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Shikami Yamino

Thunder boomed and lightning lit up the grim earth which was covered with the dark and heavy rolling clouds that poured their contents onto the defenseless planet below.  The sounds of the storm raging outside was deafening in contrast to the quietness that shrouded the interior of a small farmhouse that stood alone in a field of abandoned crops, its only companion being a small copse of trees that surrounded it.

Inside the farmhouse, despite the chill of the wintery air outside, warmth was present and at one in the morning, both occupants were already in bed, having bolted a quick meal, exhausted from the day's ventures.

On one bed in the small bedroom, a dark-haired boy with night darkened cobalt eyes -- almost that they looked black -- lay awake, listening to the drumming and howling of rain and wind outside, irregularly interrupted by the loud clap of thunder that resounded in the otherwise empty night air.  Though the rhythms of his body and his breathing reflected sleep, his mind was wide awake, drinking in the unfamiliar feeling of being in a thunderstorm.

Of course he'd seen rain before.  On the colonies, rain happened periodically and was always controlled so that just enough fell to keep the vegetation alive without wasting a drop.  But this was completely different.  Nothing about this storm was 'controlled'.  Instead, it simply personified the wild and untameable entity that was weather and proved that its likeness could never be duplicated.

Rather like Nature rebelling against all the warfare to take place on her soil.  Heero almost snorted at that thought, surprising himself with the reflective comment that was totally without purpose but a meaningful statement nonetheless.

With the wild but soothing sound of rain in his ear, Heero took a mental deep breath and allowed himself to fall into the waiting arms of unconsciousness.  The mission had been completed and undoubtedly there'd be more to do tomorrow.  He needed his sleep.

Just as he began to drift into the alpha waves of sleep, a sound from the other bed in the room startled him awake again.  Keeping completely still, he heard the other occupant of the room silently slip his overcoat and pants over his tank top and boxers and pad towards the door before opening it and walk out as it eased shut again.

Scowling, Heero huffed an impatient breath and closed his eyes again.  The other boy would be fine, probably just needed the bathroom.  But somehow, sleep eluded him and though he tossed and turned, trying to find another comfortable position, he could no longer drift as he had before he'd been interrupted.

Sitting up, Heero let his eyes adjust the the dimness of the room and raised an eyebrow as he caught sight of the empty bed on the other side of the bed even though his internal clock told him that it had already been slightly more than ten minutes since the other had walked out.

Sighing and having nothing else to do, being unable to sleep, Heero got up and pulled on a pair of jeans over his shorts and a jacket over his tank top to ward off the chill.  Running a hand through his unruly hair to brush it out of his eyes, Heero stalked out of the room.

What was that baka up to now?

Duo lay awake listening to the thunder outside.  Even though his body had been more than ready to collapse into the darkness of the realm of sleep, his mind was still plagued with the images from the day's mission.  It wasn't one he would be likely to forget anytime soon...

Silent tears tracked from his eyes to the pillowcase underneath and he was glad that Heero couldn't see them, as he hadn't seen their traces when he'd stepped out of Deathscythe a few hours before.  He had forever told himself that boys shouldn't cry, couldn't cry and that he'd given up crying that night on L2 when he'd given up everything for a mobile suit.  But in truth, boys shouldn't be forced to do the kind of work he was participating in and perhaps he should have taken that night on L2 as a sign of what was to come.

Because, for the colonies, he could be nothing but Shinigami in a mobile suit...

The explosion as Deathscythe's weapon of destruction sliced through the mobile suits barring his way.  His own malicious and psychotic laughter as he'd watched the suits fall on the existing infrastructure -- the infrastructure that he was designated to destroy.  The screams of the unexpected civilians that came loud and clear over his speakers obviously resulting from the building that the mobile suit was falling on.  His own screams as he'd tried to shield but even Shinigami's superior speed couldn't help them... And he could only watch as the building and mobile suit were engulfed in a bright ball of fire and destroyed... leaving nothing but rubble where once lives had stood a few seconds before...

The scene replayed itself over and over in his head and even the steady beatings of rain on the window couldn't erase the images from his mind.  Unable to sleep, Duo took the next best option and sat up, Heero had been asleep for hours now so he didn't have to worry.  Pulling on his black overcoat and the more comfortable army fatigue pants, he padded barefoot out the door, shoes in hand.

Walking to the kitchen, Duo didn't bother to flick on the lights, instead, watched the icy sheets of rain tumbling outside at an impossible angle because of the wind.  Pulling on his shoes, wordlessly and with empty eyes he reached into a cupboard for the carafe of cognac he'd stowed there for celebration.  Well there'd be no cause for celebration any time soon...

Uncorking the bottle, Duo made a contemptuous grin and raised it slowly in a silent toast before knocking it back and taking a long pull.  Feeling the burn of the aged brandy burn a line down his chest, Duo allowed a few more tears to slip before walking towards the door that separated the mildly temperature regulated farmhouse and the raging weather outside, and stepped out.

In a matter of seconds, he was drenched, his coat plastered to his body and his braid a heavy weight at his back, reminding him of its presence every time he tipped his head back for another long drag from the bottle in his hand.  As he stumbled aimlessly around, the tears were washed from his face and each new tear was mingled with the clear and icy rainwater before it made a quick run down his cheek and dripped off his jaw.

In the thundering environment, Duo finally released what he could not inside the house.  Loud sobs were drowned by the sound of pouring rain as the tears left no tracks on his face.  The shivering of his body due to the coldness of the elements was nothing compared to the quaking that he knew he was suffering from the memory of the mission.  Slumping against the soaked fence that surrounded the farmhouse, Duo wept uncontrollably, the only thing keeping him from collapsing being the long and steady stream of brandy that made their way into his system, filling his blood with their alcoholic content and giving him the warmth he desperately needed on the inside to fill the glacial, gaping abyss in his soul.

Heero prowled the house in the dark, his frown deepening as he found no trace of the braided baka that had left his bed almost twenty minutes before.  His first stop had been the bathroom and aside from the few towels that littered the floor, it was empty of the one violet-eyed boy he'd been trying to find.

Making his way into the small library where he'd sometimes found Duo sprawled on a battered couch reading long into the night, Heero wondered in his head exactly why he was looking for the American when he should be asleep, certainly the first rest he'd have without having to worry about mission preparations and repairs to his Wing Zero.  But somehow some instinct told him that something was wrong and he'd risked his life on such instincts before, no reason to stop now.

Thinking back, the Japanese pilot could recall slightly the tenseness of Duo's attitude as soon as they'd arrived back after the mission.  Deathscythe Hell had hardly been damaged and Duo had been in high spirits... but underneath, Heero had detected a slight strain in the smile and an emptiness in the deep indigo eyes that usually gave away so much of what the braided pilot was feeling.

In the dark hallway, Heero stopped, puzzled by his own thoughts.  Since when had he become so adept at reading Duo's moods and feelings...?  Especially since he couldn't really understand each and every emotion the American displayed other than the most obvious...  The most realistic and practical reason would be that he had spent more time with Deathscythe's pilot than any of the others, such close association would warrant a close study of the other so as to perform better under mission circumstances.  But somehow to him that perfect textbook definition had a ring of incompletion to it.

Sure, that was part of the reason... certainly he knew a lot more about Trowa because of it, but it was just... different... when it came to Duo.  What that difference was, he didn't know and didn't want to question himself about it yet for fear of the confusing answers that the unnecessary question could bring upon him.  Perhaps it was the braided pilot's unnecessary chatter and laughter, the way he always went out of his way to bring Heero into the conversation or to tease or coax a response from him whatever it might be... and the seemingly endless energy that he so admired in the other pilot...

Shaking himself out of his reverie, Heero scowled at the unproductive thoughts and continued to search for his partner.  Where had the damned idiot got to?

He made his way to the kitchen, fully expecting the American to be raiding the fridge for a midnight snack when he caught sight of the unlatched back door.  Cobalt eyes narrowed as Heero walked towards it.  He had definitely latched the door, it was one of his nightly rituals to check every single entry and exit into the house before bed for security reasons and it was impossible that he had missed the back door.  That meant only one thing...

Flicking his gaze from the door to the window, Heero grunted in annoyance.  It was still pouring outside!  Unless the baka was on the sheltered porch which was hardly a respite from the rain, he was fully exposing himself to the elements that could bring on a high fever at least!

Growling, Heero pulled open the door and was greeted with a blast of icy air that seemed colder than it really was because of the slightly heated interior of the farmhouse.  Zipping up his jacket, Heero stood on the porch for a while, trying to spot a figure in the rain.  He knew that Duo loved the rain, he'd purposefully played in minor showers before at every opportunity he could.  But to be out in a gale force storm in the middle of the night was complete and total insanity.

Unfortunately for Heero, with no moonlight to guide him, even his augmented vision wasn't of help to him in the dark grays and blacks that cloaked the surroundings.  Remembering that there was a weak flashlight in the kitchen, he turned to walk back into the house when lightning flashed overhead and his eyes were drawn to a shivering figure in black slumped against a fence post almost fifty meters away from the porch steps.

Cursing under his breath, Heero forgot about the flashlight and raced for the figure through the rain.  "Duo!!" His scream was devoured by the wind and rain as it assaulted him with maximum efficiency, soaking him to the bone before he'd even gotten more than half way across the distance.  Nearing the figure, Heero blinked back the water running off his eyelashes to see, in the illumination of another lightning bolt, the carafe of wine in Duo's hand and the total motionlessness except for the slight shivering of the body that must be freezing.

"Baka!" Heero muttered as he stopped before the slumped boy.  Brushing wet hair from his eyes, he hauled, although gently, the other pilot to his feet and yelled, "What the HELL do you think you're doing??!!"

When Duo failed to respond even though Heero knew he'd heard him, his eyes slitted and he shook the other pilot hard.  After Duo's head finished snapping back and forth, darkened indigo eyes finally fixed on his own and Heero mentally reeled back from the hurt and the dead look in those usually alive and sparkling orbs.  Duo muttered something that hadn't a chance of standing up to the wind but Heero could read his lips and he froze at the total listlessness of the statement.  "Leave me alone Heero."

After that, Duo took advantage of Heero's shock to shake off his hands and raise the bottle in his hands for another drag, tilting the large bottle at such an angle that allowed Heero to deduct that it was almost empty.  Shaking himself again, Heero grabbed the bottle from Duo's lax hands and grasped the wrist in an iron grip with the other hand.  Wordlessly he hauled the other boy behind him towards the house, ignoring the complaints that he could faintly hear Duo making.

What the hell was going on??

Once inside, Heero didn't stop until he reached the bathroom and sat a not completely aware Duo on the rib of the tub.  Gazing at him for a second, Heero quelled his urge to demand answers and made himself walk to the closet before pulling out a fluffy white towel and wrapping Duo in it.  Reaching for another one for himself, Heero quickly toweled his hair dry as he shut and latched the back door again, placed the almost empty carafe on the kitchen bench and grabbed the small heater before setting in up in their room and pulling on a dry change of clothes.

Grabbing a set of clothes for Duo, he made his way to the bathroom again and walked in only to find Duo in the exact same position as what he'd left him in.  Tossing his own towel into a laundry basket, Heero wordlessly divested him of his wet clothes with military precision and efficiency before rubbing him down with another towel, too preoccupied with the incoherent thoughts racing in his head to admire the pure muscle that made up the American's physique.

After clothing the still immobile Duo again in the dry clothes, Heero unbound the long braid of hair and briskly rubbed another towel into it, trying to dry it as best he could.  That done, he scowled before picking the violet-eyed boy up and carrying him into their noticeably warmer room and depositing him on his bed.

Sitting down on his own bed, Heero glared at the pilot before him that seemed to curl up in a ball of limbs and torso and snapped, "What in hell is wrong with you Duo?!  Why the damned fool's stunt in the middle of the night?"

A pause occurred before Duo chuckled mirthlessly and muttered into his folded arms, "What makes you think something was wrong Heero?  I was simply enjoying the rain."

Heero snorted. "Give me some credit for knowing you better than that Maxwell."

Duo didn't reply for a second and then the quiet murmur, "Do you...?  Do you really?  Think hard before you answer that question Heero, because in my opinion, none of you know me as well as you think you do."

The statement stunned Heero who was getting a look at the other side of Duo Maxwell.  The side that was so totally opposite to the usual laughing maniac that he'd had to convince his own mind that the two were one and the same.  Usually at such an alienating comment, he would have just gotten up and left the room but this time, instead of walking out, he simply propelled himself across the room to perch on Duo's bed instead and found himself asking in a gentler tone than he could have imagined himself to have, "Duo... what's wrong?"

Duo shook his head. "Betsuni... it was nothing... really... I'm fine."

Heero cocked his head and then raised a hand to lift Duo's buried face.  At the sight of the puffy red eyes and the salty tears streaks down the heart-shaped face, Heero corrected, "No... you're not."

Duo looked away and Heero's hand fell back to the bedspread.  Suddenly, the need to know what was wrong with the usually cheerful pilot overtook Heero's control and he said, "Tell me what's wrong Duo..."

Duo chuckled again without happiness and said through a tired grin, "Forget it Heero, it's not important... and you really don't want to hear my sob stories trust me."

"It's important to me if my partner is bothered by it."

Duo shook his head. "Don't worry about it Heero, go back to bed.  I'll be fine."

"Like hell you will!" Heero's impatience got the better of him and unknowing of what else he could do to get Duo to open up, he stabbed for the reason blindly, following his instincts.  Blazing cobalt eyes burned into empty and hurting violet as Heero dropped the question into the air between them. "Is it about the mission?"

At the slight dilation of Duo's pupils and the widening of the eyes, Heero grimly noted that he'd probably been right.  "What happened Duo...?  Tell me..."

Despite his dazed and drunken state, Duo couldn't resist the eyes that now gazed into his own with a curious gentleness that he'd never seen from Heero before.  He looked away.  This was something he needed to work out on his own... just like he'd worked out the deaths of everybody else on his own.  There was no point in burdening anybody else with his problems.

"I'm fine Heero... really.... I'll be fine.  I just need some sleep..."

Burning prussian eyes gazed him with determination. "Just like you needed sleep a few hours ago...?  Did you get to sleep Duo?"

Why was Heero doing this??  He didn't have to... and God knows that Duo didn't want him to.  Why now all of a sudden, the interest in his problems?

It wasn't something Duo was willing to deal with at this hour and in his state. "Look, I said I'm going to be fine and I will.  Can't you just leave me ALONE??!!!"

Heero regarded him steadily, unflinching at the murderous glare Duo fixed on him.  "No."

Duo stared at him incredulously, in disbelief. But the alcohol was beginning to kick in, and soon Duo found himself in that semi-lucid state where his moods tended to swing with a mind of its own. Burying his face in the crook of his arms, Duo mumbled, "Go 'way Heero... Lemme alone."

Knowing full well that neither of them were going to get any sleep that night if Duo didn't say anything, Heero sighed. Mission accepted. "Talk to me Duo."

Duo snorted, keeping his eyes to the opposite wall. "Why? You've never cared before."

That stung... and Heero could feel himself recoil on the inside even if no outward reaction was expressed. Steadily, he watched Duo through impassive cobalt eyes when in reality, a million questions were running through his head about why those words had caused a harsher reaction and hit closer than any bullet had or could. "Duo... I..."

"Just go Heero! I don't need you and the Perfect Soldier sure as hell doesn't need me!" The anger was back again.

You're wrong Duo... For some reason, some unthinkable reason... I think I'm beginning to need you... Even now, when you're just sitting there, I can tell you're a million miles away... And... somehow... I miss you already... Surprised at his own thoughts and unsure of how to express himself, not that he would have said those words anyway, Heero slowly raised a hand to touch Duo's shoulder only to be violently shrugged off.

"Don't touch me!" Normally laughing violet eyes were now dilated and wide with a mingling of anger and fear. "Don't FUCKING touch me!!"

"Duo - "

"Shut up Heero! Just shut up and fuck off!" All at once, the anger seemed to drain out of the American's body and the eyes that had flared violet fire a second before extinguished instantly to cloud over once again. "I don't need another death on my shoulders..."

The last sentence was barely audible over the sound of heavy raindrops drenching the outside world, but Heero had always had excellent hearing and no one could mistake the tone of desolation with which it was said.

"Especially not yours..."

Heero started, eyes widening slightly in the darkness before coming under control again. "Duo, I..." There was a strange hitch in his chest and it was making speaking a conscious effort. "I'm not going to die - "

"Yes you are!" Caught in a seesawing tide of emotions, the fire was back once again in Duo's eyes but his voice was a frigid hiss. "How many times have you tried to self-destruct already Heero? And Hell to all those that might just care that little bit about your survival. You might not give a damn Heero, but I do! So just get the Hell away from me, or he'll come for you too..."

Duo's words reverberated in Heero's mind. 'You might not give a damn... but I do... You might not give a damn... but I do...' For some incomprehensible reason, that phrase held a significance for him... one that sparked something in his chest and spread a faint warmth inside him. Unable to fathom the reasons now, the Wing pilot pushed it aside for the moment just in time to hear Duo's last words. His brows furrowed. "Who...?"

"Shinigami..." Duo's tone was tired, defeated, hopeless. "He'll take you away from me... just like he took everybody else... And I'm always left alone. Always alone..."

Before he knew what he was doing, Heero had pulled Duo into his arms, holding him tight against his own body. He wouldn't admit it, but Duo's tone had scared him. Unbidden, he'd begun to rely on Duo as a hope that even in the midst of war, there was still some semblance of happiness to be had, still some laughter left after all the blood and killing. And to hear that laughing tone smothered by the hopelessness and defeat that he himself was all to familiar with... It scared him.

"Not alone... You're not alone Duo... I'm here..."

Duo's reply was muffled into his shoulder. "You'll leave... everyone does... Just like those civilians..." Hot tears accompanied those words.

Heero stiffened. Civilians... There had been civilians on that base. That was why... Oh no... In Heero's mind, he could clearly see his own brush with the guilt that he knew Duo was facing. A flash of a beam saber, the OZ insignia burning into his retinas, the blooming flower of red hot explosion and the ice cold chill that had permeated his body at the thought of having killed not only innocents, but also the only hope of an early end to the war.

Yes... He knew all too well what Duo was going through... He clutched Duo closer, hoping to lend some of the support that he hadn't allowed himself to receive, but also to ward off his own unwelcome memories...

"And I'm so tired of being alone..."

"I'm here Duo... It wasn't your fault... I'm here..." Heero had no idea if he was doing the right thing, but it seemed to be the thing to do and Duo wasn't trying to push him away so... "I'm here..."

Silence but for the sound of the storm outside lingered for a while before Duo whimpered softly. "Heero...?"


"I don't feel so good..." With that, Duo suddenly pushed himself to his feet and raced for the bathroom, from which came sounds of wretching several seconds later.

Heero paused for a second, rubbing his chest in an effort to withold some of the warm that the braided pilot had taken with him when he left. Not a second after Duo had pulled away and already he was feeling almost bereft... He shook his head, muttering a quite "baka" under his breath though even he wasn't sure if he meant himself or the Deathscythe pilot who had chugged down an entire bottle of cognac in order to punish himself.

Walking briskly to the bathroom, he immediately went to the sink to fill a glass of water before seating himself onto the floor beside Duo who was clutching the toilet bowl and breathing harshly, long bangs falling into his face. Handing Duo the glass, Heero watched as Duo slowly raised it to his lips to rinse his mouth as his hand unconsciously rubbed soothing circles over the braided boy's back.

Watching Duo a few minutes longer, Heero's attention was suddenly drawn to a hand that was brushing Duo's bangs back from his face. Narrowing his eyes at the familiar pattern of faint scars on that hand, he almost snatched it back when he realized that it was his own. Almost... if it weren't for the feeling of chestnut silk running through his fingers, he probably would have. So soft...

Abruptly, Heero shook himself from those thoughts and pushed them to the back of his mind... the very back... and returned his attention to Duo. Taking the now empty glass from Duo's hand, Heero didn't protest when Duo fell sideways to lean against his chest. In fact, if he were to be completely honest with himself, he would have to say that he even enjoyed it... slightly...

Setting the glass on the floor, Heero asked quietly, "Feel better...?"

"Not really," the hoarse mumble came back.

Deciding that both he and Duo had had enough of sitting on the chilled bathroom floor tiles, Heero flushed the toilet and gently picked Duo up, ignoring the braided boy's faint protests. Walking back into the bedroom and shutting the door with his foot, Heero didn't even think twice about sitting on Duo's bed, letting the owner of said bed just relax in his lap.

After a moment of silence, the Japanese boy decided to get it over with. "There were civilians...?"

Duo's body tensed before Heero felt him nod miserably against his chest. "So many... all screaming... I tried to save them Heero, I really did... But I just wasn't fast enough... I'm never fast enough..."

"It couldn't be helped Duo... You didn't know..."

Duo furiously shook his head. "No, you don't understand! I'm *never* fast enough!! God... what did I do to deserve this...?"

Gazing down at the boy whose eyes were closed in anguish, Heero replied, "It wasn't your fault..."

"It is!! Everybody says it isn't but it is!" Duo bit his lip in an effort to try and control the shaking. "Solo said that too..."

Heero's sharp ears picked up the last phrase and he narrowed his eyes. Who was Solo? "Solo?"

"My very first friend..."

Duo's voice had suddenly taken on an emotionless quality that made Heero cringe at the sheer wrongness of it.

"My best friend..."

That hurt... For some obscene reason, that hurt and Heero was hard pressed not to rub at his chest where the ache was worst. Why had that hurt...? Why should he care whether Duo had a best friend he didn't know about!? It was none of his business... It wasn't!

"What happened...?"

Violet eyes shattered in a gesture that seemed too familiar to have been the first time. "He died. He took me in when nobody else would. Even though he didn't have much, he was willing to share what he had with me. He taught me everything I know and showed me how to laugh and enjoy life. He gave me the family and love I had never known I was missing... And then he caught the epidemic and I was too late to steal the vaccine." Fists clenched so tight around each other that the knuckles turned white. "The one time that he counted on me... the only time that he needed something from me... And I let him down... He died in my arms."

Unaware of his own actions, Heero pulled the Deathscythe pilot closer, covering Duo's hands with his own to loosen the clenched fingers.

Duo chuckled bitterly... painfully... Allowing Heero to loosen his clenched fist only to turn them palm up and then scrutinize them as if they were covered with something only he could see. "So many people die in these arms, under these hands..."

Heero shut his eyes tightly and covered Duo's palms with his own. "My hands are just as stained as yours Duo..."

"I doubt it." Duo shook his head, keeping his eyes downcast to where his hands now tangled with Heero's. "Ever heard of the Maxwell Church Massacre?"

Here, Heero opened his eyes to regard Duo with incredulity as headlines flashed behind his eyes. 'Church and Orphanage Destroyed', '5000 Dead', 'Worst Bloodbath in all history', 'No Survivors'... "Duo..."

"They were wrong... There was one survivor... The only one that should have died was spared. How's that for irony ne?" There was a distinct edge of hysteria to Duo's voice now. "We were housing rebels, nursing the wounded, I get this idea in my head to go steal a mobile suit and help the rebels. The Feds followed the suit and found everyone... and made sure that none made it out alive..."

Duo's eyes squeezed shut in remembered pain. "I went back after it was all over... And everywhere I looked, all I saw was red... and the distorted faces of the others glaring up at me, demanding why I still lived when I should have been the first to die. Then... I saw Sister Helen... She was barely alive, but used her last breath to ask God to bless me..." Duo gave a pain and tear-filled laugh. "I could have told her to save her breath! I didn't believe in God and God sure as Hell screwed me over as thoroughly as He could!" Shaking his head, Duo bit his lip. "Guess they chose right when they called me Maxwell's Demon..."

The feeling of chestnut silk materialized between his fingers again. But this time, Heero didn't pull away, only ran his fingers down it as gently as he could. Staring straight ahead, Heero opened his mouth and let the words flow out for the first time he could remember.

"Once there was a little girl in a white dress that called a soldier 'Onii-chan'. She met the soldier just after he'd planted the explosives in a neighbouring military base and just before she left with her puppy, she gave the soldier a flower. A flower he still clutched when he returned to detonate those explosives that night. But he miscalculated and one of the mobile suits crashed into a nearby apartment complex. When the soldier returned in the morning still clutching the flower, all he found was the dead puppy and the tattered white dress."

Clenching his jaw, Heero swallowed back the lump in his throat. Somehow, it was easier to talk about it as remotely as possible. But that didn't stop Duo from figuring out the significance of the story and for two deceptively thin arms to wrap around his chest to offer him comfort.

"God Heero... I didn't know..."

"The soldier blamed himself for a long time, but he eventually realized that he couldn't blame himself for everything..." With that, Heero opened his eyes to look down into wide violet eyes.

For the first time that night, Duo sobered up enough to really see Heero Yuy for what he was being and despite five months of partnership and companionship, he couldn't recognize the stranger in front of him wearing Heero's face. This was... a very different Heero... This was the Heero that stopped to tally casualties during a battle, the Heero that lay awake the night reconciling himself with the lives he had taken, the Heero that lay underneath the Perfect Soldier... the Heero that was human...

Similarly, Heero was seeing an altogether completely different Duo Maxwell. No longer the jester, no more wide smiles and grins that he had just realized where fakes, no more devil-may-care attitude, no more teasing laughter and no more veils over the pain and guilt that plagued fathomless violet eyes.

Suddenly uncomfortable with the sight, both looked away simultaneously, for the moment unable to reconcile the person they now saw with the one so deeply entrenched into their minds.

Heero returned to staring at the opposite wall. "You can't blame yourself Duo. You didn't know. I didn't know either... when I killed the campaigners for peace... They were unforeseen mistakes... ones that nor you, nor I had any control over. Let it go."

Detecting a slight tone of uncertainty in the normally infallible voice be replaced by determination, Duo realized how big of an admission that this must be for Heero. He who seemingly wanted to carry the weight of the world on his own shoulders was finally letting go of the unnecessary responsibilities. He who was seemingly perfect was finally admitting that he made mistakes, and that those mistakes didn't warrant his death any more than Duo's did his.

And somehow, coming from Heero, it was more reassuring than if it had come from someone else. Because Heero had never and would never lie to him. Of that, Duo was absolutely certain. "Heero..."

"Let it go Duo..."

Duo shut his mouth hesitantly but then nodded silently against the warm chest he was pressed against. And for the first time that night, he felt the lingering shadow of Morpheus in the wings, waiting to take him under its cloak for the night.

Aware of Heero's warmth seeping into his own body to drive away the chills from both the weather and the knowledge of what he had done, Duo was suddenly alerted to the comforting strokes of a gentle hand against his hair... and it was nice... making him drowsy...

Giving a mighty yawn, Duo shut his eyes and curled up against Heero's warmth. "Thanks Heero..."

"Sleep well Duo."

A tiny smile stole over Duo's face as he felt Heero's arms wrap around him tighter, seeking to drive away the last of the cold that lingered around the braided pilot. And it was here, in the surety and security of his partner's arms, that Duo Maxwell succumbed to Morpheus, confident in the knowledge that he was protected against whatever nightmares that would haunt his rest.

Hearing Duo's breathing even out in the pattern of sleep for the first time that night, the softening of Heero's eyes went unnoticed as he gazed at the chestnut head resting against his chest. Contemplating setting Duo down so that he could return to his own bed, Heero argued with himself for a while before subsiding, reasoning that Duo would wake if jostled, and that his partner needed all the sleep he could get.

It was a reasoning that consisted not entirely of logic but Heero wholeheartedly refused to consider the other possibilities involved. Because to consider them, he would have to name them... and once named, he would have no choice but to acknowledge them... And he wasn't ready... at least not yet...

So with his braided partner in his lap sleeping peacefully, Heero Yuy dropped his own head to lay his cheek on the russet crowned head laying on his chest and followed his partner into the land of dreams with a lingering scent of citrus in his nose.

Morning found that the storm had passed, leaving nothing but a clean, sharp, wet and rejuvenated Earth in its wake. And in the small bedroom of a small farmhouse that stood alone in a field of abandoned crops, Morning also wrapped itself around the two young boys who fell asleep in each other's arms.

As fate would have it, the two woke at the same time, both disoriented only for a fraction of a second before the long-haired one lifted his head to lock cobalt eyes with his own indigo, an automatic smile creeping onto his face.

But in that cobalt regard, the pilot of Deathscythe found none of the compassion or gentility that had suffused them only hours ago. Instead, he found the same hard, unyielding light that he would have expected to see had last night been a complete fantasy... And for a second, he was sorely tempted to think so, had he not been sitting in Heero Yuy's lap.

Heero on the other had was well aware that his mask that had temporarily shattered a few hours ago, was now back and fully functional. And watching the jester's facade gradually overtake Duo's sleep-mussed features, he let his arms fall away.

Sudden coldness assaulted the areas that Heero's arms had been occupying and Duo fought down the urge to shiver at the pervading chill that not only reached for him on the outside, but on the inside as well. But the message in that action was clear and Duo jumped up with a small embarrassed laugh, hoping that Heero wouldn't notice how he was now wrapping his arms around himself, missing Heero's warmth already. "Haha... Sorry about last night Heero... Don't know came over me..."

Similarly, Heero was trying to hide the fact that he was now thoroughly cold after Duo's warmth in his arms had been torn away so abruptly. The only difference was that Heero was hiding it more effectively. Getting to his own two feet, the Wing pilot only managed a low grunt in Duo's direction before heading to the laptop seated on the small desk.

Staring after Heero as the other started the usual morning routine, Duo only shook his head slightly before heading for the bathroom to start his own... complete with running mouth.

"Ne, Heero, how's pancakes sound for breakfast? I think there's some batter ingredients down in the kitchen and I could really go for some fluffy golden cakes around now... Yeah... all smothered in butter and drowned in syrup. There must be syrup and butter, pancakes just aren't pancakes without syrup and butter, don't you think? All that golden, melted sugar... Mmmmmm..." With that the door to the bathroom was shut and Duo's voice was cut off.

Pausing in his typing, Heero lifted his head to stare into the seemingly endless bright blue sky, unknowing that Duo was doing the same from where he was leaning against the bathroom door after having shut it. And as both wondered at the presence of the other who had shown someone so completely different to their usual selves last night, each couldn't help wondering whether they were going to see that someone again.

For as well as they knew each other's way of fighting, skills and specialities, it was the stranger in the night, and under the mask, that had each of them captivated.


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