Chapter 37: "Subtle Shifts of Heart"

They met Quatre and Trowa as they were about to enter the infirmary.

Quatre took one look at the two of them, blinked quickly a few times, and slowly flushed red to the roots of his hair. He politely lifted a hand to hide the small little smile that twitched at his lips. Wufei turned away quickly, hitting the button to activate the infirmary door as an excuse to hide his own humiliated blush.


Of all the luck. Quatre had taken one look at Wufei's slightly mussed hair, picked up on whatever feelings were churning through both boys, and obviously put two and two together. Thank god for small favors-- Trowa was behind Quatre and so didn't notice that anything was wrong. He nodded at Heero, who had managed to keep his stone mask in place, and followed his blond friend into the room. Quatre avoided eye contact with his friends, keeping his mouth shut, and Wufei took the opportunity to try and get over his embarrassment, glancing around automatically for Hilde.

She was still seated on the bench, hands clasped in her lap, eyes downcast. She was very still, and didn't look up when they entered. Suspicious, Wufei looked to Duo, but the braided idiot was lounging on a chair, picking at his nails with one of his knives and looking as if he didn't have a care in the world. Mariemaia was huddled up in a little ball in her own chair, looking like a trapped animal. Her eyes were large and wild, and she almost jumped out of her skin at their abrupt entrance. She was white as a sheet.

Wufei did not even bother to pretend to sympathize. He headed for Hilde, looking about for Relena. She was in the farthest corner, standing beside Sally Po's bed. She looked as if she was about to be sick. Since there were no obvious marks on Mariemaia that he could see, Wufei found himself morbidly curious as to what Duo could possibly have said to have gotten this kind of a reaction from the three girls.

Heero stood in front of Mariemaia and crossed his arms over his chest. "Well?"

Mariemaia's big eyes flickered towards Duo, and she remained mute.

Heero spoke to Duo without looking away from her. "Find out anything useful?"

"She had some interesting things to say," Duo said agreeably, digging his knife under his thumbnail.


Duo gave him an innocent look. "And what?"

"Spill, Maxwell," Wufei growled impatiently. "Obviously whatever you did or said has her too frightened to talk. What did you find out?"

"Welllll, now..." Duo drawled, propping a foot on his knee and hunching over. He smiled up at them cheerfully. "I did all the work. I want some compensation."

Trowa frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Duo's eyes bore into Wufei. "You have something of mine. I want it back."

"What?" Wufei asked in confusion.

"No, Duo," Heero snapped. "We've been over this a thousand times--"

"Duo, we don't have time for this," Quatre said a bit sharply.

Duo shrugged, looking unconcerned. "No prize, no info." He went back to picking his nails.

"Never mind him," Trowa said in mild disgust. He tilted his chin towards Hilde. "One of them can tell us."

Hilde finally raised her eyes to stare at them dully. "I can't tell you anything," she admitted quietly. "He had her whisper it in his ear."

"Maxwell!" Wufei snarled in frustration. He glared at Heero. "Just give him whatever it is he wants. Argue about it later, but right now we need to get out of here before Milliardo catches up."

Heero's jaw was set stubbornly. "No," he said firmly. "It was given to me. It's for the Primary Guardian, Duo. You can't be trusted with it."

"'Sat so?" Duo muttered, inspecting his nails. "You know, it's funny you say that. Seeing how lately you've seemed to be so intent on doing the one thing that can make you lose your job the quickest."

Trowa's eyes narrowed.

Heero took in a deep breath and very carefully did not look at Wufei. "This is not the time for this, Duo," he said in a low, dangerous tone.

"Give it to me, and you'll get your information," Duo insisted.

Heero turned his dark glare on Mariemaia. "Talk," he suggested in a cold voice.

But she wouldn't even look at him.

Duo chuckled, wagging his razor-sharp blade at Heero. "Sorry, buddy, but it's not you she's afraid of. She won't tell you jack."

"Why not?" Wufei demanded.

Duo's smile was slow and disturbing. "Because I told her not to."

"Damn it, Duo," Heero snarled in sudden anger. He took two quick steps forward, swatting the hand with the knife aside and seizing the front of Duo's shirt. Duo reacted automatically, ducking his hand past Heero's arm and darting it forward so that the blade was pressed to Heero's throat. Wufei's heart leapt into his mouth.

"Duo-- don't!" Quatre gasped, going pale.

Both boys were frozen, glaring into each other's eyes hotly.

"Whatever it is, you said I have it," Wufei said quickly. "Fine. Then I'll give it to you, damn you, just knock it off and tell us what you found out."

"No," Heero snapped without taking his eyes from Duo. "Don't, Wufei. If you give that to him--"

"It's mine, Yuy," Duo growled quietly, the knife unwavering. "Those fuckers stole it from me. I just want back what's mine."

"He's insane," Relena whimpered from her corner. No one looked at her.

"I think he might be," Hilde agreed under her breath, gazing at Duo with a closed-off expression.

Duo's eyes narrowed slightly, and he applied some pressure to the knife. A few drops of blood welled against Heero's throat, but he refused to back down. Wufei stepped forward quickly. "Stop it!" he shouted furiously. There was a sudden sharp pain in his lower back.

Duo jerked back, eyes flaring wide. The knife went clattering to the floor. Heero stumbled back from Duo as if he'd been pushed. Quatre made a sharp noise of pain and covered his head with his hands piteously while Trowa shook his head hard like a dog trying to shake off a pest.

Wufei didn't let himself think about what had just happened. He leapt forward, slapping his foot down on the knife when Duo tried to snatch it up. Wufei kicked the weapon aside, and it skittered across the floor. Duo looked up at him slowly through ragged bangs, his face serious and dangerous. The basest instincts inside of Wufei quailed, but he only glared back angrily. His lower back was beginning to burn with pain, spiraling out from his Mark. He forced himself to ignore it.

"That's enough," he growled. "I don't know what this is all about, but whatever it is, we can discuss it later." He shot Heero a quelling look when the other boy looked ready to speak. "Regardless of what you say, whatever it is seems to be mine for now. I'll decide what to do with it. But not right now. We don't have time for this bullshit. Get a grip, Maxwell. We're not your god damned enemies."

There was an uneasy silence. Duo continued to stare at Wufei solemnly for a long while; abruptly he straightened and offered his familiar cheery grin. "Sure, whatever. We'll talk later, then." He leaned back in his chair, and he was the same Duo Maxwell Wufei had gotten to know in their days traveling together. The abrupt shift between personalities gave Wufei a chill. "You drive a hard bargain, buddy..." Duo waved a hand carelessly in Mariemaia's direction. "Afraid I couldn't get much out of her concerning her father's plans for you; she just breaks down crying when I try to push it that far. People do that when they realize they're going to die for refusing to talk."

"Just tell us, Duo," Quatre said in a strained voice.

Hilde got up slowly and walked across the room to retrieve Duo's knife.

"I'm tellin' you, aren't I? Anyway, I got all the names of the men she hired on- board. And she already handed over the antidote for the poison she's been feedin' Wufei and Relena. Here's something funny, though. She's been having them give Wufei higher and higher doses, trying to put him in bed." He arched a brow at Wufei. "But you look fine to me."

"How?" Trowa demanded.

"Cookies." Duo jabbed a finger at Relena. "That was one way. Some cook was making her his 'special' cookies everyday and givin' 'em to her."

Relena paled and reached into her pocket, pulling out a cookie with a trembling hand. "I... I already ate one. Just earlier," she squeaked.

"Chill, that's your normal dose," Duo assured her. "I'll give you the antidote later. Lucky you; she was planning on having you dosed with an almost fatal amount today, but your good buddy Andre just reported catching the cook in the act."

"Kevin..." Relena looked horrified and betrayed.

"What about Wufei?" Quatre asked, puzzled. "Whatever it was, he obviously wasn't taking whatever it was concealed in."

"Oh yes he was," Duo said with a small frown. "Everybody knows he drinks bottled water all day, what with those workouts of his. Evidently one of the guys in his room noticed he left a bottle by his bed at night, so they'd put the poison in there. They saw that he drank from that bottle every morning, but the poison didn't seem to affect him at all, even when Mariemaia stopped having them add the antidote."

The look Heero turned on Mariemaia was murderous.

Quatre looked suddenly at Wufei and frowned. He hurried over towards Sally Po's cabinets.

"She stopped administering the antidote in hopes of making the poison work quicker and get better cooperation from you," Duo went on. "She figured if you saw Wufei being affected, you'd do anything to make sure he didn't get any worse. But, as you can see..." he nodded towards Wufei, "Three times the normal dose was given to him this morning, but he's right as rain."

"What?" Wufei blinked, confused. His stomach was beginning to churn with the steady waves of pain in his back. "But I've been drinking out of that water bottle all morning."

"She's as confused as we are," Duo admitted. "You should be on death's door right now. So either someone goofed up, or..." He shook his head. "Or I dunno. I don't get it either."

Quatre touched Wufei's shoulder to get his attention and silently offered a bottle of painkillers. Wufei muttered a grateful thanks and swallowed three of them dry. Sometimes, he admitted grudgingly, Quatre's empathy could be useful rather than embarrassing.

"I talked to Howard," Trowa spoke up. "We're close to a mining colony. We'll dump her and those she's paid off there."

"Sounds like a plan," Duo agreed cheerily. He rose to his feet and stretched. "All this interrogation and excitement's given me the munchies. I'm gonna grab a quick snack and then start rounding up some of the men who are loyal to Howard. They can help with the ones she's got under her thumb." He dug a scrap of paper out of his back pocket. "Here's the names of the guys we need to lock up. There's less than ten of them, and luckily three of them are already under lock and key. Kevin, Owen, and..." he glanced at the list. "Ivan. Those guys you two beat the stuffing out of." He handed the list to Wufei with a little flourish.

Wufei took it wordlessly, glancing towards Hilde. She was refusing to look at Duo, hands still clasped tightly in her lap. Relena, however, looked outraged.

"This is insane," she exclaimed, looking close to tears. "What Mariemaia did was wrong, but she didn't deserve... this. You have no idea what he's done to her!"

"Hey, she's got all her limbs," Duo protested.

"She's a child!" Relena shouted. "Do you have any idea what you've probably done to her psychologically?"

"Relena," Heero started impatiently.

Wufei held up a hand to stop the imminent rebuttal. "Leave her alone," he said wearily. "How can you not expect her to stick up for a kid?" He turned to Quatre, missing Relena's startled look. "Will you be able to use your... whatever it is to help track these guys down? I'm sure most of them are hiding all over the ship. Word's spread by now that Heero and I were seen dragging Mariemaia off."

"Empathy," Quatre said. "And yes, I might. They're probably feeling somewhat fearful, and that should be easy enough to track." He rubbed tiredly at his brow. "I'll start by the southern work rooms."

Wufei winced guiltily. "Don't overdo it," he muttered. "Don't split your head looking for these idiots."

Quatre offered a watery smile. "I won't," he promised. Trowa offered Wufei an "I won't let him" look over the blond's head.

"What about her?" Heero jerked his chin towards Mariemaia.

Wufei hesitated, wondering suddenly how he had become in charge.

Hilde spoke up unexpectedly. "I'll take care of her," she said quietly, lifting the hem of her shirt just enough to show them Heero's gun tucked in her waistband. She didn't look at any of them. "Just go find the men she paid off so we can get rid of them. I want this to be over with."

Wufei glanced towards Heero and Duo. Duo nodded in silence. "...Fine. Relena, you go to the infirmary and stay with Sally Po until this is over."

"I want to stay with Hilde," Relena said in a wavering voice.

"No," Wufei said firmly. "Your own compassion will cloud your judgement. I don't want you anywhere near this brat for the rest of the time she's on this ship."

Trowa leaned over to glance at the list, then left silently. Quatre trailed after him. Heero read the list once and handed it back to Wufei. "I'll start on the north bedrooms," he offered. With one last hard glance towards Mariemaia's pitiful form, he left.


Hilde barely glanced up at Wufei's quiet voice.

He frowned at her, reluctant to leave when she was so obviously troubled.

She managed to force a tiny smile. "I'll be fine," she murmured. "Go ahead and find those men. Besides, I need some time to think."

Wufei nodded slowly and beckoned towards Relena. She sniffed once or twice, then meekly followed him from the room.

The instant they were gone, Mariemaia turned wide pleading eyes on the other girl. "Hilde," she croaked, "please... They're all insane. You have to believe me, I--"

Hilde slowly lifted her head to gaze at the girl with a blank expression. "Don't talk to me," she ordered quietly. "I've never had to shoot anyone before. I'd hate to start with a little kid."

Mariemaia gave a little sob, curling up into a tighter ball. "You're as crazy as Maxwell," she wailed.

"...No," Hilde whispered, gazing down at her hands again. "I'm not."

Trowa arched a brow at his friend as they headed down the hall. "Why the smile?"

"Hm? Oh..." Quatre ran a hand through his hair, smiling tiredly. "It's just... I dunno, it's kind of nice to see. Wufei, I mean. Taking charge like that... It's oddly comforting, you know?"

Trowa's mouth twitched into a tiny smile in response. "His mother did a good job," he agreed. "Maybe he's more ready for his destiny than we thought."

Quatre gave a strained laugh of relief and tension combined. "Thank god."


Five hours later they had landed on the tiny mining colony with prisoners in tow.

Wufei stood with his friends outside the ship's hatch, watching in grim silence as Howard signed the release papers for the slightly confused-looking security guards. The men Mariemaia had paid off looked angry and miserable, and the girl herself was standing a little away from them, looking a little more arrogant now that she was safely out of Duo's reach.

Hilde reached out and clasped Wufei's hand tightly, gazing across the rocky ground at the handcuffed child as she was led away. "I can't believe I trusted her," she whispered harshly.

Wufei gave her hand a quick squeeze of encouragement, for once allowing the affectionate contact. She still seemed a bit shellshocked by it all, and he suspected it had more to do with the darker side of Duo than Mariemaia's betrayal. "All of us did," he grunted. "Never mind. She didn't get away with it, and by the time her bastard of a father finds her, we'll be long gone." He glanced sideways at Heero. "Right?"

Heero nodded, jaw set as he glared at Mariemaia's retreating back. "Even if they manage to catch up to this ship, they'll be out of luck," he answered.

"We'd made plans a long time ago to jump ships," Duo put in. "Partly to shake off anybody following us, and partly because-- lovely old turd that he might be --Howard and his men aren't allowed to know our exact destination, either."

Wufei blinked. "Good idea," he admitted. "When does this happen?"

Trowa glanced at his watch. "In a few hours. We aren't far from the rendezvous point, so it's a good thing Mariemaia's scheme was discovered when it was."

Quatre shuddered. "Close call," he murmured.

Heero belatedly noticed the grip Hilde had on Wufei and frowned, glaring at their joined hands unconsciously. Wufei, oddly amused by his displeasure, pretended not to notice, and didn't shake her off.

He turned in mild surprise when Relena appeared behind him, looking tense but determined. "I need to see this," she said firmly before anyone could speak up. Her eyes were locked on Mariemaia and the men. She took a deep breath, unable to meet Wufei's stare. "You were right," she admitted, subdued. "My personal morals get in the way sometimes of what needs to be done. I'm not saying what Maxwell did was ethical in any sense of the word, but she does deserve to be punished for her actions. I'm glad you're letting the law take care of her."

Hilde gazed at Relena for a long, calculating moment, then smiled slightly in approval.

Wufei blinked, a little taken off guard by Relena's quiet words. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, he ordered himself silently. Relena's steps towards maturity throughout the trip were slow and painful, but one had to appreciate the progress she did make.

"She won't be under the law forever," Quatre pointed out, subdued. "Her father will make sure of that."

Relena lifted her chin. "When this is all over, I'm going to have a very long talk with my father about General Kushrenada," she promised sternly.

"Oh goody," Duo drawled.

Relena didn't even look his way. "Mr. Maxwell," she said in a hard voice, "I would appreciate it if you didn't speak to me for the remainder of this trip. Nor do I wish to be alone with you at any time."

Duo blinked. "Well, that's just mean," he complained. Wufei noticed he did not look particuarly upset by the news, however.

Hilde glanced at Duo, but didn't speak.

Relena took a deep breath and cast a sheepish look in Wufei's direction. "I apologize," she said formally. "I never thought very highly of you. Hilde can attest to that. I seem to have misjudged you and let my prejudice get in the way. You may be a difficult man to deal with sometimes, but you do have your own code of honor. I can respect that. And..." She ducked her head. "You've shown me more patience than I probably deserved."

Wufei shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond and a little embarrassed by her admittance. Quatre was giving Relena a very odd look and blinking rapidly. Abruptly he turned to Trowa, looking a little more high-strung than usual. "I think I would like a nap," he said clearly, hand to his head again.

Trowa nodded, leading his friend back into the ship.

"I know it's a little late to ask," Relena continued, "but could you please fill me in a little on what's really going on? No one's answered my questions, but seeing how I am going to this secret destination of yours, don't you think I deserve to know what I'm getting myself into? Especially considering the fact that I've had my life jeapordized multiple times for a cause I don't even fully grasp."

"We can tell you some of it," Heero relented. "But there are some things you'll have to wait to find out. Including your reason for being included in this. That's something only our employer knows."

Relena barely glanced at him. "Could you explain things to me, Wufei?" she asked hesitantly. "Whatever this is all about, it seems to be focused around you for some reason."

Heero blinked.

Wufei blinked.

Hilde blinked three times and looked in confusion from Relena to Heero.

"Um... sure," Wufei muttered, uncomfortable all over again. This was not a Relena he was used to dealing with. But I could probably get used to it, he admitted. She would be much less stressing to be around with this new subdued attitude, and perhaps once some of her questions were answered, she would quit spazzing out whenever something strange happened.

Duo's eyebrows were raised so high they were hidden under his bangs, and he was obviously fighting to keep a grin off his face. Wufei frowned at him, unamused. He did not see what was so funny about Relena's new change of attitude.

"He's a bit of an idiot," Hilde whispered to Heero apologetically.

Wufei glared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing," Hilde muttered. "...I hope."

Howard walked up then, looking older and more solemn than he had before. "I can't believe this," he sighed, scratching his bald spot. "Duo, man, I can't even begin to tell ya how sorry I am..."

"Dude, don't worry about it," Duo laughed, waving off the older man's concerns. "You trusted them. There was no way you coulda seen that coming. It's over, everyone's fine, so just drop it."

Howard nodded wearily. "Yeah.... Well, come on. Time's a'wasting. We'd better get you to your other ship." He followed Duo inside, muttering to himself.

Wufei hesitated when Relena did not move out of his way immediately. "What, you wanted an explanation now?"

"Yes, please. Could we speak in the snack room? I could use some tea."

"I'll go with you," Hilde offered quickly.

"No need," Relena said with a friendly smile. "I'm sure you have better things to do. You already know the story. Besides, I think it'd be best if you had a talk with Duo."

Hilde's expression shifted. "I'm not ready to talk to him, yet," she admitted quietly.

"I'll explain it to you," Heero said. "Wufei's vague on the details."
"No thank you, Heero," Relena said politely. "Wufei and I need to get to know each other better, anyway." She stepped aside and waited.

Wufei hesitated, then pulled his hand from Hilde's grasp and trailed after the other girl. She was right, he admitted to himself. He'd always thought the girl to be insufferable, but if there was a chance to get an understanding between the two of them, it would make the trip a bit easier. Besides, he was willing to give anyone a second chance when they deserved one.

Hilde and Heero remained where they were for a moment, watching them leave.

Heero opened his mouth, then closed it again, frowning in confusion.

"No," Hilde answered the unspoken question, "it's not just you." She sighed, scratching her cheek in distraction. "Don't worry, it's nothing," she said with forced cheer. "It's good. It's good, really. She's finally growing up. And the two of them really should work on their differences."

Heero frowned at her. As he was not even sure what the nagging feeling in his gut was telling him, he was unsure of how to take her declaration.

"Come on," Hilde said, heading up the ramp. "I'm ready to get this whole stupid trip over with once and for all."

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