by D.C. Logan
Wufei Chang, senior-level Preventer Agent, security consultant, and currently a very tired man after landing in Sanc after a two missed connections and a five-hour weather-related delay in London, really couldn't be bothered with the holidays. Or holiday cheer. Or Christmas carols. Certainly not mistletoe. All of which were sure to be in plentiful supply at Relena's estate house, which was guaranteed to be comfortably decorated for what was to be "the" holiday event of the season, assuming that it didn't get snowed out by the heavy storms already plaguing the region this year. He ignored the monotonous drone of the shuttle attendant announcing the change in their arrival gate, double-checked that he had his carry-on, and pointedly ignored the pitiful attempt of conversation from his seatmate. Bah. Humbug. Scrooge would be proud of him.
Une had promised Wufei an easy consulting assignment to make up for the three weeks of hell that had been the Aesop case. Hence the Security gig at Relena's holiday function, even though the minister's own security detail should have been more than adequate to handle the scale of the party and the expected quests. Une had more than suggested both the assignment and the additional request that Wufei remain in the area to take advantage of either Relena's hospitality or a vacation chalet in the area to use some of his amassed vacation time, of which he had an embarrassing amount in reserve. He was looking forward to neither obligation.
Cabin, causeway, lounge -- all looked the same all over the Earth Sphere. At this point, after years of travel on Preventers' budget, he had practically memorized the layout of any shuttle port in the system based on call letters alone. He stepped aside to evade yet another couple locked in the clutch of the eagerly reunited, and told himself that he was getting used to it, but the truth of the matter was that he detested travel for that particular reason.
Wufei didn't have any one waiting for him at any destination. No one who gave a damn whether he traveled away or returned home early or late, and as much as he hated to admit it, the lack of it was starting to eat at him. He picked up his bag from the luggage carousel and headed for the general concourse, searching for his arranged ride, evading more of the clutching and spasming couples as he went. As if the Eve Wars weren't enough to tip the balance to start with, he'd really grown to hate the damn holidays. All of them. Christmas especially.
The major snowfall started that evening, snarling efforts to manage the exterior security patrols and freezing all but the stationary cameras, requiring additional rotations of the staff, including Wufei, for the three days leading up to the main event. The half-meter of snow it dropped onto the existing amount, while picturesque, did little to ease the problem of where to park the transportation for the evening. Wufei and the rest of the security detail had a passing hope that it might limit the numbers of the press and photographers hoping to capture an image of the guests, they had no such luck. Not for one of Relena's soir?s.
It wasn't until Wufei was standing on the ballroom floor, checking the positioning of the security cameras, that Quatre made his appearance. He walked over and peered up at the camera, tilting his head at the optics and waving for Wufei to come over to have a word with him. "Having the time of your life yet?"
Wufei verified that another agent was covering the camera work before moving off with Quatre. "More fun than life itself," he quipped. "What's my life coming to when I have more in common with the security staff at the function than with my friends."
"Has anyone told you that you've developed the sense of humor of a seasoned Preventers Agent?
Wufei flicked a piece of invisible lint from his suit, and tilted a less than amused look at Quatre. "Not recently, no."
Why did that sound familiar? Oh. Yes. "We at Preventers do not have a sense of humor that we are aware of."
Quatre cracked a smile. "Now, that sounds like Duo talking." Quatre looked over the room with a practiced eye before sitting down at a palatially dressed table and playing with one of the napkins. "I hate these events."
Wufei hesitated at the side of the table before submitting to the lure of conversation and pulling out a chair for himself. "When were you here last?"
"The same time I think you were here, when was that? Three months ago for that financial summit?"
Wufei shook his head in disgust. "What a monumental waste of time that was."
Quatre chuckled but neither confirmed nor denied Wufei's entirely accurate opinion of the last event. "So are you going to be able to take some vacation time after this one? Une mentioned something about you having an absolute embarrassment of vacation time available. You should start taking some of it and try to relax for once."
Wufei snorted. "And do what?"
"Skiing? Mountain climbing?" He waved his hand dismissively. "Something. Anything but work."
Wufei groaned and levered himself upright; but paused before walking away considering his options for a moment and offering back. "How about sleeping for a week?"
"Une's been running you ragged, has she?" Quatre said, reaching deeper for the truth.
Wufei nodded absently as he saw another security agent flag him down from across the room. "I'll have a chance to talk with you after the function? You're not leaving straight away, right?"
Quatre dropped the napkin ring and watched as it spun in a lazy circle before falling to rest on its side. "No, I was planning on staying in Sanc for a week or two, then heading to X-18999 to see how the development project there is going." He looked up hopefully. "We should have chance to catch up before you head back to... where are you stationed at the moment?"
But Wufei was already moving off across the ballroom floor, attention already diverted. "Later, Quatre." And he was off -- long legs easily carrying him across the ballroom, already snapping out directions to other security staff and personnel.
Quatre tossed the cloth napkin after the empty ring and muttered to himself, "It's always work first with him. He's going to burn out before he ever gets a chance to start living." He started looking around the ballroom for Relena. It was time to escalate their plan to Stage Two. Wufei was in dire need of rescue. From himself.
The event had been in full swing for six long hours. The keynote speaker, an official from L3, had been boring, but tempered with the finest alcohol Relena could obtain, few guests complained beyond a muttered comment to their dining partners. The food had been served, all five exquisite courses of it, and the guests were now contentedly wallowing through the dessert and coffee rounds and watching the evening entertainment, which involved a classical group and a few daring, which in this case equaled rather inebriated, people dancing on the fringes of the dance floor.
Most of the remaining guests circulated at the round tables on unsteady heels with their glasses in loose hands, rocking in mincing steps, balancing small plates, speaking in artificial voices -- some loud, some soft. Some conversations were slightly more private than others. Relena beckoned, and Quatre moved closer to listen. "What is it?"
She masked her intentions with a neutral expression, a polite smile, and slight tilt of the head, and leaned a bit closer to ask her question with a tone of voice that had little to do with her social camouflage. "I was going to ask you the same question. You've been staring at Wufei most of the evening."
Quatre picked up his wine glass and toyed with the stem of it. "You notice anything different about him?"
Relena glanced around the room at her other guests, using the gathering as cover while she continued to snatch glances at one guest in particular. One guest who was currently prowling discreetly around the perimeter of the room with a member of her security team, acting more as a regular team member than as an adviser. She thought back to intervals during the dinner when he'd been absent from the proceedings and Quatre had pointed out Wufei's location -- just visible near curtained windows by the edge of the ballroom floor -- with an excellent view of the room. "Other than the fact that he either looks ready to fall asleep or kill someone on a moment's notice, and that everyone with a half-ounce of intelligence is granting him a wide berth? No."
"Ah." Quatre sipped his wine, twisting the stem as he set the glass on the table, almost as if he was screwing the wineglass into the table.
"You're planning something." Relena eyed the motion and called him on it. "You want to tell me how that's different from the last time he attended one of these gatherings?"
"I wasn't paying as much attention to him then."
"And?" Relena studied Wufei a moment more under the guise of requesting service for another table, and then replied, "He seems more... edgy... than he was three months ago, if that's any help to you."
Quatre nodded briefly. "It is. Thank you."
She poked him with her finger.
Quatre looked up in surprise at the unexpected prod. "What's that for?"
"I know that look. You're definitely up to something, and I know better than to let you get away with it on your own." She paused. "Okay, so what's my part in this?"
"I wasn't you know. Planning that is." He folded his linen napkin and set it aside, concentrating on idly spinning the foot of his glass on the table in slow circles. "I was thinking about something someone once told me about how it's not my job to try and fix things for everybody, no matter how much I'm inclined to meddle."
Relena looked over at Wufei and raised her glass. "I never said that."
Quatre raised his glass and smiled at her. "Point."
Relena tilted her glass in return. "And it's not like you to show up without a plan already in place, Mr. Winner, so I think it's time for you to align at least a small portion of your troops."
Wufei looked over, startled by the unexpected touch at his elbow. Few people made it so far within the circle of his personal space without setting off all of his alerts. He looked over at his unexpected companion and shook his head; the serious case of burnout and exhaustion he was dealing with on top of everything else certainly wasn't helping matters. "Hello, Quatre."
Quatre chuckled. "The event is over, and I know where Relena keeps the good stuff and where we can find a quieter place to catch up." He checked Wufei over from closer range, not missing much now that he had the opportunity to take a careful look. His formal suit, usually a seamless fit across the breadth of his chest, was still slack from Wufei's brush with a drug raid gone sour a month past. Une had dropped that intel in a recent meeting with Quatre, but unless you knew Wufei, knew how rigidly he held to the values of his post and position and knew what to look for, the slippage from the exacting standards the man held himself to would hardly be obvious. To Quatre, to Une, they were glaring. That, along with the too-quick response to stimulus, the hollows under his eyes... None of it bode well for his friend's mental or physical status.
Something had to be done, or the man would work himself into an early grave. Unless a solution could be found or a suitable diversion established.
Quatre pointed towards the door and freedom from the dregs of the event. "You look like you could use something to eat as well. Isn't Une feeding her agents these days? Zechs showed up two weeks ago, and according to Relena, he looked even worse than you do."
That caught Wufei's attention and he moved over to Quatre. "She is, but she's working us hard as well. We're still running short of qualified agents." Wufei turned his level gaze on Quatre. "So very few of us signed on after the war."
"That old argument again, Wufei?"
"I was the only one. We could use you, Quatre. Une has mentioned many times over what a man of your skill level could offer Preventers."
Quatre smiled at his friend, looked over the room and the departing guests. "And what? Leave all this?"
"I know, the only one of us to sign on with Une's special forces."
Wufei seemed resigned, and truth to tell, a bit sad. "I wasn't going to say that."
Quatre set his glass aside and began to lead his friend from the ballroom. "I'm fairly certain that the rest of us had our reasons, Wufei." He shrugged. "Come with me, I'll see if I can't find us a quiet place to catch up for a while, and I'll get you something to eat. I mean, not for nothing but Zechs..."
"But Zechs isn't an..." But the protest was slight and was soon forgotten as Quatre waved to a servant carrying a serving tray and made arrangements for food and drinks to be brought to yet another one of the rooms in the immense estate. Wufei shrugged and let it go, though it was a surprise to find out that Zechs was on Earth again. A pleasant one.
Wufei thought on that for a moment. Zechs, back on Earth. Une must have recalled him for some mission. Not unheard of, but, positioned as Wufei was within the organization and privy to a number of her communications, private and otherwise, that particular news had surprised him. That Zechs had visited Relena made sense. That Quatre knew of the man's presence on Earth before Wufei did -- he who had something of an interest in knowing of the man's whereabouts...
His steps slowed then stopped, and he found himself slowly turning to face Quatre, who had stopped in the middle of a hall and was staring at him with an unidentifiable expression on his face.
An expression that quickly grew irritating. "Well, what is it?" Wufei snapped.
"What's that smile for?" Quatre slowly approached Wufei's position, a look of dawning curiosity on his face.
If anything, Wufei became surlier with the unintentional reveal. "Nothing. Where were you planning on dragging me off to now, Winner?"
Quatre chucked and reached out a hand to touch Wufei lightly on his shoulder in apology -- a smile, a growl, and a 'Winner', quite a haul out of that catch -- and pointed to a doorway. "The Weridge Room. We haven't really had a chance to catch up over the last few months, and I noticed that you didn't eat much while you were covering security for the event. I took the liberty of ordering you some dinner."
Wufei slipped back into his comfortable cloak of professionalism. "Relena's security team is top-notch." He nodded with approval. "I don't understand why Une felt that I was required to be in attendance, especially given the fact that many on her team are either ex-Preventers or people we considered for positions within the organization."
Quatre shrugged and opened the door to the library, waving Wufei inside. "I thought you might be more comfortable in here."
Wufei scanned the small but well-appointed room; no windows, only the one door, a fireplace, a few pieces of furniture and three walls of books. "Indeed, yes." A servant entered and set covered dishes on the low table and checked the fire in the fireplace before talking briefly with Quatre. Wufei perused the books and felt the tingle from being exposed to so many people and from so many angles slowly ease.
Quatre slipped off his jacket and tie and undid the top buttons of his shirt, waving for Wufei to do the same. "Get comfortable; eat your food before it gets cold. I'll pour."
Wufei wasn't familiar with the subtleties of the meal, but it was hot and filling. He twisted the stem of his wine glass, mimicking Quatre, and watched the fluid roll in the bowl of the glass as he considered the answer to Quatre's next easily predicted question.
"Why am I still with Preventers?"
"I suppose that you're not going to let me leave until I talk with you about this. Either Une or Po probably got to you." Quatre, who'd never seen Wufei talk to himself, let him ramble for a moment to collect his thoughts.
Wufei looked into the fire a moment more before answering, "I suppose... because I'm not done yet."
Quatre waited for a long moment, staring into the fire, drinking his wine, and allowing Wufei some additional time. When no further response was forthcoming, he prodded, "With?"
"Paying back for what I did during the war."
Quatre studied Wufei's face for a moment longer. "I don't suppose you're going to explain that statement any more than that, are you?"
"No. I don't suppose that I am."
Quatre nodded and ticked off the few elements he knew to be true of Wufei's current situation on his fingers one by one. "So, you haven't been eating, you haven't been sleeping, your friends are scattered all over Earth and the colonies, your work has been stressful..." He paused. "How's your love life?"
Wufei sighed and glared at Quatre over the rim of his wine glass, and only the bond of long friendship kept him sitting in his chair instead of stalking back off down the hall towards his own private rooms. "That, Quatre, is none of your damn business."
"Wufei? At the moment you're looking, to quote a dear mutual friend of ours, like death on a wheat-thin cracker." Quatre deliberately set his cutlery to the side of his plate and stared directly at Wufei on the other side of the low table. "I am damn well making it my damn business."
Wufei blinked. Quatre Winner using curse words was rather attention getting. The only other time Wufei could remember hearing them uttered in his presence before was the one and utterly memorable time that Catherine had missed when throwing her knives.
"That's all you can say in your defense? 'Oh'? You've got the president of the ESUN Preventers, her head medical adviser, and the vice foreign minister to the colonies all worried about you, you know."
Wufei shrugged. "Not that I'm not touched by your concern, Quatre, but I really don't know what you expect to do about it."
Quatre relaxed, momentarily deflected from his goal -- but hardly defeated. "Well, I don't know." He picked up his wine glass and considered. "Maybe hire a dating service to help you find that someone special. Or an escort service for the interim." He looked directly at his friend, deep understanding and sympathy in his expression. "When's the last time you got laid, Wufei?"
Wufei spluttered. He hoped, belatedly, that his cleaner would be able to get the wine stain out of his suit and he gaped at Quatre with something akin to horror, or more like the look that Duo had exhibited upon the discovery of his Christmas gift a few memorable years ago, the one that had appeared with a bow, but without the clothes. "I cannot believe that you just asked me that particular question."
Quatre neatly exchanged the wine glasses for cognac and continued smoothly, "I take it that it's been a while then, has it?"
Wufei's voice climbed in indignation with a touch of a trill of righteous fear at the tip of it, "That is none of your damned business, Winner!"
"You're repeating yourself, Wufei." Quatre eyed his friend calmly over a glass of very good spirits before continuing. "Listen, I know this very nice woman. She's lovely, professional, and very discreet. I'm sure that she would work out wonderfully. I can arrange for her to fly in to whatever city you're stationed in and meet you say, once a week or so. How would that work?"
Wufei winced. This was not happening. Quatre was not engineering his sex life. This simply was not happening. "No."
Quatre didn't flinch. "Okay, twice a week then."
"No. I mean... No, I'm not interested."
Quatre started using his 'I am being very patient with you now' voice, the one that drove board members to do any single little thing that he asked them to do. "You are a man. Therefore the sexual aspect is very important to the overall balanced happiness of your life."
Wufei dug his fingers into the fabric of his slacks. "Hell, Quatre, tell me something I don't know."
"So? What's the problem? I'll have my secretary contact Wanda and..."
Wufei held up a hand in a frantic bid to stall for a sliver of arguing room, then paused as his inner ear played that sentence back for him. "Wanda?" Hell. "Quatre, hold on a minute."
Wufei sighed, set his glass safely aside, and turned to face Quatre directly. "Wanda won't work for me."
Quatre gave him a supremely frustrated look, not accustomed to being told no. "Tell me one good reason why not."
Wufei took a deep breath in, and released it slowly, debating a thousand possible responses, and discounting all of them but the one simple truth. "Because she's a woman, and that just doesn't do it for me."
Quatre's voice, when he finally found it, was very soft and subdued. "Oh."
Wufei didn't have to feign the look of weary frustration. "NOW do you understand the problems I'm having with my love life?"
Quatre looked Wufei over with a newly calculating eye.
Wufei's eyes widened. "Oh, no. No. No, you don't!"
Quatre pouted. "Oh no I don't what?"
"I know that look. That's the, 'I know if I work at it long enough and torture it long and mercilessly I can find a solution for it, look.'"
Quatre nodded agreeably and took a sip from his glass. "So you haven't gotten laid in a while then, have you?"
Wufei gave into the inevitable and settled back into his chair, leaning back and resting his glass on his chest, cradled loosely within the framework of his fingers. He watched the fire for a moment before replying. "You're kidding right? In Preventers?" Wufei saluted Quatre with his glass before taking another swallow and continued, "The guys on the squad would have a field day if they found out. I'd never hear the end of it. My... preferences aren't exactly something you admit to on the force."
"Ah, so you either need a new job, someone who is discreet enough to keep your relationship secret from the other members of a top security agency, or someone with a high enough rank or who is scary enough that the people you work with wouldn't say anything about your relationship, right?"
There was something about the unholy glint in Quatre's eyes that Wufei didn't trust. It might have been the fire, or the lighting in the room, but he didn't think so. "Dream on, Winner."
Quatre shrugged. "Well, last time I checked, Relena's brother was still single." Quatre let that statement just hang there for a moment while he sipped his cognac, allowing the dangerous words to hover and hold space between them.
They both drank their spirits in companionable silence for a few minutes, enjoying the warmth and crackle of the fire.
Wufei blinked, and blinked again to clear that thought. When it stayed resolutely the same despite that move, he voiced his question out loud, shifting a very puzzled, dark-eyed look at his friend. "Hold a moment; Zechs is gay?"
Quatre noted mentally that that wasn't exactly a 'no' from Wufei, and accepted it as an expression of interest. "Well, I assume so, based on some comments Relena dropped once about her brother's relationship with Treize Khushrenada during their time together in the Specials." Quatre allowed a moment for that thought to settle, and then added, "I don't think that's exactly common knowledge though."
Wufei absorbed that with an "Ah" of consideration and reached for the spirits bottle, tipping a bit more into both of their glasses before settling back into his comfortable chair, angling his feet towards the fireplace.
The silence lasted until Quatre hazarded that enough time had passed, then he glanced over to follow up with a more serious look. "What is it, Wufei?"
Quatre tried for a nonjudgmental sound of acceptance, but it wasn't enough encouragement. "Yes?"
Wufei started to say something, apparently thought better of it, and drifted off into silence again. "I... nothing."
Quatre studied his friend a bit more carefully, and decided to poke a bit deeper for the truth he felt to be there. "What is it, really?"
"I still... have nightmares." He raised the glass and held it to the firelight, watched the flames dance in the amber liquid. "About killing him. About the war."
Quatre held him with a look of equal measures of horror and pity, both things Wufei had taken pains to avoid, and he rose slightly towards Wufei, though to accomplish what aim, Wufei had no idea. "Have you told anyone about this? Spoken with Sally Po?"
Wufei waved Quatre away, back to the depths of his own chair. "Forget I mentioned it. The dreams really aren't that bad." He mentally struck Zechs off of any consideration he might have been creating in his head. The man would no doubt be too problematic to track down and pursue, no matter how interesting the man might be.
"Yes?" Quatre seemed to be paying more attention to the embers in the fireplace than to their conversation, a diversion he was grateful for at the moment, as it saved him from exposing his temporary lapse in judgment.
"Hmm?" Quatre looked at him lazily over the edge of his glass. "What?"
"No meddling in my love life. It'll get too complicated too quickly. Besides which, I really do enjoy my work, and the two are not compatible." Quatre seemed to be gathering up a protest, so Wufei swallowed the rest of his cognac and set the empty glass on the table, then stood, a bit unsteadily, and gathered his suit jacket and tie. "Besides which, it's late and I should be catching up on some of that sleep that you keep pointing out that I've been missing."
With that, he was gone for the evening, easing out of the door and down the long hallway with a quietness that well bespoke his chosen profession.
Quatre leaned back in the chair and savored the quiet of the flickering flames and toasted absent friends with the last of his glass. "It's far far too late for me to stop meddling my friend, far too late for that."
It may have been the company; it might have been the unaccustomed lure of the alcohol; more likely, it was the talk with Quatre that had eased his dreams. He spent the early morning catching up with the home office, and the afternoon in staggered debriefings with Relena's security staff, so it wasn't until after the evening meal the next day that Wufei finally caught up with Relena and Quatre again, this time in the more informal yellow dining hall. With security completely back in the capable hands of the house team, Wufei was at long last free to rest and explore the grounds, not that the inclement weather was allowing him to do much outside of the estate building itself at this point.
The snow had been accumulating since the conference, and showed no sign of abating. Wufei paused on the threshold to the room, to watch the heavy snowfall drift outside of the tall windows.
Quatre was the first to note his presence in the room and he waved him over to a nearby seat. "Catching up on any of that sleep yet?"
"Some." He nodded cordially to Relena. "And a pleasant evening to you, Miss Darlian."
Relena looked up, slid an empty coffee cup over to an open place setting, and kicked a chair out from under the table. "Wufei? If you don't start calling me Relena, I shall begin addressing you as Agent Super Chang in public."
Wufei started to choke, and quickly grabbed at the nearest chair back to try and brace himself against something to relieve the pressure building in his chest. He glared ice at Relena. "Duo put you up to that, didn't he?"
Relena smiled serenely back at him and turned to Quatre, a pleased sparkle in her eye from Wufei's reaction. "Does it show?"
Quatre rolled his eyes and returned to his coffee. "I'm not answering that on the grounds that it may incriminate me."
Relena threw a napkin at him. "Spoilsport."
Wufei had to chuckle. "So what's it like when everyone is visiting in Sanc?"
Relena gave a bright laugh. "Delightful. You do have to stop making excuses every time they're here for a visit you know." She waved to the staff, and they began to set out a plate of desserts with the beverage service.
Wufei toyed with his cup. "Right. Perhaps next spring then."
Relena nodded. "I'll hold you to that you know."
"That's... That's what I'm afraid of," Wufei muttered and shoved some type of pastry forcefully into his mouth, not bothering to identify it beforehand.
"What was that?" Relena sounded suspicious.
Wufei tried for an innocent tone of voice, and feared that he was failing miserably. "Nothing."
Relena nudged the carafe of coffee closer to Wufei. "Here. Re-caffeinate yourself."
He shook his head and helped himself to a refill, chuckling while pouring, and looked over the plate of goods in order to select a more-satisfying second offering. "So, how much longer will you be here, Quatre?"
Quatre shrugged and smoothed out the tablecloth with his free hand. "Just tonight and tomorrow. This evening, Relena and I are going over the figures for the upcoming financial meeting on X-18999; tomorrow, I promised her that I'd try to hike out to the hunting lodge if the power and communication lines still haven't been restored." He reached over and filled his own coffee cup, then topped off Relena's, before setting the carafe down near Wufei again.
Wufei looked out the window at the snow, still falling in intermittent white clouds. "In this?"
Relena waved at the windows with a negligent twist of her wrist. "Welcome to Northern Europe, Wufei. It blizzards like this all of the time in Sanc, though I'll grant you, not usually this early in the season."
Wufei was still trying to puzzle out the request, and turned his full attention to Quatre. It defied logic, no matter which way he twisted the puzzle pieces in his mind. "So you're hiking out to a hunting lodge? In this?" He tapped his fingers on the side of his mug. "Do you mind me asking why?"
Relena paused in the midst of lifting her coffee cup to her mouth and stared at Wufei as if he'd misplaced a few dozen IQ points between entering the room and reaching the table. "Because the building's been without power or a communications line for three days now."
Wufei suddenly got the impression that he'd landed in the middle of an obscure movie with aliens for actors, and that he'd somehow missed all of the elements in the beginning of the plot. He sighed and bit. "And this is important because...?"
Relena gave him a rather odd look and blinked at him vacantly. It was quite the most startling expression he'd ever seen on her face. "Because my brother is staying there."
"Oh." Hang on. The clues were absolutely pouring in now. "And no one has bothered to check on him before now because?" Wufei tapped his fingers against the side of his coffee cup again, and awaited enlightenment.
Relena set her cup down and gave him her full attention. "Because he threatened to damage anyone who, quote-unquote, 'disturbed his hard-won peace and quiet upon pain of death and limb-by-limb dismemberment, evisceration or castration.' My current working theory is that Quatre should be enough of a diplomat to deal with handing off a battery-powered radio and then hiking back." She shrugged apologetically, and yet made it seem like she wasn't apologizing for anything at all. Wufei envied her that gift, and wondered if she'd been born with that skill or if he could acquire training in it somewhere. "No one on the security team will agree to go. They're terrified of my brother, you see."
Wufei ran a handful of logic strings in his mind, comparing diplomat versus Preventer agent, Quatre's desert training versus his mountain experience in former China, sand versus snow... He ended with his nightmares, and the possibility of begging forgiveness of the one man who might, possibly, be able to grant him the necessary peace of mind to allow him to sleep once more. It all added up to one simple conclusion, should he be willing to voice the offer out loud.
It didn't take him long to come to the one resolution that would likely prove most problematic for everyone involved. He shrugged, inhaled deeply as if bracing himself for a very unpleasant task, and offered anyway. He took a deep breath in and released it. "I'll go."
Quatre shook his head. "No, trust me, you don't want to deal with this situation." He gave a significant pause. "Or him. When's the last time you saw him?"
"About five years ago, just after the Mariemaia incident. Just before he left for the Mars Terraforming project." Wufei shrugged and let it go at that.
Quatre frowned, "Well, he's changed a great deal since that time."
Curiouser and curiouser. He wasn't likely to let it rest at that. Wufei filled his coffee cup, plan already resolved in his mind. "I'll need directions, gear suited for the weather and terrain, and a GPS unit, but I'll go."
Relena shrugged and picked up her coffee. "Quatre, it makes more sense that way. If the storm worsens, he can either stay at the lodge or spend some time here at the estate when he returns. I know you have obligations on X-18999 that won't wait if you're snowbound here." She waved expansively at Wufei. "And he did say that he had the vacation time to spare."
"Put that way, it does make logical sense." Quatre nodded at Wufei in reluctant agreement. "I'll see that you have everything you need in the morning then, or whenever it suits you to make the attempt to the lodge, though you'll want some daylight for setting out. It's about a thirty kilometer trip, only part of which can be traveled on by mechanical means." He pushed his coffee and the remains of his dessert plate aside, and began to map out the route with his fingertip on the tablecloth. "The lodge isn't very large, more of a luxury cabin really, cut into the side of the mountain for stability. He has a fireplace and a gas-powered generator for heat and maintaining electrical power, but he hasn't been activating the communication lines to talk with us and, well..." Quatre waved at Relena.
She tilted her coffee cup at both of them and attempted a tight smile. "So, I'm paranoid."
Wufei nodded in ready agreement. "After three days of no power in these weather conditions, I happen to agree with you."
"So you'll take off in the morning? Make sure my brother is okay?"
If he'd been paying more attention, her concern for her brother, unusual after the three-day lapse, might have made an impression. As it was, Wufei simply tilted his head in agreement.
Relena nodded. "Good. I'm glad that's decided."
It was still snowing. Wufei paused for a moment to re-check his position and ensure that he hadn't drifted from the trail, and then sat back on the seat of the Snow Cat and watched winter's fury with awe. They were used to this much snow? Light blizzard conditions really, if one accounted for the wind. Without the GPS, the trail markers, and Quatre's directions, he would have been lost four times over already, and he was only thirteen kilometers into the trail. The loaned winter gear was holding up nearly as well as his regulation winter Preventer gear would have though; Sanc patrols knew their environment from long experience and were apparently budgeted up to their full equipment needs. He was warm and dry so far at least.
He tapped the radio in his breast pocket and pushed the Snow Cat farther down the trail. It was handling the heavy snow admirably well, it was a shame it wouldn't be able to navigate the steeper and narrower trails on the approach to the lodge itself. He made a mental note to ask Une to requisition a few for Preventers offices in snowbound areas.
Days like this, he missed mobile suits.
A measly additional six kilometers down the road, a deadfall ended his easy passage to the lodge. Maneuvering around the large tree did no good, nor did trying to move or shift it with his heavy transporter, so he covered the Snow Cat and set out on skis for the rest of his journey, setting his bearings and making doubly certain of his trail markers and headings before heading out into the wind-driven snow.
As he started to reach the higher elevations, the snowfall began to taper off, and he slowed his pace enough to enjoy his surroundings in a way he hadn't allowed himself to do since he'd arrived in Sanc. The stillness of the mountains, the low compact gray clouds, the regular movement of birds, seemingly undisturbed by his passage, another set arguing over whatever it was they argued over, all of combined together with the physical effort of his quest to bring him a sort of peace he'd been lacking for weeks. And while he'd not admit it to Quatre or Relena, part of him slowed a bit more, relaxing in the regular stride of his feet, the light crunch of his poles in the snow, the wisp of the wind and the chatter of ice-rimed snow against the surface of his skis. He was enjoying his hike immensely. Right up until the point where his pristine trail of snow gave out from underneath him.
He staggered out of the frozen stream, cursing Quatre and, more likely, Relena, for not warning him of it or listing it on their set of directions and checked twice to ensure that the radio was still secure in its special lined pocket. The lodge shouldn't be far away now, but he was now slowly freezing as the water managed to penetrate parts of his gear. And, as if his luck couldn't get any worse, the gray clouds winked at him, and it began to snow yet again.
He re-checked his coordinates as the snow began to fall again in earnest. Close, he was so very close. And then there it was, a dark red door set deeply into the wall of the mountain face, blunt and intimidating in its hard simplicity. He knocked twice, sharply, and received no response. He turned the ornate knob and peered inside, finding only a dark room. Curious, he opened the door wide to allow daylight to penetrate. Wood storage, some snow removal tools; he found little else. So, a thermal barrier to the outside world, as he'd seen a number of times before in his travels, but none so solidly constructed. It must blizzard frighteningly hard in Sanc at times, he theorized. He pulled the door solidly closed behind him and, quietly shivering in the darkness, knocked, not quite as harshly this time, on the second door.
"Enter." The tone of the voice was difficult to read, but it was unmistakably Zechs, of that there was no doubt.
He did, and stood on the threshold of a second, much warmer room, dripping and cold, teeth chattering despite his very best efforts to appear self contained and composed in front of this man he admired, concentrating, in fact, more on maintaining his own appearance than on the space he stood in or the man in it.
"I see Relena's Brook has claimed another victim." Zechs looked up at his unexpected guest over the top of his book, but did not offer to rise from his chair by the fire. "I gather that she neglected to warn you of it?" He didn't wait for a response before returning to his reading. "I assumed that she'd send someone eventually." The tired resignation in his voice did not go missed.
Wufei risked a glance, at the room, at the man ensconced in the large chair by the crackling fire in the well-appointed room. It wasn't quite what he'd been expecting, more like a rustic hotel suite carved into the mountain. He blinked his way around the room, taking in the details as his teeth chattered louder. It didn't seem that the 'lodge' was really all that much of a cabin at all, more of a single room with luxurious appointments and a fireplace that took up the expanse of an entire back wall.
Which meant, quite literally, that he'd just blundered into the man's bedroom.
And, taking Zechs' reaction as his first clue, he most certainly wasn't a welcome presence there. That much was evident, as Zechs wasn't even rising to his feet to welcome him.
Wufei removed his gloves, painfully, one at a time, and set the radio with careful deliberation on the closest object he could reach without leaving his tile threshold. It made an annoying clatter on the kitchenette counter as he did so, his uncontrollable shivering transferring to the object.
Zechs cool welcome and icy disdain brought Wufei's formal speech patterns and stilted speech modes to the fore. "I brought you a radio from the estate, should you have need of it." He shuffled the slush prints on the tile and considered his options. It was near suicide to turn around and go back to the estate like this, but he'd faced worse prospects during his training and years on the force. Staying here wasn't an option. Thirty klicks. Only about ten of them on foot. He pulled his gloves on, stiff with cold, and reached behind him for the door latch.
"There's a hot shower waiting for you in the room behind the blue door."
Wufei stopped. Only a whisper of a white-blond eyebrow above the book betrayed any interest in his guest's location in the room as another page turned.
"You should get those clothes off before you freeze." The book lowered a fraction. "I don't suppose that you brought anything else to change into? No?" He continued absently as if that were a given and turned another page. "There should be an extra sheet or blanket under the sink that should do until your clothes dry. Take a shower and get warm." And then Zechs returned his attention to his book and Wufei was dismissed, just as summarily as if he was working on a case and Zechs was his superior officer. Perhaps there was something to Quatre's mention of Zechs' active status with Preventers then, as defying his orders never occurred to him.
He shucked off his gloves yet again and began the long painful process of removing his winter gear and hanging it on the series of hooks provided on the wall, he assumed for that purpose, leaving it dripping in an uneven staccato rhythm by the door.
For all intents and purposes, Zechs seemed to completely ignore his presence, and simply continued to read his book by the warmth of the fireplace. Offering neither eye contact nor conversation as Wufei stubbornly fought off the last of his trappings and stood in his thin thermal underwear, only partially wet but still shockingly cold, and bare feet on the porcelain tile. Perhaps it was a better grace that the other man was ignoring him at the moment. He could hardly have met him at a less impressive moment. Wufei Chang, Preventer Storm, lead investigative agent for Preventers and recently acclaimed service agent with many awards for duty and brilliance in investigative work, having just hiked woefully unprepared and unplanned through unfamiliar territory and landed in an unmarked body of freezing water. Only to be the unwanted bearer of unheeded advice from someone Zechs obviously only tolerated at best.
Not his most successful mission by far.
He emerged from the shower, warmer but still bone chilled, towel slung around his neck to catch the remaining drips from his hair. The thin blanket he found under the sink contributed little for warmth, but did at least serve to preserve a small measure of his dignity, what few shreds of it remained.
He edged into the main room cautiously, unsure of his welcome. An elegant hand emerged again from behind the book and indicated the couch and a stack of linens that hadn't been there when he'd entered the shower. He looked around, curious as to what else had magically changed while he'd been in the other room. He couldn't yet decide whether Zechs was irritated at all of the bother of having him here, or doing his best to give him all of the privacy he could in a space that offered none.
That rich, low voice interrupted his musings, nearly startling him from dozing on his feet in the doorway. "There's coffee hot. And extra blankets."
Wufei returned to the couch with the mug of coffee, grateful for the extra warmth it contributed to his hands. "My... thanks for the hospitality." He set the mug aside and wrapped one of the blankets around his shoulders, the other around his legs, then settled back in the other chair, avoiding the couch and it's implied message of deeper rest, not offering another word in exchange. He watched the flames, carefully avoiding staring at his host and any rudeness that might imply. Exhausted from his travels, and every good reason why he should remain alert forgotten, he was asleep within minutes.
Zechs slowly lowered the book he'd not been reading since his very unexpected visitor had arrived, and studied his guest with interest. This was a very different Wufei Chang from the one he'd met before. This was not the man who had destroyed the barracks at Lake Victoria, who had taunted him on the surface of Peacemillion, who had... who had...
He took a long swallow from his glass and studied the man's face again. Yes, this was the man who had taken Treize's life. But Treize had planned for that eventuality, and from what Une had reported, Agent Storm had more than repaid for his sins of war with the deeds he had done in his five years of service as a Preventer.
Wufei was lean, too lean. The blankets hid very little for a trained observer, and the man was mere whipcord over sinew and muscle. There was no softness to be found on him, or in him, if what he suspected was true. There were small creases in his face. From worry? From stress? He was far too young to have those lines, and for a brief moment, Zechs was tempted to reach out to touch and to trace the lines of life on the face in front of him before he drew back to contemplate and study once more.
His hair was nearly half as long as Zechs' own now, but still that same raven black, swept back and now just starting to dry in the warmth of the fireplace, escaping the twist over the man's shoulder and the wrap of the end of the towel. In the still air of the room, it still smelled damply of Zechs' own shampoo, and he leaned close, inhaled the sharp citrus of it.
Zechs shook his head and spoke softly aloud. "Of everyone she could have sent to me, why did she have to send you?"
Somewhere, just on the edge of consciousness, Wufei cringed, and then slipped completely under the veil of sleep.
Zechs leaned back in his favorite chair, watching as the kiss of the light from the flames danced over Wufei's face, favoring it and hiding the lines of stress and tiredness that were evident in plenty there. "The years have not been kind to you. And I have broken my last vow made to a dying man in not watching after you and the others." Zech stood, not quite as steadily as he would have liked, and readied the couch for service as a makeshift bed before turning and studying Wufei at closer range and almost, almost, reaching out to touch. He settled back on his heels, bracing his hand on the chair for balance, and watched his downfall as he slept. "That lapse ends here. Now."
He sighed again. "How could I have become so cursed to have been saddled with the one man who could make my medical leave an utter misery."
Task completed, he levered his way back into his own chair, and pondered the blanket-wrapped puzzle in front of him. He watched the man sleep, and resolved to make the best of the situation. To, at least, become friends, as painful as that might be, and to try and grant Wufei some small measure of peace over Treize's death. Une had talked of little else during Zechs' last visit to headquarters but of how deeply that event still haunted her favorite agent. Though it was plain by his own admission that he'd avoided contact with Wufei since returning from Mars, some of that had been his own doing; Zechs hadn't been ready to face his demons or his sins. Some had been the chance of his assignments and the happenstance of when and where Une had deemed him and his skill set most useful. He winced and rotated his shoulder painfully. His back and hip would never be quite the same after his last mission. She'd certainly received her pound of flesh in return for his vow of service -- in !
quite the literal sense this time around.
Une had called him to the carpet on it, said he was very like a large dog going to ground and licking his wounds. He didn't have the nerve to tell her it was more cave than ground and very much rest the truth for the rest of it. With Noin still on Mars, and Relena very much a noncombatant on the field, there simply wasn't anyone else for him to turn to for aid or assistance any longer. Not that he'd had many confidants to start with. Noin. Otto. Walker. He sighed painfully, Treize. Treize, damn him, who'd made him promise at the last to watch over the Gundam pilots, should any of them survive. And he'd made him vow that at the last before they parted at the end. Of course, he mused, that presumed that either he or Treize would survive and could see to it that they did not want for anything.
He missed his friend most dearly.
Well... he stared into the flames: the fire that cleansed and forgave and renewed all. He'd certainly had neglected that part of the bargain, had completely forgotten his vow until a certain ex-Gundam pilot had tromped up and, quite literally, knocked on his door, more than half frozen, wet to the skin, mission-focused, angry-eyed, and, Zechs took another look at the man...
He chuckled dryly, like the highly decorated and accredited Preventer Storm would thank him for that particular observation. He leaned across the narrow distance between the two chairs to smooth the blanket in place before turning to face his guest head on. Now for the dicey part of transferring guest from chair to couch, soldiers being such a tricky breed to handle, ex-Gundam pilots particularly so, and this one, trained as he was by his ancient clan, particularly unique. Part of Zechs still envied Treize that -- the experience of dueling with Wufei at the height of the war.
"Agent?" Though he watched for it most carefully, there was no visible response to his soft inquiry. "Chang? Wufei?" Zechs approached the chair and held himself low and to the side. He reached out a cautious hand to tug at the blanket edge, but it was merely released, so deep was the man's sleep.
"Exhausted yourself on my account, did you?" Just as carefully, Zechs reached out and pulled the other blanket loose. "I'm not worth it, you know." He settled back on his heels to study his unexpected companion by the firelight, and for the briefest of moments, considered simply leaving him there, close and warm by the fire, and calculated odds of injury in his head and possible approaches and holds.
He elected to move on with the most straightforward approach, as that philosophy had treated him well in the past. "Wufei? It's Zechs? I'm just moving you to your bed. Try your best to not to accidentally kill me, hm?" He gently lifted Wufei from the chair. A naked and warm Wufei, who unexpectedly cuddled close to the hard wall of his chest and nuzzled into his neck and breathed warm and damp into the skin there with a soft exhale of breath before settling into his arms like a second home.
Zechs stilled, frozen in his tracks with a sudden desire so palpable that he could taste it on his breath, feel it race through his lungs in a great heaving sudden inhale. He nearly turned to his own bed, so great was his desire to continue to hold Wufei, to clutch, to cling and cradle, but he instead settled him into the nest of blankets on the sofa. Wufei mumbled a protest as Zechs released him from his arms and lifted the blankets over him.
He watched for long moments again as Wufei shifted seamlessly into a deeper more unsettled sleep, the crackling of the fire at his back, the moment still tight in his mind, refusing to release its hold. He turned woodenly to the door, to Wufei's clothes handing there in still-dripping rows. The outerwear he left on the hooks, but the thinner inner garments he brought closer to the hearth in order to dry near the fireplace, and he sat in the abandoned chair, staring into the flames for endless minutes in thought before stoking the fire and heading for his own bed.
He gave a wistful thought for watching the man as he slept, and cursed the luck that made his body so weak to the side effects of his medications, and his timing for taking them only minutes before the unexpected knock on the door. Company, this company in particular -- such an unwanted gift, so delightful a curse. With a long thoughtful look at his temporary roommate and long-time obsession, he turned off to bed and his own fitful rest. Tomorrow morning would come soon enough, and with the dawn, its own set of problems.
Wufei woke, blinked the sleep from his eyes, surprised to find himself moved from his chair to the sofa, warm and well rested. And naked between the twisted sheets and blankets. Rolling over, he saw that the fire had burned down. He wrapped the sheet about himself and shimmied over to the hearth in order to stir the ashes, adding a log or two over the bed of coals and watching to ensure that they caught. A rustle of silk on skin, and a protesting groan of springs pre-told a movement in the large bed behind him and he stayed focused on the fire in order to give Zechs a moment or more or privacy before he turned slowly to address his host...
Only to find that Zechs was not awake as he'd surmised, but still asleep in his large bed, and had merely shifted, exposing a long lean line of back and hip to Wufei's view -- skin that bore evidence of recent surgery over a ghostly roadmap of aged scarring.
He flicked his eyes up to Zechs' face, checking for any sign of wakefulness, but the tangle of blond hair was nestled firmly into the dented pillow. Wufei pulled his sheet around himself and edged closer to the bed, making no effort to be quiet, unsure of Zechs' level of training, but knowing full well what would waken him under similar circumstances.
He gave in to the urge to study the man for a few moments, feeling no shame or reserve for staring at Zechs as he slept, injured and exposed. And was that a knife wound? Wufei paused for a moment, rocked back on the heels of the slow realization that this was likely what had kept Zechs immobile in his chair -- not hesitation, not obstinacy, but pain from a back injury a few weeks fresh with the skin and muscle tissue still healing.
Wufei set his mind racing to match cases with casualties and recent injuries and didn't come up with any that matched. Just what was this man's status with Preventers? Or was he affiliated with another of the related agencies? It was puzzling, and puzzles didn't rest well in his mind.
He took another long moment in deep appreciation of the man himself -- of his leanness, his even breathing under the slip of skin and sheet; appreciating the implied trust inherent in the deepness of sleep that he allowed himself to fall into with Wufei still in the room. He paused. Of course, the reverse applied as well. Though only a few hours had elapsed, he felt surprisingly refreshed -- alive. There was a thought. With that, he walked away from the bed and its puzzling occupant, poking at the room itself.
He hadn't taken the time to really explore the retreat upon his arrival, and he took the opportunity to do so now without the unsettling presence of Zechs' eyes upon him. A ten-meter square room more or less, minus the cut-ins for the bath and the closets and what he supposed were the other convenience-hiding cabinets. An electronics and communications niche in one corner, a wide stone and marble fireplace and bookcases along one wall with a pair of ample chairs and a low table and couch positioned in front of it. An efficient little kitchenette in a corner with sink and a table and chairs and not much else to speak of. A large bed, that seemed extra long to Wufei's thinking; a wardrobe. He didn't remember the antechamber holding much more than the wood supply and some basic snow removal tools, so how then had Zechs arrived there? Had he been dropped off? It seemed highly unlikely that he'd managed to hike in himself in his present condition.
Unsettled, Wufei went back to his couch and the blankets, pausing in his travels to absently poke at the logs in the hearth, noting that Zechs had set out his clothes to dry.
He considered this, wondered anew about the level of consideration Zechs had shown him, given what Quatre and Relena let slip at the estate. Wrapped in his blanket on the sofa, Wufei considered this puzzle, turning the components and tumbling the facets about in his mind. Troubled, he continued to watch the fire, and eventually, fatigue conspired with his thoughts to pull him under into sleep again.
The scent of food woke him an indeterminate amount of time later. He shifted cold-stressed muscles and winched a sleep-weary eye open. The window was dark, the candles lit, the fire banked and crackling merrily -- well tended and fairly recently. So much for his touted Preventer-trained reflexes.
He peered up blearily from his nest of blankets the sofa, unknowingly presenting a very endearing picture, and found Zechs with an uncanny precision despite just awakening.
Zechs sat opposite him, back in his armchair as if he'd never moved. He pointed out a tray with lidded bowls on the low table. "You should eat something; I made soup."
"21:16 local." Zechs shrugged offhandedly.
Wufei struggled to orient himself into a sitting position, pushing the blankets around shoulders and waist as a temporary shield. "What I should do is get back to the estate and leave you to your peace. I've troubled your rest enough." But he picked up the bowl, removed the lid, and dutifully began consuming it, manners stipulating that he must do so; common sense and his body's craving for nourishment beyond the travel bars he'd consumed on the trail that morning reinforcing the need.
Zechs sat opposite him, for the first time without camouflaging book or screen of blanket, and stretched out a hand for the second bowl. Wufei handed it to him without touching his fingers and without an exchange of words and tried very hard not to stare, but he found himself very aware of his own appearance: wearing a sheet that was perilously close to transparent, the blankets in disarray about his legs and shoulders, his hair hanging in unkempt tendrils about his face and neck.
There was just something about seeing Zechs there, so relaxed and at ease, dressed more casually than Wufei had ever seen him in worn slacks and an oversized knit sweater. He couldn't help thinking again to what Quatre had said: This man and Treize were involved? Really? Wufei lowered his gaze and concentrated on his soup with rigid intensity.
The fire popped and cracked, redirecting his focus from his empty soup bowl and distracting him from his thoughts, and reminding his body that it had other priorities. He placed his bowl on the tray and nodded towards the blue door. "I don't suppose this place of yours comes pre-stocked with an extra toothbrush?"
"Try the cabinet to the left of the sink, and I'll go and see if I have anything hiding in the wardrobe that's more comfortable than a bed sheet for you to wear."
By the time he emerged from the tidy little bathroom, which was, upon reflection, very like his host, a neat compromise between royal elegance and military efficiency, Zechs was busy preparing coffee in the small kitchen portion of the room. Wufei trailed the sheet across the cold wood floors to the kitchenette counter, following the lure of caffeine.
Zechs leaned over, winced, corrected his stance and then stepped to the side in order to hand a stack of clothes to Wufei. "Your clothes still aren't quite dry, but those are clean and probably more comfortable than that sheet you're wearing. You're out of luck as far as undergarments go though. We're not of a like size."
Was that a smile? Wufei decided that it was and accepted the lightweight clothes, taking Zechs' turn towards the wall for the privacy that it was intended for and changing quickly into the lightweight medical blue scrubs Zechs provided. He pulled the drawstring on the pants tight and tied them off. He still had to roll the pant cuffs multiple times, but it was better than walking around in the sheet. He fingered the Preventers logo on the shirt thoughtfully.
He had a set of these too, worn home from an involuntary stay at the Preventers hospital after a round had collapsed his lung and they'd had to cut his uniform away from his body.
He scanned the counter for the telltale amber bottles of pharmaceuticals, and found three next to the sink. The injury had to be recent then, if Zechs was still on the rounds of antibiotics as well as pain medications.
"Cream, no sugar, right?" Zechs moved the radio over and completed the doctoring of Wufei's mug before handing over the cup of strong-smelling coffee.
He tasted it without hesitation and nodded his acceptance. Just the way he liked it. He raised an eyebrow at that, as he didn't ever remember telling Zechs how he took his daily poison. He was still trying to work at the puzzle when Zechs gave the surgical scrubs and unreadable look, then continued with, "I'm assuming that my sister sent you to check up on me as well as the handing off of the radio."
Wufei took another swallow of his coffee. It was very good. "Why do you do that?"
"Do what?" Zechs reply was cautiously reserved and puzzled, the reply of a man not accustomed to being questioned.
Wufei took note of the response and pressed onward. "Refer to her as 'your sister' instead of addressing her by her given name?"
Zechs blinked, taken aback by the directness of Wufei's question. He chuckled once, and returned to sit by the fireplace, cradling his cup in the bowl of his hands before taking another swallow. He set the mug aside and began to attend to the fire, stirring the coals and adding another log.
Wufei assumed Zechs had dropped the line of thought, or considered it too personal a matter to share with him until Zechs returned to his chair, picked up his mug again, and quietly volunteered, "Probably because she still refuses to call me Zechs."
Wufei walked over and set his own mug on the end table and turned to fold the blankets on the sofa, pausing at the last one and instead wrapping it around his shoulders before sitting in comfort on corner of the sofa farthest from Zechs. Surgical scrubs weren't very warm on their own. He tried to watch the fire as well; a much safer point of interest than the man sitting opposite from him. "Ah. So it's a bit of a sibling thing then?"
Zechs looked thoughtful for a moment, then the corner of his mouth lifted and his eye brightened a notch. "You might say that."
"What does she call you instead?" Wufei asked, curious in spite of himself. Zechs seemed oddly flustered, and that didn't fit with his mental image of this man.
"Listen," Zechs hesitated before continuing. "Preventer Storm, is it? Or do you prefer Chang Wufei?"
Wufei gave that a moment's consideration, stopped briefly by the sound of his name on this man's lips after all these years. "It would depend on the company and the circumstances. Storm is for missions and the office, Chang is for strangers, and Wufei is for people familiar to me -- family and close friends."
Zechs remained silent, awaiting his verdict; which file he'd fall neatly into. Which category Wufei would place him into: work, play, enemy or other.
Wufei narrowed his gaze, evaluating his target. "I believe you should address me as Wufei."
Zechs nodded, and even though Wufei was looking for more in the way of a response, he was careful not to volunteer anything else within the answer.
"Relena," there was a slight emphasis on the name that wasn't there when he'd referred to her in general terms -- drawing attention to the fact that he done this, called her by her given name for Wufei's benefit alone. "She asked you to hike all of the out here in this devil of a storm to make sure that I still numbered among the living and breathing, yes?"
Wufei shrugged. "More or less, yes."
Zechs quirked one of those elegant eyebrows, and Wufei decided privately that he could grow to love that look. Hell. He was really in trouble. Definitely, he was heading back to the estate tonight. Absolutely. He had no room in his life for entanglements. Damn. What was Duo's pet expression? Knock me down and screw me looks? It seemed extremely appropriate for the current situation. Zechs was a walking disaster to his equilibrium.
"More or less?"
His mind raced ahead, while his mouth, oddly useful for once, continued, "Quatre wasn't about to let me sit idly by at the estate if there was any question of your safety either."
"Ah yes, that would be your strategic-thinking Mister Winner." Zechs leaned back and crossed his ankles as if that explained something to his satisfaction.
Wufei checked-over his gear yet again touching the two pieces that had been hung to dry closest to him. "As soon as my clothes are a bit less... damp, I'll head back out."
Zechs shook his head and chuckled, beginning to recognize the setup for what it was, even if the delicious Mister Chang, currently in the semi-transparent clothing hadn't clued in quite yet. "You'll not."
Wufei bristled and sat on the edge of his seat. "What do you mean by that?"
Zechs didn't move from his leisurely study of the fire, watching as the flames danced. He took another swallow of his coffee and indicated the fire with his half-filled cup. "Watch the fire. See the flames move? This storm is still active and has worsened since you've arrived. The lodge is built half into the mountain, so it's protected from the worst of what the winter storms in Sanc have to offer and the fireplace flue is well baffled, but you can still tell if the wind is severe." He gave a negligent shrug. "Relena and Quatre are both well acquainted with the winter storms in this area. They should have informed you of the distinct possibility of you becoming snowbound here for some length of time before you were able to head back out."
Wufei gave in to what was obviously fate versus design, forgetting for a moment how very clever Quatre could be, and slumped with resignation. "How many days then, do you think?"
Zechs shrugged. "Anywhere from three to seven, I should think." He finished his coffee and set it aside. "I don't suppose you play chess?"
Wufei sighed. "I do."
Zechs smiled; it was by far the most positive sign Wufei had seen him show so far. "Excellent."
It wasn't until after their third rematch that Zechs offered to make more coffee. "Since it looks like you'll be here for the duration, perhaps you should give your Mister Winner a call on the device you brought all this way for that purpose." He lifted an eyebrow and Wufei felt his insides twitch in response again. Three to seven was beginning to sound like an eternity. Good or bad..., that was debatable. And then Zechs' words penetrated, and Wufei had the grace to look briefly stricken. "He's going to kill me..."
Zechs' chuckled. "Has the unit been powered on?" At Wufei's nod he continued, "Then he could have called you at any time." When Wufei stared at him a moment longer, he added with a slight wink. "You're off the hook."
It was the wink did it, launching Wufei off of the sofa and into the kitchenette to snatch up the radio and dial in the frequency of the main estate house.
"Lodge to Estate."
"Estate to Lodge. We read you." A dry male voice picked up the frequency, obviously a member of Relena's security detail that Wufei hadn't worked with. "Pardon please, Master Chang, while I fetch Master Winner."
Wufei looked over at the other side of the room, wishing desperately for a measure of privacy to ask Quatre some more questions about his host, especially about his employment and recent injuries. Okay, and more about his supposed background liaison with Khushrenada, truth be told.
But now, on an open channel radio, no matter how good the security in Sanc, there simply wasn't much information that could be risked to the open airwaves. He watched as Zechs picked up his book again and started reading.
"Hello, Wufei. Enjoying your vacation so far?"
"Hello, Miss. Dar... Relena. I found your brook for you. Next time please take care to leave it in a safer place so passersby don't fall into it in snowy weather."
"Ah... I knew I was forgetting something in the directions to the lodge. Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?"
Her concern sounded genuine, and Wufei's ire thawed. "Only my pride, and I had an extra portion of that to spare."
She hesitated on the open line, unused to him teasing her. "Uh, okay... Here's Quatre now. Goodbye, Wufei, I'll see you when you get back."
Wufei heard a quick whispered conversation before the unit transferred hands. "Hello, Wufei." Quatre sounded unusually cheerful, and Wufei wondered exactly what Relena had told him, but didn't dare ask.
"Hello yourself. Tell me about the weather situation."
"Ah... yes... well... that storm that was moving in seems to have stabilized over our area."
"I rather noticed. Zechs estimates three to seven days. Can you narrow it down more than that?"
Quatre had the temerity to laugh at him. "Does it really matter?"
Wufei chuckled back, finally seeing the humor in the situation. "I suppose not."
Quatre paused for a moment more, "Wufei? I need to speak with Zechs for moment. Can you hand him the radio, please?"
"Certainly. Is this anything I need to know about?"
Wufei padded over to the chair and held out the radiophone to Zechs with a degree of hesitation. "Quatre would like to speak with you."
Zechs blinked, but wasn't really all that surprised, truth be told. "Of course he does." He held out his hand and accepted the radio from Wufei. "Zechs here."
Wufei moved off to the other side of the room, trying to allow Zechs the same measure of privacy he had granted him for his portion of the call, meanwhile his brain continued to scramble, trying to figure out exactly what Quatre could need to tell Zechs that could not have been relayed through him. Had something happened to Relena? Had the security measures he'd reviewed been compromised? He watched covertly as Zechs' eyes narrowed and his lips tightened as if he were receiving some unpleasant news, and Wufei tried to be, if possible, even a bit more inconspicuous.
The conversation lasted only minutes. "Ah, understood. Will that be all then?" Zechs nodded in agreement to something Quatre said on the other end of the transmission and then looked up at Wufei, finding him and meeting his eyes without hesitation. "As you wish." He set the radio on the table and watched as Wufei approached, and shrugged negligently at his curious look.
"He says that his flight out was also delayed by the change in the weather and that he may still be there when you return to the cottage. He'll continue to assist my sis... Relena's security detail until you return."
"Oh." Okay, that made sense of the call... except for... "You refer to that... castle... as the cottage?"
Zechs granted him a small private smirk. "Of course. Wouldn't you?"
Relena looked over from the doorway to Quatre. "Oh, that was certainly subtle."
Quatre tried for his innocent look, but Relena knew him better than that. "What?"
"I was listening in."
"Um... So you heard when I told your brother..."
"Oh, yes." She took her seat at the desk and shook her head at him, impressed in spite of herself. "That Wufei has been continuing to have those nightmares Une mentioned," Relena frowned at him. "Oh yes, and dare I mention the, 'By the way Zechs, Wufei is single and very interested in you if you are, by any chance, available. He's just been too shy to say anything' remark?"
Quatre handed her an open-ended smile without apology. "I'm meddling."
"I noticed. And you weren't being subtle about it."
Quatre set the emergency transmit radio aside and picked up the next contract. "Who said I was going for subtle?"
"Pardon me, I thought you were just speaking with my brother, and I thought he invented that particular skill."
"Yes, well, he's dealing with Wufei at the moment, so I thought that the patented Maxwell Sledgehammer Approach might be more appropriate given the circumstances and limited timeline for our mission."
Relena lifted a finger to her chin in contemplation. "Ah, you'll have to excuse me. My error then."
Wufei poked at the coffee maker. "So, how is this powered?"
"Battery cell from a gas-powered generator. Same with the refrigeration unit, water pump, and the lights. Right now it's running off of the reserve stored from before the power went off, but we'll need to start the generator again eventually." Zechs shrugged. "Either that or move all of the cold goods to the wood storage room and make coffee on the hearth instead of with the electric unit. Zechs twisted a brief smile and offered, "We could always resort to bathing in Relena's Brook."
Wufei was left momentarily speechless, was Zechs teasing him? Couldn't be. "I didn't ask before, but do you have enough supplies for the two of us? If we're both here for a week or more?"
Zechs nodded. "I'd planned on staying for six weeks, and, to be quite truthful, I haven't been eating much. The food should last -- so long as you aren't all that particular about what you eat. And the water is supplied by a natural spring from the mountain, so it needs to be filtered for consumption, but the supply isn't something we need concern ourselves about."
"Not eating much?" asked Wufei, openly curious.
Zechs nodded toward the kitchen area and the vials of medication kept there. "Antibiotics disagree with me."
Well, that explained the tight, thin look about him. Wufei wasn't certain he should inquire about the surgical scars yet though, and elected to leave it for later.
The topic of Treize didn't come up until after dinner that night. Long after dinner had past and Wufei was searching for his strength in the last place he expected to ever have to -- at the hands of a former enemy.
Zechs watched him work his way into the whiskey, suspecting where that particular path might be leading them, and not begrudging Wufei whatever balm might be necessary to ease his passage.
"Wufei? Une has spoken to me more than once... I know, you've had nightmares about the wars. It's in your medical and psych files, and you called out Treize's name last night as you slept." He looked at him questioningly. "Has this truly been haunting you every day since then? Have you had no sleep without resorting to overwork, alcohol, or medications?"
Wufei hung his head in shame. Zechs took a gamble and reached out and gently tilted Wufei's chin, raising his face to meet his own.
Wufei twisted away from the light touch before he sighed deeply in surrender. "Not every night, but many of them, yes. More of them... recently... since I started thinking about." He hesitated not quite willing to state his interest aloud and quite as openly as that yet. "Since I came to Sanc."
Zechs lowered himself to sit next to Wufei on the carpet near the fireplace, amber glass in hand and his arm curled around his bent knee, his head resting against his thigh and his hair catching the highlights of the flames. "What... What if I told you a story?"
Wufei looked up at Zechs, then into the dancing fire before stubbornly prodding the logs with the poker and adding another log. He sullenly resisted the urge to protest that he was getting damn old for bedtime stories. "About?"
"How you came to be fighting with Treize during the war, when it should have been me you killed instead." It was stated as irretrievable fact, and with painful finality.
"How?" Wufei looked up at him, honestly puzzled.
"Treize and I dueled; Treize won, and he chose to lead the Earth forces. I headed into space to lead the opposition. After the majority of the mobile suits and armaments were destroyed in battle, we were supposed to kill each other and end the war." Zechs slowly rotated his glass, catching the colors of the whiskey in the fire's glow, very carefully not meeting Wufei's eyes. "But we were separated by the changes in the battle. Our plan didn't survive the opening movements of the war. A risk we had to take. The Gundam pilots were our backup plan in case Treize and I were separated. I knew that he intended to find you, personally, and to lure you into a duel, and then anger you to the point of quick response before providing you with an opening from which he would not parry."
Zechs took a swallow from his glass before returning to his slow revolutions of the remainder of the poison. "I intended to do the same with Gundam 01, Heero Yuy. Instead, after White Fang miscalculated and nearly sent Libra into the Earth, I needed to do what I could to destroy it." Zechs paused slightly, "I was pretty certain that self-destructing Epyon near the power generator would be the same as suicide." He shrugged and took another swallow, his throat moving with the intake of liquid. "I was wrong. I never meant to survive the war though."
"I found out later that Treize cheated. Likely the one and only time that he ever did." Zechs laughed, a dark, low and ugly sound. Une confessed to me later that he'd done so. And I fell for his ploy."
Zechs turned and looked at Wufei, willing him to believe. "So you see, it should have been me that you killed, not Treize. I would have stayed on Earth, taken the defensive position. You would have killed me instead." And softly, so softly that Wufei wasn't certain that he'd heard it at first. "Most times, I wish I had died then. So much easier than dealing with all of this."
Zechs tossed back his whiskey, letting the alcohol slide smooth down his throat and burn in his gut, taking comfort from the hit of it. He closed his eyes and basked in the warmth of the fire, resting back against the solid weight of the sofa and trusting that Wufei wouldn't break the silence.
A clink of glass of glass broke his reverie, and he opened his eyes to see Wufei refilling his tumbler, then topping off his own. Wufei set the bottle down on the hearth and moved to sit on the floor with him sharing the sofa as a backrest to watch the fireplace, intentionally watching the flames instead of Zechs as he began to speak in turn. "I was operating solo for most of Operation Meteor. Heero worked at times closely with Duo or with Trowa. I worked with Trowa but once. Po once. The rest of the time I worked alone. Until the very end of the first eve war that is, when Yuy let me fly Wing Zero, and its Zero System told me to kill you and Treize."
Wufei stuttered to a halt, and fortified himself with a long pull of his glass. "He... He..." He tilted the glass up, finding his courage in the bottom of it, and faced Zechs. "I'm sorry I killed your friend. I think it broke something inside of me to do it. I haven't felt right since that day." He pushed the empty glass aside and stretched his feet out in front of the fire, looking blearily up at Zechs. "The Mariemaia Incident did little to correct that feeling."
Zechs looked drunkenly into the embers, the red coals at the base of the flames. Thinking back to what Une had told him, what Po had let slip that one time, and finally, what Quatre had confessed not a day before... Could it be that simple?
He spoke very softly into the air between them. "Wufei?"
Wufei lifted his head very slightly, his hair loose and in disarray about his face. He looked lost, unmoored, adrift.
"I forgive you."
Wufei felt his features fall slack with unexpected relief, and he sat back hard against the sofa, watching the fire, remembering the end of both wars, deeply lost in the past and slowly working his way towards the ground of the forgiven.
Wufei woke in an unfamiliar environment and immediately stilled, but enough of his stealth skills remained ingrained to keep his breathing steady and regular, the rise and fall of his chest normal. His side was sore and pressed against a hard, unforgiving surface. The floor? What the hell was he doing on the floor? He felt his stomach lurch and roll uncomfortably at the mere thought of movement. Alcohol -- whiskey, and a lot of it. Amounts far beyond what he normally consumed in a single sitting.
He sent his brain scurrying in a circle to remember the cause. Relena, Quatre, Treize, Zechs, Treize... then Zechs again at long last, and then peace. At long last, peace. And then a dreamless sleep, the likes of which he'd not had in months.
He chanced opening his eyes a cautious slit, and found a fire still burning in front of him. Two hours then, not more, for the fire to still burn wood and not have reduced to red embers.
For the quality of the sleep he'd just had, it felt like ten hours had passed, and of the warmth behind him. Of the warmth behind him, he didn't dare look, knowing almost certainly what must account for it, but instead relaxed back into the near embrace, the solace of the closeness of the man laying next to him in the dark. Remembering an offer to hold him, once the deep tears of regret had finally surfaced and released their grip on him. He smiled softly, thinking about how warmly those arms had held. He knew a moment of remorse, that he should wake Zechs, that he shouldn't be on the floor, still on his antibiotics and hurting as he was. But the possessive part of Wufei's brain rationalized it away, claimed that he should be warm enough between the sofa and Wufei's body with the blankets over them both.
Before Wufei could think beyond that step, he was asleep again, the months of deprivation seizing him and luring him under once more.
Zechs shifted, brushing his fingers along skin and the rough fibers of the carpet, the contrast drawing him slowly from the lull of an unusually sound sleep. His back was cold and he drew closer to the source of nearest heat, touching his face to bare skin, wrapping his arms around the warm body laying next to him in the nest of blankets.
He rose to slight awareness. Ah, the floor then, and the fire must have gone down to embers for the room to be this cool. He nearly chuckled at their predicament. So, Mister Winner's machinations had borne some fruit after all. Or had they? It still remained to be seen if Wufei had more than a fleeting interest in him, though he liked to think that having the implied trust to trek out to a remote location on no advanced notice had to account for something, the motivation to spill his confidences and fears and free his inner horrors, aside. That and his willingness to be here, now, like this. Mister Winner's suggestion or not.
Chang Wufei. He eased his eyes open to take in the view, looked up through the fringe of lashes. So beautiful like this, relaxed and at ease in the grip of sleep, his mouth barely open, his lips slightly cracked with the dryness of the elements, his skin creased with the stress of his work and his eyes dented with the blue tinge of little sleep and other abuses. Too young for all of those things; too young and far too old in some ways as well. So well suited they were for each other, if only...
The urge to not disturb the moment was nearly overpowering. He did what little he could to impress it upon the framework of his mind before touching Wufei with his voice and only with his voice, not wanting to startle him any more than necessary, given their situation.
A lazy eye cracked open, and then just as slowly drifted shut again.
Zechs chuckled and tried again, a little louder. "Wufei? The fire's out, I need to get up and re-start it. It's getting cold in here."
Wufei tucked his head closer against Zechs chest and mumbled something indecipherable.
Zechs groaned softly and resisted the strong urge to grip the man tighter and never let him go. Instead he looked down slightly, pleaded an innocence he wasn't sure he ever had. "What's that?"
"'s warm enough."
"For you maybe." The temptation to follow his lead and fall back to sleep under the blankets was a very real one, but his bladder was beginning to wake up as well, and given the cold temperature and the previous nights' indulgences, wasn't willing to be denied any longer. "'C'mon, Wufei, you need to wake up enough that I can move."
At that, the visible eye hinged open again and reviewed the territory briefly before drooping heavily to the blankets.
Hell? Just how much of the bottle had they managed to work through last night? Well, there was one way to get Wufei awake. Rude, but effective.
Wufei bolted upright in an explosion of blankets and reached automatically for his usual apartment bedside table and the sidearm that wasn't there. And then he turned and glared down at Zechs. A very rumpled and wrinkled and thoroughly slept in Zechs. A Zechs who was looking up at him from the floor and chuckling.
Wufei looked down at him, golden and mussed and so very tempting, and said the very first thing that came into his mind. "You... bastard."
Zechs continued to look. Slowly. Thoroughly. Wufei first thing in the morning was a very fine thing indeed. Particularly wearing as little as he presently was and while sporting the rather spectacular morning erection he was displaying. Zechs leaned back in the blankets and enjoyed the show for a moment or two more before offering an explanation of sorts. "Questions of my parentage set aside for the moment, the fire was out."
"It never got a chance to start last night."
Did that comment mean what he thought it meant? Or was that just hope getting in the way of his twisted view of reality again? Zechs offered a tentative, "I beg pardon?"
Wufei paused. Realized what he'd just said out loud and watched as Zechs' eyebrow slowly raised in what was either the man's expression of astonishment or polite inquiry, and noticed a moment later what Zechs seemed to be staring rather pointedly at.
"Oh fuck." Wufei made an inelegant and mad dash for the bathroom, slamming the blue door behind him with unnecessary force.
Zechs looked down at his own member rather apologetically. "Looks like you're rather out of luck, old friend." He looked at the blue door, considered what was behind it and what had just put him there. Or perhaps not." He rolled stiffly to his feet and concentrated on rebuilding the fire, then setting the room back to order as he waited for Wufei to emerge from behind the door.
When he didn't seem likely to emerge any time soon, he retrieved more wood from the antechamber, pausing just long enough to duck outside to check the storm and leave his own yellow mark in the snow -- cursing Wufei roundly for the inconvenience of doing so. The room still remained empty long after the wood supply had been replenished, so he set to making the coffee. All while the blue door remained stubbornly closed.
He tapped once at the private room when the machine gurgled its last death rattle. "Coffee's ready," and then returned to his vigil at the fire, waiting his turn in the only privacy the building had to offer.
"Zechs?" He looked up; saw Wufei standing in the doorway of the bathroom, his hand gripping the frame in a white-knuckled grip.
"I..." Wufei shrugged and turned to the coffeepot. "Your turn." He paused, hesitating. "Zechs?"
"Ah... It's not important."
"It sounds like it might be." There seemed to be more of a deep internal struggle going on than he was aware of. "Wufei? What is it?"
"It can wait. I'll make breakfast, okay?" Wufei sounded hopeful, a soldier feeling an urge to contribute to the cause, a man wanting not to feel a burden. Zechs had been there often enough to recognize the need.
Enough of a strategist to recognize that Wufei had a desire for some space to think, Zechs nodded in agreement. It might just be his turn after all. "Rummage away. What's mine is yours." The blush didn't rise to Zechs' face until the blue door clicked shut. He lifted a hand to his skin -- pressing and testing the uncommon hue in the bathroom mirror. "Dear God, did I really just say that?"
Wufei stood flat-footed in the kitchenette and stared in shock at the closed door. "Did he just say that?"
Zechs emerged to the sound of Wufei's less than cheerful muttering. The man talked to himself; imagine that. Somehow, he found that revelation oddly charming.
"Crown prince of the damn realm and he's apparently been subsisting on ration bars and coffee."
Zechs chuckled, emerging damp-headed under a towel to consider Wufei's criticism, the other slung low around his hips, beginning to test the territory that Quatre had bought for him. "They'll keep you alive."
"And not much more than that." There was a disapproving snort from the kitchenette. "They taste like cardboard." Wufei gave an approving nod at Zechs' towel and pointed at the bars, marked with numbers for the order in which they should be rotated in eating order. "I won't eat them."
Zechs laughed. "There's food from the cottage in the storage unit. I promise that I'll eat real food if you'll bother to try and cook it."
"Try?" Wufei smiled, and for once, there was little reservation in the expression. "And yes, I found the pantry and the reserve food stores. And I checked the fuel supply for the generator, as the battery level is getting low."
"You know how to cook? That wasn't listed in your skill and abilities file." Zechs gave up on drying his hair and let the towel lie slack across his shoulders. He leaned momentarily against the counter, openly curious. "I'll admit, soup out of a can and reheated frozen packs are about the peak of my skill limit." He continued to move over to his bed and sat on the edge of it, toweling his hair absently.
Wufei continued to work his way though the kitchen stock, trying to grant Zechs some privacy as he moved from bathroom to wardrobe, towel rigged low around his hips with entirely too much skin exposed for Wufei's peace of mind.
Wufei tilted his head as that statement brought other comments to the fore. Zechs knew entirely too much about him for comfort. Or was that simply his way of revealing a personal interest? "What sort of details do you know about my SA file?"
Zechs dressed himself slowly, painfully, but paused for a moment to consider Wufei's question. He shrugged and answered honestly, committing himself. "All of them."
"Do you mind if I ask how you gained access to that information? As I believe that it's classified." Wufei's icy reserve was reflected in his voice.
Ah yes, well, there was the sticky point of it all then, wasn't it. Zechs buttoned his favorite pair of jeans and slipped the loose shirt over his shoulders before walking carefully back to his chair, thinking and calculating risks all the while. Wufei's security clearance aside, he'd proven his worth and Une would have no problem with Zechs sharing a confidence with him. Especially given what he hoped to do with Wufei in the future, given the man's voiced interest in front of Quatre Winner.
"I believe that I have a right to know."
Zechs looked up. Was Wufei threatening him with a spoon? He couldn't resist smiling at the idea. "Is that the new Preventer Elite weapon of choice?"
Wufei gave the utensil look of disgust and set it aside. "Are you evading my questions?"
Zechs tilted his head and stared at Wufei. "Yes, your file is classified." He offered a slight, negligent shrug, "I have high enough clearance that access to your personnel records is not a problem for me." At Wufei's slightly surprised expression, Zechs' smile widened. "Does that answer your question?"
Wufei leaned back against the counter and faced Zechs directly. "What do you do for Preventers that grants you that level of access, and, incidentally, how did you get hurt?"
That supercilious eyebrow lifted, and a corner of the lips quirked. "And if I told you that information was classified? And or of a personal nature?"
Wufei's expression turned predatory. "I'd tell you where to stuff it."
Zechs laughed lightly. "Getting possessive, are we?"
Wufei considered that question, evaluated the consequences, and nodded anyway. "If you like."
Zechs shrugged, neither confirming nor denying Wufei's claim. But the smile beginning to tug at his lips threatened to take hold.
Wufei seemed, if anything, even more determined to find out what Zechs knew. "Une owes me a rather sizeable favor. I can call it in for this, or you can tell me on your own."
Zechs waved off the suggestion. "Save it. It may come in useful some day." Zechs looked over at the kitchenette hopefully. "Toss me a ration bar or the equivalent, would you?"
Wufei sneered at the suggestion. "Breakfast should be human food."
"Fine. Feed me and I'll tell you anything that you want to hear."
Both eyebrows lifted at that. "You mean that?"
Zechs considered the trade, nodded once. "Yes."
Wufei smile broadened and he picked up the spoon and tossed it neatly in the air. "How do you like your eggs?"
Zechs raised his coffee cup in a salute to the better chef. "Any way that you're willing to prepare them."
There was an impolite snort from the general direction of the kitchenette. "Fine."
Ten minutes later, Wufei set the impromptu meal on the low table in front of the fire. "Now talk."
Zechs accepted his plate with the due reverence and true appreciation of a man living on his own cooking for three weeks. "You do understand that I might not be able to tell you everything that you want to know..."
Wufei waved a slice of toast in protest. "I understand no such thing. Une promised me Level Nine clearance if I was willing to endure the paperwork, and I did make breakfast."
Zechs shrugged, and continued eating his omelet, which was, if he was being truly honest with himself, quite excellent. "You did." He paused for a moment, considering options that no longer existed, not really. "This goes to Level Twelve."
Wufei gave him a steady look. The look of a man who knew damn well he was in the right and was sick and tired of being fucked around with. "There is no Level Twelve."
Zechs nodded in appreciation of the eggs, shrugged once in obeisance of the plunge into the inevitable, and continued. "Levels One through Nine are for security management of the general Preventers' day-to-day work. Level Ten is for management of the security protocols for Levels One through Nine. Levels Eleven and Twelve are reserved for the internal investigation and policing of Preventers agents. Old Earth divisions used to refer those classifications collectively as Internal Affairs." He took a final bite and pushed the plate aside. "Une manages One through Ten. I've been managing Eleven and Twelve."
Wufei tapped his fork on the edge of his plate, sensing a puzzle and hesitant to give up on it. "So you were investigating one of our own when you were..." There was a long moment of silence before he continued. Even long-time agents had a difficult time admitting to injury in themselves or others.
"Yes." Zechs paused, knowing that Wufei would be able to piece the puzzle together on his own now that he had enough clues.
"You were in the shuttle when it....?"
"None of the passengers made it." There was a question there. Had Preventers doctored the flight-crash record? It would be an unprecedented event if they had done so.
"I was the backup co-pilot. It was the only available placement for an agent on the craft."
There was a long silence as the plates were systematically cleared, pleasantries exchanged, niceties observed.
Wufei tapped the arm of the chair with a fingertip until Zechs called him on it.
"He was buried with full honors. Did you not know about his transgressions until after?"
"No. We knew. But not many agents know that the Level Eleven and Twelve units exist, and..." Zechs paused. "He was a good agent for many long years. The funeral was warranted. He didn't have any family. No survivors. Nothing to complicate matters down the line."
Wufei thought on that for a moment, on how knowing that one of their own had turned against them could affect morale. Especially now, with their numbers so very few... "Ah."
Zechs nodded, easily following his line of reasoning. "Like that, yes." He rolled his shoulder as he rose from the chair. It was a subtle tell, and he made pains to hide it as soon as he realized he'd revealed the weakness.
Wufei raised his hand to halt his progress. "I noticed a prescription cream for your burns in the..."
Zechs smiled, too late apparently. "I can't reach them. They're on my back."
"I know. I saw. I could... I mean. I would." Wufei paused, not knowing how to offer assistance in a way that Zechs would accept the aid.
Zechs looked at him, initially calculating, then resigned. "Fair enough. It would help, I think, if you're truly willing." He paused. This was new territory for him. "You don't mind?"
"No, I don't mind." Mind? A chance to touch him without reservation? "If you'll take off your shirt; I'll get the cream."
Wufei paused in the bathroom, giving Zechs a moment, and then stopped to collect himself before he walked back into the room. And took a deep breath. Control, Chang.
Zechs, live and in his simple presence was one thing. Zechs, warm, nearly naked, oddly vulnerable, and waiting for him in front of the fireplace, was doing odd things to his gut that he wasn't quite ready to come to terms with yet. He sat on the couch next to him and reached out a hand, carefully turning Zechs towards the fire and beginning to work the lotion into the scar tissue with a surprisingly gentle touch.
The moment felt uncomfortably intimate, and Wufei struggled to break it. "What have you been doing here to occupy yourself?"
"Hmm?" Lulled into a unusual sense of feeling cared for, and pleasantly warm, it took a moment for the question to register. Zechs considered it for moment before responding. "Sleeping. Resting. Thinking far too much."
It was so very easy to fall into the sweep and fall of fingers on skin, no matter that he couldn't always feel the impressions of Wufei's hands depending on where his scars were, no matter that the pain sometimes overrode the pleasure of the touch.
Wufei gave in with gentle acceptance to the mood. Zechs leaned into the contact gratefully, and Wufei smoothed his hands over skin long after the scars absorbed the lotion. He gently traced the lines and webs, first with fingers, and then, daringly, once, as Zechs' head nodded forward in light dozing sleep, with the touch of his closed lips to warm skin. He turned and rested the side of his face to Zechs' shoulder, leaning lightly against him in front of the fire, content as he'd not been in years. So, this was what it was like to have someone, to spend time in the company of someone you cared for. No matter that he hadn't discussed the particulars with Zechs yet. They'd be time for that later. Now? Now was the time for this luxurious quiet relaxing.
The pop of a log woke Zechs later, not with his usual startled flinch, but with a jaw-cracking yawn. He shifted to the side and chucked at his roommate, dozing alongside him on the sofa. "Wufei?"
There might have been a response, but it was difficult to tell with the way the man's face was pressed into his side like that.
"Wufei?" He shifted him gently aside, felt for sensation along his arm. "We seem to have fallen asleep again. We should probably sort ourselves out and find our beds for the evening, yes?"
He pushed Wufei slowly upright, and earned a yawn and a slit-eyed. "I suppose," for his trouble.
Zechs levered his way awkwardly to his feet and groaned, nearly stumbling stilt-legged with the movement after the forced inactivity. He yawned, stretched his arms over his head, and added without thinking, "Perhaps I should have asked you to work on the burns on my hip as well."
Wufei looked at him with a surprisingly alert expression. "What is it that you're not telling me?"
He dropped his arms. "That adept at reading me already, are you?" Zechs nodded to himself, giving in to fate as well as plan. "Well enough. My pain medications will most likely relax me enough to put me to sleep for a few hours. That should suffice." He shrugged, and then immediately regretted the action. "I've been avoiding taking them."
"Have you then? Don't abstain on my account." Wufei snorted. "I'm certain that I can find enough to entertain me while you rest. I am not so shallow as to be bored in so short a period of time." Taking a calculated risk, Wufei gave him a light push in the general direction of the bed, quickly becoming more familiar with Zechs' quirks and moods. "Get in your bed, you fool. If it's more lotion that will help that leg of yours, I'll do that for you as well, and then you will take your pain medication tonight."
"Boring you're not, Wufei. But I'm rather poor company when drugged." He turned and added seriously with a hint of confidentiality. "I hate taking them. I don't like what they do to my head."
"You might be able to sleep better, and you haven't been sleeping well, have you? I heard you moving around this morning. Didn't sound restful at all."
"No, I'm not really sleeping at night. A few hours of sleep towards morning sometimes." Zechs shrugged as much as his position would allow. He turned and granted Wufei a rueful half smile. "You really don't want to deal with me on the meds, trust me."
"I'm a trained Preventer agent. I'll manage." Wufei slid him a grin in return. "It can't be any worse than me on a drunk."
Zechs chuckled. "Can't it?"
"You've had some first-hand experience with that now; what do you think?"
Wufei crawled off of the sofa and retrieved the vials and a glass of water and handed them to Zechs. "Here, take them."
Zechs looked at his roommate, his temporary partner in this, and, depending on how all this worked out, perhaps, his partner in much more than a weekend endeavor in the snow. Much, of this it seemed, was riding on Quatre's insight. "Yes, sir."
"Go. Get on your bed. I'll finish with the burn lotion on your hip once that starts to take effect, okay?
He waited for Zechs to take his pills and settle onto his bed, and then checked and re-checked his own sanity for suggesting to do such a thing before crawling on hands and knees over the mattress to settle his hands on Zechs' hip and beginning to massage the hard muscle there. Such a divine mix of torture and pleasure to touch and work the lotion into Zechs' skin.
Zechs flinched hard with the initial contact, and then apologized.
Wufei slowed the work of his hands, but knew better than to offer to stop. "Still hurts?"
"Yes." He moaned softly into his pillow as Wufei continued to work the burn cream into both the old scar ridges and new graft tissue, now mostly healed, but tight and inflexible with non-use.
Wufei eased the pressure somewhat and pushed down with the palms of his hands. "Better?"
Zechs mumbled into the linens as the painkillers took hold and the line between care and pleasure blurred in his mind. The mumble slid into a pleasured moan before he could find the ability to fit words together again. "Wonderful... Don't stop."
Wufei chuckled. "If I'd known you'd become so damn pliable under the influence, I'd have made you take your pain meds a day earlier."
There was a hitch, and a withdrawal under his hands as Zechs tried to pull away, but couldn't due to Wufei's position. Wufei worked to ease the man under his hands. "Hell, Merquise. Just relax for once. I'm beginning to think that Relena and Quatre knew what they were doing when they sent me out here to make sure you were okay."
There might a been an imperceptible hitch under his hands, and then Zechs relaxed once more, turning his head to the side and breathing deeply once or twice before admitting, "I'm glad you're here, Chang."
Wufei gave Zechs' hip a final firm tap and tugged the sheet over him. "Pleasure to be here, but you look done in." He leaned over and adjusted the blanket in apology for any insult he'd inadvertently delivered -- physical, emotional, or otherwise, and sat back and watched as Zechs settled deeper towards oblivion. "Sleep, Zechs."
There was a grunt and a whisper that might have been a 'thank-you', or at least Wufei decided to interpret it as such before he moved away from the bedside and began to set his couch-bed to rights.
Too early for him to consider sleep himself, Wufei instead made hot tea and pulled a book on pre-colony history from the shelves, and curled up in what he'd come to consider privately as Zechs' chair, the one closest to the hearth, in order to read by its light without disturbing the other occupant of the lodge.
He found himself spending more time staring into the fire and sipping his tea instead of reading pages, caught up more by recent thoughts of what had just transpired between him and Zechs, what likely constituted more interpersonal contact between him and another human being than he'd had in years. He idly flipped the pages of the book for a few minutes more before giving up and setting it aside in disgust, giving in to wallow freely in a bit of mental wanderings, as Quatre often stated it.
Hell, he had to admit to a distinct wondering if that moment had meant as much to Zechs as it had meant to him... if it had had any impact to Zechs at all, or if he was still just an inconvenient guest, and a considerate, if unlikely, nurse substitute for a temporarily hurting and vulnerable man.
He looked over at the bed as Zechs' sleep grew restless. The man hadn't been lying about his inability to tolerate the painkillers, and it hadn't taken long for sleep to take command over his actions. Wufei stretched and made his way to his feet, cautiously approaching Zechs' bedside. "Zechs?"
Wufei turned on the bedside light, the power dimmed and failed, but was enough to show the tell-tale trail of tears on the pillowcase, the anguish on his face. Wufei pulled at the blanket, not willing to risk an escalation of the dream, and not wanting to wake him and risk injury to himself or his patient by touching a trained agent and soldier. "C'mon, Zechs, wake up."
Zechs' breath stuttered, and his eyes opened with a bare hint of awareness in them. "What is it?"
"You in there, Zechs?"
"Yeah, think so." He reached up and, annoyed, pushed his hair from his eyes and looked at Wufei, crouched next to the bed in the darkened room. "What's wrong?"
"You were having bad dreams and getting pretty restless. I didn't want you to risk pulling anything, so I thought it better to wake you instead of letting you try to sleep through it."
Zechs, only partially coherent at best, peered up at Wufei, hovering there by the side of the mattress, not saying anything, but by not leaving, saying everything that he needed to hear. He fished a hand out from underneath the covers and hesitantly reached for Wufei's hand, smiling slightly when Wufei startled at the touch. He lifted the blanket in a silent if open invitation, and drew Wufei inexorably closer.
And, miracle of miracles, the stubborn son of a bitch, for once in his life, if his SA file was to be believed, didn't resist an implied offer without questioning all of the motives involved first.
Zechs sighed in relief as his mind came to terms with the fact that Wufei was actually settling under the blankets with him. He brushed the sheet with his hand, not daring to release his hold on Wufei's hand. "Didn't think I had a chance, you know. Didn't know if you were interested."
Wufei found it a difficult thing to meet those eyes, even hazed by medication, they were too perceptive. He tried to ignore that inner voice, that one that Quatre had shaken awake with a vengeance, but it didn't seem to be listening to him any longer. He sighed, and heard the rattle in his breath. "Yeah, You've got a chance. You've had a chance for a long time. I just didn't know how to find you to tell you about my interest. You always seemed so unapproachable until now. I didn't think we had much in common, or that you might be as lonely as I was."
Wufei tentatively shifted closer, testing the waters, and Zechs reached out and clutched him back like a desperate man, winding his body around him tightly. "Stay?"
"We can leave together. Talk this out and give it an honest try in the real world."
Wufei held him back, just as fiercely, not quite believing his fortune. "Done."
Zechs chuckled, and Wufei nudged him ungently in the ribs for it. "Hell of a time to be laughing, Merquise."
"It's not that. I was just thinking that... I owe my sis... Relena one hell of a favor."
Wufei smiled back in understanding, "I think I'm beginning to see some of Quatre's logic in this as well."
Zechs leaned over with intent in his eyes. "We can thank them when we get back, until then, we have this cabin all to ourselves... Be a perfect shame to waste all this privacy."
Wufei licked his lips in response. "It would, yes."
Quatre clicked off the radio and set it aside with a bright expression. "It seems that Wufei will be spending the rest of his vacation out at the lodge in the company of your brother."
Relena paused midway in preparing her second cup of morning coffee. "You know, Quatre, when you said we should just 'lock them in a room together and see what happens,' I didn't think you meant that advice literally."
Quatre just smiled more broadly. "I'm a man of my word."