Author: pyrzm
see ch. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Broken Warriors + Chapter 24
Odd Man Out

There'd been considerable speculation when Wufei Chang had asked for a transfer off Princess Relena's honor detail. As Preventer assignments went, it had been a cakewalk, but very high status. He'd only taken the post because Heero Yuy had asked him to.

Wufei had suspected almost from the start that there was something wrong with Yuy, even before Libra. They were more alike than most people realized; both were driven, solitary, focused. But Wufei had philosophy and revenge to drive him. Yuy seemed empty by comparison. By the end of the war both of them had been too used up and torn between loyalties to heal, and unlike the other three pilots, neither had any home or family to go back to. He assumed that was why Yuy had agreed to join Relena's security force. Wufei would never have admitted it, of course, but he was flattered and a little touched that 01 had requested he be put on the same detail. He'd always respected Heero the most of any of the other Gundam pilots, and deep down, he wondered if they could be friends in peacetime. What would peace be like, for Heero Yuy?

It had been torture, apparently. Instead of relaxing and opening up, Heero had become more silent, more withdrawn--even odd. The other Preventers had respected him, but not warmed to him. There was little to warm to. Wufei Chang was considered "the friendly one" by comparison.

By the time Heero had disappeared, Wufei was more than ready to move on. He'd worked with Sally ever since, slept with her for a while, and managed to remain friends when it ended. He lived alone, did his job, and kept to himself.

The other three pilots had become something of an embarrassment over the past few years. Wufei had never wanted to capitalize on his status as a "Gundam Boy"; the media frenzy was offensive, and positively horrifying to the reserved Chinese colonial. That the term "Gundam Boy" had soon become synonymous with debauchery and scandal only made it worse. Proper Quatre Winner went rogue. Quiet Trowa Barton revealed aspects of his personality Wufei would never have guessed at. Appalled as Wufei had been at the spectacle of their "marriage" as they insisted on calling the union, at least it had settled them down a bit.

And Maxwell? Well, he'd just fallen apart. Noisily and publicly, of course.

Wufei had fallen apart, too, but very quietly and secretly, scarcely able to admit to himself how he was sinking. He worked. He lived simply. He remained solitary. No one questioned this, given his personality, but that solitude had become a prison he could not escape.

Duo's breakdowns were welcome variations in that pattern, excuses for him to be drawn back into the closest thing he had left to a circle of friends. He knew they considered him in that light. How did he feel about them? He was so numb, it was hard to say. The fact that he still willingly showed up whenever Barton or Winner called indicated some level of attachment. If only he could feel it, feel anything at all! But he didn't. He couldn't. It had started like a slow spreading canker in his soul with the destruction of his colony, and come to full-blown frozen fruition at Treize's death.

Treize Kushreneda. Wufei still dreamed about that proud, perfect warrior. If only he'd killed Wufei in that first duel, then he could have died like a man. But no, Treize had cruelly spared him, promising a rematch as if Wufei were an honored equal. The man had haunted Wufei's thoughts from then on: his nemesis, his idol, his touchstone. The warrior he would never be.

Wufei had felt pain like a spurrned lover when he'd heard that Heero had dueled with the man, spoken with him, even enjoyed his hospitality. It only underscored the fact that Yuy was his superior. Treize must have recognized that fact the moment he'd met the boy. Despite the slow withering of Wufei's soul and emotions, this had struck home, and he'd tossed night after night on his lonely bed, agonizing about his own failure to measure up. He tried to hate them both, but he idolized them both too much. Kushreneda and Yuy; two dazzling, blazing stars of the warrior firmament. They were everything he was not. No, he couldn't hate them; he could only loathe himself.

That it should fall to him to kill Treize? There was no triumph or justice in it; no satifaction, only desolation and a crushing sense of loss. He'd wept in Nataku's cockpit when he realized what he'd done. It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. Kushreneda was not supposed to lose, to die, not at his unworthy hands! His idol, his secret mentor--how could he have fallen? Wufei had been too stunned to even consider suicide. The world no longer made any sense.

Heero's death had hit him nearly as hard, but differently. He'd already come to realize how fallible his other idol really was. Familiarity during their time together in Preventers had not exactly bred contempt, but it had demystified the other boy for him. Heero was human. He had feelings, after a fashion. He had no center. And he had died.

After that, keeping Duo alive, looking for Heero's body in Japan, tracking down hoaxers who for months claimed to be Heero with bogus emails and letters; that had been satisfying, especially when the captures allowed for physical takedowns. He'd narrowly escaped official censure a couple of times, but it had been worth it, hurting someone who had so willfully hurt the others.

And him. That was when he began to realize that he was not quite as dead inside has he'd hoped. When the search was called off and the hoaxes tapered off, he found himself left with an open wound in his psychic armor. This was worse than the numbness; all he seemed to be capable of feeling was pain.

Drugs had not been hard to come by. Who knew more about illicit traffic than a Preventer? After a brief period of experimentation, he'd settled on opium use at home out of somewhat misplaced cultural ties, and marijuana when traveling, because it was currently legal on L-4 and in various ESUN territories. He never smoked on the job and it didn't interfere with his work. No, it helped. He had to turn off, tune out, to relax, and this allowed him to do that.

That's what he told himself, anyway.

He tried not to notice that he tended to resort to such defenses more after he'd been around his fellow ex-pilots for any length of time. He smoked a lot the week after he left the others in Madrid. After all those emotional gymnastics--Duo's frantic email that Heero might be alive, the furtive Earth-side trip with three edgy friends, the shock of find that this, at last, was no hoax. And of course, the leering, slavering press dogging them at every turn, not to mention the stunning realization that he was the only Gundam Boy who wasn't gay. By the time he got home to his own quiet little apartment in the Chinese neighborhood of L-4, some of the tabloids had even concocted a theory that latent homosexuality had been some sort of vetting factor in the choice of boys for Project Meteor. Suspicious eyes were cast in Wufei's direction. Some reporter referred to him as "the Lone Dragon." Others hinted at the possibility of some secret life.

If only he had one. "Lone Dragon, indeed!" he'd thought bitterly as he locked his apartment door, stowed away his travel kit, and lifted the precious antique jade opium pipe from its brocade box in his bedroom. Later, half-stoned on his narrow bed, the lone straight Gundam Boy found himself dialing Sally Po's number.

She was glad to hear from him, as always, and glad to have the details of the past week's amazing events. The entire Earth Sphere was abuzz about Heero's amazing resurrection. By the time they met for dinner two days later, the spectacle of Heero kissing Duo on the steps of the St. Francis Hospital had made global headlines.

"You don't approve?" Sally asked, smiling a bit over her Moo Shu Pork.

Wufei sighed, toying with his chow fun. "It's no business of mine what they do. I suppose I was surprised about Yuy. "

"Shocked, I think." Sally knew him too well.

"Very well. Shocked. And yet-- Well, I have no doubt that this is a mission of Yuy's own choosing, and one he will succeed in. It will probably save Maxwell's life, too."

"Why is it so hard for you to admit that you care about them?"

"I do not deny it!" Wufei retorted, surprised at such an assertion. The fact that he still consorted with them should be all the proof anyone needed.

"So, how left out do you feel?"

Damn the woman! She'd always been able to read him far too easily.

"Are you suggesting that I should go back and attempt to woo one of them away?" he snapped, slapping his chopsticks down.

Sally chuckled, unfazed. "Would you like to come home with me tonight?"

Wufei bristled. "I don't need a pity fuck!"

"Suit yourself. The offer stands. For now."

It had become something of a joke between them, that standing offer. It had been Wufei who'd walked, or rather, drifted away from that loose, half-acknowledged pairing they'd shared for a time. At least that's what he chose to tell himself. There had been no argument, no acrimony at the end. Their affair had been brief and polite, but not passionate. Sally had suggested therapy. Wufei had politely ignored her and chosen solitude and the pipe instead. That path required no confessions or embarrassing admissions, no strangers prying into the darker corners of his soul.

They parted amiably and Wufei went home. The Lone Dragon slept alone, telling himself that he was grateful not to have to listen to Barton and Winner copulating. Sometimes he dreamed he heard them, though, or relived that horrendous moment when he'd walked in on Duo and Heero. He woke from these dreams with the oddest sensations. Sometimes he smoked an extra pipe to get back to sleep.

+

He'd been home less than two weeks when Commander Une called him and Sally into her office.

"I'm sorry to trouble you so soon after everything else you've just been through, Wufei, but there's a mission I don't think I can trust any other team with, " she said, polishing her glasses in a manner that suggested she was going to give him an assignment he wouldn't like. "It's a matter of extreme delicacy, relating back to the war. Whatever your answer is, I need your word that you will disavow any knowledge of what I'm about to show you."

"Of course." It was only a formality, of course. Une would not be having this conversation at all if she had any doubt on that score.

They left Preventer headquarters and she piloted them to a secure sector of the L-4 launch port, parking in a nondescript lot in front of a nondescript, unmarked white building that was in fact a Preventer safe house. The need for such places had not disappeared with warfare.

Inside, they made their way past a state of the art security system and three checkpoints to a locked door. Une paused before opening it. "The man inside not a prisoner. He's been under the express protection of the Sanque Kingdom government since the end of the war. His repatriation to that country has been approved by ESUN, but he is considered to be a high risk individual. Your mission will be to accompany him on the journey, and to act as bodyguards until such time as it is judged he is safe without them. He was horribly wounded in battle, and listed among the dead. He's spent thirteen of the past twenty-four months in a tissue regeneration unit. Until recently he also suffered from severe amnesia. His mind is still not entirely stable, but he is no longer considered a danger to others."

As she spoke, Wufei felt himself slowly overcome with a mix of hope and horror. Was it possible? Could it be another ghost was back from the dead? His hands hurt and he realized he was clenching his fists so hard his knuckles ached.

Treize! Another chance! For--what?

"Wufei, are you unwell?"

The women were both staring at him. "I'm fine." His voice betrayed nothing, but the look on their faces did not change. Had he gone pale?

Une regarded him a moment longer, then opened the door and let them through. A tall figure stood by the window, looking out into black space beyond.

Wufei recognized him at once, even with the white-blond hair so much shorter and that empty left sleeve. The voice, though softer and more hoarse than Wufei and the rest of the world recalled, was unmistakable, still low and rough and edged with mockery.

"Ah, more warriors with pulled fangs. A regular veterans reunion."

Stunned as he was, Wufei was the first to find his voice. "What do we call you now? Zechs Merquise or Milliardo Peacecraft?"

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