Heero stared at the invitation lying on his desk. The ivory card stock and gold lettering fit the confident elegance of the person who had sent it. He rubbed his index finger over the embossed words, feeling the shape of them:
In celebration of the photography exhibition
"The Journey to Peace" by Reinhold Schmidt
An artist's reception will be held at the
7:30 p.m., September 20th
The exhibition was a culmination of Relena's work. The photographer had shadowed her during the process of reconstruction after the end of the wars. Heero knew this was important to her and that he couldn't say no. As it was, the invitation had been hand delivered to him at Preventers Headquarters, only moments ago. He had even signed for the damn thing.
"Whatcha got there?" Duo asked.
Heero looked up to see Duo moving quickly towards his desk. He hopped onto the corner and tilted his head at an odd angle, trying to read the invitation. His braid slipped forward over his shoulder, long enough for its ends to brush the elegant ephemera. Heero covered the invite with his hand, oddly embarrassed by it.
"Looks fancy," Duo said.
"It's from Relena."
"Ah, that explains a lot."
Heero's brow tightened.
"She still wants you, man."
Heero shook his head. Everyone was convinced that because Relena didn't have a boyfriend-or girlfriend for that matter-it meant she hadn't given up on Heero. But the wars-those times-were long over. They were all grown up now, and he had made up his mind about what he wanted and moved on.
"Why do you keep teasing me about it?" Heero asked as he got up from his chair.
"Because I'm the jealous type," Duo said with a smirk. He slid off the desk and came around to stand in front of Heero.
After Heero's walkabout and Duo's return from his business venture on L2, the two friends settled into a partnership in Preventers. A year, two years went by and the friendship evolved into more. And yet, it had been there all along, a sneaking attraction that continually drew them together until they were ready to do something about it.
Now, Duo's hands slid up Heero's arms and squeezed the muscles beneath the Preventers' jacket. It was only when they stood this close that Heero remembered Duo had outgrown him by nearly two inches.
Duo leaned forward, putting his mouth to Heero's ear. "You need to tell her... about us."
Heero closed his eyes, concentrating on the warmth of Duo's breath. "She knows."
"No, she doesn't," Duo said, his lips caressing Heero's earlobe.
"Fuck." Heero took a step back, his eyes narrowing dangerously on Duo. "You always do this to me."
Duo laughed. "What am I doing?"
Heero grinned, reluctantly. No matter how many times he explained the importance of keeping a professional demeanor while at work and in uniform, they always seemed to come together like this. And it wasn't always Duo who initiated contact. They were both to blame and both vulnerable to this undeniable attraction.
"You'll come with me, of course," Heero said. He reached for the invitation and handed it over to Duo.
"Will there be food?"
"All right, I'll go!"
A year ago, Heero had invested in a classic navy suit for Lucrezia's and Zechs's wedding. At the time, he and Duo were content in the illusion of simply being best friends and partners in Preventers. The wedding changed all that. Whether it was the vows or the mood of the day or all the champagne they had drank ... that night they found themselves in each other's arms.
All the wedding guests had been given rooms at the hotel where the reception was held. This encouraged them to party as late as they wanted. When Heero headed to his room at two o'clock in the morning, he wasn't surprised that Duo came along. After all, he had a room, too. As the elevator doors closed behind them, Duo started to chatter as though he was no longer tired. With energy like that and looking as fine as he did in his burgundy suit, Heero wished he had asked Duo to dance when he had had the chance. Duo looked more handsome than Heero had ever seen him.
At the seventh floor, the doors opened and Duo stumbled out in a fit of laughter. Heero reacted with speed and instinct, reaching for him to stop his fall. Duo was in his arms, warm and perfect like he was always meant to be there. That was the first time they had truly looked into each other's eyes, sharing a moment of surprise, and at last... a kiss. All their inhibitions pickled in alcohol, their true feelings were allowed to surface. Moments later, they were in Duo's room, stripping away every last stitch of clothing and making love until dawn. It was a fumbling, drunken sort of lovemaking, but it was good, oh, so very good.
The next morning, they eagerly made plans to move in together. They had known each other and wanted each other too long for anymore "pussy footing around" as Duo had called it. But they soon realized their relationship needed to be kept under wraps-out of the public eye. They didn't want it used against them if they flubbed a mission, or God forbid the media plastered their sex life on the headlines of a tabloid. They had witnessed the scrutiny of Trowa's and Quatre's relationship first hand. This relationship was for them. It was nobody's business but theirs. Close friends knew, of course, but to anyone else they were just a couple of guys rooming together. That's why Relena didn't know, and for that Heero felt some guilt. It wasn't right leading her on, if that's what he was doing.
Maybe it was a mistake wearing the suit tonight. The way Duo was frowning at him he suspected he was thinking the same thing. It brought back memories for them both, and he knew how much Duo liked that suit on him. Duo had opted for casual which was to be expected after wearing a uniform all day. He was dressed simply and attractively in jeans, a white t-shirt and his black leather jacket and boots.
"We're a bit mismatched, but maybe that's a good thing," Duo said.
"Why is it good?"
"To keep the illusion going."
It wasn't like Duo to sound bitter, but Heero thought he heard it in his voice. "The press will be there tonight," he said, warning Duo off.
He checked for his wallet in his back pocket, and reached for his car keys on the hook by the door.
"What do you say we take my motorcycle?" Duo asked.
That choice of transportation was very calculated, no matter how innocent Duo made the question sound. The two of them riding on the bike would be cozy, and quite an eyeful for guests.
"We should take the car. It's supposed to rain."
Duo gave a small nod, but Heero knew better than to think he was in complete agreement. Sometimes Duo gave into an idea just to see if you'd hang yourself on it. It put a lot of pressure on a guy, but Heero enjoyed the challenge.
The gallery was in an upscale, redeveloped part of town. As soon as they entered, they were given champagne and went their separate ways. It wasn't deliberate, exactly, but for all their closeness they were independent young men. Heero had a tendency to study every piece in an exhibition, walking at a slow pace and occasionally stopping to admire something longer or to share a word with someone he knew. Duo's pace was nearly twice that of Heero's. This "skimming" as Duo referred to it, allowed him to absorb an exhibition in a big way until he found a piece he liked, a piece that truly resonated with him. Then he might stop for several minutes, standing and puzzling over the painting or photograph.
Heero took an interest in the photographer's work. The perspective was thoughtful, and the mix of black and white and color photographs created a fine balance. He was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, admiring a photograph of a stone walkway when Duo sidled him.
"Did you notice there's only one of Relena?" Duo had come full circle through the gallery even though Heero was only a third of the way through it. His shoulder touched Heero's slightly.
"Actually, there are two," Heero said, nodding to the photograph to his right. But he silently agreed with what Duo was implying. It was surprising that there were not more images of Relena, considering that the artist had shadowed her for months.
Duo stepped closer to the photo Heero had pointed out. It was a view of two rows of people shaking hands. The lens had focused on the hands, leaving the identity of their owners obscured.
"With all those hands... you recognized Relena's? Or maybe you just read the label?"
Heero glanced at Duo and then back at the photograph. "Right on both counts."
Duo made a little noise and turned away. Heero watched him target the hors d'oeuvres table and considered following him, but suddenly Relena appeared before him. It was the first they had seen each other that night.
"It's so good to see you, Heero. I feel like it's been ages."
"It's been nearly five months."
"That long? We really must remedy that. Friends should see each other more often."
He nodded, but knew it was near impossible to coordinate their schedules.
"Do you like the exhibition? Reinhold is a dear to work with... I'd like for you to meet him."
"I'm intrigued by his perspective," Heero said.
"I'm glad. We've been talking about collaborating on another exhibition. Something in Sank, possibly views of the palace and gardens."
The idea seemed stale to him, like it had been done before, but just not of the Sank Palace. Was the photographer that desperate for a project?
"I see you brought Duo with you." She tossed her long hair over her shoulder as she glanced toward Duo.
Heero followed her gaze and his mouth dropped open. Duo was shoving miniature éclairs into his mouth, one right after the other. He shook his head, but when he caught them looking, Duo saluted them by holding up an éclair in his hand and smiling.
"When he heard about the exhibition he wanted to come," Heero said, trying not to react to Duo being Duo.
"Yes, it appears he's enjoying himself as always." Relena smiled, but she seemed tired. "So, how are things at Preventers?"
"They're good. We're implementing a new Earth to Colonies network that will speed communications with authorities and agents throughout the Earthsphere..."
He noticed her eyes were not completely on him as he spoke. He was used to her hanging on his every word, but tonight she nodded and then looked away. He turned to see what was more interesting than hearing about his latest security project. If he was not mistaken, she was staring at the photographer, Reinhold Schmidt.
"Have you become friends?" he asked.
"Friends? With whom?" She smiled prettily at him.
"Schmidt. You seem to be spending a lot of time watching him."
"Oh," she said, blushing. "I want to make sure everything's going well for him tonight."
Heero nodded, and this time his eyes drifted. Duo was still concentrating on the desserts, and keeping his distance as was their practice. For all of Heero's fussing that they not look like a couple tonight, he realized that was exactly what he wanted. He wanted to share tonight with Duo. Walk with him around the gallery and point out the things that he liked best about the photographs. Mingle with friends and new acquaintances, and put his arm around Duo's waist. Stand close to each other, and enjoy the damn éclairs instead of being tempted from afar by that mischievous smile on Duo's face.
"Relena," Heero said, suddenly.
"Yes?" She blinked, startled.
"There's something I want to say to you."
"O-oh?" She blushed again.
"I'm in love with Duo."
"I've been living with Duo for a year, but I'm only now realizing how much I love him."
Her lips moved like she was trying to speak, but no sound came out. Maybe that was because he had said the word "love" more times in under 60 seconds than he had in his entire life. A weight lifted off his shoulders. How could he have gone this long living and working by Duo's side and not realizing the depth of his feelings? It wasn't as if what they had was only about sex, because it wasn't. They made love, true, deep love to each other, but suddenly the word love seemed as important as the act of making love, and he accepted his great error in judgment.
Not one to delay once a decision was made, Heero was in motion. In a few long strides he was standing in front of Duo, staring into his lover's bewildered eyes.
"What is it, Heero? You want to leave already?"
Heero shook his head. "I want to be wherever you are."
Duo laughed. "OK. Right now, I'm moving on to the tart platter." Duo stepped away and Heero grabbed his arm, causing Duo to give him a curious look. "Something up, man? You look out of sorts."
"Duo, I..." Heero hesitated. It seemed too great a thing to share in the middle of a crowded art exhibition. But that was thinking the old way that their relationship needed to be hidden. He didn't want that anymore.
"I love you," Heero said, gripping Duo's arm.
Duo blinked as the emotion behind the words sank in. He stepped closer to Heero and smiled. "You really mean that." His face brightened. He leaned in and took Heero's face in his hands, looking deep into his eyes. "I never thought you'd beat me to it... I love you, too. I really do."
He kissed Heero in front of the hundred guests. The moment was about them, centered on the feel of each other's lips and hands. Knowing that they loved each other and not giving a damn about the rest. Duo had wanted this all along. Wanted to be "out" and proud of what they had found together. But he understood the concerns.
It suddenly was right to do this, to be open and free about what they meant to each other. Heero didn't want to let go of Duo, but he heard the applause and the whistles, and he opened his eyes to see a room full of people staring at them. But they weren't pointing fingers or taking notes. They were smiling, joyously for them, for what he and Duo had.
Warmth crept over Heero and he knew he must be blushing from his head to his toes. But it didn't matter. Duo slid his arm around Heero's waist and moved them both toward the wet bar.
"You need a drink," Duo said, hugging Heero with one arm.
"We both need one... so we can toast."
Duo smiled, a crooked almost disbelieving smile. "Or maybe you've already had too much to drink?"
"No way," Heero said, suddenly not wanting to look anywhere but in Duo's eyes. "I can't hide what I feel anymore, and I don't care who knows."
It was beautiful knowing that Heero had finally come to terms with his feelings, and Duo couldn't help but take him in his arms again. He held Heero close and breathed deeply of his hair, his eyes flickering closed as a shiver raced over him.
"I love you, Heero, but I don't think I can keep this going."
Heero stepped back. "What?"
"Whoa... I just meant all this public affection has really turned me on. Do you think we can call it a night?"
"Now, aren't you glad we brought the car?" Heero asked, smiling devilishly.
Heero nodded and took Duo's hand. "And you said I shouldn't buy a four-seater."