The Long Way Around
He's changed, Heero. He's not who he used to be.
Quatre's gift for understatements remained as strong as ever; it was all too true. Heero lingered at the archway to the living room. The mess of well-worn shoes, two torn jackets and several abandoned trash bags at the entrance had been bad enough. The chaos of this room was of another world, but the worst sat in a recliner chair right in the middle of it, facing the Tom & Jerry cartoons on the cracked TV screen.
"Told you to come on in, didn't I? Who --" Duo abruptly stopped as he looked over his shoulder, gaping for a moment at his visitor before he broke out in a grin and clamped down on the empty beer can he was holding beyond its breaking point. "Heero! Geez, long time no see, man -- hey, have a seat -- just pile those clothes on the couch there over on the other side." Duo groped for the remote and hit mute, turned his recliner around and added the empty can to the pile at his right.
Heero did as suggested, if with a little reluctance. Undoubtedly, one of the piles was 'clean' -- but he wasn't sure whether that was this one or the stack of clothes covering half the coffee table, right next to the empty pizza boxes, two packs of Marlboros and bowls of Thai take-out. Neither pile showed signs of ironing, and the general odour of the room made positive identification even more difficult. He ruffled a set of fingers through his ever-unruly mop of dark hair and sat down, ignoring the dust that rose up on impact and attempting the same for whatever sticky substance touched his left hand.
"Oh, that's probably just gum," Duo shot in, scratching his hairy cheek with a chagrinned look. "So... what you been up to all this time? How long has it been? Ten years? Twelve?"
"Fourteen and a half," Heero replied, struggling to keep a straight face.
Duo whistled, high to low. "That long, huh? Looks like life's been treating you alright."
"Yeah..." Heero answered at length, growing ever more uncomfortable -- more for present company than surroundings. Heero didn't have to ask; his face did it for him.
Duo raised his arms, appraised his beer gut. "Yeah, I know. Not quite the same with me, huh?" He chuckled and wiped his upper lip. "Never got that whole health thing," Duo muttered and slapped his palms together. "So! Can I get you anything? I'm sure there's some more beer around here, and I got Domino's on speed-dial."
"No, thank you, I --" Heero paused, taking his old friend in again. There was no good way of asking, and he opted for a direct assault. "Duo... what the hell happened to you?"
Duo mouthed words unspoken, trying to pick the right ones, his smile down to a grim shadow. "Nothing special... I just... didn't cope too well with... stuff." He raked his fingers at the back of his neck.
Heero recognized the habit, but there was only a ghost left of the braid Duo used to reach for when uncomfortable and cornered. Some things never changed. Others... "I've talked to Hilde."
"Oh..." Duo mumbled. "Then... you already know that part of the story, right? I... fucked up, okay? I thought that junker would be a goldmine, that the guy who sold it was on the level. I mean, pretty much all space derelicts have goodies in them that still work -- engines, reactor cores, computers, heat sinks, lasers -- or at least enough special alloy components to break even. How was I to know the thing I bought was nothing but a gutted, rusted iron fish? Bet I took that one out during the war myself, given how fucked up it was..." he said with a wry grin.
Though tempted, Heero chose not to explain how. Sure, buying a wreck unseen was a bad idea, and so was trusting a junk peddler that might once once have been a war ally, but whom the recession had undoubtedly turned into a competitor. Maxwell Salvage wasn't the only small company to buck under in the first post-war economic crisis.
"She's doing okay, isn't she? Heard she might be getting married."
Heero nodded. "Yeah, she seemed fine. There was a wedding catalogue on her desk."
Duo huffed. "Hope she'll have better luck second time around..."
His left brow raised slightly at Duo's bitter tone. "I'm sure she would have stayed, if you'd asked..."
With a snort, Duo glared at the broken TV, now running ads. "Nah... I fucked up our professional partnership up as much as the other one. Didn't want to tie her down to my failure. Besides, the marriage was more a convenience thing, anyway."
"...you didn't love her?"
Duo licked his lips, leaned over the arm lean to break another can of warm beer from the six-pack set. "Of course I did," he snapped, picking at the ring. "She was my best friend for a good five years."
Heero watched him take a swig. "You never...?"
Duo met Heero's curious look, smirked back. "Why you wanna know?"
Heero swallowed, pumped both fists and rubbed the side of each index finger with his thumb.
With a snicker, Duo raised the can in a toast. "Never enough to make mini-Maxwells, pal. We didn't get drunk out of our minds that often..." He dwelled on his thoughts for a moment, bit his lower lip and downed a good portion of his beer before shooting Heero a vicious glare. "What's it to you, anyway? Suddenly taken an interest in my sex life?"
Heero had taken a wrong turn of conversation, and he knew it, judging from the look on his face. Damage control. "So, what did you do afterwards? I heard you applied for the Preventers a couple times, and I know you were with Howard again for a while, but --"
"I got by," Duo said curtly. After another chug, he patted his belly. "Went out and made a made a man out of myself."
"You know, I never met a space trucker who kept a healthy diet. Those rocket scientists never did figure out how to put a salad into those no-gravity pockets, and you know what station fare is like when you don't have time to leave the docks."
"You were a trucker?" Heero asked, honestly surprised.
"Moon-Mars run," Duo said with some semblance of pride. "Nine times."
"Nine --" Heero contemplated the sheer amount of time Duo had to have been space-born. No wonder Duo had dropped off the radar for years. "Do they even allow anyone to do that solo flight more than three times?"
"Never said anyone gave me permission..." Duo muttered, grinning to himself. "Other than that, mostly inter-colony stuff. Played havoc with my metabolism, though. S'where I got the beard, too. Had to blend in."
Heero caught himself just before asking, but Duo had always had a knack for knowing what was on his mind. Apparently, that hadn't changed.
"Yeah, that's when I cut off my braid, too. Not many guys in the trade with something like that. Long hair, sure -- but nothing like what I had, unless you count Molly Stardust or Driesel, the nicest pair of space dykes there ever was. Getting hit on by drunk ugly-ass truckers in dockside bars got old fast. Figured I'd just simplify things a little, since my round-kick never got as good as Molly's."
Heero started to smile, but caught sight of Duo rubbing at his knee. It wasn't until then he noticed.
Duo did too, pushing his pants leg down.
"Duo, what --"
"Why I quit," he cut in, sighing. "Fucked up during a load-off in the L4 cluster. My leg got caught, nearly tore off my foot." A bitter smile came to him. "Amazing what medical science can do these days... They stitched me right up -- can't put too much weight on it, but I can still walk. They left the nice scar." Duo tugged at his denims. "Goes right around my ankle, like a damn bracelet. See?"
"I see," Heero said, pain on his face.
"Looks like you didn't come through unharmed either," Duo pointed out, indicating Heero's cheek.
He touched the abrasion there, the familiar, roughened skin. "Accident."
"I bet..." Duo muttered, tilting his head as if studying the injury. "Preventers, right? They let you sign up?"
"...yes," Heero admitted. "I was recruited a bit over three years ago. I didn't join as a field op -- I've got a freelance advisory position. Analysis, mostly." He lowered his palm. "There was a bomb scare. I went in to help defuse it. We failed. I didn't get out of the way fast enough. Got burned."
"...the Saint Met building a year ago, right? I think I heard about that. No casualties though, right?"
Heero looked chagrined. "Only my pride."
Duo huffed. "You know, I thought you'd stay with Relena for good, when you got back from that walkabout of yours."
"So did the tabloids," Heero countered with a tight smile. "I'm sure you read some of that."
Duo shrugged his shoulders. "It's a long flight, from the Moon to Mars. It's nice to have something to read." He emptied the can. "And drink."
Heero hesitated for a moment, but went ahead anyway. "Duo, are you --"
"What, drunk? An alcoholic?" Duo shook his head. "No, I'm not. I like beer, s'all. Don't fool around with Scotsmen or Jacks anymore." He tossed the can aside. "Wufei, right? He told you?"
Heero nodded, not seeing any sense in denying it.
"I had a rough spot when they grounded me, that's all. Only lasted a couple weeks. Been doing odd-jobs since then. I get by. Dip into the war pension funds when I don't."
"That money was supposed to cover education expenses," Heero pointed out.
Duo waved him off as if swatting a fly. "Bah, I know all the stuff I need to," he growled. As hindsight kicked in, he sighed. "At least I thought I did. Too damn late now."
"It's never too late, if you apply a little will," Heero countered, trying to convince himself of that same truth.
"It's not so damn easy, Heero."
"You're wrong, it's exactly that easy."
A glaring match ensued. "How the hell would you know, Mister Perfect? How many times did you fuck things up beyond your wildest nightmares, huh? Do you think I wanted to end up like this?!" Duo yelled while indicating the entire apartment with his arm.
"I do know," Heero snapped back. "You think you are the only one who ever fell down a rabbit hole with no ladder back up?"
Duo snorted. "Right. As if you didn't find a way to crawl out unharmed anyway."
Heero wanted to fight back, but caught himself. He'd been warned, but still he walked right into Duo's trap. He calmed himself with a deep breath. "...Duo, you can't go on like this -- you can't go on being this bitter about --"
"The hell do you know?!" Duo shouted, starting to get out of his chair, then thinking the better of it. "Why shouldn't I want to string up the asshole who screwed me with that junker? Why shouldn't I want to curse the damn dockhand who couldn't pilot his zero-grav fork-lift properly? Or the people who just wouldn't give me a damn break, much less a good job? Or the fuckers down at social services who do jack to help me out? Or the --"
"What good does it do?"
Duo clenched his teeth. "Fine," he growled. "Go right ahead and join them. Duo Maxwell, world's biggest screw-up. Can't do a damn thing right."
"I never said that," Heero said in his defence, but the zero degree Kelvin glare Duo served him gave him pause. "...Duo, I'm your friend. Let me be one?"
Catching a bit of the news, still in mute, Duo lowered his voice. "Haven't even seen you for over fourteen years," he slurred. "Some friend you are."
Heero's fists balled up. "I got the impression you didn't want to see me."
"Yeah? Why? Who told you that?"
"You did," Heero countered. "Every time I called, you had some excuse ready for why now wasn't the time for me to visit you, or you to come down to Earth for a while. Then, you started making Hilde cover for you. You were never in anymore -- and then you vanished. I couldn't track you down, not until today."
Realization struck. Duo's eyes narrowed. "...how did you?"
"I have my methods."
"They told you, didn't they? Quatre, or Hilde, or Wufei, or --" He gritted his teeth. "Damn no good friends they are..."
"They're worried about you too, Duo."
He glared into the top left fractures of the TV set.
"Duo, you've avoided me for so long -- I would never have known where to look if --" Heero paused, regrouped. "Duo, what did I do to piss you off like this?"
"You mean right now, or --"
"You know what I mean!"
"Yeah, and so do you!"
Heero stood up, took one step closer. "We were seventeen, damn it! I didn't think --"
"I didn't think you were serious!"
"...the fuck? I was damned serious, Heero. I might have been just a kid, but I knew what I wanted back then."
"And I didn't, okay?" Heero said, his steam fast running out. "I... didn't. Not... then."
Duo scoffed at that. "And now you do, is that it?"
"...I..." he started, then pursed his lips. "I don't want you like this, Duo."
"You never wanted me," Duo mumbled to himself.
Not low enough for Heero to miss. His brows furrowed. "You know, out of all of us, I figured you'd be the one to succeed in peace-time," Heero said, walking slowly towards the hallway. "Trowa had his amnesia flashbacks to deal with, Quatre faced the choking task of taking over the family business, Wufei was left like a sword with no purpose, Zechs was twice dead already and desperate for change, and I just didn't know what the hell I'd do anymore." He stopped in the archway, not looking back. "You, on the other hand, had a good business going with Hilde, a home to go back to, and backup with Howard and the Preventers... You weren't front and center in the headlines like the rest of us were -- Quatre as the great Winner heir, Wufei as the turncoat turned saviour, Trowa with his close relationship with Quatre, me with my association with Relena... The serious papers embraced Wufei and Quatre, while the tabloids jumped at Trowa and me with their fictional fairy tales, complete with manipulated photos." He turned the corner, grabbed his jacket and shoes and put them on in a hurry. "You, however, just vanished like the stealth god you are."
At long last, Duo started to grin. "Yeah, I --"
"Ran and hid," Heero snapped, slamming the door shut.
Duo was left gaping. He pumped his fists, trembling as he glared toward the hallway. Finally, he let out a scream and threw the remote at the TV, the weather report signing off along with the set. With some effort, Duo got on his feet. With one fell swoop, he cleared the coffee table, then pushed it over on its side, quickly trotting over to vent the rest of his ire at the couch, especially at the still warm flower-patterned pillow, fast receiving blow after blow. "So, think I'm a fucking failure, huh?! Well, I'll show you, you damn, fuckin', stupid --"
From the floor came a rhythmic stomping. Duo recognized old Mrs. Delmare's broom handle. Gritting his teeth, he flung the pillow back in place and started searching for the phone book. The Yellow Pages would lead the way.
The last steps were the worst -- not the ones going up, but over to the big door. Panting, Duo tentatively raised his fist to knock. He lingered a good ten rash heartbeats before he actually did so.
Then there was the wait for someone to answer, seconds that felt like hours.
The impeccably dressed man that opened the door looked none too happy to see him. Still, he didn't turn immediately violent. Duo took that as a good sign. "Hey, Trowa," he said, glancing past the man. "Is he in?"
Trowa extended his arm so as to block the door and gave the visitor a harsh glare. "Depends on what you're here for."
Duo offered half a smirk, still breathing heavily. "I figured you'd be acting all overprotective. S'why I came here instead of applying for an appointment at the office. You really do fill every bit of the job as his personal secretary..."
The man served Duo a killing expression, but refrained from taking the bait. Instead, Trowa softened his initial reaction, wiped his moustache with the side of his index finger twice and lingered for a moment, well aware of Duo's tactics, impatience and short fuse. "He might be tough as nails professionally, but you know well enough that when it comes to his personal life --"
"He's as fragile as glass," Duo cut in. "Yeah, I know... sorry..." he added meekly as he leaned over, his palms to his knees, all out of breath.
Whether from that unexpected last word or Duo's following actions, Trowa was taken aback. "Duo, you okay?"
He looked up, formed a weary grin. "Never better," Duo wheezed. "Okay, not really."
Trowa folded his arms and put on a mask of indifference. "You're not having a heart attack on our doorstep, are you?"
"Could be," Duo stated, "Man, right now I really wish I hadn't suggested to Quatre you get a penthouse way back when..."
Epiphany struck. "You took the stairs?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Duo, we're on the fifteenth floor!"
"and the three hundred and ninety second step. Believe me, I know, I counted every one," Duo muttered, recovering. "I can do it over on the way down to make sure, but I don't know if my legs'll hold."
Trowa took a firm hold of Duo's arm. "Come here," he stated, all but hauling his old friend inside the apartment, down the hallway and into a side study.
His study, Duo knew. He'd been corralled in there before, though he couldn't recall being all but tossed in the sofa last time. Beat the wooden chair before Trowa's desk, that much was certain. He sighed contentedly as he sank into the soft cushions, glad to have gotten his weight off of his feet, especially the bad ankle. He closed his eyes, arched his neck back. "Thanks, pal..."
Trowa turned the far less comfortable chair to face his guest. "Duo, why are you here?"
"I... I'm here to apologize," Duo started. "To him -- to you -- for... everything, I guess. The handouts, the jobs I failed to keep... that time I... I..."
Trowa put his elbows to the arm leans, intertwined his fingers and rested his chin on them, keeping his morose composure. "I think 'blackmail' is the word you're looking for."
Duo nodded, not daring to meet Trowa's eyes. "Yeah... Look, I'm sorry about that, I really am. I didn't mean to threaten to sell you out to the tabloids like that. I just... You wouldn't let me talk to him, and I badly needed some dough to get by. I'm not proud of what I did, and I don't blame you for decking me after you gave me the cash..." The scene flashed before Duo's eyes, just like the punch had made his ears sing the last time he'd been in this room. The pain, the rush of crude expletives he'd rained on the impassive man standing above him. He made a slanted grin. "Not now, anyway."
"I'm not going to let you hurt him, Duo. Not ever again."
He nodded. "I know... Frankly, I'd be pissed at you if you let me. He depends on you so much, you know that?"
Trowa started a wan smile of his own, allowing himself to lower his guard, if only a little. "I know. Just like I depend on him..."
Duo leaned his head back and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Man... I hate it when you two get all sappy like that," he said, chuckling. "I think I'm more jealous about that than your big pile of money."
Trowa cocked his head to one side, straightened up and folded his arms. "That's a new song, coming from you."
"Yeah..." Duo muttered, rubbing his lower arm, pulling at the sleeve, revealing --
"Hm?" Duo glanced down at his wrist. "Oh. It's a nicotine patch. Trying to quit."
Trowa lifted an eyebrow. "You really are trying to change, aren't you? This isn't an act."
Duo shook his head. "I'm not here for money, Trowa. Or a job, or -- look, I just want to apologize for being an asshole for the last... couple years."
He was smirking now. "Try decade."
Reluctantly, Duo nodded. It was true enough. "So... gonna let me see Humpty Dumpty?"
"Duo..." Trowa growled in warning.
He snickered it off. "Yeah, sorry. Couldn't help it."
Trowa got up. "You really are changing..."
Acting the enigma, Trowa answered "If you keep it up, I'll tell you."
Duo snorted. "Cheap bastard..."
"You're not going to blow up on him like last time, are you? Quatre meant well. He didn't mean to put you down by --"
"I know," Duo said, nodding. "He wanted to let me down gently, and I wouldn't let him. Look, I'm here to say what a worthless sad-sack I've been and to start making amends. I owe you guys a lot, not just a ton of money. I'll try to keep my tongue in check. It's just... hard, shaking that habit. Been thinking about meditation, anger management classes -- stuff like that. Hell, might even go to confession again, if I can find a priest with enough time to spare." He made a bitter chuckle. "I'll pay you guys back, I swear."
Trowa made a wan smile. "You know Quatre will say you don't owe us anything."
"Good thing you think differently then, huh?"
He shrugged his shoulders, extended his hand. Duo didn't accept it until Trowa insisted, moving the offered hand closer. "He's out on the patio, trying to will a bonsai his way. He's been there all afternoon."
"Guess I'll make him cut just the wrong branch..."
Trowa shook his head. "You can't catch him that unawares anymore, Duo," he mentioned, smiling. "Believe me, I've tried..."
Duo's grin broadened.
He pursed his lips. "Duo -- you should go talk to Wufei. About those anger management classes..."
Duo paused for a moment. "You saying Wufei took those?"
"No, but... Wufei had a lot of built-up anger after the war. He found ways to cope with it. It might be worth asking the sage for advice, right?"
"Yeah," Duo agreed. "And I guess he's next on my list, anyway."
Trowa nodded. "Quatre's through here."
"Lead the way," Duo gestured, and followed.
Some things never change. Wufei's choice of clothing supported that; still the dark blue tank top, the baggy, white pants and the footwear Duo had nicknamed 'the ballet shoes' all those years ago. The focused anger seemed the same too.
Duo had found him in the Preventer gym, alone -- not exactly strange, given the late hour. When Duo had first arrived, Wufei had been kickboxing with a rather solid punching bag.
Duo had stayed back, hidden, as Wufei treated the bag as his worst enemy for a good ten minutes more, waiting until some time after Wufei had commenced with what looked like a combo of stretching exercises and tai chi. Duo had gotten Wufei's towel off the handlebars of the nearest stationary bike and handed it to him. "Hey..."
Tentatively, Wufei took the offer and wiped his face. "Been a while," he stated.
Duo put his bag down. "Yeah..."
"I was warned you might drop by sometime."
"Oh?" Duo said, starting a grin.
A ghost of a smile shone back. "That was over three months ago."
Duo took a step back, rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, I had to make the cash for the ticket here first. Inter-colony flights can be pricey."
Wufei started to frown, tossed the towel over his shoulder and held on to both ends. "Quatre helped you out?"
"Actually... no. He wanted to, but I refused."
Duo gritted his teeth at Wufei's disbelieving tone. "Yeah... found some odd jobs on my own. Worked off a little of my debt, too. Needed time to build up funds... and courage." He registered Wufei's look at that, and immediately sought cover. "They let me crash at their place almost for free -- just dishes and stuff. Hey, how did you know I'd been to see Quatre, anyway?"
Wufei let go a snort. "Please... Even if it hadn't been Trowa who dropped me that warning months ago, I could have read it right off your face."
"Your beard," Wufei explained. "You've got it trimmed just like Quatre. I swear, it's like looking at a dark version of him. Trowa's work, right?"
Chagrinned, Duo scratched his chin. "Yeah."
Wufei studied him for a moment. "You should go clean-shaven instead. A beard doesn't suit you."
"You still don't approve of them, do you?"
He shot Duo a brief glare. "Their lives, their business. It just unnerves me. I've seen pictures of Quatre's father, and Trowa is looking ever more like him. It gives me uncomfortable thoughts."
Duo couldn't help but snicker.
"I wish they hadn't picked my twentieth birthday party for their first public kiss..."
"You mean make-out session."
"Exactly," Wufei agreed. "I knew they didn't have many places where they trusted all those present implicitly, so I understood their choice -- but I guess you taught them the error of their ways later..."
Duo's smile vanished instantly. "Yes..." he muttered, guilty as charged. "I never thought I'd do that with those pictures."
"...you never sold them out."
"I came close enough."
Wufei nodded. "You still gave them the push they needed to go public for real. In the long run, they'll be better off." He paused, assessed Duo's pained expression. "You've never been lucky with parties, Duo."
He grimaced, knowing all too well what Wufei was getting at. He'd expected it'd come to this. "I'd sort of hoped you'd forgotten."
"You made a fool out of me at her inaugural party. I don't forget such moments easily," Wufei said, folding his arms.
"It's been seven years!" Duo burst out.
"Seven years, nine months, four days and seven hours," Wufei corrected.
Duo forked a splayed hand through his bangs. "Christ... When you hold a grudge --"
"You hit on Relena, even though you knew I had a crush on her," he reminded Duo -- not that it was necessary.
"I'd just gone through a bankruptcy, a divorce -- and I was drunk!"
"Nowhere near enough," Wufei calmly added. "It would have been better to have you passed out than making a pass at her. It certainly didn't help that you went on to blabber about something I'd told you in confidence --"
"So I told her you had the hots for her, big deal." Duo snapped back.
"You made it sound like a joke, Duo." Wufei reached for his water bottle, took a sip. "At least, that's how I feel she took it. How could I ever tell her, after that?"
Duo stopped himself accusing Wufei of cowardice. He knew fear of rejection. Having it made manifest only strengthened that fear. It wasn't always easy to come back. "...sorry..." Duo tempered himself.
Wufei took a deep breath, a slow exhale. "Yeah... Me too."
"So... You're not gonna kill me? Quatre's not here to stop you this time."
"It's... past," Wufei opted. "He'd never forgive me if I hurt you." He started a slight smirk. "Trowa might."
"Not anymore, I hope," Duo said with a faint grin. He pulled up a chair and sat down, sighing contently at the relief his feet felt. "...you know, this is all wrong. I used to be the cool guy, and you the one that blew a gasket at every little thing."
Wufei stepped over to a workout bench, following Duo's lead. "People change, Duo." He paused, noticing the screw-cap bottle of water poking out of Duo's bag. Not long ago, Duo wouldn't have carried something that tame. "They can change back, too."
"I wish... I'd give a lot to be half the man I used to be."
Wufei made a crooked smile. "I think you're off to a good start."
"...right," Duo replied, lacing the word with sarcasm. "Next thing you know, I'll pass the Preventer acceptance tests." The bitterness in his voice matched the memories. Three times, he'd tried their training programs. Three times, he'd washed out.
Wufei hesitated for a bit. "Duo... Une never disqualified you for reasons of physique, not even the last time you tried, after your third run to Mars."
"Oh, yeah? Then why?"
"You know the answer to that. I don't know everything that happened to you after the divorce, but you developed a very caustic personality. Une didn't like your temper, or how she couldn't tell which way you'd jump under pressure." Wufei paused for another sip of water. "None of us did."
"You saying Une was afraid of me?"
He started to smirk. "Let's not take this too far..."
"Think I'd stand a chance if I applied now?"
Wufei started to say one thing, but closed his mouth, began anew. "I don't know," he answered honestly.
"Me neither," Duo agreed. "Trowa said I should talk to you about how to control my anger -- I didn't believe him."
"And now you do?"
Duo flashed a smile. "I'm still breathing, so I guess he's right. What's the secret?"
"It's not a secret, it's --" Wufei got to his feet. "I'll show you." A few steps forward, he closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. Then, he crouched a little, fisted his balancing forward hand and made a flat palm with his other, taking what looked like a fighting pose, his palm ready to strike.
Duo barely had time to register the frown on Wufei's forehead before the palm lashed out, along with a curt battle cry. The suddenness of it jolted him.
Wufei straightened up. "That's it," he explained.
"I don't know if I follow..."
"It's focus," Wufei explained. "You calm down, prepare to strike at an empty focal point in front of you. You put all that aggravates you at that single spot, and lash out to shatter it. When it's destroyed, return to the beginning."
Duo cocked his head, let go a snort. "So, basically, you picture the sucker you're pissed at and punch his lights out."
Wufei shook his head. "No, Duo. Never a person. If you do that, you only shore up under the mental image of 'enemy'. An item you wish destroyed, maybe -- but it's better to keep it abstract. You're supposed to destroy the emotions, not things."
"...so, you're fighting a concept?"
He made a gentle, patient smile. "Something of that nature," Wufei said, before adding "It does work."
Duo grunted. "Maybe for you."
Wufei sighed, more amused than resigned. "You can stick with the ten-count, if this feels too absurd for you."
"I might," Duo conceded. "But I think you're on to something about fighting the frustrations out."
Duo tapped his foot to his bag. "Care to spar?"
Wufei gave a snort, along with a smug look. "I'd defeat you in a heartbeat."
"Hey, I'm not that out of shape," Duo defended himself. "and I still have my old tricks and techniques."
"A lot of those depended on a wiry frame, if I recall correctly. And there's your bad ankle."
Duo got to his feet, with a little more effort than he wished to admit. "I can do it."
Wufei folded his arms. "I'll bet you supper you can't."
With a scowl, Duo snapped back from a 'you're on'; he didn't want this to be about food. Instead, he relaxed his stance, took a deep breath, slowly brought his arm back -- and shot his hand out.
Wufei didn't move, as if he knew Duo's palm would stop an inch away from his chest. He looked down at the hand, then at Duo's frown. "Better," he agreed. "The locker room is back there," he indicated with a nod. "Get changed, and we'll see if we can get you back into shape yet."
"I'll need more than a workout for that."
"But you have to start somewhere, Duo. Why not here?"
"Since I got put in charge of training recruits, I've had more hopeless cases than you. I'll help you plan your training -- and maybe a diet."
Duo made a wan smile, let go a grunt. "Sure... thanks." He dug out the water bottle in his bag and took a swig. "...Wufei, you should go talk to Relena. Seriously. Don't put this off any longer. Tell her."
He hesitated. "...I don't want to cause her trouble," Wufei started. "She'll be out of office next year. Then, maybe --"
"Maybe she'll move on to some other high-and-mighty job," Duo cut in. "Geez, Wufei. Have some guts."
Wufei let go a huff. "Fine, I'll make you a deal. I'll go visit Relena next time you go see Hilde. How's that?"
Duo opened his mouth, paused, licked his lips and shifted from one foot to the other.
"...actually... do you have her new address?"
The longest journey begins with a single step.
Still, it's often the last step of a long journey that proves the most difficult to take.
So it was for Duo, as he dragged his bad foot onto the welcome mat. It took three tries before he gathered the guts to hit the doorbell, and far more not to turn and run. The click of the door sounded a lot like a starter's pistol.
She eyed him for an instant, then broke out in a smile. "Hey, ex."
Duo rolled his eyes. "I wish you wouldn't call me that, Hilde."
"It's not like you've given me many chances to -- and I can't very well call you 'hubby', now can I?" She shot him a quick, suspicious look, even while retaining the smile. "You didn't come for the kids, did you?"
"...the goldfish are still alive?"
"Swimmingly," Hilde chipperly added. "Come on in, Duo."
He followed her lead, left his jacket and shoes in the hallway. He took the offered seat in the living room, took note of the magazine at the coffee table. "So, how's...?"
"Yeah, the new guy."
"Oh, he's fine," Hilde said, realizing what Duo focused on. She reached for the bridal catalogue and brandished it. "A little slow on the uptake, though."
"What, he's not taking the hint? No heartfelt proposal yet?"
She shook her head, gave a wan smile. "It's alright, though. He's a little dense, but that also means he's solid. I don't want to rush into this again." Her words made the round in her mind, and her face reflected it. "Oh -- I'm sorry, Duo. I didn't mean --"
Duo held up his palm to stop her. "I know, Hil', I know."
"I was surprised when you asked me."
Chagrinned, he scratched his elbow. "I wasn't much of a romantic... I told you --"
She nodded languidly. "You did. It was the fastest way to get you a fixed L2 citizenship, given how your records were... incomplete."
"Yes..." Hilde said, mulling the thought over. "...but it was sort of the culmination of a dream, too... even if it was just a dream."
Duo chuckled dimly. "Even if I had been a devout catholic, you'd have had no problem getting the marriage annulled -- I couldn't quite keep up with the marital duties."
"I knew you were gay when I said 'yes'."
"Bi," he insisted.
She merely smiled. "Whatever you say, Duo. I'll get us some coffee."
He flashed her a grin, got to his feet. "Hey, do I have to show you how bi I am?" With that, he made his assault; embraced her from behind and tickled her sides.
"Yield! Yield!" Hilde cried after the initial surprise and in between giggles. When Duo relented, she turned in his embrace, relaxed as she studied his smile, and kissed the tip of his nose. "God, it's good to have you back again."
"Shinigami, at your service," he said, giving a quick, two-digit forehead-to-air salute. "Look, I know we haven't kept in touch for a while, but --"
She shook her head. "That's not what I meant, Duo. Your smile," she explained, proceeding to finger-comb his hair. "You're growing it long again, aren't you?" She shifted her explorations down his sides and took a gentle hold of his love handles. "Returning to your old self here, too," she teased.
Duo broke free, embarrassed. "Geez, quit it... What, you're saying I haven't shown any signs of happiness since we got divorced?"
Again, she signaled a negative. "No, I just --" She licked her lips, started over. "There's no resentment in your smile anymore, Duo. I no longer feel like you're about to sink your teeth in my throat, or just blow up on me. Duo, what happened?"
For a moment, spilling everything seemed tempting, but stopped himself. "Nothing."
She put her arms akimbo. "Like hell, nothing. Come on, tell me."
He turned away.
"Heero came to see you, didn't he?" she tentatively inquired.
Duo shot her a glare. He might as well have said 'bingo'.
"He's been worried about you for a long time, Duo. We all have. We --"
He cut in. "That fucking asshole just came to gloat, that's what! He came to see what a screwup I'd become, what a mess I'd gotten myself into. He pissed me off, that's what happened! He told me I was a no-good loser, in so many words. I --"
Hilde caught his elbows. "Calm down, Duo! I didn't mean to --" she said, then started over. "Look, I know --"
"No, you don't," he said, calming down a notch.
"More than you think, Duo... I was there that night, the victory party after you'd all destroyed your Gundams. I saw you coaxing Heero outside, alone."
A suspicion formed in his mind, reflecting on his face. "...you followed us?"
She nodded, looked off to the side. "I was curious."
"...how much did you hear?" he said, his voice deep, but not menacing.
"Enough," she moderated herself. "Look, I'm sorry he didn't get it."
"Oh, he got it alright," Duo said, turning his back on her, pacing the room. "He got it, and stomped on it for a while. I never could give my busted heart to anyone else after the blender job he pulled on it."
"We were kids, Duo. You took him by surprise, telling him you loved him, flat out like that."
He gave a wry chuckle. "Not as much as when I leaned in and kissed his baffled face."
"He didn't deck you," Hilde said.
Duo sighed. "I almost wish he had, rather than just give me that blank, dull cow-like stare. If he hadn't walked away first, I would have. I couldn't stand it. Worst of it was, when we met up again inside, it was as if it had never happened."
"That's... not the truth I saw," she muttered slowly.
"What do you mean?"
"You spent most of the time moping over by the bar, Duo. I thought you'd at least have noticed all the looks Heero sent your way, with the big mirror there."
He snorted. "They were glares, more likely."
"No... He just needed time to let it sink in."
At that, Duo let go a grunt. "He's had nearly sixteen years, Hilde. I know he's a thickheaded idiot, but --"
"Stop running," she all but ordered.
"And what do you mean by that?" he growled.
Hilde smiled to herself. "You'll figure it out. You two are a lot alike, you know." Before he had a chance to retort, she went on. "Now, why are you here? I get the feeling you didn't come just to check up on me and Jared."
"Oh..." he mouthed, scratching his bare chin. "Right. Uhm... Well, the thing is," he started, grabbing his flabby gut. "I'm sorta having trouble with the home stretch... Any expert advice?"
The look on her face was priceless.
Duo blessed himself lucky he still had the reflexes to duck her mock punches, grinning like a loon.
The day Duo had longed for came sooner than he'd planned, courtesy in part of his own encouragements.
Hilde probably knew who had ordered Jared those 'wrong address' catalogues by the time the third one arrived in the mail, but she hadn't seemed to complain about the result once up by the altar. Duo knew; he'd seen her face up close when she said the words. A month ago she'd told him she'd give him a clean slate, all things old forgotten, if he only did one thing. He'd agreed before she told him.
There was some sort of strange poetic justice in having to give his ex-wife and good friend away to her next husband. Walking up that aisle had felt awkward, but this was her moment, and Duo trusted her judgement, and Jared. At least after the bachelor party. Duo assumed his not-so-veiled threats in the neighbourhood of 'treat her nice, or I'll cut your dick off with a dull knife' had sunk in. There hadn't been strippers, either. One more star for Jared in Duo's book.
Then there was Trowa and Quatre... Duo had given them a boost long ago -- not so well-intended, but again, they didn't seem to complain about the result. Their kiss was by far the longest; the mayor had seen fit to intervene, given that there was yet one more couple in this grand ceremony.
Wufei had not been too happy when Hilde called him eight months ago, unintentionally informing him that Duo had fulfilled his half of their pledge. Not one to back down from promises, Wufei had taken the first flight to Earthdome and interrupted one of Senator Peacecraft's meetings to give a message he'd rephrased a million times over more than a decade. It had obviously born fruits.
Of course, Duo really wished Relena could have picked her brother to give her away, despite what her fresh husband might say about that. The next obvious choice had been... obvious, and Duo kept as civil a mask as he could when faced with Heero, almost two years after their last argument.
At the reception, they'd crossed glances a couple of times. They'd both had to make silly, brief speeches intended to make their respective 'daughters' blush -- a task Duo excelled at -- and they'd also been in on the second dance, where Heero's footwork easily triumphed.
It had been late when Duo had stepped outside for some air, walking to a vacant area of the balcony. He'd patted his pockets, craving a smoke, then remembered. He'd developed an apt understanding of how amputees felt sure their limbs were still there, right up until they checked by touch.
Duo scratched the back of his neck, quickly checked his short braid. On the way down his jaw, he felt the stubble of nightfall. The real bliss was reaching his chin, though. Singular, not plural, and a chin that had grown fairly firm. He couldn't say the same for the rest of his body -- he'd lost weight, but skin didn't work the same way fat did. The surgery pamphlets were still on his desk back home; he wanted time to think.
When his friends had announced this triple wedding, Duo had wished he'd made the arrangements sooner. At the month's notice, the scars wouldn't heal even if he got ahead in line. Not that it mattered; this hadn't been a swimsuit contest. He leaned on the railing, staring into the night, the sounds of the ballroom fading in his ears.
"...I heard rumours, but..."
Duo looked to see Heero give him a once-over, then rest against the railing, just a few feet away.
"You look good, Duo."
Duo didn't answer, but tried to look smug, his thoughts along the line of This is what you missed out on, dipshit.
"I heard you're taking the Preventers exam again? You're gonna be a field op?"
"Already have, actually -- and I passed," he let Heero know with more than a little satisfaction.
"Congratulations," Heero said earnestly.
"Thanks," came the curt reply.
"Maybe we'll work together some day."
"Perhaps," Duo said, rivaling the night for chills.
There was a pause with veritable tumbleweeds rolling between them, only the dim noises of the party to be heard before Heero pushed away from the railing. "Okay... see you around, Duo."
Duo watched Heero walk away, one step, another. Duo's jaw worked air, as he tried to find the words. He couldn't. All he knew was, this wasn't right. This wasn't how the scene had played out in his head. Heero should be at his feet, begging, pleading, groveling. Heero shouldn't be fucking walking away. "Wait!"
Heero halted, glanced back, noted Duo jogging up to him, dragging his bad foot.
"This isn't right."
"This!", Duo hissed. "You were supposed to -- and then I was gonna -- and then everything would -- ah, fuck it," he concluded as he grabbed Heero by the collar of his tux and kissed him; hard, brief. Heero looked as star-struck as he had that night a long time ago. Duo could feel the pressure building up at his eyes. Cursing Heero in his mind, he turned to run, to hide again.
Heero wouldn't let him, grabbing his arm. "Duo!" he said, spun him around and kissed him back, just as rough.
It was Duo's turn to be taken aback. "...what..." he finally mustered.
Heero grabbed a fistful of his own bangs and tore at it in frustration. "You never got it, did you?!"
"Why do you think I sought you out, two years ago?"
Duo scowled at him. "I dunno. To twist the knife around a couple more times and add some salt?"
His mouth remained open for a few seconds more. "Duo..." he calmly started. "I... I came to tell you I'd finally made up my mind. I... wanted to try it. Try us."
"That sure as hell wasn't what it sounded like, mister."
Heero lost their brief staring contest, looking away, down into the masonry work. "I know... I... look, way back when, you caught me by surprise. I'd never considered something like that -- you were my friend, probably my best friend, but that was all I'd ever seen there. That you loved me, that you wanted me to be more than a friend -- that thought was too much for me to digest back then. I needed some time. By the time I'd finally figured out what I wanted, you were gone, probably halfway on your first flight to Mars. And, after all that, when I at last got some sort of life sign, I learn you've frozen me out. You wouldn't allow anyone to tell me where you lived, what your new phone number was -- I had to work on Quatre for almost a year before he gave in and offered up your address."
"...and then you did show up, found out what I'd become, and hated what you saw, right? I wasn't the good-looker I once was."
Heero's fists trembled. "I wish you wouldn't think me that shallow, Duo."
He scoffed at that.
"I'd been told what you'd become, but I didn't believe it until I saw it myself."
"Getting fat is easy, you just --"
"I'm not talking about that, Duo! I'm talking about how you'd become bitter, resentful -- you had started to lash out at everyone and everything, pinning the blame anywhere but with yourself. That's not the sort of habit you shake easily. I knew then that nothing I could have said would be 'right' by you, even if I'd confessed. If I'd tried to stay, you'd just end up blaming me for everything, past and present. Nothing would be good enough -- You'd have torn me to shreds. I couldn't take that." He paused, then added "You're not the only one afraid of getting hurt, Duo."
A dry chuckle escaped Duo. "That's rich, coming from get-shot-and-don't-feel-pain Yuy. All worried about a little heartache..."
Again, Heero clenched his fists, giving Duo a firm look. "Even supposedly immortal vampires die when they're shot with the right kind of bullet, Duo."
He didn't have a quick comeback to that. He lingered for a moment. In the distance, there was thunder. "Storm's coming..." he commented. "Heero, what makes you think I've changed?"
"You wouldn't be here if you hadn't."
The truth always stings a little, Duo knew that. In the long run, it caused less damage, though. "Why the hell do you chase after me, anyway? If I'm such damaged goods, you'd think --"
Heero had put his palm against Duo's chest, right above his heart. "I know what's in here," he said. "Beneath all those layers and masks you put on as your coat of armor against the world."
"After my accident, those two weeks I was in a coma at the burn ward... you were there. You were there, holding my hand, every single day."
Duo was about to deny it, but Heero wouldn't let him.
"I know, Duo. You bribed the nurses so they'd warn you of company, so you could avoid our friends. Other than that, you were there. They didn't get you to leave unless you'd fallen asleep from exhaustion."
"Who told you?"
"So, it is true."
"You're the one who says that!"
Heero smirked. "I know that it is. Duo, I wasn't really conscious, but I still registered some of the world around me. Some bits of conversation, the scent of roses... And I definitely felt your hand," he said, reaching out and clasping said hand in his own. "You were there for me, but... I didn't know how to be there for you."
"...so, you decided to give me a little push. Rile me up and get me going."
Heero doubled his other palm on top to trap Duo's. "I'm sorry. I just... I wanted you back, Duo."
"...after all this, you'd still have me?"
"What, do you want me to go down on one knee to give it more credibility?"
Duo glanced at his trapped hand, then back at the party. "You don't have to. Not here. Not now." His head was spinning. "Maybe later."
Heero shot Duo a smile, raised the hand to his mouth and touched his lips to Duo's knuckles. He chuckled at Duo's confused expression. "Duo, whether you like it or not -- I love you, I know that now."
"As opposed to two years ago."
"I didn't say --"
"I know," Duo admitted. "But you're saying me losing two hundred pounds and a couple bad habits have nothing to do with you suddenly being all lovey-dovey?"
His confidence wavered, and Heero stepped back, touching both elbows. "...it helps," he slowly admitted in a meek voice. "I can't say I don't appreciate your efforts..."
"So, it's okay if I blimp out again?"
He looked at Duo, as if asking why he was testing him like this. "...if that's what you want," he muttered. "I withhold the right to try and stop you, though..."
Duo broke his mask with a chuckle. "Okay, that is love..."
Encouraged, Heero pressed his luck. "Duo -- move in with me."
The grin on Duo's face shattered. "Are you serious?"
Heero gave a firm nod.
"What about all the stuff in between? Awkward dates, meeting friends and family, getting to know one another's bad habits..."
"I think we picked up on most of the habits sharing accommodations during the war. We share friends," Heero said, glancing back at the party. "And family -- and I'm sure our dates will be just as awkward if we have to go home to the same place afterwards."
The smile returned, little by little. "You sound like you're in a rush."
Heero shrugged his shoulders. "We have half a lifetime to catch up on, and a certain little bridey-birdy told me you always keep your toothbrush with you, ready to move anywhere -- one of your habits." Before Duo could stop him, he verified that rumor by placing a palm on Duo's chest, sensing the contents of his inner coat pocket through the fabric, along with Duo's rapid heartbeat.
Duo took a step back, turned around; a small cover, but sufficient. "...can I have until the end of the party to think about this?"
Heero burst out in a full-blown smirk. "If I'm allowed to keep convincing you throughout, sure..." he said as he stepped up to embrace Duo from behind and landed a kiss to Duo's neck.
Duo had never been so happy to have it start raining as he was right then, a few drops of water allowed to hide amidst millions.