Author: Sunhawk
see part 1 for warning, notes, disclaimer

Rain (cont)

Duo stayed in the bathroom for a very long time, and at first I thought maybe he was just avoiding me. But on a second thought... and a second look around, I started wondering if he was just enjoying the hot bath. Or... the lukewarm bath. Things just didn't look like he spent a lot of time on his own comfort. There was evidence that he worked... and worked damn hard, but not really on himself. So I doubted that he took the time to haul and heat the water.

It bothered me, thinking about him living that way. It wasn't living, so much as... existing. And it made me want to give him back all that he had lost.

Watching him with that ax, going after that fallen log like it had caused both wars and global warming besides... had been a little scary. I had thought he would fall over from exhaustion hours before he quit, and I'm still not sure if he stopped because he'd worked through the anger... or just lost the light.

I hadn't needed to watch him long before I'd realized he was going to be hurting when he was done, and that was what made me decide to haul the water.

After that, I just wanted a way to feed him something besides more of that damn soup. I'd gone through the cupboard while the water had been heating and found a decided lack of variety. It made me wonder if he'd actually mastered that 'trick' to cooking over a wood burning stove that he'd mentioned.

I'd asked him about the pizza delivery only half seriously, mostly just wanting to break into his thoughts and bring him back into the house before the water cooled. But... Duo loves pizza. Always has. For him to have been living there for eight months without even knowing if he could have any delivered just... really kind of made me mad at Quatre all over again.

So while he soaked, I set out to see if I could find pizza.

I had my cell phone, though it wasn't going to last much longer, and I decided it was worth squandering the last of the battery on my current mission.

I called Wufei.

His voice was almost eager when he answered, and I felt guilty, wishing I had something more to tell him.

'Heero?' he asked. 'Everything all right?'

'Well enough, I suppose,' I sighed. 'I finally ran into Duo today...'

'How is he?' he was quick to ask, and the eagerness was tinged with the shadow of his own guilt.

'I'm... not sure yet,' I had to confess. 'Hurt? Angry? Maybe... depressed? It's not... all together comfortable yet.'

'What...?' he began, but I cut him off.

'Look, Wufei, I didn't bring my charger with me and Duo has no phone. Can you do me a kind of... odd favor before my battery runs dead?'

'Of course,' he told me, sounding determined, and it made me want to laugh. He probably wasn't expecting a pizza run.

I need you to get on the net and find me a damn pizza place that will deliver to Duo's.'

I thought he might choke trying not to laugh at me. 'You're kidding me, right?'

I sighed, because there was a part of me that wasn't seeing the humor in it. 'No, I wish I was. There's... not a lot of food here, and I really want to be able to treat Duo to something tonight. He... needs something,' I finished and cringed because I knew how lame it sounded.

'Give me the address and I'll see what I can do,' he said and I gave him the number that had been on the mail box at the end of the lane and the road name, and hoped that would be enough.

'Thanks... I owe you,' I told him and he chuckled. I could imagine him sitting there shaking his head.

'No problem,' he assured me. 'Just... tell Maxwell... Well, never mind. I suppose some things should come direct.'

'Yeah,' I confirmed, and we hung up.

Fifteen minutes later I got a text message that simply read, 'You do owe me. The delivery charge was more than the pizza. Enjoy.'

Duo came out of the bathroom while I was still smiling bemusedly at my phone.

'What?' he asked and I couldn't help a grin that I wasn't even sure he could see in the near dark of the house.

'I totally trump you in networking skills,' I quipped without thinking. 'I got us pizza.'

'No way!' he blurted, the towel he'd been rubbing through his hair pausing while he tried to stare at me. 'Out here? In the middle of Nowhereville? How?' and it was a moment like old times. It was a peek at the old Duo.

I stood and slipped my phone back in my pocket. 'I called Wufei and made him look it up on the internet,' I informed him and was left blinking when the comment seemed to break that moment. I wondered what I'd said, but realized Duo wasn't going to speak and bulled forward. 'Don't suppose you have some form of light, so we can actually see to eat this pizza when it gets here?'

He snorted softly and tossed the towel over his shoulder while he made his way into the kitchen area. 'Hey... we're civilized here,' he said, and while the line was teasing, there was a hint of defensiveness in it and I couldn't help wondering what I'd said wrong.

He pulled down a pair of what turned out to be coal oil lamps and set one up on the kitchen table and the other on the coffee table in the living area. It gave the whole house a glow. I couldn't decide if it was warm or just creepy.

We settled in the living room to wait, me in the chair and Duo on the couch, using the time to work a comb through his hair. The skittish cat had jumped up on the table to sit and stare, seemingly mesmerized by the flame of the lamp. The other one was trying to worm its way into Duo's lap, but wasn't happy with all the wet hair. I couldn't help but chuckle at it... until it decided to give up on Duo, and try me.

'Duncan...' Duo began in a warning tone, but I waved him off.

'It's all right,' I assured him, not that the cat acted like he cared what Duo thought anyway. He'd already lain down and was taking a bath sprawled across my knees. Duo looked at us oddly for a minute and then went back to working the tangles out of his hair.

He made a damn enticing image, sitting cross-legged, with his hair unbound and looking a bit rumbled, focused on the task at hand. It was an old, familiar ache, but a little harder to ignore in the flickering glow of the lamp light. Harder to ignore on top of the new feelings of... protectiveness his current situation were awakening in me. While I'd wanted to take Duo Maxwell into my arms for a long damn time... those desires had usually lead to thoughts of clothes being removed, and bodies being explored.

What I wanted in that moment though, was just to hold him next to me. To let him warm himself against me, and just make him feel safe again. Let him feel wanted. Feel... loved.

I think, despite some part of me realizing what bad timing it would have been, I'd been perilously close to saying something that would have been a bad idea at that stage of the game. But my cell phone chose that moment to interrupt my wandering thoughts anyway.

I pulled it out to see Wufei's number listed and flipped it open. 'Hello?' I said, and was rather surprised when the voice on the other end was not the one I was expecting.

'Yuy?' Quatre was practically speaking before I had a chance to answer the stupid phone. 'You found Duo? Where are...?'

I wanted to growl at him, he so caught me off guard. 'How in the hell...?' I began, cutting him off, but he cut me off in turn.

'I was at Wufei's; I heard the call, now where in the hell...' his voice was rising and I saw an odd look cross Duo's face.

'Quatre,' I snapped, shutting him up. 'I'm not about to tell you shit until...'

Duo ended our little game of interrupting each other when he snatched the phone from my hand. 'Winner?' he snarled kind of at the phone as much as into it. 'You fucking asshole! How dare you? After everything I did to make sure you two worked it the fuck out? I gave up my whole God damn life for you two, you bastard! You damn well better not be telling me some lame ass thing like you two aren't together!'

I think he worked himself up at that point to where he just totally lost coherence, because the next thing out of his mouth was not much more than an inarticulate howl, and he snapped the phone shut, cocking his arm back like he was going to hurl it against the nearest wall.

I grabbed his wrist and he didn't really resist, and the next thing I knew I'd grabbed more than that, and when my arms closed around him... he just sort of fell into me. And there we were. I don't know why he let me do it, don't know why he didn't shove me off, or punch me in lieu of being able to punch Quatre.

And frankly... I didn't care. I probably should have, but I just couldn't. Years of wanting... eight months of fear... and he was finally where I'd always wanted him. It was a blessing that he didn't try to pull away, because I don't think I could have let go.

I can not tell you, however, if it was a blessing or a curse when my cell phone started to ring again. Because I think I came very close to trying to kiss him, and while I'm pretty sure it would have been a very bad idea... I can't say I wouldn't have done it anyway.

The phone was still in Duo's hand and he jerked when it rang like a kid caught with his fingers in the cookie jar. We both glanced at it, though I hardly needed to look to know it was Quatre calling back. Sure enough, the name 'Chang' appeared on the display and it somehow seemed to upset Duo even more. He shook himself and pulled completely away from me.

'God,' he muttered. 'Wufei. What am I doing?'

I was almost as angry with Quatre in that moment, as I'd been after we'd realized Duo had vanished. I flipped the phone open and ruthlessly thumbed the power button, ignoring the sound of Quatre's voice calling for attention, until the phone beeped and went dead. Shoving it back in my pocket, I turned toward Duo, but he was already... evading. He'd gone into the bedroom and I heard a closet open and close and when he came back out he was fussing with a blanket and pillow, making up the couch for the night. I sighed, though I hadn't really meant to, and tried to think of some way to make the mood come back. To turn things back just five damn minutes.

My hands still felt damp from his hair.

I must have opened my mouth and closed it a half a dozen times, struggling with what to say, while he gave his undivided attention to fluffing the pillow. I had just settled on the fall back, 'Duo...?' when outside, the dogs began to bark fit to wake the dead.

'Pizza's here,' Duo quipped and strode over to shush his menagerie before they scared off the delivery person.

Standing in the doorway, watching Duo quiet the dogs, and suddenly looking at the situation through the eyes of a stranger, I really had to give the driver points for even showing up. I couldn't blame the guy either, when he wouldn't get out of the car, but made Duo come over to fetch the order through the car window.

Duo wasn't even back in the house before the guy was pulling out. The dogs couldn't seem to decide if they wanted to run after the car, or follow after the enticing smell of the pizza boxes.

Boxes... as in plural. I wondered if Wufei'd had to order that much to get them to bring it so far. There were three boxes and a sack, and when we got it to the table we found we had two kinds of pizza, enough bread sticks for an army, some kind of appetizer sampler and two sodas. There was an awkward moment while we both just sort of stared at the sudden bounty before Duo cleared his throat and muttered, 'Damn, but he spoils you rotten.'

I snorted, knowing damn well the guilt that had delivered this much food to Duo's front door and told him, 'This isn't for me... you can count this as part of an apology from Wufei to you.' He looked at me sharply, the flickering lamp light doing odd things to his eyes, but he didn't seem to know what to say, so I didn't wait for him to come up with anything. 'Let's just eat it before it gets cold.'

He was oddly hesitant at first, nibbling at a bread stick, but once I flipped open the first box and helped myself, he couldn't resist. He picked up a slice, took a bite and chewed slowly. I repressed a sigh at his unconscious stretching of what didn't need to be stretched.

'There's plenty,' I told him gently, and he ducked his head, probably trying to hide a blush I couldn't make out in the weird lamplight anyway.

'He shouldn't have ordered so much,' he said softly, sounding a bit defensive.

'Just his way of telling you that he was worried,' I dared, his subdued mood making me a bit bolder. 'You know Chang... not like me; he can't just come right out and say that you scared the hell out of him.'

It made him snort, the blush managing to escalate enough that I could see a hint of it even in the lamplight. He just shook his head and took a peek into the second pizza box, coming out with some sort of all meat variety. 'We're not going to be able to save this... you know that, right?'

'I suppose we could feed what's left to the dogs,' I ventured, knowing how he hated waste.

That bought me a wry little laugh and I smiled to hear it. 'Not unless you have a yen to clean up after a couple of sick dogs. Nash could probably handle it, but Reason doesn't take to table scraps and Bo would just eat until he exploded.'

'I suppose as cool as it is, it would keep at least overnight,' I suggested and his smile got a little wistful.

'Been a while since I had pizza for breakfast,' he said, almost sounding like he was talking to himself.

'It's been a while since I had pizza at all,' I replied without really thinking about it. 'Not since...' I cut myself off but not in time.

'Not since when, Heero?' he asked, sounding a bit troubled 'What are you saying?'

I sighed, not sure if we were to a place where he could hear some of the less than pleasant realities. I thought about the rage that had sent him storming out of the house, and hesitated. He seemed to follow my thoughts and ducked his head again.

'I promise not to take an ax to anything,' he mumbled and I didn't know whether to smile or not.

'We just don't seem to get together as often,' I told him, trying to keep my voice matter-of-fact. 'Things are awkward between Trowa and Quatre, Wufei is spending more time with Sally, and without you there... it just doesn't seem worth the effort.'

He was blinking at me, his expression very damn hard to catalog. 'What?' he blurted, looking at me intently. 'You and Wufei aren't...? I mean...'

He trailed off and it was my turn to sit and blink, trying to fathom what he was thinking. He looked... shell-shocked. 'Aren't what, Duo?' I prodded gently.

His pizza suddenly became fascinating and he studied it closely, giving me a shrug that was meant to be casual but was pretty far from it. I frowned, trying to guess what was going on in his head.

'We're still partners,' I told him. 'I'm not saying that everything completely fell apart when you left, we just don't get together the way we used to. I still see all the guys fairly regularly... Trowa and I do lunch every couple of weeks... Wufei and Sally have me over for cards sometimes... it's just not like it was.'

He didn't speak for a long damn time, just lifting his head to stare at me with the most horrendously lost look on his face, that I didn't know how to remedy. It was stirring that urge in me again, waking up the need to reach out to him. I wrestled it down to a light touch to the back of his hand. 'Come on... eat some dinner, please?'

He nodded and we bent back to the pizza; whatever was on his mind... he'd obviously decided to keep to himself.

~~*~~

I insisted he take the bed that night and while he'd protested, I'd exploited his odd cautiousness, knowing he wouldn't really push me about anything. I really must have scared him with that whole maniacal ax thing.

I had eaten until I thought I would bust something, but Heero still seemed disturbed by the amount I put away. I hadn't really thought before about how my habits had changed, but sitting down at table with him again just sort of brought it into focus. I hadn't been able to eat half what I once would have, but I was still paying for it with a stomach that felt cramped. It promised a long night... not that it hadn't promised to be that without the additional discomfort.

I was still reeling from shock. Could the guy just stop hitting me with mind bending tidbits of information? I was starting to feel like the world's biggest God damn fool. Heero and Wufei were, apparently, not together. And from the way Heero acted... never had been. All those months of feeling like the proverbial fifth wheel, and... I hadn't been the only one in the group not paired off.

Lying there on the couch, staring off into the dark at nothing, wrapped in a blanket that wasn't really doing much to keep the cold at bay, with the cats doing their best to glue themselves to what little body heat I had... I really didn't know whether I should be laughing or crying.

How the hell much else had I misinterpreted? How many other of my intentions had gone wrong? Had I made a single right decision in the last damn year?

And just to add crazy to the mix... I was having the strangest damn urge to get up off that lumpy damn couch, go crawl into my bed with Heero, and try to figure out if the signals I thought I was getting from him were anything at all like they seemed.

It was... a very long night. And if I slept through any part of it, I missed it.

I got up the next morning with the sun, not so much by choice, but because staring at a ceiling you couldn't see all night was really kind of boring. The cats were more than happy to let me wrap the blanket around them and leave them where they were. I'd spent the night in my clothes for the added warmth and had only to pull on my boots to begin the day. I stirred up the fire for the morning, doing my best not to wake Heero, and then slipped out the back to take care of the boys.

Reason was waiting for me and had to sniff me all over, like he hadn't been completely happy with Heero being there. Nash and Bo could have cared less, only wanting ear scratches and food. I went about the morning routine, feeding, petting, cleaning up, and even took a few minutes to toss the ball for Nash after he'd finished breakfast. Watching the big lug ferret the ball out of the scrub grass, I idly wondered if I couldn't find him a home through Sheriff Tom... dog would probably make a decent candidate for search and rescue training.

There were a lot of things I probably should have been doing. There was a load of lumber behind the barn that I'd traded old man Sutton for that I had intended to do some repairs with. Buckshot needed to be taken out for some exercise; walking around the paddock just didn't cut it. And from the smells of things, Bo had been wallowing in something... unpleasant, and was going to need a bath. But I just couldn't seem to work up the energy after the night I'd had. I just couldn't seem to stop thinking. Couldn't seem to stop the what-ifs and the wondering and... there were a whole lot of questions I was starting to understand I should maybe have asked a long time ago.

It made me think of my fence post calendar and I went to make the day's mark. My eyes trailed up and down the rows of neat little gouges even as my hands worked the next one in line and I was moved to actually count the damn things.

Some part of me knew. I mean... I knew how old Reason was. My mind could make that association, could add it all together, but somehow counting the actual marks made me feel it. Made me feel the utter emptiness of those days. Made me understand that each of those gashes was another notch in a tally of self-sacrifice, marked with a certain amount of... pride? But now, in light of the things Heero had told me, it all seemed so utterly pointless. So damn... stupid. I raised my hand to run over those endless rows and I felt vaguely sick.

'Dear God,' I muttered. 'Where am I?'

Reason didn't have an answer, but he whined at the tone of my voice and nosed at my elbow.

But then there was a hand sliding down my arm and I jumped, not resisting when the knife was taken from my hand. Heero was standing right behind me, almost pressed to my back, and I wondered where he'd come from and why in the hell the dogs hadn't told me he was there. He used the knife to make a long cut clear across the post, underneath all my rows, and when he spoke, it was right next to my ear. I have no idea how he even knew what he was looking at.

'It ends here, Duo,' he said as the blade bit into the wood, the muscles in his arm cording tight. 'No more hiding... no more running. Come home... please?'

There they were again... those signals that were just about to short-circuit my brain. I was still adjusting to the idea that Heero wasn't... 'taken'. Still trying to get my head around the idea that the off limits sign I'd tagged him with all those months ago, wasn't there. I didn't know if what I thought I was hearing from him was him... or just me hearing what I wanted to hear.

Hell... with him standing that close, I couldn't even think. I just wanted his embrace again. Wanted that moment back that we'd shared the night before. I wanted the chance to feel that again without the image of Wufei rising between us.

I just didn't know what to think... what to do. It had been too damn long since I'd let myself feel. It was like the world was suddenly out to overload my senses and I just wanted the nice, comfortable numbness back. But Heero's words... about hiding, made it impossible not to see that's exactly what I'd been doing.

For eight God damn months of my life.

Reason tried to sit on my feet, looking up at me like he had when he was a pup and the thunderstorms came through. I felt a raindrop and wondered when it had clouded over. I listened to Reason whine and wondered why he seemed to be afraid.

Or maybe I was the one who was afraid.

~~*~~

I hadn't needed to be a detective that morning to know just what I was seeing as I stood in the doorway of the house and watched Duo make his mark on that old fence post. I'd not slept all that well, listening to the sounds most of the night of Duo tossing and turning and sighing in the dark. I'd risen from bed as soon as I'd heard him leave the house and had watched him through the window as he'd worked.

The day had been, perhaps prophetically, over-cast and gray. The sky threatening rain.

The animals came first, I realized, as he fed and watered them. He hadn't so much as bothered to snag a slice of cold pizza for himself on the way outside. I watched him as he dished up food and refilled water dishes. As he went in to the barn and presumably fed and watered the horse as well, turning it out into the yard when he was done. He went and tossed a ball that the black dog chased after with tail-wagging enthusiasm, all the while with Reason glued to his side, almost like there was something Duo needed to be protected from. I wondered if it was me.

I'd opened the door to the house when he'd gone to the corner of the lot with his knife in his hand, unsure of what he was about. I watched him, feeling like I was watching some rite, as he scored the wood. But then he just kept standing there and I ventured outside to see what was going on. I was surprised that the dogs didn't pay me any mind.

It became obvious as I drew near, that he was counting the marks and I heard him mutter something; I couldn't catch the words, but there was no mistaking the sheer desolation of his tone. I hadn't tried to be particularly quiet in my approach, but I could tell I surprised him when I took the knife from his hand. The first drops of rain fell, kicking up dust as they hit the ground, and I knew in my heart somehow that he couldn't stay there any more. It felt like the man I was standing so close to was fading from the world, and I meant to stop it before I lost him altogether.

I used the knife to cut off the days; marking a final slash to underscore all the others. 'It ends here, Duo,' I told him gently. 'No more hiding... no more running. Come home... please?'

He just stood for a long time, watching me make my own mark on that old post, finding the thing harder than I would have imagined. Reason was looking up at him, and I wondered how a dog could manage to look worried. Even he knew that there was something to fear here.

When I was done, I stepped back a pace to let Duo turn around, not wanting to make him feel trapped. He still didn't speak, just looking at me like he could draw answers out of me with his gaze.

In that moment, I was seeing the Duo I'd found at the diner the day before. Hopeful and vulnerable and... scared. I folded up the knife in my hand and he just stood and let me slip it back into his pocket. God... there were so many questions dancing across his expression, and he was staring at me like I held the answers to all of them.

It made it impossible to fight it anymore and I just reached out and pulled him to me. He came almost faster than the tug of my hands and I'm not sure if I'd started out intending to kiss him, but it was there in the tilt of his head when he fell into me and... it just happened. The moan that escaped him was need and panic all rolled into a single sound, and I held him tight, afraid that he would run after all, but his arms around my neck were firm when nothing else about him was.

The kiss was total surrender, and I only broke it to answer the trembling that wouldn't let go of him. 'Shh,' I whispered against his hair. 'It's all right. I came to take you home again. It's over, it's all over.'

There was no rhythm to his breath. No grace in the way his mouth sought mine again. No gentleness to the clutch of his hands, and God... I couldn't resist him, even though some part of me knew it was too soon. Way too soon, and probably for more wrong reasons than I could name.

But we were beyond caring and I took him back into the house and straight the hell to bed, ditching clothes as we went, and slamming the bedroom door in the faces of two rather shocked looking cats.

He was all muscle and sinew and there was nothing about him that was spare. His life those past long months seeming to have worn him down until there was nothing left to be taken. It felt like I'd come just in time... just before the damn place asked more from him than he had left. It made that protectiveness flare up behind my desire, and I answered the need in him with everything I could give. Making love to him over and over until I wasn't sure if he'd fallen asleep or passed the hell out.

I watched him sleep for a time, stroking a hand over his hair and listening to the rain on the roof. I vowed silently to him that there would be changes in his life. Immediate ones. He was mine now, and I would take care of him until he'd regained his footing and saw his way to take care of himself again. I would not let him continue to fade away.



~~*~~

Why did it surprise me to wake up and find him gone? Surprise? Hell... let's be honest; why did it rip me open like yesterday's road kill?

It was one of those God awful moments when you know, but you don't want to know and you try to make your brain find reasons that aren't the reasons that you just don't want to deal with. I stretched a hand out, feeling for that warmth, and it was so long gone the sheets were cold. I think I really knew in that moment, but I still had to get up and pull on my jeans and go out into the front room, calling his damn name like one of those brainless Hollywood co-stars. The ones always left standing there as the hero and the heroine ride off on the big white horse together? The ones who never seem to have read the end of the script and never seem to see it coming?

No, sweetie, you don't get the guy. You don't even get the side-kick, because he's got his own part in the script, and it usually requires dying theatrically so that the horse riding thing can happen in the first place.

At least you're alive. Be grateful you're not the side-kick.

Yeah... like that's a plus.

There wasn't any answer and I just kept right on walking out the front door, even though it was pouring rain. But I had to go out and see for myself that that rental car of his was really not out there.

The cats were there in the living room, pacing in the doorway and sniffing after me as though wondering what I was on. Buckshot was in the paddock, standing under his awning and looking put out. Reason, Nash, and Bo were in their houses watching me to see if it was worth coming out into the rain. My truck was parked by the door, just where I'd left it. Everything was where it belonged. Everything was where it always, always was. Always.

And no little black sports car. The gravel in the driveway where it had been parked was already wet. It was like he'd never been there. Never at all.

I just stood out there in the pouring rain, looking down the driveway and feeling like an utter and complete fool.

It's dangerous to want things. You should never want things. Because when you want something, you can't ever be sure if you're seeing clearly. Can't ever be sure you aren't reaching for what maybe isn't what it seems. But, because you wanted it to be... you let yourself believe.

And God knows you should never let yourself believe.

I took another few steps, the mud of the yard squishing up around my bare feet, but the change in angle didn't make Heero reappear. The different vantage didn't let me see that car coming up the drive.

'Because that car ain't coming back, you fucking idiot,' I told myself and hearing my voice, Reason took a couple of steps my way, the cold rain making him uncertain and I think he whined, not liking the wet. I looked over at him and since there wasn't anybody else to tell, I shouted, 'Did you hear that? I'm a fucking idiot!'

He ducked his head, thinking I was angry at him, and I felt bad. I stumbled a few steps further away... maybe he'd just go back into his house and would stop looking at me with this soulful, accusing eyes.

Heero was probably on his way back to the world to tell the guys that it had all been true. That good ol' Duo was really just as easy as they'd thought. That all their suspicions about me had been true. The things that Quatre had thought... the things he'd accused me of. All true. I should have known.

'I know,' I muttered. 'Stupid. I was so stupid.'

I found myself standing in front of the paddock, stopped because I couldn't go any further. Stopped when I all but ran into the fence. There was nothing... nothing at all. Just me. And the boys. And the rain. The damn, cold rain, washing away any signs that there had ever been anything else.

'Stupid,' I told the rain, and Buckshot blew out a breath and shook his head, standing hip-shot, almost drowsing. Turning to look at him, my gaze fell on the fence post and I went to put my hands on it. To run my fingers over the marks. I felt the days like an endless trail behind me, and I felt the mark that Heero had made and I was just suddenly... very angry.

My fingers tightened on the old wood and I could feel the age of the damn thing; it had probably been there before I was born, and would probably be there long after I was gone. And how many days would be marked in it before that happened? How many more endless, mindless, fucking days?

I had lashed out and hit the damn thing before I knew I was going to. Training engrained in my damn genes made me do it right, made some part of me pay attention to speed and angle and focus. It still hurt; it had been too long... the calluses were long gone. I threw my head back and screamed 'Stupid!' up into the falling rain and then...

And then pounding that post into splinters became the most important thing in the world. I lashed out and lashed out again. I hit the damn thing for Trowa and I hit it for Quatre, and then for Wufei, just for good measure. And then I hit it for Heero. Again for Heero and again. And then for me. And then just because the fucking thing was still standing.

I remember screaming at it, about lives and sacrifice and pain and being alone. I cursed it and cussed it and smashed at it again and again, furious that it just stood and endured. And somewhere in there I forgot all about speed and angle and focus.

I heard the dogs barking frantically and knew I was scaring them. Buckshot snorted and danced away, braving the rain just to get away from me. I knew I should stop, but the God damn post was still there... mocking me. So I just kept on. I punched until my shoulders were on fire. I punched until I couldn't feel my hands. I screamed until there were no words left. I screamed until there was no sound.

And when I finally fell to my knees in the mud, unable to even open my hands anymore... the post was still standing and the rain was still coming down and I was still as alone as I'd ever been.

Anything more would have taken effort that was beyond me, and I just let myself fall over and laid there so that the rain ran down my face and I didn't have to admit that it was more than that.

After awhile, Reason came and licked my face, whimpering softly and when he couldn't rouse me, he curled around me there in the mud.

'I'm sorry I'm such a moron, boy,' I whispered into his wet fur. I thought about getting up and taking care of us both, but it seemed far more work than it was worth and instead... just closed my eyes. I just wanted to forget for a little while.

Maybe if I just waited for a bit, it would stop raining.

I knew I'd lost my mind when I thought the fence post laughed at me.

After a little while, Nash and Bo came to join us and I let the salty rain soak into their fur.

~~*~~

I did my best not to curse at the whole stupid little town, and made my way back outside into the pouring rain. I knew damn well the area didn't get that much rain; it was bugging me that it seemed to have waited for me to arrive. It felt like some kind of damn omen, and that bugged me even more... that I would let myself think that way.

Maybe it was just that it had been raining in that same kind of steady down-pour the day Duo had disappeared. I had not been a huge fan of the rain since.

Getting the stupid electricity turned on at Duo's place again, was not going to be as simple as demanding it. I suppose I had grown too used to being able to call on the Winner name when I really wanted to have something done immediately. But out there, in the middle of nowhere, the Winner name meant about as much as trying to claim you knew the Pillsbury dough boy. People just stared at you and went right on telling you that these things took time.

Thwarted on my first mission, I walked across the street to the general store with my collar turned up and my umbrella pulled down, scowling darkly at the puddles, since that was the only thing sharing the trek with me.

Blankets were an easy commodity and I bought several. Thick ones. After that the pickings grew slimmer and I had to fight that urge to curse again. Most of the things I was interested in were only available in electric models, though I did manage to score a small propane cook stove. I would never manage any sort of knack cooking on Duo's damn wood stove. Later in the week, when the damn power company cooperated with me, I could come back and pick up a microwave and a coffee maker.

While I was there, I picked up several sacks of things that I knew darn well Duo had been doing without, if his budget was as tight as it seemed to be. I'd noticed the cheap, generic shampoo in the bathroom. I'd seen the thin, thread-bare towels. I'd felt the newspaper grade toilet paper.

It killed me to think of him living like that. Barely hand to mouth. Living like a damn pioneer from hundreds of years ago. He implied it was for the sake of the animals, but I'd already figured out the animals were just an excuse. He used them to fill the days. Used them to fill the emptiness. He treated them better than he treated himself.

Hid among them.

God... when I thought about how he had been that morning, it damn near killed me. He'd been so full of need, so desperate for whatever I could give him. He'd have let me do anything, just for my touch. Not that he'd made it easy; far from it. He'd fought against the pull like his life had depended on it. But once I'd bridged the gap... my God, I hadn't thought I could satisfy him. Like he was making up for lost time. He'd let me take him again and again, until I was starting to fear hurting him. But he was just so full of this overwhelming yearning, I couldn't have refused him anything.

Anymore than I could have denied myself, after all that time.

And if there had ever been any doubt in my mind, I was sure now... Duo had never done a damn thing with Trowa Barton. He'd been too damn fumbling... too uncertain. I was sure that had been his first time with anybody.

I'm not even going to try to deny how that made me feel.

After I retrieved my things from the signless bed and breakfast, my last stop was the diner at the edge of town and I'm not ashamed to admit that I bought more food than I knew we could eat, especially with no way to refrigerate the leftovers, but I just didn't care. Duo needed something more than the damn cans of condensed soup he seemed to live off of. And I wasn't exactly looking forward to scorching another pot full of the stuff myself.

I knew, by the time I headed back towards Duo's place, that I was the talk of the town. Let them gossip. With any luck, I'd be taking Duo away from the damn place eventually anyway. Taking him home. Even if the damn animals had to come too.

Pulling into the front yard, listening to the unfamiliar crunch of gravel under the tires, I knew something wasn't right when I saw the front door standing wide open. The two cats were sitting in the doorway, hunched down and watching the rain, but I didn't immediately see that monster dog that had greeted me the first time like an invading enemy. It somehow made me even more nervous... the beast is very protective of Duo and his domain, I somehow didn't doubt that he normally met all cars before they even came into the yard.

I shut the car off and got out, not even thinking to grab the umbrella. I don't really know why it never occurred to me that Duo might be in the house... the door, I suppose. And those cats that we'd had to shut out of the bedroom because they stuck to any heat source like glue.

I moved around the car and looked across the yard, surprised to find the dogs out in the rain. Lying in the mud in a damn pile, no less. When I took a step that way, one of them stood up finally and began barking at me.

And that was when I realized one of the dogs in that pile was no dog at all, but Duo. I'll be honest and admit that for a long cold moment, I thought the damn animals had turned on him and if I'd had my gun, I might very well have shot them all where they lay. But then it registered that the big one, the beast that damn well out-weighed Duo, was probably the only reason Duo hadn't drowned in the mud.

I resisted the need to run to him, afraid of spooking the dogs. Afraid they'd hurt him if they all rushed to their feet at once. I approached slowly, hand out in a gesture I'd seen people use on television, and not in any way ever thought I would use myself. The black dog barked at me one more time and then retreated toward Duo, his sopping tail giving a tiny, uncertain seeming wag. I suppose, when I stopped to think about it, that my scent had to have been all over Duo. Maybe that was enough to make me a welcome presence. The blond dog lifted its head from where it had been resting on Duo's legs and gave me a look that the black markings made seem... troubled.

When I got close enough, both of the smaller dogs retreated, standing near the fence and watching me almost curiously. Reason, the big one, the damn scary big one, didn't move a muscle other than to turn his head to watch me.

'Good boy,' I told him, hoping to God he wasn't going to attack me when I tried to touch Duo. There was a half-hearted thump of a tail that gave me some small reassurance and I moved in with one eye on the dog.

Duo was just lying there, looking for all the world like he'd just laid down to go to sleep. His head was pillowed against the big white dog, one hand curled in the fur, the other somewhere under the water and mud. He was only half dressed and was thoroughly soaked. His damn skin looked faintly blue. Had I not been able to see the movement of the dog's hair around his nose and mouth... I might have panicked even more than I did.

What the damn monster of a dog was going to do was suddenly not nearly as important as getting Duo up out of the mud and somewhere warm.

I slipped my arms under him and was horrified at how cold he felt. I wondered how in the hell long he'd been out there, but then I lifted him, and as his hand slid free of the dog's coat, it left a bloody trail, and I wasn't thinking warm any more, but about medical help.

Later I would feel bad for leaving the dogs there in the rain, for leaving the house standing open. Much later.

I took him to the car and was a bit surprised that I got no trouble from the dogs. The black one had already retreated to the barn, and the other two just stood there watching me. I wrapped Duo in one of the blankets I'd just bought, throwing the food into the back of the car to make room so I could buckle him into the passenger seat. He never stirred and I had no doubt hypothermia was very likely the least of my worries.

I cursed his lack of phone, I cursed his lack of power which had kept me from charging my own cell. I cursed the town, the county, and the majority of the God-forsaken state. I took a moment to curse the rain too and then I settled into driving and telling him it was going to be all right. Not that he seemed to hear me, but it somehow helped keep the panic at bay.

I ran the car heater long past the point that I broke out in a sweat.

~~*~~

Fence post one, Duo Maxwell... somewhere in the negative numbers. It was somewhat humiliating to be beaten by an inanimate object so very... thoroughly. I distinctly remember thinking that, about the third or fourth time I woke up. The prior wakings not producing much in the way of coherent thought at all.

It's all kind of a blur, really, hospital stuff and words that sounded ominous but didn't make a lot of sense. I remember a moment of coming sharply awake and thinking that there were people there who were trying to burn me. I remember someone getting in my face and asking all manner of stupid questions that I just hadn't cared to try to answer. Who gave a fuck what the date was? I remember a bout of shivering so hard the bed rattled. And through it all there was an ache in my hands that could not be relieved.

Then there was a bizarre period of sleeping because... I think I wanted to. I remembered Heero accusing me of hiding, and some part of me knew it was just more of that... but I didn't care, and tried to retreat into the dark as much as I could manage.

Life... hurts.

I guess it was that thought that prickled at some corner of my mind and made me wonder... why, exactly, was I not still lying in my yard with my dogs?

Which, of course, made the prickle grow to a nagging sense of guilt. And who, exactly, was taking care of those dogs?

And that was pretty much the end of the hiding. I didn't name the dog Reason because I liked the sound.

'I didn't leave you,' Heero's voice told me, when I woke that time, and there was a well-worn feel to the line that made me think I'd heard it before. That he'd said it before. Many times before.

'You were gone,' I said, simply stating it, and the sharp movement he made told me I hadn't been answering him back.

'I left a note,' he told me, and I turned my head to find him sitting beside the bed, looking worried and rumpled and guilty and... kind of scared.

'A note?' I parroted and wondered that I'd never even thought of such a thing. It made me want to laugh. Or cry. Or maybe just go back to sleep.

'On the kitchen table,' Heero told me, leaning down to catch my gaze, seeming to make sure he still held my attention. 'I went to town, for supplies. I... really hate soup, Duo.'

That did make me laugh, in a strangled ugly sort of way, and Heero almost knocked his chair over getting to his feet, so that he could wrap his arms around me. 'I'm so very sorry,' he whispered to me.

'Me too,' I had to confess and when I tried to put my arms around him in turn, was met with something... very uncomfortable.

Heero drew back and let me look, and I found my hands wrapped up and splinted and I just blinked stupidly at them. Oh yeah.

'They have to heal some,' he told me gently, 'before they can cast them, to make sure there's no infection. You... broke some things.'

'Not the damn post,' I said morosely, and focusing on my hands was making the ache come back. I looked up to meet Heero's eyes and he was trying to give me a smile, but I could see the touch of sadness behind it. 'How bad did I fuck myself up?' I had to ask, suddenly afraid of the answer.

'Not so bad,' he soothed. 'You've got a lot of healing to do... but they think you will heal.' There was something in his voice that made me think he was talking about more than my hands.

'I really am sorry,' I whispered, not so sure of my place with him and he seemed to sense it, because he leaned down to kiss me gently.

'I know,' he told me and then his voice firmed. 'And I meant what I said. I didn't leave and I'm not going to... you understand me?'

'Ok,' was the only thing I could manage. Still waking up, still getting my bearings, the thing that was the clearest was what a total dumb-ass I seemed to have turned into. It made me wonder why in the hell Heero wanted anything to do with me at all. There were enough drugs, or something, in my system still... that I almost asked. But a guilty look crossed his face and it made me hesitate.

'Duo,' he said, sounding uncertain. 'I sort of just left things... at your house. I don't even think the door was shut. I... what should I do?'

I blinked at him for a second, before it sank in what he was asking. He knew what he needed to do, but he wasn't going to go until I told him to. It... somehow made things a little better. 'You should go and check on things,' I assured him. 'If it gets to be too long, Reason is going to freak out and try to find me. You're going to have to... God... I don't know... put him in the house, I guess. Shit, but he's not going to be happy, but that should keep him from taking off...'

Heero gave out with a little sound that was kind of a chuckle, only a little bit strangled. 'God, it's good to hear your voice,' he told me, brushing fingertips over my cheek and smiling down at me. 'There for awhile, I wasn't sure...' he let that trail off, but I'm not a total dip; I got it. I wondered just how near a thing it had been, but wasn't sure I wanted to know, since... well... I'd pretty much done it to myself, even if it hadn't been on purpose.

'Go on,' I told him. 'I'm... just going to sleep some more.'

'I'll be back first thing in the morning,' he said, making sure I was looking at him. Like he wanted to make sure I was really listening. Really taking it in. 'I promise. Ok?'

I grimaced, knowing that he was forcing me to respond to the comment. A second level of insurance that I got what he was saying. 'I'm... really sorry,' was all I could say, and couldn't meet his eyes.

He sighed his frustration and bent to kiss me again. 'As soon as I can, ok?'

I nodded, settling back into the pillows. I thought he would leave the room walking backwards. It let me dredge up a smile for him that seemed to reassure.

It was all just too much somehow. Too much to think about... too much to worry about... too much to feel. I was kind of surprised when I drifted right back off to sleep.

~~*~~

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