"Everyone sees what you appear to be; few experience what you really are." - Machiavelli
Against Better Judgement
by D.C. Logan
Une sat back behind her desk, watching the tall man cradling the cardboard box as if it meant the world to him and trying to read Zechs' intentions, now that his partnership with Wufei had splintered in the wake of her assignment.
"So, I'm assuming, based on your statement before you ran out of here trying to chase down Chang, that you'll be remaining here on Earth then?"
He set the box deliberately aside and nodded to her, getting back to business. "You assume correctly."
"Fine. I have another priority case that needs your particular skill set. Once it has been resolved to my satisfaction, I'll consider reassigning you and Chang together as regular duty partners again." She gave him a calculating look. "Assuming that the two of you can come to some sort of understanding in the interim."
She walked over to her desk and retrieved a red and black-tagged file. "Read that over. You can use my desk and that file doesn't leave this room. I'll return in an hour to answer any questions you may have at that time. Until then? Make yourself comfortable." She turned to walk from her office, but turned and paused at the threshold of the doorway. "And Zechs?"
"If it helps, I'm sorry."
"It doesn't, but we both know that the work comes first." He sat heavily in her chair and pulled the sheaf of pages from the file, doing his best to dismiss Wufei from his thoughts.
By the time Une returned from her meeting, he was thoroughly confused. And equally convinced that Wufei wouldn't want to be within twenty meters of him once this particular assignment was completed. Assuming he could successfully pull off such a complicated sting operation in the first place.
"You don't have anyone else you can use for this?"
"I thought of pressing Yuy and Maxwell into service, but, to be quite honest with you, Maxwell isn't an agent, I only hire Yuy on a case-by-case contractual basis, and if I had to decide between more tempting targets, a former prince of Sanq who is the elder brother of the vice foreign minister to the colonies wins over a Gundam pilot any day of the week." She paused. "Besides, technically speaking, you piloted a Gundam yourself."
"So you're setting up this entire operation in the hopes of trapping a blackmailer who's been plaguing high-level government officials." Zechs shook his head. "Sounds more like a job for the local policing group than for Preventers; how did we get involved?"
Une shook her head. "It's important, it's multi-jurisdictional, and it involves government officials over my level."
"Ouch." Zechs paged through the rest of the file, obviously missing some of the more pertinent details. "Do I want to know who's been targeted so far?"
"No. But let's just say that it wouldn't take you all that much imagination to come up with an accurate list."
Zechs pointed to a name on the top of the folder. "This says I'm being assigned a new partner for the duration of this case." He paused for a moment, hesitating. "I have to ask. If Chang and I hadn't had a problem working together, would I have been assigned this particular case?" Zechs was still looking at the file with something approaching shock.
Une declined to answer that question directly. "It doesn't matter now. The case is active now, and you're the perfect agent for it." She nodded at the file, at his hand on the pages. "For a number of reasons."
Well, there was no getting around that fact.
"Fine. When does Owens arrive at HQ and how much time do I have to prepare for this?"
"His transfer was set up an hour ago, and he should be here the day after tomorrow. Find him a desk and do what you can to get ready. I... know it's short notice. I'm getting a lot of heat on this one, or I wouldn't push."
Zechs waved her off. The distraction would do him some good. A lot of good, but Une didn't need to know that. "I'll pick him up at the shuttle port. What has he been told of the assignment?"
Une waited patiently near the desk. "As soon as you get out of my chair, we can get started on that."
"Ah, right." The briefing details and planning continued long into the afternoon, and Zechs' preparations extended much further into the evening after that.
The first Wufei knew of the man was when he was introduced during the morning staff rounds later that week. Brian Owens was ex-Alliance, and new to both the ranks of Preventers and policing activity, but he had a crisp way about him and a quick sense of humor that the regulars on the squad picked up on and handed back to him with coffee and a smile and a surprising lack of the usual probie taunting. Fresh from one of the L3 colonies, everything Earth-side fascinated him from the weather patterns to his new, very-famous partner. Everyone but Wufei seemed to already know by the morning staff meeting that Owens and Zechs were partnered together, although that's not how Wufei had heard it stated.
Chazza had referred to Owens as Wufei's replacement.
Wufei hated the man on sight.
Sitting in the back of the room and watching as Zechs sat next to Owens, leaned over to point out details on the page in front of him, and familiarized him with the HQ buildings and the city in general, was sheer torture. He tried very hard to not think about the extra time Zechs was taking to get Owens set up with his new apartment, introducing him to the rest of the squad, and otherwise thoroughly establishing him as his new partner.
The resentment kept building, but despite that, Wufei couldn't find it within himself to allow the services team to remove Zechs' desk from his office--holding out on the slight hope that the situation might eventually reverse itself.
That he'd get Zechs back.
He also set his personal reporting tags in place to pick up any information on Zechs and the cases he was working... just for professional contact purposes of course. Or at least that's what he told himself for the first three weeks of Owens' time on the Preventers force.
It only took that long for Owens to get his partner hurt in the line of duty. It took three weeks for that to happen. It took less than thirty seconds for Wufei to feel guilt over it. If only he'd been there instead of Owens...
Murray saw him walk through the hospital lobby and automatically pointed him to the critical care ward. "Hey Chang, I thought you were off duty today."
Rodriguez was quick to jump on the bandwagon. "Since when does Chang have any off-duty hours?"
He left them behind on the first floor, not bothering to answer their commentary, and headed up to critical care, flashing his badge in order to pass through the security checkpoint unmolested. He didn't want them to know how he'd dropped everything on his desk when the dispatch had come through the system, how he'd broken, stretched, and violated any number of traffic laws to reach the hospital to find out how Zechs had fared at the hands of the shooter.
He paused outside of the hospital wing, uncertain how or if he should proceed, not knowing how to repair the breach in their friendship. Relationship? They didn't have a partnership any longer, so what did they have? If anything.
Wufei stopped and turned to the information desk, waiting for any confirmation that he, Zechs, was still alive, that he wasn't too late.
"I assume that you're here for information on the agent that came in an hour or so ago?"
Wufei nodded, though he hadn't been aware that it had been that long ago. Stress and adrenaline did such unusual things to his perception of time. "He'll be fine. We've admitted him for the next twenty-four hours since he has a history of heart-related problems in his file and we'd like to keep an eye on him, but he can receive visitors if you have any questions you'd like to ask him now."
If he had questions? Zechs had a history of heart problems? And he hadn't mentioned that to him? Damn right he had questions! But... not now. An investigative agent would be on their way over to speak with him shortly, and Wufei's presence would be questioned, and perhaps, very unwelcome.
"There will be another agent in to see him. Thank you for the information." He turned, and walked off the critical care floor, making certain to leave the hospital from a different door than the one he'd entered in order to avoid the rest of the crew. He had enough to deal with without answering their questions on top of it.
Wufei made a more concerted effort to ignore Zechs after that, even when he was absent from HQ for a week, and then returned to the morning staff meetings with his arm in a bright blue medical sling, in good spirits, but obviously still dealing with some residual pain.
Wufei broke one of his rules and questioned Sally about him during her rotation through the building the following month. Or at least he did his best to, but she saw him coming first.
"No and no."
Wufei winced. "What do you mean, no?"
Sally went on with preparing her coffee and ignoring Wufei. "I'm not going to give you any details about your ex-partner. If you're that curious about him, you can talk with him yourself."
Despite his best efforts to cajole, bribe, and entice her, she remained firm on her stance. Revealing to him only that the injury was minor, and that Zechs was fine.
He got better information from the typing pool.
But that was nothing compared to the rumors the rest of the squad started whispering in his ear.
"I thought you would have heard about that by now."
He used his serious glare, the one that Heero had taught him. If it didn't work, he'd upgrade to Duo's. That one never failed him, but it had a disturbing tendency to make grown men wet themselves, and he wasn't up to seeing Richards soil himself. "Heard about what, Richards?"
"What about him?"
"Well, I figured you would know, being that you're his ex-partner and all."
That ground hard, close to the bone. "Know what?"
"Well, it's on the hush-hush, and not verified yet."
Wufei bristled. "Why are you coming to me with hearsay and eavesdrop?"
"Well, with the way you act whenever anyone says anything about him, I just figured that you'd want to hear and then make up your own mind about it all."
Wufei made a frustrated gesture and waved him onward. "Fine then, what?"
"Well, apparently he and Owens got caught in their car sharing more than a sandwich, if you get my meaning."
Wufei just blinked numbly at Richards, unable to respond to that revelation.
Richards beamed, pleased beyond measure at how well his news has scored. The unflappable Chang Wufei, not only reduced to jaw-hanging silence, but actually gripping the edge of the break room table in order to maintain his balance.
"No." It came out more whisper than word.
"The way I heard it, they were sucking face with the best of them. Wouldn't have expected it of Owens, he seems a regular enough guy. Zechs though..." Richards pretended to consider the prospect for a moment or two. "Maybe it's the hair..."
Wufei shook his head. "He's up to something."
"What? He never pulled anything like that when he was riding around in the car with you then, did he?"
"Didn't think so. You would have broken something permanently on the man if he'd tried anything on with the likes of you. You're so straight, you even think in lines."
Wufei nodded absently along with Richards, not being in the habit of outright lying outright to his fellow officers. Meanwhile his mind was racing along with the thought of Zechs and Owens in that car, parked somewhere. And why, if this was true, that Zechs hadn't seen fit to make a pass at him.
That thought ran frantic circles around in his mind nonstop for days. In fact Wufei was so distracted by his thoughts that it took Duo three frantic attempts to catch his attention from across the loaded holiday table. It was Duo's year to host--and a good and wonderful thing that Wufei hadn't been more than a quick shuttle flight away this year.
"Hey Wufei, what's wrong with you? You working on a big case?" He waved his fork for emphasis.
"Yeah, a big case of being infatuated with my ex-partner..."
He turned back to his plate, considering the flavor of the wine served with the holiday meal and absently watched it roll around in his glass, when it occurred to him that something was... wrong. Why had the table suddenly turned so quiet? Duo dropped his fork with a metallic rattle, and Wufei looked from Trowa to Quatre to Heero and then back to Duo again. They each wore a similar expression of complete, utter, and total shock, and then it hit him. He'd said that last comment out loud. Fuck.
Oh... holy fuck. Wufei stood up suddenly, dimly heard his chair fall over backwards and hit the floor, and started backing his way to the door, mortified that he'd let that slip. He had one last fleeting impression of his friends as he dashed out of the room--of Duo, horrified and surprised, of Heero's anger, Quatre's confusion, and Trowa's blank shock. All those years of practicing the voice of reason and logic in front of them, and now he'd gone and done this.
He had the distinct feeling that forgiveness would be a long time coming.
Trowa caught up with him as he was exiting the building, which was probably just as well, since he hadn't a clue where he would have gone from that point onward, and his panic had just about run itself out. That still didn't mean that he was ready to turn about and face the guys after dropping that particular bombshell though. Hell no. They'd be poking fun at him for months now, especially if Duo ever said anything to the others about the way Zechs had been tailing him right before the end of the last assignment, back before Heero had come out and told him about the man's outright duplicity.
Embarrassing, that's what it was.
And he'd gone and fallen for the man anyway.
Well, sort of.
Trowa didn't say anything, just looked at Wufei, at the confusion apparent in his face. "C'mon, the others promised not to bring it up again unless you want to talk about it, okay?"
He nodded at Trowa. Hell, what was wrong with him? Cowed into submission by his own friends and openly revealing a fantasy weeks if not months out of date at this stage. What they thought of him being attracted to another man, well, that was none of their business. They could like it or leave it. "Fine. Okay."
Trowa nodded back, apparently satisfied with that response for the moment. "So, will you come back to dinner?"
They moved back towards the building's elevator, and for once, they were the only two riding it to the top floor. Trowa reached out to halt Wufei's progress when they reached the penthouse level. "They mean well. If you need to say something, try talking to Quatre first. He's good." Advice passed on, Trowa led the way back to the dining room, Wufei following along and hesitantly taking up his seat and picking up his meal where he'd left off.
Noting Wufei's quiet distress, the others didn't press him or mention anything and allowed the matter to rest, keeping instead to more general topics of conversation.
Later in the evening, Quatre found Wufei standing by the large glass windows in the formal living room, glass of wine in hand, enjoying the view. Alone. "Trowa sent me in to find you. Was there something you wanted to talk about?"
Wufei raised his glass of wine in salute to the city below. "No, not really. I was just enjoying being alone for a few minutes before my ride to the shuttleport arrives."
Quatre turned to leave the room, then hesitated and walked back to stand next to Wufei and look out over the night lights of the city with him. "I wanted to ask you something, when the others weren't around. And if this gets too personal, please tell me to stop, but..." He took a deep breath, and then released it, and it was that moment of tension, something rare in Quatre Winner, that made Wufei take notice and wait for the question. "You've always seemed to want to be by yourself, to work by yourself, by your own admission, to be alone. What changed?"
Wufei spun the stem of the glass slowly between his thumb and forefinger, giving the question some weight and time to settle in his mind, but no better answer came to him. "Nothing. Everything. Zechs." Wufei shrugged. "He needed me, and he didn't need me, and I'd like to think that we balanced each other. I don't know if there was anything more to it than that for him. I don't honestly think so. Given time, and a reason, there might have been more than that for me. Hard to tell. I didn't even know that he was gay or bi or whatever he is until after." Wufei set his wineglass aside, disgusted with the direction his thoughts were carrying him. "And now he's partnered with Owens."
Quatre frowned at him. "And the problem with Owens is? I mean, other than the fact that he has your partner?
Wufei made a disparaging noise. "He may have military experience, but he's a substandard agent with no field experience and he's going to get someone hurt, probably seriously. Eventually, if his learning curve doesn't improve, he's going to get someone killed."
Quatre gave him a look that was far too perceptive and added softly, "And you're afraid that it will be Zechs."
Wufei nodded in all seriousness. "He's been injured once already."
"Une knows this?"
"And Owens continues to serve actively on duty."
"Yes, under supervision."
"Well, at least he's supervised."
"Zechs is supervising him."
"And the rumors you heard have him and Zechs..."
"Does Une know about those?"
Wufei's voice became very quiet, barely a whisper. "That... I do not know. And no, I will not inform her of hearsay and rumor."
"And if it's true?"
Wufei's voice turned sharp. "That's Merquise's business then, isn't it?"
Heero tapped on the doorframe to the living room, startling them both. "Quatre? The limousine service just called, they're waiting downstairs."
Quatre nodded. "Right, I'll get Wufei's coat."
Wufei looked up, Heero was staring directly at him, but not saying a word. "What?" Heero shook his head, but Wufei knew it for a sign of deep-seated frustration. "What is it Yuy? Spit it out already."
Quatre brought Wufei's coat out from the back hall, and Heero took it from his hand, escorting Wufei to the elevator. Wufei accepted the change in the guard without comment, curious as to the conflict in Heero's expression.
"Well, Heero?" Wufei pulled his coat on roughly, waiting for an answer, but Heero remained silent until the moment just before the elevator doors closed.
"Yes?" Hell, Wufei was eager for any information, however meager, about his ex-partner at this point.
"Perhaps... not all is as it seems."
The doors slid shut on Wufei's audible groan of frustration.
Heero reluctantly answered the vidphone, fairly certain where the conversation would be heading next.
"I don't trust the bastard further than I can throw him, but there's no accounting for taste and Wufei sees something in him and... well, I can't stand the way Wufei's been moping around. You're on Earth. You have access to Preventers HQ. Just find Zechs in the building somewhere and, hell, I don't know... say something to him." Duo lasered him with a glare. "Fix this before Wufei gets himself turned into goo."
Heero wasn't sure what that was, but it didn't sound optimistic. "Turned into goo?"
Duo shrugged and frowned back at the vid. "The way he's been acting lately, I doubt he's been checking both ways before crossing the street. Something's liable to hit him and squish him sooner or later."
Duo had a valid point there. "I'll see what I can do."
"Merquise? You have a moment?"
Zechs looked up from his desk, now awkwardly positioned in the middle of a bank of communal desks that was in regular rotation. He flicked a quick glance up at Owens before excusing himself from the rest of the squad and following Heero over to the stairwell door. The rest of the group maintained a wary watch over them as the two moved out of hearing range. Zechs turned his back to the room to give them the illusion of privacy. "What's going on?"
Heero was silent, flicking a glance first to the group, then to the door to the hallway. "It's private."
Zechs considered the best way to maintain their public cover personas, and abruptly stiffened his posture as if he'd received a verbal blow. "Fine. After you, Yuy."
Heero spun on his heel and stalked out of the door, Zechs quick on his heels. They turned the corner and entered one of the private conference rooms, pulling the surveillance lead on the way into the room and slamming the door hard behind them.
Zechs leaned causally back against the closed door and gave Heero a curious look. "So, what's this all about? The other case closed out clean, right?"
Heero had that 'I don't really want to talk about this' look on his face. "It did."
"It's about Wufei."
Zechs' demeanor changed instantly, he leaned forward and approached Heero quickly with serious intent. "Is he alright?"
Heero shifted his feet and looked uncomfortable, and Zechs backed off a step or two. "I promised Duo I'd say something."
Zechs paused, then rested a hip on the edge of the steel table as he tried and failed completely to make logical sense of that statement. "About Wufei?"
Heero sounded a bit more encouraged and slowly continued. "Yes."
"What are you supposed to tell me. Exactly." Zechs looked around the room, trying to fit the pieces together. "Listen, I know that Maxwell doesn't care all that much for me. I thought that he'd be the first one to be pleased that Wufei and I are no longer working together..." He trailed off, as Heero waved a hand at him to stop rambling off in the wrong direction.
Heero found a middle-distance stare and tried again. "Wufei... hasn't been the same since the end of the last case. And... we're..." He blinked, choosing a different word. "Concerned about his state of mind."
"He's been... distracted since your partnership dissolved. We're concerned about him."
"And... you expect me to?"
"Just..." Heero gave him a supremely frustrated look, caught between the rock of Duo's request and the hard place of Preventers' protocols and regulations. "I promised that I would mention it to you. Nothing more."
"Yes, Zechs?" There was a vague hint of wistfulness in the response, the desperate plea of a man who did not want to disappoint his life partner, but did not know how best to resolve the situation given the few tools at his disposal.
"I'll handle it."
The sigh was slight but heartfelt, and Heero's curt nod was answer enough for him.
Rogers walked through the break room on the way to the water cooler, bitching all the while about how the last putz failed to replace the water reservoir. Wufei had heard this act many times; Rogers was used to talking his way into getting someone else to replace the reservoir, which, as an older model, was a stone bitch to exchange without dousing the victim with cold water.
Zechs stood without comment, walked over to where the empty and full canisters were stacked against the wall, moved around the still-ranting Rogers, and perfunctorily replaced an empty cylinder for a full one, with no spills, before walking over to Wufei's table in the corner and sitting down across from him. Zechs shifted his mug of coffee closer to his chest, and gave Wufei a long-suffering look of commiseration. That simple action summed up Zechs work ethic thought Wufei--despite relative levels of rank, Zechs would rather do a simple task himself, if it lay within his abilities to do so, than listen to someone complain about it not being done. Wufei had seen other agents take advantage of him on any number of small occasions, but it hadn't bothered him until that moment. This man was his partner, ex-partner, whatever--dammit, and not Rogers' slave for simple tasks--no matter how menial or mindless.
"Hey Merquise! Thanks man, you're a true prince, you know that?"
Apparently Rogers had just noticed that all his posturing had been successful. Zechs returned a careless wave over his shoulder in acknowledgement. Then the humor behind that statement hit Wufei, and he had to suppress a laugh. Or at least he tried to, but the relief of finishing the Power's case and actually spending a few moments of on-duty time without alternately filling out paperwork or chasing down this week's scumbag had apparently reduced his threshold for stifling humor, and ancestors help him, he sat in the break room across from this man who had changed the course of the EarthSphere with him and wept tears of mirth.
Zechs made eye contact at the first sound, and rose slightly from his chair in concern until Wufei managed to get a hand up to wave him back into his seat. Between his suppressed bursts of laughter, he snatched glances at Zechs' face and could almost see his brain reversing in order to replay the last few minutes, searching for anything that might have set him off. He found it, and met Wufei's watery eyes with his cool humored ones and winked at him. And that set Wufei off on yet another round of stifled, ruckling snorts that he tried desperately to choke down before Rogers took notice.
Contact made. Primary mission accomplished.
Once started, avoiding his old partner became impossible, and he found ready excuses to walk past his old office doorway and check in on his ex-partner on a regular basis.
After the first few times Wufei had looked up to find him standing in the doorway, the shock value had eased, and he found himself watching for that wave of blond hair when he glanced up from his desk. In the weeks that followed, he worked to ignore the additional rumours that circulated about Owens and Zechs, and continued to look the other way when he saw them together, the casual hand resting on a shoulder that might not be so casual after all, he chose to ignore.
A week later Zechs followed Wufei back to his office after the morning case review, cradling his cup of coffee close to his body to protect it from the jostling agents making their way to their own destinations. Wufei walked to his desk, and stopped. There was a long narrow box resting across the arms of his chair. When he looked up; Zechs was leaning against the door, sipping his coffee and staring at him with an expectant look.
"I believe that it's customary to offer gifts during this time of year?"
Wufei stared back down at the box, dumbfounded. "What?"
"It's Christmas Eve, Chang, or had you forgotten?" Wufei looked away from the puzzle of the box to face the enigma that was his ex-partner. Zechs had a smile on his face, and it looked practically edible on him. Hell.
"Christmas?" Oh ancestors, was it Christmas Eve already? The guys would kill him, Duo always made a fuss over the holidays, but he'd been so distracted with Zechs and Owens and his caseload that the passing calendar days from the last holiday to this one hadn't made much of an impression.
Zechs chuckled darkly at the look of surprised misery evident on Wufei's face. "Would you like to open your present?"
"But... I didn't get you anything."
"I'd be a poor friend indeed if that was my sole reason for giving you a holiday token. But, in truth, it is not a gift from me, I am merely forwarding it to you."
Wufei had noticed that Zechs speech patterns usually became more formal when he was nervous. Interesting. It made him even more curious about what the box might hold.
Cautiously and hesitantly, he picked up the box and examined it. It was a long narrow carton, similar to the sort used for presenting bouquets of long-stem roses, and his heart thudded in its cage. Surely Zechs hadn't guessed, Wufei had been so careful to let nothing slip, but Zechs had said that this wasn't really from him. Forwarding? His own sense of curiosity truly was his most dangerous personality trait.
He edged his finger under the wrapping, separating adhesive from paper in a careful sliding motion, prolonging the moment. It had been years since he'd had a completely unexpected gift like this, and he found that he was enjoying the moment, spinning it out for all it was worth. Paper removed, he separated the lid from the box and pulled back the interior wrappings to reveal... a sword. It was stunning, a grace of polished and sharpened steel, more of a saber than a sword, with an elegant gold hilt with a subtle curve of a basket to protect the duelist's hand, for this was a professional's sword, a sword to define its wielder, and... it was... familiar.
Zechs slid the cuffs back on his uniform sleeves and reached out with a gloved hand to take her gently from Wufei's loosening grip, his slack fingers giving him easy leave to do so. Zechs watched Wufei's face carefully before speaking again. "This was in the possessions that I had in storage here on Earth. Treize left this to me, and I believe he would have wanted you to have it; you have the proper respect for things of beauty and strength."
Zechs studied the sword in his hands, and then looked back to Wufei, but Wufei's soul-shocked face gave him little direction.
"I don't believe she's ever been properly blooded, if you'll allow me the honor?"
Wufei couldn't nod, still flattened that he'd given him this, of all things, but Zechs seemed to take the awkward silence for acquiescence. He reversed his grip on the sword, braced its length along his arm, gripped the tang with his gloved hand, and purposefully nicked his left wrist, drawing a thin red line on his skin and a bead of blood along the blade. Wufei stood appalled, mesmerized with shock that Zechs had voluntarily done such a thing, as he matter-of-factly wiped first the blade and then his wrist with a linen handkerchief, before bowing slightly and presenting the sword back to Wufei, hilt first.
'Beauty and strength.' That suited him, and as Wufei took the sword lightly from his hands, he realized that the true gift was not this gold-chased steel, but the man's blood and the respect he'd offered him both freely and often. Zechs, whether he chose to recognize the fact or not, was a line-bred royal; yet he'd done this honorable thing just for him. It was something Wufei wasn't sure he deserved, but that Zechs insisted he accept.
Beauty and strength--those words followed him though the rest of his hectic day and well into the night. What had Zechs truly meant by that? What would Treize have thought of the gifts he'd received upon his death--his sword and his friend? Or could Zechs be more to him than that? He was afraid to ask. He could nearly envision Zechs as a sword himself--royal, strong, practical, yet deadly and beautiful. He offered him both protection and the risk of injury--the possibility of sport and grace and a delicate interaction of sparring partners.
"You know what Friday is, right?"
Wufei continued to read over the report in front of him and repeated from rote memory and due repetition: "Quatre is in San Francisco with Winner Enterprises, and Trowa is in Vegas with the circus, and you and Heero and I are going to go meet up with them in either city or somewhere in the middle and have dinner and do our regular Gundam Pilots' night out."
There was a startled exclamation in the background, and Heero appeared in the monitor alongside Duo, looking confused as to why his presence was required. Duo continued to address Wufei. "You should bring Zechs along with you."
"I should what?"
"Bring Zechs to the Gundam Pilots' night out."
Wufei stammered an, "I can't," at the same time Heero turned to Duo with a, "good idea."
"What do you mean, 'good idea'? There's nothing good about it. By all the rumors going on around here, the man is practically sleeping with his partner."
Duo shrugged. "So?"
"I do not poach on other's property."
Heero stated the obvious: "He's a Gundam pilot too; he should be invited."
Duo nudged Heero and pointed at the monitor camera, particularly at Wufei's degree of consternation. Heero nodded.
"What, exactly, are you two conspiring against me to do?"
Duo tried for innocent, and failed miserably. "Me?"
Wufei tried for smug, and succeeded. "Quatre does that better than you do."
"Fine. I'll ask Quatre and Trowa to have dinner here instead, and I'll invite Zechs along myself. You can come if you want to."
If he wanted to. Which, loosely translated, meant: If he cared to ever see daylight on planet Earth again. Duo was inventive with his torture. One did not miss Gundam Pilots' night out.
Wufei still hadn't decided whether or not to inform Zechs of this fact or not.
He should have bribed someone to lock Zechs in the deploy van. Stuff him into a locker. Put him in the slow freight elevator, handcuff him to the freight bumpers, and hit each of the buttons to every one of the floors. Anything to avoid this.
There were six of them now. Heero and Duo. Trowa and Quatre. On the other side of the table, he had the honor of sitting next to his partner. All. Night. Long.
Not only did he, by process of elimination, get paired off with Zechs for the evening. Duo had insisted on making leading and suggestive remarks.
Wufei was ready to kill him. Good friend or no.
About the time Zechs started actually acting companionable with the two of them, asking them if they still communicated via the 'kicking under the table' method, Wufei had had enough.
"Yes, they do. No, this is not the way they normally behave. They are doing this in order to..." He paused, not having meant to go that far. "Never mind."
Who knew what Duo would have confessed to Zechs next if the man had not had to beg his leave not long after, pleading business.
Wufei was grateful, as the night had been feeling more and more like a set up blind date, and while he knew his friends meant well, and that the holiday party had been... well... embarrassing. This was going a bit too far.
Zechs stood to the side of the unit next to Owens. Wufei watched the two of them through the windows of the battery assault vehicle as the breech team prepared for the raid on the Mercur facility.
Winters sidled up to Wufei. "You know, your ex-partner makes our official-issue assault gear look positively illegal."
Wufei turned away from the eye candy. "I wouldn't have noticed."
"The hell you haven't." Winters smacked him hard on the shoulder. "Just like you haven't been watching out for him ever since Owens showed up."
Well, there was no denying that. Not really. Wufei picked up his radio comlink and fit it to his ear, waiting for the signal testing to begin.
"Breech team is staging next to battery. We're over on the van, okay." He nodded in agreement and checked the fit of his vest, repositioning a strap or two until he was comfortable, still watching the other team prepare for their phase of the mission. He moved on to his weapons check, verifying that all was in order, and then took his place in the van along with the rest of the entry team.
Armament trafficking. You'd think they'd learn by now that it was a bad idea to set up shop this close to Preventers HQ, but the lure of the large Earth-to-Colonies spaceport seemed to bring them back every time. This time they'd even elected to reuse and refortify an existing warehouse that Preventers had taken down for illegal trading only two years prior.
Job security, that's what it was.
He loved his job.
By the time the loaded vans were moving, six Preventers in their protective gear loaded into each of the three armor-reinforced vehicles, he'd managed to forget all about Zechs and Owens and was focusing entirely on his work. Which took some doing.
The breech of the building's defensive perimeter went cleanly, their battery ram cutting through the outer fence per specifications. The blue team worked their way around to the back of the building, trying to force entry through a reinforced cargo lift, which, this close to the spaceport, was probably engineered for servicing mobile suits or cargo ships.
Red and Yellow Teams were supposed to force entry from the front of the building. The first indication of this not going to plan was the spray of ammunition thunking into the armor plating on Red Team's van.
"Fuck, I think they know we're here now!"
"Right, Winters, did you send them an invitation in advance?"
"Hell no, that was your job, Chang."
...Just another day in the trenches.
After the aborted breech in the back of the building and the standoff between the line of armed Preventers and the terrorists working out of the defunct building, AIC Redmond was looking righteously pissed at the situation. Wufei held his own automatic assault rifle steady on the target alongside Winters behind their shielded vehicle and watched with interest.
Winters didn't take her eyes off of the building in front of her. "Twenty creds says he goes to Merquise for advice on this one."
Wufei considered that wager. "It's Redmond's fourteenth command, and his first standoff. No bet."
"You're no fun."
"That's what everyone keeps telling me."
"Truth hurts, Chang."
He was watching down the line to his extreme left, as Zechs ducked close to Owens for a moment before running low and away along the line of cover to where Redmond was stationed. "And we're one less on the line now, thanks to Redmond's inexperience. Two less if you count Owens."
She nodded to let him know that she'd heard him and understood his concern, and that she'd also seen Zechs running back to assist the agent in charge. "What's the kid think he's doing?"
"The one whose babysitter just left."
Oh, hell no. Wufei glanced over just in time to see Owens easing up to get a slightly better view over the edge of his ballistic barrier, and heard the authoritative report of enemy fire. Owen's torso swung around in response to the impact, and his arm flew up, his weapon engaged and firing under the spasm of muscle reflex.
Wufei felt the sting of a round striking the protective plating of his ballistic jacket, and then Winters landed on him, knocking him to the ground.
Zechs lifted his badge and, after receiving a hesitant nod and a check against a list of approved personnel, received permission to enter the room.
He stood at the end of the bed, listened to the medical equipment doing its valuable work, to Wufei's shallow breathing, and under it all, the regular pattern of the man's heartbeat that gave Zechs confidence that all would be well once more.
"The surgery was successful. It's up to him now."
Doctors. He turned his head to acknowledge that he'd heard, but no more. He had an inherent loathing of doctors. And while the subject had never come up between them, he suspected that, with the notable exception of Sally Po, his partner probably shared that opinion.
There was a change in the pattern of the machines, and he tensed, waiting for someone to come and check, but they settled back into their pattern again, and he relaxed, feeling assured enough to approach Wufei's bedside, sit in the convenient chair, and stare at him, replay recent events in his mind.
Not Wufei's near death, though according to the doctors, it had been a close thing, but the fist of near loss that had seized his chest at that moment of realization, shaking it in its grip, pulling him into his past, refusing to let go.
Like a hand searching within a pocket for a much needed note, he'd come up empty time after time, but still had the faith that another search, no matter how imbecilic, might just reveal the results he desired. He'd emptied and turned out his pocket on that last attempt, and he'd nothing left to offer.
And then this man had come into his life.
And he'd royally fucked up that opportunity too.
Duo paused at the door, and turned back to look at Zechs' face. Zechs didn't know what Duo saw there, but he bent his head close to Quatre's and spoke quietly to him before turning and walking back to Zechs' side. Duo rested the palm of his hand on Zechs' shoulder and slid it down until he held his hand. This he turned over and, as Zechs watched him, disjointed with fatigue and uncertainty, Duo settled a gold cross and chain in the center of Zechs' palm. It was still warm with the transferred heat of his skin.
"You never know what might help. You can borrow this until he's better."
Duo grinned his trademark cocky grin at him then, and let Zechs see how shallow his mask was while concerned with the future of his friend.
And Zechs felt a part of them for the first time. Duo, the last holdout, had finally accepted him. Whether on his own merit, or simply because Wufei had had the faith first and it meant something to him to have the support of his friends didn't really matter, he cared enough to help. That's all that counted in the end.
Duo left, and Zechs gripped Duo's cross in his right hand tight enough to pinch, its chain looped through his fingers, and he wrapped his left hand over his fist and sank to the floor at the side of his partner's bed, resting his forehead against folded hands--and he laid his own prayers of hope over Duo's faith, and waited.
Someone was speaking softly in Latin.
It took Wufei's drug-hazed brain what seemed to be an eternity to piece together the fact that someone was praying over him. It took even longer for him to realize that it was his ex-partner. Zechs' voice sounded very different using the syllables and cadences of an unfamiliar language--softer and more melodic with the running vowels and softer consonants. Wufei had never seen Zechs offer tribute to any god or deity, but that hadn't surprised him. Praying usually meant asking for something, and the type of person who became a Gundam pilot usually didn't look outside of himself for help until the last fragile hope had been exhausted. Wufei opened his eyes, startled at the brightness of the lights despite mentally bracing himself for the shock.
Zechs felt him move, and Wufei realized that Zechs had his hands lightly braced against Wufei's arm. Though separated by a layer of sheet and blanket, Zechs felt him twitch, and his eyes immediately locked on to Wufei's face. Zechs smiled.
"Morning, partner. You look like hell."
Wufei shifted further, attempted to sit up, gave up, and tried his best at a cocky reply. "Feel like it."
"The round cracked your femur and nicked the artery--you're lucky that the medical center was close."
Zechs was gray around his eyes and his face was tight and drawn. Arterial bleeding, no wonder Wufei felt so wasted. He must have lost a lot of blood. Zechs' apparent relief told him how much, and just how close he'd come to seeing his clan again.
Zechs touched Wufei's shoulder. "It's good to have you back, Wufei." He looked up at the doorway with regret. "I need to go let the staff know that you're awake. I promised I would. It's the only reason they let me stay here after hours." He stood, stretched tired muscles, and made his way to the door.
"Zechs?" Though the voice was soft, the tone of it was enough to make him stop and return immediately to lean down by Wufei's face.
"What is it?"
"You know Owens is going to go down for this, right?" Wufei looked up at him, knowing that he was right, remembering, despite all that had happened to him, the rookie error that had initiated the gunplay.
Zechs shook his head. "Only a Gundam pilot..."
"Only a Gundam pilot what?"
"Don't you know that you're supposed to have traumatic amnesia following a head injury?"
"What? And you were counting on that to preserve your partner's lousy reputation? His inexperience got me in here, and nearly killed if what I remember is true, and..."
"It looks like our patient is among the living."
Zechs backed politely away from the bed, giving the physician access to his patient. "About five minutes ago, yes."
"I know. Mr. Yuy was on his way to see how Mr. Chang was doing and overhead the two of you. He was the one who notified me."
Zechs glanced up at Heero, standing cautiously in the doorway, and then at the clock above the door and winced. "Wufei, I need to go, but I'll be back to see you this afternoon." He nodded at the attending physician, who was preoccupied checking charts and distracting Wufei with questions, and Zechs edged towards the doorway and Heero. "Thanks, Heero."
"He seems to be doing surprisingly well, given what he's been through."
"Yes, well, I've heard stories about the amazing healing powers of Gundam pilots, mostly about yours, I believe." He glanced at Wufei, then lowered his voice to a whisper. "I didn't get a chance to tell him about Owens or Winters."
Heero nodded. "I'll handle it. If you don't go now, you'll be late for the service."
Zechs glanced over at the bed and its occupant, obviously reluctant to leave.
"My shift, Merquise."
"I'll be back in three hours." Zechs pointed at the man in the bed. "Try to keep him from destroying the place."
"Duo's in the commissary, once he gets back, I'll get him to help me hold Wufei down."
"Yes, well, I heard what the two of you did to the Alliance Medical Facility in AC195. No breaking Chang out while I'm away."
Wufei looked up at the two of them, blinking owlishly, automatically responding to the doctor's questions, and wondering openly when Heero, Duo, and Zechs had become more than distantly polite with each other.
It seemed he'd missed rather a great deal while he'd been out of commission.
Duo walked in just as the doctor was leaving. "Hey, our missing man is back."
Heero looked up from the bedside chair. "He is, finally."
Duo borrowed a chair from the neighboring bed and set it down next to Heero's. "You look better than the last time few times I saw you, that's for certain."
"It's good to be back." He watched both of their faces for evasion; saw none. "What have I missed?" He centered his attention on Heero. "Other than the fact that Heero and Zechs are now apparently on better terms now than when I went under the knife."
"It's difficult to dislike a man who saved your friend's life, and according to the medics on scene, without his quick thinking, you would have bled out before ever reaching the hospital."
"Well, if it wasn't for his lame excuse of a partner, I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. He was out of position, and had no excuse for such a rookie mistake. Who else was hit besides me?"
Heero looked decidedly uncomfortable. "About that, Wufei..."
Wufei wasn't about to let the subject rest, now that he had started, and no doctor was present to prevent them from completing the discussion. "Who else?"
"Winters. A through and through in her left arm and hand. She lost two fingers and has tendon damage in her hand that they can't repair."
Wufei looked at them both, sensing more. "What else aren't you telling me?" He checked the doorway again. "Where did Zechs go?"
"He asked us to watch over you while he attended Owens memorial service. The doctors expected you to be under for at least another twelve to twenty-four hours."
"He didn't make it?"
Heero's face was somber. "No, he didn't make it. He didn't survive surgery."
Wufei's eyes drifted shut, and he slumped back against the pillow. "You know, it seems I just can't do anything right with Zechs. He's been here and sharing watches with you guys, and the first thing I do when I regain consciousness is threaten repercussions on his dead partner." He slitted his eyes open at the scrape of a chair as Duo moved his closer. "I give up."
Duo reached over and adjusted the sheet on Wufei's arm. "First of all, you've got it backwards, we've covered for him once or twice a day over the last two days so he can still look and act mostly human, but he's been insisting on watching over you. And," he looked to Heero for the nod to continue, "Mister cool pretty much lost it when you got drilled. Was pretty frantic by all accounts of the hospital staff, and I questioned a bunch of them. Kept ranting about making his partner a priority, or they'd have him to answer to."
"But I'm not his partner."
"That's not the way he was acting. I'm guessing that all that time you two worked together actually counted for something." Duo sighed and leaned forward on his chair. "You can't possibly give up on Zechs now, not now that I've actually started to like the blond-haired bastard."
Wufei narrowed a glance at Duo. "So when did you convert? What brought the attitude change on?"
"I figure he's done enough to prove himself worthy of being your friend at this point."
Wufei looked up at the ceiling and sighed. "Okay, okay, I'll give him another chance. If you think he'll take me up on it after what I said to him before he left."
Heero and Duo tapped their fists together below Wufei's line of sight. Mission accomplished.
Une ended her call and turned her chair around to look out of her window, disturbed by the underlying tone in Relena's voice. Things were heating up if Relena was calling her to inquire personally about the status of Dorothy Catalonia's case. She rubbed her temples and kicked her shoes off underneath her desk--the closest thing to a break she could grant herself, given her hours.
Her secretary paged her, disturbing her time with her window view. "Yes?"
"Agent Chang is here to see you, Commander."
"Of all the stupid... send him in." She walked over to the door and opened it herself, and found him pale-faced on his crutches on the opposite side of it, just reaching for the handle himself.
"I just spoke with your doctors this morning. You're not scheduled for release until late tomorrow afternoon." She pointed to the nearest seat. "Sit." She watched as he dropped onto the chair with none of his usual grace, and took his crutches from him and set them out of his reach, effectively trapping him in place.
"I didn't sign myself out AMA."
"No, and I reported here directly from the hospital. I..." He broke off as he noticed her lack of shoes.
She winced and explained. "You caught me during my sanity break."
"Zechs shoots hoops up on the parking deck, I walk around the city fountain, and you take off your shoes in your office." He sagged in his seat and attempted to smile at her. "I think you have it the easiest of the three of us."
"I could have you sent back to the hospital."
"But you won't."
She sighed. "No, I won't. I will, however, call and verify to find out what restrictions you're supposed to be operating under during your rehabilitation period."
"That's fair. I asked them to forward all of the details to Sally, so Preventers would have a copy."
"Well, at least there's that." She looked over at him. "Does your partner know that you're back?" Wufei's blank stare told her all that she needed to know. "Apparently not."
"Partner? You assigned me another partner?"
She looked rather smug. "Actually, your old one moved himself back into your office while you were in the hospital. I'm just the one who agreed to make it official, pending your approval of course."
Well... that was unexpected.
"Actually, it wasn't. The betting pool is running five to one against that you'll beat the snot out of him as soon as you find out."
He'd said that out loud? Hell.
There was a solid rapping on her door and she glared at her phone. Her secretary was falling down on her job.
"Yes, Chang, you did." She patted him on the shoulder and opened the door to her office.
Zechs stood there, wearing casual clothes instead of his customary uniform. "Pardon, Commander, but I heard a rumor that Chang was wandering around the building and I was wondering if you'd seen him?"
She stood back and waved him into her office.
"Ah, there you are. Aren't you supposed to be in the hospital?"
"He is, yes. We were just getting around to discussing what to do with him."
"Hang on, what's this about the two of us being partners again?"
Zechs gave a quick nod at Une. "Ah, you've discussed that already then. Good."
Wufei struggled to get out of his chair. "We have not, as you say, discussed it. She mentioned that..."
Zechs frowned. "Here now, you're not supposed to be active yet. Sit down. You need a keeper, Chang."
"Well, I've got you for a partner, that's the next best thing."
Zechs winked at Une. "I suppose that means he accepted?"
She returned a thoughtful look. "I expect so." Her vidphone chimed, interrupting her thoughts, and she returned to her desk to answer it. It was apparently video only, or she kept the sound low to maintain her privacy with the other two agents in the room. They respectfully maintained their silence while she handled her call.
"Chang, that was your medical records, via Dr. Po's office." She watched as he winced slightly, evidently expecting either to have been safely out of her office by the time they were sent, or that they would be delayed. "No, you did not leave against medical advisement, but you did leave before your doctors cleared you as fit for anything other than bed rest and very limited physical therapy. My inclination is to send you right back there where they are equipped to handle patients such as yourself."
Zechs thought he heard Wufei utter a "hell no," but he politely kept his silence on the matter.
Une continued, "Your apartment is on the third floor of a building that has no elevator, and you can barely walk. How are you planning to get around this obstacle?"
Zechs shrugged. "He can stay with me. I live on the second floor, and my unit has an elevator."
Wufei shook his head. "I'll call Heero and stay with him."
Zechs gave him and incredulous look. "You'd voluntarily sleep on that sofa?"
Une interrupted. "I believe that Duo is on Earth at the moment, and staying with Heero, and I really don't trust Duo to not tie you to the sofa and feed you lime Jello." She nodded, coming to a decision. "We'll leave it up to Dr. Po."
"Dr. Po?" Zechs sounded doubtful that this particular idea held any real merit.
"Dr. Po." Wufei nodded, instantly going along with this idea, thinking that she'd at least side with him in this, given her past feelings on Zechs and his predatory behavior towards her protgn.
Une patched the connection through to Dr. Po's office and turned the vidphone to face Wufei.
"Chang? God you look like shit. You should really still be in the hospital where they can monitor your status better you know."
Wufei groaned. Already, this call was not going as he'd planned.
Zechs patted him on the shoulder in what was no doubt meant to be a comforting manner.
Une moved in front of the video pick up. "Chang has stated an objection to returning to the medical facility. You've had an opportunity to review his medical file. At the moment, we're running through his options. The way I see it, he has to either return to the hospital, or remain in the care of friends, as his own apartment lacks elevator facilities and the stairs will be beyond his capacity for a period of several weeks."
Sally glanced down at the file in front of her. "So which victim or victims volunteered for the thankless duty of babysitting... er... sorry... nursemaiding our patient?"
"His duty partner, Merquise, who is currently on administrative leave, seems ideally suited and volunteered. Chang has stated an objection to Merquise taking over this duty and has suggested Yuy and Maxwell, but they have not yet been questioned as to their availability."
Wufei definitely didn't like the way this was going. Or the way Zechs was smiling, come to think of it. All of this had a premeditated feel to it. He whispered as an aside to Zechs, "You're on leave?"
"Until the investigation into Owens shooting is complete, yes."
Zechs was puzzled by his response. "What?"
But Sally finished the answer for him. "If Merquise is on leave, and asking for the hellish, excuse me, the privilege, of caring for our invalid, I'd say send him home with him and save the hospital the hassle of dealing with Chang."
Une tapped her finger on her desk, well satisfied with that solution. "Done. Thank you, Dr. Po." She disconnected the line and stared at each of them in turn, evaluating them. "I think that will do for now. If I need you for anything, I expect that I'll know where to find you. Dismissed, gentlemen."
Zechs stood and retrieved Wufei's crutches from where Une had set them aside and handed them back to Wufei, unsure of how much assistance to offer. "I need to collect some files from our office, if you're up to stopping by your desk on the way out of the building. And if you'll make me a list of what you'll need, we can stop by your apartment as well, and I'll run up and collect whatever you think you'll need for a prolonged stay at my place."
Wufei nodded in agreement, already exhausted from his short day of physical exertion after his physical trauma.
It wasn't until after they had run their errands, and Zechs had pulled into his marked spot at his apartment building subbasement and turned off his car's ignition, that he turned and seriously evaluated Wufei's condition. "Hell Chang, why didn't you tell me that you were this far gone?"
"It didn't occur to me..."
"To admit weakness to anyone, even me." Zechs glanced over at his partner, pinch-faced and pained in the passenger seat. "We shouldn't have stopped at your apartment today. It could have waited until tomorrow. You overdid things in a big way, my friend."
Maybe it was the calm assurance of someone who had been severely injured and understood what he was going through, or perhaps it was the sincere 'my friend' at the end of that statement. Wufei looked over the console between the two seats. "I'm going to need some assistance getting up to your apartment, Zechs."
Zechs gave him a level look. "Took a lot to admit that."
"Yes, well, if I can't admit to my limitations to my partner, who can I admit them to?"
Zechs laughed, and for the first time in weeks, it didn't sound forced or painful to him. "Well, there's that at least. How do you want to do this? You first or luggage first?"
"Luggage. Maybe the extra few minutes of sleep will help me regain my strength."
Zechs seemed doubtful that this tactic would be successful. "Right. Sure. If you say so."
Wufei's strategy wasn't very successful. By the time they managed to get Wufei into the elevator and up to the second floor, it was nearing midnight, and Wufei was listing badly.
"You're going to hurt yourself."
"It's not like my leg is broken, it's just a chipped bone and some stitched together skin. All I'm dealing with is blood loss and the possibility of infection, nothing more."
"And a concussion, and..."
"Fine. You win."
Zechs paused, staring down at him with interest. "Exactly what do I win?"
"I'll think it over and tell you later." Wufei rested his full weight on his crutches and glanced up. "Exactly how much farther is it to your apartment, anyway?"
"Okay, that's it. I've had enough of your macho bullshit for one day."
"Macho bullshit?" Wufei tried the words as if they were foreign on his tongue.
"One of your friend Duo's favorite pet expressions. Used mostly to apply to you and your stubbornness, or so I've found." Zechs held out his hand. "Crutches."
Wufei's hands tightened on the grips. "No."
Zechs tilted his head and considered both the situation and the late hour. "I'll let you win our next argument, if you let me win this one."
Wufei leaned to the left to check the long expanse of hallway behind his partner, then surrendered with a heavy sigh. "Fine. You win."
"Good. Just think of this as our second honeymoon. I'll get to carry you over the threshold this time."
"Well, our first partnership ended in divorce. I'm hoping the second run will last a bit longer."
Wufei groaned. "Just promise me that the guys on the squad will never find out."
Zechs smiled back before lifting him to his shoulder. "My lips are sealed."
Restless, he moved quietly through the apartment in the early hours of the morning, eventually making his way from the master bedroom to the bathroom. He opened the medicine cabinet, searching for a generic painkiller to take the edge off--anything to allow him to finally sleep. Despite the long day, the severe exhaustion, the stress of going to the office and then coming here, he just couldn't seem to drop off into slumber. He'd glanced out into the living room. Zechs didn't seem to be having any problems though. Restless to start with, now he was sleeping like the charmed. Or the dammed.
Wufei poked through the vials of medicinals, seeking something, anything mild and... He picked one of the prescription bottles and held it to the light, rotating it to read the label clearly. Owens, Brian. What were Owens' medications doing in Zechs' medicine cabinet?
Suddenly all of the rumors he'd heard beforehand had a stunning grounding in fact. Owens had lived here, with Zechs, and very recently, based on the refill date of the prescription, likely right up to the date of the shooting. He sat down on the edge of the bathtub, revelation in hand, to think. So, not a put-on or a joke, but something real.
Now he really wouldn't be able to sleep.
"I spoke with Une today. Sally cleared you for a light duty schedule, if you want to come into the office with me tomorrow. Nothing physical until she clears you though, so you're stuck living with me for a while yet."
Wufei padded into the kitchen on bare feet and sat at the table. "Sorry about that. Cramping your style, that is."
"You're not. Actually, I've been enjoying your company, so don't worry about it."
Duo stopped him in the hallway again, exhibiting his gift for turning up in unexpected places. "What's this I hear about you staying with Zechs?"
"Just until Sally clears me. I can't exactly run up three flights of stairs with my groceries at the moment."
"Okay, but if you get tired of it and need another place, you can stay with Heero and me."
"And die on his couch?"
"Well, there is that."
"It's okay, Duo. Hell, that first night, I was so out of it, he had to practically carry me in."
"What? Bride of Zechs? I mean, it has a better ring to it if it you said Bride of Wufei, but I don't think you'd get Zechs into the dress and all."
Wufei really wanted to hit Duo for saying that in a public area where the other agents could overhear them. He really did, particularly when they started to tease him about his new 'relationship' with his partner, now that they had advanced to the stage where they had moved in together. But all of his protests, no matter how carefully worded, seemed to do nothing to aid his cause for innocence. Even Une seemed to have heard of the rumors, and pulled him into her office for questioning. Though it started innocently enough...
"Chang? How have you been feeling?"
"Better, thank you. I'm looking forward to getting back into my own apartment and back onto my regular duty schedule, but other than that, just fine. Any news on when Dr. Po is planning on releasing me to active status?"
Une sat back in her chair and studied him, considering her options and the rumors she'd recently heard on the floor about the living situation between him and Zechs. She smiled at him.
Wufei sat a little more rigidly in his chair, as that smile was similar to one he'd seen her wear only once before in his presence, and that one time had turned out rather painfully for him. "May I ask what it is you are thinking, Commander?" Definitely he was going to have to do something about the curiosity.
Why not. "I was thinking about a rumour I overheard in the break room last week. About you and Zechs."
Oh hell, not that one. "Yes?"
"What did you wish to know, Commander?"
"How much of it was truth, versus fallacy."
"I would need to know which rumour you overheard."
"That in order to consummate the start of your second partnership, he picked you up and carried you over the threshold of his apartment, and then dropped you into his bed. And then told you that he'd be keeping you there for a week."
Wufei flushed bright red. "Truth."
Her left eyebrow lifted in surprise. "Explain yourself, Chang."
"That was the day I was... the first day I was out of the hospital. I was having difficulty negotiating on my crutches, and Zechs assisted me to his apartment. I have been sleeping in his bed; he has been sleeping on the sofa. Against my protests."
Her other eyebrow lifted as well. "Against your protests?"
Wufei reddened as he realized that could be interpreted in multiple ways. "I had no intention of putting the man out of his bed for the entire duration of my stay."
"Ah, I see." She moved a file across her desk, and Wufei felt something within him drop. "What is it?
"I have a special assignment in mind for you, Chang, once Dr. Po approves you for duty." She was planning something big. She had that sort of determination in her face.
"And you want to know if I'm interested in this assignment without knowing any of the details or particulars of the case?"
He would have stood and stalked around the perimeter of her office, had he the ability to do so. "And this case of yours, you truly believe that I am the best agent for it?"
His curiosity was working overtime, trying to fit active cases to available agents. She had him pegged. By not telling him, she was in many ways, doing a better job of convincing him to accept her out-of-the-ordinary case than by telling him all of the details outright.
"And this will be in addition to my regular caseload?"
He thought about that for a moment, as his caseload, even with a partner to assist, was monumental at the moment.
"But I will reduce your regular caseload a commensurate amount to compensate. Or at least as much as I am able to."
From Une, that was as close to desperation as it got. "Fine, I'll take your case. When's the briefing?"
"Not until Dr. Po clears you."
Wufei walked over to her desk and leaned over it, his sense of the curious at its limit. "It's a briefing, not an obstacle course. I can sit through a briefing without collapsing."
She shook her head at him. "I'll come and find you once I have your clearance papers in my hand, not before. You're dismissed, Chang."
He saluted her, finally. "Thank you, Commander. It's been a privilege."
She nodded crisply back at him. "It will be."