12-28-2004

Title: A Silver Lining
Pairings: Eventual 1x2, 5+S, maybe others
Parts: 1-10/?
Warnings: Neko-fic, AU, angst., sap, possible lime
BY: SkyLark

Very special thanks to Tiff and Helen for helping to brush me up on my Japanese for this fic!! It's really appreciated!

 

 

Part 1:

Throwing the papers of the file down on his desk again, he sighed deeply and ran a hand through his hair He leaned back in his seat and spun his chair to look out the window of his office. Night had long since fallen over the city and the lights of the buildings shimmered through the glass.

Two years... More than two years had passed and still not a single lead. How was that possible? There had to be something to build a lead on after all this time.

A gentle knock on the door brought his thoughts back to the present, as he spun his chair back. Wufei stood in the doorway, his head tilted, watching him. "I'm calling it a night," he began. "You look like you could use some rest yourself."

Heero shook his head and wiped his face with his hands as he replied, "I have a few more files to read before I leave. There should be more tomorrow, if some of the contacts I've reached get back to me by then."

There was a deep sigh from the Chinese Preventer as he stepped into the room, past the empty desk across from Heero's, the one that he refused to look at for a long time now.

Placing his hands at the edge of his comrade's desk, he leaned forward, their eyes locked. "It's been more than two years, Heero," he spoke in a quiet but firm voice. "I know that you don't want to deal with the truth of it, none of us do..."

He paused, lowered his head a moment as he gathered his own thoughts and feelings over the matter. When he looked back up, his dark eyes never wavered in their resolve, nor did his voice, as he stated, "You have to come to accept that he must be dead."

Never taking his eyes off Wufei's, Heero glared fiercely and growled, "You and everyone else have been saying the same thing for the last year."

His voice rose as he all but shouted, "And, as I have been saying for years now, I won't believe that until we find the body! So until then, I would appreciate it if you would just let me continue the search!"

"I still think that you're wasting your time," Wufei said quietly, finally showing the sadness over the loss of their friend on his face. He straightened and made his way towards the door.

Before leaving, he looked over his shoulder, the shadows from the dimly lit room and the bright hall contracting on his shape. "For your own sake, you really should get out in the world a little more," he suggested, losing the edge of authority his voice had before. "You've been missing out on it." He stepped out of the room again.

Once he was alone again, Heero closed his eyes and leaned his head back in his leather chair as he said quietly to himself, "Not until I find him."

He couldn't blame Wufei for his concern. Every one of his friends was worried about him for a while now. To be honest, his search had not gotten him anywhere since he began more than two years ago.

The way that every detail and possible lead had been erased was what kept Heero going. Obviously, someone knew where he was and they were doing everything they could to see that he was not found.

Looking over to the empty desk that occupied the other side of his office, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The desk had remained empty all this time of searching. Lady Une had insisted of placing another Preventer to fill it and share the space with Heero, but he refused, saying that there was no proof that his partner would not be found and returned home.

Duo... The thought of his comrade, his friend hurt as much as it did now as it had when Heero had to leave him behind after they had been captured on their last failed mission. They had been in captivity for two weeks together. In the end, after they managed to pull off an escape, a bullet changed their clean getaway.

 

'They're going to be here before long. We have to get moving. We're half-way to the location where backup will be arriving to pick us up.'

'Heero... My leg is just going to slow us down. We'll both be caught at the rate we're moving.'

'Then I'll carry you.'

'You can't carry me for five miles!' Silence. 'You have to leave me here.'

'No.'

'Listen to me, Heero. I am not about to let you get caught because I got careless. I can fend for myself, maybe find a place where I can hide until things relax enough for me to call for help.'

'I'm not leaving you here like this.'

'There's no other choice!' Silence again. 'Please, Heero...'

'No! You can't ask me to do this!'

'I'm not asking. I'm ordering.'

 

Parts of their last conversation ran through Heero's mind as he thought back to that day, the last time he had seen Duo. When he had been able to find safety and as soon as he was recovered by the Preventers, Heero insisted on going with the team to the site where he had left his partner.

While he had his own injuries that needed to be looked over, Heero had been determined to help find his braided friend before he was captured by the enemy again. He had promised Duo that he would be back for him. He made him promise to hang on as long as he could until he returned. All he could do was hope that he made it to the rendezvous point where he was picked up in time.

His fears came to life when he found the small opening in the side of the hill where they had hidden vacant. His heart sank finding no signs of Duo for miles around as they made their first search that night. Finally, his injuries getting the better of him, he had no choice but to turn back with the team so Sally could look after him.

From that day forward, Heero continued his search. By the time the first year passed since the last time he say the braided Preventer, his friends were beginning to fear the worst.

When even Quatre finally laid his own assistance to the search to rest, Heero was the only one left to continue. He worked after hours, taking out his own personal time when he as finished with his new assignments, to find anything that would give him a lead to his friend's whereabouts.

After everything that they had been through together, not just during the wars, but during their time in captivity on their last mission together, Heero owed it to the braided youth to do everything in his power to find him.

Regardless of the fact that the others had given up any hope that Duo was still alive and thus gave up on looking for him, Heero really couldn't blame them. After all this time, and under other circumstances, Heero might have acted the same, himself.

Still, he could not allow himself to do the same. He knew that Duo had to be alive somewhere. If he stopped searching now, he could miss a valuable lead to finding his partner. He had his mission and he would not be deterred from it, not until he had closure one way or another.

There was no other option. Failure in this was not an option.

Whatever the others had to say to try to get him to give his mission a rest, Heero appreciated their concern but would not rest in his efforts. He could deal with whatever they had to say about his determination, or stubbornness, as they called it.

 

'You're still so sure that he's alive?'

'I know that he's out there somewhere, Quatre. Whether he's alive or not, I can't just abandon him until we know for certain. He deserves better than that!'

Pause. 'I just... I think that you¡¦re setting yourself up to be crushed when this is all over.'

'You, Trowa, Wufei, Relena, Sally, and everyone else has been saying the same thing to me ever since I started looking for him. It didn't stop me then and it's not going to stop me now. I don't care that I'm going this alone.'

'I wanted to continue searching for him, too, Heero. But there just comes a time when you have to reason-'

'There hasn't been any evidence that he's not alive. That is what I will reason with.'

'You're still blaming yourself that he's gone. Whatever happened to him isn't your fault-'

'This coming from someone who is still blaming yourself for calling off his end of the search!' Long silence. 'I'm sorry, Quatre, but I do have my reasons for doing this. I can't... I just refuse to believe that Duo's really gone.'

Pause. 'I know you can't, Heero. I sincerely hope that you prove all of us wrong one day.'

 

While Quatre did allow Heero his space by not unloading his own doubts on him, the others had not. Lady Une did, however, allow him to use whatever facilities the Preventers had to offer to help him continue looking. Even she was having a hard tome coping with the disappearance of the braided pilot.

After having no luck in finding anything new in the last of the files he had been sent, Heero sighed deeply and rubbed his eyes. Satisfied that he did all he could that day, he rose from his seat and left the office.

Falling into his bed, Heero set the alarm for early the next morning. He would have time before his first meeting to look into a few more possible leads. Then, he would stay late after his assignments were finished to continue searching.

He drifted off to sleep reassuring himself once again that one of these days, something had to come up.

As he did every night, he whispered into the darkness, "Sleep well, Duo."

* * * * * *

Lady Une had called off every meeting that Heero and Wufei had that next day to meet with the both of them. Running into each other in the hallway as they approached their commanding officer's office, Heero asked, "Any idea what this might be about?"

Wufei shook his head, "No. I was about to ask you the same thing. So if neither of us was hinted on what this could be, you know what that means."

"Field assignment," they said at the same time.

Reaching the door at the end of the long hall, Wufei knocked firmly. The door slid open before them as Lady Une's voice called from within, "Come in."

The young woman looked up from her desk and smiled at two of her best pilots. There was a pain that she did not allow to show at being reminded once again that she should be looking at the three best in the organization instead of only two of them. "Please," she said as she gestured with a hand to the two chairs before her desk.

Once they were seated and each gave her a firm nod, confirming that she had their full attention, she went right to business. "There has been news of a new development that came to my attention and we cannot sit on this. Once I acquaint you with what I have learned, you will have two hours to assemble your teams to leave immediately after."

Shifting in his seat slightly, Wufei asked, "What have you learned?" Heero had straightened even more in his seat, not allowing his lack of sleep to show.

Taking a deep breath, Lady Une folded her hands before her face as she began, "For the last four years, there has been a hidden foundation, code named 'White Out', that has been capturing and selling people into slavery to the highest bidders."

Neither Preventer could hide their shock at such an announcement, as their eyes widened in disbelief. "Slavery," Heero repeated. "How are they able to get away with this?"

The young woman's eyes narrowed as she answered in a near growl, "Those involved in this movement have been capturing people living on the streets of the Colonies and the Earth. Once in their possession, they break them, force them to follow the wishes of their owners."

"Those living off the streets have no names, no way of being able to be tracked," Wufei stated, his frown deepening with realization. "They have the perfect victims for such a thing."

"As far as most people are concerned, those on the streets might as well not exist," Heero hissed, his eyes narrowed and his fists clenched.

He recalled the night in the cell he and Duo shared after their last mission together. The braided pilot had finally told him of his past, his life of struggle for survival on the streets and the Maxwell Church Incident.

Knowing fully well from his friend's accounts how even children left to survive on their own were treated, it was no surprise how this foundation was able to find so many people to sell for their business. Who would be concerned over the bottom of society? There were hundreds of thousands of those nameless faces throughout Space.

What fueled Heero's fire even more was the secret name 'White Out' for the organization. It was a means of saying that those involved were wiping out and 'cleaning' civilization of those who lived such lives. They saw people who, like his friend had been as a child, could not afford anything of their own, as smudges that needed to be cleaned away.

These people that they were dealing with were barbarians, nothing more.

Lady Une nodded, "There was a slip from one of the pilots of a transport ship for the organization. We were able to... get him to cooperate with us and relay what he knew to us." At the last part, she smirked smugly. Whatever means those Preventers used on the man that aided White Out to spill what he knew, neither Wufei nor Heero felt any sympathy for him.

"There is to be another transportation ship going out tonight," she continued, now laying out the law of her mission ahead. "I want you and your assembled teams to intercept it and use whatever means to release those being held in the ship.

"I want as many men working there taken and brought back here for questioning. We do not know how much influence, or how large this 'White Out' organization is. We'll need to learn whatever we can if we hope to put an end to this."

"Ninmu ryoukai," Heero spoke up in a clear, firm voice. His hands were still clenched and his eyes still glaring ahead at nothing in particular.

Lady Une couldn't help but give a small smile, relieved to see that the Japanese pilot's resolve in defending those who could not defend themselves had not changed, despite the disappearance of his best friend.

Wufei also nodded, "I am up for this as well. We'll have our teams ready in less than two hours for our departure time."

"Thank you, gentlemen," the commander smiled sincerely as she nodded firmly to them. Extending her hand holding two folders, she explained, "These are the coordinates of the light path that the transport ship will be taking. It shows where it should be at the top of ever hour as well as the fifteen minute intervals of every hour.

"We need you to make this as clean a hit as possible. I don't want those in charge of White Out to think of this as anything more that ... unfortunate accident that one of their ships was lost."

At that, Wufei accepted his folder and smirked, "No worries about that. They won't think of it as any more than faulty wires that caused the destruction of the ship as it was en route."

Heero took his own folder and added, "We'll have as many of their own as we can get our hands on for questioning when we return."

More than satisfied that they were capable of the task at hand, Lady Une replied shortly, "Good." Rising from her seat as her pilots did the same, she extended her hand and told them quietly, "I wish you both the best of luck in your mission. Come back safely."

Both young men shook her hand and extended their thanks before stepping out of the room again. As they split ways at the end of the hall, Wufei smirked over his shoulder, "See you in a couple hours."

"Hai," Heero replied curtly, still enraged over what he had learned. If he was not going to be able to continue his search in the next couple days, he could at least deliver a blow to these bastards on Duo's behalf. He would have wanted to be a part of this mission.

* * * * * *

The attack began at 0721 that same evening, when the transport ship was locked on target. That was when all hell broke loose.

After a lengthy battle amongst the stars, the massive transport ship was finally taken. As the fleet of Preventers embarked the massive hanger, they threw themselves into the confusion as they faced their enemies head-on.

Between the cross fire and the screaming and scrambling of soldiers on both sides, it was difficult to determine which side was faring better.

The ship's crewmen in the observation were finally taken down by a few lucky sharpshooters; automatically allowing the Preventers to make their way through the entrance to the main hull of the craft. As they cleared the way, more of their own landed their crafts in the hanger to join them.

Despite the fact that they achieved a small victory in taking the ship, time was not on their side and it would only be a matter of time before they would be up against more resistance when the call for help from other ships like this would be answered.

Three suited Preventers came to a stop when they reached a branch that broke into three different hallways. Looking to each other through the dark visors of their helmets, they gave a short nod before splitting and going off on their own.

The cells seemed to go on forever down ever path. The fact that many prisoners would be left behind was a something that was a sad reality, but better to free as many as they could, rather than none at all.

Overriding the access code to each door they came across, Heero managed to open those cells he first came in contact with. The men and women inside each looked to him with wide eyes, recognizing the organization that the dark flight suit and helmet belonged to.

With a gesture of his head, he silently told them to get to the hanger. Without a word needed, those he freed ran as fast as their feet could. Other captives helped out those wounded as they made their way to freedom as the sirens overhead continued to pierce through the air.

Only briefly did Heero look on some of those grateful people as they ran with their families and friends. These were the lowest of low souls. These people, they were the men and women who could not care and fended for themselves on the streets.

How anyone could use such people for their own benefit in this fashion was appalling. And to think that they had been getting away with this for so long. Who knows how many people like these were now the slaves of wealthy owners throughout space? Separated from their families and loved ones to be forced into whatever their masters wanted.

Snapping himself from his thoughts, he quickly went back to his task. Despite the fact that he managed to open a fair amount of cells at a rate that would make any rookie's head spin, he hardly made a dent in what remained in that corridor.

With a glance to his watch, Heero cursed darkly to himself. It was time to go. But there were so many others left. Satisfying himself that he would open one more cell, he began to punch in the override code on the lock beside the door just to his left.

When the door opened, instead of finding a face or two waiting in the doorway, there was no one there. Pausing a moment, he stared at the dark, empty entrance for a moment, as the grip on his pistol tightened. Stepping inside carefully, with the gun aimed forward, he switched the light on beside him as he made his way in.

Across the room, a broken form lay on their side, back facing the door, stretched out lifelessly. The captive's pale skin was bruised and cut all over, a few wounds still bleeding in different places. The Preventer stopped dead in his tracks as his gaze fell on the long strands of chestnut hair that were spread over the naked body and the cold floor.

Quickly, Heero removed his helmet, revealing his widened cobalt eyes that had never left the person before him. His feet finally moved again and he knelt beside the prisoner as he carefully turned them to face him.

A sharp gasp escaped his tightening through as he gazed at the unconscious face that he had been searching for. Taking a deep breath, he whispered, "Duo..."

Looking around the room, he spotted a blanket spread carelessly on the single mattress in the corner. Moving quickly, he took it to wrap around Duo's lifeless body and lifted him into his arms.

Just as he returned to his feet, Wufei's voice shouted over the radio on his belt, "Yuy, you better get the hell out of there! We picked up on four more ships on their way!" Cradling the young man to him, Heero turned and ran through the door again.

The detonators would have already been set by now, and they would be going off in a few minutes.

 

Part 2:

Wufei waited anxiously at the entrance to the shuttle that would take everyone back to their large craft. Heero had yet to return after releasing the prisoners of their enemy and time was almost out. Looking to his watch, through the visor of his helmet, he hissed, "Where the hell is he?"

Only a second later, Heero came running into the hanger, cradling a bundle that was wrapped in a brown blanket. Sighing in relief, he called over to his team that secured the area, "Let's go!" On his word, the fifteen remaining Preventers ran back into the shuttle.

Heero was one of the last to enter, along with Wufei, the door closing behind them. Without taking a moment to relax, Wufei yelled towards the front of the long shuttle for the pilots to take off.

The people that they had rescued, all looking frightened and bewildered, gazed nervously at the armed men and women around them. A few of the children started crying and those captives ranging from their teenage years to their late forties, who were close enough, tried to calm them.

When the shuttle left rumbled back to life in preparation to leave the hanger, Wufei stepped to the center of the now cramped space and removed his helmet. Removing his badge, he held it up for all to see. Some seemed to recognize the gold shimmering emblem and gasped.

The Chinese soldier gave a small, reassuring smile to try and calm those children who were still crying as he announced, "You're all in safe hands. We're Preventers on a search and rescue mission." At those words, some of the released captives cried out in shock and others began to cry, most likely just from joy and disbelief that their nightmare was over.

Allowing them all a moment to let his words sink in, Wufei lowered his badge and continued, "We'll be taking you to our largest ship, Quasar. You'll be able to rest there as our guests before we take you to our headquarters on Earth. There, we'll be able to place your identities and locations in our database before taking you to a shelter on the Earth, or on a Colony of your choice."

At the display of emotions in all of the people they rescued, Wufei had to clear his throat, unable to imagine what these poor people had gone through during their captivity. All around, the people cried in relief or laughed almost hysterically.

"My name is Wufei Chang and my partner," he gesture over his shoulder to where Heero was sitting with his bundle held close. Already without his helmet, the Japanese young man gave a firm nod to those watching him. "Heero Yuy, along with our teams here, will be available if you have any concerns or questions-"

His words were cut off when a deafening explosion convulsed the air, shaking the shuttle for a moment. At the screams and cries of the prisoners, Wufei smiled reassuringly once more as he raised his arms to calm them. "Everything is all right. That was the transport ship that held you," he explained and once again, everyone calmed, their eyes widened in disbelief.

Satisfied that their guests were put at ease, Wufei walked to the back of the shuttle, where his partner was sitting. The look on his friend's face was a swirl of emotions as he clutched to the covered burden in his arms, as if he were afraid to let it go. Crouching before him, Wufei frowned as he asked, "What is it?"

Only then did Heero look up from the blanket into his comrade's dark eyes. Unable to trust his voice, he uncovered the hood that he had made out of the blanket. With a sharp gasp, Wufei's eyes widened as far as they could as he visibly paled. "M-my God," he breathed.

Tentatively, he reached a shaking hand forward to brush the chestnut bangs from the bruised, sleeping face before him. Pulling his hand away, as if it was burned, his eyes filled with tears and his breath hitched in his throat.

Wufei couldn't sort through his thoughts and emotions as he looked up to the cobalt eyes of his friend as tears streaked his face. "Can you contact Sally and tell her to be ready when we arrive at Quasar?" Heero suddenly asked quietly. Quickly rising to his feet, Wufei gave an affirmative before running off for the cockpit.

When he was alone again, Heero gazed back down to the long-haired friend whom he had been searching for so long. There was a large, nasty bruise that nearly covered Duo's entire right cheek. His left bore a long cut with dried blood keeping it closed. His skin was almost white as a sheet, making the dark circles under his eyes stand out all the more.

Taking a shuddered breath, Heero pulled him as close as he could while being careful not to injure his best friend further. As he rested his chin atop the long-haired pilot's head, he closed his eyes and whispered, "Just hang in there a little longer, Duo."

* * * * * *

"So what were your hopes and dreams during the war, Heero?" Duo asked as he sat up. Locked away in their cell, there was little more to do than talk. "I know that during that time, these kind of talks were off limits since we never knew if we would live through it."

Looking up at the ceiling, from where he lied on the floor a couple feet away, Heero shrugged, "Just as we never discussed those things during the war, I never allowed myself to so much as think of those things." He turned his head to face the braided Preventer as he finished, "My life at that time was just following through one mission to the next."

A sad frown fell on his friend's face, only now after the time they had spent under the same room after the war was he comfortable enough to consider and call him a friend… his best friend. "I guess I suspected as much," Duo sighed, hugging his legs to his chest.

For whatever reason, anytime Duo's smile fell away, Heero found himself wishing it was back. Sitting up, the Japanese pilot found himself asking, "Well what kind of things did you hope for and dream of during the war?"

Much to his relief, Duo's smile returned at that question as he answered, "Just simple stuff. A roof over my head that I could call home, you and the others making it out in one piece- so that we could meet up once in a while and laugh over the things we went through, that kind of stuff."

Heero nodded, never ceasing to be amazed at how easy it was for him to communicate with the talkative American. Long past one-word responses and grunts of acknowledgement, he actually found that he liked talking with his braided companion. When they had joined the Preventers, only months prior to their capture, it only made sense that the two of them were placed on the same missions together.

After briefly serving as a bodyguard for Relena after the Mariemaya Incident, Heero knew that he needed to do something else in his life. Just as he started to seriously consider resigning from his position, he received an email from the braided American.

Duo went to work for Hilde and her growing salvage business on L2. Once her business was able to be run on its own after making many new clients, Duo contacted the stoic young man to ask what he was up to. Within weeks, they found residence together and joined the Preventers, finding the organization to be their best option of work at the time.

Over the course of their time working and living together, Heero lost a fair amount of his edge. He became more apt to opening a conversation and relating to emotions. Duo even seemed to calm a bit from his normally hyper behavior. He had become patient, when during the war the word was nonexistent in his vocabulary. They just seemed to rub off on each other and compliment each other's personalities.

Now, here they sat, in a cell together after their last mission had taken a wrong turn. How they ended up in this situation was still an enigma to them. They had used every precaution, followed every movement to the book. Any yet, somehow, things went awry and they ended up in the hands of the rebels they were looking to snuff out.

There was a long silence for a time between them before Duo started chuckling deeply. Tilting his head, Heero asked, "What's so funny?"

Duo's laugher grew all the louder, his eyes closing as he fell into hysterics. At the sound of his laughter, even Heero couldn't help but find himself grinning as his friend finally began to compose himself. That sound was infectious, he had come to learn not long after they started living together.

Finally, Duo managed to reply, "I was just thinking of the irony of it all. I mean we were terrorists during the war and now here we are, more or less a police unit that goes after none other than terrorists. Maybe I'm already going crazy being locked up like this for more than a few hours, but it just strikes me as pretty damn funny right now."

Actually finding the humor in the whole scenario, Heero found himself chuckling as well. At that, Duo's smile grew as he watched him. "You know," he said quietly, "it's good to actually hear you laugh. It's a nice to hear."

Suddenly, the door to the cell opened, pouring in more light than what seeped through the cracks when it was closed. They both looked up at the two tall men glaring down on them as the first pointed to Heero with a single word: "You."

Without any argument, Heero rose to his feet and walked towards them. He looked over his shoulder, noting the look of concern that his friend was struggling to hide. With a wink and a small smirk to reassure him, the Japanese pilot turned and left the room as the guards slammed the door after him.

* * * * * *

Heero shook himself from the memory, one that took place not long before Duo vanished. What had happened to him after their escape that brought him to be taken in by the White Out Organization? What happened to him during those two years of captivity? Who were the people responsible?

There were so many questions running through Heero's mind as he looked down to the bruised face of his partner. Gently, he ran a hand through Duo's long bangs and a small moan escaped the unconscious pilot.

When they finally docked within Quasar, the door opened and Heero quickly left the shuttle. Leaving the hanger in a very brisk, near-running walk, he made his way to the medical ward. Sally was already waiting past the swinging doors in the division's entrance with a stretcher and two aides, also in white doctor robes.

Once she saw Heero approaching, the tall woman called urgently to him, "Right here, Heero." Carefully, the young man lowered his partner onto the stretcher, careful to keep his naked body covered by the blanket.

Turning to meet the determined look in her eyes, Heero told her quietly, pleadingly, "Sally, I couldn't trust anyone else with him but you. Please take care of him."

For a split second, the tall woman had to fight her initial urge to gape at him in shock. Then, she had to remind herself that this was no longer the Heero that they all knew during the wars. The time that he spent in peace time really had changed him, the same boy who once had a hard time expressing anything further than his dedication to his missions.

With a firm nod of resolve, Sally kept her emotions in check for the task at hand as she replied sincerely, "I'll do everything in my power to help him, Heero." At that, she nodded to her aids as they quickly moved the stretcher off to the examination rooms.

Reminding himself to breathe, Heero ran his hands through his hair, locking them at the back of his head as he tried to sort everything that was coursing through him in that moment. It was all too overwhelming, being on the verge of tears, screaming, laughing, punching something, along with everything else that he wanted to do at that moment.

Several prisoners that had been rescued were now being ushered into the medical ward, some with the assistance of the Preventers on staff to be looked after. Those on the medical team went right to work, looking after all who came in for assistance. They went about it all quickly and efficiently, putting their guests at ease.

Once he was able to feel his legs again, Heero made his way to the waiting room, all but falling into the chair furthest inside. Leaning forward, he folded his hands together and propped his elbows on his legs. Outside, a few comets flew past the ship, streaking across the skies that filled the window beside him.

He wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there by himself before Wufei came walking in. he came to sit a couple seats away from the other Preventer, his gaze never rising from the floor and Heero's never looking down from the wall across the room. For a long time, not a word was spoken as they both dealt with their own private hells, unable to sort out everything going through their minds.

"You were right," Wufei finally said in a near whisper. Broken from his concentration, Heero looked to his comrade beside him as he continued quietly, "All this time, you knew that he was alive… that he was out there somewhere."

Licking his lips, Heero thought for a moment before he sighed deeply, "This isn't a matter of who was right or wrong, Wufei. All that matters right now is that Duo's safe now."

When he finally looked up from the floor to meet his gaze, Wufei's tear-filled eyes spoke volumes. "I know that, Yuy," he said quietly.

He looked away again, staring ahead as he continued, "All those times that we tried to convince you to give up the search, you never let anything sway you. With all of that and the little you had to go on, how did you know? Why didn't you just give up?"

"A silver lining," Heero replied softly, gazing out at nothing with a small smile on his lips.

Blinking in confusion, Wufei looked over at him and asked, "What?"

His comrade just shook his head, never looking back to meet his gaze as he answered, "Something that Duo told me a while back."

After a brief pause, Wufei wiped at his eyes and chuckled deeply, "You'll have to tell me more about it sometime. Whatever that means, I'm glad that it kept you from giving in like the rest of us." The last part of his statement trailed off as his head lowered.

Rising from his feet, the Chinese Preventer cleared his throat past the lump that formed there. "I'm going to contact Quatre, Trowa and the others. I'm sure that they would want to know about something like this right away, even if it will be a couple days before we return to Earth."

Heero nodded his agreement at that. Quatre would never forgive them if they kept such news from him for more than five hours if they had the power to contact him in the meantime. Wufei asked, "Can I get you anything before I go?"

"No, thank you," Heero replied sincerely. "I have enough going on right now to keep me occupied until Sally gets back with word on Duo's condition." Nodding, Wufei walked towards the door.

Before the Chinese pilot left the room, a woman- who looked to be in her late twenties- quickly walked up to him. Heero looked up, instantly recognizing the long-haired blonde as one of the prisoners that they had just released. In her hand was clutched the tiny hand of a boy no more than seven. The child's brown bangs were almost long enough to cover his green eyes. Noting the same shade of their eyes, Heero deducted that he was the son of the young woman who was still speaking quietly with Wufei at the moment. His friend pointed in his direction as he spoke back just as quietly with a nod of confirmation. With a smile of appreciation, the mother walked towards him. Wufei went off to carry out his task of contacting the others.

Heero rose from his seat as the blonde woman and the little boy approached. Their clothing had been torn in several places and there were bruises here and there on their arms and legs. Both she and her son neared him almost cautiously. When she was near enough she all but whispered, "You're Heero… right?"

Instantly, Heero thought back to when Duo told him that sometimes he can look intimidating if he didn't smile. Wanting to encourage them, he smiled reassuringly and nodded, "Hai. Can I help you?"

Taking her son up in her arms, the woman replied, "My name is Kayla and this is my son, Michael. We've known Duo for some time now. We have been on the same transport ship for months now, the one you pulled us from." At that, Heero's cobalt eyes widened.

Kayla bit her lip as tears filled her green eyes. She blurted out in a whimper, "He saved my son." As she struggled to catch her breath between her sobs, Heero carefully led her to one of the chairs and sat her down. Michael seemed at a loss himself as he buried his face in his mother's neck.

Heero took the young mother's hand, kneeling before her. When she was able to speak again, Kayla told him in a soft voice, "There was this guard who always had an eye out for little children." Her tone had changed to disgust at the thought of the man. Already, Hero could feel his own skin crawling.

"A few months back, he went after Michael," her voice cracked and she had to cover her mouth to keep back the sharp cry that threatened to break through.

Taking a deep breath, she finally lifted her head to look into the eyes of the pilot before her and went on, "Duo got in the guard's path and went after him. When the fight ended, the man's neck was broken and he lied still on the ground. The next thing any of us knew, four guards came running into the gathering room and tackled Duo to the ground. They took him off and we had never seen him before the rescue, when you carried him into the shuttle."

It was almost too much for Heero to listen to. It was something that Duo would do- he always looked out for children, ever since he was a child himself, on the streets of L2. His instinct to look after little ones who could not defend himself was what ended up leaving him in the state Heero found him.

Silence lingered for a long time between them before Kayla, staring out at nothing, finally said, "While I could never see Duo to thank him, I knew the door to the cell where he was held. There were many times when I went to try to visit. I don't know what kind of drugs and nerve serums they were using and testing on him, but I could hear the pain in his screams and it was a sound I'll never forget."

Kayla seemed to be lost in the nightmare that she had lived through. "There were times," she whispered, "when I would visit the door to his cell and he would be crying. Not just crying, wailing. In times like that, I made out the name `Heero' being cried for." Heero couldn't prevent the sharp gasp that left his throat. It was as if someone had slammed a fist into his gut and knocked the wind out of him. He had to look away, afraid that he would lose his fight to keep the tears from springing up.

As if waking from a dream, Kayla blinked her green eyes and focused back on the Preventer, not paying any mind to the many tears running down her face. "I knew he was crying for you when I saw how you were looking after Duo on the shuttle. I had to come here to tell you what I knew. I had to come see if Duo was all right so that I could thank him for saving my child," he told him.

Sensing the distress from the young man, she gently placed a hand on his shoulder. When he looked back up to her gaze, she smiled sadly, "I also wanted to see the person who seemed to be the one that got Duo through his ordeal. Had it not been for you, I'm sure that he would have given up a long time ago." She squeezed his shoulder and asked quietly, "Please come and find us, when Duo is up for visitors."

Heero, finally able to force himself to breath again, nodded firmly to her and whispered the only words he could get past his throat, "I will." Nodding back to him, Kayla rose from her seat, holding her son close as she walked from the room silently.

When he was alone again, Heero had to practically pull himself into one of the chairs again. He bent at the waist, covering his face with his hands, as he allowed himself a few tears to fall.

* * * * * *

About an hour later, Heero looked up as he felt someone new entering the doorway of the waiting room. Sally approached him quietly, moving a chair to sit before him. She looked into his cobalt eyes, just as her own began to fill with small tears. As much as he was able to hold his own emotions in check, Heero nearly broke down seeing that this normally strong woman was crying.

Taking a moment, Sally turned her head and whispered, "He woke up asking for you." Her voice hitched and she whimpered sharply. She shook her head and apologized, "I'm sorry. Normally, I'm better with holding back that this. It's just… it's still a shock." She wiped at her eyes and cleared her throat.

Heero took one of her hands in his and squeezed it. He wouldn't allow himself to process the fact that Duo woke up asking for him. He could only imagine what his friend had felt when he woke in a strange place, the fear and panic that he must have felt.

So his name was the first he called for. All that he wanted at that time was to check on him, to comfort him and see that he really was back after all this time. Still, he knew that he needed to wait and hear more of Duo's condition and how to help him before he went running into the room.

He swallowed hard and reassured her quietly, "It's all right. These next couple weeks will probably be emotional for all of us as this all sinks in."

The squeeze of his hand nearly broke the damn all over again for Sally in recognition of how she and their friends all swore that Duo was long dead for some time now. When she looked up into his eyes again, she smiled warmly and squeezed his hand back as she replied faintly, "Thank you, Heero."

Now that she was able to control herself, she took a deep breath and began, "All of the tests have been run and I have examined every ex-ray taken. He's suffered several broken and bruised ribs. Many other bones had to be set back, since they never would have healed on their own otherwise."

Heero nodded to let her know that he was still taking everything she said in, not worrying about his rage right now as much as were the details of his partner's condition. There would be time for revenge later.

Their hands still clasped, Sally went on, "When you found him, he was unconscious from a hard blow to the head." That explained the terrible bruise on the side of his face. "Duo's suffering from a concussion from that, but there is no further internal damage to the brain. The deep scars on his chest will remain after they've healed, but the bleeding has stopped at least."

The braided woman straightened in her seat as she ordered politely but firmly, "He is also not to be out of bed for more than having to relieve himself and shower. Even then, he'll need help with his hair to braid it. Between his bone and muscle healing, I don't want any unnecessary strain on him for the next two weeks at the very least. That will be another reason for my regular visits. He's lost a fair amount of weight that I want to see gained back along with proper nutrition before he tries to exert himself."

Closing his eyes for a moment to store everything, Heero gave himself a moment, not prepared to as the next question. "Are there any… other injuries?" He was still unable to just come out and ask the question, even if it was evident that the answer would be yes. `Was he raped?' his mind kept screaming.

Sally, ever observant, could see the true nature of his question. Her careful reply was meant to try and give him closure, as much as to calm him, without coming right out and saying it. "There are no further physical injuries, but they're not the only injuries I am worried about" she answered, stressing the word `physical' with a saddened frown.

Then the answer to his question was `yes' after all. The other injuries she was worried about were the emotional ones. It was one thing to assume that by the state Duo was in that he had been raped. It was another to actually have a medical examination prove it that was something all together different. Suddenly, he needed to get out of that room.

"May I see him?" he asked quietly, surprised at how steady his voice managed to stay despite his urge to stop holding back his emotions.

Without hesitation, Sally nodded insistently, "Of course. I'll take you to his room." Releasing their hands, she rose and led him into the hallway.

Once they stopped before the last closed door at the end of the hall, Sally gestured to it before saying, "I'll need to keep Duo here overnight to monitor him. You can stay with him for as long as you like. I've already given clearance for you, so that no one of on the staff here will ask you to leave after hours. If you need anything, just call for me. I'm going to look for Wufei and see if he needs help contacting the others."

Noting the flight suit that Heero had never changed out of, she added, "I'll bring a change of clothes for you in about an hour. Other than that, I'll see to it that neither of you are disturbed tonight," she stated. "After everything that you went through to find him, it's only right you get to spend time with him first."

While that was not really necessary, Heero still appreciated it nevertheless.

As she started to walk away, she halted when a hand fell on her shoulder and squeezed. Turning, she looked back to Heero as he gave her a small smile of gratitude. "Thank you, Sally," he told her in a near whisper, not able to trust his voice to speak much louder without cracking at that moment.

She returned the smile and placed her hand over his to squeeze it in return as she replied softly, "Anytime." With that, she turned back and gave the young man his privacy.

Heero turned to stare at the closed door for a moment, breathing in slowly and deeply as he focused on keeping his emotions in check. Releasing the breath, he managed to lift his arm to and pushed the door open before stepped inside.

 

Part 3:

Heero turned to stare at the closed door for a moment, breathing in slowly and deeply as he focused on keeping his emotions in check. Releasing the breath, he managed to lift his arm to push the door open and stepped inside.

When he stepped in, his eyes went right to the young man sitting up in the hospital bed in the center of the room. Duo's hair had been cleaned and braided, no doubt with Sally's help. For some reason, Heero felt a bit of jealousy about that. Duo never let anyone handle his hair unless he could not do it himself.

Before Sally, Heero had been the only person who had the opportunity to touch his hair when Duo had been injured on a few of their missions during the war. For some reason, Heero always felt that that was some special bond between them.

Now, Heero actually had the opportunity to take in just how thin his partner really was. Under the light green hospital gown, he could see how little mass was beneath the material. Duo's face gained a little color back, but the dark circles under his eyes still stood out, along with the long cut that ran down his left cheek.

When he looked to his arms, Heero had to fight the wince of the sight of the many puncture wounds left on the inside of his elbows. The medical gown's short sleeves did little to nothing in concealing the healing holes left from the many syringes used to test who knew what on him.

As he entered the room, Duo's head was turned to gaze out the window to his right. Hearing the door opened, he turned to see who was entering. The large bruise on the other cheek was bandaged over, nearly covering the right side of his face. There were few times that Heero could recall where he looked worse.

Then, when those violet eyes widened at the sight of him, it was all Heero could do to keep from losing control of the emotions he was trying so hard to keep in check. Duo whimpered and it seemed he was struggling to speak.

Finally, the voice that Heero had been longing to hear again whispered brokenly, "H-Heero." As rough as his voice was, Heero could only assume that it was due to the fact that the American had been screaming for quite some time in his cell.

Before the door even had the time to close behind him, the Japanese Preventer crossed the room, sat at the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms around his best friend as he whispered the same, "Duo." Before he even fully sat on the mattress beside him, Duo had lunged forward to throw his arms tightly around Heero's neck, burying his face in his neck as he cried with almost violent sobs.

Biting his lip to keep the tears from filling his own eyes, Heero kept telling himself that this was Duo's time of need. But his resolve quickly faded as he clung onto his best friend after such a long time of hoping against hope that he would find him. The reality that his search was finally over, the tears finally broke free as he bit back a small sob.

"God, I missed you so much, Duo," he whimpered as he closed his eyes and buried his face in the braided pilot's shoulder. His partner's arms tightened around him all the more and he began rubbing Heero's back in soothing circles. Trying to keep back his body's urge to tremble, he chucked quietly, "I don't want to let go of you any time soon."

Duo's small voice begged against his shoulder, "Please don't."

For only a moment, Heero mentally chastised himself for not holding back his emotions. This wasn't how he pictured their reunion. He was supposed to be the pillar of strength that he always been. Duo needed him to be strong now. He didn't need Heero adding to the pain by falling apart as well. He almost didn't recognize his voice when he said quietly in Duo's ear, "I'm sorry."

Duo pulled back so that their shimmering eyes met, his face showed confusion. Shaking his head, the Japanese Preventer lowered his head with his eyes closed. His body shook as much as Duo's as he wiped at the tears that continued to fall and answered, "You don't need me to be acting like this. Not now."

Understanding filled his friend's violet eyes. Somehow, no matter how little Heero would elaborate, Duo always seemed to get the whole picture of what he was trying to say. He smiled sadly, another whimper leaving him as he reached up to dry some of his partner's tears.

With a deep breath, he whispered meekly, "I don't mind if you need to cry, too." At that, Heero hugged him tightly again, the embrace returned immediately. With a quiet `Arigato,' he released the last of the walls finally fall.

Heero turned his head slightly to place a soft kiss to his best friend's temple. It just seemed the right thing to do as they held onto each other in desperate need to have proof that the other really existed. Duo never thought of the pain coursing through him. It didn't matter at that moment. His nightmare was finally over.

It seemed a long time that they just sat their, holding each other and crying like that. Heero continued to rub Duo's back and whisper reassuring words in his ear as he rocked them both. Finally, their souls finally cleansed in their release of their pain, their tears stopped and their composures were regained.

Looking into the cobalt eyes of his partner in awe, when he pulled his head back at last, Duo raised a trembling hand to cup his cheek. By the look in his eyes, it was as if he still was having a hard time believing that he wasn't dreaming. Heero gave him a warm smile, the one that he only allowed Duo to ever see, as he leaned into the touch a bit and whispered, "Welcome back."

His friend's small, almost hesitant laugh filled his ears." Unable to help himself, he leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on Duo's forehead. Looking back into his violet eyes, he suggested quietly, "You should get some rest."

With a hesitant look, Duo's asked quietly, "Stay?"

"Of course," Heero whispered reassuringly as he smiled at him. Satisfied with that, Duo's smile grew a bit as well and he lied back down.

Making a temporary `bed' out of the two cushioned chairs that he pushed together beside the bed, Heero dimmed the room's lights and relaxed. When he was certain that Duo was sleeping at last, he finally allowed himself to slip into the best night's sleep that he had had in more than two years.

* * * * * *

The following morning, Heero woke with a soft sigh, rubbing his eyes as he worked the kinks out of his shoulders and back from the position that he slept in. looking up to the bed, he saw that Duo was still sleeping. Despite the angry bruise and cut on his face, he looked to be resting peacefully. A small smile fell on the Japanese pilot's lips as he watched him for a moment.

Looking back at the closed door, Heero saw that as Sally had promised, his duffle bag of clothes sat just inside the room. Silently thanking the woman, he rose from the chairs he converted to his bed, eager to at last be out of his tight flight suit. Once his bag was in hand, he pulled the curtain that divided the room to change.

Before long, Heero stood dressed in a plain, black t-shirt with an open green blouse over it, blue jeans and a pair of brown sneakers. Running a hand through his unruly hair, he sighed in relief of being in more comfortable attire.

On the other side of the curtain, the sleeping pilot's eyes Duo's eyes snapped open wide, his head looking up to the ceiling when he woke. Sitting up with a startled gasp, his violet eyes scanned the room rapidly, missing Heero as he pulled the curtain back and quickly sat at the edge of the bed.

The moment he just barely touched his partner's shoulder to try to snap him from his state, Heero watched in surprise at how quickly Duo jumped back from his touch as his head snapped in his direction, terror all over his face.

When their eyes locked, the Japanese Preventer said gently, "Duo's it's me, Heero." For a moment, all the other young man could do was blink at him in shock. Finally, realization clouded over the disorientation and fear as Duo sighed deeply, falling forward into Heero's arms. His eyes closed as he leaned against his friend, the American clung to him as he began to tremble.

Slowly, Heero began to rock him as he whispered, "Shh. It's all right. You're safe now." He continued to comfort the pilot in his arms, rubbing his back and whispering reassuringly to him.

Finally, Duo sat back with the shaking stopped, sniffing and rubbing at his eyes as proof that he had been crying. When he looked back up at his best friend, he smiled as if embarrassed. Returning the gesture with a sad smile, Heero rubbed the back of his braided head as he asked quietly, "You all right?" Duo lowered his head a bit and nodded.

The door then squeaked opened with a quiet knock, causing Duo to jump again. Sally poked her head into the room and her patient sighed in relief, relaxing his shoulders. The braided woman smiled warmly as she stepped into the room. "Good morning," she greeted kindly, walking over to pick up the clipboard hanging off the foot of the bed.

Heero smiled back, "Good morning, Sally." When he looked back to his friend, he noticed the wide violet eyes staring at him. Instantly understanding that the other young man was gaping at the normally stoic pilot's ease to smile and pilot response, Heero winked, "A lot has changed over these last couple years, Duo."

Sally chuckled deeply at the braided youth's shocked face. With a hand on Heero's shoulder, squeezing it as she stated, "He's right, Duo. He's come a long way with your help after the wars." At that, a small smile slowly spread on the quiet pilot's face as he looked from Sally to his best friend.

After looking over the reports on the clipboard, the young woman smiled, "Well, I see no need to keep you here any longer. I can have some clothes brought in for you to change." Lowering the clipboard, she winked, "I know how much you love wearing medical gowns." She laughed at Duo's half-hearted glare as his cheeks turned a light pink.

As he watched the exchange and thought back to the night before, Heero thought back to the night before and realized how little the other pilot actually spoke. He remembered how difficult it would be to keep the American quiet as he could just talk excitedly for hours. Frowning in thought, he almost missed hearing Sally announce, "I'll be back in a few minutes."

When they were alone again, Heero smiled when his friend's eyes fell on him again. "I almost forgot," he began. "I have something for you." Duo tilted his head with curiosity in violet eyes. They suddenly widened when Heero's hands reached up to unhitch the fine gold chain that was nearly completely hidden under his shirt.

Unhitching the clasp behind his neck, Heero pulled up on the chain to pull the shimmering cross pendant dangling from it. "I promised I would get this back to you," he said quietly.

Duo bit his bottom lip as the other pilot leaned forward and clasped the necklace around him. When Heero sat back, the braided pilot looked down to the pendant hanging from his neck, moving to hold it in his palm. With the fingers of his other hand, he reverently touched the gold cross as his eyes began to tear up. "I wore it every day," he heard Heero tell him quietly.

Looking up to his partner with shimmering violet eyes, Duo gave a sincere, glowing smile as he whispered, "Thank you." Heero returned the gesture with a warm smile of his own. With a small grin, Duo tucked his pendant under his gown.

As he took a deep breath, Heero decided to take a chance and said, "I met Kayla and Michael last night." Duo's head snapped up. There were so many emotions swirling in those wide violet orbs. Recognizing one of those as concern, Heero reassured him, "Michael is fine… thanks to you."

Duo closed his eyes and lowered his head, sighing with relief. Trying to get something, anything out of his silent partner, Heero continued, "They were both worried about you. Maybe we can go look for them when you're ready?"

Slowly, the rescued pilot nodded and replied quietly, "All right." Heero couldn't help but smile at the return of some of the brightness in his partner's eyes. He knew that Duo's instinct to protect children who could not protect themselves would cause some spark of the old Duo that he knew to shine through. He also knew that Duo would want to see the boy he defended to make certain that his actions to keep him safe were not in vain.

At that moment, Sally returned with a pile of clothes and a pair of sneakers. Placing the clothes at the edge of the bed, Duo grinned. As softly as he spoke, there was no question to the sincerity behind his words as he said to her, "Thank you, Sally."

Winking at him, the tall woman nodded, "Anytime." Behind her forced smile, Heero could sense that there was something troubling Sally. Perhaps she had picked up on Duo's behavior as he had. "When you're finished changing, Wufei would like to see you. That is, if you're up for it," she told him.

Heero had been expecting Duo to practically jump out of the bed in anticipation of seeing their Chinese friend for the first time in years. Instead, his eyes widened as he paled. "H-he doesn't… know, does he?" he asked in a near whisper.

Frowning deeply, Sally placed a hand on the frail looking pilot's shoulder as reassured him, "No. I told Heero, as you asked, and no one else. What happened to you will be between the three of us. You have my word."

The braided pilot looked down to the puncture marks on the inside of his arms, brushing his fingers subconsciously over some of them. Sally gently lifted his head so that their eyes met as she promised with a warm smile, "I'll be sure to find something with long sleeves so that no one else will see those."

Unable to take the distress in his partner, Heero took one of Duo's hands and squeezed it for support. When their eyes met, the American relaxed once more. All that the Japanese young man could think of was all the ways he would love to kill the men who had hurt and raped this shell of the person that he once knew.

After a slight pause, Duo looked up to Sally and said at last, "I'd like to see him."

"Okay," Sally nodded, her smile returning. With a quick look to Heero, she glanced from him to the door, indicating her wish to speak with him. When she looked back to Duo, she said, "We'll step out for a moment to let you get changed."

As she turned towards the door, Duo looked to his partner with a look of concern. Heero rubbed the top of his braided head with a reassuring smile. "I'll be right back." At the slight nod and little relief in Duo's face, Heero turned to follow Sally out of the room.

When they were out in the hallway, Sally led Heero into the small storage room behind the door across from Duo's. Closing the door behind them, the tall woman asked quietly, "Has he been this quiet with you this whole time?"

Heero ran a hand through his unruly hair and sighed deeply, "Yea. I was trying to get more than a few words out of him by opening up a conversation, but he's not saying much." Looking back to the closed door, he added, "He's also on edge. The first time you came into the room unannounced, I thought he was going to jump out of the bed."

Sally frowned deeply, "I had a bad feeling that might have been the case when Duo woke up last night. He only spoke when he absolutely had to. I don't know the details of what he went through while he was held captive for the last two years, but whatever happened obviously traumatized him. How much damage was done, and how long it'll take for him to get past that is too difficult to say for certain."

"I'm going to kill every one of the bastards that did this to him," Heero growled fiercely, his narrowed eyes burning with the rage that he had been holding back from the time that he first saw his partner in that holding cell.

His thoughts were broken when Sally placed a hand on his shoulder as she told him, "I would like nothing more than for you to have that, Heero. What I told you of Duo's conditions had been putting nicely everything that I had found. As I told you, his physical wounds will heal. It's his emotional wounds I am concerned about."

Finally, Heero's eyes calmed as he looked up into Sally's eyes. When their gazed locked, she continued, "What comes first, even more repaying those responsible, Duo has to come to terms with all of this. Aside from the fact that he can be a major key to finding all those responsible and involved in the White Out organization, his own wellbeing relies on getting through this."

Sally lowered her hand and stated, "Duo needs you, Heero. He never told me, but I know that he somehow always held onto the hope that you would find him some day. At just the thought of being out of your sight for a moment to change just now, the look on his face showed that he was almost on the verge of panic."

Thinking back to the troubled look on the American's face before he promised him to be back before long, Heero knew the truth of her words. Duo looked as if he was about to crawl out of his skin. Seeing his partner in such a state as he was in now was more than disorienting for the Japanese Preventer. At that, Heero had devoted himself completely to his new mission.

With firm resolve in his cobalt eyes, the Japanese pilot asked, "What do I have to do?"

Sally sighed deeply in relief with a small smile. So the soldier had returned with a new task at hand. "Right now, just be there for him," she began. "I have a feeling that he'll be clinging pretty closely to you for a while.

"I did tell him how you were the only one who kept searching for him, while the rest of us had written him off as dead. He never said it, but I know that he must feel resentful towards the rest of us." The last of her words trailed off quietly as she looked away.

It was snow Heero's turn to offer support, squeezing her arm as he said quietly, "You didn't have to tell Duo any of that. And I know that he'll understand, even if it does hurt initially."

With a small sniff, the braided woman wiped at her nose as she said, "I had to be honest with him. He deserves that. And right now, he's going to rely on you a great deal."

"Understood," the young man nodded firmly.

Straightening herself, Sally advised, "There should be no mention to the White Out organization, or anything related to the last two years, if you can help it. I am sure that Duo's having enough of a time keeping his experience from his mind just sitting in that room as it is.

"Having the past brought out in the open could set any progress in him back. For now, just listen to him when he does say anything. Let him cry when he needs to and talk him even if he isn't ready to talk, himself."

Again, Heero nodded firmly. After a brief pause, he commented, "I never would have imagined that I would be the talkative one of the two of us." At her sad grin, he reassured her, "But whatever I have to do, I'll do it for him."

Slowly, a warm smile graced Sally's lips as she whispered, "I don't have any doubt in that." She looked back to the door and suggested, "You should probably check on him. I'll go get Wufei to let him know Duo is up for a visit from him." With that, they stepped from the storage room and split ways, Sally in search of the Chinese pilot and Heero back into Duo's room.

* * * * * *

Upon entering the other Preventer's room, Heero found Duo sitting on the edge of his hospital bed, his legs kicking back and forth in a nervous fashion. He straightened with wide eyes at the sound of the door opening, only relaxing when he saw that it was his friend entering the room. He was fully dressed in the blue jeans, brown sneakers and red sweater that Sally had found him.

While it was still obvious that he was terribly thin, Herro had to admit that Duo looked better now that he was actually in normal clothes again. Silently, he wondered how long it had been since Duo was able to wear such attire. As simple an outfit as it was, it must have seemed a blessing to his comrade to be in it.

Heero sat on the edge of the bed next to Duo and grinned as he brushed a hand through his long bangs. "Feeling better?" he asked quietly. His friend nodded enthusiastically, a small smile on his own face.

It wasn't long before the door opened. Heero had to squeeze Duo's hand to keep him from jumping nervously again. Sally entered with Wufei right behind. Without a single word, the Chinese pilot walked quickly across the room and hugged his missing friend tightly. Duo wrapped his own arms around him in response.

When they finally broke, Wufei laughed quietly as he wiped at his eyes. Duo's own violet orbs were a bit watery as he gave him a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. "It's good to have you back, Duo," the raven-haired Preventer whispered.

The American nodded and asked quietly, "When is the wedding?" Sally, Heero and Wufei stared at him in shock and Duo gesture to the braided woman. They all turned to the sparkling diamond on the braided woman's left ring finger.

Wufei laughed loudly, "Of course. Nothing gets past you." Sally blushed and smiled brightly when he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and announced, "We're to be wed in a couple months."

"Congratulations, both of you," Duo grinned in a sincere, soft voice. His gaze fell towards the door with a confused frown after the happy couple expressed their gratitude for his sentiments.

Without needing his friend to explain what was going through his mind, Heero cut in, "Wufei was going to contact Quatre, Trowa and the others last night when we brought you in." He had hoped that he managed to cover up Duo's lapse.

Shaking his head, Wufei piped in, "That's right." Heero sighed in relief to himself that the other Preventer had not seemed to catch onto the fact that Duo was unusually quiet. "Quatre wanted join us here on Quasar, but we would never be able to get clearance for any other shuttles to dock before we return to Earth," he explained.

With a smirk, he continued, "Trowa and Relena are all but tying him down to keep him from trying to come out here, anyway." Duo chuckled quietly at that, shaking his head.

"As much as they both want to see you right now as well, they understand that rules are rules. They're all looking forward to seeing you in a couple days when we land, and they send their best," Wufei concluded. At that, Duo nodded with a small smile.

Sally decided to speak up at that moment as she suggested, "We should get you set up with your living arrangements for the next couple nights. We're going to be out here in the third Quadrant for a while to see if we can't pick up any radio communications between any other transport ships when they find the remains of the one that was destroyed."

Instantly, Duo looked over to Heero. The Japanese pilot chuckled and told him, "There is a spare bed in my room. You're more than welcome to stay with me if you'd like." The hug that he received almost immediately was his answer enough.

"All right," Sally cut in, her voice filled with command. "Duo' you're not allowed on your feet for more than you need to be the next couple weeks. I'll go find a wheelchair so that Heero can take you to your room."

* * * * * *

After finally getting Duo to grudgingly agree to be taken to the room in a wheelchair, Heero punched the access code to their bedroom. Wheeling his partner inside, he announced, "Well, this is home sweet home for the next couple of days."

Duo's head moved as he took in the large space. There was a sofa on the far left side of the room before a television and DVD system. In the middle of the room, two large beds sat side by side with a small desk with a lamp between with. To the far right, there was a large dresser and a closed door that led to the adjoined bathroom. There was more than enough room to move around and live comfortably.

Carefully, Heero assisted Duo to lie on the soft sofa. Handing him the remote to the television and DVD player, he grinned, "Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to look into getting you some more clothes to last you the next few days. There is a power lock on the door so I am the only one who can get in here."

With a small, `Thank you,' Duo accepted the remote, staring at the television as thought he had never seen one before. With a small smile, Heero moved from the room.

* * * * * *

Not having been gone for more than twenty minutes, the Japanese pilot returned to the room with a pile of clothes and another pair of shoes in his possession. Lowering the clothes on his bed, he looked over to the couch.

Duo was sound asleep, the television still on as the braided pilot laid curled up on his side. Smiling sadly, Heero walked over and carefully ran a hand through his friend's bangs. Since Duo did not jump from the contact, he was obviously exhausted from the events of the last twenty-four hours. Smiling to himself, Heero finished putting away Duo's clothes.

Knowing that there were going to be difficult times ahead, he allowed himself to enjoy this moment of peace.

 

Part 4:

The soft knock on the door stirred Duo from his slumber. His violet eyes blinking open before quickly scanning his surroundings, he took a moment to place himself in the room that he and Heero were sharing on Quasar. Running his sleep-filled eyes, he winced slightly at his protesting muscles that pained him when he pushed himself to sit up on the soft sofa.

It had been longer than he could recall since the last time Duo felt safe enough to sleep so deeply. For years now, any of his rests had been light and were often… interrupted.

Now that he was back in the presence of his best friend, he was amazed at how easy it was for him to fall back into the sense of protection and safety that he always felt when he was with Heero since the end of the wars.

Looking down to his arms, the braided pilot notice that the long sleeves of his red sweater had rolled up in his sleep, revealing the angry puncture wounds left behind by countless syringes that filled his veins with all kinds of serums being tested for new forms of torture.

Taken back to that terrifying time at the sight of those holes, the hallucinations, the unbearable pain racing through him, all of the terrible side effects that went along with those tests, Duo began to tremble almost uncontrollably.

When Duo whimpered, two strong hand suddenly appeared, each rubbing down his arms in a comforting manner. Instinctively, he pulled back in a startled jump, cowering into the far end of the sofa, looking up with wide, frightened violet eyes as he panted. His arms were wrapped around his bend legs pulling them to his chest, ready to be pinned to the floor where his clothes would be torn from him.

Finally, the familiar voice that had been trying to reach him filled his ears as it said in a quiet, gentle manner, "Duo, it's all right. It's me, Heero."

`Heero…' his mind echoed, forcing himself to see clearly, past his fear. Blinking past the tears that threatened to spill, Duo's watery vision soon cleared to take in the very concerned cobalt eyes of his best friend as he watched him.

At the sight of the distress in the same person who once had been so stoic and unable to show any emotion, Duo's heart sank, adding to the swirl of emotions clashing with each other. Looking down at the revealed arms of his partner, the Japanese soldier realized what triggered his trembling before he went to the couch to see what was wrong.

Forcing himself to refrain from becoming emotional, Duo lost the battle as a few tears slipped from his eyes as he whispered brokenly, "Heero… I-I'm sorry."

With his right hand, Heero reached forward and gently wiped the tears from his face as he replied just as quietly, "No need to be sorry, Duo. It's all right."

The soft knock at the door returned, nearly causing Duo to jump from his skin again. He was silently thankful that he managed to keep his urge back. He didn't want to see his friend in pain any more for his initial response to retreat from any sudden sound or movement. This was not like the last couple years, where any hesitation from such changes would be his downfall.

This was not another one of the many slave ships that he had been taken to, Duo reminded himself. There were no guards or temporary owners of him looming in the shadows, waiting to strike him at any moment. He was with Heero now. Heero would keep him safe. His friends had left him for dead, but Heero knew better. Heero would look after him.

Even as he thought this, he watched as Heero moved with caution, slowly reaching forward to lower the long sleeves of his sweater to cover the puncture marks again.

Blinking his surprised eyes at the gesture, Duo thought of just how true Sally had been when she said that Heero had changed in the last couple years that he was away. In these last few hours, he had seen more emotion displayed from the once deemed `Perfect Soldier' than he had in the years that he had known him.

Their eyes met, uncertain violet meeting steadfast cobalt. As if he read the American's prior thoughts and fears, the Japanese Preventer told him with quite but firm resolve, "No harm will come to you as long as I am around, Duo. I swear it."

Duo forced a small smile and gave a small nod. Heero then rose from the couch to go to the door. As he watched him from where he sat, the braided pilot curled up where he sat. When he saw Heero give whoever was on the other side of the door, he relaxed more. Heero wouldn't greet anyone he thought was a threat.

Before returning to the couch, Heero politely asked whoever had knocked if they could wait a moment so he could check on him. Bending at the waist a bit so that their eyes were level, Heero questioned, "Do you remember me mentioning two people who were hoping to see you?"

Instantly, Duo remembered. Kayla. Michael. He nodded enthusiastically. At that, he was relieved to see Heero's own small smile return as he explained, "I went to find them when I gathered some clothes for you. They were wondering if you were up to seeing them."

Not needing a moment to think it over, Duo replied with another nod, "Yes, please." With a reassuring wink that he gave no one other than his braided comrade and a small grin at his response, Heero straightened and went back to the door.

Knowing better than to force himself to stand up before his muscles were ready, Duo waited on the couch, carefully stretching out of his curled position to sit up.

Michael ran into the room, quickly finding the American. He bounded onto the couch and with a small cry, threw his arms around the neck of the young man who saved him as he cheered, "Duo! You're all right!"

Kayla's worried voice called after him, "Michael, please be careful. Duo's very hurt." The blonde woman walked up quickly to the couch, not having expected her son to suddenly bound into the room as he had.

Wincing slightly, Michael pulled back slightly and frowned up at the pilot, "M'sorry, Duo. You hurt real bad?"

Able to chuckle quietly, the braided young man shook his head, "Nah, it's all right, kiddo. It's good to see you both." With that, the boy's wide grin returned and he resumed his embrace.

With his own arms around the excited boy clinging to him, Duo had almost forgotten the discomfort in his joints as his relief in seeing that the child and his mother were safe overwhelmed everything else. At least his sacrifice to protect them had kept them from what he faced.

The young mother approached, her green eyes filled with tears as she bent down brush back the American's long bangs to kiss his forehead tenderly. "Thank you," was all she could manage in a broken whisper. It was all she needed to say.

Duo gave her a watery smile of his own as he patted the open mattress beside him, saying in a small voice, "Anytime." Kayla sat beside him as she wiped her eyes and used her free hand to run her fingers through her son's short brown hair.

Heero stood back a few feet away, watching silently as his own cobalt eyes warmed at the scene. Not wanting to disturb the moment, he stayed back to give them some amount of privacy. When they all had endured together connected them.

For a moment, Heero was about to step from the room when Duo's violet eyes met his own, pleading for him to stay where his voice could not. At that, he kept his ground.

Michael pulled back to beam brilliantly up at his hero as he announced excitedly, "Duo, Momma and I are going to have a real home!"

"That's right," Kayla nodded with a bright smile of her own. "The Preventers have located a place where we can stay and a place where I can work on Colony L8." Turning to Heero, she stated, "Your friend, Wufei, and the others who are working here helped place all of us who you saved."

Relieved to hear that all of the rescued captives were already placed where they would be able to work and live already, Heero gave a small smirk and shrugged nonchalantly, "That's was part of out job when we came out here. Congratulations."

Kayla shook her head in amusement and chuckled, "Humility must be part of the training for all of you Preventers. The three of you are all the same that way."

Climbing into his mother's lap, Michael continued to look up to the American as he asked, "Will you come and visit us, Duo? Momma said you and Mister He-Heero can come any time."

Heero chuckled to himself at how the youth had a hard time with his name. At the question in his partner's eyes when he looked to him again, he nodded.

With a small grin, Duo rubbed the top of his head as he answered, "Sure, we'll come and visit you." The boy laughed at the hand mussing his hair.

After giving the American an embrace of her own and rising from the couch with her son in her arms, Kayla told him, "Come along, Michael. Duo needs his rest now. We'll see him again before we have to leave the ship. And he promised to visit us after that."

Michael sighed, "Okay, Momma." He looked over the young woman's shoulder and waved, "Bye, Duo. Get better."

Waving back, the braided pilot replied, "Bye, Michael. I'll see you again soon. Take care of your momma, okay?" At the child's nod, he gave a small grin.

Heero walked them to the door as it slid open before them. to his surprise, Kayla leaned in to give him a kiss on the cheek before whispering, "Thank you for everything, Heero. I don't even want to imagine what would have happened to us if you and the other Preventers hadn't come to free us. Take care of Duo and please don't be a stranger."

After blinking the surprise from his cobalt eyes on account of the sudden peck on his cheek, Heero offered her a nod and replied sincerely, "Of course."

Satisfied with that, the young mother smiled and stepped from the room. Before they left, Michael smiled back at him, Bye, Mister Heero."

"Bye, Michael," the Japanese pilot replied, a small smile on his face as the door slid closed again. Stepping back, Heero made his way to the small refrigerator and microwave stacked in the opposite corner.

As he began unwrapping the foil from food that he had kept cool while Duo slept, Heero commented, "He's a good kid." When there was no response, he looked back to see that his best friend was staring ahead at nothing in particular.

Chastising himself for bringing up something that would only bring up painful memories, Heero placed the items on a plate before placing it in the microwave.

The microwave beeped off a moment later and the young pilot removed the plate again. Using his tray, he walked the food over to his best friend as he seemed to come out of his daze. When their eyes met again, he said, "You must be starving by now. I found some of your favorites in the cafeteria."

As the tray was set over his lap, Duo looked to the couple slices of pizza, the tall glass of milk and several pieces of his favorite fruits and vegetables. While it was not a large meal as not to make his stomach fill to the point of becoming ill, it was like a feats compared to what he was offered while in captivity.

"Thank you," he said quietly before beginning to nibble at his meal, being careful not to eat too quickly. As he sat and watched quietly, Heero smiled inwardly in knowing that his partner was finally going to get the nourishment he needed to fill out his too thin frame.

One step at a time, Heero was bound and determined to see that Duo recovered from his experience. Eventually, he would have to breech the topic with his friend of what had happened to him, but that would come in time in order to now how to better help him. But for now, he was just going to take baby steps before crossing that bridge.

* * * * * *

When it was growing late, Heero stretched as he rose from the couch, where he and Duo had been sitting watching a few movies. The other pilot brought his hand up to his mouth as he yawned widely. "Yes," Heero smirked. "Guess it's about time for bed, ne?"

At the affirmative grunt from the American, Heero assisted him in removing his sweater. Giving Duo his new pair of flannel pants to sleep in, he crossed the room to change into his own pair of sweat pants. He pulled back the blankets from both beds before he returned after giving his partner his privacy to change and asked, "Ready?"

Duo nodded, his eyes gazing on the large beds on the other side of the room. Following his gaze, Heero wondered what it was that seemed to concern his friend. Quickly realizing what was making him so worried, the Japanese Preventer smiled.

Without a word, Heero lifted the braided pilot into his arms and carried him over to the beds. Carefully lowering Duo onto the bed, he moved to the other side and climbed in with him.

Seeing the shock in his friend's eyes that faded when he gave a small, relieved smile, Heero knew that he read him correctly. Even in his sleep, Duo needed to know somehow that he wasn't alone. if that was what he wanted, Heero would see to that.

As Heero pulled the blankets over them, Duo snuggled up close beside him, sighing deeply as his eyes closed. Reaching over him to turn the light out, the unruly-haired pilot settled down, himself as he whispered, "Good night, Duo."

"Good night," came Duo's soft response in the darkness. When his comrade's breath was evened in testimony that he was asleep, Heero finally put his guard to rest and allowed sleep to claim him as well after getting up as close to the other Preventer as he could.

* * * * * *

"And you tell me that I go too far in instigating more torture from the guards," Duo frowned as he assisted Heero in sitting up from where he fell roughly when the men who took him to be interrogated threw him back into the cell.

Grunting with the effort of just sitting up after all the blows he was dealt, Heero replied in a strained voice, "Baka."

As he tried to examine his friend's bruises while avoiding his waving hands moving in attempt to keep him away, Duo snorted, "I'll bet you call every best friend of yours `baka.' So sue me for trying to make you laugh."

Giving up in trying to keep the other pilot from examining him, Heero lowered his arms and sighed deeply, "I need to lay down. I'm getting dizzy sitting up like this."

With his partner's help, he lowered slowly back down to lie on his back. He closed his eyes to the spinning room and allowed Duo to look over his injuries. Occasionally, he heard the braided soldier hiss at something that he found, or he would curse deeply.

The sound of ripping clothes brought Heero's cobalt eyes to snap open again. He watched as Duo pulled apart his navy fleece overall with his hands and teeth. Removing a few long strips of cloth, he moved to wrap the cloth around the open gashes on the Japanese teenager's left leg and right arm.

For some reason that he couldn't explain, Heero felt a swell of guilt at seeing his partner ripping apart what he knew to be Duo's favorite fleece that served as his windbreaker. He hadn't acted any differently than he had in any other similar situation when it came to looking after Heero in such a manner. But somehow, this time, it hit a different nerve in the stoic pilot.

When Duo finished with seeing that the bleeding had stopped, he looked up to his friend's cobalt in shock when he said quietly, "Arigato, Duo."

Shrugging with a grin at the uncharacteristic expression of gratitude for his efforts, Duo replied simply, "What are friends for?"

His braided head tilted to the side a bit as he asked, "You sure they didn't do any more damage to your head? You don't normally thank me for doing things that I would do naturally." Thinking it over a moment, he added, "Actually, I can't remember the last time you ever thanked me for anything."

For a moment, Heero had to think about and soon realized that his friend was right. he never did thank him for anything. Something about that… hurt.

Anytime he needed any assistance, whether he was willing to admit it or not, Duo was always there and helped without any need for appreciation. By now, after all their time together, Heero thought that he should have expressed some sign of gratitude… some sign of sincere emotion.

A deep frown on his face, Heero looked up to his friend and said at last, quietly, "You're right… Gomen, Duo." His voice was filled with a sincerity that he never knew he was capable of taping into. He was truly sorry for never saying two simple words as `Thank you.'

The bright smile that Duo rewarded him with nearly took Heero's breath away. This smile actually reached his partner's violet eyes, almost making them glow in the dim light of the cell. His hand reached out to squeeze Heero's as he replied in a soft voice, "It's all right, Heero."

Duo lowered himself to lie next to his comrade as they just looked up to the ceiling in silence. For a long time, neither spoke.

For Duo's part, he was still reeling from the fact that he actually saw a glimpse of the human behind the soldier that he had known for years. Heero was reflecting his own life, things that he neglected to pick up on before that were now suddenly all too clear.

Breaking the silence at last, the Japanese Preventer's voice began quietly, "Duo?"

Without looking over to the other pilot, the braided American continued to look to the ceiling and asked, "Yes, Heero."

"Are we really friends?" the other soldier asked, almost hesitantly.

Duo frowned in concern as he sat up at that question, turning to meet his partner's cobalt gaze that was watching him. "Of course, we're friends," he replied. "What makes you ask that?"

His dizziness subsided, Heero sat up, never taking his eyes from the violet orbs. "I thought that friends did things for each other equally," he tried to explain, not really understanding such a notion as friendship other than what he read and researched.

Noting the confusion on the other pilot's face, Heero continued, "After all this time that we've known each other, I've only now realized how one-sided things have been between us." He pushed himself up the rest of the way to sit before his comrade.

"You would drop anything to help me out, and while I may have done things to assist you when you needed it, I never so much as thanked you for anything you did. So, how can you really consider me a friend?"

The confused look on Duo's face faded as he chuckled deeply. Now it was Heero's turn to look perplexed. "That's not how friends work, Heero," the American smiled.

"Friends don't keep count of the times their aid is returned or recognized. I do what I do because I want to. That's friendship." His smile never losing its warmth, Duo continued, "Besides, you just proved the Silver Lining Theory."

Raising an eyebrow, Heero frowned, "The what?"

Duo laughed quietly and shook his head. "Well, to make a long story short, someone who I considered a mother when I was a really young little pain in the ass taught me the theory."

His violet eyes gazed off , his grin fading a bit as he seemed to stare off wistfully and said, "She told me that no matter how dark or grim a situation may be, there is a silver lining beyond every challenge. Problems were things that she never believed in, but challenges were because they can be overcome.

"Most people give up before they ever get to see the silver lining, she would say. So, she taught me to never lose sight of the fact that there is no challenge that can not be overcome," Duo clarified as he looked back to his friend. "That's the Silver Lining Theory."

Taking in everything that he had said, really listening to his partner for the first time that he could remember, Heero nodded after a long pause. "What was it about me that you used that theory on?"

It was a long time before Duo felt comfortable enough to answer. Taking a deep breath, he sighed, "During the wars, there was a time when I was convinced, like so many others, that you were almost… inhuman." He winced at the quick flash of pain that surged through Heero's eyes. It pained him to have to admit that to him.

Turning his head away, Heero said quietly, "I see." He shouldn't have been surprised. Thanks to his training, Heero knew that he was… different.

Cold. Emotionless. He head heard them all used to describe him, and worse. While it did bother him in some small degree, it distressed him more than he thought it would to knew that Duo had thought the same of him before. Somehow, he always thought that Duo was different from everyone else when it came to understanding him.

A hand rested on his shoulder, squeezing it as Duo pleaded quietly, "Heero, look at me. Please." With a deep breath, he turned to meet the braided pilot's saddened gaze. "I did think that way, once. That was until I remembered the theory that I had been taught."

Duo gave a small smirk and shrugged, "Why do you think I was so insistent on hanging around you, talking up a storm to open up a conversation, making a damn near fool out of myself trying to get you to smile?

"I knew that somewhere under all of the training and conditioning was a person who was just as frightened as I was when it came to the wars. I never gave up on the fact that, while everyone else was certain there was no hope of getting you past your walls, you just needed someone to make a little incision so that you could start letting them down."

Taking a chance, Duo reached a hand up to cup Heero's cheek. Initially wanting to pull away, the other Preventer only slightly flinched before allowing the comforting gesture, surprised at how nice such a simple thing of a hand on his cheek could feel so good.

With their eyes still locked, Duo smiled and whispered, "That was the silver lining that I never lost sight of. You helped prove that I was right in seeing what no one else did tonight."

Heero blinked in surprise, Duo's hand still cupping the side of his face for a moment before it lowered at last. Somehow, it almost did feel as thought something inside of him was only beginning to open.

Pushing past all else, the stoic Preventer allowed himself to smile, a real smile that he never felt on his own face before. At the small gasp and the wide violet eyes watching him, he knew he did the right thing.

"Thank you, Duo," Heero whispered at last, his smile still in place. "…Thank you for being my best friend." At that, the braided pilot's own brilliant smile returned. Trying to think of a way to show how much he appreciated what Duo had given him, Heero tilted his head a bit and asked, "Who was she? Tell me about your past?"

Not needing to know the `she' that his partner was referring to, Duo smiled sadly in a bittersweet manner. As much as it pained him to think back to the people that he loved and lost, it was touching that Heero actually cared enough to know more about him. "Well, before I met sister Helen," he began with a small sigh, "I was living off the streets of L2…"

* * * * * *

Unable to stay asleep for long, Heero had thought back to that fateful night. From that time on, he had never felt more cared for in knowing that someone gave him as much of a chance as Duo had. He never forgot the Silver Lining Theory that Sister Helen had taught his best friend. It was what kept him from giving up his search for him the last couple years.

It would be morning soon, Heero's internal clock told him since there was no sunlight out this far in space to assist him in knowing the time. A thought came to his mind, bringing a small smile to his face. Carefully moving up from the bed as not to disturb the sleeping form beside him, Heero walked over to the dresser.

The sound of fabric tearing woke Duo, his eyes blinking open. Seeing that Heero was no longer beside him, he sat up, searching the room. He soon saw the bare back of the other pilot. When he returned to the bed, Heero had two long strips of green fabric. "It was about time I lost that shirt," he smirked. "I don't need the reminder anymore, anyway."

Duo gasped with wide eyes, knowing that Heero always held onto his green tank top from the wars as a reminded to put the past behind him. He had just ripped it to shreds. Before he could find his voice to ask what he was doing, the braided pilot's bare arms were wrapped at the elbows with the cloth. Heero moved with the same effectiveness he always had with any mission.

Heero was finished soon, leaving enough room to allow Duo to bend his elbows without difficulty but securing the wraps enough to keep from sliding down and revealing the terrible puncture wounds. "There," he said when he was done, a small smirk on his face.

With awe on his face, Duo looked down to his arms, testing out the mobility of his elbows. When he looked back up to Heero, his eyes were filled with small tears and a hint of his real smile was back. The realization in those eyes told Heero that he also recalled the night that he had torn his favorite fleece to cover his wounds. Duo threw his arms tightly around his partner's neck as he whispered brokenly, "Thank you... my best friend."

* * * * * *

Two nights later, Heero entered the communication room of Quasar. Wufei was waving him over to meet him at his station. When his partner stood before him, the Chinese pilot announced to him, "We just received a clearance from Lady Une. We will be landing on the Earth in the morning."

 

Part 5:

"I was hoping that we would be able to keep it a surprise," Quatre's image on the vid screen frowned in disappointment. "Duo always loved surprises."

A frown fell on Heero's own face at the thought of how different things were going to be following the rescue of their braided friend. "I know that you all mean well, Quatre," he began quietly, sincerely. "But I don't think that he is quite ready for a surprise. He's… been through a lot."

Recalling a time when Duo had told him that he hated being the bearer of bad news to the Arabian because his sad face could tear a person apart, Heero now had to agree with the sentiment.

"Besides," he reassured the other, "it won't matter to Duo how he finds out what you're planning, just the fact that you're planning it at all will mean the world to him."

Finally, the Arab's small smile returned as he replied, "All right. You can tell him in advance, then. Sally and Wufei will be able to make it back to the house to let us in before Duo's debriefing is finished."

Inwardly cringing at the word `debriefing,' the Japanese Preventer was forced to remember the procedure that Duo would have to face before he could be released from headquarters. Duo would have to be questioned about what had happened to him while he was in captivity. It was protocol in these type of rescues.

Heero forced those thoughts from his head, Heero nodded, "Okay. I'll give them the keys to the house before they leave. Lady Une will be joining them as well."

At that, Quatre's smile grew at the surprising announcement. "She's more than welcome," he grinned. "We'll see you both in a few hours, then." Before he cut off the connection, the blonde Arab said quietly, "Heero... thank you for proving me wrong before."

The screen then went black as Quatre cut off his end of the connection. Heero just smirked at the monitor a moment as he chuckled deeply. Closing the portable video phone, he heard the bathroom door open. Duo stepped out into the room, dressed in a pair of grey sweatpants and a simple black T-shirt as he toweled his damp hair following his shower.

His elbows were covered by the wraps that Heero had made from his infamous green tank from the wars once again. Something about seeing that his shirt had gone to such a user actually warmed the once named `Perfect Soldier.' His violet eyes met Heero's when his partner turned back to face him from the table where he had been sitting.

To the unspoken question in his friend's eyes, Heero gestured to the closed video phone, "That was Quatre, sending his best." Duo nodded and walked over to sit on the bed that the two of them had been sharing for the last few nights.

As Duo continued to towel dry his hair, Heero turned completely in his seat to face him as he told him, "Quatre, Trowa and a few others wanted to see you tonight. They and a few others are going to be at the house when we arrive."

Lowering the towel, Duo blinked his eyes in confusion and asked, "Did they want you to tell me about it before hand?"

The other pilot shook his head and admitted, "They wanted it to be a surprise, but considering, I didn't think that would have been a good idea." He smirked, "He finally relented and let me tell you about it before we got there."

Duo gave him a small smile and replied quietly, "Thanks." With that, he closed his eyes and returned to drying his hair.

Sighing to himself, Heero was relieved to know that he handled the situation correctly. In knowing how jumpy his comrade was at any sudden noise, he couldn't imagine several people rushing towards him as they stepped into the house going over very well.

When the long-haired Preventer lowered the towel to reach for the brush on the small table on the other side of the bed, Heero asked softly, "May I?"

Brush in one hand, Duo faced him. Slowly, a smile crept on his face and he nodded. With a small smile of his own, Heero moved to sit behind his friend as he took the brush that was handed to him. Carefully, he spread the long locks of hair across his partner's back.

Hands that were able to kill without the assistance of a weapon and bend metal worked with a gentleness as they parted and brushed out the knots from the lengthy hair. After a long silence between them, Duo whispered, "I… I was afraid that they would cut it."

Pausing in his brushing, Heero bit his lip before replying just as quietly, "I'm glad that they didn't. I know how much your hair means to you, not to mention that I really like your hair like this." He froze for a moment, his cobalt eyes wide that he actually admitted that last part out loud.

Quickly, Heero resumed brushing Duo's hair, hoping that he had not paid much attention to the last part. The fact that there was no reaction from the other pilot was proof enough that Duo was lost in his own thoughts and missed the admission.

Finished brushing out all of the knots, Heero parted the long strands into three parts. With experience from the wars in having to aid Duo with his hair before, the Japanese Preventer easily braided the parts together. Tying the end of the braid with a rubber band that been sitting beside him, he told the other, "Finished."

Duo came back to life then, his eyes opening after he nearly fell asleep from the soothing sensation of having his hair cared for. He smiled his gratitude as he looked over his shoulder.

A woman's voice announced over the com, "Attention. Quasar has been granted permission to dock. We will be landing on the Earth in five minutes." With that, Heero and Duo moved to change into jeans and sneakers as they gathered their belongings.

* * * * * *

Sally sighed deeply as she asked, "Are you sure? You know that Lady Une would understand if you wanted to wait some time before having to do this. She would be more than happy to pull strings and throw protocol out the window for you. No matter how old you, Heero or Wufei get, she'll always consider you her `boys.'"

Stepping forward, Heero added, "Neither of us would think any less of you if you wanted to give it some time."

Duo bit his lower lip, sitting at the lone table in the center of the small conference room, his two friends standing across from him. He did take a moment to reconsider, finally he replied quietly, "I just… want to get this over with."

With a deep breath, Heero exhaled slowly before speaking again. Turning to Sally, he suggested, "We should tell the others that we'll have to postpone the gathering that they had planned." A deep frown of concern for the braided pilot on her face, the young woman nodded her agreement.

Again, Duo intervened as he shook his head, "No, it shouldn't take long. I-I'd really like to see everyone when we get home."

Heero couldn't deny him such a request. With a small smile of reassurance, he nodded, "All right, Duo. We'll get this out of the way, then." Even Sally put own concern aside as she gave a small grin.

"Just not here," the American pleaded quietly. Looking around the small, white-walled room, he rubbed his upper arms in a nervous gesture. Heero understood immediately the reason for his anxiousness. The cell that he found Duo was in many ways very similar to the space they were in.

When Duo looked up and their eyes met, the silent question was clear to the Japanese Preventer. "Just the two of us," he promised. "We can take care of this in our office."

At the surprise in Duo's widened eyes at the words `our office,' Sally chuckled deeply, "Heero refused to let anyone else take your place in the office that you shared. All this time, he kept your desk clean and just as it was the last time you saw it." His head somewhat lowered in embarrassment, Heero shrugged.

Walking around the table, the braided woman bent down to place a soft kiss on Duo's head, causing him to blush slightly. "We'll be waiting for you back at the house, then," she told him in a gentle voice with a warm smile.

"Thanks, Sally," Duo replied with a slight blush. On her way out of the room, Sally squeezed Heero's shoulder for his own reassurance.

Once they were alone again, Duo's legs began their nervous bouncing as he looked down at the table. As anxious as he was to get this out of the way, he had been dreading having to relive his experience. He jumped slightly when a hand fell gently on his shoulder.

Their eyes met, Heero was peering down at him with a lop-sided grin as he asked, "Ready to get this over with?" Nodding his answer, Duo rose from his seat.

* * * * * *

Stepping into the office, Duo's eyes widened when Heero turned the light on. Sally certainly had not been kidding when she said that his space was exactly how it was when he left it. Heero just watched as his partner walked over to his deck, running his fingers over the leather seat.

The American's violet gaze spanned over the photo frames and knickknacks that he kept. Duo wiped at his shimmering eyes as he sniffed, overwhelmed at how at his belongings were treated with such care. Everything was kept clean, not a speck of dust touching any of his things.

Picking up the silver frame that held his favorite picture, he gazed at the image taken during the Eve Wars. It was a group shot of the five Gundam pilots, the only photograph that Heero agreed to be in, that he was aware of. It was taken on Peace Million in the hanger, the heads of the Gundam pilots lined up behind where the five pilots stood on the balcony.

After closing the door, Heero said quietly, "I knew that you would be back, so someone had to take care of your things." He was rewarded with a watery smile that spoke volumes of the appreciation from his best friend. Heero looked forward to the day when the spark in those violet eyes lit up with his smile again.

Retrieving the recorder from inside his own desk, the Japanese Preventer checked to see that the digital CD was at the beginning before walking to the round table in the center of the room. Taking a seat there, he lowered the recorder onto the table surface.

Duo stiffened as he gazed at the small device. Forcing his legs to work, he moved to take the seat next to his best friend, their chairs pulled out so they could face each other. Heero leaned forward, resting a hand on his nervous partner's bouncing knee with a concerned frown. "We can still hold off on this if you want," he said quietly.

Having to force himself not to jitter so much in his seat, Duo took a deep breath and shook his head as he whispered, "I… I don't think that I'll go through with it if I put this off."

Something hurt inside Heero when he heard that. Resolve in his cobalt eyes, he nodded firmly and squeezed his partner's knee. It was the best response that he could give, not sure that he could trust his voice just then.

Getting right to business, as he knew his friend wanted, he pressed the record button and began, "This is the testimony of Duo Maxwell, following the recovery of ninety-seven prisoners from the White Out Organization. The day is May twenty-eighth after Colony 200."

With a deep breath, Heero met his partner's eyes as he asked, "Duo, we'll just start from the beginning. How is you end up in the captivity of the White Out Organization?"

* * * * * *

Time was not a factor in Duo's mind as he answered the questions asked of him. As if in a trance, the braided pilot just told the recorder what he knew, leaving out the worst of the details for his own sanity. Even the answers that he was able to give were difficult enough. The details would just have to be kept out, all that Lady Une wanted was the basic knowledge of what he knew of the organization the Preventers were now after.

Duo knew that he was crying when the questions became more difficult. Were you raped? Were you ever used to test serums against your will? Were there any other prisoners who were killed? Those questions were met with simple `yes' and `no' responses. Even then, it was a challenge to get through.

Staring ahead at nothing in particular, Duo was not aware that Heero had stopped the recorded as a mark that the interview was over. Only when his best friend suddenly appeared before him did the American blink his shimmering eyes to return to the present. To his surprise, Duo realized that the other Preventer looked as though he was holding back his own tears as he knelt before him.

Reaching out to his partner, Heero whispered, "Come here." At that, Duo fell into his embrace, sobbing quietly into his shoulder. Rubbing his hand down the trembling pilot's back in soothing circles, Heero rested head on Duo's shoulder as he said quietly in his ear, "You got through it."

As they just clung onto each other, Heero's mind was still processing everything that he had learned. It was one thing to understand some of what Duo had gone through, but to know that there was much more to it that couldn't be mentioned was as enraging as it was terrifying.

Now Heero knew that the rebels that held the two of them before their escape were actually accomplices to the White Out Organization. They were just holding the two Preventers until their transport ship came to gather them.

Heero would have shared the same fate as his partner, had Duo not made him leave his side when he was hurt. Instead, the braided pilot was taken back into the hands of their enemies and taken from the Colony before Heero and his team made it back to search for him.

There was an overwhelming surge of guilt that joined the many conflicting emotions that the Japanese Preventer was struggling to grip as he held Duo, the other pilot still trembling against him…

He never should have left him, he should have insisted that they both continue onto the site where the rescue team would pick them up. Instead, he left and the only person that he ever considered as more than just a comrade in arms was thrown to the wolves. It was a guilt that he knew he would carry with him for a very long time.

When Duo stopped shaking, Heero stayed knelt before him as the American forced himself to sit up again, wiping at the tears that streaked his face. At the emptiness in those violet eyes watching him, Heero decided to put his own inner demons to rest to focus on the mission that he had set for himself.

Giving him a small, reassuring smile, Heero reached up to cup his partner's cheek as he brushed a few more tears away with his thumb as he asked softly, "Are you all right?"

Duo took a deep, unsteady breath, and nodded as he all but whispered back, "I think so." Rubbing his upper arms anxiously, he gazed out the large windows of their office. With it now being mid-afternoon, the sun was still high in the clear sky as it brightened the lively city below.

"Can we go home now?" the braided pilot asked brokenly.

His own smile growing, Heero answered, "Of course." He rose from the floor, taking one of Duo's hands in his as he helped him up from the chair.

Once they were both on their feet, Heero pulled the other into a full, tight embrace and kissed the top of his friend's braided head. The smile he was rewarded with was one of gratitude, though still not quite breaking the emptiness in those violet eyes.

With his free hand, the Japanese Preventer gathered the recorder, placing it in the pocket of his light jean coat. "I'll make sure that this goes straight into Lady Une's hands. She'll see that no one else ever hears this," he promised Duo at the look of concern on his face as he looked to the pocket holding the recorder. The tension in Duo's shoulders faded as he nodded once in appreciation that his unvoiced fears were understood.

As they moved from towards the door, Heero noted that Duo's grip on his hand was still pretty tight, still in need of his reassurance, so he did not move to break from the grasp. He broke apart from his partner once, he wasn't about to make the same mistake it again.

* * * * * *

Removing the keys from the ignition, Heero looked over to his friend beside him. Duo's violet eyes were glued onto the white-sided house that there shared along the shoreline. "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," the American breathed after a long silence between them.

Heero chuckled deeply, reaching over and robbed the back of his braided head as he said, "Welcome back home." Their eyes met as they smiled to each other. Finally, they both opened their doors to step out of the car.

After the car ride back from headquarters, the sun was just beginning to set. The array of colors that spread across the clear sky into the horizon over the ocean made a breathtaking sight.

There had been many a morning and evening that Duo recalled sitting on the back front porch, in the swing seat that he had installed there, watching a sunset just like this. The realization that he was finally going to be able to do that again was almost too overwhelming.

"I've been watching the sunsets a lot these last couple years," Heero's voice broke through his thoughts, startling him. Blinking in shock, Duo processed the words that he just heard. Heero never took the time to sit and watch a sunset all the while they lived together, try as he might to get him to appreciate it.

As if to answer the questions in his mind, Duo watched as the other Preventer looked over his shoulder to meet his eyes as he stated, "You were right, they can be amazing. If the invitation is still open, I'd like to watch more with you."

Quickly putting his shock aside, Duo nodded with a small grin as he replied sincerely, "I'd like that." The young man that he once knew to have a hard time showing any emotion on his features graced him with a bright smile that said all that needed to be said. Wonders never ceased, he thought to himself. He was looking forward to learning more of his best friend's changes while he was gone.

While they walked to the front of the house, Heero noted how Duo walked very closely behind him, their shoulders almost touching. When he thought about it, he recalled that ever since the other pilot had been rescued, he tended to stay as close as possible to him whenever possible.

Reaching the steps of the front porch Duo froze, looking up to the front door nervously. At the concern in his partner's cobalt eyes, he frowned and took the end of his braid to fiddle with it as he asked, "How do I look?"

Another warm smile spread on Heero's face as he cupped the side of the American's cheek. The cut and bruise on Duo's face head nearly healed completely, only a slight discoloration was left where the large mark had been and the cut was a very thin line now.

Shaking his head, the Japanese Preventer chuckled deeply, "Duo, they haven't seen you in over two years. Despite the fact that you look fine, I'm sure that they could really care less right now if your hair is just right or any detail like that."

Put that way, even Duo had to snicker as he grinned in embarrassment. Straightening himself a bit, he nodded firmly and announced quietly, "Okay. I think I'm ready now." Heero returned the firm nod before leading him up the porch steps.

When he opened the door, Heero peeked in first to see that there was not a mob waiting to ambush his skittish friend. Relieved to see that the entrance of the house was clear, he stepped inside, Duo right behind him as his violet eyes gazed around the familiar entryway. Taking hold of Duo's hand, Heero squeezed it in support as he led them to the living room.

Sitting on the furnishings and on the floor when there was no room to hold all of them, their friends waited together, talking quietly amongst themselves. Clearing his throat as he stood in the doorway, Heero smiled at the faces that turned quickly to face him. Duo stepped out from behind him, slowly, as he peered into the room.

At his appearance, there were many sharp gasps, some strangled sobs and many whispers. Quatre was the first from his seat on the floor, almost tackling the reunited pilot as he threw his arms around him, crying, "Duo!"

Unable to hold back his own tears at hearing the distress in the Arab's voice, Duo closed his eyes as he hugged him back as tight as he could without aggravating his recovering muscles.

"Hey, Quat," was all he could manage in a broken whisper. Pulling back to allow the others a chance to see him, Quatre was absolutely beaming in joy through his tears as he wiped at his eyes.

Trowa was the next to step up, his emerald eyes shimmering the slightest bit as he pulled Duo into a tight hug. Kissing the top of his head, he whispered, "Welcome back, little brother."

With a small laugh, Duo sniffed and replied softly, "Thanks, Trowa." When they separated, his eyes widened at the young woman necxk in line. "Relena? But, I thought there was a meeting…"

Shaking her head, with a wide smile and tears running down her face, Relena wrapped him in her arms tightly. Kissing him on the lips in a friendly gesture answering quietly, "This is far more important than any government meeting." She cupped the sides of his face in her hands as she whimpered, "It's so good to have you home again."

Lady Une, Dorothy, Hilde and even Catherine all made their own tearful reunions with their long lost friend. Sally and Wufei helped settled everyone down again after they were all satisfied that they got to reunite with Duo.

There were only a couple times when Sally had to remind the others to be careful when hugging him too tightly on account of his injuries. All the while, Heero stood with his back leaning against the living room doorway as he watched the emotional gathering.

Once everyone had their seats again, Duo given a place on one of the couches surrounded by everyone, Dorothy rose from her place and suggested, "Why don't a few of us start getting the food that we brought out so we can start serving dinner?"

With nods of agreement, Catherine, Relena and Hilde stood and followed her to the kitchen. The former Gundam pilots remained close to their braided friend, still in shock that he was in fact alive and among them again.

"You and Relena? A baby?" Heero heard Duo gasp. He chuckled deeply, knowing all too well that he had the same reaction to the news that he had been informed. Indeed, he found his partner's violet eyes wide and staring at Quatre with his mouth open.

Laughing as he pointed at the American, the blonde pilot said, "That's exactly how Heero looked when I told him."

As their conversation continued, Heero saw that Lady Une was watching him. Seeing the gesture to front door with a quick movement from his head, she took the signal and rose from the recliner. Before following her outside, Heero saw the fear in Duo's eyes in realization that he was leaving. `I'll be right back,' he mouthed. His friend seemed to relax at that as he nodded.

Lady Une was standing at the far right end of the front deck outside when Heero joined her. With her arms wrapped around her waist, she asked, "Was he able to act as a witness?"

Instead of answering with words, the Japanese Preventer handed her the recorder. Sighing deeply, the young woman closed her brown eyes in relief and dread at the same time. She placed the recorder in the pocket of her suit jacket, seeing to it that no one else got their hands on it.

Heero's back was to her as he looked out to the ocean, the wind blowing his unruly hair. His voice deep and threatening, he stated clearly in a deep growl, "I want the bastards that did this to him," Lady Une's eyes opened as he turned back to face her. "I want them all," he hissed quietly.

With a sly smirk filled with her own need for revenge, his Commander nodded firmly. Her voice smooth as silk, she replied, "Oh, and you will have them. I'll see to that."

"Make sure that you save some of them for us, then," a familiar voice spoke up from behind them.

As he spun, Heero's cobalt eyes widened at the two people leaning against the banister of the patio… The same two people that he had not seen in several months who seemed to appear form nowhere. "Noin… Zechs…"

 

Part 6:

Ever since Zechs and Noin had left for Mars after the Mariemaya incident, their visits to the Earth had been few and far between. They would still take the time to make appearances at holiday gatherings, but that was about the extent of it. It was rare to see them for more than twice a year, months apart from their visits. Of course, Relena heard more from them than any of the others when they were away.

When Duo had vanished, Heero recalled the now married couple expressing great interest in following up in how the search was progressing. It had been a satisfying wonder to think that two people who he once considered his enemies were suddenly showing their concern for the braided pilot's wellbeing.

Like all the others, however, they did fear the worst in that Duo had died. Their aid in the search had ended. Regardless of their belief that any further hunt would be futile, there was no doubt on Heero's mind that they wished there was a better course of action. Still, it was quite a shock to see the two of them appear, seemingly out of nowhere, on the steps of his patio.

As they pushed themselves from the banisters of the front deck that they had been leaning against, Zechs and Noin approached the stunned pair standing by the porch swing. Heero shook his head slightly, snapping back to the present and gave them both a small smile.

Lady Une also broke out a smirk of her own as she broke the silence to chuckle deeply, "Well this is a pleasant surprise." She stepped forward first, embracing the two as they replied in kind, small and relieved smile of their own in place.

Once they had finished their greeting, Heero stepped forward, extending his hand to Zechs as he smirked, "Good to see you both. I never would have thought to see you here tonight, as busy as you are with your projects on Mars."

With a firm nod, Zechs clasped hands with him as he replied, "We came as soon as Relena told us that you had found Duo." Releasing their hands, the tall blonde continued, "We have matters of business to discuss with both of you, but that can wait until tomorrow."

Noin came forward to embrace the Japanese Preventer as she told him, "Mars will still be were it has always been, we wanted to be here for this." Heero returned the tight hug as she commented, "I hope that it is all right that we came unannounced."

When they pulled back, Heero shook his head and reassured them, "You're always welcome here. I know Duo will appreciate seeing the both of you."

Even as he mentioned his best friend's name, his smile faded to show his concern as he looked to the front door of the house. "Actually, I better go back in to see how he is." As he opened the door, he looked back at the others and invited them in after him.

Finding the living room empty, Heero walked back down the hall towards the kitchen. The familiar voices from within floated back to reveal the location of their friends. Instead of finding Duo along with the others, the braided pilot was out in the hallway, running his arms as he paced before the kitchen door.

When he heard Heero approaching, he looked up, his violet eyes filling with relief at the sight of his friend as he approached. Wincing inwardly, the Japanese Preventer remembered how he promised he would return from right away. He had been hoping that being around their friends would put some of his nerves at ease, but that obviously was not the case.

Duo walked up to him quickly, his shoulders relaxing when they were close again. His braided head tilted at the mischievous smirk on the other young man's face. "We have some late arrivals," Heero explained as he stepped back slightly.

His violet eyes widening, Duo gasped sharply at the sight of the pair approaching him. Both Noin and Zechs smiled warmly at him, the young woman chuckling at his shocked expression. The surprise faded quickly as a wide grin spread on the American's face as he was embraced by both of the newcomers tightly.

When she pulled back, Noin kissed the top of Duo's head and whispered brokenly, "It's so good to see you again. We were hoping that somehow Heero would find you." She wiped at her eyes and stepped back.

Zechs squeezed the young man's shoulder and nodded, "When we heard that you were missing, it… effected both of us. Regardless of what happened the Eve Wars, you Gundam pilots became our family."

As Duo blinked up at them in wonder, Heero spoke up to explain, "Zechs and Noin kept in touch regularly to follow up on the progress of the search for you. Any way they could, they offered their assistance." His best friend took a deep breath and nodded, lowering his gaze slightly, as if uncertain of what to say.

Gesturing toward the kitchen door, Heero offered, "Our friends all brought their own dishes for dinner and dessert. You're more than welcome to join us."

With replied of thanks, Noin and Zechs walked past them into the kitchen with Noin behind them. Placing his hand on the small of Duo's back, Heero gently led him into the kitchen.

In the large room that also expanded into the dining room, their friends were reuniting with Zechs and Noin excitedly. Relena's arms were already around her brother's neck as she stood on her toes, seeming to be one of the last to greet the couple. When their hug ended, Zechs kissed the top of the young woman's head and smiled.

Quatre bit his lip nervously behind Relena as he waved nervously, "Good to see you, Zechs." He finished with a nervous chuckle.

Sighing deeply, Zechs nodded, "Winner." The tension in the room was intense and thick as everyone watched from where they sat at the large dining room table with their plates of food.

Relena walked to stand beside the Arabian, taking his hand in hers as she glared at her brother and warned, "Zechs, you said that you would be nice. Quatre is the father of your nephew or niece, after all. In seven more months, it would be nice to bring them into the world with a happy family."

Unable to play the perturbed, overprotective brother any longer, Zechs laughed loudly, his head falling back. Quatre all but collapsed as his shoulders fell with a loud, deep sigh of relief. Relena just smirked and gave her own silent sigh.

Pulling Quatre into a quick, one-armed hug, the tall man stated, "Welcome to the family, Winner." Their eyes met and he raised a finger to point at the stunned pilot and winked, "But hurt my sister and no one will be able to identify your body parts."

Quatre nodded quickly, his eyes wide, as he replied, "Yes, sir." Zechs clapped him on the back before joining the others and his wife. Everyone fell back into their casual conversations. Heero and Duo sat beside each other at the last two seats that had been saved for them.

Throughout the entire meal, Duo remained silent, his head slightly lowered, as he sat closely beside his best friend. There was still a tenseness in his partner that Heero couldn't quite place. Were they alone, he would have asked him about it, but there was no real opportune moment to ask if they could be excused.

All of the food that was brought was delicious, and everyone soon reached their fill with plenty left over after dessert. It was agreed that Heero and Duo keep the leftovers once everything had been cleared away, to make their next week as easy on them as possible without having to worry about cooking.

When everyone migrated back into the living room, Duo would occasionally speak, but that was mostly when addressed or asked a question. Noting a few concerned glances between some of their friends, Heero assumed that they were picking up on the change in the braided pilot.

Finally, their guests began filing out as it was beginning to grow late, but not before hugging and kissing their long lost friend until they met again. When the house was empty again, Heero sighed deeply as he closed the front door.

Duo was nowhere in sight when he turned back around. After finding all the rooms on the first level empty, Heero frowned deeply in worry and headed upstairs. At the top of the stairs, he noticed that the door to Duo's room was cracked open.

Now realizing where his friend was, Heero went into his own room, just across the hall, to kick off his sneakers and strip from his blue jeans into a pair of grey sweatpants. Once he was changed, he closed his bedroom door and walked across to Duo's.

Knocking gently on the open door, Heero peered into the bedroom. From where he was lying in his bed under the covers, Duo jumped slightly at the knock, looking up to the door with wide violet eyes. His shoulders fell at ease again when he saw his friend there. The light of the moon peering through the sheer curtains was as effective as a lamp light, giving the space a soft blue glow.

A sudden wave of emotion flooded Heero all over again at seeing Duo safe in his bed. How many nights did he visit this room over the last couple years, hoping that one night when he opened the door, he would find his best friend safely lying there? It took a moment for him to fend off the tears that threatened to fill his eyes at gazing on that sight at last.

Heero gave his best friend a small smile as he entered the room, closing the door behind him. At the relief in the eyes before him following his actions, he finally understood some of what had Duo on edge. Since they were back at their own house, he had been worried that Heero would want to stay in his own room alone.

The Japanese Preventer removed his blue T-shirt and lied on his side to face his partner, pulling the covers over himself. Their eyes locked, he asked quietly, "Are you all right?" Duo turned onto his own side to face him and he nodded slightly, if not hesitantly.

Running the back of his fingers against the other pilot's cheek with a warm smile, Heero replied, "Quite a bit of excitement for one day, ne?" At that, Duo nodded more enthusiastically, causing the other pilot to chuckle deeply.

They stayed in companionable silence for a moment, just watching each other. Biting his lip, the braided pilot whispered, "It still doesn't feel real… being back."

With a deep breath, Heero nodded and sighed, "I know. There have been times these last few days that I've had to convince myself that you're really here."

At that, Duo gave a small smile as his eyes closed. He leaned ever so slightly into his friend's touch. When he opened his eyes again, he commented, "I suppose we're going to have to meet with Lady Une and the others tomorrow."

Frowning slightly, Heero nodded and asked, "Are you all right with that? You don't have to do anything that you're not up to." The sincerity in his voice with the last statement warmed Duo, the smile tugging at his lips showing his appreciation.

In the brief silence, the American did consider it for a moment before shaking his head and answering in his now normally quiet voice, "I… think that I'll be all right. If there is any discussion that involves me, I'd like to be there."

With understanding in his cobalt eyes, Heero nodded. The side of Duo's lip quirked up as he shrugged, "Besides, you'll be there with me, too, right?"

The Japanese pilot smiled warmly, "Of course." Wrapping an arm around his best friend's shoulders, he pulled him into a tight hug and said softly, "By the way, I'm very proud of you for what you did today."

Against his shoulder, Duo's surprise was clear in his tone as he replied, "Really?"

Pulling back and replacing his arm at his own side, Heero nodded, "Really. You went through a lot these last few hours. You didn't have to go through with the questioning. Even after that, you didn't have to agree to see anyone after the fact. I know it meant a lot for the others to see you tonight. So, I'm proud of you for going through all of that."

Duo yawned, "Thanks, `Ro." His heavy-lidded eyes closed completely as he hummed quietly.

Heero ran a hand through the other pilot's bangs as he chuckled deeply, "And on that note, good night, Duo."

With his eyes still closed, his partner mumbled, "'Night." His breath soon fell into a soft, steady rhythm, his chest rising and falling slowly.

For a while longer, Heero just lied on his side, watching his best friend sleep, a small smile on his own face. Sighing deeply, he closed his cobalt eyes and drifted off.

* * * * * *

"Have you ever been in love before?" Heero asked as he and Duo lied on their backs in their cell, looking up to the ceiling.

Ever since their discussion of the `Silver Lining Theory,' the former Wing pilot felt a new kinship with the once deemed `God of Death.' Duo had opened up and shared with him his childhood life prior to meeting with Doctor J. With a better understanding of his comrade in arms, Heero actually found that he enjoyed discussing things with him… things which he never would have talked about with anyone.

At his side, Duo shrugged, "Can't say that I have been. I mean I loved Solo, Sister Helen, Father Maxwell and a lot of the kids that I knew from the streets, but not `love' love."

Turning his head to the side to face the other pilot, Heero frowned, "I thought that you and Hilde…"

Before he could finish his sentence, his braided partner laughed loudly, "Oh, God, no!" His laughter grew as he shook his head, "We would have ended up killing each other if we ever dated!" Wiping a tear from his eye, he managed to control his laughter to a small chuckle as he explained, "Hilde and I were always more like brother and sister."

"Oh," was all that Heero could reply, blinking his surprised cobalt eyes.

At the confusion that still filled the eyes watching him, Duo's laughter ebbed and he smiled, "I only moved back to L2 to help her business get off the ground. I was never planning on staying there."

Lying on his side with his head propped on his hand, the braided pilot kept their eyes locked as he commented, "I always thought that you had something going on with Relena-" Heero only moaned loudly with a mumbled `Hell no' as he covered his eyes with his arm. Duo's bubbly laughter filled the cell again.

* * * * * *

Shaking his head to bring his thoughts back to the present, Heero only caught the tail end of the statement that had been made. Sitting at the large round table in the Preventer Commander's office with Duo close to his side, the Japanese pilot scanned the faces that joined them for this meeting. To his left and around the table in order, Zechs, Noin, Sally, Wufei, Lady Une Trowa, Relena and Quatre all gathered together to discuss how they were going to put an end to the White Out Organization.

Sally watched Duo closely throughout the discussion, making sure that he looked to be handling the situation well. She had wished that he could have been kept out of such a meeting, opening fresh wounds so quickly, but really it could not be helped. Still, the braided woman wanted to make sure that this did not do more harm than good for him.

"I still don't see how an order such as this could have existed for years now and we only now heard anything about it," Wufei growled deeply across from Heero and Duo. "There's no telling how many people are involved."

"All that we need is a few names," Noin stated. "Once we have those, we can run background checks, find their histories of acquaintances. From there, we would be able to pull up any and everyone linked to the organization."

Quatre rubbed his chin as he frowned, "Sometimes finding just a couple names could prove to be challenge enough."

Relena smirked, "That's where I come in. I have a great deal of pull politically. I have access to records that cannot be released to anyone, not even the Preventers. Anywhere else I can be of assistance, I will use every resource I have."

Taking a deep breath, Lady Une sighed in relief, "That's a good start. There is no telling right now how high this goes." Nodding to Noin and Zechs across the table from her, she added, "With Preventer Wind and Preventer Fire reporting in for duty, they have their own resources from Mars that will be helpful as well."

As she made a few notes in her notepad, Sally added, "I will talk to some of those prisoners we just placed in secure homes. I am sure that they will be willing to offer whatever information they may have learned while they were being held."

Zechs nodded, "We can't leave any stones unturned in this. Too many opportunities could be lost if we don't go about this efficiently.

"While this is a personal issue to each of us," Trowa began, "I also would like to express my interest in being sent on duty whenever necessary." Also dressed in their Preventer uniforms, Quatre and Wufei joined his sentiments.

Duo tensed in his seat, his hands squeezing the arm rests as his eyes narrowed. "Personal?" he repeated in a quiet hiss. "Who the hell do any of you think you are saying this is personal to you?"

All eyes turned to the braided pilot, wide and filled with shock. Everyone sat straight, stiffly as the American rose to his feet. Beside him, Heero whispered in concern, "Duo?"

Sally began to rise from her own seat, speaking gently as if trying to calm a skittish, wild animal. "Duo, I had a feeling that this was a bad idea," she frowned deeply, extending a hand out to him as an offer. "We can step outside together so that we can talk."

Heero knew that she meant well, but also knew from the tenseness in Duo's shoulders that he was beyond wanting to discuss anything further right now. He licked his lips nervously as all he could do was watch his best friend, frowning deeply in worry.

"I'm tired of talking to any of you right now," Duo snapped, his voice still reserved but filled with grit. "This is a personal matter to me. No one else here, with the exception of Heero, can say the same. He went through hell the last couple years while I was gone, just as I had."

Those wide eyes watching him blinked in confusion. Quatre leaned forward as he pleaded, "Duo, we all went through a hard time while you were gone. This is still personal to us because we're all your friends, not just Heero."

Closing his eye as he lowered his head, Duo chuckled deeply. The humorless sound drove a sharp chill up Heero's spine. It was the kind of dark laugh that he would hear from the braided pilot before he was about to unleash his wrath on his enemies. When he opened his violet eyes, there was an emptiness that made Quatre turn pale and Relena gasp sharply.

Leaning towards the blonde pilot, Duo spoke slowly, quietly. "He was not the one who left me for dead like the rest of you. Remember that?" Everyone recoiled in their seats, as if delivered a blow to the gut at the truth in those words.

Kicking his chair out the rest of the way behind him, Duo quickly stormed to the door of the conference room. Heero jumped from his own seat as the door opened as he cried, "Duo!" The door closed after the braided pilot just before he could reach it in time.

"My God," Heero whispered as he stared at the closed door, his shoulders sagging. That explained the real source of tension that he sensed from Duo the night before at the party.

Before his hand could finish its way up to panel to open the door, Lady Une called gently, "Heero." When he turned, he assessed those sitting at the table.

Sally was back in her seat, her hands folded before her with her elbows probed on the flat surface. Wufei was rubbing her back soothingly, his head lowered and eyes shimmering. Tears were running down both Relena and Quatre's faces, the Arabian's arm wrapped around his lover's shoulders for support.

Zechs's head was rested atop Noin's as they had their arms wrapped around each other. Trowa was leaning back in his seat, his own head lowered so that no one could see his eyes past his long bangs.

Lady Une approached, rubbing at her eyes as she sniffed quietly. The thin line of mascara under her eyes was running as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Seeing the Commander in such a state left Heero reeling mentally. His mouth moved, but he couldn't find his voice.

Finally, he knew what he needed to say and told her quietly, "He's not ready for this. He needs some time." Licking his lips, he looked towards the door as he requested, "I'd like to be with him… help him through this, if I could."

With a sad smile, Lady Une nodded, "You realize this is the first time you ever requested some time off. Take all the time that you need."

Heero met her eyes again and replied sincerely, "Thank you." Turning to the others at the table, he took a deep, shaky breath as he searched for the right words to console the only family that he knew.

Shaking her head, Relena kept him from speaking as she told him gently, "You don't have to explain anything, Heero. Duo's absolutely right in what he said."

Noin sat up and nodded, "We should have been better friends, to both of you. As much as it hurts, what he said was true."

Clearing his throat to keep his voice from cracking, Wufei asked quietly, "Please let him know that we are sorry. We all want to be there for him whenever he is ready to come back."

"I will," Heero promised in little more than a whisper. At that, he was finally able to leave the room, as he wanted to, in search of his friend.

* * * * * *

Duo gazed out the large window beside him to the skyline of the large city as the sun began to set. His legs hugged against his chest, he sat in the corner of the office that he and Heero shared. He sniffed as he wiped at the tears that continued to run down his face.

The sound of the door sliding open caused him to jump, his head snapping up. Footsteps making their way around his desk moved in certainty of where they were headed. Duo lifted his head when the familiar pair of speakers appeared to stop before him. When their eyes met, Heero smiled sadly, "I thought I would find you here."

Moving to sit before his best friend, the Japanese pilot opened his arms as his partner stifled a sharp whimper when he fell into his embrace. With his fists gripping onto the front of Heero's shirt, Duo buried his face into his shoulder as he sobbed quietly. "I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly. "I thought that I could get through that meeting, but I just…"

"Shh," Heero whispered before kissing his partner's temple. "You don't have anything to be sorry for. You were right. As much as I hate to admit it, the others did need to hear that."

As he pulled back enough so their eyes could meet again, Duo wiped away the fresh tears that wet his cheeks. "I just can't act like what they did doesn't hurt," he said brokenly.

Biting his lip, Heero nodded and whispered back, "I know… It's hurt me, too." He took a deep breath and sighed, "But we can't forget that they did not act out of malice. They're still our friends and they really do love you." There was a pause of silence for a moment, but the braided pilot finally nodded.

Heero reached up, cupping Duo's face in his hands, drying the tears that had fallen anew down the heart-shaped face. "Let's get away from here," he suggested quietly. "Stay at the summer house that we bought in the mountains for few months."

Those violet eyes widened in disbelief and Duo whispered, "Y-you mean it? Just you and me?"

"Yea," his best friend replied with a warm smile. "We have a lot of discussions that we need to get caught up on."

Duo blinked his wide, shimmering violet eyes as his head tilted a bit, watching his friend in awe. "You really have changed," he breathed. Unable to help it, Heero chuckled deeply at that, not really sure how else to respond.

 

Part 7:

"I still can't believe that you're talking me into this," Heero sighed deeply as he walked beside his braided friend. The path that they were on took them from the garage to a short walk through the wooded area. "I just still don't see the benefit in having a summerhouse."

Shrugging, Duo turned his head to face his partner as he grinned, "You're also the same person who never allowed himself more than five consecutive hours to himself during the day. The only other time you give yourself a moment is when you absolutely must sleep.

"I thought this would be a good idea since, eventually, we're going to want some time off from Preventer business. This will give us a chance to get away from everything for a while, secluded from everything and everyone."

The Japanese Preventer took a deep, patient breath before replying, "You forget that I'm the one who called you to move in with me. Even if you are settled into the house, I could always take the offer back."

The American laughed loudly at that, his braided head falling back. "You love me too much to send me back now," he chuckled deeply. "Besides, how in the world do you plan on keeping yourself entertained living in that big place by yourself?"

"Where there's a will," Heero answered with a smirk, not having missed a beat.

Duo snorted, "Score one for Yuy." Turning his head back to the thin opening in the trees, he sighed, "Look man, this is strictly just a look through the place to see what it's like. If you don't fall in love with it, I promise we'll just drop the idea all together."

Satisfied with that, the once deemed `Perfect Soldier' felt more relieved with the situation and nodded, "All right, then."

With that, they passed through the curtain of trees and into the wide opening, the large house falling in the center. Unable to help his cobalt eyes from widening at the beautiful detail that went into the design of the house, Heero now realized why Duo was insistent on checking this place out.

The outside of the house was constructed of dark wood, two levels high, with a large front porch and balcony on the second level. It was a balance of extravagance and simple elegance. Being surrounded by the woods, there was a certain serenity about being in such a hidden place.

Noting the surprise on his partner's face, Duo smiled, "And this is just the front of the place. Wait until you see the back. There's a hot tub and swimming pool, a fully loaded kitchen, the works."

Without needing to see any of those things, Heero was certain that they would purchase the house. Perhaps Duo was right in saying this would be a good idea. As since it would be paid for with money `borrowed' from OZ's accounts during the war, it seemed a good investment.

The house up in the mountains that was deemed the summerhouse certainly had been worth every penny. It served as a sanctuary from everything for the two pilots prior to Duo's capture. They did get to spend a couple weeks there that fateful summer before their last mission together.

* * * * * *

The car ride to the mountains was made in silence, spare the quiet music playing on the radio. Heero peered out the corner of his eye as he drove to see his partner gazing out his passenger window to their surroundings.

Duo's face was cleared of the bruise and thin scratch that had marred him the last couple days. Despite the slight discoloration where the angry mark had been, his face looked as it had the last time the ex-Wing pilot saw him.

On occasion, he spotted Duo reverently brushing a hand over the green wrappings over his elbows. Smiling to himself, Heero couldn't help but feel a swell of pride at the gesture, knowing that he had given his friend a source of comfort whenever he needed it.

Where they were now, this area of Virginia proved to be quite beautiful this time of year. The weather had been welcoming, a crystal clear sky through the entirety of the trip. It wouldn't be long before they reached the low mountain ranges.

Just the night before, after the meeting and Duo's breakdown, the two Preventers packed their bags to leave early the next morning. Heero actually debated bringing his laptop with him, wanting to only focus on helping the other pilot try to get past his demons.

It was almost a laugh to the former Wing pilot at how he was willing to part with the same computer that seemed to follow him wherever he went. However, he knew the logic in taking his computer in order to keep in contact with the others.

Along with those contacts, Heero could keep up on any new developments in the investigation of White Out. While he would want to know every detail in any changes, he would see that Duo would stay out of the details until he was ready to cope with the past.

Like the long ride, there was little to no conversation between either of them. Deciding against being the first to speak at any time, the Japanese pilot allowed his best friend the time he needed to sort through the thoughts that Heero could only imagine were running though his mind. The day before had proven to be quite… difficult for everyone.

There was a bit of guilt on Heero's part in that he was happy that Duo was able to speak up, in essence, for both of them. In the end, he knew that they did not wish to act as they had, but to be as skeptical as they had been towards him for continuing the search had hurt, to say the least.

More than that hurt, the once stoic pilot was just coming to grips with his new understanding of his feelings, and so he did not know how to express that kind of pain. Had Duo not spoken up as he had, Heero suspected that their friends would never have known the effects that their actions had.

His cobalt eyes on the road, the Japanese Preventer could not dwell on all of the lower points of their days. These next few weeks alone with his long lost friend should be a welcome escape for both of them. It had been some time since Heero had been at their getaway house.

In the back of his mind, he was thankful that Duo had found it and talked him into seeing it. The house had proven to be a nice haven for him to continue his search for the braided pilot, away from the others and any other distractions.

A smile slowly spread on Duo's face as he spotted the mountain ranges coming up ahead of them. It was the first smile that graced his features all day, the first one filled with anticipation since he was rescued from his confinement. Something inside Heero warmed at the sight and could not help but grin, himself.

The Duo that he always knew was not lost.

* * * * * *

Less than an hour later, the two pilots were walking up the large front porch of their summer house with their bags. Heero had quickly gathered the two heaviest of the bags so that Duo would not strain his recovering muscles in attempting to lift them. The duffle bag would suffice, strapped over the American's shoulder.

Opening the front door, Heero stepped back to allow Duo to walk in first. As he stepped into the foyer, his braided head moved all around as he scanned the ornate interior from top to bottom. His small smile returned as he said quietly, wistfully, "I missed this place."

Behind him, Heero walked up towards him, chuckling deeply, "You made quite a find with this house. I've missed it as well, and I was here only a few months ago."

When Duo looked back at him with wide, violet eyes, he explained, "It gave me some place to work in peace in my search for you." Duo's smiled warmed a bit before he turned to lead the way upstairs.

* * * * * *

After running to the market place half-way down the mountain, the two pilots shared a lunch of sandwiches in the dining room. From there, Duo went off to do some exploring to reacquaint himself with their summer house. With a small smile of relief in seeing his partner making the effort to go off on his own, Heero went about some of the dusting that needed to be done.

Once he left the presence of his friend, the braided pilot wrapped his arms around his thin waist. Even in this safe place, he was uncomfortable being anywhere that wasn't close to Heero. Still, he knew that he couldn't cling onto the other Preventer forever.

While Heero had been extremely patient in his need to always be around him, Duo knew that if he hoped to get over his fears he needed to make some steps out to looking out for himself again. It was about time he started trying.

 

It was only a few minutes into his exploring when the American's nerves caught up with him. Nearly every creak made him jump and he couldn't help but keep looking over his shoulder. Rubbing his arms nervously, he thought of what he could do to try to occupy his overactive mind. With a small smile on his face, he quickly made his way back upstairs to change.

* * * * * *

It was late afternoon when Duo stepped out to the large back enclosed deck, dressed in his deep blue swimming trunks, gray shirt, elbow covers and a white towel draped over his shoulder. Making his way to the hot tub beside the pool, he removed the cover and turned the jets on.

As he tested the water with his hand, a small smile fell on his face as he wrapped his braid into a bun. Slowly, he removed his gold cross before he began removing the elbow covers made from Heero's tank top.

Regarding the healing puncture wounds on the inside of his arm, he notes that they were looking much better. Carefully laying the covers along with his towel, the braided pilot took the shirt off his back to join the small pile.

Duo never really liked being seen without a shirt, content to hide the old scars that remained from his hellish ordeal in the White Out Organizations' hands. While there were not a great many of them, no more than seven that crisscrossed and others parallel to each other in a haphazard pattern, they just made him feel… ugly.

Lifting himself over the edge of the hot tub, Duo carefully slipped into the warm water. He sat himself in one of the corners, his back to one on the high power jets. With his head falling back to lean against the rim of the tub, his eyes slid closed as he sighed deeply in content, his sore muscles easing.

Heero chuckled deeply as he approached the tub, dressed in only his own green trunks with a brown towel in hand. Duo looked up and greeted him with a grin. "You read my mind," his Japanese friend smirked.

Letting his towel drop at his feet, the ex-Wing pilot lowered himself into the corner across from his friend. He gave a deep sign of his own as he leaned his back against the jet.

After driving for so long most of the day, it was a welcome relief to relax. Closing his cobalt eyes, Heero leaned his own head back and it was Duo's turn to chuckle slightly at the mirror images they made.

With his eyes still closed, Heero recalled the scars that he had seen on his friend's chest. He had been careful at not showing any reaction to the image, but he locked the sight deep in the back of his mind as a reminder for when it came time to find those responsible for placing those marks.

But this was not the time for that revenge. Heero's focus now would be on seeing that nothing disturbed his friend during this vacation. Really, they both needed it, he finally admitted to himself. After what they had been through the last two years, they deserved this.

After a long pause between them, Duo raised his head to look up to his friend sitting across from his. Taking a deep breath, he asked quietly, "So how soon was it before the others stopped looking?"

The sudden question caught Heero off guard and he swallowed hard. His cobalt eyes met his friends' as he frowned deeply, "Duo, do you really want to know the answer to that?"

For a moment, the braided pilot thought it over as he drew circles on the white linen, chewing on his bottom lip. Finally, he nodded, "I'd like to know."

Running a hand though his unruly hair, Heero sighed deeply, not looking forward to answering. Still, Duo deserved to know if that was what he wanted. His friend already knew that the others had given up any hopes in finding him. That alone must have left a good number of questions that needed to be answered.

Finally, reluctantly, Heero began, "Well, it was nearly a year after your disappearance when a few of them began having their doubts. Just after a year had passed, they dropped out of the search one at a time." Duo bit his lip and nodded as he took the answer in.

Not wanting the conversation to drudge up any more dark thoughts, the ex-Wing pilot smirked, "Remember that question game you came up with to keep us occupied in that cell?"

Duo's violet eyes widened slightly in surprise that his friend remembered that from so long ago. When he nodded, Heero sat and suggested, "Why don't we try that? No questions that have anything in reference to the last two years."

"You mean, act as if the last two years never happened?" the American questioned, the hope clear in his voice. At Heero's nod and affirmative response, the braided pilot sat up with a small smile and nodded, "All right. You start."

Happy to have thought of something that would draw some conversation out of his normally quiet friend, the Japanese Preventer ran a wet hand through his unruly hair as he thought a moment. His smirk back in place, he said, "Favorite holiday."

Without consideration, Duo answered, "New Years Eve." That was not the answer that Heero had been expecting. He had always assumed that Christmas had always been partner's favorite holiday.

At the surprise in the cobalt eyes watching him, Duo grinned slightly and answered, "Something about counting down the end of a year, starting over. I always thought it was like getting another chance." Chuckling, he added, "Plus I love the fireworks."

Hearing that last explanation, Heero laughed, his head falling back a bit. "That sounds more like you," he admitted. Now that it was his turn to answer his own question, he stated, "As obvious as it is, World Peace Day."

Instead of receiving some smart comment in response at how obvious that answer was, as Heero would have from the Duo that he knew, the other pilot just nodded. Already having his question ready, Duo threw in, "Favorite movie."

Tilting his head slightly, Heero thought aloud, "I don't know that I can say I have a favorite. As long as it's not Titanic, I'm happy."

It was Duo's turn to laugh loudly at the answer. When he calmed again, he said, "The Lord of the ring trilogy for me."

Heero picked up on the fact that his friend was now keeping his answers and explanations as short as possible. After a few more rounds of relatively simple questions, he asked, "What was the best and the worst day for you so far? You can answer in whatever order you want."

Slightly taken aback by the question, Duo blinked his widened violet eyes. With a hum, he leaned back in his submerged seat.

The Japanese pilot waited patiently, knowing that the other Preventer knew the rules to his own game. Now that the question was asked, he had to answer it honestly… not that Duo ever had a problem with telling anything but the truth.

His braided head lowered, the American replied at last, quietly, "The worst day was when you had self destructed in Wing."

Nearly unable to suppress the gasp that wanted to break through, Heero regarded his friend with shocked eyes. "It… nearly killed me when you did that," his partner commented, his voice nearly lost over the sound of the hot tub's motor.

Realization finally flooded Heero as he whispered, "'You blamed yourself… the way you blamed yourself for Solo and the others at the Maxwell Church."

Slowly, Duo raised his head, the relief clear in his eyes as he nodded. Quickly trying to move from that subject, he smiled, "The best day was when I found out you were still alive." With a small snort, Heero returned the smile.

"What about your best and worst day?" Duo inquired as his shoulders eased, relieved to have gotten through his end of the game.

Across from him, the other pilot silently cursed himself for forgetting that he would have to answer the same question. While Heero knew that he needed to answer honestly, he was not sure that he would be able to actually get the story out. He never told anyone else such a personal thing.

Resting his arms on either side of the tub ledge beside him, Heero took a deep breath as he looked up to the wood paneled roof. "The worst," he began, slowly. "I managed to sneak out of the hidden base where Doctor J had been training me for the upcoming war. When I was out, I met this little girl in a white dress…"

Lost in his own memories, the Japanese pilot looked forward, not really looking at anything, as he continued, "She had a puppy with her, a golden retriever she called Mary." A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he said quietly, "She asked me if I was lost."

Duo was leaning forward the slightest bit, his violet eyes filled with fascination as he inquired softly, "What did you tell her?"

Shrugging, Heero snorted bitterly, "I told her that I was lost my whole life. Back then, it was the only way that I could answer." He shook his head, getting back on track with his story as he went on, "She gave me a tiny yellow flower before she ran off with her dog."

The braided pilot nodded and he bit his lip, waiting patiently for his friend to get his bearings. "Late that night," Heero continued at last, "I hit an OZ plant that was building mobile suits as one of my first missions. After detonating the explosives, I was about to head back to J's base when I turned to see one of the suits falling back from the blast."

After clearing his throat, he forced himself to relay, "It crashed into a nearby hotel that was filled with civilians. When I ran up to the remains, most of the building had collapsed atop itself."

He had to clear his throat yet again, closing his eyes, and frowned deeply, "I found Mary crushed under the rubble... The girl and her family didn't make it."

With a sharp gasp, Duo covered his mouth with wide eyes. "Oh God, Heero," he whispered. Moving forward, he half swam, half walked across the middle of the large tub. When he reached his friend, he sat in his lap, wrapping his arms tightly around his neck.

Heero encircled his own arms around the other pilot, burying his face in his neck as he shuddered. Until then, he had never dreamt of sharing that story with anyone. Until he actually did share it, he never let it sink in how much it hurt him.

Closing his eyes, Duo kissed the top of his partner's head as he rubbed his back. For all the comforting that Heero had done for his sake, this was the least that he could do to repay him.

Never before had the American ever imagined there being so much anguish being held back from the once stoic pilot. Softly, he whispered in his ear, "It was an accident. You know that." Against his shoulder, the other young man nodded.

It took a moment before Heero finally pulled back, his trembling subsided. He wiped at the lone tear in his right eye before meeting the gaze of the Preventer in his lap. "Thanks," he breathed, sighing in relief. He suddenly realized how much lighter he felt, like a great weight lifted from him simply because he was able to let go of that painful memory.

Duo gave him a warm smile as he brushed back his best friend's unruly bangs and asked quietly, "What about your best day?"

Thankful for the change in subject, Heero gave his own small grin as he answered, "The day I woke in the hospital after the Mariemaya Incident, when the doctor told me that it was over. Knowing that my days as a Gundam pilot were finally over… I didn't need to be the so called `Perfect Soldier' anymore."

At the last statement, Duo's small smile grew just a bit. Content that his Heero was calmed again, he moved back to his corner across from him.

"Well," the ex-Wing pilot began. "You have to ask the last question since I started, if remember the rules right."

Deciding to give his friend reprieve for having to answer his own difficult question, Duo chose to ask something he would have a challenge answering, himself. "What is one thing about yourself that no one knows about you?" he questioned, tilting his head a bit.

Heero snorted, "You would never believe me if I told you, but I hate heights. It was one fear J could never break me of."

Violet eyes widened, Duo blinked in amazement as he exclaimed, "You're kidding!?" When his partner shook his head, he smiled, "You did a great job of hiding it."

"Arigato," the Japanese Preventer smirked with a nod. "And you?"

Throwing caution to the wind, Duo chose to just get the answer out right away before he had time to reconsider. In a clear voice, he stated, "I'm gay." Instantly, shock filled the cobalt eyes before him as they widened.

"I realized it during the war," the braided pilot threw out quickly, just wanting to have the truth in the open. "I just never told anyone because I never knew how they would react."

While he was still shocked at the startling news, Heero also felt an overwhelming sense of pride in his friend for having the courage to tell him such a thing. Considering they had been sharing the same bed for the last few nights since Duo had been rescued, he could only imaging how nervous he must have been to admit that he favored the same sex.

As if he was able to read the other pilot's mind, Duo lowered his head and frowned, "If you would rather not…" he cleared his throat, "… sleep with me, I understand. I just wanted you to know…"

Shaking his head, Heero cut him off with an affectionate, "Baka. You're more than welcome to share the same bed with me if you want."

His head shooting up, Duo's violet eyes showed his disbelief as he sputtered, "R-really? You mean you're not… disgusted by me?"

Heero moved towards him, a small smirk on his face as he replied quietly when they were inches apart. "No, Duo, I'm not," he answered quietly.

"We're best friends, aren't we?" the unruly-haired pilot questioned as he closed the other Preventer's open mouth with a hand under his chin.

Duo nodded animatedly, his wide eyes still locked on his partner's. At that, Heero grinned, "Then you should know that I wouldn't be able to find anything disgusting about you."

Turning his head to note the change in the sky color through the window, the once `Perfect Soldier' commented, "I should get back inside and start dinner." He met his friend's still amazed gaze and smirked, "You go and pick out from our movie collection what you want to watch tonight."

With that, Heero rose from the water and climbed over the side of the hot tub with ease. His towel in hand, he went back inside. Once his partner was back in the house, Duo shook his head, breaking him from his state of surprise. Slowly, a smile of relief fell on his face as he moved to join his bedmate.

 

Part 8:

After struggling their way through the secluded base where they had been held and through the surrounding wasteland of hill and cratered fields used for bomb testing, Heero and Duo finally settled down. Both panting and wet with sweat in their efforts, they took shelter in an opening at the side of one of the tall hills that had been hit in a lag of weapon testing.

Lying on his back, Duo groaned in pain, his eyes squeezed closed, as he nursed his injured right leg. "Goddamn it," he hissed through the hot agony. "Of all the blasted luck…" his words were cut off as he moaned deeply as his friend carefully inspected the bullet wound that nearly shattered his knee.

With a deep sigh, Heero replaced the bandages made from the reminder of what had been left of the braided pilot's fleece that had been torn during their confinement. "At least it went clean through," the Japanese Preventer commented as he regained his breath. "The bleeding has stopped."

It had been a tiring journey and a long night. Now that the sun was beginning to rise, they would not have the cover of night to keep them from the watchful eyes of the guards chasing them.

After calculating for weeks, their carefully laid out plans had been all but destroyed with a single shot. They never even saw the gunman whom was lucky enough to hit the American's leg just before they left the base.

The injury had slowed them greatly, leaving them little choice now but to push on hard to make up time. The rescue team would be arriving at their rendezvous point in less than a half hour, and they still had miles to go yet.

Along with that, there were a good many guards practically on their heels. With the open fields and now the sunlight pouring over the earth, the two ex-Gundam pilots would be spotted easily from a good distance.

Running a hand through his unruly, damp hair, Heero carefully considered their options. Few weapons and little ammunition from what they were able to steal on the way out. The situation was grim at best at this point and he knew it, but was unable to say as much.

With the clock ticking, the last thing there was time for was sitting around thinking. "They're going to be here before long," Heero said at last, as he rose to his feet. "We have to get moving. We're half-way to the location where backup will be arriving to pick us up."

It was only then that the Japanese pilot realized how quiet his normally vocal partner was. When he turned to meet the other boy's face, he could almost feel his heart drop at the look of distress in those violet eyes watching him.

Slowly, the American sat up, wincing in pain at the slight movement in his leg that sent a sharp stab of sheering pain up his spine. Their eyes still locked, biting his suddenly trembling lip, Duo said quietly, "Heero… My leg is just going to slow us down. We'll both be caught at the rate we're moving."

The moment the words left the other pilot's lips, Heero replied, "Then I'll carry you." Knowing what his partner was about to suggest, he was not about to consider it as an option. There had to be a way out of this… where they could both make it out together.

"You can't carry me for five miles!" Duo shouted, his anger taking over his fear as he glared up at his friend. There was a long pause as they gazed on each other, both pairs of eyes silently speaking the many things running through their owner's minds.

After finding the determination in the Japanese Preventer's eyes, the braided pilot finally spoke, ordering, "You have to leave me here."

"No." Heero answered, without a hint of hesitation as the last time he expressed how the suggestion was out of the question. He refused to believe that this was their only choice. There had to be another option.

Frowning sadly, Duo propped himself up on his elbows. With his voice little more than a whisper, he said, "Listen to me, Heero. I am not about to let you get caught because I got careless."

A nod with his head in the direction of the guns they had gathered, he tried to reassure his partner by suggesting, "I can fend for myself, maybe find a place where I can hide until things relax enough for me to call for help."

Heero shook his head, his own cobalt eyes narrowing as he fought the fear and rage flooding him at their situation. This wasn't how it was supposed to end. They were supposed to make it to their destination to get out of this together. He insisted, "I'm not leaving you here like this."

Duo shook his head, his body trembling as he cried, "There's no other choice!"

Shouting in pain from the jolt that ran through him, the braided pilot held his injured leg, sweat continuing to run down his face. In the silence, he panted. Finally, his violet eyes filled with defeat and never taking them from the gaze locked on him, he frowned deeply and whispered, "Please, Heero…"

The pilot standing over him shook his own head, squeezing his own eyes closed so that he did not need to see the pleading look on his comrade's face, as he yelled, "No! You can't ask me to do this!"

It was… hurting Heero to see Duo in so much pain, the only person that he now considered his best friend after their time that they shared together during the wars and most recently in their confinement.

When Heero's cobalt eyes opened, they widened as they stared down the barrel of the pistol aimed at his head. Despite how the rest of his body trembled, Duo managed to keep his arm bearing the weapon steady as he replied firmly, "I'm not asking. I'm ordering."

"D-Duo…" the ex-Wing pilot whispered as he blinked in shock at the determination in his partner's violet eyes.

Taking a shuddered breath, the braided Preventer licked his lips before speaking, his voice still low as to keep the tremble out of it. "You're running out of time by staying here any longer. If you don't leave now, Heero, I swear to God I'll shoot you where you stand."

He would run and hide, but Duo never told a lie. Heero recalled the other boy's dictum as he looked past the barrel locked on him.

It was the only thing that his friend could have done to have made him listen, they both knew it. Finally, his heart sinking and his eyes saddening, the once deemed `Perfect Soldier' gave a firm nod.

With his free hand, Duo reached up to his neck line, removing the gold cross and chain from his neck. "Here," he whispered as he gestured for the other pilot to get close.

Slowly stepping towards his friend, Heero walked past the gun that had been trained on him to kneel beside the injured pilot. Moving, but moving as if he were out of his own body, he held out a hand to accept the gold chain and cross as Duo placed it in his palm. Before pulling his hand back, the braided Preventer squeezed their clasped hands together for a moment.

"I want you to take care of this for me," the American told the other as he continued to squeeze the necklace between their hands. "I-I've never trusted this with anyone else before…" His voice trailed off as he had to clear his throat.

Heero gave him a firm nod, reluctantly separating their hands. With great care, as if handing the most precious metal, he slipped the necklace around his own neck. After placing the cross behind his dark blue shirt, he kept their eyes locked as he vowed, "I swear that I'll get this back to you."

At the flash of doubt in the cobalt eyes watching him, Heero realized now more than ever that there was a strong possibility they might never see each other again. Quickly, he shifted so that he was leaning over Duo, his hands at either side of the injured boy. To the widened eyes below him, he asked firmly, "Promise me you'll wait for me."

Gasping sharply, Duo shook his head, his eyes filling with tears as he whispered, "H-Heero, you know that I can't-"

"Promise me," Heero cut him off, his own determination reaffirmed. "Whatever happens, promise me that you won't give up until I find you." When Duo began to shake his head again, the ex-Wing pilot grasped his chin to still him as he stated slowly and clearly, "I will find you. I swear it."

Finally, the tears began to fall from Duo's eyes as he whimpered, trembling as he nodded at last. "All right," he breathed. "I promise I'll wait for you, whatever happens."

Somehow managing to keep the strange, new emotions that threatened to drown him, Heero lowered himself atop the injured boy to embrace him tightly. With a stifled sob, Duo reached up to hold his friend tightly in return.

It was the first time they had ever shared such a gesture of friendship and it nearly overwhelmed Heero. Pulling back enough to look down on his partner, he placed a soft kiss on Duo's forehead. There was a small gasp from the other pilot as he felt the lips on his brow.

With their noses nearly touching as they looked to each other, Heero whispered, "Stay strong, Duo." At those words, he rose to his feet and ran from their hiding place into the fields. He continued to run without looking back, knowing that he would have stopped and turned back if he did.

* * * * * *

With a sharp gasp, Heero woke from his sleep, sweat running down his face as he came to his senses. Even now that Duo was back safely, he still dreamt of their last mements together before they were parted, every one of those dreams as real at the times he had lived them. His panting finally began to calm as he ran a hand through his damn, unruly bangs.

Still lying on his side, Heero's hand reached out and back to the other side of the bed where Duo slept for reassurance that everything was all right. Finding that the other side of the bed was empty, he sat up quickly, his cobalt eyes wide as he gazed frantically around the room, calling, "Duo?"

Quickly, his braided friend entered the room, opening the door that led to the second level balcony. His violet eyes filled with concern, Duo moved to sit at the side of the bed, speaking quietly as he said, "I'm here."

Easing at the sight of his friend, Heero leaned his back against the headboard as he sighed deeply in relief. "Sorry to startle you," he replied.

"Bad dream?" Duo frowned in worry. When his friend closed his eyes and nodded, the American moved forward to wrap his arms around him. Startled for only a second, Heero returned the embrace, burying his face in his partner's shoulder. Slowly, Duo ran soothing circles down the other pilot's bare back.

As they held onto each other, the ex-Wing pilot cursed himself for not managing to hold himself together. He needed to be the strong one of the two while Duo healed.

The last thing his friend needed was to worry about the two of them while he dealt with his pain. Still, that dream had reopened a lot of Heero's own wounds that he had been dealing with.

When they pulled away, Duo gave him a reassuring smile and asked, "Better?" Being able to see that smile, even if it did not reach his friend's eyes, and being able to hold the other Preventer as proof that he was all right had broken through the disorientation that had wracked the Japanese pilot.

Heero returned the smile with a nod as he replied, "Yes. Thank you." He looked to the door that led to the balcony as he blinked in surprise, "You were outside just now?"

Following his friend's gaze to the balcony opening, Duo shrugged, "Yea, I was out there for a while now just watching the sunrise." With a slight wince, he turned back to the other Preventer and frowned, "I didn't mean to startle you. I should have waited until you were awake."

"No, it's not that," Heero shook his head. A small grin fell on his face as he commented, "You managed to stay out there on your own."

Now seeing where his friend was going, Duo's small smile returned. "Yea," he nodded. "I managed to stay on my own for about an hour now."

Over the last couple weeks during their stay at their summer house, the braided pilot had tried to pull himself away from needing Heero's presence. With the exception of his duties in the bathroom and shower, Duo relied on his best friend to be there. The fact that he was now able to manage an hour on his own showed that he was steadily improving.

Gently rubbing the top of his friend's head, Heero smirked, "I'm proud of you." He was rewarded with another small smile, this one a bit brighter than any of the others he had seen of late. Stretching a bit as he yawned, he asked, "Did you have breakfast yet?"

Duo shook his head, blushing slightly as he replied, "Nah, I was waiting for you to wake up first so I didn't have to eat alone." At the irony of it all, Heero laughed quietly. Startled at the fact that his once stoic friend was not disappointed in him, Duo joined in his laughter.

Taking a moment to consider their options, the ex-Wing pilot tilted his head and questioned, "Do you think you would be up to having breakfast at one of the diners in town? Maybe we could visit the mall afterwards."

For the last two weeks, the two Preventers did little outside of the large estate. Heero was relieved when Duo grinned and nodded, "I think that's a good idea. It'd be a nice change of pace." With their plans set, they both got up and prepared to change.

* * * * * *

As they ate their meals in the small diner they found, Duo across from Heero with his plate of pancakes. "Are you sure that you're still up to looking around at the stores?" the Japanese pilot asked, cutting another slice of egg from his own plate.

Nodding, his braided friend swallowed his gulf of orange juice and replied, "Yea. I think I'll be okay for a while. I don't know how long I'll be comfortable if the place if crowded."

Heero reassured him with a small smile, "If it gets to be too much, just let me know. We're taking this one step at a time, remember." Relief filled his partner's violet eyes as he grinned back. The remainder of their meal was eaten in companionable silence.

Ever since their question game that they had resumed their first night at the summer house, the two friends came to learn more about each other than they ever had during their time during the wars. The game opened up the floodgates to many interesting conversations during their vacation.

Duo now understood Heero's protectiveness towards Relena having heard of his experience with the little girl and her dog during his training. Heero now had an even better appreciation of Duo's strength after his friend shared more of his childhood.

It was almost sad to think that had they never been captured in their last mission that they shared, Heero would never have had the relationship that he had now with Duo. He never really considered any of the Gundam pilots as true friends, even if they did have their duties at that time in common.

Now, Duo knew more about him than anyone else in Heero's life. He was certain that it was the same with him in Duo's case.

Whatever the circumstances leading to their close friendship, Heero was grateful for it. To actually have someone that he could be open with, someone who could help him understand and cope with his emotions, meant more to him than anything now.

Playing with a piece of his pancake, Duo asked quietly, "Did you want to talk about that dream you had?" He looked up from his plate to meet his partner's gaze and shrugged, "It might help if it's still on your mind."

Heero snapped from his thoughts at the questions and smiled at his best friend's consideration. "There's no need, Duo, but thank you." Lowering his fork, he admitted, "I just needed to know that you were all right when I woke up."

A small smile tugged at the braided pilot lips as he nodded before taking another bite from his meal. Looking to his left, over the counter, Duo's violet eyes widened when he spotted the calendar hanging on the wall by the coffee machine.

It was May 31st. Meaning…. Instantly, a memory from the day that he moved in with Heero on the Earth flooded him.

* * * * * *

As he finished unpacking his belongings, Duo sighed deeply in relief as he fell onto the large couch in the spacious living room of the grand beach house that he and Heero bought. It was still a shock to him; the fact that Heero Yuy, Mister Solitude himself, called him out of the blue with the prospect of their sharing a house together.

Speaking of his unruly-haired housemate, Duo heard Heero entering the living room with a slightly disheveled look after all of their efforts in getting their new furniture in. Falling heavily into the plush recliner across from the couch where Duo lied, the ex-Wing pilot sighed deeply as he closed his eyes.

Duo couldn't help but chuckle deeply as he watched his friend. It had been quite a long day, but their efforts in getting the house in order were well worth it.

Surprisingly, there had been little to no arguing as to how the two teenagers wanted the furniture arranged, who got which bedroom, or any of the other possible fights that could have broken out in situating themselves.

Another thought crossed Duo's mind as he realized that they had worked well past lunch and now dinner. Sitting up a bit, he asked, "Are we cooking or ordering out?"

"Ordering out," was the quick answer, Heero never opening his eyes. Just at the thought of having to stand over a stove and oven cooking made his already aching muscles twinge. Opening his right eye half-mast, he glared at the other youth. "And I am not getting up from this chair to do it."

With a snort, Duo lied back down as he commented, "Then it's going to be a while before we eat. I ain't moving, either." He paused slightly before laughing, "I don't think I *can* move!"

Folding his arms behind his head as he stared at the ceiling, the American tilted his head a bit as he asked, "By the way, Heero, when is your birthday?"

Across the room, he heard the Japanese Preventer recruit gave a sharp laugh of disbelief as he answered with his own question, "Where the hell is that question coming fro-" Heero cut himself off before sighing deeply, "Never mind. I don't want to know what goes through that warped mind of yours."

Duo smirked as he looked to his now more alert partner as he shrugged, "Hey, you're the one who asked me to live with you."

Raising an eyebrow to him, Heero smirked, "Don't remind me." Running a hand through his hair, he decided to appease his comrade's curiosity as he stated, "I never knew the actual day I was born, so I don't have a birthday."

Suddenly filled with energy now, Duo sat up on the couch as he smiled, "Great! We can pick each other's birthdays!" Before his wide-eyed friend could respond, the braided pilot grinned, "I think a summer birthday would fit you, sooo…" His violet eyes brightened all the more as he announced excitedly, "June 1st it is!"

Heero, deciding it was better to play along that to argue nodded. "All right. Then you should have a winter birthday to balance it, not that that makes any more sense than this concept of picking birthdays," he finished with a roll of his eyes. He considered for a moment before deciding aloud, "December 21st."

"Yatta!" Duo cheered as he grinned from ear-to-ear, bouncing off the couch. "Now that wasn't so hard, now was it?"

With a smirk, Heero relied, "And now that you're up, you get to call for dinner." Dou laughed and stuck his tongue out at the other teenager before practically hopping out of the room, the adrenaline from his excitement at having a birthday outweighing his fatigue.

* * * * * *

"Duo?... Duo, are you all right?" Heero's concerned voice broke through his thoughts. Shaking his head, the braided pilot looked to his worried partner.

Still taken aback at his realization, Duo could only blink his wide eyes at him for a moment. Tomorrow was Heero's birthday. All this time, his best friend had been so concerned with taking care of him that he probably forgot entirely his.

They had been separated before they got to celebrate either of their `given' birthdays. Considering that, it wouldn't have surprised the braided pilot if his partner had forgotten their discussion from so long ago. With everything that Heero had done for him, Duo intended to make it up to him.

Finally, he smiled reassuringly, "Sorry, just thinking about something. I'm okay." Satisfied with that, Heero finished his breakfast as the waitress returned with their bill.

After leaving the diner, the two pilots drove to the Leesburg Outlet Mall. To their relief, it was not too crowded, considering it was early in the day on a Tuesday. Since Duo was in need of new clothes, they made their way to the clothing departments first.

There was even more of a hint of the old Duo as he went through outfits that fit his own style more than the outfits that were quickly picked out from what little he had from before the time he was home last. Satisfied with his selections of attire that would last him for a couple weeks, Duo and Heero both left with bags in their hands.

On their way past one of the department stores, Duo's violet eyes widened a bit when something caught his attention. Smiling over to his friend, he said, "I almost forgot something that I need."

It wasn't a complete lie since Duo had almost forgotten that the next day was Heero's birthday. He didn't need to mention what that `something' he had in mind really was, or who it was intended for. "Mind if we meet up in a little while? Maybe at the center of the mall?"

Heero met his gaze with a look of uncertainty. "Are you sure that you'll be all right?"

Nodding quickly, his braided friend answered, "Yea. I shouldn't be too long." With a nod, the ex-Wing pilot walked off ahead.

Duo bit his lip as he looked to the crowded store. While he was not comfortable around a lot of people on his own, he wanted to do this for Heero. He deserved to have a great birthday after everything he had done for him. Besides, he was his best friend. Taking a deep breath after making up his mind, Duo headed into the store.

* * * * * *

Hiding the bag that he had managed to keep from Heero's eye all day, Duo smiled to himself. As nerve wracking as it had been to be surrounded by so many people and to have to ask assistance from one of the store clerks, he pulled it off.

At the sound of footsteps approaching the living room, Duo quickly finished stuffing the sheets of wrapping paper under the couch along with the present he picked out. Scrambling, he just managed to sit himself on the couch, his eyes on the flat television screen to make a convincing performance that he had not moved from his spot from before Heero had left.

Returning to his place on the chair beside the couch, the Japanese Preventer said, "Thanks for waiting for me." Taking up the remote, he pressed the `Play' button to begin the movie they had picked out for the evening.

A few minutes into the film, Heero noted a small smile tugging at the corner of the other pilot's mouth. Tilting his head, the cobalt-eyed pilot smirked, "What are you smiling about?"

With a shrug, the braided Preventer replied, grinning, "I'm just… content." Snorting to himself in amusement, Heero's attention returned to the feature film.

The smile on Duo's face grew when he knew he wasn't being watched, anxiously awaiting the next day.

 

Part 9:

Trowa rose from his seat as the doors leading to the Preventer hanger opened. Several familiar agents walked out, smiles on their faces and still in their space suits, as they congratulated each other on their successful mission. Even as late as it was, everyone looked to be alert and relieved to be home after being on their mission for almost a month now.

Along with his fellow Preventers, Trowa noticed a good many civilians now mixed in with the group. The ages, races and genders of those rescued from the White Out transport ships ranged across the map. Many of those civilians still looked to be in stunned disbelief that they were safe at last after their nightmarish ordeal.

Several injured, Preventer and civilian both, were wheeled out or aided out by other Preventers. His face drawn in concern, Trowa scanned those wounded. A hand fell on his shoulder, squeezing it in support as he spun to face his friend and fellow Preventer, "Jason," he greeted.

They clasped hands as the pilot of the returned Preventer craft smirked, "She did great, Trowa. Still hasn't lost anyone on her watch, yet. She be one of the last ones out, as always."

With a deep sigh of relief, Trowa smiled, "Thanks, Jason. Good work on your rescues." With a firm nod of appreciation, the other soldier gave a small salute before walking off with the remainder of the passengers.

One older woman, recognizing Trowa's uniform as one belonging to the Preventers made her way towards him. The tall pilot was caught off guard when the white-haired captive kissed his cheek with tears in her brown eyes as she whispered, "God bless all you, all of you for what you've done."

Several others came towards the brunette Preventer to offer their own thanks. Taken aback, Trowa just smiled and nodded to them as they were gently ushered into the main headquarters to be accounted for. As the stream of agents and rescued civilians passed, the tall pilot's green eyes followed them.

"You're a sight for sore eyes," he could hear the smile in the familiar voice behind him. When Trowa turned back to the hanger doors, he looked on the smirking face he had missed terrible over the last few weeks.

Anna's back was leaning against the hanger entrance, her wavy red hair falling past her thin hips. Her blue eyes sparkled when her lover's gaze met hers before she sprang forward into Trowa's arms as he lifted her from the ground in a fierce embrace. After sharing a sound kiss, the young couple smiled brightly to each other.

Grinning from ear-to-ear, Trowa said quietly, "Welcome back." Lowering his lover to the ground again, he assessed her from head to toe. When she was on her own feet, the young redhead stood just about an inch over his shoulder. He frowned deeply in concern at the wide rip in his partner's flight suit over her right shoulder. He recognized medical padding through the tear.

Anna shrugged nonchalantly as she smirked, "It's just a graze wound. We came up against some heavy retaliation on our last hit. It looks a lot worse than it is." Her smirk filled with mischief as she commented, "You should see the guy who shot me."

Satisfied with that, Trowa chuckled deeply. Looking to the doors leading to the Preventer Headquarters, his smile faltered as he asked, "Is that everyone you recovered from those three transport ships? I only estimated about a hundred people there."

Frowning sadly, his red-haired girlfriend nodded, "We found a lot more bodies on the crafts we intercepted. Sad things, this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what we're after." Anna shook her head, looking ill as she said quietly, "My God, Trowa, the things those bastards are doing to these people…"

Her voice trailed off as she was lost in the terrifying sights she found during her stretch of rescue missions. "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," the redhead's voice faintly whispered.

The thought of Duo being in those same monsters, Trowa felt a shiver run up his spine. Had he been the one to see some the things that Anna had, he would have not taken it as well as she was. He still wasn't sure how he was going to tell her that his long-lost friend was actually alive and found in their current enemy's captivity.

"So," his lover's voice broke through his thoughts. "Anything exciting happen the last few weeks?" she grinned.

With a deep breath, the tall pilot frowned, "A lot's happened while you were gone." Deciding against bring up the discussion then, he smiled, "For now, let's get you home, first."

Anna gave a small frown of concern, noting the change in the tall pilot's behavior.

Smiling playfully she said, "All right, but first I have a date with you in the shower to focus on. You know how I can't stand being away from you and a normal spray of water pressure for more than a day."

Trowa laughed loudly and kissed her temple in thanks for the change in subject. "It's good to have you back, Anna," he whispered in her ear. The pair joined hands as they left the base.

* * * * * *

Just as the sun was rising the following morning, Duo was finishing making the small batch of sausage links to go with the meal he was preparing. It was the only time he was grateful for becoming a light sleeper thanks to his ordeal with the White Out Organization. He had hoped to be awake before Heero this particular morning.

When the sausages were finished, Duo carefully used a fork to remove them from the skillet. Placing all the plates of food on the tray he had found in their storage, he smiled to himself in anticipation at seeing Heero's face. Carefully lifting the tray after the glasses of milk and orange juice were added, he made his way through the house.

Grateful to make it to the top of the stairs with little difficulty, the braided pilot could already feel the strain of his muscles kicking in. Duo was not used to lifting for so long and his weakened body was starting to feel the effects. Having already planned on that happening, he had left the bedroom door cracked open before he left to start breakfast.

Heero was still asleep in bed, dressed only in his sweat shorts and a few sheets atop of him, when Duo peeked into the bedroom. It was only a couple of years when the slightest sound or movement around him would have the ex-Wing pilot alert and out of his slumber.

It still marveled Duo how much his best friend had changed since the last time he saw him. From now being so much more open with his nurturing side to admitting to his own humanity and emotions, Heero certainly had grown in just a couple of years. The braided pilot couldn't have been more proud of him, or happy for him.

Pushing the door open with his side, Duo quietly stepped into the room and walked towards the bed, carefully balancing the tray with both hands. When he neared the edge of the bed, he whispered, "Heero."

A slight stir and mumble from his friend was Duo's only response as the other pilot rolled from his right side onto his back. Unable to hide the smile from his face at the sight, the braided pilot whispered a bit more audibly, "Heero. Wake up."

"Um?" Heero mumbled as he rubbed his eyes. Quickly recognizing that Duo had been calling him, his cobalt eyes snapped open as he turned to the other side of the bed on instinct. When he found his partner standing instead of sitting there, his eyes blinked in confusion as he tried to place himself after just waking.

Once he made out the tray in Duo's hands, Heero came to full alertness as he sat up. "Duo? What is this?" he asked in sincere bewilderment.

Fighting the blush that threatened to color his cheeks, Duo shrugged, "Breakfast." Carefully setting the tray to sit over his friend's waist, he grinned, "Considering what today is, I thought it was appropriate."

Still confused, Heero ran a hand through his sleep-mussed hair. "Today?" he asked himself quietly, trying to think of what day it actually was since the last couple weeks seemed to meld together. Duo just chuckled to himself in amusement at the fact that his partner really didn't know what was going on.

The single, red carnation in a slender crystal vase set at the top of the tray completed the picture of a perfectly prepared meal. At the sight of the small tag hanging near the bulb, Heero took the note in his hand and read, `Happy Birthday, Heero' in a fancy script from Duo's hand.

Blinking in shock, Heero whispered, "Y-you remembered." He turned his wide cobalt eyes up to his friend and repeated only a bit cleared, "You remembered."

Duo grinned brightly as he nodded, "What kind of best friend would I be if I forgot your birthday?" He continued with a laugh, "Especially since I'm the one who decided what day it fell on."

A small, warm smile fell on Heero's lips as he said quietly, "This is the first time I ever got to celebrate it... Thank you, Duo."

The American practically beamed at the sincere gratitude for his actions. There was also a twinge of pain on Duo's part at the thought of Heero forgetting his own birthday the last two years because he was so busy looking for him.

How could he possibly repay him for all of the sacrifices he had made for him, let alone what Heero was still giving up for him now? It was still all too overwhelming to think of anyone going so out of their way for him, let alone the same person whom for so long found it difficult to express their feelings towards anyone.

Forcing himself from his thoughts, Duo grinned as Heero began his meal and sat beside him. "Well, I'm going to be making whatever dinner you want tonight as well." Instantly, his comrade's head went up to protest but the braided pilot held his hand up as he stated, "And no arguing. This is your day."

The very idea of having a day that was `his' made Heero smile. Knowing that Duo's taking care of him for a change was helping him as well, the Japanese pilot nodded as he promised, "All right. I won't argue with you."

"Good," Duo replied with another bright smile. "I have cake in the `fridge for dessert. Oh! And you should check your email later today, too."

Before Heero could finish his mouthful of food to ask what he needed to do that for, Duo placed a quick kiss atop his head and grinned, "Enjoy your breakfast!" With that, he bounded from the room. Swallowing his food, Heero chuckled deeply as he shook his head in amusement.

* * * * * *

When Heero had finished his breakfast and changed, he headed downstairs to find his braided friend sitting in the living room on one of the fine couches that furnished the space. His cobalt eyes widened at the large sign that read, `Happy Birthday, Heero' spelled out over the large fireplace. Here and there, colorful confetti was spread on the floor and over the tables.

In his lap, Duo had an opened book that he had uncovered in the den. At the sight of his partner, he quickly closed the book and jumped up, grinning brilliantly as he cheered, "Surprise!"

Laughing loudly, Heero shook his head, "I can't believe that you've done all this for me." Scanning the colorful sight, he said quietly, "This is amazing."

Unable to fight off the urge to blush any longer, Duo rubbed the back of his braided head with a hand as he shrugged, "Well, I wanted your first official birthday to be special."

Heero walked up to him, a warm smile on his face as he embraced his partner tightly, unable to think of anything else to say or do at that moment to show his thanks. When they broke from the embrace, the ex-Wing pilot gestured to the book that the other pilot had left on the couch as he asked, "What do you have there?"

Sitting back on the couch as he took up the book, his braided comrade took the book up again as he answered, "I was looking for decorations in the den and found this photo album."

"Ah," Heero replied. "Relena filled that for me a few months ago." Sitting beside his best friend as he peered over his shoulder to some of the images as he explained, "She always said that one could never have enough pictures."

Duo chuckled deeply as he scanned the images taken over the last couple years while he was away. His violet gaze fell on one photo of Trowa with a young woman that he didn't recognize.

In the picture, the tall pilot and red-haired young woman looked to be at the top of a steep hill, looking down to the camera. The unfamiliar girl was wrapped around Trowa from behind, as if ripping piggyback, both their smiles wide captured while they were laughing.

Pointing to the blue-eyed girl in the image, the braided pilot asked, "Who is she? I saw her in a bunch of other pictures in this book while I was scanning through it."

Heero gave a small smile at the image as he replied, "That's Anna Dawson. She and Trowa have been dating for a year-and-a-half now. They met during a department meeting at the Preventers."

Taken aback from the news, Duo turned to him with wide eyes as he gaped, "Really!?" Looking back to the image of the young redhead, he grinned, "She's very pretty."

With a nod of agreement, the Japanese pilot stated, "And very sweet. You'll like her, since she's a lot like you." At the raised eyebrow of uncertainty from his partner, he chuckled deeply, "Anna has just the right amount of kindness and brass that even Wufei respects her."

At that, Duo smirked, "That is quite an accomplishment." He turned his violet eyes back to the book, finding a few more pictures of the young couple as he gave a small grin. "I still have to give my seal of approval, though. Trowa's like a brother to me. At least by these pictures, she seems to make him happy."

Heero chuckled deeply again as he reassured him, "Happy enough to have Trowa preparing to pop the question." He was rewarded with another wide-eyed gaze, causing him to laugh loudly.

When he contained his laughter at last, the ex-Wing pilot smiled, "Anna was sent off on a few field assignments around the same time we found you-"

"You mean the time *you* found me," Duo corrected, raising an extended pointer finger.

Taking a deep breath, his dark-haired friend continued on, "Well, at any rate, you'll get to meet her when we're back home." A bright smile fell on his partner's face at the idea.

As he closed the photo album, Duo asked with a wide grin, "Well, what do you want to do today? Whatever you're up to, I'm game." A small smirk tugged at Heero's lips.

* * * * * *

A few hours later, Heero and Duo were enjoying a swim in the large lake that was hidden in the foliage around them. It was a pleasant, long hike to their secluded swimming hole with the warm weather and clear day.

Poking his head up from under the water after diving in, Duo was grinning from ear-to-ear. He always did enjoy the outdoors so he was more than thrilled with Heero's suggestion for the day's activities. Still, something had been bothering him a bit since their discussion earlier that morning.

With a short swim into the deeper water where his friend was, the braided pilot asked, "Heero? Have you ever… well, dated anyone while I was gone?"

Not having expected that question, Heero looked up from where he had been floating peacefully. Meeting his partner's eyes, he shook his head, frowning, "No. I was too… occupied to even think of dating someone."

Duo winced slightly as he frowned sadly. He lowered his head and commented, "It's just… Wufei has Sally, Trowa has Anna and by some freak of nature, Quatre has Relena." At the last comment, Heero chuckled deeply.

Looking up to face his best friend again, the American bit his lip before saying quietly, "I just feel like you missed out on so much because you were so busy looking for me, you know?"

Just able to place his feet on the rocky bottom of the lake to stand, Heero fixed the other pilot with a stern glare as he stated clearly, "I want to get one thing straight. Got it?"

When his wide-eyed partner nodded nervously, the ex-Wing pilot continued, "My searching for you these last couple years had been my choice. I don't feel that I've missed out on anything, since my actions paid out in the end."

The reflection of the golden sun bounced off the ripples of the water to dance on their faces as Heero went on, "I don't have any regrets when it comes to what I may or may not have missed on. So don't ever feel guilty for something that I decided to do. Understood?"

At the intensity of his partner's words, Duo nodded and replied sincerely, "Okay." Slowly, a small smile tugged at his face as he bit his bottom lip. Taking a chance, he moved forward quickly, before Heero could see him coming. He placed a soft kiss on his friend's cheek and whispered close to his ear, "Thank you."

Pulling back quickly, he smiled at the other pilot's stunned face and suggested, "We better start heading back. We have a bit of a walk to the house and I need to get dinner started if we want to eat at a decent hour."

With that, the braided Preventer quickly swam back to the dock. His cobalt eyes still wide, Heero moved a hand up to where he could still feel Duo's wet lips. A wide smile fell on his face and he finally managed to move to swim after his friend.

* * * * * *

Heero checked his email, as Duo had all but ordered, when they returned back to their summer house later that afternoon. He blinked in shock at having received a message from all of their friends, including emails from Hilde, Dorothy, Lady Une, Zechs and Noin, wishing him a happy birthday.

The messages included short recorded videos from each of them. The fact that all of their friends had known about the occasion meant that Duo had, at some point, contacted all of them.

Despite his own anger towards them, the American was still willing to put his own feelings aside to contact them in his efforts to see that the ex-Wing pilot had a memorable, first birthday. It was staggering to Heero to think that anyone would take such steps just for him.

Clicking on the last message of the long list of emails he had received, Heero smiled in relief at the sight of Anna safely on Trowa's lap in their library. Together, they chorused, "Happy birthday, Heero!" The Japanese Preventer laughed as the young couple went on to extend their best wishes to him as well as Duo.

After having checked all of his birthday messages, Heero had a warm smile on his face as he rose from the seat at his desk. Closing his laptop, he decided to reply to his friends the following day as to spend more time with his braided comrade.

No sooner had he closed his computer did Heero hear the other pilot call from downstairs, "Dinner's ready!" Shaking his head, he made his way to the hallway as the pleasant smell of chicken parmesan and noodles filled the air.

* * * * * *

Once dinner was finished, Duo cleared the dining room table off quickly, ordering Heero to stay put. When he reappeared from the kitchen, the American retuned carrying a chocolate iced cake with nineteen burning candles atop as he sang `Happy Birthday.'

Laughing, Heero prepared to blow out the candles as Duo practically bounced in his seat across from him, cheering, "Make a wish!"

"No need to this year," the ex-Wing pilot smiled to himself before he blew out all of the glowing candles in one huff. His braided partner cheered excitedly and began removing the candles to cut the cake.

For a moment, the two Preventers enjoyed their slices of vanilla cake, just enjoying each other's company in silence. After a while, Duo was beginning to work on his second slice as he thought aloud, "Last year as a teenager. And I'm right behind."

Heero chuckled deeply as he admitted, "It is almost frightening. Considering how we never should have made it out of the wars alive." Duo nodded as he swallowed.

When they both had their fill of cake and that was cleared away, Heero was led to the living room. Once his friend was seated, Duo shifted on his feet almost nervously as he began, "I wanted to find something nice for your birthday, since this was your first and all, and well…"

Taking a deep breath, Duo revealed his hands from behind his back. Heero blinked in shock at the small box sealed neatly in silver wrapping paper. He accepted the box almost tenderly.

As he took a seat beside him on the couch, Duo smiled nervously. Slowly, Heero unwrapped the gift to reveal what looked to be a jewelry box. Opening the lid, the ex-Wing pilot gasped sharply as his cobalt eyes widened in shock.

"Duo…" he whispered as he removed the silver cross pendant and chain.

Removing his own, gold cross pendant and chain from under his shirt, Duo held them close together to reveal their similar designs as he spoke quickly, explaining, "I had it fashioned after mine. When you had to give mine back after you found me, you almost looked… disappointed."

His eyes still on the silver cross, Heero breathed, "It's perfect."

It truly was as if his friend had read his mind in what he had felt in losing the feeling of that cross that somehow connected them when they parted. Now it was a common bond that they could share. There could be no more perfect gift than what he was holding.

A look of relief filled Duo's face as he sighed deeply, smiling. Taking the silver cross and chain, the braided pilot carefully hooked the necklace around his friend's neck. Pulling back to see how it fell at the same length as his own chain he grinned, "Now we match."

Unsure of how he was able to keep the tears that threatened to fill his eyes at bay, Heero turned and held his partner tightly, "Thank you, Duo."

Losing the fight to his own tears, the other pilot blinked his shimmering, violet eyes as he embraced his best friend just as tightly. "Anytime," he whispered back.

* * * * * *

That evening, an exhausted Duo fell into bed, his night shirt rising up from the impact, as he sighed deeply in relief. It had been a busy couple days and an emotional ride. With a wide yawn, he closed his eyes as he rested his head on the pillows.

With a deep chuckle, Heero crawled into the bed on the opposite side. Pulling the covers over the both of them, he carefully tucked his tired friend in as Duo mumbled, his eyes still closed, "Happy birthday, Heero."

Smiling warmly down on him, the ex-Wing pilot whispered back, "Thank you, Duo, for everything. This was… one of the best days I've ever had." The last words were barely breathed and spoken with the utmost sincerity.

His violet eyes still closed, Duo hummed as a small smile tugged at his lips. "I'm glad," he yawned again. "Good night."

"Good night," the Japanese Preventer replied just as softly.

Even as he said the words, Heero knew that his friend would be asleep before he even heard him. Smiling to himself, he contented himself with watching the unpredictable pilot sleep peacefully. Not only did he have his first birthday, he was able to spend it with the Duo that he always knew.

Looking down to his bare chest as he lied on his back, Heero watched the silver cross shimmering in the moonlight that peeked from the doors leading to the second level balcony. His smile grew the slightest bit at the sight of the pendant.

The day had been one filled with so many feelings and revelations. Allowing a small tear of joy to finally slip past his defenses and down his right cheek, Heero looked over to the braided pilot.

Leaning over, he placed a soft kiss on Duo's forehead, holding his lips there for a moment before pulling back. The small grin on his partner's face grew a bit at the touch even in his sleep. With that small smile on his own face, Heero closed his eyes.

 

Part 10:

"Do you believe in God, Heero?" Duo's voice broke through the dimly lit cell as the ex-Gundam pilots lied on their back, preparing for yet another day of questioning.

Ever since their fateful conversation regarding the `Silver lining Theory', Heero had grown accustomed to these out-of-the-blue inquiries from the braided pilot. Seriously considering the question, the Japanese Preventer answered, "If you had asked me during the wars, I would have told you no. Doctor J never believed in anything but man's will. He made certain that my training did not allow me to make my own beliefs."

Intrigued by his friend's response, Duo rolled onto his side to face the ex-Wing pilot. Even in the thin light that peeked in from under the cell door, his violet eyes shown with their surprise as he asked, "Then you believe in God now? What changed your mind?"

Shrugging, Heero answered, "After the first war, I was a bit curious as to how there could be so many religions and so many beliefs. So, I did my own research on the different faiths to appease my own interest in the matter."

Duo sat up, never taking his eyes from his partner as he waited patiently for him to continue. Taking a deep breath, Heero turned his gaze up to his cellmate as he went on, "While there are some who believe in more than one entity, I found that the majority of the religions believed in one.

"While that alone was not enough for me to come to a conclusion if I believed or not, I came across something else…. I also learned that when you strip down the different ways that each religion celebrates their belief, they all share the same foundation for their religions."

Heero's cobalt eyes filled with an almost… peace in them as he said quietly, "Love and believe in one God above all others, and love your neighbor as yourself. That's the simple, basic law of just about every religion there is out there."

Taking a moment, the Japanese teenager spoke again as he suggested, "I do think that mankind has taken religion into their own hands in many ways, made it something more than what it was intended so people can benefit for themselves." Duo nodded fervently in his own agreement to that statement.

A small smirk tugged the corner of Heero's mouth as he stated, "But for so many to base their faiths on the same law, I can't help but think that someone got it right." He turned his head to look back up to the ceiling again as he concluded, "So to answer your question… yes, I do believe in God."

For a long moment, there was silence between the two Preventers. With small tears in his violet eyes, Duo whispered, "Thank you, Heero. Before now, I wasn't even sure if I believed in God, myself."

* * * * * *

"I don't like this idea," Relena frowned deeply, the first to finally speak after hearing the suggestion given by Lady Une. Along with her, the Gundam pilots, Zechs, Noin and Anna gathered together in the conference room after the head of the Preventers had called on them.

Sharing her concern, Wufei folded his arms as he sighed, "Neither do I. Duo's already been through enough by our interference and lack thereof. I don't think that this would be a very wise move."

Sally nodded, "Heero's kept in contact with me over the course of the last three months. Duo's finally been making progress in his demeanor. If we do this, it may do more damage to him, causing him to retreat within himself more than he had when we found him."

With a deep breath, Lady Une sat up in her seat as she stated, "I understand, and I do agree with all of your concern over this matter. But, we have some new developments in our search for those involved in the White Out Organization." She nodded to the redheaded Preventer sitting across the round table from her.

The moment everyone's eyes fell on her, Anna frowned deeply as she swallowed hard. To her right, Trowa squeezed her leg under the table for support as his lover took up the folder of reports she had gathered. Clearing her throat, she began, "Trowa and I came across some information that is a bit… unnerving and needs to be acted upon as soon as possible."

His attention peeked, Zechs nodded to her and asked, "What information did you find?"

Anna turned to her partner for a moment before looking back to the tall man to answer, "We believe that we have some inside leaks helping the organization." Every eye on her widened in shock at her announcement.

"Y-you mean there are Preventers working for White Out?" Noin breathed. "How are you sure?"

Nodding, Trowa replied, "We found evidence that someone had been tampering with the central communication database that we use to email each other throughout the office. The traces that were left behind were minimal and took quite some time for us to notice that there was any change in the system.

"There is no telling how long ago the database was rigged, but there is reason to believe that the person, or persons responsible have been able to read every message and overhear every telephone conversation made in this office for over three years now."

Still wide-eyed, Sally commented, "That was well before Heero and Duo's mission where they had been captured. Heero did make a remark that it almost seemed like the rebels they were targeting knew they were coming."

Noin's face turned pale as she added grimly, "It also explains why we were only able to intercept four transport ships all together. Those attacks all happened at the same time, the orders to strike given verbally. After that, we resorted to using our office phones and emailing system to follow up."

Zechs fell back in his seat as he rubbed his face with his hands. Lowering his hands again, he said quietly, "Whoever is tampering with our communication here knows everything that we had been planning in locating the leaders of the organization."

With a solemn nod, Lady Une advised, "I have not issued a correction to the problem, as I do not want to have those listening in on us to think that we're aware of what it going on. I have ordered Trowa and Anna to continue their search to find the source of the interference."

The couple nodded firmly to her as Anna reassured her friends, "It'll take time, but we'll be able to trace the strand of missing links in the database. We'll find the parties responsible for this."

Looking back up to his commander, Wufei asked, "But what good would it be in trying to convince Heero to bring Duo back? It could take days, weeks, or more for there to be any real lead to who is leaking information out."

Realization flooding her in now seeing Lady Une's reasoning, Relena answered for her, "Duo's knowing that one of his own is the reason he was captured may trigger him into action."

At the confused and surprised glanced she received, the politician explained, "It's personal now. Someone he trusted is the reason he ended up in White Out's captivity."

A shudder ran up Quatre's spine as he saw the truth in that his lover stated. "Until now, he didn't have a name or a face to focus his rage on. Now he may have that," the blonde Arab added.

"He would have a reason to help in any way he can in finding everyone responsible," Trowa continued. "And in having Duo aiding in the search, we would have Heero back as well. This is just as much his hope for revenge as Duo's."

Still reserved in making a final decision, Lady Une addressed the group as she appraised them all before ordering, "I want to see a show of hands as to who thinks I should reach them. I want to be certain that everyone supports this motion."

For a moment, everyone sat, unmoving, as they dealt with their own thoughts. Finally, slowly, Zechs was the first to raise his hand. Noin soon followed along with Relena, Anna and Trowa. Biting his lip, Quatre moved his own hand up, followed by Wufei and Sally.

At the sight of every hand in the air, the head of the Preventers sighed deeply. "There will no longer be discussion involving our search via phone or email when we are in this building. We will have to discuss these matters in person, or from our personal residences."

When everyone present nodded their understanding and agreement, Lady Une concluded, "I'll contact Heero and Duo tonight from my house. Thank you for your time." And with those words, the meeting was adjourned.

* * * * * *

Sighing deeply, Duo sat back in the chair he had been set up on the second floor balcony just outside the bedroom. A gentle breeze played with his braid as he lost himself in his thoughts. He had now spent over three months at the summer house with Heero.

Over the course of their time hidden from the world, Duo managed to slowly start building his strength again with their long walks and occasional jogs. While he was not at his physical best, he was taking his recovery one step at a time.

Duo had nearly regained the weight that he had lost after nearly starving to death. It was a relief to not have to face the gawking imprints of his ribs whenever he removed his shirt. While there were still a few scars that remained on his chest, he no longer looked sick as well as marked from his ordeal.

The puncture wounds on the braided pilot's elbows had finally healed. Instead of wearing the remainder of Heero's tank top as cover now, Duo had tied them together to make a wide band- similar to a bracelet- that he wore on his right wrist at all times. It served for as much a keepsake, he imagined, as the silver chain and cross Heero wore was to him.

The thought of his best friend brought a smile on Duo's face. The time that he was able to spend with Heero the last few months had been the best times he could ever recall in his life. Along with that happiness, there was also the slightest bit of pain in his being so close to his dear friend.

That pain came from Duo's knowledge that he could never admit his true feelings for the ex-Wing pilot. It was not long before the end of the war when he had realized he had fallen in love with Heero. After being so drawn to the stoic youth, he had to be honest with himself in why he was so attracted to him.

Somehow, it was easier to have those feelings knowing that the Japanese soldier would probably never change and they might never see each other again when the war was over. Now that the war had ended and Heero had not only changed but taken so much time and effort to took after him, Duo was having a more difficult time coping with his emotions, on top of his mental scars from when he was in White Out's captivity.

Heero walked up to the second level of the house after returning from gathering some much needed groceries. Knowing that Duo always liked to gaze out to their scenic view from the balcony, that was the first place he went.

Instead of disturbing his friend when he found him, Heero contented himself to stand in the doorway to watch him for a moment. The small smile on the other pilot's face had an infectious infect on him as he felt his own lips tug upward. After a long moment of silence between them, the Japanese Preventer greeted gently, "Hey."

His braided head snapping up to meet his eyes, Duo smiled back, "Hey." Rising from his seat, he asked, "Need help putting the food away?"

As he raised a hand, Heero shook his head and replied, "No, I took care of that already." With a nod of his head to the chair, he said, "I hope I didn't disturb you from something."

Duo chuckled deeply and shrugged, "Nah. I was getting ready to head in soon, anyway." He looked up to the sky as a span of thick clouds began rolling in. "Looks like we're going to have rain tonight," he observed aloud.

Leading the way back into the house, Heero nodded, "The weather report on the radio said some pretty nasty thunderstorms are on the way." He smirked, "Considering how lucky we've been with the weather up to now, I suppose we can deal with some rain."

"Yea," Duo agreed as he closed the balcony door behind him. He smiled to himself at the sight of the silver chain poking out of the back of his best friend's shirt. Breaking himself from his thoughts, he announced, "And don't think about cooking tonight. You took care of dinner the last two nights, so it's my turn."

Heero knew better than to argue the matter, even though he did enjoy taking care of his partner. Still, he also knew that Duo enjoyed doing the same for him, so he decided to let the matter rest. Duo went into the kitchen right away to look over what foods he could work with.

No sooner had Duo gone off did Heero's emergency contact cell phone ring. His cobalt eyes narrowing a bit, the ex-Wing pilot quickly walked into the living room to answer the call. Why would anyone be calling now after all this time? Opening the flip and placing the phone to his ear, he grated, "This is Yuy."

Lady Une's voice responded simply, "Patch into my personal frequency when you are at your laptop. Code number 598." At that, she disconnected.

Without hesitating, Heero walked up to the bedroom that he and Duo shared. Opening his laptop, which he had not used in over a week, he quickly patched into the signal that had been entrusted to him. He placed the computer on the small desk as he sat before it. The moment the connection was made, Lady Une's image appeared on his screen.

Relief filled the young woman's brown eyes as she smiled, "Hello, Heero."

Keeping his guard up a bit, the ex-Wing pilot nodded firmly but kept his voice in a friendly tone as he replied, "Lady Une." Before he had to sit through any small talk before getting to the matter at hand, he asked, "What is this about?"

For the first time, in all the time that he knew the brunette woman, Heero noted her hesitation. At last, she sighed deeply and answered, "I need to speak with Duo."

His cobalt eyes narrowing, the Japanese Preventer folded his arms and stated, "You can speak with me first. So, I'll ask again. What is this about?" Suddenly recognizing the furniture of the Preventer head's living room, he asked, "Why are you contacting me from your house and not your office."

Lady Une kept her patience, knowing that Heero was only being protective of the other pilot. She decided better to just be honest with him than get him even more upset for her disturbance. "There has been some breaking news in regards to the White Out Organization. It appears that we have a leak, or more than one leak, within the Preventers."

At that news, Heero's eyes widened. His fists clenched tightly as he inquired in a deep growl, "You're certain?" At his Commander's nod, the young pilot covered his face with his hands as he allowed the information to process.

"Whoever this individual or individuals are," Lady Une spoke up gently after a long pause, "they are the same people responsible for the capture of you and Duo on your last mission together.

"Anything that the rest of us have been working on as leads will not pan out now, as they have been warning those leads in advance. There is no telling what else they know, about all of us, since they have been watching us for the last few years," she advised.

Lowering his hands, Heero sat numbly as he looked to the screen. One of their own had been responsible for everything that happened to Duo the last two years. Taking a deep breath, he asked, "You're looking into finding those leaks?"

The young woman gave him a firm nod as she answered, "Trowa and Anna are working around the clock to find the source to the breech in our communication database."

It did not take long for Heero to realize the purpose behind Lady Une's request to share this information with Duo first. His eyes narrowing anew, he stated, "I will not allow Duo to go into this search before he's ready. It'll be his decision if he wishes to return and I won't stand for anyone pressuring him."

Before Lady Une could protest, Heero told her firmly, "I'll tell Duo what you've learned. From there, it's up to him what he wants to do."

Having no other choice in the matter, the head of the Preventers nodded and replied sincerely, "Thank you, Heero. Please send Duo all our best."

"I'll do that," the ex-Wing pilot reassured her, losing the edge in his voice. Reaching up, he disconnected the call. For a while, Heero just stared at the blank screen as the thoughts running through his mind threatened to cause him to implode.

When Heero looked up, he gasped sharply as his cobalt eyes widened on the sight of his best friend standing in the doorway to the bedroom. Concern filled his gaze as he whispered breathlessly, "Duo…"

Quick as a flash, his braided partner turned and made his way to the stairs. Running after him, Heero called, "Duo! Wait!" When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found the other pilot placing his hand on the knob of the front door.

Placing his hand on the door to keep it closed, the Japanese Preventer begged quietly, "Duo, please look at me… talk to me, something." His heart broke at the sight of the tear-filled violet eyes that looked up at him.

Slowly, a sad smile fell on Duo's lips as he said faintly, "Heero… I…" Shaking his head, he tried again, his voice still little more than a whisper. "Thank you for trying to protect me… But I can't hide from my demons forever." He bit his lip and continued, "I have a lot to think about… alone, if you don't mind."

Heero nodded and replied back just as softly, "Okay. I'll be here waiting, then." Ever since the day they had been separated, it was he same promise they made to each other whenever they had to part again.

Gently, he placed a hand on Duo's shoulder and squeezed it for support. Covering the hand with one of his own, the braided pilot spoke his gratitude without words as he squeezed back before heading outside, closing the door behind him.

* * * * * *

With the thick clouds overhead, Duo was not able to gage what time it was when he finally reached the edge of the lake where he and Heero had spent many a warm day like this swimming. Sitting atop a large rock, the braided pilot shuddered almost violently as he hugged his legs to his body.

There was a low rumble in the distance as the ground vibrated from the distant thunder. A few large drops fell past the tree branches overhead, soon followed by a steady downpour of rain. Lost in his own thoughts, Duo never paid any mind to the fact that he was quickly becoming soaked. His shaking was not on account to being cold or wet.

Lady's Une's message about a traitor, if not more, within the Preventers had wracked the American to the core. Not only was he in danger all this time, his friends, the only family he knew, were also in danger. While there was that to deal with, there was also the possibility of finding a lead to those in charge of White Out.

Running a hand through his wet bangs Duo thought about Michael and Kayla. He thought about the many names and faces he came to know who had been prisoners to the same captors who held him. He thought of countless others whom were no doubt suffering the same as they had at that very moment.

Another shudder ran through Duo as the nightmarish memories of the time he had spent imprisoned. He was still having a difficult time coming to grips with it all, but he knew that he had to. As wonderful as the vacation had been, it really was just an escape from the reality of what had happened, and was still happening.

Large tears fell from the braided pilot's face, melding with the rain that continued to pour down. Closing his eyes tightly, Duo sobbed quietly as he continued to shake. He knew that he had to face his demons. But to have to do it alone…

At that last thought, the American's violet eyes snapped open wide. Raising his right wrist, Duo looked to the band of green fabric made from his best friend's shirt. Gently running his other hand over the band, he whispered, "Heero…" Hugging his legs to his chest again, he reminded himself to never consider himself alone again.

* * * * * *

It was well after dark and still Duo was out in the rain. Heero continued to pace anxiously in the living room. He knew the other pilot was perfectly capable of maneuvering himself through the woods around their house in the dark, but a storm like this would make it difficult. While he had promised to allow his partner his time alone, he was now growing more and more concerned that something may have happened. Another flash of lightning shown through the drawn blinds as the ex-Wing pilot ran a hand through his hair.

Looking up at the time on the grandfather clock, Heero noted that Duo had been out for almost three hours, half that time he had been in the terrible downpour. He blinked his cobalt eyes in shock and disbelief at the realization that that so much time had passed. Knowing that he would be breaking his word, and not caring at that particular moment, he resolved himself to going out to find his friend.

Just as he moved to the closet to find a couple of windbreakers to fend off the rain, Heero heard footsteps making their way up the front porch. Quickly, he ran into the entranceway of the house just as the front door opened. With a small asp, the ex-Wing pilot took in the drenched form of his partner.

As Duo moved to step inside, he stumbled as if he were not even aware he was moving. Heero moved swiftly and gathered him into his arms as he fell forward. Clinging onto his soaked friend, he whispered in a relieved sigh, "Duo." The braided pilot reached up to grasp onto him tightly as he slowly became aware of where he was.

Carefully scooping Duo into his arms after a moment of just holding him, Heero carried him into the living room. Setting the American to sit on one of the couches, he made quick work of removing the sopping T-shirt and sweat pants to wrap a warm blanket around his partner's shoulders. As he rubbed Duo's arms through the blanket, Heero took account that his violet eyes were more alert now.

Once he was satisfied that Duo was safe and warm, the Japanese Preventer sat beside him. Taking the braided teenager into his arms, he sighed deeply, "God, Duo, you had me half scared to death. I was just about to head out looking for you."

With a mumbled `Sorry,' Duo looked up to the pilot cradling him. When their eyes met, the braided pilot said quietly, but firmly, "We should head back."

Taking a deep breath, Heero nodded and brushed back his friend's bangs as he replied, "All right. We can go back home tomorrow."

Duo bit his lip and frowned, "I'm going to need help… I don't know if I'm ready to handle this on my own yet."

A small, sad smile fell on the ex-Wing pilot's face as he stated gently, "What are best friends for? You know you don't have to face anything alone anymore… not with me around." With those words, the braided Preventer smiled in relief.

Finally, the mental exhaustion from the events of that day caught on with Duo as he fell asleep in the strong arms holding him. With his eyes closed, he mumbled something against Heero's shoulder. Small tears filled Heero's cobalt eyes as he whispered, "I love you, too, Duo." Carefully, the Japanese Preventer carried him upstairs.

Just when Heero was certain this investigation could not become any more personal than it was already, he had been proven wrong.