Ever since that three-megaton chunk of Libra had been incinerated in Earth's atmosphere all those years ago, Duo considered himself a man of peace. He abandoned his nasty remaining habit of casual pick pocketing, faithfully backed down from fights, though more for the other's sake rather than an exercise of tact, and had even attempted in good spirit, but in vain, to amend his impressive reputation for cussing. After all, one good turn deserved another, and save for the Christmas Day coup, he'd stuck mostly to it. But whatever scraps of good religion and pacifism left in him were a distant memory to Duo as he sat on that couch and watched Relena greet her fiancé as he came striding blindly in. It certainly wasn't any easier to watch their lips meet in a kiss and when Relena sat him down next to him in the den, as every one had gathered there that morning, Duo's legs were giving the most peculiar twitches—like he was about to leap to his feet and shove her away from the poor, almost bewildered-looking Heero. Not that he would ever purposely harbor such thoughts, no, of course—but it was all he thought about.
So there he determinedly sat, painting on a crooked smirk, staring fire at Relena as she got cozy with Heero and happily opened her gift. He had barely noticed that Trowa and Quatre, also sitting together as if to further accentuate the fact that he sat alone, in his pajamas, still thoroughly ruffled from sleep, had started talking. Relena lifted her head, putting a truffle in her mouth, and smiled at them, saying something. She nodded and Heero still hadn't snapped out of the reverie influencing ever since he had stepped inside. He glanced at Relena, then to Trowa, Quatre, and Duo, blinking as if he'd just woken up.
But the bewildered look didn't last long, as his mouth tightened and he furrowed an eyebrow, back to his old, reliably inquiring self.
"What are you doing back so soon?" he asked while she daintily put another chocolate in her mouth. "You were supposed to be in Pakistan for at least another day. What happened?"
She looked at him quite innocently, stopping in her surprise from devouring another chocolate. "You didn't hear?" she asked in return, receiving the standard displeased look when answering Heero Yuy with another question. "I thought you would have seen the papers. They've been besides themselves with joy covering it. It was chaos. There was nothing productive I could get done in such a frenzy, anyway."
From beside her she dutifully produced a folded newspaper and gave it to Heero, not looking the least happy to see her own image in bold ink, receiving a most unexpected slap from a disgruntled female Pakistani politician, denouncing her and her politics in the most straightforward way possible. The paper crackled as Heero quickly unfolded it, scanning the headlines and the biting rows of writing with brows drawn and his mouth turning crooked and unhappy. Duo was honestly amazed it didn't immediately burst into flame when he looked back up, his fingers crumpling the sides of the newspaper.
"What happened?" he asked firmly, sitting up straighter and turning his gaze onto his fiancé, no doubt looking for suspicions of bruises under her makeup. "Are you alright?"
"Ooh, somebody's in trouble," Duo muttered under his breath. "No one slaps Heero's princess. Hopefully someone's remembered to lock the gun case this morning." He smiled wickedly to himself.
But when Heero gently touched her face, turning it toward his for closer examination, Duo's smile vanished and his stomach yanked him to his feet, violently jumping into the pit of his jealous chest.
Without noticing Quatre glance over at him cautiously, he feigned a long, casual stretch as he stood off the couch and began to stroll back toward the garage door. Moving with no more languid concern than a disinterested cat, Duo disappeared back into his room with no more noise than a memory. Something about his lazy gait made a valve twist in his chest, dousing him with a sudden and ice cold pang of grief that was distinctly not his own. Duo's disheveled tail of hair swung at his back like a pendulum as he shut the door breezily behind him, to all appearances completely unaffected, but left a choking trail of resentment behind him.
Heero and Relena continued talking, the latter trying to remain unruffled and composed (and also trying to manage a few sweets in her mouth before another bout of interrogation began) while the former demanded to know just what had happened—frustrated and upset something like this had escaped his radar completely.
He hovered next to her, comically seeming to try and puff up like a mother hen to shield whatever blows may befall her here, in the privacy of her own secluded home. To him, Relena was a living symbol of the peace of they had earned, and he fiercely protected her, his way of protecting the fragile standstill of war and bloodshed for as long as possible. It was Heero's way of protecting something so precious but so abstract. Peace could not be completely shielded by buildings or locked away from harm by lock and key, so he symbolically shielded it in her.
But it didn't seem that Relena needed any of Heero's stern coddling. Quatre looked back at the closed door again, as if pulled by an inescapable wire of suffering Duo strung about the room. After a moment's silent consideration, he turned back to see Heero faithfully inquiring about the incident, his eyes intently set upon her face while political calculations went coursing through his brain. Quatre couldn't help but think how much he looked like an overbearing director there, trying to steer his young actress muse in what he saw as the right direction.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked. "They didn't try to attack you otherwise?"
Apparently having her share of coddling concern, Relena tried to avert it by changing the subject, but it was a vain attempt when dealing with Heero Yuy. When she asked how he had been during her absence, he immediately responded with another question.
Quatre sat up and quickly interrupted. "You look rather tired, Relena," he said compassionately. "You've had a long flight. I think you'd appreciate a long, hot shower, don't you? I've got something to discuss with Heero, anyway, and you could use a little relaxation."
Relena looked at Quatre like he was a miracle worker. "Yes, I would like that." And, after stuffing the last of the chocolate cherry truffles between her lips, smiling, and giving Heero a parting peck on the mouth, rose from the couch in her pale blue dress and traveled up the stairs, kicking off her shoes and carrying them in hand as she walked. Her fiancé, however, did not impart such a grateful expression on him, instead deciding to send him a more withering glance that clearly exhibited his aggravation with his decision.
"I am not overbearing, Quatre," he said, knowing that innocent face wasn't exactly what it seemed.
"I didn't say that, Heero."
The Japanese man glanced again up the stairs as the blonde woman disappeared into their bedroom, exhausted from her flight, then sighed. "But you think it. Concern isn't a crime," he said quietly, though not compromising an inch on his stern tone. "I just worry about her."
"It isn't a crime," Quatre cried back quickly. "I'm not accusing you of anything, Heero. But I do think you should give her some room to breathe. She's had a tough time; she needs it. That's all I'm saying."
"Were you aware of this happening?" he asked sharply.
"We would have told you the second we found out," Trowa answered, thankfully more calm than the other two. Heero's gaze turned to rest on him, still defensive from staring at Quatre and warily training on him. "We're just as shocked as you. Neither Quatre nor I had any idea about this until she came home. How could we? We never watch television, and you're the one who hates reading the newspaper."
Not pleased. Fiery blue turned back to Quatre. He was obviously frustrated. He hesitated before speaking again, unable to form the right words in his bluster and settling for ones he was well familiar with. "I am not overbearing."
"Heero, stop it. I never said you were. Why are you acting this way?"
When Heero's gaze didn't soften and he stiffened up, looking no less soothed by the moment, Trowa quickly straightened up in the defense of his own fiancé. "Calm down, Heero. We're not attacking you. And we're not hiding anything from you, so what's your problem?"
The Japanese man pinched his lips together, unable to wrestle down the overwhelming sense of betrayal stewing in his belly, agitated by Quatre's concerned look, to answer that question. He simply medicated it with a dosage of stubbornness, of which he had a more than bountiful amount storming inside. He couldn't think straight enough to respond rationally, anyway, and stood up, chocolate box in hand, and answered caustically, "I'm overbearing."
And with that, he stalked upstairs after his wife-to-be, leaving a strain of exasperation in the air, only adding to the pang of resentment Duo had left behind him. This left Quatre's head rather congested and he sighed, leaning back into the couch with a hand at his temple. Trowa, who was calmly reclined as well, looked over at the blonde and threw an arm over his shoulder, nudging him closer. Another tired sigh left his frame as he leaned into him. He shook his head while it still rang from the sharp peak of emotion he'd felt off Heero and the lingering traces of Duo's. He instead tried to focus his senses on Trowa's, which, though it had its own troubles, was like a calm lake surface in comparison.
"What's wrong with him, I don't know," he said, "but it's giving me such a headache."
Trowa was staring up at the second-level bedroom door through which Heero had disappeared, sequestering himself in the sanctuary of his room. At least there he could have a sense of control. He let out a low whistle of amazement. "That really threw him. I haven't seen him like that since—well, have you ever seen him like that?"
Quatre scoffed. "Not this bad, no. God, I've never seen him act so childish. He's always been tubborn, yes, but something else is wrong with him."
The Heavyarms pilot remained silent for a moment, carefully weighing his words before they left his mouth. He seemed to find himself doing that more and more often, especially around the tender subject that Heero was becoming among his friends, and it reminded him all too thoroughly of all those years ago, when Quatre had called him from a hospital in St. Petersburg and the many black days that had followed. "That really frightened him, being so oblivious to the fact she may have been in danger. He was only worried, Quatre. You know how he gets when he's anxious. He can't just sit still and let things happen to him or around him."
"But he doesn't stay up all night, stoking a fire to keep her warm while she sleeps," he muttered in return, hand tiredly thrown over his face.
"Does Duo know about this?"
"No," Quatre said. "I don't think he does." Then, he hesitated. "Well—no, I'm not sure if he does or not."
Trowa tilted his head to look at him, giving it that knowing angle as his fiancé turned to meet the gaze. "He left in quite a hurry just now. He was content to talk to us and Relena, but couldn't get out of here fast enough when her husband-to-be came around."
By now, all the cheerful color of Quatre's face seemed to have disappeared to destinations unknown and far less troubled than where he sat, looking more and more defeated as he realized the weight of truth of his words—and then applied them to what he understood of said parties' relationship. It wasn't exactly what he would have liked to been worried about. He would have rather been fretting over how his tuxedo looked, or something satisfyingly trivial like that. And it was what caused him to bury his face in his hands and shake his head.
"I don't like this at all, Trowa. I don't like having to talk about the two of my best friends like this, and wonder if something is so terribly wrong between them," he groaned. "Allah, but it worries me."
The Heavyarms pilot seemed to be weighing something heavily in his mind before he spoke up solemnly. "We can always ask Duo if he knows. It'd be a start to finding out the truth behind this, at least." He smiled quietly and leaned down to look Quatre in the eye, still gently holding him to his side. "Heero needs our help again. You know he does, just as much as he did then."
"Right," he murmured back, looking distant. "But I still hate doing this to him. Sometimes it seems to hurt him so much to take our help."
Trowa snorted and smiled. "That's only because he's a stubborn bastard—through no fault of his own."
The bathroom door was cracked open, letting the steam accumulating inside slowly sift out, and it was where Heero's eyes rested lifelessly as his mind left him there, hollowly standing beside a bedpost with a only hand steadying him. He stood there silently in his bedroom. Snowflakes began drifting quietly outside as the sky dimmed to the rhythm of water streaming from the showerhead. Relena's blue dress was laid out on the bed, her matching shoes laid haphazardly on the carpet in a trail leading to the bathroom. But Heero was distant as he observed these things, again finding himself like a spectator to his own life, removed from the experience, only watching from the safety of a hazy cinema screen.
His eyes eventually flickered and came to rest on the white box of chocolates laid on the bed. He didn't need to move the lid or to count the empty spaces where there should have been a chocolate-covered cherry truffle, to feel an unpleasant lump in the pit of his stomach or to picture the lifeless smirk Duo bore at him as he walked in the house. The false way his face revealed nothing but a deliberate expression that was programmed and charted precisely to show nothing of consequence at all. Heero felt a sigh run through him, felt his body become somehow heavier just at that image, ghosted by that of Duo Maxwell sadly admitting how much of a coward he was. It would not leave him.
The worse part was knowing his face hid something, but not knowing what it was. Something lay there, in the way, between him and the truth he hid.
Heero did not notice that Relena had stepped out of the bathroom and was watching him. Steam poured out behind her, with her damp hair hanging around her face and a towel wrapped tightly around her. Her gentle blue eyes cautiously blinked at him, as if cautiously examining him for signs of life. She felt a lump in her own throat. She recognized that distant and bodiless look in Heero's eyes, when he was light years away from the grounding feel of the earth and instead a captive of his mind. She knew it all too well.
She called his name quietly and he did not move. Not even the slightest twitch of recognition. She sighed, "Oh, Heero," as she moved nearer, careful not to startle him.
He finally came back to life as she reached up and touched his arm, and startled anyway, sucking in a deep breath as if preparing for a blow and to defend himself. He jerked automatically away from her touch, unsettled by the sudden transition back to reality. She did not flinch, standing just a few inches short of him, and watched with a painful pang of lament as he took a second to recognize her, uncertainty instead flashing in his eyes for a moment. And then, his deadened face filled with an old sadness and he mumbled an apology.
Concern crossed her face, stronger than it had for months. She reached up and gently held the side of his face, keeping him grounded with a comforting touch from once again falling into the deep abyss of painful memories he contained. "What's wrong?"
He knew the question asked much more than simply why he had been standing there silently, but he could not answer it—how could he put that image into words and tell her? And how could he make her worry by answering truthfully, that he felt an incurable something coming over him, stronger than anything he'd felt for so many years?
So he lied and said instead, "I'm tired, that's all." He shook his head when she gave him another gentle but unconvinced look. "Really."
"You look exhausted, Heero," she said, then unhappily grimaced, looking troubled. "But that's not it, is it?" When she received no answer, she asked, "Why don't you say anything? You know you can tell me, if anyone, Heero. You know I'll always be here to listen."
But he said nothing. She sighed sadly at him. The Japanese man only stood there and buried himself in the embrace, putting his forehead against her shoulder as she reached up and held him, resting her hands on his back as if it could hold him in reality and keep him from the grief spreading within him like a cancer.
Duo had "the face" prepared and ready for when he stepped out of the garage and nudged the door behind him with a foot, acting as casual as he could muster. Freshly dressed and mop of hair successfully tamed for the day, he had expected at least some sign of life out in the living room—after all, that's where everybody had been when he'd left them, those parties he'd rather not see kissing Heero Yuy included as well. So when he reentered the room, only a short time after strolling out of it, feeling a certain sentiment of being unwelcome and therefore feeling no guilt in excusing himself to parts more accommodating, nobody was there.
Now, naturally, Duo found this to be quite of the ordinary. Normally, you would expect to find at least one of the four remaining after a span of only ten minutes, but none were to be seen. He cautiously peered back and forth around the room from the safety of the doorframe, sniffing around for signs of foul play. Something was not right about this, he knew, and his strangely-colored eyes fixated on a particular spot, burning a hole in the wall where his memory of the Prime Minister crashing into his best friend replayed cruelly. He broke the gaze, pushing the image at bay for a moment, while he shut the door behind him without a noise.
And an unusual silence followed it.
Jesus, did I miss the Apocalypse or something?
Just to remedy the unsettling sound of nothingness settling over the house all of a sudden, even void of the sound of eager paws flying across the floorboards, Duo stepped purposely heavily as he wandered back into the living room. There was no way he'd simply misplaced four human beings, or managed to lose track of them, like a pair of car keys. He'd left them here, and by all logic, they shouldn't have just vanished in a few moments. For heaven's sake—he'd heard them through the door arguing just minutes after he'd left, rather blinded and ready to change out of his tank and boxer shorts.
Nothing. Duo even missed the sound of proverbial crickets chirping a lonely response.
Duo even checked underneath the couch, pressing his cheek flat to the carpet, butt in the air. "'lo? Quat? Tro? Anybody home?"
Lifting his head, twisting the left corner of his grimace back toward his ear in a uniquely Heero-ish style, he glanced around again and muttered to himself. "Something is definitely up. Nice of them though to run off without breathing a word of it to little ol' Duo. Nah, he doesn't need to know."
Suddenly, a pair of unmistakable voices appeared above him. The former Deathscythe pilot whipped his head silently toward the sound, lips tightly pinched together, lifting an eyebrow in curiosity as he watched the blonde and his fiancé step quietly out of Heero's room on the second floor. First instinct and trained reaction told him to unleash a smile, authenticity optional, and call out to greet them. But morbid fascination made him hesitate, crouching near to the couch, and simply wait a moment, blinking silently. He watched Trowa give an uncharacteristic grunt of frustration as he silently slid the door shut, easing the transition with his palm against the door. Quatre stood, ramrod straight, seething a worry and anger that transformed his gentle countenance into something fiery and reckoning. Duo could taste the argument in the air—but why had they ushered themselves into Heero's room, and then so abruptly exited?
Their lips began moving furiously back and forth with exchanges of opinion and rebuttals, all at a level just beyond Duo's comprehension. A sudden, deep pang of paranoia told him that it was about him and the ungentle way his friends' lips twisted into those familiar syllables confirmed it as a certain coldness settled deep into his stomach. Duo cautiously kept his eyes trained on the pair as he moved, shadow-quiet, around the far end of the couch. He was determined to know just what the hell was so damned upsetting about him that Quatre was verbally punching his name out of his mouth, a heartbroken but heated light in his eyes.
He slunk, nearly too fast to be seen and too carefully done to be caught, to the wall just below the two lovebirds. Just out of their sight, he was finally close enough to catch the actual sounds of their conversation rather than a dubious translation off their fast-moving lips. He didn't feel quite so bad to know he was eavesdropping in a rather vile way on his best friends when he realized that Heero was also getting a verbal licking in their conversation as Quatre cursed him for being such a coward.
"We have to talk to him." Trowa.
"Yes, but do you really suggest doing that right now?"
"Would you rather wait until we've traveled halfway around the globe to solve this situation? Would that be more productive?"
The slight blonde sounded rather angry as he responded, still trying to keep his voice low as frustration flooded it. "Why can't this wait just a day? A few hours, Trowa? I'm not going to go in there and wake him when he's in such a fragile state to just to dredge up painful emotions against his will and further upset him! And I'll be damned if you do it, or let Relena, for that matter!"
Duo let out a low whistle to himself. "Sheeyit. Never heard Quat swear—and no fucking way at Trowa!" he whispered.
Perhaps even more chilling was the firm and monotone voice Trowa adapted; his tone was far less amicable and compromising than it had been even in the war. "I'm equally concerned, but I will not allow any of this to progress further. Heero needs intervention before he begins hurting himself again—we all ignored the signs the first time Quatre, and he'll never be the same for it again. I'm willing to risk a little lack of sleep to—"
"He can't go through something like that. He's exhausted. Anything we try to accomplish will just pain him more if we don't let him recuperate a little. He won't say a word if he's too tired to think straight. You saw how he was this morning—"
"Then talk to Duo, at least!"
This seemed to set him back for a moment; all he responded with was a frustrated silence, no doubt boring a powerful look at his fiancé.
"Neither you nor I want anything to happen. But we need to act if we want to prevent something—if we really believe something harmful is going on, we can't sit back and let it seethe." Trowa was calmer now, but something about his even tone sent a chill cleanly down Duo's spine as he stood there beneath them, a wallflower to a desperate exchange, violet depths blankly gazing out into the snow-lit room.
Quatre sighed. His following words stabbed Duo in the chest to hear them spoken so bluntly. "Duo is just as likely to lie about it as is Heero. I can just see the way he'll grin and completely disrespect the question—if he doesn't want to talk about it, then he's even worse than Heero."
"He'll listen to you."
"Like Heero will listen to you?" There was a barb in Quatre's voice and Duo would have enjoyed a little mental commentary about needing a little more sleep or a little more action with himself had he not been currently shocked and hurt by Quatre's opinion of him and prediction of his behavior. Sure—it was basically true—but it still stung him, imagining the expression accompaning those words.
What the hell do they want from me? And what's so wrong with Heero?
Another noise—the doorknob twisting to open a moment later—quieted their argument. Relena stepped out of the door with a subdued, even ashen expression and caught the gazes of Trowa and Quatre, who tensed a little at her unexpected entrance. With a sigh she pushed a few stray bangs out of heir face and closed the door behind her before she leaned against the door itself. They'd never seen the Vice Foreign Minister seem to simply droop, like a bloom in a cold snap, since they'd visited a Russian hospital years ago.
"He's finally sleeping," she uttered. "Though he didn't want to be." The words were struggling out of her mouth, weighted by something terribly heavy. Her blue eyes flickered back and forth from them, more slowly than normal. "Do you know what's wrong with him?"
They both truthfully shook their heads.
"Well," she managed out, racked with another sigh, "I think I'll stay with him for a little while longer. He'll be out for some time now."
"Hopefully," Quatre added solemnly. The well-placed glance from Trowa was not lost on him, either.
"Why don't you two get out of here for a while?" A weak smile crossed her face. She tried hard to not to let her concern blare through her attempt at humor. "I've had enough of haunted faces around here. Take Duo out to see the city. He'll enjoy it, and he doesn't need to see Heero like this."
Quatre nodded, smiling back at her, before following Trowa back down the stairs and allowing her to silently slip back into the room and disappear. The pilots had just gotten to the bottom of the stairs when the garage door cracked open and the American slid out, just finishing the bottom of his braid and curling the long plait of hair around to the front as he tied off the end, whistling an old pre-colony tune to himself, the picture of innocence. Quatre grimaced to himself before calling out to Duo, preparing to take the Minister's advice to the fullest, if only to distract himself a little as well. He could tell this was not going to be fun when Duo looked up at him with those knowing eyes and a hypocrite of a carefree smile.
No actor was perfect.