Author: Sunhawk
Warnings : 1x2 type yaoi with a side of 3x4, and 5+S, unrepentant sappy angst, (Re : Duosufferitis) OOC, Duo/Heero alternating POV, language.

Thanks to Plaiddragon for the Pyrenees expertise.

Gundam Wing is owned by people with a lot more money than... well, any of us.

[ note: part breaks are mine, not Sunhawks ]

Rain : 1

There are moments in your life that will be defining as all hell, but you won't realize it while you're in the middle of it. Later, you will be able to look back and analyze it and understand that this phrase was maybe not the best, and that gesture not the most well thought out. But not while you're going through it. Never when it would do you any damn good to realize that you're about to step off the proverbial cliff.

I'm friends with all the guys, but Trowa and I are particularly close. I think we just mesh on a level that the others don't always understand. We'd come from similar backgrounds of... lack. Trowa understood my odd religious almost-belief, and I understood him when he had something important that didn't need saying. Being raised by mercenaries had probably been fairly like being raised by the Sweepers. We just 'got' each other most of the time.

I'd been the one he'd told when Quatre had accepted their first date, and he'd been the one I'd told when I'd started taking night classes. I'd bought the beers when he and Quat had their first argument, and he'd sat with me in the rain the day my cat died.

We did things together that nobody else was really into. We both had this affinity for dirt bikes for instance, that usually left the other guys rolling their eyes. I suppose there was a little bit of the adrenaline junky in the both of us, but we just liked to go out and throw our butts around in the dirt, and that sort of thing is always more fun with a buddy. Quatre had tried to come with us once, but I was kind of glad that he never took to it, because Trowa didn't seem the same with him around. Like he couldn't loosen up quite as much.

Their relationship was still kind of shiny and new though, and I always chalked it up to Trowa not wanting to look foolish in front of his new love interest.

Too bad we hadn't talked about that sort of thing more... might have saved things later, if I'd had a clue.

Now that I think about it, it was the dirt bikes that sort of caused that last big blow up. Trowa and I had been out on the trails while Quatre was taking care of some sort of Winner business. The three of us were supposed to meet up at Trowa's place that evening and we were going to fire up the grill. Trowa has awesome grill powers. The things the man can do with a pork chop are obviously beyond normal mortal abilities.

We'd ended up packing it in a little early when I ran across a bit of wet ground where there should not have been wet ground. I had somehow managed to reverse the normal order of things, and had finished out the curve with the bike on top instead of the other way around. Scared the piss out of Trowa, and he'd insisted we were done for the day. Wouldn't even let me help load up the bikes, but made me sit in the front of his truck and wait. By the time we got back to his place, I'd really started to stiffen up.

'Damn it,' I groaned at him when it came time to climb down from his monster of a truck. 'I told you I should have kept moving.'

He just chuckled at me and came around to give me a hand. 'You couldn't have been moving during the drive back anyway,' he informed me logically.

I eased down to the ground, letting him make it a little easier with a hand under my arm, and tried not to wince. 'All right, all right,' I capitulated. 'But I'm thinking about half a bottle of aspirin before we started the trip might not have hurt anything.'

That got me a faint frown and I flashed him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. 'Duo, let's just get you inside where I can get a better look at your back.'

'I'm fine,' I told him, rolling my eyes and following him up the walk to the house. 'Just a little stiff. It'll work out in a couple of days.'

He snorted, unlocked the front door and held it open for me. 'Stop trying to be such a tough guy and admit that you went three rounds with a hunk of metal twice your size... and lost.'

'We both walked away,' I chuckled. 'I call it a draw.'

'Just get the shirt off and lie down over here in the light,' he sighed, turning on the lamp by the couch and opening the drapes wide for good measure.

'Uh... love to,' I had to confess. 'But I'm not sure I can get my arms over my head.'

There was an exasperated sigh and then he was there helping me. 'You are such an ass sometimes,' he grumbled and I laughed around the groan of pain.

'Yeah, but that's why you love me,' I quipped and he growled at me, getting just a little rough there at the last, getting the shirt off.

'Just shut up and let me...' he stopped himself with another one of those sighs, as he got a good look at me.

'What?' I wanted to know, trying to look over my own shoulder and failing.

'Just lie down,' he commanded. 'I'll be right back.'

'Ah man!' I complained to his retreating back. 'I hate right back! Right back means medical supplies and icky stingy stuff.'

His chuckle floated back from the other room and that was all. I muttered something unflattering about mud and dirt bikes and sadistic best friends and finally managed to get myself prone. When he came back, I couldn't help trying to look at what he had in his hands with some trepidation. 'What are you going to do?' I asked suspiciously.

He snorted and squatted down on the floor beside me. 'Don't be such a big baby,' he said and I tried to glare, but you can't really do that while lying down. Then something kind of cold probed at my back and I couldn't help the flinch.

'What was that?' I demanded and he smacked my ass.

'Hold still before I skewer you!' he snapped and held a pair of tweezers in my line of sight with a piece of gravel clutched in them.

'Oh,' I muttered sheepishly, not even sure what I'd thought he'd been getting ready to do. It made me blush .

'You know I wouldn't hurt you,' he chided and the blush went up a couple of notches.

'Not unless there was an audience and a practical joke involved?' I tried, but it was lame. He let me off the hook anyway, just dropping another chunk of gravel into the bowl he'd brought for the purpose.

It was quiet for a few minutes, while he hunched over me and carefully picked rock out of my hide. 'I think I got it all,' he informed me and then there was a faintly amused tone to his voice. 'Now this next part is probably going to sting.'

'Oh boy,' I groused. 'The icky stingy stuff part.'

It made him laugh and he gave my hair an affectionate ruffle. I'd have grumbled at him about it, but the braid was already a little bit messed up from the roll in the dirt anyway.

'Take it like a man,' he teased and then was swabbing my lower back with something that did indeed sting like a mother.

'I take the big stuff like a man,' I growled, squirming under his hands. 'The small stuff, I get to act like a baby over!'

'Almost done, baby,' he chuckled and I heard him set the bottle of alcohol aside, then his hands were tracing gently up my back. 'You got a pretty bad case of road rash here and here,' he told me, mapping it out for me. 'And a couple of places that look like they're going to bruise like hell here, here and here.' His touch was light, making sure not to hurt the places he was letting me know about. 'And I think you already felt where all the extra holes are.'

'Oh yeah,' I agreed, pushing myself up on hands and knees and trying to stand up without actually flexing any of those 'here and here' spots he'd been talking about. 'I'm pretty sure they'll be stinging to remind me for the next couple of days.'

He slipped an arm around under my waist and bodily picked me up and set me on my feet, stepping back to eye me critically. 'You didn't hit your head, did you?' he asked, frowning down at me suddenly, and I just blinked for a second.

'No,' I replied, thinking about it. My head hurt a little bit, but it didn't feel like impact pain so much as the tension from a back that was tied up in knots. 'Why... what's the matter?'

He caught at my chin and turned my head toward the light, his frown toning down to uncertainty. 'Your eyes looked... darker than normal there for a minute,' he murmured, studying them, but then seemed satisfied. 'Must have just been the light.'

'I did have my helmet on,' I pointed out, and began working my way back into my shirt while he picked up the medical supplies and put them away. I was still easing my arms into the notion that 'up' was a direction they could handle, when he came back. Laughing at me, he finished the job of tugging it into place for me. 'Baby,' he teased and I stuck out my tongue, playing the part.

Quatre arrived not long after that and we went about the business of having our cookout.

Later, I would understand how certain things had looked through a picture window without the words to go along with it. At the time, all I remember thinking was that Quatre must have had a bad day, because he was awfully quiet and didn't really eat much.

~~*~~

I have to admit that I had been a bit surprised when Trowa and Quatre had first gotten together, because I had been so sure that there was something more going on between Trowa and Duo. They'd always seemed close, and I don't think it was just my particular... perspective, because Wufei had commented on it too.

But when Trowa had quietly announced that he and Quatre were 'seeing each other', Duo hadn't been the slightest bit upset, and in fact had seemed to delight in it. It hadn't seemed to change whatever was between him and Trowa though, and it had taken a while for me to decide that they really were just friends... the kind without the benefits.

I had almost gotten up my nerve, in fact, to make my own move in Duo's direction when... the 'incident' happened.

We get together as a group fairly often, and we'd been planning a dinner out for weeks. The day, when it dawned, had been nothing but rain though, and nobody was much interested in the intended trip to the beach side, sea food restaurant that we'd had lined up. We ended up going back to Trowa's place instead, deciding on ordering in.

There had been an odd tension in the air all afternoon, but it had only gotten worse once we'd settled in at Trowa's.

Duo, I think, had sensed something as well, and had been teasing Trowa, trying to lighten things up.

'What the hell is this, Barton?' he asked, brandishing the phone. 'I thought everybody had their local pizza place on speed dial?'

Trowa chuckled at him, pulling the phone book out and leafing through it to get the needed number. 'Not everybody lives off fast food delivery, Maxwell,' he quipped and Duo stuck his tongue out and crossed his eyes, making Trowa swat at him with the phone book.

'Some of us have slightly more sophisticated taste,' Quatre interjected, and there seemed to be more bite to it. Duo blinked for a second, and I half expected him to snipe back, but he recovered quickly and just grinned.

'Hey, if you wanted anchovies, all you had to do was ask, man,' Duo teased and Trowa made a face indicating his stand on anchovies.

There was a hint of a flush on Quatre's face and I wondered about it, but Duo was already punching the number into the phone as Trowa read it to him. Quatre looked to me like he was going to say something else, but then just turned and left the room. I exchanged a look with Wufei, but he seemed as vaguely puzzled as I felt. There was obviously something going on under the surface between our three partners, but he had no more idea than I did what it was.

Once Duo got an answer on the phone and began reeling off our usual order, Trowa put the phone book away and slipped out after Quatre.

'Trouble in paradise?' Wufei muttered, trying to decide if he should be concerned or amused. I shrugged and we waited for Duo to hang up the phone.

'Should be here in about a half hour,' he told us distractedly, frowning slightly and looking after the other two. There was obviously a discussion going on in the living room, though we couldn't really make out the words.

'What is Quatre's damn problem?' Duo asked, though it seemed a rhetorical question. 'He's been in a mood all day.'

Wufei gave out with a soft snort. 'You make him sound like some hormonal woman,' he ventured, making sure to keep his voice down.

'Hey,' Duo muttered darkly. 'If the shoe fits...'

'What ever it is,' I soothed. 'It seems to be between him and Trowa.'

'Sure doesn't feel like it,' Duo grumbled, running his hand over his hair in a gesture I knew he made when he was uncomfortable. 'Seems like he's been glaring daggers at me all stinking afternoon.'

And that was when we heard the crash from the other room. Staying out of a 'lover's spat' was one thing... ignoring that sort of sound was something else all together.

Duo was out of the room like a shot, Wufei and I hot on his heels. I don't think any of us were expecting to find what we did.

Trowa was sitting on the floor on his butt, obviously having just been put there by Quatre's patented right hook. They both looked like whatever was going on was about to escalate into a brawl. Until Duo rushed forward and put himself between them, demanding, 'What the fuck, Quat?'

If anything, Quatre looked even more homicidal. 'How perfect,' he snarled. 'Your 'buddy' is here to protect you, Trowa.' I can't say I have ever heard anybody put quite that much meaning into the word 'buddy'.

'Leave him out of it, Quatre,' Trowa demanded, climbing to his feet and I think he meant to move around Duo, but they ended up standing almost shoulder to shoulder.

'I think he's already smack in the middle of it,' Quatre snapped, reacting to the united front Duo and Trowa were unconsciously putting forth. 'I think he's more in the middle of it than I am.'

'God damn it,' Trowa snapped back. 'I told you you're way off base and you need to drop it, right now.'

'Will you two just time-out for a minute?' Duo yelled, looking completely appalled at them. 'Just what the hell is going on here?'

'What is going on here is the question of the hour, Maxwell,' Quatre said, voice suddenly rather low, and the tone dangerous. 'Maybe you'd like to tell everybody just what goes on here when you're alone with Trowa?'

Duo just stared at him for a long moment before suddenly turning a bright red. 'What? What the fuck are you insinuating, you asshole?'

I thought Quatre was going to try to deck him too, and maybe he would have, but Wufei chose that moment to step into the middle of the conversation. 'That's... a pretty nasty accusation, Quatre.'

Quatre's attention swung his way. 'And I don't make it lightly.'

'You have proof then?' Wufei asked, and managed to look shocked. Duo looked over at Trowa, his eyes asking all kinds of questions, but all Trowa's attention was on Quatre.

'I have the evidence of my own eyes,' Quatre hissed, his fury an almost palpable thing. It left Wufei not knowing who he should be blinking at.

'What?' Duo demanded, shock written all over his face. 'You couldn't have seen anything, Quatre... there's nothing to fucking see!'

I wondered, idly, how the argument had suddenly become between Quatre and Duo.

Quatre's fists balled themselves up again and he took half a step toward Duo. 'I don't call you being half dressed and Trowa running his damn hands all over you, 'nothing',' he snarled.

'What?' Duo gasped, utterly incredulous. 'What the hell are you talking about? We never...'

'Don't you dare fucking deny it!' Quatre yelled and I swear he was shaking. 'Last week; I saw you with my own damn eyes right here on this couch!'

Duo just stood for a long moment and I could tell he was processing it... trying to come up with something that fit with what Quatre was saying. When it clicked in his head, he blushed to the roots of his hair. 'That wasn't what it looked...' he began, and Quatre lost it, advancing with the obvious intention of going after Duo too.

But Trowa was suddenly stepping in, and where Quatre's voice had been getting pretty damn loud, his was low... and very menacing. 'Don't you fucking touch him.'

I remembered thinking that it wasn't the best thing he could have said. It implied a whole lot of stuff that was causing everybody in the room to feel slapped in the face.

I'll admit it... it seriously made me not sure what to think. Quatre seemed so damn sure that there was something going on, and Trowa was being damn protective of the wrong man. Duo was looking like he'd just swallowed ground glass, staring at Trowa with a totally unfathomable look on his face. I could tell Trowa's move had been the nudge Wufei had needed, and he was ready to believe too.

The pain in Quatre's eyes was enough to shake even my convictions. If I didn't know Duo as well as I did... I suppose I'd be wondering too.

'Is that how it is, Trowa?' Quatre asked, and his voice had dropped down to almost a whisper.

'How it is,' Trowa told him, his own anger running cold where Quatre's ran so hot. 'Is that you don't trust me.' They were just staring at each other and behind Trowa, Duo spoke up softly, looking at me... looking at Wufei... looking at Quatre. 'I... wouldn't do a thing like that.'

But nobody was really listening to him at that point. I don't think anybody but me was paying attention to the very real pain in his expression. He just looked confused. Confused, and somehow betrayed.

'How can I trust you in light of what I saw?' Quatre asked Trowa, and I was hard-pressed to believe that even stoic Trowa wasn't moved by the sound of that voice.

'Because I tell you there is nothing going on,' he replied instead, his own voice quite cold, and his gaze steady as an aimed gun.

Quatre's temper flared again. 'I'm not that damn naïve!'

'And I'm not that damn untrustworthy,' Trowa snapped back.

'You expect me to believe that you having him sprawled all over the couch half naked, running your hands all over him, touching his face... his hair... you expect me to believe that nothing is going on?'

'Maxwell!' Wufei gasped, his eyes wide and I could tell he'd made up his mind whose side he was on in the argument. It occurred to me that we really shouldn't be taking sides, and that everybody but Trowa and Quatre ought to be getting the hell out of there, but it was way beyond that point by then. 'I can't believe how dishonor...' Wufei began, but I reached out and touched his elbow and gave him a glare, trying to impart that this was really none of our business.

'I expect you to trust me,' Trowa said simply. 'I expect you to trust Duo.'

That was pushing it, somehow. Quatre was upset with the both of them, but was obviously set to blame Duo for the whole damn mess. Perhaps it felt like less of a betrayal if he could blame 'the other man'.

'I won't be the damn cuckolded lover, you bastard,' Quatre ground out, the hurt giving over to the balm of anger again. 'Especially not to some nameless L2...'

'Then maybe we should...' Trowa began, but Duo, looking completely horrified, grabbed at Trowa's arm and stopped him from finishing the sentence.

'Guys!' he gasped, wide-eyed and looking from one of them to the other. 'Don't do this. Come on... you don't mean these things! Stop it!'

Quatre's eyes were tracking the touch though, and even I could see that Duo's hand on Trowa's arm had been a very bad idea.

'This is all your God damn fault!' he snapped out, voice going as cold as Trowa's had been. 'If you could keep it in your damn pants...'

And, in a case of the world's worst timing, that was precisely the moment that the pizza delivery guy rang the doorbell. There was a moment when everybody froze... just a little bit horrified, I think, at the idea that the yelling might have been over-heard. Trowa shook himself loose first, turning toward me I think, to ask me to take care of it. There was a scramble for cash and somewhere in there the doorbell rang a second time. Quatre stormed off to the kitchen in the midst of it and there was the sound of slamming drawers. Enough cash was finally produced and I went to the front of the house to shut up the damn incessant ringing of the doorbell.

When I came back... Duo was gone.

If I'd had a clue that 'gone' meant gone for good, I'd have followed him then, but at the time I'd just thought it was probably best if everybody took a step back and calmed down.

~~*~~

It was the sign that made me stop driving. How could I pass up a place named Devil's Palm? I had turned the car off the highway without a second thought, just this vague notion that I really should see a place with a name like that. Of course... by that time I'd been driving so long that most of my thoughts were vague. It had been strange to actually get out of the car for more than a gas stop, and I remember just standing next to the driver's door for a long time, looking around and thinking that the place really should look more ominous. It was... almost disappointing.

Devil's Palm... 'we're nestled right in the palm of the Devil's hand!'... is a town with a population in the neighborhood of a couple hundred. They don't even bother to post it on the edge-of-town sign, like some places do. There's a little general store, one tiny restaurant whose menu varies depending on the season, the day of the week, and some whim of the woman who owns it. There's a post office, and while there isn't a police station, there is a guy who lives in town that the locals call Sheriff. Never been able to figure out of he's supplied by an actual official office, or if he's just doing the job for a place to live and meals.

That kind of weird bartering system had taken me a while to get used to. Life in Devil's Palm is... different. Very different.

I have no real recollection of making a conscious decision to stay. I had pulled in that day, gotten out of my car in less than stellar shape, not even sure how in the hell long I'd been driving, with no idea how long I'd planned on continuing to drive. There would have been an ocean at some point, when the roads ran out, and I couldn't even have told you if that would have stopped me.

Maybe that's what made me walk away from the car that day.

I had gone into the diner and stared at the menu and when I had been unable to decipher the words, Mrs. Taylor had fed me some sort of stew with corn bread, and then escorted me down the street to her sister-in-laws bed and breakfast. There wasn't any sign for it, but there was indeed a room with a bed and for fifty dollars, cash up-front please, they let me sleep there for well over twenty hours.

When I emerged again, it just seemed... I don't know... like the place to be. Had to stop sometime, I reasoned, and where better than the palm of the Devil's hand?

It didn't take long to learn from the ever talkative Mrs. Taylor that there was a piece of property for sale about fifteen minutes outside town. The deal was made that very day. Old man Fogerty was more than happy to come down on his price when I offered him ten thousand cash, if I agreed to throw in my car.

Sunset found me the befuddled owner of a three room shack on a couple of acres of land, sans the majority of my life savings and my only means of transportation.

I don't think I'll ever forget that rather final moment, standing in the front yard with my meager belongings sitting at my feet, waving old Fogerty off, as he fish tailed my car up the dirt lane with a bit too much enthusiasm. I remember hearing his laugh drift back to me, wild and almost maniacal. And I distinctly remember saying, 'What the fuck have I done?' to nobody in particular. Though the freaking huge black crow sitting on the barn answered me with a rattling chuckle.

I slept on the couch that first night because it seriously creeped me out thinking about sleeping on sheets that old Fogerty had been sleeping on.

He'd pretty well left me everything, taking only his clothes and a few other items. And since I was moving in with just my clothes and a few other items, I guess it worked out pretty well.

Took me three days to work up the energy to make the hike into town, but when I did, I discovered that Dutch Evans, the guy who ran the general store, happened to have a cousin who just happened to be looking to unload an old pick-up truck. Took three hundred bucks for it and even let me keep the old blanket that was covering up the rips in the front seat.

I had discovered my only method of cooking lie with an old, pot-bellied, wood-burning stove, so I also took home a case of canned soup, since I hadn't yet mastered the art of cooking over a burning log.

Home. That... had been a tough thought to swallow and I'll freely admit that I had a rough time making that adjustment. I waffled back and forth between days where I worked like a mad man around the old place from dawn until dusk, and days where I just sat and stared at the wall and chewed on thoughts that... were not comfortable.

The working was just a way to run from the thoughts, leaving me so exhausted I could sleep. The thinking was just rubbing salt in the wound.

I suppose, looking back, what I did seems pretty damn extreme. And maybe if it had just been Quatre and his damn accusations, I might have stayed and defended my dubious 'honor'. But there had been this moment, standing in the middle of that chaos where I realized everybody in the room believed what Quatre was saying. Every one of those men who were supposed to be my family, thought that I was capable of betraying my own like that. I had seen it on Wufei's face when he'd been convinced... the shock and the condemnation. Had seen the utter hurt and betrayal in Quatre's face. And Heero... whose opinion mattered to me a bit more than I suppose it should... his face had been completely blank. But... there had been no defense. He'd never spoken up, never tried to be his usual voice of reason. Wasn't that answer enough? He'd believed it too. Thought that I could do such a thing. All those twisted things that Quatre had been shouting at me... not once did anybody say, 'Duo wouldn't do that'.

And Trowa... I do love Trowa. I love him like my brother. How could I just stand there and watch while his relationship with Quatre went up in smoke? If there was anybody in the room that day who understood how much Trowa loved Quatre... it was me. The guy who had been there, urging and comforting and reassuring while he'd worked up the nerve to go for what he'd wanted more than anything in the world.

I'd been thrilled when they'd finally gotten together, had mocked Trowa's goofy grin, had teased him about every little reported advance in the relationship. Hell, I'd known the night they slept together for the first time before Trowa had known. I knew the guy so damn well, that I'd just felt the difference in his mind-set and knew it was about to happen. Not that I ever told him that. Some things really should be between just two people.

So how the hell was I supposed to stand there and watch that fall apart, knowing it was me causing the rift? Quatre was the most important thing in the world to Trowa, and I'd realized, listening to them that night, that no matter what happened... one way or the other, things were never going to be the same.

Even if Trowa had been able to convince Quatre that what he had seen had been innocent, the doubt had been planted. I had already lost my best friend... there was no way I would ever be able to make things the same between Trowa and me again; I'd forever be afraid of what things looked like. I'd be forever watching my words... my gestures... my thoughts.

And besides that... what about Heero and Wufei? I couldn't stand the idea that they thought so little of me. They were two people I respected a great deal; it was damn painful to realize they had no respect for me. I had stood there that night and understood that these men that I loved... that I would have given my life for... would have done anything for, just for the asking... not a one of them thought I had an ounce of honor or integrity in me.

I'd walked out when the pizza came and hadn't looked back. Removing myself from the equation seemed the only solution.

It had been a simple thing to empty my bank account, e-mail my resignation to my boss, pack up the bit of my life that mattered, and leave. Rather depressingly simple, actually.

And that was how I'd ended up in Devil's Palm.

How I became the local psycho, hermit, animal freak happened about as effortlessly.

The Palm, as they like to call it, is kind of... rural, in case you didn't get that. Lot of ranches, and naturally... a lot of animals. So there's this vet who has an office that she occupies a couple of times a week. I think she and some partners have three of the places, spread across two or three counties, and she rotates. For major things, you have to make the drive up into 'The City' to the main office, but for small things like shots and check-ups, Miss Deirdre was in our neck of the woods every Tuesday and Thursday without fail.

I suppose I'd been living in the old Masterson place for a month before I actually met her. I'd had about enough of soup that week, and had come in to town to eat at Mrs. Taylor's. Probably had something to do with forcing myself to interact with other human beings before I just completely vegged away to nothing. Not that I'd have probably been able to admit that even to myself at that stage of the game, but I can see the truth in it, looking back.

I'd been sitting there trying to decide if okra was something I was going to be able to develop a taste for or not, when Miss Deirdre had come in for lunch.

With a... well, I hadn't been sure at first... with a ball of white fluff in tow. It had turned out to be a puppy. A big damn puppy. A big damn furball of a puppy.

I remember first being surprised that Mrs. Taylor wasn't throwing a fit that somebody had brought a dog into her diner. And second I remember... feeling something for the first time in a while.

'You look plum tuckered out,' Mrs. Taylor had declared and plopped a cup of coffee down on the counter unasked.

'Been a long week,' the woman had said, leaving the puppy to snuffle around the room, and sipped at her coffee with a satisfied sigh. 'Hits the spot Eva... how about some of your delicious apple pie to go with it?'

Mrs. Taylor scoffed, though she looked pleased. 'Young woman like yourself needs more than pie for lunch! Let me get you a nice bowl of chili...'

They chattered at each other, but I sort of stopped paying attention because the puppy had made the circuit of the room and had gotten to my feet. I must have walked through something really interesting, because it was quite fascinated with my boots. Something in my chest felt funny and when it started to move on, I panicked, and before I had a chance to think that it might not be the best thing to do without asking permission... I offered it a bite of my meatloaf. The little guy, I decided... I don't know why, blinked up at me like he was surprised to find a person attached to those boots, and happily ate my offering and almost my finger too.

'...looking for a home for him,' I suddenly heard, and when I looked up to find the vet and Mrs. Taylor both grinning at me widely, I had the strangest feeling I'd been set up. 'The owner brought him in to be put down because he isn't 'up to specs',' she was telling Mrs. Taylor disdainfully. 'But I figure if he's fixed, he can't spread the precious blood-line around anyway. So what's the harm?'

'He's a show dog then?' Mrs. Taylor asked speculatively, and I could believe it... cute was invented to describe that furry face and those expressive eyes. 'You know,' she continued, using that sly little tone that she got when she was about to put a good bargain together, 'Duo here just moved into the old Masterson place and has all kinds of room.'

'He'd need it,' I thought I heard Miss Deirdre mutter, but she just went on to inform me that she'd throw in free vet visits for the first six months if I'd be willing to take him off her hands.

It was more of a sure thing than when Mrs. Taylor had connected me with her brother's best buddy who needed to off-load some shingles, and wanted somebody to help him move furniture in exchange. The woman knows her bartering.

So I left the diner that day with a house-mate and a list of things to pick up from the general store.

And though I was kind of peeved later that she hadn't bothered to tell me what a Pyrenees was... I doubt knowing that the dog would eventually grow up to out weigh me... probably wouldn't have mattered.

I let the little furball sleep in the bed with me that night and the next morning woke up to him licking my face and whining for breakfast. It was the first time in ages that I bothered to roll out of bed before mid-morning and I promptly named him Reason.

After that, it somehow became common knowledge that the 'young man who moved in out on Three Trees Road' was a soft touch. When old lady McNeil's beagle broke its leg and taking care of it was more than she could handle, Mrs. Taylor and Miss Deirdre naturally thought of me. I wasn't really working after all, doing the odd bit of construction or mechanics or farm grunt work when I needed a few bucks, so I was free. I helped her out with the dog until the cast came off, and in return, she cooked me dinner and let me bring my laundry in to her place instead of hauling it over to Twin Forks to the Laundromat. After that, was a dog that somebody had dumped out up on the highway; skinny as a rail and not much to look at, I'd nursed the thing back to health and the Evans kids had ended up talking their dad into taking it. Then was the litter of kittens whose mother had gotten killed on the road. Then a piglet that had been born blind.

After six months, I'd heard that people were starting to refer to my place as 'Maxwell's Zoo', which is totally unheard of; places have names that stick for generations. To my knowledge nobody living even knew who 'Masterson' was when referencing 'The old Masterson place'.

It's probably sad that it was giving me something to do. Giving me something that made me feel half-way useful. I'll always wonder if Mrs. Taylor had understood how much I'd needed that. Will always wonder if it was entirely an accident that I'd met Miss Deirdre and my Reason that day.

~~*~~

I looked for him, of course. I tracked every clue that I could find and some that were more rumors than anything else. But he'd liquidated his entire existence within a few days and just vanished. I kept thinking that we'd at least hear from him, but there was never a peep. Unless he contacted Trowa, but if so... he wasn't telling.

After a few months had gone by, I reluctantly added morgue lists into my search and just tried not to think about it.

I would forever kick myself for not checking up on him sooner. I'd just been so convinced that he was embarrassed by the whole stupid incident and just needed a bit of time to get his bearings. I'd thought his running off that night had been just a strategic retreat. I'd thought that he'd figured out like I had, that the argument should have been between Trowa and Quatre and it was their mess to straighten out.

Not that they ever had. They'd broken it off over the whole mess within a few days. They were both miserable, but the damage that had been done that night couldn't be covered over. Trowa had already been furious that Quatre didn't trust him any more than to make those kinds of accusations to begin with, but when it had become obvious that Duo had been so distraught over the whole thing that he'd... hell, that he'd run away from home, he had just exploded.

I think, somewhere in there, Quatre had started to have his doubts, but it was a bit too late by that point. No amount of apologizing was going to bring Duo back when he couldn't be found to apologize to.

And while I personally felt awful for the two of them, I couldn't quite forgive Quatre myself. I really didn't care what he thought he'd seen that day, he'd had no right to say some of the things he'd said to Duo. Even if there had been something between Trowa and Duo that was... inappropriate, it certainly wouldn't have been all Duo's fault. Trowa was a big boy, after all, and perfectly able to answer for his own actions. Laying it all at Duo's feet had been wrong no matter what had happened or not happened.

I think Quatre had been playing to the few things we knew about Duo's past and it smacked, frankly, of hitting below the belt.

I don't think that I ever would have given up looking, but I have to admit that by the eight month 'anniversary' of Duo's disappearance, I'd started to feel the hopelessness of it. Duo Maxwell had always been adept at vanishing. If he didn't want to be found, it was highly unlikely he was going to be.

It was, in fact, a total accident when it finally happened. It was almost embarrassing after all the hours I'd put in hacking computers and tracing clues, ruthlessly using Preventers' resources and screwing policy.

It hadn't even been me, exactly, that actually found him.

Sally Po has a niece, Katie by name, and she'd been using Wufei's computer at the office since her parent's internet connection was on the fritz at home. It had been for a school project and the kid is pretty easy to get along with, so I hadn't minded that Sally and Wufei had left her in my care while they'd gone to lunch.

I really hadn't been paying that much attention, I'd been using my own lunch hour, as I always did, to check some of the information trackers I had out watching for different variations of Duo's name. The report that was supposedly due the next day had something to do with careers; Katie apparently wanted to be a vet when she grew up, or an actress that worked with animals, or one of those animal cops... and that was about all I could have told you.

Until there came this plaintive little, 'Mr. Yuy, how do I get this to print?' and I went to help out.

She hopped out of Wufei's chair when I came across the office and I sat down to see what it was she was trying to print. She had a web page pulled up that looked like somebody's blog, but there were pictures that made it pretty plain it belonged to somebody in the veterinary business. 'What part do you want?' I asked and she pointed at the screen, showing me which days. I couldn't help grinning, Wufei wasn't going to be happy to come back and find all the finger prints on his monitor.

'Ok,' I replied and highlighted and hit the print key. 'Do you know where the water fountain is?'

'Yep,' she nodded vigorously, ready to dart off there even before I finished my instructions.

'The printer for this floor is on a table in the room right beside it,' I explained. 'Your printout will come out there, with Wufei's name on it. Think you can find it?'

She grinned and was out of the office before she even bothered with the 'Yes, sir!' I suspected research was not going to be the child's forte... she was too easily bored.

Almost, I got up to go back to my desk, but then decided I should probably double check that Katie hadn't just had me printing off something we shouldn't have, and I scrolled down the page.

And thought my heart was going to freaking lurch out of my chest.

There were pictures taken in what appeared to be some kind of clinic; pretty damn low tech from the looks of it, the entry seemed to be about rescued animals and in the background of one of the pictures I found a partially cropped out figure with a more than familiar braid. I just stared for a moment, at the back and the braid, but the picture wasn't that great. I was... almost positive, but at the same time almost afraid to believe. It just seemed... too damn bizarre. After all the searching and hunting and the weekend trips to follow up on leads, after getting 'the talk' from Lady Une about misuse of company resources when the IT department had seen something I hadn't thought to cover up. After the late nights and the lunch hours after... after all that damn time, I couldn't make myself believe I'd found him by accident.

Katie suddenly appeared at my elbow, sheaf of papers in her hand and grin on her face. 'I got it Mr. Yuy; thanks!'

'Sure sweetie,' I told her absently and she giggled at the endearment that had slipped out of my mouth. I realized it was something Duo would have said, and I quietly memorized the web address and went back to my own desk.

I spent the rest of the afternoon pouring over the blog of a woman named 'DeeDeeVet', who claimed to be a vet somewhere in the southwest. She was a rather... blunt person, calling clients stupid when she thought they were stupid and so the journal wasn't entirely... out in the open. She was coy about using real names and had a series of tags for various people. And while there were pictures of the animals, people mostly were edited out. That one hint of braid down a turned back was the only picture I found that I thought might be Duo.

Though, about seven months ago, a new tag had cropped up. References were made to a 'Mr. Tightjeans' and involved the woman foisting off a stray dog or something. She seemed quite pleased with herself and had apparently had the help of some local personality that she referred to as 'Applepie'. The two of them seemed to be of the opinion that Tightjeans had needed the dog even more than the dog had needed a home. There was a whole paragraph that waxed near poetic on how sad and lonely Tighjeans seemed to be and I got the distinct impression that dear DeeDeeVet wished she could remedy that with something besides a dog.

It amazes me what people will say in an open, internet forum, trusting to... I'm not sure what, to keep anybody they know from finding it.

After that entry, Tightjeans became a regular topic and seemed to be turning into some sort of animal savior. Or just the vets own personal sucker. Woman used him fairly mercilessly. The entries that mentioned him involved everything from hamsters to a damn horse. I wondered how the poor sap had time to breathe.

But then I started imagining Duo instead of some faceless 'Tightjeans' and I was surprised that I was almost angry on his behalf.

I made up my mind then and stopped reading the blog itself and started back tracking it. It didn't take much tracing of entries to find someplace the woman had posted, that recorded IP addresses. A quick trace route yielded an ISP which handed me a state. I went off on searches for veterinary practices in that area.

Somewhere in there, Wufei and Sally came back from lunch and Sally took Katie away to spend the rest of the afternoon in her own office. She waved and told me goodbye and I waved back distractedly. I think Wufei questioned me, but must have judged from my reaction, or lack of said, that I was distracted, and left me be. I felt vaguely guilty because he probably thought I was working on our current case. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and not only was I blowing off work for the afternoon, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I was about to be taking some vacation time.

Some hours later I had a list of female vets in the northern corner of New Mexico and had pretty much narrowed it down based on mentions in the blog that the vet in question had a practice that rotated across several counties. Of the half a dozen names I came up with, DeeDeeVet seemed to most likely match up to a Deirdre Card. The blog told me that the place I was looking for was wherever the woman spent her Tuesdays and Thursdays. The listing for her practice told me just where that would be.

Somehow, when I saw the name of the town, I just knew I was on the right track. Wouldn't a place called Devil's Palm appeal to Duo's sometimes morbid sense of humor?

When I sat back in my chair with a heavy sign, I was rather surprised to find that it was almost quitting time. I looked across to see Wufei regarding me quizzically. 'Finally come up for air?' he smiled. 'Going to tell me what kind lead you found now?'

I sighed again and rubbed at tired eyes. 'I... it's not the kind of lead you think,' I confessed and then met his gaze. 'I think I found him.'

I was almost surprised that I didn't have to clarify. I saw his eyes widen and he sat up straighter, almost leaning toward me. 'Are you sure? How?'

I had to give a mirthless little laugh. 'Would you believe by accident? And no... I'm not a hundred percent sure. But... I really think so.'

He just stared at me for a moment, processing it in that clinical way he has, before he said, 'We should call Trowa...'

'No,' I told him, managing to keep the harshness out of my voice. 'I'm going to handle this.'

'Heero...' he began, but I was shaking my head before he could even start reasoning with me.

'I'm not going to risk losing him again,' I said firmly, not caring what I implied or how he chose to take it. 'I've already e-mailed Lady Une to tell her I'm taking leave. I'm going to go find Duo, and I don't want this... bullshit to follow me.'

He thought about that for a moment and then nodded slowly. 'Will you... please... at least give me a clue where?'

'If you agree not to share the information until I say it's ok,' I said and was pleased to see that he did think about it before finally nodding.

'I... guess I understand,' he replied. 'I can agree to that.'

So I went to his desk and pulled up the web-site from his history and watched him scan the blog and look at the pictures, explaining my findings. Then he chuckled mirthlessly, caught somewhere between amused and pained. 'Sitting in the palm of the Devil's hand. God...Only Maxwell.'

~~*~~

[part 2] [back to Sunhawks' fic]