Disclaimer: The boys belong to Bandai/Sotsu/Sunrise, honest.

Notes: Detailed notes are provided with the Prologue to this fic.

"Daydreams...like books in the shelf of my mind"
--Lolah Burford, 'Edward, Edward'

Chapter Seven
by D.C. Logan

Duo knew something was wrong when Heero didn't show up at his usual hour. He became worried when Trowa came though the door at four and the man's chair was still vacant. Duo stayed until closing that night, wondering and curious about where Heero had gone and why he hadn't thought to say anything to him. Duo pressed down the alternating thoughts of what might have happened to him with a struggle; he'd worry about dire possibilities later.

Heero's special order books came in the next morning. Duo set them aside and waited for him to arrive, knowing that he'd be pleased to get his hands on new reading material. Again, the day came and went with a vague, unsettled concern and no Heero. By the third day, Duo was so distracted that he found himself shelving the new prenatal care books into the mystery section.

Quatre wandered in with Trowa at two, carrying a paper bag and a holder with four cups of coffee. Duo didn't look up from his work. Quatre scanned the store for Heero, took one look at Duo's shelf and the expression on his face, and immediately called a meeting to work out a course of action.

Trowa was worried. He'd seen Duo like this only once before. Duo would need a distraction to prevent this mindless and directionless anxiety from ripping him apart. He'd seen this once before, and had hoped never to see it again. He mentally cursed Heero for putting Duo though all this, but hedged his opinion as well. What if something _had_ happened to him? What did they know about him, really?

Quatre took the lead, "Okay Duo, fess up. Did you and Heero have a fight or something?"

Duo looked up from the napkin he was unconsciously shredding. The coffee cup it had been wrapped around had already suffered a fate unusual to Styrofoam. "No. The last time I saw him was about three pm on Friday. He didn't say anything about leaving town or anything to either of you, did he?"

They both shook their heads.

Quatre tried another direction, "How about calling him, looking him up in the phone book or something."

Duo sat, his mind already exhausted with exploring and subsequently discarding a hundred possibilities, his body tired from trying to maintain the level of nervous adrenaline he'd been forcing through it for days now.

"I know his favorite movie, that he can quote Shakespeare in four languages, and that he prefers tea to coffee and his coffee black, but I don't have a clue what his last name is, or where he lives, or if he has a job or not." He buried his face in his hands, oddly distraught. The rest of the words emerged from his hands, muffled, tension-edged. "I didn't think about it. I just expected him to be here, I never thought about how I'd find him if he didn't show up." He groaned and shifted his position so his head and neck stretched out over the back of the chair and closed his eyes before Quatre, or worse, Trowa, noticed how full they were at the moment. "For all of the talking we've done, I haven't a clue how to track him down. I don't know where he walks from, where he leaves to... but I know all sorts of other things. Useless now. All useless."

Trowa shared a look of concern with Quatre. Unsaid, though felt, was the thought that maybe Heero, for whatever reason, had decided to end his diversions at the bookstore and had intentionally left Duo without the necessary tools to find him. Trowa felt bad about this, he'd really liked the guy, and Duo had been on the edge of falling--or if his apparent feelings and extreme reaction were taken into account--had already set his heart on the man.

Now the object of his fixation was gone, and no one had a clue where to start looking for him, and Trowa was expecting to have to look after Duo again. His last serious relationship had ended badly, and nearly took all of Duo's hopes with it. Now it looked like history was replaying the same story for Duo again. He extended a hand, which was ignored, and a hug, which was received with stoic and reserved thanks while Quatre looked on and thought about possible options.

Three more days passed, and over the course of them Duo grew steadily quieter and more reserved. He wasn't sleeping well, food didn't interest him, and he only ate to keep Quatre from giving him that concerned and studious look he hated so. None of the meals were happy in his stomach anyway; the Maalox he was eating wasn't helping either. He knew he wasn't up to working, but couldn't bear the thought of Heero showing up at his shop when he wasn't there, so he pushed himself to work through full shifts in rotation. Uncharacteristically, he yelled at Quatre at the third mention of deciding on a time to eat lunch and sniped at Trowa for fretting over his presence in the shop. "It's my damn store and I'll work here if I damn well feel like it!" had been the least of what he'd yelled back at him.

It wasn't his best week. It was rapidly becoming his worst. He was steadily approaching the point of no return, and for what? Some loser who didn't even share the gift of his last name? Beautiful Duo, just perfect. Hell, if there was a reject within a hundred miles, Duo would hone in on him, it had the feel of inevitability written all over it and he should have known better. He should have learned his lesson by now, especially after his last love interest had dumped him in favor of her new flavor of the month. She'd been sampling lots of different flavors then and had told Duo none of it. So much for their relationship. Duo had been the one to break it off, even though it had nearly broken him to do so. He'd walked out of the apartment they'd shared with five hundred in cash, his mother's gold cross around his neck, and the clothes on his back. Trowa had taken him in without question, and Duo knew it was a debt he could never repay. He'd worked hard over the past three years to create a safe, structured life for himself, and then he'd nearly gone and thrown all that effort after another loser. Sheesh, you'd think history would have taught him something...

He looked up then, Trowa had been talking to him, but Duo had spaced out. Now he was back, and determined to move forward. Six days. Unless Heero was dead or worse, he had no excuse for this. Nothing to do but end it and move on. Right.

"Okay Trowa," Duo walked resolutely towards the counter, "where's that lunch you bought for me?" It was almost worth the gut wrenching experience of biting into the sandwich to see Trowa's approval. Almost. He sighed deeply, and forced himself to continue eating.

Duo had nearly convinced himself that living was an okay thing again when he got his visitor the next morning. His worst suspicions seemed to be confirmed when Heero's 'tall dark and handsome' from the first round of visits entered the store. Or, more accurately, stalked in with a purpose and looked around the room before targeting and remaining fixed on one Duo Maxwell.

Duo couldn't help himself, he gulped. Great, this was it, the confrontation with the best friend whose name he couldn't remember. Hopefully this guy would be able to explain where Heero was, equally hopeful was the thought that Heero hadn't lied to him about this guy being just a good friend. Duo decided as he watched the man's lithe grace and determined stride that this was _not_ someone he ever wanted to get into a physical confrontation with. Trowa, good friend that he was, had no such limitations and moved to stand protectively at Duo's side as the man approached the counter. Quatre looked up from unpacking a box of new arrivals, cautious and curious--but smart enough to stay out of the initial confrontation. Quatre had become adept in martial arts shortly after meeting Trowa, and was currently one degree above him. He was also more reserved about using his skills, which in Duo's opinion made him a better strategist. He stayed out of things until all of the boundaries had been stated and set; Trowa had no such reservations. The new guy looked even more intense as he saw them realign their position against the counter. Great, armed and ready then.

The man walked up and stopped square and set in front of Duo and looked him up and down, flicking his eyes to the side and dismissing Trowa out of hand as unimportant, waiting for Duo to crack and ask him what he was doing in his store. Duo didn't so much as blink and met the man stare for stare--though an alien presence in his brain questioned the sensibility of doing so. He ignored that voice, it rarely had time for him anyway.

Duo returned the frank stare. He couldn't for the life of him remember the man's name, and he'd paid in cash the one time he'd made a purchase from the store, leaving Duo none the wiser as to who he really was. That didn't mean Duo was going to back down however, hell no. If this guy wanted a contest, fine. He could handle anything. Yeah, right--but he felt a lot safer with Trowa and Quatre in the store with him--Duo couldn't come up with any scenario that the three of them couldn't handle. And then the unexpected happened, the man smiled. It looked like a real smile too, though tired. He held out his hand to Duo in silent entreaty.

"Duo Maxwell? My name is Wufei Chang. You are Heero's good friend, yes?"

Whaha? This guy must not talk to Heero much... he temporized. "I'm Duo. What do you want?"

"Heero asked after you and asked me to verify that you are well." He looked at Trowa while continuing to speak to Duo. "May I have a word with you in private?"

"Whatever you need to say, you can say it in front of them. I don't keep secrets from my friends." Well, not for long anyway. Trowa didn't have a problem with secrets and hoarded his with a near-religious fervor. Quatre, on the other hand, was persistent and usually found out whatever it was he wanted to know. It was usually easier to just give in to his demands or just avoid any secrecy in the first place.

The guy looked resigned, but continued. "I have a favor to ask of you, and it involves Heero and you, and myself. Not quite in equal distribution."

Damn, this guy would drive him nuts if given ample opportunity. "Not even remotely interested." Where did that come from? Did he mean it? "So where did Heero take off to anyway?" Ah, apparently not, his brain had saved him yet again.

Though Trowa looked pissed off at Duo's indecision, Wufei smiled and relaxed in place. Duo studied him carefully. This guy carried with him that inborn attitude of someone who could buy his way into any place he chose, and manipulate his way into any circle of people. Slick and professional came to mind. What the hell did Heero see in this guy anyway?

"I... am the executor of Heero's will."

Duo's heart dropped to the floor like a stone at his words. No... couldn't be. No way. He didn't realize he'd said the words aloud, he didn't hear them in his head. His world had gone suddenly and completely soundless as he slipped down to follow his heart to the carpet. He stared up at the messenger in disbelief, and saw something light up behind Wufei's eyes. Sound returned to his world with a reverberating snap.

Wufei looked down at the man sprawled on the floor. He'd seen all he needed to see--the shock, the disbelief, the longing, the loss--all of it was there for the skilled observer. Heero's faith hadn't been misplaced after all; or his own for that matter. He'd expected them to get along, but not for Heero to fall as hard as he had... or for Duo to fall as well, apparently. Wufei looked at the counter, an attractive blond man was also watching Duo's reaction. Interesting. He turned his attention back to Duo, who was hovering on the brink of something tragic and dark... waiting.

"No, he's not dead. Not yet anyway."

Duo sagged in relief; Trowa glared at Wufei. "But he is hurt, he's fighting his confinement, and I thought you might be interested in seeing him." He looked pointedly at Duo's slumped body, at the thin trail of unconscious tears of relief that had tracked down his face at Wufei's news. Wufei sighed, he'd have to make up for that later. He hadn't known, and he had to admit that on a deep personal level that he didn't like investigating, that he was jealous of Heero's level of commitment to this new man in his life. He had someone who cared for him now. Wufei still had only Heero--but less of him than before. He held a mild regret for his actions, enough so that he extended a hand to Duo and flicked his hand in invitation. Duo ignored the apology, bracing instead off of Trowa and the neighboring chair before facing Wufei at eye level again.

"That was cruel."

Wufei answered Trowa's statement while looking Duo in the face. "Yes."

Wufei noted that Duo's glazed expression was slowly starting to return to normal, and he felt mild remorse for what he'd done... the sensation was unfamiliar to him. "I'm going to visit him now, will you come along with me?"

Duo didn't have to think twice about that. "Just let me grab my coat..." and he was off to fetch it. Wufei approved, Duo bounced back quickly. Good, Heero needed someone resilient around him, he was too hard-headed by far.

By the time Wufei had completed his mental appraisal of Duo, the man was back and standing at the counter, talking to his friends and shifting an occasional glance his way. Fine. Heero could wait a few more minutes, especially if it meant that Duo would be coming with him this time. Heero had been most adamant about not saying anything to Duo about his accident or injuries. Wufei had disagreed, and resented Duo for the simple fact that he'd been the only point of contention between him and Heero for as many years back as he could remember. Still, it had been cruel of him to shock the man like that. And now that Heero wasn't exactly in a position to protest... well. He sighed softly to himself. His life was certainly complicated enough without the stress Heero had been adding to it lately. Duo would be good for him. They would be good for each other. He hoped.

Wufei walked for the door, trusting Duo to catch up with him. Duo didn't disappoint. They didn't talk to each other as they left the store or during the walk to the car. Wufei's rental was parked two blocks away in a metered space. It was easily the most luxurious thing Duo had ever ridden in. With the doors closed, and him safely inside, the street noise dropped to a barely discernable hum. It was a high step up from taking the bus and he felt it deserved comment, despite the attitude of its driver.

"Nice car."

Wufei didn't take his eyes off the road in front of him, but he relaxed nearly imperceptibly with Duo's acceptance. "Thank you."

The rest of the drive was covered in silence.

Duo hated hospitals. He always had. Nearly every single bad memory in his life had some tie to a place like this; bright lights, hard surfaces, too many noises, screams, and more disturbingly, moans of utter suffering. Everything inside him scrunched up into the tightest space it could find within. His skin felt loose, his head felt hot, and he knew he was walking a bare minimum of six inches above the polished vinyl floors, but he was here because Heero was here, and Wufei was leading him onward.

Wufei felt even worse. He'd had no idea that Duo would have such a difficult time with this. He watched as Duo's eyes had widened at the sight of the hospital entrance, how his nostrils had flared at the hot deodorant spell of the air, how he'd flinched at the sounds of metal upon metal that seemed pervasive in the echoing expanse of the hallways. Yes, in his perfect hindsight, Wufei realized that he should have said something to prepare Duo for all of this, but it was too late now.

"They moved him out of intensive care this morning. He's maintaining consciousness, but he's back on a ventilator as of this morning, so he won't be able to talk to you." Wufei looked aside at Duo. He was moving in a stilted manner and looked porcelain, white and fragile. At Wufei's words, his eyes widened even further, but he had a core of resolve that he was tapping from deep within, and kept alongside Wufei, stride for stride. Wufei was unaccountably proud of him. Which was a good thing, since if Heero got his way, this man would eventually be part of his extended family. ...That is if he ever forgave Wufei for his behavior.

Wufei put out a hand, blocking Duo's progress. "This is Heero's room. Are you sure you're up to this? You don't look all that well, and I don't think I can handle two patients at once."

Duo nodded. Yes, he could do this. If only to assure himself that Wufei was telling the truth... that Heero hadn't intended to leave him alone and questioning his sanity. That he cared. He breathed in deeply and opened the door.

That couldn't be Heero. Wufei must have the wrong room. Only one bed stood in it, and the man's exposed skin showed more red and purple than any other color. His head was tilted slightly to the side to accomodate the machinery, the right arm was cast and braced alongside the bedrail, the left strapped to the man's chest. No, he didn't see anything of Heero in the man in front of him, he'd just started to turn to inform Wufei of his mistake when the man's eyes flickered open. Bright blue. Shit.

Duo walked over to the bedside so Heero could see him. Up close, he could recognize more of Heero's features, but the bruising was impressive as hell. He didn't expect that Heero could talk, not as long as they had him on the breathing apparatus, and there was no way he could write anything with his arms restrained as they were. He was beyond helpless, and his eyes told Duo that he never wanted him to see him like this. They were still the vivid blue that Duo had cradled in his mind's eye, but they were hazy and unfocused with painkillers and exhaustion. Duo could see Heero struggling to stay awake, and somehow found the right words to say.

"I'll be here when you wake up okay? Promise."

Heero blinked wearily, and closed his eyes, visibly relaxing his tense muscles into the mattress. Duo wanted to touch him, but couldn't find a clear path of skin that wasn't been badly bruised. He reached out once, to stroke the pad of a finger along the edge of Heero's hairline. Daring to touch that which he hadn't dared to before, and was rewarded by a slight smile, a subtle twist of the corner of Heero's face, and another flutter of closed eyes. It felt wrong, to take advantage of Heero like this while he was vulnerable and defenseless. It also felt very right with a depth of realization that startled him. He backed away from the bed, and walked over to where Wufei remained at the doorway.

"What happened to him?"

on to chapter eight

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