The Holiday Series by Calic0cat
FeatureSummary: A series of holiday-inspired stories chronicling the development of Duo and Heero's relationship.
Categories: Gundam Wing > 1x2x1 Characters: 1x2/2x1
Genres: Get-together, Holiday Fic, Romance
Warnings: Angst, Sap/Fluff
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 12 Completed: No Word count: 47285 Read: 78434 Published: 2005.04.14 Updated: 2005.04.14

1. #1 A Valentine's Day to Remember by Calic0cat

2. #2 White Day Chocolate by Calic0cat

3. #3 April Fools by Calic0cat

4. #4 Ties of the Heart by Calic0cat

5. #5 Family Pictures by Calic0cat

6. #6 Fireworks by Calic0cat

7. #7 Fall Fair by Calic0cat

8. #8 Haunted Houses, Horrifying Hayrides, & Headless Horsemen by Calic0cat

9. #9 Remember by Calic0cat

10. #10 Give Thanks by Calic0cat

11. #11 Christmas Eve Blessings by Calic0cat

12. #12 Christmas Presents by Calic0cat

#1 A Valentine's Day to Remember by Calic0cat
Author's Notes:
Written for Valentine's Day.

Story Completed: Feb. 14, 2003

Notes: Post-EW. AC 198, the guys are working as Preventers.

'Thinking'
"Speaking"
************ Time passing or scene/POV change

Duo's hands shook slightly as he held the card over the desk. Did he really want to do this? 'Oh, to hell with it. What's the worst that could happen?' He set the card carefully right in the middle of Heero's perfectly clear workspace and turned to walk away.

It wasn't like Heero would *kill* him or anything, after all. In fact, it was more likely that Heero would simply ignore the whole thing. Pretend that his partner never left a Valentine on his desk. Pretend that his best friend never asked if he was willing to consider changing the nature of their relationship. Pretend that Duo Maxwell never confessed he was in love with Heero Yuy.

Hearing voices approaching, Duo recognized one as Heero's and hurriedly left the area. He didn't want to actually be there when Heero read the card. He would know what Heero's reaction had been soon enough. If Heero showed up at the restaurant tonight, it would be the first step towards taking their relationship in a new direction. If he didn't - well, Duo would respect his wishes and never bring the subject up again.

***

Heero glared at the card laying on his desk.

"I told you ducking into the copy room while she was looking for you wouldn't solve anything," Wufei commented drily.

"Hn," Heero snorted. He picked up the card, held it over the wastebasket, and tore it up without even opening it. "Problem solved."

"You know, Yuy, one of these days you're actually going to have to convince that girl that you're just not interested."

Heero shot Wufei a disbelieving glower, "You think I haven't *tried*?! She just sighs adoringly and flutters her eyes ridiculously and tells me I'm so sweet for trying to protect her." He shuddered at the thought.

Wufei snickered at the expression of disgust on Heero's face, only to groan a moment later as Heero dumped a pile of paperwork in his arms with a definite smirk of triumph.

"There's the case files you were looking for. Enjoy," Heero told him with sadistic pleasure.

As Wufei left, muttering under his breath, Heero sat down and pulled a case file from his Inbox. He had a lot of work to get done today and wasting time dealing with a lovesick girl's Valentine nonsense was definitely *not* on his agenda. He paused for a moment, glancing at the wastebasket. Strange, though - that card hadn't been nearly as gaudy or as - well, *pink* - as he would have expected Relena to have chosen. In fact, it had been in surprisingly good taste for a Valentine, at least on the outside. Maybe the foolish girl was finally developing a little taste. Heero smirked at the thought. 'Nah.' Shaking his head, he went back to work.

***

Duo had tried to stay away, but by midafternoon, his curiosity was killing him. He just had to check and make sure that Heero had found the card. And he really *did* need to get Heero to sign off on his report from their last assignment.

Standing in front of Heero's desk and waiting while Heero skimmed through the report, Duo surreptitiously looked around the cubicle. The card definitely wasn't where he had left it on the desk. Nor could he see any trace of it elsewhere. Obviously, Heero must have read it. But he had no idea what Heero's reaction had been.

Heero initialled the report and handed it back to Duo. Duo was just turning to leave when Heero tossed a wadded up piece of paper at the wastebasket and missed. "Guess you're getting a little out of practice there buddy," Duo laughed, bending over to pick up the scrap. As he dropped the scrap in the wastebasket, other scraps, bits of an all-too-familiar card, caught his eye. His laughter died abruptly. 'Well, guess I know what his reaction was...' he thought, blinking rapidly as he straightened again. "See you around," he tossed over his shoulder as he hastily left the cubicle.

Back at his own cubicle, Duo leaned his forehead against the cool metal of the filing cabinet while he tried to bring the hurt under control. 'You knew he probably would react that way, Maxwell,' he scolded himself. 'Now stop acting like some heartbroken teenager and get your head together! You have work to do. Just forget about it. Forget about all of it.' Firmly shoving aside the rebellious thought that he *was* a heartbroken teenager and he'd damn well act like one if he wanted to, Duo sat down in front of his computer and set to work like the professional he was. He had work to do. Important work. Far more important than sitting around nursing his broken heart.

***

Heero's slightly puzzled gaze followed Duo as his partner left abruptly. He had the strangest feeling that he had just missed something. Something important. Duo had acted just a bit - odd. Not typical Duo-oddness, but odd for Duo. Something was decidedly off with his partner and it would need to be dealt with. Later. Heero turned back to his work, setting aside the problem of Duo's behaviour for later perusal.

***

Hours later, Heero arrived home only to discover Relena waiting at his door, Valentine in hand.

"I tried to give this to you at Preventers HQ but I couldn't find you, so I thought I would just wait right here until you came home," she beamed happily. "Here you go, Heero, Happy Valentine's Day!"

Staring at the very pink, very gaudy *monstrosity* he had just been handed, Heero wondered how he could have ever thought that the very tasteful card on his desk today had been from Relena. But - if it *hadn't* been from her - who *had* placed it there?

Trying to hand the card back to her, Heero told her firmly, "No, I will not 'be yours'. Nor do I want you to 'be mine'. I have told you over and over again, Relena. *I DO NOT LOVE YOU*. Now *GO AWAY*!" Giving up on making her take the card back, Heero swiftly tore it in pieces and let them flutter to the ground, ignoring her dismayed cry.

Turning on his heel, Heero hurried back to his car. The card hadn't been from Relena; therefore he needed to get back to the office and find out who it *was* from. Though when he put the mysterious card together with Duo's odd behaviour... With a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Heero wished he hadn't been so hasty in ripping up the card. Glancing at his watch, he realized he would have to hurry or the janitors would have been around to empty the wastebaskets before he had a chance to rescue the pieces.

Racing into the building, Heero tore through the maze of cubicles until he reached his own. A quick glance confirmed that he had beaten the janitor there. Dumping the wastebasket on his desk, Heero began sorting through the pieces of scrap, picking out and setting aside bits of card. After nearly half an hour of painstaking work - and an incredible amount of tape - Heero finally managed to piece the card back together again so that he could read the message written inside.

Leaving the mess on his desk, he - carefully - snatched up the poor mangled card and tore out of the building. He was late. Very late. He just hoped Duo would understand and forgive him.

***

Duo sighed and let the spaghetti slide back off of his fork. Even after seeing the torn up card, he had held onto a shred of hope that Heero might reconsider and show up. And since Valentine's Day meals at this restaurant required prepayment when the reservation was made, he'd figured he might as well come and at least salvage *something* out of the disaster his Valentine's Day plan had turned out to be. But Heero hadn't showed up, both meals were now stone cold, and he really didn't have any appetite anyway.

Signalling the waiter over, Duo requested that the meals be packed up to take with him. He couldn't let perfectly good food go to waste even if it *would* be a bitter reminder of a Valentine's Day he'd rather forget. The waiter sighed sympathetically as he gathered the plates up and carried them away.

Duo turned his gaze back to the table and leaned forward to blow out the little bit of candle remaining, only to have a hand cup around the flame protectively.

"I'm sorry I'm late."

Stunned, Duo looked up, hardly daring to believe what his ears were telling him. "Heero..."

Heero smiled ruefully and explained, "Relena was in the office this morning and I assumed the card was from her. It was only after I found her waiting on my doorstep tonight that I realized I had been mistaken. Then I still had to go back to the office and try to put the card back together to see just how big my mistake was."

Looking at the taped-up mess now laying on the table, Duo asked hesitantly, "How big was it?"

Heero's fingers slid under Duo's chin, tilting his head up as Heero leaned over and whispered softly, "Huge. Enormous. Gigantic." Lips so close that they almost brushed, Heero breathed, "Monumental," before closing that tiny distance and pressing their lips together.

Duo closed his eyes and let his awareness of their surroundings slip away, losing himself in Heero's kiss. Maybe he didn't want to forget this Valentine's Day after all. Maybe it was a Valentine's Day to remember.
#2 White Day Chocolate by Calic0cat
Heero tried very hard to ignore the butterflies fluttering in his stomach. One month ago he had made a mistake of monumental proportions. Fortunately, he had discovered it in time to correct it. But he had still ruined Duo's romantic Valentine's Day dinner plans. Duo never uttered a single word of complaint, but Heero still felt terrible about it. Reheating their meals in the microwave and eating at his kitchen table while they talked was *definitely* not what Duo had planned.

Today, Heero intended to make up for that mistake. He had everything all planned out. He just had to take his gift of White Day Chocolate home and he would be all set. 'Leave the gift at home, pick Duo up and take him to the restaurant where we have a nice romantic dinner, then I take him back to my place to give him his gift.' Giving a quick glance sideways at the gift sitting on the seat beside him, Heero smirked slightly. He thought Duo would like his White Day Chocolate. He just hoped Duo would also like the suggestion he was going to make.

***

Duo stole a glance at the clock and swore silently. The stupid meeting was running *very* late. Heero was supposed to be picking him up in half an hour and here he and Wufei were still stuck babysitting Relena at a damn *budget* meeting. The only threat to her life here was the chance of dying of sheer *boredom*.

Though she certainly hadn't been bored when he and Wufei showed up to escort her instead of him and Heero. Relena had been a wee bit - upset. And she had pretty much confirmed their suspicion that her own bodyguards had only been unavailable because she was expecting Une to send Heero as requested. 'She knows damn well that today's White Day and she was hoping Heero would show up with chocolates for her. That girl just never gives up. Unfortunately for her, Une's on to her little game and doesn't like being manipulated like that. So Heero got an unrequested day off and Wufei got stuck joining me in this pointless task.'

And he was going to be late for whatever Heero had planned for tonight. Dammit.

***

Heero stood in the hall outside Duo's apartment. It was now twenty minutes past the time he was supposed to pick Duo up and still no Duo. If Relena had actually had any idea that he and Duo were dating, he would suspect she was doing this on purpose. Since she didn't, however, Heero decided that whatever cosmic force there was, be it God or Fate or *whatever*, it obviously hated him.

With a sigh, he pulled out his cellphone and called the restaurant. He might as well just admit defeat and cancel the reservation. At least he hadn't had to prepay for the meal. He and Duo could just order pizza or Chinese or something whenever Duo *did* finally get home.

***

"Maxwell! The car's still moving!" Wufei yelped.

Duo just yelled back over his shoulder, "Thanks for the ride!" as he hit the ground running and raced into his apartment building. He ignored the poky elevator and ran up the four flights of stairs. Slightly out of breath, he skidded to a stop in front of Heero and apologized, "I'm so, *so* sorry, 'Ro! That meeting just went on, and on, and..."

His words were cut off abruptly as Heero gave his mouth something better to do. Duo quite willingly accepted the new task, wrapping his arms around Heero's waist and tilting his head to give Heero better access. They hadn't explored anything beyond kissing and cuddling since starting to take their relationship beyond friendship, but oh, were they ever exploring those...

When Heero finally drew back, Duo gave him a grin and said, "Guess I'm forgiven, huh?"

"Nothing to forgive," Heero answered. "The universe hates us, that's all there is to it. We are obviously not supposed to have a romantic dinner out."

Duo winced. "Well, if you still want to do something tonight, it'll only take me a bit to shower and change..."

"And pack a few things for tomorrow?" Heero suggested. "It's late now, so rather than coming all the way back across the city, you can just sleep over tonight..."

"Okay," Duo agreed, turning to unlock his door. The fact that they lived on absolutely opposite sides of the city from each other was making dating somewhat difficult. Weeknight dates were pretty much impossible unless one stayed over at the other's place. Which wouldn't be so bad if either of them had a spare bed but sleeping on couches wasn't too great for being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for work the next morning.

***

Heero slipped into his small condo and made sure that Duo's Chocolate was safely out of sight. He wanted to wait till after they ate to give Duo his gift.

Leaving the gift in the computer room, he took a moment to put some soft classical music on the stereo before returning to the front door to help Duo bring in their meal. 'From romantic candlelit dinner at a steakhouse to Chinese take-out in the kitchen. The universe really *doesn't* want us to get that romantic dinner...'

Though Duo "accidentally" breaking all but one set of chopsticks *did* make the meal rather more - *interesting* - Heero decided with a smirk.

***

"You *do* recall what the traditional White Day gift is, don't you?" Heero asked as they tidied up, throwing away the empty take-out boxes and washing their glasses.

Duo gave him a puzzled look. "Sure. Chocolate, right?"

Heero nodded and said, "Don't you want yours?"

Actually, Duo was more interested in curling up on the couch with Heero and finding something to watch on TV, but since Heero seemed to be anxious to give him his gift, he grinned and answered, "Of course!"

"It's in the computer room. Why don't you go get it?" Heero said.

Somewhat surprised that Heero was sending him off to find his gift rather than bringing it to him, Duo agreed, "Okay," and headed down the hall. He opened the door and switched on the light, expecting to find a reasonably large white box sitting on the computer desk. Instead, he found that the computer desk and bookshelves were gone, replaced by a bed and dresser. And, in one corner, a very large white box. A white box with small holes in the sides. A white box that was - whimpering and barking?

Duo crossed the room and disbelievingly opened the end of the crate. An instant later, he was fending off the ecstatic kisses of a half-grown chocolate lab.

"His name, believe it or not, is Chocolate," Heero said from the doorway. "Don't blame me for that, his previous owners named him.

"I went to the breeder intending to pick out a puppy. But..." he shrugged. "The breeder sells all her dogs on a contract that specifies that she gets first refusal if the new owner decides to sell. This guy had too much energy for the family that bought him and they brought him back. He was moping because he was used to having two kids to play with and the run of the house. He didn't like living in a kennel again. He's already housebroke and crate-trained and everything. But if you'd rather have a puppy, she'll let you switch him for one."

Duo was speechless. He'd wanted a dog for ages but... "Heero, you *know* I can't have a pet in my apartment! I complained about that for a week after I had to pass up those kittens Trowa was trying to give away!"

"That's why the computer room isn't one anymore," Heero said softly. "I thought..." His voice trailed off, then he started over, saying, "I know we both agreed we wanted to just date and take things slow. I'm not trying to change that; I still think it's a good idea. But we hardly get to spend any time together outside of work, between our work schedules being so busy and living on opposite sides of the city. My lease allows pets and I thought if you had your own room, we could still take things slow and date; we'd just be living under the same roof while we did."

Reduced to speechlessness again, Duo gently but firmly pushed the young dog away so that he could get up from the floor. Crossing to the doorway, he took Heero's face in his hands and kissed him. Kissed him fiercely and passionately and with all the love and thankfulness in his heart.

***

As Duo finally drew away from Heero and dropped one hand down to pat the dog trying to force his way between them to get his share of attention, Heero said in an amused tone, "I take it that's a yes? You'll keep the dog and move in?"

Duo replied, "Damn right I will! How's tomorrow after work sound?"

"Perfect," Heero answered. "Just perfect." 'Maybe the universe doesn't hate me after all...'
#3 April Fools by Calic0cat
"You sure?" Duo asked, still cuddled in Heero's arms on the couch despite the fact that the movie they'd been "watching" had been over for quite some time now.

"Mm-hmm," Heero answered, pressing a kiss to Duo's temple. "We didn't tell them at first because we wanted to have some time to get comfortable with this ourselves before dealing with everyone else's reactions to it. But I don't want to hide this now that we *are*."

"Okay," Duo agreed contentedly. He was a little surprised that Q at least hadn't guessed already, actually. But everyone had just assumed that *he* had bought Chocolate himself and had moved in with Heero purely to keep the dog. He'd thought he'd choke trying to keep from laughing the day that he heard Wufei commiserating with Heero over Duo's thoughtlessness in buying a pet he couldn't keep in his apartment then expecting Heero to just let him move in, dog and all.

He didn't know how Heero managed to keep a straight face as he accepted Wufei's condolences. It definitely was funny how everyone else seemed to think he would be a noisy, inconsiderate slob to live with. Everybody except Heero, that is, who knew better. He wasn't a neat freak by a long shot, but he liked things kept comfortably tidy. And while he might crank the livingroom stereo up loud enough to hear it while he cleaned the bathroom, he certainly didn't run it that loud *all* the time.

"Y'know, 'Ro, I bet they're all going to be surprised and disbelieving... We could *really* mess with their minds by waiting a few days to tell them..." Duo said thoughtfully.

"Why?" Heero asked curiously.

"Because then it'll be April Fool's Day," Duo explained. "And if we don't actually *tell* them, just sort of *show* them that we're dating..."

Heero snickered, "They'll think we're trying to trick them and keep insisting they don't believe us..."

"Exactly," Duo grinned, tilting his head to look up at Heero. "And they'll end up making April Fools out of *themselves*..."

"It'll be the best April Fool's prank you've ever pulled on them and they'll do all the work," Heero grinned back, swooping down for an enthusiastic kiss. "I like it. It's just too bad Relena's away at a conference - *her* reaction would be even *funnier*..."

***

Heero smirked as Wufei's motorcycle pulled into the parking lot and Wufei climbed off of it. This was going to be fun. "Ready?" he asked Duo.

Duo smirked back at him, "Aren't I always?"

Heero just smiled in return and pulled Duo across the seat towards him with one arm, burying the fingers of his other hand in the hair framing Duo's face and planting a deep, passionate kiss on his lips. He almost forgot why they were engaging in such a blatant display in the Preventers parking lot, he became so caught up in the attempt to map every millimetre of Duo's mouth, both inside and out, with his tongue.

"Good morning, Y... Yuy?!"

Smirking against Duo's lips at the shocked yelp from behind him, Heero drew back, breaking off the kiss, then pressed a quick peck to the tip of Duo's nose in apology for the abrupt ending. "Good morning, Chang," he answered in a completely matter-of-fact tone, as if Wufei had not just caught him engaged in a passionate lip-lock with his housemate/partner/best friend in the front seat of his car in the Preventers parking lot.

"Morning, 'Fei!" Duo said brightly, wiggling his fingers in a cheery wave at the undoubtedly shocked face looking through the open door behind Heero.

Heero ignored the wordless sputtering of their Chinese friend as he climbed out of the car and locked it. "Are we still supposed to all be meeting Quatre for lunch at that new Mexican place around noon?" he asked Duo as if they hadn't already discussed the matter earlier.

"Actually, Q said he might be done his meeting before that, so he may meet us here instead and we can all decide where we want to go then. That Mexican place didn't get a very good review from his secretary who ate there a few days ago," Duo answered.

They walked towards the building together, leaving Wufei to trail in behind them, thoroughly confused by their behaviour. 'And the day has just begun...' Heero thought mischievously.

***

Duo walked up to the coffee machine, then spotted Heero on his way there as well. 'And Tro's just started up this way too,' he thought with a grin. Time for another little show. Something more subtle since they *were* in the office, after all. He filled his coffee mug, then waited. "Hey, Tro. How's your day goin'?" he asked when Trowa joined him.

"Lousy..." Trowa grumbled. "Quatre set every clock in the place an hour ahead this morning, then woke me up 'upset' that the alarm hadn't gone off and I wasn't on my way out the door. I raced around trying to get ready and he was just *so* helpful, handing me mismatched socks and an inside-out shirt. He even 'accidentally' put hair gel on my toothbrush instead of toothpaste."

Duo snickered, "Guess he got you good, Tro. When did you find out he was pranking you?"

"When I went flying out the front door, still trying to get my shirt buttoned - *after* turning it right-side out, that is - and discovered that Rashid was busy washing the car. *He* asked me why I was leaving over half an hour before my usual departure time and - did I realize that I had a neon-orange and green paisley tie on? Quatre put it on for me while I was gulping down a cup of coffee and I never even *looked* at it," Trowa said, sounding very thoroughly disgruntled.

Partway through Trowa's recitation, Heero had joined them at the coffee machine. Duo stepped in front of him and leaned back against his chest, holding up his mug in silent offering. Heero's hand joined his, wrapping around the mug from the opposite side and raising it to take a sip.

Trowa's visible eye widened and he blinked, looking startled.

"Q really got Tro good today," Duo told Heero. He shifted his mug back over, Heero still grasping it too, and took a sip himself.

Trowa's gaze followed the mug disbelievingly as Heero raised it to take another drink, Duo's hand still holding it as well.

"So, is he going to still be meeting us for lunch or did you do something in retaliation that may change his plans?" Heero asked Trowa.

Trowa blinked, then answered, "Oh, he's still meeting us. Rashid wouldn't let me get even properly, I'm sure. I think Quatre may be properly remorseful after he spends a few nights sleeping by himself."

"Ouch. That's a low blow," Duo winced. "Rashid *did* stop you from coming in like that, after all, and I'm sure Q put him up to it."

"Because Quatre didn't want me speeding in thinking I was late. I know, I know," Trowa sighed. "Don't worry about Quatre, Duo. Leaving him to sleep alone would be just as hard on me, so it's not likely to happen. I just intend to make him *think* it will..." he smirked. "Cathy's going to show up for lunch and talk about what time I want to be picked up at and how she needs to know how much luggage I intend to drag along so she knows whether she needs to borrow a truck to haul it all."

"Ooo, good one..." Duo grinned. "She's going to have to be *awful* convincing if Q's gonna buy that, but it just might work." He glanced at his watch and sighed. "Oh well, guess it's time to get back to the grind. See ya, Tro." He leaned back against Heero again and turned his head to look at him, murmuring softly, "See ya later, love."

Heero smiled and took one last sip from Duo's mug before releasing it, gently stroking the back of Duo's hand as he did so. He murmured, "Later, koi," as Duo straightened away from him and started back to his own desk. Duo very carefully did *not* look at Trowa, knowing that the look on his friend's face after witnessing *that* little exchange was liable to make him burst out laughing. 'Two down, one to go...' he grinned to himself.

***

Hearing Quatre's voice, Heero smirked and wondered what he and Duo would come up with for *this* friend. Trowa's expression during their little display at the coffee machine had been absolutely priceless. It was a tossup whether his or Wufei's reaction had been more entertaining.

"Ready, 'Ro?" Duo asked, peeking around the corner of his cubicle.

Heero echoed Duo's comment earlier that day, "Aren't I always?"

Duo snickered in response and held out his hand, raising one eyebrow quizzically. Heero grinned in response and threaded his fingers through Duo's as they headed off to join their friends.

He managed not to smirk as they approached the small group waiting for them. Quatre and Cathy had obviously been briefed on what Wufei and Trowa had witnessed earlier because they were both watching them like hawks as they approached. Heero saw the exact second that they noticed he and Duo were holding hands. Cathy's eyebrows shot up and Quatre's eyes went wide in surprise.

"So, where are we eating?" Duo asked innocently.

Heero managed not to snicker as Quatre stuttered a few times before finally managing to say, "That Italian place next door..."

"Sounds good," Heero commented. After a moment of silence while everyone just stood and gawked at him and Duo and their joined hands, he raised one eyebrow and said, "We *do* only have an hour for lunch, remember?"

"Uh, yes, of course," Quatre said, turning and heading towards the elevator and nearly running into the coatrack on the way.

Heero exchanged a triumphant look with Duo while everyone's backs were turned to them. Duo squeezed his hand and grinned. Heero returned the pressure and wondered whether a kiss in the elevator would be going a little overboard. As the elevator doors closed behind their group, he decided he didn't really care if it *was*. Those full, tender lips were just too damn tempting...

***

Duo finished loading up his salad plate from the salad bar and headed back to the table side by side with Heero. 'That kiss in the elevator might have been a little over-the-top,' he thought. 'For a minute there I thought Cathy was going to hyperventilate. But *damn* was it worth it... Heero is one *hell* of a good kisser...' And Heero was really getting into this whole April Fool's Day joke on the guys, too. He hadn't really expected Heero to be so willing to show off their relationship in public. Hadn't really thought they'd do much more than a little hand-holding, maybe a peck on the cheek or two. Discovering otherwise was a pleasant surprise.

"Yuy and Maxwell together?! I don't believe it," Wufei muttered, his voice rising enough for Duo to pick out his words as they approached the table. "This must be an elaborate joke on us. I, for one, am just going to pretend that I don't notice a thing."

Duo glanced sideways at Heero, spotting the mischievous look on his face with something between glee and foreboding. Obviously, he was taking Wufei's remark as a challenge. Maybe Heero was having a little *too* much fun with this... Originally, he'd hoped he wouldn't push things too far and embarrass Heero. Now, he just hoped Heero didn't end up going too far and embarrassing *him*!

***

Heero picked up a couple of folders and headed off to Duo's cubicle. He wanted to make sure he was okay. He had a feeling he'd started making him a bit nervous at lunch. Feeding Duo a few bites off of his plate and stealing a few bites off of Duo's in return had - he thought - been okay, but when he'd started to reach over to pop the last bite of his cherry turnover in Duo's mouth, he'd seen the flicker of unease in his eyes and had set it on his plate instead. He'd been pushing pretty hard to get a reaction out of Wufei, who was equally determined *not* to react.

"Hey there," Heero said gently as he set the folders down in Duo's Inbox.

"Uh - hi," Duo said in response. He lifted his eyes to meet Heero's a bit nervously. "Uh, Heero..."

Heero winced at the nervousness. "I'm sorry," he said, startled to hear Duo saying the same thing simultaneously. He moved around to perch on the corner of the desk near Duo and reached out to gently stroke his fingers over Duo's hair, smoothing a few stray bits and tucking them back into the braid. "I know what *I'm* apologizing for," he said softly. "For getting so caught up in trying to provoke a reaction out of Wufei that I didn't notice I was making you uncomfortable. What do you think that you have to apologize for?"

"For *being* uncomfortable," Duo admitted. "I mean, I like sharing our food and feeding each other like that at home, in private. It might even be okay if we were at a restaurant alone together in a back booth or something. It just seems a little too intimate to do right in the middle of a restaurant, during lunch hour rush, in front of everybody. Just one bite or so would have been okay, I think, but you kept doing it... And I kinda started to feel like - well, like you were making getting a reaction out of 'Fei into a mission and you wouldn't give up till you *did* and that that was more important than what we were actually doing..."

Heero winced again. "You should have said something, koi," he said gently. "I *was* getting caught up in it, but I thought that you were too. I wish I'd realized sooner that I was going too far and making you uncomfortable."

Duo sighed and gave Heero a faint smile, "You quit as soon as you did. And you're right, I should have let you know as soon as it started to bother me. So, I guess we both messed up a little, huh?"

"We did," Heero agreed. "I won't accept your apology for being uncomfortable, you have every right to feel that way. But I *will* accept it for not letting me *know* that you were uncomfortable."

"And I accept yours for not noticing that I was uncomfortable," Duo answered.

"Good," Heero said, sliding off the corner of the desk. He dropped a light kiss on top of Duo's head before commenting, "I think we've made our point for today. Let's just act like we intend to in future from here on out. It will just surprise everyone even more when we *keep* acting like that after today."

"Sounds like a plan," was Duo's quick response. Heero was glad to hear the lighter tone back in Duo's voice and to see the nervousness and discomfort gone from his expression.

"See you later then," Heero said, squeezing Duo's shoulder firmly and pressing a quick kiss to his cheek before leaving the cubicle. 'Almost made *myself* the April Fool,' he thought on his way back to his own desk. He was just glad he hadn't done serious damage to his still-developing relationship with Duo as a result of his foolishness.

***

Duo threw the ball again for Chocolate, praising the eager dog profusely as he pranced back and proudly dropped it at his master's feet. It had been a long day today and Duo was glad it was almost over with. The day had started off well, turned a little bumpy near the middle, then smoothed back out again. Spending some time playing with Chocolate while Heero fixed supper was helping him dispel the last of the tension lingering from that bumpy bit. He wasn't mad at Heero about it - they'd both been a little bit at fault and their apologies were done and over with. There was just a little lingering embarrassment over the whole episode. But despite that, he could hardly wait to see their friends' expressions tomorrow when today's hand-holding and so on proved *not* to be an April Fool's Day joke. Though he didn't think they'd get *quite* so carried away again with showing their relationship off in public. They'd been a little too close to making April Fools out of *themselves* as it was.
#4 Ties of the Heart by Calic0cat
Heero read through the printout in his hands one more time. Not that he needed to; he'd memorized it after the first time. But right now, he kept thinking that maybe he would notice something different. Something that would help him decide whether this was the right thing to do or not. Whether he should give this to Duo and offer to go see the woman with him.

Whether Duo would want to meet the mother of the woman who was the closest thing to a mother that he had ever known. Whether he would want to do so this close to Mother's Day.

But there would be no one else visiting Linda Trumble. Her husband had died a few years ago. Heart attack, fortunately, nothing to do with the war. Heero had been afraid that he would find a war connection, an injury or death in the family that was Gundam-related, and was greatly relieved that there was not. Linda had been an only child as had her husband so there were no siblings with the accompanying nieces or nephews. And she had only had one child. Which meant that she would be alone on Mother's Day. All alone in her small apartment in a retirement community just a couple of hours by car away from their home.

And Heero knew that Duo especially missed having family around these special days. He had known that since shortly after they became friends. The question was whether bringing this up would cause more harm than good by digging up old painful memories for both people involved. Or whether the shared bond of the nun named Helen would give them both a bit of family in each other.

***

Chocolate whined and pushed his head into Duo's lap, sensing his master's emotional distress. Duo patted the dog's head absently, re-reading the information that Heero had just given him. He had wondered why Heero seemed so nervous and undecided when handing him the small stack of papers. He wasn't wondering about that anymore. He was very torn over this.

Sister Helen *had* mentioned her own family. They had corresponded fairly regularly; Duo remembered Sister reading bits of her letters from home out loud to Father and the children. Things that her parents had said in response to her stories of the mischief that the orphans got into. Things that her mother had written about the changing seasons on Earth. About the flowers blooming and the birds nesting in the spring. Things that were so foreign to L2 that he and the others had invariably listened in wide-eyed silence. Once in a while there was even the wonderful treat of a few photos of some bit of nature included in the letter. Something that left them all in awe and wonder until they broke out bickering over whether something like that could even be real. Whether those tiny baby birds really could have hatched out of eggs. How birds could possibly fly and sing like Sister's mother said they did.

And Duo remembered too the times that he would be prowling late at night, checking the perimeter of his "territory", his "home", as Solo had taught him to, only to discover Sister Helen sitting at the kitchen table re-reading one of the letters with tears of homesickness in her eyes. He hadn't known why she cried then. Why those interesting, sometimes amusing, letters would make her weep. He hadn't understood that until the church was gone. Then he had understood how even a good memory could hurt. Could make you ache so much with longing that your throat closed off and your chest hurt and your eyes stung.

But that didn't make you want to stop remembering. Not really. And Duo wondered if maybe Sister Helen's mother would want to know just how much her daughter had meant to those scruffy, uneducated orphans in her care. How her patient tutoring had helped them catch up to other students their age in half the time that the school expected it to take. How her hugs and singing and stories and fresh-baked cookies had taught them what it must be like to have a mother.

Duo looked up from the papers to find Heero anxiously waiting, eyes concerned and uncertain. "Thank you," he managed with a shaky smile. "I never even thought of tracing her family..." Maybe because he had been afraid that they would all be gone too. Or because he had feared that her mother wouldn't live up to the impression he had of her from the letters. Or that they would resent the fact that he had lived while she and the others had all died.

"I wasn't sure whether I was doing the right thing or not..." Heero said hesitantly.

Duo set the papers aside and gently pushed the dog away from him before standing and crossing to the couch where Heero sat. He curled up on Heero's lap and wrapped his arms around him in a tight hug. "You did love. Maybe things won't go exactly the way I'd like them to; maybe she won't measure up to my memories of Sister Helen or even of the letters she used to send but it's worth taking the chance. She might like to know just how much good her daughter did. How much we all loved her." He left unspoken the barely-dared thought that Sister Helen's mother might have a photo of her that he could have. Her bruised, bloody face was still clear in his nightmares but when he tried to remember her while awake, to remember her when she was happy and content in the church's kitchen... Well, it had been a long time and he could no longer clearly call her face to mind at will. And that hurt.

Heero's arms closed around Duo firmly, pulling him even more tightly against Heero's chest. Duo pressed a tender, thankful kiss to Heero's lips. The gentle kisses that they exchanged for the next few minutes were lingering and reassuring. Loving rather than passionate.

Just as the tenor of the kisses began to change, warmth turning to heat as hands started to wander, Chocolate decided to join in the cuddling. As over fifty pounds of enthusiastically lovable dog suddenly hurled himself onto the forbidden territory of the couch, scrambling to squeeze onto Duo's lap, two voices rang out in dismay, "Chocolate! Bad dog! Off!"

So much for the mood.

***

Heero spared his attention from the road for an instant while he stole a sideways glance at Duo. His partner was very nervous about this. Duo had even asked him to call Linda Trumble and make the arrangements for the visit, preferring not to talk to her himself until he met her in person. Heero had been surprised but had agreed.

The woman had seemed nice enough on the phone if perhaps a bit hesitant over the whole thing. Which really wasn't surprising since she would have been completely unprepared to hear from one of the orphans that her daughter had cared for ten years ago. 'I hope that this goes well. Duo has such fond memories of Sister Helen and of the letters she used to read to them from her mother that he will be very disappointed if the woman is not kind and compassionate at the very least.'

Duo had spent hours trying to figure out what to take with him as a small gift. It had been the lunch hour topic of conversation for the past couple of days. Wufei had finally pointed out that flowers seemed to be traditional for Mother's Day and also were frequently used as a hostess gift year-round. Duo had readily agreed to the idea. But then the question of which *kind* of flowers had arisen. In the end, Duo had remembered that - other than the scent of baking cookies - the fragrance that he associated with Sister Helen was that of lilacs. That had led to his recollection of her mentioning that she loved lilacs, the purple, the pink, and the white, considering them the *true* indication that spring had arrived, while her mother preferred the late-blooming fancy tulips, the parrots and the doubles and the fringed in all their many colours. Finding those types of flowers from a florist on short notice had been difficult. Fortunately, Trowa had thought to check with Quatre's gardener and it had turned out that there were both lilac bushes and beds of assorted tulips just coming into bloom right on the estate that he and Quatre were living on.

Duo and Heero had made a trip over there very early this morning and had cut the flowers themselves, wrapping them for transportation under the guidance of the estate's gardener. Two large, heavy bouquets lay in a cooler in the back seat. Heero had been unable to prevent a smile when he'd caught Duo burying his face in the bouquet of lilacs before placing it in the cooler. He had gone back to cut several small clusters and wrap the stems to keep them fresh before joining Duo in the car, tossing the small spray of lilacs on Duo's lap without a word. Duo had flushed darkly but had kept the flowers. The air in the car was heavy with the scent of lilacs and the atmosphere was equally weighted with anticipation.

***

The thick rich scent of lilacs that filled the car was opening a floodgate of memories for Duo. Sister Helen never smelled as strongly of lilacs as this, though Duo could recall a specific occasion when he *did*. Catching Heero's surreptitious glance at him, he realized that he had been silent for quite a while. 'Well, I've always meant to tell Heero more about my past. To fill in some of the details about the way I grew up. Guess now's as good a time as any to start... Least it'll keep my mind off of meeting Sister Helen's mother for a while...'

Duo cleared his throat slightly before beginning, "The last time I can recall the scent of lilacs being quite *this* strong, *I* was the one who smelled like flowers, not Sister Helen. The bigger kids were supposed to keep the little ones out of trouble when Sister and Father were busy doing church work. Somehow, we'd managed to lose track of Scamp - Sister called her Susie but the rest of us called her by her street name right up till she got adopted. Anyway, I went looking for her. Looked all over the place and couldn't find her. Finally, I decided to check the adults' bedrooms. They were off-limits but since when did a street kid care about a little detail like that?" He flashed Heero a mischievous grin in response to the choked-off snicker that greeted his question.

Looking back down to the lilacs in his lap, Duo moved them back and forth slightly, watching the play of light on the still dew-damp flowers. A smile tugged at his mouth as he continued, "I caught Scamp climbing the partially-open drawers of Sister Helen's tall chest of drawers. I yelled and started to scold the little sneak. But my shout startled Scamp and she lost her balance and started to fall over backwards. She was almost to the top of the dresser so it would have been a nasty tumble. She managed to pull the dresser scarf off the top with her. I was afraid she'd hurt herself if she fell, so I ran forward quickly enough to manage to cushion her fall but I couldn't really *catch* her and I fell down too. The large bottle of perfume that came off with the dresser scarf hit the floor beside me with a sharp crack. It virtually exploded and liquid splashed all over me and the floor. My poor braid got dragged right through the puddle of perfume and absolutely reeked of lilacs." Duo snickered at the memory. "I was - not a happy camper. Especially when Sister said that as punishment for letting Scamp get away in the first place, I'd have to wait till the usual day to wash my hair and get rid of the stink."

Heero laughed, "I thought you said that Sister Helen used to smell like lilacs, not that you did yourself."

Duo gave him a mock-glare and said in a deliberately petulant voice, "Very funny. Bet you wouldn't think it was *nearly* so amusing if *you'd* had to go to school smelling like flowers for a whole week." The smell had been pretty faint by the end of it but it was still there.

Choking on a laugh, Heero exclaimed in disbelief, "A whole week?!"

Duo pretended to pout and huffed, "Yeah, a whole damn week. The kids all got their hair washed Saturday night so's it'd be nice for church Sunday morning. The perfume incident happened Sunday while Father and Sister were off doing evening mass." He dropped the sulky act and gave Heero a wry grin. "I got tired of being teased at school about the perfume smell so I finally said that at least nobody could claim I smelled like a sewer *that* week!"

Sharing these nicer memories with Heero felt good, Duo decided. They'd both shared a lot of their darker memories already in the aftermath of nightmares. But somehow they never really got around to sharing whatever *good* memories they actually had. He wasn't even sure whether Heero had many or even *any* good ones. He didn't exactly have a *lot* of them himself; the bad ones certainly outnumbered them. But there *were* some. And judging by Heero's response to hearing *this* one, Duo thought that the rest of the car ride might be a good time to share a few more.

***

Heero squeezed Duo's hand reassuringly as they rode the elevator up to the third floor of the apartment complex. Their trip here had started out somewhat tense but had ended up quite pleasant as Duo went from one fond memory of his time at the Maxwell Church to another. 'It was nice hearing about some of the good times in his past for once. We've shared so many bad memories in the process of learning to deal with them yet somehow we've never really got around to talking about whatever good times we had growing up...' He didn't have a whole lot of his own to share, but there *were* a few. Now was not the time to start; for one thing he needed to go over those events and think about how to tell the stories involving them. Duo was good at doing that sort of thing without any preparation; he however needed to think things through and organize his thoughts before starting. Something that he would definitely start making the effort to do in order to share those few good memories just as Duo had shared some of his own today.

After stepping out of the elevator, Heero tugged on Duo's hand lightly to get his attention. "What about this?" he asked, raising their joined hands slightly. "She *is* devout Roman Catholic..." Heero was a bit sorry he'd asked as Duo's eyes clouded and his look of anticipation changed to one of trepidation. But they had made no secret of their involvement ever since that bit of April Fools' Day foolishness despite the fact that they were fairly discreet about it in public. Heero just wanted to be sure how Duo wanted to handle this. "Duo, if you'd rather we just go in there as best friends, that's okay with me. We don't have to let her know that we're together..." Not that they *were* "together" precisely. Not in the sense of actually being lovers, of having had sexual intercourse. So far, one or the other of them had always called a halt before they reached that point. But they were getting closer to it all the time.

Duo hesitated for a moment, then shook his head, the trepidation turning to determination. "No. I'm not ashamed of our relationship even if it *does* go against certain religious norms. I won't pretend to be someone I'm not even if it means that she doesn't like me because of it. I don't want to rub it in her face or make her uncomfortable but I won't hide it either, Heero."

"Okay," Heero agreed with a single nod. He certainly didn't mind if the woman knew that he and Duo were involved but he hadn't wanted to put Duo in an uncomfortable position either. They were both careful about that sort of thing ever since the near-debacle on April Fools' Day.

***

Duo held onto Heero's hand as Heero rang the doorbell with his free hand. His own other hand was occupied in cradling the large bouquet of fancy tulips in front of him. The huge bouquet of lilacs was still in the cooler out in the car; Heero had discovered that Sister Helen's body had been shipped back to Earth for burial and was in a nearby cemetery. They would go there after they had finished their visit here.

The woman who opened the apartment door was quite unmistakeably related to Sister Helen. Even the less-than-clear image that Duo held in his memory was enough to confirm that. Oh, the woman's hair was silver and cropped short but the shape of the face and the eyes were undeniably the same.

Duo shifted uncomfortably under Mrs. Trumble's intent gaze. He half expected her to put her hands on her hips and demand in exasperation just what sort of mischief he'd been up to *now* just as Sister Helen had so many times. 'Well at least I know where she learned *that* look,' he thought in wry amusement. He fought the urge to hold his breath in trepidation as her assessing gaze lingered for a moment on the clasped hands between Heero and himself

Abruptly, the woman nodded sharply and stepped aside. "Come in, come in. Don't dawdle now. Lots of things to talk about, no point wasting time standing around in the hallway."

Heero's hand tightened on his in a reassuring squeeze for an instant before slipping free. It immediately moved to his back to gently nudge Duo into motion. Duo stepped into the apartment, Heero at his heels, and waited while the woman closed the door before handing her the bouquet. "These are for you," he said. "I hope that I remembered correctly..."

The woman gave him a sharp look before carefully unwrapping the bouquet. Once she had the paper off enough to recognize the flowers, she stopped for a very long moment. Her voice was a bit uneven as she said, "You must have a very good memory, young man. Please make yourselves comfortable while I go put these in some water." Without waiting for a response, she left the room.

Duo exchanged an apprehensive look with Heero. He hadn't meant to upset her but her voice sounded as if perhaps he had. Heero simply shook his head slightly in response and moved to take a seat on the couch, gesturing for Duo to join him. Sinking down beside Heero, Duo indulged in the comfort of leaning against Heero's side for a few moments until they heard their hostess returning. By the time she entered the room, they were both sitting up straight and although close together there was an appropriate distance between them.

Setting the vase full of tulips on a corner table, the woman took a seat in a chair facing Duo and Heero. "Helen brought me those flowers every Mother's Day," she said in simple explanation.

Duo winced. He hadn't even thought of that. "I'm sorry Mrs. Trumble..." he began.

She shook her head and waved one hand dismissively. "Nothing to be sorry about young man. It was a lovely thought and the flowers are beautiful. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Duo responded automatically.

Abruptly, Mrs. Trumble smiled and Duo was even more reminded of Sister Helen. "No need for introductions here," she said. "You haven't changed that much from the pictures Helen sent me back then, young Duo, so that means that your partner there must be Heero Yuy, the one who called to set this up."

"Pictures?!" Duo gasped out. Sister Helen *did* have an old instant camera but he'd always assumed that all the photos she'd taken were lost when the church was destroyed... Beside him, he felt Heero's sudden increase in interest. "Do you... still have any? Maybe with Sister Helen in them? It's - hard to remember just how she looked sometimes..."

Nodding, the woman answered, "Yes. I have a few things that I dug out after your friend's call. If you promise to bring them back when you're through, you may take them with you to look at and get copies made if you would like."

Duo nodded in shock. "Oh yes, I would like that very much," he assured her fervently.

***

Heero contributed very little to the conversation. Mostly, he simply sat and listened as Duo and Mrs. Trumble exchanged stories about the woman who tied their lives together. They talked for several hours in fact, far longer than the day's original schedule had called for. When Mrs. Trumble asked hesitantly for the details of what had actually happened at the church on the day that it was destroyed, Heero slid over to wrap a comforting arm around Duo despite the chance that it might make their hostess uncomfortable. Talking about those events never got any easier for Duo; it always left him exhausted and tense. But Heero knew that Duo would not refuse to tell the story because of that so he simply positioned himself to provide as much support as possible regardless of whether that bothered the woman they were there to see or not.

Fortunately, it did not seem to. Her gaze narrowed a bit and she met Heero's eyes for an instant, giving him a very slight nod before returning her full attention to Duo's story. Heero was distinctly relieved. Duo really didn't need the mother of the woman who was *his* mother in all but blood to react negatively to his choice of partner. Heero knew that something like that wouldn't sway Duo's choice but it would probably make him feel unhappy and a bit guilty.

By the time that Duo finally finished telling Helen's mother just what had really happened, from the time that the rebels took over the church until he crouched beside Sister Helen as she blessed him with her last breath, Heero could feel the fine tremors running through Duo's muscles. Mrs. Trumble was clearly very affected by the story as well. She said quietly, "Thank you. I am sorry to have asked you to go through all of that again but I was never satisfied with the vague official story.

"If you wish to visit the cemetery you will need to leave very shortly and I think that I have reached my limit for today anyway," she continued apologetically, rising a bit unsteadily from her chair. She waved vaguely towards the corner of the room, "There is a box under the corner table. It contains some things that I have saved, things that Helen sent me from the time that the orphans arrived at the church until - until the end. Take it with you, make copies of whatever you like, then please return the originals to me."

Heero murmured softly, "I'll get it," as he and Duo rose to their feet as well.

Duo nodded in silent acknowledgement before turning towards the door. Heero joined him a moment later, carrying the surprisingly heavy box. The goodbyes were very brief then they were on their way out to the car.

***

Balancing the box awkwardly on his lap, Duo dug through its contents as Heero drove them towards the cemetery. His eyes widened in disbelief as he flipped through bundles of letters and photos. "Heero - *everything* is here. There's two years worth of letters from Sister Helen to her parents... and photos..." Duo's voice trailed off. He hurriedly shoved everything back in the box and slapped the lid in place. He had caught a very brief glimpse of a group photo with the whole gang, Father, and Sister Helen shortly after the church took the street kids in. Before any of them were adopted. He couldn't face going through all of this right now. It would have to wait until they were at home and had plenty of time at their disposal because he knew damn well that although sharing the photos and memories with Heero was something he definitely wanted to do, it was going to leave him thoroughly wrung out, exhausted emotionally and physically.

This particular Pandora's box would have to wait. Visiting Sister Helen's grave, especially after deliberately recalling her death, was going to be bad enough without adding this on top of it.

"Duo?"

The concern in Heero's voice was clear. Duo shook his head slightly and said, "I'm okay. Now's just not a good time to start going through this. Put it in the trunk while we're stopped please Heero?" He was a little bit afraid that during the two hour drive home from the cemetery he would give in to temptation and start going through the box. Heero didn't need the distraction of worrying about him while driving and he really wasn't feeling up to driving himself.

The soft sound of acknowledgement from Heero coincided with the turn into the cemetery. They parked along the edge of the road leading through the cemetery before taking the bouquet of lilacs and following the directions that Mrs. Trumble had given them to find the grave.

Duo knelt and removed the dead flowers from the vase mounted on the stone. He waited while Heero dumped the brackish water out and refilled the vase with fresh from a bottle they had brought with them. Placing the lilacs in the vase, Duo traced the letters and dates on the tombstone, memories of Sister Helen flooding his mind. He was vaguely conscious of Heero's hand resting lightly on his shoulder while he knelt there and remembered. Remembered coming home from school to the smell of fresh baking. Remembered stern scoldings and disappointed sighs. Remembered comforting hugs and the scent of lilacs. Remembered a blessing wished for him and a war that he'd survived.

He wasn't sure how long he knelt there, only that when he finally went to stand, he needed Heero's help to rise on stiff legs. Duo slid his arm around Heero's waist and leaned against him for a moment, letting Heero's warmth soak into his chilled body. After a few minutes he sighed, "Let's go home..."

***

Heero smothered a smile as he took a quick peek in Duo's room before heading to bed himself. He'd wanted to be sure that Duo had managed to go to sleep and wasn't heading straight into nightmares. Somehow, he didn't think that would be a problem tonight. In flagrant - and unusual, he usually only disobeyed when he thought that his master was paying too much attention to Heero - disregard of his training, Chocolate had abandoned his own comfy cushion and climbed onto the bed at Duo's feet. The dog's head lifted alertly and he moved up the bed to lie against Duo's back as Duo stirred restlessly and made a soft, uneasy sound. Duo settled down again almost immediately.

Heero slipped off to find his camera and carefully set it to flashless night-shot mode before returning to take a picture of the two of them. He knew that Duo would have a fit because he hadn't made Chocolate get off the bed but - well, it was damn cute and once he and Duo became lovers it wouldn't be happening again since Chocolate would *not* be sharing their room. He would stay here in this one instead. Having him decide to interrupt them while kissing was bad enough, there was no way Heero wanted him interrupting anything else. 'Enjoy it while you can, dog,' Heero thought in amusement. 'You won't have the opportunity for much longer...'

For now, though, Heero was grateful that Chocolate was sensitive enough both to know that Duo was upset and to try to comfort him. Mother's Day had been very emotionally demanding for Duo although Heero thought that he would say it had been worth it. The mug on the bedside table that held a slightly wilted spray of lilacs would certainly seem to indicate that.
#5 Family Pictures by Calic0cat
"All set Heero?" Duo called from the doorway.

"I think so," Heero replied as he came down the hallway.

Duo had to grin slightly at the faint frown of concentration wrinkling Heero's forehead. Leave it to Heero to be this concerned about not forgetting anything when they were just going on a simple camping trip. "I know we've got the sleeping bags, tent, cooler full of food, cooking supplies, and campstove 'cause I just finished shifting most of that around in order to cram Chocolate's stuff in too. I really hope there isn't anything else we need or there won't be any room left in the car for *us*!"

Heero snickered, "I don't recall Odin ever needing even half that much stuff when we camped out... Of course, he had to carry most of it himself so I think he 'roughed it' a little more than we're going to. I just have the funniest feeling that I'm forgetting something."

"I dunno what it could be," Duo shrugged. His own brow wrinkled thoughtfully as he ran through the mental checklist of necessities.

"Ah! Got it!" Heero suddenly exclaimed and he vanished down the hall again. The camera bag in his hands when he reappeared again made Duo grin. Heero never went anywhere without that thing. The condo's walls were virtually covered in all sorts of photos, many of the two of them and Chocolate taken by Heero himself over the few months since Duo moved in. Not all of the photos were that recent though. There were a liberal assortment of photos from during the war - taken by Catherine and several of Quatre's sisters among others as well as quite a few from surveillance footage and school newspapers and yearbooks - photos of the pilots singly and in groups as well as a few pictures of the Gundams. And quite a few selections from the wealth of orphanage photos and letters that Sister Helen's mother had allowed Duo to make copies of graced the walls as well.

They'd started the project right after Duo moved in. Every image held a memory for one or both of them and the talks that they'd had in the course of choosing, mounting and framing, then finally hanging each photo had taught them a lot about each other as well as carried each of them much closer to finally coming to terms with their pasts.

The one thing conspicuous in its absence was Heero's pre-war past. Even J - and G - were represented thanks to footage from Oz security recordings during the time that the doctors were forced into working for Oz. But Heero's past prior to that was not represented. 'Not yet, anyway...' Duo amended, his thoughts going to the package that he had carefully stored away in his backpack. 'Not quite yet...'

***

Heero climbed into the driver's seat while Duo buckled Chocolate into his seatbelt harness in back. There was no way they could manage to cram the dog's crate in the car along with the camping supplies so the harness would have to suffice. 'We really need a new vehicle. A truck or sport utility vehicle would probably be best...' Duo's motorcycle sat gathering dust most of the time anymore though they occasionally rode it together when they went out on a casual date. And his own car simply wasn't intended for what amounted to family use; it was a typical bachelor's vehicle - low-slung, sporty, and thoroughly impractical.

"Okay - let's hit the road!" Duo said as he pulled the passenger door closed and fastened his own seatbelt with a sharp click.

Heero flashed Duo a smile in response before starting the car. He was really looking forward to this. It was only a weekend trip but they'd put a lot of effort into planning it. They'd managed to find a park that allowed pets on the campgrounds so that they could bring Chocolate along too. And the small town nearby had a small Roman Catholic church.

The camping trip itself was for him. Some of the best memories that he had of Odin - of his childhood, what little there was of his youth that could be called that - were of the times that they'd been camped out somewhere, cooking over a campfire and sleeping under the stars. The church was for Duo, so that they could attend mass on Father's Day. Duo didn't go very often; Heero could count on one hand the number of times that he had in the past year - maybe even since the war ended - but he did occasionally in remembrance of his church "family". They were gradually finding ways to make some of the holidays they'd never had a reason to celebrate meaningful for themselves - and for each other. Not necessarily in a traditional way but then they weren't exactly traditional people to begin with; none of the former Gundam pilots were.

"It'll be kind of neat camping out just for the fun of it," Duo observed.

"As opposed to doing so because Oz is conducting a door-to-door search for you in the only town in the area?" Heero asked rhetorically. He paused a moment while Duo snickered, then continued, "I don't remember any details of why Odin and I were camping out most of the time. Whether there was actually a search for him going on or if he was just being cautious. I guess I was too young to really understand. And once I got a little older, the camping just sort of - stopped happening. Maybe because he started actually training me. Or maybe just because it wasn't a practical option in the places we happened to go then. I know that we did a lot of travelling, both on Earth and in the colonies, especially in that last six months to a year that I was with him, and those last few months were almost entirely spent in cities.

"But those times that we did camp out before that stuck with me. That's the way I prefer to remember Odin; the way he was when we were camped out in the middle of nowhere and he was showing me how to build a campfire or to clean up camp so that no trace of human presence would be left behind..."

"It'd be nice if we could pick and choose which memories to keep fresh, wouldn't it?" Duo said wistfully. "Or if we could somehow print out an exact duplicate of an image from our memory..."

"It would," Heero agreed softly. It would be nice to let the too-sharp image of Odin's dying body fade from memory and keep the more pleasant one of Odin teaching him how to sharpen a stick to roast a hot dog or marshmallows. 'Marshmallows... Damn...' "Duo, did you remember the marshmallows?" he asked hopefully. He was pretty sure that he hadn't bothered adding them to the supply list because he'd assumed he'd just remember them. 'I *knew* I was forgetting something...'

"Yeah, spotted them on the counter when I was loading up the cooler and packed them," Duo said.

"Good..." A campfire wouldn't be complete without some marshmallows to roast.

***

A pitiful whimper drew Duo's attention. He shook his head and laughed at the comical sight that met his eyes. "Not again... Chocolate, for a smart dog you sure aren't figuring out this whole being tied up thing very fast..." He heard Heero snicker behind him as he walked over to untangle Chocolate yet again. This time, the lab had managed to not only wrap his chain around two different trees but was standing on three legs with the fourth draped over top of the chain. The young dog could have easily gotten his leg loose but he'd already figured out that Duo would come do it for him if he cried.

"I think he has it figured out perfectly," Heero commented as Duo returned from untangling the dog. "He has his master perfectly trained to give him attention every time he gets tangled up... Why *should* he stop getting tangled?" Heero snickered and smirked, pointing over Duo's shoulder towards Chocolate just as a mournful whine reached Duo's ears.

Duo groaned and clapped one hand over his eyes. "Do I even need to look?" he whimpered. Heero just laughed at his pitiful question. Duo sighed and turned to go tend to his mischievous pet *again*. "Just *why* did I think bringing you along was a good idea?" he mock-grumbled as he led Chocolate around the trees, reversing the path the dog had taken to get tangled up.

"Duo, I found the stake, bring him back over in the open closer to the tent," Heero called.

"Thank god, I was starting to think I'd missed packing it somehow," Duo called back. He tousled Chocolate's head affectionately as he unclipped the chain from around a tree trunk and walked back towards where Heero was pounding the stake into the ground. Hopefully the dog would be more content if he was closer to them. And being tied well away from anything that he could get his chain wrapped around would at least save Duo from having to go untangle him every five minutes. There were way too many tempting sights and smells to let Chocolate run around loose. He might perform with flying colours in obedience and puppy agility classes but that didn't mean that a young, energetic dog who had never been out of the city before was going to actually listen to his master's commands if turned loose to play by himself in the middle of a heavily forested park. That was one mistake that Duo did *not* intend to make.

Duo paused to watch Heero driving the stake into the ground. It was a hot day and they'd both already shed their shirts. 'Mmm... Okay, the whole hike up here was worth it if only for this particular view...' he thought, watching the play of well-toned muscles. Heero turned his head, sensing Duo's intent gaze, and Duo met his eyes and grinned appreciatively. "The park ranger was right; the view here *is* pretty spectacular," he purred teasingly.

Heero tossed the rubber mallet to one side and cocked his head slightly, eyeing Duo from head to toe. Duo flushed slightly under that intense inspection. "I don't know about that," Heero growled huskily in return. "I think 'very spectacular' is more appropriate..."

Chocolate sat down beside Duo and barked once, sharply. Duo laughed, shaking off the too-intense mood that he'd unintentionally triggered. "Somebody's feeling a little left-out I think," he said with a grin. "Don't worry Chocolate, we haven't forgotten that you're here too." 'Good thing too. If we'd been alone, this weekend might have taken a slightly different turn than we had planned...'

***

Heero felt a momentary flash of irritation at the dog's interruption, then it was replaced by amusement. "Guess our chaperone thinks we're getting a little too serious," he commented. He gave Duo a wry grin to confirm that he wasn't really upset by Chocolate spoiling the mood. Making love was *not* in the plans for the camping trip. He didn't think that either of them wanted their first time to be on the hard ground. 'But once the trip's over with and we're back home again...' Well, that would be a whole other story. He was ready for that next step in their relationship and he was pretty sure that Duo was too.

"Yep. He's right too. Too serious by about two days and a couple of hundred miles," Duo responded with a slightly uncertain smile.

'Okay, make that *very* sure...' Heero took the few strides that separated him from Duo swiftly and slid one hand behind Duo's head, pulling him into a brief but passionate kiss. "Agreed," he said simply when he drew back.

Duo's smile lost its uncertainty. "Good." They stood close together for a few moments, foreheads leaning against each other, letting the import of that exchange sink in, before Chocolate tired of the inactivity and barked sharply again.

Heero laughed, "Go take him for a run or something or he'll never let us have any peace. I'll finish setting up camp."

"Okay," Duo agreed readily.

Smiling slightly, Heero watched as Duo switched Chocolate's chain for the retractable leash and jogged off down the path they'd just hiked up, Chocolate bounding happily beside him. As much of a nuisance as the dog could be at times, particularly when they both had an assignment that required finding someone to care for him for a few days - or when Chocolate interrupted a tender moment between them - he never regretted giving the dog to Duo for White Day. Duo loved that dog and he was pretty fond of the damn beast himself.

'Considering that we get up a whole hour earlier than necessary for work just to take him for a run, rain or shine, we'd *have* to be pretty fond of him,' he thought ruefully. Heero shook his head slightly in amusement and turned back to the task of setting up camp.

He found himself pausing from time to time, remembering watching Odin carry out the same tasks. Remembering running along beside the man who was the closest thing he'd had to a father, a small pile of sticks clutched to his chest in mimicry of the armload of firewood being carried by Odin. He smiled faintly at the memory. Odin might not have been an ideal father-figure but he hadn't done a half-bad job. Better than a lot of others. He'd never been cruel or unfair. A bit demanding at times but usually only when anything less than perfection could cost both of them their lives.

'And the only time I remember him ever hitting me was the time he caught me playing with the matches while he was getting firewood. One good swat across the backside - made all the more effective by the fact that he'd never done it before...' And he had never had to repeat it either. Heero had never ignored an order not to touch something again.

It was hard to be sure, hard to know just how much of what he thought he remembered was wishful thinking, but Heero thought that maybe Odin had genuinely cared for him. Maybe even loved him as the son that they'd pretended that he was.

***

Chocolate's tongue lolled in a way that assured Duo that the dog would be content to lie down and rest for a while as they returned to camp. Duo was surprised to find Heero kneeling beside the half-built fire, staring at the stick in his hands as he aimlessly stripped the bark off of it. 'Memories...' he thought. He took a moment to tie Chocolate up, then dropped to sit beside Heero. He leaned his head against Heero's shoulder. "Tell me," he requested softly.

"Odin was - a bit gruff at times - but he was never cruel. I don't think he entirely knew what to do with me," Heero said with a wistful flicker of a smile. "Most of the time he treated me like a miniature adult. But once in a while... Once in a while, he'd remember that I was just a little kid. There was one time that we set up camp early and he pulled this bottle out of his pack. I couldn't figure out what he was doing when he unscrewed the lid and pulled a long stick out of the bottle, a stick with a circle on the end."

Duo laughed in delight. "A bubble wand? He bought *bubbles* for you?"

Heero nodded, his smile growing. "He dipped the wand and showed me how to use it, then turned it over to me. Except that I kept inhaling instead of exhaling and he couldn't figure out how to teach me to do it right. He kept blowing more and more bubbles trying to show me. I eventually got the hang of it but it took a while.

"We used up the whole bottle of bubble solution that afternoon. It was fun, more fun than I could remember ever having had before. My cheeks hurt from all the smiling and pursing my mouth to blow bubbles. The next day we were back on the move again at dawn but that afternoon - that was special..."

Duo wrapped one arm around Heero's shoulders in a hug. He knew how remembering things like that could feel wonderful and make you ache at the same time. "Sounds like he really did care for you, 'Ro. I know you've said before that you weren't sure whether he did but why the hell else would he go to that kind of effort?"

"Maybe. I'd like to think that he did... That somebody lo - cared about me..."

Duo's heart ached at the wistfulness in Heero's voice. At least he knew for sure that Father and Sister Helen had cared for him. Had loved him. They'd told him so as well as showing it in the way they acted. Heero had never really had that from anyone. 'Not until me - well and Relena if you count her but I know Heero doesn't 'cause she's in love with being in love, not with Heero...' "Hey - I know I probably don't say it often enough but I *do* love you, y'know." He kissed Heero's cheek tenderly.

Heero turned slightly and wrapped his arms around Duo, leaning his head against Duo's shoulder. Duo kissed his temple as Heero said quietly, "I know. Me too..."

"I know..."

***

Heero smiled slightly as Duo quite calmly zipped their sleeping bags together. They weren't going to *do* anything except hold each other - not here, not tonight - but it would be the first time that they'd spent the whole night in each other's arms just because they wanted to, not because they were offering or seeking comfort from nightmares. He glanced over at the tent and had to laugh. "Looks like someone's made himself right at home," he snickered.

Duo followed his gaze and laughed too. "Yep, he sure has..."

Chocolate was lying on his back, partially folded legs sticking up in the air, sound asleep. Inside the tent. While they were sleeping outside, under the stars. 'I hope to hell it doesn't rain or that's going to be one damn full tent...' Heero thought with a nervous glance at the sky. It didn't *look* like rain. And since the weather forecast said there was a chance, that pretty much guaranteed there wouldn't be a drop.

"You want to have the marshmallows now?" Duo asked.

"We might as well," Heero answered. "Just a minute while I get the other ingredients..."

"Other ingredients?"

Heero dug through the cooler, fishing out the chocolate before digging the graham crackers out of his pack. "Sure. Haven't you ever had s'mores? Odin used to make them all the time."

"I've heard of them but I've never had them," Duo answered. He speared a couple of marshmallows on a stick and handed it to Heero before fixing one for himself.

"You'll like them," Heero promised. "They're really gooey and messy and you have to be careful not to burn your mouth but they're *good*."

Duo chuckled. "How can you possibly doubt that Odin cared for you, 'Ro? What the hell would an assassin be doing making s'mores if not for the kid he was dragging along with him? Marshmallows and chocolate weren't exactly essential survival items to be hauling around in his backpack, buddy."

"I never really thought about it that way," Heero said, startled. He'd just assumed that Odin liked s'mores and carried the supplies for himself. 'But he hardly ever ate more than one while I usually had at least three... Never more than five after the time I made myself sick though, he always ran out of chocolate at that point...' "Maybe you're right. Maybe he really did..."

"And on that note..." Duo scrambled to his feet, continuing, "I was gonna save this till tomorrow but this seems like a good time... Here, hold this for a minute, 'kay?"

Heero accepted Duo's marshmallow toasting stick and watched in bemusement as Duo moved his backpack closer to the fire then carefully removed items until he got down to the bottom and pulled out an envelope.

"Here. They're not great but - well, they're the best I could come up with." Duo shrugged slightly as he traded Heero the envelope for the two sticks.

Realizing that no further explanation was forthcoming, Heero carefully opened the envelope and slid out its contents. He froze in shock as a slightly blurry but familiar image greeted him. "Odin..." he breathed softly.

"It took a while to locate the old security footage from the shuttleport but I finally tracked it down. And getting permission to view it took even longer...

"Did you know they usually only keep that stuff for a year? But any sort of major violent incident gets the footage for a whole year before and after permanently archived?

"I ran one of your pictures through that computerized aging software we've got at work, just reversed it to go from adult back to kid in order to give myself an image to work with. Then using that together with what you remembered about that last assignment and your description of Odin, I was able to eventually track down the bit of footage that came from. The image matching program narrowed things down a bit but there was still an awful lot of footage with either a dark-haired kid or a tall, light-haired guy carrying a single piece of luggage. I went through everything it flagged as a 'maybe' myself... But the quality's not the greatest..." Duo's voice trailed off.

Heero ran his fingertips lightly over the image. The picture was a bit grainy. Not surprising since the recording quality would have been only moderate at best and this would only have been a small part of the total area that the camera covered. He couldn't even imagine the time it must have taken to search these few minutes of footage out of that entire morning's. Even *with* an image matching program to narrow things down a bit.

"Uh, you might want to take a look at the others too..."

"Others?" Heero hadn't even noticed that there were more in the thin stack. He slid the top picture off - and his breath caught painfully in his chest. He remembered that moment with absolute clarity. Odin's hand on his shoulder as he bent over to tease him about acting more like family... The picture was from the back but there was no mistaking who it was...

"There weren't very many frames that had you in them and even fewer with you both," Duo said softly. "You were too small; the other people hid you. That one and the next were the only decent ones I could get no matter how much I enhanced the footage..."

Hesitantly, Heero slid the photo aside to reveal the next one. 'At the customs checkpoint...' "He said, 'I'm travelling with my son...' and rested his hand against my back..." he whispered. He blinked rapidly but couldn't quite stop the inevitable. "And I wished it was true..." The first tear splattered down on the corner of the picture before he could move it.

"S'okay, there's another copy at home plus I've got the files I had'em printed from," Duo murmured, suddenly very close.

Heero turned into Duo's open arms and hugged him fiercely. Words completely failed him. He'd never dreamt that there would be any way to find a picture of Odin, let alone of the two of them together. And if it had occurred to him that the shuttleport's security footage might still exist, he wouldn't have been able to justify the sheer time and effort it would take to scour hours worth of footage from multiple cameras just for the sake of a few frames. "God Duo, this must have taken *days*... *weeks*..."

Duo said in a suspiciously thick voice, "And just how long did it take you to track down Sister Helen's mother? And her grave?"

Heero just shook his head silently, his throat too tight to speak. Whatever effort he'd put into making Mother's Day something special for Duo, Duo had just repaid tenfold. He had thought that the camping trip was the only way that he could remember his almost-father on Father's Day. Duo had given him something to make the holiday even more special.

***

Duo cuddled up more snugly against Heero. The cloudless night was surprisingly chill despite their sleeping bags. At least with such a clear sky rain was unlikely. 'And it was a beautiful evening...'

They *had* eventually gotten around to eating their s'mores but they'd had to toast fresh marshmallows by that point. The first ones had gone cold long before Heero had gotten his emotions back under control again. And after they'd eaten their gooey treats and banked the fire for the night, they'd sprawled on their backs and Heero had named off the constellations, calling up more memories of his time with Odin. They'd only been interrupted once by Chocolate suddenly waking and thinking that the fact that they were still awake meant it was time to play again. It hadn't been too hard to convince him otherwise. A treat and a belly rub had been enough to satisfy the lab and he'd crawled back into the tent to fall asleep in a curled-up ball.

Duo smothered a chuckle. As if his thoughts had summoned the dog, Chocolate wandered out of the tent, chain dragging behind him, and over to their sleeping bags, flopping heavily across their legs. 'Oh well, at least he'll keep them warm...' Duo thought, yawning.

Tomorrow, they'd spend the day hiking. One more night of camping, then Sunday morning they would be up early and off to the nearest Catholic church for the early mass. His small act of remembrance for his "father". Then home again.

Home to take their relationship to its next stage. And to add a few more pictures to their already crowded walls. Pictures from the past - Heero's past - and present - this weekend, *their* weekend. Pictures of family - old and new.

'Family...' Duo thought contentedly as he slid into sleep. *Their* family.
#6 Fireworks by Calic0cat
"You're *sure* it's okay?" Quatre asked anxiously.

"Yes, Quatre, I'm sure," Heero repeated patiently. "She's going to have to accept that Duo and I are together sooner or later. It might as well be now. Go ahead and invite Relena to your barbeque and fireworks party. Duo and I can handle whatever she might say or do; she isn't going to mess things up between us. If her sensibilities are offended or her feelings get hurt, that's her problem. It's a private party, no media presence, so it's a good time to get the inevitable over with."

This was something that he'd talked over with Duo very carefully even before Quatre's party was mentioned. Right after Duo moved into his room, in fact. Which happened right after their Father's Day camping trip. He hadn't wanted to risk making Duo uncomfortable but he wanted Relena to be forced to face the fact that he was in a committed relationship with Duo and she needed to get over her crush. Or obsession, at this point he really wasn't too sure that wasn't the more appropriate term.

At any rate, he had explicit permission from Duo to quite thoroughly rub Relena's nose in their relationship as soon as a suitable opportunity arose. Though Duo *had* requested that he try to keep any other audience to a minimum, preferably only their closest friends. Heero had agreed without argument to the request. They didn't hide their relationship in public by any means but they did usually keep things fairly discreet. More overt displays of affection were reserved for private. Outgoing as Duo could be at times, Heero had already discovered back on April Fool's Day that his partner was ill at ease with particularly open displays of affection in public places.

Heero didn't intend to get particularly carried away; he knew that the fact that Duo had given him permission to make their relationship quite clear to Relena didn't change the fact that anything too extreme would make Duo uncomfortable. But he had a feeling that a little bit of handholding wasn't going to be enough to convince Relena. Quatre's party should provide the perfect opportunity for a more unambiguous display in a relatively private setting.

***

Duo patted Chocolate's head apologetically. "Sorry, fella. Too many people around and too much going on for you to stay with me. You're better off out here with Abdul." He handed Chocolate's leash to the Maguanac, "If the fireworks bother him, just put him in his crate - Heero said he'd bring it and Chocolate's other stuff - his food and bowls and so on - down once he unloads the car - indoors with the windows shut and he should be okay. I don't think the banging fireworks will bother him but the shrill shrieking ones might." 'Or Relena's shrieking when she sees Heero and I together and realizes that the rumours she's been hearing are *true*...' Duo added silently, wincing at the thought. He wasn't looking forward to that part of the party.

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Abdul assured Duo. "I'll take good care of him for you."

"I know you will," Duo smiled. "Thanks, Abdul." He gave Chocolate one final pat before turning to head back to the house. He hadn't really wanted to leave Chocolate home alone in his dog-run while he and Heero were at Quatre's for the afternoon and evening so he'd been relieved when Trowa had suggested that they bring the dog and just leave him at the stables with Abdul. The Maguanac would be staying there to watch over the horses and guard dogs during the fireworks anyway; one more dog certainly wouldn't be a problem for him.

One major advantage to bringing Chocolate along was that they wouldn't have to go home afterwards; they could stay for the night like many of the other guests. Heero had saved Quatre the embarrassment of asking and had simply stated that one room would be sufficient. Duo caught himself grinning rather broadly at the thought. He made an effort to tone down his expression but without much success. After only a couple of weeks as lovers, he and Heero were still very much in the "honeymoon" stage. There was no such thing as being too tired or not in the mood. And he really doubted that being under someone else's roof would be a deterrent tonight either; though they *would* at least try to be a bit more quiet than usual. Some things were just *not* meant to be shared.

***

Heero snapped the cap back on the lens and slung his camera over his shoulder. He hoped that he would get a few good shots of their friends during the party. Maybe even one good enough to add to the collection on the walls at home. Though earning a place there was a matter of a photo capturing a moment that they wanted to remember rather than necessarily being an exceptionally good picture. He'd taken a few pictures already; the one of Quatre obeying the instructions on Trowa's "Kiss the Cook" barbeque apron had the potential to be worthy of joining the other photos of "family".

It was just too bad that Wufei had flatly refused to wear his apron; Cathy had offered to fill the requirement in his case. 'His loss...' Heero thought. If he'd been supposed to wear one of those and Duo had been making the offer, he'd have had the damn thing on in a heartbeat.

There was definitely a bit of flirting going on between Cathy and Wufei, whether it ever developed into anything more or not. Cathy had been hanging around the rest of them quite a bit; the circus was spending most of its time on Earth lately since it was so expensive to haul the entire operation around in space. It was far less costly to simply tour from city to city on Earth and the crowds tended to be bigger too. If the circus was more than a few hours away by car and Cathy wanted to come visit, she would just call the estate and someone would take Quatre's private jet and go pick her up. She'd been hesitant to take advantage of the offer at first but Quatre had finally convinced her that it really wasn't a problem. Now, it was rarely more than a couple of weeks between her visits.

Glancing around the group of guests, Heero wasn't sure whether or not he was relieved that Relena still hadn't arrived; he really wanted to get the inevitable confrontation over with. Relena, Zechs, Dorothy, and Noin were the only guests that remained unaccounted for. 'That meeting must have run late...' Relena had had to attend a budget meeting today and Dorothy and Noin had been quite unhappy that they got stuck with bodyguard duty.

Relena had somehow managed to "accidentally" give all of her usual bodyguards the day off - again - and had called Une to request a replacement - again. Specifically, *him*. Une had smirked in satisfaction as she told the story to Heero earlier. She had said that she'd told Relena vaguely that she'd see what she could arrange; that she was sure that she could come up with a suitable bodyguard. Then she'd cancelled Dorothy and Noin's day off and given the job to them. After all, by assigning female Preventers to guard Relena, they could follow her *everywhere*. It only made sense.

Heero had a sneaking suspicion that Relena was not having a very pleasant day with her reluctant bodyguards. Dorothy could be a real bitch when she wanted to yet never say a damn thing that could actually get her reprimanded. And Noin... Well, Heero was pretty sure that today was the day that Zechs had been supposed to take her ring-shopping. Noin would *not* be in a very good mood. He could almost bring himself to feel sorry for Relena. *Almost.*

"Hee-eee-rrr-ooo! Where are you? I want to talk to you, Heero!"

'But not quite,' Heero decided grimly. Obviously, Relena had arrived. He turned to look for Duo, hoping that they could meet her together. He really, really hoped that by the end of the party Relena would finally accept that he was just plain *NOT INTERESTED*.

***

Duo cringed mentally as an all-too-familiar voice pierced the air. Relena sounded distinctly disgruntled. He took a quick glance around and spotted Heero heading towards him. He grabbed a plate and burgers for them both and waved Heero towards one of the tables. Let Relena come looking for them; he couldn't see any reason why they should go to her.

Just as Duo was about to sit down at a table, Heero caught his arm and suggested, "Let's sit under a tree instead. Might as well make things clear from the start."

Not sure what Heero had in mind, Duo gathered up their food and followed him.

Heero snagged a folded towel from one of the lounge chairs near the pool and led the way to one of the large trees near the patio. He shook out the towel and spread it on the grass before seating himself with his back against the tree. "Have a seat," he invited, patting the ground between his outstretched legs.

Feeling a bit uncomfortable, Duo set the food down beside Heero then lowered himself to sit between Heero's legs, leaning back against Heero's chest. They hadn't been nearly this obvious about their relationship in public since April Fool's Day and he wasn't entirely happy that they were doing this just to make a point with Relena. He supposed that part of his unease was the old street instincts that warned never to do anything conspicuous. Instincts that insisted even more strongly that he never do anything to reveal what was important to him to the outside world for fear that someone would take it away. The rest of his discomfort was simply the fact that he didn't like to "use" something that should be so personal and meaningful just to make a point. Much like he'd been unhappy with the way that Heero had been trying so hard to get a reaction out of Wufei back on April Fool's Day.

He'd agreed to do this because he knew Relena's persistent pursuit was severely annoying Heero. Duo didn't particularly appreciate it either; Relena needed to accept that Heero was both uninterested and unavailable. But he still felt very ill at ease about putting their relationship so blatantly on display, especially just for that purpose. Ironically, if he and Heero had simply been sitting under the tree eating and Heero had pulled him into this position on impulse, it wouldn't have bothered him nearly as much. He still wouldn't have been completely comfortable with it but he wouldn't have been nearly as tense as he was now.

"Duo, we don't have to do this," Heero murmured in his ear, arms wrapping around Duo in a hug. "I can just try telling her that I'm not interested yet again. Sooner or later she'll have to believe it. I don't want you to do something you're this uncomfortable with just to make a point with Relena."

Some of the tension drained from Duo's muscles at Heero's words. Just knowing that Heero had picked up on his discomfort and wanted to fix it helped. He leaned his head back against Heero's shoulder and tilted it so that he could see Heero's face. "No, s'okay Ro. I'm not comfortable but I'm not miserable either; go ahead with the plan." Seeing the uncertainty on Heero's face, he added, "It's not exactly just being so obvious in public that's bugging me. If this was spontaneous, I'd probably be okay even though we don't have complete privacy; it's the idea that we're doing things solely because they're deliberately calculated to make Relena accept that you're not available that bothers me the most, I think."

There was a single heartbeat of silence as Heero's arms tightened around him, then Heero said softly, "Duo, if I thought you were okay with this kind of thing in public, it *would* be spontaneous and it would happen pretty damn often. I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks; never have. I just don't want to make *you* uncomfortable."

Duo blinked, startled. He hadn't realized that Heero was holding back just because of him. 'That sounds like he *would* like to be a bit more obvious about our relationship in public... I thought he was uncomfortable with that kind of thing too...' But when he thought back to April Fool's Day and the discussion they'd had regarding public displays of affection, he realized that Heero hadn't actually said that. 'Shit, I should've realized before. 'Specially after the stuff we talked about during the camping trip. Nobody that he cared about has ever really openly showed their affection for him; he's still not completely convinced that Odin cared for him. It's not fair to restrict him to handholding and little pecks of kisses in public if he wants more than that,' Duo thought guiltily. "Uh, I won't say that I'd be completely comfortable with it but as long as we don't get too carried away, I can live with it. And it'll probably get easier as I get used to it. Don't hold back just 'cause of me, Ro. If you really want to show our relationship a little more in public, go ahead." He smiled and raised one hand to Heero's face, smoothing the wrinkles of concern gently. "I promise I'll speak up if it bothers me too much, 'kay?"

"You're sure?"

Drawing Heero's face down towards him, Duo kissed him tenderly. And much more deeply than he usually would in public, even among a group consisting primarily of friends. When they separated, he assured Heero quietly, "Yeah, I'm sure."

The breathtaking smile and kiss that followed more than made up for any discomfort caused by the knowledge that others might be watching them. Even a shrill shriek of "*HEERO!!*" couldn't completely ruin the moment.

***

Heero was distinctly annoyed to have his tender moment with Duo interrupted by a dismayed shriek. He ignored Relena's shrill voice and took his time breaking off the kiss. Keeping his arms securely wrapped around Duo, he raised his head. "I'm a bit busy at the moment, Relena. What do you want?" Heero demanded, letting his annoyance show both in his voice and expression.

Relena's face reddened unattractively. "I want to talk to you for a minute, Heero."

Drawing a deep breath to control his irritation, Heero managed to keep his voice reasonably civil. "Fine. So talk."

Relena's voice slid into a whine as she insisted, "I want to talk to you in *private*."

"Relena, just say whatever the hell you want to say and be done with it." Duo's hand squeezed his arm in warning and Heero forced himself to be a bit more polite. He was just so damn tired of politely telling her that he wasn't interested only to have her right back in his face pestering him within days... "Look Relena, Duo and I were having a very pleasant afternoon until you interrupted; I'd like to pick up where we left off. Anything you have to say to me can be said in front of Duo; I'd tell him all about it anyway. So just - say whatever it is you think you need to say." As an afterthought, he added, "Please."

The young woman's face crumpled. Heero realized in alarm that she was on the verge of tears. 'Oh shit.'

"The rumours are - true?" she whispered. "You and Maxwell are... Heero, you're..."

"Yes," Heero said bluntly. "I'm gay and Duo and I are lovers." He winced as Relena's face whitened and she burst into tears. 'Okay, maybe that wasn't exactly the gentlest way to tell her... But it's the truth, what's the point of sugarcoating it?' Relena turned and fled towards the house.

Heero sighed heavily and reluctantly loosened his grasp on Duo. "I suppose I'd better go after her," he muttered. "Make sure she doesn't do anything stupid." Much to Heero's surprise, Duo didn't immediately move away now that their goal of persuading Relena that he was taken was accomplished.

Instead, Duo settled back against Heero's chest and relaxed slightly. Heero could tell that he wasn't completely at ease but he wasn't nearly as tense as he had been initially. "No, Ro," Duo said, shaking his head. "You *were* a little rough on her but if you go after her, she'll just get her hopes back up again. One of the others will look after her. See, there goes Q heading into the house now. He'll handle Relena; make sure she's okay without giving her the wrong idea."

"You're right," Heero agreed. He looked down at where Duo was still leaning against him and realized that Duo really was going to stay put. That he'd meant it about being willing to be more open about their relationship in public if Heero wanted to. Even if it did make him a bit ill at ease. 'I'll just have to be careful not to get carried away and make him *too* uncomfortable,' Heero decided. He wouldn't refuse the gesture; it *was* something that he wanted after all. He wanted to be able to hold and kiss Duo whenever he wanted rather than having to wait till they were alone. To have others know that Duo was with *him*; that Duo loved him. And he knew that Duo wouldn't make the offer if he didn't mean it; if he wasn't willing to put up with a bit of discomfort in order to give Heero what he wanted. That the offer was made out of love and the wish to make Heero happy.

Deeds spoke louder than words for both of them. Words alone were just - noise. Easily said and just as easily forgotten.

They'd started off their relationship trying to act like couples that they'd seen in books and movies. Forever saying "I love you" and calling each other pet names, at least in private. It had been damn awkward and they'd both been increasingly uncomfortable with it. It hadn't taken long to realize that sort of behaviour just - wasn't *them*. So they'd stopped. Oh, they still said "I love you" once in a while. And the occasional "koi" or "love" was said as well. But the words had even more meaning because they weren't said casually. And the deeds, big and small, that had replaced them the rest of the time meant just as much if not more.

'Like me finding Sister Helen's mother for Duo and him tracking down those pictures of Odin and me for me. And the way that I help him with his hair or he stays quiet while I have my morning coffee and read the paper.' And the dozens of other things that they did for each other.

Including Duo's offer to be more open about their relationship in public. 'I'll have to think of something very special to show him how much I appreciate this...' Heero thought.

***

Duo snuggled deeper into the warmth of Heero's arms. "Cold?" Heero asked.

"Just a little chilly," Duo admitted. The breeze had picked up as the evening passed and the fact that it was such a clear night meant that the temperature was dropping quickly since there was no cloud cover to help retain the heat.

"Want to go in and change?"

"Nah, the fireworks won't last long anyway," Duo said. "I'd just end up missing most of them."

Heero's whisper against his ear made Duo shiver in anticipation, "No, you wouldn't. We'll have fireworks of our own once we go upstairs, after all. Think those ones will be even more impressive?"

"Oh yeah..." Duo agreed. Suddenly, he wasn't all that interested in the noisy display of coloured lights that they were watching. He could hardly wait for *these* fireworks to finish. 'Can't disappoint Q by running off before they're done though... Tempting as the thought might be...'

Despite his impatience for the show to finish so that they could leave, Duo enjoyed the remainder of the fireworks display. Quatre had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to have a terrific, professionally produced show for his guests and it deserved every "ooh" and "aah" it received. And since it was dark out, Duo didn't even feel uncomfortable with the fact that he and Heero were viewing the fireworks from a shared lounge chair surrounded by a whole bunch of friends and acquaintances. Including Relena, who had been a bit teary and unhappy all evening - and hadn't come anywhere near either Heero or himself - but had stayed for the rest of the party nevertheless. Duo hoped that was a sign that she'd finally accepted reality and given up on Heero.

As everyone drifted off into the house or to their cars after the fireworks ended, Duo laced his fingers through Heero's. "So, gonna go get our own fireworks underway, Mr. Fireworks Operator?" Duo teased as they started towards the house.

"Actually, I thought I'd leave that up to you tonight..." Heero responded.

Duo stopped in his tracks, wishing that there was more light on the patio so that he could see Heero's face more clearly. The one time that they'd discussed this before, just a couple of days after they'd first made love, Heero had been so hesitant that he'd dropped the subject. He'd understood that Heero simply wasn't ready to surrender control yet. Oh, Heero would have tried if he pressed the issue but if Heero wasn't really ready not only would it not have the same meaning but it would also have the potential to go very seriously wrong. He would rather wait till Heero truly wanted to try switching roles. And now it sounded like Heero was... But he still had to ask cautiously, "Are you sure, Ro?"

"Yes."

The simple answer was reassuringly confident but Duo knew that giving up control wouldn't be an easy thing for Heero to do. He'd had so little control over his life for so long that he was fiercely protective of the control he'd gained when the war ended and J and the other scientists went up in a blaze of glory with the fused-together _Peacemillion_ and _Libra_. Just knowing that Heero was willingly offering to surrender that control to him meant one hell of a lot to Duo. Wordlessly, he began to walk again, raising their joined hands to press a kiss to the back of Heero's as they headed into the house.

***

"Close your eyes?"

The door had just clicked shut and locked when the softly whispered request - and it *was* just a request, Duo's tone made that clear - made Heero's mouth go dry. He knew why Duo had made it; his other senses would be heightened by removing sight. He'd done the same thing with Duo a couple of times since they became lovers except that he'd actually used a blindfold. He knew why Duo wasn't doing the same with him; knew that Duo understood how difficult giving up control was for him. Knew that Duo was deliberately giving him a choice of whether or not to comply with the request. 'I trust him,' Heero thought simply as he closed his eyes and stood, waiting.

He didn't have to wait long. Fingertips brushed gently across his cheeks and down his neck, dipping through the hollows of his collarbone as they moved to unbutton his shirt. Once his shirt was undone and tugged free of his pants, a tickling, tantalizing touch followed a similar path, brushing across his face repeatedly before moving lower. 'The tip of his braid,' Heero realized after the first startled moment. He bit off a gasp as that tickling sensation teased a nipple then was replaced by the warm wet roughness of a tongue. The warmth retreated, leaving a chill in its place as the room's cool air met the dampness left behind.

"Don't hold back, Ro," Duo murmured in his ear. Heero shivered slightly as the fine hairs there were stirred by Duo's breath. "Let me hear what you like. And what you don't like - that's important too, Heero. Just 'cause I like something you do to me doesn't mean the reverse is necessarily true so tell me if I do anything you don't enjoy, 'kay?"

"Okay," Heero responded softly. Letting his reactions show was almost more difficult than suppressing them would be. He'd known this would be difficult but the ways in which it was difficult were somewhat different than he'd expected. He hadn't realized that allowing a gasp or moan to escape or simply keeping his eyes shut would be as challenging as it was.

Heero couldn't help tensing slightly as his clothing was removed piece by piece. The vulnerability he felt knowing that Duo was probably still fully dressed while he was virtually - no, completely, he corrected as careful hands slid his boxers down his hips - naked was disturbing.

His hand was guided to Duo's shoulder. "Lean on me if you need to, Ro. Left foot up," Duo's voice instructed. Heero lifted his foot and balanced against Duo's bent-over form while Duo moved his discarded clothing. "Okay, left down and right up." Heero shifted his weight again. He was very conscious of the fact that Duo's shoulder was, as he'd suspected, still clothed. "Okay, all clear," Duo said. Heero put his foot down and dropped his arm to his side, feeling very exposed.

"Think you can undress me with your eyes shut?" Duo laughed softly.

"If you want me to," Heero answered. The offer of an active role was perfectly timed to help ease his increasing tension. His hand being raised and pressed against a firm chest provided the only acknowledgement necessary. He brought his other hand to join it and set to work. His task would have been far easier if Duo's hands hadn't been busy exploring his body at the same time. He fumbled with buttons more than once and ended up popping a couple off completely by the time he slid Duo's shirt off of his shoulders. Duo's pants were even more challenging to deal with since Duo was tickling him with the tip of his braid and distracting him.

The brief instant that Heero was alone, completely out of contact with Duo while Duo disposed of his own discarded clothing, made him grateful for the firm, full-body-contact hug that enveloped him a moment later. Hugging Duo back, he responded eagerly to the first actual kiss of the night. He opened his mouth readily to Duo's explorations, surrendering to his probing tongue. Duo pressed their bodies more tightly together, making Heero groan into the kiss, his arousal becoming a bit firmer. His tension and anxiety were delaying his body's response; Duo's arousal pressed against him felt much harder than his own. He knew that Duo wouldn't rush things though; they had all night and Duo would take things just as slow as necessary to be sure that he was ready.

***

Well aware that Heero was nowhere near ready to take the next step, Duo carefully manoeuvered him to the edge of the bed and backed him up until his legs touched the mattress. "Sit," he said simply. Under other circumstances - namely if Heero wasn't already so tense - he would have playfully pushed him over backwards to fall onto the mattress. Not this time though; he didn't want to do anything to increase Heero's tension. He settled himself straddling Heero's legs, sitting on his lap while he massaged his shoulders. Kissing him tenderly, Duo continued to massage and rub Heero's shoulders and back until the muscles began to relax. He wanted to make tonight as incredible as possible for Heero. And that meant that his lover needed to be far less tense.

As most of the tension faded from Heero's body, Duo slid off his lap and knelt between his spread legs. Placing Heero's hands on the bed, he instructed gently, "Keep them there. No touching." 'Not right now anyway... Soon, though...' He drew his braid over his shoulder again and resumed tickling and teasing Heero with the feathery tuft at its end. Alternately using teeth and tongue, fingers and braid, he worked his way down Heero's torso then shifted his attention to the tender flesh on the inside of Heero's thighs.

Carefully gauging Heero's increasing tension - though now it was from arousal rather than anxiety - Duo paused, mouth very close to Heero's now-leaking arousal. "Open your eyes, Ro," he murmured, his breath causing Heero's cock to twitch. He smiled up at the passion-clouded eyes that immediately sought his own. "You can touch now," he added. Then dropped his head, swallowing as much of Heero's length as he could in a single swift move. He was ready for the involuntary buck of Heero's hips, moving with them so that he wouldn't choke. As he began to lick and suck, he felt Heero's hands plunging into his hair.

***

When Duo gave him permission to open his eyes, Heero saw spots at first. His vision cleared just in time to catch a glimpse of Duo's mischievous smile as he gave permission to touch. Heero barely had time to be grateful for that permission - his fingers ached from the tension of keeping them clenched in the bedding, from resisting the urge to touch Duo - before he was enveloped by Duo's warm, wet mouth. A wordless cry escaped him and his hips bucked involuntarily. His hands slid into Duo's hair, urging him on. But at the same time Heero retained just enough awareness to keep from hurting Duo by applying too much pressure or pulling painfully on his hair.

It didn't take very long for Heero to be teetering on the verge of climax. Duo knew his body and his reactions well enough to bring him there and keep him there with ease. "Duo, please!" Heero gasped. Duo responded to his plea immediately. Cool fingers caressing his sac were enough to send him crashing over the edge with an inarticulate shout. The next thing he was truly aware of was Duo swinging his legs up onto the bed and pressing him back against the mattress. He tasted himself on Duo's lips as Duo crawled over him and kissed him deeply. Duo's hardness pressed against him, reminding Heero that things had been distinctly one-sided so far.

"Ro?" Duo asked, face hovering over his. "Sure about this?"

Heero nodded, then forced out a firm "Yes" as Duo continued to look a bit dubious. "Want this. Want *you*," he affirmed. He'd been anxious about this at first but Duo's oblique approach along with the bits of choice, of control, that he'd given back to Heero despite the fact that Heero had turned control over to him, had relaxed Heero and confirmed his wish to give Duo this.

***

Finally seeing conviction in Heero's eyes as well as hearing it in his voice, Duo murmured, "Alright." He wanted it too - but only if Heero truly did.

He kissed Heero once more, then slipped from the bed to retrieve the lube from their suitcase. Setting it in easy reach, he crawled back on the bed. Duo ran his fingertips lightly over Heero's abdomen, tickling him playfully with the tip of his mostly-unravelled braid before shaking his hair loose from it. He took the time to bring Heero to full arousal again with tongue and lips and fingers before moving to kneel between Heero's thighs. Circling Heero's entrance with well-lubed fingers, he watched Heero's face carefully as he slid one fingertip inside. Heero had a bad tendency to ignore pain; it wasn't even something that he did consciously. He had simply become so accustomed to doing so during his training that his mind automatically marked pain as irrelevant until it reached a staggering level. He still felt it before that; he just failed to react to it appropriately.

Duo had that fact firmly in mind as he began to stretch Heero. Any signs of pain would be slight; he knew that he would have to watch for them very closely. There was no excuse for causing pain during making love and Duo had no intention of doing so. He ignored his own throbbing arousal while he carefully prepared Heero. Finding his prostate was easier than Duo had expected but Heero's reaction to his firm pressure against it caught him by surprise. Heero jack-knifed off the bed with a strangled cry and his muscles clamped down hard, trapping Duo's fingers.

"Shh, Heero, s'okay, relax, easy Ro," Duo murmured soothingly. He stretched his free hand out to stroke Heero's cheek. Heero's eyes, wide and almost panicked, met his. "What's wrong Ro?" he asked gently, struggling to keep his voice soft and level. His heart was pounding rapidly. In theory, he knew that he hadn't done anything wrong, that Heero should have felt pleasure. But he also vaguely recalled a mention in the research they'd done before their first time together that not everyone enjoyed prostate stimulation as much, some not at all...

"I... Too much... Too intense..."

As Heero struggled for the words, Duo pieced together the problem from the words he managed to get out. 'Damn. Too *much* pleasure; caught him by surprise. Too far out of control...' "Okay, Ro, just relax for a minute and we'll switch," he offered. He needed Heero to relax so that he could slip his fingers out without hurting him. Then they'd just switch back to their usual roles. Yeah, he was a little disappointed but it wasn't that big a deal. They were together either way; who took which role really wasn't that important to him.

***

"No!" Heero protested. He didn't want to give up. Duo always reacted strongly to thrusts against his prostate but he hadn't been prepared for how overwhelming a reaction that could create in *him*. He hadn't realized how apt his remark earlier about having their own fireworks had been. Heero wasn't quite sure whether he liked the intensity of it or not but he wanted to find out what the whole experience was like on this end of things now that they'd made it this far. And he didn't want to disappoint Duo either. "No," he repeated more calmly. "Just - surprised me; I'm okay." He took several slow, deep breaths and managed to relax again.

"If you're sure..."

Heero caught the hand that was gently stroking his cheek and held it so that he could press a kiss against the palm. "I'm sure."

"Okay." Duo's face showed his concern and Heero could feel how hard Duo's heart was pounding as he pressed a kiss to Duo's wrist before releasing his hand. He regretted having reacted so strongly; he'd obviously shaken Duo.

As Duo's fingers began to move slightly, carefully, inside him, Heero consciously attempted to relax more. He tried not to tense in anticipation of the next touch against his prostate and was relieved when it didn't happen right away. When it did happen, it was a light, tentative brush rather than a firm thrust and the pleasure it induced was not overwhelming in its intensity. Remembering Duo's instruction to tell him what he liked, Heero gasped out, "Better. Feels good. Not so intense." He was relieved to see some of the anxiety on Duo's face be replaced by confidence at his words.

***

Duo took his time bringing Heero back to the point of readiness that he'd been at before. He was careful to keep his stimulation of Heero's prostate much lighter than the first time; he didn't want to overwhelm Heero again. Maybe eventually Heero would learn to enjoy that degree of intensity but it wouldn't happen in a single night.

By the time Duo finally decided that Heero was ready to move on to the next step, Heero's breathing was irregular and his words of encouragement had been replaced by moans and gasps. Duo smiled tenderly down at the flushed, sweaty face beneath him as he positioned himself. "Ready, Ro?" he asked one more time. Receiving a fierce, "Yes!" in response, he pressed forward slowly and steadily, letting Heero open to accept him in rather than forcing his way in. His breath caught as Heero's muscles squeezed convulsively and he stilled, waiting for Heero to adjust and relax again. "Deep breaths," he reminded Heero. He knew that was easier said than done but it *did* make a big difference in the ease of being on the receiving end of things. Once Heero relaxed again, he pressed forward, sliding deeper until he was completely sheathed in Heero. "God you feel good, Ro..." Leaning down, Duo kissed Heero passionately, their tongues tangling enthusiastically, before he began to move.

***

Rising to meet Duo's thrusts, Heero finally surrendered to the desire building inside him. Surrendered to the urge to let go of his control. To let himself fall, trusting Duo to be there with him. He shifted position, raising his hips so that Duo would strike his prostate a bit more directly. Not quite like that first time - Heero couldn't quite bring himself to try that again, not yet - but still a more solid pressure than Duo had been applying. Heero gasped and white lights exploded in his vision as Duo's next thrust hit. "Faster!" he ordered in a breathless voice. Duo obliged him. The pressure built, the aching need for release grew, and as Duo struck his prostate for the third time, Heero gave in to that need, crying out Duo's name as his climax hit. A moment later, the heat of Duo's release filled him and Duo collapsed, a welcome weight against Heero's body.

Bringing his arms up around his lover, a single semi-coherent thought flitted through Heero's mind before he slid into sated slumber. 'Have to add a fireworks photo to our collection...'
#7 Fall Fair by Calic0cat
"Chocolate finished his breakfast so I put him out in the yard till we're ready to leave," Heero said as he walked up behind Duo.



"Good. Shouldn't be more than an hour or so, tops, 'fore we're ready to go. That should get us to the fair just in time for the gates to open," Duo answered, slicing open a bagel. He shifted a bit to the left so that Heero could reach past him to get down the breakfast dishes while he dropped the bagels in the toaster. They were used to working together like this in the kitchen - and in the bathroom too; sharing the sink and mirror saved a lot of time in the mornings. They were so in tune with one another that they rarely got in each other's way. The occasional brush of shoulders or hips was merely a quiet reminder of their closeness, of the intimacy between them.



Duo loved these everyday routines. Things like the run that they took the dog on early every morning. Doing household chores like laundry and sweeping. Fixing meals and tidying up afterwards. All of those small things that were so very ordinary and yet... 'And yet so very *extraordinary* simply because they are so very *normal*. Things that couples everywhere do...' Things that, just a few short years ago, he'd have never dreamt he would someday be doing himself, let alone together with Heero, his partner in life. He hoped that he never stopped appreciating these moments; never made the mistake of taking them for granted.



"It should be interesting. Neither of us has ever been to anything like this before," Heero commented as he set the table.



Duo sliced a grapefruit in half and put a portion on each of the plates that Heero held out to him. "Well, I guess the midway is probably a lot like the one at the circus but the rest of it should be really unique. And if we don't enjoy it today, we won't bother going back tomorrow."



Heero mm-hmmed in response as he set the plates down and opened the fridge to get out the jelly. Duo grinned and turned to tend to the toaster.



Going to the fair might have been his idea originally but Heero was just as curious now that they'd decided to go. He had a feeling that they'd be going back tomorrow no matter what today was like. The agricultural events - the horse show and the 4-H livestock show in particular - were completely outside of their realm of experience. The 4-H livestock show was today, as were the draft horse and pony classes, but the other horse classes were all tomorrow. 'And of course, the parade is tomorrow too. Along with the outhouse race, whatever the hell *that* is...'



Whatever it was, it sounded like it - and the rest of the fair - should be interesting. And if it wasn't - well, he and Heero would still be spending time together. And that alone guaranteed that he would enjoy himself.



***



Heero ran an appreciative hand over the SUV's dash as he started the vehicle. They'd traded his sports car in on this just a few weeks ago. It was infinitely more convenient for hauling camping equipment and for taking Chocolate to training classes and for pet therapy visits at the city hospital.



Duo's motorcycle was still here but they were considering trading it in on a different bike. Something better suited for riding double. Duo's bike wasn't really designed for that type of usage; it was barely even street-legal, meant more for offroad use. A double load made it awkward and hard to balance and the seat wasn't really long enough for two to ride together comfortably. And while it would be vastly more practical to just sell it and buy another vehicle like their - and it was *theirs*, not just his, both names were on the ownership and insurance - SUV, riding a motorcycle together was too damn much fun to give it up entirely.



"All set?" Heero asked as Duo climbed into the vehicle.



"Yep. Chocolate's in his run with a Kong stuffed full of peanut butter and treats and a supply of fresh water, the house is locked up, I've got my pager and cellphone in case we get called in, and I've got the sunscreen too. I'm good to go."



Heero nodded and smiled in response to Duo's cheerful grin. "I've got my pager and phone too, plus the directions and map to get to the fair. And my camera's behind the seat."



"Great. Let's hit the road!"



As he pulled out of the driveway, Heero found himself still smiling. He was looking forward to this. Neither of them had ever had much exposure to farm animals or *anything* farm-related. The agricultural fair would be something entirely new for them both. And the novelty of doing things just for fun or out of curiosity - not because it was necessary for a mission - was something he didn't think that he would ever get tired of.



Not that it required something unusual to make him smile anymore. The corners of his lips seemed to find themselves lifting automatically in Duo's presence, no matter what the two of them were doing. Even the most mundane of household chores became bearable if not actually pleasant when they worked together. And the more enjoyable things, like today's excursion... Well, those were not just "pleasant", they were *fun*.



And as for the sex - well, that was sweet and tender, fun and exciting, hot and passionate... Incredible... breathtaking... intimate. A wonderful expression of the love they shared.



A love that, during the war, Heero would have never believed he would - *could* - ever experience. 'I never expected to survive the war, let alone to have anything approaching a normal life... To have friends and a home, to love and be loved in return, to be understood by someone the way that Duo understands me... To have anyone truly *know* me, know my past in all its darkness and ugliness, and still love me...'



Sometimes, his good fortune still astounded him. A smile tugged irresistibly at the corners of his mouth.



"Thinking good thoughts, Ro?"



Glancing across at his partner, Heero discovered Duo watching him, a soft smile on his face. "Just thinking that during the war I'd have never believed any of this - our life together, us heading out to just spend the day having fun - could ever happen. Thinking about how lucky I am," he answered before turning his gaze back to the road.



"How lucky *we* are," Duo corrected firmly.



Heero's smile grew and he echoed, "How lucky *we* are."



***



Feeling slightly self-conscious, Duo closed his hand around Heero's extended one. He didn't really mind holding hands at the mall or someplace else crowded and busy but he felt a little odd about it here at the fair. This early in the morning, the crowd was sparse and he was slightly concerned about how noticeable they were going to be. The street kid in him didn't like to attract attention. But there were enough people around that it was unlikely anyone would do more than glance askance at them or maybe mutter a comment or two and holding hands really was pretty damn innocuous. He wouldn't refuse just because it made him a little uncomfortable; he'd told Heero that he was willing to be more open about their relationship in public and he wasn't going to retract that offer.



'Besides, once we get busy doing things and the place gets a little bit busier, I'll get over it. It's not that big a deal...' Duo decided silently. He smiled and squeezed Heero's fingers in response to the questioning look that Heero gave him. Heero had gotten pretty good at noticing when he was uncomfortable; evidently he'd picked up on his hesitation now. "S'okay, Ro," he said reassuringly. "Hey, why don't we start over at the horse show? It was supposed to start right when the gates opened..."



"Okay," Heero answered. "Which way?"



Duo glanced at the map of the fairgrounds that was posted near the entrance. "End of this path then a right. It's way back at the back. Yeesh, next to the *midway* of all things. Wouldn't ya think that the noise from the rides would bother the horses?"



"Well, the midway doesn't open till afternoon so maybe the horse show will be done by then..." Heero shrugged as they started walking.



"Maybe." Duo looked around curiously as they walked. The buildings housing the craft and baking contest entries, etc., were off to the left. They'd wait to visit those later in the day when the sun was at its most intense; it would give them an excuse to get out of the sun. His complexion was fairer than Heero's so he burned more easily but they were both colony-born and raised so they were much more sun-sensitive than those born and raised on Earth. A few short years of living on the planet hadn't changed that. Sunscreen and practical clothing helped but even the strongest protection wasn't complete; it was best just to stay out of the sun when it was at its most intense if possible.



Booths and tents, some for food and some for crafts and other goods, lined the walkways to the right. Very few of them were open yet. The midway lay beyond them, its game booths barely visible from here though the looming Ferris wheel could be seen easily.



They continued past a display of lawnmowers and garden tractors; Duo had to laughingly drag Heero away from checking out a riding mower big enough to cut their condo's entire backyard in about two passes. Then it was Heero's turn to drag Duo away as they passed a display of antique tractors dating all the way back to pre-colony days. Duo made a mental note to return to that area later; a sign advertised hourly demonstrations of a steam-powered portable sawmill and of a horse-powered ice cream maker beginning just before noon.



"Somehow, I don't think we're going to have any trouble finding things to keep us busy, Ro," Duo grinned as they finally reached the area fenced off for the horse show. He'd seen all sorts of things worthy of further investigation on their walk and they hadn't investigated even close to the whole fair yet.



***



"Over there, Ro," Duo snickered, poking Heero in the ribs and pointing.



Heero followed Duo's gesture and immediately brought his camera up for a picture. The little girl's head barely reached her pony's nose but she was certainly having no problem making it stand still while waiting for the judge to reach her. In fact, the swaybacked pony was pretty obviously *asleep* - hipshot, eyes closed, and head hanging low. After a great deal of tugging and foot stomping, its mistress finally persuaded it to meander slowly across the ring, turn, then stroll even more slowly back. Almost the instant that the pony came to a halt, it fell back asleep.



After watching the halter classes for a while, they decided to head back to the livestock barns. The ring for the 4-H livestock show was back there and they were both curious as to precisely how someone could show a pig or a sheep or a turkey or any of the other animals that the kids were supposed to be showing. "*Geese?!*" Heero said in disbelief. "How on earth do you show a *goose*?! Aren't they supposed to be kind of bad-tempered?"



"That's what I thought," Duo answered. "At least, that pick-your-own place that we went to for peaches last month gave me that impression. They had all kinds of 'Beware of Goose' signs up and that guy who wandered into a fenced-off area sure didn't waste any time getting the hell out of there when one chased him..."



Heero shrugged and said, "Well, I guess we'll find out if we wait around long enough." The first classes scheduled were swine, followed by sheep, then fowl, then the cattle - beef followed by dairy. As he and Duo climbed up on the bleachers and took a seat, a girl wearing a 4-H T-shirt entered the ring.



Raising a microphone, the teenaged girl began, "Welcome to our 4-H Achievement Day. The four H's in 4-H stand for Head, Heart, Hands and Health. The four-leaf clover that you see on the signs here is the club's symbol. Each leaf of the clover stands for one of the H's. The 4-H colours are green and white, representing youth and agriculture.



"But the 4-H program isn't just for farm kids. 'Learn To Do By Doing' is the club's motto and the 'doing' includes projects in a wide range of different areas of interest. Kids can choose projects in areas such as crafts, food, sewing, computers, photography, gardening, woodworking, welding, and many others in addition to the livestock projects like dairy, beef, swine, and poultry, that you will see in this ring today. The goal is for club members to learn something new and projects should be challenging but not impossibly difficult."



Heero found the explanation very interesting. He'd been under the impression that 4-H was strictly a rural club, meant solely for farm children and focussing specifically on agriculture. He hadn't realized that topics such as photography, woodworking, and welding could also be part of the program.



As the girl continued on to explain how the classes would be judged, Heero stole a quick sideways glance at Duo. His partner was watching and listening intently, soaking up all of the information being given. Heero shifted a fraction closer to him so that their legs touched, Duo flashed him a quick grin, then they both turned their attention back to the showring. It was definitely turning out to be an interesting day.



***



By the time that the first set of swine classes finished, Duo was starting to feel a bit restless. The show had been different and kind of interesting and he wouldn't mind seeing a bit of the dairy and beef classes later on but he wasn't particularly interested in watching another batch of kids herd their swine around. Bumping his knee against Heero's, he caught his partner's attention. He asked quietly, "Wanna go walk around a bit?" Heero nodded readily in response and stood to make his way off of the bleachers, Duo following close behind him.



"It's getting close to lunchtime, maybe we should see what there is to choose from..." Duo suggested.



"It looks like the midway booths are starting to open up even though the rides aren't running yet," Heero commented. "We could wander through those, see what they have on offer, then decide. I know that the 4-H booth here has shishkabobs and burgers... And there was a church booth over by the entrance that had full dinners - chicken or spareribs, I think..."



"Actually, that sparerib dinner sounds awfully good... Maybe we should just head over there now; get there before the shows break for lunch and the lineup gets long..." Duo willingly slid his hand into Heero's clasp as they started towards the church food booth. They hadn't attracted too much attention earlier by holding hands and the fair was getting considerably busier now. It was far easier to go unnoticed in a crowd.



The church booth was just starting to serve meals and the lineup was very short. In a matter of minutes, they had their food - one chicken dinner and one rib one so that they could split them, plus thick slices of freshly baked pie - and were seated at a picnic table inside a tent. They sat opposite one another, legs and feet touching companionably under the table.



"You need to put more sunscreen on after lunch," Heero murmured, tapping the tip of Duo's nose. "You're starting to get a bit pink on the tips of your ears and nose."



Duo made a face. "Damn. Guess I should've worn something other than a ballcap; it's not providing enough sun protection.



"Don't think you're burning yet but you'd better put some more sunscreen on too, just in case." Duo knew from past experience that Heero could show little sign of sunburn during the day yet by evening turn out to be badly enough burned to start peeling right away.



Heero nodded slightly in acknowledgement before dividing up the dinners. After that, the only sounds made by either of them were those of appreciation for good food, cooked to perfection and made even tastier by appetites encouraged by a morning outdoors.



***



Pleasantly full after their meal, they strolled through the buildings full of crafts, baked goods, and crop samples. Heero coaxed Duo into posing for a picture beside the winning entry for tallest sunflower; at 25 feet in height, it was almost half as tall as a Gundam.



"Imagine carving *that* thing for Halloween..." Duo snickered, gesturing towards the prize-winning pumpkin. It tipped the scales at just over 1000 pounds. "You'd have to crawl *inside* the sucker just to clean out the guts!"



"Assuming you could even cut it," Heero said. "It must have a very thick rind to support that kind of weight."



"True," Duo answered. "Of course, you could always just paint a face on it..." he added thoughtfully.



Heero grabbed Duo's elbow and hurriedly steered him away from the display. "Forget it, Duo. Not only would it be a miserable job to move it but it would have to be stored somewhere for almost two months. We do *not* have somewhere to put it between now and when we start setting things up for the fundraiser."



"I suppose..."



Watching Duo glance wistfully back at the huge pumpkin, Heero resigned himself to getting contact information for the grower and finding a way to arrange for that pumpkin or one of similar gigantic proportions to be made available next month. The Preventers were putting on a Halloween fundraiser for the children's ward at the city hospital and Duo was on the planning committee. He had put in countless hours of research and the plans that were originally limited to a small Halloween fun fair had grown and altered beyond recognition. Local law enforcement and firefighters were now involved with the event along with the city's amateur theatre troupe and several school drama clubs. Heero wasn't on the planning committee but Duo's involvement automatically guaranteed that he would be helping in any way that he could.



Including by obtaining gargantuan produce if his partner wanted it.



Heero smirked and shook his head slightly as he directed Duo out of the building. The types of "missions" that he undertook had certainly changed. There was one thing that all of his self-assigned ones had in common however - making Duo happy. And that was a mission objective that he had no problem working towards.



***



A brief stop back at the 4-H showring was enough to satisfy Duo's curiosity regarding the "how" of showing cattle. The antique tractor display was bypassed for the time being due to the large crowd gathered to watch the demonstrations so they arrived back at the horse show just in time for the "Child and Pony Costume Class". The costumes ranged from traditional - two children dressed as "bride" and "groom" riding in a cart with a "Just Married" sign on the back - to humourous - a Norwegian Fjordhorse hitched to a cart sporting cardboard car-shaped cutouts on the sides and a sign asking "Have you driven a Fjord lately?" - to just plain imaginative - a little girl dressed in a school uniform with a sign reading "Mary" on her back and leading a pony covered in a wooly sheep costume. While Duo was busy applauding the children's efforts as the judge handed out ribbons and midway vouchers to all the participants, Heero was busy taking pictures.



"Y'know, Ro, you should enter the photography contest here next year. We haven't been in the building with those displays yet but I bet your pictures are just as good as anybody else's. And I think that there's a class specifically for photos taken at the fair..." Duo was pretty sure that they'd be back again next year. They were enjoying themselves and it wasn't exactly an expensive day out. Weekend passes for the fair had cost less than tickets to a two-hour movie and their entire meal hadn't cost any more than popcorn and pop at the theatre.



"Photography's a hobby; I just take pictures for our own collection and for fun," Heero objected.



"So you enter a few for fun," Duo shrugged. He caught the faint frown on Heero's face and abruptly realized that maybe entering a contest wasn't a good idea for Heero. 'Too many associations with that whole "gotta be perfect" crap that J pushed on him all the time...' Casually, he shifted sideways and leaned against Heero before adding, "But then again, it'd be a pain having to worry about getting waivers signed by the people in the pictures and meeting all the other criteria... Guess that'd kind of take the fun out of it, huh?" He left the whole competition-wrecking-the-fun issue unspoken; they both knew what he was really talking about.



"Yes," Heero agreed quietly.



'Yep, definitely not one of my better suggestions...' Duo decided. "Sorry, Ro," he murmured softly. "Didn't think it through before I spoke." He slid his arm around Heero's waist and squeezed gently for a brief moment.



Heero murmured back, "S'okay."



Duo smiled softly and dropped the subject.



***



After watching the first driving class, Heero suggested that they explore the midway for a while, then come back to see some of the team hitches later on. Duo was in agreement, so they headed off to check out the game booths and vendors.



"Hey, Ro, look over here. Think it'd be fun to get one done?"



Following the direction that Duo had indicated with their joined hands, Heero looked at the signs and samples plastered along the porch railing of the "log cabin". He pointed to one of the sample images and smirked, "As long as *you're* the one planning to wear the dress and the feather boa..."



The indignant "Yuy!" and thwack of their clasped hands against Heero's chest did not come as a surprise.



"Well, *I'm* certainly not going to be the one dressing as the dance hall girl," Heero deadpanned.



"Yeah, well, neither am I, asshole..."



Heero just grinned at the affectionately muttered insult. "I suppose we could just settle for both dressing as gunslingers," he sighed, shaking his head in mock disappointment.



"Well, it's a damn sure thing that I'm *not* dressing up like some cheap barroom tart anyway," Duo grumbled. Heero could see the corners of his partner's mouth twitching as he tried to prevent himself from grinning. Duo raised one eyebrow in inquiry and said more seriously, "But I take it that you *do* want to give it a try?"



Running a critical eye over the samples and price lists, Heero nodded. "It does sound like fun. Especially if we opt for a genuine daguerreotype..." The daguerreotype was expensive - damn expensive for something that they were just doing for the hell of it - but after all, very few photographers worked with the antique medium. It wasn't something that the casual hobbyist like himself would ever get involved with. Even serious photographers working with the medium on a regular basis usually only ended up with one good shot in every ten. And considering how the images were made, that in itself made for one very expensive picture.



Daguerreotypes were made on copper plated with pure silver that was polished to a mirror surface. The silver was made light sensitive by exposing it to iodine and bromine vapours, then after the picture was taken the plate had to be developed over hot mercury vapour. Making daguerreotypes was a complicated, painstaking process involving chemicals that had to be carefully handled. And even after the image was produced, the final piece had to be sealed under glass in an airtight case.



The process was centuries old yet it produced incredible detail and tones unmatched by any other form of photography. The plate was a single solid sheet of silver. Photons of light reacted with the silver at the molecular level in a way that could only really be seen with the use of a scanning electron microscope in order to produce an unbelievable level of detail. The final piece was metal and each daguerreotype was one of a kind and could not be duplicated. The whole idea of having such an enduring image made just for fun held an undeniable appeal for Heero.



"A daguerreotype, huh?" Duo whistled softly as he read through the price list. Meeting Heero's eyes, he smiled and shrugged, "What the hell, why not?"



***



Duo grinned up at Heero as the photographer fussed with arranging the brim of Heero's cowboy hat. This little idea was going to cost more than their fair passes and meals for both today and tomorrow combined. But he was hoping that it sort of made up for his faux pas earlier over the photography contest. And they *were* having fun with the whole thing.



By the time that they'd each picked out an outfit, there had been more than a few additional teasing suggestions involving dresses, garter belts, and feather boas. And Heero had taken advantage of the few moments that they were alone in the small costume room to steal a hard, fast, breathless kiss that left Duo semi-seriously debating whether he really wanted to stay at the fair any longer today.



"Okay, that's just about got it..." the photographer muttered. He stepped back and eyed them critically. "Hmm..." Leaning forward, he twitched Heero's long duster a bit to the side so that the hand resting on the butt of the gun in the leg holster was more clearly visible, then adjusted the playing cards in Duo's hand slightly. He nodded in satisfaction, cautioning, "Just hold that position now, fellows."



Duo was very conscious of the warm weight of Heero's hand on his shoulder. He kept his gaze firmly fixed on the cards in his hand, trying not to burst into laughter from sheer self-consciousness. Just before the photographer took the picture, a soft, "Duo..." drew his gaze up to meet Heero's and the poker face he'd been trying to hold was replaced by an affectionate smile mirroring the one on Heero's face. The photographer might not be too thrilled about the change in their pose but hey - *they* were the ones paying for the picture, after all.



***



Heero quite happily handed over the payment for the daguerreotype. The photographer had taken several plates with them in different poses but that first shot - the one with him standing slightly behind and to the side of Duo, who was seated with one elbow resting on a table and a poker hand in his grasp - was the one that he liked best.



"Why do I have the feeling every other card player would have folded about two seconds after *that* moment?" Duo murmured, his chin resting on Heero's shoulder as he surveyed the image in Heero's hands.



Genuinely curious, Heero asked, "Why do you say that?"



Duo laughed quietly, "Ro, no gambler would be dumb enough to actually *beat* me with you hovering protectively like that."



Heero blinked and looked at the picture again. He flushed as he realized that the expressions on their faces and something subtle about his own stance had turned the "sheriff warning the gambler" pose into a "sheriff supporting his partner/lover" pose. "Oh," he said simply.



"Yeah - 'Oh'," Duo echoed.



Heero was pleasantly surprised when Duo gave him a swift bear-hug and brushed a kiss across his cheek before pulling away from behind him. Duo would accept his displays of affection in public readily enough but it was rare in the extreme for Duo to initiate one. They were semi-sheltered by the photography "cabin" that they were standing beside but this was still a very public place for Duo to do something so obvious.



"Hey, let's go see if they're showing the team hitches yet, Ro. There was this one really neat idea that I came across for the Halloween fundraiser..."



"Oh no, not *another* idea..." Heero complained theatrically as Duo grabbed his hand and started off towards the horse show ring. He dragged his feet slightly in apparent protest. Duo just chuckled and towed him along.



That grin was tugging at the corners of Heero's mouth again.



***



Duo jotted down a few more notes about insurance coverage and booking deadlines as he slowly walked away from the horse trailers. Heero's hand against his back steered him safely around other people and clear of the bustle of horses being unhitched. He had several good possibilities for Halloween; it was largely a matter of getting approval from the rest of the planning committee so that he could start making arrangements.



"I don't think the horses would have any trouble with what I've got in mind; the damn midway is practically in the ring with them and most of them don't even seem to notice," he commented as he tucked away his notes. It was pretty amazing; the Cobra ride was clearly visible spinning away mere feet away from the show ring and most of the horses barely even flicked an ear in its direction, despite the shrieks of its riders.



"They are surprisingly calm," Heero agreed. "But then, think about the mounted patrol's horses; they're like that too."



"Yeah, that's true..." Duo's brow furrowed in thought as new possibilities occurred to him. There were so many ideas to choose from... Oh well, he'd do some more thinking about it later.



"Y'know, Ro, I'm about done in. Too much damn sun and I don't think we've been drinking enough water. How about we take a Ferris wheel ride then call it quits for today?" he suggested. He'd rather leave while they were still having fun rather than hang around till they ended up overtired or bored. Especially if they were going to come back tomorrow for the parade, horse show - he was curious about the barrel racing and pole bending in particular - and tractor pull.



"Mm-hmm," Heero acknowledged, taking Duo's hand again and turning their steps towards the rides.



The wait in line for the Ferris wheel was surprisingly short. Checking the time, Duo realized that was probably because most people were taking a break for supper. "Eat when we get home?" he offered as they were seated.



"Good idea," Heero answered.



Duo noticed a few dirty looks directed in their direction as Heero wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. He automatically started to tense up, then consciously decided to ignore the unwanted attention and snuggled closer to Heero. 'Why the fuck would we even be riding this thing if not to cuddle?' They were leaving after this anyway; he'd just mention the - additional notice - to Heero, who'd probably noticed it himself; they'd pay extra close attention to their surroundings on the way to their vehicle and that would be the end of that.



"It's been a fun day, Ro," Duo observed quietly. "If we end up coming back tomorrow, though, we need to bring water bottles and make a point of drinking more." He wrinkled his nose, feeling the pull of tight skin, and added, "And I need a different hat. Dig out that Tilley one that I use when we go camping, I guess. It gives a lot more sun protection."



Gentle fingers brushed over his face. "Your skin's quite warm as well as being pretty pink; I hope you aren't too badly burned..."



"Me too. Have to wait and see in the morning whether I'm fit to spend another day here or not."



The ride lurched into motion for a few moments before stopping again. Heero asked softly, "You were okay with the handholding today?"



Duo turned his head so that Heero could see his expression. "Yeah, I was. Am." He'd felt self-conscious a few times but it hadn't bothered him as much as he'd half expected it to. Which was a definite relief since he knew Heero liked the contact and the demonstration that they were together.



"Good," Heero breathed.



Duo smiled at him and added, "In fact, I think I'll try something else..." And there, at the top of the Ferris wheel, Duo slid one hand behind Heero's head, cupping the base of his skull, leaned forward, and kissed him. And the presence of the crowd moving through the fair below didn't bother him one bit.
#8 Haunted Houses, Horrifying Hayrides, & Headless Horsemen by Calic0cat
"Stop that, you're going to ruin your makeup," Heero scolded.



"Huh?"



"You're chewing on your lip again, Duo. Stop worrying. We've checked, double-checked, and triple-checked *everything*. If anything goes wrong, someone will let us know. Time for *you* to get in position, 'Charon'." Catching a glimpse of Chocolate trying yet again to grab hold of one of his extra "heads", Heero added, "But you'd better find something to occupy 'Cerberus' while he's in character or he's going to have one less head before the first visitors walk through the gate."



"Aw, shit. Choc, *NO*," Duo ordered, tapping the dog's muzzle gently but firmly in reprimand. "*Don't touch*."



Heero chuckled as the dog cocked his head and whined plaintively. The two fake heads shifted slightly with his movement, catching the lab's attention again. He tried to turn his head to reach his costume and failed as the head moved with him. Chocolate whined again and turned his pleading look on Heero. "Don't look at me," Heero told the dog. "I knew better than to let Duo pick out *my* costume."



"Which is why *we* have cool costumes and *yours* is *boring*," Duo retorted teasingly.



"Better boring than uncomfortable," Heero answered drily. "You'll be lucky if you don't break out from all that makeup. Just don't tip the damn boat with those robes on; you'll sink like a rock." He turned and rummaged through the bag of supplies that he'd brought along. After a moment, he found what he was looking for and handed it to Duo. "Here. I went to the butcher shop and got a real bone for Chocolate to chew on while he's 'working' tonight. It'll keep him occupied and add to the overall image at the same time."



"Good idea. Thanks, Ro. You're sure everyone's in place and everything's ready to go?"



Heero smirked, "Everyone except *you*." He turned Duo around and gave him a playful swat to get him moving. "So *go*! You do your part and let me take care of the rest."



"Alright, alright, I'm goin' already..." Duo grumbled as he signalled Chocolate to heel and headed for the door. He paused and looked back over his shoulder before exiting the room. "Have I told you lately what a great guy you are, Ro?"



"Hmm, no, not since this morning when I dragged myself out of bed well before sunup on my day off, just to come help finish setting up the haunted house..."



"Guess I'd better remedy that when we get home later on..." Duo murmured throatily, turning to fully face Heero. "Show you just *how* much I appreciate all your help..."



Face whitened, eyes and lips blackened, Duo was certainly not at his most attractive. But when he used that particular tone of voice... Heero caught himself in midstep and forced himself to a stop. "Go! *Now!*" he ordered, pointing towards the door. "We don't have time to redo your makeup and in about ten seconds we're going to have to..."



Duo eeped and hastily headed out of the room, Chocolate right at his heels.



***



Duo grinned all the way out to his station on the obstacle course. He felt a little bit bad about teasing Heero like that - he'd gotten a stronger reaction than he'd expected, especially considering that he looked like death warmed over at the moment - but it never failed to amaze him that he *could* make Heero, Mr. Control himself, *lose* control. It was a power - 'no, not a power, a gift, a gift from Heero,' he thought - that he was careful not to abuse.



"C'mon, Choc," he called, coaxing the dog into the small flat-bottomed boat that one of the other volunteers had donated the use of. He firmly ordered the lab to sit and stay while he poled the boat the few feet across to the small island in the obstacle course's water hazard. Once he had Chocolate out of the boat, he chained the dog in front of the tall "gates of hell" that the Theatre Arts students from the university had brought in as props and gave him the large bone that would hopefully keep him occupied most of the evening.



Checking his watch, Duo decided that he'd better get in position, so he climbed back in the boat and sat down to wait for the first group of visitors. While he waited, he couldn't help thinking about the other volunteers who would be waiting all over the training grounds and hoping that everything went smoothly. 'It will,' he reminded himself silently. 'Heero's coordinating everything; nothing would *dare* go wrong...'



Though there were certainly lots of things that *could*. Using the training grounds that the Preventers and city police shared as the location for the Halloween fundraiser had given them a really good starting point for the event but it had still required a lot of work. The popup targets in the buildings and along the "street" - cutouts of civilians and gunmen alike - had been temporarily replaced with cutouts of ghosts, skeletons, and monsters. But since it was virtually impossible to get the replacements to have the *exact* same weight as the original cutout, some of them would not consistently pop up when they were triggered.



And of course there were countless other things that could go wrong, either in very minor ways or very major ones. One of the reasons that Heero had opted for a very simple costume - a hangman, dressed in black with a noose draped over one shoulder and a hood jammed in a pocket instead of on his head - was that he wanted to be able to move quickly and without hindrance if he needed to take care of a problem. Duo had half expected him to refuse to wear a costume at all; it really wasn't Heero's kind of thing. But he fit in much better with the rest of the fundraiser "staff" by wearing one.



Thinking of Heero's role in all of this reminded Duo that he was needed to put on his earphone and mike before anyone came through. The hood of his robe would conceal it. All of the volunteers were wearing the lightweight units. Convincing Une to let them use the communications gear for this hadn't been quite as difficult as Duo had expected. Mentioning the fact that it would not only help in case of technical difficulties but would also be a major asset in terms of safety and security had been all that he'd needed to do. She'd immediately seen the benefits of being able to instantly call for assistance in case of unruly visitors or an accident of some sort.



Duo crossed his fingers and hoped that there would be no real need for the communications equipment. But from what he'd learned through conversations with other organizations that had run this sort of event, there probably would be. Apparently it was almost inevitable that someone would have to be removed from the premises due to unruly behaviour. There was a mobile first aid station on site as well, also due to the assurances that there would inevitably be some sort of accident, albeit a minor one. If not tonight, then tomorrow night or the one after that.



Most of the people that he'd spoken to had recommended running the fundraiser for two weekends prior to Halloween. After a great deal of discussion, their committee had decided to stick with just one, at least for this year. If the event was a success, they would reconsider the scheduling next year.



Before that, though, they had to get through *this* year. Which meant getting through the first night, hopefully incident-free and with a good visitor turnout.



The headset clicked and Heero's voice cautioned, "Doors just opened and the first group is on the way into the first building now. Showtime, everybody."



And with that, the evening began.



***



"Blacklight burnt out between Stations 7 and 8," a voice warned over the headset.



"Acknowledged. On my way," Heero replied. He slung his duffle full of tools, spare bulbs, wire, and other miscellaneous items over his shoulder and headed off to take care of the problem. There had been a fairly constant stream of minor issues for him to deal with over the past few hours. Burnt-out bulbs, pop-up monsters that wouldn't trigger, parents looking for kids that had wandered off... There was no shortage of things to keep him busy.



Slipping unobtrusively through the steady flow of guests, Heero headed off to change the lightbulb. He was enjoying being part of the fundraising effort but he was extremely glad that Duo had asked that he take care of the behind-the-scenes coordination rather than taking on one of the roles that would have required interacting with so many people all evening.



It only took a moment to change the bulb and replace the pitch darkness of the hallway with its former eerie lighting. Heero gave a quick wave to the witch stirring her cauldron at Station 8 as he passed. She flashed him a gap-toothed grin and cackled wildly for the benefit of the approaching group of visitors. He just shook his head in amusement and headed off to check on the pop-up ghost in the upstairs hallway that had been acting up all evening. 'I think Dorothy's getting into her role a little *too* much... Hard to believe that straggle-haired, crooked-nosed hag is usually a perfectly-coiffed, aristocratic young woman...' Heero smirked and decided that, regardless of how much of a nuisance carrying it around might be, tomorrow night, he was bringing his camera.



The headset crackled and a snickering voice informed Heero, "The Horned God needs a safety pin; the clasp on his cape broke."



Heero blinked in surprise. Okay, that was a new one. He dug through his supplies and confirmed that he did indeed have a package of safety pins before he answered, "Acknowledged. I'll meet the Hunt at the east end of the ridge."



Shaking his head, he exited the back of the building and headed towards the ridge. He glanced to the west and saw the Wild Hunt galloping along the ridge's peak towards him. The lead rider was indeed missing his cape, though at least his antlers were still in place, and the Hunt remained an impressive sight.



***



Duo snickered at the latest request given to Heero. 'A *safety pin*? For the leader of the Wild Hunt? Now *that's* an odd one...' He leaned cautiously on his barge pole - careful not to overbalance and tip the boat - and looked up at the ridge that the Hunt was riding along. He grinned as they went thundering across it. The Wild Hunt and the Headless Horseman stationed at the hayride's turnaround point were his favourite parts of the event.



Duo had been distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of having a lot of blood and gore at the fundraiser for the hospital's children's ward and hadn't hesitated to say so. Once he'd raised the subject, most of the other law enforcement and emergency personnel involved had agreed. They saw enough of the real thing that they didn't like trivializing and sensationalising it. The question had then become, what could they do *instead*.



He, of course, had had an answer ready. Instead of the blood and gore that most people were already so desensitized to, they'd opted to go back to the "classic" monsters. Frankenstein. Dracula. The Headless Horseman. Witches, werewolves, ghosts, spiders, and skeletons. And then they'd gone *way* back, to the mythological ones. Cerberus and Charon. Banshees and harpies. Assorted beings associated with death and the underworld in a dozen different cultures. Including, of course, the Wild Hunt and its leader - at least in Celtic mythology - the Horned God.



Hearing voices approaching, Duo shifted his attention back to his own role and began poling the boat slowly along the short, narrow strip of water. He whistled once, sharply, to get Chocolate's attention. The dog had stayed alert through the first couple of hours while they'd had an almost constant audience but he'd been dozing off since things had started to slow down a bit.



"Speak," Duo ordered firmly as he passed in front of "Cerberus". Obediently, the dog began to bark. Duo let him bark until the small group of teens reached them. "Enough," he said simply and Chocolate immediately fell silent. Duo tossed him a treat before angling the boat closer to the audience so that they could get a good look at him. He could hear a girl's voice reading the explanatory sign posted by the path and once again debated whether next year it might be better to use recordings. 'Either that or guides like we have on the hayride itself... Except then we'd need even *more* volunteers...'



Considering how many volunteers they already needed, that might be a problem. Oh well, it was something to consider anyway.



***



Watching the Hunt pull to a stop in front of him - under one of the many blacklights they had set up all over the grounds so that phosphorescent paint would have a chance to recharge its glow - Heero had to admit that they made a fearsome looking bunch. One of the Drama club kids from the high school had dragged along his older sister, who was in veterinary college, and they'd painted accurate phosphorescent skeletons on the horses and dogs portraying the hunt. Heero just hoped that the paint washed out as easily as it was supposed to or there were going to be some very odd looking horses on mounted patrol next week. 'Not to mention the police dogs, who not only have glowing skeletons but *teeth* as well...' Heero thought wryly. He wasn't sure what they'd used to get that effect but the vet student had assured them that it was safe.



Heero handed a couple of safety pins up to the Hunt's leader. "Thanks," the man said sheepishly. "Hold the reins for a minute, would you?" Heero nodded and gathered them in his hand near the bit. The rider lifted up in the stirrups and pulled the wadded-up cape out from under him. "Normally I'd just trust this fellow to stand still," he continued as he shook the cape out and swirled it into place, "but the night air and galloping has him pretty revved up."



"It's not getting too dark?" Heero asked curiously. The moon was fairly bright but it was getting increasingly cloudy. He was surprised that the Hunt could still gallop in such poor light.



"Nah. The horses probably see better in the dark than we can," came the reply. "They'll be fine right through till we close for the night."



As the rider gathered the reins back up again, Heero stepped back from the horse. He waited until the Hunt turned and trotted off along the ridge before heading back towards the front entrance to wait for the next request to come in. 'Tomorrow night, I am *definitely* bringing a camera...'



***



Stifling a yawn, Duo stole a quick glance at his watch. The entrance gate had closed almost an hour ago and he hadn't had anyone come by his station in at least fifteen minutes. 'Which should mean that the last load of passengers is on the haunted hayride. If that runs on schedule, they'll be back well before midnight and we'll be able to pack it in on time...'



"Stations 1 through 30, go ahead and shut down for the night," Heero announced over the headset. "All guests have departed on the last hayride."



Duo sighed in relief and stood to pole the boat across and retrieve Chocolate. The dog had been very well-behaved for the most part, though Duo had had to take a break to go make a fuss over him every half hour or so. "C'mon, buddy. All done for the night," he said as he let the dog loose. He knelt and removed the wide, spiked collar and harness that held the heads of "Cerberus" in place. Chocolate immediately sat and scratched his neck energetically.



Duo grinned in amusement. "Feels good to get that off, huh?"



Chocolate barked sharply and cocked his head, listening intently to Duo's voice. Duo tousled the dog's ears affectionately before standing up again. He snapped his fingers and ordered, "Heel," before heading back to the boat, Chocolate following obediently. He wanted to go get rid of his *own* costume. The makeup was starting to itch.



***





Heero waited while the last stragglers climbed down from the haywagon and headed for the exit. The team of grey Percherons stood patiently, just as they had all evening. The horses looked almost ghostly in the dim light from the lanterns mounted on the wagon.



"Good turnout," the driver observed to Heero.



"Yes," Heero agreed. "Hopefully the remaining nights will be as successful."



"If the weather stays this nice, they probably will be," the woman answered. She gathered up the lines and clucked sharply to the horses. "Good night," she called back to Heero as she headed the team towards their trailer. He could just barely make out the figures of the people loading up the other team. "See you tomorrow."



"Good night."



"Good night," a familiar voice echoed. A moment later, Duo was leaning against Heero's back and resting his chin on his shoulder. His chest was warm against Heero's shoulderblade and his chin dug into Heero's collarbone as he yawned sleepily. "The Hunt's loading up to leave," he said. He yawned again.



"Stop that," Heero protested, feeling a yawn pulling insistently at his own jaw. "It's..." he gave in and yawned, "...contagious."



"Sorry," Duo chuckled before another jaw-popping yawn caught him. Without shifting from his sleepy sprawl against Heero, he waved in acknowledgement of the "goodbye" called by a passing volunteer.



"So much for showing me how much you appreciate my help tonight," Heero said drily. He smiled faintly as he spoke, acknowledging to himself that the casual intimacy implied by their current position - a position initiated by Duo despite their rather public location - made an equally cherished reward. "Somehow, I don't think either of us is going to be doing anything other than sleeping when we get home." They'd been up before dawn and had spent all day getting ready for this evening. At least they'd be able to sleep late in the morning. They didn't need to be back onsite until midafternoon tomorrow.



"Mmm..." Duo mumbled. "Morning, then." He turned his head sideways against Heero's shoulder and smiled, slowly, up at Heero, the few faint traces of makeup still visible on his face and the weariness shadowing his eyes doing nothing to detract from the sensuality of his expression. "Promise."



Heero couldn't resist. He caught Duo's face in his hands, turned swiftly, and kissed him, brief but fierce and hungry. "I'll hold you to that..."
#9 Remember by Calic0cat
The morning was dreary and damp. It had been raining steadily earlier but now it had slackened off to a chill, fine mist that gradually saturated hair and clothing, leaving everyone cold, wet, and miserable. Duo's bangs clung damply to his face. His Preventers dress uniform was heavy with moisture, uncomfortable and not the least bit warm. The damp, grey morning combined with the reason for everyone's presence at the memorial cemetery to create a chill that was bone deep. Duo shivered and tried to keep his teeth from chattering as he recited,



"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.



They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;

They sit no more at familiar tables of home..."



Duo managed to finish the quote without his voice breaking but it wasn't easy. As he laid the floral wreath at the base of the massive Gundanium memorial engraved with the simple inscription "Remember", he bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt to keep his emotions under control. He really hadn't expected to have to take such an active role in the memorial service. And of all the things that he could have been asked to read, that brief poetry excerpt really hit home with him.



Solo would forever be a cocky, street-smart preteen in his memory. Sister Helen's face would never be wrinkled with age. He would never sit down with Father in the church kitchen to enjoy a cold glass of milk and some of Sister's freshly baked cookies... Duo swallowed hard, struggling to maintain his composure as he returned to his position in the line of Preventers on the podium.



***



Watching Duo's face as he walked towards him, Heero wished that they were here as part of the audience, not as an honour guard for the service. Had they been down amongst the crowd, he would have been able to pull Duo into a comforting hug. As it was, they were both on duty and the most he could manage was something very subtle. Once Duo had resumed his place, Heero shifted a fraction sideways, his shoulder bumping against Duo's in a silent gesture of support. The motion was tiny, something that the crowd gathered for the service would never even notice, yet Heero knew that Duo would understand the wish to comfort that it conveyed. The tiny pressure of Duo leaning very slightly into the contact confirmed that.



Relena's voice rang out, clear and firm. "So wrote the poet Laurence Binyon of the First World War. Centuries have passed since then but the face of war has not truly changed. The reasons behind the Eve Wars were no different at heart than those behind the French Revolution, the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, or a hundred other conflicts, large or small. And the impact of war cannot be counted in military casualties alone. Nor in the number of deaths as a direct result of battle. Not only do many die as an indirect result of war but all of those deaths have a lasting impact on the lives of others as well. On the lives of friends, of family, of comrades."



Relena moved aside as Une stepped forward. In a slightly strained voice, Une began,



"There's a grief that can't be spoken

There's a pain goes on and on

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone

Here they talked of revolution

Here it was they lit the flame

Here they sang about 'tomorrow'

And tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner

They could see a world reborn..."



Even as Une's voice faltered, Zechs was moving to take her place. His voice was drawn with sorrow as he continued the quote,



"Oh my friends, my friends, forgive me

That I live and you are gone.

There's a grief that can't be spoken

There's a pain goes on and on

Phantom faces at the window

Phantom shadows on the floor

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will meet no more."



Smoothly, Relena reclaimed the microphone. "The First World War was supposed to be the 'war to end all wars'. Yet the Second World War began within less than a quarter of a century. The First Eve War ended with the hope that we had forged a lasting peace. A mere year later, we faced war again."



Once again, Une's voice rang out, loud and clear this time,



"Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me

What your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more."



Heero flicked a quick glance down to Wufei's position in the honour guard. His face was schooled to impassive solemnity but Heero could see the twitch of tension at the corner of his eye. Wufei hadn't entirely come to terms with his own involvement in that conflict even now; he had admitted to the rest of them that he wasn't quite certain why he had been so readily drawn into Mariemaia's forces. It wasn't as if he'd given peace a chance before deciding that it was flawed; he'd gone almost directly into the ranks of the new rebel army after the peace negotiations ended.



The echoes of Une's voice were still fading when Relena spoke, her voice sorrowful, "The First World War brought tanks and planes and chemical weapons into battle for the first time. The Second World War brought radar and the atom bomb. The Eve Wars brought mobile suits and space cannons capable of devastating a planet. Humankind finds new ways to fight, new ways to kill. In war, Death is the only constant."



***



This time, it was Wufei who stepped up to the podium. In the clear, crisp tones of a scholar, Wufei began,



"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below."



Duo winced as Wufei spoke, wondering whether anyone was going to walk away from this *without* raking up the most painful memories possible both for themselves and for the others present. He knew that Wufei had to be remembering one particular field filled with flowers as he spoke. The story of Wufei's Nataku - of the reason that Wufei fought - had been shared during their time in prison together. He had shared his own stories, his own reasons, in return. That had been the first time that he had felt he could truly begin to call Wufei "friend".



Wufei's voice cracked slightly as he continued,



"We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.



Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields."



Watching Wufei's taut expression as he returned to his position, Duo resolved to make sure that he didn't slip off on his own at the end of the ceremony, at least not before they had a chance to speak to him. He might want the privacy but he deserved to have support at least offered. 'Heero and I have each other, as do Quatre and Trowa. But Wufei's on his own. He should already know that we're here for him if he needs us but it won't hurt to remind him of that...'



"Let us hope that our current peace lasts," Relena said. "No, not 'hope'. Let us *work* to *ensure* that it lasts. It is perhaps too much to expect that there will never be another war. That peace will endure from now on. But it is not too much to hope and work towards that goal. To remember the cost of war and strive to avoid ever having to pay its terrible price again.



"If we cannot entirely eliminate war, let us at least be able to tell our children and our children's children that we have done our very best, tried our very hardest, to do so."



Listening to Relena's speech, Duo realized that she was finally growing up. Part of him was sorry that her innocent confidence in the everlasting power of peace was no more. But the rest of him was glad to hear the maturity in her new message. To hear her acknowledge that peace was not inevitable, that it would require work to maintain it. That it was impossible to expect that there would never again be war.



***



As Relena called for a minute of silence to remember those lost, Heero cast his gaze over all of those assembled on the platform. Everyone there had cause to remember and to mourn those lost, directly or indirectly, to war. To mourn both friends and foes. 'None of us truly enjoyed killing, though there were times when battle rage brought us close to glorying in it... Dangerously close...'



Except, of course, when the heat of battle had faded, the memory of that almost-glorying had remained to sicken them. Remained to haunt their dreams, their nightmares, even now.



'And of course, the faces of those that we killed populate them as well...' That thought had Heero sliding a half-step sideways, bringing his arm into reassuring contact with Duo's again. He wasn't looking forward to tonight at all; the odds were good that they would both have nightmares. A lot of painful memories were being stirred up by today's events.



The minute of silence ended with Relena repeating her reminder to remember the losses, the sacrifices, and to work for peace. Then they were all stepping down from the platform, collecting trowels and bulbs, and moving off to plant them around the base of the memorial and scattered throughout the grounds. Heero noted that although a few members of the crowd wasted no time heading off to the warmth and shelter of their vehicles, most remained to help in the planting.



Heero stayed close to Duo's side as they headed off with their planting supplies. He was cold, wet, and miserable so he knew that Duo would be in an even worse state. 'At least we're off duty now. We'll plant these as quickly as possible and head home. A warm bath, hot drinks, and an afternoon spent curled up on the couch together swathed in blankets sounds like a very good idea right now.'



***



"Heero? Duo?"



'Aw, crap.' Duo bit his tongue to keep from repeating the sentiment out loud. He just wanted to get done and get out of here. He was soaked right through and his braid was heavy with moisture. A whole lot of memories, both good and bad, had been stirred up by the ceremony and being cold made the memories of his L2 years even more powerful.



Reluctantly, he turned towards the owner of the voice. Relena was far from her usual elegant self. Her neat braids were drooping and her bangs were plastered to her forehead. She was evidently just as cold and wet as the rest of them. Duo grudgingly gave her credit for sticking this out to the end. At one time, she would have made her pretty little speech from beneath the shelter of an umbrella then flitted off to give a press conference from someplace warm and dry. Today, she'd toughed it out along with everyone else. No special treatment. And she'd even hung around to participate in the flower planting.



"Thank you for agreeing to take part today," she said politely. "I know that it was - difficult - for everyone involved."



The hitch in Relena's voice as she spoke reminded Duo that she, too, had lost someone very close to the war. Her adoptive father, the only father that she remembered.



"Remembering isn't easy," Duo agreed quietly. "But it's necessary."



Heero's fingers slipped through his own cold, muddy ones and squeezed gently. "We have to remember the past if we want to avoid repeating it. Pretending that it never happened achieves nothing," Heero added.



Relena flicked a glance down at their joined hands and swallowed hard. Gamely, she raised her chin and smiled a bit weakly. "You're right. Pretending achieves nothing. We all have to grow up and face reality eventually. Whether we like it or not.



"Again - thank you for taking part. Now, please excuse me, I have other thanks to extend." With a gracious nod, she turned and headed across the grass towards another cluster of participants.



"She's really grown up..." Duo murmured softly. Relena had pretty much avoided them both ever since Quatre's fireworks party. He really hadn't known what to expect from her. Polite resignation was a hell of a lot better than bitterness or anger.



"She has," Heero agreed. "Finally." There was a definite note of relief in his voice. "Let's finish planting these last few so we can go home."



Remembering his earlier determination not to leave without speaking to Wufei, Duo looked around for him. "Sure. But first I want to make sure Wufei's okay..."



"He's going home with Quatre and Trowa," Heero assured him. "I spoke to him earlier.



"How does a hot bath, hot drink, and an afternoon curled up together under lots of blankets sound to you?"



Duo sighed in anticipation. "Absolutely heavenly..."
#10 Give Thanks by Calic0cat
'Thanksgiving... I have a great deal to be thankful for this year...' Beginning with the man sprawled on his back across considerably more than his share of the bed, hogging all the covers and snoring none-too-quietly.



Propping himself up on one elbow, Heero grinned tolerantly down at his partner. Braid unravelling in a ratty tangle, unruly bangs sticking out in every direction, mouth slightly open and a trickle of drool snaking its way down the side of his face, Duo was still a beautiful sight to wake up to as far as Heero was concerned. He brushed a careful fingertip lightly over the very ends of Duo's eyelashes. Duo stirred slightly as Heero transferred his attention to the other eye and repeated the delicate caress. A faint murmur of content escaped Duo's throat and a hint of a smile tugged at his lips. Repeating the feathery contact, Heero followed up with a tender kiss to each eyelid, feeling them quiver beneath his lips. Soft sounds of wordless approval and a hand stirring lethargically in the bedding indicated Duo's growing awareness.



Heero hovered over his lover as Duo opened his eyes and drowsily blinked up at him. Before Duo had a chance to speak, Heero placed a gentle finger against Duo's parted lips and shook his head. He smiled slightly in response to the puzzled look dimly visible on Duo's face. It was very, very early in the morning and Duo was undoubtedly wondering why Heero had woken him. They didn't have to leave for Quatre's until after noon. Despite his obvious curiosity, Duo readily acquiesced to Heero's unspoken request and held his silence. Heero bent to kiss Duo softly, silently thanking him for his cooperation.



This afternoon, he and Duo would be celebrating with friends, giving thanks as a group for another year of peace. Heero intended for them to spend the morning hours in their own private celebration of thanksgiving.



***



Lying in Heero's arms, sweaty, sticky, and sated, Duo snuggled a little closer. He was unwilling to break the peaceful stillness of the morning with words just yet. It had been difficult to honour Heero's request not to speak but it had been well worth the effort. Without words being spoken, other noises became evident. The quiet rustle of bedclothes, the soft susurrus of skin against skin, the faint whisper of callused fingers sliding through silken hair, the tiny wordless gasps and murmurs of desire...



Heero's tender caresses and loving kisses had conveyed his love and appreciation for Duo - body, heart, and soul - in a way that words could not begin to match. There had been no rush, no urgency, to their lovemaking. It had been a beautiful expression of Heero's thankfulness for their relationship.



And as soon as he found the energy to actually move, Duo intended to make his own love and appreciation equally clear. They had all morning, after all...



Though he *would* need to go let the dog out at some point...



A few all-too-short minutes later, Duo was rudely shaken from his contented half-drowse by the strident ringing of the phone. Neither he nor Heero made any offer to get up and answer it. That was what the answering machine was for, after all.



***



"Yuy? Maxwell? Pick up the phone, gentlemen. I'm sorry to disturb you on the holiday but we have a situation..."



Heero groaned in resignation and reluctantly untangled himself from Duo. Sitting up, he reached for the phone. Duty called and he knew that Une would not interrupt their holiday lightly. "Yuy here."



As Une began to brief him, the mattress creaked and shifted. Heero turned his head and nodded in acknowledgement of Duo's gesture towards his tangled hair. Duo blew a quick kiss towards Heero and Heero gave him a brief smile in return. Then he turned his full attention towards the phone while Duo left the room. He knew that Duo was heading off to let Chocolate out and start getting cleaned up for work. They both would definitely need showers before they left the house.



This wasn't quite the way that Heero had hoped to spend their first Thanksgiving as a couple.



***



Crouched outside the back door of a rundown house in a very bad section of the city, Duo couldn't help thinking wistfully of where he - and Heero - were *supposed* to be right then. Namely, at Quatre's luxurious residence, visiting with friends. And instead of wearing Kevlar vests and holding guns while preparing to invade a house and - hopefully - rescue a senator's kidnapped daughter, they should have been enjoying a huge Thanksgiving dinner.



'Of course, that poor kid should be safe in her own home watching Thanksgiving Day parades on TV, not stuck in *this* dump, held hostage to try pressuring her mom into voting against a certain piece of legislation when parliament reconvenes after the holiday...' Duo thought grimly. "Try" being the operative word.



L4 Representative Senator Greaves was not a stupid woman. She'd known damn well that following instructions to *not* report her daughter's kidnapping wouldn't guarantee the child's safety. And she had no intention of allowing what she'd referred to as "cowardly scum" to influence her vote. However, she also had no intention of unnecessarily endangering her child's life. Rather than report the kidnapping directly to local law enforcement and risk the kidnappers finding out that she'd done so, she'd contacted an old schoolfriend who just happened to have a "baby brother" with very close ties to the Preventers. And Quatre, of course, had taken things into his capable hands and had very discreetly contacted Une.



'Which of course meant Une reluctantly cancelling our holiday...' Duo's eyes swept repeatedly over the area as he waited for the time to enter the house. He hated this part of a mission - the interminable waiting while nerves tingled and muscles quivered in readiness. It was even worse when waiting alone as he was right now. Especially knowing that somewhere around the side of the house his partner was also waiting for the operation to get underway.



Flicking a quick glance at his watch, Duo tightened his jaw at the confirmation that he really *did* still have another two minutes to wait. He really wanted this over and done with so that they could all give thanks for the safe return of the young girl.



Gun in hand and lockpicks at the ready, Duo stayed behind the dubious shelter of the reeking garbage can and waited for the signal.



***



Voices raised on the sidewalk in front of the house right on time. Heero immediately set to work carefully and quietly cutting a hole in the basement window he was crouched beside. A small part of his mind admired the sheer volume that Dorothy and Noin were producing in their little spat; Dorothy seemed to be really getting into her role. As he reached through the hole and unlocked the window, Heero shook his head slightly, faintly amused by the language being used by the usually aristocratic young woman. He'd had his doubts about letting her and Noin provide the distraction out front - they weren't exactly familiar with the characters they were playing after all - but they were doing a pretty damn good acting job. He could almost believe that they really *were* just a couple of hookers having a very loud argument over whose territory this block was.



Once inside the basement, Heero performed a cursory sweep to verify that it was unoccupied. Sweep completed, he signalled for the other agents to climb down through the window. Then he headed up the stairs and silently eased the door open a crack, listening carefully and peering through the narrow space. Satisfied that the area was clear, he gradually pushed the door open far enough to slip through. There was no one in the narrow hallway but he could hear voices towards the front of the house commenting in amusement on the "cat-fight" taking place outside. A glance in the opposite direction revealed Duo gliding soundlessly into sight, two agents close on his heels.



Duo signalled an all-clear and gestured at the stairs leading to the second story. Heero nodded his acceptance and headed off to take care of the suspects he could hear on this floor, his own team close behind him, while Duo's team ascended the staircase.



***



With a few quick motions, Duo sent his team to reconnoitre the upstairs rooms. Only one of the doors stood open and that room - overlooking the street out front - was empty. Hand signals told Duo that sounds were confirmed in two of the remaining three rooms.



He ordered an agent to take the apparently-empty room anyway. No point taking unnecessary chances.



Silently, Duo marked off the countdown with one upraised hand, then kicked the door open in unison with the others taking out their own assigned doors. A chorus of "Preventers! Freeze!" rang out.



Behind him, a shout of "Code Green!" came from the supposedly-empty room and Duo grinned in satisfaction even as he dodged gunfire from within his own room. The kidnapped girl was alive and in stable condition. Whether she was genuinely unhurt or not would remain to be seen but she was at least not in need of immediate medical attention.



Duo returned fire, sending the shooter diving for cover behind the bed. "Drop your weapon and come out with your hands up!" Duo barked sharply. He ducked as another gunshot answered his demand. Distantly, he was aware of the sounds of a struggle in the adjoining room. An instant later, the connecting door burst open and two figures staggered through it. Seeing that Agent Brook was seriously outclassed by the hulking man currently trying to stab him and unable to get a clear shot, Duo lunged into the fray.



***



'This was *not* how I wanted to spend Thanksgiving...' Heero laced his fingers through Duo's and bent his head to press a gentle kiss to the back of Duo's hand. He threw a glance at the monitor readouts and settled back into his chair with a sigh. It would probably be quite a while yet before Duo woke up.



A quiet knock on the doorframe caught Heero's attention and he looked up. "How is he?" Quatre asked softly.



"Lucky," Heero replied.



Quatre gave him a disbelieving look and repeated, "Lucky?"



Heero nodded and gave him a rueful half-smile. "Yes. He'll be limping for a while but the bullet didn't seriously damage the bone and it missed the tendon." They'd had to dig the bullet out of Duo's calf but it had barely chipped the tibia and the bone fragments hadn't caused any serious further damage.



"And his arm?"



"The Kevlar vest deflected the stab," Heero leaned forward and gently touched the targeted area on Duo's chest, knowing that Quatre would understand just how fortunate the vest's presence had been. "The knife slid off and sliced into his arm instead. Soft tissue damage only; they just repaired the blood vessels and stitched it up." Again, Duo had been lucky. The knife wound hadn't caused any permanent damage although Duo had lost a fair amount of blood. 'I'm just thankful that we had paramedics standing by. Having them already on the scene made a big difference...'



One ambulance had taken the kidnap victim - she only had a few bumps and bruises but the hospital was keeping her overnight for observation - and the other had taken both Duo and Agent Brook, who'd also been injured. The suspects responsible for their injuries had left the scene in body bags; another Preventer had downed the shooter and, despite being wounded, Duo had managed to turn the other assailant's own knife back on him.



Shaking his head slightly, Quatre agreed wryly, "Lucky." He gazed at Duo's still, pale form for a few moments, then turned back to Heero. "Trowa's gone to pick up Chocolate and take him back to our place. We figured that you wouldn't want to have to leave Duo just to take care of the dog."



"Thanks," Heero answered gratefully. Since the hospital *would* actually allow him to stay with Duo - thanks to the fact that medical science had finally gotten a clue and realized that the advantages to the patient of having family continuously present far outweighed the perceived inconvenience to the hospital - he had every intention of remaining at Duo's side unless and until Duo himself ordered him to go home.



"Is there anything else we can do for you?"



"Not really. He won't be awake much before tomorrow, Quatre. You might as well go home for now."



"Wouldn't *you* like some company?"



Heero gazed steadily at Quatre and raised one eyebrow slightly. "Actually... No." He would rather just be left alone with Duo. Belatedly, he added, "Sorry."



Quatre smiled faintly and murmured, "Why am I not surprised...



"Alright." He crossed the room and gave Heero a hug, then leaned over the bed and squeezed Heero and Duo's joined hands gently. He instructed Heero firmly, "Call if you need anything; otherwise I'll see you both in the morning."



Nodding his acceptance, Heero was silently grateful for the understanding of good friends. Not everyone would be as tolerant and sympathetic towards his preference to keep a solitary vigil. As Quatre headed towards the door, Heero called softly after him, "Happy Thanksgiving, Quatre." The day might not have gone as planned but it could have been far worse. An innocent child was safe and although Duo was injured, he was in stable condition and would probably spend only a few days in the hospital. Heero would far rather give thanks for the positive than dwell on the negative.



Quatre turned and gave Heero a startled look that softened to one of comprehension. Inclining his head slightly, he agreed, "We *do* have a lot to be thankful for, don't we...



"Happy Thanksgiving, Heero."
#11 Christmas Eve Blessings by Calic0cat
Duo rolled over and turned off the alarm almost the instant it went off. He slipped out of bed slowly, knowing that rising too quickly would leave him lightheaded. He was becoming extremely irritated with the lingering weakness. Weeks in the hospital had really played havoc with his strength and stamina.



"Duo?"



Glancing back over his shoulder at the sleepy query, Duo whispered, "Go back to sleep, Ro. It's not even six o'clock yet."



There was a tired mumble in response as Heero pulled the covers up higher and rolled over. Duo chuckled softly and limped off to grab some breakfast. 'We may not get to sleep in very often but when the opportunity exists, he's just as willing to take advantage of it as I am. It's a lot nicer when we get to sleep in together, though...'



Unfortunately, this was one morning that he couldn't indulge himself. Duo sighed and stifled a yawn. 'No matter how much I'd like to go crawl back in bed, I can't. I promised Father O'Brien that I'd be there to help; they always needs extra help during the holidays.'



And although Duo wasn't particularly religious - he only attended services once in a long while as a tribute to his memories of the Maxwell Church - he *was* very appreciative of the community services offered by various religious groups, including the ecumenical association responsible for the All Faith Mission which ran the foodbank and soup kitchen that he volunteered at on a monthly basis.



Duo smothered another yawn as he sat down at the table, toast and half a grapefruit in front of him. He really wasn't very hungry but he knew that he would need the energy later on. As he took the first bite of grapefruit, he heard the creak of bedsprings. Evidently, Heero hadn't been able to go back to sleep. 'Damn. I didn't want to wake him up; between spending virtually all his off duty hours with me at the hospital and the overtime he's been putting in due to the number of Preventers off with the flu that's been going around, he hasn't been getting enough sleep lately...'



Standing in the kitchen doorway, Heero asked muzzily, "Why are *you* up so early? Aren't you coming back to bed?"



Pointing towards the calendar, Duo reminded him, "December 24th? All Faith Mission? Christmas Eve dinner? Remember?"



***



Abruptly wide awake, Heero demanded, "What?" Duo couldn't possibly mean...



"I'm volunteering at the Mission all day today, helping with the Christmas Eve dinner, remember?"



'Oh no. No way. He's only been out of the hospital for a few days!' "Duo, it's too soon. You are *not* going to spend all day volunteering," Heero stated flatly. He almost missed the rebellious flash in Duo's eyes at his dictatorial tone. Fortunately, the keyword there was *almost*. Heero softened his voice immediately and switched tactics. Dropping to the floor beside Duo's chair, he slid his arms around him and pleaded softly, "Please, Duo, you almost *died*; I know you're feeling a lot better but you still tire easily and you *know* you're supposed to avoid crowds while your immune system recovers..."



Both the bullet wound and the knife wound that Duo had sustained during their Thanksgiving Day mission had been relatively minor. The blood poisoning that had followed those injuries had been a very different story. Heero didn't think that he'd ever been so scared in his entire life. 'And there wasn't a damn thing I could do except stay by his side at the hospital...' He shuddered at the memory of those terrifying hours - hours that had turned into days - from the moment he'd received the call from Quatre while he'd been doing some preliminary work on a new case at the office, to the moment that the doctor had finally pronounced Duo out of danger.



They'd been extremely fortunate that Quatre had dropped by to visit Duo at the condo. Duo had been discharged from the hospital the day before after a very brief stay. All had seemed to be going smoothly in his recovery; he'd been headachy and a bit nauseous but those were known side-effects of the medication that he was taking. Unfortunately, they were also early warning signs for something else - the onset of septicaemia - blood poisoning. Duo had been running a high fever and experiencing severe chills when Quatre arrived and had lost consciousness by the time that Quatre got him to the hospital. He'd been in septic shock before Heero got there. 'It would have been several more hours before I got home from work. If Quatre hadn't stopped by...' Heero cut that thought off with another shiver. It had been too damn close as it was.



"Duo, please..." Heero repeated. Duo's stiff, unyielding body finally relaxed and leaned into his embrace.



"But I *promised* way back in November that I'd help with the Christmas Eve dinner..." Duo objected unhappily. "Father O'Brien said they're *always* shorthanded for it."



Heero sighed and gave up his plans for an entire day of coddling Duo. "If it will make you feel better, I'll take your place," he offered reluctantly. He really did understand why volunteering at the Mission was so important to Duo; he was just terrified that Duo would overdo things and end up getting sick while his immune system was still recovering from fighting the blood poisoning. Spending all day working at the dinner - and it *would* be all day, preparations for the meal were scheduled to begin in the early morning although the meal itself would be served in the afternoon - would be exhausting under *any* circumstances. And with the number of people who would be passing through, the chances of being exposed to one of the seasonal viruses making the rounds would be very high.



"But... you *hate* having to deal with so many strangers..."



"I hate seeing you upset more," Heero admitted quietly. "I know it's important to you and I wish that you could go yourself. It's just too soon. You've only been out of the hospital for a few days. You have to give yourself time, koi."



"Yeah, yeah, I know." Duo sighed and laid his cheek against Heero's hair. "Doesn't make the waiting any easier, though."



Silence fell for a few long moments. Heero forced himself to stay quiet. No matter how much he might want to *make* Duo stay home and rest, the decision really was Duo's to make.



Finally, the pressure against his head disappeared as Duo straightened. Duo's hands lifted to frame Heero's face, gently tipping it up so that their eyes met. He smiled wryly. "Okay, you win. You take my place volunteering at the dinner and I'll stay home."



"And rest?" Heero added hopefully.



Duo scowled. "Fine. And rest."



Heero still wasn't entirely happy with the situation. Duo hadn't been alone since he came home from the hospital. Heero hadn't been able to stay home himself; he'd had to work if he wanted to be off-duty over the Christmas holidays. But either one of their friends or one of Quatre's extended "family" - the Maguanacs - had stayed with Duo at the condo while Heero was at the office. "Why don't you call someone to come..."



Fingers pressed firmly against his lips as Duo warned, "Don't push your luck, Yuy."



Wisely, Heero shut up. He'd just have to take other measures to ensure Duo's well-being while he was away.



***



Duo hated to give in to weakness. He'd hated to admit that he really wasn't up to a day of volunteer work just yet. He *wouldn't* have given in on the issue if Heero had kept up his dictatorial attitude. But Heero hadn't.



Instead, he'd resorted to something far more effective - a soft, understanding "koi". That rare use of an endearment had been the deciding factor, reminding Duo that his illness had affected Heero just as much as it had him, albeit in very different ways. In light of that, he hadn't been able to refuse Heero's plea. And now, curled up on the couch little more than an hour after Heero's departure in his stead, he had to admit that Heero had been right. Just washing up the breakfast dishes and tidying the bedroom had exhausted him. His leg and arm both ached from the unaccustomed exercise. The bout with blood poisoning had delayed his physiotherapy for the injuries. Both limbs were far from back to normal and they were reminding him quite insistently of that fact.



"Sorry, Choc," he apologized to the dog gazing hopefully at him. Heero had only had time to take the lab for a very short run this morning but, after promising to rest, Duo wasn't about to try even a short walk around the block. "Maybe we can play a little fetch in the yard after I have a nap."



Chocolate cocked his head and pricked his ears, giving a single, insistent bark.



Firmly, Duo told him, "Not now. Later."



Ears drooped in response to Duo's tone and the lab flopped down, heaving a loud sigh as he rested his chin on his paws and stared mournfully at Duo.



"Yeah, well I'm not exactly thrilled either, pal," Duo muttered as he pulled the fleece blanket off the back of the couch and draped it over himself. He was sick and tired of being sick and tired.



***



Threading his way through the busy kitchen, Heero made his way over to a black-clad figure. "Father O'Brien?" he asked a bit uncertainly. He'd met the man very briefly during Duo's hospital stay but he'd been completely focussed on his partner at the time and hadn't really paid any attention to the stocky middle-aged man.



The priest turned to greet Heero, his expression startled. "Yes?" He took a closer look at Heero, clearly trying to place him.



"I'm here to fill in for Duo Maxwell," Heero explained. "He wanted to be here himself but he's - not quite up to a day of *this*," he gestured at the bustle filling the room, "just yet."



"Goodness gracious, he certainly wouldn't be!" Father O'Brien snapped his fingers, a look of recognition crossing his face. "Ah, now I remember you. You're Duo's partner; you were arriving just as I was leaving his room one day."



Heero nodded in acknowledgement, unconcerned about exactly which definition of "partner" the priest was assuming applied. He and Duo were partners in every way possible. "Duo was concerned that you would be shorthanded today. He didn't want to leave you in the lurch. So..." Heero shrugged, "here I am, ready to work in his place."



"Very admirable and the act of a true friend," the man responded. "Well then - let's put you to work."



***



The phone rang. Dragged from a light doze by the noise, Duo groaned and pulled the pillow up around his head in a vain attempt to block out the racket. 'No, no, no...' He seriously debated ignoring it. 'But if it's Heero, he'll assume something's wrong and then there'll be emergency vehicles and everything else to deal with.' Okay, slight exaggeration there. But he'd probably have a worried Quatre on the doorstep at the very least and that would be almost as bad. Hell, he didn't want *anyone* on the doorstep. Well, other than Heero obviously, and Duo didn't want him racing home early because he was worried. In fact, a tiny bit of him was quietly and guiltily grateful that Heero *was* going to be gone most of the day. Duo loved him dearly but after weeks of the hustle and bustle of a hospital and being fussed over to the point of sheer exasperation - both during his hospital stay and since his return home - by a host of well-meaning friends, a day of peaceful solitude was actually pretty appealing.



The phone rang again. 'Well, it would be if people actually left me *alone*...' he qualified grumpily. Raising himself up on one elbow, Duo scowled across the room at the phone. He'd *just* gotten comfortable and dozed off; he really didn't want to have to get up to answer the damn phone. "Hey, Choc - phone, boy. Fetch it here." Chocolate perked up his ears and stood.



A moment later, the dog pushed his saliva-slimed ball against Duo's arm.



The phone kept ringing. "No, not ball. *Phone*. Get the phone and fetch it here," Duo said encouragingly, pointing towards the device. Chocolate gave him an eager but confused look and whined once before darting off down the hall.



Duo sighed in resignation. "No go, huh. Guess I need to add 'phone' to the list of commands to teach you, fella."



Reluctantly, he dragged himself off the couch and limped over to the phone, snatching it up just before it kicked over to the answering machine. "Hello."



"Duo! How are you feeling today? Are you okay? Does someone need to come over for a while?"



'Dammit, Heero... Not fair siccing Q on me!' He should have known that Heero had given in too easily. "Quat, I'm *fine*. In fact, I *was* having a nice little nap till *someone* called and woke me up. And no, I do not need anyone to come keep me company. I told Heero I'd stay home and rest and I will. Assuming that I don't have to spend the whole day answering the damn phone instead!"



The click of toenails down the tiled hallway distracted Duo's attention from Quatre's response. He watched curiously as Chocolate returned to the livingroom. A moment later, Duo moved a hasty step backwards as, with a solid thud, the dog deposited a large rawhide bone at his feet. He couldn't help snickering slightly as the lab sat and looked up at him expectantly. Chocolate had obviously decided that "phone" sounded an awful lot like "bone". Duo stroked the dog's head affectionately. "Close enough, boy. Can't expect you to know a word I haven't ever taught you. Good dog, Choc."



"What did he do?" Quatre's curiosity was evident in his tone.



"Oh, I tried to get Chocolate to go get the phone for me and he took off down the hall. He just came back and proudly presented me with his rawhide bone," Duo explained, chuckling. "Silly mutt," he murmured, tugging gently on one silky ear. He bit off a pained gasp as the dog leaned heavily against him, jarring his bad leg and setting off a muscle cramp. Lurching over to the nearest chair, he dropped into it before attempting to massage out the cramp one-handed. He didn't dare put the phone down and use both hands; Quatre had heard that gasp and was making alarmed demands for an explanation. If he didn't respond, he'd have company for the rest of the day whether he wanted it or not.



"Duo? Duo, what's wrong? Are you okay?!" Quatre demanded anxiously.



Chocolate whined and pressed his head against Duo, sensing his master's distress. Touching though the animal's concern was, Duo really wished he would just go lie down; he was interfering with Duo's attempt to soothe his painful muscle.



"Duo, I'm on my way over there."



"NO!" Exasperated, Duo gritted between clenched teeth, "Chill, Quatre. Just a leg cramp." As the muscle spasm eased a bit, he managed to continue, "You *know* what these kind of injuries can be like. Spending the better part of the past few weeks in a hospital bed hasn't helped matters any. It'll get better now that I've started physio."



"Well... If you're sure that you're okay..."



"Believe me, I'm *sure*."



"It really wouldn't be any trouble at all for someone to come..."



Duo cut him off a bit sharply, "I don't want any company, Quatre." With an effort, he softened his voice, "Look, Q, I appreciate the offer. But I really just want a quiet day *alone*, okay? I appreciate everybody's concern and support but all the fussing's getting kinda old. I'm okay now; it's time for things to start getting back to normal."



***



Heero lifted the huge pot full of peeled and sliced potatoes and set it aside. Dodging through the busy kitchen, he retrieved another large sack of potatoes and lugged it back to his work area. Within a few minutes, he was resuming his previous routine. Scrub, peel, slice, then on to the next potato. Not a difficult task, just a highly repetitious one.



'Only one more bag to go after this one. Wonder what task Father O'Brien will assign me to next...'



Considering how quickly he was working his way through the potatoes, Heero was betting that he'd get the job of cleaning and chopping vegetables for salad. He was pretty handy with a knife. 'Of course, if Duo was here and in peak condition, he'd have finished *all* the potatoes now. He's even more efficient with a knife than I am.'



Heero suppressed the urge to sigh. He wished that Duo *was* in good enough shape to be here. Or that at least he could be at home with Duo. This really wasn't the way he'd intended to spend the first day of his Christmas holiday; he'd been looking forward to a day of taking care of his partner. Plying Duo with his favourite foods, curling up on the couch together and watching classic Christmas movies... Coddling his lover and just letting it sink in that Duo really *was* safely home and getting better...



'But this is important to Duo. He never forgets just how important the church's community service work was to him and the other homeless. Doing his part to pass those benefits on to others means a lot to him...'



Enough that Heero had known Duo wouldn't be able to really rest today if Heero didn't take his place. 'I just hope that he *is* resting. And that Quatre was able to persuade him to let someone come over and stay with him for the day.' He hadn't even had to suggest it. As soon as Heero had called to tell Quatre that he would be gone all day taking over Duo's volunteer duties, the blond had immediately volunteered to make sure that Duo was alright. Though that still didn't stop Heero from worrying.



'Maybe I'll take a short break once I'm done with the potatoes. Call home just to make sure that everything's okay.'



***



"Sit. Wait." Duo ordered firmly. Chocolate quivered with excitement but obeyed. Duo swung his good arm cautiously, careful not to stress his bad leg as he shifted his weight, then gave the ball an underhand toss and released the dog with a sharp, "Go!" Chocolate took off like a shot, racing the length of the small backyard and snatching the ball out of the air with an exuberant leap.



Duo grinned as the lab turned and tore back to him at top speed. He gave a silent, one-handed signal as the dog approached. Chocolate obediently threw on the brakes and dropped to a sit directly in front of him. Duo held out his hand and ordered, "Give." He frowned sternly and cleared his throat when the ball was not immediately released. After a brief hesitation, Chocolate let go and the ball dropped into Duo's hand. "Good dog," he praised immediately, relieved that Chocolate hadn't decided to play keep-away as the young dog occasionally did. There was no way that he was in shape to wrestle the ball away from fifty-plus pounds of energetic Labrador.



Another hand signal was given and the dog darted around behind Duo, plopping back into a sit once he was in proper heeling position. Duo gave him a quick scratch behind the ears as reward before repeating the whole exercise.



A dozen throws later, Duo shivered and reluctantly told Chocolate, "All done, Choc." He'd dressed for the cold but the wind was working its way through the warm clothing and he couldn't afford to get chilled while he was still recovering. The dog's ears drooped and his tail sagged but he followed Duo back inside without protest.



'I'll just heat up some soup for lunch, then take another nap,' Duo decided as he shrugged out of his coat. He wanted to be well-rested and relaxed for tomorrow. Not so much because it was Christmas as because Heero would be home all day. If Heero was still in full-blown worrywart-mode, he was going to need every bit of patience that he possessed. It wouldn't be fair to lose his temper at his lover just because Heero was concerned for his welfare.



Duo had to remind himself of that fact as the phone started to ring before he even made it to the kitchen. God only knew who would be calling this time. He thought that he'd convinced Quatre not to call back but there was no telling who else Heero might have got to check up on him.



***



"Hello?"



Heero frowned slightly. Duo sounded a bit out of breath. "Duo? Are you okay? You sound..."



An exasperated voice cut him off. "Ro, I'm *fine*. I just had to hurry to get the phone 'cause I didn't want somebody panicking if it went to the answering machine. After all, it might have been Quatre calling *again* worrying about poor helpless little ol' me being home all alone. Gee, wonder how he found out *that* little piece of information, huh?"



Wincing at the sarcastic tone, Heero decided unhappily that any chance of spending any part of today coddling his partner had just vanished. Duo's tolerance for being fussed over had finally run out. "I'm sorry," he began.



Duo cut him off again, "No, you're not. You're just sorry you got caught."



Sometimes, Duo knew him a little *too* well. "I..."



"Heero. I am an adult. I am perfectly capable of spending the day by myself. Yeah, I was pretty sick but I'm okay now; they wouldn't have let me out of the hospital if I wasn't. Stop being such a damn worrywart, for god's sake!"



'Shit. He's really pissed off...' Heero fumbled for words, not sure what he could say that wouldn't end up making Duo even more upset with him. Maybe there wasn't anything "safe" to say. Maybe he'd better just get off the phone and let Duo cool off. Worry about smoothing things over in person after he got home.



Quietly, Heero said, "You were right, they were shorthanded. It's a good thing that I came; I'd better get back to work. I just...



"I just wanted to hear your voice so I'd know that you were okay." The admission slipped out almost involuntarily. Hastily, worried that Duo might take his remark as an attempt at emotional blackmail rather than a confession of simple truth, Heero continued, "I shouldn't be too late getting home; there's another shift of volunteers coming in to help serve and handle cleanup. I'll see you later, bye." He disconnected the call without waiting for a response.



Maybe he was overreacting and being overprotective. But Duo had been so very sick, had come so damn close to dying, and there had been absolutely *nothing* that Heero could do to help...



He'd *hated* that feeling of helplessness, of uselessness. Now that Duo was home, Heero had hoped that he would be able to take care of him, make a fuss over him, be able to actually *do* something to help him get better. But circumstances had dictated that he'd had to work during Duo's first few days home, days during which Duo had tolerated the coddling lavished on him by their friends, and now it looked like he'd missed his chance. 'I know that I have to back off or he'll just end up pushing himself too hard trying to prove a point...' Heero admitted reluctantly.



He just didn't know whether he could actually make himself follow through on that knowledge.



***



"Aw, *crap*." Duo stared at the phone and wished that Heero hadn't been quite so quick to hang up. "Now I feel like an absolute asshole," he muttered guiltily. He knew that Heero's worry was in direct proportion to how much Heero cared about him and that Heero's overprotectiveness was just the result of Duo's illness having scared the hell out of him, that it didn't have anything to do with Heero thinking that he was weak or helpless. He just...



"I just can't put those damn street instincts completely behind me..." he admitted out loud. On the streets, it hadn't mattered how sick or weak you were, you *always* looked after yourself. The slightest sign of vulnerability spelt disaster, especially for a kid on his own as he'd been during his second period on the streets. And even in a gang, it was important to resume full independence as quickly as possible after an illness or injury. Even the most loyal of gangs couldn't afford to support a weak member indefinitely. It simply wasn't possible.



Chocolate's damp nose nudging his hand insistently drew Duo out of his introspection and he ruffled the dog's ears affectionately. "Yeah, Choc, I know. Things are different now. I know Ro'd look after me forever if he had to, 'cause I'd do the same for him. Changin' habits - *instincts* - isn't quite as simple as knowing that, though..." Much as he wished that were the case. Duo sighed and gave the lab a final pat before limping off to fix lunch and take his noon dose of medication.



This wasn't the first time that he and Heero had run into difficulties with issues from their pasts and it sure as hell wouldn't be the last, either. At least past experience meant that Duo knew how he needed to handle this one in order to start working through it. He owed Heero both an apology and an explanation for starters. Then they'd spend the rest of the day curled up together on the couch, sipping hot chocolate and talking things through while the stereo played Christmas music quietly in the background.



***



Wearily - and a bit warily - Heero opened the front door and entered the condo. Soft strains of an instrumental Christmas arrangement were faintly audible as he stored his coat and boots in the closet. With a sigh of relief, Heero relaxed. Duo must be in a better mood.



Glancing into the livingroom as he headed down the hall, Heero spotted Duo stretched out on the couch, a warm fleece blanket draped over his sleeping form. Lying quietly on the floor beside Duo, Chocolate thumped his tail without offering to get up. Heero smiled softly, then slipped down the hall in search of his camera, wanting to capture the peaceful scene.



In the bedroom, his favourite sweats were laid out on the bed along with a note suggesting, "Hot chocolate and a cuddle would be a nice wake-up call." The smile turned to a grin. Duo was *definitely* in a better mood. And it sounded like maybe he was even prepared to put up with a bit of coddling along with the cuddling. 'Take that photo, grab a quick shower, then I'll be more than happy to fulfill his request,' Heero thought, his earlier weariness fading rapidly. Maybe some of his previous plans for the day could be salvaged and Christmas Eve wouldn't be a total loss after all.



***



"Mmm..." Duo hummed contentedly. He parted his lips in invitation and the kiss deepened briefly. He opened his eyes slowly, blinking away the last traces of sleep as Heero ended the kiss. Raising one hand to caress Heero's cheek, Duo murmured, "Just what I wanted for Christmas. Chocolate-flavoured kisses from the man I love."



"Wish you'd told me that before I braved the mall..." Heero teased.



Duo gave a quiet huff of laughter. "Ah hah, did you hear that, Choc? Now I *know* he loves me - he braved the *mall* for me," he proclaimed loudly and dramatically. The dog barked sharply in response to Duo's exuberant tone.



Heero's grin in response to the remark looked a bit strained. Taking a guess at the cause, Duo sobered and struggled into a sitting position. "C'mere," he ordered, holding out his good arm. "Seems to me there was something about cuddling in the request I left..." As Heero complied, Duo added seriously, "I know you love me and that you're just worried about me, Ro. I shouldn't have blown up at you like that; I'm sorry."



"You warned me not to push my luck..." Heero responded quietly. "I didn't listen. I should have respected your wishes."



Duo sighed. "Yeah, well, calling Quat so that he'd check up on me was kinda out of line. If he hadn't called already, I wouldn't have gotten all bent out of shape by your call. I really am okay on my own, Ro; I don't need a babysitter.



"But you were right about me needing to take things slow and easy. I've slept most of the day. And my arm and leg ache if I use them very much. There's no way I'd have been able to handle volunteering today." Duo kissed Heero tenderly. "Thank you for taking my place; it means a lot to me."



"You're welcome."



Silence fell for a few minutes as they simply soaked in each other's presence, letting go of the tension caused by the earlier dissension. Chocolate flopped down on the floor at their feet and tipped onto his side, stomach facing them, to demand a belly rub. Heero gave a soft snort of amusement and complied.



"Sometimes I wonder who's training who around here..." Duo muttered as the dog thwapped his foot with one paw, clearly demanding that Duo pay attention to him too.



"Only sometimes?" Heero queried as he leaned over to snag the mugs of hot chocolate from the coffee table.



Duo accepted his and sipped at it cautiously. Good. It had cooled just enough to drink without burning his mouth. "Well, okay. Maybe more like 'most of the time'," he admitted in rueful amusement. "It's an ongoing struggle not to spoil him rotten."



"I wish you'd let me spoil you a little bit, especially right now..."



Grimacing at the wistful tone, Duo offered, "Ro, I'll try. I don't know how much fussing I can put up with, though."



"I don't understand why it's so hard for you to let me take care of you..."



"I've been doin' a little thinking about that. See, on the streets..." As Duo launched into his explanation, he was very aware of how much his life had changed from those days, of how fortunate he'd been. At the church, Father had made them count their blessings on Christmas Eve - probably in hopes that it would lessen the disappointment of the oh-so-practical gifts on Christmas Day. Tonight, Duo was very aware of his blessings.



Of how blessed he was to be here, like this, right now. Blessed to have a home and enough to eat. Blessed to have good friends like the other former Gundam pilots. Blessed to be alive and on the road to recovery, however long and frustrating it might seem at times. Blessed to have a life partner who loved and accepted him, quirks and faults and all, and who he loved just as unconditionally in return. Their relationship wasn't always easy. But neither of them took it for granted; they kept working at it and it continued to deepen and mature.



No matter what sort of presents Christmas Day might bring, Duo knew that he wouldn't be disappointed. His Christmas Eve blessings were all that he needed. And they would stay with him all the year through.
#12 Christmas Presents by Calic0cat
Heero woke, uncertain what had drawn him from sleep. 'Did I hear something?' He listened for a moment. Silence. Then he heard a plaintive whine, muffled by the bedroom door. 'Chocolate... Well, at least it's not the phone, thank god...' After the way that Thanksgiving had turned out, he wasn't entirely sure that he'd have answered the damn thing if it had been ringing. Propping himself up on one elbow, Heero checked the alarm clock. No wonder the dog was complaining; it was nearly two hours past the usual time for his morning run.



The lab whined again and Heero reluctantly slid out from under the covers. He quickly grabbed some clothes and headed for the door, wanting to hush the dog before Duo woke too. Unfortunately, the sound of covers stirring warned him that it was probably too late for that.



The mattress creaking and an inquiring "Ro?" confirmed it.



'Definitely too late. Damn.' He'd wanted to bring Duo breakfast in bed this morning but there was no way that Duo would stay there now that he was awake. "Just going to take Chocolate for his run." Turning back towards the bed, Heero asked ruefully, "I don't suppose you would stay in bed till I get back?"



Duo paused in mid-stretch. "You planning to make it worth my while?" he teased.



"Breakfast in bed?" Heero offered hopefully.



"Hmm. Depends what's on the menu..."



"Waffles with whipped cream and fresh fruit?"



Duo flopped back against the pillows. "Deal."



Heero hadn't actually expected Duo to agree, not after yesterday's irritation over being coddled. "Really?"



"Yeah, really." Duo gave him an affectionate smile. "Hey, it's Christmas. I can put up with a little bit of cosseting. Just consider it part of your Christmas present, okay?"



"Okay," Heero grinned.



Chocolate gave a sharp, insistent bark. "Better get going, that sounded kind of urgent," Duo commented. "I'll be right here when you get back. Promise."



***



Duo waited until Heero and Chocolate left the house before climbing out of bed. He didn't intend to stay up - he'd be right where he'd promised to be before Heero got back - but there were a few things he wanted to take care of before then. Things like taking a quick shower. Gathering certain - supplies... He smirked as he ran through the list. Condoms, lube, disposable wipes...



Breakfast wasn't the only thing that he was hungry for.



Thanksgiving morning was the last time that he and Heero had made love. Since then, they'd shared nothing more than kisses, hugs, and some handholding. For most of that time, Duo really hadn't been in any shape to be interested in more than that. Even during his first few days at home, he'd been quite content with simple cuddling. Now, though, he was ready - eager - for more.



Oh, he wasn't ready for anything too energetic. Duo knew that. His arm and leg were still too weak and cramped too easily for most positions. A few stretches and exercises now would ensure that the muscles were loosened up and weren't as likely to spasm later. But he would still need to be cautious. Heero would have a fit if he ended up doubled up in pain while they were making love. 'Not that I'd exactly be thrilled about it myself...' he thought wryly.



It would be simpler and less physically demanding if he was willing to settle for something other than actual intercourse. But Duo wasn't. He wanted to feel whole and healthy again. Like he'd been the last time that they'd made love. And he wanted to reassure Heero that he really was okay. Wanted Heero to *know* deep down that he *was* getting better.



'It might be tough to convince him that it'll be okay, that I'm ready for this. But once he understands how much it means to me, I think he'll give in.'



Duo chuckled quietly as he headed off to make his preparations for Heero's return. 'Hell, if he argues about it, I can always tell him it's part of *my* Christmas present...'



***



Despite the temptation to skimp on Chocolate's morning run, Heero didn't. Duo had promised to wait for breakfast in bed; an extra ten or fifteen minutes wouldn't change that. 'Consider it part of my Christmas present...' Heero snickered at the thought as he and Chocolate reached the turnaround point of their run. 'Only Duo would consider breakfast in bed to be a present to the cook rather than the one being fed...' Well, if that was what it took to get Duo to gracefully accept a bit of coddling, Heero had no objection. It wasn't as if there were a whole lot of other presents to be exchanged. Just one big one and a couple of small ones each.



Although he and Duo were making a point of celebrating holidays - of creating their own family traditions - they'd never planned to make a really big deal out of Christmas. Choosing and decorating a tree together, hanging a few strings of lights, watching some old Christmas movies, exchanging a few presents... Spending time with their friends - their family... Just a simple celebration that was about as far from the crass commercialization that seemed to characterize the holiday as they could get.



Duo's extended stay in the hospital had resulted in their plans being pared down even further.



Heero straightened the imitation pine wreath, centring its red bow more precisely, before unlocking the condo's front door. That simple wreath represented their sole outdoor decoration. Indoors, there were a few lengths of cedar roping - artificial but good quality - twined together with strands of plain white lights.



Those few items - chosen and purchased as a couple before Duo's injury and hung by Heero under Duo's supervision once Duo returned home - were the sum total of their holiday decorations. Heero had had neither the time nor the inclination to decorate more extensively on his own. He'd intended to at least pick up a tree after Duo came home from the hospital but Duo had vetoed the idea, admitting that he kind of liked the simplicity of the roping and white lights. Heero certainly hadn't objected; he'd never quite understood the allure of a dead tree dropping needles all over the floor in the first place. And wasting storage space for eleven months just to put an artificial tree up for one seemed equally pointless. The roping was attractive and stored quite compactly; it and the wreath together would only take up a few cubic feet of storage space, something that was at a premium in the small condo. Maybe they would decorate - and celebrate - more extensively next year but, for this year, they were content to keep things simple.



Once inside, Heero dried the dog's wet paws with the towel kept on a hook behind the door for just that purpose. Only after Chocolate was reasonably clean and dry did he unclip the dog's leash. Chocolate immediately took off down the hall to "his" room. The lab was rattling his empty bowl insistently by the time that Heero hung up his coat. "Patience, mutt, it's coming..." he muttered in amusement. The young dog always acted as if he was starving, despite the fact that he got precisely the recommended amount of food for a dog of his breed and age.



Heero fed the dog before doing anything else. By the time that he washed his hands and took out the ingredients for waffles, Chocolate had bolted down his entire breakfast share of feed and was in the kitchen looking hopeful. Heero just shook his head and pointed towards the doorway. "You know better. Out. Go lie down," he ordered. The dog retreated to the hall with the air of one greatly abused. Heero chuckled at the familiar routine.



Chocolate wasn't allowed to have people-food; his own contained all the nutrients and calories that he needed. Nor was he allowed in the kitchen while food was being prepared. The room was too small to have him underfoot. Besides, Heero didn't like finding dog hair in his meal and keeping the dog away during preparation helped decrease the odds of that happening.



Despite consistent banishment from the kitchen, the dog never quit trying. Probably his previous owners had fed him tidbits while fixing meals. Begging was a very hard habit to extinguish once it was acquired; they might never completely break Chocolate of attempting it.



Turning his attention back to breakfast, Heero poured the batter onto the hot waffle iron. He closed the lid and checked the time before taking the blueberries and raspberries out of the fridge. By the time that the first batch of waffles was ready, he'd finished sorting through the berries, discarding the overripe or damaged ones. Those first waffles went in the oven - pre-warmed to a low temperature to keep them hot - while the next batch cooked. Heero had the whipping cream beaten to perfection by the time that the last waffles were done. He placed all of the food on a tray along with a couple of tall glasses of milk. 'Perfect.'



***



Much to his surprise, Duo had actually dozed off once he crawled back in bed. He woke to soft lips pressed to his own. "Mmm..." he murmured as Heero drew away. "Y'know, you make one hell of a great alarm clock, Ro... No way could I ever sleep through one of your wake-up calls. Or wake up grumpy."



Heero chuckled quietly. "Glad to hear it. Ready for breakfast?"



"Sure, just gimme a sec here..." Duo piled the pillows against the headboard and moved to sit leaning against them while Heero retrieved a tray from the dresser. "Looks and smells delicious, Heero. Thanks. Oh, and Merry Christmas, by the way."



"Merry Christmas and you're welcome." Heero set the tray down on Duo's lap then transferred the glasses of milk to the nightstand before joining Duo on the bed. He leaned over and kissed Duo's cheek, murmuring, "And thank *you* for humouring me by letting me pamper you..."



"Hey, it's not exactly a *hardship*, y'know. And I do appreciate it, I just - well, like I explained yesterday, I'm still not used to having someone around who *wants* to take care of me. As long as it's a once-in-a-while kinda thing, it'll be okay."



Well, it wouldn't be quite *that* simple, Duo knew. He'd have to work on gracefully accepting these little bits of pampering from Heero, just like he'd had to work on - and was still working on - being more comfortable with public displays of affection. Street instincts - like his need to always be independent and take care of himself and his reluctance to reveal what (or, in this case, who) was important to him - ran pretty deep but, with effort and determination, they could be overridden. He was more than willing to put the necessary effort into doing so for Heero's sake.



He'd figured out a while ago that Heero wanted - hell, more like needed - those public displays of affection. Needed the open demonstration that he loved and was loved in return, that he was far more than the perfect weapon that he'd been supposed to be. Duo understood and accepted that. And, since Heero's explanation last night, Duo had a better understanding of Heero's current need to coddle him. If pampering Duo made Heero feel that he was actually *doing* something to further Duo's recovery, Duo would do his best to accept the fussing patiently.



He and Heero both had their own little quirks and peculiarities thanks to their respective pasts. Those issues weren't going to just go away. They'd learned to accept that fact and to find ways of dealing with their individual needs that they could both live with. Compromises that accommodated the needs of both of them.



"I won't get carried away and smother you with fussing," Heero promised.



Duo quirked an eyebrow and gave him a sideways glance. "Uh huh."



"Okay, okay, I'll *try* not to."



"Okay," Duo agreed cheerfully, adding a dollop of whipped cream to a waffle and sprinkling a few blueberries over top. He playfully offered the first bite to Heero, who wrinkled up his nose in distaste and shook his head. Duo laughed, unsurprised by the refusal. He and Heero had many things in common but a liking for blueberries was not one of them. He popped the bite in his own mouth. Heero slid another plate out from beneath his and held it while preparing a waffle topped with raspberries for himself.



They ate in silence for the most part, just enjoying each other's companionship, the tasty meal, and the novelty of eating in bed. The stack of waffles gradually dwindled until finally Duo was staring unenthusiastically at the last one. Normally, it would be his - Heero had already finished his share - but he still didn't have his usual appetite back. He reluctantly started to reach for it.



***



Duo had been eating more and more slowly. So Heero was a bit surprised to see him reach for the last waffle. Reaching over, he blocked Duo's hand partway. "Duo, don't eat it if you're full."



"But... It's not right to waste good food..."



Calmly, Heero replied, "So I'll freeze it and you can reheat it sometime when you're looking for a snack." Their freezer frequently filled up with odds and ends of leftovers. Duo simply couldn't stand to waste food and Heero had quickly discovered that it was simpler to just save the leftovers than to argue about it. Besides, there were always days when they didn't have the time or the inclination to cook and the frozen leftovers came in handy then.



"But the berries and..." The protest was only halfhearted.



"They'll keep." He didn't give Duo time to object again, standing and removing the tray from reach.



As Heero headed into the hall, Duo called after him, "Hey Heero, once you take care of that, come back so I can thank you *properly* for the great breakfast, okay?"



Turning back, Heero frowned slightly. Duo's tone had been very suggestive. Surely he didn't mean... "That depends what you mean by 'properly'. You're still recovering, Duo. You shouldn't..."



Duo heaved a sigh and waved dismissively. "Go on. Get rid of the breakfast stuff. We'll talk when you get back."



Heero's frown deepened. Duo obviously *did* mean what he'd thought he meant. 'Damn. I don't want to argue about this but I don't think he's well enough yet...' "I don't think..."



"Heero. Go get rid of the tray. Then we'll talk."



Reluctantly, Heero agreed, "Fine." Though really, it was anything *but* fine. He didn't want to argue with Duo today and now that seemed to be inevitable.



Heero didn't rush with his kitchen tasks but it still only took a few moments to take care of the leftovers. The dishes - waffle iron included - were taken care of almost as quickly.



On the way back to the bedroom, Heero spared a moment to check on Chocolate, half-hoping that the dog would provide him with an excuse to escape the upcoming 'discussion'. No such luck. The dog was stretched flat out on his mat. His eyes blinked open for a moment when Heero paused in the doorway but drooped closed again without Chocolate so much as wagging his tail.



Continuing down the hall, Heero barely stepped into the bedroom before he was pounced and tackled onto the bed. Flat on his back with a very solid, very naked, very *determined* Duo blanketing his body, he struggled to get back the breath that had just been knocked out of him.



Duo folded his arms on Heero's chest, rested his chin on them, and smirked. "So. Do we really have to have the discussion about whether or not I'm still too weak to make love? Or can we skip the talk and just *do* it?"



***



Actions were always more effective than words where Heero was concerned. Duo had figured that out a long time ago. Tackling Heero had been a calculated risk. If something had gone wrong and he'd overstressed either injury, Heero would have gone straight into worrywart mode and he'd have probably spent the rest of the holiday season stuck in bed, being waited on hand and foot. But Duo had a pretty good idea of his still-recovering body's limits by now and he'd had the element of surprise on his side. He'd tackled Heero without putting undue stress on either injured limb and he was pretty sure he'd thoroughly derailed any notion Heero might have had regarding him being an invalid. Granted, he'd probably sleep the rest of the day away once they were done but it would be a small price to pay.



Duo couldn't help smirking as he gazed down into Heero's shocked face. He'd very definitely taken his lover by surprise. "Well? I'm waiting..." he urged. "We gonna make love or argue?"



Heero's hands came up to frame Duo's face. Duo leaned into the touch as fingers stroked gently over his cheeks. "You're sure about this? That you want to and that you won't get hurt?" Heero asked hesitantly.



"I'm sure," Duo assured him with a soft smile. "There's lots of things that I can't do yet and I know it. But there's lots of others that I can." Very seriously, he continued, "Heero, I really want this. Want to feel like your partner, not an invalid." His voice dropped low and sultry, "Want you inside me, lover."



Heero still looked very uncertain. Duo leaned down and kissed him hungrily, letting his mouth do the persuading with something other than words. He nipped at Heero's lips, demanding rather than requesting entrance. When Heero's mouth opened, he invaded it forcefully, plunging deeply into the kiss. One hand worked its way between their bodies, sliding up under Heero's shirt. Grinding his hips down against Heero's, he finally - *finally* - felt Heero give in, hips thrusting up to meet his, hand sliding behind his head to hold him in place, tongue and teeth pressing against his own. Duo gentled the kiss immediately, knowing that he couldn't sustain the energy and force that he'd started out with. He'd proved his point anyway - he wasn't weak or fragile.



Of course, he wasn't exactly in peak condition either...



Feeling his leg twinge in protest at the demands being placed on it by the hip grinding, Duo stilled. Lifting his lips from Heero's, he breathed, "Make love to me."



***



Gazing up at Duo's face, at eyes bright and cheeks flushed with passion instead of fever, feeling the weight of solid bone and sinewy muscle pressing him into the mattress, Heero couldn't deny either of them any longer. He wanted to make love just as badly as Duo did. Wanted the reassurance that their lives were getting back to normal, that Duo was recovering. 'I have to trust that he knows his own limits...'



Instead of answering Duo's demand verbally, Heero rolled them both over, resting most of his own weight on Duo but careful to avoid the still-tender injury sites. He kissed Duo tenderly, then pushed himself up to kneel straddling his lover. Grasping the bottom of his T-shirt, he locked his gaze with Duo's. "You'll tell me if you start to hurt," he stated flatly.



Duo blinked, then smiled, slow and sensual and very self-satisfied. "Yes."



Heero nodded sharply, then shucked the shirt over his head, tossing it away carelessly. Duo's hands were already busy at his waist, loosening the drawstring of his sweatpants. Heero rolled clear of Duo before sliding both pants and boxers over his hips and attempting to kick them off. They wadded up around his ankles, stubbornly clinging until, exasperated, Heero sat up and impatiently yanked them the rest of the way off, flinging them across the room. He pounced on his snickering bedmate, silencing his amusement with a deep kiss.



Stroking, squeezing, teasing, groping, their hands explored, becoming reacquainted with familiar territory. Heero hesitated, fingers hovering over the still-livid knife scar on Duo's arm. "It's more sensitive than sore, really," Duo volunteered quietly, lying very still under that careful scrutiny. "Touching it won't hurt me, Ro."



Taking Duo at his word, Heero lightly traced over the scar, first with his fingers, then with his lips, pressing butterfly kisses along the mark's length. Duo shivered and complained, "Hey, that tickles..."



Heero chuckled and ran teasing fingers over Duo's ribs. Duo squirmed and wriggled, laughingly protesting. As Heero ran his fingers back up again, the scarred arm caught his eye, reminding him that Duo probably wasn't really fit for their usual horseplay. All of this tensing and twisting of muscles was likely to set off a cramp in one of the injured areas. 'Stupid, stupid, stupid...' he berated himself silently. Immediately, he firmed his touch, switching from feathery tickles to tender strokes. "Easy, shh, easy Duo..." he soothed. "Relax, take it easy..." He brushed an apologetic kiss across Duo's lips as his partner stilled beneath him. "Sorry, shouldn't have done that," he murmured. "Wasn't thinking. Could've set off a cramp..."



"Wasn't thinkin' about it either," Duo admitted. He made a face. "Leg's twinging a little..."



"Damn." Heero shifted off of Duo and moved down to kneel beside his legs. He lifted the wounded one into his lap and rubbed it carefully. Pressure at the injury site itself had to be very light but the area around it could be massaged more deeply. Heero could feel the muscles quivering; they'd barely avoided triggering a spasm.



"Feels better now, Ro," Duo said after a few minutes. "I think it's okay. C'mere, let's try this again."



Heero stretched out on his side beside Duo. "We have to be more careful if we're going to make love. I don't want to hurt you," he stated flatly. "I don't like seeing you in pain."



***



Cautiously, Duo rolled from his back to his side. "Believe me, I don't much like *being* in pain," he assured Heero dryly. Leaning forward, he kissed Heero and coaxed, "I'm okay now; let's try again."



Well, "okay" was probably a bit of an exaggeration - there was a slight but deep-seated residual ache in his calf and his arm was giving a few warning twinges of its own - but Duo was far from ready to give up. He wasn't about to let a couple of minor aches prevent him from finally making love with Heero.



Heero gave him a long, searching look.



"I'm *okay*," Duo repeated firmly. "C'mon, Ro, I'm not all *that* fragile. I can handle this."



Wrapping one hand around the back of Duo's neck, Heero shifted closer. He kissed Duo once, long and lingering. By the time he drew back, Duo was lightheaded and gasping for air. 'Okay, so my stamina's not quite what it should be...' he admitted ruefully to himself, struggling to get his breath back. 'Heero's not even breathing hard, dammit!'



Heero propped himself up on one elbow and stated calmly and firmly, "Not fragile, no. But not 'okay' either. If we're going to do this, these are the terms:



"One. You just relax and enjoy; leave all the work up to me.



"Two. You want me in you - okay, I want that too. But it'll have to be spoon-style; I know that's not your favourite but anything face-to-face is too strenuous for either your arm or your leg or both.



"Three. You take it easy for the rest of the day; just rest and let me look after you.



"Deal?"



Much as he wanted to bristle at Heero's flatly stated terms, Duo had to admit that they were reasonable and based on cold, hard facts. The fact that Heero wasn't simply informing him that he wasn't ready for this was a big concession in and of itself; evidence that Heero understood just how important this was to him. His lover wouldn't hesitate to deny his own wishes but Duo's were another matter entirely.



Smiling affectionately up at Heero, Duo agreed, "Deal."



***



Heero smiled softly in return and bent to seal the agreement with a loving kiss. "Deal," he murmured against Duo's lips, then brushed their mouths together lightly before moving on to shower the rest of Duo's face with butterfly caresses.



Heero still had a few reservations regarding Duo's degree of fitness but he set them aside. Realistically speaking, there was little chance of causing a serious setback to Duo's recovery. His injuries were long past the stage where the possibility of tearing stitches was a concern. Muscle cramps were painful but far from life-threatening. Exhaustion would be easily remedied with sleep. The only real danger would be that of infection and that would only be a concern if they were careless enough to cause a tear. Since Heero intended to make love to his partner slowly and tenderly that should *not* be an issue. 'Slow, gentle, and tender... But not *too* slowly; he doesn't have the stamina for a prolonged session right now...'



Kisses were interspersed with tiny nips and licks. When he reached Duo's ear, Heero sucked on the lobe gently before tracing its whorls with the tip of his tongue. He blew softly across the damp skin; Duo shivered and moaned in response.



Moving down Duo's bared neck, Heero ignored the thick braid. If he let it out, the hair would end up tangled and soiled. That would necessitate washing it - Duo hated being dirty, especially when his hair was involved - and he doubted that Duo would have the energy for that. 'Besides, leaving the braid in makes his neck so much more readily accessible...' Heero thought as he latched on, sucking hard enough to create a distinctly visible mark. Ordinarily, he would restrict love bites to less visible areas - they looked extremely unprofessional - but Duo would be off work on sick leave for at least a couple more weeks. More than enough time for the mark to fade.



Heero's hands were just as busy as his mouth. They stroked, squeezed, traced random patterns over Duo's skin. Sounds of wordless pleasure expressed Duo's appreciation of Heero's touch. Gently, he pressed Duo over onto his back to gain better access as he worked his way down Duo's body. He licked, stroked, nibbled, and kissed, determined to cover every inch of Duo's skin with loving caresses.



As he reacquainted himself with his lover's body, Heero took note of the changes wrought by Duo's injuries and his battle with blood poisoning. The ribs that were a little more visible, the collarbone that was a bit more pronounced, the puckered and drawn skin of scars that would fade in time but were now so vivid. He kissed each reminder tenderly, silently vowing to do everything in his power to help restore Duo to his sturdy, healthy self.



***



Gentle and careful though Heero was, there was an intensity to their lovemaking that was nearly overwhelming. Duo surrendered willingly to the sensual tide sweeping over him at his lover's hands.



At Heero's tender, clever, oh-so-loving hands...



And his warm, mobile mouth, his lips and teeth and tongue that moved so knowingly over Duo's body, over face and neck, arms and chest, steadily working their way lower...



Duo gasped and moaned, reduced to a preverbal state by his lover's attentions. A single attempt at movement, an overwhelming urge to thrust, was stilled immediately by gentle but firm hands at his hips. Strong, sure fingers and a confident mouth aroused him, opened him, prepared him. And when those hands urged him over onto his side, Duo moved eagerly, crooking his top leg as he settled into position. A pillow was tucked against his chest and Duo gratefully settled his injured arm on its support, a lump filling his throat at the evidence of Heero's loving care for him even in the midst of passion. He turned his head, glancing awkwardly over his shoulder as Heero moved behind him. "Love you, Ro..." he said urgently.



Heero leaned forward and kissed him, deeply and so tenderly that Duo was left aching with yearning as it ended. "Love you too," Heero murmured huskily. "So much..."



Turning his face forward again, Duo swallowed that persistent lump as he felt a kiss pressed to the bared nape of his neck. Comforting kisses showered his neck and shoulder as Heero slowly - oh, so very slowly - slid inside him. The stretching was a bit uncomfortable at first - it *had* been a month, after all - but the discomfort soon faded, lost and forgotten in more pleasurable sensations. Heero's hips thrust one more time and his groin pressed against Duo's buttocks. An arm wrapped around Duo, pulling Heero's chest snug against Duo's back. Heero's breath puffed, warm and moist, against Duo's neck and for a few long, wonderful, moments they remained still, wrapped in the most intimate of embraces. 'This is the one thing that I love about spooning up...' Duo thought, revelling in the full-body skin-to-skin contact. 'I miss being able to see Heero's face, to kiss him easily, to touch him as freely as he touches me. But being wrapped in his arms like this, held so close that it feels as if we really are one body... it almost makes up for missing those other things...'



***



Closing his eyes and resting his cheek against Duo's shoulder, Heero savoured the sweet feeling of connection. Of being both wrapped around Duo and buried deeply within him. Of holding his lover close and being very aware, despite the fact that he was a bit thinner than before, of his sheer, undeniable *solidity*. There was nothing frail about the body in his arms. 'Duo's not back to his full strength and stamina yet but he really is on the mend...' he acknowledged silently, finally daring to believe.



With a certain reluctance to relinquish the moment, Heero finally asked softly, "Ready?"



Duo's arm shifted off of the pillow, hand gliding down Heero's arm and lacing with his fingers. A gentle squeeze and a murmured, "Mmm-hmm," served as answer. Heero returned the pressure before lifting Duo's arm back to its resting place. Softly, he kissed the nape of Duo's neck. Then he began to move, his strokes easy and languorous. His hand slid down Duo's abdomen to curl around Duo's cock, pumping, teasing, encouraging. Duo's still-recovering body was lagging behind Heero's state of arousal; Heero wanted to make sure that Duo wasn't left behind when he achieved his own release.



Duo's incoherent murmurs, gasps, and soft cries of passion urged Heero on and increased his own arousal. He struggled to hold onto his control, determined to see to his lover's completion before his own. "Come for me, koi," he urged huskily. "Need to feel you come..." Murmuring broken words of encouragement, Heero firmed his grip, striving to push Duo over the edge.



Finally, a keening cry of "Heero!" followed by Duo's entire body shuddering in his arms and clenching around him signalled his success. Heero managed two more thrusts before his own climax overtook him just as Duo went completely limp in his embrace.



***



Duo struggled slowly back to consciousness, vaguely aware that Heero was calling him in a rather anxious voice. Prying heavy eyelids open, he blinked in surprise as he found himself lying face-to-face with Heero. Considering that his last memory was of Heero spooned up behind him... 'Oh shit... Must've blacked out... Only did that once before, one of those times we were using a blindfold... Considering how worried Heero was about doin' this at all, he's probably freaking...' In the probably vain hope of defusing his lover's worry, Duo gave him a slow smile. "Mmm, hey there lover." He reached out to stroke his fingers over Heero's cheek and sighed, "God, that was great, Ro."



"Great?"



"Yeah, *great*." The hand that came up to hold his in place against Heero's face trembled ever-so-slightly. "Hey, I'm okay..." Duo murmured reassuringly. Scooching closer, he kissed Heero softly. "Better than okay, in fact. *Way* better."



"But you passed out..."



"Yeah, just like I did one time before, remember?" Grinning, he teased gently, "Guess that's what happens when you love me into a boneless puddle of goo..."



Heero gave a snort of laughter, the worry fading from his face. "I'd forgotten about that other time," he admitted. "You're sure you're okay?"



Tucking his head under Heero's chin, Duo nodded. "Yeah. Just kinda..." he yawned, "...tired. That just-got-loved-into-a-puddle-of-goo-but-god-I-feel-good kinda tired, not the sick-and-achy-and-god-I-feel-like-shit kinda tired." Duo grinned against Heero's bare chest as his remark provoked a chuckle and the rest of the anxious tension drained from Heero's body. 'And an appearance of my-lover-the-worrywart is successfully averted...' he thought with relief. 'Thank god...' He squirmed a little, getting more comfortable. Heero's arm draped over him, hand gliding up and down his back in long, soothing strokes. "Mmm... nice..." he mumbled in sleepy contentment.



"Mmm-hmm..."



"Y'know, you give great post-coital cuddle, Ro..."



***



Heero chuckled softly, the last of his lingering concern over Duo's brief blackout easing. A half-asleep, satiated Duo - unlike a tired, sick Duo - had a tendency to be talkative. In particular, he seemed to feel the need to compliment his partner. Repeatedly. Fondly, he dropped a kiss on top of Duo's head and murmured, "Go to sleep, Duo. You're babbling..."



"Not babblin', s'true..."



Smothering the urge to laugh at the indignation conveyed in that muzzy protest, Heero rested his cheek against Duo's head and soothed, "Okay, okay. If you say so. Thank you. You give great cuddle too." Rubbing Duo's back gently, his words were acknowledged with an incoherent murmur. A few minutes later, Duo's breathing indicated that he had drifted off to sleep.



Sighing in contentment, Heero closed his eyes and prepared for a nap of his own. It had been a long, rough month since Thanksgiving; he could use the extra sleep. Especially with Duo back where he belonged, wrapped securely in his arms.



A none-too-quiet "skronk" and whistle added itself to the soft sounds of Duo's breathing. Heero snickered quietly and grinned. He could already feel the damp trickle making its way down his chest. 'God, it's good to have him home...'



Having his snoring, drooling, cover-stealing, bed-hogging lover home and on the road to recovery was the best Christmas present Heero could ever imagine.
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