"So, what's my childhood have to do with being blind, now?" Duo wondered acidly as he sank down into his chair and tried not to fiddle with the sensors attached to his body, the ones that gave him a rough approximation of where things were in the room. The impulses that went from them, to the chip in his brain, was a constant source of headache. He'd never tell them that it hurt, though. They might remove it and take away his only sure means of getting around in his darkened world.
Ping. The doctor was a blob on a blob, that moved a bit, now and again. Ping. The walls were that far away. Ping. The slightly more hollow reading told him where a closed window or a door might be. Ping, a low table, maybe. It was all maybe. All laser readings, of course, but the pulses were almost a tone, a fluctuating series of dull throbs that he never became used to.
The doctor was done with his long explanation of how childhood experiences shaped how a person dealt with tragedy in their lives.
"You're trying to see if I'm suicidal?" Duo guessed, though he hadn't really been listening to most of the explanation. It was a given. Top agent sidelined. No other interests. No family. No lover. Not even a goldfish to call his own. Take away a man's only motivation for continuing to breathe and the end result was obvious. Duo wasn't about to take up knitting, instead of fighting against the bad guys.
"That was an interesting association," the doctor replied, yet didn't reply. "Care to elaborate why you think that I was concerned about that outcome?"
"If you're going to start pretending that I don't get what you're doing, then I'm out of here," Duo grumbled. "I was trained by a man who tested me psychologically in ways that you can't begin to imagine. Finding me, mentally, perfect to pilot a machine that kills, at the age of fourteen, and to carry out missions of destruction on my own, makes it pretty obvious that I'm not going to turn out to be a normal adult. Maybe someone else would handle this situation by blowing out their brains, but I don't give up that easy."
Duo heard the man's fingers typing on his computer pad.
"Committing me?" Duo wondered in a bored tone.
"Recommending support meetings with like peers," the doctor replied.
"Oh, good," Duo said sarcastically, "We're finally cutting out the bull shit. I'll only get better if I sit with a room full of blind people and 'talk about it'."
"A man doesn't learn in a vacuum," the doctor replied irritably. "They'll be your teachers."
"Ah, you're losing your temper," Duo warned. "Isn't that against the rules?"
"You Gundam pilots test my training," the doctor admitted sourly. "All of you are stubborn, cocky, independent.. Dealing with two of you, in one day, can try a Saint."
"Two?" Duo perked up. "You're Heero's doctor, as well?"
"Yes," the man replied.
"I haven't seen him since the mission," Duo said, almost to himself. "I just heard that the blast took out his hearing completely, like my eyesight. I was looking at the blast when it happened and he was behind the wall right next to it. Nasty things those flashpoint bombs. Made to take out anyone in the radius one way or another. I hope they make those terrorists fry on Mars penal colony for the rest of their lives for using those shit for bombs."
"You're showing anger, that's good," the doctor said. "This is the first time that you've expressed your emotions about the incident."
Duo swallowed hard, face going sour, "Yeah, except for the crying and screaming when I found out that my optic nerves were torched."
"You shouldn't blame yourself for your reaction, then," the doctor soothed. "It was understandable."
"Heero can get implants," Duo retorted. "I get nothing. Not even transplants can replace what that bomb took out."
The doctor was quiet.
"You say a hell of a lot without saying anything," Duo snapped.
"Doctor confidentiality," the man intoned regretfully.
"Heero can't get implants?" Duo pressed and the non answer had him on his feet. The room spun into sensory overload as his sensors pinged madly. The headache escalated painfully. Duo held himself still until they oriented themselves, again, and then he made his way to what he thought might be the door. He searched for a knob and found it.
"Where are you going?" the doctor wanted to know worriedly.
"To find out where in this damned hospital Heero is," Duo snapped back.
"He's asked for complete privacy, just as you have," the doctor warned.
"That really doesn't matter to me. He'll let me in," Duo replied.
"That's rather optimistic," the doctor said, "I'm afraid that it's misplaced optimism."
"For normal people," Duo snorted as he went out the door and oriented himself in the hallway. "I'm a Gundam pilot, though. I'll get what I want, even if it's only a few minutes of Heero's time."
Easier said than done. Duo was still learning how to use his sensors, still trying to make sense out of the sudden voices in his inner ear that told him information from another chip. A voice warned, 'Stairs', only it sounded like Sta-yz, until Duo turned his head in the right direction. Then it became clearer, 'Stairs.' only Duo, from experience, knew that 'stairs' were only in a hospital for emergencies. Running into the door that led to the stairwell and the emergency stairs had been a very painful lesson.
Damn infant technology, anyway, Duo thought angrily as he felt along a hallway, not really trusting his sensors. The things should say, 'emergency stairs' and considered firing off a heated letter to the inventor, for the hundredth time, asking why the hell he wasn't more specific.
'El-e-vtor.' the voice told him, and then clearer, when he turned in the right direction, 'Elevator. Buttons on right.'
"No, shit," Duo muttered. "The buttons are always on the right."
Unless there were two elevators, Duo's mind mocked him, but he really didn't think that counted.
"One side, please!" a male voice warned and the sound of a gurney being pushed onto the elevator came to Duo as he backed up into a corner. "You can get out if you like?" the man suggested politely.
Why that was given to him as an option, Duo wasn't certain. "Lobby," Duo said.
"All right," the man replied and Duo heard buttons being pushed.
His sensors didn't tell Duo much about the man or the gurney but his nose suddenly told him all that he needed to know. "Going to the morgue?"
"Yes, sir," the man replied and then, "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't realize that you couldn't see. I would have explained better. Are you all right?"
With being in an elevator with a body, he meant.
Duo had a lot of things to say in reply, but those things brought back ugly memories from the war, so he said, instead, neutrally, "No problem."
"Okay," the man said in relief and there there was a long stretch of silence.
"Would you happen to know what room Heero Yuy is staying in?" Duo asked suddenly. "It would save me a trip to the reception area and a long argument about patient confidentiality... An argument that won't stop me from going to Yuy's room, mind you, even if I lose it."
Another stretch of silence and then the man asked, "You're Duo Maxwell, aren't you?"
"Well, if anyone has a right to see a Gundam pilot, it's another one. Just don't tell anyone that I told you, all right?"
"Lips are sealed," Duo chuckled.
"All right, then. He's in room 411, third floor," the man told him. "I know, because I had to take a body out of there, yesterday."
Duo felt shock. "He-He killed someone?"
"No, nothing like that!" the man was quick to reassure him. "He didn't have a private room. The old man with him passed away. Yuy didn't know it, though. He seemed upset about that."
Duo tried to imagine it, being in complete silence while someone near you died without your knowledge. He would wonder if there were signs that he had missed, would wonder if the old man had called for help and he hadn't heard it.
"Your floor." the man said unnecessarily. The elevator itself said, "Third floor. Exit, now."
"Thanks," Duo replied and stepped out. He let his sensors orient and tell him what was around him even as a voice in his ear said, again, 'Stairs.'
"I'm not falling for that one again, so shut up," Duo muttered as he turned right and felt along the wall for door numbers. He hadn't learned Braille yet, so he was reduced to trying to guess the indented numbers.
Something hit his knee cap and made a sound. Duo grunted and felt with his hand.
"Watch out, wet spot, there," a female voice warned. "Two steps to your right, two steps forward, and then you'll be past it."
"Thanks," Duo muttered irritably as he did as she directed. Like the unreliable voice in his ear, the sensors sometimes didn't 'see' some materials. Some types of plastic were on the list and the caution cone, warning of a slippery spot on the floor, had felt like plastic.
"Which room are you looking for?" the woman's voice was close to his elbow and Duo involuntarily twitched in surprise. He had been concentrating on the door numbers again, not paying attention to his sensors. They told him, now. that she was a petite blob.
A direct question was in order. "Are you a doctor or a nurse?"
"Do you need that kind of help?" she sounded anxious. That told Duo what he needed to know. She wasn't either of those things if she wasn't asking him right away what was wrong.
"I have a friend here," Duo confided in her. "We were both injured in the same accident. I wanted to talk to him, to make sure that he is all right."
"I'm here visiting a friend, as well," the woman replied brightly. "She had a gall bladder removed. She told me how much better she felt having a visitor. I'm sure your friend will feel the same way. Which room number is it? I'll help you get there."
"411," Duo replied, giving his best smile.
Getting rid of the talkative woman was difficult, but, once Duo convinced her that he didn't need her help, after she helped him to the right door, she ran out of steam and decided that it was time to go.
As Duo pushed open the door, cautiously, he thought about his real reason for wanting her to leave. He wasn't certain of his reception and he wasn't certain how safe the situation was. Unless Heero was watching the door, it was possible that he might be surprised by an unexpected visitor. A trained soldier wasn't a man to be taken unaware.
Duo let the door swing shut behind him and then stood very still, letting his sensors tell him what was around him. None of the shapes around him was even remotely like a person. His forehead throbbed as he concentrated, his inexperience with the system frustrating him.
Heero could read lips, Duo remembered. He said to the unknown blobs, "I don't know if they told you, but I can't see. I have sensors, but they're not telling me much, right now. The doctor said that you're permanently deaf, like I'm permanently blind. I thought that we could get together and have a 'that really sucks' party, or something."
"Is everything a joke to you?" Heero's voice sounded strange. He couldn't hear himself. His tone was all wrong, his words uncertain. He was speaking in a vacuum.
Duo frowned. "When life kicks you in the balls, Heero, you spit in its face, and keep on living. That's your best revenge."
"Revenge?" Heero ground out. "Against who? A Bomb? Terrorists who decided to kill themselves with the bomb rather than face failure?"
Duo sighed as he faced the bed, realizing that Heero was there and laying down. "I forgot that we don't share the same beliefs. I'm getting revenge on life in general, because it seems determined to screw me over so badly that I give it up. It can be against anyone or anything, though. You can win even against dead terrorists, Heero."
"My therapist calls that 'false recovery'. I'm sure yours has said the same," Heero replied sarcastically. "You're denying yourself depression and grief, over your loss, by giving yourself a false enemy, a false ideal to distract you."
Duo frowned darkly. "I don't think-"
"Your eyes wander," Heero said harshly. "Did they tell you that the bomb put pockmark scars on your face? There's one by your right wandering eye that looks like a teardrop. You'll be crying for the rest of your life."
Duo's hand went to his face. They hadn't told him. He felt carefully, anger rising as he found one scar after another, as if someone had thrown dirt along one side of his face.
"Don't come to me," Heero sneered, "to help me deal with my problems, when you haven't dealt with your own. I don't need false moral support. In fact, I had a standing order that no one was to see me. I'm sure you were told that. Did you imagine that it didn't include you, or did you ignore it, because you needed to see someone worse than yourself, to make yourself feel better?"
"Worse than myself?" Duo barked laughter but it wasn't humorous at all. "You get to go back into the field. I get to sit behind a desk or find a job where not seeing isn't a problem."
"Seems you're wrong about everything," Heero snapped back and Duo heard him fumbling for something.
"Wrong?" Duo wondered if a gun was being pointed at him, now, and how much danger he was in."Being deaf isn't a bar to field duty."
"You were the lucky one," Heero told him bitingly."You had earplugs because you hated the sound of the chopper rotors."
Duo remembered the drop into the enemy camp, the silence, the motion, and the blast that had only been seconds after his boots had hit ground. His hand had been up, getting ready to pop the earplugs out.
"And you were turned away, yelling at Peters to get his fat ass out of the chopper," Duo shot back. "Am I supposed to hate you for that?"
There was a tense silence and then Heero said, "I don't hate you. I just don't want to do THIS. I don't want sympathy or a pep talk. I want to be left alone. I want you to leave."
"How many seconds away were we from going over that wall, Yuy?" Duo asked. "Maybe it wasn't low enough to stop the sonics and the light show, but it stopped most of the shrapnel."
"It didn't stop the chopper from rolling and killing everyone else," Heero snarled. "Stop trying to make something positive out of this! There is nothing positive about it!"
Duo tried to get control of his anger, bit back the angry retort, and then said, tightly, "All right, I'll leave you alone, but only if you promise me something."
"I don't have to promise you anything," Heero replied.
"Yes, you do," Duo threatened, "because nothing will keep me from making your life hell, if I am determined to make it one."
Heero said nothing to that.
"Promise me that you'll see me in two months, even if it's just for a few minutes," Duo asked. "I need to know that you're okay."
"Why?" Heero asked and sounded tired.
"I considered us friends," Duo replied. "Maybe to you we were just fellow agents, I don't know, but... That's not how I feel. I need to know that you're okay, Heero."
"Fine. I promise. A few minutes," Heero bit back and didn't sound sincere.
It was something, Duo thought, as he turned and left Heero's room. Something was always better than nothing.
Heero had been right about his denial. Outside of a predictable, safe hospital, Duo found an acute inability to cope with even day to day activities. Relegated to what he called a 'nursing home', there were many hands to help him and programs to make certain that he transitioned into the life of a handicapped person smoothly. He sank into depression, instead, hating his lack of independence, the loss of his life in Preventers, and the way the world seemed ready to trip him up at every step. He had made Heero promise to meet him and to give him an update on his status, but it was Duo who didn't show up for that meeting, who couldn't face someone like Heero and admit that he hadn't bounced back and mastered his life again. He couldn't let Heero see how afraid he was.
That was it, bottom line, Duo thought as he sat in the outside recreation area of the facility, and tried not to flinch at every sound, at every pulse of his sensors that told him that something was there. It was information, but never enough to tell him anything important. It never told him that he was completely safe, that an errant blob wasn't a car, or a person, or something unknown ready to end his life. If he held still, he could identify some things and make educated guesses. Moving, walking around in his environment was very different. It was too fluid, too changing, too full of pings that he couldn't identify because they wouldn't keep still long enough.
The voices were just as bad. Things talked to him, told him information. I'm a street light, a lamp post, a stop sign, an end to the sidewalk, an emergency exit. It was as if he couldn't be alone even in his own head. The constant throb of the sensors, the incessant voices, and the fear were combining in a way that often made Duo doubt his sanity.
Duo started even as his mind supplied, Trowa. It had been over a year since they had spoken at one of Quatre's parties.
"Tro?" Duo frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Picking you up," Trowa told him and there was a tone to his voice that spoke of 'mission mode'. This was a duty that he had been given.
"Ah, the money has run out and Preventer's is kicking me to the curb, right?" Duo guessed bitterly.
"They can't rehabilitate someone who refuses to cooperate," Trowa replied. "They want you moved to psych."
"And they were too afraid to tell the big bad Gundam pilot?"
"Something like that," Trowa replied.
"You could have visited before this," Duo complained. "It might have helped."
Trowa didn't reply with the obvious. Duo hadn't wanted that visit. There wasn't any use in complaining about it, now.
"So, who's picking up this tab?" Duo wanted to know.
"Health services," Trowa replied and cautiously put a hand at Duo's elbow.
Duo grimaced as he stood and allowed Trowa to lead him into the unknown. "At least it's what I'm used to," Duo sighed. "Minimal facilities, barracks living, and don't give a crap staff."
Again, Trowa didn't state the obvious. He could have had a lot more, if he hadn't told Quatre Winner to take his offer of help and shove it. It had felt so satisfying at the time, though, to stand on his own two feet and tell the man that he, Duo Maxwell, had it all handled, thank you so much, and that he didn't need Winner bucks to make it through.
"Just one thing before we go," Duo asked, as he heard a car door open, and Trowa stopped him for a moment.
"What is it?" Trowa asked in a tone that seemed to imply infinite patience. He had always seemed to Duo, to be a man going nowhere, never in a hurry, because nothing was that important to him. The world could come and go and he seemed not to feel any anxiety about choosing not to go with the flow of it.
"Nurse Haskins, is he short, fat, and popping mints all of the time?"
"Middle height, not fat, but, yeah, he was eating a lot of mints when I asked him where you were," Trowa replied. "He seemed glad that you were leaving."
"I'm sure that they're all glad about that," Duo snorted and flinched a little when Trowa touched the top of his head to indicate that he should bend and get into the car.
Back seat, Duo thought sourly. That's where you put someone when you didn't want interference or conversation. Trowa closed the door and Duo leaned his aching head against the window.
"They just wouldn't leave me alone," Duo explained, though Trowa hadn't asked for an explanation or seemed inclined to ask any follow up on that statement.
He supposed that it was pure bitterness that ruled his life just then, Duo thought, as the car pulled away from the facility and made it's way through the city to his next destination. Racehorses were born and bred to run. Even when they broke a leg, they would still try to run. Duo felt the same way. He had been broken, but he still wanted to run, he still wanted to be what he had trained all of his life to be, a pilot, an agent, the best of the best on Earth or in Space. He couldn't bring himself to settle for office work, for interviews with victims and suspects, or even handling equipment that didn't require sight. Preparing others to go out and fight, and not fight himself, went against everything that he had wanted out of life.
So too, he had found a bitter irritation for those who wanted him to enjoy being put out to pasture, who couldn't understand why he couldn't see all of the possibilities and technology available to him. You don't need to run. The race is over for you. Eat your grass and enjoy the sun.
To hell with the sun, Duo thought angrily.
"Pushing the self destruct button after I leave?" Trowa suddenly asked, breaking the long silence between them.
It was a fair question and it was a question best asked by someone not face to face with him, even if he couldn't see that face, Duo thought, realizing an entirely different reason for their seating arrangement. Trowa had understood how that question needed thought, needed time to consider, without someone so close to him.
"They say that I have to go through stages," Duo finally replied. "I finished denial. I'm still on depression."
Trowa laughed. Duo found himself laughing, too, and it felt good. A tension eased, a spring wound too tight inside of him. They had been right to send someone who could understand him, Duo thought, and wondered who had made that decision.
"Maybe next week, I'll start on acceptance," Duo added and realized that it was a promise. He needed to self destruct or start trying. He didn't think that he was ready to die, just yet.
Duo brushed a hand along his scars, the small pockmarks on one cheek. It had become a habit, a reminder, maybe, of just how tough he could be, and that he wasn't going to be any less, now.
The doctor was done with his long explanation of how childhood experiences shaped how a person dealt with tragedy in their lives.
Duo shifted in his chair, feeling as if his ass had gone to sleep, and replied,"Do all of you guys have a chart of the same shit, telling you what to say? I'm not suicidal, if that's where you're going with this, so I don't have to bore you with my tragic childhood."
"Mr. Maxwell," the doctor said with clear annoyance, "I'm trying to inform you that we are removing you from the facility."
Duo's eyebrows went up in surprise. "You can do that?"
"I assure you that we can," the doctor replied. "Breaking Mr. Frank's arm was a clear assault."
"Mr Frank couldn't keep his hands to himself and you know it," Duo retorted, "Otherwise I would be in lock up, right? Can't have your funding cut off by letting anyone know what's really going on in this rat hole. The inmates are running the show. Yeah, they wanted to pick on the good looking blind guy, but they didn't expect me to clean their clocks for it. Mr Frank is a big guy. He thought that he had a better chance of getting into my tidy whities and getting some revenge for his friends at the same time. He's lucky that all I gave him was a broken arm."
"As I was trying to say," the doctor went on, as if Duo hadn't made any accusations, "Childhood experiences sometimes create mental triggers that can cause a person to react negatively to even innocent actions. I believe that, not only are you suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, but that you are also reacting to these types of mental triggers from your troubled childhood."
"Troubled?" Duo snorted. "I don't think that the word troubled describes it."
"However you wish to call it," the doctor replied tightly, "It is causing violent behavior that we are not equipped to deal with, Mr. Maxwell. That's why you are being transfered to a facility with adequate security."
"The government nut house?" Duo felt a flash of trepidation and anger mixed together. "You're committing me?"
"I don't see that you've given me a choice in the matter," the doctor pointed out. "You have proven yourself to be unstable and violent. I can't allow you to walk freely among the general population."
"Is that why Lug is here?" Duo wondered angrily.
Lug being the main muscle of the facility, the one who had managed to pull Duo off of Frank before Duo had done some permanent damage to the man.
"Mr. Lugowski will accompany you while you gather your personal effects," the doctor replied coolly. "The transport will take you to the facility in one hour."
There wasn't anything more to say, Duo thought. Lug took his elbow, indicating that it was time to leave. Duo went docilely, mind working, already, on his next course of action.
"I know." the man was patience itself, really rather kind, for someone who's job it was to control an uncontrollable situation. Duo had gotten along with him up until Mr. Frank had decided to get personal.
"Not to that government lock up facility," Duo explained.
"I know," Lug repeated as he directed Duo around a corner and into the barracks that he shared with so many other mentally challenged and handicapped individuals.
"Are you going to stop me?" Duo wanted to know as the sound of voices, arguing, and things moving around assaulted his ears and sensors.
Too many patients, not enough room, and minimal staff had caused a warehousing effect. Therapy was scant and usually done by staff not adequately trained. No one was getting better in a place like that.
"Do what you gotta do," Lug told him. "Someone out there, for you?"
Out there. The real world.
"Yeah," Duo lied. "Just get me to the exit door and I'll take it from there."
"I can't be involved," Lug reminded him.
"Okay," Duo replied, knowing the man had a family to feed and needed his job. "look, I, uh, need to use the toilet, before I go, and Carmen and Santiago are about to have another argument about which one of them is Trieze Kushrenada. Why don't you go break that up?"
"All right. Good luck, Duo."
Duo shoved what little he had into his duffle bag. He had credit in the bank from a minimal, monthly, wounded agent fund. Not enough to live in style, but enough to put down for deposit on a hole in the wall somewhere.
Fear gripped Duo. He was about to step out into the unknown, blind, with only his sensors to navigate, and no idea where he was going. He almost hesitated, almost decided that he couldn't go through with it, but then he remembered Frank trying to push him down, trying to slip a hand where it didn't belong, and his jaw tightened. It wasn't going to get better where they intended to send him. There, he would be in lock up. He wouldn't be able to get away.
Emergency door, Duo decided, the one with the broken alarm. The staff had been using it as a shortcut. There were two hallways beyond that and the final exit out. It was still risky, but only if someone knew about his new status and his transfer.
Duo felt and heard people pass by him, and a few snatches of conversation close by, but no one stopped him as he made the final exit and felt sunshine on his skin.
The world was a dark blank after that. Duo had no idea if he was in a town, in a city, or even standing on a sidewalk. Pings alerted him to proximities, traffic in front of him alerted him to a busy street. His nose picked up the smell of exhaust, the faint aroma of piss, and, fainter, cooking onions.
Duo turned to his right. The voice alerted him, "Crosswalk. Don't walk." When he turned to his left, there was nothing.
The safer path drew him, but Duo knew something about escaping situations. Taking the easy way meant that it would be easy for them to find him. If they bothered to look. Duo had a premonition that they wouldn't bother. Instead, they would probably be just as happy as the last facility to see the backside of Duo Maxwell.
Still, he couldn't take that chance. Duo went to the crosswalk as he took out his cell phone from his duffle. Unused, it had never left that bag from the moment that he had been discharged from the hospital. Duo simply hadn't been able to talk to anyone, too lost in his own depression to communicate with people who he could only envy, and perhaps even hate, for being able to live their lives normally.
Petty, he thought as he waited for a particular someone to pick up his phone. Pathetic. Coward. The last thought hurt the most, because it was truer than the rest. He was a coward.
"Chang," a voice growled, the same, arrogant voice that was as constant as the the lack of air in space.
"Hey," Duo began, paused, and then forced himself to continue."It's Maxwell. I need... I need a little help, here."
"Uh...." Duo reached out, fumbled for the street traffic light and heard, "Fifth and Main." he repeated it to Wu Fei. "I'll be moving, though, taking Main, North."
"Well, pursuit is possible, but unlikely."
"Fifteen minutes. Mark."
"Mark," Duo automatically replied, though he didn't own a watch.
The phone disconnected and Duo put the cell into a pocket.
Wu Fei had an air about him that spoke of obligation. When he arrived, Duo heard the car pull up close to the curb. He tensed, ready to make a run for it, and not certain if he could manage it, until he heard a voice growl, "Get in."
After they pulled away from the curb, again, and Wu Fei headed the car into traffic, he asked, only, "Destination?"
"I need a small, cheap apartment, ground floor,easy access to the street," Duo replied.
Duo imagined a stiff nod. A vocal confirmation didn't follow.
Duo sighed as he rubbed at his head, trying to think through the pain. He had called Wu Fei because he had known that the man would act just this way. The man would have probably helped him buy rope and hang himself with the same steady detachment, the same follow through of his own personal sense of obligation to a fellow war comrade. Duo supposed that the man, in his silence was displaying disapproval, expressing his contempt for Duo's actions without deigning to vocalize them. He would expect Duo to already know his errors. He wouldn't waste breath stating the obvious.
The car eventually stopped. The seat made a noise as Wu Fei turned towards him. "If they issue an order for your arrest, I won't hesitate to bring you in," he warned. That was his duty as well,as a Preventer agent. He wouldn't supplement it for any loyalty that he felt towards Duo.
"I promise not to go quietly," Duo replied in a joking manner as he opened the car door. It wasn't really a joke and they both knew that.
"The entrance is behind you," Wu Fei told him without challenging Duo's threat. "Electronic doors. Approximately fifteen steps to the front office desk. The neighborhood is blighted. I would imagine that the arrest record for this area is rather high. I can see questionable persons that might prove dangerous, within several feet, on both sides, of the apartment building entrance. Facing the building, a small grocery is one block to your left. A bus stop is two blocks to your right and across the street. A crosswalk will take you to it, directly."
Duo nodded. "Thanks, Fei."
Duo closed the door and turned towards the promised building. The sound of the car pulling away gave him confidence rather than caused any trepidation. It was good to have someone finally trust in his ability to take care of himself, especially since he was finding it hard to trust in it himself.
"2321 Parkside street. Portland Apartments."
"Shut up," Duo growled low at the voice in his head. That told him something, though. The government forced compliance with disability codes, on government subsidized buildings. The rent would be low, in that case.
"Look at that hair! You a girl or a guy?" a tough, male voice sneered.
"Both," Duo shot back and felt cool air on his cheeks as the electric doors opened and he walked into the building.
Duo tripped over something and barely kept his feet. It was a transition of some sort, probably not a problem for anyone who could see and know it was coming, but a definite problem if a person wasn't ready to catch their foot on its slight rise.
When Duo's hand touched the counter of the office, he said, his sensors telling him that someone was moving around, "That needs a fix."
"Yeah, yeah," a bored voice replied, "That and a bunch of other things. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like to rent an apartment on the cheap," Duo replied.
"Disability pay?" the man asked.
"Yes," Duo replied.
"Here, sign this, It gives us funding to make sure your ass doesn't fall down the stairs or through an elevator shaft, or something."
Duo frowned. "Is this a nursing facility?"
"Not in the real sense, no," the man replied. "But we are an assisted living complex on paper. Sign or you're automatically rejected."
A hand took Duo's and he had to stop a violent reaction. His hand was placed on a paper and a pen shoved into it. "Sign here."
Duo scrawled his name. Pen and paper were taken away.
"Room 4b," the man told him. "Pay up."
Duo handed over his credit chip. the man took it for a moment and then handed it back with a key.
"Going to help me get there?" Duo asked.
"To your right, four doors down," the man replied.
"Assisted living, eh?" Duo sneered as he hefted up his duffle and felt along the wall for doors.
The apartment was partially furnished. A table and chair centered the room, a door led into a tiny bathroom with a shower and toilet, and a cot with squeaky springs sat along one wall. Someone had left behind a few pots and pans, but no silverware. The window refused to open.
After dropping his duffel,Duo's hands took off his sensors and tossed them onto the table. The headache lessened, but not completely. The frustration of dealing with his new life and the pain suddenly overwhelmed him. His fingernail found the chip and viciously dug it out. It was shallow, just under the skin, but blood trickled as he wiped the thing off onto the table.
The pain of the ever present, throbbing headache was gone, as suddenly as that. Duo sat heavily in the one chair and put his head in his hands, just breathing and allowing his senses to reorient themselves. It was like being made blind all over again. The cushion of partial 'sight' was now gone.
"Better," Duo muttered to himself and it was better. His ears picked out street traffic, the low murmur of someone next door, the sound of someone walking by his apartment door. if he concentrated his mind he could almost 'feel' where everything was. His memory was very keen. Laying out a mental map should be easy, he told himself. The sensors had only confused him and made him constantly guess at what was around him. It was was bad as writing down a number instead of memorizing it, a number that was partially undecipherable.
Duo dug out his cell phone. He picked out the number by memory. When Heero answered, Duo almost didn't say anything. He had been the coward, after all,afraid to show up and show Heero how badly he had failed.
"It's Duo," he finally said, knowing that Heero was reading the message, a program translating for him. "I want to meet up, tomorrow."
Heero sounded stranger, now, his voice losing the memory of how it was supposed to sound without hearing to correct it. "Wu Fei called me."
Duo felt a hot blush, angry and embarrassed and wondering why Wu Fei had gone the extra distance. Where did Heero fit into the man's sense of duty? "Saves time explaining, then," Duo replied, finally. "You know where I'm living and why."
"Coffee shop on Firth and York," Heero told him. "One hour."
Duo felt a shock. "What? Now?"
"An hour... mark," Heero confirmed and the phone went dead.
Duo knew where that was, but not in relation to where his apartment was located. His mind scrambled to recall city maps. He was too nervous to think, too unprepared to deal with seeing Heero, again, and not at a time that he had chosen. He almost considered not going, once again, missing another meeting.
Why had he even called the man? It had almost been a reflex, a reaching out to someone for comfort in an uncertain moment of his life. Only Heero Yuy had never been a man to comfort anyone. He was hard as nails and always ready for a mission. Stone cold. Familiar? Maybe Duo needed something familiar to anchor him, just then, even if it was a person that he fully expected to criticize him?
"You're good at lying to yourself," Duo growled as he stood up and wondered how he looked. He ran fingers through his hair, went to the kitchen sink to wash off the blood, and then made his way to the front door, his hands out uncertainly.
He was lying to himself. There was a very solid reason why he wanted to see Heero, just then, and why he was planning on feeling his way through a confusing darkness in a dangerous part of the city. He was now on his own two feet. He was now relying only on his own senses. Crutches and blinders were gone. He was ready, now, to deal with what had happened to him. He needed to share that with the man who's opinion mattered to him the most, who had probably been thinking the worst of him for a long while.
The smell of a hospital oriented Duo long before someone leaned close and said in his ear, "It's all right, Mr. Maxwell. You're in St. Francis hospital. I'm going to give you something for the pain and then we'll take scans."
There was pain; a grating, scraping, throbbing collection that told him that he had been in some sort of fight. It didn't feel as if he had been the winner. Duo groped for memory, tried to make sense out of the darkness, and then remembered.
"I-I need my cell."
It was hard to speak. His mouth felt swollen, the lips split on one side.
"Your chart said to contact Commander Une of Preventers," the professional voice replied, "or Quatre Winner. Neither of them are available to come and make decisions on your behalf. Mr. Winner is offworld and Commander Une declined, saying that you were no longer an agent. Is there someone else that we can contact, Mr. Maxwell?"
Duo nodded and then winced when even that motion caused him pain. "Heero Yuy. Last call on cell phone."
"All right. I'll make the call. Please relax. The police are investigating your attack and you're in good hands here."
"Nobody," Duo managed. "Just street punks. Their territory." Which explained everything to him, but not to someone not raised on the streets. Duo had mouthed off and he had been shown that courtesy was due the people who controlled that street. Fair enough, in his estimation.
They must have injected his IV. Duo felt himself drifting for awhile and then swimming back to consciousness with voices having a discussion near him.
"Definitely destructive tendencies. He self operated and left behind every technology that could have helped him navigate the streets safely."
"I agree with the diagnosis. He should be shipped off to the institution as soon as we receive the transfer order."
"What about Heero Yuy? He, and a Trowa Barton, have asked to see him."
"They are not on the list of approved contacts for Mr. Maxwell. Not that it makes a difference now, if they were. Mr. Maxwell has already been entered into the system. Only a court, and attending physicians at the institute, can allow visitations."
Duo felt a moment of pleasure. Heero and Trowa had asked to see him. While their reasons might be less than personal, it still showed an interest, that he was relevant enough for someone to care.
"His body looks like he's managed to break every bone, at one time or another. Look at those scars, as well. What a mess. Most of the injuries are old ones. The war must have been hell."
"Piloting a Gundam was hell, I'm sure. Especially for someone as young as those pilots were. The stresses alone could kill a grown man, I've heard."
"Amazing. It's no wonder he's a basket case, now."
"That's not professional."
"Is he awake?"
"Drifting. They told us to keep him medicated until they pick him up, but he's had a concussion. I didn't dare put him under completely."
"I should take that off before they show up."
"Big mouth? I think it's permanent marker."
Duo felt something rubbing hard at his face and the smell of alcohol before he drifted off again.
He could see in his dreams. Duo wondered if time would rob him of that one mercy, make the details fuzzy until he couldn't piece together, any longer, what the sky looked like at sunset or the blue of Heero's eyes. It was hard on that thought that he dismissed his dream of talking to Heero, while the man fixed his Gundam, and realized that he really was hearing Heero's voice.
"I think roaches are the least of his worries in a place like this."
"They make good pets," Duo quipped as he opened his eyes and wondered at the uselessness of the very act. "They're quiet and they clean up after themselves."
"That's disgusting," Trowa's voice said near his elbow. "You stay and talk to him, Yuy. I'll take a walk. Don't take long. I have work."
That told Duo that they had driven together and that Heero was at the mercy of Trowa's time table."This is my apartment? What happened to my one way ticket to the nut house?"
"Delayed," Heero replied, and Duo could hear him move closer. "You've gained weight."
"You carried me out of there?" Duo guessed sourly. "And I'm not fat, Yuy, just more sedentary since I left Preventers. Gives me time to actually eat for a change."
"You shouldn't have quit," Heero said. "We're both major assets to the organization. Even as consultants we can make a difference."
"Is this my pep talk?" Duo asked sourly as he sat up, slowly on his bed and tried to determine if the sick feeling in his stomach was drug after effects or if the sharp pains and aches all over his body were life threatening. "I've already had it. My life was being an agent, not a desk jockey."
"It's better living here, and doing nothing?" Heero asked roughly.
"Maybe it is," Duo replied as he touched a split lip and then rubbed at an aching jaw. "How do I look?"
"Same as always," Heero grunted.
"Enough to scare children and small dogs, then?" Duo felt along the bed and then slid a foot out until he found Heero's foot. He felt better knowing exactly where Heero was and that nothing was near him as he slowly stood up.
"What are you doing?" Heero wondered sharply.
"Getting out of here, before they come looking for me," Duo replied, unable to help a sarcastic tone that Heero, of course, couldn't hear.
"They don't know where you live. I made certain of that," Heero explained. "I changed your name, in public records, as the renter."
"Will I still get my mail?" Duo snorted.
"You get mail?" Heero wondered and Duo couldn't tell if he was joking or unintentionally being cruel.
"Guess not," Duo muttered. he felt his way to the door.
"You're still leaving?" Heero wondered.
"Going shopping," Duo replied brightly as he found the door knob. "There isn't any food in the apartment, or anything else for that matter."
There was the sound of footsteps and the click of... a cane? Duo frowned as Heero made it to his side much slower than Duo would have expected.
"You're injured?" Duo asked anxiously, turning so that Heero could read his lips.
"We were both injured," Heero snapped back, showing an anger that hadn't yet abated one bit since their mission together had gone so terribly wrong.
"I didn't know that you had other injuries besides your hearing," Duo clarified impatiently.
"It's the same injury," Heero replied bitterly. "Inner ear blown. I can't keep my balance."
"How did you carry me, then?" Duo wondered.
"Trowa did help," Heero replied.
"You're still with Preventers," Duo clarified, "Even..." he stopped and felt a wave of depression, bitterness, and sorrow, tied up with confusion. He could see, in his mind's eye, Heero seated at a desk, filing paperwork, making entries in computers for other active agents, and having everyone looking at him with pity.
"Yes," Heero replied. "I can't stop making a difference, even if it's not work that I would have chosen."
"You deserved better," Duo surprised himself by blurting and then realized that all his emotions were centered on Heero. It was for Heero 's sake that he was bitter and depressed, for Heero that he couldn't yet accept how things had turned out. For himself, he would go on, no matter what, and grin and bear it, but for the man that he cared most about, he could hate the universe that had short changed Heero's life.
"So did you," Heero replied with a heated rise to his voice that had Duo blinking in confusion. "You were the best. You didn't deserve this."
"You're leaving?" Trowa's voice said close to Duo and he realized that he had opened the door as if he had wanted to flee.
Duo gripped the doorknob hard, head bowed, as he tried to understand what was going on at that moment, what Heero really meant to him. What he meant to Heero to put that tone in the man's voice.
Duo laughed, suddenly, and said,"Fate is a bitch, you know that?"
"What?" Trowa said in confusion, but Heero was chuckling.
"I thought so from the moment that I was told about your injuries," Heero replied. "That's why I wanted you to heal, to really heal. I don't want to lose my partner, especially when we compliment each other so well, now."
Duo reached out and came into contact with a bicep. He held it rightly and moved closer, instinctively knowing that it was Heero and not Trowa. "Partner? Maybe I want more than that? Maybe I can't face that I'll only get that much from you."
"Why face it when it isn't true?" Heero replied and his hand slipped around Duo's waist. Duo felt his heat, very near. "This isn't pity," Heero told him firmly "This isn't desperation. This isn't me making due with what's available. I wanted you to be certain of that, to recover enough to know that I'm speaking the truth, when I say, 'Stay with me. Work with me.' I've always wanted to be closer than partners. The accident made me realize that I needed to stop waiting for you to make the first move, to stop being afraid of rejection."
"Trowa?" Duo said to where he thought the man was standing, "Can we have a minute?"
"I'll be downstairs with the car," Trowa replied, and then, "Make the right decision, Maxwell, and stop being an idiot."
Duo felt hot with embarrassment as he closed the door and faced Heero. "I can hear. You can see. I can get around. You need help to walk straight. You really think we can be agents like that? That we can make some sort of relationship?"
"I know we can," Heero replied and his emotions were evident in his voice.
"I won't wear that sensor crap anymore," Duo growled.
"And I won't wear those vibration pads in my ears," Heero retorted just as strongly.
"They give me headaches," they both said at the same time.
Duo laughed. "We're both going free fall," he said with a sigh. "Maybe they won't let us be agents like that? Maybe the institution won't let me go so easily. So many if's, Heero."
"We've always done exactly what we wanted," Heero told him. "To hell with anyone who tries to get in our way."
"To hell with them," Duo agreed.
Duo suddenly felt lips against his. He was startled and then fell into it. "It's not going to be so easy," he said around the kiss.
"I know," Heero replied, "But we've always been up for the challenge."
Duo leaned into Heero and tried to remember the perfect blue of the man's eyes. He promised himself that, no matter what, he wouldn't ever forget it.