On Track And Off Again
The first, timid blanket of snow did indeed not last long - but winter tends to be relentless once it commences, and the first failed assault would be followed by many more. In the end, winter would be victorious and rule - at least until spring evaporated winter's force as drops of water before sunlight.
Knowing this future surety does not diminish the profound feel of winter's cold when you suffer it, though.
Duo disliked winter for one reason above all else; it complicated his commute. When snow, sleet and ice covered the country roads from Saint William's to Stillwater Station, riding a bicycle became tricky at best, fatal at worst. While not that far, walking the distance through the white sludge was tiresome, and it took three times as long to reach the station. The hill down from the Johnson's wasn't nearly as much fun when blanketed in ice and traversed on foot.
More than once, he slipped. Luck prevented him from falling outright - luck, good shoes and fast reflexes.
He and Heero shared one other inconvenience in winter - the inability to telecommute. In Duo's case, this was rather obvious. In Heero's, not so much - but managing the building from afar did not appeal to Heero. It was so much easier to get people to fix things if he was there to breathe down their necks from time to time. He did not consider his voice particularly commanding, so a phone call would not be the same - especially as yelling over the phone tended to lead to disruptions in the phone systems - mostly temporary trouble inadvertently caused by whomever he was quarreling with.
Thus they both made their way through the weather as best they could - and with winter came the inevitable delays. First, the matter of simply reaching their respective stations; Duo on foot, Heero with an increasingly unreliable bus route. Then there was their joint train trip.
While it didn't snow excessively in their area of the world and blizzards were few and far between, the cold weather could still cause trouble for signals, switches and other electrical systems - including the trains themselves. Last winter, one departure from Lexington had been delayed by half an hour because the door to the engineer's cabin had frozen shut.
Overall, though, these fairly small snags didn't lengthen their days much - but certainly enough to take notice of. When you have an in effect twelve-hour day, even a loss of ten minutes is bothersome.
Of course, the season hadn't been a total loss. Heero and Duo had gained something as well. Every week, they set aside time for a joint lunch - more often than not at the Green Oasis, despite Duo's occasional skirmish with the local plant life. For better or worse, it was fast becoming their hang-out - the only place outside of their commute where they got together.
Heero wasn't complaining; that special hour with Duo each week was a good step in the right direction. Unfortunately, they never talked as openly as they'd done with Trowa present - a fact Heero found puzzling. As long as Duo didn't ask, he didn't dare provide answers from himself - mostly because he wasn't sure how Duo would react. It would have been easy, had he managed to come clean with his feelings. More than once he had intended to, even started to, but the words always got stuck in his throat or were garbled into incomprehensiveness as Duo grinned at his first few stutterings.
Duo was having much the same problem - but also a powerful stubborn streak; he was intent on waiting for Heero to confess first - if there was anything there to confess, a fact he had yet to determine for sure.
November came and went, and in early December, Heero concluded he would have to think of a way to speed things up, move them further along - and if he couldn't do that in the open yet, he'd just have to find more excuses to be with Duo. They were certainly friends at this point, and did not friends do things together - even if their lived some distance apart?
Movie night seemed like a good starting point. Stillwater was only half an hour away by car, and even if Duo didn't drive or own a car, there was a bus route going that way and back every few hours.
Of course, there was one problem to this plan. Movie night was always at Quatre's place, and it had been something sacrosanct between the two of them for as long as Heero could remember. No outsider had ever been permitted to join in, and Heero was far from sure he could convince Quatre to ease up on that rule.
He still decided to try.
The movie was coming to a close. While dubbed an action-thriller, its overly predictable plot only allowed fulfilment of the first - and for someone raised on special effects, it thus became no more than 'same old, same old'.
Heero had hesitated in asking for the last ten minutes already. At the first glimpse of credits he took another deep, calming breath. Now or never it was. "Quatre?"
The blond man paused with his hand in the bowl of popcorn. "Hm?"
"I was thinking..." Heero started, hesitated, pushed on as Quatre brought a salty handful back to his mouth. "I'd like to invite Duo over sometime, and I was wondering if-"
Quatre brushed his hands off against each other and gulped down the mouthful prematurely, eager to speak. "Heero, I know you want to spend time with the guy, but Christmas isn't really the right time for that."
Heero's face mirrored the question mark state of his mind. Christmas?
"Remember the first Christmas you spent at our place? How uneasy you felt about it until you saw my entire family present?"
Heero recalled the incident. He had just turned fifteen, and Quatre had invited him over rather than have him spend the weekend alone. Heero had definitely had qualms about it. To him, Christmas had not been the time for family gatherings. Sure, there was an exchange of gifts, courtesy of cultural pressure - but according to what he had learned from his parents, Christmas was for lovers, not family. Curiously enough, it was all reversed again for New Year's Eve. Heero nodded.
"That's what I'm saying. He'll want to be with his family during Christmas." Quatre flashed a teasing smile. "And I don't think you qualify as that - not yet."
Heero smiled faintly, snorted, considered tossing one of the couch cushions at his friend.
"But New Year's Eve might work. Why don't you invite him over then, instead?"
"Uh - Quatre, actually, I was thinking-"
He smiled impishly. "Afraid of being alone with him, is that it? Scared of what it could imply? Or of what you might do?"
Heero let go a soft frown of irritation. "Quatre..."
Quatre met him with a good-natured chuckle. "How about hosting a small party and invite Duo? No commitments, no open hints, no nothing. Perfectly innocent for friends who think they're nothing more than that."
"But we're not-"
Quatre rolled his eyes. "Heero, you and Duo are as close to an item as you can get without advertising the fact. If you're as obvious with him as you are with me, he knows how you feel about him. If you think about it, I'm sure you know how he feels about you too."
"I... just want to make absolutely sure."
"Heero..." Quatre began, resignation and amuse in his voice. "You can never be absolutely sure. That's why they call it 'taking a chance'. Just ask him out on a date already."
Heero looked away, not wanting to take that bait. He wondered briefly if he should try asking about movie night again, but Quatre's idea grew on him. A small New Year's party didn't sound like such a bad idea. Having Duo over as a friend, over at his house... Better yet, it would be easier to casually invite him over again later, even if it would just be the two of them. "...I suppose a party would be a good start..." he mumbled.
"Isn't it?" Quatre cut in. "There's perhaps a tiny problem, though."
"Other than Duo, who would you invite?" There was a sudden sad look in Quatre's eyes. "How many friends do you have, Heero? I mean, how many really good friends? How many you would invite to a party?"
He thought about it for a moment, and could see all too clearly where Quatre was going. In terms of friendship, he had not managed to make many - and he'd held on to even less. With a sullen smile and faint voice, he said "I have you..."
Quatre cocked his head to one side. "Got to be more than the three of us at a party, right?"
"Maybe I'll ask Wufei - he's-"
"A co-worker of yours, right? I met him once when I stopped by you at work, I think. Shoulder-length black ponytail and sharp eyes with a glint of deviousness?"
Heero chuckled. "Sounds like him, alright..." He shrugged. "I should probably invite Relena, too - make it sort of an apology to her. Beyond that, perhaps I'd invite some of Duo's friends. You met Trowa, and there's also a woman at work, Hilde Schbeiker. She's familiar with Relena too."
Quatre waited for a moment in case Heero continued. When he did not, he looked at his hands. "So, seven people altogether."
"Isn't that enough?" Heero asked with concern.
The blond shrugged. "For a small gathering like you're planning to host, I'd say that's above critical mass. So, what are your plans for the party itself, then?"
Heero thought it over for a moment, then slinked forward. "I don't know..." He glanced at the screen where the last of the credits scrolled into black, an idea striking him. "Quatre? Think I could borrow your home cinema set?"
Quatre's smile faded, and he appeared to squirm in his seat. Heero knew he was asking a lot; this room and the artifacts in it were Quatre's main pride and joy. The thought of dismantling a portion of it and lending it even to his step-brother and long-time friend obviously did not sit well with Quatre. "I'm..." he finally began, "I'm not sure that's the proper sort of entertainment for the occasion, but..." He put on a faint smile. "Anything to make your date a success, Heero. Just promise me you'll be careful."
Heero nodded, but muttered "It's not a date..."
He snickered softly. "Resist all you want, Heero. I hope Duo knows better than you. Okay, one or two movies - what else?"
"Dinner?" Heero suggested. "Snacks afterwards? Fireworks, maybe? I don't know..."
Quatre mulled on it for a grand two seconds. "If you'd like, I could help you work on the details."
Heero smiled in relief. "Thanks, Quatre." Another thought hit him. "There's only one caveat to this whole thing..."
"Oh? Like what?"
"What if Duo has already made other plans?"
"There's that," Quatre conceded. "But do you seriously think he would turn you down if you asked him to come?"
Heero bit his lower lip, let it slowly slip out of the grasp his teeth. "I don't know..."
Quatre studied his friend for a moment, then shook his head and turned to the closest DVD shelf again, planning to put on another movie - preferably a carefree comedy. They could use a tension breaker. "Well," he started as he put away the failure of an action-thriller. "I'm sure you'll think of a way to make it an offer Duo can't possibly refuse."
"Maybe," Heero muttered.
At the start of the new movie, he suddenly gave Quatre a glance and smirked. He had just thought of a way that might work.
Knowing an angle of attack doesn't necessarily make it easy to follow through. Quatre had been very helpful in coming up with plans for the last evening of the year, but he had left the matter of inviting the guests entirely in Heero's hands. To Heero's slight frustration, Quatre had not inquired in the matter after movie night. For once, he could have used Quatre's well-meaning encouragements.
It was already Thursday afternoon, and Heero had yet to ask Duo.
Heero paid roughly half his attention to whatever it was Duo was talking about. The rest was focused out the window, observing the passing sparse forest landscape in its thin, new robe of white. Heero adjusted his chin against his palm, exhaled slowly.
"...and you wouldn't believe the snowball fight the twins started yesterday! It's not like I can't hold my own, but..."
He had to say something. Ask right now. There was no harm in asking about something so trivial, was it?
"...soaking wet, I tell you. It's not fun to be overrun by little imps intent on stuffing cold snow down your neck." He laughed softly. "Not that I didn't get even before Father..."
So why was he so nervous? He even had his precious angle to deflect any and all suspicions Duo might have to his motives! All he had to do was ask!
"...and then there were these tiny, pink elephants that came down from their flying saucers to join the brawl, crashlanding on the roof. That kinda spoiled our fun, but..."
The lines of Heero's forehead creased. He had to ask, right now.
Heero jolted at his name being called, his brooding out the window disturbed. "Huh?"
Duo gave a low snicker. "Sheesh, weren't listening to me at all, were you? What's going on in that head of yours to make you that distant?"
His palms felt clammy, and he caught himself gulping. "Nothing..." he started, well aware Duo wouldn't fall for it. Not wanting to face the truth, his gaze drifted first into the table, then to the bunch of shopping bags occupying the seat next to Duo.
Christmas presents, Duo had told him. He'd taken off from work a few hours early to shop. Heero had not inquired about their contents or recipients. "Heero..." Duo started in a low growling tone, and Heero found it hard not to smirk at how similar to Quatre it sounded.
"What are your plans for Christmas?" he asked.
Duo eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then leaned back in his seat. He gave a nod to the shopping bags. "Isn't that obvious? I'll be at the orphanage. I make a terrible Santa, but if Father Maxwell's back stays in shape, I ought to escape that duty this year."
Heero gave half a smirk. "I think you'd make a fine elf."
Duo chuckled. "Like hell... I'd sooner die than dress up like that - But yeah, staying with the extended family. Trowa will probably be there too. Sister Helen always invites him. He usually accepts, too." That much was true. Only twice since he'd fled his foster parents had Trowa not come home for Christmas. On both accounts, he'd taken shelter elsewhere for the night, most likely celebrating Christmas closer to the way it was done before there ever was a Christ. Duo tended to get through the holidays without bickering too loudly with Trowa, as well. It was as if they observed the same ritual calm in Christmas as the soldiers of World War One did; facing each other with well wishes and peace in No Man's Land before heading back to their trenches and resuming firing at one another. He blinked. "What about you?"
Barely perceptible, Heero's left eye twitched. "I... suppose I'll join Quatre and his family again. I have, ever since... Ever since then."
Duo nodded. He knew enough not to ask when and what 'then' was. "You're close, aren't you?"
It wasn't what he had meant to ask. Duo had intended to inquire about Heero's extended family; his uncles and aunts, if he had any, or his grandparents, if they were still alive. Heero seemed so utterly alone.
Heero considered the question, straightened himself up and glanced out the window. "He's always been my best friend - and then he became my step-brother. What do you think?" He almost bit his tongue. He hadn't meant the last bit to sound so bitter. "Yeah, we're close," he concurred, before Duo could answer. "I suppose we're a bit like you and Trowa."
Duo stifled a laugh, but couldn't help sarcasm. "God, I hope not!"
Heero lifted a brow in suspicion.
"Never mind, never mind," Duo hurriedly answered as a distraction. "Bought Quatre a present yet?"
He had not. Other things had preoccupied his mind lately. Now or never; the groundwork had been laid down. "Have you got plans for New Years Eve?"
Duo took in the question, cocked his head to one side, then shrugged. "The same, I suppose. Probably gonna stay with the kids and try to get some cheap fireworks up in the air, if Sister Helen doesn't confiscate it first."
He bit his lip. "Would you consider changing your plans?"
Duo gave him an intent look, a lopsided smirk fast growing. "What, are you suggesting something?"
Heero curled his hands into loose fists, ground the fingers against each other - then caught himself unaware and stopped. "I was - I'm not doing anything, and- Well, if you had time, I thought-"
Duo tried not to laugh. Watching Heero fidget like this was simply too much fun. So, he hadn't been wrong after all. Heero was interested. "Heero?"
Taken aback, he answered with a clever "Huh?"
"Quatre and Trowa," Heero quickly added, damning himself for messing it all up at such blinding speed. "Remember how we talked about matching them up?"
"...oh..." Duo finally mouthed, the picture clearing up a bit. So close, and yet so far. "Yeah, I remember - but if I recall correctly, you were the one that wanted to play matchmaker."
Heero nodded, a bit more confident now. "I accept that - but don't you agree it's an idea worth considering?"
Duo could agree to that much.
"I was thinking of having a small party at my place on New Years Eve. We could invite them and a few others and set them up. No harm would come from trying, right? What do you say?" He struggled forth a smirk as he extended his open palm across the table. "Willing to be my partner in crime?"
Duo looked at Heero's hand, then met his eyes. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Heero nodded firmly.
With a dark snicker, Duo met Heero's hand with his own. "I'd say you've got a deal, pal."
A party, Duo thought. A party. In Heero's home. With Heero. Granted, there would be some interference from others, all depending on Heero's guest list, but still... An excuse to be with Heero was not something he would carelessly toss away. The chance to distract Trowa from hitting on Heero was worth it too.
That didn't stop the feeling of guilt from growing. He knew full well what Trowa was like, and Quatre would be the one to suffer for it.
It wasn't that Trowa was a bad guy, per se. Trowa was simply overly true to his nature. Duo prayed Quatre could accept being a one-nighter. He knew Trowa would make it good while it lasted; he'd seen more than one blissful, star-crossed lover of Trowa's to surmise that much. It was the endings to Trowa's flings that were crude and painful by comparison.
Hilde crossed her arms and rubbed them as she exhaled slowly and watched her breath turn visible against the cold air. At least she kept her teeth from rattling. Not for the first time since they had stepped out of the bus did she wish she had chosen a less fancy and fair bit warmer outfit for the evening.
At least the high heels were in her backpack. The thick boots were barely adequate to keep her toes warm.
"Are you sure we went off at the right stop?"
Duo flashed her a sheepish grin above his thick scarf. "I think so."
"I thought Heero said it was a two-minute walk. We've been walking for close to fifteen."
The glint in her eyes was a deadly one. Duo considered his words carefully. "Okay, maybe I got it wrong..."
"No kidding, Sherlock."
He swallowed another chunk of pride. "And... maybe we stepped off the bus a few stops early..."
"...but it's not like it's my fault, is it? I mean, the bus stops out here don't even have name signs. Hell, I just saw the street name matched, and I thought-"
"I'd say you didn't think much at all. Didn't Heero tell you his house number?"
Again, he put up his sheepish grin as a defence and tightened his grip on the big plastic bags he was carrying. "I think you gave me this lecture five minutes ago."
She gave a soft snort. "I think you could do with a repeat. At what house number did we step off?"
"Uhm... At the first side street, that'd be next to Allen Street fourteen."
Hilde nodded, kicked at a small pile of snow that got in her way. "And which number is Heero's place?"
Duo took a deep breath of chill air, feeling more alive from it, even though his cheeks were starting to feel numb. "Four hundred and thirty eight?" he cautiously offered, then clenched his teeth and winced, expecting another outburst, or at least handful of snow flung in his face in ire.
Instead, she merely shook her head and looked at the nearest building. "Two hundred and eighty four. We've got a way to go yet."
"Yeah..." Duo had to agree. "But there are a lot of side streets, and they all take up numbers too. It might not be that far ahead."
"And what if we turn the next bend and find there aren't any more side streets?"
Duo nibbled at his lip. He knew better than to answer that one. Besides, he had it worse than her - he had to lug not only a small bag on his back, like her, but also two plastic bags. One and a half was filled with assorted pyrotechnics, the last half a set of unmarked bottles, contents intermixed to balance the weight.
He hoped the bottles wouldn't freeze through before they reached Heero's home. While he had heard that champagne was supposed to be served in an ice bucket, he didn't think a frozen lump of champagne slowly thawing in a bucket fell within the acceptable margins of how to serve the beverage.
"We should have asked that woman with the dogs earlier for directions."
"Come on, Hilde," Duo started. He could only eat so much of his pride. There was a lot of it to start with, and the bit harboring directional sense was bitter indeed. "We're on the right street, aren't we? So what if it isn't densely populated? All the houses are still numbered. We'll get there eventually."
She let go of a grunt. "That's definitely the keyword..." She huddled up again at another gust, squinted as powder snow brushed her face. "Can't we call ahead? Maybe Heero could come pick us up."
Duo shook his head. "He doesn't have a car."
Hilde gave him a perplexed look. "Are you serious? He lives out here in suburbia and he doesn't have a car?"
Duo nodded. "Well - actually, I think he's got a car, but he doesn't drive it. I know he's got a driver's license, though."
She gave the dim stars up in the clear and fast darkening sky a glance. "We could still call him and ask for directions." For the first time in a while, she smiled. Duo was immediately concerned and prepared to dodge a snow attack. "Or are you afraid of using that new cell phone of yours? You have used it, right?"
"I answered your call this morning, didn't I?"
"...and any others?"
Duo rolled his eyes. "Fine, so Heero called two days ago, just to check that our plans were still in sync, and to tell me how to get to his place."
She chuckled softly. "You didn't listen too well, I guess... Or did you got so hung up on his voice you didn't pick up his exact words?"
"Hilde..." he growled.
"What, is that your way of saying 'thank you'?"
He started to say one thing, stopped short and shook his head, half grinning. "Fine. Thanks for the cell phone, Hilde."
She cocked her head, smile wide now. "Not with much enthusiasm, but you're welcome. I hope you do better at thanking Heero for his half of your Christmas present."
"I already did when he called. Still can't believe the guy split the costs with you on a cell for me."
Hilde nodded. "I admit, I was a bit surprised myself when he came to see me a week before Christmas. When he asked me if I'd planned a gift for you already..."
"You got me these, didn't you?" She held up her hands, both clad in new mittens. "Yeah, I had an idea - but his was much better. You need to get over your aversion to cell phones, Duo. Everybody has one these days."
"I know," Duo began. "And yes, I know it's practical - I just don't like what it symbolizes. I don't want to feel like I'm chained down by one of these little hell-machines wherever I go."
"But they are useful."
"And this will be unused, for the most part. I'm not planning on making any calls with it."
She snickered. "I guess Heero and I will just have to make sure you get many calls, then."
Duo muttered something low and incomprehensible, raised one of the bags so he could pat his chest. "This damn thing has an 'off' switch, right...?"
A soft snort followed. "Grouch," she accused.
"It was too expensive for a gift," he countered - not for the first time.
"Oh, please - you know as well as I do the cell phones themselves don't cost a damn anymore. Only the subscriptions do - and that reminds me, I'll be making sure you properly register yours so you don't lose your connection. Expect me to nag you about that in the near future - maybe on the phone."
He grunted. They passed another side-street.
"You know... Heero seemed really worried you'd react like that - that the gift was too lavish, even if he gave it to you for practical reasons. We split the costs, but he wanted at least one more in on the 'from' label."
"Oh yeah? Who?"
"Take one guess."
Duo already had. "Trowa, right?"
She nodded. "You got it. He even asked me if I knew how to get in touch with him."
Despite the danger, Duo flashed a grin. "Uh-oh..."
"Right..." Hilde muttered, kicking away another lump of snow in her path.
"Did you tell him?"
"What, to go to hell? No, I kept civil. Told Heero I didn't have the bastard's number."
"But you didn't-"
"Call him a bastard in front of Heero? No. I told you, I was perfectly civil. It's not Heero's fault he doesn't know Trowa as well as we do." She sighed. "I suppose he didn't find a way to reach him in time."
"That's okay," Duo replied. "Trowa got me another gift instead."
"Oh? Something good? Something better than a cell?"
Duo tugged at his lower lip with his teeth again, slowly pulled it free and made a large cloud of frost smoke. "...that remains to be seen," he finally mumbled.
Hilde made a rather quirky expression, curious as a cat now. "Does it have anything to do with Heero?" she probed.
The pink skin tone the cold had offered was supplemented from the inside. Duo hoped one would nullify the other. He couldn't hide his silly grin, though - and he hadn't intended to either. "It might..."
"So, what was it?"
"I'm not telling."
"Oh, yes you are."
He gave a big grin. "I'm not!"
She immediately squatted down and shaped a large globe of snow with her mittens. "Wanna bet?"
Duo raised both his arms and bags, took two steps back. "Hey, it's no fair attacking someone who isn't able to retaliate!"
"Who is attacking?" she said in an oily voice. She stood up, walked closer, snowball in hand. "just consider it... deterrent."
"Not telling the whole truth?"
He dared a chuckle. "Sounds more like blackmail to me."
She cocked her head, flickered her brows. "Whatever it takes."
"Okay, fine," he yielded, resuming their slow pace down Allen Street. "Let's just say that when I opened Trowa's gift, I had to make an emergency lie. Told the kids uncle Trowa got me lots of balloons and a couple tubes of superglue - a weird model kit."
He watched as Hilde processed the image and deducted what the gift was. She gaped for a moment. "You're joking..."
Duo shook his head. "My cover-up didn't fool Sister Helen, of course. She turned a nice shade of red when she realized. I think we both had a long talk with Trowa about it later."
"You're seriously saying Trowa got you-"
"Condoms and lube for Christmas? Oh yeah. Big stash of it, too. Hell, I didn't even know there were that many types of condoms... or lube..."
She burst out laughing.
"Yeah, you can laugh... You didn't have to explain it all away to a former nun when you wanted to keep the gift."
Her brief pause for air was interrupted by another guffaw at that. Duo waited for her to finish. They had past another side-street before then.
"...you still hate him, don't you?"
"Trowa, you mean?"
"After what he put me through? Yeah, I'll be the first to admit I still hold a pretty big grudge to the bastard."
"...are we going to have a problem tonight?" Duo cautiously inquired.
Hilde tilted her head forward, smiled to herself. "I wouldn't have come if I planned on raising hell in his presense, Duo. I know how much Heero means to you - and that's why I wanted to come in the first place."
He presented half a smirk. "Wanted to watch me squirm before the clueless guy I like, huh?"
She shrugged. "Perhaps..." There was a sudden devious glint in her eyes. "Want me to give Heero a few 'hints'?"
Duo shuddered involuntarily. "Please don't. I'm having enough trouble not turning around and fleeing the scene as it is."
Hilde stopped, nodded forward. "See the number across the street?"
With a squint, he did. "Yeah, four hundred fifty four. Guess this is the street Heero's place is at, then."
"And what's that over there?" she asked, voice bitter with sarcasm.
Duo flashed another sheepish grin. "Looks like a bus stop."
She snorted. "At least we know how to get back home now... The buses go to the train station from here too, right?"
Duo nodded. "I should hope so. Have to ask Heero. And if that's too much of a bother, remember Sister Helen did say you were welcome to come back."
She chuckled. "I don't think she meant tonight, Duo. I was just there to drop off the result of the Christmas fundraiser. I honestly didn't think a charity box at the office would make that much money."
"All in good advertising and good placement, I think. Heero has told me a few legends about the fourth floor watercooler. That's where you stuck the box, right? Just like he suggested?"
She nodded softly. "I'll probably put up a new one soon. It was mostly change, but after I exchanged it at the bank, the total donation turned out to be a nice and tidy sum."
"Father Maxwell will put the money to good use, I'm sure of that. They've talked about renovating the arts and crafts room and the smaller play pen for a while. The money you raised should cover that, if we put in a few hours of labor. We can take some pictures when we're done, so we can show the contributors what their money went to."
"That sounds good..."
They fell quiet again. "Four hundred and fourteen," Duo pointed out. "We should keep a lookout for Quatre's place."
"Friend of Heero's," Duo began. "They're neighbors, or close to it. Heero told me we'd recognize his home as being five times too big."
"All the houses here are big," Hilde remarked. "I'm not saying they're all mansions, but the properties seem almost too spacious."
Duo nodded in agreement. "I suppose that's what Heero meant with the area being sparsely populated. Lots of elbow room - and it looks like it's just forest and farm fields beyond these houses."
Hilde grinned mischievously. "Almost makes you feel like home, doesn't it?"
Duo snorted. "I clawed my way out of the urban jungle as a kid, Hilde. You know that."
"I know - but you were raised in the country."
He chuckled. "And I didn't even turn into a hick. Go figure."
"Oh, I don't know..." she began in a teasing tone. "There's still your obsession with large farm machinery."
He didn't take the bait. Instead, something else caught his attention. "Good God... Look at that, Hilde!"
She did. And gaped. "Is - is that-"
"Quatre's place? I don't know, but it sure as hell fits Heero's description. Geez, they have to have merged at least half a dozen plots to fit that mansion in..."
"I count four stories and three double garage doors."
"And that floor room with the big glass windows looks like an indoor pool. A huge pool."
Hilde grabbed his arm. "Duo, introduce me to this Quatre fellow, would you? Uhm, what's he like?"
Duo gave a lopsided smirk and shrugged. "I don't know that much about him. He's about your height, I guess. Blonde hair, blue-green eyes. I've only met him once, but he seemed like a nice guy. Oh, and he's gay."
He felt her grip tighten, and he made sure to catch a glimpse of her gaping mouth expression. After a moment of hesitation, she let go. "Damn it..."
He laughed out loud now. "What, were you going for the guy with the money?"
She gave the mansion another glance, then pushed on. "It was a nice thought. I would have liked an indoor pool."
"So would I," Duo agreed. That earned him a quick look. "Hey, don't get me wrong," he rushed to explain. "Heero is the one I want - with or without a pool."
She smiled. They kept walking.
"This area looks sparsely populated, all things considered," Duo commented as he checked the stars above again. "Hope he's got a big backyard. We need a big launch pad for all of this."
"Going out with a bang, huh? Duo, you're obsessed with explosives, no matter what shape they assume."
He grinned. "I didn't pack C-4."
Hilde rolled her eyes and picked up her pace to walk a few steps ahead of him. It lasted for a couple of houses down the street. She slowed down again. "Think that might be it?"
Duo looked at the house she'd nodded towards; a big, but modest building compared to its neighbours. The second floor was only dimly lit, but the first floor saw lights aplenty. Beyond the small tree dressed up in blinking, colorful lights, the home bore no Christmas decorations - in stark contrast to its overdressed neighbors. The garage fit for two vehicles, but the driveway had not been cleared of snow. A wide path from the mailbox to the front door had been, though. Duo checked the gilded numbers mounted on the wall by the main entrance. "Yep. Four hundred thirty eight. Shall we go?"
She nodded, walking beside him up the path. Another glance to the closed and snowed-in garage doors. "He really doesn't drive, then..."
"Told you," Duo said. A few more steps, and he reached for the doorbell. "Now, don't blow my cover, Hilde. I want this guy - and I want him to want me."
She grinned, but didn't pledge to anything.
Heero lifted a lid to check if the contents within were boiling according to plan. After an additional brief survey of progress in another pot, he left the stove in favor of the part of the counter out of direct view from the living room. There, between the breadbox and a bag of flour, he had hid his cookbook and notes.
While Heero considered himself a fair cook, tonight he was planning to outdo himself - or die trying. Against Quatre's recommendations, he had browsed some of the more obscure and refined cookbooks in the virtual library of his friend's elaborate kitchen. His choice had fallen on a recipe of French origin.
He wasn't quite sure how the hell the name of the main dish was pronounced, but he figured his approximation passed muster. Quatre hadn't laughed at his initial attempt at saying it.
Heero had considered turkey at first, but decided it was a much too common holiday trait. This particular recipe centering around duck had caught his eye. At least he'd been able to bypass the instructions telling how to best butcher and pluck the bird by purchasing his ingredients past that step.
He checked the recipe and started a frown. He had been a grand two minutes late in applying the last sprinkle of pepper. He hoped that detail wouldn't topple the taste of the whole dish.
It wasn't the first slip-up he had made in the highly complex cooking instructions, either. He prayed the result would still satisfy the palate - or at the very least be edible. So much depended on the success of this evening...
He suddenly wished he hadn't let Quatre go so easily. As long as his friend had been there to offer advice and assistance, things had gone far more smoothly.
"Sure you don't need any help?"
Wufei's call from the living room interrupted Heero just as he was reading about when to pour the third helping of secret sauce on the slowly roasting duck. "I can handle it," he replied, if with a slight bitter tone. There was still work to be done, and his guests were almost there.
He pulled on his shirtsleeve to check his wristwatch, gave the dials a brief glare. He knew which bus Duo was supposed to take. He should have been here by now...
"Are you sure?"
"Yes!" he all but barked back, and he could swear he heard a faint snicker.
Wufei couldn't hold back any longer. Heero's obsession was simply too much to behold quietly. Ever since Heero had poured out his heart to him in 'eyes', Wufei's image of his immediate superior had changed rather drastically. Then again, given that even he had gotten on the short guest list only reaffirmed his initial labeling of Heero as a loner.
Granted, he was not much better himself - but he would under no circumstances admit it as freely. Wufei had accepted the invitation quickly enough, though. He was certain of at least one other guest at this gathering, and suspected it would turn out an entertaining evening, even if he was merely brought in as a prop.
He had no delusions about his status versus Heero. They could hardly be called friends. Even colleagues was pushing their established boundaries.
Wufei really couldn't care less either way - but he respected Heero, and if the man planned on expanding his social life, Wufei saw no problem with tagging along. A friend's circle of friends could easily be adopted as one's own, with some careful maneuvering.
The doorbell rang.
Wufei brushed his dark pants legs and made to get up, but no sooner was he standing did Heero rush by him, busy untying the knot of his full-frontal green apron. "I'll get it!" he said, working up a smile again. The discarded apron was put aside on the dresser outside the hallway, and Heero was out of sight.
Wufei fought back another chuckle. The man looked so wound up Wufei wondered what would happen when he was sprung.
"Duo!" he heard Heero call from the hallway, his enthusiasm poorly veiled.
Wufei figured he would know soon enough.
"Hi, Heero - sorry we're late. We got a bit lost."
"You got a bit lost, you mean," Hilde added with a faintly sour tone. She closed the door behind her and tramped her boots clean of snow.
Smiling sheepishly, Duo put down his bags and unbuttoned his coat. "We got off a few stops early."
"I thought I told you-"
"I know," Duo intervened as he bent down to work his thick shoes off and replace them with the ones in his backpack. "Guess I just didn't listen carefully enough to your directions - but we're here now, so all is good, right?"
A warm smile blossomed on Heero's face. "Right..."
Hilde noticed. She observed as Duo met it. She let them linger for a moment, then bumped one high-heeled shoe against Duo's moccasin. "Hm? Oh!" Duo grabbed the nearest plastic bag and pulled out a big, green bottle. "For the host," he said, offering it to Heero.
Heero accepted, rolled it over to look at the label.
"We've got about half a dozen of those. From Hilde, Trowa and me. It's bubbly - not the real stuff, but Trowa said it was the next best thing - at least on our budget."
He gave a firm nod. "I'm sure this will taste perfect. Thank you," he said. It took him half a second to extend his quick gesture of gratitude to the lady also.
Hilde was more amused than insulted.
"Four of them are ready to serve as is - we chilled them on the way. Got two more in our backpacks. Oh - and I brought some fireworks too. You've got a place we can use to launch them, right?"
"The backyard," Heero suggested after a pause to consider. "There's only farmland beyond the fruit trees and the picket fence, and it's all a downward slope."
"Perfect!" Duo agreed.
Heero turned to guide them inside, but hesitated for just a moment. "Is there a reason Trowa ran late? I thought you said he was going to Saint William's with you guys first."
Duo ignored the daggers Hilde glared into his neck. He'd neglected to mention they were supposed to have a third wheel along, suspecting this would happen. Likewise, he'd neglected to mention the specifics on why Trowa would arrive separately. "Oh, he had some urgent errand to attend to, that's all. He wanted it out of the way before he left Lexington." It was the truth, if only part of it. No need to let Heero know Trowa was merely breaking up with his latest fling. That might have soured their agenda for the night. "He called to let you know, right?"
Heero nodded, his subtle smile betraying that there was more to it than a simple yes. "He did. Come, I'll introduce you to a friend of mine."
Wufei heard them talk, and his lips curved a tad at Heero's description of him. Perhaps living a social life was preferable to merely observing them. He'd heard the name and voice of the third guest, as well. He tugged at his light blue collar, adjusted his short tie and hoped his hair was tied back properly. Heero had told him the dress code was 'casual', but compared to the crisp, white shirt the host had chosen, Wufei felt even this get-up was below par.
Wufei was double-checking his cuff links when Heero rounded the corner to the living room. Fortunately, his attention was focused at his guests long enough for Wufei to straighten up and put on a reserved mien for the new arrivals.
"Duo, Hilde - this is Wufei Chang. Wufei, this is Duo Maxwell and Hilde Schbeiker."
Wufei gave Duo's hand one fast, firm shake, but slowed down considerably in greeting Hilde.
Their hands barely touched as Hilde cocked her head to one side, studying his face. "I have the funniest feeling I've seen you somewhere before..."
Wufei clasped her hand lightly, made a soft ghost of a shake. "And I've definitely seen you before, Miss Schbeiker..."
Hilde hesitated faced with the sudden oily tone in Wufei's voice, and she barely resisted the urge to snap her hand back. She stared at him, perplexed.
Heero made a loose fist and deliberately coughed into it. "Hilde, Wufei is the chief of security at the Worthstone Building. I'm sure you've noticed all the security cameras. Wufei is on of the guys peeping in at you all the time."
Wufei turned a flustered look on Heero. "I do not-"
Heero's interjection had broken the somber mood, though. Hilde started a snicker. "So, Mr. Chang - do you like what you see?"
Wufei stopped short of launching a tirade at Heero, slowly turning towards her again. A new smile grew as he calmed down. "Please, call me Wufei - and the answer to your question depends on what I'm watching."
She made a flutter with her eyebrows, took a step closer to brush past him, heading for the couch. "How about... right now....?"
He made a slow nod, his eyes not leaving her. "I think I could grow to appreciate the view..."
The two of them were already sitting down when Duo grabbed Heero's wrist. With a wink and a tug of the arm, he ushered Heero with him into the adjoining kitchen.
They didn't stop until they were around the corner, in the part of the kitchen safe from view from the living room. Heero formed a wry grin, shook his head and hissed a whisper. "Well, they sure seemed to hit it off right away..."
Duo snickered quietly. "I doubt it," he muttered back. "Hilde likes to tease - and your friend looks like he needs to loosen up a bit. I think Hil probably picked up on that." His eyes took in a quick scan of the general clutter of the kitchen. One of the pots at the stove wailed briefly, its neighbors puttering away. "Wow," Duo said, baffled. "You're going all out tonight, aren't you, Heero?" He focused his attention on the host again. "Uh, is there anything I can do to help?"
Barely two steps away from Duo, one thought hit Heero above all others as he watched Duo's lips form those words. Kiss me, Heero felt like screaming. He managed to contain it within his skull. "Uh... Maybe you could cut some more vegetables?" He nodded towards the counter by the window. Two knife blocks and a large chopping block occupied part of it, whole carrots, celery, salad, peppers, unopened tin cans and more taking up the space up towards the stove.
Heero watched as Duo unbuttoned and pulled up the sleeves of his black shirt, then darted into the living room to retrieve his green apron. The two guests there were exchanging quick barbs, and didn't even note Heero's passing through and back again.
"Here," he offered it to Duo. "You take this one, and I'll get a spare."
Duo nodded, accepted. "Thanks." Once properly outfitted, he picked a knife from the blocks and went to work on the carrots.
By the time he'd pushed on to cleaning out the red peppers, he'd sent more than one glance Heero's way, observing his host struggle at the stove. It was with a slight pang Duo suspected the bird in the oven would probably get more of Heero's attention tonight than he would.
"So..." he started as the oven door was closed after yet another check-up. "I had almost thought Trowa would have gotten here before we did."
Heero reached for a kitchen towel, cleared the grease off his fingers. "He might have - but he called again when he reached the train station. He had forgotten which bus to take." Heero flashed a subdued grin. "I asked Quatre to go pick him up."
Duo considered this for a moment, stopped chopping long enough to point the knife at Heero. "Nice touch."
The grin became a smirk. "It fit well with our plan. I think this is going to be fairly easy - we'll try to put them together as often as we can tonight, right?"
"Oh, definitely. Table placements?"
Heero's face fell, and he slammed a fist to the other palm. "Damn, didn't think about that... Sorry, didn't make table signs."
Duo shrugged. "No big deal. We'll just have to choose our own seating carefully, then." He glanced towards the living room. "Uh, is Wufei in on the plan?"
Heero shook his head. "No - not directly. He's a friend, that's all."
Heero started at one answer, but stopped and formed a wan smile instead. "We barely know each other outside work... Quatre has pretty much been my only real friend." Brief avoidance turned to utmost focus. "Until you."
A good shiver went down Duo's spine. Only luck kept him from shortening a finger on the chopping board.
Heero didn't let Duo's slight slip of chop rhythm escape him, and his smile strengthened. Perhaps there was reason to hope.
He probably would have gone on had not the doorbell intervened. Heero started towards the living room, but paused to give a slightly mellow look over his shoulder. Duo grinned back at him, waved him on and returned to the chopping block to finish the job.
With a faint sigh, Heero undid the knot of his new apron, put it aside and headed for the door. In the living room, Wufei was already at his feet, prepared to attend the new arrivals. Heero motioned him to sit back down. It was the duty of the host to greet new guests, after all.
The doorbell rang again as he reached for the handle. Through the thick, sooted glass on the side, he saw the faint shape of a body, and he recognized the color of Quatre's coat. He opened the door. "Welcome back, Quatre." He noticed the other guest, extended his hand in greeting. "Trowa - glad you could come."
Trowa answered him with a grin and a quick handshake. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world..." he muttered.
Heero raised a brow, not sure what Trowa had meant by that. His brief pause was interrupted as Quatre placed a hand on his shoulder and gave it a light push, allowing them to slip on by. Heero shook his head to clear it and closed the door. "So... you didn't have any problems getting here?"
He let go of a quick snicker. "Not after Quatre here came to pick me up. Thanks again, man."
"You're welcome," Quatre replied as he wrestled with his shoes. "How's dinner coming, Heero?"
"Dinner?" A quick intake of air and mild panic followed. "Oh! Uh - excuse me, I have to get back in the kitchen." With that, Heero was off.
Trowa and Quatre watched him take off, shared a quick look and a smile as they finished removing their outer garments. "Is he always this flustered?"
Quatre shook his head. "Only when he's really nervous - and I mean really nervous."
"Oh?" Trowa said with amuse. "What could he possibly have to be worried about?"
With a lift of both brows, Quatre signaled his agreement to Trowa's suspicions. "What, indeed... Come, let's go into the living room."
With a nod, Trowa followed him. Hilde and Wufei met them in the doorway.
"Hello again, Wufei," Quatre started. "Uhm, this is Trowa Barton, a friend of Duo's. Trowa, this is Wufei Chang, he's Heero's colleague."
They shared a swift, rough handshake. "Pleasure," Wufei curtly offered. Trowa nodded in return, still grinning - more so over the guest standing partly behind Wufei than anything else.
"I'm afraid we haven't met," Quatre stated cautiously. "I'm Quatre Winner - I'm a friend of Heero's." He offered his hand to Hilde.
"Hilde Schbeiker," she answered. "I'm Duo's friend." She noticed Quatre was about to introduce him to the last arrival, but intervened. "And I believe we already know each other," she said, unable to keep all of the bitterness and sarcasm out of her voice.
"Indeed we do," Trowa countered, not hiding his amuse. "It's been a while, Hilde."
"Not long enough," she muttered and turned on her heel.
Quatre looked from one to the other, very much curious but too polite to ask directly. In compromise, he shook his head and turned his attention to Wufei. "Where's Duo? Hasn't he shown up yet?"
"He's in the kitchen with Heero."
The blond allowed himself a smile. "Oh - I'll go say hello, then." He hoped Heero would forgive him for interfering, but it was in the best interest of them all. Heero's choice of menu had been grand - perhaps a bit too grand. There had been no talking Heero out of it once he had set his mind to it, though.
In the doorway to the kitchen, Quatre hesitated. He felt the weirdest sensation of tension from the trio behind him - even greater than that of the pair ahead. He suppressed the mild shiver with a quick, deep breath and took a step forward to announce his presense. "Need some help?" he asked Heero. "Oh - and hi, Duo."
Duo toweled off his hands in the green apron. "Hi, Quatre. Nice to see you again. Uh, does that mean Trowa's here too?"
Quatre nodded. "Yeah. He's in the living room with Wufei and Hilde."
Duo's smile wavered just a bit. "Oh - uh, Heero, I'm done with cutting the vegetables. What should I do next?" Seconds passed, but no answer came. "Heero?"
"Hm?" Heero closed the door to the stove again, checked one of the pots. "Oh - I think I can handle it from here."
"Are you sure?"
"It's not right for a guest to help with the cooking," Quatre helpfully intervened, earning himself a brief glare from Heero. "You get out there, Duo. I'm not sure if it's something I said, but Miss Schbeiker seemed a bit upset."
Duo made a swift tug at his lower lip with his teeth. "Shit..." he muttered. Observing two mildly startled faces, he grinned in defense. "Uh, I'd better go and check up. Let me know if there's anything else I can help out with here."
"We will," Quatre stated as they past each other. He waited, made a quick check to see if Duo was out of sight, then leaned in to whisper to Heero. "So, how are things going? Done anything unmentionable yet?"
Heero snorted, unwilling to dignify that question with an answer. Instead he focused on the vegetables Duo had cut, mixing the bits meant for the salad together in a huge bowl, slipping the vegetables intended for steaming and boiling down the counter towards the stove.
Quatre surveyed the chaos of the kitchen, gave a brief nod in satisfaction. "Looks like you've survived without me watching over your shoulder, too."
He grunted. "I'm a better cook than you."
Quatre gave a swift chuckle. "True - but I'm better at management."
Heero shot him a glare out of the corner of his eye. "Prove it."
Quatre leaned in against the counter, raised a brow, still grinning. "Want to trade jobs for a day and find out?"
Taking a pause to consider it, Heero decided against it. It wasn't so much that he was afraid to lose. He was more afraid of the certain chaos the blond would leave in the Worthstone Building for him to clear up afterwards.
Not that he would be likely to leave the Winner family corporation in any better state. Every boss has his own way of running things. Abrupt changes in management could be disastrous for setups that had worked for years.
"You can go back to the living room, Quatre. I'll manage things here alone just fine. The rest should be easy... I think..." He paused to consider. "We set the table, right? Did I forget the lights?"
Quatre gave a soft smile. "Everything is perfect, Heero. The dining room is all set. The projector system is rigged up in the living room for afterwards, and all the snack foods we prepared this morning are in the refrigerator room. The Christmas tree is discretely put aside by the bay window, keeping Fluffy company. You have nothing to be nervous about."
"Who's nervous?" Heero countered, clutching an egg beater.
"I have no idea," Quatre answered sarcastically, before fleeing Heero's glare for the living room.
Duo had reached the group in the middle of small talk full of undertones. Wufei had withdrawn to be a near spectator, for the most part merely observing the barbs Hilde and Trowa exchanged. There was a mild craving for blood in the air, but restraint kept everything civil.
That could change fast enough, Duo thought. He entered the fray. "Hi, Trowa - so, you finally made it here, huh?"
Trowa nodded. "Hilde told me you had some trouble finding the place?"
Duo gave Hilde a look, got a shrug in return. "Well, I wouldn't say that... We got here ahead of you, didn't we?"
Hilde got to her feet. "Excuse me - I think I need to powder my nose," she said, voice thick with spite. She looked about. "Where's..."
Wufei jumped at the opportunity, stood up and offered his arm along with a smirk. "If the lady permits, I shall guide you there."
She raised a brow, but brightened up at Wufei's archaic manner. She accepted. "Lead the way, my good man."
"Indeed," Wufei muttered back, and brought them out in the hallway.
Trowa and Duo kept their mouths shut until the couple was out of eyesight - and hopefully hearing range too. "What was that about?" Trowa started.
Duo merely shook his head. "I have no idea... but I think Hilde found someone new to play with."
He smirked, nodded. "Good for her. She could use a good f-" Duo's fingers pushing Trowa's lips together caught the word in time.
"Don't even say it, Trowa," Duo grumbled before letting go. "She's not like you."
Trowa gave a short grunt. "No kidding..."
Duo frowned, but kept old resentments at bay. "So... Did Quatre show you his house?"
"You mean the mansion?" Trowa grinned. "Oh, yeah... The cute little blond guy has one hell of a nice place." The grin became a wide leer. "And one hell of a nice ass."
Conversely, Duo's frown became a scowl. "Could you please not think of the guy as just another place to stick your-"
Trowa put his palms up in defense, but the leer remained. "I'm not, honest - I'm just playing with you, Duo. Quatre seems a very nice guy." He looked over Duo's shoulder towards the kitchen. He could barely see Quatre's backside. "A very nice guy..."
Duo took a breath, trying to relax as he muttered "Yeah... and rich too..."
Trowa focused on his old friend, leer gone. "Duo, I'm not like that. I won't deny that him probably having more money than I can ever dream of adds a bit to his appeal, but that's not why I like the guy."
He snorted. "Right. You just want his rear in the air and you on top - and a pia colada on the side."
Trowa hesitated for a bit, then gave a lopsided smile. "Something like that."
Duo kept a hard fix on Trowa's eyes, but saw no deception. He sighed as he looked away. "Look - he's Heero's best friend. Just - just don't fuck him raw and take off before he wakes up. Don't treat him like you did Hilde."
Trowa's turn to frown. "Duo, I never did that to her. I know I was a bastard to her, but she set herself up for it - and I never-"
"I know, I know," Duo started, all defensive. "But you don't exactly have a good track record, pal. Stick it where the sun don't shine, fine - just take it easy, okay?"
Trowa's face slowly panned out, and the slight smile returned as he looked towards the kitchen again. Quatre was leaning against the counter, his side facing them. "Don't worry. I think I'm going to take things... nice... and slow... with this guy."
Duo noticed the hungry glint in Trowa's eyes, couldn't help but grunt and grin as he shook his head.
"He showed me his house," Trowa offered.
Duo gave him a baffled look.
He smirked. "Not much of it, and not intentionally - he had to park his car, and we walked through part of the first floor to get to the front door."
Trowa nodded. "Yeah... that gave me some good ideas."
Duo formed half a grin. "I'm sure it did..."
"Play with him in the water first, and then towel him off on one of those pool chairs, and-"
Duo stopped him with a flat palm. "I don't want to hear it, Trowa. Keep your fantasies in your own head, okay?"
"Not fantasies. Plans. Predictions."
Duo started to frown again, but it made no impact on Trowa's confidence.
"Quatre's got money and looks... What's not to like?"
"Golddigger," Duo warned as much as accused.
He chuckled. "A handsome blond with a rear like that? I'd shag him even if he was dirt poor, and you know it. Money has nothing to do with this. It's just a bonus."
Duo shook his head. Yes, he knew. He focused on Trowa's dark green sweatshirt. "You okay in that? Not too hot?"
Trowa followed Duo's look, tugged at one sleeve. "What, this? Yeah, I'm fine." He grinned. "But always hot."
Duo snorted at the barb. "Always the cold-hearted bastard, huh?"
Trowa put his hand on Duo's shoulder, waited until he had his full intention. "Duo. Listen to me. I like Quatre - I really do. I won't use him and throw him away. I think... I think I really want to get to know this guy." He saw Duo about to object, and pressed on. "And it's not because he's loaded." He flashed the grin again. "Rich people are dangerous to do hit and runs with. They've got power, influence and lawyers, and they're not afraid to use them." He laughed. "Not another Hilde, either. Scout's honor." Trowa touched two fingers to his forehead and made a salute.
"It had better not be," Duo muttered. "Remember who had to comfort Hilde that night? It wasn't easy."
Trowa nodded. "I also recall who sought me out to take revenge for her and yell at me." He started a leer. "I remember how we ended up making out on my couch instead."
Duo's glare was lethal, his voice a low, venomous hiss. "If you even mention that regrettable fact to Heero, I'll cut your balls off with tweezers, got that?"
Trowa took it all in stride. "Tweezers, huh? It used to be a pair of pliers."
"Trowa!" Duo growled. He could hear footsteps in the hallway, and a glance over his shoulder ensured Quatre was returning too.
Palms back in defense, Trowa grinned wide. "I got it. A secret between you and me. To the grave and all that." He quickly mimed a zipper across his lips.
Duo turned away groaning.
Quatre hesitated upon seeing Duo's pained expression. "Duo? Is everything okay?"
Duo looked at him, shook his head. "Just peachy..."
Quatre was far from convinced, but his further inquiry was prevented by Trowa stepping in and putting his arm around his shoulders. "So - on the way back, you mentioned something about Heero's green fingers?"
"I - oh." He smiled. "Fluffy."
Quatre nodded slowly, and led the way over to the bay window.
Duo watched them go, even though he was tempted to interrupt. He couldn't help wonder what else Trowa and Quatre had talked about during their trip from the station and back. Yet, this was all part of the plan - and with Trowa on the hunt, it was ridiculously easy. Heero was probably safe.
He wasn't quite so sure about Quatre. How much fight could a guy feeling comfortable in a faintly pink shirt and sleeveless vest possibly put up when cornered? Should he talk to Heero? Warn Quatre? Threaten to harm Trowa again?
In the end, he opted for silence. Trowa had given his word - and despite everything, Duo believed him.
But temptation is a powerful thing. He knew that well enough. He gritted his teeth and glared into the floor until his view of the crooked lines in the smooth wood was cut off by a deep blue backdrop sparkling with tiny silvery stars.
He slowly looked up to face Hilde, having seen quite enough of her psychosis-inducing skirt. "Yeah?"
He afforded a glance over at Wufei, nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine."
She also looked at Wufei, wondered for a moment how to best create a small, private moment with Duo. She need not have worried; Wufei seemed to pick up on the mood and walked over to the couch group, leaving them free to at whisper. He kept a clear line of sight to at least one set of lips, though. "Did Trowa say something?"
Duo shrugged, muttered "Nothing out of the ordinary." He nodded towards the Christmas tree by the bay window. "Tonight's prey."
She looked, made an 'oh' shape with her mouth, all but breathed the word. "Do you disapprove?"
Duo shook his head. "Heero and I were kinda planning on hooking them up," he whispered back. "But I don't think we have to make much effort."
She nodded in agreement.
Duo put on a smirk, looked over her shoulder. "How about you? Should we mark our calendars for the wedding?"
She made a most unladylike grunt, punched his shoulder. "I'll kill you if you tell him that," she hissed through a smile.
He was about to retort when there came a loud expletive from the kitchen, soon followed by a series somewhat more mellow - if only in volume. Duo reached the kitchen first. "Heero, is everything-"
Heero was at the sink, his right hand under flowing water, his teeth gritted.
"Shit," Duo said as the rest of the party gathered up behind him. "Did you burn yourself?"
"What do you think?" Heero growled back, keeping further colorful vocabulary at bay. "I was checking on the duck and grazed the pan. It's not much, but it still hurts like hell."
Quatre pushed past Duo, got one of the kitchen stools and headed for the refrigerator. Once there, he put the stool down and climbed up, reaching for the cabinet above the fridge. "Duo," he called, digging around inside.
Duo came over, received a plastic box of medical supplies. He put it on the counter and surveyed the contents. He'd located bandaids, gauze wrap and antiseptic by the time Quatre stepped down, a bottle of ointment for burns in his hand.
The blond made headway to the sink. "Shut the water off and let me have a look, Heero."
Heero grudgingly obeyed. The flush of pain at being out of the icy water was hard to deny. Quatre twisting his hand to get a better look didn't help.
"Only a light burn. The skin isn't damaged. Heero, I'll put some of this on. I don't think the skin will blister, but if you want we can use some bandaids and-"
"The ointment will suffice," he growled. He always felt like a baby when Quatre's mothering streak reared its ugly head.
Quatre met his eyes for a moment, but did not raise any objection.
As the blond applied the clear gel, Heero clenched his teeth, wishing his friend did not show his disagreement through rough motions.
All in all, he was feeling greatly embarrassed. Accidents happened, sure - but why did it have to happen tonight? He tentatively glanced in Duo's direction, wondering if his prospective boyfriend thought him childish, raising a fuss over something so trivial. He was a bit surprised to notice Duo was more focused on a spot behind him.
"Uh..." Duo muttered. "Is that... supposed to do that?"
Heero wrested his hand free of Quatre's care and turned around.
And beheld the chaos unfolding on the stove. All three pots at the top were fast developing lives of their own, their lids raising under pressure, thick liquid already overflowing from two of them. The dark smoke raising from the oven outlet by the wall didn't seem promising either.
He would have rushed over had not his guests gotten there first. Hilde went for the pair of potholders next to the stove while Wufei flipped all the dials back to zero. Judging from the number of clicks, Heero realized they were not where he'd left them. He must have bumped them when he jolted back at the burn. He cursed.
Trowa grabbed the cutting board and put it next to the stove, allowing Hilde to move the pots off the heat, making a trail of sauce with the first, a matching path of hot soup at the second relocation. The vegetable pot she merely moved to the unused fourth heating plate.
Heero didn't even have to check to know the contents within that one were boiled so soft they'd be mush.
The killing blow came as Hilde opened the door to the oven, smoke billowing out, and once it cleared revealed how the duck had crisped over a little too nicely, a once white creature now thoroughly black.
He looked around the kitchen; at the mess everywhere, at the ruined remains of the planned meal, at the mellow faces of his guests.
He could barely contain the string of curses threatening to come out his mouth in his sheer frustration at the moment. He thought of ways to salvage the situation, but came up blank. Excepting the salad intended as a starter, it was clear enough the main course was ruined. The remaining soup might be edible, but he suspected much of it was burned stuck to the pot.
For a moment, he dared ask himself if things could get any worse.
Such is a dangerous question, as it is often answered.
Quatre was with him, judging from the soft pats of comfort at his back. "I'm sorry, Heero," he spoke solemnly.
Heero hid his face in his palms for a moment, rubbed them down his cheeks, suppressed the urge to scream or cry.
Hilde had grabbed a big fork and started poking the surface of the duck, chipping off bits of charcoal. Trowa had removed the lid of the gravy and taken a whiff, but by the looks of things it smelled as good as it looked. Wufei reached for the roll of paper towels and started mopping up the worst mess.
None of that affected him as much as catching a glimpse of Duo crossing the room for the wall-mounted phone by the archway to the living room. Indeed, it could get worse. Duo was calling for a cab. Duo was going to leave. Everything had been a total failure. Everything-
Receiver in hand, Duo turned around and gave them all a somber grin. "So... who's with me in splitting the costs on a couple of pizzas? Nothing with anchovies, please."
Heero gaped. The rest of the group immediately called out their support for the suggestion, however, eager to enter an argument with Duo on what condiments to go for.
Quatre leaned in against Heero's ear, hand still on his shoulder. "Looks like he's not through with you yet," he whispered in Heero's ear.
Heero glared at his friend as the man walked over to join the fray of ordering.
As Quatre sailed up next to Trowa, Heero allowed himself half a smirk. Quatre was right, the night wasn't over yet. He had a mission - as well as a second agenda.
The mistletoe at the crossbar in the living room had been put there out of hope. With luck, nobody had noticed it yet. He had gone through great lengths to make it seem inconspicuous, tucked between some festoons and other Christmas decorations.
If he could maneuver Duo into position, and if he took advantage... How would Duo react?
So much depended on that - but when the thought had struck him that morning, it seemed the fastest way to find out what Duo really felt about him. If they were just friends, they could shrug it off as a stunt - a prank brought on by availability and a bit too much to drink. If they were more than that...
He looked at the group again, all bickering with Duo on what to order, tastes varying more than a mere couple of pizzas could safely cover. Heero smiled, shook his head. Duo would never cease to amaze him, he was certain of that much.
He took a hesitant step forward, intent on convincing his guests of the virtues of pepperoni.
Candlelight dinner, a group of close friends and near total strangers, cheap bubbly in thin, tall crystal glasses, chunks of pizza with a helping of mixed salad on fine china, cut apart with silverware.
Heero could safely say he'd never attended a dinner party quite like it. The same was true for most of his guests.
It didn't matter. What did was the light mood. Forgotten were the duck and its French entourage, safely disposed of. Forgotten were the pile of dishes by the sink the overloaded dishwasher couldn't swallow. Forgotten was the quick quarrel with the pizza delivery boy over his tardiness. Quatre had calmed them down and sent the poor kid away with a fair tip. As he later remarked, anyone working on New Year's Eve deserved no less.
Quatre had gained a mutter of embarrassed agreement.
Smalltalk followed. The relaxed banter had eased many of Heero's concerns. His guests were enjoying themselves despite everything. Even more importantly, Duo appeared to have a good time.
Nothing could beat that.
On second thought, Heero could think of one or two things. The tiny chunk of green shrubbery hidden high in the living room came to mind.
There had been a slight intermezzo to the good times when Hilde had asked about Relena. Heero had indeed invited her, thinking her a good choice for a filler guest. She could hold a conversation with anyone, she already knew Hilde and Wufei, and he had thought she'd jump at the invitation like no other.
He couldn't have been more wrong. A few years earlier, perhaps she would have - but this time, she had merely given him a sad look and told him she had unfortunately already made plans with her family. She could not escape the ball her father was arranging now without besmirching her father's prestige.
Heero felt bad about the whole thing. Relena not being available had left Hilde the only one in a group of guys. It didn't seem fair - not even when they had strayed into the topic of dirty jokes and she showed she knew more of them than even Trowa.
Perhaps it was just as well Relena hadn't come.
Quatre had remarked that his parents were also at the Peacecraft gathering that night, as well as most of his elder sisters.
Duo didn't miss the glint in Trowa's eyes at this information, sensing Trowa fancied a midnight swim. Duo had attempted to kick Trowa under the table, but ended up brushing against Wufei's leg instead.
Oddly enough, Wufei's curious look turned to Hilde, not Duo. The latter was just as glad for this. If he was to rub his feet against someone, it was not Wufei.
The guy beside him, struggling to get a chunk of cheese pizza into his mouth without slipping melting mozzarella all over the white tablecloth, was another matter entirely. He had flashed Heero a grin and handed him a napkin. He needed it.
All in all, the meal was a success, as were the table placements - Heero, Duo and Hilde on one side, Quatre, Trowa and Wufei on the other. In the end, Heero was glad he and Duo hadn't had to pull any stunts in order to put Quatre and Trowa together. He hoped this evening would leave his best friend with a badly needed boyfriend.
Heero silently added his own hopes of ending up with something similar.
They had moved back to the living room afterwards, piling up in the couch group, prepared to take full advantage of the home cinema system Heero had borrowed from Quatre for the evening. He left the blond at the controls, though. He didn't dare risk do it himself, in case any harm came to the system from it. Heero had never forgotten the one time he had accidentally tripped in some of the wires and tipped over a speaker, resulting in it forever giving a garbled sound during use. He had never forgotten Quatre's anger from back then, either. There were only a handful of times he'd seen Quatre truly upset - and based on that experience, he hoped to never see it again, if he could help it.
Sitting so close to Duo, the two of them and Hilde sharing the bigger couch, almost made Heero forget the throbbing pain at the side of his palm. This was especially true whenever Duo's thigh brushed up against his own. Heero struggled not to create too many such accidents, lest it became too conspicuous.
In the smaller couch, Trowa had casually snaked his arm along the back of the couch behind Quatre, merely waiting for the right moment to strike the far shoulder of his unsuspecting victim.
Wufei's sole chair had been pushed close to the Hilde's end of the big couch.
Was any of them really paying attention to the action comedy playing on the big canvas? Heero didn't know. He didn't really care either.
Halfway through the first movie, Quatre had helped him fetch refreshments and snacks from the refrigeration room, and despite being stuffed on pizza, they all found room for it.
The second movie was equally bland, and a quiet conversation along with the crunching of popcorn and chips overshadowed much of the dialogue. Granted, the old action movie didn't have that much of it to begin with. Explosions and special effects galore, on the other hand, were plentiful.
It was during one of the more unexpected blasts on the canvas Quatre was startled out of a quick argument with Heero over whether the gunslinging scene prior was within the scope of reality or not. Trowa chose that moment to slip his arm down, landing his palm on Quatre's shoulder.
The blond gave the hand a baffled look, turned to face Trowa, met a smile. It took but seconds for him to respond in kind. Trowa's grip on his shoulder tightened by a fraction, coaxing Quatre closer. There was little resistance.
Duo glared at the couple, more out of envy than out of anger. How come even the oldest tricks in the book seemed to work so well for Trowa, when he himself couldn't even-
Then the bastard gave him a quick wink. Duo frowned. If that was a dare, Trowa was on. Duo yawned for effect, stretched his arms and interlocked his fingers, cracking his knuckles. He was about to casually rest his arm along the couch behind Heero, and he was halfway there by the time he caught glimpse of Heero skeptically looking at the incoming arm.
An instant case of cold feet followed. In a desperate save, he redirected his arms so his hands ended in his lap. They had severe trouble coming to rest though, especially with Heero still eyeing him with curiosity.
Other than Heero, Trowa had been the only one to notice. He started a low snicker, but cut it short as Duo glared hard at him.
The movie ended in a blaze of glory, the heroine vanquishing the ultimate foe and saving the world. The small audience couldn't care less; the fact the popcorn bowl was empty was of greater concern.
Quatre checked his wristwatch. "Well, guys - fifteen minutes until midnight." He turned to Heero. "I thought I saw some fireworks in the hallway. Were you planning to-"
"Those would be mine," Duo answered with a grin. "And if you're asking if I plan to light 'em up - hell yes!"
There were subdued chuckles. "We'd better get ready, then," Heero suggested.
Quatre tentatively slipped Trowa's hand off his shoulder and stood up. "Trowa and I'll go get some empty bottles from the kitchen. Those will do, right?"
Duo nodded. "Yeah, sure." He decided not to mention the couple of skyrockets he had bought as well. The bottle rockets should have no trouble with the makeshift launchpads of thick dark green glass, but those... He shrugged the thought away. He would think of something. They were going up tonight, though - that much he was determined to make happen.
Quatre gave Trowa a glance and started walking. Trowa got to his feet and followed without another word, and they were out of sight.
Wufei slapped his knees and got up. "Then I'll get the fireworks, if you don't mind?"
Duo shook his head. "The plastic bags tucked next to the shoe rack. You can't miss them. Oh, and there's some sparklers and a couple of lighters in the blue backpack."
Wufei gave a curt nod and went to look.
"Want to inspect the backyard?"
Duo turned to Heero, flashed a grin. "Yeah, sure. I'll go get my shoes, and-"
Heero shook his head, smiled, put his knuckles to the couch edge and boosted himself up. "You can see just fine from the bay window. We don't have to go out just yet."
Heero was relieved to note Duo followed him across the room. Only a little further. Only a little further, and he'd make an abrupt stop, turn around to face Duo... Only a few more steps, and they'd be right under the mistletoe. It seemed a perfect plan.
Heero got as far as stopping, only to have Duo run ahead before he could stop him.
"Hey, is this Fluffy?" Duo asked.
With great restraint, Heero refrained from cursing aloud. "Yes..." he muttered as he walked over to Duo. That plant was not getting any water tonight, that much was certain.
In the kitchen, Trowa and Quatre had no trouble finding the empty bottles. Heero had stacked them quite nicely on the counter as they drank them up. They grabbed some of the clear plastic bottles left from the soft drinks too. "Trowa?" Quatre started.
He pursed his lips, hesitating. "I don't know if you've noticed, but... I think we've been set up."
Trowa started a low chuckle. "No kidding..." He grinned. "Do you mind?"
Quatre smiled sheepishly. "I didn't say that..." He blew a breath into a wayward lock down his forehead. "I just... thought... maybe we should get even."
Trowa raised a brow, his voice laden with amuse. "Oh?"
"Is Duo... Uhm... Is Duo..."
"Single?" Trowa offered.
His smile wavered. "Well, that too, but..."
"Is he gay?"
Quatre gave a rapid series of nods, then looked away, embarrassed at having asked.
"About as much as Heero."
Quatre all but gawked at Trowa. "He is?" He managed to smile again. "Well, that's great! Uh, I mean-"
His grin was full of confidence. "I know what you mean, Quatre. And sure - I'm with you. In fact, I think I have an idea..."
Wufei hadn't offered to play the errand boy merely out of courtesy. He also wanted a first-hand look at what Duo had brought, just in case. When a demolitions expert brought fireworks, one could never be too careful. A small bang for such a man might be a catastrophe waiting to happen for another.
While his line of work left him mostly reactive, it didn't hurt to be proactive either.
And he wanted to secure one of the larger rockets for himself, if possible.
"So... That is the much mentioned Fluffy the Fourth, huh...?"
"Yeah..." Heero breathed out, unwilling to forgive the unwitting spot of green in the large, white window. Perhaps it would go out along with its seasonal cousin.
"Looks kinda small here, next to the Christmas tree..." Duo studied the plant, brought a finger to bear, met one of the needles. He turned his head to grin at Heero. "Is he in a prickly mood today?"
Heero snorted, bumped his elbow to Duo's. It wasn't until after the deed was done he grew a bit self-conscious about it. He cleared his throat. "Anyway - that's the patio to the right. The hillside starts right where it ends. See?"
Duo nodded. "Yeah. Seems perfect. You said there was only fields further down, right?"
"After the fruit trees, yes."
"You know, I don't think you ever told me you had an orchard..."
He grunted. "It's hardly that. A dozen or so trees. One apple, two cherry, two plum... That sort of stuff."
Duo shrugged. "Sounds like an orchard to me. We had an apple tree at Saint William's, but we had to chop it down two years ago. It was old, and there was rot in it. Hadn't born fruit for five years, but it was great for climbing in."
His laugh was brief. "Yeah, sure - when I was younger. Kinda got other things to conquer when I hit High School."
"Oh?" Heero ventured, curious - but a bit afraid to ask.
"Yeah," Duo started, turning around to lean into the empty bay window and folding his arms. "I discovered that-"
Whatever else he planned to say caught in his throat. He had looked up at first and caught a glimpse of the little bush of mistletoe hiding amidst Christmas decorations. That alone wouldn't have troubled him, merely given him ideas. However, in the midst of the room, Quatre and Hilde were talking, and were ever so slowly approaching the center.
And over by the wall, he saw Trowa ready to strike. At first, Duo suspected the blond was the target - but a quick check revealed Quatre wasn't directly under the mistletoe.
Trowa eyed the mistletoe, then Hilde's position. He smirked towards Duo and pushed away from the wall.
Duo gaped. This was not happening. This was not happening. Trowa wouldn't be so stupid that he would-
Another second, two more steps. He would, unless-
Duo ran. He sprinted across the room, intercepting Hilde just before Trowa could have. He grabbed her arm, spun her around and kissed her. The surprise of Duo's first action was compounded many times over by the second, and she stumbled backwards under the assault. Forcefully, she pushed him away. "Duo, are you out of your mind?!"
He quickly pointed up, glared back at her. "Didn't you see the mistletoe?" he hissed back, shooting a glare at Trowa. "A second longer, and he would have-"
Seconds earlier, Heero had gaped at the kiss. He had felt his spirits sink, his heart crumble. Were they more than friends after all? But Duo had said- he shook his head clear, took quick steps forward, intent on finding out what was going on here. And why was Quatre smiling so strangely?
Hilde and Duo were still arguing, she fast pushing him back towards the nearest wall under verbal assault alone.
It was with a sense of ill foreboding Duo followed Trowa's gaze. Heero was coming over.
And he was about to cross ground zero in the process.
Trowa took a step forward.
That settled it. Duo ran past Hilde, and in the last possible second all but threw himself at Heero, kissing him soundly.
Heero had gotten as far as "Duo, what-" when his deepest desire of the last several months latched onto his lips. That instant, all thoughts left him. All emotions kept pent up were loosened; the dam had burst, drowning out everything but the two of them, the kiss they were sharing. He forgot how to breathe, couldn't move his arms, couldn't move at all - but what did that matter? Duo was kissing him! Duo was-
He'd finally gathered enough wits to attempt reciprocation when it ended, preempting him as much. All he could do, was stare at Duo with wide-eyed bafflement and warm cheeks.
Glancing over Duo's shoulder, he could see he wasn't the only one. Hilde gaped at the two of them, and Wufei stood frozen by the hallway.
Snickers far growing louder turned his attention at Trowa and Quatre. The couple had lost much restraint of their laughter.
Heero focused on Duo again, saw Duo's face flush madly, his eyes looking somewhere to the side.
"Way to tell him how you really feel about him, Duo," Trowa said between guffaws.
Duo immediately scowled at him - or at least, his feet. "Shut the fuck up, Trowa!" He put his face in his hands. "Fuck..." he muttered.
Tentatively, Heero touched Duo's arm. "...is it true? Is... this... how you feel about me?"
All over, Duo thought. It's all over. His voice sullen, he didn't want to face Heero. "What do you think, hotshot?"
Heero pursed his lips to speak, but thought better of it. Instead, he slipped his hand down to Duo's wrist, took a soft hold and pulled Duo a few steps back, bringing them out from under the mistletoe. Then, he leaned in, tilted his head so he could brush his lips against Duo's again.
There wasn't more to it, as Duo balked back at the light kiss, observing Heero with a mix of scepticism and surprise.
"If I'm lucky," Heero said, "I'm thinking exactly the same as you..." He glanced up at the clear ceiling, waited for Duo to do the same.
He did. "S-seriously?"
Heero nodded. "You have no idea..."
The tension in the room would not abate, especially with how the couple at the center of things were locked eye to eye. Duo finally mustered a silly grin. "Uh - alrighty, then..."
Smiling insecurely, Heero reciprocated with a slow, shaky "Yeah..."
Quatre decided to intervene. He clapped his hands together to catch their attention. "Uh, guys? It's almost midnight. The backyard? Fireworks?"
For a moment, nobody answered. Wufei came to his rescue, deadpanned "I think we've seen quite a show of fireworks already..."
Hilde glanced at him and started snickering. Quatre and Trowa joined in. Even Duo, face still a fair shade of tomato, started chuckling. That was all it took for Heero. Duo raised his arms in the air. "Right! Fireworks! Where's my stash?"
Wufei stepped over, handed Duo the plastic bags and one of the lighters. "Thanks, man - Trowa, bottles?"
Trowa nodded towards the side door to the backyard patio. A series of bottles were lined up there. "Great - let's go! I think-"
From outside, the first screams of rockets could be heard, and there was a flash in the distant night sky. Duo grinned at Heero, grabbed Heero's wrist with his free hand, cautiously slipped it down for a more intimate grasp.
Heero smiled cautiously, returned Duo's grip. He nodded. "Lead the way."
And he did.
"Duo, I don't mean to question your expertise, but... is this safe?"
Duo snorted at Quatre's doubts. "Perfectly. The three we've launched so far haven't had issues, have they?"
"Yes, but those were bottle rockets! That one's so big!"
Trowa stepped up and put his arm around Quatre's shoulder. "You have issues with size?"
Quatre wrinkled his nose at Trowa, but smiled nevertheless. "Not really," he muttered.
"Go ahead, Duo," Trowa dared. "I want to see if you can get that thing to fly." He glanced over at Hilde. "I think we'd better stand back anyway, though."
"You know, for once I actually agree with you," Hilde said, clutching the lit sparkler in her hand. She had used it in a mock duel with Wufei earlier, right up until Duo had said something about lightsabers. It was reaching the end of its life now, though. Wufei offered her another. "Thanks," she said with a smile.
He nodded. "You're welcome."
After she had used her dying sparkler to light her next, Wufei returned with a new one for himself. "May I have a light?"
She nodded, touched her bright tip to his, watching it flare up as it ignited.
"Okay, stand clear, everybody..." Duo cautioned as he flicked the lighter under the skyrocket's fuse. At the hiss of the fire, he took quick steps back. The rocket sputtered for a moment, then took off into the air, screaming all the way until its death in a spectacular rain of chain-reacting fire.
"Wow..." Duo muttered.
A hand took hold of his, held it tight. "My thoughts exactly..."
Duo flashed Heero a grin, breathed out a cloud of frostsmoke. "This," he briefly clasped down on Heero's hand. "This is true, right? I'm not dreaming? There won't be a bunch of mice and a pumpkin when we hit midnight?"
Heero laughed, so carefree and relieved as he could never recall. "It's real. I love you, Duo. I think I've loved you since the first time I ever saw you."
The grin turned somewhat lopsided as Duo flagged a brow. "That's putting it on a bit thick, don't you think?"
"I think it's true, Duo," Quatre shot in. "You wouldn't believe the way you've affected Heero these last few months. He-"
Under Heero's fierce glare, Quatre found further words difficult to come by.
"Oh, really...?" Duo said, holding a snicker at bay.
"As if you were any better," Trowa helpfully added.
Heero broke his glare to glance at Trowa, then Duo.
"Guilty as charged," Duo said, grin going sheepish.
The smile returned. They leaned closer, closer... lips but a hairbreadth apart, Quatre's sudden, sharp cry interrupted. "What!?" Heero growled, furious - only to note how the rest of the gang was fast fleeing the scene, ducking behind the nearest corner. Quatre pointed madly at one of the bottles, a lit bottle rocket ready for take-off-
And the bottle fallen over, aimed at an open, half-full bag of fireworks.
Duo reacted faster than Heero. "Down!" he screamed, tackling Heero to the ground, pushing him back down into the snow. Their shared breaths as the world exploded in sound, light and heat behind them, bits of plastic going every which way, the few remaining rockets wailing into the air or skidding the snow, some exploding right on the ground, the two roman candles gushing their bright contents out over the hill crest, a ground spinner flailing past them.
It lasted minutes, but felt like eternity.
As their local surroundings seemed to quiet down again, Heero tried to calm his breath, wondering if his eyes were as wide as Duo's, if his heart pumped as fast as his own. "D-damage report," he croaked out, eyes still locked on Duo's, his arms spread out, deep in the snow. The scent of gunpowder was thick in the air.
Wufei answered the call, peeking out from around the corner of the house. "Six people scared shitless, half a bag of fireworks gone..." He studied the wall of the house. "No fire, but you might have to repaint this wall next summer, or at least hose it down. Oh, and you've got some soot on your cheek."
Heero started laughing, growing into madness. Being alive had never felt better. He reached up and grabbed Duo in a bear hug, pulled him close and kissed his cheek.
Duo laughed with him, returned the embrace as best he could.
Glad to be alive, glad to be together, glad to be so close... Heero shifted his attention a bit, making sure their lips met thoroughly. Tentatively, he touched his tongue to Duo's lips, got answered in kind. He thought he heard someone give a whoop, cheering them on, but he didn't bother to check; he had better things to focus on.
Duo gave pause first. "You know..." brush of a kiss, "I could grow to like..." his lips touched the tip of Heero's nose, "To have you pinned down under me..." He tapped a finger to Heero's nose.
Heero snorted, smirked. "Two can play that game," he dared as he grabbed a hold of Duo's jacket and started a rocking motion.
"Hey, what- Heero, no-" No avail; they tipped to one side and rolled over, Duo looking up at Heero. He didn't like the thought of his hair shoved into the snow; it could take forever to dry up.
Heero crashed his lips against Duo's.
Worries of hair left Duo's mind. He dug a set of fingers into the hair at the back of Heero's head, clawed at the small of his back with the other. Duo didn't even notice the soft laughter emanating nearby. They were hardly noticeable given the amounts of fireworks heading skywards all around the neighborhood, lighting up the sky in colorful flashes.
"You're missing it," Duo whispered at a brief break.
Heero shook his head. "I don't think so at all." He leaned down again.
"Ten," they heard someone shout in the distance, most likely the party of one of the neighbors. "Nine."
"Out with the old, in with the new, huh..." Quatre stated, looking up at the fire in the sky, the passion of the ground feeling a bit too private to behold any longer.
"Yes..." Trowa hissed beside him, his half-embrace growing firmer. He looked at Quatre with a devilish glint in his eye. If Quatre noticed, he gave no sign of caring.
Trowa shifted his footing, touched a finger to Quatre's cheek, slipped it down to his chin.
Quatre hesitated, then gave a soft nod, parted his lips just barely until Trowa's met his; a kiss so faint it was hardly more than a brush of lips.
Wufei glanced at his side, saw the second couple engaged in liplock, wrinkled his nose, but kept his smirk. He looked at the makeshift launchpad. The large skyrocket he had set aside for himself was miraculously left intact. He looked at the sparkler in his hand, rushed over, touched the sparks to the fuse and stepped back.
Under the great cheer from three houses down, the rocket climbed towards the sky to bloom in a fiery death of glory, showering them with spectacular colored light high above, as most of its brethren did.
Wufei watched the rocket go, glanced about him, saw that other than Hilde, he was the only one to behold the show in the sky. He shook his head, and it took a while for him to notice the hiss of a sparkler coming up behind him. Hilde stopped beside him just as his own sparkler went out. He hastily discarded it in the snow, sighing. "Well, that's it for this year, I guess."
She smiled coyly. "Was it good for you too?"
Wufei flagged a brow and eyed her suspiciously, then broke out in a smirk. "It could have been better."
She shrugged, shifted her sparkler from her right to left hand and took a tentative hold of Wufei's. "Then you've got a whole year to rectify that."
He glanced at the hand, tightened his return grip minutely. "Maybe so..."
They stared at the sky for a moment. Hilde leaned a bit closer, and might have rested her head against Wufei's shoulder, had not her sparkler chosen to burn right down to her hand. She yelped at the sting, let go of both sparkler and Wufei and squatted down to shove her hand in the cold snow, her teeth gritted.
Wufei knelt beside her, reached for her injured hand. "Let me have a look."
She eyed him suspiciously.
Tentatively, she pulled her hand out from the few inches of snow.
Wufei took a light hold of her fingers, carefully turned the hand over, surveying the non-existant damage. "Doesn't look burned. I don't think you need an ointment... but..." Before Hilde could pull back, he leaned down to kiss the side of her hand, touching his lips to the phantom pain. He raised his gaze to see her start smiling. Encouraged, he tilted her hand over to kiss the back of her palm as well.
She was still smiling when their eyes met again. Wufei offered their four friends a quick look. Things had not changed much there. Nodding his head in their direction, he ventured "Want to send the new year off to a good start?"
Hilde thought the suggestion over for a second, got to her feet, Wufei standing up with her. She brushed off her skirt, faced him again, grin off kilter. "Wufei, I won't kiss you."
Wufei's smirk turned rather sheepish, and he looked down the hillside. "Okay..."
She chuckled. "But this is okay." She embraced him, pulled him into a tight hug.
Startled, it took him a moment to return it.
Despite her words, he was certain he felt a slight peck at his cheek.
"Even that guy..." Heero muttered, having spotted the embrace from the corner of his eye.
"Huh?" Duo followed Heero's gaze, started a soft laugh. "Maybe she does like him, then. Nothing can be better than that, right?"
He let go of a grunt. "I can think of a few things." He approached Duo's lips again, soft impact, break. "You know..." Heero started anew, "I've heard that whatever you do when the new year starts, that's how you'll spend it too."
Duo's laughter even broke the reverie of the couples around them. "Well... I guess we're in for a really interesting year then, wouldn't you say?"
Heero grinned. He couldn't agree more.
Not even the sudden handful of snow Duo slammed at his neck before breaking free from under him and preparing for retaliation could change that.
And he proved he could hold his own in a snowball fight.
They all could.