Author: Jupiter Strahan
Pairings: 1+2
Rating: PG
Warnings: mild shonen ai, slight angst, sweet, sap
Disclaimer: Characters Not Mine. Ficcie is.

Appreciate Time

Heero sat on the corner of the bed, listening to the running water in the bathroom. Duo had been in there for well over an hour, and Heero, well, really needed to go. Unfortunately, Duo had a habit of securely locking the bathroom door whenever he showered, and Heero knew it would be quite a while before he would be finished. After a few more minutes he stood, contemplated the consequences of breaking down the bathroom door, then decided that it would be too much trouble. There was no need to ruin a perfectly good door, which he would be using later on, so he stalked out of their room and into woods around their "borrowed" cabin. After relieving himself on a nearby bush, he re-entered their shared little safehouse feeling much better, and noticed that the shower had stopped. He glanced at the clock. 10:48.

Heero scrounged through the food, finally settling on a simple meal of rice. He noticed after he finished eating that he had made enough for two. He put the leftover portion into the fridge, wondering why he had made some for Duo as well. He'd never done it before. He usually made enough for himself and told Duo to prepare his own meals.

After checking the clock again, and noting that Duo would still be in the bathroom for at least another 20 minutes (It was 11:15), he returned to his and Duo's bedroom and sat down on the bed, reaching under it to pull out his laptop. He checked for a mission, but there was none. He ran a virus-check. He scanned for errors. He ran a series of other maintenence programs, but his laptop was in perfect condition. He checked the clock on the screen. 11:27. Duo was still in the bathroom.

He shut off the machine and replaced it under the bed, and laid back on the bed. He didn't want to admit it, but somehow he knew that the reason he was so restless was boredom. It had happened every morning since he and Duo had been ordered to lay low until notified, almost two weeks ago. Duo showered every day he could, for as long as he could. He told Heero that it was because he almost never had the luxury of showering when he was younger, but Heero knew that couldn't be the only reason. For nearly three hours a day, Duo had an excuse to ignore him, to be away from him. He knew he that it shouldn't bother him, but for some reason, the thought that Duo would spend hours in front of the bathroom mirror playing with his hair rather than spending that time with him made him angry. Almost jealous. He couldn't understand why it bothered him so much. It's not like Duo didn't spend the rest of the day constantly badgering Heero to do something with him, and it's not like he ever accepted any of those offers, but it still upset him. He sighed and studied the ceiling, trying to figure out just why Duo affected him this way.

Finally, at 11:52, Duo unlocked the bathroom door. As he stood in the open doorway, he toyed with his damp braid with one hand, and clutched the dark green towel wrapped around his waist with the other. Heero watched him out of the corner of his eye for a moment, then closed his eyes.

"It's noon, Duo. What could possibly keep you in there so long?" It came out laced with bitterness, not the way he meant it at all. He only wanted to know what could possibly keep Duo occupied for such a long period of time every day. He had to know why the American always seemed to favor his hair over him.

Duo grinned and flipped his braid around jovially. "Why, I must take care of my hair! Unlike you, my dear Heero, my hair does not magically remain beautiful without constant daily care!" Duo turned first one way, then the other, striking poses in an attempt to show off just how wonderful his braided tresses were before winking at Heero. "I make a good model, ne?"

Heero just arched an eyebrow. "Baka. Why does it take three hours to brush out your hair and braid it? It's as though you worship that thing." He gestured to the yard-long rope of chestnut that brushed against his thighs.

For some reason Duo immediately sobered, his tone serious. "Do you really want to know?"

Heero felt the mattress sink beside him as Duo lay down to his right. "Yes."

It was quiet for a while before the reply came. "If I tell you why, you have to listen. This is important to me."

Heero sat up, then pulled himself up onto the bed and crossed his legs, searching out Duo's eyes. "I'll listen, Duo."

Duo sat up and imitated Heero's position, readjusting his towel and looking straight into the cobalt depths of his eyes. "This is kind of a long story... but it's something I won't tell just anyone. You, though.... You're special. You're one of the few people I can honestly call my friend. You're probably my best friend, and for that, you deserve the truth."

Heero continued gazing into Duo's eyes, remaining silent, partly because he couldn't think of anything to say, and partly because he was shocked at how deadly serious Duo was being. Whatever Duo was going to tell him, it was severely important to him.

Duo took a deep breath and began, speaking slowly and delibrately. "I never knew my parents. Well, I'm sure I did, but I don't remember them now. My earliest memories are of a group of dirty street kids on L2. I was one of them. For the first eight years of my life, my life revolved around my street family. I learned to pick locks, steal, run, and hide from the best. Nobody was better than Solo.

"I had long hair back then, too. Solo said that hair like mine was special, and so I always let it grow out. It was my mark, what made me stand out in our group. It became who I was. Because I was Solo's favorite, he told everyone I was his kid brother, Duo. That's how I got my name, get it?" Duo grinned, but it wasn't genuine. It wasn't empty, either. Instead, it was filled with the pain of his past. Heero nodded, and he continued. "Solo died, not long after I had turned nine. Actually, it was not long after the day I had picked to celebrate my birthday, since I didn't really know what day I was born. I still don't. Anyway, It was a plague. Everyone died, except for me. I don't know how or why I survived, but I did.

"I was taken in by a Catholic Preist. Father Maxwell, Caretaker of the famous Maxwell Church of L2. You know about Maxwell Church, don't you, Heero?"

Heero nodded again.

A hint of a smile crossed the American's features as he recalled his time at the church."Sister Helen became like a mother to me. She fussed over me all the time, and tried more than once to cut my hair into a more 'proper' style. I, of course, threw a fit each time she approached me with scissors, until Father Maxwell and I made her promise that she would let me keep my hair. Besides my memories, it was all I had left of Solo.

"After that, she and I made a deal. I would get to let my hair grow out as long as I liked, as long as she got to braid it for me. And that's what happened. Every day, she spent the first part of her day braiding my hair, and teaching me how to do it. I grew very fond of my braid, you see; it was far more practical than having it loose and getting caught on things all the time, not to mention than people stopped mistaking me for a girl. It was one of the best times in my life. I wasn't even bothered that no one would adopt me, because that church was more of a home to me than anywhere else. In fact, it wasn't long before they told me that they were taking me off the adoption list, because they wanted me to stay there with them. That day I got my last name, Maxwell."

Duo took a deep breath, his eyes suddenly blank, dead, and his voice a shaky whisper. "Less than two years later, I made a mistake. A big one. It was what caused the attack on the Church. I wasn't there when it happened, though. When I got there there was nothing but rubble and corpses. That's why I'm Shinigami, you see."

Heero didn't see, but he didn't say anything. It seemed hard enough for Duo to tell him this without having him force out the harsher details.

"Not much later G picked me up. Actually, I snuck onboard of one of his ships, and he recruited me because of it. He told me that anyone who could get past his security, especially as conspicuous as I was, would be the perfect pilot for Deathscythe."

Duo fell silent again. He looked down at his braid, clasped in his hands, as Heero studied him.

The Japanese boy remained quiet, letting the American collect himself. Duo's past had been far more heartbreaking than he could have imagined. He now knew why Duo was so protective of his hair. Not only was it the only thing Duo had left of his past, but everyone who had been close to him somehow was related to it.

After a few minutes, the braided boy spoke again."I have my reasons. You understand, right?"

"Yeah. I do." Heero reached out and plucked the hair from Duo's grasp. "What does it look like when it's down?" he asked as he pulled off the small black tie.

"Stop it, Heero." Duo's voice was hushed, but sharp. "That's a gift I don't give to anyone. No one has seen me with my hair down since Sister Helen died. No one."

He looked into Duo's eyes, and saw it. Not even Duo knew it, though. Keeping the pain of the past bottle up inside had been slowly killing the braided boy, but he was still afraid to become attached to anyone, for fear of losing them as well.

He took Duo's hand and guided it to his own braid, still gripped loosely in Heero's fist. "Let me braid your hair, Duo."

"What?" Duo's eyes narrowed, suspicious. "Why? It's braided already. I thought you understood, Heero. This is something sacred to me,"he spat.

"I know how important it is, Duo." He responded quietly. Heero guided Duo's hand back to his lap, then re-tied Duo's hair, and dropped it. "Maybe another time, then."

Faint surprise registered on Duo's face, and then a calm smile took its place."You do understand. Thanks." Duo pulled away, got up off the bed, and headed for the door.

Suddenly, inpiration hit Heero. "Wait, Duo."

He turned around for a moment, then walked back to the bed and sat down."What is it?"

"Stay here," Heero stood up and walked over to the dresser. Pulling out the bottom drawer, he fished through the random items inside until producing a long silk violet ribbon, and hid it from Duo's sight as he returned to the bedside. He crawled up on the bed and sat behind Duo.

"What is it? What are you doing?" Duo asked curiously.

"You'll see. I found this a few weeks ago. It reminded me of you. I've kept it with me since then, but I want you to have it." He tied it neatly to the end of the braid, then removed the black rubber tie for the second time. Placing one had on Duo's shoulder, he used the other to swing the chestnut rope of hair into Duo's lap. "That's for trusting me enough to tell me the truth. Thanks."

He stood up and walked to the window, staring out, waiting for his friend's reaction. He watched from the corner of his eye as Duo stared at the ribbon for a few minutes, then slowly removing it. His heart sank. He had been so sure Duo would understand what he was trying to say.

"Heero?"

"What?" Again, it came out a lot harsher than he meant it.

"Here." He was holding out the ribbon. Heero refused to look into Duo's eyes and he reclaimed his gift, then turned to face the window again.

"I can't accept this yet," Duo began softly. He reached forward and laid his hand on Heero's back. Heero didn't move. Taking a deep breath, he slid his arms loosely around Heero's waist and pulled himself against his back, resting his head on Heero's shoulder. He could feel the other boy breathing. "I don't mean to hurt you, Heero. I want you to know that I appreciate the gesture. It means a lot to me, especially coming from you. Maybe I'll let you braid it another time."

Heero remained silent, but his muscles relaxed and he closed his eyes. "Another time?"

Duo smiled again, thinking, then replied, "You're not busy tomorrow morning, right? You're my best friend; the best I've had since Solo. Maybe even closer than that. I want you to braid my hair after I get out of the shower. And tie it with that ribbon, all right?"

Heero turned around, and wrapped his own arms around Duo, so they holding each other in a loose, comfortable embrace. He looked into the violet depths of Duo's eyes, the exact shade of the ribbon he was holding. "All right, then. Tomorrow morning."

They stood there in each others arms for a long time, just looking at each other. Heero never knew that he had been smiling.

~Owari~

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