halfway out of the shuttle-port already.

I turned to give my ticket to the man at the counter. He was grinning, eyes warm as they rested on the spot where Duo had disappeared. They should bottle him up and sell him, I thought.

And I thought, 'Heero Yuy is a lucky man.'

I boarded the shuttle as quickly as I could and took two sleeping pills and a glass of complimentary wine which was very stupid and left me with a headache when I arrived but let me sleep for the five hour journey without having to think about...think about anything.

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