Author's Note: Just when you thought it was safe... I wasn't going to post this, because the last part of the trilogy never got written, but then I thought, what the heck...maybe if somebody likes this and nags me enough, I'll drag myself away from Weiss long enough to finish it. Anyway...this is the sequel to Where I Started From, which was known affectionately around the House of Smut here as 'the 'he's a teen prostitute!' story'...this one is nicknamed 'the Quatre's an ass story'... You'll see why pretty quick. Quatre lovers may want to avoid this one, or get your blowtorches ready... And one other thing: you'll notice the timeline has diverged noticeably from the original series. This is now totally AU. Okay, shutting up.
by: Aoe

... So we laugh with the joker
Hold back the tears till they're gone.
Drink and be merry
They'll find us all dead men at dawn.
We're so far away
From wherever we came
That sometimes
I wonder we'll see it again.
It's true what they say
You can't always go home
You can't always be warm inside.
That in love we're like orphans
Strangers in paradise.

-From "You can't always go home", Terry Moore

Strangers in Paradise + Part 1

Duo stared at the gray light of dawn slowly brightening the window. Heero was curled against his side, one strong arm flung carelessly across Duo's chest, and the blanket and sheet were binding their lower bodies together. It wasn't uncomfortable, though. It was, in fact, one of the most pleasant mornings Duo ever recalled waking up to.

He turned his head slightly and pressed a gentle kiss to Heero's forehead. The Japanese boy made a sleepy noise of contentment and the arm that encircled Duo tightened briefly. Duo let his eyes slide shut as Heero cuddled closer. This was the third morning he'd woken with Heero in his bed, in his arms, and he found it had yet to lose any of its initial charm. He felt privileged and honored that Heero would let Duo see him in such a vulnerable state. Sleep relaxed some of the barriers that Heero kept around himself most of the time, and he actually looked as young as he was. The perpetual scowl was erased, the tension eased, and Heero's delicate features were briefly revealed in all their natural beauty.

No, after three days, Duo didn't think waking up next to Heero had lost any of its appeal. If anything, it was just getting better.

A lot of things had been getting better, the last few days.

After the night of drunken honesty and revelation the three of them had shared, most of the tension had dissipated from the small cabin. Rather than waking up embarrassed and uncomfortable around each other, all three of them seemed to feel more at ease with their companions. They hadn't really talked about anything that was said that night, but there was a lot of silent understanding between them now.

Not that there weren't still some rough spots to work out, but all in all, they seemed to have all taken their relationships, whatever they might be, to a new level. They'd been comrades, allies... now they were truly friends.

Or, in the case of Heero and himself, more than friends.

Duo still couldn't quite believe, after everything he'd said that night and everything Heero had seen and learned before, that the Japanese boy still wanted to be with him. But it certainly seemed to be the case. Heero had stuck to him like white on rice for the last few days, if not actually touching him or holding his braid, then hovering within his personal space like a living shadow.

It was slightly annoying, but also really great. Trowa thought Heero would probably calm down a bit when he felt more secure in the relationship. Duo had raised an eyebrow at that assessment. Why should Heero feel insecure? Heero could have anybody he wanted. Heero was gorgeous and brilliant and confident. Duo was just street trash.

Trowa had sighed and shaken his head at that assertion, but rather than argue, he had just repeated his own theory on Heero's behavior. Duo had shrugged, but accepted Trowa's opinion. Hopefully Heero would settle down a little when the novelty wore off. For now... well, he didn't really bother Duo that much. It was kind of nice to always have somebody there, touching him gently, affectionately... It kept him happy.

Kept his mind off other things.

Ever since Heero had wormed his way back into Duo's good graces and his bed, the American had finally begun to shake off the cravings that had plagued him since that night in the city. He'd hoped that time would cause that old, familiar urge to fade, but it hadn't worked. He'd moped in this bedroom for days, waiting to feel better, back in control... but he hadn't, not until Heero had explained his behavior and they'd resolved, or at least put aside their differences.

Then, things had started to improve.

He was still a little shaky on the inside, but the desire for that old euphoric peace was not the constant obsessive need that had plagued him for days.

Heero made murmuring, inquisitive noises, and Duo realized his line of thought had caused his body to tense within the Japanese boy's embrace, something that Heero noticed even in sleep. He quickly forced himself to relax, soothing his lover with gentle touches. Heero growled briefly, but soon relaxed back into sleep.

Duo sighed, turning back to the window, where the sky was tinged with pink fading into blue. He didn't want to trouble Heero with his problems, and, he admitted to himself, he was worried what the Japanese boy would think of him if he knew just how hard it had been... If they'd stayed in the city...

Duo wrenched his mind away from speculation about his own weakness. They had left the city, so he hadn't had the opportunity to do something idiotic. And while the craving had lingered longer and stronger than he'd thought it would, it was fading now. Nothing to worry about.

He shifted on the mattress, turning to face Heero. He wrapped his arms around the Japanese pilot and brushed his lips over Heero's cheek before settling down to try and catch a few more minutes' sleep.

He couldn't have people thinking Duo Maxwell ever woke at dawn. It would destroy his reputation.

+

Trowa puttered around the small kitchen of the cabin as the pinkish light of dawn finally faded into the golden rays of morning sunshine. His wounds were almost completely healed, and he took great pleasure in the freedom to spend leisurely, solitary mornings seeing to his own breakfast needs. No matter how close he'd grown to his current roommates, he preferred to be self-sufficient. Relying on Heero or Duo to bring him meals and aid him in... more intimate ways had been something of a strain.

Now, though, he could roam the tiny cabin at will, and since Heero had managed to patch things up with Duo, Trowa had had the kitchen to himself in the morning. The other two boys kept staying up late.

Trowa smiled indulgently as he set a pot of water on the stove to boil before rifling through their rapidly dwindling supplies. They'd brought the remainder of Duo's purchases with them from the city, and the American had, as Trowa had expected, been remarkably good at stocking up on non-perishable foods. They had plenty of cheese and canned goods remaining to them, and the last of a slightly stale loaf of bread.

Nothing gourmet, but the three of them took a more philosophical approach to food than their erstwhile companions. If a can of baked beans was what was available, then you ate it, whether it was for dinner or breakfast. It was food. No telling when you'd see more. For Trowa and Duo, this attitude was deeply ingrained, and Heero didn't take much notice of irrelevant details such as what exactly he was eating, so long as it wasn't poisoned.

Trowa sliced mold from a chunk of cheese and nibbled at it as he set a few slices of bread near the gas burner that was heating the water. He could just imagine Quatre's expression at the breakfast he was having.

Just as he decided the bread was as toasted as it was going to get without becoming singed, Trowa heard a beep from the dark corner of the small living room. He left two slices of toast on the counter and stuck the other into his mouth, walking into the room that made up the rest of the first floor of the cabin. As he'd thought, the sound had come from Heero's laptop, glowing softy green in the corner. A message had come in.

Trowa checked the sender, and recognized one of the decoy accounts Quatre used. Deciding Heero wouldn't mind, Trowa opened the message.

It was brief and to the point, as any communications they shared generally were. Couched in careful code phrases, the note was an invitation. Quatre had holed up in a mansion about half a day's drive from their current location, and suggested they join him there.

Trowa frowned, reading through the message again. Actually, Quatre only mentioned Heero and Trowa. There was no reference to a third member of their group.

He noted the mansion's location and deleted the message, rising and pacing thoughtfully back into the kitchen. Quatre couldn't possibly have left Duo out intentionally. That was ridiculous. But why not mention the American when Quatre knew he was in Heero and Trowa's company?

Briefly, Trowa considered Quatre's scathing diatribe on Duo, delivered when the American had thankfully been unconscious. Quatre had just had a very bad fright, and Trowa had assumed the flustered blond had just been venting his unsettled nerves on the most convenient target. It couldn't have been more than a moment of irrational anger, could it? Duo was part of their team, an important part. If not for his efforts, Trowa might have died a few weeks back. And Duo had put himself at great risk, and had indeed suffered, to keep all of them provided for and safe.

Trowa shook his head as he finished off his toast. No, it must have just been an oversight on Quatre's part to have not mentioned Duo. That was the only rational explanation.

The water was now boiling merrily, and Trowa heard the distinctive thumps of the other two boys rising... or rather, falling.

Heero had displayed a distressing tendency to reflexively shove Duo out of bed when he awoke next to him. Heero was embarrassed by the reflex, which was something to do with his training, he'd muttered once or twice, but Duo seemed to find it cute.

Trowa thought that would only last until Duo bruised something other than his dignity enduring Heero's rude awakenings. But they would cross that bridge when they came to it.

Duo came tromping down the stairs, yawning and rubbing his butt, an expression of mixed irritation and amusement on his face. He waved distractedly at Trowa and made a beeline for the pot of water and the mug set on the counter already containing a heaping spoonful of instant coffee mix. As he did every morning, Duo peered into the mug thoughtfully, then dumped another spoonful of mix in before burning his hand on the handle of the pot. Then he grabbed a dishtowel and tried again, dumping water into the mug. Trowa marveled again at how the braided boy managed to pour water from the scalding pot without spilling a drop. It was a skill you picked up on a colony where water was rationed, Duo had told him.

Duo set the pot back on the stove and stirred his sludgy coffee mixture. Trowa shivered in disgust as Duo sucked down about half the mug in one gulp.

Morning ritual completed, Duo smiled brightly at Trowa and greeted him cheerfully as Heero strode into the room.

Heero never looked or acted like he'd just woken up. Trowa nursed a secret curiosity about what Duo got to see in the morning, and wondered if the sight was worth getting shoved out of bed. It just might be. Trowa needed a good hour to wake up fully, Duo needed a megadose of caffeine, but Heero strolled in every morning as though he'd been awake for hours, or never slept in the first place.

Today was no different, and Trowa watched in mild annoyance as Heero walked over to where Duo leaned against the counter near the stove. He picked up the toast Trowa had left there and offered a slice to Duo, cramming the other into his own mouth. Duo accepted the toast with a broad grin that underwent that indefinable shift to a smirk as Heero then leaned against the counter beside him, not quite touching him. There might have been an entire half a millimeter between them.

Trowa repressed a smirk of his own. Heero must have wanted some space this morning.

"We had a message from Quatre," he announced, drawing a look of wide-eyed curiosity from Duo and a suspicious glower from Heero.

Of course, he'd mentioned to Heero, back when they'd first arrived at the cabin, the fit Quatre had pitched back in the city while Duo was out cold. He hadn't been sure if it was important information, but he hated to leave things out of a report. Heero hadn't shown much reaction at the time, but Trowa wondered now if he ought to have kept his mouth shut. Heero had become fiercely protective of Duo over the past few days, and if he perceived Quatre as a threat, it could cause a rift in the team.

"So what's up with the Q?" Duo asked brightly. Neither Heero nor Trowa had seen any reason to mention Quatre's temper tantrum to Duo.

"He's taken up residence about ten hours drive from here," Trowa explained. "He's invited us to join him."

"Cool!" Duo declared, violet eyes sparkling. "We're just about out of supplies, and if Quatre's staying there, the place has to be loads nicer than this dump. Not that it doesn't have it's charm," he added, grinning over at the half open door that led down to the cabin's amazingly vast wine cellar. The three of them had done their best to put a dent in the contents, but hadn't really even scratched the surface, according to Duo's inventory.

Heero rolled his eyes and Trowa shook his head.

"So, when do we leave?" Duo asked. Heero frowned, looking unhappy at the prospect. Trowa could see the Japanese boy was trying to find a plausible reason they shouldn't go. He frowned slightly. Was Heero really that concerned about Quatre's attitude? True, the Arabian could be infuriatingly naïve and thoughtlessly selfish, but Trowa was sure Quatre wouldn't ever say any of the things he had that night to Duo's face. It had just been the stress of events combined with the uncomfortable living arrangements...

Heero finally seemed to decide there was no way he could convince Duo not to go to Quatre's without actually telling him about the incident, and Heero definitely didn't want to do that. He and Trowa had recently become aware of the shocking fragility of Duo's self-esteem, and neither of them wanted to do anything that would reinforce Duo's low opinion of himself.

Strangely, Heero's acceptance of the plan suddenly made Trowa uneasy. Quatre couldn't have meant any of the things he'd said, surely... By now, he must feel horribly guilty for even thinking such things about a teammate, especially Duo. As the only other sociable member of the group, Duo had become Quatre's friend way back at the beginning of the war.

No, Trowa assured himself, shaking off his misgivings, it was just a little spoiled brat tantrum. Quatre was by nature a generous, caring person, even if he could be kind of a twerp. He wouldn't turn on Duo.

"As soon as we're packed," Trowa answered finally.

"Yes!" Duo yelled happily. "Finally, we get out of this shit hole! I'm packing right now!" And without further hesitation, he inhaled the rest of his coffee and bolted up the stairs.

Heero just stared unhappily at Trowa.

"It'll be fine," Trowa assured him.

"Hn," Heero grunted, sounding unconvinced. His tense muscles and dark scowl conveyed the message, It better be. He pushed away from the counter and followed Duo up the stairs.

Trowa sat at the table and hoped he was right about all of this.

+

Quatre wearily rubbed his eyes, momentarily blocking out the chatter of the newsfeed. They were still covering local stories, nothing that really interested him. After a moment, though, he picked up the name Khushrenada and riveted his attention to the widescreen monitor set into his study wall.

A propaganda-heavy recitation of Treize's actions and history served as a backdrop to film of the charismatic young General reviewing troops at the recently restored Lake Victoria Base in Africa. Since his reappearance, Treize had been taking great pains to restore his image as a benign protector, giving particular attention to restoring sites demolished by the Gundams in the past.

Quatre sighed heavily. He'd hoped they were rid of the dangerous man, but when Duke Dermail, who had been Romafeller's strongest leader despite his opposition to Relena's popular policies, was killed by the White Fang rebels in space, Treize had seized the opportunity to resume his position as leader of Oz. This single act had had numerous repercussions, most notably the near collapse of White Fang itself. Many of the soldiers who had sided with the rebels were Treize supporters, and had quickly returned to the General's camp. White Fang was left with a huge space fortress and hardly anyone capable of controlling it. They had fallen easily to the troops Treize had quickly sent against them, most of them men who had previously been part of the organization.

Oddly enough, those troops remaining on Oz's old Fortress Barge were no longer part of Treize's army. The General had disowned those men for their actions against the colony Quatre, Trowa and Duo had defended. Quatre had been surprised at that move, but it probably made sense to Treize's sense of honor.

That was the man's greatest, and perhaps only, weakness.

Quatre shook his head as the report droned on, extolling the many virtues of Treize and giving no useful information whatsoever. Sources had informed Quatre that Lady Une had recovered from her coma and was once more at Treize's side. Considering the lack of content of the broadcast he was watching, Quatre was certain that must be the case. The woman was damn good at her job. Her loss had been another potential gap in Treize's armor, now no longer an issue.

Quatre leaned back in his chair. He was tired. Tired of fighting, tired of trying to figure out all the factions and motivations that had developed in this conflict. It had gone on too long, he felt. Treize had returned to power and was fighting against his own former troops, the ones who hadn't lived up to his ideals in his absence. Romafeller, without Dermail to push them into action, was rapidly becoming a non-entity. Quatre deduced that Treize had used the old men with their political clout and extensive funds for as long as he needed them, and now that he didn't, they were no longer important to the conflict. The General had easily forced them to accept his resumption of his position, and Relena had been deposed.

As a gesture of ‘good will', which Quatre thought was more likely ‘good PR', Treize had returned the Kingdom of Sank to the young monarch. Relena had gone back to her palace, disillusioned from her brush with true power and the reality of politics, and little had been heard from her since. She seemed to be devoting most of her time and effort to rebuilding her kingdom.

And the war dragged on.

Quatre sometimes wondered what had become of Instructor H. He hadn't received any messages or missions from the old man since... before his father's death.

Quatre shook his head, not wanting to dwell on that unhappy event, or his actions following it.

Besides, that was months ago.

Quatre frowned at the thought. He really thought the war would have ended by now. He and the other pilots did what they could, but the conflict between Treize and his former troops, now referring to themselves as Alliance soldiers again, was largely a private war. Treize was almost certain to emerge victorious, so they generally directed their attacks at his resources, but they certainly didn't support either side. It was frustrating. Their job was not done, but there was little they could do at the moment. Quatre wasn't sure how things had come to this.

Actually, he had a theory. He thought that if only White Fang had managed to put forth a strong, charismatic leader, they might have become a force to be reckoned with. But in the absence of an inspiring figure, which Quinze had most decidedly not been, the organization had fallen apart quickly. Quatre privately believed that if White Fang had been stronger, the whole bloody mess would have been over long before.

The newsfeed had moved on to weather reports, so Quatre clicked it off, sitting for a moment in the darkened room. Something had to give soon. The current state of affairs could not continue forever. The strategist in him felt more certain every day that soon, Treize would make an error. Perhaps not a large one, but at this point, anything they could take advantage of might make all the difference. So he was calling his comrades in, to this location. If they could act as one, they would be nearly as strong as either of their main opponents' armies.

Yes, strategically speaking, it made sense for all of them to work together as a group right now. But there was another reason. The war was becoming too dangerous to fight alone. Quatre constantly worried about his friends, his teammates. They were fiercely independent and quite capable of taking care of themselves, he knew, but...

Quatre Raberba Winner had been raised to take control of a massive corporation, and a family nearly as large. It didn't matter that he was the youngest, he was the son, the heir, and the responsibility was his. It was deeply ingrained in him to protect and assist the people he cared about. His employees, his sisters... and now, his fellow pilots. He would do his best to protect them from any threats.

Especially... Quatre smiled slightly, allowing himself a brief moment of whimsy to picture Trowa in his mind. The tall, stoic pilot fascinated Quatre. Trowa could be ruthless and cold, but it was Trowa's insight and compassion that had saved Quatre from himself when he was lost in the Zero System. His gratitude for that alone would have spurred him to protect and shelter the quiet boy, even if he hadn't fallen in love with him.

Quatre's smile widened at the forbidden thought. Trowa... his lean, strong acrobat's body... his elegant hands... his deep green eyes... Quatre imagined those slender, strong fingers stroking his hair, his skin...

A frown tugged at his lips as a memory image replaced the familiar fantasy. Trowa's gentle fingers, caressing... not Quatre, but... Duo...

Quatre's eyes opened as his frown deepened. Duo. Duo was a problem. Fond as he had been of the boy, Quatre simply could not dismiss from his mind the image of a wild-eyed Duo, crouched defensively, holding a needle full of heroin aloft with obvious threat. Even now Quatre shivered at the memory. Although Trowa had assured him the threat had been an empty one, the utter lack of concern for him that Quatre had seen in Duo's eyes had lingered in his mind. It had hurt to have someone he considered a friend look at him like that, like the only thing that mattered was that Quatre stood between Duo and what he wanted, and Duo would do anything he had to do to get Quatre out of the way.

How can I trust him again, knowing how shallow his loyalty really is? Quatre wondered unhappily. He had pondered the question for some time now, and hadn't yet found an answer. His uncertainty had led him to not even mention Duo in his invitation to Trowa and Heero, and he hadn't sent an invitation to any of Duo's accounts. A part of him hoped the braided boy would be offended by this snubbing, and not come.

He acknowledged that this was unlikely, though.

Duo would come, and Quatre would have to deal with him. Would have to figure out how he could work with someone who had lied about his past and threatened Quatre physically.

Someone who Trowa had hovered over with such gentle concern, ignoring Quatre's confusion and fear...

Quatre shook his head, casting away that thought. That wasn't important. Trowa's deeply concealed compassionate nature had obviously been awakened by Duo's...condition. It was really a testament to Trowa's kind soul, the part of him that called out to Quatre, even in his madness. The part of him that Quatre most wanted to protect... to treasure.

The part of him that, Quatre feared, someone like Duo could easily manipulate and take advantage of. He shook his head. Duo had been his friend, but now Quatre didn't think he'd ever really known the American at all. Still, he hoped he had been wrong. Duo had had a very stressful few days there. Perhaps the braided boy was back to his old self now. Perhaps Quatre could be magnanimous, and let the whole ugly business go unmentioned, as everyone had done for him and his Zero System problem.

Not that it was quite the same thing, as Duo had really brought about his own difficulties. Quatre hadn't known what the Zero System would do to him, while Duo had chosen to use drugs, if not this time around, at least at one point in his life. Still, Quatre thought he could find it in himself to forgive Duo, and let bygones be bygones. He even hoped, for Duo's sake, that the boy had managed to patch things up between himself and Heero. Yes, Heero would be a good influence on Duo, with his excellent self-control. Quatre would be happy for Duo if he had found his way into Heero's heart.

Just so long as the American wasn't taking advantage of his and Trowa's good natures to enable his deviant behavior.

Quatre nodded decisively on that point, and rose from his chair. It was late, and he needed his rest. He had a company, a family, and a war to run. And Trowa might be arriving tomorrow.

Quatre smiled to himself as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. He felt a bit like a child going to bed the night before his birthday.

[part 2] [back to Aoe's fic]