" Where are you?" Heero growled, staring out the window. " How am I supposed to...apologize...if I don't know where you are?"
He slammed his fist into the dresser top, more angry at himself for letting things progress to this point. Wufei was out on the lawn doing his kata's, striving to find his inner peace that seemed to have vanished the same day Duo Maxwell did. Trowa and Quatre were in the study, twin melodies blending together to create beautiful music. As he listened, Heero could note a faint, melancholy feel to the music, a lost feeling that swirled around him and harmonized with his thoughts.
If Duo had been there, the music would have been more uplifting, possibly with Duo dragging Heero down for front row seats - the braided boy never tired of listening to Quatre and Trowa's impromptu concerts, and often stole downstairs, eyes shining like a child who'd just seen Santa Claus, to curl up onto the couch, tucking his feet beneath him and folding his arms onto the couch's armrest, watching with no endless fascination.
Heero swallowed. Hearing that music without the American around didn't feel right. He growled again.
" Where the hell is he?" A memory fluttered into his mind of Duo hugging him quickly and ruffling Quatre's hair. ' He treated us like family, as more then just soldiers. And we never once told him we appreciated it.' The guilt threatened to eat Heero up inside. It was unnerving, especially to a boy who had been trained to never acknowledge his emotions. That had all changed the day he met Duo. It was funny how the fact that Duo had made him feel more human and therefore made him feel good about life, was also the same reason he felt so bad now. He was angry at himself, for letting Duo slip away. He was confused, because he while he knew that he loved Duo, he was still unsure of the best way to proceed. He was frustrated, because with Duo gone, there was no way for him to even attempt to find a way to tell the boy how he felt. He was concerned for Duo's safety, he was worried he'd never return....he was afraid that Duo wouldn't WANT to return.
Heero sighed, leaning his head against the glass. There it was, his chief concern. He was afraid that Duo had disappeared just as Heero realized his feelings. It was amazing how quickly you could discover you wanted something only AFTER that something was gone.
' Was I too late', he wondered briefly, squinting out at the sun that seemed to shine mockingly at him. ' Were we all too late?' He sighed again, a habit he'd picked up recently. ' Where would he go?'
He'd already dismissed Hilde - Duo would never be so obvious in hiding. Beside's, Duo had once told him that he felt guilty every time he visited. Hilde was a bit more mature then Relena, who still chased him whenever she had the opportunity - Hilde openly acknowledged the fact that Duo would never love her the way she loved him. But that didn't mean she would ever stop hoping for more.
" I don't want to give her false hopes,' he'd told Heero.
Heero knew that Duo liked him. Had liked him - whether or not he still did was still up in the air, and would remain that way until he could find the pilot. But now he cursed himself for waiting so long - Duo truly did have the patience of a saint, he thought wistfully. But even saints have their limit.
Duo had run away from his family. But where to? Heero closed his eyes and thought. Who would take him in and not care about him being a Gundam pilot? Where could he go that a Gundam, especially one as imposing as Deathscythe Hell, could go unnoticed? Where could he be that Sally Po could find him? His eyes flew open.
" Howard," he breathed and pushed away from the window. He flew to his laptop and searched his database for any and all intelligence on Howard's latest whereabouts. About five seconds later, the laptop beeped and provided Heero with the necessary information. Closing the lid, Heero stood up and grabbed his duffel bag, stuffing his gun in the waistband of his shorts habitually. Storming down the stairs, he narrowly avoided hitting Quatre and Trowa who had left the room at the sounds of heavy footsteps.
" Heero?" Quatre asked worriedly.
" Mission?" Trowa blinked his one visible eye at him. Heero nodded shortly, not breaking his stride.
" I found Duo," was all he said as he disappeared into the side door that led to the hangar. Wufei came into the house, peering critically at Trowa and Quatre's frozen stances.
" Is something wrong?"
" Heero said he found Duo!" Quatre finally said. He spun around, looking at his fellow teammates.
Trowa nodded, seeing the need in the small blonde's eyes. " Give Heero a head start - he needs to talk to Duo first I think."
" But then we'll just have to follow Wing Zero," Wufei added with a grim smile. After Heero finished his little talk with Duo, they were ALL in for some major apologizing.
Duo wiped the sweat out of his eyes - he'd almost forgotten how hard Sweeper work could be.
" Now I know why I became a pilot," he sighed, pulling his grey t-shirt over his head and stretching out all of his hard-worked muscles. The few days he'd spent with Howard and the guys working in the yard had deepened his non-existent tan to a dark brown. He could feel his already lean figure becoming even leaner with the long days he'd been putting in, unasked. He knew Howard appreciated the extra help - they had some large parts orders to fill and all of them had been working double time.
The American grinned faintly. The comradery, the cheerful shouts, the business all helped keep his mind off the reason as to why he was there in the first place. Howard hadn't pressured him to talk after that second day of his arrival, but Duo would catch him watching him out of the corner of his eye. It warmed his heart to know that someone still cared about him.
Ray slapped him on the back as he walked by, startling him out of his reverie.
" Hey kid - break time!"
" Why do ya think I cut out early?" Duo grinned at him impishly. Ray laughed. One of the younger Sweepers, he nonetheless remembered the skinny little thief that had stowed away on Howard's old barge years ago. He and Steve had been the lucky ones that had shined the flashlight in that sleeping face behind some packing crates and had called Howard over to check it out.
The boy had been terrified that they were going to do something to him, Ray thought amusedly, and it had taken all three of them to keep Duo from trying fight his way through them. 'Kid can fight like hellfire when he's scared.'
" You ain't fooling me, boy. Why Howard keeps ya around, I'll never know..." Ray's voice trailed off as he saw Duo's face drain of color, and his previously lax hands tighten into white-knuckled fists. 'Something I said?'
" I sometimes wonder that too," Duo said quietly, his voice devoid of any emotion. He then turned away and would have left, but Ray quickly reached out and snagged a hold of the shirtless boy's shoulder. Duo looked back at the mechanic, one eyebrow raised. Had it been anyone Duo didn't know, the man's arm would have already been removed from his shoulder. Permanently. Ray swallowed as he saw a look of pure fury flit through Duo's eyes, and the muscle beneath his hand went from relaxed to iron-hard and back to relaxed in under a second.
Howard had warned his men not to sneak up on a trained Gundam pilot. They had all agreed, not really knowing why. Duo was one of them - the loud mouthed, practical jokester they all seemed to regard as a playful puppy, a younger brother, a good friend. Now, in that split second, Ray could see the wisdom behind Howard's warning. Then the moment passed, and Duo turned to face his friend completely.
" What's up?"
Ray blinked and let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He returned the smile cautiously.
" Look Duo - I know it's been a while since you've been one of us," he began, somewhat awkwardly. " But you're still one of us. You came here for a reason, and you have a right to your privacy." He let go of Duo's shoulder and looked at the boy, his face showing only honest concern for the pilot that was everyone's kid brother. " Something's eating at you man. We all know it. Howard's worried about you, heck kid - we all are. You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to, but I think you should talk to someone."
" About what?" Duo asked nonchalantly, feigning ignorance even though he knew that wouldn't get him very far. They all knew that he never lied - so keeping secrets from the Sweeper's gang was nearly impossible because they'd just head in with the direct questions that he couldn't evade.
" About whatever brought you here." Ray swivelled his hat around so it lay backwards on his head. Bringing one foot up on the bench, he leaned forward, resting his arms on his knee, facing the still-seated Duo. " I bet it has something to do with your friend, Heero."
Duo looked up at him in shock. " How do you know about him?" he asked incredulously.
" That's his name right? Or at least, that's what you called him the first time he was at Howard's old place - right before he stole half of Deathscythe's parts!"
Duo smiled faintly at the memory. " I forgot you were there."
" I'm utterly hurt." Ray tried to frown.
" I'm sure you are," Duo smirked. " Utterly."
Ray snickered and then sighed. " So what happened?"
Duo stiffened and looked away. Ray held his pose, staring at the braided boy.
" I don't want to talk about it," Duo said harshly, still not looking Ray in the eye.
" I think you're lying kid," Ray said mildly. " I think you want to talk about whatever drove you here so badly you can taste it but you're afraid."
Duo's head snapped up, his eyes fairly blazing at Ray's casual remark.
" I'm not afraid of anything!"
" Except this!" countered Ray. A part of him was sickened at what he was doing, seeing the obvious emotional distress Duo was in, but he knew that only by letting out the problem, could Duo accept the healing. Or so he was told. ' I hope you know what you're doing old man', he thought ruefully.
" Back off man," Duo said slowly, shaking his head as though to rid himself of his excess anger. " Just leave it alone. Leave me alone."
Ray suddenly felt very tired.
" Look Duo - whether or not you want to believe it, I'm your friend. We're all your friends. It hurts us seeing you like this and not knowing how we can help." He dropped his head slightly, staring past Duo to the yard. " We all know you didn't come here looking for a job."
Against his will, Duo chuckled quietly. " How do you know?"
" 'Cause you have a job of your own to do," came the low response. " Ain't that right, Shinigami?"
Duo lowered his head and stared at the ground for a long time. Ray was beginning to think he wasn't going to answer when Duo's low voice spoke up.
" Always the job first," he finally whispered. " I guess that was my problem, neh? I tried to switch it around - tried to make friends and family come first. Shoulda' known it couldn't work."
Ray stared at him, wordlessly encouraging him to continue.
" I always thought if I tried my best, smiled enough, or went that extra mile in trying to lighten the situation, that I could make a difference." Duo's head lifted slightly, but his eyes saw right through Ray as though the man weren't even there. " I thought that they were my last chance to have a family. I thought they wanted the same thing I did - to belong."
" The war comes first, I know that - shit, I'm a pilot too, right? But it didn't matter - nothing I did mattered." Duo's voice trailed off even as his fists tightened again. Ray's eyes widened at the sight of a thin trickle of blood dripping from those clenched fingers.
" HE was the worst," Duo whispered, his voice soft and hard. " I thought I could help - thought that maybe I meant something to him, anything to him. I just wanted friends again - was that so bad?" His eyes cleared for a minute and focused on Ray who held perfectly still. " Was it wrong for me to want to be their friend? Even though I knew the risks, I didn't care - I wanted to provide just a little light for us....."
His voice trailed off and he lowered his head. His hands suddenly opened, and he held them up, staring with a kind of detached fascination at the streams of crimson crisscrossing his palms.
" So much blood...always blood....and fighting...I wanted to be their friend." His voice suddenly sounded choked and his hands started shaking. Ray sighed and sat down next to the boy.
" What happened Duo?" he asked gently, letting the boys shoulder touch his, just enough to lend him strength.
" An experiment...gone wrong.." Duo managed to choke out in between gasps. His shoulder's shuddered even as his eyes remained dry. It took awhile, but eventually the story of the strips of paper came out, and how Duo had tallied his 'friends' responses to his advances. But he sensed something else and he waited patiently.
" And H-Heero...." Duo looked at Ray somewhat fearfully, and the man chuckled gently.
" Duo, relax. I knew from that first time Heero arrived that you were attracted to him - I saw you checking him out."
" You k-knew? And you didn't-"
" Care? Why should I? It doesn't directly affect me." Ray's eyes narrowed slightly. " Unless you count the fact that I now feel the urge to go and beat up every one of them for hurting you. I know the guys would wanna help too."
" No!" Duo looked at him quickly. " Stay out of this Ray - I know you mean well, but even if all of you...well, against a group of trained terrorists you wouldn't stand a chance."
Ray grinned at the apologetic tone coming from the American.
" I know kid - but it doesn't make me want to do it any less." He stood up and stretched. " It's getting late eh?"
" Yeah. Break time's over." He rose to his feet as well, surreptitiously wiping his bloodied palms on his jeans, the small grooves he'd cut into his palms already scabbing over. Good thing they wore gloves.
" Look Duo - no matter what happens, you know you've got us on your side right? We're all your friends." He smiled crookedly. " And who knows? Maybe your little exit will be something of a wake-up call for them. You may not realize it, but you've got a way of becoming friends with people when they least expect it."
Duo shrugged. " Maybe - but I doubt it." He smiled faintly and then turned and headed back to the yard. As he drew closer to the other Sweeper's coming back from break, Ray watched the familiar mask slip over the boys face, leaving no trace of the emotionally distraught kid he'd just seen. He sighed.
" Poor kid."
" Thanks for your help. " A twenty was waved in front of his face and Ray frowned at the old man.
" Keep your money," he growled. " I just hope I didn't hurt him more then help him."
" It'll be better in the long run," Howard sighed, adjusting his sunglasses. " At least I know what's bothering him."
" Just use me as the buffer zone huh?"
" Better he hate you then me," chuckled Howard. Ray shook his head. A sudden beeping noise drew their attention and Howard craned his head to see inside of his office at the computer screen. One of his lights was blinking. His eyes widened.
" What's up boss?" Ray asked calmly, seeing the worried look appear on Howard's face.
" Incoming mobile suit." Howard answered briskly as he headed for his computer.
" What?" Ray's eyes nearly goggled out of his head. " A mobile suit? An active mobile suit? Coming here?"
" Yep," sighed Howard, scanning his sensors. He folded his hands staring at the screen. " This can be good, or this can be bad."
" What do you mean?"
" See for yourself." Howard turned the screen around so Ray could see and the mechanic gulped audibly.
It was a Gundam.