Chapter 24: "Growing Up"

Howard's ship was much larger than Relena's small shuttle. It was a flying metal shop, in all ways. It turned out Howard was a gifted mechanic; from what Wufei could tell, Duo had worked with him for a few years before coming with Heero to fetch Wufei. There were a couple of small workshops, one enormous workshop, and a hangar that was kept locked to the new visitors.
There were also-- thank the gods --sleeping quarters. Howard gave them a brief tour of the shops, the dining area, and the cockpit, and while Sally Po took the girls to the washroom, Duo cheerfully led the others to the sleeping area where Howard's workers slept.

Most of them were occupied, but there were still enough beds. Duo, Quatre, and Trowa ended up in one room, and Heero and Wufei took the one next door. Despite Heero's mention of Trowa's misgivings about the 'professionalism' of their relationship, he seemed unconcerned about this arrangement. Wufei could easily understand why as he made his way silently across the dark room full of bearded men snoring uproariously in their beds, one of them still clutching a wrench to his chest like a comforting toy.

They found a pair of beds at the far end of the room, where Heero watched Wufei stiffly pull back his sheets for a moment before he seated himself crosslegged on his own bed and made a commanding gesture. After a moment's hesitation, Wufei padded over to the bed and sat down in front of the other boy.

They didn't speak, careful not to disturb the slumbering crew members. Heero's hands deftly found the knots and sore spots along Wufei's neck and shoulders and began to knead them out.

Wufei closed his eyes and ignored the worm of worry in his stomach. Screw Trowa, and screw his confusion. There was nothing wrong with one friend helping another. And this was a big help. It would making sleeping easier, and he would be able to move quickly if he had to.

...Not to mention it felt damn good.

"Wufei." Heero's voice was a low murmur, barely audible over the snores. Wufei turned his head slightly to hear better, and felt Heero's lips move against his hair, just behind his ear. Heero hesitated, as if unsure if he should even be voicing his thoughts aloud, then continued, "Do you want to go home?"

"What?" Wufei frowned, unable to see the boy behind him unless he twisted completely around. The hands had stopped their massage and were resting almost tentatively on his shoulders. "Wasn't that the plan?" he pointed out dryly.

"I meant... earth," Heero clarified. "Back to your foster mother."

Wufei started to turn in surprise, then checked himself. "What are you talking about?" he hissed. "You've done nothing but go on and on about this stupid 'mission' to reunite me with my family, and now--"

"I know," Heero cut him off. "But I don't think you really understand what's waiting for you there."

Wufei's frown deepened, as did his anxiety. "What is that supposed to mean?" he muttered. "And anyway, why didn't you bring this up before if it's such a big deal?"

"It didn't occur to me," Heero admitted bluntly. "I was given my orders."

"And what, now that we're friends, you've had a change of heart?" Wufei felt his eyes narrow. "What's really going on, Yuy?" he demanded in a harsh undertone. "What the hell are you getting me into?"

"I'm not leading you purposefully to your death, if that's what you're suggesting," Heero said a little coolly. "But not everyone will welcome you with open arms."

"You said something like that before," Wufei pointed out wearily. "I think I can see where you're going with this. A little. I've been gone a long time. I sort of expected things to be a little... weird."

"Zhao is still there," Heero said, surprising Wufei. "He still remembers you."

"He still doesn't like me, you mean," Wufei grunted. "I don't give a damn whether or not some punk I knew that long ago still harbors grudges he felt as a child, Yuy."

Heero snorted with droll amusement. His hands slipped off of Wufei's shoulders and landed on the bed on either side of his hips. "Suàn le," he muttered, starting to pull away.

Wufei turned around quickly, reaching down to clasp Heero's wrist and stop him. Heero blinked at him in surprise, features barely visible in the darkness.

"You-" Wufei sputtered accusingly. "You never said you could speak Chinese!"

"What?" Heero blinked. "Oh." He frowned slightly. "You never asked," he pointed out. When Wufei only sputtered in outrage, he shrugged, unconcerned. "What did you expect? What language did you think we spoke together when we were growing up? Certainly not Basic."

Wufei stared at him for a long while in silence, feeling more than a little stupid. It made sense. There had even been that dream, the one of fire... he shook the images off hastily. In it, Heero had shouted at him in Japanese, and he-- his dream-self --had thought fleetingly how Heero would have gotten a tanning for speaking that language in the house. Which should have led to the obvious conclusion that they'd been speaking Mandarin. He used the language often enough with his foster mother; it hadn't clicked that all of his dreams of childhood were in Chinese. He probably hadn't even known Basic at such an age. The universal language had been developed for traders between colonies, and was the primary lingo on Earth. What use would a five-year old child have for that tongue on a colony run by people of Chinese descent?

Still, as obvious as it was, it had still never occured to him, and he felt silly for his reaction. He scowled. "What about the others?"

"Others?" Heero cocked his head slightly in question before catching on. "Duo can speak it, yes," he admitted. "Or at least, he can to a point, anyway. I've only ever heard him use it when we were very young and a few times in the past to hold a conversation we didn't want others to understand. He might have forgotten it now. Trowa and Quatre are probably even more rusty. They usually fall back on French when they're holding private conversations."

"French?" Wufei frowned. Well, Quatre's name.... but still, the Winner family, from what he'd heard, was of Arabic descent. "I assumed Quatre was--"

"Trowa," Heero corrected. "Actually, not even he knows his own geneology. But his Guardian trainer was French. I assume Trowa picked it up from him. He and Quatre have been close since childhood; no doubt he taught it to Quatre."

"...Ah." Wufei was suddenly aware of just how little he knew about these four boys who were so willing to put their lives on the line for his own. He felt a pang of guilt and looked away to hide it from Heero. "It's late," he said shortly, making as if to rise.

"There's no 'night' or 'bedtime' in space," Heero pointed out dryly.

"I know that." Wufei made a face at him. Belatedly he realized he was still gripping Heero's wrist. Heero seemed to notice at the same instant, and before Wufei could let go, Heero turned his hand palm-up and flexed his fingers so that they were wrapped loosely around Wufei's. Wufei drew in a quick breath through his nose, heart kicking up a notch. He stared down at their hands, unable to force himself to raise his gaze to Heero's. Heero's chin was practically touching his shoulder, and he was silent for a long moment, as if unsure of what to say, or even what Wufei's reaction would be to the spontaneous grip.

"They want to know you," he finally said, speaking awkwardly because Heero Yuy was not usually one given to handing out advice on matters of the human heart. "They barely knew you before you went to Earth, and even if they had, it's been a long time."

"..Yeah," Wufei mumbled after a moment, unable to think of a more intelligent response. He slipped his hand free, but when Heero started to draw back-- taking it as a rejection --he seized Heero's hand on impulse and lifted it closer to his face to see better. Heero froze behind him, caught off guard, but didn't pull away. Wufei could feel him watching as he inspected the palm held before him. Wufei felt his lips twitch into a slight frown as he gazed at the scarred, calloused hand. "These are from guns, aren't they?" he demanded quietly. "Jesus, Yuy, how long have you been holding a gun in your hand?" He traced a callous between the thumb and forefinger unconsciously, and felt Heero shudder unexpectedly behind him at the feather-light touch. He hesitated, fingerpads still spread on Heero's palm. Heero's hands, which were stronger and more worn, looked... He spread his fingers, pressing his own palm flat to Heero's to check. Yes. They were slightly larger than his own.

Heero was still frozen behind him, watching in silence, unwilling to so much as breathe hard for fear he might startle Wufei away. But after a moment, his fingers twitched, then curled inward. Wufei hesitated, then allowed his own fingers to relax so their two hands were entertwined. His breath gave a strange hitch in his throat, his heart drumming in his ears as if he'd just leaned tauntingly over a cliff edge. He became aware of Heero's chest against his back, hard with muscle like his own, and warm. He was surprised-- and a little pacified --to feel the heart behind him thudding as hard as his own against his shoulder blades.

Heero's chin had slowly come to rest on his shoulder so that his breath fell against the side of Wufei's cheek, but his body was still tense as a wire, as if he were touching a snarling tiger rather than another human boy. Ready to recoil the instant he felt violence or fear.
Wufei turned his head slightly, hesitantly, but couldn't quite find Heero's eyes in the gloom. His face felt incredibly hot, and his hand kept trying to twitch with nerves in Heero's loose grasp. Inside, there was a war going on as he silently panicked. What was he doing? He'd lost his damned mind. But... He took in a deep breath through his nose to calm himself, and felt a rush of unexpected annoyance rush in with it.

What the hell was the big damned deal, anyway? There was no one there to stare, to scorn him, and nothing inside of him was telling him flat out-- "This is wrong". Nothing where it mattered, anyway. Society had pounded one idea into him, but he'd never cared much for what other people thought of him. Why in the hell did it suddenly matter to him now?

He let the breath out, and a lot of tension with it. Behind him, he felt some of the tension ease out of Heero's frame as well as he felt Wufei relax slightly against him.
They sat like that for what felt like hours without saying anything, and when Wufei finally drew away and went to his own bed, it took them both a long time to fall asleep, each of them staring at the ceiling with their own tangled thoughts.


Since Sally Po was the only woman on board, and she slept in her office, Relena and Hilde found themselves bunking on the two spare beds in the infirmary meant for patients. Hilde fell asleep almost immediately, worn out, but Relena tossed and turned for almost two hours before she gave up on the attempt.

She could hear Sally Po's steady breathing in the bed in the corner of the office where the other woman slept, so she slipped on the robe that had been lent to her, tugged on her shoes, and snuck quietly out of the office.

She padded silently down the main corridor, vaguely following the same path Howard had led them on during his tour. She passed the locked hangar and studied the keypad curiously, but it was obviously high-tech. She brushed her fingers over the numbered pad to check, but it flashed a red light in denial. Definitely locked. She paused for a moment, wondering what could be so special to keep it locked up in what should have been a busy area, then shrugged it off and continued down the corridor.

She found herself in the sprawling cockpit, where the night crew was up, drinking strong coffee and staring listlessly at their screens. There were only three of them, and she spotted sandalled feet propped on a desk and made her way over to where Howard was leaning back in his chair, hands clasped on his stomach as he studied a computer screen with half-lidded eyes.

She hesitated, wondering if he was nodding off, but his eyes flicked her way as soon as she was in his line of sight. "Can't sleep?"

She shook her head mutely.

Howard pushed his lean frame up with a grunt and leaned his elbows on the shelf, grinning up at her encouragingly. "Sorry a young dame like you has to put up with all these slack-jawed neanderthals. A little girl like you shouldn't be out here in dangerous times like this."

Relena hadn't planned on speaking, but his words irked her a bit. "I'm not a little girl," she said firmly. "I'm nearly seventeen. And besides, it isn't exactly like I have a choice."

"Everyone has a choice, chikadee," Howard snorted, looking amused. "There ain't such a thing as a man-- or sorry, woman --without choice."

Relena frowned slightly, wrapping her arms around her stomach to ward off the chill of the air conditioning. "Not always," she said quietly. "I would rather be anywhere but here."

"No one's stoppin' ya," Howard said cheerfully, waving a hand towards the canopy and the darkness outside. When she only stared blankly, he chuckled. "Well, if you'd rather not be here, you're free to go, ain't ya?"

"Of course not."

"Oh?" Howard cocked his head at her. "You jus' said you'd rather be anywhere but here. So go somewhere else. If you wanted to, you could step right outside. Though I wouldn't recommend it. You could call for someone to pick you up. You could sneak away when no one's watching."

"But I can't," Relena tried to explain, exasperated. "You don't understand--"

"No, guess I don't," he agreed readily enough. "Me, now... there's no way you're keepin' me somewhere I don't wanna be, or makin' me do somethin' I don't wanna do. There's always a choice, girlie, always an alternative. It ain't always pretty or better, but there's always a choice. Everyone has a choice, and there ain't nothin' anyone can do to stop you from makin' that choice."

Relena shook her head, thinking of her father's words. "That isn't always true," she said firmly. "There are instances where it might be for the best if you do what's demanded of you. Or someone threatens you."

"So?" Howard offered her a blank look. "That's still your choice. You choose to go along with it. Someone tells you 'do this or I'll kill you', you don't have to do anything. No force on earth can make you. So you choose to be killed." He shrugged, eyes drifting to the computer screen again. "No one can make you do or say anythin' you don't want."

Relena stood gazing at him for a long moment. For an instant she was angry. He was obviously off his rocker, and stubborn as a mule. Wasn't he listening to her?

An instant later the anger faded, and her frown melted away. She turned her eyes on the stars outside, eyes sad and mind far away.

In the end, she realized, it was her choice. She didn't have to go with Heero and his strange friends. She didn't have to listen to her father.

But what could be the reason behind this all? She wanted to know what was waiting for her out here among the stars. She wanted to know the reason behind that aged look in her father's eyes.

She turned away after a while and went silently back to her bed. It would take Hilde another day or two to realize Relena no longer made any mention of escape or kidnapping. It would take even longer for Relena to realize: she'd already made her choice.

The next five days passed uneventfully, and as there wasn't much else to do on a mechanic's ship other than work with the mechanics, one by one they all found ways to chip in and help Howard's men with their work.

The day after they'd stepped on board Duo was rolling up his sleeves and disappearing into the hangar and the workshops to work cheerfully beside the other workers-- some of them old friends and acquaintances --with surprising skill. Soon after, Quatre, who hated watching when he could be helping, found small ways to help by fetching tools, holding things still, and making the meals. Trowa predictably followed his blond friend's lead, and it turned out he wasn't a half-bad mechanic himself. Heero would go with Howard to the locked hangar every day and not appear again until dinner time. Hilde helped Quatre with the small tasks and would sit and listen to the stories the mechanics told as they worked. Relena floated about like a ghost for the first few days, then assigned herself as Sally Po's makeshift nurse, helping her look after small cuts and wounds and keeping the infirmary sparkling clean.

Wufei, whose knowledge of mechanics went no further than the occasional tinkering he'd done with Trowa on the taller boy's dirtbike, felt useless, and spent most of his time meditating and practicing his martial arts. He aided each of his friends as the need came, but knew without asking that he wasn't allowed in the hangar, so he saw very little of Heero those first five days. He made it a point to hang around Hilde as often as possible, feeling guilty for getting her into the whole mess. He didn't realize how much he'd missed his friend's counsel and jokes during the trip to Orton until he was able to see her on a day-to-day basis again.

His curiosity was starting to get the better of him by the fifth day, and on the sixth, he decided he had as much right as Heero to see what the hell was so bloody interesting in the hangar, and followed him and Howard in secret that morning.

He hid around a corner and watched as Howard inputted the code and the two of them walked inside, but he couldn't make out which numbers were pressed. As soon as the door shut, he strode over and inspected the keypad stubbornly. There was no way to tell which numbers had been pressed, and even if there had been, he wouldn't have had the first clue which sequence to use them in. He glared at the wide double doors, frustrated. Whatever was behind that door, he'd caught enough snatches of conversation to know that Quatre, Trowa, and Duo had all been in the hangar already-- or at least, they knew perfectly well what was inside and what Heero was doing in there day after day. He pressed his ear to the door, straining for any sound. He thought he heard voices, and what sounded like tools. So they were working on something. But what?

He took a step back and turned his attention back on the keypad. He didn't recognize it. It was obviously more high-tech than anything that was ordinarily used on locks back on earth. More high-tech than anything he'd seen, anyway. He laid his hand lightly on the numbers, debating whether or not to attempt it.

There was a low but deep humming sound that made him jerk back reflexively. Strangely, the hum seemed almost to have come from... inside the hangar, rather than from the door or the lock itself. Abruptly the keypad gave a small, shrill beep, and the light flashed green. The doors slid open, catching Wufei off guard, and he stepped back quickly. What perfect timing. He must have caught Heero and Howard as they were coming out.

But no one was on the other side of the door, and he could still hear voices echoing from inside the hangar. He hesitated, then, when the doors started to slide shut again, he hastened inside.

The doors shut quietly behind him, and he looked around slowly, blinking in the bright lights. His surprise and disbelief mounted as he studied the vehicles lined up on either side of the large hangar. There were, of course, perfectly ordinary surface-carts, drilling equipment, and even a damaged escape pod, all put there to be worked on or stored.

But there two outdated but menacing-looking military MS, as well as what looked like some kind of tank. Hanging from the wall were rows and rows of guns; on the other hung what was unmistakably a beam cannon, except it was obviously too large for either of the MS.

Then his eyes drifted to the far side of the hangar, where he could hear the voices and the sound of tools. And found the secret.

Of course, they were still a mystery. He walked forward slowly, gazing up in confusion and awe at the colossal shapes. There were four of them, whatever they were, towering much larger than the two MS, nearly touching the ceiling. They were covered in tarps, concealing what they were. It was here he found Howard, standing at the base of one of them, neck tilted back as he shouted up at the boy seated at the very top of the gigantic shape, part of the canopy cut away or pulled back as he worked single-mindedly on something Wufei couldn't make out from the ground.

Howard caught sight of him out of the corner of his eye and turned quickly, eyes wide in surprise. "Whoa! How in the hell--"

Heero looked down quickly at the exclamation, and surprise flashed across his face on finding Wufei glaring suspiciously up at him. "Wufei," he said sharply. "What are you..." he stopped, hesitating, then put his tools down firmly and caught hold of a zipcord hanging from the ceiling, letting it lower him to the floor. He hit the ground scowling, and Wufei knew if he didn't speak first, he'd be kicked out without a chance to get a word in.

"You really should lock the door if you don't want people wandering in here, Yuy," he pointed out, jerking his chin towards the mysterious draped object. "So this is what you've been up to. What the hell are these things?"

Heero looked from him to the canopy and hesitated. "You weren't supposed to see this," he growled finally. "At least not until--"

"Hold on just a damn minute," Howard cut him off, peering suspiciously at Wufei. "Whaddya talkin' about, boy? That door's got an automatic lock. An' I know you didn't slip in right after us, or we woulda seen ya. What are you tryin' to pull?" He turned to Heero. "One of your little friends musta let 'im in. It ain' Duo, I know that much. He ain't that stupid. An' I just saw him talkin' to that pretty little girl with the short hair a minute ago."

Heero's eyes narrowed, but Wufei snorted. "Obviously you need to get your memory checked," he said shortly. "No one let me in, old man. You didn't lock it, or the door shut-- I don't care what the reason is. The door opened, I've seen most of your little secret anyhow, so you might as well spill. And I do mean now," he added, giving Heero a hard look. "I'm getting a little sick of secrets."

Heero's pause was longer this time. He glanced at Howard, then turned his eyes on Wufei again, eyes calculating. "Fine," he said abruptly.

Howard's eyebrows shot up. "Hey, now wait a sec," he said hastily. "I'm runnin' a risk just cartin' these things around. Puttin' my neck on the choppin' block, as it were. I only let you an' those other two in here to work on 'em cuz Duo says you can be trusted. I don't know this guy well enough, no offense."

"None taken," Wufei drawled. "But that doesn't change anything."

"He has the right to see them," Heero said finally. He looked at Wufei again. "But," he started.

"I get the hint," Wufei interrupted impatiently. "Top secret stuff, right. I won't talk about it, whatever it is. Now what are they?"

"Mobile Suits," Howard said after a sigh of long-suffering. "What else?"

Wufei stared at him, then peered in disbelief up at the towering objects. "There aren't any Mobile Suits that big," he said flatly.

"Oh yes there are," Howard snorted. "You're lookin' at 'em. These here are special types, obviously. Built an' engineered for a specific purpose."

"The war," Wufei guessed grimly, taking a step back in distaste.

"No," Heero corrected calmly. "They were built for you."

Wufei stared at him, nonplussed. Heero reached out and tugged on a rope hanging from the canopy of the MS he'd been working on. With a sound like muffled thunder or wings, the cloth fell away and fluttered to the floor to reveal the shining monster underneath.

It was a Mobile Suit, Wufei was forced to admit as he stared wide-eyed up at the metallic giant. Admittedly, it was the largest, most flexible, most futuristic type he'd ever seen, but it was an MS nonetheless. He stepped forward and placed a hand against one enormous leg, craning his head to gaze up at the vaguely humanoid shape; at the slanted green "eyes", the boosters peeking over the shoulders, the spiked head, and the gigantic hands.

"Wing," Heero said, introducing the Suit with a slight gesture, eyes still on Wufei as he watched the other boy's reaction carefully. "It was actually designed by the Guardian trainers. They call it a Gundam."

Wufei looked over at him, blinking, mind still staggering as he tried to accept that something so large could possibly be controlled by a human being. "Gundam?" he repeated.

"General Unilateral Neuro-link Dispersive Autonomic Maneuver," Heero rattled off, sounding like a soldier repeating a creed. He rapped his knuckles against the hulking leg, and Wufei frowned in confusion; it hadn't sounded like steel to him. "The alloy they use, they called Gundanium," Heero explained. "Whatever it's made of, they kept their secrets close to their chests. They're the only ones who can manufacture it, or even upgrade these models. We just keep them tuned up here."

Wufei looked from Heero to Wing again, drinking in the information hungrily. Abruptly he frowned. "Wait. 'Built for me'? You mean your.. 'trainers' created these for Guardians?"

"To help protect you," Heero finished with a nod.

Wufei felt only slightly light-headed. He took a step back and looked towards the other three covered figures. Heero shook his head before Wufei could ask. "Wing is mine," he said firmly. "But the others aren't. I don't have the right to show them to you; you'll have to ask Duo and the others if you want to look at theirs."

Wufei nodded reluctantly, eyes already drifting back to Wing's imposing figure.

"We wouldn't," he heard Duo's voice again, "if we had those..."

That was what he'd said when the bomber had attacked their shuttle. Heero had cut him off sharply, saying they wouldn't have 'those' until they met up with Howard. These, then, were what he'd been talking about. He gazed up at Wing's hard face, at the solid plating and hands that could crush a man in its grip, and shuddered slightly. These were the weapons built to protect him, Chang Wufei. He wondered with a chill what danger he could possibly be about to face that would require the manufacturing of such things.

Dangerous enough to require a Gundam.

Author's Notes: Suàn le-- Never mind
BTW, the acronym for GUNDAM that Heero recites is actually taken from an official Gundam site.

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