You Go Ahead
"...this sucks," Duo muttered, getting straight to the point. It was one of his faults - and his strengths. It all depended on the timing. Still, in two words he managed to describe the general sentiment of those within hearing range.
Hilde put her hand over his.
Duo barely noticed. He focused on a blond friend of his, seated restlessly on a wicker chair up by the podium. The young man was idly rubbing one hand over the other, and his face seemed a tad paler than usual. Duo wasn't sure it was just the lights playing a trick on him. He leaned towards Trowa. "Think Quatre's okay?"
Trowa returned as calm a look as he could muster, calling on every bit of acting talent he had to cover the traces of anger and resentment that lingered for Duo putting Quatre in this position. It wasn't that hard; he had more than a little compassion for the man beside him. He wanted to curse his boyfriend for never having the nerve to say no, but he knew this experience would be as much a catharsis to him as it would for the rest of them. Despite all that, he couldn't help sound almost hopeful as he whispered back "Having second thoughts?"
Duo eyed Trowa for a moment, then shook his head. "No," he mumbled. "It has to be him. He's the wordsmith among us."
Hilde had leaned in close enough to catch the conversation. "Relena-"
Duo shot her a glare that fast mellowed over after cutting her sentence off. "This is enough of an event already," he quietly stated.
She nodded in understanding and gripped Duo's hand tighter. "If you want, we could still get a minister to-"
"No," he said. "Heero doesn't have much of an opinion about religion." He caught her look, caught his own words. "Didn't have..." He bit his lip, nearly drawing blood. "Fuck..." he muttered.
Trowa's palm squeezed gently at his shoulder. Hilde reached her arm around Duo, her fingers brushing against Trowa's hand. She tightened her half embrace of Duo as she rested her head against his other shoulder.
For a while, Duo quietly accepted their presence. They'd always been good friends. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Wufei as well, and he was almost certain there were other familiar faces in the room. But there couldn't be many. "Bet nobody even showed up..." he mumbled bitterly to himself, too distressed to really notice the soft murmur through the low, sad organ tones.
"The chapel is nearly full, Duo," Hilde spoke quietly into his ear. "The two of you have more friends than you know."
Duo shot a quick glare over his shoulder, mostly towards the back where a good number of top brass, high ranking politicians and influential nobility had gathered. "Brownnosers," he snarled for the benefits of nearby friends. "They think they're here to honor their occasional war hero - never mind how they probably hated the man, not to mention his lifestyle." He fisted his hands.
"Not today, Duo," Trowa admonished, fearing Duo would make a scene he'd regret.
The words hit their mark, sank in. With a deep sigh, Duo rid himself of the anger. "I know..." he exhaled, glancing up at the podium again. At the coffin. Quickly over at Quatre, who had stopped fidgeting now, looking deadly serene. Duo clenched his teeth.
Eight years. Eight wonderful years. It wasn't anything to sneeze at, but it was so much less than what he'd wanted - what Heero would have wanted too, surely. It was all so pointless. Again, he cursed Doctor J and his insane experiments, well aware Heero had gone along with them willingly. He couldn't escape the fact he had done more than the regular sort of training in agreement with Professor G himself, either. He wanted to blame clamphand and mushroomhead, the famine and pestilence to his death and Heero's war. He couldn't. He and Heero were as much to blame.
Heero had been strong - very strong. The man could bend steel bars without breaking a sweat - and it wasn't as if he was a beefcake muscle man. Duo had suspected there was a price to pay for that, but it wasn't until they planned to move in together that Heero had finally told him, under a little duress.
J's drug cocktail would eventually kill him; it was taxing his body ahead of time, cutting his life short. How short, he couldn't tell, but he'd told Duo it was very unlikely he'd live to see thirty.
He hadn't even seen twenty-five.
Then again, once they had not expected to see sixteen. The price must have seemed small back then. Now, it was the world - but it was much too late.
"He warned me about this..." Duo mumbled. "I could never quite believe him - I mean, he was so damn healthy..." he made a ghost of a grin for himself. "Right up until..." the grin fell away, and he couldn't bring himself to finish. Hilde's half-hug was starting to feel good now, Trowa's warm palm a welcome show of support.
Minutes passed, only accompanied by the mourning music. The murmur of the room had begun to quiet. Hilde opted to challenge it. "...Duo... are you still sure about..." she looked to the floor, unable to say it outright.
Duo knew, though. "Yeah... I'm still gonna spread the ashes in the garden." Their garden. Heero's garden, really. He'd tended the flowerbeds, the vegetable patches, the small orchard and the decorative Asian-styled fishpond with nearly as much affection as he reserved for Duo. Duo was ashamed to admit there were times he'd been envious of chrysanthemums, leeks and pear trees.
Heero had been obsessed with flowers - with botany in general. Other than his ancient laptop, tending what others might have considered weeds was his biggest hobby. Heero had once told him it started when a girl gave him a flower. Despite many attempts, Duo had never gotten him to tell more of that story, except that J had not objected to his interest in herbology, as long as it did not interfere with his training. In fact, up to that point the doctor encouraged it, sensing the need to fill the mind of his super soldier with more than gundam specs and explosives expertise. You could not fight unless you had something to fight for.
The large patch of land at the back had been the chief argument for them buying the house in the first place. Good memories surfaced, but dipped down in his gloom again. He looked to Trowa. "Thanks, by the way... Dunno if I ever actually said that." He remembered Heero had - probably for the both of them.
The grip on his shoulder tensed for a moment, though not enough to hurt. "You did," Trowa said. "But it was Quatre that helped - I didn't."
At that, Duo managed to smile. "Sure, Quatre's money, but it was your muscle. The interest-free loan was a godsend, but you're the one who helped us make the rundown place livable."
Trowa made a wan smile of his own, glancing down at the floorboards. "Quatre would have loved to help too, but-"
Duo nodded. "I know," he whispered back. "He was needed elsewhere back then. It was the best choice for him." That much was true. Quatre's leadership skills, his financial resources and political goodwill were essential for the reconstruction of the ruined economies not only of the colonies, but of the dissolved nations of Earth as well. He didn't have time to fix one house; he had hundreds of thousands to cope with.
"He wanted to send handymen..." Trowa offered.
"I know," Duo repeated. "Thanks for not letting him," he said, again giving a mellow smile.
"You had what you really needed to make it your home already, though."
He cocked his head. "Yeah?"
"Each other," Trowa said serenely.
Duo knew Trowa hadn't said that with the intention to hurt, but it still did.
He was homeless now, he thought, grimacing a grin.
"...I can't cry..." he muttered, voicing a thought, a realization after rubbing his eyes.
Hilde ground her cheek against his shoulder. "You're allowed," she whispered. "Nobody would think-"
He leaned his head back against the top of hers. "It's not like I don't want to, Hilde. I just can't. Think I've cried too often lately for that..."
She didn't respond. She knew that well enough.
Duo glanced at the coffin again, at the hatch, at Quatre. He clenched his teeth, closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Heero had said.
"Don't be," Duo had replied. For the first time since he'd been a small kid, he'd been bawling. It'd taken him a long time to get control of himself.
The rush to the hospital had been a blur. Heero had collapsed in their living room, without warning - but they'd both known what was up.
With considerable effort, Heero had raised his hand to graze knuckles against Duo's wet cheek, slipping down. "I told you..." he had muttered, closing his eyes for a moment. "...that I'd stay with you as long as I lived..."
Duo had nodded and caught Heero's hand as his arm ran out of strength. "You also warned me that might not be all that long."
Heero had given him a long, soft, look, clutching his hand. Once, that grip could crush bone.
Duo had barely even felt it. He had leaned down to touch his lips to the moist knuckles, tasting salt. "Love you..."
"Know..." Heero had whispered back. "Love you too." He had curled his fingers.
He had forced himself to smile, despite everything. "You go ahead, Heero. I'll follow."
The haze that had blurred Heero's eyes vanished in an instant, and for the last time, Duo had felt his soul pierced by hard, deep blue. "Don't you dare," Heero had hissed before going into a coughing fit, calming down again as Duo did his best to sooth him. "You live a good, long life..." Heero had admonished, closing his eyes. "For the both of us."
Clutching Heero's hand in his own, caressing his cheek with his other, Duo had nodded. "Okay..."
At last, Heero had made a wry grin. "I trust you... we pilots are no good at suicides, anyway..."
He was right, of course. The bastard was nearly always right, which was why Duo felt great satisfaction whenever he'd been able to prove him wrong.
He couldn't fault him on this, though. Heero had attempted self-detonation once, but Trowa had pulled him back from the dead, something Duo was eternally grateful to the man for. Trowa, in turn, had gotten himself blown to bits and had been left drifting dead in space, losing his memory in the process, but he too had been rescued and brought back to face himself. Even Quatre had tried self-destruction, but his very suit had objected. Wufei... Wufei had repeatedly rushed headlong into battle at impossible odds - and he always came through, somehow. Duo knew Wufei would never admit his safe returns often depended as much on the sympathies and respect of his opponents as his own skills. Finally, there was his own push of the boom button, which had ended with a fizzle, not a bang. In retrospect, he was grateful to mushroomhead for sabotaging Deathscythe in that regard.
Heero had been right. They had no luck at death.
He took a deep breath, at last feeling the familiar pressure build behind his raw eyes. He knew what would follow soon, and he was glad. "...always thought he had nine lives," he whispered to Hilde. "I thought he'd reserve at least one for me..."
Her hand squeezed his knee. "He did," she said.
Duo never got a chance to reply, as the music stopped and the backdrop murmur vanished.
Quatre stepped up to the podium, grabbing both sides for support and attention. "We are gathered here today..."
"...to commemorate a good, honest man, a loved and treasured man. All his life, he's been the wall we've come to lean on, the solid pillar that has kept us up. And now, he is gone - but he shall never be forgotten." His right hand started shaking, his fingertips tapping the wood. Quatre relaxed the grip before anyone beyond the front row could hear. "There are few words adequate to describe him, but I'm still going to try." He paused, brought his wrinkled hand to his mouth and coughed into it. "I've known him since we were..." he started, then shook his head. "No, we were never truly children, not for more than a few fleeting moments in between - but I've known him since we were very young. He would never cease trying to lift our spirits, to help in whatever way he deemed most effective." His lips curled into a sort of smile. "He didn't always make the best choices, but he made them with the best of intentions. That's more than many of us can say. He never lost the will to help, to make the place a better, more fair place - and he never quelled his need to lash out against what he considered wrong in the world." The man reached his gnarly fingers to his hair, brushing through the scant, white locks at his scalp, his jaw loose as he looked out over the people gathered in the small chapel. A vague, long-forgotten memory resurfaced, but drowned out again, leaving nothing at all. His jaw closed, opened again.
Trowa recognized it before anyone else; he'd seen it several times before, and he'd feared it'd happen. Hilde stood up with him, but they were beaten on the short trek up to the podium.
"Uncle Quatre? Want me to take over?"
Quatre knitted his bushy brows, squinting at the younger man, trying to recognize him.
Trowa took a firm hold of Quatre's arm. "Come, love," he whispered in his ear.
The old man started to smile. "Trowa..." he looked around, the blank expression returning. "This isn't home..." he whispered back.
"No, Quatre. Come, let's take a walk together."
Again, he smiled, tapping his palm over Trowa's.
Hilde took hold of his other arm, and together, the three seniors shuffled down the three steps to the chapel floor, then walked over to the small annex at the left. Before she closed the door behind them, she glanced up at the podium, at the coffin, at the man picking up the eulogy where Quatre had left off. She closed her eyes tight for a moment, knowing this would not be her final goodbye; most likely she'd never finish saying goodbye.
Concerned with guiding Quatre safely down on the wooden bench in the anteroom, it took Trowa a moment to register Hilde sitting down at Quatre's other side. "You should go back out there, Hilde. The sermon-"
She tucked one of Quatre's bright locks back behind his ear, then straightened her black dress. "I can't do anything for the dead, Trowa. I can only care for the living."
He slowly caressed Quatre's cheek, eliciting a distant smile. "He was your husband, Hilde."
Her lips pressed together in a thin line. "We never married," she curtly replied.
Trowa hugged Quatre close and frowned at her, the enduring shock of hair that defied his receding hairline pointing like the horn of a charging unicorn; a relic of his once volumous bangs. "Quatre and I never got that piece of paper either. Does that make us any less married?"
She looked his way, and felt ashamed of herself, well aware it was showing. She glanced at the floor, shook her head. There wasn't any way she could argue with that. "I hated that man," she said with a bitter voice.
Trowa knew better. "You loved him, Hilde."
The tears finally burst through, yet she smiled. "Yes..."
He reached inside his pocket, retrieved a clean handkerchief and offered it to her.
"Thank you," she said, accepting, wiping at the wrinkly skin around her eyes. Her husband was dead. She knew that, had accepted that, yet didn't want to. Duo was gone.
"Junior made a graceful save. Remind me to thank him later."
Trowa flashed her a faded grin. "You did a good job raising Heero and the others, Hilde."
She started a soft smile of her own, nodding gently. Out there in the chapel, their firstborn was continuing the commemorative speech of his father. It had taken years, but she and Duo had grown steadily closer together after Heero's death. Their friendship was strong, grew stronger. There was love there, and they'd eventually moved in together, shared a home, a bed - lives. They soon lived as a married couple in all respects but legal matters - but she always knew she was but a substitute for a greater love. Under much duress and with great shame, Duo had admitted to the same, right before their first child came into the world - and yet, once that happened, it didn't seem important. Duo still loved her, and he definitely loved their kids more than anything in the living world.
Trowa was right, Heero Maxwell Junior had become a good man in his own right, though Hilde suffered the curse of all mothers - their children forever remain kids in their eyes. It didn't matter that her baby boy had children and even grandchildren of his own now.
"...do you think..." she fidgeted the handkerchief as she wondered whether she should ask or not. She opted for. "...do you think I helped fill the void in his heart through all these years?"
Trowa's eyes started to water as he smiled at her, reached for her hand and put his callused palm over it. "You were the light in his life, Hilde. I don't think he'd have gone on for long if you hadn't been there."
She pursed her lips, hesitating. "...think I maybe shouldn't have?"
He shook his head. "You had three great kids together, Hilde. You have grandkids, even great grandchildren - never mind all the kids at the orphanage. I don't think Duo would have traded that for anything."
"Except for him, maybe."
That, Trowa didn't dare answer. He knew Duo had kept on loving Heero right up until the end - the original Heero, not the boy turned man that to him, Quatre, Relena, Wufei, Noin and Zechs could never be 'Heero', but simply 'Junior'. Still, silence didn't seem a good answer, either.
Quatre started snoring.
Trowa smiled to himself, hugging his boyfriend; his better half of nearly seven decades close. "Have you made plans for his ashes?"
She gave him a look, that 'why do you ask me something you already know the answer to' sort. "You know as well as I do what Duo would have wanted..."
He nodded. He knew.
Hilde's lips formed that thin line again. "Do you think we should? I mean, the orphanage-"
He was relieved he hadn't been the only one thinking about it. Some years after Junior was born, Hilde and Duo had - with Quatre's financial support - converted the large house into a small orphanage, increasing their family many times over.
The flower garden had been left alone, however. After Heero died, Duo had taken to tending it every day, and the children - flesh and blood and otherwise - had learned better than to play recklessly in that part of the backyard. Trowa had only twice heard Duo raise his voice to any of the kids, and both times, trespassing with brute force was involved.
The children weren't forbidden to go there, however - far from it. Duo loved to bring them there in small groups to admire the flowers, lie in the soft grass and relax, even picnic. It was a place of quiet solace, of remembrance and dreams. In contrast, the front lawn and the orchard became the places for rowdy play; for smudges, scrubs, cuts, bruises and the occasional sprained or fractured bone.
In the flower garden, only one person was allowed to cry, and he only did so when alone.
Would the little children understand why Father's ashes were sprinkled on the flowerbeds he'd tended so lovingly all his life? Would they dare go there afterwards, or feel uncomfortable?
Trowa knew that was the last thing Duo had intended. "We'll just explain to them the circle of life, Hilde. It's a natural thing. Sad, but natural. Children are more clever than we give them credit for - they'll understand."
Not convinced, she still nodded. This was what Duo would have wanted - his dust to Heero's; both of them giving life to beautiful flowers and strong grass. "They belong together," she stated, a trace of envy in her words.
She hadn't been there when he died, but Junior had. Heero had.
Duo had died doing what he loved.
He'd been in the garden, a cultivator in his hand, picking at weeds and tending daffodils. Junior had been with him, helping him. He'd told them his father had suddenly frozen, and the tool had slipped out of his hands. Duo had smiled, his eyes had glazed over and he'd simply muttered 'Heero...' before falling over, into Junior's arms.
It was Trowa's turn to bite at his lip, unsure for a moment. "When Duo passed away... Junior knows Duo probably wasn't talking to him, right...?"
Hilde nodded. "He realized that." Their son had known who he was named for ever since he was a baby, but Junior hadn't known why until he turned fifteen - until he'd overheard his father, until he'd found a box in his father's study containing faded, much-read love letters. Years of tension between father and son had followed - they hardly spoke the first year after their initial harsh exchange of words voiced in anger. Yet, these powerful emotions had faded with time, allowing polite discourse, and eventually reconciliation.
It had taken many long talks with Hilde to make Duo understand Junior's rage. He'd thought he'd been named for an old friend, a war hero, who again had been named for a great politician. To a teenage boy busy toying with young girls' hearts, it was not fun to learn he'd instead been named for his father's deceased male lover; a man he still loved - would love until his death.
And probably beyond, Hilde thought. She'd always known she'd come second, but sometimes, that hadn't been easy to deal with. Today, it certainly wasn't.
The door opened, and a familiar face peeked in. She looked behind her, then made her way inside the anteroom, closing the door behind her.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she said. "They wouldn't let me get here faster. Something about a new death threat," she said, starting to smile. "As if that would be much of a threat to an old woman long since out of power."
"Relena," Hilde said, relieved to see her. She got to her feet, walked over to give Relena a great hug, the embrace returned. "I'm so glad you could make it."
"You're still an influential person," Trowa commented. "The government security detail only wishes your best, Relena."
She gave him a subdued grin. "Oh, they just want to keep someone from gaining quick fame for killing me - or keep me from speaking up in public. I do have a word or two to tell the current administration."
He smiled back. "A lot more than two."
She cocked her head, blinked slowly, nod denying that in the slightest. She hugged Hilde close again. "I'm so sorry about Duo, Hilde. He was a good man."
"Thank you," she whispered back.
They sat down at the bench next to Trowa and Quatre, the latter still quietly napping. Relena looked at the men for a moment. "Did he have another episode?"
Trowa gave a curt nod. "He'd just started his speech when it happened."
"...it's becoming more frequent, isn't it?"
He clenched his teeth, not wanting to answer; to face the truth. "He pushes himself too hard," he muttered.
She didn't want to pursue the matter. She knew all too well the feelings Trowa was struggling with. Watching your lifemate slowly slip away from you could hardly be better than to have them ripped away from you brutally and quickly. "If there is anything I can do..." she quietly offered. "I can never repay you for all your help during Wufei's passing, but-"
"Thanks," he cut her off, not wanting to discuss it. Not today. Today, he was saying goodbye to an old friend. He was not about to write off half his soul in the process.
They sat in silence for a while.
Relena had never grown fond of idleness, especially of words. Part was experience from politics, part was influence from a few choice people, and perhaps a tiny portion was her own personality. "I'll miss him," she ventured, and when none of the others followed up, she continued. "I never could understand the man very well, not like I could Heero, but Duo insisted on filling Heero's shoes as best he could. He's been a good friend and counsel through all these years." Her serene smile grew greater. "Even though his advice wasn't always entirely..." She grasped for the right word. "Proper," she decided. "But his advice was always straightforward and honest."
Hilde took Relena's hand in hers. "Is it true that when L3 threatened secession, Duo suggested you tell them 'bite me'?"
She couldn't help the short giggle escaping her. "Oh, yes - and he wanted me to follow up by ordering a big military parade right through the cluster to make them remember which side had the 'big guns of peace and prosperity'."
Hilde grinned, shaking her head dejectedly. "He never was a pacifist."
Relena tilted her head. "True," she said, "But he was a good man."
None of them could argue with that. From the chapel, they heard Junior finish his speech. It would be time soon.
"I'll miss him," she said.
"Me too," Trowa stated.
Hilde nodded, wiped her eyes and cheeks with the handkerchief. "Yes," she chimed in.
Quatre chose that moment to rustle to life, looking around, bewildered, going from one face to the next, smiling softly as he recognized each of them, nodding in greeting. Then, clouds seemed to drift before his eyes, and he turned to Trowa. "Where are we?"
Unable to answer in words, Trowa simply hugged him tight, barely holding his tears at bay.
He was young again; the familiar aches of bone and muscle he'd lived with for more than a decade were simply gone. He couldn't see his hands, but he could still touch his face, his invisible fingertips grazing smooth skin. The wrinkles were gone. He reached around his head to find his braid - an impossible length of hair he hadn't felt for many decades; he'd finally trimmed even the shoulder-length braid down to nothing when gray and white strands outnumbered the brown. Now, upon releasing it, he sensed the end of it tap against his ass. He grinned to himself.
The thoughts on his observations seemed fairly sharp to him, but like any movements he tried to make in the nothingness, the thoughts came slowly, as if he was pleasantly drunk. So, this is the afterlife... he offered the void. Not quite what I expected, but better than nothing, I suppose.
Shrugging it off, he tried to orient himself. He could see, but yet not. It was as if his eyes were open, but there was nothing to behold.
But there should be something out here, he thought. Someone. You damn well had better been waiting for me, he challenged. I did as you told me to - I have a lifetime to tell you about, and by my count you owe me eternity...
He could almost sense the smirk accompanying the words. I've always been with you...
A warm wind, invisible as everything, a silken touch from nowhere and everywhere wrapped all around him, until he wasn't sure where he ended and the familiar presence began.