Author: Gloria
See Ch. 1 for other warnings, notes, disclaimer

Summary: Despair crept along Duo's skin, wishing he'd known before that there would come a time when he'd push this man too far, wishing he'd listened to the little voice inside of him that said one day, he'd have to pay the piper and start all over again.

Spoiler Warning: Scattered Duo-isms from the series.

Author's Note: This chapter was inspired in no small part by "A Long Way Gone--Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" by Ishmael Beah, to, you know, dig the knife in a little deeper. There was just something so painfully poignant about Beah's frankness, his unapologetic way of recounting his journey. I am thinking, more and more, that this book would be fantastic motivation for a POV by Trowa in a sequel to Can't Not. I see a lot of Trowa in Ishmael Beah. It makes me see so much more depth to a character that is otherwise two-dimensional for me.

Also greatly motivated by Muse's recent CD for this update. There are some really fantastic tracks on this album, really powerful and moving and completely breathtaking. I especially love the symphony tracks at the end. Was also inspired by a fanart by Luel Exana. I'm unsure of what the piece is called, but I pretty much describe it in the last paragraph of the chapter.

Unfortunately, this chapter is not beta-read (I'm sorry Link!). I am working very odd hours and only able to be on the computer between 3 and 5am lately, which makes it difficult to be online when Link is. Any errors spotted are completely my own!

This chapter took many re-writes. There was a point I wanted to make, and it seemed everything I had planned to make that point wasn't doing the job. This process can be very frustrating but I finally tweaked it to something a little like satisfactory. There are several little nuggets of fun hidden here and there too, nods to certain fandom ideas, foreshadowing, and reminders of small moments from earlier in the story. In a sense, I had great fun with this installment despite the difficulty, because there's room allowed here for us all to exhale a little bit, before moving on to the rest of the story. I hope you enjoy it!

And thanks very much for reading.

Prerequisite + Chapter 11: A Long Way Gone

AC 203

Black brightness swallowed him alive. He trembled inside of his body, his limbs stuck rigidly to his side. His heart quivered, his lungs, his kidneys, his very skin crawled; and yet he remained immobile. Silence screamed at him from every direction, buffeting his ears, the chaotic nonsense of the quiet beneath a whisper.

In his mind he saw a small figure, what could be a mouth moving. It said, Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. It said, Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon, It said, I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It said, it will be quieter than I am.

For a moment, the figure solidified around the edges. For a moment, it became a boy. A boy that was heartbreakingly familiar. Dark messy hair slashing low over a handsome face, serious blue eyes glaring sadly inward, and mouth set in a contemplative frown. The boy wore a loose green tank and black shorts.

The boy shimmered, turning his head to look at him, and became another boy. This boy said, Very soon, I will completely die. His eyes were dark, almost violet, his mouth wide in a dark grin, his long hair roped into a braid that fell heavily behind him. The boy said, lifting his chin to reveal a priest's collar, And all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.

Don't worry. I will be very quiet.

The quivering of his heart stuttered, violently leapt in his chest like it was trying to break free. He remembered, through a haze of confused images, colors murky and diluted, seeing his reflection, over and over, some program driving a lesson mercilessly into his soul. He remembered going a little mad, his last sane thought was, yes, true isn't it. I am my worst enemy. That face, over and over and over and--

The cocoon squeezed around him, holding him still as he struggled against his invisible confines. He hovered in emptiness for an eternity, wondering where the boy had gone, how long it had been since he disappeared. Bright little lights flew by him in a stream of glory, dancing merrily beyond him, leaving him behind. He felt a heavy pull on his consciousness, and drifted.

Eons later, he stood in a room. There was a gurney, a body trapped beneath a rumpled white sheet. He marveled, idly, as he had not much reason for a while to think of anything at all, that blood does not look nearly as red as it does seeping into fresh linen, or cold winter snow. He remembered, in a flash, reading an article about a man, an artist, obsessed with understanding the nature of the color red, bathing for an entire day in a tub of pig's blood, and then rolling around on a flat of white canvas. He remembered the artist was irritated. He remembered the artist claimed it was not the same as blood on snow. He remembered thinking that this was rather funny.

Dear heavenly Father, please forgive us. For we know not what we do.

He ventured closer to the gurney. The walls were made of blue tile, green mold marring the grey in-between. Silver pipes jutted into the room at odd, irrational angles. Another boy, his hand on the rail of the gurney. The boy's shaved head was bowed over the dead person, his lips moving in silent prayer. His skin was grotesquely scarred, burned, slashed and dripping. He wondered if it was the dead man's blood, or the boy's, that stained the sheet. The boy looked up, turned his head. His eyes were dark brown, nearly black, the yellow of his eyes stained with spidery red lines. Two bullet-holes, seeping still, marked his face. One dead center between his eyes and the other shoved into his cheekbone, splintering bone and brain matter down one side of his face, down his neck, a small pile on his shoulder. There was something accusatory in his stare.

His feet drew him closer; though suddenly the quiver in his gut was back, some terrible instinct to flee overpowering him, a notion that this was horrible and could only get worse. He reached out, curled his fingers into the stained linen, wet still, warm still, with blood. He pulled. The sheet gave way. A face emerged. Blue and grey and green. Dead. The face of a dead man.

His body reacted before his mind could, lurching away, shaking from head to foot. He tried to scream a denial, but couldn't. His entire body seized up, pain lancing across his right shoulder, down his chest, his spine, his ribs, enflamed with agony. He was hovering again, but straining, straining. He gasped, attempted another scream, the pain made him see white. Garbled sounds coming in from the edges of blackness.

"....have activity on the monitor, Doctor. The sedative is wearing off."

"He's waking up. I have to induce--"


"I don't have time for this. Casey, get me--"

"I said no."

Something tugged through the haze, the fog, the mist that burned every inch of him. Something made him want to open his mouth, his eyes, tell them, tell them...

"He's crashing."

A roar, then, like some wild animal trapped with nothing but its rage.

"Get him out of here!"

Screaming. He was happy, for a moment, that someone could scream for him. Screaming, and shouting, and loud crashes. And then nothing.

Nothing happened for another eternity. It could have been a handful of moments, but his body felt wooden like it had been much longer than a moment. He knew he was dreaming, this time, as he stood on the pier and watched the sun hit the horizon, waking the world up with a grey dawn. The wind was cold on his face. The water was steely but calm, rising to meet him in small, white-capped waves. The boy he'd shot stood beside him, staring at his feet.

Who are you, he whispered.

I'm a long way gone, the boy answered, and closed his eyes.


Duo heard the beeping, the rustle of a nurse shuffle past him, could smell the all-purpose cleaner. It took much longer than the event of opening his eyes to figure out he was in a hospital, or at least some medical unit. Took even longer to remember anything that would suggest what landed him there, too.

What he did know immediately was that he itched like a mother. Itched at every inch of his body, and all he could really concentrate on was comprehending the best way to will his limbs back into kinetic movement so he could scratch himself silly. Itching, the one fault of genetic treatment, the byproduct of organs healing faster than they're supposed to. He groaned, feeling like an invalid when it winded him just to curve his fingers. He felt dizzy, unsteady within himself. He tried to coax himself up, but suddenly there was a hand on his chest, pressing him back.

"Take it easy, Danger," a voice said, belonging to some head with a lot of wavy hair. "Don't rush it; you'll only make it worse. You're going to feel off for a few minutes. But it gets better. Relax."

His mouth was dry, and he tried to swallow. His lips burned, chapped and split. His shoulder felt strange, an echo, perhaps, of pain. He mumbled something that didn't quite reach his own ears. He paused, tried to rearrange his thoughts into something coherent. Eloquently, he said, "Fuck."

The hazy figure was looming over him again, fiddling with mechanisms on the bed he lay on. A humming and a buzzing later, half the bed moved vertically, sufficiently propping him in a sitting position. Duo kept blinking, flexing his fingers and toes, tried to imagine the itch as warmth spreading throughout his limbs, up and down his spine. The smudgy colors were becoming more defined, but he still couldn't make out who it was bustling around his hospital room, checking off clipboards and turning off machines. Duo felt distracted; some thing tugging at the corners of his brain. He absently pulled out the needles in his arm, the back of his hand, the piercing sting shooing more of the fog from his mind. He removed the sensors from his chest and forehead, reached down and was relieved at the lack of catheter; though, judging by the discomfort, it hadn't been very long since it was removed. The doctor made sounds of disapproval at Duo's activity but made no move to stop him. It felt like bugs with pincers were crawling through the skin of his shoulder, over his rib cage, his back. The sensation was maddening.

"Fuck," he said again, and wearily let his head fall back.

He stared at the ceiling for many moments. He began to remember things like the sound of gunfire, the urgent quiet of the voice in his earpiece, the whir of the helicopter blades. He felt drugged, hung-over, and it came back to him slowly. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them he could actually make out definitive features on her face. Her expression was one of patient watchfulness. He knew her.

"Sally," he said, and felt relieved it wasn't a stranger.

"Yes. Well done. Can you see me? How many fingers am I holding up?"

Suddenly, in a rush, he felt the urge to cry, thinking--knowing-- this was the worst possible scenario he could find himself in. And if it weren't for Sally, if it wasn't Sally, he knew in his bones he'd have that psychotic break virtually breathing at his elbow. Duo loathed the idea of some doctor he didn't trust implicitly knowing more about him than he did. There weren't many things he feared more than being someone's lab rat.

"Four. Where's Heero?"

"Open up," Sally said, and when he complied, slipped a few ice chips into his mouth. An evasion, but the ice felt wonderful enough that he forgave her. Duo breathed in deeply through his nose, exhaled slowly.

"Well done," Sally said again, reaching for her stethoscope. "Do that again so I can listen."

"I'm fine," he said, but endured the cold and the poking and the prodding.

Sally's expression was odd when she pulled away finally, her eyes a little wide with unmasked bewilderment, her smile a little too awe-struck for Duo's comfort. "Incredible, " she said.

Duo grunted, found the willpower to lift his hand, pass it sluggishly over his eyes. Everything felt heavier than it should, slower, his senses murky and off-beat. He certainly didn't feel incredible.

He pulled his hand away, gaze catching on his wrist. He brought his other arm up for inspection. Apprehension was an understatement. Duo felt the beginnings of panic for the first time in a long time, an undercurrent of rage close on its heels.

"Sally," he said, his tongue thick in his mouth, jumbling the syllables together indiscernibly.

"Wufei doesn't get injured nearly enough for me to properly--" Sally stopped herself, eyeing him sideways. "They really did a number on you boys, didn't they, back in the day."

He tried again. "Sal."

"Yes, love."

"Where am I?"

"Headquarters. We flew back four days ago."

"How long?"

Sally was looking at him strangely, as if gauging just how much to disclose. "Six days altogether."

"Jesus." Duo pushed against the panic swelling in his gut, something about the fading bruises on his wrists, the leather and metal manacles dangling off the sides of the bedrail, just close enough to clamp down on his hands and feet, the fog in his brain--something was triggering fight or flight, something was sending him over the edge. "What did you do to me?"

"Duo." She was walking away somewhere, and her voice traveled with her. "You got yourself pretty messed up. You had some nasty hemorrhaging, several ribs broken, horrible burns and lacerations all down your right side--"

"Taurus Four was being stubborn," Duo growled. He could virtually feel her stern gaze on him. He had her attention now.

"You were shot three times, Duo. Three times. Not to mention your shoulder. You managed to crack your collarbone, dislocate your shoulder, completely ripped--"

"Don't give a flying fu--"

"Don't you mouth off to me, Duo Maxwell; you goddamn know better." Sally was back in his face, her expression twisted and livid. "What the fuck were you thinking, trying to fly the transport? We could've crashed right into the damn lake!"

"Yeah, but I didn't." Duo struggled, his face hot, his body hot, roiling and itching, and propped himself up on his elbows, groaned fiercely until his legs finally swung over the edge of the bed. "And you better start squaring with me quick, Doc, because I have never in my life been out that long and I can't think of a single sedative that can keep me down for more than forty-eight hours. I know my body."

A flash of something unfathomable across her piercing, bright blue eyes, then, and she straightened. Sally looked very different today, but not so different from when he first saw her all those years ago. Her long white lab coat made everything else about her seem brighter, crisper. He saw a glimpse of the old Major in her expression towards him, too. That exasperation, that fondness, that utter confusion because all her medical training did not prepare her in any way for the creatures the colonies had sent down to Earth. "You're such a goddamn smartass," she said through her teeth.

"I'm not Wufei," Duo said, resting one arm on his knee. A rush of vertigo seized him and he saw stars. "Can't scold me into submission, Sal."

"Sedatives weren't working," she said flatly. "Your injuries were bad enough to be fatal. We couldn't move you, technically, because most humans wouldn't survive the transport. But we had to. We were risking another confrontation at the base on Ssese. You kept waking up. I was forced to induce coma."

"You what? The fuck, Sally--don't need your sedatives. Would've have healed screaming or not."

"I imagine so," she retorted, "but disfigured and unfixable. At the accelerated rate your body was `healing itself', we had to keep you put together so you could wake up Duo Maxwell today and not some mangled demon."

Duo dropped his face in his hands, catching a dry sob with his palms. For six days, everything that made him what he was had been at the mercy of the Preventers and their medical staff. He didn't want to know how badly he had broken himself to need to be comatose in order to heal properly, but he did know Heero would have never stood for the procedure.

Heero. There was something wrong about the way Sally was avoiding the topic of his partner. She seemed rather cheerful about what she did to him in comparison with how she flinched at Heero's name.

"Sally. Sally, where is Heero."

"Don't mean to sound patronizing, " she said quietly, lowering herself into a chair, "but it's rather nice to hear you two on a first name basis again, considering. "

"I swear to God, Sally Po, I will lose my shit all over you. Considering what?"

"He's in the Cell Block," she said, with an abruptness that made Duo feel cold all over.

"Guarding who," he asked slowly, watching her face, watching her features settle into a cold stare that said what she couldn't bring herself to vocalize.

"Shit," Duo said, bursting into movement. He scooted forward on the bed, swung his legs over the side. He was hit with a wave of dizziness that made him see stars all over again. Sally didn't try to stop him, and that made the panic swelling inside of him burn like fury. "Shit. Where are my pants? Sally, where--what did he do?"

"Some sniveling corporal," she bit out nastily, handing him a pile of clothes, "made some flippant remark about you and Heero hit him so hard the man's nasal cavity--he's not dead, Duo, and your fly's still down. Luckily for the little prick, Heero wasn't actually trying to kill him. And then one of Kumbaki's security got aggressive with him and if it wasn't for Relena losing her temper with the both of them, I think Heero might've--"

"Where's Relena now?"

"On her way back to Brussels. We left her a huge mess to clean up. Une's livid, but Heero refuses to speak with her. He won't be bothered with anyone but Wufei, and he's not even allowed inside the cell."

"Who won't let--"

"Heero. Heero won't let anyone near him. Duo." She paused to lay a hand on his arm, partly to get his attention, partly to steady him as he stood up. "He went into a rage when I-when I...I haven't seen him like this in..."

Duo saw it then. He saw it in her face, in that half a second when she slipped and let the fear she was hiding peek through. Even Sally, who knew Heero as long as even he did, was cautious of him, and wise enough about what that man was capable of to be terrified knowing he was unstable. "Sally, it's not your fault. You didn't do this."

She looked away, her gaze going dark and inward. "We didn't think he'd be the first one to break."

"I know," Duo said gently, because he did. Duo knew he was the one they had been watching, trusting Heero to be the one to be the stabilizer. He knew they expected Duo to be rash and rebellious and unpredictable. And they were right. But they were wrong to make that Heero's responsibility, and Duo was wrong for it too. Duo thought of his pain-induced nightmare, the child with the bullet-hole between his eyes and the gurney and the bloody sheet. The body underneath.

Sally quietly handed him his badge and his jacket as he shoved his feet into his boots, still creased with combat-dust. "Isolation AF-42," she said, and went to sit down again. Duo watched her lean her head against the wall and close her eyes. And then he was gone, slipping by silently enough he was sure she wouldn't realize it until she opened her eyes.

Sure enough, Wufei stood against the wall just outside of I-AF-42, his head bowed slightly as he held some silent vigil. Wufei looked up just as Duo came within a foot of him. His expression was weary, and worried, and for a single moment Duo felt they had some common ground.

"He's a wreck," Wufei murmured, his voice raspy with disuse.

Duo looked deep into Wufei's black eyes, long enough to see a glimmer of the man's soul. "I shot a little boy right in front of him, Wufei. Kid was gonna kill him, but Heero was trying to-was trying to talk to him--I don't know. I screwed up. I screwed up, and I'll fix it. I'll fix this."

"He's not a machine. You can't cut some wires, turn a gear, replace a part and make things all better," Wufei said, quietly enough to qualify as a whisper. "You can't just fix him."

"I know that," Duo said--and it was weird, a little bit, that he felt guilty enough, worried enough about Heero, to feel like he needed to get Wufei's approval in order to see the man he...

Loved? Maybe, probably, because he couldn't, suddenly, even comprehend a future that didn't include him, a destiny, or whatever, that wasn't tied to his. And it never occurred to him before that moment that there would be a time where it was `too late' to say `it' or whatever needed to be said or do whatever needed to be done to keep him, and keep him happy and safe and--

"I know that," he said again, just barely, a breathy exhale. "Please. Please let me through."

Of course he did, of course he loved him, because nothing else in the entire universe was worth pleading with Wufei fucking Chang, the world's biggest douche bag, to do a thing Wufei was going to do anyway because the world's biggest douche bag didn't really have a choice in the matter. Wufei did step aside though, murmuring, "I don't think this has everything to do with what happened in Nairobi. He was fine until you went under."

Duo acknowledged that with a quick touch to Wufei's elbow, and moved past.

Duo could see Heero's figure through the little glass window on the door. He sat on the edge of a metal cot, bent over with his forearms resting on his knees. His face was hidden by the sweep of his dark hair. He did not move when Duo opened the door--which was unlocked, and Duo guessed that Heero being there was voluntary, then, because even if it had been, there wasn't a cell in the universe that could hold Heero Yuy if he didn't want to be.

He closed the door behind him, waited the full three minutes it took for Heero to look up and see him. Heero went rigid all over, his face that stone mask he'd worn at fifteen. Just stared at him like he was staring at the wall behind Duo. Despair crept along Duo's skin, wishing he'd known before that there would come a time when he'd push this man too far, wishing he'd listened to the little voice inside of him that said one day, he'd have to pay the piper and start all over again.

Duo approached slowly, warily, and sat next to him on the cot. Heero continued to stare. But when Duo moved to touch him, Heero recoiled, a flash of anguish twisting his features as he stood suddenly and walking stiffly to the other side of the tiny room. Heero's fist came up as if he was going to punch the wall, but instead only tapped his knuckles against it, dragging them down the rough spackle. He slumped forward, his forehead resting against the wall. He looked as broken as Duo had ever seen him, in this room of dingy gray, wearing a Preventers jacket of blue and green. Blue and green and gray. A premonition, then. Duo nearly gave up.


Heero squeezed his eyes shut against the sound of his name, slouching even closer to the wall as if in pain. "I know now; I understand why you're so angry." Heero's eyes opened slowly, unfocused, unseeing. "I get it."

Duo was silent for a long moment. "Why, then."

Heero opened his mouth, his face twisted as if in pain, and then closed it again. He jerked his head from side to side, refusing to even try and give voice to the turmoil inside of him.

Nearly a decade ago, there was a day, a bad day, after a nasty mission that went as wrong as it could, that Duo finally reached out to Heero. They played a game.

"Would you like me to guess?" Duo asked softly.

That won him a prize. Heero twisted so that his back was against the wall, his gaze sharpening to focus on the far wall. It had worked that first time too.

"We are being used to facilitate a government that can tell a people whether or not their country belongs to them," Duo murmured. "And the only thing that gave them the right to do that was us because we won the war. It used to be a little easier to tell right from wrong."

A flash of color then, Heero's blue eyes looking at him through the corners of his lashes. If it wasn't exactly accurate, it must be pretty damn close.

"You told me in Spain that there wasn't any right and wrong, that we could operate in a grey area and feel good about it," Duo continued. "You're beginning to doubt that now."

Heero closed his eyes.

"But," Duo said firmly, getting to his feet. "I'm a notorious pessimist and if everyone thought the way I did no one would ever get anything done. OZ took what wasn't theirs, and if there is anything ESUN's got going for them is that the past however many years has been about giving it all back. And it's shitty, yes, because politics takes longer than a gun, but I became a mechanic because I trusted the ass-hats we left in charge to do at least a little bit right by what we stood for. And I wouldn't have joined with you if I really, really, really thought Preventers was just a sugar-coated OZ and that it was all bull--"


Heero's eyes were still closed, his mouth set in a severe frown. Duo wondered how much of his rambling Heero had actually listened to. "You have to stop," Heero said in a gravelly voice. "You've been trying to protect me, and you have no fucking right to."

That knocked the wind out of him. Duo took a step back, dumfounded. "What?"

"You took the Blackhawk Op so I would be forced to stay with Relena. You didn't want me out there, did you, didn't want me near child soldiers and dead civilians caught in the crossfire. You took on a burden that wasn't yours." Heero opened his eyes, but stared only at the wall in front of him. "I would have stayed with the Envoy anyway, Duo. If you had voiced the sentiment to me, I would have told you that. But you didn't. And I know you felt guilty about shutting me out because of what you said to me before the battle." He turned his face then, bent a pair of cold blue eyes on him. "I can't have a partner that keeps secrets from me."

"Heero, that's not really fair," Duo whispered, breathless. "That kid would have killed you and it was just one--just one kid and you froze up. Did it ever occur to you that I was trying to prevent that?"

"Did it ever occur to you that if I hadn't been crazy about where the fuck you were I might have been more focused?" Heero snapped.

Duo sucked in a breath, took that in like a splash of cold water. "I'm sorry," he exhaled.

Heero's eyes lowered, but he said nothing, retreating back into himself.

"Heero, really, I'm sorry." Duo stepped up to him, reached out. Heero batted his hand away, but Duo lifted it again. Heero growled, anger flashing across his face, and shoved him back. Duo caught him around his wrists and pulled Heero with him. The cot caught the back of his knees, forcing him to sit back down, and Heero's weight teetered over him. Suddenly, Heero was still, slumped over Duo awkwardly, breathing heavily. Just breathing. Duo didn't dare let him go.

"I scared you," Duo said, the truth, the heart of the matter unfolding suddenly, becoming clear. In a flash, what Wufei said to him made sense. Heero had spent the past six days trying to cope with the idea that he wouldn't wake up, and there was nothing he'd be able to do about it. "I scared you and I'm sorry. I'm okay. I'm a shitty boyfriend and a crappier partner, but I'm alive, and I'm sorry."

Just breathing. Deeper, steadier, stirring the fine hairs at the nape of Duo's neck.

"I won't do it again," he said softly, daring, gradually, to release one of Heero's wrists. He reached around and up so he could stroke Heero's hair. Duo felt sort of silly, and the positioning was awkward, but the touch seemed to relax him. "I haven't been trying--and I can do that, for you. Just don't give up on me. Please, Heero, don't give up on me."

"I'm haven't. I won't." Heero finally moved, straightened, took Duo by the elbow and helped him up as well. "I want to go home," he said, and it was with such a tinge of petulance that Duo almost laughed. "I want to see Ash."

Duo smiled tentatively, leaning in to steal a quick kiss. Heero's expression seemed confused at the gesture, and Duo supposed it wasn't fair of him to do that either.

He still felt sick and trembling as they left the Cell Block, Wufei escorting them so they could move through the base quickly and quietly. His mind was filled with images from his nightmares. The accusatory stare of the child he'd shot, the child he killed without thinking, hesitating, or pausing to consider the ramifications because that's the monster he'd become.

He looked at Heero sideways as they crossed the flat to an awaiting helicopter, going crazy at what the man was thinking, fiercely despising that stoic expression that betrayed nothing. Duo looked at Heero and didn't think he'd be able to do anything with those thoughts anyway. He looked at Heero and wondered if he killed what was left of them when he killed that little rebel fighter on the rooftop. He looked at Heero and thought, I'm a long way gone.


The tree in front of Chris's house had somehow...exploded. Doug was out in the yard handling what he could into a pile by the purple pick-up. The two younger sisters were out as well, raking in the smaller stuff. Chris appeared from the backyard shortly after the black Lincoln pulled away from the street, carrying two large trash bags full of what looked like sticks and shrubbery. Nefie and Ash trailed happily in her wake. Ash let out a cheerful howl upon sighting them and charged forward. Heero was the large pit's first victim, and actually managed to topple the man to the ground.

Duo watched him go down, too dumfounded by the sudden silly grin that cracked his mask to reach out. Heero laughed as he wrestled with the animal, doing what he could to keep the dog from wetting his face with a slobbery tongue. Duo found a reluctant smile pull at his own lips.

"Oh, good," Chris said, glancing over as Nefie went to join the dog pile. "You're back. Yesterday's storm blew everything all to shit. Heero, could you help Doug so we can get all this crap down to the dump before they close?"

"Sure," Heero said, getting his feet under him and dusting off his slacks. "I already paid her," he added, as Duo began to pull out his wallet, "for the extra week of dogsitting."

Duo bit his lip, finding it difficult to meet Heero's eyes. Heero turned to help Doug and Ash jumped up to paw at Duo's chest. "Hey, Mutt," Duo murmured, rubbing the dog's head, feeling his heart constrict. "Missed you."

"I'd wager the feeling's mutual. He's been depressed." Chris came up to stand beside him, looking at him sideways in that sharp, perspicacious way of hers.


"Yeah. Where'd you go, anyway?"

"Can't tell you that."

"Sure you can, you just don't want to." Chris took off her gardening gloves and blew on her fingers to warm them. Winter's chill had settled over Maryland while they were gone in Africa, it seemed. "Crazy doings in Kenya, I heard. Good thing Preventers were there to save the Minister. And it was nice of ya'll to get the one guy out of there too."

Duo looked at her. "You seem well-informed. "

She smiled at him. "I watch the news."

He looked away from her, thinking of Hilde. "You shouldn't believe everything the news tells you."

"Oh, I don't," Chris replied. "That's why I asked."

Duo frowned, stuffing his bare hands into his pockets as a brisk wind picked up. The sky was grey, like the pier in his dream. "They talk about dead children on your news channel, shot down by our soldiers?"

Chris circled him, so that she could see his face again. "No. They didn't."

Duo looked into her eyes, felt his own burn. "I'm not a nice person."

Chris continued to look at him, her pretty face tilted a little to the side as she stared into his eyes. "My parents are dead," she said finally. "Dad was a medic, Mom worked on a naval base overseas. Both were killed during freak battles that involved your...machines. "

It stung where the wind hit the streaks of tears on his face.

"If I can be strong enough not to hate you," she said, "then you can be strong enough not to give up because you `feel bad'." Chris brought her hands down after punctuating her words with her fingers, reached out with one and squeezed Duo's wrist. Duo placed his free hand over hers.

"How can you not hate me?" he whispered. It made no sense; especially if Chris really did recognize him, made Duo's face the face of all that destruction and death and loss.

"Well, for one, you're still trying," she said, and her face lit up with a friendly smile. "And two..." She turned her face to where Heero was lifting a heavy branch and placing it into the bed of the pick-up.

We're not the same, he almost said; but he didn't because the point was moot. What the hell difference did it make? He left her standing there and went into his house. He closed the door behind him and stood on the landing, staring aimlessly into the darkness. Abruptly, he was hit with the urge.

He swept up the stairs and went straight into Heero's room. He opened the nightstand, but it wasn't there. He searched his closet--nothing. It wasn't under the bed either, or between the mattress, or hidden in the pillows. He checked every pocket, every sock. He searched the computer room, the kitchen, even the fridge. Finally he turned to the bay window, just on the edge of panic, just on the edge of anxious, frantic overload. Heero was still in the yard, standing beside Chris as she talked rapidly and gestured toward the house. Duo looked down just as Heero tilted his face upward. He bent over the bench beneath the bay window, lifted the cushion to reveal the chest underneath. It was there on top of a pile of random gadgets and a set of tools. Duo reached around a bundle of wires, feeling the pressure in his chest peak and explode in a sob as he closed his fingers over it. He reset the cushion, and sat down.

He ran his fingers over the shiny front, the corners frayed and bent. He traced the palm trees with a fingernail, let the pad of his thumb sweep around the lining of the cove, imagined the sound of sea spray and crashing waves. The glossy surface was damp now, and he spread the salty wet across the vivid sparkling blue.

"We can go. Anytime, Duo. Say the word."


"I don't want to quit. I don't want you to quit." Duo covered his face with his hands. The postcard of Formentera slipped through his fingers and whispered across the floor.

A warm hand covered his, prying his fingers away from his face. The kindness, the compassion in Heero's direct blue gaze hurt more than the blank stare did. Heero knelt in front of him, touched his face with his other hand. Duo closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. "It wouldn't be quitting," he heard Heero murmur. "Look at me, Duo."

He did, flinching a little as Heero's eyes searched his face. Heero swept his thumb across his cheek and then back again. "This isn't just about you being angry at the world," Heero said, "is it? This is about you being angry with yourself. I know about that too, Duo."

"I just want it to mean something," Duo said brokenly. "I just want it to mean something."

"It does."

"God, don't do that." Duo stood up and brushed past him. "Don't fucking coddle me. You're just wasting your time."

"Am I?" Heero growled. "You coddle me in Nairobi and I'm not allowed to return the favor when you haven't stopped crying since we got in the car? I can't freak when they nearly take you away from me forever, but you can throw yourself into a fray that even when we had Gundams you'd've planned better before even toeing the line? You can crash your bird into a mobile suit and stand around another one self-destructing, and I'm not allowed to care?"

"I was doing my job," Duo said angrily, fisting at his eyes.

"Look at me."

Duo refused, storming instead into the kitchen.

Heero followed, grabbed Duo by the arm and swung him around. His face was furious and brilliant. Duo fell for him all over again.

"You're right about everything you said at HQ," Heero said through his teeth, shaking him a little. "You're right--but you're completely missing the point."

"I don't get you at all sometimes," Duo hissed, finding the fight in him again to struggle against Heero's iron grip. "I saw your face when I pumped that kid full of lead. I saw your fucking face, Heero. You'd've saved him. You'd've tried to and let the little bastard shoot you in the gut and I fucking killed him and now you're looking at me like--like--and I can't figure out why you keep wasting your goddamn time--"

"I don't blame you for that," Heero said so breathlessly, so earnestly that Duo went still and limp against the kitchen counter. "God, Duo, I don't--how the hell can you even think that? You know I've done my fair share of--Duo, look at me. I don't, not even a little bit, blame you for saving my life." Heero stepped in close to him, placed both hands on either side of Duo's face, held him like a precious thing. "I just want you; but you keep putting up more and more boundaries and I don't know how to reach you. If being here is going to do that to us, then I don't--we can leave. It's not worth it. It's not worth it. I'll go wherever you want us to."

Heero kissed him, very slowly, very sweetly. Duo let him. Duo closed his eyes and let Heero run his fingers gingerly over his wet lashes, down his cheeks, curl in the hair at the nape of his neck. Heero pulled away, touched his face one more time and then left the kitchen.


Heero would know, wouldn't he, about the physical repercussions of being injured badly enough that the body needs to shut down to recuperate. It was the first time he'd thought about that, sitting at the bay window and watching as a sister storm charged across the neighborhood, echoing the one he'd slept through. Rain pelted the glass, the sky dark and nearly green in its roiling wrath. Ash cowered behind the couch, only his head visible as he kept an eye on his master. Neither of them liked the sound of thunder, or the bright flashes of lightening.

Duo wondered if Heero had had dreams too, after he blew himself up. Trowa had been with him then and Duo knew little to nothing about that time after, only that Heero was a different person when he'd woken up. Heero would expect, then, that if Duo was up and walking, he wasn't as physically frail as the good doctors would expect him to be, just emotionally frail, psychologically frail. Doubting everything, questioning everything--like his ability to handle what he'd taken on. Like the idea that maybe Duo wasn't as up to it either, being around child soldiers, being the force that knocked them down because they were luckless enough to be on the wrong side of a skirmish. Maybe that was why Heero was so angry, because Heero knew that Duo wasn't any more capable of handling that than he was, but Duo got it in his head that he could take it on for the both of them.

Duo remembered what it was like to operate as a unit. He had actually learned that with Heero, with Quatre, to some extent the others as well. He re-learned with Hilde. It felt natural after a while, almost like with Solo. After Hilde left, he had to re-learn how to be alone. That hadn't taken as much effort. Now it felt like writing with his left hand. Toeing the line, Heero had said, and maybe that was what it was. Toeing the line, because Duo would try anything except that which would make him vulnerable.

Heero's door was unlocked and Duo let himself in, shutting the door before Ash could guilt his way through as well. Heero was toweling off his hair, his body still wet from a recent shower and wearing only a pair of sweats. Heero paused to look up at him, but saw Duo was content for the moment to watch, and continued drying off. Heero's head looked worse than the weather outside by the time he was done, and Duo spared a grin for that. Heero looked like he combed his hair with a sock at the best of times.

"I think we can make a difference here," Duo said quietly, as Heero tossed the towel into a corner of his room. "I don't want to leave yet."

Heero just stared at him, looking disheveled and damp and sexy. Expectant, waiting.

Duo felt his face grow warm, catching his eyes roaming and glanced away. "You're distracting. "

"Oh?" It was lighthearted, that; a chuckle.

"Yeah." Duo did smile then. "I'm sort of into you."

"Huh." Heero crossed the room to retrieve a shirt from his dresser. "And I was getting the impression that playing house was a turn off for you."

"Little bit," Duo said, feeling such an unutterable sense of relief at their playful banter. "But I swear to Moses if you get anymore dressed, I might have to kill you."

Heero abandoned his search for a shirt, caught his hand, and pulled him closer. "How's your shoulder?" he murmured in his ear, wrapping one arm around Duo's waist.

"Stiff," he said honestly, "but at least the itch has worn off."

Heero made a small noise and nodded, his eyes going a little absent as he pulled down Duo's collar to look at the scar tissue. Then he removed Duo's shirt altogether and, frowning in clinical concentration, inspected the damage.

"I know it's not pretty," Duo muttered, feeling weird and bothered and slightly self-conscious.

Heero answered with half a dozen tender kisses Duo couldn't feel, lips pressed along the scar tissue, the bump of damaged bone, fingers trailing down the ribcage.

"You were just looking for a reason to get my shirt off," Duo softly accused.

Heero chuckled again and kissed his mouth.

There were times when it would start off rushing and bruising and almost, and sometimes very, violent, before gentling into something more tender. Tonight, Duo felt like he was caught in some kind of game of chicken, matching Heero's pace only to find him upping the notch, raising the bar, until Duo was frantic and begging, clutching at him and whispering nonsense.

It was strange and pleasant, letting the fight go out of him altogether, letting Heero lift him onto the bed and strip him slowly. Heero's mouth was everywhere on him, everywhere, and Duo closed his eyes and let him. No struggle, no pride, just closeness and heat and the swell of pleasure every time Heero twisted his grip there, and slicked his tongue just like that, touched him right on time, brought him up and brought him back, until Duo was mad with it. Heero bit his jaw and fit them together, losing it for one sparse moment before regaining control again, and the look on Heero's face was enough to send him right over the edge. Of course that wasn't the end of it; Heero wanted at least another hour. Gently, sweetly, Heero brought him back and up and over and it was for a time completely perfect.

Too hot and sweaty to do anything but spread out at odd angles across the bed after they came down again, gasping and moaning and sharing silly little laughs that meant nothing and everything. The storm outside continued to rage, Ash scratched at the door, and the still air began to cool them.

Duo heaved a sigh when Ash whimpered. "Can I sleep in here tonight?"


A dip in the mattress as Heero got up, the creak of the door opening, and Ash padded inside. He licked Duo once in the face and then went to curl up on the rug. Duo ran his hand through Heero's hair absently after he came back to bed, curling up against him and burying his face into the crook of Duo's neck.

Always, Heero had said, and Duo felt a pain in his chest at why he felt the need to ask in the first place. It had been very different, the weeks before Nairobi.

"They're going to ask me to do something," Duo murmured. "I think--I think I know what it is. I won't do it if you ask me not to." He paused. "I'd like you to be with me."

"I'm with you."

Quiet then. Rain pelted the window. Ash began to snore.

"Duo." Heero's fingers trailed over his arm, the inner hollow of his elbow, his wrist, curled around his hand. "We can save the world in the morning. Stay with me tonight."

Duo smiled a little, hearing his own words coming back at him. His smile was long-faded when a golden sunrise streamed in through the window, his tired gaze fixed on the ceiling, still troubled with the little boy who was a long way gone.


"Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon, I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am." ~ A Long Way Gone--Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.

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