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

Rain (cont)

I wasn't sure if I should be angry at Wufei, or thankful to him. That admission from Duo had hurt. A hell of a damn lot. I remembered my thoughts that he seemed like he was fading. I remembered my resolve to pull him back from the edge, and it hurt to realize that a moment of misunderstanding had come that close to taking him away from me. But at the same time, it was such a relief to have it out in the open. To know that my vague suspicions weren't groundless.

And to hear Duo admit it, not just to us, but to himself... it was a sign that he was ready to accept that there was more of a problem than just an ugly encounter with Quatre Winner. A sign that he was ready to let us in.

A sign that he was ready to come home.

I was more than prepared to make that happen no matter what I had to do.

Duo was released that afternoon with all manner of instructions that seemed to boil down to not exerting himself. With the three of us around to watch out for him, that wasn't likely to be a problem.

Trowa and Wufei came out to the house, as much from morbid curiosity, I think, than anything. Though they were more than happy to hear about the bed and breakfast in town, once they'd seen the place, and opted to spend their nights there.

That first day, I was just relieved to get Duo back to someplace familiar, even if it wasn't my first choice of locations. It's where he'd been living for the last eight months and I felt like he could relax there more than he could in a hospital bed.

If Trowa and Wufei were as appalled as I had been by Duo's living arrangements, they didn't show it. Once the dogs had 'cleared' them, they waded right in and dealt with whatever needed to be dealt with, leaving me to take care of Duo.

I was surprised and thankful to discover that the both of them knew way more about animals than I did, and they took over dealing with things that needed doing that I hadn't even known about. Grooming things and exercise things that went way beyond the simple 'feed them' part I'd been doing.

All the animals seemed happy to see Duo, though none of them as much as Reason. We were forced to let the damn dog stay in the house that first day, because trying to separate him from Duo's side had resulted in the beast sitting outside the front door and howling mournfully until he was let in.

Though there was something about Duo's scent that made all of them cautious around him. As though the smells of the hospital told them that he wasn't well. It was a relief, because I'd worried that the rambunctious dogs in particular, might hurt him accidentally.

Reason was stand-offish with Wufei and Trowa, not especially hostile, but less than welcoming, but oddly... he seemed to accept me as some kind of pack mate. It made me wonder if he somehow remembered that I'd helped Duo when he was hurt. Though it was probably something much more fundamental... like Duo's scent lingering on me. Or maybe I'd just won points for brushing him.

There had been so much to worry about when we'd first gotten to the house; I hadn't even been sure where to start. I'd been afraid of letting the fire burn in the stove while I'd been gone, and the house had been almost as cold as being outside. Last damn thing I needed was to let Duo get chilled. And of course there had been the mess the dog had made, and the things I'd bought that were still packed in my rental car.

The food, of course, had been a total loss, but most of the blankets had still been clean and I'd settled Duo on the couch, wrapped up in them with Reason trying to lie across his legs while I'd gotten the fire going. I'd been hauling in extra wood when Trowa came to find me, taking the logs from my hands with a sigh that had sounded exasperated. 'You know, dumb-ass,' he said genially. 'Shared body heat is a perfectly valid way to warm the human body.'

'What?' I asked, blinking at him in confusion and he rolled his eyes at me, poking me in the arm with one of the pieces of firewood.

'Let Wufei and I take care of the mundane crap,' he ordered. 'From us, Duo gets food and heat and chores. From you... he gets what he really needs. Now get the hell in there.'

It only took me a moment to realize what he was saying and I couldn't help the heavy sigh, kind of disgusted with myself and kind of embarrassed. 'God,' I muttered. 'This is going to be hard to get used to.'

He chuckled, adding more wood to the pile in his arms. 'It'll get easier.'

Not like I was going to object about not having to clean up the dog shit anyway.

Duo was more than happy to make room for me on the couch, though Reason seemed disgruntled about being rousted out of my way. I settled with Duo reclining against my chest, with the blankets wrapped around the both of us.

'Where did these come from?' he asked me, the tips of his bound fingers brushing over the thick pile.

'One of the things I went after that day,' I told him gently. 'I about froze my ass off that first night.'

He gave a dry little chuckle while we watched Reason get frustrated when he couldn't get himself back up onto the couch with us. 'You're just soft,' he ventured, but there was a hint of guilt in his voice and I knew he was thinking about cold in another context.

'I just wanted to give you some comforts,' I told him softly, mindful of Trowa across the room as he added wood to the fire and put water on to boil.

'You didn't have to...' Duo began, but I cut him off.

'I wanted to,' I soothed, and he subsided. The feelings stirring around inside me were so very odd, considering what we'd done together, but being allowed to just sit with him in my arms was such a new and wonderful thing. It made me realize once again how fast we were moving. How odd was it that our first kiss had been five minutes before making love? How strange that I knew every inch of his skin, but didn't even know if he had a job he should have been calling in sick for? 'I want to give you everything,' I blurted, emotions tumbling over each other in a sudden need to get out. 'I want to be here for you.'

I'd half expected him to mock my sudden outburst, but he just tilted his head to look up at me and asked, 'Are you sure? After... all this?'

'Absolutely,' I whispered against his hair and at the other end of the couch, Reason settled for sitting on the floor with his head resting on Duo's blanket wrapped shins. I swear the animal sighed in frustration.

'Stop whining, brat,' Duo scolded affectionately. 'You're not even supposed to be in here.' There was a soft thump as the dog's tail wagged at being addressed, and Duo snorted.

Trowa came out of the kitchen to join us then, carrying a steaming mug that he handed to us. Duo tried to wrap his hands around it, and while he could manage it long enough to sip at the tea, it was too awkward for him to actually hold it. I held it for him, but it seemed to embarrass him.

'Tea?' he asked Trowa as he was sitting down in the chair, stretching his long legs out and eyeing Reason where he sprawled as far onto the couch as he could get. 'I didn't have any tea. Heero, just how much stuff did you buy?'

'Not enough,' Trowa drawled, before I could respond. 'There's not a single damn beer in the place.'

It made it into a joke, and somehow made it all right again. Made it acceptable. I could almost feel Duo relax, and it made a thrill of something odd run through my gut. It was a strange feeling that was a whole lot of possessive and a little bit... God... jealous. I sat and looked at Trowa, understanding that he knew Duo a hell of a lot better than I did. That he understood where and how to push, and when to ease off. I wondered if it had just been Duo and me, if we'd have ended up fighting over it.

It was a feeling I quashed mercilessly. It made me think too sharply of Quatre Winner, and I would be damned if I allowed myself to walk down that path. Perhaps Trowa and Duo were close. Perhaps Trowa did know Duo well. But that didn't mean I couldn't grow to know him just as well. Or better.

Duo had given himself to me, and maybe it was a gift I should have waited to accept, but we were bound now, and I would not lose him.

Especially not... the way Quatre had lost Trowa. Not from doubts that had no basis.

Duo touched the mug and I helped him sip, and then I took a sip myself, making a point of the sharing. It made him smile in a soft sort of way, though he didn't need to look at me to do it.

'God, Reason,' Duo grumbled then, shifting to push on the monster. 'My legs are falling asleep; go lay down.' The dog gave out with another of those sighs of displeasure, but went to lie by the door. I saw Trowa give the beast a measuring look as he heard it called by name for the first time, but he didn't ask.

'You going to be warm enough without him?' I teased and it made Duo quirk a little grin that I could see the hint of even from where I sat.

'Probably better off with the blood circulation,' he returned and Trowa chuckled.

'How on earth did you end up with what looks like a pure bred damn mountain dog out here in the middle of nowhere?' he asked and Duo gave a little shake of his head.

'Damned if I know,' he muttered. 'Apparently, there's a 'sucker' sign that came with this place that nobody told me about.'

'Or the local vet is taking advantage of your good nature,' I tossed in, and that was about when the subject of our conversation suddenly raised his head and gave the door an odd little grump of a bark.

'It's ok, boy,' Duo told him. 'Let him in.'

Wufei seemed surprised to find the dog right on the other side of the door, but with Duo's reassurances, Reason gave ground and let him pass, settling back in his place once the door was closed again.

Trowa gestured toward the stove with his tea mug and Wufei went to get his own before joining us. Settling cross-legged on the floor for lack of other seating arrangements.

I recognized the studied look that my partner gave Duo's position and was a bit surprised to detect what felt like disapproval from him. I gave him a level stare, all but daring him to speak, but he only gave me a quiet sigh and then looked away.

Duo's attention, thankfully, was completely caught by the skittish cat as it twined around Trowa's outstretched legs, sniffing curiously at pant cuffs, and he completely missed the look.

'Damn,' Duo breathed, as though afraid he'd spook the cat himself. 'What'd you do... find some catnip to roll in?'

Trowa stretched a hand out, holding his fingers for the cat to sniff. 'Nope,' he replied and didn't look all that surprised when the cat... Gus, I recalled, jumped up into his lap.

'Well, I'll be damned,' Duo murmured and there was a bemused tone to his voice. 'Stupid cat hates everybody; what makes you so special?'

'It's my natural charm,' Trowa smirked, and gave the cat a one fingered rub under its chin, which it encouraged with a stretch of its neck.

Duo couldn't seem to stop staring as Gus made himself comfortable, apparently not sure if he should be amused or slighted. The second cat joined the first and Trowa seemed surprised; I'm not sure he realized there were two of them.

'Is that the last of the animals,' Wufei chuckled over the rim of his tea mug. 'Or do you have a herd of goats hiding around here somewhere?'

'No goats,' Duo shot back, letting his head roll to the side to look Wufei's way. 'Though we had a pig for awhile.'

Wufei sipped at his tea, letting his attention settle on the contents of his cup. I suspected he was simply avoiding looking at the way Duo's head had ended up tucked rather comfortably under my chin. I brought our own mug of tea up and offered it to Duo, making sure he didn't have time to register Wufei's... attitude.

'Think you're up to giving Trowa some pointers on cooking over an open flame?' I asked Duo, continuing to guide his attention. 'It's getting close to dinner time.'

'I think I can handle standing over the stove, Yuy,' Duo scoffed, and I was thankful that Trowa simply went along with me, rather than argue the point. I knew damn well the man could cook over a camp fire, and if Duo had been thinking clearly, he would have known it too. Hell, maybe Trowa knew exactly what I was doing, because he was quick to take Duo in hand and settle him on one of the kitchen chairs by the stove. The last I heard, they were having a discussion about green wood and heat distribution.

'Care to help me unpack the rest of the stuff out of the car?' I asked Wufei, and he only sighed before following me outside, probably just as aware as Trowa.

The dogs had grown used to us and didn't so much as bark, though the black one brought a disgusting looking rubber ball over and offered it to Wufei with a hesitant wag of his tail. Wufei took it and tossed it into the brush while I opened the trunk and stared at the rest of the sacks of supplies.

'Want to tell me what your problem is?' I asked at length, unable to come up with a less confrontational way of asking.

He gave out with one of those sighs again, leaning down to accept the ball from the dog to toss again. 'I think...' he said slowly, watching the dog bound away across the yard. 'that Duo has more than enough on his plate right now, and I can't help questioning the... good sense of starting a relationship in the middle of... all this.'

'Question all you want,' I snapped, not quite able to completely quell the anger. 'But stop radiating your damn disapproval all over the damn place before Duo notices.'

He looked at me and managed to stifle another one of those sighs, taking a moment to lob the ball again before speaking. 'I... apologize if I was being that obvious, but you have to know what a supremely bad idea this is?'

Chang Wufei and I have been partners for a long time, and part of why we work together so well is that we've always been able to speak plainly to each other. So I took a breath and managed to set the anger aside. 'Yeah. I'm not a total moron, just...'

'Just?' he prodded, and we both watched the dog rooting around in the yard rather than look at each other.

'Well,' I finally grumbled. 'It's not like I can turn back the clock now.'

He glanced at me and I'm sure my blush told him everything he might have been in doubt about. He couldn't contain the sigh that time. 'Heero,' he began almost gently, pausing again as the dog pranced proudly back with the ball, as though he didn't want to discuss it in front of the animal. 'he is so damn brittle right now. You have to see that? You have to understand that he didn't end up... here, because Quatre Winner hurt his feelings, for God sake? There is so much more wrong, and just taking him home isn't going to fix everything.'

I forgot about the shampoo and toilet paper and the rest of the crap in the trunk and just let myself fall back against the car with my own heavy sigh. 'I know,' I told him, rubbing a hand over my face. 'I... know.'

He stopped watching the dog then, and looked at me hard. 'You be damn sure about this,' he warned suddenly. 'And understand that it isn't going to be easy. If you aren't going to be able to handle it... figure that out now, because he's going to need you in ways you can't even imagine yet.'

'I have every intention of being here for him,' I said, and refused to let him stare me down.

Wufei's gaze softened, and he reached to let Nash drop the ball into his hand without looking, giving it one last hard toss before telling me, 'We'll all be here for him, Heero, but you're the one that can finish breaking him if you aren't very careful.'

He reached past me then and gathered up some of the sacks to take inside. It took me a long couple of minutes to follow.

~~*~~

It was surprisingly more difficult to liquidate my life the second time around. Mostly because of the animals, I suppose, though that wasn't all of it, and I found that it was something I didn't want to think about too hard. About what a simple thing it had been the first time, to pull up stakes, and what that said about how I'd been living.

Thinking too much made me start wondering if I'd maybe managed to lose myself a long damn time before I thought I had. Made me look at those marks on the paddock fence and think that maybe there should be more of them. Made me realize that some changes didn't come with those defining moments, but more like the slow spread of infection. Made me wonder if it was something I had the strength to fight off when I couldn't even look back and find the beginning.

Like I said... it wasn't something I much wanted to think about.

The first few days were a chaos of things happening around me while I still drifted in a strange cocoon of exhaustion, not able to do much more than take pills when directed, eat, sleep and stare at the guys, just feeling confused.

They made things happen that were welcome and needed and strange all at the same time. There was power in the house for the first time in half a year. Which meant running water. Hot water without the application of buckets. Food that wasn't soup. Drinks that were cold even when it wasn't cold outside. Heat in the house without being huddled by the stove.

It was surreal in the part that all of those things felt strange. How could something as fundamental as running damn water feel so... not right?

It was just more of that stuff that didn't bear thinking about too hard.

I would have complained that it was a waste of time and money since we were just going to be shutting it all down again, but... well... Heero was staying with me, and it didn't seem right to ask him to live the way I had been. And yeah; just another bit of the weird. Another bit to be set aside and not examined too closely.

It took weeks, and the guys stayed the whole time without question, though Trowa and Wufei went back to town each night, not all that thrilled with sleeping on the floor. It made things awkward between me and Heero the first few nights, until we'd admitted to the awkwardness and then we'd talked a bit about the whole 'moving too fast' thing. It was kind of a relief to know he felt the same way, but we sort of decided it was kind of stupid to close the barn door after the horse was in the next county, and he'd made love to me the third night like it was our first time. It had let something inside me find steady footing, and I'd been surprised to realize that some part of me had been afraid he'd changed his mind and was sorry for what we'd done.

And it made it so much easier to accept the fact that he had to help me with everything from dressing to eating, and all manner of stuff in between.

Buckshot was the first to find a new home, and I suspect that Heero had simply explained to Miss Deirdre the way things would be, during one of his trips to town. The guy couldn't quite seem to shake his dislike of the woman and it seemed to be fueled by his outlook that she'd been taking advantage of me for months. I didn't quite know how to tell him that I wasn't entirely sure I'd have been getting out of bed in the mornings if I hadn't had the animals to look after. I'm not sure it would have mattered; there was just something about the vet that rubbed him the wrong way. But she had shown up with a horse trailer after one of Heero's supply runs, and told me that she'd found a home for the horse where there would be kids to ride and baby him, and plenty of room to graze.

It had been both a sad thing and a relief to watch the trailer pulling out of my drive and knowing that the big fellow wasn't going to be my responsibility any more. I hoped, as I always did, that I'd sent him off to a good life.

Nash was next, gone to a friend of the sheriff's and I wasn't sure if it was my suggestion of a search and rescue career, or just that the guy wanted a dog.

Bo went to Dutch's cousin because his kid had been bugging him for one, and in an odd little side deal, bought his truck back when it had been mentioned that I wouldn't be needing it any more.

I had just started to worry about Gus and Duncan, though I hadn't said anything to anybody, when Trowa arrived from town one morning with a cat carrier in tow and informed me that they'd be going home with him. Wufei had laughed at him, but he'd only smiled and who could argue with the man that could get Gus to accept tummy rubs?

And then there was just Reason and me and I really just didn't know how to ask what the plan was.

It was a Friday morning when Trowa and Wufei packed it in and headed home. I know that because I'd been making a conscious effort to remember things like days of the week, and months of the year. Things were winding down, and Heero and I were almost ready to follow, there were just a few things to finalize and I'd be heading back to the place I'd started from.

Just wished I'd been a little clearer on those 'few things'. Questioning had seemed too much like asking, and I just hadn't been ready to do that. Hadn't been ready to risk it.

There had not been room in Heero's little rental car for all of us and the bags too, and I hadn't been all that sure about leaving Reason at the house by himself anyway. Not without the other dogs to keep him company. So it just made sense that I waited at the house while Heero drove the guys up to Twin Forks to the airport.

Perfect sense. Perfect ulcer-inducing sense.

Wufei was the one who hunted me up first, choosing a quiet moment while Heero and Trowa wrestled with the cat carrier and the car. I'd opted for staying in the house while they did that part, because I'd found it a bit disconcerting hearing Duncan meow piteously, as though asking me what they'd done wrong. I knew it was for the best; knew without a doubt that Trowa would give them the best home possible, but... hell, I thought we'd already established what a soft touch I was.

'Do you need anything before we leave?' Wufei opened, giving me a look that spoke of more than ham sandwiches and tea.

'I'm good,' I assured him, nodding to the newly functioning refrigerator with a wry smile. 'I think Heero has things set up in there so easy that Reason ought to be able to feed us if it comes down to it.'

He chuckled at the joke, but then gave me a cocked head look that I knew meant he was thinking beyond the obvious. 'You know he over does because...'

I cut him off with a snort. 'He over does because he can't fix what really needs fixed,' I told him bluntly and was surprised when he smiled in what looked like relief.

'I'm... glad you understand that,' he told me in that strange tone I wasn't used to hearing from Chang Wufei. He made me feel like he was a dozen years my senior. 'He'll do whatever is in his power, but...'

'It's me,' I said, ducking me head. 'I know that. Some things I just have to... have to handle myself.'

'Not completely, my friend,' he said gently, taking my arm in a firm grip for a moment. 'We'll be here, but we can't...'

'I know,' I repeated, and he subsided with a last squeeze of his hand.

'We'll see you in a few days then,' he told me with a smile, and we'd have shook hands on it if I'd been able.

When Trowa came for his own good-byes, he was very much his usual blunt self, catching me up in one of his bear hugs and speaking low next to my ear. 'Whatever happens between me and Quatre is between me and Quatre,' he told me firmly. 'It doesn't have a thing to do with you, and you damn well better not forget that.'

'Yes sir,' I mumbled, trying to believe in it.

'Your bike is still at my place,' he informed me, something I had completely forgotten about. 'And when you've healed, we're going riding.'

I hesitated on the agreement and he growled my name, squeezing until I gasped out an 'Uncle!'

'I have no intentions of losing my best friend to this,' he said then. 'And I'd like to think that I mean enough to you that you won't do something this stupid again.'

'That was a cheap shot,' I groused, feeling the heat rise to my face, but I relented and hugged him back.

'I'm not above taking cheap shots if it gets my point across,' he chuckled and let me go, looking at me hard.

'Point delivered,' I had to concede, but then decided to take my own shot. 'But Trowa... this thing with Quatre; maybe... maybe you should...'

He sighed softly and cuffed at me to get me to stop. 'It's in his court, Duo,' he told me. 'I've given him my terms and my terms include him accepting my family as is.'

I didn't quite know how to answer that and just looked down at the floor. He made a little noise of exasperation and hooked me back into a one-armed hug.

'I'll... talk to him,' he finally agreed, and I looked back up in time to catch a glimpse past the gruff anger that had been about all I'd seen from him concerning Quatre Winner.

'I'm so sorry,' that look made me say, and he gave me a little shake, ignoring the whole thing.

'I will see you when you guys catch up with us,' he said. 'And if you decide you can't deal with Yuy, you know there's room at my place.'

I just snorted and saw him to the door, the conversation plainly over. Heero met us coming in, and Trowa forfeited his place, giving me a last wave as he went to join Wufei by the car, and I heard them begin an argument over the shot-gun position.

'Are you sure you'll be alright for a few hours?' Heero had to ask and it made me chuckle.

'I doubt I'll starve to death in the time it takes you to drive to Twin Forks and back,' I assured him and he had to smile.

'Anything you want me to pick up while I'm there?' he asked, a casual reassurance that I didn't miss, but I let him think he was being subtle.

'Pizza?' I quipped, but instead of laughing, he nodded solemnly.

'I can do that,' he agreed and I let that go too.

The utter quiet after the car had cleared the drive and disappeared down the road was... a thing to be reckoned with.

Reason and I walked the property for a bit, partly because I knew on some level it was goodbye, and partly because I wasn't real keen about going in the house and just... waiting.

Contrary to what the last eight months of my life might testify, I'm really not a stupid man. I knew that Heero was coming back. I knew the guys would be waiting for us when we finally got back home. In my head, those things were clear and obvious and had been fairly well proven to me.

So don't ask my why there was some small shard of doubt deep in my heart somewhere. And maybe it wasn't even doubt that Heero would come back for me. Maybe it was just doubt that he wouldn't end up changing his mind. Doubt that he wouldn't eventually get tired of dealing with the nut case I seemed to have become.

I mean... there were days I wasn't sure who in the heck I was, what if I finally figured it out, and that person ended up being something other than what Heero thought?

Assuming, of course, that I did end up figuring it out.

Figured out who I was. Figured out where it all went wrong. Figured out where the flaw was that let some part of me crack. Hell... figured out how to fix it again.

I'd been thinking about that a lot, obviously, and while I didn't have a shrink... yet... there were some things I probably didn't need one for. I mean, you really didn't need a degree to look at my past and make a couple of judgments. Not a lot of kids going around claiming kinship with Death itself at the tender age of... hell; whatever it was. Somewhere between diapers and losing that last baby tooth.

I'd spent most of my childhood thinking I was cursed, I suppose it isn't much of a stretch to think I'd carried that with me into adulthood on some level. I'd spent my life always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Expecting to come up snake eyes at any moment.

Kind of like the little runt kid on the playground always getting his lunch money taken and just coming to expect it.

It was a little hard to admit that I might have done what I did just because... because I'd come to expect loss. Come to expect getting smacked by life.

And very hard to accept that I'd even had myself fooled.

And scary as hell to realize how completely logical my reasoning had seemed to me. Looking back...

My God... looking back, I seemed like a basket case. Even to me.

There were so many 'whys' in my head that I just didn't have the answers to. And days that I wondered if I ever would. Heero and Wufei especially, insisted on talking to me about counseling, and while I knew they were right, I couldn't help wondering if anybody was ever going to be able to make sense of my thinking. Was ever going to be able to trace my logic backward and help me find the place where it had all gone wrong.

Or maybe that was the key... maybe I needed to stop looking for those defining moments. I'd spent so much time thinking that argument with Quatre was the trigger, but now I wasn't so sure. Had I run that night because I'd always believed somewhere inside, that the friendship of the guys was not something I was going to be allowed to keep?

Or maybe... maybe I just ran before it all had a chance to fall apart? Maybe I ran because I just couldn't handle the idea of being hurt again.

Sitting on Nash's now vacant dog house, watching for Heero's car, I had a thought that made me laugh right the hell out loud; had I run off to be alone before I'd had alone thrust upon me? Was I that fucking screwed up? I'd been so damn afraid of losing everything... again... that I'd thrown it all away before it could be taken from me?

Hearing me laugh, Reason came and gave me a woof of a bark, wagging his tail and asking to be let in on the joke. When he settled his head against my knee, I rubbed his nose the best I could with an unsplinted finger tip, and the near hysterical mirth was suddenly gone. I couldn't laugh in the face of those trusting brown eyes, not knowing in my heart the truth I hadn't been able to face yet.

'I'm sorry, boy,' I whispered to him and he woofed again, soft to match my tone. I hoped it was an understanding sound. I hoped it was a forgiving sound. 'I can't lose him. I can't... no matter what. You understand, fella?'

He only nosed against my hand, trying for an ear scratch, and if he got what I was trying to tell us both... he didn't say.

Shards of doubt. Pieces of fear. Bound around with a desperation that I couldn't admit to out loud.

Wufei had said, in the hospital, that my admitting that I might have sub-consciously been trying to kill myself was half the battle. And it hadn't been an easy thing to admit, much less accept. But I had accepted it, and come to face it. And understand it. Understand that one way or the other, I couldn't keep going on the way I had been. I... was not capable of it. And if there was a price for what I was reaching for with Heero... it was a price I couldn't not pay. No matter the cost.

It was a long afternoon, sitting there on that dog house. If Nash had still been around, I'd have used his chase the ball trick for distraction, but Reason had never been one for chasing anything. So when the strange SUV slowed on the road and actually pulled into my drive, I was half way annoyed, and half way relieved at the prospect of something to do. Even if it was just giving somebody directions, or running off a door to door evangelical type.

Reason started barking the minute the van rounded the curve and I let him, not that I was worried about whoever it was, but it never hurt to have strangers start off with a little respect for the big scary dog.

Then the thing pulled into the yard and parked next to the house right where my truck had always sat, and Reason suddenly left off with his territorial rant and began to wag his tail. I'm rather ashamed to admit my dog figured out it was Heero before I did.

And further ashamed to admit to the rush of weak-in-the-knees relief I felt at seeing him.

Heero got out of the new vehicle and walked across the yard to where I sat with a look of faint concern on his face. 'Duo, you really shouldn't let yourself get chilled; what are you doing out here?'

I accepted his hello kiss with a wry smile. 'Was just... sort of taking a last look around, I guess,' I told him, and he pulled me down from my perch to walk back across the yard with him.

'You're not having any regrets, are you?' he asked, that look of concern morphing into a different flavor of unease.

'About leaving?' I asked. 'No. Just... saying goodbye, I suppose.'

He walked us over to the SUV and raised the hatch on the back with an oddly calculating look on his face. 'How well do you think Reason is going to travel?' he asked me, looking from my dog to the back of the van. 'They had animal crates you could rent, but he seemed used to riding in your truck, so I didn't bother with one. But if you think we need one, we'll be going through Twin Forks on the way to the highway anyway...'

If I had thought the relief of him coming back for me was knee-weakening, it was nothing next to the sudden, unasked for reassurance that he was going to let me keep my dog. He sort of petered out, watching the look on my face, I guess, and must have been waiting for me to reply, but all I could manage was a nod.

'Duo?' he asked softly, turning away from the open hatch, catching me by the upper arms. I watched Reason sniffing around the open door to keep from making eye contact, but couldn't manage to explain. If I'd opened my mouth, I had the vague fear I'd have done something stupid, like burst into tears.

He must have gotten it anyway, because he pulled me the rest of the way into a hug and gently asked, 'Why didn't you say something?'

I shrugged and he sighed, pushing me back to force me to meet his gaze. 'I don't want you doing that,' he told me firmly. 'If there are things you want; you tell me. You have to know by now... I'm here for the long haul.'

There was an uncomfortable feeling in my chest that made me draw a step away, turning to urge Reason into the van, just to see if he'd climb in on his own. Just to give me something to do while that tight pain in my throat eased.

Heero was quiet for a moment, watching me, and then he stepped up to stand beside me, watching Reason nose around the carpet of the van. 'I'd have taken all of them... and the damn horse too. What ever you want. What ever you need.'

I shook my head in denial of having wanted that, and cast a glance his way. He looked kind of unhappy... like he was afraid he'd done something wrong. I shifted over to lean against him and he easily slipped an arm around my waist. Reason stopped snuffling and turned to look at us, wagging his tail as if to give his approval of the spiffy new car.

'I'm sorry,' I told them both. 'I guess I was just afraid of the answer.'

Heero sighed, a sound that wasn't as aggravated as it could have been, and he took a moment to think over what he was going to say before telling me, 'What we're building here is a partnership, Duo. Some things you don't have to ask, but you do have to tell me what you want.'

I leaned my head to rest on his shoulder and drew in a breath that only shuddered a tiny bit there at the end. 'I just don't want to... to...' I tried to tell him, but the word lose didn't want to pass my lips.

'You're not going to,' he comforted, somehow getting it anyway, and he turned toward me to wrap me up in his arms. 'Not going to happen.'

I nodded and couldn't help a smile that was hidden against the side of his neck. 'Guess I've got more than one reason now.'

He stilled for a moment before pressing his lips to my temple. 'I'll always be here... but someday, you'll be your own reason again.'

I wasn't sure if I should feel reprimanded or reassured, or maybe just a little shocked to not have seen the truth of it before he said it. One should, perhaps, not number the things that made one get out of bed in the morning. 'Such faith,' I murmured, attempting to tease.

'Absolute,' he replied, a hint of fierceness in his tone.

I didn't know what to say to that, not in the face of my own somewhat shaky faith in much of anything. 'Heero...' I ventured after a moment, not really wanting to offer it, but still feeling like maybe I ought to. 'Should we...'

'No,' he said, cutting me off and how in the hell he'd suddenly developed the ability to read my mind, I don't know. 'I know maybe our timing wasn't the best, but don't ask me to back off now... I don't think I could.'

It was a relief to hear him say it, and I was quiet, just drinking in the reassurance that he really wasn't sorry he'd ever come.

'You don't... want me to, do you?' he asked quietly after a long moment and I couldn't help squeezing him tight.

'God, no!' I told him and he took me by the arms to push me back where he could meet my eyes again.

'Duo,' he said, looking at me intently. 'I didn't think I needed to say it, but, you do know I'm here because... I love you, right?'

I just stared at him, probably rather wide-eyed for a long moment, letting that sink down into my head. I think I was smiling, but I'm not real sure. It probably would have ended up being one of those sappy, Hollywood moments with the kiss, and the birdsong, and the whole nine yards, if Reason hadn't chosen that moment to discover the pizza box in the front seat. My return I love you turned into 'Bad dog!' and the moment went in a slightly different Hollywood direction as we scrambled to save our dinner.

But you know, looking back... I think it was one of those defining moments anyway. Prophetic, at least, as it seemed to set the tone for the rest of our lives. Wonderful and frustrating, sweet and irritating... covered with a liberal amount of dog hair. And somehow we wouldn't have it any other way.

Epilogue

It's funny, my therapist and I had just had a long talk about Quatre Winner that very morning. Or more like an argument. She insisted that six months was long enough, and that it was time I confronted the man and got it over-with. Especially since he and Trowa were tentatively talking about possibly giving it another try.

I maintained that I really didn't want to deal with the man until I'd decided whether I was going to deck him or run away from him on sight. Kinda felt like there ought to be a plan there, before I made any hasty decisions, if you know what I mean.

All the way back from Devil's Palm, Heero had assured me that I would not have to deal with Mr. Winner until I gave the word, and he'd somehow made it happen. Reason and I had moved into Heero's apartment with him for the month it had taken us to find a house, and during that time there had been one single attempt by Quatre to get in touch with me. I have no idea what Heero said to him, but it had been the last call we'd gotten from the Winner residence. Heero had told me that if I decided I was ready to talk, all I had to do was ask, but until then... not to worry about it.

And I hadn't. Had bigger fish to fry, if you know what I mean. It had taken a few sessions, but I'd come to understand that in the grand scheme of things Quatre Winner really hadn't had that much to do with my breakdown. Guy had just been what Doc calls a 'catalyst'. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong mood, wrong words and I up and did something that I probably would have ended up doing on my own eventually anyway.

I got that part pretty easily, I guess. The part I couldn't quite get was the forgiving and forgetting stuff. The things he'd said to me... right, wrong, or indifferent... had still been an incredibly cheap shot.

But really, between a cross-country move, finding and buying a house, and moving in with Heero... Quatre really wasn't on my mind all that much. Mostly on Tuesday and Friday mornings, during my damn therapy sessions. The terms 'letting go' and 'moving on' were starting to annoy me. And yeah, there might just have been a little bit of pissy contrariness in my continued avoidance. I never really have liked being pushed.

So I suppose I wasn't in the best frame of mind that day, having just had another 'talk' with Doc Epstein on the topic. But even so, the last damn place on earth I ever expected to accidentally run into Quatre was the cat toy aisle at Pet Palace.

I saw him first, but only by about a minute. Just long enough for it to seriously cross my mind to fade back a few steps and try to get around the end of the aisle and out of sight. But that was instantly followed by Doc's voice talking about avoidance and 'fight or flight' and all that trash, and I recognized the instinct and felt guilty. Hesitated until he happened to glance up and saw me.

It was kind of interesting watching him; I swear to God his knee-jerk reaction was to physically recoil. He actually stepped back a pace and then there was this nervous flick of the eyes around, like he was expecting to be attacked or something. Made me wonder, again, just what in the hell Heero had told the guy. But then he seemed to kind of piece the circumstances together in his head, and a weird-ass almost hopeful look came over him and damned if that didn't kick me in the 'flight' gonads. Which pissed me off at myself and I think I might have frowned, turning away from him to look at the display of feather wands and mouse shaped toys that I'd come to see.

Yeah, Heero and I have a cat now. Heero found her wandering lost on the freeway one morning and ended up stopping to save her from becoming a road rug; I think I'm wearing off on him. We named her Gertrude.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Quatre open his mouth to speak, but two kids darted down the aisle with their dust-mop of a dog and he closed it again, watching them go by. I picked a purple plaid catnip toy off the rack and gave it a sniff to see how strong it was, wondering if I could get away with just walking away. Though I suppose the notion was kind of stupid... not like I could leave the store until the groomer was done with Reason anyway. Would he just follow me? And then what would we do? Play some kind of stupid hide and seek game all over the store? Could I lose him in the puppy petting area? That was always crowded...

Yeah, that thought really made me feel like an idiot of the twelve-year old variety and I hooked the toy back on the display peg and turned back around. Now or never, God damn it.

'So,' I opened, avoiding all the stupid 'hello' shit that we probably would have floundered all over anyway. 'Trowa says that you guys have talked about maybe going out again?'

He blinked at me for a second, like maybe I'd taken the wind out of his opening lines. Or maybe he hadn't had any but was on our track and not the Trowa track. 'Uh... yeah. We're going to try dinner.'

'You think you're ready for it?' I blurted and wondered at myself. Guess my inner child had decided on the 'deck' plan. I fussed with the plaid mice, occupying my hands by arranging them by color spectrum... purple, red, orange, yellow. There wasn't a green and I suddenly wanted a green one. That perverse side of my nature again, I guess. The stone silence coming from the feather wand section of the aisle made me look at him and I was surprised to find him blushing profusely and staring at the toes of his shiny dress shoes.

'I... I've been sober for almost five months now,' he choked out, and I turned to stare at him rather openly.

'What?' I asked and it made him look up at me; I could see the blush spread as he figured out he'd just confessed something to me I hadn't known. He didn't seem to know what to say, his jaw muscles twitching as he tried to work it out. I was trying to work it out too, but was just staring.

I realized that my desire not to deal with Quatre Raberba Winner had made sure that I was not confronted with any aspect of him. Not his presence and not news of his life. I had no damn idea what had happened to him after that nightmare 'pizza night' other than a vague knowledge that he was no longer with Trowa. Sober? What the hell? I wonder sometimes how long we'd have stood there staring at each other if my dog hadn't chosen that moment to drag his giggling groomer around the corner.

'Here's your pony, Mr. Maxwell!' Julie told me, all out of breath and grinning from being dragged across the store. 'All prettied up again!'

'Thanks, Julie,' I smiled, taking the leash from her and giving Reason his 'good boy' pat for finding me. He liked Julie and the other groomers at the Palace well enough, but I swear the dog thought we came just so he could play his 'find the Duo' game afterward. 'He looks great!'

My monster chose that moment to jump up, putting his paws on my shoulders to give me one of his disgusting doggie kisses, his odd reward for my playing my part of the game properly, I think.

'Reason,' I admonished and he hopped back down while Julie laughed at us, giving Reason a last pat and waving as she went back to work. My white carpet woofed after her, his flag of a tail waving enthusiastically as though he somehow knew that it looked quite impressive all clean and brushed and silky. 'Show off,' I muttered and he looked up at me with his head cocked as if to say, 'Yeah? And?'

There was a sound from Quatre and when I looked back that way, it was probably just my imagination that he was a step further away. 'So... that's your dog?' he asked inanely, looking just a bit freaked out, but I suppose it was better than the fit of humiliation he'd been having. That moment, at least, seemed to have passed.

'Yeah,' I said, just as inanely. Reason has a way of picking out the interaction people from random other customers and turned Quatre's way with his tail still waving, curious to see who the new guy was. Quatre tentatively held out a hand for Reason to sniff and my dog happily obliged. He didn't seem to detect the scent of space aliens or anything else that upset him, and I found myself oddly... I don't know... disappointed that the animal hadn't instinctively known that Quatre was an evil man.

Ok, so that was one of my twelve year old moments. Guess it was kind of stupid to think that mean people should smell funny.

But then Reason looked up at me questioningly, somehow seeming to get that there was something about the new guy that made me uneasy, and he came to settle on my feet the way he does when he thinks I need to be protected from something. I rubbed at his ear gratefully, and wondered if a dog could be a security blanket. I'd have to talk to Doc Epstein about it. It was probably one of those 'not healthy' issues that needed to go on my list of things to work on.

Quatre didn't seem to understand that Reason planting himself between us meant anything other than the dog belonged to me, but he stayed focused there anyway, as though it was easier than meeting my gaze.

Though his eyes looked a million miles away.

'My shrink says the odds of working things out with Trowa aren't very good,' he suddenly blurted, confessing it to my dog and just sort of letting me over hear it. Reason cocked his head, probably confused by the stressed sound of Quatre's voice. I didn't know what to say to that, but he wasn't done. 'He says we don't have enough in common and that I should... move on.'

I snorted. There was that phrase again; I really was coming to hate it. 'Your shrink's an ass then,' I heard myself say and suddenly Quatre Winner just didn't seem all that damn scary any more. And didn't that thought just hit with a jolt? Scary? Where had that come from? I had been... afraid of him? Afraid of what? Afraid of his words? Of his... disdain? I had been avoiding him all the months I'd been back because... why?

I had not wanted to see Quatre because some part of my head had been half convinced that he would be able to toss more words at me and make me... what? Run away again? Break me again? I wanted to laugh thinking about it; all my assurances to Doc that I 'got' that part about my issues being my own, had just been so much hot air. I'd known it, but my head hadn't been convinced. It had never been about Quatre Winner, it had been about me right from the beginning. He'd never had the power to hurt me until I'd given it to him.

Completely unaware of my internal epiphany, he turned away from Reason and ran his fingers through the fronds of a couple of the feathers next to him. 'We're... supposed to have dinner tonight...' he said, his voice just full of all manner of scared, and hesitant, and this vague despair. I took a look around and realized just why in the hell we were where we were.

'His place?' I asked and he nodded, his eyes with that million mile away look again. I shook my head as much at myself as at him, reaching out to pluck one of the red mice from the rack. 'Idiot,' I muttered. 'Here,' I said, tossing it to him. 'Ignore Gus completely and win over Duncan. Gus will come around when he's damn good and ready.'

He caught the toy, finally bringing his gaze up to me and not my dog, eyes wide with a desperate hope in them that I suddenly realized had nothing to do with Trowa or cats or... that weird 'sober' comment.

'I'm so sorry,' came out of his mouth all in a rush, directed at me, sounding like it was something that he'd been practicing for a long time. He cringed, almost as though he hadn't known it was coming, but then bulled forward. 'I am. Duo... God, I am so very sorry...'

My name passing his lips made me think of another time and another place and he seemed to see it, staggering to a halt and that spark of hope fading in his eyes like a dying ember.

'Tell it to Trowa,' I told him gruffly, feeling sorry for him despite over a year's worth of resolve to never let it happen.

'I... will,' he whispered, clutching the mouse like I'd given him the Hope diamond, and talking to my dog again. 'I have. But I wronged you too, and... and...'

It was creepy to see him floundering around like that. Creepy and all kinds of wrong; Papa Winner didn't raise up no faint-of-heart children, and Quatre had been the cream of the crop. There was something fundamentally wrong with seeing Mr. Zero-system struggling with words, his eyes all shining like he needed a teddy bear or... a stiff drink.

I dry washed a hand over my face, trying to block out the sight of him that was tugging at all the things that Doc Epstein said were triggers for me. Orphans, strays, the helpless. God, I wanted to tell him, don't make puppy-eyes at me!

I wanted to hate him. I did. And it kind of scared me when I realized that I really did want that. A man should not actively want to hate anything. That spoke more about the man than about the object of the hatred. Sister and Father would have had all manner of things to say about that, starting with that 'turn the other cheek' thing that I'd never really cared for.

There were a lot of words that were associated with this whole 'relationship' thing when the guys spoke about Trowa and Quatre... 'tentative', 'maybe', 'try', 'uncertain'. I had to wonder if that was because of me. Was Trowa holding back, waiting for my judgment? He said that what was between him and Quatre had nothing to do with me, but... was that really true in the grand scheme of things? If Trowa truly was my family in heart if not in blood, how could he ignore my feelings in the matter?

The truth was... he couldn't. Not really. Even if he thought he could.

I dropped my hand away from my face and kept the 'Fuck' behind my teeth as best I could. Reason looked up at me as if asking if we could go yet, bored with the whole soul searching thing. I snagged two more of the mice off the wall, tossing the orange one to Quatre and keeping the purple for Gertrude.

'You're gonna need a second one so they don't fight over it once Gus decides you don't suck,' I grumbled. 'Don't drink anything out of a bottle around him and avoid making loud noises.'

I looked at him hard then, while he couldn't seem to figure out what to say. 'And don't you fucking hurt my brother again asshole, or my dog will eat you.'

All he could do was clutch his mice and nod, and I wondered if I should be amused or scared that the line seemed to fan that spark of hope into a flame that shone with an old, familiar light of determination.

I doubt that I would ever forget, but maybe I could learn to forgive... given a few more therapy sessions.

'Thank you,' he finally managed, while I thought about insecurities and cultural gulfs and the odds. Almost, I told him to ditch his too socially conscious shrink, but decided to leave that one go for another day. Admitting to myself with a sigh that there were going to be other days. The box of avoidance was open and there wasn't going to be any going back. And I suppose, given enough time, I'd get used to that idea.

Quatre took a step away, offering up a timid, 'I'll see you?' as though understanding we'd probably gotten about as much from the encounter as we were likely to.

I nodded and he headed for the front of the store and the check-outs, only glancing back once, as though making sure I wasn't flipping him off behind his back.

And if I chose to explore the dog treat aisle before checking out myself, it was only because Reason had been such a patient dog, and not because of any desire to make sure Quatre was gone first. Really.

Was I a little bit relieved? It was probably too soon to say, but I supposed it was at least going to make for an interesting dinner conversation with Heero. I went over opening lines in my head as we made our way through the store to the bones and chew toys section. 'So guess who I ran into today?' or maybe 'Quatre says hi'.

I grinned down at Reason. 'Come on boy, let's get you a treat and head for home.'

He wuffed his agreement with the plan, and it was a warm and comforting thought that I didn't even think of Devil's Palm when I said that word anymore. Home was where Heero was waiting.

(end)

[part 4] [back to Sunhawks' fic]