Disclaimer: I don't own any part of GW nor its characters, and what a pity that no money is made writing stories about them.

Warning: light angst

Duo's Decision
Duo's Friendship Arc 23
by Dyna Dee

Car after car pulled up to the front entrance of the Sanq Palace and, as each one stopped, men and women dressed in tuxedos and expensive evening gowns stepped out and slowly climbed the steps to join the celebration that was about to begin. The cars were either limousines or very expensive European luxury models with chauffeurs who jumped quickly from the parked and running vehicles to open the back door. The wealthy passengers would then slink gracefully out of the fine leather seats and stand and strike a pose, allowing local gawkers and the press, including photographers who were snapping pictures to show the world the guests' finery that bespoke of their wealth and position in the upper echelons of Sanq Society. They all looked confident and proud as they raised their arms and turned their wrists, giving a restrained but polite wave to the appreciative looky-loos lining the sidewalk and the edges of the driveway eager to catch a glimpse of the upper crust of their society.

The teenage boy stood at the window two levels above and to the left of the main entry where the guests were piling in. With a heavy heart he still managed a slight smile, thinking of the reaction from those arriving to Relena's graduation celebration if they should chance to look up and see him with his hair down and dressed only in his boxers and unbuttoned shirt that went with his borrowed tuxedo. Imagine, a street rat from L-2 at a high society function. A shudder ran down his spine. Before he could analyze the reason, a firm knock sounded at his door.

"Duo?" It was Trowa's voice. "It's cocktail hour. You coming?"

"Go ahead, Trowa." He called back. "I'm not quite ready yet. I'll meet ya down there."

"Need help?"

Duo rolled his eyes at the suggestion. "What are ya gonna do Trowa, zip my fly up for me, tie my shoes?"

"Not unless you're totally incapacitated from boiling your brain in a hot shower," came the droll sarcasm through the door.

"What a way to go," Duo replied with a slight grin on his face. His long showers were legendary to those who had ever had to share a living space with him. "But I did take too long in there and my hair needs drying, brushing and braiding. I'll be down when I'm done, okay?"

"Alright then." Trowa had obviously accepted his excuse as he heard the near silent footfalls leave the vicinity of his door.

Taking in a deep cleansing breath, he sighed loudly, expelling all the air in his lungs. He couldn't put the inevitable off much longer. He was told to make a decision, and making it had put him in a melancholy mood for weeks that he had tried hard to hide, not wanting the others to worry. It wasn't his medication this time that affected his mood. No, they'd pretty much gotten that straightened out right after Quatre's kidnaping. He truly didn't know if the doctors had found the correct drug and dosage as they had claimed, or if he just decided to "pull up his bootstraps," as Sister Helen use to say, and get his life put back together.

After Quatre's kidnaping and near death, something inside of him had changed, and he forcefully put aside his moodiness and began to reflect on the good in his life. Everyone had noticed the change in him with visible relief. A relief that was almost palatable to the American, making him feel guilty for the worry he had caused his friends to feel. With his improvement, they no longer had to worry about his well-being, and they could collectively concentrate on Quatre and his recovery, and then to their futures. Yeah, he still had a few rough days, but things seemed to go much smoother, that was until he was asked to choose.

As the days moved into months, and spring grew closer to summer, each of the other pilots spoke of their lives after graduation in June.

There was no doubt that Quatre would return to L-4 to his family and the Winner conglomerate. Trowa had an offer from Catherine and the manager to rejoin the circus that had become like a surrogate family to him. Heero was offered a job as a body guard to Relena as they both attended the University in Brussels. Wufei announced his intention to travel to China to seek out any remaining clan members. That left Duo. He knew the others had discussed his future before they cornered him in his room. Quatre, Heero, and Trowa each offered him a place to go after graduation. Wufei apologized for not being able to extend such an invitation as he would be wandering for awhile. He had thought about it and came to the conclusion that his American friend needed more stability than he could offer, especially when he himself had to take this journey to put to rest some ghosts that still haunted him. They all challenged him to think seriously about their offers and to tell them as graduation approached of his decision. They had waited patiently, but seeing no decision coming as the end of school approached, they gave him the deadline of graduation night to render it to them.

Today was that day. They had spent the morning marching in cap and gown to officially receive their diplomas of graduation from high school. Quatre had slipped him a note before the ceremony started, reminding him of the need for his decision by the end of the day. Like he needed reminding, his stomach had been upset for days as his mind went over the possibilities and how could he possibly choose one friend over the other without hurting someone's feelings?

Still looking out the window, he went over the facts in his mind again. Quatre, he owed his friend his life for taking a bullet for him. But Quatre lived in a world similar to Relena, in expensive houses with people waiting on their every need and with all the luxuries afforded the very rich. He knew he was out of his league here in Relena's palace. When they'd been escorted to their rooms earlier, they passed by the open doors of the large, formal banquet room. Workers were busy setting up for that evening, and he took in massive crystal chandeliers hovering over the many richly covered tables that were topped with beautiful tablecloths, decorated with bright and cheery floral arrangements and set with expensive china and silverware. Long-stemmed crystal wine glasses sat at each place along with another glass, and a coffee cup turned upside down. His eyes bugged out a bit as he glimpsed all the many forks, knives and spoons. He'd never seen anything like it and knew that, without a doubt, he was going to do something stupid during the hours of the formal dinner that night and embarrass himself, his friends, and their hostess, Relena. How could he ever fit in a world like this?

Trowa's offer was very appealing. He let his mind wander a bit at the possibilities that living with a circus would afford him. He could almost be a kid again with the circus. They had a hard working but more casual life as well as a interesting assortment of people and exotic animals that would make life very interesting, all the things that would help keep at bay the deep well of loneliness that often crept up on him. But the constant travel, the uprooting of a temporary home every couple of days had lost its appeal long ago. If would remind him too much of the war, constantly moving and never making any real attachments other than his friends. Wufei had been right, he needed to set down some roots and make some sort of a home.

That left Heero, his anchor, his friend, and his family. Oh, he felt that way towards all of them now, but he and Heero had needed and depended on each other during the war. They'd shared their nightmares, fears, dreams, and hopes with each other, and Duo clearly recalled Heero saying he'd be there for him after the war. But that was before Relena had an emotional impact on the Wing Pilot's life. During the last six months, Heero had spent a lot of time with her, and he could see that it was a source of concern and guilt to the Japanese boy that he spent more time away from his needy friend than he thought right. It was clear Heero was torn between wanting to be with Relena and wanting to support his friend as he watched him struggle with his anger and up-and-down emotions. If he went to school with the both of them, Duo knew he would always be the third wheel and an unwanted wedge between his friend and the girl he was trying to get to know better. He couldn't do that to Heero. It was natural and wonderful that he and Relena were getting along so well. He sighed with a crooked smile briefly lighting his face. "How far you've come, Heero," he softly said out loud to no one but himself. "From the cold soldier who didn't know how to be a friend, to someone's best friend and another's boyfriend."

He jumped as a loud, forceful knock sounded on the door. "Duo, you're late!" Speak of the devil, Heero's voice called out gruffly from the hallway.

"Go down without me Heero. I'll be down soon," he called back. There was a long pause and he wondered if his friend had left.

"Are you okay?" That was his answer. Heero's voice held a tone of worry to it that made the American feel guilty.

"Yeah, don't worry about me," he replied and tried to sound as casual as possible. "I just have a little bit of a stomach ache. I'll come down when it's settled." He winced at the almost lie. His stomach had been churning for days now as the time to make the decision loomed closer, but he wasn't sick.

"Should I call Sally?" Heero asked through the door.

"Heero, it's an upset stomach, not a burst appendix. Che!" he answered sarcastically. "I don't need a doctor for a nervous stomach."

"What are you nervous about?"

He rolled his eyes. "Just go, Heero. I'll talk to you later, okay?"

"Duo?" Great, now Heero was worried.

"Just go," he answered firmly, frustrated by...everything.

Moments passed without another word being said, and satisfied at last that Heero had gone, the Deathscythe pilot leaned against the window trim to look down at the few cars still straggling in. He knew he should finish getting dressed, this night was too important to miss out on completely; it was the last night they five pilots would be together. Tomorrow, everything would be different. He swallowed hard at the thought. Just thinking about it sent the familiar hollow feeling of emptiness though him and he clenched at his aching heart. "Damn," he whispered in anguish as his emotions came to the surface. He covered his face with his hands, trying to gain control.

"This won't do!" he growled out in anger to himself. "The others are excited and happy about their futures. And here you are, indecisive and blubbering like a pathetic child." He felt disgust for his emotions even as they helped to fill up some of the hollowness he felt. "Get a grip Maxwell!" he ordered himself angrily.

Another knock, a smaller, tentative one came from the door. "Duo?"

He groaned, the guys were worried and sent in the big guns, the expert.

"I'm fine, Quatre. Go away...please." He started his reply strong, but ended up sounding desperate.

"You can't lie to me Duo," the blond warned.

The American glared silently at the doorway, willing the other boy to give up and leave.

"Open the door Duo," came a firm order.

Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead against the cold surface of the glass window. Quatre was in command mode. Maybe if he just ignored him, he'd eventually go away instead of causing a scene. The doorknob rattled, followed by a more insistent knock. "Open this door Duo or Heero will be forced to break it down."

Well, so much for not causing a scene. Duo winced, Quatre was practically yelling and doing it in a threatening manner, and the blond Arabian always made good on his promises. The sound of Quatre's angry voice led him to feeling guilty as Quatre was still recovering from the gunshot wound to his stomach from when he had been kidnaped. He was moving around pretty well, but he was still a bit pale and thin from the traumatic experience. Unfortunately for him, if Quatre was made upset by his actions, the other guys would also be angry with him. The four of them guarded Quatre's health as closely as the others had his own physical and mental condition during the last six months; they were all tenacious about their care for the two recovering boy like a junk yard watchdogs: anxious and vigilant. The guys being angry with him was not how he wanted this last evening together to go. Still, with that in mind, his pride caused him to call out stubbornly.

"I'm fine Quatre. I just don't feel like dinner. Go down and enjoy yourself. I'll join you guys later."

"Alright, where are my lock picks," Quatre said loud enough to be heard through the door and across the room.

Heaving a sigh of resignation, the half dressed teen stomped over to the door, unlocked it, and threw it open, ready for a verbal altercation. As the door hit the wall with a resounding bang, Duo stood clad in his boxers, his fancy white shirt open down the front, with his hair hanging long and loose over his shoulder, and a look of shock on his face. His eyes widened and his mouth opened as his jaw dropped. Before him stood six people, all with some degree of worry and exasperation on their faces. In the midst of his four friends was Relena, blushing much brighter than the pale pink strapless gown she wore, and Lady Une, who stood dressed in a formal black evening gown with a frown on her face.

Getting over his initial shock, Duo moved to reach for the door to slam it shut, but Heero stepped forward to intercept, wedging his body between the door and the doorframe. The two struggled for dominance over the door for a few moments.

"Dammit, Heero," Duo muttered as he struggled against his friend's superior strength. "I'm in my underwear."

"Then you shouldn't have opened the door dressed like that," was the gruff reply.

"I thought... it... was...Quatre!" he huffed out as the struggle continued.

"Surprise!" Heero smiled crookedly.

Knowing he couldn't win a tug of war against Heero, Duo abruptly let go of the door and was further disappointed when the Japanese boy didn't even stumble from the sudden withdrawal of force. Huffing at the indignity of the situation, the long haired teen put his hands on his hips and faced the small crowd.

"What?" he asked indignantly. "Can't a guy miss a meal without the whole damn army showin' up?"

"What's the matter Duo?" Heero asked calmly, his face intent and sober as he searched his friend's flushed face.

"Gah!!" Duo grabbed a handful of hair near his scalp with both hands to express his exasperation. "Just go down to the damn dinner already," he growled out.

Heero's eyes narrowed, obviously not willing to obey his friend's order.

Quatre moved to intervene when Relena stepped forward. Placing a gentle hand on Heero's shoulder, she got his undivided attention as he immediately turned away from Duo to look at her in a questioning manner. "Why don't you and the others go down ahead of us, I'd like to speak with Duo for a moment."

The room suddenly became still. Heero's brows drew together as he thought about Relena's request, and he chanced a quick glance at Duo, standing in his boxers and white shirt looking like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming train.

"Alright," he said softly when he finally came to a conclusion. "But don't be long," he said in a voice that the others rarely heard.

The former Wing pilot nodded and turned to leave, taking the other three pilots and Lady Une with him. All departed the room with their heads craned back to get a last glimpse of the two left in the room. Heero shut the door behind him with a smirk on his face. "He's in for it now," he said knowingly to his friends who looked back at the closed door with worry etched on their faces.

The long-haired boy came out of his stunned stupor to register the fact that he was in a closed room with Relena and he was only half dressed.

"Um...." he mumbled as his eyes searching frantically around the room for something to cover himself with. His eyes lit on his robe, a Christmas gift from Quatre, and he quickly moved to the end of the bed and put it on. Once he secured the belt, he looked up at the young Vice Foreign Minister with a blush on his cheeks.

She smiled demurely at him. "Now, what's this all about Duo? Are you mad at me?" she asked sincerely while coming directly to the point.

"Che!" he exhaled through his teeth and rolled his eyes. "Why would I be mad at you?" he asked in return as he sat on the edge of his bed and studied the pattern of the bedspread, tracing it with his fingers.

"Well," she paused for a moment as she looked down at the boy with his long hair in a tangle of disarray around his body. "Maybe because Heero spends so much time with me," she suggested. "I know how close you two were during the war, and I also know he feels torn between spending time with you and with me."

The slender robe covered shoulders shrugged. "That's life for ya. Full of choices and decisions."

Relena's eyebrows furrowed as another thought came to her mind. "Tonight's the night, isn't it?" she asked. "You're suppose to tell the others of your decision about where you're going to live."

Duo merely nodded, not bother to look up at her.

Relena's face relaxed. This, she realized was the crux of Duo's anxiety tonight. She turned and sat on the bed next to him and watched with amusement as he nervously tugged at his robe to keep it securely closed. "Have you made your decision?" she asked, her voice gentle in its inquiry.

He shrugged in a non-committal manner again, and she knew she would get nowhere if the conversation continued on this vein. "If you haven't, could I just put in an extra word on Heero's behalf?" Receiving no answer, she continued. "I know you and Heero have been like brothers during the war, Duo. He cares and worries about you. It would make not only him, but myself happy also if you'd consider joining us at the University."

His finger stopped its tracing on the comforter. "I don't think that it would be a good idea," he replied quietly.

"Why not?" She really couldn't fathom his reasoning.

He sighed. "Being the third wheel isn't exactly a party," he replied, obviously trying to force some humor into his voice.

"I don't mind sharing Heero's time with you, Duo. I don't want to come between friends, and I had hoped that we could become friends, too."

He shook his head sadly. "It's too important for Heero to figure out where you fit in his life. I don't want to distract him with my...problems." The last word came out with a flush of embarrassment on the boy's cheeks. He was well aware that Relena knew of his medical situation and that his mental state had been precarious during the last six months. Still, it was embarrassing to have to say it out loud to her.

"He's going to be disappointed if you don't choose to come with us," she told him.

Duo gathered his hair and reached to the table to pick up his brush. "Life's full of disappointments," he countered. "But in the long run, I think you'll both thank me."

When he looked up, he was surprised to see a look of sadness and resignation on her face. "So where will you go?" she asked.

Duo gave her a half smile. "Guess you'll have to wait until after dinner to find out with the rest of the gang."

The Princess of Sanq smiled in return and looked at the brush in his hand as it was pulled down the long mane of hair. "May I help?" she asked, insinuating that she wanted to brush his hair. "It looks like you have quite a tangle there, and I'm very good at unraveling messes."

"Hum..." he gave her a wicked grin. "Must be a talent of those carrying the genes of a born politician," he teased.

"Definitely," she laughed with ease. "That and being born with very fine hair that tangles easily."

Duo shrugged and relinquished the brush to her hand, then turned to present his back to her. He was pleased he didn't need to tell her to start from the bottom and go up.

"I can French braid, English braid, and four-strand braid." she informed with a touch of pride.

"Four strand?" he asked.

"It takes a bit more time, but makes the braid look like an intricately woven plait, perfect for a party." she added.

"Not girly?" he asked in a threatening voice. No way was he going in public with girly hair.

"Not girly," she assured him, then smiled brightly. "Distinctive and highly attractive.... just like you."

He blushed at the compliment. It wasn't that he'd never received compliments, in fact, he'd become a bit hardened to them. He wasn't stupid, he knew what he looked like, and that he attracted a lot of people. But Relena's words came out sincere, with no alternative motive than to compliment him. "Ah...thanks." he replied feeling unaccustomed to being embarrassed.

"Tell you what," she went on without a hitch. "She stood from off the bed to look down at him in an assessing way. "Why don't I call for reinforcements, because you've got so much hair, and you can finish dressing while we wait for her."

'Her' meant not one of the guys. "Alright," he agreed and stood.

Relena smiled and walked to the bedroom door, then paused with her hand on the elaborate door nob. "You will let me in again, won't you?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, I'll let ya in," he promised with a lopsided grin, then watched as she waved to him before slipping through the door.

She returned five minutes later with Dorothy Catalonia, also dressed in a long gown that was a deep blue satin sheath with spaghetti straps. She and Duo had met previously at the school loosely termed Hormone High, and he was surprised that she kept the same style of eyebrows he'd accidentally given her while retaliating her bullying Quatre and for her embarrassing him on the volleyball court by pantsing him in front of the other students. The girl with the long, nearly white hair nodded her head in a silent, polite greeting as their eyes met, hers were sparkling mischievously.

"This is Duo Maxwell." Relena began the introduction, pleased to see Duo looking devastatingly handsome in his tux, minus the jacket that was laying on the bed. "Duo, may I present Dorothy Catalonia."

Both teens being introduced smiled a knowing smile at each other. "We've met," he told Relena, who looked completely taken aback by that information. "And you, Dorothy, are still one messed up chick. I like the eyebrows, though."

The blond girl took a delicate finger and traced over one unique split line of her right eyebrow. "Me too," she smirked. "Thanks again."

Duo gave her a warning glare. "But let me warn you that if you ever touch Quatre again, I'll not only shave the hair off your head, but I'll take care of the eyebrows also, and they'll never grow back," he threatened, his previous smile turning a little too malicious for Relena's comfort.

"Alright, I sense a great story here, but can you tell it to me while we work on your hair, Duo?"

"Sure." His former gentler smile returned. "Where do you want me?"

For the next fifteen minutes the two upper-class, elegantly dressed girls fussed over the boy from the streets of L-2 as he entertained them with his version of Hormone High. Relena laughed almost hysterically at the tale of how the other two met. Every few minutes he noted the irony of the situation, he was a street kid from L-2 being pampered by two upper class girls while sitting in a palace bedroom. Non of the old gang from the streets nor even the Sweepers would ever believe him if he told them of the situation he now found himself in. He smiled at his thought, but kept them to himself. The gentle ministrations by the two girls and light conversation helped to ease some of the inner turmoil he'd felt all week, culminating on this day with his over anxious feelings as the appointed hour drew near.

Dorothy was working on the last several inches of the long braid when he spoke again in a tentative manner. "Um..I ah, I've never really been to a fancy dinner like this before," he said in a small voice. "I'm not sure how to go about eating with all those forks and knives," he admitted rather reluctantly and felt his face flush with embarrassment in admitting as much to the two girls who were born into a society where parties like the one downstairs were weekly events. "Maybe I should apologize in advance for anything stupid I might do."

A light feminine chuckle bubbled out from the Vice Foreign Minister. "I don't think any one of the other pilots do either, well, except Quatre. Heero and Wufei prefer chopsticks, and Trowa, I'm sure, is as lost as you are," she replied casually to his nervousness, and was grateful to see a slight smile on his face. "Just follow my lead or Quatre's and you'll do just fine," she reassured him.

Duo nodded and Dorothy growled at his movement as she worked on his hair and gave it a little tug to let him know he should sit still. "Sorry," he muttered, having gotten the message.

"You'll do more than fine." Relena patted his arm and gave him a warm smile.

Several minutes later, Duo stood before both girls for the final inspection. His black jacket was now on and Relena expertly tied his bow tie. He reached up to his collar and tugged on it only to have his hand playfully slapped away.

"It's too tight," he complained. "I'm choking here."

"It's fine," Relena replied. "You're just not use to it."

"No," he countered. "I'm use to wearing a collar against my neck. This is too tight. I won't be able to swallow without choking."

"Just give it a try," Dorothy added, and shared an amused smile with the other girl.

"Ready?" Relena asked as she stepped towards him and took his arm for him to escort her. Dorothy moved to take the other arm.

"Alright," he grumped. "Just don't trip or fall, that would really cramp my style."

He got a pinch on his arm from both sides.

All eyes of those guests still mingling in the grand foyer with drinks and tasty snacks in hands turned to view the three stunning youths descending the grand staircase arm in arm.

"Show off," Wufei laughed under his breath.

"Duo always did know how to make an entrance," Quatre smiled.

Wufei silently agreed as he watched the three as they reached the landing and Relena let go of her escort's arm to make the rounds as the party's hostess.

Dorothy spoke into Duo's ear and then she too, left to circulate. Duo's eyes immediately began to search the room.

"He looks lost, let's join him." Wufei suggested

"No need," Quatre replied and motioned to the direction off to their right. Trowa and Heero were nearly at Duo's side.

"Do you think he's okay?" Wufei asked in a quiet voice and a look of concern flashing across his face.

"We'll make sure he is," the blond replied confidently.

Wufei nodded. "Let's join them," he said and led the way through the crowd towards their friends.

A half hour later, all two hundred guests were seated in the large dining hall. The orphaned boy from L-2 tried not to gawk as he nervously watched those seated around him dressed in expensive clothing and priceless jewels. Across from him, he watched and followed Wufei's example and removed the fancy folded origami-like napkin, that he was told was in the likeness of a swan, and carefully unfolded it. It seemed a pity to him to undo someone else's hard work just to lay the piece of linen on his lap.

As the first course of soup was set before him, he watched carefully, several people down from his left to see which utensil Quatre picked up, and then copied the movement. He even made every effort to eat slow, matching everyone else's pace.

Through seven courses and dessert, Duo followed his friends' movements. He spoke slightly and sporadically to the two strangers sitting on either side of him, trying not voice his opinion too strongly, or let on about his part in the war. The government had assured them that their identities as the gundam pilots would remain anonymous until they reached the age of eighteen, and they were all determined to stay out of the public's eye and ire as long as possible. Boringly enough, it seemed most of the conversation at the table was about politics, committees and laws about to be presented. At that moment, he pitied both Heero and Relena, doomed to this kind of boring life.

There was no one in the whole assembly more relieved than he when the coffee was served. But the evening was far from over as dignitaries stood up at a decorated podium to speak concerning the graduation of Relena and her closest friends. The words they spoke were full of encouragement and hope for a brighter future. The words were well meaning, but he'd heard the long dull speeches during the three-hour long graduation that morning, and these proved to be just as boring, nearly putting the very full-stomached pilot to sleep.

As yet another speaker rose to approach the podium, Duo mumbled his apologies to his dinner companions and moved swiftly and as unobtrusively as possible from the large room, ignoring the questioning looks from his friends.

Once out into the cooler air of the foyer, he broke into a jog in the direction of the palace library. As he closed the door behind him, he turned on the light. The room was fairly large with shelves lining three of the four walls. The forth wall was all window looking out over the vast gardens. Leather bound books covered the shelves many shelves in the room. He took a deep breath and could smell the leather chairs that were placed about the room as well as the lemon table polish.

He slowly and with a calmer stride, walked over to the wall on the left and raised his hand to brush his fingers slowly over the book bindings. His eyes gazed over the gold embossed titles of the classics housed there. Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas. His hand paused and he smiled as he pulled out the book The Three Musketeers, one of his favorites. He held the book so that the covers and pages separated. Bringing it closer to his face, he took a deep breath, taking in the scent of the page and print, an aroma he'd always enjoyed. With a faint smile, he walked over to the nearest chair and made himself comfortable in it by undoing the tie Relena had meticulously crafted, and then relieving himself of it and the cummerbund, setting them both on the table next to the chair. Turning on the smaller lamp sitting on the same table, he eased himself back into the comfortable leather and opened the book to page one.

He made it all the way to page sixty-five before the library door was flung open. He looked up, blinking in surprise to see Wufei's scowling face. The Chinese boy pointed his finger at him in a gesture of warning. "Stay here!" he ordered, then turned and left the room.

Five minutes later he returned, leading the other three pilots behind him. Quatre rushed past the others with an unhappy frown on his face. "Are you determined to give us a heart attack, Duo?" he asked.

Duo's large, expressive eyes blinked in surprise at his friend's anger. "Sorry," he began. "I... I just had to get out of there or I was gonna fall asleep and embarrass every one when my head fell loudly to the table during the oh-so-stimulating speeches."

Trowa shut the library door, leaving the five friends alone in the library.

"It's time for you to tell us your decision." Heero spoke up and abruptly changed the subject.

Duo closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and shut the book on his lap. "Alright," he said, and the other four positioned themselves in front of him. Heero casually sat half-on, half-off the table, Quatre sat down in the chair across from him, and the other two leaned their shoulders against the bookshelves and waited in anticipation of Duo's decision.

"First of all," he began slowly, looking at all of his friends, "I need to thank you guys for sticking with me since the war started." He gave them each a shaky smile. "I know most of the time I was a pain in the ass. Sorry about that."

They each nodded and he felt the urge to stick his tongue out at them, but held back so he could continue his train of thought. "I don't want anyone to be mad or hurt by my decision," he told them, afraid of that very conclusion when he told them what he'd decided.

He looked to Wufei, whose dark eyes seemed to see into his soul. "Thank you Wufei for your support. You're right. I can't follow you. I need structure right now, so I'm sorry I can't go with you."

The Chinese boy nodded his acceptance of Duo's decision. It was just a polite gesture as he'd never asked nor considered his travel plans to include his friend.

The violet eyes turned next to Trowa. "I'd love more than anything to live and travel with the circus, Trowa. It sounds like every kid's dream," he added. "But I have to decline your offer for the same reason I can't go with Wufei. I don't think uprooting every three or four days would be a good thing for me right now. But I do thank you for the offer and hope it will be okay to come visit you."

Trowa nodded. "You will always be welcomed, Duo."

His eyes then turned to Heero and Quatre. "Both of you could offer me a stable environment and emotional support like the doctor says I need," he told them, seeing hope glisten in their eyes. He took a deep breath. "But I'll be going home with Quatre."

The blond nodded, his eyes reflecting his happiness, but then looked with concern to Heero. There was a long moment of uneasy silence before Heero spoke up. "Explain," he requested quietly.

The braided boy swallowed hard, this was not easy. "You know you're the best friend I've ever had, Heero," he began. "But you don't need me or my problems hanging around right now."

Heero shook his head in denial. He moved to speak, but Duo held up his hand to stop him.

"Listen Heero," he began again. "I just think you need and deserve a break from me. I won't go forever," he said quickly. "I'll promise to join you at Christmas." He looked at his friend with a silent plea for understanding. "You need to find your place in a peaceful world, and so do I. Please, don't be angry or hurt, but I really think I better go with Quatre for a while."

The blond boy stood from his chair and went to Heero's side, sensing the Japanese teen's hurt. "I'll take good care of him, Heero, until he's ready to strike out on his own," he assured him, and they all knew he meant that he would not let Duo leave before he was physically and mentally stable.

Heero nodded and stood, accepting Duo's decision, but feeling disappointed. He moved from off the edge of the desk to stand in front of his best friend. Duo rose from his chair as Heero's eyes searched the nervous violet ones before him.

"You're not mad at me, are you Heero?" Duo asked timidly.

A moment passed between them, then with a shake of his head, Heero raised his arms and embraced his friend. "I'll miss you," he said quietly into the braided boy's ear.

"I'll miss you, too," Duo replied, returning the embrace.

"You won't change your mind?"

Duo sighed and let go and took a step back. He shook his head with a look of sadness. "It's for the best," he replied. "But you'll write me, won't you?"

"Hai." Heero nodded as a feeling of resignation set in.

Quatre slung his arm over Heero's shoulders. "Come on guys," he gently chastised them. "Let's not be so gloomy. It isn't the end of the world, and we still have tonight together. Let's do something fun. Any ideas?" he asked looking at the other four.

"Let's get drunk," Duo suggested glibly.

"Duo." The four voices all sounded in a reprimanding tone at his suggestion. They all knew he couldn't ingest alcohol with his medication.

"Play chess?" Wufei suggested.

"NO!" the other four answered again in unison.

"Practice knife throwing at Relena's guests, particularly those last two speakers?" Trowa suggested with a smirk.

There was a long pause before Duo and Quatre snickered.

"I can't believe you suggested that," Quatre chuckled.

"We could use Relena's computers and hack into the new government's data base," Heero suggested.

"Pilfer funds, like the good old days?" Duo said, waggling his eyebrows.

"No." Wufei said.

"Steal a car and go cruising?"

"No, Duo." Heero answered this time.

"Take apart our gundams and build a brand new one?" Quatre suggested with a teasing smile.

"Well, if that suggestion is a no-go," Heero spoke up again and all heads turned to look at him. "I have a very big Jacuzzi bathtub in my room and a large screen t.v. we can angle so that we can view it from the bathroom."

"I've got bubble bath," Duo volunteered with a glint of mischief in his eyes, "and my music." He could see from the look of his friend's faces that they too were remembering the time in Monterey when they'd flooded the luxury hotel's bathroom with too many bubbles manufactured by the jets of the Jacuzzi. That was a great memory.

"Trowa, Quatre and I can raid the kitchen in a food and drink run." Wufei suggested with a grin.

They all looked at each other, smiles growing and mischievous, approving looks on their faces.

"Sounds like a plan." Heero nodded in agreement. "Bring your trunks and towels to my room in..." he checked his watch, "fifteen minutes?"

The others enthusiastically agreed, and the five made their way to the library doors.

Heero watched them separate into various directions to carry out their missions. He turned to go in search of Relena and explain their absence from the remainder of the evening. He allowed himself to feel a moment of sadness at the coming absence of his friends, especially Duo who had been a constant for him during the last six months. Good or bad days, they had been there for each other. He reflected that he and the others had not only become brothers in arms, but a family. He mentally rid himself of the heavy, melancholy feeling he felt at the thought of not having his brothers around anymore. For now, he had a new mission to concentrate on, to make the last evening the five of them would have together a happy and memorable one.

Story references are from fics A Little Time Off, and a School Daze Story.

It's not the end of DFA yet, though we're getting close. I'll post a DFA Christmas story in a week or two. Happy holidays!


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