Warnings: Angst, OOC, language, Duo POV.
Thanks to Christy for beta reading with her usual excellence.
Standard disclaimers apply. We all know I don't own them…why do we keep repeating it? Are we just in denial?

Being There
by Sunhawk

It was a car accident that finally made me wake up and stop the drinking. Sounds pretty typical, huh? Alcoholic has near-death experience and re-evaluates life? Except the accident wasn't mine... it was Heero's.

Part of it was simply looking into the mirror that was Heero Yuy, suddenly seeing in him all the things that I was going through. Realizing that for his own reasons he was hurting just as badly. That he was just as lost as I was. Maybe more so. But mostly, it was understanding that the perfect fighting machine was not equipped to bring himself back from the black hole we had both wandered into. And somehow... oddly perhaps, where I couldn't seem to bring myself to care for my own sake... I couldn't not care for Heero's.

He had pretty much managed to alienate everyone who might have ever given enough of a damn to be there for him. Relena had tucked tail and run fairly quickly after the war was over, once she had figured out that soldiers aren't romantic... they're just kind of scary. The rest of the guys? Well, we're all still pretty tight. Except for Heero... it's hard to stay close to a spitting, pissing wolverine with an attitude. So I guess you could say that I gave up my own wallow in self-pity because I figured that watching out for Heero was my responsibility, simply because nobody else was going to do it. And yeah; I can see how it sounds kind of stupid when I just out and say it like that. At the time it just sort of boiled down to this single thought: 'he needs me'. There really wasn't much more to it than that.

We were creatures of war. We had been raised for one purpose. Trained for one purpose. Lived for one purpose. Then peace had come, all the goals we had been given were met, and... we didn't know what in the hell we were any more. What is a fighter when there is nothing left to fight? Obsolete. Can you imagine being obsolete before you are technically old enough to vote?

The day that Quatre called me to tell me that Heero was in the hospital because he'd gotten behind the wheel of a car drunk off his ass, I had understood that he had just tried to hit his self-destruct button, and that if somebody didn't do something, he would keep trying until he succeeded. I had gone through my apartment that day, poured out every last drop of booze and hadn't touched the stuff since. Because Heero had not only become a drunk, he'd become a surly drunk and I honestly didn't think there was a person left who was going to do anything about the little mess he had made for himself, unless it was... me.

So yeah, I pulled myself out of my own little tailspin and got my act together so that I could be there to try to help him pull out of his. Despite the fact that he didn't really want my help. Hadn't asked for my help. Was pretty darned bound and determined to take my help and shove it up my ass... sideways.

'Fuck off, Duo,' came the rather expected growl. 'I can take care of myself.'

'That's odd,' I grinned at him. 'That isn't what the Doctor's orders said... like it or not, you're in that wheelchair for awhile yet.'

'I'm going home,' he insisted, glaring at me in a manner that was meant to raise blisters on exposed skin.

'Not a problem,' I consented amiably. 'We can stay at your place if you'd rather. I just thought my place would be easier because I have a spare bedroom.'

That bought me an inarticulate little growl of sound before he found his voice enough to tell me, 'You are not staying in my apartment!'

I finally turned away from where I had been packing his duffle bag and planted myself beside his hospital bed, putting my hands on my hips and giving him my look that usually tells people not to fuck with me. 'Look, Yuy,' I growled. 'You put yourself in this position, I didn't. Like it or not, you need somebody to stay with you. Sure, you can ignore the Doctor's orders, but you could also screw yourself up bad enough to be in that chair forever. This is an A or B question; your place or mine, make up your damn mind. But you are stuck with me... sorry about your luck.'

We stared at each other. I didn't have to remind him that he had managed to drive away every other friend that he'd ever had. I was all he had left. He broke away from the staring match first.

'You're a bastard,' he snarled. Heero hates to lose. Always has.

'Well now,' I chuckled at him. 'That's a pretty safe bet!'

He looked at me oddly for a second, not understanding. Hell, he probably hadn't even heard what he was saying. It took a second for him to get it. I couldn't read him well enough to know if he felt badly for it or not. Probably not. I turned back to packing, managing to finish just as the discharge nurse arrived with the wheelchair. She gave me a bright smile and told me hello, parking the chair next to the bed. She didn't give Heero so much as a glance. He had been a somewhat... unpleasant patient. She handed me the paperwork that he had to sign, letting me present it to him.

'What the hell is that?' he barked.

'What you have to sign in order to get out of here,' I told him sweetly, knowing just how badly he wanted that. He jerked the papers and the pen from my hand, scribbling his signature in all the right places and then stuck them out in the direction of the nurse, forcing her to take them from him. She gave me a rather sympathetic smile and left, leaving me to get him in the chair by myself. I think I sighed, but I could hardly blame her.

I positioned the chair and came around to get him, trying to gauge his weight by eye, hoping that I could manage to lift him. I truly thought he was going to kill me when I leaned in to try it.

'What the fuck do you think you're doing?' he snarled.

I stopped, bent over at the waist, and looked him square in the eye. 'Look asshole,' I told him rather firmly. 'I am more than aware that I am not your favorite person in the world. But you have to face up to the fact that I am your best friend right now. I am going to help you and you are going to let me because the more you disobey the doctor's orders, the longer you are going to be stuck with me. You want me out of your hair... you have to heal.'

The look he gave me might very well have caused King Kong to turn tail and run. I didn't flinch, I stared him down until his face began to flush, then I slipped my arms under him and transferred him to the chair. It wasn't as difficult as it should have been; during the war I am quite sure he outweighed me. He was obviously to the stage in his drinking that made food a low priority.

I was starting to understand what a monstrous job I had undertaken. Guess it was a good thing I didn't have anything else to do with my time.

Thankfully, his stay in the hospital had been long enough that I had gotten through the worst of my detox. While I am more than willing to admit that I'm an alcoholic... recovering alcoholic... I had never gotten to the place that Heero had managed. I had never become an obnoxious alcoholic. I am mostly a night drinker. I can't stand the nighttime. I have... nightmares. I have insomnia. I usually do ok during the day, there's enough to do and enough people I can go be around that I can get through. But when the night comes and there's no one there and I have nothing to do but sit and think and remember and imagine and... dream, I can't handle it. I tried sleeping pills for a while, but they only made the nightmares even more macabre, if that were at all possible, and eventually I turned to drinking. It didn't happen over night. I did not come through the war and go 'Gee, I think I'll be a drunk'. It was just something that helped me cope at first, something that helped me sleep. But then it took more drink to shut out the memories and then even more. Eventually I was hopelessly addicted and so damn depressed I just didn't care.

Didn't help watching the other guys as they not only coped, but thrived and got on with the business of making lives for themselves. I don't know why it was so much harder for Heero and me. I think sometimes because neither of us had ever truly believed that we would live through it. I mean, I never gave the future a second thought while I was fighting, because I honestly hadn't thought I had one. What was the point? I figured that one of those times hitting the self-destruct button, the darn thing was actually going to work. I think it was the same for Heero. Its funny, I wonder sometimes if he and I had tried to become friends during those first days if we might have been able to help each other before we ended up where we did. Probably not. I don't think I could have talked to anyone back then. I had felt so... ridiculous having trouble when no one else seemed to be, that I probably wouldn't have been able to talk to Heero either.

The guys. God, I love 'em. They're a great bunch of friends. But they're so... damn normal.

Quatre. Good Lord, but he had blossomed once the fighting was over. The guy is a natural politician, an absolute born leader. He had switched all his focus straight from being a Gundam pilot, to being a peacekeeper and a lobbyist. Never missed a stride. Took over control of his father's business and immersed himself so completely that he never had a chance to think twice. Of course, he'd had a relatively normal childhood. Had a family and friends, had gone to school. The war was an interlude to him... a couple of years out of his life. I think it was easier for him to move on because it was more like going back to a life he'd left, not forging a new one.

Wufei. He's a strange one. I hadn't been sure about him during the war sometimes. He just seemed like he kind of enjoyed the damn fighting. Like he saw something high and noble in it. After it was all over he joined the Preventers almost instantly. Hell, he helped start them up. He, too, had never missed a beat. He kind of surprised me, actually. I had expected him to go to pieces when it was all over and he finally had to stop and deal with the destruction of his entire colony, but somehow... he had come to terms with it. For him too, I suspected that part of it was his normal childhood. Like Quatre, he had something to look back on with some fondness. Something that had existed outside the war.

Trowa. I had always thought that he was more like Heero and me. Raised with the mercenaries, fighting for as long as he could remember. He didn't have that solid foundation like Quatre and Wufei. I thought that he would have as much trouble adjusting as we had. But he had something I didn't; Quatre. Quatre and Catherine. It had done a hell of a lot for him when Catherine had gone behind his back and done the genetic tests and discovered that he really was her brother. I guess it had given him a foundation of sorts... even if he had to live it vicariously through Catherine's stories. Between her, and Quatre's absolute undying devotion, Trowa had come through just fine.

But Heero and me... two dark carrion birds of a feather. We'd known nothing before the war. We had nothing to look back on, nothing to point to and say 'There; that is what I am'. Hell... the war was practically my mother. And I suppose that makes Shinigami my father and Dr. G my damn nanny. What did I know about life? What did I know about normal? What in the flaming hell did I know about what to do with myself? We were seventeen when the war ended and we were obsolete. Where do you go after you've saved the planet?

Neither of us caved immediately. Well... at least I didn't, I'm not real sure about Heero. He might have been hiding it better at first. I don't know, I mean, nobody had ever figured out that I was consuming enough whiskey each night to medicate a good-sized horse there at the end. Like I said; I did most of my drinking at night when I was home alone.

I had actually started out fairly gung-ho. Had been kind of excited about the prospects of peace. I had planned on traveling, seeing the Earth, playing the tourist. Naïve little me; that shit takes money. All your financial needs are met when you have the backing of what amounts to a terrorist organization, and you are fighting in a war. But hey - war's over... sorry about your luck kid; get a job. That had proved... interesting. Not a lot of call out there for hanging by your teeth and setting C4 charges. Not a whole lot of jobs where the job-description requires you to shoot a fly off an orange at fifty paces without damaging the fruit. What I did best, I wasn't allowed to do; seventeen is too young to be a commercial pilot.

However... most jobs did require a whole lot of crap we didn't know a thing about. Balance a checkbook? What the hell is a checkbook? Driver's license? What do I need a license for; I'm a fucking Gundam pilot. We had done things for so long for the results, damn the laws and the rules and polite society, that we didn't know how to deal with all the red tape and paperwork and... the damn tedium. All of it complicated by our notoriety and the stigma attached to our names. Complicated by the fact that a car backfiring in the street would send us diving for cover. Yeah sure; shall I calculate the necessary amount of explosives to remove table number four from the dining room without scorching the floor, and would you like fries with that?

I personally, had tried for almost a year to make it on my own before caving and accepting the bank account Quatre had offered all of us. I never quite had the nerve to ask if any of the other guys had. I liked to pretend that they did, so if I didn't ask... I didn't have to know I was the only fucking loser in the bunch. Though I suspect Heero did too... because I sure as hell never heard about him having a job.

I suppose it's little wonder that we ended up the way we did. It's probably a small miracle that neither of us decided to do the self-destruct routine a little faster and just eat a bullet for breakfast one morning. And ironic as hell that we were both going through the same things at the same time on opposite sides of the same town and never cared enough to notice.

I suppose you could say I owed Heero my sobriety, because I don't know if I could have turned myself around without the self-appointed mission of turning him around.

The day that Quatre had called, with the news of Heero's accident, his voice was full of muted concern. Heero had already driven the wedge between himself and most of the others, and though he was still considered part of the group, I discovered that they all 'tsked' behind his back about the sad state he was in. I was a little appalled that I had never noticed before, so lost had I been in my own private Hell that I had never noticed Heero's adjoining room. Listening to Quatre gossip to me about how 'awful' it all was, about how he couldn't believe the depths to which Heero had sunk, all I could think was... 'You have no freaking idea what its like on our side of the fence'. But then... he'd had no clue he was talking to somebody who had sunk just as low.

But I found that thing that one needs to pull oneself up by the bootstraps.

God, I'd had no stinking idea what I was undertaking. Who in the hell was I to think that I could single handedly save Heero Yuy's ass? I barely had my own shit together and here I was taking on the care and feeding of a rabid pit bull in a wheelchair. The guy had more issues than I had empty bottles to my credit. And he bit. Hard.

When I brought him into my home from the hospital, I suppose I had expected a certain amount of grudging, Heero style, pissed off gratitude. What I got was more like attitude. He resented everything I did for him most of the time. On his good days, we managed a tentative civility. On his bad days... I thought he would eviscerate me. For a guy with little or no people skills, he had managed to learn where all my mental weak spots were, and when he got severely pissed at me... he didn't hesitate to hit every one of them. I did my best to bear up under it, to not let him see just how well he was hitting his mark. But I went to my room on more than one occasion during that period of time shaking like a leaf. If there had been a bottle in the house on those nights... I'd have drunk it.

I wondered if I could ever manage to teach him just how much words could cut. I wondered if he'd ever been wounded in that way. I wondered if there was anyone in the world that he cared about enough to be able to hurt him like that. Words don't really have any sting if they don't come from someone who matters to you.

Yes, I know what I just said. Shut up about it.

'What in the hell is that damn thing?' he asked with an irritated tone in his voice. I had to stop and think for a minute what he was talking about. My glass. My little piece of stained glass. I was worrying it in my fingers the way I do. It's such a habit that I do it unconsciously, whenever I'm doing something fairly mindless, like we were doing now. Watching TV, reading, anything that didn't require both my hands. My fingers would go to my pocket and find the little thing and I would rub it and feel it and turn it in my fingers. I stopped fiddling with it and turned my hand over to display it on my palm.

'It's a piece of the stained glass window from the Maxwell church,' I told him; not at all sure he would know what I was talking about. 'I kept it... after the fire. It's all I was able to take away from there with me... to remember it by.'

There was something calculating in his eyes. Something dark. I suppose I had an inkling what was coming, but I didn't try to stop it... I just sat with the thing in my hand and let him do what he felt he had to.

He reached out and took it from me, raising it to look through it at the light and then he calmly snapped it in two. I wasn't able to stop the wince. He dropped the two halves on the floor beside his chair, rolling across them and crushing what was left. Then he turned and looked at me... waiting for my reaction.

I allowed myself a single deep, steadying breath because damnit; that had hurt. Then I rose and stepped in front of him, leaning down to look him square in the eye. I saw a tiny little smirk trying to come out, just a hint of self-righteousness. 'See?' his eyes were saying, 'I'm not a very nice person.'

I reached for his hand, turning it over and his tense expression told me he was expecting a blow. Was expecting my anger... was ready to welcome it as proof that I had been lying about being his friend. 'You didn't cut yourself, did you?' I asked carefully as I looked his fingers over. In my peripheral vision, I saw his face lose a little of its cocky smugness. When I had established that he was unharmed, I dropped his hand and looked him unflinchingly in the eye. 'You're more important than an object. You cannot drive me away. You cannot force me to leave. I am your best friend whether you choose to believe it or not... it has very little to do with you.'

'I hate you,' he told me coldly, though his eyes spoke to me of confusion.

'I am well aware of that,' I informed him rather matter-of-factly. Then I went to get the vacuum cleaner. When I came back, he had fled to his room.

I figured he needed a little time to think things over, so I delayed dinner just a little bit. Truth be told, I needed a little time myself. What I had said was true. He was more important than any damn object. But that didn't make the loss of that object any less painful. I hadn't come through from those days with much of anything. That stupid little scrap of broken glass and Sister Helen's cross had been it. I stopped wearing my cross that night. Call me a coward, but I feared for it. If the devil himself had walked up to me and said 'Heero or the cross', I'd have handed over the cross in less than a heartbeat. But... why risk it if it wasn't going to buy Heero's soul? I locked the thing away and hid it in my room. There was nothing to be done for my little piece of Angel's wing though. The glass had been a milky white with odd little veins of clear glass run through it. It had been part of an angel's wing, I was almost sure of that. I had found it after Sister Helen had died and my little kid's mind had told me that she had ascended to Heaven as an Angel... and left a feather behind for me. When I got older, I realized that it was just part of the stained glass window that had shattered into a million pieces from the explosions, but by that time, the thing had become so much a part of me that I had smoothed the edges of it from rubbing and holding it. Sister Helen's feather. To this day I find my fingers searching for it. Heero Yuy has never pulled his punches.

I dithered with dinner for a bit, pondering the pitfalls of mixed messages. I would not reward him for what he had done, but I would not punish him either. So I made sure that dinner was something that was far from his favorite, but nothing he had ever expressed an outright distaste for. He was testing me and I was well aware of that. I was bound and determined that he would not get to me. I would not let him force me to push back. I finally settled on meatloaf; can't get any more neutral than that.

When it was ready to go on the table, I went and tapped on his door. There was, rather predictably, no immediate answer. I tapped again, a little harder and called, 'Heero, dinner's ready.'

I got the standard, 'Go away.' I sighed, wondering if we would ever get passed this. I pushed the door open and took a tentative step inside, not moving too far until I could see a little better in the darkness of his room. 'Heero, if you ever expect to heal enough to get out of here, you have to take better care of yourself,' I told him with just a trace of amusement in my voice.

'I'm fine,' he growled sullenly and I couldn't help a grin. I reached out and flicked the damn light on... the hell with this game. He was lying in bed, his back to the door, his wheelchair sitting there right next to the bed. He refused to react to the light. I went closer, now that I could see, and tried again.

'Come on, dinner is going to get cold.'

'I'm not hungry,' he said and I was glad he wasn't looking at me, because I almost laughed at the petulant sound of his voice. Like an angry little boy. That thought would surely have gotten me shot.

'Look, Heero,' I ventured, standing over him but not able to judge much from the back of his head. 'I know you're not happy here... I know you don't like me. But you have to see that you're not getting out of here any time soon if you don't give your body the fuel and care it needs to get better.'

He finally rolled over and looked up at me. 'What the hell do you want from me?' he snapped.

'From you?' I asked softly. 'Nothing. What I want for you is for you to understand that you are not alone and that you can't drive me away the way you have everyone else.'


'Because I'm your best friend.'

I got an inarticulate growl, then he levered himself up and into his chair. I held it steady, but let him do it. I was pretty sure if I had tried to help him right then, I'd have gotten decked. I reached to unlatch the brake and almost lost a finger for my trouble when he whirled the chair and headed for the kitchen.

Dinner was... not a comfortable affair. He ate as though he was chewing gravel and I didn't even try for small talk. So I was more than a little surprised when we were finished that he didn't immediately return to his room, but stayed and watched me clean up. I cleared the table under that dark glare and got the dishwater run before he finally blurted, 'I don't understand you.'

'What's to understand, Heero?' I asked him gently, continuing to scrape the dishes and stack them next to the sink.

'I need to understand what you want from me,' he said and it seemed to me that he was making an effort not to snap and snarl like he had been ever since I'd brought him home with me.

I stopped what I was doing, picking up a towel to wipe my hands on and turned to look at him. 'Why do you think that I have to want something?' I asked.

'Everybody wants something,' he said and that sullen tone was back. I sighed, dropped the towel on the counter and went to squat down in front of him, putting one hand on the arm of his chair to steady myself. It was about the most vulnerable position I could have put myself in with him.

'I keep telling you, Heero,' I sighed. 'I am here as your friend... I don't want anything from you. This is what best friends do.'

He just glared at me as though he might read something in my face that would give him a different answer than he kept getting. 'Heero...' I tried. 'I understand what you're going through and I just want to...' It wasn't the thing to have said. He hadn't been ready to hear it yet. He shoved at me, hard, and I went over backwards, sprawling across the floor. He didn't hurt me, mostly because I'd been half expecting it.

'What the hell do you know about anything!' he exploded and I thought for a minute he was going to try to run over me where I lay.

'Who the hell else do you think is going to understand?' I barked back, finally losing a little of my calm, and he actually shut up and blinked at me. 'You think there isn't a thing that you went through that the rest of us didn't go through too? You think I don't have nightmares? You think I don't have nights were I can't sleep no matter what the hell I do? You think I don't understand the lure of the damn alcohol?' That, apparently, was pushing it a little too far, because he suddenly shoved his chair backwards and went back to his room like his tail was on fire. I just stayed where I was for a little while, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Dear God, I wondered if I was going to be able to do this. I had a mental picture of my heart and it was crisscrossed with scar tissue and still bleeding cuts.

He didn't come out of his room that evening again at all. I finished cleaning up the kitchen eventually, watched the news and then went the hell to bed.

It was the wee hours of the morning when his cries woke me. I was out of bed and down the hall before I had half a chance to think about it. By the time I burst into his room, I think he'd already woken himself up, but I went to him anyway.

'Heero?' I called before I dared get too close. 'Are you all right?'

'Get the fuck away from me!' he croaked and it was all I could do not to scream and pull my hair out by the roots.

'No can do, buddy,' I told him and dared move a little closer. He was sitting up, the sheets a tangled mess around him and I could see his hands shaking even in the dim light from the hall. Maybe, groggy as he was, he would be able to accept a little support? Maybe? Or at least groggy enough that I might escape in one piece? I sat down on the side of the bed and just held very still. 'You... want to talk about it?' I asked very softly.

'No,' he said harshly, but it wasn't yelled and he didn't shove me away.

'All right,' I agreed gently. 'That's ok.' I hesitated, trying to read him, and then ventured, 'Can I give you something?'

'What the hell is that supposed to mean?' he croaked, irritation and confusion plain in his voice.

I took a deep breath, said a tiny little prayer to my maker and slide closer to him. 'I'm going to give you five minutes. Five minutes that won't exist as soon as they're over. I won't remember a damn thing... I'll never speak of it. It will never have happened.'

He gave me a look like I'd lost my damn mind, opened his mouth to speak but then shut it again, eyeing me like he was expecting me to bite or something. I think it was his curiosity as much as anything that got the better of him. He didn't tell me to fuck off again, so I took it for the closest thing to an 'ok' as I was going to get. I braced myself for the explosion I figured was coming, reached out very slowly and took him into my arms. It was like holding a board. But... he didn't instantly kill me.

'I know you don't want me here, Heero,' I whispered, 'but everyone needs a little human contact sometimes... just close your eyes and pretend I'm someone else... whoever the hell you want. I don't mind. Just hold on to me and I swear to God it'll be like it never happened.'

I shut up then, just in case he really was pretending I was somebody other than me, and just held him against me. I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. It took him a little while, but he finally couldn't quite resist the need, and he slowly started to relax and finally, his arms came around me in a timid hug. I think I forgot to breathe. It was more than any damn five minutes - hell, it took him that long just to make up his mind he was going to go along with me - but I wasn't about to say a word about it. I'd have sat there all week as long as he was ok with it. I kind of imagined it was the first time anyone had ever held him. I dared rock him a little, no more than that, I denied myself everything that crossed my mind and just sat with him until he finally started to show signs of being uncomfortable. Then I helped him lay down and straightened his sheets, all business again. I could feel his eyes on me while I moved about, but he didn't speak. I hesitated at the door, turning back and taking a shot.

'Heero, nobody died in that crash... you only hurt yourself. You know that.' I watched his eyes fly open wide and was a little gratified that I had caught him so by surprise.

'How did you...' he began, and I smiled.

'Told you,' I explained. 'You aren't the only one who has nightmares. I understand a little bit about guilt.'

He didn't speak and I only said, 'Good night'.

I didn't get a lot of sleep the rest of that night.

I make it sound like I poured out the booze and never looked back. Don't let me fool you. It was hard. It was damn hard. Roughest thing I think I've ever been through. I was bad enough the first couple of days, I wasn't even able to get to the hospital to visit Heero. I don't think he realized though, because he was drugged up enough that he wouldn't have noticed if I had showed up in a Big Bird costume.

The craving was enough to drive a wooden man to suicide, but then the nausea set in and I started to realize that this wasn't going to be quite the cakewalk I had thought. Drinking is bad for you. I was going to give it up. That's good... right? By the time I got the damn shakes and was constantly breaking out with the sweats, I was about ready to call an ambulance. It was the horror of thinking about Quatre's slightly scandalized voice talking about Heero and his drunk driving, and imagining him talking to Trowa and Wufei about me in that tone of voice, that made me tough it out. On the days that I managed to get in to the hospital for a little while, I found that Heero was doing just fine with his own withdrawal because they have drugs to help you with that sort of thing.

I'm a little ashamed to have to admit that I resented the hell out of that, for some reason. I realize that he wasn't in the physical shape to have gotten through what I was going through, but it still seemed like cheating somehow.

But then, maybe that's why he didn't hesitate to want to start drinking again. He hadn't had to fight his way out the way I did. Or maybe it was simply that he just didn't care. For me, it had been a conscious decision. For him, it had been forced by his accident. I suppose I understand. But it didn't make it any easier to deal with when he started wanting a drink.

'No way in hell, Heero,' I said for what felt like the hundredth time, and I knew my voice was starting to sound weary. 'Forget it.'

His irritation was a palpable thing. 'I said, I want a lousy damn drink, now where in the hell do you have it stashed?' He maneuvered his chair over near the kitchen cupboard and pulled the first door open he came to.

'I don't have anything alcoholic in this entire apartment,' I told him and got a sneer for my trouble. He proceeded to drag everything that was on the shelf out on the floor, looking for a bottle that he was convinced I had squirreled away somewhere. Pots, pans, boxes of cereal, a canister of oatmeal that burst open when it fell. It all got pulled out and dumped on the floor. The entire contents of the cupboard and then he moved to the next one.

'Don't lie to me, Maxwell,' he warned. 'You drink... I've seen you. Now where the hell is it?'

'Damn it, Heero!' I snapped, watching him trash my kitchen. 'I told you... I gave it the hell up! I was drinking myself to death and I fucking quit!'

He gave me a cold stare for a minute, really looking at me for the first time since the argument had started. But then he went back to dragging stuff out of the cupboards.

'Heero... knock it off!' I commanded, for all the good it did me, 'You're just making a mess.'

His answer was a strange sound that bordered on triumphant and I gasped as he pulled a half a bottle of vodka out of the cupboard. I'd missed one.

Before I had a chance to think, I was across the room and had it snatched from his hands. His response was a roar of the most primal rage I think I'd ever heard from him. I staggered away; bottle clutched in my hand and was saved by the mess he had made on the floor; he couldn't immediately get his chair through it. I have no doubt he would have broken my arm or whatever the hell he had to do in order to get that bottle from me if he had been able to get to me.

But then it sort of came to me what in the hell I was holding in my hands. I think the kitchen floor could have opened up and swallowed him and I wouldn't have noticed. I just freakin' forgot about him. I froze where I was; my mission of getting the booze away from him accomplished, and stared at it like I'd found the Holy Grail. Like I'd found a dead rat in my silverware drawer. Like I'd found Nirvana. Like I'd found a box of strychnine.

'Oh dear God,' I breathed, and watched the liquid in the bottle begin to dance before my eyes as my hands began to shake. I could look at it and practically taste it on my tongue. Could feel the burning slide of it down my throat. Could... imagine the sweet, sweet oblivion it could grant me. There was enough in that bottle to numb my heart to the point that Heero couldn't touch me. There was enough to let me pass out and not have to deal with another sleepless night. I watched my fingers reach for the cap. I think Heero was still yelling at me, but I couldn't fucking hear him. I told my fingers to stop, but the cap was coming off anyway. I didn't have to hurt anymore... I didn't have to lie in my room all night and imagine him lying in his, hating my guts and wishing he were anywhere else but here. The cap was off.

'No,' I whispered to no one in particular and when the whimpering person in the back of my head didn't listen, I said it a little louder. 'No!' And then I was growling it over and over, 'No! No! No!' And the damn vodka was going down the drain, and I was smashing the bottle on the sink and shards of glass were flying everywhere. I whirled around to find Heero staring at me with wide, shocked eyes and I was screaming at him, 'You can't break me, you son of a bitch! You can't break me no matter what the hell you do!' and then I fled all the damn way to my room, slamming the door when I got there just for good measure.

I curled up on my bed and I hugged my pillow, trying desperately to pretend it was a person. A body. A living, breathing human being who gave a shit about me... and I sobbed and I cried and I just did my best to get it out of my system. It never helps; it just makes your nose run. I've never seen the benefits of it, but I've also never been able to stop it when it was bound and determined to happen.

I got up after a little bit and went to clean the mess up. Imagine my utter and complete shock when I walked back into the kitchen and found Heero trying to use a broom from his wheelchair. I just stood in the damn doorway and gaped at him for a minute; unable to process the information my eyes were sending to me. No way; couldn't be. He looked up when he noticed I was there and if his cleaning up after himself hadn't been enough to throw me... the funny little look of contrite surliness that was on his face would have.

'I'm... sorry,' he murmured, a phrase that I imagine cost him dearly. My short-circuited brain wondered idly if he'd had to practice the line to get it out.

'It's all right,' I assured him and finally got my ass in gear enough to go and take the broom from his hands. 'If you can't trash your best friend's kitchen then whose...' I began, but it bought me a dark scowl and I just shut up, looking at him.

'Don't,' he commanded harshly. 'That's what I hate about you... that damned jesters act.'

I blinked at him and let the grin slip away, turning to get to work on the glass and the oatmeal he'd spilled. I snorted. 'People like the jester, Heero. They don't want to see the real me. The jester makes them laugh.'

He moved his chair back a little so I could get at some of the mess. He was quiet for a minute, chewing on something and suddenly blurted, 'I hate the jester... he lies.'

I was down on one knee, getting at the crap that was under the edge of the counter, so when I jerked my head up to look at him, we were practically eye to eye. 'Well, we can't both be pricks,' popped out of my mouth before I had a chance to edit, and I held my breath, wondering if I had just completely blown it.

He shocked the hell out of me for the second time that night by grinning. It wasn't a huge grin, almost more of a smirk... and only on one side, but damn it all to hell... it was a grin. 'You get rid of the damn jester and I'll... attempt to tone it down to... jerk.'

He won an honest laugh from me, the first I could remember for a very long time, but when I stopped laughing I had to confess. 'I'll try, Heero... but the joker's mask is almost as old as I am.'

He only grunted, giving me a tight little nod, then left me to finish cleaning up the mess he'd made.

All better? Hardly. It got better in some ways, I suppose. I stopped trying to be perennially 'happy' around him all the time and he... managed to accept a few things without his 'fuck off' tag line. Yep. A partnership made in Heaven. I got rather adept at dodging his blows and since his connection rate went down, he didn't seem to be trying quite so hard. God... I sound like I was letting him beat on me. It wasn't really like that. I honestly don't think he ever really meant to hurt me... it's like he trusted me to duck or something. Like he trusted me to understand and be on guard. I dunno... it sounds stupid whichever way I explain it. All I know is I was just determined to be there for him as best I could. I knew that underneath it all somewhere he was just testing. Pushing to see if he could drive me away, still convinced that I had a breaking point.

He was at my place for almost a month before therapy had him walking again and out of the chair.

Toward the end, it had become... a little less than awful. I think he had finally resolved himself to the fact that he wasn't getting anything from me in the way of alcohol and stopped pushing about it. I wasn't stupid, I knew he hadn't given it up, but was only biding his time until he was out from under my watchful eye. But since the incident with the bottle of vodka, he hadn't brought it up to me again.

We had gotten to the place where - when we weren't fighting - we could almost carry on a civil conversation if we could find a topic, and if it was just the two of us. Not that I got a hell of a lot of visitors during that month, not with Mr. Anti-social living with me, but we did have to go out to his therapy sessions and occasionally to the Doctor's office. During those times I might as well have been his cab driver. I think he was just afraid that people would give me credit for having some say in what was going on with him. When appointments were made, he never asked me if that was ok, never checked with my schedule. Just informed me later that he had to be here or had to go there. But I understood it was just more of the testing, more of the poking to see if I could be made to balk, could be made to give up.

Sometimes, not that I would ever in a million years ever say this out loud, but... I think things might have been easier if he'd been stuck in that chair forever.

As it was, he got himself flaming drunk within a week of moving out of my place.

'Oh God, Heero... you didn't,' I sighed, looking down at him where he lay sprawled across his couch, a half empty bottle of Wild Turkey on his coffee table and an empty tumbler dangling from almost limp fingers.

'How the hell did you get in here?' he glared at me, but it really wasn't up to par.

'You know there aren't a lot of places I can be kept out of when I make up my mind I want in,' I informed him and he looked like he might actually work up to getting mad enough to get off the couch.

'That's breaking and entering,' he glowered.

'Prove it,' I sighed and reached to take the bottle away from him. That got his attention.

'I'm not living under your roof any more!' he snarled. 'You can't tell me what to do!'

'I'm still your best friend,' I told him sadly. 'And it's still my job to keep you in one piece.'

'I'll just buy more,' he informed me sullenly as I put the bottle out of reach.

'I know that,' I agreed. 'That's why I'm not bothering to pour it out. But you look like you've had enough for tonight.'

He glared daggers at me for a minute, but was really just too wasted to do much about me. I flopped down in the chair across from him and sighed heavily, rubbing a hand over my face and kicking my own ass for not coming to check on him sooner. Not that I could have stopped him... but still.

'Why, Heero?' I couldn't help but murmur. 'You were clean for over two months.'

'Not by choice,' he muttered defensively and there was the whole crux of the matter and I knew it. I don't even know why I bothered to ask. I had known this was coming since the night with the vodka bottle. Nobody ever gives up drinking because somebody else makes them. You have to want to all on your own. He didn't wait for me to ask anything else, but cocked his head to look over at me. 'What the hell do you want from me?' he asked, eyes narrowed.

I sighed again and did my best to return his gaze unflinchingly. 'Just for you to understand that you don't deserve this.'

Reflexes born of a month of living under the same roof with him let me duck the heavy tumbler when he tried to nail me with it. After that, I shut up. I just sat with him until he finally fell asleep, then I cleaned up the glass and worked around his apartment until he got around to the throwing up. I figured it was coming, as much as he had put away after such a long time away from it. I cleaned that up too and got him to bed when I was pretty sure he was done.

'Why?' he asked me groggily while I was tucking him in.

'Because I've been there, Heero,' I told him gently. 'I understand what you're going through.'

'You can't possibly understand,' he said, and though I'm sure he was trying for harsh, it came out rather morose. 'Nobody can.'

'That's right,' I grinned at him, realizing he probably wasn't going to remember much of this conversation later anyway. 'You were the only Gundam pilot, weren't you? The only one who ever lost a childhood... who ever killed innocents. The only man alive who has nightmares and can't sleep at night. Sorry... I forgot.'

He just blinked up at me with befuddled, blood-shot eyes, the drink stripping all his masks away and leaving his face as open as a book. He was just... confused. 'Why?' he asked me again, honestly perplexed, his brow furrowing in concentration as he tried to think it through.

'Because I'm your best friend,' I told him. 'Now go to sleep... I'm on watch.'

The alcohol spoke to me through his confused lips and said blurrily, 'Thank you.'

I was so shocked, he was asleep before I thought to whisper, 'You're welcome.'

He was right about one thing; I couldn't stop him. The best I could do was... well, hell; I freakin' stalked him. He was pissed as hell at first, threatening to call the police on me and have me arrested. But after awhile, he seemed to realize that I wasn't stealing his alcohol and pouring it out... I wasn't tying him up to keep him from going out to bars... and he seemed to come to accept my presence somehow. I still wasn't a welcome presence, but at least he stopped threatening to shoot me.

He seemed to accept me as his God-granted personal chauffer, and it made me feel a little better to know that his accident had frightened him enough to at least make him stop driving. He might not care if he killed himself, but there was enough of him left in there that he cared if he killed someone else.

Besides, I had discovered that if he was just drunk enough to be relaxed, but not so drunk he couldn't focus clearly... he loved riding with me on my bike. It was about the only thing that he did seem to enjoy any more and I indulged him whenever he seemed so inclined.

Other than being his designated driver and all-around guardian Angel, the best I could do was just try to maintain things for him. I made sure he ate now and again, and never let him drink so much that he was in any danger of alcohol poisoning. I came in at least once a week and made sure his apartment wasn't so bad that he was in danger of having it condemned. And I periodically hauled him out to get-togethers and events, just to keep him in touch with the other guys. He made them uncomfortable, but I didn't care, and had made it quite plain that he was to be included or they could just kiss my lily-white ass goodbye too. He was one of us whether they liked it our not. He was one of us whether he liked it or not.

It was a period of time I thought we would never get through. He just didn't care, and wasn't making any effort no matter what I said or did.

Oddly, it was another 'accident' that finally seemed to wake him up.

I plucked the beer bottle from his fingers before he quite knew what I was about, poured out what was left in the sand, and chucked the bottle into the trashcan. I turned back to face him with a grin and offered him one of the two bottles of soda I was holding.

'What. The. Hell. Did. You. Do. That. For?' he ground out and I only smiled.

'It's bad for you,' I told him quite reasonably, still offering him the soda. Behind me, up on the boardwalk, the noises of the others seemed very far away.

He levered himself slowly up from where he had been sitting on the ground and turned to face me. There was a fury in his eyes that should have made me very afraid, and I suppose somewhere deep down inside... it did. Somewhere under the resolve I had that I was his only hope. I was the only one who was willing to keep sticking my hand in the fire for him. Relena had given up, the rush of young infatuation dying quickly in the face of ugly reality. Wufei was disgusted with him. Trowa was baffled. Even gentle Quatre couldn't seem to keep coming back for more. Just me; stupid, stubborn, idealistic Duo Maxwell the fucking masochist. No matter how many times he shoved me away, I kept coming back. Because I understood the place he was in and I understood that Heero Yuy wasn't equipped to find his own way back. He'd slit my throat before he ever admitted it... but he needed me.

'Why don't you come back up...' I began, my ever-present grin still firmly in place even in the face of his scowling, incredibly pissed off visage. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but I didn't. When he decked me, I was totally unprepared and I hit the stones of the wall beside us with a sickening crack and saw nothing but white for a bit and then nothing at all for a little bit more.

I don't know that I completely lost consciousness, but it was Wufei's voice screaming in a flaming fit of rage that made me care enough to stop trying to find the dark place that made the pain a little less.

' sick son of a bitch! You could have killed him! What in the hell is wrong with you?'

I opened my eyes to see Quatre... several Quatres actually, leaning over me with fear on all their faces. I blinked until I had it narrowed down to just two of him and figured that was good enough to function. I reached one hand to grab for his shoulder, missed, tried the other one and got it, pulling myself up into a sitting position. My head exploded and my stomach lurched. Oh, happy day.

'Duo, lie still,' he gasped and I realized that there was blood on his hands. How odd. It dawned on me while I was trying to focus on Heero and Wufei that it was probably my blood.

'Leave him alone, Wufei,' I said and might have spouted something in ancient Aztec for the shocked looks I got all around.

'What?!' Wufei snapped at me and I could see he was really, really angry. 'The asshole damn near caved your head in! When are you going to wise up and give the hell up on...'

'Enough! ' I snapped back and was really sorry when my head split open and my brains started leaking out of my ears. 'Leave him alone; I started it,' I told him in a much softer voice, holding my head tightly in my hands and wishing the ground would stop tilting. I couldn't figure out if I was just hearing the roar of the ocean... or if that noise was inside my head. I think Quatre's arm was all that was holding me up.

The look Wufei gave me was something akin to the look you give the guy who serves you a summons to court. 'You are as screwed up as he is,' he snarled and then stormed off.

I heard something strange in the distance and suddenly Trowa was leaning down to lift me in his arms. I gawped at him. 'Tro! What are you doing?'

'The ambulance is here,' he told me gently, and turned to carry me up the steps to the boardwalk, Quatre running ahead to flag down the emergency vehicle. Ambulance? What fucking ambulance?

I caught one last glimpse of Heero before they took me away and he looked... a little sick. And very alone.

'You can't leave him there like that,' I blurted to Trowa, trying to look up at him with pleading eyes, but I'm sure it was rather spoiled by the blood I could feel running down the side of my face.

He looked down at me with an expression somewhere between irritated and wondering. 'Why do you keep trying with him?' he suddenly asked me.

'I'm his best friend,' I told him seriously. 'It's my job.'

He snorted disdainfully, but his steps faltered and he looked me right in the eye. 'Duo... he just almost killed you. He...I don't understand you.'

'I've been where he is,' I whispered, feeling suddenly nauseous, understanding full well I had a nasty little concussion and wanting to convince him before I couldn't. 'And I understand what a damn lonely place it can be. He needs me because he's driven everybody else away... he needs somebody who'll stand by him until he can find his way back. Don't leave him here Trowa... please?'

Wufei was yelling from the boardwalk above us, telling Trowa to hurry the hell up. Trowa sighed heavily and rolled his eyes at me. 'You're a damn pain in the ass,' he muttered, but his eyes scanned the stairs above us and he finally spotted his mate. 'Quatre! Come down here!' And I knew that I had convinced him and he would make Quatre go down and drag Heero with us to the hospital. So I let myself slide into the dark place for a little while where it didn't hurt so bad. Either in my head or in my heart. Sucker punched; who would have thought?

It was fairly nasty. I vaguely remember waking up in the ambulance and puking all over some poor orderly. I don't remember a hell of a lot after that until the hospital. They had to give me something for the nausea to get me to stop up-chucking long enough to do the MRI. It was bad enough the doctor kept me over twenty-four hours. I remember two things fairly clearly; the headache that no amount of drugs seemed to touch, and the look on Heero's face whenever I focused enough to see it.

Massive, horrendous, huge amounts of guilt. Tinged with a strange hint of betrayal... like he was confused about why I hadn't ducked.

The guys told me later that I about drove them to distraction because whenever I was awake enough to talk, all I did was beg whoever would listen to me to watch out for Heero. Maybe it was a little self-centered, but I was pretty sure that he was upset enough that he just might do something stupid. Not necessarily on my behalf, not necessarily because it was me, but just because he'd so totally lost control that he'd almost killed somebody.

I don't know. I'm not explaining it very well. I just knew there was something about the way he looked that made me scared, and I had a job to do but couldn't. I felt like the point man that had fallen under fire. I was desperate that somebody take over my position, but everybody was so damn pissed at him that nobody seemed interested in doing it.

Quatre confessed much later that Wufei had finally exploded, telling Heero in no uncertain terms that he was by-God going to stay there at the hospital until I came around enough that they could talk sense to me, so that I would stop worrying. The poor guy was just spitting mad that I was agonizing over Heero's welfare in the condition I was in. They somehow finally managed to get across to me that Heero wasn't going anywhere and I settled down.

Maybe it worked out for the best. Because it came down to just him and me, sometime the next morning and we had a little talk.

I opened my eyes and remember vaguely wishing I could stop my heartbeat, because my head was pounding in time with it. The nausea had eased, but I felt groggy as hell and damned sleepy. I felt like I had a little more presence of mind than I'd had for a long while though... until a soft sound made me turn my head and I found Heero sitting beside the bed with his face in his hands, sobbing quietly.

I watched him for a little bit, feeling... strange. It was an odd little rush seeing him there at my side like that. But I had to remind myself that if he was shedding tears they were for his situation, not necessarily for me. Sure he felt remorse... but he would have felt the same way if I had been a total stranger. He really, truly had almost killed me. No dramatics. No theatrics. He had hit me damn near as hard as he could and literally had, as Wufei had said, almost caved my head in. Of course he felt bad.

'Hey,' I said softly and watched patiently while he scrubbed at his face before daring to glance up at me, as though he could hide what he'd been doing. 'It's all right, Heero,' I soothed and would have patted his hand, but it just seemed too difficult to raise my own.

He blinked at me for a minute, a tiny little frown of uncertainty marring his forehead. Then he blurted, 'Why in the hell don't you hate me?'

'Too easy,' I grinned, feeling my eyelids wanting to fall closed. 'It's what you want me to do.'

'Duo,' he growled, frustration rather plain in his voice and I forced my eyes to open again.

'I know you didn't mean to do it,' I told him plainly. 'And I can see you're sorry. I'm your best friend, remember?'

'Why won't you give up on me?' he whispered, watching me with this strange hungry look in his eyes. Watching me fight to stay awake, watching me fight for coherent words.

'Because I care, you asshole,' I told him and tried to smile warmly. 'Everybody deserves a best friend, Heero. Even you. I'm just sorry I was all I could manage for you.' I frowned, thinking about that. It hadn't come out quite right, but I couldn't think how to put it any better.

But then I forgot about it, because Heero had hold of my hand and was weeping again, clutching my fingers to his cheek. 'Help me... Oh God, Duo... please help me...'

'I'm right here,' I told him, trying to squeeze his fingers in return, but I'm not sure I managed it. If I had died right then from what he'd done to me, it would have been worth it because Heero Yuy had finally taken that first step back from Hell.

Ok, you understand that the world was not all sweetness and light after that, right? Surely you don't think that's all there is to an addict giving up an addiction? I said it was the first step. Just the wanting to get help is a first step and a huge first step at that. But it's only the first step of many. On a road that is long and damn steep.

He moved back in with me when I got out of the hospital. I had made it easier for him by insisting to the guys that it was only fair that Heero be the one to stay with me since I'd taken care of him after his accident. Trowa and Quatre had grudgingly accepted the arrangement, but Wufei was fit to be tied, and had only agreed after getting in Heero's face and explaining to him in great detail what would happen to him if he dared raise a hand to me again. The big lug really loves me, God forbid he ever admit it.

I made it seem like it was Heero doing me the favor. Coming to stay with me to help me out while I recovered a little bit. Not that I really needed anybody, but it took some of the pressure off of him if we pretended in front of the others that it was for my sake and not his. They didn't need to know what was going on. Heero didn't need that kind of attention brought to his personal life. In that respect I could shelter him a little bit, and I meant to do it. I understood about there being some people you just couldn't bear to have... see all the gory details of your soul.

So I brought him back into my home and settled in for the siege. I hadn't anticipated how much it was going to take him by surprise, though. He'd kicked the booze once before, right? Well... he thought he had. He didn't understand that the worst of his detox happened while he was so drugged and out of it, he was just two steps to the right of a coma.

We knelt on the bathroom floor together and I held his head while he puked into the toilet for about the third time in the last hour. When he finished, I cleaned him up and helped him to his feet.

'Bed or couch?' I asked gently and got a moan that might have indicated that he preferred the moon. I took him to the couch, thinking that a change of scenery might be beneficial. I settled him in the corner of the sofa and he curled into a miserable ball. He had the shakes today and I went to fetch the blankets from his bed, bringing his pillows as well. He let me tuck him in with almost no response at all. I felt horrible for him, but there wasn't a lot I could do outside of making him as comfortable as I could.

'Can I get you something?' I offered, keeping my voice low. I remembered the screaming headaches. My own head wasn't feeling that great and I had to remind myself not to reach to rub at the stitches. It upset Heero.

'No,' he growled, looking at me over the edge of the blanket as though I had just offered him a mug of snail glop.

'Heero,' I coaxed, 'it's too easy to get dehydrated through this stage... you need to try to drink something.'

'I said no,' he snapped, and I saw him regret it when he only caused his headache to flare.

I sighed, wishing I could shoulder this for him, but understanding that this was something of a rite of passage. This would turn into the battle scar that would help him remember later on, just why drinking was such a bad idea. I could ease things for him as best I could, but I couldn't do it for him. 'Nutrition and hydration are...' I began again, but he was suddenly sitting up, spitting mad and snarling at me.

'I said, drop it!' he yelled and I couldn't help it, I flinched. Threw a hand up to protect my very vulnerable head and ducked. See? I'm not really a slow learner.

His face just... crumbled. 'Oh my God...' he moaned and buried his face in his hands.

Without thought, I gathered him into my arms and he didn't fight me. 'It's all right,' I soothed. 'It's going to be all right.'

He clung to me and I could feel him shaking, could feel the heat of his elevated temperature. 'Why does it hurt so bad this time?' he breathed, his voice no more than a whisper.

I smiled tenderly where he couldn't see it anyway. 'You were unconscious for most of it last time.'

He didn't answer immediately, just huddled against my chest, trying, it seemed, to absorb some of my body heat. 'I... don't know that I can do this,' he confessed in a very small voice after a long silence.

'Yes you can,' I told him. 'You don't have to do it by yourself. I'm here.'

'Did... did you go through this?' he asked, his head still pressed against my shoulder.

'Yeah,' I told him honestly. 'And if you'll trust me, I can help a little bit.'

He showed no signs of moving from where he was and I dared to rub a hand gently up and down his back, trying to help him relax. Trying to help warm him.

'I... do trust you,' he said then, so softly I almost didn't catch it. I wondered later if he heard the painful little thump my heart made. It was iron control that kept my arms from tightening around him.

'Ok then,' I whispered, afraid of breaking the spell. 'You remember your nutrition lessons from the war, don't you? Your body is under a lot of stress here and you're just making it worse by not giving it what it needs. I know you feel like crap... but it's important. If we can get your stomach settled down, we can get some pain medicine down you that will help with the headache and the fever.'

He nodded against my shoulder, but still didn't move to let go. I remembered the fear of what your own body was doing to you, I remembered nights when I thought I was dying from what he was going through. I understood that right now his need for human contact was more important than the other things, so I just held him.

'I don't think I can do this without you,' he told me after a little while and I thought I would weep.

'You don't have to,' I smiled instead. 'That's what best friends are for. I'll always be here when you need me.'

That was the roughest stretch we had; those first couple of weeks. Going cold turkey might not be the best way to handle things, I don't have a clue, but it was all I knew. The first couple of days were the most physically taxing, until the nausea eased off. Or maybe it was just how wrung out I was myself, fresh out of the hospital. But after we cleared the two-week mark, it got a little easier. In some ways. I'm not sure he was completely prepared for what we were facing. I think, sometimes, that he thought once he got through the detox period that things would be all over.

Detoxification sucks. Make no mistake there. The craving, the nausea, the shakes, feeling like your nerves are on fire and about to crawl out of your own skin, and of course... the hallucinations if you're too far gone. I hadn't had too much of that. I remember seeing a few people who, later, I realized couldn't possibly have been there, but nothing too unsettling. Heero had more trouble, and I spent more than one evening chasing dogs out of his room and sitting with him until he fell back asleep.

But after that, after your body is purged of the poisons you've been dumping into it for years, comes the really hard part. Because all the reasons you started drinking in the first place are still there. Deciding to give up your addiction is a fine thing. But you have to realize, that alone is not going to make your life all better. It's like calling a do-over and going back to square one. All the things that led you to the darkest moment of your life... are still there waiting for you. Now you have to figure out how to deal with them without resorting to the path you took the first time.

The hardest part for Heero was accepting the fact that other people had to be brought in and dealt with. He is a very private person, I think he wanted to just go away to a cave somewhere and come out a while later all cured and better. Getting him to join Alcoholics Anonymous had been a trial and a struggle, but I have to tell you I thought my heart would explode out of my chest with pride during the first meeting that he stood up and talked. I don't think I'll ever forget that night.

It was far from easy. Sometimes he fought me. Sometimes he turned to me like he wouldn't know what to do if I weren't there to tell him. Sometimes he made me ache from watching him try. Sometimes he made me want to scream in frustration. It was probably the most bittersweet time of my life.

'What in the hell do you know about it?' he growled at me, having one of his temperamental days. One of his, feeling sorry for himself days.

'Exactly what makes you think you have the market cornered on pain, Heero?' I chided gently, understanding that he needed to vent a little, needed to get some of the frustration out.

'How in the hell can you possibly understand what it feels like to be all alone?' he snapped at me. 'To never know the right things to say or do? To always be out of place?'

I laughed and that earned me a dark glare. 'Do you see me with an apartment full of company every night, Heero?'

'So?' he grumbled, a touch of the bad-tempered little boy peeking out. 'Everybody adores you.'

I couldn't help the sad little smile, though I knew it probably came off as a bit condescending. 'They're my friends Heero. Just like they were your friends once... before you drove them off. But it wasn't enough, was it? In fact, it just makes it hurt worse, doesn't it?' I saw his eyes widen as I hit the target right on the mark, and I pressed forward. 'Trowa and Quatre... Wufei and Sally... Zechs and Noin... it twists in your gut every time you see them, doesn't it? It twists in mine. They all... fit in, somehow. They all found somebody to love them no matter what. They...' I had to stop when I found myself on the verge of tears. He was looking at me, almost agog, and I realized that he absolutely could not imagine that anyone else in the world could possibly feel the way he felt. I forced myself to go on. 'I love them, Heero... and I suppose they love me... in their own way. As a friend. As somebody they went through hell with. But it isn't the same. I still have to come home to an empty, cold apartment at night and stare at a dark ceiling. Don't tell me I can't understand.'

'But...' he fumbled, his anger fading as he honestly tried to comprehend. 'You always fit in... you handle all those damn social situations like it was easy!'

I laughed out right and he frowned darkly at me, but waited to hear what I had to say; an incredible improvement in itself. 'All those parties of Quatre's?' I prodded, but didn't wait for his answer. 'I just throw on the jester's mask and make 'em laugh. That way... when they're laughing at me, because I don't know the damn difference between those stupid little forks... I can't tell,' I had to blink at myself, when the dark bitterness crept into my voice. 'Heero... I'm in knots through every minute of those things... terrified that everyone is suddenly going to whip around and point at me... like that scene in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'... like they're suddenly going to realize that I'm not one of them.'

He chewed on that for a minute and finally ventured, 'I always thought you handled everything so well... I never would have guessed.'

I chuckled, a sound that came out as self-deprecating, though I hadn't meant it to. 'What the hell would a street-rat like me know about... social situations?'

He finally gave me a little grin, 'Well, I guess an ex-soldier wouldn't know the difference.'

So we set out to learn the difference. Sound stupid? I had to start somewhere, and he'd finally given me a glimpse into one of the things that was bothering him. He couldn't fit in; he didn't know how to act around people. Didn't know how to make small talk or what was proper etiquette. All his soldier's instincts told him that there was safety in blending... but he stuck out wherever he went, like a wolf in a pack of poodles.

I treated it like a mission. We did research. Ok... we watched a lot of movies. We went to malls and restaurants and just observed people. I hunted crap up on the Internet, like just what in the hell the point was to all those stupid forks. I made Quatre throw a small dinner party, with just a few people that we knew, so we could practice.

Seems like a simple thing, doesn't it? Wonder why I never bothered to do this for myself? Sometimes I wonder too. When the problems had been my own, they had just seemed too overwhelming for me to half know where to start. But when they were Heero's problems... there was just no question that I would deal with them. It was like I had no choice. I can't explain it, so I'm not even going to try.

And no, don't be ridiculous... that was not the root of all his problems. It was more like a... symptom. Almost like the bone he was willing to throw to the dog. I felt like it was more of his unconscious testing. As though he dared show me that small thing to see how I handled it before he began to let me in. I guess I passed the acid test, because he did, finally, begin to let me in... let me see some of the real pain.

Some days were good... and some days were bad. As he opened up to me, I did my best to solve whatever I could. Some stuff was easy, almost fun... like when we taught each other to dance. Other stuff was... less than easy and there were times that I thought he would rip the heart right from my chest.

I'm not a heavy sleeper at all. Barely floating, I suspect, just below the surface most nights. So when my bedroom door swung open, I was wide-awake instantly, but ages old instinct left me still as a stone, watching.

Heero stood there, silhouetted by the dim light from the hall, somehow managing to look hesitant even in the near darkness. I waited, to see what he was about, but he only stood there looking in for a minute before suddenly seeming to think better of whatever he had come for, and he started to turn away.

'Heero?' I called softly and saw him jump like I'd caught him with his hand in the till. He froze, but still didn't speak, so I ventured, 'It's all right... I wasn't asleep. You want to... talk?'

He took a hesitant step into the room, so I sat up and he finally came and perched himself on the side of my bed. I waited patiently, not pushing and he ducked his head.

'Duo,' he whispered, after a moment. 'How did you... how the hell did you get through this?'

I huffed a sigh and thought about it, not sure how to answer. I thought about my own dark days and honestly had to admit that this part, the stage he was in now, had been a little easier for me. Because I'd had him to worry with... to nurse back to health. Caring for Heero after he got out of the hospital had taken so much of my concentration, that I hadn't had the time to think about my own problems. 'You have to find something that you care about, Heero.' I told him, as honestly as I dared. 'You have to find that thing that means something to you and you throw yourself at it and grab on with both hands. It's the only way to get through to the other side of the darkness.'

He chewed on that for a little bit and then cast a glance at me through the shadow of his unruly bangs. 'What... what did you find?' he asked and I felt like he'd punched me. I sure as hell couldn't tell him what I'd grabbed onto.

I didn't let my disconcertion reach my voice though. 'You have to find your own dream... I can't find it for you.' Damn but that sounded all wise and philosophical... for a simple evasion.

He nodded, accepting it, and after a couple of quiet minutes he said, 'Duo?' and it was so soft I almost didn't hear it, having to lean a little to catch the rest of it. 'Can I... can I have one of those five minutes?'

I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. 'Of course you can,' I sighed and opened my arms for him.

He fell into my embrace and I held him while he trembled and spoke to me of the blood on his hands. Of the innocent lives he'd taken and the voices that haunted his nights. Of a little girl and a puppy that frolicked through his nightmares, embodying the countless hundreds that had died that night on a mission gone wrong, claiming an entire civilian complex.

I held him and I rocked him, and I dared stroke my hand over his hair. I wept softly with him as his memories woke my own and before the night was out that little girl and her dog had come to sniff through the ashes of the Maxwell church.

He fell asleep on my bed that night and I let him, lying awake myself, watching over him, until morning came.

I crept away before he woke, honoring the pact we made not to speak of these things. I got up and made breakfast and when he came out later, we went on as though it had never happened. Just as I had sworn.

I thought my heart would break.

He... calmed. I don't know how else to describe it. I wish I could take sole credit for it, but you have to want to turn yourself around to really do it. It sure as hell didn't happen overnight... but he was doing it. The guys began to trust him again, began to accept him back into the fold and that did a lot for him. A hell of a lot. I indulged in a little bit of 'I told you so' during that period, just because I felt like they deserved it.

He started talking about moving back to his own place not long after Wufei invited him to join the Preventers. And no... it was all Wufei's idea... I didn't even suggest it. But it was something else that worked wonders for him. I honestly think the Preventers was the thing he finally found to grab onto, or simply finding something he was good at, something he could do that would make a difference. He had been making progress before that, but he truly seemed to blossom then.

I was... torn on the whole issue. I was thrilled for him, about ready to burst like a new parent watching their kid take their first steps... but pretty damned unhappy about his moving out.

But, from the damn beginning, this had been about Heero and what was best for him. So when the day came, I helped him pack and moved him home and didn't say a thing. I remember standing in his apartment door, getting ready to go back to my own, cold empty place... and wishing I had the nerve to ask for my own five minutes.

I stood on the balcony overlooking the great, open dance floor and sipped at a glass of Perrier. People moved below me like those little characters in that old computer game. I stifled a chuckle as I thought about being able to click on them and make them move around the room. Perhaps I could click on the boisterous politician who had been bothering Quatre earlier and make him jump into the pool? I sipped my drink to hide the tiny grin I couldn't stifle as, in my head, people began to whirl around and change their clothes. I imagined the portly, bored looking lady in the corner with a little balloon over her head, waving her arms and proclaiming that her 'fun' indicator needed some attention.

'What's so funny?' Trowa's voice came from close beside me, sounding amused.

I tried not to show that he'd surprised me and grinned up at him. He was sipping at his own camouflaging drink, but it looked to be whiskey and not just fancy water. But then... Trowa had never had a problem with alcohol.

'Oh, just imagining total omniscience and omnipotence.'

He raised a sardonic eyebrow in question. 'And what would you do with it?' he asked blandly.

I chuckled, looking just in time to see Quatre get cornered by Mr. Ownagenda again. 'I'd start by making short and bald there strip to his skivvies and jump in the fountain out front.'

Trowa almost choked on his drink and spared me a glance that came with a wide grin. 'Don't worry... he's pushed Quatre about as far as he's going to. If he doesn't back off he's going to end up getting escorted off the grounds.'

I snorted and turned my attention elsewhere. Ok, my attention was pulled elsewhere. Heero had come into the room and I was instantly aware of it. I watched him make his way across the floor and I had to grin. The drink in his hand was like mine... totally harmless. It was a simple prop, and not the kind you need to hold yourself up. I found myself smiling broadly. A woman stepped backward and almost stumbled over him. Heero reached out and steadied her, smiling gently when she apologized and then moved on. I thought my face was going to split.

'Look at him, Trowa,' I whispered almost reverently, not able to keep the glowing pride out of my voice. 'Just look at him.'

Trowa turned toward me to see where my gaze had gone and he followed my line of sight just in time to see Heero shake someone's hand and laugh lightly at something that was said.

'You know, Duo,' Trowa ventured softly. 'I never would have believed the changes in him. I was ready to write him off for dead.'

He was watching Heero and didn't see me shiver like someone had stepped on my grave. 'He just needed a nudge in the right direction.'

'Bullshit,' Trowa told me, turning to look down at me for a second. 'You damn well saved his life and don't think that you and I both don't know it. He was well on his way to truly self-destructing. That wasn't a nudge... you hauled him back kicking and screaming and spitting the whole way.'

I flushed slightly and gave him an uncomfortable little shrug. 'That's what best friends are there for.'

The look I got then was intent.

Down on the dance floor I saw someone approach Heero, a lovely blond woman in a red dress. Heero smiled at her and they spoke for a moment, then I saw him set his drink aside and offer her his arm. They ventured out onto the dance floor together.

The feeling of pure, happy pride that had been threatening to expand inside my chest until I exploded with it... changed subtly and threatened me with a whole different feeling. Something I'd been having to get used to lately. I repressed a sigh.

'So,' Trowa smirked at me. 'Whatever are you going to do with all your spare time now that your little fledgling is all grown up and ready to strike out on his own?'

I'm sure he hadn't meant to run the sword through my heart. It was idle talk and I am enough of an actor still, that I smirked back at him and muttered some inane comment about taking up ceramics. He laughed, totally unaware of the pain that was flaring in my chest.

You have to find something that you care about, I had told Heero. You have to find that thing that means something to you and you throw yourself at it and grab on with both hands. It's the only way to get through to the other side of the darkness.

For all my sage advice... I guess I'm just a stupid son-of-bitch underneath it all. How could I not have seen all this time that the thing that I had found to hold onto... the thing I had embraced and committed myself to, that I had used to get myself through the darkness... was going to go away. Heero is what I had found that I cared enough about to set aside my own problems, my own doubts and nightmares for. I had looked up one day on my dark, lonely road to Hell and realized that he was walking that same road. I had managed to stop my descent because he had needed me. I had never thought about what was going to happen when he didn't need me anymore. Had not seen this day coming. How could I not have seen this coming? And just as that thought came to me I realized something I hadn't seen before... I wasn't out of the darkness; I had just taken a short vacation from it. Something in my chest just... tore and I found myself staring down at the dance floor through eyes that couldn't really see.

Somewhere, far below us - it seemed so damn far - I heard Quatre cry out in agony. Beside me, Trowa was instantly in motion, Heero, me, the party, his drink... all totally forgotten. I snagged the glass from his hand just as his fingers let go of it, saving it from smashing on the floor and I watched in a detached sort of way while he fairly flew down the great, curved stairway to Quatre's side.

I probably looked like a heartless bastard, just standing there while one of my best friends was collapsed on the floor. But I knew what they didn't... I knew where his pain was coming from, so I did the best thing I could for him. I downed Trowa's drink and turned and left the house. The farther away from Quatre I could get, the better off he would be. He's very sensitive to harsh feelings, when it's coming from someone he cares for.

So I did what I always did. Had done all my life. Hey... it's my tag line, remember? I run... I hide... but I never lie?

I couldn't lie to my friends, so I ran and hid. I was sorry for it, I truly was. But I found when I realized that all my demons and nightmares had only been waiting for me to finish the job of saving Heero before coming home to roost... that they were very well rested and ready for round two. And I was... already missing a large part of my soul and just didn't have the strength to fight anymore.

I left that party and went home. I threw some clothes and cash into a duffle bag, locked up my apartment and... ran. I turned my bike in a totally random direction and just took off. I drove most of the night, not stopping until I was so tired that I almost fell asleep 'in the saddle'. When I pulled off the road at last, I was surprised to see I had managed to find a damn beach. I sat on my bike on the side of the road and laughed out loud. I frightened a couple of sea gulls, but there was nobody else to hear me. It was rather severely off-season.

The beach. Guess I just had a thing for the ocean. I drove a couple more miles until I found something that passed for a small town. Village. Wide place in the road. There was a dinky business that rented ratty little cottages on the water, a gas station and one of those little quick marts. I pulled in and rented one of the cottages, getting a strange look from the owner. He had to open up the office to accommodate me and must have asked me three times if I realized how cold it was this close to the ocean at this time of year. I laughed rather ruthlessly and told him it didn't really matter to me. He kept on looking at me suspiciously and I finally found it in me somewhere to spin a pretty little lie about being a writer and needed to get 'the atmosphere' of late fall on the beach. In the end, he took my money and let me pick the cottage. I chose the one as far down the way as I could get. He locked the office up again after he'd given me the key and went away. I went to the quick-mart then and bought some supplies. Several packages of beef jerky and a bottle of whiskey. A loaf of bread and a bottle of vodka. A jar of peanut butter and a bottle of... well, you get the idea. When I was done, I packed the 'groceries' into my saddlebags and drove the half-mile on down the road to my new, temporary home. I parked the bike as close to the side of the little clapboard cottage as I could get it and took my things inside.

It really was a crappy little dump and I had to grin, thinking about the old days... thinking about hideouts and some of the shit-holes we had stayed in. This was by far not the worst place I'd ever been, but was also the worst I'd seen in years. I had one of those strange moments of... soul-twisting perspective. Part of me stepped outside me and we surveyed the room together. While the me who had lived in a nice third floor, two-bedroom apartment for the last year or so looked around and went 'yuck' - the me that had lived in burned out buildings as a child looked around and went 'wow'. It was that... constant contrast that threatened sometimes to tear my head in half.

I dumped my gear on the saggy little single bed and reflected that I would need to walk back up to the store and see if I could buy some blankets. The little, threadbare thing supplied by the management wasn't going to do me a lot of good.

There was the bed, a table with two chairs, a little hot plate and a door that led to a 'bathroom' that held a toilet and a sink but no tub. The toilet ran even if you jiggled the handle. I flipped the light switch and figured out that the electricity had been turned off for the season and the manager had obviously forgotten to do something about it. Or just didn't care. It didn't really matter... I didn't need a lot of light for what I was planning anyway.

I unpacked my groceries onto the counter, left my gear on the bed and went ahead and made the walk back up to the store before I stopped caring. I bought two heavy blankets and a flashlight, walked back down the beach, locked myself in my cottage, wrapped up in my new acquisitions and proceeded to drink myself into oblivion. It didn't take near as long as I had thought it would, I guess I was out of practice.

Was it a selfish thing to do? Probably. Did I care? Not really. I was still reeling from the brutal reality that I was not nearly as whole as I had been pretending to be. Was still aching from the realization that Heero didn't need me anymore. That no one really needed me at all. Was still stinging from the epiphany that I might not have waded in there and mud-wrestled Heero's demons to the ground for him... but for myself. Because I loved him. Because I had wanted with all my heart for him to turn around one day and look me in the eye and understand that I needed him too. I had wanted to hear from him the one thing that I had never managed to teach him, no matter how hard I tried. And didn't that just make me the most pathetic, selfish bastard alive? What the hell kind of friend was I? Would I have done the same for Wufei? Or Trowa? Quatre? For someone that I didn't want something from? Heero had been right all along.

But what did it matter now, anyway? I suppose I had done the right thing even if it had been for all the wrong reasons. I had helped to turn his life around. Had helped him take those first steps off that dark, narrow road. What did it matter that I was trapped here, alone. He could make it on his own now... he didn't need me anymore. He'd found his place, he'd make a life for himself; and one of these days he'd find someone to share it with. Hell... maybe it would be that blond in the red dress. Maybe he'd have kids. Maybe someday he might even tell his kids about the guys he'd fought in the war with, and maybe he'd remember me with some fondness... the guy who, for a short time, had tried to be his best friend. Even if it had been a lie. But then... he never had to know that. Never had to know what a weak and selfish man I was underneath it all.

I drank until I was able to cry. I cried until I threw up. Then I drank until I couldn't think anymore.

The next morning, I woke cold and sick and cleaned it all up. This was a ritual that I was more than familiar with, and I settled back into it as though I'd never left it.

I spent my days relatively sober. I didn't have the money to keep myself drunk twenty-four hours a day. So I walked the beach, just trying not to think, but doing little else until I couldn't take it anymore and fled back to the cottage and my waiting bottles. Then I drank until the pain went away and I was able to sleep. I woke later and later each day. I ran out of clean clothes after the third day and tried to do a wash in the surf. The water was as cold as ice and turned my hands blue, making them numb. I stood at the edge of the ocean for quite awhile and wondered how long you would have to stay in that water before the numbness got all the way in to your heart. I stopped washing my clothes that way after that... just used the little sink in the bathroom. The ocean had made them smell oddly fishy anyway.

When I began buying booze but not food, the guy at the quick-mart stopped making small talk, only watching me suspiciously as he took my money and sacked my 'supplies'. I really didn't care.

I lost my ability to manage my hair somewhere in there and just left it loose, habit as old as memory the only thing that even made me brush it.

I started to lose track of time and began to line the empty bottles up in rows on the floor of the cottage, one bottle to mark each day. But that got depressing, so I stopped. What did it really matter anyway?

So I'll just say it was sometime later. A week? Maybe two? I don't really know. But I had risen from my narrow, cold bed particularly late and was still out walking the beach when the sun set. I hadn't seen a sunset in a very long time. I blinked at it and remembered that that was one of the things that used to draw me to the ocean so long ago when I had first fallen to Earth. I stood in the cold sand and watched it... a little awed. It reached inside me somehow, the first thing outside a bottle to get my attention in a long time. I had forgotten the sad beauty of a sunset. The death of the day. The end of the light. The coming of the darkness and the endless hours of bitter solitude. I watched until the light was almost gone and then I saw a thing that stole the breath from my body and twisted in my heart like a dull knife.

As the golds and swirling reds faded, and the light slowly bled from the sky, everything turned... blue. Not the bright cornflower blue of the daylight, of a summer sky; but the deep, cobalt blue of midnight. The clear and perfect blue of the oldest of stained glass windows. The absolute, the exact, the very same blue as Heero's eyes. Heero's beautiful, beloved eyes. It was there for only the space of a handful of my labored heartbeats and when it faded completely... when the first stars shone through and it was gone... I fell to my knees in the surf and wept for the loss, crying his name for the wind to carry away to nowhere.

I drank that night until I thought I would never wake up. But somewhere after I was past remembering, I threw it all back up, probably saving my own life. It was a hell of a mess to clean up in the morning.

I hid from the sky the next night, not able to bear the sight again. But the night after... I crept back to the water's edge and, like any good addict, gave my soul the thing that was killing it. I waited through the sunset, not even seeing it, waiting for that moment, that precious fleeting moment, and when it came, I stared unblinking, trying to pull the blue inside me, tried to imagine Heero behind the sky. For that tiny span of time I imagined all the 'might have beens', let myself dream of the ever-afters. I picked up the splinters of what was left of my soul and I held them carefully where they could see the sky. And the blue breathed life back into the splinters... enough that I could go on another day. Enough that I didn't just walk into the water until the ice numbed me to the core and took all the pain away. Enough... just barely enough. The moment when the blue fades completely to black is an elusive thing... there is an agonizing moment of doubt and then... it's just gone. I whispered his name to the wind again and went back to my cottage to my little friends the bottles.

It became a part of my ritual to go stand at the water's edge and wait for the setting of the sun. I think a part of my mind was still looking for that thing it was suppose to be finding to cling to, and this was the best I could manage. I wasn't sure what would happen the first evening that the clouds obscured the sky and the blue didn't come. I might have been a little afraid of that thought if I hadn't been so totally far-gone. Because I was very far-gone at that point. Lost. My dark road had narrowed and then narrowed some more, until there was no room to turn back... no room at all.

All my demons and nightmares had come home with a vengeance. All the memories of the past, all the pain and despair. Come home with a strength that made a mockery of what I had been living with. But all of it overshadowed by the new pain that had come with the realization that Heero didn't need me anymore. My mission was complete and what was there left for me now? Nothing but the pain and loneliness.

I didn't start to truly panic until the money was running so tight that I began to see that there was an end to my little friends the bottles. I began to buy the cheaper stuff, but it only took more of it. I understood somewhere under the haze I was in, that I was nearing the end of the road. But it was very dark now and I wasn't sure what it was that was ahead of me.

Fate, I'm pretty sure, is a damn bitch and she has a sense of humor that can only be described as perverse. My money finally ran out on the very day that a storm blew in and when I walked to the water's edge that night... it was far too cloudy and overcast for the blue to come. There was only gray. And then darker gray. And then black. I fell to my knees and wept that night and then couldn't find it in me to bother walking back to the cottage. There was nothing there; after all, even my little glass friends were gone. There was nothing left. There didn't seem to be anything left inside me either. All the splinters of my being seemed scattered to the winds and all I could do was sit there in the sand while that wind bit at me, pulled at me, seemed to urge me to seek the numbness that the water could bring.

I might have taken the walk that night if I hadn't so desperately needed to see the sky just one more time. I needed a clear sky. A clear sky and the evening light to give me the blue just one more time. That doesn't sound altogether sane, does it? I'm not sure I was.

I sat through the night and the cold ate at me, but I couldn't find it in me to care. It really just didn't seem to matter. It was all just too hard... too much work. So I just sat. The sun came up and the light warmed me some, but the wind still blew in off the water, harsh and cold. I felt light-headed and my lips were cracked. My skin felt tight, like I was on the verge of bursting from it. And I thought about that a little bit... thought about my spirit breaking away from the pain-filled husk that was my body and going to join with the blue.

The cold was so intense by afternoon that I was trembling almost violently and I began to fear that I wouldn't last long enough to go join with my blue. But by the time the evening came, some hint of anticipation seemed to warm me from the inside and I stopped my shaking. The sunset, I think, was beautiful... but I only wanted it to hurry, to leave the sky and give me what I needed so that I could just close my eyes and move on. I had decided that was what I needed to do. If I could close my eyes while the blue was there, in my eyes, in my sight... perhaps I could capture some of it inside? I was barely breathing from the expectation.

'Duo?' the voice was soft and hesitant and I wondered that the sky had found a voice with which to speak with me.

'Shhhh,' I told it. 'It's almost time.'

Something warm settled across my shoulders and I shivered.

'Duo... what are you doing?' the voice asked gently.

'Falling into the sky,' I answered and didn't offer more explanation than that... the sky would understand.

More warmth enveloped me, and there was the sound of sharply hissed breath. 'My God... you're near frozen!'

'Doesn't matter,' I reassured, eyes on the distant skyline, waiting for that moment. The moment when I could give up and go away.

'Duo,' the sky became insistent and there were suddenly hands trying to pull me to my feet, pull me away.

'No!' I wailed. 'I can't die without the sky... I can't... the blue night... Heero's blue...'

The hands became gentle, the voice soothing. 'Look at me, Duo. I'm right here.'

It was Heero, hands on my shoulders feeling hot as fire. I blinked up at him, where he knelt beside me, in confusion. Then I met his eyes... his damn blue eyes and realized what a pale comparison the sky had been. 'Heero?'

'My God... you're sunburned raw...' His voice was tinged with concern and I suppose that was what finally got my attention. 'Duo, can you hear me?'

'What are you...?' I began trying to puzzle it through and couldn't seem to make my brain think that hard. 'How did you...?'

He was getting rather desperately adamant that I was getting up and I found myself on my feet so suddenly that the world spun dizzily around me. I think I moaned, and then I left my feet altogether.

He turned with me toward the cottage, muttering under his breath in a strange mixture of anger and fear. The warmth of his chest and his arms made me begin to shiver uncontrollably and I closed my eyes, wishing I could just go to sleep.

I have a faint recollection of him kicking the door to the cottage open and realizing quickly that there was no heat to be found there. I have no idea what he thought of the sight that greeted him... I faded for a bit and when I became aware again, we were in the front seat of a running car, I was wrapped in my blankets and the car's heater was running full blast.

I blinked open blurry eyes to find Heero rubbing my arms briskly. 'Don't you do this to me,' he was growling and it was that sound of... distress that got my attention again.

I didn't know what to do. I felt like I ought to say something but couldn't think what that would be. I'd never run this scenario through my head. I'd never imagined anyone coming after me... much less finding me.

His eyes found mine open and he turned my face up to look at me searchingly. 'Why did you run away, Duo?'

I frowned, thinking back on it and told him, 'It was time to go... you didn't need me any more.'

His eyelids fluttered faintly, flinching as though I had swung at him. 'I'll always need you... you idiot. You're my best friend.'

It was an oddly wonderful, painful thing for him to say. He'd never acknowledged it before. I said it all the time. Insisted on it all the time. But he'd never said it before. It was wonderful. But he'd said it... just that way and I felt the ache of knowing he was not my best friend. He still didn't understand the difference. It was painful.

He saw something of the sadness in my eyes and frowned slightly. 'Why, Duo?' he asked me gently.

'It just... hurts too much,' I confessed. 'I'm just so tired.'

'Why didn't you tell me?' he asked then, voice full of pain. 'Why didn't you come to me?'

I looked up at him, not knowing how to tell him that he'd never... made those kinds of offers to me. Not knowing how to explain that the street of friendship runs two ways. I had never felt free to come to him with my own problems. Had, honestly thought that I could bear up under whatever the hell came my way. And I had... as long as I'd had Heero to care for. As long as all my attention had been expended on defending him and watching over him. It wasn't until that had gotten ripped out from under me that I had discovered how lost I was.

He continued to work my chilled limbs with his hands, even while he was frowning at me, worrying with the questions. 'I thought we were best friends, Duo.'

I couldn't speak. There was nothing I could say to him that wasn't a lie. And aside from the fact that I didn't like to lie, an evasion at that point would have taken more wit than I possessed in the throes of hypothermia. So I just sat and stared at him.

There was a spark of something in his eyes... a little hint of pain that quickly turned to anger because that's how he always deals with his pain. 'I thought we were always there for each other,' he growled.

I just couldn't help it, my mouth opened and I heard someone else say, in a very small voice, 'When have you ever been there for me, Heero?'

I watched it come clear in his eyes as he finally came to understand. I was a little awed... watching him piece things together, watching him figure it out. I watched his anger vanish. Watched his confusion turn introspective, watched realization dawn and slowly turn to... horror.

'Oh God, Duo,' he whispered and I suddenly found myself in his arms. It shocked an anguished cry from me and I wanted to tell him I was too raw to deal with this... wanted it too badly to bear it when he took it away again.

'Heero,' I breathed against his chest and he unwound the damn blanket to bring me in next to him, before wrapping the blanket tight around us both.

'Your job isn't done,' he whispered to me. 'How the hell could you leave me before you finished teaching me how to be a friend in return?'

He was so warm, and he felt so good... I wanted to just give in and take this from him, but it wasn't right and I knew it. I had lied to him and lied to myself and I couldn't continue without confessing. 'I can't teach you that, Heero,' I murmured. 'I'm sorry... but I'm not the right person... You were right... all along, and I didn't even realize it. I did want something from you... I... I wanted more than just friendship. I'm sorry... so sorry.'

I felt him go still and I tried to prepare myself for the angry words, for his shoving me away, but he didn't. 'Then,' he sighed softly, 'I can have my five minutes and I don't have to pretend anymore?'

I could have wept. I think I did. He brought his hand to my face and tilted my head up until he could kiss me. It wasn't at all what I thought it would be like kissing him, but I imagine I tasted like three-day-old road kill... and it probably didn't help matters much when I passed out in the middle of it.

Happily ever after? Well... not like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or any of that shit. Neither of us was exactly Prince Charming. I lived; that was a decent enough beginning and we didn't really push for much more right away. I guess we both figured that a relationship forged during that mess wasn't going to have much of a foundation. We had a couple of false starts... more than our fair share of fights. But we kept gravitating back to each other and finally faced up to the fact that we did indeed love each other.

It got to be a little like happily ever after, then... or as close as we were going to get. Love ain't easy. It takes work. A lot of work and maintenance, a lot of care and effort. In time... we pretty well figured it out. We have our good days and we have our bad, and as time moves on there are more of the good ones.

Guilt, and the horrors of our youth didn't just go away, of course, but that burden is lessened with two backs to carry it. He still has nightmares. I still suffer from insomnia sometimes. But I'm there to wake him up and hold him afterwards. He's there to love me and listen to me when I need to talk.

He moved back into my apartment right after I got out of the hospital that second time. We flirted around the issue for a little bit before finally turning the guest bedroom into a study. And that? That was the real beginning of our happily ever after. The sex? Nah... it was the not being alone at night. Just the not being alone.

He found me sitting by the window in the living room in the dark, staring out at mostly nothing.

'Duo?' he called softly and came to sit behind me in the window seat, wrapping warm arms around me. 'Why didn't you wake me?'

'Ah,' I shrugged and leaned into his embrace. 'Not so bad tonight. Just not tired, I guess. I thought I was being quiet... what woke you?'

He rested his forehead on my shoulder and murmured, 'I got... cold.'

I couldn't help a small smile. 'I'm sorry, love. Why don't we go back to bed?'

He sighed in the affirmative but then didn't seem inclined to move. I realized after a moment that he was worrying at something and I turned my head a little to see him better. 'Heero? Everything... all right?'

He brought his fingers up to brush, gentle as a breath, across the long scar on my temple.

'I never,' he whispered brokenly, 'never told you how sorry I was... how very sorry I am...'

'Hush,' I told him fiercely. 'I'm not sorry at all. I love that scar.' I could see shock register on his face and he stared at me, aghast, but I continued before he could speak. 'It's what changed things... it's what brought you back to me.'

The haunted look didn't leave his face, but he leaned in and gently kissed the length of the thing. Lips as light as a feather on my face. I shivered.

'All the same,' he told me huskily. 'I'm sorry... so very sorry.'

I understood then that he was having his own bad night and I turned around to wrap him up in my arms. 'It's all right, Heero... I'm here.'

'Always?' he whispered, not able to keep the faint pleading sound from his voice.

'Always.' I confirmed and held him tight. Let him hold me tight.

'We're...' he ventured after a moment, 'best friends... right?'

I drew back to smile gently, letting him see the truth in my eyes. 'Very best friends.' I could see the doubt still nibbling at his heart and I brushed sleep-tousled hair from his eyes. 'You are my best friend,' I confirmed for him and finally felt him relax a little.

He quirked me a little smile and took my hand. 'Come back to bed?'

'Yeah,' I agreed, and let him lead me there. We curled together, in the middle of our bed and talked softly through the rest of the dark, quiet hours.

Sometimes... this love thing isn't so damn hard after all.

The End
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