Author: pyrzm
see ch. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Broken Warriors + Chapter 27
New Paths, Old Shadows

Heero and Duo took things easy for the next few days, trying to find a rhythm for this strange new place in their lives they found themselves in. Duo had to keep reminding himself that less than two weeks ago he'd still been shuttling between numbness and despair, unable to stop mourning for the finality of Heero's loss and unable to find a direction for his own life. Now, as the shock of Heero's return began to wear off, he found himself head over heels in love with this "new" Heero who'd come back to them, even as he learned how different that man was from the cold, seemingly emotionless boy he'd known before.

In many ways, though, Heero was still very much Heero. No one was going to mistake him for the normal, lighthearted boy-next-door. His normal expression would still scare small children. He still looked at strangers as if they were enemy mobile suits. He still spent what Duo considered an unhealthy amount of time on line, first with the computer Quatre had provided, and now on the compact, state of the art new laptop that arrived two days after Heero ordered it. He also still spoke in that seemingly toneless way that sounded robotic to anyone who didn't know him as well as the other Gundam pilots.

Not only that, but now that Heero was getting healthy again, he still reached for a gun at all the right moments. Duo had been ecstatic when he'd finally accepted the Glock. It made him feel--what? Like Heero was really better? Like life was falling back into a pattern Duo Maxwell understood? He wasn't sure. He was just fucking glad that Heero Yuy wasn't afraid of guns anymore. Let Dr. Batoosingh make of that what he would.

So Heero was, in a word, still weird in his own unique way, yet also warmer in general, more engaged with life around him than Duo had ever imagined possible. And more sensual and passionate than he'd ever dared dream to hope! For the first time since they'd first met, Duo saw Heero really trying to follow that long-ago advice to follow his feelings.

That some of those feelings led to the most mind-blowing sex Duo had ever known was a definite bonus, as far as he was concerned. For someone who'd ignored sex and stayed a virgin most of his life, Heero was one hell of a fast learner. When Heero "Perfect Soldier" Yuy made up his mind to master a new skill? Watch out! He was unstoppable and so focused it was scary. Talk about zero to sixty in record time. Well, zero to sixty-nine, and beyond, Duo thought with a happy shiver of lust. Not that he wasn't just as bad. All it took these days was one heated glance from Heero, or even a non-heated one, and Duo was hard and ready for anything! The way things were going, he'd be happy to just spend the rest of his life in bed with this new and improved 01.

For the next few days when Duo wasn't working on the masks and teaching Heero that craft, they slept late, ate simple meals, spent hours walking the windswept beach, and made love anywhere they felt like it. That was a particular luxury, considering recent experience.

Their big bed was great--hell they'd had to change the sheets twice already-- but Duo liked to experiment and found Heero just as willing. Together they ended up making a game of "christening" every room of the house, even the cramped, dusty attic space above the tower, both bathtubs (which seemed designed especially with such pastimes in mind) and a rather rushed and chilly session on the rooftop widow's walk. Hands braced against the low wrought iron railing, Duo had been able to admire the distant lights of New Provincetown as he came and shouted and prayed that he could keep his knees from giving out long enough to keep Heero and himself from pitching over the side.

The wide rope hammock on the porch was novel but uncomfortable, not to mention unstable. Once was plenty for that. The only thing so far that Heero had just plain vetoed was making love in the dunes, both for security and hygienic reasons. As he'd patiently pointed out, no matter how hard they tried to be careful during their beach combing trips, they always ended up with fine, sugary white sand in their clothes and stuck to their skin. Heero insisted that no amount of care and blankets would prevent it from getting into more intimate places if they followed Duo's "sex on the beach" scenario. He firmly refused to take that risk, citing the potential recovery time that might result. Duo had to agree; the rewards weren't worth the risk.

Life wasn't all sex and hair brushing--oh yeah, Heero Yuy still had a thing for his hair! Duo only had a couple of weeks to get the masks ready for the guys' debut in New Orleans. Even with Heero's assistance, he didn't have time to dawdle.

Trowa and Kat had remained stubbornly secretive about the exact nature of their new acts, but they'd had no choice but to share Quatre's sketches for the costumes and some guidelines so that Duo could design appropriate face gear. The masks had to be close fitting and fastened on tightly, with no obstruction to vision or breathing. The one Trowa would wear for "Red Silk" had to be especially minimalist, with nothing loose at all.

The costume for that act was a sheer, hand-painted singlet that would cover Trowa's slim body like a second skin from shoulders to knees. If they stuck to Quatre's sketches, the designs on the suit, augmented with some body paint, would give Trowa a rather ghostly appearance. The overall color scheme was much paler than his usual choices: a bone white background with swirls of pale, metallic silver, black and blue. Quatre gave every costume he designed a name, meant to capture the spirit of the act. This one was called "Passages" whatever the hell that meant.

According to Catherine, who'd known Trowa the longest, Trowa's earlier acrobatic clowning, animal work and trapeze work had all been standard, if inspired, circus business, designed to entertain and thrill. Since the war's end, with Trowa working full time instead of as a cover, he and Catherine were trying to take the old show in a new direction.

Somewhere along the way, Trowa had discovered recordings of a 20th century pre-colony Canadian circus named Cirque de Soleil. Duo had watched some of them and was amazed at the difference. That circus had been more like theatre. There were no animal acts, for one thing, and each season's performances were done in the form of a loose, wordless story, with recurring themes, often in a made up, gibberish language or one foreign to the audience. The acts, mostly acrobatic in nature, were thrilling, but also charged with emotion. Costumes, music, even the other business going on in the ring at the same time all melded into a coherent whole, like a painting in motion.

A lot of it was artsy-fartsy egghead stuff Duo didn't really get, especially some of the clown acts, but it was pretty and the aerial acts were fucking impressive. Tro, Kat and Catherine were really excited about it and had been working elements of that into the new season. For that reason in New Orleans there would be daytime, family-oriented shows, and a few special, adults-only night shows. Judging by the costume designs for those, it was going to be no place for kids. Trowa's trapeze costume looked like a demonic version of Heavyarms. And what he and Quatre planned to wear for whatever it was they were doing together? Well, it was just this side of pornographic, just leather thongs and body paint, in sketches titled "Meld". And, of course, the masks.

"Quatre did say he was worried about his family's reaction," Heero said, eyeing those sketches. "Perhaps this is why?"

"Like I told him," Duo chuckled, making a few last changes to his drawings. "No one will even know it's him when I get done with him."

+

Duo's studio, as Heero thought of the downstairs room they'd set up for the mask making project, soon became one of Heero's favorite places in the house. The light was good here, and they'd moved in a couch and a couple of the long worktables from the kitchen. One was set up for the wet and messy business of the actual leatherwork. The other would be a clean, dry surfaced for curing and painting.

Heero watched with genuine interest as Duo demonstrated how the fine vegetable-tanned leather had to be scraped, or skived, to the proper thickness, then soaked briefly in a pan of hot water to make it more pliable. When it was ready, he had Heero pull it over one of the block forms of Trowa's face and tack the edges to the back of it. Then, using everything from a small hammer to bits of natural cow horn and antler and shaped pieces of wood called "thumbs", they pressed the leather to conform to the cast facial features. When it was tight, Duo used a razor-sharp scalpel to cut holes for the eyes and mouth. After that, he showed Heero how to burnish the leather smooth with one of the thumbs. After that it would dry overnight. When it was completely dry, it would be removed from the form, the edges carefully trimmed, rolled and burnished smooth, and then it was ready for decoration, which could take days depending on how many layers of color were needed, and if other materials, like feathers, glass jewels, ribbons or braid trim, and beads were to be added.

"That's the basics," Duo said, seeming pleased with Heero's work. "What I have to do is a bit trickier."

Heero helped Duo unpack the rest of the face forms and found that most were of Trowa's face, and the many of these had had the features altered to accentuate or exaggerate the features. Some only partly realized, for half masks like the one Trowa had originally worn when he was clowning in the early days.

Quatre's sketches called for masks that covered the face only from forehead to just under the nose, but with fancy extensions formed like wings or other fantastic shapes around the wearer's head. This was achieved by leaving lots of extra leather around the form, the cutting and pinching it into whatever elaborate shape was called for.

"This smaller, visor-style works best for Trowa," Duo explained, showing him drawings for much simpler, smaller masks. "It lets him move his face and jaw without dislodging the mask, and doesn't obstruct his breathing."

Leaving Heero to experiment with his newfound skills, Duo unfolded a cardboard sheet printed with a large grid, took out an impressive array of calipers, compasses and other drawing tools and started transforming his designs into paper patterns. He referred often to a small notebook filled with various measurements he'd taken from his friends' faces.

Heero found himself entranced as Duo quickly lost himself in this work. His face was serious, but relaxed, and he kept up an almost continuous stream of quiet noise, either humming along with the radio on the windowsill or muttering to himself under his breath, a running self-commentary on measurements and shapes. Heero smiled. This sort of thing was why Wufei had always referred to Duo as "the noisy one." No matter what the situation, that mouth just didn't keep still for long.

None of this distracted Heero from noting Duo's talent. Like all the other Gundam pilots he'd either been trained or already possessed some natural talent for drawing. They'd often needed that in the field to capture accurate plans of enemy installations or weapons, but Duo's skills clearly extended far beyond that.

Heero found himself wishing he had a camera to capture this Duo, perched on his stool in his stained canvas apron, the ocean light striking him just right as he bent intently over his work. Heero had seen him like this before, he realized, but he'd been making bombs at the time, with all the same deft skill and intensity.

So caught up in his work was he that Duo didn't even notice when Heero borrowed one of the sketchbooks and a pencil and tried his hand at drawing Duo. Both Lowe and J had fostered Heero's natural talent, and he'd spent a lot of time learning from books, as well, telling himself in those days that it was a useful, practical skill to be refined and mastered. Only now did he discover that without the pressure of a mission or clandestine recon, drawing a subject of his choosing for no practical reason beyond wanting to was really quite pleasurable. In a few minutes he'd roughed in Duo's profile, capturing the curve of his cheek, the angle of his lowered eye lid, the thoughtful set of his mouth and chin. He kept the table and it's scattered tools to a few spare, suggestive lines, concentrating instead on the relation of Duo's body over it, the way the apron was folded in the front, how the dark tee-shirt hugged his back and shoulders, the way his braid lay over his shoulder, stray tendrils escaping here and there to glint in the sunlight.

As he worked, some part of Heero's mind registered his detachment. Concentrating on the task at hand, he could forget emotion for a while, and see his sensual, complex lover from a new angle unclouded by desire or frustration. It was much the same way he'd looked at the enemy, not hampered by feelings of empathy or even anger. It had allowed him to fight without remorse. Now it allowed him a mental clarity that was freeing. When he finished, a very good rendering of Duo filled half the page, with the suggestion of the window and room. Setting the pencil aside, he felt rather pleased with himself. This was better than a photograph; without meaning to, he'd somehow captured a bit of the moment, though he couldn't put it into words. The picture just "felt" like the scene he'd been looking at. He wondered if he looked at it a year from now, if he would recall the moment very clearly, the way smells were said to trigger strong memories.

"Damn, Heero, that's good!"

Looking up, he found Duo staring at his drawing. "It was only a quick sketch, but I am pleased."

Duo bent and rummaged in one of the boxes under the table, then presented Heero with a handful of new drawing pencils and a black, spiral bound sketchbook still sealed in shrink-wrap. Unwrapping the book, Heero tucked his first drawing in between the first few pages. Then, as a thought struck, he took it out again and, at the bottom of the page, printed in small letters "#1: D. at work. CC house. 09/14/198."

Duo leaned on his shoulder. "You're really good, you know. Want to do some life studies on me?"

"Life studies?"

Duo pulled his shirt off, dropped his pants and struck a pose. "Life studies."

That was the end of their work session for that day, and Heero didn't get any drawing done at all for a while, but his second attempt was a fairly detailed rendering of Duo sprawled asleep on the workroom couch. Heero thought he captured the blissful smile quite well.

+

Heero continued his research on dating during stolen moments over the next few days, but still felt poorly prepared for his first mission. He picked up the phone several times to call Quatre, but each time something stopped him. Embarrassment, perhaps, or pride. Whatever the case, he decided at last to come up with his own plan. After all, Duo was nothing like Trowa or Quatre, so their advice would be of questionable use anyway.

That's what he told himself, at least. Never mind the fact that he was finding the research to be rather enjoyable. In the meantime, Duo had given no sign of needing any form of violent sex or reassurance. Instead, he was proving to be insatiable and highly creative. Heero discovered with chagrin that being taken up the ass from behind was as much a pleasure for him as it was for Duo, though from a purely mental standpoint, he still preferred to be the one on top most of the time. Duo laughingly labeled him a control freak, but with his own recently discovered preference for being the bottom, they decided they were both happy and well matched. Duo did seem especially pleased when Heero discovered that he liked having Duo tied to the bed now and then. Secretly, he hoped that bondage would suffice to fill Duo's darker needs for now. Like drawing, Heero was very skilled with restraints.

By the end of their first week Heero decided it was time to equip himself for the upcoming mission. His research had determined that everything he needed was available in New Provincetown. He committed a city plan and various addresses to memory. To avoid undue questions from Duo, he made love to him late into the night, a sure way to guarantee that Duo would sleep deeply and long. Heero woke himself at dawn, showered and dressed in the downstairs bathroom, then went into the workroom to write a note, knowing Duo might draw the wrong conclusion if he woke to find Heero missing without explanation.

He thought a moment, hand poised over the blank sketchbook page. It needed to contain just enough information to keep Duo from becoming worried at any prolonged absence, without giving too much away.

Duo, have gone shopping today. Time frame undetermined. Mission on a need to know basis. Can be reached by cell phone. Call me with any purchase requests. Stay away from my computer. There is no information there. Plan on me for dinner.

He read it over and frowned. Even to him it sounded a bit terse, but he had no idea how to deliver the required information any better than that. He considered the problem for a moment, impatient to get going before Duo woke up. At last he signed it "Love, Heero." That still seemed rather cold. Grudgingly, feeling very silly, he printed "xoxoxoxo" under his signature. Relena had done that on the notes she used to slip him. According to her, that was code for hugs and kisses. He stared down at the line of gibberish for a moment, realizing he was blushing. Not giving himself time to change his mind, he tore out the page and left it on the kitchen counter next to the coffee maker. Another thought struck him and he took the few extra minutes to load the grounds and water into the coffee maker and set the timer for an hour later. Duo would appreciate the gesture; Heero was usually the one awake enough to make coffee in the morning. With that done, he slipped out the back door and was almost to the car when another inspiration struck. This one seemed even sillier and more embarrassing than the hugging code, but he made himself do it anyway. He was several miles down the coastal road before he managed to make himself stop obsessing over that one. He just hoped Duo didn't laugh at him too much when he got home.

As uncomfortable and out of character as such efforts made him, and Heero knew that much worse was likely to come later today during his current self appointed mission, the fact that he could just as easily decide not to do such things was not a viable option. Not if he followed his feelings.

Troublesome, embarrassing things, feelings, but when it came to pleasing Duo, they seemed to be worth it. So far, anyway

+

Duo woke up and reached for Heero, only to find no one there. He sat up and looked around, instincts telling him instantly that Heero was not in the room and hadn't been for some time. The clock by the bed told him it was nearly noon. The bed was cool except where he'd been sleeping, and he'd have been able to smell it on the air if Heero had taken a shower in their bathroom. He hadn't, but his sneakers were gone from their neat place by the closet door and, on closer inspection, so was his jacket. Duo stood at the open closet door, yawning and scratching himself awake. Lucky for him, Heero didn't have many clothes and they'd just done laundry. Checking hangars and shelves inside, he saw that the sweater and white Oxford were still there, but a dark red tee shirt was missing, and the blue jeans they'd washed yesterday. Looked like Heero had gone out for a walk on the beach at some point. Duo hoped he was back.

He wasn't awake enough to question that last thought.

Unconcerned with modesty and still lacking a bathrobe, he wandered out naked to the head of the staircase. "Heero?" No answer, but he could smell hot coffee. So Heero couldn't have gone far, right?

It had always freaked him out a little when Tro and Kat took care of him; Duo had never let himself rely on anyone growing up, except for that brief time at Maxwell Church, and look how that turned out. On the streets, self-reliance was part of the code. So it should have bugged the shit out of him when Heero did little things like making the coffee or folding the laundry just so or cleaning up scraps in the art studio while Duo worked. But it didn't. None of it. Instead, it made him feel all gooey inside, like a lovesick schoolgirl with her first crush. He should have hated that, too, and gone all Shinigami on 01, but he didn't. No, it made him want to go all Shinigami on Heero in a whole different, very mutually pleasurable away.

In fact, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the fact that Heero had let him sleep in yet again made him feel like doing that right this very minute. Grinning, he crept silently down the stairs and peered into the living room, intending to jump Heero if he wasn't holding hot coffee or anything sharp.

No Heero there.

He moved on to the workroom, and then the kitchen. No Heero, or any sign or sound of him, either. And no instinctive prickling at the back of Duo's neck, either, to warn him that his lover had once again turned the tables and was stalking him. Nope, nothing. And no leather jacket on the coat tree by the front door, or neatly hung over a kitchen chair.

"Huh, must still be out on the beach," Duo muttered, trying to ignore the stupid, silly little pang of emptiness he felt as he headed for the coffeepot. Only then did he see the note lying there, held in place by a juice glass holding three faded, end of season beach roses.

He stopped dead at the sight of it. This was a totally unforeseen development. In Duo's limited experience, notes were usually a Bad Thing. Not always, he told himself, but his heart was suddenly in his throat as he forced himself the last few feet to the counter. Moving the flowers aside, he picked up the note, read it, puzzled over the gibberish letters under Heero's signature, then twigged to what they must mean and burst out laughing. "Oh, Yuy!" he gasped, recovering a little. "Get your ass home!"

+

According to Heero's research, New Provincetown had been founded in AC 25, and had been designed to reflect native architecture that had been lost when the end of the Cape was swept away, using lots of red brick and fake antiques. Nonetheless, it was clearly geared to be a tourist haven and the center of the small city was comprised of a dense cluster of waterfront access streets lined with shops, restaurants and club establishments, the most exclusive overlooking the harbor and marinas. Beyond this center were neighborhoods made up mostly of expensive seasonal condominiums and even more expensive homes. Many of them were neo-Victorian, like the house he was staying at with Duo. Others were something called "salt box" or more modern, rather bland modern style, with lots of balconies and large windows to catch the ocean view. On the landward side, more modest neighborhoods catered to year round residents, many of whom made their livings catering to the needs of the wealthy tourists. Heero had found himself delving into the water supply, power stations, and local law enforcement almost before he realized what he was doing. That wasn't really necessary anymore, but once again, he found that old habits died hard.

His early departure brought him to the outskirts of town with an hour and a half to kill before the shops opened at ten. He spent some time on recon, locating some of the shops and clubs he'd targeted, then withdrew cash from an ATM and stopped at a corner convenience store gas station for fuel and coffee.

He'd worn dark glasses and nondescript clothing, but bought a dark blue baseball-style cap off the rack next to the cash register for added protection. The bored young girl behind the counter gave no sign of recognizing him, or caring.

The first two shops he tried were disappointing. The first clearly catered to high school kids, and the second featured colors that assaulted Heero's eyes and deafening dance music to shop by. In the past when he'd needed new clothing it had either been provided to him, stolen, or bought online. Now he found himself faced with crowded racks of apparel in no immediately discernable order and sales people who seemed more interested in talking to each other than him.

It was a bit of a relief to find that the third place on his list had gone out of business. The fourth and fifth didn't suit him, either. Examining the outfits they had on display, he realized that he couldn't picture himself in any of them.

By two thirty he was tired, discouraged, hungry, and nearly ready to fall back on online shopping. The next to the last shop, a place called Loose Threads, proved so hard to find he almost gave up. But the website had promised "the best designer club wear in the region," so he downed a canned protein shake and kept looking.

It turned out to be a small, unremarkable storefront hidden away on a narrow side street several blocks from the harbor. He circled the block twice before he actually spotted it. It had no display windows, and no sign, just the street numbers and name in small gold letters on a curtained glass door, and a small cardboard sign hanging above it that read "Open".

Carefully locking the car, he pulled down his hat brim and went in. Inside it was smaller and darker than the others stores, and no music was playing. Some of the suggested ensembles displayed on the walls looked promising, too.

There was only one clerk on duty at the moment, at work arranging jewelry on rack beside the register. "Be right with you!" he called out.

Heero remained near the door, studying the man. He looked like a taller, older version of Quatre. His ragged bleached blond hair was tipped with a brilliant blue, and his ears and eyebrows glittered with the gold and silver of multiple piercings. Both wrists were heavy with assorted bracelets of braided leather and silver bangles and he wore so many large rings Heero wasn't sure how he could function. But his clothes were reasonably sensible, just a soft-looking dark blue shirt over low-slung beige jeans.

After a moment the man looked up and smiled. "May I help you?" It was the first show of genuine interest Heero had seen today.

"I need club wear."

The clerk's eyes widened and his polite smile became an incredulous grin. Coming out from behind the counter, he strode over. "It is you, isn't it? I mean, when you came in I thought 'Wow, he looks kinda like Heero Yuy.' But that voice? I'd know--"

Heero had anticipated this sort of situation. Removing his glasses, he nodded curtly, then held out a crisp $100 bill. "I am not here. I was never here."

The clerk laughed and brushed the money aside. "Oh, put that away! Don't worry, I deal with celebs all the time." Going to the door, he threw the lock and flipped the sign to 'Closed.' "There now, all nice and private." He held out his hand, bracelets rustling. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Never-was-here. I'm Nicky. What can I do you for?"

Taken aback by this sudden reversal, Heero stuffed the bill in his coat pocket and awkwardly shook hands. "I--I require suitable attire to go to a dance club. For myself, and--a friend," he added reluctantly.

"Friend, eh? Hmm, let me guess. A certain someone just about your height, disgustingly slim, with amazing long brown hair, legs that go on forever, and gorgeous big blue eyes?"

Heero tensed, though he supposed it had been all over the news here, too.

Nicky laughed. "Rumors of a 'G-Boy' sighting have been flying around town for a couple of days now."

"I thought people were discreet around here," Heero growled.

"Yeah, right." Nicky shrugged. "You have to admit, he's hard to miss. And he and your other friends aren't exactly strangers around here, either. The W-Bs have been regulars for a couple of years now. Check this out." He beckoned Heero to the back of the store. The man seemed harmless enough, but Heero's hand still strayed to the Glock in his right coat pocket as he followed him to the register counter.

A large bulletin board edged in rainbow colored ribbon hung on the wall behind it, with "Our Heroes" scrawled across the top in red marker. The board was covered with photos and news clippings of what Heero assumed were celebrities, most of them male. Trowa and Quatre were featured in many of them, caught together in various public locations. Duo was in some, too, though not as many. In one photo the three of them were standing here at this counter with Nicky and some other young men.

The clerk reached under the counter and pulled out a page cut from a magazine. "I was just about to hang this new one up when you came in," he said, placing it on the counter for Heero to see. It was a full-page color shot of him kissing Duo on the steps of the Madrid hospital.

"Out of the closet less than two weeks and you already made our wall of honor. Then in you walk! I take it your friends recommended us? This is one of their favorite shops."

Heero ignored the question. If he'd been on a real wartime mission, talkative Mr. Too-Much-Inside-Info here would already be a corpse cooling in the back room. Trying not to show his annoyance, he studied the photo.

It was a good one. The photographer had caught them just as Duo had recovered from his surprise. He had one hand on Heero's shoulder, the other hanging loose at his side. The long grey wool coat hung open and he was bent back slightly as Heero held him around the waist and leaned into the kiss. Both of them had their eyes closed and Duo was grinning against Heero's lips, looking very happy. Heero stared at his own face in the picture; he thought he looked happy, too, but also rather determined. In the background several Spanish policemen were either grinning or looking shocked and Quatre was laughing. Trowa was partly visible at the edge of the scene, just coming out of the door. He appeared to be frowning at someone or something off to one side, both eyes obscured by his bangs. Underneath, a caption read, "Question answered!"

Nicky reached behind the counter and took out another picture in a wooden frame. "And this is Loose Threads' pride and joy," he told Heero. "Dave won't even hang it on the wall, figuring someone will swipe it."

Heero recognized this one. He'd seen it on a newsstand one cold, rainy day in Berlin. It was the Vanity Fair magazine cover featuring the Trowa, Quatre and Duo in the outfits they'd worn for the wedding. It was autographed by all three and Quatre had written, "Nice pants, huh? Thanks and best wishes to Dave and all the guys at Loose Threads."

"We keep their sizes on file," Nicky rattled on. "You guys are all disgustingly fit, by the way. See those pants they're wearing? Hand-stitched Dolchis! I sold them those myself, custom ordered straight from Milano. We won't even show the catalogue to anyone who isn't totally built. But those two? Born for 'em. You, too. If you ever want some, just say the word. We're the only place north of New York who can get them, but it takes two months, minimum."

The famous photographer had shot them against a stark white background, and covered the floor with billows of sheer white fabric strewn with red rose petals. Trowa sat in a fancy wooden armchair, a long-stemmed red rose clutched between his teeth and one arm around Quatre, perched on his knee. Trowa was glowering under his bangs, but Quatre was laughing with his head thrown slightly back, a red rose tucked behind one ear. They wore similar skin-tight black leather pants with silver and turquoise conchos down the outsides of the legs. Their feet were bare, revealing toenails painted the same dark red as the roses.

Duo lay on his stomach at their feet, chin propped on one hand, holding a pink rose to his nose with the other as he pouted sexily out at the photographer. Duo wore only that black leather kilt and black combat boots. His feet were raised behind him, ankles crossed. His hair lay loose over his bare back and shoulders; one long chestnut strand of it curled around Trowa's ankle. Quatre had one bare feet planted squarely on Duo's backside.

"It's a fantastic picture, don't you think?" Nicky gushed.

"Hn." Heero had never liked it.

"So, you're shopping for Mr. Gorgeous here?"

"Correct."

"Gonna surprise him, right? Hot night on the town?"

Heero leveled a searing look at the clerk, who was proving far more perceptive than Heero had anticipated.

But this Nicky person was proving as annoyingly immune to his dark looks as Duo. "Hey, it's my job to be nosy, so help me help you. What sort of club are you thinking of?"

"Rock or techno."

"Well, if you don't mind some advice from a local, stick to Barnacle Betty's, Red Sails, or Ma Rainey's, over on Prospect. Most of the waterfront places are tourist hell, or full of photographers. And don't go near Starz! They'll let anyone in. But the door keepers at those other places know their job and the music's good. Ma Rainey's is the hardest to get into, but they'd let hotties like you two in no problem, even if you showed up wearing garbage bags." He turned and studied the bulletin board, then pulled down a couple of snapshots. "Yeah, see? Your friends go there sometimes."

Heero glanced at the photos. The backgrounds were too dark to make out the decor but most of the people weren't wearing particularly outlandish clothing. "Do they serve food?"

"There's a great seafood place called Jack's across the street, but you'll need reservations on weekends." He jotted a phone number on the back of a store business card. "If you call between now and midnight most days, ask for John and drop my name. He'll get you in."

"He knows you?"

Nicky grinned. "He better. He's my boyfriend. So, let's start with you, shall we?" He stepped back and studied Heero from head to toe. "Hmm, that build, that hair--great jacket, by the way. Gift, or did you buy it?"

"A gift--"

"Right. The rest of it your choices?"

"No, but--"

"Well, don't worry. I'm good. So, I'll just go out on a limb here and guess that you'll want to keep it macho. No messing with the hair color? No kilts, no shorts, not too much glitter and flash? Dark colors?"

Heero nodded, relieved. "Acceptable."

"Great. Let's get started." Nicky went to a rack and pulled out a hanger. On it hung what appeared to be a body suit of some sort made of a few bits of black spandex linked together with large silver rings. Before Heero could object, the other man burst out laughing. "Sorry, couldn't resist. You should really loosen up. This is supposed to be fun!" He put the offensive outfit back. "How soon do you need the duds?"

"Immediately."

"No problem. It'll have to be off the rack, but you could make K-Mart look like Prada, and honey, we don't carry K-Mart! Everything we have is designer. Do you have any preference?"

"The clothing must be suited to the environment you suggested, but also comfortable. Breathable fabrics, cut for optimum movement."

Nicky arched an eyebrow, no doubt at his manner of speaking. Heero sighed. This was why he shopped on line. "And I wish to look--" Heero hesitated again. Why couldn't the man just leave him alone to make his own decisions?

"Hot?" Nicky guessed. "Sexy?"

"Romantic," Heero muttered between gritted teeth.

"Oooo!" Nicky appeared torn between surprise and approval. "Lucky Mr. Gorgeous! Price range?"

"It is of no importance."

"You just said the magic words." He pulled three pairs of black pants off a nearby rack and handed them to Heero. "Try these."

"Don't you need to know my size or take measurements?"

Nicky looked insulted. "Dressing room's right back there. Let me see you in them and tell me what you think. And be honest!"

Heero tried not to scowl too darkly as he took the pants into the small dressing room. There was no mirror in here, just a large three-way outside. The first pair was soft black leather, similar to the ones in the photograph, but with no silver trim. They hung low on Heero's hips and hugged his backside and legs, but didn't feel overly light. He tucked in his tee-shirt and stepped out to the mirror.

"Well?" Nicky demanded.

Heero stared at himself in the mirror. He would never have thought to try on pants like these, but he had to admit they looked good on him. "These fit."

"Damn right they do! They're lambskin, like your jacket and they fit like your own skin. So that's a maybe? Don't get all shy and say no. Try the others, then we'll put some tops with them."

The next pair were cut low like the others and looked like black suede, but were made of some fabric that hugged his body comfortably. "Very breathable," Heero noted, turning in front of the mirror. The legs were slightly flared for boot wear. He could wear an ankle holster under them, he thought, though he didn't share that with the clerk. "I like these, as well."

The last pair, raw silk dress slacks, fit just as well, but Heero found himself frowning at his reflection.

"Not you," Nicky pronounced.

Heero nodded. No, they were not him.

"OK, so want to work with the microsuede? Put them back on. I'll be right back. Hold on, look at me."

To Heero's surprise, he obeyed, standing there passively while Nicky came close and scrutinized his face.

"Don't suppose you'd consider make-up--?" Heero's glare was answer enough. "OK, OK, no make-up. Shame though, with those eyes?" Shaking his head, he disappeared into the racks.

By the time Heero had gotten the micrcosuedes on, Nicky was back with a pile of shirts over his arm.

The first one looked promising, a tight, sleeveless black tee shirt. But when Heero got it on, he discovered that it was cut short, leaving a good six inches of midriff bare above the already low rise of the jeans. Heero peeled it off and handed it back without comment.

"At least I tried," Nicky said, handing him what appeared to be the identical shirt. This one was long enough to tuck in, but still very tight. "It's made of this new spandex and microfiber blend, designed to breath."

Heero had been working out regularly and drinking the protein shakes Dr. Santos had prescribed, and his muscle tone had improved considerably, but he was still thin, shoulders bony, arms more wiry than muscular. The clingy fabric showed the contours of his ribs and still rather sunken belly. "I look like a heroin addict."

"You say that like it's a bad thing!" Nicky chuckled. "Can't be too thin or too rich, right?"

"I disagree."

"Well, trust me, you look hot, but try this." He handed Heero a silky, long sleeved shirt. The fabric was slightly iridescent, and dyed in marbleized swirls of peacock blues and greens. He had Heero leave it unbuttoned, then expertly rolled the cuffs halfway up Heero's forearms. He turned Heero to the mirror and looked over his shoulder at the reflection. Heero had never worn anything this colorful in his life and had had his doubts when he saw it on the hanger, thinking maybe it would be better for Duo, but it actually looked very good on him.

But Nicky was shaking his head. "Almost there. Take the shirts off."

Heero pulled them off and Nicky handed him a black tank top made from the same fabric as the tees. Heero wasn't sure he really wanted to wear this style again, but Nicky had been right about everything else so far, so he pulled it on. This shirt clung to him, too, and revealed more of his chest, but with the other shirt on over it, he looked slim rather than thin, and taller. He stared at his reflection, then glanced at Nicky. "Well?"

"You tell me."

Heero regarded his reflection again, noting how the shirt picked up the color of his eyes. "Acceptable."

"Acceptable?" Nicky rolled his eyes. "How do you feel?"

How he felt wasn't really this stranger's business, but he was becoming aware of a weird intimacy in this process of clothes buying. Heero wondered if it was normal, or of there was something wrong with him. Being locked in a small space with a man who knew too much about him had initially set off the old alarms, but that had receded. Maybe this was normal.

"How do I feel?" he muttered, studying his reflection. Not how did he look, but how did he feel. The clothes were snug, but everything hugged him in all the right places in a way that revealed the lines of his body without undue constriction. They were comfortable, without looking it. "Attractive?"

Nicky walked off, returning a moment later with black western style boots and a wide, silver studded belt. Heero put them on and let him wind a long black braided thong capped with silver several times around his wrist in a simple bracelet. "Now, imagine your friend seeing you in this outfit."

Caught thinking what other uses he could put that braided bracelet to, Heero was surprised to feel his nipples and balls tighten with arousal. It heightened the color in his cheeks, darkened the blue of his eyes, and made his cock stir with interest.

Nicky chuckled. "That's right. You are drop dead sexy. You'll be lucky to get Mr. Gorgeous out of the house at all."

Heero suspected the man might be correct.

"You're perfect. You'll take it."

"Yes."

"Great. Now for your friend. How do you want him to look? What do you like him in?"

"Anything." Or nothing, he thought.
Still looking in the mirror, he-- was surprised at the almost predatory look that came over him. He blinked it away. That's not how he wanted to look at Duo, not this time. He shrugged. "He's beautiful in anything."

"God, why don't they clone guys like you! Come on, then, let's cruise the racks. I've got a few ideas."

"He appreciates fine things," Heero told him, trailing behind him. "Do you know what designers he likes?"

"Of course!"

Using some photos of Duo, the information on file, and a bit of modeling by Nicky, Heero picked out a pair of Italian charcoal silk jeans cut low on the hips, a snug midriff-bearing microfiber sleeveless tee in a light teal green, a belt similar to the one Heero was wearing, but decorated with small silver medallions, and a lightweight biker-style black leather jacket that had been finished with something Nicky called a silver wash that gave it an interesting sheen as it moved. It was very soft, like glove leather. Soft black Italian leather boots with silver chains across the instep were a must, according to Nicky.

The bracelets the man wore kept catching Heero's eye. At first he'd thought them foolish, but now he found himself imagining Duo's slim wrists decked out in silver and braided leather, arms bared by that ocean-colored shirt.

He selected a mix of bracelets like them from a rack on the counter, and was pleased to find several with seashells braided into them. Money cowries, Nicky informed him. Another had a silver moon snail shell in the middle.

"How about this?" Nicky took a short necklace from another rack and laid it beside the bracelets. It was very simple, a single round disk of some natural material a little over an inch in diameter set in a simple silver bezel and hung on a thin black leather thong. The disk looked like cream colored ivory, with a swirl of buff and brown that curved from the edge to the center. "It's an operculum, the trapdoor from some big sea snail. Also called a Shiva's Eye."

"Shiva."

"It comes with this." Nicky handed him a small printed card.


Heero read the information and smiled. "Can you gift wrap this and the clothes for him?"

"Don't you want to know the total?"

Heero took out his credit card and slid it across the counter. "Gift wrap. Plain shopping bags."

Nicky swiped the card and glanced up at Heero as the $1,842.75 total was accepted. When Heero didn't flinch, he grinned. "Any more like you at home?"

+

Heero hid the shopping bags under a blanket in the back of the SUV, then called the restaurant on his cell phone. Nicky's name was invoked and John the Maitre'd promised him a very nice table for two at eight o'clock the following evening. He made two more stops, then headed back through the fading sunset feeling tired but very satisfied with the day's mission. By the time he turned off on the beach road, stars were coming out in the eastern sky. When he crested the dunes and the house came into sight, he pulled over for moment and sat staring at it, a strange tightness in his throat.

The upper floors were dark, but warm yellow light spilled from the living room windows and the porch light was on. Down on the beach, a small driftwood fire cast a red glow across the sand. Somewhere nearby, maybe there in the shadows beyond the fire, gun probably in hand, his lover waited for him.

Was this what "home" felt like?

He saw no sign of Duo as he parked in the driveway and headed down to the fire, hands behind his back. "02?"

He heard the distinctive click of the Sig Saur's safety. "All clear here, 01. Where the heck you been all day?" Duo stepped into the circle of firelight, slipping the pistol into the pocket of the oversized Alliance surplus parka he was wearing. He had on old bleach stained jeans and a faded concert tee-shirt underneath it. He must have started the painting stage with the masks; there were streaks of blue and green paint on his hands and one long one down the side of his nose.

"Where did the clothes come from?" Heero asked.

"Kat and Trowa shipped some down. Hey, I missed you today! Where ya been? Whatcha got behind your back?"

Feeling only slightly less silly than he had this morning with the note and flowers, he held out the dozen red roses and small gold box of Sanque chocolates he'd picked up in town. He was nervous enough about such gestures, and the feeling worsened when Duo took a step back and eyed him warily.

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"What do you mean?"

"The note, with those little kissy signs? Wildflowers with my morning coffee? Now more flowers and candy. Jesus, Heero, ya got bad news, right? You're still sick. Did Santos contact you?"

"No, I'm fine!" He wanted to hug him but Duo still hadn't taken the gifts and Heero didn't really want to drop them in the sand.

"Then what?" Duo looked seriously concerned now, then his eyes narrowed. "Did ya do something I'm going to be mad about? What? Seriously, Heero, this morning was kinda sweet, but now you're scaring me!"

Heero was baffled. None of his research had led him to believe that this reaction was a possible outcome of such gestures. Only then did it occur to him that maybe Duo didn't know any more, if as much, about romance, than Heero did himself. "Flowers and chocolates are a tradition offering to one's object of affection," he explained. "To one's lover, that is. Red roses signify deep love, and passion."

Duo was still staring at him like he'd grown an extra head, but he edged a little closer and Heero saw the corner of his mouth twitch dangerously. "And the chocolates, what do they mean?"

"They're Sanque chocolates. With liqueur centers."

The twitch gave way to a grin. "Are you trying to seduce me, Mr. Yuy?"

"That would seem unnecessary, given our history. I am trying to date you."

The grin widened. Maybe it was just the firelight putting that dangerous gleam in Duo's eyes now, but Heero doubted it. "Date? Me?"

"Yes. I never had the chance before, with you or anyone else."

"There was someone else you wanted to date, Heero?"

Heero knew he was teasing and refused to take the bait. "Will you go out with me tomorrow night? I have reservations."

"So do I, but seeing as how you brought me flowers and all---" Duo was trying to keep a straight face. All the same, he sidled over, accepted the gifts, then wrapped himself around Heero, flowers and all, and kissed him. "Yeah, OK, I guess I could let you take me out. This is an actual date? For real?"

"Yes, for real."

"Where we going?"

"It's a surprise."

"How will I know what to wear?"

"Taken care of."

"Really?" He shook his head. "So, it took you all day long to find some flowers and some chocolates. Where'd you go? Boston?"

Heero gave Duo his best Perfect Soldier stonewall stare, revealing nothing.

"Riiiight. I see. OK, keep your secrets. But I warn you, I have ways of making you talk."

"I'm conditioned to resist torture," Heero reminded him, starting up the beach toward the house.

"Who said anything about torture?" Duo bounded after him and captured Heero's hand in his. "Man, I missed you! Did I say that already? You know that's the first time we've been apart in days and days? It was so quiet here, and I wasn't really worried, of course, but I kept thinking you'd be back any moment, or call, but you didn't--"

"You could have called me. I told you I had my phone."

"Yeah, I know, but I didn't really have anything to say except that it was too weird here without you and that sounded pretty lame--"

Heero pulled him close and cut him off with a kiss. Duo's heart was racing; Heero could feel it through his jacket. Had Duo been scared to be alone?

But when Duo pulled back he was smiling. "Yeah, yeah. Can't live without you and all that. You hungry? It's such a great night, I thought maybe we'd just do hotdogs and marshmallows over the fire out here under the stars. That OK with you? I got everything ready in the kitchen, on a tray."

"Sounds great."

Duo held the roses to his face and inhaled as they continued on. When he spoke again, he sounded almost shy. "These are really nice, Heero. Thanks!" He tucked the candy box under his arm and found Heero's hand again, bringing it to his lips. Heero did the same, savoring the mingled scents of roses and gun oil on Duo's skin as he kissed the backs of his fingers.

+

They roasted hot dogs and talked about the masks Duo had started on that day, the ones for Trowa and Quatre's duel act. Then they lay on a blanket and watched the stars for a while, until it got cold and the fire died.

"Bed time?" Heero suggested, pleasantly tired and relaxed.

"Give me five." With that, Duo jumped up and loped back to the house.

When Heero followed a few minutes later, he heard water running upstairs. He checked the security settings, turned off the downstairs lights, and climbed the stairs to find the only illumination was candlelight coming from the open doorway of their bedroom. Following the glow he found candles burning on the mantelpiece, and the bed strewn with dozens and dozens of wild pink beach roses like the ones he'd left for Duo that morning. The box of chocolates sat open in the middle of the bed.

More wild roses floated in the tub, where Duo was already naked and waiting for him, braid pinned up with pencils and paintbrushes this time. "See?" he said, grinning at Heero over the edge of the tub, a red rose tucked behind one ear. "You're not the only romantic around here. So what do pink ones mean?"

"Pink? Perfect happiness."

Duo slid down in the tub, looking pleased.

Heero grinned happily as he shucked out of his clothes and joined him. Duo recognized romance after all. He'd obviously planned this welcome while Heero was gone, and he'd just applied that term to both of them. Definitely a good sign that the mission was on the right track.

The bath was a relaxed affair. There was no need to hurry, no danger or pressing concern. It was pleasant to just lay there in each other's arms, enjoying the warmth after the brisk night breeze. When the water began to cool they dried each other and climbed into bed to share the chocolates in whatever fashion took their fancy. Heero took Duo's hair down and loosed it from the braid, combing it out with his fingers and arranging it over those smooth, pale shoulders and chest. Only then did he reach under the pillow for the slim, gift wrapped box. "I got you something else."

Duo took it, but just sat staring at it. "More? C'mon, Heero! What's the occasion?"

"Happy birthday."

"I don't have a birthday."

"Everyone has a birthday. You and I just don't know when ours are. It could be today. And if it isn't, then Merry Christmas and Happy Founder's Day and Planetary New Year and any other holiday when no one gave Duo Maxwell a present. That stops today. And don't say 'but I didn't get you anything', either. You gave me that jacket."

Duo swallowed hard and kissed him again. "You're turning out to be one helluva boyfriend, Heero Yuy." He opened the box and lifted the necklace out. "Wow, that's nice! What is it?"

Heero grinned and handed him the little card Nicky had included with the necklace. "Mermaid jewelry. Read."

"Again with the mermaids!" Duo laughed. "OK, I'll bite. 'This necklace is made with an operculum, the trapdoor of a marine snail. It is also known among the ancients as the Eye of Shiva, for the Hindu god. Shiva, best known as the god of--" Duo paused and shot Heero a questioning look. "'-a-s the god of destruction, also represents the most essential goodness. Shiva is the god of the yogis, self-controlled and celibate-' Uh, Heero?"

"Keep reading."

"'-- while at the same time a lover of his spouse, Shakti.''OK, that's more like it. 'Shiva's main attributes are the trident that represents the three gunas and the snakes that show he is beyond the power of death and poison and also stand for the magical sexual power of Kundalini energy.' I like that last bit!"

"I thought Shiva sounded a lot like my Shinigami."

Duo was grinning again as Heero helped him fasten the small silver clasp around his neck. "Does that make you my Shakti?"

"Only if Shakti was a man. I'm not sure what Kundalini is, exactly."

Duo pressed him back on the bed and placed one of the Sanque chocolates on Heero's right nipple, the way they had in Madrid. "I think it's in the filling of these. Wanna explore that?"

Heero did.

++

Notes:

Some nice examples of the style of mask making Duo is doing can be seen at: www.themaskstore.com/leather.htm

For those of you who don't know the reference, the 20th century circus Trowa is inspired by is happily very real, and I have no doubt they will have this sort of influence in the future! See: www.cirquedusoleil.com

If you can't get to one of their many international shows, the DVDs are the next best thing but live? Wow! Go if you can! (Fans of CdS may already have guessed what Trowa's secret act is based on, but keep it under your hats for now, OK? *wink* )

If you're wondering what a Shiva's Eye/operculum actually looks like, here are some nice examples: www.thefamilyjewels.com.au/prod242.htm, www.cyanrift.com/snaildoor_br.htm

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