by Aoe

Stuck With You... + Part 7

12/14/204

Eleven days to Christmas, and I haven't even started my holiday shopping.

In fact, I hadn't even conceived of the notion of holiday shopping until Duo brought it up over breakfast this morning.

We had eggs again, but what the hell, I can worry about cholesterol in my thirties. I never thought I'd still be alive at this age anyway, right?

But holiday shopping... Somehow, I always forget about it. I shouldn't. I mean, we celebrate Christmas every year. Duo kind of dragged us all into the tradition, although he's never had much success with the Secret Santa idea. We're all still a bit jumpy around mysterious, unmarked packages. Ingrained paranoia. But we always have a Christmas party, and exchange gifts amongst ourselves... Duo usually organizes an office party, too...

I am thinking about this because he has hauled out the dusty boxes of office decorations and is untangling lights at his desk at the moment. The first year we were all here, Une tried to discourage him from decorating, but... Duo Maxwell is not easily discouraged. So there he is, happily planning the draping of garland and lights around the office ceiling. He has the seating chart up on his computer screen, and I know from experience that he is using it to figure out whose desks he's going to be standing on this afternoon. He really doesn't have to bother. I can see our coworkers, those who've been here more than a year, studying the ceiling above their work areas. Anyone with a pre-placed hook is already stacking up files to work on elsewhere once the decorating frenzy begins.

But amused as I am by all of this, I find myself facing a thorny issue.

Where, exactly, will we ex-Gundam pilots be having our private party this year?

In years past, we've all gone over to Duo and Heero's spacious apartment, which Duo would have far more elaborately decorated than the office, complete with a big tree covered in tinsel and lights and shiny ornaments, and mistletoe hanging from every doorway. We'd have our traditional Christmas pizzas, with one separate pie with anchovies for Duo, and then we'd all sit around watching some old Christmas movie on the vid and watch each other get drunk on homemade eggnog.

Somehow, I don't see Heero coordinating this sort of activity on his own.

But surely we can't get together in my apartment? Duo and I barely fit in there as it is! If we added a tree and three other people, two of us would have to be in the bedroom and one in the tub at all times!

Not that that wouldn't make for an interesting party, but...

Actually, I had wondered if we would even celebrate Christmas this year. When Duo was gone, it seemed a sure bet that we wouldn't. He's the only connection most of us have to the holiday. And then, even when he did come back, I didn't think he was much in the holiday spirit. But today he seems to have woken up with Jingle Bells on the brain, if his constant cheerful humming is any indication.

So I don't know. I guess I should ask him if we should start looking for a tree or something. Logistical nightmare that it would be, I don't think I'd have the heart to tell him he can't have his Christmas party.

Oh well, I'll worry about that later. For now, I will pause and enjoy the spectacle of Duo standing on desks, stringing lights around the room.

I see he has enlisted young Ken as his decorating assistant. Ken is walking around on the floor, following Duo's progression from desk to desk, draped with light strings. He looks harried but indulgent. It is hard not to be indulgent of Duo in the Christmas spirit. He's like a little kid.

Hmm. Une just called Duo and Quatre into her office. I wonder what's going on?

Well, they've finally come back out. I guess they were only in there about twenty minutes, standard briefing time...

Briefing time?

Here comes Duo, with a thoughtful frown on his face.

"Well, Tro, looks like it's my turn for some excitement," Duo stated brightly as he leaned one hip against Trowa's desk.

Trowa leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow in question.

"Me and the Q got a job. We get to go "assist" the local authorities with a kidnapping," Duo elaborated.

Trowa frowned. "Who's the victim?" he asked curiously. In Preventer-speak, "local authorities" could refer to any level of law enforcement from a small-town sheriff to a national security force. For the Preventers to be involved, the case had to involve some kind of political figure, though.

Duo frowned sternly at Trowa, and informed him, in his best Une impersonation, "That's need-to-know information. And you don't need to know."

Trowa rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he drawled. "It's not like the whole office won't know by tomorrow."

Duo shrugged. "Hey, I try not to piss off the boss lady when it's this close to bonus time, ya know?"

Trowa smirked at the remark as Wufei walked down the aisle. The Chinese man nodded at his friends, not seeming inclined to stop, but Duo grabbed his arm, halting him. Wufei blinked at Duo in surprise and mild trepidation.

"The Wu-meister! Just the guy I was looking for!" Duo declared happily.

Wufei looked outright nervous at this statement, but, being Wufei, was hardly likely to admit to it. "Can't get enough, hm, Maxwell?" he drawled, sliding an arm around Duo's waist. "I knew it, I've ruined you for other men," Wufei continued sorrowfully, pulling the American against him.

Duo grinned at his captor, not resisting the pull of Wufei's arms. In fact, Duo wrapped his own arms around Wufei's neck and proceeded to nip gently at his earlobe. Wufei's eyes went wide at receiving such treatment in the middle of the office. Trowa gritted his teeth and endured the show. There was, after all, no earthly reason why it should bother him.

"You're right, Wu," Duo purred into the Chinese man's ear. "I need something from you... something I know no other man could do for me the way you could... Will you do it for me, Wu?" Duo pleaded in a husky voice, pressing closer to Wufei.

Trowa could see white all around Wufei's dark irises by this point, but he had to give the other man credit for keeping his voice steady and even as he asked, "And what is it you want me to do, Duo?"

"Do I really have to say it?" Duo riposted quickly, bending his head to nibble at the base of Wufei's neck a moment. "Just say you'll do it for me... " he begged softly. "Please, Wu? Just... promise... " And then he turned his attention to a spot behind Wufei's ear that immediately made the Chinese man flush bright red and squirm out of his embrace.

"All right, all right, I promise I'll do it! Just don't do that in public!" Wufei demanded desperately. He began fidgeting with his clothes, a sure sign he was flustered.

Duo smirked triumphantly and tossed Trowa a wink before proclaiming, "That's great, Wu! Thanks a bunch! And I just know you'll do a great job finishing the office decorations!"

Wufei and Trowa both stared at the grinning American with identical expressions of bafflement.

Duo's smile faded to a look of innocent confusion as he cocked his head to the side and asked them, "Well, what did you think I was talking about?"

"You," Wufei pronounced flatly, "are an evil, evil man."

Duo smirked at him. "'Course I am, baby. I'm the God of Death, remember?"

Wufei rolled his eyes and gave Duo a grudging half smile. "You win. I promised. I'll do it," he declared wearily. Duo looked smugly triumphant.

Then he jumped a foot and squeaked in surprise when Wufei goosed him as he walked past to find Ken. "That's what you get for teasing," Wufei called back to Duo without turning his head.

"Jerk," Duo muttered, but he was grinning ruefully even as he rubbed his molested bottom. He turned back to Trowa and shook his head at the vagaries of life. "Anyway," Duo said, leaning on the desk again, "like I said, duty calls. I'm not sure how long we'll be gone, but this sounds like an amateur job, so it probably won't be long, one way or the other. I hope they don't kill him," Duo frowned thoughtfully. "That would suck at this time of year. But anyway, I'm sure we won't be gone more than a few days, a week at the outside."

Trowa nodded. "Yes, I'm fairly familiar with standard mission procedure, Duo," he said patiently. Duo knew that, so obviously there was something else he had come over to discuss.

"Yeah, right... guess you would be," Duo agreed, smiling sheepishly. "Um. So, anyway, I'm sorry I'll be gone so long, and I won't be around to help you decorate. I guess you could wait until I get back, but that would be awful close to Christmas... "

"Decorate?" Trowa asked slowly.

Duo blinked at him in surprise and confusion. "Yeah, don't you... I mean... Well, it's not like you have to decorate," he assured Trowa hastily. "If tacky lights and tinsel aren't your thing, that's cool, it's your place and all. I was just... but never mind me," he concluded abruptly, waving his hands to dismiss the whole decoration issue. Duo sighed and pushed some of his long bangs behind one ear. The hair immediately fell back into his face when he lowered his hand. "I'm avoiding the real issue anyway."

Trowa frowned. "And what, exactly, is the real issue?" he asked calmly, congratulating himself on hiding his nervousness better than Wufei.

Duo was fidgeting, or more accurately, trying to find something to fidget with. His fingers skimmed over the waist of his pants, tugging at the bottom of his shirt and his belt loops. It took Trowa a moment to realize he was unconsciously searching for his braid. That had always been a dead giveaway to the degree of Duo's discomfort. The braid had been like a security blanket for him.

"Well," Duo began hesitantly, refusing to meet Trowa's curious gaze, "the thing is... it's just that... after this whole Wufei deal, I was wondering... I mean, not that it would necessarily even be an issue, but, you know, anything's possible, but I don't want to freak you out or anything, so I just thought I'd ask... So... would it be... okay?" Finally, Duo met Trowa's perplexed stare, the violet eyes wary and uncertain.

Trowa stared back at Duo for a moment, then asked in sincere bafflement, "Would what be okay?"

Duo's eyes widened in a look of incredulity. "You know," he insisted. At Trowa's mute shaking of his head, Duo bit his lip and bounced slightly on the balls of his feet. "If I... if me and Quatre... if we... " He waved a hand and added, "You-know-what."

"You're planning to sleep with Quatre on this mission?" Trowa asked flatly. It wasn't hard to keep any emotion from his tone, because he quite honestly had not the slightest idea what sort of reaction he was having to this idea.

Duo flushed bright red. "Well, not planning," he muttered. "But, well... stuff happens, and I just wanted to know... if it would piss you off again," he concluded, watching Trowa with eyes gone unreadable.

Trowa frowned and pondered the question for a moment. "No," he finally replied slowly, "I don't think I'd get angry again. I was really... more worried than angry, so... " Trowa shrugged, waving a hand in dismissal of the issue. "Do what you like. Whatever makes you happy," he declared.

Duo frowned slightly, then gave a shrug of his own. "It's not always about what makes just me happy," he said quietly.

Trowa blinked in surprise at this statement, but before he could react to it, Duo grinned widely and leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the forehead. "Well, I gotta run home and pack! I'll see you when I get back, Tro!" And with that he turned and began to walk away. Before he'd gone far, though, he turned back and batted his eyelashes at the taller man. "At least hang up some mistletoe, hmm, Tro-chan?" he requested coquettishly. Then he laughed lightly and ran off toward the exit, where Quatre was impatiently waiting for him.

Trowa shook his head with a sigh, baffled beyond any possibility of sorting out the emotions that little chat had jumbled up inside him. The only thing he was sure of was that he wasn't angry at Duo. He hadn't been angry at Duo.

He was dimly beginning to suspect that he wasn't capable of being angry at Duo.

"What the hell is going on with you two?" a sharp nasal voice demanded abruptly.

Trowa looked over to the aisle to see Heero standing there, scowling viciously at him. Trowa raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry. It occurred to him that he did that a lot. It was a good way to gain psychological control over a conversation. Make the other person do the talking.

Heero just glared harder.

Trowa sighed. "What do you mean, Heero?"

"You and Duo," Heero snapped. "Are you together or aren't you?"

"We're living together," Trowa answered calmly.

Heero stared at him silently for a moment. Trowa watched a muscle in the Japanese man's jaw jump spasmodically. "Are you together... in the physical sense?" Heero grated out.

Trowa considered another vague answer like "We spend a lot of time together," just to see if he could get Heero to develop a nervous tic, but then he decided that Heero Yuy displaying a nervous tic was not something he wanted to see. Or be within five miles of, much less be the cause of.

"No, we're not sleeping together. Not that it's any of your business," Trowa replied shortly. No reason to be falsely gracious with Heero. It wasn't like he noticed or appreciated it if you were.

Heero frowned, but his jaw relaxed. "Why not?" he asked, obviously puzzled by this notion.

Trowa shrugged. "He's my friend. He just needed a place to stay because he was short on cash. Did you think he was taking his rent out in trade or something?"

Heero's frown deepened. "No," he replied flatly. Trowa sighed internally. Sarcasm, too, was often lost on Heero. "I just figured... he'd chosen you because you were... like me, only... less," Heero continued.

Trowa felt his own jaw tighten. "Thanks," he snapped, glowering.

Heero cocked his head, either in unconscious imitation of Duo, or in the gesture that Duo had adopted. Trowa wasn't sure which way it had happened, and suddenly that bothered him terribly. After a moment, Heero seemed to decide he couldn't figure out the meaning of Trowa's response, and shrugged it away.

"Do you want to sleep with him?" Heero asked bluntly.

Trowa ground his teeth and refused to answer, but he could feel his traitorous face flushing slightly. He hoped Heero would take it for anger.

A faint smirk twisted Heero's lips. "You do," the Japanese man deduced smugly.

Okay, now Heero was starting to piss him off.

"Well, maybe I do. Everybody seems to want him. So maybe you could be a pal and give me a bit of an edge, eh, Heero? Maybe you could tell me what it was you did to make him so fucking miserable?" The art to asking questions like that, Trowa had learned, was to deliver them in the calmest, flattest tone possible.

Heero gave Trowa his fiercest glare, and then turned and walked back to his own desk, sitting down and booting up his computer.

Trowa watched the Japanese man work for a few minutes, then he stood up and walked determinedly over to Heero's desk.

"I asked you a question. I'd like an answer," Trowa said coldly. He wasn't sure why he was pressing this issue. It was undeniably dangerous to bait Heero, particularly where Duo was concerned. But Duo was Trowa's friend, and Heero was, too, for that matter, and whatever had gone wrong between the two of them was unlikely to have just healed itself during Duo's absence. It may have scabbed over, but from what Trowa had observed of their interactions since Duo's return, there was still a lot of pain and anger to be dealt with between the two.

Heero might be able to wall it away and move on as though nothing had ever happened, but Trowa doubted Duo could do that. And just because Heero could didn't mean he should.

"When did we all stop giving a shit about each other?"

Duo's anguished voice echoed in Trowa's mind, ameliorating his anger at Heero a bit. Whatever had happened between the two men, it had hurt Duo badly, but it had hurt Heero as well. He just made more of an effort to hide his pain, and the rest of them had taken that at face value. They had blamed him for Duo's unhappiness and eventual departure, never sparing a moment's concern for Heero's feelings.

Trowa still wasn't sure he could muster the same level of sympathy for Heero that he had for Duo. Heero just didn't invite concern. Even now, years after the war, he still was and probably always would be a very reserved, austere personality. They all knew he had his hidden depths of emotion. Duo never would have stayed with him so long if he didn't. But Heero had just never lost that outward coldness he'd had from day one. Even his friends who knew him better than anyone occasionally forgot he really was human behind the scowl.

Although it was damned easy to overlook when he gave one that inimitable glare.

Trowa crossed his arms and leaned against Heero's desk, obviously intending to stay until he got an answer.

Eventually, Heero gave up on the glare. He leaned back in his chair and regarded Trowa with a look of exasperation mingled with guilt.

"I did a lot of things," Heero said calmly. "And then, there were a lot of things I didn't do. I'm still not sure which was worse in the end."

Trowa frowned slightly. It wasn't much of an answer, but it was all he was likely to get from Heero. And he wasn't sure he could even bring himself to ask Duo the same question. Still, there had to be something more... "What was the last straw? That last day, something had pushed him over the edge. He wouldn't have just left like that..." Trowa mused thoughtfully, not even realizing he was thinking aloud, until Heero answered.

"I hit him," Heero said quietly.

Trowa looked down at the Japanese man in shock. Heero was staring blankly at his computer screen, the light giving his face a sickly blue cast. He spoke softly, almost like he was talking to himself. "He always frustrated me so much. He wanted things I didn't know how to give, and it made me angry. That he was so demanding... and that I couldn't give him what he wanted. I always knew he'd leave me eventually. I wasn't good enough. It was my fault he started drinking. I was... too harsh with him. I hurt him, sometimes without even meaning to. And sometimes I did mean to. When it got out of hand, and I told you all I'd deal with it... I didn't want you interfering. He was... mine, I didn't want... I always knew you were my biggest competition, all three of you. Who do any of us really have, except each other? Who else could ever understand us? I didn't want to lose him. But I didn't know how to help him.

"And then you... " Heero glanced up briefly, meeting Trowa's gaze for a moment before turning back to his screen. "You turned him in to Une. You actually did something. I tried... I tried to turn him against you, for that," Heero admitted. "But he was always smarter than I gave him credit for. I tried, after that. I watched how you dealt with him, and I tried, but I was too hard on him. You were firm, but not... I just don't know how... Anyway, I tried to force him to stop drinking, tried to shame him, tried to order him... But every day, there was this look in his eyes... every day, it was stronger. This distance... he was pulling away from me. I was pushing him away, too, but... he'd never let me do it, before. That last night... before he left... I asked him why. Why he did what you asked, but went out of his way to defy me, even though he was only hurting himself in doing it. He said... it was because you... wanted to help him. I... only wanted to control him. He said you cared about him... and I didn't.

"And... I hit him," Heero concluded solemnly. He sighed deeply, as though admitting his crime had lightened the load on his conscience somewhat. "He wouldn't speak to me at all after that. We had sex that night. I was... worked up. He didn't fight me, but... " Heero shook his head. "He just laid there, just... stared at me. Like he didn't know me. Then the next day... I was trying to piss him off, just to get some reaction. Just to get him to say something to me. But he didn't. He never even said goodbye. He just left."

"Do you blame him?" Trowa asked quietly, his voice a bit sharper than he intended. He was trying to reserve judgment, to not give in to his urge to attack this man who had been his friend for so long. It wasn't his place to judge Heero, who was obviously, in his own way, hurting almost as much as Duo from the incident. Maybe more, since Duo seemed to have come to terms with the end of his relationship with Heero, and Trowa was pretty sure Heero had not done the same. Knowing Heero, he probably hadn't even let himself think about anything that had happened until Duo returned.

Heero looked up at Trowa, frowning in confusion. "Of course not," he said in a tone of exasperated amazement, apparently stunned Trowa would even suggest such a thing. "He had every right... I don't deserve anything from him," Heero asserted flatly.

Trowa frowned at this statement, having perhaps the most experience of anyone with Heero's rather bizarre sense of guilt. The Japanese man's actions began to make more sense to him in this context. That unrelenting death glare on the day Duo came back... not really anger or possessiveness, but just Heero closely assessing the situation. Heero's questions about Duo's whereabouts the next day, while seemingly a harsh interrogation, had really just reflected his worry for the American. And that confrontation with Trowa in the hall... well, that probably had some elements of jealousy in it, especially considering the little scene Trowa had witnessed between Duo and Heero that evening. But Duo had quite clearly stated his choices, throughout that day. And the next day...

He warned me not to hurt Duo, Trowa recalled. Trowa sighed internally. Somehow, he'd just accepted the threat as typical Heero grumbling, more of a warning not to mess with his toys than anything else... When it had really been Heero's way of saying, "Okay, I accept that Duo has chosen you over me, and this is my penance for my transgressions. But you better not make the same mistakes, or I will hurt you."

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear... Heero had probably been more confused by the Wufei episode than Trowa had been.

"Why can't you ever just apologize like a normal person?" Trowa demanded in exasperation. Heero just blinked at him in confusion, and Trowa walked away, muttering that he needed to think.

He sat at his desk and watched Wufei and Ken draping lights around the room, Wufei's inherently anal personality coming to the fore and turning the simple task into a day-long project.

This is what I get for being curious, Trowa informed himself grimly. Now that he knew what had happened... I have to fix this. Or at least, I have to help them fix this. I have to do something... this is a big nasty mess, and I can't let it fester. It could end up ripping us all apart. But damn it... He sighed, and rubbed wearily at his eyes. What if they work it out somehow, and Duo decides... to give Heero another chance?

Trowa frowned at the thought. Well, if he does, that's his choice. And if it works out, and he's... they're happy, then I'd be happy, too. That's what's important, right, that Duo is happy? Trowa sighed again. Yes. That's what's important. I want him to be happy.

"It's not always about what makes just me happy."

Trowa bit his lip thoughtfully, considering that comment Duo had made so recently. What had he meant by it? That other people's happiness should come before his sometimes? Or that... he couldn't be happy if someone else was unhappy?

Trowa wasn't sure what Duo had meant. But he was pretty sure that the American getting back together with Heero would not make Trowa Barton very happy, in a purely personal sense. Would Duo care if he were unhappy?

Or was he just being selfish and trying to convince himself of that?

And where should he hang the mistletoe?

Trowa lowered his head until his forehead rested on his desk. "I hate my life," he muttered softly against his desk calendar.

"Bemoan your fate later, Barton. I need your desk," Wufei announced from beside him. Trowa looked up to see a very determined Chinese man scowling at him. Wufei with a Purpose was nearly as implacable as Heero. Ken smiled apologetically over Wufei's shoulder at Trowa.

"If we move the hook up there over your desk, it'll even out the angles," Ken explained vaguely. Wufei sneered at Ken's words, which obviously did not express the true glory of his intricate decorating scheme.

"Fine," Trowa muttered, pushing himself to his feet with a glower for the Chinese man. Wufei ignored him in that way only Wufei could, making it very obvious that he was being ignored. Shaking his head at Ken's expression of confused concern, Trowa walked off towards the break room. Heero was still at his desk, but somehow, Trowa didn't feel like talking to the Japanese man right then.

Duo, Trowa thought to himself as he walked, I wish I knew what you wanted. I wish I knew...

But Trowa knew lots of proverbs about the value of wishes.

And he had to make a fresh pot of coffee in the break room.

[part 6] [part 8] [back to Aoe's fic]