Part Thirty-One: Breaking Storm, Part I
"A spark can light a fire that burns the entire prairie"
--- Chinese proverb
"How can this be?! I am the strongest of my clan!"
Meiran's face was bruised, but despite that, and her words, she looked undefeated. Still stubborn. Still unrepentant.
So Wufei hit her again.
She stopped screaming when his fist connected with her throat. She could only wheeze and choke as he continued to beat her. Her thrashing body wrenched a few more flowers from their roots, and he felt a moment of regret for that.
Wufei woke with a strangled shout. He lay in bed, heart hammering, the sharp tang of nausea curdling in his mouth. Damn, even his fists were aching as if-
Someone in the room.
"It's me." The words were soft but quick as Wufei made a lunge for the gun on his bedside table.
"Yuy." Wufei fell back limply. "What the hell are you doing in here?"
"What the hell are *you* doing in here," Heero countered crisply. "You were thrashing and groaning - I thought someone was trying to cut your throat."
The door was open, letting in a thin ghost of grey light from outside. Dawn must be breaking through the big high windows of the main room downstairs. Heero was standing near the foot of the bed. The dim glimmer hung off the barrel of his gun.
"Didn't mean to alarm you. Nightmare," Wufei answered curtly, trying to hide the fact that his voice and hands were still shaking. "Don't tell me you don't have them." His partner had to be at least *that* human-
"Yes, but not loud enough to wake you," Heero pointed out laconically. He'd taken a step closer.
"Oh. Sorry -" but Heero cut his apology short with a gesture, a dark slash of movement against the grey light from the door.
"I was up already. I had something to take care of."
"Oh." Wufei turned his head away slightly and closed his eyes, not that he ever wanted to sleep again. Then he realized Heero had not left the room. In fact he'd taken another step closer. He was almost besides the bed now. Wufei slowly opened his eyes and twisted his head to look up at his partner. He couldn't see Heero's features, only his silhouette cut out against the dimness.
"Are you okay? That sounded like a really bad one."
Wufei stared at the dark figure, trying to interpret this. It could be the opening gambit of a good verbal put-down, but Heero's tone was too soft and neutral for that. Maybe he was just curious to see what demons were strong enough to make Chang Wufei wake up screaming.
" ...I'm fine," Wufei muttered.
He stiffened even more, in shock and surprise, as Heero took that last step, and then sat down on the side of the bed.
"Do you... want to talk about it? I hear that helps."
"Not really." Wufei could feel his gorge rise at the thought. He shifted uncomfortably. Heero was close; Wufei could feel the shift in the bed under his partner's weight, the warmth on his skin from the other's proximity.
Wufei nearly jerked himself off the pillow as he realized that the darker streak in front of his eyes was a hand reaching for him. He was as tense as a board as the fingers, unexpectedly gentle, brushed his forehead.
"You're sweating," Heero whispered. "Will you even be able to get back to sleep?"
"Sure," Wufei croaked, his mind whirling.
The fingers, suddenly clumsy and unsure, wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. The gesture was not erotic, was not meant to be; Heero was caressing him like a frightened and wounded animal.
"Tell me. What was it about?" The order was gruff. Behind it, Wufei heard a faint concern and even, maybe, a slight tinge of compassion that made his heart twist in his chest.
Something in him broke, and left him adrift and fragile. "It... it was about Meiran. I-... " He hesitated, as did the fingers on his cheek.
"Yes... I-... I never did that-... I-" To his horror he realized his voice was choked, and he was trembling.
"Shhh." So gentle... the fingers wiped away the sweat, the horror, the sin. "Don't worry about it." Heero's voice was so soft it made him ache; it made him want to wrap himself in the warmth, in that unexpected gentleness.
He tensed helplessly when Heero leaned forward to switch on the bedside lamp; the crude light would break the illusion that his partner cared for him other than as part of their efficient unit. And yet... .Heero was there, in the flesh, as real as life under the soft yellow light, and his eyes were sad and free of any condescension or contempt. He reached for Wufei's cheek again - the gun in the other hand pointed loosely at the floor - and Wufei found himself leaning into that touch, that comforting caress.
"Don't worry about it," Heero repeated. A slight smile lifted the corner of his mouth, lightened his eyes.
"I'm not... " Wufei mumbled but couldn't get the fire up for any kind of strong denial. He felt himself go boneless and inviting as Heero slipped off the bed to kneel beside it and rested his head on his hand near the jet-black hair spilling on the pillow.
"No more nightmares about her. I took care of it, Wufei." Heero's breath was warm against his face, the blue eyes so close. Then Heero turned his head and gestured with the gun. Wufei's eyes followed it automatically.
"She'll never bother us again," Heero concluded as he pointed to Meiran's body on the floor, blood from the headshot irreparably staining the carpet, bone and matter splattered across Wufei's books nearby.
Wufei ripped himself from sleep with a scream, fighting it and the sheets until he woke up. Through the blood pounding in his ears, he heard the slam of Heero's door opening and the tread of quick bare feet.
No stay away stay away stay away-
Two sharp raps on his door. "Chang? Was that you?"
"I'm alright." His voice was a rasp, a wound. "Just a nightmare. Go away."
The doorknob creaked as a hand hesitated on it, and then he heard Heero return slowly back to his own bed. Wufei stared at the ceiling until his vision started to twitch in time with the slamming of his heart against his ribcage. His nausea slowly died down to where he felt he could move without losing his dinner.
Fourth time this week... at least he was awake now... he hoped. A glimmer of grey filtered through the slats of his blinds, and under the door once he could bear to look in that direction. He glanced at his watch. It was not quite five in the morning. He would get no more sleep that night, and he had a furious desire to get out of the sweat-soaked bed sheets; their touch made his skin crawl, they reeked of pain and fear. Might as well go in to the office. The more he worked, the sooner this investigation would be over and the sooner he could sleep again. He got dressed with his eyes almost closed and took a detour around the spot where Meiran's body had lain.
Wufei sat staring at the folder on his desk. It felt weird to have a desk; his usual line of work rarely required one. He was still on light duty though. His shoulder and knee, injured in the car accident while chasing Hunter, were painful and stiff, and would not allow him back onto the field. Not when 'the field' covered the sort of missions the partners were normally given.
So he'd been provisionally assigned to a different Preventer bureau, until he was fit for regular duties again. He'd been given a temporary office in the Preventer main building for the duration of the investigation, a Special Investigator's badge, a folder, and a lot of nightmares.
The words on the folder were innocuous.
"Investigation WCC-000102 - War Crimes Committee
Attack and Destruction of Colony A0206"
A0206. His clan's colony.
A blanket pardon had been released for all war time activities, which allowed Wufei and Heero and many others to lead a normal life. The time for revenge was over, lest they end up in hell again. But Relena and the others had shown a bit of backbone, of sound judgment... of foresight. Some things could not be swept under the carpet and discarded from memory. History should not be forgotten or it would surely be repeated.
So a war-crimes committee had been set up in the ESUN courts in Brussels. The WCC was not a prosecuting body. They did not have the authority to conduct arrests or condemn anybody. They were there to investigate, and record, and remember. The results of their inquiries would become public property, though the names of those involved were held in secrecy.
The Preventers assisted investigations when needed. Wufei had first come into contact with this particular case when he'd been asked to give his own testimony about the end of his colony. Then Une had asked him to assist with the investigation, since he was unable to take field duty for awhile anyway.
Wufei had hesitated... mentioned the investigation to Heero. His partner was also on light duty while Wufei was incapacitated, but they'd been working together on research, hacks, profiling. 'Light Duty' in Une's book meant thirteen hour workdays with no heavy lifting. If Wufei took the WCC investigation, and Heero decided to keep on working for Une instead of helping Wufei, that would leave Heero neck-deep in work. Maybe he should -
'That's fine.' Heero had said firmly. 'Do what you need to do; I can cover both our duties for the time it takes you.'
Oh good. That hadn't been what Wufei had been trying to ask though.
It was understood that this was a simple investigation, which hardly required both of the Intervention Division's top operatives.
Wufei had still wanted Heero's... help. His support. That sounded so weak and pathetic that it made him wince each time the memory of that disappointment crossed his mind. But this... this...
This reopened old wounds that were far more dire than the injuries Heero was helping him with.
He sighed as his hand flattened the folder - not much in it yet. But a few promising leads already, into both crimes. Wufei and Susan had decided that, since an investigation had been opened, they should look into the original attempt against his colony as well as its final obliteration. The committee had agreed; the destruction of his colony was a bit muddled, having been caused by its own inhabitants under duress. But the first attack against A0206, when Wufei was fourteen, the one which had ended in Nataku's death, had been an attempt to slaughter civilians with biological weapons: a crime against humanity. Definitely something that needed to be recorded and remembered.
Even if it cost him whatever strenuous peace of mind he'd managed to salvage from the war.
Wufei dutifully slipped his laptop into its docking station. He closed his eyes, breathed in and out slowly, cleansing his mind, reaching for emotional detachment... and then he started doing research on the Colonel who had, without blinking, signed off on the transfer of loaded pest-control canisters to an Alliance unit going to an inhabited colony.
Sally Po had been the head of that unit; she was one of the many people to come forward of their own accord with information regarding the crime she'd been forced to almost participate in. According to her freely offered testimony, General Septem had been the true instigator of the order to 'clean out' A0206 with pest control gas. But the general had been smart and kept his nose clean. Besides, he was dead. His name and actions were recorded but they would never get the full truth from him. A certain Colonel Wen, however, had acted as the General's factotum and had given the actual order. Wufei was quite looking forward to having a chat with Colonel Wen.
After an hour, the silence and the dead ends nibbled at his concentration. The gentle, annoying thrum of a vacuum cleaner finished the job - he'd beaten the cleaning crew in this morning, but they'd caught up to him eventually. Wufei sighed and stretched, slipped off his glasses, then stood up and wandered over to the window, not bothering with the walking stick Sally insisted he use for a few more days.
She was a fussy woman, Wufei grumbled internally, casting a glance of loathing back at the stick. Master Li had been in his eighties and he'd not needed a stick! Wufei was well on the mend anyway. He was lucky; fifty, hell, even twenty years ago, that accident would have left him with a badly weakened knee joint and a stiff shoulder. But today's surgical technology could fix such things nearly perfectly. One of the fall-outs of war, ironically enough. You could always count on warfare to improve medical care, as a rule.
And what the miracle of modern medicine couldn't accomplish, gruelling retraining by one Heero Yuy could definitely top off, Wufei thought with a grimace. Painful and strenuous, certainly; but Sally had told Wufei during his last check-up that he was way ahead of the recovery curve. He should be back in top shape in no time. Though not getting any sleep was beginning to hamper him a bit.
Wufei stared out the window blankly. He concentrated on the view, trying to extirpate the memory of last night's gut-wrenching dream from his tired mind. Dawn had broken fully, a grey rainy day, low clouds clinging to Brussel's highest buildings. In the streets below a few people were walking with fast, purposeful strides, and a car swished past, its headlights pale in the half-light.
The intercom's chirp made him start.
//Wufei? Hah, knew it. I've just arrived, and in a few minutes I might even be awake. You busy? Want to drop by?//
"I'll be there in five minutes."
He printed out what he'd done that morning, put it in the folder, and walked past dozens of small, temporary offices till he found the one with a paper taped to the door: 'Susan Wu, WCC, please knock'. He did.
"Come in, Wufei."
He left the sterile corridors and impersonal decor of the wing full of provisional offices to step into a little haven. It lifted his spirits immediately, as it usually did.
Susan had not taken the notion of 'temporary office' at face value. She'd brought in enough personal items to change it into an elegant Chinese study. In one corner stood a carved redwood screen, about chin-height to Wufei, hiding the tea area. There were framed scrolls of the precepts of Confucius on the walls, though he didn't think Susan was really an adept; they had probably been gifts. The desk was the bland original furnishing, but it had acquired jade statues for luck and fortune, a calligraphy set that was probably worth a fair amount, and several stacks of books and vids. A meditation chair and a sutra scroll, both reproduction Ming dynasty, decorated the final empty corner.
Susan was looking at him carefully. She'd already mentioned something yesterday.
"You look tired. Don't you ever sleep? You were here till ten last night, too! Doesn't your girlfriend mind?"
The last was teasing. She'd inquired about his love life the second day they'd worked together. Wufei had told her he was single - which was nearly almost entirely true, right? But she had chosen not to believe him and had declared he must be too shy to tell her about his girlfriend.
The fact that she was a tremendously intelligent and competent young woman, fiercely passionate about their investigation, was the only reason Wufei wasn't more annoyed about this.
Susan motioned him imperiously towards a chair; politeness indicated he should stay standing while she made the tea, but she would have none of that.
"It's that shoulder, right? I know all about the great alloys they inject into the bone to repair it quickly! But whatever they say, it's still not natural, and I'm sure your body is protesting. Your chi must be all out of whack. And you can't get a good night's sleep if your shoulder is aching. That's almost as bad as your neck. Did you do what I told you to?"
"No, I refuse to slip a block of wood beneath my pillow." Wufei had figured out fairly early on in their working relationship that Susan did not particularly mind him being grumpy and forthright. Which was fortunate.
"That L1 colleague of yours will surely tell you the same thing! If he knows anything about his own Japanese heritage, that is. Only a properly rigid support will keep your upper body straight and free of aches!" Tea cups clinked, followed by the sound of water being poured with a slight hiss. A delicate aroma filled the small office and Wufei sniffed appreciatively. Oolong, and a truly rich blend. Susan knew her tea.
"You know, acupuncture helps, too." Susan extended the cup, a delicate grey like the shell of certain bird eggs, smooth and hot beneath his fingers and palm as he accepted it. "I have a friend who can-"
"I'm not having someone stick needles in me, Susan."
"Mr Chang, that's an inaccurate and obscurantist remark and you know it. Acupuncture is an ancient science that works in complete harmony with-"
He tuned her out, sipping the tea. Susan - Shu Shen, originally - was space born, like him, from a big, metropolitan L5 colony a couple of hours away from his one-time home. But like many other colonists who'd migrated to earth, Susan had discovered her roots with a vengeance. It was her hobby, though that word didn't justify the extent of her enthusiasm. There was that and her work, which bore the brunt of the real fire of her soul, and there was nothing else. There were no framed photographs on the desk, no home address bar the small - temporary again - apartment nearby, nobody she mentioned in casual conversation.
Wufei nodded absently, not really listening to the description of the historical use of acupuncture to treat insomnia in princes of bygone dynasties. He was rather amazed Susan had the time to find these kinds of things out, she had enough work in her life for three different people already. She was an attorney for the courts in Strasbourg, though she would take off months at a time to work pro bono for the War Crimes Commission or other such organisations.
Susan was sitting primly in her chair, back straight, gulping the scalding tea to punctuate each argument. Her petite frame showed nothing of the enthusiasm she had for the subject. When he'd first met her, Wufei had thought her a placid twit and rather apathetic about their mission. Then she'd welcomed him 'to the team'... and he'd been left with his mouth hanging open as she spent the next three hours, sitting in exactly that position, looking cool and collected, describing the process she'd followed to date on the case and her future plans which would, at a reasonable estimate, leave her working eighteen hour per day. He'd quickly realized that the calm, controlled appearance was a mask, a lawyer's tool. He could only guess at the passion for justice that burned beneath it.
Susan took a last sip of tea and shook back her shoulder length black hair, a sign she'd finished the presentation of her case to the court. Wufei, finding himself judge and jury to her opinion on acupuncture, said he'd think about it and opened the folder.
"The Colonel's dead," he announced abruptly, getting on with business. Acupuncture? No way. "So's his aide, his first officer-"
"Let me guess." Susan couldn't quite hide the droop in her voice. "Space Fortress Barge?"
Susan's nostrils pinched. She never swore - she'd completed her barrister studies at an exceptionally young age and she'd been working the courtrooms for two years already. Presumably judges did not approve of the prosecuting attorney shouting 'Damn it!' during proceedings. She had too much poise from the top of her twenty two years for him to envision her doing that anyway.
"Well, we have other avenues to explore." Susan drew out her own folder. "I followed a few leads on the civilian and maintenance crew side last night, the people who authorized the departure of both taskforces towards A0206. Most of these people had nowhere near the clearance to be on Barge at the time Marquise decided to take a can opener to it."
"They'll have been in some other disaster," Wufei muttered. That got him a cool look. Susan did not approve of defeatism.
"Let's track them down and then I'll set up meetings with them." She pointedly ignored his remark. "How long are you still on sick leave?"
"Light duty. Another three weeks. Then I have a physical evaluation for combat readiness. But I can't stay on this case for too long; I have to help my partner, I've left him to cover our workload. We're short-staffed in our division as it is. Une said I could help you for two weeks total, and then she will assign someone else to assist the investigation."
"So we have one more week together. That should be plenty of time to find a few of these people. Great! Let's get to work."
The oxygen burnt out all at once, a glorious funereal pyre that burned brightly for a second before being spirited away by the vastness of space. Then there were only the pieces of A0206 hurtling outwards, shining like small stars, to embrace eternity.
Wufei smiled. At last...
Thousands of times he'd been here. In memory, in dreams, in pain and regret. He always returned to this moment in time, again and again. Witnessed the destruction, helpless, howling with fury, choked with sadness... until tonight. Tonight, he felt only one thing.
Finally, it had torn and ripped and chiselled away any part of him that could still care.
He was free.
He looked at the distant stars and their new, closer kin that had once been his home - but the word held no power over him now. He stretched in the narrow cockpit and simply enjoyed the absence of a pain so great, so ingrained, it had become a second skin. Everything was new and bright, it was as if he'd broken through a shell. The air from the A/C brushed his face gently, Nataku hummed and glowed brightly around him. There was a sensual pleasure to the smoothness of the metal touching his lower lip, cool at the first touch. Wufei smiled in contentment and pulled the trigger.
And sat up with a strangled grunt. It would have been a scream but his jaw had clenched with pain as the bullet tore through it.
His room was dark, bar a few shreds of light that filtered through his blinds. The bed beneath him felt less real than Nataku's cockpit had a minute ago. Something tepid touched his lip and he jerked reflexively before realizing it was a bead of sweat. He wiped it away absently and noticed that his hand was shaking.
Damn. That had been-
He froze as he stared down at his lap.
Wufei licked his lips, tasting sour sweat. His left hand dropped away from his face to his lap very slowly and grabbed the Luger by the barrel as if it were a live and vicious thing that shouldn't be startled into firing. His right hand cramped as the gun's grip left it. Moving still in that slow, anaesthetized way, he turned and put the Luger back on the bedside table. He stared at his right hand for a minute. Finally it crept away, under the sheet, and he slid down to join it, his mind strangely numb. He lay staring at the ceiling for another minute. Then he slowly got up, slid from beneath the covers, took the Luger - still cautiously, still by the barrel - and put it away in the dresser on the far side of the room.
He lay back in bed out of force of habit, though he doubted he'd be able to sleep.
This was getting out of hand... the thought finally trickled down to his mind, slowly coming out from that numbness.
When Heero had first brought Wufei back to the safe-house over two weeks ago, he'd had trouble sleeping. With his injuries, that was to be expected. Sally had given him some painkillers and they'd helped a bit, for a few days. He had started to recover and sleep more soundly. Then he'd been assigned to this case, last week, and the nightmares had started.
He was hardly a stranger to nightmares; he'd always had the expected batch of twisted fantasies and products of self-recrimination, the dregs of war and trauma, things he could shake off on waking. But the day he'd started working on this case, when he opened the folder on a personal history he'd thought he'd laid to rest, the dreams had been as immediate and as real as the events through which he'd lived. By day, he examined the actual threads of the schemes that had killed his Nataku and led to the destruction of his home. By night he relived them.
And more; if it had been only his colony's destruction and Nataku's death that haunted him, that would have already been more than enough. But it appeared that he'd opened a gate to every speck of uncertainty in his mind, breached every denial. The dreams ruptured every one of his barriers each time he closed his eyes. He dreamt of parts of the war that had nothing to do with his home or his wife. The Gundams, New Edwards, Treize, the other pilots, Heero, countless, countless murders... even some of the highlights of the worst cases he'd worked on since he'd joined the Preventers. And if that weren't enough... if that weren't enough, feelings and desires and unacknowledged fears about the present stewed alongside the phantoms of the past. And that made it, if at all possible, even worse. He'd been working on the case with Susan for a week now and hadn't gotten more than three or four hours of restful slumber a night in all that time. He was young, and one of the toughest people around, but even he was starting to feel the effects.
One more week to go. Then he'd be back to helping Heero. Unless Wufei requested to stay on the WCC case. Susan was probably expecting him to volunteer and stick with her. It was-... it was Justice, it was truth. It was torture.
Wufei turned and glared at the window blinds filtering the streetlight's luminescence outside, alternate stripes of black and yellow in the darkness.
He was stronger than this. This was nothing! He hated himself for feeling this upset over little figments of his imagination. Stupid! He resolutely dragged the sheets up to his chin and curled into the pillow, ignoring the faint ache in his shoulder. Now, he was going to go to sleep, and he was not going to sink into some kind of self- pitying pool of depression.
His palm tingled with the memory of his gun's grip; he ignored it.
Wufei dragged the last bit of stubborn pride from its hiding place and chained it to his stamina to force another set of sit-ups out of his flagging body.
Heero said nothing as Wufei lay back again with a gasp. But he didn't move away to do a set of his own either; he was frowning. Wufei closed his eyes, moving his arms gently to keep his muscles warm. Heero had probably noticed that his physical improvement had hit a plateau this past week. Yuy knew Wufei: his body, his movements, his limitations and abilities, like he knew the exact specs of his favourite gun. He had to have noticed.
"You should stop working this case."
Wufei's eyes shot open. It wasn't what he'd expected. His partner looked annoyed.
"The case? The WCC investigation? But-"
"It takes up way too much of your time. You're not concentrating on getting better." Heero's voice was firm and left no room for compromise. "And it appears to be upsetting you."
Wufei's insides twisted under two very different emotions: cringing humiliation - upset, like he was some hysterical woman, to be influenced by his emotions; and a shiver of warmth that Heero had noticed, cared enough to say something. He both feared and wanted his partner to ask him more details, get into the reasons why this was upsetting him, talk about it, bring it out into the open, despite Wufei's embarrassment at being affected by something that was now dead and buried.
"I was hoping you'd recuperate faster," Heero muttered, glaring at the punching bag in the corner. "This light duty is boring. And there's a lot to do out in the field."
Wufei winced. Heero wasn't looking at him so he didn't notice.
"I'll work out more," Wufei offered weakly, sitting up and grabbing a towel, a frail defence against Heero's disapproval.
"Yes, I guess you can try that." Heero still sounded annoyed. He'd been very tense these last few days, Wufei had observed. The lack of real action was obviously getting to him. "I want things to get back to normal."
"So do I," Wufei sighed. "I'm sorry this is inconveniencing you, Yuy. I know this is frustrating-"
"You can at least do something about that," Heero interrupted coolly as he turned back towards Wufei.
"You could at least offer to do something about that."
Wufei stared at him blankly. "I... don't understand-"
Then he caught the look Heero was giving him, gaze moving slowly over his body. His mouth went dry. Why was Heero thinking about that? They had an unspoken agreement to postpone that kind of activity for when Wufei was fit again, as they had when Heero had been injured. It would be stupid to stress recuperating muscles by-
Wufei gasped as a hard body landed on his. The floor hit him in the shoulder blades. Heero pinned him, hard hands crushing his wrists. Looking down at him with hard eyes, the colour of artic seas. Waiting.
Stopping his instinctive struggle, Wufei turned his head away in a sharp movement. This was Heero's prerogative. It was their arrangement. He said nothing as his partner twisted, levering Wufei's legs apart, and started to grind against him. Wufei tried to feel nothing, concentrating on the smell of wheat chaff and old engine oil that tickled his nose, alien to the dojo but somehow very familiar.
Heero's voice was broken by his rhythmic thrusts: "Don't-... go-... to sleep!"
Wufei started and blinked. "Wh-what?"
Heero was ten feet away, on the weight machine, a fluid continuous movement of metal and muscle. His words were punctuated by his breathing and the swish of the weights. "I said-... don't-... go to sleep-... on the floor-... " He set the bar back and breathed. "Walk around, you'll cramp up otherwise."
"R-right." Wufei sat up slowly. Shit! He'd been dreaming?! But-but what had been a dream and what-... Were they finished with tonight's training? Did they still have some sets to do? Was he supposed to be doing some of his solo exercises?
He blinked at a creak from the machine. Footsteps, coming near. Still mired in his dream, he flinched as Heero crouched at his side. His partner noticed the gesture, though fortunately misunderstood its meaning.
"Tired? Want to call it a night?"
"No," Wufei answered automatically, then cursed himself. That would have been an easy way out of the confusion.
He waited, tense. Heero waited too. Then the latter shifted a bit and frowned, puzzled. "Lay on your side. We're doing mobility exercises on your shoulder now."
"Oh, right." Wufei winced. Smooth. He lay on his side and stretched out his left arm. Even one of Heero's torture sessions - which did probably make his stiffened muscles and ligaments more limber after the ache had subsided - was preferable to having his partner ask him why he was acting so strangely. It had felt so real, down to the feel of Heero's body against his, and the bitterness of being used- Wufei fought back the memory. It was just a dream.
"Okay, force your arm up. Further." Heero's hands, which could probably rip Wufei's arm out of its joint like an overcooked chicken wing, assisted the movement. Though Wufei knew, intellectually, that Heero had a complete knowledge of anatomy and how much pressure to apply, he was still surprised every night that he still had some limbs left when he went to bed.
"I'm sorry." The words slipped out of their own volition, despite his best intentions; the nightmare kept replaying in his mind, acrid and humiliating. Wufei glared at the dojo floor. Heero had stopped the pressure on his arm, waiting for Wufei to explain, so he pretty much had to conclude. "This is boring for you. Light duty and- and taking care of me."
Heero looked down at him quizzically, releasing the arm to Wufei's slight relief. "It's unavoidable. You were injured. It's something to be expected in our line of work. I'm sure it won't be the last time one of us will need to recover and retrain."
Heero gave him a heavy look. They'd been through this once or twice before, the first week of Wufei's convalescence, while Heero had taken care of his needs with clinical efficiency while the wounded man couldn't walk. Heero obviously considered the subject done to death already.
"I'm not bored," Heero added, after he put the glare away. "There are a lot of small jobs to finish, and Une is lacking reliable personnel with high security clearance. The hacking jobs alone require a specialist. It's not like she doesn't keep me busy." Heero gave Wufei a small half-smile, as if to share the joke: the idea of Une letting him relax for any length of time. It was true that Heero worked almost as many hours as Wufei. Then he would spend two more hours or more each day training and working out, and helping Wufei work on his injuries.
" ..I should be helping you with the workload." Guilt reared up and took a bite out of this new subject. That had been the original plan: they'd work on these small but essential jobs together. Heero shouldn't have to work thirteen hour days whilst on light duty, and then take care of Wufei as well.
Heero gave him another heavy look. "I'm hardly about to buckle under the pressure, Chang, I'm a lot tougher than you are." Wufei stiffened until he realized that had been taunting, not biting. Heero was expecting a verbal match, one of their usual tussles of putdowns and jibes. But Wufei didn't feel up to it. Heero waited for a comeback for a few seconds then frowned.
"What you are doing, with the War Crimes Committee, is much more significant." Heero was serious now. "It's necessary. It's more important than what Une has me doing. And she knows it." Heero was silent for a few seconds, eyes looking inward. "It must never happen again," he finally whispered. Wufei found himself nodding glumly. Yes, whatever the cost to himself, the future generations must never know the kind of ugly war that had cost countless lives and almost murdered the Earth.
"It's not as if they have an urgent need for us out on the field, either. Things are still pretty quiet out there," Heero continued, breaking the heavy silence and grabbing Wufei's arm again. Wufei knew that was true too. Sam was keeping them updated: The Syndicate had gone completely to ground, and no-one had dared to step into the power vacuum so far.
Heero started applying pressure, lifting Wufei's arm straight out. "In fact, I spoke to Une today. She's going to see if she can rearrange my workload so I can work on some other projects - we need to overhaul Ops security again, now that we've finally gotten rid of the spies in our ranks. Hold your arm up. She'd like to see me organize this in the coming weeks. Sam wants my help with some things too. Une's trying to juggle it all. Push against my hand. She said - push harder - that this would allow you to continue to work with Advocate Wu for a few more weeks, until you are fit for regular duty again. Harder."
The feel of his muscles screaming in protest allowed Wufei to hide the new wince. His mind was as torn as his shoulder felt. On the one hand, he believed in what Susan and he were doing, and she did need the help of a good investigator with a high security clearance. On the other hand... Wufei took a deep breath around the ache in his shoulder.
On the other hand, he wanted the nightmares to stop.
The nightmares didn't stop. Days became fuzzy, mired in exhaustion, only the torturous images born of his own imagination standing out in clear definition. Meiran, the death of his colony, Heero, the war, his present life of cold duty, his past failures, countless murders, blood, pain, loss, humiliation... every night - and occasionally during the day if he nodded off at his desk - his brain would find a new recipe in which to mix these bloodied ingredients and shove them down his throat.
Susan laughed. Wufei blinked and swore silently. Had he dozed off? The woman they were interviewing hadn't said anything that funny, surely.
"Eleanor, Eleanor, please. Let's not be so dramatic about all this." Susan smiled. It was nice. It was coyly understanding. It was a lie. Eleanor had been the space port manager on duty who had authorized the departure from her docking ring of an expeditionary force armed with pest-control products on its manifest and a recorded destination to an inhabited colony. If Eleanor had asked a few obvious questions, held up departure, simply followed standard procedures, the L5 colonial authorities might have had a chance to examine the order and lodge a protest with Septem's forces. But Eleanor had asked no questions. Susan wanted to know why.
Wufei looked at Eleanor, which was how she'd insisted they address her. She was a portly woman in her sixties, newly retired, her small suburban home still shiny and new. She was the kind to keep the plastic on the furniture for as long as she could anyway. Her dress was business-like; it felt as if it spent its nights wrapped in a plastic sheathe, to keep it neat, new and lifeless, like a pressed flower.
He watched Susan work; her calm shored his resolve to stay silent. It was hard; this woman they were facing had- but he kept his feelings buried. The WCC could issue subpoenas but it was preferable to obtain and record information voluntarily. Susan and Wufei couldn't go on to prosecute even if they wanted to: Eleanor would never have to face a court of law for what she'd done.
Looking at her, her thick cheeks wobbling as she huffed some more defensive words - not her job, mission pre-authorized, paperwork in order - he realized that maybe this was her day in court: forcing her to confront what she'd done for the first time. Maybe he'd be able to leave a few of his nightmares here, with her. She deserved her share as well.
Susan smiled again, relaxed. "Now, you said the signature was from-... ?"
"Colonel Wen. He was the Alliance officer in charge of-"
"Yes, yes, yes, but I'm sure he didn't sign it personally. They never do. Not cargo manifest. Not a destination route. Who-signed- it?" Susan was hoping for some information, other names, that might lead her and Wufei to someone who had not been killed in the destruction of Fortress Barge.
"I- I can't remember."
Susan looked surprised - no doubt or scorn visible though. Her voice was a polished tool, like a surgical instrument. "You can't remember one of your regular Alliance correspondents signing off on such a peculiar order?"
Eleanor paled, her small eyes shifted and quickly returned to Susan's face. She'd studiously avoided looking at Wufei from the start; he obviously intimidated her. And that was good; that was his job.
"Now, Eleanor. I've interviewed a few of your colleagues, they told me a lot about you -" Eleanor looked alarmed and slightly angry. "They told me you're known for your excellent memory. And by your own admission you remember the incident-"
Wufei had glimpsed the passion Susan had for her job - her mission. He'd met a few of the other dedicated people who worked for the War Crimes Committee, sacrificing their time and their comfortable illusions about the human race to ensure that the truth was known and not forgotten. He admired them more than he could ever express. Susan had an intensity and focus that was skilfully hidden behind her relaxed exterior. Despite being faced with the worst humanity could come up with, she kept every fact in mind, her intellect tightening around her suspects like a noose. Not for the first time, Wufei reflected that she must be an excellent prosecuting attorney.
He watched without much surprise as Eleanor finally broke, and started to sob and spill out names and dates and apologies and prayers. They had no power over Eleanor. Theoretically she could have told them to fuck off instead of inviting them into her neat little home in Munich, and agreeing to this interview, and forcing herself to confront what she'd done, to have it recorded and preserved for the future as a reminder of the price of deliberately looking the other way. Susan and her calm confidence and absolute inability to take No for an answer were doing wonders in getting these confessions. Coupled, maybe, with the *need* to confess... Wufei checked the recording equipment again and glanced at his watch. They should be able to make it back to the Preventer's flitter in about an hour, and back to Brussels before ten tonight. Then tomorrow they would have more names, more leads to follow.
"All set?" Susan asked him cheerfully, strapping herself in to the flitter's co-pilot seat.
"Yes. Hold on."
"In a hurry to get back?" Susan purred as he hit a flight curve that would be more appropriate to Nataku than the poor flitter. "Don't worry, I'm sure your girl will be waiting for you."
Wufei rolled his eyes.
"When will we be back in Brussels?" Susan asked, grabbing the arm rests as he hit an aggressive turn.
"Soon. We just need to detour first, before leaving Munich."
"Oh yes, we have to sort that out before leaving, don't we."
"Of course." Wufei snorted and smiled as he slowed the flitter. His thumb flipped the safety off the firing switch of the twin machine guns. "You're buckled in, right?"
"Always when you're driving, Wufei."
"Right." The recoil made the flitter shudder in the sky. The small, pension-paid suburban house garnered a neat set of bullet holes in its plaster before the window exploded inward. Wufei imagined the glass crashing into the house, perforating the plastic-wrapped furniture; the noise was covered by the hum of the flitter and the ratchet-bang of the guns.
Eleanor ran screaming from her house, and froze at the sight of the flitter hovering above her.
"Why?! I told you everything you wanted to know!" She screamed, or that's probably what she said, then she disappeared in a burst of blood and flailing limbs. Wufei turned the flitter around, not particularly interested in seeing the result of the volley.
He jerked awake. "What?!"
" ..they just gave us clearance to take off. Er, are you sure-" Susan looked at him dubiously.
"I'm fine. I was just resting my eyes." Wufei uncurled his hand, one finger at a time, from the flitter's joystick - unadorned with a firing switch in real life - and answered flight control, who was grumbling at him for a response. He'd done pre-flight check - right? Yes, he had. They just had to taxi to the indicated runway and leave.
Susan was silent while they took off, circled once as their flight plan was acknowledged, and headed towards Brussels. Then she unbuckled her straps. "Tea?"
"There's a kettle on board?"
"Yes, I saw one in the bathroom."
"I hate to think what the water-"
"I have a bottle!" Susan chided as she got to her feet and made her way unsteadily to the back of the cockpit. "And it's eight o'clock! Even back in the eighteen hundreds, pre-colony time, Wu Shangxian was very explicit about the benefits of drinking tea every two hours, particularly before a meal, to facilitate digestion and balance-"
"How do you do it?"
Susan glanced back in surprise as she was about to disappear into the troop transport section of the flitter. "What? Tea?"
" ..she will never be prosecuted. There will be no justice waiting for her. She will never be made to... to face what she did."
He glanced back. Susan was looking out the cockpit's side-window, eyes wide and blind. "Some might say she just was." It was the mask, the cool, unperturbed attorney.
"How can you stand asking her those questions? So calmly? And not-... "
"Not tear into her with accusations? Wouldn't get us far." Susan shrugged, then stared, hard and cold, an inch above his head. "I focus on what's right, what is just," she murmured. "Being made to fully realize the extent of the crime is the greatest punishment, and true justice." She turned abruptly and left to make the tea without further explanation.
Wufei concentrated on flying the flitter. True justice. They'd left Eleanor staring blindly at her coffee table in her neat pension-paid house. He knew the look in her eyes... she was already starting to justify her actions to herself again. He hoped she failed.
A hand waved in front of him - cautiously out of reach. Wufei glanced up in surprise. "What?"
"Are you finished?" Heero asked, in a slow, neutral way that meant he'd probably asked the question several times already.
Wufei looked down at his plate. He'd eaten half of its contents and mushed up the rest with his sticks. Well, it was late, he had no appetite. He wasn't doing anything physical to justify eating as much as he usually did, either; flying to Munich and back and spending the afternoon in a quiet suburban home didn't burn up half as many calories as the partner's usual activities. He'd used that argument on several occasions now, when Heero mentioned how little he was eating. Heero didn't comment this time, merely tossed the take-out in the bin and put the plates in the sink.
"Go to bed," Heero said over his shoulder. "We can skip training tonight."
"No," Wufei growled, surprised at his partner's unusual suggestion. Zoning out over a late dinner probably didn't make him look all that energetic, but Wufei would have to be a good deal more exhausted than this to put off training.
Heero said nothing as he started to wash the dishes. Wufei could tell, from the straight line of his shoulders, that he was going to object, again, and was just looking for an argument that wouldn't lead to Wufei blowing up in his face. Again.
"I'm fine. If I do my exercises, I'll sleep better," Wufei lied, preempting whatever his partner was going to say.
Heero put down the sponge but didn't turn around.
Don't say anything-
Please... ask me... ?
Don't. Don't go there.
I... need... you to-
Heero glanced at him. Wufei saw his jaw move. Then the blue eyes went, well, blank wasn't the right word, but the slight question that had hovered in them died, strangled by the silence, and Heero nodded at the plates. He had visibly decided to take what Wufei had said at face value, and trust him to know his limits. Wufei went to change into his training gear, feeling the usual mix of relief and disappointment as the silence remained intact.
"I'm sorry." Heero looked like he was hating this conversation even more than Wufei, if that were possible.
"It happens. I understand." Wufei was distantly proud that his voice, his demeanor, and his entire being reflected nothing of the pain and confusion he was feeling. Even Heero couldn't read him if Wufei didn't want him to. He was very good at that.
"I-... " Heero hesitated. Still unable to find words to express what he felt, at least, not in this sort of situation.
"Yuy, I understand. Go. She's waiting."
Heero looked troubled, but started to turn.
"You'll... be alright?"
"I'll be fine," Wufei lied with a slight sneer as if the very suggestion was an insult.
Heero nodded, accepting what Wufei said at face value, as he always did. And why not? Heero didn't lie about his feelings, didn't say one thing and mean another. Heero didn't talk about them much at all. He followed them instead. He acted upon them, instead of hiding them away and letting them fester.
Wufei managed a smile at Meiran who was watching him anxiously. He nodded at her and turned away, but he couldn't help glancing back. She'd grabbed Heero's hand and was giving him that big grin of hers. Heero was almost smiling back, Wufei noted with a small inner snort that was strangely not all that bitter. There was a warmth in his partner's eyes he'd never seen there before.
Wufei quickly walked away, and Meiran dragged Heero in the opposite direction, talking excitedly about this apartment she'd seen, a small place near Preventer HQ, very practical, okay, just a small, temporary place but it should be okay for the two of them, and Heero could get to work easily-
Soon, Wufei was alone.
When he finally clawed himself out of the dream and the dazed depression that clung to it, it was not quite five in the morning. Wufei lay huddled in the sheets, too hot, sweating, but he couldn't bear to not have something around him right now. The bed seemed to be three times its original size, and Heero's room, where his partner was sleeping, couldn't be farther away if it were on one of the far side of the moon.
"So, Mr. Evans, you do admit to having understood that the order to commit a generalized massacre was intentional-"
"I deny that!" Evans spoke harshly, glaring at his hands clasped on the desk.
Susan drew herself up to her full height - she even produced a few more inches from somewhere which Wufei was at a loss to explain.
It was an arduous process to issue a subpoena on one of the WCC's suspects. But when that happened, Susan was truly in her element. The Prosecuting Attorney stared at Evans, a long cool look that made the man fully understand that she could see right through him, and was only dragging the truth from him for formality's sake.
Evans had commanded the escort of the taskforce that had threatened to destroy A0206 if they didn't surrender the Gundam Altron. He was a tough man, used to ordering hundred of soldiers around. His gaze dropped back to the table nonetheless, avoiding Susan's eyes.
"My orders were to accompany and protect the mobile suit taskforce-"
"But you were the highest ranking officer on the field." Susan's voice was cool, professional. Intransigent. "You do know that you are responsible for your subordinates' orders and behavior in combat?"
"You do *know* the rules of engagement, don't you, Mr. Evans?"
"And you were Lieutenant Karzowitz's superior?"
"And you were aware of Lieutenant Karzowitz's orders to-"
"Those damn colonists destroyed themselves!"
"Yes." Susan's voice was completely devoid of emotion. The voice of Justice. "But if they hadn't... what were Lieutenant Karzowitz's orders?"
Evans was breathing heavily, his face filled with red blotches. He was wearing his old uniform, but the army he belonged to no longer existed. Susan had been calling him 'Mr. Evans' from the start.
"I... I want to see a lawyer."
"Then you're in luck," Susan purred. "I am an excellent lawyer."
Evan's went very red and opened his mouth, but his eyes flickered - as they had on a very regular basis - to Wufei, in Preventer uniform. The full legalities of what Preventers could or couldn't do was fully understood by ESUN and a handful of lawyers, but to the ignorant man in the street, they were a mythical force, headed by the implacable Lady Une, who could hold you and interrogate you without legal council if you posed a threat to peace. This mandate didn't apply to Evans but he'd apparently not realized that. Possibly the look he'd been getting from Wufei, a look of furious accusation the L5 native hadn't bothered to hide this time, had removed Evans' ability to consider finer legal matters.
"Let's go over this again," Susan murmured, as if she could repeat all of this over and over again until they all died of old age. "On the 20th of November 195 AC, you, then Lieutenant-commander Harold Anthony Evans of Romefeller's military forces, were the commanding officer of the taskforce comprised of MS unit 17 and NU 342, en route to colony A0206-"
Master Li read out the full accusation in a flat voice:"-with the intention of destroying better men than yourself. You laid claim to ideals that were not your own. You laid claim to honor that you merely inherited from your family. You failed repeatedly in your attempt to apply Justice. You allied yourself to uncertain forces. You, who always thought that history was better left to forces beyond your control because you couldn't face being a part of it, you destroyed those who, for right or wrong, had true ideals, true beliefs. You-"
"No!" Wufei shouted.
"No?" Master Li stared at him as if ultimately disappointed. " ..Has it come to this, Wufei? Won't you even admit to it?"
"No! I-... I did my best. I fought with-with honor. I-"
"Will the lawyer for the defense rise?" Master Li sounded testy, visibly tired of speaking to a young boy who wouldn't even admit to his own faults.
Wufei, staring at his hands clasped on the table, felt a movement besides him. A chair scraped back.
"Does he actually understand the crimes he's committed?" Master Li had visibly decided to dispense with the formal language of the court and get down to brass tacks. This was a military tribunal, it was his prerogative. "To wit - and to summarize - the destruction of countless lives, people who fought against him out of beliefs and ideals? And, the principal accusation: aiding and abetting the deaths of Meiran Long, a.k.a Nataku, and General Treize Khushrenada, officer in chief of Earth's Alliance forces at the time of his death?"
Wufei wanted to shout, to rail, to cry out against the accusation. His mouth opened but only a strangled moan came out. He turned with desperate eyes towards his defense.
It was his father.
Sad, pitying eyes rested on him, and his defense squared his shoulders. "My son pleads guilty, Master, and throws himself on the leniency of this court."
"No," Wufei croaked into his pillow.
His muscles were cramping and his throat was so dry the denial had been almost silent. Thank the gods. If he woke Heero up one more time-... .the fuss that would follow would be as terrible as the nightmare that preceded it, he was sure. Wufei listened distractedly, trying to hear, over the erratic pounding of his own heart, if he'd made any noise earlier, if his partner's door was about to open, if Heero was about to charge in here this time, instead of stopping with his hand on the doorknob-
If Heero was going to come in here and offer some comfort...
If Heero was going to come in and demand to know why his partner was coming apart at the seams, question Wufei's ability to handle future missions...
Wufei slowly sat up, clasped his knees and let his head sink onto them. His breath was coming quick and fast, like whispered sobs, but his eyes were dry as he screwed them shut and fought for composure.
Shit. Which parts had been the dream? Susan... Evans... the accusation... had that actually happened-... ?
He uncurled himself and sat up straight, letting himself slip into a wobbly calm. Breathe. Relax. Relax, dammit, he growled at his back and shoulders that were tight with distress. Finally his body complied.
He remembered Evans. Yes, they *had* interviewed him. As sleep and the last wisps of the nightmare left him, memory returned. Somewhat. He remembered the end of that interview: Evans' statement, not as good as Susan had wanted, but some important details. Wufei could recall it, but it was strangely blurred. The dream had felt more real.
That had happened two days ago. Last night- his muscles clenched and he forced them to relax. Last night he'd had the same dream, and he'd not been able to wake himself up during the nightmare, he'd suffered through the entire court proceedings. He'd heard every accusation leveled at him in detail. They'd produced crime-scene photographs - a shudder snaked up his spine - they'd brought forth witnesses...
Wufei glanced at his watch. Four thirty in the morning.
Slowly, his hands tightened where they rested on his knees, until they formed fists.
Exhaustion ate at him, but he was *damned* if he was going back to sleep. Oh no, he wasn't going to let this one pass unchallenged!
He would meditate. He'd faced these demons before. He wasn't proud of his attitude when he'd first met Meiran, and yes, he'd made mistakes during the war, and he'd not always thoroughly thought through what he was fighting for, and why. He'd been beaten by Treize, captured, had to join forces with others... but he'd also fought for what was right and with honor, and he'd never compromised himself. The ideals of Justice, the emblem Meiran had bequeathed to him... he'd changed it, and made it his own. What had happened to Treize at the end had been the confrontation of two sets of ideals, and both the general and Wufei had been the loser, or maybe the winner; but either way they'd both been there by choice.
This time, he was not going to run away. If his demons wanted to drag him into a formal court and stand up to his own accusations, he'd face them.
Time to settle this once and for all.
End Part 31
On to chapter thirty-two
Back to chapter thirty