Duo yawned and stretched as he greeted the morning sun. The sunlight filtered in through the window of the room Howard had designated as his, washing over the Shinigami pilot and bringing a temporary peace to his soul. But only temporary. Duo sighed as he stood at the small window, looking out at the ocean front, realizing that as long as he didn't hear Heero's typing on the keyboard, Quatre calling him to breakfast, or couldn't see Trowa playing his flute or see Wufei polish his sword, that he wasn't home.
_Was that what it was_? he asked silently. Truth be told, Duo more then considered the other pilots to be his friends - as far as he was concerned, all four of them had become his family members, people he would die to protect, kill to keep from harm. It was that reasoning that made it all the more painful to recall just why he was away from all of them.
" Face it Maxwell," he muttered. " You may consider them family, but the feeling sure as hell ain't mutual."
He had the feeling if Solo could see him now, he smack him upside the head and tell him to stop being such a downer.
" If you were alive, I'd let ya do it," he murmured, closing his eyes and letting the memories of a scruffy-blond headed street thief wash over. The ache in his chest grew at the thought of losing yet another 'family'. " Why me? Always...me."
With that thought, Duo took a deep breath and composed himself. When he let it out and opened his eyes, all traces of despair and sadness were gone, willed away by years of experience in masking his emotions. He'd already let the truth slip out once. He'd be damned before doing it again. _Hurts_...
Fixing his trademark smile in place, Duo turned to go see Howard and the others.
Howard looked up as Duo walked into the room. Where once the dynamic young American might have bounced, he now...sorta stumbled his way, as though the ground beneath him had suddenly lost it's solid familiarity, and had been replaced by something eerily unstable and different. Howard smacked his head. He was becoming more metaphorical. Damn it, he KNEW he'd been spending too much time talking to Sally.
" Hey kid!" he greeted him. A chorus of 'hello's' rose up from the tables as the Sweeper gang looked up from their lunches to wave to their friend. Duo felt his old ties with the Sweepers fall back into place - easily ten years younger then the youngest Sweeper member, Duo had been adopted by both Howard and the rest of them, the second day after Howard discovered him trying to hide Deathscythe on his ship all those years ago. While probably not as fanatically dedicated and loyal as Quatre's Maguanacs, Duo knew that the Sweeper crew wouldn't hesitate to protect him if they thought they could help.
" Mornin' Howie," he returned the greeting. " Guys."
" Howie," mimicked Ray, one of the younger mechanics. " Ain't it cuuuuuuuute?"
Another Sweeper, Steve, chuckled, waving his fork at Howard. " That yer newest nickname boss man?"
Howls and laughter rose up from the table and Howard smacked himself again.
" Damn Duo - look what you started!" he growled. " Damn near had 'em trained to the point of almost respectin' me - and you come and wipe away years of hard work!"
Duo chuckled at that - there wasn't a man there that didn't respect Howard to the point of nearly worshiping the man and it was well-deserved. Duo knew Howard would do anything for his men. Anything. Include, taking in a young Gundam pilot and treat him like family...
That train of thought brought him back to his original boarding station of Stone Pilots-ville, and his smile shrank fractionally. Howard noticed and steered him towards the cafeteria.
" Grab some food kid," he snickered. " Yer skinny enough as it is, and you're gonna need the energy. Ya wanna stay here, you're gonna have to work. Got it?"
Duo nodded, seeing the concern behind Howard's brash words. When problems bogged down your mind, you needed to get back to basics: work off the tension and excess energy. Duo knew that Howard and the guys would provide the chatter and amiable friendship he so desperately craved, and before the day was out, Howard would be pressing him to find out what his problem was, the only way he knew how. Beside's - working here wasn't really work. The comradery practically flowed from the building itself, and Duo knew he couldn't have chosen a better place to hide while he sulked. His inner brooding was cut off when Howard threw a napkin in his face.
" Wake up kid! Get some food in you while I prod the rest of these slackers out, maybe to do some actual work for a change!" He threw the last bit at the group sitting at the tables, laughing as both false grumbles, plastic utensils and napkin missiles were hurled in his general direction. The group cheerfully trouped out of the room, not before several of them had slapped Duo on the back, welcoming him back to the fold. Duo then sat down to eat the greasy burger and fries Howard retrieved from the cafeteria worker. Before going out with his men though, Howard hesitated, stopping next to the braided boy.
" Listen kid, if you'd rather not do anything today, me and the boys were only kiddin-"
" I know Howard," Duo cut his friend off gently. " Actually, I appreciate you guys trying to cheer me up. Beside's, I can't wait to get out there - it's been awhile since we worked together neh?"
" You know it. All of 'em missed you boy - yer somethin' special, ya know that?"
Duo caught his breath at the familiar phrase, remembering a familiar dirt-covered hand ruffling his hair, eyes smiling at him as he said nearly the exact same thing.
" Two of you..." he murmured. " But still not the ones I need to hear it from."
He shook his head and watched Howard swagger out the door, stifling a laugh at the sight of Howard trying to act pretentious. Suddenly ravenous, he wolfed down the burger, shoveled the fries into his mouth, downed the soda and then sprinted after his old boss.
" Wait up old man!"
" Old man?!?" More laughter came from the mechanics and dimly one could hear the familiar smack of palm hitting forehead. " DUO MAXWELL!"
Shinigami's laughter, real this time, echoed gaily throughout the complex.