The two riders were able to catch up with the mobile suits after about half an hour, not wanting to push the horses too hard, since there was the potential that it would be a very long day. Once they were among the four Maguanac suits, they trotted to keep pace, diverting here and there to crest sand dunes for good views. The horses were much quicker to get around with, but the vantage point from horseback was small, so this combined method of man, animal and machine, they hoped, would find their friend. Quatre kept in contact with Rashid via a handheld intercom and the six men were able to scout out large areas quickly with the two horsemen hill-topping and the mobile suits detecting objects and movement far in the distance.
By mid-morning, the desert sun was out completely and the temperature had risen to a sweltering degree. Quatre and Heero, covered in their wraps, were equally sweltering. Heero's silver mare glistened with sweat, and Quatre's chestnut was coated with lather that was continuously drying to a salty crust on her coat. The search party had already stopped once to rest the horses and let them drink from the water they each carried, and everyone was moving on, following the planned route. Rashid guided the party by using his mobile suit's navigational equipment, ensuring that no one else would get lost, as Duo had.
"Master Quatre." Rashid hissed over the intercom hanging on Quatre's saddle. He picked up the device and pulled his horse up, looking in the direction of the mobile suits as he listened. "Ahmed has picked something up on his scanner...not another rattlesnake this time. Bigger. It could be him."
"Where?" the blond man asked. Shielding the sun from his eyes with his free hand, he scanned the horizon.
"Seventeen degrees due east of us, about a half kilometer off." The intercom hissed again.
"We'll check it out." Quatre replied, motioning to Heero to head off east. The two horses trotted away, quickly becoming two small dots on the landscape. The four mobile suits waited where they stood, making certain not to move out again until the two riders had returned.
Heero and Quatre rode the coordinates that Rashid had said, Heero holding his compass open in one hand as he posted to the smooth gait of his horse's trot. They'd traveled quite a distance from the Maguanacs and hadn't come across anything, and were beginning to think that they'd either passed it, or it was some kind of an animal that had since left the scene. Quatre radioed back to Rashid.
"There's nothing here." His voice was dry and tired, as was he.
After a few seconds, Rashid answered. "It's there - I have it on my scanner too. Keep looking!"
Riding further out, passing a big boulder and a scattering of scraggly brush, Quatre and Heero scoured the sand as far ahead of them as they could see. They reached the foot of a huge sand dune and, standing in their stirrups to take their weight off the horse's backs, they ascended the hill slowly, petite hooves sinking in the sand as the horses huffed and grunted their way to the top. Looking around, intercom in one hand and the reins in the other, Quatre was taken by surprise when his horse leapt the final distance to the top of the dune, only to find something within inches of her hooves just on the other side of the crest. Before stepping down with her forelegs, the agile mare bunny-hopped, pushing herself off again with her hind legs, clearing the obstacle before her, unseating her rider, sending Quatre somersaulting backward out of the saddle. As the horse slid down the side of the sand dune on her haunches, Quatre came crashing down at the top just over the crest, landing next to whatever it was that his horse had hurled herself over.
Clearing his head for a moment, he shook sand out of his ghutra, then turned to look beside him. It was Duo. He was partially covered by windblown sand and lying chest down, his head turned to the side. His braid sat atop the sand looking like the wick on a candle, or another rattlesnake. Eyes wide, Quatre shook his friend, and then started frantically pushing sand off him. Duo was unconscious, but thankfully he was breathing.
"Quatre!" Heero was yelling from the top of the dune as his horse gingerly descended it. "Are you OK?"
Standing with his hands raised to his brow, protecting his eyes from the sun's blinding glare, Quatre cried out to the other rider. "Heero! I found him!"
By the time they got Duo to the other side of the sand dune, Rashid and the others were already waiting on the ground to assist in any way they could. Duo was alive, yes, but according to Abdul, probably collapsed from exhaustion if he fought the sandstorm all night. His physical condition not what it used to be, the wind had probably whipped him until he couldn't go on any longer and collapsed. Luckily, he'd only been missing for less than a day, so, while he was surely dehydrated, the degree of dehydration was probably not critical.
"Duo is a tough boy." Rashid said in his deep, gruff voice. "He will be fine." Hoisting the braided young man into his mobile suit with him, he instructed the others to make sure that Quatre and Heero got back to the estate safely while he went ahead at a faster pace with Duo. Then with one suit leaving the scene and the others waiting to go, Heero realized that the horses were nowhere to be seen. Giving a whistle with his fingers, Quatre called to them. First the gray popped over the top of the dune, making her way down the hill to stand beside the blond man. A few minutes later the chestnut followed.
Heero smirked, looking at the horses standing in front of them. "Cute."
"They like me." Quatre shrugged, smiling innocently. Then he mounted his horse.
The remains of the search party arrived at the Estate a few hours later, hot, sweaty, tired, but relieved. Handing off their horses to the stable hand, Quatre patted his mare, who was blowing hard, moderately spent by the day's events. "Please wash them down well, and give them an extra feed today after they've cooled off, Khalid, they've worked very hard." Then the two former Gundam pilots retreated into the house to find out how Duo was doing.
Entering the bedroom, Heero held a finger to his lips to signal to Quatre to be quiet, and the two silently crept to the side of the bed where Duo slept. Pulling an armchair up beside the bed, Heero sat, crossing his leg over his knee, while the other man hung back and stood at the foot of the bed. Silently they sat for many minutes, lost in their own thoughts as they both watched protectively over Duo. The rise and fall of his chest along with the sound of his breathing was mesmerizing. Someone had cleaned him up some before putting him in bed, and he lay, chest bare and hair unbraided, soundly sleeping and unaware of his guests. Exchanging glances, the two onlookers collectively sighed.
"Heero..." Quatre whispered in a barely audible voice. "I'm going to go take care of a few things now that Duo is safe. Will you be staying here with him?"
Heero nodded. Quatre excused himself and left the room, leaving the Japanese man alone with a sleeping Duo. Propping his fingers up into a steeple formation in front of his lips, he closed his eyes for a few minutes to relax. Some thirty minutes or so later he was awakened from his light slumber by the sound of sheets rustling. Rising from the chair, Heero went to sit at the edge of the bed as Duo slowly regained his consciousness with blinking eyes and an expression of confusion. Once he was able to focus on Heero, Duo opened his mouth to speak, but coughed instead.
Swallowing hard, he tried once more, this time with a little bit of success. "What h-happened?" Duo croaked. There was sand still in his mouth, as well as in his fingernails and rooted in his scalp. Feeling itchy, a hand automatically reached to his arm to scratch it, causing him to wince and look at his sunburnt skin.
Heero cleared his throat. "I was about to ask you the same thing. What's going on, Duo?" His tone was accusatory, and mildly annoyed. Duo didn't answer. "You know...I figured you had a hell of a lot more sense than to go traipsing off in the middle of a desert. You could have died out there. Or was that your intention?" Heero stared coldly at the longhaired man in the bed, expertly covering up the anguish that his heart was feeling at that moment.
"I... I wasn't trying to kill myself Heero." Duo stammered. He lowered his head, his bangs covering the view of his face. "I needed to be alone."
"So you go out alone in the damn desert!?"
Surprised by the harshness of Heero's comment, Duo looked up at him, tears welling in his eyes. "Heero... you don't understand. Nobody understands. I just... needed... to get away. To talk to myself alone. I... I just started walking - I wasn't trying to hurt myself. I just wasn't thinking.
Heero looked away, then back at Duo. "You sure weren't." The expression on his face was one of annoyance, but his blue eyes deceived him, letting Duo see his concern.
"You were worried about me."
There was a hesitation before Heero answered quietly "Yes."
Giving a sniff, Duo wiped away a few tears that had run down his cheek. "Heero?"
The Japanese man replied with a short "Hmm?"
"Would you come and lay here with me?"
Would he come and lay there with him. At first Heero did not move a muscle to go toward the bed, and Duo's stomach sank. Then rising from the armchair, Heero walked around to the other side of the bed, pulled off his shoes, and slid under the sheets beside Duo, who had moved over for him. Lying there together, Duo breathed a huge sigh of comfort and relief, pushing himself against Heero's body, the other spooning him. He lay his arm over Duo's waist and pulled him closer, sighing into the back of his neck.
"Heero?" Duo whispered sedately.
Duo hesitated. "Do you think there's something wrong with me?"
Heero opened his eyes. "I think that you don't like yourself, that's what I think. Even though you should."
Duo turned himself in the bed to look at the Japanese man. Leaning on his elbow, he continued. "I can't like myself, Heero. Because look at me...look at the things that I've done. I've gone through my life knowing the right things to do, and doing them because I knew it was supposed to be that way, but not 'feeling' that it was right. I've gone through my life with this hatred in me...that I can't even explain. I don't know if it's me that I hate, or everyone else, but one minute I'm consumed with all this pain, and the next, I don't feel anything. So I just do things, with no feeling at all. It took me a long time to figure all that out, Heero, and I hate myself because of it."
Reaching a hand up, Heero moved a wisp of hair out of Duo's face. "Can I give you some advice?"
"Stop hating yourself for things you had no control over. It took me along time to realize it, but I was doing the same thing. That's partly why I pushed you away before." His eyes were serious now, holding Duo's attention as he spoke. "The pain will kill you if you don't let it go. I don't want to see that happen, because I'm now finally realizing myself how much better life can be when I do that. I want us to be happy together, Duo."
Duo half-smirked, his eyes portraying his disdain. "I don't know how to let it go, Heero. It's everywhere that I am, reminding me all the time that I've done some lousy things." He lay back down on the bed, snuggling his head under Heero's chin. "It makes me feel so isolated, so alone - makes me feel like I'm going to eventually do something to hurt everyone that's important to me, and I'll be alone forever. It makes me angry, and I lose my mind sometimes. I don't want to be alone, Heero, so sometimes I feel like I'd just rather not be at all."
"Look around you. Does it look like you're alone?" Heero kissed the top of Duo's head lightly. "Quatre's here, Trowa and Wufei are here if you need them, you have a great job waiting for you if you want it... and I'm here. And I'm telling you that you need to forgive yourself for being a victim of a society at war, Duo. None of what's happened has been your fault. You were simply an instrument, like me, used to realize an objective. You weren't around to know this but, after you left, I had to go talk all this out with someone too, because I was headed down the same path. The wars. It still hurts me today sometimes, but we have to move on, or we'll never be able to enjoy the freedom that those others died fighting for in the first place."
Hugging him closer, Heero rested with Duo in his arms, thinking about the irony of the situation - he being the one to be convincing Duo that he really was a good person. After the years he himself had spent being nothing short of an emotional rock, now here he was comforting his love who was experiencing the same pains and self doubt that he did. When he got to be so analytical and compassionate was beyond him, but he was at least glad that he could wake up in the morning now and not hate himself for being a pawn in the chess game of life. He only wished he could somehow get Duo to realize the same thing. A few fleeting thoughts milling in his mind, Heero was soon fast asleep, as was Duo, the two cuddled together, secure in each other's arms once again.