by: Sunhawk

Absolution (cont)

Steel strong arms closed around me and spun us away from the sight in front of me. Distantly, I heard the closet door slam shut. "It's all right! It's not real! It's all right..." Trowa was calling to me, the same message over and over. When I stopped struggling to get away, he loosened his grip enough to turn me in his arms.

"Hold on to me," he commanded, and I didn't need to be told, my hands were reaching of their own accord before he half had me turned.

His arms enveloped me, holding me tight enough to bruise. My brain was firing off sporadic commands, sending out confused little hamsters who couldn't make up their minds if this situation fell under 'fight', 'flight', or 'cling'. I finally decided to listen to the thought-hamster who only arrived with a banner that read; 'holyshit!'.

I felt light-headed, almost like I couldn't breathe. My hands were fisted in Trowa's shirt and some small part of my functioning brain was mortified about the position I found myself in.

"You're all right," he kept telling me, his voice calm and soothing. "You're in your room. I'm right here with you. Everything is all right. Stop panting..."

I didn't know I had been until he pointed it out and I struggled then against instinct to make myself quit. My heart was hammering so hard my chest hurt.

One of his hands shifted and pressed the side of my head against the center of his chest. A stray hamster took a moment to stop his hysterical skittering to point out to me how damn tall Trowa was.

"Calm down," he said gently. "Listen to my heartbeat... concentrate on the sound of my heart."

I could feel it, slightly quickened, but not the mad pounding of my own. It was... soothing. It gave me a grounding point.

"Take a deep breath," he ordered. "Hold it... hold it... now let it out, slowly."

When he felt me complying, he eased off on his tight grip. "Again," he commanded, and, "again." Until my own heart began to slow and calm. Until I could breathe without every inhalation catching in my throat.

I felt myself breaking into a cold sweat, having only a moment to register it before I began to shake.

It seemed to signal something to Trowa and his embrace became more gentle, his mantra less exact. "It's ok... it's ok now. I've got you... I'm here." Just vague nonsense that he continued until I was able to force my hands to let go.

How stinking mortifying.

"I... I'm sorry," I choked out.

"Hush," he reprimanded, ignoring my efforts to pull away. "Duo... why the hell is there a vacuum suit in your damn closet?"

I... giggled. I couldn't help it; it just burst out. I managed to stop it though, along with the next thing I had wanted to ask; you mean it's real? You saw it too? I was terrified that it would turn into one of those hysterical sobbing routines again.

"I... I couldn't let it go... with the ship," I managed to gasp. "It was almost... almost my damn final resting place... it didn't seem... right to sell it."

His hand stroked over my hair. "Damn it," he muttered.

"I forgot it was in there," I confessed sheepishly, and it was his turn to stifle an odd little chuckle.

He turned us and walked me slowly toward the little adjoining bathroom. I wanted to protest, but I was still shaking like a leaf and felt like my legs were made of something unpleasant... like gummy worms, maybe. When we got there, he turned on the cold water and I didn't have to be told to splash my face with it. When I finally raised my head and confronted my own dripping reflection, I looked wide-eyed and pale as a ghost. I met Trowa's worried gaze in the mirror over my own shoulder and I had to fight not to let myself seek shelter in his arms again.

"I am so sorry," I muttered. "It just took me by surprise... I completely forgot the damn thing was in there."

He opened his mouth to say something and then seemed to think better of it. "Let's just get out of here," was what he ended up saying.

I nodded and he stepped back to let me out of the bathroom. I don't know what he was expecting, but it obviously wasn't for me to stride back across the room toward the closet.

"Duo!" he yelped and came after me, certain, I think that I was about to trigger another... daymare. Hallucination. Trip to the land of weird.

I took a deep breath and jerked the damn door open before he could get to me. The little kid in my head squeezed his eyes shut.

My vacuum suit was in my closet. I regarded it for a moment, but it didn't have the insignia of the Londonderry on the breast. There was no flash-frozen corpse in it. It did not want my air. I reached passed it and grabbed my duffle bag. I remembered to breathe.

When I emerged, head and psyche intact, Trowa was regarding me with a slightly frightened _expression. "You don't waste a hell of a lot of time getting back on the horse, do you?"

"Why waste time?" I joked ruthlessly and it might have actually gotten a laugh if my voice hadn't been shaking so bad.

He moved out of my way while I went to the dresser and packed up a couple of changes of clothes and some toiletries with trembling hands.

"Ready?" I asked when I was done and he just came with a grim little, exasperated shake of his head and took the bag from me, ignoring my protests.

"Yeah..." he sighed. "Let's go."

By the time we got to his and Quatre's place it was almost midnight. But at least I had stopped shaking like a kitten in an icebox. Trowa even let me walk up the front steps without a hand under my elbow, something he hadn't done on the way out of the apartment.

"I don't suppose," I speculated without any real hope, "there's any point in my asking you to keep that... awkward little incident to yourself?"

He snorted, not without a certain amount of sympathy, 'the lot of us learned a long time ago that secrets only cause trouble.'

Ouch. Well, wasn't that a prettily stated reprimand? I flushed to the roots of my hair and couldn't think of a thing to say in return. This was promising to be a long damn visit; I already doubted I'd made the right choice and we weren't even in the front door yet.

Trowa opened that front door and ushered me inside. Within seconds, I heard the sound of rushing footsteps. "Trowa? Did you find him? Did you get to talk to him? Is he all right...?"

The blush I was suffering with deepened to a hitherto unknown shade of red. Quatre came into the foyer then and his face lit up with a bright smile, his eyes taking in the duffle bag that Trowa had relinquished back to me. "Duo! You've come to stay with us?"

I sighed and cast a glance up at Trowa, who was smiling amusedly. Whether at my discomfiture or Quatre's obvious relief... I'm not sure. "Well, Trowa here seemed to think it would... be a good idea."

They shared one of those annoying damn glances while I looked around and tried not to notice. Then Quatre came and gave me a fierce hug. "I'm glad you listened. Come on, and we'll find you a room..."

There was the sound of Trowa clearing his throat and Quatre glanced at him. I felt the tingle of communication, and signals passed. I sighed heavily.

"Can we not do this?" I blurted.

"What?" Quatre blinked at me, looking tense.

"This whole dance," I said, struggling to keep the irritation out of my voice. "Trowa is going to take you off to the side and explain things to you and then you're going to come back and try to act like you don't know, while you figure out how in the hell we're going to get through this mess." I looked from one of them to the other and was gratified to finally see Trowa blush. "Here's the deal, Qat; I can't sleep in a room by myself. That's why I'm here. I have wake-the-dead, screaming nightmares every time I try."

I wondered idly what my blood-pressure reading was. I thought about asking for hamster food, because the little guys were starting to file in with their waving thought-banners.

'Loser!'

'Psycho.'

'Failure.'

'Dinner?'

'Wimp.'

'Shower?'

And my personal favorite, George; the bearer of the all-purpose exclamation banners. Tonight, his simply read,

'Fuck.'

I liked George; he was starting to grow on me.

Quatre was looking at me with that wide-eyed, misty _expression that always makes me want to turn and run away. He'd worn that _expression a lot during the first month after the accident. Thinking back, I realized it was darn familiar from the period of time when I flash cooked my hands, too.

"Oh, Duo," he said gently and I watched the guy do the most amazing transformation. One minute it was just sweet, little Quatre looking at me like he wanted to wrap me in a baby blanket and cuddle me on the couch, and the next he turned into some sort of domestic Major General.

Servants were summoned and terse orders were issued. Someone was directed to see that a dinner was put together and brought to the 'green room'. Another one was instructed to 'run a bath' in that same room. Yet a third was told to run ahead and prepare said room with 'fresh linens'. I was relieved of my duffle bag and it was sent off with servant number three.

I realized pretty quickly that I was going to be spending the night with Quatre. Somehow it wasn't what I had expected, but should have been. I guess I'd had some vague notion of a Maganac bunkhouse or something. How silly of me.

I looked back at Trowa once, as Quatre was shepherding me off to the 'green room', with a somewhat forlorn look. Trowa only grinned at me and waved good night.

Quatre did, at least, dismiss the servants after their errands were complete and I was very grateful. I'd had a couple of scary damn visions of Winner employees stripping me buck-naked and scrubbing me pink in a bathtub full of scented water.

I found the bath to be... weird. I'd always used showers or, at the orphanage, washed out of a pot of water heated on the stove. It seemed strangely... counterproductive to wash while sitting in the dirty water. How could you really be clean? I could hear Quatre moving around in the bedroom, arranging things the entire time I was bathing. It was tempting to just stay in the stupid tub, I felt too damn worn out to deal with him. And yes, the damn water was scented. Some kind of lavender thing.

The room, thank God, sported a pair of twin beds, and I at least was not going to have to endure another night of sleeping with somebody who wasn't Heero. Wufei's presence the last few nights had been... somewhat welcome for the obvious reason, but had only served to rub my nose in my loneliness.

When I emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in several towels, I found a borrowed pair of pajamas laid out neatly on the bed that had obviously been designated as mine, judging from the presence of my duffle bag on it.

Quatre was already dressed for bed and was working at a table across the room, with his back discreetly turned. I quickly donned the silly pajamas with a sigh; when in Rome and all that. Suppose there was no point in telling him that if I wore anything to bed at all, it was just a pair of underwear. When I was done, I turned my attention to what he was doing and found him setting out a meal that would have fed a family of five for a week.

"Good God, Quatre!" I blurted. "Please tell me Trowa and half the Maganac corps are eating with us!"

He flashed me a totally unabashed grin. "Just you and me."

I dropped the damp towels on the end of the bed and moved around to the little table in the corner, feeling ridiculous in the burgundy nightclothes; I felt like a little kid. Though I doubted many kids outside the Winner family wore silk pajamas.

Quatre sat down in one of the straight-backed chairs, and I had little choice but to sit down opposite him. I eyed some of the stuff on the table dubiously; not even able to identify it.

"Quatre..." I began, not at all sure what I wanted to say to him, but a glance up at him showed me the most heart-breaking, crestfallen look, and I had to gift him with a warm smile. "It all looks so good, I don't know where to start." His smile was back instantly and I almost sighed; he was still that same, old Quatre after all these years. Everything he felt was written right across his face. I never had gotten around to teaching him to play poker.

He began to dish things onto my plate since I couldn't seem to make up my mind 'where to start'. The only thing I even recognized where the steamed vegetables. I nibbled at those until he took a bite of his strange oblong shaped, breaded something or other so I could at least see what in the hell to expect. I mimicked his method of cutting into it, having seen that it was full of some sort of sauce and pieces of what looked like chicken. It wasn't bad, though I would have been just as happy with a nice ration bar. It might not have been hot, but it would have been a hell of a lot easier to clean up after.

I was so engrossed in trying to figure out what was on my plate, that I guess an uncomfortable silence ensued.

"Duo," he asked gently. "Is something wrong?"

I had to flash him a rueful smile. "Qat... have you ever even had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?"

He blinked at me. "No, but I'm sure the cook would know how to make one... I'll call for..."

"No!" I laughed out loud despite myself, raising a hand to keep him from leaping to his feet. "This is fine! I just... I mean... Just what in the hell is this stuff?"

He looked at me as though I had just walked in and asked him why the sky was blue. "Chicken-cordon-bleu... don't you like it?"

There had been an 'of course' in that pause, I was sure of it, and again resisted the urge to sigh.

"It's fine, but I'm a fairly... simple guy, you don't have to have anybody go to all this trouble just for me." I ate another fork-full of the stuff just to prove to him that the meal was all right.

"The cook just heated up some of what she served for dinner this evening, Duo," he reassured me. "It was really no trouble."

I reflected that the peanut butter would probably have given her more trouble; I'd be willing to bet there had never been a jar of the stuff in the house.

One of my thought-hamsters jogged out long enough to point out to me how worlds-apart Quatre and I were when you got right down to it.

We ate in silence for a few more minutes and then Quatre, his attention carefully on his plate, said, "What happened to us?"

"What?" I blinked across the table at him, trying to squelch the fish imitation that I tend to do when people blind-side me with these sudden, personal questions.

"We used to be able to talk about anything," he sighed remorsefully, his eyes seeming to see something other than his... weird chicken stuff and vegetables.

"There was a war going on, Qat." I smiled at him. "Emotions... run pretty high when you could get your ass killed at any minute."

He looked very sad, stirring his food around. "Are you saying that... do you mean you don't..."

I laughed at his floundering, taking the opportunity to lay my fork aside. "I thought you made your living doing political maneuvering? Handling delicate negotiations in the board-room?"

He blushed, his eyes flicking between me and his plate. I struggled with the overwhelming desire to stand up and flee. To just run out the door, burgundy damn silk pajamas and all, and not look back. He didn't answer the teasing and I knew the verbal ball was still in my court.

"Quatre... a lot of time passed, that's all," I told him with small sigh. "We all moved on... drifted apart..." I hesitated, understanding that the truth of that statement lie mostly with me. They hadn't drifted. They had moved on... together. I had missed out on that. I had been so... tired and scared, so raw and hurt that I had just run. I had run far and fast, and tried my damnedest not to look back. While they had all been there to support and help each other, I had... struggled through all the after effects of losing my youth fighting in a war... with only the support of my sad little ghosts and my own, damned self.

Wow. That sweet, chocolaty coating that is Duo Maxwell covers up a nice gooey center of bitter, bitter crap, doesn't it?

I was completely unaware of the fact that I had stopped talking and was just sitting with my head hanging, my hands dangling between my knees until Quatre took me by the shoulders.

"Allah... I am so stupid," he murmured and I'm not even sure how he had gotten around the table without my noticing. "You don't need this right now... I am so sorry, Duo."

I muttered something that didn't even make sense to me, and didn't fight it when he pulled me to my feet.

"I just miss you," he told me simply. "I miss having my 'big brother' to talk to."

I think if I had tried to answer him I would have burst into tears, so I held my tongue, managing only to return the hug he was suddenly giving me. After a few moments, he guided me over to the bed and helped me climb in. I shivered, remembering Sister Helen tucking us in at night, and only thanked God he didn't try to kiss my forehead.

So... there you have it. That was my life for the next while. Nights at the Winner-Barton household, afternoons and early evenings at the hospital, alternating mornings at therapy. I wasn't fighting with quite so much on my plate, having only to deal with a handful of tasks.

I closed the deal on the two spare vacuum suits and made the arrangements for their delivery. That allowed me to send some money off to Octavia, and I finally sat down and wrote her the little note I had been avoiding, explaining sketchily about my sudden lack of employment, apologizing for the slow-down in funds and promising to send what I could. They did not rely entirely on me, of course, but I knew what a difference the supplement had made.

Quatre insisted that one of them take me wherever in the hell I had to go in the mornings, to either the hospital or therapy. I was a little surprised that they allowed me to get myself from therapy to the hospital on my own, but I was seldom left to return to the Winner estate in the evenings by my own devices. Trowa usually arrived at the hospital an hour or so before the end of visiting hours, spent some time with Heero and then took me back to his place.

I stopped equating myself with Sisyphus so much, and started thinking... plow mule. With those little blinder things that they put on them to keep them focused on the path. Yep. I had this row to plow; just strap me in the old harness and set me on my way. One step in front of the other... just keep going. Slow and steady. No problems here.

After the first couple of days I thought I was going to self-destruct. If someone had handed me one of those old detonators, I think I would have howled with glee and punched that damn plunger down without a second thought.

By the third or fourth day, I was losing track, I was desperate for some damn privacy and connived to get to therapy early. Jean was able to work me in and then I turned on every ounce of charm I ever even thought I had, until she turned me loose, cutting the session short. I fairly ran out of the clinic, not wasting my precious time waiting on the bus, but flagged down a cab and fled back to the apartment with a maniacal grin on my face. Free! Free at last! Well, for a couple of hours. It was probably all the privacy I was going to be able to bear anyway, before my irrational fears started kicking in, but for the moment... it was pure bliss.

I think that was a large part of what was making me nuts; all of my wants were warring with all of my fears. I wanted my ship back. I was afraid to pilot. I craved the feeling of zero-g. I was terrified of hard vacuum. I was more than used to having privacy and time to myself. I was suffering with isolophobia. It was like some kind of cruel, cosmic joke. Like the horse chasing the carrot on the stick only to discover it was poisoned. Or at least really damn bitter.

At first, I fully intended to throw myself down on the sofa and just spend my few hours listening to my music, but my guilty conscience wouldn't let me. Once I had the stereo going and was sprawled bonelessly across the couch, the time began to feel like it was trickling through my fingers like sand. So I thought about everything I'd been missing. I cranked up the music and went to the kitchen to fetch a bottle of soda and a ration bar. Then I went to shower in a real shower, with my own towels and my own shampoo. I walked around afterward buck-ass naked, letting my hair air-dry a little bit before I braided it.

With all my indulgences out of the way, I thought hard about what needed doing, and booted my laptop to check my messages. I had the receipt from my money transfer to Octavia and a query on the ship. I had to swallow down the lump in my throat before I was able to answer the guy's series of questions about the ship's history and specs. I fired off my response and filed the original message where I wouldn't have to look at it in my in-box, staring at me accusingly.

After I cleared the junk mail, the only thing left was a message from Toria and Hayden, which I opened with a grin, eager to hear what was going on with my two friends.

Hey Buddy-boy! What the fuck is going on! The boards show your Goddamn ship is up for sale! What do you think you're doing?! If that rat-bastard Heero is making you sell your baby, you tell him I'm coming after him, and I'm gonna kick his ass! I never was sure about him, not after he refused to call the damn medics when you passed out at the expo. This isn't funny, Duo Maxwell; I want to know what's going on and I want to know right now!

We love you,

Toria and Hayden

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