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

Broken Warriors + Chapter 53
Pilot Down

The problem with opium was that it took away pain and inhibition without taking away memory. Wufei had chosen it for those very qualities, but now, knowing he had to face Yuy and Maxwell, he wished that he'd gone on a blackout drinking binge instead.

Even if he had, though, waking up freshly bathed in a neatly made bed wearing nothing but underwear would have been enough to remind him that he had not been in control earlier. The memory of Yuy bathing him would go with him to the grave. He hid his burning face in the pillows, but knew he could not escape facing the others for long.

The bedroom door was ajar. He cowered under the covers for a few more minutes, straining his ears to hear who was still in the apartment. He heard nothing. He seized the moment to find decent clothing.

Someone had cleaned up his room. A basket heaped with clean laundry sat next to the dresser and he saw with relief that his yukata and sweatpants were neatly folded on top. Keeping one eye on the door, he hastily put them on, pulling the front of the cotton robe closed all the way up to his neck as if he could somehow cover his shame. Yuy had left the hairbrush on the dresser. He smoothed his hair, and then braided it tightly back, all the while carefully avoiding the mirror.

A certain lassitude always lingered in the wake of an opium high, but it wasn't enough to deaden the jolt of conflicting feelings he experienced, finding Yuy and Maxwell asleep on his couch. Yuy sat upright at one end, head resting against the back of the couch. One hand lay on the armrest, the pistol on the end table within easy reach; his other arm was draped over Maxwell, who was curled up beside him, head pillowed in Yuy's lap. His pistol lay on the floor beside him, also in easy reach. Someone had propped a chair under the knob of the front door, with some pots and pans on the seat as a makeshift alarm. They must have been tired; it was an old safehouse trick, used when everyone had been too tired or wounded to keep watch.

Mortified as he was at his situation, Wufei felt another, more confusing emotion sapping what little strength he had left, making him reach for the doorjamb to steady himself. In the pictures that had made him so uncomfortable, the two of them had been dressed for clubbing, and hanging all over each other. Now they looked like the boys he'd known in the war, the ones who'd tried to be his friends. They wore jeans and tee shirts and sneakers, like ordinary teens, but even asleep, there was no mistaking what they had been, what they still were. The habitual precautions were clear signals of that. But he saw more than that. The ease with which they fit together, the comfortable curve of Yuy's hand over Maxwell's shoulder, and the peaceful, trusting expression on Maxwell's face as he slept: Wufei could not find words for what that evoked in him, but it brought an uncomfortable tightness to his throat.

He must have made some sound, because Yuy's blue eyes opened, instantly focused on him as his free hand unerringly found the gun. Wufei froze until Yuy acknowledged him with a nod, then retreated into the kitchen, the nearest route of escape from that knowing gaze.

Once there, force of habit made him turn on the kettle and attempt to make tea. But his hands were shaking too badly. He fumbled the lid of the china pot with a clatter, and the precious, fragrant tea leaves scattered from the trembling spoon. If this kept up, he thought bitterly, he might have to lower himself to using teabags.

He started violently as Yuy leaned in to take the spoon and tea caddy from his hands. He hadn't heard him coming but then, with Yuy, you wouldn't.

Wufei braced his hands on the edge of the counter, staring down at the spilled leaves while Yuy prepared the tea. He pulled at the neck of his yukata, making certain it was closed up to his throat, and regretted leaving his feet bare. Even that much exposure made him blush. Yuy's feet were bare, too, but that was different. Yuy had no shame to atone for.

He heard the teapot lid settle into place, and then a hand settled lightly on his shoulder.

"You have nothing to be embarrassed about."

He flinched away and folded his arms tight across his chest. "I beg to differ, Yuy."

He took the hint and backed off, leaning back against the counter beside him. "I wish you'd call me Heero."

"Why, because you gave me a bath?" Wufei gritted out, face aflame.

"No, because I'm your friend."

Wufei had to turn away and bite his lip, fighting back the shameful tears that burned his eyes. "I don't think I'm worthy of that."

"You're wrong."

Wufei shook his head slowly. "How much do you know?"

"Sally filled us in on the situation with Zechs and Relena. We know about the suspension, and what the charges are. We both agree that they're unfounded."

"No, they're not. I was derelict in my duty. I should think you'd understand that."

"There was no threat. Merquise was in no danger. Given your condition--"

"My condition! You know about that, too, do you? What exactly do you think my condition was, that I would forget something as simple and basic as setting up backup?"

"Do you know why I left Relena's security detail?"

The unexpected question made him look up. Yuy was still leaning against the counter, bare feet crossed at the ankle, elbows on the counter. Perfectly at ease. "You had a breakdown. You took yourself away."

"That's right. The 'perfect soldier' broke down. It was a long process, though. It started before the war ended. But I held on, like you, as long as I could, out of pride and duty and denial, until I found myself standing in Relena Peacecraft's bedroom with a knife to her heart as she slept. How's that for dereliction of duty?"

Wufei's eyes widened. "But you didn't hurt her. You went away."

"I was lucky, I guess. She certainly was." Yuy shrugged again and pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. His tousled dark hair fell in ragged tufts over his forehead and around his neck. Wufei could hardly see the terrorist he'd been, looking like that. As those dark, intense eyes met his own, Wufei saw a depth of emotion in them he'd never seen before.

"Duo, Trowa, Quatre: they all found that edge, too. You know that better than I do, Wufei. You were there for them when they broke down. You protected them. You had their back when they needed you. Duo was right, earlier. I don't know if you heard him, but he said that this is just your turn. You were the strongest, Wufei. You held out the longest of any of us. How could any of us think less of you for being as human as we are? Do you think less of us for losing it?"

Wufei hugged himself harder and swallowed past the growing lump his throat. "I have no right to judge you."

"That's not what I asked."

"Perhaps I did--not you, maybe, but Maxwell and the others. It only makes me more ashamed now. I've been such a hypocrite! I'm sorry."

Maxwell appeared the doorway, yawning and rubbing the back of his neck under his braid. "Hey, apology accepted. Welcome back to the human race. Got any coffee, Wu-man? That tea smells like boiled funeral flowers."

+

Relena was sipping her second cup of coffee in the window seat of the morning room when Milliardo came in. She smiled; he was dressed nicely for the day in flannel slacks and a close fitting blue sweater that matched his eyes. Her brother really was very handsome, she thought proudly. The missing arm took nothing away from that. She watched him as he went to the sideboard and poured himself a coffee. He moved so well, compensated so smoothly. That empty sleeve just made him look tragic and wounded, perhaps even a bit Byronic. It was almost a shame to fix it, but at least they had time for some interviews before the cybernetic arm was attached in a few days.

"Good morning, Milliardo!"

"Good morning to you." He smiled as he sat down the other end of the window seat. He didn't seem to noticed when his new Preventer bodyguards, Marilyn Jessup and Nadia Vasparak, nodded respectfully and withdrew into the next room.

"How are you feeling today? Better, I hope?"

Milliardo sipped his coffee. "Yes, but at a bit of a loss, I must confess. The garage seems to be locked and I can't find the keys anywhere. The servants are no help at all."

"Just a standard security measure," Relena assured him. "With both of us here together, Jessup and Vasparak felt it would be wise to take extra precautions."

"Ah, of course. They certainly are diligent. I can hardly set foot outside the house without them tagging along. Much more thorough than that other pair were, eh?"

"I'm glad to hear it. So, are you ready for the interviews today? The man from Vanity Fair is duo in an hour or so. I thought you might like to talk in the garden, if this mist burns off."

"Whatever you think best, Relena. Perhaps you could have someone move a chaise lounge out by the lily pool, with an afghan for my knees."

Relena looked at him, then laughed. "You're teasing! The photographer was asking if you'd ride for him. I think that would make a nice impression, don't you, showing how strong and healthy you are?"

"Whatever you say, dear sister. I'm sure you know best."

Relena looked more sharply at him, but Milliardo only smiled back, his expression as mild and attentive has it had been in the hospital. There was no sign of the disappointment he'd shown when he found Wufei gone. Perhaps that had been only a passing fancy, after all. Now if she could just keep him away from Le Fleur for a few more weeks--or forever, she thought, but that was wishful thinking. He could have his clandestine little pleasures again, when he was stronger, and a proper prince of Sanque again in the eyes of the world.

"Milliardo, what would you think of becoming the chairman of the Peacecraft Trust? When you've recovered from all this surgery, of course."

Milliardo's smile widened. "Our opening move of the great game, eh? On the way to a cabinet post, perhaps, with an ambassadorship along the way as a stepping stone?"

"You sound so cynical, all of a sudden!" Relena chided.

Milliardo chuckled over his cup. "Do I? Forgive me, little sister. I'm a bit of a bastard before I've had my coffee. How are arrangements going for the press conference? Do you think the world is ready for Milliardo Peacecraft to step back onto the stage?"

"Of course!" Relena said, patting he knee. "I've been laying the groundwork for you ever since--well, ever since the war, really. Sanque owes you that, for all you sacrificed."

"My soul, you mean?"

"You are being cynical! You and I, we're all that's left of the great Peacecraft family. Sanque needs us, even if only as figureheads. The days of monarchy are over and gone, but we must still strive to lead by example. You were an officer, Milliardo. You know what I'm talking about."

He chuckled again. "Ah, yes. I'm to be made an example of."

+

Wufei didn't want to go to New Orleans. He didn't want to talk about anything with anyone, and had most assuredly not wanted to wear those jeans they'd bought him, though not for the reasons they probably assumed. He gave in to Heero's logic and wore them, carefully keeping to himself what the sensation of denim against his legs, even cheap, ill-fitting denim like this, did to him.

Heero had waited until Wufei was awake to flush the last of his opium stash down the toilet and Wufei had let him, but he really could have used some now. Someone had found the bag of marijuana behind the top panel of the dish cupboard, too. He should have known better than to use a trick he'd learned taking care of Maxwell.

No, he hadn't wanted to do any of those things, but the others were inexorable. They were kind and patient about it, but left him with no doubt that they'd be more than happy to zip him into a duffle bag if that's what it took to get him Earthside, and that Sally would help.

He told himself he wasn't sulking as he buckled in behind aboard the shuttle. They knew about the drugs; he might as well start proving to them that he wasn't some pathetic junkie. He could do this without any buffer. At least Duo wasn't expecting him to make conversation. He and Heero kept busy in the front and left Wufei to brood on his own.

He stared out the small window above his seat, feeling as black and empty inside as view out there. No, not empty, he had to admit. This must be what 'heartsick' felt like; it was real, not just a poetic conceit. He was indeed heartsick, and it left him helpless to curb his wanton mind from conjuring up a dark husky voice whispering poetry in his ear.

/Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Through the Iron gates of Life./


Iron gates. He shivered, searching inside himself for some solid ground to brace against. Instead, he found the memory of a strong hand pressed to his cheek, his hip, to the small of his back. He couldn't help reaching into the neck of the ugly sweatshirt to touch the carved jade still hanging at his throat. Was he wrong to wear it? Pathetic? Zechs would be back at the estate by now. Had he found Wufei's half-assed attempt at a message? Or had he already written him off as a weakling, a scared kid too spineless to keep his word?

Too weak to fight back.

Was he so afraid of jail? Did he really care what anyone thought of him? He glanced over at the others. They hadn't flinched before public opinion. Heero had faced down that German's accusation of prostitution without a second thought. Duo and the other two gave cameramen the finger, grinning as they did so. They all but had sex in public with each other on global television.

He shook his head again, trying to square what he'd seen on the news the other day with the two quiet, competent people in charge of him now. No, they didn't skulk away, tail between their legs, worried what anyone would think.

And who was 'anyone,' he asked himself. Who was it he was trying so hard not to shame himself before? He leaned his head against the thick glass.

Himself.

He couldn't help caring. It was all he had to cling to, that sense of self and who he d once been. With no future ahead of him that he could see, what did it matter?

Without his pipe to fend it off, depression closed over his head like cold dark water, drowning him into a restless doze, only to wake again inexplicably sobbing against Yuy's chest. They were still in zero-G, and Heero was holding him as they floated free in the confines of the cabin, one arm around Wufei's back, the other cradling his head against his shoulder. Just for an instant, before his mind fully grasped what was happening, Wufei felt and smelled and yearned for a different man and his body reacted in what had so lately become the usual fashion.

He pushed free from Yuy. Hauling himself back down into his seat, he fastened the seatbelt and pulled the baggy sweatshirt down to hide his aching erection. His whole body throbbed with it, no doubt because Yuy had been holding him. How many days now, since Zechs had done that for him? How long since he'd learned the sad truth of how badly he needed that? More tears came and he fought them back. A dismaying number of silvery droplets were already floating in the air around him. How the hell long had he been crying, before he woke up?

Yuy buckled into the seat across from his. Wufei turned his face to the window, wishing a crack would open and suck him out. There was no other escape available, unless he locked himself in the bathroom. He could see over his own reflection's shoulder that Yuy was looking at him though the floating tears. He'd probably felt the erection, too.

Now would be such a good time to die!

He wished it even more when Maxwell floated back to join them, sitting on Yuy's lap and held in place by the circle of /his lover's/ Yuy's arms.

"I'm OK," he muttered, pressing a hand over his eyes to block out the sight of them like that. "Just--just a bad dream."

"You were saying his name," Maxwell said, gentle and calm and sad. Wufei had never heard him sound like that and it nearly broke him. Then Duo added, "You were calling for Zechs and trying to apologize for something," and Wufei did break.

Curling up into a ball in his seat, he pressed both hands to his face, vainly trying to hold back the hoarse, wrenching sobs that overtook him. He couldn't. They ripped out of him, as the tears leaked through his shaking fingers. He couldn't even summon a halfhearted objection when Duo unbuckled him and pulled him in between his body and Heero's.

Hands still pressed over his eyes, Wufei felt arms around him again, the warmth of two bodies bracketing his as he fell to pieces in front of them. Hands stroked his hair and back and shoulders, and a clean white cotton handkerchief appeared from somewhere, pressed into his hand. He clutched it and covered his face, biting on a fold of cloth to stifle the high-pitched keen welling up out of his heart. Oh, gods, this rivaled even Maxwell at his worst!

"It's OK, Wufei, just let it out," Duo murmured. "It's all right now."

"Nuh-no it's not!" he sobbed. "I told--told him--gave my word!"

That's as far as he got for a while. Neither of them pressed for more. They just held on, keeping what was left of him together until he'd cried himself out. When he finally subsided to shivering, hiccupping whimpers Heero reached up and flipped on the scrubbers, holding a hand over Wufei's braid to keep it from being sucked into the vents with the tears. Limp against Maxwell's chest, Wufei turned the crumpled handkerchief over, looking for a dry part to clean himself up with. Heero produced a packet of facial tissues from his jacket pocket and handed him one. Wufei wiped his face and blew his nose on one, then let the scrubbers have it. Weak, hitching little gasps were still coming out of him and he closed his eyes again, and felt the arms around him tighten comfortingly.

"I--I don't believe this!" he gasped, even as he surrendered to the embrace. "I'm so sorry!"

"Don't apologize, Wufei," Heero rumbled, close to his ear. "I told you before, we've all been where you are right now. It will pass and you will feel better, but for now, this is what you must do."

Une had tried to tell him that.

"Talk to us, Wu," Duo urged, rubbing a hand up and down Wufei's arm. "I got enough fuel in this crate to keep us out here as long as you need, OK? You can yell and scream and cry all you want and not shock the neighbors. Better deal than I had, that time on L-2, huh? It took you and Tro a couple of hours to calm me down, remember? With Kat out front, holding off the cops? And how about Heero's big meltdown, back in Madrid? We almost had press coverage for that one. You got it so easy, buddy!" He pulled a fresh tissue from the pack and handed it to him. "Come on now, spill it."

"I should go back to my seat," Wufei mumbled, wishing to god his eyes would stop leaking. It was such a nasty sensation in zero gravity.

"Not yet," said Duo, and those arms stayed locked around him. He was too exhausted to fight anymore.

"So, you're in love with him?" asked Heero.

"I don't know!" It was the truth. "We weren't around each other that long, a couple of months almost, but--"

"But you felt something for him," Duo finished for him.

Another shameful little whimper escaped. God, yes, the man had made him feel!

"What does he feel for you?" Heero asked.

"I--I'm not sure. I thought, toward the end--" He shivered and shook his head. "It doesn't matter now. I can't-Une said-s-"

"Yeah, Sally told us all about that," Duo said, frowning. "She says it was all bullshit, that Relena leaned on Une to lean on you."

"No. I was in violation of the codes. I can't contest that."

"Yet she'll only press it if you don't stay away from her big brother. How serious do you really think those charges could be, under those circumstances. That's not what this is about, Wufei."

"What are you talking about? What else could there be?" Wufei demanded.

"Relena is uncomfortable with her brother's sexual orientation," Heero said.

"So? That doesn't change what I did."

"Sally told us about his little night jaunts down to Le Fleur, too," said Duo. "Relena knew about those and didn't do anything. The odd anonymous fuck here and there, that was OK."

Wufei cringed at the crudeness of the statement, knowing how apt it was.

"No, it wasn't until it started to look like maybe he was interested in something a little more tangible with you that she stepped in, right?"

"There was nothing--tangible between us!"

"Uh huh. And Heero's shaving my head as soon as we land. Sally told us about the pictures, and the kissing. Relena may be a tight ass, but she knows that dinner, dancing and a little tongue wrestling with someone like you is more than just some passing thing."

"I don't even know that!" Wufei objected, but deep down in his gut, he knew that even if Zechs had just been playing with him, fighting off the boredom, it had meant more than that to him. What had it meant to Zechs? The realization that he might never know the answer to that brought on more tears.

"Easy, Wu, take it easy," Duo soothed, stroking his hair. "Man, you really do have it bad for him, don't you?"

Losing the battle against a renewed crying jag, Wufei heard himself blurt out, "Yes!"

"OK, then. That's a start. Now we've just got to find out how he feels, right?"

"I can't!"

"Not right this second, maybe, but you're not alone with this. Not anymore. We'll figure something out. Don't worry, OK?"

When he finally calmed down again they released him and went back to their seats at the front. Wufei curled back into his own with the remaining tissues clenched in his fist. Too wiped out to even feel embarrassment anymore, he stared out the window, counting off stations and satellite landmarks until they hit the atmosphere and cruised down to land on the nightside of Earth. He clung to his own exhaustion, letting it keep him numb enough to get through the launch port and the long cab ride into the city.

It was colder here than it had been in Sanque, and the air held a dankness that chilled him to the bone. He was almost sorry when the others kept their distance in the cab, letting him have his dignity.

They passed from the suburban sprawl through urban decay and then seemingly back in time to a district of old fashioned houses, narrow streets and shadowy open parks, where the house Winner had purchased for Barton was. It was built Chinese style, around an inner courtyard. Lights glowed warmly from the interior windows, but it was only eleven o'clock local time and the others were still at work at the circus.

They came in through a large kitchen and found a note from Winner on the table, welcoming him and directing him to use one of the guest bedrooms on the upper level. Heero insisted that he eat first, and made him sit with Duo at the wooden table while he heated something up in the microwave. Wufei hadn't had any appetite in days, but knew it was futile to argue. Duo opened cold beers for them while they waited for the food and Wufei gulped his down, hoping he could get back to sleep again as soon as possible and end this awful day.

He picked half-heartedly at the brown stew Duo called gumbo, then found a little more appetite for a small bowl of chilled rice pudding. He ate enough to satisfy them, anyway, and they finally let him retreat to his room in peace.

His bedroom was a few doors down from the large one that the other four shared. He took that fact in dully, unable to muster so much as a raised eyebrow. His own room was small and blessedly private. The heavy old-fashioned wooden furnishings and dark paper suited his mood. Bidding the others a last, firm good night, he changed into his nightclothes and sat by the window for a while, watching the fog curl under the streetlamps above the wet shine of the street.

"The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes," he murmured, wishing he could remember the rest of the stanza. T.S. Eliot, again. Odd, how he always seemed to come back to the first poet Zech's had shared with him. But then, Eliot was such a good choice so much of the time these days.

'Something about the fog rubbing its muzzle against the windows,' he thought, wondering as he always did if Eliot had meant to invoke the image of a dog's muzzle, or the barrel of a gun. Probably the former. "Licks its tongue in the corners of the evening," he whispered aloud, clasping the jade pendant between his fingers. "Lingers upon the pools that stand in drains . . ." Damn, the rest was gone. Perhaps he could find a copy tomorrow.

But no, he thought, swallowing hard. Perhaps he should not think too much about Eliot, or Marvel or Shakespeare. Perhaps he should give up western poetry for good, because no matter what verse he conjured from memory, sooner or later he heard that voice, that low, husky, often amused voice whispering the words to his soul.

Instead, he opened the small bag he'd brought and took out the Tao Te Ching. He thumbed through it at random, reading by the streetlamp's glow, but even there he couldn't escape Zechs.


Human beings are
soft and supple when alive,
stiff and straight when dead.


/A hand on his hip, warm breath close to his ear. 'See, you're alive after all!'/


His breath caught in his throat, but he forced himself to read on.


The myriad creatures, the grasses and trees are
soft and fragile when alive,
dry and withered when dead.

Therefore it is said:
The rigid person is a disciple of death;
The soft, supple, and delicate are lovers of life.



'Soft, supple and delicate.' He closed the book, certain that Lao Tzu had not intended his wise words to heat a young man's flesh like this.

Soft, supple.

Delicate.

/Little Chang./

/I would never treat someone as fine as you that way. I would give you nothing but my best./


He shivered as the arousal he'd woken with on the shuttle came back full force, demanding attention.

Aching, depressed, resigned, he climbed in between the cold, unfamiliar sheets with an absorbent undershirt, bit his thumb as he brought himself silently to climax, and wept himself softly to sleep.

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