Disclaimer: I don't own GW, any of the characters. Money? If only dreams made wishes come true.

Warning: a small bit of language and some angst.

Moving On
Duo's Friendship Arc 27
Part 3 - Jump into the Void
by Dyna Dee

The rough shake of his shoulder brought the sleeping teen to a level of consciousness that allowed him to be able to understand the words being directed to him by a voice he vaguely remembered as someone he was acquainted with.

"Hey kid, go home and sleep it off."

Now he recognized the voice... it was Kern, the bartender at the hole in the wall bar he frequented at least once a week. Raucous laughter erupted around him at some unintelligible joke he couldn't begin to comprehend. His head lay on the sticky wooden table with his arms hanging straight and limp down from his shoulders. The rest of his body was balanced between the chair he sat in and the table where he lay his head. "In a bit," he mumbled, his tongue thick and useless in his mouth.

In truth, Duo Maxwell couldn't move if he wanted to. He certainly didn't want to go to his place and 'sleep it off'. Hell, he'd worked all evening to get to this point, where his mind and body were almost completely numb. In this sorry state of heavy intoxication, he couldn't remember the past and the feelings of loneliness that weighted him down or the nightmares that plagued him when he was sober. Somehow, being drunk held those unwanted occurrences at bay, and the ultimate pay off was that he was in a state of not caring. At the moment, he just didn't give a shit about anything, past, present or future. Not anyone or anything.

With his eyes remaining closed, he smiled crookedly, humored by the fact that part of his face was stuck against the table's surface. He knew he would pay for this indulgence tomorrow; but he felt it was an even trade for the small window of detachment he felt from reality. It was something he craved several times a week. He chose his drinking nights carefully as to not cause his employer any errors in judgment on his part during the working hours, but Hans Schweibeker and Ray Andrews had proved to be much too tolerant and understanding of his behavior. His job was easy enough that he could perform it even with a heavy hangover, which happened much more frequently as time passed since his arrival on L-2.

He sighed, letting go of any worry or thoughts of guilt associated with his evening activities, his job and employers. After all, he wasn't at work now, and he was pretty damn close to reaching his own version of Nirvana, the dark void of feeling absolutely nothing.

Even in his semi-conscious state, he knew that he was relatively safe within the confines of this particular bar. He'd greased the palms of the owners of several hand-picked drinking establishments that he frequented in Cherry Hill to watch over him if he got too drunk. It was their job to see that no one with ulterior or unscrupulous motives took advantage of his drunken state. Some of these bars even had a cot in a back room where he could sleep off the alcohol if he couldn't make it home on his own. On such occasions, he always received a lecture from the bar's owner and bartenders when he finally woke up in the morning, hung over and feeling wretched. They all said the same thing each time that happened; that he was wasting his life, killing himself slowly and that he should get some help. He knew they meant well, but he really didn't want to hear it.

He snorted as the thought came to him that, though they lectured him and urged him to get help, they never refused him a drink or his money, even though he was under age. Their words of warning and caution always sounded sincere, but they rang hollow and fell on deaf ears because their words didn't match their actions.

With these thoughts in his head, the all too familiar feeling of emptiness and loneliness slowly began to ease its way back into his consciousness, causing an increasing ache in his chest. It was a hollow ache that he couldn't keep drowned out for long. He needed another drink.

His hand came up, moving like it was made of lead as it flopped onto the table's surface and began to blindly search for his glass. He heard a voice nearby that didn't seem to fit the environment he'd chosen for the night. He thought, through the alcohol haze that filled his mind, that he recognized it, but it was definitely out of place. Without moving his head or opening his eyes he strained to single out the voice from the others in the barroom.

The voice he sought was deep and evenly modulated. A familiar voice came in that he recognized as Kern and he realized he was answering the other person's questions. The bartender's scratchy voice rose in volume, sounding agitated and defensive. He heard the words of the familiar voice counter, using the words, "authorities..., underage..., irresponsible..., shut down." The words were disjointed, but nonetheless threatening.

'Maybe there'll be a fight,' he thought, and the hope of such an event brought the lopsided smile to his lips once again. He didn't like to start barroom fights, mostly because the person who threw the first punch was the one who ended up paying for any damages. Nope, he just liked to join in an already established fight just for the fun of it. Somehow, in the state of numbness he frequently journeyed to, it always made him feel alive when he got into a fight, to have someone or something to stand up to and move against.

With no small amount of effort, he pushed his arm across the table and reached for the half filled glass of whiskey. If he could just take a swig, finish the glass, he would be ready to come out swinging if the hoped for fight did come about.

A hand was suddenly on top of his, closing over it just as his fingers found and clutched the cool glass of the tumbler, keeping him from lifting it.

"I think that's enough for you," the deep voice sounded from above him. His body reacted immediately to the sound and he involuntarily shivered. He now recognized the threat behind the voice as he placed it with the person who spoke to him. 'I'm in deep shit now,' he said to himself and prayed that he would just fall into a dark abyss before the nightmare standing next to him became a reality.

The glass, still in his hand, was forcefully removed. "Let's go," the voice's owner moved to pull him up from his comfortable drunken position. Duo moaned with a complaint at being disturbed.

"Sorry, but I can't let you take him," Kern's voice said forcefully from somewhere nearby.

A derisive snort sounded in his ear, followed by the question, "You think you can stop me?"

There was a pause and an unusual amount of silence stretched out as Duo felt himself being forcefully lifted from his drunken position. He was dimly aware that his arm was being flung over someone's shoulder and another arm was wrapped securely around his waist to keep him from toppling.

"Look," Kern began again. "I don't know who you are or what your intentions are towards the kid. I do know he's not in a position to defend himself. He doesn't look after himself properly, so when he's here, I do it for him."

"If you cared about him at all," the voice of the person holding him replied in disgust, "you wouldn't let him get to this state."

"If he didn't drink here, he would be somewhere else." Kern replied defensively. "At least here I can make sure he's safe while he loses himself to the bottom of a bottle. The kid obviously needs help, but I'm the last person who can give him the help he needs." The bartender's voice suddenly changed into a pleading tone. "Just tell me you're a friend."

"I am."

In hearing the familiar voice's reply, Duo suddenly felt a long forgotten sensation spark in his numb heart; hope. Hope for an end to the darkness he'd fallen into . Maybe there was someone out there that cared, who could fill the vacuum of emptiness he felt, the hollowness that threatened to consume him completely.

With that slight feeling of hope and a lot of effort, the teenager forced his eyes to open and he slowly tilted his head so he could see the face of the voice he now fully recognized. "Heero?" He concentrated on focusing his bleary, unfocused eyes on the vague figure holding tightly to him to keep him from falling

"I'm here, Duo," the voice said; his tone comforting. "I'm going to take you home now." Whether from shock at the other's appearance and the fear of what would inevitably follow or the fact that he was just plain drunk, the braided teen and former Gundam pilot slumped heavily against his rescuing friend and murmured, "Thank God," just before he passed out cold.

The now familiar and wretched feeling of yet another hangover greeted him as he came out of his blessedly dreamless sleep. He knew from past experience that if he moved now, he would vomit all over his bed and carpet; not something he wanted to do. If he could just lay still for ten minutes, he could mentally calm his mind and body so that he could manage to get up and get his coffee. He made a mental note to check the vid screen to see if this was a work day or not because at the moment, he just couldn't remember.

"You're awake," a familiar voice remarked calmly.

Duo flinched with remembrance; it wasn't just a bad dream after all. Cracking open one eye, he looked at the blurry outline of the person he'd feared was in reality standing at the side of his face until his eyes came into focus.

"What are you doing here?" he croaked, his voice sounding funny to his own ears. He dimly realized that he rarely talked in the morning anymore because in reality, there was no one to talk to. He usually didn't carry on a conversation with anyone at work until after lunch as his fellow workers pretty much left him alone until he spoke to them first.

Drawing his eyebrows down in thought, he wondered why that was and when it had begun? He mentally shrugged and let it go, like everything else in his life that was too troubling to think about. It was a nifty little trick that had become invaluable over time.

"I came to see how you're doing," The Japanese teen answered. "And I can see it's a good thing that I did."

Duo could hear the reprimand, or was it disappointment in Heero's voice?

"Well, now you've seen me," his voice sounded dull and lifeless in his own ears. "So you can go back home and leave me alone."

Duo flung his arm over his head, hoping the movement, too fast and too soon, wouldn't make him lose his cookies in front of the perfect soldier.

He then felt a weight settle on the mattress and guessed that Heero had decided to sit on the edge of the bed to watch him.

"What's the matter, Duo? What's going on?" Heero asked, his voice soft and sounding concerned.

Feeling the bile slowly rising up his throat, the miserable young man on the bed swallowed it down and held his silence as he willed himself to stay still.

"I saw Trowa last week," Heero began again after several long moments of silence. "He's doing well at the circus. He told me no one has heard from you in six months, that you haven't even written to Hilde and she's very worried about you." There was a long pause that was obviously meant to draw the hung over teen into explaining himself. When the silence between the two extended, Heero asked another question. "Why?"

It became apparent that Duo wasn't going to answer as he lay perfectly still, his arm flung over his face and lips pursed tightly together.

"I called Quatre," Heero continued in a casual manner. "Did you know Wufei lives on L-4 now? They're both worried about you. I thought you were close to them, Duo, especially Quatre. Why haven't you talked to him?"

The bile seemed to recede a bit. If he could just stay still a few minutes more, he could escape this hell he'd awakened to with a bit of dignity intact.

"You're trying to self destruct, aren't you?" Heero's question came out sounding more like a statement of fact rather than a question.

"Go home, Heero. You're wasting your time." Duo managed to reply, swallowing with difficulty.

"Did you know that I've been here for three days? It took me a less than an hour to find your work place and from there I followed you home. I've been following you ever since."

Duo had thought he'd felt that old prickle of warning at the back of his neck, telling him he was being watched. But like everything else that had bothered him lately, he let the feeling drift away from his conscious thought.

"You live a pathetic existence," Heero added, disappointment clearly apparent in his voice.

Something in Heero's tone of disapproval hit a chord inside of the former Deathscythe pilot. He shot up, swinging a balled up fist at the dark haired teen's face, and from the angle in which Heero sat, it made it difficult for him to move completely out of the way. To Duo's satisfaction, his knuckles hit the flesh of Heero's jaw.

"Shut the hell up!" he yelled at Heero, who quickly stood from the edge of the bed and glared down at him. Then suddenly all thought and movement stopped for a moment as the bloodshot eyes and pale cheeks bulged. Duo sprang from the bed, clad only in his boxers, and ran to the toilet, promptly emptying his sour stomach.

He stayed slumped against the porcelain seat for several moments, waiting until his stomach stopped emptying itself and the sporadic cramping eased.

Pulling himself slowly up to the sink, he turned on the water and flushed the vile smelling contents down the toilet then washed his face and thoroughly rinsed out his mouth and brushed his teeth. When he felt marginally better, he pushed his sweat laced hair from out of his eyes and turned to go back to his bedroom.

Heero was sitting on the bed once again, a cup of steaming liquid in his hands. He held it out to Duo like a peace offering. "Coffee?" he asked.

Duo mumbled his half-hearted thanks and took it, knowing he would feel better for drinking it.

He finished the cupful without exchanging words or looking at the intruder. Setting the empty cup down on the bedside table, he turned to go to his dresser and pulled out a pair of black jeans, a green t-shirt and a folded pair of boxers. Without preamble, he went back to the bathroom and locked the door behind him.

His shower lasted a good thirty minutes; then came shaving and brushing out his thigh length hair. It was still damp when he braided it, but he'd be damned if he let Heero see it down. No doubt he'd think he was too weak to braid it properly and advise him to cut it. "When hell freezes over," he mumbled to himself.

Exiting the bathroom, he saw the room was empty and the bed was neatly made. 'Maybe he left,' he thought hopefully, yet walking into his living room he saw Heero was busy in the kitchen.

Quietly, he picked up his coat, which was lying on the chair next to the door, along with his keys and his sunglasses on the table next to it and soundlessly left the house, grateful that the hinges on the front door were well oiled. After placing the sunglasses on to protect his aching eyes and throbbing head from the bright lights above, he began to walk the familiar route that took him to his place of employment.

As he approached the building in which he worked he began to feel more calm. This building, in which he spent most of his time in, and its employees had become a place of acceptance and security for him. He liked his job and the people he worked with. He knew by the expressions on their faces that they were worried about him, but they respected his privacy when he explained he was suffering from a bit of post traumatic stress that resurfaced after the last battle. His fellow workers nodded their heads, honestly trying to understand, and dutifully gave him time and space to work through his troubles. Duo tired to repay them for their kindness by working hard, seeing to it that the part of the business that was given to him to oversee did well. He was good at his job of finding parts for or re-shaping them to fit the customer's need. It was a creative and demanding job, and it was also proving to be a lucrative one as well. The business was thriving, growing and gaining a good reputation. His bosses appreciated his part in that accomplishment and rewarded him with an increase in salary and regular bonuses.

At times, Duo felt badly for distancing himself emotionally from such nice, normal people, especially over the last six months. They were what he considered normal, and they all had lives to live, a purpose for continuing. Those were things he found himself to be lacking and it made him feel like an outsider and incompatible when he was around them too much.

He didn't turn around to answer the prickling at the back of his neck as he approached the office. He knew without looking back that Heero was following behind him.

He opened the door that was the business entrance and reception area. Malia, the receptionist/secretary, sat behind the semi-circle desk. She was in her mid twenties and had her blond hair pulled up into a twist making her small green eyes seem much larger than they actually were behind the thick, round glasses she wore.

"Mr. Maxwell?" She looked up surprised at his entrance. "It's Saturday. What are you doing in here today?"

Duo thought he masked his surprise well as he replied. "I need to check next week's schedule and appointments."

She gave him a knowing glance. "Coffee?" she asked sympathetically. He cringed seeing she understood his present condition. How did everyone get to be so knowledgeable about my off work activities? Sure he still felt the effects of the alcohol he'd consumed last night and his head was pounding like a drum, but he was sure he walked and talked without a hint of how he really felt.

"I'll get it," he replied and motioned for her to stay in her seat as he proceeded down the hall to the employee's lounge. "If anyone comes in, I'm unavailable. Alright?"

"Yes, Mr. Maxwell," the young woman answered, then turned and watched him go, concerned for the despondent teenager as he walked down the hallway to the lounge. Moments later, she heard the door to his room shut and the lock engage.

Shaking her head with pity for the brilliant but troubled teenager who was going through such a hard time, she turned back to the papers in front of her waiting to be filed.

It was only when she shifted her eyes that she caught sight of a person standing in front of her desk. "Oh!" She jumped, startled at the young man's silent presence that had completely gone unnoticed until that moment. "You startled me," she gasped with a smile at feeling foolish. She took in the appearance of the dark haired young man, smiling ever so slightly at her in return. He had perfect olive skin and the most intense blue eyes that looked at her intently. She felt her stomach clench as she noted he was unusually handsome, dressed in jeans and a white shirt that was unbuttoned at the neck.

"Can I help you?" she asked, turning her chair forward and adjusting her glasses on the bridge of her nose.

"Duo Maxwell," the young man's deep rich voice requested.

"He's unavailable at the moment. I could give him a message when he comes out, if you'd like to leave one," she offered, smiling coquettishly at him.

Putting an elbow on the high counter top and leaning over slightly, the dark haired teen grinned knowingly at her, then suddenly sobered as he inquired further. "I'm a friend of his and I'm concerned about his welfare. Do you know him very well?"

The receptionist blinked her eyes several times at the news. "A friend?"

The young man nodded in reply.

"I didn't know he had any friends other than Hilde and some of the guys here at work."

"He has quite a few, actually," the Japanese boy declared with a frown. "But he's withdrawn from us and, from observing him for a couple of days, I've concluded that he seems to be having a hard time of it right now."

The young woman looked down the hall, as if to make sure the person they were speaking of wasn't coming back. Then turning back and leaning forward, she replied to the other's concern in a hushed tone of voice. "Mr. Andrews, our boss, told us Mr. Maxwell was in the war, a gundam pilot, and that he's suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress disorder. We were told to help him in any way we could but not to intrude on his privacy. It really is sad to see such a good looking guy so alone," she continued looking sorrowful. "Several of the girls working here are interested in him, but he doesn't give them any encouragement. Oh, he's nice enough, once he starts talking, but we've realized that's about all he's going to give."

"Does he often come into work like he did this morning?" Heero asked, hoping the young woman would know what he was referring to.

"It's become more frequent in the last couple of months," she answered, her voice still low. "And then there are days when he doesn't come in at all," she suddenly looked guilty for disclosing such a fact. "Mr. Andrews says we have to be patient. He won't fire him because of his sacrifice for the colonies and says it's the least that we can do for him. He's also quite brilliant in his job, when he's here to perform it."

Heero nodded, grateful his friend had found a group of people willing to look after him and make concessions for his poor behavior; but it had to stop. None of this was doing Duo any good. The well intentioned workers of Schweibeker's Solutions were only enabling him further.

For the next twenty minutes he pumped the receptionist for any and all information she had on Duo. Then picking up a magazine from the coffee table, he took a seat on one of the several chairs in the foyer and prepared to wait his friend out.

After a cup of coffee and four aspirin, the former Deathscythe pilot put his head on his desk and promptly fell back to sleep. Three hours later, a knock at the door roused him.

"Mr. Maxwell? I have your lunch," Malia called through the door.

Wiping the drool from off his face, Duo rose and went to the door. He was feeling better now and the turkey sandwich the deli always sent over would help fill one of the hollow feelings inside him.

Unlocking the door, he pulled it open. Surprise registered on his face when he came face to face with none other than Heero Yuy, holding the familiar deli bag.

He tried to slam the door, but he'd foolishly forgotten that no one ever successfully managed to achieve that act with Heero. His reflexes were too swift. Before he knew it, both he and Heero were in his office and the door was shut quickly, leaving the startled looking receptionist standing outside in the hallway.

"Here," Heero held out the bag. With a glare, Duo snatched it from his hands and quickly moved back to his desk. He sat down in the chair he'd just vacated, put the bag on his desktop, then leaned back with his arms folding in front of his chest and did his best imitation of Heero's patented death glare. He watched with narrow eyes as Heero moved to sit on the edge of his desk and calmly watched him.

"Nice set up you have here," the Japanese teen commented, looking around the tidy office. "Sounds like both Mr. Schweibeker and Mr. Andrews are decent sort of people. Malia mentioned that the deli sends a lunch over for you every day that you come to work, on the company's account."

Duo shrugged, his face unreadable.

"She said they're very understanding of your condition," Heero said, now intently watching his friend for his reaction.

"My condition?" Duo questioned darkly, a cinnamon colored eyebrow raised.

"Well, what they believe your condition to be," Heero amended casually. "Have you been to see a doctor lately?"

"I'm fine and healthy," the braided one answered sourly.

"No, you're not!" Heero countered. "You're too thin and you look haggard. You don't eat but drink about as much liquor as a whole squadron of soldiers on a twenty-four hour leave. You look depressed and you've withdrawn from everyone who cares about you. I'd say there is something definitely not fine and healthy here."

As Duo listened to the last of Heero's list of his failings, his anger level rose. He tried to let it go, but Heero kept speaking and his anger mounted beyond the level where he could contain it.

With his teeth clenched together, he stood, his knuckles resting on the desk growing white even as his face began to turn red. "I don't need you to come here to tell me the obvious, Heero. What I do need is for you to leave me alone, leave this colony and go back to your home, to your life, to those who care about you. Just leave me the hell alone!"

He moved quickly to escape the room but found his arm firmly grabbed, impeding his hasty retreat.

"No," Heero said, his eyes flaring with determination. "You're my friend and you're in trouble."

"My friend?" Duo exclaimed loudly. "Where the hell have you been this last half of this year, Heero?" His anger and incredulousness brought a look of guilt to Heero's face that was somewhat rewarding.

"I left messages on your e-mail, of which you only returned one saying you didn't think we could salvage our friendship," Heero replied defensively.

Duo snorted with disgust and shook his head while wresting his captured arm free of Heero's firm grip. Taking a step back, he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. A screaming match with Heero was the last thing he wanted right now, especially with his head throbbing. He reached within himself and calmed, letting go of his anger and anything else that bothered him at the moment. "I just don't want to talk about this. I'm fine, so go home."

"No." Heero replied sharply.

Exasperated, Duo opened his eyes and walked back to his desk and grabbed hold of the bag holding his meal. He ripped it open and unwrapped the sandwich. He resumed his seat and began to eat it, chewing each large bite with exaggerated slowness while ignoring Heero, who had taken up his place again on the edge of the desk. Having eaten half of the sandwich, Duo reached into the bag and pulled out a container of milk and a plastic wrapped cookie. He opened the milk and drank half of the container, then proceeded to finish his sandwich. He took his time unwrapping the clinging plastic from off the cookie and then took one small bite after another, taking small sips of milk in between.

"I assume from your statement that you feel neglected," Heero's voice broke the silence between them. His tone wasn't accusing, but curious.

Duo rolled his eyes and buried his face in his hands. "That's right," he replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "My life is as screwed up as you describe because you were inattentive." He stood again and wadded up the paper and plastic wrap into a tight ball with his two hands then added the paper bag into the growing mass of trash before tossing it into a trash can about fifteen feet away. It landed perfectly in the center.

"Listen," he began, his eyes still averted from Heero. "I can't make you leave, but I don't have to talk to you." With that said, he walked to the door with his braid swinging behind him as he made his way out of the building.

He didn't go home but began his walk around Cherry Hill, wandering aimlessly and checking his watch periodically. At precisely four ten, he entered a local, popular establishment called Smitty's Bar and Pool; one of his regular drinking places.

"Hey D-man," a burly, barrel-chested man called out in greeting. "The usual?" he asked, habitually stroking the stubbled growth on his wide and red face as he observed one of his frequent customers approach the bar.

"A double," Duo answered as he straddled a stool and flopped his forearms on top of the bar. A large glass of amber colored liquid was placed before him in a matter of seconds.

"Starting a bit early and fast today, aren't you?" The man inquired with a crooked grin.

"You need a shave, Smitty," Duo grumbled, not bothering to look up into the man's face as he took his first couple of swallows of the burning liquid he would be consuming that evening.

The older man gave the boy a wicked grin. "And you need a hair cut, brat. You cut, I'll shave," he offered.

The door behind the former pilot opened, spilling bright light into the darkened room. The bartender nodded a greeting to the new customer.

"A beer," the young man requested.

The bartender looked the youth over and raised an eyebrow. "I'll need to see some I.D.," he said.

The Japanese youth sat next to the bar's only other customer and gave the man a knowing look. "You just served my friend here a drink, and we're the same age."

Smitty was taken aback by the young man with the intense dark eyes that made him feel like cowering. A mug of cold beer was quickly placed in front of the boy he'd never seen before. "Enjoy," he murmured, then quickly removed himself and became busy further down the bar.

As time wore on, the other regulars filtered in. Saturday night was always busy and lively and tonight looked like it would be no exception. Everyone who entered seemed to be acquainted with the long haired boy, but after a brief greeting, they left him to his drink. Rumors surrounding the teenager were quickly dispelled with the truth about his being a gundam pilot during the war. People in the colony were either in awe of that fact or felt great hatred for him, depending on whose side they backed during the war. No matter how they personally felt about the boy being back on the colony, they all left the morose and obviously troubled young man alone.

Smitty kept an eye on Maxwell and the guy next to him, whom the braided one completely ignored, despite the other fellow's attempts at conversation. The older man couldn't help but wonder about the new comer's claim that he was a friend to the seemingly friendless teen. During the hours following their entrance into his establishment, he'd served the gundam pilot several drinks, the boy paying for them as he went. His 'friend' had been nursing his first beer the entire time.

The bar filled gradually with familiar customers until around nine o'clock when it became crowded enough to be nearing the maximum number of patrons the establishment could legally entertain. The talk and music that filled the moderately sized business became overwhelmingly loud. Yet through the din, Duo's ears picked up an argument in the process of heating up. He listened intently and looked up to catch the bartender's eyes as the argument neared the point of the where the men contending with each other were obviously getting close to exchanging blows with each other. He received a warning look from Smitty who saw exactly where his thoughts were going.

Smitty had seen that glint in the boy's eyes before and knew what was coming. "Listen kid, don't you go and start anything," the older man warned his regular with a shaking finger, and Heero's bent head shot up sharply, his eyes shifting about the room.

"Alright boys," Smitty barked out to the growing sound of a ruckus behind the two underage drinkers. "Settle down or take it outside."

From the sound of it, the name calling and insulting had escalated to a bout of shouting and shoving. The moment Duo felt someone bump heavily against his back, Shinigami sprang into action with life and death blazing in his eyes. Duo suddenly jumped up on his stool with cat-like grace just as fists began flying between the five men involved in the altercation that had been going on not too far behind his bar stool. With a wild man's cry, Duo leapt from the top of his precarious perch on the bar stool and into the middle of the small brawl, his own arms and fists striking out at anyone within his reach.

Smitty's eyes turned to the Japanese boy whose face wore a look of disbelief. Sensing the older man's eyes on him, Heero turned and questioned him. "Does he do this often?" he asked, shouting to be heard above the cacophony of anger behind him.

"A least once a week," the older man shouted back with a shake of his head. "He never starts it, but he's always happy to join in." The man then leaned over the bar to be heard above the wild tumult. "It's about the only time I've seen any life come into the kid's eyes."

Opening his wallet, Heero quickly paid the man the bar tab and stood upon his barstool to get a bird's eye view of the melee. There were four or five men grappling with each other and as he peered through the dim light, he saw the chestnut color hair moving quickly but within a confined space. The head in front of the former Deathscythe pilot suddenly went down and a space in the crowd opened up. Springing off the stool, Heero correctly judged the distance and landed directly behind Duo and immediately wrapped his strong arms around his friend, effectively pinning his arms to his side.

"That's enough," Heero said sternly into Duo's ear as the braided bundle of energy struggled to break free.

"Let me go!" Duo yelled back and threw his head back, slamming his hard skull into Heero's forehead and kicking his feet out to knock his new opponent backwards.

Any other man may have been stunned by such a blow and knocked flat on his back at the second movement Duo made, but the perfect soldier's eyes took on a look of determination as he picked up the slightly smaller person, still trapped in his arms, and simply walked away from the on-going fight and out the front door of the bar.

Duo struggled in vain to free himself, but couldn't loosen Heero's gundanium strength grip on him, despite all his wiggling, squirming and protesting.

"Calm down and I'll release you," Heero ordered.

After a few more futile attempts to free himself, Duo felt the energy and spark of adrenaline he managed to generate at the beginning of the fight drain from him and he let go, slumping and becoming a dead weight in Heero's arms.

Heero pulled the limp body back with him to a bench that sat against the front wall of the bar and beneath the flashing red, white and blue neon sign. He sat down awkwardly on the bench pulling Duo in front of him, not releasing his grip on his obviously disturbed friend.

The large metal door to the bar slammed open and Smitty appeared, hauling two bedraggled looking men out by the scruff of their shirts. With surprising strength, he flung the two out to the far end of the sidewalk where they stumbled to gain their footing.

"And don't come back for a month," he told them sternly. "I'll be sending you a bill Jack for any damages your argument cost me," he added. As the two men slunk away, the bar owner's eyes turned to the two sitting oddly on the bench.

Heero could only imagine what the man thought as he held Duo in his arms on his lap and pressed firmly against his chest. The man's eyebrows rose in question. "Just calming him down," Heero replied.

Smitty snorted. "If you can do that, you're a better man than anyone in this colony," he said, and his eyes settled on the braided terror. "You go home, kid," he said in a firm voice. "Let your friend help you."

Duo raised his chin so that he could look at the man who sold him a small fortune in drinks over the last six months and glared at him.

"And don't come back until you learn to smile." Smitty probably thought he was being funny, but it was obvious Duo didn't think him humorous.

"You want a smile?" Duo replied in an ominously, dangerous tone. A slow manic grin grew on the handsome face, and to the older man observing, it gave the boy a whole different look. As the disturbed boy's amethyst eyes narrowed, a look of cunning and ungodliness caused the older man to involuntarily shiver in reaction to it. There was pain and death in those eyes looking at him through the long strands of hair that fell over the boy's forehead.

"Stop it, Duo," Heero said sharply, feeling Duo's body tense again. "You're scaring the man."

Looking up to the shocked face of the older bartender, Heero tried to make light of the situation. "You wouldn't believe how many hours he spent in front of the mirror perfecting that look," he said calmly. The older man nodded, looking confused. "I've got everything in hand here," Heero added. "Goodnight."

It was clear to Smitty that he had been dismissed, and there was nothing else for him to do but go inside and get back to work. As he did, he silently wished the gundam pilot's friend good luck in helping the messed up kid he'd come to be rather fond of.

A few silent moments passed before Heero spoke again. "When you've calmed down enough, we'll go back to your place and talk."

It took another ten minutes before the braided young man relaxed his body enough that Heero released his hold on him. Once freed, Duo promptly stood and walked away without a look back to see if Heero followed. Heero did indeed follow behind him as Duo made his way back to his house and unlocked the front door. He then walked calmly into it, leaving it open in his wake and proceeded to the kitchen. The light of the refrigerator came on when he opened it and it was the only one to light the interior of the house as Heero entered a few moments behind him. The popping of a can being opened was the only sound to fill the dark space between the two friends.

Heero turned on the lamp that was resting on the small table by the front door, then closed the door and locked it. He turned and his eyes sought and found Duo standing in front of the open door of the refrigerator, his head thrown back as he finished the contents of a can of beer. Tossing the can into the sink, where it clattered loudly, he reached in for another one and popped the top of that one also.

Duo was surprised and unhappy to suddenly find Heero's hand on top of his, holding the can of beer firmly in place just inches from his mouth. "You want it?" he asked, then released the can into Heero's grip and reached into the refrigerator for another.

"Stop it!" Heero said harshly. "Are you trying to kill yourself?"

Duo finally turned and looked him squarely in the eye for the first time that day. "What do you think?" he replied with a mocking sneer.

Heero threw the full can of beer into the sink where the contents exploded and splattered over the counter and the rest of it emptied out into the sink and ran down drain. He turned and forcefully shut the refrigerator and glared at his friend while pointing to the living room. "Sit down," he ordered. "We're going to talk."

With an agility that was surprising in his inebriated state, Duo ducked quickly away from Heero's outstretched arm and headed for his bedroom. "I don't think so," he shot back over his shoulder with equal firmness.

An firm iron grip on his arm brought Duo to an abrupt halt and he was instantly propelled towards the couch and unceremoniously tossed onto it. He landed in a sprawled position but immediately sprang up into a fighting stance.

"This brings back a few memories," Heero said as he too prepared for a fight. "I remember how a good fight always seemed to help you when you were stressed. Remember the brawl we had in that one safehouse? You loved that, didn't you?"

Duo glared at him and slowly, without taking his eyes off of Heero, moved away from the couch to a more open space, away from the coffee table and lamps.

When he didn't answer, Heero continued, keeping a wary eye on his friend. "If a fight is what you need, Duo, I'll be happy to oblige, just like I did back then."

Heero watched curiously as a flash of pain registered on Duo's face before it was quickly replaced again with his earlier sneer. Then the braided teen said in a dark tone. "I could always count on you back then... to give me what I needed. Couldn't I Heero? But not any more." To his surprise, instead of flinging himself into the proposed fight, much like he had in the bar earlier, Duo suddenly relaxed, as if he'd let go of all the anger and resentment he displayed a moment before. It was as if he just didn't care any more. That attitude, of caring about nothing, that Heero had seen several times already since he arrived, alarmed him.

"Too bad things aren't that simple anymore," Duo added, in a mournful tone of voice and then turned away from Heero.

His escape from the other person in the room wasn't going to be that easy, and that fact was made clearer as Heero grabbed hold of his arm once again and whipped him around to face him. As the feel of a stinging slap on his cheek brought him back to reality, he felt the anger he'd just let go begin to resurface again. Heero then grabbed hold of his face with both hands and held it firmly and forced him to look into his worried, steely blue eyes.

"What the hell has happened to you?" Heero asked with anger, and Duo thought he detected a touch of fear in the troubled eyes before him. "Out of all of us I thought you'd adjust to civilian life better than the rest of us."

"Why would you think that?" Duo replied snidely, angry and confused by Heero's statement. "Was it because I had a sense of humor, a quick smile and an easy laugh? Did I fool you all so completely?"

"Duo," Heero began, letting go of the other teen's face. "I knew of your pain and your mask. It's how you coped. But you left Quatre's a year ago with a job, a plan and a home. What happened to you? You're empty, friendless, and an angry drunk."

"Always with the flowery compliments," Duo snorted.

"Do I lie?"

Duo shrugged, once again desperately trying to let go of the anger while the hollowness that had become a part of his daily existence began to enter his consciousness once more. "What does it matter?"

He felt the stinging of another firm slap to his face and his anger took over his sense of apathy. Balling up his fist, he took a swing at the darker haired boy grimly staring at him.

Heero dodged it in the nick of time and took a step back. "It matters to me and to the others, we're still your friends, even if you don't care anymore." Heero returned a fist towards the angry person he'd once called his best friend and hit him in the upper arm. That blow seemed to release something within the former Deathscythe pilot and Duo left caution behind and began swinging wildly, without thought or reason. Fortunately, Heero fought with both. He aimed his blows at Duo's extremities and any blows to Duo's torso were measured to inflict little damage.

After they'd been fighting for a period of fifteen minutes, Duo's legs buckled and he slowly sunk to the floor succumbing to both weariness, pain, emptiness and finally darkness.

Heero stood over his friend's collapsed body, a frown on his face. He knew he hadn't severely hurt Duo, but they would both be covered with bruises come morning. Leaning over, he picked Duo up from off the floor and carried him to his bed. Carefully and with a gentleness that would surprise most people who knew him, he removed the unconscious teen's shoes, pants and shirt and put Duo into his bed for the second night in a row. He stood back and looked down on his friend who, even in his sleep, seemed uneasy, with a frown on his face that seemed out of place.

Rubbing his tired eyes and beginning to feel the ache from the blows Duo had managed to land, he went into the living room and sat at Duo's desk. He activated the vid screen and dialed up Quatre's private line. After the tenth buzz, the face of his sleepy looking blond friend came into view.

"Heero?" Quatre's eyes widened at the sight of his disheveled friend. "What's wrong? Are you alright?"

"I need your help, Quatre," Heero said softly and he noticed the look of apprehension that filled the light blue eyes staring at him on the vid screen.

"How is he?"

Heero sighed and ran a hand through his mussed hair. "Physically, he's run down and hasn't taken care of himself. He eats too little and consumes too much alcohol," he replied. "Mentally," he shook his head sadly. "He's on a self destruct course. I haven't been able to determine what's caused this, but I've been through his things and haven't found any medication or any sign that he's seen a doctor since he's been here."

Quatre looked upset and on the verge of giving into his emotions. "Oh, Duo," he said softly to himself, then looked up with a firm resolve. "What can I do?" he asked.

"I need you to contact your sister, Irea. See if she can recommend a safe place near here where we can put Duo for a psychiatric review. If not on this colony, then one on or near yours."

"I'll get right on it and call you back. You're at Duo's place?"

"Yes," Heero nodded.

"Okay, I'm on it."

The vid screen went blank and Heero stood and stretched out his sore muscles. Grabbing a pillow and blanket from where he found it the night before, he made himself comfortable on the couch once again and stretched out on it to grab some sleep. He knew he would need to be rested for whatever happened when Duo woke up in the morning.

The sound of the vid screen buzzing woke him and he rushed to answer it, hoping the sound wouldn't wake Duo up from his much needed sleep.

Quatre's face appeared. "Hello Heero," he greeted him looking tired and a bit worn.

"Morning," Heero answered in a rough voice as he raked a hand through his messy hair, hoping it wasn't standing straight up. "Did you find something?"

"Yes," Quatre answered, looking as serious as the situation warranted. "Irea knows of a very competent doctor who has a very respectable clinic there on L-2. I've arranged for Duo to be admitted for at least two weeks of evaluation and therapy, then he can be seen as an out patient, returning to his job, if all goes well. Of course, I'll be taking care of any and all medical expenses."

Opening the desk drawer, Heero reached for a note pad and pen. He wrote down the name of the doctor and the address as Quatre relayed the information.

"He's expecting you around one o'clock this afternoon." Quatre paused and the look of worry returned to his face. "Is he going to go willingly, Heero? We both know how stubborn he can be when he digs his heels in."

Heero took in a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. "I don't know," he replied. "He's not going to be looking or feeling very well when he wakes up and he's been extremely antagonistic since I made my presence known. He's so filled with anger, Quatre."

"Is he sick?" Quatre asked, his face a picture of concern.

"We had a fight last night," Heero said quietly, not proud of admitting his actions.

"Heero!" Quatre's voice reprimanded him.

"You remember how a fight always calmed him during the war?" Heero asked the blond.

After a moment of reflective thought, Quatre answered. "Yes, I remember," he replied, some of his frown lessening. "He always felt too damn chipper after picking a fight with one of us."

"Or all of us," Heero reminded him.

"I remember that brawl all too well." A sad smile came to Quatre's lips as he reflected back to that time. "By Allah, we were all so mad at him, but it did break the tension, didn't it? Maybe your fighting will have served a purpose and he'll be more open with you when he wakes up."

Heero nodded, still looking grim. "He's so angry and won't talk to me other than to tell me to go away," he reported. "He's sullen and aloof, completely different from the Duo we knew, except when he had trouble with medications after the first war was over."

Quatre seemed to slump back into his chair. "I just knew something was wrong when he stopped calling and writing. He allowed me to think that he was taking his medication and that he was just busy with work and making friends and I bought it. I wish I'd acted sooner."

"I believe we all wish that, but how were we to know?" Heero's own feelings of guilt were displayed on his face and in his voice.

"We were a family during the war," Quatre spoke with a bit of sorrow reflected in his eyes. "Somehow we lost that feeling as we each went on with our lives. Maybe Duo needed us more than he let on. We should have been there for him."

"We can't change the past, Quatre," Heero cut into the blond's guilt trip. "But we can try to be here for him now. I'll get him admitted to the clinic and make sure he's settled in. I'm sorry I can't stay longer, but I have to return to Earth as Relena begins a new string of conferences in three days."

Quatre nodded. "I wish I could be there for him too, but there's a new development in my family that was just brought to my attention and I need to see to it personally."

"A problem?" Heero asked, frowning.

Quatre shook his head. "Not really, at least I don't think so. I was just reluctantly informed of another sister who has been missing since I was a baby. A social service agency on colony X99874 contacted my office with an inquiry and with the information I received I went to one of my older sisters. Talia told me about a scandal that surrounded our missing half-sister. I think we might have found her, but I need to go meet her and have a paternity test taken to determine if she is my father's daughter. If she is, then I need to bring her home."

"Another sister?" Heero's eyes went wide, and despite the grave situation he was currently dealing with, he couldn't keep the corners of his mouth from turning up.

"I know," Quatre groaned. "Just what I need, but it could prove to be a difficult transition for her because she was abandoned by her mother and left to make it on her own. So, if she is my sister, I really need to bring here to meet the rest of the family and ease her into being a Winner."

Heero nodded, then looked up with another thought. "How about Wufei or Trowa? Could they possibly come here and stay with Duo for a while?"

"I'll contact them and see if they can make themselves available, at least to bring him home in two weeks. I'll see Wufei sometime today and I'll e-mail Trowa immediately."

"Sounds good. You'll keep on top of this and update me on what's going on?" Heero asked, still looking worried.

"I'll make a pest of myself, at least on the vid phone," Quatre promised. "When are you leaving L-2?"

"Tonight. I'll make arrangements with Duo's work place for time off and settle any debts or bills he needs to have paid before I go."

"Why don't you stop by here on your way back to Earth?" Quatre suggested with a hopeful look on his face. "We haven't seen each other for a long time and you, Wufei and I could have a late dinner together. I'd really like a full report from you on Duo's life on L-2."

Heero paused to calculate in his head if he could make it or not. "Alright," he answered. "I'll see if I can rearrange the transportation."

"I'll send a shuttle for you. I have a corporation jet on L-1 right now and that's not too far away from you. It will be there around three o'clock this afternoon and you can hop on anytime you're ready to leave."

Heero nodded, accepting the generous offer. "I'll see you tonight then."

"Give Duo my best regards," Quatre said. "And call if he wants to talk to me. Tell him I'm worried sick."

Heero nodded and the two bid each other good bye.

An hour later a painful groan came from the bedroom and Heero made his way into the room to watch his friend's painful awakening.

Duo's large, bloodshot eyes struggled to open, and they were met once again by the concerned face of Heero Yuy holding a couple of pain pills in his outstretched hand.

An hour later Duo came out of his bedroom showered and dressed. He walked stiffly, obviously not feeling well and in pain, towards the couch and carefully laid himself down on it, his arm swung up and over his face to cover his eyes.

"Duo," Heero's voice called out softly to him as he came to stand by the sofa. "You need help, more than what I can give you. I'm checking you into a clinic today so you can get that help from a competent physician."

Duo lay perfectly still for a moment before speaking. "Why?"

Heero looked down at him confused. "Why what?"

Duo sighed deeply, his breath almost shuddering. "Why did you come back into my life now? Why do you care? Why bother?"

A feeling he couldn't quite define gripped Heero's heart. Kneeling down, he took Duo's slack hand that was resting on his stomach and clasped it with his own. "Because you're my friend, Duo. I care about you, we all do. We're," he paused, thinking about what Quatre had said earlier, "family, and because I once promised you I'd be your backup."

"But you weren't here when I needed you, were you?" Duo said accusingly with his voice shaking with emotion. "You, more than the other guys, should have known."

Heero frowned. "Known what, Duo?"

Duo's lips pursed together and Heero knew an answer to that question was not going to be forthcoming. "I'm sorry, Duo. I just assumed from the information the others gave me that you were all right. You didn't seem to want contact with me, so I thought I'd give you time to settle before I was going to approach you again." He reached out and gripped his friend's shoulder. "What is it that I should have known? Why couldn't you tell us what was wrong? Tell Quatre, or me?"

The young man on the couch turned his head away as he struggled to compose himself. "Because... I didn't want you to think I'm weak," he whispered.

"None of us could ever think that about you, Duo. After all we've been through together, how could we? Tell me, what's wrong?"

The braided young man turned on his side, facing away from his friend, then curled up into a fetal position.

Alarmed, Heero put his arms around the one person who had been able to give him comfort and human warmth during the war. Putting his face along side his friend's bruised cheek, he whispered. "Whatever it is, it's going to be all right. I promise," he added, hoping with all that was in him that it was true.

Minutes passed as the two remained in place, Duo held by his best friend. At last, the braided young man spoke in a shaky voice. "I'm....so empty, Heero," Duo's voice was but a choked whisper, filled with emotion. "Everyone I've ever cared for is gone. I feel hollow, with an emptiness that nothing can fill. I can only numb it with alcohol or fighting."

"We'll find a way," Heero said, fighting back his own emotions as he held his friend close to his chest. "You're not alone, Duo. We all care. We've all had our struggles after the war to find peace and we've all needed professional help. We're going to help you find the solution because you deserve to be happy and to find peace, more so than anyone I know."

Heero continued to whisper soft reassurances to his silent but distraught friend until Duo finally relaxed into a restless state of sleep. Heero moved back in order to straighten out his friend's body to allow him to rest more comfortably on the couch and noted again how worn out and frail Duo had become. It was obvious that the braided teen had fought this internal battle by himself for far too long and that, whatever emotional problems he was dealing with, it was causing wear and tear on his mental and physical state. Reaching his hand out to brush the long strands of warm brown colored hair from off the pale face, Heero whispered to his sleeping friend. "We'll make this right, Duo. Somehow, you're going to be happy again."

Duo was awakened by Heero at noon to a lunch that was prepared for him and sitting on the counter top. At a glance, he saw his large suitcase and duffle bag sitting by the front door; Heero had been busy while he slept.

Feeling confused and slightly disoriented, his body aching from his activities the night before, Duo resigned himself to doing whatever Heero instructed. Feeling some sort of twisted pleasure in letting someone else have control of his life for a short while. He snorted a cut off laugh, reminding himself that he hadn't done a very good job of taking care of himself lately. He planted his head in his upraised hand as his fork worked automatically in putting the stir fried vegetables into his mouth, not really paying any attention to the taste, flavor, or even what he was ingesting. He hadn't enjoyed food for a while now, and he dimly wondered why that was.

Heero tried to keep up some kind of dialogue between them, but Duo was too tired, too despondent to think of any answers, it seemed to take too much energy and effort to respond. But when Heero asked if he wanted to talk to Quatre before they left the house, to reassure his friend that he was alright, Duo nodded. He said he owed it to Quatre, knowing his friend would be worried about him.

When Heero had Quatre on the vid phone, Duo moved lethargically to the desk and sat in his chair. His eyes rose to the screen, seeing worried blue eyes gazing back at him.

"Oh Duo, why didn't you tell me?" Quatre said, his emotions surfacing. Duo could only look with apathy at his blond friend with a look of confusion on his face, feeling strangely distanced from reality at seeing the sadness openly displayed on his face. He felt something inside him cave inward at the slow realization that he'd let his friends down once again.

"It's okay, Duo." Quatre was quick to say, seeing the confusion turn to a crushed look on his friend's battered face. "You're going to be alright. I've arranged for a very good and competent doctor to look after you. Just be honest with him about what you've been feeling and he'll do everything he can to help."

Duo nodded, unable to find the strength or need to apologize.

"Duo." Quatre's voice took on a tone of pleading. "You're not the only one struggling to find a place after the war. Did Heero tell you Wufei is here on L-4? He tried to be part of the peace process with the Preventers but he just couldn't do it. It felt too much like the war and that it never seemed to come to an end. It became another form of war that he learned he could never truly win. He's here now with a dojo all his own and he's much happier, but it took time and the determination to find what it was that would make him happy. If this job and L-2 isn't right for you, we'll help you find something you do like. You know I'll do anything to help."

"I like my job," Duo mumbled, not wanting his friends to think that Quatre's assumption, that he was unhappy with his job, was the source of his current state of unhappiness.

"Alright," Quatre acknowledged. "Then there's something else that's wrong. Please, trust your new doctor, Duo. I'll come see you as soon as I can, and Trowa or Wufei will come to check you out of the clinic and stay with you a few days. Will that be alright?"

He managed a nod and a sigh, knowing Quatre would wait as long as he had to for an answer. Better to answer something than to let this tiring conversation continue.

"I'll call you every night, alright?"

Another nod.

"Heero?" Quatre looked for their other friend, who promptly came in view of the vid screen as he leaned over Duo's shoulder. "Take care of him. I'll see you tonight."

Duo sat silent and uninterested as Heero and Quatre bid each other goodbye. After the vid phone was shut down, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"Time to go," Heero said, moving his hand to Duo's elbow, he helped him up from his chair.

Still feeling numb and disconnected from his surroundings, Duo stood and put his arms out as Heero helped him into his worn and comfortable jean jacket. He felt Heero's arm go around his shoulder and carefully moved him towards the front door.

"Let's go Duo," he said gently. "Just remember, a new beginning takes a first step."

Picking up the suitcase and duffle bag, Heero led his strangely compliant and quiet friend out the front door and locked the house behind them. A taxi was waiting at the curb of the sidewalk, ready to take them to the clinic that they all were putting their hopes in for Duo's recovery.

Hey guys, we're nearly there. Only one more story left in the DFA. Be patient, I'm working on it, but it's rather long and I'm terribly busy at the moment. Thanks for your comments and encouragement by review and e-mail. All are greatly appreciated.


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