Chapter Five

by June

Carry an apple in my pocket
I write reminders on my skin
Clip meaningless pictures from old magazines
I tape them to the walls
It's a bad place I'm in
-Mountain Goats, "All Up the Seething Coast"

Duo came back two weeks later--longer than he said he'd be away and just long enough for me to suspect that he'd been off-planet for at least a few of those days. The fourteen days waiting for him to return seemed longer than most other days.

I had just finished a lunch shift in the kitchen, my face and coveralls coated with what felt like several pounds of grease, when I spotted him in the common room, his back to me, reading one of the inspirational posters taped to the wall. I'd been headed back to my cell to change, but stopped to watch him as he reached a hand behind his head to rub the back of his neck beneath his braid. It was such a familiar gesture that I had to laugh a little. I remembered him doing it even on the lunar base, when his hands were in heavy shackles. He must have heard the small noise I made because he turned swiftly, a tentative smile spreading across his mouth. His eyes traveled quickly over me, coming back up to my eyes after he'd made sure I still had all ten fingers and good posture.

"Hey, buddy," he said, voice barely above a whisper.

"Hi," I said automatically. Then after a beat, "Thanks for coming back."

"Sure," he answered. "Sorry it took me longer than I said it would. There was stuff I had to take care of before I could come."

He looked different, I realized; there was something that made him appear more solid than before. "It's no problem."

He took a couple steps closer and he seemed to be holding himself a bit more stiffly than usual. Duo had always moved like gravity didn't apply to him the way it did to the rest of us, like he had a bargain with it, allowing his steps to be lighter, essentially silent. Standing in front of me now, his boots seemed firmly planted, his shoulder squared to remain still, like he couldn't have moved the way he used to even if he wanted to. It'd only been two weeks, but something was different.

"You're tan. Why are you tan?"

He jumped a little at the outburst and then looked down at his arms like he wasn't sure whether they belonged to him. His arms had been folded across his chest, an unusual position for him. When he straightened them to examine his skin, I noticed that his hands were filthy and that there was dirt packed in under his fingernails.

"I should wash my hands," he said instead of answering my question. "Can I use the sink in the corner?"

I nodded. "Yeah. I have to wash up, too. I'll be right back; wait for me?"

He nodded in reply and turned back to the poster as I left. I jogged back to the cell block, pulling the bulky gray apron over my head as I went. I tossed it in the laundry heap as I came into the cell, and looking down at myself, deciding that it had done an admirable job of keeping my coveralls clean. They didn't need to be washed yet, so I shrugged out of the sleeves and tied them around my waist. Then I went to the sink and scrubbed the grime off my face and neck, rinsing as much kitchen sweat from my arms as I could with splashed water. My hair was filthy, but it would have to wait. Visiting hours lasted only so long. On my way back out of the cell, I grabbed the pack of cloves he'd brought me two months ago for my birthday, along with a pack of matches. I hadn't touched them since, though Karl had smoked a handful.

When I got back to the common room, Duo was hunched over the utility sink scrubbing his hands. His braid had slid over his shoulder to hang in front of him and he seemed to be concentrating fiercely, as though he'd just realized they were dirty and was embarrassed. But Duo didn't get embarrassed--at least he hadn't in the three-odd years I'd known him. I took another step toward him and his back tensed. He turned around casually enough but I could see he was ready for a fight if I'd been someone else.

"Let's go outside, Maxwell, before you get me into trouble again."

He flinched and dried his hands on his pants. "Cheap shot."

"Yeah, sorry."

He didn't say anything else as we walked through the common room and between the guards on our way to the yard. The only table in the shade was occupied by old Alliance men I didn't know, so we avoided them, sitting at a table closer to the basketball courts.

As soon as he was seated, Duo let his posture droop, letting out a wheezing sigh. "It is too fucking hot here, Chang. We're both gonna have skin cancer by the time you get out of this place." He shoved his t-shirt sleeves higher up on his shoulders and pulled his braid off his neck. "My delicate complexion can't take it."

I snorted a laugh and slid the pack of cloves across the table to him. "Then get off-planet, space brat, if you can't hack a southern Italy summer."

He plucked a cigarette from the pack and took the matches I offered him. He lit the clove and then tossed the match into the burnt grass, watching as a few blades smoked and shriveled. "I'm tryin', buddy."

I took the pack and pulled out another cigarette. Duo struck a match for me, cupping it in his palm against the faint breeze. I wasn't sure whether he meant trying to get off earth or trying to tolerate the weather in Italy. I sucked clumsily until the thing caught and then blew a cloud of sweet smoke right in Duo's face. "Sorry," I muttered as he wrinkled his nose and gave an exaggerated cough. When he sucked on the cigarette, I heard the cloves crackle and, again, watched him smile and lick the sweet taste from his lips. I realized I was staring at his mouth when I felt him staring at me and I jerked my gaze back up to his.

"Why?" I asked quickly.

He looked blank for a moment. "'Why' what?"

"How long have you been dirt-side?" I asked, backing the conversation up a few steps. He looked away quickly.

"For a bit. Didn't see much point heading back to L2 for the few weeks between your birthday and the, um, the 13th. Seemed like a lot of running."

"It's what you usually do. Howard needs your help, doesn't he?" I didn't want to press the issue, didn't like seeing him uncomfortable, but his unease was something new.

He shrugged. "Howard said he could handle the sweepers while I worked a few jobs north of Rome. The latest is an acquaintance of his, and it's actually a lot closer, within an hour of here." He looked to me, characteristic grin back and in full effect. "And by 'acquaintance,' I mean 'former sweetheart'--this lady could make the little palm trees on Howard's shirts dance with the way she talks." I raised an eyebrow at him, and he laughed. "Not really my type, though. She could be my mother or maybe grandmother depending on what colony cluster we're talking about. Anyway, she's got a sweet scrap yard and a serious back log of repair jobs, so..."

"So, that explains your hands and your tan," I said with a smirk. He cast a glance at his fingernails and grinned.

"It would also explain my muscular physique." He struck a ridiculous pose, cigarette dangling from his lips. Then he winced and rubbed his shoulder. "And why I'm so sore I can barely walk. This manual labor shit in full gravity is killing me. The first week I thought my back was gonna break." I nodded and elected not to share my similar experience working in the laundry those first few days. I watched him take the cigarette from his mouth and rest his wrist on the table, noticing that the muscles in his arms did look more solid, liked they'd been dealing in full-gravity work days.

"Do you like the job?" I asked.

He nodded, flicking ash into the grass. "Yeah, Sam's a great gal--pretty scary, but great. She's a brilliant mechanic and..." He trailed off again and looked away before continuing. "And she said she could always use the help if I was around, which was her way of saying she likes how I work."

I sat up a little straighter. "What do you think you'll do?" The prospect of having Duo dirt-side more often was appealing. He did spend a lot of time traveling; it might be better for him to have a place that he could go back to that wasn't the space-port and his shuttle. With only a year left on my sentence, he could get more work done, but not sacrifice too much of his time hanging out at the dead end of Europe.

"I'm not sure; I might take her up on it." He glanced up at me again, not wanting to look for my reaction, but curious all the same.

And even though I'd just been thinking that it would be nice to have Duo closer more often, my mouth opened and said otherwise because I'm an idiot who can't stand the thought that someone would actually do something like move to Italy for me. "Well, don't... don't sacrifice other, more profitable opportunities just so you can spend more time here. There's nothing going on here; you'd be bored out of your skull. It probably wouldn't be worth it."

It was the wrong thing to say and I knew it the second it came out of my mouth. His eyes snapped back to mine and his brow dipped down into a slow-forming frown.

"Not that I wouldn't appreciate the gesture, but--"


Wrong again.

He looked like he couldn't believe what I had just said. I almost reminded him who he was talking to. I didn't understand how Onur could think that my friends made me tolerable. I wouldn't tolerate me if I were them. "You think this," and he pointed to the space between us, "is a gesture? You think Trowa and Heero transferring to the branch office in Rome was a gesture?"

"No, I--"

"Chang, they put their lives on hold for you. You think anything happens in Rome? You think they do anything other than push papers from one desk to the next and occasionally bust some bonehead for carrying an unlicensed firearm or selling one vacation's worth of dope? And me... you think it's good for my reputation as a sweeper and a damn talented mechanic to associate closely with a convicted war criminal? Do you even know how many jobs I've lost because of who you are and what you tried to do in that second, fucking stupid war?"

"I didn't mean to--" I started, knowing already that there was no way to derail this train.

"Yes, you did, Chang. I know you feel guilty for dragging us all out here to the middle of fucking nowhere, but you didn't drag us. We're big boys and we came here on our own. But it's a very nice gesture on your part to release us from our obligation to you. Now I can go tell Trowa and Heero that they can stop taking vacation days to come down here and see you, and that they can finally pack up and go back to Brussels where they can actually do something useful. Heero can quit driving himself crazy behind his desk, blaming himself for not getting to you sooner during the war, for not convincing you that you were being an ass. And Trowa can quit worrying about your nutrition half the time and keeping Heero from self-destructing the other half and start taking care of himself for once. And I--"

I'd tried to look away multiple times, but he bent and contorted his neck so he could see my face, and finally I let him go at it. His words were burning themselves into my brain anyway, so I figured I might as well let his eyes do the same.

"I could--I could go home and find Hilde wherever she ended up after I left her to fly with Howard. Or I could go to school, maybe read my first novel or make my first shitty sculpture in art class. We would all be really grateful if you let us forget that one of us is gone for good and that you're where we can't get to you. We could forget you both and get on with your lives. So, thank you for letting me know you feel guilty about all of it and thanks for your concern regarding my financial situation, but I'm perfectly aware I wouldn't make shit working for Sam and I'm pretty sure Trowa and Heero knew they'd be bored in Rome. I'm positive that the point of taking those positions wasn't to make you feel guilty. "

He puffed furiously on his cigarette and then made a face, when he found it'd burned down to the filter. "Fuck," he muttered, flicking it into the grass. He raked a hand through his bangs and then dropped his elbow on the table, resting his head in his hand. "Fuck, that was more than I meant to say."

"Duo, I didn't mean to insult you or trivialize what you and the others--"

"It's not just for you, you know?" He looked up. "I mean, it is for you, but it's for us, too. It's just Heero, Trowa and me, and--"

"Three isn't enough," I finished.

"Right, exactly. Four is just barely cutting it. None of us are happy. I feel like we're all on the edge of something really bad, something dark. If something happened to you--"

I looked down at where he'd just grabbed my wrist. "It won't, Duo," I said, needing him to believe me, needing to believe it myself, urgently needing it. "Nothing's going to happen with Yuy and Barton in Rome and you five miles down the road working at some junk heap."

He squeezed my wrist until my skin pinched painfully and the bones ached. Then he let go. "It's twenty miles from here and it's a salvage yard," he said, sounding worn out.


"Wu," he began, looking at me with big sober eyes, trying to convey something heavy and genuine. "I'm thinking of taking the salvage job with Sam."

"I thought you were already working for her," I murmured, knowing that wasn't what he meant.

"I'd take the job for the next year, for the remainder of your sentence. She's got some space over the garage where I could crash. There's a truck I can borrow to get up to the see the guys and to come down here. I think it would be smart to have us all closer together, within a couple hours."

I stubbed out the butt of the clove, realizing I'd barely smoked any of it. I set it carefully between my middle finger and thumb and tried to flick it away like Karl did, like he'd tried to show me how to do. I failed miserably and it shot to the side, narrowly missing Duo's ear. I scowled. "Sorry."

When I looked up at him, he was smiling again. "Neat trick," he smirked.

"I worked a long time on that one," I said. He laughed and I felt the tension ease a little. "Did you decide to stay after you got in that fight with Trowa on the 13th?"

He shrugged and looked just a little disgruntled at the memory. "Guy knows how to guilt trip better than Sister Helen, but without the nice hugs afterward." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'd already met up with Sam by that point; she's been a client of Howard's and she had some stuff for me to pick up. And we had started talking about me doing a few repair jobs for her, but yeah, Trowa did a lot of the persuading. I just had to get back out to space to settle a few things with Howard before it was finalized."

"That doesn't seem like Trowa," I commented. "He worries, but he doesn't bully."

"Like I said, Wu, we're not in a good spot right now, any of us. Trowa knows it and he knows he can't look after Heero and you on his own."

"He can't look after me and neither can you. You have no power here, especially when you start waving badges around."

He wasn't about to be dissuaded now. "But it would be better if we were all here, to circle the wagons. In a manner of speaking," he added when I rolled my eyes at him. "And you've only got a year left here. You need to start thinking again about where you want to go after you get out. Maybe start sending out applications to a few universities. You think they wouldn't want you now, but you're wrong. You're smart as hell and with your experiences, you'd be the best student any of those places could find. They'd get to say they started Chang Wufei on his path to intellectual greatness!" He was excited by the possibilities, but he was still nervous, looking a little manic.

He was easier to read these days. He smiled a lot less and when he did, they were one of two kinds of smiles: genuine and fake. During the wars and right after, he had all manner of smiles, so many that I couldn't tell them apart. He used them all the time and they'd served him well. Now, he either meant it or he didn't. After Quatre died and after I ended up here, he didn't give the one kind unless he really meant it.

"Duo, did something happen?"

He rubbed his palms in his eyes and buried his fingers in his hair, pulling a few chunks out of the braid so that they stood up in random bumps and loops. "I feel like we already had this conversation the last time I was here, like this is all we can talk about until you get out--fight off panic and unload why we should be panicking."

"What should we be panicking about now?" I asked in growing alarm. "Is it Heero? Did he do something after you all left last time?"

Duo shook his head and then shrugged. "That was a bad day for him, but Trowa knows how to handle it. I think they went to the shooting range and then they were gonna train for awhile."

"Then what is it?"

"I don't know!" he shouted. "If I knew, I would have already fixed it or I would have killed it! There's nothing specific at all, just the shit I told you about the last time I was here alone and some I can only feel. I mean, it's not that bad all the time and I think Trowa and Heero have gotten a little better actually, since they've been partners." He grabbed for the cloves. "You weren't there right after everything blew up in our faces. Obviously, you weren't. I thought Trowa would turn to stone or if not that, something less dramatic. I thought he'd disappear--just, be gone one day. And I thought Heero would either blow his brains out or do something equally destructive to the rest of us. But they didn't do any of those things. They've gotten better. So--it's strange, and maybe stupid. I just feel like since the wars everyone's watching us to see if we really do self-destruct, if we really can't handle the peace."

"They're certainly watching me," I muttered. "It's not an outrageous suspicion."

He lit the cigarette and glanced around the yard, eyes catching on and then sliding away from the groups of men gathered at tables and playing basketball. "Here's what I think," he started. "The five of us were always wild cards, but by the end of the first war, we were the only ones who could finish it. The five of us together changed history, kept Psycho Marquise from dumping himself and his ship onto Earth. We were heroes! But after it was all over, we stuck around. They still had the wild cards in their hands--the Earth Sphere and the colonies. And now, if we're the ones in trouble, if we aren't handling our retirement well, no one wants to get stuck with us. Wild cards are a bitch if you hold onto them for too long."

He looked for my reaction, looked for my understanding. I heard my sarcastic reply before I could haul it back.

"Excellent metaphor, Duo."

He looked away and gave a humorless laugh, disgusted with me. "Fuck you."

I decided that right then was as good a time as any to add in Karl's and my conspiracy theory, the reason I'd asked Duo to return. "There was a man here, a White Fang organizer from L2. His name was Benjamin Bennett. Did you know him?"

Duo shrugged. "The L2 volunteers wanted me to join up with them. I remember the name--don't know if I spoke with him."

"He was killed about two months ago, found dead in his cell, with no evidence of a struggle."

"Sorry to hear it."

"We were all drugged the night it happened. There were no witnesses that we know of. Two years before him, Vasil Wasyliw, one of the original colony rebel leaders, was knifed in the showers while he was alone, not actually showering."

"So what."

"I think both deaths were for political reasons and I think members of this facility's administration are responsible, though faction violence is the story they're telling."

"Any reason to believe it wasn't faction violence?" he asked, sounding for all the world like a Preventer at an uninteresting crime scene.

As a strategy for communicating that I intimately understood what he'd been trying to get me to see, providing evidence that went along with his story wasn't working so well yet.

"Suspicious circumstances surrounding their deaths. Did I mention we were drugged?"

His gaze slid back to mine. Then he shrugged. "Happens all the time I'd imagine, whenever some search that's not so routine needs doing. Did you check all your stuff the next morning? Did you check yourselves?" He gave me a half-hearted leer and I flushed. "What else have you got?" he asked when I didn't rise to that bait.

"They were both leaders, powerful ones."

He shook his head. "Two dead bodies isn't a pattern, even if they were leaders."

"Is three?"

"Depends on who the third is. Are there three?"

"What if the third is Quatre?"

He groaned and stared hard at his cigarette. "Here I thought I was the one losing it."

"What if the fourth and fifth have already happened somewhere else to people I don't know about because we don't get the news channel on our TV?"

"Come on, Wu, you're--"

"What if number six is me?"

Angry blue eyes met mine. "Don't."

"Or you? Duo, you travel between Earth and L2 on your own shuttle, associating with three ex-terrorists. You said yourself I've cost you jobs; what if I cost you... something infinitely more important? They can watch me here. They can't watch you, especially now that you've installed banned technology in your ship. You'd be easier to eliminate than to watch."

He started to shake his head.

"Duo, I think it's exactly as you said. We--you and me and a bunch of us in here--we are the wild cards, the ones who had power, who had friends, who had... politics--the radicals, the zealots, the believers who believed too hard after we were supposed to stop. What if they're getting rid of the wild cards?" He laughed at his own words thrown back at him. "It's bad and it's dark, just beyond where we can see, and it's just like you said."

He squinted against the hot afternoon sun. "Christ, I wasn't expecting you to have your own spooky story to add to mine. Maybe we really should be panicking."

I returned his stare. "Maybe we should."

The sounds of the yard filled my ears and I looked away to give him some space to think. I pictured Karl's pale face flushed with excitement. I'd practically been speaking for him, channeling his obsessive curiosity and paranoia. I didn't know whether Vasil's death was connected to Benji's and neither did he. I wasn't really deceiving Duo by claiming that his death fit, because it did--I was asking for his help.

"So... what, you want me to help you figure out who's killing war criminals? You want me to interrogate a few guards, pull some files, check some date books for 'drug inmates and execute Benjamin Bennett'? 'Cause, I gotta say, that kinda shit will really cut in on my hours with Sam." His fingers tapped restlessly on the table.

"I want you to find us a pattern."

He shook his head. "Anyone can find a pattern if they're looking for one. You need proof."

"Then help me find that!" I snapped. "You said yourself that we need to see it coming from now on. Quatre took us completely by surprise, so did what happened to me. I'm trying to see what's coming next."

He blew out a cloud of smoke. "I know, buddy."

"Then you believe me, don't you. You know something is wrong."

He nodded, acceptance and resignation in his posture. I was calling him back to the fight, and he wasn't happy to go. "It's hanging over all our heads like a mean ghost. I think Trowa and Heero can feel it too, even though they're so far inside they can't--"

The dynamic changed then. We weren't trying to convince each other of anything, trying to prove a point or argue some outrageous claim. We were agreeing, recognizing that the world was not right, and that we'd chosen a side. Again. Duo was no longer just vaguely suspicious or uneasy. He was like me and as far as most of the world was concerned, that was the wrong side to choose. What I was asking him to do was stupidly dangerous for someone who had much more to lose than I did.

"They're probably in the safest place they can be," I interrupted, "right where Relena's new government can see them, with bright perfect records and starched uniforms. And if you had any sense, you would have signed up as soon as you had the chance." He raised an eyebrow at me, but I plowed ahead, noting distantly that I sounded a bit like my mother. "You should have taken Une's offer of a full-time position with Preventers. What you do now is dangerous--too many shady customers who could have dangerous motives, who could be trying to set you up. And that ship of yours; god only knows how it's still running after everything you've done to it. Frequent space travel still isn't safe for small vessels like that. For that reason alone I'm glad you're going to be spending more time on Earth, though I'm not sure living twenty miles from here is the safest place you could have chosen to settle down for a year. But at least--"

He grabbed my wrist again, though this time not so tightly. When I stopped talking, I noticed that he was smiling--one of the real ones. "Wufei, I appreciate that you're concerned about my safety. I'm glad that you are. It's kind of cute, actually." His smile widened when he saw me flush and glare at him. "But listen to yourself for a minute. You're worried about my safety when, first off, you're in a prison calling itself a school, where the guys who were war leaders are winding up dead; and second, you've taken it upon yourself to find out why they're winding up dead. If you're right, and the big shots at RCNP are behind it, then you're going to need help. You're talking about taking on the state... again. And this time there's only two of us, instead of five." The silence that followed was heavy as life. Then Duo's eyes flickered over to the door into the common room. "Unless that skinny guy over there counts as three."

I spun around quickly, already knowing who I'd find. And sure enough, Karl stood in the shade of the overhang, smoking a cigarette and looking like a kid whose parents wouldn't let him sit at the grownup table.

"I noticed you said 'us' at one point, before you asked me for my help."

"That's Karl," I said quickly. "He's my friend."

Duo's eyes traveled back and forth between us. "Yeah?"

"He's also the insomniac who found out for sure we'd been drugged."

"Who else have you told about me?" he asked, eyes sharpening.

I rolled my eyes. "Do you think I'm an idiot? He's the only one who knows. He's the one who got me suspicious in the first place."

"Fine, fine," he said, waving a hand, dismissing any explanation I had. "But I'll tell you right now; anything I find, I bring it to you. He wants anything from me, you ask. I only talk to you. He stays at least that far away."

I frowned and watched them eye each other from across the yard. "Okay."

His eyes came back to mine, hard and hooded. "I should go. Sam's got me working in the morning and I need to get my laptop updated and upgraded with Heero's latest gadgets so I can start working for you at night. It'll probably take awhile to put together so I should start before dark."


"I'll find you a pattern by next week," he said, standing abruptly, and stepping over the bench seat of the picnic table. He might have left right then without another word if I hadn't grabbed his elbow and pulled him to a stop.


He spun around so fast that I almost ran straight into him. His eyes burned with sober wariness. "Wufei, please tell me you're not two bored kids looking for some way to pass your last year here. Tell me that you don't want me to just be your news ticker or a window to the outside. Tell me you're scared and that you need my help." The extremes of his emotions from one moment to the next were hard to keep up with. I floundered where I stood.


"That you need it, Chang." He shook his arm out of my grip, but stayed right in my space. Fortunately, I'd grown a few inches since the wars, too, and could look him almost directly in the eye. Duo's brow sloped down in a tight frown. "Tell me something reassuring because this has been a rough couple of weeks and it'd be great if you could just..." He trailed off and lowered his head, now slumping a little.

I struggled with what to say, painfully aware of the men's stares from the basketball court. They'd heard Duo raise his voice; they'd seen him try to walk away. "I do need your help," I murmured, bringing my mouth close to his ear. "And I am frightened."

"That's not very reassuring," he whispered.

"It's the most I can offer you, Duo." For a moment, I felt his breath falter on my skin and he shifted, coming a half-step closer, our hips lining up. I almost stepped back, but didn't, trying to get him to look at me though his eyes stayed focused on my chest. He reached for my arm and then I did step away, pulse suddenly hammering in my ears. I gripped his shoulder and held him from me. "You're right; you should go."

He looked flushed and unhappy, but he nodded. "I'll see what I can find in the papers first, look for the easy stuff, and I'll get back to you, okay?"

"Thank you, Duo." He nodded again and walked away, hands in his pockets.

I didn't watch him leave, but turned to the men still watching me from the court. A few of them were glancing between me and Duo's retreating figure, sneering suggestively. Relationships in this place were always complicated. They hadn't been for me because not letting anyone near me tended to keep things simple. What they had just seen redrew the boundaries for them, which was not good news for me.

"So, that's who you've been holding out for, is it? Should have known you'd think you were too good for any of us in here."

I glanced over my shoulder to make sure that Duo was out of sight. Then I tilted my chin up and beckoned with one hand. "Need me to prove it to you again?"

Find more of June at her Livejournal.

On to part six. Back to part four.