TITLE: Never Again

AUTHOR: Shira

PAIRINGS: HxOC, 2xH

WARNINGS: AU, 2+H, angst, violence and physical abuse as subject matter, implied NCS, PG-17

EMAIL: shira_uma@hotmail.com

LYRIC CREDIT: Nickelback, Never Again

********

Crawling up the two flights of stairs for the umpteenth time, Duo Maxwell stopped at the top, letting his burden rest on the floor before continuing. Catching his breath, he shook his head and thought to himself "Next time you move, make sure NOT to do it on a holiday weekend when every person you know is off doing 'family things'." Picking up the heavy box one more time he strained to lift it, then slowly made his way down the short hall to his new apartment door. Adding the box to the pile of other boxes already in the middle of the floor, he turned around to do it all over again, only this time was surprised to find someone in the doorway. Stopping just shy of knocking her over, Duo halted in front of the raven-haired girl and blushed.

"Oh…sorry. Didn't see you there." He apologized for nearly running her over.

"That's OK." The girl answered. She looked to be about Duo's same age, he estimated. "I'm Hilde. I live in the next apartment. Can I help you with anything?" Her blue eyes twinkled.

Holding out a hand to shake hers, Duo answered, "I'm Duo. Duo Maxwell. Umm…sure…if you really wanna help…I have more boxes in the truck. And then a few pieces of furniture, but not much."

Smiling, Hilde turned and started down the flight of stairs. "Then lets get to work!" Duo grinned, following the girl, and suddenly wasn't so upset that all his buddies were off doing other things that day.

For the rest of that afternoon, Hilde helped Duo relocate his belongings into the new apartment on the second floor, the one next to hers. One by one they took boxes up, then went back down. Up, down. Up down. Until finally everything had been unloaded and lay piled in the tiny living room of the three-room apartment. Sitting on a couple of boxes, both Duo and Hilde rested for a bit before she jumped up.

"Why don't I whip us up something to eat for lunch?" She was already halfway down the hall as Duo called out the apartment door.

"Yeah, sure that would be great! Can I help you with that?" He rose and followed her to the door of her apartment. Just as he was about to enter she rushed over to the door nervously.

"Oh…Umm...I'll bring it to you in you're apartment." Her eyes were suddenly different. Worried. "This place is a mess, and I wouldn't want you to think I live like this all the time now." Hilde forced a fake smile.

"It looks fine to me," Duo replied, peering in the door. "Come on…you helped me with the boxes. Let me give you a hand with lunch. It's the least I can do."

With a forceful "No!" Hilde practically pushed Duo out the door, then stopped in the hall to collect herself. "I'll be over in ten minutes with lunch." She then turned abruptly and disappeared into her apartment, leaving Duo more than slightly confused. Shrugging and chalking it up to "women", the young man went back to his boxes, which he started moving into different piles in his small living space.

Ten minutes later, no more and no less, Hilde appeared at the door with a tray of food for them. Sandwiches, chips, iced tea and wedges of dill pickle. Setting the tray down on one of the boxes, she sat on the floor and nodded to Duo to join her, which he did. Neither spoke much while they ate. It wasn't until he'd finished his lunch that Duo began with the small talk.

"So, Hilde…what do you do?" he asked.

Keeping her eyes on her sandwich she replied "Right now all I do is work part time down at the Wal-Mart." She swallowed, then let her eyes meet Duo's with a hopeful smile. "But I'm half way through school to become a school teacher. I love kids."

Smiling back Duo answered "That's great."

"What about you?" the pretty girl questioned.

"Me…well…I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Right now I'm doing a lot of computer consulting and such. Web page design, you know. That's what most of these boxes are full of." He pointed a thumb over his shoulder towards the boxes. "Computer equipment. I guess I'm a bit of a computer geek, even though I don't really look like one."

"Well…the computer geek of today is somewhat different than before." Hilde grinned, grabbing Duo's long braided ponytail and flopping it back down on his back. "Actually…you're kinda cute, if I do say so myself."

Blushing, Duo started "Eh…whatever. But anyway, my lease was up at my old place, and I needed a new one. This area seemed nice so…here I am!"

Hilde grimaced slightly. "Yeah…it's OK. The building is nice. It's been really quiet here, but that's partly because only two of the four apartments have been rented."

"I guess I make three then." The longhaired man smiled warmly. Looking around he added, "So…when I get this place cleaned up, you wanna join me for a nice dinner or something? I can actually cook! I make a mean Greek pasta with shrimp. We could pop open a bottle of wine…"

"Umm…Thanks," Hilde offered. "But I don't think I could do that." She started to gather up the plates and glasses to take them back to her apartment." She smiled a shy smile, then looked away.

"Awww…why not?" Duo asked playfully, trying to be friendly.

"It's Steven. My boyfriend." She hurried as she gathered everything and started for the door. "He's not very…sociable, really. And I know a threesome isn't really what you had in mind anyway." She rushed out the apartment door and down the hall with Duo walking slowly behind her.

When he'd reached her door, he stood just outside, then added, "Well…maybe lunch again then. I want to properly thank you for all the help and your hospitality."

Nodding nervously, Hilde said "Sure. Umm…some other time. But I better get a few things done here anyway before Steven gets home from his job so…I'll see you later on Duo?" Before he could answer, she shut the door in his face. Standing utterly confused as to what had just happened there, Duo remained for a moment before turning and going back to his own place.



After spending what seemed like an entire lifetime putting things away, setting up furniture and stuffing things into new hiding places, Duo plopped himself, exhausted, onto the mattresses that were still laid on the floor awaiting the bed frame to be put together. He tossed his shoes off, pulled a blanket over his still-clothed body, then lay and thought for a while – first about how to set up his new living room, second about getting some groceries that next day, and lastly, about his odd encounter with his new neighbor today. On that thought his mind concentrated for quite a while, wondering what the strange feeling was that he was getting from that girl. He was good at feeling "energies" given off by people, and hers was very conflicting. On the one hand, she seemed genuinely happy to see a new face moving into the building, and was very friendly and hospitable. But then as soon as the conversation leaned a little toward her, she suddenly became very cold…almost fearful. Shrugging it off, Duo resigned himself to the fact that whatever it was, he would have to find out later, because he was exhausted. Closing his eyes one last time, sleep took him as he drifted off into a much-needed rest.

Awakening to the sounds of thumping, Duo opened his eyes and rubbed them. He looked over to the alarm clock on the floor, next to the mattresses. 1:30 am. He'd only been asleep for about two hours. The loud thumping repeated, and he realized it was coming from down the hall. Listening silently, Duo began to overhear some commotion going on in the next apartment, but he wasn't really sure what. But he was new in the building, so far be it for him to complain about noise late at night yet…he didn't want to make enemies that quickly, especially with a new friendship hopefully forming between he and Hilde.

Rolling over and pulling the cover close, Duo started to fall asleep again, but still heard occasional movement coming from the apartment next door for the following half hour. Then he sighed solemnly as he heard what he recognized to be crying…female crying…and a lump formed in his stomach, he didn't know why. "Must be one hell of an argument those two are having." He thought, and forced his mind to block out any further noise so he could sleep.



The next morning, Duo was up and dressed in clean clothes and headed out to get his groceries. Upon stepping into the hallway and locking his door he happened across another guy, about his age, just leaving the other apartment. Nodding and smiling, he acknowledged the other man, and in return all he got were two wary brown eyes peeking out behind dirty blonde bangs as the other man hurried to the landing and down the flight of steps. That, Duo assumed, must be Steven. Waiting until he could hear the main door close as Steven exited the building, Duo went to the door of the other apartment and hesitated in front of it. He then knocked quietly. There was no answer. Knocking again, this time he spoke.

"Hilde? You there? It's Duo…next door." There was shuffling behind the door, and finally the sound of the lock being undone. As the door opened, Hilde's sad blue eyes met his violet ones. "Uummm…I-I was going to get some groceries and I was…umm…" His eyes wandered past her to spy on the disheveled apartment. "I was thinking you might want to come with me, and maybe we could grab some lunch? As friends, you know?"

At first her face was a stone, but eventually relaxed into a half-warm smile. "Well," she began, "I don't have to work until this afternoon so, I guess that would be alright." She paused. "I'll be out in a minute." Then she closed the door. About five minutes later she re-emerged, dressed and ready to leave.

They took Duo's truck. Hilde recommended the best place to get the least expensive groceries and the best produce, and they mingled for about and hour and a half, buying everything from ketchup to ice cream to microwave popcorn…and healthy food too. Had to have something healthy, Hilde insisted, as she stuffed the shopping cart full of healthful things. The shopping trip was fun, and the two enjoyed each other's company, getting more familiar with each other. On the way back to the apartment building, Hilde showed Duo some of the local sights too.

After dropping off groceries and putting the cold stuff away, Duo grabbed Hilde's hand and dragged her back out of the apartment. "I did promise you lunch, remember?" he said to her as they jumped in his truck one more time. This time they went to a little neighborhood cafe of Hilde's choosing, and sat outside having a wonderful meal in the nice air of a crisp fall day. Munching on fancy deli sandwiches and laughing with food in their mouths, to look at the two one would swear they were a couple, they'd bonded so quickly. Hilde, after all, didn't have much time for friends since she was home during the hours that most people were at work – and when she wasn't working or alone, there was Steven to take care of. Duo being home during the day, that would prove to be a very convenient friendship, that was for sure.

Returning home, Duo held the door for Hilde as they entered the foyer to the little building, both of them licking on drippy ice cream cones and laughing all the way. Exchanging high school stories had never been so much fun, and the two barely tripped up the hall steps to the second floor. "Awww crap!" Duo swore, as the bottom of his wafer cone blew out, leaving a stream of his melted ice cream on him, the banister and the floor. They both stopped and looked for an instant before bursting into uncontrolled laughter and clawing their way up the banister to make it to the top floor. Still giggling, Hilde stopped in front of Duo's door, her cheeks red and her eyes glistening, a dollop of ice cream on the end of her nose from her attempts to keep her double scoop cone from falling over. Smiling, Duo wiped the ice cream off with his finger, then put the finger in his mouth to lick off the sweet cream. "Hmm...You taste pretty good in Death by Chocolate!" he grinned as he unlocked his door and led them in. They flopped down on the couch, still laughing, still licking, until finally the ice cream was gone and the moment had passed.

Then looking at her watch, Hilde jumped up "Ooooh!" She squealed. "I have to be at work in an hour! I have to get a shower and get ready!" In a flash she was up and headed back out, with Duo trailing her. Kissing him on the cheek, Hilde added "Thanks Duo! I had a great time."

"My pleasure!" he replied. "I'll see you around then?"

"You bet!" And with that, Hilde trotted down to the next door and disappeared into the apartment.

********

They were at it again. Covering his head with his pillow, Duo wrapped his arms around himself to try to muffle the sound of it, but for some reason he couldn't let himself 'not' hear it. The name-calling, the yelling and screaming. It would go on for half an hour, maybe longer, and then the ending was always the same. There would be things thrown, some kind of a scuffle, and then crying. Her crying. Lord only knew what, exactly, was going on in that apartment, but Duo had a good idea. He just didn't know what to do about it, if anything. It wasn't really his business, right? Getting involved with other people's domestic disputes is a good way to become extinct, he'd convinced himself. So why then, did he feel so terrible every time this went on? Why couldn't he just ignore it, or occupy himself, or turn up some music like every other person would have done by now. Instead, he just lay and listen to it, hurting inside the whole time.

Tonight, however, more than just the sounds of events next door were going through his head. There were thoughts about people. Namely, what type of person it is that is so angered and so unhappy that he feels he has to come home and take things out on his girlfriend. Duo paused, hearing Hilde's voice yell something that sounded like "Goddamnit Steven! You're drunk!" "So Steven partakes in a little beverage too...fits the description of an abuser, yup." Duo said to himself. Throwing the pillow across the room violently, he turned to look at the alarm clock, its glowing letters lighting one corner of the small bedroom. 12:53 am. It was always between the hours of eleven and two that Steven started with his fun and games – perhaps after he sauntered home from his favorite watering hole?

There was the sound of glass breaking from the area that was probably the kitchen in their apartment, followed by a few moments of silence, and then more crying as he yelled at her to pick up the glass that she'd just dropped. Same old stuff, different night. Duo sighed, thinking that Hilde sure did a good job of hiding all of this, having realized a few weeks ago why it is that she was so warm and friendly when she was away from the place, but got so cold and secretive whenever Steven came up in conversation. Its like she was embarrassed or something. There went the yelling again, then more crying like clockwork. Then the sound of someone, or something, being thrown up against the wall and silence. Whispering to himself, Duo held back his anger and said "OK...ask her tomorrow. You have to ASK HER. She's your friend, Goddamnit!" With quiet in the air, Duo did finally fall asleep, his body balled up and completely covered by his comforter, trying to hide from his thoughts.

********

Waiting until that familiar sound, the one of walking, of Steven's thunderous feet heavily treading past his apartment door and down the flight of stairs had passed, Duo listened through his door. When he recognized the sound of the lobby door out to the stoop shutting noisily as it did, he opened his door and went to Hilde's. After a moment he knocked softly and called for her. "Hilde?" There was a little bit of shuffling behind the door, and then it opened, her icy eyes staring back at him.

"Hi Duo," Hilde said very sullenly. Her face was tired and there were circles under her eyes from a bad night's sleep.

Hedging on the edge of what he really wanted to just blurt out, Duo fidgeted while he asked, "Can I come in?" She moved aside and let him pass, shutting the door behind him and locking it tight, making sure to look through the peep hole before she walked away from it.

Sitting on the very edge of the couch cushion, Duo looked obviously uncomfortable, and he was twisting the end of his long braid around his fingers. "What's wrong Duo?" she asked him, and he stood up to meet her.

"Hilde...you think of me as your friend, right?" He put his hands on her shoulders lightly, his gaze locked on hers.

Feeling his intensity, Hilde faked a half smile and let her eyes drop to the floor. "Of course I do. You know that." Her eyes came back up, his still on her, and she had to quickly look away again. She knew what he wanted. She knew the day she met him and they started getting along so famously that eventually, if they stayed friends, she'd have to have this conversation with him. She just dreaded it profusely. Because she knew that she was a fool, and she knew that Duo was going to try to get her to face that truth.

Softening his mouth, Duo simply looked over Hilde before saying anything, noticing her. Her beautiful eyes and lips. Her cute nose. Her hair the color the darkest night. Her petite, attractive shape. Then pulling her close, he hugged her. "Hilde...tell me what's going on in here. You aren't hiding anything from me..." She pushed herself away from him and rushed into the kitchen. "Hilde...please..." Duo followed, stopping in the entry way to the tiny galley kitchen, Hilde backed into the far end leaning against the wall. "Please tell me what's going on. I really worry about you." He said with sincerity that made her want to burst into tears.

Sighing, she sat at her dinette set and pulled out a chair for Duo to join her. He silently slid himself behind the table and propped his head on one elbow. He took her hand with the other. "I guess I'm just always doing things wrong...a klutz, you know?" she held back a sob.

"Because you broke a glass? Jesus..." Duo's look was one of distaste.

"No Duo. It's more than that. Its lots of things. So..." her voice trailed off.

"So what?" he demanded. "So you deserve to be shoved around and screamed at like that?" Duo's voice was starting to get louder and his face was tinted the slightest red now. A single tear slid down Hilde's cheek, making him back off. "Do you deserve this Hilde?"

"No." She finally answered, and he leaned forward on his chair and hugged the girl once more.

From over her shoulder he continued. "Is it just pushing and shoving? Or has there been more?" He pushed himself back to look at her face. He knew she was lying, trying to cover up the severity of the situation.

"That's all." She whispered, wiping more tears from her eyes.

"Hilde...I care an awful lot about you...you know that, right?" Duo comforted.

Hilde nodded. "You love me. Yes, I know it."

Blushing, the longhaired man replied, "I don't want anything to happen to you, OK? So just remember that I'm here for you."

"I know you are Duo. But I have to watch it around Steven. Because if he thinks that there is anything going on between us, he'll flip. He doesn't think that a guy can be a girl's best friend without wanting something from her. He's already told me that he'd better not catch the two of us together, or I'd be in for it."

Duo hesitated. "You don't think that I'm your friend only to try to bed you do you?" His face showed his concern.

"No, I don't." Hilde answered, producing a sigh of relief from Duo. "I think that you are my friend because we go good together – and that maybe you've thought about sleeping with me." He didn't have to answer, since the truth was written all over his face. The truth that yes, he had thought about it, but he also valued her friendship a hell of a lot more than to merely categorize her as a hopeful conquest. He wasn't like that, and he hoped she realized that. "I think..." Hilde finished, "...that you wish Steven weren't in the picture, but you're willing to respect the fact that he is."

Pausing to think about her statement Duo finally responded with "Yeah...that's right."

********

For the next few nights, coincidentally, things were fairly quiet on the top floor of the little apartment building. Duo knew, because he was now listening purposely, having started staying up a little later with his work so that he could be dressed and awake in case of...anything, although that would completely blow his cover, so he still refrained from getting involved. However, being able to talk to Hilde about it in the day time would be somewhat of a help for him, if not for her.

Then on the fourth night since their conversation, it started again.

/He's drunk again, it's time to fight/

/She must have done something wrong tonight/

/The living room becomes a boxing ring/

/It's time to run when you see him/

/Clenching his hands/

/She's just a woman/

/Never Again/

They were getting pretty loud that night, and Duo sat at his computer, working on web pages, listening to every scream, to every shout, to every object that was thrown, some of them hitting the wall between he and them. Shaking his head, he had to fight himself to not go pound on their apartment door, even if he were pretending to complain about the noise, because he knew that if Steven, the bastard, even suspected them as being friends he'd lay into her worse, and that he wanted to avoid at all costs. The sound of Hilde crying creeped him like insects crawling under his skin, and at one point Duo stood up from his chair and paced his living room floor, his hands running through his bangs nervously, while the battle waged on next door. Thumps and yells and more thumps – he couldn't tell what was going on, just that it probably wasn't pretty. Then in a few minutes time it was over again, until the next time Steven decided that Hilde didn't put enough creamer in his coffee or fry his eggs with enough butter or vacuum the carpet well enough.

The next morning after repeating the waiting ritual as Steven passed by in the hallway on his way to work, Duo rushed over to the other apartment and knocked on the door. After a couple of minutes the door was opened slowly and behind it was Hilde, embarrassed and sporting a bruised cheek, its purple, yellow and blue glaring against her fair skin. He'd hit her in the face last night. Barging past her and slamming the door shut, Duo grabbed Hilde by the arms and brought her under the light to look closer at her face.

"Did he slap you? Or was this with his fist?"

Refusing to answer, Hilde's eyes welled up and her tears fell as she slumped down to sit on the couch behind her. That was all the answer she needed to give.

"Jesus Christ hon....Hilde?" Duo didn't know what to say. Sitting down next to her on the couch he asked "Why...why do you stay Hilde? Why do you let him do this to you?"

Sniveling, she waited before choking out her answer. "He doesn't mean it Duo. He just has a bad temper, and I screw things up all the time." Her mouth told one story but her eyes told another.

"Bullshit!" Duo yelled at her with heated anger in his eyes, making Hilde flinch. "Oh hon...I'm sorry." He apologized, realizing that his abruptness caused her to jump like that. He sat to face her and held her hands. "You're better than this Hilde...you deserve so much more than this...this...monster who thinks he has a right to get drunk and beat up on you because you aren't what his demented little mind thinks you should be on a particular day."

"I can't leave Duo...not on what I make." Hilde gently touched her sore cheek.

"What about your school? When are you going to finish college and get a teaching job?" he asked.

Shrugging her shoulders, Hilde replied "Steven says there isn't enough money for that now, so I can't go. Not in this lifetime at least. But he doesn't know that I've been putting money away on the side. All my grocery coupon money. Maybe in ten years it will be something.

Sighing, Duo looked at his hands. "Hilde...you have to do something. Before he really hurts you." He looked up at her. "I don't want to have to attend your funeral. You mean too much to me."



********

A few days later it was more of the same, but the fights were getting worse. Good old Steven, in all his infinite wisdom, was coming home drunk more often, and his attitude was starting to carry even to nights when he wasn't inebriated. Then it was just plain old mean Steven beating on his girl, the one who he supposedly loved. Duo wondered just what it was that prevented women in Hilde's situation from leaving or pressing charges, and he decided that fear had to be the answer. What else could it be? Either the fear of not being able to make it alone, or the fear of retaliation – any way you sliced it, it was pathetic and unfortunate, but here he was trying to defend poor Hilde from what she thought she had no control over.

It was after one particularly loud "thuuud" that evening that everything stopped as Steven called it quits for the night and went to bed. Duo could faintly hear sobbing coming from the other apartment, and as sick as it was, breathed a sigh of relief – that at least he knew she was still alive. From his living room in front of his workstation, Duo heard the low click of the neighboring door as Hilde exited her apartment and went to sit by herself on the top of the stair landing.

/I hear her scream, from down the hall/

/Amazing she can even talk at all/

/She cries to me, Go back to bed/

/I'm terrified that she'll wind up/

/Dead in his hands, She's just a woman/

/Never Again/

Quietly opening the door to see her sitting at the top of the stairs, Duo carefully tiptoed down the hall to go sit near her when she looked up at him, her face streaked with tears.

"Go to bed Duo." She wiped her face as if she thought she it would prevent him from seeing her crying. "Just please...not now. I'll see you in the morning."

Against his better judgement, Duo obliged Hilde's wishes and silently returned to his apartment and shut the door. Powering down his computer and printer, he switched off the lights and fumbled his way to the bedroom. Then flinging jeans across the floor, he slid into his bed in his T-shirt and huddled under the covers where he once again hid from his fears and his feelings, hoping desperately that maybe that next morning Steven would get hit by a bus on his way to work. After fretting about Hilde for near an hour, sleep finally took him, and Duo rested.

********

Duo was starting to get really impatient with the pattern that was developing in his life. Every night Steven came home, some nights later than others, and gave Hilde her dealing of crap for the day. Many nights he was drunk off his ass when he did finally get home, and boy was he pissed if she wasn't up waiting, no matter what time of night it was. Every second or third night he felt the need to "drive his point home" by hurting her and yelling at her and lord knows what else he was doing to her. Then every morning the Neanderthal would leave for his job at the truck repair place, and Duo would run to Hilde's aid to help her pick up the pieces. Luckily, so far, there weren't many pieces to pick up – but Duo had this sickening sensation that they had only just begun to see the depth of Steven's anger.

In that case, nothing gets a man more abusive to his wife than blaming her for causing him to get fired for being drunk on the job – and that's exactly what happened. Accusing her of making his home life so stressful that he HAD to drink to wash his troubles away, Steven came home early one afternoon in a rage, mere minutes after Duo had left the apartment, screaming of having lost his job because he was intoxicated and passed out while trying to lift a huge truck wheel. Naturally, the first thing he did was go to the refrigerator to grab a beer, and then, with the beer still in his hand, he thanked Hilde with a backhand to the mouth, tearing her lip and sending her to the floor spitting blood.

"Are you happy now Hilde?" Duo could hear the enraged man yelling at her through the paper-thin walls. Whoever built this building sure as hell must have made a lot of profits, because they certainly didn't spend the budget on materials. "Now what are we going to do, eh, smart one? You and your little Wal-Mart job going to pay our rent, eh, Hilde?"

Her sobbing and apologies bit into him sharply as an image of the pretty girl, cowering on her knees at the Neanderthal's feet, flashed into Duo's head. It went on for a long, long time that afternoon – the yelling and the sounds of things breaking. All of Hilde's nice things, as she'd once told him, were gone, since Steven liked to break them, because he knew it upset her. Another cry from the neighboring apartment, this one from pain, and Duo dropped a stack of CD-ROMs that he was shuffling through looking for a file. As he bent over to pick up the disks which had scattered all over the floor, he heard her again, and in his own frustrated rage, smashed the remaining disks that he held hard onto the floor. Strange quiet was followed by the sound of the other apartment door slamming and the familiar heavy feet pounding down the hall and down the steps.

/Been there before, but not like this/

/Seen it before, but not like this/

/Never before have I ever/

/Seen it this bad/

/She's just a woman/

/Never Again/

After he was sure that Steven had gone, Duo burst out of his apartment and ran down the hall to knock on the other door. "Hilde?" He called out frantically. The door had apparently closed so hard that it bounced in the doorframe, and was jarred back open, so he let himself in to find her, sitting in the corner of the living room leaning against the wall. Her lip was cut and bleeding from where he'd slapped her, and there was a fresh welt rising on her forehead.

Leaning down to help her get up, Duo swore. "So help me...Hilde...this HAS to stop before..." As Duo pulled on the girl to lift her off the floor she screamed in agony and slumped back down. "Oh God...Hilde?"

"My ribs" was all she said as tears of pain streaked her face once more.

"That son-of-a-bitch!" Duo yelled out loud as he lifted Hilde's entire body as he painfully placed her on the couch. His insides were twisted into knots and he was doing all he could to hold back his own tears, but this time, with poor Hilde in such pain before him, he just couldn't. For many minutes the two of them just hugged, crying, until Duo collected himself enough to say "I'm taking you to the hospital."

/Just tell the nurse, you slipped and fell/

/It starts to sting as it starts to swell/

/She looks at you, she wants the truth/

/It's right out there in the waiting room/

/With those hands/

/Lookin just as sweet as he can/

/Never Again/

The accusatory looks that he got as they were questioned were practically enough to mortify him. He'd brought Hilde to the local emergency room, and as per the course, the doctor and the hospital psychologist questioned them both. Naturally when they both denied that Duo had anything to do with the beating that Hilde had been subject to, all eyes turned distrustfully toward him, almost to the point of making him scream out in the treatment area that no, Hilde wasn't his girlfriend and no he wasn't the one who beat the crap out of her. Sensing his tension, Hilde grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight as she was examined and the deep cut on her lip was stitched inside. After she was cleaned up, she was taken for x-rays where it was found that she had two broken ribs, no thanks to a left hook punch to the ribcage.

While waiting down in the lobby for Hilde to return so he could take her home, Duo read magazines and tried his best to thwart the feeling that he was being watched. As he peered over the top of a six-month old copy of People Magazine, he suddenly couldn't believe his eyes. It was Steven. There. At the hospital. Duo's blood boiled at the sight of the man. Not only did he have the nerve to hurt the woman that he only wished he could have as his own, but then to show up at the hospital looking for her? Apparently he was aware enough to know that he'd hurt her pretty badly this time. Steven spoke with the front desk nurse for a few minutes, then slithered his way over to wait in an adjoining waiting area, nervously wringing his hands together and putting on his best 'worried' look. Getting up to leave, Duo slipped out a back entrance. Hilde would know why he'd left as soon as she saw 'him'. Although it killed him to leave her there knowing that Steven was waiting for her, Duo felt fairly certain that he would wait at least until they got home before he started in again with her. She was at more risk if he remained and their friendship was discovered.

He didn't get to see her until the next afternoon. Steven, now having no job, was sleeping in late and getting up in time to hit the bars to spend what little bit of cash he had left on making himself feel better, never mind his girlfriend who lay in pain from the thrashing he'd given her the day before. But it had been quiet overnight, to Duo's relief, so he'd had the mercy to give her at least that one night to recuperate. How generous of him. Napping on the couch, where he'd lain awake all night listening for signs of trouble, Duo's eyes fluttered awake when he heard the door slam next door, and Steven thump his way down the stairs and out of the building. He rushed next door. Hilde was dressed and, in spite of her pain, was getting ready to leave the apartment herself to go out.

"Oh..." She startled, seeing him. Her expression was blank.

"Where ya going?" Duo asked, noticing her purse in her arm.

Blushing, Hilde responded, "I need to go pick something up. Can you drive me while Steven's gone?" She pulled the door closed behind her as they started to walk.

"S-sure...ummm...you feeling alright? I mean...your ribs..." He looked at her blood-encrusted, stitched lower lip and winced.

"I'll be better as soon as we get home. Everything will be fine then."

********

He drove her to Wal-Mart, the one where she worked, and she asked him to wait in the truck while she limped herself inside. After a few minutes she was limping her way back to the truck. "OK." She said, painfully climbing back in. Responding to his look of question she replied "I had to request a few days off. And pick up something that was waiting for me." That sounding reasonable enough, the two took off for home, only to be met with an inevitable surprise. Steven.

As soon as they pulled up and parked in front of the building, Duo knew they were in a heap of shit. Steven waited until he was in close enough distance to roughly grab Hilde by her arm before he started in with them. "Why...you little whore!" He yelled at Hilde and looked right at Duo. "I knew it! I knew you were going behind my back you lousy bitch!" Hilde cringed as he held her arm hard enough to pinch off the circulation.

"Back off, man. I drove her to Wal-Mart." Duo replied, seeing if he could smooth things over some. "She can't drive...ya know? All I did was drive her to work." He held his truck keys out and dangled them by the fob like a fisherman trying to lure a fish.

"Steven...knock it off. Duo just did me the favor of driving me to work because I needed to ask for a couple of days off." Hilde complained in a faltering voice. She looked down at herself, then back at Steven, who was blushing slightly. The comment seemed to derail him some, and he quieted. Then without saying a word he turned and dragged Hilde with him, back into the building and up the stairs to their apartment, loudly telling her that she'd be in really big trouble if he ever got wind of the two of them going behind his back. Duo watched them go, an expression of mixed frustration and sympathy on his face.

/Seen it before, but not like this/

/Been there before, but not like this/

/Never before have I ever/

/Seen it this bad/

/She's just a woman/

/Never Again/

As darkness fell, Duo stared at his dinner growing cold. Something was wrong. It was too quiet. Unnaturally quiet, and it unnerved him. Where was the noise? Where was the fighting? Not that he particularly 'wanted' them to fight, but it had become a regimen that let him know that things were, at least, the same, and Duo could still be on top of what was happening in the other room. Or so he thought. He'd expected to hear fighting coming from the apartment as soon as they made it upstairs, but there was none. None until around 9 pm, when Steven decided that he needed to show Hilde who was the king and master of the household.

Things got going for them in the bedroom this time. Hilde had been trying to rest her aching body when Steven sauntered up to her sleeping form wanting a little 'fun', since he had to prove to her that he was all the man she needed. Yanking back the blankets, he started to pull off her sweatpants as she came awake and tried pushing him off. Grinning like a maniac, Steven muttered something like "I'll show you, who needs to be sleeping around," and laid his hulk on top of her to restrain her. His weight compressed her broken ribs and suddenly she was screaming in pain and begging him to get off her. Every movement that his body made on top of her battered frame made it worse.

Hearing this, Duo was up and pacing the floor again, this time fearing that he was going to reach his boiling point. He couldn't take it anymore, even if she could. The crying and the screaming. It was tearing at him so viciously to hear her, knowing that he could be so much more to her...knowing that this oaf would likely kill her if he didn't intervene. For God's sake...he was raping her! His pacing becoming furious, Duo felt like he would explode soon if he didn't do something...anything.

Then suddenly something in his mind snapped, and he burst out of his apartment. He'd reached the point of no going back – it was now or never, if he was going to help Hilde. There was no fear, no reasoning that very likely Steven, who was a good six inches taller than he, would give him the ass pounding of a decade. But it was his responsibility as a friend to do something, even if all he did was divert Steven's attention away from Hilde for a few minutes. Maybe he'd have the luck to get himself a few good punches in as well, for at that moment he was seeing red and tasting Steven's hide. Reaching the door to their apartment, Duo started pounding. He could hear them arguing – apparently they'd made it out of the bedroom and were back in the living room, where Steven was insulting Hilde, as per the usual.

/Father's a name you haven't earned yet/

/You're just a child with a temper/

/Haven't you heard "Don't hit a lady"?/

/Kickin' your ass would be a pleasure/

"You can't even give a good lay! You know that?" There was crying in the background. "How the hell do you expect to ever have kids one day, Hilde, when you can't even take care of your MAN!"

Duo pounded more on the door, and started calling out. "Hil-deeeee!" There was the sound of furniture being pushed around the floor, and a struggle going on inside. Frantically, Duo hit the door with the flat of his hand. "Steven! Damnit! Hilde! Let me in! So help me if you hurt her again!" They weren't listening. Why should they be? He was outside and they were inside, wrapped up in their own little hell. Panting, Duo paced for a few seconds outside the door trying to think.

"Oh...I'm so scaaaared!" He heard Steven taunt, and he was confused, so he listened. Was she trying to fight back? "Were you planning on using that on me?" Steven's voice held a sarcastic tone.

"Using?" Duo concentrated on what was happening behind the door.

"I can't do this anymore Steven...I can't" Hilde croaked, her voice crackling and choked from her sobs.

Steven laughed. "Put it down Hilde. You know you don't have the guts to do it."

As his world came rushing back to him in sudden realization, Duo recalled the conversation he'd had with Hilde earlier that day, before he drove her to Wal-Mart.

//"S-sure...ummm...you feeling alright? I mean...your ribs..." He looked at her blood-encrusted, stitched lower lip and winced.

"I'll be better as soon as we get home. Everything will be fine then."//

/He's drunk again, it's time to fight/

/Same old shit, just on a different night/

/She grabs the gun, she's had enough/

/Tonight she'll find out how fucking/

/Tough is this man/

/Pulls the trigger just as fast as she can/

/Never Again/

He'd driven her to the department store to pick something up...something that was "waiting for her". A gun. She'd bought a gun. An icy chill ran the length of his spine as Duo made the connection with what was about to happen inside the locked door of the apartment. Snapping back into the present he listened momentarily again.

"You've given me the guts, Steven. If you come one step closer to me..." Her words were cut off as a struggle ensued, and Duo panicked, only able to imagine what was going on behind the door. Screaming her name, he pounded again on the door, then stood back about two feet. With all his might Duo raised his foot to the door, just below the knob, and kicked for all he was worth. The pounding began to drown out the fight that was happening inside, and finally, with strength that he didn't know he had, one last shove managed to break the doorframe enough that he could push past the old door lock and throw the door open.

Everything was happening lightning fast. Entering the apartment he found the two of them struggling. She had a pistol that she was gripping with everything that she had, and he was attempting to wrestle it away from her. To her credit, she hung on to the thing for a few minutes before he got the upper hand by elbowing her in her broken ribs, doubling her over and causing her to drop her grip on the gun. Then, as she straightened herself, Duo lunged for her as she lunged for the gun in Steven's hand. Hilde slipped through Duo's fingers as she managed to get her hands around the oaf's wrist, knocking Steven off balance. Then as he reached forward again to pull Hilde to safety, his fingers brushing on her T-shirt, Duo was met with a strange burning sensation, and in a few seconds everything went black.

/Seen it before, but not like this/

/Been there before, but not like this/

/Never before have I ever/

/Seen it this bad/

/She's just a woman/

/Never Again/

********

His weary eyes flickered awake in the soft daylight shining in from windows sheathed in bland curtains drawn partly open. Moving his hand to rub his eyes, Duo winced and sucked in a painful breath. As his focus improved, he could see that he wasn't at home. Rolling his head, his stiff neck complaining, Duo turned to find an angel sitting next to him. With a faint smile on his face he asked "W-what happened?"

The angel burst into tears. "Oh God, Duo! I was so afraid you weren't going to wake up!" Hilde draped herself over the injured form of her friend.

"Hey...babe...hang on there..." Duo tried to comfort her. "Are YOU OK?" His bright eyes searched for truth in Hilde's. Nodding, she sniffled, smiling some. "Then that's all that matters." Wincing more, he slid his hand across the bed sheets and held it, palm up, so she could place hers on top, then grasped her tightly. "So...fill me in. I get the feeling I've missed some things."

Pulling her chair up closer to the hospital bed, Hilde sighed and began to explain. "Steven accidentally shot you."

"I kinda figured that." Duo chided. "Although...I don't remember much past breaking down the apartment door. Boy...I bet Mr. Anderson was NOT happy when he saw that." Mr. Anderson was the building owner, who lived across town.

"Actually," Hilde continued, "Mr. Anderson was the one who called the police. Mrs. Jensen, the lady downstairs in apartment 1? Well...she heard all the commotion, and called Mr. Anderson, who immediately called the police, because I'd mentioned to him before, the last time he asked me about all the noise, that Steven and I were having some problems that tended to get a little 'aggressive'. I had to tell him – he wanted to throw us out."

Clearing his throat with a grimace, Duo said, "Then it sounds like in reality it was a good thing that he knew." Duo closed his eyes and breathed heavily, trying to ease his pain. "So...how bad am I? Heh, I see they didn't take me out behind the barn and finish me off!" he winked in Hilde's direction.

The raven-haired beauty smiled warmly. "Put it this way...you're lucky to be alive. And...you're going to need some time of good old nursing care once we get you home." There was a twinkle in Hilde's eye that Duo hadn't seen before.

"We?" Duo asked, hoping the answer was in his favor.

Laying a kiss on his cheek, Hilde replied, "We. After all you've done for me, don't you think I deserve to be the one to get you back to health?"

"What about Steven?"

"Steven is going to be doing some time. Thanks to you." The look of relief on the girl's face suddenly made everything that Duo had endured worth every second. "For aggravated assault and a whole slew of other charges, once the police heard the entire story. I think they still need to question you once you're well enough, but...Steven's things are already out of the apartment."

"Jesus...how long have I been out?" the injured young man questioned, pulling out the end of his braided hair and beginning to habitually twist the end around his fingers.

Hilde leaned forward and rested her head on his shoulder. "About five days. I've been here every day, whenever I wasn't working."

Wrapping his forearm up and around her head, Duo kissed the top of it. "Thanks hon. I really appreciate that." A twinge of familiarity and deep love flooded through him and made his cheeks hot. Maybe there was a possibility? "But...how are you going to afford to stay in the building...you know...you were saying before that you couldn't make it without Steven's income?"

Sighing a sweet sigh, she whispered, unsure, "Umm...I was thinking that maybe we could become roommates? Then it would be easier on both of us and..." She rushed her words, trying to explain herself before he could possibly disagree, her desire to be with the man who cared enough to step between her and a gun completely obvious.

"Roommates?" Duo asked, smiling slightly. Hilde sat up straight and blushed in embarrassment, thinking that she had assumed too much. "Well, I guess since I did manage to get rid of old Steven, my second wish gets to come true too!" He winked. Then gently draping herself over him, Hilde pressed her lips to his as they consumed each other in their first, long-awaited real kiss.

~Owari.