Howard was fairly dancing with impatience and curiosity, but he managed to hold his tongue. Guiding Duo to one of the spare rooms at the back, he watched as the normally cheerful American slowly put his stuff away. Howard leaned back against the wall, folding his arms and crossing his feet at the ankles.
" Ready to talk now boy?" he asked, just a hint of concern in his voice. Duo heard, and a faint smile finally graced his lips.
" Not really, Howie," he teased gently. " But maybe later?"
Howard bristled at the use of the dreaded nickname that only Duo had ever gotten away with using. " Kid, it took me MONTHS to get the boys to stop calling me that! Don't you start them up again!" His eyes crinkled slightly. " And yeah. Later. If you don't, me and the boys'll have to remind you how hard it is to keep secrets around here."
Duo remembered parts disappearing, food being denied, short-sheeting of beds. His eyes lit up. " That a challenge old man?"
" OLD!" Howard jumped up and started for the braided boy who chortled and swooped past him, ducking out the door, and racing for the hangar. Howard stopped his overly-dramatic chase and watched with satisfaction as Duo went to greet some of his old Sweeper friends. " 'Least he's smilin', " he muttered, giving the hangar area one last look. " The boy's'll handle him for now. I'll talk to him later. But for now, I think there's someone else I need to talk to."
He strode into his office and sat down in his comfortable, if creaky, leather chair that had been with him for years. He brought his keyboard towards him and then punched in a familiar number. On the screen on his desk, a small window popped up and he enlarged it. The face on the screen smiled at him.
" Hello Howard - long time no see!"
" I know, Senorita," he chuckled. " Too long. You okay?"
" Always Howard. You should know me by now."
" Aaa, I do. Anyway, you know Duo Maxwell, right?"
The woman on the screen gasped. Howard blinked.
" Huh? Somethin' I said?"
" Duo is with you?" the woman pressed anxiously, focused eyes holding his captive.
" Is he?"
" Look girl, I'm kinda fond of the kid, so before I tell you anything, suppose you tell ME what's got your tail in a knot?"
Sally Po sighed, raking a hand over her head.
" What's got my tail in a knot is the fact that he's been missing for days and the other pilot's are hounding me to find him!"
Howard blinked at this little revelation. It certainly wasn't something he was expecting.
" Duo ran away from home?" he asked, knowing it sounded stupid but at the same time, he couldn't resist. Sally's face grimaced on the monitor.
" Bad one Howard."
" I know," he replied. " Why did Duo leave the other pilots?"
" That's the weird part - I don't know!" Sally sounded frustrated. Howard smothered a chuckle at the look of pure exasperation on her face - he was positive any minute now her hair was going to uncurl and stand on end, not unlike the manner of an irritated cat. That would be interesting to see. He was under the impression that she sprayed those curls into follicle rigor mortis. " All Wufei would tell me was that they needed to find Duo urgently, but that it didn't have anything to do with a mission."
" Something personal?"
" Maybe. None of them could look me in the eye when I asked why Duo was gone. I'm sensing a big wellspring of guilt here Howard."
Howard frowned, his agile mind running over the expression that had been on Duo's face when he arrived. The sheer listlessness and the over-exuding, " I give up" attitude were completely unlike the American mechanic he knew so well. The boy was like a son to him - Howard knew when something was up. He tuned back in to hear Sally finish her sentence.
"-let them know where he is-" she would have continued but Howard suddenly sat upright, putting his face right up to the mini-camera above his computer, where he knew the Sally would clearly see his expression.
" No! Don't say a word!"
Sally looked surprised.
" Why not?"
" Sally, Duo came here for a reason. Something happened between him and the other pilot's, something that's weighing on his mind. He needs to come to terms with it before you send in those four to muck it up worse."
" Do you know what's wrong?"
" Miss Po. When and if Duo Maxwell decides to keep something to himself, neither a herd of horses, miscellaneous death threats will make him reveal that secret." Howard winked. " Except to me."
Sally snorted. " Pretty confidant, aren't you?"
" He'll tell me in his own time," Howard said, with all the self-assurance of strutting vain peacock. " Trust me."
" Hmphf," was the noncommittal response. " So what should I tell Wufei when he calls-" she checked her watch resignedly. "-in about twenty-two minutes?"
" I'm sure you'll think of something," Howard said, flashing her a flirtatious smile. " You're a woman of many talents, I'm sure."
" Flattery will get you a swift kick in the butt old man." With a smart salute, Sally's face disappeared from the screen. Howard sat back with a sigh and a smile.
" What a woman!" he grinned. Pushing himself up, he noted the time, and realized it was almost time to stop work for the day. Duo would probably be in the hangar, renewing old acquaintances. First stop, workshop.
" What do you mean you cannot divulge his whereabouts?" Wufei snarled at the blond woman. Sally frowned at him and sat up a little straighter.
" Exactly what I said, Wufei! You made your mess, now you clean it up! Apparently, you boys did something that makes Duo want to remain incognito - I suggest you let him come to you! Good day!"
Sally switched her computer off and waited nearly a full minute before she gave in to the smile she'd been fighting. Alternately giggling and snickering at the near apoplectic look Wufei had shot her before disconnecting, she soon sobered.
" Fun as that was, the guys seem really worried," she mused solemnly. She vaguely considered calling Wufei back, but then remembered her conversation with Howard, and her resolve strengthened. If Duo wanted to be found, then all he had to do was activate the distress beacon on Deathscythe that was detectible only by the other four Gundams. She nodded firmly. They would just have to be patient.
Wufei fairly growled as he stomped out of his room and back down to the kitchen where the others were gathered.
" Still nothing from Sally?" Quatre asked, semi-hopefully. When he wasn't trying to absolve himself through scrubbing Nataku, Wufei had been contacting the Preventer Agent nearly every hour on the hour for the last three days. Heero's eyes zeroed in on Wufei's. The Chinese pilot scowled.
" She knows where he is, but refuses to tell me where."
Heero stood up. " Mission accepted," he said, eyes blazing. Quatre 'eeped and looked at Trowa. Noting the concern on his love's face, he casually reached out and grabbed a handful of Heero's tanktop, jerking him back to his seat.
" Sit." The tone was both commanding and requesting. Heero, having been 'whumped back into his seat, shot twin death glares at the brown-haired pilot, and his blonde accomplice.
" She knows where he is," he said levelly. Wufei sighed.
" You can't kill Sally," he pointed out reasonably. " Beside's, at least we know he's okay."
One slim eyebrow arched in question. Wufei scoffed at him.
" Oh, come now Heero - Sally may respect Duo's wishes to have his location remain a secret, but if he were in serious trouble, or even hurt, I don't think she'd keep it a secret."
Heero seemed to accept this logic and relaxed slightly. Quatre cleared his throat.
" Well, with that settled, we need to discuss this situation." _Again_, his frazzled mind told him helpfully.
" We've BEEN discussing it," Heero growled impatiently. " He left because he let his emotions govern his actions."
Quatre let his head hit the table with a thunk. Heero had been arguing that same point since the minute they'd begun having their "sessions". None of them could get Heero to admit the real reason Duo left, because that would mean Heero would have to give in and admit why it happened, and why he felt so bad about it.
" Never mind the fact that we already know how he feels," he muttered under his breath.
Wufei's eyes glinted. " At least he admits he HAS emotions," he shot back at Heero, who's eyes turned to icy flints at his words. Quatre moaned and Trowa, sensing his distress, began trying to calm Wufei down. Heero tuned out the argument - Wufei was angry because he had come to the accurate conclusion that he was also a significant reason as to why Duo had left.
Heero, meanwhile, had been arguing with himself for the last three days. That little piece of seemingly innocent white paper had been the cause of his recent nightmares, the ones where Duo would kill himself, in one way or another. Just before finishing himself off, he would look at Heero and mouth, 'I thought we were friends'. Heero would wake in a cold sweat, and the sight of Duo's empty seat every morning at the breakfast table, did nothing to help his attitude.
He knew what his feelings for Duo were - he'd semi-realized them back in the hangar when Duo had first left. The protective urge rising within him, the sadness he felt when he heard the anger and accusing tone in Duo's voice.
The gut-wrenching pain when Duo's Gundam took off.
Heero smothered another growl. The soldier within himself wanted to keep those feelings under wraps - emotions got in the way.
The boy within him wanted to go and strangle Sally Po until she told him where duo was so he could go track down the American and rant at him for leaving before....
Oh I give up, he told himself sternly. Admit that you love the loud-mouthed baka and since it's partly YOUR fault that he left, it makes it doubly painful to admit.
Wufei, Quatre and Trowa all jumped and quit their bickering as Heero's hand slammed down on the table.
" Heero?" Quatre ventured timidly. Heero looked up and fixed them all with a stern look.
" Enough stalling and wondering why Duo left. We KNOW why he left." Heero gestured at the papers they all held. " He left because he tried to be our friend, and ignored him, yelled at him and generally mocked him."
Wufei looked like he wanted to protest, but his eyes lit on his own paper and he felt his protest's die on his lips.
" I called him an idiot," he said softly. " I never once considered him to be one though. I thought he enjoyed our verbal sparring--"
" On one level, he did," Quatre interrupted. " I could tell. He loves debating with you - when you get started on a topic you enjoy, I think you're the only one who could possibly out-talk him."
" I guess I overdid it with the name calling," Wufei admitted sheepishly. Even to his own ears, he had to admit, he sounded pretty childish. " And I know he takes the war seriously - Nataku only knows how much it has taken from him." He shook his head as his mind conjured up an image of a laughing Duo. " I just don't think that in the face of such horror, I could believe Duo could take pleasure in such things as he did. The comments he makes led me to believe he didn't take anything to heart."
" It's his way of coping," Quatre said quietly.
" I didn't know I was ignoring him," Trowa spoke up suddenly. All eyes turned to him, but he continued on in that same quiet, reflective tone. " To be honest-" he pointed at the paper where Duo had kept track of how many times he'd been snubbed by the Heavyarms pilot. "-I don't even remember half of these instances." He contemplated how he wanted to say what he meant, knowing that that was also part of the problem. " Duo...confused me. He seemed to genuinely want to spend time with me, to get to know me. I did not...know, what to make of that."
Having said his piece, Trowa reverted back into silence. Quatre reached over and squeezed his hand quickly in reassurance. He then looked at Heero hopefully.
" He confuses me too," Heero said at last, throwing a quick glance at Trowa. " It made me wonder how such a cheerful person could exist during our battles. Even more so when I discovered his past, and realized just how much he had lost - yet he can still smile." He continued speaking, even as his eyes glazed over, recalling his memories of the braided boy. " He calls himself death even if he's the epitome of life. I could never understand why he wanted to spend time with someone who had no real concept of any kind of emotion.'
" He did it because he like's you," Quatre broke in, and Heero flushed as he realized he'd been rambling. Since when do I ramble? he grumbled at himself. Quatre shook his head.
" I patronized him, " he said finally. " I smile and nod and be polite - it never occurred to me that I had begun treating him like I do the clients and employees of the Winner Corporation."
" You're being hard on yourself Quatre," Wufei said wryly. " You were at least polite about it."
The four fell silent for a few minutes, before Trowa spoke up.
" So now that we know what the problem is, how do we discover the solution?"
Wufei opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it, consternated. Heero blinked and exchanged a look at Quatre whose eye's widened.
Four pilots stared at each other glumly, unable to come up with an answer.