Author: Gloria
See Ch. 1 for other warnings, notes, disclaimer

Summary: Heero lingered in the doorway, wondering if he would go after Duo this time if he took off again. Wondered if he'd wait. Wondered if he'd just leave. Leave and go to Formentera alone.

Prerequisite + Chapter 4: Framework

A.C. 203

It's pretty obvious to anyone, that you're the bad guy here.

Never ceased to amaze Heero how huge Duo's eyes could get. Made up most of his face when he was startled, or suspicious. Heero gave Duo's jacket to the host, kept his grip firm on Duo's wrist as they waited for the man to return, and led Duo all the way to the table without letting him go. Just in case. Duo had been acting flighty all day.

Heero watched him take everything in as they sat; watched Duo's barely hidden dismay as the host pulled out his chair for him, watched him take note of every exit, count the heads in the room, frown at the multiple forks set to one side of his plate. Duo plucked the menu from its upright position in front of his setting, mouth moving and brows coming together in a fierce frown as he translated the clever mix of Spanish and Swahili. He glanced at Heero over the rim, and just as quickly back down again.

"You're trying to poison me."

"No," Heero disagreed with a small smile. To the waiter, who came in quietly from the left and filled their glasses with ice water, he ordered a bottle of spicy bourbon and listened patiently as the man told him the special.

Duo waited until the server left again, eyes flickering towards an elderly couple who entered the front of the restaurant. "You've been here before."

"I did say so, Duo." They'd changed it, a little. Instead of straight falls of sheer fabric from wall to ceiling, accented by stained boards of cherry wood, the fabric was twisted into strange patterns and braids now, the walls revealed as fractured treatments of dark ceramic and blue stones. An extended wing in the back as well, the addition closed off, probably reserved for VIP personnel. Heero sipped at his water, his gaze returning to Duo's, who dropped his again.

"I don't like carrots."

"I know. I remember." Up again, Duo's eyes, some bright violet shade that seemed so very unnatural on a human being. But it was Duo, and therefore, sort of normal. "I won't order you anything with carrots."

"Not sure I'm up for warm goat cheese or monkfish either. Why couldn't we have ordered a pizza?"

"The Kikuyu regulate their mating around goat herding, did you know?"

"God, what? No, I certainly did not know that. Wait." Duo's eyes went big and round again. "What do you mean, they regulate their mating around goats?"

Heero scratched at his jaw, looking over the menu. "Meaning, a Kikuyu male will only impregnate a wife once every thirteen years or so. Each child must be old enough to herd goats before the mother would be available to bare children again."

"Really." One amused, lop-sided smile. "So, let me guess. These Kikuyu, they're polygamous?"

"Yes." Heero put down the menu and reached for his water again. "A thousand years ago, they were based on a matriarchal system."

"You're showing off."

"I'm not showing off."

"A pizza wouldn't be showing off."

"I'm trying to be nice."

"You're rotten at it." Duo was still grinning, and trying to hide it behind his menu. The wine waiter returned with the bourbon.

Heero glanced at Duo before ordering for him, who shrugged and silently handed the attendant the menu. Heero ordered miso soup and wakame seaweed to start, knowing that Duo would recognize it and relax--and might even eat it. Octopus and potatoes carpaccio next, then baby squids and tiger prawns on Paella rice, poached hake, and grilled venison with quince jam. If he was lucky, and Duo helped him eat any of it, he might have room for desert after.

"No carrots," Duo reminded.

"No carrots," Heero swore.

"Kikuyu," Duo said abruptly, his smile becoming hard around the edges. "Kikuyu. Kenya. Nairobi. Victoria." His smile disappeared altogether. "What's going on in Africa?" An absurdly obscure reference, but Duo was intelligent. And he remembered. And Heero knew him enough to know how to bring it up. Sideways, because anything full-frontal would only put Duo on the defensive.

Heero shrugged, used his knuckles to push the bourbon across the table at Duo. He took it and poured himself a shallow glass, but left the second snifter empty at the shake of Heero's head. "The Kikuyu have been fiercely anti-colonial since...well, anyway. They want ESUN out of Nairobi altogether, which they recovered after OZ abandoned it. Kenya wants its country back. They're willing to fight for it."

"And ESUN's not willing to back off?" Duo took an angry swallow of the bourbon, choked a little at the sharp, unexpected burn. "Is there an election? Do they have parties in place? I don't know anything about these people."

"They know when to lie low. And they know when not to. They have a candidate, but the man wants to play by the rules. He won't incite a revolt. For now."

Duo coughed again, and set his bourbon back on the table. "For now."

Mauibi Kumbaki. Enraged at seventeen because the Alliance wouldn't allow him to enlist in an army crowding, uninvited, his country on the sole basis of his GEMA status, because he was from Othaya, because he was Kikuyu. Smart because he had nothing to do with his time during the war but learn, because when the Alliance crumbled, and OZ took its place, and Romafeller ignored the little guy because that's what they did best, Kenya damn near crumbled under the pressure of a war they had no part in, wanted no part in, and barely understood. So, smart, freshly educated Mauibi Kumbaki rejuvenates the Liberal Democratic Party, rallies generational NARC's, enlists and educates Kenyans in Nairobi of the National Alliance Party, and creates a general uproar. In AC 202, Mauibi Kumbaki kindly asks the Earth Sphere Unified Nation to respectfully remove themselves from the capitol, as they need the space for Parliament, for elections, for constitutional drafts, and the ESUN stalls. Not refuses, stalls. Because they're stupid, or respecting protocol, or both. Because Kenya hadn't been known as its own country since before the Alliance rested ministerial support back from the Head of State, nearly, God, fifty years ago? Eighty? Something; long enough that the country barely remembered what it's like to be free, to not be colonized for the sake of military strategic positioning. Long enough that the infant ESUN government freezes up, curls in on itself, and waits for someone to hand them a way out of this situation on a silver platter. They need Victoria, Preventers need Victoria, and if they back off and let Kumbaki take Nairobi, they'll take Victoria too, and that whole section of Africa is a blind spot they couldn't really afford. And then everyone wants the same thing.

Heero bit his lip, looked away. Of course. Someone always does. Small problem, in the great scheme of things, but it was another backslide. Another two steps backward, when the infant government had barely made a decent step forward. "It's militarily..."

"It's their country." Vehemence, in that statement. The man could hear the barest whisper about sovereignty and autonomy being disrupted from a people and he was all righteous fury, even if he knew next to nothing about them.

"I know, Duo." It's their country. Enough to stand up and do something. Used to be, at least. When, ‘It's their country' was actually ‘it's our colony', and five children descended to earth in machines built to destroy. Now, they were scattered. Half wanderers, half hiding in the open, one nestled in an organization that protected peace in any way they had to. And maybe that was what scared Duo about them, about Preventers. They were middle men, the grey area, exposed to take the fall for political agendas for the sake of peace, easily the whipping boy for countries like Kenya who've finally woken up and decided to be enraged that it took ESUN eight years to finally notice them as a separate nation, for the sake of peace--oh, and for the sake of peace, there was no longer a line between lie and truth. Everything is fine, thank you, and please, don't bother looking at the man behind the curtain.

For Heero, he had to look at the man behind the curtain. Had to know his name, where he grew up, why his sister doesn't like him, when he decided to marry what's-her-face and spawn three morbidly obese, idiotic children. Had to know. Because he was built that way. Wasn't a crime, to know. Sometimes he wished he didn't, after he found out. Wished he could un-know, because often knowing was overrated, and sometimes it was useless. Sometimes it wasn't.

Duo was doing another sweep of the room, his mouth frowning in the way it did when he was too busy thinking to control his expression, to remember to smile. Heero didn't doubt for a second that he'd peaked his interest with the reference, with the choice of restaurant because the subject was stewing in his brain, and Heero wasn't sure he'd be able to just sit back and watch this time. Again. Like dozens of other times. Because of one damn promise made to one damn girl in a mostly delusional state, concussed and exhausted and out of his mind.

The miso arrived. Heero watched Duo's severe expression freeze, and then melt back into the amused grin from before. Duo sent him a strange look, half-lidded and knowing, his smile revealing teeth every bit as sharp as they looked. Heero remembered.

Duo picked up his bowl and took a sip. "Quatre says hi."

Heero smiled, relaxed a little. Some of Heero's fondest memories from the war were of Quatre Winner, being impressed by him, a child aristocrat from old money who pulled his weight with a charisma and class that rivaled Trieze Kushrenada. A born leader, and most deserving of the success and stability he'd worked for over the years. There were a lot of qualities in Quatre Winner that mirrored the strength and poise Relena Peacecraft projected, walking, talking, breathing ideals that had enough courage to act on what they believed even when it wasn't popular, when it wasn't easy.

"Wufei wants to meet with you."

That startled him. Heero felt he'd been clear, in Brussels, that the Preventers were to leave Duo alone until he was ready. Inexplicable, the way his hackles raised, the way fury burned under the current at the mere notion that they would harass Maxwell. It had not been a small sacrifice, for Heero, to expose himself to them in that terminal not two days ago. His smile faded, and what replaced it must have been something of a scowl, because Duo lowered his bowl back to the table and leveled a look at him.

"I can tell him no," Duo said, tossing his head a little to scatter the fringe that had fallen into one eye. "I made a contact today. At the Preventers."

"You went willingly?"

"Just went to look." Duo's expression was odd, shuttered, like at the diner.

Heero took in a deep breath and held it, using the burn in his lungs to calm him down. Easy enough, well practiced. That was okay, it was okay if it was Duo's idea. "Wufei left a message for you."

"In so many words." Duo's smile was grim, now; a dark promise of deviance once Wufei became dirt side.

"When?"

"Three days."

"Duo."

"Yo."

"You thinking about it?"

A shrug for that. And then a shake of his head. Duo finished his miso. Heero neglected his, watching Duo's face for some clue, any clue. Nothing, he wasn't even looking at him now. Heero sighed, and abandoned his soup altogether. "I knew you would need permanence."

Duo shot him a glance. "Why don't you?"

"Not about not needing it." He looked devastating like that, it was hard not to notice. Hard not to stare. Still thin, but sturdier. Sinewy, muscle built from repetition, from necessity, from hard work. All hair and big eyes and dark, sharp angles. Heero had missed him. And it was easy to know that when he was sitting across from Duo, the tangible futility hanging unsaid between them. "I don't want to be anyone's weapon."

Duo sat back slowly, eyes hard and piercing, darker now, as if heavier with the knowledge. "But you stay plugged in."

"Have to." Heero looked away, looked at the hanging, twisting falls of fabric, the treated walls, the black satin vests the obscure wait staff wore. "Go crazy if I didn't."

"You miss it."

"Yes. We all do."

Duo wiped his mouth with a napkin, eyes still trained on him. "I trust you," he said bluntly, unexpectedly.

Couldn't help it then, Heero's eyes flickered to his, entrapped, stared hard. "Didn't at first."

"True," Duo admitted easily, and smiled.

The carpaccio came next.

+

I'm sure a talented guy with your skills ought to be able to read my lips.

Duo was a good sport after that, and did in fact help Heero eat what was ordered. Many questions about what was what, why Mediterranean food was specialized at a restaurant named after a Kenyan tribe, even a few jokes, on Duo's part, and none too little flirting. Even so, they did not linger for dessert.

Duo seemed to dissolve into his jacket when he put it on outside by the street, shrugging into it with a contented sigh. It was a pitiful thing, the tattered jacket, but Heero knew enough about Duo and the odd attachments the man affixed to certain looks, certain items, not to comment. He'd seen Duo wear the same odd priest's collar and black jumper for an entire year before, at the close of the war of 195, he'd been able, or willing, to take it off. Duo was all about symbolism, double meaning, remembering.

Lest we forget, he'd say. Flippantly, in his way, as if it wasn't a loaded thing, an important sentiment. Lest we forget.

Heero, at times, wasn't all that sure what he was supposed to remember. Most days, Heero would like very much to forget.

Duo undid his hair, shook it out, and then expertly twisted it into a loose braid. Heero regarded the effect for a silent moment, idly wishing he'd thought of that before dinner. Looked better than the ponytail did. Duo slid his arm through Heero's, flashing him a grin, and they began the walk back to the motel. It wasn't until they'd reached the front entrance, and a group of teenagers loitering by the curb fell silent and stared at Duo full in the face, that Heero realized Duo wasn't wearing his cap, wasn't hiding his face. Duo realized it too.

Duo stiffened next to him, turned a stony face in the group's direction, his expression positively hostile when the kids didn't immediately look away. Heero moved his hand to Duo's elbow, gripped hard enough to distract him, and shook his head. Duo threw a final glare in their direction and went inside without Heero, storming up the narrow stairs to their room.

"There's nothing to see here," Heero told them quietly, and something in his tone must have resonated because the group quickly grabbed up their skateboards and crossed the street, eyeing each other as they went.

"I was asking for it," Duo said immediately, when Heero closed the door to their room behind him. "My fault. I've been walking around the city all day without--"

Heero held up one hand, stopping him. "We'll relocate in the morning."

Duo's expression was miserable, then. "Shouldn't have to. I was careless."

Heero shrugged. "Yes. We both were. I practically paraded you at Kikuyu. It's fine. We'll find a rhythm. It's been a long time for you, since it's been necessary." Heero hesitated, noting Duo's odd expression. "We'll find a rhythm."

Duo made a noncommittal sound, eyeing him strangely. He ran a hand through his bangs, rubbed the side of his face. "Well, anyway."

Heero nodded jerkily, knowing that the atmosphere had become weird, awkward, but not certain why. He went into the darkroom and re-emerged with several stacks of photos. He'd already separated them into sections, arranged in ideas, spreads that told stories, and hoping the images could tell those stories for him because Heero wasn't sure he'd be able to do them justice if he put his own words to it.

Duo shrugged off his jacket and tossed it to the side, rolled up his sleeves, plopped down on the bed. Heero sat next to him, setting the piles of photos atop the duvet. Duo reached out for one, but withdrew his hand, waiting for Heero's cue. Shoulder to shoulder, Heero showed Duo the first set.

Greenland; an expanse of endless white. Cavernous icebergs, treacherous and beautiful. An Inuit tribe, a black-haired girl with a large dog. The dog interested in something to his left, the girl interested in the photographer, staring up shyly at him through dark lashes. Wind-leathered faces of men and women who looked older than they were, suspicious and wary, even as the children edged closer and closer with each new photo. A meal of fish and broth, tiny bones set to one side of a broad plate.

Rome; abandoned mobile suits set afire and smoldering among ruins. Ruins old and crumbling, ruins fresh and blackened with ash. Rome again; paint over graffiti, half-complete. Pedestrians thick in the streets, looking at everything except the camera. Relena Peacecraft at a civilian convention, speaking to the throng, impassioned with the art of giving people hope, the will to move forward.

Africa; men and women with skin darker than night and teeth whiter than snow grinning cheerily. Children with rifles, much younger than they had been, jaded expressions and tired postures. Fishermen with nets and missing limbs, gathering fish at low-tide, the sunset glorious at their backs. A herd of fourth-generation elephant clones, guiding their young to a water hole. Posters depicting broad-faced aristocrats trampled on dirt roads. Millions of faces staring through a metal fence, forgotten refugees.

Heero showed Duo every single photo, every single shot he'd taken. Hundreds of photos, frozen moments post-war. Depictions of shrapnel yards, miles of broken meccas discarded during battle, the crews sent out to purge them, to send the metal up to space for Sweepers, for mechanics, for black market pseudo businessmen. Riots in city streets, some civil now, some...not as much. Cultures old and new, cultures mysterious and fiercely private. Rallies for peace, for disarmament, for unification. France, Japan, Uganda, Panama, Ukraine, Libya, New Zealand, Afghanistan, on and on and on. Eight years of watching growth, of leveling stability, of commitment, of abandonment, for better or worse.

Duo took every photo Heero handed him, regarded each with equal, quiet severity, touching some faces with the tip of his finger, mouth quirking at others, frowning at some. Utterly silent until they'd gone through them all, utterly silent for four and a half hours. Duo leant forward, elbows on his knees, when they were done, staring into space for a long moment. Then he stood and crossed the room, returning with the bag he'd given Heero earlier that evening.

"Should have bought more albums," he said.

They moved to the floor, spreading out the albums and dividing the photos between them. Duo helped him select which ones made it into the books, and which ones did not, setting the latter aside in a messy pile.

"It's easy to forget, on-colony," Duo commented as they worked. "That Earthers...that this..."

"Universal," Heero responded quietly. "War hurts everyone. It resonates."

"Earth isn't..." Duo paused, nearly missing the beat, pausing over one photo of a soldier finding his wife among the multitude crowding a dock. "Earth isn't just an idea, when I see these. Reminds me of the Corps, when Quatre and I hid in the desert. They were--they were really nice to us."

"Quatre was their prince." Heero slid a photo into a sleeve, frowned when it set at an odd angle. "Is that really so strange, that they'd be kind to you?"

"Was to me, at the time," Duo said quietly. "Wasn't used to that."

"Could have fooled me. You were very...overt, for a colonial."

"You mean, for a street punk." Duo looked at him thoughtfully. "It's actually not that hard to smile at a guy you're pretty sure you might have to shoot later."

For Duo, that was probably true. "You shot me first, and grinned later."

"I sure did." Duo tossed two photos into the messy pile, but kept a third for an album. "You smile more, now. I think all this was good for you."

"Might be good for you too."

No answer to that. Might never be an answer to that.

"Saw a few of Relena," Duo murmured, head bent over his task.

"She's a figurehead."

"None of the rest of us."

Heero stopped then, waited for Duo to look at him. "There's more."

Heero took Duo into the darkroom. It felt over-small with the two of them in it, and it reeked of developer, of fixer, of chemical stained water. In the tub, in the basins filled with developer, was another stack of photos. Duo knelt and grabbed a handful, compound dripping from his fingers as he stood again. Heero turned and watched Duo through the mirror, watched him carefully inspect the images, another hundred or so. The red light looked demonic on Duo's angular features, the dark, blood-like shadows on his face, shaped by long strands of hair loose from his braid, jagged points all over his brow, his jaw, his neck. Heero watched his frown become deeper, morph into a scowl, then a thin line.

Photos of Trowa Barton and his circus. The falling out with Catherine Bloom, images of the day the circus left without him. Photos of Quatre Winner and his family, images of the media that hounded him, the politicians he funded, the children whose education he paid for. Of Rashid and the rest of the Corps, of their hidden mobile suits, still whole even after the disarmament amendment.

Photos of Chang Wufei. On missions, at home, doing paperwork at his office, having brunch with his partner Sally Po and Directorate Une. Training recruits, out on reconnaissance, entering an inconspicuous vehicle on-colony.

Photos of Duo. Photos of Hilde, and her new husband. Images of Maxwell Scrap and Duo bartering with a burly Sweeper. Of Howard, employed by the Preventers' Directorate of Science and Technology, upgrading a naval ship. Of--

Duo discarded the photos carelessly, letting them tumble from his fingers and scatter on the floor. His expression was blank, void, when he met Heero's gaze in the reflection, but his eyes were thunderous, black and flashing in the red light. It didn't take a lot of movement, no big gesture of effort, for Duo to shift and press against Heero from behind, to meld their bodies together, to press his lips against the side of Heero's neck. Duo's breath was hot on his skin, moist, terribly familiar. Heero closed his eyes, knowing Duo was angry, knowing it was a tease. Knowing it would be over way too soon.

His mouth moved up Heero's throat, to his ear, to flesh just behind it. A small kiss, breath stirring Heero's hair, his voice a rumble in his ear when Duo finally spoke. "Ever thought about stopping by to say hi?"

Shivers now. Heero clenched the edge of the sink. "Crossed my mind." Heero pushed away from the porcelain, turned so he was facing Duo, instead of vulnerable to him. "Once or twice."

"Once or twice," Duo echoed, his mouth so close, barely touching. But god, was this familiar. "One or two. One and two."

No effort. Effortless. A brush of lips, commingled breaths, just a touch of tongue. Duo's teeth sank into Heero's bottom lip, quick, a slash of pain, and then he was gone. The door slammed open as relief slammed into Heero like a blow. It was over; and Heero knew what would come next. He'd left the photos in the developer on purpose. Duo tore the plastic down, invading the bathroom with light. Heero squinted against the sudden brightness, watching the images blacken on the floor by his feet.

But Duo did not leave like he expected him to, didn't storm off back down the street like Duo might've. He merely kicked off his boots, stood in the center of the room, stared at nothing. Heero lingered in the doorway, wondering if he would go after Duo this time if he took off again. Wondered if he'd wait. Wondered if he'd just leave. Leave and go to Formentera alone.

Duo's voice floated over to him, distant because it was aimed in the opposite direction. "I'm really tired."

"You didn't sleep today."

"Yeah."

Silence, then; frozen, because Duo didn't move and neither did he.

Heero had never been all that uncomfortable with silence. He rather liked the quiet, actually. But knowing a person like he knew Duo made it stifling, prickly. Especially when the only tune they seemed to know how to dance to was leaving things unsaid. "I can understand you feel I invaded your privacy."

Duo's laugh was short and harsh. "Not that, Heero." His back still to him, his words bouncing off the opposing walls. "I sort of expected it when I saw the camera in your duffle."

"Is it about the yard, then? That I didn't stop it?"

"No. I didn't stop it. Preventers didn't stop it."

Heero crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the floor, his patience with this whole affair beginning its treacherous tumble to nonexistent. He would never in his life figure this man out. "Then what," he grated.

"Hilde left two years ago. Would have been nice to have someone to talk to."

That landed like a bomb exploding in his head. "I'm not...I'm not qualified for that."

Another laugh, but no commitment behind it. Breathy, because Duo must be as exhausted as he claimed. He was; Heero noted the dark smudges beneath his eyes when Duo turned to look at him, the slump of his shoulders. "You're incredibly thick, sometimes."

Duo rubbed both hands over his face, palmed at his eyes, and made his way over to his bed. He slipped under the duvet, fully-clothed, and curled toward the wall. Heero regarded his own bed for a moment, in disarray from their abandoned project. Approaching dawn made the sky a dark grey. Heero drew the curtains closed, turned off the light. He found his duffle in the darkness, by the bathroom where he'd left it. Duo's bed dipped under his weight, the lamplight was weak when he turned it on but it did what it needed to. Heero curled around Duo, snaked his arm around his chest, slid the postcard under his limp hand. Duo's fingers tightened on the postcard, lifted it so he could see it without moving his head.

"I haven't been here yet."

Duo placed the postcard on the sheet, moved his fingertips over the glossy image. Sprawling, white beaches, clear, turquoise water, thatch huts and scattered palm trees. "Looks like paradise."

"Formentera," Heero corrected, resting his chin on Duo's shoulder.

"Any political unrest there?"

"No."

"Preventers?"

"No."

"Bourgeoisie?"

"No."

"Sounds like paradise too."

"I never understood why Hilde moved off-colony. You two never seemed...involved."

"Dean thought I was a discontent."

"Not untrue."

"No, but Hilde wanted a life I couldn't provide her, being gay and all. Dean was a good excuse to be gracious about it." Duo shifted, rolled completely inward so his face was buried somewhere between Heero's nose and chest. His arms came up instinctively around Duo's shoulders as he settled. "Miss her. Yard wasn't worth it without her."

"That why you let it happen?"

"Maybe. Wasn't a conscious thing. Just...I don't know. Anyway, you been sending Wufei signals? You said something about parading me."

Heero grinned, thankful Duo couldn't see it. He reached behind him and switched off the lamp. "Yes and no." That was more or less about having dinner with someone, someone he knew, someone he was hoping he wouldn't chase away. Again.

"Ah." Duo's arm, warm and heavy, rested in the dip of Heero's waist. Duo yawned mightily, became heavier in his arms. "Alright, then. Will you see him?"

"Will it piss you off?"

"Don't know yet." Could always count on Duo to be honest.

"Sleep, Duo."

"Working on it. Would help if you canned it."

Heero grinned again, and closed his eyes. "Okay."

+

I'm not asking you to trust me, or anything. But right now, I'm the only friend you've got.

Heero had them checked out of the motel and another room reserved by the time Duo stirred, miraculously, before ten in the morning. After Duo showered, and had his ritualistic coffee, they gathered up the photo albums, bagged the excess photos, careful not to mix them with the ones not yet affixed inside the books, and packed up the computer. Duo seemed to like the new hotel better, standing in the middle of the room and grinning towards the terrace on the other side of the twin beds.

"Do you think it'll rain tomorrow?" Duo asked, pulling the curtains to the side and tying them off.

"This time of year, it's certainly possible."

"Hm." Duo pulled the window open and stepped out onto the gated ledge. "S'nice out."

Heero stuffed his duffle and the albums into a dresser drawer. "Did you see the sights yesterday?"

"The sights?" Duo turned slightly to look at him, a bemused half-frown dangling on his face. "Ehm, no. I rode the metro."

"You rode the metro." Heero stepped out onto the terrace next to him. A slight breeze moved in from the south, from the sea, over the Manzaneres. The sky was too hazy and brightly blue to make out any clouds on the horizon. "Homesick?"

Duo shrugged, but the grin was back. "Mostly the trees freak me out."

Heero stared at his face, trying to decipher whether or not this was a joke at his expense. "You're afraid of trees." Otherwise, that would have to be the single most--

"There's a freaking ton of them in this city," Duo snapped defensively, his grin slipping.

"You're afraid of trees."

"Fuck you, Heero; I never said that."

"Of trees."

Duo was scowling in the direction of downtown, but Heero could see the smile that was quirking in the corner. An idea slithered into Heero's brain, mild as milk, and he put a voice to it. "Come to the park with me." And then, just because he couldn't help it, he added: "I promise to protect you."

Duo punched him, hard enough to actually hurt, square in the chest.

Heero took him to Parque del Retiro and set out south-east towards the palacio de cristal. The park wasn't over-crowded today, but there was still a generous amount of tourists and locals lazily circling the lake, walking their dogs, or boating. Duo seemed to brighten among the crowd, under the sun. And for the first time since he came to Earth, Duo became chatty.

"This sure beats the hell out of the parks on L2," he said. "Yasmine's doing this new thing at Quat's pad, with this massive fountain thing. She's rigged it to tunnel water through the foyer and all the outer rooms, and they have these massive goldfish; anyway. Quatre hates it, because it makes the library noisy. Trowa thinks it's relaxing, but then again, they haven't been agreeing on much lately."

And Heero found himself relaxing, relief sinking into his bones. It wasn't so much that Duo Maxwell used to be overly talkative. He hadn't been. Rather, Duo had spoken more to Heero Yuy than anyone had ever been brave enough to, entertaining one-sided conversations until Heero could no longer stand there and watch Duo Maxwell talk to himself.

Thus, smiling a little, Heero said: "How is Trowa?"

"Trowa is Trowa," Duo said, pausing when a massive Labrador bounded up to them. He put his hands in his pockets, eyeing the dog warily, as Heero bent to pet her. "And there's not much to be said for that anyway. Guy can be something of a tool. It's just weird that he's living there."

"Why is that weird," Heero asked absently, scratching the dog behind the ears and smiling politely at the breathless teenage owner as he caught up to them. "I didn't know you didn't like him."

"Hm? Ah, no, it's not so much that I don't like him." The boy fastened a leash to his dog's collar, murmured an apology, and moved on. "I like him as much as I like you, sometimes. It's just that I like Quatre better."

They started forward again. "You like Quatre better than me?"

Duo grinned at him and hooked their arms together. "Absolutely."

They did not talk about politics, or war, or Preventers, which was a nice change of pace. But Duo did ramble on for nearly forty minutes on a new machine he'd built to compress metal, talking excitedly about each component and miming the operation with his hands. Interesting enough, but Heero was wary it would lead into more grieving over his yard. It didn't thankfully, but that was mostly because they strolled into the Bosque de los Ausentes. Duo became quiet, reading the plaque and then gazing out over the bridge, where one hundred and ninety two olive trees and cypresses were set in rows, amidst immaculately groomed lawn and landscape. They crossed the bridge.

"Do you think," Duo said, once they had reemerged from the Forest of the Departed. "Do you think they'll build monuments to anyone else, like they did for Trieze, and Barge, and Peacemillion?"

That had been an odd day, when they set up memorials for the Eve Battle, commemorating bravery and sacrifice of those who died. Wufei had been bitter, snarling at anyone who came near him, and disappearing shortly after. Quatre and Trowa had been closer then, standing together near the back to represent the Winner Foundation, somewhat sucker punched into helping fund the memorial, their identities still anonymous even when half the officials present knew who they were. Heero had been there, but did not make his presence known. Duo never came. That had upset Relena, because in her mind, the memorial was for all of them, even if they weren't dead. In her mind, it was an honor.

In Duo's, it was a sick parody. The Eve Battle was necessary to close a long and confusing war, with hundreds of thousands dead even though there were often no clear enemy, no clear sides, armies crushed under armies before anyone knew who was in charge. All the same, it was twisted. Wufei took out Trieze, and Trieze became a hero. Heero stopped Libra, but barely anyone remembered that anymore. The rest--the rest was just mayhem. Duo told him, when Heero had ventured to L2 for his help in freeing Relena, Duo told him he would have rather they used that money to build new homes for war victims. It was stupid, he said, to celebrate idiocy and mayhem, to remember a blackened scab on the face of their new peace. He said it was ridiculous.

"I don't know," Heero said. "But I'd like you to see Atocha Station before you start brooding."

"Holy shit." Duo gaped at the four thousand square meters of tropical plants inside the railway station. It was muggy inside, due to the moisture and the warmth outside, but because the day was so beautiful, most of the sightseers were at the park and not in the station.

"I swear to you," Heero murmured. "None of these plants will harm you. On my honor."

"Ha ha, go fuck yourself." Duo ventured over to a pond and pointed. "Yeah, bro, Quat's goldfish are huge like these."

Heero slipped an arm around his waist and propped his chin on Duo's shoulder. "Does he have turtles too?"

"What is this?" Duo leant his head back, covered Heero's hand with his. "A ‘my dick is bigger than your dick' contest? With Quatre?"

"No," Heero kissed Duo's neck. "Yasmine."

Duo laughed. "Man, I don't know. I think Yasmine might just..." Duo was suddenly stiff in his arms.

"What is it?"

"Preventers," he said shortly, like the word was a bad flavor in his mouth. "Fucking following me. God dammit." Duo took a deep breath. "An nyoung ha seh yo!"

A young man jerked violently, across the terminal, mostly obscured by a massive cactus. His shoulders seemed to slump, before he squared them and came around the plant, trailed by another Preventer, a local Spaniard. Duo disentangled himself from Heero, obscuring Heero from the Preventers' line of sight with his body. Heero felt an ironic smile tug at his lips, amused that Duo would think to protect him.

"What, no kimchi," Duo said as the first man paused in front of him. "You fuckin' fail, bro."

"Duo," the man greeted. "How are you?"

"I'd be better if I didn't have a pair of Preventers in my shadow."

The Preventer addressing Duo gestured to his Spanish partner. "Duo, this is--"

"I don't need to know who he is," Duo said with a shake of his head. And when the Preventer's gaze drifted behind him to Heero, Duo said: "And vice versa."

"You weren't at your motel this morning," the Preventer said, spreading his hands in a placating gesture, eyes returning to Duo's face. "We needed to locate you."

Heero narrowed his eyes at the Spaniard, who shifted and glanced at his partner nervously. But the Preventer was focused solely on Duo.

"The fuck you do, Kim," Duo said.

"Deputy Director--"

"Look at my face," Duo interrupted. "Do I look like I have ever given a rat's ass where Chang fucking Wufei wants me?"

"I can appreciate your position, sir--"

"You ‘sir' me again, Kim, and I'll punch you in the fucking throat. I swear to God."

Heero almost laughed, doing his best to look in another direction. Even though Kim seemed to have already been dosed with Duo's abrasive tough-guy routine, he believed him and paled.

Kim closed his eyes and breathed in deeply through his nose. "Duo," he said in a low, measured voice. "Duo, please. Deputy Director Chang will be here in two days. At least stay in Madrid until then. Please. I really can't afford a demotion."

"How good are you at sucking dick?"

Heero bit the inside of his cheek. It was viciously amusing to see someone else on the wrong end of Duo's verbal offensive for once. The Preventer, Kim, spluttered, while the Spaniard took a threatening step forward. Kim put an arm out, raising his chin stubbornly even as a hot flush invaded his face.

"Because," Duo continued, jabbing a thumb back in Heero's direction, "unless you're better at blowing me than he is, I go where he goes."

Two pairs of Preventer eyes flickered to Heero, who shrugged, still biting back a laugh, and then swiveled back to Duo. Kim ran a hand over his face, looking defeated.

"And you can tell him," Duo said in a gentler tone. "That if he demotes you over this, I'll take it as a personal insult. He knows I have enough shit on him to fuck up his entire world." Kim straightened at that, shared a long look with his partner, and then forced a smile at Duo.

"I appreciate that. Thank you."

"Jesus, Duo," Heero murmured when they had gone. Duo turned a wide-eyed expression in his direction. "Was that your contact? You're going to give him a complex."

A small shift of his shoulders, an unapologetic grin. "It was damn funny."

Heero scratched at his neck. "We should sweep the room when we get back."

"Yep."

"And no more names out in the open."

"Yep."

"It was a little funny," Heero conceded.

"Bet your ass it was." Duo crouched to smell a bright yellow flower, stripes of orange and black streaking from the center. "I like this one. What's it called?"

"Duo, I have no idea."

Duo didn't have to say it out loud for Heero to know; they were going to wait for Wufei. And God help him when he got here.

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