by Salamander

The Fortunate

It is a bad day. Duo is looking at himself in the mirror.

Reflected back at him is a familiar grey skull and haunted eyes, floating in vein-traversed worm-holes. Sitting visible in their gums are his teeth, like a broken fence in wet, pink clay. His cheek bone, the fractured one, looks especially fragile in its unsupported exposure, sinuous tendons like spider webs trying to keep it in place.

The worst part isn't that, though. It's that his naked, bruised chest, his arms, his pale neck, are tightly wrapped in skin. Duo scrapes at his face, eyes wide, but the ghosts stare out of his very bones.

Duo knows he shouldn't look in mirrors but sometimes his regret is such that he can't help it.

He scrubs at his face, splashes cold water onto skin that is fresh with youth. He brushes his teeth, presses roughly into his gums as a distraction and spits pink bubbles into the sink.

It is not just a bad day, it is just another bad day.

The morning coffee is in its cup and the television is on. As usual, Relena Peacecraft's sweet, determined face headlines the news. This time it is about the relief-providing, diplomacy-encouraging, altogether brave trip to the L2 colony cluster and the immense good she has done there.

Duo is staring blankly. His thoughts are long gone to places no one but he can remember. His dead pals are exchange hollow glances, silently pleading with a garbage can to hold dinner. There is a crate with a piece of tarp pulled over the top called home where they bring the spoils of begging and dumpster diving. There are pinched mouths, confused at inequality. Everything is covered in grime, grease and filth, again.

In the far corner of his apartment Sister Helen looks up at him with sad, invisible eyes but she has nothing to Offer.

At the vice-foreign minister's patient words on screen a brief but potent surge of despair and the familiar feeling of injustice are boiling up and giving him vertigo. He puts his head down on the table and closes his eyes. When he picks it up again there is a soft smile on his lips.

At work Duo is waiting. He doesn't know how to wait patiently.

Wufei comes in and out with back-up files and an endless stream of new Intel. There is so much work to be done Duo can't even look at it without laughing weakly. His computer reflects his too bright eyes. He is so full of self-loathing that he's continuously fighting nausea.

Finally, the phone rings. It is Heero Yuy on the other end but Duo barely recognizes the voice in his feeling of torpor. Even though this is the voice he is Waiting for.

Heero Yuy is not bad, he says, when Duo asks for the latest. Heero is well. Busy. You know.

Duo says he knows.

But he's always afraid to ask. It cuts when Heero's answers are positive, he hates when they are negative and he is devastated by the cardboard cut-out answers the most, the ones when Heero is Too Busy to talk.

But Duo has to ask or Heero may suspect all of this, with his penetrating stare and his analytical self. As Duo knows well, Heero is always looking into causes for reactions, ten steps ahead of everyone, trying to find the motive. Duo knows he isn't immune to Heero's Unconscious Dissection of Absolutely Everything.

Duo is lost in his thoughts again and doesn't realize he interrupts Heero when he says, "Listen, hey."

Heero stops speaking very obediently.

"I want to tell you something," Duo says. His voice is calm, eager even. He can hear his own echo somewhere down the line, between the telephone transmissions, speaking with an unfamiliar Earth accent.

"I've got this... like this confession... ," he says, circling his hand in the air.

Heero, unbeknownst to Duo, is picturing a church suddenly, and from his own memories snow is falling.

But then, ringing out in the background is a woman's voice. The most famous voice in the Earthsphere is calling Heero Yuy .

'Heero,' it says. 'We're going to be late!'

It's a very conventional thing for a voice to be calling, Duo thinks. Very unoriginal.

"I have to go," Heero says slowly, in his audible version of an eyebrow crease and Duo simply hums and hangs up.

Heero never puts Duo before Relena Peacecraft. That's why Duo has never gotten the Confession out.

The lunch meeting with a new engineering firm is long and the food is soggy by the time it is unwrapped and handed out. Duo doesn't mind the quality of it. He isn't even aware his turkey sandwich is leaking fluids onto his lap until an engineer points it out, looking queasy. He is the only one to eat anything.

It makes him sick to look down on people as if they could help their feelings.

Back in his office Duo is spurred into action by the necessity of silencing his own head. He turns out stacks of work in his manic-productiveness. He can't block out the picture of Relena, maybe just dressed, saying with authority, 'we have to go.'

The sun is long set and the phones have quieted out in the secretarial rooms. Duo is putting the finishing touches on two cases. He lives for making another red line on his office wall. The number of missions completed, whatever the outcome, whatever the politics, whatever the toll.

"Still here," Wufei notes audibly as he sticks his head into Duo's office. "I'm leaving now."

Duo nods and looks at the clock. It is a quarter past 8. It is still early, essentially. He doesn't necessarily want to go but he has nothing left to do.

"I'll go too," he says. "Wait a sec and I'll grab my stuff."

Wufei waits. Duo slings on his coat and shoulders his bag. Together they walk down the quiet corridor and down several dim flights of steps.

On the street Wufei asks what Duo will do tonight.

"Nothing really," Duo says, shrugging as if it didn't matter. He has to throttle the straps on his back.

Wufei explains that he can't tonight, but if Duo would like to go out tomorrow night, he is free.

Duo accepts with a relief he can't name and they turn in opposite directions, Wufei to the right, Duo to the left, and walk off.

Duo is casting his mind around to think of anything other than the door to his apartment and the stillness inside it. It's not the darkness of it, or the somber atmosphere, it's just the quiet, unbroken by anything. If a sound occurs it is him making it, unless something falls. If something falls he can't shake the adrenaline for hours.

At his block he veers off into a coffee shop. It's too quaint when Duo would prefer a drink, but he can't drink alone. He lets the sempervirent barista talk him into whichever beverage she chooses for the night, anything to make the conversation last a little longer, and comes away with something creamy and tea-like. He chooses the table that offers a full view of both inside and outside the cafe and sips slowly.

The shop is otherwise empty. Duo suspects everyone else in the entire universe is out with someone special.

The tea has nothing to say.

But then, Duo's pocket is vibrating.

The small name in block letters on the screen reads H. Yuy.

Duo is pressing the accept button with his bottom lip in his teeth as he tries to figure out why Heero is calling him.

"It was you, wasn't it?" is Heero's greeting.

"It's usually me," is Duo's response, though he doesn't know what Heero is referring to. His voice is light with anticipation.

"You were the agent assigned to her L2 circuit."

"Yeah," Duo says, disappointment shading his timbre. He's playing with the sugar packets absentmindedly. L2, so, of course. No one else would go.

"Thank you," Heero says matter-of-factly. It's so earnest. It's so endearing.

Duo lets air escape through his teeth in a brush-off way. He doesn't want to talk about this sort of thing. He's embarrassed at the idea of being credited by Heero, when so much has always gone wrong. When it means that Heero cares so much about her that he has to thank Duo for simply doing his job. He wants to quip, 'That's what I'm paid for,' but he knows Heero won't get the joke.

The sugar packet bunker crumbles as another thought strikes Duo. Maybe Heero knows exactly what went down and that's even worse.

"Were you injured badly?" Heero wants to know when Duo doesn't end up saying anything.

"A fracture or two," he shrugs, verbally and physically. His fingers unconsciously graze his cheekbone.

"I knew I should have gone," Heero says, he just breathes it. Duo hates to hear the self-appropriated failure in Heero's voice.

"No lasting consequences," Duo says directly. "Don't fucking kill yourself over it, man. She's fine."

Heero hesitates. "She is," he says at last.

"Anyway," Duo cuts in lightly on Heero's silent thoughts. "Is that what you wanted to know?"

When he has the will he likes to keep his indulgences with Heero short as a measure of self-preservation and his will is dissolving with the sugar.


"Okay then. I'm going to go becau--"

Heero's voice is very smooth, like the drink on the table, but richer. More flavorful. He says,

"She said it was very close."

Duo knows. He has to remember his moment of indecision constantly. It's only been a few days since then but the regret weighs more than the time.

Weapons start firing. She is in the line of sight.

'Should I?' He thinks. He truly ponders it. For a brief flash that lasts an age he watches his own future and the possibility of something he has not allowed himself to really picture before.

But he forces it to fade. It all happens before he can analyze it. He saves Relena and when the circuit is through he goes home feeling selfish.

"It was close," Duo confirms. He says it professionally.

Heero, unlike Duo is not a conversationalist. He nods into the phone and Duo can hear his cheek brush against the receiver.

"Well," Duo says. He dims as Heero falls flat talking with him. Heero is always unconsciously fighting his efforts.

"I should go," Duo draws out. He hangs on to the last word, unwilling. Anything at all will do.

"She said," Heero cuts in carefully. "That it almost looked like you hesitated." There is an uttered question chained to the last word.

Duo is not expecting that. He doesn't want Heero to Know. It was a split second if not less. But then, Relena knows how to read certain things, even when she's being shot at.

"I hesitated," Duo says honestly, hating himself. "For fraction of second, maybe?"

"Why?" Heero asks. They are all reacting a little differently to peace. He has to know if Duo is feeling less than fulfilled still doing that kind of work, because he himself aches in an underwater sort of way, to go back to it.

"Is it not worth sacrificing yourself for anymore?" Heero persists.

Duo is misinterpreting.

"Christ," he all but whispers. Has Heero really just handed his worth to him like that? Shadowed under the light of Relena Peacecraft? It's a very deep slice at the roots of Duo's carefully built Denial.

"Don't know, man," he tries to shrug it off. "Guess it depends on which person I'm playing body-armor for."

"I see," Heero draws out. "So Relena's life requires thought?"

Duo can't help but be honest and he laughs.

"These days? Shit, everyone's life requires thought," he says, fanning the air in an obvious gesture that Heero can't see. "I just got caught up for personal reasons. Anyway, that's over with. I did the job, everything is good."

"You shouldn't be on her detail again if your personal business interferes," Heero advises.

"No shit," Duo returns, running a hand through his bangs. "Think I wanted to have a good long debate about it?"

Heero is confused. Duo always throws him off course.

"Do you not support her?" he wonders.

"Jesus, don't say that!" Duo bites back, irritated. "I'm not her enemy. I said it was personal."

"Something personal against Relena?" Heero insists on knowing without sounding insistent whatsoever. It's gorgeous.

But Duo knows very well he's talking to Relena's best friend. That Heero harbors Feelings. He can't expect to confide in Heero. He never has since the day the treaties were signed.

"No, personal like my own shit with me, get it?" Duo hisses a bit. He wants a beer.

"No," Heero says honestly.

"Forget it," Duo sighs. "It was a problem at the time and now it's cool so don't fucking worry."

"Okay," Heero agrees, a little offended, maybe. Duo is just glad he didn't say he wasn't worried. That would be worse.

"Look Heero," Duo says. His face is in his hand. He accidentally rubs his cheek. "I should really go, 'kay?"

Heero's lack of response stretches itself out over long spaces of breath.

"So, later, yeah?" Duo says with finality and clicks off.

He can't sit still. The rubble of the decimated sugar packets makes him cringe. He flips a wave and the mask of a smile at the barista and exits.

What is the point to this peaceful, sensible new existence without a peaceful, sensible dream?

But he's always wanted what he can't have.

He walks far enough away that he can see the stars shining weakly above the outskirts of the city. A piece of him is straining to get back to space. He feels nostalgia for a ripped painting tarp and a bread crate. Somehow his whole body used to fit inside it. He feels the opposite of how most of his post-war friends feel in this new world.

They say, at least now my troubles are superficial: the job, housework, the kids. At least now I have a roof over my head and food on the table.

But Duo is thinking that the problem of starvation has a definite solution. And that what has come after those wooden-mouth days is so much harder.

Duo tries all kinds of rational things, but nothing is better than the feeling of possibility that engulfed him so long ago, back when he had Heero to himself.

In reality, Duo can reasonably justify just about anything. He isn't prone to languishing pity, confusion or despair.

However, there are times when he is just not himself.

It is a park Duo is standing in, but it isn't well kept. The trees and grasses are slowly reclaiming the concrete and metal. Duo finds a sheltered spot in the grass and sits down by two trees that look a little starved for fresh oxygen.

At least on most of the colonies, Duo thinks, air is rigorously monitored and purified. A shame for the Earth to have this smoky excuse now, in the birthplace of air.

But the grass smells fragrant in a dirt sort of way as Duo leans back and looks heavenward. He sits for a long time without moving so much as an eyelash.

The sky stays still and the earth rotates. Underneath his fingernails is nothing but pink skin. There hasn't been grease under them for ages. In his head there is a whole conversation, two-sided, with completely disparate perspectives. He is much too guilty for affection one side admonishes, but the other is clearer: the heart is a selfish, greedy bastard.

And the thing about love is, it doesn't absolve anything.

At last, Duo gets out his pocket knife and holds the blade up to the moonlight idly. It's a thin moon, a waxy sort of silver white.

Yeah, he thinks. A headstone for Earth; with little weapons factories etched into the surface as an epitaph.

But the stars still gleam like they used to.

With slow deliberation and much thought Duo draws the blade down the length of his thigh, not deeply but firmly. The line is straight, as if a ruler has been held against the skin as it is sliced through.

Slowly, blood starts blooming on his Preventer-issue khaki pants around the surgical tear. He doesn't do it for the pain. It's for the color and for the way the blood always arrives so beautifully; hesitant at first, probing at the opening as if unsure. And then more boldly but with elegance, an exciting arrival. Duo reaches into his bag and takes out a small bottle. He lets his own blood drip into it and then screws the cap back on and replaces it in the bag.

It is a long cut, but overall it is thin. The blood stops on its own after a while. Duo leans his head against the trunk of the tree and smiles.

He is sure that someday he will be found with his lungs full of his own blood. Even now, he can't stop himself from working to make it happen.

He knows how it sounds and he feels strange about it.

The moon goes on rising until it can't go any higher. It begins to sink. Duo is cold.

Across the broken asphalt pathway he can see Solo standing around, looking pissed off. He's wearing the childish kiss Duo pressed onto the corner of his mouth, on top of the saliva and bloody bile that coated his throat and wet his lips in those last days. Solo is touching those lips and is angry. Duo can hear his long-gone voice asking, The hell was this for, then? If you're gonna throw away your chances! Stupid garbage-rat.

"Shit," Duo whispers and smacks his head against the tree, forgetting how close it is. The back of his skull gives off a terrific crack in the silence.

He picks himself up, unfolding in a hurry and drags himself over to the spot but there is no Solo anymore and he can't make his apologies.

That is the problem with living once everyone else is dead.

At home he locks up and undresses. In the shower he scrubs hard. His clean nails are cut short now, but not so much that he doesn't have red welts, brought out in the heat, all down his chest, his legs, over his arms. His body is flesh-colored barbed wire. He drags his nails over and over thoughtlessly, trying to deserve being the only one who made it out. Under the white noise of the spray his lips shape soundless promises. He can still do the good they never had the chance to. He can still feel as much as they need him to. He can be the outlet for their unfinished dreams. He can keep on living.

Duo doesn't make it to bed. He turns off the water and curls up on the bathroom floor, still wet, and falls into a dreamless sleep.

In the morning the phone is screaming for attention. Duo answers the call with his coffee in one hand and his tie slung around his neck. The coffee sloshes and burns just as he lifts the receiver and he swears loudly.

"Good morning," Hilde says wryly. "Or is it not a good morning?" she chuckles.

"Ha, it's fine, gorgeous, what's up?" Duo laughs but weariness edges out his smirking tone accidentally.

"Today is my birthday," Hilde says without hesitation. "And I'd like you to come over tonight."

Duo grins over the wires. "Cool!" he agrees. "I'll be there! What time?"

"Whenever you leave work, babe," Hilde says amiably. "I'm having a small party."

"Sounds awesome, see you then!" Duo says and clicks off. You're alive, he reminds himself. You're the fortunate. Act like it.

At work Duo is a hurricane of energy and cheerfulness. He closes his two cases, stunning Wufei who was in a deadlock, and eliciting the sort of praise from Commander Une that she usually begrudges only at the close of a major operation. The praise embarrasses him and the shock makes him feel like he's been letting people down.

During lunch Duo climbs out onto the small balcony reserved for the administration, surprising a plump older man in a black suit who goes inside immediately. Wistfully, he watches the city, which is blanketed in a misty pre-rain and forgets to eat. Two blocks down he can decipher the foggy outline of a church. Fat, plunking raindrops begin to patter on the rooftops. He goes back inside.

A message on yellow note paper is waiting for him. Call, it says. Those are the only instructions. He knows who to call but he can't bring himself to do it right away.

The day closes and Duo leaves feeling satisfied. He hasn't picked up the phone once. He mentions to Wufei that Hilde is having a birthday. Duo invites him along in lieu of their unplanned plans. Having more than one comrade around makes him giddy with nostalgia and a sense of comfortable familiarity.

Hilde hugs them both, pushing vodka tonics into their hands. Duo pours his out in a potted plant, making Wufei smirk. Not that he doesn't drink but Hilde thinks of him in a certain way and he can't bring himself to shatter her ideas. There are a few people at the party, mostly from Hilde's workplace. Duo positions himself in the middle of the room and waits. It is something he learned to do a long time ago: make people come to you. Their intentions are always clearer that way. And it's infinitely more interesting.

Wufei stays near and talks with Duo about work for only a few minutes before segueing into his thoughts on Morality in Peacetime. Duo smiles to think some things don't change. He loves that Wufei will not have a superficial conversation. He loves the life in Wufei that dictates that.

Losing himself in Wufei's words, in the cadence and fervidness of his partner's voice, makes him certain that humanity might not be condemned to its own inhumanity, if there are more people like Wufei around. He says so and Wufei blanches, touched and returns the sentiment to him.

And then Duo falls out of rhythm. On Hilde's couch is Dr. G's insubstantial outline, holding a glass of champagne and leering at him. At his dispensable protege. At his personal War-Maker.

Duo takes a step back in alarm, into a woman carrying a tray of shrimp and sauce. Rubbery creatures fly everywhere and bounce when they land. The sauce seeps into Duo's shirt and attacks the woman's dress.

Hilde is there with towels, laughing, mopping them up. Duo is apologizing and chuckling, but he can't shake the vision. Wufei jokes about Duo's finesse as Hilde whisks the two injured parties away to clean up.

The woman, Hilde's office friend, is given a spare dress and the bathroom. Duo is given an oversized sweatshirt and Hilde's bedroom.

He strips out of his red, gooey shirt and shrugs into the sweatshirt just as Hilde re-enters the room with a laundry basket. She is saying that she can throw his shirt in the wash when she stops, tilts her head slightly and then stares at Duo, a mix of confusion and disapproval on her face.

"What?" Duo wants to know. He's been stared at a number of ways in his life but this one is a little new.

"Are those scratches?" Hilde says, pointing at his stomach. He pulls the sweatshirt down.

"Yep," he admits.

"Work?" Hilde asks. Her voice is coated in worry and resignation.

"Mmm," Duo hums and just his luck Hilde takes that as agreement.

"They use you guys like cuts of beef. I'm glad I left the P's," she says, her eyebrows raised.

"Yeah?" Duo wonders.

He knows what it's like to see someone blown up and wish it were himself instead. He isn't about self-preservation like normal people, or feeling glad he's safe while they're still in it.

"But I hate to see you hurt," she sighs. "Still sure you don't want to join my team? We're the best couriers in Europe!"

Duo shakes his head, watching as a puddle of pulpy blood forms on Hilde's floor, frothing up out of the floorboards. A body materializes beside it. Sometimes, even if you love someone, it still isn't enough to make you put your hands in their blood and promise them the impossible.

But Duo doesn't know that feeling. He's covered in it.

"Yeah, well," Hilde rejoins in the silence. "Does that fit okay?"

"Yep," Duo says with a grateful smile, straightening out the borrowed shirt. "Thanks."

"I'll go check on Audrey," Hilde says. Her smile is sympathetic as she leaves.

Duo stoops and examines the bloody pool.

Yes. It is exactly as he remembered.

At home Duo gets in the shower as usual. Tonight he is fully clothed and soaking before he realizes why the water feels strange.

Duo is peeling off the sodden articles when his phone rings.

In his underwear Duo leaves the bathroom and picks up the call.

"Hi, Duo?" A voice asks to his hello.

The voice is recognizable anywhere, but Duo pretends otherwise. "Yes?"

"It's Relena," she says. "Is this a bad time?"

Duo has a response all ready but it doesn't make it out of his throat alive.

"No," he says nicely. "What's up?"

He honestly can't imagine what she might be calling about and curiosity has always been a powerful factor for him.

"I want to ask you something," she says. Her voice is strong and purposeful. He has to admit to himself that he likes that quality.

"Okay," he agrees.

"About Heero," she states.

Duo shivers in his wet boxer briefs, under his dripping hair. His skin prickles, his nipples tighten in the cold, his leg muscles quiver.

"Okay," he says.

"I think Heero wants to work for the Preventers," she states matter-of-factly. Duo notices the quality of the words and not the content. The way her mouth wraps around Heero's name, warms it and then releases it, like it's hers alone to share.

"Mmhm," he hums, letting her continue.

"And I don't know what to tell him," she finishes, as if it's obvious.

Duo isn't sure what she's asking.

"Why not?" he questions.

"Oh he's having a moral struggle," Relena breaths explosively. She sounds on the verge of irritation, but she masterfully reels it in.

"He doesn't want to fight but he can't stand not fighting. He keeps asking me what he should do and honestly I don't know what to tell him. I tried at first to talk him out of it, make him see other options, but he doesn't seem very satisfied. He said he talked to you about the kind of work you do on my circuits? I feel like I really need another pilot's advice."

That is the Speech. Duo can tell she has said it to herself a few times before picking up the phone. He likes that it means that much to her, but he doesn't have an answer. Not a real one, with feeling behind it.

"I think he should try it out if he wants," Duo says, falling back on the truth.

At the table Father Maxwell pulls up a chair and regards Duo's grown-up form. Duo lifts his gaze silently and they stare.

"But," Relena begins and stops herself. "So, like, a trial run...?" she says, testing it out in her mouth.

"Yeah," Duo nods. "See if he likes it. There's plenty to do that doesn't involve gun-slinging."

"I see," Relena says, as if she doesn't know about administration. "I could suggest that."

"Yeah," Duo says with a soft smile.

Relena is slow to agree. Duo can tell she has thought of this paperwork-option before but was hoping no one would suggest it.

"I think he might be drifting from me," she blurts out.

Duo looks into Father Maxwell's warm brown eyes and feels guilt dominate hope, wrest it back into the blown open ground around a shimmering, well-tended grave. He prays for understanding.

"Impossible," Duo says quietly. "Heero is steadfast, Relena. He's unshakeable."

"I don't know," Relena hesitates. "He's never even said..."

Duo is feeling awful that she has no one but him to talk to about something like this.

"Heero cares a lot about you," Duo says with more conviction. He dredges it up out of long-gone lessons of compassion.

Relena is biting her lip. She whispers, "He seems so...far away lately."

"Listen," Duo says patiently. "He called me up the other day to moan about not being on L2 with you. He was freaked out about the attack. He even thanked me for being there, which, I mean yeah? It's fucking -- sorry -- totally ridiculous." He chuckles at his fervency. "When he heard it was close he almost slit his wrists right there, okay? The guy has serious guilt about it which probably explains his lack of, I don't know, proximity? He's going through a period of self-appointed unworthiness, like. You see?"

Duo can't help but get a little heated as he continues speaking because she should know this. The silence after is heavy until Relena breaths.

"I see," she says. Her voice is lighter, a cool drink of relief. "Thank you, Duo."

"Sure," Duo says, stunned that it really does seem like he's helped her. "Anything else?"

She laughs a little and pokes fun at herself. "I guess I can't help worrying about it," she admits. "After all," she says, with a hint of embarrassment, "he's the Earth sphere's hero."

"And you're its Queen," Duo says. He slips a smile into the sentence by habit. "So goodnight," he says gently and waits for her to hang up first.

He consoles himself with a comforting beer and by being glad she didn't ask why he hesitated on L2.

Quatre Winner is on the news in the morning. In a dangerous black suit that makes Duo smile, he outlines his plans to overhaul the satellites and begin production again. Quatre is speaking in his characteristic way: soft and determined, laying down ridiculously difficult tasks with an air of simplicity and honest ardor.

An echo: If one just works hard enough...oxygen in Space.

Quatre is so devil-may-care-persistent and so sinfully reasonable that Duo laughs aloud.

For a whole day Duo is able to live as though he doesn't carry the weight of so many dead bodies. At night he reaches his bed. This time it is Duo who picks up the phone.

"Winner," Quatre answers, even though it is his private line.

"Quatre!" Duo grins in response.

"Duo!" Quatre cries happily.

"Your plans sound as crazy and ambitious as usual," Duo exclaims. "But your suit was cool."

Quatre laughs. "Well, I only did the interview because I had the suit. I'm glad you caught the news spot."

"How could I not when it's on every channel?"

"Was it?"

"I think you paid every station to run it."

"I can't recall..." Quatre says loftily.

"Besides the satellite re-vamp, what's new?" Duo wants to know. He settles under his covers and pulls a pillow close.

"Tons," Quatre says. "But most of it is business stuff and I don't want to talk about that now. The big news is that the circus is in town." A mixture of bravado and fear slip through the wires.

"Oh, no kidding?" Duo smirks. "Seen any lion-tamers lately?"

"As a matter of fact I havn't," Quatre says. "But I will."

"'Course you will!" Duo agrees as much as encourages. "Everything will turn out just fine, Quat."

"I'm a little nervous to be honest," Quatre says softly.

"Why?" Duo is puzzled.

"Just...I don't know if he..."

"Shut up, Quatre," Duo says with a rush of sympathy. "That's the dumbest shit I've ever heard. He loves you."

"It has been quite a while," Quatre reasons cautiously.

"Yeah so? Makes it the perfect time to emotionally beam cannon the shit out of him and take home the spoils, like. He's been waiting for you to get your act together for years, you know."

"Poetic," Quatre acknowledges. "Yeah, you're right. I should stop doubting myself."

"Better late than never, sunshine."

Quatre laughs. "Fuck you."

"When are you going to take in a show?" Duo persists. Suddenly his whole being is willing the universe to align in Quatre's favor. If at least one of them can be happy, he'll be satisfied with cosmic fairness.

"I have tickets for tomorrow."

"I can just see your planner now. '13th, announce Earthsphere-wide, billion-dollar venture.' '14th, see circus, proclaim love for T.B.' The 14th has a heart around it, doesn't it?" Duo teases, his mirth infectious.

"Hey!" Quatre says, chuckling nonetheless.

"Close to the mark?" Duo guesses.

"And you?" Quatre flips the tables like the strategist he is. "Anyone special?"

"Ha," Duo repeats, "Not likely."

"But not unlikely," Quatre counters, the lilt of a question ringing at the end.

"Well, no," Duo says to finish it off. "Likely or not, there's no one."

"I sense a half-truth," Quatre teases, but is cut off. "What," he says to someone else. "Oh, okay, one second."

Duo doesn't want to say goodbye, but Quatre is Quatre Winner, after all.

"Duo, I'm sorry," he begins.

"No worries," Duo reassures him. "Go get yours."

"Definitely. And I'll tell you how it goes," Quatre promises and is gone.

Duo barely sleeps despite the promising beginning. Every time he opens his eyes in the darkness he sees the stark brown-green of Solo's irises staring back unblinkingly. His first lost love is restless.

The coffee maker short-circuits in the morning but Duo is making an effort to be cheerful. Before work he steps into the coffee shop, picks up a dark brew, chats up the baristas. Wufei is waiting in his office with a lap-full of work to be done. He wants to sit with Duo and trudge through it together. They get stiff necks bending over everything but Duo is happy with the company. They miss lunch, they ignore the phones. Wufei's secretary braves the closed door to make sure the agents inside are still breathing.

At the end of the day there is another red mark on Duo's wall. Wufei's satisfaction is visible on his face.

"Let's go out," he offers. "To unwind."

Duo nods, a surprised expression of glee on his face, and follows Wufei. They head into the city center, into the crowds and life.

After six drinks each, Duo is feeling a deafening effect. The edges of things are softened and the noise level decreases. The bar is very hot. Vaguely he thinks he'd kill for someone to dance with.

"Duo," Wufei says, calling back his attention. "I've decided to ask a certain woman out for a drink."

"Hey, yeah?" Duo says, grinning lopsidedly to think that even tipsy, Wufei won't reveal his private information. "Good for you," Duo says, knocking his glass against his partner's.

"I'll take her to a nicer place, though," Wufei decides a little sloshily. "This one lacks the necessary atmosphere."

Duo laughs, feeling endeared. His appreciative feelings come out in disjointed thoughts.

"You're all the atmosphere the lucky lady needs, man."

"Actually, I'll take her to a restaurant," Wufei continues, deep in thought. "A bar is cheap and unbecoming."

"Obviously," Duo grins, waving his hand at the room to indicate that they're in it. "And the feng shui isn't good for conversation."

Wufei lifts an elegant eyebrow and doesn't grace the comment with a response. Duo laughs. It's so good to talk, he thinks. They order another drink, stronger than the last.

At closing they leave. Duo has not been out drinking like this ever. They aren't fall-down drunk but they aren't sober, either.

Duo opts to spend the night at Wufei's. The rooms aren't as crowded with memories.

Later, on the couch, in the darkness, Duo looks around but no one else is there. He can't hear anything but the pipes in the building. He can imagine Wufei in the other room, and the way the soft, dark light must look dripping over the planes of his body. It's strange to think of him without his Preventer uniform, even though they met long before such a vision was possible. The shadows in Duo's mind make Wufei much too real.

A beautifully guilty substitute.

In the morning Duo sleeps in long past sunrise, which is unlike him. Wufei is reading a newspaper when he shuffles into the kitchen.

"Headache," Duo mumbles. Wufei wordlessly pushes a bottle of aspirin his way.

The medicine is swallowed chalky and Duo sits down. "Thanks for letting me crash," he says but his forehead is on the table top.

Wufei nods. After a moment he puts down his newspaper and looks intently at Duo. Duo grows uncomfortable under the serious stare and lifts his eyes.


"Did you mean it?" Wufei asks bluntly.

"Mean what?" Duo has a vision of all his secrets spilling into empty liquor glasses.

"Last night," Wufei clarifies. "You said peacetime is harder than any other time in your life. Did you mean that?"

"Uh," Duo says, struck, but he can't take it back. "Well, in a way, I guess. I probably wouldn't have used such hyperbole if I hadn't been drowning in alcohol. Peace just gives you so much time to think, you know?" he says, shrugging like it's trivial. "Like, contemplation-think, not solution-think."

"I know," Wufei says. "It must be an adjustment."

The smile jumps back on Duo's lips. "Ha ha, buddy. You always know how to make me laugh." He assaults his friend's carefully tied ponytail.

Wufei doesn't mention that the first half of his life was spent in nothing but peacetime contemplation. He understands that Duo isn't used to it.

"Don't listen to me, anyway. I guess my tongue was just loose. You got me freakin' plastered!"

But Wufei knows Duo's game. "We can about it," he offers. It's obvious he isn't used to intimate friendships, but that's why Duo collected him.

For a second, or perhaps more, Duo is battling temptation. He wins, or loses the fight.

"Thanks," he says. "But I'm okay for now."

"I thought so," Wufei says in his approving way. He has grown confident that Duo will always resurface smiling.

"Did you mean it?" Duo turns the question around.

"Mean what?"

"That you're really going to ask out some chick?"

Wufei's eyebrows go up in shock.

For the rest of the day Duo avoids direct thinking. He goes into work even though it is their off day and looks up old missions to better understand new ones. He reminds himself of a certain perfectionist and the familiar wave of secret fondness rolls over him. It's embarrassing and delicious.

In the evening he leaves and heads home. As usual, everything is quiet. He doesn't even own a ticking clock because they annoy the hell out of him. He rummages the bookshelf and chooses something which has a title he forgets the minute he's pulled it down. On the couch he tries to read and is almost thankful when his cell phone vibrates from the kitchen.

It says H. Yuy, in those miniscule letters.

Duo admonishes his own hands for their eager shaking. "Yo," he greets his caller.

"Hi," Heero says, clipped. "You didn't call me back."

The yellow message paper with its terse order is sitting in the garbage can beside Duo's desk.

"Oh, shit, yeah. I forgot."

Duo did forget and he's surprised at himself.

"I'm thinking of joining Preventers on a trial basis." It's clear Heero is unsure of his reception.

"I know," Duo says a little smugly.

"How do you know?"

"Relena," Duo explains. "She called me."

"To tell you I was thinking of joining Preventers?"

"To get some advice."

"Oh," Heero says.

"So that's great," Duo rejoins with enthusiasm.

"Is that your honest opinion?" Heero wants to know.

"Yeah, it's me," Duo says with emphasis. They always forget. "And I want to compete with you for best overall at everything agent," he teases, but he means it, too.

"I'm not sure if I'll work in an agent capacity," Heero admits. "I'm not sure I want to fight."

"Yes you do," Duo tells him. "If you didn't you would get a job in the government where there is no chance of a firefight and make a difference there. You want the opportunity to triumph the hell out of something in the field, not with a tie on. Blow some shit up, like."

"Oh?" Heero says. He's vaguely amused at Duo's confident analysis.

"What is this? No necktie, no life? You're not Heero Yuy the pacifist, you're his replacement."

"What did she want advice on?" Heero asks after a moment too long of silence.

"Life," Duo says as if it's none of Heero's business. He can't believe he is keeping a secret for Relena. From Heero. It's new.

Heero isn't convinced but he decides to take the matter up elsewhere.

"I'm coming in tomorrow," Heero reveals.

"Awesome!" Duo says and feels warm and cold all at once. He doesn't say what he thinks: It's where you belong.

"Then..." Heero says quietly. "See you then?"

Duo agrees but hangs up soon after. He wants it like he used to want food, but he's also afraid to have Heero so close.

'When you were fifteen,' Duo reminds himself, 'You could take on and defeat the entire universe just because you thought it up. Remember that? Where's the confidence, Maxwell?' Duo drops into a chair at his kitchen table and crosses his arms over his chest so nothing spills out. 'And Heero Yuy, with his precision aim and his polite disbelief in everything but himself, sizing you up and down and six ways to Sunday. God damn it.' Duo stares hard at his bare feet gripping the floor. Blue veins, barely visible, snaking up his legs, paths for callused fingers to trace. Ghostly. His fingers grasp at his arms, tightening and loosening, but it doesn't feel like anything.

In the morning Duo wakes up slowly. His first thought is to call Quatre and see if the shape of the future looks like a three-ring circus. The sun is just peeking over the horizon and the gray-gold light flaking into his bedroom is somber, but promising. Duo is contemplating staying home for the first time since he donned his Preventer jacket but his feet connect with the cold, hardwood floor before his brain catches up. He doesn't know what else he would do, anyway.

On his desk at work there is an innocuous folder, the contents of which are anything but. It pushes all other plans from Duo's mind. Wufei walks in and blinks heavily at the file held possessively in Duo's hands.

He is taking another chance to briefly forget the taste of this Peace. He knows he should forget the old flavors but they are more memorable than the one in his mouth now.

Duo is accepting the mission with a phone call to the Command center when Heero walks in. Pressed Preveter slacks and crisp uniform shirt.

"Yes, Duo says into the phone at the close of the conversation. He eyes Heero and nods with a Chesire grin. "It's understood."

Heero greets Wufei and they both look to Duo as he heads to his closet and hangs up the phone. Out come combat boots and gloves, a Kevlar vest and goggles.

"You accepted that mission?" Wufei asks. "You've just returned from the last one." He says it evenly but Duo can hear the surprise.

"Why wait?" Duo wants to know. "Hey, Heero."

"Hi." Heero is looking at him skeptically.

"I've gotta be off, guys. See you on the flipside!" He calls backwards. He's juggling boots and gloves, jacket, ID tags. Duo can hear disapproval in the way Wufei is breathing. He can't help it. He's running from Heero. From Heero's bid for freedom and whatever that ends up meaning.

Duo is piloting again. It is the single most euphoric feeling Duo has had in ages. It is a stealth operation but he can't help a little tricky maneuvering, a few elegant passes. He can't help feeling painfully alive. The silence isn't as empty as usual.

'Huuuh,' Duo sighs. The frozen miles of Space witness a small, sad smile. Better enjoy myself now, the smile says. Better to be happy now.

The calm of the mission-commencement is over. Duo is watching his fingers scratch and pull at the door's locking device. He's watching skin grate off on the rough surface of the walls, little dots of blood everywhere. At the back of his consciousness he can hear the beeping that is counting down the seconds.

There are one hundred and twenty beeps left. Two minutes.

Every muscle in his upper body is focused and flexing, prying the lock's pieces apart.

"Fucking christ!" he screams. He kicks up, over and over, trying to knock the bolts apart. Three desperate tries.

There are ninety beeps left. Duo's mental calculator whirs numbers and outcomes.

Under his breath Duo begins to laugh. "I hate you, Heero Yuy," he says. He laughs and laughs and pulls and pulls.

"Give me some god damned strength!" Duo yells at the top of his lungs. The lock cracks in half.

Duo's fingers fly. He punches in numbers and pulls wires, connecting and disconnecting.

Forty high-pitched digital beeps to go.

Duo is running.

Back on Earth there is a meeting scheduled for the Commander with Heero Yuy. He is half an hour early. He waits, straight-backed, until she summons him in and then the door is closed.

This time the flight is not a pleasant one, but the feeling is rich. The feeling is so alive that it is close to death.

Duo patches programs and reroutes response systems. He concentrates the ship's failing power on the thrusters and steering. He can hear himself breathing in electricity. Crack. Crack. Sparks everywhere.

"Relying on your skills, Maxwell," he spits through gritted teeth. He can't mimic Heero's calm, cold voice. Sister Helen suddenly has a hand on his shoulder. With a sharp downward jerk Duo dodges cannon fire.

"Ships!" He mutters. Lets his eyes roll heavenward. I want Deathscythe.

Ships are lead balloons. I want my variable geometry back.

He laughs at how much it hurts.

Duo estimates over four days have passed since his mission was supposed to end. The mission itself was six days: Two days flying out. Three days working magic. One day to watch it blow to hell. Then four to float. After all, the mission is shot. Preventers won't look for him. It was Black Ops and they've disowned any knowledge of him.

So ten days. He's kept himself on track mostly by thinking of Wufei's angry, betrayed expression and the new depth of rage his facial features will delineate as each day passes. Duo imagines the righteous tirade Wufei will go on on his behalf against leaving him stranded. He imagines Une's bewildered face as she takes it. He never really liked her all that much.

But those are the good thoughts. That is when he stays on track. Otherwise there is Relena to think about. Or, more accurately, there is Relena and Heero to think about. Together, as if they are a unit. But why that is, Duo doesn't know. He can't seem to understand it.

'The leader and the hero shouldn't be together, after all,' he thinks. 'That's too much of a monopoly. Both in power and happiness.' Duo finds his musings very perceptive and amusing. 'Share the wealth.' His lips form the words atop a skeptic's smile. He's only let himself get so deep in thinking these things because he's half-unconscious.

There was the time when Heero had gone missing. Just a few days gone, not long after settling in with Relena, only months after the end of the war. As she told it he hadn't said a word at all. He was just gone when she returned from her meetings. All the things she'd bought for him, clothes and shoes and books, still sitting untouched in their places. Four, maybe five days at the most. Duo couldn't remember. And then he'd returned and she'd told him off. Even Wufei heard about it, which was how Duo knew. She had said that mature people didn't just wander away from their lives and their responsibilities and the people who cared for them. That's what Wufei said she said, anyway. And she'd said... Duo is breathing through the thought, trying to stop it right there, but it trucks on over him. She'd said Heero couldn't fight fate.

Which Duo doesn't understand at all.

Because Heero could create his own destiny.

And in between those good and bad thoughts, the whole time alone on the ship, Duo watches Solo pace back and forth. Back and forth. Waiting. His eyes are illuminating all of Duo's mistakes.

On the seventh day floating Duo clunks and chugs through the atmosphere. His ship begins to melt on reentry but holds together long enough to land exactly where he wanted it to: on the Preventer tarmac set aside for the Commander or visiting officials.

The unscheduled landing has to be announced but once the air-traffic controllers OK him, no one makes a fuss at Preventers. As the ship powers down, or falls down, a static voice over headset asks if Duo wants a medic.

Duo is already limping down the ramp. He commandeers an airfield cart from the empty platform and drives himself back to base.

Duo never comes in off-schedule so he doesn't know what to do without a team of people demanding things from him. He decides against his own wishes to see the Commander. It's better than being summoned unawares.

The whites of Wufei's eyes are double their normal size as he rushes out of his office to make sure it really is Duo passing by. Not his overambitious ghost.


Duo turns and flashes Wufei a grin and a salute. "Told ya!" he says and continues on his way.

The Commander has her hands on her hips and her teeth are grinding together. That is how she manifests surprise.

"We had given up," she states matter-of-factly. "I'd already filled out the forms to have you completely eradicated from Preventer history."

She holds up a folder of offending files.

Then she unfolds her arms. "Well, were you compromised?"

Duo has been waiting for this question. A positive and he's cut loose. Bang. Between the eyes.

A negative and he's a savior and a hero all over again. Honestly the outcome feels the same some days.

"I'm totally clean," Duo says with a bit of conceit in his voice. "Nothing was compromised. I've got the whole report here," he says and pulls a grungy, rolled-up notebook from his back pocket. Seven days is a long time to do nothing.

"The short story is they compromised themselves by being dumb fucks," he says and shrugs. "No one even knew I was around. Far as I know, they mixed all seventy tons of gundanium inaccurately and then exposed it to pressurization. Kaboom. That explosion set the place on auto-lock-down, self-destruct. Some kind of chain reaction, I guess. Anyway, they blew the whole operation sky high but some of them managed to get away, just like I did. I noticed two ships were missing."

"How many people to a ship?"

"Regularly I'd say four but in a catastrophe like this? They probably crammed ten or so in each. Still, they lost eighty percent of their force, that's for sure."

Une is flipping through the grimy notes.

"But you were shot at?" She questions, her finger drilling into a line of writing.

Duo nods. "Yeah and here's the thing. There were three ships. The head ship was firing at my ship and the other one that escaped. So clearly someone is trying to get rid of the evidence, if you know what I mean."

Une nods. She knows all about clean-up.

Duo knows about it too.

"So, is Preventers going to disown me?" He asks. He just wants to be clear.

"Not yet," Une says flatly. "I'll read the report. You're here, so clearly you weren't captured. I'd hate to lose you."

Duo's lips purse. "Huh," he says. "Good to know." He decides a cheeky wink would be pushing it too far.

"You stupid fool!" Wufei is snarling. "Preventers was going to disown any knowledge of you! How could you agree to a black operation?! I thought you died!"

"You know me better than that," Duo says, using his wink. "But I missed you too, partner."

"Aargh! You give me grey hair!"

"You look very distinguished," Duo says. "I'm going to see our girl, want to escort me?"

Wufei bites down on another comment, breathes deeply and is genuinely glad Duo is back. The stress is killing him.

"You're banged up," is Sally's initial assessment as Duo and Wufei walk through the door.

"That PhD coming in handy?" Duo asks and laughs when she rolls her eyes.

"Just get back in, I take it?" She asks. "If you're really alive then I've won fifty bucks."

"Who's betting on my death?!" Duo wants to know. His expression is comically appalled. Then he considers. "You're going to say Une, aren't you."

"Ha ha, no," Sally says. She evades the questions with a brisk walk across the floor.

"Just give me one minute and I'll prod the hell out of you," she promises and disappears into an adjacent room.

There is just enough time for Duo to throw a look that screams 'let's get the fuck off the premises,' at Wufei before the door squeaks again.

When she re-emerges she is trailed by Heero Yuy.

Duo's good mood is swallowed up by the look of complacent acknowledgement on Heero's face.

"Welcome back," Heero says.

"Thanks," Duo replies. A trail of blood seeps into his eye from a gash on his forehead.

Heero nods and leaves and Wufei respectfully goes with him. Sally bites her inner lip in thought.

"I'm guessing you want to get the hell out of here as soon as possible," she assesses, finally relenting.

"Yep," Duo says, staring after his missing partner. "So just scribble something down and I'll be off."

Sally knows Duo too well to argue.

Even though there is a chance he might drop dead, Duo opts to walk home from the Preventer base. His leg hurts. His eyes feel strained. He's dizzy. It's an effort to focus on certain objects like moving cars and bright street lights.

'This is ridiculous,' he chides himself, his lips moving just so. His memory calls up that certain tilted nod and the way the grimy, red hair fell in front of those brown-green, hungry eyes. 'Yeah, Solo says, 'it is.'

"Heero," Duo spits. His head spins for a moment and he grabs for a sign post. "Heero motherfucking Yuy." He says it like it should mean something but he can't quite grasp what that is.

The gravity of earth is still surprising to him. Comforting and oppressive all at once. After floating for days he wants to feel good to be back on 'solid ground,' as they say on-planet. He just wants to feel relieved and happy. Because he didn't die alone. Because he didn't die at all.

The idea is still a little forbidding, even with so many people waiting for him.

Most of all he'd appreciate Heero feeling more than 'welcome back.'

At home Duo turns all the lights on, turns the TV on and the volume up. He draws all the blinds. He shuts out the entire world except what is streaming to him via image and sound-bytes. It's on a kids' channel anyway. Duo strips out of his clothes in the hallway. He unbraids his hair. The shower and the soap are calling in bubbly voices. He doesn't want to get wet though. Today it feels like such a chore. Such a long process.

He stares at the wall across the room. Maybe all the half-conscious thinking pushed the truth a little too far into his field of vision: He wants Heero to feel deliriously relieved that he didn't die.

Then he sees it again. The most ubiquitous image of Heero that Duo can't seem to stop seeing, most of all when he's fervently trying not to think of him. Heero Yuy in those suits. That's all he'd been wearing. Slim, expensive suits that Relena stocks in his closet.

Duo leaves his clothes in a pile in the hallway and walks around the living room, into the kitchen, back out into the hallway. He walks through his bedroom. The light assaults his eyes and soothes his nerves. At the bathroom door he pauses, leans his head against the grain of the wood. A long, loud breath.

The water is hot and luxurious. It cuts through his skin and sinks into his muscles. He smiles a little, thinking about Hilde and her penchant for boiling baths. He sort of sees the allure right now. Sink down under that silent water, up to your eyeballs in heat, letting it drain everything out of you

The vests always end in double points at the button close. Little triangles of fabric just resting at the top of Heero's pants, framing a tasteful belt buckle. It's just that he manages to look so...tucked in. His chest and his stomach and the way his shirt slips into his pants...

Inaccessible, not like he used to look. No matter the weather, even in crazy summer heat, Heero has those suits on. Sometimes he takes the jacket off though. At those times Duo now feels like Heero might as well be naked. He hasn't seen Heero's bare arms in more than a year.

With a possessive frown Duo rinses his hair out. He knew, that is, really knew Heero first, after all and he isn't the type of man to enjoy a suit. It's not fair of Relena to cover him up and save him for herself alone. I mean, the guy could wear a t-shirt, couldn't he?

"Shit." Duo squeezes his eyes shut.

Fuck those vests, he thinks. Everyone knows something wrapped up is infinitely more interesting than something unwrapped. And fuck Relena, too, Duo hisses, along with the hot water.

And it escalates because he could see the whites in Solo's eyes and razor sharp grin by the time he broke the atmosphere in that tin can ship and he could feel that welcome, creepy, cold breath on his face. And that look Solo had, the one that always made Duo feel good and sort of powerful. But he lived, instead.

Duo takes a deep breath. He isn't being fair. He knows it. The mission zapped his guard, things that shouldn't are slipping out. It's not like it's her fault and it's not even Heero's. He understands the appeal on both sides. He really does.

Duo rinses the last of the soap and shampoo out and shuts off the water. He towels off quickly but doesn't dress.

He seems to remember a few packets of noodles in the cupboards. Passing the phone in the living room, Duo considers calling Quatre. He still wants to know how it went. The idea is dismissed when Duo realizes he can't quite hear about Quatre's happiness without feeling a little hollow right now and that isn't fair. What's worse is if it didn't work out for Quatre he knows he'd catch the next shuttle to L4 and he's not really physically in a state to do that. It wouldn't help Q for Duo to disintegrate on his doorstep.

Instead Duo sets the water to boil and waits, tapping out an intricate rhythm on his countertops, silencing everything in his head. He gets out the noodles and pours some apple juice, wondering if it goes bad after sitting for two weeks. When the water is bubbling he sets the dried noodles in and counts down three minutes aloud.

Then, just when Duo is feeling himself drop off to sleep at the table, his phone rings. A small leap of his heart shouts 'Heero,' while the more hopeful side says 'Quatre' and the realistic portion declares it's Wufei.

It is Hilde.

"Duo you're alive! Why didn't you call me! No one told me you got back until just NOW!"

Duo swallows a smile and runs his fingers through his wet bangs trying to wake up. "Uhh, sorry, pal."

"Eat your sorry for dinner!" Hilde says angrily. "You'll be starving in an hour!"

Duo can't help a smile now. "I'm really, really sorry. I wasn't thinking straight. Just wanted to get home, get showered and sleep, you know?"

Hilde's voice immediately cools down. "Yeah, man, I understand. I mean, you still should've let me know, asshole. But it's okay."

Duo closes his eyes again as he slurps noodles into his mouth.

"You're not eating instant ramen, are you?" Hilde suddenly asks. "After an ordeal like that?!"

"It's all I have that isn't rotten," Duo shrugs, chewing.

"Gah. Stop eating that shit, I'll bring you something," she says it in a voice that screams exasperation but Duo can detect the hint of warmth.

In twenty minutes Hilde is ringing his doorbell and Duo is running back to his bedroom to pull on pants, having just realized he is still naked.

On the fifth ring a take-out touting, fierce-expression-wearing Hilde is let in and Duo is laughing while he explains what happened.

Hilde gives him a glare. "I know you're a bit special Maxwell, but do you honestly think I'll believe that you forgot you were completely naked?" She doesn't know what she suspects he was doing instead of answering the door, but she just doesn't swallow that particular story.

Duo shrugs. laughing and digs out the boxes of take-away food. His hands are flying over the cabinets and drawers, pulling out plates and silverware, napkins and cups. He's talking at her about his love of the hot sandwiches she's brought, how good it is to be back and not subsisting on vacuum-sealed liquid food as he turns to slide the take-out onto the plates with a flourish and spread a napkin spread over Hilde's knees. It's still fluttering in the breeze he creates as he takes his second bite.

"This is effing amazing," Duo moans. His mouth is full of food and Hilde can't help but laugh.

"You're welcome," she says, taking the first bite of her own sandwich.

"Yeah," Duo says earnestly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Did I thank you? Thank you. I'm starved."

"No kidding?" Hilde teases. She watches him eat for a moment. Eyes his cut up face and still-bruised and fragile cheekbone. Thinks he looks even thinner than normal. Duo is tearing into the food until he notices that a stillness, or a seriousness has descended on Hilde. Then she is suddenly leaning over the table, very close to his face, looking particularly determined.

"Duo I was scared to death when I thought you had died."

He swallows and doesn't know what to say.

"And no one would tell me anything! I had to freaking beg Chang just to tell me if you were really on a mission or what! And then he said it was black ops and shit! I just knew the P's wouldn't go after you if it was like that. And I freaking almost got my own crew together to look for you! But Yuy froze that plan when he found out. The fucking asshole scared my whole team shitless and they all choked at the last minute."

Hilde takes a deep breath. She quite manfully fists Duo's drink out of his hand and maneuvers his fingers around hers.

"What I'm trying to say is that is that I you or something, I'm not totally sure. Even though you're a complete mess. Shit. I mean, even though you obviously don't, you know, love me back."

She drops Duo's hands, slumps back in her chair and drapes one arm over the top. Her position is casual and yet tense as hell. Duo is torn between a smirk and a frown.

"You love me?" he asks.

Hilde rolls her eyes. "I don't even freaking know. I mean, I don't want to love you. I might not actually love you. But with you being missing and presumably dead I just started thinking about life without you and I thought, shit, that would be terrible. And god, it hurt so much, you know? That I thought, maybe I love you. It could be an intense like."

She shrugs.

Duo stares open-mouthed.

Hilde crosses her arms over her chest protectively. "Well, don't get all emotional!"

Duo pulls himself together. "No...I mean, you're right. I'm such a... And like, you'd have to live with me, which I've heard gets pretty tiring. And --"

She cuts him off. "God, Duo. Don't try to talk me out of it! I'm not some sniveling little girl that needs to be taught about love and good and bad choices and whatnot! Geez! I just wanted to tell you, okay?! And now I'm sorry I did."

She moves as if to stand.

Duo is immediately and profoundly contrite. "Hil, don't go! I'm sorry. I'm a jerk. I -- I'm really glad you told me. I didn't mean to take it lightly, or not respect you, it -- it just caught me off guard."

Hilde bristles like the soldier she was. "Oh just leave it, Duo! I just wanted to let you know someone cared for you!" she hisses.

Duo's hands move to surrender. "I'm sorry! Thank you. I -- I'm glad. Just don't...pity love me or something, okay? I'm alright."

"Pity love you?!" She repeats, dangerously low, standing over him. "I tell you that thinking you had died hurt SO much that I thought it meant I loved you. I go crazy to find out where you are, I almost fucking fly into fucking endless outer space looking for you and you think I'm just feeling sorry for you? I bring you effing dinner, I invite you out all the time so you can stop whatever kind of depression run you're on because I care about you and here you think that's all out of some sense of duty to my -- what? Comrade? Some friend you are! You don't know me at all!"

Duo's eyes are wide in horror. He stands to match her, is a head taller than her now, which he only just notices. He sort of hopes she'll take a swing.

"Hilde! I --"

"I bet you know what Chang's favorite meal is!" She says, poking her index finger into his chest.

"We work together, we eat lunch together every day! Of course I --"

Her voice gets a little higher, her eyes a little wider. "I bet you know what Quatre Winner's favorite pastime is!"

"Hil, everyone knows th--"

"I bet you fucking know Commander Une's damned birthday and you don't know enough about me to know my friendship is genuine?"

"I have no idea when Une's --"

"Fuck you, Duo! I put my heart out there for you because I trusted you to be cool about it! To let me down nicely if you just didn't care!"

"Hilde, I'm really fucking sorry, okay?" Duo is saying with despair. Her anger is all pulse and sound, making his head ring. "I didn't mean it like that! I just meant I didn't think you liked me that way! I'm just covering my fucking bases, okay?!"

Hilde goes for a low cut to the stomach and Duo lets her. He's proud of her that she's that kind of woman and that the punch sort of hurt, even. Not that she's weak, but he didn't die of ruptured organs when Heero Yuy punched him, so he's a little tougher than some.

She punches twice more before Duo captures her shoulders in his hands and steadies her. They stare at each other.

"I'm sorry Hilde," Duo says. His hair is hanging over his shoulders, half his bangs are swept up behind his ear. His face is so earnest she relaxes her fists.

Hilde sighs. He looks so damn cute she doesn't know what to do. She jerks away and pushes him back hard, for good measure.

"You're a fucking dick," she says matter-of-factly.

Duo just stares.

She runs her fingers though her bangs. After a long moment she sighs. "Shit, I'm sorry."

Duo answers quietly. "It's okay. Me too."

"I don't know why I got all zero on you."

"It's okay," Duo repeats. He sits back down. After a moment Hilde does the same.

"Just..." Hilde plays with her napkin. She smiles self-deprecatingly and looks at the table. "I just..." she sighs again. "Never mind. I'm really sorry. Can we just pretend that didn't happen?"

Duo nods. "Sure."

"Thanks," she smiles. "Just, all my worry over the past thirteen days spilling over, you know? And then I was embarrassed."

Duo nods again.

"I'm just glad you're back and safe."

And it's not who he wanted it from, but it's nice all the same.

They talk for a while, uncomfortable at first and finally easing back into their old familiarity. They move from the kitchen to the living room couch. When the steel gray sky wakes them at four in the morning Duo invites Hilde to his room and they fall asleep again together, tired in too many ways.

In the morning Duo wakes up wrapped around Hilde's leg, her foot cupping his cheek.

Hilde is in her underwear. She wore her work clothes over and couldn't wrinkle them. Duo lets his fingers trail down her smooth, pale leg. Touching someone isn't the same when you haven't been waiting to touch them. But Hilde is soft and warm. The curve of her backside looks so normal under the sheets in the watery light. Her arm is over her face and her breasts are heavy to one side in her bra. She looks so well-adjusted. Her breathing is familiar. Duo is seeing the pile of bodies he used to sleep with, like puppies, in the abandoned water purification plant. Warm, fidgeting, hungry little bodies.

He unfolds himself from the bed and makes his way on light feet to the bathroom. He hates the feeling of waking up in real clothes. It's the one trait from his old life that, once shed, he can't get used to again when it crops up now and then. He peels off his pants, completely wrinkled and awkwardly creased, and unbuttons his shirt. He freshens up, rubbing away the exhaustion, brushes his tangled hair and heads back to the bedroom. Hilde is still sleeping as he drags on a clean pair of pants and a t-shirt.

He's got his toothbrush in his mouth when his doorbell rings. Hilde, awake now, coffee in hand, shouts that she's got it.

Duo is convinced it's the kid from down the hall who sometimes needs a partner to play video games with, but spits out a mouthful of foamy toothpaste when Heero's low, rich tone filters though the walls and running water.

He drags the back of his hand over his face and skids into the kitchen.

"Hey," he says, catching himself on the wall.

Heero looks up uncomfortably. "Hey," he says. He looks from Hilde's distinctly rumpled state to Duo's minty fresh smile and draws his own conclusions. "Sorry, I should have called first."

Duo is too pleased that Heero is standing in his apartment to notice his friend's increasing discomfort.

"Nah, it's cool," Duo says, waving him off. "Coffee?"

Heero shakes his head. "No thanks," he says simply.

"What's up?" Duo wonders. He slings himself into a kitchen chair and motions for Heero to do the same. As there are only two chairs, Hilde gets the short end of the stick.

However, Heero is refusing. He says, "Une asked us to tell you that you can have today and tomorrow off. Wufei said he would call but I was passing close by anyway."

"Oh," Duo nods. He turns to Hilde. "Heero just started working for Preventers," he explains.

"Oh yeah?" She asks, with the slightest raise of an eyebrow.

Heero nods once. He turns back to Duo.

"See you the day after tomorrow then," he says and takes a step towards the door. "I have to go."

"Oh, really?" Duo asks, sounding disappointed, even to himself.

Heero is fond of nodding. "There is a meeting downtown I have to get to."

"Oh, well, thanks for stopping by to let me know..." Duo trails off.

"No problem," Heero says. He nods to Hilde and Duo and slips out the door.

Hilde sits in the empty chair stiffly. "I see," she says.

"What?" Duo wants to know.

"You want to bend Heero Yuy over," she says coolly.

Duo recognizes her defense mechanism. His is the same.

"Feh," he says and sips his coffee.

"I sort of suspected it," she says thoughtfully. "But I'm right, aren't I? That's your game. That's why you're still alone."

Duo raises one eyebrow over the rim of his cup. "Should I go on a tirade about pity?"

Hilde's grin is feral. "Touche," she says. But I just said I suspected it, so see? I wasn't pitying you, just conveniently deluding myself."

Duo runs his hands through his hair.

"Hil... I'd be all about you if girls were my thing, yeah? And it's not like we're not good friends, right? Don't think we aren't."

Hilde sips slowly at her drink. "I know," she says at last. Duo is amazed to see she is blushing faint pink. "I was just...stupid. And a little jealous and a lot disappointed last night and I'm sorry. But I'm strong enough to admit it, okay? I wasn't mad that you thought I was only pitying you. It was just that you seemed to be displaying a total ignorance of my character right as I'm freaking telling you I love you. Gah, whatever. You know what I mean? I just, like I had all these hopes suddenly. Don't even ask me why," she chuckles when Duo starts to interrupt. "It's not like I've been secretly harboring a burning passion for you for years. I just started to think about how much you mean to me and... well, we've already had this conversation. I'm sorry," she finishes abruptly. "We're straight."

Duo smiles. "Okay, good." He looks into her face for a brief moment and she starts to laugh.

"What?" he asks.

"You're going to say something totally cliche like we could shack up if both of us are still alone by the time we're 35, aren't you?"

"30," Duo shrugs lopsidedly. "But whatever."

Hilde laughs.

Duo goes stir crazy on his two days off. He doesn't need the vacation as much as he needs the work. He makes himself sleep as much as possible so he doesn't have to think or talk or feel for just a little while.

When Duo returns to the office Wufei is waiting for him with a metal folder clutched in his grip and a stern look on his face.

Duo doesn't even have his jacket hung up before Wufei says it.

"There is a mission for us."

"Oh yeah?" Duo asks. He can't hide his eagerness.

Wufei frowns. "Yes. Another black op."

Duo grins. "Must be serious!"

Wufei's eyebrows draw together thoughtfully. "Yes," he nods. "Une said expressly that she couldn't have us wait on this one. And..." Wufei pauses. He rarely pauses.

"What?" Duo wants to know. His smile drops.

"We're all going," he says, looking directly into Duo's eyes.

'We all' only refers to a certain few in Duo's life and those same few apply to Wufei as well. Only one other 'we' was a paid Preventer these days.

"Heero too?" Duo all but mouths.

Wufei nods sharply.

Duo bites his lip. He can't tell if he's thrilled or terrified. "When do we leave?"

"Tomorrow morning," Wufei says, flipping the folder. He opens to the second page and hands it to Duo to read.

"Hm," Duo hums, skimming the orders. His skin flushes with anticipation. His nerves jump into the challenge. And he considers Heero, too.

There is a drop off this time. They are flown in and deposited. Earth missions are like that. In the plane they sit in a row. On one side Duo brushes against cool skin the color of a peeled almond; on the other his bare arms grace an ultra-synthetic lightweight material known for its absorbency, support and ability to transfer or repel heat. Or so Heero Yuy says. In the shadowy half-light Duo glances at Heero's face and the darkness makes him look younger. A smooth face, always sort of delicate, with those deadly blue eyes still shining like a cat's in the dark.

Wufei speaks quietly. "Five until drop."

Like Wufei, Duo is wearing a sleeveless sports top that is suctioned to his body. He's never been where they're going but he's heard it's hot. The redistributed military plane dips suddenly and Duo knows to check his chute one last time.

When the go is called, Wufei is first to jump. He steps out as if he does it everyday. Duo puts a little more oompf into his dive. He doesn't see Heero jump out but he does see him come flying down, head first. He has a vicious flashback and shouts out. Then Heero parallels and flips over. In another moment, when the time is right to release the parachutes, Heero's is first to open and Duo breathes a sigh of relief. The rush of air and the freedom of falling ends abruptly as they land in a mountainous area of scrubby trees and scorching rock.

Wufei frowns disapprovingly as Duo's knees buckle slightly on impact. It's too soon, his eyes tell Duo. You should be home resting, not doing a third mission in a row.

Duo grins and salutes him. "Message received!" he says. Heero looks around to see if he's missed a conversation and Duo has to retrain himself from finding it adorable.

"This way," Wufei points. He shoulders his bag and begins to march forward, looking dignified even as he scrambles over fallen rock.

A routine develops. They walk, crawl and climb silently over the parched landscape, stopping for water every hour. They stick to shadows and avoid direct sunlight when possible. The color of their various clothes helps them blend into the endless sedimentary rock. Wufei goes first, Duo next and Heero brings up the rear.

Duo is watching his footing and Wufei's back. Between the ground and sky and Wufei and Heero, Duo is feeling incredibly safe and energetic. Powerful. His legs pump, his lungs fill, his heart gushes blood. Being with part of his old team is therapeutic. Hallelujah, Duo breathes. The old days aren't completely dead. He feared he'd never see action with Heero again.

His head bounces around a recent conversation: Peace time is the hardest time to live in... He is still a little embarrassed about that. He likes Wufei's good opinion. But this, now, is much easier. He has everything he needs, Duo thinks, looking about him in quick glances. A purpose, a direction and the most trustworthy team in the entire Earth sphere. Times like this make him wonder why other moments are so effing hard.

As night descends they find a small overhang and crowd under it. Duo is in the middle again. Other people would tease the position but not Heero or Wufei. They probably don't know the jokes, Duo decides, smiling to himself in the minimal glow of the fire. They are still far enough away to risk it, Wufei surmises and Heero agrees.

They eat quietly and Duo sees it will be up to him. "So," he says, turning to Heero. "Like your first two weeks so far?" he wants to know. He's sitting as close as possible.

Heero considers this thoughtfully as he eats. Duo suspects Heero of trying to define the word 'like' too precisely.

"I mean is it what you wanted it to be?" Duo clarifies.

Heero considers again and finally says, "So far."

Duo grins. "Yep, just you wait!"

Wufei snorts. "Only you," he says trying not to be fond, looking at Duo. The implication that Duo alone gets excited by the prospect of a firefight or a few dangerous collars is there, but not true.

"Me?" Duo smirks. "What about you! Justice, justice, justice!" Duo bangs his camp cup with a spoon happily.

Wufei and Duo fall into easy camaraderie forged through long hours like this and Duo pulls Heero along for the ride. Heero's blue eyes reflect the firelight. The skin of his face is flushed in the heat. Duo can see its smooth texture, a freckle or two by Heero's neck. The long curve of his eyelashes.

Wufei catches Duo staring.

"Anything good happen while I was away?" Duo suddenly wants to know, digging into his rations.

"Case work as usual," Wufei supplies, confused, taking a sip of nutrient-rich soup.

"Preliminary hire procedure," Heero says of his time. "It was all routine."

"Boring you mean," Duo interprets.

"A little boring," Heero admits.

"But this, man! This is it, huh?" Duo stretches luxuriously against the grainy rock to illustrate how wonderful missions are. Heero smiles softly, his features thrown into relief by the fire, arresting and mysterious all at once.

It's enough to make Duo not want to find out why that face didn't want to let Hilde into Space after him when his mission went wrong. Blissful ignorance suddenly has its merits, though his imagination is active enough to supply dozens of horrible scenarios in the absence of truth.

"Think you're ready for this, Yuy?" Wufei asks seriously. When Duo bursts out laughing Wufei continues with a coolly raised eyebrow. "You haven't been in the field in a while."

Heero shrugs. "I'm capable of accomplishing the task. I suppose there is always a risk of being unprepared."

"Psshhh," Duo disagrees. "You're a natural, Heero. That's a compliment by the way."

The corners of Heero's mouth lift. "You're in a good mood, Duo," he observes softly.

Wuei snorts. "He's just excited to use the explosives."

The next day is the same but at night their camp is only five miles out from their target and they have no fire and little conversation, all of which is about the upcoming mission.

Duo knows the importance of success. He knows Une would never send all three of the pilots out unless victory was that critical. He knows Wufei and Heero are asleep, preparing for the long day to come. For fighting, for inevitable pain and possibly death. On watch, Duo knows these things, but he can't help feeling excited, too. He can't help feeling a little more alive with Heero around. It's what got him through the first war and then the second. There is Shinigami and then there is Shinigami with a zest for life. Either way, it's one hell of an immortality complex.

The operation is old-fashioned. Plutonium and Uranium are being isolated and mined respectively for a seriously atomic concoction. Duo has to give them credit. The cocktail is so old-school that Preventers almost didn't catch it, but someone in forensics knows their stuff. Enough is being manufactured to annihilate entire cities at a time. Duo hopes no one is stupid enough to actually do it, though, considering the Threat of Nuclear Winter that was so recently suspended quite literally over everyone's heads.

The mission parameters are simple enough but the execution is tricky and insane.

'Sooo, us,' Duo thinks, fueled with an edgy conceit that sharpens his awareness.

They split up in the compound. Heero goes to find the main computer system while Wufei takes the left hangar and Duo takes the right. Watching their backs disappear down ill-lit corridors, Duo says a small, fleeting prayer.

Heero is downloading data and is shocked at the sophistication of their technology and says so into their headsets. With an immense feeling of finally doing something good, Heero realizes that he, Duo and Wufei are not a moment too soon.

There are bodies strewn all around him as Heero hacks into sensitive areas. Duo was right after all. He wanted to fight and he most certainly did not want to wear a tie. He thought it would be hard after almost three years of pacifism, but it is not. Necks snapped under the same amount of pressure, bullets still hit their mark if you aimed well. He realizes, after all this time, that what he is looking for is exactly what he has willingly given up. You can be this, Heero thinks, and still be a good man. She doesn't think so, but then, she doesn't actually know. She's never killed anyone.

Duo is slipping into the factory hangar on the right like the thief he is while Wufei does the same on the left. He is stroking the packet of explosives unconsciously, with a fondness that others might possibly deranged. But his muscles are singing as they stretch and retract around support beams, as he scurries up scaffolding and slithers down catwalks. A small packet is stuck in place with adhesive. Each spot is chosen with mathematical precision. The place is swarming with people in white coats, safety goggles and hard hats. Duo snags a hat off a bench and pulls a coat from under a dusty crate. Everyone has ID badges flapping against their chest. Duo tries to move fast.

Heero is camouflaging his presence in their system and changing all of their controls. He reroutes power to a hand-held device in his pocket, effective on his say-so. The information is downloading quickly, but there is a lot of it. Heero remembers hacking into OZ with Duo and how much easier it seemed with two people. Or maybe it was just Duo's superior smirk as they deftly hacked through security and his sure fingers flying over the keyboard that put him at ease.

On the other side of the hangar Wufei has placed all but one of his explosives. There are enough to bury the factory and neutralize the threat of the warheads until such a time when they can be safely retrieved. The packet is in his pocket as he navigates towards the upper deck. He is slinking around in the shadows but the place is well lit. Wufei sees there is no way he can go further without walking into the crowd. He waits for a moment, considering and then, his packet begins to chirp.

The download is complete. Heero is shutting things down and pocketing the information when the doors to the lab groan open. A troop of soldiers stand in the doorway. Heero can tell by the shocked looks on their faces that this was a routine, or perhaps random check and they did not expect to find anyone face down in their own blood on the floor. Collectively, all eyes rise to him as he stands alone in the middle of the floor. There are perhaps fifteen of them and Heero calculates his chances, taking stock of the very effective high-power weapons at their hips. He glances at his watch. Duo and Wufei may have finished setting the explosives by now, but it is still a few minutes before start time. His finger keys in a command and he switches off his headset.

All of this happens in perhaps three seconds. Then Heero is running straight at the soldiers, firing bullets into their midst. A few drop but the others close ranks and Heero, though he leaps, is caught in the middle. He comes down fighting, kicking out and shooting. The familiar pain of a bullet erupts in his leg and it crumples underneath him. Guns are drawn and leveled into his face. Without more time to consider, Heero presses the controller in his pocket to arm the explosives. At any cost, including Duo and Wufei's lives, and his own, the weapons have to be made secure.

Duo is cursing. His last packet is placed and he is beginning to slip away unnoticed when a small electronic beep sounds behind him. The explosives are armed. There are only five minutes and no way anyone can get out of range before then.

Wufei throws caution to the wind and bolts into the crowd. There are a few shouts but mostly people are just confused at his sudden appearance. He races up the stairs onto the catwalks, applies the adhesive as he runs and then slaps the packet into its pre-determined place. He knows he won't make it out alive but he sprints anyway, ignoring shouts and calls for security.

Duo is alerted to Wufei's presence by a small bubble of commotion across the floor and heads that way. He might be dying but he sure as hell isn't doing it alone. With speed born of necessity on the dirty back alleys of L2, Duo tears through the crowd and easily spots Wufei in all black. He grabs his hand and they high tail it into the corridor.

"Which way out?" Duo shouts. He always feels the need to shout when he's running.

"Three doors up on the right and two over!" Wufei replies. He helpfully doesn't point out that they'll never make it.

Two doors up on the left, they pass the lab and Heero Yuy lying motionless on the floor, half of his body hidden behind the double doors that have partially closed on him.

"Holy shit!" Duo breathes, skidding to a halt. "Heero!!"

Heero's dark brown hair is soaking up the blood pooling at his ear.

"Holy fucking shit!" Duo repeats, his voice rising. He kneels down and checks Heero's pulse.

Suddenly two men appear in the windows of the doors, peering down at Duo touching Heero.

"Company," Wufei says calmly. Duo pushes the doors inward and sends the two guards back a step. They falter and Wufei kicks them, two at once with a hearty roundhouse. They fall back and don't move.

Wufei turns to Duo and speaks with urgency. "Alive or dead?"

Duo drops down again and reaches once more for Heero. He presses his fingers against Heero's neck frantically, applying more pressure than necessary.

"Alive," he says and kneels fully. He rolls Heero up onto his shoulder, straightens and looks at Wufei. "Lead the way."

Wufei sprints. He has the distinct feeling Duo is lying.

Mentally, Duo knows that five minutes have passed and his heart contracts in fear. Are the explosives faulty? Did the factory workers somehow disarm them? Or the guards in the laboratory? Ahead Wufei shouts in triumph and Duo rounds the corner to see the exit. They burst through the doors and Duo crows with Wufei when a transport truck is sitting right in front of them. Without discussion Duo hands Heero to Wufei and opens the car door in two, maybe three seconds with his lock picks. Another few seconds has the wires cut and the car thrumming. Duo drops his foot on the gas and they rocket out. A hundred meters from the building it explodes in an earth shattering, ear-splitting, car-rocking fireball. Duo's lips are reciting a litany of prayers.

Let Heero be alive. Let the weapons be buried and not blow us up. Let Heero be alive. Let us not be blown up. Let Heero be alive.

The car is thrown forward from the force of the blast and they fly through the air. They land heavily, the car crumpling around them. Duo hits his face against the steering wheel. Beside him, someone groans. Wufei is shouting to run.

Heero's eyelids are fluttering.

Duo shakes him a little. His face is so bloody Duo can't really see him. "Heero! Wake up! We've got to move!!"

Heero looks at him and his eyes clear slightly.

"That's it! Come on!" Duo shouts. He pulls Heero from the truck. "Run!!"

They run.

There is no pursuit.

Duo is watching the landscape in flashes. All he feels is Heero's clammy skin as he grips him hard and they try to put distance into their pace. Wufei is just up ahead, scouting the area.

Night is coming rapidly now. More than half the day went into the mission. Pressed against the questionable support of a jagged rock wall, Heero, Duo and Wufei huddle into each other, trying to drag the last of the sun-baked heat out of the rock.

Heero's face is all dried blood. The bridge of his nose has splintered up, the white bone pieces grinding against each other like ice floes steepling after crashing together. With minimal jaw movement Heero's whispers recreate the encounter.

Down on the ground at the mercy of ten armed men and the leader steps up to question him. The usual, who are you, who sent you, are you alone, what are you doing here. Heero doesn't answer. His mind is too busy to really pay attention to their ridiculous line of questioning. He sees escape routes and methods. In another moment it's all mapped out in his head. His lungs fill with a steadying breath and suddenly he is on his feet, refusing to let his leg so much as shake. The commander is nervous enough to want to end the threat then and there, answers or no. Heero watches him lift his gun and fire, directly into his face. At the critical moment Heero turns his head 45 degrees and angles it down and the bullet flies into the bridge of his nose, shattering it, and careening out the other side of his nasal cavity at a downward angle. The pain is explosive and ricochets throughout his whole skull. He drops, breathing heavily, and then dives into unconsciousness.

Duo is quiet. As Heero's account ends Wufei is nodding and looking keenly at him. He takes his bloody face between his forefinger and thumb and examines the bullet wound.

"You're incredibly lucky, Yuy," Wufei says with a hint of incredulity. "The bullet was streamlined so the entrance wound and exit wound are relatively small. You could have gotten an exploding bullet or something with shrapnel."

Heero nods into Wufei's eyes.

"Welcome back to the field," Duo says, smiling falsely.

Heero's mouth quirks into a small smile and then falls flat again.

Wufei has first watch but Duo can't sleep. He knows Heero can't either. Heero really needs a medic but they are miles out in the middle of nowhere. Wufei has radioed for pick up but the earliest arrival isn't until tomorrow night and besides, they have to stay long enough to view the damage for the report.

They weren't expected to arrive at the target so quickly. Other agents doing reconnaissance took just under a week to hike to the target area from the same drop-off point.

"Hey," Duo whispers into the still night air.

Heero, lying beside him, opens his eyes.

"The timer was off," Duo states.

"Yes," Heero acknowledges. "I changed it to a fifteen minute countdown when I was interrupted by the soldiers."

"Oh," Duo nods. "Good thinking. Idiot."

Heero takes a deep breath, which is audible since he can only breathe through his mouth. "I wanted you two to have time to finish or to run".

His sentences are choppy because of the pain.

"Thanks," Duo says. Heero's hand, laying atop his chest unmoving, looks so near. He'd barely have to move to... Silence stretches between them and Duo looks into the vast pitch-colored sky. He thinks about Wufei twenty feet away, about Heero a foot away. He thinks about Confessing. In his mind there is a picture: his chest has a light like a spotlight, arcing in a controlled column, like a beam cannon, pointing straight at Heero, into his chest. But Heero's light is pulsing out in another direction, towards wherever she is tonight and it's sort of sad when you step back and take in the whole picture. Wufei, almost hidden in the night-shadow ahead, has a light too, but Duo isn't exactly sure where it points. Not yet. Maybe towards a certain lady.

Love isn't for me, Duo thinks, staring at the bloody mess of Heero's face. He smiles fleetingly. I'm already crazy enough.

In the back of his mind, there is silent nodding from long-gone love.

"You'd do the same," Heero ventures.

Duo can't remember what they were talking about.

"Oh, the timer? Yeah, probably. Hey," he says, shifting his position. "Does that hurt?"

Heero takes a moment to answer. Duo admires that he can put thought into anything right about now. He'd probably be passed out.

"It hurts," Heero says. "It's awful."

"You got shot in the face," Duo says with a raised eyebrow. "Most people would have a hole in the back of their head."

Heero shrugs under his Preventer-issue blanket.

Duo eyes Wufei again, gauges the distance, whether they are in hearing range if they whisper.

"What about her?" Duo says. He can't help it. He's too curious and masochistic and the night is too idle. He can't help digging into open wounds.

"What?" Heero asks economically.

"She'll be upset that you joined and then got hurt, won't she?"

"Yes," Heero says as if it's obvious.

Duo doesn't know where he's going with this. Part of him just wants to hear Heero say how annoying it is to have someone trying to impose their feelings onto you. Part of him is glad Heero is happy, but not a large part of him. He's not that kind of good guy.

"We should sleep," Duo advises, slipping down under his blanket.

"Mm," Heero agrees.

In the morning Wufei wakes to find Duo sitting exactly as he was when they switched the watch. A brief thought has him wondering if Duo froze to death, but in another second his partner is turning and waving, a bright morning smile on his face.

"Ready to check out our handiwork?" Duo wants to know.

Wufei nods but casts a loud glance at Heero, who is pulling himself into a seated position.

"What do you want to do, Yuy?" Wufei questions.

Heero weighs the possibilities. He could probably walk back to the site but it would be a useless waste of energy since he isn't good for anything more than staring.

"I'll wait here," he says, with a hint of self-disgust. Duo isn't fond of the idea.

"What if someone comes along?"

"That won't be a problem," Heero says, now with his standard confidence-soaked voice. Duo and Wufei share a glance filled with Heero's brand of death.

"Oookay!" Duo says, saluting their downed partner. "See ya later."

Heero nods.

On the walk back Wufei and Duo are silent. They have approximately five miles to cover. After the first three Duo is seriously awed that they managed to get this far the evening before.

"Adrenaline is sort of insane, isn't it?" Duo muses, dragging some leaves off a low-hanging tree, the only real tree for miles, and tossing them in his mouth.

Wufei questions without words.

"Water," Duo explains and sticks out his green tongue. "And vitamins." Duo looks at the scorching sun. "And photosynthesis."

Wufei decides not to comment.

The factory is still smoking in its crater, buried mostly, just as they calculated, by the blast. Wufei and Duo sling on their masks in case of radioactive dust and survey the damage.

The usual: twisted, blackened metal, mounds of chalky concrete, dying electrical wires. The artifacts: coffee mugs somehow intact, pens, smashed light bulbs, pieces of cloth, fire extinguishers, a cracked telephone.

The bodies: burnt, some in pieces, some easily mistaken for broken rubble and dirt.

Nothing moves except the smoke.

"Well," Duo says, hands on hips. "Looks pretty wasted."

Wufei nods. With a critical eye he decides the warheads have been buried enough to call in the recovery team but he takes out his Geiger device anyway and begins to test everything, calculating and measuring in quiet mumbles.

"Think we have radiation poisoning?" Duo asks on the way back, pulling his mask off. "I wouldn't put it past Une to have us conveniently all drop dead." The heat makes breathing behind plastic unbearable.

"We might," Wufei says seriously. "We didn't get very far away. However, by my calculations, the weapons were effectively buried and there were no serious leaks. I believe that little radiation escaped into the atmosphere."

Duo shrugs in response. "This mission was pretty sloppy though, wasn't it?" Duo sighs. He's become like Heero in that respect. A mission isn't really a success unless it's smooth. His latest missions have left him slightly dejected.

"Very sloppy," Wufei agrees. "But clean-up will come in and --"

"Clean up?" Duo chuckles.

"And as long as that goes well then the mission can be called a success," Wufei finishes as if he had not been interrupted.

"Let's not count our bullets before they hit their marks, right," Duo says, shoving his hands in his pockets. It is sweltering out. He can't wait for pick-up to arrive. He keeps up a stream of chatter, which Wufei takes in silence. They both can't stop thinking about Heero's close call.

At the rock Heero is dozing but hears what is coming. The whirs and chops slice into his half-dreams and he wakes abruptly. Helicopters.

Duo and Wufei instinctively crouch when the faint thrum reaches their ears two miles out. They hunker into the ground and try to look like part of the landscape.

'Choppers,' Duo mouths.

'At least two,' Wufei confirms.

"Not P's," Duo whispers, a sliver of surprise slipping into his tone.

"We knew this wasn't the only base," Wufei mutters.

Duo hisses back. "Yeah but the other one is a continent away, A, and B, it was supposed to be hit at the same time. I heard they got Noin on it, among others."

"It's highly possible the leader was at neither location."

"So he didn't hear from his posse and decided to take a joy ride into nowhere to see what was up? He could have just looked at Google earth."

Wufei shrugs. "I guess," he says in a tone that doesn't invite further speculation.

Duo can smell the sun-warmed dirt, the dust and the rock. He can tell the chopper is passing a few miles ahead, probably where Heero is sitting under the overhang. Suddenly all he can think about is Quatre and if Trowa accepted his confession with similar feelings. They tried, at the end of the war, to get together, but it wasn't meant to be then. Duo can still recall Quatre's face on the screen, a little grainy, actually, because the phone hall he'd called from had laughably old models but a good rate per minute. The words weren't clearer in his memory but it had been about Time and Commitment and being Truthful to confusing feelings. They had agreed that if the right time ever came they would try again. Duo snorted into the dust beside the rock, something he hadn't been able to do in Quatre's face those couple years ago. All he could think of was wasted time, but then, he didn't think himself as mature as Quatre, so maybe he didn't get it. Maybe young love was often more disastrous than old love. Duo didn't know then and he doesn't know now. He's thinking about all that because if Heero dies Duo will have nothing left but another chunk of Lost Chance and a tub full of Sorry Excuses to sink under and try to forget.

As it is, Duo hasn't heard any artillery fire from the chopper yet, so he's holding out hope.

In motionless silence the seasoned agents wait as the rotary engine noises increase and the wind picks up, sending red and brown sand flying into their noses, eyes, mouths and ears.

In the swirling dust Duo can see Sister Helen watching over all the other children. The ones chosen by families to be taken home for a new life, no time wasted. More than anything, Duo wants his own chance.

"Let's just take out the choppers," Duo suggests. Honestly he just wants to have something to do.

Wufei arcs an eyebrow that asks if Duo has gone crazier.

"If those choppers go missing in the middle of nowhere for no reason we'll be hosting a lot more guests soon. Besides, we don't even know where they're coming from."

Duo scoffs. "Like some rich tycoon just felt like bringing two copters on a pleasure cruise in the middle of the desert? Not likely, if the freakin' target chose this place as a chemical-mixing paradise."

Wufei signals Duo to be still and they watch as the first helicopter comes over the rise and flies overhead.

"Can you see any markings on the bird?" Wufei mouths.

Duo cranes his neck. "Nah, it's plain."

In another moment the second copter flies overhead and it too is free of any discerning markings. Neither of them relax their positions or their weapons, trained on the small pilots above.

Then the bullets thunder down, digging into the rocks around the agents, leaving them like pock-marked skin.

"Holy Hell!" Duo shouts out, breaking cover to aim his long-range rifle at the shooter. The wind from the rotor blades create small tornadoes making it nearly impossible to see through the red sand but Duo's aim doesn't waver. He can feel Wufei's body heat as he takes advantage of Duo's cover fire and slips down in front of him, his own gun trained on the pilot.

Wufei fires. One. Two. The helicopter wobbles in the air for a moment and then begins to careen up into the sky as the dead weight of the pilot slumps onto the controls. Duo fires. An object, the shooter, plummets from the helicopter limply. Duo can imagine a stream-lined blood trail sailing out behind him.

The second helicopter is moving more cautiously. Long-range artillery is moving mechanically on the front of the chopper, positioning itself with mathematic precision to annihilate two ducking Preventer agents.

"We need to get it to come closer," Duo shouts. He stands up straight, a tall target in a barren landscape, despite Wufei's sudden curses.

The helicopter careens towards him, shooting randomly in a spray of bullets and churned up wind that has Duo's hair flying everywhere and sand hurled up in a maelstrom.

"Get Down!" Wufei is screaming orders.

Duo holds up his weapon and aims carefully.

"One second, Fei," he says, too quietly for Wufei to hear. His fingers convulse on the trigger and then it is pulled. A bullet flies up through the air, through plate glass and sinks with a 'thunk' into soft flesh. The helicopter goes down in a dizzying spin while Duo and Wufei watch in silence.

Back at headquarters Duo is tired of people demanding things from him. Reports, assurances, numbers, evidence and all kinds of other things that are out of his control at this point. He can't always have answers.

He looks to his right at Wufei. "We did the job," he complains. "What else is there?"

"Bureaucracy," Wufei sighs. "Cleaning up."

"That's for someone else," Duo says hotly. This was a black op. There shouldn't even be any paperwork! Anyway, that's why I'm an agent and not a pencil pusher."

"Hm," hums Wufei.

They have been standing in Une's office for an hour whittling down at the walls of Questions That Need Answers from absolutely everyone. Finally, Duo throws up his hands.

"That's it for me," he says seriously in the general direction of Une and the several suits accompanying her, and begins to head out the door.

"We are not yet finished Agent Maxwell," she says coolly.

"Yeah, but you got the basics," he says breezily. "I'm sure you can put the rest together by yourself."

She gives him a hard, consequences-promising stare.

Wufei slips into line next to Duo.

"See ya," Duo waves and together they close the door on the office and practically race each other down the hallway.

"Is it Heero?" Wufei asks deftly. Duo slides him a look from the corner of his eye.

"Yeah," he says honestly. "Let's go to the hospital and check him out."

"Alright," Wufei agrees. They stop in their office for jackets and leave Preventer premises.

At the hospital there is more red tape and Duo is close to either begging or shooting to get in to see Heero.

"Visiting hours are over and you aren't family," the staunch woman behind the desk asserts. "You're not allowed. Those are the Rules."

Everyone, even Sister Helen and Father Maxwell, lived by these human made rules Duo thinks, biting his lip hard. These silly rules put in place by silly societies to make it impossible to be decent to one another, to make everyone scared, to tame each person, down to the last child. Even people who don't give a shit about law are victims to daily interactions within the confines of a human society. It's absurd! Duo is so weary of regulations and rules that his teeth break the skin of his lips.

Duo suddenly starts laughing in the woman's face and Wufei turns to him in alarm.

"Duo?" His friend says, reaching tentatively for Duo's arm.

"Thanks a lot for your help," Duo says to the woman, suddenly sober-voiced and serious. "Thank you for sticking to the rules. That's how it should be, you know. Rules keep everyone from becoming too wild, after all. A world with people in it really couldn't function any other way. Good job. Really good."

Duo isn't really thinking of anything except one life, taking in oxygen somewhere in this building, that he isn't allowed to visit.

He turns and walks away, sticking his hands in his jacket and keeping his back very straight. People sitting on the unforgiving waiting room chairs shrink away a little as he passes. Everyone is just too afraid, Duo thinks. There is no more freedom.

The automatic doors swoosh open as he approaches and swoosh closed as he passes the threshold, Wufei suddenly a step behind him.

The air outside is cool and slightly wet. It isn't raining but everything has a glossy sheen to it from a passing shower. The sun is setting and Duo takes a deep breath.

"Well, goodnight," he says to Wufei.

"Wait," Wufei demands. "What the hell was that about?"

"It's fine," Duo says, turning to face Wufei fully. "I'm just tired and hungry."

"And worried," Wufei finishes for him.

Duo shakes his head. "Worried isn't even remotely close," he says. He's terrified.

Wufei sighs. He knows he should stop trying to look for signs of logic or sanity in Duo's words.

"Let me drive you home," Wufei offers and Duo nods silently.

In his apartment Duo changes out of his Preventer uniform, showers and redresses in jeans and a black t-shirt. He makes a dinner of eggs and toast and settles on the couch with his meal and his phone, pressing the 4 for an auto dial to Quatre before thoughts about a hospital room undo him.

"So, sunshine?" Duo says anxiously as soon as Quatre picks up.

Quatre plays coy. "So what?"

The ability to even pretend to not know what Duo is calling about tells Duo that Quatre is in a good mood and so the outcome is already understood.

"So Trowa, you, hearts in the air?" Duo says, smirking a little.

Quatre's laugh reverberates through the phone, warming Duo's cheek.

"You could say that."

"I'm glad Q." Duo says. "How'd it go down?"

"After the show," Quatre starts. "I found him in the dressing trailer and we were able to talk a bit."

"Helps when he's undressed, hey?" Duo teases.

"He was clothed," Quatre protests. "I just wanted to make sure he'd changed out of his clown gear. It's hard to talk seriously when he's in that."

"What, really?" Duo indulges with incredulity. "I think he's way easier to take seriously in those puffy pants than in that turtleneck he used to wear."

"He doesn't wear that anymore," Quatre breaths, chuckling.

"So?" Duo prompts.

"So, I asked him if he'd be interested in giving us another shot, like we said we would. He said he really wanted to try."

"Is he gonna stay with the circus?"

"For now," Quatre says, a little heavily. "But if things get really serious he said he wouldn't have a problem leaving it. He says there a lot of things he wants to do in his life and if we take that next step then it will be the perfect time to pursue those things."

"Sounds good, then," Duo smiles gently. "I'm really happy, Quat. You guys are really made for each other."

Duo can hear Quatre's smile through the phone, a slight exhalation of breath as his lips curve upward.

"I think we are, too," Quatre breathes.

"I've been saying it all along," Duo reminds him fondly.

"You have," Quatre agrees. "But we needed this break. We really did. Now we're starting out right."

Suddenly Duo can't talk about it anymore. He's happy for his friends but he can't stop seeing the bones coming out of Heero's face.

"You should come and visit sometime, you know," he says, his voice half-lost. "You and Tro. It's been way too long."

"You and Wufei should come here," Quatre counters happily. "And Heero too, of course!"

"Heero joined Preventers," Duo says abruptly. He just needed to swish Heero's name around in his mouth. He knew calling Quatre would give him that chance. "We went on a mission together. Wufei too."

"I heard he joined," Quatre says carefully. "Relena told me."

"The mission went a bit bad," Duo admits. Speaking to Quatre, he always wants to reveal everything, but so far he's managed to avoid that with clever maneuvering.

"Oh no, is everyone alright?" Quatre wants to know.

"Heero's in the hospital," Duo says slowly.

"Oh no!" Quatre exhales.

"He'll be alright," Duo says, trying to sound offhand. Trying to believe it. "Me and Fei are okay."

"Duo..." Quatre's hesitant voice slips into Duo's ear and he hears a speech coming. He knows suddenly that for all his tactics, Quatre Knows.

"Aw, Quat, I should go," he says hurriedly. "But I want to hear a lot more about you and Tro. And you should definitely come for a visit. Let's talk soon okay?"

"But Duo..." Quatre tries to cut in.

Duo says goodbye and hangs up, breathing hard. He knows that if Quatre comes to visit he'll have to face up to it all, but Quatre never has time for visits, so he breathes a sigh of sad relief.

He stands up, leaves his phone on the coffee table, grabs his jacket and walks out into the night.

From the Preventer file in his hand, taken surreptitiously and illegally from Sally Po's darkened office, Duo knows exactly where he can find Heero in the hospital.

It's past midnight when he reaches the parking lot on foot. The hospital is never quiet or abandoned, but it's more sedate than during the day and Duo is glad. This time he bypasses the entrance altogether and picks the lock at the service door. Having been a patient in the hospital on several occasions and having visited people on even more occasions, Duo is more than aware of the set-up of the security cameras and the schedule of rounds. Breaking into the hospital is so easy he almost forgets he's supposed to be stealthy.

He slips into Heero's room, a single since he's an agent. The light is greenish black and Heero's skin looks ghostly, like he's underwater. His eyes are closed but as soon as the door clicks shut on Duo Heero is studying him in the half-light coming in the from hall with an intense and surprised gaze.

"Hey," Duo whispers, smiling softly.

"Hey," Heero replies.

"Are you alright?" Duo asks. He doesn't know what else to say now that he's here.

Heero's nose is bandaged and looks very swollen. His eyes are both blackened by now. He's a mess.

"Yes," he says. "What are you doing here?"

"Did you know Quatre and Trowa got back together?" It comes out in a rush, the first words sent out in a fit of nerves.

"Oh," Heero breathes, clearly in wonder. "Good."

"Yeah, about time, right? It was taking forever and they're obviously supposed to be with each other. They're like two halves."

"It was taking precisely the amount of time it had to take," Heero says sagaciously. "It couldn't have happened before it was meant to."

"How logical and fun," Duo retorts, lifting an eyebrow. "The universe has such a nice, neat order in your mind, doesn't it?"

"I suppose," Heero says.

"Sounds like you're a believer of fate," Duo presses, confused at what he thought he knew.

But Heero disagrees by shaking his head. "I think that a person can influence the outcomes of events by certain actions. For Quatre and Trowa though, they simply couldn't resume their relationship 'til they felt the time was right. So, the time could only be right when they felt it was and external influences couldn't change that time."

"Hm," Duo hums, understanding. "You've given this a lot of thought."

To Duo's intense surprise, Heero looks embarrassed. "Just in general," he says dismissively. "Why are you here, Duo?"


Now it is Duo's turn to feel embarrassed. He runs his fingers through his bangs and looks at the hospital room.

"I just wanted to make sure you're alright. You were pretty fucked up by the time we got back."

Heero nods. "I'm fine," he reiterates and he really means it. Duo nods. He knows that Heero is fine. In this universe there isn't a scenario where Heero isn't fine. That's why everyone is drawn to him. But what Duo sees beneath the fine is what really makes Heero alright.

"Listen," Duo says abruptly. "I want to con -- I want to say something."

A noise in the hallway alerts Duo to the fact that the nurses are right on schedule with their rounds. He curses himself for getting carried away and rolls under Heero's bed into the shadows.

Small feet encased in green, tie-back booties shuffle into the room. The footsteps aren't heavy but the owner of them isn't trying to be silent.

"Oh, you're awake," a soft, low voice announces but there is no audible response. "How are you feeling tonight?"

"Fine," says Heero's voice. He sounds very calm and patient to Duo, as though he hasn't already been asked this question by probably everyone to come into his room.

"How's the pain?" The nurse asks. "Do you need anything for it?"

Duo can hear what must be Heero shaking his head no. The word is too nasally to really attempt with a shattered nasal bridge.

"Alright," the woman goes on. "Well, everything looks pretty much as it's expected to look, from this side of the bandage, anyway. They'll redress it again tomorrow afternoon. And the one on your leg as well."

Duo closes his eyes and breathes in the chemical smell of the floor cleaner. It burns its way up his nose. The machines, the lights, the vents all grumble and hum and the nurse's booties swish as she walks around doing her duties.

"So, you had quite the stream of visitors today, didn't you?"

She keeps up a running conversation though Heero isn't responding, but Duo can almost sense the nurse feel Heero's eyes on her, steady and sharp, a little unnerving. Duo can imagine she'd love to turn on the overhead lights and stop those bright blue eyes from glowing in her general direction.

"Such a pretty, young woman," the nurse says sweetly and Duo can definitely hear her desire to fill up Heero's silence in her too calm voice.

"It's always hard for loved ones to see their family hurt, of course," the nurse muses quietly. "But she was able to calm down after we gave her a small dose of a relaxant. I think the doctor informed you that she was just fine, right?"

Heero's smooth voice flows into the mix of machinery and musings. "Yes, he did."

"Yes," the nurse said, sounding satisfied by the outcome. "She'll be completely fine, just like you. It is nice to have someone so devoted, isn't it? You're a lucky man. Now, just press that call button if you need anything."

Duo can smell sickness and chemical cleaners as the door opens and then closes with a whoosh as she bustles out, eager to be gone. He stays under the bed thinking that the entire business of hospitals is overshadowed by the business of trying to mask the scent of death.

"What were you going to say?" Heero's voice floats down to him as though they were never interrupted. Duo rolls onto his back and studies the underside of the hospital bed. His fingers pick at little beads of plastic on the frame.

"Wufei and I tried to visit you earlier," Duo chooses to reply. "But Une held us up for questioning. Then the receptionist wouldn't let us in. But we did try to come."

"You're here," Heero says. Duo can tell he bit back 'now.' Duo knows that if he hears Heero's 'n's start coming out as 'd's he's going to lose it laughing and he doesn't want to laugh at Heero in this moment. Not really.

"Yeah," Duo agrees half-heartedly, but it feels too late. "I am. I've got tomorrow off."

"Okay," Heero says as if there is more.

"So Relena got a little upset, hm?" Duo can't help but ask. He doesn't want to say it; he doesn't want Heero to think about it. But maybe, if her behavior was a little silly, then, maybe he does want Heero thinking about it. He can't help it.

"Yes," Heero says and something in the way Heero says that one word makes Duo smile and feel a little braver and a little meaner, too.

"She lost her shit, huh?" He asks, pulling a thread out of the mattress that peeks through the slats.

"You could say that," Heero agrees. "Why are you still there?"

Duo can see the mattress shift where Heero is trying to look for him down on the ground. Reluctantly he rolls out, collecting small bits of dust in his hair.

They look at each other and with a start that is turned into a shrug for Heero's benefit Duo sees the calculating eyes of Professor G glinting from the darkness of the far corner. He looks greedy and wicked.

"She'll get herself together," Duo says hastily, to cover his jump. "She's a tough girl. She was probably just worried."

"She was mad," Heero corrects Duo. "She told me she expected something like this. She suggested I quit."

Duo bites the inside of his lip to give himself time to think of something to say.

"Well," Duo settles on. "That's up to you, isn't it?"

He's trying to utilize Father Maxwell's endless store of empathy and compassion, but all he can see are G's practical, ruthless eyes and his mouth, curved up in a victorious, superior smile.

Duo comes in on the end of Heero's reply. "...prefer a compromise."

"Hmmph," Duo brushes him off. "It's your life, isn't it? Shouldn't you do what you want? For once?"

Heero looks at him very openly and critically, like he's suddenly been given the chance to dissect every synapse in Duo's brain.

And then : "What are you saying?" He asks, slowly and deliberately and much too analytically.

Duo is pulling his eyes away from the corner of the room and the look on Heero's face raises unpleasant memories. He can feel the smooth, cool metal of the self-destruct device and its hollow clicking. He can't feel the one that worked, he can only see pieces of flesh splattering from the epicenter of the blast.

"Nothing," Duo spits, caught off guard. He relishes the nasal quality of the word, throws it in Heero's face. "Nothing. I'm going. Get some rest."

"Duo," Heero calls, but half-heartedly.

And then, he doesn't know why he does it. All he knows is that the minute G convinced him to steal Deathscythe his path was set to collide with Heero Yuy and he can't get that feeling out from under his skin. He thought with that massive weapon of war between him and the world he'd never have to want anyone close ever again.

But he does want.

"You wouldn't even let a crew come after me!" Duo erupts suddenly, turning on Heero and bearing down on him. "You knew I was doing black op, you knew I hadn't checked in and you stopped Hilde from going after me! Why the hell would you do that?!"

"You came back on your own," Heero points out. He's calm but Duo can see angry bewilderment seething in his eyes. He feels like slamming Heero's broken nose in with his elbow.

"God damned right I came back! But it wasn't your fucking place to make that call with Hilde!"

"I didn't think you'd like Hilde going after you! That's why I stopped her. I remember Peacemillion."

Heero's eyes are steady. Duo's mouth is open slightly, he's breathing hard and then suddenly stops.

"Peacemillion?" He says, still biting off his words, but softer now.

"When she was hurt bringing you the specs for Libra. When you pulled her suit onto Peacemillion. I remember your face. You hated that she was fighting."

"I...she was just a kid then. Now she's old enough to choose!"

"You don't believe what you say," Heero says quietly and purposefully. "You rejected the idea of her fighting because it was all up to you, back then. You had to bear the burden, you had to suffer, you had to fight and kill and bleed so that others wouldn't. You said so yourself, it's not a mystery. And you still feel that way. You haven't changed, Duo."

"No shit, Yuy. You're a fucking genius."

"Relena didn't want me to join, but you thought I should."

"Well you're not some naive chick who can't tell bullshit propaganda from the word of God, okay? You can fight. You can survive."

"Hilde wasn't so clueless. She had her mission, just like we did. It was different, but it was important to her."

"Oh, give me a break, like you know anything about Hilde! And why the fuck are we talking about her?"

"We're actually talking about you."

"Funny, I thought we were talking about you."

"You don't like Relena," Heero says. He states it without hesitation and looks Duo flatly in the eye.

"Confessions, confessions," Duo mutters and chuckles, shaking his head. "You've got me all wrong."

"Mm?" Heero hums. "Maybe about her. But not other things." Heero suddenly looks purposeful and understanding and alluring. "Are you sleeping with Hilde?" he asks suddenly, motionless in bed.

The question sends Duo reeling. He can't grasp Heero's angle but he can tell it will just lead to more trouble. "That, darling, is personal," he quips. "I'll see you later."

Duo heads back to the door where he meant to be much earlier. "Night!" he salutes and turns on his heel.

Heero does not say wait, or come back or don't go. He nods to Duo and watches him walk out of the room, hands shoved deep into his pockets, chin up, mouth tight, looking straight ahead.

Duo spends his day off walking for hours at a time. He doesn't go back to the hospital. He doesn't call Wufei. He fills up jar after jar with blood.

"Quatre I need to talk," Duo says as soon as the phone clicks online from the other end.

"Quatre isn't here right now," Trowa says. His voice is all subdued amusement and Duo cannot stand it in his state.

"Hey man," he says slipping a softer tone in because the edge is getting very sharp. "I guess things are going well with you guys."

"Yes," Trowa replies simply. "Quatre is washing his face. He'll be out in a minute."

"Hmm," Duo says, implying more. "His face. Ha. Well, listen, then."

"I'm listening," Trowa says, as if it's obvious. They are on the phone.

"Make sure Quatre treats you alright," he says quickly, earnestly.

To his surprise, Trowa chuckles. "I was expecting something more along the lines of, If you hurt Quatre, I'll saute your entrails."

Duo allows a smirk to creep onto his lips. "Ah, but see? You already know that, so why say it? What I mean is, Quatre is Quatre Winner and he never forgets that about himself. He'll attend to a million perfect strangers before he remembers to feed himself and regular bullshit like that. So make sure, no matter what, that he's putting you first, hear? He'll love you but he'll put you on the back burner and fucking don't let him."

"You sound suspiciously like you have experience with that."

"Absolutely not," Duo says seriously. "I'm used to the back burner. I'm just saying, Quatre really loves you, and don't forget it, no matter what he does or doesn't do. Don't give up on him. Don't let him be Quatre Winner all the time."

"Alright," Trowa agrees and Duo knows he feels awkward talking about such things but he couldn't leave it unsaid.

"Or I'll shish-kabob your entrails while they're still inside you, yeah?" Duo smiles and Trowa chuckles.

"That's fair warning," Trowa admits. "Here's Quatre."

They don't say goodbye, Trowa slips away from the phone as quietly as ever and then Quatre's voice says, "What's fair warning?"

"Just telling your boyfriend some stuff," Duo says airily.

"Threatening him, perhaps?" Quatre guesses.

"Yeah," Duo admits. "Of course."

"Is that why you called?"

"No. Just seemed so convenient that Trowa answered."

Quatre laughs a little and Duo can hear a quick, muffled conversation going on and a door closing softly. "How are you?" Quatre says once Trowa has left the room.

Having been intercepted, Duo can't bring himself to bring up the subject of his call. "How are you, is more interesting," he shoots back at Quatre. "New boyfriend, hm?"

"Trowa and I are very well and everything is lovely," Quatre says, a mischievous lilt in his voice.

"You're so good at describing things," Duo say. "I feel like I'm there."

"Ha, you're so witty. How about, Trowa and I are very, very happy together and I'm so happy personally that the entire world seems to melt away when I'm with him. How about that?"

"Top marks, very nice. I guess my warning to Trowa was useless."

"Probably," Quatre laughs. "But what's up?"

"Well," Duo hedges, wondering if he should bolt from the phone. "It's not so pleasant."

"Oh no, are you alright?" Suddenly Quatre is all tension and worry, the teasing in his tone completely gone.

"I'm..." Duo hesitates and can't believe it. He wants to throw Quatre off the scent until he's ready, but suddenly his throat feels thick and the words decompose on his tongue.

"Duo?! What's wrong? Go sit by your vid screen!"

Quatre can be a commanding jerk when he wants to be and Duo numbly switches on the vid, though the picture isn't clear.

"Duo?" Quatre says gently. Duo can't stand to have his name called gently. He can't see anything but smoke.

"Heero's in the hospital," he says wildly.

"I know," Quatre nods. "You told me." Quatre says this with Understanding. Duo ducks his head. He switches off the vid screen.

"Hey," Quatre starts but Duo cuts him off.

"You know, don't you?" he asks, but he doesn't really ask.

Quatre hesitates and then says, "Yes, I know."

"Damn it," Duo breathes, scrubbing his face. "Damn it."

He feels tired again. He hasn't slept since the hospital.

"What am I supposed to do?" he asks. Maybe he pleads.

"Don't be afraid of it. Tell him," Quatre suggests.

Duo looks up to give Quatre a hard look and then remembers the screen is off.

"Brilliant. I never thought of that."

"Don't take it out on me, Duo," Quatre says in his business voice, the one that will be Obeyed.

"I'm trying to help you."

"Fine," Duo begrudges him that one word and then sighs. "No, you're right."

"Telling him is the only way to know for sure."

"There's nothing to know! He's devoted to Relena. I think that makes everything pretty Known!"

"You can't be sure until you tell him."

"His nose is broken. He sounds like a fucking moron when he talks recently. Relena came to visit him and she lost her shit all over the place. They had to sedate her. She's the coldest son of a bitch, staring down guns and throwing herself in front of gundams, whatever, and she fucking spills it for Heero like it's the worst thing ever. A fucking broken nose! A bullet in the leg!"

"Didn't he get shot in the face? Couldn't he have easily died?"

"He didn't! He was right there, all together, and she acted like she saw him collapsed there, breathing in his own blood, fucking absolutely dead on the ground, this hole in his face, bone fragments sticking out. By that time he was clean and bandaged like any other broken nose."

"Duo, please calm down."

"I didn't start out wanting to be with him! I fucking... he's safe, you know? Because he doesn't care. He's gorgeous for it, totally unattainable, just like he should be, with this perfect savior princess on his arm, this Mission and Purpose. But God, I can't even fucking help it. It started out like, this will work. Release, a little excitement, all very convenient, like even professional. Just sorta sexual, nothing complicated. And then that stupid fucking bitch..." Duo can't continue. His throat is constricted in frustration.

"Who, Relena?" Quatre asks tentatively.

"No, Heero!" Duo yells in exasperation. "He fucking makes it almost..." Duo's voice loses its anger. He whispers. "...Possible. What am I supposed to do with that?"

"If you feel like there is a chance then why are you afraid?" Quatre wants to know.

"I'm not afraid," Duo disagrees. "I'm..."



"You're afraid and you're convincing yourself that Heero doesn't care because of that. I know you, Duo. I've seen you put everything and everyone before yourself. It's taken you years to confide this to me and your own lack of self-worth is to blame! I've seen you back away from real opportunities to move on with your life because you're too terrified that it won't work out and that you'll lose everything again."

Duo jumps when Solo and Sister Helen put their hands on his shoulders. He flees from the couch, interrupting Quatre. "And if I think that, so what?! There's plenty of precedent!"

Quatre's voice is smooth and understanding. "I know, Duo. And at least you've admitted it, but you can go further. You really can tell him, Duo, honestly you can. Heero isn't the kind of person to be scared away by a confession like that."

"I --!" Duo has a retort all ready but the truth of Quatre's statement hits hard. He runs out of oxygen like an old airlock. "Yeah. I know, Q. He's steadfast. I just don't want to end the dream, you know?"

"I do know," Quatre says and he does. "You know I know."

Duo sighs. "Heero hasn't spent more than an afternoon with me every few weeks since Relena took him over and he's never really seemed upset about it. I just let it be. I mean, whatever. If he's really happy..."

"You called me because you wanted my advice. I'm saying tell him and frankly Duo, you knew I would say so. Just let me give you the pep talk you need so you can get on with it. Don't fight it."

"Okay Quat, fine, you got me. I'm afraid. Make me brave."

Quatre's calm explanations and earnest advice remind Duo of the old days, when his friend was trying so hard to show them teamwork was superior to lone operations. 'It's the same idea,' Duo thinks. 'I can look at it like that.'

"But wait," he says, interrupting Quatre. "My moral issue here is Relena. If he's with her then I don't want to say anything!"

Quatre is quiet for a moment and Duo almost fears he doesn't have an answer, but then that clear voice comes through. "If they're together, and they're happy, then nothing you could admit will change that. If they're not together, then you're all set."

"What if they're together, but unhappy?"

"Then will you really feel all that badly?"

"Guess not."

When they hang up Duo doesn't necessarily feel more confident or less afraid, but at least he knows Quatre has his back and will hold him accountable. He feels lighter for saying it to someone, like he's drawn poison out of a wound. The injury remains but there is a chance for it to heal.

It's inordinately amusing that Quatre accused him of putting other people first. Quatre, meet mirror.

Trowa, Duo's confident, can be counted on to keep that guy in check.

An hour out of talking to Quatre, all Duo's excuses come creeping back on Solo's heels as he paces the bedroom in the dark.

Whatever the case, he simply can't believe that Heero has ever thought of him in any other capacity than Duo Maxwell, comrade, full stop.

At the office things progress in a relieving routine. Duo and Wufei follow leads and turn down field cases until things settle down. They do some programming and Duo takes on some ultra-enjoyable hacking gigs with a prowess that leaves the I.T. team begging for more.

Through progress reports by Sally Po Duo is informed of Heero's continuing recovery. Each time Wufei offers him a ride to the hospital he seems to have plans. He's forgotten to charge his phone ten days in a row. The only good news that comes through his defenses is that Wufei's girl agreed to a date. A small flare of life returns. He vows to find out who.

On the eleventh day there is a tentative knock on his office door, which is open anyway. Duo looks up from his e-reader and the feet that were on his desk thud to the floor.

"Relena," he says in monotone shock. "What's up?"

She's very put together. Her business jacket and pencil skirt are crisp and powerful. Her hair is twisted in an elegant bun, soft tendrils grace her neck. The whole picture is so charming, but only one person's appearance can disarm him.

"Hi Duo," she says with a soft smile. "Can I come in for a moment?"


There isn't an extra chair in Duo's room so she leans against a filing cabinet as if it's no big thing, as if she's totally comfortable. He actually can't imagine her losing her cool in Heero's hospital room.

"How are you?" she asks. Her words cling to her mouth, like they weren't the ones she meant to say.

"Same old," Duo replies with a shrug. "You?"

Relena nods as if something has been decided. "I've had a Revelation," she says outright.

"Yeah?" His head tilts. He eyes her.

"Yes," she says and her head drops and her eyes close and there is a sad smile of resignation on her face. Then her eyes lift and bun into Duo's. "Heero doesn't need to be saved."

"Yeah," he repeats, waiting for the rest of it. They share an expectant glance, but each is waiting for something different.

Then Relena's laughter peals through the room. She laughs so loud that her hand flies up to her mouth.

"You already knew," she says after a time, sounding sad and amused all at once.

Duo's expression is incredulous but he's chewing his lip and flicking his bangs out of his eyes to let something polite have time to occur to him. "Yeah. I knew," is all he can think of.

She twists her hands then in a helpless and unsure gesture, pushing off the cabinet to pace. "I used to think he needed someone to guide him a bit, or to just be there if things got a little too heavy. It's nothing more than regular friendship, but for some reason I thought it would be a totally different action with Heero."

She looks to Duo to see if he is understanding. He looks back, unsure.

"Honestly, I think I wanted to show him what kind of person he could become, just like he showed me during the war. I never would have thought of it, but then, sometimes, he did appear to need me and it simply took root in my head."

"It's nice to be needed," Duo says slowly.

"But nicer still to be wanted," Relena continues. She shakes her head and old memories tumble out through her mouth. "All of you were so electric in my eyes, back then. I couldn't get near you and I couldn't compete. Each motive that you cherished completely mystified me. I didn't even want to be part of anything, I just wanted to understand. Heero taught me how to find my place in the world when everything else was out of my hands. I wanted to do the same for him when the situation reversed itself." She looks helplessly at Duo, whose eyes are sympathetic and clear. "But he doesn't need to be saved. He needs to be free."

Duo isn't sure if he's supposed to say anything to that.

"It hit me at the hospital. I'd worked so hard to keep him safe and show him a different way, and I felt like I failed when I saw him there. I felt like I'd really lost him, or any understanding of him I'd had." She chuckles self-deprecatingly. "I guess you can still be naive even when you're an adult."

They lock eyes and Duo can only say, "You're...really honest."

She laughs again, but it's genuine. "Shouldn't I be? It's the only thing I can really control, after all."

"Heero wanting to be a doesn't mean you've lost him."

Relena puts her hands on her hips and looks satisfied. "I know. You're right. It simply made me realize I never had him to begin with. But we'll continue being friends as usual, and maybe he'll appreciate my friendship better when I'm not trying to help him out so much."

'She's like Hilde,' Duo thinks. 'Her pain at the hospital was like Hilde's at my place. A sense of helpless loss. But after all, it didn't really mean that. Nothing was lost, things just changed. And probably for the better.'

"Holy..." Duo says aloud when it hits him and Relena looks mildly confused. "I just...realized something too," he says with embarrassment, waving her off. "Relena, don't worry. Things will work out."

"I know Duo. That was my Revelation. I just wanted to ask one favor of you in the meantime."

At her request, Duo returns to the hospital. Heero's bandage is just a small splinted strip now and he's standing by the window, looking out. Looking miserably beautiful.

"Hey," Duo says. Heero turns quickly and a small smile fleets across his face.

"You're back," he says.

"And sorry," Duo returns, looking sheepish. "I get why you stopped Hilde. Sorry for being a jerk."

Heero nods and watches Duo approach. The two lean against the window sill together and let the air circulate around them. Duo is brewing up the right words.

"So..." he finally begins before the clean scent and warmth of Heero completely overwhelm him. "This friend of yours, Relena. She asked me to watch your back on future missions."

Heero looks a little startled at the implication of Relena's blessing, but only nods. "That'd be... really good."

Duo leans the back of his head against the glass pane and tries to drag some courage out of the ceiling tiles. "But I told her I couldn't."

Heero's expression is inscrutable but familiar. It's closed off and cold, a perfect war face. A wall of uncertain protection.

Duo's shoulder is almost brushing Heero's. He can sense his entire body thrumming to press against Heero's solidly corporeal figure. The wind outside whips through the trees but somehow the entire hospital seems to have vanished.

An audible breath shakes between Heero's lips. "But..."

Then Duo's nearest arm creeps across the sill like a pickpocket, and slips over Heero's hips. The turn to face Heero takes an age, takes a second. He's really astonished to find his arm feels like it's on fire. Heero's chest is expanding and contracting at an alarming rate.

"I want something a little better than that," Duo says plainly. And then, there's Father Maxwell in the corner, smiling as he used to at Duo's games, shaking his head like the outcome was always expected.

Duo leans in. For his own revelation, he's not going to count on words. He stops just shy of Heero's sweetly parted lips and closes his eyes under the assault of anticipation.

"Yes." Heero's voice whispers permission with a pleading thread of urgency.

Their kiss is soft. Supple and electric. Heero's mouth is moist. Duo's hands are gripping him like he's a cliff edge.

When their tongues touch Duo moans. He can't feel where his mouth ends and Heero's begins.

And then there's a smoldering hand on his chest and Heero is pushing him back slightly, put not far enough away that there lips separate.

"I can't breathe," he whispers and smiles.

Duo pulls away gently and looks him over. "Nose wrapped too tight?"

"That too," he says, but leans forward again as if he can't help himself. "Duo...?"

With Heero's yielding mouth on his, Duo almost forgets to cover his bases. "You...really want this?"

Heero's clever blue eyes cut into his. "Yes."

"Because for a long time I thought --"

"Yes, Duo. I really want this."

There is a smirk and a kiss and his body reacts like finally it's found the capacity to feel everything at once. Finally, affection.

Maybe absolution is too complex, Duo thinks. He buries himself in Heero's hold and breathes in.

But the thing about love is, it can save you anyway.

When Heero comes out of the hospital Duo, Wufei and Relena are waiting in the lobby but it's Duo who takes him home.

As they drive by Wufei getting into his car in the parking lot Duo's jaw drops to see Relena in the front seat. Heero doesn't even look surprised.

As the mammoth green building disappears in the distance Heero lets out a breath of relief.


Duo smirks to hear his influence on Heero's lips.

"You're free," Duo jokes. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't even care," Heero says, smiling sideways. "Anything. I'm ready."

Duo laughs. "Yeah, man. Me too."

Heero's hand clutches Duo's thigh like it's an anchor; like he'll never let go.

During the holiday 'Give Life' drive Sally Po receives an anonymous donation of carefully preserved vials of blood. She smiles with satisfaction to see they've surpassed their target goal and thinks, 'It's a good day.'

The End

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