Duo was the first to see him. He had looked through that disguise, the tiredness and filth, and seen what I had been too distracted to notice. Duo told me that it was the hands that had forced him to take a closer look at the lonely man, eating soup in the small L2 diner. After lingering for a while on the long fingers, Duo started to notice more things: the way the man held the spoon, how straight his back was, or the fact that he had chosen a corner table facing the door. After that, Duo said, it was easy to find their old friend hidden under ragged clothes.
After the war we all needed time to sort things out. Peace, as desired as it was, signaled for us the ending of everything we'd fought for, but even worse, a new beginning of something we couldn't imagine or understand. The year between the war and the Mariemaia rebellion was a limbo between war and peace. There were still battles to be fought while people got used to the idea of peace. In the end it was having that peace threatened that brought a more stable one, and with it the ending of our lives as soldiers.
Wufei and I hung on to fighting. He went to Preventers and I went to the shadows, always keeping my eyes alert to what was happening, and making sure that the woman who stood for peace was safe. Hilde gave Duo a home and a purpose at the scrap yard on L2. Trowa had just found a family, so he went to the circus and Cathy to find himself. And Quatre had his duty. He always had a place so he returned to it and assumed it, as it was expected.
I was the first to break.
I didn't have a nervous breakdown or tried to kill myself. No, for us pilots, or ex-pilots, breaking is shattering the walls around us, and walking out of that safe place we have been. It means that we've found a new thing to fight for, to live for, and that we are ready to go get it.
It was the day of Relena's eighteenth birthday. She had a big party thrown for her in Sank, with many important figures of the Earth and Colonies as guests. As always, I kept to the shadows, and as always, she knew I was watching. She had grown stronger than she had been and I knew that she didn't need me as her shadow anymore. I walked into the light, gave her a kiss on the cheek and told her that I would call her. She smiled at me and went back to her guests.
After that, I traveled for three months. I disappeared, and once again kept to the shadows, while trying to find my own path. When I did, it led me to L2, and before I knew it, I was knocking on Hilde's door. Duo wasn't there. He had left three weeks ago to go look for me. While I waited for Duo to return, I got to know Hilde and understood why Duo loved her.
It's weird how love can turn into a complicated emotion when it's explained, but it's so simple when it just is. Duo likes to say that there are layers of love, but I think that they are shades. Love just is, and it doesn't require an explanation. I had know that on an instinctive level, that's why I understood when Hilde told me that Duo loved her, but wasn't in love with her. I called Relena then. I didn't need to tell her. She has always been very perceptive and she had known love for a lot longer than I.
When Duo returned, just a week after I arrived on L2, he was furious. We had all kept in contact after the war, calling at least one of us once a month. It was our way to make sure that the others were safe. When I disappeared I had scared them all, their minds thinking the worse had happened.
Duo had made a conference call, letting the others know that I was alright, and then he made us promise something. He'd said that he understood that we might have the need to disappear sometime, to go away and cut all ties; that was fine. However, we should at least be able to know if the person who disappeared was alright, and if the disappearance was of their own choosing.
We created a rule. Whenever someone needed to go, he should call one of the others and let him know. No questions would be asked and no one would try to stop him. He would also have to make a call every two months letting the others know he was alright. If the calls weren't made, then the rest of us would move heaven and earth looking for our missing friend.
Trowa had called Quatre a month later, saying simply, "I'm going." Quatre understood. Exactly two months later he went to Quatre. He spent a few weeks there before he went back to the circus. Whatever Trowa did during those two months, or when he spent time with Quatre, I never knew.
I stayed on L2, and Duo and I began exploring the different shades of love. We stayed with Hilde until one day, in her subtle way, she told us that the house next door was for sale and she would rather have us there instead of scaring her prospect boyfriends. We got the house but we still eat meals together and we still scare off her dates. She says we are overprotective but Duo is right, it's not our fault no one is good enough for her.
Then Wufei came to visit. He was dressed in a Preventers uniform, carrying a duffle over one shoulder. He stayed for two days, and on the third he said, "I quit Preventers. You'll hear from me." And he left.
Two months later I got a call. He said he needed more time and hung up. Five weeks later, he showed up at Trowa's circus. Apparently Trowa had been waiting for him. Wufei stayed at the circus for three months and then left for Earth, intending to go to school and get a degree in philosophy and history. Trowa followed, and pursued a career in zoology. They share a flat in Paris and Trowa performs when the circus is in town. They are happy, and in love.
Seven months after that, Duo got Quatre's call. He didn't expect it. Quatre always made an effort to keep contact with all of us. He called everyone at least once every two weeks, and had visited all of us in various occasions. He was the last one we would imagine wanted to disappear, but he did. Duo never told me what was said in that call, but he was gloomy for several days after.
It had been ten weeks since Quatre's call. I had been trying to track him for over a week, and Wufei was using all his Preventer connections to find anything about Quatre's whereabouts. What I had managed to find wasn't encouraging. Quatre had left control of WEI to his sisters. One of the older ones was now in charge of it, and it didn't seem to be temporarily. The Maguanacs had been contacted by Quatre around the same Duo had been. Quatre had told them not to worry, and that he would be in contact. So far, he hadn't.
Duo said it was luck that we found him at the diner. I'm not so sure. Quatre might have wanted to disappear but maybe on a subconscious level he hadn't, and had drifted towards us, without even realizing it.
Quatre had seen us long before we saw him. He saw us enter the diner, take a seat and order our meal. He ducked his head and hoped to go unnoticed, knowing that if he tried to leave, we would see him right away. When Duo stood up to go to the bathroom and noticed him, Quatre didn't try to hide. It was pointless. I couldn't hear over the noise of the restaurant but I read his lips when he told Duo, "This wasn't supposed to happen."
I stood up then, forgetting about my half eaten eggs and walked towards them. I could see Duo was worried and angry, and wanted to say something to Quatre but for some reason the words wouldn't leave his mouth.
I took a closer look at Quatre and for a moment I was speechless also. The image I had of Quatre Winner differed greatly from the man sitting before me. He was wearing ripped jeans, a dirty gray sweater and an old looking dark blue coat. He had a beard; his hair was longer and greasy, proof that he hadn't showered in a while. There was dirt under his fingernails and the large sunglasses he wore didn't hide the bags under his eyes. However, I could see Quatre's features under the facial hair, the sheepish smile, and the movement of his hands that was just him.
I put a hand on Quatre's shoulder and squeezed it softly. "Come on, you are coming home with us."
He scanned the room, looking for a moment like a cornered animal, and then just gave me a nod, followed by a sad smile.
* * *
The walk home was silent. Quatre walked beside us, but his eyes were downcast and he refused to look at us. I had questions and I knew Duo was biting his tongue to stop himself from asking his own. We entered the house and settled in the kitchen. I got us all some water before I took a seat at the table, and waited.
Quatre dumped his duffle bag on the floor. It looked heavy and I wouldn't be surprised if it carried everything he'd owned for the last few weeks.
"You can take your sunglasses off," said Duo. "It isn't bright in here."
Quatre did as he was told, his lips curling a little. "I guess I've grown used to them. I forgot I had them on." He placed the glasses on the table, and then for the first time I could see his eyes.
They were sorrowful, just like they had been when we had come to earth together after the Zero system incident, when he'd thought he killed Trowa. "What happened?" I knew my words sounded colder that I intended them to be, they always did, but I also knew that both, Quatre and Duo, could see through them.
Quatre's smile grew wider, but I recognized that expression. I had seen it every time he'd woken from a nightmare and assured me that he would be able to go back to sleep, every time someone mentioned Trowa or his father, and he'd put up that brave smile. "I thought part of our pact was that there would be no questions."
"Yeah, and another part clearly stated to contact someone every fucking two months! You broke our agreement, Quatre, and with that you lost every right of secrecy. We are involved now, whether you want it or not." Duo was furious. When he was angry he screamed, but when he was furious he whispered.
"I'm sorry," said Quatre, not looking intimidated, "but I can't stay."
"You can't leave either," I said, before Duo could reply. "You don't look well. You will get sick if you don't recover your strength, and I won't let you leave until I'm sure you've done that." I kept my eyes fixed on him, letting him know that I wouldn't give in. My words were final.
He understood, exhaled softly and lowered his eyes for a moment before bringing them back up. "I don't want to be a burden."
I saw Duo roll his eyes before his expression softened a bit. "Cat, you're never a burden." He waited for a reply but it didn't come, so he added, "I could use your help. There are many transports coming in the next week and I need a capable pilot, someone who can handle a modified Leo with precision, to transport the load from the large ships into my smaller shuttles." Duo grinned. "I can't just give the job to anyone. The last idiot I hired managed to wreck a hatch."
"What about you, Heero and Hilde?" Quatre asked. "It looks to me that you have enough capable pilots."
"Yeah, but we are all busy," Duo said, waiving his hand. "Heero has his own job, Hilde is the manager, and if she leaves, things go crazy. I can't handle all the transports on my own. I was going to interview pilots this afternoon but I'd rather you help me with it." He paused and gave Quatre a look. "That's if you are up to it."
Quatre's eyes brightened for a moment, a single second that I would have missed if I had blinked, and then became sorrowful again. "I'll help you. Thank you for letting me stay here."
"Don't worry about it," said Duo, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Now you need to go take a bath, man, 'cause you stink. And shave that horrible beard while you're it. As long as you're here you don't need to hide."
Quatre's fingers touched his beard slowly. "I guess I don't."
Duo showed him to the shower while I found some clean clothes for him to wear. I waited for Duo in the kitchen, noticing that Quatre had left his duffle behind.
"I've never seen him like this," said Duo, slumping in his chair.
"Something is troubling him, something he feels responsible for," I said. "He was like this after Zero."
Duo muttered a curse. "Whatever it is, we need to help him."
I nodded once. Duo stood from his chair and gave me a kiss. He needed to go. "I'll take care of him," I said.
Duo smiled and left.
* * *
When Quatre walked into the living room, he was the man I remembered again. His hair was still wet but the dirt was gone and it shone brightly. His beard was gone, and I could see his face. He was too pale. My clothes looked big on him, which wasn't right because we were about the same size.
I put the magazine I was reading on the table, and stood up. "Come on, I'll make you a sandwich."
He thanked me and followed me into the kitchen. "It's just like the war," he said after he had the first bite of cheese sandwich. "Sometimes you miss a few meals."
"The war is over, Quatre," I stated simply.
He smiled a little and replied, "Yes, it is."
Back in the war days, after I ran the Mercurius into Wing Zero, I remember waking up in a dark cell. My wrists were cuffed by gundanium shackles. I'd mentally checked my body for injuries. Nothing but a few bruises, except for a bump to the head, which had probably been what had rendered me unconscious. The subtle hums of the engine told me that I was in a transport. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I'd looked around and noticed that I was alone. I didn't have time to wonder about the other pilot for too long because soon the door opened and a figure was pushed inside.
In the dim light of the cell I saw Quatre's expression, and it was the same he was giving me right now. He'd looked resigned. I could see some bruises on his skin. The OZ officers that had found us hadn't been kind to him, but the worse thing was that Quatre hadn't stopped them. He'd told me how he hadn't even tried to fight back, and just let them use him as a punching bag, beating their frustrations away. I remember his voice, sounding so hollow and full of sadness, "I deserved it, and much more."
And now he was staring at me with the same lost eyes, and I understood. Quatre hadn't left to find answers but in search of absolution. He was making penance.
I glared at him. Quatre was good at handling conversations, and changing topics swiftly when he didn't want to discuss them. He was good at reading people too, at reading me and knowing that I was getting too close. I decided to play along. "It's going fine. As long as I can do it from here, and be close to Duo, I'm happy."
Quatre was responsible for my current occupation. He was the one who had insisted, a few months back, upon updating WEI computer systems, and he wouldn't accept anyone doing it but me. The work suited me just fine. I only had to make a few short trips to L4 but mostly I could do things by satellite from anywhere, which allowed me to stay on L2. After that first job, Quatre made it his mission to suggest every other company update their systems too, and Quatre can be very persuasive.
"I'm glad," he said, leaving half of the sandwich on the plate and pushing it slightly away.
"You are not hungry?" I asked.
He gave me a sheepish smile. "My stomach is smaller. It'll take time before I can eat this much again."
I didn't want to argue with him so I took the plate away and served him another glass of juice. He took it wordlessly and began to sip slowly.
The duffle was still on the floor by Quatre's chair. It looked old and dirty. "Do you have any more clothes in there?" I tilted my head towards the duffle. "I could clean them for you if you want."
Quatre shook his head. "You've done enough for me. I can clean them myself."
He looked tired. The bags under his eyes were proof enough that he hadn't been sleeping well, and probably not in a bed for a while. "I'll clean them," I stated in a firm tone. "You need to go take a nap, Quatre."
He started to protest but I stopped him. "You can do the laundry another time. Not now."
With a sigh, he thanked me and then followed me to the room. He looked around and I could see his eyes widen a bit when he realized that this was mine and Duo's room. "I can't stay here," he said.
"No one is using this room right now." We only had one bedroom; the other room in the house was used to store different things. When Wufei had stayed he had slept in the living room couch, but I thought that Quatre needed a real bed. "We can figure something else for tonight, but for now, just sleep here."
It was weird seeing Quatre too tired to argue. He was very stubborn and used to getting his way. Normally he wouldn't give in without a fight. Now, however, he just gave me a tired nod, took his shoes off and climbed on the bed. "I'll wake you for dinner," I said before leaving, closing the door behind me.
* * *
After clearing the juice glass from the kitchen table, I took Quatre's duffle and emptied it. As expected, there were another two changes of clothes, which took most of the space. In addition I found a handgun, a knife, a toothbrush, a worn out pair of working gloves, a deodorant and three pictures.
The first one was of the Maguanacs, standing tall in front of their mobile suits, somewhere in the desert. In the second one there was a lot of people, so many that they could hardly be distinguished. However, I was able to see a younger Quatre standing beside a solemn looking man; it was probably his family.
The last picture surprised me. I found myself staring at it, trying to figure out who could have taken it without me noticing. The five of us were there, in what was unmistakably the hangar of the Peacemillion. We weren't looking at the camera. Duo was leaning on the rail, talking to me. I was looking away but I wasn't ignoring him. I never did. Heavyarms' cockpit could be seen behind us, and Trowa was crouching on the hatch, looking down at something. Wufei had been apparently passing by. His silhouette was blurred, looking like a ghost, on Duo's right. Quatre was slightly in front of Duo and me, to our left. He was looking at us, and he was smiling.
I didn't know where Quatre had gotten the picture. Noin or Sally had probably taken it. I couldn't picture Howard hiding behind spare parts, with a camera on his hand, just waiting for the moment the five of us would be close enough to take the picture. I would have to ask Quatre to let me make a copy.
Leaving Quatre's items on the table, I took the clothes to the washing machine, pushed them inside and started the cycle. I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon catching up on the work I had to do. I headed for the spare room, where my laptop was, and started to work on the software development.
After a couple of hours I heard the main door click open. Duo was home.
I met him on the stairs. He kissed me and asked about Quatre. I told him Quatre was sleeping so we decided to go to the living room and wait until Hilde called us to dinner. It was her turn to cook this week so Duo and I could relax.
We sat on the sofa. He leaned on my chest and I put my arms around him. On the vidscreen, some lady was narrating the news but I wasn't really listening.
"Did he tell you anything," asked Duo.
"Not much." I paused. "I'm not sure he's ready to talk yet."
There was silence for a moment and then Duo shifted a bit, so he could look at me. "He's my best friend, has been practically since the first time we talked." He lowered his eyes. "But I don't think he'll talk to me. Not now, at least." He put his hand on top of mine and the tips of his fingers moved in lazy circles over my skin. "You have a connection with him. I'm not sure if it was the Zero thing, the fact that you two were together after that, or something else, but you two are close. I know Cat needs to talk, and I think he would talk to you."
Duo's eyes were fixed on me, waiting for an answer.
"He'll talk when he's ready," I said. I wanted to help Quatre too, and I could listen to him but I wouldn't push him into sharing something he wasn't ready for.
We, the five of us, had our own pace, and no matter how close we are, we wouldn't go faster or slower for anyone. The best we could hope for was a harmony, a rhythm with many paces that complemented each other. Quatre's pace would meet mine when he wanted to, and not a minute sooner.
Shifting his eyes away, Duo sighed. "Just be sure to be around when that happens." He turned back to the vid.
When the news ended, Duo stood up. He looked down at me and said, "We need to tell the others. They're worried."
Trowa and Wufei were about to organize their own search party. We had all been waiting for Quatre to make contact and when he hadn't, Trowa had been ready to go look for him right away, school be damned. In the end, we had decided on a course of action that didn't require Wufei and Trowa to miss their finals, but I knew Trowa wouldn't calm down until he knew that Quatre was alive and well.
Maybe we should have consulted with Quatre but as Duo had said, when he decided not to call he broke the rules, and now we were involved. Duo and I went upstairs to use my laptop. It took a few minutes to make the connection but soon enough a sleepy Wufei appeared on the screen. His hair was down and he was bare-chested. His eyes were half closed but they narrowed when he recognized us. "Heero," he greeted with a slight nod of his head.
Moments later Trowa appeared beside him. He was bare-chested too and his hair was messy. I checked the time and noticed that we had called in the middle of their night. "Quatre is here," I announced.
"What?" Trowa never raised his voice but his tone was now a little louder than usual.
"We spotted him in a diner earlier today," said Duo. "I can tell it wasn't part of his plan, but we still hauled his ass back here and told him he isn't going anywhere until he's stronger and we get some answers."
"Stronger?" Wufei asked. "What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing physical besides tiredness and weight loss," I assured him.
"But he's not well," said Trowa. It wasn't a question.
Duo shook his head. "There's something troubling him but he's keeping it to himself. It's only been one day, he might need more time."
Trowa's eyes looked hard. "We are coming over."
Wufei turned to look at him, for a moment I thought he was going to argue with Trowa but at the end he only nodded and said, "After finals."
Trowa nodded at Wufei and then turned to us again. "We'll be there in a week," he said, and cut the connection.
I stared at the black screen for a moment, wondering exactly what had happened. I knew Trowa and Wufei would want to know that Quatre was fine but I didn't think they would want to come over and see him.
Duo put his arm around my shoulders, effectively capturing my attention. He gave me a small kiss on the lips and smiled. "The five of us together again. It'll be just like in Peacemillion. No war this time."
I nodded and kissed him back.