Disclaimer: Standard disclaimer applies - see store of details.

Pairings: Heero/Duo, Trowa/Quatre
Warnings: OC child, soft angst, BL, light violence, adult situations, language

Author notes: Many, many thanks to Sharon for holding the contest, hugs and kisses to Razzy and Leslie for the wonderful beta, and to those who read bits and pieces -- offered encouragement and suggestions.

Summary: It's been twelve years, but when Heero and Duo meet in an unexpected fashion, they find that ember of feeling from when they were teens was still there.

From the East, the Sun
by Merith

The disc was small and seemingly innocuous in its plastic case glued to its physical folder. To Heero, it was anything but.

"This addition will raise the classroom ratio above standard again, but I have every confidence in your abilities, Heero," the principal was saying from her position beside his desk scanning lessons chalked on the board.

Without looking up from the smiling face in the photo on file, Heero nodded. "With Missus Freeds and Carl's help, one more shouldn't be an issue." His fingers twitched over the disc, wanting to read the file, to confirm his suspicions. He laid his hand flat on the folder's surface.

"Good. That's what I like to hear," the principal's voice was warm, but Heero could tell she was already thinking of other problems, other duties needing to be done. Her hand clamped down on his shoulder and she gave it a gentle squeeze and released it just as quickly. "I'll let you get back to your lesson plan, then." She was already opening the classroom door with a quick 'goodbye'.

Heero turned to stare at the door, listening to her heels clack and fade on the hallway tiles. His ears caught the sound of a lone ball being bounced on the blacktop yard beyond his classroom windows. The four-ten bell sounded, followed by the distant murmurs of the sixth grade band as they moved down the hall and into the gym to practice. The familiar noises faded as though muted through layers of fiberglass filters. Heero looked at the photo again, and slid the disc from its file.

It didn't surprise him to learn who the boy's father was; from the similar features and nearly identical grin, Heero knew, even without seeing the last name to confirm. He frowned to learn the boy's mother was deceased, though his only clear memory of her was as she had been -- a pale, injured girl, strapped to a gurney and being wheeled into an emergency exam room. Years ago -- thirteen -- a veritable lifetime.

Turning from the computer screen, Heero looked out without seeing, across the playground, and the field beyond. Faint whispers of some distant emotion stretched; Heero ignored the pulse it set. It didn't matter if he was ready now or not, it was going to happen.

On a Tuesday, during the fourth week of school, a new student was introduced to Mister Yuy's third grade class. He was a pleasant boy, gregarious and smiling, assigned a seat in the middle of the room, one far enough away from the temptations of window-born distractions, but not too close to the teacher's desk to feel threatened. Heero knew about acorns and trees, and how short one could fall.

The boy was accompanied by the principal's assistant, and Heero shuffled away a brief stab of disappointment before greeting his new student. Class settled once again, and Heero read through the week's spelling words once more, reminding the class of the upcoming spelling quiz and sentence homework due. Giving instructions to work quietly on spelling assignments, Heero asked the classroom aides, Carl and Missus Freeds, to help those who needed it.

Only then did he allow himself to approach the boy and draw him to the back of the room for a low-voiced discussion. Heero gave the new boy, Ryan, a slight smile as the boy explained how they'd just moved and he lost a tooth but the tooth-fairy found it somehow and the dollar he found under his pillow was in his pocket waiting for after school when he could get something from the vending machine where his dad worked. Heero wondered if it was a family trait, this random and rushed way of speaking, even knowing it for the lie it had been. Knowing the chatter -- then -- was just another layer.

Gaining the boy's attention to explain the simple classroom rules, Heero pulled out the assessment papers: several sheets of general knowledge questions and graduating difficulty arithmetic problems. His smile was encouraging at the exaggerated groan. He slid a pencil in front of Ryan and flipped the first sheet around. All in all, the sheets were timed to take approximately an hour to complete, without instructions or complaints between.

The first sheet, maths with problems ranging from simple single digit addition to fifth grade fractions, was finished in less than ten minutes. Heero looked up from the worksheets he was grading, frowning at the sudden slap of a hand to paper. Ryan was grinning and looking expectantly at Heero.

"It's not a race," Heero said keeping his voice low. "Take your time and go back through the problems to be sure of your answers..."

"I am." The boy scowled. "They was simple."

"They were simple," Heero corrected automatically, reaching for the sheet. "And in this classroom, we don't interrupt those who are speaking." He was reminded again of acorns and trees at the soft snort. In a quick scan, the sheet was complete and its answers seemed to all be correct. Heero pulled the next sheet from the packet and slid it in front of Ryan. "This is reading comprehension. Take your time with it and remember, it's not a race."

"Yeah, yeah..." Ryan's voice drifted off; he was already reading the two-paragraph story.

Heero slipped the maths sheet back in the packet, stifling the impulse to check the answers. He glanced at the boy, smiling slightly as he watched lips move silently to words read, and picked up the "dreaded red ink pen."

Lunchtime found Heero working his way through Ryan's assessment packet, surprised -- and not -- at the end results. Above average for his age and grade in maths, though not quite as advanced as first assumed, high-end average in reading comprehension, but slightly below average in spelling and grammar. His assessment fit with what Ryan's previous teachers had said; fit with how Heero imagined his son to be.

He wasn't required to stand outside at the end of the day to send his students off for home or the sitter's, or in whichever direction, but Heero did most days. His class scattered at the front door, those who rode buses headed toward the yellowed off loading zone. Those who walked home waved and shouted their goodbyes as they raced down sidewalks and over the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the street. Those who were picked up waited somewhat nearby. Ryan was one of them.

A name called and Ryan jerked his head up, his feet already in motion before Heero registered where the boy was headed. But, there was no mistaking whom he ran to. The world narrowed to a thin corridor, and for a moment, Heero forgot to breathe. And then he was walking forward to the student pick-up line, practiced smile and schooled expression in place.

"Heero?" Duo's shouted surprise drew a few looks, but Heero gave a nod before holding out a hand.

"Duo," he said, letting his hand be shaken for three jerks before pulling it away gently. "It's been awhile."

"Shit..." Duo darted a look around, flushing. "Uh, sorry 'bout that." He was grinning a closed mouth grin, and Heero flicked his eyes to Ryan, already sitting in the cab of a large pickup. "It has been too long." His brows drew down and his head tilted slightly. "So, what are you doing here? Picking up a kid too?"

"Mister Yuy's my teacher," Ryan supplied from the truck.

"I'm a teacher," Heero said over Duo's grunt of surprise, shooting a quick look between Ryan and him. "Ryan was added to my roster last night."

"Ah," Duo was staring at Heero, no longer grinning. A horn sounded in the pick-up line, and he flinched. "I've got to... got to get back to work," Duo said, already in motion. "It's great to see you again, Heero. And we'll have to hook up again soon. Now that we're living on the same planet." His smile was back, and Ryan's door was closed.

Heero nodded, pressing his lips together against the invitation that wanted to break free; Duo was sliding into the driver's seat, buckling up and leaning over Ryan to wave. The truck pulled away from the curb, and Heero watched it turn onto the street, accelerate, and disappear over the rise in the hill just beyond the school.

It was close to nine that Tuesday night, when Heero slipped his glasses off, letting them fall to the small pile of worksheets he'd set on the coffee table. He rubbed at his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. A soft, familiar feline noise was his only warning before the eight-pound cat landed on his lap.

"Hey," Heero said softly, his hand sliding along the sleek body and over the extended tail. The cat settled on top his thighs, raising a chin to nudge a lax hand. Heero's smile was short at the insistence, but his fingers stroked neck and jowl, behind ears and under ruff.

The cat was purring, and Heero ran a hand over the body again, holding the tail's tip a moment longer, earning a look.

"Duo looked good." His tone was low and strong. Other words wanting to be said were pushed away. Heero grunted; the cat raised its head, and gave him a fractured meow. "I know, I know," he answered, his hand stroked the long body again.

In roughly the same neighborhood, well within walking distance, Ryan was mumbling the words to a song through his toothbrush. Duo sat at a folding card table down the hall in the open dining room, laptop open with fingers typing in rapid strokes.

"Be sure to get the back teeth," Duo was calling over his shoulder without looking around. "I'm going to check and --"

"Yeah, yeah, I know!" The boy said loudly, wetting his toothbrush again, and pushing it back into his mouth.

The project update finished, Duo saved off the document, and started to sort through the clogged email box. "Ryan," he called, reading and frowning in concentration. "Come on, pal. It's past your bedtime already."

"Whatcha yelling for?" Ryan asked, standing at Duo's side.

Duo snorted, turning from his laptop. "It's about time, molasses." His mouth quirked upward, and Ryan laughed, lifting his arms up.

"Read me a story?" Ryan asked, arms wrapped around Duo's neck.

"I don't know, buddy. It's getting late and..." Duo stopped, held Ryan a little tighter, and nodded. "Go find a book and I'll read a couple of chapters."

As Ryan ran back to his room, Duo stood, stretching his arms toward the ceiling and rolling his head from side to side, easing the stiffness from his neck. He looked at the stack of project folders, the blueprint rolls, and the red list of the unread in his in-box. A shuffling patter of bare feet on carpet, and Ryan was back, a soft cover book held out.

"Boxcar Children?" Duo growled, eyeing the cover. "Didn't we finish this at Uncle Quatre's in July?"

"Yeah," Ryan was nodding. "But I like it."

"Alright," Duo sighed in mock resignation, "Let's get on with it then."

Duo sat at one corner of the couch, and Ryan settled against him. Opening the book, Duo began reading the first adventure of Benny and Violet, Henry and Jessie, and not for the first time, he wondered what it would have been like to have brothers and sisters. Even as the Alden children crept from their temporary home, his arm tightened its hold over Ryan's shoulder.

It was barely past three on the following Wednesday, and Heero stopped himself from checking the clock once again. He had never been a clock-watching teenager, waiting for the end of day bell, and even now as a teacher, its sound didn't indicate 'time to go home'.

Anticipation of a different sort coiled in his gut.

Standing at two minutes before the bell, he drew the class's attention. "Time to put your books away, and get ready to leave." He shared a smile with his aides at the eagerness displayed. "Remember that next week is Open House. If you've signed up for demonstration, please bring your parents." The bell rang, several bodies jumped from seats, pulling backpacks from hidden spaces, and papers were shoved inside.

Heero trailed after his students, his eyes on one boy in particular even as he spoke to one earnest girl asking about her duties for the upcoming event. A mother-hen analogy came to mind as students shuffled around and about, and Heero was left with a small gathering of "pick-up" kids hovering about him. Ryan stood at his side, eyes squinting as he listened to another boy telling him about his collection of gundam robots. An invitation was given and accepted (after making sure with his dad first). Heero felt a twinge -- a loss for nostalgia he would never have; almost regretting the nostalgia he did have.

Ryan's name was called out in a feminine voice, and Heero turned to look. A moment passed, and Ryan was skipping towards the woman. Heero followed at a fast clip, trying to keep the frown from his expression.

Sunglasses lifted from a pair of startling blue eyes and came to rest on top a head of styled blonde hair. The woman gave an easy smile, her gaze giving Heero a quick sweep before resting on his face. She stepped forward to meet him, a hand held out.

"Mister Yuy," she stated more than asked, and Heero's hand was being carefully -- professionally -- shaken. "I am Tracy Murdock, Mister Maxwell's assistant, and he's asked me to pick Ryan up for him."

"Ms Murdock," Heero murmured, extracting his hand and reaching for Ryan in an unconsciously protective gesture. "I'm afraid I cannot release Ryan without --"

"I understand, Mister Yuy," she interjected smoothly, lifting her other hand and holding out an envelope. "Here is the notarized limited power of attorney, and I am prepared to contact Mister Maxwell if you so demand." Her smile never wavered.

Taking the envelope, Heero pulled the heavy folded sheet and read the confirmation of her words. It had been years since he'd seen it, but there was no mistaking the bold script and striking curves and loops. He replaced the document, and looked up.

"A call to Ryan's father shouldn't be necessary," he told her. Heero turned to Ryan, squatting down on his heels. "I still need someone to run the micro-reader, if you're interested, and your father wants to come." Heero resisted the urge to straighten the boy's collar.

Ryan grinned. "Yes! Dad will come. He always goes to school stuff." Ryan's grip on his bag tightened. "Good." Heero limited his touch to a palm on a shoulder, and stood. "I'll see you tomorrow then." He nodded to the woman, adding a quiet, "good day," in her direction.

"I'm sure I'll be seeing you again," she murmured, holding a hand out for Ryan to take. Her eyebrow rose as she lowered her sunglasses.

Heero watched them turn and begin walking toward the parking lot. Ryan twisted around, and waved a final goodbye. His hand rose in response, and Heero went to find his other "pick-up" kids.


At Ryan's voice, Heero glanced around to see Mister Maxwell's assistant walking in clipped steps over the concrete. She was in vivid contrast to the other women present; sharply dressed, professional style makeup, and an expensive haircut. Heero wasn't surprised to watch her dismiss all but her goal. Which apparently was he, since she didn't stop when Ryan ran out to meet her.

"Mister Yuy," she said with a smile, her hand sliding her sunglasses from her face. "It's good to see you again."

Heero acknowledged her with a nod. "Ms Murdock." He spotted a familiar van, and sent the student off in the right direction, his eyes following until the girl's mother lowered a window and waved.

"Mister Yuy," the woman said again, her sunglasses now dangling from her fingers. "It appears we'll be seeing quite a bit of one another."

"You'll be picking Ryan up from now on, then?" Heero asked, reaching for the boy and holding him back from running after a classmate.

She leaned forward, her hand skimmed up Heero's arm. "I will, at least until Duo hires a sitter." Her smile grew at Heero's step back. "He is a very busy man, and it could take some time."

Instead of replying, Heero sent another child being picked up, and raised a hand in greeting.

"I've been given a pair of tickets to Last March of the Leos for Saturday evening." Her smile was back, and Heero was now facing her, his frown faint. "I was wondering if you would like to accompany me...."

"No." The word was out before Heero could phrase it differently. He gave a slight smile, softening his rejection. "I already have plans," he told her.

"Then we'll have to plan on another time." Her hand flashed out, a small pale gray card held between her fingertips. "My card." And her eyebrow rose in a high arch. "In case your plans fall through."

Heero accepted the card, barely glancing at it before slipping it into the front pocket of his slacks. "I'll keep that in mind."

Her eyes followed his hand, and her smile began to fade. "Please do." She snapped her sunglasses on, and held out her hand to Ryan. "Time to go, Ryan. We'll be joining your father out on the site today." With another raking look aimed at Heero, she turned and led Ryan from the school grounds.

It wasn't until after his students were gone for the day that her words circled. Heero was back in his classroom, organizing books, papers, and equipment left out of place. Alphabetizing a stack of story discs, Heero mentally listed families that might watch Ryan after school, and struck off the ones he knew would be unacceptable. Of those left, he ruled out all but four, and those Heero would offer in suggestion to Duo.

If Duo left the picking up of Ryan to his assistant, then Heero would wait until Open House, and find a few minutes to speak with him. The four-ten bell rang, and Heero nodded to himself. He had wanted to find a chance to speak with Duo, to catch up on the missing years, and if the opportunity presented itself, he would invite Duo and Ryan to his house for dinner.

Duo stepped back from the truck after confirming an appointment for the following week, and gave the driver a final wave. He watched as it left the site yard before turning away to look over the progress to date. The early stages of construction packed several such meetings; the surveyor was on site almost as much as the engineer.

A front-end loader approached the long side of the building, and extended its arm with supplies in its bucket. On the far side, the high-powered shriek of metal on metal into metal continued. Plans called for the third story grid to be completed in seven days; the second story was nearly done. Duo watched the conveyors move materials to the higher levels, hand raised to shade his eyes from the sun. In his sight, he imagined what the next few weeks would bring, when the cranes would be doing the lifting and moving work, when the metal frameworks would become enclosed. Fifteen months and the high-rise would be open for occupancy.

"Hey, Duo!"

Turning, Duo raised a hand, acknowledging the shout, and jogged across the compound to the contractor shack -- a twenty-by-twenty, two room prefab office with a toilet.

"What's up?" he asked, following the site manager up the stairs.

"Grissom called down from the head office. They sent over some paperwork for you to sign." The man grinned over his shoulder. "And it's going up on three."

"Shit!" Duo checked his watch, and cursed again. "Can the paperwork wait 'til Monday? I gotta jet." He was at the admin's desk, tossing the clipped together pages of the surveyor notes in her in-box. "That needs to be duplicated and filed with the county. Today if possible, otherwise Monday will do."

"It can wait," the manager laughed. "But you might want to take it with you, look it over on your trip." He held out a thick sealed envelope.

Even in his hurry, Duo straightened and stared at the bundle. He swallowed hard, glanced at the manager, and back to the packet. "Is it...?"

"Hell, boy, you'd think someone was handing you your death warrant." And he laughed again.

Duo took the package, turned it over in his hands, read his name typed on the outside with a red "Personal and Confidential" stamped next to it. "Guess this makes it legit, huh?" He knew it was coming, but had thought his "packaged deal" would be done in the human resource office. Shrugging, he managed a short laugh.

"School's going to be let out soon," the admin said, smiling. "Congratulations, boss." She gave him a friendly wink.

"Got that right!" Duo tucked the envelope up under his arm and started for the door. He stopped and looked back from one to the other. "Thanks. It--it means a lot to me." And he was gone, out the door and running back across the compound to his truck. Fifteen miles in city traffic. Fifteen miles in fifteen minutes. His truck roared to life, and he put it in gear; challenges were life's way of keeping a person on their toes.

He was running late, and knew it. But at least he knew Ryan would be out front waiting for him with Heero standing guard. Duo started to laugh silently, shaking his head. Coming to Earth after years of colony living hadn't been his first choice, but the offer was too good to pass up. Leaving behind friends, taking Ryan from all he knew and pushing him into the unfamiliar -- from house to air to school to manner of speaking -- had been hard. But, the jobs weren't there. His education was going to waste; home might have been on L2 a month ago, but home was East Coast America now.

His thoughts slipped easily from L2 to what the envelope package meant to him, meant for Ryan. This trip home would be their last, and the business of settling in would become his next priority. Idly, he wondered if Heero was married, if he had any children; suddenly wished he had taken the time to say more than three or four words to the man.

"After this trip," he muttered to himself, turning off the main thoroughfare and looking for the right street sign to the school. The night before, Ryan had mentioned something about an open house, and Duo nodded his head. "I'll be there, find out what's happening with Heero."

Smiling once more, plans fitting neatly in place, Duo pulled up in the pick-up line, and scanned the front of the school for signs of Ryan...and suddenly feeling strangely nervous. When he was close enough, he put the truck in park, and got out. Ryan was already running his way, Heero right behind him.

"Hey, buddy!" Duo called, reaching out to swing Ryan up into a quick hug. He sat him back on his feet, and looked up smiling to greet Heero. "Hey, Heero."

"Duo," Heero answered. He stood as if frozen to the spot, and Duo's smile faltered.

"Something happen?" he asked, pulling Ryan close.

"No!" Heero said quickly, his look startled. "It's Friday, and I was going to ask if you had plans. I thought we might go to this pizza place and catch up..." his words came to a halt.

"Oh God, Heero," Duo said, raking a hand through his bangs. "I've been thinking the same thing, but this weekend's a bust." He grinned quickly down at Ryan. "We're on our way to the 'port, and back to L2 for a couple of days." He glanced back up to Heero. "I'm really sorry, man, but I've got to go."

"That's all right," Heero said. "We can get together some other time then."

"Great." Duo looked at his watch, and bit back a curse. "I hate to run off, but we really have to get going," and he was nudging Ryan toward the truck, "I'll see you Tuesday," he called out, shutting Ryan's door. The pleased look Heero gave had Duo pause for a moment. "We don't have anything going on next weekend," he added cautiously. "If you wouldn't mind showing the new guy around the city?"

"Roger that," Heero told him. "It's a date."

And it was Duo's turn to give a startled look. Heero raised a brow, smirking; Duo was still laughing as they pulled away from the school.

It was closing in on midnight, the cabin was quiet, but for the far distant whirl noise that was such an integral part of space travel. Duo sighed, letting his head fall back against the seat cushion, and closing his eyes. L2 in less than four hours, not enough time to sleep, too long to stay awake. Opening his eyes, he turned his head to check on Ryan, a blanket-covered lump still asleep on the lower bunk. His smile was wistful, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up behind his son, pretend it was going to be a lazy Saturday morning, with only cartoons and breakfast waiting on them.

Forcing himself upright, Duo gathered the papers he'd been reading, stacked them neatly, and returned them to their envelope. He'd have to make time to go over them again, but it looked like everything he'd asked for, everything he'd been promised was written into his contract. He sealed the envelope and put it back in his case. Leaving the light on in case Ryan woke, Duo left their cabin, and made his way up deck to the galley.

Caffeine was a twenty-four hour business on a cargo ship, and the Ticonderoga class cruiser was no exception. The pot of coffee was fresh, and Duo sat at a table cradling his cup more than drinking from it. Ghosts of the past, memories of other trips wove between thoughts of the present, dreams of the future.

Twelve years before, he sat at a table very much like this one, his thoughts spinning in circles. He left Earth to find a life, to make a home, and put the war in his past. His mind -- then -- had been divided, his desires no less.

"You're supposed to be sleeping."

Duo jerked upright, a slow grin forming. "Hey, Old Man, who's driving this tub if you're down here?"

Howard snorted loudly, and finished levering himself onto the bench seat. "Not the captain, boy. Retired, remember?"

It was Duo's turn to snort. "You? Get off! I'll be retired a hundred years before you finally give it up."

"Think what you will," Howard said affably. "You will anyway." He sniffed the contents of his mug, sipped, and pulled a long face.

"Who is captain?" Remembering his own coffee, Duo lifted his mug.

Howard reached for a sugar packet, and stirred it into his cup before answering. "Don't think you know him." He drank from his mug once again, and nodded his head. "Fella by the name of McMichaels. Runs a tight ship."

"You really retired?" Duo leaned forward.

"We dock at four," Howard said, reaching for another sugar packet. "But we don't start unloading 'til seven. I'll come wake you for breakfast."

"Can't sleep."

Howard snorted softly, but drank from his mug instead. "McMichaels is a good man, by the book, though." He nodded in agreement with his words. "Better watch your mouth around him, too," he added.

"Why?" Duo started to grin. "He doesn't like a smartass?"

"Close." Howard chuckled. "He'll fine you if he hears you cuss." His mouth went on a downturn.

"Shit, no kidding!" Though he was grinning, Duo shot a quick look around the room.

"Thing with McMichaels is, ninety-five percent of the time, his way is the right way, but the other five percent..." And Howard shrugged off-handedly, both hands on his mug. "Man doesn't like to deviate from his plan."

"But that's going to happen," Duo protested mildly. "It's all about adapting, finding new routes from A to B if the direct one doesn't work."

"Exactly." Howard was nodding. "You were never a 'by the book' pilot, my boy." And Howard drank from his mug, finishing off its contents.

Duo's eyes narrowed at his long time friend. "You got something to say?"

Howard looked startled for a moment, and then shrugged. "Tell me about this new job," he said, ignoring Duo's question.

Rather than answer immediately, Duo continued to stare, and Howard stared back blandly. Relenting, Duo turned on his seat, bringing his feet up to the bench, and wrapped his arms around his legs.

"Not much to tell. I'm doing what I went to school for --" he shot a look to Howard, and went back to contemplating his shoes. "Mostly project work for now."

"You designing?" Howard asked, frowning down at his empty cup.

"Not yet, but it's written in the contract." Duo yawned, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. "Oh, hell, did I tell you? Heero's Ryan's teacher." He was grinning, turning to look at Howard.

Howard paused in adding sugar to Duo's cup, his eyebrows shadowing what was his hairline. "The kid's a teacher?" Duo nodded. "Well, what do you know about that." He set his spoon aside, and drank from Duo's mug.

"Surprised me, too."

"You still holding that torch?" Howard's look sharpened.

"None of your business, Old Man." Duo dropped his feet back to the floor. "Never should have said anything."

"You ever going to say something to him?" And he lifted the mug again.

"I don't even know if he's married or involved with anyone!" Duo lowered his head to his hands, and closed his eyes.

Draining the last of the coffee in Duo's mug, Howard set it next to his own empty cup. "Don't you think it's about time to find out?"

"I will when we get back," Duo mumbled. "I shouldn't be thinking this shit, Howard. There's too much going on to add more to it."

"Come on, kid," Howard said, rising to his feet. "Let's get you to bed before you fall over." Duo groaned, but stood and began following Howard toward the cabin block. At the cabin door, Howard patted a gnarled hand on Duo's shoulder. "Just remember, you're not a 'by the book' pilot."

Duo's laugh was short and sharp, but he was smiling again. He clasped Howard'a arm in his hand, and gave it a quick squeeze. "Thanks, Old Man," he said, and went inside, his thoughts giving way to sleep, and plans for the next day.

On Tuesday evening, during the fifth week of school, third grade students from Mister Yuy's class reentered the classroom. Heero stood in front of his desk, being introduced to parents and welcoming them to the Open House. Some parents were recognized, and some known from involvement around the school, or from a current student's older sibling. Mister Yuy's pupils were encouraged to 'show them around', and parents were dashed from section to section, where eight and nine year olds displayed knowledge gained since school had began.

Accompanied by his parent, Heero's newest student arrived at six on the dot. And after a brief greeting, not having time enough to give more, Heero had Ryan give his father a quick tour before heading off to do his duty at the microreader. For the next several minutes, even as he spoke with students, and their parents, Heero continued to watch Duo follow his son around the classroom; watched Duo sit at Ryan's desk, and look through his accomplishment folder; watched Duo fit the virtu-set over his head, and listen to his son explain how it worked, what it did.

Duo had been there to pick Ryan up that afternoon, and Heero could only wave a greeting, unable to break away from another parent. Duo had returned the wave with a wide smile, and Heero found his attention drifting from the woman's conversation to watch Duo as he buckled Ryan in his truck; Heero watched as Duo rounded his truck, climbed inside, and drove away. The day faded, and night wasn't coming fast enough, the hours between last bell and the start time lasted an eternity.

About twenty minutes into the event, there was a pause in the steady stream of entrances and exits. Heero used his sudden freedom to wander over to where Duo watched Ryan show another student's parents how the reader operated. Coming to stand just a little behind Duo and off to his side, a nod and a quick lift of lips acknowledged his presence. He couldn't help noticing that Duo had changed clothes since picking Ryan up from school. Where he'd worn jeans and a chambray shirt before, he now sported casual dress pants and a polo shirt. Now that he was this close, and looking, Heero suspected Duo had shaved as well.

"You're a builder now?" Heero more stated than asked, pretending to pay attention to what Ryan was telling Jenny's mother, and not how nice the hint of Duo cologne smelled.

Duo turned his head with a short smile. "Somewhat," he said cryptically. "I'm rather a jack-of-all-skills on the current project." Duo rocked on his heels. "And you're a teacher."

Heero inclined his head. "I try, at any rate."

"Ryan talks about you all the time." Duo grinned, glancing at his son. "You've made quite the impression on him."

"He's a quick learner," Heero told him, eyes flicking to Ryan and back to Duo. "Though he excels in some subject material, he is at par with his peers in others." Heero stopped, giving Duo a slight smile. "I apologize. Conferences are next month."

"No need to apologize. Ryan's one of my favorite subjects." Duo was grinning.

Heero smiled in return, but was pulled from responding by a student having difficulty with a piece of equipment. Indicating he'd be there shortly, he turned back to Duo. "If you have a few minutes, and don't mind missing the refreshments, there is something I would like to discuss with you. And no, it's nothing bad." Heero's smile was reassuring. "It might be welcome news."

"Okay," Duo said, nodding. "I'll hang out after school for you." And he winked.

Sharply at seven, the principal announced through the overhead speakers that refreshments were being served in the cafeteria. The constant buzz of voices and movement from the hallway rose in volume; Heero's own students (and their parents) joined the chorus, and made their way to cookies and watery punch. Heero was in place, offering to call parents with their child's progress, thanking each person for coming.

And then they were two.

Having seen Ryan wriggling out the door with a schoolmate, Heero knew the boys would head for the cookies. Classroom door closed against the noise, he began straightening the room, even as he kept his eyes on Duo.

"Your assistant mentioned that you're looking for someone to watch Ryan after school?" Heero began, making it more a statement than question.

"Tracy? Yeah, I looked when we first arrived, but most facilities won't work with my schedule, and I'm not too keen on Ryan hanging out for hours in some stranger's home." Duo was standing by the windows, alternately looking out over the playground and watching Heero shelf books, stack papers, and turn off equipment.

"Oh," Heero managed, turning to stare at Duo, a reading primer in hand. Plans were made to change, and his did before giving it voice. The carefully selected list of childcare givers was left in his pocket. "Ryan can come home with me." Heero bit off anything else his mouth might say, and instead, kneeled, turning his focus to putting away books. "Until you have the chance to find someone, that is. I can take care of him for you."

"What?" Duo crossed the room. "You're with him all day. Why would you...?"

Heero straightened, facing Duo. "It's been ten years since I last saw you," he said softly. "We were friends, once, and I want the chance to be friends again."

Duo ducked his head, but Heero saw the smile. "I was hoping you'd feel that way, too." His smile dimmed as he lifted his head. "But you don't have to watch Ryan for that to happen."

"That wasn't a condition of the offer," Heero said quickly. "But, as a friend and someone I think you still trust -- would trust with your son -- I have to do something." Heero's mouth twisted in a half-rueful smile. "I actually have a list of four names, parents of students or former students who offer after school services and ones I believe you might find acceptable." He felt the flush begin at his collar, and rushed on. "You can have the list, but if it will help, I don't mind keeping an eye on Ryan, taking him home with me, and keeping him occupied until you can pick him up."

Duo was nodding. "Okay, if you're sure..." Heero gave him a sharp nod. "I guess he won't have an excuse for not doing his homework," he laughed softly.

"That he won't." Heero moved to his desk, and wrote his address and phone number on a pad of paper. He added a small map to the bottom, and tore off the sheet, handing it to Duo. "My house isn't hard to find -- only a couple of blocks from the park."

"And not too far from where we live," Duo added, looking at Heero over the paper. "We're neighbors!"

Heero leaned back against his desk, his lips curving upward at the delight in Duo's voice upon that discovery. "We are." Duo was shaking his head in disbelief. "I don't have anything game or toy-wise for Ryan, but if you want to bring over a few things, I have room to store it."

"If you're sure," Duo hedged, folding the sheet and sliding it in his pocket. "Ryan's good about finding things to do or making things up, but I can pack up a small bag he can bring to school tomorrow -- stuff that doesn't make too much noise or a mess."

"That will work well, then." A brief silence settled between them, and Heero watched Duo, who was watching him. "You've done a great job with Ryan," he told Duo suddenly. "He is mature for his age, but still very much his age. It's a hard balance to achieve in a child."

Duo's smile went tender. "I wasn't there as much as I should have the first year or so." His expression twisted ruefully. "Hilde and I were having problems, and with school, and work, staying away seemed to be for the best."

"I was sorry to hear of her passing," Heero said immediately.

"Thank you." Duo dropped his gaze and stuck his hands in his pockets. "It's been more years than we were together, even after the divorce. But sometimes..." He shot Heero a brief, wavering smile. "I regret that Ryan has to grow up without his mother."

"You were--divorced?" Heero asked, startled. Flushing instantly, he held out his hands. "I'm sorry. That was rude. It's just that, I'd heard you had gotten married, but nothing after that. I didn't know."

"It's okay," Duo said. "It's not that we made a big deal about it." He shrugged slightly. "We hadn't even been divorced a year when she... when the accident happened." His look steadied, pinning Heero against the desk. "I thank God that Ryan was with me that night, and not in the car."

"We can talk about it some other time... unless you want to continue?" Heero asked, a knot of unease loosening in his gut.

"Yeah, let's save the history for some place else." Duo gave a rough laugh. His hand rose to span his forehead; his finger and thumb pressed gently against his temples.

"Are you okay?" Heero leaned forward.

Duo sighed deeply, letting his hand fall away. "Yeah." He gave a fleeting smile. "It was rough, but Quatre and Trowa helped a lot." Suddenly, he was frowning. "Hey, they were there this weekend to help out. I didn't tell them about you--I wasn't sure if you wanted anyone else to know."

"It's alright," Heero told him. "I lost touch with everyone of my own volition. More from inertia than deliberate intent." Heero canted his head to the side. "If the opportunity presents itself, I would enjoy reestablishing contact with them as well."

"Good," Duo laughed lightly. "Quatre's talked about you, wondered about you from time to time." A distant bell rang, and Duo's attention went to the hallway. "Is that the cue for parents to get the hell out?"

Heero laughed this time. "Something like that," he said, nodding his head to the door. "Principal Belding will be finished with her 'parents, teachers, and students working together' speech. This year's PTA chairperson would have indoctrinated volunteers, and the scouts will recruit a new crop."

"So cynical." Duo's smile flashed.

"Don't misunderstand me," Heero hurried to reassure. "Scouts and the PTA are excellent organizations, for the most part, and the principal is the best I've worked for, but..." Heero shrugged. "After hearing it for the past eight years, it's more routine than interesting."

"I guess this means I should probably collect the boy and head for home." Duo pushed off the front row desk he'd been leaning on, and started for the door. "You know, I sometimes have to work late, and might not make it out to pick Ryan up until six or later." He cast a look over his shoulder.

"I've gotten that impression," Heero said from behind him. "I understand there might be fluctuating times." Heero reached around Duo to open the door, and stood back, waving him through. "If you're late, we'll have dinner without you."

As Duo turned off the main road, the park that Heero spoke of was instantly there, four blocks wide and many more again as long. This would be a place to explore. Making a left, Duo was on Heero's street, and he couldn't help the laugh. Heero, in the middle of suburbia. Heero's house was up on the right, and just like the others in the neighborhood, it was a single story ranch with an attached garage and a bit of yard out front, much like his own.

His truck seemed to dwarf the driveway; Heero's car went unseen, and Duo suspected it lay behind the garage doors. He took a moment to look around. It was a quiet block, though five or six houses farther down showed three young children playing out in the yard. Duo glanced at his watch and wondered if there only a few households with children, or the neighborhood kids were all involved in other activities.

Ryan jerked the front door open before the tones of the doorbell died. His hand grabbed immediately, Duo was instructed to take off his shoes, and only then was he tugged inside.

"Mister Yuy's in back," Ryan informed him. "He's watering." Ryan's free arm gestured toward the back wall, and Duo glimpsed a wooden deck, and hints of green through the blind-covered, sliding glass door. "C'mon!" Ryan pulled on his hand, dragging his hesitant feet. "You have to meet Mister Peabody!"

"Mister who?" Duo held fast, resisting Ryan's effort. "We should wait here for Heero..." he began, though his eyes were on the hallway. He had wondered if Heero was married, if Heero was attached to someone.

"But Mister Yuy said I could show you," Ryan insisted, his body bent nearly double trying to force his father to move.

"It's alright," Heero said from behind them. "Ryan can introduce you."

Surprised, Duo turned, his smile already forming. "Heero," he said by way of greeting. Heero was in the parted doorway, sliding out of slip-on shoes before closing the door. Ryan stopped pulling on his arm, and Duo's hand slid in almost automatic response down to Ryan's shoulder.

"Mister Peabody should be in my bedroom," Heero announced, coming into the living room. "He's probably sleeping."

"That's okay," Duo rushed, almost backing away from the hallway now. "I don't want to disturb his sleep."

Heero looked at him, his eyebrows drawn in puzzlement. But Ryan had his hand again, and was pulling him down the hall. "Come on, Dad."

With a glance back to see Heero following, Duo forced his mouth to move, shoving his lips in an upward motion, and held his breath as Ryan pushed open the bedroom door. Two steps in, and no man could be seen. Duo hesitated, and turned to look at Heero.

"See! Isn't he the best?" Ryan was leaning forearms to the mattress, his hand stroking a very white, longhaired cat.

"A cat?" Duo muttered, moving forward on stilted feet. "A cat," he said, a wry twist on his lips.

"Mister Peabody," Ryan purred, scratching behind the cat's ears.

"Mister Peabody?" Duo looked at Heero, who shrugged slightly.

"An old cartoon character. A very intelligent terrier," he supplied.

Duo started to laugh, and the cat's ears laid flat. "A cat named after a dog? Heero..." He reached out a hand, wanting to pet along the cat's ruff and see if its fur was a soft as he thought. The cat drew back immediately, hissing; his lips curled back, revealing teeth. Duo jerked his hand away. "Whoa!" He reached for Ryan instinctively. "Get away from there!"

"Stop that!" Heero said sharply, his fingers snapped along side the cat's head. "He won't bite you," he told Duo. Mister Peabody jumped to his feet, glaring his displeasure and walking stiffly to the other side of the bed. "I thought..." Heero gave Duo a rueful smile. "He liked Ryan, and I thought he would take to you as well."

"Maybe it's just a first impression thing," Duo said cautiously, watching the cat settle back on the comforter, and wrap his tail about his body. "I'll test him again some other time." He gave Heero a tentative smile, and turned Ryan about by his shoulder. "We should probably head out now. I've got some work to finish up and there's dinner..."

"But you have to see the fish!" Ryan cried, ducking out from under his hand and spinning around to walk backwards. "Mister Yuy's got a pond and everything! It's cool, Dad!"

His smile growing with his amusement, Duo arched an eyebrow at Heero even as he started after his son. "Fish? A pond and everything?"

Heero was smirking slightly. Nodding to the doorway, he challenged, "See for yourself." His eyebrows wagged. "I have it on good authority, 'it's cool'."

Ryan was waiting by the open sliding glass door, a pair of slip-on sandals in his hands. "Mister Yuy says he's gonna get me my own pair, but I can use these ones for now." He thrust the pair in his hands at Duo. "These are company shoes."

Taking the sandals from Ryan, Duo glanced at Heero who was becoming more amused by the minute. But the man nodded softly in agreement with Ryan's statement.

"Ryan," Heero said turning to the boy. "It's 'Mister Yuy said he will get me my own pair'."

"Yeah, that's what I said."

Duo hid his amusement; his index finger guided Ryan's face to look in his direction. "Respect, and listen," he admonished, releasing his son as soon as he acknowledged the rebuke.

"Sorry, Mister Yuy," Ryan said in a clear voice, his eyes meeting Heero's.

"Accepted." Heero jerked his chin to the door. "I thought you were going to show your dad the koi?"

"Yeah! Come on, Dad!" And Duo barely had time to slip his borrowed footwear over his socks before Ryan was pulling him out the door.

"Whoa," Duo uttered, coming to a halt. He resisted Ryan's tug, taking his time to look around Heero's backyard. From the veranda, a wooden pathway led to a large, rock-bordered pond, flanked by graduating brush into towering reeds that reminded him of... "Bamboo?" Duo asked, stepping onto the pathway, not sparing a glance to see if Heero followed.

Even as his mind registered Heero's answer, Duo was already stopping en route. Flowers in symmetrical order lined twin sand and pebble paths that appeared to circle the pond. Wisteria and iris plants rubbed leaves with azaleas and lotus. A hint of statuary peeked from between foliage, and Duo was tempted to step off the path. The ground and plants showed signs of a recent watering, and Ryan's earlier comment clicked into place.

"This must have taken you years," he said instead, and let Ryan led him the rest of the way to the pond.

"Six, actually, and I'm still working on it," Heero called from the veranda. Duo glanced back over his shoulder, and nearly stopped again -- Heero was leaning against a post, his arm above his head, and his body curved nicely.

"Beautiful," Duo told him, smiling. But, he turned away, and tuned in to what Ryan was telling him.

"And that one's named Charlie," Ryan said, pointing to a nearly white koi. "That's Ralph, and there's Chairman Meow..."

"Chairman Meow?" Duo asked, looking from Ryan back to Heero.

"I let my class name the fish when I add a new one." Heero shrugged. "We were studying the rise and fall of Communism at the time."

"But, Meow?"

"It's a story about two cats, Chairman Meow and Mou Sae Tongue," Heero laughed. "We'll be covering it in the spring, and Ryan will have a copy then."

"Dad!" Ryan said, demanding his attention. "This one's Yang, but he's all alone since Ying died. And Mister Yuy say--said that we get to name his new fish when he gets another one."

"That is cool," Duo said with a smile. "How'd you learn all their names so quickly?" Except for the nearly all white 'Charlie', the orange piebald fish looked too much alike for Duo to tell them apart.

"Mister Yuy told me a story for each name." Ryan grinned up at his father. "Wanna hear?"

"Okay, tell me. What's the story behind Ralph?"

Ryan pointed to one fish with deep orange markings. "He's a mouse!" And Duo laughed.

"From another children's story," Heero called.

"The one about a motorcycle?" Duo asked, grinning back.

"Affirmative." Heero was nodding. "It's good you know classic literature."

"And Charlie?" Duo was asking Heero now.

Heero's smile fell away. "A student," he said, straightening and turning his head away.

"Charlie went away," Ryan said quietly. "He was really sick, Mister Yuy said."

Duo's hand tightened over Ryan's. "Thank you for telling me the stories," he said softly. "How 'bout we head for home now?"

"Okay," Ryan agreed, adding as they began retracing their steps, "Can we have mac-n-cheese for dinner?"

"Sure, buddy."

Heero held the door while footwear was replaced, and followed after when Duo and Ryan reentered the house. To Duo, he seemed quieter, more subdued than he had been. At the front door, Duo told Ryan, "Go get your things."

Once Ryan was out of sight, Duo turned to Heero. "I'm sorry --"

"About Charlie --" Heero began at the same time. Duo gave a short laugh, and Heero flashed a smile. "Don't be sorry," he inserted immediately. "Charlie was a unique student, who fought every day for one more day." Heero's expression gentled. "He was a living inspiration, and is no less so in death."

"What did he... pass away from?" Duo asked, his glance drifting to the hallway Ryan disappeared down.

"The LaGrange strain of Leukemia."

Duo sucked in a sharp breath, shooting a look at Heero. "Shit."

"Mister Yuy said I can leave my activity bag here," Ryan said, coming back into the room. "He showed me where to put it when I wasn't using stuff from it."

"That's good." Duo reached out and pulled Ryan into a quick hug.

"Dad," Ryan protested, pulling away.

"Oops, forgot." Duo grinned at Heero over Ryan's head. "Now, thank Mister Yuy, and let's give him his house back."

"Thanks, Mister Yuy!" Ryan said, giving Heero a replica of Duo's grin.

"You're welcome, Mister Maxwell," Heero answered with a grin of his own. He lowered himself into a squat, and at eye level with Ryan. "How about we make a deal?" he asked, his eyes flicking to Duo then back to Ryan. "When you're here -- or anywhere outside of school -- you call me Heero." He held out his hand for Ryan to shake. "Deal?"

Ryan looked at his father first, and receiving his approval, his hand flashed into Heero's. "Deal!"

"Good." Heero stood. "Just remember Mister Yuy in class, please."

"Go get in the truck," Duo instructed, and turned back to Heero. "I'd like to add my thanks." He was smiling softly. "Ryan wasn't happy being cooped up in my office after school."

"He wasn't any trouble at all," Heero said. "He helped with the watering."

"Listen," Duo hesitated, chewing on the inside of his lip. "About payment... I can pay you however --"

"Don't worry about it," Heero interjected. "We'll work something out -- a trade perhaps?"

"Trade?" Duo asked, and tried to ignore the sudden leap his stomach made.

"Does your jack-of-all-skills come with architect training?"

"You bet your ass," Duo confirmed immediately. "You thinking of remodeling?"

"Something like that," Heero said. "We can talk about it later. It's just an idea I have, and wanted to discuss with an architect."

"You got it." Duo grasped Heero's hand in both of his, and shook it. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Duo was grinning, walking to his side of the truck. Still grinning as he backed out of Heero's driveway; still grinning while he waved to Heero on his front step, watching them drive off.

And, he was still grinning, if with a little less enthusiasm, later that evening after Ryan was in bed, and a stack of paperwork faced him.

It was the third day of their arrangement, and to Duo, taking the route to Heero's had become habit already. Pulling up into his driveway brought a sudden comfort he hadn't realized he missed -- someone would be inside, happy to see him at the end of the day, even if it was only for a few minutes.

Heero met him at the door, and alarm flared instantly only to die with Heero's welcome. And if anything had happened with Ryan, Heero would have called. He knew that as he breathed.

"Ryan's next door," Heero was saying, moving them from the front step to the lawn. "He discovered Aaron, and wanted to visit."

"Aaron?" Duo asked, looking at the neatly kept lawn and flowerbed as if they would supply his answer.

"He's in Missus Sprague's third grade class across the hall from mine," Heero said. "They know one another from recess and lunch." Heero stopped Duo on the edge of the neighbor's walk. "Ryan wants to stay for dinner and a movie with Aaron and Aaron's family."

"That shouldn't be a problem, as long as you can vouch for the family?" Duo looked from the street-facing window to Heero, a vague unease stirring.

"Laura and Paul are good people," Heero said immediately. "Paul's a software developer who works from home and Laura..." Heero smiled ruefully. "Laura's different." He reached for Duo's arm, and he held it reassuringly. "Laura is developmentally challenged."

Duo's face scrunched in puzzling through Heero's statement. "You mean she's physically impaired?"

"No...more that she's mentally and emotionally younger than her age."

"Oh." Duo eyed the door and shrugged. "That can apply to most people at some time or another." He looked back at Heero. "I won't insult you in asking if Ryan's safe in her house."

"I'm--glad to hear that," Heero said with a brief smile. "Aaron has had problems with the parents of friends' before, and rarely has anyone over."

"Let's meet the neighbors, then," Duo said, stepping up to the door and ringing the bell. Heero was at his side when the door opened, and at first glance, the woman smiling out at them seemed no different from any other young woman.

"Heero!" She cried and laughed.

"Laura." Heero gave her a smile. "This is Ryan's father, Duo Maxwell."

"Hello," Laura said, turning her smile to Duo. "Ryan is playing with Aaron." She leaned toward him and said, "Aaron is my son."

"May we come in, Laura?" Heero asked.

"Sure!" She backed up into the hallway, allowing Heero and Duo to enter the house. "The boys are in the TV room," she told them, looking at the open archway at the end of the hall. "Paul's working," she added immediately.

"We won't disturb him, then," Heero assured her. "I wanted you to meet Duo, and have you tell him of your invitation to Ryan."

"Hi, Duo!" Laura smiled at Duo, and clamped her hands over her mouth, muffling a laugh. "Oh, I already said that."

"It's okay," Duo told her with a smile. The woman was a pretty, petite blonde, and Duo felt an instant protectiveness rising.

"Can Ryan stay with us?" she asked in a blurting rush. "We're going to have pizza for dinner, and Paul got Crazy Days."

"Crazy Days?" Duo asked, looking from Laura to Heero.

"A popular kid's movie," Heero told him.

"It's about a boy who goes camping with his dad, and gets lost in the woods, but it's not scary. There's a talking bear that finds him and takes care of him, and all the wild animals help him find his dad."

Duo was grinning, listening to her description of the movie. There seemed little difference between her enthusiasm, and Ryan talking about a movie he liked. "The movie sounds great, Laura, and Ryan loves pizza. He can stay for a couple of hours." He glanced toward the archway she had indicated as the TV room. "Is it alright if I go say hi to Ryan?"

"Laura? Who was at the door?" A man entered from a side hall, and stopped.

"Paul!" Laura skipped to his side. "Heero's here!" Duo had only thought her face had been lit up before. "Look! He brought Ryan's dad."

"Hello," Duo said, instantly stepping forward and holding out a hand. "I'm Duo Maxwell, Ryan's father," he added a handshake later.

"Paul Teale. It's good to meet you, Mister Maxwell." Paul was smiling, and once he released Duo's hand, his arm encircled Laura's shoulders in a loose hug. "Ryan's a great kid." He nodded to the archway. "The boys are playing a game." Without waiting for Duo to comment, he turned to Laura. "Did you ask permission for Ryan to have dinner and watch a movie with us?"

Laura nodded. "He said yes."

"Good!" Paul looked back at Duo. "Let's go interrupt the boys for a minute then."

Duo nodded his agreement, and fell in line behind Paul and his wife, Heero at his side. He shared a quick look with Heero, an even briefer smile, and they were in the TV room. Ryan was sitting on his heels with his focus completely on the large vidscreen in front of him. The controller he clutched tightly, his thumbs and fingers flashing from button to button and his body jerked and swayed with his movement. A fair-haired boy was sitting next to Ryan, completely committed to the action on the screen as well. He was doing his own controller-vid game dance, too.

"Ryan, Aaron." Paul spoke loud enough to cut through the battle and space noise coming from the game. In almost planned synchrony, both boys paused the action, and turned as one.

"Dad!" Ryan cried out, jumping to his feet and running to Duo. "Dad! You have to see this! Aaron has this cool game, and it's not even out yet, but his dad works there and he gets to play them before anyone else, and they have Crazy Days. Can I watch it with them?"

Duo laughed, and shot Heero a glance at the stifled snort. "Slow down there, bud. The brain needs oxygen, so breathe." Ryan took a deep breath and blew it out just as quickly. "So, you want to stay over with Aaron for dinner and a movie?" Ryan nodded vigorously. "Okay. As long as you don't give Aaron's parents a hard time. But you have to be ready to go no later than nine. We have an early morning." He shot another glance in Heero's direction, giving him a half grin.

"Yay!" Ryan hugged his dad, and ran back to where Aaron waited. "I can stay!"

"Phone number," Laura announced suddenly. She looked at Duo, then her husband, and wandered from the room.

Duo watched her leave before turning to Paul. "I have my mobile on me, most of the time," he said, pulling the finger-width thin device from its pouch on his belt. He queued up his contacts list, and typed a name, then looked expectantly at Paul.

"Five, Five, Four--three, four, six, five," Paul supplied, peering at the screen.

"Got it." Duo flipped the cover closed, and snapped it back in place.

Laura reentered with a small pad and a pencil in hand. "It's very important to know how to reach you," she was telling Duo. "What's your phone number?"

Hiding his smile, he told her. "My mobile is five, five, two--one, two, one, two, and my home exchange is zero, zero, one--nine, nine, nine--two, one, two--three, five, four, three." He watched her write the numbers carefully, and nodded when she finished. "That's it," he told her with a smile.

"You're more than welcome to stay and have pizza with us," Paul invited.

Duo didn't glance at Heero this time, but took the liberty anyway. "I think I'll pass this time," he said instead. "Maybe next time, if you can stand to have Ryan over again."


"It's a deal." Paul laughed, and Duo noticed he was holding his wife's hand. "The movie is about ninety minutes long, and pizza is expected at six. So, this little party should be wrapped up by... eight-thirty, nine o'clock?"

"It's a plan, then." Duo started to back from the room, seeing Heero already in the hall. He looked at his son, back in position, with controller in hand. "See you in a couple of hours, Ryan. And be good."

"Bye!" Ryan called, without turning from the screen.

With Paul and Laura following, Duo joined Heero at the front door. "It was good to meet you both," he said, holding his hand out for Paul to shake. "And thank you for entertaining Ryan."

"Ryan's nice," Laura told him, shaking his hand when he offered it to her. "He has nice hair."

"He does," Duo agreed.

"You have long hair." Laura clapped a hand to her mouth, blushing. "I shouldn't have said that."

"It's alright, Laura," Paul said gently. He took her hand away from her mouth, and gave her a smile. "I'm sure Mister Maxwell gets plenty of comments about his hair."

"All the time!" Duo chimed in. "Some of them not so nice." He laughed softly at Heero's sigh.

"It was one time, years ago."

Paul looked between the two of them.

"We had a difference of opinion on hairstyles when we were younger," Duo told him in response. "And please, call me Duo."

"I will, Duo."

"I'll be back about eight-thirty, then," Duo said.

"Paul, Laura," Heero said quietly, holding the door open for Duo to pass. "If I don't come back with Duo, I'll see you later."

"Bye, Heero, bye Duo," Laura called, and ducked behind her husband.

"We should have another barbeque," Paul suggested, coming out onto the walk.

"I have plans this weekend, but soon." Heero smiled at Laura, and gave her a little wave.

"Duo, you and Ryan should consider yourselves invited as well." An alarm on his watch dinged, and Paul started. "I've got a meeting in five. I'll talk with you later," he explained in a rush, already heading inside.

"You have plans for this weekend?" Duo asked Heero as soon as Paul closed their front door.

Heero snorted, and began to head across the yard. "I seem to remember someone saying something about a 'date'?"

"Hey!" Duo jogged to catch up. "You're the one who said it."

"But you did offer." Heero was smirking.

"Then 'date' it is." Duo laughed softly, bumping a shoulder into Heero's. "You hungry?"

Heero stopped short of his door, and canted his head to the side to peer at Duo. "Is this another invitation?"

"Sure," Duo said, giving Heero a half grin. "It is the third date that kissing is allowed, right?"

"You want to kiss me?" Heero drew back in surprise.

"I just might," Duo said with a wink. "So, want to get something to eat? I don't like to eat alone, and would rather put off project paperwork a while longer."

"Dinner sounds good." Heero checked his pockets, and pulled out a key ring. "Let me lock the door and we can go."

"You'll have to suggest a place. We haven't had a chance to look around much, and I'd like something better than Burger World."

"There's a family restaurant on the other side of Maple," Heero said, joining Duo on the walk. "It's not fancy, but the food is always good, the place is clean, and the service is the best."

"Can't beat that." Duo waved a hand towards his truck. "Since it's sitting out, how about if we take the beast?"

Heero nodded, squinting at the oversized pick-up. "You're not compensating for anything, are you?"

Chuckling even as he unlocked and opened the passenger door, Duo shook his head. "Not my idea, man. It's company issued."

"Nice to know," Heero commented, settling on the bench seat.

Duo shut the door, and leaned into the open window. "I'd offer to prove it to you, but you're not cleared for that." He waggled his eyebrows, and grinned when Heero laughed.

Duo pushed his plate away with a sigh and sat back against the booth. "Now that's a good meal."

Pausing mid-bite, Heero nodded, and continued to chew, watching his friend. Duo had tilted his head back, and closed his eyes, a contented smile played about his lips. For a moment, Heero let his guard slip; what had been a faint echo a week ago, resonated in ever-increasing rings.

Their earlier banter had been light enough, reminding Heero of earlier times in younger days. He had the idea that then it was more teenage mouth with no substance than serious in deed or thought. The ride to the restaurant was short, being within walking distance from his house; the only words that passed between them were directions, and Heero agreeing to listen to the radio. Heero's fork chased peas and pearl onions on his plate; his thoughts mimicked the actions, not wanting to commit fully to any given subject.

"I told you the food's good here." He dropped his fork on his plate, and pushed it to the edge of the table. "They serve apple and cherry pie, with or without ice cream or whipped cream."

Duo groaned and cracked open an eye. "I don't think I'll be able to eat for a week. Did you see the size of that beef?"

Heero smiled briefly, and reached for his glass. "Their portions are adequate."

"Adequate, my ass," Duo mumbled, closing his eyes again.

"I would say it is as well, depending on its use." And Heero drank from his glass to keep from laughing; Duo wasn't sinking off into a food stupor any longer. His laughter drew looks, and the server at the counter paused long enough in flirting with her customer to find cause for Duo's amusement.

"That knowledge is reserved for the tenth date," he informed Heero in a prim tone.

"So many?" Heero tsked, keeping his eyes on the water rings overlapped on the table surface in an intricate pattern. "I would say eight at the most."

"For you, I'd go as low as seven."

Heero flicked his eyes upward, catching Duo staring at him thoughtfully. "Make it six and you have a deal." Duo laughed again, quieter this time, not drawing the same attention.

"About tomorrow," Duo started. "Do you have something planned other than 'be ready at nine'?"

Nodding, Heero sat back, imitating Duo's relaxed pose. "I thought we could go to the Air and Space Museum first, have lunch in one of its restaurants --" he paused to give Duo a crooked grin. "They have a lunar luncheonette, reminiscent of a place we were so fond of once."

"Is the food there any better?" Duo asked, chuckling.

"I haven't eaten there, but I know the other two places are very good." Heero crossed his arms over the table and leaned forward. "The museum usually takes roughly four hours to walk through. But I've spent all day inside its doors, and still leave wanting to see more." He was smiling softly at Duo. "I think you'll like it."

"That good, huh?" Duo cocked a brow.

"Yes, it is," Heero answered simply. "My idea was to skim through it tomorrow, and if you and Ryan are interested, returning another day -- maybe in the winter when the weather's too bad to do anything outside."

"Sounds good," Duo said, nodding. "I'd forgotten about climate and changing weather on the mudball."

"It's supposed to rain next week," Heero said suddenly. "Do you have rain gear? If not, we can make a stop at the mall after the museum."

"I --" Duo was frowning in concentration. "I don't think either of us have anything for rain."

"The mall should have everything you need, and it's between the museum and The Pier."

"The pier?"

Heero nodded. "It's an old boat dock off the bay a developer renovated." He scowled slightly. "I haven't been inside, or down to The Pier itself, I've only ever driven past it. But, I hear it on good authority it's fun."

"Is this a sight-seeing venture or a trip to revisit our youth?" Duo asked with a small laugh.

Lifting a shoulder, Heero said, "A little of both? We can go to the beach and build sand castles, if you'd prefer."

"No, The Pier sounds like another place that'll be fun and interesting. We can do the beach thing some other time."

"Next spring." Heero met Duo's gaze. "The wind off the ocean starts to get cold this time of year. I wouldn't recommend getting wet."

"You're all for long-range planning, aren't you? Here it is, our first date, and you're booking events months from now." But Duo was smiling softly, if a touch wistfully.

Heero shrugged again. "One of us has to or we'll wind up on the couch watching old movies until dawn." Duo's smile melted into laughter, if just as soft and wistful. "And for your information, this is our second."

"What? How do you figure?"

"After the Barton thing, before you went back to L2," Heero reminded him. "We went to the movies, and even shared popcorn."

"Ancient history, man. After ten years, you start with a clean slate." Duo's eyes were nearly crinkled shut in amusement. "And besides, that was two friends going to the movies to kill some time."

"But..." Heero broke off; their waitress was there, refilling water glasses, offering dessert, and picking up plates. She left as quickly as she'd come, the paper chit at the edge of the table. Heero reached for it, but Duo snatched it from his fingers.

"My treat, remember?" Duo said, pulling his wallet from a back pocket. "Besides, I could buy you dinner every night for a year, and it still wouldn't pay for what you've done already -- what you're doing for Ryan," Duo met Heero's look, "and me."

Heero waved it away. "We already talked about that. At least let me pay for my own meal."

"Not a chance, Yuy. I asked you on this date--I pay."

He stilled instantly, blinking into Duo's stare. Giving a short nod, Heero agreed. "Your date, you pay," he repeated softly.

"The man can be taught," Duo muttered, pulling out enough money to cover the check and tip.

Heero picked up his water, and concentrated on drinking several small sips. Once, he was sixteen and lost in what he felt, and how to act on it. Duo had said the movie trip hadn't been a date, but Heero knew better. If the waitress hadn't shown up when she did, he would have reminded Duo of the kiss he'd given Heero then, at the end of the night, in the dark outside Heero's hotel room. But, as Duo said, it was ancient history, and he had a clean slate to make it work this time.

"There's no accounting for love, is there?"

Startled, Heero shot a look at Duo. "What do you mean?"

"Paul and Laura," he said, musingly. "Don't get me wrong, Laura seems great, very friendly, and pretty, but --" He shrugged. "I don't know if I could do it."

He debated for only a moment, knowing Duo would understand, and knowing that Paul would tell Duo himself at the next opportunity. "Laura wasn't always as she is now," he told Duo in a quiet voice. "There were complications during her second pregnancy. She went into labor too soon, and... she nearly died. The baby... did." Duo gasped, and Heero gave him a brief smile. "Laura was in a coma for weeks, and her doctors were afraid she'd never recover." Heero's smile widened. "When she came home, she could barely speak or tie her shoes. Now, she is fully functioning, if not quite how she used to be."

"It must be hard on her--on them all."

"Paul's had to make a lot of changes, and Aaron has difficulty keeping friends. Laura sometimes remembers how she used to be, and it frustrates her that she isn't." The back of his knuckles grazed Duo's hand. "She continues to improve, and there is hope that one day she will be closer to how she used to be."

"Another living inspiration?"

"There are many around us," Heero answered, his gaze steady.

Duo looked away first, glancing toward their approaching waitress and then at his watch. "Looks like I have a little over an hour to go. Any suggestions?"

"If you'd want, we could take a drive. I could show you some points of interest."

His look a caricature in amusement, Duo cracked a crooked smile. "I'll just bet you could."

The weather on the following Sunday had been clear and mild, without a cloud in sight. But, something about the night fed the skittishness Duo's concentration suddenly developed. He could no longer focus on work. Instead of task reports detailing the latest progress, Duo saw the outline of a smile or heard the faint echo of a quiet-spoken voice.

Sliding his chair back from the card table, Duo pushed himself to his feet. A short break, he thought, and headed down the hallway.

A peek into Ryan's room showed the boy sleeping; blankets still covered his restless body for a change. Duo watched his son sleep, holding onto the doorframe to keep from moving closer. At least five minutes passed before he sighed, and eased Ryan's door shut. There were days it was impossible to believe Ryan was his. There were moments of overwhelming awe that Ryan had been trusted with him.

The bathroom was his next stop, and he took a minute to pick up Ryan's badly aimed clothing shots at the hamper. The bathmat was still damp under his feet, and Duo laid it out over the tub edge. The toilet seat lid had been left up. Duo grinned, a melancholy memory surfaced, and after he flushed, he lowered the lid. Considerations of that nature weren't necessary in a household of men. But the memory of Hilde's late night cry of outraged surprised prompted his action. At the sink, Duo washed his hands, splashed cool water on his face, and willed the memories to fade.

Duo headed for the kitchen, and after opening the refrigerator, he poured a glass of cold water, decided against finishing the leftover meatloaf, and refrained from opening the freezer. He wasn't hungry. Leaning against the counter, Duo stared unseeingly out the window, drinking from his glass in small sips. Too much had happened, and not enough time to think about it.

His thoughts were full of images of Saturday. From the start, it had been a ride comparable only to piloting Deathscythe. The adrenaline still sang in his veins.

At nine sharp, Heero had pulled into the driveway, and they were on the road five minutes later. The museum was everything Heero claimed, and then some. From the early days of flight, centuries before, to the latest technology and space farming projects, it was as Heero said; Duo knew he could spend a day in some of the single exhibits alone, and still want for more time.

The visit was as Heero told him, right at four hours in length -- enough time to skim the surface, and have lunch. Heero left the decision for which place to eat up to Duo, and Duo let Ryan choose. The Lunar Lunch Launch would have to wait; Ryan decided on Earth Cuisine.

Even if it wasn't completely unwelcome, sparks of contention flew at one point in The History of the Mobile Suit exhibit. What started as a friendly discussion with Heero on the evolution of the suit and its role in dividing the colonies from earth rapidly became a debate on the ethics of the use of weapons of mass destruction with a total stranger. After fifteen minutes of listening to the same rhetoric used the decade before, and the decade before that, Duo left the man warming up to his latest speech with a backwards wave, and a note to self to avoid fanatics in the future.

The only blight on the day, if it was one, came while Duo waited for Heero to purchase passes to The Pier. Ryan had wanted to see the ships that moored in the bay, and Duo took him to the embarcadero while Heero joined the queue. Ryan was making use of paid binocular time, and Duo split the wait guarding his back and checking on Heero's progress.

He was approached from behind, setting him instantly on edge. That a man he didn't know used his name in a familiar fashion, pushed the warning alarm. The man spoke of meeting at Quatre's over the summer, of watching Ryan win at a relay race.

"Jules Stevensen," the man introduced himself. "You and Ryan were at Quatre Winner's Summer Spectacle."

"I only know of one Jules, and you look far too young to be him," Duo responded without apology. "Too
alive, at that." He slid a little closer to Ryan.

But the man had only laughed, flashing teeth. He looked like a visitor, a tourist in shorts and casual shirt; sunglasses perched on close-cropped blond hair, and expensive leather sandals covering his feet. "Then it's good to meet you -- again,"
Jules said, switching the drink he held to his other hand and holding out his now free one.

Reluctantly, Duo took the man's hand, and jerked it back instantly. His hand felt sticky, and he looked at the slight film covering it.

"Sorry about that!" Napkins appeared, and were shoved into Duo's hand. "I guess the drink bled through."

"Yeah," Duo muttered, wiping his hand clean. "Listen, Jules, I met a lot of people at Quatre's, and if you were there, I don't remember meeting you."

Jules flashed his teeth again. "No sweat," he said. "We've met now, and hopefully you'll remember me next time."

"Oh, definitely," Duo promised.

"I'll let you go back to your fun, and see you around." Jules wandered off with a wave.

Duo didn't stop watching him until Heero appeared at his side, and drew his attention with a touch to his shoulder.

No longer thirsty, Duo dumped the rest of his water down the drain. His work wasn't getting finished on this night, and he returned to the dining room, turning off lights on his way. He shut down his laptop, and replaced folders in his bag, making things ready for an early morning.

Though the light at the end of the hall beckoned, Duo ignored it. Instead, he sat where Heero had about twenty-four hours before. The house was dark but for the distant light coming from his bedroom, and the only sound was the low hum of things electrical. Staring into middle-space, Duo relieved the day again, from doorbell ring to the almost kiss. He closed his eyes, and let his head fall back against the cushions.

It had been a long time since his life moved in orbit around someone else.

A final note in the margin of the worksheet, and Heero was finished. He put the last sheet back in its folder, and added it to the stack of neglected sheets to grade. His original plan in bringing the lot home had been to finish grading Friday night, leaving the weekend free. Duo's dinner invitation changed that plan. But then, in the past two weeks, Heero's plans seemed to have changed quite frequently. And Heero had the idea plans would continue to change, evolve, or disappear completely for a long time to come.

He was smiling slightly, if only for the cat to see. His weekend routine was shot to hell, and Mister Peabody was put out with him, and the recent reduction attention time. Having Ryan dance to his tune, playing fetch and 'scratch my chin', mollified the feline, but Heero was his, and sharing wasn't supposed to be an option.

Saturday had been warm in typical autumn fashion of blowing hot and cold every other day. Duo had dressed in tan khaki shorts ending just above the knee, topped with a plain white tee and layered with a short-sleeved chambray work shirt. His own attire more matched Ryan's -- denim jeans and cotton tee shirts.

As predicted, Duo liked the museum, 'like' being a bit of an understatement. And if Ryan's excitement and rush to see what was next was an indication, Heero knew with certainty his museum membership would see quite a bit of use. Even the brief war and peace, and war for peace argument hadn't changed the mood. But, as great as the day had gone with the trip through the museum, the dash through the mall, and the adventure at The Pier, the night had been better.

They went to the beach, anyway.

It hadn't been on the itinerary, but as day moved into evening, The Pier gradually became more crowded. By dinnertime, Heero was more than willing to agree to Duo's suggestion to calling it a day -- at least as far as The Pier went. Heero had had enough jostling with teenagers not old enough to shave for floor space to watch one of several showcase acts, waiting in lines for thirty minutes or longer, and rubbing elbows (and more) with complete strangers.

The beach was down from the seafood place Heero drove them to after leaving The Pier. Dinner was clam chowder, and shrimp salad sandwiches for Duo and himself, and fried fish strips with chips for Ryan. They ate from cardboard plates and styrofoam bowls, sitting on the large rocks of the causeway. Music drifted down from a dance club half a block from the open seafood café, and dessert, flavored Italian ices from a kiosk vendor.

The wind had picked up some, but the sand was still warm, radiating the heat of the day. Heero went back to the car for jackets left behind, and the adventure continued. Not a single castle was built, but a pocketful of shells was found. It was only a walk by the water's edge, with barely a word exchanged but for Duo's calls to Ryan when the boy went too close to the surf.

Even looking back on it a day later, Heero couldn't say what made that particular time so right, but it was.

Duo wound up carrying Ryan back to the car, buckling in the half-asleep boy, and covering him with his jacket. The ride back was mostly in silence, broken by the occasional low-voiced conversation and remarks of the day just spent. At Duo's house, Heero took his keys and unlocked the door while Duo carried Ryan in from the car. Heero trailed behind, and watched from the door to Ryan's room as Duo undressed and redressed Ryan for bed. Duo was speaking to Ryan, his voice soft and low, comforting and reassuring. Without opening his eyes, Ryan mumbled something, yawning widely in the middle. Heero couldn't hear what was said, but it still made him smile.

It wasn't until Duo was tucking Ryan in bed that Heero backed away. He retraced his steps to the living room, and waited for Duo to appear. The house was small; barely half the size of his place, but Duo had explained how temporary it was. 'Six months at most', Duo had said. A place the company found for him to live in until he could find better, secure financing for a house of his own. The furnishings were temporary as well. Adequate, but not fitting in the style Heero associated with Duo; sudden images of how well Duo fit on his couch, in his garden, asleep on his bed flashed. Banishing them from his mind, Heero went to the window and parted the curtain to look out on the empty street.

"You want anything to drink?" Duo's voice was quiet, and Heero turned. He was carrying Ryan's shoes and jeans. "I'm just going to drop these out the back door," he said, steadily removing small shells, sand polished stones, and even a sand dollar from Ryan's pockets as he walked. "The kitchen's this way--just make yourself at home." And he disappeared through an open doorway.

Heero trailed after him, entering the kitchen just in time to see Duo dump the double handful of shells and pebbles into a bowl in the sink. "I didn't realize he'd picked up that many," he mused, taking position at the door.

"Between these, and the sand, I'd say he's brought half the beach back with him." Duo looked up, smiling. "Shiny rocks and interesting shapes are worth more than gold to him." He moved to the back door, unlocking and opening it.

"They are to most young boys," Heero told him. Duo dropped both pants and shoes, and closed the door again. "On a nature field trip last year, we had to schedule a 'pocket clean-up' before loading the bus back to school." Heero shook his head. "You wouldn't believe what was turned out."

"Anything living?" Duo was back at the sink, washing his hands and drying them with a paper towel sheet.

"A lizard and two toads." Heero grimaced at the memory.

Duo smiled softly. Gesturing to the refrigerator, he said, "There's water, juice, milk, and maybe a cola or two left, if you want anything."

"No, I'm fine," Heero said, shaking his head.

"I had a great time today," Duo said quietly. "And I don't know when it was the last time was that Ryan had that much fun. Thank you for taking us."

"Maybe it was too much fun for Ryan?" The image of Ryan slumped over sleeping in the back seat prodded him into asking.

Duo shrugged lightly. "A little." He gave Heero a half grin. "The occasional overload doesn't hurt anything."

"Next time, I'll concentrate on one place at a time."

"Future planning again, Heero?" Duo's voice dropped even lower.

"Always," Heero gave him right back.

"What's in the plans for now?"

Heero raised his eyes from Duo's face to the clock on the opposite wall. "I had rather thought I'd be at home now," he said.

"Am I keeping you from something?" Duo's voice held an edge of amusement, and Heero's eyes dropped back to his face.

"Only the cat."

"Good." Duo was staring at him, and Heero couldn't look away.

"I--I would rather be here," he confessed, and immediately ducked his head flushing. It wasn't what he should have said, no matter that he thought it.

"Good," Duo was near to whispering now. "Would you rather be here?" his hand swept in an arc. "Or would a little more comfort on the couch work?"

Heero snorted. "You're getting soft, Maxwell," he teased. But, he headed toward Duo's living room, and the couch. "I left your keys on the table there," he said in passing the card table.

"Thanks," Duo murmured from behind him. "Do you mind if I turn off the overhead light?" Duo asked, "I'm craving a little dimness about now."

"Go ahead." Heero glanced up as Duo flipped the switch. It was hardly dark; the kitchen light was left on; light filtered down from the hall, and the porch light bled through the curtain. But, it was dim. Calm. Heero sank onto the couch, suddenly grateful for Duo's craving.

Duo sat on the opposite side of the couch, slouching with his head resting against the couch back, and his feet propped up on the coffee table. "I'm glad you'd rather be here," he mumbled, cracking an eye open in Heero's direction. "My feet hurt."

"Soft," Heero repeated, but he was smiling. He watched Duo close his eyes once again, getting the feeling that Duo was more comfortable with him there than he was tired and wanted him gone. "Tell me about Hilde," he said suddenly, and Duo lifted his head, his eyes opening to stare at Heero.

After a brief count of heartbeats, Duo nodded once. "There's not much to tell, really," he began, settling back against the couch cushion again. "We were friends, working and living together for a couple of years..." he shrugged, "Woke up one day to be more than that." He turned his head to catch Heero's eye. "Is that what you wanted to know?"

"Whatever you want to tell me," Heero told him. "I didn't know her, and have always wondered what she was like, why you..." Heero caught his words, and continued carefully, "Why you both married so young."

Duo dropped his eyes, staring unfocused at the cushion between them. "She was my best friend, once. And I loved her." His eyes flicked up, gauging his words. "I still do in a way." Heero nodded, understanding, and Duo went back to contemplating the cushion again.

"Business was good that first year. Anyone with a ship and a bit of manpower made money from all the scrap left over from the wars. After that, it was hard. We were too small to compete with the big guys, and there were so many small scrap yards, it was cutthroat, even dangerous." He flashed a grin at the memory. "We nearly lost our shirts the third year," his gaze rose again, "that was when I decided I wanted to do something different and signed up for the internship."

"At Colbert and Robinson," Heero murmured.

Duo nodded. "That's the one. Anyway, I was accepted into their program and we celebrated." He gave a lopsided grin. "A little too much. But, once it happened, we couldn't seem to go back to how things were. I was six months into the program when she found out she was pregnant." He paused for a long moment. Taking a deep breath, Duo raised his hands to his face and scrubbed over his cheeks, his fingers pushing against closed lids briefly. Dropping his hands back into his lap, he looked at Heero. "We got married, but things were already bad by then."

"What happened?"

He was shrugging again. "Time, money, hormones --" Duo's face flashed through a brief series of expressions. "I was never home, only there to eat and sleep, and barely that. But the program demanded a high level of commitment." He shook his head softly. "Sometimes I think if I'd only quit then, maybe things would have turned out different. As much as I tried to convince myself then that I was doing it for us -- for our soon to be family -- I was really sticking with the program to be gone from her, and her bitching."

"Did she have reason to?" Heero asked with a soft smile.

"Oh, hell, yeah," Duo agreed with a laugh. "The yard went to crap with no one to really work it, she was sick most of the time, and I --" He fell suddenly silent, shot a look at Heero, and dropped his head back on the cushion. Staring at the ceiling, his voice dropped into a hoarse whisper, "I didn't love her."

Heero turned away; Duo's eyes were watery, but, he wasn't crying. "I hear it happens sometimes."

"That's just it," he laughed ruefully, quietly. "I don't think I ever did. Not the way she wanted -- the way she deserved to be loved." He rolled his head to the side to watch Heero. "It didn't help that I... realized about then it wasn't just her I didn't love, but that I couldn't."

Heero frowned slightly. "What do you mean?"

His smile wistful, rueful and his gaze distant. "I figured out by then that I was gay." His eyes shot up to meet Heero's. "A little late."

Duo's confession left a wake of confusion somewhere in the middle of Heero's chest. "I--I didn't know," he finally stammered out.

"Heero," Duo said, sitting up suddenly, and dropping his feet to the floor. "I didn't know myself." He turned on the seat cushion, draping an arm along the couch back. "I mean, I always knew I liked boys, thought some of them were pretty damn good looking, but I dunno," His mouth lifted into a crooked grin. "I always thought I'd get married, have a kid or two, live happily ever after."

"Did Hilde know?" Heero turned to bookend Duo's pose, his fingers almost touching Duo's fingers somewhere in the middle of the couch back.

"Yeah, I think she figured it out before I did." Duo fell silent, and Heero watched him, letting the resonance fade before speaking again.

It was Duo's touch on his fingertip that moved him to ask, "Was there...anyone else? Besides Hilde, I mean."

Duo was already shaking his head. "I didn't have time to get to know anyone, between work, school, and Ryan on the weekends. It was two years before I saw daylight on a weekday, and by then," a simple lift of his shoulders, "I had Ryan, and bills, and still no time."

"It must have been rough," Heero said softly, his index finger brushed Duo's middle finger. "I wish I had known."

"Me, too." Duo's look drifted to somewhere beyond Heero's shoulder. "Hilde was about to remarry, you know. She found it -- that happiness I couldn't give her." He rested his head on his arm. "The guy was a good guy, treated her and Ryan well. Hell, she asked me to give her away."

"Were you--lonely?" One of Duo's fingers was tracing the tips of his.

Duo shook his head slowly. "Not so much. Too stunned at first, and then, I think I was too busy to be lonely." Duo's fingers slid under Heero's, fingertip pad to fingertip pad. "Enough about me. How about you? You ever get married? Become involved? Have an affair?" His mouth parted, and Duo was grinning as he asked his last question, "Lonely?"

Heero snorted, and the ceiling suddenly became very interesting. But, he cupped his fingertips over Duo's, and stroked them in shallow, gentle strokes. "Never married. It didn't take me years to know what and who I was, so traditional marriage was out. Affairs and temporary dalliances don't interest me -- never have, never will." He met Duo's stare. "That limited my scope. So, no, I was never involved with anyone."

"Never...?" Duo was leaning forward, his other hand nearly touching Heero's knee.

"Never," Heero said in utter frankness. "As for lonely," his voice dropped to a soft tone, not quite a whisper, "there have been times. At night, after a bad day at work -- the usual." He took a deep breath, released it slowly, and pushed his fingers further over Duo's until they were touching Duo's palm.

"And you never...dated just for the hell of it?" Duo asked, his voice lowering to that same half-whispered tone Heero was using. His hand shifted under Heero's, and his thumb began stroking Heero's palm.

"Never. I refused to settle for less than what I wanted, and what I wanted was not available to me." Heero watched Duo's mouth part, watched Duo's tongue moisten lips. "Coming home to only a cat everyday was a little too cliché, but the alternative was grotesque."

"A saint," Duo murmured. "Was there ever anyone you would have given up your clichéd life for -- lived in sin and against principles with?" His tone only partly joking.

"Yes," Heero whispered immediately. "If I'd known then what I know now..." His words died suddenly; eyes slammed shut, and he drew a deep breath. "I should go home. It's getting late." But his hand lingered in Duo's, and his thumb caressed the back of Duo's fingers.

"Should go?" Duo asked softly. "You can crash on the couch if you want. I can scrounge up a blanket and pillow..."

"No, I should go," Heero insisted. Extracting his hand slowly from Duo's, he eased up from the couch. "Besides, I don't sleep over on the second date."

"It's the third, you said," Duo interjected.

"Clean slate, remember?" Heero smirked.

"Convenient for you, that." Duo frowned. "How about tomorrow? I can throw something in the oven for dinner, or we can go to the diner again."

"I--there are some things I have to take care of." His throat worked, and he pushed his mouth to form a smile. "Thank you for coming with me today," he said. "I'll see you on Monday, then?"

Duo got to his feet as though he moved in slow motion; his head nodded without his approval. "Yeah, Monday."

At the door, Heero stopped before opening it, and turned to face Duo. "Next Saturday," he started, suddenly aware of how close Duo had come. "Let's plan to spend the day at the park, and you can 'throw something in the oven' for dinner then." He watched Duo, relaxing slightly when Duo nodded without saying anything. "I'll bring over some movies, and we can stay up until dawn watching them."

"I thought that was my MO," Duo said, leaning on his forearm braced on the wall by the door. "Lack of a plan, didn't you say?"

"It's not a 'lack of' if it's in the plan," Heero corrected. A vein pulsed in Duo's neck visibly; Heero was again grateful that Duo had turned out most of the lights.

"Pity," Duo whispered. He raised a hand, hesitated with fingertips less than an inch from Heero's face. "Pity it's only the second date."

Heero nodded slowly, careful not to touch Duo's hand. "It's a real shame."

"Next Saturday?"

A short nod and Heero tilted his head enough to feel the warmth from Duo's hand on his cheek. He closed his eyes for a brief moment. Opening his eyes, Heero put a little distance between them. "I'll call you tomorrow," he promised.

"Tomorrow," Duo repeated, and didn't protest when Heero opened the door, and left without looking back.

The cat jumped into his lap, startling Heero back to the present. He frowned at him, his hand raised to push him off, but wound up stroking his fur instead. His glance went to his watch, noting the time, and then to the phone. It was late, and he should have called earlier. In the light of day, the night before was more a dream than reality, and Heero dreaded the possibility of negative change.

He plucked the receiver up from its resting place, dumping the cat to the floor, and dialed Duo's mobile from memory. His palms were sweating before the first ring, and Heero wiped them one at a time, switching the phone from one hand to the other. By the third ring, Heero thought Duo wasn't going to answer.


It was Duo, though he sounded drowsy, his voice heavy and thick.

"Duo," Heero croaked. Holding the phone from his mouth, he cleared his throat quickly. "I didn't wake you, did I?"


"Yes, it's me." Heero was suddenly smiling. Duo sounded clear, surprised, but in that good -- happy-to-hear-your-voice sort of way. "I told you I'd call."

"Cutting it awfully close there, teacher. Another hour and your promise wouldn't be much of anything." Though Duo was chuckling, Heero winced at the veiled insecurity.

"I can't become too predictable," Heero countered. He settled back on the couch, slipping his glasses off, and holding them by an earpiece.

Duo chuckled in his ear. "I have an idea that you're anything but, Yuy." There was a slight pause, and Duo asked, "What have you been up to today? Something wicked and wild, right?"

He looked at the neat stack of folders on the edge of the table. "Of course, did you expect less?"

"From my son's teacher?"

"If you put it that way, then no. I spent most of the afternoon grading papers." Heero topped the folder stack with his glasses, and sat back, turning to lay on the couch with his head on one arm. "The only thing wild about that was deciphering bad spelling and crooked handwriting."

"Sounds like your day was little better than mine." Duo laughed softly, and Heero liked the sound, even over the phone lines. "Besides work brought home that I didn't finish, I had all the excitement of cleaning the bathroom and doing laundry."

Heero smiled, imaging Duo bent over a toilet bowl with a scrub brush in hand. "Add clean the fridge, feed the cat and change the litter, and you have my day."

"Are you sure we're virile, young men in the prime of our lives?" Duo laughed. "We sound more like mid-aged spinsters."

"I don't think they're called spinsters any more," Heero mused. "And while I can't vouch for you, I still fit your description. Even with dishpan hands."

"Shit, Heero, we need to do something crazy one of these days."

"You mean like fly out to Vegas and have an affair?"

"That would do for a start." Heero heard fingers snap. "Oh, but we can't. Make it Space Disney, and sometime after this damn building gets erected, and I'm in."

"You have erection problems?" Innuendo aside, Heero felt the thump the implications Duo's half tease represented. "And I thought it was me who did the future planning?"

"There's still a matter of clearance."

"How many dates before I have SCI access?"

There was a hesitant silence, and Heero barely heard the sigh, but his throat tightened at what it might mean. "Why--why don't we see after date number three, and determine access class as we go?"

Heero closed his eyes; the knot that had formed was gone, and he was smiling as he agreed. Call results proved negative on negative change.

Fifteen minutes before the ten o'clock recess on Monday, an office runner brought Heero a message. He left it to sit until after he'd finished explaining sentence structure concepts, and letting the class break up into small groups to practice. Making sure his aides were circulating, Heero picked up the note, unfolded its creases, and read. His eyes immediately sought out Ryan, and he scanned the message again.

Signaling to Missus Freeds, he left quick instructions, and let her know where he was going. The walk to the teacher's lounge had never been longer. His fingers punched the number on the note, believing the news from the other end could only be something bad.

"Samuels and Ibsenstein, Duo Maxwell's office," cool, polite tones voiced.

"Ms. Murdock?" Heero asked, "Is everything all right? Duo --"

"Oh, Mister Yuy," Duo's assistant said, her tones warming instantly. "Everything is fine. I called be--"

"There's nothing wrong with Duo?" Heero interrupted, suddenly frowning.

"No, other than he might be a bit bored." She laughed lightly. "He's in a meeting at the moment."

"And this has nothing to do with Ryan?"

"Well, no." Her voice sounded a bit more hesitant, held less of the confidence she had used before.

"Then, what is the nature of this call, Ms. Murdock?" He crushed the note in his hand.

"Our plans didn't work out for last time, and since it seems Mister Maxwell has found someone to take care of Ryan after school," she paused again, and Heero heard the breath she drew. He was grimacing into the phone, thankful the lounge was empty. "I was wondering if you'd like to go out to dinner with me this Saturday."

Heero drew his mobile away from his ear and glared at it. Reining back his first response, he asked in crisp tones, "You pulled me from class to ask me out on a date?"

Her laugh was more of a nervous twitter than humor. "It doesn't sound pleasant put that way. But I do look forward to seeing you again."

"I'm sorry, Ms. Murdock, if you received the wrong impression of me," Heero said, keeping his tone level. "My interest lies elsewhere."

"You're--you're dating someone?"

Heero had time to wonder at her shocked tone. "Yes, but the statement is more of a double entendre." Her response was long in coming, and Heero was ready to end the call when she finally spoke.

"I understand," her tone was suddenly politely cool once more. "I wish you good fortune, Mister Yuy."

"Thank you," Heero told her simply. "And good luck to you, on your next hunt." He ended the call, and sat staring at the phone for several minutes, the recess bell reminded him he still had a class to run.

Heero had just finished chapter ten of Seitu Mori's 'And to Teach Others', and debated starting chapter eleven when his phone rang. Never a good sign at five minutes past ten on a Monday night. It meant either one of his aides wouldn't be showing up to class the following day, or the principal had a parental complaint she needed to discuss -- about him or one of his fellow instructors.

"Hello?" He said, picking it up on the second ring.

"Heero!" It was Duo. "Didn't wake you, did I?"

"No, I was reading." Heero closed his book, and shifted to set it on the nightstand. "Is everything all right? Ryan feeling better?"

"Yeah, everything's cool, and I think Ryan was just tired," Duo assured. "He had a little bit of a fever when he came home, but it's gone now."

"Good," he said, his glasses now off and resting on top his book. "He'll be able to make it to school in the morning?"

"He should, but I'll call you if the fever comes back." Duo sounded suddenly bemused. "You... really care for him, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," Heero answered simply.

"That...that's good to know." Duo fell silent, and Heero let it lengthen.

"Was there...anything else?" He finally asked, hesitating to make assumptions.

"I have to have reasons to call you?"

"No, but I'm sure there are more interesting things for you to do besides listen to me breathe." Heero was smiling, settling back against his pillow. "Unless you like that sort of thing."

"Sometimes," Duo laughed. "We'll have to try some heavy breathing one of these days."

"I'll add it to the list--right under the Affair in Vegas." Duo laughed again, reinforcing Heero's assessment the night before. Mister Peabody suddenly jumped on top the nightstand, his nose dipping low inside Heero's water glass. "Stop that," he said instantly.

"What?" Duo asked in a startled voice.

"Not you," Heero said into the phone, reaching over to knock the cat away. "'Furball' is thirsty, and the water in his bowl isn't good enough." He grinned in using Duo's nickname for the cat.

Duo grunted. "What's with that thing, anyway? He about took my finger off this afternoon."

"He just has to get used to you."

"Damn straight," Duo barked. "Hell if I'm losing to a damned cat."

"Good." Heero raised an eyebrow at the 'damned cat' as he settled on the bed. "You'd disappoint me if you did."

"Is that a challenge?"

"Only if you want it to be."

"Only for you would I be willing to win over pussy," Duo groused.

"Oh, that's bad, Duo." But Heero laughed anyway. "I'm taking away points for that one."

"You're keeping score now? But seriously, Heero, what's with that cat? He's psycho."

"All cats are psycho, Duo. It's part of their nature." Heero reached out to scratch between Mister Peabody's ears.

"Yeah, well, yours is special where psycho's concerned." Heero nodded silently, chucking fingers under 'Psycho's' chin. "Where does a person find such a crazy feline, anyway?"

"In the gutter," Heero supplied instantly. Duo laughed as Heero knew he would. "I rescued him from the city drain out front," Heero said when Duo quieted. "He was still a kitten, about six months, and it'd been raining for two or three days. I could hear him meow--it took me awhile to find where it was coming from."

"And you just decided from that to keep him?"

"It was more -- you save a life, and it becomes yours for life."

"Or in Furball the psycho's case, you save a life, and you become his for life," Duo cracked. Heero laughed, though he nodded his head in agreement. "Hey, we both did a little of that. Does that mean you're mine for life?"

"Yes," Heero said promptly, only minimally joking. Duo sucked a breath, and Heero held his. The agreeable sound Duo made next, ironically reminded Heero of Mister Peabody.

"I can live with that," Duo said softly.

Heero didn't say anything, but closed his eyes to listen to Duo breathe. So different in every way from the call over twelve hours before. "Oh," Heero said, opening his eyes. "I spoke to your assistant today."

"Tracy? You called me at work?"

"She called me," Heero corrected. "I thought it had something to do with you or Ryan."

"And it wasn't?"

"No..." Heero drew out the word. "She asked me to dinner Saturday."


"Asked to take me out to dinner, Saturday night," Heero repeated.

"But--we have plans. Dinner and movies to dawn."

"I know," Heero said, looking at the phone he held. "It's one of the reasons I turned her down, told her I wasn't interested in a date or her."

"Oh." And Heero could almost see Duo chew on his lip. "How'd she take that?"

Heero shrugged. "It's not my concern. As long as she doesn't call me other than to relay messages from you."

"I know your number," Duo said suddenly. "I can call you myself, give you my own message."

"Good," Heero murmured.

"So, Tracy has a crush on you." Duo sounded more like himself, self-assured with a constant humorous tone imbedded.

"'Had' is more accurate."

"Come on, you don't lose a crush that easily. It takes years--if it's serious."

"Then it's not a crush," Heero said softly, his eyes closed, and he smiled gently.

"You know this from experience?" Duo's voice matched Heero's.

Heero nodded. "Yes."

"Lucky guy to earn such loyalty. Must be a bastard, though, to ignore you this long."

A long exhale. "I believe he isn't ignoring me any more." And Heero was holding his breath again.

"I hope so or I'll have to have a talk with him."

"A strongly worded one--he can be stubborn and sometimes doesn't listen." Heero smiled at the ceiling again.

"I hear a knock upside the head w--" Duo yawned suddenly, loudly.

"It's getting late," Heero said, glancing at the clock. It hadn't seemed as though a half-hour had passed.

"Yeah, I should let you get your beauty sleep."

Nearly dropping the phone, Heero snorted. "Good night, Duo. I'll see you tomorrow."

"G'night," Duo yawned again, muttered something about 'bells on', and the phone went silent.

Heero replaced the handset and turned out the light. Questions he had carried for nearly half his life were being answered; a distant dream was becoming tangible.

Duo sat in Heero's driveway listening to the rain hit the truck roof, hood, and bed. Night had come; the street was dotted with lit light-posts and front porch lights welcoming visitors. He shook his head in an attempt to cast away the drowsiness. Ryan still waited inside, Heero was expecting him -- late, but expecting. His hurried afternoon call garnered Heero's acceptance, and the instant offer to provide Ryan dinner eased the worry, if not the guilt.

A click and whirling motor sound brought Duo's dazed vision into focus. Heero's garage door was slowly opening, light from the garage spilling out from the increasing gap. The door was at the three-foot mark, and Duo saw a pair of legs and part of a torso. At five feet up, he knew with certainty Heero was waiting for him. He cut the truck's headlights, and saw Heero waving him into the empty slot next to his car. Duo nodded, and pulled slowly forward.

"I had meant to open it earlier," Heero said once Duo exited the truck. "I never realized before how much time it takes to put one little boy to bed."

"Ryan's asleep?" Duo asked frowning. A quick glance at his watch, and he groaned, smacking a hand to his forehead. It was after ten.

"Come on inside," Heero urged, reaching a hand out and catching Duo's arm. "I'll heat something up for you to eat, and you can tell me about it."

Duo nodded numbly, let Heero pull off his jacket and hang it in the side closet. He protested when Heero squatted at his feet, and began unlacing his boots, but Heero waved it away.

"They're wet, and you're asleep on your feet. Besides, it's done -- just step out of them." Heero rose, and gave him a brief smile. "I'll bring you a pair of dry socks, just go sit."

"I--I'd like to check on Ryan, if you don't mind," Duo mumbled. Standing still made him sway, and his night wasn't finished yet.

"He's in the second bedroom," Heero told him softly. "Anything in particular you'd like to drink?"

"Something malted," Duo shot back, moving across the kitchen floor. "Make it a double." But, he added a twist to the grin, and hoped Heero didn't really think that's what he meant.

Heero had put Ryan in his guest room, and from the door, Duo spotted Heero's cat. His hand dipped into a pocket, and fingers worked the treat free. "Hey Psycho," he whispered. "Just here to see Ryan, so be a good kitty." He was at the bed, and the cat's ear flattened. Not giving it a chance to add vocal injury and injustice, Duo tossed the treat close, and turned his attention to Ryan.

The boy's covers had twisted about the middle. Duo worked them free, and tucked them around Ryan. Duo brushed dark hair back, finger backs lingering over a cool forehead. He had Hilde's coloring, and his mouth. The rest was a blend of them both, or from a relative neither knew. A stroke to his son's hand, and a light kiss to the cleared forehead, Duo started to turn away.

"Keep an eye on him for me, mutt," he whispered to the cat. Holding his hand out open, with palm up, Duo inched it closer. Mister Peabody flicked his ears at him. The treat was gone, but the cat shifted back, and Duo withdrew his hand. "Next time, killer."

Heero was still in the kitchen; Duo could hear the soft clinks normal in making -- or reheating -- a meal. He hesitated, wanting to see Heero again, to watch him work, and maybe chew on something while he waited. But the comfort of Heero's couch called, and Duo sat, rested his head against its back, and closed his eyes. Heero would be there in just a minute.

It was the soft rustling of a page turning that pulled him from sleep, but it took several long moments for him to open his eyes. He was warm, and comfortable, and sleep was too compelling to do more. Another rustle sounded, and it clicked, Heero, Ryan and the sense of how late it must be collided. Duo forced his eyes opened, pushed himself upright and sat blinking at Heero. Heero lowered his book, and stared at him without speaking.

"How long was I out?" He mumbled, fingering sleep from an eye. A throw blanket was partly covering him, and Duo stared at it, knowing without asking how it got there.

"Almost two hours," Heero said, keeping his voice low. "I didn't want to wake you."

His head dropped back against the cushion, and Duo blew out a breath. "Damn," he whispered. "You should have kicked my ass out." He straightened, ran a hand through his bangs, and faced Heero. "I didn't mean for you to stay up this late, man. You could have gone to bed, left me here or something."

Heero only smiled, and set his book aside. "That's not likely to happen." He rose to his feet though, and for a moment, Duo thought he was hinting for Duo to leave immediately. "I'll get that plate, now, and then you can go back to sleep." And he was gone from the living room before Duo could think of a reply that wasn't ungrateful sounding.

Trying to clear his eyes, Duo blinked several times, forced his eyelids to stretch, and instead of fighting back the yawn that pushed its way out, he let it go, mouth open wide with a deep gut-wrenching sound. At least he felt somewhat more alert, if not truly awake. The blanket he folded and tossed on the back of the couch. And Heero appeared a minute later, a plate, and napkin in one hand, and a glass of milk in the other.

"I brought you milk to help you sleep," Heero told him, setting the plate on the table in front of Duo. "If you'd rather have something else..."

"No," Duo rushed to say. Heero started to move away, and Duo caught his hand. "Thank you," he said, pushing his lips upward.

Heero's fingers squeezed his hand, and he let them go, returning to his seat on the chair. "Anytime you need anything, Duo, just ask." He gestured to the plate. "Eat, and if you need to talk, talk."

Picking up the sandwich, Duo had the idea that Heero had made something else for dinner, and would have served those leftover if he hadn't fallen asleep. But food is food, and a sandwich at midnight was quick, efficient, and affective. After half the sandwich was chewed, and most of the milk drank, Duo picked up a carrot stick, nibbled on it, and dropped it back to his plate.

"I--damn," Duo swore. The sandwich churned in his stomach, and he fought the impulse to lose it.

"It wasn't your fault," Heero said, leaning forward watching him.

Duo shot him a quick look, and turned away. "No, not technically. But damn...it was my building, my project."

"And he by-passed the rules. Safety-lines and harnesses were created for a reason, Duo. You are their manager, not the babysitter."

Bile was still strong in his mouth. He knew what Heero said was logically correct, but, it didn't alleviate a damn thing. He was on-site when it happened, one of the first on the scene. Now law enforcement considered the south end of the sixth floor a crime scene. The rest of the week was going to be hell -- meetings with lawyers, with the investors, with every supervisor, and every team member.

"Finish the milk and go to bed," Heero instructed gently.

Duo snorted, but reached for his milk anyway. He raised the glass in mock salute, and drank, watching Heero watch him down the last of it. It wasn't until he lowered the glass, and was wiping his mouth with his hand that he realized what was different.

"You...wear glasses?"

As if he'd forgotten them, Heero's hand rose, and he touched the frame. "For reading, mostly."

Smiling softly, Duo replaced the empty glass on the table. "You--they look good on you."

"Thank you." Heero sounded amused, and Duo picked up the discarded carrot, and chewed a bit more.

"I didn't know the guy," he said quietly. "I'd met him, but other than a good morning or two, I didn't know him." He tossed the stub of carrot back on his plate, and wiped his fingers on his jeans. "In a way, that makes it worse."

"You can't know everyone who works for you. It would become impossible -- you'd spend all your time getting to know them rather than working."

Duo inhaled, and released the breath slowly. "I know you're right, Heero. I just don't want you to be at the moment." A sideways glance showed Heero nodding his head.

"You want to beat yourself up some more."

Dropping his head back, Duo searched for answers on the ceiling. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Then what could you have done to make it not happen? How could it have been prevented?"

"I don't know. I don't know what could have -- what I could have done differently. It's not that simple."

"Was the man inexperienced in his job? In working on heights? Did he have a medical condition? Did he not know the policies and procedures?" Heero fired off each question in rapid succession.

"No! He wouldn't have been up there if he didn't have the experience or aptitude for heights. If he had a medical condition, the site manager would have known. At least, he should have known." Duo raked a hand through his bangs. "I'll find out that answer tomorrow. The lawyers are going through the man's records, and the insurance company is supposed to notify HR if and when a policy holder makes a claim for specific medical reasons... like heart irregularities, anxieties, seizures..." He looked at Heero, feeling the glare but unable to tone it down. "Dangerous shit when dealing with heights or equipment that'll kill."

"It was an accident, Duo. At most, a person could call it 'non-deliberate suicide'."

"That isn't even a term." But Duo was smiling, a smile that was barely there, but he was smiling.

"Probably not," Heero agreed. "But it is apt." He stood abruptly, holding a hand out to Duo. "Come on," he commanded.

Bemused, Duo took Heero's hand and let Heero pull him to his feet and let him led him out of the living room. "Where are we going?" He asked, not unhappy his hand was still in Heero's.

Heero paused at the hallway entrance. "Putting you to bed."

"Bed?" Duo wanted to shake his head, clear what had to be cobwebs clouding his hearing. But, Heero was pulling him down the hall to his room. They came to a halt in front of Heero's dresser. Only then did Heero release his hand.

"We're still about the same size," Heero murmured, squatting down to open a drawer. "Here," he said, holding up a pair of thin lounge pants. "Those should fit." Duo took what Heero offered, and Heero was opening another drawer. This time, he pulled out a tee shirt. "So you don't have to sleep in yours," he said quietly.

Clutching the items close, Duo shifted his gaze slowly from Heero's face to Heero's bed, nicely made up with the bedside table lamp lit. "And just where am I --" he turned back to Heero, "sleeping?"

Heero had risen to his feet; his look had followed Duo's to his bed. He began to grin slightly. Eyebrows lifted, he leaned close and whispered, "Four more dates, Maxwell." and pulled back slowly.

Duo opened his mouth to reply, but snapped it shut, and nodded. "Ryan's room?" He asked, surprised at how nice that sounded. But Heero nodded, and held out an arm to guide him. "I know the way," Duo mock groused.

"And I'm being a polite host," Heero shot back.

"Are you going to tuck me in, too?" Duo grinned over his shoulder.

"Do you want me to?"

They stopped in front of the guest bedroom door, and Duo turned to face Heero. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the house, the furnace kicked on, and heated air whistled through a vent above Heero's head, rustling his hair. Duo watched it shift, and dropped his eyes to see Heero staring at him.

"Yes," he answered simply, and the slight frown creasing Heero's forehead smoothed away. "But, that can wait. At least until the next sleepover."

"Roger that," Heero affirmed. "Mission accepted."

Duo knew he was going to do it before he moved; his hand flashed up, cupping the side of Heero's neck, fingers digging into the nape. His thumb brushed along Heero's jaw, and he saw Heero's eyes jump from his lips to his eyes and back.

"Heero," he ground out.

"It's okay, Duo," Heero murmured. His eyelids were already sliding closed, his head drawing closer.

Heero's breath was soft against his cheek, and Duo groaned low. Tilting his head the slightest bit, exhaling softly, his lips landed on Heero's. He had meant to keep his eyes opened, had wanted to watch Heero as they kissed. But Heero's lips moved, and Duo's world shifted. The hallway disappeared, and time was nonexistent.

By the time Heero pulled away, whispering a quiet "goodnight" with his forehead against his, and before he entered his assigned room for the night, Duo made the decision he wasn't waiting another twelve years to kiss Heero ever again.

In typical Saturday morning fashion, Ryan had woke before he did. Lying in bed, Duo listened to the program Ryan watched, attempting to identify character voices, and what might be happening on screen by the sound effects alone. Ryan's subdued cheer, and laser build up whine then explosive release gave name to the show.

"Tech Warriors," Duo said aloud. He stretched, reaching for each bed corner, arms and legs spread, a yawn rounded out his lazy morning routine. Turning his head, he marked the time, noting there was nothing on his agenda for another three hours, but get ready for meeting up with Heero at eleven.

Throwing his covers back, Duo levered himself up and out of bed, leaving it unmade behind him. Cartoon noises became louder the closer he got, and he stopped just behind the couch to watch. Ryan's current heroes were fashioned after mobile suits of old -- pregundam days. The leader was the typical hero, dashing, commanding, decisive with time for everybody. It was a role Duo hadn't played, a role he didn't want to play.

"Morning, toad," he called out to his pajama wearing son sprawled out on the floor in front of the vidscreen. "What's for breakfast?"

"Cheerios!" Ryan yelled back, with only a quick glance behind him, eyes glued to the action on-screen.

"Good choice."

Duo continued into the kitchen. His movements almost by rote, Duo put water in the maker, added grounds to the basket, and turned the set on. He wiped the milk spill from the counter, closed and put away the cereal box. And debated on what to eat himself. Staring at the small collection of cereal boxes, he wondered what Heero had for breakfast. Wondered if Heero made something hot, or poured cereal. Wondered if Heero skipped breakfast instead.

The coffee maker dinged its completion, and Duo snorted at himself, pulling down a box of granola oats. One day he'd know Heero's preferences, but this morning, standing barefoot in his kitchen thinking about it wasn't going to get him closer to an answer.

By his second cup, he was on the couch with his laptop perched next to him, half paying attention to Ryan's shows, while skimming through new groups and personal email. While it was still a fresh idea, Duo shot off a quick message to Trowa grinning the whole time he typed, asking if he'd seen the new character on the current version of Tech Warriors, and did it remind him of someone. 'Something' was more accurate. It was the heavy artillery more than the body style.

"Can I go to Aaron's house?" Ryan asked, looking at Duo, his body twisted around.

"Maybe," Duo mused, finishing his email. He glanced up at Ryan, catching the tail end of a commercial, and his lips twitched. "We're meeting Heero in the park later. I'm sure he wouldn't mind if Aaron joined us."

"'k." Ryan turned back to his cartoon.

"We can call over and ask when it's more of a decent hour," Duo told the back of his son's head. Heero was his in a little more than two hours for the rest of the day. And, if luck held, for the rest of the night as well. Two days before, he had woken up in bed beside Ryan, in Heero's house. Heero's kiss was more a dream than reality; the morning was rushed, even in borrowed clothing, and a travel mug of coffee as he bolted out the door.

Heero hadn't said anything, and Duo wasn't ready to approach it -- yet. Taking another drink from his mug, Duo smiled softly. Tonight, he would find his answers; verify the signals he'd been reading. His email dinged, and Duo pulled up Trowa's response. Trowa listed specs for HeavyArms against specs for the techmecha warrior, with a notation for Duo to get a life and stop watching children's shows.

"You don't plan to sleep all afternoon, do you?"

"'m not sleeping," Duo mumbled a response. The sun was warm on his face, though a well-placed arm blocked the light. "Besides, it's your fault."

"How is your sleeping my fault?" Heero's voice sounded amused. Amused enough that Duo almost lowered his arm.

"You made lunch. You fed me poultry. Ergo, your fault."

"Poultry makes you sleepy?" Now Heero's voice was questioning as well as amused.

"You know that stuff in birds -- make you sleepy."

"You mean tryptophan?"

"Yeah, that stuff." Duo yawned, and let his arm drop to the blanket above his head.

Heero was leaning over him, his lips acting like they wanted to smile. "That's a myth, Maxwell. You're sleepy from all the carbs."

"Still your fault." Duo smirked, and lowered his eyelids. "If you hadn't stuffed me..."

"Some action will burn off the grogginess."

His eyes flew open. "You offering up some action?"

"Exercise, Pervert." But Heero was laughing softly. Heero's eyes dropped down to Duo's lips and lingered. "What's for dinner?"

Duo chuckled, his eyes watching Heero. "You can't be hungry already. Unless it's not food --" His hand slid over his lower abdomen.

"Hungry, no." Heero was shaking his head. "I just don't want you falling asleep on me after dinner."

"You have plans for me after dinner?" Duo waggled his eyebrows, and levered himself up onto bent elbows.

"Wasn't the plan movies to dawn? Falling asleep isn't keeping with the plan." A bit of a breeze rattled through the trees, and Heero's hand moved over Duo's chest, picking up a Dogwood leaf. He spun it between his fingers.

"Plans are made to be changed--especially if something better comes along." Duo leaned forward, drawing Heero's attention from the leaf. "But, I don't plan on falling asleep," he promised in low tones. "Might miss some of the movies though," he added, sliding close enough to brush his lips over Heero's. "Lasagna."

Heero's eyes were closed, and Duo felt his exhale on his lips. "Too many carbs with a lot of fat. Add the wine and you're out by eight." His eyes opened slowly. "You kissed me."

"And I'm going to do it again, too," Duo whispered even as his lips moved over Heero's. "You'll have to find a way to keep me awake," he said, drawing back far enough to watch Heero.

"A challenge?" Heero smiled. "Accepted." His head lifted, and he looked beyond Duo. "We might want to keep the public displays more private."

Duo shrugged. "A kiss or two isn't showing anything more than what a kid will see on an average vidshow."

"Exhibitionism is not something I feel comfortable with. Especially in front of my students." Heero sat up, and got to his feet. "Ryan and Aaron are still on the swings, and you still need to work off lunch."

Putting his arms behind his head, Duo stared up at Heero. "What do you have in mind?" He asked, half leering.

"I was thinking that you and I should take the picnic things home."

"Home," Duo repeated slowly, a lazy smile pushing at his lips. "That sounds... good."

"I thought so." Duo grasped the hand Heero held out, and Heero pulled Duo to his feet. "I have some baseball equipment we can bring back. Play some catch. Bat a little."

"You pitch?" A smile played at Duo's lips. "Or do you prefer to catch?"

Heero put the last of the containers left out back in the hard plastic carrier before turning to give Duo a look of his own. "I believe in more reciprocal play. It rounds out the experience."

"You sound like a coach," Duo joked, folding the blanket he'd been laying on a minute before.

"I am."

Duo glanced up, catching Heero watching him. "Why am I not surprised?" Duo shook his head. "You're full of them, Heero-babe."

Shrugging, Heero hefted the carrier in one hand. "I'd be pretty boring and stoic if I didn't." Duo laughed, and Heero began walking toward the playground.

"No one could call you boring," Duo claimed, catching up with Heero. They pulled even with the swings, outside the sand barrier, and Duo cupped hands to his mouth. "Ryan!" He called, and waved his son over when the boy looked around.

"We have to leave already?" Ryan whined, still several feet from his dad, Aaron a step behind him.

"Not quite yet," Duo said, smiling. "Heero and I are going to his house to drop these off. We'll be back in a couple of minutes, okay?"

"Yeah!" Ryan exclaimed.

"You know the drill while I'm gone, right?"

"Don't talk to strangers. Don't go with anyone without the code word. No fighting, and don't get hurt." Ryan recited immediately.

"Good boy!" Duo gave Ryan a quick one-arm hug. "And don't forget to have fun!" Ryan ran back to the swings, chasing after Aaron.

"They'll be all right for a few minutes," Heero said. "But if you'd rather stay, I can manage --"

"Nah, it's good." Duo looked around, and began walking beside Heero. "The playground's full of people, Ryan's a smart kid and isn't going to let anything happen to him without bringing notice." Then he winked. "Besides, he's tagged."

"Tagged?" Heero laughed at the word.

"He wears an ankle bracelet with an alarm and tracking chip." Duo pulled a small black device from his pocket. Showing it to Heero, it flashed a series of green numbers. "This little baby gives random codes needed to unlock it. It also monitors basic health stats. If someone tries to remove the tracker without the code and my fingerprint, an alarm will sound." Duo flipped it over, showing the tiny speaker. "The alarm is also keyed by either Ryan pressing a panic button, or if his vital signs drop too low."

"I've seen those before," Heero mused. "And they don't get in the way of medical treatment?" He flicked his eyes up to meet Duo's. "If there's an emergency, that is."

"Hospitals have override codes. But it displays on this thing," Duo held up his device, and then pocketed it, "telling which hospital."


"Yeah," Duo agreed, glancing back over his shoulder to peer at the playground. "Nothing can prevent anything from happening one hundred percent, but this will at least help if anything were to ever happen." He stepped off the curb after Heero, crossing the street a half block from Heero's street. "So, you're a coach?"

Heero nodded, glancing at Duo. "Junior and Senior divisions, mostly." He switched the carrier to his other hand. "I could pick up an empty coaching slot for a Minor division," he said. "If you think Ryan would be interested."

"You'd change to be his coach?" Duo asked, a hint of surprise in his voice.

"I'll have to take him with me to practice, and I think he'd like it."

Duo came to a brief stop, staring at Heero. "You really like those long-range plans, don't you?"

"Where you're concerned--where we're concerned, yes." Heero frowned slightly. "Do you expect things to change before spring? Or do you not want Ryan playing baseball?"

"No, that's not it at all," Duo told him, beginning to walk again. "I... assumed you were only watching Ryan until I could find someone else."

Reaching out, Heero took hold of Duo's free hand and gave it a squeeze, pulling Duo into a stop again. "As long as Ryan is happy with the arrangement, and you're comfortable with it, we can leave it as it is."

"Heero," Duo said softly, unable to turn away. "God, I want to kiss you right now."

Heero smiled. "Save it for later."

All during the first and second movies, Heero and Duo sat on opposite ends of the couch, arms stretched across its back with hidden fingers touching. Ryan started out on the floor, shifting from knees to lying on his stomach to kneeling. By the end of the first movie, he was on the couch between his father and his teacher.

"Bedtime after this," Duo said during a quiet break in the movie.

"But, Dad," Ryan protested, sitting up. "There's still more movies."

"Yes, and you can watch them some other time," Duo countered.

"But, I'm not sleepy!"

"It's after nine, well past your bedtime even for the weekend. Don't push it."

Ryan sat back with a huff, glaring at the vidscreen. "No fair."

Glancing over Ryan's head, Heero shared a short smile with Duo. Duo rolled his eyes, and stroked Heero's fingers under his own. Heero looked down at Ryan, his pout already fading with his attention focused on the screen. Turning back to the movie, Heero let it wash over him, sure in the outcome.

Dinner had been every bit as delicious as Duo claimed, though hardly 'something thrown in the oven'. He had been in Ryan's room, learning the difference between each of the techmecha of Ryan's favorite cartoon program while Duo started on dinner. Leaving Ryan mid-battle, Heero wandered into Duo's kitchen, intent on watching 'The Master' at work.

His watching turned into his helping, from chopping the spinach and grating the Romano, to saving the noodles from boiling over. It was as though they had worked in a kitchen many times together, moving in synchronicity around and next to one another. Finished buttering and seasoning the bread, Heero turned to watch Duo caramelize the onions and garlic. Duo moved the pan to a back burner, and stepped over to stir the white sauce, and Heero moved.

"It smells good," he said, warning Duo where he was. At Duo's backward flash of a smile, he put his hands on Duo's hips and leaned over Duo's shoulder to watch. "I never expected you to be good at this."

Duo had stiffened for a moment at Heero's touch, but gave a wry grin over his shoulder. "Guess you're not the only one with a surprise or two," he murmured.

"Surprises from you, I expected." He shifted to Duo's side, keeping his hand on Duo's hip, and his arm across Duo's back. "Does this bother you?" He asked, glancing from Duo's face to over Duo's shoulder.

Duo snorted softly, bumping his hip into Heero's. "Bother bad? No. Bother...good?" Duo raked his eyebrows. "Oh, yeah."

"You still want to kiss me?" Heero murmured, turning Duo to face him and leaving his hands holding Duo's hips.

"More than ever," Duo confirmed, leaning forward into Heero.

"Dad!" Ryan yelled from his room. "I can't find Grandbouche. Do you know where he is?"

Duo exhaled loudly, and Heero laughed silently, stepping back and turning away. "Hold that thought," Duo demanded, and hurried from the kitchen.

The chance was gone; Ryan followed Duo back into the kitchen, looking for something to drink. When Ryan climbed on top the stool in the corner of the kitchen -- away from the stove and what workspace the kitchen held -- Heero found his own place to take up residence.

"Who is Grandbouche?" Heero asked, looking from the highly amused Duo to a suddenly animated Ryan.

"Uncle Trowa!" Ryan answered loudly.

"What?" The beginnings of a smile wavered, and Duo laughed aloud while Ryan grinned and darted from the room.

"It's a mecha," Duo answered, putting the finishing touches on the lasagna and putting it in the oven. "Quatre had a set of them made for Ryan."

"And this one reminds Ryan of Trowa?" Heero asked in a bemused voice. Ryan returned, a bulky red and black mecha in his hand. Heero took it from Ryan, and looked it over. The tall, slender boy he'd known looked the least like one of those blocky, slow-moving toys.

"I think it had more to do with the challenge," Duo mused, washing his hands and drying them off before facing Heero again. "Trowa and I used to get into arguments all the time with the techmecha from this show," he began explaining. "Trowa believed in one warrior more than I did." Duo shrugged. "Quatre got tired of us arguing specs and probabilities, so he had fully functioning models created -- Grandbouche for Trowa, and Andalucia for me."

"Fully functioning? As in live weapons?" Heero asked incredulously, looking at the tiny weapons carried by the toy he held. Ryan tugged it from his hand, replacing the mecha with his own hand.

"Well, they'd have to be to prove a point, right?" Duo took the opposite side of the sink, resting a hip against the counter, facing Heero. "The weapons were ingenious replicas from the show, but a total bitch to work. I had to practice for weeks to get the coordination right."

"You...piloted it?"

"No, they were on remote control." Duo frowned. "I don't even want to hazard a guess as to how much Quatre spent making those damn things. But come game time, Trowa and I were out on the helipad, going at it head-to-head." Duo chuckled softly. "He just can't get over it that I kicked his ass four out of five times."

"Because Andalucia was a better model? Had better weapons?" Heero asked, curious despite himself.

"All skill, man!" Duo grinned. "Truthfully though, until Trowa modified the weapons calibration, Grandbouche wasn't beating shit." He shrugged. "After Tro did his little magic trick with the heavy guns, he kicked my ass all over the pad and then some. Then he quit -- said he proved his point."

Heero smiled softly, looking from Duo to Ryan and back. "Do you--visit often?"

"Not often enough," Duo replied. "When we were on L2, Tro and Quat would come out maybe twice a year," he shrugged, "maybe three or four times, if there was something going on." His hand went out and he ruffled Ryan's hair. "Ryan and I would make the flight to L4 at least once a year."

"Will living on Earth change that?"

"Not in this lifetime," Duo said with a smile. "Quatre'd fly down here and kick my ass if I kept him from his godson."

"Dad!" Ryan laughed. "Uncle Quatre wouldn't kick your --"

"Ryan," Duo interjected quickly.

"He wouldn't, though," Ryan insisted. "He said he'd just come take me back with him."

"Oh, he said that did he?" Duo growled, crouching low and taking a dive for Ryan. "What would he do if I didn't let you go?" Scooping the boy up in his arms, Duo mock barked, and growled, pretending to bite on Ryan's neck and shoulders. Ryan laughed, alternately pushing on Duo's shoulders and clinging to his shirt as Duo swung him around in circles.

"Daddy!" Ryan screeched, laughing.

Heero jumped out of the way of flailing limbs, darting in to rescue Ryan's glass on the counter. Duo pushed his way through the door and into the living room with Heero trailing after. Ryan's laughter hit a high note, and Duo dropped him on the couch, following right behind.

"Gonna get you," Duo threatened, gnawing his way from neck to arm. "Eatcha all up." Ryan squirmed and wiggled, his legs kicking out from under Duo.

"Heero!" Ryan cried, his hand reaching out. "Help me!"

"Oh, no," Heero laughed, backing away. "Getting tackled by the beast once today was enough."

Duo looked up with a feral grin. "You think so?" He growled, low and threatening. Moving slowly from Ryan's prone figure, Duo stalked on all fours toward Heero. "You think you can escape me, mortal?"

"Duo, what are yo--"

And Duo pounced, jumping on Heero and bringing him to the floor. Ryan howled somewhere behind them, and Heero had a flash of a wildly grinning face, peering over the couch arm. Duo wasn't holding him secure enough, and Heero flipped him over, landing on top, and pinning Duo's hands above his head.

"Yes, I think I can," Heero said, panting a little.

"You only think you're not caught," Duo whispered, arching a brow. Heero saw Duo's glance shift, and suddenly, he was shoved to the side, Ryan sliding over the top of him. "Get 'em, Ryan! See how ticklish Heero is."

"Cheat! You're ganging up on me," Heero cried, and the laughter burst through, deep and rich. Ryan's laughter joined his, and Duo's voice mingled them together.

Another shift and click, and what he had been wanting fell into place. Heero laughed again, even as he used Ryan as a shield against Duo's onslaught, he knew. He was home.

It was Heero's job to make the popcorn while Duo started the process of putting Ryan to bed. Waiting by the popper, watching the kernels sizzle and jump, his only warning was the scuff of feet on tile, and suddenly a small body clamped itself to his waist.

"Goodnight, Heero," Ryan said into Heero's side.

"Goodnight, Ryan," Heero said in return, his arms giving the boy a loose hug. "Sleep well."

"Night!" And Ryan pulled away, and ran from the kitchen.

Heero watched the door swing shut in bemused fashion; the kernels began popping behind him. With a brief shake of his head, Heero went to the refrigerator and retrieved a couple of beers. The popcorn was finished by the time he had the tops off and thrown away.

The living room was still empty when Heero set the bowl and bottles down. He looked toward the hallway, and Ryan's room beyond, hearing the soft murmur of Duo's voice. Smiling a tender smile, he took his seat and picked up his beer.

"Starting without me?" Duo asked, dropping onto the couch next to Heero and reaching for his bottle. He tipped it to his lips, and drank. Lowering it with a sigh of contented pleasure, he grinned at Heero. "I needed that."

Heero looked at his bottle, then glanced at Duo with a sideways look. "You don't drink around Ryan?"

"Rarely." He clanked his bottle to Heero's and drank again.

Picking up the remote, Heero started the movie, and settled back on the couch, aware of how close Duo was now. The opening credits were rolling, music played in slow tempo. "Any particular reason?" Heero asked, adding when Duo threw him a look, "So I know how to modify my behavior around him as well."

Duo flashed him a grin, but turned away to watch the vidshow. "He doesn't remember her, not really, but he knows alcohol was involved in her death." Duo gave Heero another slight grin. "It makes him uneasy when I drink, so I don't."

"I'll keep that in mind," Heero told him softly. He turned back to the movie, watching it without seeing, listening to Duo breathe, aware of every move and shift he made.

The popcorn bowl was between them, Duo reaching across his body for each handful. Duo's other arm was propped up on the back of the couch, nearly empty bottle clutched in his fingers. The movie dragged on. Heero took Duo's bottle from him, and sat it beside his own, both next to the bowl of popcorn.

Sitting back, Heero turned to face Duo, ignoring whatever clandestine operation was supposed to be happening. He had deliberately sat closer; his hand rested palm-down on Duo's leg just above the knee, and his fingers stroked along the inseam of Duo's jeans.

"Heero?" Duo asked softly.

"I'd like that kiss now," Heero murmured, already feeling Duo's lips on his.

"You would, would you?" Duo teased, instantly smiling. He began leaning closer, even as Heero brought his hand up, catching Duo behind the neck. Ryan's techmecha flashed from the corner of his eye, and Duo put a hand to the middle of Heero's chest. "Hold that position," he muttered, and slipped away from Heero's partial embrace. He held the toy aloft. "Let me just check on Ryan first, k?"

Heero nodded without saying anything. He drew a deep breath, and released it slowly. At least the trembling in his knees had settled. With a quick look towards Ryan's room, Heero sat forward, picked up his bottle, and drank the last of his beer. The clock on the vid disc player flashed blue tinted numbers; ten twenty-two.

"He's asleep," Duo announced from the hallway entrance. Heero turned to watch him walk closer, noticed Duo had changed his shirt. Duo dimmed the lighting, much the same as he had the week before, leaving them bathed in the switching light to shadows from the vid screen.

"Were you worried he'd wake up? See us?" Heero asked softly, believing he knew the answer, but asking anyway.

Duo shrugged slightly, giving him a slight smile, and looking away. He picked up a pillow Ryan had been using earlier, and squeezed it between his hands. "I --" And Duo sighed. "I've never done this before --" He shot a glance at Heero. "I mean, since Hilde...since there's only been Ryan and me."

"We don't have to do anything, Duo." Heero wanted to go to him; he wanted Duo to come to him.

"Yeah, I know." Duo laughed softly. "You know, I even changed my shirt, and now I can't even fucking sit next to you."

Heero blinked. "I...frighten you?"

"No!" Duo shot out, staring at Heero and squeezing the pillow. "Not exactly."

"Then what exactly?" Heero watched Duo intently. His hands he kept folded together on his lap.

Duo blew out an explosive breath, and began to pace. "It's like this," he started, two steps to the window. "Back when we were kids, I was so fucking confused." At the window, he kept his back to Heero. "You were my friend, someone I trusted," he glanced over his shoulder, "someone who trusted me." Turning, Duo began pacing back.

"I understand." Heero nodded.

"No, you don't." Duo stopped before reaching the couch. "Back then, I knew I was straight. I knew I was going to get married and all that. But you--you fucked me up."

Heero bolted up. "I--what?"

"That's not what I mean. Shit!" Duo raked a hand through his bangs, and sat on the edge of the couch arm. "There were times that the only thing I could think about was wanting to kiss you. I'd...I'd have dreams about you."

"Oh." Heero sat, keeping the distance Duo created between them. "If it helps, I dreamed of you, too."

Duo smile wanly. "Yeah, it does." He slid down the arm to the seat cushion, the pillow still clutched between his hands. "There was something about you that pulled me--it's why I couldn't leave you alone after the war."

"You were always popping up whenever I'd least expect it," Heero said softly.

"And then, after that Mariemaia shit, after we went to the movies that one time," Duo's eyes rose, meeting Heero's. "You dropped off the universe, and I couldn't find you."

"And you're afraid I'm going to do it again?"

"In a word, yes."

"There was a reason for it then," Heero said, reaching out to touch Duo's hand on the pillow. "I told you, I wasn't going to settle for less than what I wanted. That I didn't do one-night stands."

"How come you never came after me? It wasn't like I was hiding." Duo turned his hand in Heero's, his fingers closing tight.

"I don't know any more," Heero told him quietly. "I knew I had to straighten my head out--we'd just been through two wars. So much had happened." He tugged the pillow from Duo gently, and pushed it behind his back. "I knew I had never felt--better. Happier, than when I was with you. When I realized what and who I wanted, I'd heard you were getting married."

"So, you stayed gone," Duo said, letting Heero slide closer.

Heero nodded, his eyes darted over Duo's face. "It seemed for the best at the time."

His laugh was harsh, his hand closed around the loose material of Heero's shirt, and he pulled Heero closer yet. "We're a couple of fools, Heero."

Nodding, Heero was a breath away. "Is this okay?" And their lips met, parted, and came together again. Heero slid his hand up Duo's sides; Duo's hand let go of his shirt. Heero smiled through the kiss, pulling back enough to stare at Duo. "You brushed your teeth."

"Better than garlic and beer?" Duo grinned, and pulled Heero to him, hooking a hand at the nape of Heero's neck, and dropping the other one lower, to Heero's hip.

"Are you," Heero started, kissing Duo, "implying," Duo's hand worked at Heero's shirt, pulling it from his jeans, "my breath stinks?"

"Never." Duo dropped an open mouth kiss below Heero's ear. Heero's shirt was now loose, pulled free from Heero's jeans, and Duo slid his hand up inside.

"Good to know," Heero said, and groaned. Duo was sucking on his neck. His pulse was thrumming, he had wanted this for so long, for far too long. His fingers worked in the hair at Duo's neck, and he guided Duo's head up. Lips met, and Heero turned his head, parting his lips and stroking his tongue to Duo's lip. Duo moaned in his mouth; the sound ricocheted, his own moan more a whimper.

Duo's hand was on his back, his thumb caressing his skin, blunted nails raking invisible furrows. Heero felt himself slowly recline, drawing Duo with him. The pillow he'd taken from Duo earlier was beneath his shoulder, and Heero grabbed blindly at it, pulling it free and flinging it out of his way. Duo chuckled softly against his mouth, and gave him another kiss.

His leg was bent under Duo's weight, and Duo's hipbone was digging into his thigh, but having Duo move was the last thing on Heero's mind. Duo's mouth was traveling again, over Heero's jaw to his ear, and Heero inhaled sharply; Duo's teeth teased at his lobe. "Duo," he ground out, and felt his tormentor smile.

Heero released his grip on Duo's hair, his hand on Duo's back, bunching Duo's shirt up with his fingers. Heero's other arm was pinned between his body, Duo, and the couch back. His hand had little in the way of mobility, but his fingers managed to hook through one of Duo's belt loops. Duo's shirt was tucked under his wrist, and Heero was touching skin. He felt the shivery breath Duo sucked in, and applied Duo's technique against him; close-trimmed fingernails raked softly, and his thumb tracked Duo's spine in gentle caress.

"Fuck," Duo mumbled, nuzzling his cheek against Heero's. "This might not be a good idea, Heero."

"Yes, it is," Heero panted, arching his back, his thigh pressing into Duo, only to halt abruptly. His eyes opened, and he pulled back, turning his head to stare at Duo. "Is that..." he asked, leaving the sentence incomplete.

Duo groaned, dropping his head to Heero's shoulder. "I told you it's been awhile."

His heart was still hammering in his chest, but Heero eased Duo's shirt back into place, and was able to move them both over just enough to pull his arm free. His arms circling Duo, he held him close. "I take it you'll be changing clothes again?" He asked, partial amusement infusing his tone.

Duo levered himself up off Heero, propped up with a palm planted to the cushion next to Heero's head, and an arm braced against the back of the couch. "Smartass," he said with no little affection. Heero's hand was back at his neck, pulling his head down closer. Their lips met, this time warm and comforting.

"Always, for you," Heero breathed, and rested his forehead to Duo's. "I'll be here when you come back."

The principal's office was like principal's offices throughout the earth and colonies, Duo decided. Not so much the same in furnishing, or décor, but they decidedly gave off a 'you're in trouble now' air. An air Duo knew intimately.

Ryan sat in a chair outside the principal's door, the school secretary keeping an eye on him. As he was ushered into the office upon his arrival, Duo sent his son a quick smile. The message received severely lacked details, other than Ryan was in trouble, and trouble with a capital 'T'. That Ryan didn't look scared, but appeared to be extremely pissed, told Duo more than the principal ever could.

"I am sorry for calling you from work, Mister Maxwell," the woman stated, closing the office door and gesturing to a seat for Duo to take. "If I had the choice, I would send Ryan back to class, but I'm afraid my hands are tied in this matter."

"And what matter would that be?" Duo asked, sitting where he'd been told. He smiled politely, attempting to refrain from saying anything more. This woman, after all, was Heero's boss.

"There's been a bit of an altercation on the playground this morning," she said, taking a seat behind her desk. "Ryan and another boy exchanged blows."

"Ryan must have been provoked," Duo said immediately. "He doesn't lash out without reason. What'd the other boy do?" He flushed immediately, and gave the principal a wry smile. "I'll bet you get the 'my child is innocent' routine every time, don't you?"

"Just about." The principal smiled in return. "However, in Ryan's case, there was some provocation."

"Why don't you tell me what happened, and then we can discuss semantics."

"Agreed," the principal said promptly. "From Ryan and a handful of other witnesses, the other boy, and one of his friends were discussing the mother of Ryan's friend," her eyes darted to scan a paper on her desk, "Missus Teale?"

"Laurie," Duo confirmed, an inkling on events already making itself known.

"Right. Ryan overhead the conversation and took offense. He demanded the boys apologize to Aaron and I'm afraid even more insults were said." She tapped the paper in front of her, and looked at Duo directly. "While Ryan did not strike out first, he did participate in a fight. Fighting for any reason is part of the district's zero tolerance policy measure. This rule alone requires me to suspend Ryan for no less than two days." She offered the slightest smile. "However, given the nature behind the fight, and how early in the day it took place, Ryan will be suspended for the rest of the day, and all day tomorrow."

"Zero tolerance, huh?" Duo forced himself not to glare. "And those who defend themselves are mete the same punishment as those who perpetrate the crime?"

"Well, it's hardly a crime, Mister Maxwell. But there have been some distressing incidences in the past that led the school board to institute such measures."

Duo closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. "I understand. So, what's next? I take Ryan home and he's there for two days? What about homework or class study?"

"I've asked Mister Yuy to step down. He will have items for Ryan to work on today and tomorrow." The principal rose, and began walking to the door. "This is Ryan's first offense," she said. "Further offenses will be dealt with in a more strict manner." She opened the door, and Duo got to his feet.

Heero was squatting by Ryan's chair, Ryan's hand in his. On the chair beside Ryan, several papers were clipped together on top of two workbooks Duo remembered from the Open House. Both Ryan and Heero glanced up, and Heero turned back to Ryan, gave his hand a squeeze, and stood.

"Mister Maxwell," Heero said. "I've brought homework and study material for Ryan to work on until he returns." Heero's hand indicated the small pile. "He shouldn't have any difficulty with most of the assignments. But, I'm sure if he has any questions, you would be able to answer them."

"And if I don't know, I do have your number, Mister Yuy."

"Good, then that's settled. Gentlemen, I have to meet up with another parent in a moment," the principal said, holding her hand out to Duo. "Mister Maxwell, I look forward to seeing you again under more pleasant circumstances." She glanced down at Ryan. "And I'd better not see you in my office for disciplinary reasons again."

"Yes, ma'am," Ryan said in a very quiet voice.

Duo watched her walk away, and held his hand out to Ryan. "Looks like you're bumming with me, buddy," he said softly.

"What about your meeting tomorrow?" Heero asked, keeping his voice low.

"Shit," Duo swore. "I'll have to see if Tracy can --" Heero's hand on his sleeve stopped him.

"Let me take care of it," Heero said. "You plan on how to handle your meeting."

"What are you planning, Heero?" Duo asked, narrowing his eyes.

"Trust me," Heero said, and gave him a brief smile. "Just have dinner ready for me when I come over tonight."

"You're coming over tonight?"

"That was what I was planning to do. Unless you have any objections?"

"No," Duo mumbled, glancing down at Ryan. "Plan away."

"Good. I'll see you about six, then."

If Ryan had thought his suspension would be another free day with his dad, he learned differently. The start of 'their day' might have given him that false impression, because, Ryan's dad didn't stop at Burger World often. His excuse was that it was lunchtime, and there weren't lunch related foods at home. The market was next, and Ryan was even allowed to chose two snack food items, and his favorite ice cream.

Now here he was, chained to one end of the card table while his dad worked on the other end. Stupid worksheet. Stupid homework. Stupid Brad -- Bratty Brad with a big mouth. Ryan kicked the table leg, and his glass of water wobbled. He almost did it again, but his dad looked at him over the top of his laptop.

Stupid table.

"Can I go watch the vid now?"

"I don't know. Can you?" His dad asked back.

Ryan sighed. Loudly. "May I go watch the vid now?" He glared at his paper. If Dad thought he was glaring at him, he would know what glaring was.

"Are you finished with your work for today?" His dad was looking at him.

"No," Ryan grumbled. "Mister--Heero always explains it to us. Shows us how to do it."

"That's a different question," his father said, standing up and coming around the table. "Show me what you're working on."

"Prefixes and suffrages." Ryan pushed his worksheet in front of father.

"Suffixes." His dad was smiling. "You know the difference between the two, right?" Ryan nodded his head. "Good. It looks like all you have to do with this sheet is add a prefix to a root word, and make a new word from it." His dad smelled like that green stuff in the bottle in his bathroom. "See from the example -- your root word is 'pick', and your prefix choices are 'sub', 'dis', and 'un'. Say each new word to yourself, and tell me which sounds right."

He liked it when he used to go to his dad's work. To the 'site' work, not the office. Tracy was nice, but she talked on the phone all the time, and didn't want him to mess with anything in his dad's office. His dad promised him a ride on the tractor one day. 'Backhoe', his daddy called it. He was also supposed to ride in a 'boom' someday too. Ryan looked at his father.

"I can't say it."

"Sure you can," his dad said, pointing to the sheet. "Try sounding them out."

"Heero always reads them to me," Ryan said.

"Oh, he does, does he? I'll read a couple of them for you, but this is your work, buddy-boy." His dad picked up his pencil, and underlined a word on the prefix column. "Just sound the prefix, then the root -- 'sub'pick?" His dad's nose crinkled up, and Ryan laughed. "Does that sound right?"

"No!" Ryan looked at the worksheet.


Ryan frowned. It sounded almost right. "Discpicable?" He asked instead.

"No, dispick. Despicable would be adding a suffix to a completely different word."

Sighing again, Ryan shook his head. Stupid words. He knew the prefix now. The next word was easy, and he wrote it down before his dad could even start to read it.

"You really like Heero, don't you?" His dad asked.

"Uh huh," Ryan said, swinging his feet. He wondered who was going to help water Heero's plants, and if Mister Peabody was going to miss him.

"Me, too."

His dad was weird, and Ryan frowned at him. "Is he like Uncle Quatre and Uncle Trowa?"

"Kind of," his dad said. But he was smiling goofy when he said it. "He's a friend, but more than a friend..."

"He's my teacher!" Ryan said proudly. "And I get to go over to his house after school. And he takes us to cool places. Can we go to the museum again?"

Laughing, his dad ruffled his hair --which he hated -- and told him, "Someday, sport. Someday." This really meant that he'd have to ask a million times before his dad gave in and said yes.

"Would you like it if Heero were to coach you in baseball, someday?"

Ryan wrote the next word down, biting his lower lip. "He already does," he said, making sure he crossed his 't'. Heero didn't like it when he didn't cross his 't's.

"He does? But it's not baseball season yet."

"Heero takes Aaron and me to the park after school. We play catch, and Heero shows me how to hit the ball." Ryan set his pencil down, and grinned at his father. "Heero says I'm a 'natural'."

"A 'natural', huh?" His dad was smiling, but he tapped the worksheet. "Two more problems and you can go."

The doorbell rang, and Duo was finishing up the revisions to site infractions discovered during the OSHA inspection on Monday. Ryan raced to answer the door, and Duo glanced up, hearing Heero's voice. A quick look at his watch, and Duo groaned; he'd forgotten to start dinner.

Heero was entering the house, stopping just inside the door to toe off his shoes, and drop a bag hanging from his shoulder to the floor. He gave Ryan a smile and a plastic sack, with a quiet, "take this to the kitchen," before heading in Duo's direction.

Looking from the large flat box Heero held up to Heero's face, Duo grinned crookedly. "How'd you know I didn't start dinner?"

"I called you about an hour ago, remember?" Heero said amusedly. He set the pizza box on the table, and with a quick look to the kitchen, leaned close, and gave Duo a peck on the lips. "I wanted to do that earlier."

Duo sat back, smiling. "A peck? That's the extent of what you want?"

"There is no measure on that," Heero said, lowering his voice as the kitchen door began to swing open.

"Pizza!" Ryan cried out, already lifting the box lid.

Still staring at Heero, Duo said, "Stay out of that, Ryan. Give Heero a chance to at least say it's for you."

"It's for you," Heero supplied immediately, watching Duo. "Why don't you run and grab some of those paper plates and napkins."

Ryan's feet were barely in flight when Heero moved. His hands cupped either side of Duo's face, and he was kissing him. No peck on the lips, but a full assault, lips flattening, parting, kiss deepening as tongues collided, and Duo moaned. As fast as he'd begun, Heero pulled away.

His lips still wet and tingling, Duo stared in disbelief. Heero began stacking in a methodical manner, all of Duo's folders and moving them off the table. Duo resisted the urge to touch his lips with his fingers, but he did use his tongue. With a short laugh, he sent off the last revised copy to Tracy with the instructions to have it copied and ready for the early morning meeting.

"So, Oh Mighty One," Duo started, closing down his laptop, and replacing it in his bag. "What's your secret plan for tomorrow?"

Heero had taken the plates from Ryan, and opened the pizza box before replying. "I took the day off."


"I took the day off," Heero repeated. "One or two slices, Ryan?"

"Two, please!" Ryan's eyes were glued to the cheese string coming off the pizza slice.

"One to start. Finish it and you can have another," Duo threw in instantly. "Heero, you didn't have to do that. I could have found someone already available to take Ryan for a couple of hours."

"I know, but you needed to concentrate on the meeting. You said last night that there was still a lot of paperwork that needed to be completed." Heero handed him a plate with two slices. "Besides, I haven't taken a vacation day during a school year in years."

"What's the bag for?" Duo asked, nodding his head to the door.

"Clothes," Heero said. "For tomorrow."

"You're staying--here?"

"Unless you object." Heero sat in the seat next to Duo, and picked up a slice with both hands. "You have an early meeting. I thought it best to sleep on the couch, be here when you wake, and keep Ryan in his familiar environment."

Duo stared at Heero for a moment, watched him bite into his pizza, and chew. Slowly, he raised the slice in his hands and mimicked Heero's actions. If the situation were a tad different, Heero wouldn't be sleeping on the couch. Duo's eyes sought out his son, and he smiled softly around his bite. Ryan was telling Heero about his day, finishing up his homework, and how much he hated spelling.

There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for his son. Duo couldn't quite look at Heero following that thought. But, Heero sleeping on the couch had a great deal to do with it. After his discouraging lack of control over the weekend, Heero was the first to broach the subject. Duo's protest was weak, and he knew Heero was right in this as well.

Watching Heero add the second slice to Ryan's plate, Duo knew it would be soon.

Heero gave up concentrating on reading, and instead, sat on Duo's couch with a single light on. It was just before nine, and Duo hadn't come home yet. They both knew his being late was a possibility, and Duo's call during dinner confirmed it. Heero ushered Ryan through a nightly routine that was partly guesswork and partly observation.

Headlights flashed in the window, and Heero heard the now familiar sound of Duo's truck. At least tonight, Duo said dinner was being provided; Duo's state of mind was all that Heero cared for.

His news wasn't of the global kind, but it would directly impact their lives. Waiting for Duo was one of the hardest acts he had had to do in a long time. Keeping his impatience and excitement in check while he assessed Duo's current state was an exercise in emotional control.

And then the door opened, and Duo walked in. Heero was waiting, taking Duo's laptop case, and setting it aside, and giving him a kiss, light and teasing, before backing away and letting Duo close the door.

"Shit," Duo grinned. "If I'd known this was waiting for me, I would have snuck out earlier."

Heero grinned in return. "Then you'll have to make up for the lost time."

"With pleasure," Duo murmured, shedding his jacket and tossing it over the back of the nearest chair. His hands reached for Heero, his fingers hooked through belt loops, and he tugged Heero close. Heero's hands rose, his fingers threading in Duo's hair, and caught Duo's lips with his own.

Duo's head tilted, and his mouth opened. Heero slid his tongue past Duo's lips, touched tip to teeth, and taste buds to taste buds. The anticipation had been building for most of the day, and Duo's touch set his nerves on edge, prickling the skin, and raising the hairs on the back of his neck.

Pulling back slowly, caressing the inside of Duo's mouth as his tongue withdrew, Heero's lips lingered on Duo's. His eyes opened in unsurprised amusement; he had no recollection of closing them. But, Duo was watching him, his lips red and moist from the strength of his kiss. Heero thought of kissing him again, and forced himself to draw breath instead.

"How was your day?" He asked, suddenly aware of how absurd it sounded.

"Getting better by the minute," Duo said, grinning. "Any particular reason for the question...in the middle of one hellava fantastic kiss, I might add."

"I meant to start with the question," Heero replied, his tongue darted out to swipe at Duo's lower lip. "I wanted to make sure you were doing all right."

Duo propelled Heero backwards, turning him to sit on the arm of the couch. Standing between Heero's legs, Duo braced his arms and leaned down for a kiss. "I'm doing more than all right, now."

Using his hold on Duo's neck, Heero pulled him down for another kiss, a caress of lips. "Good, because I have something to show you I think will make your day even better."

"That good, huh?" Duo asked, drawing back and letting Heero stand.

Heero took Duo's hand, and pulled him along behind him into the kitchen. Giving a simple warning, he flipped the switch, flooding the room with light. He was smiling, ignoring Duo's chide about his seriousness. Smiling as he directed Duo's movements to the front of the refrigerator, and stood behind him, peering over Duo's shoulder.

"What am I supposed --" Duo started with a laugh that faded immediately. His hand trembled reaching for the paper pinned to the fridge's metal surface with a magnet. "Ryan?" He murmured, holding the piece in both hands.

"This afternoon," Heero answered, keeping his tone low. "I let him do 'Art', and he drew me this." Heero's voice wavered, and Duo shot him a glance over his shoulder.

"You know what this means?"

Nodding, Heero slid his hand around Duo's waist and pulled him tightly back against him. "I won't be sleeping on the couch tonight."

Duo laughed softly. "Won't your cat miss you?"

"He'll get over it." Heero kissed Duo's neck.

Duo set the drawing on the counter, and brought a hand up to circle Heero's neck. "He'd better, because I don't plan to share our bed with him."

"Hmmm, now who's the long range planner?" Heero murmured in Duo's ear. "I thought that was my department."

"For this, I'll trade jobs." Duo canted his head back, and kissed Heero's cheek. "You do know I don't...I've never done this sort of thing before."

Heero rested his chin on Duo's shoulder, casting his eyes to peer at Duo's face. "I haven't done any of it before." He shrugged lightly. "We'll just have to take it easy and learn together."

"I like that." And Duo pulled free, taking Heero's hand and moving toward the door. "Let's go test this learning together thing, now." Heero laughed softly, following close, unable to keep from touching Duo.

The overhead kitchen light went off, leaving the room in darkness with only the bare half-moon and a handful of visible stars to shed light through the kitchen window. On the counter next to the refrigerator lay a drawing of three figures, one decidedly shorter than the other two. Heero had recognized his backyard as the setting; the two taller figures were holding hands while the shorter one stood in front of them. They all wore smiles, one with a long, brown braid, and the other two with short dark hair.

Saturday after lunch found Duo in his all too familiar place: the card table in front of his laptop. Two days of meetings and plans sprouted wings, and Duo labored to retrofit work completed to new designs. He was hurrying to finish the latest, and hopefully the last, round of revisions; as soon as he was done, the weekend was his, and he already had plans to pack up a few items, (and Ryan), and spend the rest of it at Heero's.

"Is it time to go now?" Ryan asked, hanging over the back of the couch.

"In a few more minutes," Duo said, glancing over to his son. "And don't stand on the couch."

"You said that an hour ago!" The whine crept into Ryan's tone.

"And it might take me another hour, especially if you keep asking." Duo stretched out, reaching for a set of plans lying curled in the corner. "Go find something to do."

"Can I go over to Aaron's?"

"We'll be going over there in a few minutes. You can wait." Duo shot his son a glare, spreading the plans out on the table and holding down the corners with whatever was handy.

"Dad," Ryan said, lengthening the word. "I can walk there. It's only through the park."

"Ryan!" Duo snapped, and stopped. It was a nice day out, the sun bright without being too warm, and a touch of breeze. Ryan had been inside all morning, and Duo knew realistically it was going to take him at least fifteen minutes to finish what he was doing, and another half hour to get ready to leave. "Okay, here's what we're going to do," he said. "You are going to walk straight through the park to Heero's -- no stopping to play or talk or any number of a hundred things you like to do. When you get to Heero's, you will call me. Got that?"

"Yeah!" Ryan shouted, jumping off the couch and running to his father. "I'll go straight to Heero's then go to Aaron's."

"First, go get your shoes on, and find your jacket!" Duo called. In less than five minutes, his son was completely dressed, and gone. Duo imagined the boy running the distance between the houses, and wondered if he'd have the breath to tell Heero why he was alone and early.

A slight smile played about Duo's lips. It was easy to slip into thoughts of Heero. Easy to recall his image as he was, lying in Duo's bed with the early morning light bleeding through drawn curtains. And far too easy to picture Heero's face as they learned things together.

Sleep was a lost cause that night for Duo. Heero was with him for a time, touching, kissing, mumbling nonsense, but even as Duo watched, Heero drifted to sleep. Watching him, it was all Duo could do to keep from touching, to keep from repeating that amazing act that had left them breathless, sweating, and euphoric.

About an hour before dawn, Duo rose and dressed in sweats and a tee shirt, and headed to the kitchen for coffee. He replaced Ryan's drawing where it belonged, wondering if he was a dolt for wanting to have it framed and matted. What started out as making a pot of coffee morphed into frying bacon and eggs, toasting bread, and setting the table. An hour and a half before work, Duo left the kitchen, cup of coffee in hand and breakfast in the oven to keep warm.

Heero was still sleeping when Duo reentered. He paused to watch him, but knowing Ryan would soon wake prodded him to his dresser, and another set of sweats were pulled out for Heero. It wasn't until he perched on the edge of the mattress on Heero's side that Heero's eyes began to blink open.

"Morning," Duo greeted warmly, keeping his voice low. Heero rose up bracing himself on bent elbows.

"Morning," he mumbled, looking around Duo's room and returning to Duo's face. "What time is it?"

"Almost six," Duo said. He dropped his hand to rub Heero's blanket covered thigh. "I've made breakfast, and coffee if you want some." Heero's nose wrinkled. "I might have tea, if you prefer that instead."

"No, coffee's okay." Heero was smiling softly now. "I'll have to make sure to bring over a few things to keep in stock here."

"Oh, hey, speaking of things to keep in stock." Duo brought the sweats around and put them on Heero's lap. "Ryan gets up pretty early." He deliberately eyed Heero's naked chest. "You might want to put something on."

"I'll add an array of clothing to the list," Heero murmured sitting up and reaching for Duo. Halfway up, he winced and Duo caught the look.

"Are you okay?" He asked, sliding closer. "I didn't...hurt you, did I?"

Heero was shaking his head. "No, just a little--stiff." He smiled wryly. "Not used to that form of baseball," Heero was whispering against Duo's lips now. His kiss was brief, and Heero was sitting back, his eyes flicking from point to point on Duo's face, to his hair, to his tee shirt.

"Bet you never expected I'd be such a great pitcher." Duo grinned, but turned his head at a noise down the hall. "I think Ryan's up. He'll be heading in here next."

"Got it," Heero said, and slipped Duo's sweats under the covers. With a couple gyrations, Heero was done, and reaching for the tee shirt Duo tossed in his direction. Ryan stumbled through the door as Heero pulled the shirt over his head.

Ryan came to stop halfway to Duo's bed, staring at Heero. He shot a look at his father, standing next to the bed and back to the bed's occupant. "Heero?" He asked. "Yes," Heero answered simply.

Duo waited, trying not to hold his breath. His son's smile and even simpler 'ok,' nearly left him reeling. He had been expecting the worst, a lengthy explanation in the least. But Ryan crawled up on his bed in his usual manner, and threw his body on Duo's pillow.

"What's for breakfast?" He asked, voice muffled to indecipherable. Duo shared a quick smile with Heero, and found he could breathe after all.

It was thirty-six minutes past noon, and Duo sat back from the screen, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. The house was unusually quiet, and he frowned, dropping his hands to his lap. Ryan was at Heero's, his memory supplied, and the instant tension that had flared eased, only to tighten immediately again.

Ryan hadn't called.

His mobile was in his hand, thumb pressing Heero's quick call number in seconds. His heart began to race, knowing it was stupid -- Ryan was at Heero's, probably trailing after Heero while he worked in his garden, or was off playing with Heero's stupid cat.

"Duo?" Heero answered before the second ring. "Everyth--"

"Is Ryan there?" Duo interrupted, his grip tightening on the phone.

"Ryan? No, isn't he--"

"Fuck!" Duo shouted. "He left to walk to your place about," a quick glance at his watch, "forty-five minutes ago."

"He's not here," Heero reported immediately. "He must be in the park."

"I'm heading out now," Duo said, running for the door, Heero still in his ear.

"Check his tracker," Heero commanded, and Duo heard a door slam through the phone. "I'm heading for the park from my end, toward the swings."

"Shit!" Duo fished out the tracker's receiver, jogging through the park. He spotted the dot, recognized the coordinates. "He's in the park," he said quickly into the phone. "Closer to your side, I think. I'm going to run." Without hanging up, he increased his speed, covering the wooded and grassy slopes from his side of the park, to Heero's.

He heard the playground before he saw it, and his steps slowed, his head whipped from side to side, attempting to pinpoint Ryan or spot Heero. "You see anything?" He demanded into his mobile.

"No, he's not here!" Heero nearly shouted. Duo's head jerked up, hearing Heero over the phone and in the distance. In a moment, he was at Heero's side, anxiety warring with anger.

"Where the fuck is he?" He growled, and looked at the tracker again. "Down that way," he said, pointing the opposite way from Heero's house.

"There's Aaron," Heero said, and took off at a run, Duo right behind him. "Aaron!" He was shouting before he was even close enough. But Aaron heard him, and came running.

"Where's Ryan?" Duo demanded. "Have you seen him?"

"He was running that way," Aaron said, pointing down the street. "He came, but said he had to go to Heero's first."

"How long ago?" Heero asked, trying to keep his voice steady.

"I don't know!" Aaron looked from Heero to Duo. "Honest, I don't. I was playing ball with Willie and Mikey, and we wanted Ryan to come play too, so I was going to go to your house to see if he couldn't come, and then he was running down the street..." Aaron's lip began to tremble. "Is he in trouble?"

"I hope not," Heero answered, and reached a hand out for Duo. "Let's start in the direction Aaron thinks he saw Ryan heading --"

The device in Duo's hand emitted a high-pitched beep, and then three long beeps that melded into one long steady whine. Duo's face paled. "It's a hospital alarm." He began to run again, heading the way Aaron had pointed.

Three blocks down, a woman stood across the street, a young girl at her side. Duo noticed her, and dismissed her immediately. His eyes followed the blinking light of the tracker telling him he was close.

"Duo!" Heero shouted behind him. "Duo, wait!"

But, it was Ryan, and Ryan needed him. He ran past the spot the tracker told him Ryan should be and stopped. He turned slowly, his eyes sweeping the immediate area. No Ryan. The shrill whine continued, and Duo almost threw the device. But there, at the edge of the street, near the gutter he spotted it.

Ryan's ankle tracker.

He was bending over, about to pick it up when Heero knocked him out of the way. "No!" Heero shouted. "I've called the police, and they're on their way." Heero was breathing hard, his eyes narrow and his mouth hard and drawn. "Wait until they get here. They'll have equipment to check for prints and DNA traces."

"Fuck! He's not here!" Duo yelled, his fist clenched, his look wild. "Where the hell is he, Heero?"

"We'll find him, Duo. But right now, you need to calm down --"

"Fuck that! I need to find Ryan, and I need to find him right. The. Hell. Now!"

"Excuse me!" The woman Duo had seen moments before was approaching from across the street. "I think I might have seen...something." She looked from Heero to Duo, her hands wringing. "I didn't know what was happening, but I saw that," she pointed to the tracker, "being thrown from a van just a couple of minutes ago."

"A van?" Duo demanded, closing the distance between him and the woman. "What kind? Did you see my son? A boy, eight years old, dark brown hair?"

She was shaking her head, her hand creeping up to her mouth. "Oh, no! I didn't see anybody. Just the van and that thing flying out of one of its windows."

"What kind of van was it? Where was it headed?" Duo clenched his hands into fists, nearly crushing his phone.

"It was blue, old with rusty spots on the panels. I think it used to be a plumbing truck."

"Did you see the license plate?" Heero asked, holding onto Duo's arm. "Anything distinguishing about it?"

"No, I think the plate was covered. But it did have a bumper sticker on the back. One of those horrible sayings about the president."

"Thank you," Heero said, tightening his grip. "The police are on their way, and I'd like you to be here to tell them what you can, all right?" She nodded, but backed away; Duo was pulling on Heero's fingers, trying to get himself loose.

"God damnit, Heero! Let go of me!" Duo twisted his arm in Heero's hand. "They have my son! They have Ryan!" He jerked loose, and turned to the woman. "Which way did they go?"

"That way," the woman pointed, "They turned the corner heading towards Main." And Duo was off, pounding down the street.

"Duo!" Heero shouted after him.

"They have my son!" Was Duo's only explanation.

Heero cursed under his breath watching Duo disappear around the corner. He wanted to chase Duo, chase a van they had no hope of catching; he wanted the day to start again, and for this not to be happening. Instead, he thanked the woman again, and headed back to the curb to keep guard over Ryan's tracker and wait for the police.

His name was called, and Heero looked up the street to see Aaron running down the sidewalk, another boy from the neighborhood right behind him. Heero shot a glance back the way Duo had ran, before turning to face Aaron.

"We found his jacket," Aaron said, gasping. "It's back by the park."

"Great!" Heero said, putting more enthusiasm into his voice when he felt like dropping to his knees. "The police are on their way. And I need to ask you two to go back to Ryan's jacket, and stay near it, without touching anything, and to try to keep anyone else from touching it. You got that, boys?"

Aaron nodded eagerly, his friend mimicking his actions.

"Good. I'll be by in a few minutes, if the police don't arrive first, okay. And, after the police arrive, I want you both to go home and stay there." Aaron had turned and was retracing his steps, his silent friend following.

His phone was ringing, and Heero flipped it open. "Yuy," he answered sharply.

"He's not here!" It was Duo. "The fucking van's gone, Heero! I can't find it!"

"It's going to be all right, Duo," Heero said. "The police are on their way, and I need you to come back here with me now."

"I don't... he's gone, Heero. He's gone."

"We're going to get him back, Duo." A siren sounded in the distance, getting stronger. "The police are almost here. Head back this way."

"There's an intersection camera here. Do you think it might have recorded the van?" Duo's voice was sounding small and far away.

"I'm sure it did. The police will be able to pull it up here. They have that kind of equipment." The patrol car pulled up, and both doors were opening. Heero could see another cruiser down the road. "Ryan will be home by dinner, Duo."

"I'll be there." And their connection was severed. Heero closed his phone, and walked towards the police officers.

"What the fuck's taking so long?" Duo demanded. He was at his living room window, curtain nearly ripped from its rod by his grip. "They said they tracked the van, why haven't they found it?"

Heero waved the detective away, and approached Duo. "The van was traced to the owner who junked it seven months ago," Heero explained, keeping his voice even. "The van disappeared into a housing development, and the police are currently doing door to door interviews asking for more information."

"It's been five hours! That son-of-a-bitch has had my son for five hours!" Duo seethed through gritted teeth.

"His sketch is being circulated. It's only a matter of time."

"How much fucking time does Ryan have, Heero? Can you tell me that?"

"No, I can't. But getting mad at me, and yelling at those who are trying to locate your son isn't helping anyone," Heero snapped back. His chin quivered for an instant. "In case you haven't noticed, I care for Ryan a lot, too."

"Oh, God," Duo said, his hands reaching for Heero's and fisting in his shirt. "Oh, God, Heero. What are we going to do?" He whispered into Heero's shoulder.

"We're going to find him," Heero whispered back, circling his arms around Duo's shoulders, and closing his eyes.

Five hours, and counting. The only prints found on Ryan's tracker were Ryan's own, and Duo's. And it was Duo's fingerprint that had unlocked the device. A thin film was removed from the touch pad, analysis pending. But, the memory of two weeks before, a handshake leaving his hand in a sticky film, and Duo knew.

Jules Stevensen.

An alias, but Duo was able to recall the man's appearance without too much trouble, providing the police sketch artist with enough detail to prove a decent likeness. And that likeness was spread to every police cruiser, and neighboring cities.

There had been more than one person involved, leading detectives to believe it to be a kidnapping rather than something more sinister. Heero feared it to be revenge long held cold than a simple kidnapping. His fears rose with each passing hour, enough so, he disappeared into Duo's bedroom and placed a call while Duo worked through daily details over the past three weeks. It had been an old number, but one that proved true. A vow was made, and Heero's relief was instantaneous.

They would find Ryan.

It was early in the morning hours, and Heero's eyes snapped open. Duo was still sleeping beside him, and Heero eased himself away. It had taken Heero hours to convince Duo to sleep; it had taken the threat of sedating him to get Duo to lay down. Heero promised to lay with him, to wake him if something new happened.

A new voice sounded from the living room, quiet and low, and somehow familiar. Heero padded silently down the hall, stopping at recognizing his old friend. "Quatre," he said, keeping his voice low.

Quatre straightened from leaning over the table, his head whipping around to stare at Heero. "Heero!" He cried, and crossed the floor in three long strides. He clasped Heero's hand, and pulled him into a quick hug. "Am I glad to see you," he said, releasing his hold only enough to look at him. "I could wish for better circumstances, though."

"Who... how..." Heero floundered, wanting to smile, wanting to pinch himself awake from this nightmarish dream.

"Sit down, and I'll tell you," Quatre told him, guiding him to the table. One of the detectives rose immediately, and scrambled out of the way. Quatre pushed Heero down in the now vacant chair and pulled another close. "Earlier today, I received a message from Ryan's abductor." His hand rose, stemming the flow of words threatening to spill from Heero's mouth. "I don't have any more information than what was provided in the note. But I do have the best my security can offer looking into it --"

"He means me," a new voice added from the kitchen doorway.

Heero's head jerked up sharply. "Trowa?"

"In person," he said, taking a short bow from the waist. "So far, nothing's turned up. The paper is typical sheet paper from a two dollar notebook, the ink and writing analysis are inconclusive..."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Duo asked hoarsely, staggering into the room. Heero jumped to his feet, his arm circling Duo's waist. Duo spared him a brief look, before turning back to Trowa.

"It means the ink used was of standard make, and the writing --" Quatre tossed a look over his shoulder. Trowa gave a brief nod and Quatre rose, going to Duo. He took Duo's hands in his own, and held him tight. "It was in Ryan's hand. His fingerprints were all over the note."

"Where is it?" Duo demanded, his eyes taking a feverish sheen.

"The original is still in the lab on L4," Trowa interjected, walking forward. He was pulling a slip of paper from a front pocket, and unfolding it. "Here's a facsimile."

Duo snatched the page from Trowa's hand, his own trembling. Heero leaned over his shoulder reading along with Duo. His eyes began to smart; the writing as familiar now as his own. Coming to the end, he held Duo tighter, closing his eyes against the note's words and burying his face into Duo's shoulder.

"I don't... how can they think I..." Duo stammered, letting the note fall limp in his hand.

"The note was sent to Quatre," Trowa said smoothly. "It's a request for Quatre to fulfill." "Using my son?" Duo demanded, and Heero whispered reassuringly in Duo's ear.

"I'm sorry, Duo," Quatre said, his hands reaching for Duo once more. His eyes were heavy with tears he left unshed, but his mouth was a hard-determined line. "I would have given all I had away if it meant keeping Ryan from this."

Duo was breathing hard through his nose, his nostrils flaring with each breath. Finally, he nodded, and hugged Quatre close. "We have to get him, Quat. We have to find Ryan." "We will, Duo. I have most of my security staff working on it. Trowa and I are here, and I've made arrangements for unlimited funds to be at yours or my disposal when the time comes."

"Right," Duo said suddenly, pulling out of Quatre's arms. He gave a hard look at Quatre, shifted it to Trowa, skipped the agents present, and moved on to Heero. The note crumbled in his fist. "Now that we know what they want, if not who they are, what are we going to do about this?"

Quatre began to smile, and Heero almost stepped back. He'd almost forgotten how ruthless Quatre could be when pushed.

"The note says 'no police', so I think our first order of business is to do just that." Duo nodded, his eyes flicked to the two detectives watching the four of them. "Next, we need to bring in someone we trust, someone who knows us and will follow our direction without fail."

"Wufei will be here no later than six," Heero supplied. Duo gave him a startled glance, but both Trowa and Quatre were nodding.

"Good. He knows how we operate, is of the law, but one that allows him to use his discretion."

"When did you get a hold of Wufei?" Duo asked in whisper. Heero smiled and jerked his chin in Quatre's direction.

"The demand is for one hundred million, though I believe that to be a ruse and the real demand is embedded within the second paragraph."

"The Illium faction?" Heero asked. It would fit, but the subversive group hadn't used children before.

Trowa gave a brief nod. "The group was instrumental in destroying a WEI satellite two years ago, causing the death of five site engineers, and injuring several others."

"Don't they realize that as soon as Ryan is safe, this treaty they're demanding is useless?" Duo spit out. "Talk about senseless stupidity!"

"Once they have the treaty," Quatre began, and tilting his head slightly, he added, "and the credits if the transfer is untraceable, they will achieve what they're after."

"With a dead martyr status," Trowa added, his fingers touching his chest where hidden knives were housed.

"I'm liking this plan already," Duo said with a grin. Heero froze, watching Duo; it was a look he hadn't seen since the early days of the war; it was a look he thought he'd never see again.

The 'first order of business' was harder to execute than originally believed. Even with Quatre's diplomatic skill, and Duo's threats, the police held their ground. The detective overseeing the case declared that he would move only if ordered to do so by someone of higher authority.

It was close to four in the morning when the sound of a new vehicle arrived, and parked at the curb in front of the house. Trowa was at the window instantly, the curtain barely moving in his hand as he watched. He gave the 'stand down' signal, and Duo went to the door and let Wufei inside.

Greetings were cut short; Wufei demanded to know the latest. The lead detective gave him his update -- clear, concise, and very little headway. Trowa stepped in next and supplied him with a copy of the note, what Quatre's labs had discovered about the note, and their plan of execution.

"What are they still doing here, then?" Wufei asked, nodding to the two detectives. Duo snorted and turned his back on them. Quatre began to smile, and Heero and Trowa took up flanking positions to either side of Wufei.

"My captain assigned this case to me," the lead stated. "Until he, or someone above him, tells me otherwise, I am still investigating."

Wufei gave a curt nod and flipped open his mobile. A single number punched, and he held it to his ear. Within a moment, his call was answered, and he barked a single word into the mouthpiece, "Chang." A moment later, he was handing the phone to the lead detective.

The detective glared at the phone dubiously, but took it from Wufei's hand. His professional greeting was cut short, and he instantly straightened. "Yes, Ma'am," he stammered. "Immediately, Ma'am." And the tiny voice escaping out to the room at large went silent, the call ended with a loud click.

Handing his phone back, the detective was now staring at Wufei with a new respect. "That was..."

"I know," Wufei said sharply. "Now, you've been given your orders. So, if you gentlemen will clear out." Wufei's tone held no room for argument, and he stood sentry, making sure equipment and personnel left as requested.

"So," Duo started, coming to stand by his old time friend. "Who did you call?"

"My wife," Wufei answered, his lips twitching.

Duo shot a look at Heero who was looking decidedly smug. "Your wife," he repeated. "Weren't you and --"

"Yes, we were," Wufei confirmed.

"Damn," Duo swore.

The house fell into near silence after the last detective and piece of police equipment were gone. Quatre picked up leftover take-out cups, and disappeared into the kitchen. Duo dropped into a chair at the table, and lowered his head into his hands. Heero pulled a seat close, and kept a comforting hand on Duo's back.

"Who is this Stevensen?" Wufei asked, coming to stand in the dining room by the table. "Do we know his role in Illium?"

"Quatre's intelligence believes him to be the son of the group's founder, Alexander Novatny, and new head," Trowa supplied immediately. "There are no authenticated photos of him, but there is a group picture taken before the satellite attack." Trowa placed the photo on the table in front of Wufei; Duo raised his head to look. "He's the third man on the left from Novatny."

"That's him! That's the guy who shook my hand," Duo shouted, coming to his feet.

"Shook your hand?" Wufei asked, looking up from the photo.

"A couple of weeks ago," Duo said in a rush. "This man--this Novatny, approached me when I was with Ryan. He blathered on about Quatre and meeting us there this past summer." He shifted his look from Wufei to Quatre. "He even knew Ryan had won the relay for his age group--said he knew you." His hand sought out Heero's hand blindly. "If I had said something then --"

"Then he would have found some other way," Trowa put in firmly. "He used the opportunity to lift your prints." All heads turned his way. "The film is still in the crime lab, but based on what we've been told, and Duo's description of the 'goo', our labs believe it to have been a polymer adhesive. A close cousin to superglue."

"Makes me want to adopt Heero's old policy of never shaking hands," Duo muttered.

"Again, he would have found some other way," Trowa told him. "It would have been easier and less risky for the group to pick through your garbage, or take a discarded cup, bottle, can--something they know you've touched. But, our security analysts believe this man to hold an arrogance his father never did."

"And his father was pretty damn arrogant," Quatre added.

"What's the group's beef? Why target Winner Enterprises?" Wufei asked.

"Why not?" Quatre snorted. "Blame the big corporations for all your troubles. If your company goes out of business, regardless of how mismanaged it was, blame the corporation! After all, we're nothing but money grabbing scumbags --"

"The faction is--was comprised of three small corporations, now defunct," Trowa cut in, putting a hand on Quatre's shoulder. "Each of the three claim grievances with WEI, and Novatny even brought suit against us." He gave his partner's shoulder a squeeze. "The allegations were absurd, but the courts gave them a chance to present their case."

"They lost?" Heero asked, already knowing the answer. "And WEI was blamed again, for having money to buy the judgment, to have the best lawyers..."

"Exactly," Quatre agreed. "Novatny was prepared to martyr himself, his company, and all his assets, and won the support of others who felt 'oppressed' and 'disenfranchised'."

"Their agenda seems to be to become martyrs to their cause -- to take down big corporations on earth and the colonies."

"And kidnapping Ryan will further that?" Duo demanded.

"I've made it no secret how much I love my godson," Quatre said quietly. "It would be common knowledge that I would do anything for him." He shrugged lightly. "The ransom won't break me, but the treaty has the potential. No matter if I honor it or not."

"If it is honored, it means pulling out of several ventures not yet capitalized, the loss of several thousand to the hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the discrediting of WEI's contracts --"

"The penalties alone add up to what they ask for in ransom," Quatre threw in. "If I were to honor the treaty, I might as well sign over the corporation to them."

"And if he doesn't?" Heero asked.

Trowa shared a look with Quatre. "Illium can claim fact in what they've been saying all along. WEI corruption from the highest level."

"Then we need to develop our plan to rescue Ryan safely, without putting WEI at risk," Wufei said decidedly.

Duo found himself drawn to Ryan's room. It was midmorning, and he refused to sleep. Rudimentary plans had been made, waiting the final touches as soon as Illium contacted them again. He picked up the latest book he'd been reading to Ryan, traced the cover picture with his finger, and flipped through its pages.

Clothes lay discarded on the floor from two days before, and Duo picked them up, folding them automatically, only to bring them to his face. He inhaled Ryan's scent -- that combination of little boy sweat, dirt, and blasting caps. Hugging Ryan's clothes to his chest, Duo sat heavily on his bed, willing the anger to override the tears.

"My daughter turned four last week," Wufei said from the door. "My son is not yet a year old." He was crossing the room, and came to a stop beside Duo. "There is nothing I fear more than for something to happen to either of them."

Duo exhaled audibly, without acknowledging what Wufei was saying.

"On my honor," Wufei pledged, dropping to his knee and bowing his head. "On the honor of those I hold dear, I vow to you on oath as the surviving member of the Dragon Clan, and the promise of a Preventer, I will return your son to you."

His hand reached out and touched the top of Wufei's head. "Don't...don't promise something you might not be able to deliver," Duo croaked. He turned his head to look at Wufei. "I know you'll try--they'll all try, sacrificing themselves even. But, we don't even know if he's still alive."

"You cannot give up hope. Trowa's intelligence about this man, on this group indicates that they will not harm him." Duo nodded, and pulled his hand away. Wufei watched him in silence for several long minutes. "Heero needs you," he said softly. "Heero needs you to need him."

"Heero's a big boy," Duo mumbled, his eyes flicking to Wufei and away.

"And so are you, but you still need one another." Wufei rose to his feet, and he stood over Duo a moment longer. "Let him be there for you, Duo." He was gone, and Duo didn't hear him leave.

A minute or sixty later, the door opened again. The footsteps crossing the carpet were quiet, but familiar, and Duo sighed at the recognition. Heero sat next to him, and slid an arm around his back, holding him loosely.

"I miss him, Heero," Duo said quietly. "It's been less than a day, and there's this emptiness inside..." He choked, and hugged Ryan's clothes tighter.

"I know," Heero murmured softly. "I want nothing more than to have him jump from a closet, yelling 'surprise', or crawl out from under the bed." His voice faded, and his arm tightened around Duo.

Duo looked up from the carpet, turning his eyes to Heero. "You look like shit," he whispered. "When's the last time you slept?"

"I could say the same of you," Heero returned, ghosting a smile.

"I'm supposed to look like shit." But Duo's voice lost the humor it started with. "I keep thinking this is just a dream--a nightmare I can't wake from."

"He's going to be all right, Duo," Heero insisted quietly.

Duo's mouth twisted in an ugly sneer. "I know the statistics, Heero, and they say he is anything but." Sighing, he turned back to contemplating the carpet. "I tried. I really tried to keep him safe, to protect him."

"You did, you have," Heero told him, his hand soothing on Duo's back. "Sometimes things happen totally out of our control."

"If you tell me it's a God thing," Duo was back to glaring at Heero, "I swear I'm going to punch you."

"No," Heero assured. "I was trying to tell you that no matter how much you can plan and prepare, sometimes the very thing we safeguard against, happens."

Duo sighed heavily, and let Heero draw him closer. He slumped against Heero's shoulder, letting his strength support him. His eyes drifted shut; he could almost hear Ryan telling him the story his techmechas played out. "He wanted to go play with Aaron, and I yelled at him," Duo murmured into Heero's shirt. "If I'd just let you stay the night --"

"Stop it," Heero chided. "Wishing changes on any act done, does not make it change. You'll make yourself insane thinking of all the things you could have done differently."

"Fuck, Heero, I just don't know what to do any more." He pushed off Heero's shoulder and turned to stare at him. "I know what I want to do. I want to kill--to destroy that man."

"And I want to be there when you do," Heero told him quietly. Duo released his hold on Ryan's clothes with one hand and reached for Heero, circling his shoulders with his arm. He was leaning into him, with his cheek pressed to Heero's chest, and Heero turned with a twist of his waist to hold him.

"Don't let me lose you, Heero."


"I'm being an asshole, I know. But I want Ryan back." "I know, Duo."

"I can't lose you again." Duo was breathing heavily, his voice thickening hoarsely.

"You're not. I'm here. I plan to stay here," Heero assured softly.

"Not the one-night stand kind of guy --" Duo's voice was cracking.

"I'm the forever kind of guy," Heero murmured, and tightened his embrace. Duo was silent, but his breathing had evened out. A low gurgle sounded, and Heero shifted, peering down at Duo's bent head. "When's the last time you ate?"

Duo shrugged, frowning. "Don't remember."

"I can bring you something to eat, if you want?"

Shaking his head, Duo told him no. "But, maybe a glass of water?"

"Water, then," Heero agreed, and Duo pulled away, watched Heero push himself off the bed, and walk to the door.

Heero had left the door ajar and sound from the other parts of the house filtered in. Though most of the noises were indistinguishable, he recognized Wufei's voice, low and confident. Talking to someone on the phone, Duo concluded. The pauses weren't being filled by another voice.

It was familiar, comforting in an odd sort of way. Duo lay on Ryan's bed with bent knees to fit, and Ryan's clothes hugged to his chest, facing the door waiting for Heero to return.

When Heero entered the kitchen, Quatre was standing before the refrigerator staring at the picture Ryan drew. Heero stopped just inside the kitchen, looking to see what captured Quatre's attention. His heart clenched and he turned away, reaching into the cupboard for a glass. Quatre moved aside, glancing at him briefly when Heero opened the refrigerator door.

"This is you in the picture," Quatre stated more than questioned.

Replacing the water pitcher, Heero gave a short nod. "Ryan drew it the other day."

"He must think a lot of you."

Heero shrugged. "Enough. I'm his teacher."

Quatre smiled softly. "I never would have believed you would have become a teacher. But, somehow, it seems right that you are."

"I enjoy it," Heero said. "Most of the time," he amended.

"Good." Quatre's smile dropped. "How's Duo?"

Heero shrugged again. "About what anyone could expect. He's under the belief Ryan's...not unharmed."

Quatre's mouth tightened. "I will tear this city apart until we find him, and if he has been harmed, there is no place for that bastard to hide."

"Affirmative," Heero agreed, his hand gripping Quatre's shoulder in solidarity.

After setting the requested water on Ryan's nightstand, Heero watched Duo for a moment. He had been gone less than five minutes. His smile tender and small, Heero pulled the blanket from the end of Ryan's bed and drew it up to cover Duo. With one last look, he turned away and started for the door.

"Stay," Duo whispered.

Heero turned back. "I thought you were sleeping."

"Maybe I could be," Duo mumbled, and closed his eyes.

Eyeing the bed, barely large enough to hold its current grown occupant, Heero crawled over Duo's legs, and stretched himself out on his side at Duo's back. His arm fit nicely around Duo's waist; his knees and hips bent in line with Duo's.

Over Duo's head, Heero could see the red illuminated numbers of Ryan's bedroom clock. Twenty-one hours, fourteen minutes earlier, Ryan was watching cartoons and asking to go over to a friend's house.

In position on site, Wufei scanned the checkpoint area, making sure Heero was in place. Receiving an affirmative response, he settled back to watch the van, hoping for a sighting of its occupants through the scope of his rifle. It was a hasty plan, but it should suffice to achieve their goal.

Quatre and Duo were expected to arrive in the next few minutes, Trowa tagging along behind. Wufei checked his watch; forty-four minutes, thirty-two seconds into the countdown. The van confirmed that this would be the last run in this grotesque scavenger hunt.

Minutes before dusk, a special messenger delivered a package to Duo's house, addressed to Quatre. Questioning the courier resulted in little information -- the package had been left the week before with instructions on exact delivery date and time. Inside the box was a disposable mobile phone, a note wrapped around it with a time stamped on it. The box and packaging were sent to the nearest Preventer's lab, even knowing there wasn't time before the call was expected.

Believing the timestamp was when the kidnapper planned to call with instructions, Wufei brought in his 'bag' from the car, and opened it. In methodical order, he pulled forth and laid in neat rows; chest and torso protector vests, his special ops suit, his rifle and sidearm, extra clips, an 'egg carton', a box of 'fruit', and five sets of the latest in communications technology.

"We have very little time, gentlemen," Wufei snapped out. He eyed his supplies and began explaining the communication devices. "Each of us will have an eardrop conductor and throat clip transmitter. The main housing unit will be located here, recording directions, conversations, and instructions." He handed each the delicate looking filament. "The blue-tipped one is your conductor. Use the flesh glue to hold it in position. The clip goes here," Wufei raised his chin, aligning the filament along his jawbone and fixing it in place with a thin veneer of flesh glue. "These devices will send and receive for up to a hundred mile radius."

"What happens if we exceed its boundaries?" Heero asked, gluing his pieces in place. He worked his jaw, adjusting to the feel of the pull and give the adhesive was making on his skin.

"Then I'll have to shift communications to satellite control, and everything that takes place will route through a Preventers Ops command." Wufei picked up a vest and tossed it to Duo. "Wear this under your shirt," he commanded. "It will stop any projectile short of a gundanium alloy with iridium tips." His expression grave. "It will deflect penetration, but nothing will stop impact trauma. There is always the possibility of broken ribs, and bruised or damaged organs."

"So you're saying don't get hit," Duo deadpanned.

Wufei snorted, and finished handing out the vests. Heero, Duo, and Quatre began to unbuttoned, or were pulling shirts off over their heads, slipping into and strapping on the thin, cotton-lined protectors. Pointing to the 'egg carton', Wufei explained, "I'll be carrying some of these." He opened the carton and showed them the golf ball looking devices. "These are concussion bombs, capable of knocking a roomful of suspects -- and friendlies -- on their asses. And depending on how close to the explosion, causing internal damage, and hearing-loss."

Rolling a couple around on his palm, Duo frowned at Wufei. "What will we be carrying?"

His lips tightened. "I cannot authorize you to carry weapons." Duo opened his mouth to protest, and Wufei added, "If the situation becomes dangerous, I will be the one to take out the threat." He patted the stock of his rifle.

"I am licensed to protect and use my own sidearm," Trowa said quietly. "I've also brought my own 'suit'." He nodded to Wufei's ops suit sitting off to the side. "If we go with the plan for Heero and me to stay hidden in reserve while Quatre or Duo or the both of them make the exchange, then I would rather wear my own suit."

"I hold a license as well," Quatre contributed. "But, if we're searched, carrying a weapon wouldn't go over well."

"So we go in like lambs to the slaughter?" Duo stood up, and jerked his shirt back on over the torso protector.

Heero canted his head upwards, staring at Duo. "We will be there. Trust us to watch you."

His hand dropped to Heero's shoulder, and Duo gave it a brief squeeze. But, before he could answer, the mobile in Quatre's hand rang, and the five old friends froze, staring at one another. The phone rang once again, and Quatre flipped it open.

"Winner," he said, identifying himself. His head cocked to the side, listening, and he began to frown. He stared at Duo, flicking his eyes to Wufei and back to Duo. Quatre nodded, saying a crisp "Understood," and snapping the phone closed. A moment passed, and he looked at each friend in turn.

"This is it. I've been given an address, orders to drive, and to bring Duo with me." His expression was grim. "It was pointed out that they are aware of Wufei's presence, and stressed quite venomously that police will not be welcomed."

"How long do we have?" Wufei asked, shedding clothes immediately, and pulling on his protection suit.

"Fifteen minutes."

"Let's go," Duo said, already in motion. He slipped his jacket on and headed for the door.

"Remember the plan!" Wufei said sharply. "Trowa goes with you. Take your truck from the garage --"

"I know!" Duo's face went red; his anger faded a moment later. He scrubbed at his face, and turned to look at Wufei. "I'm sorry, man. Let's just get to moving before they decide we're taking too long."

"Ready," Trowa said quietly, coming to stand beside Duo, holding his head cover in his hand.

"Let's roll, then." Quatre commanded. "Keep your transmitters on. Communication is vital."

Heero finished applying camo black to exposed skin, and tossed the container back into Wufei's bag. He was at the back door, waiting for Wufei to complete equipping his suit. "Be careful," he said in a normal voice, hearing the truck start with a rumble in his receiver.

"No worries, babe," Duo muttered. "I'm not going to let anything interfere with wrapping my hands around that jackass' neck."

"That's what I'm worried about." Heero caught Wufei's eye, turned out the lights in the kitchen, and stepped out into the dark of Duo's backyard listening to his quiet laugh.

With the very real possibility that the house was being watched, the plan called for Heero and Wufei to run to Heero's house and secure his vehicle to follow behind Duo's truck. Trowa was to stay with the money and the treaty. Scaling the rear fence, and making his way through toys littering Duo's neighbor's backyard, Heero pushed thoughts of how even the best plans go astray, and focused on the next step.

Quatre said little, focused on instructions provided in the two-minute call. His mind supplied scenarios to plan for, playing them out as they arose. Like ancient COBOL code, he had a plan of if-then statements, full of sub-routines, and checkpoints. He glanced at Duo, and frowned slightly. Duo was too quiet; too focused, and intense from the adrenaline manic he had been. But, Duo wasn't fifteen, and it was his son's life at stake.

Their destination in sight, he gave the quiet update to those listening, rolling the truck to a slow stop, giving Wufei and Heero time to get into place. The dirt and gravel parking lot was empty barring an old beat up car. Quatre put the truck in park, exchanging a worried look with Duo. The mobile rang, and he fished it out from his pocket.

This time he wasn't given a chance to speak. The instructions were brief, and Quatre was left holding the phone from his ear with the dial tone buzzing. "I have to leave the phone here, and we have to take that car," he said, dropping the phone and opening the truck door. "I'm leaving the keys in the truck. We might have to split up. We're to receive further instructions once inside the other vehicle."

"Where to next?" Duo asked, kicking at a large rock and sending it across the parking lot.

"That wasn't provided." He was certain they were being watched, and Trowa was still clinging to the undercarriage of Duo's truck. He wanted to turn around, to make sure Trowa was all right; the old Plymouth was there, and a phone rang from inside the car. Quatre sprinted for the door, wrenching it open, and snatching up the phone.


"A little breathless, Mister Winner?" The suave voice he recognized all too well asked.

"We're here. What next?" Quatre cut him short, waving Duo over to the passenger side. Instructed to plug the mobile on speaker, Quatre slipped the connector in its slot, and set the phone on the seat between them.

"Mister Maxwell," the voice said from the mobile. "As soon as Mister Winner has the auto on the road, I'll give further instructions on where you'll be going. While we wait, I do want to explain a few features you will not find in your new vehicle. One, there is a listening device, sensitive enough that I can hear you breathe. And that's all I want to hear from the both of you. No making chit-chat, no giving clues to anyone listening in with your own devices the opportunity to find out where you're headed next."

"Fucker!" Duo shouted at the phone. "Stop this bullshit and give me my son!"

"Language, Mister Maxwell," the voice chuckled. "Another outburst and I'll be forced to hang up. Then where will poor little Ryan be?" Quatre touched Duo's arm, heard Heero's whispered reassurances through the receiver, and made the turn onto the main thoroughfare. "Very good, Mister Winner. Continue to head north, and I'll let you know when to turn.

"To continue, the vehicle you are now in is lined with a magnetic shield. Similar to the properties that made up the cloaking device on your Gundam, Mister Maxwell. This prevents your friend from the Preventers from tracing where you're going."

"We've agreed to your terms, Novatny. They are being followed. Now, cut the small talk and lead us to Ryan," Quatre demanded briskly.

"You always have to be in charge, Winner," Novatny's voice was just as cold. "But you're not running the show now. I'm writing this plan, and you will follow it."

"Just tell us where to go!" Duo insisted.

The silence stretched out, Duo glaring at the phone, and Quatre driving, shooting millisecond glances downward, making sure the 'talk' light stayed lit.

"Turn right on twenty-fourth. Drive two-point-six miles to the Cluster Buster drive-in. Wait for new instructions. And don't forget, I'll be listening."

Slipping out from under the truck and into the driver's seat as soon as the old Plymouth pulled from the parking lot was child's play. The ignition keys were still dangling, and Trowa dropped the phone to the gravel outside the truck. Keeping his tone low, he let the team know he would follow, keeping his distance, and provide direction to the others.

The silence from the car several hundred feet in front of him was eerie; hearing Heero offering comfort in low toned assurances was surreal. But then, everything since walking through Duo's door the night before had a touch of the surreal.

It was a training exercise -- a what-if scenario with ad-lib plans and all too real consequences with one wrong step. Intelligence reported the Illium faction was reduced to five members, Novatny as the leader with no real second. Novatny had trust issues. A known hacker was part of his team. A young twenty-something, released six months before from an eighteen-month stint on L1's penal satellite. A couple of thugs, one in his thirties and another closer to forty, made up part of Novatny's crew. Both had rap sheets as long as he was tall.

The last member made the hair on the back of Trowa's neck stand up on end. Emilia, her very name evoked a whispered memory of a ghost-like figure always on the fringes of the Barton Foundation. She was his age, maybe a little older, before when he had no name, before he became Heavyarms' pilot. Emilia disappeared during the war, but his eyes did not imagine her presence on L3 X18999.

Rumors followed the girl. An assassin with a purpose. Not one of his intelligence agents were able to glean any information about her -- background, training, years between the war and appearing at elder Novatny's side before the attempted coup of the WEI satellite.

The car he watched turned on its left hand blinker, and Trowa raised an eyebrow. "You want a milkshake?" He murmured, almost smiling at the ice cream cone clown statue lit up on top the drive up dessert shop.

Duo cleared his throat sharply, and Quatre tsked heavily. The Plymouth pulled into an empty slot, and Trowa found a place to watch from across the road. He fished his compact binoculars from his belt, and watched Quatre look around. He heard Duo grunt, and saw Quatre's head turn.

A man was approaching the car. He stopped at the front hood, and held up a cardboard sign. Trowa trained his glasses on the sign. "Nineteen fifty-five... I can't make out the street. Tap your mic if it says Broadway." No sound came through.

"Boardwalk?" Heero asked softly. Twin taps resounded. "Got it. We're on our way."

"Just let your fingers do the walking," Trowa said softly. A long tap. "I suggest Duo at communications." Another long tap.

"Affirmative," Heero breathed. "Trowa, this might be the place. Boardwalk fronts the ocean, and is lined with warehouses."

"Sounds promising. I'll continue to trail the pigeons."

He was wrong. Quatre and Duo were instructed to another location, one Duo painstakingly tapped out in code. Heero was sure of an easier route, and raced his car through the streets. Pulling his car up behind a building up the street from the rendezvous spot, he picked his field glass up from the seat, and scanned the perimeter. His hand gripped the metal casing hard.

"This is it," he breathed. "Blue van, rust spots, and dents with what appears to be a plumbing logo painted on the side."

"Do you see anyone?" Wufei demanded.

Heero scanned the grounds again. "No one in sight, but they could be on the other side."

"Be careful," Trowa cautioned. "If Emilia is involved, life could become a little more interesting than any of us would wish it to be."

"Going high," Wufei whispered, exiting the car and shouldering his rifle. He melded into the black shadows of the building, and Heero lost him from sight, if not hearing.

"I'm going to get closer," he warned. "Unless something comes up, I'll be running silent."

"Roger that," Trowa acknowledged, and Duo snorted himself into a cough.

"Funny, Barton," Heero whispered, opening his door, and crouching low. He had a lot of ground to cover, and most of it open.

What had begun as a persistent, steady buzz at the back of his head developed into a full-throated roar. Being forced to sit in silence on the passenger side, unable to take an active role, and left to listen to others who were doing something had Duo grinding his teeth. He worried the contents of his jacket pocket, and bounced his leg, staring out the window. His control was splitting at the seams.

Through his receiver, he heard Wufei settle into his position, heard Heero jockeying for his, and the buzz grew.

The exchange was to take place at an empty lot at the edge of a depressed business section. Buildings lining the street were rundown, the area worn. Neighborhood streets and sidewalks empty in time suspended occupancy between the hours of nine to six.

As Wufei said, the van waited. Its doors were closed, its occupants out of sight. Quatre was pulling the car up over the curb and onto the lot, its lights pointed directly at the van. The mobile rang, and with a quick look at Quatre, Duo hit talk.

"Turn off the auto, douse the lights, and get out. Go stand in front of the auto, and wait for contact. That is all, gentlemen." And the call ended.

"Fucker," Duo muttered, opening his door and stepping out.

The van went dark when Quatre cut the lights, and Quatre's door opened. Duo walked, keeping his eyes on the van, willing it to open, willing it to disgorge his son. Sitting ducks. His mind whispered. Ryan. It was worth whatever price he had to pay.

The passenger door opened, and a man stepped out, closing the door behind him. Short and stocky, a snub-nosed automatic in his hands, hanging from a strap on his shoulder, he motioned both closer. At the halfway point, he had them stop. The side of the van slid open, and another man exited, leaving the door gaping behind him. He strode in cocky strides, covering the distance between the groups in moments.

"Hands up over your heads," he commanded. "I'll just be checking for guns, knives," he shrugged. "Things you might want to use with the intent to harm. So, no sudden moves or my twitchy friend back there will put a slug in you."

His arms shot up, and Duo glared. "Just get this over with."

"Impatient," the goon chuckled. Whether on orders, or purposeful intent, he started with Quatre. It was a quick and simple search -- patting down clothing, calculated touches. "No weapons," he called back. "Moneybags, follow me." Turning to Duo, he commanded, "Be a good dog. Stay here."

The roaring in his head rose, flooding his vision red. Seams were snapping, and he had taken a step before the grip on his arm registered. Quatre's look transmitted volumes. Before this was over, the bastard would feel his fist. Even docile dogs were known to bite.

The closer Quatre came to the van, the more Duo's impotence faded. A figure appeared at the van's open door, an easel desk, and laptop in hand. Quatre was stopped ten feet from the van; Duo estimated the amount of time it would take to reach the van; estimated the time it would take Quatre to enter and close the door.

His easel set up, the latest in a line of seedy goons was grinning. "Transfer codes," he asked, looking at Quatre.

"Ryan first," Quatre insisted. Duo's eyes shot to the door.

"Kid," the computer goon called out. "Come stand in the door, dude."

And there was Ryan.

Duo's breath released in a gasp, and his eyes were stinging. He started, hand reaching for his son, and he received a sharp rebuke from the gun-toting thug. Heero's voice was in his ear, breathing assurances, encouraging him to wait.

Ryan was alive. His hands were taped in front, his hair flatted and sticking out in every which way, his face dirt smudged and tear streaked. But he was alive.

"Daddy!" He yelled. Duo stepped closer.

"Stay there!" Slick and tall demanded. "And you," he said, "Shut up or I'll be giving you a reason to yell."

"Stay where you are Ryan," Duo said loudly. "It's almost over, and then you'll be home."

"Transfer," Geeky goon asked again with a smirk.

"It's in my pocket," Quatre said quietly. He reached for it slowly, pulling the bit stick out, and handing it to him. "Password: capital 'g', lowercase 'u', 'n', '6' ,'4', 'n', '4', '3', capital 'v', '3', lower case 'r'."

Geek-boy laughed, his fingers flying over the keyboard. "Cute. Bet you make little hearts over your eyes, too."

Quatre remained silent, and Duo let him worry about what was happening there. His attention stayed focused on Ryan, on the thug standing too close to his son with an automatic weapon; the thug whose attention kept wandering to what was taking place a few feet away. Duo inched closer.

"Got it!" The computer goon shouted. He grinningly pointed out the screen full of numbers to Slick and Gun-thug. Duo was another two feet closer. Ryan's eyes were wide and round and watching him.

"Treaty," Geek-boy demanded.

"In my pocket," Quatre repeated, pulling a second stick out. He held it out, but didn't hand it over. "Ryan, now."

"Kid, start walking to your dad, but take it slow," Geek-boy said, smirk back in place.

Ryan jumped from the van, and began walking. Quatre waited until Ryan was half-way to Duo before dropping the stick in Geek-boy's hand.

"No password," he said, and began backing away.

"Hey! Where you going?" Slick asked, moving forward. "We're not finished yet."

"Yes, we are," Quatre said softly, depressing a button on the remote he carried. Geek-boy's laptop began to smoke, and the hacker jumped backwards yelling.

Duo was in motion, and a shot rang out. In three running strides, he had Ryan. In another two, he was thrusting his son at Quatre, a terse "watch him," from his mouth. Seven steps total, and his hands were reaching for Slick. Another shot, and he barely felt the tug on his arm. His fist shot out, meeting with lips, flesh, and teeth.

"No!" Heero yelled, already on his feet and running. Duo was shot. He saw the bullet hit his arm.

"Damn it! I can't get a clean shot," Wufei was yelling in his ear. "Quatre! Get Ryan out of there. Trowa, get your ass --"

"Busy!" Came back the terse reply.

Heero didn't have time to worry about what Trowa was 'busy' with; Geek-boy was raising a handgun, aiming it in Duo's direction. He passed Quatre and Ryan, now, and dove for the man. The shot went wild, striking the van, and he was rolling on the ground. Geek-boy looked dazed, but Heero was back on his feet instantly. He kicked the gun away, and reached down for a handful of shirt. Pacifism be damned, his fist cocked back, and he slammed it into the man's stomach. Geek-boy's whites were showing, and Heero dropped him to the ground.

A quick scan showed Quatre crouching to the side of the old Plymouth, shielding Ryan from the scene. Duo was screaming obscenities and pounding Slick against the van, and the gun-toting thug was stretched out on the ground, a neatly placed bullet hole in the center of his forehead. Heero searched out the building roof Wufei was on, wondering if he was all right.

"Where the fuck is he, you fuck?" Duo was shouting. "I'm going to fucking kill you if you don't start speaking right the fuck now."

"Go to hell!" Slick sneered, throwing a wobbling roundhouse Duo easily blocked.

"Wrong answer." Duo smacked him, his palm met cheek in a stinging blow. "Address!"

Slick spat blood, splattering the front of Duo's jacket. Heero moved to flank Duo, glaring over Duo's shoulder. Slick shifted his look, and his lip, split and bleeding, curled back. "If it isn't the butt-fucker. Here to teach me --" He stopped in an absurdly exaggerated gasp, his eyes as round as his mouth.

"Address. Now, or they're coming off," Duo threatened. Heero had an idea what they were, and smirked.

"Pine Street!" Slick squawked. "Twenty-three, seventeen Pine Street."

"Very good," Duo murmured, releasing him. Slick sagged, and Duo said over his shoulder, "Put him to bed for me?"

Heero nodded sharply, and reached for Slick. He held him at arm's length with one hand fisted in his shirt, his other arm cocked back. "I won't be your teacher," he told him softly. "You're going to learn all you need to know in prison." And his fist planted itself firmly in Slick's middle, at the diaphragm.

Behind him, the van roared to life, and Heero dropped Slick, spinning around. "Duo!" He shouted.

"I gotta go after him, Heero," Duo said through the transmitter. Heero saw through the open door Duo looking around the driver's seat at him. Duo's fingers were at his ear, and he dropped his receiver to the floor, and put the van in gear.

"Duo! Wait!" Heero yelled, even as he ran. The van's wheels hit the street, and Heero threw himself through the open sliding door, rolling in a heap. Duo slowed a fraction, looking at him wildly, before flooring the gas.

"He took my son."

Breathing hard, and shaking the cobwebs loose, Heero rose at a crouch, and reached for the door, slamming it shut. He moved to the passenger seat, and buckled himself in. Only then did he look at Duo. "I know."

The tension around Duo's mouth and eyes eased, but his look was still grim.

"What do you plan to do with him?" Heero asked, holding onto the over-the-door handle as Duo took the corner nearly on two wheels.

"Kill him." Duo's response was serious, harsh. He looked away from the road for a moment, casting a glance at Heero. "Make him suffer."

"Your going to jail will not help Ryan," Heero said, keeping his tone calm, assuring.

"I'm not going to jail!"

"If you kill him, you will." Heero took a breath, held it a moment, and looked at Duo. "Killing us in your hurry to get there isn't going to help either."

"I didn't ask you to come along," Duo ground out, accelerating through the yellow light.

"And I'm not going to let you go into this alone." He looked back out the windshield. "Do you even know where you're going?"

"Pine Street," Duo said immediately. "Twenty-three something."

Heero grunted as Duo took another corner, wheels squealing. "And you know where that is?"

"Off Twenty-third, Southside." Duo was frowning in concentration. "Briar Ridge community." Heero grunted in surprise, and Duo shot a look at him. "I studied the area map before coming down here." He braked for a red light, his fingers gripping the steering wheel. "Samuels and Ibsenstein were the developers."

"Oh." Heero sat back, and watched the streets nearly fly by. He had a vague impression on where Twenty-third and Pine was, but not the development specifically.

"Heero," Wufei's voice broke the silence through his receiver. "I've alerted local law enforcement, and they are on the way." Heero grunted softly, letting Wufei know he heard without letting Duo know. "I'm following in your car. Trowa had some trouble."

"What about Ryan?" Heero asked, glancing at Duo.

"He's with Quatre," dual voices spoke, both in his receiver as well as Duo in the van.

"Quatre will keep him safe," Duo added.

"Were you asking me?" Wufei asked.

"Yes," Heero said, answering Wufei's question, but responding to Duo's statement as well. "But you are the one he needs. Let the locals handle this, Duo."

Duo's hands tightened on the steering wheel.

"What about..." And Heero scratched his transmitter from his skin, letting it fall from his fingertips. Concerned voices sounded from the receiver, dimming as he removed it, and added it to the carpeting lining the van's bed. Taking a deep breath, he pushed his question out, "What about us?"

His eyes widened, then narrowed; Duo's hand rose and he too picked his transmitter free, dropping it to the floor. "Heero," he whispered. "I'm not--I can't..."

"Forever, Duo. No matter what, or where," Heero kept his voice just as soft. "I would rather it be back at your place or mine, though."

Duo snorted, swallowed hard, and turned into a housing development, its sign proudly proclaiming their location. "You're beginning to sound like a cheesy romance."

Grinning wryly, Heero laughed a short bark of a laugh. "And you're acting like a macho, action hero."

"I'm not?" Duo questioned, raising a brow. He sobered quickly, and threw Heero a serious look. "I have to do this."

"I know."

"I--I..." Duo's eyes flicked from the road back to Heero. "I'll just hurt him a little. Justifiable pain."

"Acceptable." Heero nodded. Their destination was coming to an end.

The house was like most of the others on the block -- like those throughout the development. A single story ranch, with a two-car garage attached, large picture window to the living room, lined with trimmed shrubs. It shouldn't have looked that normal, that every day.

"What is your plan?" Heero asked softly, wondering how far behind Wufei was.

"Working on it."

They were parked across the street at an angle to the house. Through the open curtains of the front window, Heero saw a man move about; the man Duo recognized as 'Jules'. The man left his sight, disappearing through an open doorway. To a bedroom, Heero suspected. And reappeared moments later with a duffle case in hand. At the far wall, a table had been set up. The man was adding papers stacked on the table to his bag.

"Looks like he's packing," Heero commented. Duo only narrowed his eyes, watching.

A moment later, the man held a mobile, pushed a button, and held it to his ear. Back in the bed of the van, a ringtone sounded. Heero's head whipped around, pinpointing the spot, and shared a look with Duo. Together, they turned to face the window.

Jules will want answers.

"Got it," Duo said softly, reaching for his seat belt, and fastening it with a click.

"What?" Heero asked, tearing his gaze away from the window.

Duo flashed him a manic grin. "A plan," he said, and gunned the engine. "Hold on," he shouted, slamming the van into gear.

It shot across the street, up through the yard, rocking and bouncing. Heero gripped the overhead handle, and braced his other hand on the ceiling. The house was right in front of them; Jules was lowering his mobile, turning to stare out the window. And the van crashed into the house, busting through the window, and landing somewhere in the middle of the living room.

There was a dual 'pop', and everything went white with a weight pressing tight against his chest. Airbag, his mind supplied. Heero pushed at it with his hands, trying to breathe. He heard Duo cursing, and the driver's side door open; his own door was jammed shut. Heero swore, and unfastened his seatbelt, pushing the airbag away, and moving at a crouch through Duo's side and out the door.

With his back against the wall, Jules had a gun in his hand pointed at Duo. Blood ran from a cut over his left eye; parts of the wall and window they'd crashed through littered the living room into the dining room, glass was embedded on the wall next to Jules.

"Not so tough now, are you?" Jules sneered.

"And you hide behind kids and guns," Duo snapped back. "You're no man."

"Put the gun away," Heero commanded, positioning himself in front of Duo. "The police will be here in a minute."

"Get out of my way," Duo demanded, pushing on Heero's shoulder. "This is my fight --"

"Not while he holds a gun," Heero shot back, his eyes never leaving Jules'. "You've already been shot once tonight. You're not going to again."

"You think you can stop me?" The gun moved a fraction, covering Heero more than Duo.

"Yes," Heero replied simply. His hand flashed a signal; his other hand whipped behind him. Duo responded as he hoped, and the gun in Heero's hand bucked even as he launched himself to the side.

Jules yelped, his gun flew from his hand with two of his fingers. "You shot me!"

"Now it's fair." Heero stood up, and brushed plaster from his face, hands, and clothes.

"Where'd you get the gun?" Duo asked, dusting his own clothes off.

Heero shrugged, glancing at the piece he still held. "Picked it up back at the lot."

Sirens were heard in the distance, and Heero looked over his shoulder. "You might want to hurry. Law enforcement will be here soon."

"Yeah." But Duo didn't move. He was staring at Jules, cowering against the wall, bleeding, and he sighed. "I want to kill him, Heero. Hurt him."

"I know," Heero answered. He was holding the gun loosely, but still kept it ready in case Jules tried anything.

"He took my son -- kept him from me."

"I know." A quick look at Duo showed the man was still staring at Jules, his eyes troubled.

"I should do something about it." The last was a whisper, and Heero moved closer, shifted the gun from one hand to the other, and reached out to touch Duo.

"You have already."

Duo sighed again, his fists unclenched and fell lax to his sides. "Ryan's safe, he's not hurt?"

"No, Ryan's good." Heero stepped closer, slipping his arm around Duo's shoulders. "Quatre has him."

"Are you two all right?" Wufei asked from an open spot between the house frame and the van.

"We're good," Heero called out. Blue and white lights were flashing through the opening, splashing against the walls. Heero lowered his gun, tucking it into the waistband of his jeans at his back.

"Novatny still alive?" Wufei was coming through the front door now, climbing over chunks of wall, and bits of broken furniture.

"He's breathing," Heero supplied. Duo was sluggish, his breathing harsh. His hands going to Duo's ribs, Heero felt the protection vest for dents. "You okay?" he asked softly.

Nearly a full minute passed before Duo raised his eyes to Heero's face. "Take me home," he mumbled.

Uniformed officers were making their way inside, over and around the debris. One approached Heero and Duo. Wufei was there in a moment, reaching for his identification, covering for their presence smoothly.

The officer looked at the van, the wreckage of the living room, and back to the three standing shoulder to shoulder. "How did the vehicle get here?" She asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"Foot slipped," Heero supplied immediately. "Meant to hit the brake, but hit the gas instead." Duo was staring at him, and Wufei cleared his throat.

"No one's been hurt. And our kidnap suspect is now in custody." Wufei expressed his meaning.

"Right." She snapped her incident book closed. "You will be available to provide statements?" She asked, looking at each in turn, accepting their nods. "Good."

Wufei turned to Heero. "I left the keys in your car. Quatre and Trowa should have Ryan at Duo's. Get him out of here." Heero nodded, and started to lead Duo away. "Officer..." Wufei addressed the police officer, and looked for her nametag. "...Armstrong, I can answer your questions, and provide details leading to this moment..." Wufei was leading her farther away from them, and Heero used the advantage.

"Come on, Duo. Just a little longer," Heero murmured, pulling Duo along behind him, and helping him over some of the larger objects blocking their path. "Ryan's waiting for you."

Duo nodded numbly, and let Heero put him on the passenger side like an invalid.

"Your place," he croaked, his eyes pleading with Heero.

"Okay," Heero assured, nodding. "We'll pick up Ryan and go to my place."

"Home," Duo sighed, closing his eyes.

It took Heero several heartbeats to breathe, close Duo's door, and make his way to the driver's side.

The drive to Duo's house took longer than Heero would have thought to make. He parked in the driveway, and discovered Duo sleeping. His eyes narrowed on the untreated wound; Duo had received worse during the war, but that was then. Now, it should never have happened.

"Duo, wake up," Heero said quietly. "We're here."

His eyes blinked open, and Duo yawned, turning his head in Heero's direction. He smiled softly. "'Ro." His smile faded, and his head jerked around. "Ryan?"


Duo threw open his door, and sprinted for the house. Heero trailed behind, closing his door on the way. Trowa had answered Duo's frantic knock, and was standing aside, letting Duo rush by him.

Watching Duo disappear down the hall, Heero closed and locked the door. "Ryan?" He asked, nodding in the direction Duo headed.

"Yes." Trowa released the round in the chamber, flicked the safety back on, and sheathed his weapon. "He... soiled himself. Quatre thought it best to let him shower, and take a bath."

Heero nodded, but grabbed Trowa's arm when he was turning away. "What happened to you?"

Trowa looked down at the cut in his suit, stained dark from its opening. "I ran into an old acquaintance," he said.

"The one you warned us of?" Trowa nodded, and went back to his seat. Heero could see that the wound had been taken care of, that Trowa didn't appear to be in pain. But, he'd seen the ex-mercenary take worse abuse, and not say a word. "The operative?"

His look said what was necessary, and Heero let it drop. Instead, he stripped off his jacket and shirt, and peeled the protective vest off, letting it drop to the floor and kicking it to the corner. Wufei would collect it later. He replaced his shirt, grimacing at the smell. Quatre came in, and smiled tiredly.

"Duo's in with Ryan," he said, and sat next to Trowa. His head dropped back, and he closed his eyes. "I think I'll sleep for a week after this is all over." Trowa leaned closer, taking Quatre's hand in his. Heero left them, heading down the hall, looking for Duo.

"...he wouldn't let me... and I couldn't help it...and..." Ryan was holding fast to Duo, crying into his shirt.

Duo was crouched on the floor before the tub, his arms wrapped around a wet and naked Ryan. "It's okay, now, son. I'm here. Nothing's going to happen to you again. Promise," Duo murmured into Ryan's hair, his hands clutching at his head, holding him pressed close.

Backing out of the bathroom, Heero went to Duo's room and found a clean shirt. He carried it with him back to the living room; Quatre was murmuring in a low voice to Trowa, not opening his eyes. Trowa made note of his presence, of Heero picking up his med kit, and unvoiced question. Heero was gone a moment later, heading back to the bathroom.

Ryan was no longer clinging to Duo, and his tears seemed to have stopped. Duo was washing him, running a cloth over his shoulders, and back, telling him some nonsense story. Heero set his items down, and took a seat on the commode, smiling at Ryan when the boy looked up at him.

When his story came to a finish, and Ryan was smiling voluntarily, Heero leaned forward. "Duo, I need to take care of your arm," he told him quietly.

"It can wait." Duo didn't look around, but scooped a handful of bubbles from Ryan's bath, and blew air over them, sending them flying.

"No, it can't." Duo did look at him this time, and Heero squatted on the floor next to him. "Ryan's asleep on his feet, and you're not much better." With a flick of his eyes to Ryan, he leaned into Duo. "Let me take care of you," he whispered. "Please?"

Duo sighed softly, rested his head on Heero's for a moment. "Okay."

Right there on the floor, Heero peeled Duo's jacket and shirt off, being careful of his injury. The vest he was able to slip off over Duo's head. Ryan's eyes were wide, his face worried. "For such a little cut, your dad bleeds a lot, doesn't he?" Heero asked with a grin. Ryan nodded, looking from Heero to Duo's injury to Duo's face.

"Just a scratch," Duo told him. Heero was swabbing the blood away, assessing how much of a 'scratch' it was, brows puckering in indecision on whether it needed stitches or not.

"What happened to your mouth?" Ryan asked, sitting up and touching Duo with a finger.

Heero looked around from working on Duo's arm, unsure how he could have missed a facial injury.

"Got punched," Duo answered with a grin and a grimace.

"Did you punch him back?" Ryan asked. Heero soaked more gauze with an antiseptic solution and handed it to Ryan, indicating he should clean it for Duo.

"You bet!" Duo pushed out his lip, making it easier for Ryan to wipe up the blood, cleanse his split lip. "And Heero punched him so hard, he went to sleep!"

"Cool!" Ryan turned admiring eyes to Heero. Heero grunted, and pulled out Steri-strip sutures.

"I brought you a clean shirt," Heero said, sealing the wound with a large bandage. "You might want to wash a bit before you put it on."

"You saying I smell?" Duo turned where he sat, and Heero saw echoes of humor in his eyes.

"If Ryan wasn't in the tub, I'd throw you in," Heero deadpanned, winking slyly at Ryan. Ryan giggled and backed into a corner.

"I see how it is," Duo complained mockingly. "You two are going to team up on me."

"Yes." Heero nodded, and Ryan giggled again. He rose up on his boots, and brushed a kiss to Duo's ear. "I'm going to go pack some things for you both. Ryan has pajamas on the sink." He left father and son still laughing together, and headed for Duo's bedroom.

The bag Duo started was still out, and Heero added another set of clothes, and Duo's toiletries from his bathroom. In Ryan's room, he pulled out enough clothes for two days, and a pair of sneakers. The giraffe went in last, its head sticking out the unzipped portion of the bag. Heero returned once again to the living room, dropping the bag by the door.

"I'm taking Duo and Ryan to my house for a couple of days," he told Trowa and Quatre. "I have room for you both, or," he looked around Duo's house, "I know Duo wouldn't mind if you stayed here."

"I'm not moving," Quatre mumbled, snug against Trowa's side.

Trowa looked up with a slight smile and a shrug. "Guess we'll be here."

There was a light knock on the door, and Trowa was on his feet instantly. Heero's hand flashed back for his ill-gotten weapon. Sharing a look with Trowa, he looked through the security hole, and backed down. "Wufei," he said quietly, unlocking the door and letting in the last member of their group.

"Novatny's in jail," Wufei stated without preamble. "He'll be held without bail, pending extradition orders." He looked at Heero and back to Quatre. "Preventers want him for terrorism in conjunction with the WEI satellite bombing, the abduction of Ryan, attempted murder, and criminal conspiracy. After his arraignment tomorrow, he'll be transported to Sanc."

"Good," Quatre said, sitting up, and looking alert suddenly.

Wufei glanced at each one before saying, "You will all have to go down to police headquarters to swear out a statement," his eyes swept Heero again, "including Duo and Ryan." Heero started to protest, but Wufei held up a hand. "I delayed his testimony until after noon, but he'll have to make a statement."

"Affirmative," Heero acknowledged, and looked to the hallway. Duo should be done now, and Ryan out of the tub, dried and dressed. "I'll make sure they're on time."

"It's been good to see you, Heero," Wufei stated solemnly. "And too long since the last time."

"Yes, it has," Quatre agreed, rising and coming to stand next to Trowa. "It had better not be another twelve years --"

"No, it won't." Heero was smiling slightly, but movement down the hall caught his eye, and he broke away, heading for the hallway. Duo was carrying Ryan with his good arm, wearing the clean shirt Heero picked out for him. He stopped long enough to take in the tableau, and offer a smile in thanks.

"I owe you all --" he was choking on the words, and Heero was there. Quatre drew closer, with Trowa behind him.

"No, you don't owe us anything," Quatre was saying.

"We're family," Trowa added in a quiet voice. "A one of a kind family."

Wufei nodded his agreement. "You would be there if the position were reversed."

"In a heartbeat," Duo vowed, holding Ryan closer.

"As will I," Heero added his voice. "Now that I'm back in 'the family'."

It was minutes before dawn, and Heero eased himself carefully from his bed. Mister Peabody lifted his head, and blinked at him, only to lay his head back on his paws and curl his tail around his body. Heero stood over his bed for a moment, looking at the two lying entwined under the covers.

Duo was curled about Ryan, and Ryan lay on his back, one arm splayed outward, the other tucked close with his hand holding tight to Duo's shirt. Heero felt the tenderness well, but turned from the bed, and padded down the hall. He checked the locks on all three doors, verified the security alarm was set, and wandered on slow feet back toward the bedroom.

Years before, a simple kiss started him on a journey. One that for nearly a decade, he believed would never be complete. Now that dream of a kiss had become his reality. He watched Duo sleep, watched Ryan murmur in his sleep, and let the fullness of it wash over him.

It would be days, if not weeks, before a sense of normalcy returned. But it would return. Duo would go back to work, and he and Ryan to school. The difference in the so-brief routine would be instantaneous. Duo and Ryan wouldn't be returning to that house -- not if he had any say about it.

Climbing back into bed, Heero moved closer under the covers, bracketing Ryan, and laying a hand on Duo's hip. Duo's eyes opened, and he stared at Heero over the span of pillows. His smile was brief, his lips formed words that had been left unsaid between them. Heero's hand tightened on Duo's hip, and he mouthed his own confirmation.



back to fiction

back to merith fiction

back home