Title: Absence

Author: Sorceress Fantasia

Pairings: 1+2

Warnings: Slight angst

Archive: Lev's Lair

Fanfiction.net

Anyone else, just ask. ^^

Disclaimer: I'd just implemented my latest plans, but even the giant bed and the chest of toys failed to lure any of the GW gang over. So no, I don't own any of the GW gang or the anime.

Note: Written for Moments of Rapture 2003 Contest, and inspired by a conversation a long time ago.

Thanx to Duo-chan for beta-ing efforts! ^^

Duo fumbled with the keys to his apartment, ready to curse the thing to hell and back when he couldn't find the one he wanted. His slippery fingers did not help, and he could almost swear his keys had morphed into some eel that was refusing to stay put in his hands. Oh yes, he could just see it in the headlines, the discovery of a new species: the key eel. Slippery as hell, and irritating to boot, especially when you need it. Eventually, the keys slithered out of his hands and fell onto the ground with a loud 'thud'.

Sighing, Duo knelt down to retrieve it. Just then, the door creaked open, and a stream of light flooded the dark corridor.

And standing at the door, drenched in light as though it was a halo, was Heero. He peered down at the kneeling figure, looking almost torn between amusement and worry. At last, he settled for amusement.

"Please rise, my humble subject," he said with just the slightest hint of a smile tugging at his lips.

Duo rolled his eyes, but still answered, "Thank you, your *Majesty*." He made a face at the title, and grabbed onto Heero's outstretched hand to get up. Once inside the apartment, he felt a lot warmer but still couldn't suppress the slight shivering that seemed to stem from a coldness that was inside him. It must be the rain, he told himself, though he didn't quite believe it.

"Hey, if you were at the door, why didn't you just open it for me and spare me all the humiliation of losing to a bunch of keys?" he asked, throwing his pouch onto the ground. It fell onto the tiled floor with a sodden sound, but it didn't bother Duo too much.

"I wasn't aware that you were outside until I heard the keys fall. And it was only because I was about to go out to look for you that I was even near the door," Heero replied, slotting the two umbrellas back into their stand as he gave his friend a quick once-over. "You're completely drenched like some stray cat. Go get changed. I'll get you something warm." He made a beeline for the kitchen without waiting for a response of any sort.

Duo sighed. When had Heero Yuy, ex-pilot extraordinaire, transformed into mother hen extraordinaire? Ever since they had moved in together after the war, seeing how it made sense to share the cost of one apartment instead of two, Heero had *nearly* become the epitome of everything there was to care for. He fussed over Duo's choice of unhealthy snacks, worried over his occasional lack of sleep, and even the brand of shampoo he always used. Somehow, Heero always found something to be worried over.

But it was just 'nearly'. Because apparently, Heero never quite gave a damn about his own welfare. At least, he was still chomping down those horrible tasting ration bars for breakfast and his obsession with his laptop was still as strong as ever. Duo was just counting down the days when he would burn his retinas.

Still, Duo thought as he walked into his bathroom, he wasn't quite as bad as Quatre. And that was good enough.

Quickly, he peeled off his completely soaked clothes and dumped them unceremoniously into the laundry basket. Snatching his fluffy towel off the rack, he wrapped it around his shivering frame and dried himself as much as he could. His braid was still dripping though, and he had to use another towel just to wring all the water out. By the time he was going back to the living room again, he had already changed into a set of dry clothes that still wasn't quite warm enough.

Heero had probably guessed that, and he handed Duo a mug of hot chocolate. It was thick, and so sweet it could give concentrated syrup a run for its money. In other words, it was just the way he liked it.

"Hey thanks, Heero. Nothing works better than hot chocolate to warm you up!" he chirped, nursing his mug carefully. Strutting over to the window that took up a large part of the entire wall, he plopped himself onto the ledge.

"You're welcome," Heero shrugged carelessly. Then he peered at his companion through narrow eyes, crossing his arms. "Where did you go anyway? And why didn't you just call me so I could go pick you up instead of running through the downpour and getting completely soaked? And…" he paused, just in time to stop his words from getting drowned out by an especially loud clap of thunder.

It was as though that was a prompt, and the entire house went dark.

"It's a blackout…" he noted, almost disturbed that the power box could possibly get fried so easily. With a sigh, he headed to get his tools to fix it.

"Hold on a sec. Can't you just fix it later? It's nice like this, you know?" Duo remarked absently and, ignoring Heero's protest, slid the window open. The chilly winds fluttered in, and he held his mug of hot chocolate close to his chest like a little treasure chest he cherished. Looking out at the darkened skies and the streams of water still falling down, his eyes clouded over with nostalgia.

"Rain is beautiful, don't you think?"

Heero blinked. That had certainly popped up rather suddenly. After all, he had never thought of rain that way. To him, rain was just part of nature's hydrological cycle. It was the same as snow, just warmer. Useful and essential, yes. Beautiful? He wasn't sure. After all, it was just water, much like those flowing out of the tap. What was so beautiful about tap water?

"It washes away all the dirt, grime and blood…"

Ah, that he understood. It was almost the same reason why he liked snow. Almost. Snow, pure white snow, could offer the dead a blanket and hence spare the survivors from seeing. The land could be saturated with red, red blood, but the snow would cover all that up in a vast blanket of whiteness. But why was Duo saying all that now? It had already been a full three years since the war, and all the Gundam pilots were absolved of their war crimes by the world sphere government. Indeed, Heero was sure that all of them would always carry the guilt, the burden, but as far as he could tell, there was no need for Duo to get upset over that all of a sudden. And this wasn't any special occasion, as far as he could remember.

"Duo?" he asked tentatively.

But still, Duo didn't turn his way. His eyes were still gazing at the steady fall of rain, the monotony broken only by an occasional clap of thunder and the spider web of lightning streaks dancing across the sky.

"I went to the church today. It was really small, and there was just one priest and one nun inside, handling a whole bunch of rowdy kids. Just for a moment, I thought I had gone back in time," Duo said softly, his voice almost drowned out by a sudden flash of lightning that lit up his silhouette.

Heero's face softened, finally understanding where all the melancholy was coming from. Duo seldom went to the church; after all, it was the house of a god he didn't believe in. But when he did go, it was to remember that quaint little church that had given him a home and the first few tastes of love in his childhood. Today was surely an important date then, enough to make him more upset than usual. The anniversary of the day when his home was so rudely taken away from him, perhaps?

A breeze of cool wind mixed with traces of rain blew in, and the curtains fluttered like graceful dancers reveling in the darkness. Outside, the storm persisted, and Heero could hear a distant rumble. It seemed that the bad weather wasn't going to end any time soon, and so would Duo's mood. Somehow, what Duo felt seemed to reflect the day's weather. Or perhaps, it was the other way around.

"And suddenly, a stray thought just hit me. What if… I mean, just what if… I had died along with them, back then?"

The silence intensified, and for a while, Heero thought he was going to suffocate in the stillness. This wasn't right. He was the suicidal one, the one that seemed to have what Duo always called 'the insane urge to keep just one step behind Death'. Not Duo. Not when he was more alive within than anyone he knew.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, Heero put a hand on Duo's shoulders. Willing for his friend to see what he truly felt, he answered, "Then this world would probably not be what it is today. Quatre would not have a doting brother; Trowa would lose a good friend; and no one would be able to stop Wufei's justice rants. And… I wouldn't be here today. You've saved us all, Duo, one way or another. Don't ever forget that."

The braided boy looked slightly taken aback before he finally summoned up a faint smile. "Yeah… I suppose so. If I wasn't around, God knows how many times you'd push that self-destruct button in Wing before the end of the war. Or maybe you don't even need Wing to self-destruct," he chuckled lightly, then turned back to face the raging storm outside. The unique smell of rain was coming in now, and Duo reveled in it. It was as though the smell was a stimulant that pulled out the floodgate of memories, and images of happy days collecting rainwater with Sister Helen replayed in his mind's eyes.

"You know, if you want to talk… I'll… well, always be right here," Heero offered, knowing how much Duo needed human contact at times.

Duo laughed aloud, nearly choking on his hot chocolate. "During the war, I never thought I would live to hear you ask me to talk. Back then, you'd always give me this 'no nonsense, baka' face and bark at me to shut up. Who'd have thought you'd change so much?"

Heero had the decency to at least flush a little, but he managed to retort, "Well, it's your fault, Duo Maxwell!"

"My fault?"

"Well, you're always so vibrant, so active, so lively… how can one not be affected? Besides, I live with you. All the more time for you to 'corrupt' the soldier in me, isn't it?"

Duo blinked, then his eyes glazed over again. "Lively? How can I be lively? How can Shinigami be lively?" At Heero's protest, he continued, "I know it's after the war, and we should have shed our war persona by now… But, I think… perhaps, Shinigami isn't just that. He's a part of what makes me Duo Maxwell, and you can't change that. Ever. He's the coldness, the darkness within me. Maybe that's why the church got destroyed, as punishment for taking in Death… One of the older kids at the church called me that, you know? He must have recognized me from some newspaper clippings back from the war. I can't blame him. Who knows? I might have been the one to make him an orphan."

For a while, neither said a word. Duo was just content to wallow in his thoughts, looking at the rain fall from the sky as though they were broken necklaces of pearls and feeling the wind cut into his face like blades of chilliness. Heero would probably never understand just how walking through the rain made him feel good. It made him feel good because it felt as though someone… someone up there was cleansing him, purifying him. And just for that moment, he could convince himself that someone was absolving him from the guilt that had plagued him for all his life. The guilt of not being able to save Solo and the rest who had died from the plague, the guilt of not being able to stop the rebels from breaking into the church, and the guilt of killing in the name of peace.

Heero could not understand that. No, he would probably just admonish him for not taking care of himself.

"Duo, is there such a thing as cold?"

He blinked, and peered at his roommate through his still wet bangs. "What?"

"Answer me, Duo. Is there such a thing as cold?" Heero asked again, seriousness belying his tone and his piercing eyes.

"Of course. You can't have heat without cold." His tone clearly spoke of his confusion to this sudden inquiry.

Heero shook his head faintly, his expression unreadable. "No, Duo. There isn't. You can have a little heat, a lot of heat, and even more heat. But you can't have cold because there is no such thing. It's not energy. You can't measure it. Cold… is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat."

Duo clasped his mug closer, biting his lower lip and looking up. In the coldness of the room, he felt like shivering.

"What about darkness then, Duo? Is there such a thing as darkness?"

Again, the braided boy nodded, but he didn't look as confident as before.

"You're wrong again. You can have a little light, normal light and bright light… but if you have no light at all, it's called darkness, isn't it? Like coldness, darkness isn't energy. It's just the absence of light."

As if on cue, the room was lit up by a bright streak of lightning, dancing wildly and feverishly outside. Then the light went away again, and the room went dark again. In the darkness that was flooding the room, Duo felt alone, even when he knew he wasn't.

"It's much like death, actually," Heero added softly. "Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Death cannot exist as a substantive thing."

"What… what are you trying to tell me?"

"You said that Shinigami is the darkness, the coldness within you. So doesn't that mean that you lack light and warmth? But you can find warmth easily with this," he pointed at the mug of hot chocolate in Duo's hands, "and light comes easily if you have this," he clicked on the button of a small torchlight which he dug out from his pocket. "And if you are indeed Shinigami, doesn't that mean that you lack life? But life is something that you have to search for yourself, work for yourself, and live for yourself. You don't live for anybody else, so you shouldn't give up your life in your guilt over the loss of others. Your life belongs to you and only you."

If it were at all possible, Duo looked more lost than before. His grip on the mug tightened. Finally, he said, "But what if I can't find it? I think… that I've been looking for a reason to live all these years, but what I've found is just how to survive. It's not… life. Surviving and living are different, and I think that I've just been surviving all my existence."

Heero nodded. "I can't say for sure if you'll ever find what you're looking for, but I know that you won't ever find it if you won't even try."

The braided boy chuckled, sounding almost bitter. "I guess you're right… Hey, Heero. Have you found yours yet?" he asked, then blinked when he noticed Heero's shoulders stiffen.

It was a while before he answered.

"Yeah, mostly."

"What is it?"

"It's an emotion. I can't tell you anymore than that."

"You're doing this on purpose, aren't you? You know how curious I am!"

Heero peered up from under his bangs, the slightest hints of a creeping redness on his face showing. "You really want to know?"

Duo just gave him a 'look'.

"You asked for it yourself. Don't blame me if you don't like it," Heero mumbled, and suddenly he lunged forward. With one hand cupping Duo's cheek, he pressed his lips against his forehead. "Get it now?" he asked, when he backed away from his obviously startled friend.

The braided boy cocked his head to one side, eyes accessing Heero's reaction. He was flushing to the roots of his hair, that much he could tell. And his posture was tense, almost as though he was ready to flee from the 'crime scene' immediately if there was anything wrong. Finally, Duo asked innocently, "Friendship?"

"No!" Heero yelled, looking like he was going to cry, tear out his hair and stomp his feet. Those urges intensified when he noticed Duo's surprise. "Just… pretend I never did anything, okay? I'm going to fix the power box now…"

Just as he was going to leave and get his toolbox, he felt someone tug at his shirt. Almost hopefully, he turned back. "Duo?"

"You… live for that emotion? The emotion between a girl and a boy that is stronger than friendship?"

Heero shook his head gently but firmly. "I live for an emotion that is greater than that. An emotion that crosses the boundaries of friendship and gender…"

Duo looked away. "I've never thought about living for emotions, and I'm not sure if I ever will accept the notion of living for that emotion you're talking about." It was as though he could sense Heero's growing distress, and he lifted his head with a grin, "But maybe I can try? After all, you *are* my best friend, the one I care the most about."

"I understand," Heero replied, but even he could not mask the disappointment that was spreading across his face like a ripple on water.

"Right, we can try together…" Duo nodded as a confirmation, both to Heero and to himself. Then his smirk turned playful. "And maybe we can try breathing some life into me now? You did say I lacked life…"

Heero's face underwent an amazing transformation in that flicker of a second, and he wasted no time. Leaning in, he gently guided Duo's lips to his own, his free arm slowly wrapping around Duo's lithe frame.

Duo's own free arm wound around Heero's neck, urging for more. His other hand, however, kept a tight grasp on the mug of now cold chocolate, unwilling to let go. The warmth would always be there.

Outside, the rain continued to fall, but the howling winds had tempered to a soft whisper and the rain itself reduced to a steady drizzle. And the sky rumbled again.

'Rain, rain, come again. Little Duo wants to play...'

Sorceress Fantasia @ 18th November 2003

Last beta-ed 27th November