Heero leaned forward over the table, cobalt blue eyes boring into Wufei's. "He was hiding from us."
Wufei sat frozen, face blank and cold, as his mind raced.
*He runs, he hides, but he never lies...*
*"Why, 'Fei, I woulda done this a long time ago if I'd known you were such a good kisser."*
*"I don't want to be alone!"*
*"I lo-- I'll, uh, keep in touch, okay?"*
*Well, he called Trowa... once. Oh gods, Duo, I'm sorry!*
Looking at Wufei's cold, uncaring mask, Heero snapped.
< < CRACK! > >
Wufei's chair went over backwards as pain exploded in his jaw; then Heero dove over the table, dragged him up by a fistful
of his shirt, and slammed him into the wall.
"What the fuck did you think you were doing, Chang?!" he snarled, twisting his fistful of shirt and half-choking Wufei. "Even if you didn't give a damn about what happened to Duo, you knew he mattered to us! The least you could have done was tell us when you drove him away, so we'd know to go
"I DIDN'T KNOW!" Wufei screamed hoarsely.
Heero's grip loosened, just a fraction; Wufei choked, coughed and went on.
"I didn't know he'd broken off contact with you," he said quietly. "He was always closer to you three than me, even before I -- I screwed up. Hell, I thought--" He glanced up, saw Relena watching with her hands pressed to her mouth, and changed what he had been about to say. "I was sure he was keeping in touch with you all, just avoiding me. For all I knew, he'd asked you not to mention him to me." He laughed, a bitter, humourless sound. "I couldn't bring myself to ask you how he was, though gods know I wanted to... and you never brought him up, either. Did you?"
Heero glared and opened his mouth to reply, but Quatre beat him to it. "Wufei's right." Everyone turned to look at him, standing next to his chair; he twisted his hands together nervously, but continued. "From what you're saying, Wufei had reason to think that nothing was wrong when Duo didn't contact
him, but none of us did... and we still let things slide for eight months. This... this is our fault too."
"Agreed," Trowa said quietly. "But I think we need to know what Wufei did to drive Duo away."
"Yeah," Heero said, releasing Wufei's shirt slowly. "And tell it properly this time... none of that 'misunderstanding' shit."
Once they were all seated again, Wufei swallowed, wincing slightly at the pain from the rapidly swelling bruise. *How can I say this?*
"Go on," Heero growled.
Wufei licked dry lips, staring almost desperately around the room; then he looked directly at Quatre and just blurted it out.
"At your party for the end of the war... out on the balcony, right before you threw up... Duo kissed me." The next words seemed to stick in his throat, and he paused.
"And you reacted badly?" Trowa asked calmly.
"No! I-- I wanted to," Wufei confessed. "But I thought... Duo was drunk, and so was I, and he'd never said or done anything to make me think he might... anyway, I thought--" His eyes flicked to Heero and Relena and he stopped, blushing.
"Thought what?" Heero asked.
"It's not relevant."
"Yes it is, Chang, if it's got anything to do with what happened! No more keeping your mouth shut!"
"I thought he was... with you," Wufei muttered, looking away.
There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
"Well... they were together," Relena said quietly. "For a while."
Wufei stared at her, mouth open, astonished. Relena was blushing, but met his eyes steadily. "They were...?" he sputtered. "You knew... and you still...?"
"Duo explained it to me," she said, tipping her chin up, determined. "They... loved, yes, but not as lovers, exactly; as friends, and brothers, and... soldiers, I suppose. I had to think about it for a long time, to decide how I felt... but their relationship never threatened ours."
"It was... just a few times," Heero muttered, looking away; Relena covered his hand in hers and squeezed gently.
Trowa cleared his throat. "Returning to Wufei's story...? He kissed you. Then what?"
"A little later, in the study, things went... further." Wufei had his eyes closed now, refusing to look at anyone. *Just say it and get it over with!*
"How much further?"
"I. Don't. Know," he gritted out through clenched teeth.
"Oh, like you really expect us to believe that--"
"I told you, I was drunk!" Wufei yelled at Heero. "I can't remember! All I know is, I woke up on the sofa with Duo, both of us pretty well naked, I had no idea how far we'd got before we passed out, and I had no idea how to tell! Shit, it's not like I'd had a lot of practice--" He broke off, blushing even harder.
"Couldn't Duo tell?" Quatre put in.
There was a short pause as Wufei struggled with the tattered remnants of his pride. *I've told them everything else... why balk at this one last thing? My honour's gone, so does face really matter?*
"I don't know," he said quietly, for what felt like the hundredth time. "I panicked. I was terrified that he'd wake up and hate me, or be afraid of me, or... any number of things... so I did the most cowardly thing I've ever done in my life, and walked out while he slept. Then I avoided him, because I didn't have the courage to face him... and then he left, and I've never wanted anything in my life more than to beg him to stay but all I did was stand there like a fucking idiot and call him 'Maxwell'--"
Hot tears slid down his cheeks, and he tried to wipe them away with a shaking hand.
*And I think the only thing that's kept me sane for the last eight months was the belief that Duo was out there somewhere doing fine, that at least he still had his friends, and now--*
"--and now I find out that he did mean it, it wasn't just the damn drinks, he was afraid I'd hate him if he let me know and it looks like that's exactly what I made him think, and I--"
*--I love him--*
Relena stood, tears streaming down her face, and moved towards Wufei, but he waved her away and stood, trembling.
"I hope Duo's found someone else to love, because I sure as hell don't deserve him."
And he turned and walked out.
* * * * *
Lady Une looked up from her paperwork with a sigh as, for the second day in a row, the door to her office slammed back against the wall. Zechs and Noin skidded to a halt in front of her desk, panting.
"Lady Une!" Noin gasped, wide-eyed. "Please tell us this isn't true!"
Zechs held out a sheet of printout; Une peered at it. "Ah. That." She didn't have to read it -- the photo was unmistakable. "Unfortunately, it's accurate. Duo Maxwell is missing."
"Oh god... Excuse me, Lady Une, I've gotta go protect my Taurus!" Noin ran out.
"Er... yes." Zechs suddenly looked even more uncomfortable. "I, ah, might look in on my mobile suit as well..."
Une waved her hand dismissively, looking back down and picking up her pen. "Shoo. Shoo. Close the door as you leave."
As the door closed behind him, she began to hum quietly.
"On the first day of Maxwell, my enemy sent to me... white roses and stephanotis. On the second day of Maxwell, my enemy sent to me... hm. I wonder what he did to them? And do I get three panicked visitors tomorrow?"
Zechs skidded into the hangar and sighed in relief as he saw his mobile suit in pristine condition. *Externally, anyway... I'd better run a few checks.*
As he settled into his seat and activated the computers, his mind went back to the last time he'd encountered Duo's 'handiwork'...
"Sir! Sir! Tallgeese-- it's--"
"What is it, Otto?"
Otto looked pained. "You'd better see for yourself, sir."
Zechs stopped short just inside the hangar, staring aghast at his Gundam. Silly String dangled from every possible location, it was holding a banner that said 'DEATHSCYTHE ROCKS -- I SUCK!', and large bumper stickers had been plastered all over it. Slowly, he read his way down.
'MY MIND NOT ONLY WANDERS, IT SOMETIMES LEAVES COMPLETELY'
'I USED TO BE SCHIZOPHRENIC, BUT WE'RE OKAY NOW!'
'I SUFFER FROM OCCASIONAL DELUSIONS OF ADEQUACY'
'HAVING AN OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE, BACK IN FIVE'
'WANTED: MEANINGFUL OVERNIGHT RELATIONSHIP' (Zechs thought it was a bit much putting that one on Tallgeese's *ahem* crotch.)
'NO SHRED OF EVIDENCE EXISTS TO SUPPORT THE IDEA THAT LIFE IS SERIOUS'
'I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO PROCRASTINATE!'
And then, on the feet:
'GUNDAMS: CHLORINE IN THE GENE POOL' and 'MEDDLE NOT IN THE AFFAIRS OF GUNDAMS, FOR YOU TOO CAN GO *GISH*!'.
"Otto," Zechs murmured faintly, "please tell me that's red paint all over the floor."
"We think so, sir. It's not changing colour as it dries."
"Ah, sir... there's a packet on the seat inside. It's, ah, addressed to you."
As Zechs stepped into the open hatchway, ducking under 'BACK IN FIVE', he realised why Otto had been blushing faintly; the white envelope had 'To Sexy Zechsy!' scrawled across it. Scowling, he opened it.
Inside, there was a single sheet of paper and a disk; Zechs felt the first tremors of apprehension as he saw that the disk was labeled 'Sexy Zechsy Pics'.
I had sooooo much fun getting these little
holiday snaps. You've got quite a bod! There's only one
more copy of this disk, and I haven't got it. Have fun
guessing who I gave it to!
Duo Maxwell. :-)
--P.S. If you're wondering why I gave you a
copy, well, I figured I had to give you something in
return for what I took!
"Otto," Zechs snapped as he climbed out of the cockpit, "have the mechanics start cleaning all this off. Alert the base commandant; tell him we've been infiltrated and I believe data has been stolen. Start the computer techs checking to see if he planted any viruses. And for God's sake, beef up security
"I'll be in my quarters if you need me."
With the door safely locked behind him, Zechs slipped the disk into his computer and started his virus checker. As it worked its way through the files, he found himself fretting.
*'Holiday snaps'. The only holiday I've taken recently was that weekend-- shit. There's a lot of files. Who could he have given the copy to?! Treize-sama? Otto? UNE?! General Septum-- no, hang on, he's dead. Phew!*
The virus checker finished its run, and the first picture flashed up on the screen. And 'flashed' was a good word for it...
Zechs shuddered. *I never did find out who got the copy.*
Noin finished wedging her Taurus's hatch open and climbed cautiously into the cockpit. Settling nervously into the seat, she glanced back at the hatch, finger hovering over the button that would start the computers.
*Damn it, I used a piece of girder! I almost ruptured myself moving the bloody thing! I think it'll hold.* And she pressed the button.
She held her breath for a moment, as screens flickered to life around her, then relaxed when nothing happened.
*That brat's made me paranoid, I swear! Not that I don't have reason for paranoia...*
"It's a Gundam! It's a Gundam!
Noin sprinted to the hangar as a looming dark shape slashed through the fence with a glowing green blade.*That's Deathscythe! Maxwell's got to be after the new mobile suits! Damn it, how many times are those damn Gundam pilots going to show up and trash the place just before we move out a new model?! First it was Chang, then that Arabian pacifist, and now the Laughing Wonder makes an appearance!* She winced as 'Don't Fear the Reaper' blasted out at a couple of hundred decibels. *At least the other two took it seriously... I think I preferred it before we found out who they were. He tried to sneak back then.*
Leaping into her white Taurus, she brought all the systems active and moved out to confront the Gundam. Behind her, the rest of the base's pilots followed suit.
"Surrender!" she yelled over her loudspeakers, cranking the volume as high as possible to compete with the lyrics blasting out from Deathscythe. "You're surrounded and outnumbered!"
The music cut off. < < Lemme think about it... naaaaah! I don't think so. > > Duo's amplified voice boomed out. < < But y'know, I don't really feel like trashing you guys. I mean, it's a beautiful night, the moon is up; it's spring, and a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of not making sushi out of a bunch of cannon fodder. I'm only after those suits, so why don't the rest of you just sit this one out? > >
"I don't think so," Noin snarled.
< < Well, that's just too bad. You see, I figured you'd react that way, so I sneaked in here last night and uploaded some fun stuff to your suits' main computers. They should kick in right about... now. > >
Noin's mobile suit stopped dead. The viewscreen stayed active just long enough for her to see the other suits around Deathscythe start to do various things -- fall over, run in circles flapping their arms, waltz -- then the external view shut off and was replaced by a recording of Duo, waving and grinning.
< < Hi Lu! > > he said brightly. < < I figured since I can tell your suit apart from all the others -- classy paint job, by the way, though I usually prefer black myself -- I'd set up something special, just for you. I was just going to post these to you; but since you're gonna be stuck in there for a while,
here's some pictures to keep you amused. The disk is stuck under your chair. 'Bye! > >
His image fuzzed into static as Noin scrabbled under her chair, found the disk and yanked it out. Her eyes widened as she read the label.
"'Sexy Zechsy pics'?!"
She snapped her head up to stare at the screen just as the first picture flashed up.
Zechs had obviously spent his last couple of days off at a hot spring, because there he was on the screen, easing himself into the steaming water and leaving nothing to the imagination.
*Oh. My. GOD,* she thought as picture followed picture. *How the hell did Maxwell get these pictures?! Oh wow, look at that... he's gorgeous!* Noin shifted unconsciously in her seat, tugging at the neckline of her top. *I'm getting all hot and bothered here--*
*Hang on... it's not just me. It's really getting hot in here! What's going on?*
Duo's program had locked her out of all the controls, but she could still look at the settings; she brought up the menu for the environmental system and swore as she realised it was set at something approximating the Sahara.
An explosion somewhere outside rocked her suit.
"Shit-- the suits-- aaaagh! MAXWELL, YOU BRAT!"
*Thank god he'd set it so the pictures shut off and the computer wiped itself when they finally cut the suit open,* Noin thought, *or I'd never have lived it down!*
*...I kept the disk, though.*
* * * * *
Relena sighed as she shut down the vidphone. "Howard hasn't seen him, either," she reported. "He says he'll start his contacts looking, but 'if Duo doesn't want to be found, I don't hold out much hope'. What about you?"
Quatre smiled slightly at Relena's imitation of Howard's gruff voice, but shook his head. "I finally tracked down Hilde; did you know she was getting married?"
"No! Really? Goodness, it's so easy to fall out of touch with people--" She stopped, wincing.
"Yes... well, she's Hilde Michaels now, extremely happy, possibly pregnant and not worried about Duo at all. I asked if she'd heard from him since the war, and she said, 'Oh, no, but you know Duo, he'll turn up when he wants to; he's probably off raising hell somewhere'." His mouth twisted. "Then she started telling me all about what colours Peter dear is going to paint the nursery. It never crossed her mind that maybe I was calling because something was wrong."
"You can go on for a long time assuming that no news is good news," Relena said softly. "I certainly did. And when I did wonder if everything was all right, I told myself that maybe he was just giving Heero and I time to... well... settle into our relationship without him around. As if Duo Maxwell was ever the shy and retiring type! But I think... I believed it because it was what I wanted. I wanted time alone with Heero without his 'old lover' complicating matters, even though I knew their relationship wasn't like that, I knew he was the best friend Heero ever had -- the best friend I ever had. He brought us together, damn it-- Excuse me!" She got up and stumbled out, fresh tears blurring her vision.
Tears over and done with for now, Relena washed her face in the handbasin, then looked up at the mirror. Her reflection stared back, red-eyed and blotchy, sorrowful and slightly accusing.
"Don't look at me like that," she whispered. "I don't like you very much right now." She turned away and blotted her eyes dry with a soft towel. *I owe him my happiness, and I still spent eight months trying not to think about him. Maybe I didn't realise I was doing it, but still--*
*I haven't cried this much since that day I walked in on them...*
Relena crumpled onto a secluded park bench, sobbing into her hands. *I knew they were close, but I never thought they were lovers. I thought I had a chance-- Heero--*
*All this time -- oh, they must have been laughing at me behind my back!*
Beginning to get herself under control, she groped for a handkerchief. *No. Not laughing. They wouldn't. Even Duo... he can be so annoying, but he's not nasty. He wouldn't make a joke out of this... would he?*
Sniffing, tears running down her face, she nearly swore as her fingers searched frantically through her bag. "Oh, for... silly little rich girl, can't do anything for herself... don't I even have any blasted tissues?!"
"Here," a voice said, and a hand thrust a large white handkerchief in front of her.
"Thank you!" she blurted out, and buried her face in it, mopping up tears and blowing her nose. "It's very kind of you--"
She looked up and froze.
"Hey, ojousan," Duo said. "I think we need to talk."
"I--I'm sorry," she said, looking away. "I just... walked in-- I didn't know--"
**--Heero and Duo on the sofa, Duo cradling Heero gently in his arms, one hand running up under his shirt to stroke his back. Heero's face tucked into the join of Duo's neck and shoulder, arms wrapped tightly around Duo's waist. Duo's leg wrapped around Heero's hip. Heero's wide-eyed, shocked, vulnerable expression as he looked up and saw her standing wide-eyed in the doorway--**
They'd been fully clothed, but the tender emotion in their embrace had been undeniable.
"I won't bother you again," Relena said quietly.
"Now that's where you're wrong, hon," Duo said, sitting down beside her. "I know what that looked like -- and in some ways, it was what it looked like -- but you shouldn't give up on Heero because of me."
She sniffed, not looking at him. "It looked like you love him... and I don't want to interfere with that."
"You won't," he said seriously. Tipping her chin up, he forced her to look at him. "Look, Relena, I don't lie. He loves me, but he's in love with you. Just like I love him, but I'm in love with -- uh, somebody else."
She couldn't help raising an eyebrow. "'Uh, somebody else'?"
He coughed, embarrassed. "Well... since we're being brutally honest here... it's Wufei. But for God's sake don't tell him! I'm kinda hoping he'll figure it out for himself. Okay?"
"Okay. ...So, if we're being 'brutally honest', tell me: if... what I saw... wasn't exactly what it looked like," her hands clenched on the handkerchief, "what was it? Please."
"Right. Brutally honest. Can I be 'brutally honest' without going into the squicky details? 'Cause y'see, ojousan," he rushed on, "there are some things Heero doesn't want you to know, and I don't want to tell you, and believe me, you don't want to know. If you ask, I'll tell you; but I don't think you should. Heero..." He paused. "Heero just got back from a mission. It went... badly wrong, and he needed someone who understood. That's what you saw. Exactly what went wrong, and why I understand, is where we get into the squicky details."
"Is that why he looked so... so..."
She looked down at the handkerchief twisted around her fingers. "And he went to you because you understand."
"But... I love Heero. And if he loves me... Duo, I want to understand him!"
"No you don't."
She jerked around, mouth open to object, and froze.
Duo was looking at her with his expression completely open and transparent, hiding nothing. The jester's mask was gone for a moment; he looked tired and older, lines of old pain and sorrow etched faintly on his face. And his eyes...
She looked away.
"The things you don't understand about Heero are exactly the things he wants to protect you from," he said calmly; none of the pain she'd glimpsed showed in his voice. "I understand, because the same things have happened to me. We've been trained to kill in every way possible, and we've used that training
a thousand times. We've been captured and tortured. We've screwed up on missions and had to go on, knowing that we killed people who didn't deserve to die..." His voice trailed off. "None of that has ever happened to you, and it never will."
After a long pause, she managed to reply. "So I can never understand him?"
"You understand enough, ojousan. Besides, he doesn't need you to understand everything! Just understand what you can, and accept the rest; that's all anyone can offer the one they love. Hell, I don't understand everything about Heero, and he definitely doesn't understand everything about me."
She peeked sideways at him. "Are you lovers?"
He grimaced comically. "We're still being brutally honest, right? Damn. Er... 'were' is more accurate. And do we have to say 'lovers'? I mean, the word carries a whole lot of commitment baggage that I don't think really applies here... can we use a different term? Um... 'close companions'? 'Mutual
comfort'? 'Male bonding', even?"
"Okay, so maybe that last one's a bit of a stretch..."
"It's okay," she interrupted. "I need to think about all this... but I think it's okay." She wiped her eyes and sniffed a little. "Do you mind if I keep your handkerchief for now?"
"Hey, no problem. Do you want me to walk you back to your hotel?"
"No." She stood up determinedly. "No... I think maybe you'd better go back and see if Heero... needs you. Right? And tell him, when he feels better and it's okay for me to visit... tell him to call me?"
"Sure, ojousan. And... thanks."
Relena pressed her forehead against the cold glass and closed her eyes.
*I'm so sorry, Duo. Please... come back.*
Quatre shoved a stack of papers away from him and dropped his head into his hands.
"How could we do it, Trowa? How did we just let it slide for this long?"
Trowa put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "We'll find him."
Stalking down a corridor with a cold, angry look on his face, Heero stopped and turned, drawn irresistibly to one of the many pictures lining the walls. Duo's smiling face looked back, eyes sparkling; beside him, Heero's own face smirked.
Slowly, his expression crumpled into sadness.
"Baka," he said softly, fingers rising to brush against the glass. "I thought we were there for each other, always. Why didn't you come to me?"
Upstairs in a darkened room, Wufei sat with his head in his hands, tears slowly falling between his fingers.
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