The Christmas Arc
Part Five: Stepping Stones
by D.C. Logan
"Well, that was another dead end." He turned to the man at the hospital morgue, who touched the surface of the window, instantly obscuring the view. Wufei ignored both the unintentional pun and the orderly and paused to think about which lead he should pursue next. This was the third John Doe that space scavengers had reported to the local colony, and the description over the audio link had sounded promising enough to drag Wufei away from his duties with the Preventers. But this death, while tragic for someone somewhere, didn't mean anything to him. And it didn't bring him any closer to an answer for the riddle he'd been trying to solve for the past five months.
He'd found out about Duo's absence by both accident and coincidence. The accident had been the rerouting of his shuttle home due to an explosion in the spaceport on the receiving end; the coincidence was getting stranded at the same inter-station port with Quatre. He'd been surprised to see him. It had been the better part of three years since they'd met face to face. He wasn't intentionally avoiding him by any means; he just didn't have reason to operate in the same circles as the well-known business maven.
Quatre had recognized him at once and insisted on escorting him to a luxury suite where they could catch up on their lives. Interested despite himself, and with no better alternative to offer distraction, he'd agreed after only a slight hesitation. The conversation wandered about the edges of politeness, until Quatre turned suddenly serious and quiet; "Did you know that Heero and Duo have gone missing?"
Wufei shook his head noncommittally. It wasn't his business what Duo or Heero did with their respective lives, and he didn't see why Quatre would bother himself with their disappearance.
"No one's heard anything from either of them for over a month. Duo used to send me mail at least once a week to let me know what he was doing, where Heero was working, regular stuff like that. And then nothing. I even sent someone out to L2, but the investigator I hired said that the house was open, looked lived in, and that no one had been there for at least a few days. It's not like Duo to just take off like that—and I haven't any idea how to get in touch with either of them." His concern crept into and flavored his voice with tension.
Wufei noticed the flashing light that meant his shuttle was boarding. It wasn't really his problem if two of the ex-Gundam pilots had taken off without giving notice. But something in the pained, worried, and somewhat desperate tone in Quatre's voice caught his attention as he stood to end the conversation.
"I must go," he started. And then, softer with understanding, "I'm in a position where I have access to a great deal of information. If I hear of something, I'll make sure it gets to you."
Quatre nodded, and, ever polite, stood and gratefully shook Wufei's hand in silent thanks.
As it happened, he'd had reason to contact Quatre the following week. A man matching Heero's description had been seen breaking into a shuttle transport and loading facility. No one had been able to stop him, and the surveillance recordings weren't clear, but Wufei had been curious. When a tip came in through the Preventers network of spies, saying that a man was looking for information on anyone seen deadheading on a transport off of L2, Wufei was intrigued, and then Heero himself had come knocking at the Preventer's door.
He'd been away from the facility that morning, but Heero hadn't asked for him anyway, preferring to speak with Sally Po instead. He'd seen him after, as he was leaving the building. But Wufei didn't approach him, preferring to wait and see what Po had to say on the subject first and then draw his own conclusions.
The story Po relayed was convincing, but couldn't be supported. Why would Duo run from Heero? With his financial resources and high profile, he could have simply purchased a ticket off-colony or bought his own transport. Why run and hide in a cargo transport container bound for an unknown destination? It just didn't ring true.
He played back the scene in his mind—Heero as he stopped to say a few words to Sally Po, and remembered the degree of suspicion he'd felt just watching him. Something wasn't connecting somehow.
He'd looked like he hadn't slept in a month, and while his clothes were clean, the sense of neat and orderly that Wufei had always associated with Heero was completely lacking. If he didn't know better, he'd think that he'd been living out of a suitcase. Heero was acting tense and unsettled—more like he'd lost close family instead of an associate. The degree of grief and fear didn't match the profile of the event. And that made him suspicious. What was Heero hiding?
Quatre's worries came back to him later that afternoon as he compiled his notes for the file he was starting. Po stopped by and tapped on his doorframe to gain his attention. "He looked really anxious, didn't he Wufei?" Wufei nodded and shrugged. Sally looked puzzled, so Wufei ventured a question.
"So, why did he come here? Did he ask you for help in finding Duo?" Po sighed and leaned back against his office wall before replying. "Yes, and no. He asked if I'd forward any information to him when I received it. He didn't ask for help in tracking him down though."
Wufei shifted in his chair to better face Sally. He waited a second to gain her full attention, and spoke softly so she would listen. "So, he came looking for help. But I'm not really sure why he came to us. Unless he needs to cover his tracks—prove he asked for help in finding him."
"What do you mean by that Wufei?"
"Just that if Heero didn't want a body to be found, he'd know exactly how to go about hiding it."
Wufei was shuffling paperwork again. He hated using the synthetic paper, but for delicate work such as this, electronic data was too easily hacked—especially considering the expertise of his prime suspect. He had four investigators working for him on this case. All were locals on the colonies surrounding L2—one lived on the colony itself. Locals attracted less attention, knew the residents, and didn't stand out in the general population. They knew how to walk, talk, and act like rest of the civilian population. Government and military types stood out, they moved differently, they asked questions that were remembered, and in an investigation like this, they were useless. Regimented training did that to a person; the body remembered to move and act that way.
Yes, using freelance professionals was safer for all involved, and their resources hadn't even been impacted, thanks to a sizable donation by an interested corporate affiliate.
"Thanks again Quatre," he murmured softly into his coffee.
He preferred tea at home (if you could call his orderly and mostly empty flat a home instead of the empty hotel suite it resembled), but investigators and Preventers the world over all insisted on coffee. Well, it was hot, and marginally drinkable. He thought of Duo, as he had often since his investigation started, Duo had loved coffee. Black and sweet was his preference, but he'd drink it any way he could get it. Even cold. Hmm. His instincts for this type of investigation were uncanny, and had earned him some unusual nicknames among his associates...
...He couldn't remember when he'd started thinking about Duo in the past tense. It wasn't a good sign.
A small flashing LED turned his attention to his monitor. Urgent mail, good. He scanned the message. It was brief and to the point. "Found something, send someone." It was necessarily cryptic, even with the secure line he'd told his team to not take any chances. So the freelancer on L2 had turned up something. Interesting.
He checked the file he'd started on the L2 investigator. Keri Tsirta had come on board based on a recommendation from one of the regular Preventers who had worked with her before. Noin had seconded the vote, which made Keri the token woman on the investigative team. Noin had been blunt in her appraisal: "Too honest for government work, damn near useless in any type of fighting—but smart enough to run like hell in the opposite direction, and she consistently managed to turn up stuff most people thought or hoped was lying long dead and buried." That had been a good enough reason to get her on retainer. It still remained to be seen how effective she'd be on this case.
The hardcopy note he'd picked up from the courier at the shuttle dock directed him to a restaurant in the down-station art district of the colony. Galleries and book shops shared space with coffee houses and small family-owned eateries. He supposed the locals found it quaint, or at least billed it that way to attract the tourist industry. He found it chaotic and had difficulty making sense of the directions he'd bribed from a young boy who'd seemed honest at the time.
Apparently Mom Wong's noodle shop was a local secret that they preferred to keep that way. The building was lacking a formal sign, unless he considered the small hand-printed letters in about five different languages on the door next to a steamed up window as advertising. He could translate three of the languages on the door and was pleased to note that his studies as a child were still with him in some capacity. The door was in dire need of fresh paint. He could see the remnants of the six, no, wait, seven colors it had been before. He sincerely hoped this was the right restaurant and not a front for the local drug ring (or whatever passed for one on this colony).
The door opened inward in front of him, and a trio of young women and the heady scent of spices billowed out. Hmm. Maybe coming in person wasn't such a bad idea after all...
She'd been waiting for someone who looked like he didn't belong, and she wasn't disappointed. He walked into Mom's, disapproval etched on his face and evident in his stiff manner of moving. Though seeing the honorable and notable warrior of the Eve war, lead investigator for the Preventers, friend of Gundam pilots, and other notable achievements, etcetera, etcetera, Chang Wufei himself was a bit of a shock. She'd expected to meet him sooner or later working this case—his turning up now was a surprise. Though she couldn't fault his timing.
She didn't stand to greet him, trusting that Mom Wong would direct him her way after getting a first impression off of him. That would also give her time to look him over and come to her own evaluation before he knew who she was.
Poor at intimidation, and looking much younger than her years, she'd once had a suspect she was trying to apprehend ask her truthfully if the sidearm she was brandishing in his face was real or a toy. She wasn't much to look at, and she knew it. It was tiring, constantly proving herself in a male-dominated field. But she was adept at turning her faults, such as they were, into an advantage for her clients—few people suspected a young nondescript woman quietly reading a book in a corner of a restaurant, deadheading on a shuttle, or shopping leisurely on a busy street. Very few noticed the eyes that missed little and a brain that forgot even less. Quiet, thorough, and discreet was how she billed herself in her services to the colony, and she excelled at all three qualities.
Wufei walked carefully into the throng gathered around the waiting area. Even with the lack of advertising, the business was thriving. He upped his estimation of the food a notch and tried in vain to get the attention of anyone who seemed to belong in the room for more than a meal's duration. To his surprise, the chef? cook? owner? herself emerged from behind the open counter and walked over to him.
She was a huge, ponderous woman with flaming red hair that she'd bundled up onto the top of her head and secured with two enameled chopsticks. She walked up to him and stood uncomfortably close. He felt his body tense in reaction. She smiled in response.
"Ah, and so you must be Wufei."
He nodded stiffly.
"Good, my Duo said nice things about you."
My Duo?, he thought with some alarm. She enfolded him in a smothering hug that was all the more surprising for its spontaneity. He stood stiffly throughout the ordeal.
"Have you seen Maxwell recently?" he asked politely when she'd disengaged and stepped back to look at him once more.
"Ah, you'll be here to see Keri then, yes?"
"Oh yes. She's been expecting you of course."
She cleared the way to a small, relatively private table in the back corner of the room, where a young woman who looked like she was still of a schooling age was waiting with her hands cupped around a ceramic cup. She didn't stand when he approached, which rankled, but smiled warmly at Mom Wong (who else could this woman be after all) and nodded at Wufei once to acknowledge his presence.
This was his L2 investigator?! The person he'd been told he could rely upon for the delicate probing into Duo and Heero's affairs that was required for the investigation? In charge of the documentation for the possible prosecution a highly regarded and famous man? This was she? He looked at her disparagingly, this had to be a mistake. He looked again, nearly dismissing her as yet another neophyte, until he met her eyes. They were cold, gray, and nearly as lacking in respect as his own. Now that was interesting. And it bought her a chance to prove herself, and an opportunity to convince him that she had a place on his team after all.
He found himself surprised, and little surprised him anymore, to note that Mom Wong had already left him to fend for himself and he hadn't even noticed her absence—so focused was he on the puzzle sitting at the table. He pulled the available chair aside and sat squarely in front of her. Her eyes didn't drop from his, even as she pulled a second cup from behind a menu and filled it with tea without looking. She set the kettle down blind and extended the cup to him with a nod that was more an acknowledgment of equals than a greeting. He accepted the cup without returning the nod, and sniffed experimentally. Hmmm, green tea, with a hint of lemongrass if he wasn't mistaken. His gaze dropped to the pale liquid. It was an unusual combination.
"Mr. Chang, I presume?" He looked up, which was his only response. But she accepted that as a yes.
"I'm Keri Tsirta. I wasn't expecting you to come personally." No hand was extended, nothing but the words spoken.
She was interrupted by the arrival of a tall black man with half his head shaved and an intricate patterned tattoo on the scalp that was visible. He was holding a tray with two large bowls of noodles. She smiled brilliantly at him, which altered her face dramatically, and he placed the food carefully on the table before returning a shy grin and moving back to the counter. Wufei ignored both the food and the company and looked over the restaurant from his new vantage point.
Mom Wong was telling a story to a new arrival and waving both of her heavy arms and brandishing a large spoon for emphasis. Groups of three to five people crowded around tables intended for fewer numbers and chatted loudly while patiently waiting for their food. Moderately loud music was controlled by an impressive sound system behind the counter, and a bluesy-jazz piece filled the gaps in conversation. Nothing threatened the order of this place. Glancing back at Mom, he mentally added—none would dare with her in charge.
And Wufei found himself relaxing into the warmth of the room and the friendly camaraderie of the atmosphere. So this is where Duo found a second home. He was beginning to understand what had drawn him here.
His investigator, Tsirta?, caught his eye and directed his attention to the steaming bowl of noodles in front of him. His initial displeasure of having his meal pre-selected for him eased somewhat. He loved noodles, and these looked very good indeed. He broke the wrapped chopsticks and scraped them against one another to smooth the business ends. His tablemate had her own set he noted; extra long, lacquered black, and rounded at the ends in the old Japanese style. Well, if she wanted to play waiting games, he could outlast her. They sat in silence, eating the fabulous meal, and saying nothing.
She finished before he did. And, after lifting her bowl to her lips to drain the remaining broth like a large cup, set both it and her exotic utensils aside to reach below the table. He tensed, but she merely retrieved a large folder from a worn leather satchel she had concealed against the wall. She sorted through the file, and when she saw that he'd finished his meal as well, handed over a stack of papers for his review.
He read through them slowly and silently while she kept watch over the restaurant. While he scanned the neat lines of observations and evidence for and against his case, the diners thinned and dwindled in numbers. When it was just the two of them and the restaurant crew inverting chairs on the tables, he looked up from his reading. Mom Wong approached the table before he could say a word.
To his genuine surprise, instead of asking them to leave, she pulled a chair off a neighboring table and sat down with the two of them. He was amazed that it withstood the punishment, the chair hadn't looked that sturdy.
"Ah, so you're the one trying to find my Duo, hmmm?"
Wufei nodded politely. It wouldn't do to offend her in any way—he had enjoyed her noodles more than anything he'd eaten in a long time.
"Mom Wong is the last person to have seen Duo on the night he disappeared." Wufei looked in brief surprise at Tsirta. They were the first words spoken between them in hours; and that bit of information hadn't been in her notes. Tsirta tilted her head in an unspoken question and waited for a response.
Mom Wong nodded. "It was just like the last time he came in like that... Oh, must have been about two years ago I think. At the time of the holiday with all the red lights. He'd had a terrible argument with his lover. He said they didn't happen often, but they frightened him. And that he was running more from himself than the fight he'd said. After that he had wrapped himself about a bowl of my noodles. He likes the Thai spiced ones, and I'd had it on special that day."
"Heero came later that night, looking for Duo. I'd closed for the evening, and he came pounding at my door. He was shouting something fierce at me, silly creature. Duo, nice young boy, had helped with the kitchen cleaning and was in the back. Heero had no business shouting—I told him so. He was very afraid, wanted to know if I'd seen Duo that day. I sat him down and gave him a talking to. Told him where to put his priorities. I think he listened. Duo came out of the kitchen, crying. I'd never seen him cry. Always so happy, Duo is. Well, they made up, right there in my kitchen, and far as I know have been happy since. 'Til Heero came back a few weeks ago, looking for Duo again. That's all I know..." She shrugged her large shoulders and the chair quivered. "Does that help?"
Tsirta met Wufei's eyes for the first time in hours. Waiting to see and judge his reaction.
He looked up at the water stains on the ceiling while his brain ran through the news Mom Wong had laid before him, parsing though the dialog until—wait—lovers?! His eyes sharpened as he regained his eye contact. That definitely hadn't been in Tsirta's notes.
He broke the contact again and sat back in his chair. Stunned at the realization that the pieces had been in front of him the whole time, and he hadn't been intuitive enough to fit them together into the one logical solution. He'd been following a course of stepping-stones across a river, and he'd just dropped himself hip deep into the icy water. Some investigator he'd turned out to be on this case.
Tsirta was looking at Mom Wong with an appraising stare as well. Obviously the revelation that Heero and Duo were a couple wasn't a surprise, but the fact that Mom Wong had determined that he was worthy of the information was. Well, they were even now.
This changed things somewhat. But it didn't move Heero off his short list.
That had been nearly a year ago. And here both of them were back at Mom Wong's, sitting at the counter this time to better include her in the conversation. They'd met here more than a dozen times over the past months, and the information continued to filter in, but none of the pieces were adding up.
The case was still open, though both he and Keri had shifted to other priorities. But the understanding held that any information was to be reported—and Heero had been taking an unusual number of trips out into space recently. He'd been fitting them between his paying assignments, and never left L2 for very long. But any change in his routine was worth noting so long as Duo remained missing. The other investigators had been dropped, only Keri (when had she become Keri and not just his L2 investigator?) was still held on retainer as she was in the best position to keep an eye on Heero's activities. And she'd been the only one to turn up anything useful so far.
Heero and Duo as lovers, even after all this time the realization bothered him. Not that they were—but that he'd missed the noticing of it. That he hadn't put together the nods, the touches, and the way they looked out for each other in public. They'd acted much like the long-term shift partners he'd worked with in the Preventers: finishing each other's thoughts and words, having an uncanny instinct for where the other was, sharing their own language of looks and sounds. He had assumed that they'd picked up and assimilated each other's mannerisms out of close working contact. Apparently that wasn't the case.
No matter how it had ended, he envied them that kind of relationship. He'd been on his own for ages now. Meiran dead all those years ago, no family to speak of, no surviving clan members, a few friends—more acquaintances really—that he'd met through his work with the Preventers.
He left his private thoughts behind and turned to Keri again. Mom Wong had dropped the punchline of a truly obscene joke just as Keri had taken a large bite of hot noodles. He sat back and watched her splutter and turn bright colors as she fought to keep the too hot noodles down while stifling her laughter. She noticed his not very subtle glance and pointed her chopsticks at him in an accusatory fashion.
"You didn't even laugh!" she cursed, taking the anger from her embarrassment and redirecting it at him. While the joke hadn't amused him, her rebuttal did, and his lips turned up at the direction their conversation had taken. He hadn't thought about it openly yet, but he'd been feeling more like smiling lately.
Her expression turned cynical in that quick shifting way she had about her. "Ah, so the great Chang Wufei can smile after all." She turned back to her bowl before she noticed the puzzled look that ran across his features. Mom Wong saw all though, and thought some more about what she could do to get these silly youngsters together. A matchmaker at heart, she thought they'd be perfect for each other when Duo had talked about his friend, but here it was a full year after they'd met, and they'd done nothing. Ah well. Youth and a casual disregard for the value and preciousness of time went hand-in-hand together. She watched Keri use her chopsticks to skillfully transfer a cube of ice from her drink into her bowl to cool the contents. By the time she turned to look back at Wufei, he had wiped his face clear of all expression.
Later that night, back in his apartment that felt no different from the string of hotel rooms he'd been staying in, he thought about what she had said. "The Great Chang Wufei..." was that how she thought of him? Hell, truth be told she was a better investigator than he'd proven to be. And she had a way of getting under his shields and irritating him that he hadn't had to think about for years. He wondered what it would take to alter her opinion of him. And then he paused to wonder why her good opinion mattered to him. This would take some careful thought, and he set himself to meditate on that later.
His computer was blinking at him again. It had been another long day. He had six investigations under way, an even dozen pending in his inbox and he hadn't seen real food or the flipside of his sheets in two days. The coffee was starting to taste good. That, more than anything else, told him how dangerously close to burnout he was.
"Hey Chang, you still here man?"
He looked up from his desk at the man hovering in the doorframe. "I've got some work I need to sort through before first shift tomorrow. Go home Stryker, you've been here two shifts, you look stressed."
"No man, stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven't fallen asleep yet. I haven't reached that point yet."
"Well go home and get some rest before you do. See you tomorrow."
His attention shifted back to his computer, and he sensed, rather than saw Stryker leave. He scrolled through the flood of recent messages, but only one caught his attention. He checked the post time on the file and quickly scanned the newsfeed message immediately below it.
This wasn't good. Not by anyone's definition—least of all his. He was grabbing the relevant files and moving out the door before his computer finished shutting down.
The message waiting for him at the shuttle landing was more to the point than usual. A street address, and a contact name he didn't recognize. But it was signed off with Keri's familiar scrawl, which bought it credibility. Something important must have happened for her not to meet him here—their general practice was to review the case over dinner, but something must have come up. He reread the news feed in his mind and made the decision to go out to the location on his own. If the information was accurate, and he had no reason to believe otherwise, he might already be too late. He spared a thought for Keri, if she was already there, he hoped she'd have the good sense to stay out of the line of fire. Trouble was, he was afraid he'd been a bad influence on her in more than one respect over the past year and more.
He arrived at the address to see the circle of authority around the tape-marked building. Metal barricades blocked off a larger radius, but his credentials easily cleared his way forward to the special agent in charge.
"So, what's the status?"
"He's on the first floor of the building. He refused our negotiator, and has been holding position since 0500 this morning. We got the tip off from that guy over there. Rumor has it that it's one of the ex-Gundam pilots in there, so we're treating this situation with all the bells and whistles. No claims or requests have been made so far, but the guy that saw him gave us a decent description of the device, and it sounds legit." The agent lifted his visor to get a better look at Inspector Chang. And then he remembered the background of the agent he was addressing, and blanched.
Use of explosives and range of opportunity limited it to Heero, Trowa, or possibly Duo. Or someone else entirely, but he'd assume the worst case until it was proven otherwise. He looked around the crowds of onlookers for Keri, and caught a glimpse of her standing just inside the police barricade, about thirty meters from where he was standing. He turned from the point agent and moved towards her, a question forming in his mind.
The white light of the initial detonation hit the back of his eyes before the blast wave blew him off his feet. The last thing he remembered was the eerie sensation of weightlessness before he lost consciousness. He didn't remember hitting the ground. Or feel the impact as the building collapsed in pieces around him. They told him later that the shards of glass and bits of building rained down for twenty minutes over a four-block radius.
Any degree of notoriety he'd had when he walked through the police line was lost the instant the bomb exploded. He'd been triaged, and left for later or never. His leg was pinned heavily by fallen debris, and his fluids were leaking plentifully over the heat-cracked macadam. He'd regained consciousness an interminable number of minutes later, and wished he hadn't. Centering and isolating the centers of pain brought him a measure of sanity, and cleared him senses enough to realize that the piercing noise penetrating his skull wasn't a siren. Rather it was a voice, and a loud one at that. He tried to move, but couldn't. He was pinned face down on the rough paving material. When he tried to move his head, he found his face stuck to the pavement with the adhesive qualities of his coagulating blood.
His movement caused the voice standing over his head to increase in volume and frequency of cries. He felt more than heard the rhythm of heavy running feet approaching him. And Keri's face swam into his field of vision. He saw her lips move, but couldn't hear her voice over the din of the assorted and sundry rescue attempts. Sounds were filtering in and out at random, but at least he could hear loud noises. Her arm was hanging limply at her side and dragged uselessly on the ground as she knelt in his blood to check that he still numbered among the living. He listened to the disjointed voices walking around him, discussing him objectively, working out a solution to his predicament. His left arm was still working, albeit not as well as he'd like. He reached out to Keri. "I'm keeping my leg."
She met his eyes. "I know. I know. Hang in there okay?" And then the volume cut off, and the picture faded, and there was nothing.
Traction hurt like hell. He looked objectively down at the steel pins jutting obscenely from his flesh, and the tangle of cables, weights, and wires that would ensure that the bones would at least look straight and normal in the wheelchair they'd been careful to inform him he'd be in for life. All those years of advanced medical technology, and this was the best they could come up with. He looked up as Keri walked in amid the hushed shouts of his medical team. "Fine then, if he asks me to leave, then I'll go."
She entered the room under the strong protests of his cadre of doctors, and turned to his bed. "You look like hell love." The endearment slipped out, as they had often started to do when they were alone in each other's company.
"Looks like we're a matched set then, doesn't it." His voice was raspy and dry from the anesthetic.
He looked at her up and down, taking in the eye swollen shut; a neat row of tiny stitches along her brow; the arm was casted and now in a sling, and hospital scrubs had replaced her earlier clothing. She still had remnants of blood—his and hers he assumed—decorating them. She'd been crying, her eyes were red and swollen. Dried blood still crusted along her hairline, it probably itched like crazy. She was ignoring her discomfort in favor of displaying enough resolve and grace to pass muster in front of the doctors and political brass holding court just outside of his private room. He was the only person in the hospital who had any idea of what it was costing her personally to bury her feelings and put up such a strong front.
It hadn't been obvious, the point at which she'd begun to matter to him. And he strongly suspected that he'd mattered more to her at first. But at some point over the past months, he'd developed a talent for reading her moods, for catching the small moments when she was thinking about him, noticing the quiet way she interacted with people—friends and strangers alike. She had a quiet strength about her that appealed to him; that countered and equalized the fire and rage he still felt within him from time to time. He fingered the ring Quatre had given him and the doctors had let him keep. Justice and Balance. Was it really that simple? How had Quatre known?
The worry and concern she had for him showed in the little things. The way her eyes crinkled involuntarily when she looked at his pieced-together leg, the way the corner of her mouth tensed when she took inventory of the number of monitors and tubes that were connected to his body. The way the tone of her voice had fractured around the edges when her access was contested at the door.
She pulled up a chair one-handed and leaned forward to touch his upper arm—one of the few places not attached to something that beeped. Her look was serious, but the topic wasn't the one he expected.
"Wufei, it wasn't Heero. The descriptions matched, but this guy wasn't him. They matched what was left of his jawbone with dental records on a guy that's been in and out of the local holding facility for years. He finally cracked, and picked a spectacular way to do it."
He thought about that for a moment. Keri was good, and she was thorough, but she had no idea how professional Heero was at his work. But if Heero was looking for a way to get him off the case, it hadn't worked this time. He paused to think some more, but the drugs muddled his mind.
But that didn't mean he wouldn't succeed on his second attempt. Heero could be amazingly driven when it came to a mission. He looked at Keri again. She was inspecting the apparatus stretching the fragments of his bones. She'd taken a hard hit this time—on his case, on his account.
He'd made his decision by the following afternoon. Keri'd been visiting, and brought contraband—Mom Wong's Thai noodles. He managed to raise his bed enough that he could eat out of the container without assistance, but he'd had to resort to a spoon. His fingers were swollen and clumsy with the painkillers they insisted on giving him.
He'd watched her consideringly throughout the impromptu banquet.
She'd tensed when she'd seen the serious light behind his eyes, and knew him well enough to know that bad news was coming.
"You're off this case. I'm closing it out. It's been a full year, and we've made no progress." He paused to judge her reaction. There was none. She had gone completely blank, into that mask he hated so—where even he couldn't read her expression. "I believe this ends our association."
"I spoke with Po this morning. There's a rumor going around in the Sweepers that Heero has been looking for Duo or any information about him. He's placed quite a bounty out there as a lure. That information, combined with the confirmed death of our bomber here on L2, closes my file."
Po had indeed stopped by with the information. She'd also hinted rather strongly that she'd like an introduction to the investigator that had crept into their conversations so often over the past few months. Po took an interest in Wufei's personal life, and due to their past association, he allowed it. But that didn't mean he'd allow her to be privy to all aspects or the intimate details of it.
He'd finally introduced them over his hospital bed. And watched with some trepidation as their initial reticence was quickly replaced with a level of accord usually reserved for long-standing friends. He didn't know what they'd discussed on the trip to Mom Wong's and back, but he hadn't missed the conspirational looks that flowed between them since their return.
But Keri didn't look conspirational at the moment. She didn't look shocked or surprised at his statement either—almost as if she'd been expecting something along those lines from him.
"You're a fool Wufei." She sat down on her usual chair beside him and met his eye contact with a glare of her own. "You think you can chase me away, but you've no idea how wrong you are." He closed his eyes, better this than having her waste her life on him. She deserved better than a painful death at the hands of one of the people he'd put away or years waiting on a cripple. "Just leave me alone Tsirta. You no longer have any business with me or this case." When she moved to take his hand in hers, he jerked it out of her reach.
He was more hurt than he expected when she took him at his word, and left without saying even one.
Po was a regular visitor after that. And while he suspected that she was feeding information and updates on his progress back to Keri, he couldn't bring himself to ask about how she was faring without him. It was easier this way he told himself. A clean break mended faster. He looked down at his leg. He had firsthand experience in that school of thought.
It had been the better part of a month since his life had exploded along with the building, his leg, and his case. They hadn't wanted to release him from the recovery facility yet, but had been amazed at the progress he'd made in only a few short weeks. The new medicines that had become available after the development of the ZeroG Labs eighty years prior had been the source of the amazing bone generation, but the fight from chair to walker had been Wufei's alone. It felt like a lifetime instead of just under four weeks. They'd prepared him for double that amount of time; but he'd had enough of their expectations for him and his life. He needed to be back at work, back in his own environment, and picking up the assorted and scattered pieces of his life.
His empty life. It hadn't occurred to him how much he'd miss the simple pleasure of sharing his day with another understanding soul. The joy of a shared meal. Knowing the same words in familiar songs, putting the pieces together in his life. How empty it seemed now. Keri's presence had slowly crept in from the edges of his life. He couldn't recall when he'd actually looked up and found her in the center of it all. And now she was gone. And he had only himself to blame for it of course. More stones across the water. But now he lacked the balance to negotiate his way across the slippery path. The day was cold for the colony, and gray. It was late December. It matched the inside of his soul perfectly.
His flat was dark, orderly, and warmer than he expected it to be. Someone, likely Po, had been in and sorted bills from correspondence for him. His mail lay in orderly stacks on the plain wooden table. Not a sentimentalist at heart, he'd discarded most of the cards and letters from well wishers he'd received at the hospital and recovery center.
He angled his walker over to the table and deposited his meager cache of belongings on it. Vials of medications mostly; cards from Keri, Po, Trowa, and Quatre he hadn't been able to discard; little else. Only his shoes had survived his medical stay. He missed his usual clothes. At least the clothes he'd worn at the clinic had been soft with wear and washing. These felt stiff and new. He wanted to bathe in his usual tub, put on his old worn and comfortable clothes, and get back to his normal life. But he was tired, so tired right now. Po hadn't been able to get the time free to escort him home. Her intentions had been good, but, as often happened in their line of work, something critical had come up that required her personal attention and couldn't be pawned off on anyone else. Since she'd taken over nearly his entire casework load, he didn't see that he could complain.
He eased his exhausted body down onto one of the chairs, and cradled his aching leg into a comfortable position. They were getting easier to find, now that he had regained some of the mobility in the knee. He sat in his kitchen, in the semi dark of a late afternoon, and felt, not solitude, but loneliness. And the odd sensation of something that should be there, but wasn't. Time passed as the afternoon slipped away, but he was beyond noticing the details.
The door beeped as a passkey was swiped against the lock, and the tone started him from his meditative state. The swinging door bumped lightly against the wall, and the ceiling light clicked on in the hall. He heard a set of footsteps, female and light. Not Po then, she preferred boots.
"Wufei? Why didn't you wait? Sally sent me down to the recovery unit as soon as she realized she couldn't make it." She walked into the kitchen, turning on lights as she went, ignoring his sour expression.
"I picked up some extra groceries and stopped by Arico's for takeout."
She set the takeout containers in front of him, and proceeded to empty the carton of perishables onto the counter before putting them away matter-of-factly; arranging the interiors of his cabinets to suit her liking.
And his eyes tracked over the small things he hadn't noticed in the low light and his exhaustion. The clean dishes on the sideboard of the sink. The single fresh flower floating in a clear glass bowl that he didn't recognize on the counter. A live plant was visible through the living room doorway. A crumpled dishtowel had been abandoned on top of the refrigerator.
The realization smacked him between his eyes with stunning force. "You've been living here?! In my home!"
Keri looked to the ceiling for help and, in a deadpan imitation of Mom Wong replied, "Sure and he's the bright one for figuring that out all on his own." And added in her own voice, "I moved in the day you tried to chase me out of your life. Eat your noodles Wufei. When you can walk on your own without using that infernal device, we'll talk about the future. Until then, I've got you right where I want you. ...And I do want you you know... And it's Christmas, so you owe me a gift." She grinned, and turned back to unpacking groceries.
Wufei watched her as she bent over to stow more food under the counter, rummaging below. So. She hadn't taken his advice had she. By the time he figured out why he was no longer angry with her for ignoring his edict, she had him eating hot noodles and sharing a pot of hot tea, green with lemongrass, and was sharing his life again.
He decided after a moment's reflection that, every now and then, it was a good thing that she didn't listen to him.
The idle chatter, thrum of Fusion Jazz, and chattering click of the cutlery of happy diners was suddenly stilled. The regular patrons looked around in astonishment to see what had caused the aberration from the norm. It was nearly unheard of for Wong's to be this quiet.
There was an excellent reason for the silence—Mom Wong herself had climbed onto the counter in all her ponderous, red-haired glory and wordlessly commanded the attention of her captive audience. And, except for the creak of an occasional chair, she got it. No one in living memory could remember ever seeing her lift herself into such an awkward position.
Her voice rang out in bell-like tones over the hushed crowd. "I have good news: I have just received word that Chang Wufei and Keri Tsirta were united in a civil ceremony yesterday afternoon. We will all raise our glasses and toast to their happiness." And she paused for effect, "Or you will never be welcome in my place again."
Given the quality of the food, despite the heavy crowds and sometimes less-than-ideal service, there was a unanimous response to her request. She nodded her head and many chins in satisfaction. There was a rush of chatter and noise as those in the know quickly brought the other patrons up to speed. Those two? The ones who always sat together at the counter? The couple Mom said were perfect for each other? Didn't the woman dump a bowl of noodles over the man's head that day last fall? The gossip took off from there...
Mom looked out over the floor of her restaurant to the one private table that was permanently reserved. A quiet, dark-haired man sat at this table for two in the corner of the room. He always came by himself now, slowly eating his bowl of noodles in solitude. He raised his head at the unvoiced question, met Mom's eyes, and nodded. Yes, she was right. Duo would have been very pleased at the news. His good friend Wufei had apparently found happiness and balance in his life. Heero wished him well with a mental toast to his union, and turned his attention back to his lonely supper. One of many more to come.