Duo struggled to stifle a laugh. "It's Christmas. Yet, there's always someone who get stuck working." With a grin, he stepped over to give Heero's screen a look. "You know, I had no idea Trowa had a niece."
Voice an absolute monotone. "So the records say - but the Trowa we know, isn't the real Trowa Barton."
"Right, I almost forgot."
Heero frowned, got to his feet, grabbed his blue denim jacket and tossed it over his shoulder.
"Yeah." He pressed the door switch, and shot Duo a glance and a comment before heading down the corridor. "Relena has been kidnapped."
Duo gave a light, amused snort, and gave his head a quick scratch. "Anything at all for the one you love."
Heero heard him, briefly tightened his fists, but refrained from commenting. If Duo could see around corners, the tightly knit frown would have spoken volumes - but of course, he couldn't. The best he could do, was follow - and judging from the sound of footsteps, he was. Heero slowed down to let Duo catch up. He put on his jacket, and was about to zip up when he felt the small, sharp-cornered box tucked in the jacket's inner pocket take a stab at his chest. He reached inside, and pulled the rectangular package out. "I almost forgot," he said, handing it to Duo. "Here. Merry Christmas."
Duo looked at him, somewhat puzzled, glanced at the offered package, then back at Heero, both of them still jogging towards the shuttle hangar. "Huh?"
Half-smirk. "It's a Christmas gift. I know it's a little early, but-" He pushed it at Duo again.
Duo took it, weighed it in his hand, brushed his thumb across the smooth paisley wrapping paper. "I didn't know you even celebrated Christmas."
Heero shook his head. "I don't, not really - but you do, right?"
Mild grin. "Presents and food, sure. I'm a bit lax on the religious bits, though."
Duo held the gift up, tapped it once against air in Heero's direction. "Thanks, man."
"Don't mention it - but I think you should open it before we head out - It might prove useful."
They reached the hangar. Heero headed over to the refuelling pods, leaving Duo to fill in the emergency flight forms at the tiny clerk's office walled off in a corner. The Preventers were as swamped by red tape as any agency with close ties to government; not even emergencies could escape the dreaded paper mill. To gamble on dying as a way to avoid it wasn't really an all that enticing option.
The clerk was having the day off. Evidently, the Preventer budget also reflected the governmental ties, leaving them insufficiently funded to keep a 24/7 operation running in all of its aspects, never mind staffing issues during holidays. At least they had enough to cover the essentials.
This didn't really matter; Duo had filed the same dull forms before, and knew the drill well enough now to finish long before Heero was done refuelling the shuttle. Duo reached for the pair of scissors stuck in a mug amidst assorted pens and pencils on the right corner of the absent clerk's desk. He snipped at the wrapping and tore the rest off to reveal its contents; a small knife, complete with sheath, and three lock picks. Duo sighed away a smile, ripped the to-from tag away from the thin, red band that had encircled the gift, tossed the wrapping paper and band in the closest waste bin, tucked the card in his pocket, the lock picks up his sleeve, and attached the knife to his belt.
Affording himself a quick muttered curse, he searched the table with his eyes. If he had only known Heero would get him something. Being stuck without anything to give in return stabbed at him with significant guilt. Returning the gift wouldn't do any good, either. His eyes fell upon some envelopes and blank pieces of paper, and with a grin, he followed the first, best and thus somewhat original idea that came to mind. They were on a truncated timetable, after all.
He caught up with Heero by the shuttle's hatch, the other already in his flight suit. Heero handed Duo his suit, and unexpectedly got an envelope in return. he looked at it, flipped it over to check the other side, puzzled. "What's this?"
Not pausing from getting suited up, Duo hurriedly stated "It's my Christmas gift to you." He jumped a little to better jam his legs into the tight-fitting flight suit, realized the knife was in the way, and put it momentarily aside. "Sorry that it isn't wrapped or anything - you kinda caught me off guard with that gift of yours - oh, and thanks again, Heero. I really liked it." He zipped up the torso of his suit, attached the knife to a waist loop and began fiddling with the wrists.
Heero tugged his lips towards a smile, but didn't quite make it. "Thank you, Duo."
He looked at the hastily scribbled 'To: Heero, From: Duo' at the front of the envelope, a few cheeky smileys and an outright obscene doodle surrounding them. He nearly grinned as he opened it, only to find five small cards of stiff paper, something barely legible written on them. He gave Duo a glance that gave away his intention of repeating his earlier question.
Amused smile. "It's a set of override cards."
Duo fitted a glove into one wrist, making sure the seal was airtight. "Yeah - well, I thought, you've always complained about me being too impulsive or me doing things that you think are stupid, and-"
Frown. "I have never said-"
Palms up in defense. "Okay, sorry. I didn't mean it like that. Let's just say that you have, on occasion, expressed concern over how I do things."
Heero's scowl weakened a little, and he nodded in acceptance of that much.
"Basically, the idea is that if I do something you disapprove of, or say no to something you think I should do, you can hand me one of those, and I'll go with your best judgement instead. Your little chance at shaping me in your image. You only get those five, though, so if you want to use them, you better pick carefully."
Heero almost gaped, jaw working loosely in the air. "I... Thank you, Duo. Showing me this much trust - this is a really precious gift, and I-"
Cheeky grin. "Can hardly wait for the chance to boss me around?" Chuckle. "Yeah, that's what I figured - but remember, only five times, and only ask for things within reason, okay? Some things just can't be ordered - if you ask me to give up coffee, that's a borderline case, at best." He gave a quick wink. "Just a warning. Oh, and I'll take back one of those 'I owe you' cards every time, got that?"
Half-smile. "Got it. Thanks."
Quick, light punch to shoulder. "You're welcome. Merry Christmas, Heero." Duo snapped his other glove into place. "Now, let's get going. There's a damsel in distress to rescue!" With that, he grabbed a helmet and headed towards the cockpit.
Heero gave a low grunt, opened his flight suit to tuck the envelope away safely, before he zipped up and followed, smirking.
Spring at the colonies was pretty much the same as any other season. Granted, there were subtle changes in the environmental control settings, gap between the mellow extremes varying from colony to colony, but it was barely noticeable. Flora enjoyed the mild weather immensely - not that there was too much of it within the tons and tons of spinning metal. The few parks were relatively lush in the colonies that afforded the water for them. Yeast recyclers, hydroponic vats and other reclamation systems were far better than open growth plant life at balancing the air supply though, especially when it came to the all-important cost-effect. This made greenery for the eye somewhat rare on the less wealthy and smaller colonies.
Over all, the L2 colony cluster didn't afford much of plant life luxury. The colony housing the salvage yard Duo ran together with Hilde usually didn't, leaving the little park land with not much more than the trickles gained from the very rare planned artificial rain shower, or water donations afforded by the wealthier citizens. On good days, Hilde and Duo helped sponsor the park water bill - because on bad days, lunch in the same park was a worthwhile escape from the harsh realities.
They made enough to keep their joint business afloat - barely. Still, Duo was growing a bit tired of it. There was little challenge in it - not that he necessarily wanted a challenge, but without such he ran the risk of outright boredom. His life had rarely been that docile for such an extended period of time - not counting the brief Mariemeia incident, of course. On most bad days, Hilde managed to cheer him up - and if she failed, the park and its visitors usually did the trick.
Since he had returned from Earth a few weeks prior on his last duty as a Gundam pilot, Duo had become ever more gloomy. Destroying Deathscythe, saying goodbye to a machine he considered a friend for the second time, hadn't been easy to do, despite how simple it was to understand the necessity of the demise of the Gundams.
Duo felt out of place. The peace appeared to be holding now - with a little help and tough love from the Preventers. Lady Une had given him an open-ended invitation to join the organization, but so far he had declined. It wasn't really something he wanted to do, either. A week passed, and with each day, he retreated a little more from the day-to-day operations of the yard.
Luckily for him, Hilde noticed. Then again, anyone that knew him should have been able to. While he had a temper, he wasn't usually one to linger in disgruntlement for long.
Duo was slouching in an old, uncushioned wire-frame garden chair out in the back of the yard, hiding between the piles of assorted scrap. In his hands was a knife; the one Heero had given him a few months prior. The empty sheath rested in his lap, halfway trapped between thighs. Indeed, the lock picks had come in handy, but he had almost lost the knife during the fighting, and so far, it had gone unused - for any purpose other than ornamental. Then again, it appeared to have been made for mostly that purpose, and it fulfilled the role well. He put the knife back, picked it up along with its cover, flipped it over and studied the barely perceptible marks in the dark leather, but he couldn't make it out as any more than random wrinkles; no hidden marks from antiquity. He unsheathed the knife, let the blade mirror the midday colony lights, flipped it, holstered it again, looked at the wooden handle, brought it out again for another flip, put it away...
...and if his light hadn't suddenly been interrupted by a looming shadow, he would probably have kept playing with the knife - if not grown serious. This was what Hilde had feared, and why she had contacted the owner of the shadow - Heero.
"What the heck are you doing, Duo?"
Duo removed his sunglasses, and put them aside on a small, slanting plastic table, along with the knife. "Hey, Heero, what a surprise..."
Grunt. "Hilde was worried, so she called me. What's wrong?"
Duo looked away, sighed. "Nothing, I guess... Everything is just peachy."
Heero sat down on an empty nearby oil drum, and let out a low growl. "Duo..."
"It's just - I'm bored, I guess. Tired with the way my life is going - or not going, that is. I don't know what to do anymore. We were trained to be soldiers, and now we suddenly find ourselves completely without a war to fight. Last time, I could keep going, 'cause I at least had my memories, and a memento in the form of a fifty-four foot Gundam - but my old pal is gone now."
Heero sighed, placed a hand on Duo's shoulder. Not being pushed away instantly, he squeezed softly at it. "Duo, we've all had that feeling, that loss of purpose, but the point is, we haven't lost anything. We've gained something, to the benefit of everyone. Surely you can see that?"
"Yeah, I can see... The peace still doesn't leave me with a clear path, though."
Heero withdrew his hand. "What about the salvage yard?"
Duo shook his head. "No, that's Hilde's path. I've just walked with her for a while. Now, I don't know which other trail to follow to make my own way of life."
They fell silent for a bit. Folding his arms, Heero leant back against the big, rusty plate of corrugated iron trapped between the barrel and a tall stack of sheet metal. "You haven't been thinking... of..." He bit his lip, not wanting to say the word.
He didn't have to. Duo could practically read his expression, if not his mind. "Suicide?" Duo sat up straight, bringing the back of the cushion-stripped garden chair with him. "Yeah. Not something I really want to do either, but..." Another sigh. "I feel lost. It's tempting to take the easy way out."
Heero frowned at him. "Don't."
Frown hardening. "Don't kill yourself." Hastily, he added "You'll only regret it later."
Snort, lopsided smile. "Gee... Look, that's my business. My life, my business."
Duo's face grew puzzled. "No?"
Heero reached inside his pocket, took out a small, crumpled piece of paper, and handed it to Duo. "No, not any more. Stay alive, Duo."
Not before had Duo taken the card, did Heero jump off the barrel, and walk away. He was gone by the time Duo recognized the piece of paper as one of the override cards, and tried to call after him. Getting no answer, Duo growled to himself, muttered another curse, and reached for his sunglasses.
The knife was gone.
Two months went by. While not too happy about being dictated, Duo kept to his word - not that he had really wanted to kill himself; he was nowhere near that depressed - but he did feel a little robbed of his freedom, a little cheated at the chance to find his own way, however short or long it might be.
He grew gloomy, and distanced himself from the world at large even more. While he resumed dealing with his full share of the work at the salvage yard, and did whatever he could to keep Hilde from worrying, each new day sent him a little deeper into himself, a little further away from everybody else.
All the while, he searched for a new path, a new way of life. He considered several hobbies to distract him from the safe road he was stalking Hilde by, considered many new careers that would alter his life significantly - but when it came down to it, young ex-terrorists with little documented education weren't all that attractive on the job market. Go figure.
Duo had begun avoiding the other pilots, even since before Heero's visit. They all seemed to have found new places for themselves; assembled at least enough of a life to be content. Duo didn't feel as much content as he felt complacent - and lazy for leeching on the dreams and future of another, rather than selecting his own. Certainly, he was searching, and he hoped he'd find something - but in the meantime, seeing the successes of the other pilots was not something he wanted to do. To have them look down upon him, or worse, feel sympathy, was not something he wanted. Weakness was not a thing Duo Maxwell was willing to show openly.
So, with his stubborn streak in full power, he kept Quatre waiting on the phone the next time the blond called to check up on him. Quatre had gotten used to being ignored by now, and more often than not, he either gave up waiting, or got a necessary intermediary in Hilde. This time, Hilde was away for a few days with her latest boyfriend, which allowed Duo to simply unhook the phone and go watch TV without anyone arguing against him - not even Quatre. Out of sight, out of earshot, out of reach - out of mind. At least to a point.
When the blond still hadn't hung up after two hours, for once Duo was the one to cave in, and he answered the vidphone call.
It turned out Quatre wanted to invite him - along with the rest of the pilots - to a beach resort Winner Enterprises had recently acquired. The blond was eager enough, and rambled on and on about all the things they could do there, how much fun it would be, how delighted he and the others would be if Duo joined them.
Duo flatly declined.
He let Quatre try to talk him over for nearly an hour after that, all in the midst of mostly trivia talk. It was clear enough his friends were concerned about him, but Duo didn't feel like measuring up to their success, even if the surroundings were meant to be relaxing. Especially since they were meant to be relaxing. There was little hope of having fun and losing tension if he'd have to walk around with an ever present minor inferiority complex.
Two days later, Heero was at his doorstep, wearing a ridiculous flower-print Hawaiian shirt more than worthy of Howard, khakis shorts and a straw hat with a weaved-in red band. Duo didn't dare look down to check if there were a pair of sandals on his feet in addition, just to complete the picture. He had enough trouble to keep from laughing as it was. Evidently, Heero hadn't been on all that many vacations. Still, even the vivid shirt had to be a step up from his overused green tank top.
The urge to laugh died when Heero handed him a card. "Pack," he ordered. "You're going on vacation."
Jaw working in free air, Duo took a moment to gather himself, and wrap it all up in anger and excuses. "Leave? I can't do that. Hilde's gone, and I'm in charge here, and-"
Stern blue. "I called Hilde two days ago. She agreed to cut her stay short, and she'll be back tomorrow. With the boyfriend. Considering that, I'm sure she'd be glad to return to an empty house. Pack."
Frown, frustration the first attempt at deflection failed. "Look, I don't think I've got a decent vacation wardrobe, if what you're wearing is the standard, and-"
Slight scowl. "Then you can borrow something from me, or we'll buy it on the way, or when we get there. It doesn't matter. Pack, Duo." Heero face mellowed, and he almost sighed before adding "Please?"
Duo frowned, studied Heero's face, and knew the other was going to be just as stubborn as himself, if not worse. And then there was the card... He growled, muttered a few inaudible swearwords and something about 'honor and integrity', and stomped towards one of the storage closets, digging out a battered, old suitcase. He glanced over at the door, and noted the slight smile on Heero's face. Oh, was he ever going to pay for this.
With that mindset, he searched out more than clean clothes, intent on bringing along an assortment of his patented prank tools. Why not, when he'd soon have his old and much favored victims back? He was very careful not to let Heero see him pack those, though. It would be a lot less fun if they had advance warning.
The card he tore to confetti.
He had started out sullen enough, and more than a little reluctant to participate in the fun - but that mellowed soon enough. Having played a few vindictive pranks on his best friends, he felt much better. Luckily for him, they took it with good spirits, and no ill-will came of it. None of them dared voice it, but they were happy to see some of their old friend back; some of the fire returned in his eyes - even if they were the targets of the flame.
One week turned into two, and then three. The beach resort was every bit what Quatre had promised, and then some. It served the purpose of distraction. While there, Duo forgot about his little quest for his future, content on spending time in the present. It wasn't until the last few days of their planned stay that those gloomy thoughts returned.
The weather was nice, the locals were friendly. The company wasn't half-bad either, once Duo got over the fear they'd start talking about their current lives in terms of wealth and plans. They never did, content with jokes, random memories of the wars and the brief, tranquil interludes in between, the incidents at too many safe houses to count, the way a Gundam handled on the ground, in flight, in space... The present wasn't as important as processing the past - and ultimately, realizing it was past. They all did, even Duo had gotten well beyond the point of living in the past, but he had not yet found a good way to move forward. He felt stuck, and was unwilling to ask for help, which only served to make him grumpy again.
Quatre picked it up first. Duo almost expected he would. The blond had an unnerving knack for picking up vibes, good or bad. The others had gone down to the beach again, wanting to spend the last few days soaking up the clear greenish-blue water before their vacation ended. Duo had declined their offer to join them, and remained at their rather big bungalow, slouching on one of the couches, surfing through the cable channels.
He was somewhere between cooking shows and soap operas when he heard Quatre's light footsteps approach from behind him. Without even turning around, Duo asked "What do you want, Quatre?" His efforts to sound less than rude failed. Quatre didn't mind, though.
"I was just wondering why you didn't want to join us today. You've enjoyed swimming here quite a bit, judging from the past few weeks." Brief laugh. "We could barely get you out of the water three days ago. The others have left already, but I can wait, if you want to change, and come-"
Deep, cleansing, calming breath. "No thanks, Quat. I'm happy right here."
Quatre's smile grew narrower with concern, and he sat down in one of the wicker chairs. "Are you sure about that, Duo? Are you sure you're happy?"
Shrug. "Of course I am. I should know when I'm happy and when I'm not, shouldn't I?"
Warm smile a touch wider. "I guess so - but you seemed reluctant to come here in the first place. I was delighted that you did, Duo, and I thank you for that. It means a lot to me. Still, I got left with the feeling you didn't want to see us." Eyes growing slightly stern. "You've avoided all of us for a while, Duo - I think I have a right to be a little concerned. Did we do something to offend you?"
Duo laughed. He hadn't meant to, but did anyway. "No, Quatre. Not unless you count living."
Quatre's brows knitted even closer, and he folded his hands over his left knee, bending a little closer, uncertain. "Living?"
Grin. "Calm down. It's not like I meant I want you dead - It's just..." Sigh. "See, I'm still stuck doing pretty much nothing, and haven't got a clue what to do with my life. You guys have already found a new reason for existing, and moved on to better things. I feel like such a damn failure, in the light of your successes."
Quatre chuckled as he leant back again, much relieved and relaxed. "You think we are successful, Duo? What gave you that idea?"
Frown. "What the hell do you think? I mean, you're a freakin' zillionaire businessman, Trowa's a circus star, Wufei's a highly ranked Preventer agent, and Heero's... Heero's... Heck, I don't know what Heero is now, but I'm sure it beats what I am."
Soft smile, sigh. "I don't think any of us knows what Heero is, Duo. He's making his way through life as best he sees fit - as best he can manage. That goes for the rest of us, too."
"Bullshit," Duo mumbled.
Quatre put his cup down on the table. "Look - Wufei took the first, best offer that came along, he didn't bother searching for a new purpose. He took what he got, and shaped himself into that new role. That doesn't mean he's confident he has made the right choice for himself, not by a long shot. Eventually, he'll wake up and realize that, but until then, it's what makes him happy. None of us mention this to him, because of that."
"Trowa went back to the circus, because that's one of the few places he has ever found shelter. It's a safe haven for him, just like the salvage yard is for you - and he isn't famous, not by name, and certainly not by his own lost one. You know he doesn't like the spotlight when he's not in the ring." Chuckle. "He hardly approves of it when he's in the ring."
Duo growled. "That still leaves you."
Quatre nearly grinned. "You think I am successful? Duo... I can barely manage with Winner Enterprises as it is. I've become somewhat of a figurehead. I'm not the leader my father was. I just inherited the job."
"That's bullshit, and you know it. You're a natural leader, and you were groomed for it from day one."
Sigh. "Leadership doesn't mean control, not of your own life. It merely means I'm adept at studying and tweaking the lives of others, in a way. I have the board of directors to help, as well as all my sisters, and plenty of advisors. Keeping them all satisfied keeps me eternally busy - I don't have time to spare to sort out my own mind, sometimes. I escape in my work, Duo."
No comment was forthcoming.
"None of us are successful, Duo - we all do the same thing; we hide - from our pasts. You are the only one who has thought about breaking away from it entirely, and searching out a new life for yourself. The rest of us cling to bits of our old lives - the bits we can accept, and live with."
"Not Heero. Which bits does he cling to?"
Warm smile. "That's a good question, Duo - and I really don't know. From what I know, Heero has been doing odd-jobs here and there, many of them for the Preventers. Last I heard, he rented a small apartment within walking distance of Preventer Headquarters. Maybe that is where he finds his permanence - but it isn't a new life, is it? Even without killing, he remains a soldier."
Duo growled. "If that's what he wants to do, then let him. I don't want that, I'm done fighting, I've done my part. I feel like enjoying the fruits of our labors."
Soft chuckle. "Then why aren't you doing that?"
Duo's eyes blinked a few times, before a weak grin came across him. "You've got a point there..." Sullen sigh. "Still don't know what I'm gonna do for a living, though. Have to have some kind of income, unless I want to take a crack at my hacking skills again, and... borrow a little from unsuspecting rich people."
Quatre opened his mouth as to speak, but stopped himself when he noticed Duo tense up. Judging from how Duo relaxed at his pause, Quatre knew he was right in not speaking, intending to offer financial support - which Duo apparently had feared he would. Part of making your own way was being independent, and a handout might undermine that. Still, if he were to find out Duo - or any of the others - were in trouble, Quatre was intent on finding some way to help, even if it meant being a little underhanded. What they didn't know, wouldn't hurt them.
"Quat, thanks for talking. I think... I think I know what I'm gonna do now."
Sunshine. "Really? Like what?"
Growing grin. "That's my little secret."
Quatre snorted softly, not losing his smile.
"I'll tell you when I've sorted it all out myself, okay?"
Quatre got to his feet, stretched his arms. "That's fine, Duo. If there's nothing else..."
Duo chuckled. "Nah. I think we've covered all the important stuff - go splash the guys for me."
Laugh. "Will do. See you later, Duo." Quatre gave a little wrist-wave, and walked out the sliding glass doors.
Duo watched him walk away, waited until he was out of sight, and headed for his room. Before the others were back, he had packed his things and left.
For a few months, he drifted around on his savings and the occasional odd-job, on an impromptu worldwide walkabout. It wasn't the fact that he got tired that stopped him, nor the odd chance he'd found himself and his new niche in the world. It was the cash.
With great reluctance, he called Lady Une and accepted her standing offer for a desk job, though he set a few conditions - secrecy being one. She agreed without hesitating, and soon enough, Duo was the proud tenant of a cramped bachelor pad two subway rides away from Preventers Headquarters, and the holder of a job in a remote corner office of their basement. He'd taken on the task of being a Procurement clerk, checking all the purchases the Preventers made, cutting corners where it was possible - and legal. At least for the most part.
Lady Une's budget was a tight one, and she wanted every possible dime to be worthwhile. She thought Duo would be a natural for the job. She had smiled serenely on Duo's joke that putting him in charge of cheap purchases could easily lead to the Preventers being equipped with only the finest of junk. Still, she had been right - Duo was good at this job, albeit he had to struggle with the Finances division to make them agree to draw up contracts with some of the shadier companies - or in some cases, okaying purchases without contracts at all. It wasn't that they were technically illegal - it was rather that the ones he bought from weren't so keen on being associated with law enforcement, or leaving a paper trail.
Though it wasn't what he wanted - not that he knew what that might be, anyway - it was a living. More importantly, he was independent. While it was a lonely path, it was his own, and while he didn't know if he'd stay on it for long, it offered some stability, something he felt a need for after roaming aimlessly around. He had found he didn't miss being a drifter, never knowing where he was going to sleep, or seek out the next meal - despite the fact he had the money to buy either this time. The tiny flat was welcome.
Two months he lasted, two months he managed to get up in the morning, take the crossing subway lines to work, shy away in his basement office, shuffle and process the paperwork he was given, leave for home again to rest and do some soul-searching, before sleeping to wake up and do it all over again. Two months, and then he was found.
Duo had been very specific with Lady Une to keep his employment secret from the other pilots and any others interested in knowing his whereabouts. He still wanted time alone, time enough to find himself; his place. He hoped this wasn't it. Even so, he called Hilde from time to time, just to check up on her and let her and the others know he was doing okay - but he was careful to call from public phones, usually a little distant from his nutshell apartment. He knew who his friends were, and didn't want to make their part-time job of tracking him down too easy. He also knew they were searching, and would find him eventually. Hilde informed him of the former, and that could only conclude in the latter.
Thus, it was with only a little surprise he answered the knock on his door, and found Heero, slightly winded from the stairs, one hand leaning on the wall for support, the other hidden behind him. The elevator had probably broken down again; it did that every other week. "Hi," he said between short breaths.
Duo leant against the doorframe, effectively blocking the door. "Hi, Heero."
"Why-" Breath. "Why didn't you tell me you were working for the Preventers?"
Frown. "Lady Une caved, right?"
Heero gave a lopsided smirk, shook his head. "No - I spotted your name when I hac-" Pause, breath. "Browsed the salary records."
Duo's frown melted away, mild grin replacing it. "Don't tell me - you wanted a raise, she refused, and you took the job in your own hands?"
Breath, chuckle. "I didn't - this time. Want to keep my skills in shape, though - never know when I might need them again."
Dim snort. "Yeah..."
"Procurement?" he questioned.
Mild laughter. "Yeah... Lady Une thought I'd be good at it."
Smile. "You are. I... bumped into the numbers from Finance, too."
Duo rolled his eyes. "I should have known..."
Heero's face grew serious again, touch of concern also present. "Duo... Is this really the life you wanted?"
Mock offence. "Why? You think I made a poor choice?"
"No, not at all - I just didn't figure you for a nine to five person, that's all."
Sigh. "Look, I'm trying to make due, okay? I'll figure out what I want to do eventually, I don't want to rush things, I just want to enjoy the peace and quiet we guys helped make."
Heero glanced away, and sighed too. "Fighting for peace... Not what we started out as, was it? One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter - we just ended up being heroes due to fortunate timing."
Another soft snort. "Yeah..." Pause. "Look, I don't mind getting all philosophical with you, Heero, but I prefer to be drunk during such talk, and-"
Heero smirked, brought forward the hidden hand, and showed off a six-pack of beer cans.
Duo grinned. "Sometimes, I think you know me a little too well, Heero."
"If you have a bag of pretzels and a bad movie, we're all set - can I come in?"
After minute hesitation, Duo stepped aside, and invited his friend inside.
After half a bag of pretzels, four cans of beer and a movie they had both ignored in favor of random talk growing ever more towards blabber in their increasing inebriation, they reached a still point again. Duo lifted his knee up on the couch, rested the ankle on the other knee. Heero sank even more lazily back into the comfy chair at Duo's right side.
"Why do you avoid us?"
Sigh. "Wasn't trying to. Just wanted some space, that's all."
Heero nodded, accepting that with another swig of his last beer. "I've heard-" He bit his lip, knowing he'd said something he shouldn't have, but also knowing those two words and his sudden stop was enough to make Duo curious. He had little to lose in continuing. "I've heard... that you don't talk very much with your co-workers."
Chuckle. "Well, I don't have too many of them down in the basement, even fewer I need to talk to on a regular basis, and the cafeteria food makes me queasy. It isn't by choice, it's by convenience. I did try to keep a low enough profile to avoid you guys, didn't I?"
Nod. "Yeah... I just found it odd that you kept so much to yourself. You were such a sociable and outgoing person during the war, and now you seem content to hole up here, in this apartment, or at work. What's your social life like?"
Duo sighed, put the nearly full beer can at the table. "Not much, lately - not that it's any of your business, Heero - and I'm still a sociable guy, I haven't been feeling up to it, that's all."
"Oh." Another swig. "Duo... I was wondering... You know I only live across town, right?"
Grin. "I know - I asked Lady Une for your exact address, just so I could pick a place a little away from you, to prevent you from spotting me at random when I head for work or go grocery shopping."
Half-smirk. "I can accept that..." Another swig of liquid courage-builder. "I was wondering - do you think you could consider going out with me sometime? Catch a movie or something?"
Duo shrugged. "Sure, pal. Not like I have better things to do than hang out with friends these days - just don't alert the other guys just yet, I don't think I'm ready for another group thing right now."
Heero gulped down the last of his beer. "I - I didn't mean as friends, Duo."
Chuckle. "What, you want to hang out as enemies?"
"No... I wanted to go out with you as... your boyfriend."
Duo's grin vanished in surprise.
That didn't help Heero's rapidly growing insecurity. "Duo, I-"
"You've gotta me kidding me."
"No! I'm serious - I want to-"
Duo held up his palms in defense, cutting him short with the gesture. "Okay - Heero, this is absurd. You know I'm a guy, right? The long hair didn't throw your pea-brain off balance, did it?"
Mistaking an 'a' for an 'e' in his lightly intoxicated state, Heero shot a guilty glimpse at his groin before settling on studying the floorboards, and tried fighting back the fickle flames building in his cheeks. "Duo, I know this might come as a surprise, but-"
"But you're gay," Duo cut in.
"Whatever." He shook his head. "Look, Heero - I don't know whether to deck you for making the suggestion, or feel flattered that you did - but I'm not, okay? I'm not gay, or bi."
A bit sullen, Heero looked off a little to the side, and muttered "How do you know?"
Sigh, growl. "Damn it, I'm trying to let you down easy, okay? You're a nice guy, Heero, and you've been a good friend - but this has got to be the nuttiest thing you've ever said, at least to me."
Heero frowned, and glared Duo straight in the eye. "It isn't crazy. It's perfectly sane. And I'm not asking for the world - I want to hang out with you, but I want more than just your company."
"I wanted... I want to hold your hand, without you feeling weird about it."
Caught somewhere between laughing and crying, Duo tried to think up an answer. "I think it's a little late for that, Heero. I know you're not drunk enough to sprout this at random, and even if you were, you wouldn't say things like this unless-"
"Unless I meant them? I do, Duo. Please - will you go out with me? Just once?" He clenched his teeth, frustration growing. "Once, damn it! It's not the end of the world if-"
Duo pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed again. "Look, Heero, I-"
As soon as Duo opened his mouth, Heero had gone for his back pocket, and fished a small square piece of paper out. He almost slammed it at the table, cutting Duo's sentence short.
"You're kidding..." The deep blues practically drilling holes in his own eyes suggested not. "You're not kidding..." Duo frowned back, and took the accursed card. "Fine! One date, holding hands - but that's it, Heero! Geez..." He ran both hands through his bangs, leant back.
Heero visibly relaxed, shoulders slouching. "I... I won't pressure you into making this public. I thought... maybe, if we went to see a movie, I could hold your hand there, in the dark - or if we found some quiet, nearly abandoned restaurant, or-"
Duo waved him off. He didn't want to hear any more. "Fine, fine..." He reached for his beer, gulped down a significant portion of it to remove the taste of bitterness in his throat.
They sat there in silence for a while, neither knowing what to say next. At length, Heero swallowed down the last of his beer, and placed the empty can at the table. "I should probably go..."
Duo not only didn't object, he barely even glanced in Heero's direction.
"I... Are you doing anything tomorrow?"
Scowl, snort. "Would it matter if I said 'yes' every time you ask that from now on?"
Heero's face became a strange blend of sullen and ominous.
Duo sighed, looked away. "Fine. Tomorrow is fine."
Heero got to his feet. "Good... See you at eight?"
Duo didn't look at him, but nodded, cradling his can of beer.
"I'll find my own way out..." Heero mumbled, and walked away.
Duo didn't move until he heard the door close. He almost felt disappointed it wasn't slammed shut. Then again, his bedroom door would probably suffer that fate later that night. For now... He reached for the card, and meticulously tore it to pieces, until it was well beyond being glued together.
So, Heero was bisexual, and interested in him to boot. Those things he didn't really mind - but the feelings were unrequited. Still, Heero hadn't asked for all that much - but even holding hands was more than what Duo was willing to give him, and he had to know that. No one could build a relationship by force, barring with strength of heart. Duo didn't know how serious Heero's interest was, but if he was to approach this with the determination he did missions... Duo felt a mild shiver go down his spine, uncertain how to deal with that thought.
Nevertheless, Duo was intent on following through on his promise; on the promise of the cards. He would give Heero his quiet night out, but that would be the end of it. There was a limit to what he could accept those cards for, after all - and Heero had to know he was already pushing his limits with this last request.
Duo fell asleep on the couch, brooding, empty can in hand.
The world didn't end the next evening. Sure, Duo felt awkward through most of it, but to the rest of the world, they appeared to be two good friends out together. It wasn't until the lights dimmed in the theatre Duo was reminded it wasn't just that. They were on a date - of sorts, at least. Heero's fingers were damp and warm as they sought out Duo's hand, interlocked their fingers. Duo shot him a quick glare, got a shy smile with a touch of smug back. The movie was okay, but the popcorn was not nearly salty enough.
Cinema junk food could only do so much, though, and with that in mind, Heero led them to a tucked-away diner, and once there, to a corner booth out of plain sight from the rest of the place. They got their order quickly enough, and halfway through the meal, Duo felt soft fingers brushing across his knee, once. He ignored it. Twice. Ignored. Thrice. He shot Heero an annoyed glare, but got only a secretive smile in return. A fourth pass. A fifth. Duo growled, and gave Heero what he wanted; his hand.
It was hard to concentrate on chewing his big sandwich, precariously balanced with only one hand. Heero's thumb alternating between caressing the back and palm of the other hand didn't help, either. It felt disturbingly comfortable, and since Duo had left his apartment with the intent of making Heero wish he'd never asked, without breaking the promise of the mildest form of skin contact, he struggled with wanting to hate Heero for it, yet rendered unable to. Heero didn't ask for more than this, and the gentle touches were only done in secret, known only to them. Duo lost most of his anger by the time they were back at his doorway, ordeal over, third card out of binding power.
Duo put the key in the door, twisted it. "I guess this is it."
"Yes." Heero shot a sad glance down the hallway.
Sigh. "Look, Heero - I had a good time, and I'm not just saying that. You're a good friend, Heero - but I don't really feel more than that for you. I'm sorry." 'Don't really?', his subconscious quickly inquired. Duo told it to shut up and go back to the oblivion from whence it came.
Heero shifted from one foot to the other, barely daring to make eye contact. "Maybe... we could do it again sometime?"
Palm to lowered forehead. Duo desperately resisted the urge to pound head to door, repeatedly. "Heero..."
"Please? Was it really that much of an ordeal? Was it that bad?"
Another sigh. "No - but I'm not your boyfriend, Heero, don't you get that? I'm not interested in that."
The sullen scowl from the day before returned. "How do you know that?"
Duo threw his hands up in the air, landing one back at the door handle. "What must I say to get through to you?"
Heero's face mellowed. "Can I... can I kiss you?"
Surprise, touch of anger. "No!"
"I want to show you I'm serious, Duo. This isn't just some curiosity thing. A quick kiss is all I'm asking for."
This time. "No, Heero," Duo flatly stated. "And that's final."
Heero frowned, reached for his back pocket.
"No..." Duo began in a mumble, "No, don't even think about it, Heero! No!"
Their hard glares met, both defiant to the will of the other - and out came the wrinkled little card with the barely legible writing. Duo growled, loudly, and with considerable effort refrained from taking a swing at his friend.
"Fine!" He tore the card from Heero's hand, ripped it in two before his eyes, tossed the pieces aside and forcefully placed his palms on Heero's cheek, intent to make it fast, hard, and most importantly, over with.
Before his lips made contact, however, they met Heero's fingers, hastily put up as a barrier between them. "Not like this, Duo..." he heard Heero whisper.
Duo let go of Heero's head, took a step back against the door. It was still locked. If it hadn't been, he might have considered bolting through, run and hide. As it were, he didn't, despite he'd only have to sneak his right hand over, turn the key...
Heero followed, but slowly, looped his hand around Duo's left wrist, still leaving him with the potential escape plan. Closer, eyes fixed. Duo blinked, gulped, but didn't turn away. Not dangerous, just... weird. Over with. Closer still, his lips slightly apart. Blue eyes closing. Almost on reflex, Duo's closed as well. Contact, the mildest of grazes, growing firmer, Heero's lips tugging at his own upper lip, firmer still. Duo felt Heero's tongue slick across. Heero's free hand landed on Duo's hip, soft touch only - but it was enough to surprise Duo, enough to part both eyes to see Heero's deep blue hues smile at him, and part lips for Heero's tongue to trail across his teeth, once, swiftly, immediately retreating from its picket raid.
And then, it ended as softly as it began, Heero's eyes fixed at his own through the slow retreat, searching, evaluating - cheering.
Duo fell back from a dazzled expression to a frown and looked away, barely able to keep from tapping his foot with uncomfortable impatience.
He heard Heero's sigh, barely registered the resigned "Goodbye." He completely missed the departing footsteps.
Two days was all it had taken to shake away the small foundation of stability Duo had sought himself out. Two days, and an unexpectedly enamored Heero Yuy. He wanted to run and hide so badly, but couldn't think of anywhere to go. Heero had tracked him down once, he'd do so again - but if he stayed...
Duo gritted his teeth, and did just that. The next day came and went with him barely noticing. The next too. The one following that - a Monday - he returned to work. Nothing beyond the normal happened. There were no signs of Heero, nor any of the others. He remained alone.
Come Wednesday, he was beginning to worry, no longer for further contact, but for the absence of it. Soon enough he realized he barely knew Heero's address. He had never gotten his phone number, and he most certainly didn't want to go on a surprise visit, fearing the possible interpretations. In a moment of weakness, he sifted through the public phone book, but obviously Heero was not listed there. Duo hadn't really expected him to be, which was why he had dared search in the first place.
Three days later, he sought out a public payphone and called Hilde, tried as subtly as he could to ask if she had talked to Heero lately. She hadn't. She hadn't spoken with him for well over three weeks, she said, and even then they hadn't had their regular guessing game of Duo's whereabouts.
Hilde didn't push him for information beyond that. She had long since given up on trying to convince him to come out of his self-inflicted isolation, his hiding. She knew he'd give in in time - he had done so on many of their earlier grievances; it always came down to which of them was the most stubborn, which of them endured the longest.
She usually prevailed.
Duo left it at that; maybe Heero just wanted some time alone. He knew that desire all too well. While he considered the idea of hacking his way to Heero's phone number - he most certainly had the skills - he didn't really want to. Nor did he want to ask Hilde or Une for the number; the less they were involved in this mess, the better. A week later he called Hilde again, and got his reluctance justified. Her voice was slightly agitated. Evidently, Heero hadn't been answering his phone for the last two weeks. Both she and the other three pilots were concerned, to the point where Wufei had gone over to Heero's apartment to talk to him. While Heero had gone to work every day, he had shied away from everyone, retreating to his office at every opportunity - which, given his job of analysis, profiling and information gathering occasionally stretching the laws, was fairly easy. He had always been a lone wolf, now more than ever.
Wufei hadn't gotten much out of the visit, other than talking Heero into at least answering his calls. They knew something was wrong, but they didn't dare push. Hilde didn't say it, but it was clear she meant that was what they thought they had done to Duo - pushed him to the point of leaving. One friend in hiding was enough, she said.
Heero had obviously not let any of them know he knew where Duo was, let alone of their little night out. At least he respected privacy... when it went beyond the two of them.
A month passed without any life signs. Two. Duo began believing Heero had decided to shy away, shun him for the refusal - a refusal that had begun to waver. In time, he admitted to himself he had enjoyed the kiss, but what more was there? It had been under the strangest forms of duress, not a shared desire. It had been a thing almost of defiance, a strong-willed urge to back up his word at any cost, no matter the embarrassment. Each day chipped a little more at his resolve, but much of the resentment remained. He had been forced, because Heero knew how he'd react to such a challenge - but he had agreed, allowed it to last, when he could have cut it so much shorter. Each day, he continued to brood over two simple days out of the last hundred.
In the end, he grew weary, and went to Lady Une to request a transfer to another office, claiming he wanted a change in scenery. With barely a raised eyebrow, she accepted this, and sent the paperwork through. A week later, Duo was halfway across the continent, settling in in another cheap apartment, with a variation of his old job, and a slightly better attitude when it came to co-workers. Given how much smaller the division was, he didn't have much choice this time - but this time, he didn't mind either. Secrecy was not as important anymore, nor was solitude too appealing now.
Autumn gave way to winter. Frost, even snow came to visit. So did the mailman, but for once with something other than advertisements or bills. Duo studied the anonymous envelope, noticed it was sealed, his name and address neatly written in capital letters. He flipped it, and saw the return address was to Heero. The rest of the mail was tossed aside on the low living room table as he sat back in the couch, staring at the envelope. He held it up to the light, as if it'd allow him to see through it. It didn't; it remained precariously non-transparent. With a mix of curiosity and intrepidness, he finally succumbed, and ripped the seal away to open it.
Within was a doubled-over red cardboard card. He opened it, and found an elaborately written invitation on the left side, asking him to please come to a Christmas party - or rather, an impromptu gathering that happened to coincide with the holiday. The idea of Heero Yuy arranging a Christmas party was unnerving enough. There was a carefully worded P.S. that he wasn't the only one being invited - not that he had expected to be. Not really.
Still, he felt like simply tearing the invitation apart, and was most definitely going to decline, when he noticed the little pocket on the right side - and more importantly, the little piece of paper sticking out from it. The fifth card. He growled in frustration, and shredded the small, wrinkled and offensive piece of paper to lose some of his anger. Tucked behind it in the invitation was a small brass key with a label on it, reading 'guest room'. Duo snorted, and despite his anger he nearly smiled. At least Heero pretended not to have any hidden agendas with the invitation. He stuck his finger into the little cardboard pocket, just in case there was more hidden in there - and it was; he found a folded-over plane ticket scheduled for the next day, going from his nearest airport to Heero's nearest airport. It would seem someone didn't want him to use lack of money as an excuse not to come. Of course, this also meant Heero had found his new address as well - yet, done nothing with it, other than stick it on this letter. With a wry smile, Duo sighed. Heero must have gone into the payroll records again - and suddenly, the Christmas bonus he'd gotten made so much more sense. He put the key in his pocket, tossed the invitation aside, and went for a bag, unsure whether to be pissed off for Heero's meddling, or glad they might finally get a chance to talk; there was more than one thing the two would have to straighten out.
First and foremost, Duo wanted to make it clear he was his own master - especially now that all the cards were used.
The light drizzle of snowflakes did nothing to calm his temper. He was wet, and cold, but the air was just warm enough to leave the snow that hit the ground soggy, squishy and slippery. Courtesy of city traffic, the snow was also brown going on black from the curb and halfway onto the sidewalk. Duo paused to read a house number. Three more, if he recalled the number on the invitation right. He took off a glove and reached inside his outer coat pocket to verify the number. Satisfied he had been right, he continued, barely avoiding the splash effect when a car drove down the street at what had to be a speeding violation. Resisting the urge to shake his fist at the escaping driver, he settled for mumbling a curse or three.
He stopped before the white house which red mailbox stuck on the picket fence gate stated 'Heero Yuy'. Both house and yard was a suburban relic, far more reminiscent of sitcom and family show sound stages than a place people actually lived. The neat, red brick chimney puffed merrily from what looked like the center of the house. Maybe it was all a testimony to from where Heero had borrowed his aesthetic sense. Then again, there were no pink flamingos or little garden gnomes in sight.
Maybe the snow got them all.
Duo sighed, but did not let go of his frown. He had plenty of reasons to be ill-tempered, he felt. He kicked at a small pile-up of snow by the side of the tiled path to the door, which only ended up wetting his boots even more. At least they were waterproof. Mostly.
At the landing, he took another cleansing breath in an attempt to appear a little less sour. His grudge was mainly with Heero; there was no need to upset whoever else he had invited. He rung the doorbell, glanced over at the driveway. Two cars, an anonymous sedan and a all-wheel drive truck, were parked before the garage, and the street was clear. He shrugged it away. Maybe he was early.
The door opened, bathing him in the light from within. Wufei's grim expression faded into a thin, nearly teethed smile immediately. "Maxwell! Good to see you - come in." He stepped aside, and did an overly acted bow and hand gesture to boot. It served its purpose; lightening Duo's frown. He stepped inside, door closing behind him. "Thanks, Wufei - where's Heero?"
Smirk. "Last I saw him, he was in the kitchen, sweating over dinner. Trowa and Catherine are trying to help. Judging from the clutter and smells, we should consider ourselves fortunate if nothing ends up burned."
Duo struggled out of his coat and gloves, flipped the dark blue cap onto the hat rack, and bent down for his boots.
"Duo, where's your luggage? You didn't check in to a hotel, did you? Heero would-"
Duo stood up, done with footwear, mood lowering again. "No, I didn't. And my luggage is probably halfway to Rome by now."
" 'All ways leads to', right? The airline managed to fumble my bag away. Filed a claims at the airport - they're gonna call my cell phone if they find it."
Dim smile. "When. Have some trust, Duo."
Frown. "Hey, they wouldn't have had a chance to lose it in the first place, if the vicious woman at the check-in counter hadn't decided my bag was 'too big' to carry as hand luggage, just because it slumped half an inch outside her precious desk measurement marks. I think I have every right to hate the airline."
Wufei chuckled. "Suit yourself." His eyes briefly fell to take in the soggy state of Duo's pants, and his smile went into obscurity again. "Duo, what happened to-"
Growl. "The claims office held me up so long, there were no taxis left. Had to take a bus into town, but it stopped three blocks away." He shook one pants leg, brushed the rest of the clingy wet snow off. "Looks like this city doesn't bother much with clearing sidewalks or the smaller roads. I got splashed at least four times by passing cars."
With some effort, Wufei covered his smirk up. "I'm sorry, Duo. I'm sure you can borrow some dry clothes from-"
"Thanks, but I'll be fine. It's just water... I think. Should dry up soon enough."
Wufei nodded. "As you wish. Come in, Maxwell - the others would want to see you, too." He hesitated a bit, but added "It's good to see you again, Duo. It's been too long."
Duo patted his friend's shoulder lightly, but didn't reply beyond his faint smile.
"Wufei, who are you talk-" Quatre poked his head out from the open door arch that led to the living room, immediately brightening up, and fast approaching. Duo could see the hug coming from across the room - literally. He hugged back, not even a neuron of his brain considering it awkward. Soon after, his subconscious would happily brood on that fact. Again, Duo would tell it to shut up.
"Duo, I'm so glad you decided to come!"
Duo gave Quatre's back two gentle slaps, then let go. "Thanks, Quatre. Good to see you again, too."
Wufei cut in. "I'll go get Heero. I'm sure he doesn't want to miss greeting one of his honored guests." He vanished with his sly smirk, leaving Duo baffled just long enough not to deliver a rescinding order.
He didn't really want to talk to Heero, not just yet - there was so many things he wanted to say, most of them vitriolic, a very few neutral. "Quatre, just what have Heero been talking to you guys about? Hilde said-"
Quatre smiled warmly, and Duo could see no sign of deception in his face. Maybe Heero hadn't gone about telling the others about their 'date', or the thrice-damned kiss, which still haunted him with mixed emotions attached. Still, Wufei seemed to know more than was good for him. "Nothing special, Duo, you know how secretive he can be. I'm not saying I wasn't surprised to get the invitation, but I'm sure-" He cut himself short as he caught a glance of Duo's pants. "Duo, what-"
Sigh. "Snow. Sidewalk. Cars." He shrugged. "So, I got a little wet. No biggie."
Quatre let loose a mild, questioning frown.
"It'll dry, Quatre. Quit worrying." Duo could almost see the gears in Quatre's head turning, hatching a plan to cajole him over to the fireplace he presumed was in the living room, judging from where the chimney stuck up from. Not feeling up to a fuzz, Duo opted for a pre-emptive strike. "So - am I the last to arrive, or-"
"You're not. We're still three short, I think."
"Oh? How many did Heero invite, anyway?"
Quatre shrugged. "More than could come, I think. The table is set for twelve, and with you, there's nine of us - but I think he got some cancellations. Trowa told me Heero even sent invitations out to Zechs and Lucrezia."
"On Mars? Just what the heck was he thinking? There was no way they could have made it here in time for-"
Good-mannered chuckle. "Oh, he sent out their invitations months in advance. I don't think this was something he threw together at the last minute, Duo. I think he's been planning-"
They heard the sliding door to the kitchen open, and turned to the sound. "Duo!" Heero put on an almost disturbingly warm smile, and rapidly removed an oversized mostly white apron, tossing it aside as he nearly jogged over to Duo.
"Months?!" Duo hissed in a whisper at Quatre, before he was caught in a solid hug. Quatre appeared to struggle containing a cheeky smile, and hastily exited, heading towards the living room.
"I'm so glad you came, Duo. Thank you."
Duo didn't hug back, some of his frustration returning. He waited a few seconds, then pried himself free. Heero caught the hint at the first wiggle, and released him, subtly taking up the space between Duo and the door. "Not like you left me much choice, Heero."
Guilty as charged, Heero looked away, eyes low, smile growing shaky. "I know... I'm sorry, Duo. I wish I didn't have to do that, but- Well, I was sure you'd say no if-"
"Damn right I would have! Heero, last time we were together, you basically forced me to-"
Eyes level, voice firm. "I know. I know what I did, and I'm ashamed of it. I don't know what came into me, but I just - I had to know what kissing you would be like - and those cards of yours-"
"Yeah, those damn cards of mine. It's a miracle you didn't start out by asking me to drop my pants and bend over, the way-"
Heero's cheeks blazed, along with his temper. "Duo!"
Duo put his palms up defensively, took a step back. "Okay, okay, I take that back - still, you exploited those cards. I never intended-"
"I know, Duo. I know. All I can ask, is for you to forgive me." His voice mellowed. "The cards for the date and the kiss, I misused - but the other three, I gave you for your own good, Duo - can't you see that? You shouldn't isolate yourself, not from your friends."
Duo's frown fractured a little, and with barely a growl, he muttered "I suppose..."
For a while, neither spoke; they barely even glanced at one another. Heero seemed to notice Duo's soaked pants legs, but other than a briefly open mouth in surprise and ready to ask, he didn't comment.
Duo finally broke the silence. "How many people did you actually invite to this little get-together? Quatre said-"
Heero's thin smile was as good a sign of relief as any. "I sent out quite a few. Didn't want anyone to feel left out. Some declined. They had other plans, or-"
"You invited Zechs?"
Brief, nervous laugh. "Yes. I thought... Well, I'm not sure just what I thought." He shrugged. "They called me on the vidphone, joked about it, and politely declined. It was... nice to hear their voices again. To know they are doing okay out there." He paused, as if trying to remember something. "Oh - they told me to say 'hi' to everybody from them. So, 'hi.'"
Duo couldn't resist tugging on a grin. Heero's smile didn't help. Laughter can be as infectious as tears. "Thanks, Heero."
"Don't mention it. As for the others I invited, Quatre, Trowa and Wufei all accepted. Catherine, Sally, Une and Mariemeia have also come. Hilde and Sean are on the way, and-"
"Sean? That's her new boyfriend, right?"
Heero flagged a puzzled brow. "You didn't know his name?"
Duo shrugged. "I don't talk all that much with Hilde, and she's always been kinda defensive about her dates. I've heard about this guy, all the 'wonderful' stuff she's been willing to share, but I don't think she mentioned his name before."
Chuckle. "Protecting him from her potentially violent and vindictive ex-boyfriend, maybe?"
Snort, near-sneer. "Hil' and I never really dated, you know that."
"Yes..." he almost whispered, and visibly struggled keeping whatever else he wanted to say within.
Duo did a quick mental calculation. "Hey, that still leaves one. Who-"
The answer came in the form of a knock at the door. "Anybody home?" a hoarse voice called from outside.
Duo recognized the voice instantly, and tore the door open, half-expecting to see the old man standing there in a colorful, but much too thin Hawaiian shirt. At first glance, his expectations were stifled. While the sunglasses were definitely an odd fashion statement in mid-winter, the thick, coarse coat was nothing but sensible. Duo grinned broadly and reached out a hand, both to shake in greeting and to pull the old man inside for a quick hug. "Howard! I can't believe it!"
The old man grinned back, flipped his sunglasses down enough to look just above the rim. "I think that's my line, kid. Damn good to see you again." He pushed the door shut with his foot, shot a glance over at Heero. "You too, Heero."
He nodded. "Howard. Welcome."
Howard brushed some of the sloppy downfall off his coat. "Oh, thank you, thank you. I hope the house is warm?"
Duo chuckled. "Why, planning on streaking?"
Snort. "No, I figure that's more your style, kid." He took of the coat, and revealed a trademark colorful and Pacifically patterned shirt - albeit the cut was a little more formal. The pants were all formal, and combined with the sunglasses, it made for an odd blend. The bashed and broken leather of the brown suitcase at his side didn't help.
Heero did his best to hide the beginnings of a grin, Duo didn't care, but laughed openly. "You've got to be kiddin' me - this is your idea of formal wear, Howard?"
He shrugged, not in the slightest offended. "I don't recall the invitation saying anything about wardrobe..." He tugged at the collar of his shirt. "You don't like this?"
Duo waved him off. "It's fine, Howard, just fine. Not like I expected you to not wear something like that. It's you in a nutshell."
Hoarse chuckle. "Maybe so, maybe so... but I like my colors over your lack of it."
"Hey, black is a perfectly good color!"
"Technically, black isn't a color," Heero cut in. "Neither is white."
Duo huffed. Howard gave another tormented chuckle. "I've been trying to tell him that for years. Give up while you still can, Heero. He won't budge in the defense of his beloved black."
"You got that right!" His mood was lightening again, but that changed soon enough.
"Say, why haven't I heard from you until now, Duo? It's been well over a year since I last spoke to you, and an old man like me can't be that hard for a clever guy like you to lose track of, right? I tried finding you, but-"
And so, Duo embarked on a small guilt trip, doing his best to look away, and contemplate the diversity of footwear stacked in the hallway. Heero cleared his throat, which made Howard pause, glance at Heero long enough to catch a fiery glare, and catch on quickly enough.
"Oh... I'm sorry, Duo."
"Yeah," Heero cut in, tearing his glare away from Howard, and mellowing it away. "Howard - most of the other guests are in the living room - third door on the right. I'm sure the others would be delighted to see you, too. I can put away your suitcase."
Howard plastered a tranquil smile over his concern and nodded in agreement. "Yeah... Duo, we'll talk more later, 'kay?"
Duo's reply was flat, distant. "Sure thing, Howard."
Howard sighed, shrunk a little at the embers in Heero's eyes, and trotted off to the living room.
No sooner was he out of sight before Heero placed his hand on Duo's sunken shoulder. "He didn't mean it like that, Duo, he just wanted-"
"No," Duo stated, "He meant it just like that, and he had every right to. I've been avoiding all of you guys - even him, and he's the closest thing to a father figure or mentor I have left."
Heero remained quiet for a while, not wanting to say anything that'd cause Duo to flee - not that he'd let him, or that he believed Duo would run - not out of the house, at least. Hide, on the other hand... "Duo, could we go somewhere more private to talk? I don't think-"
"Okay." The answer was quick, a clear resignation within it.
Heero nodded, reached to grab the other's hand, but stopped halfway there. Duo didn't seem to react either way. "Follow me, then." He picked up Howard's suitcase and he led the way down the side corridor, past two doors he quickly commented led to a bathroom and his study, respectively, the latter housing two collapsible beds for the occasion. At the third door, he halted. "Still have the key I sent you?"
Duo nodded, and dug into his pants pocket. He found the flat little key and handed it to Heero. He clutched it for a few seconds, before the slight rush of color to his cheeks revealed how his thoughts had processed the recent whereabouts of the slightly warm key. Shaking his head free of the dirty thoughts, Heero stuck the key in the lock, and opened the door.
"This is the guest room." An afterthought, slight smirk, flip of a light switch. "I hope you won't mind sharing with Howard. There are two separate beds here, but-"
Lax snort, shuffling feet. "That's fine. He probably still snores like a sawmill, but I can manage that much."
Tentative chuckle, follow. "He isn't the only one I know that snores..."
Mock insult, stop, turn. "I do not snore!"
Brief laugh, closing door. "Oh, yes, you do. Don't you remember the ice bucket Trowa threw on you the time-"
Tug of a smile, door shut. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Water under the bridge - and all over the sheets. Damn, that water was cold."
They fell silent again. Duo studied the room. It was certainly spartan enough, but he hadn't expected it to be a lively place. How many sleepover guests did Heero have, and how often, anyway? The beds looked almost brand new. There was a small, strange bump in the sheets of the one on the left, though.
Heero put Howard's suitcase by the other bed. "Duo... Do you hate me? For what I put you through, I mean? For-"
Duo sighed. "No... No, I don't hate you."
Heero's shoulders seemed to relax a little. "I'm... I'm sorry for what I did, and-" He shook his head. "No, I'm not sorry, not for trying to help you, not for asking you to date me, and especially not for kissing you. I could have asked instead of demanding, but I knew the answer would have been 'no', I could see that much in those entrancing eyes of yours, and I just - I just couldn't take that. I wanted to go out with you as more than friends so badly, and I hoped I'd be able to show you such a good time you wouldn't mind trying it again, but..." He bit his lip. "And then you made it perfectly clear I had messed everything up, and I panicked. I wanted to grab you, hug you close and never let go - but you would have decked me if I tried, I knew that. And then... I thought of the card, and-" He dared to glance at Duo. "I'm sorry I forced the issue, Duo - but I'm not sorry I did it." Mellow, embarrassed smile. "I'm not sure that makes any sense, but... does love ever make sense?"
Through it all, Duo remained silent, listening, saying nothing, acting and reacting as little as possible. At length, he gave a slight headshake. He refrained from mentioning Heero had proven his own point by that little incoherent ramble alone, if not through his earlier actions.
Heero fixed his eyes on a place slightly to Duo's side, once more avoiding eye contact. He slowly shifted from one foot to the other, then back again, uncertain, waiting for any number of words that never came. Finally, he came to a decision; walked over to Duo's bed, and flipped the covers aside. Duo was about to make a quip, defensive and slightly obscene remark to that, but was silenced as Heero held up a small teddy bear with thick, dark brown fur, clear blue button eyes and a thin, light blue bow tie with some kind of small token attached to its center. Duo stared at the bear, glanced above it to Heero, then back at the bear, with a mixture of surprise, confusion and a touch of resentment. "It's..." Heero began, fixing his blues on the back of the bear's neck. "It's my Christmas gift to you, Duo. I was hoping... I was..." He bit his lip, held the teddy bear up higher, in part to shove it up Duo's face, but more importantly to block his own. "Will you accept him?"
With the critter's fur close enough to tickle the tip of his nose, Duo had a fairly good view of the little button to recognize it as a heart-shaped nametag. Evidently, the bear had been named 'Heero Yuy'. Duo sighed, stifled a groan and tried not to go for a full eye roll. He took the bear, and Heero immediately took two steps back, reverting to shifting his weight from one foot to the other, daring an almost apologetic glance at Duo, barely below his drooping, messy bangs. Those pleading eyes stung, though they were not meant to... probably. Duo took a deep, cleansing breath. This wasn't just a teddy bear, and they both knew that. At least Duo wanted to get even, somehow, so with a strained, lopsided grin, he asked "And just what kind of assurances do I have this bad boy won't pounce me if I keep him tucked away in my bed, hmm?"
Watching Heero choke on his breath was all the sight and sound of success Duo needed. Choke became cough, grin became satisfaction. Then, both mellowed out.
"Fine, fine," Duo began. "I'll accept him - but he's on probation, with a very short leash, got that?"
Smile of relief, nod. Heero lost some of his reserve now, no longer avoiding eye contact. "He... He really wants to be with you, though, and-"
Duo didn't bother suppressing the eye roll. "Heero, would you quit the ghost talk with the bear, and just speak your mind? You're not fooling anyone by playing it safe from behind a middle-man." He looked at the critter in his hands. "Or middle-bear."
Heero's smile grew confident enough for a smirk, and he stepped closer. "As you wish..." he mumbled, face looking slightly menacing now, closer still, enough to push Duo back against the wall without them touching.
Out of space to retreat back to, Duo briefly contemplated shifting to either side, but as he looked to the left, Heero's right arm was suddenly there, braced against the wall, and no sooner did he glance to the left, was Heero's other arm there. He finally noticed he'd clutched the bear closer to his chest, as if it was the last possible defensive barrier between Heero and himself.
Heero leant in, slightly to Duo's side, lips close to ear. "Be mine..." came the weak, wishful whisper, followed by a hasty retreat to gauge reactions.
Scowl to resignation. "You're out of cards, Heero."
The wickedness in Heero's eyes seemed to mellow, as his lips settled for a sigh and a soft smile. "I know. I know, but I was hoping you'd give me a free-be on this one - give me a yes." He leant in closer, half a snail's pace.
"I'll keep coming for you, Duo - unless you push me away." Barely a handbreadth.
Nervousness. "Heero, I don't want-"
"Then reject me. Push me away." Three digits away.
For a second, Duo considered it. He had an instinctive urge to give Heero's groin a most accelerated introduction to his knee. Still, he didn't. The memory of their earlier kiss lingered in his mind; while unasked for, and somewhat unwanted, it hadn't been unpleasant. His eyes closed, slowly.
But it never came. Instead, he felt Heero's cheek press along his own, kiss deflected. "I don't want to take something from you ever again, Duo," he whispered. "Not even this."
He retreated, pushed away from the wall, took two steps back and folded his arms, leaving a slightly baffled Duo leaning against the wall, still clutching the barrier bear.
Heero's eyes grew reflective again. "I don't know what to do with my life, Duo - I'm still trying to figure that bit out. What I do know is that I want to be with you. I've always been... happier... with you around."
Snort into smirk. "You've been gay, you mean."
Chuckle. "That too, I guess." Slight pause. "But I'm not kidding, Duo - you know that, right?"
"I know..." He shook his head, but not the smile, and ended in another sigh. "I don't get you, Heero."
"Then stay. Learn." After some hesitation, he added "Please?"
Though they didn't hurt his cause, it wasn't Heero's pleading eyes that won Duo over. Rather, it was lingering memories, and the vaguely hidden promise of future ones. It was... a new path. Certainly one he hadn't ventured down before. He wouldn't walk alone - and it'd still be his. Duo opened his mouth, and at long last did he dare speak, slight smile forming. "I did accept the bear, didn't I?"
Heero lightened up immediately, but he remained unconvinced, fearful of getting his hopes up on the word of a mere middle-bear. "Are you sure, Duo? You know I won't-"
Duo nodded. Not two seconds later, he was trapped in a fierce hug, Heero's chin resting on his shoulder. Tentatively, Duo returned the embrace. It wasn't the same as with Quatre; this hug mattered more, simply because who it involved, and he was almost fearful of doing something to ruin it. Instead, he tried to relax enough to enjoy it; get used to it.
The teddy bear was squished firmly between them, fulfilling the role as a buffer - but in the slightest of capacities. At the hug's end, the furry critter almost plummeted to the ground, barely caught in time as Duo rapidly reached for it.
Heero had said it in mere admiration of reflex, and hadn't intended the subtext - but Duo heard it anyway, muttering a quiet "We'll see..." to himself. He looked at the bear again. At least this time he had prepared for Heero's potential gift giving, and- "Damn!"
Puzzled alertness. "Is something wrong, Duo?"
"My gift - I bought you one, I swear. It was in my luggage, the one that's probably halfway around the world by now!" He clenched his teeth as well as his free fist. "Damn it!"
Heero began laughing. Not even Duo's dagger-filled glare could dissuade him. Calming down, he shook his head. "Don't worry about that, Duo. Really. You accepted... the teddy bear. That was the best gift I could ever hope for."
Resigned, wary smile. "I'm not giving you any more override cards, that's for sure."
Chuckle. Heero leant closer, nearly as careful as the last time, once more testing their boundaries.
Duo made a quick look up. "You've better not have hid any mistletoe up there somewhere."
Heero shook his head, came closer. "No mistletoe. I'm done using tricks."
Shaky smile. "I can deck you if I want to, you know."
Vague nod, closer. "I know... But I'm still standing..."
Duo kicked away from the wall, done with being the passive one. If this was to happen, damned if he wasn't going to show some spine at some point. Even so, he lost momentum at the approach, and their lips met in but a feathered kiss, barely but a grace.
It was enough.
Heero's smile was warm, all traces of wicked smirks repressed. "Duo... I - I lo-"
Knuckles to door, two startled young men. "Are you in there?" Quatre's voice enquired. Duo suppressed a laugh. Heero treated a frustrated growl the same, but smiled along, shook his head, and let the blush of embarrassment ride.
"What is it, Quatre? We were a bit busy here."
There was silence. "Oh..." came a meek reply. "Uhm, well, when you're done, would you please come join us at the dinner table? Hilde and Sean have arrived, and Trowa and Wufei have almost finished with the cooking, and-"
"Damn, I forgot all about- Quatre, we'll be right out." He turned to Duo, reached out for his free hand, caressed it lightly. "I love you," he whispered, tightening the hold just a little, serene smile plastered across his face.
Duo became distraught, and decidedly uncomfortable. They heard Quatre's faint footsteps proceed down the hallway.
Heero caught on. "You don't have to say it back, Duo. Not unless you feel like it."
Sigh in relief. "Thanks, Heero."
Tentatively, Heero tugged on his hand. "Is this all right?"
Smile growing, eyes shimmering, grasp momentarily firming. "Shall we go?"
Again, Duo gave a resigned nod, and let himself be guided back towards their friends and the undoubtedly grand meal. He held on to the little stuffed animal though, and gave a slight chuckle. "What is it with you and teddy bears, anyway?"
Heero appeared to freeze, if for but a few seconds. Uneasy, and with a faint shimmer to his eyes, he answered "I... Maybe I'll tell you someday - but not today. Is... is that okay?"
Duo nodded. He could live with that, in the same way Heero would have to live waiting for his answer. Not now, Heero. I can't say the words just yet, he contemplated. ...but I have a feeling I will. Soon. Real soon. He grinned, and followed his new path, clutching both Heeros, at last ready to accept both as his own, and perhaps himself as theirs.