Road To Recovery
When the cab stopped, I had to check my note twice and ask the driver if he got the address right. The neighborhood was somewhere between urban slum and a landfill. Even by L2 standards, it was pretty shabby. The low light levels of the artificial night typical for the colonies did nothing to help the impression. Nasty things hid in those shadows - I knew that without looking.
Yet, this was it. I paid the driver, and walked over to the apartment block. The door wasn't locked - not that there could be much to steal in there, anyway. Garbage and muck was everywhere; it was tough to imagine anyone living here. I didn't even bother to check if the elevator was working - I headed right for the stairs.
At the sixth floor I searched out the apartment number scribbled on my note. Most of the brass numbers usually screwed to the doors were missing, and some were swapped - apparently, there were others than my prey that attempted to hide here. By counting and reasoning, I found the right one. Sure enough, the number was gone - but this was the place. I knocked, waited, but got no answer. I knocked again.
"Go away..." a low, slurred voice commanded.
I banged at the door.
"Go away, damn't! I a'ready paid ren' this month..."
It was his voice. Despite how hazy it sounded, I was sure of it. "Heero? Heero, are you in there? It's Duo. Open up, would ya?"
I counted five heartbeats of silence before hearing slow shuffle of feet. There was a click, and another, and another, as several deadbolts and chains were unlocked. The door opened in a thin gap, the last chain still in place, and Heero peered out; bloodshot eyes in a haggard face, hair messier than ever, voice sounding much older than I could remember it. "Duo...?"
Serving him my best grin and fighting the urge to simply shoulder the door and break in, I asked "Gonna let me in?"
He considered it for a second or two, then nodded, closed the door, unhooked the last chain and opened up to me. As soon as I was in, he slammed it shut, securing all four locks. If he was worried about the neighbors, I hate to think what they were like.
I tried not to stare as I looked around. The outside of the building should have prepared me for this, but it still slammed me in the face. The apartment was seriously run-down; a genuine dump. There were all kinds of bottles on the bench by the sink, a few empty ones dipping with dirty dishes in the brown dishwater. The wallpaper was ripped and peeling off in several places, the linoleum floor had random chunks torn out of it, the single couch in the room meant for living was a veritable quilt of random patches. I noted the cushions were sunk in the middle, giving away that it often served double duty as a bed. The low coffee table - one leg splinted - was cluttered with all kinds of paper. A quick glance showed welfare forms and a notepad with job application drafts, bills and old newspapers with circled 'wanted' ads - most of them rolled-up and crumpled, many stained with bottle rings or spills, a handful still clean.
It wasn't until he shot me a glare from the corner of his eye I realized I was still standing. He sat down on one side of the coach, nodded towards the other end. I accepted, and sat down.
With considerable effort, he tried to act sober, and managed to clear up his voice. "How did you find me?"
I had to smile at that; at least some things hadn't changed - he still cut right to the chase when there was something he wanted. "I didn't. Sally did - through those," I said, pointing at the welfare forms.
He grunted. "Figures... You shouldn't have bothered coming."
If there was ever a time I wanted to punch his face - other than after the time he asked for it, and promptly sucker-punched me in the gut - this was it. "Heero, are you nuts? It's been over a year since anyone heard from you. Quatre and Relena have been- hell, we've all been worried sick about you. We've been looking for you for freakin' ages!"
Another grunt. He reached for an almost empty bottle balancing at one corner of the coffee table.
"You've been listed as 'missing person' in the police files for months already. Lady Une even made the matter a Preventer issue, for crying out loud - what the hell happened to you?"
He downed the last swig, lazily let the bottle drop to the floor and roll in under the couch. I wanted to stop him, but couldn't. I had to see it at least once to believe it. "A lot of things..." he slurred, before his eyes sobered over long enough to think a little. "Hey... if Sally found out, how come you're here, and not-"
"She's on her way. She called me and gave me the address, since it was in the L2 cluster. She wanted me to scope out the place first - but when I came here and saw the neighborhood, I had to see if this was for real. Heero, why the hell haven't you called any of us for help? You know we'd do anything to-"
He looked away. I knew it was partly to avoid my eyes, partly to search for another bottle within reach. "Too damn proud... I... I didn't want anyone to find out... out what I'd become. Wanted... wanted to fix my own problems, like I always have..." He snorted softly, tugged on a saddening smile. "I guess I'm not used to earning things, instead of just taking what I need... Remember - remember when I stole parts from your Gundam, Duo?" He broke out in a snicker; if anything, that convinced me of his drunken state. He sniffled a bit, and wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve. I hoped to God my hunch was wrong, and that he was just running a cold. Discovering that your friend had become an alcoholic was bad enough, I didn't need to compound it with... that. Without a clear look in his eyes, I couldn't be sure.
"I remember," I finally force out.
"It's just - it's just so damn hard to get a decent job, and keep it. Don't have any credentials, they say, or complain about missing school papers, or any of a million other bits of paper that I don't have... Those who don't turn me down by the interviews, just fire me after a few days..."
I made another look-around. Yeah, I could believe that. Nobody wants to hire a drunken brawler. That, I didn't say, though. Instead... "Heero... you have a problem."
He made a soft snort, made a wry smirk. "I have lots of problems... work, money... drinking..." He finally met my eyes, and spat out "Friends..." And looked away again, as he'd delivered some major mental blow. If he meant to make me feel guilty, he was mistaken. I wasn't the one that vanished into thin air.
But that was the past; we had the present to deal with. I made another sweep of the place before voicing my decision. "Heero, know what? You're coming back home with me - back to the salvage yard. I've been looking for extra help for a while, anyway - it'd be work for food and lodging, at least for starters - but you won't have to worry about being fired or kicked out-" At this point, his face had gone through the spectre from that weird smirk to a sullen smile, then to interest, and even outright surprise - all tempered with Heero's restraint, though. I could almost sense he was desperate to accept, but- "-on one condition."
Pause for effect. Heero waited for a few seconds, and finally asked "What condition?"
To the best of my recollection, I mimicked the unyielding stoneface expression I'd seen on him so often in the past. "You give up the bottle - while you live under my roof, no drinking."
At first, there was the after-effects of disbelief. For a second or two, I could swear I saw his eyes shimmer.
Then came the assault.
No, not an attack, at least not in the normal sense. I didn't really have time to react, only shirked back enough for his charge to miss a little. Heero wrapped his arms around me, his head against my chest, drawing me into a tight hug as if I had suddenly become some big teddybear or life buoy. As if that wasn't unexpected enough, he started sobbing, and his speech grew even more hazy. I could hear him draw in the contents of his runny nose once or twice, between muttering various versions of 'I accept' - most coming out something along the lines of 'I aspect' or thereabout, along with muted whimpers and sobs.
Dumb as I was - I mean, he was only trying to show he was happy, I suppose, even if it was his drunken side of doing so - I struggled against the embrace, and he relented, again looking away, almost flushing - though that might be a result of his drinking. It made his nose match his cheeks. "I - I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-" Sniffle.
This was when I realized my mistake, and decided to make up for it. I returned his hug, if not that enthusiastically - but making sure his chin rested on my shoulder this time. "Nothing to apologize for," I whispered softly in his ear. "Friends are supposed to be there for each other. So, are you coming?"
Against my cheek, I felt him nod, and a dim hiss sounding like 'yes...' Then, he surprised me again; I felt his lips to my neck, and soon after another kiss fell on my cheek, and a slurred mutter of '...love you...'
Not since Hilde used me as a test audience for her new bikini - still beats me how that piece of string could be described as 'clothing' - had my eyes been that wide. A bit shell-shocked, it took me several minutes to dare venture a soft "Heero?"
Getting no reply, I tapped his shoulder. "Heero? What did you mean-"
I don't know if you've ever had someone snore right in your ear - but there's lots of sweeter sounds, I assure you. Heero just couldn't seem to stop surprising me; I couldn't remember ever having heard him snoring. Not that it mattered now; he was sound asleep, and I figured that was for the better. His drunken self had agreed. I wasn't too sure his sober side would play along.
I took the blanket tossed over the back of the couch and tucked him in. The blanket was far from clean, and patched to the point you'd think it was some cheap quilt. Even so, Heero got the quaintest smile as he clutched one corner of it. Whatever it symbolized to him, it had to matter. That alone made me put it on the checklist of things to pack.
After swiping his runny nose with a handkerchief, I decided to check out his place further, maybe tidy up a little bit - but above else, help him pack his bags by doing it for him, preferably before he woke up. When that happened, I only wanted him to have one choice - or at least make all the others much tougher and undesirable.
My eyes fell on the disorganized row of bottles along the counter, with various levels of fullness, be it volume or body. I grabbed a rumpled plastic bag off the counter, put my hand in it and used the makeshift glove to search around in the mucky dishwater for the prop. To my amazement, the pipes weren't clogged. Then, I went for the bottles, and as I poured one after another out in the sink, I muttered to myself, "If he loves me now, he'll hate me in the morning..."
I knew he was going to regret it in the morning, and would probably get violent - but I didn't care. The first faltering step had been taken.
And I'd do what I could to support him down that road - if he'd let me.