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

Broken Warriors + Chapter 31
Turnabout

Early the following morning Wufei sought Sally out. She was breakfasting alone on the terrace, reading files as she ate. Wufei paused just inside the French doors, observing her through the sheer curtains that covered the tall glass panes. He had fought beside this woman, worked with her, touched her bare breasts, felt her body's hot, secret grip around his member. He had shared what most people considered the highest level of intimacy with her, yet as she'd said, it had not so much as occurred to him that there might be love between them. He thought hard, trying to recall if he'd even felt affection.

All he remembered was need and a certain level of comfort in her presence, but no passion beyond the physical act. He looked at her more closely, as if seeing her for the first time. Her uniform was impeccably pressed, as always, and her auburn hair lay over her shoulders in the same thick spiral braids. She looked tired, perhaps even stressed. That made her look older than she was, and highlighted the fact that she was four years his elder. She was fit, compact, and tall for their racial type. That, and her unusual coloring spoke of a mixed heritage. He tried to decide if she was pretty, but the word seemed meaningless in relation to her. He knew her too well to see her as anything other than familiar. That made him sad. So did the fact that this was the first time since they'd met that he'd even thought to ask himself such questions, to try and see her as an individual, and as a woman. He attempted, with this new, still-emerging clarity growing in him, to apply the term ex-lover, but it did not fit. He had not loved her. That could not be refuted or changed, even if he'd succumbed to pointless sentimentality and wished it otherwise. Ex-bedmate? Yes, that was factually true.

He was capable of love, or at least he had been before the war. He'd loved his parents, his relatives and friends, many of his teachers. He'd come to love his young wife, Meirin, even though that had been an arranged political marriage and they had been too young to share a bed before she was lost. But he had loved her spirit, and the way she'd pushed and challenged him. At fifteen had he had any stirrings of the flesh toward her? He wasn't sure. Stirrings, certainly; there had been many guilty nights masturbating under the sheets with the lights out, biting his left thumb to keep silent. But he didn't recall associating that with Meirin. It would have been most indelicate.

He shook himself, surprised at this odd train of thought. Meirin was gone. What had been between Sally and him was gone. There was only the now, he reminded himself, the ever-changing path of the Way before him.

She looked up in surprise as Wufei joined her and poured himself a cup of tea. "Good morning. You're looking better."

He nodded, sipping his tea.

"Look, about the other day--"

"'Sincere words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not sincere,'" he quoted, and managed a small smile.

She raised an eyebrow. "Lao Tzu?"

"A first step in taking your excellent advice. I apologize for my poor attention to my duties of late. I will do better."

Sally nodded. "Do you want to be reassigned? I could speak to Relena for you."

"No. I'll stay here for now, if you'll have me. It's not as if I have any other pressing business, is it?" He glanced down at the files she'd been reading. They were medical reports on Peacecraft. "How is he doing?"

"Physically, not bad. His muscle tone is inproving and the workouts are helping him."

"His balance and alignment are not good, though."

"The loss of a limb often does that, especially without a prosthetic replacement. I wish he'd consider, but so far he's adamant. Polite, but adamant."

"And his mental state?"

"As I said, he's miserable."

"He has lost his center. He had no goal, no aspiration." Wufei waved a hand around at the lavish estate. "No doubt his sister means well, but I suspect he would have made a better recovery in a real prison, not this soft, poorly disguised confinement. In prison, he would have had adversity to hone him."

"I think he would agree with you, but the politicians deemed otherwise. And he's not under house arrest, remember, but protective custody."

Wufei allowed himself a dark chuckle at this. "Offering to drop a major chunk of hardware on the Earth and precipitate massive death and destruction tends not to endear one to the public."

"Yes. Most people were able to forgive the soldiers, and even terrorists like us. But that was on a much grander scale."

"Was he insane at the time?"

"I prefer to think so. His records indicate a state of extreme stress and probably a personality disorder brought on by the roles he'd had to play. Imagine, the heir to the greatest pacifist power in modern history, forced to turn warrior, and finding himself in love with the leader of the militaristic autocracy . . ."

Wufei choked on his tea. "In love? With whom?"

"Kushreneda. Didn't you know?"

"That's ridiculous!"

"Not according to those who knew him at the Academy. It was platonic, apparently. Kushreneda was straight as a die and had quite an appetite for women, including Une."

"But I thought Merquise-Peacecraft, I mean-I thought he was involved with that other officer. What was her name?"

"Lucreztia Noin? That was platonic, too, by all reports. I spoke to her after the war. She loved him, but it wasn't returned the way she wanted it to be."

"Peacecraft loved Kushreneda?" Wufei was still trying to get his head around that one. "Do you think that played a role in his going against his upbringing?"

"Perhaps. It probably helped pull him apart psychically. That whole mask thing he did during the war? Talk about your physical manifestations of the inner landscape. When he lost the mask, he also lost his grip. Whether he chose to stand with Kushreneda or his heritage, he was going against his own conscience."

"And if Kushreneda had been able to--reciprocate?"

Sally let out a wry little laugh as she closed the folders. "Who knows? Maybe we'd all be living peacefully under the reign of a benevolent Kushreneda dictatorship, with Sanque's blessing? I don't know. It didn't' happen that way and here we are."

Wufei rubbed at the knot of tension building between his eyes. "It seems that every time I turn around, someone else turns out to be gay! How did so many of them end up as warriors?"

Sally laughed outright at this. "You were a scholar, but perhaps history was not your strongest subject?"

"No, philosophy and poetry."

"Some of the greatest warriors have had male lovers. Julius Caesar. Alexander the Great. The famous samurai poet-lovers of the feudal period? And have you never heard of the Theban Band? A cadre of paired lovers who would fight to the death rather than be dishonored by cowardice in front of their lover? They were unbeatable, until Alexander slaughtered them all together. And look at the warrior Peacecraft was. Evidently such leanings can make a warrior stronger under the right conditions, not weaker."

Wufei snorted angrily. "Such feelings should not be a factor at all! This band you speak of may have worked that way for a time, but in the end they were still defeated."

"I didn't know you were such a homophobe, Wufei."

"I'm nothing of the sort! I simply don't approve of letting emotion get in the way."

"Ah yes. That's why you felt women made poor warriors, as I recall."

"In my experience, they did," he growled. "Even you let mercy blind you. You could have killed Yuy in the first days of the war if you hadn't taken pity on him long enough for Maxwell to steal him away."

"As I understand it, so could your man Peacecraft, when Heero blew himself up. But he let Barton take him not knowing if he was dead or not."

"We all thought he was dead."

"Not Barton, apparently. Does that make him weak, or Peacecraft for not finishing the job and making certain?"

"Such speculation after the fact is pointless!"

"Ah, that's no answer, my scholarly friend. Score a point for me. And you are uncomfortable with the relationships between the other pilots."

Wufei definitely did not like where this conversation had strayed. "I have no opinion on the matter. It is of no consequence what they do, or with whom. If I have any negative feelings in the matter, it is simply because of the irresponsible speculation about me that it has generated. It happened when Winner and Barton were running amok, and it's cropped up again, thanks to Maxwell and Yuy's little stunt in Madrid."

"Little stunt?" Sally sounded genuinely annoyed now. Pulling a glossy gossip magazine from under the pile of files, she flipped it open and slapped it down in front of him. "They're in love, Wufei! Can't you at least be a little happy for them, after all they've been through?"

There was a whole page of pictures of 01 and 02, dressed up like male prostitutes and hanging all over each other in what appeared to be some sort of gay club. New Provincetown, according to the bit of text that accompanied the disgusting spread. So they were in America now.

Yuy's face was hard to read, unless you really looked at his eyes when they were aimed in Maxwell's direction. And Maxwell? As always, he wore his emotions like tattoos on his skin, for anyone to see. And in these pictures he looked deliriously, ridiculously happy. Wufei felt a certain degree of relief at that, having seen Duo at his worst more than once these past few years. But that mortifying moment in the Madrid hostel came back to him, unbidden; the sight of the two of them naked on that narrow bed, Maxwell's head between Yuy's legs, and Yuy--! Wufei suppressed a shocked quiver of emotion even now. Yuy had had an expression of such wanton abandon that Wufei had almost been able to convince himself, just for an instant, that it wasn't Yuy at all. Heero Yuy, the only living warrior he counted his superior, sprawled there, naked and flushed, mouth open in what appeared to be the throes of rapture-

No! He crushed the memory and all the feelings it dredged up. It was no business of his what they did, so long as he did not have to have it rubbed in his face.

"Wufei?" Sally waved a hand in front of his face. "Are you all right?"

He slapped the magazine shut and pushed it back to her. "Such unseemly displays are of no consequence to me. But I resent the speculation that we were all gay, that we were somehow chosen because of that common trait. Perhaps they subscribe to your Theban Band theory, no? The fact that I have not thrown myself into some hedonistic flesh hunt, and made myself available to the paparazzi with half naked women hanging on both arms seems to them to be proof of their salacious conclusions, rather than evidence that at least one of the five of us is mature enough to keep his fly zipped and his personal life private! Or perhaps I should have had sex with you in public when I had the chance--!"

He broke off, horrified at his words and the loss of temper that had allowed them to come tumbling out so harshly. "Sally. I'm so sorry! I didn't mean that."

"At least you were gentleman enough not to say 'fucked', though that's all we ever really amounted to." There was no mistaking the bitterness and sorrow behind her own terse tone.

Wufei rose and bowed deeply to her. "I swear to you, on my honor and that of my ancestors, that I never once thought of it in those terms. I did not love you, it is true, but I never thought of you as a convenient-- as a convenience of any sort. I always held you in the highest esteem as a professional and teammate, but looking back these past few days, I realize that my behavior toward you as a woman was heartless and unworthy. I ask your forgiveness, though I know I don't merit it."

"Oh, sit down, will you? And let's change subject. This one is giving me a headache."

"And me." He rubbed at his forehead again, wondering if acceptance of his apology had been tacit in her reply. He didn't think so.

They drank their tea in silence for a while, gazing out over the lush gardens below and not at each other. "So, what the hell is it Relena thinks I can do for her brother? He can't be a warrior again."

"He can't fight again, but can't all that energy and talent be redirected? He's an incredibly intelligent and talented man, but he can't see that right now. He's too broken, and still too caught up in guilt to imagine any sort of future. But Relena thinks he can be saved, and I agree."

"Perhaps-" Wufei paused, caught up in the sudden empathy he felt for the man. "Perhaps being left alone in a room with a pistol would have been a kinder fate for him."

Sally's expression hardened instantly. "I wish I could take that as a bad joke, or you just thinking hypothetically. But I know you're not. If you really do want to stay on this detail, I need your sacred word, on your honor, that you will not to encourage or allow him any such option, or turn a blind eye if you think he means to take such a step. Is that understood?"

Wufei felt himself bristle again but fought down the instinctive retort that rose to his lips. Old habits were not to be shed by a day's mediation or good intentions; there was much work ahead.

"I give you my oath," he replied as calmly as he could. "Such actions on my part as a Preventer would be totally lacking in integrity. I accept that I was chosen for this assignment in order to help him in some way. Do you have any suggestions as to how I might begin?"

Sally sat back and glanced at the files. "Challenge him. I must admit, I've admired your restraint so far, but it's not doing him any good. You can't harm him physically, of course, but you don't have to take his abuse or countenance his self-pity. Oh, and by the way. He can't fire you. You are here under Relena's aegis and only she can demand your removal. This does allow you a certain extra degree of latitude."

"I see. Challenge him. Hn."

Sally chuckled. Perhaps she had forgiven him after all. "I should think you'd enjoy it. After all, it's what he's been doing to you since you arrived."

Wufei set his empty cup aside and rose, bowing to her again. "I hope I can find a more productive method than the one he has employed. Thank you again, Sally, for your wisdom, and your insight in this matter. And-"

She looked up expectantly.

"And I will try to be more worthy of your regard in the future. I uh-I left a parcel in your room on my way here. I think you will know best what to do with it."

Sally smiled, those blue eyes warm again with an approval that did not shame him. "Thank you, Wufei. I don't think we need to speak any further about that." As he turned to go, she added, "What I revealed to you about Milliardo's orientation? I know I don't have to say this, but I will anyway, since I've effectively already betrayed a confidence. Keep it under your hat. I don't think he cares, but it's something of a sore point with his sister."

+

Wufei arrived late at the gym and found Peacecraft already at his workout. He was reclining in the tilted seat of the thigh press, working his legs; the front of his gray tank top and the waistband of his expensive sweatpants were already soaked through with perspiration. Pale wisps of hair lay damp against his flushed forehead. He made no effort to conceal the stump at his left shoulder. The arm had been burnt or sheared off just above the elbow. According to Sally, there was enough muscle and nerve tissue left intact above that to operate the most complex and fully articulated prosthetic arm and hand. He could even have the limited the use of mechanical fingers, if he'd only try.

Those intense blue eyes stayed focused on some distant point as he continued, but he was clearly aware of Wufei's arrival. "Oversleep, did we, Chang?"

"No, I was considering how to augment your physical regime. The program you are currently using is sadly lacking."

That got the man's attention. "Really? I wasn't aware you had any background in physical therapy." Finishing his set with a few last powerful thrusts of those long, well-muscled legs, he climbed out of the machine and threw a towel over his neck. He took in Wufei's outfit with a dismissive glance.

He'd changed from his uniform into his practice clothing, the loose pants and tank top, and thrown on his yukata for modesty when passing through the halls. Wufei let the acid comment pass. Peacecraft was in a foul mood, but he chose to rise above personal concerns and concentrate on the belief that Peacecraft was acting out of weakness in his attacks, rather than any true superiority.

"I do not have such training, but I am a Wu-Yi master and have the eyes to see that you are carrying your left shoulder at least two inches higher than your right, due to the loss of the arm's natural balancing weight. It is already affecting the muscles of your right side. I see it in the way you're standing now, with your right hip slightly tucked, and the way you sit your horse when you ride. The muscles on the right are shortening and pulling your body off center. Ignore that, as you and your therapists clearly have been, and you will end up a hunchback, and in constant pain. You will find yourself falling off your horses and wondering why. You have built up muscle fiber, but without flexibility, you simply become thick and clumsy."

Peacecraft's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Indeed? And what does your Wu-Yi training suggest I do about this?" Even with a damaged voice, he had no trouble injecting a full measure of disdain into that husky whisper of his.

Wufei kicked off his soft cloth shoes and dropped the equipment bag he'd brought on the ground. From it he pulled out two short staffs. He tossed one to Peacecraft, and then planted his bare feet in a wide stance, holding his own by one end, like a sword. If this gambit worked, they would need proper practice weapons, but for now these would do.

"We will fence, Peacecraft. Any defects in balance will be made clear by flaws in your performance, so we may work to correct them. Your personal physician has already approved this course of action."

Peacecraft threw the staff down and rasped out, "Thank you, little Chang, but I am satisfied with my current exercise program."

Wufei relaxed his stance, but kept a good grip on his staff. "Ah, I see. You have lost your confidence. I suppose that is understandable. I'll go set up the chess board in a sunny part of the garden, so you don't take a chill."

Somewhere in the back of Wufei's mind, an image of a younger Duo Maxwell popped up, flapping his arms at a retreating enemy unit and squawking like a chicken. A uniquely Duo gesture, and one he did not plan to emulate, but he could tell by the darkening flush in Peacecraft's cheeks that he'd understood the implied insult exactly as Wufei had intended.

"I have no wish to harm you, little Chang," Peacecraft rasped.

"You needn't concern yourself in that regard, I assure you," Wufei shot back, letting the other man see his amusement at such an idea.

"Perhaps another time," Peacecraft growled. Turning his back on Wufei, he went to the lat machine and began his reps.

Wufei leaned at ease on his staff. "You should speak to your dietician, as well. Those pants are looking a bit tight in the back."

Peacecraft pretended to ignore him, but Wufei saw him stiffen, and the way he made a conscious effort to square his shoulders.

Yes, the gauntlet had been thrown down, and Peacecraft knew it. The balance of power had shifted. Peacecraft had known about Relena having final say in who was in charge of him. Now he knew that his "little Chang" knew it, too.

Suddenly this assignment seemed rather more interesting.

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