Authors: TB and Marsh
see Part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Stay, Stupid + Part 6

The cell they brought him to was the lone open door in a long white hallway of doors. It had a cot and a wash station and nothing more. No window. No timepiece. He would have nothing to alleviate his own thoughts.

Which were dark, that first night. He knew already that they would not release him. How long would he serve this time? Five years, ten? Another fifteen years? And brought down, this time as before, by his own naïveté. He'd done nothing to offend the Sphere except imagine he was unimportant enough to do as he pleased.

He wondered where Duo was, now. Before, when he'd gone to prison, he'd at least had the comfort of damning only himself by his rebellion. But he'd so quickly come to feel responsible for Duo, who was so lonely he would approach even a man like Wufei for companionship, who was so self-assured one moment and so lost the next. Had Trowa felt like that, in those days so long ago when he had taken Wufei under his wing? He barely remembered it happening. Before he'd even been released from the hospital ward Trowa had been there, stopping the men who would sneak in to pinch off a vital IV, to poison his food. They were Gundam Pilots.

Gundam Pilots. It all came down to that. A sliver of his life, a single year out of dozens. But it would define him forever.

He slept, but only from exhaustion. They didn't turn off the overhead light. It wasn't bright, but it still burned his eyes when he stared long enough.

+

They brought him to the same room, the same hard chair and table, the same wrist cuffs to bind him, as if he could possibly run anywhere. They fed him, bland oatmeal and toast and fruit in syrup too sugary for Wufei's ascetic tastes. Devi Chadhur came at what he said was eight o'clock, though Wufei had seen nothing to prove that right or wrong. He came with thick files, and he wasted no time before starting his questions.

This time, Wufei did not answer. He sat silently, all morning, until Chadhur tired of his resistance.

After lunch, they put him back in his cell.

They left him there for days, alone

.+

The longer they left him alone, the more determined Wufei was that they would have nothing from him that he didn't choose to give them. He stopped thinking in English, turning instead to the Mandarin of his youth. It forced him to reorganise, forced him to refocus. English was direct and loud, serious, self-centred. Mandarin was warm, inclusive; it reminded him of the proper carriage, the stillness he needed from his centre. In Mandarin, a man was never just one single man. It made his meditation easier, until he could meditate for hours at a time, clearing his mind of all thought until he felt peace from within, not settling like a sheet of his own will from without. But the thing he could not conquer was his body. He exercised as he could, performing every taolu of wushu that he remembered, but his body was no longer cooperative. Weakness from lack of movement made him clumsier than he'd been even as a beginner. He was sure they watched him, and so he was afraid to push himself to the point where his failings would be obvious. His resolve wavered at night, when he could not rest because of how little activity he had during the day.

Then, with no design that he could understand, his guards opened his cell and took him back to the room.

Chadhur was already there, lounging in his chair with a cup. Tea. Wufei could smell it, and the cream from the small tray on the table. Wufei took his seat, his face as blank as he could make it.

The agent said, "At some point they'll authorise me to take away showers and fresh clothes."

Wufei inhaled deeply, slowly, and rested his hands between his thighs. "I'm aware of how it works," he replied. "After that, my diet will be changed as well. You're wasting your time. There's not a thing for me to give you."

"You may not believe you have anything to give us, but that doesn't make it true."

"Then maybe you should tell me what it is you want to hear, and I'll confirm or deny it."

Chadhur smiled. It was a nice smile, the kind of smile Lotharios used to pick up blushing women, all charm and white teeth. Entirely inappropriate to the adversarial relationship they truly had. He said, "The prison psychologist at Éclatant Attentes described you as... what's her word." He opened one of his files. They were all dog-eared now, marked with brightly coloured tabs that bristled like a comb's teeth from the sides. "'Crusty.'"

"I prefer 'stubborn'," Wufei said.

"I don't think 'stubborn' quite captures your character, though."

"Opinions are like assholes; everyone's got one." It was something Trowa would say. Had said. He matched Trowa's tone from memory, dead-pan, unamused.

But Chadhur, who doubtlessly slept just fine, laughed aloud as if Wufei had made a great joke. "Here. Eat. You never know when I'll take it away from you." He uncovered a plate from the edge of the table and pushed it near Wufei's side. Dumplings. Freshly steamed, heat still rising from them in little wisps, carrying the scent of lotus.

They were treats, dianxin, to be eaten with tea among friends. He hadn't had one in-- because he didn't indulge in treats, and he had no friends. He suspected Chadhur knew very well the insult he implied.

Which meant Chadhur expected him to refuse. What did he gain from that? What did it mean, why pretend ignorance of Wufei's culture but make such a loaded offer? Unless it truly was ignorance. Sou could be bought frozen at any market in the Chinese quarter. But he still hesitated. Was it worth depriving himself, even if it was mockery? Or perhaps it was only a test of his courage. How far would he dare? Chadhur surely expected him to refuse.

He took one. The dough was fluffy and light. The lotus seed paste oozed over his tongue, warm and sweet.

Chadhur took one, too. His bite was too large to be seemly. He leaned back with his notes.

Wufei took his time consuming the bun, chewing slowly and thoroughly. It was better than he remembered. "What else did she say?"

"Your psychologist?"

"We weren't talking about my hairdresser."

"Major depressive disorder. Sleep disorder. Assorted physical symptoms that could manifest as psychological."

"Physical symptoms?" he repeated harshly. "Are those her words for incapacitating--" Too late he heard himself. He closed his lips over the incriminating word and stared down at the plate of buns.

Chadhur went on softly, casually. "She noted severe headaches, short-term memory loss, occasional cognitive dysfunction, abnormal EEGs, chronic fatigue. Sensitivity to light."

"Interrogation techniques don't change much."

"Generally we find the classics are the best."

"Then I imagine your psychologist here will report the same symptoms. Is today's session going to focus on my supposed, various manias?"

"I'm not interested in monitoring your long-term development," Chadhur said. "This is not a correction facility."

"What would you call it?"

"We're here to determine whether you're a risk to the health of the Earth Sphere, not to yourself."

He was dry-mouthed. Chadhur wouldn't stoop to drugging the buns, the agent wasn't so crass, but his stomach was unhappy. "If I'm that damned dangerous, transfer me to the prison of your choice and the world will be safe again."

"Call me an optimist." Chadhur put another bun between his teeth and flipped to a new file. "I believe the truth will always out. You've been here almost a month. Long enough for the reality to sink in, for the memories to start keeping you up at night. You're outraged, right now, you're clinging to the anger-- you are stubborn-- to keep you going because you believe you don't deserve this. But anger has a pretty short half-life. In another month, or maybe even the month after that, you'll be done fighting this war with me. When that happens, you'll answer my questions, and I will send you home." He licked his fingers. "I'm not here to be cruel to you," he went on. "I take no enjoyment out of it, sir. But as much as you believe you don't deserve to be here, I believe the world deserves to know for sure."

That was too much. Wufei felt the surge of temper start, but the explosion was numbingly, blindingly immediate. The plate clattered to the floor, scattering the buns to the corners. He was on his feet without remembering standing, he was leaning over Chadhur with his hands clenched to fists. "You haven't asked me anything," he snarled, and undid all his careful plans not to react to their provocations.

Chadhur did not shrink back. He said, "Are you in collusion with Mariemaia Barton to raise a military force?"

His breath trembled in his chest. "No."

Chadhur closed his folders and stood. "You'll have a shower tonight. Possibly the next night. Sleep well, sir."

"That's all? One question? No follow-up? No..." He stopped himself with an effort that left him shaking. Shameful, humiliating-- to be so weak.

Chadhur shut the door behind him.

+

Every day he waited for them to summon him again.

They'd succeeded in rousing a reaction from him. He'd engaged their puppet, he'd responded. He'd dialogued. Any experienced negotiator would have him at that table again, would be pressing the advantage, not giving him time to recoup.

Or maybe it was brilliant, after all. He'd known his mistake as he was making it. He'd been furious, enraged at himself, at Chadhur, not ready, not fooled. And Chadhur believed that he was lying, so he would have taken Wufei's honest answer as one more falsehood, one more sign that he wasn't ready to cooperate.

He was nearing desperation.

What would happen when he did break, and there were no secrets to spill?

+

The day came when he couldn't bring himself to leave his cot.

They'd never taken anything from him, not even something as simple as clean linens. The threat remained, hour after hour. It wore on him, even though he knew exactly what they were doing.

He stayed in his bed for four meal cycles. He would have been there longer, but something changed.

Chadhur came to him.

The peremptory knock at his door was the same, except that he'd only recently been disturbed to be given a fresh jumpsuit of grey cotton. He stirred on his pillow to look.

"You're early," he said.

"It's my day off." Chadhur wore plainclothes, not the impeccable olive uniform. His shirt-tails were loose and wrinkled, even. He tapped Wufei's feet under the thin blanket. "Budge up?"

Maybe he was hallucinating.

Chadhur sat on the edge of the cot. "It's a Saturday," he said. He looked about Wufei's cell incuriously, his hands flat, then cupping his knees. "I know they don't tell you the dates. I thought you might like to know."

"Thank you." He had water in a glass on the floor. He sipped it, and stayed curled away from the agent. He regretted his laziness, but only dimly. Saturday. It was hardly a gift. It didn't even mean anything.

Chadhur fidgeted with something metallic. Car keys, he saw in a glance. Twirling them between fingers.

"Duo Maxwell was sighted in the colonies," the agent said.

"And next week he'll be somewhere else."

"For his sake, I hope so. He assaulted another agent. There's a warrant been issued for his arrest."

It made his chest seize tight. He doubled the thin pillow under his cheek to hide the shaking in his hands. "When are the Preventers going to stop stalking us? None of us is plotting to destroy the peace we sacrificed so much to achieve. None of us ever will."

"I find that interesting." Chadhur was watching him. The keys flipped, twice, again. "Coming from you."

"Interesting or ironic?"

He heard a chuckle. "Both, I suppose. Oh, I don't dispute that you sacrificed. But for peace?"

Another sip of the tepid water. "Why else would I?"

"Dekim Barton was not interested in peace. Nor, I can assure you, is his granddaughter."

Mariemaia again. Mariemaia always. He didn't even know what she looked like, now. "Have you arrested her yet?"

"Do you show all your cards at once?"

"I don't play games."

"No? Then what were you doing with Duo Maxwell?"

He couldn't conduct this-- conversation lying down. He sat up, though his body ached; sharp pains at his shoulders and back from lying horizontal too long, and the stiffness of his burns resisting being pulled. Chadhur offered him a hand, but he ignored it. He said, "Duo Maxwell is my friend."

"You told me you hadn't seen him since the Barton Rebellion. He became your friend in five days?"

"We were friends during the war. We didn't stop being friends just because time and distance separated us." I wanted to kiss you that night, Duo had said. They'd been alone in that cell, too, two boys, hearing alarms all through the Lunar Base but unable to determine why; Heero had been gone so long, so much longer than normal. And then the air, the quiet flow of air through the vents had stopped-- and it had all been silence.

He had planned to die in communion with the honoured dead of his clan. But he had still felt Duo's fingers, frantic and then grasping, clinging to his shirt, his wrist.

He would give anything to be back there now, even facing death, if only to have a second chance to die with Duo. A better death than the slow madness he faced here.

Duo would die in a place like this. Duo would want to die.

"Mr Chang."

"Are you a liar, Chadhur?"

Chadhur smiled at his scrutiny. "I like to think not. For this job, yes. I am often called upon to twist the truth." He slipped his keys away, and his hands lay flat then. "Are you asking if I've lied to you?"

"Haven't you?" He interrupted before the young man could answer. "You're not off the clock now. This isn't a friendly visit. It's not even your day off." He felt bitter laughter stir in his throat. "Is it even Saturday?"

"Will you believe me now if I contradict you?" Chadhur stood. He took a stance on the wall opposite Wufei, only a few steps away, his arms crossed loosely. "Were you romantically involved with Duo Maxwell during the war?"

"No." He scraped his hair from his face. He hadn't even brushed it after his shower the night before, and it was flat and tangled.

"Agents observed you kissing in a restaurant. Your neighbours saw you holding hands in several venues."

"You asked if we were romantically involved during the war."

"You're romantically involved now. Even though you haven't seen him since the war. Even though he only made contact with you five days before we picked you up."

It was almost long enough to braid, in back. This time, the laughter that threatened him was nearly hysterical.

"We were," he said. "Now I am here and he is running from the Preventers harassing him."

"Here's what I think happened." Chadhur slid into a crouch, his eyes intent on Wufei, who intently denied his gaze. "Mariemaia Barton," Chadhur said, "contacted you via her letters once you were released from prison. You agreed to meet with her, knowing she was using this 'book' idea as a cover for gathering her old crowd of supporters around her. Maxwell, now, Maxwell was the part I couldn't figure out. I'm not a big fan of random coincidences. But I think that's exactly what Maxwell was. A random coincidence. But a propitious one. He approached you, and he's full of, yes, entirely justified anger and hatred for the Preventers, who are the very people who broke apart the Barton Rebellion. I think you drew him into your conspiracy with Mariemaia Barton. I think he's out there right now contacting others. And I think that he's going to do my work for me, drawing them out, drawing them into the open. And when we know who they are, we will arrest them, and him, and they will all go to jail for a very long time." He waited for a response. Wufei refused to grant him one.

"Did you know he murdered a woman?" Chadhur added. "If we bring him in, it will be for a far harsher sentence than simple conspiracy."

He spoke through a dry throat. "That's quite the story you've fabricated. And I can see how you and others like you would like to believe it. I might have myself if I were a Preventer. Paranoia is in your job description. But it's fiction. Complete fiction."

"Is it?"

"I exchanged a few letters with Ms Barton. None of them had anything to do with another attempt at world domination."

Chadhur sighed heavily. His hands made fists in the edges of Wufei's sight.

He knocked the door with his elbow. "I'm done," he called to the guard.

Wufei stirred as it opened. He said, "Only one of us is a liar, Chadhur."

The agent turned back. It was quiet between them, quiet even outside when the guard didn't dare to interrupt. The unflickering fluorescent above was steady, never bright enough, never the darkness he craved.

"For the record," the agent said, "it is a Saturday. It's even really my day off. And I'm not lying about this, either-- we will bring Maxwell in. And I think you'd rather we don't. So if you won't help yourself, maybe you'll consider helping him."

+

He did consider it. He thought of it obsessively, from every angle, doubled over his own supposition until he couldn't untangle whether it was immoral or just stupid.

And when his nails were bitten to the quick and he couldn't stomach even the porridge they brought him for breakfast, he considered suicide, too. He knew how to slow his own heartbeat, knew how to stop his own breathing. He would slip away in sleep, sleep he could barely remember now, and they would lose all the leverage they thought they had with him, they would lose their precious game.

Except that in doing so he might well condemn Duo. Duo would not survive months of interrogation like this, this purposefully gentle approach that was far more effective than torture. He would go mad-- madder-- at the lack of sun, he would attack one of them, he would be punished for it-- he thought of suicide and he thought of Duo thinking of suicide, and though he had never asked to be responsible for another life, Duo had asked him to be, by asking him to be a friend; and he couldn't choose just his own release.

And Chadhur refused to call him back. It was torture, it was deliberate and it was cruel. He dreamed even though he didn't sleep, reliving a dozen memories like nightmares. Heero Yuy's suit plunging away to the ocean as Wufei's console fractured from the force of their battle and erupted in flame. The flame, all too brief, from the explosion of his colony, his clan, his entire world, his absolute conviction that it was meaningless. You couldn't change anything once you were dead; that was the gift of life, the burden of life, change--

Duo still smiled. Duo still smiled. He knew next to nothing about Duo, had never even asked why he'd used to wear that priest collar, why he'd stopped. What he did know fit in one of Wufei's tiny teacups, but it filled his mind-- the dimple in the left cheek when he laughed, that little scar by his eye, the bitter taste of his coffee on his tongue, the warm velvet softness of the skin of his stomach.

He couldn't remember what Trowa felt like, and he'd thought he'd loved Trowa. But he'd never attempted to contact Trowa once he was released; it had never even occurred to him to try. He'd picked Australia for the Sydney Opera House, not even for a good reason like it was far away from the others, just from some slip of memory hearing about it once, Sydney Opera House where they still performed Er Huang operas like The Legend of Red Lantern, and even in China they didn't keep the traditions--

They turned off his light, then, and never turned it back on.

When the door opened on his darkness, the brightness behind the frame blinded him. "Come out," the guard said. "Come on, then."

There was Chadhur in their little room, calm-faced at Wufei's entrance. And a woman. It had been so long since Wufei had seen a new face that he almost flinched from the sheer unexpectedness of it. She was older than him, perhaps fifty, and there was something cold in her eyes that promised unpleasantness.

Let them bring it, Wufei thought wearily. What else could he suffer before they were done with him?

Tea. Again. This time Chadhur poured for Wufei first, as he ought to have done with the dianxin. "Oolong," Chadhur said. "Very fine, Mr Chang."

"No," he declined quietly.

"I don't think you need to worry about it keeping you up at night."

"No thank you," he said again. His voice was rusty, so long unused.

Chadhur's eyes dipped, and stayed down for a long time. He inhaled just before he began to speak again. "I wondered if you've thought at all about what we spoke of, last time."

"You know that I have." He had no energy even to worry at the stiffness in his bad hand. He pressed his fist to his stomach. "You meant me to."

"Have you made any decisions, Mr Chang?"

"Yes." The woman leaned forward, predatory. Chadhur at least was still. Wufei stared back. He said, "I'm not going to make any false confession or accusations to give you another victim."

Chadhur's mouth pulled tight. Then, suddenly, he laughed.

"Sir, I admire your integrity."

"Is that what it is?" Wufei retorted bitterly. He discovered he was shaking. He couldn't quell it, or the nausea that wrenched his gut in tight knots.

"It was the nicer of the words that occurred to me."

"What was the other?"

"Damn stubborn mule."

"I will not lie," Wufei said. "Not to save myself. Not even to save Duo. And there is nothing to tell the truth about."

There were folders on the table before Chadhur. He always had the folders when they spoke in this room. He opened the top one now, and put photographs before Wufei, tossed them down with negligent flicks of his wrist so that they fell atop each other and lay scattered.

"They wanted me to show you these. They're fakes, though."

The woman by the wall stirred, and frowned.

They were pictures of Duo. Being arrested, being questioned, sitting bound and hooded in a room just like Wufei's cell. He wanted to be numb to them, and the photoshopping was plain when he looked for it, because all the pictures of Duo were too young. They still hurt, though.

He swallowed painfully. "I would have known without your confession."

"Call it a gesture of faith." Chadhur crumpled one and let it drop. The shadows from the neat folds of his turban hid his eyes, until he moved his head again.

"The only gesture of faith that will mean anything is my release from this facility." Wufei raised his own head. "Eventually you'll give up, and admit you've made a mistake."

And then, it happened. He had entirely stopped waiting for it, but it happened, all the same.

"For once," Chadhur said, "I'm ahead of you." A new folder, a new paper. His pen moved for the first time, a quick precise scratch at the bottom. He put the sheet before Wufei, facing him, placed it precisely and gently. "This is my sworn statement that I've concluded you are, in fact, innocent of conspiracy." He rose. "You won't be allowed to keep it, but I wanted you to see it in writing, at least. I won't say it was a pleasure, Mr Chang, but it was an honour." He extended his hand.

It had the quality of one of his dreams, feverish in intensity, thick like water all around him, forcing him to swim for something solid. He couldn't read the paper at first. He couldn't read it at all. Just the signature, blue ink on the white page. He unclenched his fingers under the table. When his open palm rose, he stared at it. He let Chadhur take it and squeeze.

Not real. Not real.

It wasn't.

Chadhur squeezed his hand. "Director Tindale will be overseeing your case now, sir. I apologise, deeply. I wish this was the end of the road."

"I didn't really expect it was." He had his hand back, released almost tenderly. He was shaking, trembling like a leaf in a headwind. He hadn't bent. He hadn't bent--

His forehead touched the cool metal table. The tears spilling from his eyes were hot and they stung, but the table was cool on his cheek. He was too exhausted to cry long, but he had no strength left to stop it from happening, either.

He didn't even hear Chadhur and the woman leave.

+

Eight more meal cycles, uninterrupted by questions, by falsified photographs, by thought. He slept, finally, but it was more like unconsciousness than rest. He was heavy-limbed and light-headed when he woke.

Eight more meal cycles, and then they didn't bring his breakfast.

He waited, but Chadhur never showed, and the guard outside his cell was unresponsive even to questions about the time. The morning wore on, grindingly slow, and there was only silence from the Preventers.

It was nearly noon, by all he could figure, when they finally came for him, and when they did, he was shocked. It was the agent who had arrested him and the woman from his last interrogation. They were carrying the cardboard box of his things, and when they opened his door, they left it open.

"When you've dressed, please follow Sandoval," the woman instructed him gruffly. "You're free to go."

"I'm free to go," he repeated, disbelieving it. "Just like that."

"Yes, sir." She met his eyes without revealing anything--which revealed something in itself, he thought. "Please follow Sandoval. There will be paperwork to sign." She inclined her head, and left without looking back. Sandoval set his box on the cot, and politely stepped outside the cell--with that open door--to give him privacy.

No. No. He was free? They wouldn't do this if he weren't. He felt shaken by it, by the surreality of it, the lack of all reason and logic. All this time, and just like that?

Everything was in the box exactly as it had been when they'd bagged it on his arrival. He tore open the seals on his wallet, his little teacups, his spare shirt and trousers, his sandals. His backpack smelled musty, and his watch had tarnished. The clothes he'd been wearing when they'd brought him in had wrinkled, and he disdained that condition, but suddenly he was so eager to shed his jumpsuit that such things barely mattered. He stripped immediately. Every item was like--recovering a bit of himself, his identity. It felt foreign going on, but when he stood fully dressed, he held his shoulders straight with new strength, his spine a ramrod. He left the jumpsuit in a heap on the floor. He would never touch it again, not even to shove it aside with a toe.

Sandoval led him to the lift at the end of his hallway, but this time they did not go down to the basement, but up, past the lobby to the second floor. The doors slid wide on pleasant offices, on pale olive carpet and house plants, bleached wooden walls, high windows facing Lake Burley Griffin. It was like stepping into a new universe. He had to stop himself from clenching his hands to fists on his backpack.

"Through here, sir," Sandoval said, and pointed through an aisle of glass to a closed conference room. "I'll bring the forms."

Wufei did not thank him, though the instinct was there, revived by the civilised surroundings. He contained it tightly, proudly, and walked with his head high and his steps measured down that hall to the room. He resisted the urge to bolt it open, and quietly closed it behind him.

Quatre Winner was sitting at the table.

He couldn't even be surprised. It made a horrific sense, at last. They'd let him out because Quatre had paid them to. Not because they'd finally been convinced of his innocence. Of course.

And then almost as swiftly he was chastened at his own instantaneous ingratitude. He might rather see anyone else sitting there but Quatre, but Quatre had made plans, had fought battles, obviously, to help him. To be there for him.

He set his backpack beside a plush leather chair opposite the other man, and sank into it carefully. "Hello," he said softly.

Quatre inclined his head exactly as the captain had, with no greater warmth. "Hello, Wufei."

He was entirely bald, now, his head skull-like. The hand that lay on the table was all bone, pale skin stretched in fragile webs over the fingers. "You relapsed," Wufei guessed guiltily.

Quatre lowered his eyes. His hand left the table to pick at the hem of his coat. "The doctors think the chemo will be enough this time." He exhaled, and then his lips pressed tightly together. "Tea? There's a pot there." He waved at a pretty oak stand by the wall.

"I hope not to be here that long." Duo would have mocked his awkwardness. He wished it were Duo sitting there, because it would have been easier. They might even have laughed.

Duo. "He called you," he said, sure of it suddenly.

Quatre nodded. "The day you were arrested."

"Where is he?" He sat forward. "Is he here? Outside?"

"No. I'm sorry. I don't know where he is. He called me on L4. I never even saw him."

He told himself that he had expected that. It didn't entirely ease the hurt, but he understood. He had known when Duo ran that day that it was over.

Sandoval interrupted his thoughts, entering with a courteous knock. He set four clipboards before Wufei, and offered him a pen.

"I've read them all," Quatre said. "Most of it is legal reassurance that your interview transcripts weren't falsified, that you weren't mistreated. Don't sign any of it."

It irritated him, that unsolicited advice. He tried to read the top document, a thick packet of paper with coloured tabs lining the sides, but the language was thick with jargon, a maze of archaic English it would have taken ages to decipher. He read no more than a page before surrendering. "As he said," he muttered, and pushed them away.

Sandoval's pursed lips were unhappy. "Sir, you have to sign."

"He does not," Quatre interrupted. "And suggesting otherwise is unwise in front of a witness. You have a lawyer in the building. I suggest you ask for clarification before you make trouble for yourself."

It was aggressively rude, all said flatly in a clipped tone Wufei had never heard from Quatre. He added nothing to it. Sandoval gathered the clipboards, and exited in a chastened hurry.

They were silent in his wake. Quatre sat breathing with slight difficulty, his hands clasped in his lap. Wufei wished he had poured tea, if only to have something to gracefully occupy him.

"You can leave," Quatre said finally. "I have a car outside. We can take you home. Anywhere you want."

"My flat will have been let out by now," he realised. He had never even thought of such details, all this time.

"No. I paid your rent." He didn't miss Wufei's narrowed eyes. "It's a figure of speech. It all came out of your pension. I've done nothing to oblige you to me."

The most awkward yet. He had wounded Quatre in his thoughtlessness. "Forgive me," he said, and found he even meant it. "I don't hide my feelings well. Especially the ungenerous ones."

Quatre glanced away from him. "It's fine."

"I am not entitled. Quatre, please forgive me."

The pale hands twitched. "Fine. Yes." He stared at the oil paintings framed on the wall, but unblinking, and Wufei knew he wasn't seeing them. "I don't know what to do with you," Quatre added abruptly. "Except help where I'm able and stay away, the rest of the time."

"I don't--"

"I'm here for Duo." He overrode Wufei with that flat voice. "Just as much as you."

He was not one for empathy. He had never been desirous of understanding others, struggled to find sympathy within himself. But he thought he did understand, now. The way Quatre sat, as if his back ached, the strain of sitting upright against his own fragility. And assault. He could only imagine what wrestling Quatre must have done, how much attention Wufei's troubles had required at a time when he clearly had little to spare from his own ordeal. The last time they'd seen each other, Quatre had come to greet him in his first moments of freedom after finishing his sentence in prison. He had just had the diagnosis, then, but Wufei had been in such a hurry to be away from all reminders of his past that he had barely spoken. He'd been so intent on his own isolation. Quatre wasn't Duo, to insist on friendship until it was willingly given.

"I'm sorry." He said it simply, though it was not simple. He swallowed dryly. "I was afraid of you. Of your pity."

Quatre was not looking at him at all any more. "I'm sorry you feel that way."

"And you were afraid to push me." The sunlight was beautiful, on the glass buildings, on the rippled water of the lake. On a human face, on a friend's face. "What if we stopped?" Wufei asked.

"Stopped seeing each other?" Quatre shifted, then made to rise. "As you wish."

"Stopped being afraid." Quatre's cancer levelled the field, and he realised that with a sudden guilty ferocity. He might live forever with his burns, but as Duo had said, they were only things he had, not things he was. Quatre had not learned that yet. Without his own Duo, would he ever?

Quatre stood stiffly. "I don't want to talk about my fear with you, Wufei."

"Then don't." He managed a smile. "Thank you for coming to help. I won't ask for more."

"I came because Duo called."

"Thank you." He floundered, and settled for saying, "Duo would thank you if he were here."

"He was almost incoherent." Quatre's eyes flitted about the room, but he stayed, at least, to say it. "It's been a long time since I've heard him like that. I'm sorry for you both, that this happened."

"It's over now. We-- I-- can start over."

"I'll let you know if he calls me again. I'm not sure where he's disappeared to, but he always turns up."

He stood as well. "If you talk to him tell him-- tell him to come home."

Wufei took the piercing gaze he got as suspicion, until Quatre spoke, and he realised it was only the Quatre he had used to know, at last, appearing to defend an absent companion. "I don't know what precisely has gone on with you both," Quatre said. "I know it's not my place to ask. But I say this as his friend. He's not well. Please be careful of him. Don't hold out some kind of life together if you don't mean to give it to him."

He spread his hands at his sides, opening himself for the most mistrustful of examinations. He answered only, "I love him."

In the glare of the sunlight, he didn't quite know how to read what happened with Quatre's eyes. But the lines around them went, perhaps, a bit softer, a bit sadder.

"He--" Wufei licked his lips. "He gave me permission to need things. Him."

It was a near thing. But Quatre came back the step he'd swayed away, to the edge of the table between them. "He told you about Hilde?"

"Yes."

"It was hell." Unadorned, like that, he believed it. "Not just what happened to her, to their home, their life. He sued the Preventers. It took two years. He won, finally, but two years, and he couldn't make them go away entirely. Couldn't bring her back to life with the money. There was no closure on it. I think he expected there would be."

"There never is. It just fades into the background. Like white noise." There was a flicker of scepticism in Quatre's face, and Wufei closed his hands, planted them fist down on the table. "Do you think I'm not capable of feeling things? For him. For all of you?"

Quatre blinked. "I don't think that."

"Don't you?"

They stared at each other. "For me," Quatre said. "I think you feel nothing for me."

"That's not so."

Quatre did not believe him. He blinked again, and looked away again, and for a moment Wufei thought he was going to walk out and leave it like that. Desperately, he said, "The problem is, neither of us expects to be cared for, so it's almost an affront to learn that we are. Isn't it?"

How like him Quatre had become. As if they had changed places, after all these years, Quatre taking his anger, his loneliness, his hurt pride. He wished he could rip all of it away from Quatre. It was only a shield, but it did more damage than plasma fires or lymphoma.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, one more time. He caught Quatre's eyes. He might have cracked that armour, finally. Some of the Quatre he remembered peeked out at him, vulnerable but alive. Wufei dragged in a slow, deep breath, and held it, to resist saying anything more. Instead, he extended his hand, the scarred hand, and held it out between them.

Quatre's shoulders lost their rigidity immediately. He took Wufei's hand quickly, covering it in both his own. Wufei was unable to return the pressure, his hand unused to such exercise after months of trying to hide the extent of his disability, but he closed his fingers about Quatre's as much as the tight skin allowed.

"I didn't pity your pain," Quatre murmured. "I pitied how you held yourself. Alone. I wondered what life you could have, an island in the middle of an ocean."

It struck him as odd, that. He'd done it so long, since he was a child. He hadn't known it was abnormal, until Duo had showed him. He raised his other hand to touch Quatre's, and said, "Be careful that you don't start to do it, too, then."

"I didn't always. And I hate it now I do." Quatre smiled, finally, a small and brittle lifting of his lips. His eyes were red-rimmed. "Be safe, whatever you do. Be happy."

"Thank you. For all of it."

"Do you have any needs?"

He shook his head in the negative. "I have everything I need."

Quatre's mouth opened, then shut. He hesitated, then said only, "I wish you well."

[part 5] [part 7] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]