Duo's Friendship Arc 27
Part 2 - Three Steps Back
by Dyna Dee
At six a.m. the morning following Duo Maxwell's departure from Quatre and L-4, the braided young man, still dressed in his suit pants and white shirt which appeared slightly wrinkled and mussed from sleeping all night in a space shuttle, could be seen hailing a taxi outside the L-2's shuttle terminal. He smiled broadly at the scruffy looking driver of the dark blue, slightly beat-up car that pulled up to the curb. The trunk popped open immediately and Duo heaved his large suitcase into the empty space but clung to his duffle bag as he took the seat in the back of the sedan sized car labeled Jack's Taxi Service.
"I need to go to 112685 Industrial Way in Cherry Hill," Duo instructed.
"That's kinda far from here, kid," the thin, stubble faced driver growled out in a gravelly voice that sounded like the man had just woken up. "It's going to cost you about twenty-five credits."
"Got ya covered," Duo said with an easy, confident grin.
The driver looked with a calculating eye at the seemingly self-assured, well-dressed teen to size him up as to whether he could take his word. He then nodded, deciding the kid was probably good for the fare and put the car into drive. He quickly merged his vehicle back into traffic and maneuvered it with an abrupt shifting of lanes and sudden turns through the early morning commute towards the direction of the colony's highway that would take them to the industrial section of L-2. He'd hope to get a rise out of the young man in the back seat, but the guy stared unfazed out of the car window. The half hour ride in the car together was spent in silence other than the low volume of the radio carrying a local shock jock morning show.
With his eyes turned to gaze out the window, Duo noticed how things had changed from his visit to L-2 a little over two weeks ago, when he had been here with Heero. Gone were all the Christmas lights and trimmings in the store front windows. Christmas was long gone now, a thing of the past and somehow the memory left an ache in his heart. His dreams for a normal, happy holiday with at least two of his friends, and maybe Trowa if he could get away, hadn't gone the way he'd expected. Once again, as with every other Christmas holiday he could remember, it proved to be not only disappointing but one filled with danger. Would he ever have what was considered a normal Christmas? Fighting a war and being angry with your friends was a rotten way to spend a Christmas he'd had high hopes for.
At least during their stay on this colony, he and Heero had finally gotten back to where they both felt comfortable with each other again. Heero had been kind and supportive, like he had been during the war when painful memories from his past resurfaced. Some of those memories had come back when he'd viewed a local telecast showing a nun, who just happened to be his very first teacher, receiving a reward for her years of service to the children of L-2 and the community. The words she spoke after receiving the award had dredged up precious memories of his friend, a brother of the slums who had saved him from many things including starvation and certain death. Those memories succeeded in bringing him to the point of grieving for Solo all over again, filling him with regret, longing for his deceased friend, and a good dose of survivor's guilt. Words could never express how much it meant to him that Heero held him in a comforting embrace that night, and reassured him he wasn't alone during those dark hours filled with sad memories.
Then the Barton Coup began, and he was brought to the painful awareness of how little faith his friends had in him. Oh, he understood Heero and Trowa's motives for leaving him behind, but still, it hurt.
His mind wandered back to the time well over a week ago when he'd spent time with his four friends in Heero's hospital room. Duo knew he had purposely remained distant, even cold to those two particular friends and that they were more than aware of it. He had congratulated himself at the time for showing some restraint in not verbally ripping into either of Heero or Trowa for not trusting him. Granted, they had both tried to make overtures at reconciling the growing breach between them, but he just wasn't ready to deal with it then, or them for that matter. The whole reason for his anger was still too fresh in his heart and mind to let it go easily. Maybe after some time passed he could bring himself to forgive them.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn't realize how much time was passing as he watched, without really noticing, the passing urban colonyscape until the taxi came to a stop in front of a tidy looking metal building with large glass windows comprising front of the business with the name Schweibeker's Solutions printed neatly in blue against a white background on a sign that hung over the front roof line. Duo pondered the sign for a moment. He seemed to recall it having a different name when he'd been here a few weeks ago, but he remembered Hilde saying her uncle's new partner, Ray Andrews, had suggested a name change that was more suitable to their business and her uncle had agreed. Letting that thought go, he studied the neat and well cared for building. This was going to be the place where he spent most of his waking hours, and Duo felt both excited at the prospect as well as nervous.
Leaning forward, he slipped twenty five credits over the back of the front seat and into the outstretched hand of the driver who was rudely rolling his eyes at his customer's slowness. With the money clutched firmly in his hand, the man popped the car's trunk once again.
Getting out, Duo went to the back of the vehicle and with some effort, hoisted the large, heavy suitcase out and set it on the curb, then slammed the trunk door down, signaling to the driver that he was finished. Without further ado, the car sped off, leaving the former Deathscythe pilot standing alone at six thirty in the morning in the middle of a business park that appeared to be deserted. Observing the building in front of him once again, Duo noticed the front door had a closed sign showing through the glass, stating that the business would re-open at eight a.m. Pulling his suitcase over to rest against the wall, Duo set it down and then sat on it with the intent of waiting there until someone showed up.
A few minutes before seven, two men dressed in dark slacks and tie-less dress shirts approached him, each carrying a large insulated cup of steaming coffee bearing the logo of a popular coffee brewing chain. Duo rose from his makeshift chair and faced them as they drew closer. Both men stopped about two feet in front of him with big matching grins on their faces showing that they knew exactly who it was that waiting for them.
Hilde's uncle, whom he'd met just a few weeks ago, was a dark haired man of medium height with white hair beginning to sprout from the front of his hairline near his temple. He was the first to speak. "That's what I like to see," he beamed at the shorter young man standing before him, his eyes wrinkling at the corners as he smiled. "The early bird who catches the worm."
Duo looked quizzically at him.
"Showing up at work well before the other employees are due is quite impressive," Mr. Schweibeker teased, looking pleased. "Keep this up Mr. Maxwell and you'll do very well here," he added. He then turned to address the neatly bearded man next to him. "Ray Andrews, let me introduce to you Mr. Duo Maxwell."
The man, which Duo quickly evaluated and estimated to be in his mid forties, had mousy brown hair, a slightly darker beard and moustache and an honest looking face, offered his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Maxwell. Hans has told me all about you and I can honestly say that I very much look forward to working with you."
Duo took the man's hand and they exchanged a firm handshake. His eyes then turned questioningly to his new boss.
"Ray is the shop's manager and my new partner," Mr Schweibeker explained. "He heads several departments including yours, and you'll work directly under him. Ray will explain your duties and our shared vision as to where we want to take this business in the future." A look of hopeful anticipation seemed to seep out of Hilde's uncle at the prospect of expanding his business.
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Andrews. And please, call me Duo," the teenager replied to the other man, a worried look lurking in his eyes. "May I ask what exactly have you've been told about me?"
Ray Andrews blushed slightly, looking a bit nervous as he glanced at the owner of the business in front of them. Mr. Schweibeker quickly came to his partner's rescue. "He knows who you are, Duo, or who you were," he said, then went on to explain. "I thought that, as your boss, it was important for Ray to know something about your background. Hilde is bound to come around now and then, and your close connection with her will be questioned by our curious co-workers. Everyone on the colony knows she had contact with the Deathscythe gundam pilot, that she was tangled up in the war because of him; she's sort of a local hero here," the girl's uncle said with a look of pride.
After a brief moment, his smile faded and facial features sobered. "Quite a few people remember you from when you hid yourself here, Duo. There are bound to be some who recognize you and, though most people here supported your cause and cheered your victories, there are some, very few mind you, that didn't, and there's always a potential for trouble once your presence here becomes public knowledge. I thought Ray should know and be prepared for any possible disturbance before it happens and I'm sorry if that decision upsets you. As a valued employee, we will do all we can to protect you from any harm."
The two men watched the handsome teenager as he stood impassive and thoughtful with a look in his eyes that belied his youth and innocent appearance. After a moment, he shook his head and sighed. "No, it's alright. I guess it's to be expected that I won't be able to keep the anonymity I enjoyed on Earth and L-4, especially since I lived here before and shortly during the war while hiding Deathscythe within the colony where everyone could see him. When I was here a couple of weeks ago with my friend, I was recognized easily enough. You were right to warn Mr. Andrews."
"Ray, just call me Ray," the bearded man said with a growing, genuine smile that clearly demonstrated that he approved of their newest employee.
Mr. Schweibeker glanced aside and noticed the suitcase resting against the side of the building. "Take the overnight flight?" he guessed.
Digging into his shirt pocket, the owner of the business removed a security card from it as he stood in front of the door and promptly slid it into the electronic lock. A click and green light on the lock box signaled the door was now open. "Tell you what," Hans said as he pulled the door open and allowed the other two to enter the dark reception area before him. "Let us take you to your new office, show you around a bit, then I'll give you the keys and address to your new residence. You can come back tomorrow morning once you've unpacked and have had a chance to rest up."
"Sounds good," Duo replied, lugging the large suitcase into the office and set it against yet another wall.
"Is that all you have with you?" Ray asked, staring at the one suitcase and duffle bag now resting beside it.
"For now," Duo answered. "My friend Quatre will be sending my other stuff in a day or two."
"Quatre!" The manager asked with a stunned look on his face. "Do you mean THE Quatre Winner from L-4?"
Duo blushed; he was usually more circumspect about mentioning his rich and famous friend's name. He would have to be more careful in the future. "Ah... yeah. He's a friend of mine."
Both men now wore twin expressions, which was a combination of both shock and awe.
"How did a kid from L-2, even a gundam pilot, get to know the richest kid in the colonies?" Ray asked, still a bit overwhelmed and hugely impressed by the idea.
"Well, I... ah..." Duo stammered a bit before he could think of a good explanation. "I met him during the war," he answered, seeing even more questions lurking in the men's minds. "I hid out in private boarding schools and on other colonies. Quatre and I met early on and he became one of my supporters." It wasn't an out and out lie, he told himself. It was the truth; just a bit misleading in order to protect Quatre's identity as a fellow gundam pilot from being discovered.
The men began to nod their heads in understanding and Duo hoped that he'd said enough, stretched just enough of the truth to have their other, unasked questions taken care of. He really didn't feel comfortable telling anyone stories about himself or the other pilots. They'd tried too hard to keep their identities from the press and public, and he didn't want to spoil their efforts.
"Wow," Hans said with a growing smile on his face. "Now I can actually say I know not only a gundam pilot, but someone who knows a Winner."
"I'd appreciate it if you kept both facts under wraps," Duo requested with a slight frown. "Not everyone on L-4 was a supporter of the gundams either, and knowledge that a member of the Winner family supported them could endanger my friend's life."
"Got it." Hans agreed soberly, and Ray nodded his head that he too would keep quiet. "But you'll find things different here, Duo." Hans continued. "Almost all the L-2 population was behind the gundams during the war. We suffered more than any other colony I've ever seen, and things have greatly improved here since then. You, son, are a colony hero. The people living here associate our better economic situation with you, because you fought to bring change and peace to us."
Duo felt embarrassed at the praise the man was giving him. For some reason, he always felt uncomfortable when others saw his worth as something positive, especially when he sometimes he couldn't see it in himself. Nervously scratching the back of his head, he answered. "But I'm still just Duo Maxwell, a kid from the slums of L-2. I might have done something unusual and it may seem heroic, but I'm still an L-2er. I'd appreciate it if you'd treat me just like anyone else despite what you know about me."
"You're not just any kid from L-2, Duo," Ray countered, looking seriously into the boy's eyes. "You're the down on his luck street kid who fought a war in a gundam. You helped save the Earth from being destroyed, and you've just returned from there, having taken up your gundam again to dispose of a mad man wanting to control the destiny of every citizen of Earth and the colonies. From what you've told me of your skills with computers and fixing almost anything mechanical, you're far from the normal seventeen year old. But..." he raised his hand to forestall Duo from protesting his well-deserved praise. "Now having met you, I can see you are a real person, one who is young and needs a job, a home, respect, along with purpose and some fun. In that respect, you are just like the rest of us, and we'll try to remember that every time you impress us."
"Or disappoint you," Duo added, hating it when people put him on some kind of some proverbial pedestal to be idolized.
"We all make mistakes, Duo," Hans said with an understanding smile. "And you will too. Just don't be offended if we need to correct you in order for you to learn, alright?"
"Deal." The braided boy smiled.
"Come on," Hans smiled and pointed down a hallway to the back of the building. "Let me show you to your office."
The hour before the employees began to show up went by quickly. Duo liked his office. It wasn't too small nor too large and included a good sized desk, comfortable chair and file cabinets. It also had a window that faced a small side garden where the employees generally took their lunch and relaxed on the furniture provided for them.
He was impressed with the neatness and organization of the warehouse and was told the scrap yard was actually located several blocks away. After meeting the other ten employees that helped Schweibeker's Solutions run smoothly, Hans handed Duo an envelope containing the address to the small house that was rented for him, along with the keys, and sent him on his way to settle in.
A taxi was hailed and before he knew it, Duo was standing in front of a small, one storey, white painted house that was surrounded by a small fenced yard that was well groomed. He liked the look and feel of the place he would call his home, and pulling his large suitcase after him, he went to the front step, put the key in the lock and opened it.
Once inside, he found the interior of the house to be just as appealing as the outside. It was simple and, to his surprise, furnished. The furnishings looked similar to Hilde's old place, and he suspected she most likely had a hand in this. In the living room there sat an over-stuffed couch and an arm chair, both done in a brown fabric that resembled suede and rested on a light colored hardwood floors. A cherry wood coffee table and an end table with a brass lamp on top were the only other pieces of furniture other than an empty TV stand. He guessed he was supposed to supply that form of entertainment himself.
Beyond the comfortable living room was a breakfast bar that separated that space from the kitchen. He walked into it and opened up the mid-sized, white refrigerator. To his delight and surprise it was filled with food including milk, cheese, fruits, vegetables, cans of soda and juice and, tucked way in the back, he found a six pack of beer. He smiled, remembering he and Hilde splitting one of those when he was having a bad day during his stay on L-2. This was her own personal house warming gift to him.
He shut the refrigerator door and opened the side freezer door. Frozen pizza and TV dinners filled it along with packages of vegetables, French fries, concentrated juice and several cartons of mouth watering ice cream that filled the rest of the space.
Too tired to entertain the idea of eating, Duo went to the bedroom to see a dresser and a queen size bed all made up. He owed Hilde big time, he decided with a wide yawn. Sitting down, he took off his black boots, his jeans and long sleeved shirt and lay on top of the firm mattress. Within moments, he was sound asleep.
The next morning Duo rose early, fixed himself a breakfast consisting of cereal, milk and toast before locking the front door behind himself and going to work. His house was within walking distance of the office and it took him less than ten minutes at a brisk walk to reach it. Ray was waiting for him and, as promised, oversaw his training as he began to learn the business and his duties as a creative consultant. There was a lot to take in and that night, as well as the next couple of nights following, Duo found himself falling onto his bed exhausted.
One week passed before the rest of his belongings, including his box of kitchen gifts from his well-known cooking tutor, Mr. Bruce Wainwright, packed in eight large boxes, arrived from L-4. He spent his first day off of work organizing his closet space and putting things away. He finally got around to emptying his duffle bag, or rather the things he hadn't gotten out already, and began to put them away in the bathroom. His hand settled on the bottle of pills on the bottom of the bag. He stared at them with a startled look on his face; he hadn't taken them all week, and a smile slowly rose on his lips. 'See, I am better.' He silently congratulated himself. "I don't need the stinking pills anymore!" He said out loud. Without a second thought he dropped the container into the trash receptacle, then turned to go into the living room to set up his computer and vid phone.
Opening up his e-mail address, he saw that he had quite a few messages waiting for him from all of his friends, and a feeling of warmth filled him and a smile came to his lips. He opened the three Quatre had sent him, then quickly e-mailed him back reassuring him he was fine, just very busy with his new job and settling in. Quatre had asked him if he'd been taking his medicine, and with a slight twinge of guilt, he answered that he had. In his mind he finished that statement by rationalizing that he had taken them, that is from L-4 to L-2. Quatre hadn't asked him if he'd swallowed any pills, so he really hadn't lied, had he?
Next came Trowa's message, which was short, as was typical for the quiet and at times painfully shy circus performer. He expressed concern over the obvious breach between them, and apologized for thinking to leave Duo behind in the cell on the colony they'd saved from crashing into Earth. He explained, in very few words, that he was just trying to protect his friend and didn't mean to insult him.
Duo sat back in his chair to contemplate Trowa's message. Quatre had obviously spoken to his friend, thus Trowa's apology.
Coming to a decision, he hit the reply button and typed in return that he wished his friends had more trust in him, and accepted the apology. His reply was three sentences long, several lines shorter than Trowa's sparse message. Satisfied, he pushed 'send' and went on to Wufei's message.
Wufei's note was longer, telling Duo of his move to the Preventers and how he hoped to make a difference in his new job. He thanked his friend for showing up after the last battle and taking him to see Heero. He reported that things were better now between the two former comrades and they understood each other just a bit more than before, which was good, as they would be working together from time to time. He expressed a sincere desire to hear about Duo's new job and home.
A smile came to Duo's face. He was glad Wufei was doing well. He decided to put off replying to his letter until later as it would take much longer than he wanted to spend on it at the moment.
Howard's message came next, congratulating him for landing an honest job and demanding the "kid" keep in touch. He bypassed replying because his answer, like the one to Wufei, would take much more time.
Hilde was now traveling with the circus and, after a brief demand by her to know what was going on in his life, she went on and on about Trowa, how strong, handsome and kind he was. So far, Trowa had only shown her the same kindness he'd shown everyone else, but Hilde wasn't discouraged. She was determined to become something more to the tall and slender former pilot of Heavyarms. Duo shook his head, knowing how stubborn and tenacious the girl really was. He knew he should probably warn Trowa about her plans for him, but decided his friend was a big boy and very astute. He should be able to handle a little sprite of a girl, even if she was hell bent on getting what she wanted.
The last unopened file was from Heero and Duo hesitated before clicking the cursor on it to open the message. His feelings were definitely mixed when it came to his best friend. He still felt deeply hurt at how Heero had treated him in the last battle. His closest friend had knocked him out and left him behind, going on to risk his life several times in order to pull off the stupid perfect soldier act. Duo had been livid when he'd learned of the stunt Heero had pulled after he left him with Trowa, leaping from one ship to another in the deep of space in order to get to Wing. If he had been there, they could have easily connected with the incoming ship and Heero's life would have been at less of a risk. It was frightening how close to death Heero had been. Any little mistake would have left him floating alone in space, facing his death alone.
His subsequent battle with Wufei, where he made himself vulnerable to the Shenlong Pilot's anger and confusion and allowed himself to be defeated to prove a point, left Wing Zero plummeting through the atmosphere and into the ocean in an effort to wake Wufei up from his delusional ideas that had been caused by brainwashing. It always hurt Duo to know that Heero held his life so cheap, even though he had people who loved and cared about him, people who would be lost without him.
After looking up from the battle ground and seeing Wing Zero poised above the sunken palace holding Deikum, his troops, Mariemaia and Relena, firing his weapons as the opposing forces fired back while his gundam's systems overloaded, Duo realized that his best friend didn't care whether he lived or died. Heero was focused on the end result, no matter that the consequences could mean his death and knowing what his dying would mean to him and the others, the perfect soldier in him still courted it. That realization felt like a hand had mysteriously reached into his chest and painfully constricted his heart. He had lost everyone who had ever meant something to him and he knew he was about to see the same thing happen again. Watching Heero perform his duties with such blind devotion, without a thought of the repercussions to anyone else, brought Duo to the conclusion that if his friend managed to survive this battle, that he needed to separate himself from Heero, emotionally and physically. Heero's path of self-destruction would eventually hurt him once again by losing someone so close to him. It was a sense of self preservation that led him to remain distant and unemotionally attached to his best friend. If he separated himself from Heero, maybe he wouldn't hurt so much the next time he tried to kill himself in the name of duty, in the name of peace.
After that short time of reflection and understanding of his motives, Duo opened the link and read the message Heero had typed for him.
Duo, I have been informed that you are still angry with me. Is that why you were so distant before you left Earth? Quatre said I hurt your feelings with my actions during our foray into the colony where we met up with Trowa. The actions I took were ones I felt necessary. I only did what I had to and I hope you understand. Heero.
That was it. Like Trowa, Heero's message was concise and to the point. He closed the window, not knowing what to say in reply. Heero hadn't really apologized for his lack of faith in him, his leaving him with the enemy. He was still hurt by what he deemed as Heero's lack of trust in him and his abilities, enough so that he didn't want to let him off the hook too easily, though it seemed childish to hold onto a grudge for too long. He just felt the need to maintain some distance emotionally in order to keep from feeling hurt and abandoned by someone who had been his closest friend.
Finding himself becoming more morose as he pondered his failing friendship, he turned off his computer and stood from the chair at his desk. The house was pretty much in order and he still had the rest of the afternoon and evening to fill. The emptiness and quiet suddenly seemed to surround and close in around him. The only people he considered his friends were either off colony or at home with their wives and families and he was reluctant to disturb them just so he could have some company.
Picking up his house keys and wallet, he turned off his stereo and locked up the house. He was going out to look for a little diversion from the long empty hours ahead that offered only the disquieting feeling of loneliness that he'd always had trouble coping with.
As he strolled down the streets of Cherry Hill, the subdivision of L-2 where he currently lived, he made his way towards the opposite direction from where he worked, towards the shopping district where he walked without purpose looking with casual interest into store windows and studied the people that comprised this part of the colony. When he was a poverty ridden kid living on the streets of the largest city in the colony, he never knew places like Cherry Hill even existed. The homes and buildings weren't fancy or out of the ordinary, but they were neat and tidy and everything seemed so orderly. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans as the shadowed thought came to him that maybe it hadn't been as nice back then as it appeared now. Everything on the colony was slowly being built up now that interplanetary trade brought new jobs and encouraged growth and development. The colony, once labeled the poorest of the poor, now seemed to be flourishing when before, tariffs and government blockades had prevented any such economic stimuli from helping the rapidly dilapidating colony in order to keep a rebellious, vocal and stubborn people put down.
A crooked grin grew on Duo's face as he decided that the adjectives once used to describe his colony were also an apt description of himself. Those traits, being that of a loud rebel with a huge stubborn streak, not only kept him and many others alive on the streets of dire poverty, but had also made him the perfect candidate for piloting Deathscythe. G had grudgingly admitted to him that he'd admired his spunk and his ability to overcome almost everything including being an orphan, surviving near starvation, the plague, as well as the death of everyone he ever cared about. He could still hear G's voice saying, "Listen kid, if you can survive all the shit you've managed to come out of, then you're strong willed enough to carry out the vengeance for an entire colony." The old man had said that to him after a hard night of exhaustive training when he questioned his ability to come through for the old geezer.
Having been lost in his train of thought and past memories, Duo didn't notice that he'd drifted off the main street as he strolled along and suddenly found himself in an area of Cherry Hill he hadn't realized was there before. The buildings on the street he found himself on were less than respectable compared to the rest of the suburb, for lined on both sides of the street were bars, strip clubs, along with adult book and video stores. He wrinkled his nose with distaste. Memories of similar streets from his childhood brought anything but pleasant memories to his mind.
He promptly turned on his heel with the intent of leaving this district as quickly as possible when he smacked into a solid object and bounced back from off of it. Catching his balance before he fell, he looked up to face whomever he'd encountered, his body instinctively prepared for fight or flight.
"Whoa, sorry there kid." An older man in his mid fifties chuckled in good humor as his hand reached out to steady the youngster in front of him. However, the man's eyes widened and his hand stilled inches from the boy's shoulder as he recognized just who it was that he'd bumped into.
Duo looked up into the portly man's friendly face, seeing the humor in his eyes suddenly turn to shock. He knew he'd been recognized.
"Sorry old man," Duo murmured and tried to duck around the man only to find his escape blocked on either side by two other men about the same age as their portly friend.
"You're him, aren't you?" The man in the middle asked with a trace of awe in his voice.
Duo quickly searched the man's face for any anger or evil intent towards him, but the older guy's slightly wrinkled face surrounded by graying brown hair was open and held no trace of anger or malice.
"I don't think we've met," Duo answered, trying to be evasive.
"The gundam pilot, the kid that flew the big black one, you're him, aren't you? I worked near the scrap yard where you hid your machine during the first war and I saw you." The man stated, then looked the boy up and down. "Looks like you've grown...a little." The twinkle in the man's eyes was proof of his teasing. It was true, the former Deathscythe had grown since the war, but only a couple of scant inches. He now stood at five foot five inches tall and praying nightly that he wasn't done growing yet.
Duo couldn't help but give the man a small grin at his teasing jibe. "Yeah, well I understand that most runts from L-2, having had a lack of proper nutrition growing up, are a bit challenged in the height department. Didn't seem to be a problem for you though." His eyes settled on the man's bulging belly. He'd meant the comment to be light and teasing in return, but the man and his companions' smiles faltered as if they felt guilty.
"Well, we came here just after the first war started," the man was quick to reply. "We saw the conditions and, shit kid, it's a miracle you survived. We just wanted to say thank you, you know, for fighting the good fight," the man said sticking his hand out and automatically, without thinking, Duo took it in his own, causing the man smile broadly. "My name is Jeb, and these jokers here are Griff," he pointed to the tall bald man to his right, "and Zack." The man to his left was a bit shorter and had a wicked sweep-over of thin hair that was attempting to cover what looked to be a very bald crown. He leaned forward as if to speak confidentially to the shorter teenager. "But you can call them Curly and Sweeps."
Duo got the joke and laughed out loud. "And what do they call you, Jeb?" he asked.
"Slim," Griff answered with a loud bark of laughter, pointing at Jeb's abundant middle.
The four of them shared a good laugh and as they calmed, Jeb looked once again at the boy. "Tell you what, we'd like to buy you a drink, our way of thanking you man to man."
"Well, I'm not exactly legal," Duo replied with a crooked grin. "I'd probably get kicked out if I tried order a drink."
Griff shook his bald head. "You're old enough to fight a war but not share a drink with a couple of grateful guys?" he asked in mock disbelief. "Well, maybe somewhere else, but that doesn't hold here in Cherry Hill."
"We know a couple of decent places," Zack piped in. "If you'd allow us to, we'd like to thank you properly."
Duo smiled, liking these three jokesters who appeared harmless and seeing a way to spend the evening other than being alone and wallowing in self pity, which was something he was loath to do. "Sure," he smiled back warmly. "If you can manage to get me in somewhere, I'd be happy to accept a drink from you."
Jeb put a friendly arm around Duo's shoulders and with his friends flanking them, he led the braided teen down the street and to a bar simply dubbed Hal's.
An incessant, irritating noise slowly penetrated sleep, and he groaned at the pain in his head, the fuzzy, bad taste in his mouth and the wet spot on his pillow where he'd obviously drooled.
The noise sounded again and he vaguely recognized it as the vid phone in the living room. Slowly easing himself to the edge of the bed, he knew instantly that he would be visiting the bathroom before he could venture to the living room.
Lowering his feet to the carpeted floor, he eased himself up, and paused as the room waltzed around him. "Overdid it a bit," he murmured to himself, vaguely remembering the evening before. Suddenly, the lurching of his stomach caused him to break into a run for the bathroom adjacent to his room where he paid humble homage to the porcelain throne. Once finished, he struggled to his feet and grabbed hold of the sink, turning on the cold water faucet and scooping several handfuls of tap water into his cupped hand and rinsed out his mouth before swallowing several more handfuls to sate his thirst.
Looking up into the mirror, he winced at his reflection; he looked terrible. His hair was all over the place, out of its traditional braid, tangled and in total disarray. His eyes were bloodshot and dark ringed; a stark contrast to his pale skin. He pointed his finger at the pathetic figure in the mirror. "No more alcohol for you, mister," he told himself firmly. But in the back of his mind, he knew he'd just had the best night sleep he'd had since the last battle.
He hadn't wanted to worry Quatre, but some of his nightmares from during the war had returned, probably instigated from having so recently gone into battle again. He'd woken up each night since the coup was put down feeling anxious or frightened from the images his subconscious produced for him in the way of dreams. They'd gotten progressively worse after leaving L-4 and living alone.
He suddenly felt very alone and missing his friends now more than ever before. During the war, when he'd wake with a shout or his heart racing frantically from a grizzly nightmare, Heero would hold him, making him feel safe and protected. Sometimes his friend held him when he felt alone or overwhelmed by the war or from the need to keep running in order to stay alive. At times, when he and Heero were separated, Quatre sometimes filled the need to be held when his so called 'space heart' woke him in the middle of the night, telling him of Duo's distress. His blond friend would quietly enter his room, knowing he was awake, and just climb onto his bed and gather him in his arms before going back to sleep. He was always grateful that Quatre never delved into the nightmares nor the cause of them while the room was dark and more disturbing dreams were lurking in the corners. His friend had always waited until the next day, when the colony's lights were bright before he inquired about the nightmare.
The vid phone rang again, and leaning over the sink, he splashed a handful of cold water onto his face, dried it off with the hand towel and made his way from the bathroom through his bedroom and into the brighter living room. With eyes squinting to keep the brightness from increasing the pain already throbbing his entire head, he reached the desk and blindly hit the on button.
"By Allah, Duo. What's happened to you?" Quatre questioned with alarm in seeing the rumpled and unhealthy looking state of his friend.
"Shhh!" Duo pleaded, with one hand held up to stop his friend from speaking. "Hangover," he explained his condition with a single word.
Silence reigned as Duo sat slowly in the chair in front of his desk and his friend tried to figure out what to say. Quatre beat him to it. "Why did you get drunk, Duo? Was it a party? Who gave you alcohol?"
"Didn't mean to," he replied in a half groan while putting his elbow on the desk and raising his hand to rest his aching head heavily upon it. "Just met some nice old guys who wanted to say thanks to the pilot of Deathscythe."
"They know who you are?" Quatre gasped, suddenly fearful for his friend's safety.
"Yeah, one of them recognized me from when I stayed here during the war. But it's cool," he reassured the alarmed boy on the other end of the line. "People here are better off than before and somehow the poor schmucks think I did it single handedly. I'm like some kind of fricken hero."
"You've got to be careful, Duo. Getting drunk will make it hard to protect yourself if someone with a mind for vengeance comes after you."
"I know, you're right," Duo replied, closing his eyes to ease the pain behind them. "I don't think I want to see a drink for a very long time."
"Speaking of Heero?" Quatre began with a pointed look at his friend.
"We were?" Duo asked, looking confused.
"Why haven't you written him? You wrote back to Trowa, and I, but not Heero. He's concerned."
"Shit, Quatre, you got a little pen pal club going? Are you practicing at being the local advice giver? I never said you could go to them and try to make things better between us."
"Duo," Quatre's voice sounded like a scold.
"I'm not up to this right now, Quat. Can you lecture me later?"
The blond paused for a moment before speaking further. "Don't burn the bridges of friendship, Duo. Heero has been reaching out, trying to mend things between you. Don't let his inability to express his feeling kill your relationship with each other. Don't let this go too long or you might lose the best friend you ever had."
Duo rubbed his eyes with the flat of his palms. "You aren't too shabby of a friend either, Quatre." he said. "Who says you aren't a better friend to me than Heero was?"
"I'm flattered, Duo. But don't change the subject. You and Heero were like brothers during the war, what's happened?"
"A lack of trust, absence, and a change of priorities, all on his part," the braided young man answered sullenly.
"You live far apart, Duo. Surely you didn't think things wouldn't change."
Duo's eyes narrowed and his hands gripped the edge of the desk as he replied. "He promised, Quatre. He said he'd be here for me after the war, that we would both see that the other wasn't left alone. Where am I Quatre? Alone, that's where!"
The blonde's eyes widened at the unexpected accusation coming from his friend. "Duo, you chose to come with me after we got out of school. You could have gone with Heero, he wanted you to. And the only reason you find yourself alone now is because you decided you needed to do this. I didn't want you to leave L-4 any more than Heero wanted you to leave Earth. You made the choice in both cases and we both respected your decision."
"Yeah? If I had chosen to stay with him on Earth, Heero would have just ignored me while he traipsed after Relena. I would still have been alone."
"What did you expect Heero to do, Duo? Live his life babysitting you?" Though he was trying to be patient, Quatre found himself irritated and it showed in the rising of his voice. "You chose to come home with me, which I think was the right decision, and Heero found something to do with his life to make himself feel useful. He seems happy going to school and protecting Relena. Tell me, what else to you think he should be doing?"
Duo lowered his head into his hands, wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut. "I don't know Quatre," he moaned. "All I know is that it hurts that he's not my friend any more. I miss him, Quatre, and I don't think things will ever be the same between us. He's become a stranger. I thought while we were here on L-2 during Christmas that we still had that closeness, that bond that we shared as friends during the war, but when we had to fight again I learned the hard way that he didn't trust me and proved it by leaving me behind to be detained by Barton's people while he went off to fight alone. I don't think he'll ever understand how much his lack of faith in me hurt. How much his tendency to risk his life, regardless of what it would mean to us, hurts like that blow he gave me in the gut. I just can't take that anymore. I've lost too much already."
"I know Duo, but I still think you should forgive him." Quatre said in a softer voice, his face sad with an understanding of Duo's pain. "You'll feel better and have your friend back. Heero does want to be your friend again, Duo, and you're the only one keeping that from happening."
Quatre watched the view screen as Duo sat still and unmoving after his comments. After a moment he added. "Please, just think about it. For me? Just write to him and tell him you forgive his blunder, explain to him why you're so hurt so he'll understand and learn from it. You'll both feel better for it, I promise."
"It's not like he apologized or anything for doing what he did, but I'll try," Duo whispered, knowing it would appease his friend. All he truly wanted at the moment was to disconnect the line and go throw up again. "I'll write him, maybe tonight, but I really don't see anything changing."
"He cares, Duo. Give him a chance."
"I don't feel so good Quatre. I'll talk to you later, okay?" Without waiting for an answer, Duo disconnected the line and put his hands over his mouth as he quickly ran to the kitchen sink when he decided the bathroom was just too far away to reach in time.
Duo had been sitting at his computer for over an hour that same evening. He'd written to Wufei, Howard and Hilde before tackling the uncomfortable job of replying to Heero's message. It took several drafts and after deleting all of them he finally came up with a half decent reply. Duo re-read the letter he'd promised Quatre that he'd write to Heero. His first draft had sounded too damn angry. He'd deleted it and began again. The second sounded whiney and needy and was also erased. The third letter said all the right words, but lacked sincerity. Quatre had wanted him to forgive Heero, to make things right between them, but was he just supposed to say the words or really mean them?
"Shit!" he murmured to himself, deleting yet another draft and began again, hoping to get to the point quickly. Putting his fingers on the keyboard, he began typing.
How can I not be upset Heero, when you obviously no longer have faith in me, in my abilities? Do you know how hard I worked to get your approval during the war? It hurts like hell to know I've lost that.
I don't know why this is so hard for me to get over. It could be because you haven't realized how you hurt me or apologized. I suppose it's true when they say relationships, even friendships, are based on trust. Since that's no longer the foundation of our friendship, maybe our being friends just isn't on the cards any more.
I don't know how to get back to where we were Heero, and maybe it's not possible. It think right now it's just best to let go and wish each other well. Yeah, maybe that's best. Be well Heero.
It hurt to write the words that made his heart ache, but it seemed right to let Heero know how he felt. Did he really want to end their friendship? Hell no, but what else was there for him to do?
Sending the message, Duo felt his mood darken and he became restless. The quiet of his house closed in on him once again and suddenly, he knew he didn't want to stick around by himself that evening, dwelling on the loss of his best friend and his current state of loneliness. His watch indicated it was ten p.m., a little late to call anyone from work to go out. Shutting off his computer, he picked up his jacket and keys and locked the front door behind him as he turned to walk towards the section of Cherry Hill he'd visited the night before with his three drinking buddies. If he was lucky, he'd find himself a good fight and expel some of the hurt and anger he felt and tire his body out at the same time so that he'd enjoy another night of dreamless slumber. If he couldn't find a good fight, he'd have to get drunk enough to bring on the deep sense of numbness that would hold back the flashbacks and nightmares he'd been having since the last battle. At the moment, he just wanted them to leave him alone for one more night, and somehow tonight, he'd find a way to accomplish it.