Author: Robert (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Category: drama, romance
Pairings: 2+1, 4+3, 5+S
Warnings: mild angst, shonen-ai, yaoi, language
Feedback: welcomed at the above address
Notes: ‘...’ = thoughts
Legalities: I don’t own the characters. If I did, I’d make a new action/adventure OVA with lotsa tasty shonen-ai and yaoi in it. This story is not for profit. So there.
Thanks to Bonnejeanne for C&C, and to Von for beta-ing above and beyond the call of duty, and to FractalForge for very helpful C&C as well.
[NOTE: This fic is the first in a three-part “mini-arc” which also contains “Interlude: The Mile-High Club,” and “Pavlov’s Dog, Swimming In A Sea Of Stars.”]
C’mon c’mon and bury your question in
Give me your hand
we can love
Angel blow the one eternal note
Call all the lambs outta the poolhalls
God and Christ hold the one cue
While the Holy Spirit spits out the score
There’s no more question now
c’mon I’m here
Angel blow the one last note
that sets your heart on fire...
My face cut from the air
out of nowhere
Think of what I used to say
lying there next to you
Elijah came out my mouth:
When life’s possessions wear you down
I’ll be ‘round
I’ll be ‘round
Well it’s been goin’ on
for such a long time now
Come carve your name in my heart
You’ll be the one I’m thinking of
when the last legion’s angels
come blastin’ through the sky...
--Glenn Davis © 1982
It was mid-September. The last heat wave of the season had already passed. The days were growing shorter; summer was winding down swiftly.
The sun turned red as it dipped toward the horizon, illuminating the small city with a painterly glow. A grubby, tired Duo Maxwell was making his way home from MacTavish Salvage Co. to his one-bedroom apartment. His employer valued Duo’s technical expertise and his quickness in disassembling rusting Taurus’s and Leos, as well as his ability to dispatch more mundane vehicles of every stripe. But in the two years since Heero had disappeared after that awful night, right after the Eve War, Duo had lost his bubbly energy and enthusiasm for living. His friends could see it in his carriage, and in the violet eyes that seemed somehow faded, like the color pictures in an old Victorian storybook.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried. After Heero’s disappearance, Duo went out of his way to socialize, hanging out and meeting new people. The regulars at Steeltoe, his favorite bar, knew his predilection for young, blue-eyed Asian men, but there were few candidates and even fewer that received more than five minutes of his time. Of those, none seemed to get further than a conversation at the local coffee bar. Duo seemed perpetually frustrated and had become notorious for excusing himself early, telling his disappointed dates that he had to work the next day. No one understood what was on the braided American’s mind, and no one could honestly claim to have shared his bed. Word around Steeltoe was that there was something wrong with the 18-year-old heartbreaker and that going out with him guaranteed nothing but frustration.
‘Man, they don’t know the half of it,’ thought Duo, morosely, as he trudged along the street that led to the huge complex where he lived, an easy walk from the shop. ‘When you’ve already found your soulmate and shared two years of experiences so intense that they’re entirely off most peoples’ scales, no one else can even think of measuring up. They so completely don’t get it, there’s no way I could start to explain it. The wusses I keep meeting were still living with mommy and daddy back then. Or they thought the hardest thing in life was acing their calculus final. Most of them thought that the war was some kind of giant video game, or a television show with a few thrills and chills, and a happy ending. They have NO idea how expensive that happy ending really was.’
Duo’s mood darkened as he continued home to a nondescript apartment that he shared with no one at all.
‘Why the hell did that goddamn bastard have to disappear?! For all I know, he’s fuckin’ dead by now,’ he thought angrily.
Duo’s eyes suddenly stung and he shook his head to try and dispel the gathering storm inside.
‘Shit! This is getting me exactly nowhere. ENOUGH! STOP IT, Maxwell! Just quit, already!’
The neighborhood liquor store appeared on the left and Duo stopped in to buy a microwave dinner and a six-pack. He had found that alcohol helped to distract him just a little, but his instinct for self-preservation kicked in and told him that it would be real easy for the drinking to get out of hand. He was stronger than that, wasn’t he? He was former Gundam pilot, after all, and he wasn’t about to become a lush.
At the last moment, he put the beer back in the cooler, paid for the cardboard meal, and made his way home.
It didn’t take long to unlock the door, turn on the lights, and pop the plastic dinner in the microwave. Then he had to face the problem of how to spend the evening.
‘Going out is such a waste! I had a hard day at work, so fuck it—I think I’ll skip another Friday night in paradise. Lessee...I’ll make that all-white-meat chicken-dinner-with-mashed-potatoes-and-gravy-and-faux-garden-vegetables the highlight of my evening. If I’m lucky, maybe there’s something decent on cable. Then bed sounds pretty good.’
But his bed betrayed him. At 4AM, he jerked awake, soaked with sweat. He’d had that recurring nightmare, again—Heero lying, bloody and dying, on the frozen ground, surrounded by dirty snow, under a bleak gray sky. He remembered Heero’s blue eyes turning blank and opaque as the last of his life drained from his body. Duo recalled how the dream had paralyzed him—how he frantically tried to use every ounce of will he possessed just to move his legs. Yet, he was ultimately unable to struggle one centimeter closer to his injured partner. Amazed, Duo realized that he was crying uncontrollably in the darkness of his little apartment. He was curled into a fetal position and shaking as if he were the one freezing in that desolate landscape. And he understood with icy clarity that there was no one there to hear him.
He slowly escaped from the horror of the dream.
‘Maxwell, it’s time to call Quatre. This is nuts, man. Ya gotta do something.’
But he hadn’t the slightest idea what.
Duo woke to a crisp, sunny Saturday morning. The nightmare had left him with a haunting psychic hangover, but he forced himself to do his standard workout with the weight set he kept in his living room. He then followed up with a shower and breakfast.
Duo waited until 10AM to call Quatre’s private home number on the vidphone. He suspected that the head of Winner Enterprises would be taking a little downtime at home on Saturday morning. Luckily for him, the blond ex-pilot answered on the third ring. The grainy image on the screen broke into a wide smile.
“Duo! It’s great to see you! How goes it?”
“Hey Quatre! How’s it hangin’, good buddy?” he said.
“Ummm...Duo, to tell you the truth, I haven’t actually checked it out this morning...”
Quatre made a show of glancing down in the general direction of his belt buckle, then melodramatically put his hand over his mouth.
“...Argh! Duo! I think someone’s stolen it!”
It felt great to be bantering with a member of the old team, and Duo’s face relaxed into something resembling his old grin. “Hey Q-man, I know Trowa stole your heart, but don’tcha think this is goin’ a little too far!?”
The little blond snickered. “Yeah, Duo. Maybe just a little...”
“Well, I heard it wasn’t so little at all!” riposted Duo. “I hope he’s taking good care of it for ya! Keepin’ ya warm at night and...”
Duo grabbed the salt shaker from his kitchen table, wiggled his hips, and sang into its perforated chrome top, “...givin’ ya lots of that good, good lovin’... Good lovin’!”
Duo was delighted to see the blond Arabian blush even through the crappy five-bit color palette of the vidphone.
“So seriously, Q, how are you and Trowa doin’?” he asked.
“We’re doing great. Trowa’s doing great. He’s not here right now, though. There’s this huge new hardware store in town—one of those big warehouses—and he got an early start down there. Trowa loves getting lost among the power tools.”
Duo gave a devilish grin. “Oh yeah? Whose power tools does he like, Q? Bet it’s not the ones they sell down there, now is it?”
Quatre shrugged off the teasing.
“Duo, it’s amazing how domestic he’s gotten since we’ve been living together. When he gets time off from the Preventers, he loves to fix things. He’s actually gotten into building furniture, and it’s looking better and better the more he does it.
“He’s starting to do reproductions of old pieces in the American Federal style. Maybe his experience being a convincing fake OZ soldier helps him build convincing fake antiques—who knows? Anyway, it makes him feel really good to create beautiful things instead of destroying them, like we all did in the war. You know, we all could use a little comfort like that.”
“Cool!” said Duo. “Trowa as master carpenter. Never thought he had it in him. But not one of us knew how we were going to cope with peace, once we finally won it. And yeah, you’re right about that comfort thing...”
Duo suddenly became aware of baroque music playing in the background behind Quatre, and, even through the tinny speaker of the vidphone, he was transfixed by the mixture of rich, old instruments and a soaring chorus, singing in interweaving, intricate four-part counterpoint.
“Hey Q! What’s that music you’re playing? It’s really cool.”
“Duo, that’s Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’. It’s very old and very beautiful. Even though Bach and I come from completely different religions, listening to that music always makes me feel closer to the spirit of the Divine.”
“There are always surprises in Bach, and part of the surprise is that the surprise itself is always flawless. It’s like a diamond with an infinite number of facets, and no matter how deeply you look into it, you never really exhaust its possibilities. It’s just awesome to study his scores, and to...”
With half an ear, Duo listened to Quatre, always the musician, rattle on about viola da gambas and natural horns and continuo and tracker organs and figured bass and counterpoint, while, simultaneously, the music entered him and built a towering, ghostly cathedral in his mind, with the sun backlighting great stained glass windows that were on fire with the crimson blood of Christ’s crucifixion. It brought to mind a much more modest church long ago in his blighted childhood, and he felt a little stab in his heart when he realized that he’d been neglecting some important things for far too long.
Finally, Duo pulled himself out of his reverie and turned his attention back to Quatre as the blond boy said, “Bach was a Protestant, you know. But five hundred years after his death, it doesn’t seem to matter at all.”
Duo gave a little sigh as he descended slowly back to earth.
“Quatre, I’m sure you guessed that I didn’t really call to discuss your love life and then get seduced by Bach. I had this horrible dream last night, again, where Heero was lying somewhere in the middle of some frozen landscape, bleeding to death. He died in front of my eyes, and it was one of those dreams where I couldn’t move a muscle,” Duo said, and then looked back at Quatre.
“I know it’s been a long time, but I wondered if you’d heard anything about Heero. Anything at all. I think it’s beginning to get to me, not knowing if he’s dead or alive.”
Quatre’s warm face grew deadly serious.
“Duo, forgive me for asking, but did you ever sleep with Heero during the war?”
Duo blinked at the seeming non sequitur. “Huh? Wait a minute Quatre—that’s something that’s really personal. How come you’re asking me that?”
“Duo, I’m sorry, but I think it’s truly important. Just bear with me, OK?”
Duo paused for a moment, and sighed. “Fuck...Yeah, Q, I slept with him. More than once. The ol’ soldiers comforting each other on the battlefield sort of thing, ya know...”
Quatre’s retort cut sharp and deep. “That’s bullshit, Duo. It was a thousand times more than that. Remember Duo, I can feel things through my uchuu no kokoro. I could sense how you felt every time you were with him. Every time you looked at him, Duo. And what’s more, I could feel something within him too. It was hard for me to interpret, but it almost felt like something struggling to escape. I really think he was trying to respond to you, but his emotions were paralyzed by something deep inside his guts. He was fighting it hard, but he was losing. I’d put money on that something’s being J’s little science project. In fact, I think you could take it to the bank.”
Duo virtually spat out his contempt. “That motherfucker. That cybernetic freak bastard. To think that I called those so-called scientists my allies, and J had to screw Heero up like that...”
Duo took a deep breath and shivered a little.
“Oh man! Two years ago I got a real big hint about what J had done to him.”
“Duo,” Quatre said, “Except for Heero, I’ve kept tabs on all of the Gundam team since the war. I guess it goes with that strategy thing that everyone always said I was good at. I know you’re struggling. You’ve got to miss him big-time. It’s messing you up, Duo, and it sucks. You’ve been my friend for a long time, and I hate what you’re going through.”
Quatre paused. He knew it was time to ask the Big Question:
“Duo, do you have any idea why he disappeared?”
Duo turned pale. The question pulled him, like one of his nightmares, back to one of the worst nights of his life.
“Yeah, Q. I do,” he said. “It’s all starting to make sense now, although nothing at all made sense when it was happening.”
“It was a couple of weeks after the end of the Eve War. We’d already blown up the Gundams, and realized that we had to get on with our lives. Heero had been guarding Relena for those few weeks. Then, one night he showed up at my room. I was still in temporary quarters, trying to find a place to settle down. I don’t know how he found me so easily, but you know Heero,” he said.
Duo paused, and then took a deep breath before continuing.
“He acted completely crazy, Q,” he said. “He was going on and on about being a loaded weapon who was useless outside of war, and how he should be decommissioned just like the Gundams now that we’d won the peace. He said he was a heartless, dangerous killer. I’d never seen him cry before, but he was coming totally unglued. I could sense that he was planning to self-destruct, and I begged, pleaded, argued, cajoled, and did everything in my power to try to save his life. I’ve never felt so helpless, ever. Ever! Nothing I said seemed to get through to that mysterious, untouchable center of his.
“Finally, I put my arms around him and kissed him hard as I could. It was the only thing I hadn’t tried and I was amazed when he actually responded to me after all the insanity. The kiss must have broken through to someplace deeper than I could ever go with all my worthless pleading. All of that endless blathering chatter! All those panicked words, and one kiss was more powerful than any of them,” he said as the painful memory pounded him like a mugger.
Duo paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, then continued. “It certainly wasn’t the first time we’d made love, but it ended up being so much more passionate that I still think about it every single day, even though it hurts like a motherfucker when I do. It seemed like some barrier had gone defective inside him, and his conditioning was breaking down. But it wasn’t breaking down in a controlled or benign way at all. Emotions were roaring out of him like a tidal wave, totally out of control, and I almost ended up drowning in them.
“Part of it was the best sex you could ever imagine, but, for me, it was overlaid with this panic and horror. It felt as if his heart had stopped, and somehow, if I gave him enough of my love, I could bring him back to life. It was beyond intense. We made love for hours, not stopping for anything, and finally, very late, we both passed out from pure exhaustion,” Duo said, overwhelmed by the memory.
“When I woke up the next morning, he was gone,” he concluded. “There was no note...nothing. Not a hint of what had happened to him, where he went, or even if he was dead or alive. Nothing.”
‘...and I lay face-down on his side of the bed, where his scent still lingered, and cried harder than I ever had in my life...’
“Q, I’ve heard nothing since. I always thought he went to finish what he had started. I thought I was able to delay it for just that one night, but that was all. I was sure I had lost him, and that he was dead, and that I had failed because I couldn’t save him. Q...oh God...I couldn’t save him.”
Quatre stared at Duo, shocked and appalled at what his friend had gone through. “Duo, I’m so sorry. All of us foolishly keep secrets from each other, and this is one I wish you’d told me about a long time ago, because I can tell you one thing for sure—Heero’s not dead.”
Duo gave a barely audible gasp and closed his eyes for a moment.
“I would have felt it if he had died anywhere, whether here on earth or in space, and that just never happened,” Quatre said. “I don’t have any idea where he is, but I think one of us might. But I don’t think you’re going to like who it is.”
Quatre was completely astonished at how fast Duo’s expression changed from reprieved to royally pissed off.
“Wufei!? Mr. Justice!? Mr. Stick-As-Big-As-A-Telephone-Pole-Up-His-Ass-Straight-Boy!? And I’m going to have to get down on my knees and go crawling to Mr. Learned Chinese Scholar and beg him to help me!? SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” Duo spat, furious. He glared at the vidphone’s little screen.
“Quatre, when did you know?!” he growled.
Quatre was stunned by Duo’s anger. “Actually, believe it or not, it was yesterday when Wufei finally spilled it,” he carefully replied. “For a long time, I’d been sensing that he was hiding something important from me, and I felt that he really needed to let it out. So, I finally decided to push him...hard, and I got him to hint that he knew something about where Heero was. But that was it. Not a whisper more. Heero must have sworn him to silence. And you know about Wufei and honor. He’d sooner fall on his sword than break a vow. All these damn secrets...”
“Wufei and his fuckin’ honor, man!” Duo said, tightly. “You mean to tell me that for two fuckin’ years I’ve been going through hell because of his goddamn compulsive honor?!
“And now I find out that Heero’s alive, and Wufei holds the key to wherever he is and he just swallowed it?! And all because of his fuckin’ honor?! That’s bullshit, Quatre!” Duo snarled.
“Duo, he’s changed a lot in the two years since the war,” Quatre said, “A lot. Did you know he finally married again?”
“Married? To who, Mother Theresa?” Duo sneered.
“No, Duo,” Quatre said, ignoring the sarcasm, “To Sally. He finally forgave himself for Meiran’s death and allowed himself a little happiness. They’re expecting a child. You should go see him,” said the blond pilot. “And leave your attitude at the front gate. He’s a different person now. In fact, I think this is so important that we should all go and see him. You, me, and Trowa—tonight. I don’t think we should let this fester even one day longer.”
“Yeah, Q, it’ll be just like old home week at the veterans’ hospital,” Duo said, continuing to rant. “The giant robot killers’ reunion. Drinks are on the house, and be sure to wipe your feet so you don’t get blood on the clean white carpet.”
The normally diplomatic Quatre had had enough. “Sheesh, Duo, just calm down and give me a break. You’re acting like a ten-year old kid having a bad day. We’re gonna back you up. Wufei’s a decent man. In fact, he’s more than decent. That honor thing has an upside too.”
For once, Duo was silent. His adrenaline high had burned out, and he was nervous as a dog in a cage at the pound.
That afternoon, Duo hopped a commuter shuttle that took him to Denver, home city of the regional Preventer headquarters. Quatre and Trowa met him at the airport, and the trio soon took off to Wufei and Sally’s modest house in the Denver suburbs, about 20 miles from the airport. “Took off” was the appropriate phrase because Quatre drove like a maniac—the former Sandrock pilot evidently underwent a Zero-System-like personality change behind the wheel—and the other two spent most of their time watching the road behind them for the local constabulary. Each of the visitors felt jittery, not only because Quatre was driving at a speed so insane that he should have been immediately committed, but also because they knew they were visiting Wufei with the express purpose of persuading him to break his pledge to Heero. Never had the former pilots been involved in such a strange mission—one that involved persuading one of their own to violate beliefs that lay at the very core of his persona.
Wufei greeted them at the front door.
“Winner. Barton. Maxwell. It’s been some time. Please, come in. Sally—look who’s here!” he said, affably.
The niceties and small talk masked a chalk-screeching-on-the-blackboard tension that Quatre felt but didn’t understand. It buzzed around them all like mosquitoes at a midsummer barbeque.
Duo didn’t wait long to cut to the chase.
Without a trace of a smile, he said, “Hey, Wu-man, I didn’t know you’d gone and married Sally! When did that happen?”
“It was four months ago, Duo. We’re expecting a baby in another six months.”
“Huh. Fast worker, aren’tcha, Wufei? So how come I wasn’t invited to the wedding? Did ya think that a faggot would spoil it for ya? Rape the altar boy? Contaminate the cake, or somethin’? After all, that’s what you called me, wasn’t it—a faggot?”
Quatre gasped. ‘So that’s what Duo’s anger was all about! Merciful Allah, I can understand why!’ he thought.
None of them had ever seen the perennially self-confident Chinese boy as flustered as was right then. “No, Duo...I...uh...” Wufei stammered.
Duo glared at him.
“Duo,” he said, beginning again. “I just didn’t want to face you after I had said those words. I was weak and wrong. Gomen, Duo. I am truly sorry for what I said.”
Duo came back flat and hard. “But I bet you still think it, don’tcha Wufei?”
“No, Duo, really I don’t. I was a fool for saying those words, and even more of a fool for believing them when I said them.” Wufei looked at Duo directly.
“Duo, I was only 16 years old,” he continued. “Each one of us is the creation of our families and training and childhood. Me, probably more than anyone. If you’ve never had contact with a Chinese extended family, you have no idea of the pressures that they put on their sons to conform to their way of thinking. I was taught that what you were doing was unclean, and that anyone who did it should be severely punished. It took a long time for me to open my own eyes and see that part of what my family taught me was just dead wrong.”
“What do you mean Wufei, ‘What I was doing’!?” Duo spat out. He could hear and feel his voice shaking, but had to go on. “Do you think I was running around fucking everything with two legs and a dick!?”
“Yeah, Wufei, I’m a big queer,” he said, feeling his chest tighten. His words seemed to catch in his throat and he felt like he was tumbling down into some dark, cold place. “But there was only one person that I ever wanted and ever cared for and ever made love to. And he’s been missing for two years!”
Feeling himself on the verge of tears, Duo turned on his heel, braid whipping around him, and ran out the front door. He slammed it so hard that the house shook on its foundation.
Sally’s jaw dropped in dismay, and Trowa just stared at the floor, looking miserably uncomfortable. Playing ambassador, Quatre tried to defuse things. “I’m sorry, Wufei. Duo’s been going through a very bad time. He called me this morning to tell me about the horrifying nightmares he’d had. In them, Heero lies bleeding to death on some bleak and frozen landscape, while Duo is absolutely immobilized and unable to intervene.
He also told me what happened the last time he’d seen Heero, a few weeks after the Eve War. Heero came to him all crazy and suicidal. After every attempt to get through to him with words had failed, Duo made love to him. That’s what stopped Heero from running out and self-destructing. Can you imagine ever making love to someone as if his life depended on it? Because that’s what happened,” Quatre said.
“Then Heero disappeared before Duo woke up, vanished like smoke. That whole night and the next morning were emotionally devastating for him, because he’d been in love with Heero for years. And he’s been quietly hurting ever since.”
Wufei looked somber. “I think I’m finally beginning to put some of the pieces together. Quatre, could you please go outside and persuade Duo to come back in? Do whatever it takes. Tell him I’m more sorry than he could ever know. And that I have something important to tell him.”
Quatre nodded, then turned to go find Duo.
Outside, Duo stood in the front yard, his tear-stained face looking up at the stars. Huge and bloody, the gibbous moon, not yet exsanguinated by its journey across the heavens, glowered on the eastern horizon. Two of the colonies were visible, fixed against the stars in the night sky, shining brighter than Venus.
Quatre put his hand on Duo’s shoulder. Formally, he said, “Duo, Wufei is feeling great remorse for the pain that his words have caused you. He asked me to invite you back in, because he has something vital to tell you.”
Duo’s anger had burned out, and he felt bone-tired. His blistering confrontation with Wufei had left him oddly shaken. “OK, Quatre,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry I went off on him like that. I guess things have just been building up inside me. I didn’t mean to ruin this trip after all the trouble you went through just to set it up. It was stupid of me to throw a tantrum.”
Quatre breathed a small sigh of relief and squeezed Duo’s shoulder in comfort.
Silently, the two turned and walked back.
Standing by the front door, Wufei watched as they approached. “Please Duo. Come back in. We all did more than enough fighting back when we were soldiers. We don’t need to fight anymore, especially among ourselves,” he said.
Duo swallowed hard, and nodded once as they moved back into the living room.
Wufei took a deep breath, and then began. “What I see in this room are five of the most important people in my life. Four of them have found life mates, and a decent measure of happiness. But one of them is lonely and hurting because there should be a sixth one present, and he’s not here.
“Duo, two years ago Heero came to me in a very disturbed mental state. Quatre told me what happened the night before, and I now understand that, if it wasn’t for you, Heero wouldn’t have come to me at all because he would have been dead.”
Wufei’s demeanor and tone were utterly serious as he continued. “Duo, I thank you for saving Heero’s life, and I think your love for him is as honorable a thing as I have ever seen.”
“I didn’t know it, but Heero had been watching my meditations and my tai chi exercises for a long time, even though he had never discussed them with me. He told me that he felt like a dangerous, out-of-control weapon—a blade hanging over the heads of innocents. He wanted to find tranquility through some sort of life discipline...to replace his soldier’s obedience with something else applicable to his existence in the civilian world. He thought that perhaps I could teach him what he required.
“What Heero needed, however, was far more than what I could teach him. I wasn’t a Master; I was just an acolyte. He wanted to withdraw from the world until he could learn what he needed to reintegrate his personality. So I told him that for hundreds of years, my family had had connections to a Buddhist monastery about 50 klicks southeast of Katmandu, near a small town called Bhatgaon. I said that if he wanted to seek enlightenment and to find peace, that his best hope was to go there and submit himself to the monks’ instruction,” Wufei explained.
“I wrote out a recommendation using my family’s name and gave it to him. Then he swore me to secrecy. He said that until he was ready, he didn’t want to be found by anyone from his old life. He left the same day, and I’ve heard nothing from him since.
“Duo, the place where Heero was going doesn’t accept tourists. It’s a place of deep seriousness and dedication. If he stayed, he would have had to commit his life to the monastic discipline. If he’s still there, he’s probably a different person—perhaps one that you don’t even know anymore.
“But two years can change a lot of things, and I think you need to go and try to find him, for your sake, and maybe for his. I don’t think he ever understood how much you love him. That’s why I broke my promise to him tonight, because I do understand,” Wufei said, now able to meet Duo’s eyes without pain.
Duo sighed. “Thank you, Wufei. I know how hard it was for you to break your vow. You don’t know how much I appreciate it—it excuses your earlier words a thousandfold,” he said solemnly.
A week later, Duo finished his preparations for the long trip to Nepal. He took vacation time from MacTavish Salvage, and Quatre arranged transport to Katmandu. For once, Duo swallowed his pride and accepted the expensive ticket.
To prevent ecological damage, virtually all commercial air transport was subsonic (and had been so ever since the dawn of aviation, centuries earlier), so the journey to Nepal was long and arduous, with stops in London and Bombay. The trip from Katmandu to Bhatgaon was by rickety, ancient, wheezing bus, filled with exotic-looking people and livestock. It struck Duo as being a rolling future headline: “Forty-Five Nepalese, Twenty-Six Chickens, and One Ex-Gundam Pilot Killed in Bus Explosion.” But, by some miracle, the belching, backfiring contraption deposited Duo in the Bhatgaon town square a mere five hours after its shuddering launch from the capital city. His body felt like he’d just been through a three-hour battle with OZ’s finest pilots. It was not helped by the 2600-meter elevation that thinned and chilled the air, or by the butterflies pounding in his stomach at the prospect of...of what? Would Heero even be there? What would he be like if he were?
Even though his job and his regular workouts kept him in excellent physical condition, the six-kilometer uphill walk to the monastery took Duo well over an hour in the thin air. It was early afternoon when he strode, winded, through the red monastery gates. He was greeted by a set of wholly exotic sensations—the sound of wind chimes and prayer wheels and chanting, and the monastery’s denizens themselves, shaven-headed and saffron-robed.
Duo set about searching for his lost love. After a half-hour’s hunt and just when he had almost given up hope, he finally spotted a familiar blue-eyed Japanese face near the monastery’s perimeter, and the butterflies pounded even harder.
Heero looked completely different. His unruly hair had been shorn close to his scalp and he was robed, like the rest of monks. He was seated in the lotus position, performing his afternoon meditation and appeared to be a creature at peace with himself.
Duo’s palms were sweating and his knees felt weak as he approached the young man he had waited two years and traveled half way around the world to see. When he was three meters away from Heero, the seated novice looked up. One could never sneak up on Heero.
“Duo!?” Heero said, obviously nonplussed. “My God, Duo! What are you doing here? How did you find me!?”
This was not the greeting that Duo had been dreaming of and the braided boy’s strained face reflected his sheer nervousness.
“Hey Heero! Glad to see you too! It’s been a long time!” For just a moment, Duo put on the old manic mask, but realized at once how out of place it was here. He paused, and started again.
“Heero, I came looking for you because I didn’t know if you still among the living. I’ve been having these nightmares about your bleeding to death after you self-destructed. I had to know that you were alive. I needed to see that you had survived after you disappeared,” he said, feeling very much on edge.
Finally, Duo just couldn’t hold it in anymore. “DAMN you, Heero! I was so worried about you! I thought you’d run off to kill yourself. Why’d ya have to just go and vanish!?”
Heero blinked. Suddenly, he looked and felt confused, as if he was losing track of his center, hard-won through two years of monastic discipline.
“Duo, I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have let you know that I was still alive. Back then I was falling apart psychologically. Dr. J’s conditioning was perfect for war, but it was never designed to withstand the rigors of peace. I felt like a discarded toy and I was quickly going insane. It felt like I was being torn apart from the inside out.”
Momentarily, Duo looked away, trying to control his roiling feelings. “Heero, I have to ask you something,” he said. “Did that night mean anything? Anything at all?”
Heero found that he couldn’t meet Duo’s glance. He stared down at the ochre-colored soil and his voice was choked.
“Aa. That night. Duo, that night was the most passionate thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’ve never forgotten it. I can still remember every bit of it, as if it happened an hour ago instead of two years.
“You saved my life that night. But it was exactly the wrong thing for the long-term. I needed to pull myself together and that level of intensity would have utterly torn me apart if we had continued along the same road. I didn’t have the mental energy to face you the next morning. I was barely maintaining as it was. I knew I had to flee and find a different path or I would wind up dead. So I went to Wufei. But I guess you knew that, or you wouldn’t be here,” Heero said.
“Wufei gave me a letter of introduction, but even with that, it was hard to get taken in here,” he explained. “The monks wanted proof of my commitment before they would let me join them. Over time they’ve grown more comfortable with me, but I’m still on a sort of probation. It seems that proving oneself here takes an eternity of self-denial.”
Duo looked tired. The strain of the journey was catching up with him.
“So you’ve survived,” he said.
“But are you happy?”
“Am I happy here?” Heero repeated, considering the question. “No, not really,” he said. “Happiness isn’t what this is all about. What I’ve found is a kind of oblivion. The monks taught me to empty my mind...to abandon my ego...to fill myself with nothingness. It helps block the pain. I think that ultimately, I’ll find some kind of detached contentment in this life. It’s mindless work interspersed with pure contemplation. It’s so completely different from my life before.”
The saffron-robed novice appeared to be at peace once again, although Duo could not detect how much this apparent serenity had cost Heero. Duo dreaded what he had to do, but he knew he couldn’t postpone the inevitable. With his voice trembling, he asked, “Are you gonna stay?”
There was a long pause.
Heero looked directly at Duo. His blue eyes were flat and opaque, while his newly shorn hair framed a familiar, practiced mask. It was the same one he had used to conceal his feelings throughout his former life.
Softly, Heero said, “Yes, Duo. This is where I belong now. It’s peaceful here. Quiet. Almost like death really, yet I’m still alive. This place has helped me survive. I’ve decided that I’m not ready to die just yet. So, yes, I’m going to stay.”
Something inside Duo cracked. He struggled to prevent his shattered heart from revealing itself through his tired face, but he was swiftly losing the battle.
Panicking, fighting for control, he choked out a brittle farewell, not only to Heero, but to his own hopes as well. “So that’s it then, I guess. Wufei told me this place doesn’t take tourists, and that definitely includes me,” he said. Then, “Heero, I gotta go. Gotta run. Places to go, people to see. I hope someday...,” he said and then stopped, unable to continue.
He was losing it. His mind was spinning like a child’s top about to crash onto the floor. With the last of his self-control, he forced a smile and said softly, “Goodbye, Heero. Be well. Remember me.” Violet eyes glistened as he turned swiftly away.
His thoughts swirled like the brisk mountain breeze. ‘Baka! What did you expect!? That he was going to fall into your arms!? Can’t let him see me cry. Don’t want him to remember me like that...’
Duo’s feet felt like they were encased in blocks of ice. He stumbled glacially, one step at a time, towards the monastery gate. Its garish red pillars were oddly transformed by his tear-blurred vision into something that resembled an Impressionist painting. He couldn’t make out the details at all. It might have been the gateway to heaven or hell—there was no way he could possibly tell which realm lay beyond it.
The thin air took on an unexpected chill as a white, cumulous cloud, whipped by and a frigid wind far above him, obscured the autumnal sun. In the courtyard, the fallen leaves rustled, herded by the blustery weather into minute tornados. Step by tortured step, Duo dragged himself towards the entrance, shivering in the sudden cold. The prayer wheels murmured, and he heard a distant, deep chanting mixed with the whisper of the dead leaves.
And then, ever so quietly and almost imperceptibly amidst the peaceful sounds of the monastery, as though intended only for him, came a strangled sob. And his name, whispered like a prayer.
Duo froze and took a ragged, gasping breath. Then he spun around and ran, desperately, faster than the chilling wind, his feet suddenly light, back to the sound’s source.
Heero’s mask had fractured. A single tear ran down his face, as his sorrowful countenance tilted up to meet Duo’s eyes.
Duo’s face twisted with tension and his bitten lip oozed blood like a stigmata, crimson and miraculous. Solemnly and with the gravest respect, he held out his hand. “Walk with me?”
All he had learned at the monastery through two years of discipline and deprivation had failed to shield Heero from the darkness boiling up from within him. He rose and took Duo’s hand. Together, they walked through the monastery gate and along a narrow trail that led to a rough, wooden bench.
Still hand in hand, the two young men sat together, facing an astonishing, panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Early autumn snows had already dusted the peaks with crystalline whiteness, and the aspen trees were cloaked in a brilliant gold. The sun reappeared from behind its obscuring cloud, and the boys felt an unexpected warmth as the intense, high-altitude daylight heated the fabric of their garments. Far below, the valley was still verdant and a miniature river meandered through its center, reflecting the sun in tiny starbursts. The gate seemed to have opened onto heaven, after all.
For some time the two remained sitting, hands grasped tightly together, absorbing the beauty that permeated this place, surrounding and overwhelming them. Finally, Heero spoke, his eyes guilty and his face troubled.
“I lied to you back there. The emptiness that I struggled so hard to find here ultimately turned out to be only that. Emptiness. I could never find enlightenment inside it. No matter how hard I tried to emulate the others, I just couldn’t make it happen, Duo.
“I worked so hard to acclimate myself to the contemplative life, but I’ve always been addicted to action, and I just couldn’t kick the obsession. I could never fully empty my mind, or forget the past, or lose the urge that constantly impelled me towards motion and activity. I came up here as a loaded weapon, and I still am,” he said.
Heero took a deep breath, and the thin air filled his lungs as he continued.
“And I could never forget you. Never. Duo, I’ve missed you so much. You took a long time teaching me how to be human, and, in a way, the whole purpose of this place is to empty me out and steal all of that untidy humanity away from me again.
“I dreamed about you when I was supposed to be draining my mind of desire. But now that you’re here, I still feel unclean. Two years of discipline and meditation haven’t exorcised my guilt. I still feel as if I don’t belong here on this earth anymore. That I’m not worthy of you.”
Duo’s face fell. For once, he had let Heero do the talking, and this was what came out!? “Baka. BAKA! How long are you going to go on punishing yourself for being a cog in a bloody, mad war!? For doing your duty? Wars are mass insanity. They’re like Frankenstein’s monsters that take on lives of their own, and no one can control them!” the braided pilot said angrily.
“You were just a kid! An adult who knew perfectly well what he was doing to you cruelly programmed you, like a machine. J was caught up in the insanity and never realized that he was mad, too, because truly crazy people never do. And now you think that you’re somehow dirty and unworthy? Of me?! What do you think I did back then? Do you think my hands are any cleaner than yours!?”
“Hn,” Heero replied, and just stared at him as confusion and distress radiated from his eyes.
Duo stopped for a moment, lost in thought. The tension in his face slowly subsided as he continued.
“I think one reason I was able to let it go was because of something very important I was taught as a kid, by Father Maxwell. On L2, in the streets, there was no absolution. Mistakes would cost you a meal, your sanity, or even your life. Mistakes would make you bleed.
“I was amazed when I found out that his religion is a religion of forgiveness. He taught me that everybody is born into sin. Everyone is imperfect, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t gain forgiveness or entrance into heaven through good works alone. Forgiveness comes through divine grace. Salvation is achieved solely through belief in God.
“I hadn’t gone to confession in almost four years, but after the Eve war I finally did it, and it felt so good to get everything off my chest and onto the table. The Father who took my confession seemed so wise. He understood what soldiers have to do in wartime, because they’ve been doing their duty in war after war for longer than the Church has existed,” he said intensely.
“Heero, just let it go. Believe that there is a God that loves you. There’s a God who sees into your heart and understands the goodness in it. I know there’s goodness there in you. I saw it every day. If I didn’t see it in you, do you think I would have loved you for as long as I did!?”
Heero’s jaw dropped and he squeezed Duo’s hand even more tightly. “You loved me, Duo?”
“No, Heero. I love you. Then and right now. More than you can imagine. I missed you so much in the last two years that I went halfway around the earth just to find you.
“I don’t know how to take away your pain, except to be with you and to tell you how I dealt with my own. You’ve tried for two years to find peace in a religion of contemplation. It didn’t work. Maybe you can find your peace in a religion of forgiveness instead.”
Other than with Father Maxwell, Duo had never seriously discussed his faith with anyone. Indeed, for a long time he thought it had vanished altogether, swallowed by darkness and Shinigami. He reached for his cross and held it tightly in his hand, as if it could somehow guide him down this unfamiliar, shared path and help strengthen his belief. He thought his faith had been massacred along with the innocents at L2, so long ago, but somehow it had risen inside him again without his ever being aware of its stealthy resurrection. Finally, when he needed it most, it had helped heal him.
“Do you know,” he continued, “I wore that gold cross for all of the years that we fought, and for many years before that? I know that some people thought the whole priest outfit was just some shallow fashion statement or perhaps a perverse psychological quirk. Maybe it was a little bit of both. But mostly it was for real. How could it not have been, when my time at Maxwell church was the only time in my life that I had known pure goodness?”
Heero’s face was still tense. “This God of yours, Duo. Why did he allow all of those innocent people to suffer and die in the war? Why does he allow good people to be eaten alive by horrible diseases? Why is there so much anguish everywhere I look? It seems like your God has forgotten the very people he created.”
Duo sighed. He almost felt that he was being quizzed on his catechism again, and he wasn’t at all confident that he had the right answers. It had been a long time since he was eight years old, after all, and meanwhile the world had become much more complicated. “I’m no expert in theology, Heero,” he said. “I leave that to the monsignors. I just know what I feel. God is a mystery to me. Can you explain all that beauty before us right now? These tremendous mountains? Why the sunlight feels so warm and good on your shoulders? The life all around us? Do you understand how your own body works, let alone your mind? Can you contemplate infinity and not recoil from it in horror? They’re all mysteries, Heero, and I don’t understand a single one of them.”
Heero looked puzzled. “Duo, I can’t explain all of those things, yet I believe that science may explain some of them, sooner or later. But I see what you mean about infinity. I don’t think my mind could ever truly grasp that concept, and I know that it drove at least two great mathematicians mad when they tried. So I think I understand what you’re saying when you talk about unfathomable mysteries.”
Duo put his free hand on Heero’s shoulder and turned to face him. “To me, God is terrifying and unknowable. The craziest thing anyone could do is to think of him as human. But I believe that he gave us the gift of free will to make moral choices, and the gift of grace that grants us forgiveness and eternal life if only we choose to accept it. I learned that from the finest man I’ve ever known, and I have to believe it,” Duo said.
“Father Maxwell taught me that Christ was the Lamb of God, Heero. He sacrificed his life on the cross so that all of us could live eternally. As for us pilots, we were lions and lambs both—Wing was your teeth and claws, and when it roared overhead, everyone feared you. But we were also lambs—blood sacrifices laid on warmongers’ altars.”
Duo looked straight into Heero’s eyes. “Science will never explain beauty. It will never explain the beauty I see in you—“
Heero looked back for a moment, then said, “You think I’m beautiful? That’s so strange. I feel like an ugly, twisted weapon that’s been used far beyond its intended lifetime.”
Duo’s eyes glistened. “You’re wrong, Heero. You’re so wrong. You mustn’t hate yourself like that. I believe that God loves you. I know I do.”
Heero was wavering now. “Duo, if I went to confession and told that wise Father that I loved you, would he throw me out of his church because he thought I was a freak and a pervert? When you push this church of yours beyond its limits, how far does its so-called unconditional love really go?”
Duo smiled. “Heero, that’s one thing I told him when I went to confession. That I loved you. And that you were a boy. He told me that if my love for you was true in my heart, and it wasn’t just some lustful obsession, then it was OK. I’m not sure how many priests would have given me the same answer, but I knew, deep in my gut, that his answer was right,” he said.
“Heero, the Church can be very political. It’s an ancient institution that was built by men, and men still control it. They’re not angels, and most of them understand that all too well. When you get right down to it, they’re as sinful as the rest of us, and they know they must surely rely on God’s grace for their salvation. That’s why you have to call upon your own inner faith for answers. You can only hope that God blesses you with a vision of the truth.”
For a long time Heero said nothing. He just looked at Duo with a sense of wonder on his face, as if Duo were the vision with which he had suddenly been blessed. As if Duo were the truth he was seeking.
Duo removed the fine gold chain that had held the cross around his neck for so long. Reaching out to Heero, he threaded the chain over Heero’s head until the cross lay on his chest.
“Heero, I’ve worn this cross ever since I was eight years old. It holds the best memories of my childhood. But now you need it more than I do. I want you to try it on and see if it fits. It’ll take you a while to find out if it does. And it might not, ever. So, for the moment, consider it a loan. If it helps you find serenity, then it’s yours forever.”
Heero’s face was open and his expression at long last hinted at hope. His tear had dried into a little salt trace that was barely visible.
“Arigato, Duo” he said, “For the cross. For coming all this way to find me. For loving me after all this time. For caring, when you could have forgotten.”
“Heero, forgetting you was never even conceivable,” Duo said. His eyes connected to Heero’s as he leaned over and touched his lips lightly with his own.
Silently, he prayed, ‘Almighty God, may You heal Heero’s heart. Let Your countenance shine upon him, and grant him peace. Amen.’
Moments later, the two were locked in a mutual embrace, with eyes closed and warmth flowing between them. The sunlight enveloped them, and they became aware of the infinitesimal sounds all around—the rustle of tiny animals in the woodlands, birdsong, the whisper of leaves in the gentle afternoon breeze, and their own quiet breathing. It seemed as though they were permeated by grace.
After an indeterminate eternity had passed in this sanctified way, Heero broke the silence.
“Duo, I want to go home,” he said.
Duo’s heart pounded, as hope and dread boiled within him.
“Home? Heero, where’s that? Where will you go?” he asked.
Heero placed his hands on the other boy’s shoulders and moved close, forehead-to-forehead. Quietly, he replied, “I think it’s down there. In the valley or somewhere beyond. It’s anywhere you are, Duo. Anywhere.”
As they prepared for the long journey home, Duo thought, ‘Sometimes the path to enlightenment leads downward, away from an ever more distant evil, through the valley where the shadows of the mountains are no longer the shadows of death, and where the sun blazes in a pure blue sky.’