He timed the coffee well with Duo’s waking. He set the best of his two cups on the wooden arm of the futon behind Duo’s head, and sat at his table to wait.
Duo sat up slowly. Daylight was not kind to him. They were the same age, but Duo looked older than thirty-seven, his face lined, grey threads in his wild hair.
He had not shared a bed since his wife’s death, so long ago he could barely remember now. Even then they had not been expected to sleep together. Their marriage had been a confirmation of the bond between two clans, but they had been children. All his memory of it was the echo of his anxiety, the lingering awareness of her deep bitterness, his inability to alleviate her unhappiness.
When his eyes had opened with the dawn, Duo lay facing away.
“It’s nearly noon,” he said now.
Duo made a clumsy grab for the coffee. He sipped silently, and rubbed his eyes. "Thanks," he said, finally.
"You're welcome.” He’d had to leave to buy it at the market. “There's a toilet at the end of the hall,” he suggested delicately. “Try not to touch anything.”
“Yeah.” Duo sat up slowly. Wufei offered him his shirt, cleaned as much as he could manage. Duo buttoned it with stumbling fingers and shuffled off, barefoot.
Wufei let out a exhale that shook.
When he returned, Duo seemed marginally more awake. He joined Wufei at the little table with the coffee, his face damp and gleaming. His feet, Wufei noticed, were clean also, but for dirt engrained on the undersides.
"You never were a morning person," Wufei observed.
"Light sleeper." He looked almost hung over, the circles deep under his eyes. But he smiled, at last, and asked, "You still coming with me?"
Wufei inclined his head. "I said I would. Unless you think better of it, in the clear light of day."
"We'll take the bus,” was Duo’s answer. “I don't want to walk that far."
“Bus to where? We could walk to the water from here."
“I want to see Bridgewater Bay.” Duo dug in the knee-high pocket of his trousers and came back with a much-folded and battered map. “There’s trails and things there, if you really have to get the walking out of your system.”
“If this is what you want.” He had resolved not to argue. He restrained himself with an effort. “I’ll buy my own ticket.”
Duo yawned behind his hand. “Damn right you will.”
Wufei flushed. "The bus, then." He rose from the table. “Do you have protective clothing?”
“Somewhere.” Duo slipped his feet into his sandals and stood, finishing the coffee with a final swallow. He tightened the knots securing his duffle and swung it over his shoulder.
Wufei was surprised. Did Duo mean for them to part ways after this impulsive trip to the water? He hesitated, with Duo staring sleepy-eyed at him. It took only moments to unearth the backpack he used for travel and to fill it with everything of importance that he owned—two small tea cannisters, his pair of cups, wrapped hastily in a spare shirt, his bamboo steamer and ivory chopsticks. If he didn’t come back, he would miss nothing else, need nothing else. He met Duo’s gaze defiantly as he shouldered the pack.
"I'm ready," he said.
“Onya,” Duo said. He grinned. He let Wufei go before him to lock the apartment shut. “Hey,” Duo added then, and made Wufei hold his hand again.
"Why do you keep doing that?" Wufei demanded.
"Do you want me to stop?"
"I want to know why." One of his neighbours, a bow-backed old woman who lived with two grandchildren, stared at them from the kitchen as they passed it. Wufei was glad for the shelter of the stairwell. Duo seemed unaware of his embarrassment. He even cheerfully swung their hands, when they clattered to the bottom.
"Like it," he said. He yawned again. “Where’s the nearest stop?”
“Two blocks up.” There were plenty more to watch them pass by like lovers in handclasp. Wufei had made no effort to know anyone in his building or in the community around him, but he felt their silent censure nonetheless, the old men frowning at him, the young children who stopped their games to watch this unusual pair walking brazenly down the street.
“Holding hands doesn’t make you gay,” Duo said suddenly. “Kissing would, but then you’d never be able to come home.”
“It isn’t a home.” He turned his face forward deliberately. “Are you homosexual?”
“Would it bother you if I was?” The next yawn audibly cracked his jaw.
Wufei did not, did not know how to, answer. Instead, he pointed out the bus top across the street and they crossed to it. Duo sprawled on the bench and threw his duffle to his feet. He attempted to wrangle his tangled hair with his fingers while Wufei studied the schedule. By sheer luck, they would wait less than ten minutes for the bus. He sat carefully on the bench, leaving as much space between them as possible without being obvious about it.
"You don't braid it any more?" he asked at length.
"When I remember," Duo said.
Wufei scowled. "How can you forget? It's basic grooming." Duo only shrugged and slipped a thick lock, mostly straightened, between his teeth. There was a sizeable snarl at the back of his skull, Wufei could see it even from the side, and one significantly worse halfway down. He did remember, he was sure he remembered, that Duo’s hair had once been cleanly and neat, obsessively neat even in times of severe urgency.
“It’s been cut,” he remarked. He braved the distance and brushed his fingers over the ragged ends hanging mid-way down Duo’s back. The hairs were coarse and split.
“I had to get rid of it once.” Duo explained nothing further. Wufei did not press it, though he immediately conjured a dozen new questions. Duo did not know it yet, perhaps, but Wufei intended to spring the trap he’d fallen into. Duo was not the only one who could seize on an unwilling companion. There would—Wufei was sure of it—be time, time and the proper place for all the questions he had.
"Come here," he said, suddenly inclined to be gentle. Duo’s expressive face could hide none of his surprise, or his wariness. Wufei gestured. “Please,” he added.
Duo slid closer. Wufei turned him by the shoulders to face away, carefully dragging his fingers as far as he could through Duo’s hair. It would have been easier if it were wet. Perhaps at the beach. “Do you have a comb?”
“Not that I know of,” Duo said.
He did. He’d left it at the apartment, too rushed, too focussed on what had been a hurried transformation to the grand symbolic gesture. He did what he could bare-handed, managed to confine the worst of the tangles together, slowly clawed three large strands out of the mess. His only experience in braiding was of leather for the handle of the sword he had surrendered twenty years ago when he accepted his prison sentence, but he was catapulted back to that memory. The plait he created was imperfect, but he satisfied himself that he could do nothing more in this situation. He secured it with one of his own hairbands, spares he kept in his pocket. It was an odd thing to generate a sense of accomplishment; but it did.
Duo swiveled to look at him. Hadn’t he just thought that Duo was an open book to him, every thought apparent in his eyes? He was impossible to read now.
“Pretty sure that made you gay,” Duo said. “A little bit at least.”
He was spared a reply when the bus turned the corner and steamed to a stop for them.
He was getting used to having his hand held. It still felt—weird. But he was getting used to it.
By the time they reached the beach, Duo was fully awake. He stared actively out the windows at the scenery as they drove zooming past it, checking his crumpled map frequently against their route. When they neared their turn-off, Duo pulled him to the front of the bus and forced him to stand in the aisle while he struck up a dialogue with the driver.
He started rubbing his thumb over Wufei’s, right before their stop. If he was conscious he was doing it, Wufei couldn’t tell it. Duo’s face stayed turned away from him.
The driver let them out at an empty lot. “I’m back this way at half six,” he called after them. “Keep out of the sun, you lot.”
“He makes a good point,” Wufei said, when the bus had gone and they stood alone on the crumbling concrete. He turned in as full a circle as Duo’s leash on his arm allowed. There were protective shelters at the edge and leading down the cliff to the surf, but they would be exposed at the beach, and he rather expected Duo meant them to stay out all day, putting them both at risk from the intensive UVR. “I don’t have any sun block.”
“Hats,” Duo answered. He produced a straw Akubra hat from his duffle, plopping it on Wufei’s head without waiting for permission. “And long sleeves. Here. It’s even clean.” He pressed a shirt on Wufei as well, a dark cotton.
“What about you?”
“Already done.” Duo grinned at him from the cover of a leather cap with a wide, salt-stained brim. “Good look on you. Peasanty. Weren’t you supposed to be a prince or something?”
“Or something,” Wufei said.
It was a place of striking beauty. Wufei admitted that readily. There was a stiff breeze off the ocean, carrying a hint of coolness despite the mid-day heat. The water was painfully blue, that peculiar bright teal that didn’t match the clear sky above it. The waves had white caps but the surf was gentle, and it stretched forever with only the summer-blasted brown line of the coast cupping it in. Far along the way, Wufei thought he spied another pair braving the sun, but most people would be wise enough to obey the Health Advisory.
Most colonists would be. Wufei had been raised with a terror of sun exposure. His first week on Earth he had obsessively marvelled at the rapid darkening in his skin tone. His ancestors might have been horrified by his Terran tan, warnings about greenhouse effect dinned into them as they were every colonist, from birth. But there he was, walking the beach in full sunlight, and Duo next to him, brown as a walnut, brown as the braid swinging pendulum-like beneath the hat. He thought of his fingers in all that hair, and transferred his eyes to the sand, to the tips of his shoes disappearing into the grains.
"Have you been here before?” he asked, breaking the silence.
"No," Duo said.
"Neither has anyone else." It was a poor joke, but Duo grinned at him, teeth flashing in his face.
"I get tired of too many people anyway," he answered.
“Why here?” They met what must have been the edge of the full tide, where the sand was littered with broken shells and dried, shrivelled seaweeds. Duo came to a stop. He had hold of Wufei’s hand again, but he was looking out at the ocean. "What do you see out there?"
Duo drew a deep breath. "It's like space, isn't it?” he said.
“Space?” At first he was only surprised that their thoughts seemed to have been on similar tracks, home in the skies with the colonies. But that didn’t seem right. “I don’t understand.”
“Full of things you never see, and going on forever,” Duo explained. He gestured with the hand that held Wufei’s, drawing invisible pictures on the air between them. “And if you want to get deep about it... human life came out of the oceans. And the oceans came out of star matter. It just makes me feel... outside of myself."
"Why would you wish to be?"
"Everyone wants to be outside themselves sometime."
Duo glanced at him. Squinted against the sun, lines deep around his eyes, heavy around his mouth.
Maybe he pushed too hard. Duo looked at him for a long time without answering. Wufei refused to be embarrassed this time, though; if he was rude in his questions, he was no less so than Duo, who had dragged him all across the countryside intent on philosophising and communing with the universe. Duo had said it, and Wufei wanted to know what it meant. And he’d chosen Wufei for his companion; and Wufei was many things, but passive was not one of them.
"Why, Duo?" he said.
The corner of Duo’s mouth turned up. Approval, sly and small, but there for just an instant before his face turned back to the water.
"Because we're too small,” Duo replied. “I think that’s why we invented gods."
"You believe they're inventions?" He was surprised. And, perhaps, not so surprised. "Some would call that heresy."
"People who haven't stepped outside themselves in a little too long. God is just a name we give to something so we'll recognise it when it happens."
"I don't believe in gods," Wufei admitted.
"You believe in something bigger than you are,” Duo disagreed, and this time he was truly surprised. “That's close enough."
“Semantics, is that it?"
"I don't think the word matters."
"Maybe." Duo sounded so sure. He exhaled. Duty had been his god, all his life. Duty to serve his family, his clan, the colonies. He’d gone to jail for duty, given fifteen years for duty, given his bodily freedom. He woke every day trapped in his outward disfigurement, his inward shame. If there were gods, Wufei did not imagine they could be any more powerful than that.
They’d gone quiet. Duo stroked his hand again, and titled his head back for the sunlight.
"From here the water looks so clean," Wufei offered at length.
"It's not, though, is it? Nothing is."
"That doesn't make it hateful."
A white bird came swooping down on a draft from behind them. It dove for the water, silent and graceful. "I didn't say I hated it."
"You just don't want to be in it?"
"The ocean? No."
"That's okay. Me neither."
"Too much water makes me nervous. Knee-jerk, you know?" Duo smiled at him.
He didn’t know. And he would not have guessed that about Duo. "Are you afraid?"
"Not at a healthy distance," Duo said, with a gesture toward the stretch of sand between them and the lip of the water.
“Is there a reason for that?"
"I don't know what it was like on L5, but the most water I ever saw in my life on L2 filled a cup."
"Much the same. I’m not afraid of it, though.” It did not occur to him—much—to tease, but he did wonder if Duo was teasing him. There was no sign of anything but sincerity in all of Duo’s words to him, however, and he felt there was no other option but to accept Duo’s unwavering honesty.
"Why?" Duo did tease, then. He mimicked Wufei’s intonation perfectly.
"The water can't take anything from me I'm afraid to lose," Wufei said, and matched him flippant for flippant.
Duo’s smile faded away. He tugged the brim of his Akubra low over his eyes. “Getting hot now,” he observed.
"I said something wrong."
"It's all right."
"Tell me what, so I don't repeat it."
"It's all right, Wufei."
He had only just been moved by Duo’s willingness to share with him. Snatched away, now, so easily, Wufei felt the sting of it like a rash on his skin. He freed his hand with a flick of his wrist and plunged recklessly, deliberately, down to where the sand was wet and water swirled in puddles. He went far enough for the dregs of a wave to wash over his toes, and then one step further, soaking the hems of his trouser legs.
“Wufei!” Duo called, a note of real anxiety in his voice.
Wufei faced him. He spread his hands at his sides. "Why is it only I have to lay my heart bare?” he retorted. Spray hit him from behind at knee-height. “You have no more right to hide than I do."
Duo shuffled at the berm, expression lost in the shadow of his hat, fists clenched on the strap of his duffle. “I don't-- I don't know what that means."
"Don't you?" He took another step back without looking at his path, and Duo rocked toward him as if to grab him back from yards away. It was an insane game to be playing, suddenly, emotional blackmail on a man who was obviously struggling, and guilt swept him with the next wave. The sand under his feet was shifting and uncertain, angling down a sharp incline. If he stepped back again, he wasn’t sure how deep he might be. He said, "You close up so tightly some times. You brought me here. I want it to mean something. I want you to give equal to what you demand out of me."
"Maybe what I'm not saying isn't important."
“Or you don't trust anyone enough."
"And I should trust you?" He saw the effort it took. Duo gathered himself and came forward. Wufei held his hand out, both hands as Duo swayed reluctantly back from the foaming edge of the water. For a strange, wild moment, Wufei thought Duo would make it out to him, and his heart pounded in anticipation.
But then he saw the heave of Duo’s chest, the strain in the white knuckles on the duffle strap. His stomach sank, and the reality of their surroundings returned. He felt foolish, and cruel.
He waded up out of the water, and took Duo by the elbow. “Come away,” he said gently, and guided him back up the beach.
He liked to walk. He could do it for hours, until his muscles were screaming in protest, pushing himself along past all point of pride or sense. He had trained all through childhood to conquer his physical shell, but he took grim pleasure in the daily battle to prove that he, and not his wreck of a body, was in charge.
But with Duo trudging alongside him down the sandy beach, it was a much different thing than in the city. He was forced to go slower than his usual wont. And he could not clear his mind, not least because it would be impolite—not least because Duo had given him much to think about.
"Did you get treatment?"
Duo’s voice startled him. They’d been quiet for so long, unsure of each other after Wufei’s stunt in the water. And Duo had a canny ability to know exactly what Wufei was thinking.
He cleared his throat. "For the burns? Yes. I'd have died otherwise."
"They couldn't make them look better?"
"I don't know. I never asked."
Duo laughed. “You wouldn’t,” he said, when Wufei looked him askance. He bent to the sand and carefully pried a large tawny shell from beneath a clump of sea refuse. It had a ragged, sharp edge. Duo cut his finger testing it, and laughed again. He showed the thin line of blood to Wufei, then passed him the shell. "Something used to live in that."
"It was a good home," Wufei surmised. The pearly inside of the shell was smooth to the touch; the coloured outside was ridged and pockmarked, but still very pretty, swirled in distinct if abstract patterns.
"Empty and broken."
He glanced sideways. "You're not like the shell."
"I'm not much for metaphors anyway."
He said it meta-fers. It took Wufei a moment to understand. When he did, he discovered he could laugh, too. "Liar."
"What?" Duo said, but smiling.
"You do it constantly." It was his turn to find a treasure. He chose a piece of driftwood, no larger than his palm, bleached grey as bone. He thought it might be coral, worn smooth. He held it up between them in the attitude of a teacher. "You're probably dying to say something about this just to test me.'
Duo’s teeth were in evidence, bared in a grin. He took the driftwood and studied it. "Holy and twisted," he declared.
There was a stone, long and smooth, finger-shaped. Wufei palmed it. "Unyielding and indestructible."
"I like twisty better."
Duo took his hand again.
Wufei swallowed. "You don't want it?" he asked, noting when Duo dropped the driftwood back to the sand.
"Not really,” Duo said. “It belongs here."
"I don't think the ocean will miss it."
He went back for it, though he wasn’t sure if he ought to let Duo go first. He grabbed it with his scarred hand, in the end, struggling to close his fingers around it. “Souvenir,” he said. “You always did like to keep souvenirs.” He held it out until Duo took it, and then quickly put his hand in his trouser pocket.
Duo turned the little piece of wood between the large knuckles of his fingers.
"The scars really aren't that bad," he said.
That was twice Duo had said that. Wufei believed it as little as he had the first time. "There are uglier things about me," he answered, though, suddenly nervous, suddenly overwhelmed, wishing Duo would let him go, wishing Duo had never come at all.
"So, what?” The driftwood turned in Duo’s fingers, end over end. “The scars are just a decoy?"
"No. They're nothing." There was sweat on his upper lip. He longed to wipe it away, but refused to bring out his hand again, not with Duo watching hawk-eyed and entirely too interested. "A wall,” he confessed, and the humiliation was last, all offered up for Duo’s sharp stare. “A shield."
"Do you need them so much?"
"I didn't think I did until they were part of me."
Duo released him—his eyes, at least. The driftwood went into a pocket, and he started walking, pulling Wufei with him. "And since you'll never be rid of them, you never have to know how else to be."
"It's easy to think too much about it," he said.
"That's suspiciously meaningless."
"Maybe it's too easy, but I'd bet all you do is think about it."
With Duo looking away, he wiped his face quickly on his sleeve. Sweat stung on his cheek even now, and he was hot. They’d been outside for hours when all sane people stayed indoors. “Duo, where are we going? What are we doing?”
Sitting, abruptly, dropping into the sand as if he’d meant to all along right between steps. Wufei tumbled off balance and only caught himself when he had one knee in the sand. The duffle fell from Duo’s back with a thump. Wufei eased onto his flanks and shed his own pack.
"Can't reach you all the way over there," Duo said.
"Then come closer."
Duo did. He sat very close, his arm, quite warm from the heat, brushing Wufei’s, their knees touching.
"Do you think I'm going to run?" Wufei asked him.
"I'm pretty sure I'm faster."
"That's not an answer."
"It was if you were listening."
"I'm not going to."
“There'd be no hard feelings."
"Yes there would." Duo took his hand, so casually, so determinedly. "Feelings are always hard."
Duo inhaled deeply. Then he seemed to decide that was funny. He laughed on the exhale.
The sun was definitely in the west, but it was no later than mid-afternoon, perhaps four. "How long will you stay?" Wufei asked him seriously.
"You know, I spent all night once trying to work up the nerve to kiss you. Except then Tsuberov tried to murder us, so that didn't work out."
"Kiss me?” He was terribly embarrassed, not least because he suspected his own reaction to that. Duo had been very free in touching him, and Wufei did not live celibately entirely by choice. “When—the Lunar Base? Why?"
"Yes; and you were ignoring me."
"You wanted to kiss me because I was ignoring you?"
"Yeah.” Duo laughed at him, and fell backward to the sand, propping his head on his duffle. “Pretty much."
"You were an odd boy." He was blushing, and hoped the hat hid it. "Did you outgrow it?" he added gruffly.
"Meaning do I still want to kiss you?"
"Duo, damn it--"
Duo laughed again. "I wouldn't say I spent a lot of time thinking about it while we lived on opposite sides of the Sphere. I might acknowledge that it crossed my mind since I saw you again."
If there was a time for compassionate gods, it would have been that moment. But there was no lightning rescue, no saviour arriving by magic. Just Duo, his thigh pressed to Wufei’s, and a very great deal of subtext Wufei hadn’t the faintest idea how to interpret.
It took a long time to bring himself to ask. "Are you going to?"
"Do you want me to?" Duo had hairy legs, perhaps not so bad for a white man, but more so than Wufei. His voice, cheerful, round in accent, and calmer than anything Wufei could pretend to, floated from behind Wufei’s head, making him edgier even. "I'm not sixteen anymore. I don't imagine kissing people who might punch me afterward."
"I wouldn't hit you."
"I won't hit you."
Silence told him Duo appreciated the difference. He dared a glance back. Duo wore the little smile, the private smile. He didn’t meet Wufei’s eyes, but that, Wufei thought, did not mean what it might have meant before.
“I'm not attractive," he said.
"You're not unattractive."
"You're not looking," Wufei said.
Duo did. Full-on, and without blinking. "You're attractive to me."
He turned his face so the scarred half was in Duo’s eyeline, even lifted his loose hair to reveal the damage. "You're not looking,” he repeated.
Duo was not smiling now. He sat up, and said, "I don't know how many ways I can say that I don't care about the scars."
"Why should I?"
"How can you ask that?” he demanded. “They're hideous."
"Sure. That's the function of scars. They're ugly and they're visible. But they're something that happened to you, not something you are."
"That makes no sense—“
"What did you demand people see about you before you had scars?"
“For once I'd like to hear, 'yes, they're ugly, and it's all right.'"
"And that'll cure you?"
"You're not seeing me. It's part of me.” He swallowed dryly. “I need you to see me."
Duo's hand twitched a bit, disappeared into his lap. "I don't want to kiss you anymore."
back to chapter one