They made him walk it, though the elder apologised and called it policy. It was a long way. Pride was the only thing that kept him putting one foot precisely in front of the next.
There was a new guard on duty outside the cell, not the man who’d always been there before. He wasn’t much interested in their little parade. He took longer than the old guard opening the cell, too—there seemed to be new security measures. Duo watched surreptitiously, his head lowered.
They never sent the guards in first. They had the sniper rifles ready, and they pushed him through the doors. The suden shove caught him off guard, and he stumbled. One of them actually came in after him, steadied him by the arm.
“Call if you need help,” he said, and swept a glance over Wufei and Heero, leaning against the walls on the opposite side of their cell. He backed out with a hand on his sidearm, and then the door swung shut, leaving them alone in the dark room.
Wufei moved immediately. He caught Duo about the waist before Duo could warn him, and he almost blacked out from the stabbing pain in his broken ribs. Whether Wufei helped him down or he just fell, he didn’t know, but when his vision cleared he was sitting on one of the wide stadium steps that circled the auditorium-like space.
"We thought you were dead,” Wufei was saying. “Forgive me. I'll be more careful."
"Not dead yet." He wanted to lie down. Wufei was checking beneath the ties of the hospital gown they’d left him in. He took care of ripping off the bandage on his recently broken nose himself. “They could at least have given us matching slippers,” he added, and pointed muzzily at Wufei’s feet.
Wufei wore an expression he didn’t much like the sight of. Didn’t like to think what a mess he looked, to have earned it. Thinking he was dead didn’t half cover it, not with proud Chang Wufei.
"How long?" he asked.
"Five days. No. Six. Wasn't it, Heero?"
"Six," Heero repeated. He came out of the darkness somewhere to the left; Duo couldn’t see out of that eye, but Heero kept to that side, near enough that Duo felt his skin crawling.
Wufei examined Duo’s cuffs. "Can you get those off?" he asked Heero.
Heero moved then, into Duo’s eyesight. Duo couldn’t read his face, but he knew what the clenched fists meant. "You need to stay awake,” Heero said. “Tell us what you told them about us and our mission."
"Not now, Yuy. He's barely keeping it together as it is."
He made it to his feet on anger alone. "I didn't talk."
"There would be no shame if you were overwhelmed with physical force," Heero said flatly. “I don’t ask to accuse. I ask so that we can deal with what they know.”
"I didn't talk!"
"He said he hasn't,” Wufei interrupted, and guided—pushed—Duo back to the step. “I want these cuffs off. If nothing else, they could serve as a weapon."
Duo felt through his plait, Wufei helping when he struggled to raise his arm high enough. "They took my picks," he mumbled.
"Heero has a set." Wufei turned, an imperious hand outthrust. Heero met Duo’s eyes with a strange reluctance; then he did indeed produce his picks, prying loose the bottom of his shoe and pulling the small wires from the seam. He sat to put his shoe back on as Wufei crouched over Duo, laboriously trying to manipulate the maglock. He flushed when his first attempt, and then his second, failed.
“I can do it,” Duo said.
"I've got it." Wufei was brusque in his embarrassment. But he was right. Only seconds later, the maglock disengaged, and the cuffs fell open and dropped to the ground with a clang. Wufei rubbed Duo’s wrists gently, careful of the splints on his right-hand fingers. “Do you think you could use your hands?”
The adrenaline from the long walk from the infirmary was fading. He felt shaky, and pain was edging in, like smudges sitting on the surface. "When I have to, yeah."
"They accused us of doing this. We didn't." Wufei’s dark eyes slanted up to Duo’s. “We wouldn't."
It took him a minute to process that. "I know." His throat was dry, and he coughed, sparking pain along his ribs again. "Why would they hide it?"
"Someone screwed up, and someone else covered his ass."
Barton, that meant. Duo didn’t understand that, right away. "They were... I think they came while you were gone. I don't remember all of it." It worried him that he couldn’t. It came in flashes that felt like morphine dreams—nightmares with no sense or logic. He freed one of his hands from Wufei’s, and pressed his palm over the ache in his groin. There was a pressure bandage there, and he had a vague memory of someone telling him about surgery.
"Are you all right?" he asked. He included Heero in his question, turning his head until he could see the other boy. Heero stared back without blinking.
"Nothing like this was done to us," Wufei said.
"I'm fine. I’ll be all right."
"You ought to rest."
"Yeah." If he slumped just right, he thought he might be able to prop himself up. Wufei kept trying to help him settle, but Heero was watching every move, and Duo didn’t want to—show a weakness, or something. Just because Heero had rescued him once didn’t mean he’d make the same choice twice, not if he thought Duo wasn’t going to make it out of the cell on his own power.
“Just let me,” Wufei said, not noticing their silent communication.
Heero nodded once, silently. He turned away, abruptly, and crossed the floor to where he’d been when they’d brought Duo in. He sat facing the wall. Another time, it might have made him sad, or angry, even; Duo could only feel relieved to have a momentary reprieve from judgement.
"Why you being nice?" he asked Wufei. He was tired, absolutely drained suddenly, and Wufei was warm. He did lie down then, and Wufei guided his head down to his lap.
"You'd do no differently," Wufei said. His fingers probbed carefully at Duo’s temples.
"Thank you." He could barely keep himself awake, except for that ache of discomfort that was turning into a true pain. Not enough to keep him awake, not at all. "Tell him I didn't talk."
"I've been telling him for six days." Wufei covered his eyes with a palm. “None of us ever would."
"I didn't." In the dark behind Wufei’s hand he closed his eyes, unable to keep them open. "They didn't even ask me anything."
"Yuy knows you didn't. Don't you, Heero?"
He fell asleep before he heard the answer.
He thought the ringing was part of his dream, at first. Then instinct kicked in. He woke up disoriented and uncertain, but with the phone in his hand. "What?" he said, when he could form the English.
It was Wufei. "You awake?"
"Yeah." Not really. "What time is it?"
"Seven forty-five. Take a second. Wake up fully."
That had his attention, and Wufei’s tone. He sat up and fumbled on his right side for a light. He wasn’t in his bed, as he’d thought, but on his couch downstairs. He had the queasy feeling that meant he’d drunk more than he was used to, and a headache that didn’t like the lamp very much. He didn’t think he’d gone to sleep more than a few hours before, except that vague memories of staring at a clock that never moved had the feel more of a nightmare than reality. He cleared his throat, and asked, "What's wrong?"
"Will Stanley's in the hospital."
It didn’t compute to anything. "What?” he said again. Wufei repeated it. Duo rubbed his face. “Why?"
"He attempted suicide some time during the night."
He went numb. "He... Why would he-- he was fine when he left."
Except he hadn’t been. Duo remembered as soon as the words left his mouth.
"Nobody knows,” Wufei said, in that quiet, intimate phone voice people had in the morning dark. “There wasn't a note. The night janitor found him."
"The jani—“ He was thinking in fragments and couldn’t match any of the ragged ends. “At HQ?"
"In the pool.” Wufei didn’t say anything for a long time. Duo didn’t even think to hang up, but when Wufei spoke again, he’d forgot he even held the phone. “Listen. I don't know more than that he's alive and he's in the hospital. I have a number if you want to call."
"Yeah. Okay.” He looked at the end table under the lamp, and picked up a pen and pad sitting on it. “I can take it now.”
“Five-five-three-eleven-thirty. That's the nurse's station. He doesn't have a phone in his room. They wouldn't talk to me, but they might tell you something."
"Yeah." His hand trembled while he wrote, and he couldn’t read what he’d written anyway. "Yeah. Okay."
"If you need anything. A ride. Anything. I'm here."
"Yeah." He couldn’t think. "I'll let you know."
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he said vaguely, not even really hearing. "I've got to go." He hung up with Wufei trying to get him back.
He could go over there. Santa Maria wasn’t far away. He ought to go. He should be on his feet, in his car, breaking all the limits to get there.
His body knew something he didn’t, though, because it didn’t move. He turned off the lamp, and stared at the slivers of light poking through his blinds. When his phone rang again, he set it off the hook. He lay down and covered his eyes.
“Stanley,” Duo said. He started to lean on the counter, then uneasily kept his arms to himself.
“Are you family?” the nurse asked him, not even glancing up.
He hated hospitals. Most of his memories of them were hazed with drugs and unrelenting bright lights, and the constant smell of sick overlaid with chemicals. An old man dozed in a wheelchair, unsupervised, in a corner, and a woman was asleep in the lobby with two young children draped over her lap.
“Family?” the nurse repeated.
“No.” He looked back at her. “He doesn’t have any,” he remembered. “I’m—“
Another nurse noticed him standing there, and came to the station. “Are you Agent Maxwell?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said warily.
“You can come back,” she said, and lead him through a pair of automatic doors labelled ‘Intensive Care’. They passed three glass-walled, blind-draped units before Duo spoke.
“Is he that bad?”
The nurse glanced back. “This doubles as an isolation ward. He’ll be here until he’s discharged.” She halted in front of one of the units. “Please keep your visit short.”
“Okay.” She opened the door for him, but didn’t follow him in. Duo watched her go through the observation window.
The man in the bed stirred. “You came,” he said.
The room was white all over, made grey with the blinds drawn, and there was nothing to look at but the bed, not even any flowers, this soon after. Duo moved the single chair closer to the bed, and sat tensely in it. Stanley’s face was pale. There were bandages on his arms. When he noticed Duo looking, Stanley slid them under his sheet.
"You're an idiot,” Duo said. He cleared his throat, and looked at the softly beeping monitor. “You didn't do it. Someone else did. You were wrong not to stop it, but you didn't do it."
"I can't seem to forgive myself for that,” Stanley said. His voice was a pale reflection, too, weary and mumbling. “Even if you were the enemy, and they told us-- I believed you were a threat to everything I believed in."
"I was. The same way you were to me."
"That didn't make it okay. It still doesn't."
He licked his lips. "It's okay. Will."
Stanley curled under his blanket. "You'd say just about anything right now, wouldn't you? And tomorrow or next week when everything's back to normal-- what then?"
"I'm supposed to kick you while you're down?" he said, harsher than he meant to. He twitched the blanket away from Stanley’s wrist. It wasn’t hard to imagine blood there.
"You didn't used to lie to me, at least."
"I don't care if you ever forgive yourself. But I don't think suicide is any kind of pass, either. You live with what you did, and you try to make up for it. That's how you make it better." He licked his lips again. "Don't die."
"But we’re over. Right?"
"Christ, Will, we're beyond fucked up. What good does it do to pretend otherwise? Why did you do this?"
Stanley avoided his eyes, and then Duo was avoiding his. His throat was so tight it hurt, and his stomach felt jittery. He straightened an IV line and didn’t look to where it connected. "I'm sorry for what I said."
"You meant it.”
"I'm sorry now."
"I heard you, Duo.” Stanley was staring out the window when Duo made himself look. He said, “Do you still?"
There was no easy answer to that leaping to mind. He didn’t know. He backed away from the bed and hit the chair, and hurried away from it. "I'm gonna go. I'm gonna ask for a transfer. I'm just-- gonna leave."
Stanley’s head turned. "Don't,” he said. "Please don't dismantle your life over this."
"What other choices are there? I stay here and you-- whatever. Implode. I stay here and I implode. No."
"I’ll leave you alone." He said it a plea. Duo halted at the window.
"Shut up, Will."
There was choked breathing behind him. He tried not to think about it, and then couldn’t think of anything else, and he couldn’t turn to look.
"Merquise will transfer me. He already threatened it. It'll-- help.” He rubbed his face, and pressed his fist to his mouth. “Something has to help."
"Damn it, can you do one damned thing I ask?"
"You never ask the right questions."
"Why'd you have sex with me?"
"Because occasionally I have pretty ridiculous lapses in judgement." With a massive effort, he faced the bed again. Stanley was looking at him, an obscure confusion, a frown of some kind of pain lining his eyes. Duo said, "I don't know. It... hurt both of us, I guess. Maybe I thought that was the best I could get."
"Did it help?” Stanley picked at his sheet. “Fucking the dirty Ozzie."
It was obviously meant to carry venom. It didn’t. It sat awkwardly between them, a weapon Stanley was too far beaten to properly use. Stanley’s teeth bit into his lip. Lamely, listlessly, he said, "It was supposed to."
Duo put his hands in his pockets and curled them. "You get out of here, and we'll talk about it."
"Yeah." Stanley nodded. "Thanks for coming."
He ducked his shoulder to the door. It opened under the pressure on silent hinges.
"I'm not a bad person,” Stanley added suddenly. “I was eighteen years old. More scared than anything else--" A beat faded into the noise of the vitals monitor. "Once I understood what we were really doing."
Duo turned back one more time. "I know," he said.
"I'm sorry, Duo."
"Me too." He remembered to breathe. The air felt soupy, thick in his throat. "Look, just-- when you get out. We'll talk more."
However official his suspension was or wasn’t, there was no way Duo was going to the office. Gossip about Stanley would have run through the building like wild fire, and that gossip was likely to connect up at Duo’s disgrace. But the determination not to provide any further entertainment only lasted through one day of brooding boredom confined to his own house. Wufei kept calling, and then Heero started too, leaving an awkward message on his mobile and then switching to one-word texts every hour. The one call he thought he might get never came, though he kept checking the log for the number.
He drew the line when Quatre called from L4. If his own friends were going to carry tales, he might as well be outside where he could honestly tell them he hadn’t had his phone. At dawn the third day, He drove to HQ, but took the outer circle drive, not the inner that lead to the office complex. He bypassed the lake, and parked outside the field and track.
On L2 he’d run all the time. Mostly because he was in trouble. But there’d been an exhilaration in it, and a kind of pride—Solo had always said he was the fastest he’d ever seen. And after Solo had died and his legs had got long enough he’d raced with the older kids who did Free Running on the rooftops. He’d never learnt many of the stylised tricks and gymnastics of it, but he’d been quick and sure-footed enough to stay even, jumping from vents and windows and ledges without knowing until he was airborne where he was going to land. These days he only ran roofs during the odd criminal chase. The track was a monotonous substitute, but it was lonely, only an hour into the daylight, and that was something.
He was sweating hard and almost out of water when someone finally did interrupt him. One of the company cars came from the direction of the offices, and parked in the little lot next to him. Duo slowed to a jog on legs that were starting to shake from the exertion. He recognised the head of blond hair as it came out of the car. He drank the rest from his bottle and clipped it back to his belt, and crossed the grassy lawn rather than follow the track all the way back.
“I’m not going inside,” he said, pre-empting Merquise’s greeting. “I just came to use the track. Word is I’m persona non grata, and all.”
Merquise was in uniform—dress uniform, Duo noticed, and couldn’t think of a reason why he would be. Merquise closed the last few yards between them. "Got a minute?" he asked.
"Yeah." Duo saluted half-heartedly, and wiped his face on his sleeve. “I’m not really dressed for—“
Merquise shook his head. "Not here. Let's go for a walk."
He was surprised by that. They already had absolute privacy. But Merquise seemed to be waiting for him to agree, for once, so he made a vague gesture back the way he’d come, toward the lake. There were some trees there, if Merquise was looking for cover. The taller man slowed his gait to match Duo’s, and they walked.
Merquise didn’t break the silence until they’d reached the water’s edge and had no-where further to go. He removed his sunglasses and faced Duo, who found himself tensing.
"William Stanley succeeded in a second suicide attempt this morning," he said.
Just blunt like that. Quiet. Duo stared at him.
“I thought you'd prefer to hear it away from the office."
He couldn’t breathe. Everything went weird and hollow-sounding, as if he’d stepped outside himself. He didn’t even think of asking it, but his voice went on without him, low and flat. "How'd he die."
"He used his service revolver. Apparently he wasn't taking any chances this time."
He felt a jot of sickness, and then Merquise was touching him, a large hand on Duo’s shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Merquise blurred and Duo blinked until his eyes cleared.
"I'm sorry," Merquise repeated. He squeezed. "I know he cared about you."
"You don't know anything about either of us." He moved, and that was like speaking, his body working without any conscious direction at all.
Merquise dropped his hand back to his side. "Perhaps not."
Duo rubbed his mouth. He couldn’t think, except for that—all those calls he hadn’t answered, God, had they been trying to reach him? No. No, Merquise said it was just this morning, and that meant while he’d been out here running like an idiot, and-- "Why wasn't he on suicide watch?" he demanded harshly.
"What makes you think he wasn't?"
"Then how'd it happen? What the fuck is wrong with you people?"
"He was off duty.” Merquise watched him warily. “Forensics puts his time of death at around five this morning. The hospital discharged him, Duo." He said it carefully, not dispassionately. "The assumption was he'd been seeing someone. And that perhaps that someone would be present on off duty time."
Duo turned on him. "You don't get to fucking blame me for this, I don't care who you are or what rank you have."
"No-one's blaming you. No-one's holding you responsible."
He wanted to pursue it, almost did, but he lost the thread of it. There was a bench a few yards away. He sat on it. The metal slats were hot under his bare thighs. It was an odd time for it, but suddenly he was aware of all the sound around them—a buzzing from all over that was probably insects, and the noise of a little breath of breeze through the tall grasses in the meadow behind them and the branches above their heads, and chatter from birds, ducks on the water. Nothing was silent, after all, not even Merquise, who was breathing, going on breathing, and his uniform rustling as he came step by step to the bench and waited for acknowledgement. Duo felt his eyes brimming, everything went blurred again. He bit the inside of his cheeks until he could beat it back.
"May I sit?" Merquise said. Duo nodded. Merquise eased his way down with his hands on his knees. Then he slipped his fingers inside his coat, and brought out a sealed envelope. He put it between them on the bench and kept it from blowing away with a finger.
"What is it?" Duo asked.
"It was on Stanley's desk.” Light blue paper, and Duo’s name on the front. He’d never seen Stanley’s writing, he realised. The letters were slanted and poorly formed, but it was his name, all the same. “I took it. No-one else has seen it. It hasn't been opened. It's yours."
He didn’t reach for it. His hands clenched into fists at the thought of it. Note. Suicide note. People left suicide notes for their families, they wanted people to know—why—
Merquise let it rest on the bench, and pressed his hands between his knees. "Stanley had been coming to me for months. He had... a lot of personal demons chasing him."
He sat there listening to all the noise all around them. "What was I supposed to do differently?"
"Did you ever consider forgiving him?"
He felt a tear go. He wiped it away as it hit his cheek, as his throat clogged. He concentrated on keeping his composure, on forcing himself to breathe.
"For some of us, the war will never be over. Apparently."
"Shut up," he whispered.
"Go away. Take that with you." He pointed to the envelope without looking at it.
Merquise put it back in his pocket. "I'll keep it safe for you, until you're ready."
"Don't be alone tonight." Merquise stood then. "I don't want to find another of these."