by: Sunhawk

Absolution (cont)

The sketchpad was back on the coffee table when I returned, but Wufei's face was still tinged pink. I smiled at him warmly, but didn't say anything. He didn't speak of it either. Beowulf just looked bored with the whole thing.

"It's getting late," he muttered after a brief pause to clear his throat. "If... if we're going to look over that journal, we should be getting to it."

I sighed; I had forgotten about it somehow, had pushed it out of my head. I wasn't sure I wanted to 'get to it'.

"I really think it will help," he said gently and I found myself nodding. I let him fish it out of where he had packed it in my duffle bag. We just stood and stared at each other for a minute. I didn't know what in the hell to do. Should we sit down side by side and read it together? Should I read it while he sat and... and... watched me? Should he read it first?

"If you would like," he ventured, looking uncomfortable. "I could... read some of the entries to you."

I flushed, but found the idea not all that repellent. "I feel like a raving moron," I told him flatly.

It won me a grin and he gestured to the couch. I sat down on one end and he moved my duffle bag before sitting down in the other corner. As soon as we were sitting down, Beowulf joined us, seeking my lap when he found his owner's occupied with the journal. I found his warmth to be oddly comforting. I nursed my glass of orange juice and Wufei read to me. I couldn't remember anyone reading to me outside of my dreams since the orphanage.

It was the journal of a man. Just a man. He happened to be the Captain of a ship in the Oz fleet. He happened to serve during the war. But he was still just a man.

He had a wife and he had two children. A boy and a girl. The perfect little family... except the part where Daddy went off to battle one day and didn't come back. The entries started out almost mundane;

"Left port from L3 today. I think I'm going to have trouble with my new second in command. He's a real go-getter and eager to prove his loyalty to anybody who will listen. Makes me think he's protesting too much. I don't trust the man."

There was a lot in that vein, talk of this or that crewmember; things a Captain worries about. Things that a Captain... with a crew, has to deal with.

"Had trouble getting resupplied when we docked at L4; I think some of the colonists were deliberately making things more difficult. When will they learn that it's just easier when they cooperate? You can't fight something the size of the Oz federation."

Wufei read easily, I was kind of surprised. I had expected him to have trouble with the idea of reading to me like a little kid. His voice is strangely calming; I could imagine him with several children clustered around him, listening in rapt attention. I sat my glass aside and curled Beowulf into my arms; he seemed to like the extra warmth and rewarded me with a purr.

"I was able to ship a birthday present home for Jimmy's birthday. I hope it arrives in time. I feel so bad that I won't be there for it. Especially since I missed his sister's last month, too. They're not even going to remember who I am by the time this damn war is over."

Wufei read for a bit, occasionally skimming or skipping bits and pieces when it became too mired in personal references to make much sense. His voice began to get a little hoarse, but I didn't think either one of us was ready to stop. It had become oddly impossible to put the book down, even knowing how it was going to come out. After almost an hour, I uncoiled myself from my corner of the couch and quietly reached for the journal. He looked up at me in surprise but seemed grateful.

I'm afraid my voice wavered a bit when I first started, but I forced it to steady. Beowulf left my lap when Wufei's became available and I felt... abandoned.

"Things seem to be heating up. Not that high command would let a poor foot soldier in on their plans, but orders are starting to have a desperate feel to them."

Some of the entries, like that one, were fairly short and to the point. Sometimes days would pass with no entries at all. Sometimes Camden made several entries in one day.

"We've been ordered out to the asteroid belt. Command won't even tell me what for. We're simply to take our position and await further instructions. I wouldn't say it out loud for the world, especially not in the hearing of that idiot Williams, but I think something is seriously wrong with upper command. Orders seem to contradict themselves almost from hour to hour. Sometimes it seems like the same people aren't in charge from one day to the next."

Williams. I didn't recall the name from the list of the dead that I had gathered. A survivor then?

"We docked today and were able to pick up messages. I got a note from Anna that said Jimmy got his present a day late, but loved it all the same. She said he wanted to know when I was coming home. I might have felt worse if Myers hadn't gotten the news in the same batch of messages that his brother had been killed in battle. The man had been a Taurus pilot. I think Myers had been expecting the news for some time. The crew doesn't talk about it out loud, but it's a well-known fact that mobile suit pilots are sold cheap in these times. Sometimes it feels like this will never be over."

The next couple of entries were worse than mundane, detailing supply problems and grousing about deep space rations. But then the tone changed of a sudden and the time period was brought into hard focus for the both of us.

"Trieze is dead. I still can't believe it. I thought the man was immortal. The rumors are that he was killed by one of those damn Gundam pilots. I supposedly saw one of them at our last dock; they had him in irons and he was scheduled for execution. I personally don't think they had the right guy. He was just a damn little kid. They beat the holy crap out of him too."

I had to stop and Wufei and I both just looked at each other for a minute. I could see him warring with himself. His conscience was telling him to take the book back from me, but he didn't want to be reading this part out loud any more than I did. Wordlessly, I scooted down the couch until I was sitting where he could read over my shoulder and we finished reading the entry together in silence.

"There's just no way that kid could have been one of those ruthless Gundam pilots. Fighting like that would break a kid. Good God; he couldn't have been much older than my little Leia! We shipped out before the execution was scheduled and I was glad of that. It made me sick to think they planned on televising it. I sent a message to Anna and warned her to make sure the kids didn't watch it when it happened. I didn't want my kids seeing something like that. I was actually kind of glad when I heard the kid got away. I'll always believe they had the wrong person."

I shivered and felt Wufei's hand fall on my shoulder to squeeze gently. I looked up at him and he looked as... haunted as I felt.

"Maybe we should stop for the night," he said, and couldn't seem to get his voice above a whisper.

I shook my head. "No... I just want to get it over with." Then I looked at him again. "Unless... unless you want to stop?'

He gave me a sad little smile. "I'll keep going as long as you do."

I wasn't sure how to take that, and felt a little uncomfortable with it. Like I was forcing him to read through this stupid thing with me.

The next several pages were more griping about that Williams guy, who appeared to be the much-maligned second in command. Williams seemed to have a fanatical streak a mile wide, and a thirst for power. He was out to make a name for himself and didn't care whose corpse he stood on top of to get the attention he wanted.

I think Camden was starting to feel the presence of his maker toward the end; he began to talk more about his kids and about his fears of not being there to see them grow up. He talked about things he wished he'd said to his wife. He talked about how they had met and Wufei and I both had to put the book down for a little bit.

"Wanna stop?" I whispered.

"We... we only have a couple more pages to go." Wufei whispered back.

Beowulf looked up at us as though we were nuts.

"I feel... weird," I told him with a little shiver. "Like some kind of voyeur or something."

He nodded. "I know what you mean. I didn't get this wrapped up in it this morning, just skimming through it. I... I think I'm sorry I suggested this."

I left the book in his hands for a minute and shifted away to get my glass of orange juice, finding it warm and drinking some anyway. Wufei traded me the book for the glass and swallowed some too. He grimaced at me and then we turned our attention back to the journal.

It got ugly after that. Williams, apparently, had a grudge and a half against the Gundam pilots. All Gundam pilots. The Londonderry had been sent to the asteroid belt to back up one of the all out, no-holds-barred assaults on... us. The Londonderry had not been a destroyer level ship. It hadn't been much more than a courier. They were only supposed to be there to ferry wounded or move supplies. During Camden's off-shift, the second in command took the helm and chose to interpret his orders in a very... loose manner. By the time the assault had awakened Camden, the damage had been done and the Londonderry had been 'sinking'. Camden had little choice but to order an abandon ship.

Williams had attacked a Gundam with the Londonderry; the poor dumb son of a bitch. He had as much as committed 'ship suicide'. And then blamed the breach in orders on his Captain.

My hands began to shake so bad we couldn't read the damn book.

"Duo... Duo," Wufei murmured. "Let's stop."

"I... I knew there was a possibility that... that one of us had something to do with that ship, 'Fei." I told him and my voice was shaking as bad as my hands. "Most fighting out there had something to do with us... I gotta finish it..."

He nodded and took the journal away from me and began to read again.

"Williams was one of the first ones off the ship. He took an escape pod with only one or two of his cronies. Two of the other pods were damaged in the attack and he left us short. The bastard saved his own hide and condemned sixteen of his shipmates to death. Though I suppose he can't be blamed for all of the deaths. At least Myers, White and Nelson died in the assault."

Wufei said something nasty in Chinese, stopping for a moment to look off at nothing. "Dishonorable bastard!" he muttered, and returned to the journal, reading with a little more fervor.

"The battle has moved off and we are left here. Our distress calls have gone unanswered; we can only assume that there are just too many disabled ships and not enough rescuers. We don't even know who is winning out there. I'm not sure why I am bothering to put this down; it's unlikely that anyone will ever find it. We are walking dead men now. Men and women. I guess I am showing my age in that; it bothers me more about Thomson and Reeves, the two women. Williams abandoned women to die in cold vacuum. If he rots in hell for nothing else, he will rot for that, I have no doubt."

I had to draw a shuddering breath, lost in memory and Wufei's voice stilled. I looked up at him and he looked distraught to find tears standing in my eyes. I couldn't help it. I had to mourn for those people whose fate I had almost shared. Whose fate I might well have had a hand in.

"Don't stop," I whispered and he hesitated. "Please 'Fei... don't stop."

He stretched out his free arm and let me lean against him. It eased the shivering.

"I should be out there with what is left of my crew, but instead I'm hiding here in my cabin. I've even taken my vacuum suit off. There is air left in some of the inner rooms... it won't last. I won't die like that, going slowly as the air runs out. Of all the ways in the damn world to die, that very idea has always filled me with sick fear. I can't. I won't. I think that makes me a coward, but I don't care. I think that I would shame myself before it was over. And somehow, that would be the final indignity."

Wufei drew a quivering breath of his own, giving my shoulders a squeeze almost without seeming to notice, before plunging on.

"I hope someone finds this someday. Anna, my dear Anna. I am so sorry. So very, very sorry. I never meant for this to happen this way. I had planned on coming home after the war and spending forever with you, just like we promised..."

Wufei's voice cracked and I broke at the same moment. Beowulf laid his ears back, sensing the tension in the air, and jumped down to go find someplace else to sleep.

Wufei shut the book. "That's enough, Maxwell," he said gruffly. "You may be able to deal with this... but I can not."

I carefully kept my face, now awash with tears, turned away from him. I pulled away and stood, keeping my back turned, and walked across the living room to the sliding door that lead out to his little patio.

"Duo?" he called after me and I raised a hand in that stupid military sign that meant stay here, and slipped outside, shutting the door carefully behind me.

The evening air was cool and once I walked a few paces away from the building, I could look up and see some of the brighter stars. I just stood there and waited for the tears to stop.

I had been way too raw for that. Entirely unprepared. I wondered why that was. I had pretty much known all afternoon what I was going to be faced with tonight. When had I gotten to the place where I could push unpleasant things out of my head so far that I completely forgot them?

Could I have been the one who destroyed that ship? Was mine the Gundam that Williams had attacked? Was it possible that I had set the trap all those years ago that I had caught myself in? That was such circular thinking that I almost got lost trying to unravel it.

"It would'a been damn funny," Solo would have said, while he snickered at me.

"Shut up, rat-boy," I snapped and wiped rather ineffectively at my leaking eyes.

"What'na hell is with you lately?" he groused. "Bawlin' like a baby all'a time."

I just sighed, not able to think of a suitable comeback and he faded from my mind.

George wandered up, pulled his fez off respectfully, poked me in the ankle to get my attention and produced a banner that simply said, 'shit'. Guilt-beast lolled at my other side and looked up at me with weary eyes as if to say, 'I'm getting too fucking old for this.'

"Oh... you guys are a lot of help," I muttered and looked back up at the stars. The few I could see. I was filled with a sudden pain that started in my gut and washed up through my chest, an aching need to go home to the those stars. To see them as they are meant to be seen, sharp and steady and clear and bright. Constant and as beautiful as shards of crystalline ice. Stars don't twinkle; did you know that? It only looks like they do down here on Earth because of the atmosphere.

Those things in the journal; to Anna, to Camden's wife... so close to what I had almost said to Heero when I had thought I was going to die on that trip to L3. They left my heart feeling cold and hollow. Ate at me from a different angle than all the rest of it. Made me feel that man's agony right down in my bones.

I sat down on the ground, right at the edge of the patio. I felt bad for guilt, not up to doing his job, and thought it might be easier on him if he could just crawl in my lap. His expressive, blood-shot eyes rolled my way disdainfully.

It had been near the end of the war, sometime after Treize had died. What would that make it, three years ago? I had fired a shot three years ago and been struck down by it across all that time? I'd... I'd fucking killed myself. That's what it boiled down to. If it had been me. Despite how much Wufei didn't like to hear me say that. Wasn't that just too damn ironic for words?

"Ok, king-rat." I chuckled. "Ya got a point... it is kinda funny."

"I don't lie," he snickered near my right ear, ruffled guilt's furry head and disappeared.

Funny for me. Not so damn funny for Camden. What a motherless bastard that Williams had been. And clearly gotten away with it. I hoped his damn escape pod had... had imploded. Or something else really, really bad.

Guilt got his second wind and bit down hard on the first piece of anatomy that came to hand.

Fuck if Williams was going to get away with it. The hell if little Jimmy and Leia would grow up thinking their father was a traitor and an idiot.

I leaped to me feet, dislodging guilt and leaving my hamsters in my wake. I drug my arm roughly across my eyes, wiping them clear. When I turned back toward the apartment, I found Wufei leaning in the doorway, regarding me with an uncertain _expression on his face. He blinked at me apprehensively when I came determinedly back toward him.

"Duo?" he asked softly, when I got closer. "Are... are you all right?"

"Fine," I told him rather flatly. "Do you have an internet jack?"

He gave ground, looking at me almost fearfully. "Right here in the living room," he said, pointing the way.

I went and fished my laptop out of the duffle bag, where Wufei had packed it, jerking angrily at the zippers. I set it on the end of the coffee table and strung the cable with shaking hands, booting the system after it was plugged up.

"What are you doing?" Wufei questioned me, voice trying to be calm and soothing.

"I'm gonna get that son of a bitch," I growled, watching impatiently as my laptop came up. "Damned if he's going to get away with abandoning all those people. I won't let Anna think her husband died a traitor. I'll be damned if I let his kids think that..." my voice was rising and I seemed powerless to do anything about it. "That their father was the bad guy. He's not gonna get away with it..."

"Calm down, Duo," Wufei said gently and suddenly his hands were on my shoulders. It felt like he was the only thing keeping me from flying off in a dozen directions. "No more tonight. We're not going to change anything tonight. You have to calm down."

I could feel myself quivering with almost out of control emotion, too many to name, too much to deal with. "Can't let him get away with it!"

"I agree with you,' he continued to try to placate me. "We're going to check into this. But tomorrow.... You need some rest... you need to calm down."

I sighed heavily, rather proud that it didn't escalate to a moan. "I'm sorry... you're right. You're right; I just can't help it. I just keep seeing them... drifting there. I can close my eyes and see them all and I know how they died and I know they didn't have to die. There was room in that pod if that bastard had just taken the survivors. I know how they felt... I know how each damn one of them felt! I felt it and for awhile I was one of them... just drifting... and they all had families too and they didn't have the time to leave their messages or maybe they did and I just didn't find them but God there's just so much you want to say and maybe those two women were mothers and they left little kids behind and that means I made orphans like me and the others and..."

"Maxwell!" Wufei snapped and the hands on my shoulders gave me a sudden harsh shake. He turned me around so abruptly I stumbled. "Stop it!" he barked at me and pulled me into his arms. "Just... stop it."

"I'm sorry..." I breathed, when I could.

"God," he murmured. "All that's holding you together is glue and band-aides!"

I let out with a snort of harsh laughter and told him, "I... I'm a little tougher than that; bailing wire and twine."

His arms crushed me close against his chest and I could feel the hammer of his heart against mine. He was scared. I was honestly frightening him; he thought I was totally losing it. Guilt-beast sighed heavily.

"It's all right. Underneath the twine, I'm slowly puttin' the pieces back together, ok?" I tried to reassure him.

"I know, my friend," he said softly. "And I'm sorry... this was such an incredibly bad idea. I didn't realize how much... how hard... I just didn't realize."

In that moment, if he had been Heero, I think I could have let go. If Heero had been healed and whole, if those had been his arms around me... I think I could have just given in to the need to collapse. I would have answered any question he might have asked me... I wouldn't have evaded. I wouldn't have lied. I would have told him every damn thing I had ever felt... ever thought. Anything he wanted.

But this was Wufei. And while he was my friend... he was not the home my soul sought. It was the vague unease that I might just answer anything he would ask that drove me to pull away and offer up a watery smile.

"I'm getting real tired," I admitted, so that I might not admit to anything more. "Do you think we could call it a night?"

"I think that would be a good idea," he agreed and showed me the way to the bedroom.

As uncomfortable as I had felt sleeping with him at the apartment, it was nothing compared to how miserable I felt on his home turf, crawling into his bed.

We said our goodnights, then lay and stared into the dark. I think he was having trouble falling asleep too, but neither one of us wanted to be the one to admit it. Thoughts of the asteroid belt whirled around in my head. Memories surfaced and sank, piloted by little thought-hamsters. I wished I dared go for a walk. I wished, oddly, for a beer. I wished for someone to hold onto. I began to fear I would lie there, staring up at a ceiling I couldn't see, all damn night. Then Beowulf joined us in bed. I gave a startled little gasp when he just appeared on the side of the bed and gave a plaintiff little yowl almost in my ear.

"Beowulf!" Wufei snapped, and I could tell from his voice that he had not been asleep.

The cat ignored him, coming to poke around my face with a slightly wet nose.

"Get down, you mangy beast," Wufei commanded. "Sleep somewhere else tonight."

He received only a disdainful 'mrrrr' of complaint.

"Does..." I ventured, "does he usually sleep here?"

It took Wufei a moment before he sheepishly admitted, "Yes... the damn animal insists on sleeping on the bed. But he can survive sleeping elsewhere, just push him off."

"It's all right," I murmured as Beowulf decided that he might just share his space with me, curling up next to my stomach. He was warm. I found my arms winding around him. "I... I don't mind at all."

The comment was greeted with silence. I shifted the cat up higher, closer to my chest, curling toward the heat... toward the contact... toward the soft sound of breathing. Beowulf began to wash my chin; I decided I probably shouldn't let Wufei know that or he would banish the poor animal.

"Good night," I said softly into the dark.

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