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

Broken Warriors + Chapter 42
Springes to Catch Woodcocks

Wufei had been only half serious when he'd suggested Zechs give him guidance on suitable attire for their evening escapes from the estate. It had also been a challenge, to sway the balance of power in his favor with unexpected calm compliance. The look on Merquise's proud face had been worth the gambit; he really had surprised the man that misty morning. And enjoyed doing it, too. Wufei felt a little guilty about how much he'd enjoyed that.

Since then Merquise had said no more about clothing or future outings. Wufei had quietly asked Sally's advice in the matter, only to be directed to several online merchants selling clothing he would not be caught dead in.

He thought about asking one of the other ex-pilots for guidance; all four of them went out, dressed up. Yuy was the obvious choice; he would understand the situation in its proper light, simply preparation for an undercover mission. Wufei had even tracked down the pictures online of Yuy and Maxwell at the nightclub, and grudgingly approved of what Yuy was wearing. The clothing, though a bit garish, was flattering without being overly sexual or revealing.

In private he allowed himself to study the photos more closely than he had when Sally had confronted him with them. It was hard to square the pair here with the two boys he'd met in the war. It wasn't just the more adult bodies or the clothing. Only someone who knew Yuy as Wufei did could read his expression as anything other than a peculiar, somewhat bemused frown. He could not be said to be smiling by any normal standard, but the eyes revealed all. In the shots where he was looking at other club patrons or toward the photographer, all the old caution and coiled danger were there; but when he was caught off guard, looking at Maxwell? Well, the look was still a little frightening to the uninformed, but it was something entirely different. Wufei felt an odd little flutter in his chest looking at those shots. What would it be like, to have someone look at him like that?

Or like the way Maxwell looked, laughing and hugging Yuy with complete abandon. Even back in their war days, Wufei had secretly admitted to himself that Maxwell was an uncommonly attractive person, even among the other four, who all were in their own unique ways. But back then Maxwell had kept up an act for himself and the others. With Yuy, now, he was a different person, his true self. And that true self knew how to love unabashedly.

It was not envy or desire that made Wufei archive a few of those photos, but curiosity. They evoked feelings he was unable to clarify to his own satisfaction. He wondered it he should meditate on them.

None of this brought him any closer to knowing what sort of clothing to buy, much less where to find it. He tried several times to e-mail Yuy, but hesitated each time. He suspected that whatever he revealed to Yuy would find its way to Maxwell's ears, and he had no desire to risk the inevitable teasing. Winner might have been discrete, and if not, then Barton would not say much in any event, but their opinions on fashion were of no use to him. Chang Wufei would not wear see-through shirts, studded dog collars, or leather pants so tight they revealed not only the shape of his penis, but the fact that he had been circumcised.

He was still wrestling with this dilemma three days later when he walked into his room after a long ride to find a set of unfamiliar clothing laid out on his bed. Zechs had said nothing about going out, but there was no question what this outfit was for. The clothes were so similar to what Yuy had worn in the club pictures Wufei wondered if Merquise had been monitoring his online usage.

The slim black trousers were made like jeans, but of a flexible, fine-grained suede-like fabric. A wide black leather belt lay beside them, but aside from a silver buckle, it was unadorned. The jeans were his size, but cut to fit far more snugly than his uniform trousers or the loose Chinese trousers he wore off duty.

There was a pair of casual black shoes, and a rather snug looking sleeveless white tee with a slightly scooped neck, also cut to be form fitting. What caught his eye most, however, was the long, loosely cut shirt made of fine silk brocade. The style of the shirt was Western, but the fabric was unmistakably Chinese. The background was a rich midnight blue, and raised pattern shimmering white chrysanthemums. As he lifted it to admire the play of light across the fabric he found a plain white box underneath containing a small lotus amulet carved from white jade. It was strung on a thin black leather choker and incised on the back was the Chinese figure 'beauty'. He set it aside with a sniff of disdain. He did not wear jewelry.

A long black cashmere overcoat hung on a hanger over his closet door. It was like the one Maxwell had purchased in Spain, at once serviceable and stylish, the wool soft as kitten's fur under his fingers. A folded note was pinned to the narrow lapel, written on thick, expensive stationary. The handwriting was crabbed and crooked, but he made out "Tonight. 10:30. Same venue. No braid. Discretion, please."

He looked over the clothing again and let out a slow, controlled breath. The outfit was nothing he would have chosen, but it was acceptable. He found his gaze straying back to the blue silk shirt. It reminded him of the robes some of his teachers had worn on festival days when he was a child. Assuming that Zechs had been the one to choose this ensemble, at least the man had taste.

+

At 10:20 he headed for the library, coat buttoned up to his neck. He'd foregone the braid, as requested, but had his hair pulled back with an elastic band for the time being, for ease of movement. His service pistol was tucked into an ankle holster and he had a small two-way radio in his pocket. Sally had been informed of the operation. He buttoned up his coat for the long walk through the house to the library. Even so, the coat and his altered hairstyle had been enough to raise a few curious eyebrows among the evening staff.

Zechs was waiting for him, standing by the fireplace dressed in the same tight black jeans and leather jacket he'd worn last time. He had on a form-fitting black long-sleeved tee shirt under it. His thick, studded belt, snugged low on his hips, would have looked stylish on Winner or Maxwell; on this man it looked--Wufei wasn't quite certain what it evoked, except that it made his mouth go a little dry. That little voice in the back of his mind that sounded like Maxwell's whispered gleefully, "Rough trade!" Wufei swallowed hard, schooling his unruly thoughts to more appropriate channels, which at the moment seemed best directed into a rising irritation with the situation.

Zechs looked him over and raised one pale eyebrow. "The coat suits you, but let me see the rest."

"I thought you were in a hurry to get away," Wufei muttered.

"We have plenty of time. Please."

Wufei undid the six large black buttons and let the coat fall open.

"Take it off, Chang."

Wufei shrugged out of it and laid it carefully over one of the chairs by the chess table. He was going to draw the line if Merquise asked him to turn around, but the man said nothing, just smiled and nodded, as if pleased with his own creation.

The clothing did fit remarkably well, but not quite as modestly as he'd hoped. The black suede jeans were very tight, and cut low on his hips. It left him with a sensation Wufei was not really comfortable with on a number of levels, but the fabric had enough give to it that they were not binding. The tee shirt was tight enough to reveal every contour of his chest and belly, even the slight points of his nipples. He'd blushed in front of his mirror earlier, and was grateful now for the long silk shirt, which fell past his hips and provided some semblance of modesty, even though it swirled around him in shimmering folds when he moved too quickly. He was a little unnerved by the way Zechs was looking at him, as if he were a newly acquired painting or horse.

"The color certainly does suit you," Zechs murmured, as if they'd discussed the matter. "But where is the necklace?"

Wufei retrieved the box from his coat pocket and held it out. "I do no wear such things. Here, take it. It appears to be expensive and I do not wish to risk losing it."

Zechs's' hooded sapphire eyes went warm with amusement. Leaving the box in Wufei's outstretched hand, he removed the lid and held the pendant up by the cord. The firelight caught the opaque stone, highlighting the fine carving with golden highlights. His voice dropped to a husky, persuasive rumble. "Come now, it's only a simple necklace. It's in character for your role, and it suits both the outfit and the wearer so perfectly. Humor me, please."

Frowning, Wufei took it and fastened the clasp behind his neck. Zechs stepped in close and touched the white stone, adjusting how it lay against the bare skin below Wufei's throat. It was not a caress, just the quick, sure movement of fingertips brushing his skin, but it sent a faint tingle across his chest. Then Zechs leaned closer still, making sure the clasp was centered behind his neck--another brush of fingertips there and around the right side of his neck as he made some other adjustment that required running his fingers along the cord. This caused a much stronger sensation that ran down Wufei's side, like an electric current. He felt his nipples go hard and sensitive at that touch, and the hair on his arms prickle. It was so startling that he flinched away, but Zechs simply took advantage of the move to pull the wrapped elastic from his hair. There was no mistaking his intent this time as he ran his fingers lightly up the back of Wufei's head, spreading his hair over his shoulders. Another wave of sensation swept through him and it was an effort not to close his eyes and lean back for more of that touch. Zechs was nearly a head taller. For a moment Wufei found himself staring at the base of that pale, smooth throat and the little throb of pulse there. He also noted that Zechs was wearing an earthy, masculine scent of some sort; he hadn't noticed it until the man moved close.

A little jolt of panic shook Wufei from whatever daze had overtaken him. Merquise only had one arm, and it was currently occupied. It would have been a simple matter to step out of that not-quite-embrace, or push the man away. Wufei chose instead to lock eyes with him and draw his eyebrows down in a silent frown of warning, all the while breathing in the scent of cologne and the underlying aromas of expensive soap and the man's own clean but unmistakably masculine smell.

Zechs met his gaze, and then boldly stroked a strand of hair back from Wufei's cheek with the backs of his fingers. There was no doubt that it was meant as a caress, and a challenge to the scathing look Wufei was still leveling at him. But his expression was softer now, his eyes thoughtful, as if he were actually admiring him.

Wufei shivered and sidestepped, pulling away from his touch, mostly in surprise such an overt invasion of his personal space.

Zechs's blue eyes hardened slightly. The smile took on a faintly cynical slant. "Forgive me. I wasn't thinking. Let's go."

Unsettled, Wufei followed, concerned at not being able to read his charge's mood. Was the man flirting with him? Toying with him? Trying to see what it took to break his composure? Well, he'd certainly found a few weak points, Wufei reflected sourly. Zechs had taken him completely off guard. His body was still tense and strangely attenuated from those unwelcome touches.

'You're horny!' the little Maxwell voice whispered. Wufei bristled silently, shocked at such a thought. He was straight. He was skilled in self control. He was not horny!

There was no need for stealth tonight. Zechs's secret was out, and no one tried to stop them as they got into the roadster and headed out. He glanced back after a mile or so and saw the faint glimmer of headlights behind them. He and Sally had agreed that there was no need for close shadowing, so long as the scenario remained the same. She would follow, but remain in her vehicle near the edge of town, within easy calling range.

It was much colder tonight, with the stars peeking bright between drifting, moon silvered banks of clouds. Wufei endured the headlong drive down the coast more stoically this time, hugging the door as he tried hard not to ponder the effect those few casual touches had had on him. Zechs was bored. This was just some new form of baiting. Wufei had endured a slightly different version from Maxwell, who'd delighted in calling attention to the Chinese boy's natural reticence and dislike of being touched.

Sally had even commented on it, now that he thought of it. Sex was all well and good, something to be carried out with efficiency and attention to detail for mutual satisfaction. But outside of the darkened bedroom, he disliked casual contact. He did not enjoy holding hands and she'd quickly come to respect his aversion to doing so in public. He found himself thinking of how Winner and Barton were with each other, and now Yuy and Maxwell. He was profoundly uncomfortable with such public displays of intimacy, even the relatively innocent touches of hands. He'd never understood the need for such gestures.

He shook his head slightly, gazing out over the moon washed sea below. No wonder Sally had left him.

On the heels of that thought came the conscious struggle not to compare her touch with the discomforting frissons Zechs's fingers had evoked. It was merely a discomfort reaction, nothing more; Sally had never made him uncomfortable in that way. A woman's touch was natural; one could not expect to react to it the same way as to the close and unexpected proximity of another man, an openly gay man. Of course it had felt different!

He found himself trying to recall the last time they'd had sex. It had been over a year ago. How long since he'd last touched himself? He couldn't recall. He'd always found it a distasteful thing, masturbation, a weakness not to be indulged in except as a last resort. Maybe he'd reached that point. An answering pang from his groin followed hard on the heels of that thought and he quickly summoned up a meditation to quell it.

This occupied him all the way to Le Fleur, to the point that he was almost relieved to reach the club and the myriad distractions and challenges there.

As before, Zechs attracted attention the moment he walked in the door, but he stayed with Wufei for nearly an hour, insisting that they make a good showing by dancing to every song. He complimented Wufei on his progress. During the second slow song, he slipped his arm around Wufei's waist under the silk shirt, drawing him so close their bellies almost touched. Wufei held back stiffly, feeling himself blush and cursing his lack of control. He couldn't push Zechs away, but he'd be damned if he'd allow-

Damned if he'd allow himself to admit that it felt good to be touched, even like this. Zechs's hand was warm, and his body gave off more heat that seemed to sink into Wufei's skin and pool in his groin.

'I am not aroused!' he thought, but he blushed more hotly all the same and kept his eyes focused on the center of his 'partner's' chest, not daring to look up. He felt Zechs chuckle, and the arm around his waist was like an iron band, but he did not force the issue, just held Wufei that close, close enough for the shorter man to feel the warmth of his breath on his cheek, and smell that distinctive scent of his body.

The song ended and Zechs released him, but let his hand slide in a covert, lingering caress around his waist as Wufei stepped back that left havoc in its wake. Aware of his role, and of the envious looks they'd been getting since they entered, he forced himself not to glare up at the man, but he did look at him, trying to read him.

Zechs had on the hat and glasses, but his cheeks were flushed and his mouth was tilted in a slight smile as he whispered, "You play your part well, little Chang. And your hair smells like sweet summer rain."

"Enough!" Wufei hissed, feeling his cheeks flaring again.

Zechs's smile widened a little as he shrugged. "Get me a drink, Chang. I'm about to be thirsty."

And with that he turned and quickly chose a new partner from the crowd. He caught Wufei's eye as he wrapped his arm around a slight, dark haired boy and gave him a wink. Wufei looked away quickly, feeling embarrassed, as if that one look had described in detail what was about to happen between the two. Pushing away a jumble of unwelcome images from past experience, he retreated to the bar. Blond, green-eyed Joey was there, and greeted him with apparent delight.

"Hey there, pretty eyes! Damn, you're looking goooooood tonight! Back again with Tall Blonde and Horny, eh?"

Wufei cringed at the various epithets. "A Bacardi and cola and--"

"A Long Island ice tea!" Joey clearly prided himself on remembering.

"No, no alcohol," Wufei growled over the suddenly loud music. It was some sort of electronic pastiche tonight, all driving bass lines overlaid with repetitious, simplistic lyrics.

"You sure about that?" Joey grimaced in Zechs's direction; he and his new partner were heading for the back.

Wufei had no illusions about where they were going, and neither did Joey. He scooped some ice cubes into a tall glass, filled it with sparkling water, added a splash of grenadine and a long cocktail skewer laden with strawberries and chunks of pineapple, and slide across to him. "There ya go, gorgeous. One Pink Lonely Heart, on the house."

Wufei sighed inwardly at what he assumed was yet another empty come on. Then he registered the pity in the young man's eyes. "I told you before; he and I are only friends."

The bartender shrugged. "Whatever you say."

Concerned for his cover, such as it was, and a bit more irked than he liked to admit, he caught Joey's eye and leaned across the bar. "What do you mean by that?"

"Hey, it's none of my business."

Wufei attempted an ingratiating smile. "No, really. I'm--I'm new to the bar scene and I'd like to know what you meant by that."

Joey shrugged as he polished a glass. "You come in last time with the hottest guy we've had in here for months, looking like a fish out of water. He humps half a dozen guys, gives you a couple of dances, and you two leave together. I figured you'd shoot him in the parking lot or something, the way you were looking at him all night. But here you are again, dressed to thrill, and the same thing looks to be happening all over again. Like I said, it's none of my business what turns my customers on, ya know? It's just a kink I ain't seen before, that's all, not with both guys as hot as you are."

Wufei was speechless, too shocked to even be embarassed or outraged.

Joey noted his surprise. "Oh yeah, you two have been the talk of the place since you were in the other night. It's some kinda power game, right? I just hope he rewards you good when you get home, that's all. There are plenty of guys here tonight who won't go near Blondie again because of it. You, on the other hand?" Joey shook his head, grinning. "You could have your pick. They all figure you must be one sizzlin' hot bottom."

Wufei had picked up enough about the gay scene over the years to blanch at what Joey was implying. The hand holding his drink shook slightly as he hissed, "It's nothing like that!"

"Hey, like I said. None of my business." Joey started off to serve a knot of new customers at the other end of the bar, and then came back, leaning over the bar and resting a hand on Wufei's wrist. "Look, if you ever decide you want to see what it can be like with someone who doesn't treat you like dirt, you know where to find me, right?"

As he turned away again, Wufei saw the man's gaze flicker to a point just behind him, and those green eyes narrowed slightly. Wufei jumped and slopped his drink as a warm hand stroked down his back, stopping just short of his belt. He twisted on the bar stool and found himself nose to nose with Zechs.

The man's face was flushed, his eyes brighter than they had been. And, Wufei noted with disgust, he now smelled of sex and another man's sweet, cloying cologne. Why hadn't he noticed that the other night?

"Dance with me," Zechs purred, letting his hand fall to Wufei's thigh.

Swiftly processing everything he'd just learned, adding in the mix of curious and disgusted stares Zechs's little display was drawing from others at the bar, Wufei weighed his options, chose what seemed the best from the limited choices at hand, and threw his drink in Zechs's face.

+

Zechs had been looking for some reaction, wanting to see what Chang would do tonight. The tiny but unmistakable flashes of physical arousal he'd seen earlier, together with the adrenaline high of orgasm still humming through his groin, made him really want to see his little China doll blush or glare, or perhaps even show a glimmer of recognition in those bottomless black eyes. The prissy drink-in-the-face move was the last thing he'd expected, even when Chang followed it up by hissing in his ear, "Cover blown. Outside, now or I make a call" and shoved past him to the door, not even stopping to reclaim his coat.

Zechs was even more surprised when a few people at the bar applauded and shot him dirty looks. Well, well. Joey, who'd been more than friendly a few visits before, threw him a bar towel, but no sympathy. He suspected his hunting days at this club were over.

Fuming, he collected both their coats and hurried outside. Chang was waiting for him beside the locked car, hugging himself against the cold. If it was an act, it was a good one; he looked every inch the outraged, jealous date. Zechs flung the coat at him and unlocked the car with the remote. "Get in," he growled, struggling one-armed into his own as he stormed for the driver's door. He pointedly did not look in Chang's direction again, which was why, in retrospect, he probably missed any signals that the boy tried to give him before hissing, "Look out!"

Too late. A hand closed over his right bicep, gripping and spinning him around to meet a well-aimed punch in the jaw. The next thing he knew he was on his ass, car keys spinning from his fingers, surrounded by a confusing blur of denim clad legs. Someone had him by hair, trying to drag him up to his feet.

Gathering his wits, he saw that some of the men from the bar had either followed them out or lain in wait. There were seven in all, counting the muscular fellow who had him by the hair and the front of his shirt now. As he was pulled roughly to his feet, he saw that two others had Wufei by the arms, pulling him around the car.

"Think you're hot shit, don't ya!" the man holding him growled, breathing whiskey in his face. "Think you can just fuck anything on legs, don't ya, and make this sweet piece watch?"

"Take it easy, kid," one of the men with Wufei was saying as he tried to pull free. "We just want to give your boyfriend here a little lesson in manners."

"I thought the people of Sanque were pacifists?" Wufei said, and Zechs marveled at how calm he sounded.

"Yeah? Well, lucky for you we're not natives," the man replied.

Even cold sober, it took Zechs a moment to process the fact that these men were taking issue with how he was treating his "date." The realization made him laugh, which turned out to be the wrong reaction. His captor drew back his fist, and the light caught the Alliance tattoo on his forearm. Zechs recognized the emblem--53rd Tactical Brigade--one of the units the Specials had decimated when OZ made their move for power. Ah, the irony. Pinned by his one good arm, he braced to have his nose broken, or worse.

The blow never came. He caught a blur of motion from the corner of his eye, and then his assailant went flying, dragging Zechs down with him. Someone else grabbed him and threw him aside, toward the car. Scrambling back, he watched in awe as Wufei took down all seven men in a swift flurry of flying moves. The boy was absolutely silent, as he had been when he'd freed himself from his two erstwhile rescuers. In a matter of minutes all of them were unconscious or groaning on the ground.

Wufei paused, face an inscrutable mask in the moonlight as he surveyed the downed men, no doubt looking for any who meant to attack again. "I assure you, gentlemen, your assistance is neither needed nor welcome. I suggest you leave my associate alone." That voice was nearly toneless, but laden with threat. Small as he was compared to most of the others, he managed to project a level of danger that had the conscious ones dragging their fallen comrades clear, muttering darkly as they went.

Wufei waited until they were safely off, then turned and extended a hand down to Zechs, still on the ground, mouth hanging open in amazement. He had presence of mind enough to snag the fallen car keys up before that hand closed over his wrist in an iron grip and pulled him to his feet as easily as if he were the smaller man.

The inscrutable mask was still in place as he looked him up and down. "Are you injured?"

"No." If Wufei had been as weak and helpless as the men had assumed, if he hadn't leaped in to the rescue, then Zechs would indeed be very injured right now, and probably still in the thick of a serious ass kicking. And he hadn't even heard them coming. They had taken him completely off guard and there hadn't been a damn thing he, a useless, one-armed cripple, could do to protect either of them from the very situation he had created. And this, this--boy! With his proud black eyes and full lips set in that thin, disapproving line--this keeper of his had witnessed the whole pathetic show! Anger and despair, kept at bay these past few weeks, snarled to life again with an all too familiar feeling in his gut, like a rope being strained too far, strands snapping one by one, toward the inevitable breaking point . . . .

"Chang, perhaps you should call Major Po," he gritted out.

Good little soldier that he was, Wufei drew the small radio from his pocket. Before he could activate it Zechs snatched it and flung it away into the darkness. "Good night, Chang," he growled, pushing past the startled boy and flinging himself into the driver's seat. The car was already in motion when Wufei wrenched the door open and scrambled in. How the hell had he gotten there in time?

"Get out!" Zech snarled.

Chang locked the door and pulled his seatbelt into place, saying nothing.

Zechs's anger ratcheted up a few more dangerous notches. "Suit yourself, then, little Chang!" he snarled, and floored the gas pedal, fishtailing out of the darkened lot into the main street with no thought for oncoming traffic. A red haze fell over his vision, coloring the world with his own self-loathing.

Only the thought of the open highway ahead kept him from speeding inside the city limits; a high-speed chase by the police was not what he wanted. He kept just barely within safe limits until they left town, then opened up the Porsche again, gears whining and grinding as he forced it at top speed up the winding road that climbed the cliffs.

Wufei was nothing more than a silent, accusing presence beside him as he tore through one dangerous curve after another, guardrails and caution signs strobing by as blurs in the sweep of his headlights.

Useless.

Cripple.

Helpless.

Useless.

The black void beyond the guardrails beckoned him with a siren song of oblivion. Just keep the gas pedal down, damn the brake, a twitch of the wheel and it was all over except for one last glorious downward flight, a brief recapturing of the only life that had ever mattered to him, the pilot warrior's duel with gravity and space. Only this would be one battle he would be happy to lose.

He came close, oh so very close, to finally giving himself that release. But each time he felt Chang's presence, recalled that perfectly calm voice asking, "Why did you never attempt suicide?" It made no sense, really. That should have taunted him over the edge. Instead it held him back; that, and the fact that Chang had not said a word or made any move to stop or distract him. Any normal person would be begging for his life or trying to calm him. Chang did neither, just sat there, one hand clasping the handgrip over the door, eyes fixed on the road ahead.

The red haze began to recede, taking his anger and energy with it. He downshifted through a curve, eased off on the gas, fighting back a rush of nausea.

Useless.

Cripple.

Helpless.

Coward.

The headlights caught a familiar sign in the distance and he downshifted again, taking the turn off at an almost sane speed.

It was late. The road leading to the stretch of private beach below the estate was gated and there were no interloper's cars in sight. The car's remote opened the gates and he drove through, letting them lock behind them. If Po had followed them, she would get no further than this.

He drove on along the sandy road until they were close to the water, then parked and climbed out. The fine white sand gave and shifted under his boots, but he didn't stop to pull them off, just stalked away along the waterline without a backward glance.

Useless.

Cripple.

Helpless.

Coward.

+

Merquise strode along in silence for nearly half a mile without acknowledging Wufei's presence. The younger man followed doggedly, not letting the seemingly deserted state of the beach deter him from his duty. It was cold, damned cold, and he'd dropped his coat in the parking lot. There had been no time to think of it then, though. Zechs had snapped in that parking lot, and not because he'd been scared or hurt. Caught off balance and unaware, he'd been easy prey. The Lightning Count, the most brilliant combat leader of his day, brought low by a handful of angry drunks.

Wufei had had no choice but to defend him, then to stay with him when he tried to tear off on his own. He'd certainly had second thoughts by the time they were on the road. There was death in Zechs's face and as soon as they turned onto the cliff road Wufei had hastily made peace with his ancestors, not expecting to survive the ride. Adrenaline must have served him well, because as soon as the car stopped on that deserted beach, he had a hard time getting his legs to cooperate at all.

"Duty!" he growled silently to himself, and forced himself to follow Zechs, keeping back fifteen feet or so to give the man what privacy he could, trying not to shiver as the damp salt breeze crept though his clothing. After a few minutes he began to shake for entirely different reasons, and feel very grateful to be alive to take this moonlit walk with a crazy man. A few minutes more and he'd mastered himself again, applying himself with renewed determination to simply staying close and awaiting new developments. Any resentment he felt over what Joey had said, or those drunks, had been blasted away by subsequent events. He was alive, and safe for the moment, and aware as never before of the pain that Zechs Merquise must be in. They should both be dead right now, bodies mangled in twisted metal at the bottom of a cliff, these same waves stained with their blood . . .

"Steady, Chang!" he thought, pushing the thought and the accompanying wave of dizziness down savagely. They were alive. It was enough.

Zechs stopped at last, still not acknowledging him, but keeping his back to him as he bent and...

Wufei realized he was trying to get his fly unzipped to piss. He wanted to turn away, but couldn't. Head still down, Zechs urinated into the sand, and then began the obviously laborious task of putting himself back in order one-handed.

With the exception of their first few sparring rounds, this was the first time in all the weeks Wufei had been with him that he saw Zechs look this clumsy and awkward. He rode well, fenced well, drove like he was still piloting a mobile suit, danced with remarkable grace, even-Wufei suddenly found himself fighting away the memory of the muscles flexing in the man's bare thighs as he'd had forceful sex with that young man that first night at the club-but even as he did so, he recognized the control and strength it must have taken, and the zest with which Zechs had done so. All that, but this most basic of tasks stripped away all his power and hard won control--the simple act of getting his penis tucked away and his fly zipped without hurting himself. When he was finally done Wufei saw the hasty, embarrassed way he wiped his fingers on the leg of his jeans; it made him wish he hadn't followed him. No one should be seen like this.

They walked on, leaving the acrid smell behind. The moon was almost down now but the stars were bright enough to cast their faint shadows on the sand. Zechs stopped again, this time to stoop wearily down on the sand at the water's edge. He washed his hand, shook the water from his fingers, and then walked up the beach a little way to a stone outcropping. Sinking down, he lay back and turned his face to the sky. And once again he brought his right arm up in that futile half gesture, trying to cross it with the arm that was no longer there, letting it fall away. The last of Wufei's anger slipped away, leaving him empty and depressed. If he drew his gun right now and put it to Zechs's temple, would he be grateful?

He didn't, of course, just sat down next to him, carefully lifting the tail of the silk shirt away from the rough surface and wrapping his cold hands in the pooled fabric in his lap.

Zechs sighed. "Well, Chang? No lectures? No recriminations? Care to gloat just a little?"

"No."

"Come now, we can at least analyze the situation, can't we? Call it a debriefing, if you like. You must have an opinion. Out with it!"

"You compromised your mission by drawing too much attention to yourself, and acting in a manner that went against the scenario. If you had continued with solo forays for dancing and anonymous sexual encounters, you might have been able to continue for some time. Your error was including me, then acting in a questionable manner."

"Questionable? You're too kind. But I cannot argue with that, Captain Chang. You are quite correct."

"I would advise against returning to that club, with or without a bodyguard."

"A nice way of saying I screwed the pooch."

"Perhaps a different club, and a lower profile . . ."

Zechs snorted derisively. "Perhaps a different town. Word does get around, you know."

"Yes, I was made aware of that by the bartender. We had caused talk."

Zechs folded his arm behind his head. "Do tell, Chang. What were the locals saying?"

"You were very popular when you came in alone. You were, to use Joey's term, 'hot' which I took to mean that you were considered very desirable. It was your actions with me that turned opinion against you."

"They thought you were my date."

"Yes." Something of his distaste must have come through, because Zechs turned to him for the first time, eyes glinting in the faint light in a way he could not interpret.

"What did they say about you, Chang?"

"No doubt you heard on your own."

"I did, but I'd like to know what you heard, strictly on an intelligence gathering basis, of course." His tone belied this. He seemed to be taking some cruel pleasure in Wufei's discomfort.

He pushed it away. "The assumption was that we were playing some sort of sexual power game, and that I was your-" He hesitated over the shockingly graphic term. "The passive sexual partner."

"'A fucking hot bottom boy.' That's the phrase I heard."

Wufei shuddered and turned away.

"That bothers you?"

"If you must know, then yes, it does."

"You'd rather they'd thought you were my top?"

"I would rather not have been the subject of such talk!"

"Poor Chang. A ruined man at eighteen. Or is it nineteen? I am a cad. A crippled, useless, cowardly cad, good for nothing but dragging better men down with me."

It was Wufei's turn to snort. "Self pity does not suit you, Merquise."

"Perhaps I'm not doing it well enough to suit your refined sensibilities. Back to poetry then?

'**When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.'
"

He began in mockery, but the words slowly took on the ring of truth. He paused, and Wufei was startled to feel a light touch on his back.

"'Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee--'
"

He could have shrugged that hand away, turned with some cutting retort, but he didn't. That light touch was the only spot of warmth in this whole windswept landscape. That rasping voice held him immobile, like a snake charmer's flute.

"'And then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.'
"

The hand left his back and he heard Zechs sit up. Cold fingers touched his cheek. "You're freezing, Wufei. Where is your coat?"

For an instant Wufei had a hard time getting his throat to work. Then he turned his face away from that touch. "Lost it in the fight. I'll reimburse your sister for the cost of it."

"No need for that." He heard the rustle of leather, then Zechs was awkwardly attempting to drape his own jacket over Wufei's shoulders. Wufei ducked out from under it and stood. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to keep you from getting sick?"

"We should go back to the house."

Instead, Zechs tossed the leather jacket at his feet and lay back on the rock, arm behind his head again. When he spoke again, the hard, mocking edge was back. "We'll go back when I say so. And those clothes you're wearing were not paid for by Relena. They were a gift. From me."

Wufei blinked, too shocked to say anything for a moment. A gift? It came back to him, then, the brief look of pleasure in Zechs's eyes, seeing him these clothes, and the way he'd cajoled him into wearing the necklace. The way he'd touched him, adjusting it . . . He blushed again, feeling an echo of the sensations that touch had evoked.

"Why?" he heard himself whisper.

Zechs kept his gaze on the stars. "In appreciation for your help. And your company, these past weeks. Both have been most welcome. In better times, I'd have been a better man about it. Now?" He shrugged, a cramped, hampered attempt, like trying to cross his arms. "Now I've lost the social graces, it would seem. I simply flail about."

"Thank you, then, for the gifts. I did not realize . . ." Wufei trailed off, embarrassed without knowing why. "They are more than my services warrant, but thank you."

"You're welcome." Zechs turned and reached out toward his face, as if to touch his cheek again. Wufei forced himself not to turn away this time, but Zechs touched the carved jade at his throat instead, running his fingers lightly over it. "Do you know about the Shaolin Brotherhood of the White Lotus?"

Wufei's brows arched in surprise. "Yes, they strove for purity of practice and honor in life and battle during a corrupt period in medieval China . . ." He trailed off. Of course he knew, but how had this man learned of it? And made a gift of it, which he'd completely misread and ignored! And tried to give back, too, he recalled with shame. He held still as those fingers slipped from the amulet to brush his throat, then dropped to his shoulder, stroking the silk.

Zechs withdrew his hand and tucked his arm back behind his head again with a sigh, looking back to the sky. "Do you miss space, Chang?"

Wufei blinked, still caught in that touch, then grasped at the offered change of subject. "At times, but I have no home there anymore."

"Do you hate me for that?" Zechs actually sounded sad.

"No," Wufei replied in perfect honesty. "You were not directly responsible, or even involved as far as I know."

"No, I wasn't."

Wufei did his best to ignore the little pang of relief those words gave him. "Then you are still in a better position to hate me. I killed your friends, your students. The men you trained," Wufei reminded him. Zechs had made a point of this, in their first days together.

"I don't hate you, Wufei. It was war. We both had our orders." He sat up and shook his hair back. The bangs were long, as they always had been.

In the starlight, Wufei could see him as he had once been, even in those black, casual clothes and the bruise darkening on his chin. This had been the Lightning Count, whom even Yuy had respected. "We should get back."

Zechs nodded, then shot him an annoyed look. "Put on the jacket, Wufei. I can see you shivering."

"I am-"

"I don't move until you do."

Wufei let out an exasperated breath, but humored him, shaking the sand from the folds of the leather and shrugging it on. It was too big on him by several sizes, especially through the shoulders, but it cut the wind. And it smelled of Zechs. Even after they'd reached the house and parted for night, he could still smell the man on him, on his skin and the silk shirt.

He just changed into his tank top and loose sweats for the night when he remembered Sally. "Shit!" The two way was long gone, probably crushed under the wheels of some car in that dark lot. He went to the phone and dialed her cell phone. She picked up on the first ring.

"Wufei? What the hell happened?"

"Nothing. We're fine. Where are you?"

"Just coming in the door, actually. I saw you tearing out of town like a bat out of hell and tried to follow. I lost sight of you. Where are you?"

"We're back safely. He was upset and needed some time away from the house. We--"

A knock on his door distracted him and he opened it to find Sally standing there, phone to her ear, looking distinctly displeased. Pushing past him, she closed the door and rounded on him.

"What the hell happened tonight? You broke contact. You allowed him to place you both in jeopardy. When I called in to the club you were supposed to be at they said there'd been some sort of fight?"

"It was nothing, just some drunks. I handled it."

"Who was driving after that?"

"He was."

"And you let him?" Her pale blue eyes widened in disbelief. "What were you thinking?"

"I will make a full report tomorrow," he said, feeling wearier by the moment. It had been a colossal fuck up on his part. She was right to call him on it. "As I said, he was upset and things happened very quickly. He got the radio away from me and destroyed it, wanting to throw you off. I had no choice but to stay with him any way I could. I was armed. He was in no danger." At least not from anyone but himself, he amended silently.

Sally glared at him a moment longer, clearly not entirely satisfied with his account. Then her gaze shifted downward, to his chest. "What's that you have on?"

Wufei's hand jerked up to his throat as he realized to late that he'd forgotten to take off the necklace. "Uh, just a--It was part of the outfit Merquise provided, cover for the--It was just part of the outfit." Damn it, why was he blithering like this, and why did his face suddenly feel so hot?

Sally's eyes went a little wider and one fine brow arched a little higher as she saw him blush. "Ah. Then that would account for that, as well?" She smiled and pointed to the silk shirt he'd left on the bed, next to the discarded jeans. "I wish I'd gotten a better look at you before you left. You'll have to model it for me some time."

"It was cover," he said again, feeling more uncomfortable by the moment. This was ridiculous! What did he have to feel uncomfortable about? It was only clothing. And jewelry. Which he never wore. A gift.

And she was looking at the necklace again, the smile fading to a look of concern. "It's very pretty. Looks like a Yang Zhou piece, very delicate. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine, just tired. I'll have my report in before breakfast."

"There's no need for that. Just make sure it gets filed." She paused, looking as if she had something else to say.

"What?" he demanded.

"Are you OK with this assignment?"

"Of course I am. What makes you ask that?"

"Nothing, really. He just seems to keep you a bit off balance, that's all. I thought you were getting on better with him, but--"

"I am getting on with him just fine," Wufei snapped. "He is a difficult man, caught in a very difficult situation."

Sally nodded slowly. "You do seem to be able to get through to him. I just--Well, I just worry a bit about the effect he might be having on you. Are you really OK, Wufei?"

"Yes, I am," he assured her.

"All right, then." But she still paused, still looked like there was something else on her mind. He waited, but she just shrugged and gave him a quick hug good night, something she hadn't done since they'd broken up. "Good night, Wufei. See you tomorrow."

He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. Glancing in the mirror, he saw with a bit of alarm that his cheeks were still flushed, and that he'd forgotten that his hair was still down loose. Just as he'd forgotten to take off the silly necklace when he'd undressed. He reached to unclasp it, then paused, allowing himself to appreciate the skill with which it had been carved. It was a fine piece, and Sally was probably right about it being Yang Zhou, which meant it had been also been expensive. Like the coat, and the silk shirt. Nothing but the best for Zechs Merquise's fake date, apparently. Then he recalled the character inscribed on the back. He'd thought nothing of it when he'd first noticed it: such inscriptions were common and he'd assumed Zechs, who did not read Mandarin, had not known its meaning. But at the time he'd made that assumption, he had not known then that he was holding a gift in his hand. And Zechs had not spoken of Shaolin monks and their quest for physical and spiritual perfection, encompassed by this symbol. How had he known that?

Wufei turned it over and read the backwards character in the mirror.

Beauty.

No, Zechs had not known. There was no message there! It could have said any number of things. It had nothing to do with the way the man had insisted on touching him tonight, so light and subtle, even when dancing, but invading his space all the same. No, it meant nothing.

He took it off and placed it in the cotton-lined box on the nightstand, then turned out the light.

It meant nothing. None of it. He composed himself for sleep as he always did, lying straight and flat, hands on his chest, slowing his breathing by degrees to induce sleep.

It meant nothing, and was not his fault, that he dreamt of dancing with someone who started out being Sally but kept changing to Zechs, no matter how hard he tried to control it. And in the dream, Zechs held him very close, and he felt all those same, strange, troubling sensations, magnified a hundred fold. The dream Zechs was bolder, more insistent, holding him so close and slowly guiding them through the crowd to a darkened hallway lined with open cubicles where men screwed each other standing up. In the dream he slowly acquiesced. In the dream he did not fight when Zechs kissed him and touched him and pressed their bodies together. The dream did not last long enough for them to reach the cubicle, but he woke with a shameful mess in his sweatpants, all the same.

++

*Springes to catch wooodcocks-- From Hamlet, Act 1 scene iii meaning "snares to catch foolish birds"

Polonius' warning to his daughter, Ophelia, about what he fears are Hamlet's false vows of love.

Ophelia: My lord, he hath importuned me with love in honorable fashion.

Polonius: Aye, fashion [mere show] you may fall it. Go to, go to.

Oph: And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of heaven.

Pol: Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know when the blood burns, how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows. These blazes . . . giving more light than heat, extinct in both, even in their promise as it is a-making, you must not take for fire.
----

**Shakespeare again. Sonnet 29. Zechs has clearly had a typically Eurocentric education.
---

Yang Zhou: a school of jade carvers known for their natural subjects, and the delicate realism of their work.

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