Duo's Friendship Arc 27
Part 1 - Two Steps Forward
by Dyna Dee
"Duo, we're almost to L-4. Can we talk?"
Quatre was nothing but persistent, Duo thought grimly to himself as he maintained the appearance of being asleep.
Quatre waited approximately fifteen seconds before he shook the braided teen's shoulder. "I mean it Duo. You're awake and upset and I want you to talk to me."
With a heavy sigh and his eyes still tightly scrunched closed, Duo answered in an exasperated and weary tone of voice. "I'm fine Quatre. I just don't feel like talking."
"Six hours in this shuttle and you've not said a word to me," Quatre persisted. "You can't tell me nothing is wrong. I thought things went well at the hospital with Wufei, don't you?"
Duo's mind jumped back to the scene when he brought a slightly reluctant Wufei into Heero's hospital room. Quatre and Trowa had already arrived for their planned afternoon visit and their presence seemed to help alleviate some of the awkwardness between the other three. "Yeah, things were fine. I'm pretty sure Heero and Wufei have worked things out with each other now."
"And what about you, Duo?" The blond asked with concern.
"I'm always fine, Quatre. You should know that by now."
Blond eyebrows drew together as Quatre frowned. His hand came to his chest and he absently rubbed at the ache he couldn't physically touch. After several moments had passed with Duo maintaining his stubborn pose, his back towards his friend and facing the window of the shuttle, the blond tried again.
"Trowa told me about Heero hitting you and leaving you for Trowa to take care of on that colony you saved." Silence followed his statement and the ache in his chest increased. "Is that what you're upset about?"
Duo turned over quite suddenly and Quatre wasn't at all prepared for the anger in his friend's normally happy face. "Upset? Wouldn't you be upset if your friend didn't trust you to carry out your mission? Heero used me as a decoy, which wouldn't have been so bad if he'd informed me of his plan. But nooo!" The braided boy shook his head and his body seemed to tremble with barely suppressed anger, "he just knocked me out and went off on his own and fight without a back up, leaving me to be babysat by Trowa who, I learned after the fact, was going to abandon me in a holding cell with the enemy while he ran off to join up with you the and gundams. Do any of you think I'm capable of anything but wiping my own butt? You don't seem to think I can do anything else."
Without waiting for an answer from his shocked and momentarily speechless friend, Duo then threw himself back into his former position, his arms wrapping around his body in a closed-off defensive position.
"Duo," Quatre reached out to touch his friend's arm, only to have Duo violently shrug it off. He brought his hands together and began to rub them with worry. "I'm sure they were only trying to protect you," he continued, his voice soft with compassion. "Heero hasn't seen you during the last six months and Trowa was with us during a very difficult time. They don't know how well you really are, that you're strong again. They only remember how vulnerable you were when we attended school together. I'm sure they just wanted to spare you any further pain, not hurt your feelings."
"Well, I guess they accomplished the first goal and failed miserably with the other. I'm physically fine and dandy and my feelings hurt like hell," came the dark reply.
Quatre frowned. Wufei had tried to covertly tell him in the hospital room that Duo was upset about something, but he hadn't been overly concerned as Duo seemed fairly animated though somewhat distant from the two pilots he was obviously put out with. In retrospect, he didn't remember Duo speaking with any of them in the friendly fashion they had come to depend on during the wars. In fact, he couldn't think of an instance when he saw Duo exchanging words with Heero other then trivial pleasantries. Trowa had also commented to him on Duo's stand-offish attitude towards himself.
Settling back into his seat, Quatre thought the situation over. Trowa had told him in meticulous detail just what went on in the control room as they fought against the clock while working on the computer system to override the course of death and destruction the colony had been pre-programmed for. Putting himself in Duo's shoes, he knew that he too would be hurt and upset if he had been treated in a manner that Heero and Trowa had treated their friend. On the other hand, he also understood Heero's and then Trowa's protectiveness on Duo's behalf. After his challenges after the war, they had all become protective of him, guarding both his physical and mental health.
To be honest, Quatre had to admit that he'd been guilty of the same thing during the last six months that Duo had lived in his home. He'd made it a practice of shielding the American from any negative news coming from any form of media, especially those with less than glowing stories and those reporting the statistics regarding the damage and deaths that were attributed to the Gundams. News commentaries and debates stemming from former OZ and Alliance die-hard supporters who had a free and open forum in the newspapers and cable news stations were also avoided.
The often volatile and emotionally charged debates continued on television news programs and in print as to whether the government was wise or not to keep the information regarding the identities of the pilots and their colonies undisclosed and classified. This withheld information and the government's sheltering of the unknown pilots or any clues regarding their situation or location had many in the public and press in an uproar, contending that the citizens of Earth and the colonies had a right to know the identities of the five pilots of the gundams that changed the course of history and relations between Earth and her colonies, not to mention having saved Earth by stopping Libra from crashing down and destroying countless lives.
So far, Lady Une had been able to keep her promises to them of keeping their identities from the public, and they were free to live their lives in relative peace. But there was always the dark, looming cloud of their pasts that hovered over them, plus the worry of what would happen if their identities were discovered and plastered all over the news. It was a fear that the four of them had lived with for over a year, and Quatre had tried his best to shelter Duo from as much of it as he could, and he had succeeded up to this point.
With a sigh, and knowing Duo was wide awake, he spoke again but changed the subject. "So when are you leaving for L-2?" Quatre asked his friend, the subject making him feel a bit more subdued.
"As soon as I get my stuff together." Duo replied and turned slightly to look over his shoulder at his friend. "I told Mr. Schweibeker I'd be there after New Year's Day, so I'm already late. Hilde made my excuses to him, but I don't want to push my luck."
"Any chance you can stay to the end of the week?" Quatre asked, and there was something strangely needy in his voice that caused Duo to turn completely and face him.
"I don't know Quatre, do you need me for something?" Duo searched his friend's face and saw something he'd rarely seen in the face of the boy who was one of the strongest yet kindest people he'd ever known. Quatre suddenly looked vulnerable. He'd do anything for Quatre, and not just because he owed him so much for taking him in for the past six months. Quatre was his friend, tried and true. Friends, he'd learned long ago, were a necessary part of his life even if it wasn't always easy having them. He might be seething with anger at Heero and Trowa, but if they needed him, he'd be there in a flash. And deep down inside, he knew they'd be there for him as well if he needed them.
"It's kind of important and not important at the same time," Quatre said with a slight blush of embarrassment while never taking his eyes off his friend. "But my father's birthday is on the sixth, and my sisters and I are having a special program to commemorate it. I would like it very much if you could be there for me." Quatre's big blue eyes seemed to plead with Duo to understand his need. "This is very difficult for my sisters and myself," he continued. "I would really appreciate a friend being there to support me."
Duo knew in an instant that he would do whatever he had to in order to give Quatre the support he was asking for. "I'll call Hilde and have her make it right with her uncle," he replied decisively with a reassuring smile then reached up, put his hand on the blond teen's shoulder, and gave him a reassuring squeeze before pulling it back. "So, is there going to be food served at this program?"
Quatre managed a smile though his eyes were filling quickly with evidence of his gratitude. "I'll make sure you're fed well, Duo. Thanks."
"Don't mention it buddy," Duo replied. "That's what friends are for, to be there for each other when life gets tough, right? You've proved that to me over and over," he said quietly with a warm smile for his friend. "I'm just glad I get to show you I can be here for you, too."
"You've always have been there for me, Duo," Quatre replied with a slight yawn. "I just don't think you've ever realized it."
A comfortable silence settled over the two as their feelings of friendship soothed away the darker feelings they both had been experiencing, and with only fifteen minutes until docking, they both dozed off into a much needed sleep.
"Quatre, over here!" A female voice called out to the Winner heir just as he stepped out of the shuttle, his sleepy-eyed friend at his side.
Seeing one of his many older sisters approaching him with a smile, Quatre managed, despite his weariness, to smile back as he greeted her. "Hello Samanta, how are you?"
He suddenly found himself engulfed in the tall blond woman's arms, accompanying billowing silk and a floral perfume that wasn't overly heady, but surprising pleasant to inhale, which probably meant it was insanely expensive.
"Welcome home, little brother. Thank Allah you've come home safe once again." she said with all sincerity, then stepped back to embrace Duo with just as much enthusiasm.
"And welcome to you too, little cousin," she said with a slight feminine laugh as Duo stood stiffly while she enveloped his smaller body in a warm, enthusiastic hug.
"Thanks cousin," the braided teen replied, his voice muffled against the fabric his face was pressed into. Duo had admitted to Quatre after living in his mansion for several weeks that he'd had a hard time telling the Winner sisters apart and remembering their names. Being conceived in a test tube and brought to term in a synthetic support womb, many of the children fathered by Quatre's father and mother had been multiple births and some looked identical to their twin or triplet siblings. So when one of Quatre's sisters playfully referred to their little brother's close friend as "cousin", the orphaned boy from L-2 gladly began to refer to back to any and all of the Winner women likewise as "cousin". He liked the term because it made him feel part of a large, tightly knit family and because it helped with the problem of remembering which name fit what sister. They were now all simply called "cousin".
The thirty-three year old woman stepped back from the braided boy and then carefully inspected each of the two teens standing in front of her. "I take it you were not injured in this last battle?" she asked, one of her blond eyebrows rising in an unspoken but obvious disapproval of the two boys going off into yet another war to fight for the colonies.
Quatre recognized it immediately. "Please Samanta, let's not start this argument again. Duo and I had to go and as you can see, we're both fine. We were needed and what we contributed mattered."
Quatre's sister continued to frown. "You know it goes against everything father taught us," she said looking sad at her brother's continued rebelling from their father's pacifist ways.
"Please," Quatre pleaded quietly, suddenly weary of all the arguments and looks of disapproval he got regularly from his twenty-nine older sisters.
Duo stood by, watching Quatre receive another subtle put down from a member of his family. He could see Quatre had taken all he could of it, and he had too. Reaching over to grab a hold of his friend's elbow, he pulled his friend away from the surprised sister. "Let's go, Quaret. I'm tired."
Heading out to the front of the private Winner Corporation shuttle terminal, Duo began to look for a taxi, not wanting to be enclosed in a car with a woman who was set on finding fault with either himself or Quatre.
"What do you think you're doing?" Samanta asked the braided boy as she chased after them.
"I'm going to hail a taxi and get the hell out of here," Duo replied curtly, his lack of sleep was causing his nerves to feel frayed and his irritation to quickly come forward. "We're just not up to a holier-than-thou lecture from someone who knows squat about what we had to do."
Quatre stood quietly next to his friend who happened to be looking frantically for a vehicle labeled a taxi. He hated to tell Duo, but he was pretty sure it was too early in the day for a taxi service to be running randomly by a private shuttle terminal.
"I'm sorry," the woman behind them said, softly apologetic. "We...I was just so worried about you. Please promise me Quatre that you won't fight in another war if you can help it."
Quatre closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. After a moment he let it out slowly, opened his eyes and faced his sister. "I can't promise that Samanta," he replied softly. "If I'm called to help end a dispute, I'll have to do my best to try and stop it. It's not as if I go looking for a war to jump into, is it?"
Though disappointed by his answer, the blond woman shook her head, trying to accept the fact that her little brother, the pride of the entire family, would never be the pacifist her father had dreamed of. "No, trouble always comes looking for you," she replied quietly.
"But it might make you feel better to know that we destroyed our gundams, for good this time," he added as he watched Duo strain his neck to see if a taxi was approaching.
A small relieved smile grew on his sister's face, replaced slowly with a look of concern. "That must have been difficult for you, to destroy something that you created," she said, trying to be sympathetic.
"Not as hard as you would think," Quatre replied with a small smile of his own. He was secretly hoping that he could be done with fighting. It never came easy to him and he didn't know if he could do it again, even if the necessity of it came again. Destroying the gundams meant that all five of the pilots had hoped to go on with their lives, to finally enjoy the peace they'd fought and sacrificed so much for.
"I know you two just love to take taxi cabs, but my car is right there," she pointed to her left to the aquamarine colored, sleek sedan. "How about I give you a lecture-free ride home?"
Duo turned to judge the sincerity of her statement by her facial expression, then nodded his head in agreement.
A few short minutes later, the three were in the luxury car and heading down the mostly deserted street. Quatre sat in the front passenger seat next to his sister while Duo sat in the seat directly behind her.
"Construction has begun on the top floor of the office building," Samanta said out of nowhere in a casual, conversational tone of voice, bringing both boys' attention to her.
"When will it be finished?" Quatre asked, his face brightening.
"We've been promised by the architect that it will be finished and passing final inspection within one month," she replied.
"Any trouble?" Quatre asked.
"A couple of the contractors were slow in performing," the blond woman replied, "but the architect got on their case pretty quickly and work sped up and is back on schedule."
"What's going on?" Duo asked, his head resting heavily against the head rest in the back seat of the car. At the moment he felt comfortable enough in the luxury leather seats that he could doze off and sleep the day away from where he was sitting.
Quatre turned around in his seat to fully look at his friend, excitement lighting his eyes. "After you hinted that you might strike out on your own, I decided it might be a good thing for me to do also," he answered.
"You're going to move out of that huge mansion and away from all the hired help?" Duo asked in disbelief. He'd been the beneficiary of Quatre's lifestyle for half a year, and though it sometimes bothered him to have other people doing his everyday chores for him, he was secretly relieved not to have to do laundry or cook for himself. He knew those tasks were going to be part of his everyday life once he moved into a place of his own on L-2, but why rush it? But after seeing Quatre so at ease in that kind of pampered atmosphere, he had a hard time picturing the Winner boy, heir to billions, doing the mundane chores everyone else did on a daily basis.
Quatre nodded his head in answer to Duo's question. "The top floor of the corporate offices has been vacant since... my father's demise." He obviously stumbled over the last part of the sentence. "It was my father's personal space, and I've decided to turn it into several apartments. One will be my establishment, and I was kind of hoping I could talk you into staying, taking on a job at the corporation and keeping me company."
Duo's eyes widened at the offer. Quatre was generous to a fault, but he knew he couldn't accept it. "It sound great, Quatre..." he began, looking regretful already.
"But?" Quatre asked, reading his friend's facial expression perfectly.
Duo grinned, looking apologetic. "But the whole reason I'm moving is to prove to myself that I can be on my own again, that I can take care of myself and be independent. You're offer is more than generous, Quatre. But I can't accept it. I'm sorry."
Quatre gave his friend a small, sad but reassuring smile. "I understand, Duo. It's just going to be hard to see you leave. I guess I just have to face the fact that I'm on my own now, too. All my friends have gone on with their lives and I guess it's time I let go and try to move on also."
Duo felt his heart aching at the sight and sound of his friend, knowing the blond had missed the other former pilots, their friends, during their half year separation as much as he had, especially Trowa, who had been Quatre's closest friend during the first war. Suddenly Quatre Winner, the boy who had everything anyone could ever dream of having, seemed sad and lonely. It was odd to feel sorry for him as he had more money than some countries and lived in a luxurious and corporate world filled with kowtowing adults and female siblings who doted on him hand and foot. Most people would consider themselves the luckiest person in the solar system to be in Quatre's shoes. Well, that is, until they got to know how hard it was carrying the responsibility that the only male heir of the Winner family did and how isolating his position could be.
"I'll always be just a vid call away, Quatre. You know that, don't you?" Duo asked, looking intently into the aquamarine eyes. "I'll come running back here if you need me."
Quatre gave him a trembling smile and nodded. "And we'll talk often, won't we?"
"Sure we will. Every week," Duo assured him and reached out to ruffle the silky blond hair that covered his friend's head.
Quatre's smile seemed a little forced as he turned forward, and the car remained silent until Samanta turned on a classical CD for them to listen to.
As soon as they arrived home, both boys retired to their rooms and slept the remainder of the day. Duo finally ventured out of his room around six p.m. when his stomach refused to let him ignore its need to be filled.
Walking calmly down the stairs, he could hear the strains of music coming from the music conservatory just several doors from the front entryway. Duo followed the strains of string instruments and let the melodious melody lead him to the correct room, where he entered quietly and leaned against the door frame to listen.
Quatre stood before a group of female musicians, his violin tucked under his chin as he counted out the number of notes until he began to play. The piece they were playing was rather slow and melancholy. It wasn't what Duo would categorize as sad, but more of a reflective piece. But something was definitely missing. Not one of the instruments seemed to play a distinct melody.
As the music played on, Duo observed the musicians; obviously, everyone a Winner. The small orchestra was dominated by blonds with a smattering of darker haired females, many of them looking like each other though obviously younger or older in appearance. There were several different sizes of violins being played as well as two cellos, a harp, flutes, an oboe and a few other wind instruments. Even with his untrained ear, Duo could tell they were all accomplished musicians and wondered if they had all been genetically engineered to be that way.
As the piece came to a close, Quatre's violin played a down scale of triple notes and Duo felt a lot of emotion within the music room. Whatever the piece, it seemed to affect all those present.
Quatre lowered his violin and opened his eyes as the last note of the song faded from the strings of his instrument. He lowered the rest from his chin and smiled at his sisters and gave them a quiet word of thanks, then caught sight of his friend leading against the wall, listening to them rehearse.
"I'll be back in a few minutes if you wish to continue without me," he told the small orchestra. Several of the women put down their instruments and reached for a bottle of water that sat next to each chair.
"That was nice," Duo offered in greeting to his approaching friend.
"It's a piece I selected as a gift to my father," Quatre said, smiling a bit sadly. Duo knew his friend was still mourning the loss of the patriarch of the family. He'd learned from Quatre that he and his father didn't see eye to eye when it came to the politics of Earth and the Colonies. Mr. Winner had been a die-hard pacifist and had sacrificed his own life for his principles, something that made the surviving Winners both proud and sorrowful at the same time.
"Is there a solo part that was missing?" Duo asked.
Quatre nodded. "My sister, Irea, is an accomplished singer and will sing the words. We're going to accompany her."
Now the lack of a melody made sense to the American. "How's she doing, by the way?" Duo asked, remembering Quatre's oldest sister had been injured trying to save Quatre from being hurt when the satellite their father died in exploded and sent their shuttle reeling from the enormous blast. The result of her efforts had been the crushing of some vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. It was just one more regret that Quatre had heaped upon his already over-loaded plate of guilt. Though she lived on another colony and rarely visited L-4, just the mention of her name always made Quatre feel sad with regret.
"She's doing well," Quatre replied with a faint smile. Though he appeared to be pleased at the answer he was giving his friend, there was a slight pull of his eyebrows together that showed Duo his friend was still feeling pain from the memory of his sister's sacrifice for him. "She's back to practicing medicine again on L-13. She really is an excellent doctor Duo, and people flock to her clinic to have her for their physician."
"I'm looking forward to meeting her," Duo said with a grin directed at his friend, hoping to cheer him up. "And I guess if she's going to sing this song for you that she must be a talented singer, too."
"She sings like an angel," Quatre said with a genuine smile. "I think my father had the lab that engineered us to put a gene for talent in music within all of us. Each one of us either play or sing. It seemed important to my father, though he didn't display any of those talents he had developed in his children. I guess you could say he produced his own musical orchestra and entertainment," Quatre motioned to the small group of musicians behind him. "Too bad he didn't live long enough to fully appreciate it."
"What makes you think he isn't enjoying it?" Duo asked with a questioning expression on his face. "I'd like to think there's a life after this one. There's certainly enough books on the subject of people visiting the hereafter after technically dying and then return to tell about it. I would think a man like your father, who put so much into life, having produced so many talented children, wouldn't just fade away into a state of non-existence after he died."
"I hope you're right Duo." Quatre replied thoughtfully. "I sometimes hope he can see and hear me, maybe even help me along when things are tough."
"If he can, I'm sure he does." Duo said putting his arm around his friend's shoulders. "And talking about helping," Duo abruptly changed the subject, "how about you come with me and help me get something to eat. I'm so hungry that I'm hollow."
The blond chuckled. "Alright, but I have to come back and practice. The last battle kind of interrupted several weeks of practice and I have to catch up."
The two pilots left the music room and made their way to the kitchen, only to be waylaid by one of the many Winner sisters, Talia. She was the third oldest of Quatre's sisters and always seemed to be parenting the two teenagers, deeming it her job, since no one else seemed interested or capable of taking up the chore.
"There you two are," the tall, willowy blond said with an indulgent smile aimed at the two.
"Evening, Mam," Duo said politely with a nod of his head.
Quatre stopped before her and received a kiss from his older sibling on both of his cheeks. "Hello, Talia," he said quietly with a tolerant smile, wondering what she wanted with him now.
"I understand both of our little nestlings are flying the coop, so to speak," the older woman said, searching both boys' faces.
"I leave for L-2 right after the program for your father," Duo replied, ignoring the comment that put him in the same category as a little bird that was learning to fly. He was far from inexperienced and innocent, but didn't harbor on the point, letting Quatre's sister indulge in her little fantasy that he and Quatre were young and untried in the ways of life.
"And I understand you have a job and a place to stay?" She leveled her eyes on the braided teen while raising one quizzical eyebrow.
"Yes, it's all been taken care of. I just need to show up and start working," the braided teen answered with a grin.
"Good!" Both Duo and Quatre looked at each other. The older woman seemed much too pleased about something and that put them on their guard.
"What do you mean?" Quatre asked warily.
"I have a gift for you, both of you. A surprise." Her eyes lit up with a glint of mischievousness. "Starting tomorrow morning at nine a.m." The unnerving smile was still there.
"What surprise?" Duo asked, feeling wary.
Talia brought her finely manicured hands together and actually rubbed the palms together with some sort of maniacal expression of a plan about to be sprung on the unsuspecting. "I've hired someone to come in tomorrow and teach you how to live alone. Now that you are both going to be living a single man's life, you need to know how to take care of yourselves."
"Um... I appreciate the gesture, but..." Quatre began, searching quickly for a way to beg off from her gift without offending one of his older, very influential sisters.
"No buts," The blond haired woman said firmly, her smile fading as she took on the appearance of a stern business woman who was used to calling the shots and having things done her way. "We've all agreed that this is the wisest gift we could give you two. It will make it easier for us to sleep at night knowing you know how to cook basic meals and clean up after yourselves. I would imagine that you wouldn't want us to come into your homes and do that for you, now do you little brother?" There was a wicked gleam in the blue eyes that settled onto Quatre that told him his sister wasn't making an idle threat.
"Talia," he began in a compromising voice. "We know how to take care of ourselves. We've been on our own for quite some time and survived."
"Can you cook?"
Both teens shared a worried look with each other, remembering the near burning down of a safehouse when the both of them tried to cook a simple dinner. The other pilots had banned them from cooking in any safehouse kitchen when other attempts at making a meal proved that neither of them were competent in a kitchen nor had any hint of a talent in the culinary arts. They had both learned to eat cold cereal, managed the toaster fairly well, and perfected the task of heating up pre-packaged microwave meals and popcorn.
"We're not totally helpless," Duo said as he straightened his back and looked the blond woman in the eyes with an air of mild indignation. Quatre smiled, silently congratulating his friend on not caving in front of his sister's intimidating looks although that smile lasted only until Duo spoke up again.
"I can open a can of anything and eat it, and I certainly have mastered making pudding and popcorn as well as toast."
Quatre inwardly groaned as he watched his friend look decidedly proud of his short list of accomplishments. Without a doubt, Duo just managed to land them in a cooking class, and the blond knew there was no way out of it now.
Talia's eyes narrowed, and Duo's self confident attitude began to waver under the silent assault. "You may have had to live that way during the war," she began in a low, dangerous voice. "But you are no longer forced to live like fugitives on the lam. You are past living on the run and scraping by, and as you are going out into the world to prove yourselves, the girls and I have decided, and I think more wisely than before, that you must learn the basics so that you will both remain healthy by becoming competent at taking care of yourselves."
"Listen," Duo began, his hackles were definitely up at the very idea that he couldn't take care of himself. "No offense," he continued, looking anything other than happy, "but I've been taking care of myself since I can remember. I don't need anyone telling me I can't."
"Duo," Quatre jumped in, seeing his best friend and sister about to go at each other's throat. "Talia means well, and she's right. It wouldn't hurt us to learn a few tricks in the kitchen. Just think of it, we could make ourselves eggs, maybe omelets, or..." the blue eyes began to light up, "Eggs Benedict!"
Talia looked at her little brother with an incredulous expression on her face. "That might be just a little too tricky, Quatre," she said. "But I think eggs and omelets are a good place to start, along with cooked grain cereal and pancakes or waffles. Mr. Bruce will also teach you how to make some simple lunches and dinners."
"Mr. Bruce?" Quatre wondered out loud at the same time Duo covered his face with both hands. Looking at his friend, who was groaning in a miserable way, he asked, "What? Who's Mr. Bruce?"
"Please don't tell me it's that irritating guy on the television who cooks from scratch in a kitchen where everything is in pastel colors."
Talia looked perplexed at Duo's reaction. "Of course it is," she replied. "There is only one Mr. Bruce. He's so talented and his dishes are works of art. It's only because of a connection that I got him to agree to teach the both of you what you need to know, starting tomorrow morning."
Quatre looked to his mortified friend. "I don't know who this person is. Why does this disturb you, Duo?"
"Shit, Quatre." Duo swore, unrepentant. "His television show comes on when you've been at the office. The household staff watches it every day. His 'works of art' are complicated and look artsy fartsy. No way are we going to be able to cook like that."
"Of course not," Quatre's sister interrupted with a feminine laugh at Duo's description of a man she felt was a genius. "He's been told what to expect, two teens with two left thumbs when it comes to cooking. He'll go easy on you, he promised," Talia added. "Besides," she reached out and affectionately ruffled the silky blond hair of her little brother as she continued. "He's the best, and Quatre deserves the best we can acquire for him."
Now it was the former Sandrock pilot's turn to roll his eyes. "Talia..." he warned.
"Alright." She raised her hands in surrender, knowing Quatre hated hearing anyone referring to him in such a doting way. Men, she thought, were way too prideful. "But it's true. Mr. Bruce Wainwright is handsome, brilliant, gifted, generous..."
"And oh so gay," Duo added with a roll of his eyes.
"No he's not," Talia defended the man.
"No one can sashay around a kitchen like that with a definitely lisp and a fondness for kitchen appliances, pastel in color, without being a flamer," Duo retorted. "Not that I have anything against gays," he added quickly. "But geesh, to be stuck in a kitchen all day and not knowing if the guy is checking the buns in the oven or my buns is rather disturbing."
Quatre snickered, suddenly finding the whole situation ridiculous. "I'll be there to report which ones Duo."
The braided teen looked seriously at his friend. "Who said it was only my buns that I'm worried about."
"He's not gay," Talia insisted.
"Yes he is!" Duo insisted.
"Want to make a bet on that?"
Quatre and Duo looked suspiciously at the older blond woman. "What do you want to wager?" Quatre asked.
"If he's not gay, you and Duo will take the full three-day course and prepare me a dinner, proving you can live by yourselves. If he's gay, you need only take the one day I've pre-paid for."
Duo turned to his friend after hearing the wager. "There's no way someone could act like that guy does and not be gay," he said under his breath.
"I don't know, Duo," Quatre looked nervously at his sister's smug smile. "I think she knows something we don't."
Duo looked over at the older woman. "She's just putting on a good act to get us to take the wager. That guy is as queer as the three dollar bill."
Quatre decided quickly to put his trust in Duo, who was usually a good judge of character. "Alright, we accept," he announced, then they both shook hands with his sister.
A broad smile of victory crossed the woman's fair face. "I'll see both of you tomorrow morning at nine a.m. in the kitchen."
"How are you going to find out if he's gay or not?" Duo asked as she turned to walk away.
Talia turned her head as she walked down the hall towards the music room. Over her shoulder, with a smile still on her face, she answered. "I'll be sure to ask his wife when I call to confirm tonight."
Quatre sighed with accepted defeat then put an arm around his friend's shoulder and turned him towards the direction of the kitchen so they could commiserate losing a bet while eating leftovers.
The next morning at nine a.m., both former gundam pilots were found in attendance in the large kitchen of the Winner mansion. Breakfast had been at eight that morning and all the evidence of that meal had been cleaned up and put away, ready for the cooking lesson to begin.
Before the two teens stood a tall, slender and rather elegant looking man in dress slacks, a white long sleeved shirt with a collar that was open at the neck, who was rolling up his newly unbuttoned cuffs. His full head of thick brown hair was cut short and topped an oval shaped face with brown, thoughtful eyes and a definite cleft in his chin. He was, as Talia and the kitchen staff proclaimed, handsome, and he had a commanding presence and an air of confidence that both boys silently concluded had to be a factor in the man's success.
The three had already been introduced, and being the professional he was, Mr. Bruce Wainwright ignored the petulant faces and proceeded with lesson one.
"To start off the morning, I would like the two of you to tell me what you do know how to cook."
Naming the list of items the two could prepare lasted no more than ten seconds, leaving the room silent until the chef realized that Quatre, who had answered for both of them, had finished.
"Well, then," the man continued unfazed. "It seems we have our work cut out for us. Shall we begin?" He turned around and opened the box he had carried in with him when he entered the house. From within it, he pulled out three sturdy, off-white aprons and handed one to each boy and donned one himself.
Next, from out of the box, he pulled out a book and lay it on the table while other cooking related items were brought out. Both curious boys looked at the cover of the book to see their tutor's face on the cover. He was posed in a kitchen setting with an apron on, much like the one they were wearing, with a cheese eating grin on his face. The bold title above his smiling head was A Single Man's Guide to the Kitchen.
"Now," Mr. Bruce, as he asked them to call him, turned abruptly, startling the two. "Let's begin with the basics. Do you know what these utensils are?" With a wave of his hand he motioned to a set of measuring cups and spoons, a whisk, spatula and tongs.
Duo looked at Quatre and raised his eyebrows in question. The only thing he'd used of the items on the table were the different size cups and spoons for measuring out precise amounts of chemicals to make bombs, but he didn't think the man needed to know that information.
"He means for cooking," Quatre said under his breath to his friend.
"We've never used them before... for cooking, that is," Duo answered.
The man turned, with practiced patience and held up the four metal cups, attached together by a little metal ring. "These are measuring cups. You use these for measuring ingredients when following recipes. The largest equals one cup, the second largest in size is three-quarters of a cup. The third..."
Quatre snuck a look at Duo in time to see the other boy stick his lip out and puff out some air, ruffling his long, shaggy bangs. He could see Duo shared his sentiment that this was going to be a very long day.
After being instructed on the proper tools used in a kitchen, Mr. Bruce then went on to explain how to follow a recipe and the terms used in cooking and baking. The three then worked slowly and carefully to prepare a simple lunch. By twelve noon there sat on the table a platter containing perfectly cooked pasta, topped by a rich spaghetti sauce and meatballs.
The two boys, with their aprons splattered with tomato sauce and some grease, waited somewhat nervously as Rashid sat at the large table in front of a dish filled with the meal the two boys prepared. The older man took his time in taking a long, indrawn breath of the aromatic dish, and gave the two an appreciative nod. They observed nervously as he put his fork into the pasta and watched him as he slowly swirled the sauce into the noodles then removed his utensil to take a little piece of a meatball, spear it on the fork, then go back to the mixed portion of sauce and pasta.
"Oh for heaven's sake, Rashid!" Duo cried out, exasperated. "Quit playing with it and eat the damn stuff."
The large Maguanac chuckled, knowing exactly what his slow movements were doing to the two anxious boys, but he couldn't seem to help himself. He caught the eye of the boys' tutor and saw the amusement on his face also. Bringing his fork up to his mouth, he carefully placed it inside, then made slow work of chewing and enjoying the flavors. He kept his expression neutral as he chewed, and closed his eyes.
"Well, is it any good?" Quatre asked, putting a restraining hand on Duo's arm to keep him from doing something drastic.
Rashid swallowed, raised his eyes and smiled. "It's delicious."
There was a moment of silence in kitchen.
"We did it?" Duo said, his voice reflecting his surprise.
"You're not just saying that, are you?" Quatre asked the man who was almost blindly devoted to him. "Just to be kind?"
"Taste it yourselves," Rashid said, motioning to the platter before him.
Mr. Bruce smiled at the two boys. "Go ahead and eat, that's what cooking is all about, the enjoyment of what you prepare."
"Will you join us?" Quatre asked as he and Duo took a seat and reached for a plate from the stack of plates on the table.
"Of course," he nodded, and moved to sit beside the large dark-haired man.
Duo was the first to take a bite of the food, and he hummed his appreciation, He had a few more fork fulls before Quatre took his first taste and their eyes turned to meet each others' and a happy grin of accomplishment lit their faces. It went without saying that they were both pleased and proud of their first attempt at cooking.
At the end of the three days, both former gundam pilots, now seventeen years old, were ready to face the world on their own and felt more secure with being in a kitchen and preparing whatever was written in Mr. Bruce's cookbook. Over the time their tutor had spent with them, they had successfully been guided through reading, analyzing and carrying out instructions for recipes including: omelets, stew, a variety of soups, hamburgers, stakes and vegetables and salads. He also took time to teach them about cleaning up after themselves and doing laundry.
The evening of the third day of their lessons had the two teens standing nervously once again as Quatre's sister, Talia, sat at the kitchen table with a plate of food in front of her. After placing a napkin on her lap, she picked up the salad fork and tasted the leafy green salad mixed with pine nuts, dried cranberries and a white balsamic vinegarette. After one bite, she looked up at the two and gave then an approving smile.
The second course was a vegetable soup that she also found very appealing but only finished half of the bowl, anxious to see what else her 'boys' had prepared for her.
With Mr. Bruce standing to the side observing his students and Talia's response to their attempt at preparing a full course meal, the plate of paella was set before her. A warm smile lit the woman's face as she looked up to Mr. Bruce. "You cheated," she laughed lightly. "You know this is my favorite."
"I'll have you know they prepared this without any instructions from me," he told her, beaming a grin at the two boys who were happy to receive his support.
After two bites of the prepared Spanish dish, the blond woman looked up with a growing smile. "Excellent job, you both pass," she declared. "Now, come and join me. This is too delicious not to share."
And so that evening meal passed pleasantly with Talia listening to the exuberant teens describe their kitchen adventures. All in all it was a very positive experience.
As the meal ended, Mr. Bruce packed up his kitchen tools and supplies into his box, and with it in his arms he addressed his charges one last time. "In honor of your successfully completing my crash course," he grinned at them both. "I'll be sending you each a box much like this one, with tools, some spices and a cook book to help you establish your newly acquired skills in your new homes."
Both boys politely thanked the man and saw him to the door. After handshakes were traded, the large, ornate door was closed behind Mr. Bruce and the two friends turned to each other and smiled gleefully.
"Well," Quatre grinned as he looked at Duo, feeling very pleased with the experience. "We didn't burn the house down."
"The guys would be proud of us." Duo grinned back. "Maybe one day we can fix a meal for them, have a reunion or something."
"That would be great!" Quatre replied, wondering what they could fix that would astound their friends who had refused to let the two into the kitchen other than to do dishes or clean up.
The two left the entryway and moved towards the music room. "I have to practice," Quatre announced, looking apologetic. "The program is tomorrow evening and Irea arrives in the morning, so I'm going to be tied up most of the day."
"Don't worry," Duo replied, knowing Quatre hated to leave him by himself, especially when their time together was quickly drawing to a close. "I'll find something to do and try to stay out of trouble at the same time."
"Think you can manage to do both?" Quatre laughed, the sound of his light hearted laughter echoing in the open space of the foyer.
"I'll try." Duo gave him a roguish grin, and the blond knew that was as close to a promise from Duo that he would get.
The braided teen spent the evening in the TV lounge, sitting with Rashid and a couple other of the Maguanacs he'd come to know very well during his stay at the Winner mansion. Together they watched several movies, including a war flick, an intriguing espionage movie and an action adventure film, loosely based on the Arabian Nights. Bowls of popcorn and tall glasses of root beer floats kept their stomachs content throughout.
Retiring about midnight, Duo closed his eyes, thinking of the next day with both a sense of excitement and sadness. He would be leaving L-4, with all its comfort and support to begin a new sort of adventure, namely, a job and a place of his own as well as a chance to prove he could live independently. But he'd also be leaving the home he'd known for the last six months and the last of his friends. At Quatre's home he'd had a large extended family and more people who cared about his well being than ever before in his life. His heart constricted a bit at the thought of leaving all of that behind, not to mention Quatre at the top of that list. But before he dipped into any form of regret, he cleared his mind from the negative thoughts, forcing himself to think about the positive aspects of his leaving. With those thoughts drifting through his mind, he yawned and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Duo and Quatre met for breakfast, as was their habit, though neither offered to cook it themselves, practicing their new found talents. Duo chuckled when he commented to Quatre that old habits died hard.
They separated soon after with Quatre going to the airport to meet Irea and when they returned, they practiced in the music room for the rest of the morning.
Duo changed into his swim trunks and went down to the large, outdoor pool to swim some laps. An hour later he returned to his room to shower and pack up his belongings for his trip to L-2 that evening. He started with his clothes, surprised at the amount of clothing he'd acquired since living with Quatre. His blond friend had lavished him with new clothing and anything else that he needed for his room when he'd first arrived on L-4 after their graduation. He hadn't realized until he began to empty his dresser just how much Quatre had spent on him. He had one large suitcase, compliments of his friend, and no idea how he would pack all of his belongings in there. Making a quick decision, he sought out Rashid and inquired about boxing up some of his possessions and having them shipped to L-2. The Maguanac assured him it would be no trouble and that if he would leave the articles of clothing on his bed, all would be packaged for him and sent along.
He returned to his room and sorted out what he wanted to take with him, including several pairs of jeans and t-shirts, one suit, just in case, his boxers, socks and three pairs of shoes.
The bathroom came next, and he removed his shampoo and conditioner from the shower and dried them off and placed them in his duffle. He moved next to the medicine cabinet, he opened it and began to empty the shelves. Deodorant, shaving cream and shaver, aspirin for his frequent headaches, and then, as he reached for his prescription that he'd taken for the last eight months for his depression and mood swings, his hand paused. He hesitantly picked the bottle up and studied it, reading the label to take one pill, morning and night to stave off depression.
He hated his dependence on the damn pill. He felt good, his life was moving in a positive direction, he didn't see the need for taking the prescribed medication any longer. But he knew Quatre wouldn't let him stop taking them, not while he was living under his roof. His friend had asked him every day since he'd moved to L-4 if he'd taken his pills, to which he always answered yes. He couldn't lie to Quatre, and with his friend's Space Heart, he wouldn't get away with it if he tried, so he'd always taken his medication and answered the daily question honestly.
Shaking the container, he realized he was getting low; there was maybe a month's worth was left. Looking up at his reflection in the mirror, he came to the decision that as soon as the container was empty, he would prove to himself and to the others that he didn't need the medication anymore and that he would be fine without them. With that decided, he placed the plastic capped cylinder into his duffle, emptied out the rest of the cabinet and zipped it up.
A buffet dinner was served that evening and the house was nearly bulging with company, most of them Winners, their spouses and offspring. Duo and Quatre, dressed in dark suits, moved about the room together, determined to spend as much time in each others' company during this last evening together, even if they were surrounded by a multitude of people. They greeted the female members of Quatre's family and got reacquainted with them and their families.
Quatre proudly introduced his friend to his wheelchair bound sister, Irea. The blond woman's eyes sparkled with warmth greeted them both with grace and charm. Duo expressed his pleasure in finally meeting her, and thanking her for helping Quatre during the war.
Irea's blue eyes rose to meet Quatre's. The love and affection she felt for her younger brother was evident her gaze. "That's what families are for," she replied softly in reply to Duo's statement. Quatre leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, pausing in the bent position as she reached up and hugged him.
Before long the gathered assembly was called into the conservatory for the evening's program. Talia stood to address the audience as the Mistress of Ceremony for the night.
"Good evening friends, family, sisters and brother to a very special evening honoring and acknowledging the achievements of our father. Tonight, we celebrate his life and remember the man that should never be forgotten, for he was a man of peace who helped build the most successful of all the colonies and never forgot his role as a husband and father. If you are listening, Papa," Talia's eyes rose and glistened at she spoke to the air, "this is for you. We love and miss you more than words can express."
The atmosphere of the large room, now crowded with people in chairs facing the stage at the front of the room, was calm with an air of expectance surrounding the assemblage filled with participants and audience members. Musician's chairs and music stands covered a good part of that stage with open cases that housed the instruments that lay waiting for their masters to come play them.
A young woman, who was easily identified as one of the younger of Quatre's older sisters, though Duo had no idea what her name was, came to the center of the stage while another identically looking sister took up a position at the piano. She introduced the song she would be singing as being one that had always been her parents' favorites. With the piano taking the harmony, the two performed a love song titled "When I Fall In Love", a pre colony song that had endured the test of time.
Several other songs, some in Arabic, were performed, perfectly if Duo was any judge. Then several more sisters came out in costumes adorned with many scarves and performed what Quatre stated as a traditional Arabian Nomad dance. Duo quite enjoyed the spectacle, though he was now a bit uncomfortable and hot under the collar from watching the scarfs artfully and seductively taken away to reveal quite a bit of the lovely ladies' legs and bejeweled navels.
Poems had been composed and read by a few as well as several solo performances on instruments.
"My turn," Quatre whispered to his friend as one of his sisters finished playing the harp. "Hope you enjoy the song I selected," he added. "It really speaks to my father from my heart."
Duo nodded, not knowing what to say other than quickly wishing his friend good luck.
From the audience, the musicians came to the stand and took their places. Talia wheeled Irea up a small ramp and then moved the wheelchair to the area just left of the center of the stage near the microphone.
The room hushed as Talia leaned over her sister's chair and introduced the next performances into the microphone. "My brother's gift tonight is a beautiful piece he selected for this evening and it is also pre-colony and very appropriate. Irea will sing this selection for us, the words and feelings represent the thoughts that many of us would express to father if we had the chance to do so again."
She carefully removed the microphone from its stand and handed it to her sister sitting patiently in the wheelchair, then turned and quickly left the stage as the lights dimmed and a stage light shone down on Irea. After Talia left the stage, Quatre stood from his chair and took the position opposite his wheelchair bound sister and gave her a warm smile. Irea nodded, silently stating she was ready and Quatre raised his bow, signaling the orchestra following his lead.
With a nod of his head, the strings made a soft trembling sound as Quatre and the lone harpist plucked three haunting notes. Irea tilted her head up, closed her eyes and opened her mouth, letting her beautiful, clear voice speak for the Winner children.
The first words came out softly, the vowel carrying into four succeeding triplets, going down the scale.
Then closing here eyes, displaying an attitude of prayer, she continued, her sweet voice mesmerizing the audience.
'May the light, illuminate the night the way your spirit illuminates my soul.'
Her face softened and her eyes opened as if searching for something above her and her voice became soft and entreating.
'Papa, can you hear me?
Papa , can you see me?
Papa, can you find me in the night?
Papa, can you hear me?
Papa, are you near me?
Papa, can you help me not be frightened?'
The rest of the strings then came in as the singer's voice rose in question, her voice going from low notes to high, strong ones.
'Looking at the sky I seem to see a million eyes, which ones are yours?
Where are you now that yesterday has waved goodbye and closed its door?
The nights are so much darker.
The moon is so much colder.
The world I see is so much bigger now that I'm alone.'
The music softened again as Irea continued, the audience clinging to every word and every note she gifted them.
'Papa, please forgive me,
Try to understand me
Papa don't you know I had no choice?'
Duo took in a sharp breath as he watched Quatre play with his eyes closed, his body swaying slightly to the music as he poured his heart into this song. He knew the words were truly what Quatre needed to say to his father, some reconciliation to their many arguments about the war were finally being put to rest. Quatre was looking for further peace.
'Can you hear me praying?
Anything I'm saying?
Even though the night is filled with voices.'
A slight smile came to the violinist's lips as the next part of the song brought to mind many happy memories that overshadowed the difficult ones.
'I remember everything you taught me, every book we've ever read.
And all the words in all the books helped to face what lies ahead.
The days are so much taller,
And I feel so much smaller,
The moon is twice as lonely
And the stars are half as bright'.
Raising the bow off the strings of his violin, Quatre and the harpist plucked notes again in perfect unison as the other stringed instruments played almost impossibly soft as Irea's voice trembled slightly as she finished the song.
Papa, how I love you.
Papa, how I need you.
Papa, how I miss you kissing me.....good....night.
The four down-scaled triples played almost mournfully and as the song ended, the sound of sniffling was the only sound that filled the otherwise silent room until Quatre slowly lowered his violin. There was no applause following the song as the silent thoughtfulness that filled the room seemed much more appropriate. Tissues were quickly passed around to wipe at the tears that were found in almost everyone's eyes.
That song properly ended the program, then Talia came back to the center of the stage and standing next to Irea with tear tracks faintly visible on her porcelain face, she thanked every one for attending and invited them to stay for dessert that would be served in her father's garden.
Quatre carefully put his violin away, though it took longer for him to leave the stage as each sister seemed to want to embrace and speak to him about the feelings his song provoked. Duo watched, both amused and slightly jealous of the close and adoring family his friend had. Quatre was certainly a blessed person to have so much love and caring in his life. But, he mused to himself, those two words were synonymous with his Arabian friend, love and caring. Shouldn't a man reap what he sowed?
When at last the violin was returned to Quatre's room, the two friends made their way to the dessert table. They only had one hour before they had to leave for Duo's shuttle which was the red-eye to L-2.
Rashid drove the two former pilots to the terminal while the two friends made promises to keep in touch and each gave advice to the other on how to get along without him.
Their smiles were tremulous as was their laughter, knowing they were really saying their final goodbye. They both walked quiet and subdued to the check-in desk with Rashid taking care of Duo's lone large suitcase and all other arrangements as a moment of awkwardness set in.
When Rashid's business was concluded, the two followed his direction as to where Duo would be boarding. It was a bit of a walk to Gate Eighteen, and not much in the way of words passed between the three. Duo checked in at the gate and when the boarding call was issued shortly after, he turned to his friend, knowing the moment for their final goodbye had come. But as his sight rested on the blond teen, it was to see Quatre's blue expressive eyes looking pained and glossy. His friend managed to give him a rather pathetic smile of resignation and Duo knew he must have looked the same and he realized that saying goodbye would always be something he would hate to do. It was just too heart wrenching.
Not able to say the words of farewell, the two moved forward and suddenly embraced, holding onto each other for a long, silent moment.
"Don't forget me," Quatre finally spoke in a strained whisper. "After all, we're blood brothers."
"Never," Duo declared, his voice deep with emotion.
"Only Allah knows how much I'm going to miss you." Quatre said, with a slight sniffle.
"Master Duo had better board now," Rashid said softly, obviously hesitant to cut into their farewell.
Duo stood back and hastily wiped away the embarrassing moisture from off his cheeks with his sleeve. "Bye," he said in a small voice, then clutching his duffle bag, he turned to walk quickly to the gate, his boarding ticket in hand.
"See you later!" Quatre called after him; opting not to say goodbye as it suddenly seemed a word that felt much too final.
Duo didn't turn around, but lifted his arm and waved his hand as he disappeared into the gate leading to the late night shuttle.
Quatre sighed deeply, then moved to the observation window and stood there with Rashid, a comforting presence behind him, until the commuter ship drifted away from the secured hatch and then steadily moved away from the colony.
"I already feel rather lost without him, Rashid," the blond teen confessed. "He's been my friend during and after the war and now he's gone, just like the others."
The large man's hand came to rest on the boy's slender but strong shoulder. "It's the way of life, Master Quatre," the older man said softly. "As you get older, you get used to people coming in and out of your life, but it doesn't mean it's the end of your friendship. It just means you have to work at it a bit harder in order to keep it." Quatre nodded, agreeing with his trusted friend, but the ache in his heart overshadowed the wise words.
"I do think this is a good thing, Master Quatre." Rashid continued. "Maybe you have become too dependent on him and need this time to decide what direction you want to do with your own life, your future." He chuckled after a moment. "And here, all this time, Master Duo felt he was becoming too dependent on you."
"That's not such a bad thing, for a while at least, is it Rashid?"
"No," the older man replied thoughtfully. "After all, the Maguanacs are all my friends and family. We live separate lives but depend on each other wholly when we really need backup of any kind."
The blond nodded as his eyes stayed on the space where the shuttle had progressed to, missing his friend with every second that passed and further separated them. Rashid was probably right, he thought. He'd come to rely on Duo for his friendship and support, and the American had always been there for him in good times and bad. He decided that Duo more than deserved this break, to find his way and cut out a path to his future, but that didn't mean Quatre would forget the many lessons his fun-seeking friend had taught him. Nor would he let the friendship die. He'd be ready to help Duo for any reason and show him as much as possible how much his friendship meant to him, just like the feeling of friendship the Maguanacs held for each other.
With one last, longing look out the colony's windows at the retreating red blinking lights of the shuttle, he allowed Rashid to turn him and lead him back to the car knowing that tomorrow was going to be a very long and lonely day.