Duo studied the exquisitely detailed painting hanging on the wall of Relena's palatial home. He turned his head to the side and gazed at a marvelously sculpted bust of what he assumed was one of Relena's exulted ancestor's. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled away nervously.
Being here in Sank made him nervous. Everything was so rich, so expensive - something he obviously was not, and knew nothing about. The corner of his lip turned up in a brief smile - selling any ONE of these priceless artifacts could've kept him and the gang fed for MONTHS....
He paused just before the doorway leading from the hallway into the large dining hall. Relena had invited all of the pilot's to her home for some rest and relaxation, a respite from the war that they faced every day. Duo had been all for the idea at first - until he found out about the rich gueststhat were invited over for dinner nearly every night, the classy formal dinners that made him want to sink through the floor of that elegant dining room.
Peering in, he saw Quatre talking cheerily to an elderly lady dressed in a stylish pantsuit, the jewelry around her neck probably worth more money than Duo could even dream of. He smiled slightly - Quatre was in his element, mingling with the high class.
Next to the charismatic blonde, Trowa sat silently, sipping from his wine glass and nodding politely to a young couple who were enamored with thefact that he performed in a circus. Being sponsors of various entertainment groups, they plied Trowa with questions about his own management, and how Trowa's circus would be perfect for some of their charity fund-raises. Not quite the social butterfly that Quatre was, Trowa nonetheless seemed to be enjoying his rather one-sided discussion about lions and knife-throwing.
Duo's eyes then traveled to where Wufei held council with gentleman who had once lived on L5, reminiscing about the various sights and historical markers the colony had been known for. The man seemed to be an artenthusiast and was completely fascinated by Wufei's sword, the former havingpulled it out for the latter to examine.
Finally, Duo gazed at his normally reticent partner Heero, who seemed to be in deep conversation with one Relena Peacecraft. Seeing those two tousled heads, one dark and one light, so close together, made Duo's heart clench painfully in his chest. They looked so....so right, sitting there. Duosnorted - and why shouldn't they? Relena was only the most powerful woman inthe world, that was all. She could give the Perfect Soldier anything andeverything he could ever dream of wanting.
Duo pulled his head back. They were probably waiting for him to begin the meal, but Duo had no intention of going in that formidable room. A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he looked up to see one of the Palace servants straightening a non-existent wrinkle in one of the long drapes covering the windows. He chuckled wryly - he knew a spy when he saw one. Years of dealing with shopkeepers blatantly following you around to make sure you didn't take anything kind of wore off on you.
" Nice to know Relena thinks I'm so trustworthy," he muttered. Sparing the lavish hallway one last glance, Duo retreated back to the room he had been given for the duration of his stay and curled up on the bed, staring out the window. Only two more days until their next mission. 48 hours before hecould leave. He curled up tighter. He could last two days.
Heero absently nodded as Relena finished yet another topic before immediately launching into the next.
// That girl is talking nearly as much as Duo,// he thought in disbelief. //I didn't think it was possible!//
Speaking of the braided wonder....Heero scanned the room, searching for the familiar form of his hyperactive partner. He knew Duo didn't want to be here - from the day Relena sent the invitation to Quatre's safehouse about one hundred or so kilometers from Sank itself, Duo had become withdrawn, less...bouncy, then usual. Heero's eyes narrowed as he noted Duo'snon-presence. Dinnertime, and no Duo? Impossible.
He was vaguely aware of an insistent voice near his ear.
" Heero? Heero?"
He turned to see Relena staring at him almost huffily before her expression abruptly switched back to the smiling, gracious hostess. " Yes?"
" Dinner is served."
The servants began to dish out each course on fine crystal, accompanied by expensive silverware. Heero idly thought that the value of the serving dishes probably came close to rivaling what the colonies had to dish out topay for his Gundam. It was sickening, in an unreal sort of way.
Quatre looked down the table, unsure of something.
" Ano, Relena-sama?" He asked politely. Relena inclined her head at him to continue. " Shouldn't we wait for Duo to arrive?"
Relena smiled politely though her eyes remained impassive. " I should think if Duo were coming, he'd be here by now, Quatre," she replied smoothly. "However, if he's not hungry, I'm sure there will be plenty of leftovers."
Heero did not like the condescending tone that spilled from her lips, and turned his focus back to his wine glass. His eyes lifted towards the door, waiting for Duo to arrive. The sounds of people eating filled the air, accompanied by the soft sounds of conversation, but Heero ignored itsteadfastly watching the door.
Duo never arrived.
It was late in the evening by the time Heero was able to make his goodbyes and escape. Stomping up the stairs, he angrily tugged off the tie that threatened to strangle him while he ate, and reflected that part of his bad mood came from wondering where his partner was. Duo never missed a meal - he considered it sacrilegious.
" It's so weird being able to expect three meals a day man," he remembered the American grinning at him one night after one of Quatre's gigantic meals." I'm NEVER going to get tired of this!"
For Duo to miss such an important thing as dinner, he knew there had to be something wrong and his bad mood compounded as he realized the rest of hisanger was coming from worry over the Deathscythe pilot.
Worry? Him? Over HIM? Ridiculous.
But if that wasn't the case, then what would explain the clenched feeling in his stomach when he opened Duo's bedroom door and saw it empty? Heero walked in slowly and checked the room thoroughly. When he was convinced Duo wasn't playing an impromptu game of hide and seek, he turned and headed for his own room to change from the formal clothing Relena had provided him. First things first, of course. Then he'd go hunt down the baka.
Once again clad in familiar spandex and tank top, Heero set off on his search, pausing only at Quatre and Trowa's room to inform them of what had transpired so they wouldn't worry. Wufei, listening from his door, nodded once at Heero as he passed, before going back in his own room.
Walking down the stairs, he saw Relena heading towards him and he stifled the automatic groan of displeasure that automatically welled up each time he saw her approach.
" Konbonwa Heero," she said demurely, coyly peering up at him through her lashes.
" Relena," he acknowledged with a sharp dip of his head. Making as though to veer past her, he was stopped as Relena sidled closer, cutting off his immediate exit. His eyes narrowed even as one raised in question.
" It's such a beautiful evening Heero," she began quietly. " I was wondering if you would like to go for a walk with me - I'd like to talk to you."
Heero stared at her, wondering what was going through her head. For all harsh words to her, she never stopped professing her love - it unnerved him somewhat to realize there could be slightly more suicidal people then him in the world.
" Not now, Relena," he said shortly. " Duo's missing."
" Duo?" Relena tilted her head. " I'm sure he's fine, Heero. In fact, one of my servants saw him go outside earlier. He hasn't come back in yet."
" When was that?"
" Pargan saw him exit the palace about two hours ago."
They would have been in the middle of dinner about then. Heero grunted and tried to slide past the persistent princess.
" Matte, Heero!" Relena caught his arm, and trailed on hand down it, shivering at the feel of velvet-covered muscles. " I'm sure he can handle himself - he IS a Gundam pilot after all."
" I'm aware of that Relena." Heero tried to keep the growl out of his voice- it wouldn't do for him to lose his temper and kill the girl. Annoying as she was, she was their best chance for peace, and that meant letting her live. Ugh. Relena saw him try to move past her again and a fraction of her temper flared through as she crossed her arms.
" Heero, I'm trying to talk to you," she said, frustrated. " We never have much time together, and when we do, you avoid me! It's like you'd rather spend more time with Duo then with me!"
Heero stared at her, not liking the sarcastic way she seemed to spit out Duo's name.
" Heero!" Relena glared at him. " For god's sake - leave the little thief to his own devices. I'd like to discuss the future of Sank with you - a future with ME..."
Heero had stopped listening, about the time she called Duo a thief. His eyes grew cold and he glared back at the irate princess.
" What did you call him?" he challenged her quietly. Relena's eyes widened at her little slip and she tried to cover it, laughing nervously.
" Ano..I didn't mean..."
" What DID you mean?" It was Heero's turn to fold his arms, and he pinned the girl in place, eyes demanding an answer. Relena fidgeted before sighing and giving in.
" Well, it's the TRUTH," she muttered sulkily. " He is a thief - I read his file."
" WAS a thief," Heero corrected her. " And you didn't say that to him, did you?"
" I do have SOME tact," Relena informed him arrogantly. " And to be fair to him, nothing was reported stolen - I suppose I should ease off a bit."
Heero digested that little statement and then frowned. Recalling her earlier words, his own eyes widened in realization.
" You have him under watch?"
Relena squirmed, realizing too late the hole she'd dug for herself. " I..."
" No wonder he wanted to leave," he growled, thinking back to the timid attitude Duo had adopted since arriving. Relena shrugged.
" Well, how was I to know? All I knew was that he had the reputation of being the best thief on L2 at one point - and some of the paintings and statues here are priceless." She met his eyes. " Pargan merely suggested I take some precautions. It's not like I ostracized him, right? I did invite ALL of you."
//To get to me,// Heero thought, but he didn't say it aloud. Instead, he glared at her again, and forcefully pushed past her. Relena bumped against the wall, aghast at his churlish attitude.
" Heero? Where are you going?"
" To find my partner," he threw back at her. " He's more important the you are right now."
Satisfied that he got his point across to her, he opened the door and strode out, slamming it shut behind him.
Relena scowled at his behavior, and then nodded resolutely. Of course he was worried about Duo - he was his partner right? And that meant Duo was his backup - something he needed in order to successfully complete his missions. It was no wonder he wanted to find Duo - probably wanted to make sure he didn't skip town before their next mission. She stared at the doorway admiringly, impressed by how dedicated Heero was to the mission. Maybe during war wasn't the best time to approach him about the future, not when he had to worry about so much and so many. They would always have the future. She smiled blissfully as she mapped out a daydream of her life with Heero...
Heero shuddered again as he recalled her hands sliding over his arms and he cursed.
//Stupid...ugh...// He shook his head. Then he looked up and scanned the area thoughtfully. // If I were a braided baka, where would I be?//
Moonlight spilled down on him, bathing the area in a faint glow, and he gazed at the reflected gleam ahead of him. // The lake...//
Duo sat on one of the large rocks surrounding the small, man-made lake, idly tossing stones into the dark water, listening to the sploosh each made as it impacted. He reflected that it was getting late and the others were probably wondering where he was by now, but he felt in no hurry to go back his room, interestingly enough, void of anything one could consider remotely valuable. He laughed bitterly when he compared it to Heero or Quatre's room - the gold trimming on the beds would have fetched a pretty penny back home.
" Destined to be haunted by my past," he murmured. " Though I'd like to know how Relena knew I was a thief..."
Images of that heated conversation made him cringe and he curled his legs up, hugging his knees to his chest. In the moonlight, he could dimly make out his distorted reflection in the murky water, normally crystal clear by day.
" I HAD to do it," he whispered. " I had to live - the kids deserved to live." He closed his eyes, his minds eye presenting him the picture of Pargan watching him warily. He stifled a sob. " I'm NOT a thief anymore."
//I'm just a killer...//
Duo buried his head in his knees, almost afraid to go back in. Even at Quatre's house, he at least had the freedom to move without Rashid watching him like a hawk.
" Aren't you afraid I'll take something?" he half-joked to the Arabian pilot. The blonde turned a gentle smile his way.
" Duo - if ever you felt the need to take something, it would be a gift," he said. " You are my friend and I trust you. If you need anything, it is yours, with my blessing."
That frank statement would have driven Duo to tears, had he been capable of producing any. He had instead, hugged the little pilot, all of the emotion that he couldn't speak tightening his throat and making his eyes sting.Somehow, Quatre had known what he was thinking, and Duo would never forgetthat. Never.
He sighed and checked his watch. 41 hours to go.
A rustling sound caught his attention and he turned.
Heero stood there, casually leaning against the rock, peering up at him through wild, untamed bangs.
" What are you doing out here?" Duo rested his cheek against his arms, still pillowed on his drawn-up knees. " I figured her royal highness would have dragged you off for a romantic moonlit stroll by now."
Heero shrugged. " Not for lack of trying," he said.
Duo grinned at the impromptu remark from Heero and lifted his head slightly.
" Really." Heero braced his hands against the unyielding rock and lifted himself up. Spreading his long legs out, he relaxed, sinking back, only his arms keeping him upright. " Why weren't you at dinner?"
Duo shrugged, the animation on his face suddenly shuttered. " Wasn't hungry."
Heero snorted. " Bullshit."
Duo started. " Oi!"
" You're ALWAYS hungry Duo," he pointed out. He looked at him fixedly. " I thought you said you never lie."
" I don't," Duo insisted, suddenly tired. " The thought of eating in there, frankly, turned my stomach."
" Why?" Heero sat up a little straighter, giving Duo his full, undivided attention. Duo admired the lean build presented to him in the moonlight's soft glow for a minute before shaking his head.
" S'not a big deal."
" Bore me." Heero's eyes were like twin lasers of cobalt-colored energy. Duo knew better then to fight against those eyes. He tightened his grip on his knees, turning his own gaze back to the water below.
" It's just...I don't know. Being surrounded by so much money, so many rich people...I don't know how to act, what to do, what to say...." Duo sighed with frustration, not knowing how to say how he felt. Heero was confused.
" You seem to like Quatre's home," he pointed out.
" That's different," Duo protested. " Quatre never flaunts his money, and Rashid and all the others are just like us. They know about war, about what we go through 'cause they do it too. Pargan and the other servants here don't see a Gundam pilot when I arrive - they see a street rat come to take away all their pretties." Duo scrunched up his nose at the thought. " Italso helps that Quatre's my friend - Relena hates me. Hatred has neverreally done wonders for my digestive tract."
Heero listened, watching the braided boy thoughtfully. Such serious words and thoughts...Heero couldn't recall a time when Duo had been serious about something. Apparently he had misjudged him. Hn.
" You're not a thief, Duo," he said at last, hoping to make that clear. Duo's eyes looked at him sadly.
" You don't know me Heero," he said. " I did a lot of things back on L2 - and not for the good of any mission. I can't justify my actions the way youprobably could."
" You think I justify what I've done?" Heero asked incredulously. Duo waved his hands placatingly.
" No, no...that came out wrong." He scrubbed his hands against his face roughly. " God, I don't know WHAT I'm saying."
Heero nodded and jumped down off the rock. He looked back and held out his hand.
" Come on."
" Huh?" Duo stared stupidly at the extended extremity. Heero sighed crossly.
" You're hungry and tired, that's what your problem is," he said exasperatedly. " Now come on!"
Duo numbly reached out and let Heero pull him off the rock. Heero let go of his hand as soon as his feet touch the ground but before Duo could sayanything, Heero swiped the tail end of his braid, clutching it possessively and tugging it gently in the general vicinity of the house. Duo smiledinwardly and amiably followed his partner.
Once inside, Duo watched with no end of amusement as Heero chased the remaining servants out of the kitchen and went to the large fridge. Pulling out a variety of foods, he pushed the ingredients to Duo who blinked before constructing a massive sandwich, while Heero pulled two drinks out.
They sat in silence, Duo eating his food, suddenly ravenous, and Heero sipping his drink, watching his friend with concern. Finally eating his fill, Duo watched as Heero swept the dishes to one side and once again grabbed hold of the handy braid, leading him upstairs.
Depositing him inside his room, Heero pointed towards the bed.
" Go to sleep," he said, not unkindly. Duo sat down on the bed, tiredly pulling his combat boots off. He untied the black string that held his hair back in its braid and began to unweave it. His eyes lit on the brush on the dresser, conveniently located next to the door. He glanced at Heero.
" Heero? Could you hand me my brush please?"
Heero nodded and picked up the brush, stalking over to the bed. Duo held out his hand, waiting for the handle to be slapped into his palm, but Heero had other ideas. Sitting on the bed behind the American, Heero held it up.
" May I?"
Duo nodded wordlessly, closing his eyes as Heero slowly and gently drew the brush through the satiny strands, humming appreciatively as the bristlesglided against his scalp.He yawned lazily.
" Why're you being so nice to me?" he asked curiously, half-afraid Heero would jump up and leave, half-afraid he would stay and answer. The brush paused for a minute, and Duo thought for sure Heero had picked door number one. Then the brush began its gentle maneuvers again, and he heard Heero sigh.
" I AM your friend, you know," he said at last, following the brush's path with his fingers. Duo's eyes widened.
" You are?" he asked incredulously. Heero snarled in irritation.
" Did you think I let you live for any other reason?" he growled, hinting at their little rescue scene from an Oz cell, not too long ago. Duo shrugged, wincing as the brush caught on a tangle. Heero's fingers went and gently disentangled the hair before continuing his ministrations.
" I dunno.."
" Why are you so hard on yourself?" Heero felt it was time to turn the tables.
" I dunno.."
" That's not an answer," Heero said mildly. " Try harder."
" It's not something I can give a black and white answer to, Heero!" Duo sighed. " It's a lot of things, and it's nothing at the same time. It's knowing you can't escape your past no matter how hard you try, and knowing at the same time you don't want to, even though it hurts."
" Like Solo?"
Duo froze before whirling around, deadly yet panicked eyes drilling into him. Heero was too taken aback to do anything other then sit there.
" Who told you that name?" Duo hissed, rage and fear battling for dominance in his violet eyes. Heero stared back at him evenly.
" You talk in your sleep."
Duo stilled, the fear and anger melting away, leaving behind a profound sense of relief.
" Who's Solo?" Heero asked casually, turning Duo back around to resume the brushing. Duo barked out a short laugh.
" An old friend..."
" Why did you get so angry?"
Duo shrugged. " I thought maybe Solo was in those damn records everyone seems to have on me...Solo was my best friend at one point of my life...if my history is depicted so badly, I'd hate for him to be in there somewhere. I may deserve all the little snide points and remarks, but Solo was different. I'd kill whoever said anything bad about him."
Heero listened with interest. " What happened to him?"
" He died in my arms." Duo's voice was devoid of any emotion.
" Plague. Oz got the church."
" Enough, onegai," Duo begged suddenly. He looked at Heero pleadingly. " Please Heero - I know you're trying to help, but I really don't want to talk about my past."
" You once told me that some old memories are like festering wounds - better to get them out in the open and give them a chance to heal." Heero set the brush down on the night stand and regarded his partner stoically. " Sounds like those kinds of memories."
" They are." Duo worried his lower lip for a minute. " But not now."
Heero nodded, and stood up. " I'll talk to Relena," he promised. " Try to enjoy tomorrow - the last day we have off before our next mission."
Duo nodded, not looking up. Heero sighed and walked over, tilting Duo's head up.
" Go to sleep," he said softly, running the pad of his thumb over Duo's cheek. " Thing's will look better in the morning."
" Promise?" Duo asked in a small voice.
Maybe it was the hopeful yet wary tone in Duo's voice or maybe all that rhythmic hair brushing had hypnotized him somewhat but Heero found himself leaning in and dropping a soft, gentle kiss on the top of Duo's head. Duo's eyes opened to the size of saucers as Heero then straightened and headed for the door. He paused and looked back, his familiar smirk in place. " Sleep tight Duo."
" Dha?" Duo blinked before a tiny smile crept back onto his face, cheeks flushing faintly.
" Arigato Heero. Oyasumi."
Heero closed the door and Duo chewed on a strand of hair thoughtfully before leaning back against the covers. His smile widened as he realized Heero had successfully cheered him up despite Duo's best efforts to remain dismal.
" Mission accomplished, ne Hee-chan?" he chuckled, before turning over and snuggling into his pillow. He'd have good dreams tonight.
Heero waited outside the door a minute before heading towards his own. His chest felt exceptionally light, and he knew it was because Duo was somewhat back to normal. Thanks to him. He thought about his uncharacteristic actions and smiled softly. The first step was always the hardest...but they always got easier with time. Heero snickered. And with practice.
With a satisfied smirk, Heero got ready for bed and slept, for the first time in a long time, without any nightmares.