Author: Sunhawk

Release (cont)

"That first night, Quatre was so... unnerved. Duo wasn't even able to sit up alone, he was shaking like a leaf, his voice raw from screaming, and yet... and yet, he just... gathered Quatre up and... " He couldn't go on, and just stopped, head still lying on his knees. I got up and went to sit on the bed beside him, unsure what had moved me to do it, and not able to do anything more once I got there.

His hair was out of its tail for the night, falling across his face in a curtain, shielding him from my eyes. He was quiet for a very long time, and at length, I put my hand on his shoulder, unsure if the comfort would be accepted. He only sighed, and I felt tense muscles relax a little.

"It actually seems to help him stay focused a little. He tries so hard to make us leave him alone... but I... I never will. The idea scares me. It seems dangerous somehow." There was a faint shrug of his shoulder under my hand, "I can't explain it; it's just a feeling. From reading, I think it is the shame... and the guilt talking."

He raised his head and looked up at me, "Quatre is so very good with him, after it's all over. He has trouble... during... he gets so upset, but afterward, he seems to know all the right things to say and do." A look of pain flashed briefly across his face in the dim light.

"The worst was the second night, after the fight when he was... knifed." A shudder ran through his frame, "Somehow... we were all naive enough to think it was over. I hadn't started doing any research yet. We taped up the gash and went to bed... nobody was expecting... it took all three of us completely by surprise."

I squeezed the shoulder under my hand slightly, offering what reassurance I could, and he continued. "The tape came loose, and he tore the wound open. I couldn't hold him still enough for Quatre to do anything about it. There was blood... everywhere. The whole thing lasts... most of a half an hour."

I hissed sharply; I had never realized.

"By the time he came out of it, we were all three covered with blood, Quatre was near hysterical, we thought he was going to... bleed to death. We had dismissed all the servants that morning; it was just the two of us."

He unwound from the ball he had wrapped himself in; turning to face me, and my hand fell away.

"Then he saw the blood for real. I thought... I thought we'd lost him. He just... came unhinged. Quatre, finally just grabbed his head and... got right in his face and wouldn't let him close his eyes. 'Look at me!' he kept yelling at him... and finally, he was just... with us, again."

My arms slipped up and wrapped around my own shoulders, it was very cold.

"Wufei... Chang, I can't tell you... you've been... " I struggled with the words; I was really no good at this.

He smiled gently at me, "Yuy, you don't have to... "

"Yes I do. I want to say, thank you, yes. But it's more than that; I want you to know how much I've come to rely on you. My head hasn't been... straight... since this started." I glanced pointedly toward the laptop, "That alone... that I never even thought to do the research... there's a lot there that helps. There are things I understand now, that I didn't before. You have been a very good friend to him, I am very glad... you were here."

He nodded graciously, lowering his eyes, a little embarrassed I think, and I saw the ghost of a grin behind the fall of hair, "He is such a bright spirit. He drives me to screaming rage at times, but... in my darkest moments, he can... lift me up."

We sat for a bit, side by side, staring in the direction of Duo's room, and at length, I had to tell him, "I don't know that I can do this."

He laid his hand on my shoulder this time, "You have to, Heero. He has to try this his own way."

"I know." I breathed, drawing more comfort from the simple touch than I would have thought, "But it still feels like a... betrayal."

His fingers squeezed tight, "Go to bed, Heero. We should be sleeping while we can. He'll need us when the time comes." He quirked a sad smile at me, "As Duo says; you won't sleep through one of his patented nightmares."

There was a final pat on my shoulder, and I rose and went back to my room.

+

I pulled the covers back this time, because I was near shivering with the cold... or with something. But I still lay with my head at the wrong end of the bed, staring out the door. I noticed Wufei left his door open as well. Hours passed in utter quiet, and I was wound so tight, I couldn't do more than doze. The faint glow of dawn found me wrapped in my blankets, still staring out into the hall, waiting for the sounds of Duo's distress. Could he have managed to get through a night without falling prey to it? If so, it would be the first time since the memories had resurfaced, that he had without my help. It was early, but not overly so, when I finally couldn't handle it anymore and rose to pad across the hall to check on him. The others would be getting up soon anyway to leave for the shuttle port to catch their flight. I eased the door silently open, and froze. His bed was still made, completely unslept in, and Duo was nowhere in sight. I think I made a sound; I must have made a sound, because Wufei was suddenly at my side, pulling on a pair of his loose white pants. We noticed the paper in the middle of the bed at the same moment, and Wufei pushed passed me and picked it up. In Duo's hand, in large dark letters, it said 'DON'T PANIC', and then under that, 'I didn't want to wake everyone, I'm sleeping in the hanger tonight.'

I shot a glance at the open window, "I am such an idiot." I growled; he had deliberately opened that window, hours before he went to bed, so as not to alert me.

We turned as one and fairly flew down the stairs, slamming out the kitchen door. I don't remember my feet even touching the steps. I vowed to speak to Quatre about moving the thrice-damned hanger closer to the house; seemed all I did any more was run back and forth between the two.

I hit the hanger door full tilt, and I may have cracked the glass in it when it rebounded off the wall, I didn't slow down to look. Wufei wasn't more than a stride behind me.

We found him at the base of his Gundam, braced on hands and knees, heaving violently into an old, battered bucket. Above him, Deathscythe's hatch stood tellingly open; he had slept in the damned suit.

I threw myself down on the floor beside him, wrapping an arm around his chest, giving him some support. Wufei ran on passed us to the tiny bathroom in the back of the hanger, returning with wads of paper towels and a cup of water. I held him until he was done vomiting, and then we cleaned him up as best we could with what we had. When we were sure he was finished, Wufei took the bucket and threw the whole thing away outside in the dumpster.

Duo was shivering so hard, his teeth were chattering. I sat cross-legged on the floor, and pulled him into my lap to get him off the cold concrete, wrapping my arms tight around him.

Wufei came back and damned if he hadn't found a blanket somewhere. It was one of those scratchy, ugly green military issue things, but Duo didn't complain when we slipped it around him, just curling toward my body heat.

"Maxwell," Wufei was right in his face, brushing his hair aside and making him open his eyes. "How did you get down from your Gundam?"

When he asked it, I looked and realized that the winch line wasn't hanging there.

"Don't... . I don't remember." Duo finally gasped out.

"You didn't fall, did you?" Wufei was speaking to him... not harshly, but firmly, and I could see it was needed to keep Duo's attention.

"Dunno." he told us, and I met Wufei's eyes over Duo's head. The blanket came back off, and we began gently probing for injuries. His hands were a mess, I swear there wasn't a knuckle that wasn't bruised and skinned.

"Maxwell, open your eyes." Wufei was looking hard at his face, his fingers massaging over Duo's head, looking for signs of pain; finding nothing.

I ran my hands down the length of his arms and legs, and as long as I didn't touch him much above the knee or below the waist, he didn't react.

All we really found were bruises and scrapes that probably came from his flailing about inside the cockpit of his mobile suit. I pulled the blanket back around him, and we turned our attention away from his physical condition and began trying to get through to him.

"Duo? Can you open your eyes?" I asked gently, it worried me that he just kept closing them. I was afraid he was slipping back into that other time.

"I'm Ok." He gasped out, "Takes a minute."

Wufei actually snorted out loud, "Takes a damn sight longer than that, Maxwell, and you know it."

"I'm working on the timing," he tried to make his voice light, but his body belied his words, "think we can get it down to an hour?"

His voice was difficult to understand for the shivering; he was still only wearing the jeans and t-shirt he had put on after his shower. I stroked his hair, and it still felt damp.

"We have to get him out of this damn hanger; he's freezing." I told Wufei, and he nodded tersely.

"He's always cold... right after."

Duo started trying to struggle up, intent on moving under his own power.

"I'm all right. Just give me a minute." It was no harder to restrain him than it would have been a three year old. He had no strength left at all, managing only to throw off the blanket, before collapsing back into my arms.

"Maxwell, you're going to let us help you." Wufei told him firmly, and I allowed him to take the lead; he had more experience dealing with Duo during these times. And, indeed, Duo seemed to respond to the commanding tone, and allowed Wufei to take him from me until I could get up off the floor. We came in from either side, lifting him up between us and starting back for the house.

I had done more than just crack the glass in the door, it was smashed all over the floor, and since all three of us were bare foot, we had to work our way gingerly around the mess to get outside.

"Come on, guys," Duo complained after we started up the path to the house, "you can't carry me the whole damn way."

"Well, you certainly can't walk." Wufei informed him.

"Let me try?" he asked us, softly, "Please."

I met Wufei's gaze, his look told me the decision was mine. I nodded after a moment and we stopped, making him keep an arm around each of our shoulders, and gently let him down to try his own legs. He managed, at a slow pace, just under half the distance to the porch, but with each step, his face became more drawn and pale, beading with sweat.

"Enough." I hissed, and swept him back up into my arms, "I'm not going to let you hurt yourself like this."

"Sorry... I'm sorry." He panted, and I realized he was reacting to the anger in my voice.

"No, love." I reassured him, "You have nothing to be sorry for. I'm angry at those twisted sons of bitches who hurt you. I'm not upset with you. Never with you."

Wufei adjusted the blanket, and moved back in to help take his weight; we made it to the back porch without another objection from Duo. What little energy he'd had left was completely gone now, and he just hung limp between us, his head lolling first against my shoulder, and then against Wufei's.

We found our partners in the kitchen starting breakfast. Some unspoken communication passed between Wufei and Quatre, and Quatre dumped the frying pan he had been holding into the sink, and darted ahead of us up the stairs. When we got to Duo's room, he was waiting with pain meds and a glass of water, the bed turned back, and Duo's music already softly playing.

We put him down on the side of the bed, and Wufei and Quatre moved in, obviously executing a well-rehearsed operation.

Quatre was indeed, good with him, as Wufei had said. His voice took on a firm but gentle tone, almost hypnotic, and Duo seemed to focus on him as though reaching for a lifeline. They worked him out of his clothes, one piece at a time, and got him tucked into his bed. There were extra blankets there and Quatre got the painkillers down him without so much as a whimper. Then he set to calmly bathing Duo's right hand, working for all the world like he was dressing a fresh wound, even though I knew there was nothing on the palm of that hand but an old scar. But, somehow, it seemed to help him ground himself, and at length, the shivering began to subside.

Trowa and I stood out of the way, feeling oddly out of place. When they finished, Quatre turned that same commanding tone on me.

"Heero, get over here." He was holding the edge of the blanket in his hand, and motioning me to crawl in with Duo. I hesitated, feeling odd about it with everyone standing there staring at me in the stark light of day. "He needs to be warmed up." Quatre informed me calmly and I slid in under the covers without further prompting. Duo looked at me with an apology written on his face, but came into my arms anyway. I had to wonder how long he had lain on that concrete floor; his skin felt chill wherever it touched me.

"We'll be here for another hour," Quatre informed me lightly, "if you need anything."

I could not believe they were still planning on making that stupid trip. I tried to catch Wufei's eye as they left the room, but he didn't look at me. I had to stifle the desire to yell after them; you can't leave him like this!

"Heero," Duo's voice was faintly hoarse, "I'm so sorry. I thought I could get back to the house before you guys woke up."

The tension of the entire night and the stark terror of the morning were playing havoc with my gut, "Don't you ask me to do that again." I told him, and it came out a little more severely than I had intended.

He flinched, just a tiny bit, but it drew my attention to the feel of his body next to mine. His muscles were taut and tense, his limbs cold as ice; though his shivering had eased, his hands still shook

"I'm sorry." I told him, nuzzling my face into his hair, "It was just a hideously long night. I can't do that again, love; that's all. You may have the strength for it, but I don't."

He pulled himself closer, though I wouldn't have thought it was possible, and sighed heavily. "I have to keep going." He told me simply, "I don't know how else to handle it."

"Duo, I still don't see how this is going to make it any better." There was a panicky undertone to my voice that caught even me by surprise.

"I just have to get used to the pain." He whispered, "that's all; get my head around it."

He couldn't have shocked me any more if he had sucker punched me right there. I couldn't say anything. He was trying to... to... digest it, somehow? Take the memories and the pain into himself and... get his head around it? Dear, sweet Gods. He might as well have said to me I'm going to stick my hand in the fire until the burning stops.

"Baby, you're going to choke to death trying to swallow this. Maybe... maybe we should... " get help, get therapy, go to your Doctor. It was all there on the tip of my tongue, but I knew how he'd react to that kind of suggestion, and it died before it passed my lips. They'd pull him off the active duty list, and as much as that would ease my mind, it would kill him.

"I can handle it." He said gruffly, and pushed away, trying to sit up, trying to get out of bed. I didn't pull him back; I didn't have to. His body betrayed him; I could see the pain sweep across his pale face, and his arms shook where they tried to hold him up. He collapsed with a moan back beside me.

"Heero... it hurts. It hurts so damn bad. I can't... .I can't... "

He buried his face against my chest, and I turned toward him, wrapping my arms tight around his shivering form.

"I'm here, love, I'm with you. It's going to be all right, everything's going to be fine. We'll get through... somehow."

What magic did he find in my voice? Nonsense words, simple reassurances. But he hung on them, clung to me and listened to the sound of my voice. After awhile, the shivering stopped, and his muscles began to relax.

It made my heart soar. I felt guilty for feeling it; but I loved that it was my voice that could do this for him. Mine and no other. A pure and absolute sign of the depth of his love for me, that my voice could ease his pain and suffering.

Then he went stiff in my arms, his head jerking up from where it had been nestled on my shoulder.

"Damn it; this isn't what this is all about! You're doing it again!"

I was caught completely off guard, I couldn't for the life of me figure out what I had done to make him so angry.

"Duo... ?" And I knew my voice sounded hurt, though I hadn't intended that.

"You're still getting me through this... I'm still not managing on my own."

"Damn it, Duo!" I was hurt, and tried to squelch it, "What the hell do you want from me?"

The anger left his voice at the hint of pain in mine, but he still pushed himself up and away, leaving me cold and confused and frustrated.

"I'm trying to figure out how in the hell... I need to... I can't keep relying on you." He looked back at me, his face full of a strange fear.

I calmed my voice, and took a breath; pushing my injured feelings aside, "Can you, for just two seconds, put yourself in my place?"

His eyes filled with an infinite sadness, "Can you put yourself in mine?" he asked me quietly. "Heero, I am completely and utterly helpless without you. I can't function."

I opened my mouth and shut it again, trying hard to do as I had asked him to do; to turn the tables and truly put myself in his place.

Helpless. Unable to even sleep at night without the sound of someone else's voice. Totally reliant on another human being to get from one day to the next. Not able to accept a mission without the underlying fear of sleep. Measuring everything with the yardstick of 'how long can I go without closing my eyes'? Haunted by a memory half as old as I, but fresh and strong as now. A memory that could reach out and strike me to my knees in a heartbeat the moment I let my guard down to simply rest. Having to view sleep as a demon that must be fought off at all costs.

"I have never, in all my life, been at more of a loss." I admitted to him at length, "I don't know what the hell to do."

"Welcome to the club." He tried on a lop-sided grin, but it crumbled quickly.

"All I can do is what my heart tells me." I told him gently, "But somehow it never seems to be the right thing."

"I'm losing myself in you." He whispered, eyes letting me see a hint of the terror that was in him.

"I want to be here for you." I couldn't come close to telling him what I felt, "I want to protect you, I want to keep you safe."

His hand reached out toward me, but drew back without touching, and it stung.

"I want that... " He breathed, "I want that too much for my own damn good."

I took a long look at the picture his conflicting emotions was painting across his face, and came to a hard, bitter resolution. "I think I understand." I told him softly, "Whatever you need; it's yours."

I couldn't tell if he looked relieved or scared, sitting there beside me, "I'll go, but I won't be far. You are... my whole universe... you are... everything. All you have to do is call."

He graced me with a bittersweet smile, and I climbed out of his bed and left him alone.

I went to my own room and dressed, staying there until I heard the car pull out downstairs. I could not have dealt with any of them, not even Trowa. I felt as though they were abandoning us. I understood the reasoning; I understood that it was meant as a gift of a little privacy. But I felt completely alone, with no one to talk to, no one to help me work this out.

No one to talk to. Except the one I had been talking to all week. Deathscythe. With his recording device. It was a bizarre, guilty, hand in the cookie jar feeling. Did Duo think to turn it off last night when he climbed into his Gundam to face his nightmares alone? I was going to go find out.

I went back to Duo's door, and heard the shower running. I hesitated only a moment, and sprinted for the hanger.

Broken glass was still strewn all over the floor, and I made a mental note to take care of it later. The hatch on Deathscythe was hanging open just as we had left it, and I went straight to it, running the winch cable down, and making the ascent. I pulled up the program, tied in with the cockpit's normal vid screen monitor; it was still active. I immediately stopped it recording and then sat back. I had yet to witness one of these episodes. The nearest I had come being that very first attack, but that had been a strange slip into an almost catatonic state. Far, far different from what Wufei had described to me. I felt faintly guilty, but damn it, every bit of knowledge I had was an asset. I scanned the recorded files for the one with the logical approximate time, and hit play.

I saw him climb into the cockpit, looking vaguely pleased with himself, almost a little smug. Yes, he had given us the slip again. He just sat for a moment, then reached out of view and faint music began to play in the background. A soft smile touched his lips, and he seemed to try to settle himself for sleep. A faint frown crossed his brow, and he muttered, "S'pose restraint might be in order, huh, old buddy?" He pulled all the pilots harnesses in place, belting down tight. He actually made the effort to stretch his arms and legs out, checking to see what he might hit, and shifted a few things around. Retracting the pilot's grips into the 'docked' position. Finally, he settled back into the cushions and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Guess it'll have to do." He took a deep breath and a last look around, "Night, partner." And he composed himself for sleep like a man climbing the steps to the gallows. The scene jumped, the motion sensors had stopped recording when he had settled and gotten still, kicking on briefly a couple of times as he shifted in his sleep. Then the screen showed me a Duo slowly drifting into nightmare. I saw all the signs, and my fingers clenched on the armrest, wanting to reach out to him. A tiny whimper escaped lips that were drawn back in a grimace of fear, and then it was as though an unseen puppet master had taken control of his limbs. He began to scream. He bucked in the confines of the harness, arms flailing, hands clawing at air, smashing on the control panels all around him. After only a few minutes, I found my hand clamped over my own mouth, and my eyes misted to the point I had to blink to clear them.

It was everything Quatre and Wufei had said. It was brutal. It went on and on and on. His voice, that of a young child, begged and screamed and cried out for his savior; this Solo, who never came. He screamed until his voice was lost, he fought until his strength was gone. When he collapsed, gasping for breath like a drowning man, I thought the nightmare was over... but it only began again. He had said there were two of them. I forced myself to sit through to the end, until he was hanging limp and covered in sweat in his harness, shaking almost convulsively, whimpering incoherently in a broken voice, harsh as ground glass.

Slowly, he seemed to come out of it, head coming up, hands moving to rub across his sweat drenched face. "Oh Gods." I heard, hoarse and faint, "Oh Gods. Oh Gods."

His hands fumbled at the harness buckles and couldn't manage them. They fell limp in his lap for a moment, then the left hand sought the right and began rubbing at that scar on the palm. He brought the hand up into his line of sight and stared hard at it, blinking it into focus. His limbs were shaking so hard, I could see it even on the monitor. He tried the buckles again, and finally won free, but then just sat limp and shaking in the chair.

"I can't do this. Gods, 'Scythe; I can't do this anymore." He reached for something, almost falling sideways, and when he sat back up, there was a gun in his hand.

I gasped out loud, even though I knew he was in the house right now, that he hadn't done what it looked like he was about to do. He was safe. My head knew that, but my heart lurched in my chest and it was all I could do not to scream his name.

He sat back, closed his eyes, and calmly put the gun to his right temple, and the look on his face was one of... peace. I could; dear Gods, see his finger tighten on the trigger and then... soft and almost inaudible;

"Heero." The gun wavered, and the voice became almost anguished, "Damn it, Heero."

The gun lowered, and I released the breath I had been holding. He sat with the gun in his lap for so long, the recorder shut off, starting up again as he leaned over to put it away. Then he finally struggled out of the chair and the recording stopped as he left the cockpit.

I reset everything the way I had found it, and climbed down, suddenly terrified of being caught. I went to find the broom and dustpan, giving my body something to do, while my mind ran in little yipping circles of fear. I could not believe how close he had come. There had not been an eighth of an inch more for that trigger to travel. What in the hell was I going to do? I wanted Wufei with me so bad my chest hurt. I wanted his calm, reliable voice. I didn't want to be bearing this knowledge all alone. I didn't even know if I should let Duo know what I had seen. I was angry as hell with the three of them for running out on us right now.

Duo was at the end of that incredible endurance that had so awed Wufei. At its end, and passed it. While I had lain in my bed and stared at his room, thinking that he was safe inside, he had been a damn quarter mile away, with a gun to his head and had almost blown his brains all over the cockpit of his Gundam. Would I have even heard the shot? Maybe... for all the good it would have done me.

The last sliver of glass was swept into the dumpster, and with nothing else to occupy my hands, my trembling legs took me to the wooden bench outside, and I dropped onto it, head falling into my hands and it was all I could do not to sob my heart out. Never before in all my life, had I found myself in a situation with less of an idea what in the hell to do next. I was lost in a featureless sea, under a featureless sky, completely adrift. And if that was how I felt, how in the hell was Duo coping at all?

+

"Heero?" I had not heard him coming, but when my head jerked up at the sound of his voice, he was standing right in front of me. His expression said that he had been watching me as he came down the path, watching me do nothing but sit here and hold my head and struggle with my own out of control emotions. He knelt awkwardly, not able to put weight on his bad knee, and took my face in his hands.

"Heero... I'm sorry. I know it's not easy for you." His thumbs stroked across my cheeks, "I know what I'm asking, my love."

I stood, pulling him up with me and getting him off the knee. The ache in my heart flared into a white hot pain and I seized hold of him, crushing him to my chest, one arm tight around his waist, the other pulling his head against my shoulder. The feelings that were writhing around in my gut were fierce and harsh, and I knew I was being rough, and I knew I was holding on too hard, but he matched me, grip for grip, need for need. Could I have opened my chest and pulled him inside, I would have done it. There would be bruises. Neither of us cared.

At length, he loosened his death-grip, and looked into my face, "This fighting and making up cycle we're developing is getting out of hand."

"I like making up." I smiled shakily, and very slowly turned his head to kiss the exact spot on his right temple where he had placed the barrel of the gun. Then I turned him back and gently kissed his lips. "You are everything to me." I told him, voice thickening, "You know that, don't you?"

He blinked, eyes widening for a moment, unsure if that had been an accident, but I gave him no further sign, and he didn't speak.

I kissed him again, softly and tenderly; an antidote for my earlier roughness.

"I'm sorry." He murmured against my lips, "I wish... I wish I were stronger... "

I laughed out loud, it was such an absurd thing for him to say, "Dear Gods, Duo; if you were any damn tougher, Wufei would have to build a stinking shrine to you!"

He frowned at me, "What... ?"

"The man is in awe, Duo." I smiled at him, and laughed again as his face slowly went from pink to red.

"Don't be ridiculous... I make Wufei insane." He grumbled, turning his blushing face away.

I pulled him down to sit beside me on the bench, "Well, his actual words were 'screaming rage', but I suppose insane is close enough." I let the teasing tone leave my voice, "Love, you underestimate your importance to the whole damn lot of us."

It was very important that he know that.

He ducked his head, "It's really weird to find out that you guys sit around and talk about me."

"They just want to help." I took his hand in mine, careful of all the bruises and skinned knuckles, "But no one knows how."

"Wish I had some ideas." He sighed, then looked up at me, "Listen, Heero. I gotta have some kind of distraction, Ok? It's getting to the point where my whole life is nothing but... having the nightmare, or waiting to have the nightmare."

"Of course; what would you like to do?" I agreed readily, having thought the same thing myself.

"Don't get mad... " he grinned sheepishly, "but, can we go to the mall?"

I laughed, shaking my head in disbelief, "If that's what you want, but I would have thought you wouldn't want to see that place again for some time."

So I took him to the mall, or he took me, as he insisted on driving. The music that thundered from the stereo was more what I was used to him listening to, and he rolled all the windows down until the wind whipped away any conversation I might have tried to make. He drove a little too fast, but he's an excellent driver, and I let it go without nagging him. I was content to sit and watch him, marveling how bright and alive he could seem with the wind tugging loose strands of hair around his face, fingers lightly dancing on the wheel in time to the music. I could almost forget that gut-wrenching picture in my head of him with the pistol pressed tight against his temple. I shivered in the otherwise warm day, but he didn't notice.

We spent the day wandering around, while Duo considered purchases. He was almost irritatingly careful with his money, even though we could appropriate funds damn near anytime we ran seriously tight. He spent most of his time in the music store, hunting through scores of new issue CDs of ages old musicians. There had been a recent revival of 'true' music, as they were being billed. Music made by musicians, not synthesizers and computers. I hunted for, and found several more CDs like the one that Duo fell asleep to at night. I liked them.

I surprised him with them when we left the store, and he beamed at me, making me want to go out and buy him every damn thing he happened to look at, just to make him give me that happy smile again. I shook my head at my own behavior. I wish I dared walk with my arm around him, or that I might take his hand, but I had seen where that kind of public display led, and I wasn't about to risk that kind of attention.

He went looking for some new shirts, having lost more than one in the last couple of weeks in one manner or another. Watching him pull the t-shirts off the rack to examine the print on the front, holding them up for my opinion, checking price and size, I found myself smiling fondly at him, almost... almost forgetting what we had yet to face at the end of the day.

He held up two black shirts, each with a different Japanese character etched delicately in silver on it. They were fairly dramatic looking.

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