A/N: Hmm...not much to say here... Quatre gets a bit assier in this section...just wait for part 3...heh heh heh...
by: Aoe

Strangers in Paradise + Part 2

Heero climbed out of the car with a certain amount of trepidation. He stretched stiffened muscles and glowered up at the huge mansion he'd parked the rather beat-up stolen car in front of.

The walls were a faint, tasteful shade of pink.

Heero wasn't particularly fond of pink.

Duo bounced out of the car, a black-clad bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Heero frowned, both pleased and disturbed at the sight. While it was nice to see Duo apparently happy again, it was confusing as well. Because Heero knew the braided boy wasn't happy. Or at least, not as happy as he was acting. It made him wonder if Duo had ever been really happy in all the time he'd known the American, or if the smiles and laughter had always been an act.

"Where does he get the energy?" Trowa mused quietly as he climbed stiffly out of the backseat, standing beside Heero. Heero frowned over at the tall boy, wondering if Trowa knew the answer to his silent question. Trowa was much more observant of emotional nuance than Heero. Trowa's lips quirked in the face of Heero's frown. "Sometimes, I think he really is happy. And sometimes, it's just easier to be happy than to be completely honest," Trowa explained. Heero just grunted in acknowledgement. It didn't bewilder or bother him that Trowa could figure out what he was thinking so easily. Heero knew he wasn't very complex, and Trowa had puzzled him out long ago. He was just glad of Trowa's input on the frustrating enigma that was Duo Maxwell.

"Let's go," Heero muttered, walking swiftly up the steps to the front door. Despite Trowa's reassurance, Heero wasn't too keen on the idea of being here. He wasn't sure what kind of welcome Quatre would give Duo, and Heero would be damned if he'd let anyone else hurt the American right now.

He'd managed to do enough damage by himself.

Fortunately for Heero's peace of mind, Duo was waiting impatiently for his travelling companions at the top of the stairs, tapping his foot and smirking in the twilight.

"Come on, you two, I'm starving," Duo complained.

"You just ate two hours ago," Trowa reminded the braided boy, but he smiled indulgently at Duo's long-suffering sigh.

"Yeah, that's right, two whole hours!" Duo wailed, throwing an arm around Heero's shoulders and going limp so that Heero was forced to wrap an arm around his waist to hold him up. Heero just grunted in irritation and amusement and kept walking toward the door, dragging Duo along with him with no apparent effort. Duo giggled, allowing himself to be dragged, but stood on his feet and pulled away from Heero slightly as Trowa knocked on the massive oak doors. Heero let his arm fall from around Duo's waist, feeling a now familiar twinge of worry as he broke the contact. He knew it was irrational for him to want to be in constant physical contact with Duo, but... He just did.

Duo glanced over at Heero and smiled at him, not the too-wide obnoxious grin, but a gentle, genuine smile of profound affection. Heero felt his lips quirk, wanting to smile back. He couldn't quite manage it yet, when he was sober, anyway, but Duo noted the twitch and his own smile broadened slightly.

Duo understood.

That thought made Heero feel pleasantly warm inside.

How had he ever believed this could be a weakness?

Heero's reverie was interrupted by the door opening to reveal a smiling Quatre, Rashid looming protectively over his shoulder.

"Trowa! Heero! Duo!" Quatre greeted brightly, and Heero felt his tension ease a bit as he detected no hesitation in Quatre's voice at Duo's name. Maybe Trowa was right and he was worrying needlessly. "It's so good to see you all again!" Quatre continued expansively.

"It's only been eleven days," Trowa pointed out, his calm voice betraying just the slightest hint of irritation. Heero looked to Quatre to see how the blond would respond to this, but Quatre seemed completely oblivious to Trowa's attitude.

Heero frowned over at the tall boy in confusion. Trowa caught his look and smiled slightly, shaking his head.

Quatre hadn't picked up on Trowa's tone. And Heero had.

Heero's lips twitched again. Duo made a small sound that Heero estimated to be a muffled giggle. Rashid's eyebrows drew down above a rueful grin, producing an odd expression of mixed admonishment and amusement.

Quatre reached out toward Trowa, apparently intending to drag the tall pilot into the house. Heero's amusement fled as Trowa's face went blank. Trowa did not particularly like to be touched, and Quatre made the tall pilot nervous just with his presence. Heero was about to say something when Duo slid gracefully in front of Trowa, intercepting Quatre's outstretched hands.

Duo grabbed Quatre's hands, lacing their fingers together and grinning brightly at the Arabian. Quatre looked momentarily irritated, but then Duo batted his eyes at the blond and asked plaintively if there was anything to eat, and Quatre smiled indulgently, dragging Duo inside. Trowa smiled softly at the back of Duo's head before following the two into the house.

Heero shrugged and followed Trowa. He still wasn't sure this was a great idea, but they were here now.

Heero lengthened his steps to overtake Quatre and Duo, and surreptitiously grabbed the end of the long braid. Duo would know Heero was holding it, but the American didn't make any move to pull away. Heero's grip tightened at the unspoken acceptance.

+

Trowa walked behind the rest of the little group, smirking slightly as he watched Heero stretch his legs so he could grab hold of the end of Duo's braid. He'd wondered if the Japanese boy would try to restrain his by-now familiar expressions of affection since they were no longer alone, but it didn't seem to be the case. That was all to the good. The sooner Heero learned to be demonstrative, the sooner Duo would begin to feel more secure in their relationship.

Trowa shook his head, wondering, not for the first time, how he had wound up so deeply involved in the other two boys' lives. It was strange, really. Something that should have been private, just between Duo and Heero, had somehow been extended to include Trowa as well. Not the physical aspect of their relationship, but the closeness, the affection...

He supposed that over time, as the nebulous connection between Heero and Duo deepened into love, he would slowly become less a part of the relationship dynamic. He felt a momentary twinge of sadness at the thought, but it would be a slow, natural process. He probably wouldn't even notice as they gravitated more towards one another, away from him.

Or perhaps he would. But he was sure it was a change he would be happy to see, as it would slowly heal them both. He could accept the loss of the strange closeness they currently shared if it allowed the other two to become whole and happy.

He put aside these thoughts as the four of them emerged into a comfortable sitting room. Duo sprawled happily on a red velvet couch, and Heero immediately sat beside him. Quatre sat on a smaller couch facing them, and looked up at Trowa with an expectant smile.

Trowa frowned slightly. Quatre was always looking at him like that, as though he was just waiting for Trowa to realize he wanted to be near Quatre. It was irritating.

Trowa sat on the far end of Duo and Heero's couch.

Quatre pouted at him briefly, but then a servant entered with a tray of cookies and tea, and Quatre was diverted by his duties as host. As soon as he was done serving everyone, though, Quatre reseated himself between Trowa and the others. This arrangement did not thrill Trowa, but there was no way to gracefully change seats, so he just sighed and leaned back against the overstuffed cushions.

Quatre launched into a tactical assessment of recent skirmishes in Treize's war against his former troops. Trowa listened with half an ear. He already knew the facts, Heero had eagerly returned to his endless data searches as soon as he could use his laptop again. Quatre's take on the situation was mildly interesting, though as usual, Trowa put little stock in the Arabian's ‘feelings' about upcoming events.

He might have been a bit more likely to take Quatre's opinions seriously if the blond would just call them logical deductions. Trowa was a soldier. He didn't hold with planning strategy based on something as undefined as a hunch.

"So anyway, I just thought it would make sense if we were all together, so that if an opportunity to strike arose, we'd be coordinated and able to attack at full strength," Quatre continued as Trowa finished his tea. "Wufei should be here soon, and the Maguanacs retrieved Sandrock for me. Deathscythe is already here of course. But... Trowa, Heero... why didn't you bring Wing and Heavyarms?" Quatre asked innocently.

Trowa cast a sharp glance at the Arabian. When Quatre went out of his way to sound innocent, he usually wasn't. Finding Quatre's head turned away from him, the blond's gaze locked on a confused Duo, Trowa swore silently to himself. He had hoped Quatre wouldn't figure that out, and if he did, that he wouldn't make an issue of it.

"But of course," Quatre continued, laying a hand briefly on Duo's ankle where it lay beside him on the couch, "they couldn't leave you alone, could they, Duo? Silly me," Quatre chided himself, turning away from Duo to sip at his tea.

Trowa looked past Quatre and met Duo's dark violet gaze. The shadowed eyes were questioning, worried...

Damn Quatre.

"Um... you know, I'm kinda tired. Long ride. I think I'll hit the hay if nobody minds," Duo said suddenly. His voice was subdued. Trowa saw Heero lay a hand on the American's shoulder in concern as Duo stood.

Duo shrugged it off and walked quickly out of the room. Heero followed.

"Whatever got into him?" Quatre murmured wonderingly. He turned his baffled azure gaze to Trowa, but Trowa was not in the mood. He frowned at the ingenuous blond and stood as well.

"I'm tired, too," he announced shortly, before turning and stalking out of the room, ignoring Quatre's call. Trowa found a staircase and bounded up it, taking the stairs two at a time with his long legs. A long, dark hallway was at the top of the stairs, filled with identical doors.

One of the doors had light coming from beneath it.

Trowa knocked softly on the door, and Heero's voice flatly invited him in. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, leaning against it.

Heero was sitting on the bed, his face blank of expression, and Duo was puttering around the room, shoving his few possessions into drawers as he hummed tunelessly to himself. Heero looked at Trowa, his dark blue eyes pleading for assistance. Trowa knew the Japanese boy cared deeply for Duo, but Heero just didn't have the experience and knowledge to deal with the American's mercurial moods.

Not that Trowa was really an expert in that department either, but he was better than Heero. He sighed.

Duo seemed to take that small noise as a cue to stop what he was doing. The braided boy stood still, facing the dark window across the room, twisting his empty black duffel bag in his hands.

"You don't trust me," Duo said quietly. It wasn't an accusation or a lament, just a statement of fact.

Trowa sighed again, rubbing wearily at his eyes. He really hadn't wanted to have this conversation at all, and particularly not when they were all exhausted from a day of non-stop driving. What had possessed Quatre to so blatantly draw attention to the absence of their Gundams? The Arabian had to know how his seemingly innocent observations would affect Duo...

Of course. Quatre did know. Trowa suddenly wished he'd deleted that message and never told the others about it.

"Duo," Trowa began hesitantly, pushing his speculations on Quatre's attitude to the back of his mind. He would deal with the immediate problem first, then worry about the blond. "We do trust you, you should know that by now. We've all been more honest with each other over the past few days than... well, I don't know about you two, but I think I've been more open with you than I ever have with anyone in my life."

Duo's shoulders slumped slightly at Trowa's statement, and it was only then that the tall pilot realized how stiffly the American had been holding himself.

"That's not what I mean and you know it, Trowa," Duo muttered, still not turning to face the other two.

Trowa frowned slightly. He'd hoped he could generalize the issue. He and Heero both did trust Duo, with their secrets and their affection, but...

"It's not really an issue of trust," Trowa tried again. "More of... concern."

Duo snorted at this remark, and Heero stood up and moved to stand behind the American. He settled his hands on Duo's shoulders, and Trowa was relieved to see that Duo didn't pull away from the touch again.

"You're concerned because you don't trust my control," Duo stated calmly.

"We trust your control about as much as you do," Heero growled into Duo's ear. Even as he spoke, the Japanese boy slid his hands from Duo's shoulders to wrap his arms around the slender body. Trowa could still see Duo tense at the statement. He hoped Heero knew what he was doing. This was dangerous ground. They hadn't really discussed Duo's drug problem, at least not with Duo present. While the braided boy seemed to be recovering well from his recent re-exposure to heroin, Heero and Trowa had agreed there was no reason to tempt fate. While Duo was packing, the two of them had discussed the wisdom of leaving their Gundams behind, as opposed to leaving Duo alone in the car at the outskirts of the city they'd so recently vacated.

The pros of leaving the Gundams had outweighed the cons, and they'd quickly decided they would all travel together.

"I've known you a long time, now, Duo," Heero continued softly, his head resting on Duo's shoulder. "And I've watched you for a long time. I didn't really know why I did it, but I liked to watch you. I've seen you happy and sad and angry and drunk off your ass... And I've seen that look you get in your eyes sometimes, when it seems like everything's gone to shit on us again. I never knew what it was, what it meant, before what happened back in the city."

Heero paused to turn his head and gently kiss Duo's neck. Not a passionate gesture, but a comforting one. Trowa pondered Heero's words. He hadn't realized the Japanese boy had been interested in Duo for so long. No wonder then, that Heero had moved forward with the relationship so quickly. He'd wanted it all along, he just hadn't understood his feelings. It was very interesting to learn that Heero had so carefully observed and catalogued Duo's feelings, though.

"Your eyes looked like that the morning I yelled at you," Heero continued, almost whispering now. "And... they haven't quite lost that look yet." Duo's body jerked at those words, like he suddenly wanted to pull away, but Heero had anticipated the break for freedom and tightened his embrace. Duo didn't struggle long, but Trowa could hear the American's breathing grow harsher from across the room.

"I know you're strong," Heero assured the braided boy. "I know you are fully capable of controlling yourself. But I also know that being near that place would bring back memories, and that would be a strain on you. And I know that none of us have found a really urgent mission for a long time, and Dr. J hasn't contacted me in months. I know that both our enemies are fighting each other right now, so we don't desperately need our Gundams." Heero paused again, nuzzling against the side of Duo's neck. Duo seemed to just be standing stiffly in the Japanese boy's embrace. Trowa frowned. He couldn't let Heero take all the blame for this decision.

Trowa crossed the room in a few long strides, stepping up beside Duo. The American didn't glance at him until Trowa laid a hand on Duo's other shoulder. Then Duo turned his head slowly, his violet eyes dark and unreadable. Trowa met Duo's gaze evenly, and said gently, "It was a very small risk, Duo, but it was one we didn't need to take."

Duo turned back to the dark window and considered Trowa's words for a minute. Then he sighed heavily, relaxing into Heero's determined embrace. "You guys could wear yourselves out trying to protect me from myself," Duo warned them.

Trowa felt his lips quirk in a grin. He supposed that was the nicest way Duo could think of to say, ‘Don't coddle me. I'm not that weak.'

"Sorry," Heero muttered, sounding completely unrepentant. "Reflex."

Duo chuckled in exasperation, but twisted his body to pull Heero around to his side, wrapping his own arm around the Japanese boy. Trowa smiled, starting to move away. He'd let them patch this up in their usual manner.

But before he could pull away, Duo's other arm shot out and captured Trowa's wrist. Trowa froze at the sudden contact, staring apprehensively at Duo. He didn't like to be touched. He trusted Duo and Heero more than anyone, knew they wouldn't intentionally hurt him, but still...

Duo made no further move, though, just held his wrist. Lightly, gently, and Trowa soon realized that he could easily break the American's grip if he wanted to. He met Duo's eyes, and saw only affection in the violet depths. Duo was a physically demonstrative person, and he had a terrible time keeping his distance from Trowa now that they'd become so close. Trowa was trying to get used to Duo's casual touching, and actually, he'd found it hardly bothered him to have his hair or shoulder casually brushed in passing. Duo would sometimes lay a hand over his while talking, and that wasn't so bad either. This was the first time the American had attempted to restrain him in any way, though.

Now Heero was watching Trowa as well. Trowa wasn't sure how much the Japanese boy knew about his uneasiness with physical contact. It hadn't really been an issue between them, Heero wasn't very demonstrative himself. But the dark blue eyes were now watching Trowa steadily with the same expression that was in Duo's. Not demanding, not even asking, just... offering. Affection. Warmth. Simple human contact.

Trowa hesitated a moment longer, then nervously stepped forward. Duo smiled encouragingly, his own insecurity apparently banished, and very slowly slid an arm around Trowa's waist. When Trowa didn't pull away at this, Heero's arm settled gently across Trowa's tense shoulders. They continued to watch him, hopefully, and Trowa took a deep breath and hesitantly settled his arms around the other two boys.

Duo grinned widely. "Welcome to hugging, Tro!" he declared brightly, his arm tightening around Trowa's waist momentarily. Not long enough to unnerve him. Heero's rarely-seen smile made an appearance, and Trowa pondered the situation for a moment.

All in all, it wasn't really that bad. His lips quirked slightly, and Duo laughed delightedly, his violet eyes sparkling again.

Trowa wasn't sure how long they stood there like that, just holding each other, but when he finally pulled away and left, he found a strange warmth nestled in the pit of his stomach that he didn't recall being there before. And as he lay in bed that night, falling asleep, he found himself imagining the feel of strong arms embracing him.

But for once, it only made him smile.

+

Quatre frowned pensively at the carefully tended garden beyond his study window. The other three pilots had been in residence for two days now, and Quatre was growing increasingly concerned about the way they were acting.

As soon as they'd arrived, all of them traveling in that beat-up old car, he'd deduced why Trowa and Heero had elected not to bring their Gundams along. He'd even somewhat approved of their reasoning. Duo was an excellent pilot, it would be foolish to risk losing him at this uncertain point in the war. But Quatre had been concerned, especially upon noting Heero's new closeness to the braided boy, that the decision had not been based entirely on logic.

So he'd decided to test that theory. The reactions of the little group had disturbed him quite a bit.

Duo's abrupt departure had not been unexpected. Of course the American wouldn't want to be confronted with the painful truth of the burden his problem represented. Quatre was sadly certain Duo was still in denial about his problem, and it's inevitable effect on the rest of the pilots. He hadn't wanted to hurt Duo, but if Heero and Trowa hadn't explained to the boy why they weren't bringing their Gundams, and Duo hadn't thought to ask...

Heero following Duo had been another expected but disheartening occurrence. It was obvious the Japanese boy was fascinated with the American. Quatre could hardly blame him for that. Duo was quite attractive, and his outgoing personality would confuse and intrigue someone like Heero. But Quatre was beginning to realize that Duo's friendly behavior was probably mostly an act. His apparent warmth and easy-going attitude drew people in, stronger people like Heero, and by the time they learned the truth, learned how... fragile the American was behind his ready smiles, they were all too willing to protect him. To shelter him.

To enable him.

Quatre sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose to ward off a growing headache. It was obvious Duo had Heero thoroughly wrapped around his finger, and the Japanese boy had been radiating waves of hostility whenever he was in the same room as Quatre ever since that first night. It was quite wearing on him. Duo's confused hurt and hopeful affection were no less tiring, and perhaps even more so. Duo didn't seem to feel, as Heero obviously did, that Quatre's observation had been a deliberate attack. It hadn't been, Quatre was just trying to get a feel for the situation, and he was somewhat pleased that Duo hadn't become defensive with him about it. But the braided boy didn't seem to have given the matter much thought either. He seemed to have shrugged it off, probably because considering the question would have forced him to face the reality of his situation, and the situation he'd put Heero and Trowa in.

Trowa. Quatre almost groaned aloud at the mere thought of the quiet pilot. Trowa had been even quieter than usual these last couple of days. And while Heero's anger and Duo's nervous affection washed over the Arabian in waves, from Trowa he got... nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. But whenever he got near Trowa, Quatre felt such a chill emanating from the other boy that it almost made him shiver. Trowa had barely spoken to Quatre since the first night, and the Arabian had found himself squirming beneath the cool regard of those flat emerald eyes.

But worse than Trowa's rejection of him was the tall pilot's newfound closeness to Duo. Quatre had been sure that Trowa would recognize Duo's manipulative behavior for what it was, and not be ensnared like poor Heero. But from what Quatre had seen, Trowa was rapidly falling under Duo's influence.

This troubled Quatre deeply.

It wasn't healthy, not for any of them. Duo had to face up to the reality of his problems, and Heero and Trowa had to realize that not only could they not protect Duo from harm, but that the only person Duo was in danger from was himself. By helping the braided boy escape any confrontation about his problem, they were ultimately hurting him more.

He really hadn't expected Trowa to be drawn in by the act. It was very upsetting to Quatre to realize he would have to try to help Duo on his own, and he would have to fight not only Heero but Trowa as well every step of the way. He didn't want to fight Trowa, but Duo had forced him into that position. Quatre acknowledged to himself that beyond the concern he felt for the American, he was also angry at Duo for using his Trowa like that.

So far, he hadn't been able to do anything. One person against three was just too much, especially when the emotions stirred up by such confrontations were sure to play havoc with his empathy. Though it angered and upset him to do so, he'd played along with the popular charade that Duo was perfectly fine ever since that first evening. The braided boy, self-deluded as he was, was perfectly willing to accept Quatre's behavior as normal. Heero and Trowa, knowing deep down that Duo wasn't fine, were more suspicious. They weren't too obvious about it, though, since of course they didn't want to upset Duo's personal version of reality.

So when Quatre had suggested reasonably that now they'd rested a bit from their journey, perhaps they should go and retrieve their Gundams, they'd been reluctant to argue the point with Duo sitting right there. Duo had, in fact, been very much in support of the idea, which had gratified Quatre a bit. It seemed Duo did still have his priorities somewhat in order, which was encouraging. Heero and Trowa had not argued much, and it was quickly decided they would leave today. They would probably be gone for at least a week, since they'd have to lead any pursuit, and they were all grimly certain there would be pursuit, away from the mansion before doubling back.

Quatre would have plenty of time to try and help Duo come to terms with himself.

A small, hopeful smile spread across Quatre's face at the thought. He would help Duo, and when Heero and Trowa returned and realized what he'd done, they would be grateful, but more importantly, they would be free of Duo's manipulations, and Trowa would realize how silly his coldness had been. He would understand the unconditional love Quatre had for them all, and perhaps he would finally allow Quatre to show him the special love Quatre had only for the tall, quiet pilot...

The sound of Rashid clearing his throat interrupted the pleasant fantasy Quatre had drifted into, and he blinked in surprise at the leader of the Maguanacs, who smiled paternally down at him. "The others are preparing to leave, Master Quatre," Rashid announced. "I thought you would want to say goodbye."

"Thank you, Rashid," Quatre called as he sprang from his chair and ran out of the room. Thank goodness for Rashid! Although things were a bit strained between them at the moment, of course Quatre wanted to say goodbye to Trowa and wish him luck. He ran swiftly down the long halls, the thick carpet absorbing the sound of his light footfalls until he reached the edge of the hall leading into the atrium.

And froze, rooted to the spot by what he was seeing.

Duo was kissing Trowa.

His Trowa.

Quatre felt a good portion of his sympathy for the American melt away in the heat of his sudden anger. He hadn't dreamed Duo would go to such immoral lengths to manipulate poor, repressed Trowa's feelings... but he supposed he might have guessed. He'd been forgetting, in all his considerate, careful planning, what else Duo was besides a drug addict.

But now he'd been quite harshly reminded.

And this changed everything.

[part 1] [part 3] [back to Aoe's fic]