Doubts (cont)

I was... somewhat disappointed to find him on the computer again the next night. I didn't bother to check the logs; my software was due the next day anyway.

Things seemed so... normal. I watched him, looking for signs of what I suspected was going on, but everything followed our routine. Nothing seemed amiss. We ate, we cleaned up, I did a couple loads of laundry while Duo vacuumed, we watched some television and went to bed.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. I couldn't figure out what had changed. I lay awake for quite awhile that night, staring at his back and wishing I understood what was going on. Wondering about what I was going to find when I loaded that software... and not sure I wanted to know.

The next day, when my package arrived, I found I couldn't wait. I took a long lunch, went home and loaded it up. It ran in complete stealth mode, didn't even show up in the task list. Duo would never know it was there. I went back to work feeling both anticipation and trepidation. Feeling... guilty. Feeling justified. Feeling damn strange.

I called home after I knew he'd be there, to tell him I would be a little late. Wanting to give him ample time to... do whatever the hell it was he did on the computer.

I was both elated and disappointed to see him get up from the computer chair when I walked through the door that night. I forced myself to stay away from the PC through supper and through showers. I didn't want to risk getting caught spying on him, though there was some small part of me that felt warranted in what I had done, I would be mortified if he caught me.

I made myself wait until I knew that he was well and truly asleep before I slipped out of bed and crept downstairs. When I finally sat down in front of the system and opened the monitoring software, I found myself hesitating to enter the password. Found myself realizing how much what I found out might change things. What if he really were carrying on some sort of on-line affair? What if he was e-mailing or chatting with another lover? Could I ignore it? Could I live with it? I didn't think so. But a confrontation might lead to... something else I couldn't live with.

It was age-old habit that made me begin typing. A soldier, or an agent, should always have all the pertinent information. Anything less was to be unprepared. I pulled up the afternoon's screen capture logs and hit play.

I didn't know whether to laugh or whether to cry. At first I was amused. Then I was hurt. Then I was... consumed with remorse. I think it's called an epiphany, what I experienced in front of that stark monitor. I closed the program, uninstalled the software and went back to bed. I had another night of watching Duo sleep. I thought a lot about... us. About our relationship. About the things he did for me that I'd never bothered to notice before. I thought about all the things he'd given up for me. I thought about that ache I saw in his eyes sometimes. I fell asleep remembering his breathy, hopeful voice sighing, "I love you." And trying to remember how many times I'd said it in return.

It's probably a good thing that the Preventers had all but fallen over themselves to get me to join, if I'd had a regular job, I'm sure the hours I kept that week would have gotten me fired. I took off for the afternoon again, but I didn't go home. I spent the hours running around making my preparations, with one eye on the clock waiting for the time that I knew that Duo would be home. Knew that Duo would be logging onto the computer... logging onto the Internet.

When five o'clock arrived, my errands were all run and I was in position, my cell phone in hand waiting for it to ring. I suppose I was wearing something of a smug little smile, but it was only for a mission successfully executed.

I stood squarely behind the puppy pen at the dog pound, ignoring the sidelong glances I was getting from the workers, ignoring the yapping, writhing bundle of puppies clamoring to get my attention, staring straight into the lens of the 'puppy cam'. My cell phone rang at exactly five fifteen.

"Hey," I breathed into the thing, imagining that I was looking into Duo's eyes through that impersonal lens. Tried hard not to imagine who else I might be staring at.

"Heero?" he asked, his voice hesitant... almost shaky. "What... what are you doing?"

"Did you honestly think that I could ignore something that took so much of my lover's attention?" I teased him lightly, almost able to see the drop-jawed _expression of shock on his face at finding me here.

"I... I'm sorry, Heero," he murmured and I could tell how off balance he was even over the cell phone.

I cut him off. "Baka," I smiled, "stop apologizing and pick one."

"What?" he blurted and I listened to several seconds of incoherent noise before he managed, "I can't ask..."

"You're not asking, now are you?" I told him. "I'm telling. Now are you going to pick one...or am I going to have to do it for you?"

There was a moment of just listening to him breathe and I understood from the sounds that there was a small struggle going on for control back at home in front of our computer. "Heero... you don't want a dog... I can't..."

"Hush," I commanded. "It isn't always about what I want. What you want is just as important. Now tell me which one, lover."

I heard a gulping little noise and when his voice came again, it was thick and unwieldy, "The... the brown one in the corner... with the gangly legs and the ragged ear."

I looked down into the pen to meet the soulful eyes of the puppy Duo had described. He was easily the ugliest damn dog in the pen.

"Are you... sure?" I had to ask, looking at the feet on the thing and understanding that he was going to end up being a very large dog.

"His... his time's almost up..." I heard over the phone, surprised by the depth of pain I heard there.

"Then we'll grant him a reprieve," I soothed and felt compelled to turn my eyes back to the camera. Things were very quiet for a minute and I knew that the phone had been set aside.

I glanced back down and found the ugly puppy looking up at me rather expectantly, as though he had understood my words somehow, understood it was him we were talking about. He sat patiently in his corner, while his pen-mates yapped and scrambled around him. Experimentally I reached to scratch his head and watched him flinch for a moment before allowing the touch. I scratched behind the ragged ear and saw a hint of movement in the feathered tail. Big brown, mournful eyes looked up at me and I knew I was lost. I scooped the creature up and tucked him under one arm. With a shake of my head and a sigh, I looked back at the camera and waved the cell phone at it, before placing the phone back to my ear. It took another moment before Duo's voice came back.

"Yeah?" he whispered, his voice wobbly and unbelievably over-wrought.

"We'll be home in about a half an hour," I told him warmly. "Why don't you just call out for supper, ok?"

"O... ok," he agreed and we hung up.

There was a lot more paperwork than I had anticipated and a stop at the pet store with a list that the animal shelter clerk had given me. I ended up having to use the credit card by the time I had accumulated the food, food dish, carrier, collar, leash, chew toy, water dispenser and dog bed that the girl had recommended. It ended up being closer to an hour.

I was a little surprised when I finally got home, to walk into the house and not immediately see Duo. I went into the kitchen and found him standing in the middle of the room with his hands full of Chinese take-out cartons, looking as though he'd never seen the like before. As though he needed someone to tell him what to do with them.

The puppy was safely tucked against my side again, dangling over my arm with all the patience of a saint, bright eyes taking in everything. I went to Duo, and using my free hand, deftly plucked the cartons from him, setting them on the table. Then I plopped the puppy into his arms, leaving him no choice but to hold the beast.

When my hands were free, I cupped Duo's face and forced him to meet my eyes. I couldn't half name what I saw going on there. He blinked red-rimmed eyes at me and whispered brokenly, "You... you really do love me?"

Our new puppy sat quietly in Duo's arms and looked up at us, first at me and then at Duo, just as though he were following the conversation.

I smiled softly and leaned in to kiss him. "Yes," I told him firmly. "I do... I love you very much."

It was... painful to see the relief wash over him. Painful to understand how long he'd been living with his doubts and fears because I had problems expressing my affections. Because I had trouble saying those three little words that he gifted me with every day.

His eyes were shimmering brightly and he seemed unable to speak, just staring at me unblinking and I understood that there was a small struggle going on against tears.

I slipped my arms around his waist and pulled him as near as I could without crushing the gangly animal in his arms. "You've given me my world," I whispered softly. "And I took. Took without giving in return." I stroked gentle fingers over his face and watched him catch his lower lip in his teeth. "That's going to end. We're partners... equal partners. What you want is just as important as what I want."

He settled his head on my shoulder and said, his voice thick, "I love you so much..."

"I know you do," I told him. "You've never let me doubt that. I intend to see that you never have reason to doubt me again."

Our bodies, twined close as we could manage, made a warm cocoon around our ugly little puppy and all of a sudden he seemed to come to life. He'd been very quiet and subdued on the drive home and I'd wondered more than once what the little guy had endured in his short life. I like to imagine that Duo's and my love had granted him a little of the security he'd obviously never had. He was suddenly a bundle of squirming, wagging... puppy, licking enthusiastically at Duo's face and making odd little snuffling sounds. I watched them together for a moment before leaving them to get acquainted while I unloaded the rest of the stuff from the car.

I came back to the kitchen to find Duo on his hands and knees, following the little dog around as he explored the kitchen floor. They didn't seem to notice me as I moved about, filling the water dispenser and setting it out, placing the dog bed in the corner of the kitchen, setting out the food dish. I got the puppy's attention with the rattle of the food sack though, and he abandoned Duo to galumph across the floor to see what was being offered. I took the opportunity to pull Duo to his feet and nudge him toward our own dinner. He went, and he sat, but eating didn't seem to be on his agenda. His eyes couldn't quite decide whether to look at me or the dog. Finally, he seemed to steel himself and blurted, "Heero, are you sure about this? It's kind of a big change..."

"Positive," I told him firmly and tapped his plate with my chopsticks. "Now eat."

He flushed, seeming to notice the food in front of him for the first time, and took a bite. "He's going to be a big dog," he ventured. "You know that... right?"

"No," I said blandly. "He's going to be a stinking monster. The lady at the pound says she thinks he's got a little mastiff blood along with about a half a dozen other things."

I was pleased to see him suitably taken aback, but he didn't say anything right away and we ate in a comfortable silence, the puppy finishing with his dinner and wandering around the kitchen sniffing everything.

"I just... always wanted a dog," Duo suddenly said, voice soft, staring down and seeming to talk to his plate. "It's what nice, normal people do. I just want to be normal, Heero. I want walks in the park... and... and... popcorn on Sunday nights... and the movies sometimes..."

I put down my chopsticks and pushed my chair back, going around the table to him. He looked up at me, his eyes showing a bit of surprise and I nudged him until he pushed his own chair away from the table, giving me the room to straddle his legs and sit on his lap, facing him. He blinked up at me, his eyes full of a dozen questions, but he didn't speak, waiting for me. I brought my hands to the back of his neck, kissing him gently. When I drew away, I held his cross in my hand. I saw a touch of shock and a hint of trepidation cross his face, I don't know that the thing has left his neck in all the time I've known him. Wordless, I slipped my fingers into my pocket and pulled out the gold ring that had been tucked there all afternoon. I dropped it onto the chain with his cross and fastened it back around his neck, giving the two pieces of metal a gentle touch before dropping my hands to his waist.

He just sat and looked at me for a moment, before his fingers lifted the ring to look at it. I watched his eyes widen and then squeeze tight shut, but he was unable to stop the spill of bright tears.

I love you forever and always.

It had taken a bit of work to find a jeweler who both had rings I liked, and would do the engraving on the spot.

Duo wrapped his arms tight around me and buried his face in my shirt. I held him close until he'd calmed himself enough to look up at me again. He wiped roughly at his eyes, his cheeks turning pink, and murmured, "I'm sorry..."

I slipped my fingers into my other pocket, pulling out the matching ring on its gold chain. "Does it... go both ways, love?" I asked gently, holding it out to him.

"Yes," he breathed, eyes glimmering dangerously again. "Oh God, yes. Forever and ever and always." I bent my head and let him clasp the chain around my neck and then I sealed the vow with a kiss.

Drawing away, while his was face still tilted up to meet mine, his eyes just beginning to reopen... I thought he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Joy was a palpable thing that hung in the air around him. I bent to brush the end of his nose with my own. "Duo?" I whispered softly.

"What, love?" he replied, his voice that slightly husky one he gets when he's feeling... amorous.

"Your dog just peed on the floor."

His laugh was bright and unfettered, and I reflected that this new addition to our household might not be such a bad thing... if it brought with it these kinds of happy outbursts.


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