author: trixie
see part 1 for notes, disclaimers, etc.
notes: no notes. it's the same stuff from before.

Rattlesnakes + Part 14

It was just a piece of paper. It wasn't even that big. If he wanted to, he could just toss it in the garbage, or in the recycling tin, and be done with it.

It wasn't the first time he had been given one of these. He had never even thought about it before. It was an unthinkable thing, to be dependent, to alter oneself. To declare oneself lacking, and weak.

He was better than that, or if not, then why bother trying to change it?

He wanted to just toss it, just ignore it, just pretend that it didn't exist...

But Dr. Mahoney's words were still ringing in his ears, her condemnation still burning in his chest.

Dr. Levy had explained it all very placidly, like it was just science. Trowa understood that to a certain degree, it was just a matter of chemicals and reactions, but they were his chemicals, and he wasn't sure he wanted to mess with them.

He turned the paper over and over in his hand. It was so innocuous. It didn't look like something that would mark a man defective.

He put it in his pocket, and pretended that he could just ignore it. He wanted to get back to Duo as quickly as he could, so that they could have some private time before the night bell. Duo had been really tired that week. Trowa had gotten him some massage oil that heated with skin contact, and he intended to strip Duo naked and make him feel better, starting with his muscles.

Duo was just working so damned hard. It was the least that he could do.

He was pulling into the driveway for the pharmacy before he knew what he was doing. He cursed himself, but he still parked, and got out of the car. He spent the ten minutes while waiting for the prescription to be filled examining the various different choices in feminine protection that were currently available. He wondered briefly what Catherine used.

He was in that car again less than twenty minutes later, and he took his first dose with a swig of bottled water he had bought very much against his better judgment. Dr. Levy had specifically mentioned that this particular variety had a low incidence of sexual side effect, emphasizing the point without being indiscreet. Trowa envied that sort of diplomacy.

It was for the best. After all, it was just chemical. And Duo was working hard at changing himself, so Trowa ought to as well.

He had successfully put it out of his head by the time he pulled into the Phoenix's parking lot.

~*~

Trowa combed a small chunk of hair with his fingers, pulling the long strands out as far as he could reach, and then letting them drop down over Duo's shoulder. He had a sense of peace and place right now, but rather than try to cling to what was sure to slip through his fingers, he just tried to enjoy it to the fullest.

It did occur to him that that was almost a direct quotation from Dr. Levy, but he didn't mind so much.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It was an idle question, lazily filling the time until they could move again.

Duo grinned. "I hate to disappoint you, Tro, but this is as grown up as I'm gonna get."

Trowa raised an eyebrow speculatively. "I don't know. You were bigger a minute ago."

Duo didn't laugh outright, but he smiled and put his face against Trowa's shoulder. The feeling of Duo's skin was a rush, especially now that the floodgates had burst, and he could just feel the tingle of the blood pumping through him.

"I meant, when you were a kid. Or during the war. What did you want to do?"

"Survive," Duo laughed. "That was it. There were the dead, and the not - dead. The soon - to - be - dead. I wanted to be the not - dead."

Trowa nodded. "I didn't care that much."

Duo considered. "Therapy assignment?"

Sighing, Trowa nodded. "I'm supposed to have an answer to 'what do you want to do with your life?' Or, its variant, 'where do you see yourself in ten years?'"

Duo whistled. "Dr. Mahoney spent three hours ripping that one out of my head."

"Well?" Trowa propped himself up on his elbow, waiting patiently.

"What? I'm just supposed to give it all away?" Duo pouted, shrugging his shoulders. With his hair falling all around him, his bare skin hiding under the waves of hair and under the sheets, he looked like a debauched angel. A demon with a prayer on his lips.

Trowa wasn't even playing along when he started to nibble on Duo's ear. He wanted his whole body in contact with Duo.

The bed in Duo's room was small, a reasonably decent mattress on a metal frame. The entire room was small, with only a narrow window for natural light. The biggest advantage was that the treatment center had all the rooms sound proofed, so that one patient could not disturb a whole floor. Duo spread out his legs, and Trowa fit himself into the space between.

They had spent their evenings like this ever since Duo had been taken off restricted visitation. He only had a week before he would be on half-day outpatient sessions. He had become much more energetic now that he was anticipating being able to spend the night with Trowa, and be out of the clinic again. It made for much more lively visits, although it had taken them time to adjust to the twin bed. Trowa still had two bruises on his sides from times when he had fallen out.

He kissed his way down Duo's chest, and licked his way back up again. Duo ran his hands over Trowa's arms and back, rubbing his legs against Trowa's. He grinned, satisfied.

"What was the question again?"

Trowa smiled. "Where do you see yourself in ten years?"

"Just to clarify... you mean, where do I want to see myself, right?" Duo ran his hands over Trowa's ass to distract him.

Trowa frowned. It hadn't worked. "Of course."

Duo sighed. "Yeah. I... I wanna go back to the colonies. Any colony. I want to get off this rock."

Trowa nodded. "Ok."

Duo looked away. "That's... that's not a problem, right?"

There was enough not being said in that to make Trowa feel weak, his arms and legs not able to support him any more. He slowly dropped, settling himself against Duo's side. "Yeah. It is."

Duo nodded, still looking away, but smiling a bit. "Ok."

"What else?"

Duo shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, what do people do? I've never been able to figure it out. I guess I'd just do whatever was necessary."

"You don't have to make all your decisions on what other people need; you can do what you want, you know."

Duo rolled his eyes. "That's exactly what Dr. Mahoney said!"

Trowa repressed a laugh. Duo's eyes were sparkling, and there was a sense of affection in his expression. "You like Dr. Mahoney?"

Duo paused to think before he spoke. "She's... well, at first, she was really harsh, and it wasn't so much that I didn't like her, as much as she was dredging up a lot of crap I didn't want to think about. But, I trust her, and I respect her. I think that's more valuable in this situation than 'liking.'"

"Yeah," Trowa considered, "I guess that's how I feel about Dr. Levy. Well, he spends more time talking about brain scans and neurotransmitter blockages..."

Duo smirked. "Oooh, science!"

Trowa smirked. "He's not too invasive, though. I like that."

Duo rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Dr. Mahoney's the total opposite. She asks about what I ate when I was six, I swear..."

Trowa regarded Duo blankly. "Have you told her everything?"

Duo blinked, needing more time to shift conversational gears. "What?"

"I mean... You said you trust her. So. Have you told her everything?"

"We've talked three hours a day for the past eleven weeks. If there's anything left to say, I haven't a clue to what it is." Duo winked at him, smiling.

Trowa nodded. "Everything?"

Duo blinked, and then he stopped trying not to understand. "I've told her more than enough."

Trowa rolled onto his back, perching himself at the edge of the bed cautiously. He poked his foot out to stabilize himself on the metal footboard.

"Tro?"

He didn't turn to look at Duo, but he did nod.

"Do you believe in hell?"

Trowa wasn't foolish enough to think that it was a casual question that Duo was asking. He took his time. He wanted to be able to answer differently, but he didn't see how. "No. I don't believe in anything, really. I think I prefer to think that there's only oblivion waiting for us."

Duo shivered, and cozied up to Trowa's side. "I... I don't like to think of Solo and Sister Helen and Father Maxwell as just being gone..."

"Maybe it's like eastern philosophy teaches. Maybe they've been reincarnated. Maybe you'll meet them again in a future life."

"And we just keep coming back and coming back until we get it right?" Duo sounded skeptical. "Until we reach some sort of oneness with space and time? Do you think that's plausible?"

"Well," Trowa furrowed his brow, searching the ceiling for a clue or an insight, "no, not really."

Duo put his chin on Trowa's chest. "No, me neither. I've never really been a big proponent of God or anything, but it seems like... it seems like there's good and there's evil, you know? And there are people that I can't imagine just blinking away into nothing... I mean, when Solo died, I felt... I felt... I felt something. I felt connected to him. Like I might be able to carry him with me. I felt like that with Sister Helen, and Father Maxwell, too. Does that sound dumb?" Duo asked, sheepishly.

Trowa shook his head. "When... When my captain died, I... I thought that he might just be gone forever. Like he was never here at all. But he kept coming back to me. I'd have dreams about him during the war, and they felt so real... I know that's not exactly what you meant, but... people don't just go away. Not necessarily."

Duo sighed, and rubbed his cheek on Trowa's chest. "I just don't know what to believe."

"Keep going on, even when you've lost your faith." Trowa spoke solemnly, holding Duo tightly in his arms. "You have to keep going on, and if you don't have the answers, and you don't know what to believe in, just try to believe that someday you will."

Duo smiled, and leaned up so he could see Trowa's eyes. "Did you make that up, or did you hear it from somewhere?"

Trowa tried to remember. "I must have heard it."

"I don't know," Duo said, affectionately brushing away Trowa's bangs. "You're pretty smart."

Trowa kissed Duo's lips. "Sometimes."

"You did redirect this conversation nicely away from what you wanted to do with your life..."

Trowa laughed, rolling himself and Duo over so he wouldn't fall off the bed again. "That I did."

"But now we're back there." Duo's eyes sparkled as he teased, and made Trowa smile. "So. What do you want to do with your life?"

Trowa sighed, but as he was still smiling, it was a pleasant sound. "I don't know."

"Well," Duo began leaning on his elbow so he could present a more concentrated face. "What sort of things did you like doing in the past? I mean, besides piloting a weapon of mass destruction before you were old enough to drive in certain parts of the Earthsphere."

Trowa smirked. "That was good. I don't know." He thought about it. He thought back to the odd jobs he had done as a mercenary, under cover and for the crew. He thought about the things he had done during the wars, and the things he had done since then.

"Think about something you miss." Duo supplied helpfully. "Don't try to remember something specific, just try to think about something that you occasionally think, I miss doing that."

The answer was nearly immediate. "I like animals."

Duo encouraged him to continue silently.

"I liked working with the lions, and the other animals in the circus. I wished that they didn't have to live in cages, though. But I like all animals. I was always... hesitant to get a pet, but I like having animals around. They're more honest than people. Well," he poked Duo in the belly, "most people, anyway."

Duo laughed. "Animals! That's perfect! You can be a vet!" Duo grinned, clearly completely satisfied that they had solved Trowa's quandary.

Trowa blinked. "I can't."

"Sure you can! Why not?"

Trowa was fairly sure that answer was completely obvious. "I'd have to go to school."

Duo shrugged. "You could go to school."

Trowa stared at Duo. He really didn't see how he could possibly do what Duo was suggesting.

"Have you ever looked into it?" Duo was now getting really excited. He sat up on the bed, his hair streaming all around him, totally unconscious of his nudity. "Maybe there's a way you could bypass the requirements... Some sort of test, or equivalency classes! I've been to school. It's so easy. You read books, you take tests... You'd be a great vet! You wouldn't get grossed out by anything, and when it came time to put an animal down, you could handle it. You could do all the hard parts, and then for the easy parts, you'd get to be with animals!"

The way that Duo said it, there was a certain obviousness about it. Like it was what he was supposed to have been doing all along, and he just hadn't been aware of it. "Maybe."

"There are schools in the colonies, too," Duo offered shyly, presenting one shoulder so that his arm and his hair shielded him. "You could go to school, and I could get a job to support us in colony maintenance. They always need help with that, and the money is really good, too, because it's funded by the big corporations that subsidize the colonies. We could swing it."

Trowa sat up. This plan was becoming more and more tangible by the second. "Have you thought about this before?"

Duo shrugged, a misdirection. "I've thought about you going to school. Maybe."

It was so clear. "That was your answer to the question."

Duo became very shy. "Well. I know that there are problems... Neither of us has our pilot's license, and you would need to do some prep work, and I have this debt to pay off... Maybe you don't want to commit to being loaded down with that..."

Trowa leaned over and kissed Duo, putting his hands down on the bed behind Duo, surrounding Duo with his arms. "We're in this together. I love you, remember?"

Duo smiled, looking a little relieved. "And there's no one I'd rather be with."

They started to kiss some more, getting wrapped up in each other. Duo was just about to push Trowa down onto the bed when a sharp knock on the door disturbed their time together.

"Mr. Maxwell! If you do not escort your guest out in the next ten minutes, we will be forced to call an orderly to come in and escort him out for you!"

"Just don't get Greg! He'd like it too much!"

There was some laughing on the other side of the door, but Trowa pulled away, putting his feet on the floor.

They got dressed quickly. Duo just threw on some sleeping pants and a t-shirt, but Trowa actually had to find things like socks, underwear, and shoes. When Trowa was done getting dressed, Duo was frantically tearing at his hair with a brush.

Trowa checked his watch. They still had four minutes.

He took the brush from Duo's hand. Duo protested, turning to glare at Trowa. "It's your fault it's such a mess. I keep telling you it gets everywhere when it's not in the braid..."

"I like it everywhere," Trowa countered, turning Duo around so he could brush out Duo's hair.

Duo sighed theatrically, but sat still and allowed Trowa to work.

He held the hair in his hand, brushing from where he held it down, and moving his hand progressively higher and higher, until he was able to brush it all out smoothly. He then quickly divided it at the base into three sections, and twined them with rapid precision. Duo whistled appreciatively as he worked. "Damn, you're making a good one!"

Trowa smirked, but said nothing.

He was just tying off the braid when there was a second knock, and an orderly nervously peeked in, keeping his eyes closed. "Mr. Maxwell? Mr. Barton?"

Duo politely refrained from laughing out loud, and he and Trowa swept out of the room together, leaving the orderly behind to sigh in relief.

They kissed good night, to the amusement of some of the patients in the multipurpose room who had become used to seeing Duo and Trowa together. Just as Trowa was turning to leave, Duo cried out, "Wait!" and ran up after him. Duo threw himself into Trowa's arms, and hugged him so hard, Trowa thought he might have trouble breathing. "I don't think I could tell her everything," he said softly into Trowa's ear.

Trowa squeezed him tightly around the waist.

"I'll try to tell her something, though. Ok?"

Trowa didn't entirely like the pleading tone in Duo's voice, but he ignored it. "She's smart, Duo," he whispered back. "She might be able to help you find the answers you're looking for."

"Maybe," Duo replied uncertainly, pulling away. He kissed Trowa as he sank out of his arms. "But it was enough that I told you."

Trowa stood there, shell-shocked, holding Duo's hands, until the orderly gently tapped his shoulder. After he left, he sat in his car for a long time in the dark, getting cold as the windows in the car slowly fogged up.

He didn't think about anything. He just sat, completely comfortable.

~*~

He got to the treatment center early. He parked, and even got out, but he didn't go in right away. Instead, he waited by the building in the grass, behind the tree, where he could see the parking lot.

Eleven o'clock came and went, but he continued to wait patiently.

It only took until 11:17. Heero's black car pulled into the lot and parked in the rear. Heero got out, and stalked purposefully around the building, looking in windows as if he were supposed to be doing that. Trowa said nothing, and continued to wait until Heero got close enough to see him.

Heero stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes narrowing and his hands balling into fists as he was clearly assessing the situation.

Trowa waited for him to speak.

"Aren't you missing precious time with the patient?" Heero walked in a wide circle around Trowa's position, keeping his body facing Trowa at all times, his hands at the ready at his sides.

He was so transparent right then, Trowa almost felt sympathy for him. "Coward."

Heero's glare intensified. "What did you call me?"

"It must be like looking in the mirror." Trowa spoke distinctly, but it didn't really sound like he was talking to Heero, and he certainly wasn't responding to Heero, in words or in actions. "You see all the bloodstains on his hands, and it's like seeing yourself, isn't it? If you punish him, do you think that you can make yourself clean again?"

"Don't insult me by suggesting that he's like me," Heero warned defensively, but Trowa was unconcerned.

"And how did it feel, knowing that he had succeeded where you had failed? Not something I imagine you are used to dealing with... Not only did you fail yourself, but you jeopardized the mission entirely. If he hadn't stepped up and cleaned up after you, Relena might have died, along with a lot of innocent people. Think of all that blood on your hands." Trowa gradually let his gaze fall onto Heero, until he was staring right into Heero's eyes.

For a moment, he remembered being young, in the war, and wanting desperately to see something in those eyes except that steely determination that Heero projected to the world. He remembered wanting to see Heero's passion. The memory was faded, like he was remembering something that he had read in a book once, and not something that he had actually felt. He felt divorced from his past at the moment.

Heero snarled, and took a step closer, his tension causing his whole frame to shake. "He's just a filthy little whore. He was so willing to be used. Maybe he made you beg, but he was on his back for me in a second. Am I supposed to respect someone like that?"

Trowa cocked his head to the side. "Maybe you should respect yourself."

Heero took another step closer, his teeth grinding against each other so that Trowa was surprised that he couldn't hear them from where he was standing. "Maybe you should mind your own damn business for once. Maybe you should get out of my way."

Trowa smirked. "I think you're the one that's in my way."

Heero sneered. "And what exactly do you propose to do? Are we going to have a rematch? You won't be catching me unaware like in Une's office."

Trowa smiled genially. "I don't need to fight you, Heero. I have what I want, and Duo has what he wants. It's time for you to move on."

Heero came very close to Trowa, so that there was only just a little grass between their feet. There was just enough space between them so that one or the other could move enough to get in a solid hit. The significance of the distance was perfectly apparent to both. Heero's eyes were piercing right into Trowa's, and Trowa had to physically restrain himself from blinking. Heero's lips curled just a tiny bit in the corner of one side, a sinister grin that he knowingly let settle before he spoke. "Oh, I don't think so. Not until I hear it from him. He loves me. He swore to me that he would love me for the rest of his life, no matter what. He is mine."

Trowa snorted airily through his nose. "Are you honestly that naive? He'll love you to the day that he dies, Heero. It doesn't mean that he'll be with you.

"He chose me. He wants to be with me. You need to find another punching bag. This relationship is no good for either of you."

Heero didn't flinch, but he unconsciously took a half-step back. "And what do you think you can do to stop me? How exactly do you intend to keep me away?"

Trowa moved closer, leaning over so that his nose was just a slip away from bumping into Heero's. "Are you expecting me to threaten you? To say I'll kill you if you ever touch him again? Would you believe that?

"You always act like you are so damned superior to the rest of the world. So be superior. You are no good for him. He's no good for you. Walk away."

There was a moment of absolute stillness. Heero seemed completely frozen - not even his eyelids twitched. Trowa could feel his whole body start to ache from the effort of being motionless, but he would rather have his skin peeled off with rusty Swiss army knife prior to taking a bath in rubbing alcohol than to be the first one to move.

Heero blinked. He made a scoffing sound, and turned his back on Trowa. "You two deserve each other. Enjoy rolling in the filth."

Trowa relaxed slowly, so as not to be too obvious about it. "You know what, Heero. You should get some therapy. Do you a world of good."

Heero laughed just once, a bark of disgusted dismissal. Trowa watched as he stalked back to his car, and drove away. Trowa waited for a moment, getting his bearing before heading into the treatment center. He had purposefully stayed with his back to the wall for the whole confrontation, and now his knees felt rubbery.

He had entered the ranks of the select few who defied Heero Yuy and lived.

Duo was waiting none too patiently for him in the door to the multipurpose room. As soon as he saw Trowa enter the lobby, he took off, smacking Trowa across the shoulder as soon as he was close enough. "What the hell took so long?"

Trowa felt a little funny, standing there in the lobby, holding his hand out for the visitor's badge, smiling down at Duo. He hadn't been completely sure before now that Duo really looking forward to his visits. "Sorry."

"Sorry?" Duo echoed, disbelieving. "Is that it?"

Trowa fixed the visitor's badge to his collar, and shepherded Duo inside. "Let's go back to your room."

Duo crossed his arms over his chest, and affected a resistant air, although he walked along just fine under his own power. "What makes you think you get to go to my room, hm? Maybe I'm mad at you."

Trowa leaned close to Duo so that he could whisper directly into his ear. "I saw Heero outside."

"Oh." Duo lost all expression, his arms falling numbly to his sides. Trowa wasn't entirely sure how to read him, so he just shuttled them back to Duo's room faster, making sure to close and lock the door behind him.

"It's ok. He just... I think he was just coming by every now and again to... look in." He tried to sound reassuringly blank, but it was difficult given that he wasn't entirely sure what Duo was thinking.

"Looking in? You don't think he's... he's gonna try to visit, do you?" Duo's eyes were wide and he looked afraid, which made him look much younger than he was.

Trowa sat them down on the bed, and put his arms around Duo's waist. "No one can visit you unless you want them to. You just have to tell them, right? So you don't have to worry about this."

Duo nodded blankly, turning to shelter himself more fully in Trowa's arms. "I just... I'm not afraid or anything, you know, it's just... I don't want to see him."

Trowa held Duo tightly enough that he could feel Duo getting warmer. "I know. Temptation. But you don't have to worry, it's safe."

Duo pulled himself up. "No, that's not what I mean... I mean, I have no desire to go back to him, or anything like that. I mean... Christ fuckin' hell, it's just all this shit we've dredged up in sessions... And I think about the things I let him do to me, I just feel... dirty. I don't want to see him again, I mean, I don't want to have deal with the whole thing, you know? I just wish he'd just... go away."

Duo looked and sounded miserable. He was rubbing his hands over his arms like he was cold, and he wasn't looking at Trowa. Trowa put his hand on Duo's chin, and gently led Duo's eyes back to him. "I understand."

Duo nodded absently. "Yeah. I mean... I guess the mature thing to do would be to close the door, you know, end things so that there's closure, but... It feels like such a retread. Like we keep spinning around the same damn issues all the damn time..."

Trowa kissed Duo's cheek softly, letting his lips get just a little wet, and leaving a small ring of moisture on Duo's cheek. "You don't need to face him now."

Duo smiled. "Good. Cuz there's plenty of things I'd rather be doing."

Trowa felt his pulse pound, and there was a rush behind his eyes as Duo leaned in for a kiss. It was like what he imagined being in school and being kissed for the first time would be like. He didn't understand why he was feeling so much right now, but instead of picking it all apart, he just let it all happen.

Duo bounced off the bed, and Trowa couldn't contain a noise of protest.

"Wait, before we... get distracted, I have something for you." Duo was grinning manically from ear to ear. "I looked some stuff up online, and I found all this great stuff... I printed out the addresses and everything, so you could look into things more, but... The college and university systems in the colonies work a little bit differently than on Earth. Out of necessity, the developed into more trade school like institutions than the whole mess down here on the rock. So the requirements aren't that bad. You would really only have to take this one entrance test, which is standardized for all the colonial universities. There are three vet schools... One on L5, one of L1, and one on L4. L2 has one, too, but it's kinda crappy... you can only get an associate's license from them. L3 is rebuilding a lot of their schools, so they don't have everything yet. The test is pretty tough, only about eight percent of the people who take it pass, but I bet you could ace it anyway, cuz a lot of kids take it right out of high school, so that number isn't really indicative of anything. You could probably take just a couple of classes at your university online, and totally be prepped to ace this thing."

Duo spread out all the sheets of information he had printed out on the bed, practically bouncing as he relayed the information. Trowa stared down at the sheets in wonder, almost mystified by the colors and symbols on them. He hadn't really given his conversation with Duo much thought afterward. In therapy, Dr. Levy had encouraged him to give the matter more thought, but he wasn't the sort of doctor to push too much. He liked to give his patient's room to come to their own decisions.

Duo started to gnaw on his bottom lip. "Er, they aren't that expensive either, and there are loans and stuff you can get to tide you over... I mean, if you want to, that is. Anyway, it just... it seemed like something that could happen."

Duo could only watch Trowa not look at his handiwork for so long, and then he started to shuffle them back together again. Trowa put his hands on Duo's, and stilled them. "Thank you."

Duo looked up into Trowa's eyes. "You'd be really good with animals, you know. It could be... something you'd care about."

Trowa felt foolish for not seeing the naked need in Duo before. Of course it mattered more to Duo that Trowa had a purpose and a future than that he did for himself. Trowa leaned down, and kissed Duo passionately. He almost fell on top of the pile of papers as he pushed Duo down onto the bed. Duo managed to sneak them aside before they landed together on the mattress. "You ever been to L5?"

Duo beamed. "A couple of times, although one of the colonies I went to is gone, now. Fei's stupid family. But I've always heard that they have more of a frontier feeling on L5."

Trowa nodded, absently smoothing Duo's hair around his face. "L4 is so controlled by the Winners... They do good things, but I wouldn't want to live there. And L1 has so damn many tourists."

Duo sat up, clearly excited. "Great! You just need to sign up for a biology class, and probably chemistry and physics, although those should be easier. The test is in August, since the colonial schools start in October. It's kinda fast, but I think we can do it. I mean, I might not have my pilot's license yet, but I think that was more of an excuse than anything else." Duo blushed as he admitted that, and Trowa's heart beat a little faster in his chest, being privileged enough to be trusted with that.

Trowa shook his head. "Damn. We have plans."

Duo grinned so hard, he started to laugh out loud.

~*~

Duo was doing his best not to panic, Trowa could tell, but it wasn't easy. Today was the day that he left inpatient care, and began his outpatient care. He had had sessions in the morning, and had gotten all packed up the night before, and he had waited in the multipurpose room for Trowa to come pick him up.

Unfortunately, before Trowa could get there, right at visiting hours, Relena had shown up with an entourage.

Trowa watched with guilty bemusement as Relena clutched Duo's arm, and virtually bounced at his side as she yammered on about nothing that made sense.

Duo saw Trowa at the door, and jumped up, not quite able to disentangle himself from Relena. "Trowa!"

Trowa walked inside casually, keeping his eyes down so that he didn't give into his amusement. "Ready?"

"Isn't this exciting!?" Relena took Trowa's wrist in her hand, so that she was holding onto both of them. Trowa looked down on the small pinkish white fingers surrounding his wrist with the same sort of curiosity that tigers gave the flies that joined them for dinner. "I'm just so happy for both of you! This is such a big step. We have to celebrate. I've already made all the arrangements, I was telling Duo about it, but just in case he forgets, you both have to come to my city penthouse for just a small little gathering. Everyone will be there! Well, I had to send Heero to Paris for the weekend, business matter, but that's not really relevant... Aren't you excited?"

Trowa smiled at Relena with what he hoped was less poorly disguised disgust and more wan acceptance. "Yes."

Duo rolled his eyes, tugging his arm in an attempt to release it from Relena's grip. "Hey, 'Lena, can Tro and I have our moment, please?"

"Oh!" She looked absolutely horrified, and jumped back, dropping their appendages as if her hands were burning. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to interfere!"

Duo resisted the urge to roll his eyes, and Trowa considered that to be indulgent. Duo put his arms around Trowa's neck, and Trowa lifted him by the waist into a tight hug, tight enough to allow Duo to speak to him without Relena realizing they were whispering about her.

"Please don't make me do this!"

Trowa nodded against Duo's cheek, and slipped away so that he could kiss Duo in acknowledgment. "You know, Relena... I think today is kinda stressful enough. Maybe we could do this... celebration thing?... another time."

"Oh." Relena clearly understood, but was terribly disappointed.

Before Duo's guilt could kick in and cause him to reverse their plan, Trowa added, "What about tomorrow? We could just go out for a simple dinner. What do you think?"

Relena beamed brightly. "Whatever you want! I'm just so happy!" She impulsively leaned in and threw herself all over Duo, who definitely had no idea what to do with a woman in his arms.

Other patients around the room were watching them avidly. One thin young girl with streaked blonde hair poked her companion in the ribs and started to whisper furiously. There were mixed expressions of shock, approval, and confusion around the room. The patient who always carried a sketchbook was rapidly scribbling on the page, his eyes locked on Relena and Duo.

Perhaps he might have felt jealous at one point of the way that Duo and Relena appeared to fit together, but he was so far beyond the point of doubt that all he could see was how desperately Duo wanted out of the embrace.

Relena said something to him, speaking quietly while looking directly into his eyes, and when she had him completely flatfooted, she leaned in to steal a kiss.

Trowa raised an eyebrow in mock approbation, but said nothing, just letting Relena blush guiltily without comment.

He picked up Duo's bag, and put his hand on Duo's back as they walked out. Relena had whipped out her cell phone, and started to make plans for an early supper the next night. By the time they reached their car, Relena had already made reservations for a room at a medium-priced restaurant downtown, and called Une, Sally, Wu Fei, and her brother to inform them of the changes to the plan.

Duo was looking at him with mild hysteria, but Trowa just kissed him on the forehead and patted his back in encouragement.

Relena insisted on another hug, one for each of them, and kissed their cheeks, before she could cheerily wave goodbye. Trowa and Duo stood side by side next to the car, watching her go.

"She's like a hurricane."

"That's an insult to hurricanes," Duo surmised gloomily. He turned to Trowa accusingly. "Dinner?!"

Trowa raised his hands in surrender. "I had no idea she was going to be here. Or any of this."

Duo pouted. "I don't know about this, Tro..."

Trowa took Duo in his arms, kissing him gently. There was this indescribable thrill, having Duo with him outside the confines of the treatment center. "We'll make it."

Duo sighed, and leaned on Trowa. "We damn well better, because I've gone through hell just to get this far..."

Trowa could hear the misery in Duo's voice, but he reacted to the words instead. He buried his hand in the back of Duo's braid, and he kissed Duo long and hard.

Duo was grinning when they were done. "You have a way with words, Tro."

Trowa winked at him.

They were halfway through their drive home when Duo noticed it.

"Uh, Trowa? This isn't the way to the apartment, is it?"

Trowa nodded slowly, knowing what was going through Duo's head, but still not sure how he was going to tell Duo. "Ah. Right. I might have forgotten to mention it, but we moved."

"We moved."

"Yes."

"And you forgot to mention it?"

"Yes."

Duo burst out laughing, shocking Trowa enough that he swerved in his lane minutely. He turned to look at Duo for a moment, just trying to gauge what kind of laugh it was.

"You forgot. That's perfect. Ok then. Where did we move?"

Trowa shrugged a little, indicating ahead with a nod of his head. "You'll see. It's a little small."

Duo was still grinning from ear to ear. "Well, that's understandable, all things considered. Why didn't you tell me?"

Trowa considered each word before committing them to speech. "It wasn't important, and I didn't want to bother you."

"Right." Duo rolled his eyes. "Because I've been so busy. I could have helped you look up places, or used some of my damn craft time to make some sort of housewarming thing."

There was the slight indication of a reproach in Duo's voice, but there was enough humor that Trowa was fairly confident that he was going to be forgiven. "Sorry."

"It's ok." Duo shrugged, smiling. "I would have done the same thing, had our positions been reversed."

Trowa brightened, smiling tightly back at Duo.

It wasn't terribly difficult to find parking in their new neighborhood, though if they hadn't been former soldiers, they might have thought twice about taking the short cut through the narrow alley. Their new building was smaller and much plainer than where they had lived. The lobby did not have any decorating nuances like mosaic-tiled floors, and there was no elevator at all. Their new apartment was a studio, with a small bathroom and a small kitchen tucked in the back. The room was filled so that there was only just enough room to walk around the bed. Along the wall, packing boxes had been stacked, many turned onto their sides, and opened so that their contents were accessible. The bedside tables were packing boxes, as was the kitchen table, the tv table, the 'phone table, and the small footlocker at the foot of the bed.

Duo stood in the middle of the room and turned around slowly so that he could see it all while Trowa stood back in the doorway to the kitchen, watching nervously. Duo whistled low. "We could play Name the Fire Code Violations to pass the time."

Trowa grinned, and ducked his head. "There wasn't a lot of room, so I sold most of our furniture, but I kept all of our things."

Duo nodded, and went to put his arms around Trowa. "Good. You know what I like? Since the bed dominates the room, it kinda suggests what we should be doing..."

Trowa ran his hands up and down Duo's back. "That's what I've been thinking."

It had been a long time since Trowa had Duo between his legs. He writhed underneath Duo's frail, wiry body, and felt helpless in the wake of the passion that Duo stirred inside of him.

Afterwards, they sat in the cramped bathtub together, Duo curled up against his body, and he ran his fingers through Duo's hair. They had left the lights off, so as it got darker, the bathroom became more and more shadowed, until the only light was cast from the streetlight, dimly illuminating the bathroom because they had left the door to the apartment open.

Trowa rinsed out Duo's hair, and brushed it out as they sat on the bed. Duo kept his hands balled up next to him on the bed, and Trowa watched Duo's hands clench and unclench as he passed the brush through Duo's hair.

They started to talk. Simple questions about the bathroom fixtures became a discussion of their future plans, and slowly turned into a conversation about the role their friends would play in their lives as their future unfolded.

Duo was going to look for a job first thing tomorrow. He had sessions from one until three in the afternoon, scheduled so that they wouldn't conflict with Trowa's work. He decided that it would be best for Trowa to study in the apartment while he was in his sessions. Trowa had explained that there were computer labs for the online courses, but that all the information was on the net anyway, and if he needed any reference material, he could pick it up from whichever library before he left work for the day.

Duo would find a job where he could work mornings, something with little stress and enough pay so that he could contribute to their income, and start to pay back some of their debts.

They evaded the issue of going back to the colonies. There was no need to get into too much of a debate just then. It was understood that they would both need to start looking into getting their licenses reinstated, and that Trowa stood a better chance of getting it done. It didn't need to be said.

Duo asked dozens of questions about how things had been while he was in the center. He asked about things that Trowa had never considered before, and about mundane things that Trowa couldn't believe he was interested in, but Trowa answered each question patiently.

He asked about whom Trowa saw and talked to while he was in the center, and Trowa was dumbfounded to discover that he had been living in virtual seclusion the whole time.

Duo asked about Quatre, and where things stood with him, and how Trowa felt, each question tentatively probing a little deeper as Duo felt out Trowa's reactions. Trowa was not surprised to hear himself answering with a totally neutral expression, but he was surprised at how little pain there was in Duo's questions.

Dr. Levy had probed Trowa's reactions to Quatre and their past together on several occasions, and it always left Trowa feeling a bit exhausted.

They talked about Wu Fei and Sally, and Noin and Zechs, and Relena, and Hilde and Catherine, and eventually, they talked about Heero, Duo sighing and looking away as he said Heero's name. Trowa had never seen Duo looking ashamed before, and he didn't like it.

Duo put his head down on Trowa's shoulder, and asked to be forgiven for not dumping Heero as soon as he started becoming involved with Trowa. For not cutting off contact with Heero after he started to live with Trowa, even though he knew that Heero was only interested in keeping a claim on him. For not throwing the heroin away as soon as Heero had put it on the table.

Trowa held Duo in his arms, and offered whatever absolution he could give with his embrace.

They fell asleep propped up against the bed, and Trowa fuzzily remembered trying to continue their conversation while nodding off.

~*~

"She said it was going to be casual, right?" Duo nervously adjusted the collar of his shirt, his eyes glued to the small mirror over the sink in the bathroom.

Trowa smiled as he watched. He still didn't have his pants on, but Duo was completely washed up, shaved, and dressed. "You look fine." It was an understatement, Trowa thought, but there was no reason to try to make Duo's head spin. Trowa knew better; Duo would never believe him if he tried to be honest.

Duo turned away from the mirror, his eyes a little wide with panic. He was wearing black jeans that were just tight enough to be stylish, and white button down shirt that just had enough of a sheen to the cotton to seem like it was shining. His hair was perfectly plaited, and his shoes were neatly shined.

He looked ready for a job interview.

"But do I look casual? Or too casual? Where is this place she made reservations for, anyway? And who's going to be there?" Duo turned back to the mirror, sighing with frustration.

Trowa clamped down on his amusement. "It's Gino's. You've been there, I'm sure. It's a little touristy, but it's got good food. They make pizza."

"A pizza place. Ok." Duo smoothed his hands over his thighs, nodding to himself. "Trowa, how long have you been taking antidepressants?"

Trowa blinked. "About three weeks."

"You didn't tell me." Duo's voice was deliberately flat, and Trowa wasn't sure how to interpret it.

"I didn't want to get your hopes up."

Duo turned around to face Trowa in a panic, and was next to Trowa in the next heartbeat. "Tro! You're not taking them because you think that I want you to be... happier, or some such shit, are you?"

"No," Trowa reasoned out slowly. "It's just... You've been facing your demons. I'm trying to do the same."

Duo paused. "Your doctor prescribed them? And you don't mind them? Did he take all the appropriate head scans?"

Trowa nodded solemnly.

"Ok." Duo sighed, and sat down next to Trowa. "Well?"

Trowa shrugged.

Grinning, Duo put his hand on Trowa's. "Well, you do seem to smile more."

Trowa cocked his head to the side. "Really?"

"Not a lot more." Duo winked at him, and took a kiss.

Trowa shook his head, and got up to brush his teeth. Duo stayed on the bed, either satisfied with his appearance or tired of looking at himself in the mirror, and he watched Trowa as Trowa had watched him.

"I'm jealous."

Trowa turned to look at Duo, still bent over the sink, his toothbrush hanging out of his mouth.

"You get drugs. I don't get drugs." Duo's eyes were twinkling as he was trying to contain his laughter, and Trowa had to put his head over the sink again before he spewed toothpaste all over the place. Duo laughed, rolling on his side on the bed, and Trowa couldn't resist. He quickly spit out the toothpaste, wiped his mouth off on a towel, and went out to take advantage of Duo's mirth.

They managed to get to the restaurant only twenty minutes late, and Duo was able to salvage his fancy dress shirt.

Everyone was at the table already. As they walked through the door, Duo squeezed Trowa hand tightly enough to cause Trowa to want to wince. Wu Fei glared across the table, meeting Relena's eyes, and so there were no cheers or applause, but each person calmly took a turn shaking Duo's hand and congratulating him.

Fei was the first one to greet Duo. He took Duo's arm in a traditional handshake, holding it nearly at the elbow, and he put his other hand on Duo's shoulder as he nodded, smiling a broad smile that made him look several years younger than he was. Sally was right behind him with a quick hug of support. Wu Fei and Trowa stood shoulder to shoulder as they witnessed the small reception line that attacked Duo.

"Quatre couldn't get away from his business meetings this weekend." Wu Fei spoke directly to Trowa, his eyes never leaving Duo.

Trowa nodded, not really sure what else there was to say. Despite how he had left things with Quatre, he was just as glad not to have to endure the strained politeness of his presence.

Wu Fei scowled. "If you like, I can have a word with him."

Trowa was entertained by the picture of Wu Fei acting as their attack dog. "No, it's not necessary."

Wu Fei glared at him. "A man should not abandon his friends, regardless of the circumstances."

Trowa stoically bore his gaze. "It is permissible to make allowances for personal feelings."

"He should never have allowed his feelings for you to interfere with his relationship with Duo, especially now that Duo needs the support of his friends." There was a note of pouting castigation in Wu Fei's voice that grated on Trowa's nerves.

Trowa watched Duo greeting Zechs with some degree of embarrassment as he contemplated his response. "I hope that it is only natural that people's feelings for me and for Duo would now be connected. And, I don't want to be difficult, but if Duo or I were to depend solely on our 'friends' for strength, we would both be dead already." Trowa shrugged as Wu Fei stared. "It's all right. Maybe now would be a good time to reconnect with old friends. But don't blame Quatre for having a heart, even if he misuses it. He can't help being who he is."

"I'm sorry." Wu Fei spoke seriously, and Trowa was sure that he could count on one hand the number of times that Wu Fei had uttered those words in his life.

There was no reason for there to be any ill feelings. Trowa smirked with half his mouth. "Don't think of it. This is supposed to be some sort of party or something."

Wu Fei sighed, his eyes bright, and they joined the table.

Relena had Duo right next to her, and Duo took Trowa's hand as they sat down, so that put Trowa in the somewhat awkward position of somehow sitting next to Zechs. Trowa wasn't sure when the last time he had seen the older man, but he was sure that if Zechs were not of royal descent, he would have melted into the ground by now. He tried to make conversation several times, joking about pushy sisters who dragged you off places, but no conversation could get off the ground before Duo would tug on his hand.

It should have been a completely quiet, relaxing night, but Relena did insist on beaming and occasionally exclaiming her happiness. Duo sat in his chair ramrod straight, his eyes darting around as he tried to fit in and keep up with conversation. Before the pizzas were served, Trowa was hoping he could steal Duo away on some flimsy excuse, to spare him the tension.

Trowa was just in the process of clearing his throat so that he could make some announcement to the effect that they had to leave when Une tapped on her glass with her fork. She smiled discreetly at the gathered group, and nodded at Duo. "I'm sorry, I don't want to interrupt anyone, or interfere in this lovely gathering for the evening... I'd like to thank Ms. Relena for organizing this get together, and especially for including me in the guest list. What we have in common may be very little indeed, but we do share some rather extraordinary friends, and I'm very grateful to be able to share this evening with you both." She nodded at Duo and Trowa with a smile, raising her glass slightly to them.

Trowa was impressed. As evil as Une had ever been, she certainly did have excellent manners.

"I wanted to be able to offer you something as a token of my congratulations. No, no, hear me out... Over the past several years, I have wanted to cultivate a working environment that would embrace the best talents we have available to us in the system, but there are some necessary evils to bureaucracy, and I'm afraid I fell short in my duty to look after the interests of those who had the most to offer the Preventors. I still very much believe in the mission many of us have dedicated our lives to serve, but more importantly, the peace all of you fought so valiantly for would be meaningless if those that sacrificed the most to gain it were unable to experience it.

"It is in the spirit of peace and freedom that I offer you this." She pulled out from her breast pocket two legal envelopes. "I imagine that now that you are no longer tied down to our organization, you will be seeking your futures amongst the stars, as is fitting. I have been quietly appealing your injunctions, and you have been granted a reprieve. There will be a six-month probation period, but if all the conditions have been met once the injunctions are revaluated at that time, then you will be given back your pilot's license, per the judge's discretion. I should add, I would be more than willing to speak on your behalf at that hearing, because I know that there are very few people in the entire Earthsphere that are as qualified as the pair of you."

There was a pregnant pause after Une's speech during which Duo and Trowa just stared at the envelopes on the table before them. On the one hand, Une going to bat for them made things much simpler, in a way they could not have hoped to see happen. With her support, there was little doubt that they would both be cleared for flight sooner than they thought.

On the other hand, it wasn't something they had ever intended to discuss in public, especially in front of Wu Fei and Zechs.

Trowa considered which was more embarrassing - having a former comrade in arms be made painfully aware of your deficiencies since the end of the war, or having a former enemy know your weaknesses. He couldn't decide which was more painful, so he couldn't commit to a reaction of embarrassment, which left him contemplating being grateful.

Relena sighed and picked up the envelopes, taking Une's confused attention away from the guests of honor. "Well, obviously, this is just a technicality, although it is a great relief that it is being taken care of. That is really generous of you." She actually smiled at Une, which was a feat of pure will.

Trowa was impressed.

Duo stood up suddenly. He cleared his throat, and brushed his hands down over his pants. He reached out a hand to Une, smiling a little as she took it. "Thank you. You can't know what this means. I... I'm not sure I'm comfortable accepting such generosity. I had hoped to earn my license back. But your support is greatly appreciated."

Trowa wasn't surprised that she was unable to respond in the face of Duo's unchecked grace.

The rest of the evening went from there. It was as if it were understood by all that the largest hurdle of the evening had been leapt, and therefore the rest of the time was for fun alone. Wu Fei engaged Sally in a debate on the philosophical ramifications of vegetarianism that made for lively table conversation, especially after Wu Fei stood up, tossing his napkin down in anger, and challenged Sally to a gentleman's duel.

Her response to that was sure to keep Wu Fei's cheeks red for a year.

They weren't even the first ones to leave. Une had an early meeting she wanted to prepare for, and Sally claimed that winning arguments always tired her out. There was about a half and hour when it was the five of them around the table, just talking and laughing, and Trowa was shocked to discover that Zechs had a sense of humor.

When Relena apologetically informed them that it was time for her to go, they all got up and the dinner broke up. Wu Fei shook Duo's hand again, his face beaming with pride as he thanked Duo for taking back his life. Duo honestly had no response to that, so Trowa stepped in to get Fei to let go of Duo's shocked limb. Relena gave them each a peck on the cheek, and then she managed to somehow steal another kiss from Duo. Trowa gave her an eye that made her giggle and hide her face.

Surprisingly, Zechs was strangely warm as he wished them a good night. He was just about to turn to join Relena in the limo, when he smirked at Duo. "Excuse me, I realize this is inappropriate... but how much do you remember of our... encounter in the Preventors space station four years ago?"

Duo laughed, a lot of the tension bleeding out of his body. "Sadly, very little."

Zechs shook his head. "Ah well. Better to have loved and lost..." He waved goodbye to them with mirth in his eyes, and Trowa just shook his head.

"Those Peacecraft kids sure do jones on you."

Duo shook his head, stretching out languidly. "I can't help it if I'm dead sexy."

Trowa barked out a laugh, which caused Duo to mock indignation.

It was late enough when they got home that Trowa went straight to bed, in the habit of being up early for work. Duo spooned up behind him, and just when Trowa was about to drift off, he sighed happily.

"Hey Tro."

"Yeah?"

"We might be pilots again."

Trowa smiled, keeping his eyes closed but reaching out to take Duo's hand in his. "Yeah."

~*~


[cont]