3-11-2007

Title: Mission: Nerima
Chapter: 01-09
Author: Calic0cat <calic0cat@fastmail.fm>
Genre: Crossover
Pairings: 1+2/2+1, 3+4+3, Ranma/Ryoga
Rated: FRT
Warnings: Swearing, Angst, Endless Waltz spoilers.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: Post series & Endless Waltz (only a couple of weeks after EW). Unless otherwise noted, all dialogue is in Japanese - so if there's Japanese words sprinkled within dialogue, it's because the language being spoken at that moment is something else.

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

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

Part 1

"Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I'm sorry to have to impose on you again so soon," Preventer Chief Une said calmly. Gesturing graciously, she added, "Please, be seated."

Each of the five ex-Gundam pilots pulled a chair up to the conference table as Sally Po handed out thick file folders to the meeting's participants.

Une wasted no time in launching into the briefing. "Just a quick glance through the documentation should show you the problem - massive amounts of damage occurring to buildings, huge explosion craters in streets... the list goes on and on. On several separate occasions, agents have been dispatched to investigate reports of massive energy discharges in the area; yet, when they arrive, there is no sign of the caliber of weaponry necessary to cause this type of damage.

"You will notice that, according to local police records, this type of damage has been occurring since during the war. Insurance costs in this region are astronomical. When questioned about the situation, local law enforcement officers simply shake their heads and say it's a local problem that has no impact elsewhere and should be left alone.

"As if that wasn't odd enough, the crime rate in the area is virtually nonexistent. Oh, there's an occasional attempted mugging or robbery, a few drug busts and so forth, but no major unsolved crimes and no serious injuries or fatalities in the local law enforcement community."

Duo had rocked his chair back on two legs while flipping through the photographs and insurance claims, but now he dropped it back down on all four legs. He tossed a photograph of a high school with a huge hole in one brick wall onto the table in front of him. "Damage like that... a huge chunk of wall gone but no structural damage anywhere else... man, you'd need high-grade explosives and a real demolitions expert for that. And the insurance claim says it was a faulty science experiment? No way..."

Heero singled out a photo of a streetlight pole, neatly sliced in two. "A cut that clean would almost have to be an energy weapon - beam saber, or something similar - yet the utility company wrote it off as damage in a windstorm?"

"Looks a lot like an impact crater from a mobile suit," Trowa commented, tossing another photo on the table.

"Based on these records, I can't see how any of these businesses are still viable," Quatre added, frowning as he scanned a handful of papers. "A number of them are only carrying liability insurance - nothing to cover damage to the premises, let alone damage on THIS scale," he concluded, tapping the image of a restaurant with the entire first floor front wall missing.

Wufei pulled a sheaf of advertising flyers out of his folder and spread them across the table. "These are just plain absurd - these so-called contests must be a front for something else entirely."

"The entire mess is just plain absurd," Une said, looking decidedly flustered. "The Preventers cannot leave this unexplained any longer; we need to find out what is causing all the damage and neutralize any possible threat to peace. Since a high proportion of the damage occurs at or near the high school..."

"Oh no," Duo groaned, flopping back in his chair.

"...you have all been enrolled. You start Monday. That gives you just under a week to prepare for the mission and move in."

"It won't be THAT bad, Duo," Quatre offered, glancing over the information packet on the school. "There's no dorms, so at least we won't have to live at the school."

"Correct," Une confirmed. "We were unable to rent any living quarters in the school district; however, we were able to purchase a small house. You will all use your own identities for this mission since media coverage following the Mariemaia incident was so extensive. That was too recent to rely on people not recognizing you, and, as the Winner heir, Quatre is much too well known to hope to pass unnoticed. Although you are all emancipated minors, we are using the cover story that, due to the involvement of certain pilots in the Mariemaia incident, you are all being required to stay together on Earth and complete school as a precautionary measure."

Une paused and motioned Sally towards the door. Sally slipped outside, glanced down the corridor, then nodded to Une before pulling the door shut behind her.

"I think it is only fair to warn you that something similar was, in fact, proposed by several high-ranking politicians after the first war," Une warned in a low voice. "Considerable concern was expressed over your youth and your exceptional skills in warfare and terrorism. Unfortunately, the attempted Barton coup has brought those concerns to light once more, in spite of the fact that the Gundams are now gone. Certain political forces would like to see you all considered a threat to peace. Vice Foreign Minister Darlian, Preventers Po and Noin, and myself have repeatedly argued long and hard against the measures proposed. Preventer Merquise has stayed out of the discussions since he is facing similar problems and could easily cause as much harm as good if he were to speak up in your support. One of the few items in our favour - in *your* favour - is the fact that you are all either reserve or active Preventers."

Une looked around the table, her heart aching at giving such bad news to these young men - mere boys in years, but far older in experience - who had earned first Treize's respect, then her own. They had already experienced betrayal when the colonies rejected them during the war; to hear that once more they were on the verge of being considered a threat rather than defenders had to be extremely painful.

Offering what little solace she could, she assured them, "This mission is real; it hasn't been invented simply to provide a way to monitor you all. However, having you all in one location and working on official Preventers business will hopefully serve to placate some of your most vocal detractors at least temporarily."

Heero's face was set in the icy blank expression of the early war. Duo's cheerful grin was missing entirely, his face very nearly as expressionless as Heero's, fingers white with the pressure they were applying to the pencil they held. Trowa's expression was completely enigmatic, his head tilted so that his bangs shadowed most of his face. Quatre's fingers were steepled in front of his face, hiding his reaction to the news. Wufei showed more expression than the other four put together; his face torn between guilt and anger.

"You are not supposed to be aware of any of this, but Preventer Po and I felt that you deserved to know what was going on. You *must* be extremely careful. Keep as low a profile as possible at all times," Une warned sternly. "Don't give your detractors any more ammunition to use against you."

A series of silent, grim nods signalled their understanding. Une just hoped that understanding their situation would be enough to allow them to take control of it.

***

Five mouths were set in grim lines as the ex-pilots finished sweeping their hotel suite for bugs.

"01 - clear."

"02 - clear."

"03 - clear."

"04 - clear."

"05 - clear."

The teens congregated in the lounge area. Duo flung himself into an armchair before summing up the situation quite concisely, "Well, shit. So now what?"

"We do the mission," Heero answered flatly.

"Okay, so we do it. Then what?" Duo demanded. "How long are we going to live 'on probation', looking over our shoulders all the time?"

The ex-Wing pilot simply shook his head before turning away and walking over to stand, arms crossed over his chest, staring out the window.

"I don't know," Quatre answered the braided boy, rubbing his chest agitatedly. "I don't want to get Une and Sally in trouble for leaking information, so I won't do anything immediately, but I think I'd better have a couple of my sisters come visit us in a little while. If one of them just happens to be a lawyer, well..."

"That might be wise," Trowa concurred.

Wufei had seated himself at the far end of the couch, knees drawn up to his chest, his back towards the others.

"Hey, Wu?" Duo said, looking towards the Chinese boy. "You okay?"

Only silence answered him.

"Wufei?" Quatre prompted.

Finally, a choked voice said, "I'm sorry, this is my fault. If I hadn't joined Mariemaia's army..."

"'Fei, it's not all your fault, we'd have still gotten involved and ended up back in the limelight. As soon as they grabbed Relena, it was a given that Heero would go after her, and I'd never turn down a request for help from any of you guys, so that meant I was in too." Duo stood and moved to kneel on the couch behind Wufei, resting one hand lightly on his friend's shoulder.

"Duo's right," Heero agreed, moving to stand behind the couch and reaching over the back to rest one of his hands on Wufei's shoulder, brushing Duo's fingers. Duo jerked his hand back as if burnt, moving it to rest against Wufei's back instead. Heero flinched almost undetectably.

Quatre moved to perch on the arm rest that Wufei was facing, resting one hand gently on Wufei's knee. "Anytime peace is threatened, I will feel obligated to defend it, Wufei. I too would have been involved regardless of whether you were in Mariemaia's army or not."

"I also," Trowa added, coming to stand beside his comrade and placing his hand on Wufei's other shoulder.

"Thank you," Wufei said softly.

"Whatever happens from here on out, we're all in it together," Duo stated firmly. "Right, guys?"

"Hn." "Of course." "Yes." "Agreed."

Before the silence and closeness had a chance to become uncomfortable, Duo gave Wufei's back a quick pat, then jumped to his feet. "Oi, I don't know about you guys, but I want to eat before we go over the mission briefing again - anybody else up for pizza?"

***

Heero looked around the tiny bedroom. Two futons made for a tight fit, but with only three bedrooms in the house, one of which was even smaller, there was no real choice. Not that it was a hardship for him, anyway; the close proximity would in fact be to his advantage. Duo had been avoiding him since the victory party following the Mariemaia incident, but that would be impossible to continue while sharing such a small room.

Heero knew that Duo's avoidance of him was his own fault. He had rebuffed Duo's overtures throughout the war because he'd been unable to reconcile his own very confusing emotions with his role as a Gundam pilot. One particularly harsh bout of retraining thanks to displaying too many warm feelings had been quite enough; he hadn't wanted to go through that again. And even when he'd finally been prepared to risk it, lack of experience with things like friendship and love had held him back, and made it difficult to fight against the deeply-ingrained training that insisted such emotions be controlled. Neutralized.

By the time that the war had ended, he had finally managed to sort his feelings out at least enough to have a vague idea what he wanted. Unfortunately, he'd still had no idea how to go about getting it. Duo had always made all the effort towards developing a friendship and had, just maybe, if Heero had been interpreting him correctly, even been interested in more. But by the time that Heero was not only ready to accept friendship but hoping for far more, Duo had been on L2 with Hilde, while he had been on Earth watching over Relena.

Within the first few weeks of peace, Relena had stopped chasing after him and developed into a surprisingly good friend. It hadn't taken her long to find out that his heart was irretrievably committed to the Deathscythe pilot, nor had it taken her long to deduce what the problem was. She had worked hard at helping Heero learn to express his emotions verbally, though with only limited success. Learning first to tolerate, then to appreciate, and finally to seek out physical contact with another person had been even more difficult for Heero. Years of training had taught him that any form of physical contact equalled pain; he fought a battle with his training and instincts at the lightest of touches.

But finally, hearing from Quatre that Duo was considering entering a business partnership with Hilde, Heero had realized that he might be running out of time. He'd decided that he would have to make the first move regardless of whether he was ready or not.

Then Relena had been kidnapped. He'd been forced to try to become J's perfect weapon again, this time with his training in constant, direct conflict with his newly acknowledged emotions.

And every encounter with Duo since then had turned to disaster.

First had been his failure to correct Duo's assumptions about his relationship with Relena, followed by the harder-than-necessary punch on the colony and his abandonment of Duo in order to go after Relena. And then, when Duo had come looking for him after the battle, Duo had found him cradled in Relena's arms and left too quickly for her to stop him. Finally, there'd been the incident at the victory celebration. Even now, remembering it left him feeling ill...

 

----- Flashback Begins -----

Half-hidden by shadows, Heero leaned against the balcony railing where it met the wall. His gaze was wistfully locked on the lithe movements of the braided figure below. Duo was chattering animatedly with the other pilots, his usual cheery grin on his face.

"Hello Relena," he said quietly, not needing to glance behind him to know who had just joined him.

"Go to him," she urged gently. "He was asking where you were earlier."

"I don't know if it's any use," the ex-pilot responded despondently. "Why would he want anything to do with me? Just look at him! Lively, charming, gorgeous... He could have anyone he wanted! Why would he want me?"

"Is it really any better to be left wondering? Just GO!" Relena gave Heero a comforting hug - right as Duo finally spotted him. "Heero?" she asked, concerned, as Heero went completely rigid in the midst of returning her hug.

"He saw..."

"Oh no," she moaned, "Heero, I am *so* sorry. Where did he go?"

Two sets of blue eyes swept over the crowd below, frantically searching for that tell-tale chestnut braid.

Suddenly, a hand landed on Heero's shoulder. "Hey, glad to see..." Before his mind had a chance to recognize the voice that came a split-second after the hand, Heero's instincts had already taken over, slamming an elbow back into the gut of the unknown threat. He completed his spin, a sinking feeling in his own gut telling him what he would see. There, doubled up on the tile floor, lay the very person he was looking for.

"Don't touch me," Duo managed to gasp out, staggering to his feet clutching his ribs as Heero took a faltering step towards him. "Shit, Yuy, all I wanted to do was say I was glad to see you were okay. Guess you aren't so glad to see me. Don't worry, I'll stay out of your way.

"Good evening, Relena," he finished, inclining his head respectfully towards her before turning and walking stiffly away, one arm still wrapped across his ribcage.

Numb with horror, Heero watched him go, pivoting to keep him in sight as he descended the stairs and slipped through the crowd, speaking briefly to Wufei before continuing out of the ballroom towards the guest quarters. A few minutes later, Wufei and Sally followed.

***

At the breakfast table the next morning, Heero anxiously looked for the former Deathscythe pilot, hoping to at least apologize. Finally he asked, "Is Duo not joining us for breakfast?"

Wufei answered, "He caught an early shuttle. He's probably halfway back to L2 by now."

"Against my recommendation," Sally muttered in an annoyed tone. "I wanted him to stay where I could monitor his condition while those ribs healed. It was bad enough that he went to the party last night with fractured ribs; getting elbowed and knocked down while he was there then insisting on travelling like that..." She shook her head in disapproval. "Stubborn fool."

"What do you mean, fractured ribs?" Heero demanded. "I didn't think Deathscythe was knocked around that badly in the battle."

Trowa gave him an odd look before replying, "It wasn't. Those were from that little stunt you pulled back on the colony."

Horrified cobalt eyes met Relena's shocked yet sympathetic gaze for a brief moment before the sick feeling threatened to overwhelm him and Heero fled the room for the privacy of his own bathroom.

----- Flashback Ends -----

 

Hearing the sound of a motorcycle pulling up to the house, Heero looked out the window and recognized Duo's slim form on the bike. Trowa appeared from the fenced-in yard and took the motorcycle from Duo after a brief argument while Quatre and Wufei confiscated the luggage strapped to the bike.

"You're not supposed to be lifting or carrying anything," Quatre scolded as they entered the house. "Sally called and told us that she's not happy with the way your ribs are healing. Namely that they *aren't*; you're doing too much and not giving them time to mend."

"Yeah, well, if I don't keep busy, then I spend too much time thinking," Duo muttered, almost too low for even Heero's sensitive hearing to pick up. "So, Quat, did you get my message?"

"Yes, and I set things up as you requested, but I think it's going to be awfully cramped and stuffy up there in the attic."

"Cramped and stuffy I can live with, Heero I can't," Duo replied, following the blond up the second narrow flight of stairs.

One hand on the door, ready to open it and welcome his roommate, Heero froze. It was too late. He had used up all his second chances. He had finally pushed Duo too far.

***

Wufei waited till Duo had closed the attic door before asking, "So have you given up on Yuy then?"

"Yes... No..." Duo stammered uncertainly before throwing up his hands in sheer frustration. "Oh, fuck, I don't know... I'm just so damn *tired* of always being the one making all the effort, only to get froze out, insulted, or whatever. It's going to be bad enough sharing a house with him, sharing a room would be impossible. Sooner or later I'd talk in my sleep or do or say something that I couldn't cover up for. Considering I got an elbow in the gut just for touching him, I'm almost afraid to imagine what he'd do if I hugged him or kissed him."

"Duo, I really don't think he meant to do that," Quatre protested. "When Sally told him about your ribs at breakfast the next morning, I thought he was going to either throw up or pass out right there at the table. He was very upset and ended up leaving the room very quickly."

"Yeah, so how come he still hasn't apologized?"

"Probably because you ran back to L2 before he got a chance," Wufei told him sternly. "Yuy would find that difficult enough to do in person; I doubt he could manage it over the vid-phone."

"Duo, are you absolutely *sure* that you want to stay up here? Heero had two futons put in his room so I know he was expecting you to room with him."

"Not just expecting it," Wufei corrected Quatre. "I believe that Yuy was actually looking forward to it. He has inquired at least three times since I arrived this morning as to whether anyone knew when you were arriving."

"Oh really. Then why wasn't he the one to meet me and help bring my things in?" Duo demanded. "It's more likely that he wanted to know when I was arriving so's he could make a point of not being around."

"Oh, Duo..."

Duo cut him off sharply. "Look, Quat, it's pretty clear that any odd little ideas I may have had, any notions that he was attracted to me, maybe even had started to care a little about me, were all a product of my overly-vivid imagination. However much he may deny a relationship with Relena - which, may I remind you, he *hasn't* since before the whole Barton mess blew up - the fact remains that he doesn't even respond to me most of the time, but I've seen him engaged in actual conversations with her. Me, he won't even tolerate a touch from, but he not only let her hug him, *he hugged her back*.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he's finally started to open up to someone, but it *hurts* that, after all the effort I put into trying to be that someone, it wasn't me. Much as I'd like to, I can't blame 'Lena because she's been a good friend to all of us; it certainly isn't her fault that I misread Heero so badly.

"I can't keep doing this to myself. I have to figure out how to live with the way things are and stop wasting my time dreaming about the way I wish they were," Duo finished, a certain fatalistic finality in his tone.

 

Part 2:

"Okay, Nabiki, we're all here. Now, what's so important that you and bokken-boy here made a special trip home from university in the middle of the week just to discuss it?" Ranma demanded.

Looking around at the group of martial artists gathered in the spacious Kuno living room, Nabiki said flatly, "Trouble with a capital T.

"Most of you know that insurance rates in Nerima have been climbing in leaps and bounds over the couple of years, and I'm sure that I *don't* have to explain *why*, do I?" She raised her eyebrows and gave the worst offenders a pointed glare. Ryoga dropped his gaze to the floor and scuffed his feet, while Ranma rubbed the back of his head and chuckled nervously. Nabiki sighed and shook her head in resignation. "Look, I know that ever since the wedding fiasco, you've all been trying to keep the damages down. Unfortunately, trouble just seems to find a certain pig-tailed individual, and the outside forces that the trouble includes aren't nearly as considerate.

"The unusual local insurance rates combined with the Nerima region's tendency to resemble a war-zone have unfortunately attracted outside attention. It is highly unlikely that the outside attention in question will be willing to go along with the type of unofficial, strictly-off-the-record, mutually-beneficial agreement that we currently have in place with local law enforcement."

"So, what exactly are you gettin' at, sugar?" Ukyo asked.

"Not like we can ask trouble to stay away from Nerima," the young Chinese Amazon observed. "Maybe Great-grandmother will have idea when she gets back, but she at village for while yet."

"Shampoo is correct," Mousse said, pushing his glasses back up with one finger.

Ryoga stirred and straightened from his position leaning against the wall, "Fights amongst ourselves are nothing more than sparring matches anymore; any damages are confined to our own properties, and we fix them ourselves without insurance companies getting involved. What else can we do?"

"The high school's still takin' a lot of damage," Ranma admitted somewhat reluctantly. "Between the daily struggles with Principal Kuno over haircuts - which have gotten worse since Cologne insisted on Shampoo and Mousse starting classes, since there's now two more long-haired people for him to go after - and Happosai's occasional forays into the girls' locker room, at least one fairly major repair is needed almost every week."

"It was hoped that my transfer to Furinkan would help," Kodachi said, "but once on school grounds, I am apparently simply another student with no exceptional influence over the principal."

"Well, at least since the four of us girls started training together, the boys have left me alone, which means one less daily mess," Akane added, shrugging.

"What exactly do you wish us to do, Nabiki?" Mousse inquired. "I do not believe that Principal Kuno and Happosai will behave any differently simply due to a request."

Nabiki gave a huff of reluctant amusement. "True. Not much you can do, frankly, except *try* to keep a low profile, outside forces permitting." Spreading her hands, she shrugged in helpless resignation. "Not that it will change anything at this point; the investigators will be arriving in Nerima by the end of the week. You'll all just have to be extra careful - try to keep the Jusenkyo stuff out of sight, no ki-blasts around strangers, keep the roof-hopping to a minimum, things like that. I don't think *any* of you want to end up as a science experiment in some lab."

Tatewaki stirred for the first time during the discussion, looking around the gathering of former rivals, now friends. The months both immediately prior to and following the failed Saotome-Tendo wedding had brought a great many changes for the group known locally as the Nerima Wrecking Crew. They had all matured beyond their years in many ways. Long-time rivalries had been settled and compromises reached amongst the youthful martial artists, though few outside of the group were aware of that fact. For the time being, preserving the apparent status quo was simpler and safer than revealing the true state of affairs. So, to the outside world, life in Nerima continued to follow the same routine of "Die, Saotome", "Nihao, airen", "Uncute tomboy", and so on.

"The investigators that have been assigned are teenagers as well. They will be attending Furinkan with you beginning on Monday, which will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hide the typical Nerima insanity from them." Grimly, Tatewaki warned the group, "Do not underestimate them; they will not be easily deceived. Individually, each is highly skilled. As a team, they are formidable.

"However, the situation is not without its advantages," he continued. "The group has its own set of problems to deal with. The cover story for their presence in Nerima is closer to truth than is comfortable for them. They cannot afford to attract excessive attention to themselves either. And, based on our investigations, they have the potential to be either loyal friends and staunch allies, or determined foes, depending on the situation. My personal recommendation would be to cultivate their friendship, as they would make formidable allies. However, it will be up to each of you to make your own determination and act accordingly."

Nabiki motioned Satsuke and Konatsu forward, the tiny ninja and the kunoichi each almost completely hidden by the stack of files he carried.

"Here's everything I was able to obtain on both the organization and the individuals," she said, passing folders out in a business-like manner. "None of the print-outs marked 'Confidential' can leave this room - they have to be destroyed. The other stuff, including the photos, is general knowledge, readily available through any public data terminal; take it with you if you want, but be sure you have a reason to have it ready in case someone sees it and becomes suspicious.

"Any questions?"

"Just one," Ranma quipped, reluctantly eyeing his thick stack of papers, "anybody else wanna do homework instead?"

***

Two muscular forms sprawled comfortably on the roof of the Tendo house, looking over the wall into the neighbouring yard.

"Damn, his hair's even longer than Mousse's," Ryoga commented softly, watching the last teenager to arrive enter the house next door.

"No way will Principal Kuno let that go without a fuss, no matter *who* the guy is," Ranma observed. "Guess you and I better handle old pineapple-head tomorrow; keep him occupied while the others explain and get the new guys into the school."

"Sure," Ryoga responded, stealing a sidelong look at his rival and best friend. God, Ranma was gorgeous. His pigtail now reached halfway to his waist. Slender yet muscular, Ranma's lithe, agile form was breathtaking to watch sparring or performing katas. 'The number one unfortunate side-effect of falling in love with your rival - dropping your guard because you're too busy enjoying the view,' Ryoga thought wryly.

"I'm not sure whether these guys living next door should be considered good, because it's convenient for keeping an eye on them, or bad, because it's gonna be tough to hide things from them. At least Mom, Pops, and Soun are away for the next few weeks - dawn sparring matches with a panda would be a little hard to explain away." Catching Ryoga staring rather blankly in his general direction, Ranma smacked the side of his head and demanded with a certain amount of exasperation, "Ryoga, have you heard a word I've said, or are you busy dreamin' about Akane again?"

"Raannmmaaa..." Ryoga warned irritably, retaliating with a half-hearted punch to Ranma's shoulder. Inwardly, he flinched at Ranma's mention of Akane. Like the rest of the Nerima Wrecking Crew, he knew that Ranma and Akane were actually good friends, more like brother and sister than anything else but, unless they could come up with an alternative solution, family pressure would probably end up forcing the marriage. What Ranma hadn't realized, fortunately, was that he certainly wasn't mooning over *Akane* anymore. After having finally - somehow - miraculously worked things out with all of his "fiancees", successfully converting them into genuine *friends*, the last thing Ranma needed was to find out that another of his friends - a *male* friend - was in love with him.

"Mom's started talking wedding again," Ranma said abruptly. "I dunno what we're gonna do. Neither 'Kane nor I want the marriage, but we can't keep puttin' the parents off forever. We *can* get along now, so it probably wouldn't be too awful, but..." He sighed heavily. "Seems like there should be more behind marriage than just 'it probably won't be too awful'. If either of us had someone else, I'd have no problem breaking the engagement, even if they disowned me for it. Without something to stand up for, though... I just don't know."

Startled by the revelation, Ryoga sat up. "I thought Kasumi got them to agree to put it off till after university graduation."

"She did, but that was just Soun and Pops. Mom wasn't here for the discussion and didn't actually agree to it." After a quick habitual check for eavesdroppers, Ranma continued in an explosive but low-pitched burst, "She doesn't want to wait that long for grandkids. Hah! Not gonna be gettin' 'em anyway, least not that way..." He hesitated a second, then, in a rush as if afraid of losing his nerve, admitted, "I can't handle more than a friendly kiss. 'Kane and I tried, right after Saffron. I knew I cared about her, thought maybe it was more 'n' I just didn't know how to recognize it. I mean, it's not like I've had a lotta examples to learn from, right? Just look at my folks!" He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right, great role models. So, anyway, 'Kane and I tried. I just - couldn't. So we talked about it, 'n' after a lot of arguing, she agreed I needed to find out if it was just her.

"It wasn't. We went together to each of the others, and explained what was goin' on. Thought I'd die of embarrassment, but it was too important to not know for sure, right?"

Stunned, Ryoga nodded in response to the obvious prompt.

"Right. Well, I threw up when Ucchan tried a French kiss - ugh! - which pretty much killed any romantic ideas she had left. Why anyone would like having somebody's tongue stuck halfway down their throat..." Ranma shuddered and shook his head before continuing, "A single kiss on the lips confirmed it wasn't any different with 'Dachi; I just - wasn't *interested*. Cologne had me try drinkin' something to 'lower my inhibitions', but it didn't help any with Shampoo. Cologne wasn't really surprised. Said she'd been wonderin' for a while. All those beautiful girls chasin' me, 'n' me never so much as stealin' a kiss or a deliberate grope. That's when she started workin' on alternative solutions to the Amazon law - fillin' the requirements of the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

"Kasumi knows, so does 'Biki. That's why the wedding disaster happened, Nabiki arranged it to buy us time to decide what to do. Then Kasumi hoped that if she could get them to delay the wedding till after university, one or both of us would find someone we were willing to stand up to our parents for, plus we'd be able to get jobs to support ourselves if they disowned us.

"Wasn't even sure I could get up the nerve to tell *you*, but all the secrecy's gettin' to me. I really need somebody else to talk to about this, Ryoga. I'm gay, and I need to know whether you can still be my friend knowing that."

Ryoga gaped in shock, simply sitting and staring at the other martial artist in disbelief. 'Ranma's gay?! I have a chance?! Oh man, his parents are going to flip! His mom just might decide to try and enforce that "Man amongst men" nonsense...' His mind leapt from one thought to another, till he noticed that Ranma's body had started to quiver with tension. 'Oh shit, he thinks I'm rejecting him!' he realized, just in time to reach out and catch Ranma's arm as he prepared to leap down from the roof. With one tug, Ryoga pulled him into a quick, reassuring half-hug. "Sorry Ranma, you just kind of surprised me. It's okay, really!" He hesitated, then admitted, "I'm not exactly straight myself - more like bi."

"What?! You're just trying to make me feel better, aren't you?" Ranma demanded suspiciously, pulling away from Ryoga.

"No, I'm serious," Ryoga insisted.

Unconvinced and feeling a bit betrayed that Ryoga would belittle his painfully honest confession like this, Ranma warned sharply, "Ryoga..."

'Maybe this is a mistake, but it should convince him that I'm not just humouring him or kidding around...' Ryoga stammered only slightly as he spoke. "Akane is c-cute, but y-you're d-damn s-s-sexy in *both* forms." Flushing with embarrassment, he nevertheless managed to slide an openly appreciative gaze over the muscular form next to him.

Startled by the heat in his friend's brown eyes, Ranma blushed. 'He really did mean it!' "But - I thought you still had a thing for Akane! You're always dropping by the dojo..."

"And who exactly do I spend all my time with whenever I'm around?" Ryoga inquired, bringing his eyes back up to meet Ranma's blue ones.

"Ak..." he started to answer, only to realize that was wrong. It might have been the case originally, but it hadn't been for quite some time. "Err, me?" he offered sheepishly.

"Yes, you, idiot."

"Uh, I'm gonna have to think about this," Ranma said, a dazed look on his face. "Bein' friends again 'stead of just rivals was such a welcome change that I never... Uh..." Floundering for a response, he thought with a measure of relief, 'At least I don't have to worry about Ryoga runnin' around glompin' me or makin' flowery speeches. Not his style at all...'

"Ranma, relax. Take all the time you need to think about it," Ryoga hastily assured him. "Just remember that I'm, uh, interested. If and when you decide you are too, let me know. I'll be waiting. Till then - friends." He held out his hand, and Ranma clasped it in a firm handshake.

"Friends," Ranma agreed solemnly, relieved that the conversation had gone so smoothly.

"Now, how about you walking me home?" Ryoga suggested as he released Ranma's hand. "We can get in a little sparring practice at my place, where we won't have to worry about the neighbours noticing anything odd."

"Sure." In his usual quicksilver fashion, Ranma shifted from serious to mischievous. Flashing a cocky grin, he said, "C'mon, P-chan, time's a-wastin'! Why walk when we can run - betcha can't catch me!!" He ruffled Ryoga's hair teasingly, pulled his bandanna down over his eyes, and darted off across the roof. In an instant, he bounded down to the top of the yard wall, and thence to the sidewalk below.

Shoving his bandanna back up where it belonged and scrambling belatedly to his feet, Ryoga dashed after him. "Raannmmaaa! You jerk!"

No matter how much life in Nerima might change, some things always stayed the same.

 

Part 3:

There was no sign that any of the others were stirring yet as Duo padded softly down the stairs and out of the house, picking up his coat and shoes on his way. He emerged into the cool stillness of early morning, relieved to have successfully slipped away undetected.

Facing Heero over the breakfast table this morning was something that he just didn't feel prepared for; he was already stressed out enough about starting school today. Japanese schools might have technically adapted to the standard Earth Sphere educational system, but they were still known for being extremely demanding, particularly for students in their final year of high school. Entering after the beginning of the term would be bad enough anywhere. Doing so here, in a language other than his native tongue, was not going to be pleasant.

Particularly since the only time he had ever formally attended school on anything approaching a regular basis was back when he was at the Maxwell Church Orphanage. His brief stays at various schools during the war certainly couldn't be counted. And, while G had made sure that he had all the training in mathematics, physics, and chemistry that he could possibly need as a Gundam pilot, that left a great many other subjects that had *not* been covered. Sure, he'd attempted to fill at least some of those gaps in on his own, but during training and the war there really hadn't been much opportunity, and the year since the war had been mostly taken up by helping Hilde get her struggling salvage yard back in the black.

None of the others - well, except possibly Trowa, Duo didn't know for sure what his education had been like, but suspected that mercenaries probably didn't spend much time on literature and history either - could even begin to understand why he dreaded school so much. That had already been made perfectly clear last night...

----- Flashback Begins -----

"Remember what Une said," Heero warned, glancing at each of the others. "We need to keep a low profile. That means wearing the school uniform and being good students. No getting in fights, no poor grades, no uncompleted assignments." He gave Duo a pointed look. "Is that clear?"

Nods from each ex-Gundam pilot answered him, but Heero was unsatisfied with that response from Duo. "You can't treat this like you did those school missions during the war, Duo. You have to..."

Moving with an icy calm that barely hid his hurt, Duo uncoiled from his chair and cut Heero off abruptly, "I'm not an idiot, Yuy. I'm well aware of the situation.

"Now if you'll all excuse me, this has been a long day. I need to get some sleep if I'm expected to be alert for school tomorrow. Good night, Quat, Tro, Wufei. Yuy."

----- Flashback Ends -----

'Heero was the one who came right out and said it, but the others didn't exactly jump to my defence either, so I guess they must agree with him. They're all expecting me to fuck this up.'

Catching a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye, Duo looked up just in time to dodge a cloud of dust as a pretty young woman swept the entryway of the house next door.

"Oh my," she exclaimed, "I'm so sorry. I didn't see you there. You must be one of our new neighbours. Good morning. I'm Kasumi Tendo." The young woman set her broom aside and smiled expectantly.

"Uh, yes, I just arrived yesterday. I'm Duo Maxwell. Pleased to meet you, Ms Tendo," Duo offered, glad to be dragged away from his dark thoughts.

"Just Kasumi, please. You're attending Furinkan, I see," Kasumi said, motioning towards Duo's uniform and bookbag. "My sister Akane and her fiancé Ranma go there as well. It's a bit early to be leaving for school; it's not that long a walk."

"Uh, well, I just thought I'd take a look around the neighbourhood first," he explained awkwardly.

"Ah, I see. Well, if you don't mind waiting a moment, I believe that Ranma is helping his friend Ukyo with her restaurant this morning and should be leaving momentarily. I'm sure he would be more than happy to show you around on the way there. And if you haven't had breakfast yet, Ukyo makes a wonderful breakfast okonomiyaki," she finished with a smile.

"I really don't want to be any bother," Duo said quickly.

"Oh, it's no bother," Kasumi assured him brightly. "Just a moment while I see if Ranma is ready to go."

***

Ranma drew his kata to a close, held the final position for a moment, then relaxed. He really preferred training outdoors, but staying inside helped him remember to tone down his workout to a less - noteworthy - level. And if he *did* happen to forget, there was a much slimmer chance of being caught in the act by their new neighbours. He'd just have to do a few extra katas to help make up for the lower level of difficulty.

Before he launched into another kata, Akane hurtled through the dojo's door. "Ranma, the braided one - Duo Maxwell, right? - is leaving *now*; Kasumi's gone out front to delay him. Hurry up and get ready, that way you can talk to him on the way to Ucchan's."

Her final sentence was addressed to Ranma's back as he tore into the house and up to the furo to quickly get cleaned up and dressed for school.

***

Just as Kasumi turned to enter the house, a whirlwind of red and black shot through the door, nimbly dodging to avoid a collision.

"Oops, sorry Kasumi!" the boy exclaimed.

Duo gave the other teen an appraising look. Dressed in a red silk shirt and black pants, a black coat hanging half-on, half-off, the boy was in the midst of quickly plaiting long black hair.

That was definitely *not* the Furinkan school uniform.

"Ranma, you idiot! You forgot your books and your lunch! I am *not* carrying them for you!" a female voice shouted from inside the house. "*HERE!*"

The boy - Ranma, evidently - released his half-completed braid to catch the bookbag and bento that were hurled through the doorway.

"*Akane!* Now I've gotta start all over again! Uncute tomboy..." he grumbled, dragging his coat the rest of the way on and slinging his bag over his shoulder before turning to offer a grin as he re-plaited his hair. "Hi, I'm Ranma Saotome. Sorry ‘bout this."

"Duo Maxwell." Glad to get off to a friendly start, Duo grinned back. 'Okay, maybe this won't be all bad.'

"I told Duo that you'd be happy to show him around the neighbourhood on your way to Ukyo's," Kasumi told Ranma.

"No, really, it's not necessary. I don't want to be a bother," Duo protested.

"No bother," Ranma shrugged. "Not much to show, either, but if you haven't had breakfast yet, I'd be glad to treat you to one of Ucchan's breakfast okonomiyaki."

Ranma had started walking as he spoke, and Duo automatically walked along with him. "No, I haven't had breakfast, but I don't want..."

"...to be a bother," Ranma finished for him, laughing. "It really isn't a problem, but if you feel strongly about it, you could always help pick up tables or do dishes or something. We all pitch in to give Ucchan a hand, but another pair of hands is always welcome."

As they reached the canal, Ranma automatically hopped up on top of the chain-link fence and started walking along the top rail. Duo stopped in his tracks and gaped at him.

"What are you doing?!"

'Oops. Damn, this acting-ordinary thing is going to be harder than I thought... Too late now, I'll just have to make the best of it.' Ranma turned around to face Duo but kept walking backwards. "Oh, uh, just a little balance training. I'm a martial artist, and Pops always says that everything can be used as training. So..." he shrugged, hoping that his behaviour and explanation weren't *too* extraordinary.

"Huh. Makes sense, I guess." 'A little over-the-top for most people, but... it does kinda make sense.' Duo started walking again and caught up to Ranma, who turned around and started walking forwards again. "That actually looks kind of fun," he observed, eyeing Ranma's nonchalant, hands-in-pockets, stroll along the fence.

"It is. Wanna try it?" Ranma offered impulsively.

'If I fall in the canal and show up for school all wet, Heero will *kill* me. But then, he'll probably find a reason to do that before the day is out anyway, so...' "What the heck - why not?" Duo grinned, taking the offered hand and preparing to scramble up. Injured ribs twinging, he had an instant to second-guess his decision as Ranma easily lifted him up on the fence. 'Whoa, he's *strong*... Guess he really does take his training very seriously...'

"Here, gimme your bag," Ranma said, balancing Duo with one hand and holding out the other. "I've been doing this for a long time, but believe me, you don't need anything extra to upset your balance till you get the hang of it."

Once the bookbag had been transferred, Ranma started walking backwards, still using one hand to steady Duo's progress. "Keep your eyes on me," the martial artist warned when Duo started to glance down into the canal. "So, there's probably a few things I should tell you about Furinkan before you get there..."

***

Duo gave the counter one last wipe, took off the borrowed apron, then glanced at his watch. 'Still some time before when Ranma said we'd have to leave to make it to school on time.' He had enjoyed the morning so far. It had been easy to forget his concerns about school in the easy camaraderie of the hectic restaurant breakfast hour. In a way, it had been almost like being back working with the Sweepers again. Ranma's friends Ukyo and Konatsu had accepted his presence quite casually, and when he had presented himself behind the counter after finishing the okonomiyaki that Ranma had tossed in front of him, Ukyo had given him a friendly smile and an apron, then sent him off to wipe down tables.

It couldn't last though; working at the salvage yard for the past year had taught him that. Even in the colonies, ex-Gundam pilots were far from popular; he doubted that Earth would be any more accepting. Obviously, his new acquaintances hadn't realized exactly who - or rather, what - he was. Better to get it over with. He sighed in resignation.

"What's wrong, sugar?" the okonomiyaki chef asked as she finished cleaning her grill.

"Umm, there's something I need to tell you all. I don't think you realize who I am..."

"Sure we do," Ukyo said. "Duo Maxwell..."

"Pilot 02 from L2..." Konatsu added, peeking around the corner of the storeroom door.

Ranma finished, "...aka Shinigami, pilot of the Gundam Deathscythe." He looked at the surprised look on Duo's face, then reached out and snagged the end of Duo's braid and waved it in front of his nose. "You're a little hard to mistake."

"You *knew*? But... you didn't say anything..."

"If you wanted to talk about it, sugar, we figured you'd bring it up." Ukyo shrugged nonchalantly. "Otherwise, it's none of our business." Turning, she dashed upstairs to get changed.

"But, since you brought it up..." Ranma said, then glanced at the clock, "Damn, we're running out of time." He hadn't really intended to bring this up yet, as it could be a very touchy subject, but he'd discovered that he genuinely liked Duo and wanted to help him get settled in as quickly and easily as possible. "Look, I don't know all the details about your past, but Akane's sister Nabiki always makes a point of finding out everything she can about new people in the neighbourhood, so based on what I *do* know, I'm gonna make a guess here. Don't get mad if I'm wrong, but I'm betting you haven't spent much time in a school setting in the last few years at the very least."

Violet eyes went wide with shock. With an effort, Duo managed to say, "That's a pretty safe bet."

"Well, I've had pretty much the same problem," Ranma grimaced. "My pop's idea of training a martial artist involves dragging the kid all over creation from toddler age up on so-called 'training trips'. School wasn't exactly a high priority. That changed once we landed back in Nerima. I had a lot of trouble at first, but eventually one of the teachers and I worked out a deal. Now, I'm *almost* caught up to where I should be in everything. Ms Hinako happens to be the English teacher at Furinkan, so she's probably the best bet in your case anyway. I'll introduce you to her, and she should be able to help you get things straightened around."

Duo didn't get a chance to respond. Ukyo dashed down the stairs, warning, "Guys, let's go, or we're going to be late." She held the restaurant door open and motioned impatiently, adding, "Besides, Ranchan, aren't you and Ryoga on Kuno Hair Patrol control this morning?"

"Oh damn, almost forgot!" Ranma raced out the door, swearing under his breath. "See you guys in class," he yelled back over his shoulder.

"C'mon, hon," Ukyo urged. "Let's get you and that braid of yours safely into the school while they've got ol' pineapple-head occupied."

Duo followed her down the sidewalk towards the school, his mind and emotions in turmoil. The revelation earlier that morning that the school principal had a Hawaii-fetish and a penchant for shaving the heads of unfortunate students in spite of the lack of an actual school rule regarding hair length had been bizarre but, considering that Ranma and Ukyo had long hair too, he wasn't too worried about it. It was either some strange sort of joke or they were used to handling the situation. Either way, his braid was safe.

He was admittedly rather curious as to exactly how much this Nabiki had found out about the Gundam pilots. While there was a fair bit of information in the public record, it would take a lot of digging to pull it together. 'Heero's gonna hit the roof when he finds out. Better tell the others first, maybe Wufei or Tro can keep him under control. We do *not* need Heero terrorizing the neighbours.'

Especially since it looked like at least some of those neighbours might turn out to be friends.

And that was what had him truly overwhelmed. Not only had this group apparently accepted him in spite of his past as a Gundam pilot - something he had learned not to count on over the past year - but Ranma had nailed his concerns about school in one breath and offered a possible solution in the next. Yet his fellow pilots, people he considered his friends, people who had seen him placed in uncomfortable school situations time and again during missions, hadn't even realized that there was a legitimate *reason* he dreaded school so much.

Nearing the school grounds, Duo shook his head slightly, pushing those thoughts away for the time being. Later. He'd think about it later.

 

Part 4:

"Where *is* Maxwell?" Wufei grumbled irritably, glancing at his watch. "He's going to make us late."

"I'll go check," Quatre offered hastily, not wanting Heero to take on the task. Heero wasn't the most diplomatic of people at the best of times, and, lately, Duo was guaranteed to overreact and interpret anything that he said in the absolute worst way possible. They really didn't need to start their first school day off with another misunderstanding.

Heero let Quatre go without protest, not trusting himself to deal with Duo without making things even worse. He hadn't meant to insult and upset him last night. He knew Duo dreaded school but he didn't understand why; Duo was certainly intelligent enough to do well, and making friends with students and teachers alike had never been a problem for the gregarious teen. Heero had *intended* to say that Duo couldn't ignore whatever the problem was as he had during the war, that he needed to explain what was bothering him so that they could deal with it. But, as usual when trying to deal with Duo, Heero himself had been tense and nervous, which meant that his voice went flat and hard, and everything he said had came out wrong, widening the fracture in their relationship even further.

Hurrying up the stairs, Quatre knocked firmly on the attic door. "Duo? Are you ready? It's time to go. Duo?" Still getting no response, he hesitantly opened the door and peeked inside. The room was deserted. "Guys? He's not here," he called as he hurried to join them in the living room.

Trowa ducked back into the house through the side door, "He's not out in the yard or in the shed with his bike either."

Struck by a sudden thought, Quatre checked the entryway, "His shoes and coat are gone. He must have left already."

Heero growled under his breath, then stalked towards the entryway. "We can't afford to all be late. Let's go." He yanked the door open just as a teenage girl with short, blue-black hair approached it.

"Hi," the short-haired girl said, smiling. "I'm Akane Tendo. My family has the dojo next door. I go to Furinkan too. I thought you might like to know a little bit about the school before you get there. We can talk on the way if you like."

Quatre slipped past Heero, giving Akane an answering smile and replying, "Thank you, that would be appreciated. I'm Quatre Winner, and these others are Heero Yuy, Trowa Barton, and Wufei Chang. There should be a fifth, but Duo seems to have left early this morning."

"Oh yes, I didn't actually meet him myself, but my sister Kasumi did. She was out sweeping early this morning when he went by. Ranma was just leaving to help our friend Ukyo at her restaurant, so he offered to show Duo around the neighbourhood on his way."

"Oh, that was kind of him," the blond said faintly, shooting a worried glance at Heero's clenched jaw. "And who is Ranma? Your brother?"

"No, though we'd both be happier if he was!" Akane laughed. "Actually, he's my fiancé. Our fathers arranged it - interfering old men. He and his parents are living with us at the moment, though our parents are away for a while visiting some friends. My oldest sister Kasumi is looking after things while they're gone."

Quatre stole another sidelong glance at Heero, noting with relief that his jaw had relaxed slightly. "So, what can you tell us about Furinkan?"

***

The four ex-Gundam pilots stared in disbelief. They had been certain that their pretty young neighbour had been joking, but there really was a man - wearing a Hawaiian shirt and with something that looked rather suspiciously like a pineapple on his head - running around just inside the school gate, waving scissors and hair clippers and shouting that the group that had entered just ahead of them all needed haircuts.

"That - that - *thing* - is the school principal?!" Wufei exclaimed in shock.

"Yep, that's him. Ol' pineapple-head himself," a tall, dark-haired boy confirmed, wandering up to the small group. "Mornin', Akane," he said, pulling a bandana out of his pocket and tying it around his head.

"Good morning, Ryoga," she answered, smiling cheerily up at him. "Good morning, Mousse, Shampoo," she added, nodding to the young people accompanying him. "It was Ranma's turn to help Ukyo with the breakfast rush today, but he should be along any..."

A red and black blur shot past them, through the school gate, and past the would-be barber, who suddenly found himself missing the tools of his trade and shouted in outrage.

"That'd be my cue," the boy with the bandana smirked, drawing in a deep breath and bellowing, "*SAOTOME, PREPARE TO DIE!*" before racing off after the blur and managing to "accidentally" wrap the principal up in one of his own extension cords in the process.

"And that's the cue for everyone *else* to hurry up and get in the school while they've got Principal Kuno somewhat - err - tied up," Akane said, waving the others towards the building. "He never bothers us once we're inside, but getting in the gate is a different story."

"Good morning, everyone," a girl clad in a form-fitting black leotard said, suddenly dropping down from the top of the wall.

"Morning, 'Dachi. Any sign of Ukyo?" Akane asked.

"Yes, she and a boy with hair down to here," Kodachi indicated a point just above her knees, "were slipping in the back way a few minutes ago."

"Oh, good, I wondered where Ranma had left Duo," the short-haired girl said. "Now come on, everybody, we've got to get inside so that Ranma and Ryoga can ditch the principal and get in on time too."

"Umm, Miss Tendo," Quatre asked, drawing her aside slightly, "why aren't any of *them*," he indicated the group just about to enter the school building, "wearing the school uniform?"

Overhearing the question, Shampoo turned and smiled very sweetly as she answered, "Because we don't want to." Silently, she added, 'And none of the staff is capable of *making* us,' as she continued on into the school.

"And they don't have a father capable of flooding the house with tears at the mere suggestion that his darling daughter might not want to wear the *traditional* Japanese schoolgirl attire," Akane added out loud, making a face as she and the pilots followed Shampoo in.

Wufei shot one last glance at the spectacular martial arts display taking place in the schoolyard as he entered the building. 'Those boys are *good*, *very* good. I wonder whether they take part in any of the martial arts clubs here at the school...' A quick glance out the stairwell window showed that the two martial artists were still keeping the crazy principal occupied as a group of latecomers ran through the gate and towards the school, so when they walked into their assigned homeroom on the third floor mere moments later and both teens were casually sprawled in their desks, Wufei was unable to keep silent. "How did - but - they were just..." he spluttered in disbelief.

Akane just shrugged in response, shooting Ranma a pointed glare and motioning discreetly to the curtain fluttering slightly in the breeze, as Ms Hinako - in her adult form - introduced herself to the new students. Ranma "eeped" softly, then leaned over and shoved the forgotten window the rest of the way shut, just as Ukyo and Duo entered the room.

***

At lunch time, the five ex-Gundam pilots exited a side door, heading for an isolated area of the school grounds that Heero had spotted from a third-story window. There were a number of things that would have to wait till the end of the day for discussion, but he felt that the group needed a chance to talk in private about some of the more bizarre things they had seen today before then.

"Shit," Duo swore softly, "Four behind us."

"Another six in the bushes to the left," Wufei added, swearing under his breath in Mandarin.

"Five in the trees ahead," Trowa said, surreptitiously placing himself between Quatre and the nearest threat.

"Ten to the right," Heero said grimly. 'Damn, just what we needed - trouble on the first day. If we fight back, someone's going to get hurt and we're going to look bad. If we don't fight back, *we're* going to get hurt and it probably won't be the last time it happens. Real bright, Yuy, leading your friends straight into an ambush. And Duo shouldn't be fighting with those still-healing ribs - one good blow and they'll be broken all over again. *Dammit!*'

"Well, well, well, if it isn't the Gundam pilots. How *did* such pretty little boys ever manage to bring down Oz?" one of the hulking ambushers said, the leer in his voice more than clear despite the mask hiding his expression.

'Damn, this could be *very* ugly,' Heero thought, revising his estimate of the threat as more masked individuals appeared, all carrying sticks or bats of some sort. 'I don't think these are all students, either, some of them look older than that...'

The pilots quickly backed into a circle with Quatre, the one with the least hand-to-hand combat experience and the most strategic skills, in the centre.

"Now, now, boys, no need to get all defensive. You could just let us have our fun, no need for you to fight back. Isn't that what you're all supposed to be doing now - keeping the peace? No more fighting or violence?"

There was no doubt remaining now, this was a definite set-up. Oh, there probably would have been *some* trouble with the school bullies, that was inevitable, but nothing on this sort of scale. Heero counted somewhere in the area of fifty individuals surrounding them. They were in definite trouble.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the group of students that they had met earlier flipped through the air and landed in a loose circle between the pilots and the crowd of would-be attackers. The leotard-clad girl was twirling a gymnastics ribbon in an apparently aimless fashion till abruptly she snapped it out, snatching a club neatly out of someone's hand. Akane stood in a traditional ready stance, a long-haired brunette held an oddly-shaped weapon of some sort, the purple-haired girl wielded a pair of bonbori, and the white-robed boy was twirling nunchakus. The two teens that had distracted the principal that morning stood in relaxed positions, hands in pockets. The pigtailed boy rocked back and forth slightly on the balls of his feet before saying, "Hmm, don't recall there being a Furinkan High Welcoming Committee, do you, Ryoga?"

"Nope, I don't think there is one Ranma. Maybe the Nerima Wrecking Crew should take on the job."

Heero caught a slight bit of movement in the crowd as several individuals - 'Probably students,' he thought - slipped away.

"Huh, sounds like a good idea to me," Ranma answered, "but I think we need to show these fellows the way out first." Both boys pulled their hands out of their pockets. Ranma raised his to chest level, palms facing inward and cupping away from his body. Most of the crowd in front of him broke and ran. At the same time, Ryoga had raised his own hands into a similar position, with a similar result.

'Strange stance - never seen one like that before,' Heero mused, starting to feel much better about their chances of avoiding not only injury but also a public relations disaster.

"Guess they already knew the way out," the bandana-clad teen smirked. "But these guys seem to need a little help," he observed, cracking his knuckles in anticipation.

"Well then, guys, let's help them out!" With that, Ranma and the others sprang into action while the pilots watched in stunned disbelief. Within mere moments, the remaining twenty or so individuals were chained up, wrapped up, or lying in unconscious heaps. All without any of the pilots having to so much as lift a finger.

'This is almost *too* convenient,' Heero thought, suddenly suspicious. 'Why did so many of them run off without a fight, yet these few stayed? These ones weren't helpless, but they weren't particularly exceptional either... Those students handled them easily, almost *too* easily, and it still almost seemed like they were holding back...'

"What do you want to do with them?" Ranma asked the five new students. "Got somebody you can call, or local cops, or...?"

"We should probably call Une - but it might cause more trouble than it's worth if they claim we started it," Quatre observed worriedly, his tactician's mind rapidly running through options.

"Ah, now *that* we can handle," Ranma said, grinning broadly. "Never thought I'd be grateful for Gos's nosiness, but..." he trailed off as Akane came up to the group, dragging along a thin, sickly-looking boy with a video recorder in his hand. "Hand it over, Gos," he ordered, hand outstretched expectantly.

Reluctantly, the boy ejected a disc from the camera and handed it to Ranma, who then passed it to Quatre.

"Uh, thanks," the blond said, looking somewhat dazed.

***

Inside the school, Ms Hinako tucked her coin back in her pocket and pushed the window closed. Ranma had been picking up his own catch-up work and inquiring about extra help for one of the new students when he had looked out the window and spotted the trouble brewing below. He had quickly jumped down and rounded up the rest of the Nerima Wrecking Crew from the schoolyard while she had monitored the situation from the classroom. Fortunately, Ranma and the others had the situation well in hand now; her assistance would not be required.

She turned back to her desk and began to make a list of subjects. 'Hmm, mobile suit pilot – probably strong in math and physics, so maybe some advanced placement tests for those... Gundam pilot in particular – probably explosives training, so some chemistry but might be lacking in biochem... Biology, botany, history, economics... ' The young woman laughed lightly, thinking, 'Poor kid, he's going to be sorry he asked by the time he works through these. But with luck, he'll be able to get advanced placement in some subjects so that he's exempted from them, leaving him with extra time to get caught up in the areas he's behind in. Even though Ranma only managed a few exemptions last year, it helped considerably, and earning an extra credit in Mandarin with the help of Shampoo and Mousse gave him a big boost this year.'

When Ranma had first approached Ms Hinako with his proposition a year ago, she had been highly skeptical. In return for her assistance with tutoring and helping him catch up his school credits, Ranma had offered to allow her to drain enough energy off of him to maintain her adult form for half the school day. Initially, she had accepted with the proviso that if he did not take his studies seriously, she would not provide any additional assistance. Looking back, she was chagrined at how badly she had underestimated the martial artist's determination and intelligence. He had covered nearly three times as much material as she had anticipated within the first few months, and his progress had continued since then. Once a few missing foundation skills had been filled in, Ranma had tackled his scholastic studies with the same "never give up, never lose" dedication that he applied to martial arts, and she had been more than happy to keep supplying him with new academic challenges to meet.

An interesting side effect of the deal had turned out to be that Ranma's own energy reserves increased proportionately in order to make up for the added daily chi drain, leading other members of the Wrecking Crew to eventually offer their energy as well in exchange for tutoring. As time passed, Ms Hinako had gradually improved her own abilities, leading to her burning up less energy in maintaining her adult form. Now, she could maintain it on very little added energy, leaving her with real hope for a future as a normal adult.

Humming cheerfully under her breath, Ms Hinako rose from her desk as students began to file in for the first class of the afternoon. Life, even in Nerima, was good.

***

Quatre, Wufei, and Heero stood just outside the school gates waiting for the rest of their group. Duo had pulled Trowa aside to speak to their homeroom teacher on their way out of the building, and the two of them had not yet appeared.

"I wonder what Ms Hinako wanted to speak to Trowa about," Quatre said, looking somewhat concerned.

"I do not know, but apparently she wished to speak to Maxwell as well," Wufei said. "Here comes Barton now, but Maxwell isn't with him."

"Where's Duo?" Heero demanded as Trowa approached.

"He said to go on without him; he's going to be busy with Ms Hinako for quite a while," the taller boy answered. Frowning, he demanded, "Had any of you realized that, other than those brief stays at schools during the war, Duo only ever attended school for one year, during the time he was at the Maxwell Church Orphanage?"

"What?!" Quatre exclaimed in disbelief.

"Oh, over the three years that he was being trained, G crammed university-level math and physics down his throat, together with a healthy dollop of chemistry as it applied to explosives and another of human anatomy as it applied to killing and first aid, but everything else he's had to pick up on his own," Trowa said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Oh, dear," Quatre murmured. "No wonder he always hated school missions..."

"I always thought he got poor grades on purpose, just because he didn't like attending school," the Chinese boy said, disgusted at his own failure to understand his friend.

"Why didn't he ever *tell* us? Or ask for help?" Heero whispered, abruptly realizing just how much his own repeated sharp criticism of Duo's schoolwork must have hurt.

"I suspect because none of us bothered to ask him what the problem was," Trowa responded unhappily. "We all made our own assumptions about his behaviour but never bothered to ask him what was wrong. The only reason he told me now was because he thought I might have similar – gaps – caused by my background. S was much more thorough than G, though. I don't have nearly the depth of training in physics and chemistry that Duo has, but since I was being trained for infiltration assignments, S made sure that I had a reasonable degree of knowledge in a broad range of subjects.

"Duo only brought it up now because Ms Hinako is giving him a series of placement tests to help figure out which subjects he is behind in and where he's at in them, and he thought I might benefit from them too. Apparently, he may be able to get advanced placement in the areas he is strong in and be exempted from those classes in order to catch up in others."

"Did Duo ask her about this himself?" Quatre asked, wondering how Duo had found out that this was a possibility.

"No," the other boy answered, "and I'll warn you in advance, Heero, that you're not going to like this.

"Apparently the middle Tendo sister, Nabiki, makes somewhat of a habit of information gathering, and once she found out who was moving in next door, she researched all of us and shared the information with her family and friends. Based on whatever information she found and his own somewhat spotty academic career, Ranma guessed that Duo would have similar difficulties to his own and offered to speak to the teacher about providing him with assistance too."

"*Dammit* - what level of information would she have come up with on Duo to let a complete stranger figure that out when none of his friends ever guessed?" Heero growled darkly. 'And what sort of friends would have overlooked a problem this big for this long?' he accused himself silently. 'At least now I understand why I upset him so easily last night. I'm sorry, Duo...'

 

Part 5:

Duo sighed and reluctantly started towards the house. He'd have much rather spent the evening with Ranma and his other new friends - he'd been issued an open invitation to help out at either of the restaurants that the group was responsible for, in exchange for food and a little mutual homework help - but he knew that delaying the upcoming confrontation would only make it even worse. Heero had scheduled a mission briefing for tonight, and missing that would only make Heero even more pissed off than the news that Duo had concealed massive educational shortcomings would have already made him.

And Duo had no illusions that Trowa wouldn't have shared that information with the others. After all, his educational shortfalls were a liability, one that he'd knowingly and deliberately hidden from his fellow pilots. Near-failing grades didn't exactly go along with laying low and keeping their noses clean.

Oh, that might not be the *only* reason that some of them would be upset - Quatre in particular might be more concerned with the fact that he hadn't asked his friends for help - but it would most likely be the main one.

Just as Duo reached for the door, it flew open and Quatre demanded, "Why didn't you tell us why you disliked school missions so much?"

Groaning inwardly, Duo squeezed past him into the narrow entryway, removing his shoes as he responded defensively, "Because you never asked." Which was certainly one reason, if not the only one. They'd drawn their own thoroughly inaccurate conclusions about his grades and his general attitude towards school, which had pissed him off enough that he hadn't felt the least bit like putting the record straight. It wasn't exactly something that he'd *wanted* to admit to in the first place, after all.

"You should have told us."

Duo stiffened at the flat reprimand from behind him. Great, Heero was right here waiting to jump down his throat too. He hung his coat on a hook before turning to find them all giving him varying degrees of accusing looks. "Fuck," he muttered under his breath. More loudly, he said, "Yeah, well, now you know." Schoolbag in hand, he continued wearily, "Look, can we just take the ass-reaming as read, and get the damn mission briefing over with, please? I've got a lot of homework to do."

"We'd be happy to help you with it."

Shaking his head, Duo said, "Thanks, Quatre, I'll keep that in mind, but I think I'm set for now. Ms. Hinako made sure I understood everything before I left." Maybe he'd take Quatre up on the offer some other time, but right now, he just wanted to drop the subject. He managed to dredge up a half-hearted grin. "I can handle it, it's just going to take me a while. So could we please get the mission briefing over with?"

"Hn." Heero turned and walked away, heading towards the small living room area. Duo decided to take that as agreement, and evidently the others did as well, since they trailed along behind him, leaving Duo to bring up the rear.

Heero remained standing while the rest of them sat. "By the numbers," he announced, establishing the order of turns before launching into his own report.

"General observations. The high school shows evidence of substantial repairs, as do many other buildings in the area. The principal is..." Heero hesitated, searching for a sufficiently descriptive term before finally settling for, "...strange. .. and bears further investigation.

"There seems to be a disproportionately high number of martial artists in the region, all of whom practise rather... unique... styles at rather high skill levels. Again, this bears further investigation. As does Nabiki Tendo, who has apparently researched us so thoroughly.

"The ambush. Although clearly meant to look like a normal hazing incident, that scenario is unlikely. There were too many suspects involved, and they knew too much about us. They appeared to be aware that we need to keep a low profile. Had those other students not stepped in, we would have had a serious problem; we would have had to choose between the potential negative implications of fighting all out and possibly severely injuring or killing someone, and the high risk of serious injury to ourselves if we held back. Good luck, not good planning, saved us.

"The incident should not have happened. We were careless and inattentive; that is unacceptable. It must not happen again." Seating himself, Heero gave Duo a sharp nod.

Duo dragged himself to his feet - it had been one damn long day, and it was far from over - and began, "Of our neighbours, I've met Kasumi Tendo and Ranma Saotome. She seems pretty nice, but there was no real opportunity to learn anything substantive about her. Ranma, however, is one of those highly-skilled martial artists that Heero was talking about. He's got phenomenal balance, he's strong, and he's damn fast." At the restaurant that morning, one of the customers had knocked over a cup, which had then rolled off the edge of the table. Ranma had caught it before it hit the floor, and Duo could have sworn that he'd been on the other side of the restaurant when it had started to roll.

"He seems really easy-going. Nice." Duo shrugged, and admitted, "I like him, and the others that I've met. They know who I am - what I am - and it doesn't seem to matter to them." He was a pretty good judge of character - on the streets, that was a basic survival skill - and his gut instinct was to trust Ranma and his friends. To make them *his* friends. He left those details out of his report, however, as just mentioning that he liked the other teens had been enough to make Heero scowl darkly.

"I do agree that Nabiki Tendo should be checked out, since she apparently checked *us* out so thoroughly, but I don't think we'll find a real problem there; the media published an awful lot of info about us after the first war, after all, so she could've just searched public records.

"Really, it's just too soon to have found much to go on. I think Heero covered what little we've got pretty thoroughly." Duo reseated himself, turning control of the briefing over to Trowa. He really hoped that the rest of the meeting went quickly; he had a lot of homework to get done before bed.

Trowa didn't even bother standing up. He simply said, "I concur with Heero."

"I agree with Duo that it's too soon to have made any real progress," Quatre offered. "I also agree with Heero's suggestions regarding additional investigation into certain individuals. I have nothing further to add at this time."

Wufei rose to speak. "Yuy is correct that the number of high-level martial artists in the area is exceptionally high. There were some familiar elements, but the styles exhibited by those we've seen in action were extremely unusual. This will definitely bear further research."

In other words, it was too damn soon to reach any conclusions, which wasn't exactly surprising, considering that this had been their first day in the field. Despite his impatience to get the whole thing over with so that he could go get started on his schoolwork, Duo bit his tongue and managed *not* to point out what a colossal waste of time this briefing really was.

Well, he managed it until Heero brought up the topic of his educational shortcomings again.

"05 and I will look into the martial artists. 03 and 04, check into Nabiki Tendo and Principal Kuno." Heero used their pilot numbers deliberately. Handling both a professional and a personal relationship with the same person was something that he still wasn't very good at. Relena had been trying to help him learn how to balance the two, and referring to people differently in different contexts was one of the coping techniques that she'd taught him. In a work context, she had been Minister Darlian and he had been Mr. Yuy; in private life, she'd been Relena and he'd been Heero. It didn't solve all of his issues, but it helped. "02, that leaves you free to concentrate on your schoolwork."

Duo surged to his feet, hurt and angry. "Dammit, Yuy, I'm part of this too! I managed all through the war; I can manage now. Let me do my damn job!" And they wondered why he'd never told any of them the truth before?!

"And we can manage right now; you need..." Heero began. He knew that Duo could 'manage' if necessary, but there really wasn't much to do yet, and they could easily spare Duo's assistance for the moment. Duo should take advantage of the opportunity while it lasted. Frowning slightly, he searched for the right words to make Duo understand.

But Duo didn't give Heero the chance to find them. Instead, he snatched up his schoolbag and stormed out of the room, pounding up the stairs and slamming the attic door shut in his wake.

***

Standing at the window the next morning, Ranma watched as Shampoo and Ukyo took their turn at Kuno Hair Patrol control. He wasn't happy with the results of the Wrecking Crew's investigation of the previous day's lunch hour mess.

While the group had recognized a number of the individuals involved in spite of their masks, they had not been able to get much information out of them. Shampoo, Mousse, and Kodachi had tracked each of the known offenders down and questioned them, but were unable to find out anything beyond the fact that they had been offered a considerable sum of money by a stranger to show up and harass the ex-Gundam pilots. While the individuals had been quite content to face the pilots, based on the assurance that they could not fight back without causing considerable trouble for themselves, they had been much less eager to face the infamous Nerima Wrecking Crew and were convinced that they had been severely misled. They hadn't been paid nearly enough to guarantee their loyalty to their unknown employer.

Particularly since three members of the Crew that were *not* known for being honourable to the point of their own detriment had shown up at their homes to question them and make it clear that anyone who messed with the ex-pilots would be dealing with the Wrecking Crew as well. Faced with Kodachi bearing a number of new concoctions and in an experimental mood, the troublemakers had been more than willing to talk - they simply didn't have much information to pass on.

The warning tingle that always preceded trouble in Nerima was back in full force, filling Ranma with nervous energy. Though the trouble appeared for once to have been attracted by someone other than himself, he knew that he and the others would inevitably end up getting involved. It was, quite simply, what they did.

Hearing Duo's voice coming down the hall, Ranma drew away from the window. He needed to let the pilots know what they had found out from the locals, though he doubted they would give him any details about the attackers that had actually been captured. 'The students involved left at the mere mention of the Wrecking Crew. The other Nerima natives, not realizing that we're avoiding chi moves right now, ran for it when they recognized the beginning positions of a Mokou Takabisha and a Shi Shi Hokoudan. Only outsiders would have been foolish enough to hang around and actually try to fight all of us with mere three to one odds. I doubt that four to one odds would have bothered the pilots particularly either, so that leaves me wondering exactly why those people *did* stick around once the others ran off...

'I think Nabiki needs to find out some more about exactly who is stirring up the trouble for these guys at the political level. I really doubt that the two events are unconnected, which means that we're going to have to deal with them sooner or later.'

***

As the day wore on towards lunch time, Quatre caught Trowa watching him on several occasions. Towards the end of the war, he'd thought that they were getting closer, that maybe their friendship was going to turn into something more. He'd certainly hoped it was. But then the war had ended. He'd been got drawn back into WEI business and his role as 'the Winner heir', Trowa had gone back to the circus, and nothing had ever came of it.

'Maybe this mission is a good thing, since it's giving us a reason to spend time together again,' Quatre thought hopefully. He didn't intend to let one minute of that time go to waste.

"Trowa, would you like to join me for lunch? We need to talk."

***

"Ranma, you *jerk*!" Akane suddenly shrieked, startling Ranma out of his quiet contemplation of Ryoga's relaxed form, sprawled near him on the grass. With a quick flick of the wrist, she swung her bento at Ranma just as he hastily jumped into the nearest tree, his gaze following her quick glance towards the school.

'Damn, Mr. Tanaka's watching again,' Ranma groaned silently. 'He looks suspicious. Guess we've all been gettin' too relaxed with the folks away, actin' too friendly in public... Haveta fix that, he tells Akane's pop *everything* ...'

"*Uncute tomboy*! What're ya tryin' to do, *poison me*! As if I'm gonna eat anything *YOU* fixed for lunch!" he shouted back, sliding into the all-too-familiar role.

Ryoga heaved an almost inaudible sigh before vaulting to his feet and taking up his part in the act. "*Saotome*, how dare you insult the fair Akane! Prepare to die!"

'Damn - am I ever getting tired of this,' all three friends thought as they continued the never-ending charade.

"How long till Ranma and lost boy get together?" Shampoo wondered quietly to the others as they waited to see if they would need to take a turn in the rapidly-escalating "argument".

"My money's on two weeks," Ukyo said.

"I think it will be longer. One month," the spectacled Chinese youth declared.

"By the end of the weekend," Kodachi said firmly, drawing surprised glances from the others. She knew what she was talking about, though. Having friends was still a novelty to her, and she spent a great deal of time and energy observing all of them.

Since the beginning of the week, Ryoga had stopped hiding his appreciative gazes from Ranma, so obviously Ranma had finally told him that he was gay. 'About time too,' Kodachi thought. 'Poor Ryoga's been mooning over him since before the wedding fiasco. Only someone as entirely unaware of his own appeal as Ranma could have missed it.' And she hadn't missed the increasingly speculative glances that Ranma had been directing in Ryoga's direction over the last few days either.

With a shrug, Kodachi explained, "Ryoga already knows what he wants, he's just waiting on Ranma. And Ranma does *everything* at top speed - he's thinking about it already, so he'll realize what he wants by then and won't waste any time going after it."

"Shampoo - sorry, forgot - *I* think Kodachi is right," the Amazon agreed. Speaking Japanese properly still required considerable conscious effort. *English* was much easier to learn as far as she was concerned. Maybe because Ms Hinako had made her speak it properly from the very start, so she didn't have a lot of bad habits to break. She had started off speaking broken Japanese in part to create a misleading "pretty but vapid" image in the eyes of her rivals, but had ended up regretting it greatly as both the image and the speech pattern had proved surprisingly difficult to vanquish when they became disadvantageous.

As the bell signalled the end of lunch, the unlikely group of friends turned to enter the building.

"Almost forgot," Mousse said, smacking his palm to his forehead, "'Dachi, can you help at the restaurant after school? Ranma's got a meeting with Ms Hinako and can't make it."

"Certainly," the Kuno girl answered eagerly. Maybe the novelty of helping her *friends* - she couldn't quite contain a delighted shiver at that word - would eventually wear off but, at least for now, working at Ucchan's and the Nekohanten held an incredible appeal for her.

 

Part 6:

"Would all members of the NWC please report to the front foyer... All members of the NWC to the front foyer, please..."

Eyes lifted from their work at the first words coming over the loudspeaker in the middle of morning classes. In various classrooms throughout the school, seven individuals closed their books and headed for the school's main entrance, with a brief sidetrip to dispose of their school things along the way. Five curious sets of eyes observed their departure.

When the last members of the Nerima Wrecking Crew arrived in the front foyer, they found Ranma, Akane, and their usual local law enforcement contact studying a map.

"Missing kid," Akane explained briefly to the rest of the group. "Three year old boy, riding a trike in the park when his sitter lost track of him. He's wearing green overalls and a white sweater, and a blue, hooded coat. His mom's an executive director for one of the big colonial firms; they're here visiting friends on vacation. The sitter wasted an hour looking for him herself before reporting what happened. He's been gone almost three hours now. Current assumption is lost."

"Mousse, you up to putting in some air time?" Ranma asked. Receiving a nod in response, he drew a series of circles on the map. "This is where the kid was last seen. This," he indicated the next ring, "is the area that the cops are checking, but even on his own they think he could be as far out as here." Moving to the outermost ring, he continued, "But I'm betting he could have even made it as far as this in three hours. Since the cops are concentrating on the inner area, I think we should do a brief check of it, hit some spots they might overlook, like under the canal bridges, then concentrate on the outlying areas.

"Akane, Ukyo, you two take the photos that were supplied and talk to people in the immediate area that the sitter lost him in, then work your way out in a spiral. Kodachi, take the rooftops and cover the area from this canal over to this road here. Shampoo, the same on the other side of the canal. Mousse, do a fly-by on the water areas first, we find more young kids near the water than I like to think about...

"I'll take this section here, and Ryoga – gimme your GPS for a minute," the group's defacto leader quickly programmed in the settings for his directionally- challenged friend, "- there's your search area.

"Check in with Kasumi every half hour, on the usual staggered schedule. Everybody got their communicators? " Receiving a series of nods in response, he asked, "Any questions, suggestions, observations? No? Okay, then let's go."

***

"Akane Tendo and Ukyo Kuonji are missing. They left when the 'NWC' members were summoned to the foyer during second period," Wufei reported as he joined Heero, Trowa, and Quatre for lunch.

"That means that everyone who was part of the group that Hibiki referred to as the Nerima Wrecking Crew is missing. Clearly, they must be the 'NWC'," Heero observed, frowning slightly. "However, that does not answer the question of why they were called out of class today, or where they went."

"Perhaps Duo will know," Trowa suggested calmly. "They seem to have welcomed him into their circle."

Heero acknowledged Trowa's comment with a noncommittal "Hn," his frown turning to a dark scowl. By mutual agreement, they had left Duo alone to cool down two nights ago. Yesterday morning, he'd been gone before anyone went looking for him, had avoided them all day at school, and had gone straight to his room afterwards with the muttered excuse that he had a lot of work to do. He'd obviously still been upset, so they'd left him alone. But this morning, he had once again been gone from the house before anyone even knew that he was up. None of them had seen him until after they had arrived at the school. He and several of the 'NWC' group had dashed into the classroom at the last minute, laughing and out of breath. There had been no opportunity to talk to him before classes began, but Heero had hoped that he would get a chance to finally try and smooth things over during lunch.

That was going to be a little difficult, since Duo was once again not going to be joining them. Instead, he was taking a working lunch while Ms Hinako reviewed his homework from the previous night. It was a sensible use of time - but, under the circumstances, Heero couldn't help but wonder whether it had more to do with avoiding him and the other pilots than anything else.

***

Just before the last class of the day, a group of slightly tired, slightly dirty, but very contented, martial artists slipped back into their classrooms. The boy had been located finally, even further out than Ranma had expected and well beyond the police search area. The youngster had been convinced that he only needed to peddle a few more blocks to find his Grandma's house. It seemed that he had slept through the entire shuttle trip to Earth and didn't realize he wasn't anywhere near his Grandma's house back on L4.

Ryoga had called Kasumi to confirm that the child had been found before he and Mousse had roof-hopped the weary boy - and his trike - back to turn him over to their law enforcement contact. Then they'd all hightailed it back to school.

Tempting though it might be to hang around and witness the boy's reunion with his family, the members of the Wrecking Crew were always very careful to avoid any chance of landing in the media spotlight.

***

"Where's Duo?" Heero demanded sharply as Quatre exited the school alone.

"He's meeting with Ms Hinako," Quatre answered.

"How long did he expect the meeting to last?"

"He - didn't exactly say. But he isn't planning to be home for supper."

Disappointed, Heero discarded his half-formed plan to order in pizza, one of Duo's favourite foods, as a way to show Duo that he wanted to fix things between them.

Sensing that there was more, Trowa prodded gently, "And?"

Quatre hesitated a moment, knowing that Heero wasn't going to like the rest of what Duo had said. "Actually, he said that we shouldn't wait up for him."

Trowa grimaced slightly, not entirely surprised. Duo was living up to his motto. Rather than pretend that everything was fine, he was simply avoiding the situation.

"What? Maxwell knows that we're having nightly briefings," Wufei snapped irritably. He couldn't believe that his teammate would blow off his job so lightly.

Drawing a careful breath, Heero said, "But I did tell him that we didn't need his help with the mission right now." His words were a reminder to himself as much as Wufei. It was *his* fault that Duo was avoiding them, not Duo's.

Quatre nodded unhappily. That was exactly what Duo had rather bitterly pointed out in response to his own cautious inquiry. "He's still a bit... upset... about that, I'm afraid. I think we just need to give him a little more time to cool down." Duo didn't get angry too often and, when he did, he usually got over it fairly quickly if nothing happened to stir him up again before then.

Usually.

But, remembering the hurt bitterness in Duo's tone, Quatre couldn't help but wonder whether *this* time would prove to be the unfortunate exception to the rule.

***

"Is everyone clear on their assignments? " Ms Hinako asked as the small study group gathered up their books. They all had a few chapters of history to be studied, but that was where any similarity in their homework ended. She'd tried to be sure that each one understood the new concepts in tonight's assignments - vector algebra for Ranma, Japanese grammar for Shampoo, Mendelian genetics for Duo, and Newton's Laws for Ryoga - but it never hurt to double-check.

A chorus of assurances rang out in response to her question.

"Good," she beamed happily. It really was a treat teaching students who genuinely *wanted* to learn. "I won't be available tomorrow during lunch or after classes, but I will be here early in the morning, if you need to talk to me. Have a good evening!"

"See ya, Ms Hinako," Ranma responded, waving as he started out the door. Ryoga and Shampoo followed close behind him.

Duo left the room more slowly, debating whether to go back to the house and just sneak in through the attic window so that he wouldn't have to deal with the others, or whether to go find somewhere else to study. He really didn't feel like being alone, but he didn't want to be around the other pilots, either. Maybe... Breaking into a run, he managed to catch up to the others just as they exited the building. "Hey, guys, wait up a sec!" he called.

Exchanging curious looks, the three martial artists halted outside the school doors and waited for Duo. "What's up?" Ranma asked as their new classmate joined them.

"Uh, I was just wondering whether maybe you'd know if Ukyo could use a little extra help tonight?"

"She'll be closing up for the night by now," Ryoga said, shaking his head.

"But Cat Café stays open late, and can always use an extra pair of hands," Shampoo volunteered. Ranma, Ukyo, and the others who had spent time with Duo in the mornings had already made it clear that they liked him. It would be good for the rest of the Wrecking Crew to spend some time getting to know him as well. Then, they would have a better idea of just how far to admit him into their circle. "Meal and tips for work. Help each other with homework during slow times and after closing." Ukyo had commented that, while she didn't think he'd had any experience in the restaurant business before, he was a quick study and a hard worker. Unlike some friends who'd volunteered to help in the past, he'd more than earned his breakfast.

Duo grinned. "Sounds like a good deal to me." A *very* good deal. Food, companionship, and some good, honest labour to keep him too busy to brood.

It was definitely one hell of a lot better than spending the evening alone again, hiding out in his attic room and feeling sorry for himself.

 

Part 7:

The four ex-Gundam pilots entered the busy café, looking around for their fifth member.

"He said he was coming here after he finished the last placement test, but I don't see him at any of the tables," Quatre murmured, anxiously sweeping his gaze over the tables a second time. "He hasn't come home for supper in days, and he's been gone before breakfast as well. It's like he's deliberately avoiding us. Surely he's not still upset over the whole school thing? It's not like Duo to hold a grudge..."

"Braid-boy! Need table four wiped and order's up for Six!"

"I thought Ranma had the front, Shampoo!" a familiar voice responded.

"Had to take a delivery cross town, need Mousse and me both in kitchen and 'Dachi still out on other delivery!"

"'Kay, I'm on it," Duo called as he backed carefully through the doorway, pushing the swinging door open with his elbow while balancing a load of clean glasses. Friday night sure was busy around here. Not that he was complaining; keeping busy was a good thing. Placing the glasses on the counter, he grabbed a damp rag from beneath it, stuffed an order pad in his pocket, picked up the order from the kitchen window, and headed out into the dining area.

"*Maxwell*?" Wufei gasped in surprise. He'd expected to find the other youth dining at the restaurant, or perhaps engaging in a study session at a quiet corner table, not working as a waiter.

Busily passing out Table Six's order, Duo stole a quick sideways glance towards the new arrivals, his cheery grin faltering. Shit. Just what he needed. Not. Quatre's pointed inquiry as to his plans for the evening had made it clear that his avoidance routine wasn't going to be tolerated much longer, but he'd kind of hoped that they wouldn't *all* come chasing after him. At least they weren't likely to make a public scene, so he might get away with keeping the explanations to a minimum.

Duo gave a casual wave and forced grin in the direction of his housemates. "Oh, hi guys." He expertly wiped down a table as he asked, "You here to eat?"

"I guess we could have supper while we're here," Quatre said hesitantly, moving towards the table. That hadn't been the original plan, but it was obvious that Duo couldn't just leave with them immediately; the restaurant was clearly short-handed. And staying would at least give them an opportunity to keep an eye on him for a while. Duo's anti-social behaviour lately was a matter of considerable concern; Quatre wanted to know whether it was restricted to the four of them or not.

"You're - *working* - here?" Heero inquired disbelievingly.

"Oh, no, *working* here would require special permission from the school principal to have a job while attending school as a full-time student. Helping friends in exchange for homework help, a meal, and a share of the tips, however," Duo observed with a conspiratorial wink, "is a different story altogether." He handed menus to them, then hurried off to refill someone's water glass, glad of the excuse to avoid the inevitable interrogation for the moment.

"Homework help, a meal, and a share of the tips?" Wufei repeated in stunned disbelief.

"Obviously, he's doing it for the money," Trowa dead-panned, not bothering to add what was, to him at least, obvious. Duo was clearly missing the camaraderie that he had grown used to first with the Sweepers, then later with Hilde at the salvage yard. Having failed to find it where it *should* have been offered, namely at home with the other pilots, Duo had turned elsewhere for that odd combination of work, play, teasing, and friendship that seemed to be so essential to him.

Since Quatre had approached Trowa at lunch on their second day of classes, he and Quatre had been... preoccupied. The attraction had been there between them almost from their very first meeting, but building a relationship together meant really getting to know each other, something that they hadn't had the opportunity to accomplish until now. Over the past few days, they'd spent virtually all of their time together, learning about each other as people rather than comrades in arms. Trowa knew that Duo wouldn't begrudge them that private time, but it did mean that they hadn't been offering much in the way of companionship to him, or to anyone else.

Wufei hadn't exactly been approachable either. He was spending most of his free time meditating and had been decidedly short with anyone who dared interrupt him. The hot-tempered Chinese youth was still tearing himself up over his involvement in the Mariemaia affair, plus he seemed to be having trouble dealing with the frequent, fierce arguments between the engaged couple next door.

As for Heero... well, he had yet to heal the breach in his friendship with Duo, and Trowa was beginning to wonder if maybe Heero had let it go for too long. Duo's gaze was no longer wistful when directed at Heero; it had moved beyond that and into something that looked an awful lot like hopeless despair. If something did not happen soon to resolve the situation, the distance between the two would reach the point of no return.

It was no wonder that Duo chose to stay away from the house - Trowa doubted that he considered it home at this point - from before sunrise to well after sunset.

Heero retreated behind the comforting familiarity of an icy mask. 'Homework help? Why wouldn't he come to... No, Yuy, don't lie to yourself. You know perfectly well why he wouldn't come to you. How many times in the past did you sneer at him, call him an idiot, and refuse when he asked you for help? He has no way of knowing that you thought it was all just an excuse to flirt and tease when you were already drowning in confusion over your feelings for him. And even if he did know that, he has no way of knowing that your reaction now would be entirely different even if it *was* an excuse for flirtatious teasing.

'How the hell am I going to fix this? How can I show him that I've changed when he's never around? Maybe this is fate's way of paying back all the times I ignored him, or at least pretended to. What am I going to do? What the hell *can* I do?'

Sighing quietly as he watched Duo bustle around the restaurant, smiling and joking with the patrons and staff, Heero had to admit that he had no idea how to fix things. His original plans had been dependant on Duo at least giving him a fair chance to show how much he'd changed. And that obviously just wasn't going to happen. A change in tactics was obviously in order, but what kind of change? He really didn't want to make things any *worse*.

Maybe Relena could suggest something.

***

"Relena, I just don't know what to do. Every single thing I try seems to make things worse, not better."

"Heero, maybe you're going to have to forget about a gradual approach. Maybe you need to just sit down with him and explain exactly what you feel *first*. Then, go back and explain your past behaviour if he asks about it."

Heero frowned. "I don't know, Relena. I'm not sure that I can just come right out and express my..."

A soft knock on the door interrupted him, then the door opened a crack and Duo peeked in, a hesitant but serious look on his face, "Oh, good, you're still up Heero. I was just wonderin'... "

As Heero shifted in his chair, turning to face Duo more directly, the vid-phone screen became visible to the youth standing in the doorway. Duo stopped in mid-phrase, a flicker of *something* passing through those expressive violet eyes, then pasted on a cheery grin. "Oh, hi, 'Lena, I didn't realize I was interrupting something. Sorry about that. Night, guys!" Then he was gone and the door was tightly shut before either of them could get a word out.

"Somebody up there hates me," Heero groaned bitterly, thumping his head repeatedly against his desk.

"Oh, Heero," Relena sighed. "I see what you mean. The first time you've called me all week, and Duo finally decides to come talk to you *right* at that moment...

"Wait a minute - why did he think he was interrupting something? Heero, you *have* explained to him that we're just friends, haven't you? He isn't *still* operating under the mistaken assumption about our relationship that you left him with *weeks* ago when you came to rescue me?"

Pause.

"Heero? I'm not hearing the response I should be. I should be hearing, 'Yes, of course I explained it to him, Relena,' not silence."

Silence, except for the dull thump of Heero's head hitting the desk.

"*Heero Yuy, if you don't get your act together, I'm going to take time off and come there and tell him myself, do you hear me?!*"

"But he won't even stay in the same room with me for more than a few minutes!" Heero moaned miserably, finally pausing in his self-torture to respond. "I can't even grab him and *make* him stay to listen because he won't even let me touch him!"

Relena listened in shock, thinking, 'Duo Maxwell, Mr Full-body-contact- hug himself, won't even let you touch him?! Oh Heero, I don't know if you *can* fix this...'

***

Upstairs, Duo buried his face in his pillow to muffle the dry, gasping, sobs that he could no longer choke back. "Why, oh why, did I ever listen to Q?" he moaned. "I shoulda known he was so far off on cloud nine over finally gettin' together with Tro that he's seein' champagne bubbles and happily-ever- afters everywhere he looks, whether they're there or not."

"Go talk to him," Quatre had said. "Heero cares about you and you're hurting him by avoiding him," he'd insisted.

Well, Quatre had been wrong. Heero had Relena, something he'd never actually denied. Why would he want anything to do with an L2 street rat? A *male* L2 street rat, at that.

Miserably, Duo reminded himself, 'Lena's a great girl and he obviously opens up to her; I should be happy for him. Part of me *is* happy for him, for both of them...

'...but the rest of me hurts so bad I just wanna curl up and die...'

***

Duo had managed to give his housemates the slip again that morning, but both restaurants closed a little earlier on Saturdays, which meant that he was now heading home again, much earlier than he'd have preferred. Most of his homework for the weekend consisted of reading assignments, so he hadn't even had an excuse to hang out and study with his new friends, since their assignments were also things that they really didn't need any assistance with. He didn't want to wear out his welcome amongst the group, so he'd decided that it was best to just go "home". Maybe he'd stay downstairs and do the damn reading assignments in the living room; being conspicuously home and *not* avoiding the others might be enough to get them off his back about the whole thing..

Sneaking quietly into the house through the kitchen door, Duo froze briefly in shock before beating a hasty retreat. Face flushed with embarrassment and stomach painfully knotted with envy, he changed his mind about the whole 'avoiding the others' thing. Avoidance sounded like a really, really good idea right at that particular moment, because as happy as he was for Quatre's - and Trowa's - sake, he really didn't think that he could take having their good fortune shoved in his face.

Outside the house, Duo wrapped his coat around himself tightly, chilled by something other than the sharp breeze. He could sneak in another way, but he wasn't prepared to go sit alone in his room just now. He needed a distraction, some sort of activity to release the tension singing through his body. His ribs had been feeling better... maybe a workout was the answer.

Decision made, he headed next door to see if he could borrow the use of the dojo for a bit of stress relief.

***

Ranma blocked a punch, ducked a kick, and debated one last time the wisdom of what he was about to do. 'Am I sure about this? Really, *really* sure? I can't do this unless I am - Ryoga deserves more than an experiment.

'I know for sure I'm not interested in girls, but I've never actually even kissed a guy - well, except Sanzenin, but *HE* doesn't count - ick! I do know, though, that no one else makes my heart race just by *looking* at me the way that Ryoga did the other day. I'm startin' to suspect that the funny tingle I feel when I watch him sparring or doing katas isn't just appreciation of his martial arts skill like I always thought it was, 'cause I don't get the same feeling watchin' Shampoo - or even Mousse for that matter! And Ryoga's always been important to me - it hurt when he showed up here in Nerima and was so angry and bitter towards me. Even when he was yelling "Prepare to die, Saotome!" and apparently genuinely meaning it, I was always glad to see him...'

Yeah, he was sure. Decision made, Ranma deliberately left himself open to a leg sweep, allowing Ryoga to knock him flat to the mat on the dojo floor.

Ryoga followed Ranma down to the floor, using his whole body to pin his sparring partner down. Any moment, he expected Ranma to throw him off - the pigtailed martial artist had to be up to something, that opening had been way too obvious. He wasn't surprised when Ranma twisted one wrist free and reached up. He *was* surprised, however, when rather than pushing him away, Ranma wrapped that free hand around the back of his neck and drew his face down. Lips met for the first time and what started out as an almost-hesitant chaste, closed-mouth first kiss turned into something a great deal different in very short order.

Now that Ranma had shown an interest, Ryoga wasted no time in making his own interest clear. Increasing the pressure behind the kiss, he was surprised at Ranma's initial resistance to opening his mouth. Just as Ranma finally yielded, allowing Ryoga entrance to his mouth, Ryoga remembered Ranma's previous distinctly less-than-pleasant experience with a French kiss. 'Hibiki, you idiot, you almost blew this... Be careful, he expects this to be disgusting, gotta change that idea...' Rather than immediately plunging his tongue between Ranma's now-parted lips, Ryoga slid it lightly, teasingly, around the edge of those lips, allowing the very tip to dart inside for an instant before withdrawing again, gradually coaxing Ranma to reciprocate.

At first, Ranma's exploration of Ryoga's mouth was surprisingly timid, but as he realized that this was an entirely different experience than Ukyo's attempt at a French kiss, his usual confidence returned in full force. Suddenly, with a quick gasp for air, Ranma pounced, flipping the two of them over and diving back into the kiss with all the energy and enthusiasm he usually reserved for martial arts. The kiss turned from a cautious exploration to a sparring match in that single breath. Tongues tangled, teeth nibbled, hands wandered, legs entwined. By the time the two martial artists finally separated slightly to lie on their sides facing one another with their legs still entwined, Ranma's hair hung loose around his shoulders, both of their shirts had disappeared, and they were both breathing more heavily than after a long sparring match.

"I take it," Ryoga puffed, "you've decided that you want to try something more."

"Don't think there's any 'try' about it after *that*," Ranma answered, struggling to bring his breathing under control. That had been distinctly more than he had bargained for. For the first time in his life, he had experienced a passion that left his passion for martial arts looking pale in comparison. Any chance of caving in to parental pressure and going through with a name-only marriage to Akane had just gone up in flames. "At least - not on my side," he added somewhat hesitantly.

"Nor mine," the other boy assured him, pulling him into a tight embrace. "Hasn't been in quite a while. This just confirmed it."

"It's gonna get real ugly," Ranma warned, shivering as he imagined the reactions his parents and Akane's father were going to have to this news.

"I know. But you won't have to face it alone. We need to tell the others, get ideas on how to handle this. I think we should definitely wait till Cologne is back before telling your parents, though. We may need her backup." Ryoga was silent for a few minutes and then, seemingly out of nowhere, remarked,"Your birthday's too far off."

"Huh?"

"We need to get emancipated minor status for you," the Hibiki boy said, thinking through the best options for shielding Ranma from as much parental interference as possible. "My eighteenth is less than a week away, so I'm covered if my parents happen to react badly. But they do know I'm bi and they didn't give me a hard time over it, so I think they'll be okay anyway. But we *know* yours won't be. It'd be best if they didn't have any legal say-so over you when they find out."

"Good idea, I'll call Nabiki tonight and get her started on it."

The two boys cuddled together in silence for a few minutes before Ranma spoke again. "Ryoga?"

"Hmm?"

"Kissin' and stuff is okay, though I'll haveta tell Akane right away - but I can't do anything more than that till the engagement is officially broken. You understand, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do." Ryoga pressed a gentle kiss to Ranma's forehead. Just breaking the engagement was going to put more than enough stress on Ranma's sense of honour. There was no way that Ryoga would pressure him for anything that would add the least bit of discomfort to that.

Ranma lifted his lips to meet the next kiss, curious and eager to engage in a little more experimenting. He had a feeling that he was going to enjoy practising this just as much as he enjoyed practising the Art.

Just as things were starting to heat up again, the door to the dojo slid open and a voice called, "Hey, Ranma? Akane said you were out here, and I was just wonderin' if - eep!" Duo froze in the doorway in shocked embarrassment. 'Oh man, have I got lousy timing today or what? First I walked in on Q and Tro makin' out in the kitchen, now it's Ranma and Ryoga in a clinch in the dojo - hey, wait a minute! Ranma and *Ryoga*? He's supposed to be engaged to - oh, shit, *Akane* - she was right behind me!' Slowly, reluctantly, he turned to glance over his shoulder at Ranma's hot-tempered, violent fiancee, wondering whether he could get out of there before he got caught in the middle. He nearly fell over when he saw the smug grin on her face.

"Hah, guess 'Dachi won that bet after all! Ukyo thought you two would take two weeks to get together and I was starting to think she might be right," the short-haired girl said.

"You guys were *betting* on us!" Ranma exclaimed, reluctantly disentangling himself from Ryoga and sitting up.

"They wouldn't let me place one; said I had too many chances to interfere with the natural progression of events," Akane replied, making a face.

"Uh - wha - guys?" Duo finally managed to splutter, his gaze darting back and forth between the other teens.

"Oh dear," Akane said sheepishly, flushing, "I forgot you still thought we actually intended to go through with the engagement."

"And with all the fighting the two of you have been doing lately, poor Duo was probably wondering whether he'd survive being caught between you after walking in on us like that," Ryoga said, trying not to laugh at the completely dumbfounded look on the youth's face.

Duo sat down, hard, on the dojo floor as his legs finally gave out from the shock. "Would somebody *please* explain just what the *hell* is going on around here?" he demanded plaintively.

 

Part 8:

Duo rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head in disbelief. This hadn't been quite what he'd had in mind when he'd came to the dojo looking for a distraction, but it had certainly taken his mind off of his own problems! "Let's see if I've got this straight. First, your dads arranged a marriage between the families before you were even born. Then, in the process of dragging him all over the planet for 'training', Ranma's dad engaged him to Ukyo and made off with her dowry. And then, as a result of his last trip before coming back here to Nerima, Ranma ended up engaged to Shampoo according to the laws of her village," Duo summarized.

"Well, leaving out the half a dozen or so *other* families he arranged my marriage into during the training trips, and not allowing for any that we haven't found out about yet... yeah, that about sums it up," Ranma replied. 'Well, except for the whole Jusenkyo mess...' he added silently.

"There's also the little fact that you are quite definitely gay and not interested in following through with *any* of those marriages," Akane said drily.

"Uh, yeah, that too," Ranma said sheepishly, still uncomfortable talking about his sexuality. He suspected that Duo wouldn't have any problems with it, since Duo didn't seem to have any problem with the budding relationship between Winner and Barton, but Ranma's deeply seated dread of his parents' reaction had tainted his perception of everyone else's. He had seen his father's reaction to gay couples before and it did not bode well for himself. His mother, he feared, would have much the same response. Add to that the fact that he suspected she was perhaps more than slightly unstable - carrying a katana around for years on the off chance that she might need it to enforce the seppuku portion of her husband's contract to make their son a "man among men" was not precisely the action of a sane person - and he thought his dread was not unjustified.

Ryoga slid across the floor till Ranma's shoulder was touching his before saying, "You're leaving out one other important detail, Ranma. That insane contract of Nodoka's."

Ranma flinched, distinctly uncomfortable talking about the seppuku contract. He leaned into Ryoga's shoulder, grateful for his supportive presence, before explaining, "When Pops talked Mom into letting him take me on the training journey, she put a condition on it. He could take me *if* he signed a contract agreeing that we would both commit seppuku if he did not succeed in making me a 'man amongst men' by the time we returned."

Akane added, "And Auntie Nodoka's definition of manly behaviour is a bit - uh, strange? Basically, being a pervert - trying to peek at girls changing their clothes, groping girls, and so on - makes up the vast majority of her ideal. As you can see, this is a *bit* of a problem."

"There's also the fact that she carries that damn katana around like a baby," Ryoga muttered.

Realizing that he was gaping like a fish, Duo closed his mouth with a snap. "I'm startin' to realize that there's worse things than being an orphan," he muttered under his breath.

***

Heero sighed and dropped the note back onto the counter, feeling distinctly discouraged. So much for his plans for the weekend.

Duo had worked most of the day Saturday and then had returned home quite late after apparently spending the evening with his new friends. This morning, he'd once again managed to leave the house before anyone else was even awake. 'At least he left a note to let us know that he was going to be out for the day,' Heero acknowledged reluctantly. 'And it's nice that he's found study partners to work together with on homework. But I was really counting on suggesting that the five of us should have a group study session today...' He sighed wearily.

If they'd all done their homework together, it should have helped keep Duo from feeling as if they'd singled him out, yet still have shown him that they were here for him and wanted to help. It had certainly *seemed* like a good plan. Heero had hoped that, if he'd been patient and helpful in a group study session, Duo would have been more likely to accept if he'd offered one-on-one help at a later date. At the very least, it should have helped to make Duo a little more comfortable in his presence. Given him an opening to begin rebuilding at least the comrades-and- partners portion of his relationship with Duo.

Well, so much for *that* idea. Rebuilding any part of their relationship was going to require one very important ingredient that seemed to be in extremely short supply.

Duo's presence.

Heero sighed yet again and headed back upstairs. He'd lost his enthusiasm for a group study session; he might as well work on his homework in his room. At least that way he wouldn't have to spend the day dealing with Wufei's irascibility and watching Quatre and Trowa's flirting.

***

Shampoo gave one last glance back over her shoulder at the unnaturally blank expression on the cobalt-eyed boy's face before joining Ranma and the others under the tree for lunch. "You're hurting them, you know," she told Duo. "You have breakfast at Ucchan's, lunch here with us, supper at the Cat Café; you've spent your evenings and the weekend working and studying with us as well. Would it really be so bad to spend a little time with Heero and the others?"

Duo sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, yeah, it would. I'm glad Q and Tro finally got together but it's painful to watch them. Tro was almost as silent and withdrawn as Heero, but in just a few days he's opened up incredibly with Quat. Seein' them together like that – it just makes it all the more clear what I'm missing. And Wu's bein' a real jerk – watchin' these two," he jerked a thumb towards Ranma and Akane, "scrap constantly is stirrin' up all sorts of crap of his own and he ain't dealin' with it well at all. Heero... well, leavin' aside the fact that I'd just be torturing myself with someone I can't have, if I go over there and sit on that dinky little bench with him to have lunch, I'm gonna end up touchin' him and my ribs are still gettin' healed up – I don't really want 'em fractured again already."

"Why are you so sure he'll react badly?" Ranma asked. Ranma's own revelations about himself over the past weekend had led to Duo opening up and confessing why he was avoiding his housemates so much but the obvious unhappiness on both sides of the situation didn't quite ring true with Duo's interpretation of events.

"I already told you guys what happened before – do you even need to ask that?"

"Look," Ryoga said, frowning thoughtfully, "you said that at the party you came up and touched him from behind, right?"

Duo nodded.

"And you didn't speak until after you touched him?"

Duo nodded again, unsure where this was going, but Ranma sat up from his sprawl on the grass, realizing what Ryoga was getting at.

"You said he let the girl – Relena, right? – hug him... Did she touch him before he knew she was there, or did she wait till he was looking at her?" Ranma asked.

"Uh, I think he was looking at her first," Duo said looking confused.

"But they were both busy looking out over the crowd when you snuck up on them?"

"Yeah..."

"Heero – he was trained to be soldier from small child?" Shampoo said, joining the conversation as she too realized where this was headed.

Duo nodded, the distinct impression that he was missing something obvious growing by the moment.

"And you, stealth expert, *snuck up* on him and girl he supposed to protect, girl who just rescued?"

"Yeah... Ouch, hey, what was that for?" Duo demanded, snatching his braid back from Shampoo's distinctly ungentle grasp.

"Stupid!!" she said, stomping her foot angrily. "You *sneak up* on trained soldier, man who soldier *all his life*, man who supposed to be *on guard*, touch without warning, then wonder why get hit?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!! Shampoo hit too if do such stupid thing! Warrior not supposed be caught by surprise, warrior always must be on guard, but if IS surprised, training say attack, take out threat before can hurt! No can blame warrior for follow training, instincts!" Shampoo's Japanese got progressively worse as she became more agitated, till she finally lapsed into a spate of fast, furious Mandarin which Duo could only make out the occasional word of.

Surprised at Shampoo's reaction, Duo stopped to actually think about what had happened from an outside viewpoint, leaving his own emotional response out of consideration for the first time since the incident. 'Okay, so what if he really did just react without realizing who was there... He'd been ridin' the killing edge ever since Relena got snatched, probably still hadn't completely come down from it... What would *I* have done in his place...'

Duo cringed guiltily as he realized, 'I'd have probably done the same damn thing, or close to it. And if I hadn't already had bad ribs, he woulda just knocked the breath out of me long enough for him to evaluate the threat... Doesn't excuse him for messing up my ribs to start with, but if I give him some credit for his half-assed attempt at an apology for that... 'Specially since I didn't let him finish once he got to the bit where he started blaming me for irritating him into hitting me too hard; I never did let him explain why I'd irritated him so bad...'

"Umm, oops?" Duo said out loud, giving Shampoo a sheepish look.

"Braid-boy understand now?" she demanded.

"Yeah, I do – ouch!! Easy on the hair!" he yelped as she grabbed a fistful of the chestnut length, jerked him to his feet, and started dragging him across the schoolyard towards Heero.

Heero had looked up when Shampoo had first started shouting in Mandarin, muscles tensing as he realized she was yelling at Duo. 'Stay out of it, Yuy, he won't thank you for interfering. Hell, with your luck where he's concerned, you'll just make it worse.' Shampoo's Mandarin was much too fast for his limited knowledge of the language but, judging by Wufei's wide-eyed expression, most of the vocabulary she was using wouldn't have been in the textbooks he had learned it from anyway. Duo's pained yelp had him halfway to his feet before he realized that the Chinese girl was headed towards him with Duo firmly in tow.

"Shampoo sorry, had not heard full story before or would have straightened out mess sooner," the young Amazon apologized before shoving Duo to stand in front of Heero. "Braid-boy busy feeling, not thinking," she explained, whacking Duo in the back of the head just hard enough to draw another "Ow!! Shampoo!!" from him. "He understand mistake now," she said, glaring at the braided teen as Heero stared in astonishment.

"Yeah, yeah, I do," Duo muttered.

"Good. Then *fix*," she ordered before handing Duo's braid to Heero and instructing him firmly, "Don't let go till straighten out problem – sound like boy has bad habit of running off. Not worry about class, others get work." Satisfied with her work, Shampoo turned and shooed the other pilots towards the school. "Time for class, go now."

Thoroughly confused, Heero looked from the braid in his hand to Shampoo's retreating back to Duo's flushed, averted face before saying hesitantly, "Sit, please?"

Silently, Duo joined Heero on the bench. Stealing an embarrassed glance from underneath his bangs, he realized Heero was gently, almost reverently, stroking the braid-tip that he clutched. 'Huh, maybe it wasn't all my imagination after all. Maybe he is actually interested.. . There's a lotta stuff to be explained if he is, though.'

"I'm sorry," burst from two mouths at once.

Heero turned towards Duo, startled. "*You're* sorry? For what?"

"A bunch of stuff, actually," he answered, sighing. "For sneakin' up on you like that at the party when I shoulda known better. For bein' petty about what happened and not givin' you a fair chance instead of gettin' mad and walking away every time you say something that upsets me. I was just so tired of always being the one makin' all the effort towards being friends... It seemed like, after all that time, nothin' had changed between *us* yet you'd at least let Relena be a friend. I was so busy resentin' the fact that she'd finally got through to you when I'd spent even longer trying without any success that I wouldn't give you a chance when you finally did try to be friends."

"The incident at the party wasn't your fault," Heero protested, "I shouldn't have reacted like that."

"Maybe not - but Shampoo pointed out a few things I shoulda realized myself. You've been trained to think and act as a soldier for most of your life. You'd just finished rescuing Relena the day before and were probably still in full-blown protective mode. Then I went and snuck up on the two of you from behind and touched you without any warning. I can't honestly say that if our positions were switched I'd have reacted a whole lot differently myself and I *know* my training was nowhere near as intensive as yours. If my ribs hadn't been bad already, you'd have just knocked the wind out of me for a minute. How about we just agree that we both made mistakes and let it go?"

'He's forgiving me for that? I can't believe it... I thought I'd messed things up beyond the point of fixing them...'

"Deal," Heero agreed quickly, not wanting to give Duo time to reconsider.

"Deal."

Duo extended his hand for a handshake and Heero reluctantly released the braid in order to shake hands.

"So," Duo said, drawing his braid over his shoulder and fiddling with the end nervously, "I hear you've got a spare futon in your room. Think you'd be willing to put up with a roommate? The attic wouldn't be half bad 'cept that not bein' able to stand up straight to walk across the room is gettin' kinda old."

Heero's heart raced as he realized he was going to get the chance he'd hoped for when they first received this mission. At the very least, the other teen was giving him a chance at friendship. If he was very, very careful not to blow this chance, maybe Duo would give him a chance at more than that. The Deathscythe pilot had quite openly flirted with him towards the end of the war; hopefully, once they were sharing a room, he would do so again. And, this time, Heero intended to waste no time in responding.

"Yes," he said simply, afraid of saying too much and messing things up again.

Duo gave him a small, cautious smile and tried not to get his hopes up too high. "Okay." Sharing a room wasn't much, but it was better than the way things had been. And, hopefully, it was just a beginning.

 

Part 9:

Heero sat at his desk, working on his homework and occasionally stealing a glance at Duo's reflection in the window. The other boy was sprawled bonelessly across his bed, books and papers spread all around him. They had been sharing a room for nearly a week now and, while things had improved a bit – Duo ate with the other pilots at least once a day and spent every other evening at home – things hadn't progressed as far as he'd hoped.

While Duo no longer jerked sharply away if Heero brushed up against him in the hallway or the tight confines of their room, he hadn't returned to his old wartime behaviour patterns either. Heero missed those careless pats on the back, the arm slung over his shoulders, all those little touches that he had always taken for granted in the past. Oh, he had snapped and snarled about them back then since they made him want a great many things, things that were inappropriate for a soldier according to J's training, but he felt their loss deeply now. ‘J. If you ever turn up alive, I *WILL* kill you. Your training very nearly cost me the only thing I've ever wanted for myself. And it still might,' he thought worriedly. Duo still draped himself all over the other pilots and even over his new friends. But not Heero.

He glanced at the window again, his breath catching and his pulse racing as Duo stretched sinuously. Hurriedly, he dropped his gaze to his work again as Duo got up from the bed and walked up behind him. ‘Maybe this time...' he thought hopefully as the longhaired teen stood close enough for him to feel the warmth radiating off of his body. That alone was enough to send his pulse rate skyrocketing upwards after being kept at a distance for so long. ‘Control yourself, Yuy, don't blow this!'

"Whatcha workin' on, Heero?" Duo asked, speaking before slowly leaning over his shoulder.

As Duo's arm settled gently, cautiously across one shoulder, and Duo's chest pressed lightly against the other, Heero tensed with the effort of controlling his body's reaction to the long-awaited touch. ‘Throwing him down on the bed, ripping his clothes off, and ravishing him is not an appropriate response to a casual touch, Yuy! Don't scare him off!'

Feeling the other boy go rigid beneath his careful touch, Duo's heart sank. It had taken him all day to get up his nerve to try this and, in spite of his cautious approach, Heero's muscles were quivering with the effort to control his reaction to the contact. ‘If merely tolerating a cautious touch from me is putting this much stress on him, obviously I've been reading too much into things again. Damn it, Maxwell, when are you going to accept it? He's not yours and never will be. Give up now, before you wreck what little you've got with him. You know he wanted your friendship back, be satisfied with that and stop torturing yourself and him.' Not waiting for a response to his question, Duo continued in a seemingly-cheerful tone, "Well, I'm about through for the afternoon, guess I'll go take a walk before supper!" He straightened slowly, pulling away from Heero with as much care as he had used in initiating the contact, then spun on his heel and hurried out of the room.

Heero let his breath out in a whoosh and placed his still-quivering hands on the desk. ‘Okay, it wasn't much, certainly not the suggestive flirting I was hoping for, but it's a start. I proved it was safe for him to touch me, that I wouldn't over-react and hit him. It's just going to take a little time to get his trust back. That's all, just a little time.' He firmly pushed aside the tiny, niggling little bit of uncertainty that was insistently telling him that something was even more wrong now.

***

Heero slowly climbed the stairs to his room, mulling over the conversation that the five of them had just finished. Really, it had been more like a series of conversations, covering a wide range of topics. Une had handed over the final report on the masked attackers to Wufei earlier that day, but it had contained very little new information. They were all ex-Oz or ex-Romafeller - not exactly a surprise - and none of them were locals. Just like the locals that Ranma's group had questioned, they had been approached and hired by a stranger. They had no contact information for that person, and the description was sufficiently vague that there was little chance of the artist's composite sketches actually leading to finding him. ‘And it took them nearly three weeks and seventy-five pages to come to that conclusion.. . Pitiful!'

The pilots had put together their own observations and written up their semi-weekly report on their own mission as well. It hadn't taken them nearly as long or as many pages, but it was also a pretty pathetic set of results. There had not been any incidents of inexplicable damage since they had arrived in Nerima until two days ago, when a large hole had inexplicably appeared in the outside wall of the girls' locker room. Either no one knew anything about it or no one was willing to talk, but at any rate there had been no explanation offered and the hole had been repaired before classes the next day. End of story. They had collected some debris from the area and sent it in for analysis, but Duo had been unable to find any trace of explosives in the area so Heero doubted that the lab results would find anything either. At least the lack of results meant that they would be staying in Nerima longer, thus providing him with more time in close contact with Duo.

The only part of the conversation that Heero had genuinely been happy about was Duo's answer to Quatre's query about the partnership with Hilde.

----- Flashback Begins -----

"I turned her down. It wouldn't have been fair to her in more ways than one," the braided teen answered. "Me being a Gundam pilot cost us a few jobs when I was just yard manager, being a full partner would have been even worse for business. Hilde suggested that I be a semi-silent partner, have a stake and a say but not put my name out front. It might have worked a bit better, but it still wouldn't have been fair to her."

"Why not?" Quatre asked curiously. "If she was willing to take the risk of having a Gundam pilot as a partner..."

Duo flushed in embarrassment before replying, "Quat, she really wanted more than a business partnership. She said she was willing to settle for business partner and friend, but I saw the way she watched me when she didn't think I was looking. Even if she thought friendship would be enough now, it would've eventually been too uncomfortable. " Forestalling the next question before the Arab could even speak, he said, "And no, I wouldn't have changed my mind on that part. She's like a kid sister, even if I wasn't already..." He cut himself off abruptly, shooting an almost undetectable glance in Heero's direction and flushing again before finishing simply, "I could never have thought of her that way."

----- Flashback Ends -----

‘I just don't understand why he still doesn't touch me, let alone flirt with me. I've caught him watching me once or twice and I think it's longing that I'm seeing in his eyes, but I'm not completely sure. The only thing I can think of is that I did something wrong that one day that he *did* touch me - I just don't know what!' Feeling decidedly frustrated and discouraged, Heero entered his room. ‘Duo's helping at Ucchan's this afternoon, so I should have a safe window to call Relena without him walking in on the conversation. .. Maybe she can figure out what I did wrong.'

Waiting patiently while Pargan wandered off to find his employer, Heero ran through the events of the past few weeks yet again, finding nothing else that stuck out as a possible source of Duo's reticence.

"Hello, Heero! So, how are things going? Any progress in the Duo-hunt?" the Darlian girl asked eagerly.

"Hello, Relena. Frustratingly. And yes and no."

"Oh. Oh dear. Tell me what happened."

"Four days ago, he finally touched me. He walked up behind me while I was working at my desk, spoke to me, then leaned over my shoulder and placed one arm on my other shoulder. I did not over-react; I did not elbow him or hit him or say anything insulting or upsetting. He left the room to go for a walk. He has not touched me again since."

"You've told me what you *didn't* do - so what *did* you do, Heero."

"Nothing," he admitted. "I froze."

Remembering Heero's talent for understatement, Relena narrowed her eyes and said, "Define ‘froze'."

Reluctantly, he said, "Tensed to the point of shaking."

Slapping her forehead with her hand, Relena drew her hand slowly down her face, parting her fingers enough to peek through as she said, "That is *not* ‘nothing', Heero. Congratulations, you've now managed to convince him that you can barely stand him to come in contact with you."

"It was either that or throw him down on the bed and ravish him, and I was pretty sure that the second option was not an appropriate response to a casual touch!" he shot back defensively.

"Generally speaking, no, but in this case, it would probably have been the better choice," the girl managed to respond, though her face was rather flushed and her eyes rather wide. "Heero, you said before that he told you part of the reason he gave you such a hard time when you were trying to make up for the party was that he was tired of always being the one making all the effort. And once again, you've left it up to him to make the effort. Then, when he *did* finally make another attempt, you didn't even respond to it in a way that would make your real feelings clear! Except that by *not* responding, you've given him a completely false impression of how you feel!"

"*Shit.*"

Suddenly suspicious, Relena demanded, "Heero, have you done *anything* since the last time we spoke? Specifically, have you straightened him out about the nature of our relationship? Namely, that I consider you my incredibly frustrating block-headed kid brother?!"

"He hasn't asked again!"

"*HEERO!!* Tell him! Or I swear, I really *will* come there, tell him *everything* that you have told me starting with that interesting conversation a year ago that began with ‘I like you, Relena, but I love Duo Maxwell' and ending with this conversation right now, then lock the two of you in a room together with a bed and a tube of lube and leave you there till you get this relationship straightened out!"

Heero was almost as red with embarrassment as Relena by the time she finished speaking.

"I don't believe I just said that," she mumbled, hiding her face behind her hands.

"I don't believe you did either," Heero managed to choke out.

"But if that's what it takes, I *will* do it," she threatened, straightening her spine and suddenly looking every bit like the "Queen of the World" she so briefly was.

‘No, that wasn't a threat - that was a promise,' the other teen realized, suddenly feeling much more motivated to take the initiative in his ‘relationship' with Duo.

Relena threw a quick glance at her wristwatch, then said, "Sorry, Heero, I've got to go. I have to catch a shuttle to L1 for disarmament talks with another White Fang splinter group. I'll call you when I get back, and I expect to hear that you've made some progress with Duo by then! Bye!"

With that, the vid-phone went blank.

‘Damn. So I really did blow it again. I never even thought of him interpreting my reaction, or lack of it, that way. Shit, Yuy, you really are a complete asshole. Now what? I hope Duo doesn't get home too early, I need some time to figure out what to do. Make that a *lot* of time. And maybe some help. I wonder if Quatre will give me some advice if I grovel?'

***

"So, what've ya got for me, ‘Biki?"

Nabiki couldn't quite suppress a small grin at Ranma's eager question. The Tendo household might lack the luxury of a vid-phone, making do with a regular, old-fashioned voice-only phone instead, but she could clearly imagine the look on her "little brother"'s face. Those bright blue eyes would be sparkling with curiosity and he would be bouncing slightly from one foot to the other, overflowing with the energy of a challenge. As usual, Ranma had taken on life at high speed, deciding in a matter of days that he liked the five ex-Gundam pilots and would do whatever he could to help them out.

Which of course meant dragging her and the rest of the Crew along with him.

She had suspected in advance that he would take to the 02 pilot. Ranma and the L2 teen both used cheerful, happy-go-lucky masks to hide their darker moments, but also had a primarily genuinely cheerful approach to life despite less than easy pasts. Though Duo was the only one that had been accepted as an actual friend so far, and was quickly moving towards "family" status with the entire Wrecking Crew (Tatewaki and herself excepted, of course, since they weren't home at the moment), Ranma had indicated that they would not necessarily be adverse to taking in the rest of the pilots as well, given a little time to get to know them better. He found the Winner heir's aura "warm and comforting" and thought that the 03 pilot's aura was one of "quiet and calm".

As far as the 05 pilot went, Ranma had told her, "Not now. Too much hostility, I think mostly ‘cause of ‘Kane and I continually scrapping, based on what you found out before and some stuff Duo's told us." Nabiki hadn't really thought about the arranged-marriage commonality until Ranma brought it up, but it made sense that the apparent hostility between Akane and Ranma would anger the volatile L5 boy, considering how short-lived his own disastrous marriage had been and how tragically it had ended. ‘Maybe when Cologne gets back,' she thought. ‘Chang may be a bit more understanding once the true situation becomes clear. One can only hope.' Especially considering that Ranma's parents would be anything *but* understanding about the whole thing.

The unapproachability of Pilot 01 was not surprising but still disappointing, Nabiki mused, particularly for Ranma. After all, he could easily empathize with a childhood spent in training - particularly harsh, sometimes brutal, training. That he had made it through his own with his easy-going personality more-or-less intact had less to do with the trainer and more to do with the fact that Genma was never able to completely eliminate the influence of outsiders - particularly the various monks and martial arts masters that they had spent time with over the years - in the way that Heero's trainer had apparently been able to. And Shampoo's insight into the particularly warrior-oriented aspects of training had already proven useful in smoothing over the breach between Heero and Duo. It was unfortunate that circumstances - Ranma's insight into Duo's academic problems, the martial artists' too-convenient interference with the ambush on the first day of school - had made Yuy so suspicious of the Wrecking Crew before they ever got a chance to get to know each other but, hopefully, Duo would prove to be the bridge between his suspicious teammate and the Nerima group.

"‘Biki? You there?"

Drawn back to her present task by the query, she answered, "Yes, Ranma. Sorry, just thinking a few things over.

"I've set the wheels in motion for getting you declared an emancipated minor." She shook her head, disappointed at her previous oversight. "I should have thought of that myself before but at least, since you're already so close to being legally of age, it should be little more than a rubber-stamp request at this point.

"As far as your other request goes, I've got a few things for you, but this is a much more complex tangle than I thought initially."

Nabiki could almost hear the snap as Ranma's formidable concentration latched onto her comment and he demanded, "What do you mean?"

"So far, three of the pilots' most vocal detractors can be traced back to Romafeller ties. There are several more that I'm still working on identifying since they have only spoken up in closed sessions and my source has to be very careful not to set off any alarms in hacking into the records. Not only do I need to keep from having this traced back to me, I have to make certain that no one discovers it and blames the pilots," she explained. "There are other leads showing up as well - ties to L5 and to China, but also ties to one of WEI's biggest competitors. Whether all these leads will pan out or not remains to be seen."

"So we're either dealin' with a group of individuals workin' towards a common goal - discrediting the Gundam pilots - or a bunch of individuals each tryin' to achieve a goal - discrediting the Gundam pilots - and just coincidentally helpin' each other out, but nothin' organized about it," Ranma summarized. "And the fact that they *are* Gundam pilots may just be a convenient excuse; the real motive may lie in who certain pilots are *outside* of their role in the war."

"Exactly. And, Ranma..." Nabiki hesitated, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of mentioning this last point just yet, before slowly continuing, "...it may not be coincidence that the Nerima ‘inexplicable damage' issue came up so conveniently and that the pilots were sent to investigate it.

"Those ties to China reach back many, many years, but they lead back to the general area of the Musk, Phoenix Mountain, Jusenkyo, and Joketsuzoku. "

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