12-30-2002

Title: It Must Have Been the Mistletoe
Author: Calic0cat
Started & Completed: Dec. 25-29, 2002
Genre: Romance, Angst
Pairing: Eventual 1x2x1, 3x4x3, 5+6+5, DxR, surprise pairing at end (het)
Rated: R Warnings: AU(?), OOC, Swearing
Archives: At Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat. Anyone with archive permission for my other fics can help themselves; anyone else, please ask.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: Set in December A.C. 202. Written for Sita Seraph's xmas fic challenge to write a fic inspired by the song "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe".

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

Author's Notes: (Author stomps in, glares at muses, and drops fic with a hefty *thud*. Darned angst muse, turns a perfectly good 5-page humour fic into a 30+ page monster... Even had to waste a perfectly good title...) I had no intention of writing a *third* holiday fic this year, but Sita Seraph's challenge wouldn't leave me alone. This was supposed to be romance/humour again, but my so-far-nameless angst muse decided to make a contribution along with my romance/humour muse Quin (who may have got a little carried away in the sheer number of pairings...), so this is definitely angstier (more angsty? whatever...) than anything else I've posted so far, though there is still some humour and the requisite happy/sappy ending. Feedback is appreciated.

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It Must Have Been the Mistletoe
by Calic0cat

Part One:

Quatre woke slowly. Damn, did his head ever hurt. Cautiously opening his eyes, he recognized his own bedroom. That was strange - the last thing he remembered was standing up to speak at the WEI board meeting. As he attempted to sit up, a soft voice exclaimed, "Finally! Careful now, you've been out quite a while..." As Iria hurried over and helped him sit up, Quatre moaned and raised a hand to his head. Anticipating his question, Iria informed him, "You passed out in the middle of your speech to the board and hit your head on the table as you fell. No sign of a concussion, but you've got a real doozy of a black eye."

"How long was I out?" Quatre asked anxiously. "I was supposed to go straight from the board meeting to Preventers HQ to go over the budget proposal with Une."

"Yes, you were. Yesterday. You've been out for over 24 hours, Quatre. You can't keep going like this. You simply cannot keep putting in 10 hour days at WEI then another four to six hours at the Preventers. When was the last time you went for a horseback ride? Went swimming? Visited any of the other pilots? Spoke to anyone regarding anything that wasn't work-related? *Did* anything that wasn't work-related?"

"But there's so much to be *done*, Iria! I can't simply stop."

"Quatre, *everyone* has to eat and sleep occasionally! You're twenty-two years old and you're burning out!" his sister said, voice rising in worried exasperation.

"You asked about visiting the other pilots - when would I do that?! They're working just as many hours as I am! We all have our debts of conscience to pay, sister. Sleep? None of us *can* sleep more than a few hours before the nightmares come. The more tired and stressed we get, the worse the nightmares get. The worse the nightmares get, the harder it gets to sleep, and the cycle just keeps repeating itself. And the good doctors that trained us put a lot of effort into building up our resistance to all forms of drugs, so most sleeping pills won't even work on us!"

"You didn't have this problem sleeping when Trowa..."

Quatre cut her off abruptly, "No, and neither did he. But we were just very good friends, starting to explore the possibility of becoming something more, and as the demands on our time built up, we simply... drifted apart. As did Duo and Heero. Trowa and I at least have the excuse of being on different colonies most of the time. *They* live in the same Preventers apartment building and still barely see each other unless they happen to have a mission together!" Half under his breath he added, "Or at least that's what Duo told me the last time I spoke with him almost six months ago."

"Well, that's all going to change for the next month at least. I've spoken to Catherine, Lady Une and Sally Po, and Professor G. All five of you are being given forced leave from *all* of your jobs, not just Preventers, for medical reasons, as are Zechs and Relena who are working themselves into the ground just as badly. Dorothy will be coming as well to keep Relena company *and* because she has been keeping equally terrible hours trying to ease some of Relena's workload. Une, Sally, and myself will be dropping in from time to time to make sure that you are all following doctor's orders and *not* doing *anything* work-related. From now through until after New Year's, the eight of you are under strict orders to be the teenagers you *should* have been given the time to be after the war instead of moving straight into all the responsibilities of adulthood."

"Iria, it's a lovely thought, but..."

"No buts, Quatre. I'm speaking as your doctor now, not your sister. The WEI board has already been informed and several of our sisters have stepped up to take over various aspects of the jobs you've been trying to do all alone." As Iria turned to leave Quatre to rest, she added casually, "Oh, and just in case you were thinking about sneaking some work along... I've located some old friends of yours and hired them to go along and look after the house, run interference with the media, and so on..."

A feeling of impending doom slowly creeping over him, Quatre hesitated to ask exactly who she was referring to. The question became unnecessary a moment later as a booming voice that he hadn't heard in several years echoed through the room.

"Master Quatre, you really should take better care of yourself!" the voice scolded.

"I'll get you for this, Iria," he muttered under his breath as the owner of the voice swept over to the bed to begin fluffing pillows and fussing over him.

"Do not worry about a thing, Master Quatre, I, Rashid, am here to look after you!"

"As are the rest of the Maguanacs, most of whom are currently involved in getting the estate you are going to ready," Iria informed him with a wicked smirk. "Well, except for those delegated to pick up the *other* houseguests..."

************

"*What* did you say?" Trowa demanded in disbelief.

"Abdul is here to pick you up for your vacation," Catherine repeated calmly, handing Trowa's already-packed bags to the Maguanac in question.

"Cathy, I *can't* go on vacation now! We have extra performances scheduled from now right through Christmas! And Une almost always calls me in for extra hours in December as well!"

"Not this year," his sister informed him. "After your medical the other day, Sally put you on leave. Your stress level is through the roof; your blood pressure is too high; you're underweight, overtired, and simply unfit for duty. Once I informed the ringmaster, he put you on leave as well. If you're not fit for even desk duty as a Preventer, you're sure as *hell* not fit to be walking a tightrope or working with the lions."

"But..."

"No buts, Trowa," she scolded firmly. "You're going and that's final. You aren't the only one either."

"I am simply glad that I am not the one who drew the short straw and ended up having to fetch Master Wufei," Abdul said, chuckling slightly. "Poor Hamid... I hope he took Rashid's advice and took earplugs along..."

************

Hamid swallowed a chuckle. He suspected that it would not be wise to let the irate Chinese man know that he found his ranting amusing. Or rather, he found it amusing in light of the fact that the petite blonde doctor it was directed at appeared to be completely unimpressed by it, continuing to unpack work-related items from Master Wufei's bags with a total lack of concern for the stream of complaints directed her way.

"You're going, you're not taking anything work-related with you, you're going to have a good time, and that's final," Sally finally said, cutting in as Wufei paused for breath.

"There is far too much work to be done for me to go gallivanting off on some - some - *vacation* for an entire month!" Wufei stated, grimacing as if the word "vacation" had a truly sour taste to it.

"That may have been the case in past years," Sally told him very seriously, "but not any more. The Preventers have enough well-trained agents now. *No one* needs to be working 16 hour days, not even Chief Une! And all of you have enough vacation days saved up to take *six* months off." As Wufei opened his mouth to continue his protests, she held up a warning finger and cautioned him, "And if you keep this up, I'll make you take them *all*. *At once*."

Muttering under his breath, Wufei grabbed his remaining luggage, only to have Sally neatly snag his laptop case out of his hands.

"Nice try, Chang," she said, "but I don't think so." Turning to Hamid, she smiled apologetically, "He's all yours. *Try* not to throttle him before you get there, please. He *is* one of our best agents when he isn't so exhausted that he's putting completed paperwork in the wastepaper basket instead of Une's ‘In' box."

"It only happened once," Wufei muttered grumpily. "And I'd like to see her try taking *Yuy's* laptop away from him like that..."

************

Une sighed. She had hoped Heero would be a little more accepting than this. Oh well, at least he always followed orders...

"Heero Yuy! You *are* taking a month's leave and you *are* going to the estate with the others and you *are* going to take part in any and all activities suggested and you *are* going to have a good time and you are *not* taking that damn laptop with you! And *that's* an *order*!! Am I making myself perfectly clear?" she growled out, glaring right back at him.

"But..."

"No buts! Are you questioning a direct order?"

"Chill out, Une-chan," another voice said from the door of Heero's apartment. "If he promises to use the laptop for personal things only, no work stuff, can he take it?"

Meeting the darkly-shadowed eyes of Heero's best friend, Une realized that there must be something more involved with the laptop than what she'd assumed. "Nothing work-related," she warned, turning back to Heero.

"Agreed," he said with a faint hint of relief in his voice. "Arigatou, Duo," Heero said, directing a tiny nod in Duo's direction.

"No prob, ‘Ro," Duo responded, leaning heavily against the doorframe. "Une, G already filled me in. No arguments here, but when are we gettin' picked up? I should prob'ly get somethin' to eat first ‘cause Sally's on my back about losin' weight again and I worked through lunch so's I could get over to the mads' lab early... Then G gave me a scoldin' and sent me back here..." He stifled a yawn and gave Une a weary, slightly abashed, grin.

"In other words, the last time you ate was breakfast?!" she exclaimed, throwing a glance at her watch. "Duo Maxwell, no wonder you keep losing weight! Yes, you damn well better get something to eat if the last time you ate was nearly twelve hours ago!"

"I had an energy bar and a coffee at lunch while I worked," he protested.

"I haven't had supper either," Heero volunteered, "so since Chief Une seems to feel the need to supervise every item I pack, why don't I let *her* finish packing *for* me, and we can go get a meal at that Italian place down the block that we keep meaning to try?"

Looking from the tired grin that nevertheless reached Duo's eyes in a way she hadn't seen for quite some time to the tiny, hesitant smile on Heero's usually sternly set face, Une wasted no time in contributing, "That sounds like a great idea to me. Whoever's coming after you can wait, so take your time and have a good dinner. Now go on, shoo!" Watching as the two young men exited the apartment, Une felt a distinct stab of guilt. How had they all overlooked the state that their brightest and best were slowly but steadily slipping into? Even Sally hadn't noticed anything beyond her usual battle with Duo to eat properly until Iria drew their attention to a distinctly ominous pattern. The pilots, Zechs, and Relena (and therefore Dorothy) were all well on their way to burning out at incredibly young ages. Their abilities had been so badly needed in the first few years of peace that they had never been given a chance to recapture any of the youth they had sacrificed to earning that peace. Nor had they really even had a chance to *enjoy* the peace that they had fought so hard to achieve. Instead, they had all placed any semblance of a personal life "on hold", gritted their teeth, and dug in for a different sort of battle - that of maintaining the hard-won peace. By the time things became more stable, everyone had settled into a routine of overwork that had simply continued. That was going to have to change. Hopefully a month away from the pressure of work and in the company of others facing the same problems would help get that change underway. Then once they came back, she and the others would have to make sure that they stopped taking their "indestructible" young colleagues for granted and kept things from slipping back into the same pattern again.

************

"So G scolded you?" Heero asked as he and Duo were seated at the restaurant.

Duo gave him a wry grin. "Yeah. I walked in the door of the mads' lab and he pounced. Dragged me off to a window so's to get a good look at me in natural lighting, looked me up and down, then laid into me." Waving his arms around wildly in an uncannily accurate imitation of G, he mimicked, "How the hell do you expect to be creative and inventive when you're undernourished and overtired, boy?! How many times do I have to tell you that just because you learned to ignore hunger on the streets that doesn't mean you should do it now? I thought I'd taught you better than that, boy! I sure as hell didn't spend all that effort trainin' you and buildin' that damn machine of yours to get you through the war alive just to watch you kill yourself with work now we've got peace!" Dropping the imitation, Duo continued in amusement, "He went on like that for a good ten minutes, then sent me back home with my tail between my legs like a naughty little puppy." Shooting a cautious glance at Heero out of the corner of his eye, he mentioned casually, "J said to say hello from him and that he wants to see you when you get back. Somethin' about another lead on tracin' Odin's travels before what you remember, but whoever it was he needed to talk to wouldn't be available till after the holidays."

Heero made a noncommittal sound of acknowledgement. Where G's relationship with Duo tended to fall somewhere between fatherly and that of a favourite uncle, J's with him was considerably more strained. J seemed sincere enough in his desire to remain in contact with him, perhaps to even take on more of an uncle role than mere mentor, but he couldn't entirely forget or forgive the apparent ease with which J had ordered him to self-destruct all those years ago.

As the waitress arrived at their table and Duo started to order, Heero snorted. "No, you will *not* have an extra-large soda," he stated. "*No* caffeine, Duo. We're being picked up, if you fall asleep in the car it won't matter."

Sticking his tongue out at Heero and starting to relax for the first time in longer than he cared to think about, Duo retorted sarcastically, "Oh fine, why don't you just go ahead and order my whole dinner then since you don't agree with *my* choices?"

Smirking, Heero went ahead and did just that, ignoring Duo's surprised protests. After the waitress had left the table, he leaned forward and asked quietly, "Why don't we do this more often, Duo? When did we stop doing things together? *Why* did we stop doing things together?"

"Because practically the only time we're in the same place at the same time is when we're on a mission together? Because the more time we spent together, the harder it got to take multi-month-long undercover assignments away from each other? Because we agreed to put our own feelings aside and put off exploring any possible ‘relationship' until things settled down, but somehow that time never came?" Duo shrugged unhappily, drawing his braid over his shoulder and starting to fiddle with it agitatedly. "All of the above? I dunno, Heero. All I know is that I'm just so damn tired. Physically tired, mentally tired, emotionally tired. Tired of workin' all hours of the day and night, tired of not bein' able to sleep more than a few hours at a time, tired of bein' alone. G, Une, Sally, & Iria are right, at least ‘bout me. I'm burnin' out, and fast. If the dreams weren't so damn bad, I'd never get out of bed ‘cause I can't think of one fuckin' reason why I should."

Looking at Duo more closely, Heero realized with a start just how thin and drawn his face was. Any trace of baby fat was long gone from his face, leaving his chin even more sharply defined than before. The hollows under his eyes were dark, almost bruised in appearance. Those amethyst eyes that had sparkled with vibrant life even during the worst the war could throw at them were dull and shadowed. The long braid was neat and clean but had none of the silky sheen of health that it used to.

Despite the fact that he himself was newly returned from nearly three months undercover and before that Duo had been the one gone, off on Mars testing some new terraforming gadget from the mads' lab, Heero cursed his negligence in not noticing his best friend's condition sooner. Reaching across the table, he stilled the restlessly fidgeting hands, gently removing the now-unravelling braid from their grasp. ‘I'm sorry, Duo,' he apologized silently. ‘Those invitations to come over for a movie night or supper or any of the other things you've left notes on my desk about over the past months - no, more like year - must have been your way of asking if maybe we could finally try exploring that relationship, and my own overtiredness and frustration with being bogged down in paperwork and red-tape led me to dismiss them as nothing more than your old over-exuberant energy looking for an outlet. I never even noticed that all of that energy wasn't there anymore. Me answering most of your notes with nothing more than a "Sorry, I'm too tired" or "Sorry, I'm too busy" sure as hell must have seemed to you like I was saying I either wasn't interested in or wasn't ready for a relationship when the real problem was that I didn't realize you were trying to tell me that you were. I wasn't too happy about this enforced vacation when Une told me about it, but now I've changed my mind.' Offering Duo a small wry half-smile, he said aloud, "The only reason I'm getting any sleep myself is that I'm using some of the meditation techniques J taught me to get back to sleep after the nightmares wake me up. Unfortunately, even that's losing it's effectiveness since the dreams come sooner each time I go back to sleep. And I know what you mean about no reason to get out of bed. It seems like I spend more time tracking what turns out to be some petty criminal and doing paperwork than anything else. That's made me even more grumpy and anti-social than usual, and I'm afraid your invitations over the past months have fallen victim to that. I'm sorry. Maybe the two of us can put this month off to good use?"

Giving Heero a half-startled, half-hopeful look, Duo nodded very slightly, "I think I'd like that."

************

Relena quickly shoved one last shirt into the suitcase and slammed the lid shut before Zechs could stop her. "You're going, and that's final!" she told him firmly. "Between running my security staff and working for Une, you're working yourself into an early grave! I don't care what anyone else has told you, being able to count someone's ribs when they're wearing a bathing suit is *not* sexy."

"*Relena!*" Zechs exclaimed, blushing. "Little sisters should *not* be discussing what is or is not ‘sexy' with their brothers!"

"Fine, then pretend that *I* said it," Dorothy chimed in as she entered Zechs's bedroom. "Because she's entirely correct."

Flipping his hair out of his face exasperatedly, Zechs growled, "I don't have *time* for this! I'll agree that *you* two definitely need a vacation, but I'm *fine*!"

"Alright then, if you don't go, *I* don't go," Relena said sweetly. "I'm sure that I have more than enough things to do to keep myself busy even if *someone*," she directed a mock-glare at Dorothy, "has cancelled all my appointments and speaking engagements for the month."

Caving in, Zechs threw up his hands in disgust, "Oh fine, I'll go then. Just be prepared for a miserable month. Chang still hates my guts, you know. And I won't win any popularity contests with Yuy either."

"And Duo and Quatre get along with everybody, so they cancel the other two out, and Barton usually just goes along with Quatre or at worst remains neutral, so you have nothing to worry about," Dorothy told him flatly.

"And if Heero is nasty to you, I'll just follow him around saying, ‘Hee-ee-rr-ooo, please don't fight with my brother! Why can't we all just get alo-o-o-ng...'" Relena whined in a perfect imitation of her own wartime self. Then she was forced to duck as two pillows were hurled at her and two voices exclaimed in unison, "Don't you *dare*!"

************

It had been midnight by the time he and Duo had been delivered to the Winner estate hosting the "holiday house party" as Iria and the Maguanacs were calling it. And here it was, just after 03:30 and Heero was ready to give up on sleeping for the night after waking from nightmares for the third time. Recalling that he had seen a banked fire glowing in a fireplace on the way in, he gathered up a blanket and pillow and headed off to see if a change of location would help. Reaching the room, he spotted a reading lamp switched on and a blanket-wrapped form curled up in the nearest chair, reading.

"Duo? What are you doing up?" Heero asked. "How long have you been down here?"

"Couldn't get back to sleep after the first round of dreams woke me," the braided figure shrugged. "It was around 3 when I gave up and came down to find something to read."

"Why didn't you just come crawl in with me like during the war?"

"I figured you'd have offered when we got here if that was okay," Duo mumbled, avoiding Heero's eyes.

Dropping into a crouch in front of the chair, Heero reached out and tilted Duo's face up to meet his eyes. "Duo, this is me, Heero, remember? I don't *do* subtle and I'm hopeless at either catching onto or dropping hints because it just doesn't even occur to me. I'm sorry that I missed my cue, but it's supposed to be *your* job to remind me of those little social details, remember?" he finished half-jokingly, winning a rather wan half-smile for his efforts. Considering the time and Duo's very subdued state, he decided that it wasn't worth trying to move back upstairs. Instead, he put another log on the fire, arranged his pillow and blanket on the couch, then forestalled any argument by simply scooping Duo out of the chair and transferring him to the couch.

"Hey! What's the big idea?!" Duo demanded.

"The ‘idea' is that hopefully what worked during the war will work now and we'll *both* get some more sleep," Heero answered, crawling in between Duo and the couch back and pulling the blanket over them both. "Now go to sleep!"

"Bossy as always," Duo muttered, snuggling back against Heero's chest. It didn't take long for them both to doze off, waking briefly as first Wufei, then Quatre, then Trowa, wandered in, spotted the others, then found a comfy chair or rug to curl up on and go back to sleep. For the first time in months, they all slept soundly. If one occasionally stirred towards waking, the soft breathing of the others quickly lulled that one back to sleep again. That same soft background sound and the long-absent yet still familiar sense of security in the presence of such deeply-trusted company held the dreams at bay just as it had in the past.

************

About to enter the library to rebuild the fire, Rashid stopped in his tracks at the sight in front of him. A fond smile crossed his face as he recalled the many times during the war that a similar scene had greeted him in a Winner safehouse. Heero was lying on his back on the wide couch with Duo draped across him, Duo's braid clasped in one of Heero's hands. Trowa was sprawled on the thick rug in front of the fireplace, and although a blanket trailed down from an empty chair, Quatre was curled against Trowa's side, head pillowed on Trowa's arm. Wufei slept in a semi-sitting position in a large wing-back chair, legs tucked up and resting against one arm of the chair. Silently withdrawing from the room, Rashid very carefully pulled the door closed and took up position beside it. He intended to make very sure that no one disturbed the peaceful sleepers within before they woke on their own, even if he had to stand guard all day.

Part Two:

"They're *what*?" Zechs demanded in disbelief.

"Sleeping," Abdul replied calmly.

"In the *library*? *All* of them? At 11:30?"

Relena placed one hand on her brother's arm and smiled up at him. "It's quite the sight to see," she said. "The first time that they kept me at a safehouse for protection, it surprised me to walk into the living room in the morning and find Gundam pilots draped all over each other and the furniture, sleeping quite peacefully. Rather sweet, really, though I'm sure they'd all object to *that* description. Unfortunately, that particular time they had a rather rude awakening as I ah - expressed my dismay somewhat vocally at finding Duo sprawled across Heero's chest in what I thought was a much too intimate fashion." Reading the odd look that Zechs shot at her correctly, she corrected his assumption, "No, it's nothing like that. No group orgies, brother dear. Sometimes the nightmares about all the death and the killing get really bad and they just all find some relief from them in being near another person. Some of them need actual physical contact, while for others merely being in close proximity is enough. I spent a few rather strange nights on various couches or in chairs myself during the war and even over the years since then when only one of them happened to be assigned to watch over me and had trouble sleeping." She broke into laughter at the disbelieving looks from Zechs and Dorothy both. "Oh come on now, I wasn't *that* bad *all* the time! I *could* actually be considerate and helpful when circumstances called for it!"

************

Stirring slightly, Duo reluctantly decided that perhaps it was time to think about getting up. Having actually been fed a real meal last night, his stomach apparently thought it should be entitled to another one and was grumbling rather insistently. Starting to sit up, he stopped as his braid resisted movement. 'Damn, forgot about that habit of Heero's. Guess some things never change. Never could figure out what it was with him and hanging onto my braid in his sleep...' Resigning himself to staying put till Heero woke up, he twisted slightly so that he could see the others. Wufei looked like a pretzel, all curled up in a chair. 'Shit, 'Fei, you're gonna regret sleeping this long like that... We aren't 15 anymore and that position would have made any of us pretty stiff and sore even back then...' Getting his first good look at Quatre's face, Duo was unable to suppress a low whistle, "Damn Quat, have you ever got one hell of a shiner..."

"Gee, thanks, Duo, that's exactly what I wanted to hear first thing in the morning," the blond in question retorted sleepily from the rug.

"Quatre, could you move your head a little? I think I've lost all feeling in that arm," Trowa spoke up.

As Quatre sat up, Wufei started to stir in the chair. Incoherent muttering in Mandarin accompanied every move he made.

"Not exactly 15 any more, are we?" Duo observed as Heero finally woke up enough to release his braid and allow him to get up.

"Ouch," Heero observed, rubbing his back ruefully and glaring at the couch accusingly, "no, we're not."

Rubbing at his own stiff limbs, Quatre declared, "Not that this was ever *completely* comfortable even then... All in favour of turning a spare room into a dorm for us all so we don't have to go through this again just to have a decent night's sleep, say 'aye'."

An immediate chorus of "Aye"s rang out.

************

"We're supposed to *what*?" Wufei asked in surprise.

"Decorate the house for the holidays," Quatre answered. "We've spent most of the week so far catching up on sleep, but I think we've about used that excuse up. I don't know about anyone else, but *I* don't want Iria, Une, or Sally showing up to take a more direct hand in things because we're not following their 'schedule'."

"Good plan," muttered Zechs, digging through the boxes of decorations littering the floor. "My god, there's enough mistletoe here to carpet the place in it," he exclaimed in disbelief. "All the boxes marked 'holly' are full of mistletoe instead! And the couple of boxes marked 'mistletoe' have holly in them..."

"Great! I call dibs on the mistletoe," Relena said cheerfully. "Dorothy, want to help?"

"Why my dear Miss Relena, I thought you'd never ask," Dorothy responded with a sly smirk.

Looking back and forth between the two young women, Zechs closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. "Not going to ask, don't want to know, please don't tell me."

Laughing, Relena held a cluster of mistletoe over her brother's head and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Don't worry about it, bro. I'm a big girl now and my sex life was never *your* problem to begin with."

Turning red, Zechs hid his face in his hands, "Too much information, sis! Go on, get out of here you two!"

Snickering, Dorothy repeated Relena's mistletoe trick before picking up a stack of boxes and pulling Relena out of the room with her.

"Anybody want a little sister, cheap?" Zechs muttered.

"No thank you," Quatre said fervently, "I have more than enough females in my life as it is."

"Better not let Iria hear you say that," laughed Duo, picking up a couple of boxes of ornamental candles. "And I don't need one either - keeping Hilde out of trouble till she got married was bad enough and 'Lena and Dot *already* act like bratty sisters around us anyway..." With that, he wandered off, carefully choosing a *different* direction from the two women.

************

After a full week of relaxing with nothing more demanding than decorating the house for the holidays to do, all eight houseguests were beginning to feel much better. Enough better, in fact, that two particular houseguests had started arguing as they usually did whenever they were in close proximity.

"Zechs, he wouldn't 'get on your case' nearly as much if you'd stop getting on his!" Relena declared in a decidedly frustrated tone. "Okay, so I'll admit the crack about blowing up half the mountain if you get in a 'pissy mood' was out of line, but then again, *you* started it with that crack about working for the 'diapered dictator' if he got bored! And if Maia finds out you called her that, Chang Wufei will be the *least* of your worries!"

"Behave yourself, Zechs," Dorothy scolded. "Your sister is supposed to be taking a break from peace-making, not spending her entire vacation carrying out peace negotiations between two houseguests! Honestly, you're acting like a couple of high school kids!" Muttering under her breath, she added in a voice soft enough to only reach Relena's ears, "Ones with crushes on each other..."

"Now go find somebody else to bother!" Relena ordered her brother. "And if you run into Wufei again, kiss and make up rather than picking another fight!"

Stalking down the hall, Zechs muttered under his breath, "Kiss and make up, she says! As if *that* would make things any better! No, I'd be more likely to get run through with that damn katana of his..."

"Talking to yourself now, Merquise? What's wrong, no one else interested in what you have to say?" came an insolent sneer from the doorway to the games room.

That did it. With just one thought in his mind, wiping that insolent look off of Wufei's haughty face, Zechs pointed above Wufei's head, said succinctly, "Mistletoe," grabbed the Chinese man by the shoulders, and kissed him forcefully on the lips. By the time Wufei recovered enough to stop sputtering and start uttering threats, Zechs had beaten a prudent retreat, borrowing a car to go to town for the rest of the morning.

************

"What's Wufei so worked up about this time?" Quatre asked Trowa curiously.

Watching the young man in question stomp out of the room, Trowa answered, "Don't you mean 'who'?"

"Oh dear," Quatre sighed. "What did Zechs do this time?"

"That's the interesting part - he wouldn't say. Though if I didn't know better, I would almost swear he *blushed* when I asked him that question."

"Chang Wufei *blushing*? Now I'm even *more* curious," the blond said, moving towards the door to see where Wufei was disappearing off to.

Looking above Quatre's head, a small smile crept across Trowa's face. "Mmm, guess I'll have to keep you too busy to be curious," he said, advancing on the Arabian in a purposeful fashion. "Mistletoe," he explained, pointing upwards, in response to Quatre's curious look. Pulling his partner towards him, he murmured softly, "I just can't get used to not having to bend down to kiss you anymore. How did we let so much time go by?" Not giving Quatre a chance to answer that question, he leaned forward to bring their mouths together in a warm, lingering kiss.

As they drew apart again, Quatre offered softly, "I don't know, but what I *do* know is that I have no intention of letting it happen again." The puzzle of Wufei's odd behaviour forgotten for the moment, he drew Trowa towards him for another kiss, murmuring just before their lips met, "I have to remember to thank Iria for all that mistletoe..."

************

Walking through the cold but snowless countryside, Heero stole a sidelong glance at his still-too-subdued companion. While Duo's eyes would brighten briefly at times, they still remained too dull and shadowed to suit Heero. Duo's hair had regained its healthy shine and the dark circles were gone from around his eyes; he had even gained a tiny bit of weight back. But Duo was still far from his old self. And Heero very much suspected it was his fault. Oh, not due to things he was doing *now* - those were the things that would bring that short-lived brightness into those amethyst eyes - but rather due to his failure to respond in past months to Duo's tentative attempts to suggest that perhaps it was finally time to begin exploring that long-delayed relationship they had once both been so eager to begin. It wasn't like he had *intentionally* ignored Duo's attempts - he had simply not recognized them for what they were.

Even though a number of years had passed since the war, Heero realized that he had not gotten any better at understanding the subtleties of social interaction. Working 16 hour days seven days a week didn't exactly leave a lot of time for socializing, and Duo had always been his guide in those matters in the first place. Now, however, that had resulted in a distinctly unfamiliar situation. While Duo would eagerly take him up on any offered time together, it was entirely up to Heero to make that all-important first move. Duo had been disappointed too many times to risk it again. Heero winced at the realization that, had he caught on sooner to the real meaning of that sudden spate of notes left on his desk for him to find on his return from assignments, neither of them would have ended up in sufficiently rough shape to be forced into a prolonged vacation. He certainly didn't regret the vacation time together, but he *did* regret the lonely, nightmare-filled nights and too-long workdays that had led to it. And he was beginning to have an awful, sneaking suspicion that the real fault on his part lay even further back than that.

Over the past week, Heero's efforts had been directed at simply re-establishing his friendship with Duo. They had spent so little time together outside of work in the past five years that he had expected to find changes. The degree of change in Duo, however, was disturbing. From happy, laughing, and full of energy, Duo had become very solemn, quiet, and subdued. Heero knew that *he* hadn't been around very often to spend time with Duo, but was shocked to discover that months had frequently passed without Duo seeing *any* of his closest friends. The other pilots had all been working ridiculous hours as well and Hilde had gotten married and caught up in her own life. That left Une and Sally - both too busy to spend more than a brief lunch break with him occasionally, Dorothy and Relena - also too busy for more than an occasional vid-phone call, G, and Howard. While Howard *had* dropped by from time to time, months tended to pass between his visits as well. Which left G. And while G took a very paternal interest in Duo, he was more likely to challenge Duo to a game of chess than a game of basketball, more likely to discuss a potential invention than the hassles of working with someone years your senior who was nevertheless your junior in rank. And, as Heero himself had discovered, it was virtually impossible to make even casual friends with the other Preventers. Even Duo had finally given up in the face of continual resentment and mistrust, both stemming from the dual causes of his past as a Gundam pilot and his current high-ranking status as a very, very youthful Preventer.

'No wonder he said he was tired of being alone... For all intents and purposes, he's been alone since I suggested putting our relationship "temporarily" on hold five years ago... And while I've spent the time alone too, I've never craved social interaction the way that Duo always has... My request five years ago was made with the best of intentions, but I guess that old saying about the road to hell being paved with them is right...'

After returning to the house, Heero decided that since Duo was far too serious lately, he was going to have to do something about that. And since Duo also seemed to be waiting for him to make the first move towards advancing their relationship... Patiently, he waited till Duo passed under a clump of mistletoe. It didn't take long, Relena and Dorothy had put some over every doorway in the house and numerous other locations besides. Catching Duo by the shoulders, Heero directed his attention upwards. "Mistletoe," he said simply with a grin. Duo's eyes drifted shut as Heero leaned forward and - dropped a light kiss on the tip of his nose. "Mistletoe tag, you're it!" Heero whispered with a smirk.

"Why, you..." Duo's eyes snapped open and danced with surprised laughter as Heero took off for another room. Cheat him out of a proper kiss then make a run for it, huh? Well, two could definitely play at *that* game. Tearing down the hall in chase of his elusive partner, Duo collided with Relena. "Oops, sorry, 'Lena," he apologized.

"What on earth are you up to, Duo?" she inquired.

"Mistletoe tag," he explained with a grin.

"Mistletoe *what*?"

"Mistletoe tag. Speaking of which..." he pointed up above their heads, then gave Relena a quick peck on the cheek, "Tag, you're it!" On that note, he took off for another room.

Laughing, Relena headed off in search of someone else to pull into the game.

When Zechs walked into the house half an hour later, he wondered what on earth all the shrieks and laughter were about. The sound of running feet echoed through the mansion. Shaking his head and deciding that he'd probably find out soon enough, he took off his coat and bent over to remove his boots.

Having been quite literally dragged into the game of mistletoe tag, Wufei was currently stalking Duo in an attempt at retaliation. Spotting Zechs bending over to take off his boots, a distinctly evil smirk crossed Wufei's face. Here was the chance to get back at him for that kiss earlier. Ignoring the part of his mind that was demanding to know just how kissing Zechs qualified as "getting back at him", Wufei waited till Zechs started to straighten up, then pounced. He pressed his lips to Zechs's in a kiss just as forceful as the one Zechs had planted on him earlier, then pointed above their heads, explained, "Mistletoe tag - you're it!" and took off running before Zechs had a chance to gather his wits.

Taking pity on the stupefied form of her brother, Relena reminded him, "You're 'it', brother dear. Now you have to catch somebody *else* under the mistletoe and give them a kiss to tag them!" before taking off again herself.

************

"They spent most of the afternoon playing *what*?" Iria asked Rashid in disbelief.

"Mistletoe tag," he repeated patiently, grinning at the memory. "Obviously the type of kiss varies depending who you catch, but apparently they were all enjoying themselves considerably judging by the noise level. You wanted them all to act like the teenagers they never got to be for a while - well, I would say that they were following orders this afternoon."

"Mistletoe tag," she murmured thoughtfully, "I don't think there *is* such a game..."

"There is now," Rashid advised her. "The rules are very simple. You can't 'tag' the same person who tagged you, the person has to be underneath a stationary bit of mistletoe - no carrying mistletoe around with you, in other words - and you have to give someone a kiss in order to 'tag' them. Oh, and the staff are *not* part of the game, or we'd never have got anything done this afternoon." Sobering, he told Iria, "They *are* all doing much better already. Maria and Antoine have been keeping them well-fed and sleeping in one room has reduced the nightmares down to manageable levels for the pilots, though they are certainly not entirely gone. I don't know what the young men will do when the month is over and they are alone again, however."

"We'll deal with that when the time comes," Iria said, sincerely hoping that things would work out so that it would not be an issue for at least her baby brother and his best friend by then. If all went well, Trowa would be staying with Quatre when this was all over with. Rashid's daily reports seemed to indicate that Heero and Duo might finally be working things out too. Chang Wufei, however... Well, five colonies, five Gundams, five pilots - there was only so much she could do given the odd numbers she had to work with. With Dorothy and Relena already paired up, that left only Zechs, and he and Wufei simply did *not* get along.

************

Eyes widening in shock, Duo stared in disbelief for several long moments before quietly backing out of the room. Apparently Zechs had finally found a way to stop Wufei in mid-rant. And surprisingly enough, Wufei didn't seem to be objecting... Duo knew that they'd managed to 'tag' each other several times during the game of Mistletoe Tag earlier that week, but he'd never imagined... Shaking his head in disbelief, he headed off to try another room. So far, he'd run into Relena and Dorothy making out in the sunroom, Quatre and Trowa 'practising' (though it looked an awful lot like making out to *him*) in the music room, and now Wufei and Zechs caught up in a rather heated-looking kiss in the games room, pool cues forgotten on the table behind them. Whether it was the Mistletoe Tag or just the mistletoe itself, he didn't know, but it seemed to be spreading.

Remembering the Mistletoe Tag was enough to bring a faint trace of a smile to Duo's mouth. He'd never expected Heero to tease him like that, and when *he'd* impulsively 'tagged' Relena after running into her, he'd never expected to turn the afternoon into one full of laughter, mischievous ambushes, increasingly silly kisses from friends (Trowa had handed him a chocolate kiss at one point and Zechs had gallantly kissed his hand with a bow and a flourish like a character in a historical movie at another), and increasingly teasing and finally outright *hot* kisses from Heero. He was almost ready to believe that Heero really *was* finally interested in taking their relationship to the next level, moving from friends to lovers and maybe even more. 'I'd almost given up. The first year wasn't too bad, the second got pretty lonely, the third was just plain miserable, and by partway through the fourth, I finally decided I'd have to take a chance and give him a bit of a nudge. When the fifth year rolled around... I don't even wanna think about it... Maybe my notes really *were* too subtle a hint for him to pick up on and he *didn't* mean to indicate that he just wasn't interested anymore... A year of leaving increasingly frequent notes on his desk with only a handful of actual get-togethers to show for it is kinda hard to just forget about, though...'

Finally locating Heero watching a movie in the lounge, Duo said, "Hey, 'Ro. Whatcha watchin'?" Somewhat cautiously, he waited for an indication of welcome before moving any further into the room. Heero didn't waste any time giving him one, rising and striding across the room to pull him into a deep kiss. "Mmm, nice..." Duo sighed as they drew apart again. "What's with all the kisses lately?" he asked as Heero tugged him towards the couch.

"Blame it on the mistletoe," Heero suggested, snickering. "There's certainly enough of it to take the blame..."

Glancing back at where he had been standing, Duo pointed out, "But there wasn't any over there..."

"That's why we moved over *here*," Heero told him, pointing at the large ball of the stuff hanging directly over the couch. "I think my boring movie just got a lot more interesting," he whispered in Duo's ear, the tickle of his breath sending shivers of anticipation through Duo.

"Good," Duo whispered back, "'cause I'd hate to see you gettin' bored on your vacation." As he willingly responded to Heero's next kiss, Duo let a little bit more hope creep in. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe they hadn't missed their chance at happiness.

************

Firelight glinted off mingled strands of golden brown and platinum blonde. Her head tucked against Dorothy's shoulder, Relena said softly, "I don't want to pretend you're just my press secretary anymore, Doro. We've long since passed the point where either of us was likely to change our minds about this. I'm not ashamed of what we have together and I don't care what anyone else thinks."

"It could cost you your political career," Dorothy warned, reluctant to discourage something she wanted too but too loyal to Relena's best interests to let her ignore the facts.

"I don't care. The most important laws have already been pushed through and it would take years and years of challenges to get them repealed. Same with the existence of the Preventers - they can't be dissolved without a majority vote from *each* colony's government and *each* regional Earth government *plus* the United Earth Sphere government. I've done nothing but work for peace since before I was sixteen. I think I'm entitled to have my own life while I'm still young enough to enjoy it."

"What about your mother?" Dorothy asked softly, hesitant to bring up a sore subject but well aware that it had to be faced.

Straightening away from Dorothy, Relena stared into the fire, hands clenching into fists and face hardening grimly. "She requested that I call her *Mrs Darlian*, remember? She made her feelings on the subject of you and I perfectly clear when she caught us together the last time she visited." Forcing her hands flat again, Relena said more calmly, "She's made her choice. Her own petty prejudices have condemned her to a lonely life. If she ever changes her mind and apologizes to both of us, I'll welcome her back with open arms. Otherwise - well, the only other people either of us actually care about have already made their acceptance clear. My brother may not want to hear about my 'sex life', but he's made it perfectly clear to me that if you make me happy, that's all that matters to him. The pilots accept us, and I've never heard so much as an implied criticism from Une or Sally. They're all the family that we'll ever need."

Shifting so that she was the one leaning against Relena this time, Dorothy observed casually, "You know, the media would be far more tolerant of a legally-recognized relationship than an unofficial one."

"If that's supposed to be a proposal, my dear Miss Catalonia, it's the most *un*romantic one I think I've ever heard," Relena commented drily. "But a very small, very private Christmas Eve wedding, complete with horse-drawn sleigh, *would* be rather nice."

"Christmas Eve?" Dorothy quickly counted off the days on her fingers to make sure there was enough time to handle the legalities. "I'll have to see what can be arranged."

"You do that," Relena answered, lifting her companion's face to brush a kiss across her lips. "You just go right ahead and do that."

************

"Hey, Heero, you in here?" Duo called, peeking around the corner of the library door. "If you're busy already, it's okay, but I kinda had somethin' I'd like some help with if you're not..." he said hesitantly as Heero set his book aside.

"No, I'm just killing some time," Heero answered, extending one hand in silent invitation.

Duo promptly joined him on the couch, curling against Heero's side in what was becoming an increasingly familiar manner. "There's still no snow in the forecast, but it's s'posed to stay well below freezing right through Christmas, so I was wonderin' if we could try something I read about one time. Iria's got us all scheduled to go ice skating in a few days, but I'm not lookin' forward to tryin' that for the first time in public. There was a book I read that talked about buildin' a frame out of wood, linin' it with plastic, then coverin' the plastic-lined bottom with water. Once the water freezes, you add more, and keep repeatin' the process till you've got a good few inches deep of ice. Voila, a private skating rink! The lawn's pretty level at the end of the house that's protected from the prevailing winds..."

Intrigued by the idea - as well as grateful to have Duo showing enough confidence in him to ask *him* to take part in an activity together for once instead of the other way around - Heero asked, "Have you spoken to Rashid yet? We'll probably have to go to town to get some supplies to build it with, but he'll be able to tell us whether there's anything here that we can use or not..."

"Then you'll help?" Duo asked, amethyst eyes sparkling with delight.

Firmly quashing the desire to cheer at finally seeing something approaching Duo's old joy in life displayed on that expressive face, Heero said, "Of course! It sounds interesting to try even if it doesn't work perfectly. And I'm not too thrilled about learning to skate in public either."

Stopping in the midst of tugging Heero to his feet, Duo exclaimed, "Oh shit! I wonder if *any* of us know how to skate?! And I guess we'll kinda have to *have* skates, won't we?"

"Bet Iria never even thought of that," Heero smirked. "Guess we have a *number* of things to pick up in town..."

************

Duo was delighted to discover that the private skating rink trick actually worked quite well. The lack of snow meant that they didn't even have to worry about clearing the ice prior to re-flooding it, and they had ended up with a reasonably smooth, even ice surface. In the end, it had turned out that Relena, Dorothy, and Zechs could all skate quite well. Quatre was passable and Trowa - well, to someone used to walking tightropes, picking up ice skating was a breeze. Duo had roller-bladed with borrowed equipment a few times at schools back during the war and, after a few false starts, found that the skills transferred over reasonably well. With the benefit of his martial arts training to help with balance, Heero had picked up the knack extremely quickly as well. Which made Wufei's apparent difficulty and tendency to cling to Zechs for support decidedly suspicious.

"How much longer till they admit what's going on?" Quatre asked Duo, shaking his head in disbelief as Wufei 'tripped' and fell into Zechs's arms yet again.

"Don't ask me, I find the whole idea of those two together so incredibly *bizarre* that I don't even wanna *think* about it."

"How are things going for you and Heero?" Quatre asked, checking first to be sure that Heero was still concentrating on the quick lesson in stopping safely that Relena was giving him.

Duo hesitated, almost afraid to put his hopes into words for fear of jinxing them. "Okay, I guess," he admitted, "but I'm tryin' not to get my hopes up too high. We're about back to the point we were at five years ago." His very real fear that, having reached that point, Heero would back off again was left unspoken. Quatre had enough worries about his own slowly deepening relationship with Trowa without taking on Duo's as well.

"How 'bout you, Q? Tro comin' along nicely?"

Quatre gave Duo a beautiful smile, "Oh yes. Which reminds me, I think that pretty soon we're going to have to work out some sort of schedule for the shared sleeping quarters so we don't all desert Wufei at once."

"Uh - yeah, I guess so," Duo responded. He wasn't too sure that would be necessary too quickly. Heero hadn't really even hinted at taking things that far yet and he was too afraid of ruining what they had now to bring the subject up himself. This was beginning to remind him ominously of the days leading up to Heero's "request" five years ago. 'If he decides to back off again, I don't know *what* I'll do. If I give him an ultimatum, I might lose him for good. But if he doesn't follow through this time, I don't know if I can stand to go back to bein' alone again for *another* five years...'

Part Three:

Hanging up his call, Trowa turned to face Quatre. "Well, I may not have to worry about deserting the circus. That was Cathy. The by-law passed council last night and the animals will no longer be allowed within city limits as of the first of the year. So the circus no longer has a home base. They can't last long travelling *all* the time. There has to be somewhere safe and stable to raise children, allow injured performers to heal, raise and train young animals, perfect new acts, and so on. Even during the worst of the war, they always had a 'home' to go back to. Now they won't."

"Not necessarily," Quatre said slowly, his thoughts quickly darting through myriad possibilities. "It will take a little research to find out which estates would be possibilities, but surely there's at least *one* Winner property that could host them and *also* be in a suitable location to act as *my* home base for WEI business... That way, you wouldn't *have* to completely give up working with the circus and being near Cathy in order to stay with me..."

Grabbing the blond by the shoulders, Trowa looked him straight in the eyes and demanded, "Quatre, are you *serious*? I never... I mean... God, Quat, that would be *perfect*!"

"Of course I'm serious," Quatre responded, tilting his head slightly to one side and giving Trowa an angelic smile. "As long as you promise not to make me eat Cathy's cooking..."

Snickering, Trowa promised solemnly, "Never."

************

Heero realized that someone was watching him just as that someone started to back out of his bedroom. "Come on in, Duo," he urged without turning around.

"I didn't want to bother you," Duo answered. "You're busy, I can come back later."

Turning away from his laptop screen, Heero gave Duo an exasperated look. "Duo, get *in* here. You are *not* bothering me and there's nothing new here anyway."

"Still no luck, huh..."

"No. I'm beginning to think there never *will* be. I don't have any memories before Odin, and if I can't track him back any farther than what I have so far, I won't get much further."

"Maybe the lead that J mentioned will pan out," Duo offered, moving to stand beside Heero's chair.

"I'm not holding my breath."

"Why does it matter so much to you anyway?"

Shaking his head slightly, Heero admitted, "I don't know. Maybe I just want to know that there isn't someone else out there looking for *me* because Odin took off with me. I'm not even sure whether I'd rather find out that he really was my father or that his 'contract' story was the truth. In fact, I don't know whether I even care *what* the truth is. I guess it's just the whole 'not knowing' thing."

Duo made a noncommittal noise in response, leading Heero to ask, "Haven't you ever wondered? Ever wanted to trace your own past?"

"No," Duo answered, shaking his head quite definitely. "Considering that the options basically boil down to orphaned and no extended family to look for me, lost and no one looked for me, or abandoned, I'd rather live *without* knowing for sure which of those oh-so-lovely options it is. Small children do not end up on the street 'by accident', Heero. My own private little fantasy of being the only child of a runaway marriage between two deeply in love - and disowned for it by their families - people who were tragically killed while visiting L2, leaving their beloved child alone on the streets is preferable to what I *might* find out if I went looking. I'll live with G and Howie as paternal/avuncular figures; Hilde, 'Lena, Dot, and Cathy as sisters; and Q, Tro, and 'Fei as brothers."

"And just where do *I* fall in your little adopted family?" Heero asked curiously.

Duo dropped his gaze, retreating into that subdued version of himself that Heero was learning to dread. He mumbled something too quietly for Heero to understand what he said.

"I didn't quite hear that, Duo," Heero said, "but I'm sincerely hoping it *wasn't* 'brother' because then I'd feel awfully odd about doing *this*." With that, he surged to his feet and pulled Duo into his arms. Wrapping one arm behind his back, Heero slid his hand up under Duo's sweatshirt while using his other hand to lift Duo's face to his for a kiss. With one hand firmly pressed against the bare skin of Duo's back, Heero had no difficulty feeling the exact moment at which the tension went out of his partner. Duo's hands came up to bury themselves in Heero's hair and, for the first time since they'd put their fledgling relationship "on hold" five years ago, Duo took the initiative and ran his tongue along Heero's lips, requesting entrance. Heero readily parted them, a rush of relief at Duo's small show of confidence in their relationship filling him. For several long, blissful moments, Heero simply relaxed and allowed Duo to explore his mouth freely. As Duo began to pull back again, Heero caught his tongue and sucked on it gently for a moment before letting it go. As they parted slightly for air, Heero's cobalt gaze caught Duo's warm, slightly hesitant, violet one. "You never wanted to put our relationship on hold, did you?" he asked very gently, cautiously broaching a subject that he had been avoiding since first suspecting it days earlier. "I was the one who brought it up and you only agreed to try and make me happy..."

Ducking his head against Heero's shoulder, Duo admitted softly, "No, I didn't want to wait. But you obviously weren't prepared to handle juggling a beginning relationship and all the other things that were going on, and I thought it was better to agree to put things on hold than to refuse and end up destroying any chance we had by forcing things to happen before you were ready. But I thought it would only be a year or maybe two at most... I never dreamed that the five-year mark would come and go and we'd still be 'on hold'. I just kept waitin' and waitin' and you never said anything. I was startin' to think maybe you'd changed your mind completely and just didn't want to tell me..."

Heero sighed, dropping his own forehead to rest on Duo's shoulder. "I'm sorry. At the time, I thought I was making things easier on both of us. It was so damn hard spending all our free time together, then turning around and having one or the other of us gone on an undercover assignment for weeks or even months at a time. We were so close to crossing that boundary between friends and lovers and I didn't think I could stand that kind of separation once we did. I never intended to let things go for so long. But I was so used to letting you be the one to take the initiative where anything emotional was concerned that *I* just kept waiting, assuming that when *you* were ready to resume our relationship, you'd let me know." Lifting a finger to Duo's lips as he raised his head in protest, Heero continued, "I know, I know. You *did* finally try to let me know, I just didn't pick up on the hint. I did *eventually* figure that much out, but only at dinner the night we left for vacation. I guess part of me expected to just come home from an assignment some day to find you standing in my apartment, hands on your hips, demanding to know when the hell we were finally going to make the time for *us*, maybe even find that you'd moved yourself in already. I wasn't expecting something as subtle as notes suggesting simple friend-type get-togethers, notes that didn't even use the word 'date' to clue me in. And I sure as hell didn't realize that in asking to put things on hold, I'd given you the impression that *I'd* let *you* know when *I* was ready to pick up where we'd left off. After all this time, I'm still not any good at 'subtle', love."

Duo went completely still at that word. Answering the unspoken question, Heero told him, "That's what you are, you know. My love. Spending all this time together over the past few weeks has only confirmed that for me. I was pretty sure of it back before I suggested putting things on hold and I became more certain of it over the time we were apart. I missed the other guys, sure, but nothing like the way I missed you. I thought I was making things easier by calling a time out on our relationship, but all I really did was leave us both with the loneliness and emptiness *all* the time instead of just when circumstances forced us apart." Drawing a deep breath, Heero admitted, "I fucked up and we both spent five long, productive, but generally pretty damn miserable, years alone as a result."

As Duo's arms tightened around him convulsively and a choked noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob reached his ears, Heero moved them over to the bed he hadn't used since that first night there. Propping himself up against the headboard, he pulled Duo against him, rubbing his back soothingly. "I'm sorry, love, so sorry," he murmured softly. "I love you and I promise neither of us will have to be alone again. We'll talk to Une, get her to take us off the undercover work the way I should have done earlier. Five years ago she might have had a hard time covering those assignments without us, but there's been more than enough other qualified agents to handle them for some time now. I think we've earned our chance to enjoy peace by now; we don't always have to be the ones in the front lines."

"Support staff sounds good to me," Duo responded in a choked voice. Lifting a still-dry face from Heero's chest, he kissed Heero fervently before pulling back to tell him, "I love you too. Have since long before you ever made that request. Agreein' to it just about tore me apart, but I knew pushin' you into something you weren't ready for would just lead to even more pain in the long run. That's why I kept waitin' for you to make the first move towards resuming our relationship - I didn't want my own impulsiveness and impatience wreckin' things. Eventually, though, I couldn't stand the wait anymore and started tryin' to give you a gentle nudge with all those invitations to watch a movie or go out for dinner or whatever. I didn't wanna use the term 'date' 'cause that would seem too much like pushin' you if you weren't ready yet. When you kept beggin' off as too tired or too busy, I didn't know *what* to think, 'specially since you *did* accept a few times..."

Gently cupping one hand along the curve of Duo's jaw, Heero regretfully repeated, "I'm sorry. You seemed to be suggesting 'best friend' activities and I could only handle a couple of those before I started wanting more... And since you seemed to be doing okay with the way things were and I expected you to give me some sort of obvious sign if you wanted more, I'd refuse the next few invitations to give myself time to wrestle my emotions back under control again. Face it, love, I'm a completely clueless baka where social situations are concerned. If there was some way I could just magically make myself better at picking up hints, I'd do it in a heartbeat. All those little subtleties of social interaction just slip right by me and most of the time I don't even know I missed something. Promise me you won't *ever* rely on hints again to get something important across to me, please Duo?"

"Promise," Duo swore fervently.

************

Leaning into the arm wrapped around his shoulders, Wufei said quietly, "We're going to have to stop making out and actually *talk* about this sooner or later, you know."

Reluctantly, Zechs replied, "I know. If there was one thing I would never have believed would happen during this enforced vacation, *this*," he pressed a quick kiss to Wufei's lips, "would be it. We've always struck sparks off each other, I guess we were just never in a situation that let us discover the real nature of those sparks. And I've done nothing but fight against my sexual preferences over the years since I first discovered them. As the last male Peacecraft, it was my duty to continue the Peacecraft line, or so tradition said."

"You think *you* have pressure that way - I'm the last of the Dragon *clan*, something Master O mentions virtually every time he sees me," Wufei reminded him. "It's only been recently that I finally decided no amount of rationalization that I was 'carrying on tradition' could make up for a loveless, passionless marriage. So up until a year or so ago, I wouldn't have even been willing to admit to the *possibility* of, as you so succinctly put it, *this*," he concluded as he pulled the other man's face down to his for a deeper kiss than the one he had just received.

"So - get Une to transfer you to Relena's security staff for a while and see where all this leads us?" the tall blond asked when they finally parted.

"I think that would be the wisest move, yes."

************

"I overheard Iria talking to Rashid. All three of them are coming by this afternoon to 'check up' on us," Duo told Trowa in a low voice. "Heero and I have an idea... They all wanted us to spend a month actin' like teenagers, right? Well, here's what we're gonna do..."

Heading off to pass the plan on to Quatre while Duo went off to relay it to Wufei, Trowa allowed a very, very tiny smirk to creep across his face. This was going to be fun. How very convenient that it had finally started snowing two days ago and hadn't stopped since. And that it was absolutely *perfect* packing snow...

************

Halfway between the car and the house, Sally stopped in her tracks. "What's wrong?" Une asked. Ahead of them, Iria stopped and turned back as well.

"I think we're about to be ambushed," Sally answered, flicking a quick glance back at the car and debating which direction to run.

"What?" Une asked. The snowball that splatted against her shoulder just as she spoke answered that question quite neatly.

Shrieking with laughter, Relena and Dorothy popped up from behind some bushes and flung a barrage of snowballs at the three older women before turning and running under the covering fire provided by Zechs and Wufei.

"I hope you all realize that this means *war*," Sally mock-threatened, shaking her fist dramatically. The effect of her speech was somewhat ruined by the slushy snowball that struck her waving hand with perfect accuracy.

Ducking and running for cover from the fresh barrage of snowballs pelting down from the roof , the three women exchanged happy smiles. Obviously, this vacation had done wonders for the eight young adults whose welfare they had been so concerned over.

************

Curled up on the rug in front of the fireplace, Duo pushed his sopping wet bangs back from his face and waited as Heero removed unmelted snow from his long hair. Flicking the last flakes of snow from Duo's braid and untwisting it to start brushing it dry, Heero said firmly, "Tell me what's wrong, Duo. I know that *something* is bothering you and that it has something to do with our relationship, but I haven't been able to figure out what it is." Catching Duo's chin and turning his head so that their eyes met, Heero told him, "You *have* to start telling me when I do something wrong or simply miss out on something, Duo. If you need to know something, for god's sake, *ask* me!"

'But what if I don't *want* to know the answer,' Duo thought silently. 'What if I'm afraid that I already *know* the answer and I just don't want you to confirm it and end any hope of us ever being more than best friends? What if this is one of the fears that started when you first put "us" on hold and just kept growing as time went on without that changing?'

"Duo..." Heero insisted. "Tell me."

Turning his head away from Heero, Duo started hesitantly, "I... I need..." Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes in a silent plea that he was wrong, Duo said in one long rush of words, "I need to know why you've never made love to me. Is it that you don't desire me in particular, or have you realized that you aren't really attracted to guys after all? Is that why you never offer to go beyond kissing and cuddling, or is there some other reason?" 'Please, please, let there be some other reason... I don't know what the hell it could possibly be, but please let there be one...'

"*WHAT?!*" Horrified, Heero dropped the brush and scrambled around to kneel facing Duo. "Duo! Why the hell would you think something like that?! Duo, I... Open your eyes and *look* at me, love!"

As Duo reluctantly lifted his lashes to meet Heero's eyes, he fought to hold back the tears welling up behind them. 'I will *not* cry, no matter what he says, I will *not* cry,' he swore silently. 'Oh *shit*, too late...'

Gently wiping away the damp trail trickling down Duo's cheek with a shaking hand, Heero swore, "Dammit, I've fucked up *again*. Duo, love, I'm sorry you thought that. I..." Pausing, Heero shook his head. "Duo, I didn't intend to mention this till early on the day of Christmas Eve. I wanted to surprise you. I talked to Relena and Dorothy and they said it would be okay with them if it was a *double* wedding. I'd assumed, based on your background at the church and the fact that you still wore *this*..." Reaching under Duo's chin, he snagged the chain around his neck and pulled the cross out in view before continuing, "...that you would probably prefer to wait till our wedding night to make love for the first time. I thought I was being romantic - I never, *ever* imagined that you'd think I didn't desire you!"

Flinging himself into Heero's arms, Duo let the tears of relief pour down his cheeks. "It was just... after all the delays... I thought..." he tried to explain.

Holding him close, Heero reassured him, "It's okay, I can see why you were worried." Trying to lighten the mood, he continued in a half-playful tone, "I never realized it before, but while I've told you how much I love your sense of humour and your intelligence, how much I value your friendship and your loyalty, I've never told you how heartbreakingly gorgeous you are, how breathtakingly beautiful you look with your hair down, how devastatingly sexy..."

Heero's list was abruptly cut off as Duo captured his mouth in a passionate kiss. While Duo wasn't about to spoil Heero's romantic gesture now that he knew what was going on, there were plenty of other things that they could do between now and Christmas Eve...

Later, lying on the rug in front of the fireplace, Heero stroked his hand gently through the still-damp chestnut tresses spilling over his unbuttoned shirt. He dropped a tender kiss on the top of Duo's head, provoking a tiny, sleepy murmur and a wriggle to snuggle closer. 'God, Duo, I'm so, so sorry,' he thought. 'What have I done to my confident, irrepressible Shinigami? If I'd just set a time limit when I made that idiotic request five years ago, we wouldn't be in this mess now. You'd have been waiting for me on the day the time limit expired, ready to insist on picking up where we left off. By leaving things "on hold" indefinitely, I left us each expecting the other to signal when it was time to resume our relationship and so delayed that resumption by years. I've managed to wreck your confidence in me and in yourself where our relationship is concerned by misinterpreting your uncharacteristically cautious attempts to clue me in that you*were* ready and waiting. And now I've gone and worried you again by not making it clear that I want you as well as love you.' Tugging a blanket off the couch and flipping it over the pair of them, Heero silently hoped that all of those needless fears would be taken care of once they claimed each other on Christmas Eve. Claimed each other both legally, in the wedding ceremony, and physically, in their marriage bed. 'And I swear love, I'll do everything in my power to make sure that you never have reason to doubt that you're both loved and wanted ever again...'

************

The sound of church bells ringing out Christmas carols in the nearby town was faintly but clearly audible as the wedding guests arrived at the estate. Brightly burning candles enclosed in glass globes to shield them from the wind lit the driveway and the wide path leading to the house with a much warmer light than the harsh security lights normally in use. Une nudged Sally and pointed at the *three* sleighs lined up off to one side. "Guess that explains why Iria was so excited when she called to say she'd meet us here," she observed.

"You never know, it could be for the *other* pair," Sally responded semi-seriously.

"Don't even joke about that," Une said, shaking her head. "Those two are almost definitely going to have a very bumpy relationship for the foreseeable future. They're both extremely headstrong and opinionated; just learning to get through the day without squabbling continually is going to take a major effort. I can't imagine *either* of them being foolish enough to make such a serious commitment just yet."

"And that would be a very correct assumption," Zechs said, greeting the guests as they entered the mansion. "Merry Christmas, Une, Sally." Pointing to the ever-present mistletoe in explanation, he gave each of the women a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "G and J arrived earlier along with Howard. I think Duo was a little bit nervous about having invited J without telling Heero until they were getting out of the car, but other than a raised eyebrow Heero didn't say a thing. He just accompanied Duo to the door and greeted them all quite politely. The two of you were the last to arrive, so since everyone is here now, the ceremony will be beginning very shortly."

************

The brief, simple civil service over with, the three newly-married couples were kept occupied accepting congratulations while the sleighs were being brought around to the front door. Cabins at a nearby ski lodge had been rented to give the newlyweds some privacy to start their new lives together. They would return to the estate for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, after which everyone would have to make a reluctant return to everyday life. Meanwhile, however, they all intended to make the fullest possible use of their remaining vacation time.

Having been thoroughly lectured by first Howard, then G, on his responsibility to make Duo - referred to by each as simply 'my boy' - happy, Heero had to wonder exactly what J was busy discussing with Duo, who was listening with a very serious look on his face.

"Look after him, Duo," J said earnestly. "You're good for him - you broke through that detached shell created by the damn training and taught him to care, to make friends, to love. I made a lot of mistakes raising him, but he's the closest thing to family I've got. G and the others told me at the start that treating a child as a science experiment was a mistake, but I was so determined to create the 'Perfect Soldier', a weapon capable of finally winning justice for the colonies, that I wouldn't listen. By the time I realized that compact bundle of power and determination had worked his way into my cold, bitter heart, it was too late. I'd already permanently destroyed any chance of him seeing me as anything more than a mentor at best, and a cold, manipulative, calculating bastard at worst."

Shaking his head slightly, Duo told the old scientist, "It's not the training that he can't forgive and forget. If anything, he's grateful that the abilities you taught him got him through the war in one piece. The problem is what he sees as your total detachment in ordering your 'weapon' to self-destruct. He can't reconcile that with what he sees as your sudden, out-of-the-blue, desire to be 'family'."

J sighed, slumping. "His previous capture - that time that you broke him out of the hospital - led me to believe that if he was caught again, he really *would* be treated as a science experiment once they finished trying to get information out of him. I knew there was very little chance of them getting anything out of him - not that any of you really had any information beyond your own immediate mission anyway - and suspected that, particularly since he was known to be the one that shot down that shuttle, death would be preferable to whatever they had in mind for him. It was far from an easy decision to make and I've questioned it many times over the years. I was overjoyed to find out that he had survived *and* remained free, though I suspect he would believe it was only because my 'weapon' had exceeded expectations..."

"No, not now that I know what your reasoning was," Heero spoke up from behind J. He reached out to steady the startled old man as he tried to whirl around only to be betrayed by the inflexibility of his prosthetic leg.

"Heero!" J exclaimed in surprise.

Studying the scientist for a moment, Heero inclined his head slightly. "Perhaps you would like to join Duo and I for dinner from time to time," he offered. More than that, he wasn't prepared to give just yet, but he was willing to give J a chance to prove the truth of his words.

Caught by surprise, J managed to reply, "Yes, I would enjoy that."

An awkward silence fell for a few moments. "We'll give you a call in a few weeks, then," Duo contributed in response to the uncertain, questioning glance Heero directed his way.

Heero gave him a small smile of gratitude before holding out his hand and saying, "I believe our ride is waiting, love."

************

Moonlight gleaming off freshly-fallen snow made the night almost as bright as daylight. The swish and squeak of sleigh runners over snow and the bright jingle of sleighbells added to the distinctly unreal, dreamlike feeling of the experience, though the bitter cold was enough to convince Duo that this was no dream. Shivering, he pulled the pile of heavy blankets higher around his neck and tried to snuggle even tighter against Heero's warmth.

"Cold?" Heero asked, concerned.

"Y-y-yes," Duo responded, teeth chattering.

Pulling Duo completely onto his lap in the tight confines of the sleigh without letting any cold air sneak in under the blankets was a bit tricky, but Heero managed. Wrapping his arms around his spouse and holding him tightly to his chest in an attempt to share his own body-heat, he called to the driver, "Are we almost there?"

"Another five minutes or so," came the response.

Wishing that he'd thought of Duo's sensitivity to extreme cold when Dorothy suggested the romantic-sounding sleigh ride, Heero asked softly, "Would it be better if we got out and walked? There'd be less wind and the activity might warm you up."

"N-no, n-not d-dressed w-warm enough. N-not w-waterproof b-boots."

'Damn. And here we have fuck-up number what? I'm losing track, I'm screwing up so often. I hope the damn cabin has a jacuzzi so I can get him warmed back up again...'

When they finally came to a stop in front of the cabin a few minutes later, Heero lifted Duo off his lap, jumped down from the sleigh, then turned and lifted his shivering companion into his arms and quickly carried him into the cabin. Ignoring everything else, he headed straight for the bathroom, spotting the filled and steaming jacuzzi with relief.

"Better now?" Heero asked several minutes later, holding his no-longer-shivering spouse against his side as they sat in the warm tub.

"Much," Duo sighed, leaning his head back against the edge of the tub.

"Sorry. Again," Heero said, thoroughly disgusted with himself. "I never even thought..."

Twisting around, Duo pressed his fingers to Heero's lips, "Stop it. It's not your fault. I didn't dress warmly enough. Relena warned me that riding in a sleigh was colder than just walking around outside. I underestimated just how *much* colder it would be. And if I'd admitted my error sooner, we could have turned around and went back before I got so chilled."

Resting his hands on Heero's shoulders, Duo drew himself around to half-float facing him. "Heero, everything that goes wrong *isn't* your fault. I make my share of mistakes too. If I'd been more honest with you about my feelings back when you asked to put our relationship 'on hold', things would have gone a lot smoother. Even if I wasn't prepared to refuse, I should have asked for a specific time limit or at least a date that we would re-evaluate the situation." Seeing the startled look on Heero's face, Duo said wrily, "Hindsight is 20-20, huh? I see the same thing has occurred to you. We *both* made mistakes, love, and we *both* paid the price. We just have to learn from those mistakes and try not to make them again. You're getting better at picking up on when something's bothering me even if you still can't tell what it is. I'm trying to remember that I need to come right out and tell you things, not rely on you guessing them based on subtle clues in what I say or do."

Pushing himself away from Heero, Duo stood and climbed out of the jacuzzi. Unfastening his braid, he shook his hair loose to hang around him in waves before bending to offer Heero his hand. "Just in case I'm being too subtle now," he whispered huskily, "I do believe that you promised to show me just how much you wanted me on our wedding night. Well, this is our wedding night - so what are you waiting for? Make love to me, Heero."

The water was still sloshing wildly in the jacuzzi, waves splattering over the edge of it, as Duo's startled laughter at being flung over Heero's shoulder, carried through to the bedroom, and tossed onto the bed was replaced by murmurs of growing passion.

************

Looking around the gathered friends - no, not just friends, *family* - counting down to the New Year, Iria smiled in satisfaction. The month-long "holiday house party" had succeeded even beyond her wildest dreams. Her baby brother was unlikely to work himself into the ground with a handsome husband to go home to - and the same applied equally to said husband. Having a circus headquartered at a previously staid Winner estate was going to take some getting used to, but her nieces and nephews would be delighted. Her smile grew as Duo bounded across the room to glomp her and thank her for "the vacation - and all the mistletoe", he added with a wink, pointing above her head before pressing a brotherly kiss to her cheek and dashing off to attach himself to his husband again. Her gaze passed over the quietly glowing faces of Dorothy and Relena, both completely free of tension despite the knowledge that in just two days they would be announcing their marriage to the entire Earth Sphere. Reaching the last, most surprising and unlikely couple of the group, she couldn't help shaking her head slightly in disbelief. "Zechs and Wufei. Never in a million years... There must have been something in the water..." she murmured to herself.

"No, don't blame it on the water," Rashid told her, materializing at her side with surprising quietness for such a large man. "Blame it on the mistletoe." As the countdown reached zero and couples kissed to start the New Year off right, Rashid pointed above her head and reminded her, "Mistletoe," before bending to press a kiss to her startled mouth. Relaxing into a warm kiss from a man she had spoken with at length every day for the past month, and not just about his eight young charges, Iria had to agree, 'It must have been the mistletoe.'

OWARI

#####################################

Lyrics to "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe"

It must have been the mistletoe
the lazy fire, the falling snow
the magic in the frosty air
that feeling everywhere
It must have been the pretty lights
that glistened in the silent night
It may be just the stars so bright
that shined above you
Our first Christmas
more than we'd be dreaming of
Ah, Saint Nicholas had his fingers crossed
that we would fall in love!
It could have been the holiday,
the midnight ride upon sleigh
the countryside all dressed in white
the crazy snowball fight!
It could have been the steeplebell
that wrapped us up in its spell
It only took one kiss to know
It must have been the mistletoe!
Our first Christmas more than we'd be dreaming of
Ah, St. Nicholas must have known that kiss
would lead to all of this!!
It must have been the mistletoe
the lazy fire, the falling snow
the magic in the frosty air
that made me love you!
On Christmas eve our wish came true
That I would fall in love with you
It only took one kiss to know
It must have been the mistletoe!
It must have been the mistletoe!
It must have been the mistletoe!