Always Best Friends by Calic0cat
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0800 hours local time, May 10, A.C. 202; Vice Foreign Minister's mansion, Sanc

'Come on, Duo, answer the phone...'

"Good morning, M.S. Salvage, may I help - oh - it's YOU, Heero."

'K'so, of all the rotten luck..' "Hello Hilde, is Duo there?"

"No, sorry Heero, he's not."

'Shimatta.' "Well, when will he be back? I know he has been really busy with that big salvage contract, but I really need to talk to him."

"Big salvage contract... what? Oh, is that what he told you..."

Heero's eyes narrowed and Hilde's image on the vid-screen shifted uncomfortably. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, we DID have a big salvage contract but that's over and done with... See, Heero, Duo's been trying to move on with his life and forget about the war..." Hilde wrung her hands nervously, "And, well, you, and the other pilots, and the Preventers missions, are just a constant reminder of something that's ancient history and better off forgotten."

Heero crossed his arms and glared at Hilde, "Are you implying that Duo no longer wants anything to do with his FRIENDS?"

"No, no, of course not," she said hastily, "but - well, what do any of you really have in common other than the war? That was years ago, and you were all just teenagers - now that you're adults, I'm sure that, like Duo, you're all making new friends that have more in common with your present lives. I'm sure that you've been making lots of new friends in the social circles that Relena moves in."

"Hn." 'As if any of those harpies and jackals are worth making friends with. As if any of them see anything more than Relena's trophy war-hero bodyguard to begin with.' "Tell Duo to call me when he gets back."

"I'll be sure to tell him when I see him, Heero, but I can't guarantee..."

"Hn." Heero hung up the call. 'That was strange. Very strange. Hilde has never been overly fond of me, but why she would think that I'd believe Duo "he runs, he hides, but he never lies" Maxwell was LYING to me - but then, she didn't actually say he was lying, did she. She said that they did have a big salvage contract but that it was done - but it HAS been a couple of weeks since I last talked to Duo and he said they would hopefully be finished soon.... Duo and the others HAVE all moved on with their lives... They've all found other things to do, things not connected with the war. I'm the only one who hasn't - even Wufei is only on-call as a Preventer in emergencies now that he's doing graduate work in Asian History... Maybe...'

"No, Duo said I would ALWAYS be his best friend, and Duo doesn't lie. He'll call."


0400 hours local time, May 11, A.C. 202; Vice Foreign Minister's mansion, Sanc

**Ring** **Ring**

'What the...' Heero jerked awake, heart racing, still half caught in the nightmare he'd been having.

**Ring** **Ring**

'Phone. At this time of night - ugh, make that morning,' he glanced at the glowing clock display, 'must be...'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June 16, A.C. 198

'This is stupid, Yuy, calling the baka in the middle of the night just because you dreamt about that time it took three hours to cut him out of his mangled suit. You know perfectly well that he's fine; that was years ago and he wasn't even that badly injured, just cracked ribs and assorted cuts and bruises. What on earth are you even going to use as an excuse if he actually answers the phone?'

"Hello? This better be awfully important," a sleepy female voice grumbled before glancing up at the video screen. "I should have known it would be you. Damn, Yuy, don't you realize that normal people are actually asleep at this time?"

'K'so. Hilde. Never thought of that - the phone's in the hall right beside her door.'

"Hn. Is Duo there?"

Hilde threw up her hands in exasperation, then stalked away from the phone. A loud pounding noise followed, accompanied by an even louder shout, "Duo Maxwell, go answer the damn phone. It's that idiot friend of yours."

A door slammed loudly as Duo staggered into view, rubbing sleepily at his eyes.

"Heero? What's wrong?" he asked anxiously.

'See, Yuy, he's fine - except that now he's worried because you called him in the middle of the night. You are such a baka.'

"Gomen nasai, Duo, it's nothing. Never mind. I shouldn't have called, it could have waited till morning. Go back to bed."

"Ah. Nightmare, huh?" Duo smirked slightly at Heero's startled look, then the smirk changed to a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about it. I get'em too sometimes. Call me anytime you need to - I'll put an extension in my room and turn off the ringer out here at night so it won't bother Hilde, 'kay?"

Heero swallowed hard as his eyes met the gently smiling violet ones of his best friend. 'How does he always know just what to say?'

"Arigatou, Duo."

"Hey, that's what best friends are for, Heero. Anything you need, anytime, just ask."

'Come on, Yuy, make the effort for once...'

"Duo... If you... I mean, you know..."

"I know, Heero. And I will."

And he had. They both had, whenever they needed to.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

**Ring** **Ring**

Heero lunged for the phone, "Duo?! It's about damn time..."

"Sorry, Yuy. I take it you haven't had any success contacting Maxwell either," Lady Une cut in.

Disappointment flooded over Heero for a moment, followed by a surge of adrenaline as he realized that there was only one reason the Preventers Chief would be calling at this time.


"Yes, I need you here at the Sanc Preventers HQ within the hour. A Preventers chopper should be arriving there within the next few minutes. I've sent agents to take over bodyguard duties for the next few days and the chopper will bring you back here. If Maxwell doesn't call back by the time you're here, you'll either have to partner with Saunders or Carlson or go solo. Winner and Barton are tied up on L4 with WEI business and Chang is still recovering from his last mission."

"Ryoukai," Heero responded automatically before disconnecting. 'Some choice, babysit a green kid or deal with a resentful ex-Ozzie... Guess I'll be going solo... Duo, where the hell are you? What's going on?'


0800 hours local time, May 14, A.C. 202; Preventers HQ, Sanc

Une scowled at the young woman on the vid-phone. "What do you mean, Maxwell's left on a salvage run and can't be reached? Didn't you give him my message?"

"I left the message with the salvage run plans since I didn't expect to see him before the scheduled departure; I told you that was the best I could do," Hilde replied defensively. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a business to run. Goodbye."

The Preventer Chief stared at the blank screen in disbelief. "She hung up on me. That does it, there's something very strange going on here."

Une turned back to her computer and started digging through files, trying to think who else might have a way to contact Duo Maxwell. She could not believe that he would have ignored her message if he'd got it, not based on past experiences.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

February 26, A.C. 198


The waiting room door hit the wall and rebounded as a graceful figure slammed through it and stalked up to Une.

"All right, where is he, how bad is it, and why the HELL was he partnered with a green rookie?"

Face to face with Shinigami for the first time since the war, Une flinched. "He's in surgery, we don't know yet, and I thought it would be a good introduction to the field for Masterson. It was supposed to be a simple, straight-forward mission. Get in, get the data, then make the arrest."

"Obviously, you thought wrong..."

Une winced under the intense violet glare, thinking, 'Yuy's glare may promise death, but Maxwell's Shinigami one promises a slow, painful death...'

"The suspect pulled a gun from under his desk, Masterson froze, and Yuy took three hits in the process of tackling Masterson behind cover then taking down the gunman without any backup."

Une breathed a silent sigh of relief as the doors at the opposite end of the waiting room opened and Sally Po stepped through, peeling off her gloves and mask. She saw Sally take a deep breath and brace herself as she recognized the braided figure that whirled to face her.

"Duo, he'll be fine," Sally said quickly. "IF, that is, we can keep him confined and taking his medication long enough to heal properly."

"Not a problem," Duo responded. "How soon can you release him?"


Duo raked his bangs back from his face and said exasperatedly, "Look, we spent an entire war patching each other up and we all survived. I know how to change dressings and IVs and all that other shit. He is NOT going to get better stuck in a hospital room, probably drugged half out of his mind. None of us deal well with loss of control. If you don't keep him heavily sedated, he'll scare the staff half to death with his glares and "Omae o korosu"s. If you DO keep him heavily sedated, he's gonna have nightmares and flashbacks and STILL scare the staff half to death, plus you'll have to keep him restrained which is only going to make things worse."

"But..." Une started, only to be cut off by Sally.

"You're right."

"You bet I am," Duo's braid jumped wildly with the force of his nod.

"But..." Une tried, only to be cut off again.

"Besides, if I don't release him, you'll just break him out anyway and I don't think he needs to be parachute-jumping just yet," Sally said wryly.

Duo's eyes went wide with surprise, then he snickered and the last trace of Shinigami vanished from his expression.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

'And that established the pattern for all future hospital stays for either one of them. The power-of-attorney papers and listing each other as official next-of-kin neatly blocked any interference from Relena and Hilde who seemed to think playing Florence Nightingale would be fun. Well, the legal paperwork plus the fact that those two inevitably vanish to places unknown till they're both fighting-fit again...

'Let's see now... Winner and Barton hadn't heard from Maxwell in over a month, Chang said it had been a good six weeks since he last spoke to him... Who else might know where to reach him... Of course - Howard!'

Une quickly pulled up another file then dialled the number.

"Howard speaking - hey, hello there Lady Une, wasn't expecting a call from you. Somethin' I can do for you?"

"I hope so. Howard, do you have any idea how I can reach Duo Maxwell? I don't think Hilde is passing on my messages, since yesterday's was to tell him that Heero Yuy was in the hospital and Shinigami hasn't showed up threatening to have my guts for garters for sending him out solo. The message before that was for him to call so he could partner Yuy on that mission and he never contacted me regarding that either..."

"Yeesh, definitely something wrong there. Just a sec..."

Howard vanished off-screen and Une heard him bellow, "Hey, anybody heard from the Kid lately?"

Several minutes later, he was back. "Okay, apparently he's been stayin' at the Sweepers' hangar on L2 for the past few days. He was talkin' to Rick here yesterday about coming back to Earth to work. He 'n' Hilde had a big dust-up; he moved out lock, stock, 'n' barrel before the dust had a chance to settle, and he's sellin' his half of the business. Look, I'll call and get a fast shuttle fuelled up and ready for him, flight plan 'n' all, L2 to Sanc, while you call and let him know what's going on, okay?"

"Thanks, Howard," Une acknowledged, quickly jotting down the contact information before hanging up. 'I would not want to be in that Schbeiker woman's shoes when Duo finds out what's happened - Shinigami is NOT going to be happy!'


1000 hours Sanc time, May 14, A.C. 202; Sweepers base, L2

"Yo, Kid - phone!"

"Uh, I'm kinda in the middle of something here, Bill, can you take a message?"

"It's Lady Une, she says it's urgent. It's about Yuy..."





1130 hours Sanc time, May 14, A.C. 202; Shuttle en route from L2 to Earth

Duo double-checked the auto-pilot course settings one more time, then started fiddling with his braid nervously. 'Damn Maxwell, you really screwed things up this time, baka. You shoulda called Heero the minute you dragged your stuff out that door...'

Catapulting out of his chair, Duo stalked out of the cockpit to give himself room to burn off some nervous energy. As he paced, he muttered, "I shoulda called Heero and discussed this whole Hilde-mess with him; then he woulda known what was going on and how to get hold of me. Une said he was waitin' for a call from me when she called him, so that makes at least three messages that Hilde mucked around with. 'Left the message with the salvage run plans' my ass - she knew damn well that I wasn't making that salvage run - she's the one that scheduled Jamison for it to start with! Mind you, I already know how little her word is worth..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

0100 hours local time, May 10, A.C. 202; L2

"G'nite, Hilde. Goin' out clubbing to celebrate finishin' off the salvage-contract-that-ate-my-life was fun, but I'm beat!"

"And maybe just a bit sloshed too!" Hilde giggled as Duo staggered down the hall towards his room. 'More than just a bit, I'd say... Every time his glass was empty, I had a full one waiting for him... I'm sick and tired of waiting for him to notice me and make the first move, so I'm just going to have to get things moving myself!'

Less than an hour later, Hilde slipped silently into Duo's room, casually dropping her clothing as she went. Naked, she slid under the covers and reached towards the silently slumbering body only to have her wrist caught in an iron grip. Eyes darkened to almost black in the dimly lit room glittered furiously as Shinigami hissed, "What the HELL do you think you're doing? We had this discussion before we ever signed partnership papers and you SWORE that you would settle for friendship."

Off-guard, Hilde gasped, "But you were dead drunk! How did you..."

"You've obviously forgotten who you're dealing with, Ms Schbeiker - the God of Death may drink, but he never, EVER, gets drunk enough to lose control - at least not without someone he trusts implicitly there to watch his back!" With that, Duo flung her arm violently away from him, slid out from under the covers, yanked several large duffle bags out from under the bed, and started tossing his things into them haphazardly.

Stung, Hilde massaged her aching wrist as she shouted back, "SOMEONE?! Oh, what you really mean, of course, is Heero! It's always Heero-this, and Heero-that, and 'That's what best friends are for, Heero'! As if that's all it is - you're head-over-heels in love with your precious Perfect Soldier - hah - Perfect Asshole is more like it! The war's been over for years and he STILL speaks in monosyllables and GLARES - he has no idea what love is and never will, he's not even HUMAN!"


Face to face with Shinigami in all his fury, Hilde shrank back against the headboard. Duo shook with rage, needing every ounce of iron control he possessed to keep from hitting her. "You're a fine one to talk about someone else not knowing what love is! As for Heero, you don't know anything about him - he's a far better human - a far better FRIEND - than you. Get out of my room, NOW. And I would strongly suggest keeping out of my way and your mouth shut until I'm gone. My lawyer will be in touch regarding the business."

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"I shoulda known she wouldn't pass up any chance to cause trouble. Baka, baka, baka!"

Duo dragged himself back into the cockpit and slumped into the pilot's chair. 'All I wanted was a little time to think things through before I told Heero what happened. I still haven't made up my mind how much to tell him... He definitely doesn't need to know how insulting she was, he has enough problems with that whole damn 'Perfect Soldier' image as it is... But - I think - maybe - it's time to admit the rest to him. Even if he's not interested in a relationship, our friendship's strong enough to make it through.'

"Sure, all I have to do is walk up to him and say, 'Heero, you're my best friend and I'm madly in love with you'. Ugh, Duo, that sounds like something out of a bad romance novel. Definitely gonna have to work on the delivery."


2300 hours local time, May 14, A.C. 202; Vice Foreign Minister's mansion, Sanc

A black-clad figure slipped silently through the halls, moving easily from shadow to shadow. It paused at a door in the residential wing; there was a soft "click". The door opened, then closed again in perfect silence.

Inside Heero's room, Duo swiftly located Heero's duffle bags - stored under the bed, just like his own - some habits never changed. It was the work of mere minutes to pack Heero's personal belongings - a few outfits of casual clothing, a couple of books, and a few framed photos - Heero with himself, one of all the pilots together, another of Heero perched on Zero's shoulder, one of himself at the party after the Mariemaia incident. He then slipped the laptop into its bag, grabbed the OTHER duffle bag of weapons, etc. from its hiding place behind a tux in the back of Heero's closet, and exited the room through the window.

A few minutes later, Heero's heavily loaded motorcycle was pushed silently down the driveway. A long braid swung into view momentarily as the cycle reached the road; the helmeted figure pushing it hopped on, and the perfectly tuned machine purred off into the distance.


0300 hours local time, May 15, A.C. 202; Peacecraft Memorial Hospital, Sanc

'The ol' stealth skills sure are coming in handy tonight... Of all the lousy times for Sally to be away... From what Une said, there's not much chance of the doc on Heero's case releasing him. That orderly that tried to shake him awake out of a nightmare and got thrown into the wall kind of screwed up any chance of that. "Flashbacks to the war indicate a need for psychiatric evaluation and possible treatment for PTSD prior to release," according to the good doc. For Pete's sake, Sally's got a notice in red letters six inches high on Heero's records warning not to sedate or restrain him and the twit STILL went ahead and did both!'

Duo quickly shut down the assorted monitoring equipment in Heero's room, careful to do so without setting off any medical alarms, then moved over to the bed.

"Heee-e-e-r-r-o, wake u-u-p," he chanted in a soft sing-song. Tickling Heero's nose lightly with the end of his braid, he continued softly, "Ohayo, 'Ro, time to rise & shine, sleepyhead."

Heero stirred slightly, then murmured, "D-Duo??"

"The one-&-only, partner, just gimme a sec to get rid of THESE," there was a soft sound as the restraints dropped to the floor, "and we're ready to rock-&-roll." Duo's voice turned serious for a moment as his eyes met Heero's groggy gaze, "Gomen nasai, Heero. I'm sorry it took me so long to get here. It's a long and rather ugly story, but I'm here now and the story can wait till you're feeling better, 'kay?"

"'Kay," Heero murmured sleepily as Duo picked him up. The long chestnut braid slid over Duo's shoulder and landed on Heero's chest. His hand closed around it, automatically seeking familiar reassurance that this wasn't just a dream.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

March, A.C. 195

Heero lifted his head, suppressing a moan as he heard voices outside his cell. 'Back again already? K'so, haven't they figured out yet that they aren't going to get anything out of me?'

He caught the tail end of the conversation as the cell door swung open. "...surprised they're bothering to haul him down to Medical, but then I guess they want him alive for a public execution, eh?"

"Don't ask me, I just follow orders. They say 'Take 01 down to Medical', I take 01 down to Medical," a vaguely familiar voice answered.

A soldier in OZ uniform entered the cell, quickly unlocking his cuffs from the wall and roughly refastening them behind his back. Heero bit his lip as his dislocated shoulder shrieked in protest. His head spun nauseatingly as the soldier jerked him to his feet and pushed him towards the door. He pitched forward, fully expecting to hit the floor, only to be caught and draped over the shoulder of the soldier waiting in the corridor.

"Thanks, Hendricks," that same naggingly familiar voice said.

'Why does that voice sound so familiar?' Heero closed his eyes as the man carrying him spun quickly and set off down the corridor at a fast walk, causing his stomach to lurch. 'Definitely a concussion,' he thought, 'added to the dislocated shoulder, cracked or broken ribs, and the bullet in the thigh from the escape attempt... Not good odds for an escape, even from Medical...'

Heero re-opened his eyes as he was set down. "Gimme a sec," the voice whispered, then abruptly, his wrists were free as nimble fingers worked their magic on the locks of the cuffs. He looked around and realized that they were in a dark corner of the garage, not Medical. An Oz uniform hat slid to the floor in front of him as he was scooped up in someone's arms. A chestnut braid landed on his chest and his rescuer burst into a sprint for the nearest vehicle just as the alarms went off.


"That's my name, don't wear it out," that familiar voice quipped breathlessly, flinging the pair of them into the base commander's sports car. Heero gaped in disbelief as the crazy American hot-wired the car, revved its powerful engine, and shot out of the garage.

"Why?" he demanded sharply, while thinking, 'Why take such a risk for me, I'm just a soldier - they could have had two pilots instead of just one, you could have been killed...'

"Because even if you don't consider me a friend, I consider you to be one of mine," Duo answered distractedly while up-shifting the sports car and pointing it straight for the flimsy barrier blocking the gate.


"Oh fine, if it makes you feel better, pretend whatever you want, but that's the real reason. Now DUCK!!"

Both of them slid down in their seats and the low-slung sports car brushed through below the barrier intended for stopping transport and delivery trucks.

'Well, I guess that explains why he picked the convertible,' Heero thought just before the pounding in his head overwhelmed him and he blacked out.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Heero slipped in and out of consciousness while Duo carried him out of the hospital and placed him in the waiting car. A little later, he opened his eyes as Duo carried him onboard a small intercontinental shuttle, just in time to spot a pair of familiar motorcycles, Duo's plus his own, securely strapped in the bay. He must have made some small sound, since Duo glanced down at him and grinned, "Yeah, I swung by the mansion and picked up your stuff before I came after you. From what Une said, I figured you'd be out of action for at least a month so you'd probably want it with you. Brought your personal stuff, left the uniforms and tuxes. And yes, I even brought that bloody stupid laptop." Duo rolled his eyes and heaved a long-suffering sigh.

Heero smirked slightly, "Arigatou, Duo."

"Sally's not available, so I arranged for one of the doctors that worked with the Sweepers during the war to meet us and set us up with whatever medical stuff you need. Michael's a nice guy - humour him and at least pretend you'll actually take the painkillers and sedatives he prescribes, OK?"


"Yeah, I thought that's what you'd say... He's loaning us his truck & a trailer to haul the motorcycles on AND his cottage too, so at least lay off the death-glares - please?" Duo gave Heero a pleading look as he settled him into a semi-reclined seat.

'Those puppy-dog eyes should be illegal,' Heero thought, but only replied, "Hn."


2000 hours local time, May 15, A.C. 202; Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

Duo checked to be sure that Heero was still asleep in the truck, then carried the last bag of groceries into the cottage. It was still pretty chilly in there since the heat and water had been turned off when the cottage was closed up at the end of last summer. He'd turned both on right away when they arrived, as well as turning up the hot water heater and lighting the fireplace, but it still felt a bit chill and damp. He made up the bed and turned the covers back, then went out to get Heero.

Heero was rubbing his eyes with one hand and blinking sleepily when Duo reached the truck.

"Hey there partner, I was startin' to get a little worried. Ready to go inspect this fine establishment?"

"Hai," Heero mumbled, readily raising his arms for Duo to lift him out of the truck seat.

"Okay, bathroom first or supper? I thought we'd just have soup and a salad tonight since it's getting kinda late and I'm too tired to fix a proper meal... Or I can do omelettes if you'd rather..."

Heero stifled a yawn, stretched, then winced as the stretch pulled his stitches. "Bathroom, then an omelette sounds good."


Duo set Heero down on the edge of the tub, then asked, "Need any help or will you be okay?"

"'M okay," Heero yawned again.

"Okay, I'll go start supper so you can eat and take your medicine before you fall asleep again."

"Hn," Heero grumbled, making a face at Duo's retreating back.

"Don't make that face at me, buddy, I'm too tired to stay awake all night because YOU can't sleep because you didn't take your pain pills!" Duo hollered without even looking back.

Heero shook his head in disbelief. 'He knows me so well - WE know EACH OTHER so well - yet he still surprises me at times.'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

April, A.C. 195

"He-e-e-e-cha-a-an... I'm bo-o-r-r-ed... Heee e-e-chan... Hey, HEE-CHAN!"

"I've told you before, DON'T CALL ME HEE-CHAN!!" Heero shouted, spinning his desk chair around to glare at the braided boy draped across the bed.

"Yeesh, you don't have to shout, Hee-chan..."

Heero always winced internally at the hated nickname - and for once, he was unable to suppress the external wince as well. He turned quickly back to his laptop, hoping the braided baka hadn't noticed that reaction.

The thump of feet hitting the floor told him that was a vain hope, and when hands spun his chair around again, he was prepared for a fresh barrage of teasing. Instead, he met the gaze of a suddenly-serious Duo Maxwell. "You really do hate that name, don't you? Tell me why, please, and I promise I won't call you that anymore."


"Look, Heero, I tease you because that seems to be the only thing that breaks through that icy wall of yours and gets a reaction out of you. But I'm not mean - I'm not trying to hurt you. So tell me why 'Hee-chan' bugs you so much, and I'll quit using that name."

Heero hesitated.

"I don't lie, remember?"

"It's not just one reason, really," Heero said reluctantly. "For one thing, it reminds me of all those silly, giggly girls that mob us at every school. You do realize that -chan is usually used by young girls - and usually only to refer to other young girls - don't you?"

"Eep. No, I didn't know that," Duo answered, looking slightly ill.

"It's disrespectful, and not just in a rebelling-against-convention kind of way - it feels like you're belittling me and my abilities, saying you don't respect me as a person or as a fellow pilot, every time you say it," the Japanese pilot finished in a rush, not entirely certain he should have revealed that detail.

"Gomen nasai, Heero," Duo said, looking extremely upset, then shot him a quick, pleading look. "Oh man, please tell me that's the right way to say I'm sorry - I'm not really saying something insulting, am I?"

"Hai - I mean, 'Gomen nasai' does mean 'I'm sorry', and no, you're not saying something insulting," Heero answered, looking slightly confused.

"Oi, that's a relief," the braided boy sighed. "Look, Heero, I've picked up bits and pieces of Japanese on my own - I've never formally been taught it, and I certainly don't have any of the cultural background to go with it. I have this sinking feeling that I'm probably making a hundred other screw-ups where you're concerned that I WOULDN'T make if I understood where you were coming from a little better. If I say or do something that really, REALLY bothers you, ask me nicely to stop, and explain why it bugs you, and we can probably work out a compromise."

Heero gaped, "NANI?!?"

"I think that means 'what' unless I've managed to screw that up too," Duo grimaced. "Look, Heero, I'll give you an example. I know my nagging at you all evening bugs you, so I'd like to offer a compromise. I'll be quiet and leave you alone for an hour if you'll spend half an hour helping me learn Japanese properly."

Heero closed his mouth, then countered, "Three hours of peace and quiet for a half hour of Japanese lessons."

"Two hours of peace and quiet for a half hour of Japanese lessons - OR - three hours of peace and quiet for a half hour of Japanese lessons plus a half hour of basketball or chess or whatever other amusement we can agree on. And I'll leave you alone for the rest of the day today to make up for the 'Hee-chan' incident."

"Deal," Heero answered quickly. He turned back to his laptop, then froze for a moment, seeing Duo's brilliant smile reflected in the screen. 'All I ever had to do was ask nicely and explain why? And I've been calling HIM the baka?!? ARGH!'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

'It didn't take long for part of that three hours of peace and quiet to gradually turn into mutual homework-help time. Once I realized how little formal education he'd had, his spotty grades made sense... I could fill in the missing knowledge for him, and some of what came naturally to him didn't come so easily to me... And from there, it was only natural to start sharing mission planning too... It quickly became clear that Duo's creativity could improve my mission plans, and my attention to detail could improve his. It didn't take me TOO embarrassingly long to finally figure out that we balanced each other out. And Chang's reaction the next time that we were all together again was hilarious...'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June A.C. 195

"Yuy, what did you do to Maxwell?"

"What do you mean, Chang?"

"I'm talking about the fact that he doesn't call you 'Hee-chan' anymore, or run around nagging you until you threaten him into going away briefly!" Wufei shouted in exasperation.

"I explained why the nicknames bothered me and asked him nicely to stop. As far as the nagging part goes, again, I asked nicely and we reached a compromise," Heero stated flatly.

"That's IT?!? That's ALL YOU HAD TO DO?!?"


"I can't believe it!! I don't WANT to believe it!! It can't possibly be that simple!"

Heero shrugged and walked away, leaning over the banister to call downstairs, "Hey Duo, you want to continue that chess game from yesterday?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


0900 hours local time, May 16, A.C. 202; Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

Heero struggled slowly to consciousness. At first, the familiarity of the situation - the warm, softly snoring body beside him, the sharp pull of stitches, the dull ache of fractured bones, the throbbing pain of a bullet wound - left him caught up in memories. How many times during the war had he and Duo shared a bed, chasing away the nightmares for each other with soft murmurs, comforting hugs, and the simple reassurance that came from the presence of someone who understood? Too many times to count.

Opening his eyes, Heero turned his head to watch his sleeping partner. 'How could I have been so close to him then and not noticed how gorgeous he is?

'Simple, Yuy, you could barely handle the friendship he offered so freely - if you'd been attracted to him too, you'd probably have shoved him away so hard that even he would have admitted defeat... Even after the war ended, he was the one who made the effort to keep our friendship going... After months of e-mails and occasional vid-calls, it was such a shock to meet him face-to-face again... Even the fact that we were heading into battle again couldn't stop me from realizing just how much I'd missed him, let alone keep me from noticing how beautiful he was, with that long silky braid and sparkling violet eyes, his cheerful smile and graceful movements... But once I'd realized how important our friendship was to me, there was no way I was about to risk it because of a mere physical attraction. It was months before I finally figured out that it was far more than mere attraction that I felt for him.'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

January 17, A.C. 199

As the Vice Foreign Minister's escort/bodyguard at yet another of her political dinner parties, Heero was the subject of far more attention than he preferred. It was with a certain degree of relief that he realized that Pargan was bringing the portable vid-phone to his seat at the table. 'Maybe Une is calling with a mission...'

Relena glared at Pargan in annoyance, hissing quietly, "I thought I made it clear that there were to be no interruptions."

"I'm sorry, Miss Relena, but Mr. Yuy was equally clear in his instructions," Pargan replied, handing the small unit to Heero.

Heero slipped the unobtrusive headset on, then released the hold button on the keypad. Instead of the familiar face of Lady Une, a stranger appeared on the tiny screen.

"Mr. Heero Yuy?" the man inquired.

"Yes," Heero answered, a sudden sinking feeling in his gut as he noticed the details showing in the call display. 'Carstairs Memorial Hospital, L2? Oh, god, no...'

"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Mr. Yuy, however you are listed as next-of-kin for a patient of ours, Mr. Duo Maxwell. He was taken directly to surgery when he arrived at the hospital; the prognosis is not good. I would strongly advise that you or a representative of yourself come to the hospital immediately."

Heero's chair crashed over backwards as he jumped to his feet and strode away, quickly getting a few last details before hanging up the call. Relena hurried after him, catching his elbow and protesting, "Heero, where do you think you're going?! I need you here; you have to lead me out for the first dance after dinner."

Heero ignored her, barely slowing down as he punched Lady Une's personal number into the phone. As soon as Une answered, he said, "Duo's been seriously injured; he's in surgery right now. I have to get to L2 immediately."

Une responded immediately, "There are several Preventers at the mansion on general security detail for the dinner, I'll order them to stay and take over bodyguard duties tonight and set up a regular guard rotation till further notice. I'll contact the spaceport and have one of the Preventers shuttles fuelled up and ready to go."

"Arigatou. Yuy out."

Relena yanked Heero's elbow insistently, "If he's in surgery, there's obviously nothing you can do there. I'm sure that friend of his - Heidi or something, isn't it - will look after things. Besides, you have to stay here to protect me. That's your job, your MISSION, remember?"

Heero jerked his elbow from the girl's grasp and glared at her furiously. "The Preventers can protect you; you don't NEED me. Duo does."

"Yes, I DO need you here," Relena whined, the spoilt child in her clearly visible. "Don't you dare leave me here alone and go running off to HIM!"

"Relena. I will not say this twice, so listen and listen well. Do NOT turn this into a choice between the two of you, because I can guarantee that you will NOT like the result."

Heero spun on his heel and hurried down the corridor towards his room, ignoring the shocked, tearful girl he left behind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Heero's eyes traced over the one currently exposed reminder of that long, frightening vigil - a jagged, twisting scar running the full length of Duo's arm. 'It was a close call - closer than any he had during the war. To think that after surviving countless battles, the God of Death was so very nearly killed by a drunken motorist hitting his motorcycle. Sitting in that chair by his bed, day after day, staring at his battered, bandaged body and waiting, hoping, praying to god - any god - for him to regain consciousness, I couldn't deny it any longer - I'd gone and fallen in love with my best friend. How many times since then have I decided to tell him, only to lose my nerve and decide that our friendship was too important to risk?'

As Duo's breathing pattern changed and he started to stir towards waking, Heero began the same, familiar, thought process yet again.

'But would it really be a risk? Duo has always been so openhearted and generous with his affection, even when the Perfect Soldier was at his worst - it's hard to imagine him throwing all the incredible effort he put into our friendship away just because I feel MORE than friendship for him. Should I? Can I?'

Looking into those beautiful violet eyes and greeting the soft, sleepy smile with a quiet, "Ohayo, Duo", Heero thought, 'Or should the question be, how can I NOT take the chance that I might be able to wake up to this every morning instead of my cold, lonely bed? Maybe... maybe it's finally time to tell him...'


By mid-afternoon, the two ex-pilots were ensconced in the cottage's small living room enjoying the warmth radiating from the fireplace. Duo had scavenged up every pillow in the house to make sure that Heero was comfortably propped up on the couch, then he had curled up on the thick rug beside it, rested his arms on the edge of the couch, propped his chin on his crossed arms, and ordered, "Okay, now TALK."

Heero raised his eyebrows quizzically, smirked, and said, "Hn."



"Oi, fine, be that way." Duo stuck his tongue out at Heero before continuing, "So, are you going to tell me what you were calling me about and what Hilde said, or do you want me to start instead?"

"Oh, THAT'S what you want me to talk about."

Duo rolled his eyes, "No shit, Sherlock," then yelped, "Hey!" an instant later as a pillow smacked him in the face.


Then it was Heero's turn to roll his eyes as Duo got up and carefully tucked the pillow back in place before taking up his previous position. "Stop fussing, I'm FINE. I've had far worse before."

"I know, I know... But you wouldn't have gotten hurt if you'd had backup and it's my fault that you didn't."

"Duo..." Heero took a good look at his partner's stubbornly set face. "You're not going to let me talk you out of this guilt-trip, are you."


"Fine, then go ahead and tell me what happened," he sighed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

May 9, A.C. 202; L2

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Maxwell, Ms. Schbeiker," the Hastings Enterprises' representative said as the waitress brought the bill for their meal.

"It has been a pleasure for us as well, Mr. Roberts," Duo assured the executive. "Not all clients are as - appreciative - as Hastings Enterprises," he smiled, referring to the early-completion-bonus check that had been handed over earlier that afternoon.

"We have a firm policy of rewarding good work," Roberts responded. "When Mr. Winner recommended your firm to us, some of our Board of Directors had doubts that such a small company could handle this job; you've certainly more than lived up to his recommendation.

"Now, if I'm going to make my shuttle, I'd best catch a cab to the spaceport. Thank you for dinner."

"The pleasure was ours," Hilde chimed in, beaming with delight.

After seeing Mr. Roberts safely to his cab, Hilde and Duo returned home.

"Oi, I could sleep for a week solid," Duo yawned, shedding his suit coat and tie before he was even through the front door.

"Sleep?! How can you possibly want to sleep now? I thought we'd go out clubbing to celebrate!"

"Clubbing? Tonight?" Duo whimpered in disbelief. "Hilde, I've had, like, maybe 12 hours sleep in the past four days!" Seeing his friend's happy expression crumple, he caved in, "Ok, but only for a couple of hours..."


Several hours later, Duo smothered another yawn as he spotted Hilde coming back from the bar with drinks in hand.

'Oh man, not another drink - where am I gonna dump THIS one without her seeing and feeling hurt? That one beer when we first got here was more than enough for me tonight - I'm light-headed enough from exhaustion; there's no way I'm adding alcohol to that! We've been here for hours already and SHE may still be going strong - hey, she's not the one who's been averaging about five hours sleep a night for the past month - but I'm dead beat... I've gotta get outta here before I fall asleep on my feet...'

The young woman rejoined him at the table and offered him a glass. "Thanks, Hil," Duo said in a weariness-slurred voice, "but I'm done in. 'S time to go. Stay if ya wanna, but I'm gone." He dragged himself to his feet, staggering slightly. 'Shit, gonna be a looooong trip home. Knew this was a dumb idea.'

"Whoa there, buddy," Hilde laughed, steadying him by one elbow. "You're in no shape to go anywhere by yourself. Let's get you home."

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

" we get home and I stagger off to bed. I think I was asleep before my head even hit the pillow; then all of a sudden I'm wide awake and every instinct is screaming that something's wrong. It took me a second to realize that there was someone in the room with me. I pretended to still be asleep while I tried to figure out who it was and what they were doing. I realized it was Hilde along about the same time that I realized she was stripping on her way across the room. By the time she slid in the bed and reached towards me, I was really pissed and in full-blown Shinigami-mode. Her wrist is probably still black and blue from me grabbing it.

"She deliberately set out to get me drunk, 'Ro; she must've. Guess she never noticed that I never do drink that much and I never actually drink anything I didn't pick up from the bar myself. Hell, those few times that the five of us guys all went out together during the war, there was always at least two of us that stayed sober to watch the others' backs. It may not be wartime anymore, but there's still plenty of predators out there and old habits die hard.

"Anyway, I accused her of breaking her word - remember all those conversations we had before I signed the partnership papers - I told you all about how she promised to settle for friendship after I warned her that she was the wrong gender entirely for her crush on me to ever develop into anything? She started off surprised that I wasn't drunk, then she got downright nasty; I packed up and got out of there even though it was the middle of the night. The ol' adrenaline was flowin' pretty good, so I hopped on the bike and high-tailed it over to the Sweepers' hangar, let myself in, and managed to make it to the break-room couch before I ran out of steam." Duo shot a sheepish look from under his bangs, "And yeah, I know gettin' on the bike in the shape I was in was pretty stupid. I was damn lucky I didn't end up in an accident.

"I shoulda called and told you what was going on as soon as I woke up later that day, but I got caught up in contactin' the lawyer about dissolving the partnership - thank God that one of Q-man's corporate lawyers drew up the paperwork for that, at least I know I'll get out of it with my share of the business's value reasonably intact - then they had a couple of shuttles in there for repair that I figured I'd fix as fair trade for stayin' at the hangar for a few days while I got things straightened out, and next thing I know, a coupla days have passed and somebody's hollerin' that Une's on the phone and it's about you. Scared the hell outta me.

"Like I said before, a long and rather ugly story, but the upshot is that I screwed up big-time and I let you down. Gomen nasai, Heero." Duo dropped his eyes to intently study the couch fabric while he waited for Heero's response.


Heero listened patiently to Duo's explanation, though he found himself clenching his fists in anger as the story unfolded. 'You went out clubbing to avoid hurting Hilde's feelings when you'd had THAT little sleep? God, Duo, what kind of friend is she to even ASK that of you?' He listened in disbelief as Duo described Hilde's invasion of his room, 'K'so, even Relena has never stooped quite that low...'; then went white with horror when Duo admitted to riding his motorcycle, 'That's a forty-five minute trip - oh god, Duo, in the state you were in, it's a miracle you didn't get yourself killed!'

Heero shook his head slightly at the guilty look on Duo's face. "Baka," he murmured affectionately as he slid his fingers under that pointed chin and tilted Duo's face up towards him.

"Duo, if you had called me, do you seriously think I wouldn't have noticed how tired you were?"


"And do you honestly believe I'd have let you go on a mission in that kind of shape?"

"Err... Probably not," Duo admitted reluctantly.

"So I'd still have ended up going solo - you can't blame yourself for me not having backup."

"Well... Maybe not... But at least you'd have told Une how to contact me and she'd have reached me right away when you got hurt - you wouldn't have ended up sedated and restrained for over twenty-four hours!" Duo responded, stubbornly clinging to his guilt.

Seeing that he wasn't going to convince Duo not to blame himself for any of it, Heero changed tactics. "Okay, fine - you made a small error in judgement while in a sleep-deprived state - you're not perfect, you're only human, these things happen. You've apologized and done your best to make amends by getting me out of the hospital and off to someplace peaceful to recuperate. Listen carefully now...

"Duo, I accept your apology and I forgive you for not being there the minute I was brought into the hospital. Now will you please stop beating yourself up over this?"

Duo gave Heero a reluctant, sheepish grin, "Can't I just blame myself a teensy-weensy little bit?"

"Baka," Heero swatted him with a pillow again.

"Yeah, yeah, Duo no baka, I know...

"Oh shit! Duo no baka is right - I completely forgot, Une said she'd contacted the guys when she was trying to reach me - I never let them know what was going on! Q's probably ready to send the Maguanacs out searching for me!" Duo scrambled to his feet and dashed off to find his laptop, "I'll e-mail them and let them know we're both okay. Guess I'd better tell Quat what's up with the business, too - considering our biggest jobs came through his recommendations, I wouldn't want him recommending it to anybody without knowing I'm not involved with it anymore!"

Heero watched contentedly as Duo raced off. 'One hurdle down - he looks more relaxed already now that he's got that off his chest. Something's still not quite right, though... Maybe it's just the over-tiredness and stress, or the upset of losing a friend and a business in one fell swoop... All I can do is wait and see...'


1330 hours local time, May 18, A.C. 202; Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

"That's it for the lunch dishes," Duo said cheerily, placing the last handful of silverware on the table for Heero to dry it, then turning to put the dried mugs in the cupboard. "Now," he turned to mock-glare at the seated ex-pilot, "I think SOMEBODY needs to go back to bed for a while - you've been up too long already."

"Hai," Heero sighed reluctantly. Much as he hated to admit it, he was getting tired and a bit dizzy again.

"Oi, while you're being Mr. Agreeable, might I interest you perhaps in one of these as well?" Duo inquired, holding up the bottle of pain pills.

Heero shot a glare at the bottle, then gave his braided friend a quick look. 'He still has dark circles under his eyes and I don't like those little stress lines on his forehead either... That big salvage contract was bad enough to start with, he didn't need the added stress of the whole Hilde mess plus looking after me...'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Midnight local time, April 30, A.C. 202; Vice Foreign Minister's mansion, Sanc

"Sorry I was out when you called yesterday - Relena insisted on dragging me to the damn opera with her."

"'S alright, 'Ro - I was pretty tired by the time I got in from work last night anyway. 'M just glad I was back home in time for your call tonight," Duo answered, his words slurring with weariness.

Heero's eyes narrowed with concern. Duo was sprawled on his side in bed, damp hair spilled loosely across the pillows, facing the vid-phone on his nightstand. The only light in the room was from the vid-screen, yet Heero could clearly see the dark circles under Duo's eyes and the weary lines around his mouth. "You're not just tired; you're exhausted. You look like shit," he said bluntly.

Duo choked and sputtered, "Heero! That's not exactly what I wanted to hear."

"Maybe not, but it's the truth. I hope you're going to finish that salvage job soon, or it's going to finish you."

"Nah, I'll be alright." Duo flashed a weak facsimile of his usual grin, adding, "Just a couple more weeks to get through now and we should be done. They're offerin' a big bonus for early completion, so we've really been pushin' to get it finished by then."

"Hn," Heero grunted disapprovingly. 'He's not sleeping enough and probably not eating properly either since it looks like he's lost weight... Wish I could get up there to visit for a few days; he obviously isn't looking after himself properly - but Relena starts that speaking tour tomorrow and we'll be gone for the next week.'

"So, tell me about your trip to the opera, 'Ro - how on earth did she manage to get you to agree to that one?"

"Well, it all started with the visiting ambassador from L3," Heero began, deliberately keeping his voice low and soothing. After a few minutes, Duo's eyes started to flutter and by the time Heero had finished describing the ridiculous hat that the ambassador's wife wore to the opera, Duo was sound asleep. Heero moved his own vid-phone to his nightstand and crawled in bed, laying so that he could watch Duo sleep. Feather-light, he reached out and traced one fingertip over the image of Duo's cheek, imagining the feel of his soft skin. Heero dozed occasionally, but mainly just lay watching Duo sleep, listening to the gentle sound of his breathing and his occasional soft snores. The figure on the screen barely stirred all night, and when Duo's breathing patterns finally began to change and his limbs to stir in preparation for waking, Heero regretfully disconnected the call. 'I don't think I want to try to explain why I just ran up a bill for a six-hour, Earth-to-L2 vid-phone call just to watch my best friend sleep. Somehow, I don't think I could explain that without telling him more than I'm prepared to right now...'

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Okay," Heero agreed, smirking at Duo's shocked expression. "If YOU," he added, pointing emphatically, "agree to get some more sleep too. You're still exhausted."

Heero's breath caught in his throat as Duo gave him one of those rare, beautiful, genuine smiles that were so different from his usual cheery grins.

"Deal," the braided young man agreed.


1730 hours local time, May 18, A.C. 202; Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

Duo propped himself up on one elbow and gazed down at Heero's sleeping face. 'He's changed so much since that first time we roomed together undercover. Back then, he wouldn't have noticed something wrong with me unless I keeled over in front of him. Today he knew I needed more sleep and he knew just how to persuade me to get it. And at least he was more diplomatic about it than that night a couple of weeks ago when he told me that I looked like shit! I still can't believe I fell asleep in the middle of his call... Hilde couldn't have been more wrong when she said he hadn't changed. Oh, he still pulls out his old "Perfect Soldier" mask around strangers and whenever he's unsure of himself or upset, but that's all it is now - just a mask, same as my Shinigami one.

'Heero always heals fast, but I should still have at least a couple of weeks to just enjoy being with him. Once he gets better, though, I need to tell him how I feel about him and find out if he wants to try a relationship or stick with our friendship. After we work that out, I'll have to figure out what I want to do with my life now that I'm out of the partnership with Hilde. Unless the whole "confession" thing goes really badly, I do at least know that I want to stay on Earth - as close to Heero as possible.'

Leaning down, Duo brushed the tousled brown bangs back and pressed a light, gentle kiss to Heero's forehead. "God, I've missed you, 'Ro," he murmured in an emotion-choked voice, then rolled quickly out of the bed and headed off to fix some supper.

Behind him, cobalt eyes snapped open.


'He kissed me. Duo KISSED me. DUO kissed ME.

'Settle down, Yuy, it was just a quick peck on the forehead, it might not mean anything...

'But he's never done that before. At least, not that I'm aware of. K'so, that doesn't mean anything, he thought I was asleep - maybe he's done it before when I really HAVE been asleep - I've certainly been tempted a few times... Okay, maybe more than a few...

'And the way he said he'd missed me - there was too much emotion there for just missing a friend...

'Okay Yuy, you were considering telling him already - now you know there's a good chance that he feels at least a little bit the same way, you HAVE to tell him...

'Maybe I'll just try something a little more subtle first... Sort of test out the waters so to speak...'


Duo re-entered the bedroom quietly, then smiled cheerfully as he saw that Heero was awake.

"Bathroom then supper?" he inquired.


"Lift or assist?" Duo asked as Heero swung his legs over the side of the bed.

Heero started to stand up, then swayed as if dizzy. Duo caught him quickly and lifted him off his feet.

"Guess that answered that question," Duo laughed gently, carrying him down the hall to the bathroom. Bending over, he sat Heero on the edge of the tub and began to straighten up, only to have Heero's arms close around him in a hug. A quick, light kiss was pressed to his cheek and a voice breathed softly in his ear, "I've missed you too, Duo."

Duo froze. 'Oh, shit. He was awake.'

"Heero?" he squeaked.

Heero's arms tightened for a moment, then relaxed, releasing Duo. "I think we have a lot to talk about," he said gently, caressing Duo's cheek lightly as they separated. "BOTH of us," he added, then continued, "But not till after we eat. YOU have lost weight and I intend to see to it that you put every ounce of it back on."

"Okay," Duo agreed with a shaky smile. 'Easy now, Maxwell, there's a lot of ways you could interpret that. Just because he apparently has strong feelings for you that doesn't necessarily mean he's in love with you.'

Duo stepped out into the hall to give Heero some privacy. 'But he noticed that I've lost weight and he's worried about it. He hugged me and kissed me, even if it was only on the cheek. He said he's missed me too. Even for the post-war, best-friend Heero, that's a lot to have said and done. Particularly as it was clearly a direct response to what I said and did.'

Heero opened the bathroom door and leaned on Duo's shoulder for the trip down the hall to the kitchen. Duo's mind continued to race as he helped Heero into a chair at the table. 'He could have just ignored what I did; I'd never have known he was awake.'

His stomach tied in knots, Duo finally pushed his sandwich away with less than half of it gone.

Heero gave up on his meal as well and looked across the table at him apologetically, "Sorry, Duo, I should have waited till after supper to bring this up. I should have realized that neither of us would feel much like eating till we settled things. Why don't you wrap these up and stick them in the fridge? We can finish them later."

Duo nodded, then silently took care of the remains of their meal.

"Gimme a minute to get the fireplace going, then we can go sit in there to talk, 'kay?" Duo suggested.

Heero nodded in agreement, so Duo grabbed his jacket and went out to bring in some wood.

Leaning against the cottage wall, Duo took several deep breaths and tried to bring his racing pulse back under control. 'Duo no baka, you were going to tell him anyway, why are you panicking so badly now?

'After all, this is only either the end of nearly three years' worth of hopes and dreams or the beginning of a wonderful new life. Nothing to panic about, nothing at all...'


Heero waited patiently as Duo poked at the fire one last time, then placed the poker back in its rack. As Duo started towards an armchair, Heero cleared his throat and pointedly patted the couch cushion beside him. 'Oh no, you don't Duo - no running and hiding this time. I want you close enough to see your expression while I tell you this.'

Duo reluctantly joined Heero on the couch but turned his gaze towards the fire rather than meeting Heero's eyes.

'I've never seen Duo this badly off balance before. I hope I haven't made a big mistake.'

Heero felt the 'Perfect Soldier' mask start to slide in place. It would be so easy to allow himself to slide back into that familiar, tightly-controlled persona; allow it to protect him at least temporarily while he risked rejection. 'No, I can't do that. Duo spent so much time and effort breaking through my mask to begin with, using it now would be like a slap in the face.'

"Duo, once I start please let me finish what I have to say without interrupting - you know this sort of thing is still difficult for me and it will be easier to get it out all at once."

Violet eyes widened slightly as Duo realized that Heero intended to take the lead in this conversation, but he nodded to indicate his agreement.

"Duo, I know that during the war it probably didn't seem like I valued your friendship very much. I had a hard time believing that you saw me as more than just a soldier, a fellow Gundam pilot, another weapon to be used in defence of the colonies. By the end of the war, I did value your friendship, but I couldn't understand why someone as cheerful and open as you would want to remain friends with someone as cold as me once it was possible to have long-term contact with others. You made the effort to keep our long-distance friendship going while I was still trying to figure out what being friends really meant. By the time we met up again to handle the Mariemaia mess, I had realized that you were my best friend. And the moment I saw you in person again for the first time in almost a year, I discovered to my shock that my best friend was absolutely gorgeous."

A tiny yelp escaped as Duo clapped both hands over his mouth in an effort to silence his reaction. Heero smirked slightly at his friend's flushed cheeks, but continued to speak, "I was torn - incredibly attracted to my devastatingly beautiful best friend but also determined to do nothing that could possibly jeopardize that friendship. Unfulfilled physical attraction I could live with - losing my best friend, very nearly my ONLY friend, I could not. So I ignored the attraction to the best of my ability, but I also started to make a real effort to contribute to our friendship. Instead of always waiting for you to contact me, I started calling and e-mailing you sometimes. Instead of spending my vacation days holed up in my room, I'd arrange to visit you on L2.

"Then came January 17th 199. A single phone call knocked my whole world off-kilter. By the time you finally regained consciousness, I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that I was head-over-heels, truly, madly, deeply, in love with you. But I didn't dare tell you. If I could never really understand why the gregarious, gorgeous, charming, intelligent Duo Maxwell wanted ME as a friend, I certainly couldn't even begin to imagine why he would want me as a lover.

"You've told me many times before that I'll always be your best friend, no matter what. I'm putting faith in that now. And I promise you that you will always be my best friend, no matter what your response is to this."

Cobalt blue locked with violet as Heero took a deep breath and finished, "Ai shiteru, Duo."


Heero's admission of past attraction to Duo had caused him to blush; Heero's confession of past love turned Duo white as a sheet. 'I will not faint, I will not faint, I will not faint,' he chanted silently, hands still clapped firmly over his mouth. 'He said "was", that was over three years ago... "Gregarious, gorgeous, charming, and intelligent"?!' Duo's cheeks went from white to bright red with embarrassment in an instant. 'Okay, "always be best friends", yes, of course - "AI SHITERU?!"' For one panic-stricken moment, Duo's knowledge of Japanese completely deserted him; then, in a startling flash of memory, it returned...

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Late November, A.C. 195

"Okay, Heero, I'm officially confused now."


Duo waved the manga in his hand towards Heero, "I thought you said 'suki' was the verb used for stuff like 'I love you', but that's not what this says, and I'm pretty sure from the context that it's supposed to be a confession of love."

Heero leaned over and quickly glanced at the cover, smirking, "Shoujo manga? No wonder you're confused."

"Yeah, well there wasn't exactly a lot of time to pick something out, so I just picked up a grab-bag of assorted back issues; they're not ALL shoujo..."

"Sure, Duo, sure..." Heero ducked as Duo tried to swat him with the book, then snatched it out of Duo's hand and flipped back to the page in question. "Shoujo material uses this one a lot, but it's hardly ever used in real life. 'Ai shiteru' is a much stronger, more intimate way to say 'I love you' than 'suki'. And that's why you won't find much use of it outside of manga."

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Duo yanked his hands away from his mouth and flung himself towards Heero, only to remember his partner's injuries at the last second and restrict himself to carefully wrapping his arms around Heero's neck.

"I love you too! Ai shiteru yo."

Duo caught a split-second glimpse of the brightest, most beautiful smile he had ever seen on Heero's face before strong arms closed around him and their lips met in their first kiss. The kiss started out fierce and urgent but gentled almost immediately, turning sweet and tender with an underlying hint of restrained passion. Duo yielded readily when Heero's tongue nudged his lips, opening his mouth to his partner's gentle but thorough exploration. 'MY partner, MY love, MY koi, MY Heero. God, that has a wonderful sound to it.' Tongues advanced, retreated, tangled, then finally, reluctantly, withdrew as they separated slightly, gasping for breath. As Duo shifted to lean his forehead against Heero's, a feathery brush against his cheek drew his attention to the fact that his hair hung over them like a silken curtain and Heero was running his fingers through its length. 'When did he do that?! I'M supposed to be the stealth expert here!'

"When?" Heero asked.

"Mmm... Attraction... when you were giving me all those massages during therapy after the motorcycle accident..." Duo's words were interrupted by gasps as Heero started to nibble and kiss his way along his jawline, "In love... remember... later that summer... when we... were washing... my new bike... after... my first time out on it... You got... the most impish... grin... then... turned the hose on me... and started... a waterfight..."

Heero stopped what he was doing and gave Duo a quizzical look, "You realized you were in love with me when I doused you with ice-cold water?"

Duo snickered, "No, it wasn't the water - it was the look on your face just before that. I'd never seen such an open, natural expression on your face before - it opened my eyes and made me see how far you'd come since we first met - how different the REAL Heero was from Heero Yuy, Pilot 01, Perfect Soldier... And while I was still standing there, shocked at the realization that, like the baka I was, I'd gone and fallen in love with that Heero, the one who was my best friend - you went and turned the hose on me! It was a rather rude return to reality!"

"Gomen, Duo," Heero managed to gasp out before dissolving in laughter against Duo's shoulder.

"Now who's being the baka?" Duo muttered in mock exasperation, hugging him gently. "C'mon, Heero, it's getting late and I think I've got my appetite back; let's go finish our supper then go to bed."

"Duo? Don't take this the wrong way, but... It's taken us three years to get from falling in love to our first kiss, and while I certainly don't want to wait that long to make love the first time, I'd also sort of..." Heero trailed off, unsure how to express what he was feeling.

" to just enjoy kissing, cuddling, making out, and just being together without needing to hide anything before taking the next step," Duo finished for him.

"Hai," Heero breathed softly, amazed. "Duo, how do you always DO that? Know exactly what I'm trying to say and put it into words for me?"

"I don't know, 'Ro. I've never been able to figure it out either. I haven't ALWAYS been able to do it - the whole Hee-chan incident would have never happened if I had been. I think that in a way, the Hee-chan problem might have been what caused it... After that, I spent so much time and effort picking apart everything you said and did to try and get inside your head, to figure out what you were REALLY thinking so I wouldn't screw up again, that I guess it just gradually became second-nature to me and I kept doing it even after our friendship was solid enough to handle a faux pas or two on my part. And sometimes, like now, it's just because it's almost exactly the way that I'm feeling too.

"I just wish I was a little better at it; then maybe we wouldn't have wasted THREE DAMN YEARS!"


Late afternoon, May 25, A.C. 202; Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada

"Ya know, Heero, you never did tell me why you were calling or what Hilde said."

The past few days had been unseasonably warm and the two young men had abandoned the fireplace in favour of the beach. While far from being warm enough for swimming, the weather was perfect for sitting on a blanket and talking, reading, or making out. This early in the season, the tourist crowd had yet to descend on the resort town and both Duo and Heero had been enjoying the relative peace and quiet. Heero laid his crossword puzzle aside before answering, "It just didn't seem important anymore. Really, it was just the same old song and dance from Relena..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Begins* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"You know, Heero, you really should be thinking about the future. This is my last term as Vice Foreign Minister, and I've always thought that it would be nice to be married before the end of my appointment," Relena said, brushing at seemingly invisible bits of lint on her jacket then pulling out her mirror to check her hair.

"And this has to do with me HOW?" Heero asked, keeping a blank face with an effort. 'K'so, is she ever going to give up?'

"HEERO, how can you even ASK such a thing! You DO have to propose in order for me to accept and start wedding plans. It's much too late now to plan for a summer wedding, but I've always thought that winter weddings can be very stylish too."

'That's it. I've had it. Enough is enough.' "Relena, if you're waiting for me to propose, you're in for a very, very LONG wait. Like forever."

"Do you mean that you would prefer for me to propose? I pride myself on being very modern and I certainly wouldn't mind, but I've always assumed that you would prefer..."

Heero cut her off in exasperation, "Relena. SHUT. UP. I am not, have never been, and will never be, in love with you. I will not be proposing to you; I will not be accepting a proposal from you; and I will most definitely not be marrying you."

"I know that you have problems with expressing emotions, Heero, and I realize that you may never admit to being in love, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't get married," the young politician protested. "Many perfectly acceptable marriages are based..."

Heero cut her off again, "Not when one partner is already in love with someone else."

"WHAT?! You... you... you CAN'T be in love with someone else! Who IS she?" Relena demanded, immediately launching into a list of women who occasionally had contact with Heero, "Dorothy Catalonia? One of Quatre Winner's sisters? That sister of Trowa Barton's, Katie or Katrina or whatever her name is? Lady Une? Oh god, surely not that Schibiker friend of Maxwell's, Heidi or Hirde or whatever?"

Listening in growing disbelief as the blonde rattled on, the ex-Wing pilot finally interrupted, "Who said it was a SHE?"


More silence.

"It's MAXWELL, isn't it?" she hissed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~ *Flashback Ends* ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"... All I really intended to do at the time was let off a little steam complaining about Relena's delusions, I certainly didn't intend to tell you the details of that little conversation. Never imagined that I would ever be ABLE to tell you the details. Oh, and, err, I kind of quit as Relena's bodyguard - I told Une during the mission briefing, so she'd be able to arrange alternative coverage, so it's a good thing you picked my stuff up or it might have been missing by now...

"And as far as Hilde goes - it was really just more of the usual where she's concerned, just less subtle than usual. Snide remarks about how little we have in common, attempts to imply that I'm stuck living in the past while you've moved on with your life, insinuating that our friendship won't last - nothing new, really," Heero shrugged.

"Yeah, well, that actually ties in with some of the squicky little details about the fight she and I had that I left out before. She guessed I was in love with you, and tossed some pretty nasty remarks around - which I will not repeat, just as I won't expect you to repeat the remarks that I'm sure followed Relena's guess," Duo responded, snuggling up to Heero reassuringly.

'There he goes again - knowing what I need without me ever saying it. Hmm, if the reassurance feels good to me...' Tipping Duo's face up to meet his, Heero kissed him thoroughly. By the time he reluctantly pulled away, they were both breathing heavily and Duo's hair was floating loose in the breeze off the lake.

"Ack!" Cobalt eyes danced with mischief as Duo tried to gather his hair back into a ponytail, only to find that Heero had broken the hair band rather than just pulling it off. "Heeeerrro! It's going to take forever to get the tangles out!" he complained.

"Hmm, well I guess it's only fair if the one who made the mess has to fix it," Heero smirked. 'Not that either of us will find THAT a hardship - he loves to have his hair brushed and I love to touch his hair!'

"So, we're both semi-unemployed now, huh?" Duo said, curling up against Heero's side.

"Mm-hmm. We could join Preventers full-time, I guess. Or be like Wufei and go to college."

"Let's just take it one day at a time for now, look into our options a little more..." Duo suggested before shivering and complaining, "Brr, the breeze is getting chilly."

"Move over," Heero nudged, then once Duo was off the blanket he moved off himself, gathered it up, then wrapped it around his partner's shoulders. "Better?" he asked, kneeling behind Duo.

"Mm-hmm. Let's just watch the sunset 'fore we go in, 'kay?"


Just before the last traces of sunset faded away, Duo asked quietly, "So, which do you think sounds better - a summer wedding, a winter one... or would you rather have none at all?"

Heero's breath caught sharply in his throat. He swallowed hard, then leaned forward to whisper in his fiance's ear, "As long as you mean THIS summer - I've always heard June was a nice month for weddings..."
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