Family (cont)

I snorted. 'Yeah, but half the time the dog doesn't even go to the bathroom. They stay out just long enough for Mrs. Littlejohn to stare at Heero's butt as he runs down the block, and she goes in the minute he turns the corner and is out of sight.'

Wufei tried hard to suppress the laugh, but couldn't manage it. 'And Heero does not know this?'

'Hell no,' I confirmed. 'He already thinks the whole block is populated by stalkers!'

'I'm not sure it isn't,' Wufei muttered, as he followed me up the stairs, but he was still chuckling so I didn't think he was really serious. Wufei is as much an agent as Heero, but he's slightly less anal about it.

Once in the apartment, I was steered straight to the kitchen and ordered to sit down while Wufei unpacked my dinner and fetched silverware. Now that I was on my home ground, most of my weird anxiety had faded and I was left to just kick my own ass for inadvertently setting Wufei off. He had said once that he considered me part of his 'family', and I suppose that's where his protective tendencies sprang from. I wonder sometimes if it's just an Asian thing... because he and Heero suffer from some of the worst 'Mine!' issues I have ever seen. They both would do anything to protect what they care about. And yeah, most of the time, when I'm not feeling like somebody's baby brother, that caring makes me feel damn good.

But since this particular instance of hovering was totally unjustified, I was left just feeling like I'd tricked him or something.

'You know,' I ventured, while he moved around my kitchen. 'They always give you twice what a normal person can eat... if you want to share?'

I saw him glance at the chicken, potatoes and cole slaw in front of me and I suspect there was a hint of distaste there, but it was covered so quickly I couldn't be sure. Wufei is nothing if not a perfect guest. 'I would... like that,' he said, and it had a strangely formal feel to it. He brought a plate and sat down across from me, letting me split the dinner between us. He opened his own loaf of bread while I did so, and shared it out. I couldn't help grinning... he always finds a way to contribute to any meals he eats with us.

We ate in silence for a minute before Wufei gently asked, 'Feeling better?'

It made me feel bad all over again, so I just nodded and changed the subject. 'See, deli food isn't so bad.'

'Duo...' he chided, and I sighed.

'I'm fine, Fei... really,' I relented. 'I just... still get tired sometimes is all.'

'Tired?' he prodded, raising that questioning eyebrow.

'Yeah,' I replied, maybe just a bit more firmly than I'd intended. 'Tired.'

He didn't answer right away and I glanced up to find this weird-ass look on his face that seemed sad somehow. 'I know you get... uncomfortable with us hovering,' he said gently. 'But we came very close to losing you and... it scared us a very great deal. We learned to appreciate what we almost lost.'

I did the carp thing. The gaping mouth? The bug eyes? Accompanied by a beauty of a blush. After a second of that, Wufei started to look a little flushed around the edges himself and looked away.

'Eat,' he grumbled gruffly and we both pushed our slaw around like it was the most fascinating stuff in the world.

'Not like I planned it or anything,' I finally managed, and his snort of almost laughter helped ease the tension a little.

'I should hope not,' he returned. 'Because it was a lousy plan.'

'Hell,' I groused. 'If I'd planned the damn thing, I would have been out of town!' He chuckled, eating with a bit more appetite, but the line made me start thinking and I had to say. 'But... I don't know... maybe it worked out for the best?'

He stopped with a fork full of mashed potatoes half way to his mouth and looked at me in surprise. It took him a second to work it around, and then his expression softened. 'Perhaps so, my friend. You saved that child's life in probably the only way possible. There's no way to say now, if her parents would have thought of what you did.'

I shrugged uncomfortably. 'I don't know, they might have...'

Wufei put down his fork and gave me a hard look. 'I went back to that house, Duo. The two of you would not have survived if not for that old sink. You barely survived. It would not have saved three people.'

I blinked at him, not sure which part of that statement to feel funny about. 'You... went back?'

He ducked his head and worked at repositioning his dollop of potatoes. 'Yes. I wanted... I had to...' Then he took a breath and simply said, 'Yes, I went back.'

It was a strange thought, somebody going back to that nightmare. I thought about him poking around that pile of timber. Realized from his words that he'd actually gone down into that hole and seen the place where I'd lain for... what had felt like a very long time. Had probably seen my blood on that concrete floor. I shivered for reasons that wouldn't come clear in my head. 'Gods... you could have been hurt... you shouldn't have...'

He laughed, looking bemused and somehow oddly affectionate at the same time. 'I didn't go by myself,' he assured, and I didn't ask who, because I wasn't sure I wanted to know.

We ate for a while in silence after that, but I don't think it was uncomfortable... we both just had things to think about.

Wufei is as predictable as Heero in his own way, and it did not surprise me when he insisted that he clean up after we finished eating. I'd have argued more, but the mess just wasn't that much to start with; it didn't seem worth it.

I made a point of counting, and he asked me three times between supper and leaving, if I was sure I was all right. The third time, he actually had his jacket on and was standing at the door. 'You make a rotten mother-hen, Chang,' I teased him from where I'd settled myself in the living room, in an effort to ease his mind.

He quirked a grin that tried for contrite and didn't make it. 'I wouldn't question you so much if you'd stop being so evasive,' he prodded.

I rolled my eyes. 'I wouldn't evade, if Heero didn't set you guys on me like I was five years old.'

I knew from the look on his face that I'd said something wrong. The teasing tone was suddenly gone from his voice and he actually took a step back toward me. 'Duo... I am here because you are my friend, not because Heero 'makes' me, you understand?'

I blinked, trying to make the sudden mental track change with him. 'O... ok... I didn't mean...'

'I know you didn't,' he said, giving me a look that somehow reminded me of Heero in a strangely uncomfortable way. 'But I want you to know that I spend time with you because I enjoy your company and not out of some damn sense of duty.'

I was probably supposed to say something in there, I'm pretty sure of it anyway, but nothing came to mind. Chang Wufei does not often pull the... sentimental stuff on me, and it always catches me by total surprise when he does. Thankfully, he didn't wait for me, maybe understanding I wouldn't come up with anything coherent to say anyway.

'I want you to promise me that you'll call me if you need anything, all right?' he instructed firmly, and I nodded dumbly, wondering how we'd suddenly gotten so serious.

'I'll be going then,' he smiled, and it made me wonder if he wasn't enjoying rendering me damn near speechless.

'Uhm... thanks, Fei,' I managed and it got me an odd little, almost formal bow as he opened the door to go.

'You are entirely welcome,' and then he was gone.

The man is like a roller coaster ride sometimes. A scary one. I think if I ever figured him out completely, the world might tilt on its axis. Most of the time he comes across like the most anal-retentive person in the Earth-sphere; 'sentimental tripe' makes him cringe and roll his eyes. But then he can hit you with a warm-fuzzy that just leaves you... well, sitting in the middle of your apartment staring at a closed door.

Staring at a closed door and suddenly wishing he'd stayed.

I shook myself and rose to go make sure that door was locked up tight. Abruptly having the strange urge to recon the apartment and make sure all was secure. That's usually Heero's evening ritual, and I'll admit that I hadn't been adhering to it very strictly since he'd been gone, but there was still a touch of that underlying nervousness there from the grocery encounter, and it made me want the assurances of locks and latches.

It had turned into a very strange day.

It would be hours before Heero was able to call, so I went ahead with my shower and ended up settled in my armchair, phone and cold bottle of soda at my elbow, sewing in my hands, and the TV murmuring nothing important to me as I worked.

Some time back, Trowa and Quatre had held a little... I'm not sure what you want to call it; ceremony? It was just the five of us; me, Heero, and Wufei as witnesses I guess, as they'd traded a kind of marriage vow. It hadn't been much, though I'll admit to having felt very touched by the whole thing. They'd done everything legally that could be done to officially acknowledge their relationship, and Quatre had gotten irritated with the clinical feel to the whole thing, so after the last bits of paperwork had been signed, sealed, and notarized, he'd invited us all out to their beach house and they'd performed their own little 'wedding' ceremony. Just vows traded in a nice setting with a few friends. Quatre told me later he just wanted something that didn't involve lawyers. It was nice.

I'd started on a quilt for them the day Heero and I had gotten home from the trip. Double Wedding Ring pattern. One of the toughest damn things I've ever tackled and I seriously doubt I will ever do another one. But if it came out the way I had envisioned, it would be worth all the work; I could already imagine Quatre's face when I gave it to them. But it had the added bonus that when I worked on it, it occupied most of my attention. Not a lot of room left over to feel stupid about letting some guy's lame pick-up line freak me out.

I was just glad I'd kept Wufei from figuring out what had really been bothering me... that would have been humiliating.

Despite the soda, the sewing, and the vaguely interesting documentary on the evolution of inter-colony communications, I was more than ready for the phone to ring when Heero finally called.

And even though being ready for it, it still made me jump. I hit mute on the television and answered it before the second ring. 'Hello?'

There was a soft but theatric groan and Heero's voice, 'Hey, love.'

I chuckled. 'Rough day?'

He chuckled in return. 'Let's just say I'm glad I don't have to do this every year.'

'Maybe you wouldn't be so soft if you had to do it every year,' I teased, and he gave me an indignant snort.

'Soft has nothing to do with it... this would suck even if I had to do it every week!' he informed me.

'Not quite the young hot-shot you once were?' I grinned, and got the expected growl.

'I'd like to see you out here...' he began, and I heard him shut it down, but I ignored it. I had no doubt he was kicking himself for the slip, but it was actually kind of nice to hear. Nice to realize that he'd forgotten for five seconds the shape I was in.

'You just want to see me in those stupid little trainee outfits so you can laugh,' I accused haughtily, and was relieved when he let it go and didn't start apologizing.

'You would think they could come up with a... less ugly design,' he sighed. 'I don't think orange is my color.'

I snickered at him. 'Heero... that particular shade of orange is nobody's color.' He laughed with me and I found myself relaxing. It always amazes me how just the sound of his voice can do that to me. And this time, it also rather took me by surprise how much I was relaxing. I hadn't realized just how tense I had been. 'I can't wait until you get home,' I blurted, feeling this odd upwelling of emotion, and not quite sure what it was.

'I can't wait either!' he groaned, missing the odd tone in my voice. 'I'm so tired of this place I could scream.'

'What was on today's schedule?' I asked, pushing aside the weird feelings.

'Firing range,' he informed me with a tired sigh. 'Eight damn hours of it. Why in the hell they had to do it all in one day, I'll never know. I've got recoil bruises on both shoulders that must go all the way through.'

I frowned. 'What the hell did they have you doing?'

There was another of those theatric groans. 'Pistol and rifle, standing, squatting and prone, two runs through the firing range obstacle course, solo and pairs, and they've added a driving course. Hitting a moving target, from a moving target. And it didn't help that I got paired with an idiot during the partners round in the obstacle course. He almost shot three of the 'civilians' and then sprained his damn ankle. I had to finish the course hauling him out by the seat of his damn pants.'

I couldn't help laughing at the mental image. 'That's what you get for not going with Wufei,' I snickered at him, and it took him a moment to reply, but I ignored the guilty hesitation.

'Well,' he said, his tone only slightly subdued. 'I don't think I have to worry about being paired up with him again tomorrow... I'm pretty sure he washed out today.'

'Didn't kill your score, did he?' I asked, and Heero snorted.

'What he cost me, I made up in bonus points for 'saving him', he chuckled, and it had a smug tone to it.

'So, you think you'll pass, fly-boy?' I grinned and got the expected sound of disdain.

'Of course,' he informed me and then changed the subject completely. 'But enough of that crap... how are you doing?'

'I had a harrowing day fighting budget issues and insubordination,' I moaned in mock exhaustion.

'Insubordination?' Heero asked, ever my straight man.

'My staff refuses to call me Your Highness,' I huffed and he chuckled.

'The King of Geek gets no respect,' he grinned, and yes I could hear it in his voice.

'Not even from you,' I groused, and managed to get a bit of a laugh.

'Well, Your Highness, I hate to disrespect and run, but I have a dinner date to keep.'

I gasped in theatric horror. 'You're cheating on me?'

'It's the last full day and the examiners always take the whole group out for steak,' he said, not adding the you know that, but it was in his voice.

'Not only cheating, but cheating with an entire squad of men,' I chided woefully.

'Women too,' he dead-panned, making me chuckle.

'And you didn't even invite me,' I accused, and I could almost see him shaking his head at me.

'I'd much rather come home and invite you to something more private,' he said, making it almost a husky purr.

I snorted. 'Tomorrow?'

'It'll be late,' he warned me, somewhat unnecessarily.

'I'll be waiting,' I assured him and could tell that I needed to let him go.

'You better be,' he grumbled affectionately. 'I'll see you then. Love you.'

'Love you, hot-shot,' I replied and got a chuckle before the phone disconnected.

I hung up both pleased with myself and sorry. Pleased that I'd managed to evade talking about anything too serious, thus eliminating the possibility of Heero figuring out that I'd had a bad evening, without actually lying about it, I might add. But sorry that I hadn't been able to talk to him longer.

I decided, on a bit of introspection, that going on to bed while I was still somewhat relaxed might not be such a bad idea. It was just a bit early for a Friday night, a little past ten, but having just talked to Heero, I was about as settled as I'd been since the grocery, and I probably shouldn't waste it.

When I wasn't distracted, my mind kept wanting to play that 'shoulda' game. You know the one? All the great lines you should have said? All the perfect moves you should have made? The things you should have done that would have kept you from looking like an idiot? Some imp in the back of my head kept trotting out scenarios and replaying the whole conversation, but had taken an intermission during Heero's call. I decided to go to sleep before it came back for act two.

It was nicer thinking about Heero in his orange jump suit, rappelling down the side of a building, anyway.

You know, sometimes it kind of amazes me when I think back on Heero's and my history together. Amazes me that we ever found each other. Amazes me that we managed to come through what we came through to see it out the other side. Amazes me what we've managed to build together.

It's surreal sometimes... there was a day when I never would have believed we'd live through the war. Could not even imagine the kind of life Heero and I have together. And now... I could barely remember what it felt like to be so sure you were going to die each day, that loving and being loved sometimes seemed like a punishment.

Now, it sometimes felt like Heero had been with me forever, like he'd always been a part of me somehow, even before we met... if that makes sense.

Wufei would roll his eyes and call me sentimental, if he could hear me.

I put up my sewing, turned off the television, and put the rest of my soda back in the fridge. It would probably be flat by morning, but there was too much to throw out. Then I headed off for bed.

During those times that Heero is off on assignment, I try to convince myself that having the entire bed to myself is a treat by sprawling all across it, but it seldom works and I usually just end up balled up in my usual spot, unconsciously making room for my bedmate even though he isn't there.

That's my round-about way of saying the nights are the worst.

It took me awhile to fall asleep and I ended up putting on some soft music, something I haven't done in years, but it helps distract the thought processes when they're running in circles.

The circle I was stuck in was the one where I'd effectively run away from an idiot. I couldn't help worrying at it like a sore tooth. I couldn't help wondering at myself... wondering at what had prompted me to tuck-tail and retreat. Would I have reacted the same before the storm? Was it some unconscious fear of re-injuring myself?

When I finally managed to doze off, it was with my mind playing the shoulda game. 'Come on... I'm not that bad, am I?'

Yes, actually... you are.

Maybe not, but with a pick up line like that, nobody is likely to find out.

Define 'bad'.

Eat shit and die.

It deteriorated from there. I just couldn't accept that I'd panicked, I guess. Couldn't understand what had come over me in the first place. I'd probably looked like some sort of pansy-ass, shrinking violet, if I may mix my flower metaphors. The guy had just been an asshole. Since when do I run away from assholes?

I got my answer somewhere around midnight.

I think we all remember my nightmares, don't we? The ones that come with the capital letters and make the people who lived through them with me twitchy? The screaming? The thrashing?

Gods... it hit me like a ton of lead bricks. It has been a lot of years. A very long lot of years.

You do not forget a thing like that... not ever. But time can fade it... dull it. And let's be honest, it's a thing that you want to forget. That kind of trauma... that kind of terror... it's not something you want to dwell on. And maybe it's been easier for me to push it aside because for most of my childhood, the memory of it had been so repressed, that I'd literally put it out of my mind.

Or, more accurately... very, very deep inside my mind.

Until my feelings for Heero had started to stir, and those memories had bubbled up to the surface again. Facing them... dealing with them... accepting them... I can't think of a time in my life that has been rougher, and looking at my history, I think that's saying a lot. Nothing has ever brought me closer to giving up, than fighting through those flashbacks did.

But that had been, as I said, a lot of years ago. I had not had that nightmare since the war. Had not even really thought about it in a very long time.

But its power to tear me to pieces has not been diminished.

There were subtle differences... the soldier from all those years ago bore a striking resemblance to the man from the grocery. He wore that oh-so-cool leather jacket. I kept smelling chicken.

But the bite of that wooden crate into my hips was the same... the grit of the alley under my knees... the pain of the glass as it buried itself in my palm... the sounds of my own screams.

And just like before, it was like living through it all over again.

I woke on the floor, twisted in the sheets and struggling against nothing. Throat raw... shaking like a leaf... in pain in a dozen places... heart pounding so hard my chest hurt.

I barely managed to scramble to the damn bathroom before I vomited up every last bit of that deli dinner, and knew I wasn't going to be able to stomach the idea of chicken for quite awhile.

I had a moment of strange incoherency then, mind ruled by nothing but the last vestiges of the nightmare. It was the cold of the tile that made me aware that I'd wedged myself between the toilet and the wall, in the very corner of the bathroom in an instinctive attempt to hide. I was aware of it... but it still took me a while to decide that moving was a good idea. The sound of my own ragged, panting breath echoing so very eerily in the confined bathroom, is what convinced me, I think.

I reached out and flushed the toilet, to rid myself of that awful smell, and then cringed at the sound of the loud rush of water. Some part of my mind half expecting the noise to give away my position. To draw down the predators. That same small part was struggling hard to scream for Solo.

'Shit,' I muttered, a vain attempt at bolstering myself. 'Get yourself together, Maxwell.'

Might have been more convincing if my voice hadn't been trembling so damn much that I doubt anybody could have understood me had they even heard me. I crept out of my not so hidden hidey-hole and made myself go wash up. It felt like my legs were made of rubber. I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror, half afraid of seeing the evidence of what hadn't just happened.

Needed to stress that to myself... it had not just happened. Despite how my body felt. Despite what my mind said. Despite things I could feel that I knew could not really be there.

It became necessary to turn on all the lights... to check all the locks... to verify the security that couldn't really protect me from my own mind.

Some analytical part of my head was putting pieces together and drawing comparisons between a certain dark figure from my past and the asshole at the grocery. Understanding what had triggered the nightmare didn't help much in dealing with it though.

I gathered the quilt from our bed and wrapped myself in it as I made my way through the apartment, limping for no reason that was valid. I turned on the lights in every damn room, had to check every shadowed corner, every window latch. Had to try the front door. Had to stop myself from cradling my hand to my chest.

Had to put some effort into remembering that boys did not cry.

I fetched my opened bottle of soda from the fridge and it hadn't even been long enough that it was flat yet. I walked through the apartment again and finally admitted to myself that I was just trying to keep myself distracted so I didn't call Heero.

Because that little voice in my head might be screaming for Solo... but the rest of me was screaming for Heero, and I just couldn't let myself do that for real.

Nothing he could do anyway. He'd had a tough day and he didn't need me waking him up. He'd be home in less than twenty-four hours anyway. Not like he could get there any faster. He was still facing one last rough day and he didn't need to be doing it worrying about me.

Nothing he could do.

Except talk to me. And never mind that I'd have given my soul away on a bloody silver platter to hear his voice in that moment. But it was after midnight and I knew he'd be asleep, or getting ready to go to sleep, and he did not need my stupid melodrama.

So I checked the windows again and retreated to my chair, bottle of soda clutched in my hands like a talisman, understanding that sleep was not going to be happening again until Heero got home.

I looked at my sewing but knew there wasn't any solace there... my damn hands weren't steady enough to handle anything that precise, and I just didn't think I could manage the concentration. Besides... this may not make a lot of sense, but I didn't want to sew that memory into Trowa and Quatre's gift. When you make something by hand, you are committing hours of your time to it, and what you think about and what you feel while you work finds its way into the piece when you're done. Maybe it doesn't matter to anybody else, because nobody is going to see those thoughts but you... but they're there.

The quilt I was wrapped in was one of my own; Heero had picked the fabric and the pattern and brought it to me, I think as a way of letting me know he understood and supported my strange hobby. When I ran my hands over the blues and the greens, I felt his regard and his strange almost-pride in my work. I remembered the evenings we'd spent while I worked on it, could remember the books he had read to me. When I traced the lines of the quilting, I could remember his soft smile as he'd presented me with the bundle of a project yet to be.

If I picked up Trowa and Quatre's quilt now... I was afraid it would only remind me later of things too dark to send into their home. I didn't want that near them, even if only I saw it. Only I remembered it.

I found I was clutching our quilt tight around me and was on the verge of giving in to the need to hear Heero's voice. I wrestled it ruthlessly down. 'Idiot,' I muttered, and was appalled at the twisted sound of my own voice.

What the hell was the matter with me? I'd dealt with this enough times before. Why couldn't I get myself back under control? Just because it had been so many years? Because I hadn't been expecting it? Because that moron at the grocery wouldn't leave my head?

I was shocked as hell to look down and find that I had my cell phone clutched in my hand. I didn't even remember picking it up. Hadn't even remembered that I'd left it lay on the table by my chair. I made myself put it back down and took a long swallow of soda. It churned rather unhappily on my stomach and I set the bottle aside as well.

Without the bottle, I couldn't keep my hand from curling up protectively. I looked down to show my stubborn damn mind that there was nothing there but a stupid scar, and between one blink and the next there was blood all over my palm... running down my arm in trickles.

I knew it wasn't there. Was able to blink it out of existence as quickly as it had come... but that didn't stop the lurch my heart made. Didn't stop the sound that slipped from my throat. Didn't stop my good hand from snatching the phone from the table.

I have no idea what synapses rubbed up against what synapses, maybe some engrained need to protect Heero, but I found my fingers dialing Wufei, my mind wildly trying to think of some reasonable excuse for calling the man at twelve thirty in the damn morning.

Wufei is something of a night owl and I could only hope that the hour wouldn't seem too outrageous to him. His voice, when he picked up, didn't seem all that groggy.

'Hello?' he said, sounding faintly concerned. 'Duo?'

'Uh... Wufei?' I managed, appalled at how close to breaking down I was. 'I think... I mean... I can't find my jacket and... uh... I thought it might be in your car. Maybe.'

It took him a moment to reply and I wasn't sure if I sounded so bad he couldn't understand me, or if he was just so surprised at the hour. 'Your jacket?' he echoed, sounding very unsure of himself. 'I don't think so. No... I remember you taking it off when we got to the apartment.'

'Oh,' I replied and couldn't think of anything else to say. 'Are you sure?' I winced and tried to get my head together, but I just wanted him to talk to me some more. Just wanted to hear a voice that was more than an echo.

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