by Dyna Dee
"Duo? Can you hear me? It's time to wake up, Mr. Maxwell."
It was easy to resist the unfamiliar voice urging him to come out of his safe place. Maybe if he stayed here long enough, sheltered and oblivious to outside stimuli, he'd forget everything that had ever happened to him. He settled himself deeper into the quiet of his sanctuary, away from painful memories and having to face the truth.
An unmeasured amount of time passed before another voice broke through the barriers he'd erected. This time the voice was familiar and one he couldn't ignore. Softly pleading, the man called to him again, urging him to wake up and open his eyes. Heero. Yes, that was the name that belonged to the voice. He remembered the man now, his lover. His heart swelled as warm memories of the lawyer filled him; the way those deep blue eyes looked at him and how the man touched him, as if he were the most important person in his world. He knew, without a doubt he loved the owner of this voice and that his heart belonged to him. Heero was pleading now, insisting he wake up, and there was no way he could refuse his lover's request.
Easing open the lid of his hiding place, he cautiously climbed out of the comforting darkness of the mentally constructed toy box of his childhood. which had been sheltering him. A heartbeat or two later he was floating back towards the voice calling for him to wake up.
He blinked against the brightness of the room, desperate now to find his love. He didn't have to look far. Heero was leaning over him, his anxious blue eyes studying his own as if searching for something.
"Are you with me now?" he asked anxiously.
Duo gazed up at the handsome face directly above him, his heart swelling with love for the man. What a wonderful way to wake up, he decided. He blinked again, growing more aware with each passing moment that there was something different about Heero. After taking a moment to study the handsome face wearing a worried expression, he decided Heero looked exhausted and ragged around the edges. He'd never seen the lawyer with so much stubble on his face, nor the deep purple bruising beneath both of his eyes denoting a lack of sleep. It was almost comical how his usual artfully mused hair now resembled the nest of a demented bird. Duo wondered what was wrong with the man.
"Say something, Duo."
Blinking his eyes several times in an attempt to clear his vision, he finally responded in a voice that was rough from disuse. "Come to bed." He patted the place next to him in invitation.
Relief flashed across Heero's face and he managed a tired smile. "Thank God," he replied before swooping down to place a brief and gentle kiss on Duo's lips. Pulling up a few inches, Heero grabbed both of his shoulders, and with tears pooling in his eyes he said, "Dammit, Duo, don't ever do that to me again."
Puzzled, Duo croaked, "What'd I do?" For the life of him he couldn't figure out what Heero was talking about. What did he do to upset him so much?
"You've been out of it for over two days. You opened your eyes every couple of hours, but you showed no recognition indication of me or where you were. The doctor said your wounds weren't severe enough to cause that kind of comatose reaction. He believed you'd retreated to a safe place in your mind as a way of coping with what happened to us. I was half out of my mind when we couldn't get you to wake up. I felt as if you'd left me."
He'd been "out of it" for two days? Duo wondered what in the hell was wrong with him. His stomach hurt, but not from hunger. Gah, he wasn't thinking clearly, his thoughts felt muddled, but he was cognizant enough to see the deep crease between Heero's eyebrows, telling him that his lover had been worrying for a good long while. He reached up, ignoring the tug of the IV strapped to his arm, and pressed his fingers over that crease, hoping to rub the worry line away.
"I'm sorry, Heero, for... for..." He stopped short when the reason why he wanted to stay asleep came rushing back. Memories, too painful to bear, overwhelmed him. Crying out, he pressed the heels of his hands against his closed eyelids, desperate to hold back the flood of memories.
"What's wrong?" Heero asked, sounding alarmed. "Hold on, I'll call the nurse."
"I just want to forget," Duo gasped, his head reeling. "Forget all of it, Hank and the past. It hurts, Heero. God, it hurts."
"No, Duo." Heero gently tugged at his wrists until he managed to pull his hands away from his face, then waited patiently until pained blue-violet eyes finally opened. "I know you're hurting, inside and out, but we can't hide from what happened with Hank the other night, or from what he did to you as a child. Yes, it was humiliating, criminal and frightening, but you don't have to deal with this on your own any longer. You've got me now," he said firmly, "and I promise we'll get past this together and be stronger for it."
Desperate to push away the ugly memories, Duo centered his thoughts on Heero, his lifeline. For the first time since he woke up, he noticed that Heero was wearing a plain gray sweatshirt, generic and forgettable, definitely not the man's usual style. Grabbing the front of that nondescript garment, he pulled his lover closer and noticed the wince of pain that crossed Heero's face, which in turn triggered another wave of fear in him. More gently, he tugged until Heero closer, bringing their foreheads together.
Closing his eyes, Duo breathed in the scent of soap and an herbal shampoo and something else that was uniquely Heero. His voice sounded small and frightened as he whispered, "Tell me you're alight, Heero. Did H.. Hank hurt you? Did that bastard..." He stopped, choking on the words that wouldn't come out. His memory seemed a bit blurry. He thought he remember most of what had happened at Hank's house, but he wasn't sure. Parts of that horrible night were blurred in his mind. Had Hank violated Heero or cut him the knife? He'd never forgive himself if Heero had been hurt like that. It was all his fault.
Putting his hands over the ones gripping his shirt, Heero placed a quick kiss on the tip of his lover's nose . "No, Duo. I promise you, I'm fine. The only problem I have is sleeping more than a few minutes, which is understandable, considering everything we've been through."
Duo felt sick with remorse. "I'm so, so sorry. It's all my fault that Hank got his hands on you."
Heero looked startled by the apology. "Your fault?" And then more firmly he said, "No, Duo, don't you dare blame..."
"He's awake?" a feminine voice sounded from somewhere behind Heero, causing both men to jump slightly from the unexpected interruption. Heero straightened and turned towards the intruder, clearing the way for Duo to look around him and observe a short, blonde-haired woman in a yellow smock covered with monkeys approaching the right side of the bed. "Welcome back, Mr. Maxwell. I'm Cynthia. How are you feeling?"
It took roughly five minutes for the nurse to check his vitals and ask a few pointed questions about his physical state before she turned to leave the room, stating over her shoulder that she would inform the doctor on call that Duo was awake.
After she'd gone, Duo, having done his best to not look like a prime candidate for the insane asylum while the nurse was there, shook his head as his past caught up to him. "I forgot, Heero. Somehow I... I made myself forget what my uncle had done to me, to pretend that it never happened. I was thirteen..." He stopped mid sentence as anger and shame swept over him. He now clearly recalled being assaulted by his aunt's husband, and the rage he felt towards the man was like nothing he'd ever felt before. "How could I forget how much I hated him?" he asked, his body shaking with rage, self recrimination and loathing. "Or how afraid I was of him?"
"Shh," his lover said softly, stroking his right cheek with a feather-light touch of his fingertips. "Don't upset yourself like this. You don't need to say anything more if you don't feel up to it. I heard you and Hank talking and pieced a lot of what was said together. I know he sexually assaulted you. Anyone with half a mind could understand why you buried the memory of what he did to you. I also know he threatened you with the lives of your aunt and cousin, that he kept you in a state of constant fear in order to keep you quiet." A sear of disgust touched Heero's lips as he said, "He bragged about pushing your cousin down the stairs the night she died. He's an amoral monster, a deranged sociopath. He was quite effective in giving you a strong, compelling reason to keep quiet."
Choking on so much shame, hurt and regret, Duo had to look away from his lover, unable to bear the concern and worry evident in those eyes. All he wanted at that moment was to roll over on his side, curl up in a ball and disappear; but even that was denied him. His chest hurt like hell. He could feel the long incision Hank had carved with precision down the length of his chest, and the many stitches holding his skin together. The pain and discomfort from both kept him from wanting to attempt any kind of physical movement, so he was stuck on his back. His only escape was to close his eyes.
Heero didn't push but let him have a couple of moments to himself. He thought of his aunt, of how she might react after learning Hank was the serial killer, and that he'd almost been his latest victim. She'd had so much sorrow in her life already, he didn't know if she could handle another blow.
Filled with regret, he said, "All this time I blamed my aunt for my hangups about sex, but it was all Hank's fault. That selfish, sick bastard killed Natalie and almost succeeded in ruining my life, maybe he did."
"He didn't destroy your life or mine," Heero stated unequivocally. "Look at me Duo." He waited until the pained violet eyes opened at his request and turned towards him. "We have a very good life, and your welfare is important to a lot of people. Look at all the flowers in here." He paused to motion to several areas of the room. "They're from people who consider you their friend, who are horrified at what you've been through, yet express their gladness that you've survived."
Duo blinked with surprised as he looked around the small room. He hadn't noticed the flowers until that moment. From his limited view point, it looked like every flat surface in the room was filled with plants and flower arrangements, large and small. He looked up to see multiple shiny balloons with Get well soon printed across the front floating in the corner behind his bed
"Charise, Quatre, Trowa and the people you work with and some of the people in your apartment complex sent them. There's even something from Wufei. He sent that orchid," Heero pointed to an elegant potted plant on the table top to his right. It was the most exquisite violet orchid Duo had ever seen. "He wanted me to tell you he's sincerely sorry for having treated you as he did. He hopes, in time, you'll be able to forgive him."
Heero paused, no doubt waiting for a response, but Duo remained quiet and unnaturally still, his eyes unfocused. Fearful of his lover slipping back into a trance, he decided to continue reminding his lover how good his life was, and would be again.
"Listen to me, Duo. You have so much that's good in your life: a job you enjoy, a boss who adores you, and most importantly you have me, heart and soul."
Unable to look directly at his lover, Duo's voice wavered as he timidly asked, "Do I, Heero? I don't know why you would want to be with me after everything that's happened. Hell, my past is a nightmare, and I'm not sure I can get past everything I've gone through. Besides, I'm not the person you thought I was. I was raped by my uncle, Heero, not once or twice, but many times. I told you I was a virgin when I wasn't. Hell, don't you wonder what other skeletons might be lying in my closet? "
He covered his eyes, avoiding Heero's scrutinizing gaze by putting the arm without an IV over his forehead and whispered in an anguished voice. "God, I'm a mess. I wouldn't blame you for hightailing it out of here and never looking back. Me and my damn pretending, my false memories, they almost got the both of us killed, Heero, and in the worst way imaginable."
Insistent hands urged the arm away from his face, and then using his fingertips, Heero tenderly pushed a few errant long strands of hair away from his forehead. "I'm not going anywhere, Duo, and you damn well better stop thinking I'll ever leave you. Now, open your eyes and stop trying to hide from me or from the fact that we're both so incredibly fortunate, lucky beyond belief that Wufei followed us to Hank's place and then followed his hunch that something was seriously wrong inside the house. Somehow, by some miracle, we escaped what Hank had in store for us when others weren't so fortunate. Now here we are, safe and sound with a whole lifetime to spend together. We have a future to look forward to, Duo, and there's no need for you to pretend any longer, not about the past or that your life is perfect. You don't need to pretend you're Laredo or that I'm Tex. From now on, it's just us, Lucky Duo and Damn Lucky Heero, and what a life we're going to have together."
Despite Heero's optimism about the future, Duo couldn't drum up any such feeling. His emotions were in turmoil, his life upended, he couldn't even manage to give Heero the smile he was looking for. It was simply beyond him at the moment. He realized he was probably depressed and something was broken inside of him. How could his life ever be the same after all that had happened? He felt helpless, beaten down. Heero deserved more, someone who wasn't so fucked up.
Swallowing with difficulty and wiping away the tear escaping out of the corner of his eye, Duo shook his head in dismay. "I'm a damn expert at pretending, aren't I, Heero? Maybe I don't know how to live in the real world anymore; from the looks of it, I never did."
Heero's expression remained concerned yet loving as he replied, "I'm here, Duo, and I'm real." His fingertip touched his face as proof of that claim. "What we feel for each other is real, not a figment of your imagination. I'm not in a position to complain about your pretending when that's what brought us together in the first place. It was a tool you used, first to protect yourself, and then to cope. Now that you remember everything, there's no reason for you to pretend any more. You quit imagining yourself as Laredo some time ago, didn't you? That's a good start."
A tear leaked out from the corner of Duo's right eye, but he ignored it, and continued to fight the urge to swipe it away it in order to stay focused on the best thing that had ever happen to him. "Are you sure I'm not still pretending, because from where I stand, you're too good to be true."
"I'm just a man, Duo," Heero replied more soberly. "But for the first time in my life I know what it's like to be in love. I'm not about to give up on us or let you go because things are difficult. Our relationship and the love we have for each other has become the air I breathe."
"For me, too," Duo said, his heart swelling with love for the other man. "I thought I loved other people before. Friends. Family. Trowa. But until you came along I hadn't realized that I've never been in love. And I do love you, Damn Lucky Heero, with all that is in me." There, a natural, though very small, smile found its way to his pale face.
The sound of a throat clearing came from the doorway. "I'm sorry to interrupt," said a deep male voice from behind Heero, "but the nurse told me you were awake. If you're up to it, Mr. Maxwell, I'd like to ask you a couple of questions."
Detective Dawson stepped into the hospital room wearing the same crumpled sports coat he'd worn the first time they'd met as well as the similar grim expression that fit the seriousness of the situation. His partner, Officer Petty, was dressed in his L.A.P.D. uniform, came in behind him, nodding his head to Duo and then Heero.
Dawson approached the bed saying, "Your uncle's in a holding cell downtown and is scheduled to be arraigned later this afternoon. The district attorney's case is being built on Mister Yuy and Chang's statements as well as the body we found in the trunk of a car parked in McGuire's garage. Your account of what happened is needed to solidify our case. Other than what he said to you and Mr. Yuy, most of the evidence we have that he's the serial killer is circumstantial, since the killer apparently wore condoms.
"Body in a car?" Duo asked, having honed in on that part of the detectives explanation of events.
Dawson nodded his "Mr. Yuy has identified the victim as Jason Stanfield. It appears the victim had been stunned then strangled with a leather belt."
"Why?" Duo blurted out, horrified. "Why did he kill Jason?"
"Since McGuire isn't talking, we can only assume his lover suspected what he was up to. Maybe he stumbled on something, or just voiced his suspicions. The coroner estimated the time of death to be somewhere between two and four p.m. on the day Heero found the victim in the elevator. It seems your uncle had a very busy, very bloody day.
That last sentence caused Duo's entire body to shudder with revulsion, a reaction that caused pain to ripple down the front of his chest. He moaned as his stomach threatened to heave over the news of Jason's death and the reminder of the victim Heero had found in the elevator. Damn he felt sick, wondering how someone could hurt anyone the way Hank had? How could a person be so cruel, so evil to hurt another human being like that? He might not be been overly fond of Jason, but neither did he have anything against the man, and no one should die the way he or Hank's other victims had. His stomach turned over again. It a good thing that he hadn't eaten in a couple of days, otherwise the nurse would have had a terrible mess to clean up and what little bit of dignity he had left would have been in ruins.
Detective Dawson was looking concerned when he asked Duo, "Are you up to giving me an account of what you experienced the night you went to your uncle's house?"
Duo nodded, understanding that he had to tell the officer everything he could remember, no matter how unpleasant. Remembering Jason again, he supposed Hank had fooled him just as he had everyone else, portraying himself as just a regular guy instead of the serial killer he'd become. Taking a deep breath, he used Hank's betrayal to those who knew him mentally gear himself up for the coming ordeal.
This wasn't going to be easy.
Up until the other night he hadn't remembered his true past, or anything his uncle had done to him when he was a teenager. He'd suppressed the horrible things Hank had done to him, and tucked them away as a way of surviving the ordeal and keeping his aunt and cousin safe.
He opened his mouth with the intention of going back to the beginning, when he'd first been groomed, molested, then raped and threatened by Hank, but the moment he opened his mouth to speak, the horror of that time rolled over him, and he was thirteen once again. He felt shame, fear and helplessness. He was face down on the floor of his bedroom, his face pressed into the rough berber carpet. pinned there by his uncle who was pressed against his backside, wearing nothing but a lecherous grin on his cruel lips.
"No!" He was frantic to escape from Hank because he knew what was coming next. He didn't want to be there, trapped in his bedroom under that vile man. Would he ever be safe?
Help me! Please, God, anybody, help me!
But no help would come; he'd learned that lesson the early on. The only way to escape Hank was to remove himself in the only way he could, by blocking everything out, going to the safe spot he'd created in his mind.
Hands firmly grabbed hold of his upper arms, limiting his movements. With growing despair he realized that Hank had him and would never let him go. He'd never be free of his tormenter.
"Duo! What's wrong?" Heero's alarmed voice cut through the layers of hopelessness and despair and helped to snap him out of the nightmare he'd been trapped in a moment ago. Coming back to himself, he realized he was close to hyperventilating and trembling uncontrollably from head to toe. Blinking, he recognized the wall of a hospital, room, the scent of antiseptic in the air. Yes, that's right, he was in the hospital.
Looking up, Heero's blurred face, inched from his own, came slowly came into focus. As soon as he could see him clearly, his eyes darted to the two other men in the room, then back to Heero, looking for reassurance.
"You're safe, love," Heero said in his most reassuring voice, though a look of anxiousness was evident in his eyes. The abject fear that was in Duo's eyes after he'd snapped out of the trance he'd been in had terrified him. "Shit, Duo. What was that? Your eyes rolled up into your head and you started shaking all over. "
Wiping the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hands, Duo whispered, "I think I just had a flash back. I was thirteen again, and H-H...Hank had me."
Heero cradled his face in his hand, and with determination in his voice he stated, "No one is ever going to hurt you again, Duo. I give you my word." He released Duo's face only to clasp the trembling hands securely between his own, hoping to send a feeling of warmth and connection to the traumatized man.
"Maybe we should call the doctor or put this off until another time," Officer Petty suggested, looking towards the door as if willing someone to come in and help.
Duo wanted so much to believe what Heero was promising. Hadn't he already proved the lengths he was willing to go when they were dealing with the stalker? It wasn't Heero's fault that Hank had maneuvered them into a vulnerable position. He trusted Heero absolutely, with his heart and his life.
The next breath he took was a ragged one, but it marginally helped him to calm down. The trembling that had taken over his body was now limited to his hands. He could do this. He would face the detective's questions and pray that talking about the past wouldn't trigger another dark memory of Hank assaulting him. He was going do this. He had to. Telling the police about his experience Hank might help him to finally purge the bastard from his life. If he wasn't successful at doing that, he might lose Heero, and that would be the end of him.
A comforting squeeze of his hands reassured him that he wasn't alone, and that simple gesture from Heero gave him the added strength he needed. Yes, he could do this, as long as Heero was by his side. His uncle was a notorious serial killer. He'd tortured and murdered his victims, and he and Heero had barely escaped being his latest victims. He would stand up and be strong for the men and woman who hadn't been as fortunate as he and Heero, having had someone burst in and rescue them at the last moment.
The next breath he took came much easier. "I'm good," he told the three closely watching him, though he felt less than confident about that claim. He found his courage, and with Heero nearby his resolve firmed and his fear dimmed, though it didn't disappear completely. In a more determined voice he said, "Let's do this, and make sure Hank never sees the light of day again." He turned to Heero and received a smile of approval. With a nod of his head and his lover giving him a reassuring squeeze of his hand, he was ready to proceed. Looking to Detective Dawson, he began. "I went to live with my Aunt Helen and her family after my parents died." From that point on he gave the police and district attorney everything they needed to eventually nail the lid of Hank McGuire's coffin shut.
By the time Thanksgiving came around Duo's life was back on track and he had plenty to be thankful for. With the lawsuit against Charise having been dismissed by the judge, his boss was back to designing, selling her fashion lines, and making sure her personal assistant wasn't overtaxed yet kept busy. Also, both he and Heero were benefiting from therapy, dealing with the attack as well as Duo's past, now fully recalled. Understandably, their therapist was neither Quatre or Dorothy, but a woman who specialized in treating victims of violent crimes, who had come highly recommended by Detective Dawson.
The days and weeks following his release from the hospital had been trying at times as he and Heero tried to cope with the aftereffects of their encounters with Hank McGuire. They experienced both good and bad days, but as time passed the good days became more the norm.
With the help of Heero, his therapist and returning to his regular routine, Duo eventually began to feel safe. That feeling of safety was aided by the knowledge that Hank was in prison, awaiting trial that was slated to begin in February next year. He was being charged with numerous counts of premeditated murder, stalking, kidnapping, torture and a laundry-list of other crimes. Having scoured the suspect's history, the police and district attorney left no rock unturned in finding Hank McGuire's hidden past. From their efforts, Hank's life, crimes and a long string of horrendous act, across several states, were revealed. Diligent police work, as well as Duo and Heero's depositions, resulted in Hank also being charged with the death of his daughter, Natalie. The district attorney promised him that there was little to no chance at all that his uncle would ever leave prison, other than in a coffin.
When his therapist, Dr. Jillian Stanislaus, asked if he'd like to speak to his uncle, seeking answers and closure, Duo simply shook his head. He wanted nothing to do with that poor excuse for a human being. The only time he planned on seeing his Hank McGuire again was in the courtroom, from the witness stand. He might actually feel closure when the man was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, or the death penalty. If anyone deserved to die for the crimes he'd committed, it was Hank. Until that day, Duo was determined to do his best to deal with his past and the mistakes he'd made, reclaim his life and solidify his relationship with Heero.
He was healing more and more with each passing day, and in more ways than one as evidenced by the past few weeks, when he'd reconciled with his friends. Surprisingly, it wasn't as difficult as he thought it would be. There was something about almost dying that brought things into perspective and made him want to be a better person
Wufei had been the first to step forward with the intent of making amends. He showed up at their apartment a couple of days after Duo had been released from the hospital, carrying bags of Chinese food and delivering a heartfelt apology. The conversation that evening had been a bit stilted, to say the least, but Wufei wasn't deterred. Knowing he'd confessed his love to Heero just after the rescue, Duo was suspicious of his motives when he first showed up on their doorstep and then continued to invite himself over at least twice a week after that. Commence
Then it seemed as if Lady Fortune was still smiling on Lucky Duo and Damn Lucky Heero when the Chinese man entered their apartment one Sunday evening with stars in his eyes. Wufei promptly announced himself in love with the man of his dreams. Neither he nor Heero had met Milliardo Peacecraft, the object of Wufei's desire, but they couldn't help but share an amused smile and snicker at the mention of the man's name. Milliardo? Who in their right mind would curse their kid for a lifetime with a name like that? And judging by the enormous smile on the smitten man's face, it was clear that Wufei didn't care about the god awful name because he'd fallen head over heels for the reportedly handsome, tall and blond music producer.
Quatre and Trowa also dropped by after he'd returned home, but not before calling ahead to see if he was willing to see them. Bearing more flowers and his favorite sour gummy bear and cinnamon drop candy, the two men came with the intention of repairing the rift between them and becoming better acquainted with Heero. They were taken by surprise when Duo apologized for his past resentment and actions. He explained his change of heart as being a result of his near death experience. When he thought his and Heero's lives were about to end, he'd come to understand how foolish he'd been in so many aspects of his life and relationships. He didn't want to die with regrets or guilt. Realizing that he'd never loved Trowa, well, not like he did Heero, he could only guess that he'd held onto Trowa because he'd confused the love of a friend for that of a lover. In retrospect, he'd also realized that Trowa had acted honorably, confessing his growing feelings for Quatre and breaking up with him before advancing their relationship. His jealousy of their relationship, casting blame on everyone but himself, had come close to destroying their friendship.
By the end of that visit the four men had established the first solid steps towards true reconciliation. Duo even exchanged hugs with both of them as they left that evening. Rebuilding his relationships with Wufei, Quatre and Trowa had lifted a weight from his shoulders, and gave him sense of accomplishment. That left him with one final relationship to mend, with his Aunt Helen. They'd talked on the phone regularly, mostly reassuring each other that they were coping with what had happened. It was agreed that they needed to get together to say what couldn't be said over the phone.
That decision had led to this moment.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and he and Heero were standing before the familiar front door of his aunt's home, waiting for her to answer doorbell. It was rather painful, returning to his aunt's house, recalling all the good and bad that had happened here. But Duo knew it was only right that he apologize to her in person. After all, he'd wrongly blamed her for his problems for far too long. It was time to rectify this part of his past, make peace with his aunt and get on with the process of healing.
At last the door opened. "Here you are, right on time," said the elderly woman wearing a smile that seemed nervous. Six months had passed since his last visit home, and during that time his aunt had changed. Was he wrong, or was she shorter than he remembered? Her shoulders, once posture perfect, were now hunch forward slightly, and there was now more gray in hair than he recalled. All of these outward changes were a sign of her advancing years.
"And you must be Heero. Hello, I'm Helen McGuire." She held out her hand, which he took and gently shook before letting it go. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to my home." Stepping back and opening the door further, Helen motioned them inside where the most wonderful aroma of roasted turkey filled the air.
"Smells great, auntie," Duo said with a wide grin. He'd already informed Heero that he was in for a treat as his aunt was a fantastic cook.
After closing the door, Helen escorted them into her living room. "Please make yourselves comfortable." She settled herself in a comfortable looking recliner that was covered with a green, pink and white floral fabric. As the two men sat on the sofa she motioned towards the table on which lay a plate and round tray containing a teapot and three cups and saucers. "I don't want to spoil your appetite, but I baked your favorite cookies, Duo. Would either of you care for some tea?
After the polite introductions and pleasantries were over, the tea cups drained and cookies tasted, a long, awkward silence filled the room. It seemed no one wanted to start the conversation each of the three knew was inevitable.
After squaring his shoulders, Duo took the initiative to begin. "I want to apologize, auntie, for blaming you for my problems. I... I somehow made myself forget what Hank had done to me and to Natalie. I'm so sorry..."
"No, dear."Helen put her hand up, signaling for him to stop. With tears pooling in her faded green eyes and a wavering voice, she continued, "You're not to blame. I don't think I ever explained to you my reasons for divorcing Frank, or about the man I was married to for nearly twenty years. But today, like the day the police turned up at my door to question me about him, all of our dirty laundry needs to be put out to dry before we can put it away forever."
Taking a shaky breath, she continued thoughtfully. "I honestly didn't think we had a bad marriage, not that we didn't have our share of issues," she began. "The only complaint I had for years was that Hank didn't seem to want to have relations with me more than once or twice a month. Your mother told me your father couldn't get enough of her, so I thought it must be me, that Hank wasn't attracted to me in a physical way. I did everything I could to make myself appealing to him, spent years getting my hair styled, nails done and exercised regularly in order to keep my figure. All of that and still his desire for me never increased. I gave up trying after ten years of marriage." Blushing with embarrassment, she said, "On one of the rare times we had... um...relations, I became pregnant with Natalie." Helen paused and a wistful smile appeared on her weathered face. "I was ecstatic at the news. After not getting pregnant for so long, and being in my late thirties, I'd come to believe that I would never have children."
Duo was about to tell her how his aunt how grateful he was for taking him into her home after the devastating death of his parents. Her love and kindness had help to heal his broken heart. But as he opened his mouth to speak, Heero's hand squeezed his forearm. He turned his head to his lover. He read Heero's lips as he advised, "Let her say what she needs to say." He nodded, understanding that he wasn't the only one needing to put the past behind him.
The woman's smile was bittersweet as she recalled that time. "The happiest moment of my life was the day Natalie was born. I poured into my darling little girl all the love and affection I had in me. Natalie was a godsend, Duo, because I finally had someone who loved and needed me as much as I did them.
"And we did, auntie," Duo assured her. "Both Natalie and I were blessed to have you for our Mom."
She gave him a grateful smile before continuing. "You came to live with us years later, and even though the death of your parents was a sad time for all of us, I felt even more blessed to have my sister's child in my home to love and cherish."
She paused to sigh, and woefully shook her head. "During the early years of our marriage, I truly believed Hank was a good husband. He worked hard to support us without complaint, helped around the house and later with you kids. The only thing he asked for, just after we were married, was to have some time to himself.
"Fool that I was, I believed him when he said he was playing poker on Monday nights, and bowling with a league on Thursdays. I never questioned his going out until one night he came home more than a little drunk. Being so inebriated, he didn't bother with his usual shower, but fell into bed and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. After a few minutes, I detected a familiar, odd odor coming from him. It was a musky smell. I leaned closer, taking a deeper sniff and realized he smelled of sex, plus a faint citrus fragrance. It was definitely cologne, but not the kind he usually wore.
"I questioned him the next day, but he was adament that he'd been bowling with the guys and drank a bit too much of some imported beer and claimed he'd spilled some on his shirt and pants. My instincts told me he was lying, but in hindsight I think I just didn't want to believe that anything else was going on.
"That was when my problems with sleeping began. I'd lay awake at night worrying about where Hank was and what he was really doing on Monday and Thursday nights. I wanted to trust him, and told myself that I was overreacting because he never again came home smelling like he'd had sex. After a month of barely sleeping, and almost burning down the house when I fell asleep in the middle of cooking dinner one evening, I went to the doctor and got a prescription to help me sleep. I took those pills for more years than I care to count."
Looking as sad as her voice sounded, Helen continued, "I suppose in some way I was running away from my problems by taking those pills. If I hadn't been so out of it, so dependent of the medication, I might have heard what was going on in my own house." Raising her anguished eyes to her nephew, she said, "I give you my word, Duo; I didn't know what he was doing to you before the night I found him in your room. Maybe if I been more aware, I'd have heard Natalie when she got up during the night and she'd be alive today."
Duo reached out and took his only relative's hand in his own. "I know you would have tried to protect us if you'd known what was happening. You can't blame yourself for Natalie's death, Aunt Helen, or Hank molesting me. Neither of us would want you to. I have no doubt that if it had been you instead of Natalie who walked into my room that night, you would have died in her place. Then both she and I would have been at his mercy."
Giving him a watery-eyed smile, her chin trembling as she struggled with her emotions, Helen nodded. "Natalie was a good girl, wasn't she? I miss her every single day and don't know how I've gone on without her." They spent a few moment passed in silent contemplation of the young girl you had meant the world to their little family.
"Me, too, auntie," Duo agreed.
A familiar feeling of sadness embraced him, just as it always did whenever he thought about his cousin's tragic death and her absence in their lives. After a few moments the intensity of it lessened and he looked at his aunt. He ready now to know more about the past.
"You never talked about the night you kick Hank out of the house and ended your marriage. I can remember now the when and why you showed him the door, but I'd like to hear your version." This wasn't a comfortable subject for him, but he felt he needed to hear what his aunt said in order to put these last few pieces of his past together.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Helen seemed to be searching her thoughts before she spoke again. Then taking a deep breath, she opened them and looked at her nephew. "I guess I should have known he had designs on you, but I naively gave him the benefit of a doubt, wanting so badly to hold our family together, and for that I owe you the deepest and sincerest of apologies. If I'd only..." She stopped and lowered her face into her hands, and her shaking shoulders were evidence that she was crying, though no sound left her lips.
Going to his aunt, Duo knelt down next to her chair and from the awkward position put his arm around her shoulders. "It's okay, auntie. You can tell me when you're ready."
Helen nodded her head, and had somewhat composed herself before lifting her face from her hands. With tears streaking down from anguished eyes, she gave him a nod of her head; she was ready to continue.
"Before you came to live with us, maybe two years earlier, Hank once again took to going out at night again, taking in a ball game or going to the movies. He had a slew of believable reasons for being away from home so often. Sometimes, being wrapped up in my own life as well as Natalie's, I honestly didn't care what he was doing as long as he wasn't under foot. But I once again I became suspicious of his activities, especially when he started making it a habit of coming home well after I had fallen asleep. This time, I didn't think I could ignore the voice in my head, telling me he was up to no good. I got out the yellow pages and called a detective agency and arranged for someone to follow him."
Pain and sadness lined the older woman's face, especially around her eyes. The past held a lot of pain for her as well. "Where was he going?" He was almost afraid of the answer.
The older woman's face became flushed once again. "The detective followed Hank to a gay bar. He presented me with photos of my husband kissing another man, putting his hands on his body. When they went into the men's room, the detective followed. I don't think I need to tell you what activities went on in there. I confronted him a week later when Natalie was out of the house and I'd gotten over the initial shock of his dual life. He confessed it was true. He said he'd been trying to fight his attraction to other men for as long as he could remember, but he was adamant that he didn't want a divorce. He promised me he would stay away from the bars and men in order to save our family and marriage." His aunt's voice was tight, and it looked as if she was on the verge of breaking down again.
"I wasn't sure if he really meant it, but after that day he did come home every night after work and went to bed at the same time I did. After a couple of months, I resumed my habit of wearing earplugs, to block out Hank's snoring. You remember how bad his snoring was, don't you?"
"I think even the neighbors down the block could hear that awful noise," Duo replied somberly.
Helen's composure finally broke. Covering her face with her hands, she began to cry in earnest as she continued. "Between the sleeping pills and earplugs, I slept so soundly that nothing could have disturbed my sleep. And while I was blissfully sleeping, Hank was molesting you. God help me, I didn't know. I never heard a think from your bedroom or Natalie get up during the night, or her cry as Hank pushed her down the stairs. That... that monster had to shake me awake in order to tell me there had been an accident." Looking up with wet, red rimmed eyes she said. "I hate him, and curse the day I married him."
Fighting back his own tears, Duo leaned forward to kiss his aunt's cheek, tasting the salty wetness on his lips. He felt like a heel for having to bring up such painful memories to the woman who'd had enough sorrow in her life. He was about to apologize for causing her so much pain when his aunt continued. It seemed like this was the day to get everything off of their chests, including all the pent up secrets they'd held inside for far too long.
"We fell apart after her death and began sleeping in separate bedrooms, each of us dealing with the overwhelming grief in our own way. At least, that's what I'd convinced myself was the reason for our in-house separation. We barely spoke to each other as we grieved for our child. I have to wonder now if that was a sham, if he ever cared for me or Natalie. It makes me physically ill to think he'd been putting up an act the whole time."
"He was very clever," Duo said. "He had Heero and I both convinced that he was a good guy."
Helen nodded, then a look of tenderness crossed her face as she turned to Duo. "You were such a comfort to me after Natalie's death. I don't know how I would have survived those dark days without you."
"Helping you was the only way I could cope with her death," he confessed.
She tenderly touched his face, a sad smile on her lips. "As the months passed and the sorrow ebbed slightly," she continued, "but I realized after a while that you seemed rather reluctant to come home. I thought at the time it was because we'd lost both Buster and Natalie within the same year, that our home had blue funk a painful place for you."
Shaking her head she added, "I was stupid not to take you to the doctor, but I honestly thought you'd come out of it. A doctor's exam would have shown what that monster had been doing to you. You'd changed, had become more quite and introspective. But I dismissed those changes because Hank and I had also changed after Natalie's death, and told myself the blue funk you were in was normal, an aftereffect of grieving for your parents, Buster and then Natalie.
A spark of fury lit Helen's eyes though her voice remained calm as she continued. "But again I was wrong. As time passed, you failed to get better and seemed to be withdrawing even further. I was worried sick about you.
I decided to set up an appointment with a counselor. But when I told you about it, you insisted I cancel it, telling me all kids your age were moody and on edge. I don't know why I believed you, but I did."
"It was Hank," Duo whispered. He rose from his aunt's side to return to sit by Heero and the sofa. Heero took his hand in his own, offering what comfort he could. "Hank threatened to hurt you like he had Natalie and Buster if the cops were ever called. He'd already proved to be a man of his word, so I did what he said."
Helen shook her head, her misery making her look worn out, "It's shocking, how he manipulated everyone in our family. I feel so stupid that I never saw him for what he was." Duo nodded in agreement.
Then leaning back into her chair, she closed her eyes as she continued with her story. "I vaguely recall the night everything in our lives fell apart. It was a Saturday night and I was getting ready for bed as usual. I poured my sleeping pills into my hand and paused, thinking about Hank going out of his way to reminded me to take them before I went upstairs. I wondered why he bothered, seeing as we were still sleeping in separate rooms. That niggling suspicion for why he wanted to make sure I was asleep just wouldn't go away. So I put the pills back in the bottle and left my earplugs in their container, then made my way up to my room and bed and then I waited. In spite of my resolve to stay alert to any sound, I dozed off after a short while, only to wake up to the sound of a rhythmic thumping. I got out of bed, tiptoed to the spare room and put my ear to the door. It wasn't coming from Hank's room. I carefully opened the door and saw that he wasn't in his bed. Turning around, I followed the sound right to your door. Again, I put my ear to the door and heard whispering as well as the thumping. The voice speaking was a deep enough that I knew it couldn't be you, so I turned the knob and flung open the door."
The room fell silent as Helen and Duo recalled the night, neither able to look at the other.
Helen took a deep, shaky breath. "I was shocked and horrified by what I found. Hank immediately jumped up from the bed, still fully aroused, giving me a view of you lying naked, on your stomach, your hands fisting the bed sheets on both sides of your head. You didn't acknowledge me, but kept your eyes squeezed shut, your mouth pressed tightly together. I rounded on Hank and screamed in no uncertain terms for him to get out, that he was a sick bastard and we were over. I swore that if he didn't leave that instant I'd have him thrown in jail. Lord forgive me, I should have done just that, but I didn't. The decision not to call the police wasn't for my benefit, because I was devastated, but to protect you, Duo. I had no idea how long he'd been molesting you, though he said it had only been that one time. I didn't believe him, not for a second, and I never would believe a single word from him again. He left that night with only a suitcase filled with some clothes and I never saw or spoke to him again. I..." she looked up pleadingly, tears trailing unchecked down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Duo. I let you down. I should have followed my initial intuition and kicked Hank out of the house when he admitted he'd been going to gay bars."
Duo was horrified and felt ill at hearing his aunt's version of that horrible night. He'd remembered her presence in the room, but not the details of what happened. He looked to Heero for help, but his lover was staring at the floor. He'd told him before they'd come that he wouldn't get involved in this conversation, feeling it wasn't his place. So it was up to him. "You couldn't have known what he was turning into, auntie, and I don't know how you could have stopped him."
Another shuddering breath and a swipe at the tears on her face, and the older woman appeared ready to continue her story. "After he packed his bags and left the house, I went to your room to talk to you. Imagine my surprise when I found you sound asleep. I couldn't believe you could have gone to sleep after what had just happened. I called your name, but you didn't stir, not even a bit. I debated about whether or not to let you sleep or pester you into waking up. I decided to wait until morning to speak with you.
"When I woke up the next day, I was angrier than a stirred-up hornet's nest and thought better about letting Hank walk away. I made breakfast and then went to your room to wake you. I was again shocked when you acted as if nothing had happened. I tried to talk to you, to find out how long Hank had been molesting you so that we could go to the police, but you acted as if you didn't know what I was talking about. In fact, you casually asked me where Hank was, and from the expression on your face, you were generally curious, not angry, ashamed or frightened. I had no idea what to think. I expected some sort of reaction from you, but you behaved as if that morning was just like any other.
"I sat at the kitchen table at a complete loss over what to do while I watched you finished your breakfast and go outside to ride your bike. I called into work and took a sick day so that I could keep an eye on you and think about what course of action I should take. I came to the conclusion that you were somehow blocking from your mind what had happened, protecting yourself. Taking you down to the hospital for a rape test would have been traumatic for you, and going to the police to press charges against Hank wouldn't have done much good because it would have been my word against his, and you couldn't remember him molesting you to back me up."
Leaning forward, Helen sought her nephew's eyes. "I wish you could have said something to me then. Together we could might have been able to find a way to stop him. I feel sick whenever I think that if I'd done something different, I might have been able to prevent the deaths of those poor people Hank murdered. I swear I never saw that kind of evil in him, just as I never suspected him of the disappearance of Buster or of Natalie's death. The police told me you remembered him using both of them to threaten you into silence, and that you told them he killed them both."
Duo nodded, feeling somewhat numb from the conversation. He pulled a tissue from the box on the table and wiped at his eyes and nose, stalling for a moment to put a check on his emotions. He felt Heero release his hand, only to feel an arm go around his shoulders. In a strained voice he recalled, "I remember him pinning me to my mattress and whispering into my ear that he would kill Buster, and then do the same to you and Natalie if I ever said anything about what he was doing to me. I believed him, and to prove to me that he was serious, he took me to the storage shed in the backyard a day after Buster disappeared and showed me his mutilated body. He'd tortured our dog to death." He squeezed his eyes shut, wanting to block that horrific memory, but another one came in it's place.
Opening his eyes again, he focused on his tightly clenched hands on his lap. "I knew better than to make any sound," he began as the memory of the night Natalie died urged him to speak, "but I must have made some kind of noise that night, because my bedroom door opened while Hank was the middle of... well, you know." He decided to skip the unsavory details of his sexual assault with his aunt. She was pretty traumatized already. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he continued. "There was a gasp from the doorway and Hank jumped off the bed and ran out of the room. A few moments later I heard Natalie cry out and then the sound of someone falling down the staircase.
"God, how I prayed it was Hank, that he was dead; but it wasn't him. He came back into the bedroom moments later and put on his bedclothes before he grabbed me by my hair and threatened me with your life if I said anything to the police. He coached me to say I hadn't heard anything, that I was sound asleep until the doorbell rang."
Looking at his aunt, he saw in her eyes the same pain and regret he was feeling. "I somehow pushed every ugly thing that happened back then, so far back in my mind that I honestly didn't remember any of it until Hank alluded to molesting me when he had Heero and me at his mercy. I'm sorry I didn't say anything to you, auntie. I wish I could have been strong enough to face reality."
There were tears in Helen's eyes and her lips trembled. "It seems we're both equally sorry, Duo. I never suspected Hank was involved in Natalie's death. I should have known something was wrong with him, but I didn't.. I never thought Hank would harm his daughter, or you, for that matter."
"I think," Heero interjected, immediately gaining the attention of the other two people in the room, "that maybe we should move on to another subject, and come back to the subject of Natalie after you take a break. Why don't we address Helen's attempts to dissuade Duo from his sexual orientation?"
Helen's momentary look of relief was short lived, while Duo unclenched his fists to rub his palms on his jean covered thighs. "I know you think I was wrong," she began, looking contrite, "but I didn't know what else to do. After all that had happened with Hank, I took it upon myself to protect you from men like him, and the only way I could think of doing that was pointing out the pitfalls of that lifestyle."
"It isn't a lifestyle," Heero stated, holding back his annoyance as much as possible.
Helen didn't respond to it, but continued on with what she was saying. "Unfortunately, I confused being homosexual with protecting you from a molester. As my only living family remaining, I thought it was my duty to protect you from Hank and anyone else who had sexual designs on you because you were so young and attractive. I didn't mean to hurt you, Duo. I just wanted you to be happy and safe."
With a sober expression, Duo replied, "I accept your apology, knowing you were only doing what you thought best. I've wanted to apologize to you, too, for blaming you for all my problems. Maybe your refusal to believe I was gay didn't help matters, but it was Hank who was the cause of them. I... I pushed all the bad memories of Hank out of my mind and made you the villain."
Helen looked her nephew in the eyes, seeing a mirror of her own sorrow in the violet depths. "There are too many apologies and regrets between us. No more apologizing, all right? There will always be regret and sorrow for things not said or done, but the past is the past. We need to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them, but we also need to put the past to rest and look to a better future. I think that will be easier to do after the trial is over, but it looks as if you're already making great headway." Blushing, the woman's eyes shifted towards Heero, indicating he stood as a symbol of Duo's recovery.
Helen continued to look at Heero, giving him a shy smile. "I'm glad you could come to dinner today, Heero. Duo's told me that you're not only the man he loves, but that you're a successful lawyer. I... I'm not altogether comfortable with his being gay, but I love Duo dearly and want him to be happy. Please, be good to him. And if you can put up with an old, set-in-her-ways woman, I'd like to be a part of your lives. Duo's the only family I have left in this world, and I don't want to lose him because once again I refused to accept the reality of the situation."
Heero nodded. "I have no objections, as long as you don't undermine his self worth or our relationship."
The older woman looked relieved, and with a nervous grin she replied, "I'm sure you'll let me know if I step out of line."
Heero finally managed a genuine smile for the woman with the faded blond hair and eyes that might have once been a true green.
Slapping his knees with his hands, Duo announced, "I smell turkey. Do you think it's done?" He was ready to move on from the depressing conversation.
Helen rose from her seat. "I'll go check. Why don't you and Heero wash up and then come in and help me. You always carve the bird so nicely, Duo." With a last loving glance to her nephew and a parting smile to Heero, Helen left the room for the kitchen.
They waited until she was out of the room before Heero spoke. "That went well."
"Better than I thought it would," Duo agreed. "I hope we've finally put the past behind us now."
Heero braved kissing him, even though they'd decided to refrain from any physical affection that might upset his aunt. "I love you," he whispered.
"And thank God for that," Duo answered with a small chuckle and grin. "Because I love you more than Aunt Helen's pumpkin pie, and that's saying a lot."
They leaned back against the sofa, Duo feeling comfortable with Heero's arm draped over his shoulders. "There's something comforting about being back home," he said with a contented sigh.
"It's hard to believe you feel that way after all that happened under this roof."
"Believe it or not, there were good times to overshadow what Hank did, and when I push those bad memories aside, all the good memories of Natalie, Buster and my aunt are there. Natalie was more than my cousin, Heero, she was my friend. She had a great sense of humor and a contagious laugh. Before and even after her death, Aunt Helen and I were close and we managed to find happy moments despite what Hank was up to and the fact that I was probably a typical, obnoxious teenager."
"I'm glad you've still got memories that make you smile," Heero said sincerely. "Because you're going to need a smile when you meet my family next month.
"They've agreed to let us visit?"
"I suspect my Mom is the one to credit for us being invited. My grandfather is a proud man, and my being gay upset his plans for passing on the ranch to someone with the Yuy name. Mema is just as excited for us to show up for New Years, and there's no guarantee what her life or circumstances are, so be prepared for anything."
Duo stood from the sofa and turned to offer Heero his hand. As his lover stood, Duo took a step closer to him. "Speaking of family. I think the one thing we've never talked about was having a family. Maybe it's too soon in our relationship, but I just want to put it out there that I wouldn't mind a kid or two... maybe even a couple more. I found being an only child was pretty lonely. I always thought that if I became a parent, I'd have a lot of kids to keep each other company."
A dark eyebrow rose in question. "What do you mean by a 'couple more'?"
Duo laughed. "Well, we can add them to our family one at a time and see how it goes. I figure we can afford to adopt or find a surrogate, since we're combining our incomes. The surrogate might be preferable because that way your Moms and grandparents could have the grandchild they dreamed about, carrying on the family name, and aunt Helen could have a child to spoil."
Toying with the front of Heero's shirt and looking up at his lover through the fringe of hair over his forehead, Duo added, "But if you don't mind, I'd kind of like a kid of my own, using my last name, too, seeing that I'm the last person to keep the family name going. You can do the same, if you'd like. Then, if we find our cup of happiness overflowing, I was thinking we could adopt. There are a lot of kids out there who need a loving family."
Heero touched his lover's cheek. He didn't want to rain on Duo's day, informing him that it might be difficult to adopt, seeing that Duo had been not only abused as a child, but that the both of them had been attacked and traumatized by a serial killer. That information was bound to have a negative effect on a psychological test. Taking a deep breath, he pushed that doubt aside for the time being. "I suppose if we're going to have a family, you and I should do something about becoming legal. Do you want to be my partner on paper, and promise to spend your life with me and this pack of kids you want to have?"
The long haired man's eyes shimmered and his smile was brilliant in response to Heero's proposal. "I was going to suggest the same to you, but later tonight in our hotel room, where I can kiss the living daylights out of you."
"Are you boys coming?" Helen called from the kitchen, breaking up the tender moment.
"In a minute," Duo called back. Then to Heero he asked, "Do you think we should tell her we're getting hitched?"
"What? And risk a heart attack before dinner?" Heero had one eyebrow raised, and feigned a look of haughtiness that Duo thought was damn sexy. " I think we can wait until after the pumpkin pie."
Duo chuckled and hugged his lover, giving him an extra squeeze before stepping back. "Come on, let's wash our hands. I'll lock the door and show you properly how I feel."
Heero's expression was one of surprised when he asked, "Now?" After all, they were suppose to be keeping their hands to themselves while visiting Helen.
"Two minutes is all I need," Duo whispered, shifting his eyebrows suggestively and smiling wickedly. He then pulled his fiancè up the stairs and into the bathroom, where he promptly closed and locked the door. Turning around, he pulled Heero into a kiss while reaching for the button on the waistband of his slacks. That was the beginning of a warm memory the two lovers would recall for many years to come of their first Thanksgiving together.
Author's long note: Well my friends, we find ourselves at the end of yet another story. The Pretender, my 69th story, might just be my swan song, the end of the line. I haven't anything else in my files that are near completion, and I'm sorry to say I have very little time to devote to writing. I've oodles of ideas but just can't seem to sit down and develop them. I've had a lot of fun writing Gundam Wing fan fiction all these years and have appreciated your kind responses and encouragement in your reviews and email. Thank you again and again. If you're looking for more Dyna stories, years ago I wrote under a different name for a short time. I believe Link Worshiper was the only one to guess it was me, sharp girl that she is. Search for Bane's Desire on this site and you'll find a couple of stories you might not have read before. Don't leave a review there because I no longer have that email address and can't access my account because I forgot the password. A monumental thanks to Swordy, who's been with me since... Web of Betrayal? *scratches head* Either that or Heero's Fourth. As my proofreader, she been incredibly patient and kind while correcting my idiotic mistakes. You're the best, Swordy! Again, thanks to all of you.