Reunion + Chapter 9 (cont)

* * * * *

"I'm telling you, aren't I? I saw that Maxwell kid when I was in the infirmary wing getting this done." Anders waved his cast and continued, voice low and intense. "It was right after Chang brought him in. He can't be more than fifteen or sixteen, skinny little kid, looked half starved and he was covered in bruises. Most of 'em were old bruises, too, and the APB was only up for four days before Mr. Perfect found him. There's no way he got that beat up and thin in only four days."

Ray Anders and several of his Preventers friends -- some who had heard the story already, some who hadn't -- had taken over a corner table in King O'Malley's and were talking over beers, falling silent and glaring whenever anyone looked like they were coming into earshot.

"So what are you implying here, Ray?"

"I'm not implying a damn thing, Ivan. I'm saying that kid went missing 'cause he got away from Chang and ran like a rabbit. I'm saying he had good reason to run. I'm saying Mr. Perfect Chang isn't so bloody perfect at all! Major Po wanted to hospitalise that poor kid, and Chang wouldn't let her; said he was taking him home. What do you think?"

"Well..." Ivan said doubtfully.

"Come on, man, it's right in front of you in black and blue. That prick Chang is beating Duo Maxwell, and Une and Sally Po either can't see what's right in front of their eyes -- or--" his voice dropped and he leaned forwards "--they know and they don't care."

"Oh, hey, come on! Why wouldn't they stop it if they knew?!"

"Because Chang is their precious golden boy," Anders hissed, eyes narrowing. "Chang is the teenage prodigy. Chang is the Perfect Preventer. Chang is the eighteen-year-old prick who out-fights, out-shoots, out-thinks and outranks everyone! They've been using him as their example of what every new recruit should aspire to since the Preventers started; you think they want his nasty little secret to come out? What do you think the politicians would do if they found out one of the most respected Preventers is a sadistic teenage paedophile?! They'd shut us down. The whole organisation is Une's baby, she's not gonna let that happen. We have to take care of this ourselves.

As the others nodded, muttering agreement, and the last objector fell silent, Anders hid a mean smirk behind his glass of beer, silently toasting himself.

I don't give a shit what the real story is, he thought viciously. You've had a beating coming to you for months, you perfect prick!

* * * * *

Sally walked into King O'Malley's, passing a group of uniformed Preventers on their way out, and paused, glancing at her watch. Ten to six; I'm early. Une won't be here until--

"Sally, excellent timing."

"Une?" Sally blinked, turning to face the other woman. "Don't tell me you're finally listening to me and working less than twelve hours in one day!"

"Yes, I left early--"

"--by your standards," Sally muttered.

"--but I'm not planning to make a habit of it," Une said dryly. "I confess, your message made me very curious. It wasn't quite up to Chang's standards of brevity, but it came close. 'Meet me at O'Malley's if you want news of your favourite ex-enemy'... I assume you meant Maxwell?"

"Of course. Do you honestly think Wufei's messages are shorter? I was rather proud of that one."

Une snorted. "I think he would have used 'for' instead of 'if you want'; and he certainly wouldn't have said 'favourite'. So, what's your news?"

Pulling out a chair at a convenient table, Sally chuckled. "Were you aware of Wufei's tendency to babble under stress?"

Halfway through sitting down, Une froze. "Babble?" she said incredulously. "We are talking about Chang Wufei, aren't we? Ex-Gundam pilot, silent under torture, puts himself into a meditative trance if you try to get data out of him using drugs, master of the fifty-word mission report? Scorns 'useless chit-chat'? That Wufei?" Slowly, she sat down and put her bag to one side, folding her hands in front of her at the table. "No, Sally, I was not aware of any such tendency, stress or no stress. Would you care to elaborate?" A faint smile twitched at one corner of her mouth.

"Well," Sally said, eyes sparkling mischievously, "I'm not surprised that you haven't encountered this phenomenon before. It takes a special sort of stress to trigger it. Duo-related stress. That boy has Wufei wrapped around his little finger, and neither of them has worked it out yet."

"Interesting," Une nodded solemnly, keeping her face straight with an effort. "And how did you collect this data? I thought you intended to check up on them on Wednesday, not today."

"I went shopping. They were at the supermarket."

"'They'?"

"They. Wufei did, apparently, try to leave Duo behind at his apartment, but Duo looked at him."

Une sighed, reaching up with one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose, eyes squeezing shut for a moment. "You're determined to force me to parrot important words back to you, aren't you? What exactly do you mean, Duo 'looked' at him?"

Sally laughed out loud. "All right, I'll stop. Believe me, Duo may not be saying very much at the moment, but he's making up for it with his eyes. His looks speak volumes; from what Wufei said to me in the supermarket, I'd guess the one that persuaded him to bring Duo along said something like, 'If you don't take me with you, I will follow your car on foot'. You'll know what I mean after he hits you with one."

"I'll take your word for it. Can we get back to Chang and his newly-acquired verbal diarrhoea?"

"I found Wufei in the cookie aisle, holding a semi-incoherent conversation with himself over which Oreos to buy for Duo. At one point, he even informed himself that he was babbling. It didn't stop him. When he started talking to me, he just switched the babble to a new topic; Duo, and how to get him to eat enough. Not only that, but he was wearing casual clothes, his hair was coming out of its tie, and he called me 'Sally'."

"Are you sure that was Chang Wufei? Would you like to change your story? Personally, I'm starting to favour alien abduction and replacement with a badly-programmed clone as a working hypothesis. It's more plausible."

They shared a quiet chuckle, then Sally sobered. "One thing still worries me..."

"Yes?"

"Duo is... seriously fixated on Wufei. Dependent. And Wufei isn't in any shape to discourage it."

"Is that really such a problem?"

"Une, Duo essentially forced Wufei to take him along, even though Wufei knows he's in no shape to go anywhere. And he was tracking Wufei from aisle to aisle like a hawk; when Wufei spent longer than usual in one aisle, Duo got agitated. When I was examining him yesterday, Duo grabbed at Wufei every time it looked like he was going to leave the room!" Sally sighed. "That really isn't a good mental state for Duo to be in."

"I understand your concern, Sally, but..." Une frowned, organising her thoughts. "Duo Maxwell has been alone for eight months, and for most of that time he believed that all but one of his friends had betrayed and abandoned him. He still believes that -- well, he may not believe it of Relena any more, but... What I'm trying to say is, now that he's back with at least one of his friends, isn't it natural that he'd be... clingy? Especially since he's in such bad shape physically? If he's still acting this way once he's fully recovered, then I'd worry."

"Yes, but..." Sally grimaced. "He's refusing to interact with other people. It's understandable, even reasonable, that he doesn't want to have anything to do with the other Gundam pilots right now, but if he won't even talk to people who had nothing to do with the original problem..."

"He answered my e-mail."

"What?"

"I added a P.S. to an email I sent Chang, thanking Duo for the roses. He sent back 'you're welcome'."

Sally let out a deep breath, leaning back. "Well... that makes me feel a little better. We'll see how it goes."

* * * * *

*can't breathe*

*can't move*

*dark*

*they've cut the air off...*

*...can't breathe...*

*I'm going to die. I made it this far, survived everything they could throw at me...*

*...called myself the God of Death...*

*...now it's my turn.*

*...*

*...what about 'Fei?*

*No. Not 'Fei. Can't let them kill 'Fei... my 'Fei...*

*...never got to tell him... I...*

*can't breathe*

*choking*

*can't stop coughing*

*want to tell him but I can't stop coughing*

*hurts*

----------

Wufei jerked awake on the couch, heart pounding, hearing strangled coughs from the bedroom.

Damn! he thought as he scrambled to his feet. He hardly coughed at all today, I hoped he was already getting better-- hell, that sounds bad--

Duo was tangled helplessly in the covers, back arching as wracking coughs shook his body. Wufei pulled him up into a half-sitting position, cradling him gently as he tugged away the confining blankets and rubbed Duo's back.

"Shhh... shh, Duo, it's all right, just breathe... breathe, Duo... shh... I'm here..."

----------

"...shh, Duo... breathe..."

Warm arms pulled Duo up against someone, rocking him gently.

"...it's all right..."

*'Fei? They turn the air back on?*

"...shh... just breathe..."

*yeah... it is easier... guess we're not gonna die just yet, huh?*

"...I'm here..."

*Thought I was gonna die. Wanted to tell you so bad. Didn't want to die without letting you know.*

"...shh..."

*We're Gundam pilots. I could die any time. I might never get another chance...*

"...shh..."

"...love you. I've always loved you. Didn't want to say... in case... Do you hate me?"

----------

Wufei heaved a sigh of relief into Duo's hair as the braided pilot's breathing gradually settled. The movement of his hands slowed and gentled, unconsciously shifting focus from rubbing Duo's back to stroking his plait.

Duo mumbled something into Wufei's shoulder.

"...hm? Duo? Are you awake?" Wufei ducked his head to peer into the other boy's face. No... he's still asleep. What did he say? Leaning closer as Duo muttered again, Wufei caught the end of it.

"...Do you hate me?"

Wufei choked. My dream... that was in my dream! Duo was fading away and I couldn't call him back-- no! Not this time!

He clutched the limp boy to him, one hand grasping Duo's braid possessively.

"I don't hate you, Duo. I could never hate you. No matter what!"

Duo sighed and tucked his face against Wufei's neck, one hand knotting itself into the shoulder of Wufei's t-shirt.

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