by: Sunhawk


I could never have explained to Heero how odd it made me feel when he and I got together with Wufei, Trowa and Quatre, so I never tried. He always referred to us as 'the five of us', but he couldn't understand that in my mind it was the 'four of them' and then... me.

They had kept in contact through all those years after the war while I had run off with my tail between my legs and done my best to vanish into a new existence. While I had stayed in touch with Quatre, one can't just abandon ones 'little brother' after all, it had only been through letters and the occasional phone call.

They had more history together after the war than I had with any of them before, during and after. They had all these little in-jokes and rituals that I just didn't follow. For instance, if any of them mentioned white roses in front of Quatre, he turned the most God-awful shade of red and all the rest of them would laugh uproariously for no apparent reason. All I could do was chuckle along and wait until the conversation turned to something that made sense.

They got together for dinner once a month almost without fail. I hadn't known that for a long time, Heero hadn't gone during my early convalescence, not having been willing to leave me alone for the evening. And of course he'd never mentioned it.

After we had gotten back to Earth from that lovely little foray to L2 with Miss Peacecraft, Heero and I'd had a long talk about him getting on with his life. I had insisted that he stop acting like I would self-destruct if he left me alone for five minutes and get back to his normal routines.

One of those routines was his bi-weekly evening out with Relena, and his resuming them had gone a long way toward making her give up the Duo Maxwell voodoo doll. Or at least putting it away for the time being.

Another thing he had given up while he'd been caring for me was a daily visit to the Preventor's gym. He apparently was in the habit of stopping off for an hour after work everyday with Wufei. It had taken a little longer to convince him to pick that habit up again. I was rather glad he did; it seemed to make a world of difference in Wufei's attitude toward me.

Then I found out from Quatre that Heero had played shortstop on the Preventor's softball team for the last two years but hadn't signed up this year. When I confronted him with it, he had patiently explained that he hadn't thought he would have the time to worry with it. It wasn't all that difficult to convince him to re-join the team mid-season and I could tell it was something he had been missing.

It had felt like some sort of damn victory, getting him to admit he didn't have to spend his every waking moment with me. Getting him to trust that I didn't mind that he did things that didn't involve me. Convincing him to let the other people in his life back inside his world.

The first time that one of those 'pilot' dinners had rolled around after our little vacation to L2, I had insisted he go. He had insisted that I was as much a part of the group as he was and that I should go too. It had rather taken me aback; none of his other extra-curricular activities had involved me. It had made me extremely uncomfortable just thinking about it and I had managed to beg off; it had come not long after our return and I was still having some... problems from my overexertion. He had let it ride and actually went without me. I had been relieved, but had also realized that I would not be able to avoid it forever.

And while I was ecstatic that he was actually listening to me; was finally getting back to some semblance of what was normal for him, it had left me feeling... damn hollow. Those extra hours of being alone ate at me, only served to drive home how very freakin' far from normal I was. How distant I had drifted from my own life. While I chided Heero for letting his universe revolve around me... I was letting myself revolve around him and couldn't seem to get it stopped.

It had been a weird, weird progression, my coming to grips with his life. Intellectually, I had known that he had not just sat in a dark room on his hands for the last three years. I knew that he had gone on just as I had gone on, but other than the vague understanding that he lived here and did that for a living, I hadn't known anything about him. It was difficult for me to face up to the fact that he had friends, that he had favorite restaurants and favorite foods, that there were people that he knew that I had never met. And I suppose it made it a little more awkward that we were on his home turf; when we left the apartment, his neighbors would speak. When we went out to eat, the waiters recognized him and called him Mr. Yuy. When we went to the mall or the grocery we sometimes ran into people he worked with. So even when I was trying to be something other than his shadow, I ended up feeling like Alice in Wonderland right after that first fall down the rabbit hole. Out of place and inappropriately dressed.

Damn. I'm bitching again. You have to understand how freakin' depressed I was after we got back from that damn trip. Circumstances had forced me to push my body passed the point of no return and I had undone a lot of the progress I had worked so hard to make. I started having the dizzy spells again, I had trouble staying awake; I was sleeping ten and twelve hours a day and still felt exhausted. My therapist had given my Doctor a heads up and I had gotten called in to his office for a checkup that had essentially ended up being a gentle ass reaming. My therapy sessions got jacked back up to three times a week. It seemed I could feel myself back-sliding daily.

So right when I was getting to a point where I wanted to reach out for Heero, wanted to be able to lean for all I was fucking worth; I didn't feel like I could. The one thing that I had gotten out of that jaunt with the Queen was the realization of how much Heero was cutting himself off from his friends. Relena had managed to open my eyes to just how much he was coming to focus on me and nothing else. My mission, when we got back, was to turn that around. I couldn't do that if he had a glimmer of just how much I was faltering, how crushed I felt under the weight of this whole two steps forward, one step back dance I was doing.

I couldn't hide the physical aspect of things; he's not stupid. But I could greet it with stoic good cheer; I could pop off to my therapy sessions with a grin and a wave, could drop a DVD into the player on the nights he went out, with apparent relish for my 'time to myself'.

I just suffered through it; sucked it up and started that Goddamn uphill climb again. I developed a strong empathy for that poor sap in Greek mythology; the guy who is destined to push that big rock up the hill for all of eternity because every time he gets to the top, the thing rolls back down to the bottom and he has to start over. It took six weeks before that stupid wrist brace finally came off, which was a massive relief... until I figured out it was just going to add to my therapy sessions.

So it was already a day for mood swings the morning it came off. I had started out ecstatic until the thing had actually been removed and I had comprehended just how much I had lost in the way of muscle tone and range of motion.

I had gone in to the Doctor's office in the morning to have the brace removed and my wrist checked. From there I had to go into the clinic where I was given a whole new set of exercises for my wrist; bringing my total daily time to an hour and a half... on my off days. Therapy days were two hours on top of that. I smiled sweetly at my therapist, I had learned that fits of temper only resulted in calls being made to my Doctor, and did the exercises until she was satisfied I could do them in my sleep.

I damn near burst into tears on the cab ride home. Six weeks from the L2 nightmare and I had re-tamed the dizzy spells, re-conquered the exhaustion, had fought my way back to where I had once been. Now my wrist lay in my lap and throbbed like a son-of-a-bitch, a pointed reminder that no matter how far I came, there would always be another hurdle. It felt like I was watching that fucking rock roll back down to the bottom of the hill. I couldn't get back to the apartment fast enough; I was ready to throw myself into Heero's arms and spill my guts, was ready to tell him I couldn't handle anything more, was ready to confess just how much I'd been covering up.

So it was something of a kick in the face when I got home only to find a message on the machine from Heero, letting me know that a make-up game had been scheduled for that evening, he probably wouldn't be home before eight or nine and not to hold supper.

I played the message twice and started to chortle hysterically half way through the second pass. It was somewhat ironic that the day I decided I really needed him, he was kept away from me by something I had insisted he needed to do. I laughed until I was bawling like a baby and then I went and took a shower.

I think... I think I had a teeny, tiny little nervous break down. Or temper tantrum. Or... something. All I know is, I stepped into that shower sobbing like a damn child and I don't remember much of anything else until I came back to reality curled up in a shivering ball in the bottom of the tub under a spray of water that had turned to ice. When I got myself together and got the hell out of there, I found that almost two hours had elapsed. I huddled on the bathroom floor in front of the heater until my hands stopped shaking enough that I was able to go make myself some hot chocolate. Something inside my head had... snapped. Into place or out of it, I've never been quite sure which.

I took my cocoa, wrapped myself in the afghan, sat on the couch and called Howard.

"Hey, old man," I greeted him when he picked up.

"Duo? Is that you?" he sounded pleased and when I thought about it, I realized I hadn't gotten in contact with him or any of the rest of the guys in months.

"In the flesh," I confirmed, rather amazing myself how damn cheerful I sounded.

"How are you doin', kid?" he asked and I could tell he really wanted to know and I felt guilty about not keeping in touch.

"Great, man!" I reassured him, curling my trembling hands around my mug for the warmth, cradling the phone against my shoulder. "That's why I called, in fact; I'm getting ready to go back to work and I was wondering if you had anything... " I hesitated, not sure how to word this. "Anything small... maybe a cargo run or something?"

There was the slightest hesitation. He knew as well as I did that my reputation had suffered from that damn accident in the belt. Hell, he was still out there in the trade, still had his contacts. He probably knew more about my prospects right now than I did. When he spoke, it was with slow deliberation. "Well, I did just turn down a small courier job. It was... a little too small to be worth while for us."

Ouch. A damn scut job. Something I wouldn't have looked at twice six months ago. But the very fact that Howard even mentioned it, told me volumes about what the rumor mill must be churning out about me. I realized with a start, just how bad off I might be. I took the name and number of the contact and then made small talk for a couple of minutes before hanging up.

I didn't even give myself time to finish the cocoa before calling the client. I knew if I gave my brain a chance to think about it, I would probably back down. The arrangements were made within the hour.

I hung the phone up feeling like the biggest loser in the world. I had just taken a Goddamn, exotic animal courier run. A fucking, pet taxi service; Earth to L3. Just what in the hell had I been reduced to? I gave myself ten minutes to sit on the couch and stare at the wall and finish my hot chocolate. Then I got the hell to work; I didn't really have any choice. I was rapidly running out of funds; the spaceport did not house ships in dock out of the kindness of their hearts, after all.

I carefully folded the afghan and put it away, went and rinsed my mug, then logged onto the net and started my preparations. Logged the flight plan, downloaded the information packet from my client on 'ocelots' whatever the hell those were, scheduled a refuel, and sent an e-mail off to the guy from L3 who wanted me to repaint his ship's ceiling. This courier job wasn't going to be all that profitable; might as well make the most of it. I was going to be in the neighborhood after all.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening researching my cargo, skipped dinner in one of those fits of 'I just don't give a damn', and made a point of going to bed before I knew Heero was going to get home.

I wasn't his fault. I know that. I wasn't mad at him; I just didn't feel up to facing him right then. I had reached for him and he hadn't been there. I had figured out that I hadn't really needed to reach... I had managed, the way I always do, to get by on my own. Tomorrow I would be fine again, but if I saw him tonight... I don't know. I didn't want to take the chance; I was still just too raw.

I heard him come home and I felt like a real shit lying in my room feigning sleep. I had left a rather lame little note about a headache and I saw it dangling from his fingers when he came to stand in my doorway. I watched him watching me, my eyes carefully slitted almost closed. He stood there for a long few minutes before silently withdrawing. I heard him moving quietly around the kitchen for awhile before he retreated to his own room. I finally dozed off listening to the water in the pipes as he took his shower.

I made a point of not getting up the next day until I was sure he'd gone to work.

There was a note written on the back of the one I had left him, admonishing me to take it easy today and to give him a call at work when I got up. It said he loved me. Well, that kicked the old guilt right in the nuts.

I got some breakfast first, mostly just because I knew he'd probably ask and I didn't want to lie to him about something so simple. Then I sat down to make the call.

"Morning," I greeted him after he picked up.

"Good morning, love," he replied and there was a certain relief in his voice that made me feel bad for last night's small deception. "Feeling better?"

"Yeah," I reassured, not having to lie. "I am. Sorry I missed you last night. Did you win your game?"

"Yeah, three to two," he confirmed. "It was a close game." He hesitated. "Though, if I had known you weren't feeling well, I would have come on home."

I snorted derisively, "Heero... I had a headache, not a heart attack."

He chuckled. "Sorry, I just missed getting to see you last night."

I let my voice turn a little husky. "Will you be on time tonight, lover?" There was an odd little silence and I found myself fearing that I wouldn't see him at all today.

"You forgot we're going out tonight, didn't you?" he asked, a touch of amusement in his voice.

Shit. The pilot's night out. I had forgotten. Or maybe I had driven it completely out of my mind because I just hadn't really wanted to think about it. I guess I was quiet a little too long.

"Duo," he said gently, "if you're not feeling up to it, we don't have to go."

But I could hear the faint echo of disappointment in his voice. "No, it's fine," I told him. "I just forgot; I can put the steak back in the freezer... it hasn't had time to thaw out anyway." That was a base lie; I hadn't gotten around to putting anything out for dinner yet, but I had discovered that it was the little details that made the lies sound more convincing. God, but I was getting good at lying.

"If you're sure... " he said hesitantly and when I didn't object, his voice brightened slightly, "I'll come home and pick you up after work."

I gnawed at my lip, feeling my gut tightening already. "Uhmmm... how should I dress?" I asked, and knew I was blushing.

"Casual," he chuckled and my face burned hotter.

"Jeans casual or business casual?" I persisted.

"Jeans and t-shirt will be fine," he said and I could fucking hear him grinning.

"Stop laughing at me, asshole," I groused.

He laughed out right then, and I had to resist the urge to hang up on him. "I'm sorry, love... I've just never known you to worry about... appearances before."

That would be the part where I was being thrust into the middle of a group of guys that I hadn't really spent any time with in years. A group of guys that I used to kill people and blow shit to smithereens with. A group of guys who had not only stayed in touch with each other, but had actually gotten to be damn good friends. That would be the part where I felt like a fifth wheel. The part where I was scared I wouldn't fit in and I was afraid I was going to embarrass my lover.

I forced a smile that he couldn't see, but I had learned you could hear such things. "Get off my case, Yuy or I'll wear the Hell-bound Beavers shirt."

"Ok... ok... I give," he returned the invisible smile. "Does this help; when I come home, I will change into jeans and my black polo shirt if it's clean."

"Are you subtly suggesting that I do the laundry?" I smirked and we finished out the conversation in that vein. I left him laughing... always leave them laughing.

After we hung up, I went back to check on my trip preparations and tried really hard not to think about how I was going to break the news to Heero that I would be leaving in a couple of days. My refuel request had come through and I noted that I would have to get my ass down to the dock before lunch to meet the crew. My flight plan hadn't cleared yet and I considered putting a call through to the office to see if I could nudge it along. I decided against it, I really wasn't feeling up to more banter right now. I spent another hour reading over the information I had found on ocelots and then called a cab to make the run down to my 'Demon'.

Once I got the refuel crew started, I had an hour to kill and spent it going over my ship, trying to decide where to secure the stupid ocelot cage. I finally settled on housing the thing in the guest cabin so I didn't have to worry about pressurizing the cargo bay for one small piece of cargo.

I made it back to the apartment with plenty of time to shower and change. I double-lathered, conditioned and combed. Brushed, flossed and gargled. Scrubbed, trimmed and cologned. Then stood in front of the mirror and glared at myself; what in the seven hells was wrong with me? You would think I was on my first Goddamn date.

It took me a stinking half an hour to settle on a pair of black jeans and a cream colored, band-collar shirt. Pathetic.

I sat on the couch to wait for Heero and found myself thinking about Quatre. Should I wear the gloves, or not? Had he forgotten about my hands? Would the gloves just bring it all back to his attention or would having to see the remnants of the scars be worse? Most of the times that I had seen him recently, I'd had blankets or afghans for camouflage. I put the gloves on and took them back off three times before Heero got home. I wondered idly where we were eating and hoped it wasn't someplace too exotic; my stomach was upset enough.

I heard Heero's key in the front door and I took a deep breath, girding my proverbial loins and all that.

Then he was in the room and his smile swept it all away for the moment. He came right to me, took me in his arms and kissed me like we'd been apart for months. When he broke away, he gave me the oddest little half smile and wordlessly stripped the gloves off me, tossing them on the coffee table before raising my hands up to ghost a kiss across my palms.

"I missed you," was all he said before going to change.

I sat on the couch again while I waited, not sure whether to wish he'd hurry the hell up so we could get this over with, or wish he just wouldn't come out of his room at all. I thought about coyotes gnawing their way out of steel traps and sighed. At that point, getting through the evening without throwing up was my single, solitary goal.

And no, you do not need to tell me how stupid I was being. I had seen all the guys since the accident. While Heero had been on his leave of absence, back during the days that I was still confined to a wheel chair, Wufei would come by and run errands for us sometimes.

Quatre came by to visit me fairly often. That had been... a heart-warming surprise; he had been the only one who really came for no other reason than to see me. And of course, where Quatre was, Trowa was seldom far behind, so I had seen and talked to all of them since the accident.

But it wasn't the same as it was going to be hanging out with them, all together. Especially on one of these outings that were rife with a history I didn't share.

Heero came out of his room, as promised, in jeans and polo shirt. He was still wearing that damnable little, amused smile too. I had to squelch the urge to flip him off.

He came and reached for my hand, pulling me to my feet. "Duo," he smiled at me gently, "we're going out to dinner, not to a funeral."

"I'm so happy to be a source of entertainment for you," I growled.

His smile faded, changing to a look of concern and he moved to cup my face in his hands. "Duo... love, what's wrong?"

I sighed. What in the hell was the matter with me? I couldn't seem to do the simplest things for him without throwing a temper fit in the process. I brought my hands up to curl around his wrists. "I'm sorry, Heero... yesterday just wasn't a very good day and... I dunno... it seems to have carried over somehow... " when I thought about it, I really didn't know what was depressing me so much. It seemed there was something major eating at me that I just couldn't put my finger on. Something more... than my long list of current... burdens. I dredged up a smile for him but the troubled look didn't leave his face.

He turned his hands and carefully took hold of my bad wrist. "How does it feel?" he asked softly, really looking at it for the first time without the brace.

I sighed again, rather heavily, despite my best efforts. "Aches," I conceded.

His fingers gently traced along my wrist, dipping inside the sleeve of my shirt and questing up my forearm. "It looks so... pale and thin," he told me, his expression oddly distracted as his fingers stroked their way up my arm. Suddenly, his eyes cleared and he pulled me into a fierce embrace, one hand slipping to the back of my neck to pull me in close. "You know I'm here for you... don't you? Even if it's just to... talk?"

I returned the tight hug, measure for measure and smiled softly against his neck, feeling as though something... odd had just happened. "I know," I drew back and kissed him lightly. "We're going to be late."

"They'll wait," he informed me and turned the kiss into something deeper. I thought I was going to have to untuck my shirt by the time he was done, just to hide the damn hard-on. He had that freakin' smile on his face again when we left the apartment. This time I didn't resist the urge to flip him the bird and he laughed with delight.

At the last minute I grabbed my little, squishy exercise ball. I had totally blown off all my exercises today, taking care of my ship instead. I could at least use the drive to the restaurant to do some of my new hand routines. Besides, it gave me something to do in the car besides pick at things.

I considered telling Heero about the job I had accepted during the drive, but decided that the evening was going to be uncomfortable enough without him being pissed off at me on top of everything else.

We were there all too damn soon. Heero recognized the guy's cars and pointed them out. Great, that meant they were already in the restaurant and seated. At least it was a simple, run of the mill steak house and not some damn Mexican place or something, where I wouldn't recognize anything on the menu. I suppose I should just thank God that Heero had never insisted I go on one of his outings with Relena.

The waitress showed us to a table in the back and the guys were there grinning at us as we made our way through the crowded restaurant. Two seats had been saved, side-by-side and I found myself sitting across from Wufei.

"Duo, we're so glad you could finally come," Quatre greeted me with a bright smile. "Things feel... complete now."

I felt myself flushing and reflected that at this rate it was going to be a long fucking evening. I dredged up a bright grin. "Thanks, Qat."

Wufei was giving me the once over, the strangest spark of amusement in his eyes. "Well, you certainly look better than the last time I saw you... in person, anyway."

I wondered what in the hell that was supposed to mean and muttered something about looking shorter in a wheelchair. Then I remembered that I had seen him at Relena's party and was totally baffled by the comment.

"Uhmmm... that's a nice shirt, Duo." Trowa smiled at me and I started to murmur the appropriate response but the three of them began to snicker uncontrollably. Ok... just what in the hell was going on? Did you know that inside jokes have a very peculiar stench to them? I was smelling it all over the place. I glanced at Heero and saw a small frown of confusion creasing his brow and realized that this wasn't one of their normal gags. Which meant it was aimed at me. Wonderful.

The waitress came back then to ask if we were ready to order yet. The others obviously ate here often and didn't need to look at the menu, just began rattling off their choices. Not wanting to stall the proceedings and end up with everyone's attention on me while I desperately tried to make a decision, I let my eyes sweep the surrounding tables. When the girl got around to me, I was able to order a small sirloin and baked potato. On a whim, I ordered some bottled water too; I felt the need of a nice label to shred.

"That was a good game last night, Heero," Quatre ventured. "I didn't think you were going to make that catch in the third inning."

I blinked across the table in no little astonishment; Quatre went to Heero's ball games?

Wufei snorted, "I thought he was going to run me over making that catch."

"Not my fault you're so damn slow," Heero chuckled at him.

"I am not slow," Wufei replied with a small grunt of indignation. "I just play with a little more finesse than you do."

Heero opened his mouth to reply but the waitress reappeared with the drinks then and the conversation settled until she was gone.

"Duo," Quatre said, smiling at me brightly, "you should come and watch next week. You can sit with Trowa and me."

My hands moved very smoothly without my having to tell them, to open my bottle of water, and I took a sip. How to tell him that Heero had never asked me? How to tell him I suddenly wasn't sure Heero would want me there? Quatre certainly seemed to have a talent for poking sticks into unsuspecting anthills and stirring vigorously.

"I don't know," Heero was saying. "That's an awfully long time to be sitting out in the sun... " I turned toward him and found that little mother-hen frown on his face as he contemplated me sitting on hard bleachers in the hot sun. "The games can run for hours sometimes."

I completely hated myself for the rush of cold relief that flooded up through my belly. What the hell was wrong with me tonight? I was being as touchy and sensitive as a hormonal teenager. Of course he was just being concerned for me. I smiled at him warmly and raised an eyebrow. "It might be worth it to see you two fighting over a softball in the dirt."

His face fairly lit up, an expression he could not have faked, "I could use some more support," he smiled. "Wufei has a bigger cheering section."

"Quatre and I," Trowa interjected blandly, "are completely neutral in our cheering."

"Yes," Heero chuckled, "but Sally isn't, and she makes all of her girlfriends come and take his side."

"I thought you were on the same team?" I couldn't help pointing out and it garnered one of those rounds of laughter that told me there was a story behind the story that I didn't know.

"There's this most valuable player thing... " Quatre snickered and left it at that.

I smiled and privately wondered if I would ever be up to speed with these guys. I found my fingers picking at the edge of the label on my water bottle and tried to stop. It was too early, if I shredded it too soon I'd have nothing left to do but twist the buttons on my shirt or fiddle with my hair. I repressed a sigh.

Then the look in Wufei's eyes took on that strange glint again. "Two athletes in the same household... " he murmured and Trowa snickered.

I looked from one of them to the other but couldn't decipher what he was saying. I glanced up at Heero and saw the same confusion, so I felt justified in asking, "What?"

I thought the three of them were going to fall out of their damn chairs, and to be bluntly honest, I was starting to get a little pissed off. The inside jokes and one-liners that were meaningless to me were bad enough, but this was obviously something that was targeting me personally and I couldn't quite figure it out.

"All right," Heero cut into their mirth. "Just what in the hell is going on?"

Wufei turned then and rummaged behind him until he came up with a rolled up magazine that had been stuffed in his jacket pocket. "This," he grinned across at us and it's a damned miracle I didn't faint where I sat when he unrolled the magazine to display it in front of my face.

It was a copy of 'The Rising Times' and my leather clad self was plastered all over the front. I may have moaned. I'm more or less positive my eyes bugged completely out of my head and I almost spilled my bottle of water in my haste to get the thing snatched out of Wufei's hand, stuffing it out of sight in my lap. Oh dear God, could this day get any fucking worse?

[cont] [back to Sunhawk's fic]