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Ribbons to a Soldier

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The rather slender boy slipped in and out of the tables, long braid snapping behind him as he deftly served people their food. In the background a battered old jukebox switched songs to a rock tune by Chicago. A few tables over, a waitress rolled her eyes as the thin little red ribbon on the end of his braid fluttered as he moved from table to table. Almost all of the tables were depressingly empty. The visual echoes of the people that used to visit the diner before the war effort changed everything were nearly visible, silent ghosts reminding everyone of how much things had changed.

"Hey, Duo! Table ten!"

Duo waved acknowledgement with his washing rag and tossed the waitress a jaunty wink. After finishing his job cleaning table six, he pulled pencil out from behind his ear and headed over to table ten, flipping through his notepad to find a blank page. Glancing up, he grinned at the blue-eyed guy in army greens, who was currently casting a glare out the window at the bus stop just beyond the glass. "Hi, I'm Duo, I'll be your waiter. What can I get you?" he rattled off absently, finally finding that blank page.

The boy in the uniform frowned minutely at the waiter. "Just coffee," he answered, voice pitched to a pleasantly deep rumble that rolled down Duo's spine warmly. "Black. No sugar."

One eyebrow raised over a vibrantly colored violet eye. "Just coffee? You sure, man?" Duo pointed his pencil in the general direction of the guy's outfit. "We give discounts on all full meals to military personnel."

The glare changed direction, re-aiming itself directly at the bow-clad tip of Duo's braid. "Just coffee," he repeated, frowning a little more at the length of his waiter's hair, which was much longer than he was used to seeing. Not that long hair on men was that unusual, but the sheer mass of Duo's made it obvious that the braid was more than just compliance with a temporary fad.

"Well, the customer's always right," Duo gave in with a little sigh. "But wave me down if you change your mind." That said, he bounced over to the counter.

The girl behind the counter looked up, surprise flashing in her green eyes. "Got an order for me, Duo?" she asked, surprised. The lunch time rush was almost over; no one had placed an order for almost a half hour, and most of the current diners were just lingering over empty plates.

"Yeah, Kit," he answered cheerfully, tossing his head to move his chestnut-auburn bangs out of his eyes. "Table ten. Just coffee. Black. No sugar." He did his best to imitate the flatly emotionless voice of the customer, but it was ruined by the chuckle lingering under his tone, barely inaudible.

Kit blinked, absently smoothing down the short skirt of her pink and black uniform. "Does he really sound like that?" she asked, subtly craning her neck to look at the customer in the booth, all by himself. "Oh, he's cute! And an army-boy, too. Cute Military Guy discount for that one, definitely."

"Going to try for him?"

She rolled her eyes. "Sure, Sugar, just as soon as I loose this extra weight." Patting her obviously pregnant belly, she grinned. "And I'm sure this bad boy's Daddy won't mind. But maybe someone else will?" Tapping Duo on the nose, Kit turned and waddled off to get the drink.

Duo blushed, sneaking a peak back at table ten and it's gorgeous inhabitant. "Don't say things like that! You know how people can be!"

A giggle and a cup of coffee later, Kit came back and patted him on the head maternally. "Of course I know Duo, or I wouldn't tease you about it." Handing him the cup on a tray, she poked him in the backside with her pencil. "Now go back there and try for him. You know what they say about the military types."

By the time he got back to the table, Duo was able to bring his flaming flush down to a dull red. Heero glanced up as the cup was slid in front of him. "How much?"

Duo shook his head, slipping into the seat across from him. "On the house. Military discount."

The guy frowned again. The long-haired waiter noted that he seemed to do that a lot. It was something to work on. "I'm not really military yet. Don't you have a job to do?"

"Hm?" Duo tried not to smile too much, since it seemed to irritate the guy, but it was hard not to with someone so beautiful across from him. "Do things look busy around here to you?" he asked. "They'll never miss me. Why don't you explain that 'not yet' thing to me, since I don't have much else to do?" He propped his chin up on one fist, head lolling to the side adorably. "I'm Duo Maxwell, by the way."

What could almost be called a smile twitched at the corners of the green-clad boy's lips. Running fingers through already messy chin-length dark brown hair, he shook his head almost ruefully. "Heero Yuy."

"Nice to meet you Heero. Now if you'll explain..?" With a little wave of his fingers, Duo gestured for him to speak. "I can talk a lot, man, but even I have a hard time holding a conversation with a mute."

At that, Heero did smile a tiny bit, the expression lightening up his face and almost changing him into a completely different person. "I'm getting on the bus to camp today."

He couldn't resist the obvious question. "So you're off to 'Nam? Drafted?"

Heero shook his head. "I volunteered."

"Why?"

It was a simple question, one Duo didn't even think twice about asking, but Heero's smile vanished like it had never been, his eyes darkening to flat blue. Duo almost whimpered at the loss of the sparking cobalt they'd been seconds before. "I've got no one to live for, so I might as well live for Uncle Sam," Heero explained flatly, moving to stand.

Duo grabbed his wrist to stop him. "Hey, look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to prod old wounds, okay?" He shook his head, swallowing. "You got no one to write to while you're off to war, you can write to me." Pulling his pencil out from behind his ear again, he grabbed a napkin and wrote down his address, completely forgetting the pad of paper in his apron pocket. Shoving it in Heero's stunned hand, he offered the army-boy a sad smile. "You can tell the guys in your unit that I'm your brother or something."

Blue eyes stared blankly down at the address written on a napkin. A dozen responses, most of them negative, ran through his head, but all Heero managed was a, "This is the address to this restaurant."

Playing with the bow on the tip of his braid, Duo grinned sheepishly. "And he learns my big secret. My grandpa owns this place." He shrugged eloquently. "I'm the only son left, so I wasn't drafted, and I'm not nuts enough to volunteer to be owned by the government like some people." With a teasing grin, Duo flipped his braid back over his shoulder. "That's why I'm not going off with you."

Shaking his head, Heero tucked the napkin into his uniform. "I... Thank you."

"Don't think about it, man," Duo answered, waving his hand loftily in the air. "Everyone needs someon-thing to come home to." His heart fluttered as he was again graced with that breath-taking shy smile. 'Damn it, Duo, he probably doesn't even swing your way,' he chided himself.

Outside, a bus slowed to a stop. Heero glanced at it, then reached down and grabbed his bag from under his feet. "I have to go." Dropping a tip in the table, he slid out of his seat.

Duo nodded sadly, standing up. "Yeah, don't want to miss your bus. Don't forget to write, man." Taking a chance, he reached over and gave Heero a quick hug, letting go almost immediately. "Good luck out there. Don't get yourself killed. Promise?"

With another tiny grin, Heero nodded. "I won't. Promise." Waving quickly, he jogged outside, just in time to catch his ride before it left.

In the diner, Duo sat back down in the booth and rested his head on his arms. Silently, he asked God to make sure that Heero made it through the war. Even if he did turn out to be straight.

***

"Hey, Duo!" An old man in a pair of sandals and a loud shirt called from the hall.

"Yeah, gramps?" Duo poked his head out from his bedroom. He was beaned between the eyes by a flying envelope.

"Don't called me gramps, kid," the old man chided as his Grandson picked the letter up off the floor, leaning back against the wall.

"Yeah, yeah. It's Howard, I know, I know." Flipping the letter over, Duo's bright lavender eyes widened as he saw the name in the upper left corner. "I didn't think he'd actually write," he breathed, holding the plain white envelope reverently.

Howard snorted, adjusting his sunglasses. "Who'd be writing you from an army camp in Houston?" he asked curiously. "Boyfriend?"

Duo glared. It wasn't up to the glare Heero had used on that poor bus stop, but he decided to settle for what he could get. "Yeah, right. Funny, Pops. Just super."

The old man shrugged and sauntered back down the hall. "Fine, be that way. See if I care," he grumbled good naturedly. Duo didn't even notice as he took the letter back into his room, opening it up gently. Settling onto the bed, he unfolded the sheet of paper and began to read.

 

//Duo,
I'm not even sure why I'm writing this. I guess that I need something to do with my spare time. Not that I have much, but it's nice to have someone to write to, even if it is a complete stranger. I never thought I would. Have someone to write to, I mean.

Boot camp isn't as bad as everyone told me it would be; the orphanage where I grew up was worse. At least here you're guaranteed food daily. All the other guys spend most of their time complaining about it. I think they're afraid of being shipped out after training, but I don't talk to them much, so it's hard to tell. I told them that you were my girlfriend to get them off my back about being an orphan. I hope you don't mind.

Heero Yuy//

 

Duo's breath caught in his throat, and he re-read the letter, savoring every word. It was short, concise, and somehow very Heero. Even though he'd barely met the guy, something told Duo that most of the letter he got would be similar. He just didn't seem like the type to talk much.

Reading it yet a third time, Duo's eyes caught on one sentence. "His girlfriend, huh?" A small, wicked smile curled his lips as an idea occurred to him. Storing the letter carefully in a shoebox he'd dug up - just in case - he set about putting his plan into action.

***

"Yo, Yuy! Your boyfriend sent you a letter! What kind of name is Duo Maxwell for a girl, anyways?"

Heero caught the envelope that was hurled his way by a burly man in fatigues, nodding in acknowledgement and ignoring the jibe. He had a free moment, so he tore the letter open. It didn't surprise him that Duo had written back, since the other boy had been the one to suggest the exchange in the first place, but he was shocked when his fingers pulled out a wallet-sized picture from the envelope. It was a beautiful girl with smiling violet eyes and shining chestnut hair down to her knees, done up in a half-ponytail with pink ribbons and a matching bow. She was flirting with the camera and waving, balancing a tray in her hand.

She was also wearing a very distinctive pink and black waitress uniform.

Muttering a curse under his breath, Heero ripped the letter open.

 

//Dear Heero,

Don't glare at the paper like that, man. It's flammable, you know. You DID say that you told the other boys that I was your girlfriend. I thought this might help convince them, if they give you a hard time about it. If I do say so myself, I make one hell of a hot chick. What do you think?

It's good to hear that you're not having any trouble with the camp. My Grampa was a soldier "back in the day", and he says it sucked. Then again, Gramps goes nuts wearing any kind of footwear that doesn't flop, so maybe that explains it. Just yesterday he spent an hour looking for his sandals because he didn't want to wear tennis shoes to take out the trash. The senile old fart didn't even remember that taking out the trash is my job on Wednesdays. Hope I'm never like that when I grow old, or I might join you out there in soldier-ville.

Kitten says hi. You never met her, but she works at the diner with me. Kit's behind the counter these days, because she's pregnant and Pops wouldn't let her work the tables after she started to show. She's the one that gave me the outfit for the picture, since it was going to waste and all with her expanding waistline.

I've got to get going, now. Write back soon!

Duo//

 

A low whistle pierced his concentration.

"Hey, Yuy, that your girl man? She's hot."

Heero turned, glaring threateningly at the blonde guy peering over his shoulder at the picture. Glancing at the picture, he shrugged. "Yeah, that's my girl." Looking at the picture, he silently agreed. Duo was stunning in that uniform, but he couldn't help but think that he looked better dressed as a guy.

***

//Duo,

Thank you for the picture. Normally, I'd threaten to kill you for something like that, but it actually worked. It seems no one can stop talking about "the babe Yuy's sacking", to quote a guy named Randson. You do make a beautiful girl, but you look better as a boy. Please tell Kitten I said thank you for helping you with the uniform, and I hope her baby's healthy.

We don't get much in the way of news around here and I never really followed it to begin with, but I heard that the war protests are pretty violent. I can guess at your opinions of the war, and I hope that you're not involved in any of it.

Heero//

 

Carefully, Duo stuffed the letter back inside it's envelope and put it in the shoebox with it's mate. Then he laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling, grinning like an idiot.

'He thinks I look good as a guy!'

***

From there on out the letter traveled back and forth furiously, only slowing down marginally when Heero was shipped out to Vietnam. Duo skimmed over every subject except one, finding out as much about Heero as he could on paper. They talked about politics, music, fashion, astrology, weapons, and spent a month discussing the Kent State tragedy alone. He sent Heero a couple more pictures of himself as a girl, this time in normal clothes, and pictures of Kitten and Howard and his friends Quatre and Trowa. Heero was thrilled - for Heero - when Kitten gave birth to a set of healthy baby girls, shocking everyone who thought it was a boy, and only one at that. Duo, meanwhile, was just happy that Heero was alive enough to write.

He learned that Heero was an orphan, raised in a small orphanage. He found out that his parents had died when he was three, and that he used to have a teddy bear named Edgar. Duo told Heero about his older brother, Solo, and how his parents had died in a car crash on the way back from the hospital with his baby sister, who had died a few weeks later. He even told him that the reason he grew his hair so long was because Solo had to give up his hair to join the army, so he promised never to cut his hair until Solo came back home, which he never did. Thirteen years later, and it was still growing with nothing more than the occasional trim.

Howard and Kitten got used to seeing Duo walking around the house and diner with a love-struck expression. The new waiter Wufei found himself having to cover for the long-haired boy when he wandered back into his room in the middle of a shift, or just stared dreamily at the wall with a plate of food cooling in his hands. They all just laughed and told anyone who asked that Duo was in love, which made it excusable to almost everybody, and anyone who complained too loudly was asked politely not to come back. Quatre and Trowa gave up on trying to interest him in flirting with anybody, even though he used to flirt with everybody - male or female - just on general principle. They claimed that it wasn't natural for a boy his age to be so fixated on someone he'd only met once, but neither one tried to convince him seriously to give up on Heero. They just hoped that Duo didn't get his heart broken.

"Have you even told him that you're... Well, you know?" Quatre asked, slurping a strawberry malt while he perched on a stool at the counter. It was after hours, and the diner was empty.

Duo sat up on the counter, resting his elbows on his knees. "Not really," he answered, kicking his feet. "He thinks I look good as a boy, though. Better than I do as a girl, at least."

Quatre shook his blonde head, licking some malt off his lips. "You should tell him, Duo. It's not fair to him if you don't."

"I know, Quatre. I just..." Duo stared at his reflection in the diner windows sadly. His braid trailed down between his legs, rocking back and forth as he moved his legs. It had grown a few inches since Heero had left. Privately, Duo dedicated those inches to Heero, knowing that Solo would understand. "What if it ruins everything, though? I don't think I could stand it if it did."

"Then at least he'll know the truth," Quatre answered sagely.

"I guess you're right."

They didn't talk again for the rest of the night, but after Quatre left Duo went back into his room to write a letter.

***

//Dear Heero,

Normally, I'd blab on about your last letter, but I'm afraid that if I do, I'll loose my nerve. Don't get me wrong, I love writing to you, but I haven't been entirely honest with you, and I don't want it hanging over my head anymore.

When I met you, and when I offered to write to you, it wasn't just me being a sentimental idiot. Well, not entirely. Most of the reason I gave you my address in the first place was because you were cute, especially when you smile. Hell, what am I saying? I think you're gorgeous, and have since I served you that coffee. When I started this whole thing, I thought that at least you'd have a friend to miss you while you were gone, even if I do think you're hot. The problem is that I'm not sure it's that simple anymore. Actually, I don't think it was ever that simple. I think I love you, Heero.

Duo//

 

Heero's hands were actually shaking as he lowered the letter, refolding it carefully. Something warm trickled down his cheek, hanging off his chin for a second before falling down to splatter in the dirt. Almost unconsciously, his fingers reached up to trace the path of the tear. It had been so long since he'd cried that he'd nearly forgotten what it felt like. Swallowing back the lump in his throat, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and a pen.

***

//Dear Duo,

I think I love you too.

Heero//

 

"..." Duo stared blankly at the simple ink on paper. It was easily the shortest message either of them had ever written so far. Barely nine words, written out in Heero neat flowing cursive, slanted every so slightly to the right. So why did his cheeks hurt from smiling so much? It was really nothing special. Just words on paper.

"He... loves me? He loves me. HE LOVES ME!"

In the kitchen, Howard dropped a plate as Duo pelted through the door. Wrapping the old man up in a rib-crunching hug, he dropped him back to his feet almost immediately and moved on to Kit, who barely had time to set down the coffee pot before she was picked up by her now-trim waist and twirled around.

"He loves me Kit! He said that he loves me!" Duo laughed, tears sparking at the corners of his eyes.

Kitten laughed giddily with him, giving him a quick squeeze around the shoulders as she was set back on her feet. "I'm happy for you Duo, really, but you're going to piss off our customers if you keep them from their food much longer."

Duo laughed, his grin growing wider, which seemed almost impossible. "Got it, Kit!" His braid snapped whip-like as he turned on his heel and ran back out of the kitchen. "I'm going to write back. Right now!"

Howard shook his head and grabbed the broom and dust pan to sweep up the shattered remains of the plate. "The kid's sure got it bad."

***

//Dear Heero,

You can't imagine how happy that made me. I can't wait till your tour is over. Then maybe you can stop by the diner and we can talk about it, find out if we're both right and things like that. I know I am, but there's more to love than letters on paper and words, you know? You might decide that you can't stand the way I squeeze the toothpaste tube or something. Not that I'd blame you, since I squeeze it from the wrong end just to annoy the old man.

This is the ribbon I was wearing on my braid when we met. Keep it for me till you come back home.

Love, Duo//

***

Duo waited for three weeks, but no letter arrived from Heero. He went down to the post office to see if there was anything wrong, but they couldn't help him. After a month passed since the last letter, he started combing local newspapers for the month, desperately trying to reassure himself that Heero was alright. None of the names printed in the paper were Heero's, but that didn't reassure him in the slightest. He started having nightmares about Heero being captured. Everyone did everything they could to help, but Duo was inconsolable. He stopped eating more than a few bites of his meals, sometimes skipping them entirely, and the loss of sleep from the nightmares was putting bags under his eyes. His nineteenth birthday passed without more than a nod. None of his friends has the heart to try and throw a party for him, knowing that it would just make him feel worse. They all gave him gifts, but they were stacked unopened in the far corner of his bedroom, just gathering dust.

Two months after Heero's last letter, Duo was trudging around the kitchen, sweeping. His braid hung limply down his back, tickling the back of his black slacks with it's thin black bow. He bowed his head to the task, shuffling around as he moved the dust from one end of the room to the other.

"Hey, Duo," Kit called gently from the doorway, eyeing his thin frame and too pale skin worriedly. "We need you out here. Wufei's busy and someone's sitting at table ten."

He nodded, setting aside his broom and tying on his apron. Without looking up to meet anyone's eyes, he headed over to table ten, fighting down the lump that rose in his throat at the memories tied to the table. It wouldn't do to break down in front of a customer, even though these days most of their regulars were used to seeing him cry in the middle of a shift. He was tired of getting pity tips from people who had no idea what he was going through.

Staring down at his notepad like it held some deep secret he stopped by the booth, pencil poised. He didn't even try to smile. "What can I get you?"

"Coffee. Black. No sugar."

Everything seemed to freeze around him. The pencil twitched back and forth as Duo's hands started shaking violently. He couldn't bring himself to look up, in case it was a dream. Instead he watched his tear fall, splashing down onto the paper and creating little flower-like patterns. "I... I..." Duo swallowed, trying to find the breath to speak. "Oh, God, if you're not who I think you are, I... I hope you can run."

"Then I hope I am."

Taking an unsteady breath, Duo forced himself to look up past polished black boots, green army fatigues and into deep blue eyes that were shining with tears, and maybe something more. He was different looking after thirteen months. His shoulders were broader. His hair was just as messy as it had been, but shorter, and his skin had gotten a warm bronze glow to it's naturally golden tone, but Duo would recognize those eyes anywhere. "Hee- Heero?" It was almost a whimper. His knees started to give out when the vision nodded, smiling.

"Yeah, Duo, it's me."

His knees did give out at that, sending him collapsing to the floor. He rested his forehead against Heero's thighs, sobbing his eyes out, gasping out half sentences. "I thought... dead... Oh God, you're alive!"

Heero tried to soothe the wracking sobs that tore through Duo away, brushing back Duo's messy bangs from his forehead and petting his shoulders. He leaned over Duo and held him tightly, forcing back tears of his own as he tried to calm the other boy down. "I'm alive, Duo, you don't need to cry. Please don't cry. I tried to get word to you, but I couldn't. I'm sorry, so sorry."

They sat like that for a quarter of an hour, just holding each other. Finally, Duo let out a choked laugh. "I- I thought you were dead; tha-that you'd never come back..."

"I promised not to die, didn't I?" Heero asked roughly, pulling something out of his pocket and holding it out. "And I had to return this..."

Duo stared wonderingly at the battered red ribbon in Heero's hand, touching it lightly. Reaching back, he grabbed the end of his braid and pulled the black tie off, offering it to Heero pleadingly.

Heero stared at the offered braid, taking it slowly and tying the ribbon around it. With trembling fingers he smoothed down the tassel of hair at the end of the yard long braid. Letting go of it, he leaned down and kissed Duo soundly on the lips, trying to tell him everything and nothing all at once. Duo flung his hands around Heero's neck, pulling him farther down, tears still glittering on his cheeks.

When they parted, he smiled and rested his head against Heero's forehead. "Welcome home, soldier."