By Stacey Hopson
It had been raining all day, and Duo had hoped that it would stop by the time school got out. But here it was, 7 o’clock, and the rain had not ceased. He had been pacing around his room for what seemed like hours, and now he lay sprawled out on the floor staring at the ceiling.
Bored. No, beyond bored. There was NOTHING to do---well, nothing but homework, and he wasn’t about to do THAT. There was nothing worth watching on the TV. No one around to play pranks on. Wufei, Quatre, and Trowa were at the library, and Heero had gone out with Relena.
Duo creased his eyebrows together. Heero had seemed awfully moody lately, even more so than usual. What’s his problem NOW? Duo thought.
After mulling over endless possibilities, he let out a disgusted sigh. He was NOT wasting time on this. His face suddenly lit up with an idea. "I’ll go rent a video!" he chirped, and was out the door in a flash.
Walking through the park with a bounce in his step, Duo eyed the title of the video he held in his hand once again. It was the latest James Bond flick, which he had been dying to see ever since it left the theaters. He smiled and launched into his impression. "Bond. James Bond."
A faint noise behind him had begun to slowly seep into his consciousness. As he turned to look, something hard and very wet slammed into him, sending both screaming to the pavement. Duo’s umbrella bounced up the sidewalk in a series of loud ‘CLACK’s.
Duo moaned, slowly drifting back into awareness as the steady rain fell in his face. His eyes flew open just as the object on top raised up, long wet hair sliding off of his neck. It took a moment before his eyes could adjust to the park light that was shining down on them. It cast a soft white halo around the slender figure above him. Duo caught a gasp in his throat when his gaze focused on a pair of round teal-blue eyes.
She hurriedly removed herself from Duo and stared down at him, hands clenched in front of her chest. A confused expression crossed Duo’s face as he noted that not only was she thoroughly soaked, but there was a strange look in her eyes. One that Duo had never seen---a look of panic and…despair? He opened his mouth to speak, but instead heard Relena’s voice.
"I’m sorry!" she spoke, a breaking whisper, then ran into the darkness.
Duo sat up; his mouth gaped open in utter disbelief of what he’d just witnessed. A thought struck him as images of Relena’s expression and her body language replayed in his mind---An enemy! An attacker!! Duo’s instincts kicked in as he rapidly scanned the area for any other movement. He didn’t see any. Wait a minute. Duo thought. If she were in trouble, she would’ve asked for help, right? And where was Heero?
Duo picked up his umbrella and the video and began to run in the direction Relena disappeared. I just better make sure.
Relena had run for what seemed like forever until her legs buckled beneath her and she collapsed against a nearby sculpture. With blurry, tear-filled eyes she spied a small area in the sculpture where she could crawl out of the rain. She sat down with her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She laid her head down as a new wave of emotion rushed over her. Sobs quavered her whole body as tears ran down her legs.
She didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, when Duo’s voice broke the steady fall of the rain.
"Are you OK?"
Relena gasped and her head snapped up at the sound. Her arms, which had tightened around her legs, now relaxed to their normal position. It was then that Duo realized she was crying. He blinked in shock. Relena NEVER cries!
"What’s WRONG?!" he asked, his voice deeply concerned.
Relena lowered her eyes away from Duo’s steady gaze. She didn’t want anyone to see her cry---especially HIM. He would tease and torment her about this until the day she died, she just knew. But the tears just wouldn’t stop.
"What happened?" Duo continued when she didn’t answer. "Where’s Heero?"
The look Relena gave him then sliced through Duo’s soul. New tears shimmered in her eyes then poured over her cheeks as she let out a high-pitched wail. She hid her face while sobs shook her body once again. Duo stood paralyzed, realizing the source of her dismay. He closed his eyes. Oh, no!
Duo hated to see girls cry---not the kind of crying over sad movies and such, but the kind where their feelings had been deeply hurt. And from the looks of things, Relena had been hurt BAD. Duo placed his hand on her head.
Relena recoiled from his touch. Duo held up his hand in surrender.
"I come in peace!" He quipped. He noticed a sparkle flash across her dewy eyes. Was that a laugh or more tears? "Ya wanna talk about it?"
"With you?" Relena looked at him appalled.
Duo’s eyes narrowed. I’ll ignore that. He knew she didn’t view him kindly.
"Sometimes it helps to talk to a stranger. Granted, I’m not a TOTAL stranger, but…anyway…. It might help."
Relena studied him as she pondered, wiping the tears from her eyes. He had been holding the umbrella over her all this time. No wonder she hadn’t felt the rain anymore. Her eyes shifted to his face. This couldn’t be a joke, could it? The look in Duo’s blue-violet eyes though was sincere. Maybe he IS trying to be nice. Duo gave her a soft smile just then, and with slight reluctance, she finally surrendered.
Duo was a bit surprised. His offer to help was genuine, but he didn’t think she would actually accept it. He held out his hand to help her up.
"Let’s get you out of the rain first."
In a nearby gazebo, Relena sat down while Duo shook his umbrella of excess water. He then sat down near her, but far enough away so as not to make her uncomfortable.
"Okay. What happened? Nice and slow. I’m all ears!" He grinned slightly at that last bit.
Relena sighed deeply. She knew he meant to cheer her up, but she was not in the mood for his jokes. After a few moments of silence, she began.
"I was having dinner with He-Heero," she stumbled.
Relena’s eyes softened a bit. "A nice, romantic one."
She frowned at him. "Are you going to do that all the time?"
"What?" Duo asked.
Relena sighed heavily and shook her head. "Never mind."
Duo knew what she meant. I’d better keep my mouth shut! He thought. No use in gett’n her mad! "Go on." He coaxed.
"We started talking about graduation. I asked him what he was going to do afterwards."
"Do? About what?" Heero asked flatly, before stuffing his mouth of food.
"Well, do you have a particular career in mind?"
"I’m looking at the Defense Force."
Relena’s heart sank. "Why? The war has been over for two years. Everyone is at peace."
"It’s not going to last very long. People like to fight. It’s in their nature. Peace is boring." He took another large bite.
Relena looked down at her plate, pretending not to be hurt by his remark. She poked at her food with her fork. She had lost her appetite. She knew Heero didn’t share her high regard for total pacifism, but she’d hoped he would at least learn to accept it. And for a while there, she thought he had. Hoping to end on a cheerful note, she asked, "What about US? We’re still going to be together after graduation, right?"
Heero glared up at her, his midnight blue eyes flashed cold. He was tired of this. Having Relena around on a regular basis was fine to begin with. It was true he’d greatly admired her. The courage and determination she showed during the war impressed him enough to keep from killing her. And because of that, he’d managed to regain a little of his humanity. And these past two years with her had helped him gain a lot more. She had also managed to make him smile a few times--even laugh. But now when he looked at her, all he could feel was resentment. He had slowly begun to realize that while she was helping him, she had taken control of his life. She had somehow managed to mold him to fit into her idealist world, and Heero was fed up with living this alien life. He wanted his freedom.
"Heero?" Relena was still waiting for his answer.
Heero glanced away and stuffed his mouth again. Relena noticed the scowl that had appeared on his face.
"Have I angered you in some way?"
Heero’s scowl deepened. Baka! Like she doesn’t know!
"Talk to me Heero! Tell me what I have done wrong so I can set it right."
"You CAN’T set it right, Relena!" Heero’s voice was sharp and loud enough to attract the attention of the couples dining nearest them.
Relena flushed in embarrassment. She leaned over the table.
"What’s the matter with you?" She asked in a low whisper.
"You smother me," he replied through a tight jaw.
Relena’s eyes flew wide in shock. She looked away from Heero’s piercing gaze and bit her lower lip. She barely recognized her own voice when she finally spoke.
"I…I’m sorry. I didn’t…realize….If it’s a matter of space,…I’ll leave you alone for a while." Her voice was frail.
"It would be better if you forgot about me."
Relena’s heart leapt to her throat. He’s breaking up with me! "Why, Heero?! Tell me WHY?! We can work this out. I know we can."
"NO!" He slammed his hand on the table so hard the china threatened to break. Relena jumped in her seat. For the first time she actually felt afraid of him.
"I don’t belong to you, and I don’t belong in your world." His voice was as icy as was his gaze.
Relena felt as though she would freeze. Her hands shook violently beneath the tablecloth. She tried desperately to suppress the tears that threatened to possess her eyes. "Yes you do, Heero." Her voice was barely audible. "I love you!!!"
Heero’s eyes narrowed, and became as dull and lifeless as death. "I don’t feel the same way. I never did."
What little hope she had left shattered, and the tears surged forward. She cried out in pain and doubled over, clutching her chest. Heero’s words tore at her pure soul. Feeling the stares of the people around her, she bolted out of the restaurant.
Duo sat paralyzed. His face was scrunched up with a mixture of anger and sympathetic pain. Relena’s deep sobs filled his ears and made his heart wrench. How could that bastard be so COLD?! He looked over at her. She was hiding her face in her hands, her body shuddering. She looked so frail and defenseless---not the Relena he was accustomed to seeing. She was always so confident and positive no matter what the situation. He’d slowly come to realize why Quatre spoke of her so highly. She had the ability to instill in a person the desire to do better. But now Duo was seeing a side of her he never thought existed.
Vulnerable. Relena unmasked.
Duo’s eyes softened as he instinctively reached to embrace her. He was stunned when she immediately collapsed against his chest, a new wave of sobs breaking forth. He closed his eyes and curled his arms around her petite figure, resting his head against hers. He held her tight, rocking slowly side to side. He wished he could think of something comforting to say, but hoped his silent gesture would say it instead. It was Relena who finally broke the silence.
"Why?" She asked against his chest, her voice hoarse. "Why doesn’t he love me?"
The same question raced through Duo’s mind. Why? Relena was intelligent and pretty and able to fend for herself. Well, most of the time, anyway. And she was always honest and direct in her intentions. Okay, so maybe she was a bit creepy in the way she stalked Heero. But that had ceased long ago. She was more mature and responsible now. She was dedicated in her charity efforts, and she lectured on the continuation of peace in her spare time. What’s not to admire? Or was the Japanese pilot simply heartless? Bastard! Duo thought again. He never quite understood why Heero remained so detached after the war ended. All the rest of the pilots had begun to live normal lives. What’s his deal?
"Why?" Relena sniffled.
Duo racked his brain for the best answer to give them both. "Because…." He hugged her again fearing his answer might wound her. "He’s the Perfect Soldier."
Relena let out a shaky sigh. After a few moments she pulled out of his embrace. She stared down at the wooden planks that made up the gazebo floor as she wiped the tears from her face. She was too humiliated to look at Duo right now.
Duo had tried to catch her eyes with his own. Realizing that she wasn’t going to look at him, he placed his hand on her shoulder. "Are you gonna be OK?"
Feeling uncomfortable, Relena rose to her feet. "Yes. I’m fine." Her voice was weak. "I’m going home now."
"Well, let me walk you back to your dorm," Duo replied, grabbing his umbrella. He noticed her expression turned unsettling. "Well, you’re gonna catch a cold if you get much wetter." He gestured to her clothes.
Relena glanced down at the cold dress that clung to her skin. She looked back up at him, still unsure.
Duo opened his umbrella and stepped out of the gazebo. He motioned for her to follow. "Come on. I’m not gonna bite!" There was a slight twinkle in his eyes when he smiled.
God, I hope he’s joking! Relena thought as she stepped under the umbrella. Walking this close to Duo made her nervous. Who knows what kind of sick joke he might pull!
When they reached the girls’ high school dorm the rain had finally ceased. Relena opened the large wooden door and stopped in her tracks when she heard Duo speak.
"Ya sure you’re gonna be all right? You’re not gonna try and self-destruct?"
Relena smiled lightly on the inside. She shook her head.
"Okay." He turned away.
"Duo?" He spun back around. "You won’t tell anyone about this…will you?" She was almost pleading.
He waved his hand in front of him. "Oh, nonono. I can keep a secret." He smiled and winked.
"Promise?" Relena was doubtful.
Duo walked back up to her and held out his hand, pinkie extended. Relena looked at him confused. Duo picked up her corresponding hand and wrapped his pinkie around hers. "Promise," he replied, his eyes staring right into hers. He turned and walked down the front steps. He glanced back and raised his hand. "See ya in class tomorrow!"
Relena sighed heavily as she watched him leave. Tomorrow. How will I ever face Heero tomorrow? She sneezed violently and proceeded into the dorm, sniffling.
"All right everyone, quiet down. Let’s begin. We’ll continue with Shakespeare."
Duo scrunched his face in disgust as he lugged out the heavy book. He noticed Quatre already had his out and had been reading ahead. He leaned towards the blond boy.
"Ugh! How can you read that?"
"It’s quite intriguing, really." Quatre smiled.
"It reads like Greek!" Duo frowned at his own book.
Quatre stifled a laugh, his blue-green eyes danced. "How would YOU know?"
Duo stuck his tongue out at the boy and turned his chin up away from him. It was then that he noticed Relena’s seat was empty. Hey! His gaze scrolled over to Heero sitting rigid and stone-faced as usual. Duo’s eyes narrowed. He could feel the disgust eat at his stomach---or was it hunger pains? Either one made him feel sick.
"Hey!" Quatre whispered to him. "You OK? You look a little green!"
"I’m hungry for lunch." Duo half-lied.
"You’re hungry forEVER!" Quatre corrected, smiling.
Duo eyed him. "Good one, Quatre."
The teacher called on Quatre to read aloud, and as his voice began, Duo found his thoughts straying back to Relena. He propped his chin on his hand as he gazed at her empty seat. She had looked so fragile last night, no wonder she didn’t come today. After a breakup like that, HE wouldn’t want to face Heero either!
When Relena didn’t show up a second day, Duo became concerned. Surely she would be brave enough by now! Unless….Duo went pale as a scenario played in his mind of Relena lying limp on a blood covered floor.
"Duo!" He snapped back to reality at Hilde’s cry.
"Look at what you’re doing!" she whined.
Duo looked down on the table. What had been a frog was now an empty carcass, the guts drawn out everywhere. Duo quirked an eyebrow.
"EEEEEEEWWWWWW!!!" Hilde moaned, pulling the tray away from him. "Why did I get stuck with YOU as a partner!"
Duo chuckled. "Because you were too chicken to ask TRO~WA!"
Hilde blushed and smacked the back of his head. "Keep your voice down!" she bit out in a whisper. She glanced over the wide table to see if Trowa had heard. He was focused on the frog before him. Hilde heard Duo launch into clucking sounds. He had a wide smile on his face and his blue-violet eyes sparkled with mischief. She glared at him. He glanced over at Trowa and took a loud deep breath. He was about to shout out when Hilde clapped her hand over his mouth.
"Don’t even DARE!" she warned him. Duo glanced at her, eyes dancing. Hilde suddenly felt something wet brush the palm of her hand. She withdrew it instantly. "GRO~OSS!" She wiped her hand on her pants, and looked at Duo thoroughly disgusted.
Duo laughed at her until he tasted something foul. "Yuck!" He began to spit and sputter. "Frog slime!"
Hilde laughed back. "That’s what you get for licking my hand." She suddenly sneezed.
"Payback," Duo muttered, wiping his tongue.
"I hope I’m not catching Relena’s cold."
Duo nearly fell off his stool. "What?!"
"Relena’s sick with the flu or something. I hope I don’t catch it."
Duo let out a sigh of relief. Thank God it’s only a cold. Ms. Noin would have Heero’s head if Relena’d killed herself over him. On second thought, that wouldn’t be so bad right now. Duo thought.
After classes ended, Duo was at his locker putting his books away when Hilde came bounding up to him.
"Trowa and the others are going to grab something to eat and they’ve invited us along," she told him as Quatre walked up behind her.
"I think I’ll pass." Duo said plainly, shutting his locker. "There’s something I need to do. Thanks anyway." He walked off leaving the two openly stunned.
"That’s odd," Quatre noted. "Duo’s never refused food before!"
Hilde watched the brown braid round the corner. "Tell me about it."
"Can I help you young fellow?" an elder man asked.
"Yeah, I need some flowers," Duo replied, eyeing the large spread before him.
The elder man smiled. "Aaah! For your sweetheart?" he asked, reaching for the roses.
"NOnono. For a sick friend." He blushed slightly. The very idea!
"Well, we have some lovely carnations here, or some daylilies perhaps?"
"Nnnaaah." Duo glanced over. "Those!" He pointed quickly at the daisies.
"Perfect!" the man replied, "How many?"
Duo scratched his head. He hardly ever bought flowers. "I dunno. What’s the norm?"
The elder man smiled kindly. He pulled out nearly half his stock and proceeded to wrap them into a pretty arrangement, topping it off with long curled ribbons. "Here you go son, on me." He handed Duo the bundle.
Duo was stunned. "But…" he began to protest.
"Go on lad," the elder man smiled, gesturing him away. "Wish her well!"
Duo kept glancing back as he walked away. Did that guy know something he didn’t?
"Hi, Duo!" a chorus of girls chimed as he entered the lobby of the girls’ dorm. Duo smiled and nodded his head in acknowledgment. His hands were tied up with daisies in one and a can of soup in the other. "Who you visiting?" one of the girls asked.
Before he could dodge out from a reply, a sophomore popped up in front of him, blocking his path. "Hi, Duuuo!" the girl smiled, braces shining. He lurched back from the black haired girl, cringing in fear. Not her! The terror that followed him around everywhere last year was leering dangerously close to him. Beads of sweat were beginning to form at his temple. Now he knew how Heero felt that first year.
"Um, hi, uh…."
"Sue," she replied behind thick glasses. "Don’t you remember?"
I’d rather not! "Um, yeah….Nice to see ya. I gotta go!" He took off up the stairs. Sue put her hands on her hips and pouted.
"307…307…," he chanted quietly as he searched for Relena’s door. Upon finding it, he scanned the hall making sure no one was around then knocked on the door. After a few moments it creaked open.
Relena came face to face with a bundle of daisies. Her drowsy eyes blinked, too dazed to manifest a reaction---until Duo’s smiling face appeared over them. Her eyes went wide and she gasped, shutting the door quickly.
Duo scowled. He half-expected a reaction like this, but he wasn’t going to take it. He knocked on the door again.
"What d’ ya wan’?" she asked in a sleepy voice, peeking behind a cracked door.
"I heard you were sick. Thought you might like some soup." He held up the can.
That does sound awfully good. Relena thought. She walked back to her bed, leaving the door to swing open. She plopped down on the covers just as Duo was shutting the door behind him.
Duo stepped carefully among the tissues that saturated the floor. Jeez! Hasn’t she heard of a trashcan? He then spied the object in question tucked in a corner and peaked beyond the brim with white wadded up bundles. He snickered at the peculiar sight. He laid the flowers and the can on the counter of her kitchenette. "Do you have a garbage bag?" Relena mumbled something into her pillow and pointed vaguely in his direction. I guess I’ll have to find it myself. He opened the lower cabinets one by one until he finally found the bags under the sink. He then began to shovel the small white bundles into the bag.
Relena had dozed off in the meantime while Duo continued to straighten her room. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep when she opened her eyes and saw Duo standing at her stove stirring something in a pot.
Relena moaned. "Y’re still here."
"You’re awake. Are you hungry? Soup’s ready."
Relena groaned and sat up, her head pounding. She trudged over to her small table and sat down as Duo placed a steaming bowl of soup in front of her. "By head hurz. C’d ya gibbie sobe…." Duo handed her a bottle of aspirin before she could finish. She glanced up at him funny. How did he know? She popped two in her mouth and took a hefty drink of water. She tasted the soup and burned her tongue. "OW! Hot!"
"Well, that’s how you’re s’posed to serve it," Duo jibed.
Relena ignored his remark and blew on her next spoonful. Her nose had begun to run and she paused to blow it. She glanced around her room. It looked clean, and the daisies were now in a vase on her dresser. Did Duo do all this? His voice broke her train of thought.
"So, is it the flu or just a cold?"
"A code," she replied sniffing. She noticed a funny look cross his face.
"A WHAT?" He asked again, his blue-violet eyes sparkling.
"I hab a code." She repeated then frowned as he started to laugh. "Whasso fubby?"
Duo only laughed harder. He clutched his stomach as tears began to form in the corners of his eyes. "You…a~hahaha…you sound so f-funny…hehehe!" He broke off into another round of laughter, subsiding only when Relena threw her box of tissues at him. Her nose running again, she reached for another tissue and realized her dilemma. Relena moaned and Duo handed her back the box.
"I told you you’d catch a cold."
"Did you cobe here to torbent be?" Relena frowned.
"No," Duo managed to keep from laughing. "I came to see if you were OK."
Relena yawned and nodded her head. She felt so sleeeeeeepy.
"It looks like you could use another nap. Go on, I’ll take care of this," he said as he grabbed the empty bowl.
Relena sauntered back to her bed and crawled in, drifting quickly into slumber. Duo walked over and pulled the blankets over her. He pulled over a nearby chair and sat down for a moment, watching her sleep. She looks five years old. He noted of her sweet face, open and peaceful. She nuzzled deeper into her pillow and a mass of copper-blond hair fell in her face. With a tender smile Duo reached over and combed back the silky strands with his fingers.
"Nnnnnnnn. Heero…." Relena sighed in her sleep.
Duo snapped his hand back. He felt a sharp sting in his chest. After all the hurt that Jerk caused her, she still cries out for him!
Relena reached behind her and brought forward a teddy bear with a crumpled red ribbon. She snuggled the stuffed animal close to her chest.
Duo could feel the bile rise in his throat as he fumed at the sight of that bear. Heero had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday. Since then the two of them had been inseparable. Now, two years later, Relena suffers from a broken heart and Heero seems indifferent to it all. Son-of-a…. Duo thought. All this time, Relena’s been starving for some sign of affection from this guy, and he sheds her like a second skin! Just like the snake he is. Duo picked up a wadded tissue he’d missed earlier. He stared at it feeling suddenly ill.
Used. That’s what she’d been. Heero had used her affection for him to regain his own humanity. Duo scoffed. That was a waste. Heero would always remain the same, no matter how much he regained. Duo felt his chest tighten when he looked at her again in her peaceful sleep. She was so deserving of love that Heero obviously couldn’t give. Two years!
"Dammit!" Duo cried angrily then clapped his own mouth when he saw Relena turn in her sleep. Ooops! He didn’t want to wake her. Maybe I should go now. He tossed the tissue in the trashcan near the bed. He straightened the covers over her one last time and ran his hand over silky mane. "Sleep. It’ll do you good," he said softly. He’d just opened the door when her voice caught him.
"Yeah, I better go. I’ll leave you to sleep."
"Duo? I never thanked you for what you did. It helped a lot."
He grinned. "You’re welcome." He headed out the door when a thought brought him back. "Ya know, Time heals everything."
Relena sighed heavy but nodded her head in understanding.
"I’ll see ya," Duo said as he closed the door behind him.
Duo sat on a park bench, reflecting over the whole situation. Two years. He shook his head. He could identify with how Relena must have felt during that time. All through his childhood, no one cared about him---except Solo. And when he died, he was left alone again. He remembered how happy he felt when Father Maxwell and Sister Helen decided to adopt him. For a while there he had a family; two people who cared about him and loved him unconditionally. Duo’s eyes began to blur over. He shut them tight, refusing to let the tears flow. God, I miss them.
The past ten years he’d been alone again, never feeling that same love. In a way he envied Heero---to have that constant affection poured over him. She reminds me of me. Duo thought. The two of them gave endlessly to their friends, hoping but not expecting much in return. Her pain was like his own---they both longed for someone to love them. Maybe WE should pair up. He joked. He felt a strange flutter in his chest, a kind of sweet pain. What was that? He shrugged it off and continued his thoughts. His mind flashed back on Relena’s tear filled eyes two nights before---they seemed to haunt him. There’s that flutter again! What’s going on?!
The realization tore through his body like a shock wave and sent him to his feet. He had feelings for her. DEEP feelings. When the hell did this happen? His mind raced through all those times when he’d made some sort of remark at seeing Heero with her, and how jealous he felt. It WAS jealousy! He shut his eyes, thoroughly amazed by the new feelings surging inside him. What else could this be? He had fallen in love with her.
A few passers-by were beginning to stare at the widely grinning Duo. And for once, he didn’t care how strange he might look. Love made you do goofy things anyway. He shoved his hands in his pockets and proceeded through the park, whistling cheerfully.
"SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RELENA!"
Relena let out a gleeful squeal as her friends showered her with confetti streamers. "Quatre, you…." She shook her finger at him as he smiled in guilt. He had invited her over to the Winner Mansion for tea, and she had been so preoccupied with a problem in the Sanc Kingdom that she nearly forgot her own birthday. But obviously her friends had not.
"Thanks, guys," she smiled as she looked around. Dorothy Catalonia, Hilde Schbeiker, Trowa and his sister Catherine, Lucrezia Noin, Wufei and Sally Poe, as well as Quatre and the Maganacs were all there to wish her well. The dining room had been strung with streamers of every color imaginable and the table was set with the finest china and decorated with tall multi-colored candles. In the center stood a two tiered chocolate cake decorated with delicate white icing roses. Her gifts piled high on a nearby table.
"You really shouldn’t have."
"You’re the last one of us to turn eighteen," Hilde replied. "It had to be big."
"Come on, Ms. Relena," Dorothy said as she guided her in front of her cake. "Blow out your candles."
"Make a wish," Relena heard Ms. Noin say as she stared into the tiny flickering lights. She glanced around at everyone and realized Heero was not present. Just as well. She thought. She was still hurt and mad at him. When she saw Hilde make an encouraging gesture she realized Duo wasn’t here either. Since that night he’d helped her, Relena viewed him in a new light. He hadn’t once teased her about the scenario and had since devoted himself to cheering her up. She no longer felt nervous around him and was actually beginning to enjoy his jokes. He had become a friend.
"Your cake’s going to burn down if you don’t do something soon," Wufei retorted.
Relena took a deep breath. I wish Duo were here to share this. She blew out the candles.
"I’m sorry I’m late!" Duo huffed as he bounded into the dining room. "You wouldn’t believe the trouble I went through!" He glanced at Relena. She looked happy to see him. He then glanced at the cake. His shoulders slumped.
"Aaaawwww! I missed it!" he whined.
"We can light them again," Trowa teased, grabbing the box of matches. Wufei promptly snatched them out of his hand.
"I’m sorry!" Duo lamented.
Relena smiled. "I haven’t opened my gifts yet. You’re not that late."
Duo’s face winced in pain. "When do you think you’ll open them? Now?"
"Well, I wanted to have cake first…." She looked at him puzzled.
Duo’s face winced again. "At least MINE?!" His voice jumped to a higher pitch and his hat seemed to move on his head. "Please?!" He pleaded.
Before Relena could reply she heard a tiny cry come from Duo’s hat. A small black and white kitten poked its head out from under the brim. She immediately removed the tiny kitten from Duo’s head.
"Ohhhhhhhhh! How CUTE!" The kitten began to purr as Relena scratched under its white chin. "You’re so soft!" she cooed. "Duo, thank you!"
"No, thank YOU!" he stressed as he rubbed his head. "That cat’s got knives in its feet!"
Relena giggled then turned to show off her gift. "Look everyone!"
A chorus of adoring cries emanated from the crowd as Quatre walked over to Duo.
"That’s some gift you gave her."
Duo’s gaze never left Relena. "She needs it," he smiled, not noticing Quatre eyeing him perceptively.
"Why isn’t Heero here?" Duo asked, his expression suddenly dulled.
"I’m not sure. He just said he couldn’t come. He was real vague and cold about it." Quatre noticed Duo frown deeply as he glanced back at Relena. "Did something happen between you two?"
Duo blushed slightly. "What?!" His heart leapt to his throat.
"You seem to be avoiding him lately."
"Oh! Yeah." Duo laughed in relief. He recomposed himself. "Yeah, he did something that really pissed me off."
"Oh." Quatre could hear the ire in his voice.
"Hey, guys! She’s cutting her cake!" Hilde called over to them.
"I want a BIG piece!" Duo declared as he and Quatre joined them. He was glad the subject had changed.
Relena sat at the end of the table, unwrapped paper and ribbons strewn about her. "Thank you everyone," she smiled, admiring the gifts in front of her. Quatre had given her an embossed seal bearing her kingdom’s coat of arms. Hilde had bought her the latest pocketsized camera with various "nifty" features. Wufei’s gift was a book Relena had wanted to read. Noin gave her a beautiful diamond solitaire necklace with matching earrings. "Every grown woman needs one," she had said. Sally Poe had given her a new horseback riding outfit complete with shiny black boots. Catherine had made her a soft knitted throw and Trowa had bought her a leather-bound journal. Dorothy of course had given her the newly updated game of Risk.
"Now we can have wars and not hurt anyone," she grinned. "We’ll see how well you can defend yourself."
"I’ll just join up with the Swiss colony and declare neutrality," Relena teased in return. Everyone laughed.
A tiny cry was heard in the room and Relena looked down among the torn paper. The little black and white kitten poked out from under a pile, curly ribbon draped over and around its head. Relena giggled and picked it up, removing the ribbon.
"You’re having fun too, aren’t you?" She scratched its head and smiled over at Duo, silently thanking him again.
Quatre clapped his hands to gain everyone’s attention. "Everyone ready for the pool?"
"YEAH!" they all declared in unison, scrambling to get outdoors.
The girls were all lounging under the shade of the palm trees playing with Relena’s new kitten. It rubbed its head on Catherine’s chin.
"That tickles!" she giggled. "What are you going to name him?"
"I thought about Max," she replied. "After Maxwell," Relena looked over at Duo who was resting his arms and chin on the edge of the pool watching them. "If that’s all right with you."
Duo was stunned. "Sure, he’s your cat but, why?"
Relena held the kitten up for him to see. "He has a preacher’s collar like you used to wear."
Duo looked closely at the kitten. Sure enough, the black fur circled around its neck stopping under its chin where there was a small white patch. "I never noticed."
"And his bushy tail reminds me of your braid," she continued.
"Now you’re stretching it," Duo grinned.
Quatre walked over to them, a towel draped around his neck. "Are you guys going to swim?"
"Sure we are." Dorothy stood up and took his towel. "We were just waiting to have your full attention when we make our entrance." She snapped the towel at his legs, causing the boy to blush a deep crimson. The group giggled.
"Hey, Quatre," Duo spoke after the girls had gone into the pool house. "I’d watch out for Dorothy if I were you. Those college girls can get fei~sty if you know what I mean," he smiled mischievously.
"Duo!" Quatre flustered, turning red again.
"Have ya fooled around yet?"
Quatre grabbed a nearby beach ball and threw it at him. Duo ducked underwater and it skipped across the surface. "That’s none of your business," Quatre replied sternly, trying to stifle the smile tugging at his lips. His cheeks pinked slightly as he glanced at the others. Wufei rolled his eyes and Trowa cleared his throat and glanced away.
A few minutes later, the girls came out of the pool house draped in robes and walking barefoot.
"Take it off!" shouted Duo, sitting on the end of the diving board.
"Shaddup, Duo!" Hilde yelled as she removed the robe.
"Whaddya think, Trowa?" Duo inquired of Hilde’s back-less swimsuit. He saw her eyes grow wide.
"It’s nice," Trowa replied in his normal flat tone.
Hilde blushed. "Thanks." She gave Duo an evil eye that made him chuckle.
Dorothy, Sally Poe, and Noin unfolded the lounge chairs out in the sun and began to apply sunscreen.
"Quatre, would you mind?" Dorothy spoke sweetly, holding the bottle out towards him. "I can’t reach my back."
"Uh…." Quatre froze, taking note of her yellow bikini. He glanced back at Duo who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. Quatre blushed and slowly walked over to her.
"Thanks. You’re a doll," she said, placing the bottle in his hands. She twisted her long blond hair up into a bun, exposing her neck and back.
Quatre’s hands started to shake as he squirted some sunscreen into one of them. Noin and Sally Poe couldn’t help exchanging amused glances at each other.
Duo giggled as well then saw Relena remove her robe. A whistle escaped his lips. She looked at him in shock. He winked and gave her a thumbs up. "Nice!" He said of her very flattering two-piece tank top suit. She smiled shyly and combed her hair behind her ears with her fingers.
As Catherine and Hilde entered the pool by the steps, Relena proceeded to the diving board.
"Move," she nudged Duo’s back with her foot.
"No," he grinned. "I like it here."
"Come on, move," Relena giggled, pushing him again with her foot.
"Make me," he challenged. It was a few moments before he felt her cool hands on his back. He closed his eyes and smiled. "HEY!" He was suddenly shoved forward into the water. He came up sputtering. Everyone started clapping and Relena took a bow.
"Thank you, thank you."
"Bravo, Ms. Relena. Bravo!" Dorothy clapped, Quatre laughing beside her, rubbing on sunscreen.
"Serves you right, Duo!" he called out to him.
Relena stood at the edge of the board laughing down at him. "Payback’s coming," he smiled, shaking his finger at her. He lunged up to pull her in, but she dived over his head. When she surfaced, she didn’t see him. She gasped when she felt something hit her leg, then screamed when she was suddenly raised out of the water on Duo’s shoulders and then thrown backwards with a huge splash.
"Ooooohhhhhhh!" she growled when she surfaced.
Duo laughed then about choked when she splashed water in his face. His expression turned playful. He splashed back, starting a water war between them.
"This is a new development." Trowa commented, raising an eyebrow.
"Indeed," Wufei added, swimming away from the onslaught of water.
A sudden splash wet Catherine and Hilde. "HEY!" Hilde shouted. Duo just chuckled and splashed her again. Quatre’s butler appeared, cautiously avoiding the surging water.
"There is a telephone call for Ms. Relena." He announced.
Relena climbed out of the pool and wrapped a towel around her. As she followed the butler around the corner, everyone scrambled towards Duo.
"Okay, what’s going on?" Quatre asked.
Duo looked around nervously. "Whaddya mean?"
"Oh, please! Naming her cat after you, and what was all that horseplay?" Hilde jibed with her hands on her hips.
"She’s the birthday girl. She gets special attention today," he replied nonchalantly.
"Seems like she’s been getting a lot of attention from you lately." Quatre smiled and crossed his arms.
"W-well…I…uh…," he stammered.
"Grab him!" Dorothy shouted.
Duo ducked underwater as eight pairs of hands reached for him. He tried to swim away, but Wufei caught him in a shoulder lock.
"HEY! LEMMIE GO!" he protested.
"Talk!" Hilde ordered.
"No! I promised!" He bit his lip suddenly when he realized what he said. Everyone looked at him intently.
"Dorothy…," Hilde cued, grabbing the end of Duo’s braid.
Duo let out a girlish scream when the blond produced a pair of scissors. "Okayokay I’ll talk!" He shouted rapidly. Wufei removed his hold, as Duo began to quickly explain the situation. He told them about how Relena ran into him that night and what had happened between her and Heero. The crowd suddenly fell silent.
"Oh, Relena," Noin mourned, placing her hand over her heart. "I never saw that coming. Why didn’t you tell me?"
"That was cruel," Wufei added. "Even for Heero."
"But that still doesn’t explain why you’ve taken such an interest," Sally Poe commented.
"Yeah," Quatre and Hilde replied in unison.
"What’s there to tell?" Duo retorted. "I’m just trying to help her get through this."
"So all of a sudden you’re the best of friends?" Hilde smiled, skeptical. "Come on."
Duo looked at her confused.
"You like her don’t you?" she smiled.
Duo opened his mouth to protest, but found that nothing would come out. He blushed.
"That’s a yes," Quatre teased.
"Wha—hey, now. Don’t go assuming…." Duo tried to defend himself.
Quatre laughed. "And you tease ME about—" He clamed up. Everyone glanced at him.
"About what, Quatre?" Duo grinned.
"Nevermind," he mumbled, feeling Dorothy’s eyes on him.
"Duo, if it’s any consolation, I haven’t seen Relena smile like she has in a really long time." Noin said tenderly. "I think it’s wonderful."
"Yeah, Duo. Go for it!" Catherine patted his shoulder.
Duo looked around, aghast that everyone was nodding his or her head. His heart jumped in his chest. He was about to thank them when he spied Relena walking back.
"So, the man says, ‘That’s no duck, that’s my doctor!’" The group laughed instantly and began to disperse.
"Did I miss much?"
"Just a joke. I’ll tell you later."
"Why don’t you tell her now? It was really INTERESTING," Hilde smiled, pushing Duo over closer.
"Knock it off, Hilde!" Duo muttered under his breath. "Unless you want you-know-who to know YOU like HIM!"
She glared at him, eyes wide. "You wouldn’t!"
Duo smirked and spun around in the water. "Hey Trowa! Hilde wants you—" He was quickly pushed underwater. Trowa glanced at them inquisitively.
"Show me that triple-spin dive you do," she finished, blushing slightly as she held Duo’s head under.
Duo managed to break free and swam over to Relena. She sat down on the edge and put her feet in the water.
"Who was on the phone?" Duo asked, fearing it would be Heero. In the background he heard Hilde applause at Trowa’s stunt.
"Just a neighboring leader wishing me a happy birthday," she smiled, but not wholly genuine.
"You thought it was Heero too, didn’t you?"
Her hands clutched the edge of the pool. "I just wasn’t sure I could face him."
Duo grabbed her ankle. "Are you gonna be OK?"
Relena took a deep calming breath then nodded her head and smiled at him.
"Good," he replied before jerking her into the water.
She laughed and pushed him under.
There was no school on Tuesday and Relena took the opportunity to personally check on things in the Sanc Kingdom. Of course she was also happy for the chance to get away and relax at home. Seeing that Duo had nothing to do, she had invited him to come along with her.
Relena slipped her hand into the other white riding glove and was leading her horse out of the stables when Duo strolled up.
"Ooo. Spiffy," he commented in a British accent. "Sally’s gift right?" he noted of her outfit. "Very nice."
"I’m going riding, why don’t you join me?"
Duo’s eyes went wide and he shook his head violently.
Relena giggled. "Why not?"
"I don’t like horses much." He tried to pet its head, but the horse nipped at him. "And they like me even less!" he said, yanking his hand back.
"You can ride Serenity, she likes everyone." She gestured to the stable hand to get the horse ready.
Duo scratched his head. "I dunno…."
"Come on, it will be fun!"
Duo glanced up at those teal blue sparkling jewels of hers and melted. "All right." He was both amazed and appalled at himself that he could be so easily won over by those soft eyes.
"I don’t know how I let you talk me into this!" He protested as he sat nervously atop Serenity.
"You will do fine, Duo," Relena chuckled. "I’ll be close if anything goes wrong."
"Oooohhhhhh, don’t tell me that."
"Relax, we’ll start easy." She laid her hand on his shoulder.
Despite the fact that she had on a glove, Duo felt his skin grow hot from her touch. Fire seemed to surge through his blood, causing his heart to beat uncontrollably. Calm down, Duo! He told himself. Don’t let her see you like this. Not yet. Don’t get your hopes up. You don’t know how she feels about you.
"If we must!" Duo whined.
"Just give her a gentle tap with your heel, and don’t jerk on the reins."
"WHOAH!" he exclaimed as the horse lurched forward. It settled into a leisurely walk. "Hey, this isn’t so bad!" he smiled at Relena.
"HEEEEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYY!" Duo screamed when the horse broke into a run in the middle of a meadow. "OHGODOHGODOHGOD! PLEASE STOP! OH PLEASE, OH PLEASE!" He nearly passed out when the horse slowed to a trot. He gripped the horn of the saddle so tight his knuckles were white.
"Please tell me she won’t do that again!" Duo begged of Relena after the horse came to a stop. She bit her lip and his eyes went wide.
"Only in that one area," she said, sympathetically.
"That does it! I’m walking back!" Duo slid off the horse.
"It’s three miles," Relena replied.
Duo hung his head in defeat. His shoulders slumped.
"This looks like a good place to take a break anyway," Relena commented, getting off her horse.
They tied the horses to a nearby willow and stretched out near a pond under its shade. Duo lay on his back, just enjoying the cool feel of the grass on his arms. Relena had taken off her boots and dipped her feet in the water. She lifted them up and down repeatedly, totally lost in her thoughts.
He raised up on his elbows. "What?"
"Do you find me smothering?"
It’s still bothering her. "No!" He sat up completely. "You’re very fun to be around! It’s just Heero…He doesn’t…." Duo’s gaze turned inward, giving full attention to his thoughts. "He doesn’t know how to appreciate things for their face value. He searches for some deep significance. Which some things have, but some things are wonderful just because…they are."
Relena was stunned by his answer. She knew he meant to cheer her up, but he’d also paid her a very flattering compliment, which at the moment he didn’t seem to realize.
"Anyway," he continued, glancing at her. "You shouldn’t let what one person thinks of you determine your self-worth. The only opinions that really matter are of those people closest to you…like Noin, and Quatre…They think the world of you. And I see why."
Duo bit his tongue when he saw Relena’s eyes widen slightly. "Take me for example," Duo said quickly returning to the previous subject. "I play jokes and pranks on people. And some might find that mean…." Duo noticed Relena nod her head in agreement. "What?!" He was appalled.
"Well, you were!" She proclaimed. "You were always picking on me! I knew it was because you hated me."
"I only pick on people I like…" he blushed. "Who are my friends." He added quickly. You better keep your mouth shut. That’s twice you’ve slipped up! "What I mean is, they didn’t realize how much they needed a good laugh until I stopped joking."
"So…." Relena failed to see a connection.
"So, it’s Heero’s loss. He doesn’t realize what he’s missing." Duo saw Relena’s cheeks pink slightly. Dammit! When am I going to listen to my own advice! There were a few moments of silence. "You really thought I hated you?"
"I thought you hated ME. You were always avoiding me."
"I was avoiding any cruel pranks you might try," Relena replied in jest.
"They weren’t cruel!" Duo pretended to be hurt. "Admit it. Now that you know me, really know me, I’m not the monster you thought."
Relena smiled and bumped his shoulder with her own. "No. You’re not. I was wrong."
"What was that?" Duo placed his hand by his ear. "I didn’t hear…."
Relena shoved him over as he laughed. "You better be nice to me or I’ll make Serenity run the whole way back," she teased.
"Heeeeyyyy now." He shook his finger at her.
Back at the stables, Duo rubbed his legs and groaned. "I am never riding horses again."
Relena chuckled. "Well at least help me cool them down."
Duo held the garden hose so the cool water ran across Serenity’s back. He raised it up to wet her neck. "I bet that feels good, doesn’t it," he inquired as he stroked her forehead. He was surprised that he didn’t feel nervous anymore. Serenity whinnied and nuzzled roughly against him, causing the hose to slip from his hand squirting him as it fell. "Hey! Are you trying to tell me I need a bath too?" She snorted as he bent down to pick up the hose. He glanced at Relena who had his back to him, cooling off her horse. His eyes narrowed as a grin appeared on his face.
Relena felt something very cold and wet splatter across her back and legs. She cried out at the frigid water and spun around to face Duo. He had begun whistling as he continued to attend to his horse. Her eyes narrowed playfully. She placed a thumb in front of the stream, creating a spray and proceeded to drench Duo thoroughly. A combination of laughter and screams escaped him as he fought desperately to shield himself from the watery attack. Failing miserably, he then turned his hose on her.
"Cease fire! Cease fire!" Duo yelled out a few minutes later. They looked at each other and started laughing.
"You look like a drowned rat!" Relena teased.
"You should talk!" Duo pointed. Relena glanced down. Her billowy white blouse was now clinging tightly to her skin, the sleeves hanging limp at her wrists. "Touché," she replied.
Just then the two horses shook off the excess water from their coats, dousing the two humans between them.
"Hey!" they both shouted.
Duo and Relena walked out of the stables laughing hard. Relena glanced up and suddenly choked. Heero was standing before them, one eyebrow raised. Duo immediately scowled.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"I should ask you the same thing," Heero replied.
"She invited me. What’s your excuse?"
Heero glanced at Relena. "I left a disk here."
"Why don’t ya just get it yourself?" Duo snapped.
"Only SHE knows where it is, Baka."
"I’ll go get it," Relena replied coolly, walking past them towards the manor.
"How could you do that to her?" Duo snapped at Heero after she’d left. "After all she did for you."
"I see she’s wasted no time in latching herself onto you," Heero bit back.
"She’s not a leech, Heero. She GIVES. And you USED her! For what? To regain your humanity?" Duo scoffed. "You’re just as cold as the day I met you."
Heero’s eyes narrowed. "What’s she to you, Duo? Another notch in your belt?"
Duo’s blood boiled. "THAT’S IT!" He lunged at him and swung his fist back. He felt his breath leave his lungs as Heero punched him hard in the stomach. Duo collapsed to his knees, clutching his stomach and coughing for breath. "Ba—Bastard!" Duo coughed out. "You—You leave her alone! You’ve hurt her enough!" Duo slowly stood up. "You hurt her again and I’ll kill you!" He growled seriously.
"I’ve never seen you so worked up over a girl," Heero replied, a bit amazed.
"At least I’m man enough to want to return her feelings," Duo glared at him. He saw cold flash across Heero’s eyes before he felt his fist smash into his jaw. Duo crashed against the stable door and slid down to the ground.
"Ohmygod! Duo!" Relena screamed as she ran towards them, disc in hand.
She passed Heero and knelt beside Duo who was groaning. "Are you OK?"
Duo glanced into her startled eyes. His heart raced. She’s worried! About me!
Relena glared up at Heero with contempt. She walked briskly over to him---and slapped his face, his head lashing violently to the side.
"Why do you always have to hurt the ones who care about you?"
Heero was stunned. And so was Duo.
"Here’s your disk!" she snapped, shoving it to his stomach. "Now leave us be!"
US?! Duo could hardly contain his joy. Does this mean…? He watched Heero glance at him and turn away. As he walked off, Relena helped Duo to stand.
"I cannot believe I just did that." Relena said, shaking as she draped Duo’s arm over her shoulders and placed hers around his waist.
"I can’t either!" Duo said surprised.
"Was I wrong?" she asked as they limped indoors.
"NO. He deserved it."
"I was very impressed," Duo said as he sat on a kitchen chair, his cheek now throbbing. "You were very brave---OW!" Duo winced as Relena placed an ice pack against his face.
"This should help."
She felt her face flush a bit when Duo reached up to take hold of the ice pack and nonchalantly grabbed her hand too. She carefully withdrew it from his hold.
"The guys would think so too," he mumbled.
"What?" Relena was shocked. "Duo…?"
He winced when he realized what was coming.
"You told them?!" Relena sounded hurt.
Duo glanced up at her fearing the worst, but she looked more surprised than hurt. He launched into a defensive apology. "They forced it out of me! I didn’t want to tell them, really I didn’t! But they---they threatened to cut my braid!"
Relena’s eyes went wide and she hung her head.
"I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m really, really sorry! I didn’t want to…they made me." He took hold of her hands. "I’m sorry. So sorry! Please! Please don’t be mad at me! They were concerned about you. Please!" He was almost bowing to her.
Relena couldn’t help but smile. He sounded so funny begging for mercy. Ironic coming from the God of Death! She thought. She glanced up at him and had to hold back laughter. He looked so pitiful, his wide, blue-violet eyes pleading for forgiveness.
She smiled. "I’m not mad." She heard him breathe a deep sigh of relief. "I’m just embarrassed that they know."
"They’re all supporting you," Duo said tenderly. "Heero’s a bit outnumbered right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went missing."
"I don’t wish him harm," Relena replied. "I just wish I knew why…really why."
Duo rubbed his thumb across her fingers. "Sounds like you need closure."
Relena sighed heavy. "I just don’t know if I’m brave enough."
"What was that out there?"
"I was angry. He hit you."
Duo froze in shock. His heart nearly stopped. He had to force himself to breathe. Oh please! He thought. Please let it be…
Relena noticed that he was staring at her with a dazed look. It made her feel kind of strange. She removed her hands from under his and reapplied the ice pack to his face.
"This is not going to get well if you don’t treat it," she said.
Duo grinned and took hold of it. "Thanks."
End Part 1