“Hot and Sour Soup, House special Egg Foo Young, and Broccoli with Black Bean sauce,” Duo said. He twitched his curtain open a little further. “1179 Cathedral Street. Listen, there’s a guy in a blue Ford sitting across from the house on the left side of the street. Have your guy deliver it to him. Yeah, the guy in the car. He’ll pay you. Thanks.” He closed his mobile and dropped it into a pocket. He let the curtains close, and resumed his seat on his couch.
It took half an hour; he was a long way for a delivery. But a half hour after his call there was a tentative knock at his door. He ignored it, and then heard it open.
Merquise came into the den carrying a bag. “You owe me eighteen fifty-three,” he said, putting the bag on table. “Nice trick.”
"I'm not a fucking stake-out,” Duo said, and turned up the volume on his telly. On-the-nines traffic news blared about a tie-up on Route 48. “Wreck,” he added. “You’re stuck here for a while. So sit down or find a hotel this side of the bay."
"You're on suicide watch."
He looked Merquise in the eye. He said, "I'm not planning on dying tonight."
Merquise cocked his head. He gestured to the bag. "Are you sure? That smells toxic."
Duo leaned over to search it for the broccoli. "The smelly shit's for you."
Merquise squinted at the window. It was just finally dark, at nine. "Thanks," he said finally, and sat gingerly on the sofa cushion Duo had left open for him. He silently accepted the carton of soup and a plastic spoon. Duo found a nature documentary about seals eating penguins or something like, and kept his eyes exclusively on his food and the screen as they ate.
A while later, at some point, Merquise rose and left the room. The food disappeared. Lights came on in the rest of the downstairs, the kitchen and over the back porch. Merquise came back to the couch after a while and handed Duo a glass of cool water. The seals became lemurs in Madagascar.
Duo said, "I kind of hated him a lot of the time."
Merquise turned from closing the windows. It was, Duo realised suddenly, rather cool; another storm was coming. He pulled his knees to his chest for warmth.
"Why?” Merquise had gone tense and tight. Duo glanced back at the television. “He was a good man," Merquise went on.
"Not always," Duo corrected, automatically, and wished he hadn’t.
"No-one is good all the time."
"Yeah." He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “That wasn’t fair. I know.”
Merquise drifted slowly closer. "I know what happened between you during the war." His pale eyes moved away. He bent for the remote control, and muted the box. "I wasn't surprised when you declined to work with him. I was when you began an affair."
"It wasn't... " But he let it trail off. On the screen, a monkey leapt from branch to branch, its small hands clutching at a fig. "I want you to read the note."
"It's not mine."
"Fucking read it."
Merquise had it on him still. He’d added a transparent plastic sleeve between the morning and the moment he pulled it from his coat pocket. He offered it to Duo that way.
"You." He wrapped his arms about his knees and hugged them close.
Merquise seemed restless. He took the envelope from the sleeve and traced the folded edges, the script on the front. He sat beside Duo, and tore the envelope open with his pointer finger. There was a single sheet inside. He read it, silently; he folded it closed again. When he finally spoke, he had to clear his throat first, and his voice was husky. "Did you want me to read it aloud?" he said.
Making Duo ask for it. Making Duo shoulder the responsibility. "No," Duo answered shortly. He’d just wanted someone to read it, in case there was something— in case Stanley had wanted something done, some special arrangement. Practicality, he thought. People who left notes thought of things like that. They thought of all the things they hadn’t said that they wanted to, they got in the last punches, the last good-byes, the last blame. Whatever Stanley had to say, Duo didn’t try to imagine, and he didn’t want to read. People who left notes meant what they said to be the last word. You couldn’t argue with someone who was dead. They didn’t want to argue. They just wanted you to remember something you had no control over, wanted you stuck with that for the rest of the life you were going to keep on living without them. He knew the pathology. He knew what it did to the survivors. Maybe Stanley hadn’t—meant—to leave him any kind of burden, but it would be, and right now all Duo had was a chance to save his own back, or the choice not to.
It was silent again. The lemur show was ending. Merquise sat next to him holding the letter, still waiting, maybe, for him to take it. Duo drew in a breath, and let it out through his nose. He said, "I think I need to take some time."
In the corner of his eyes Merquise nodded. "I'll push the paperwork through myself."
"Do you have plans?"
"Are you safe to be left alone?"
He switched back to the news channel. "Yeah. You can go home now."
"I don't think that's what you want." Merquise finally folded the letter and put it back in the sleeve. "You're alone too much."
Duo wiped his nose again. "If I'd stayed alone, he'd still be-- so maybe that's just the way it is."
"Don't flatter yourself."
"Either it's my fault or it's not. Proximate cause makes you kill yourself, not a decade of regrets."
"His letter says otherwise." Duo turned his head away, but Merquise laid a hand on his arm and gripped him like he was going to shake. "William Stanley is dead by his own hand,” Merquise said harshly. “Are you going to vaildate that by joining him?"
"I already told you no." He was cornered on the sofa, was what, if Merquise decided it was going to get physical, and had two stone over him easy and a head of height besides, and it was a massive effort to just hold still when he’d put himself so out of position, curling up the way he had.
And Merquise was looking at him like he’d shatter under the slightest touch. "He made me the same promise," he said rawly.
He had a headache making his hands shake. “Let me go.”
"He was on that detail on my orders.” Merquise was staring at him, and Duo stared back, not comprehending that, not understanding what it was about that that was supposed to be important. He'd not got his hand on Duo's arm, but rather his sleeve, then. His fingers tightened on the fabric, pulling it tight around Duo’s wrist. His knuckles drained to white. “I personally washed him out of the Specials when he was eighteen. He came to me—he begged for a second chance. I sent him to the Lunar Base. A month later I was out of OZ, and I didn’t see him again until he transferred here. I thought—I remember thinking—he was too soft. He wasn’t Specials material. He would never lead. He was a pleaser, not a soldier.” His pale eyes turned down, suddenly. To his hand on Duo’s sleeve. He loosened them convulsively, then moved both hands to his lap.
“Not everyone would call what he did a failure,” he said, a little more sanely. “But for Will-- I was sure he had the courage."
The revelation, the timing; he just felt ill with all of them. "What's wrong with you people?” Duo licked his lips and turned off the television. Everything went quiet except for the leftover hum of ions flying. “Everything you do is just-- just so messed up."
"The war will never be over for some of us." Merquise set the letter very precisely on the sofa between them. "You don't want to let go of it any more than I do."
"This isn't my fault." Choked whisper, the best he could manage.
"No. No more than it's mine."
"Please just leave."
"Not this time."
"I'm not your fault either. Get out of my house."
"Get the fuck out!" He moved, this time, sprang to his feet and shouted his bloody head off with an explosive burst of fury that left him almost blind. "Fuck you and your tests! Was it an experiment for you, watching this go down? One more mark he needed to be in the special clique? Well, good for you, you proved that to everyone's satisfaction. And fuck Will anyway, because he never could say no!"
"Evidently he could, in the end," was the quiet answer.
He wrenched open the end-table drawer. His holstered Glock was there and he threw it at Merquise, the extra clips too, and the pair of sheathed KA-BAR knives too. Duo eluded the grab Merquise made for him and turned his back when he hit the kitchen bar. He lost an elbow when Merquise finally caught him, but it didn’t stop him reaching for the sleeping pills and the aspirin out on the counter, the leftover antibiotics from the burn months ago. A loose cap scattered tabs on the floor under their feet. Zechs locked him down when he went for the kitchen knives, and did shake him finally, so hard his teeth rattled. "Stop this!" he commanded. “Duo, stop this now.”
"Leave me alone!" He lost some skin freeing himself, banged his head good and proper on the edge of the refrigerator that stuck out. "Take all of it and get out."
"When you're calm." Merquise forced his chin up. "Are you?"
"I am not your responsibility."
“Maybe not, but I'm making it so."
Mobile. He had the mobile in his pocket still. He flipped it open against his cheek and hit the speed dial. Merquise looked away angrily. The line rang twice. When he heard the click, he didn’t wait for a greeting. "I need you,” he said. “There's someone in my house who won't leave."
Merquise laughed bitterly, and released him. "Chang?"
Wufei heard. His voice, tinny and small in Duo’s ear, demanded, "What in hell's going on there, Zechs?"
Zechs plucked the phone from Duo’s hand before he could answer. "Nothing,” he told Wufei. “Sorry to have bothered you. It's under control here." He held the phone between them, facing Duo. "Say goodbye to him."
Duo dropped his head back to the fridge. He said, "I'm asking for help."
He heard the click. Wufei hung up. He closed his eyes.
Merquise palmed his face again, gently, this time. "I'm here.” He closed the mobile, reached over Duo to put it on the counter. Both hands went to Duo’s cheeks, pushing his hair back. “Let me give it to you."
"Let me help you, Duo."
He hit a point of surrender, sometimes. Not often. But he didn’t have any reserves, not now. Didn’t see a way out of the tunnel. Even the anger was gone.
"Whatever you thought you'd get from Chang," Merquise said. “I can give it.”
Duo bent, and Merquise let him. The capsules that had spilled were the sleeping pills he’d bought at the store, blue and white all over his wooden floor. He picked up two, rolled them in his palm.
He said, "I'm just going to bed. Stay. Go. Whatever."
He did. He followed Duo to his room upstairs, too, without so much as asking first. He took care of the blinds over the windows, and pulled the duvet down. Duo lay face-down on his mattress, and a moment later it creaked under Merquise’s weight. He wormed an arm about Duo and pulled him close.
Duo looked off into the dark beyond his bed. "I don't remember inviting you."
"You said I could do whatever I wanted. This is what I want."
"We never did this. You and me." Me and anyone, he thought, and didn’t think of Will Stanley, staring into the darkness until his eyes stung from not blinking.
"First time for everything." Merquise dropped a kiss on his shoulder and settled, warm and too intimate, against him. "Did you take your pills?"
He’d forgot. They were still in his hand, a little sticky now. He put them in his mouth and swallowed them dry. “Don’t talk any more,” he answered.
He avoided the funeral.
Almost had—another—altercation in his kitchen over it, Wufei yelling at him about being a coward. He’d yelled back, just for the chance to scream at someone. It had been Merquise who’d decided it, hustling Heero and Wufei out the front door and saying he’d check in later.
They didn’t do graves in the colonies. Cremation was mandatory, and ejection. He’d always hated the death culture on Earth, and it kept him awake thinking about it, Will—rotting away. He’d had a nightmare about it, even through the sleeping pills, and ended out walking so far along his beach he’d hit the boardwalk downtown. The humidity didn’t keep the crowds away. The carnival was already swinging, blasting music at deafening tones, bright coloured lights from the rides competing with the sunlight. He walked between the shops and bars for a while, an anonymous body in the hundreds crammed onto the sand. He bought a tea at Ai Mei Thai and sat at a table along the back wall to watch the mid-afternoon turn into evening.
He caught a cab letting out a pair of diners at seven and slid into the backseat ahead of a group of girls in slinky club clothes, ignoring their protests. “Willow Run,” he told the driver. “It’s off the highway.”
“What is that, an apartment complex?” the man asked, resetting his meter.
“Yeah. Grey buildings,” Duo said.
He remembered the lobby code, and sweet-talked the front desk into finding some boxes for him. He didn’t have a key, but he jimmied the lock with a credit card. Will’s apartment was dead, full of stale unmoving air. He tried a sink in the kitchen, but the water was off, too.
He emptied the refrigerator first, to turn it off. He put all the meat in a trash bag but kept anything that was fresh and still good enough to use, sheer economy of upbringing. The pantry didn’t have much aside from a few tins of vegetables and a mouldy loaf of bread. The crockery all looked generically cheap, but he boxed it anyway, and the small set of cookware too. There wasn’t going to be anyone else volunteering to do it, and he didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t much of an apartment, but it was Will’s, and he wanted it to be—important, even if the things in it weren’t.
The empty fish tank he wasn’t sure what to do with, but he thought it would fit in the backseat of Will’s car. There wasn’t a television or anything, but he disconnected the laptop still propped open on the desk, and the lamp, a ceramic horror of Floridian kitsch. He didn’t know the story behind it, but it didn’t match anything else. He wished he’d asked.
Some books on a shelving unit. The Preventers Operations Manual, which went into the trash, and a guide to the Bay, several years out of date and obviously never used. Novels. Duo didn’t know who ‘King Arthur’ was, but there were five books with his name on the cover. The pictures were all of people in ancient clothes, women with long blonde hair and men in ridiculous armour. He set those aside with the lamp, and the plaque with Will’s mother’s medal.
No-one had ever said where exactly Will had—done it—but Duo decided to leave the bedroom for last. That left only the bath. He flipped the light and started with the sink. There were a few bottles, mostly empty, shampoo and liquid soap. He binned them in his trash bag if they were low enough and kept one never opened. The medicine cabinet was practically bare. Bottle of aspirin substitute, toothpaste, brush, floss. Nothing illicit. No meds. That left just the shower. Duo tossed a cake of soap and a nubbly old flannel. A shaving razor and a little mirror were there, too. The razor gave him pause. He brushed his thumb over the plastic lip of it. He wiped his forehead dry of sweat, and dropped the razor into his trash bag.
He was taking down the shaving mirror when he noticed the damaged tile. Cracked right down the middle from an impact point, when the rest around it were whole. He reached a finger for it on autopilot, and it wasn’t until he touched it that he realised what had broken it. He’d seen it a thousand times. The little hole in the middle was from a bullet.
Everything else registered then in a rush. There was no shower curtain. The overpowering smell of bleach. The stain in the grout down the back of the shower. He’d been wrong about the bedroom.
He sat on the toilet in a light-headed rush.
There was a hairband on the deck of the tub. A black elastic. He stared at it for a long time, not understanding what it was doing there. Will had short hair. No, it was one of his. Even had a few broken hairs tangled around it. He picked it up, feeling like he was swimming through molasses. He couldn’t think when he would have left one there. He’d never taken his hair out here, even to bathe. Will would have had to have taken one from his place. He wasn’t really imaginative; he couldn’t think why Will would have done that, except as some kind of memento, but it was such an odd thing. He couldn’t imagine what it had made Will feel. He took off the one he was wearing and put the old one on. Then he took it out again.
He said it in a mumble, feeling stupid. But sitting in Will’s place there was almost a banked kind of energy, an echo just under audio. Waiting. He said aloud, "I’m not reading the letter. I just-- There’s nothing you could say that would make any sense out of what you did. I can’t believe you did this. I can’t believe it was so bad you felt you had to die to get away from it."
He wished there was going to be an answer. He wished he believed there could be.
Into the silence, he said, "I'm sorry."
Zechs’ pager buzzed for a full ten minutes before he had the opportunity to check it. He finally got Une off the phone and reached for the offending technology. When he saw the message waiting, he threw the file in his hand to the desk without watching where it landed and whirled for the door.
He drove like a maniac to the hospital, swerving between lanes as fast as he could manage in the heavy rush-hour traffic. He parked in the Emergency Lot and went for the doors at a run.
Agent Kingsley intercepted him on his way to the desk. “Sir,” she called.
“What happened?” Zechs demanded. “You were supposed to be watching him.”
She straightened like a whip at his accusation. "They got ahead of me, sir. I didn't realise what was going on until I saw the car. I followed the bus here."
"Chang went to Maxwell's to pick him up,” she explained. “They were headed out on the highway. There were two other cars involved in the accident. The word on the radio is that an SUV spun out of control. They must have been right behind it."
An accident. The sheer relief of that was so stunning that he nearly missed the rest of her story. He tried to keep his face impassive as he struggled to re-order his thoughts. He matched her posture, clasping his hands behind his back. "How bad is it?" he asked.
"Sir, I'm not sure--"
"Chang's in surgery. Maxwell, I'm not sure. They're not talking to me here."
"They'll talk to me." He strode away from her to the front desk and slammed his badge on the counter in front of the nurse there. He met her frown with a deep one of his own.
He said, “Commander Merquise. Two of my agents are in your care. I want to speak to the attending surgeon about their condition.”
She turned back to her computer with a show of ignoring his badge. “Are you family?”
“I am their commanding officer. I have every legal right to—“
“Not if you’re not family.”
“Your supervisor,” he said immediately. “Not when you feel like it. Now.”
“Mother of Mary,” a voice behind him said. “Chill out.”
It was Duo. He was bruised and bloodied on the side of his face, and his left arm was wrapped and hung in a blue sling, but he was upright and alive. Zechs crossed the lobby in what felt like a single step and met him at the doors.
"Should you be walking out?" he asked, taking Duo gently by his uninjured arm and trying to examine him in the bright overhead lights. He was wearing jeans, but his shirt had been replaced with hospital scrubs. He squirmed out of range when Zechs, forgetting their audience, would have taken his examination further.
"I'm fine,” he insisted. “You wanna stop yelling at the staff?"
"They didn't cooperate." Duo gestured at a line of chairs against the hall wall, and Zechs, also ignoring Duo’s attempts to shake him off, helped him to sit in one. "Are you all right? Truly?"
"I'm okay." Duo rested his head against the wall. He looked tired. "Wufei's not so great. Punctured lung. They're working on him."
"That was my next question.” He let his hand wrest on Duo’s wrist. “What happened, Duo?"
"I wasn't trying to kill us both, if that's what you're asking." His tone was bitter. "I wasn't even driving."
"That wasn't what I was asking."
“Someone blew a tyre. The SUV in front of us rolled. Guy in the left lane swerved to avoid it, and hit us, on Wufei's side."
However inappropriately, he could only be glad that his gut-level assumption, on reading that page a half-hour earlier, had been so very wrong. “Punctured lung,” he repeated. "I'll see he gets the best care possible."
Duo peered at him sidways. "It's not like they're giving him substandard care because he's Asian."
"He's a cop, not a prince,” Zechs retorted. “I want them to treat him as if he were."
Duo rolled his eyes. "How many speeding laws did you break trying to get here?"
"At least a dozen in three different communities." He was finally able to crack a smile. “Duo, honestly. Are you all right?”
He couldn’t help it; he was studying the man again, inch by inch, looking for the lie. But the injuries really didn’t seem to extend beyond the rapidly purpling bruises and small cuts from glass that speckled Duo’s cheek and forehead, and it was his wrist that was encased in a gel cast. Zechs reached to adjust the strap of the sling on Duo’s shoulder, and that was when he noticed Duo’s hair.
“You’ve cut it,” he said softly.
Duo looked away uncomfortably. He pulled the tail from behind his head and held it almost protectively in his fist. It was no longer than his shoulders now, held back with an elastic at the nape.
He knew Duo wouldn’t like it, but he did it anyway, gently loosening Duo’s hand until he could take the tail for himself. He brushed his fingers along the shorn edge. "That had to be hard,” he said. “Tearing something away to make way for the new." Duo wore a faint flush, and he let go. "I never had the guts."
Duo twitched an almost-smile. "I got pretty shit-faced first."
"I believe it. When?”
“Yesterday. It just—seemed like time to stop—“ Duo’s eyes roved the hall without settling. “Stop carrying around quite so much of the past.”
"I. I, uh, found a therapist, too." Duo managed to look at him, that confrontational stare that spoke more about the fear underneath than it did about the courage to meet his gaze. “I didn't do a lot of research or anything, but her website said she worked with vets a lot. So I set up some appointments."
That surprised him more than the hair. He touched what was left of Duo’s tail, sliding his thumb from the band to the end. He rested his palm on Duo’s shoulder. "Good,” he agreed. “That's really good."
"Yeah." Duo cleared his throat. "Well, you've got bigger problems now. Wufei's a crap patient. He's going to make it hell for everyone if he needs physical therapy."
"Yes. Well. He's more Heero's problem than mine."
"He's got time. You've got time too."
"Yeah. I saved up a lot of vacation days. Was thinking I ought to actually use some."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know,” Duo said. “I'm dense, but I've got a fair grasp on metaphor."
Zechs let his hand fall away. "I'll be here. Whatever you need."
"Thank you. I appreciate that."
He leaned over to brush his lips across Duo’s. "Is there a waiting room? We’ll stay put until Chang’s out of surgery."
“Yeah. Up the corridor.” Duo licked his lips after the kiss. "Thanks,” he said again. Then, “And for not being a tool about it. I guess I haven't been very nice to you. For a couple of years now. Though in my own defence, you dumped me."
“I didn’t want to,” he reminded him. “But thank you.” He released a cleansing breath. “I knew what had happened between you and Stanley. I should have had you in psych evaluations, at the very least, the minute he told me you were sexually involved.”
“My private life—“
Zechs cut his protestation short. “You have no private life when you work for the Preventers,” he said flatly. “And my job as your commander is not to trust you to do the right thing, but to ensure that you do. I’ve been asking myself why I failed to do that. I let my personal understanding with you affect my duty toward you as my officer.” Duo was watching him silently. “It is, perhaps, not inappropriate to—share some of the blame for what happened to him.”
“You know what the irony is?” Duo fisted his short tail, then let it fall behind his shoulder. “I get it now. What it feels like to stand by and do nothing. And all I want is to be able to tell him that, that I get it, that I—I don’t blame him anymore.” He bit his lower lip hard enough to flush it dark with teeth marks when he released. “Grand, isn’t it? Reaffirms my place in the centre of the universe. His death has meaning for me.”
“I think he’d rather you healed yourself.”
“Then he should have stayed.”
He covered Duo’s hand and held it.
A bearded man in scrubs passed through the Surgical Ward doors and aimed himself at their seats. Duo clambered to his feet, and Zechs rose as well.
“I’m Doctor Bajwa,” he introduced himself briefly, shaking Duo’s hand, then Zechs’. “I was Agent Chang’s surgeon. It went very well. We reinflated his lung and set two broken ribs. He’s got a concussion, so we’ll keep him overnight, but we’re bringing him out of anaesthesia now. I’ll allow a quick visit. He did ask about you.”
“Go,” Zechs urged Duo. “I’ll wait here.”
Duo nodded. “Don’t terrorise the nurses while I’m gone.” He hesitated. Just a little more softly, he added, "I'm going to be okay."
“I'm glad," Zechs replied.
"I mean-- you can go. For real, if you want.”
Zechs smiled. “Go reassure Chang. I’ll wait for you.”