Author: The Manwell
Notes:
Chapter titles and subheadings are from the album,Infinity on High,by Fall Out Boy.
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, the Gundams, the copyrights, or the patents. But the snappy one-liners are mine, all mine.

Two out of Three
Chapter 4: Just off the Key of Reason

The road outside my house is paved with good intentions; hired a construction crew cuz it's hell on the engine...

"We kick ass," I informed my partner in crime as I dated and signed my name to the last document of doom.

With an easy twirl of his fingers, Trowa handed my ballpoint back to me. "The pen is mightier than the sword."

Too freakin' true. But, what I said was, "Dude, check us out! It's like we're already married. Here we are, rubbin' elbows, fillin' in each other's blanks. Pretty soon we'll, y'know—"

"Be finishing each other's sentences?" he supplied, his lips twitching into a little smile that was way more endearing than it should have been.

I nodded. "And sharing the Look. You know the one, right?"

"The I-know-what-you're-thinking-and-if-I-agree-to-it-you'll-owe-me-big-later Look?" he checked.

I guffawed. "Yeah. That one." I would have said more – a half formed thought about swapping toothbrushes popped into my head – but, just then, Trowa's stomach let out a yowl. It was so loud he actually looked a little embarrassed. "Heh. I think you'd better go acquire some provisions. I'll hold down the fort."

"Think you can keep these from escaping in the five minutes of lunchtime that remain to us?" he drawled, indicating the stack of completed forms with a wave of his hand.

"D'you think I should send for reinforcements?" I made a show of craning my neck to check out the remaining lunchers lingering over the dregs of their coffee.

"You make the call on that one," he answered, standing.

"What? Make a decision by myself? But we're practically married as it is!"

Trowa actually rolled his eyes at me. "You're going to turn into a pig if you keep hamming it up."

I snorted. "Come back with a power bar and a better pun, buddy."

He gave me a salute and strode off, pass card in hand, to raid the vending machine. As he walked off, I found myself watching him as if the way he filled out his khakis was the most fascinating thing in the world. It wasn't. Totally wasn't. I made myself stop looking and, picking up the first form under my hand, I scanned it for uncrossed T's and undotted I's.

It was bad enough I was going to hell for all the destruction I'd caused – and worse yet, I'd enjoyed causing it – during the war, but there was no way I was going to hell for being a straight guy who psyched himself into lusting after his friend, comrade, and partner. I was pretty sure there was a special circle in hell for the kind of mindfuckery I could potentially cause if I didn't get this weird attraction/reaction thing under control. I was straight, damn it. And this was not gonna end well if I somehow let myself believe that I really wanted to do unmentionably naughty things with the guy who was, in essence, my mission backup.

I decided that I deserved a paper cut and started playing with the residence reassignment forms with the intention of giving myself one. Of course, none of them cooperated. All their razor sharp edges had been manhandled to a slightly wrinkled landscape of uselessness.

I heard the approaching footsteps an instant before a familiar arm streaked across my field of vision and a warm, slightly rough hand captured my fingers. "Stop it," Trowa ordered so softly that, surveillance equipment or no, there was no possible way anyone besides me could have heard him. I looked up and was a little startled by the solemn look in his visible green eye. "If you can't tell me, then don't think about it."

A corner of my mouth kicked up into a grin and a bubble of humor-shaped breath squirted out my nose. Just don't think about it. Yeah, I could do that.

I pulled my hands away from the stack of papers and accepted the energy bar Trowa held out to me. "Thanks, man."

He resumed his seat, his knee bumping against my leg and I fought the inclination-born-of-guilt to scoot away.

"So, are you gonna take these over to HR with me and glare the trolls into submission?"

Trowa gave me a long look. "Wufei is scarier. Imply that discrimination is involved."

He had a point. Nothing motivates Chang better than a perceived injustice. "Okie dokie." I peeled open the wrapper on my, um, lunch and asked between nibbles, "You think we'll have our new place by Sunday evening?"

"If Wufei has anything to say about it," Trowa provisioned.

"And, if all else fails, there's our wingman and Mr. CEO. Really," I decided, "it's in everyone's best interest to get us settled a.s.a.p."

We inhaled the vending machine offerings, guzzled a cup of coffee each, and headed back to the office. I could feel Trowa's hand on the small of my back as we passed over the break room threshold and I tried really hard not to blush like a tweeny girl.

"Have a good day," Trowa wished me when we reached the point in the cubicle aisle where we'd usually part ways. "I'll stop by your place at six and we'll go down to dinner?"

"Yeah. It's a date," I acknowledged, earning a tiny, satisfied nod from my fiancé.

So, I was gonna have to brave the HR hoydens Trowa-less. I was kinda itching for a bit of confrontation since I'd been denied a scene with the security ogres earlier, but facing the trolls was a whole other sort of battle. One that might not go well for me as my Maxwell Charisma Grin seemed to malfunction every time I entered their territory. I was starting to think that Trowa'd had a very good point about recruiting Wufei's assistance. And it just so happened that, as I passed by Wufei's desk, the poor guy looked eternally bored.

"Hey, Chang. You feel like championing a cause?"

"Another one of your charity cases?" he replied flatly, his unblinking gaze focused on his computer screen.

I smiled as winsomely as I could manage but I think a bit of cynicism squeezed its way in. I hefted the residency change request forms and quipped, "Let's just call it your wedding present to Trowa and me, eh?"

He looked up and his startled air quickly tornadoed into suspicion.

"I know it's not as exciting as helping a friend hide a body, but..."

Wufei wasn't in the habit of rolling his eyes. I've long suspected that he just couldn't. Didn't get the smartass gene or something. What he did do, however, was heave a gusty sigh and mutely hold out his hand for the paperwork. "It'll be signed off on by the end of the day."

"I love you, man," I informed him.

Unimpressed, he grunted. "I did not just hear that. Be gone, Maxwell."

And then he strode off with the documents Trowa and I had slaved away over. I kinda felt bad for whoever was on the receiving end of his march, but... eh what the hell, right? For the sake of the mission, sacrifices have gotta be made. It was just too bad I couldn't hang around and watch the show. It was bound to be a blockbuster.

I arrived at my desk a whole minute before the afternoon shift was due to begin, startling a double-take out of my boss. I could tell he was dying to ask me the standard interrogation questions: Who are you and what have you done with my borderline irresponsible and moderately competent employee? But he didn't ask which was just as well. My reply would have consisted of "It's none of your damn business, pathetic Earthling."

Pretty sure that would have gotten me in some kind of trouble. It would have helped make the remainder of the afternoon marginally more interesting, though.

I clicked through another hundred and sixty-two emails before it was finally – at long freakin' last! – quittin' time. Hallelujah for the weekend. I breezed by Tro's trove of caustic and poisonous chemicals, wondering if I could catch him with his guard down and goose him on the ass in passing. He wasn't even there and his crash cart of cleaners was gone. It occurred to me then that, in helping me with those forms today, he'd put himself behind schedule and was now staying late to get everything done.

Damn.

I briefly considered hunting him down and offering a hand, but by the time I found him, he'd likely be all done. I decided to make it up to him another way. I booked it downstairs and – with a wave to Bret – jaunted across the street and applied my formidable creativity to the meager offerings at the general store.

Ten minutes, a thoughtful scowl, and a card swipe later, I had my purchase tucked in my pocket as I rode the elevator up to my floor. It only took me a few minutes to downgrade my office wear for a pair of worn jeans and a black, long-sleeved T-shirt so I plunked myself down at my desk, pulled out the little notebook I used for a ledger and jotted down how much of my monthly allowance I'd just spent. Considering the fact that I hardly ever used said allowance, I'd accumulated a tidy sum over the years. It still wasn't much, but it should be enough to cover Sunday's incurred expenses. And, if everything went according to plan, I wouldn't have to worry about exceeding my WEI slave budget ever again.

My doorbell chimed at 5:58 and, grinning, I went to greet my date.

"That was fast," I remarked as the door slid open. Trowa stood in the hall, wearing a pair of pale jeans and a blue T-shirt with a light jacket over it. "When I left, you were still out and about somewhere."

He seemed pleased that I'd looked for him before I'd blazed a trail back to the residential building. "I had a word with Quatre."

"Oh?" I think I sounded fairly nonchalant even though I was wondering if words had been said concerning the mission I was clearly in the midst of undertaking and which Quatre and Heero seemed to think Trowa was totally clueless about.

Trowa took a step back, making room for me to move into the corridor. His mouth twitched into a slight smile. "He wants to take us shopping tomorrow."

I groaned. "Fantastic. He doesn't actually think he's going to find tuxes for us downstairs, does he?" Hell, we were lucky the socks were wool and the shoes were made of real leather. I didn't dare ask for more than that. Most employees could go off-site for a weekend and do their quality shopping elsewhere. Us five former pilots, however, were pretty much condemned to whatever we could find in the general store.

"He seemed disturbingly optimistic," Trowa replied and – hell, I'll be honest – I didn't even want to imagine an optimistic, shopping-oriented Quatre Reberba Winner.

"Hey," I said instead, reaching out a hand as we passed his door on the way to the elevator. "Hold up a minute. I've got something for you."

He paused, blinking at me. I pulled the small plastic bag from my pants pocket and handed it to him. "Sorry ‘bout the wrapping."

He took it, but didn't reach inside to see what I'd gotten him. Instead, he frowned at me slightly, his gaze moving over my expression searchingly. "You didn't have to..." he began hesitantly.

"Yeah, but I figured it's the least I could do. I mean, you did give up your lunch break today to help me and then I starved you on top of that."

His smile this time was actually kind of charmed. "You still didn't have to."

"Yeah, yeah, but your fiancé is a pushover." There was no denying it at this point. On this subject, my being straight or slightly-not had no bearing whatsoever. Trowa was my fiancé and the man deserved a gift from his intended. I would have felt the same no matter who I'd asked to marry me. "Just open the bag already, man."

Still smiling softly, he did. He then stared at the object within for a long, long moment. I waited for him to pull it out and, after a moment, he finally did.

"Duo?" he asked, lifting out the braided, brown leather necklace. It was kinda one of those unisex things with a plastic sports clasp instead of those annoying metal ones that could catch the little hairs on the back of your neck. It was nice enough all by itself to be a gift. Each leather cord in the weave was well-tanned and each a slightly different color. The whole thing had kinda reminded me of my braid, which is why I'd chosen it. I'd wanted to give Trowa a reminder of me to keep with him, no matter what might happen. Hopefully nothing unexpected, but you just never knew.

The part that was giving him the most trouble was the stone charm I'd gotten to go on the necklace. The downstairs shop has had a variety of the damn things on display for as long as I could remember. It'd always seemed plain ridiculous to have something so obviously trendy in stock. As far as I knew, it was only kids who were still looking for a theme song or a catchy motto to define their lives that cared about themed jewelry, but in this case it was actually just what I needed.

I'd skipped over rose quartz pieces that had read "Love" and discarded large, jade beads that proclaimed "Life". The tiger's eye "Success" and the "Infinity" carved onto some blue stone had also been left untouched. I'd gone for the one word that defined us, both now and in the future. The charm I'd chosen was a wide ring of onyx upon which a single word had been etched: Trust.

It was true that I trusted Trowa; I was trusting him. In the future, I would need his trust in me as it was still simply too dangerous for me to explain what I was preparing to do. I needed him to know that I was not going to leave him behind, no matter what.

Trowa shifted his grasp, rolling the accessory over his fingers and drawing my attention to the fact that I still hadn't answered his unasked question. I stepped into his space and he permitted it, dropping the arm between us to accommodate me. I slid a hand around the back of his neck, closing my eyes as I felt the soft strands of his sort hair brush my knuckles. I took a deep breath and again his scent made my body hum with contained energy. I opened my eyes, lifted my face to his, and whispered against his mouth, "I mean it."

And then I kissed him. It wasn't as passionate as the others we'd shared, but it was more soul-baring. My mouth moved over his, my lips gentle but firm. I dared only a taste of him with my tongue and I felt him shiver when I dipped just past his lips. I was asking for nothing with this kiss; I was giving. If he could find it in himself to keep trusting me, I'd give him a new future.

I had no idea if he sensed this undercurrent in the kiss or – if he did – if he interpreted it as I intended. I knew only that he leaned into me, and that would have to be answer enough. We couldn't exactly discuss it. Not here and not now.

"Help me put it on," he requested quietly, handing the necklace to me. He held still as I positioned it around his neck and clipped it in place.

"In or out?" I asked, indicating what I meant with a tap of my fingers against the charm.

"Out," he replied and I left it sitting atop his t-shirt collar for any and all to see. It gave me a strange, little, prideful jolt to have it there.

No one commented on it when we joined the others for dinner downstairs although I know for a fact that they all noticed it. They might not have been close enough to read the etching on the onyx, but they had to guess – from the color alone and my affinity for black – that it had been a gift from me.

I wasn't quite sure how I felt about that, honestly, now that I was here, sitting in a group of my closest friends, all of us knowing that I'd bought something specifically for one of them. It was... Hell, it was just weird. I swallowed a sigh and did my best to resign myself to feeling awkward until this whole thing was over with. I'd deal with it later.

Yes, life does come with a snooze button and I hit it often.

"Duo," Quatre said as everyone continued not mentioning Trowa's new accessory, "I spoke with the manager in the shop here and he thinks he may have something nice in your size. It's not a tuxedo or an Armani, but—"

I snorted. "Damn. You are bound and determined to get me to blow all our honeymoon money on the wedding!"

Wufei grunted. "Where were you planning on going, Maxwell? To a lovely place in your imagination?"

"Why not?" I retorted. "The weather's nice there."

"Nicer in Las Vegas," Trowa contributed.

"Said like a true gambler," Heero intoned.

A moment of silence seemed to mute the entire table. Wondering what the hell Heero's problem was but knowing better than to kill the mood and ask, I cleared my throat and dived for a change of subject. "Better a gambler than a sadist." This last bit I directed at Quatre, pointing my spork at him. "I told you I had the old-new-borrowed-an'-blue shit covered, man. What gives?"

As Quatre fidgeted, Heero explained, "He's doing it because he can't throw you an actual bachelor party."

I glanced at Trowa. "For which of us?"

"Does it matter?" Heero retorted.

"Um..." I guess he had a point. But then another thought occurred to me. "Oh, wait. I get it. Q's gonna torture us with a day of dusty fitting rooms and uncomfortable suits—" And my personal nemesis, Static Cling (thanks to my mane of legendary proportions). "—while you and Wufei decorate and get everything ready for the surprise party later, right?"

Trowa poked me in the ribs with his elbow and hissed, sotto voce, "Shh. You're ruining it."

"Whoops."

Wufei joined the fray with a glare directed at Trowa. "Come tomorrow night, when Maxwell here finds out there is no party, you're going to have to deal with him."

Despite the warning, Trowa announced, "Gladly."

The little smile playing on his lips really made me wonder exactly how he thought he was going to distract me from such a monumental disappointment. I was pretty sure that if I asked nicely, he'd tell me... I just wasn't all that thrilled about him telling me in front of the guys. Y'know, just in case it involved an invasion of personal space. Which – I don't have to remind y'all – I still had a case of chronically mixed feelings over.

That didn't stop me from tugging Trowa over to my doorway when Heero wandered off to the gym, Wufei marched off to meditate, and Quatre informed us that he had some work to get done if he was going to hold our hands during the shopping trip we'd apparently agreed to endure tomorrow. I didn't say anything as I swiped and scanned, but once I had him in my room and the door slid shut, I informed him, "I'm tired of saying goodnight to you in the damn hall."

Yesterday, he might have taken that as an invitation to lay one on me. Tonight, however, his hand rose and briefly touched the braided cord around his neck. "I know."

Both of us deliberately ignored the red light on the room's security camera above us. Yeah, someone was probably watching us, but I told myself I didn't care. They weren't in the room with us. That was as much privacy as we could expect until we got our own place. I was 90% certain that the cameras and microphones in our shared apartment wouldn't be set to record our every move. Maybe if we had a third person over, but not just the two of us. I mean, would they really spy on a married couple? That'd be just plain sick, in my opinion.

At the moment, there was nothing I could do about being observed on a monitor somewhere in the building across the street, but I reminded myself that our days here were numbered.

I stepped forward and slid my arms around Trowa's waist. He leaned his head against mine, his chin resting on my shoulder. I felt kinda weird to just stand there and hug another person, but it was kind of nice, too. Sort of like pulling on a jacket still warm from the clothes dryer... but better.

Trowa's hands found their way up my arms, over my shoulders, and then his fingers tunneled gently into my hair. "Two more days," he whispered. He could have made it a question or an observation. Instead, it sounded like a vow.

"Yeah. And then you won't be able to get rid of me."

He nuzzled my ear before giving me a playful nip. "Promise?"

I almost did. I almost told him, "Absolutely." But I didn't. After this was all over with, he'd want a divorce and, despite the ceremony taking place in a Catholic chapel and being performed by a Catholic priest, it was only a civil service. Divorce was totally an option for us. I didn't want to make a promise Trowa was likely to hope I'd break. Especially if he was just joking around with me about it.

Besides, did I really want to promise him something close to forever?

"Hey now," I teased back, leaning away to study his expression, "I'm trying my damnedest to hold onto some of the mystery here."

"Mission accomplished," he replied, his thumbs stirring against the skin behind my ears. "You are very mysterious."

"Awesome." I couldn't help it; I grinned.

Trowa's gaze dropped to my mouth and, in the next moment, his lips were against mine and he was nuzzling against my smile which quickly faded and softened in response. This kiss was warm, unhurried, and gentle. It made my toes tingle and my fingers curl into the fabric of his T-shirt at the small of his back. He shifted closer and I became hyper-aware of the fact that my bed was just six steps beyond.

I forced myself to not rub against him like a cat.

"Hey," I murmured, my voice husky as I met his heated gaze. "On Sunday – the ceremony – do you want to, y'know, use different vows? Like, say your own or something?" God. Check me out. I'm so suave and shit.

He considered the option as he stared at me. His hands were still buried in my hair and his chest was only a breath away from mine and, damn, I could feel the heat freakin' radiating off of him. I tried not to fidget with the clothing I was grasping. I'd already tried to peel his clothes off once today. I needed to pace myself here.

"No," he finally answered and I wasn't surprised. Despite our plans on Sunday and my hopes for freedom, the future was still uncertain. Best not complicate things. "You?" he checked.

I lowered my gaze to the onyx charm displayed just below his T-shirt-covered collarbone. "I've already said it."

This time, when I looked up, I was the one to kiss him. And this was not a nice, honey-I'm-home kind of kiss. It was a Sunday-is-too-freakin'-far-away kiss. Whatever possessed me to back him up against the door and just dominate his mouth, I didn't know. I just really, really needed him to get me, to know I was there with him, that we were in this together. Unclear, but that was the closest I could come to explaining it.

He pulled me closer. It was blissful and – for a good five minutes – I lost myself in him. That was what startled me back to my senses, actually. My eyes opened and I saw his expression as I licked once more at his reddened lips. The sight of his eyes closed and face utterly relaxed and trusting nearly undid me. Literally. I was that close to collapsing in a jumbled heap. How could I want him and yet know that I shouldn't? How could I need to have him this close when I was pretty sure neither one of us would want to make our marriage last the rest of our lives?

I was so confused it felt like a strong breeze could scatter all my shifting, vibrating, grinding pieces. Shit. It felt like I was being held together with nuthin' but grit and cobwebs.

"Are you OK?" I rasped, noting he'd slumped a bit against the door. I cupped his cheek in my hand and did that restlessly caressing thumb thing that he'd often done to me. For a moment, it looked like he might actually nuzzle into my palm with a sigh. But then his eyes opened and he straightened.

"Are you?" he asked instead and his insight was almost frightening.

The best I could manage was a smile and a nod. It wasn't much, but he took it. He pressed a simple kiss to the corner of my mouth and then he left. After the door slid closed between us, I let my head fall forward until it banged into the hard surface.

Damn. Trowa. Damn damn damn.

That was pretty much the only thought in my head for the rest of the night. And it was a long damn night.

That's my excuse for why Quatre's nonchalantly-asked, uber-personal question got past my defenses the following afternoon. "So, the proposal... who asked whom?"

I was still kinda groggy and grumpy since I'd missed breakfast and my morning cup of coffee. I might have been a snarling feed-me-now beast if Trowa hadn't leaned on the bell outside my door at 10:30 this morning, bearing gifts.

"Here," he'd said, passing me a protein bar. "You missed waffles this morning."

"With blueberries?" I'd masochistically pressed.

God, I'd practically kill for blueberry waffles. I was pretty sure Trowa had noticed this over the years, so I couldn't tell if he was being honest or sparing my feelings when he replied, "Bananas. If there'd been blueberries, I would have come up and fetched you."

"Of course you would have," I'd agreed on a yawn.

He'd smiled and leaned forward to kiss my temple. "Eat your power bar and go back to bed. We still have two hours before Quatre tortures us."

"Oh, how you motivate me."

Trowa had smirked and I'd gone the hell back to bed. Dozing is shockingly easy when your stomach isn't trying to wrap itself around your internal organs for something to digest.

It was now later, of course, and I was moodily combing through the racks. Trowa, being the more cooperative of the two of us, was the first one in the fitting room. That didn't stop Quatre from piling more items over his own arm for the poor guy to struggle into. Although, to be fair, I doubted Trowa struggled with new clothes the way normal people did. I was engaged to the most poised man on Earth and the colonies. Of course he didn't wrestle about in the fitting room, didn't bang his elbow on the mirror or step on his own discarded shoes.

I tried really hard to hate him for that.

"Duo?"

"Huh?" I jerked my head up and blinked at Quatre until my short term memory woke up and cycled his question back around to me. "Oh. The proposal. Right, well. I asked him up on the roof. Had a change of perspective, I guess."

"You guess?" he teased, looking both amused and exasperated.

"Go easy, man," I objected. "I'm operating at only 20% intellectual capacity today."

"Should have bought him a cola," Trowa interjected and I turned to take a gander at the duds he was currently modeling. Damn, but he looked good in a suit. That suit in particular was very nice. Tailored like it had been made for him. Or, more likely, he'd simply been made to wear suits well. In another life, Trowa might have been a professional model instead of a terrorist-and-part-time-lion-tamer-turned-corporate-offices-janitor.

"Wow," my sluggish brain managed to produce. "Gentlemen, I think we have a winner." Before I could glance at Quatre and tack on "no pun intended" – although I heard Trowa's breathy chuckle so I knew he'd gotten it – the blonde wonder was tossing the items draped over his arm at me and stalking toward his target.

"Now don't be so hasty, Duo. We've still got a very nice navy there that—"

I tuned out Quatre and, meeting Trowa's eyes, informed the public in general. "I'd take ‘im as is."

"As is?" Trowa repeated and I think that was right about when Quatre said something about lapel hankies and disappeared around a rack of sports jackets. "A poor, shoeless man in a new suit?"

I glanced down and, sure enough, he was only wearing some white tube socks. "Did they mutiny?" I inquired of his missing footwear.

"Got tired of tripping over the damn things. They're sitting by the door."

Before I could do more that choke on my own chortle, Quatre was back with an assortment of fancy handkerchiefs which he proceeded to tuck, one by one, into Trowa's empty lapel pocket and then step back and give the poor guy the squint treatment.

"Lemme know if you need backup," I drawled, slumping onto a bench meant for trying on shoes, the pile of yet-to-be-tried-on suit trappings balanced on my knees. I folded my arms and laid my head down on my impromptu pillow.

I probably would have gone ahead and caught some Z's if anyone else were getting poked and prodded by Quatre Reberba Winner. For some reason, I just couldn't take my eyes off of Trowa. It didn't matter if he was lifting his arms so Quatre could expertly tuck in his dress shirt or turning in a circle to show off the cut of his jacket or rolling his eyes as Quatre crouched down to check the length of the trouser legs. I had my eyes – bloodshot to hell, I'm sure – on Trowa the whole damn time.

I grinned and gave my thumbs up when either Trowa or Quatre glanced in my direction. I was surprised by how fun it was watching Quatre nit-pick at a tolerant but eye-rolling and sigh-heaving Trowa. Can you blame me for thinking there might have been something there between them? Only now could I clearly see that it was more of a brothering that they had rather than, um, what Trowa and I seemed to have. Whatever that was.

Quatre finally turned Trowa in my direction and demanded, "All right, Duo. We're ready for your verdict."

"More than ready," Trowa muttered.

I felt my grin stretch until I thought my cheeks were gonna cramp up. "I dunno, Tro. You look way too classy for a guy like me. I'm a little afraid you're gonna say you don't on Sunday instead of ‘I do.'"

Clearly satisfied with himself, Quatre bustled about returning the unchosen items back to the racks. I was busy lounging on my bench, looking Trowa up and down. I was also enjoying the fact that he was clearly letting me. When Quatre disappeared from view for a moment, I found myself being stalked as Trowa prowled closer.

My mouth went dry as he stopped in front of me, braced his arms on the shoe displays on either side of me and leaned down. "Time to get off your throne now, your highness. It's your turn next."

I groaned and I wasn't entirely sure that the sound was 100% dread. "Hide me. I'll pay you."

His knowing smile widened. "Maybe I'm not interested in money."

A former merc not interested in money? Well, I guess that's why he'd left the business, eh?

"What are you interested in?" I flirted back.

I watched as he lifted one hand from the wooden racks and slowly lowered it to the center of my chest. His fingertips sought out and brushed the gold cross I always wore beneath my shirt. "If you know of a good catholic boy..." He gave me a sultry look that invited me to fill in the blanks.

I opened my mouth—

"Duo! I've got something for you to try on. How do you feel about lavender?"

I snorted as Quatre bulldozed his way back into view with a damn mountain of clothes in his arms. Muhammad moving the mountain, in-freakin'-deed. "No freakin' way," I retorted and, frowning thoughtfully, Quatre zoomed off again to find an alternative.

As Trowa moved to stand up, I caught hold of his fancy, green necktie-cravat thing and held him in place. "Hypothetically speaking, just what would you do with a good catholic boy if you had him?"

He leaned down and I lifted my face to his and let him kiss me right there in the middle of the freakin' men's department. "Only good things," he concluded softly.

I met his twinkling-eyed gaze and whispered, "Have your people call my people and we'll talk."

Then Quatre was there, clearing his throat and shaking a black suit with a snowy white shirt and a blood red tie thing meaningfully. "In you go, Duo. You're up next."

"Hell," I grouched, groaning as Trowa helped me to my feet.

"Come on, Duo. It's for your wedding," Quatre cajoled, using The Look. It was the very same look that had made me agree to sign my life away to a government-controlled-WEI in the first place. I still remembered The Tone, too: "Don't make me watch them lock you up, Duo. Please." I sighed. I was such a chump.

"Dammit," I muttered and Trowa followed me into the fitting room, smirking. Yeah, I knew he was gonna enjoy this. He didn't need to freakin' rub it in.

Trowa took my boots, ostensibly to watch over them but I think it was just a tactic to ensure that I wouldn't escape out the back or something. "T-minus fifteen minutes and counting, Q-bean," I told him as I stepped out in the first ensemble he'd thrust at me.

"Until what?" Trowa wanted to know, lounging on my bench with a shit-eating grin peeping out from behind that damn fall of hair.

"Kablooie," I deadpanned.

Quatre worked fast, I'll give him that. I suppose I helped in some small way to move things along by blatantly refusing to try on any other colors. He bullied me into a second suit and that was right when my patience just freakin' ran out. Plus, as Quatre was tugging on the jacket hem here and there, his off-handed comment to Trowa to "shut your mouth; you're drooling" was a lovely ego-booster and a definite vote in favor of the suit I was currently suffering.

"You don't like shopping much, do you?" Trowa joked as he walked me to my door nearly an hour later. We'd ended up getting new shoes, too, damnitall. And then the tailor'd arrived to hem up our trousers legs to regulation length and... well... at least it was over with now. I was pretty sure that, as bad as it had been, it definitely could have been worse. And it would have been worse if Q-ball had had access to an Armani. That pretty much decided me: I was never, ever getting married again. Or, if I was, I certainly wasn't going to tell Quatre about it until after the fact. The Look was preferable to more guilt-induced-type torture shopping.

"Me? Dislike shopping? Gee, whatever gave you that idea?" I grumped. I caught the upward twitch of his lips out of the corner of my eye and, when my gaze dropped to the necklace he was still wearing, I added, "I love shopping."

And it kind of freaked me out that I really had loved shopping for Trowa's gift. Although, granted, it was fun shopping for gifts in general.

Trowa noticed the direction of my gaze and a moment later his fingers were dancing along the edge of the onyx and over the leather. He didn't say thank you, but then again he didn't really have to. I could hear it anyway, y'know?

"What's next for you today?" he asked solicitously.

"Gotta get all my shit together. The security gorgons are coming by tomorrow morning to make sure I'm not – I dunno – trying to move a nuclear reactor or something into our new place."

Trowa made a non-committal noise and then it belatedly occurred to me to ask him the same thing. "You?"

"The same. I might go for a swim before dinner."

"Huh," I remarked, recalling the last time I'd seen Trowa in his swimwear. For some reason, my reaction to the visual was distinctly different now than it had been last time. "Maybe I'll see you there."

"I hope so."

I trailed my fingers down his arm in farewell as I entered my apartment alone and – with a sigh – got the hell to work. After all, I kinda had a date before dinner.

It didn't take all that long to sort through my stuff. The trash bin wasn't even full by the time I was done and there was still space in my two duffel bags. That's all I had to show for four years of living in the same space. Pretty damn pathetic, huh? Well, no one was ever going to accuse me of having overdeveloped nesting habits.

I found Trowa already in the pool next to the gym. He also seemed to be alone. Once upon a time, I might have yearned for the skill required to stealthily dive in and try to grab his ankle or dunk him. Now, however, the very thought seemed kinda crass. Instead, I sat down at the edge of the pool, dangling my legs in the heated water and waited for him to finish his lap.

He moved through the water like a freakin' shark, all bottled motion and effortless strokes. I was of half a mind to pull my feet out before he got within striking distance. He surfaced in front of me before I could muster the energy to retreat. Trowa stood up and the water lapped around his hips. I noticed that he was wearing the same tight, little swim number I'd seen him in last time. I couldn't tell ya if I was happy to note how well he filled it out or alarmed that I'd noticed at all.

"Hey," he said in greeting, reaching for my calves and massaging the muscles.

"Right backatcha," I retorted. I was a little busy being freaking amazed that even when wet his hair seemed to behave itself. It followed the contours on the side of his face, plastered to his skin and tracing the line of his jaw like it was frickin' painted on. Damn. My hair was never gonna look that good wet. Not even in my dreams.

And then I felt like a damn girl for even caring.

Unfortunately, after I forcibly banished the hair issue from my mind, I had sparkling green eyes, sensually smiling lips, and a broad expanse of bare chest to contemplate.

I figured now was a good time to get in the water where it was natural for certain bits to, um, float upward in my generously spacious black swim trunks. "Make room, pal, or I'm gonna take you down when I launch this pontoon."

"Do you even know what a pontoon is, colony boy?" Trowa murmured as he obligingly took a step backward.

I slid into the water with a sploosh! "Sure. It's like the doggie paddle version of the boat family." Which was pretty much how well I swam, being colony-raised and all.

Trowa watched my progress as I splashed my way down the lane, keeping pace with me one lazily executed backstroke at a time. It was on the tip of my tongue to order him to flounder a bit for the benefit of my ego.

"Here, try this," Trowa quietly suggested, rolling over and spearing the water with his arms, hands pressed together, and then pushing them wide and sweeping the water behind him, propelling himself forward in what I believe was commonly known as the breast stroke.

I worked on ignoring the rippling of the muscles beneath his skin. Luckily, I successfully managed it thanks to my decidedly cynical inner smartass. "And give you an excuse to perform mouth-to-mouth on me when I inhale half the water in the damn pool?"

"Just exhale as you reach forward," he coached, "and inhale at the apex." He thoughtfully demonstrated the technique for me.

Despite my misgivings, I gamely gave it a try. It was clear that I was never going to be a champion swimmer, but Trowa was a good teacher and I managed the breast stroke for a couple of laps before deciding I'd had enough of water sports.

But, it turned out that the fun was just beginning. "Trowa!" I yelped as he tugged the tie off the end of my braid without so much as a Pardonnez-moi and then shoved me under the spray of water in the gym's communal showers.

"Present and accounted for," he acknowledged, quickly working my hair loose.

"What the hell—!" If I'd known agreeing to rinse off here was going to mean dealing with both Trowa "Mister Fast Fingers" Barton and my hair, I would've taken a frickin' rain check.

"I'm just getting the chlorine out. Relax, Duo."

Relax. Right. The last time someone besides me had touched my hair I'd been a semi-illiterate, barely-reformed pickpocket and street urchin.

Not the best of emotional baggage to take a shower with.

But, this time, bathing was done in silence and with methodical calm. There were no sounds of splashing water, no shouts of youthful bravado, no gentle admonishments, no kind but exasperated woman doing her best to reason me into cleanliness. Now, it was just me and Trowa standing under the hot spray in our swim trunks.

The quiet of it alone was enough of a difference to give me the peace of mind necessary for closing my eyes and just letting Trowa massage the swimmer's shampoo into my hair. I leaned one hand against the wall tiles and allowed it to happen. It was easier than fighting him and it was a helluvalot easier than trying to tap dance my way out of it. Trowa and I were – as ever – being watched, I was sure, so yeah. I went with the flow.

"Are your eyes closed?" he asked quietly after several minutes of lathering.

"Yup."

"Rinse," he directed and I was grateful when he pressed the hand-held shower head into my grasp.

As I rinsed, I turned and watched as he lathered his own hair. It was weird seeing him with both eyes closed and his hair pulled out of his face. Weird but no more so than us both standing here, taking a shower together, I guess.

Since he got to do the lathering, I took the initiative to do the rinsing and was a little surprised when he let me. I guess this was his answer to my non-verbal request yesterday that he trust me. I looked for it as he reached for the bottle of body soap and, yup, he was still wearing the leather cord around his neck. If he wondered why I was smiling when he straightened, he didn't ask. We just shared a look and passed the soap between us.

I was reminded again of why Trowa had been my first choice for this mission; it was just so damn easy to be with the man. He never demanded explanations like Wufei, or details like Quatre, or compliance like Heero. He just... was.

"How long does all this take to dry?" he asked as I shut off the water. I felt him peel a wayward tendril of hair off of my shoulder and down the back of my arm.

"Forever and a half," I muttered and he laughed softly.

"I believe you." He then picked up an extra towel and offered, "If you show me what to do to help, do you think we'll get out of here before dinner's over?"

"An admirable goal," I commended. "Let's find out." So, I charged him with toweling the right half while I wrung out the left and then, employing two hair dryers and a pair of combs, we got to work. And, while it was nice having a hand, especially with dinner being on the line, and while it was comfortable with Trowa being the one to lend that hand, it just didn't make up for the enviable fact that he did nothing to his hair whatsoever – he didn't even touch it – and it dried perfectly.

I think he felt the heat of my half-hearted glare because he didn't offer to help me with the actual braiding. "I'll see you at dinner?"

"Yeah," I agreed.

He disappeared into the locker aisles and I heard sounds of cloth brushing against skin while he dressed, and then I listened to the sound of footsteps as he left. I was still only halfway finished with braiding the damn fool mass. For the first time in just about forever, I considered cutting it. Maybe after the mission, depending on how things went. It might be nice to try on a new "me".

I found Trowa in the cafeteria and the other guys were all there, clustered around the table. I waved, fetched a tray and got the last serving of everything from the grumpy-looking cafeteria chefs. Trowa pushed my chair out for me and I sat.

"Whoa, looks like you boys had a wild time without me," I observed with a smirk, taking in the assortment of coffee and tea cups, discarded sugar packets and creamer containers. "I don't know if I'm gonna be able to keep up with ya."

Trowa snorted softly and his knee bumped mine. "Oink oink," he muttered and I actually laughed.

Quatre smiled, too, but looked a little confused at our in-joke. Wufei did that exasperated sigh thing again. Heero just looked braced for another round of self-destruct.

"The hell, guys," I bitched playfully, poking a bit at my muchly-mashed mashed potatoes. "I have arrived. The party may now commence."

"Told you he'd expect a party," Wufei grumped at Quatre, who just grinned.

"And I told you I'd handle it," Trowa retorted smoothly.

I looked up, brow cocked and a challenge dancing on the tip of my tongue. And then Trowa's hand was thrusting gently into the hair at the back of my neck and his face was moving in and then he was kissing me. Right in front of the guys. With tongue.

Damn!

I wasn't kidding when I'd accused Trowa of having a slew of smooch-sessions in his past. If this was raw talent, somebody someday was gonna be a damn lucky life partner of this man.

There's no point in denying that I wasn't panting by the time he leaned back. I did not, however, venture to gauge our friends' reactions. I'd bet my braid that Quatre was trying not to smile and/or laugh, Wufei was ignoring us and looking offended, and Heero was probably back to incinerating people with the power of his glare.

"Show off," I muttered at Trowa instead and elbowed him in the side.

He chuckled softly and it kinda hit me then that this was a sound I hadn't heard much over the last four years, but I was fast becoming used to it. Damn, the man could even pretend to be blissfully happy. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, took talent.

"If you've got it, flaunt it," he reasoned.

"Hah. Watch it there, babe, or people might start thinkin' you've got something to prove."

He didn't answer with words. He just tucked a lock of escaped hair behind my ear and, with a tiny, satisfied smile on his face, slouched confidently in his chair, draping a proprietary arm over the back of mine. I just rolled my eyes and started in on my damn mashed potatoes and gravy.

Quatre got the conversation back up and rolling before Wufei could storm off and Heero could start stacking dishes with the intent to deliver them to the tray return window. "Your suits should be ready tomorrow morning," our super CEO stated into the awkward silence.

Oh, joy. The wondrous experience of wearing a suit awaited. Whoo hoo.

But, what I said was, "Yeah?"

Quatre launched into the schedule he'd already outlined for Trowa and I tomorrow and I just let him. It was hard to deny the guy his happiness and Quatre was always at his happiest when he was strategizing for the greater good.

Eventually, Wufei stopped scowling and crossing his arms and started contributing his entertainingly cynical commentary.

Heero still had nothing to say to Trowa, which baffled me. They'd always gotten along and I couldn't quite figure out why Heero was in such a snit. When he got up to return the used dishes and trays, I scrambled up to help him.

"Hey, man," I said softy as we set our loads down on the stainless steel counter. "What's the deal? Do you not want Trowa and me to get hitched?"

I'd never gotten any indication that Heero would be jealous and that still didn't seem like what was going on here, but I just couldn't work out what else it might be.

"I don't have a problem with you two getting married," he replied evenly and I heard the truth in his words. "What I have a problem with," he continued, his voice dropping into a grating growl, "is getting married under false pretenses."

"What—?" I began and then bit my tongue. I so did not want to have this conversation with Heero here and now.

Thankfully, Heero didn't press me about the mission. Instead, he said, "It's not my place to say."

I watched as he stormed back to the table.

Damnitall. He did know. And he still thought I was keeping Trowa completely in the dark. Guilt shadowed me back to the table, sizing up my ass for the juiciest bit to bite. It was just as well that our little gathering broke up then. I gave Trowa's arm a squeeze and then lurched after Heero before he could make his getaway.

"Everything is fine," I insisted, matching his strides. I wished I dared more, but I just couldn't. Hell, he should understand that, Master of the Mission that he was.

He pulled up short so suddenly that I nearly overshot him. "I hope so. For both your sakes," he answered and then he left me standing in the lobby as he strode off to the elevator. A long moment later, I felt Trowa's hand settle on my hip and the heat from his arm pressed against my back.

"Don't worry about it, Duo," he murmured softly at my side.

I nodded, but I couldn't get that look in Heero's eyes out of my head. I knew that look and I knew it wasn't associated with a mission. Heero was in full protective mode. But, for the life of me, I just couldn't figure out who or what he was trying to defend.

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NOTES:

The line – "Check me out. I'm so (fill in the blank)" – is from Avarice's Appearances Series, fic number 3, "Armchair Psychology".

Trowa's talent at wearing suits is a feature that I'm borrowing from Clara Barton's "A Little Less Normal", which is an AWESOME Duo/Trowa AU.

And here we see another glimpse of that cousin of Sunhawk's Guilt Beast (from her Ion Arc). You know, I always imagine those Skeiths on Neopets.com as the Guilt Beast for some reason.

Again, lemme know if you want me to explain references to Duo's past or Trowa's previous work as a merc. Still trying to stay within the canon here.

FANART ALERT: Kaeru Shisho has very kindly gifted me fanart of Trowa and Duo at the pool! Check out the main chapter listing of Two out of Three for the link. (^__~)

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