Author: The Manwell
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimers

Shinigami Sleeps + Chapter 11
A Sure Thing

The bartender smiles at the two young men pacing the perimeter of the old pool table. He's not exactly on a first-name-basis with them yet, but considering the fact that they've visited his little bar three times in the last ten days, he's officially begun to think of them as "regulars."

"You know, we should place bets on these games, Tro."

The slightly taller young man lines up a shot as he replies mildly, "Why's that?"

The braided youth leans on his pool cue and his grin is border-line feral. "To make it more interesting, of course."

"So playing against me isn't interesting enough for you, is it?"

His friend snorts and allows his gaze to roam over the lean figure. In a voice that doesn't carry past the two of them, he concedes, "Well, the word 'interesting' doesn't do justice to the view I'm enjoying right now..."

Trowa pauses as he pulls back his cue. He directs his attention over his shoulder, meeting the mischievous twinkle in Duo's eyes. Very deliberately, Trowa allows his own gaze to glide down Duo's slim form and then back up again. "Absolutely," he agrees.

Duo blushes.

Trowa turns back to the game with a slight smirk. With a snap of his arm, he sends his intended target into the intended pocket. "What do you want to wager?"

"I'm not sure," Duo admits. "I was kind of hoping you'd have an idea or two."

Formulating his next move, Trowa says, "There's always laundry duty."

"Nah. Too boring."

"Dinner."

"We switch off on that anyway."

Trowa hesitates to lean over the table again as the perfect wager comes to mind. He looks Duo in the eye and says, "A hot shower."

Duo blinks. Mouth on autopilot, he replies, "Alone?"

Trowa stares at him for a minute.

Then, as his mind oh so considerately replays what he'd just said aloud, Duo's face begins to perform a slow burn.

Trowa's mouth stretches into a wide---and previously undisclosed---grin before he leans back against the table and laughs. For several heartbeats, Duo just watches Trowa's mirth. He's never seen the other man laugh before. The sight and sound of it does something to his pulse and a peculiar warmth starts deep in his stomach and spreads outward in a quick flush.

Eventually, Duo feels an answering chuckle pour out of him. "Er, sorry, Tro. That kinda... um..." He wonders if he should use the phase "Freudian Slip" to explain his outburst or if it'll only dig him deeper into the hole.

Trowa ignores Duo's embarrassment. "The loser arranges for the winner to have a hot shower and a night in a real bed," Trowa says, still smiling.

Duo's brows arc at the expensive stakes. He says, "Does the loser get to use said shower and sleep in a real bed, too?"

"At the winner's discretion."

Duo mulls this over but is unable to find a down side to this wager. Slowly, he nods. "Okay..."

Trowa leans over the table and sends the eight ball into the pocket nearest Duo. With the game over, Trowa deposits the correct change into the table to release the balls and begins to rack them. Duo digs into his jeans pocket and pulls out a coin.

"Flip for who breaks?" Duo asks. Trowa looks up from arranging the multicolored billiard balls and nods. "You call it," Duo tells him. "Ready?"

Trowa nods again.

Duo thumbs the coin into the air.

"Tails."

Sweeping his hand through the air, Duo collects the coin and slaps it on the back of his wrist. Without looking at it, he sticks his hand under the hanging lamp hovering above the table. Trowa's gaze flicks down. He smirks.

It's tails.

Duo grins amicably, "Your move, Tro. Who goes first?"

Trowa studies Duo's face for a moment before deciding, "You do."

"Um... okay."

Trowa removes the guide and slides it into its slot at the side of the table. He holds out a hand in a silent request for the chalk cube, which Duo tosses and Trowa catches with ease.

He had briefly considered setting up the game so he'd have the greatest chance of losing, so that Trowa would owe Duo a hot shower and a real bed for a night. But something had stopped him. Trowa has the suspicion that Duo feels... obligated for relying so heavily on Trowa these last two plus weeks. And Trowa suspects that if he were to lose, Duo would feel even more indebted. So, at the last possible moment, Trowa had decided to win. Had decided to let Duo do him this favor. And, as the game of pool generally goes, the person who plays first only sinks two or three shots before running out of moves. When Duo misses and allows Trowa to take his turn, Trowa intends to sink every one of his shots. He'll not be playing down his game tonight.

Trowa chalks up his cue and leans over the table. The crack of the break echoes in the pub. He sees Duo lift a single brow in appreciation. It's a good break. A very good break. Backing off from the table, Trowa watches Duo set up his first shot. It's a tough one. In fact, there are several easier marks on the table, but---seeing Duo's smirk---Trowa understands that Duo is trying to one- up him.

Duo executes. The target ball slams into the side pocket. Trowa muses, So I'm not the only one who hasn't been competing in earnest...

Duo works his way around the table, completing four shots easily. "You realize you're goin' down, don't you?" he asks flippantly as he lines up a fifth.

"In your wildest dreams, Maxwell."

Duo laughs. "Shit, man. That sounded just like Wufei."

"Wufei's name and the word 'shit' in the same breath? You better hope I don't say anything to him about that."

"You'd let Wufei beat me up? Or worse? Give me The Look? What kind of friend are you?"

"A sadistic one."

"I'll say."

"If we're not too busy tomorrow evening, let's go find some puppies to kick."

Duo snorts... then snickers... then chuckles... and finally laughs. "Tro---man---you have---a---wicked sick---sense of---humor."

"So I'm discovering."

Finally, Duo gets control of himself once more and puts away that fifth shot. Shaking his head, still smiling, Duo circles the table. Then, inexplicably, he pauses and seeks Trowa's gaze. _Expression a mix of curiosity and sobriety, Duo asks, "What do you mean you're 'discovering'?" Duo offers a playful grin. "Didn't you already know you were such a sick and twisted individual?"

"Not before I started hanging out with you," Trowa confesses, amused but honest.

Duo looks away, suddenly uncomfortable. "Um, that's... weird."

Still completely relaxed, Trowa says, "Not really."

Duo's gaze settles very briefly in Trowa's direction while he prepares for his sixth shot. "Why not?"

Trowa doesn't reply and his silence unnerves Duo enough that he screws up the shot completely missing the hole. With a somewhat frustrated sigh, he retreats from the table.

Trowa chalks his cue, surveys the game's landscape, and begins to play. During the entire time, he can feel Duo's gaze following his every move. It's unsettling and Trowa has to make an effort to regulate his respiration and channel his attention. After nearly five seemingly infinite minutes of tense silence, Trowa says, "You know, Duo, I could miss this shot and let you win..."

That gets the expected reaction. "The hell you will."

Tension between them broken, they settle back into conversation once more.

"You loose on purpose and I'll kick your ass, Trowa Barton."

"You and what army?"

"Pretty cocky for a guy who's never been on a date, aren't you?"

"Are you calling my masculinity into question?"

"No, just your imagination and charm."

"And this is the part where you'll give me all the advice I'll ever need for three easy payments of ninety-nine ninety-five?"

"I accept all major credit cards."

"But no personal checks."

"Do I look like I was born yesterday?"

"You look like you're about one shot away from finding me that hot shower."

"Yeah, well, there's worse fates. Can't think of any at the moment, but I'm sure they're out there."

Trowa steps away from the table. He only has the eight ball left and it's an almost obscenely clear shot. He looks up at Duo and says quietly, "It's not too late to call the bet off."

The left half of Duo's mouth curves into a grin. "Don't you dare."

"All right." He leans over the table, shoots, and the eight ball disappears from sight.

+

"I can't believe you told them my cooking was only a step up from primordial ooze."

Trowa glances at Duo as they depart the building site. "Actually, I said, 'On the evolutionary food scale, it ranked almost as high as primordial ooze.'"

Duo snickers. "Dude, of all the words I never thought I'd hear you say..." He shakes his head. "Ooze. Heh."

Trowa takes careful note of the fact that Duo isn't the least bit perturbed by Trowa mocking his culinary prowess. But then, when Trowa had said that, he'd almost smiled at Duo, remembering all of the effort Duo had gone to that evening but in vain. He doesn't think anyone else had noticed the affection in his eyes. Just Duo.

"Only you could burn Spaghetti-O's," Trowa says, both amused and awed.

"Yeah, it takes real talent to be me."

The soft, wistful _expression on Duo's face is a surprise and Trowa has to shove his hands in his jeans pockets. There's something... different about Duo lately. In fact, the delighted yet somewhat predatory aura Trowa's caught occasional glimpses of had started shortly after Duo had lost their hot-shower-and-a-real-bed wager. Realizing this, Trowa feels his muscles tighten with suspicion. He recalls the way he and Duo had flirted with each other that night at the pub. Recalls Duo's innocent slip up about showering solo.

"Tro? You okay, man?"

He comes back to the here and now, turning sharply to meet Duo's eyes. "Yes. Fine."

"You looked like you were off on Earth somewhere."

Trowa answers Duo's shy smile with a shake of his head. "Not on Earth," he assures him, easily answering Duo's implied question; Trowa had not been missing his old life. No, he'd been wondering about this one.

They traverse the remainder of the block in silence. As they cross the street, Duo sighs softly and slowly. "I was thinking..."

Trowa looks up at Duo's hesitation, catching the flicker of pain as it tightens his _expression. "About what?"

Duo bites his lip then confesses, "The 'what ifs.'" His glances at Trowa with an apologetic _expression. "Sorry, Tro. Didn't mean to ruin the end of our day with that."

Trowa ignores that. "What if... what?" he inquires gently, sensing Duo needs to talk about this.

Hunching further under his jacket, Duo steps onto the sidewalk and replies, "What if I'd hesitated? I mean, when that Alliance officer insulted me and I turned around to glare at him, I saw... I felt... something, Trowa. And it scared me. I don't know if I was just seeing his surprise or if I was remembering... I didn't want to know. I just ran." Duo shuffles to a halt and clenches his fists. "Things could have ended differently, Trowa. So very differently."

Trowa hovers closer, offering his presence, unsure if Duo would accept his arms around him out here, in the open street.

Duo hauls in a deep breath and looks up, eyes glistening and very wet. "All he wanted was one more chance, Tro."

Ah to hell with it... Trowa pulls his right hand from his pocket and curls his arm around Duo's shoulders. And as Duo rests his forehead against Trowa's neck, he guesses that he made the right decision in reaching for him.

"And that's maybe not even the worst part," Duo continues, voice muffled. "I'd accepted the fact that I was alone, that I had to take care of myself, that nobody wanted me, and I was going to prove it to the whole world that I was somebody. I was going to make them see what a mistake they'd made in getting rid of me." A shuddering breath leaves Duo's body. "The rage kept me going, kept me strong, kept me rolling out of bed in the morning and running faster and laughing louder. And now... now it's just... gone." One of Duo's hands curls around Trowa's shoulder from behind and his grip is almost painfully tight. "I was wanted. I was."

Trowa's eyes squeeze shut for a moment, hearing the delicate meaning in Duo's carefully chosen words. "Was." Not "is."

"And I looked back at that base, the detonator in my hand, my thumb on the switch and I remembered that soldier's eyes when he'd looked at me. I just stood there thinking about that. And then I got angry. Angry with the Alliance for all the pain they'd caused. Angry with myself for hesitating." Duo's other hand grasps the front of Trowa's shirt. "I pressed the switch, Trowa. And then I just tossed it aside and walked away."

Trowa pictures the moment easily. Imagines a younger Duo dressed all in black, eyes shaded beneath the brim of his hat, contemplating the remote in his hands, contemplating the act he is about to commit. Hesitating as a possibility too painful presents itself to him: forget about revenge and investigate the look in Kurt Franklin's eyes. And he watches as Duo's _expression hardens with anger and frustration. He's lived for this moment for four years. He reminds himself of everything the Alliance has taken. And he gets angry enough to press the detonator.

The world explodes around him, but he remains framed in the entrance to a dark, familiar alley. He watches, the flames and smoke reflecting in his eyes. And then, something inside of him... perhaps it's hope... dies. Trowa's imagination shows him the silent, slim, dark figure as it turns and disappears into the shadows.

"I became Shinigami that night," Duo tells him. "I mean, I'd suspected everything and everyone I loved would be taken from me, that fate hated me, that I was cursed. But that night, I stopped letting the world take from me, and started taking from it. Took all the souls I thought I'd need to fix me."

In a defeated whisper, Duo concludes, "But it didn't fix me. None of it did. Just made everything hurt worse."

Trowa feels himself caught between murmuring meaningless reassurances and confessing his overwhelming feelings of ineptitude. He's just glad the street is empty this cold, Thursday evening. He wishes Duo had waited until they'd gotten back to the house to confess this, but knows Duo's disregard for their current location illustrates the depth and intensity of his grief.

Some time ago, Trowa's other arm had settled around Duo as well. Now he strokes his hand slowly over Duo's hair and fumbles for something---for the right thing---to offer him.

With a deep breath, Duo leans away just enough to look into Trowa's eyes. There's a searching moment when Trowa feels the almost palpable probing of Duo's gaze. And then his breathing stills. Tuned to the motions and mannerisms of Duo's body, Trowa finds himself holding his breath as well. And then Duo leans forward.

The brush of Duo's lips at the corner of his mouth is electric. Trowa's body jerks and he retreats from the touch. Retreats, but doesn't loosen his hold on Duo.

Very softly, he asks, "Why did you do that?"

"Uh..." The air floods back into Duo's lungs. He looks everywhere except Trowa's green eyes. His body tenses. He tries to run, to hide. Trowa doesn't let him. "Um, well, I guess I was just thinking that, um... look, I know hanging out with me hasn't exactly been a thrill-a-minute lately and I've really been bringing you down with all of my issues and I just thought---"

Trowa's brain engages and politely fills him in on why Duo is reacting this way. Trowa says, "Yes, Duo."

Duo swallows, blinking. His voice almost cracks as he whispers back, "Yes... what?"

The hand against Duo's hair shifts until the backs of Trowa's fingers are sliding reverently over Duo's temple and down to his cheekbone. "Yes," he murmurs, "I want you." And the tone of his voice coveys the meaning of that statement perfectly; it has nothing to do with lust and everything to do with the ache in Trowa's heart.

A soundless gasp rushes between Duo's lips. He blinks again as his eyes burn and shimmer with tears. Drawn in by Duo's sudden inhalation, Trowa closes the distance between their mouths slowly. So slowly, Duo could easily withdraw... or savor the anticipation.

Trowa's lips settle against Duo's in a warm caress. He gently cradles Duo's upper lip and then his lower, brushes his mouth over the tender skin a second time. His eyelids are heavy, but Trowa forces them to stay open.

The anxiety and tension leaves him and an air of contentment and peace radiates from Duo's body. His dark eyes nearly close as well, still glittering with tears Trowa knows he won't shed.

The kiss is lingering and gentle and Trowa offers up what he can to heal Duo's shattered soul. And then the kiss changes subtly. It becomes less about healing Duo and more about healing each other.

Duo's lips move infinitesimally, returning the caresses on a breath, "Trowa..."

"Yes," he breathes back. "I want you."

In his shirt, Duo's fingers tighten in response. He presses himself against Trowa's body.

Trowa's lips linger and he drinks in this moment. He hesitates to let go, feeling like any movement away from Duo will fragment his control and rip open wide his chest, pouring these almost painful emotions into the street. And if the way Duo returns his hold is any indication, he feels the same as well.

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