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

Broken Warriors + Chapter 51
Prickly Pear

Relena took note of Zechs's rise in spirits, those last few days in the hospital, and he let her think what she would, not ready to share the reason just yet. She'd had a bit of a problem with Yuy and Maxwell, or so some of the tabloids had hinted, and he knew all too well that she was uncomfortable with his own orientation. His relationship with Wufei, if it could even be termed that yet, was too tenuous to speak of. He could care less whether she approved or not, but he suspected that Wufei was in not a state to weather her disapproval. His own feelings might still be too raw and uncertain. And Relena was still technically Wufei's employer. No, he would wait and see what thoughts Wufei had had this week, then proceed from there.

All the same, he couldn't help asking after him and Sally during the short flight home after his release. Her answer was oddly noncommittal, but at the time he was too busy with other thoughts to take proper notice. The doctor still had him on pain medication, as well, and now that he was up and about more, he began to notice how mentally fuzzy they made him. He had perused his file of poetry during the flight, still wondering if he dared share the Ruan Ji just yet. Wise or not, he'd made up his mind that if Wufei had gotten cold feet, he would find some way to sway him. He knew himself too well not to admit that there was an element of the hunt in his motivations, but only an element. Even if Wufei left him, it should be with a better understanding of his own heart. The sort of torment he'd seen in the boy that last night could turn all too quickly to self hatred if suppressed again. If Wufei could not be happy with him, he should at least be happy with himself.

But Zechs would not willingly let him go.

The journey and being moved about was more tiring than he liked to admit. By the time they drove in through the gates of the estate, he was looking forward to dispensing with any formalities and having a quiet chat with Wufei. The household was assembled in the front hall to greet him. He looked around expectantly, but saw no sign of Wufei or Sally.

He acknowledged the greetings and well wishes from the staff, but his gaze roved the room restlessly, not finding what he most sought. "Where are Chang and Po?" he whispered to Relena.

Her smile tightened a bit as she took his arm. "Come, let's get you settled. You look so tired."

Interpreting this as 'not in front of the help', he allowed her to walk him to his room before he confronted her.

"Where are Chang and Po?"

She guided him to his bed and settled him there, then sat and took his hand. "Oh, my dear Milliardo! I've been dreading this moment. I didn't say anything while you were in the hospital because there was nothing you could have done and it would only have upset you."

"What are you saying, Relena?" There had been some accident. His mind leaped to Wufei behind the wheel of the Porsche on those treacherous roads, the very roads he'd driven on so recklessly. Or the horses. Or . . . Her next words rocked him as much as that other news would have.

"He's gone, Milliardo. They both are. He didn't really give me an explanation. He seemed upset over something soon after you left, and asked for reassignment. I granted it, of course. I couldn't make him stay. Sally is his partner, so she went, too."

"Reassignment?" Of course.

/I can't be like those men in the club./

But he'd given his word. He'd said he'd stay until--

/I can't do that!/

"Milliardo, what's wrong?" Relena leaned closer. "You're so pale. Here, you're overdue for your medication. Here, let me help you. You'll feel better if you rest."

"I don't need rest, or pills!" he gritted out. He needed- No, no point in admitting that. "I need some time to myself. If you'll excuse me."

Zechs pushed her out of his way as gently as he could manage and strode out of the room. She was right; he was exhausted and his shoulder hurt like a bitch. The neural calibrations had not been pleasant. His head was swimming by the time he reached Wufei's room.

He'd never had occasion to come in here while Wufei had occupied it. He wasn't certain what he'd expected, but one look confirmed what Relena had told him. The guest room was in perfect order, neat and as devoid of any personal effects as a hotel suite. He walked in, feet sinking into the deep carpet. He was truly dizzy now.

/He gave me his word!/

The coverlet on the bed was as smooth as a billiard table. The bathroom gleamed, not so much as a toothbrush or single black hair in the tub left behind. There was not even the lingering scent of the rainwater scent of his hair, or that enticing musky sweat after their workouts--- /Don't think of that! He's gone!/ It smelled of cleanser.

A surreal sense of calm stole over him as he opened the large closet and saw the black cashmere overcoat and the blue Chinese silk shirt hanging there. A carton of neatly folded clothing was on the floor below. The black sweater and jeans were on the top.

"Milliardo, what's wrong?"

He turned sharply, not realizing his sister had followed him. She looked concerned. "He just left? Did he--was there a note? A contact number?"

"No, should there be? I didn't think you two got along that well."

"We did, after awhile," Zechs murmured.

It wasn't like he blamed the boy. He'd been a shit from day one, and a wolf. Wufei wasn't stupid and he wasn't a child, young as he was. He'd been through the wars, too. No, he'd just come to his senses, that's all. That was why Zechs had left him to himself this week, after all, to let him think without undue pressure or influence from him.

/But still,/ a stubborn, naive, hurt part of him insisted, /he gave his word!/

"He left these?"

"Yes. Something about regulations, I gathered. I thought you might want to donate them. The Peacecraft Charitable Trust collects clothes for the needy."

"No." He passed his hand over his eyes. "I'll take care of them. Leave them."

"Of course." She slipped her arm through his and guided him back to his room. "You must rest, Milliardo. Don't worry. The new security detail is top notch. When you've had a nap and some dinner, I have a list of magazine people who've requested interviews. No, don't worry about that now. We have plenty of time to discuss that. Oh, but do consider this. The Veterans Rehabilitation Organization has asked if you might consider a pictorial on the new arm. They were wondering if you might be up to talking with someone tomorrow . . ."

Zechs stopped listening. The house seemed to close in around him like a prison again. The shadows seemed as menacing and claustrophobic as the first day he'd come here.

But Wufei had been with him then.


The next day passed in a dreary fog. He could not ride his depression off, as he usually did, and when he tried to lose himself in his books he found himself reading the same paragraph over and over, without retaining a word. He could not bear company, barked at the servants, and was barely civil to Relena. The girl hovered, her concern clear, but he wanted none of it. He let the pain medication knock him out early that evening, but woke in darkness with a dry mouth, a pounding headache, his shoulder on fire, and an aching sense of futility.

He glanced at the clock on the night table and grimaced. /Here we go round the prickly pear at five o'clock in the morning./

He put on his dressing gown and made his way down to the library, more out of habit than anything else. And that's where the cognac was. Sitting there, nursing his drink by the cold hearth, he brooded.

/He wouldn't leave like that, after giving his word./

/Oh, grow up, for fuck's sake! How can you cling to that after everything you've seen and done, eh? Who are you to hold a kid you hardly know up to that empty standard?/

He drained the glass and poured another, but sipped this one more slowly as the pain in his head and shoulder began to recede.

He looked around at the bookshelves. A few volumes were missing, a gap here and there where Wufei or Sally had borrowed something. It was the only sign that they'd ever been there at all.

In the hospital, mooning over Chinese love poems, he'd pictured Wufei sitting in this very room, finding new pieces to share. And of course, pining for him. And all that time he'd already been gone.

That thought needed another drink to wash it down. He was a grown man, for chrissake! He wasn't going to sit here and whimper over some lost chance with an employee. Damn right he wasn't!

But no, that was his pride talking, and maybe a bit of the lovesick boy who'd watched Treize gradually withdraw just out of reach.

"Treize!" he muttered. He'd had a lot of lovers since then, but not one he'd loved. Not like that, for all the good it did him. Not until Wufei.

"Fuck!" He was about to hurl the glass against the hearth when a hesitant tap on the door stopped him. "Who is it?" he snarled.

His valet, Tomas, peered nervously in. He was a colorless twig of a man, always polite and good at his job, but no one Zechs had warmed to. He hadn't given any of the staff much thought, really. He'd assumed they were all his sister's spies, since they were all in her employ rather than his, and not allowed himself to let his guard down.

"Forgive me, your highness, but I saw the light. Are you all right?"

"No, not really, but there's not much you can do about it!" Zechs went to the sideboard and refilled his glass. When he turned, Tomas still there in the doorway, fidgeting with his hands in the pockets of his plaid dressing gown. "Well? Was there something else?"

Tomas took a hesitant step in. "I don't mean to speak out of turn, sir, but I was the one who packed up the things in Captain Chang's room."

"So?" If the fellow expected a tip for doing that, he had another thing coming!

"It's just, well, I thought you might want to see this." He took something from the pocket he'd been fidgeting in and held it out to him with a low bow.

Zechs recognized the small white box. "Thank you, Tomas." He moved to pocket it, not up to seeing the necklace anywhere but on that perfect neck.

Tomas cleared his throat. "Your highness? I think you might want to look inside."

Biting back an impatient retort, Zechs pushed the lid aside with his thumb. The box was empty. "I see. Well, you needn't worry. He didn't steal it. It was a gift."

"I'd rather hoped so, sir." The looked relieved. Relieved, and still very nervous. Something was not being said.

"Sit down, Tomas." Zechs poured the fellow a cognac, then watched him down half of it at a gulp. "You have something else to tell me."

"It'll be worth my post, your highness, but yes, I think I do. The other staff and I, we liked Captain Chang and Major Po. They were very polite and pleasant. We-- that is, some of the staff, sir? We rather thought you liked them, too."

Zechs raised an incredulous eyebrow. "What possible business could that be of yours?"

Tomas shrank back, clutching his glass in both hands. "I just thought you might wish to know that they did not appear happy when they left. I don't believe it was by their own choice. A woman came to speak with them, an officer of the Preventers. She had men with her, your highness, armed agents. They escorted Captain Chang and Major Po off the premises."

A familiar, dangerous calm settled over Zechs. He refilled Tomas's glass and sat down. "When was this?"

"The morning you left for the hospital, sir. The officer and her agents arrived about an hour later, asking for the two of them. We were told it was a matter of national security and that we were to say nothing of it to anyone, including you."

"So you are committing treason, speaking to me now?"

Tomas downed his drink and shrugged. "Perhaps. I hope you'll forgive me if I'm doing wrong, sir, but the look on that young man's face has haunted me all week. I don't know what became of him after, but he looked so--Well, I saw him when he left his room that morning and he looked fine. But after he'd talked with the woman, in here with the door closed, he didn't look well at all. Not at all, sir, and neither did Major Po. She looked ready to shoot someone, but he just looked ill. I wouldn't have said anything, your highness, but I couldn't help noticing that you seemed a bit upset not to find him here. It kept me up and then I saw your light." He turned his empty glass nervously in his hands.

"I see. Did Captain Chang leave anything else behind?"

"No, your highness, not that I noticed."

"And you know nothing more of why Chang and Po were sent away?"

"On my honor, your highness, I'd tell you if I did!"

"Did my sister say anything to you about this?"

"No, your highness. We've seen nothing of her until she came in with you today."

Zechs nodded slowly. "I must ask you again, Tomas. Why did you go against a direct order to tell me this?"

Tomas stood and pulled himself up. "My family has served your family for six generations, your highness. I didn't know that woman. I may have done wrong, sir, but it didn't seem right, the way it happened. And as I said, we all liked Captain Chang, and, well, it seemed you did, too."

Zechs hoped he still knew an honest man when he saw one. "Thank you, Tomas. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I think we should both pretend this conversation never occurred. Agreed?"

Tomas bowed to him again. "Thank you, your highness. You have my word, if you'll take it. Good night, sir."

Zechs waited, giving the man time to return to the servant's wing, but he didn't drink any more. He'd had enought to dull the pain in his arm.

He kicked off his slippers and walked barefoot back to Chang's room. He closed the door, and drew the heavy drapes before he turned on the light. A towel from the bathroom across the bottom of the door to block the light should keep anyone else from looking in on him.

He went to the closet and checked the pockets of the coat, then ran his hands over the silk shirt. Nothing there. Taking the carton of clothing to the bed, he dumped it out and searched the pockets of the jeans and trousers. A piece of paper fluttered free of the pile and he snatched it up, but it was just a list of the clothing. Only then did it occur to him that this was *all* the clothing he ordered, including those that had still in bags in the bottom of his own closet the day he'd left for the hospital.

Each item was listed neatly in a familiar girlish hand that was most certainly not Wufei's, and each was checked off, except for one. One of the overcoats was circled, with a question mark beside it. It was the coat that had been lost that night in Le Fleur.

He felt a wolfish grin coming on. Was this more of the helpful Tomas's doing? And how the hell had Relena known what he'd bought, down to the penny? Or that he'd bought anything to begin with? No, he'd been right about some of the staff, at least.

But they hadn't known about the necklace, because he hadn't bought that. And if Wufei had seen this list, he might have figured that out, too, and taken it as a sign.

Wufei had looked ill when he'd gone, Tomas said. Zechs hoped the boy would forgive him for the way his heart had leapt, hearing that. No, it had not been his choice to go.

He'd never been given any information on Wufei, no phone number or email address. God only knew if he would be reachable at either at this point. An armed Preventer escort? Good god, did they think he was an assassin or something?

That gave him pause. He wasn't so love struck that he could rule out the possibility that there had been a good reason for Wufei and Sally's removal. Not rule it out, perhaps, but he had a damn hard time believing it. But clearly it had been a Preventer matter, rather than a police one and he was not without connections there. He'd start with Une, and then take Relena by surprise over breakfast, if necessary.

As he turned to go he noticed something he hadn't earlier. There was a small stack of books on the dresser in the corner.

The one on top, a book of Japanese verse, was not from the house library. The other two he recognized. The Eliot was his own copy, the one he'd lent to Wufei. He smiled sadly, wishing the boy had taken that with him, too. And here was poor despised Emily Dickinson, accounting for one of the empty spaces on the library shelf. Perhaps Wufei had tried to give her work another chance? He was about to set it aside when he noticed the edge of a sheet of paper sticking up from between the pages. It was a note. There was no date or signature, but there was also no mistaking Wufei's precise, upright printing.

"Sorry to keep this so long. You were right. Dickinson is brilliant, most worthy of perusal. Didn't care much for the Eliot. Agree with you that his verse is 'halting, overly sentimental, and didactic.'"

He chuckled to himself as he reached for the Eliot again. He remembered that conversation and knew Wufei would not make such an error in quoting himself. And he sure as hell didn't think his taste in verse had changed that drastically in a week's time. Now to find what he was being directed to.

There was no note to be found, and nothing written in the margins that he could find. He doubted Wufei carried invisible ink on his person. Zechs sat on the bed, turning the two books over in his hands and reviewing what he knew.

It didn't sound like Wufei been given time to carry out elaborate secret plans. No, he was a Gundam pilot, and if Zechs had learned anything about that breed, from Yuy and Barton, it was that they knew how to work with whatever was at hand. He paged through again, and this time he found the little slip of folded paper tucked deep between the pages near the middle. Clever Wufei! Poetry had been their weapon of choice and secret language; leave it to him to use it now.

But his relief quickly faded as he eagerly scanned the marked pages. The book was a complete collection of the poet's work, and this section was devoted to the collection called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." The poems marked were "The Old Gumbie Cat" and "Growltiger's Last Stand." They were nonsense poems, written for children. He'd never cared for them and couldn't imagine serious minded Chang Wufei getting anything out of them. He read them anyway, trying to find some significance in the doings of Jennyanydots or Growltiger, "the terror of the Thames." He held the pages to the light, looking for marked letters, some sort of code, but there appeared to be nothing there.

"Come on now, Chang, you're too much the scholar to mix up author's names like that, and you sure as hell don't like Dickinson or this drivel. What the hell were you trying to say?"

He picked up the scrap paper bookmark, intending to mark the place again, when he noticed two things he hadn't before. The piece of scrap had printing on it, and something written on it, too, near the top end. It looked familiar, too, and he realized with a start that it was a Chinese character. "Come on, Chang, you know I can't read this!" he growled, feeling like he'd hit a brick wall. Unwilling to admit defeat yet, however, he unfolded the scrap and saw that it was a page torn from another book. A book of verse! The poem on this side of the page had several large X's and scribbles drawn through it. Turning it over, he found a short, untouched verse.

After his tryst
he too may be looking up
on his way back home--
while for me a night of waiting
ends with the dawn moon.

He turned the scrap over, looking more closely at the character written there. He did recognize it; it was 'beauty', from the back of the necklace. The necklace Wufei was still presumably wearing, or at least cared enough about to take with him.


He walks in beauty, like the night.

While for me a night of waiting.

Zechs sank down on the edge of the bed, heart beating fast in his chest. Wufei hadn't gone back on his word. In the face of an armed escort, he'd taken the time to leave him this.

Was he seeing only what he wanted to see? He didn't think so. With anyone else in the world, he might call this all coincidence and wishful thinking, but not with Chang, not his precise little scholar. He checked the number at the top of the torn page and found where it had been torn from the Japanese verse collection. It was one of a trio of poems by someone named Fujiwara. He wondered fleetingly if that was a man or woman's name, and who had been doing the lonely waiting while the other lover was out trysting.

"Did you really just pull that one out of the air, little Chang, or had it already caught your eye?" He let himself hope for the latter.

He returned the clothes to their box in the closet, tucked the torn page into its place and took all three books with him.

He was halfway back to his room, already rehearsing Une's private phone number in his mind, when it occurred to him that the woman officer who'd come for Wufei might very well have been her. As elite, high ranking agents, Wufei and Sally answered directly to Une. And Relena must have gone to Une in order to have them assigned as his minders.

This gave him pause. The most dangerous enemy of all was the one you trusted as a friend. Well, he'd never really considered her a friend in the old days, more like the crazy bitch Treize was banging instead of him, but in these enlightened times, she was technically on the side of the angels. If she wasn't, if this was some new mind fuck Relena was pulling on him, for his own good, no doubt, then there was a fifty-fifty chance that Une was in her pocket. Calling her now would be tipping his hand.

So would packing a bag and stealing the roadster. And there was the small matter of his arm.

No, one more day and a bit of advance reconnaissance was the smarter route.

Then again, as any good pilot knew, fortune favors the bold.

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