Author: June
see prolouge or chapter 1 for notes, warnings, disclaimer


Warnings: General not-niceness to use Dacia's phrase

Note: It's back, finally! sorry for the long wait. Hopefully those reading this still remember what the hell is going on!

I have a beta!! No more pesky mistakes that the readers see and I don't! Because kinsugi is sharp as a tack, folks. Any remaining errors are mine, from post-edit meddling.

Reformation/Reaffirmation + Chapter 10

And things are happening here while we sleep
I can feel it in my boiling brain
and I am dreaming in blood-red color

- "Evening in Stalingrad" Mountain Goats

The bed is too tiny and he can't get comfortable, tossing and turning, dragging the sheet with him until it's wound around his legs, his shirt twisted around him, too. His pillow is damp with sweat and he can't find a place for his head to rest that doesn't smell of sickness and unease. He rolls over again and shoves at the body in bed with him, palm coming up against a bony spine. This boy groans and turns to him, feral young face flushed with fever, but instead of scooting away to give Wufei more room, the slides closer and wrapps a thin arm around his ribs, pulling their bodies closer together. Their skin is warm to the touch and they try to shift around each other, but fail to find a place to rest in such a tiny bed.

His mind can't not slow down from its fevered racing. He has tried to think of nothing, and yet, images and bits of sentences and songs flicker and repeat in long, convoluted cycles until he thinks he might scream. And the boy in bed with him will not let him be. They push and scratch and snarl silently at each other, fighting for space and for quiet, but there just isn't room. The boy clings to him, all elbows and ribs poking his aching skin. They rest for short spans of time, the boy's head on Wufei's chest, the hand on his hip that of a child. He thinks that maybe they are both twelve years old.

He needs real rest; he needs peace and quiet, and he can't get it with this boy in bed with him. And yet, he can't make him leave. He's tried to yell, to cry, to beg, anything for a respite from the constant presence of another sweaty body, from his mind's own dizzying confusion, but nothing comes out. The air is thick with illness and every time he breathes in to speak, he feels sicker, crazier, more helpless, until the boy in bed with him is all he can hold on to.

I came awake abruptly, Onur's big hands on my shoulders, shaking me, voice right in my ear. "Wufei, wake up. You're dreaming. Snap out of it."

I came fully awake the instant I felt the queasiness in my stomach and the tingling in my fingers. The room felt freezing, and my teeth chattered. "Move," I mumbled, shoving his hands away and trying to roll myself out of bed. The ground came up much faster than it should have and if it weren't for those big hands holding me under the arms, I would have fallen. As it was, he helped me stumble over to the toilet and gathered my hair off my face as I hunched forward over it. Then nothing happened.

"Are you going to be sick?" he asked, readying himself for something ugly.

"I don't know," I said thickly, only able to focus on how awful the cold steel felt against my forearms. My knees ached where they touched the floor, and my scalp tingled from Onur's firm grip on my hair. Chills ran all along my skin and my muscles shuddered with them. "Something's wrong," I slurred, leaning forward to rest my head on the back of my hand.

"Yeah. You're sick."

"'S'impossible. I haven't been sick since I was..." It'd probably been close to ten years, a nasty germ picked up from school, from one of the children training with Master Long.

"Not impossible. This bug has been going around and those without immune boosters have all-"

"My immune system was strengthened to fight off most strains of..." Three years. It had been three years since my system had been boosted with anti-virals. I sat back on my heels, too racked with chills to throw up. Onur knelt down beside me and touched the back of his hand to my cheeks and forehead. I flinched away from him. Not even my own mother had done such a thing. I tried to stand up and my muscles ached so fiercely that I could only fold back down to the floor.

"You have a high fever, Wufei."

"No, I don't; I'm freezing."

"I'm taking you to the infirmary." He reached for me, and it felt like he left deep bruises wherever he touched me. He got one large arm under my knees and suddenly I was at least four feet off the ground, held against a broad, warm chest.

"How? We're in prison. You can't just walk to the doctor from here." I pressed my forehead into his chest, relieving some of the pressure behind my eyes and in my temples. The rest of my body ached and throbbed, and I squirmed in his arms, feeling every hair on my body buzz with pain.

"It's not a prison," he corrected automatically, walking me to the door of our cell and then shouting into the silence of the facility for help. His voice hurt my ears and I closed my eyes against the pain in my head. His arms tightened when I shivered harder and he went back to my bunk to pull my blanket from the bed, shifting me from one arm to the other like I weighed nothing until he had it wrapped around me and I could hold the sides closed against my chest. When he had me situated, I heard a pair of guards approach, shining a light into our cell that sent knives straight to the back of my skull. I groaned and Onur hissed at them to turn it off. A quick exchange took place between guard and inmate, which I was in no condition to follow, though I heard, "Very sick. Probably flu. Needs a clean bed." I wondered briefly if I'd done something to soil my mattress and couldn't bring myself to care. I wanted to curl up and sleep, but my head was filled with waking fever dreams; I knew if I closed my eyes they would only get worse.

I realized we were moving again when the door clanged open and Onur was carrying me through the cellblock. I was too dizzy to focus on any of the silhouettes standing at the bars of their cells, and my stomach turned unpleasantly when I tried, so I turned into Onur's chest and shivered. "I haven't spoken to you in a week. Why are you doing this?"

His answer rumbled in his chest. "Because I'm nearly twice your age, and thankfully age brings maturity. And aside from that, you'll get lots more people sick if you're not isolated."

Thus began the longest two weeks of my life.

+

Wufei feels the boy coming when the air pressure changes, like a coming thunderstorm. He lies face down on his bed and listens for the sound of a child's bare feet slapping against tile. The bed still smells of sweat and illness, but he doesn't have the strength to move. Then the boy is there, scrawny and pale and dressed just like him in a white t-shirt and gray drawstring pants. The boy is angry, very angry. He is furious. He storms around the room and rages at the walls. Wufei watches the boy from his bed as he shouts and shouts, demanding that someone pay attention to his skinny fists beating the air and his small feet smacking the floor. He wonders distantly what the boy hopes to accomplish, making such a ruckus. He manages to turn himself onto his side without becoming too nauseous and then slides back as the boy comes to his bedside. The boy kneels on the floor and put his elbows on the mattress, reaching for him, resting a cool hand on his forehead, pushing back the damp hair that sticks to his face.

"What'd they do to you?" the boy asks. "Who did this?"

Wufei tries to make his mouth work and can only mumble a few syllables that even he can't recognize. This only seems to anger the boy more and he turns away, yelling at no one.

I watched him shouting and, for the life of me, couldn't figure out why Duo was so upset. He was in his dirty overalls, once again wearing a shirt that showed the muscles in his shoulders and he was yelling at the nurse - a tall woman who took absolutely no nonsense from anyone. I watched those long muscles bunch and coil under his skin as he gestured at her. She looked irritated, but not alarmed.

"Mr. Maxwell, please control yourself. We're treating all of his symptoms; he's not in any pain."

"He's barely conscious! He's completely vulnerable right now! How can you be so fucking irresponsible after what happened last week? You can't leave him like this!"

She put her hands on her hips. "He's ill, Mr. Maxwell. He has a very serious strain of flu, and if we don't control his symptoms, he will be even more dehydrated than he already is. Believe me, this is for his own safety."

I swallowed thickly and tried to focus on the needle going into my arm, wondered exactly what was going into my blood stream, figured it kept me from camping out by the toilet, and stopped worrying about it. I dimly remembered hours and hours spent waiting on the bathroom floor for the nausea to come and go. Sometimes the nurse was with me - I thought that she was actually quite nice when she wasn't being harassed by my belligerent best friend - and sometimes I was alone. I remembered the moment she'd convinced the doctor of the severity of the situation, and they'd plucked me up off the floor, jammed an anti-nausea shot into my thigh, and started pumping me full of intravenous fluids. Among other things. I'd apparently been given a sedative as well.

Which was probably why Duo was so upset. He was by my bed, kneeling on the floor and pushing open one of my eyelids, presumably to get a look at my pupils. "Talk to me, Wu," he whispered. "Tell me what happened."

"I..." What did he mean, 'what happened?' "I got sick."

I was on my side, the arm with the IV stretched out in front of me. Thankfully, it wasn't in the crook of my arm, but was in one of the large veins running down along the side of my wrist. He pressed his fingers to the adhesive holding the needle in place. "Did someone do this to you? Try to think back to what you ate." So maybe he wasn't upset about the sedative.

"Duo," I started, struggling to put together a coherent explanation. "With a weak immune system and no boosters from the... the Doctors."

He hunched his shoulders and made quiet shushing noises. "Okay, buddy. Easy."

"You got pneumonia after yours -"

Just then, two guards arrived in the doorway to my room. "Was this the one giving you trouble?" the one asked the nurse.

The nurse nodded. "He threatened to remove the patient from the infirmary and then he threatened me when I told him that he obviously couldn't do that."

Duo was on his feet faster than I could track his movements, shouting at both the nurse and the guards. I tried to interrupt, to tell him that I was just sick, that sometimes people got sick, but he'd gone a little crazy and he didn't appear to hear me. I tried to sit up when the two guards shoved him up against the wall, but the nurse put her hand on my shoulder and turned a valve on my IV. I felt the fluid entering my arm abruptly cool.

+

The boy curls up against him and proceeds to drool onto his t-shirt. Wufei doesn't like not being able to move in the small bed, pressed down by the slight weight of another body, but it is comforting to have a small hand pressed against his shoulder and soft hair brushing his jaw. He stares at the ceiling and tries to rest. He doesn't know whether he is asleep or awake.

After maybe a week, I awoke to find Karl in bed with me. When I tried to kick him out, he groaned pitifully and I realized he was sick too. One of the other men in the sick room had gone and now I saw a stack of Karl's books on a table two beds down. It made sense that he'd gotten whatever bug I'd picked up.

"You have your own bed you know."

"You're warmer," he muttered, starting to shiver.

I realized that my shirt was soaked. I pulled my arm from under the blankets and sweat instantly dried on my skin. I felt my forehead and it was slippery and cool. "I think my fever broke," I said.

"Hurray for you," Karl grumbled, molding himself as tightly as he could to my side and pulling the blankets up to his ears. Where his arm wrapped around my middle, my stomach was calm.

"I think I'm getting better."

"No, you're not."

"Yes, I -"

"Does your throat hurt?"

I swallowed and winced. My ears crackled and I felt a dull pain connecting ear to throat. "How did you know?"

His teeth chattered for a moment when he opened his mouth to speak. "Because I got the digest version of what you have. Vomiting for a day; shitting rivers the next, and now enough pressure in my head to push my brain out my ears."

"That's disgusting."

"You asked."

"How long have I been here?"

"Almost a week."

"How long have you been here?"

"Three days."

I swallowed and winced again. My throat hurt worse than it did one minute ago. "Shit, I'm not getting better."

"Not really, no."

I slumped back against the damp pillows and stared at the ceiling. I realized that Karl was lying on the arm that'd had an IV, but when I flexed it underneath him, I couldn't feel it poking into my skin. The needle was out of my arm, and after that, the dreams with the skinny sick boy didn't come back.

+

Sick as a dog.

It was a stupid expression, and I'd never met a sick dog before, one that I knew was sick, anyway. And yet, sitting propped up in the bed and filling waste basket after waste basket with soggy tissues, I really did feel like some sick creature that wasn't quite human but was aware enough to know that something was seriously wrong with it.

I shared the sick room with three others, one of whom was Karl. The other two were a pair of rowdy Dekim Barton disciples. They'd pissed me off during the second war, and they certainly pissed me off now, though there wasn't much I could do about it. They weren't as sick as I was, and so they shouted and played cards when the nurse wasn't in the room, and all I could do was imagine different scenarios in which I could silence them long enough to let me sleep and recover so I could silence them permanently. Occasionally I looked up to see Karl glaring at them from his bed, and that made me feel a little better. He was recovering faster than me, and my sinuses were too painfully full to allow for a good glare of my own.

Onur brought my assignments to me every evening before curfew and asked me if I'd been able to complete any of the ones he'd left from previous days. I told him I could barely focus enough to get through a paragraph, let alone an entire unit in pre-Colony Chicano literature. He didn't stay for more than a few minutes, and he didn't say much of anything to Karl. After Basker and O'Malley, and the conversation we'd had outside our room, he seemed to have finally given up on me as someone he'd call a friend. He still wanted me to do my homework, though.

The fever dreams essentially stopped, though my brain still got stuck on bits of conversation, words and images, that would keep me awake at night until the cold medicine finally forced me to sleep. Three days ago, it was "Fettuccine Alfredo" which I didn't even like, and for the last two days it'd been "strangulation."

The previous week was a blur of barely remembered moments that stretched backward in my mind until the day before I got sick, which had been like any other day. That day stood out with stark clarity compared to the shadowy tunnel of the week that followed. I felt like something serious and disturbing had happened while I was useless and basically dead to the world, but Karl didn't know and I didn't want to ask the nurse.

The doctor came to speak with me after I'd come out of the worst of it and told me what I'd already guessed. She spoke in hushed tones with her back to the other inmates in the sick room and showed me my chart with lots of numbers that meant absolutely nothing. "Quite frankly, I've never seen a system like yours," she murmured. "Your body is, well, it's been altered by all these drugs and...," Here she pointed to a list of chemicals that I vaguely remembered seeing years ago before Master O used them to make me into a Gundam Pilot. "...and this combination would work to make you resistant to essentially every illness known three years ago. But, unfortunately, viruses mutate and become stronger. When they meet a system like yours, they adapt."

"So, what, I've got the Super Flu?"

She smiled. "More or less. I wish we had known about your unique chemistry when you first were admitted. Usually these things sort themselves out within a few days, but you kept getting sicker, and if your nurse hadn't insisted that you were getting dangerously dehydrated, well..."

"I get the picture; thank you." I remembered last winter when Duo came down with pneumonia, that particular strain of it managing to get around his outdated immune boosters, to put him flat on his back for two full weeks. I didn't see him for two months, and when I finally did, he was thinner, paler, and more ornery than when we'd been stuck suffocating on the Lunar Base. He hadn't been afraid though, while he was sick - something about him living through another plague that had killed off everyone but him.

So far as I knew, neither Heero nor Trowa had succumbed to a mutated germ that managed to get through their defenses. I suspected this was because they worked for Preventers and Une didn't want her top field operatives coming down with a cold while they rotted in the Rome office, keeping tabs on drug dealers in the suburbs. Their immune systems were as up to date as any well-protected computer.

I'd been humming a favorite song of Duo's, trying to replace the word "strangulation" with something a bit more pleasant when Trowa walked through the door with a book and a glass of ice water, and I suddenly remembered the serious, disturbing incident that my brain had been skipping around for the past week.

"Duo!"

The volume of my shout startled me and made my head hurt and Trowa looked up with a worried glint in his visible eye. Then he pressed his lips into a thin smile. "Boy, you really are sick."

I pushed myself further into a sitting position and threw the blankets off my legs, readying myself for the hike out to the nurse's station. Trowa was at my bedside in two long strides, putting down both the book and the cup and wrestling me none too gently back under the covers. He pressed one hand to my shoulder the other to my forehead and scowled down at me. "Don't even think about it. You idiot," he said with perfect aplomb.

I shoved his hand away from my forehead. "Don't do that. I am so tired of people touching my forehead. I don't have a fever. And don't be a moron," I snapped. "I didn't think you were Duo. I have the flu, not a degenerative eye disease."

Trowa straightened and reminded me just how much he towered over me when we stood facing each other. He looked like a giant now, standing over my bed with arms folded across his chest. I glared up at him, and rearranged my thoughts, pausing to blow my nose. "What I meant was, have you spoken with or seen Duo within the last week?"

Trowa's mouth tightened and he nodded.

"I think he came to see me last week, but I may have just dreamed it." I tried to enter the long dark cave that was last week and extract the right memory. I closed my eyes and felt around. "He was here, and he was upset. He yelled a lot and his voice hurt my head. Someone pushed him against that wall." I opened my eyes to follow where my finger pointed, where I remembered seeing him with his cheek pressed to the cinder blocks. He looked at me with big, scared eyes. "And I think he was in his pajamas." I looked down at myself. "Like these." I looked back up at Trowa. "Does that sound right?" Trowa's eyebrow twitched. "No, no, why would he come here in his pajamas? That's ridiculous. But why would he come here and yell and get himself kicked out in the first place? Maybe I dreamed the whole thing."

"Because he thought someone had poisoned you. He got here to visit and was told you had a stomach bug, and he assumed the worst after what had happened with you and Heero the week before." He turned away to pull a chair closer and folded his long limbs into it. Then he picked up the cup and handed it to me. "Drink this. You need to replace all the fluids you're blowing into those tissues."

I accepted the cup and felt my chest sink in on itself. "You mean, he really did come here and get himself kicked out for threatening the nurse?"

"And the guards and the other patients."

"Fantastic." I took a swallow of water. "And how did you find this out?"

Trowa picked up his book and held it in his lap, his long fingers holding it in a white-knuckled grip. "He was in my apartment and Cathy was making him a drink when Heero and I got home from work." I groaned and rubbed a hand over my face, cringed and then wiped my hand on a clean tissue. "We all deal with you being here in different ways. Duo..."

"Isn't getting any better at dealing."

Trowa shrugged. "He used to run off to L2 and work with Howard so he could avoid what happened to you and Quatre. I personally think this is better for him. He should face what's happened. He shouldn't run."

I took a few more swallows and decided against mentioning his appearance in the laundry. No, Duo certainly wasn't running anymore. He was making his presence known around here to a dangerous degree. "I suppose I should thank him for making such an effort."

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you haven't already."

I snorted in derision and then coughed. Trowa conspicuously leaned away from me. I glared at him and spoke around a tissue. "Why do you have these expectations? Are you still operating under the assumption that, deep down, I've got some soft, mushy spot for all of you, that I only need to be put in the right circumstances, that I need to catch the flu, for example, and I will reveal to all of you the depths of my gratitude for butting into my life and my problems and insisting upon staying?"

Trowa leaned forward in his seat again. "Yes," he said softly.

I opened my mouth, ready with a sharp retort, but the nurse came in then with my next round of painkillers, decongestant and cough suppressant. I took the pills silently and washed them down with the water that Trowa brought. Then I started an internal countdown to the time when a pleasant fog of painlessness and easy breathing would roll in.

"I don't see why," I continued when she left. "We wore the same uniform in the 2nd war, but we were on entirely different sides. I was never one of you. Just your age, your size, in the same machine as you."

Trowa's normally chilly features momentarily went even colder. "We're not talking about me, here."

I leaned back against the pillow. "Ah. I'm sorry."

Tongue loosened with nearly two weeks of illness and a steady supply of drugs to dull the pain and help me sleep, a long list of things Trowa and I had never talked about opened up in front of me, only a second away from spilling out of my mouth. Images still as vivid as photographs filled my head - sitting in the cockpit of my Gundam on that very last day, with the citizens of the city crowded at my feet, shouting up at me that the fighting was over, that they wouldn't let me fight anymore. It was so dark, I could barely see my hands on the controls. The internal lights of the cockpit were off; I'd powered down when it became obvious that if I took another step, people were prepared to throw themselves under the feet of the Gundam to stop the fighting from continuing. I'd thought that Heero was dead, at the bottom of the ocean, and that, as soon as the hatch opened, I would be executed.

I remembered my shock when I was merely detained with Trowa and a number of Dekim Barton's other followers. I remembered watching him leave after his story was cleared; it'd been the right kind of story. He'd been working with Heero and Duo to bring down Mariemeia. My story was undeniably suspicious; I'd been fighting because I didn't know how to do anything else. I didn't want to do anything else, and I didn't want people like me to be useless, to not have a purpose.

It was days before they let me go, and it was Duo who came to pick me up and take me to his shitty hotel room in Brussels where he'd been waiting, his life on hold until the new world order decided whether or not we were free to go.

"Did you know he came to pick me up from holding?" I asked, since we weren't talking about Trowa.

"Duo?" He looked vaguely surprised.

I nodded. "We went to London as soon as we were cleared. He found the place and paid for a whole year in cash from..." I glanced up at the other men in the sick room, keeping my voice low. "From one of his closed out accounts. I slept a lot. He spent all day wandering around the city." The numbing fog was starting to roll in, and with it, sinuses that stayed clear after I blew my nose. "He would come home with all these applications to different schools in and around the city - liberal arts schools for me, and tech schools for him. He planned on getting his certification in small engine repair. He said that we had to learn new skills, that otherwise, a couple of 16-year-old ex-terrorists would never be able to make their way in the world. I remember thinking that I'd never met a 16-year-old who'd been so pragmatic about our situation."

Trowa was watching me and leaning forward in his chair, appearing to enjoy the story. He shook his head, bemused. "We didn't know you lived together."

I shrugged. "Yes, well." My gut knotted a little at the memories that followed. "It didn't last very long. I kicked him out after a month."

Trowa's brow dipped, and I could tell that he was disappointed. "Wufei, why would kick him out?"

Defensive instincts, sharpened to a razor's edge here, and only slightly dulled by the medication, reared up instantly at the scolding way he used my given name. "Because I never asked for his help. And I was like a project for him! Neither of us knew how to live in a city like London, where we didn't have to fight - where we weren't allowed to fight - and Duo was using me as a way to feel better about it, to feel normal. He wanted so badly to be well-adjusted and productive and happy, and I resented him for relying on me to do it. He wanted to share insecurities, and I didn't. So I told him to leave, said I'd be fine on my own. I told him he should figure things out for himself, too." I paid attention to my slowing breaths, not liking the feeling of chemical drowsiness but not fighting it either. And I was glad to finally share this with someone. The only other person who had known about Duo's and my brief stint together was Quatre.

Trowa looked as though pieces of a long-undone puzzle were falling into place for him. "That was when he moved in with Hilde and helped out with her scrap yard." He snorted a soft laugh. "And what a disaster that was."

"Hmm," I muttered, still remembering exactly what it had felt like after he'd moved out. The silence and emptiness of the flat had been wonderful compared to his constant noise and energy - his messes and his... nearness.

"Do you regret kicking him out now?"

The ease of this conversation was almost certainly drug-induced. I shrugged. "Not really. I only had a handful of months to myself anyway before the trial and the start of my sentence. I enjoyed the solitude while it lasted."

"Did Duo contact you after he left?"

I sniffed and then blew my nose, wishing congestion could block out the memory of that conversation. "Not until the trial. I didn't hear from him until he found out how much trouble I was in."

Trowa nodded. "Heero called him."

"He showed up like nothing had happened, like I hadn't told him to pack up and leave me alone. He was just as persistent as he was before, when I'd just been released from holding. I didn't understand why."

Trowa twitched his bangs out of his eyes before they fell right back where they had been, only briefly exposing the scar over his eyebrow. "I don't really get it either, honestly," and I attributed my inability to discern sincerity from sarcasm to the drugs. I looked up at the ceiling and then had to lean forward as my sinuses drained down the back of my throat. I coughed and spit into a tissue. "Especially after the way you shut him out," Trowa added, like he couldn't help himself.

I rolled my eyes. "He's not a saint, you know. He's nosy and pushy and loud and I was 16 and how was I supposed to know how to live with someone my age? I hadn't slept in the same living space with someone I knew in years."

Trowa held up a conciliatory hand. "You're right on all counts, Chang, but your time in exile is almost up. Duo will be a lot harder to shake off when you don't have official visiting hours and guards to escort him off the premises. We'll all be a lot harder to get rid of."

It was times like those that made me wish I had glasses to glare over - the origins of that device probably something like, "I don't need prescription magnification to know that what you just said was stupid."

"Unless you're planning on taking off for the other side of the world as soon as you're out."

Despite my sour expression, I gave that a fair bit of thought, considering what it would mean to leave this place and leave everyone I knew behind, supposedly in an effort to start over. Une intended for me to join Preventers and devote my life to protecting and enforcing the peace. There were offices all over the world - I would certainly be able to find a position at one of them. Preventers were understaffed everywhere. The thought of finding somewhere far away where no one knew my history and I received a new name by which all my coworkers would know me was appealing - probably for the same reason I'd been glad to be rid of Duo after kicking him out of the flat (a flat which he had paid for, and which had been by all rights his for the year.) "But I couldn't leave everyone behind. It would be irresponsible," I finished, not realizing I'd spoken that last bit aloud until I caught Trowa's eye and saw that he was smiling, looking like he thought I'd finally said something intelligent for once. He suddenly reminded me of Meiran's grandmother when her whole family visited, and I had the feeling that I'd just committed myself to a lifetime of Sunday dinners.

+

My very full bladder woke me up in the middle of the night, and I quickly rolled out of bed, looking for my flip-flops with my toes. When I found them, I grabbed a tissue and headed for the bathroom, blowing my nose as I went. I drank so much water during the day at the nurse's insistence that I was getting up to pee multiple times a night, which was obnoxious to say the least, but during the day it broke up the monotony of hours on end spent in a hospital bed. I'd been marking the days by numbers of trips to bathroom, rather than the assignments piling up from my classes. It was also new and exciting to go into a real bathroom whenever I wanted, rather than having to ask permission or piss in the steel toilet of my cell.

I nodded to the nurse as I passed him at his station and he lifted a hand in greeting. He smiled more easily than did the day nurses, probably because he had a lot less to deal with than they did - most of his patients were unconscious. I closed the door behind me and whistled quietly just because no one would hear me, and I went into one of the stalls rather than using the urinal just because I could. As exciting as my bathroom privileges were, however, I was looking forward to my discharge tomorrow. Karl was getting out, too, though I, unlike him, got 'light duty' for the next week to help rebuild my strength. I would attend classes, but my shifts in the kitchen and the laundry were either shortened or limited to light lifting. It wasn't worth the week of delirium or the week of body and sinus aches, congestion, and coughing, but it was something to look forward to.

I hit the flusher with my foot and went to the sink to wash my hands, wincing at my red nose and puffy eyes in the mirror. My collar bone stood out sharper than I thought it should and when I dried my hands on a paper towel, I could see the veins more clearly, like there was less flesh covering them. Hospitals could be good places to identify illnesses, but they weren't good for complete recovery. Only a return to my normal routine would really do that. Onur was a much quieter sleeper than the goons I was currently rooming with, and he didn't he crawl in bed with me, as Karl had been doing pretty regularly.

I left the bathroom and headed back to bed, again nodding to the nurse before turning the corner. Just as I was about to come through the doorway into the room, though, I heard low voices, both of which I recognized - one was Karl and the other was Officer Paul Brandt. Instantly wide awake, I listened hard for sounds of a struggle. I listened for Karl's distress, knowing how much he disliked Brandt, but I only heard quiet conversation.

Karl's voice was low, though I heard every word. "Did you tell her everything I said, every name on that list?"

"Yeah, yeah, every last one of them. I didn't forget any."

"What did she say?"

"Not much, crazy bitch. She just looked mean."

"She didn't say anything? Tell me, Brandt."

A sigh. "She said she'd look into it, said she'd check it out. Shit, lighten up."

"And what about Chang? Did you warn her about Chang?"

"Course I did. Wufei's messing in shit he shouldn't be, and I told her that."

I still hated hearing my name come out of his mouth, though I hated what they were saying more.

I realized that I was breathing quickly, and that I was wheezing a bit. I felt a cough coming on and swallowed hard. My ears burned and the joints in my fingers ached with how hard I pushed my fingers against the wall.

"And what did she say when you told her that?"

"She agreed. Said she'd consider an appropriate course of action."

"You will tell me as soon as she decides to do anything. You'll tell me before she does it."

"You know, you're not the one who should be giving out orders, here."

Karl snorted softly. "You've only ever followed orders."

"Maybe," Brandt admitted. "But I don't do anything for free. You owe me big time for this, so what do I get?"

I could almost hear Karl smirking. "Sometime I'll let you watch him fuck me."

I felt sick. And a cough was about to burst out of my lungs, so I turned and fled back to the bathroom, shutting the door and wishing desperately that it locked. I grabbed some toilet paper and coughed and hacked into it, holding my breath when, a few seconds later, I heard Brandt leave, the nurse at the desk calling, "Goodnight, Paul."

I stared at myself in the mirror again and focused on slowing my heart rate. I closed my eyes and looked for my center, tried to go into a light meditative trance so that when I went back to my bed, Karl wouldn't know that I'd heard anything. I held onto the sink and tried to think of nothing.

When I slid under the covers a few minutes later, I breathed slow and deep and stared up at the ceiling. I wished that Onur were in the next bed over. At about three in the morning, Karl got out of bed and shuffled toward me, his flip-flops noisy in the otherwise silent room. I lifted the blanket and sheet for him and he climbed in, wrapping one arm around my ribs and butting his head against my shoulder. He curled one leg over mine and rubbed the end of his nose against my sleeve, falling asleep a few seconds later, thanks to his own dose of drugs. I lay awake and watched him for the remaining few hours of the night.

[ch. 9] [ch. 11] [back to Singles a - k]