Duo's Friendship Arc 28
by Dyna Dee
Bearing a posture and stride that exuded confidence and self assurance, a young Asian man with his hair pulled tightly back into a short pony tail at the nape of his neck, dressed in black slacks and a long sleeved, deep green t-shirt, walked into the reception area of the medical facility. He had taken notice of the contrast of the interior of the building to the outside. As was typical of most buildings on L-2, the exterior looked more like a commercial business than a medical treatment center for depression and substance abuse. Inside, however, the smooth finished walls were painted a cream coffee-white color that had pictures of calming scenes of Earth's terrain at its most resplendent. The dark green leather couches and mahogany end and coffee tables added an appeal to the room that bespoke of competence and the success of the staff that operated the healing institution. Wufei hoped the people in charge of Duo's health were indeed both competent and successful. Irea had given high praise to the doctor that was given the care of their friend and he hoped she was correct in her estimation of the man.
He promptly approached the reception desk and the white haired women sitting behind it looked up to greet him as he drew near. Her pale blue eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled politely up at him. "May I help you?" she asked.
"I'm here to pick up Duo Maxwell," he told her, finding it easy to return the woman's smile.
"If you'll have a seat, I'll tell the doctor that you're here." She motioned him towards the comfortable couch he'd just passed and he moved back to sit and wait as the woman disappeared into a side door, closing it behind herself.
He tried to sit in a relaxed pose but found it hard to get comfortable, despite the softness of the leather. He studied the paintings and prints on the wall, his mind returning for a moment back to the days he'd spent on Earth. He had seen some of the breathtaking beauty of the planet, most of it with his friends as they took brief periods off from the war. He sighed, regretting some of the mistakes he'd made concerning his friend. He knew he wasn't alone in blaming himself for Duo's current problems, but he couldn't dismiss the fact that he'd been selfish and self absorbed, thinking about his own needs and happiness after the war, believing he had to get his life in order before he could be of any assistance of his friends. He'd known, hell, they'd all known of Duo's troubles during and after the war. Those types of problems just didn't go away with a simple pill. They all should have known better.
Several minutes later the woman came back out of the closed door and gave him another smile that told him to be patient. He hated waiting. He was a person of action and snap decisions. He chuckled to himself, such behavior was what usually got him into trouble. He had to give himself some credit; he'd learned to pause and to think before reacting.
As he thought over Duo's situation again, he had to admit that it was equally Duo's fault for hiding his depression and abuse of alcohol. If the stubborn brat had only continued to take his medicine, he might not have gotten himself into the sad state that Heero had found him in two months ago.
Two months. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Quatre had originally arranged for Duo to stay for two weeks at the clinic, but the esteemed doctor overseeing Duo's care had called Quatre at work and recommended a longer stay, saying Duo's depression was much more serious than he originally believed and, without the support of family living with him, he thought it unsafe to release him from treatment. After consulting with Irea, Quatre agreed.
For the first month, Duo was not allowed visitors, but Dr. Racho called Quatre with weekly reports and updates regarding their friend's progress, and Duo had progressed, he just had a lot more emotional baggage from his past than the average depressed person. A call three days ago brought the welcome announcement that their American friend was ready to begin his life again. He was the one most available to pick Duo up on his release as Trowa had been to visit ten days previous and Heero was stuck on Earth guarding Relena. Quatre was preoccupied with the newest family find, helping his long lost sister become acquainted with a family of thirty siblings. Just the thought made Wufei feel badly for the girl, that many family members would boggle anyone's mind.
His eyes flew to the doorway leading to the back of the clinic as it opened, and out of the door stepped Duo, suitcase in hand. Wufei took a quick assessment of the slender young man dressed in black jeans, his usual black, steel-toed boots, and a white t-shirt under his black denim jacket. Duo looked healthy enough, though thinner, with his hair pulled back into his traditional braid. On seeing him rise from his place on the couch to greet him, his braided friend gave him a somewhat strained smile. It was then that the Asian man understood that Duo's trials during the last year had taken a toll on the former Deathscythe pilot. The sparkle that used to be in the blue-violet eyes had dulled, and the smile that used to dazzle lacked its usual luster.
"Hey Wufei," Duo said, somewhat subdued and looking embarrassed. "You didn't have to come all the way here just to take me home."
"I wanted to come, Duo. How are you?" he asked, extending his hand to his friend.
Duo placed his own hand in his friend's and searched the dark eyes before him, looking for some existence of judgment in their depths. "I'm better," the braided teen answered, shaking the other's hand. "It's good to see you again."
"I'm just sorry that it took so long for me to come," Wufei said sincerely.
The two friends looked at each other, noting the changes that occurred since their last meeting in Wufei's hotel room after the last war. Both stood at a height of five feet seven inches, not tall by any means, but taller than either of them had thought possible after the war when they learned their growth had been stymied by the injections their gundam designers had given them. Both boys had lost the appearance of being a young teenager and gained the more mature visage of young men on the verge of adulthood. Seeing approval in each other's eyes, both nineteen year old veterans grinned.
"Come on," Duo said, turning and slinging his arm over Wufei's shoulder. "It's been nice, but I'm ready to blow this place and go home."
Wufei had actually arrived on L-2 the afternoon before Duo's scheduled release and took advantage of his free time to do some shopping at a nearby grocery store, replacing the items in Duo's refrigerator that had spoiled. He purchased enough food to last his friend several weeks.
After the taxi ride home, Duo opened the front door to his residence and gave an audible sigh of relief. "Now I understand the phrase, 'There's no place like home'," he said as he set his suitcase next to the door, walked to his couch, then flopped down onto the soft, familiar cushions. Wufei followed and sat on the opposite end in a more proper manner.
"So?" Wufei looked pointedly at his friend, hoping for some explanation.
"So... what?" Duo asked, one cinnamon eyebrow rising in question and the left corner of his mouth twitching.
"So what is it that you need to do in order to maintain your... health?"
Duo grinned and shook his head. "I don't want to swap medical stories, Wu. I've had eight weeks to talk about my troubles and I just want to sit in my home and enjoy the company of my friend."
Wufei nodded, understanding Duo's desire to forget the painful weeks of intense therapy. He'd seen what Duo had gone through after the war, the emotional roller coaster ride he'd been on that took the other four of them with him, though to a lesser degree. But he really wanted, no, needed to understand what had gone wrong and how Duo could prevent it from happening again.
"Are you taking new medication?" he asked, ignoring the unhappy glare the braided teen gave him for ignoring his request.
"No, the same one. I've just learned that I have to take it. Being free of it is not an option any longer."
Wufei nodded. He and Quatre had been told by Heero, the night after he'd checked Duo into the clinic, that their friend had stopped taking his medication when he moved to L-2 to start his new job, believing he was cured of his depression and didn't need it any longer. He understood that it was a pretty common occurrence for those having to take regular anti-depressants, but Duo had been left too long on his own. Depression and loneliness combined with his recurring nightmares drove the usually cheerful teen to find solace in alcohol and fighting. He knew that Heero was still haunted by that visit, and upon hearing his report of the two troubling days he'd spent with Duo, Quatre, Trowa, and himself, who had been given a full account by Heero, were also regretful for their lack of attention to their friend who had tried to drop out of their lives; something he almost succeeded in doing, permanently.
"It caused me to go into a depression that triggered a lot of emotional feelings about the past." Duo added as he studied his cuticles, telling Wufei what he'd learned from the doctor.
"And you're alright now?" he asked, studying his friend.
Duo shrugged without looking up. "Like I told you, I'm better."
Wufei tried to figure out why his friend was avoiding looking into his eyes. It seemed as if Duo was afraid of some negative reaction from him, or maybe it was that his braided friend didn't want him to see some hidden truth in his eyes. Duo's blue-violet eyes were always the most expressive part of him, telling his true emotions when his words and actions said something different.
Several moments of silence passed as Wufei studied his friend and Duo, to his surprise, didn't seem to either notice or be unnerved by it. It was fairly apparent the other young man was lost in thought.
"Duo," Wufei leaned towards his friend, his voice beseeching him to look up. "I'm your friend. You'd tell me if something was wrong, wouldn't you?"
Slowly, Duo lifted his chin, his eyes met his friend's, looking uncertain. "Do I seem... different to you, Wufei? I mean, from how I was during our time together in the war?"
Confused at the unexpected question, the Chinese teen thought a moment, trying to decide how to answer. "Of course you're different. You're older, more serious, less excitable, but those things could be said of me, too."
He could tell immediately by the unsatisfied look on Duo's face that what he'd said was not the answer the other man was looking for. "Do you feel different?"
"Yes and no," Duo replied, then went on to explain. "No, because I'm basically the same person I've always been, still have the same crappy past, carry the same mental baggage, and as ornery as ever." There was no joking smile on Duo's face that Wufei had come to expect after saying something like that. The Chinese man sat back, patiently waiting for whatever Duo was trying to say.
"But when I was telling the doc about the war, my interactions with you guys, how we became acquaintances, friends and then each other's family, well, he made some observations that kind of shook me, and suggested an explanation about my reaction to... things that I didn't consciously realize. It's kind of confusing and disturbing." He shook his head ruefully in not being able to express himself better. "I'm sort of questioning some of the things I believed."
Wufei frowned, he could see Duo was disturbed by whatever the doctor suggested. "Like what? What did he say and what are these 'things' you're questioning?"
There was a sudden flash of fear in Duo's eyes, and maybe without realizing it, he backed up into the far corner of the couch. It was apparent that he didn't want to continue on with the conversation; it had become uncomfortable for him.
"Wufei, do you feel... uncomfortable around me? Being here with me?" Duo asked almost timidly, surprising the hell out of his friend.
"Why would you ask such a question? Of course I'm not uncomfortable being with you, now or at any other time. I'm just not sure what this conversation is about and how to help you with whatever is bothering you."
Duo studied him for a moment, then shook his head in a dismissive manner. "Forget it, Wu. I've just got too much in my head right now. How long are you going to stick around? Have the guys got you slated for short or long-term babysitting duty?"
"I can stay another two days before I have to return to L-4. I have a replacement teacher at my dojo until then."
"Well then, let's not sit around this place doing nothing. Do you want to take in a movie or go shoot some pool or something?" Duo stood and shoved his hands in his jeans' pocket and Wufei took the strong hint that he didn't want to talk any more about his stay at the clinic or what he'd learned about himself.
Coming to his feet as well, Wufei gave his friend a slight smile. "I'd like to play some pool. I've had a few lessons from Quatre and I'll bet I can give you a run for your money this time. Then let's get some dinner, my treat."
Duo smiled, a genuine smile that Wufei always envied. It was the kind of smile that could charm a snake out of its skin, he thought.
The next two days proved uneventful but pleasant. The two young men talked and caught up on each other's lives. The only thing that disturbed Wufei was that, upon leaving, he promised Duo he'd stay in touch and visit regularly. He'd expected a similar promise in return but was disappointed when Duo answered, "That would be nice."
Wufei, not having seen any clues during those three days on L-2, was as surprised as anyone when Duo was found to be missing. It was week later, when he called and failed to reach Duo, aware that the others also tried and had not been successful, that he called Duo's office at his place of employment, thinking he might be spending most of his time there catching up on some past work. The receptionist answering the phone told him that Duo had quit his job three days previous, much to the dismay to all those employed by Schweibeker's Solutions who had grown fond of the former gundam pilot.
He immediately informed the other former pilots. With Heero's clout and hacking skills joining in the search for their friend, the four discovered that Duo left the colony the day he quit his job and they managed to trace him two shuttle jumps to other colonies before the former teen terrorist applied his own form of cloaking device; he disappeared without a trace. Two weeks later, Quatre informed the other three that he'd heard from Duo. He reported that Duo had called his office from a pay phone on Colony L-1. His message, which he requested Quatre to pass on, was that he was alright but had some thinking to do, some doubts and questions to work out. He promised to continue taking his medication and care for himself until they met again.
The four friends left behind went through a range of emotions: anger, sadness, guilt, worry and regret. Heero started an extensive search immediately even though he knew that if Duo wanted to disappear, he would, without a trace that would allow them to follow.
Trowa became the consoler to the other three, reminding them that Duo would never lie. If he said he'd take care of himself and take his medicine, then he would. He told them that they needed to trust him and believe that Duo was doing this for a reason. Wufei dove into his work as a way of dealing with the situation, increasing the number of classes he taught at his dojo and tried to come to terms with Duo's disappearance. He berated himself for not seeing his friend's disappearance as a possibility after the uncomfortable conversation they'd had the day Duo came home from the clinic. He felt guilty about not pushing the topic. He should have made Duo tell him what observations he'd come to at the clinic that would make him feel as troubled as he obviously had been that day, troubled enough to disappear.
Quatre appeared to feel guilty at first, but otherwise he seemed to take Duo's disappearance in stride, resuming his life as it had been before, filling his world with business and family. When Heero questioned him about his lack of worry and fear for their friend, the blond touched his chest, over his heart, and told Heero he just felt that Duo was safe and would return when he was ready.
Life slipped by a day at a time and it seemed impossible that nearly a year had passed from the day Duo dropped out of their lives again. Sometimes the days and weeks eked slowly by with concern and worry for their missing friend; but life went on and with the passage of time, those concerns began to fade.
Wufei and Trowa each ended their own private search for their friend two months after Duo's disappearance and returned fully to their jobs and lives, trying to push aside and block out their worry and fear for their friend by remaining busy. Heero continued his search until the tenth month, and after finding no leads as to Duo's whereabouts, he also let it go. Despite continuing on with his life, Relena and his three friends commented on the hollow look in his eyes whenever they talked on the vid phone or got together for a quick visit. It was obvious that something was missing from Heero's life, and they all knew it was the someone they all missed.
The day before the year anniversary of Duo's disappearance, Quatre summoned the remaining three former pilots to his home, luring them away from their jobs and busy lives with word that he knew where Duo was.
Heero knocked sharply and more prolonged than what is considered polite on one of the double doors of Quatre's mansion. He stopped, paused for three seconds then impatiently began again, increasing the force and speed of his knock. Just as he raised his hand for a third try at bringing someone to the door, it was flung open by a rather irate butler who glared daggers at the young man, that is until he recognized who was standing before him.
"M.. Mr. Yuy!" He stuttered. "Come in." he said nervously.
Heero studied the face of the older, dark skin and haired man in typical butler get-up. He looked to be a smaller version of the Winner family's own mercenary group: tall, bulky and ready and always willing to serve the Winner heir.
Heero walked through the open front door with an authoritative stride, his eyes taking in the familiar interior of the opulent Winner home, seeing that not much had changed since his last visit six months ago.
"This way," the butler said stiffly after shutting the door, and led the famous gundam pilot into what was termed the front sitting room. Immediately inside the elegant room, his eyes sought out and found Quatre, sitting in a high back chair opposite the couch that Trowa and Wufei sat on.
"Heero!" The blond said standing to greet his final guest with a welcoming smile on his face. "Come in. We've been waiting for you."
The former Wing pilot moved to the other chair Quatre motioned to, also set across from the sofa. He nodded his greeting to his three friends, but found a smile hard to dredge up. He noted with some satisfaction that neither Trowa or Wufei were smiling either. He judged that they looked as tense as he felt.
Sitting stiffly in his chair, all eyes turned to the blond. Quatre nodded to each and sat down once again. He looked over to the expectant butler. "Thank you, Rouen. You may close the door on your way out."
Having been dismissed, the man dressed in a black suit nodded his head and did as he was told. Once the room was secure, Quatre looked at his friends and smiled a bit nervously.
"Spill it, Winner," Wufei snapped a moment after the door clicked shut. "You have information on Duo and we want to hear it."
Trowa nodded and Heero's intemperate eyes bore into the blond executive.
"Duo's on Earth," Quatre began without delay. "He's been living there for the entire year. He's safe and healthy."
"How do you know this?" Heero asked, his voice in mission monotone.
Guilt played across the blond's face. "I helped him move there a year ago." He swallowed nervously.
"You've known where he was all this time?" Trowa asked, the tone of his voice telling Quatre of his displeasure.
"I'm sorry," Quatre rushed to say to the three of them. "Duo came to me as soon as he left L-2 and told me he needed to get away for a while to 'get his head together'. He pleaded with me to help him find a place and keep the information hidden. I was reluctant to agree, but I couldn't deny him. He promised me he would send me monthly reports of how he was doing."
"How is he?" Heero asked, his face frowning.
"He's doing well." Quatre smiled, happy to have the focus of the conversation return to Duo and not on his own duplicity. "I think he misses us and informs me that he's following the doctor's orders. He didn't tell me exactly what that meant, but asked me to trust him." Quatre searched his friends' eyes, his own pleading for their understanding. "I am sorry. I didn't want to keep this from you and told him I'd only keep my silence for a year. After that, he was on his own."
"Will he run now that you've told us?" Wufei asked, his expression dark and serious.
Quatre shook his head. "No. He's established himself and seems content with the life he's found."
"Where is he?" Heero demanded, still scowling. "I thought we were friends, Quatre. How could you not tell us where he was when you knew we were worried about him?"
"Because he asked it of me," the blond replied unrepentant. "He was confused, Heero. Evidently the doctor brought up some issues that stunned Duo, and he had to think about it. It seems that we were a part of the problem. At the time I wasn't sure how or why, but I had to agree to his terms or he would have gone off on his own with none of us knowing how or where he was."
"I'll ask once again," Heero all but growled. "Where is he?"
Quatre sighed. "I can't tell you that. You'll have to find that out for yourself."
Heero stood, anger bristling from every fiber of his being.
"How did you communicate with him during this time?" Trowa asked, appearing more calm than the other two.
A small smile appeared on his face. "He called me."
"And did you purchase him a place to stay?" Wufei asked as Heero stopped and looked curiously at the boy being asked.
Quatre's smile grew broader. "Yes, yes I did."
"Let me find him and be the first to go to him," Heero requested of the other two in a tone that sounded more like pleading than a mere request.
They both nodded in agreement. "You have three weeks," Wufei told him.
With hands tucked into the pockets of his perfectly fitted jeans, the young man with the dark brown unruly hair approached the cottage that would decide his future. From his approach, he could see it was an older but well kept building with wood shingles covering the exterior that had been painted white. A porch set in the front of the house held two natural rattan chairs with padded tan cushions that looked inviting. He could imagine sitting in such a chair along with the house's occupant for an evening of leisurely conversation. That is if he didn't kill the home's tenant when he finally got a hold of him.
It had been a year since his closest friend disappeared. He'd taken Duo, despondent and troubled, to a clinic that Quatre had made arrangements for, checked him in, settled the almost dazed teen into his room, then bid him farewell. As he embraced his friend one last time, his heart told him not to go, but he had commitments, people were counting on him to do his job and to do it well. Relena needed protection, and that had become his mission and purpose since the end of the war. That job had given him a purpose when he'd felt lost without further missions, but the price for his devotion to his work cost him his friendship with the former Deathscythe pilot. He and Duo had been close during the war, closer than what he even believed to be the bond that brothers shared. He felt similar feelings for the other three former pilots, but Duo had always been special. He always managed to get him to feel more than he should and act out of character in so many ways. He should have guessed somewhere along the way as to what his true feelings were, but he didn't. He accepted them at face value as friendship. A friendship he'd let slip away. The consequences of which had been costly to himself as well as to Duo.
Nearing the house, he checked his watch; it was eleven thirty eight, and the sun was about to reach its zenith in a sky that was dappled with sparse, diaphanous clouds. It was beautiful here, he thought. He could certainly see why Duo had run to such a scenic place to think and to find some peace. The smell of the salt air from the ocean when he breathed in deeply cleared his senses and made the once perfect soldier long to walk along the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.
His dress shoes made loud clunking noises on the wooden porch as he climbed the five steps to the white painted wood porch and walked to the screen door.
"This is it," he told himself just under his breath, and steeled his nerves to do what he'd come here to do. There was no turning back now. Raising his hand, he gave three solid knocks to the wood screen door only to have silence as his reply.
He frowned. He hadn't anticipated Duo not being home and there was no way he was leaving this place until he finished with the business that he came here to do.
He knocked again and waited, only to have the same nil response. Taking off his jacket, as the day was growing warmer and he was becoming uncomfortable, he tossed it over his arm. He was told by the woman at the small-town grocery store, where he'd stopped for directions, that they were having exceptional weather as the fog had stayed out at sea for several days now, giving the residents of the central California coast perfect conditions for going to the beach.
Rolling up both sleeves of his shirt, he moved to the left of the door to look into the large, rectangular front window, checking out the front room of the home where his friend had lived for almost a year. Through the sheer curtains, he could make out an ordinary living space with the exception of the art work that graced the walls. Most of them were seascapes and others were of the natural flora and fauna of the area.
With a sigh, he turned and sat in one of the porch chairs, still feeling some residual anger at Quatre for withholding this information from him for so long. Why the blond had hidden Duo's location had been explained to him in sketchy detail two days ago by Quatre himself. But that explanation didn't mean he could forgive or forget the year of searching and worry that he'd been put through needlessly. Trowa and Wufei had obviously also been kept in the dark, that much was apparent by the look of hurt and betrayal on their faces when Quatre confessed to the three of them about knowing of Duo's whereabouts. It would take a while before they would forgive him, but eventually they all would because no one could stay mad at the compassionate blond for long. They all recognized the fact that Quatre had reacted in the best interests of Duo, who had wanted to get away to ponder his life and where he was going.
Laying his head against the back of the chair, Heero remembered his heated conversation with the blond the evening after he'd arrived at the mansion and received his announcement concerning Duo. He'd almost crossed the line of badgering into threatening his friend, and then ended up nearly begging Quatre to tell him where Duo had hidden himself in order to save the time and energy that he would have to expend to find him. With the sketchy information Quatre had given them as clues, Heero knew he would have to hack into the phone company's records to get the phone number Duo had called from or break into Quatre's personal financial records to search for evidence of past payments or an outright purchase Quatre had would have made for a house on Earth a year ago. He could have done it, but it would have taken time, and he didn't want to waste any more of that.
Quatre had turned the tables on him that night. It wasn't until Heero relented to the blond's probing questions and told him the real reason why he wanted to seek Duo out that Quatre conceded to his request and wrote down the directions to Duo's home on a piece of paper. Heero had studied the address. He'd never heard of Cayucos, California, and had to go to his laptop to obtain directions and make reservations at a nearby motel in Morro Bay, another coastal town just south of where Duo lived. Heero went directly from Quatre's den to his other two friends and gave them Duo's address, again asking them to wait to contact the missing American, wanting a chance to speak with him beforehand. He explained to them that he needed the opportunity to make things right between himself and Duo before they began to reconnect with him.
He sat in the shade of the porch, enjoying the sounds of seagulls crying out as they flew overhead with only his thoughts for company for a good fifteen minutes before the idea occurred to him that Duo might be down at the beach. He stood, picked up his jacket and slung it over his shoulder before leaving the porch and proceeded go around the cottage.
The small building sat on a small bluff that abruptly dropped off fifteen feet to the sandy beach. From there, the sand stretched out for several hundred feet to the distant shoreline. Shading his eyes, Heero could see in the distance, near the edge of the water's crest on the beach, three easels, set about ten feet apart and angled in different directions with a blanket set in front of them containing a slight lump on top of it.
Heero's heart began to beat rapidly and his breathing quickened. It took a few moments for him to take the first step forward as he mentally prepared himself for the moment he'd been thinking about for the last year. Each step seemed more laborious than the last as his mind raced with various forms of approach when he finally spoke to Duo. He tried not to feel irritated as he felt large amounts of sand gathering seeping into his socks between his toes.
He stopped half way to his goal, removed the shoes and dumped out the sand. His socks followed and, after tucking them back into the toes of his shoes, he walked barefoot towards the shore line.
A small flock of seagulls screeched loudly as they flew above him, racing towards an incoming fishing boat, masking any noise his approach might have made. Ten feet away from the young man laying on his back with a straw hat over his face, Heero stopped. The long, familiar braid lay on the blanket next to its owner who was dressed only in red swim trunks. His chest, bronzed and trim, rose slowly, indicating the apparent artist was sleeping.
Heero's eyes rose to look at the paintings in progress in front of him. All three were seascapes, looking somewhat similar, but Heero was quick to realize that one canvas depicted the ocean with light glistening on it from an early morning sunrise. The middle painting was of the ocean in the middle of the day with the sunlight beating brightly down upon the glistening water, and the least finished of the three was obviously a rendering of the ocean at sunset. In studying the paintings in their varied states of completion, Heero came to the conclusion that Duo was certainly a talented painter, a talent Heero had never known about.
He moved silently closer to his long-missing friend and wished for a strong ocean breeze to come up and whisk away the straw hat that hid the face underneath it. Physically, Duo's tanned body was the picture of vitality. He had always been on the thin side, and he still was, but now the outline of his ribs against his skin was not as pronounced as it had been during the war. He looked fed, healthy and it appeared that he'd been keeping himself physically fit, much better than the last time he'd visited him on L-2.
Moving closer, he crouched down on his calves at the edge of the blanket, getting as close as he dared to a sleeping, former gundam pilot. "Duo," he called out softly.
The body in front of him twitched a bit and a slow moving hand came up to remove the woven straw hat from off the wearer's face. The hat was lifted straight up, still shading the eyes that looked curiously to the side. "Heero?" Duo asked with a mix of surprise and confusion in his voice.
"Hello Duo," Heero said, his eyes taking in every change in his friend's face.
A slow, teasing smile grew on the former Deathscythe pilot's face. "Three days? What took you so long? Quatre said he would give me exactly one year before he told you guys that he knew where I was."
"You were that sure I'd jump on the first shuttle once I was told?" Heero asked, then regretted the retort when Duo's smile faded.
"No, I didn't really expect anything. It's easier to exist without having expectations for others," he replied somewhat sadly. "Why did you come?"
Heero swallowed nervously. "I wanted to make sure you were alright. Why did you just disappear like that? I left you at the clinic with the idea you would be there a short time and then return to your home and work. You said you liked your job, why did you pack up and leave the minute Wufei left your house?"
Duo sat up and moved over, motioning for Heero to sit on the blanket with him. A serious expression lay upon the tanned face and Heero was impressed with the calmness his friend displayed. "The doctor at the clinic put me through some intense therapy, Heero," the long haired man began, pulling his knees up to his chest and looking out at the ocean instead of at his friend as he continued. "He had me looking at parts of my life that had caused the emptiness that was within me. It was disturbing, to say the least. Some of what he made me see was so disconcerting that I just needed to get away and come to terms with it. The doc also encouraged me to stand on my own to find happiness within myself first before I looked to others to fill the internal void I've been fighting all my life."
"Did you go right to Quatre?" Heero asked.
Duo nodded. "I took the flight two days behind Wufei and snuck into Quatre's new apartment. I told him what was going on, and even though he was reluctant to help me hide from everyone, he did what he could to find me a place here on Earth. He co-signed the loan for the cottage for me after I searched for about a month to find the place I wanted. It's nice, isn't it?" He looked back to his little home with a contented smile on his face.
"It is," Heero replied, following his friend's line of sight back to the cottage. "Did you figure things out? Are you ready to come back now?"
"Come back?" Duo asked, raising one brown, questioning eyebrow.
"To live near one of us, to work and be a part of our lives again," Heero said.
Duo took in a deep breath of clean, salt-water filled air. He closed his eyes as he turned his face up to the sun, obviously enjoying the warmth of it. "I've found paradise here, Heero. Why would I want to leave it?"
Heero carefully studied his friend and he could see with his eyes that Duo spoke the truth; he did indeed appear to be happy and content with his life.
"How do you support yourself?" he asked, curious as to how Duo spent his days.
Duo swung his arm out towards the pictures on the easels. "Believe it or not, people buy my paintings at outrageous prices. I always like to draw, sketched a lot in Deathscythe during long flights. When I moved here, I discovered a large artistic community and took some classes. Seems I have some kind of natural talent for painting. I have an art broker in San Francisco who takes everything I produce and displays them in several galleries up there. I get a nice fat stipend every month that lets me live here without a care in the world. I make enough that I can also donate some pictures to local charities for auctions or fund raisers."
"Do you have friends?" Heero asked, his tone casual.
Duo shrugged. "I've got some acquaintances that I do things with on the weekends: go to a movie, out to dinner or a ball game, but I followed my shrink's advice and have made myself my best friend. "
Those words brought a sudden pain to Heero's heart as the realization that Duo no longer thought of him in those terms. He reached forward and tapped the center of Duo's bare chest with his finger. "So, do you have any room in there for your old friends?"
Giving Heero an apologetic grin, the braided man said with sincerity. "You guys will always be a part of my life. Even when we're separated, you're never far from my thoughts."
Heero nodded, still feeling sad for some unexplainable reason. He looked out to the ocean and watched the waves roll in and foam up the shoreline.
"You're over dressed for the beach, Heero," Duo teased, his eyes sparkling. "Take your shirt and belt off and enjoy the sun. This isn't a typical day here so you might as well enjoy it with me."
As he began unbuttoning his shirt he wondered out loud, "What is a typical day here like?"
"Windy," Duo replied. "It's generally cooler because a bank of fog usually sits off shore. The heat from the valley usually draws it in. But there are days like this that are perfect, and surprisingly, winter is probably the best season here."
The dress shirt was removed and folded, then put on top of the discarded jacket and next to the shoes containing his rolled-up socks.
Duo lay back down on his blanket, leaving plenty of room for Heero to do the same. "Want a drink?" He motioned to the medium sized cooler that lay on the other side of him. "I've got some snacks in there too, if you get hungry."
"I'm fine," Heero answered as he lowered himself down on the blanket. But instead of lying on his back, facing the sun, he turned to his side and rose up on one elbow to look down at his friend.
Duo looked at him questioningly. "What?" He asked with a grin.
"You look good, Duo. Are you happy?"
The tanned shoulders shrugged. "I suppose I am, at least as happy as a war veteran can be. The nightmares have eased and I've come to terms with my past. I still have a few things to deal with in my future, but only time will tell how it will all come about."
"Anything I can help you with?" Heero asked as he reached down and took hold of the end of Duo's braid that was laying on the blanket before him.
Duo's eyes strayed to the hand that played with the tip of his braid. "Ah, I don't think so," he said, his eyes narrowing a bit as if he was worried about something. "Um, Heero?"
"Yes?" Blue eyes met amethyst and for a moment, the world stood still.
"Did Quatre say anything about why I left?" There was a definite tone of worry there, and it made Heero wonder at it.
"No, but he was relentless in interrogating me about my reasons for finding you before he would tell me where you were," Heero replied. "He wasn't going to tell us outright about your location, but gave us clues on how to track you down. Once I knew he had helped you and maintained some contact, I could have hacked into his personal files and found you myself, but I didn't want to take the extra time to get the information I wanted."
"Is something wrong, Heero?" Duo asked with increasing worry. "What's so urgent that you had to find me?"
"No," Heero was quick to ease his friend's growing worry. "Everything and everyone is fine. It's just that I've been looking for you for the past year. You became my mission Duo."
"Ah, I see." The braided young man closed his eyes, but not before Heero saw a brief glimpse of sadness in his eyes. "We know Heero Yuy never lets a mission go unfinished."
"That wasn't it, Duo." Heero frowned. This wasn't the way he had wanted this conversation to go. He was very good at giving speeches about war and peace, even in front of large groups of people, but he always found it hard to speak spontaneously and express his feelings and emotions correctly, and this was a prime example of that weakness.
While Duo lay with his eyes closed, Heero inched closer, coming mere centimeters from the warm and tanned flesh of his friend. With the end of Duo's braid still in his hand, Heero lifted it and studied it.
"Then why Heero, why was it so important to find me?" Duo probed further, his voice just barely more than a whisper.
Heero swallowed hard. He felt himself beginning to break out in a sweat as the moment of truth came closer. "Something happened to me," he said, and Duo's eyes snapped open.
"You said everything was fine." Duo challenged his earlier words.
Heero nodded and held up a hand to silence his friend. "After the last battle, you distanced yourself from me. Quatre tried to explain your reasons to me, but it... hurt," he confessed, his voice lowering.
"I was hurt too, Heero," Duo replied, but there was no accusation in his voice. "When you left me behind on that colony and went on to fight by yourself, I realized that I had somehow lost the trust of my best friend."
"It wasn't my trust that made me act that way, Duo. I just wanted to spare you any more pain and nightmares. I was trying to watch your back like I promised you I would, but I can see how you misinterpreted my actions as not trusting you. That was the last thing I wanted you to feel and I'm sorry, for everything."
"Why couldn't you say that to me when we were in your hospital room together after the war?" Duo asked, feeling saddened by the fact that there had been so much hurt caused by the lack of apology from Heero.
"I don't know," Heero answered. "I was dealing with a lot of issues; my recovery, your anger with me, Wufei's guilt and Relena's need. I think I was afraid to speak about what was going through my head, afraid of the repercussions. And then you cut off any dialogue with me."
Duo sighed in response. "I guess I owe you an apology, too," he replied. "I was mad, and justifiably so," he said a bit forcefully, pointing a finger at his friend. "But part of my continued stubbornness and pride came from not taking my medication. I thought I was alright. The war was over and with all the stress gone and a future in front of me, I wrongly believed I didn't need to be medicated any more. We both know where that mistake landed me," he chuckled mirthlessly.
A few silent moments passed between them before Duo spoke up again. "So..." He closed his eyes against the bright sun and forced a smile. "How's the little Queenie?"
Heero knew Duo was referring to Relena. "She was fine the last time I saw her two months ago."
"What?" Duo's eyes snapped opened once again. "Aren't you her bodyguard any more?"
Heero shook his head as he brushed the end of Duo's braid against his friend's bare shoulder. "No. She and I came to an understanding and I left school to join the Preventers as a consultant and part-time agent."
"Why, Heero?" Duo looked at his friend with confusion painted across his face. "I thought you two were going to get hitched before long."
Heero shrugged, not looking into the questioning eyes studying him. "After you disappeared I went through a period of introspective study of myself. I found that I was calmly but stubbornly obsessed with finding you, not understanding it fully until one night my hidden emotions and the reason for my new obsession caught up to me. I learned something about myself that had always been there, just below the surface of my control, that I had denied. After that night, I knew more about who I was and what I wanted, more than what I'd allowed myself believe or want before, and it terrified me."
"And did you seek me out to tell me about this discovery?" Duo asked, his mind frantically working out scenarios as to what Heero's self discovery was and what it meant.
"I guess I was afraid that what I learned about myself would make you and the others hate me." Heero lowered his head, looking down at the chestnut braid in his hand. "I don't think I could bear the thought of rejection from any of you."
"Heero." Duo sat up, careful not to pull his braid in his friend's hand. "I know what you mean. I had something similar, like I told you. I left L-2 because I needed to think about what the doctor suggested was an underlying reason for my anger with you and the ever present loneliness I felt. I'm afraid of rejection too, that was part of the reason why I kept my distance from you."
"Did you tell Quatre?" Heero asked.
Duo gave an embarrassed, nervous grin. "Yeah. The Q-meister dragged the reason out of me, saying he couldn't let me go off by myself unless I had a very good reason."
Heero grinned back nervously, having had gone through a similar session with the blond only two days previous. "Do you want to tell me?" Heero ventured to ask.
Duo lay back down and closed his eyes while Heero watched and waited for an answer. "Maybe, if the mood hits me," he answered with a sly smile on his lips. "Do you want to tell me about what you learned about yourself?" His question was casual, with no pressure behind it, for which Heero was grateful. But the casualness they now found themselves in was not getting them anywhere.
Heero looked up to the sun above them and wondered for a moment what he should do. 'Actions speak louder than words,' Quatre had said to him as he left his home in search of Duo. His blond, astute friend had ordered him to act on his emotions, giving him the same advice he had given the other pilots during the war.
Looking back down at the handsome young man at his side basking in the sun, he felt an assortment of emotions on which he wanted to act upon. Quickly evaluating the situation and setting a course, Heero moved quickly over Duo's body and planted his lips on the other's surprised mouth. Then as quickly as he'd advanced, Heero withdrew, noting Duo's eyes were wide open and displaying shock.
"Heero, what was that for?" Duo asked in a shaky voice, and sitting up again looking wary.
"That is what I discovered, Duo."
So many emotions flitted across the tanned face; perplexity, wonder, and shock. "Tell me the rest," he demanded, looking guarded.
Heero pulled the braid closer to his chest as he began. "As I said, I was so focused on finding you that Relena accused me of being obsessed. She tried to be understanding, but she'd never had a close friendship like the one you and I shared during the war. At first, after Quatre told me you had disappeared, I thought I'd done something wrong when I had gone to check on you and put you in that clinic. I didn't know what I'd done wrong, but I just wanted to find you and make things right between us again."
He sighed, feeling some regret and embarrassment about some of his actions that he was about to recount. "After months of spending all my spare time searching for some sign of you, Relena thought she was losing me and set up a romantic evening for us at a hotel," he continued, with a slight blush growing on his cheeks. "She was successful in seducing me into the bed. We had been slowly working up to that point, so it wasn't a big shock when it happened. But as we became intimate, I found myself thinking... of you."
He stopped there for a short space of time to see what Duo's reaction was to his last words, but the other man was careful to mask his reaction. Heero continued. "I realized the direction of my thoughts, even as I was touching her, but I excused it at first as just spending too much time looking for any trace of you, that I was merely carrying my work into the bedroom with me. But as I let my hands roam over her body, I kept thinking about how you used to feel in my arms. Your flat, boney, skinny body came to mind and I thought about how much better I liked the feel of you in contrast to Relena's soft curves. When I kissed her, I thought of your lips, and the image of what they would be like to kiss came to mind and I found myself pleasured by the thought."
Heero swallowed again and took a deep breath, hoping he wasn't going too far in his description of that fateful night. The last thing he wanted to do was offend or repulse Duo and send him running again. "But once..." he nervously cleared his throat, "intercourse began," he said softly, his cheeks warming further, "I only had thoughts of you and I pictured you underneath me with your hair loose from its braid and your trim body arching up to meet me. By the colonies, Duo, it was the best and worst moment of my life."
"What did you do after you realized what was going on?" Duo asked quietly, his eyes wide and uncertain. Heero studied him for a moment to see if there was any repulsion or anger, but he couldn't detect any, so he answered.
"I had my answer as to why I hadn't been sexually attracted to Relena and why I was so desperate to find you." He looked into the eyes he'd dreamed of for so long. "Somehow over time, I emotionally crossed the lines of friendship for you into something more powerful. I... I love you, Duo."
It felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders in confessing his inner most feelings for the person in front of him. His stomach, on the other hand, felt like it was carrying an ancient cannon ball within it, and it was waiting to go off.
"And Relena?" Duo asked, his eyes straying to a spot over Heero's shoulder.
Heero blew out a puff of air, relieved that Duo didn't yell at him or strike out with his fists. "I told her," he replied simply. "It wasn't pleasant, because we both initially felt like I had used her. I didn't really," he rushed to explain. "I honestly didn't know until that moment why I was acting the way I was. After a day or so had passed and Relena had time to think things over, she told me she understood and that she cared for me enough to wish me well. The problem was," he looked nervously at the other man, "I didn't know how you would react to this revelation, especially after the last few times we were together were less than pleasant. So tell me, do you hate me now because of my feelings for you?"
Duo wasn't smiling, and that worried Heero. He watched as the handsome, braided man sat perfectly still with only his eyes intermittently blinking as he absorbed what he had just heard. "Hate you?" he questioned in a distracted haze. He blinked once again as if he was waking. "I... I could never hate you, Heero," he said. "Be mad as hell at you and want to kick you all the way to China," he added, "but I could never hate you."
Then his facial expression changed once again and he frowned, looking disconcerted. "You're sure Quatre didn't tell you my reasons for leaving?"
Heero tilted his head, looking perplexed. "I already told you he didn't. Why?"
Duo flopped back down onto the blanket and covered his face with his hands. "Shit!" The sound of his voice was muffled by the hands over his mouth. "We sure know how to mess things up, don't we?" He added in a weary voice.
Heero frowned and felt his heart tighten in his chest. He mentally began to prepare himself for Duo's rejection. "I'm sorry," he apologized in advance.
Duo shifted his hands so that he could peek at Heero sitting to the side and above him through his parted fingers. "Hold on before you draw your own conclusions, Heero," he warned. The Japanese man nodded.
"In the clinic, Dr. Jordan had me tell him my life story, trying to get to the root of my problems," Duo began, closing his eyes as he recalled the long, seemingly endless days of talking alone with the concerned doctor and then to others in a group setting. He chuckled suddenly, his laugh holding no real trace of humor. "He didn't believe me at first. I told him of my early life on the streets, of Solo, the orphanage and its destruction, my meeting Howard and G and becoming a pilot. And that part of my history took only two days."
He picked up his discarded straw hat and held it high over his head and used the shade it produced to look at Heero without squinting. "Then I told him about going to Earth and meeting you guys." He sighed deeply, then continued. "I told him of our first meeting and then my first impression of you guys when we had that picnic I planned."
Seeing the concerned look on Heero's face, he interpreted it correctly and quickly spoke to put Heero at ease. "I didn't tell him your names, of course, I used the numbers corresponding to our gundams. I kept all of our backgrounds, where we came from, except for my own information from him, because it's pretty well known I'm from L-2 anyway." The worry crease between Heero's eyes softened and Duo took that as a sign to continue.
"I told him of some of the good and bad times we had, how the five of us grew closer and became friends and a type of family. He questioned me several times, and observed that you were a central figure in most of my stories. I didn't think much of it then, as it hurt to think we'd lost the closeness we once had. When at last I finished talking, ten days later, it was to tell him of the last battle and the hurt I felt over losing your trust and friendship."
Duo looked into Heero's eyes, his face pleading for understanding. "The doctor then asked me if I was in love with you."
Heero's eyes widened and he found himself holding his breath. He suddenly felt as if he were standing on a high, sharply pointed pinnacle, and that the next words Duo spoke would either topple him off towards imminent destruction or give him what he needed to stand sure footed. "What did you tell him?" He choked out.
Duo closed his eyes for a moment, gathering either his courage or praying for strength. "I told him I loved you as a friend, that I wasn't gay and that I'd always liked girls, had dated them and even slept with a couple."
Heero could feel himself teetering on the point of either heaven or hell.
"He said it sounded as if I was trying to convince myself that what I'd felt for you was just friendship. He told me to look deep inside myself, to remember what feelings I experienced when we were together, the security I felt when you held me and how I missed that closeness. By the time I left the clinic, my medication working again to stave off any depression, I was seriously confused. I managed to put on a pleasant face for Wufei for the three days he spent with me. While he was there, I came up with the idea of taking off to sort through my memories and feelings. I was too confused to carry on normally. I went to Mr. Schweibeker and thanked him for the job and explained why I had to quit. He was very kind and hoped I got better and would return to work for him when that happened."
The next question, the inevitable one they both knew Heero would ask, hung silently between them. Heero turned and moved to lay along side his friend, paralleling Duo's body. Both of them lay under the warmth of the noonday sun, waiting patiently for the next moment to come at it's own pace.
After nearly ten minutes had passed, Heero asked, "Have you come to any conclusions? A year is a long time to ponder one's heart."
Duo breathed in the ocean air and let it out slowly. "I... love you." he whispered, and there was a trace of fear to his voice. "I just don't know about being gay. I mean, I never thought about it before the doctor told me he believed I was in love with you. I always thought of sex as being with a female."
The braided man then turned to look earnestly into his friend's eyes. "I want you to believe me Heero, that when I came to you for comfort during the war, when I needed you to hold me and the times we spent comforting each other, that none of it was done with any other intention other than what we spoke of. I was not having any sexual feelings for you then, I just needed to be grounded, to receive comfort from someone who was strong and cared; and that was you."
Heero nodded. "It was the same for me. Your presence gave me solace, and my thoughts didn't turn to sexual longing until after you'd gone to live with Quatre and I missed you and started to think of you in comparison with Relena whenever I touched her."
Duo nodded, accepting Heero's words as truth, knowing his friend also believed him. He then continued with what he was saying. "After I came here and settled into my home, I began to think more and more about you, pondering what the doctor said, trying to decide if his suggestions were true. It slowly began to make sense. My anger at you during and after the wars and the constant hurt I felt at what I perceived was rejection were a result of me subconsciously wanting your love and respect. I slowly came to terms with my true feelings for you, but the physical aspect of loving you and believing that you would never reciprocate my feelings kept me wanting to stay hidden."
Turning pleading eyes to the object of many days and nights of stress and worry, Duo said what he'd internally debated about for most of the year. "I don't know about being physically intimate with a guy, Heero. Like I said, I never thought about it before this last year and I'm not sure I'll be comfortable doing... that with you, even though I love you."
Heero found a smile growing on his face as his heart lightened at Duo's confession. Duo loved him and he loved Duo. He'd heard an old saying before that "love conquers all" and he was beginning to believe it. With Duo's love, he had the beginnings of hope and an answer to the braided man's dilemma.
He turned his head to look at the object of all his affection and love, and continued to smile.
"What?" Duo said, amused himself by the unusual, almost goofy grin on Heero's face and finding it hard not to smile back.
"I'm happy," Heero answered. "Listen," he rose up on his elbow, his body barely touching Duo's heated skin. "I'm not asking for you to jump into a physical relationship with me," he stated, seeing relief showing on Duo's face. "Let's spend time together and take things one step at a time, one day at a time, one kiss and a touch at a time. Do you think you can handle that?" The deep blue eyes searched the other's, pleading for this chance at happiness.
Duo's face softened, his feelings for Heero showing in his eyes. "Yeah, I think I can handle a little at a time to see where this will lead," he replied as he reached his hand up to try and brush some of Heero's perpetually unruly hair from his eyes.
Heero reached up to capture that hand and pressed it against his cheek, then turned his head and kissed the soft, paint speckled palm.
Duo's eyes widened, but the smile never faded. Encouraged, Heero bent down and claimed Duo's mouth gently once again, and was pleased to find that, after a moment's hesitation, Duo kissed back, cautiously at first, but then pressed forward somewhat enthusiastically.
When the fairly chaste and slightly prolonged but all-too-brief kiss finally ended, Heero eased himself back and lay his head on the firm, sun-bronzed chest and listened to the steady beat of his love's heart, the tingling feeling of hope filling him for the first time in a very, very long time.
"How are we going to do this, Heero. Where do you live now?" Duo asked.
"I've been in London, but I'll transfer to the San Francisco office," the Japanese man replied. "I'll commute."
"By car?" Duo asked in surprise, knowing it was a four hour drive to the city from where he lived.
"No, by way of the airport." he answered. "It's only twenty minutes to the San Luis Obispo airport and I'll take a commuter jet to the city, maybe work at home a few days a week. I can either move in with you and sleep on the sofa or rent an apartment close by."
Duo's hands moved up to hold Heero's body tighter against him. "I have a spare room you can have, we can split the expenses." He wasn't sure he was even capable of letting Heero go now that they had confessed their feelings for each other. "Damn, can we really make this work, Heero? What will the other guys think?" he asked, with a tone of worry in his question.
"Quatre knows," Heero replied. "And he was okay with it, he even gave us his blessing. Trowa and Wufei will understand, we can't underestimate their friendship. They'll be fine with the news."
Reassured by Heero's quietly spoken but confident words, Duo lay still, enjoying the comfort of his friend's head resting gently against his chest, knowing the other young man was listening to his heart. With his right hand raking through Heero's dark, coarse hair, he felt more content at that moment than he ever remembered experiencing before. Oh, there had been times during his life when he'd had moments of quiet in his soul, but over the course of the last year as his thoughts had drifted back to that time, analyzing his actions and emotions, he realized that Heero was the reason he had felt comforted, and cared for during some of his dark hours. A lazy smile of contentment grew on his lips as Heero remained in place, resting against him, offering that same acceptance and warmth that he had during the war.
The sound of ocean's waves continued as the tide began to turn, rising up unto shore in a regular, rhythmic pattern. The seagulls cried shrilly off in the distance, getting scraps of fish from the incoming fishing boats. The sun continued to move in the sky above and the earth spun on its axis as it had from its beginning. All that was around them faded into the background as two young men, who happened to be former gundam pilots and war buddies, lay quietly in each other's arms contemplating the friendship that had been there for them in the past, that gave them each an anchor through the horrible experience of war, and would always be the foundation for whatever lay ahead of them as they forged a new life, a new beginning together in whatever the next moment presented them.
The End of Duo's Friendship Arc
Thanks to all of you who have enjoyed this series of stories and have written to me to say so. It's been fun and a learning experience.