I hear the cogs all
slipping at the same time,
And then I see you walk in through the door.
And it's gonna be, just you and me today,
Waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay.
-Mountain Goats, "The Alphonse Mambo"
And finally, the needle was out of my arm. The patched up hole in my back hurt worse without the morphine, but my head was a whole lot clearer and Karl didn't come back. Duo came to the hospital the next day and it was the first time I was really able to speak to him, even though I knew he'd been here nearly every day since I was admitted. We hadn't openly acknowledged what had almost happened, what, I'd been informed by the doctor, had been one of the closest calls he'd ever seen.
And we wouldn't acknowledge it, either, because Duo had lived and breathed close calls all his life. We all had and so we wouldn't talk about this one because talking about it made it into a bigger deal than all the others.
He was the most presentable I'd seen him in years--probably since he'd picked me up from holding after the second war and we'd both been on our best behavior. His jeans looked new and a little stiff, and the white t-shirt he wore didn't have any visible grease or coffee stains. His black zip-up sweatshirt didn't have the holes in the cuffs where he liked to poke his thumbs through. His fingernails were clean and it looked like he'd just scrubbed his face. His hair was a bit disheveled, probably from driving with the window down, but it, too, was clean.
"What's your story?" I asked from where I sat, propped up in bed. I sipped ice water through a straw and watched him smooth his hand over the t-shirt, then tug on the sleeves of the sweatshirt, no doubt looking for thumb holes.
"Trowa said I should quit looking like a terrorist when I visit. I gotta get through your security detail; I might as well try and look trustworthy."
"I haven't even seen them out there since I've been awake; are they scary? And you didn't look like a terrorist; you looked like a laborer."
He flashed me a quick smile. "One and the same, my friend. And, nah, they're not that scary. But they've been warned about me. Your lady-friend, leash-holder, what's-her-name I'm sure told them I'd be stopping by."
"I haven't figured out yet whether they're supposed to keep me from escaping or keep me safe from thugs who've somehow managed to get up here from RCNP." Morphine-induced Karls didn't count, so I didn't mention them.
Duo cringed and sat down in the chair by the bed. "Let's not talk about that yet; let's talk about happy things for a few minutes, okay? I haven't even had the chance to really say, 'Hey, buddy, I'm glad you're alive!'"
I snorted a laugh small enough that it wouldn't irritate my sore back, knee or head. "Yeah, well, now you have, Maxwell. Let's not get stuck on pleasantries." I scratched at the bandages that padded my temple. "What happy things are there to talk about?" A boot to the ear, the butt of a jackknife to the temple, a fillet knife slice to top it all off, and the right side of my face looked like a demilitarized zone. "And I haven't been able to talk to anyone about anything real since I've been here."
"Hey, Wu," Duo started, brow dipping down in frown. "You've been doped up to your eyeballs to cope with all the new muscle they had to put in you because in case you don't remember--and maybe you don't--you had a huge fucking hole in your back when you got here. You haven't been around to talk to. And before that, the last time I saw you, your brain was cooking itself with a fever I could feel from across the room. So don't complain to me about not bein' able to talk to anybody. You haven't been awake for most of it. I have."
He gave me a good glare and I tried to give one back, but he was right. "I'm awake now. Alert, alive, mobile. I can get to the bathroom on my own with crutches." It was a sort of peace offering and he took it as such.
He looked impressed, his frustrated words already behind him. "Damn, they let you have crutches already?" Then he looked sly. "Chang, have you been charming the nursing staff?"
I snorted and rolled my eyes.
"No, more likely, you've been terrorizing them," he laughed, then looked toward the door. "Hey, I know. You wanna go for a walk? I mean a ride? I'll drive."
I looked toward the door, too. "They won't let us go far."
Duo shrugged. "S'fine. Just need to get you outta this room for a bit."
I nodded. "That would be nice."
"Good. I'll be right back," he said with a wide grin, pushing himself back up out of his seat. I heard a quick conversation with the guards and then he was back, proudly pushing a wheelchair in front of him.
I shoved the covers back and got out of bed, glad to be wearing scrubs instead of a drafty hospital gown for a ride around the floor. I wasn't surprised when Duo whistled at me.
"Heero definitely knows your colors. Lavender and turquoise really bring out the highlights in your hair, or your skin tone, or something."
I snorted a laugh, leaning back against the bed to stay upright. "My nurse wouldn't shut up about him, actually. She said he went to the laundry room himself to find ones that fit." I looked down at them and winced. "And I think they were for the pediatric ward."
"Well, you are kinda tiny these days," he said, eyes catching on my wrists and collar bone.
"And apparently, Trowa charmed the nurse into arranging this single room for me, too," I continued, entirely ignoring Duo's comment. "She told me they were nicer, more efficient patient advocates than the ones actually working for the hospital, which doesn't seem possible in Heero's case, but Trowa can be whoever he wants to be, when the need arises."
Duo nodded, suddenly looking a bit morose, and pushed the wheelchair forward like an apology. I knew that he'd done what he could, too, though, without a badge and with a reputation for trouble, he got away with less. So far as I knew, he'd been here the most, sitting by the bed with his feet propped up on an extra chair, flipping through the channels pretty much every time I woke up during daylight. Looking at him now, I could tell he wanted me to assure him that it'd been enough.
"And she definitely enjoyed embarrassing me over 'just how much your friends must care about you.'" I pitched my voice lower, doing my best impression of a middle-aged woman who'd been smoking for at least twenty years, despite working in the health profession.
My horrible impersonation startled a strange look and then a laugh out of him and he appeared to bounce back again to his initial enthusiasm for our walk. Grateful that no one else had been around to see it, I waved away the arm he offered to help me into the chair and lowered myself into it, flipping down the little footrests as he rolled me out the door.
I could get around all right on my own with crutches and would be doing even better once physical therapy started. The rehabilitation time for regenerated muscle wasn't a lengthy one and I itched to get on with it. The doctor said Monday would be the day--whenever that was.
"What day is it?"
I glanced over my shoulder and over the handles of the wheel chair to see that guards were following us at a relatively respectful distance. "Where are Heero and Trowa? At work?"
"Yeah, they'll be by tonight. It's the weekend, so if you want, we can stay late to keep you company."
I shook my head and turned away. "Even though I've been in a coma for a week and in a morphine haze for days afterward, I feel like I could sleep days more. What are you doing here now, anyway? Shouldn't you be at work? You didn't take off did you?"
Duo snorted softly as we rounded a corner. "Ordinarily, I would be up in arms and calling you an ungrateful little shit, but oddly enough, you're right this time. I'd rather be home working on your case than hanging out here or with Kathy--who's a peach, of course, but watching soaps and dicking around the city waiting for you to wake up really isn't what I should be doing with my time."
"Then why are you here?" I turned around again to look at him.
"Because Sam kicked me out and told me to come up to the hospital to be with you."
I flushed and quickly looked forward.
"I didn't bring my laptop 'cause there's not a lotta privacy in Tro's apartment," he continued, "and I wouldn't want them snooping around on it. And either of them would, too, in a second if they got the chance."
"Oh yeah--Trowa 'cause he's a busybody and Heero because he can't not touch a computer when he finds one."
"Well..." Now was the time to say what I'd been meaning to tell him since I'd woken up. "Duo, I think maybe you should leave the case where it is--I mean, not go back to it when you get home again." Duo said nothing, but the silence was chilly. "I can handle it on my own and after this, Prescott will be wanting to speak with me, so I can clear the whole thing up without you getting involved." I clenched my teeth and looked straight ahead, then grabbed hold of the seat when the chair swerved behind a few potted palms. I kept my face blank as Duo knelt in front of me, his clenched fists resting on my knees.
"Why can't you just be normal for one minute in your goddamn life, Chang?" he hissed. "Why can't you take a second to recognize what happened to you and have a normal reaction? Be scared and angry and sad. Be normal. Realize that you almost died, that you lost a ton of blood and a major organ, and that... that your roommate has been dead now for over a week."
I closed my eyes and felt my lips pinch together. My throat ached.
"Wufei, Onur died. He was dead when they found you. Une said he bled to death before anyone could get to him. The only reason you lived was because that knife was plugging up the wound and they were able to get some blood in you before you were flown here. I'm so sorry to tell you. He was your friend and I trusted him to look out for you and--"
"He did," I said hoarsely. I opened my eyes to see Duo looking up at me, sober and scared. "He took a knife in the gut that was meant for me. The doctor...the nurses... when I asked them where he was in the hospital, they didn't know who I was talking about. They didn't know anything about him."
"He didn't make it here, Wu. He's dead. And you were going to be. They don't know how long you both lay there, but Onur had been dead for maybe twenty minutes. So think about that--realize what fucking happened to you--instead of saying something asinine which you know I'll ignore."
I realized I was chewing the inside of my lip and that I'd just broken the skin. I sucked out the taste of metal and looked away from him. "How did Une know everything that happened to me quickly enough to alert Trowa and Heero, to have them waiting for me when I got here? How--how did she know how long Onur was dead before someone found us?"
From the corner of my eye, I saw him shrug. "Guess she and Prescott are closer friends than we thought. But Une was practically your legal guardian until you turned eighteen, so I can't say I'm surprised." He shook his head abruptly. "But that's not the point; the point is--"
"No, Duo, that's exactly the point," I hissed, keeping my voice low and firmly pushing back the image of Onur, gutted on the floor--a dead body next to my dying body. Neither Duo nor I could afford to be distracted by that image, as much as Onur deserved to be mourned. There would be time for that. All of tonight loomed ahead of me without him, knowing that if or when I returned to RCNP, he wouldn't be there waiting for me with all the homework I'd missed. "If Prescott tells Une everything, and Une knows everything about me, and about what I've done, what we've done, then you and I are in enough shit to sure as hell keep me out of Preventers and maybe--"
"Wait; what?" Duo half-pleaded, half-whined. "What the hell are you talking about, 'knows what you've done'? You haven't done anything! Eight guys tried to kill you."
I finally met his eyes again and he flinched back an inch. I realized I must have looked as haggard as him and took a few deep breaths. "They were ordered to; I know they were. The leader, this asshole Eddy Koch; he was Karl's..." By reflex, my lip curled. "They were involved before and I think the rest of the guys were, too, and I think that Karl told them to--"
Duo was shaking his head, one hand unintentionally squeezing my injured knee hard enough that I winced. "No, no, no, no, do not tell me that little creep was involved in this somehow."
I gave him a dismal nod and he hung his head, releasing my knee. "I overheard him talking to an officer that he'd also been involved with, someone I thought he hated, telling him exactly what to tell Prescott about me, everything Karl and I had speculated about concerning Benji and Vasil, who we thought might actually be responsible for their deaths, who we thought might fit the profile to be next."
I leaned forward in the chair and rested my hand on his shoulder until he looked up at me, his face drawn in a worried frown. "But he didn't mention you, Duo. He didn't say anything about your involvement. So, maybe Prescott doesn't know about you; maybe Une doesn't know. Maybe he was just after me and not you. If you go home and get rid of all the names of those dead vets, their friends and employers--all of it--then maybe, even if he does give your name to Prescott and to Une, you can deny you were involved. If there's no evidence, then it's just--"
"Wufei," he said softly, resolutely. "Let's not panic here, okay? This is not the place to do it."
I huffed a quiet, bitter laugh. "There may not be another place to do it."
He smiled sourly. "And let's not be too dramatic, either. You said yourself it was all speculation, right? Everything you and Karl were working on--all you could do was speculate. That's 'no harm, no foul' in my book."
I shook my head. "That's what I thought. That's what Onur thought. So why did eight guys, all connected to Karl, attack me two days after I overheard Karl talking with Brandt?"
"You don't know that Karl was the one to sic them on you. Even though I never trusted that little prick, you shouldn't just assume he was behind the attempt on your life."
"So, it was just a coincidence? Come on, Duo," I snapped, clenching my jaw when I realized I'd said that louder than I'd meant to.
He made a small, frustrated noise through his nose. "I don't know, Wu. I wasn't there." He stood up and pressed his hands into his lower back. I followed him with my eyes, wishing I could stand up and do a little pacing of my own.
"So, Une didn't mention any of that?" I pressed. "Didn't say anything to Heero or Trowa about Karl? If Prescott tells her everything, you'd think she'd tell Une that her future Preventer and his ex-terrorist, freelance Preventer friend suspect the New Pacifist administration of conspiring to kill war leaders."
"Maybe, but that's not something Une would tell Heero or Trowa," he said, and of course, he was right.
I took a deep breath. "You should lay low with Sam for awhile. It'd probably be better for you to get off-planet and stay with Howard, but leaving now would be too suspicious. Ditch the laptop and keep up to your elbows in engine grease and stay away from me and maybe--"
He whirled back around. "Why did you trust him?" he hissed. I blinked and tried not to get flustered enough to blush. "I knew from the second I saw him that he was workin' you."
It was easier to get offended. "How, Duo--how did you recognize something like that?"
And that cornered him. He wrapped his arms around himself and put on one of his favorite faces--that of breezy, worldly experience, the 'I've seen it all and I'm not scared' face. "I saw the way he looked at you and I'd know that look anywhere. He saw you for exactly what you were and he knew he could bring you down by making the right people suspicious. You were always on thin ice at that place. He's ex-OZ, right? A Treize zealot? It's not rocket science, Wufei."
It wasn't that simple, I knew. Karl wasn't in it for revenge and if he were, I wouldn't be the target. I hadn't betrayed Treize's ideals even though I'd been the one to kill him and Karl knew that. I was more sure of it than I was about any other part of this mess. Karl did what he did for himself, for his own gain, not for revenge. All I had to do was figure out what he had to gain from making trouble for me, what he had to gain from my death, or my near-fatal injury. None of the hits I'd taken were killing blows, or at least they hadn't ended up that way, so maybe...
My head was starting to ache with the maddening ambiguity of it all and Duo was barely keeping it together behind that mask of his. I met his troubled gaze for a few seconds to essentially convey the amount of shit we'd landed ourselves in, and finally, he nodded, as though we'd decided something.
"I think you should take me back to my room now."
"Yeah, me too."
Before we left the relative privacy of the potted palms, he rested his hand on the back of my neck and pressed his his forehead to mine, just below the bandages. I closed my eyes and held my breath. "Sit tight and don't tell them anything unless you're sure it's gonna help you outta this mess. I'll be back in a couple days to make sure you're okay. Tell Trowa and Heero that until I call them, one of them has to be here with you every day."
He leaned away slightly and I opened my eyes, scowling up at him, and somehow, his proximity wasn't as unnerving as it could sometimes be. It felt like we were strategizing, preparing for something, and in those circumstances, his closeness felt warranted.
Which was stupid because there was nothing I could do, no way I could prepare for what would happen to us, and wherever he was going, unless it was to contact my lawyer and wipe his laptop--which I doubted--it probably wouldn't solve anything.
"Don't be ridiculous; I don't need them here every day. And where are you going? How long will you be gone?"
He straightened and the height difference between us right then was infuriating. "Not long," he said, ignoring the first question entirely. "Let's go, okay? You hungry? I can get you something from the cafeteria. Their mac and cheese isn't bad."
"No, just take me back."
I heard Prescott's heels on the tile floor and sat up straighter on the bed. She snapped a greeting to the guards in the hall and then she walked right into my room without so much as a knock. She stood at the foot of my bed; a few seconds later, Rorty followed at a more sedate pace, smiling a wane greeting and clearly waiting for Prescott to lead the way.
She looked me up and down, her hair and clothes as immaculate as ever, and I thought that maybe she and Une had even gone to the same finishing school. "You look like hell," she snapped. I resisted the urge to touch the stitches in my cheek. They'd taken the bandages off my ear and temple yesterday and I knew that my hair hung awkwardly over the places they'd had to shave.
"Well, I feel pretty good, considering. Thank you for authorizing muscle regeneration. I probably wouldn't be able to--"
She waved a dismissing hand and behind her, Rorty gave her an admonishing look. It was no secret that they didn't see eye to eye when it came to dealing with us. "Don't play the part of the grateful inmate; I've never been convinced by that act since I met you."
I scowled. "I am grateful. You didn't have to do it. You could have left me a cripple and, honestly, I'm surprised you didn't."
"All right, all right," Rorty intervened, stepping forward. "Let's not be hostile here. Chang, Francesca and I are both glad you're alive and safe and recovering. Right?" She gave a stiff nod and I returned it. "We didn't come here to express our distress over what's happened; we came to address the situation."
Prescott gave another stiff nod and straightened her already perfect suit, looking a little flustered. "We won't beat around the bush, Mr. Chang. It has been made painfully obvious that you're no longer safe at RCNP. Just before you and Onur Alakus were attacked, Karl Bergsen approached me with concerns about your safety."
I sat perfectly still on the bed, feeling the inevitability of this conversation begin to fray around the edges. What she was saying wasn't quite right.
"He informed me he had reason to believe that your identity as a Gundam pilot during the first war had been leaked and that it was widely known who you were, and of greater concern, what you'd done."
What she was saying really didn't sound right. On some level, it certainly sounded logical, but not...not after what I had heard from Karl, not after what I'd been sure he was capable of.
"It is not our job to punish you for what you did during the wars; it is our job to educate and train you to be a good citizen, and despite these recent events, it is still our intention to complete that task. I intend to see you make a full recovery and finish the program at RCNP." She took a deep breath and smiled thinly. "You'd be a waste of state money otherwise."
Rorty rolled his eyes. "We're here to work out an alternate solution, Chang--one that will keep you safe and allow you to stay in our custody for the remainder of your sentence."
I remembered to nod at what they were saying, while glancing quickly down at my arm to be sure that I didn't still have intravenous pain meds messing with my head. I kept my mouth shut against everything that threatened to spill out of it, first and loudest being, "Are you serious?" By then, however, talks of my future were well under way and it was all I could do to keep up.
On to part fourteen. Back to part twelve.