Disclaimer: Not mine.

Pairings: None (friendships only)
Warnings: Angst, but bearable
Count: 746

Author Note: Inspired by a recent drive to California, there really are way too many "trees" along I80 between Wendover, UT and Reno, NV. Enjoy.

Highway Markers
by Merith

Heero found him on a high desert highway, roughly a hundred miles east of Reno. A car, a four-door sedan from the looks, waited patiently running about a hundred yards ahead. Cars, trucks, vans and semis flew past, the wind blowing mini-hurricanes in their wake, shaking his vehicle, and whipping the clothing of the man crouched off the breakdown lane.

The rental rolled to a stop several feet behind the figure, and Heero sat for a moment, watching him. The man hadn't turned, hadn't even flinched as the car drew near. Releasing a long breath, he turned the motor off, grabbed his coat and, making sure traffic had slowed, he opened the door. The air chilled him instantly and he slipped into his coat as he approached.

"Duo?" Heero called just behind him. When the man didn't move, he squatted next to him, a hand going to his shoulder. "Duo?"

The young man's head turned slow and grinding, like a machine with stripped gears. Heero gasped. He'd heard, but hadn't realized how bad it'd been. Bruised, and still swollen, Duo's face held multiple cuts with one long gash over his forehead closed with sutures. He could see another line of stitches at his temple disappearing beneath the hat Duo wore. And he realized what was missing. "Your hair," he whispered.

Bleak eyes stared at him from a haunted face. "This is Kellie Sampson," Duo mumbled through lips that barely moved. "She was heading home from school for the holidays." He turned back to stare at the forlorn object embedded into the easement. "She was twenty, too."

Heero wrenched his gaze away and looked to where Duo had nodded. Weathered and scarred, its white paint peeling, large spots chipped away to the grey beneath, a slat-board cross sat staked into the ground. A wreath of fake flowers, faded from the harsh desert sun, was wired to its frame. What once was a broad ribbon fluttered; its letters illegible, worn faint from scouring winds.

"They call these Nevada's trees. There's enough of them," his voice sounded lost in the still cold, the harsh wind pulling it from his lips. "This is my fifth one."

"Why?" Heero asked, looking to his friend again. He cringed inside, and his fingers touched the ragged edge of Duo's hairline. More had been lost, but this visual, tangible evidence that something had happened was the only thought he could comprehend.

A sigh escaped, and Duo dropped to the ground on his rear. "That's what I'm looking for. I want answers, Heero. I need to know."

Shifting closer, Heero touched his shoulder, and noticed the man was only wearing a sweatshirt without a coat. "It was an accident, Duo. There isn't a why. There may never be an answer."

He saw the cartilage in his throat bob, the slightest quiver of his chin and then Duo spoke, "We wanted to save a few bucks, you know. Spent too much, just thought we could drive right on through." His throat convulsed again. His voice took on a reedy quality. "She was my best friend, and now she's gone. All for a few measly dollars. I was so tired and fell asleep." Duo turned a despairing face with red-rimmed eyes to him. "I didn't even know it happened, ya know?"

"Yeah, I know." Heero squeezed the shoulder under his hand.

"I should have drove. I should have made Hilde stop. I should have..." his voice cracked and drifted away. "What am I going to do, Heero?" His breathing sped up; his chest heaving with its pace.

Heero sat for a moment without answering. The wind had picked up, the ribbon fluttered loudly, and his hair blew into his face, stinging his eyes. He avoided looking at the absence of what should have been much longer hair, but instead moved slowly, half crawling over the semi-frozen ground to sit behind his friend. With legs spread wide, he slid as close to Duo's back as he could, and pulled his coat open, wrapping it with his arms around Duo.

"You're going to survive. You're going to go on living, and honoring her every day." Heero felt the slight sigh, and the tense muscles of Duo's back relaxed against his chest. He held him tighter. "But for now, you'll grieve." Duo's breathing slowed to a more normal rate.

Feeling something wet on his cheek, Heero looked up. The low-laying grey clouds had given in, and it began to snow.


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