A Long Story
The driving rain had been relentless in its fury for more than an hour. It poured off of Duo's cap and ran in rivulets down the back of his neck as his motorcycle sped down the highway. Except for the protection of his cap, gloves, and leather jacket, Duo was soaked to the bone. The water was even seeping into the tops of his ankle-high boots, despite the buckled straps that wrapped them tightly around his jeans.
There had really been no place to stop and wait out the storm. He didn't find as much as a bridge that would be good for shelter in this part of the former Sanc Kingdom.
He knew that Relena would be pleased to see him because they had become close friends in the past three years. This was a completely unplanned visit, because he had never quite gotten past his "street rat" ways, so he was used to coming and going as he pleased. And he knew that if he had announced his visit ahead of time that she would have been alarmed and think that something must be terribly wrong because she knew him well, and it would have been completely out of character for him to do so. "No use worrying her for nothin'," he had reasoned.
He turned onto the private drive leading to Relena's "house". He smiled to himself because this "house" was far too large to be referred to in that manner, but that is what Relena called it, because she felt that it sounded more "homey". And who was he to argue with such a trifling point if it made her happy? The rebuilt Peacecraft ancestral home was a monstrosity of architectural design that was many times larger than she actually needed, but she chose to live there anyway. There was far too much space just for Relena, and her brother Miliardo and his wife of two years, who had apartments there as well. Relena occupied a relatively modest suite of rooms on the far end of the third floor of the palace's left wing. The rest of the "house", as she insisted on calling it, housed her servants and their families, of course, as well as a senior citizen's residence, a boarding academy for girls, and a chapel.
Duo checked to see if there were any lights shining in the windows of her rooms, and he was delighted to see their yellow glow in spite of the heavy rain. More than once over the years when he had made an impromptu visit, she had either been out of the country or visiting a space colony in her role of Vice Foreign Minister.
He had seen her on the news a week ago, upon her return from a successful summit meeting with colony delegates. In the interview, she had mentioned that she intended to take a few weeks of vacation so she could "catch up with the happenings at home". So Duo had decided that this would be an ideal time to visit because he KNEW she would be home.
He parked his bike in the circular drive and wrung the water from his dripping four-foot long braid before using the heavy door-knocker to announce his arrival.
"Yes, Pagan?" she answered, surprised that he was disturbing her at such a late hour. It was nearly 11:00.
"Mr. Maxwell is here to see you," Pagan answered, knowing that he need not ask if she was willing to see him. He was well aware that Duo was on the short list of people who were welcome to visit ANYTIME. But even for those people, her closest friends, Pagan insisted on keeping the propriety of announcing their arrival.
Pagan stepped back into the hallway to give room for what happened next. He knew the routine.
Duo walked into the room and held out both hands to her. "Babydoll!" Duo exclaimed happily, using his pet name for her. The sparkling blue eyes and the lopsided grin that she loved so well were all she saw at first.
"Duo!" Relena lost no time getting up from her writing desk. She rushed up to him, took both his hands in hers and accepted his kiss in greeting.
"Did you bring a hug for me?" she asked, as always.
"Sure did," he said as he hugged her to his dry shirt front. "I always do."
He gently pushed her away so he could see her face. "Turn around."
She giggled and spun in a circle.
"You look ...Delicious," he decided, harmlessly flirting with her as he nearly always did. But Duo didn't dare to say that in front of Heero anymore because the only time he had, Heero had spent the rest of the evening brooding with that dangerous-looking smoldering glare on his face. Duo tried to make a point of keeping on Heero's good side, so from then on he was more careful about the compliments he gave Relena when Heero was present.
"I'm so surprised to see you," she said, holding his hands in hers again.
"You always say that." Duo felt a new ring on her left hand and he was happy for her. "So he FINALLY proposed!" he exclaimed, examining the diamond engagement ring. "It's very beautiful," he said as they both looked at her ring, his voice low and serious now, "and you will be the most beautiful bride."
Relena blushed, and put her arms around his neck to hug him.
"Duo--you're soaking wet!" Relena exclaimed, taking a step backward and looking closely at him for the first time since his arrival.
"That's one of the drawbacks of driving a motorcycle," he said with a shrug. He took note of her "worried mother hen" look and chuckled. "Don't worry--I'm wash and dry--I won't shrink or anything."
She was not convinced. "You need to get out of those wet clothes before you catch your death of cold," she began to speak rapidly. "Do you have any with you? Otherwise I can get some of Miliardo's things and--"
"YES, Little Mother, I have dry clothes with me. My duffle is in the hallway. I'll go into the blue bedroom and get changed, okay?"
"You'll do more than just change clothes," Relena insisted, accompanying him on the short walk to the room he always stayed in during his sporadic visits. She unlocked the door, opened it and walked straight to the bathroom and started filling the bathtub with hot water.
Duo leaned against the doorframe and watched her preparations. "That's not really necessary," he said in token protest, shaking his head, knowing that no matter what he said it wouldn't change her mind. 'Women are the strangest creatures', he was thinking, but he only said, "I'm fine. You don't need to fuss."
"You may be fine now," she handed him an armload of towels and other necessities, "but I don't want you catching pneumonia." She placed her hands on the sides of his face and felt his icy cold cheeks. "SOMEONE has to take care of you if you won't take care of yourself, so indulge me, okay?" Relena asked sweetly. "Please?" She had the look in her eyes that he could never refuse.
"Okay," he conceded. "If it makes you happy, I'll take a bath."
"And I'll have some of that hot herbal tea that you like ready for you when you've finished," she declared with a smile and headed toward the hallway. She stopped in the doorway. "And if you need anything--"
"I'll let you know," Duo finished, laughing. "Okay?"
Relena smiled again and went to make Duo's tea and return to her correspondence.
'WOMEN,' Duo thought, in mock contempt. 'But it IS kinda nice to have someone to fuss over ya once in awhile.'
About three-quarters of an hour later, Duo figured that he'd been in the tub long enough to make Relena happy, so he felt that it was 'safe' to return to the living room.
"Hey, Babydoll," he said as he entered the room, "you got a hair dryer handy?" He was wearing a white sleeveless t-shirt and jeans, but nothing on his feet. He had a white hand towel draped over his shoulders and was towel-drying his freshly washed, unbraided hair.
Relena looked up from her writing desk and took note of his bare feet and scanty shirt. Wordlessly, she went to her favorite easy chair, removed the heavy cream-colored afghan and put it snugly around Duo's shoulders.
"Why don't you sit at the table while I get the hair dryer?" she suggested. "Then I'll dry your hair and you can just relax and drink your tea. I made plenty."
Duo shrugged. "Yeah, I guess that'd be alright," he said as he pulled a wooden chair away from the table. Relena poured a steaming cup of the 'home-grown concoction of weeds', as Duo privately thought of the tea she always served. It was a special blend of herbs grown in the extensive Peacecraft Palace Gardens. He noted with dismay the size of the teapot and the fact that only one teacup was on the table, but she didn't see his expression. "Aren't you havin' any?" he asked hopefully.
"I had my tea before you arrived. I made this JUST FOR YOU," she said happily as she went to get the things he needed for his hair.
'Just my luck--no one else to help me drink this tea,' Duo thought. He wished that Quatre had been there--Quatre actually LIKED Relena's tea, and that fact meant that Duo had to drink less of the disagreeable stuff when Quatre was there to share it. It was a great relief when he saw that the sugar bowl was filled, because she knew he liked his tea sweet. He'd never had the heart to tell her that he didn't like tea very much. He just added sugar to the strange brew until it was drinkable.
Relena returned with a clean hairbrush and the hair dryer and brushed and dried his hair until it looked like a thick, wavy brown blanket. She had pulled it over the chair back and it reached past the seat, even though he was leaning forward in the chair, elbows on the table, warming his hands with his teacup.
"All finished," she announced. "That was fun!"
"Thanks, Relena," he said, and then remembered to take a sip of his tea. 'Funny how women seem to think my hair is so fascinating,' he thought, laughing inside.
Relena took a good look at his hair now that she was done drying it. "You know, Duo, your hair is pretty raggedy toward the ends--twelve or fifteen inches of it. You really should cut it. It would look healthier and grow better," she unknowingly offered her unwanted advice.
Duo lowered his head and stared into his teacup. "I don't cut my hair, Relena," he said in a low voice.
"You don't cut your hair?" Relena repeated unnecessarily. "Why not? It's getting so very long. It must be a nuisance for you to take care of."
"I just don't cut it," he answered bluntly, in the same low tones.
"I can cut it for you, if you like," she offered.
He looked over his shoulder at her. "I don't cut it because I don't WANT to cut it, Relena."
"You mean there is a reason you don't cut it?"
Duo nodded solemnly, with such pain showing in his eyes that Relena became concerned.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," she apologized, putting her arms about his neck and hugging him tightly, resting her cheek against his brown head. "I didn't know there was a reason you don't cut it, Duo."
"It's not your fault. It's something I've never told anyone about before."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
He hesitated before he nodded, and was quiet for a few moments before he chose to speak. "You know that I was a war orphan, don't you?"
Duo stared straight ahead of him, but he was not seeing the wall. He was taking out memories that he had tucked away in his heart long ago, never dreaming that he would ever tell anybody. But he felt comfortable enough with Relena that he thought he could share them with her.
"I ran with a group of other orphans for awhile after my parents died," Duo said, without emotion. "We slept where we could and stole what we could eat because we didn't have anyone to take care of us."
"Oh, Duo." Relena was horrified, and felt almost guilty about her own pampered childhood, in which she had had everything she ever wanted and was the center of attention, adored by all.
Duo looked at her. "It wasn't so bad, Relena," he said, noticing that she was distressed. "It made me strong and self-reliant." He could see that that fact was of no comfort to her, so he slipped his arm around her and pulled her onto his lap. He gently rested her head against his shoulder, cuddling her.
"Duo, I-I was so--so happy--and spoiled and you--at the same time--were--were--"
"It's okay, Relena. So life isn't fair. Don't feel bad about it. I'm just glad that it was me and not you." He paused and thought a moment. "Hey, I think this is too much for you to have to listen to. I really don't want to upset you any more, so let's talk about something else, okay?"
Relena sat up and looked him in the eye. "Please don't stop," she said. "I want you to tell me. It isn't pleasant, but I think that it will do us both good to talk about it. Please?"
"Okay," he agreed. "But stop me if it gets to be too much for you."
Relena nodded in agreement and rested her head on his shoulder again.
Duo was silent for a few moments, trying to sort things out so that he wasn't just rambling. Relena understood this without being told, so she patiently waited for him to speak.
"When we got caught, we were taken to the Maxwell Church orphanage."
"Yes, that's where I got my last name."
"Were all of the orphans' names changed to Maxwell? Or didn't you know what your real last name was?"
"I knew what my last name was--I just refused to use it. They didn't know what else to call me, so they called me Maxwell," he said with such subtle finality that she knew not to say more about it.
"Anyway, Sister Helen got us some clean clothes, which we hated, but she burned our old things, so we didn't have a choice but to wear them. Our stuff WAS pretty raggedy, when I think of it now, but it was OURS, so we were pretty angry that she burned it all. But I absolutely refused to let Sister Helen cut my hair. I was really upset about it. I raised such a ruckus that Father Maxwell came to see what all the fuss was about. I'm not sure why he did it, but he told her not to cut my hair. Maybe he realized that, after havin' my clothes stolen--well, that's how I saw it then, bein' just a kid--that my hair was the only thing I had left that was MINE. She didn't like it being so "unkempt", as she called it, so she combed it all out and braided it. I thought that was pretty cool, so we were both happy.
"One night I broke the rules--and I did that A LOT--I was a terrible kid--I got out of bed one night after lights out and went to sit under the stairs. There was a little window there that I liked to look out of and just sit there and think about stuff. I liked to think it was my very own window, even though I knew it belonged to Father Maxwell. Well, Sister Helen found me there. I said, "Sorry, Sister" and was making up an excuse in my head for bein' out of bed, but she didn't scold me or even tell me to get back to bed. Instead, she crawled under the stairs and looked out of the window with me. She asked me to show her the things I liked to look at at night. After I talked awhile about what I saw from the window, she asked me why I wasn't in bed. Then I clammed up because I'd never told anyone what was bothering me so much. She saw that I was uncomfortable, so she pulled me onto her lap and cuddled me and didn't say a word. I'd never been cuddled before that I could remember, so that was new to me and I liked it. That was when I really started loving her. I knew then that she really understood little boys. I thought that was so cool. She told me that I was safe and that she loved me--also something new to me--and that I could tell her about ANYTHING. So I told her that I kept dreaming about my friend and that I missed him very much, so that was why I had trouble sleeping. Solo had died from a sickness that so many people were dying from, and I couldn't help him get well. I felt so bad. After he died, I wanted to die too because he was my best friend, but I didn't. Well, obviously," he laughed nervously. "That's when I started calling myself Duo, because I thought that then Solo would always be with me. Sounds silly now, huh?"
"No," Relena answered. "So Duo isn't your real name either?"
"Relena, Duo Maxwell is my real name because it is what I choose to be called," he patiently explained to her in a subdued and slightly irritated voice. "Just don't ask me what my name used to be, okay?"
"Oh, Duo, I'm so sorry," Relena apologized quickly. "That was a careless thing for me to ask. You're not mad, are you?"
"No, I'm not mad," he smiled and kissed her forehead. "Sorry--I'm a bit sensitive about my name, but that's my hang up, so don't worry about it, huh?" His blue-violet eyes were filled with concern, afraid that he had upset her.
"I won't mention it ever again," Relena promised.
"Thanks. I appreciate that." Duo paused, trying to remember just where he had left off. "Anyway, I told her all about Solo and she was very understanding. She said she knew something was wrong because I looked so sad. Then she asked me how I could talk about this and be so miserable about it without crying. So I told her "I don't cry, Sister." And she left it at that and put me to bed a little while later. It wasn't long after that when--"
"Wait a minute," Relena interrupted. "What do you mean by 'I don't cry'?"
"I don't cry, Relena."
"Everybody cries sometimes," Relena persisted.
"Well, I don't. Not ever."
"It's not unmanly to cry, Duo. God gave us tears for a reason."
"I know that. I just choose not to use mine, that's all."
"Do you mind telling me why?" Relena asked so lovingly that Duo's resolve not to talk about it began to melt.
"It'll just upset you if I tell you."
"That's okay," Relena answered, caressing his cheek. "You are more important to me than whether I get upset by what you share with me about your life."
"Well," Duo shook his head, "just remember, I warned you."
Relena nodded and put her head against his shoulder.
"My father was an evil, abusive man," Duo began, and checked Relena's expression to see if he should continue. "I know that you had a very loving father, so a father like mine was is probably hard for you to even imagine." He paused, so she nodded so that he would continue. "He was a wounded vet, and was very bitter about being discharged from the service. He would rant at my mother for hours about how useless he felt because they wouldn't let him fight anymore. He consoled himself with a bottle that always seemed to be magically filled. Now I know that it was not just one bottle that never was empty, but that it was many of the same bottle. But children don't always see things in such clear-cut ways--I thought it was a magic bottle. But the one time I asked him about it he just slapped me and told me not to ask him questions, so after that I talked to him as little as I had to. And since he never talked to me except when he was angry, and wouldn't let me talk when he was yelling at me, I didn't have to talk to him very often." Duo squeezed Relena's shoulders. "You okay?" Relena nodded, so he continued.
"My father beat me over the littlest things, so I was really afraid of him. And it bothered him that I was afraid of him, because he thought that I was weak if I couldn't take a beating without being afraid--like he did when his father beat him. Well, one day I decided that no one would ever make me cry anymore--especially him. So no matter what he did to me after that, I didn't cry. I thought that he would think I was braver then, so maybe he wouldn't beat me so much. Well, that irritated him too--I couldn't understand it. Nothing I ever did was right to him.
"I had only one toy when I was growing up. It was a little teddy bear that I rescued from someone's dumpster. It wasn't in very good shape--he was missing one eye and he wasn't fuzzy anymore. But I didn't have any toys and I'd always liked the teddy bears that I'd seen in the store windows, so I took him home. He was very special to me because I told him all of my problems and feelings at night when no one else could hear me. I kept him hidden because one time I had left him on the floor and my father tripped over him and he told me that if I ever did that again that he would throw my bear away. I was very careful not to leave him around after that because he was so important to me.
"Well, one night my father dragged me out of bed and yelled at me and beat me and I curled up in a ball on the floor. I didn't want him to see that I had my teddy bear because I was holding it when he dragged me out of bed. Well, he was so upset with me for whatever it was that I did, that when he realized that I was protecting my bear he tore it out of my hands and shouted "This'll teach you!" and he threw Teddy into the fireplace." Duo paused and took a deep breath. "Then he made me sit there and watch Teddy die..."
Duo stopped speaking and seemed to be reliving the horror of it all in his mind. Relena carefully brushed away a tear that had escaped without her permission, but Duo noticed it anyway. "I told you that this would be too much for you," he said as he squeezed her tightly.
"What did your mother do? Didn't she ever try to protect you?" she asked in a small voice.
"No, my mother didn't do anything. She was afraid of him too--I wasn't the only one that got beaten, Relena." She nodded. "It wasn't long after that that my father died. And one day when I woke up, I couldn't wake my mother up. The neighbor said she died from a broken heart, but I knew that wasn't true..." Duo shook himself out of his reverie. "That's enough of that, don't you think?"
"It explains why you don't cry, Duo," said Relena, "but you never finished telling me about why you don't cut your hair."
"Oh, yeah. Guess I got sidetracked, huh?" Duo stopped to think about what he had been telling her before. "Where was I?"
"You said that Sister Helen put you back to bed."
"That's right. Well, to make a long story short--or shorter, I guess--it wasn't long after that night under the stairs, maybe a few months, that the soldiers came in and killed almost everybody and destroyed the church. So then I was alone again, you see. Sister Helen was the first person that ever loved me, I think, though I know that Father Maxwell did too. But after they were killed I was on my own again. So, the reason that I don't cut my hair, Relena, is that it is something that Sister Helen has touched and she loved me and I don't want to cut it off and throw it away." He looked at her. "I know it's getting to be impossibly long, but I just can't cut it."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, each one lost in their own thoughts.
"Well, it's time we both got some sleep, don't you think?" Duo suggested, trying to be cheerful, but failing.
"I guess," Relena sat up and saw the half drunk cup of tea on the table. "Oh, Duo--your tea is cold! I'm sorry that I got you so involved in all of this that you didn't get to drink your tea."
"Don't worry about it, Relena. I'm plenty warm now," he assured her, secretly relieved that he didn't have to drink as much tea as he had thought he would.
Relena hopped off of his lap and put out her hands for him to stand up. "Good-night, Duo," she said, hugging him. "I'll make you a fresh pot of tea in the morning!" she promised cheerily.
In the early dawn, Relena crept quietly into Duo's room, relieved to find him sleeping peacefully. She had been worried that he might not sleep well after the talk they'd had before bed. He was lying on his back, with his braid trailing snakelike to the edge of the bed. She smiled, thinking how young he looked when he was asleep.
Duo awoke not long afterward. As he shifted his position, he heard the crinkling sound of paper. When he looked for its source, he found that he had a small, brown, and obviously well-loved teddy bear tucked into the crook of his arm. Pinned to his tattered red ribbon was a small white envelope. Duo opened it and read the following, written in Relena's even script:
My dearest friend Duo:
I want you to meet Teddy. This is the teddy bear that my father gave to me when I was five years old to keep me from missing him on his frequent business trips. When I missed him, I told Teddy all about it and I felt better. Teddy slept with me for many years, until Heero gave me the teddy bear that I sleep with now. He is the most prized possession that I have from my childhood, and I want you to have him so he will always remind you that even when you are away from your friends, that we are always together in spirit. The six of us are like a family now--a family of friends who love each other very much. Please know that wherever you go, you always have a home here at my house, with a room all of your own waiting for you.
Awhile later, he went to the living room, where he found Relena reading on one of the over-stuffed sofas.
"Good morning, Duo," she greeted him cheerfully. "I was wondering when you'd wake up." It was then that she noticed that Duo was holding Teddy in the crook of his arm, rubbing his button eye with his thumb.
He crossed the room wordlessly, sat next to her and hugged her tightly. "Thank you," he was barely able to whisper the words into her hair. And for the first time in too many years--surprising him, but feeling no shame whatsoever--Duo let the tears come. Tears of sorrow and anger that had gone unshed for so long. But those tears were mingled with tears of thankfulness, and the joy of knowing that he really belonged somewhere, with this family of friends who would always love him. This mixture of tears became a balm of healing for Duo's wounded spirit.
Relena held him close for a long time, stroking his unbraided hair and murmuring comforting words. In time, he became quiet and relaxed, resting his head against her shoulder. He waited until his breathing was even before he pulled away from her. He reached down to where Teddy had fallen between them, took something from behind the beloved bear and placed it in Relena's hand.
"Will you keep this for me?"
Relena looked at the eighteen inches or so of Duo's braid lying across her palm. It was tied with Teddy's worn red ribbon.
"H-how," she stammered.
"Easy. My boot knife comes in handy for lotsa things--just sawed it off." Duo smiled as he handed her a rubber band. "Will you braid my hair for me?"