by Dyna Dee
After hearing the enemy's commander ordering the security around the base to be lessened, Quatre forced his eyes open once again and turned his head to look at the man still on the phone, holding Duo gently but securely in his arms. The commander met his gaze and gave him a reassuring smile. "We'll see if we can't help the two boys out," he said with his hand covering over the mouthpiece. "Go ahead and sleep. I'll let you know if or when we have any visitors." Quatre gave the commander a grateful smile then closed his eyes, quickly succumbing to his need for sleep.
With his phone call completed and orders being carried out, the Allied commander waited until the boy in his arms settled into a deeper state of rest, then managed to get him back into the bed he now shared with the blond teenager. Treize sat back down in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment, pondering the situation and trying to make sense of it.
He had just dozed off for a short time before the boy's discomfort began anew. A few twitches and soft sounds of unease quickly turned to sounds of painful moaning and thrashing. The injured boy's arms and knees moved restlessly, despite the pain it must have caused him, and his limbs painfully struck his bed mate several times, waking the injured blond boy who moved sluggishly each time, trying to soothe his friend.
The doctor was summoned and he administered an injection of strong pain and sleep medication to the unconscious, nearly writhing teenage boy. He then checked the IV lines and re-attached them before he mumbled a good night to his commanding officer and returned to his own neglected bed for some much needed sleep.
The hour grew late, and Treize moved to the other side of the room to put on a pair of pajama bottoms along with a robe before the boy, Duo, he reminded himself of the injured teen's name, needed to be picked up again. He turned his desk lamp to a lower setting, giving the room just enough light to dimly see through the darkness, then returned to the bedside. He sensed the afflicted teenager was nearing a crucial moment and despite his being an enemy and the boy a stranger to him, Treize didn't want him to suffer alone. He once picked up the twitching body once more and held the long haired boy close, murmuring frequent reassurances to him, not knowing if the boy could hear him or not.
He'd purposely left his door unlocked, anticipating and actually hoping for a late night visitor. Still, it came as a shock when he was awakened from a doze in his slightly twisted and uncomfortable position in his chair by the feeling of cold steel being held against his left temple. He opened his eyes with a start and found himself looking up into the face of yet another unfamiliar young man, this one was of Asian descent with dark angry eyes that bore into him. Treize took note that the boy wore the desert fatigues of a Federation soldier.
"You must be Heero," Treize said as calmly as he could under the circumstances.
"No," replied a shaky voice. The boy with the gun shifted slightly to reveal the owner of that voice to be yet another boy soldier, standing behind him. In the dim light coming from his desk, Treize could see the boy at the foot of the bed was dressed in the identical clothing of his comrade and also looked to be of Asian heritage. He easily determined that something was wrong with the boy as he stood with his arms wrapped around his middle as if he were holding in a great amount of pain. He was visibly shaking and his shoulders were slightly hunched over as he continued to speak. "I'm Heero. What did you do to him?" The boy's pained blue eyes moved to stare down at the unconscious boy in Treize's arms with a look of desperation on his face.
"The doctor gave him a sedative and pain medication to ease his suffering. I'm just holding him to give some comfort." Treize replied, then shifted his eyes from that boy to the one holding a gun to his head, trying to remain calm.
"Give him to me." Heero's demand came out sounding desperate and weak.
"I'm afraid you're in no condition to carry him, Heero," Treize stated.
"Then I will," said the teenager holding the gun.
"Heero?" Quatre called out in sleepy surprise from the bed.
"Get up Quatre, we're leaving." Heero said with a grunt as he gripped his stomach with one hand and grabbed for the footboard of the bed to keep himself upright. The twisting grimace on his face revealed that he was experiencing a great deal of pain.
"Commander, help him. Please." Quatre appealed to the enemy commander, having sensed the agony Heero was going through. He looked to the base commander in the chair with Wufei's gun at his temple. "You have to help them," he pleaded.
Treize turned his eyes from the blond to the suffering teen standing not five feet from him. "What can I do to help you, Heero? What do you need?"
The boy, remaining in a hunched posture and his eyes glazed with pain, hesitated, his eyes nervously searching the four faces in the room. His declining condition was making him unsure and hesitant, but he knew without a doubt what he needed. "I...I need to hold him. Please, give him to me."
Quatre eased himself out of the bed, wincing at the pain the movement caused his broken bones and moved with caution to Heero's side. "Heero," he called his friend's name softly. "I sense no deception from the commander, I think we can trust him."
Anguished blue eyes met Quatre's. "Help us." Heero's voice and body trembled with need. The three conscious teens in the room knew the pain of separation that Heero was experiencing had never been this bad before, he was clearly desperate enough to beg.
"Come," the blond took hold of the Japanese boy's arm, feeling the sweat on Heero's skin as it seeped through his long sleeved fatigues, and led him to the bed. "Let the commander up, Wufei," Quatre instructed the other boy with his gun still pressed firmly against the sitting man's left temple.
Uncertain if he was doing the right thing, Wufei took a hesitant step back, but kept careful aim on the man. He watched as the sandy haired commander readjusted the limp and unmoving body in his arms and, mindful of the gun pointed at him, he rose slowly from his chair. Even as he moved to put the unconscious boy back down on the bed, the commander's eyes moved to the other side to see Quatre trying to help Heero up onto it.
Setting the boy down, Treize straightened out the tubes attached to Duo's body and began to ease his limbs into a comfortable position. His movements were halted as Heero spoke to him. "Take them out," he ordered in a strained voice. "The IV and other tubes, take them all out."
The commander had observed the doctor removing the lines earlier and with a nod of his head, he proceeded to follow the boy's demand.
"Help me, Quatre," Heero said quietly to his friend.
"What do you need, Heero?" Quatre answered, ready to aid his friend in any way.
"Skin to skin," was Heero's shaky reply, and Quatre's eyes fell to the trembling hands trying and failing to complete the simple task of unfastening the front of the camouflaged shirt.
The blond blushed, but nodded and quickly moved to brush Heero's hands aside with his one functional hand and struggled himself to undo the velcro fastening that held the shirt front together.
"Hurry!" Heero said with a tone of urgency in his voice. He was obviously frustrated at the slow progress the two of them were making in their present, incapacitated condition to get his shirt off.
"Wufei," Quatre looked over Heero's shoulder to their other friend. "Come help us."
The Chinese boy looked wary at the request and chanced a look from the man at the end of his gun to the three on the bed. He saw in that glance that Heero's eyes were fixed on Duo, his whole being seemed to lean towards the unconscious boy who was completely unaware of their presence. Quatre was focused on the front of Heero's shirt, his eyes narrowed in concentration at the task before him.
Treize saw the boy's dilemma and slowly turned and put his hands up in a sign of surrender. Wufei, as the blond boy had named the person with the gun, turned his attention quickly back to him at the first sign of movement. "I'm going to sit down in the chair and I promise to stay there. I give you my word as an officer that I won't move or try to take advantage of the situation. Do what you must to help them," he told the dark eyed boy.
Wufei hesitated, not knowing if he could trust the man. "Quatre?" he called out for the blond.
"He's telling the truth, Wufei. You can trust his word."
That was all he needed to hear, lowering the gun, he put it in the waistband of his pants and moved quickly to Quatre's position next to Heero. The blond happily relinquished his place at Heero's side to his more able bodied friend.
"We're trying to get his clothes off," Quatre explained, not knowing if Wufei had heard Heero's request or not.
Wufei immediately went to work on opening the front of the desert fatigue shirt. When that simple task was accomplished, he then pushed the top over Heero's shoulders and off his arms, revealing his sweat drenched t-shirt and the damp glistening bronze skin. He then looked up at Heero for confirmation that he was done.
"Take them all off," Heero's voice shook, matching the now violent trembling of his body.
Wufei steeled himself for the uncomfortable task, then placed his hands on the waistband of Heero's pants and began to unfasten them. With a flush on his cheeks and nervous hands, he unzipped the fly of his friend's desert camouflaged suit. "Lie down next to Duo and I'll pull them off," he instructed, them moved his hands to help assist Heero into a reclining position.
Heero settled next to Duo and clasped the sleeping boy's hand into his own while Wufei pulled off his pants. Once free of his clothing, Heero turned on his side and pulled himself up against Duo. His arms wrapped around the long haired boy and his clumsy fingers began to fumble with the front buttons on the overly large night shirt the braided boy wore.
Seeing his intent, Wufei moved to the other side of the bed and began to undress Duo. Once his shirt was off, Heero noted the large bandaged section of his torso and carefully, with great caution, turned the pale and unresponsive boy onto his side, then pressed Duo's back up against his chest, his arms wrapping around the injured boy like the lifeline that he was.
Duo's skin was warm and damp, and Heero held him possessively, desperately needing the contact. He took in several deep shuddering breaths before he buried his face into the side of Duo's neck. His shoulders shook as he silently wept with overwhelming relief; his suffering instantly becoming more bearable. His mind then turned to his life companion and his barely whispered words fell against the salty skin his lips were pressed against. "Be okay, Duo. Please... don't let it be too late."
Duo remained still in Heero's arms as the other three observers in the room watched him for any sign of improvement. After several moments, Heero's voice called out quietly. "Wufei, take the rest off."
"What?" The Chinese boy leaned closer to hear Heero's request.
"Take the rest of our clothes off."
Wufei turned startled eyes to Quatre, whose cheeks were a predominant bright shade of pink.
"Are you sure Heero? There's a stranger here with us and we can't exactly leave the room," Quatre reminded him, then swallowed nervously, not knowing exactly what Heero intended to do once all of their clothing was removed.
"Please. Quickly." There again was that pleading tone in Heero's voice that urged the other two boys to do as he requested.
During this time, the commander had remained in his chair as he had promised and his curiosity was piqued by the unusual request of Heero. "This is non-sexual, isn't it?" he asked in a quiet yet curious tone of voice. "Is this some way for them to...re-connect?" He wasn't sure his wording was right, but he knew from Quatre's brief explanation of their genetic link that they needed to be close to feel better.
Quatre looked surprised at the commander's accurate observation. "They need to touch body and mind," he told him. Wufei turned a venomous, accusing glare at his blond friend, which Quatre, catching the look, replied quickly but calmly. "He's been helping Duo, Wufei. He promised not to hurt either of them," He then noted that his Chinese friend looked doubtful. Quatre touched his hand to his chest. "I feel we can trust him, Wufei." With that gesture and those words, Wufei knew his friend had used his own empathic abilities that enabled him to read the man, and Quatre had never been wrong before, so he had no choice but to believe him.
A moan of impatience came from Heero at their debating and delay of what he needed. Seeing the two boys hesitating in accomplishing their task, the commander decided to offer some help. "May I offer a suggestion?" he asked. Wufei scowled at him, but the blond looked hopeful, so he continued. "Let's take the blanket, cover them both and then remove their remaining clothing. If you'll allow me, I'll help."
Quatre nodded, giving his permission, and the three of them worked together to shift the two boys, locked together by Heero's relentless grip on his partner, and removed the blankets underneath them. Pulling it over the two now uncovered and partially undressed bodies, Quatre and Wufei both looked to the older man for some guidance.
"If Wufei will remove Heero's boxers, I'll take care of Duo's pajama bottoms," he proposed.
"Alright," Wufei answered, knowing Quatre couldn't manage the task with his injuries, and mentally prepared himself to do whatever it took to help his friends. He then turned to his comrade. "Quatre, you keep the blanket covering them in place." Seeing the blond take hold of the top of the blanket with his good hand, Wufei slid his hands under the edge of the blanket and felt for the elastic band of the standard issued, white boxers and with some effort, pulled them down and off of Heero's hips and then his legs.
The commander had an easier job of removing his own baggy pajama bottoms from off of Duo's smaller body, leaving the boy now as naked as the day he was born underneath the blanket.
The three helpers stood back from the bed, their eyes still focused on the two. "How long does it take, this connecting?" Treize asked the blond.
"I'm not sure. They've never been separated this long before," Quatre replied, his face showing his worry for his friends.
As an afterthought, Wufei pulled the gun from his waistband and held it in his hand, pointed half-heartedly towards the base commander.
"Wufei!" Quatre's tone reprimanded his friend.
The other teen looked apologetic. "He's our enemy, Quatre. He has a duty to capture us, just as we have a duty to escape and return to our base."
"He has had Duo in his room for two days and has only taken the best care of him and shown the utmost concern for him," Quatre argued. "He understands their condition and said he'll do them no harm."
Wufei surprised the two of them by turning with a hateful glare to their prisoner. "If you touched him in any way that is inappropriate, you'll not leave this room alive." His tone of voice was deadly serious as he continued to glare. His protective stance and attitude were surprising to the other two.
The commander's eyes widened at the boy's charge of impropriety. Two of these teens had almost accused him of ulterior motives towards the boy he'd saved. He wondered if it was because something had happened to this boy named Duo to make them so protective, or maybe... Treize's mind came to its own conclusion, seeing the Chinese soldier clearly and without meaning to, had displayed his heart of his sleeve. How interesting, Treize thought, and complicated. The varied personalities and nuances between the four teenagers proved to be utterly fascinating to him.
"He didn't do anything wrong, Wufei," Quatre argued for the commander again. "As I told you, he's done what he can to help Duo. He even sent a soldier into the holding cells to see if anyone knew anything about Duo's condition and how to help him."
"And you told him everything?" Wufei hissed in accusation.
"No, he guessed most of it. He knew of the genetic experiments to produce the future Federation's perfect soldiers and put two and two together."
There were several moments of uncomfortable silence. "It seems we're at a stalemate, gentlemen," the commander said calmly, keeping his eyes on the boy with the gun.
"What do you propose?" Quatre asked him.
Treize gave the two a tired smile. "That I sit in my chair while you two take turns guarding me. I've had too little sleep for more days than I can count," he explained. "And I'm about to fall asleep on my feet."
"We're not exactly novices here," Wufei snorted, obviously taking offense at the enemy's simple instructions. It appeared to him that the man thought they were completely incompetent. If they looked unsure as to what to do, Wufei told himself it was just because the situation at hand was something they had never anticipated, at least not to this degree.
"No," Treize broke into his train of thought with an understanding look on his face. "But this is a unique situation," he said, trying to calm the agitated boy.
Wufei gave the man a grudging nod, seeing the man at least partially understood the situation.
Treize moved back to his chair and sat down, looking weary. He squirmed to get comfortable in the chair, not looking forward to another night of discomfort in a chair he'd once considered comfortable.
"I'll take the first watch," Quatre offered. "I slept several hours this evening."
Wufei wanted to protest, but he felt exhaustion creeping over him. He'd hardly slept himself since their arrival at the base three days ago. He wondered dazedly to himself if it had really only been three days since that time? It seemed a lifetime ago since they were safe and happy at the training school. Handing his gun over to the blond boy, he cautioned him. "Stay sharp. The door is locked. Alert me if you hear any movement outside."
Quatre agreed with a nod and motioned to Wufei to climb onto the foot of the bed to rest. Without an argument, he followed the blond's instruction and lay on his side facing the older man. Just before sleep overtook him, the boy's dark eyes turned to rest on the faces of his two friends nestled snugly together, naked under the covers and unmoving as their bodies healed from their long separation by the mere touch of skin on skin. One part of him felt a twinge of guilty jealousy at the intimate embrace while another part of him felt quite stimulated at the same thought. Disgusted with himself, he closed his eyes and began to worry about what the morning would bring.
A muffled, out-of-place sound awoke the commander from his uncomfortable sleep. He blinked his eyes to adjust to the dim light and was surprised to see the Chinese boy sitting on the floor with his gun resting in his hand on his lap and his eyes staring at the bed. The blond boy was in the process of also sitting up from his position at the end of the bed where he had been sleeping and was looking in the direction from where the sound had come.
Shifting his eyes from those two to the two still resting together, Treize came fully awake in seeing that the position of the two had changed from when he'd fallen asleep. The blanket had slipped down revealing the bare back and a long rope of braided hair belonging to Duo, who was now draped over the top of the Japanese boy. Heero's arms were wrapped securely and possessively around the pale body while Duo's face was buried into the crook of his neck and, by the sounds heard and the visible shaking of his trim body, it was clear that Duo was weeping, albeit weakly. The commander now knew what the sound was that had awoken him.
Heero sensed the change in the room's atmosphere and in response, he turned slightly and lifted his head to look at his friends at the bottom of the bed, his eyes were dark rimmed with exhaustion. "He's going to be okay," he whispered, his voice choked with emotion and laced with exhaustion.
Wufei nodded and stood from his position on the floor and moved to the head of the bed, bringing the blanket back up and over his friends as they desperately held on to each other.
Dark eyes, bright with moisture, turned away from the two on the bed only to be met by the sympathetic gaze of Commander Kushrenada. Wufei quickly turned away, hiding his face in shame at seeing the slightly older man had guessed his secret. He stiffened when a hand gripped his shoulder and a gentle squeeze was given to let him know that Quatre was also sensing his confused emotions regarding the two teens locked together on the bed.
"It's almost morning, Wufei. What do you think we should do?" Quatre asked in a hushed voice behind him, and the Chinese boy was grateful the blond didn't inquire further about his inner conflict.
Turning to his teammate and ignoring the man sitting in chair, Wufei couldn't help but notice with alarm the extremely pale complexion and pinched expression on Quatre's face that reflected his worry and the pain he was in.
"The original plan was to locate Duo and the other captured pilots, release them with as little attention to our presence as possible and leave the base the way we entered it," Wufei whispered back. "But it was obvious from the moment we entered this room that Duo wasn't in any shape to escape. Then Heero fell apart before my eyes. He's hidden his condition well, being driven, I suppose, by his need to reach Duo. Once here, his will seemed to collapse, right along with his body."
"Is there a rescue transport waiting?" Quatre asked, his mind already looking for a way out of their situation.
Wufei nodded. "In the desert, behind the hills. There's an escape passage under the base's ruins, in Joshua II, where our barracks were. The building is all but demolished but the lower levels are still maintaining. As for the tunnel, it's still intact and so far, undetected."
"We should go now before the base fully awakens," Quatre said thoughtfully.
"How do we transport them?" Wufei nodded in the direction of the two in the bed, noticing Duo's soft crying had stopped and he lay still, the arrangement of the two bodies were unchanged.
"Heero walked in here, even in his weakened state. I think he can probably walk out now that he's had a little time to reconnect," Quare said, his eyes following Wufei's back to the bed.
Forcing himself to look back at the blond, Wufei reminded himself that Quatre was the strategist of their group and it was obvious that he was very serious about leaving the base as soon as possible. He quickly weighed their options, realizing that they either left now, despite the obvious handicap of carrying Duo with the other two physically well below peak performance, or they stayed to become prisoners of war shortly after sunrise when the commander would be missed. He did not want to risk the chance that the base commander was something other than what he appeared, that he would use his knowledge of Heero and Duo to bring harm them. Wufei couldn't take a chance of that happening. He would protect and defend the two genetically linked teens with his life, if need be.
"Let's get them dressed," he said briskly, agreeing with Quatre's decision to leave as soon as they could, seeing it was really the only option available to them.
Heero was reluctantly persuaded to disengage from Duo in order to let Wufei help him dress back into his fatigues again. While that was going on, Quatre turned to the commander. "Do you have anything we can dress Duo in?"
The sandy haired man raised an eyebrow at the request. "There is a decided difference in our size," he pointed out the obvious to the blue eyed boy as the enemy commander was well over six feet tall.
"We can't exactly take him out of here naked," the blond replied unhappily. "I just thought it would be polite to ask you rather than going through all your personal belongings."
Treize nodded. "I appreciate the consideration. Let me look. I think I may have some workout clothes that will fit him without falling off."
"Where?" Wufei asked, stepping forward to stall the man from taking action and feeling an urgency to move the situation along more quickly. "I don't want you pulling out a gun from a drawer to use on us," he explained.
"Bottom wardrobe drawer," Treize replied.
Wufei went immediately to the metal wardrobe, attached to the metal walls of the fabricated building, and opened the latch and began to rifle through contents of the bottom drawer. After a brief inspections, he stood up holding out a pair of dark grey sweat pants and a matching sweat shirt. The pant legs looked incredibly long as did the arms on the sweatshirt. There was no doubt Duo was going to be swimming in the outfit, but Wufei hoped the elastic would at least keep the pants in place.
"It will have to do," Quatre said, looking dubiously at the two articles of clothing.
Now dressed, Heero sat lethargically by Duo's side as both Wufei and Quatre dressed the semi-conscious but unresponsive boy who sporadically reached out to blindly grab hold of any part of Heero's body that was within reach.
Once the long haired boy was fully clothed in the drab sportswear, a pair of borrowed socks were found and put on his bare feet, completing the oversized ensemble. Heero and Quatre eased the limp boy up from his reclining position and Heero placed his arms around Duo's shoulder to support him against his side.
"Come on, Duo. We need to get out of here," Heero urged his unresponsive companion. Duo, his eyes still closed, merely nodded his head; his arms remained slack in his lap.
"He's too weak," Heero told the other two in a worried voice. "We'll have to carry him."
"He's also had major surgery and shouldn't be out of bed, much less walking. I'll carry him for you," Treize offered, causing three sets of eyes to turn to him in shock.
"Why would you offer to carry him?" Quatre asked the man suspiciously.
Treize shrugged, "Call it a bargaining chip."
"How so?" Wufei asked, frowning. He clearly didn't understand the man or his reasoning for helping them.
"Well, I take it you have only a few options when it comes to dealing with me," the man stated, still appearing cool and collected. "You can either kill me when you leave here to buy some time for your escape; an option I'm not too excited about, or you can tie me up and make me look like an incapable moron to my men when they find me. Again, not a pleasant outcome. The last alternative would be for you to take me prisoner to ensure your escape," he continued in a calm, matter-of-fact tone, noting from the three boys' expressions that his assessments of the situation were true. "Frankly," he continued. "I don't care for any of those options."
"Well, we're not going to leave you here, even if we do tie you up, There's always the chance that you'll be found before we've escaped and that you'll alert the base that we're here or that we've left," Wufei ground out through clenched teeth.
"That's a given," the commander smiled. "But I have another option to propose."
Still suspicious at his motives, the three teens looked at each other, then Wufei folded his arms over his chest and asked, "And what's that?"
"Because of your incapacitated state, being that Duo is unconscious, Quatre's injured and Heero's too weak to be of much assistance, I suggest that I carry Duo for you to the base perimeter and help you out if you're detected. In exchange for my help, you will let me go at some point, unharmed, allowing me to return the base."
There were several moments of contemplative silence before Heero looked the man in the eyes and asked the question he was sure plagued all their minds. "Why are you willing to help us?"
"Because who and what you are fascinates me," he replied with all honesty to the Japanese boy, his eyes then sliding to Duo, whose limp head had fallen over to rest against Heero's shoulder. "What I've pieced together in trying to help Duo compels me to be...compassionate towards the both of you. You didn't ask for the conditions by which you're forced to live and, in good conscience, I can't let any more harm come to you. Allied scientists would have a field day with you two in their labs," he shook his head in obvious disgust at the idea. "I could never live with myself if that should happen, especially if I was the cause of it. Even though the Federation carries some responsibility for your genetic altering and existence, they seem to have been compassionate enough to treat you respectfully. As a man of conscience, I must do likewise and let you go."
Quatre nodded to his friend with a knowing look on his face. Treize had spoken the truth regarding his reasons for helping them.
"I would ask a favor in return," the commander continued, making the other three wary of his request. Moving slowly to his desk, careful to keep his hands in a position where Wufei, his gun back in his hand, could easily see his movements, he took his wallet from off his desk and held it between his fingers so they could witness what it was. He opened it as the three carefully watched him, and removed a card. He walked up to Heero, still sitting on the bed with Duo slumped within in his arms and handed it to him.
"Here is my e-mail and fax numbers," he informed him as Heero took the card and studied it. "Would you please contact me from time to time and tell me how you two are faring? I'm interested and curious as to how your lives will play out."
Heero blinked at the man, assimilating what was being requested.
"I have no underlying intentions towards you or Duo," Treize told him. "I'm just extremely curious and concerned for your welfare."
With a quick look to Quatre, who paused for a moment before nodding his head, Heero tucked the card into his pants pocket. "I can't make promises right now," he replied. "But I will do what I can to contact you when the conflict is over. To do so before would be considered an act of treason."
"I understand," Treize replied. "So, do I help you out or not?"
Heero nodded, knowing they needed the man to help carry Duo. His own strength far below standard and Wufei would tire too quickly if he had to do it alone for a long period of time. With only a slight bit of hesitance, he motioned for the enemy's commander to approach the bed and watched as the man bent and carefully, as if he were picking up a precious burden, eased Duo up from Heero's arms. Heero swallowed hard and reluctantly let go of the braided teen as he was lifted fully into the other man's steadier arms. As difficult as it was, Heero knew that he had little choice but to entrust someone else, this total stranger, to carry to safety the most important person in the world to him. Through all his experiences and hardships, he found this need to trust someone other than Duo and his close friends to be one of the hardest things he'd ever done.