Married couples tell each other a thousand things without speech.
Wufei was a warrior. He would probably be so for the rest of his life. He slept with one eye open, one ear on alert, and a part of his brain always attuned to his environment. During missions, his sleep was light and fitful.
When he was in his room in the converted workshop - the 'safe-house' - he slept better, knowing instinctively that, with Heero's security system and his partner's fine senses also on alert, he was Safe. His sleep was deeper, restful. The small part of his awareness that kept watch, even here, even now, analyzed all noises but rarely saw fit to wake him.
So he was aware of the steps coming up the stairs but they didn't disturb him. Slower and heavier than normal; Heero was still hampered by his injury, but Wufei had grown used to the different tread in the three weeks his partner had been back and walking again...Way ahead of schedule of course, stupid doctors...Wufei had warned them, but they didn't listen...better off seeing a faith healer than those quacks... his thoughts drifted back into dreams as his brain processed the information without any fuss: Heero. Safe. Sleep on.
"So this door's to the master bedroom? Your room?"
Because he was Safe, the first words, in a voice that was not Heero's, did not make him bolt awake reaching for his weapon. Heero's voice further helped to keep him under; his partner would never allow anything like an enemy near Wufei while the latter was asleep.
Sound of a door opening.
"And this is the study. Cool."
Voice nearer...In his sleep, Wufei's brow wrinkled. His brain registered the voice approaching, though the only footsteps he could clearly hear were Heero's. Safe was one thing, but there were limits; his brain upped his awareness levels. Even in sleep, Wufei now had both ears pricked, seeking further information.
"Nice, nice. Ah, and this will be the spare bedroom then, right?"
Several things hit him at once. The voice - at his door. But - familiar. Doorknob - turning.
Wufei was awake and staring at the door when it popped open. His fingers were on the Luger's hilt, but the familiarity of the voice kept him from snatching it from the bedside table and aiming.
The figure outlined against the brief flash of light was hauled back - accidentally jerking the door closed - on that last exclamation.
"Baka!" Heero's voice, a hiss. "Why did you- I told you Chang was sleeping upstairs!"
"Well...yeah. But I thought-...you said you had a master bedroom and a guest room, and I asked you if the room at the end was your room and you said yes..." The meanderings wound down into a shrug that Wufei could almost feel through the door.
"...my room? What?"
Heero's voice indicated he was confused. Wufei, despite his brutal awakening, was not.
The owner of that unexpected voice had meant, 'your room', as in, Wufei's and Heero's. He had assumed they slept together.
The rush of emotion in response to that thought was blurred by the sleep still clinging to the corners of his mind, but he was pretty sure he was annoyed.
There was a soft knock on the door. Wufei was already sitting up in bed, but didn't answer. No need to.
The door opened and a familiar tousled head was outlined against the light.
"Chang?" A whisper. "You awake?"
"What do you think?"
"Yuy, what the fuck is Maxwell doing here?"
"...It's complicated. Go back to sleep."
The door closed softly. Wufei stared at it.
"Hey, sorry man." A whisper in that oh-so-recognizable voice, somewhere near the stairwell. "I didn't realize...say, where am I gonna sleep?"
"Couch." Heero growled softly.
"Oh. Well, okay. It looked comfortable-" the voice and footsteps faded down the stairs.
Wufei stared at the door, then shook his head once, violently. Unfortunately it appeared he was indeed already awake.
No way in hell was he going to back to sleep before finding out why Maxwell was setting up house on their couch.
He was dressed and coming down the stairs a few minutes later. His last hope it might have been an illusion born of exhaustion faded. Duo Maxwell was sitting at the counter, large as life, sipping the instant coffee Wufei and Heero kept for their rare guests.
"Wufei! Hey, sorry I woke you, buddy. Didn't know which room you were in." Duo waved at him cheerfully.
That's one way of putting it, Wufei thought darkly, still furious at Duo's blithe assumption about his relationship with Heero.
Heero had stood as soon as Wufei had come down the stairs, refilling the kettle and setting it to boil again. Duo's eyes, curious and alert, went from Heero's back to Wufei, who was hesitating at the counter.
"Use my stool," Heero said without turning around.
"Oh, sorry guys, didn't realize you only had the two! This yours, Fei? Here, siddown. Least I can do. Heero tells me you were out all last night, following a suspect?"
"Yes." All last night, and the night before. It was now early afternoon and he needed his sleep, but more than that, he needed to know what Duo was doing here. Maxwell's voice rang too loudly in the big, empty space of the workshop's floor. He was perched on the counter near the kettle now, finishing his coffee and giving Wufei his well-remembered grin, which was too bright and vibrant to bear after only four hours of sleep.
"Find anything good? Did the guy have loads of guilty secrets?"
"Actually it was a woman, and no." Wufei muttered, rubbing his face, his interrupted sleep clinging like grime to his skin. Heero was still preparing the tea but his head suddenly tilted slightly, indicating he was listening; he'd done some hacking and ID checking on the case. It was to him Wufei was speaking as he continued, though he didn't look in his partner's direction. "Turned out to be a false lead; Armand's team came back with the contact, their tail tried to close the deal last night. All settled and passed on to ESUN services."
Heero nodded minutely - Duo, missing the whole silent part of the interchange between the partners, looked puzzled. Wufei didn't really care if he followed the conversation or not.
He nodded in thanks as Heero put a cup of tea in front of him before returning to his own stool with a protein blend drink from the fridge. Wufei took a sip, then another. Duo was beginning to fidget.
Feeling sufficiently awake to be able to cope, Wufei put down the tea. Heero immediately started talking.
"Maxwell is here to test the defenses of Ops Centre."
Wufei hesitated, his hand hovering over an apple in the basket on the counter. "Because you're out of commission...?"
Heero nodded. He tried to break in to Ops every so often, to test their defenses. It wasn't a very serious attempt - the guards were warned he was coming; it was mainly a test of the wired security and computer system. But he still had to be physically able. And he wasn't quite up to that level just yet.
Heero's recovery, in the past four weeks since being shot, was nothing short of amazing, and had their clinic's head, Dr Hampton, completely flabbergasted...and his staff mightily relieved. In the few days Heero had spent in the Ops clinic, he'd been just about as impossible a patient as Wufei had expected. The bone-like alloy that had been injected into Heero's vertebra and ribs was even more solid than the skeletal structures it held together, so the fractures were no issue, but his muscles and nerves had been damaged by the shot and the surgery, and bed rest had been indicated for at least two weeks, followed by intense and thorough physiotherapy to regain lost mobility.
The so-called patient had rearranged his room in the clinic on the first day - all by himself, despite strict orders not to move - to get a better view of the doorway and have his back to the wall. He'd broken out of the clinic on the third night to filch some supplies and power tools from the mechanics division; the next day the staff had found a metal bar bolted across a corner of his room at head height, and Heero doing minimal pull-ups and stretching 'to keep his back muscles fit'. When a nurse changed his bed and accidentally found the Glock he'd stashed at the head of the mattress, Hampton had called in Wufei to 'help deal with it'. Wufei had pointed out that Heero would have to be a good deal more weakened than he was for Wufei to be able to disarm him. Hampton had stared at him as if they were both insane.
Finally, Heero had only spent five days in the clinic before being kicked out as being way too healthy for the staff to deal with. He had returned to the converted workshop and promptly ignored all appointments for physiotherapy, since he knew better than anyone the limits to which he could push his body and he wasn't going to stand for some worrywart physician telling him what he could and couldn't do. Wufei had wisely said nothing.
He was making tremendous progress but he wasn't up to breaking into Ops yet. But that didn't mean he had to call on Maxwell! Wufei looked at his partner from the corner of his eye. While Heero was recovering, Wufei had been doing a few solo missions or helping out other teams - pretty boring work for the most part, but nonetheless necessary. He wasn't that busy though, he could have done the test in Heero's stead. The annoyance he'd felt since he'd woken up - been woken up actually - increased. Apparently his abilities to break into a stronghold were not comparable to the 'perfect soldier's'.
Heero caught the loaded look with an even one of his own; he was probably used to Wufei's thought processes and his hyper-sensitivity to any suggestion that his skills were being disparaged.
"I would have asked Maxwell here even if I was fit," Heero's voice was neutral, but a minimal hand gesture told Wufei to calm down, he wasn't being taken lightly. "It's been a year since we set up Ops's defenses. I want to put them through a thorough run."
Wufei paused with the cup near his lips. "Thorough..."
"He wants me to crack the joint!" Duo chuckled, finally unable to contain himself. "Cold!"
The teacup rattled against the counter in alarm. "You don't mean-"
"It's the only viable test." Heero explained. "No warning of the personnel; Une is the only one who's been informed. Duo will go in knowing nothing of the system as it is set up, as if he were really trying to infiltrate the base."
Wufei's eyes were wide as he stared from Duo's grin to Heero's calm eyes. "He's going to get shot."
"Don't diss the man, Fei. They won't even see me!" Duo snorted.
"He'll be going in with a flack jacket, and strict orders to surrender if caught without trying anything stupid." Heero's eyes were like twin blow-torches, melting even Duo's indomitable grin a fraction.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just remember to bail me out of jail, in the very unlikely event that that happens." Duo sniffed.
"So, when are you going to do this insane stunt? Tonight?" Wufei asked, wondering where their couch came into the equation.
"Nah. 'Wing' said to go in cold, not blind! I'm tackling this like a regular job. First I case the joint. That'll take me one or two nights, depending on outer security. Then I'll probe, see how far I get. Then I get serious and-"
"How long are you going to be here?" Wufei interrupted; the skin of his neck felt like someone had pressed cold metal to it.
"Best guess, two weeks. Depends on how fast the final phase goes."
"Or if you get arrested on your first attempt," Heero murmured, finishing his protein drink.
"Not gonna happen, Yuy, not gonna happen."
Wufei barely heard their banter. Two weeks...or more...with Maxwell? That much time on a mission with Duo wouldn't be a problem, but...but here? In their house? Something within Wufei reacted with an immediate No! and from the way Heero was slightly hunched over the empty bottle and watching him, he was rather expecting that reaction and not really looking forward to it.
"And you're planning on staying here the full duration of the mission? I mean, here with us?" Wufei's shoulders were tense as he glanced at Heero. His body language clearly said: Have you gone insane?!
"Huh-uh!" Duo said brightly. Heero caught Wufei's glance, and he let his fingers twitch away from the bottle, a little flick, and an eyebrow curved slightly. Wufei could read the gesture and the reasoning perfectly, as if Heero had actually said the words. Duo's doing me a favour here; what was I supposed to do? Tell him to fuck off?
"Ah." Wufei's nails rapped against the counter. Yes!
Heero's eyes hooded fractionally. Well you try then.
Fine! Wufei's back informed him as he twisted on his stool to fully face Duo. "You might be more comfortable staying in a hotel than on our couch. Une would cover the expenses."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Heero move languidly to lean his chin on his fist, body language contemptuous. He'd probably already tried that line of argument, and many others. Heero would be just as reluctant as Wufei to let someone stay in their sanctum for any length of time, especially someone as energetic and...overwhelming as Duo.
"Hey, no probs, Fei! I'm used to bunking out. And I hate being lonely! Couch is fine."
Wufei smiled tightly. "You'll be doing most of your work at night, right?"
"Unless you give all the guards really, really dark sunglasses, yeah."
"So you'll be here during the day, but Heero and I will be out of the house, you'll be alone...and we have no television or sound system to keep you from getting bored."
Duo blinked several times, while Heero suddenly relaxed, his eyes widening fractionally....he had not apparently thought of that particular line of attack. Wufei's smile broadened a hair's breath as Duo looked pained.
"...damn, you guys living in a monastery or something? You're not going to get me up every day at four for morning prayers, right?"
Wufei saw Heero's eyebrow twitch a fraction. He looked like he wanted to say yes.
"Oh well, it'll be tough, but...I can watch the tube another day. It's so rare to see you guys! I'll stay here."
Wufei's cup trembled slightly as his fingers clenched, and he glanced reluctantly at Heero. But the latter didn't look smug; strong shoulders slumped a bit. It was a good try...guess we're stuck though...
"You'll see, guys! We'll have loads of fun!"
The rather funereal response to his cheerful exclamation was, as usual, completely ignored.
The next few hours were, predictably enough, spent listening to Duo. That is, Wufei listened while idly finishing his report, and Heero ran some diagnostics on the Ops computer system, the lack of brutal 'shut up's as close as he was going to get to chatting.
Duo did not seem to mind the apparent lack of interest in what he had to say. He was fiddling around with his own laptop, probing the first line of Heero's defences in Ops, occasionally throwing little pieces of information, nuggets and dross, over his shoulder; they shaped up into a crooked mosaic illustrating the last year of his life and his contact with the other pilots.
If pressed - as in, interrogated by a professional, with the aid of the appropriate truth serums - Wufei would have admitted that he was interested in what Duo had to say. Otherwise he'd have gone to work in his room. He was curious about how the other pilots were doing since the war. The only contact he'd had with them had been through the Preventer grapevine, and their rally to his call four weeks ago.
Duo and Trowa were still working with the Preventers part time, when Une needed their special skills. Otherwise, Duo helped someone called Hilde - Wufei vaguely remembered a short-haired, unconscious girl being wheeled into Peacemillion's infirmary - working in a salvage business, and spent time with Quatre, presumably for the touch of luxury that would provide. Trowa was working at the circus. Wufei learned that Catherine had survived the war and was doing fine, though she still couldn't make a cup of coffee to save her life. Trowa occasionally stayed with Duo and helped out Hilde with the bigger salvage orders, when construction suit work was needed. According to Duo's little anecdotes, he and the others were doing well. Duo never lied, but he didn't always tell the truth either. In a way - a way Wufei had been completely oblivious of until the very end of the war - Duo was almost as private a person as he and Heero. He just hid himself in a totally different way, and Wufei did not know Duo well enough to be able to read him like he could read his partner. But it was not his place to dig; Wufei decided to take Duo's words at face value. He and the other pilots were 'doing okay'.
Duo tried to invite them out to dinner that night, to repay their 'generous hospitality'. But Wufei was too tired and Heero was, well, Heero. Duo munificently took care of the take-out, and they went to bed early. Wufei woke with a start at two in the morning at the faint sound of their front door closing - Duo, going to stake out Ops. It created a fissure in his mental safe haven. He...trusted Duo. With his life. He'd be able to sleep again, deeply but...Wufei felt the shape of something awry in his life, small but annoying. Something he couldn't define yet.
These would be a long two weeks.
For an instant upon waking up, Wufei wondered if it had all been a strange dream. When he was in the safe-house, he normally woke clear-headed and focused and ready for another day on the edge. Having Duo Maxwell invade their space was shaking his centre. Memories of the war blended with the twinges of a private man having to share his home territory. Wufei stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, trying to get used to the idea.
He descended the stairs, automatically timing his soft steps to the rhythm of Heero's exercises; he could hear his partner running through his usual morning routine on the weight lifter. Working his upper arms by the sound of it.
Duo was sitting at the counter with a mug of coffee in his hand. He was staring at Heero. His eyes were narrowed and his face looked older and marred by lines of anger as he watched Heero struggle at the weights. The expression lasted only long enough for Wufei to catch it; as soon as Duo realized someone was in the kitchen area with him the expression disappeared as if it had never been, replaced by the usual good humor. But Wufei had seen that look and knew what it meant. He'd have to have a word with Duo; Heero and Wufei had agreed that no further reprisals would be taken against Heero's aggressors, unless they were foolish enough to try again. Wufei would have to make sure Duo abided by this. That expression had been that of Shinigami looking for blood. Legalities and peace and the social contract could not quite banish this demon; those who wounded one of Death's few friends could not even hope for a swift demise.
Duo leaned his chin against his fist, turning his face towards Wufei.
'Should he really be doing this?' he mouthed, hiding the words from Heero with his hand.
Wufei shrugged. "No." He kept his voice low but he didn't turn away from his partner, who continued pressing the weights, ignoring them.
Duo stared at Wufei, eyes narrowing again; this time the anger was directed towards a visible target. 'Aren't you going to stop him?'
"War's over, Maxwell," Wufei said with an arrogant smile he didn't really feel. "I don't take suicide missions anymore."
The blue eyes were blade-thin slits, dissecting his words, his stance. 'You aren't going to say anything?' The last word was mouthed aggressively.
"He knows what he's doing, Duo," Wufei replied, voice very quiet but firm as he turned towards the kettle.
A disgusted huff was all the answer he got. Wufei listened with one ear to the sound of weights hissing. He knew why Duo was upset; could see in his mind's eye the trickle of sweat on Heero's pale face that came from controlling pain rather than effort. But his partner had been training his body into a fine-tuned instrument of death for over half his lifetime; Heero knew how to tread the fine line between pushing his body towards optimum recovery and harming himself.
Of course, that line did not take into account anything as trivial as excruciating pain. Wufei didn't turn around, kept his eyes nailed to the kettle. His mind ran through its frequent litany, the words repeated like a rolling prayer wheel. Lords of Hell, may J be rotting in your deepest pit, the one reserved for abusers of children, with the words 'the means justify the end' burnt across his body with a red-hot poker.
The ring interrupted his thoughts, the swish of Heero's weights and Duo's unarticulated grumbles of concern. Heero let the weights swing back carefully and slipped the phone from his pocket. All the way across the room, Wufei could see the way Heero's body tensed as he read the caller ID, and he guessed who was calling - though seeing how often she'd phoned in the last two weeks, it wasn't all that powerful a deduction.
Heero held the phone like he wanted to hurl it across the room but he knew Wufei was watching. Wufei leaned back against the counter and glared reprovingly. Stormy blue eyes flung a look his way - swift and lethal as shuriken - but Heero flipped open the phone without further procrastination.
"Relena." He snapped. "I told you to stop-...just a minute."
With another murderous glare at Wufei he stood and headed towards the stairwell, grabbing his towel in passing.
"Be polite, Yuy." Wufei reminded him sharply as Heero passed him with the phone muffled against his chest. Heero didn't even bother to grunt a response. It had already taken considerable persuasion on Wufei's part to get him to agree to answer and talk to her each time she called.
"Soooo...the Princess has his number?"
Wufei turned back to the kettle, dismissing Duo's inquisitive look. He nodded in response and poured hot water into his cup. The delicate smell of white tea rose with the steam.
"Huh, she's still chasing him, hm? Man that girl don't know when to quit! She's got it bad."
"No." Wufei answered softly, eyes on the stairwell. "She only wants to know he's alive."
There was a scrape against the kitchen's cheap linoleum, as if Duo had twisted around to get a better look at Wufei's back. "Know he's alive? What do you mean? From the way he's acting she's been calling for awhile now."
"The last time she saw him, he was lying on the floor with two bullets in the back, as far as she knew, and she was being dragged away from his body. She hasn't seen him since. I don't think a phone call is enough." Wufei's voice was even, he tried to keep the pity and annoyance out of it; they weren't completely deserved. After all, he'd been living with the proof of Heero's survival - fighting, arguing, refusing to stay in bed and pushing himself to the edge of exhaustion with typical Yuy stubbornness - for the last month. The only thing Relena had was a curt voice on the other end of the phone.
He turned towards the counter to find Duo scrutinizing him. "...You think he should go see her?"
Wufei shrugged. "It would put her mind at rest. I know it doesn't make sense, but then logic has never been that woman's strong suite. But he won't."
"Oh?" Duo's eyebrows twitched up.
"That's why she's calling so often; he said he would never see her again and she's trying to change his mind."
"Whoa. Did a jealous lover ask him to give her up?"
Wufei almost spilled his tea, and glared at the joker. He'd been having a serious conversation here! Why had Duo-...oh, what else had he expected.
"No, Maxwell." Wufei ground out. "Yuy's reasons are as eminently logical as always, if you can get your head around that concept." Duo's grin widened. "She represents something important to him. He would die to defend that, and her. But as it turns out, the only time she was truly at risk in this last year was because someone was using her to get at him. His presence near her is a danger, and he won't allow that. End of story. She seems to have the same lack of basic understanding that you do, though, hence all those calls."
"So...it's not because someone close to Heero asked him to cut the ties?"
"...there is no one close to Heero," Wufei answered, thoroughly puzzled now, by the question and the look in Duo's eyes. Playful, cheerful...calculating.
Duo's grin seemed artificial. His eyes had darkened at Wufei's response, to the color of deep pools. "Oh? Not even this guy I know who's been working with him and living with him and shooting people by his side for almost eight months?"
Wufei put his cup down with a click. "If there is something you want to ask, Maxwell, just ask."
"Okay. Are you two a couple?"
Wufei gave Duo a long, cold glare just for the enjoyment of seeing him edge back and adopt a slightly more defensive posture.
"No. We're partners." He finally said, with some relief. He had wondered if this question might come up, after Duo's strange assumption he and Heero slept in the same bed. He'd been ready to hedge or lie outright, but in this instance he could answer the question truthfully. Being a couple implied affection, love, mutual support. If Duo had used some other term - the word 'fuck-buddies' floated through Wufei's mind, in the L2 street-rat twang that seemed to vocalize his more inappropriate thoughts - he'd have had a harder time denying it, but a couple...? No.
Duo was staring at him as if unsure whether to believe him or not. Then he slouched back against the counter.
"No, really. How on earth did you come up with that ridiculous theory?"
Duo's eyes twitched away from his. "...You two have been awfully tight since the war. We were wondering-..."
Wufei snorted contemptuously and Duo bridled and glared down at the counter.
"So...you won't mind if I make a play for him?"
Wufei choked on his tea, and coughed a couple of times. "Wh-what?"
Duo's head was still bowed but Wufei caught a flash of blue through brown bangs. The voice was easy and sensuous. "Hey, the guy's probably horny. And he's hot. And he's available, if what you say is true." Duo finally lifted his head, leaned back easily against the counter, with that same grin painted on his face but his eyes were level and clear.
On to part nineteen-b. Back to part eighteen-b.