by: Sunhawk

Absolution (cont)

"Mornin' Qat," I said and pulled out the chair next to him.

I busied myself with arranging my napkin across my lap, but I could see the absolutely beauteous smile on his face out of the corner of my eye. I could also see guilt-beast leering up at me from where he suddenly appeared under the table, peeking at me under the tablecloth, licking his chops and contemplating where to start. Such a simple thing, that touch, but I could see what it had meant to Quatre. I really needed to work on this whole center of the universe thing. When had I stopped looking past the end of my own nose?

We ate with nothing more than companionable chitchat and I could have blessed them both. That poking and prodding everybody did, trying to get me to 'open up', was wearing at me an unbelievable amount. It was... nice to just sit and talk about nothing important. Soothing.

I packed my stuff up, in hopes that I wouldn't be coming back to the 'green room' tonight, and let Trowa drive me over to therapy.

"Duo," he called through the open car window after I had gotten out, "thank you."

I blinked at him, unable to formulate an answer and he only smiled at me. It took me three whole minutes of standing there on the sidewalk watching him drive away to put it together and realize that he knew I'd heard everything they'd said this morning.

Then I went up to therapy to let Jean work me over, only to get worked over in an entirely unexpected way.

I'd been there for over an hour, running through my paces, bantering with Jean and some of the other patients that I knew from sweating beside them for the last several months, when a new kid came in.

I felt my throat tighten and my gut clench in the second that my eyes swept over them as they came across the lobby. A little girl in a wheel chair, being pushed by a man, presumably her father. She was missing a leg. It took me back to my childhood so damn fast I had a moment of not being able to breathe. It was the absence of a noise that had been steady and rhythmic that brought me back to the present and I realized that I had stopped pushing against the weight bar in front of me. I blinked; unable to remember what repetition I had been on and started over with a sigh.

We all have tables that are 'ours' for the duration of our stay in Jean's torture chamber, and I watched with no little dismay as the new kid was assigned the one next to mine, were my duffle bag lay waiting for me to finish.

I have a lot of trouble dealing with... injured kids. With dead kids. With kids caught in a war that they didn't start, but who lose everything anyway. Hollow-eyed kids who look up at you with large chunks of their souls missing, who...

I cursed under my breath and decided that I'd probably done enough on the damn weight bench and moved off to the leg press, where I would be turned around facing away from the row of work tables. I realized my hands were shaking when I tried to adjust the pins on the leg weights and had to take a couple of deep breaths.

This was obviously a kid with a fresh injury. This was not a war injury. This was not a war orphan. That looked like her damn Dad with her. Get a grip, Maxwell. No way in hell could this kid have possibly, ever even thought about being anywhere near a Gundam or a Gundam battle or anywhere else where I might have been the cause of what was wrong with her. No way. Damn it... Could. Not. Be. Get a fucking grip, Maxwell!

I could absolutely have taken Jean out back and beaten her to a pulp when she brought the kid over and settled her in the leg press next to mine.

"Helaine, this is Duo," Jean teased the little girl as she disconnected the weights on the girl's press so that she was working with just the resistance of the machine itself. "He's my worst patient," she added in a conspiratorial undertone and the kid giggled behind her hand.

Helaine. Could this day get any damn better? I thought about moving off to some other exercise, but I had a good twenty minutes left on the leg press and Jean and the girl both had seen me just start.

"Hello," I ventured gamely and the kid grinned at me.

"Hi!" she chirped brightly. "Duo's a funny name. What'd you do to your arm?"

"Cut it," I told her and tried to make eye contact with Jean but she just smirked at me.

"Honey, your Dad said he'd be back to pick you up in an hour, ok?" Jean said, voice falsely cheerful and I watched the kid's smile falter, her eyes flicking toward the lobby.

"Ok," was all she said.

"You see if you can lift that bar twenty times and I'll be right back." She moved off then to check on the other three patients she was juggling, and left the two of us alone.

The kid was probably seven or eight, it's hard to tell at that age, and with her sitting right beside me, I started to notice other things as well. She was wearing a pair of shorts, just like we all have to in therapy and her good leg was blotched with a handful of what I easily recognized as burn scars. Judging from the healing rate, I would have to guess that's what happened to her other leg. I shuddered.

"I don't understand why I have to exercise this leg," she whispered to me, as though afraid that Jean might hear her.

"I suppose it's easier than exercising the other one," I said without thinking and then froze, weights hovering in midair, and held my breath. Where in the hell had that come from? What in the name of God was wrong with me today?

Helaine burst out laughing a heartbeat later, as though it took her a second to think it through. "You're silly!" she blurted and covered her mouth with her hand to try and stifle the bright laugh when several people looked our way.

"I've been told that before," I sighed, relief flooding through me and I resumed my lifting.

"How come you got to do therapy on your legs if you cut your arm?" she wanted to know.

"Oh, the cut's new," I told her. "I'm in here just because Jean likes to have someone to make fun of."

She smirked at me and then got all serious, "I'm here because our house burned down."

I looked across at her and she had her lower lip caught in her teeth as she concentrated on raising the bar.

"Oh," I said softly. "I... I'm sorry."

She shrugged and stared down at the bar some more and then blurted, "Mommy died."

My weights crashed back down so suddenly that the noise made everyone stop what they were doing and look our way. "Ooops." I muttered to Helaine and she giggled again, blushing when she realized that everyone was staring.

We both took up our exercising again. "I'm sorry." I murmured after a minute of not finding anything else to say.

She smirked across at me. "You're sorry a lot."

I snickered, "I've been told that too."

She got to twenty and stopped, looking around and found that Jean was busy.

"She'll come back in a minute," I reassured the kid. "She's actually very organized... though you wouldn't know it the way she flits around like some butterfly from person to person."

Helaine grinned at me and watched Jean moving around, getting the ACL guy going on one of the stationary bikes.

"My Mommy was like that..." she murmured. "Always doin' a bunch of things at once."

"She sounds nice," I said neutrally.

"She was pretty too," she smiled in remembrance. "Daddy says I'm gonna look like her when I grow up... but I don't think so."

"Well..." I ventured, not sure what moved me to pursue this conversation. "Did she have blond hair like yours?"

"Yeah," she grinned. "Only hers was long and all soft and wavy." The grin turned into a funny little smirk. "Not as long as yours though!" And she had to giggle at her own daring.

"Well..." I said, "I've been growing mine for a long time."

Jean came and moved her off to another machine and I found myself unable to concentrate enough to do much more. I was nearing the end of my session anyway and I found myself watching Helaine wherever she was in the room and before I knew it, I was sitting on my table with my sketchpad in my hands.

The muse was just adamant that something needed to come out. Now. Right this minute. Jean came by once to admonish me for sitting out when I still had my arm routine to go through, but moved off when she didn't get any response from me.

I got sucked down that vortex that takes me where time doesn't happen and place doesn't matter. I watched that poor little kid moving through whatever Jean set her to doing without complaint and I tried to imagine what she was going to look like in another fifteen, twenty years.

When the 'art' let me go, I became aware of someone close beside me and looked up into Wufei's almost awed face. Then I glanced back down and had to blink.

It was Helaine and her mother, sitting side by side on something that looked vaguely like a porch swing. Mother was reading to daughter, and daughter was leaning against her mother's side. There was a cat that looked suspiciously like Beowulf curled beside them. It was a very peaceful scene. There was just a hint of some hanging flowers framing the picture so that I could almost smell the ghost of trailing roses. I shivered.

"What... what are you doing here?" I murmured to Wufei, trying to get my head back in the here and now.

"Heero called," he told me gently. "He's been released. I came to get you so we could... take him home."

I smiled up at him, where he leaned against the table beside me. "Oh, thank God," I breathed.

Wufei's _expression became an affectionate little smile, but before he could speak, Jean appeared at my other elbow and I thought for a minute she was going to cry.

"Is it done?" she whispered reverently, and when I nodded she took the pad from my hands to look at it.

"Duo," she sighed. "It's beautiful." Then she looked up at me expectantly. "Are you going to give it to her now?"

I flushed and ducked my head; I hadn't gotten that far yet. "I don't know... you don't think it'll upset her?"

"Of course not!" she frowned. "Duo... the family lost everything in the fire. All their pictures... everything. This is probably the only portrait the kid will ever have of her own mother."

My eyes threatened to grow wide enough to take over the majority of my face. Without thinking, I pushed the sketchpad toward her. "I... I don't even know if I got it right. Would... would you do it?"

Jean absolutely looked like she was going to smack me on the side of the head, and I unconsciously leaned toward Wufei. Without a word, she whirled away and headed across the room toward Helaine. I gnawed on my lip and didn't know what to do.

"Maxwell?" Wufei questioned, confused as hell.

I was trying to figure out how in the hell to explain the whole, bizarre-ass thing, when there was a squeal and a bright call of "It's my Mommy!"

I raised my eyes and could see the kid grinning from ear to ear, Jean standing over her with tears washing unabashed down her beaming face. I let out a breath I hadn't been aware I'd been holding.

"Guess I got it right," I whispered and saw Wufei's head whip around to look at me. I could almost see him piecing things together.

A couple of the nearby patients had moved to lean over and look at the picture in Helaine's hands. She was burbling happily about her mother and how she looked 'just like that' and loved flowers and they used to read together and they didn't have a cat but they had a puppy once but her Mommy loved animals and...

I wasn't aware that I was trembling until Wufei slid a hand up to rest on my shoulder and squeezed gently. "I... don't think I half understand what's going on here. But, I'd venture to say you did good."

My body leaned slightly, without my provocation, toward him... toward what was becoming a familiar source of comfort and support. I had to think for a minute before remembering where that word had come from. Trowa.

Across the room, the words were winding down and Helaine looked up to find me. In my mind's eye, I saw a whole and healthy child leap to her feet and run across the room to throw her arms around me. I could see the ghost of the gesture in her eyes. I shivered again.

Wufei nudged me gently. "You should go over there."

"I know," and I turned pleading eyes up at him. "Come with me?"

"Of course," he smiled and stepped away while I slid off the table.

I got that neck-grinding hug when I got there and I swear to God there wasn't a dry eye in the little group that the kid had accumulated.

"You knew my Mommy?" she blurted, looking from the sketchpad to me.

"Nope," I grinned. "You told me. And... your Dad's right... you will look like her when you grow up."

I thought the grin was going to split her face.

I remembered the comment she had made about the cat, and offered to change the cat to a puppy. She was ecstatic and babbled on about what the puppy had looked like and I sketched it in. The audience was making me damned uncomfortable, but there wasn't a one of them that seemed like they were moving until this little scene had played itself out. Not even Jean.

The kid's eyes were on fire by the time I had the cat changed to a sleepy puppy and she whispered, "Can you put a little necklace on my Mommy? She always wore a little locket that had mine and Daddy's pictures in it.' More description, more sketching and there was a tiny, heart-shaped necklace peeking out of the collar of a shirt.

"And... and can my hair be like it was before it was burned?" she whispered.

"Of course," I choked out. "How long was it?"

She pointed and I altered. Jean had to leave the circle of watchers to go blow her nose.

When that was done, I cleared my throat and looked down at her where she sat beside me on the workout mat. "Anything else?"

She cocked her head and studied the picture intently. "Nope." She looked up at me with shining eyes. "It's just right."

Wufei plucked the sketchpad from my fingers then, delicately removed the picture and rolled it for Helaine, producing a spare hair tie from somewhere and deftly slipped it over the tube her drawing had become.

"In that case," he smiled down at the kid, handing her the drawing. "Mr. Maxwell needs to be going, he is late for... his next appointment."

"Shi... crap!" I muttered and scrambled to my feet. Helaine giggled uncontrollably at my slip. I flashed her a shaky grin as I gathered my stuff up. "See you next time, 'Lainey!" I told her and Wufei took me out of there. I didn't even object when my duffle bag somehow found its way onto his shoulder.

When the elevator doors had closed and blocked out all those eyes and all that attention and we were finally alone, I sagged against the back wall of the elevator and just shook with reaction. Damn... I just can not deal with little kids in pain. I can't.

Wufei let my duffle bag slide to the floor and before I quite knew what he was about, had reached over and hit the button that stopped the elevator between floors.

"I thought you dealt with her just fine," he said softly and pulled me away from the wall and into a tight embrace. Shit; I'd said that out loud. It felt like something was drawing all my muscles as tight as a bowstring. I couldn't stop shaking.

"What the hell is wrong with me 'Fei?" I whispered. "Why the hell can't I handle anything anymore without falling apart?"

"It's just been too much too fast," he soothed. "You're too raw. Its... its like a... a thin scab forms over the hurt... but it's not healing, and every little thing starts it bleeding again. Give it time, my friend... just give it some time."

He held me for a few more minutes until I stopped shaking so hard that we weren't sure if I could walk across the parking lot or not, then he hit the release and took us out of there.

My mood lightened in the car a little bit as I let it soak in just where we were headed. I was going to get to take Heero home. He was well enough to leave the hospital. He was going to be all right. I wasn't going to have to leave him each evening. I wasn't going to have to be ferried back and forth between the Winner and Chang households like a... strange foster child.

Wufei glanced across at me as he drove, "Better?"

"Yeah," I muttered, embarrassed. "Sorry about that."

"Don't be," he admonished gently. "I'm not at all sure I understand what just happened, but it was very... affecting."

I snorted. Affecting. Nifty little word for 'rip your heart out and stomp the shit all over it'. God, but I just couldn't handle kids in pain. It offended something deep down in my soul; kids should not hurt. Kids should not be in pain. Kids should not suffer.

"What exactly happened to her?" Wufei asked softly.

I ended up telling him the whole damn thing, everything I knew and everything I had pieced together. Finding my own arms wrapped around my chest before I was done.

"You drew the child's mother that accurately without ever having seen her?" Wufei asked, when I was done, his voice incredulous.

"Lainey told me what her Mom looked like, a little," I explained. "Then I just tried to imagine what she'd look like when she grew up."

Wufei gave me a look that was hard to read. It was odd and intense, but he didn't speak and I let it ride.

Heero was fairly vibrating with tension by the time we got there, dressed, packed, sitting on the side of his bed and more than ready to go home.

"What took so long?" he questioned, the instant we were through the door. "Is everything all right?"

"You did not bother to tell me, when you asked me to pick Maxwell up from therapy, that he had a fan club," Wufei chuckled breezily and moved to take Heero's bag. I was rather shocked that he didn't immediately relate to Heero every damn thing that had happened the moment he was asked. Hell... I was rather shocked that he hadn't spilled his guts without being asked. But I was willing to take the gift, however small.

I glanced around, more than familiar with how one leaves a hospital, and as if on cue, Aaron appeared in the doorway with a wheelchair. I raised a hand at the first sign that Heero was going to object.

"Do not even start with me," I glared at him. "I wasn't given a choice... you aren't being given a choice. Get in the chair, Yuy."

He snorted disdainfully. "You didn't have a choice because you couldn't damn well walk," he informed me, but he got in the chair anyway.

I chuckled. "Well, you can't walk far, so stop your whining."

"I didn't say anything," he pointed out logically.

"You were getting ready to," I growled.

"Now you're a mind-reader?" he grumbled.

"Learned it from you," I returned with a cheeky grin.

Heero snorted.

Wufei groaned, "God help me."

Aaron couldn't seem to stop giggling.

It washed a little bit more of the morning away. Enough so that guilt-beast rode in the front seat with Wufei, his head stuck out the side window, tongue lolling in the wind.

Heero and I sat in back and Heero leaned against me, letting me take some of his weight.

"God, I'm so glad to have you back," I whispered next to his ear after a couple of blocks of driving in a certain, companionable silence.

He tilted his head and smiled up at me. "I love you... I don't think I've told you that yet today."

I snorted softly, but couldn't keep the smile off my face. I practiced the line three times in my head, to make sure I wouldn't falter over the pertinent word, and then told him, "It'll be good to get you home."

He fairly beamed up at me. I leaned down to kiss the top of his head where it rested against me.

"If you two don't stop it," Wufei informed us from the front seat. "I'm going to gag."

"Then you'd better stop watching for a couple of minutes," Heero drawled and shifted up to deliver a sudden, hungry kiss. I was lost in it in a damn heartbeat.

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