by: Sunhawk

Absolution (cont)

"You're not taking care of yourself," he accused. "It's killing me that you're putting me before your own welfare."

"Your well-being and mine are tangled together, love." I chided. "I'm taking care of myself the best that I can."

"You look so tired..." he said, tracing his fingers over my face.

"I am tired, Heero," I admitted. "But that isn't going to change as long as you're in here. I need you well... I need you out of here. That's the first goal on the path... stop fighting me and start working with me."

He frowned darkly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

I quirked a sudden grin at him. "It's a mission, ok? We're down, behind enemy lines and we're both injured. I... I need you to help patch me up, but you can't until we get back to the safe house. You see? You have to let me help you now, so that you can help me later."

A corner of his mouth twitched at the analogy, but he tried not to show it; he didn't want to encourage me. But then his _expression went all serious again. "Duo... you still...I mean, you..." He was blushing darkly.

"Don't you do this to me," I growled. "You've not doubted me for a second from day one; don't you dare start doubting me now."

He looked vaguely sheepish and glanced away. I stroked a finger under his chin to get him to lift his face and then brought my lips down to seek his. "You know I love you... we promised each other forever, didn't we, husband-mine?"

He returned the kiss, and I could feel his fears and his doubts, could almost feel him trembling beneath me. When I drew back, he looked troubled.

"I thought we were making a home together... I thought..."

"Not now, Heero," I sighed. "That's not in the mission parameters yet. Later... the path is just too narrow right now."

"Then... will you please just let me hold you for a minute?" he said softly and I was able to smile.

"I think that can be worked in to the plans." I squirmed around until I could lay my head on his shoulder and he was able to curl an arm around me. It wasn't near what either one of us wanted, but as much as we could manage until he was better.

We were quiet for a few minutes and I felt myself starting to relax for the first time in days.

"So," he ventured softly after a bit. "What are the mission goals?"

"Long or short term?" I grinned against his hospital gown.

He made noises to indicate he was pondering it. "Long?"

"That's simple," I murmured. "Happily ever after."

He snorted. "Short term?"

"Even simpler," I snickered. "Get you out of here so we can fornicate like bunnies."

That won me an honest laugh, serving to show me that he really was getting better when he didn't clutch instantly at his stomach. Though the laugh faded rather quickly.

"You sure you can get us to that safe house?" he murmured then, twisting enough to kiss the top of my head.

"Yeah... I think I can," I smiled. "If you'll stop dragging your damn feet and insisting I don't know the way."

"Your sense of direction has never been all that great," he told me and I smiled happily, it was so sweet to be talking about... nothing at all.

"Well, my sense of direction doesn't suck nearly as badly as my sense of timing," I confessed, and he chuckled, but refrained from comment.

Wufei appeared in the doorway then, hesitating on the threshold until he was sure it was safe to come back in. "You two all finished yet?"

Heero grumbled unhappily when I sat up.

"With the arguing and the yelling?" I quipped. "As finished as we ever get."

Wufei snorted and came on into the room with a wide grin plastered on his face. "Hungry, Maxwell?"

The strong scent of food wafted to me as soon as he got close enough.

"Oh God, Wufei," I groaned, "is that what I think it is?"

He produced the bag from behind his back with a flourish and grinned a little wider. "Well... let's just say it's not anything you're likely to find in the Winner kitchens."

"Normal food," I intoned reverently. "Wufei... you are my new best friend."

"Hey!" Heero growled and Wufei actually smirked at him.

Wufei and I drug Heero's little rolling table around to the side and sat down across from each other to share our dinner. The bag proved to hold the wonderfully simple fair of hamburgers and chips, with small side salads.

"Look at this," I grinned between bites. "I don't need a culinary dictionary to identify anything! This is a hamburger. There is nothing weird on it; no bean sprouts or unidentifiable sauces. This is a chip. Hot oil was used in its production. This lettuce came from a grocery store; it was not flown in from Romania. It is green, not purple."

Wufei chuckled at my running monologue, looking terribly pleased with himself.

"I hate the both of you," Heero groused, his arms folded across his chest and eyeing the food with the air of a starving man.

Wufei laughed at him. "At least you graduated from the liquid diet," he commiserated in a... not very commiserating tone.

"Graduated to paste," Heero complained, but when I looked at him a little closer, his eyes were positively glowing, watching me eat.

It somehow made things taste better. How pathetically weird is that?

I made a point of eating every bit of it, even though I was pushing a little, there at the end. But, my God, did I feel guilty as hell about it when LeAnn delivered his dinner a little while after that, and we had to sit and watch him eat... I'm not sure what it was; do they still make gruel?

He took his walk after dinner, he was taking several a day now, and I could not have begun to explain to him how that simple trek up and down the hall made me feel. With his hand on my shoulder and my arm around his waist to steady him, guilt-beast didn't even bother to hang out with me. I felt... needed? Wanted? Useful? All of the above?

LeAnn changed his sheets while he was out of the bed and when we got back to the room, informed us that Heero could try a shower if he wanted to give it a shot. It was a progress, for which I was pleased. But... I was oddly saddened by the loss of the sponge baths. When I looked at Heero, I thought I saw some of the same feeling behind his eyes. I smiled at him encouragingly.

"It's another step down the path, love," I murmured and we went and he took that shower.

It was a real chore, fighting with the IV lines, and by the time we'd gotten him through all that, he was exhausted and barely able to keep his eyes open. Wufei and I got him tucked back into bed, and Wufei leaned down and told him,

"Duo's going home with me, all right?" And Heero nodded; sleep creeping inexorably up on him.

I kissed him goodbye and I think he was off to lala land before we were out the door.

Wufei has a ground floor apartment, with a little patio. It wasn't at all like I had expected it to be. I had envisioned him living in little more than a bare dojo, sleeping on a pallet on the floor and with katanas displayed on all the walls. Well... maybe not that bad, but austere at the very least.

It was surprisingly warm and inviting. The furniture was dark and overstuffed, the décor an elegant but bizarre mix of oriental and renaissance. There were plants. A lot of plants. But the most disconcerting thing was the catnip toy lying in the middle of the living room floor. I just stood and blinked at it while he moved around me.

"The bedroom is down the hall to the left, so is the bathroom. It's the first door," he was telling me as he moving around, dumping my duffle bag on the couch and wandering over to check for messages on the answering machine. "I called Quatre earlier from the hospital to let them know that you were coming home with me tonight."

I winced guiltily. "Damn, Wufei, thanks. I didn't even think about it."

He grinned at me. "Wouldn't want Quatre to skin us both alive."

I chuckled and dared to move a little further into his sanctum. I felt... odd about being in his home.

"What would you like for dinner tonight?" he asked lightly. "I can order out or cook. It doesn't matter to me." Then he smiled. "And be honest."

I laughed with him over the shared joke. "Honestly? I don't normally eat more than two meals a day; lunch was more than enough."

He turned from where he had been sorting the mail and gave me a strange, almost sad look. "Maybe a little something later, then," was all he said.

I felt uncomfortable again, and he seemed to sense it. "I packed your laptop and your art supplies when I got your clothes... if you're looking for something to do," he said, a little too casually.

"Thanks," I murmured and went to sit on the couch beside my bag.

There was the sound of a moderately heavy sigh. "Duo... relax. I don't bite. My cat might... but I don't. Make yourself at home. I have a bottle of wine in the kitchen, would you like a glass?"

I cringed. "No... no thank you."

"Duo?" he asked gently, and I glanced up to find him regarding me quizzically. I guess he'd seen me drink before and knew that I really didn't have a problem with it.

"I've been... avoiding alcohol," I muttered, looking down at my hands and not at him. "I'm kinda afraid... I... just don't think it would be a good idea right now."

There was a soft little, 'ah,' of understanding. "Probably... a wise decision."

I didn't know what to say to that and was floundering around trying to think of something witty, when Wufei's cat finally made an appearance and turned his attention away from me.

"There you are, you mangy beast," Wufei addressed the animal with an oddly affectionate smile. "We have company, come and introduce yourself."

I didn't know whether to gape at him or laugh. It was the most mind-bending thing I had seen all day; Chang Wufei talking to a cat. I managed to contain it to a snort. The cat went from twining between Wufei's legs to sitting on the coffee table. I never saw him jump, I think he teleported. The animal sat for a moment, and gave a half-hearted lick at one paw, the picture of nonchalance. But I could see his nose twitching in my direction as he investigated the thing that had dared invade his realm. I couldn't help but grin at him.

Then he opened his mouth and let out a God-awful yowl. I jumped in surprise; I would not have thought a creature that size could have produced a noise like that. Wufei laughed and nudged the cat in the ass.

"Stop your complaining and just go say hello."

Did you know that cats could be very disdainful? I didn't. I'd never seen a cat up close before. There were some that lived around the docks, they kept them there to keep the mouse population down, but they were all feral and would run if they saw you within a hundred yards.

The cat responded to Wufei's little push by getting up and strolling across the table as though he'd meant to do that anyway. He stopped at the edge and stretched his neck out to sniff at me suspiciously.

I couldn't take my eyes off the damn thing. I felt like one of those small town kids in the big city, gawping at the skyscrapers and picking hayseeds out of their hair. "Can I... can I touch him?' I breathed, afraid of scaring him away.

I had a feeling Wufei was smirking at my obvious fascination, but I couldn't spare him the attention.

"Of course," he said gently. "He likes to be scratched behind his ears and under his chin."

I stretched out a hand and waited while the beast sniffed at me. But before I could make any further move to pet him, he stretched his head up and began to rub it against my fingers. I laughed with delight, then stifled it quickly lest I scare him off.

"What's his name?" I whispered.

Wufei's voice, when it came, was from a different part of the room as he went about his business. "Beowulf," he told me with a certain ruefulness in his voice.

"Hell Wufei," I grinned. "The name's bigger than he is!"

I dared to turn my hand, scratching Beowulf carefully under the chin and had to chuckle at the way he stretched his neck out. Then I suddenly had a cat in my lap. I blinked down as the animal calmly turned around three times and settled across my thighs as though he napped there every night.

There was a sudden flash of light and I jerked my head up just in time to see Wufei sheepishly lower a camera. "I'm sorry," he grinned. "But the look on your face was just too priceless. I take it you have never... seen a cat before?"

I shook my head and looked down again as Beowulf yawned hugely and began to take a bath. "Not... up close like this. I've seen strays at the docks, but they won't come near you... not even if you put out food." I flushed slightly at that inadvertent admission. "I've never gotten to touch one before..."

"Well," Wufei moved to put the camera away. "He'll lie on you all day if you let him. When you get tired of him, just shove him off." There was an odd tension in the air and I looked up to find Wufei regarding me with that tiny crease between his eyebrows that told me something was bothering him.

I tilted my head and looked back at him with a quirk of a grin. "Spit it out."

He dropped his eyes for a second and the frown cleared into a wry smile. "I'm trying to figure out how to discreetly ask you if you'll be all right if I go take a shower."

I laughed. "Well... that was subtle. Yes, Wufei... you may shower. I promise not to self-destruct while you're gone."

"Just don't sit there like that the whole time," he teased. "Relax. Make yourself at home."

Then he was gone.

Beowulf finished his bath and spent a little time sniffing my pants leg. I stroked a finger down his back and watched his skin shiver. I scratched behind his ear as Wufei had suggested and he twisted his head in this impossible angle to aid me. I couldn't help a chuckle. They have such... small frames under all that hair. I suspected that shaved of all that fur, he would resemble nothing so much as a snake with legs and ears. I suppressed a snort and I swear to God the animal read my mind, because he gave me a disdainful little sneeze and jumped off my lap. Every move he made was with this slow deliberateness. He sauntered off toward the kitchen, I watched him for a minute, then scrambled for my sketchpad. I didn't get Astra's portrait done... maybe I could manage Beowulf.

Pencil and pad in hand, I stalked the cat into the kitchen where he ate a few bites from a food dish. He gave me a glare that indicated he was not impressed with my following him around, so I backed off a little until he was done. Tail held regally in the air, he swept passed me as though I wasn't there, making his way back into the living room, where he curled up under an end table and regarded me as if to ask just what in the hell I thought I was doing. I sat down on the floor and flipped open my sketchpad. Beowulf scrunched himself into this little, compact form and sort of... huddled. Kind of. With his tail wrapped around him like he was covering his own paws with it. I ended up stretched out on my stomach next to the coffee table. Distantly, I heard the water turn on in the bathroom, but I was already lost to the flow.

I decided that evening that cats are pretty damn cool. Stop laughing at me; L2 street rats don't exactly get to visit the zoo on a regular basis. And Beowulf was being very accommodating, sitting like a true artist's model, still as a statue, only his ears moving occasionally as he caught some sound. Until Wufei finished in the bathroom.

"Oh my God!" I suddenly heard. "Duo! Duo, are you all right!"

Beowulf laid his ears back and took off like a shot, startled by the yell and disappearing into the back of the apartment somewhere.

"What?" I said intelligently and pushed up on one elbow to look at him. "What the hell's the matter, Wufei?"

He was looking at me wide-eyed and frightened. It took me a minute to realize what I probably looked like, and I was caught between embarrassed and... damned amused.

"Chill, man," I grinned up at him. "You guys have got to stop being so damn jumpy."

He looked a little chagrined as the fear faded from his eyes. "What... are you doing?" he ventured at last.

"Well," I drawled. "I was sketching your cat until you scared him away."

That peaked his interest and he came around the table where he could see the partially finished portrait. His eyes widened and he breathed, almost reverently, "Maxwell... that is incredible! You've totally captured him; it looks more like Beowulf than... Beowulf does!"

I had to laugh and he stretched out a hand to pull me to my feet. "Well, it would look better if you hadn't made him run away before I got it finished."

"I'll go find him," he said, and there was the strangest emotion in his voice. I couldn't quite place it... but it seemed to hold a hint of longing.

I watched him walk away; realizing that his hair was down and he had changed out of his work clothes into a rather well worn pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I settled myself into a corner of the couch and waited for him to hunt up my suddenly reluctant model.

He tried, when he returned with the somewhat miffed Beowulf, to get him to sit on the coffee table in front of me, but the cat was bored with the whole thing and kept jumping down.

"Just hold him," I finally suggested. "I just need to get his ears right, and can't quite capture it... he keeps moving them.'

Wufei curled himself into the chair across from me and Beowulf immediately settled down on his lap. Wufei quirked an affectionate smile down at the animal and muttered something about 'mangy beast'.

I finished the portrait as fast as I could and flipped the page when Wufei wasn't looking. I was not going to let this moment slip through my fingers.

Wufei's hair, still down and wet from the shower, framed his face, softening the usually stern features. His fingers were almost unconsciously scratching behind Beowulf's ear and the cat wore an _expression of utter contentment. It was a wonderfully peaceful scene. It tugged at me somehow; this man was my friend. My friend. He wasn't just watching out for me for Heero's sake. That had been genuine fear in his eyes when he had come out of the bathroom and he had thought he had found me passed out on the floor. He tried so hard to be the calm, reliable one. The level headed one. But... sometimes, like when I'd scared him, you could see a hint of the guy who wasn't any more sure than the rest of us that he knew what the fuck he was doing.

I sketched as fast as I could, getting it roughed in so that I could finish it later if I had to. He didn't seem to know anything at all about drawing, because he sat patiently for a very long time considering he thought I was only fixing Beowulf's ears.

"Are you having trouble?" he asked at length. "Should I try to get him to sit up straight again?"

I almost laughed, as I captured the tiny smile on his face as he looked down at his housemate. "No... " I muttered, "he just keeps flicking his ears around."

"Whistle," he said.

"What?" I muttered, blocking in the shadows that his hair cast on his face.

"If you can whistle, he'll point his ears toward you," he explained.

"I'd rather he were listening to you," I said, quickly following the line of his arm down where it curled around the cat.

"Oh," he said, confused, but obligingly began to murmur to the cat in his lap and, as promised, the delicate little ears flicked in his direction. Perfect.

He gave me another ten minutes before he finally started to lose his patience. "Duo..." he dared. "Aren't you done yet?"

"Yeah," I grinned at him in triumph and Beowulf lost his lap when Wufei stood up and dumped him rather unceremoniously on the floor. I flipped the pad closed and tossed it negligently on the coffee table. "You got any juice?" I asked and started for the kitchen.

"Sure," he said off-handedly, his eyes on the sketchpad. "The kitchen light switch is on the left."

I managed to get to the kitchen door before he got the pad picked up. I sneaked a glance when I heard the surprised intake of air. His eyes were wide and his hand flew up to touch his loose hair. I ducked on into the kitchen to hide the maniacal grin. Wufei doesn't look a thing like Wufei when he isn't concentrating on it. I found some orange juice and gave him a minute.

[back] [cont] [back to Sunhawk's fic]