Chapter Sixteen

by June

Someone knows what's going on
Someone knows, and someone's gonna tell
Someone's gonna wrap us up in styrofoam and paper
And mail us flat-rate right down to Hell
-Mountain Goats, "Going to Maine"

I awoke to a painful muscle spasm that jolted me right off the bunk and onto the floor. The strangeness of space, of low gravity, had yet to wear off and I flailed, disoriented, before I managed to regain my balance, bending forward over my knees to stretch my back, fingers digging into the muscle to massage out the cramp.

When the spasm stopped, I straightened and took a slow breath, exhaling and opening my eyes on a strange, dimly lit room. The feel of the bunk under my body had been so familiar, I had been sure that I was in my cell and that across from me, Onur was quietly snoring and that behind me, Karl was restlessly moving about his room, sleepless as ever. It would be dawn soon and I could tap a greeting to him through the wall.

But it probably wasn't dawn. I could see stars through the small portholes in the sides of the ship, but they gave no indication of what time it was. I realized that my internal clock was set to the rotation of the Earth and that here, I was drifting without a sense of time, direction or orientation. Minimal gravity wasn't the only source of unease. I heard steady breathing at chest level behind me and turned to see Duo's arm hanging off the side of the second bunk, his face mostly covered by his hair but obviously relaxed in sleep. Still a little shaky, I moved closer to the bunk and touched his palm, causing his fingers to reflexively curl inward. When we'd lived together for that short time, he'd been a light sleeper, easily drawn out of his room if I was up before him or significantly after. Now, he slept the sleep of the truly exhausted.

After we'd escaped Earth's atmosphere, disconnected from the civilian transport, and started for L2, and after we'd...established a few things about our friendship, he'd brought out a veritable feast of cheese, bread, fruit and pastries--most of his supply of fresh food from Earth. We ate everything he pulled out of his duffel and then we both barely made it into bed, each of us taking a bunk because the idea of sleeping together--while I'd done it before with Karl--felt a little too intimate right then. We wouldn't have been able to sleep as well, anyway.

I didn't know how long ago we'd passed out, but I was wide awake now, paying the price for the strain I'd put on my back by taking out those two Preventers. I'd acted without a thought to my physical limitations and even if I had paused, I probably wouldn't have felt them anyway. Adrenalin worked like that. It had also allowed me to calmly stare down the barrel of a Preventer's gun while he decided whether or not he really wanted to shoot me. I'd been reliving that moment every time I closed my eyes, before Duo and I finally passed out.

Assessing my back and knee now, they felt like they were in pretty good shape, though a little stiff after the sudden workout I'd put them through. I'd still had another week of physical therapy when Duo took me out of the hospital and without Heero, I'd have to keep working on rebuilding the muscle on my own. I couldn't help smiling at what I was sure Heero's thought process would be concerning Duo's and my new situation: 'Wufei took off for space with Duo. That was a pretty stupid thing to do. Duo doesn't know the first thing about muscle rehabilitation.' Duo wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to methodically do anything with his body. His lifestyle kept him in shape without any real conscious effort on his part.

I thought about running through a few exercises right then and then mentally shook myself. They wouldn't work the same way here; they were pointless here and aside from that, very difficult to do. Instead I pulled myself down onto the couch and looked out at the stars. They were up close and three-dimensional now, not just a distant, dark blanket I could glimpse through barred windows. I found it a little disturbing that, as much time as I'd spent on the colonies and traveling through space, I still felt like I was getting further and further from home.

I didn't want to feel that way. The two people I had been closest to at RCNP were either dead or not who I had thought they were. Officer Busey had always been courteous and friendly, but was never my friend; Rorty was a good guy, but I wouldn't miss him; Prescott's heart probably was in the right place, though she still scared me. RCNP should not have felt like home to me. Rome had probably never felt like home to Heero or Trowa. And yet, in the cool quiet of the ship, I was very aware of how alone we were, how there weren't sixty other men in the same room to hear if I shouted or laughed or even used the goddamn suction toilet. There would be no one to bear witness to what we did here.

Whatever that was going to be.

We were headed for L2, bound for Howard's sweeper satellite. We'd regroup and restock there. Duo said that, while he'd been away for those two weeks, he'd spent a fair portion of it with Howard, putting together everything we'd need to live on the run for as long as we had to. He said that Howard was an excellent resource for that sort of thing. From there...

From there, we had a couple big choices to make. I was out--as free as any fugitive could consider himself to be. If or when we were recaptured, I wouldn't be going back to RCNP. They had real prisons for the people who did the sorts of things Duo and I had just done. One of those big choices had to be whether we were running ahead of the authorities in order to solve this case before they put the kibosh on it for good or whether we were just running because that was quicker and undoubtedly safer. I didn't know what Duo intended for us, but I didn't think I had the right to tell him what we should do with the time and resources we had. I certainly hadn't yet figured out what to do with them. But neither did I think that I could let the case go, if he asked me to. Benjamin Bennett and Vasil Wasyliw I could drop--I'd barely known Benji at all. I was glad Basker and O'Malley were dead if for no other reason than they would save a lot of people a lot of grief over the years. Karl was in it up to his neck somehow--hell, he may have even been the one pulling the strings for all I knew, but he was in Italy and I was hurtling through space, so right then, I couldn't be bothered to care about him too much. The parts I wasn't so sure I could let go were the bodies I didn't really consider bodies--my old roommate's and Quatre's. And mine. Onur and Quatre were not the kind of people to ever be left behind. They were the kind that I--

I heard Duo stir behind me, heard him slide from his bunk and scratch blunt fingernails through his hair. I heard him yawn and from the sound of his voice, he was stretching his arms over his head. I finally turned away from the porthole to see him approaching the couch and inadvertently caught a glimpse of the thin line of dark hair trailing from his belly button to the waist of his jeans. When he lowered his arms it vanished under his shirt and he hunched forward a bit, wincing and pressing a hand to his chest.

"How do you feel?" I asked, shifting over a bit to make room for him.

He flopped down beside me and thumped his head against the back of the couch, turning enough to look at me. "Like I got smacked in the chest with a mallet."

I grimaced at the image and reached for the hem of his shirt. "Let me see."

Obediently, he lifted the shirt. "It's fine. They knew what they were doin' with that Kevlar shit. I read about it, once. When they're hit by a projectile, the fibers stretch but actually pull closer together. Pretty cool, huh?"

"Yeah. I would have thought, in our line of work, you would have already been familiar with how they protect vital organs from fatal injury." I pressed my fingers around the edge of the bruise, feeling around his sternum for any fractures.

He hissed and whined. "Never saw you with one. None of the others either, for that matter. Face it, Wu, none of us were invested in the idea of living in the world we were fighting for."

"I always thought you were," I answered, not meeting his eyes. "You hit me with a hell of a plan the day they released me from holding. I'd never seen anyone so excited about the prospect of a roommate and a new place to live."

From my peripheral vision, I saw Duo's bony shoulders lift in a shrug. "You know what I came from; you should understand that impulse."

It was my turn to shrug. "I understand very little about you."

Duo laughed, not an altogether pleasant sound. "Liar."

"For instance," I continued. "I don't know why you would throw both your own future and mine into question by drugging my guards, assaulting two Preventers and disappearing into space using an illegal cloaking system."


"Not when I had less than a year left on my sentence, not when I was close to having a degree in pre-Colonial literature, not when you had a good thing going with Sam, steady work and a place to live, not when the four of us could see each other on a regular basis and be relatively functional as normal friends."

"Stop lying."

"You expect me to understand your motivations? Why would you expect me to understand? You obviously didn't. You drugged me before you even asked if I would run with you. You forced this on me."

I had dropped my hand from his chest and it rested now on his knee. He sat hunched forward, staring at my fingers, brushing my thumb with his. Despite the sharpness of my words, our proximity felt natural.

"You know why I did it. You wouldn't have made it out of that place alive. They were going to kill you. I had to do it."

"You don't know that."

"Yes, I do."

"Is this like the flat in London? Is this for me or for you?"

He grabbed my hand on his knee and squeezed hard. "You're being really cruel."

I sat sideways on the couch, legs folded in front of me, knees close to Duo's thigh, right shoulder leaning against the back. As I watched him, he leaned his head closer to mine.

"You want me to explain myself." He said it like he was dreading it, like he'd really thought he wouldn't have to.

I reached for his hair and smoothed back the ragged pieces of the braid that had slipped out. "I don't know. I want... to make sure that we do something important with this huge mess you put us in. And I want you to see how I see this thing."

He took a shaky breath. "I told you I wanted to be ready. I thought this through; I've been thinking about it since before you got sick. We can go wherever we want now; we can figure this thing out."

"What thing are you talking about?"

He hesitated and finally looked me in the eye. "What thing are you talking about?"

"I asked you first."

He opened his mouth to speak, shut it, looked at me oddly as though he'd just realized we might be speaking of different 'things,' then tried again. "I want to help you find who's responsible for the attempt on your life. I want to help you find the connection between the former war-time leaders that have suspiciously wound up dead over the last couple years." He was watching me for my reaction. I nodded for him to continue. "And I want to go to L4 because my gut's telling me that's where shit started." He paused and grabbed his braid, pulling it over his shoulder and tugging the tie free. "Does that sound okay?"

I nodded. "Yeah."

He started undoing the braid, working his fingers through the snarls. "Is that the thing you were talking about?"

"Pretty much."

"Am I seeing it the way you see it?"

"Probably not, but I imagine you will once life as a fugitive starts to catch up with you and you feel more like a criminal."

He snorted and shoved my shoulder, and just like that, the escalating hostility neither of us wanted to feel towards each other dissipated. "Just who do you think you're dealing with here?"

I laughed and rolled back to lie flat on the couch. Natural as breathing, Duo followed me, holding himself still over me, half undone braid nearly touching my chest. Our knees bumped as he hovered and then settled his weight.

"Ah, this is what you must have meant when you called me a liar," I said. "You think we're alike now, that we share a distinctly delinquent mindset. We of the troubled past and difficult adolescence, of the foggy future."

He abruptly pulled himself back down beside me, wedging himself between me and the back of the couch, breathing a curse and rubbing his chest again. But he was still grinning. "You're an ass, but I like where this is going. We could be like Bonnie and Clyde, except since we're both dudes, Barnie and Clyde. Or...that other one I watched with Hilde. Shit, what was that called? Laverne and Shirley. No, no, that's not it. Fuck. Anyway, these two chicks take off into the desert and embark upon a life of illicit affairs and small time crime. I think they end up driving off a cliff, though, to avoid the authorities."

I raised an eyebrow at him.

"Yeah, let's agree to not do that, okay?" he laughed.

"You don't have to convince me; I've just been handed a new lease on life. Why would I waste it so foolishly?"

His smile faltered and I couldn't decide whether to feel guilty about my tone of voice or not. I'd never pretended to be a kind person and he knew that. Still, judging by the forced chuckle that followed, I'd stuck him with something sharp.

"Look, I--" he started, dropping his eyes to my chest. "I don't know what I expected your reaction to be to all this. I admit I was hopeful that you would be okay with it, maybe even glad that I did it. But if you're not, and I can see that you're not, you should just get it off your chest now. I can't take back what I did and I would do it again in a heartbeat, so I--"

"How could I be glad that you did this, Duo?" I interrupted, trying to get him to look at me. He wouldn't. "You put yourself, your future, your livelihood--everything, you put it all at tremendous risk. What kind of a person would I be if I were glad that you'd done that--even if it was for me?"

He kept his head down, though, this close to me, he couldn't seem to resist the temptation to get closer. He spread his fingers over my stomach, clenching and relaxing his fist, bunching up my shirt and then letting it go. "You'd be what I always wanted us to be during the wars. All of us, not just you and me; I wanted us to be more than instruments. I wanted to know that we would all do this for each other."

"I wouldn't have broken you out of prison." It hurt more than I thought it would to admit that.

He nodded. "I know. Heero did once. I don't think he meant to. I think he wanted to kill me, but that's when I thought that maybe we could be something more to each other than temporary allies. Heero wouldn't let me be that for him, even if part of him wanted to. Trowa had no interest or he couldn't figure out how to show me if he did. Quatre was... I never felt like I could get close to him."

"Why not?" I interjected. "He was the kindest person I've ever known. He liked you very much."

Duo lifted his eyes to mine long enough to hint at something like jealousy, but then he looked away again.

"I would never have fit into his world and I'm still not sure I really wanted to, even though it seemed like he would have been the one most likely to bring us all together. I didn't try hard enough with him, but he didn't try that hard, either." He took a deep breath and forced a grin back into his voice. "So you see, there's only you, my friend. There's only us."

I relaxed back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling, and tried to interpret exactly what that meant for me, and why I was here with him, why exactly he'd done what he did. I was immediately reminded of our brief time living together, a time when he'd said he was committed to building a future for both of us. I questioned his reasons then and I questioned them now, but right then didn't seem like the best time to draw out exactly what purpose I served for him. He wouldn't know what to say and I wouldn't know what to believe.

"There is only us and it's your fault that it's only us. But I helped you take out those Preventers and I let you leave Yuy and Barton behind. So I accept that we're alone." His hand squeezed in my shirt and I placed my own over top of it. "Though I reserve the right to yell at you about it in the future, when it's appropriate."

He lifted his gaze to mine. "That's fair," he said. "Until then, we still get to do this, right?" He rolled on top of me again, supporting himself on his elbows and touching our noses together. He waited for me to kiss him, which I did.

"I do like this," I said into his mouth.

"You're very good at it."

'I've had practice' was on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed that response in favor of mumbled thanks.

"Hey, do you want to clean up?" he asked. "I feel pretty gross, myself."

I closed my eyes and arched under the hand he slid up my shirt. "That would be fantastic."

"We should definitely share, though. Gotta conserve water, ya know."

Duo was struggling to get his hair back into a braid after the cursory scrub he'd given it with the sponge while I examined my reflection in the small bathroom mirror. I turned my face to the left, lifting away my hair to look at the scars that remained by my ear and along my cheek. Compared to my back and knee, I'd paid them very little attention, not even looking at them when I'd brushed my teeth in my hospital bathroom. They hadn't hurt much and they didn't limit my ability to function normally. But they sure were ugly. The abrasions and bruising between my ear and temple had faded, with no permanent damage; however, the fillet knife to the face had left a nearly three inch slice from the ear cartilage to where my jaw bones came together. About two of those inches were still an obvious red line bisecting my cheek. The surgeon had stitched it up from the inside so that the scar would shrink and flatten to a line within a few years. It would probably look like a wrinkle by the time I was thirty.

Staring at it now, I could turn the dim space of the bathroom and the white noise of the ventilation system into the dark cavern of the laundry. The stainless steel hand rail under my hands was cold cement and I was on my knees. That dark pile of Duo's clothes in the corner was actually blood pooling from Onur's gut. And the faint pull of scar tissue when I opened my mouth wide was the burning, tearing pain of a blade splitting skin.

I blinked a few times and stood up straighter.

There wasn't anything I could do about my face, but my hair I could fix. In the weeks since I'd been admitted to the hospital--when they'd had to shave a lot of the hair on the right side--much of it had grown back. There were still two small bare patches, which would hopefully shrink after enough time passed. My hair had gotten long enough again that I could put it all back without the need for Duo's bandanna, but the short patch on the side looked very strange, so cutting it all off again seemed like the most reasonable solution. The first cut had marked my entrance to RCNP; this one would mark my exit.

By then Duo had managed to rebraid his hair and was half-dressed in boxer shorts and a t-shirt. When he caught sight of my reflection, I saw his brow dip down in distress. He let go of his towel and I tracked its slow progress to the floor as he shifted over to stand at my back, hooking one arm across my chest and grabbing hold of my shoulder. "Wufei," he said, barely above a whisper. With his other hand, he touched the scar.

"It doesn't matter," I said.

"It won't stay that ugly. And it means you were stronger than them."

"It makes everything visible to anyone who wants to look."

He shrugged. "You were already visible." He turned his lips to my ear and kissed the damaged cartilage. I flashed back to him in my lap, kissing me there just after I'd helped him out of his Kevlar vest. It hadn't even registered then that he'd been touching the scar, I'd so successfully blocked out that whole side of my face.

"Hey, will you help me cut my hair? It looks ridiculous like this."

He squeezed his arm tighter around me and nodded. "Yeah, sure. Let me put some pants on."

"Duo, this is amazing! I can't believe how much work you've put into this. Did you ever sleep?" I looked over his shoulder at the list of files he'd brought up on his laptop. He'd clicked through a few to show me his organization system and with each name, he'd compiled the articles surrounding and covering their death. Along with that, he had names and numbers of living relatives and former employers, as well as civic groups they'd been involved with.

The orderly manner in which he kept them triggered a foggy memory from my time in the hospital, when my brain had been telling me that Karl was coming to see me every night, taunting me with freedom and information.

"Duo's got the names and addresses of living relatives and former employers. He's even marked a few that he contacted. This is where you should pick up, Chang..."

Sure enough, Duo had indicated which vets he'd already investigated, who he had contacted and what they'd said.

"I didn't really have much to do at Sam's when I wasn't working," he explained, forcing me back into the conversation. "Combing newsprint and police report databases was actually pretty interesting. I've kept up on colony politics. L3's been having some trouble with their Francophone population, primarily over language in the primary schools. L2 is still fucking broke and dealing with an aging population. The kids can't take care of the parents, so crime rates are through the roof. And, no, I don't miss that place. L1 sprang a leak not long ago and nearly sucked a bunch of its residents into space. It's been hair-raising."

"Duo, this is--"

"Oh, and here," he grunted, reaching for his duffel and grabbing out of it a brown envelope stuffed nearly to ripping. He slid it over to me, admitting as though he were a little embarrassed, "I printed it all out for you so we can look this stuff over separately. You don't have to look over my shoulder and maybe you'll pick up things that I missed, people you knew during the wars."

I nodded and picked up the envelope, sliding down to sit between the couch and table, carefully arranging what he'd compiled out in front of me. I glanced at a few of the names--there were maybe thirty files. "What do you think so far? Is there anything all these have in common?" I picked a random file and glanced over the obit and police report. Forty-three-year-old male, anti-Alliance colony rebel (L4) since AC 178, died from complications due to severe assault and battery, no suspects. Survived by a younger sister still on L4. Before his death, he was an active practitioner of his faith and the leader of a group to preserve Arabic as a spoken language in his community.

"Well," Duo started, "I'd say, the majority of cases I've found--war-time leaders who died or were killed under strange circumstances--have been colony-based, either anti-Alliance or White Fang. I haven't come across many Alliance, OZ, or Romafeller vets. There's a handful in here, but the majority are from the colonies. L2, L4, and L5 were the most frequent." He gave a bitter shrug. "Of course L2 might pose a bit of a sampling problem. Shitty stuff happens to pretty much everyone equally. It'd be nearly impossible to separate what's random and what's planned. Those doing the planning wouldn't have to really even plan; the random would take care of it, more often than not."

"Okay, maybe we should stick with L4 and L5, then. You said you wanted to go to L4, anyway." I leafed through a few more files. "Several of these are from the L4 cluster. Is that why?"

"Sort of. But I want to go to L4 because I want to talk to Quatre's sisters and the Maguanacs to figure out what happened with him. I want his schedule, his journals, his medical records. I want to know who he was talking to before he died, just like these men. Maybe learning what really happened to him will explain why so many L4 colony leaders have ended up dead. "

"That's a bit of a leap."

He shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not." Then he lifted his head at the beeping sound from the cockpit. "Hey, hold that thought; we got a message."

He rose to his feet and I hesitated to follow since, if it was a two-way visual transmission, it wouldn't do for me to be seen with him. But he gestured for me to come with him.

"You can stay out of sight," he assured me, already turning and pushing himself through to the cockpit. I followed, sticking close to the wall as he checked who the message was from. "Shit, it's from Howard," he said, frowning. "Wonder what he could want. He knows I have to drop the cloak in order to answer."

"Are you going to?" I asked, already suspicious.

"Yeah, why not. We're still half a day out." He turned to me. "Just stay over there and, uh, definitely don't say anything.

"Yes, I know," I muttered, keeping hold of the door frame to brace myself in the corner.

He stayed standing, punching in the code to deactivate the cloaking mechanism. Then he accepted the call, a vid screen in the console flicking to life with Howard's picture in the center. "Hey, old man, what's the word?"

I craned my neck to get a better look and saw that the engineer I'd met aboard the PeaceMillion looked pretty much as he did then. He wore a loud pink shirt but now had shades that covered half his face.

"Hey, Duo, just checkin' in. You know, you never call me anymore. I'm beginning to feel neglected."

Duo snorted a laugh. "Yeah, whatever, dude. Like you've missed me bangin' around your satellite even a little bit."

Howard shrugged and I could see where Duo had developed a few of his mannerisms. "I admit the quiet has been nice. I've also enjoyed the piles of dismantled engine parts not tripping me up in every spare bit of space you could find. I like unobstructed corridors."

"Yeah, yeah. You just want the extra quiet time with your new lady. But come on; what's up?" Leaning over the console, he cracked every one of the toes on his right foot, rolling them back and forth over the carpeted floor.

Howard pushed his glasses up to rest on his bald forehead and Duo's foot froze. "Just makin' sure you're still on schedule, that you'll be here by 22:00. I gotta check up on you these days, Duo. You spend so much time on that ship."

He laughed again. "Mind if I call you 'Mom,' Howard? Seriously, don't worry about me. I'll see you tonight, okay?"

The old man gave him a warm, fond smile. "Okay. Travel safely."

Duo touched the screen. "Hey, guess I should ask how you are, huh? You doin' okay?"

"Oh, I'm fine. Don't worry."

"Right. Good. See ya, Howard."

"Bye, Duo."

With that, the conversation ended, the screen going dark. Still uneasy, I watched Duo reactivate the cloaking system. He stayed hunched over the console for several more seconds, fists clenched.

"Duo?" I began, preparing to push off the wall. "Is--"

"Stay there," he growled.

"Was there something wrong? He seemed relaxed enough."

"Just stay there," he said again, abruptly turning and shoving himself out of the cockpit.

I did as he said and waited, listening to him rooting through a storage compartment beside the bunks. I heard chains clinking and a few frustrated grunts, then the sound of a fist striking something soft. I went to the doorway and stuck my head around the frame, looking into the main room of the ship, finding Duo in front of what looked to be a relatively new punching bag, securely attached to both the ceiling and floor. His gaze snapped to mine but then back to the task he'd given himself--which appeared to be breaking in the new punching bag. He attacked it with all the wild ferocity he'd had as a pilot. Raw skill ran hand in hand with instinct. He didn't hold himself like an experienced fighter, but his movements were precise, though erratic. He punched and swiped and kicked and snarled, but he did it without any preparation, without any stretching. His timing and the angle of his attacks indicated that he knew how to fight to maximize the effect of his strikes, but he was clearly letting off steam. He was going to hurt himself.

I stepped into the room.

"Stay away from me," he gritted.

"Tell me what happened, Duo."

He spun and swung the side of his arm into the bag. "He put his glasses up; that's what happened."


"So, that means we're not going to L2."

My heart sank. "You're sure."

He barked a laugh and stopped the swaying bag between his shaking hands. "Yes, I'm fucking sure. Glasses up means we're fucked. Means they beat us to him, whoever 'they' fucking are--Preventers, thugs, how the fuck should I know? Glasses up means 'abort,' 'deal's off,' 'head for the hills,' hit the fucking road and don't look back." He wrapped his arms further around the bag, holding onto it like it was keeping him upright. "You know what else it means? No cash from my old accounts, no food, no supplies. It means we gotta get 'em from somewhere else, which means dropping our cover, landing and accessing money electronically, leaving a nice trail of breadcrumbs wherever we go. It means everything I did to be ready was all for nothing." He squeezed his eyes shut. "It means I didn't do anything for you but make it worse."

"Duo..." I tried, approaching him from the side, grabbing the bag just below where he held it. He didn't open his eyes, but shoved hard, pushing the bag into my chest and forcing me off balance. I braced against the wall to keep from bumping into it. "Duo, we have to think about what this means for you."

Pale eyelids lifted to reveal pained blue. "It means I fucked Howard, too. They were already there, in his home, because of me."

"It also means we have to consider the possibility that you are as much a target as I am--and not just the best way of getting to me."

"Nnnngh," he growled, shaking his head, eyes squeezed shut.

"You were followed when you left Scythe in the mountains. They knew you'd be traveling to Howard's after you left Earth. You've been under surveillance, Duo. Even if it is still just about finding me, we can't assume that any contacts you have are safe anymore. We have to be--"

He shoved the bag again and choked, "Shut up!"

"You can scream about it if you want to," I said, perhaps cruelly. "Now's the time to do it. Then we have to think."

So he did. He hugged the bag close and buried his face between it and his arm. Then he yelled as loud as I'd ever heard him. It was long and only partially muffled. It hurt my ears and, watching him, his face turned bright red. His shoulders shook when he started to run out of air and he abruptly stopped to suck in a long shuddering breath. Letting go of the punching bag, he took a couple steps back, then slowly sank to the floor, propping his elbows on his knees, putting his face in his hands.

I lowered myself in front of him, and he spoke, voice difficult to hear from under his fingers. "I don't want to hear it from you right now, Wufei. I don't want to hear how I fucked up."

I ran my fingers through my newly cropped hair. None of it was long enough to grab onto and tug. Duo hadn't shaved it, but it was a near thing. "I'm almost glad you did," I said.

Duo's gaze lifted up to mine and he waited without breathing.

"Until right now, I've felt half-asleep, like I was drifting. Since I woke up in the hospital, really, I haven't been fully present for anything. I chose to come with you when I took out those two Preventers, but you'd already done all the hard work for me. You'd already planned everything. Now we have to figure it out from the beginning. And I'll gladly do that with you. We'll figure it out together."

He started breathing again, nodding and dropping his eyes.

"We'll find a way to contact Howard to make sure he's okay. He can probably still send your money to another account, one we set up."

He nodded again, rubbing a hand in his eyes. "I never figured you for the consoling, reassuring type."

"I don't want to be angry about this. I don't want to blame you. If you'd like me to be upset, I'm sure I could work up to it."

"No, no, that's okay."

Then, because I was feeling the equalization of our positions quite acutely, I shifted a little closer so that our knees touched. I mirrored his position, elbows on knees, chin in hands. The symmetry felt right.

Find more of June at her Livejournal.

On to part seventeen. Back to part fifteen.