I might have gotten a bit more information from the group
of agents in the clinic waiting room if I hadn’t ‘accidentally’ nailed
Meadows with the door hard enough to knock him over a chair when I barged
into the room. Nobody was much interested in answering questions while
the man was flailing around on the floor, screeching like a monkey, and
gasping for air around the chair embedded in his ribs.
Not that I was all that concerned with what they had to say anyway; Meadows
and his two cronies had been in attendance the last two times I’d
had to come to the clinic to check on my partner, and one doesn’t
have to be a trained professional to see a pattern that blatant.
Nor does one have to be a trained professional to know to linger outside
doorways before entering. One just has to be suspicious enough to dismiss
the notion that eavesdropping is unethical.
And overhearing the term ‘long haired pussy’ in the same sentence
with ‘over-rated Superman wannabe’, kind of absolved me of
any guilt over the whole fractured rib thing. As far as I was concerned
anyway. At least I didn’t kick him in his well positioned ass as
I went by… though it was tempting.
As Duo would say; some people are just begging to get knocked down a peg
It was just really starting to get to me that lately Duo was more often
the knockee instead of the knocker. Two months ago, Meadows would have
been in traction after his first little stunt and Duo would have walked
away whistling, with a clean record, and a smug grin.
And the damn newbies would have known better than to mess with my partner
But that was before the accident.
Now the score was Meadows three, and Duo… a big fat zero.
I was starting to get pissed.
The first time had been a couple of stitches to an elbow. The second time
had been a wrenched shoulder. The third time? I’d find out as soon
as I found Duo.
Thankfully, the howler monkey imitation muted some as I pushed through
the swinging doors into the clinic proper. I would have hated to have to
punch Meadows to shut him the hell up or something. You can only pass so
many things off as accidents before the Commander starts making you fill
I hate forms.
Almost as much as I hate Meadows.
It seemed to be a light day in the clinic, and they make that tracking
down of errant partners thing easy, by keeping the lights shut off in unoccupied
rooms. There were only a few rooms with patients, and when the first one
proved to contain the very pregnant secretary from book-keeping making
use of a bed for a nap, I homed in on the second room.
When I heard voices, I paused in the hallway and employed the eavesdropping
technique that had already proven so successful.
Screw ethics, as they say… I wanted answers.
‘… should just put your name on the door, Maxwell?’ I
recognized the voice of Sally Po, and could hear the broad hint of… tempered
exasperation? in her voice.
‘If I’m getting my own room,’ I heard Duo drawl, ‘I
want a bigger one than this. Maybe something with a window?’ The
humor in his tone was just as broad, and obviously hoping to derail the
lecture he had to have felt coming.
Sally ignored the joke and I heard a sound that indicated a clipboard
dropping onto a table. There was a sigh, but I couldn’t really tell
from which of them. ‘Want to tell me what happened this time?’
‘Oh,’ Duo tried in his best ‘aw shucks’ voice. ‘You
know how guys are… boys will be boys and all that.’
The snort of derision was all Sally. ‘That would be fine if you
were five years old. Try again; what happened this time?’
There was a noise of discomfort and I suspected Sally wasn’t being
her usual gentle self in examining… whatever there was to be examined. ‘Just
a little mishap on the range,’ he said airily. A statement that said
absolutely nothing since everybody and their brother already knew Duo’s
whole day was spent ‘on the range’ with the trainees until
he was up to par again.
There was the sound of that sigh once more, and I was pretty sure it had
to be Sally making that noise, because it was starting to take on a tone
I glanced up and down the corridor, but only saw a nurse pass by the end
of the hall and she didn’t give me a second glance. I tried to assume
a pose of… patient waiting, and not so much patient spying.
In the room, Duo yelped, and I heard Sally adopt a tone of… benign
cheer. It was chilling. ‘You’re in here until I say you are
out of here, Maxwell. Now stop trying to play the cute and innocent card
and spill. Now.’
Duo’s next line was delivered, from the sounds of it, through gritted
teeth, and it made me wish I dared peek around the doorframe to see what
the hell was going on. ‘Damn it, Sal… I just got blind-sided
‘Again,’ she replied, a flat statement, and there was the
rattle of instruments on metal with a certain… firmness.
‘I’ll adjust,’ Duo snapped, his own irritation finally
rising to meet hers. ‘It’s a learning curve and I’m learning.’
She snorted; that same scornful sound. ‘Assuming you survive long
enough to learn jack shit. You’re a target as tempting as Wyatt Earp,
Maxwell. Every newbie on the force wants to prove their mettle against
one of you five and right now… you’re their best bet.’
There was a mirthless laugh from Duo. ‘Oh, that’s brave all
right… let’s count coup on the screwed up guy.’
‘I don’t pretend to understand man-logic,’ Sally informed
him with a touch of her humor coming back. ‘But you know it’s
true. And your insistence on not having the problem fixed isn’t helping…’
‘We’ve had this discussion, Po,’ Duo warned her, and
this time her sigh was more frustration than annoyance.
‘And I still don’t understand.’
The ‘aw shucks’ was back as Duo teased, ‘Come on… I’m
just too damn dashing with the eye patch. Tell me I don’t look angstily
‘Try again,’ Sally said dryly, and there was the sudden, harsh
sound of tape ripping off a spool. It made me jump.
‘I’m planning on going to the Preventers Halloween party as
‘You’re being a child,’ she informed him. ‘Ocular
replacement technology has advanced to the point where it takes a trained
technician to spot an implant. You would regain full…’
‘And it would still be artificial,’ Duo cut her off, his voice
growing impatient with what sounded like an old argument.
‘I could have your ass back out in the field in less than two weeks!’ she
snapped at him, something slapping down on a table with enough force to
rattle instruments. ‘And not wasting time trying to learn to compensate
for the lack of something we can give you back, you idiot! How can you
not want your sight back completely?’
I think her outburst surprised the both of them, because there was a long
moment where the only sound was something round rolling to rest.
When Duo finally replied, his voice was subdued. ‘Look, Sal… there’s
somebody in my life who has every reason to have trouble dealing with… with
cyborg parts. And I have every reason not to want them uncomfortable with
me. I will learn. I will adjust.’
She didn’t answer right away, and I imagined them staring at each
other, her with her hands jammed in the pockets of her white lab coat,
and him with that odd cocked-head gaze he has now. ‘This… person
is that important to you?’
I could hear an odd little smile in his voice when he finally said, ‘Yeah.’
‘And aren’t you important enough to them that they wouldn’t
want you back up to a hundred percent?’
He sighed a funny little sigh and I could picture the rueful half smile
that went with the tone of voice. ‘Dunno,’ he confessed sheepishly.
I could hear her gathering up discarded wrappers and settling instruments
in place. ‘Well,’ she finally told him, ‘I hope he figures
things out before you end up getting seriously maimed by the new kids trying
to score bragging rights at your expense.’
Duo just chuckled, ignoring her fishing. ‘Meadows is nothing but
an annoyance; he’s just trying to draw attention away from the fact
that he’s flunking out.’
Sally didn’t comment on Duo’s analysis, slapping him… somewhere,
his back or shoulder, I hoped, and telling him, ‘Well, it’s
just a sprain this time. You know the drill… ice it to keep the swelling
down. Rest it. Let me check it in a couple of days.’
‘Yes Ma’am,’ Duo agreed dutifully, apparently happy
to drop the previous conversation for the safer one.
‘I’d give you a script for pain meds, but I know you won’t
take them,’ she said, her voice telling me she was headed my way. ‘And
I’d give you a script for anti-stupid pills, but they don’t
make them… more’s the pity. See you the next time you get your
ass kicked, Maxwell,’ she said airily, and then she was exiting the
room with a jaunty little wave over her shoulder.
If I hadn’t already figured out that the person in Duo’s life
with the alleged problem with cyberoptics was me… I’d have
figured it out from the sock in the arm Sally gave me on the way by.
‘That was your clue, moron,’ she muttered, and then headed
for the waiting room. ‘Now what is that damn caterwauling?’
I didn’t bother telling her I didn’t need the hint. Nor what
the caterwauling was… she’d figure it out.
Duo was still struggling back into his shirt when I stormed the room like
a pissy avenging angel. If his shirt had actually been on, I’d probably
have taken him by the front and shaken him until his teeth rattled. As
it was, all I could do was grab at the hem and jerk the thing down so I
could have the access to his face to actually get in it.
‘Do not tell me that I have been struggling with a long line of
temporary partners while you have been going through re-training, dealing
with snot-nose greenies, and over entitled vets with more attitude than
brains, because you got it in that warped brain of yours that I have some
kind of issue with modern medical science! Dr. J was my mentor and while
it would have been nice if he had had the resources and access to current
medical technology to not have to rely on out-dated prosthesis, if he taught
me anything, it was function over form! You do not compromise your ability
because you are too damn concerned with what you look like! They can fucking
fix you? And I can get my partner back? Before I end up on report for putting
Meadows head in the toilet and showing him the step-by-step application
of a swirly? You bet your ass you are getting this taken care of!’
Duo just sat and blinked at me for a long moment, cheeks faintly flushed
and not even trying to sort himself the rest of the way into his shirt. ‘But…’ he
began, then stopped, blushing all the darker.
‘But what?’ I snapped, temper well and truly lost.
‘But… Dr. J was…’ he tried again, not quite able
to find the words he wanted.
‘Was what? He was my teacher. He was a scientist. He was a genius.
He was dedicated to the cause. He was… what? What screwy notion do
you have in there?’ I growled, and poked him in the forehead to emphasize
Duo frowned and ducked away from my prodding. ‘He was freakin’ creepy,
I snorted and stepped back to cross my arms over my chest where I could
regard him. He used the space to jerk his shirt the rest of the way down
into place. It was his left wrist, I noted, that was wrapped this time. ‘And
you base this assessment of the man on what? A single meeting?’
He ducked his head, an old habit, but then ended up cocking slightly to
bring me back into range of his good eye as he peered up through his bangs. ‘Uh… two,
I scrubbed at my face in open frustration. ‘Duo… I lived around
the man for years. I suppose I probably thought he was… creepy, when
I first met him, but I got used to the way he looked, and didn’t
think a thing of it. It was just part of who he was.’
‘But…’ he said, not quite able to let it go. Or get
his head around not creepy. Or some other damn Maxwell thinking that would
probably never make sense to me. The man could over-think a grilled cheese
sandwich. Did it really matter who the first person was that figured out
you could make cheese out of milk?
No, it was not. Somebody invented cheese. Somebody else invented the sandwich.
Neither of those things were required bits of information before one could
make said sandwich.
And it was not necessary to understand just what it was about Dr. J that
made Duo think I had nightmares about glowing metal eyes. The point was,
I did not.
‘Keep up, Maxwell,’ I finally commanded. ‘Dr. J in no
way, shape, or form traumatized me to the point that I can not deal with
you having a medical procedure that you need. If you want to dress up as
a pirate, you can wear the eye patch without having to. And you look just
as… what was it? Dashing? You look just as dashing without the eye
patch. Get a grip and deal with your condition before I end up stuffing
a temporary partner into a file cabinet. Without bothering to take the
files out first. Got it?’
He nodded dumbly for a moment, staring at me intently, as though he couldn’t
quite believe me. Then he suddenly hopped off the exam table and headed
for the door, leaving me to trail after him. ‘So,’ he ventured. ‘You
‘Of course,’ I responded. ‘You do all the forms. I hate
forms. I can’t find a damn temp that will do the forms.’
He snorted, and might have come up with a return line, but then we got
out into the hallway and he hesitated, attention going toward the waiting
room door down the hall. ‘What the hell is that noise?’
‘The sound of karma in action,’ I deadpanned, and steered
him to the left, away from the sounds that might have indicated a chair
extraction in progress.
He shifted and fell into step beside me, keeping me on his good side so
he could glance over at me. ‘So… does karma have a guilty conscience?’
‘Karma, being a concept rather than a thing,’ I chided, ‘can
not feel guilt.’
‘I’m sure it can’t,’ he agreed and then smiled
widely. ‘I suppose karma can’t feel smug then, either?’
We stopped in front of the elevator and I punched the call button before
turning to face him. ‘Suppose not. But I can.’
He rolled his one good eye heavenward, as though asking for patience with
me. ‘You gotta learn to let these things go, Yuy,’ he said,
but there was a smile tugging at his lips.
The elevator arrived and we stepped aboard. He pressed the button for
our floor and we watched the numbers begin their upward climb for a moment
before he let the smile take shape.
‘But thanks anyway,’ he conceded.
‘Trust me,’ I smirked. ‘It was not a problem.’
Being able to tell what other people are feeling is, quite
frankly, a pain in the ass. Not because it is overwhelming or painful;
empathy is a sense I was born with and it is no more difficult for me to
filter out background emotions than it is for anybody else to filter out
background noise. No, it is a pain in the ass because pinning down emotions
is as difficult, as the saying goes, as herding cats.
I read emotions, not minds. Being able to tell that a person is angry
or upset gives me no more insight than the next guy as to why, and why
is the all important key to figuring a situation out.
Emotions should come with convenient little tags that would relate them
back to the source. Sure, it was helpful to be able to tell that a member
of my management team was angry, but it would be even more helpful to tell
where that anger was directed. Was she mad at me? The situation? The lack
of decaf in the board room? Her mother in law? Or maybe she just got stuck
in traffic on the way in to the office? One possibility out of the five
related to something I could do anything about, and the rest was none of
Well, I suppose I could do something about the availability of coffee
at my meetings, but I digress.
The point being, knowing that my best friend Duo
Maxwell was ‘upset’ didn’t
do me a lot of good without that convenient little emotional-state tag.
Truth be told, I’d been sensing something was ‘off’ with
Duo for several weeks, but since it hadn’t seemed to have anything
to do with me, I’d relegated it to the ‘none of my business’ file
and done my best not to pry.
When you’re an empath, after awhile people get sick and tired of
the ‘are you all right’ question. Sometimes you have to just
mind your own business and let your friends sort themselves out.
But when I arrived at Duo’s place early the morning of his ocular
implant surgery, and found him sitting in front of his computer playing
some sort of solitaire card game instead of getting ready to go… it
sort of made it my business.
Duo is an especially frustrating person at the best
of times, when it came to picking up on his emotions. So very little
of what he feels, reflects
on the exterior, and it’s sometimes surreal to try to mesh the two
into a whole. Suffice it to say he usually just gives me a headache.
I had let myself in the front door since he’d been expecting me;
I was his ride to the hospital after all, assuming that he would be getting
dressed or some other task that would have fallen under the heading of ‘getting
ready to go’.
I had not expected to find him sprawled on the couch in nothing but his
underwear and a half-buttoned shirt, his laptop balanced on one knee, solemnly
tapping the touchpad and making cards shuffle across the screen.
If I had been called upon to make a snap assessment
of his emotional state in that moment, I would have to have said… anxious. Not that I’d
have said so out loud… I value the location of my kneecaps.
I just stood regarding him for a moment, figured
out the rules to the game he was playing, noted that he was a briefs
kind of guy… and
felt his mood inch over into ‘irritated’.
‘Don’t try to read me Winner,’ he
grumbled, and played a red King next to a Queen.
‘Why don’t you save me the trouble then,’ I said in
return. ‘And just tell me why you’re trying to make us late
for your appointment?’
‘We have plenty of time,’ he grumbled, never taking his eye
off the screen as he turned up the next card and frowned at it unhappily.
It was a three and didn’t fit the grid he was building.
‘Plenty of time if you were driving,’ I pointed out. ‘But
I’m driving and I have more of a tendency to obey little things like
traffic laws and speed limits.’
He just grunted, passing over all the obvious come-backs, and keeping
his attention on the cards instead. I gave him a few moments, watching
the careful filling in of the grid in front of him.
When he didn’t respond, I couldn’t help poking at him… I
hate being late. ‘So you planning on getting ready any time soon?’
He frowned at a two and placed a six before he said, ‘Waiting to
see if there’s any point.’
I mulled that over feeling something rise up under
the surface of his upset that might have been embarrassment or might
have been defensiveness. ‘Wait,’ I
sighed, feeling the beginnings of a headache. ‘Are you telling me
that whether or not you keep your appointment today is riding on that card
He couldn’t quite contain the quirk of a grin that I honest to God
couldn’t catalog. Might have been smug, might have been proud, might
have been embarrassed. With Duo, it’s hard to tell. He discovered
some years ago that if he concentrated hard enough on some past, strong
feeling, that he could completely muddy the waters for me. He might just
have been sitting there remembering the joy of the taste of a good steak.
‘Yep,’ was all he felt the need to say.
I sighed and gave in to the need to rub at the bridge
of my nose. I dropped down onto the couch beside him, understanding that
we weren’t going
anywhere in the next few minutes, making him steady the laptop until I’d
I sensed annoyance and knew that it was because I
was sitting on his bad side and he wouldn’t be able to see me without turning his head completely.
Not that I’d done it on purpose, but I didn’t much care. We
sat in silence for a few moments while he played, and I watched and tried
to sort through the feelings drifting through the air.
‘You’re stalling,’ I finally decided.
‘No,’ he corrected. ‘I’m just that damn insensitive
that I didn’t call you to tell you we might not be going.’
I confess that it aggravated me that he followed
my reasoning that closely. ‘Using
the game to make a decision for you is ludicrous… how do you know
you aren’t subconsciously throwing the game?’ I tried anyway,
not ready to let go of the theory.
‘It’s pure chance,’ he explained, sounding as though
his attention was barely on me. ‘I place the initial cards, but the
final one is a blind draw that fills in the last position.’
I just stared at him, feeling something unnamable
trying to crowd to the surface and feeling him wrestle it down. I let
the stalling theory go.
He really was fighting with a decision that I would have thought wasn’t
a decision at all. Having your sight restored sort of seemed like a no-brainer
I watched him frown in concentration for a few more cards.
‘You can’t let go of that whole pirate thing, can you?’ I
finally said, changing tactics completely. ‘What is it? The parrot?
The rum? The three cornered hat?’
It got me the burst of a surprised laugh, and in his moment of distraction
the roiling, confusing emotions shone sharp and true for a second.
He really was scared.
I played the knowledge close to the vest, waiting to see how he would
‘I always wanted a pet,’ he mused, shutting things away again. ‘A
parrot could be fun. I could teach it to curse in Japanese.’
Only the strange mental leap clued me in to the fact
that he’d been
off-balance for the moment. I snorted at the joke, but saw it for the total
distraction it was. I wished for a Duo Maxwell conversational triangulation
device. What is the pure exact opposite of pets and pirates? If I could
figure that out, I might know what we weren’t talking about. Though… Japanese?
Had that been a random choice, or a Freudian slip?
‘Heero could help,’ I probed. ‘I’m
sure he knows more Japanese curse words than either of us.’
‘No shit,’ he muttered, seeming to mull
over his choice of cards.
I felt no reaction to the mention of Heero’s
name and mentally fell back, watching his finger circle the curser over
the selections on his
screen. The eye-patch made it hard to read his expression from the side
I was on. I wondered what it felt like to him, talking to me and not being
able to see me, since he had yet to turn my way.
I was planning my next charge on the conversational battlements when I
felt a subtle change in the atmosphere and hesitated.
‘Instructor H,’ Duo suddenly asked. ‘Was he… you
know… as screwed up as the rest of the doctors?’
I bit back on my initial desire to ask for the definition
up’, putting the question into the context of our current situation. ‘Not
really,’ I had to confess, remembering the man who had been my tutor
and co-conspirator in Operation Meteor for so many years. ‘Unless
you count some pretty crappy genetics.’
It won me a nervous little laugh and Duo placed his
last card before suddenly sitting up and turning toward me. I’m completely unclear if it was
to bring me into his line of sight, or to take the laptop screen out of
mine. ‘They were all pretty damn creepy,’ he said, as though
it had no bearing on anything, but his one-eyed gaze held mine for a long
moment. I wasn’t sure how to respond, and he looked away first, gaze
falling back to his screen. ‘Always kind of wondered how they started
out,’ he said, and while I could see the greenish glow of the cards
on his face, I couldn’t see the outcome of the game.
But then he just snapped the lid shut on the laptop
and set it aside. ‘We’re
gonna be late Winner,’ he grumbled, as though the delay was all my
fault. I could only blink after him as he stalked off to, presumably, finish
‘I’m sure they won’t start without you,’ was the
best I could manage. What he was feeling was nothing but mud to me. I wondered
if he was deliberately thinking about something to block me out, and if
so… what it was.
When I heard the bedroom door close, I turned his
laptop and opened the lid once more, curious if having the surgery was
a ‘win’ or
The screen flared back to life and the cards still
sat in mid game, all the squares filled in, but the final wild card unturned… the
Is it any wonder he gives me a headache?
I almost hit the button to play that final card,
but then thought better of it, just closing the lid again and sliding
the laptop back into position.
In the long run, I suppose it didn’t really matter how Duo had come
to his decision, it just mattered that he had. And the fact that it was
ultimately the decision I considered to be the right one, was just a bonus.
Some days I would hand over my empathetic abilities in a heartbeat for
just five minutes of truth telepathy.
And other days… I just don’t want to
While Duo Maxwell may be my partner, he is also a
big boy… I
had not anticipated needing to go to the clinic the day of his ocular replacement
surgery. Winner had been lined up to take him to the hospital, the procedure
was a tried and true one, Duo would be too out of it for hours after to
even care, and it would be a day or two before he was released. Neither
of us had seen the point in a ton of people sitting around a waiting room
for the duration. I had, in fact, planned on spending the time in the office
working on some paperwork I’d put off until the last possible day.
But that was before I got the somewhat confusing phone call from Winner,
babbling about mud, computer card games, and my partner.
Which is why I ended up making the drive in to the clinic
after all, risking Commander Une’s wrath if the resultant delay kept me from getting
my B877 forms filed on time. As much as I hate forms, I hate irritating
the woman who can assign you to public relations duty even worse. Kindergarteners
do not seem to enjoy my lectures on the dangers of strangers. And ‘PR
duty’ only has the two options… lecture the brats or wear the
mascot suit. I make a pretty crappy raccoon.
When I arrived at the clinic, I found Winner slumped in a
chair in the waiting room, rubbing the bridge of his nose and looking like
been sucking something sour for hours.
‘What the hell is going on, Winner,’ I demanded
as soon as I laid eyes on him and he looked up, a definite cast of oh thank
‘What took you so long?’ he wanted to know. ‘It’s
almost too late!’
‘Too late for what?’ I said, refusing to be the
first in the conversation to yield up any information.
‘To talk to Duo before the surgery!’ he snapped, and I resisted
the urge to smirk in victory; as information went… it wasn’t
that informative. Instead, I just pressed the advantage.
His look of relief was rapidly changing to one of irritation,
and he pushed up out of his chair to be on my level. ‘Because something is seriously
not right with him and I can’t get him to talk.’
‘Not right? Define not right.’ With Duo, not right could be
many different things, and several of the possibilities weren’t worth
my driving down to the clinic.
Winner deflated a little and his hand went to rub over his
face again. ‘I’m
not sure. I don’t think he actually wants to have this surgery. Something’s
wrong, but he keeps muddying up the waters and I just can’t get a
clear handle on it.’
There was that mud reference again. ‘What the hell
are you talking about? What waters?’
He let out an exasperated sigh and glanced toward the door
where, I presumed, Duo was off being prepped. ‘I can’t read him… he’s
deliberately keeping me blocked out. But I can tell he’s upset.’
Duo could block that damned annoying empathy crap? I had not known that.
Interesting. Before I could think of a less gleeful comment though, Winner
was pushing at my arm.
‘Just please go talk to him… maybe he’ll tell you what’s
going on,’ he pleaded, and he made me give out my own exasperated
‘I doubt they’ll let me…’ I began,
but got cut off before I could finish the thought.
‘I told them you needed to get some information from Duo about a
very important, very high security case before he goes under,’ he
informed me with a look that was only slightly sheepish.
I snorted. ‘How original.’
‘Thank you,’ he deadpanned, and gave me a harder
I gave in to the inevitable and went. Might as well get it the hell over
with so I could get back to my paperwork as soon as possible.
There was a nurse stationed right on the other side of the
door Winner practically shoved me through, and when she saw my uniform,
Yuy?’ she prompted, and beckoned when I nodded. ‘Right this
way. If you could keep this brief, we have about fifteen more minutes before
Agent Maxwell is scheduled to go in.’
‘Thank you,’ I managed with a straight face. ‘This shouldn’t
She left me at the door and I took a second to put aside
my irritation with Winner… there was no real reason to take it out on Duo, he hadn’t
been the one to call me with his panties in a knot.
When I pushed the door open though, I had to revise my opinion a little.
Winner was, perhaps, not entirely off base.
I’m not an empath by any stretch of the imagination,
but I am an investigative agent for the Preventers with a number of years
in reading body language.
And I’ve worked with Duo through all those years. If there is anybody
in this world I can read… it’s my partner.
The door was well oiled, opening soundlessly, and they had Duo situated
with his bad side toward the door. A thing I found insensitive even as
it bought me a few seconds of unnoticed observation.
He sat propped up in a standard hospital bed, already in
a gown with an IV started. They’d taken his eye patch from him and
he was just sitting, staring at the wall, his fingers idly tracing over
the slash of a scar
across the empty eye socket. The tension fairly radiated off him like a
I stepped into the room and he turned at the sound, his expression
going to his polite public one, telling me he’d been expecting
to greet some nurse or orderly.
‘Heero?’ he asked in confusion, ‘what are
you doing here?’
‘Winner called me,’ I told him, moving to the side of the
bed where he wouldn’t have to turn so sharply to see me. ‘You’re
giving him a headache.’
There was the flash of a triumphant smile that he quickly
toned down. ‘Well,
he should mind his own business and stop poking where he’s not invited,
I’d had my own days where I would heartily second that opinion,
but I kept that to myself. ‘He’s just…’ I began,
and got a snort for my attempt to play the devil’s advocate.
‘Meddling,’ he finished for me. ‘He’s
‘With your best interests at heart,’ I said blandly, and he
couldn’t help a chuckle.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be at the office right now?’ he
asked, and I could see that he was trying to derail the topic.
‘Yes, I am,’ I grumbled. ‘And if I don’t get this
crap filed in time and end up on PR duty, you’re going with me to
wear the damn raccoon suit.’
‘This is not my fault,’ he said, ‘I’m not the
one over-reacting to a fit of nerves. There’s nothing you can do,
Heero… go finish the month-end reports.’
I was suddenly aware of the press of time since I really
sure how much ground we had to cover. In what was probably an obvious effort
to ease off on the intimidation factor of my standing over him, I settled
on the side of the bed. ‘No, but you’re the one actually having
the fit of nerves and now I’m starting to feel like I pushed you
into this against your will…’
‘You pretty much did,’ he muttered, but I ignored
‘… instead of just nudging you where you knew you needed to
go. If you’re not ready for this…’
He gave a roll of his good eye and waved at me with his ‘brushing
things aside’ gesture. ‘I’m fine, Heero,’ he told
me. ‘Quatre just needs to learn to mind his own damn business. I’m
nervous… are you telling me you wouldn’t be?’
‘Of course I would,’ I chided. ‘And so would Quatre.
He’d know that when he felt it. He’s feeling something more,
or he wouldn’t be out there chewing his thumbnail off.’
He quirked a half grin at the image of Winner gnawing on
his nails, but just sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder why I hang with that guy,’ he
My internal clock was ticking away and I was struggling with a way around
the defensive wall when Duo suddenly seemed to surrender. Maybe he felt
the press of time too.
‘Heero… look, you remember that time we were on that stakeout
and I… started getting a little bored?’
I snorted. A bored Duo Maxwell is a Duo Maxwell who thinks.
Sometimes a little bit too hard. ‘How could I forget?’ I smiled. ‘We
mugged a pizza delivery boy over your theories.’
He echoed my smile of remembrance with a sheepish one of
his own. ‘Yeah.
And you remember you promised me you’d tell me when I was being a
‘And have I not lived up to that promise on more than
I didn’t get the laugh, but he did sit up to be more on my level
and perhaps a little closer, because he lowered his voice for the next
part. ‘Ok, look… I’m being a dumb ass and I know it,
but I can’t stop thinking about it and I think I just need you to
tell me I’m being a dumb ass.’
There were just too many lines that would have fit there,
all designed for a laugh, but I refrained from them all… we didn’t have
the time, and I didn’t want to make light of something that was obviously
bothering him that damn much.
‘The Doctors,’ he began, voice still low and almost conspiratorial,
and I knew he wasn’t talking about the ones waiting down the hall. ‘They
were pretty… you know, screwed up. And the stuff they did in the
name of the cause was pretty screwed up. I mean… kind of cold-blooded,
really. And I can’t help wondering…’
It clicked in my head then, what he was saying and I let
out with an explosive sigh. ‘Oh for…’ I growled. ‘Seriously? You think
cybernetic parts are going to… what? Eat away your humanity? Leech
away your soul? You’re not being a dumb ass, you’re being a
moron! I’m pretty sure Dr. J was the type of kid who plucked the
wings off flies just for fun! If he was screwed up, he was screwed up long
before the war came along!’
His expression was this weird mix of embarrassed and relieved,
but he couldn’t quite let it go entirely. ‘I have this nightmare that
I wake up and can’t… feel anything,’ he blurted and gave
in to the embarrassed part, his face flushing slightly.
The derisive snort wasn’t intentional, coming out all on its own. ‘You
are being a dumb ass.’
He grinned and let himself fall back against the pillows. ‘Thanks,
Heero; I knew I could count on you.’
‘No problem,’ I told him wryly. ‘Now, can
I go get back to work?’
His one-eyed gaze strayed past my shoulder toward the door, ‘Sure… looks
like my ride’s here anyway. Just tell Quatre thanks on the way out.
He’s still a pain in the ass, but thanks.’
‘Will do.’ I rose to make way for the orderly, then stopped. ‘Though… wait… there’s
one more thing.’ I sent a look in the direction of the young man
in the doorway that clearly stated, if you overhear this, I will have to
The guy tried not to be intimidated, but it was the floor
he was talking to when he said, ‘Uh… make it quick; the doc’s are waiting,’ before
stepping back out into the corridor. When he was out of ear shot, I leaned
down to get into Duo’s face.
He met my gaze with his earnest look, the one that lets you
give you the shirt off his back if you asked for it. ‘What,’ I
demanded, ‘is the secret to screwing up Winner’s damn mental
His answering grin held more than a hint of Maxwell pride.
He sat up again, lowering his voice even further than it had been. ‘Old Yeller,’ he
I blinked for a moment, trying to process that, and Duo grinned wider.
‘You know how the end of that movie gets to me, every damn time?’ he
asked, and I nodded, remembering our only shared viewing quite vividly. ‘You
have to think about something that gets to you like that, really, really
‘That’s it?’ I had to ask, though I saw the logic. It
was rather elegant in its simplicity, actually. I wondered why I’d
never thought of it myself.
He nodded, his grin wanting to morph into a bit of a self-satisfied smirk,
but out in the hallway, there was a rather pointed cough to let us know
our time was up.
‘If you can alternate with something that makes you laugh,’ Duo
said in a rush. ‘You can just about give the poor guy whip lash.’
We let the orderly do his job then, and I stood off to the side while
he came in, watching while he popped the brakes on the wheels of the bed
and expertly maneuvered Duo out of the room. Duo gave me a jaunty little
wave as he disappeared around a corner in the hallway and I headed back
toward the waiting room.
Old Yeller had never done much for me; guess I’m just
not a dog person, but Bambi, on the other hand…
In the realm of reading emotions, until recently,
I had equated ‘mud’ with
the ultimate in unfathomable feelings. I think of mud in relation to Duo
Maxwell more often than not. He’s probably the hardest of my friends
to read, something he delights in. But after spending an afternoon trapped
with a post-surgery Duo Maxwell… mud just didn’t seem to describe
Sludge was closer. Oily sludge.
I had wrestled with the decision to call Heero for
a couple of hours; I knew he was going to be pissed if I did, but it
had worked out pre-surgery
pretty darn well. He might not have been thrilled with making the trip
down to the clinic, but it hadn’t taken him five minutes to achieve
a calm in Duo I hadn’t managed with over an hour of prodding. It
had actually been kind of irritating. But while pre-surgery Duo had been… touchy,
post-surgery Duo was… weird.
‘What the hell do you mean ‘weird’, Winner?’ Heero
wanted to know. ‘What is with you today? You’re not normally
this damn… helpless.’
‘I’m not helpless!’ I snapped, it had been a long day
and the Tylenol I’d finally had the time to acquire during the actual
surgery, weren’t doing a thing for my Duo-induced headache. ‘And
weird as in… weird. He’s worse than muddy! He’s all… muted.
And depressed. And upset again, only different. But all he does is just
lie there and look… sludgy.’
Heero just stared at me for a minute. ‘Sludgy. Are you serious?
I don’t think Duo is the one with the problem here… I think
‘Just shut it until you’ve tried to talk to him yourself,’ I
growled and turned to lead the way down the hall.
‘If you dragged me down here for nothing,’ Heero muttered
behind me, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ But he did follow
me. Sometimes the guy can be such a pain in the ass.
Even if it would have pissed Heero off if there had
been nothing wrong by the time we got to Duo’s room, I couldn’t help wishing just
that. As irritated as I was with the whole world at that moment, Duo is
still my best friend and I seriously did not like seeing him so… weird.
But, unfortunately, Duo was still just lying there
staring with his uncovered eye, at… nothing much. And the aura
around him was still just as muted and morose and so horribly not Duo,
it was creeping me out.
‘Duo?’ I called gently, ‘Heero’s
He looked faintly confused and rolled his head just
enough to verify what I was saying. I have to confess, I’d been harboring a secret hope
that just his partner’s presence would be enough to penetrate the
fog he seemed to be in, but there really wasn’t much of a reaction.
‘Heero?’ he asked fuzzily. ‘Are
the reports done? Why are you back again?’
Heero snorted, and his irritation with me would have
been plain even if I hadn’t been able to feel it. He set it aside for Duo though. ‘Somebody
keeps getting his panties in a bind and calling me.’
‘I don’t wear panties, Yuy!’ I
exclaimed, and wondered at what point a headache caused your brain to
Duo did that same slow roll of his head to bring
me into his field of vision, and I reflected that perhaps I should have
stayed on the same side
of the bed with Heero. ‘Why’d you call Heero, Quatre?’ he
wondered, sounding like he wasn’t sure he really even cared.
‘Well…’ I began, not quite sure how to phrase it. You
don’t go around telling Duo Maxwell that you think he’s afraid
of something. But that’s what I was feeling… deep down underneath
a lot of other crap, Duo was scared. In a weird sort of way. I just couldn’t
figure out of what. ‘He’s your partner, and I just thought
he ought to be here for you. To see you. After. And all.’
Well, that hadn’t come out real great. I was opening my mouth to
try again when Duo managed to work up some irritation of his own. ‘I’m
not gonna be the raccoon because you wear panties, Winner. If the 877s
don’t happen on time, you can be the fucking raccoon.’
I turned wide eyes in Heero’s direction. ‘You see? Tell me
that’s not weird?’ I was kind of pissed when Heero just laughed.
‘Makes perfect sense to me,’ he chuckled, his mood lifting
just a tiny bit. But then he cocked his head and gave me a penetrating
look. ‘Quatre, have you never sat with anyone after a surgery before?
They do drug you, you know. He’s so far off in la-la land, it’s
not even funny.’
‘I know la-la when I see it!’ I growled, grabbing at the bed
rail in my frustration. ‘And I’ll give you that the drugs might
be accounting for the weird muted part, and the fog… but they don’t
explain the scare… uh… upset feelings under that.’
Heero looked at me and then looked at Duo. ‘Are you being a dumb-ass,
Maxwell?’ he asked, and all I could do was gape at him.
Duo frowned in concentration. ‘I dunno. I don’t
We both just stared at him. I had been expecting
a certain amount of annoyance over the dumb-ass remark, but he seemed
to honestly be considering it.
Tell me that’s not weird?
‘Duo,’ Heero said patiently. ‘You
are fine. You are drugged. Winner is an idiot is all.’
‘What?’ I had to resist the urge to shake the stupid bed rail. ‘I
‘Drugged?’ Duo wondered out loud. ‘You
‘Of course you’re drugged!’ I exclaimed,
and had to stop because I realized I was getting a bit louder than was
in a hospital.
Heero sighed. ‘That’s not what he means. He knows he’s
drugged. Keep up, Winner.’
‘He said I’m all muted, Heero,’ Duo
said plaintively, like a little kid telling on a sibling.
‘And let me guess,’ Heero growled, turning to glare at me. ‘This
would be when you suddenly decided he was ‘upset’?’
I had to stop and think about it, and then had to
confess that maybe that was a possibility, I couldn’t really remember feeling it before. ‘Uh… maybe?’
‘Dr. J was the creepiest son of a bitch ever to walk,’ Duo
muttered to himself, staring off at nothing again. ‘Really creepy.
Did I tell you he gave me nightmares? He gave me nightmares.’
I blinked at the sudden wander off track, and felt
a weird roil of Duo’s
sludge. The depression was coming back to the surface.
‘What does Dr. J have to do with anything?’ I wanted to know,
but Duo wasn’t really listening to me.
‘Maxwell,’ Heero prodded, tone chiding. ‘You are being
a dumb-ass… knock it off.’
Duo rolled his head again, looking at Heero with
the most God-awful kicked puppy look I have ever seen. ‘I thought it would be all at once,’ he
informed nobody in particular. ‘But I think it’s gonna die
Heero groaned in frustration and turned a glare in
my direction again. ‘You
have really got to learn to mind your own stupid business, damn it!’
‘I didn’t do anything!’ I barked,
and let go of the bed rail when I heard it rattle alarmingly.
‘You are feeding his damn delusions!’ Heero snapped back,
leaning over the bed in my direction, his finger stabbing accusingly. ‘You
don’t half understand what you’re sensing and you just…’
There was the strangest little noise then, that I
have ever heard in my life, and it stopped us both cold. We looked down
at the same time, and
there, rolling slowly down Duo’s cheek was… a tear. Duo. Crying.
I think my world tilted on its axis.
‘Damn it!’ Heero muttered and the raw
anger that was radiating from him was just freaking scary.
‘Just gonna slowly fade away and then I’ll be creepy too,’ Duo
sighed, and morose wasn’t the half of it.
‘Maxwell,’ Heero said, ‘Duo! Stop
listening to him!’
The part where he kept trying to make the whole weird
mess all my fault was just seriously starting to make me mad. ‘I didn’t
damn well tell him anything! Why do you keep trying to blame me for this?’
‘I’ll just keep losing parts…’ Duo
sighed, and something about husks and souls that I missed when Heero
really lost his
‘You and that damn touchy/feely emotion reading crap!’ he
snarled, jabbing that accusing finger my way again. ‘You don’t
understand what you’re meddling with and you’re just compounding
‘Ha! You admit there is a problem then!’
‘… don’t wanna live all creepy…’
‘Oh, for the love of God!’ Heero exploded,
his emotions flaring so hotly, I half expected him to haul off and deck
me. I was not expecting
him to suddenly lean down and shut Duo up with a big, fat, sloppy wet kiss.
A rather long one.
The room was dead still and Duo’s aura cleared like a damn silver
bell ringing. The fog was gone. The morose was gone. Hell… even the
vague fear was gone. And then Heero let go, but he didn’t straighten
up, staying in Duo’s face until he had his full and undivided attention.
Like he didn’t already have it after that last move.
‘Did you damn well feel that?’ he demanded.
Duo nodded dumbly.
‘Now pay attention, Maxwell. You are fine.
You are drugged and that is making you feel strange. That will pass.
You are not losing your humanity.
You are not losing your soul. You are not creepy. You got that?’
Duo nodded dumbly again, staring at Heero like he
thought he’d disappear
if he blinked.
‘You got that?’ Heero repeated.
‘Yeah,’ Duo responded dutifully. ‘Got
‘Good,’ Heero praised and then turned to me. ‘You
may go home now, Winner.'
‘But… but…’ I stammered, looking from the one
of them to the other, trying to unravel what I was feeling. I was almost
sure that had been a first kiss; I could feel Duo’s shock. It’s
what had made his sludge coalesce into something… else. But Heero
had been kind of pissed and now... not. Only it was just as sharp, only
But then, even as I stood staring at him, he went
all… muddy. And
smirked at me while it happened.
Son of a bitch.
‘Go home,’ he ordered again. ‘It’s too damn late
to get the reports in anyway. I’ve got this.’
‘You can have it,’ I grumbled. Whatever the hell ‘it’ was.
I was still baffled, and my head was threatening to split. ‘As soon
as you explain to me what in the hell just happened.’
‘Don’t tell me that took Mr. I-Know-What-You’re-Feeling
by surprise?’ he wanted to know. ‘Seriously? It’s been
a long time coming and I thought everybody knew it.’
Duo was gazing up at him like he was the center of
the universe, and drugged as he was, he wasn’t doing much with his annoying mind games. I could
read him clear as glass. But… that’s what that feeling was?
Well, I’ll be damned.
‘I always thought it was some kind of partner thing,’ I
confessed, and just got a derisive snort in return.
The look on Heero’s face suggested he was about to deliver something
rather… unkind, when Duo suddenly went all muddy again, and said, ‘Heero?
You’re not gonna make me be the raccoon, are you?’ And that
was about where I decided I’d had enough. Heero sighed rather heavily
and it was my turn to smirk.
‘Here,’ I offered, and handed over the bottle of Tylenol. ‘You
two have a nice evening. And if you need anything… call Wufei.’
‘This,’ Duo said with a smirk of satisfaction, ‘is
I looked out to see what had earned the term, but
all I saw in his line of sight was Meadows and his two cronies on the
opposite platform of the
training room. ‘Sweet?’ I prompted.
‘I can freaking zoom in enough to read their lips,’ he
I snorted, impressed despite myself; the distance
was great enough that I could barely tell Meadows from Garrison. ‘Is
this where you thank me?’
‘For what?’ he said with a skeptical
‘For convincing you to have the surgery.’
That made him look away from our soon to be opponents
so that I could get a really good look at the disdainful expression on
his face. ‘As
if. I made my own decision.’
That’s not really how I’d heard that had gone, by I refrained
from mentioning the blind draw aspect of how Quatre swore he’d finally
made up his mind. ‘But you were completely blowing that decision
until I kicked you in the butt.’
‘I’d have gotten there,’ he replied, as close as he
would likely ever come to admitting I’d been right.
I studied him for a minute while he went back to
checking his gear, part of his attention on the crew across the way.
Other than the odd quirk the
scar had left in his eyebrow, you really couldn’t see much sign of
the accident anymore. The eye was as warm and alive looking as the real
one, the scar mostly cleaned up when they did the ocular surgery. Just
a thin white line that you couldn’t really see if you were looking
at him from more than ten feet away.
‘Oh, I don’t think so…’ he
muttered and I realized he was talking to the trio gearing up at the
‘What?’ I wanted to know, almost jealous of his newly discovered
ability… I hadn’t known about the extras.
‘The boys are making raccoon jokes,’ he
growled and spared me a glare.
‘Hey,’ I said with a shrug. ‘It
was only fair.’
‘Fair would have been making Quatre come with us and wear the damn
suit,’ he said testily.
‘Your face was still all bandaged,’ I pointed out reasonably. ‘You
would have scared the kids anyway.’
‘Somehow I don’t think my face would have scared them any
worse than your talk did,’ he replied, tightening the straps on his
fingerless gloves. ‘You made little Bobby Drake wet himself.’
‘But he has a healthy fear of strangers now, doesn’t he?’ And
wasn’t that the whole point?
‘And Preventer agents,’ Duo muttered. ‘And
probably giant raccoons.’
Little Bobby Drake, in my humble opinion, was a bit
of a Momma’s
boy. Though we owed the kid… the Commander had ended up being flaming
pissed, and though we’d had to endure a rather lengthy lecture on
the PR headache we’d caused, when it all washed out… we were
exempt from lecturing the brats ever again. In this life, I believe was
the promise, and the next.
There had been a punishment, of course, because the
Commander was completely aware that not being ‘allowed’ to do PR tours wasn’t
exactly a crushing blow. So she sent us out to the training field to over-see
the graduation exercises for the current year’s recruits.
As a punishment, under the circumstances, it had
lacked a certain… sting.
In fact, it had been a little difficult to stand in the Commander’s
office and pretend that we weren’t laughing hysterically on the inside.
When it was over, Duo wanted to send her a thank
you note, but we’d
ultimately decided that might just lead to a more inventive punishment.
And neither of us was really all that excited to see Commander Une get… creative.
But yeah; we got to over-see the final exam for the three slackers who
had been a thorn in Duo’s side all summer.
Not that there had been much chance that any of them
were going to pass no matter who was doing the testing. Well… maybe their mothers, but
that wasn’t going to happen, now was it? So it’s not like we
were there to set them up, or otherwise skew the inevitable results. We
were just there to make sure that those results were as… indisputable
as possible. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is embarrassing?
Either way they were about to find out that Karma’s
‘Side bet?’ Duo asked, with a sour twist
to his grin that told me the group across the way was engaging in more
than just mascot
‘Sure,’ I agreed, because it was always good to add a little
spice to an afternoon. ‘What’s the pay out?’
‘Loser buys dinner at the winner’s restaurant
‘Not that God awful sports bar you like,’ I
said and he grinned, that sour look gone.
‘Ok, but I’m taking your sushi place
off the list too.’
‘Done,’ I agreed, because it really wasn’t all that
enjoyable with Duo making gagging noises anytime he heard somebody ordering
octopus anyway. ‘And the wager?’
‘Before this day is done, I will make one of them cry like a baby,’ he
grinned and the spark of malicious glee in his tone was kind of scary.
‘Agreed,’ I was quick to take him up on it, because… really… talk
about a no lose wager. If I won, I got a free meal. If I lost… well,
how could you call that a loss?
‘Just about show time,’ Duo said, and pulled out a bag I hadn’t
noticed stashed with his duffle.
‘What’s that?’ I asked, because I couldn’t even
guess. Duo wouldn’t risk those afore mentioned inevitable results
by bringing in unauthorized gear. I was not expecting the rather high tech
video camera he pulled out and handed to me. And that malicious grin was
‘I’m going solo on this one,’ he said, just daring me
to argue. ‘And you’re going to need this night vision camera
for the… uh… documentation.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Why do I need a night
‘Why Heero,’ he smiled, and the smugness was just rolling
off him in waves. ‘Didn’t you read the entire mission brief
for this little exercise?’
‘Nobody ever does,’ I said, and we both glanced across at
our victims… uh… recruits as they made their way down the ladder
to the floor of the obstacle field.
‘No they don’t, do they?’ he agreed, and reached to
tuck his braid down the back of his shirt before going over to the main
control panel. ‘This would be a night mission. Says so right in the
briefing, somewhere around page ten. In the fine print. You got the camera
I raised it to get a good shot of him standing there,
all geared up with his game face on. Hey, I am dating the guy; I’m not immune to the
allure. ‘Yeah; not complicated.’
Duo threw the switch and the place went dark as a
tomb. Out on the field there were cries of dismay. I couldn’t help
the snicker. On the view finder of the camera, I could see Duo turn to
grin at me, and I realized
he was looking right at me when he winked. That freaking eye had infrared
too? Damn, but I needed to get Sally to show me the full specs.
‘Have fun,’ I deadpanned, ‘but try not to maim any of
them… we’re already in enough trouble with the Commander.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ he said
and then he was over the edge and gone.
I was a little bit disappointed not to get to play
too, but I couldn’t
really dispute Duo’s claim on their asses. Anything they got today,
they’d bought with their own actions. Screw them… they deserved
anything Duo felt like dishing out, and the Preventers were well rid of
a batch of wannabe recruits who would have turned out to be nothing but
bully-boys in uniform anyway.
The wager? Oh yeah… Duo won that one easily. And the pictures of
Meadows hanging by one leg from a scaffold, fifteen feet off the ground,
sobbing hysterically… are some of my favorites.
Fiction : GW :