He was still recognisably Duo, after all the time since their last meeting. He was still very obviously Duo Maxwell, and that was why Wufei was embarrassed that it took Duo finally addressing him to look him in the eye.
“Do I smell or something?” Duo demanded.
Swanston Street was busy this time of night, swarming with night-life and tourists, local business groups out for dinner. It was Duo. No taller than ever, but shorter, now, than Wufei was. His clothes were tattered, the ragged cuff of one pant leg trailing dirty strings to his muddy thong sandals. He was the same dark tan from head to toe, even the strip of bare chest beneath his open shirt.
“Hey,” Duo said. “Do you remember me?”
Wufei found his voice. He stepped wide of Maxwell, risking the kerb. “I remember you,” he said curtly. “It’s—“ Pleasant was not the word. “To see you,” he said, leaving it blank.
Duo followed him. “You too,” he said, and it sounded like a grin, from what Wufei recalled of such things. “How you going?”
Australians said that. It might mean Duo had taken to living here, and by sheer accident of fate they’d simply met this night and not any other. Melbourne was a huge city, twice the size of any colonial metropolis. He looked like anyone else coming out of Flinders Street Station, round-faced, pleasant, yes, if you didn’t know who he was, if you had been expecting him to be there--
“Where did you come from?" he said. A crowd of giggling girls, barely legal, stumbled down the pavement. Wufei ducked to the shelter of a lamp pole, and Duo was there immediately, refusing to honour a decent amount of space between them. Their arms brushed before Wufei could cross his over his chest.
Duo frowned, but his voice stayed cheerful. "Relax,” he answered. “I've only been following you for the last three days, not the last three years."
“What?” He was shocked. "Why?"
The girls were past. Duo’s head turned to watch them cross the street at the light. "Saw you a few nights back. Haven't seen anyone I know in a while."
Had he ever imagined what had become of the other Gundam pilots, he would not have imagined Duo Maxwell living at a remove from the others. Despite his reluctance to encourage this unwanted conversation, he found himself asking, "Have you been hiding?"
"You're not the only one who likes to wander around in the dark."
Duo had winked as he said that. Wufei clutched his arms close. "Why do you?"
"Why do you?” Duo returned. “The burns aren't that bad."
He was shocked, vividly, shocked that Duo would be so crass to draw attention to his scars. He’d grown used to the way eyes turned blank when they noticed, the way strangers preferred to act as though his entire body were invisible, rather than look directly at his disfigurement. They had to look away—the burns covered him from cheek to thigh on the right. His hand was nearly useless, his arm permanently curled inward. It was his face that people couldn’t stand to see, though, and his face that Duo now stared at with offencive boldness.
"You're mad," Wufei said flatly. “Or you're a liar."
“Enough.” He was shaken. It was too abrupt, too surreal. “I was walking,” he said. “I intend to continue.”
“That’s cool.” Duo didn’t move from the lamp. Wufei bowed from the spine, more respectful than he wanted to be, with the sting of Duo’s blatant falsehood lingering between them. Duo belatedly returned it, awkward with the weight of the over-stuffed duffle slung over his shoulder. Wufei turned his back, and headed at an angle for the crosswalk.
Suddenly Duo was at his side again. “So,” he said, ignoring Wufei’s startled flinch. "How long you been in Oz?"
For a minute, all Wufei heard was the accusation. Yes, he’d joined the Barton Rebellion, but it was cruelty for Duo to turn up out of no-where and demand Wufei account for his loyalties. He’d spent fifteen years in prison for his betrayal--
Duo blinked, and relinquished Wufei’s gaze. “Australia,” he clarified gently. They reached the opposite kerb just as the light changed, and Duo slipped a hand under his elbow to help him up the step. Wufei snatched his arm away.
“I can walk,” he insisted coldly. "About five weeks.”
“It's hot here," Duo said.
He whirled on Duo. "I won't stay long."
Duo’s eyebrows climbed in his golden face. "Why not?" Now it was he who seemed startled.
Because Duo had despoiled his hiding place, and came bumbling through the remains with no idea what he was doing, what delicate balance he had already destroyed. He felt—his balance was torn away, even the ground was unsteady. A woman in a business suit hit him from behind, and only Duo’s quick reflex saved him from stumbling. "It's not my place now," he said.
Duo let go on his own this time, as soon as Wufei had his feet under him again. "Why can't it be?"
"Because I don't want it." He was aware of the crowds now as he hadn’t been since stepping off the plane. There were people crammed in everywhere, and they all seemed to be watching them argue on the street. “Youd stay here. I’ll leave tonight."
And it was not then just Duo standing there facing him, but a stranger, wild-haired and middle-aged and acting utterly indifferent to Wufei’s attempt to yield the field. "We can't be in the same city without having a turf war?" he asked. He had the nerve to sound amused.
“Apparently we were for three days." His nerves were settling slowly. Duo hadn’t reacted; maybe he’d only imagined that confrontation, painted what he expected out of a man he hadn’t seen in—what, twenty years? Two decades. He’d gone to jail; him and Trowa Barton. Collusion, conspiracy. It hadn’t mattered Trowa had been an undercover infiltrator, not without definitive proof of his good intent. Wufei had been unable to offer even that, and had taken no excuse for himself. He’d waked in prison, and stayed there until his sentence was fulfilled.
Emerged into a world not radically different for what he’d tried to do to it. The peace was solid, even old, by then. Quatre had made him offers, but Wufei had chosen—no, had had to choose—his own way. He’d disgraced the memory of his clan a thousand times over. The years of near-solitary confinement had made him unfit company for anyone, even well-meaning men like Winner who only wanted his friendship. He’d had nothing to say to anyone. He had not imagined there was anyone who had anything to say to him, not now.
"Why did you follow me?" he asked slowly.
But Duo only shrugged. He set out walking again, long-legged ambling strides. He knocked a post box with a loose fist, and then he shrugged again, as if no ready response had come to him. "No reason not to," he said.
He was the one who followed, this time, too stiff to quite catch up. "What's that mean?" he called. “Maxwell!”
"Christ, Wufei, I followed you because I know you, and it was nice to see a familiar face."
Another lie. "Not so familiar any more," he muttered.
Duo turned. He gave Wufei plenty of time to catch up, and plenty of time to see when he rolled his eyes.
They were stopped again, at the edge of Federation Square. The fantastic pastel spotlights turned the sky above their heads pink and green, splashed Duo’s face with fairy-lights. "What do you want from me?" Wufei asked him.
They stared at each other. "Want to get a coffee?" Duo said.
Wufei swallowed down his roiling emotions. They did him no good. They never had. "I prefer tea," he said, as civilly as he knew how.
"Hang a left here." Duo pointed. "My treat, yeah."
They had left the Square behind for the quieter side streets. Lagged together, that was; both wanted the back position, wanted to be able to watch, have time to react. It was an old soldier’s trick. It had been a long time since Wufei had seen it in anyone but himself.
"I'm not poor," Wufei said.
"For fuck's sake, I'm offering hospitality, not charity. You wanna pay me back the dollar ninety?" Duo sighed, then. He reached ahead and seized Wufei’s hand.
Wufei was appalled. He yanked, outright disregarding his dignity, but Duo only caught him again. “What's wrong with you?"
"You're going to be my friend, even if it only lasts ‘til midnight,” Duo said. “So suck it up."
He felt sweat start on his forehead. "Can we be friends without the touching?"
"I'm not like you. I want to know people are real." Duo turned right to a through alley only fifteen feet long; they emerged on a small street lined with lower-end businesses. The noise vanished as if it had never been, an ocean-like roar at their backs. Passerby were fewer here. "I promise to respect the rest of your boundaries," he added.
He wasn’t used to being touched. Not any more. When he’d suffered the burns, he’d been a captive of them, of them and the clinicians treating him. They’d touched him, all day, all night, scrubbing the dead flesh from his limbs, changing his dressings over and over. It had been an invasion, a constant nightmare of pain and humiliation. He’d never wanted to be touched again. For a shameful second, when Duo grabbed him, it was that kind of touch. Unwanted. Forced. It brought him to the edge of panic, and he teetered, struggling for balance.
He relented only because he knew Duo could not imagine the imposition he was inflicting. “Please, not my right hand. If you must touch."
Immediately Duo switched sides and snatched his left hand tightly. Inescapably. "Does it hurt?" he asked.
"Usually not,” Wufei admitted stiffly. “The hot sun makes it ache.”
"I'm sorry." Again, that awful direct gaze. Wufei looked anywhere but at Duo.
"It's justice." His fingers felt numb. He was sure he was imagining it. It was just that Duo was the first person he had touched in—
He did feel numb, then. He hadn’t realised how much time had passed, since he’d—touched—even unwillingly—another human being.
He swallowed to ease the dryness of his throat. "Where is your home?"
Duo shrugged. His sandals slapped the pavement with every step, a purposeful noise at odds with his rangy gait and round-shouldered slouch. His hand was somewhat damp in the humidity. It was not comfortable. "Don't have one," he answered.
How long had he said he’d lived in Australia? Had he said? "Why don't you?"
"Why would I?"
"Everyone wants a home."
"Not everyone." Duo pointed. "We're here. Come on."
A sign in neon said it was The Globe. A homeless man and a shaggy, panting dog slumped in its doorway. Even across the street from the café, Wufei could smell the marijuana. Two disaffected teenagers sat at the window table, large ceramic mugs between their black painted fingernails. Bass-heavy music at curiously low volume thudded sluggishly out of the building.
"Harmless goth kids,” Duo said. Wufei had come to an instinctual halt, and Duo allowed it, watching him. “They’ll make an art out of ignoring us. When you get our age, we’re invisible."
He’d spent most of his life trying to be invisible, for one reason or another.
“Two hours left ‘til midnight,” Duo said. “Buck up. You’ll make it.” He tugged at Wufei’s hand, and led him across the street.
Duo had been right. No heads turned to follow their entrance, even the barista’s. The tables were scattered and disorderly, fronting battered bookshelves full of sloppy magazine piles. Fliers for music and political rallies littered the available wall space. The dozen patrons were all teenaged, stringy and moody, half their age, all painfully young to look so cynical and used. Privileged, Wufei thought, the way young people were today, born without ever knowing about things like war and threat and hunger, but angry all the same.
“There,” Duo said, raising his voice over the blare of the music. He sounded too cheerful for this place. He chose the table furthest from the door, secluded in a corner near the dim bathroom hall and the placement of the bar. Whether it was Duo’s usual table or whether he’d chosen it with a mind toward Wufei’s comfort, Wufei appreciated it. Duo even left him the seat facing the rest of the shop and put his own back to the door; that, Wufei was sure, was a true gesture, and he mumbled a thanks as he took his rickety chair.
Duo dropped his duffle carelessly to the floor. Something in it definitely clanked, and Wufei wondered—guns, weapons, a strong possibility; or perhaps, realistically, something utterly innocuous. Wufei may have spent fifteen years a prisoner for war crimes, but Duo had had all that time to grow used to the peace.
"Black or green tea?"
"Green, please." Wufei folded his hands on the tabletop, then moved them to his lap when he noticed the fluorescent light reflecting on the shiny skin of his burned fingers. "Where have you been staying?"
"Wherever I feel like." Duo made a thorough excavation of the pockets of his trousers. Coins clattered to the floor before he removed a wad of crumpled cash bills. “Right back with that.”
It grew more mysterious. Wufei was reluctantly engaged by the puzzle. Duo obviously lived like a—a vagabond. Had he done something? Had he simply been unable to settle after the war? Wufei remembered him very little, in truth, and doubted that what he did recall could be accurate after so much time. And though Duo answered his questions, Wufei had the strong impression that he did not enjoy doing it.
Duo returned from the bar with a mismatched pair of mugs each large enough to be soup bowls. He set the brown glaze before Wufei—tea, still steeping, in a bag bearing a common, low-brand tag. He stole a sugar canister from another table and flopped into his chair so hard it creaked in protest. “While it’s hot,” he said.
“Thank you.” He sipped it out of courtesy. And decided, enjoyment aside, to ask his questions anyway. “That's not what I meant," he began.
"What'd you mean, then?"
"Here. In Melbourne. Where have you been staying." He touched the duffle with the toe of his shoe.
"There's a coupla parks,” Duo said carelessly. “I like to sleep out in the open."
"You're mad.” The shock was getting dimmer each time, rolled into the same jumbled mess of feelings. “The flies and mosquitoes will carry you off. Or the spiders. This is not a hospitable place."
Duo chuckled. He added at least a tablespoon of sugar substitute to his coffee and attacked it with a wooden stirrer.
"I'm serious, Maxwell.”
"I know. You're always serious." He licked the foam from his stirrer. "How'd you get the burns?"
Wufei stiffened. That was no innocent enquiry. Duo knew his game and didn’t shy from letting him know; he met Wufei’s eyes almost rudely.
He released his breath slowly through his nose. "Heero Yuy," he said.
He’d shocked Duo, for once.
"You knew we fought that night." He couldn’t speak of it, not so bluntly, but Duo was quick to nod his understanding. “I was-- defeated."
Duo sipped his coffee. "Did he know what he did to you?"
"I have no idea. We haven't spoken since."
Duo sipped again, and set his mug aside. "Yeah. Heero can be a bitch."
The curse surprised him. The sentiment more so. "Is he still alive?"
"I don't know. I haven't spoken to him either."
"Why would I?"
"I thought you were friends," Wufei said frankly, frustrated with the verbal parley.
Duo’s smile was odd. It was not the same as any of the smiles Duo had been so free with in his youth; it was not the same smile as an hour earlier, that Wufei began to think was muted already, a muscle memory, not an outward expression of inward joy and laughter, as a smile ought to have been.
"Friends,” Duo said, “are a luxury, and Heero doesn't allow himself any of those."
He could not break the silence, not after that. He longed for Duo to make the next move, but Duo refused, busying himself with his coffee as if it took immense concentration to sip and swallow. The music was head-ache inducing, some kind of just sub-audio whine causing a tightening in his temples. And he was tired, strain creeping on his awareness from his legs, his shoulders, his neck. He’d been walking all day, pushing himself, driving himself. He needed to rest. He needed not to look weak in front of this man who demanded his friendship and did not act like a friend.
He found compromise in a side-step from the unwelcome subject of Heero Yuy. He asked, "Do you talk to the others?" deliberately leaving it open to include the three Gundam pilots whose names had not yet been spoken.
Duo answered agreeably. "No,” he said. “I don’t run into any of them."
"I see Quatre,” he offered. “Saw. Once in a while."
Duo nodded. "How was he?"
"Well.” But Duo was not interested in that, and neither was Wufei. “Pitying," he added abruptly. "It made me—“ Nauseous. “Uneasy."
"He means well. The eyes are just too big and dewy for anything else."
"I didn't blame him.” He sipped the tea. It was really too hot in summer for tea, and steeping had not improved the flavour, but Duo was watching. Watching everything. He didn’t know many Anglos who did that, that blatant disregard for privacy of person, not in countries where people rode the subway with their eyes on the floor and protected their space in a crowd. He said, “I just don't want to deal with it again."
“Fair enough,” Duo said. “I never saw a law that said you had to hang with anyone who pissed you off.”
That, Wufei thought, was an out. Duo was staring at him, and that was an out.
He didn’t take it. He said, "You're different."
Duo blinked. He looked away—not to hide. His expression was one of utter disinterest. Wufei flushed.
After a minute, Duo said, "Are you going to disappear tomorrow, or do you wanna go somewhere with me?"
He clutched the tea in both hands. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know yet. I was thinking I'd like to see the water."
"Why invite me?"
Duo’s face became a web of golden wrinkles as that unusual smile broke over his mouth. "Why not?"
"I think,” he said slowly, “the answer to that is… pretty well apparent."
Duo finished his coffee in a final large smile, his cheeks bulging, and then white teeth flashing in a grimace. "I'll walk home with you then."
“If I go, you'll end up hating me. I'm-- rude, self-pitying, impatient--"
"I have a thick skin,” Duo interrupted. “I'll survive a day in your company."
“A day.” It wasn’t, somehow, what he’d expected. “I see.” The tea was cold. “All right."
Duo’s eyes returned to him. "Is that a 'yes, Duo, I'd love to join you on a jaunt out of town?'"
"Yes." He did not smile. Duo might have been charming, he supposed, but he wasn’t funny, not now. "I'll go. But I warned you."
"I'll remember that, if I need to."
"I have a room,” he said. Charity for charity. “You're welcome tonight. Unless you prefer the spiders."
Maybe Duo didn’t have his pride. He accepted at once. "I'll crash with you,” he decided. “Payback for the tea." He winked, again.
Artificial, Wufei thought. Not genuine. Yet, it was, and he couldn’t question it; there was nothing of artifice in the way Duo acted with him, except that everything he did overturned Wufei’s—very reasonable—expectations.
"Come on then," he said.
His flat was immaculate. His building was not. It was a poor area of town, ethnically Chinese and all but a ghetto because of it, far from the city centre. They walked. It was very late when they arrived. Duo trudged silently, by then, his energy clearly flagging; Wufei forced himself along step by step in a grim determination not to show his weariness first.
Duo was quiet as Wufei unlocked the three padlocks on his apartment. It was spartan, at best, scrubbed clean by his own excruciating effort. His futon, opposite the window, the sheet tucked under and smooth as if it had been ironed. The table, the lime green paint halfway stripped, two chairs with seat cushions in faded grey. There was a battered bureau; it was empty. Wufei, too, knew how it was to live out of a backpack.
Duo looked about with curiosity for precisely four seconds. He dropped his duffle into the nearest corner, and said, "Cool."
“The bed's small,” he apologised unwillingly, embarrassed suddenly. “But you're thin."
"I can take the floor if you'll be uncomfortable." He meant the burns, and Wufei took it as a serious offer, not just some pointlessly polite gesture. Certainly Duo had not bothered himself with formula courtesies yet, at least.
He denied it with a shake of his head. "I don't have pain." He hesitated. “Something to drink…”
“No,” Duo said. “I’m tired.”
There was one lamp. He lighted it as he closed the door on the bright hallway. Duo had shucked his sandals and crossed to the window to stare at the view—not much of a view, an alley below, and a neighbour building across it. He undressed quickly. He removed his shirt first. His shoes, his trousers. He folded them and laid them on the bureau. Naked except for his undershorts, he waited for Duo to turn, dreading it, defying it. Inviting Duo to comment, to joke, to be as repulsed as any other man would be.
Duo turned. He cocked his head. His face was impossible to read, half of it cast in shadow, the rest gilded in golden lamplight.
"I had a foster guardian who put out cigarettes on my back,” he said finally. He blinked once. “Can we go to bed now?"
That was brutal. He couldn’t breathe. Duo was the best liar he’d ever known.
“Yes,” he managed, voiceless. He folded back the sheet, then abandoned it to douse the lamp. He plunged them into darkness, with only the street light from below the window casting a ghostly glow. He lay down quickly, facing the wall. He did not allow himself to curl into the protective ball he yearned, shamefully, to make of himself. He lay rigid and stiff, unbearably aware that Duo had not moved while he did all of that.
Then suddenly Duo did move. He lay on the futon at Wufei’s back, a warm presence absent of threat, and terribly, horrifyingly destructive.
A hand crept out of the dark and wrapped about Wufei’s.
“It’s midnight,” Duo whispered.
The tightness in his chest constricted painfully. He squeezed, once, Duo’s fingers. Duo’s forehead came to rest between his shoulder blades.