2-2-2003

Title: Winning Duo
Parts: 1-10 / 38
Author: Calic0cat
Genre: Romance, Humour, Angst
Pairing: None yet, working towards 1x2x5; others may be implied
Rated: NC-17
Warnings: OOC, Swearing, Shifting POV
Archives: Also at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: Starts one year after Endless Waltz. POV changes frequently.

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

Author's Notes: I usually write 1x2x1, so a 1x2x5 is a first for me (well, writing one is - I've been reading them for quite a while now, that's the *only* threesome I actually *like*). This fic is courtesy of Quin, my romance/humour muse. Feedback is appreciated.

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Part 1:

Heero anxiously opened the new email message. 'Please, let this be more than politely friendly,' he thought. Reading through the brief, newsy note, he sagged in disappointment. No, once again the monthly message from Duo was nothing more than a generic 'Hi, guys!' sent out to all four ex-pilots. Evidently, that last time that he had coldly shot down a flirtatious advance Duo had genuinely meant the tiny whisper not even meant for Heero's ears, "Well, that's it then. Better quit while you're ahead, Maxwell. He's just not interested." The panicky feeling that had overwhelmed him then had almost - *almost* - been enough to let him drop the trained facade of ice, grab the boy who confused him so badly, and beg for just a little more time to try and figure out how to deal with all these new and confusing emotions. Unfortunately, his laptop had beeped just then, distracting him, and the moment had passed.

And Duo had never been anything more than politely friendly to him again. Duo had no longer thrown a careless arm around him, leaned teasingly over Heero's shoulder as he sat in front of his laptop, strutted around the room wearing nothing more than a tantalizingly-draped towel tucked around his waist, sprawled on his bed chattering endlessly about anything and everything under the sun...

Swallowing painfully, Heero closed the message and sat staring at his laptop's wallpaper image. Predating that fateful day, this picture showed a laughing Duo leaning casually over his shoulder, arms draped around his neck in a loose hug. He, of course, was scowling, glaring at the high school student that dared take their picture.

"Why did I take so long to figure out what I wanted?" he whispered. "Why did it take him giving up for me to finally admit what I was feeling? To realize that I would never be happy without him in my life? And why the hell am I still sitting here alone over two years later?" Jaw firming with determination, Heero announced to his empty apartment, "Heero Yuy does not just give up something he wants. And I want Duo Maxwell."

Relena would be having her "Peace Anniversary" party between Christmas and New Year's. The other pilot was sure to attend. He would go to the party, and he would find a way to let Duo know that he wanted a second chance. And nothing, and no one, would get in his way.

***

Sighing in disappointment, Wufei closed Duo's monthly email message. Once again, it was nothing more than a generic message sent to all of the ex-pilots. Nothing the least bit personal, let alone flirtatious. Considering how many times during the war he had arrogantly snubbed Duo's flirtatious advances, the last time he did it he had never once believed that Duo really meant it when he said he wouldn't bother him like that again. 'I should have remembered the last part of his motto. He certainly didn't lie about that.'

Flipping through his copy of the photo album that Quatre had given him shortly after the Mariemaia fiasco, "To remind you that you're not alone," Wufei paused at each picture of Duo. The whole group of pilots together after peace was declared, Duo's fingers held up in rabbit ears behind Trowa's head and his other hand resting lightly on the shoulder of Quatre, seated in front of the rest of them, still bandaged from Dorothy's attack. Duo laughingly hiding behind Heero as Wufei chased him with his katana, threatening to cut off that gorgeous braid in retaliation for some silly, harmless prank. Duo sleeping in a chair beside the bed of an injured Wufei. Duo...

Duo had stirred up emotions he wasn't prepared to deal with then. Emotions that had seemed like a betrayal of Meiran's memory. It hadn't been as bad at first, when Duo's flirtations were aimed at Yuy, though that first spark of *something* had definitely been there to make him exceptionally irritable around the attractive boy. But suddenly, one day in the latter half of the war, those flirtations had ceased. A month or so had passed, then gradually Wufei had discovered that the flirting had resumed. This time, aimed at *him*. The incredible storm of emotions *that* created had left his normally mercurial temperament even more changeable than usual. He had gone from stoic acceptance to outraged fury time after time. Finally, after one exceptionally virulent tirade, a quiet apology had left Duo's lips, accompanied by a very formal bow, "I apologize for my forwardness, Chang Wufei. I will not trouble you with my unwelcome advances again."

And he hadn't. Running a gentle finger over the last group photo, where an apparently-happy Duo had one arm awkwardly around Trowa's shoulder and his chin resting on top of Quatre's head, leaving the two Asian pilots to stand aside in their proud isolation, Wufei said regretfully, "I never told you that the real problem was not that they were unwelcome. The problem was that they were all *too* welcome and I - I was too confused to deal with that." Expression firming in determination, Wufei declared to his empty apartment, "But I am no longer confused. I am a Dragon, and we do not give up that which we hold dear. I will not let Duo Maxwell go simply because I was too proud to admit my error."

Reaching into the wastepaper basket, he pulled out a discarded envelope. Staring at the invitation he pulled from it, Wufei swore, "I will attend Relena's 'Peace Anniversary' party and I *will* find a way to let Duo know that I have seen the error of my ways. And no one, and nothing, will stand in my way."

***

Closing his mail program with a sigh, Duo managed to summon up a weak smile in response to Hilde's questioning look. After all this time, he really should know better than to get his hopes up. If neither of them had been interested two years ago, with him right in front of them, dressing and acting as provocatively as teenage hormones and a thick pile of teen magazines could teach him - okay, and a few distinctly more adult ones when he got increasingly desperate - they were either totally frigid or as straight as a ruler. The chance at this point of one of them suddenly deciding they wanted a second chance was slim to none. Careful as he was not to step out of line with either teen, he couldn't completely quash that lingering hope that someday one of them would respond to his monthly email with something a little more promising than "Glad you're doing well. I'm fine."

Duo knew he wasn't unattractive. When he and Hilde went out clubbing, he got propositioned all the time by individuals of both genders. And while he had been tempted on several occasions to accept, a second look at the propositioner always resulted in his mind replacing the features of the person before him with an unruly mop of brown half-hiding deep cobalt eyes, or obsidian-dark eyes set in a sharp face framed by tightly-drawn-back black hair. And he had known that it would be useless. Sex for the sake of sex alone would merely leave him feeling dirty and more lonely and empty than ever. His idiotic heart had attached itself to not just one but *two* hopeless causes and no amount of logic could change that.

Despite the frequent attempts by Une to lure him earthside to work for the Preventers, he couldn't do it. Couldn't deliberately open himself up to the torture of being in day-to-day contact with one or both of his crushes. 'Ha. Crushes. You haven't convinced yourself of that yet, Maxwell, you might as well stop pretendin'. You passed the crush stage a hell of a long time ago. Admit it - it's love. Unrequited, break-your-damn-heart, love. Baka.'

Picking up the invitation laying on his desk, he regarded it consideringly. The party could be positively painful if they showed up and were as disinterested as ever. But then again, neither of them was particularly sociable, so most likely neither would attend. Blowing his bangs out of his eyes with an exasperated huff, he scrawled a response, sealed the envelope, and hurried off to drop the damn thing in the mail before he changed his mind.

He would go to the party, and while he wouldn't go to the sort of lengths he had during the war, he *would* dress as attractively as possible, just in case either teen showed up. And if one or both of them did, although he wouldn't practically throw himself at either of them as he had during the war, he *would* try to get a chance for private conversation and drop a few hints that - should one of them have perchance had a change of mind - or better yet, heart - he himself was still interested.

Part 2:

He was in his way. Again. Glaring at the Chinese ex-pilot, Heero fumed silently. The party was on its last day and he had yet to find an opportunity to make his feelings clear to Duo. Every time he tried to catch Duo alone, Chang would suddenly materialize out of nowhere. It was almost as if *he* were trying to get Duo alone too... A burst of adrenaline hit Heero's bloodstream as he realized in shock that that was *exactly* what the other teen was trying to do.

Heero had thought he'd be eaten alive with jealousy back during the war when Duo had given up on him and switched his attentions to Chang. His only consolation had been the fact that, if anything, Chang had been even *less* receptive than himself. And generally much louder and more vehement in his protests. Duo had given up on him in far less time than it had taken Heero to finally discourage Duo. 'He's realized his mistake, just like me. Dammit, why couldn't he have taken a little longer?!'

Glaring back at the Japanese teen, Wufei thought, 'What the hell is he glaring at *me* for? Yuy and I aren't exactly best friends but we usually get along just fine. Now, though, you'd think I was in his way... or... something... Dammit! That's exactly what it is. Yuy has seen the error of his ways just as I have. I should have known there was a reason that he turned up every time I tried to catch Duo alone... Why did he have to finally decide to make a move *now*?!'

Seeing the heated looks being exchanged, Duo silently retreated. If he didn't know better, he would almost think those were *jealous* looks. Uncomfortably, he realized that maybe it was no coincidence that every time he saw Heero, Wufei was nearby, and vice versa. He *thought* Relena would have told him if there was something going on between Heero and Wufei - she was usually quick to offer that sort of news, a real matchmaker at heart - but if it was a fairly new thing, she might not have known about it yet.

The possibility that, if those *were* jealous looks, they were over *him*, was far too unlikely. One of them *finally* deciding to take an interest Duo could believe - just - but *both* at the *same time* - no way. No, it was much more likely that the two had discovered just how much they had in common in the course of working together at the Preventers and had become drawn to each other, whether they were actually a couple yet or not.

This was the last day of the party and he would be returning to L2 very shortly. Duo had made numerous attempts to get a chance to speak with either Heero or Wufei alone, only to be interrupted by the other. Obviously, there would be no point in making any more attempts now. He would wait and see whether anything further developed between them. If not, there was always Quatre's pilot reunion party in six months. He would just have to try again then - if either of them was still available.

***

Heero stared blankly at the piles of paperwork waiting for him. The party had been a total waste of time. Well, not *total* - Duo had matured into an even more attractive young man than he had been during the Mariemaia incident, gaining several inches in height as well as braid length. And any faint lingering doubts over his attraction to and affection for Duo had been completely obliterated in his first moment in Duo's company after all this time.

Unfortunately, he had never managed to get Duo alone for more than a minute or two before Chang showed up. But at least he was pretty sure that he had managed to foil Chang's plans as well. And it had seemed as if Duo himself had been more than willing to spend some private time together. Though unfortunately, Duo had also seemed willing to spend time alone with Chang. Heero frowned at the thought. If Duo was still interested in *him*, then it was entirely possible that he was still interested in *Chang* as well. That could be a problem.

Pulling a new pile of papers across his desk, Heero started to read the information packet on top. Background checks? Why on earth would bidders at a charity auction need background checks done?

***

Wufei scowled at the latest pile of papers to be dumped on his desk by an unrepentant Chief Une. Background checks. Bah. It was a sorry state of affairs when the top-ranking Preventer agents were reduced to doing *background checks*. And on bidders at a charity auction, no less. Glaring at his office wall as if he could see right through it to the agent on the other side, he thought smugly, 'At least Yuy is stuck doing these too. Damn, but he was a major problem at the party.'

Thinking of the party plunged him into an even blacker mood. He had managed to prevent Yuy from spending any time alone with Duo, but unfortunately the reverse was equally true. Though the party hadn't been a complete waste of time, as being in Duo's warm presence had confirmed once again that *this* was what was missing from his life. Duo had only become more breathtaking in the time since he had last seen him. The coltish grace marred by moments of awkward clumsiness was gone, replaced by a - Wufei was tempted to say willowy, but somehow that seemed too effeminate to describe Duo's vibrant self - a flowing gracefulness of motion. Wufei was now even more determined not to lose Duo for good, to Yuy or to anyone else.

***

"Oh come on, Relena, you've gotta be kidding," Duo protested. "And why *me*, of all people?"

"Because you're friendly and people *like* you," Relena answered. "*Please*, Duo?" Turning up the charm another notch, she reminded him, "It's for a good cause..."

"How do you know the bidders are okay?" he asked, starting to cave in.

"The Preventers are doing thorough background checks on all the bidders," she answered eagerly, sensing victory. "Une said she'd make Heero and Wufei do it, so you *know* the checks will be done right."

"Have you asked any of the others?" Duo said, still trying to find a valid excuse not to get involved with this very odd fundraiser.

"Not yet. I want Quatre there as a bidder anyway, and I seriously doubt I can persuade either Heero or Wufei to take part. But I'm hoping Catherine can talk Trowa into it. She's already agreed to go in it herself. And Zechs is a bidder, since Noin agreed to go in it. Please, Duo? Pretty please with sugar on it?" Relena clasped her hands below her chin and gave him her best pleading look.

"Ack! Enough with the sweetness, you're gonna give me a sugar high!" Duo protested. "I'll do it, I'll do it!"

"*Yes!* Thanks Duo! I'll send you a copy of the information and the consent form! Bye!"

Staring at the now-blank screen, Duo wondered exactly what the hell he'd just got himself into. A bachelor auction?! Good grief.

***

Gazing at the newest additions to his information packet, a slow smile began to spread across Heero's face. How Relena ever got Duo to agree to this, he didn't know, but he owed her one. Bigtime.

A whole *week* during which Duo would be all his... Oh, there were lots of rules attached as to the type of demands that could be placed on the "bachelor" you bought, but nothing that would prevent him from showing Duo just how much he had changed and how sincere he was in his wish for a second chance. This would be the perfect use for all those hacked Oz funds he hadn't known what to do with. The money would go to a good cause and he would get what he wanted at the same time.

Suddenly, Heero's smile faded. Just one problem. Chang. He would have the *same* information packet and undoubtedly had some old Oz funds of his own at his disposal. Well, he would just have to hope that he'd hacked more funds than Chang. And maybe see exactly how much he could afford to use out of his savings account as well.

***

Wufei scowled darkly at the numbers on his screen. Even with the interest from some extremely high-return investing added on, the total wasn't as high as he would like. If he took the funds he'd been saving towards a new racing motorcycle and added them... he still wasn't too sure he could match what Yuy probably had left from wartime hacking. Damn.

His savings account *could* supply him with a *little* bit more... but really, if things got that desperate, he'd be better off just handing Duo a letter and begging him to read it before starting his week with Yuy. There was no point in driving himself to the edge of bankruptcy over this; there would be other chances to win Duo's affection back again. Though the thought of losing to Yuy and letting him have Duo to himself for a whole *week* definitely made him extremely nervous.

'Damn it, Chang, O told you that you should have been doing more hacking at the time but you were too high and mighty to listen.' Still, maybe he would have enough. Maybe Yuy had used up more of what he'd hacked on repairs to Zero or had already given some of it away. Maybe.

Part 3:

Impatiently yanking a handful of loose hair back out of his face, Duo decided enough was enough. He was hot, tired, and extremely disappointed. Relena had been nice enough to give him a sneak peek at the list of bidders (okay, so technically she had used a really lame password for the file and hadn't closed her connection properly after chatting with him online - same difference) and much to his delight he had discovered both Heero and Wufei on the list. A whirlwind shopping trip had promptly followed. One that resulted in the outfit he was now wearing, an outfit bought just for today's pre-auction get-together of bidders and "bachelors". And then neither Heero nor Wufei had showed up for it, making all his effort in getting dressed this afternoon futile.

He was wearing snug - but not indecently snug - black leather pants that were hot as hell; he had left his hair down - also hot as hell and bloody annoying too since the wind kept blowing it in his face - since he knew it was his crowning glory; and he was wearing a beautiful deep violet silk shirt - carefully selected to emphasize the exotic violet shade of his eyes - under the short leather jacket that matched the pants. Of course, at this point he couldn't take the jacket off because the beautiful silk shirt was sticking to his back with sweat and would almost certainly be showing huge damp circles under his arms too.

He had purchased and packed clothing suitable for Sanc in late springtime. Just one problem. The bachelor auction had been relocated. To Las Vegas, Nevada. Just a tiny little change. From temperate to fuckin' *hot*.

"Why the hell couldn't they have had this in Sanc like it was supposed to be?" he moaned softly, heading back into the hotel.

"Because then Relena wouldn't have needed a complete new wardrobe?" Zechs offered jokingly, startling Duo. "Sorry, I didn't realize you were quite *that* lost in thought," he apologized as Duo jumped and landed in a defensive position.

"Not your fault," Duo answered, relaxing. "Just hot and cranky. And tryin' to think what I've got with me that I won't either fry or get sunburnt wearing."

"Mmm, yes, sun *would* be a problem, wouldn't it," the blond said, taking a look at Duo's very fair skin. "Come on, I've probably got something you can get by with. I burn easy myself *and* I had a little more notice of the change in plans." Duo gratefully followed Zechs back to his room.

Pulling a long-sleeved white cotton shirt and a pair of lightweight white linen pants out of his suitcase, Zechs handed them to Duo. "You'll have to roll them up, I'm afraid, but they should be considerably more comfortable than what you've got on."

Looking at the items, Duo sighed in resignation. "So much for seductive," he muttered. But he'd already spent as much as he could afford on new clothes for this trip. Buying yet another new outfit just for tomorrow - the day of the auction - wasn't really an option and the outfit he had brought was just as unsuitable for a Vegas afternoon as the one he was now wearing.

Giving the dejected teen a concerned look, Zechs said, "Okay, obviously there's a little more than the heat getting you down." Plopping down on the edge of the bed and patting the space beside him, he ordered, "Spill."

"What, you're everybody's big brother now?" Duo joked.

"Everybody who's saved my nutty little sister's life more than once, yes."

Sinking down to sit on the bed beside Zechs, Duo started from the beginning. And damn, did it feel good to tell the whole sad sob story. He hadn't even told Hilde *everything*, fearing she'd go charging off to berate one or both ex-pilots for not properly appreciating her "brother" and giving away a few too many details in the process. While Heero and Wufei were certainly well aware that he'd been interested in them two years ago, he had never let slip so much as a hint that he was head-over-heels in love with them. With *both* of them.

***

Carefully tucking his pre-authorized bidding chit into his pocket, Heero cursed the late-running assignment and change of auction location that had combined to keep him from arriving in time for the pre-auction gathering of bidders and bachelors. It had been the middle of the night by the time he had finally arrived at the hotel hosting the auction. His only consolation was that Chang had missed the gathering as well, since he was on the same assignment. Unfortunately, that had also meant that they ended up sharing a shuttle for the trip. Une had been considerate enough to let them use a Preventers shuttle to make the trip from Sanc over to the auction location since the last one scheduled for ferrying auction guests was long gone by the time their debriefing was finished.

Finding out that the auction had been relocated to accommodate the schedules of several bidders had been an unpleasant surprise to return to after nearly two weeks stuck in the company of his rival. Neither Duo nor the auction had been mentioned by either of them in that entire time. Their conversation had been strictly limited to that required by the assignment.

Though Heero was not entirely happy about that. He and Chang usually found a number of things to discuss when on assignment together, and he usually enjoyed the conversation. He did not like this new distance between them. But the only thing that would clear it up would be for one of them to give up trying to win Duo. At the auction, and as a life-mate. And while he couldn't speak for Chang, he knew that was one thing *he* was *not* willing to do.

***

Wufei pulled his hair back into its usual tail before picking up his pre-authorized bidding chit and slipping it into his pocket. He had really hoped to have a chance to speak with Duo during the pre-auction gathering of bidders and 'bachelors'. He had wanted to make certain that Duo knew he was intending to bid on him and that even if he did not win, he wanted a chance to get together with Duo as soon as possible. Wufei was fairly certain that Yuy would be able to outbid him. The ex-Wing pilot had done a great deal more hacking during the war, and was not too likely to have spent the majority of those funds.

Frowning slightly, Wufei admitted to himself that he did not like the new distance between himself and Yuy. They had always worked well together on assignments, and while that had not changed during this last one, the comfort level had. Other than discussing things directly related to the assignment, they had basically not spoken to one another. Usually, they carried on conversations on a variety of interesting topics. Losing Yuy's - Wufei hesitated, then decided that the term *was* in fact appropriate - Yuy's friendship was not a choice he would make voluntarily. But if that was the price of winning Duo, he would pay it. He would not - *could* not - give up his chance at happiness.

***

Having given Duo permission to snip and stitch the borrowed clothing to his heart's content, Zechs was eager to see exactly what sort of magic he had worked on them. His previous surprise that the former Shinigami could sew turned to amazement as Duo came into the restaurant for breakfast. Calling what Duo had done to those drab, too-big clothes "sewing" was like calling the Gundams "mobile suits". Technically true, but completely inadequate. Zechs's wolf-whistle turned every head in the area - including Heero's and Wufei's - as well as putting some definite colour into Duo's cheeks.

"You like," Duo grinned cockily, pirouetting like a fashion model.

"Oh yeah," Zechs grinned back appreciatively. "And so do they," he whispered softly, jerking his head in the direction of the two Asian pilots.

Duo's grin dimmed for a moment, then brightened again as he realized Zechs was correct. Thank god all his hard work hadn't been for nothing. He'd been up half the night working on his new outfit.

Scraps of the sweat-stained violet shirt had been turned into overlays on the collar of the white shirt, as well as providing a new placket for the shirt front, inserts on the cuffs, and edging for the pocket. The shirt sleeves had been shortened. A small section of slightly-stained silk had been used to gather his hair back into a ponytail high on the back of his head, providing a compromise between the cool convenience of a braid and the seductive glory of long hair left loose in shimmering waves. The violet shirt itself had been completely torn apart and the unstained parts turned into the tight, cropped-off tanktop that he wore under the loose-fitting, unbuttoned white shirt. The white pants had been shortened and altered to ride low on his hips and fit snugly.

Duo thought, 'Not exactly what Sister Helen had in mind when she taught me to alter and repair my uniforms, but nothing I learn *ever* goes to waste...'

Seeing the heated glares being directed in his direction, Zechs snickered inwardly. 'Guess they don't like how close I'm standing. Or that wolf-whistle. And I have to admit, if I wasn't already 100% committed to Noin, I'd be more than willing to give them a real run for their money. What were they, blind up till now? How did they ever manage to do something so boneheaded as turn *that* down?' Aloud, he merely observed, "Nice duds, Duo."

Heero suppressed an urge to growl at the appreciative way Zechs was eyeing Duo. This was not good. Chang as competition was bad enough, he didn't need any more. He was well aware of how desirable Duo was, both as a competent, intelligent partner and as a gorgeous, sexy... Ripping his eyes away from Duo, he met a knowing look from Zechs. Damn. Nothing like giving away your interest to the competition. Angrily, he glared and silently mouthed, "Mine." 'If I'd just figured out what I wanted a little bit sooner, I wouldn't be having this problem right now. I'd have made him mine then and never let go.'

Standing right beside Heero, just in case he tried to monopolize Duo at breakfast, Wufei also wasn't very happy about either the wolf-whistle or the appreciative gaze. More competition, particularly competition that hadn't already blown one chance, was *not* a good thing. It wasn't hard to see why Zechs would be interested in a sexy, intelligent person like Duo, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Meeting Zechs's gaze, Wufei glared furiously and silently mouthed, "Mine." He was *not* about to lose Duo to the likes of Merquise.

Zechs's eyebrow raised at the first possessive declaration; the second sent his other eyebrow up as well. This - was not good. Interested was good, outright possessive without having even indicated said interest to the individual in question was not. And *two* very forceful, very possessive individuals competing for one extremely independent one was going to cause some major problems. Particularly since the one they were competing over had already admitted that if by some incredible chance they both *did* turn out to be interested, he didn't think he could choose.

Part 4:

The auction was getting ready to start and Duo was feeling decidedly frustrated. Not once all morning had he been able to get a moment alone with either Heero or Wufei. He had hoped to get a chance to try and find out whether they had any particular plans to bid in the auction and maybe even to hint that he was hoping those plans included him. But the two of them were practically attached at the hip - never seen separately for more than a moment at a time. Despite those appreciative looks at breakfast, he was beginning to fear his earlier supposition at the "Peace Anniversary" party had been correct - they were interested in each other and simply hadn't worked things out yet.

As his turn to step up on the auction block approached, Duo swallowed hard and summoned up his old jester's mask. He couldn't quite manage a genuine smile.

***

As the bidding for Duo started, Heero waited, biding his time. Quatre had already bought Trowa, and with the rule of one bachelor per bidder, that left him out of the running. Thank god. If Quatre had been able to bid and had decided to "help out" a friend by running his price up, Heero would have never had a chance of affording Duo.

Before the auctioneer could finish saying "Going Twice" on the top bid - there was no way of knowing whose since all bidding was done electronically - Heero put in his first bid. And met a glare from across the crowd. Ah hah. So Chang *was* the other bidder. No real surprise there. Well, they would soon see who had been the better hacker during the war. And maybe who was willing to dip deepest into their savings as well.

Heero had figured out precisely how much he could afford to spend without reducing himself to penury. It would be distinctly foolish to spend so much money at the auction that he then could not afford to spend anything on Duo during their week together. But he was also determined not to allow Chang the advantage of a full week alone with Duo.

Although he was fairly certain that Duo would be willing to allow the losing bidder a chance to get together if he should request one - which Heero was quite sure Chang would do, as he certainly would do the same should he perchance lose - that week would be a difficult advantage to overcome. Knowing that there had been at least attraction on Duo's part back during the war, a week spent showing him how well they could work and play together might just be enough to forge an unbreakable bond out of that attraction. Or at least that was Heero's hope if he won. And his fear if Chang won.

Casting a quick glance up at Duo's face as he placed yet another bid, Heero was disturbed to realize that he was seeing the jester's mask, not a real smile. Had Duo agreed to this only to regret it? What was wrong? He had seemed happy enough earlier this morning...

***

Growling under his breath, Wufei raised his bid. The other bidder *had* to be Yuy. He just hoped he had enough money to wipe that self-satisfied smirk off of Yuy's face. As the smirk turned to a tiny frown of - concern, he thought, Yuy was damn hard to read - Wufei followed his gaze. And immediately saw the cause of the concern. That was *not* a genuine smile on Duo's face. What had happened? He had seemed to be in a good mood earlier...

Wufei placed his last bid with a feeling of dread. It wasn't going to be enough. Yuy had more, he was sure of it. And that was confirmed a moment later as he was outbid once again. Damn. Well, he would *have* to make sure he got to speak to Duo for at least a few moments, long enough to arrange to get together after Duo's week with Yuy. And he would have to hope that a week was not long enough for Yuy to tie Duo to him in an unbreakable bond.

Already resigning himself to having lost to Yuy, Wufei was shocked when the bid was again raised. Jerking his gaze back to Yuy, he saw the minuscule change in his face as he became increasingly tense. Obviously, Yuy was getting close to his own limits. Who could possibly be bidding against him?

A quick look around found the culprit. Merquise was looking decidedly self-satisfied. Catching Wufei's eye, he raised one eyebrow and mouthed with what Wufei was convinced was sarcasm, "Yours?"

Damn. Not good. Merquise didn't have a history of screw-ups with Duo and he had far more money to play with than Yuy was likely to have. And his appreciation of Duo's looks had been perfectly clear this morning. Him winning was unthinkable.

Losing to Yuy would have been bad enough. Losing to Merquise? Infinitely worse.

Reaching a decision, Wufei jumped up and headed through the crowd.

***

Fuck. He wasn't going to have enough. Merquise was going to beat them both. Heero could have lived with losing to Chang. Chang had screwed up with Duo just as badly as he had. As long as he had let Duo know that he would like a chance to get together after his week with Chang, he was pretty sure he'd have had an even shot at winning Duo for himself.

Merquise, on the other hand, had *no* history with Duo. There was no guarantee that Duo would even be interested in him, but he also had no outstanding black marks on his track record. If only he had some more resources...

Reaching a decision, Heero jumped up, electronic bidding device in hand, and started through the crowd towards where he had last seen Chang.

***

Seeing Heero and Wufei independently reach the necessary conclusion and start towards each other, Zechs smothered a smirk of satisfaction. He carefully waited till the very last possible second to place his next bid, deliberately delaying in order to give the two ex-pilots time to settle this.

Zechs had done a lot of thinking about Duo's situation since their conversation yesterday. Seeing the reactions of the two ex-pilots this morning at breakfast to Duo's appearance - and to his own seeming interest - then watching them consistently block each other's attempts to speak with Duo alone throughout the rest of the morning had made it clear that both Chang and Yuy were indeed interested. Very interested. But also very competitive and possessive, which did not bode well for the young man in love with them both.

Somehow, they needed to be pushed out of "competitive" mode and into "cooperative" mode if Duo was to have any chance of avoiding having to choose one over the other. Giving them some outside "competition" to force them to cooperate was the only possibility he could come up with on such short notice.

Watching the two of them conversing hurriedly, Zechs thought, 'Duo, I just hope you don't make this too easy for them. Make them squirm a little. They deserve it for leaving you hanging all this time. And if you really want them both, you're going to have to force them to accept that. This is the best chance I can give you, kiddo. Call it payback for all the times you saved sis's ass when she didn't really deserve saving...'

***

"Share?" Heero demanded urgently, listening as his bid was beaten and the auctioneer started calling for the next bid.

"Share," Wufei agreed, handing Heero his pre-approved bidding chit to run through the bidding device's scanner.

"All or nothing?" Heero asked, finger hovering over the "Maximum Bid" button.

"Go for it," Wufei answered, nodding firmly.

***

As the bid abruptly jumped, increasing by over two-thirds in a single bid, Zechs directed a smile over his shoulder towards Noin. He had warned her what he was up to in advance, since if this had backfired and he'd ended up winning Duo, he wouldn't have been able to bid on her. She was fond of the "God of Death" herself and had readily agreed to Zechs's plan. Fortunately, it had worked. Heero and Wufei had been forced to cooperate in order to win Duo. Now, it was all up to Duo.

Part 5:

As the bidding closed, Duo somehow managed to keep a smile firmly in place. He knew approximately how much money each of the other pilots had hacked during the war, and that total was far too high for the winner to have been either of them. They had both disappeared into the crowd before the end of the bidding anyway, so they must not have been interested after all.

Turning to follow one of the auction assistants back to the desk to find out who had won his week, he decided listlessly that it really didn't matter. Whoever had won had made a *very* substantial donation to a good cause, so he would be sure to be as friendly and cooperative as possible. The auction rules meant that he couldn't be expected to do anything he would be genuinely uncomfortable with. Though he really wouldn't have cared about the rules if either of his love interests had won him...

As they approached the room with the record desk in it, Duo heard a voice say, "This is very irregular, sir. Two bidders are not supposed to combine their bids."

"There is nothing in the auction rules to indicate that," a familiar voice answered.

'Heero? What the...'

"Well, no, I guess there isn't, but nevertheless, the intention is clear..." the clerk's voice responded.

As he entered the room, Duo heard Wufei point out, "It is within the stated rules and the charity receives more money this way than if the other bidder had won. What difference does it make?"

"Well, I guess that as long as the 'bachelor' in question has no objection, the bid will stand," the clerk answered. Motioning Duo over to her, she explained, "These two gentlemen combined their bids. That means that they would be entitled to share your week rather than only one individual having your undivided time. This is decidedly irregular and if you have any objections, we will cancel the bid..."

Looking back and forth between Heero and Wufei, Duo realized just which "two gentlemen" had won his time. Torn between delight at the thought of a week spent with his two loves and despair at the thought that they must be extremely close if not actually together if they were cooperating to this extent, Duo told the flustered woman, "No, no objections. The money goes to a good cause. And they're both friends of mine. I'm sure everything will work out okay."

Or at least, Duo hoped it would. If they *were* together, why would they have bid on him? And if they weren't, why would they have joined forces? Just to help a good cause with old Oz funds? Or were they intending to get a little mild revenge for all the times he aggravated them both during the war?

Deciding that the latter motive probably played a large part in their choice of *who* to bid on at least, Duo resigned himself to a week of doing the dirtiest of household chores, running dull errands, and so on. All in the simultaneously wonderful and torturous company of the two young men he loved. Wonderful. Just wonderful.

Reminding the two winners that they would have to attend the ball that evening for the official announcement of winning bids, the clerk waved Duo off to another room to sign the documents agreeing to the deal. He managed to offer the two ex-pilots a slightly weak smile on his way out. "See you at the dance," he said just before the door closed.

Sinking into a chair, Duo signed his way through the documents on auto-pilot. Why the hell had he let Relena talk him into this?

***

As the door closed behind Duo, Heero and Wufei exchanged uneasy glances. "He didn't look very happy," Heero said nervously. "You don't think he was hoping Merquise had won, do you?"

That would *not* be good. Not only would that indicate that Duo had moved on, forgotten about him, but it would also mean that he was hurting Duo again. Something Heero had promised himself that he would not *ever* do. He had caused Duo more than enough hurt with his cold behaviour during the war. Yes, he desperately wanted Duo to be with him - but not at the cost of Duo's own happiness.

"No," Wufei said, shaking his head slightly, his own mind racing through possible reasons for Duo's apparent unease. "He seemed happy enough to see m... - us," he corrected himself, "at first..."

His voice trailed off for a moment, then Wufei offered hesitantly, "You don't suppose he thinks we're planning some sort of revenge for his pranks and teasing during the war, do you?"

That was all too possible, Wufei feared. He had never done anything to let Duo know that anything had changed in the years between then and now, and he had certainly sought appropriate retribution back then. Usually without success, as Duo was far better at the fine art of pranks than he and would almost always catch his attempts virtually in the planning stages. And his rants had never been an appropriate response to Duo's mischievous - and later, flirtatious - teasing. While Duo was careful never to cross the line from teasing remarks into outright barbs, Wufei had often been less cautious in his responses, making hurtful comments that he now cringed at the memory of.

Causing any sort of harm to Duo was the *last* thing Wufei wanted to do. He wanted Duo to be happy. Hopefully, happy with *him*. But definitely *happy*.

"That *would* probably be the only thing he could think of that we might have in common," Heero admitted, distinctly unhappy at the thought. The idea that the one person in the entire universe that he loved could possibly believe that Heero's only interest in him was in getting even for a few mild pranks and some flirtatious teasing was definitely not one to make *him* happy.

***

Duo sat, knees drawn up to his chin and arms wrapped around his legs, staring off across the desert. He would have to go in soon and get ready for the final event of the charity auction, the ball at which the winners of the auction would be formally announced. The bachelors had all been supplied with clothing for the ball by various formal wear rental places in town. A specific "look" was wanted by the auction organizers - tuxes for the men, gowns for the women - in order to create the appropriate image of the bachelor auction as a classy event to help with its promotion in future years. The media presence tonight was expected to be huge as Relena had managed to get a large number of celebrities of one sort or another involved in the auction.

Duo still wasn't certain whether to be glad or upset that *all* of the former Gundam pilots had ended up being involved - himself and Trowa as 'bachelors' and Quatre, Heero, and Wufei as bidders. He simply did not know what to make of Heero and Wufei's collaborative effort. He had managed to avoid everyone once he finished signing all the auction paperwork; he had felt desperately in need of a chance to spend some time alone and try to figure out exactly what the two Asian pilots' intentions were.

'Might as well not have bothered,' Duo thought ruefully. 'I just keep coming back to the same question. If either - or, unbelievably, *both* - of them was interested in *me* for anything other than a little payback for all the aggravation I gave them during the war, why would they cooperate with each other? It doesn't make any sense. So in that case, a little good old-fashioned payback must be the reason. Oh, they won't do anything to cause any real harm, I know that. Probably just boring old chores or something. The stuff I hated getting stuck with in safehouses.'

But what Heero and Wufei wouldn't realize, of course, was that just being around them without any hope of having his feelings returned would cause its own sort of harm. He had agreed to do this and he would stick to his agreement. But Duo was suddenly longing for the week to be over with. He would have to take a few days afterwards to get himself back together again before going back to L2. Otherwise, it would only take one look for Hilde to know something was seriously wrong and she'd hound him until she had the whole story. At which point he might as well just go into permanent hiding because she'd reveal everything to Heero and Wufei in the process of tearing a few strips off them for hurting him. And as long as there was no sign of his love being returned, there was no way that he wanted them to know about it.

Rising to his feet and turning to head back to the hotel, Duo sent one last wistful look over his shoulder at the spectacular sunset over the desert. He missed sunsets now that he was back living on L2.

Part 6:

'Where the hell did he go?' Heero wondered, looking out the window yet again for any sign of Duo.

"Yuy. Are you paying any attention at all to what I just said?" Wufei demanded in aggravation.

"Sorry," Heero apologized, "I just don't like the fact that we couldn't find him."

The aggravation faded from Wufei's face and was replaced by concern. "I don't either. If he feels the need to run and hide now, that doesn't bode very well for *either* of us having much success with our plans."

"Look," Heero said, pulling a pen and paper out of his pocket, "we need to figure out how we're going to do this sharing thing anyway, let's settle that while we're watching for Duo to come back. We know that he'll be at the ball, so he can't have gone too far. And he'll follow through on the week since he gave his word. Whatever's wrong, we'll have to try and straighten it out then. So, since we've got seven days, there's a couple of different possibilities. I think it's obvious that we each want at least some time alone with him, right?"

"Right," Wufei agreed, nodding abruptly.

"Okay. I thought it might be best if we make the first day one we all spend together. Maybe that way we can find out what's bothering him and clear up any misconceptions he might have about us being out to get even for his wartime pranks and so on."

"Agreed," Wufei replied. "How about taking him to a theme park? I know he talked about wanting to go to one during the war but obviously it wasn't an option then. And I don't recall him ever mentioning having been to one since in those damn little friendly notes he sends out every month."

'Evidently Chang found those just as disappointing as I did,' Heero thought. "No, I don't either, so I think it's safe to assume that he never did get to one. And that should be sufficiently far from what he'd expect from either of us that he'll realize how much we've changed since the war."

"Well, then that's one day down," Wufei said, pulling out his own pen and paper and jotting down a few quick notes. "And I think neither of us will want the other to have the advantage of spending the *last* day with him either."

"That settles the other point then," Heero said with a sigh. "That means we spend the first and last days as a group, leaving us with two days each to have him to ourselves and one day left over." Heero hesitated, part of him wanting to insist that he should have that extra day since he had outbid Chang to start with. But he could not have beaten Merquise without Chang's assistance, so the question of who contributed more was really a moot point. Reluctantly, he offered, "I guess to be fair, we should make the extra day a group day as well."

Wufei knew that Yuy was an honourable man, but that offer was still a pleasant surprise. Yuy really would have been within his rights to have tried to claim the extra day for himself. "Then let's alternate days and put the group day in the middle of the week," he suggested. A sudden sneaking suspicion occurred to Wufei. "You didn't by chance arrange with Une to work a couple of days of your week and bring Duo along with the excuse that you were trying to persuade him to join the Preventers, did you?"

Heero blinked twice before answering, "Yes... You did that too?"

Wufei nodded silently. 'Damn. We both realized that we needed to show him there was a place for him here as a partner, not just a lover. So much for *that* "advantage" I thought I had.' "I arranged to work Tuesday and Wednesday. You?"

"The same. Now I know why Une had such an odd expression on her face when she gave me the approved request back," Heero said, sounding mildly irritated. 'This is going to be harder than I thought. Chang realizes that Duo needs to know he's valued as more than just a lover too. We're going to be awfully evenly matched...'

***

Duo sighed and leaned back against the wall. He failed to understand why the organizers had insisted on all the bachelors assembling over an hour ahead of time. Taking the group photo had taken less than half that time.

"Hi Duo," a familiar voice said.

Looking up, Duo spotted Noin smiling cheerfully at him. "Oh, hi Noin," he said, making an effort to give her a small smile.

"What's wrong? Zechs thought you'd be delighted by who won you," she said, giving him a concerned look.

"Oh man, don't tell me he told you everything..." Duo moaned in embarrassment.

"Well, he sort of *had* to warn me why he was going to bid on *you*," Noin told him.

"What?!"

"Didn't he tell you what he did?" she asked in disbelief. "Oh dear. I thought he was going to talk to you right after the auction..."

"I went for a walk and didn't talk to anyone," Duo admitted. "I needed a little time to think. But why would Zechs have bid on *me*?"

"To force those two competitive idiots you're interested in to cooperate with each other in order to win you."

Stunned, Duo muttered softly, "So *that's* why they were cooperating. I thought..." Mind racing, he decided that maybe he could get some *other* answers as well, "Noin, you're working for Preventers too... Have you heard any rumours about Heero and Wufei being - well, *involved*?"

"No, none at all," she answered, puzzled. "Why?"

"Well, it just seems like every time I see one, the other is right there. It was like that at Relena's 'Peace Anniversary' party too. I thought maybe the two of them..."

Noin laughed out loud, then clapped her gloved hand over her mouth as heads turned in their direction. Dropping her voice to little more than a whisper, she ruffled Duo's bangs as she affectionately told him, "Idiot! They've each been trying to keep the other from getting *you* alone."

Duo blinked in disbelief as his entire interpretation of events was abruptly turned upside down. If *that* was what had been going on... "Oh. My. God," he said in shock, suddenly glad that the wall was right behind him to support him as he sagged back against it. "Noin, are you *sure*?"

"If you'd seen the looks they were giving Zechs for daring to bid on you, you wouldn't have to ask that question," she assured him laughingly. "But Duo," Noin continued in a suddenly serious tone, "Zechs wanted to warn you not to make things too easy for them. If you just fall right into either one's arms, you will have *made* your choice whether you intended to or not. Take this week and use it to decide whether you *can* choose. You've had very little contact with either of them since the war. Get to know them again, be sure you really love them. Be sure that you can be *happy* with them. Then if you still want them both - you're going to have to fight to make them accept that."

Dazed, Duo nodded in acknowledgement of the advice. If they really *were* *both* interested in him - oh god, this could be wonderful or terrible. He would have to be so damn careful. If it came down to a choice, it would be incredibly difficult.

Part of him said he'd choose Heero since Duo had fallen for him first. And if Heero had given him even the tiniest bit of encouragement, Duo would have never even let Wufei know he was interested in him too. But Heero *hadn't* given him the slightest bit of hope, and so he'd finally given up. Duo hadn't turned to Wufei immediately even though he'd been attracted to him and cared very deeply for him before then. Instead, Duo had waited for a month or so, just in case Heero had a change of heart.

But there had been no indication that Heero even realized Duo had changed his behaviour around him. It had hurt - a lot - but Duo had resigned himself to the fact that Heero could very well be straight - the odds were definitely in favour of that - and he had decided to make the best of things and stuff that particular dream away as he had so many others before. And so he had pushed all thought of Heero as a lover, as a life-partner, aside, letting it join the long-abandoned dreams of adoption and a family to call his own. And he had turned his attention to the other individual who had earned affection beyond that of a friend or a brother.

It hadn't taken long at all for that deep affection to reveal itself as love once he allowed himself to think of Wufei in that way. But it quickly became clear that this dream was, if anything, even *more* hopeless than the previous one. At the time, he had been deeply hurt by Wufei's strongly negative reaction to his flirtatious behaviour. It was only later, after finding out about Meiran and realizing that Wufei was most likely still in mourning that he had been able to understand just why Wufei probably reacted so strongly. And that, together with Wufei's loss of his clan, was why part of him said he'd choose Wufei, since he too understood loss and grief.

To choose one over the other would, if both cared for him beyond simple physical attraction, mean hurting both himself and the one he did not choose. Choosing neither would leave all three of them hurt and miserable. But to try and choose *both* of them... If it worked, they could all be happy. If it didn't, he could end up destroying any chance of *any* of them being happy. But that was assuming that they felt something more than physical attraction for him to begin with.

Back when he had first fallen for Heero and Wufei, the slightest sign of mere physical attraction would have been enough to send Duo into either one's arms. And bed. Now... Now, it would take a lot more than that.

He had a life that - though far from perfect - was far better than Duo had ever dared to imagine he could achieve on his own. He had a fairly earned share in a business that was just starting to show a profit and a very good friend - almost a sister - who shared that business - *and* a *home* - with him. He might not be entirely happy but he *was* reasonably content. Give that up for a sexual relationship? No. He would not trade a home and a life of his own for a purely physical relationship. If either Heero or Wufei wanted him, they would have to make it very clear that they too were interested in more than just sex.

Part 7:

As the announcer called each 'bachelor' forwards and announced the winner of the bachelor's time, Duo fervently wished he'd talked to Zechs prior to his walk. The time he'd wasted trying to figure out what Heero and Wufei were up to would have been far better spent trying to figure out how he was going to handle being sufficiently open and responsive to encourage each of them without making the other jealous or discouraged.

Noin's reminder that he had barely seen them in two years and needed to get to know them all over again was also worth keeping in mind. Duo doubted that either of them would have changed so drastically that he would no longer love them but it was entirely possible that he would not measure up to whatever memory of him the two of them were interested in. There was very little about either Heero or Wufei that he did not know - he had made a very close study of each when he was trying to catch their attention during the war and had continued to keep a close eye on them even after giving up. He knew their favourite foods and colours, the way they liked their coffee or tea, the kinds of books they read, and a million other little details.

Duo knew that Dr. J had "acquired" Heero at a young age after the death of his mentor, an assassin named Odin Lowe. He knew that Heero's training had been far harsher than his own, particularly when he was "retrained" to "purge undesirable emotions" after some sort of "unfortunate incident" as it was referred to in J's computer files. He also knew that Heero would have been extremely annoyed to find out Duo had hacked his way into said files. Particularly since the security on them was clearly of Heero's own design.

As for Wufei... Well, Duo knew that Wufei had been married to a girl named Meiran at the age of fourteen and that she had died soon after, defending the colony against an Alliance attack. He knew that Wufei had been raised as a traditional Chinese scholar, with all the widely varying training that implied. He knew that most if not all of Wufei's clan had been killed when the colony self-destructed to avoid being used by the Alliance as leverage against Wufei.

Oh, Duo was no doubt missing some details of Heero's and Wufei's lives, but he knew a great deal about them. He had continued to keep a watch over them after they both joined the Preventers. Nothing too nosy - he wasn't *stalking* them, after all - but just a close enough watch that if either of them ever needed help, he would know about it. And he didn't want a repeat of the Mariemaia incident. Discovering that one of his loves was on the wrong side of a rebellion had been a nasty shock. He had often wondered whether things would have gone differently if he had been keeping a closer eye on Wufei right after the war. Since then, he had kept a cautious watch over *all* of his friends in fact, wanting to be sure that he would be ready to intervene if any one of them seemed to be having problems adjusting to peace.

Duo was less certain how much Heero and Wufei actually knew about *him* however. The real him, that is, not just the flirtatious joker who piloted the Gundam Deathscythe. Neither had seemed to pay very much attention to him at all unless it was to complain about something - his eating habits, his music, his talking, the amount of hot water he used in the shower, the way he dressed, the way he behaved...

Pushing the unwelcome memories aside for now, Duo started forward in response to the announcer calling his name. Heero and Wufei came forward in their turn, yet another photo was taken, and then they were all hurried off the stage to make way for the next set of bachelor and winner. Since the winner was now supposed to lead the bachelor out onto the dance floor, Duo was curious as to how the two were going to handle this. And the entire week, come to that. Would they continue to cooperate, or would they revert to competing? Were they genuinely interested in *him*, or had the competition itself become more important?

Heero had been relieved to see a somewhat happier expression on Duo's face when the announcer called him forward. It wasn't the ear-to-ear delighted grin of welcome that he would have liked to see, but it was definitely better than the weak smile Duo had given them right after the auction.

As the three of them stepped off the stage, Heero reached for Duo's hand to lead him out for the first dance. Wufei had - reluctantly - yielded it to Heero. But only in exchange for the right to the *last* dance of the night. Heero started to take the lead, then hesitated. 'Maybe I should let Duo lead?' Uncertainly, he asked, "Duo, would you rather lead?"

Pleasantly surprised at the offer, Duo smiled and shook his head slightly. "Nah, that's okay. Maybe the next dance?" If Heero intended to dance more than once with him, that is. Heero had never been too fond of attending school dances when they were hiding out during the war. It had been rare that he take the floor for even one dance let alone more. Though it certainly wasn't because he didn't know how to dance. Duo had spent more than one school dance fantasizing that it was *him* being swept around the floor in Heero's arms, not Relena or whatever lucky girl had finally managed to drag him out on the floor.

"Sure," Heero responded to Duo's query, enjoying the startled but happy smile he received in return. Pulling Duo into his arms, Heero had to consciously remind himself to take things slow. 'Holding him like this feels so very right. All I really want to do is pull him so close that we touch from head to toe and never let go...'

Held in Heero's arms and with the implied promise of more time spent in that fashion, Duo was fighting a losing battle against his traitorous body. It wanted to sink into Heero's arms and melt against him, making the most of the moment in case this was the most he would ever have from Heero. But Noin's warning lingered in his mind. If he *did* meld himself to Heero, would Wufei interpret that as acceptance of Heero and rejection of him? Where did he draw the line between encouragement and making his choice final? Where would *they* draw the line? Duo suddenly felt like he was walking Trowa's tightrope at the circus. The slightest wrong move could lead to disaster.

Basking in the wonderful feeling of having Duo in his arms, Heero realized once again just how much he had missed the many casual touches Duo used to give him in a day. He had taken them for granted at the time, only missing them when it was too late, when he had pushed Duo away one time too many. It wasn't just the flirtatious touches that he missed, either. Sure, he missed Duo leaning over his shoulder, shirtless, and speaking to him in a husky voice, breath tickling Heero's ear. But he also missed the friendly clap on the back after a basketball game. Heero knew he needed to tell Duo all of those things. However he also knew that this was not the time or the place. That would have to wait until they had some privacy. Generous and forgiving as Duo was, Heero expected his explanations and apologies to be accepted. But not necessarily without a little shouting along the way. Particularly because he had spent so long waiting in hope of Duo making a second attempt rather than approaching Duo himself.

As the dance ended, Heero reluctantly released Duo. The next dance belonged to Wufei. Who wasted no time in claiming it.

Duo offered Wufei a slight smile as the change of partners took place. "Thank you," he told Heero before the blue-eyed boy walked away. Then Duo turned his attention to Wufei.

As Wufei pulled Duo into his arms for their first dance together, he wanted nothing more than to crush the other boy against him tightly. It had been so long since he'd had the opportunity to touch him... But he was uncertain how Duo would react to being pulled too close. It would be presumptuous in the extreme to assume such a gesture would be welcomed after how vehemently he had rejected even the most casual contact from Duo in the past.

Much as he dreaded bringing up the subject, Wufei knew that he owed Duo an explanation for his disgraceful behaviour back then. This, however, was neither the time nor the place for such a discussion. The opportunity would, in fact, probably not arise until his first day alone with Duo. Which might be just as well, since he had yet to figure out how to explain his behaviour without sounding as if he was excusing it. There really *was* no excuse for it. There were any number of ways that he could have *politely* discouraged Duo had he genuinely not been interested, and an equally large number of ways that he could have explained that - while not uninterested - he was not currently prepared to begin a relationship. As it was, his behaviour had been thoroughly unbecoming a member of the Dragon clan.

Duo was uncertain whether to be glad or disappointed that both Heero and Wufei had maintained a very formal distance while dancing with him. Both of them had also passed their dance in almost complete silence. While Duo certainly did not want to launch an in-depth discussion of their past behaviour or present intentions in such a public setting, a little light social conversation would have been nice. If they were waiting for *him* to start a conversation, they would be waiting a long time. Neither of them had ever been willing to listen before, let alone carry on an actual conversation with him, and petty though it was, he was determined not to be the first to start talking now. If one of them started a conversation and showed signs of being interested in what he had to say, then he would talk. Otherwise - well, it would be a hell of a quiet week.

As the evening wore on, Duo realized with a mixture of amusement and dismay that he was apparently not going to get a chance to dance with anyone else. After each dance, either Heero or Wufei was right there waiting to claim him from the other for the next one. He was pretty sure he had seen a few people start to approach to cut in, only to meet either Heero's death-glare or Wufei's haughty, intimidating glare and turn away again. When Zechs came up to them on the dance floor and asked to cut in, Wufei's sharp answer of "No" was the last straw.

Gracefully disentangling himself from Wufei's hold, Duo said quickly, "Yes, of course." Ignoring Wufei's sputtering protest, Zechs swept Duo into his arms - rather more closely than either of his previous partners - and spun them out into the midst of the crowded ballroom floor.

"You're letting them walk all over you," Zechs warned Duo as they danced. "They're both possessive as hell. Do you really want to let them get away with it? Keep in mind that you could very well be setting the ground rules for your future here."

Duo hesitated. On one hand, it was nice to know that they wanted him that badly. *Belonging* was a feeling that he craved all the more for having so little experience with it. None of the potential adoptive families he had been sent to while at the orphanage had ever wanted to keep him, so the knowledge that both Heero and Wufei wanted him to belong to them was extremely enticing. On the other hand, he was his own person and even if they were actually *in* a relationship with him - which neither of them *was* as of yet, nor had either of them openly indicated to *him* that they even *wanted* such a thing - he had no intention of letting them control his every move. While a *mutual* belonging - "he's mine and I'm his" would be wonderful and welcomed, he was *not* about to be treated as a possession. "No," he answered decisively. "Mind if I borrow Noin for the next dance?"

"Not at all," Zechs grinned. "But you'll have to ask *her* to be sure - I wouldn't *dare* answer on her behalf!"

"Smart man," Duo commented drily.

***

Several dances later, Heero and Wufei watched from the sidelines in dismay as Trowa handed Quatre over to Cathy and stepped into Duo's arms for the next dance.

"Dammit, Chang, why did you have to go and answer *for* him?" Heero grumbled discontentedly. He was all the more displeased because Relena and Dorothy had each dragged him onto the floor for one dance. He had intended to only dance with Duo all evening. Now it was starting to look as if he'd be fortunate to get even *one* more dance with him.

"I can't help it if Merquise wouldn't back off with just a glare," Wufei protested. "And he was the *last* person I wanted claiming Duo for a dance."

"It still would have been better than answering for him," Heero said, shaking his head slightly. Duo was too independent to let that pass. "But then I guess we *were* both being a bit..."

"Possessive? Overbearing? Pushy?" a voice offered from behind them.

"Merquise," Wufei snarled as he turned to face the voice's owner.

"Chang," Zechs responded mockingly. "You and Yuy were acting like complete assholes. Didn't it occur to you that Duo might like to dance with some of his other friends? You don't see Trowa or Quatre death-glaring anyone who tries to cut in on *their* dances, do you? No, of course not. *They* have a healthy relationship. None of this nonsense of 'mine' without even asking the one you're claiming if they *want* to be claimed." Shaking his head, the tall blond advised them succinctly, "Grow up." Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked away.

Part 8:

Dancing with Quatre, Duo noticed Heero and Wufei still standing watching him. Although a couple of the girls had managed to drag them out on the floor for a dance, they immediately returned to watching him once they managed to escape again. He wasn't quite sure whether to be flattered or disturbed by that.

"Quat," Duo said quietly, "I know you don't like snooping on people's feelings, but I kinda need to know something..."

Following Duo's gaze, Quatre shook his head slightly at the single-minded concentration of their two friends. "It depends what you need to know, Duo," he responded softly. "You know I can only pick up general feelings. I have no way of knowing the reasons behind them or anything like that."

"I know, and I don't really want much in the way of details anyway. That'd be kinda like cheating," Duo answered. "I just need to know whether there's anything more positive than jealousy, lust, and possessiveness from them where I'm concerned. With the way they're actin', I'm a little worried," he admitted. "It's too important to me - I can't trust my own judgement, Quat. I don't even wanna know *what* you feel from them - just whether it's got the potential to turn into something worthwhile."

Quatre nodded in response. "That much I can tell you without feeling like I'm taking unfair advantage, Duo. But you'll have to dance with each one again so I can try to pick up on what they're feeling when they're close to you."

"Okay," Duo agreed. "I think I've made my point anyway. I don't really wanna miss the chance to spend some more time in either one's arms."

"You're really going to have a tough time if you intend to try and persuade them to let you pick them both," Quatre cautioned him.

"I know," Duo sighed. "But I don't know if I *can* pick just one. 'Specially if in doing so, I'm gonna hurt the other one... I love'em both equally, Quat. How can I even begin to choose?"

"I don't know, Duo." Quatre hesitated as the dance drew to a close, then quickly offered, "Look, if you can manage to get the two of them to dance with each other, I'll see if I can tell if there's any chance of them feeling more than friendship for each other. If you're going to make a three-way relationship work, a true threesome would be a lot more stable than two overlapping couples."

Gratefully, Duo gave Quatre a true smile. "Thanks, Quat. Tro doesn't know how lucky he is to have such an understanding partner."

"Oh yes, he does," Trowa said quietly from behind Duo, who jumped slightly in surprise.

"Good. Then you'd better take damn good care of him," Duo told Trowa firmly.

"Don't worry, he does, Duo," Quatre assured him. "Now, you'd better go put those two out of their misery," he said, pointedly glancing across the room at Heero and Wufei.

"Yeah," Duo sighed. Then he suddenly grinned. "Get ready for *their* dance, Q. I think that one dance with each other will be the perfect penance for their bossy behaviour earlier. If they can get through one dance together without killing each other, I'll let them dance with me again. If not, they can just spend the rest of the evening as wallflowers."

Quatre laughed as Duo bounded off across the room to issue his ultimatum. "He might just pull it off," Quatre mused quietly.

"Pull what off?" Trowa asked as he pulled Quatre into his arms for the next dance.

"Persuading those two to share," the blond answered.

Trowa drew back slightly to look down at Quatre's face in disbelief. "Share? As in, share Duo? Heero and Wufei? Please tell me you're joking, Quatre."

"No, no joke," Quatre said, shaking his head. "It just depends whether they really love him and want him to be happy, Trowa. If they're willing to put his happiness first, it just might work."

***

"Alright. Since it's a shame to see two handsome, *sexy* guys standing around like wallflowers, I'll dance with you again," Duo said. Before either Heero or Wufei could try to claim him for this dance, though, he held up one hand and added, "*IF* you make up for your bossy behaviour first."

"Of course," Heero answered immediately.

Wufei looked slightly suspicious, but responded, "Certainly."

"Good. So, here's your punishment - dance this one together." Duo halted the immediate protests by placing his hands on his hips and glaring at the two of them. "What's the problem? You're friends, right? You're both great dancers and you'll look great together out there. If you really want to dance with me again tonight, you'll do it. I'll just wait here and enjoy the view." Duo looked the two of them up and down appreciatively, bringing a slight flush to both faces. "Well, what are you waiting for?"

Frustrated and flustered, Heero grabbed Wufei's arm and dragged him out on the dance floor, ignoring the other teen's protests. "I don't know about you, Chang, but *I* want to dance with Duo again," he growled under his breath. "So just shut up and dance."

"Fine," Wufei snapped back at him. "But *I'm* leading, Yuy."

Rather than waste any more time arguing, Heero simply said, "Fine."

Circling the dance floor, Heero couldn't help thinking about Duo's comments. 'Handsome and sexy? Great dancers? I guess that at least confirms that he's still interested... And I guess, bossy or not, at least the way we've acted tonight was enough to let him know that *we're* interested...' As the dance progressed, Heero had to admit Duo was right. Chang *was* a good dancer. Almost unwillingly, he admitted to himself that the rest of what Duo had said was right too. Chang *was* quite attractive. Certainly not as gorgeous as Duo - but definitely attractive.

Although both he and Yuy had started out dancing quite rigidly, they had both gradually relaxed and were dancing together quite smoothly now, much to Wufei's chagrin. He had not expected to end up *enjoying* dancing with Yuy - this was supposed to be their punishment for being so possessive, not an enjoyable experience! 'But Duo was correct. Yuy *is* a good dancer.' Wufei tried not to think too closely about Duo's *other* comments. While he was certainly glad to hear that Duo considered *him* handsome and sexy, he did not want to think about those terms being applied to Yuy as well. Even if they *were* appropriate. 'Though not nearly as appropriate as they would be if applied to Duo,' he qualified.

Stealing occasional glances at Heero and Wufei, Quatre relaxed in Trowa's arms. While confusion was definitely one of the strongest impressions he was picking up from both of his friends, there was at least a flicker of attraction in there. And a touch of respect as well. Both very promising for Duo's plans. And perhaps even more promising was the *lack* of any strongly negative emotions. As the dance drew to a close, Quatre managed to end up facing Duo. Catching his eye, he gave Duo a thumbs-up and a smile together with a slight shrug. The quick grin and wink he received in return told him his message - at least a *possibility* existed - had been received.

"What exactly are you up to, Quatre?" Trowa asked suspiciously. "Is there a particular reason that we just spent an entire dance shadowing Heero and Wufei around the dance floor and you just carried on some sort of silent conversation with Duo? Or is this one of those little mysteries I'm just going to have to pretend not to notice?"

"Just one of those little mysteries," Quatre answered with a bright smile and his best "innocent" look. "Just like the fact that we're now going to shadow Heero and Duo for *this* dance..."

Trowa sighed, "I think perhaps I don't *want* to know..."

Quatre just gave Trowa another angelic smile in response to that remark.

***

After "snooping" into both Heero's and Wufei's feelings as each danced with Duo, Quatre tugged Trowa away from the dance floor. He had signalled Duo after each dance to let him know that yes, his partner did indeed have more positive feelings for him than just lust, possessiveness, and jealousy. True to his word, Duo hadn't asked for any details; rather, he had simply given Quatre a relieved smile. But though he was glad for Duo's sake that he had "snooped", he was also very worried.

"What's wrong, Quat?" Trowa asked, picking up on his lover's upset.

"Oh Trowa - I hope Duo *can* convince them to share," Quatre responded anxiously. "If he can't, if he has to choose, the one he doesn't choose is going to be so very hurt... They don't just *care* for him, they *love* him and are *in love* with him. I don't think either one will be able to settle for friendship..."

***

As the last dance of the night drew to a close, Wufei reluctantly released Duo. Other than the period in the middle of the ball when Duo would not dance with either him or Heero, the evening had been wonderful. Yuy had been perfectly fair in sharing Duo's time with him, even though the actual time they had jointly won did not start until the next day. And once Duo had made his point regarding his independence, he had spent the majority of the dances alternating between Wufei and Heero, which seemed to be a very encouraging sign. 'At least one of us seems likely to be able to win his affection,' Wufei thought. 'I just hope that that "one" is *me*...'

Thanks to Quatre's bit of empathic snooping on his behalf, Duo was feeling much more optimistic about his chances of making a relationship with *both* his loves work. He did not know exactly *what* Quatre had picked up from them - and frankly, he didn't *want* to know, that was something he would prefer to hear from their own lips - only that there was potential for something good. That was enough for him. It wouldn't be easy to persuade Heero and Wufei to at least *try* a three-way relationship, Duo knew that perfectly well. But it would still be easier than trying to choose between them.

Waiting for Wufei and Duo to return from the dance floor, Heero reflected that the evening - while certainly not *perfect* - had gone quite well, all things considered. Although he had hated having to give up *any* of Duo's time to someone else, it had been less difficult than he had expected to share it with Chang. Certainly less difficult than yielding any of it to Merquise. He was feeling much more positive about making this shared week of Duo's time work out okay.

Escorting Duo back to his room, Heero and Wufei explained that they would need to get an early start in the morning. Other than telling Duo to dress casually and for hot, sunny weather - though *not* as hot as Vegas they assured him - they refused to tell him what they had in mind for their first day of his time.

Standing outside his hotel room door, Duo looked from one teen to the other. Neither appeared to be ready to leave, yet they didn't seem to know what else to do either. 'Bet I know what the problem is,' Duo thought. 'Each of them is afraid to leave the other alone with me in case that one tries for a goodnight kiss, but neither is willing to try in front of the other! Guess I'd better break the deadlock...'

"Well, if we're supposed to leave early tomorrow, I guess I'd better get some sleep," Duo said, unlocking his door. Turning back to face Heero and Wufei, he smiled brightly and said, "Good night!" Before the disappointment had a chance to fully register on either face, Duo darted forward and gave each a quick kiss on the cheek and a hug then ducked into his room and closed the door. Mentally, he made note of the fact that he kissed Heero first this time - he'd have to make sure Wufei got the first kiss next time.

Keeping the two of them balanced was going to be a major headache, he realized abruptly. A kiss on the cheek wasn't a particularly big deal - but his true "first kiss" - a really-and-truly, on-the-lips kiss - could only happen once. As could *other* "firsts". So did he let them assume that they *weren't* "firsts"? 'No! I can't... It would be like lying, even if I didn't come right out and *say* it... *And* it's important to me that they know I've never slept around - that I've waited for someone I love to be my first lover...' As he finished undressing and crawled in bed, Duo began to comprehend just how difficult this could truly be...

Part 9:

Duo leaned against a lamppost and scowled at the backs of his two escorts. Okay, so he'd been delighted to find out exactly what Heero and Wufei had planned for the first day that they "owned" his time. He'd been ecstatic to realize that they *had* actually listened to him at least once in a while back during the war. And that they cared enough to make the effort of taking him somewhere he'd always wanted to go even though it probably wasn't exactly in the top ten on their *own* respective "things I've always wanted to do" lists. 'But I *thought* we'd actually get to go on some of the rides!' Duo thought, quickly moving from frustrated to aggravated and well on his way to full-out pissed off.

The trip to the amusement park had gone smoothly and Heero and Wufei had split the entry costs without even arguing over it. They had started through the park towards the roller coasters. And then things had started to go wrong. The path they had followed had led them right through an arcade area. And he had made the mistake of joking about them winning him a plushie or two.

That was nearly an hour ago. And as the two large piles of plushies continued to grow, it was becoming increasingly clear that they wouldn't quit until the games booths had all run out of prizes. Or one of them developed a clear lead in the competition for who could win the most prizes. Whichever came first.

"HAH!" Wufei exclaimed smugly. "That makes fifteen Yuy! See if you can top that!"

Heero smirked and replied, "Fifteen? Sorry, Chang, I already have. Sixteen and counting... Bet you can't match that..."

Wufei scowled and slapped another bill down on the counter to pay for another round. "Just watch me, Yuy."

'That's it. I've *had* it,' Duo thought. Silently turning and stalking away, he moved to the opposite end of the arcade street. Winning him one small thing each would have been cute and kind of romantic. *This* was just plain ridiculous and had quite clearly quit having *anything* to do with him about two booths ago. Hell, neither of them had even *looked* at him, let alone spoke to him in at least half an hour!

Picking out the first dart-throwing booth he came to, Duo plunked his money down on the counter. They wanted to be competitive - fine. He'd show them competitive.

***

In response to the booth operator's query as to *which* large plushy he wanted to trade the pile of small ones for, Wufei turned to ask Duo. Who wasn't there. Hastily checking to see if Duo was watching Heero, he discovered that he was not. Nor could he see any sign of him in a quick glance up and down the row of booths. Hurrying over to Heero, he tugged at his arm just before he fired off a shot.

"Heero, have you seen Duo lately?" he demanded urgently.

A sick feeling settled in the pit of Heero's stomach as he glanced at his watch and realized just how long it had been since he *had* seen Duo. "No... I haven't..." he answered. Exchanging a guilty look with Wufei, he admitted, "I was too busy trying to win more prizes than you..."

"And I am guilty of the same," Wufei told him. "Yuy, I think we have - as Duo would say - 'fucked up royally'..."

"And the day started off so well..." Heero said mournfully. Gathering up his armful of plushies, he traded some of them in to reduce the pile to something he could actually hang on to, though he kept most of them as small prizes rather than trading them all in for a big one.

"What are you doing, Yuy?" Wufei demanded impatiently. "Forget about those - we need to find Duo and apologize."

"I know. And that's exactly why I'm bringing all these with me," Heero answered. He hesitated, half-tempted to let Wufei abandon his pile, then decided that wouldn't be right. There was a far better use for all those prizes.

"He is *not* going to want all those - he wouldn't even be able to carry everything we won, let alone enjoy himself for the rest of the day!" exclaimed Wufei.

"No, he won't. In fact, we'll be lucky if he keeps *any* of them." Half under his breath, Heero muttered, "Hell, we'll be lucky if he even *speaks* to us." Slightly louder, he continued, "But if we take them to one of the guest services booths, we can probably arrange to have them sent to a children's charity." Heero raised one eyebrow and said pointedly, "Like an orphanage, for example?"

Wufei froze, eyes widening. "Oh... Good idea..." Hastily gathering up his own unwieldy armload, Wufei paused to say, "You know, he'll never believe that was why we did this..."

"I wouldn't even try to convince him of that. I'm sure he knows *exactly* why we did it," Heero said grimly. "We let our competitive natures get the better of us and completely forgot about the whole reason we're here. *Him*. But if we have a suggestion for putting the results of that to good use and grovel enough, maybe he'll forgive us for ignoring him for the past hour or so." Looking at his watch and realizing that "or so" translated to closer to *two* hours, Heero added silently, 'I hope...'

***

Tossing another prize on his somewhat ridiculously large pile, Duo was about to plunk down payment for another round of ring-toss when someone quietly cleared their throat behind him. 'It's about fuckin' time they noticed I was missing,' he fumed silently. Turning, he glared at both teens equally. Or rather, glared at what little of them was visible beyond the pile of plushies each was carrying. With an effort, Duo kept his voice icily calm as he said, "I take it you're through here and are ready to move on. Just give me a moment to pick up *my* prizes and I'll be right with you."

Heero flinched at the completely flat, icy tone coming from Duo. 'Oh shit. He's *really* pissed off...'

'We really fucked up,' Wufei thought with a wince. Duo was - understandably - furious with them both. All trace of the delight he had exhibited when they told him where they were going was gone. Along with any trace of happiness at spending the day with the two of them.

Hidden behind a huge pile of plushies, Duo said flatly, "Lead on."

Cringing again at hearing *that* sort of voice from Duo, Heero did as he was asked. On the way to the nearest guest services booth, he offered quietly, "I'm sorry. I..."

"*We*..." interrupted Wufei.

"...screwed up," Heero continued. "I know you won't want all these, hell you probably don't want *any* of them now, but I - we - thought maybe we could arrange for the park's guest services to send them to an orphanage or some other charity..."

Quite deliberately not looking at either teen, Duo told them, "Fine. You do that." Dumping his pile on top of the guest services desk, he said, "I'll be waiting under the trees we just passed." Turning and walking away, he paused for a moment and added, still not looking at either of them, "If you think there's actually anything in there that I'll like, you can keep one each. *Maybe* I'll accept it later." 'Let's see if they actually have any idea what I'd like. If they manage to convince me that they're genuinely sorry *and* they show they have at least some clue what I like, I might be willing to keep one or two prizes as souvenirs. But they're going to have to make this day something I *want* to remember first...'

Flopping down on the nearest shady bench, Duo folded his arms across his chest and stared unseeingly across the walkway. If it weren't for Quatre's assurances that there was the potential for something worthwhile here, that little display of competitiveness would have been enough to convince him that their only interest in him was in beating the other. As it was, he was still strongly tempted to believe that.

Quatre had always had trouble reading Heero so it wasn't too hard to believe he had misread him this time. And now that Wufei was no longer seething with anger and the need for vengeance, it was entirely possible that he could be harder to read as well. Control *was* a main focus of martial arts, after all. 'What if *I* was projecting my own feelings so strongly that Q just picked up those and misread theirs because of it?' Duo wondered silently. Reluctantly, he decided that he couldn't rely on Quatre's readings of their feelings.

He had intended to wait and let the explanations come when Heero and Wufei were ready to offer them. Now, Duo wasn't sure he *could* wait. 'I want - no, I *need* - to know exactly what their intentions are,' he thought unhappily. But he wasn't too sure he actually wanted to know what those intentions were. Conversation at the ball had been very limited and superficial. Social small talk, basically. And not much of that. Was that only because of the very public setting or was that because they weren't interested in discussing anything deeper than that with him?

His behaviour around the two of them during the war *could* have led them to believe that he was promiscuous, he supposed. And his positive response to *both* of them now could be encouraging that belief, unfortunately. They might just be competing to see which one could bed him first. Competition certainly seemed to be virtually irresistible to the two of them. Once they got caught up in it, they forgot about everything - and everyone - else around them.

Duo swallowed painfully, then unconsciously drew his braid over his shoulder and started to fiddle with it agitatedly. He thought that they both had too much honour to do something like that, but then again he *had* made it pretty clear back then that he was theirs for the asking. If they thought that was all he was interested in, they might not see anything wrong with competing over him. And thinking back over their words and actions lately, there really was nothing there to indicate an interest in anything more than that.

'If either of them *was* interested in a *real* relationship, why haven't either of them ever made an effort to even get to know me better before? They never called or wrote more than a couple of lines in response to my monthly e-mails...' The longer he thought, the more depressed and upset Duo got and the more convinced he became that both he and Quatre had completely misread both teens' intentions.

Back at the guest services booth, Heero and Wufei finally managed to persuade the unfortunate personnel that their request really was *not* entirely out of line and that the money they handed over was more than enough to cover the shipping costs for the huge piles of plushies. As they left the booth, each was clutching a single *small* plushy.

Getting a good look at Duo's face as they walked towards him, Wufei was dismayed to realize that Duo wasn't just angry. Judging by the way he was fiddling with his braid, he was upset and probably hurt, too. 'And with good reason,' he thought. 'We may not have actually discussed our intentions yet, but he certainly seemed to have figured out that we were both interested in him. And what do we do? We bring him to a theme park - someplace he really wanted to go - then get caught up in a petty competition and completely ignore him for nearly two hours. We didn't even notice he'd left!'

Heero silently castigated himself during the short walk back to where Duo was sitting. 'Dammit, Yuy, during the war you ignored him in favour of your stupid laptop and you swore you'd never ignore him again if you had a second chance. And what do you do on your first full day with him? You fucking ignore him!' The hurt, upset look currently on Duo's face was one that was far too familiar. He had put it there too many times in the past and now he was responsible for it being there again.

Heero's only consolation was that at least this had been a *mutual* screw-up. Both he and Chang had behaved equally badly. Neither had gained an advantage from the other's inconsiderate behaviour. Taking another look at Duo's face, Heero realized abruptly, 'But that also means that Duo's twice as hurt...' Was Wufei not gaining an advantage worth Duo being even more upset? 'No. It isn't...'

Arriving at Duo's bench, they silently took a seat on either side of him. Other than a slight tightening of his jaw, Duo did not acknowledge their presence.

"They agreed to ship the plushies. They even managed to come up with the address of an orphanage on L2 to ship them to," Wufei told Duo in a subdued tone. Trying to lighten the mood, he added, "They were not particularly happy about it but none of them were capable of standing up to a Yuy Death Glare."

The attempted joke fell completely flat. Silence reigned over the bench for several long minutes.

Heero made the next attempt at drawing Duo out. "It's almost lunch time. Did you want to go eat first or do you want to go on some rides first?"

Finally reacting, Duo snapped bitterly, "What difference does it make? The two of you own my time; just tell me what we're doing and I'll do it. It's not like this has anything to do with *me* anyway. You've made that perfectly clear."

"What do you mean, this doesn't have anything to do with you?" Wufei asked, exchanging a confused look with Heero. "We've made *what* perfectly clear?"

"That this is some sort of game between the two of you, obviously," Duo responded, flinging his braid back over his shoulder and catapulting up from the bench. Turning to face them, he asked sarcastically, "Do you have some kind of actual bet going on, or is beating the other one into my bed supposed to be the only prize?" Ignoring the horrified protests from both teens, he continued furiously, "If it is, you'd better think again because no matter what sort of impression I may have given during the war, I am *not* some promiscuous slut ready to just forget the way you treated me before and fall happily into the arms and bed of either of you with no thought of the future. Nor will I do everything short of sitting up and begging just to get you to notice me.

"Ignore me all you like, I won't stoop to the sort of behaviour I did before just to try and get your attention. The only reason I'm even still here is because I gave my damn word for that fuckin' bachelor auction." Duo's voice cracked on the last few words and he whirled around to put his back towards the others, fighting to bring his wayward emotions back under control.

Part 10:

Mind racing, Wufei frantically tried to come up with the words he needed to make Duo understand that he had completely misunderstood the situation. But there was, unfortunately, just enough truth in his accusations to make it very difficult to refute them. They *were* both competing over him. They *did* each want him in their arms and in their bed. And while he, at least, certainly wanted that to be a permanent thing, neither of them had made a point of making their intentions clear.

'I *never* considered him promiscuous - but some of the hurtful things I said in reaction to his flirting back then came very close to accusing him of that,' Wufei realized with dawning horror. 'And what he said about not being willing to "stoop" to the sort of behaviour he did back then - what does he mean by that? And that bitter crack about not being willing to do everything short of sitting up and begging just to get our attention?' Again, Wufei's own ill-considered words were coming back to haunt him. One particular jab about Duo being so desperate for attention that he should join Trowa at the circus since he'd be willing to jump through hoops just to hear the applause came to mind, making him flinch at the memory.

'Yet he never *did* go to truly exceptional lengths - certainly nothing that he should now be ashamed of,' Wufei thought. 'Oh, a few times he timed his showers so that he'd be walking by in just a towel when I went to take mine. And he would make a point of hanging around wherever I was if possible, whether out in the hangar making repairs or in the living room reading. He flirted and made suggestive remarks, wore tight pants and walked around with his shirt either undone or off... Nothing more than any other teenager with a crush would do, really...' But Wufei's own over-reaction to everything Duo had said or done could very well have convinced the other teen that he *had* been completely out of line.

Shocked at Duo's interpretation of events, Heero tried desperately to come up with an explanation that would straighten out the misunderstanding. But there wasn't a simple way to do that. 'We set ourselves up for this,' he realized unhappily. 'By ignoring past events and putting off dealing with our previous behaviour, we've left it up to him to try and guess what we really want. And our current behaviour hasn't exactly leant itself to particularly positive conclusions. We've been pushy and possessive and competitive. And on a day when we both intended to show him how much we've changed, that we can relax and have fun, that we're interested in him and want to make him happy, we have instead showed him just how *little* we've changed. That we're still driven and single-minded. That we can and will completely ignore him.'

There was no quick fix for this mess. They needed to make at least partial explanations of their past behaviour and apologize both for it and for their current poor behaviour. Noting the number of stares they were attracting, Heero decided, 'And we need someplace a little more private to do that.' He had memorized the park map before they ever walked in the front gates, and now that bit of pre-planning stood him in good stead.

"Come on," Heero said gruffly, "let's go find somewhere a little more private to discuss this." Standing, he caught hold of Duo's elbow to direct him towards the restaurant he had in mind.

Duo yanked his elbow sharply out of Heero's grasp and answered sullenly, "Just go. I'll follow."

Meeting Wufei's eyes, Heero realized that the other teen was just as much at a loss as he was. Neither of them had any real idea how to fix this. Wufei motioned for Heero to lead the way, so he did. As he headed for the fanciest restaurant in the park - the guidebook had warned to allow a minimum of an hour just to be served the first course - Heero tried to ignore the nagging certainty that sooner or later, they would both run out of second chances. Assuming they could persuade Duo to forgive them this time, they couldn't afford to make any more mistakes.

As they entered the cool, dimly-lit restaurant, Wufei was thinking much the same thing. 'I cannot believe that we have messed things up this badly. We should have left the ball early last night and had all of these discussions safely over with before this. But I did not wish to make my apologies and declare my intentions in front of Yuy so I decided to wait until my first day alone with Duo. I am sure Yuy felt much the same way. Our pride has led us to this error. I - *we* - cannot afford any more mistakes. How many times can we expect Duo to forgive and give either of us another chance?'

Duo refused to even look at the menu. When asked what he wanted, he merely shrugged. He had no appetite whatsoever. If they ordered something for him, fine. If not, that was also fine. He'd skipped meals before. And he wasn't too sure he *could* eat right now anyway.

Ignoring the two teens currently stealing nervous glances at him, Duo leaned his head back against the back of the booth and closed his eyes. At least the back corner of the restaurant was quiet and fairly private. Whatever Heero wanted to "discuss" would remain between the three of them as long as they kept their voices down. 'Not that I have any intention of "discussing" *anything*. If they have something they want to say, they can go right ahead and say it. I've said everything I have to say on the subject. I have no intention of making things easy for them.'

After over two years of waiting and hoping without receiving any sort of positive sign from either of his loves, Duo did not hold out much hope that things would turn out okay now. The emotional ups and downs of the past couple of days were catching up to him. All he could think of right now were memories of Heero's and Wufei's past attitudes towards him and there really wasn't much positive stuff there to remember. When it came right down to it, neither of them had ever treated him as much more than an acquaintance. A not-particularly-well-liked acquaintance at that. Any overtures of friendship had always come from him and had been ignored at best. Today's events had only served to remind him of that bitter fact.

After placing their orders and one for Duo as well, Heero and Wufei exchanged glances. One of them was going to have to go first. Considering that most of what Duo had said seemed more directly applicable to *his* behaviour during the war, Wufei decided that it would be appropriate for him to make the first attempt at an apology.

"Duo, I..." Wufei stopped, sighed, then started again, "Please open your eyes and look at me, Duo." 'This would probably be easier if you didn't, but I certainly owe you the courtesy of apologizing face to face.'

Reluctantly, Duo opened his eyes and met Wufei's gaze. 'He looks upset, but how can I tell if he's upset because I've ruined his plans or because I've misunderstood his intentions? Do I even care at this point?

'Yes, unfortunately,' he decided unhappily. 'I'm totally pissed off at both of them and hurt as hell - but I still love them and a tiny little flicker of hope that we can somehow still work things out is refusing to go away.'

Uncomfortably aware of the complete silence from Duo, Wufei cleared his throat nervously. "Duo, I'm very sorry for my behaviour this morning. I allowed something that should have been just a bit of fun to turn into a competition and completely forgot about the whole reason I was here to begin with. You." Wufei paused for a moment, hoping for some sort of response from Duo. He didn't get one. 'Not a good sign,' he thought. 'I may have let this go too long already - but I *do* owe him an explanation and an apology for my past behaviour whether he's willing to give me another chance or not.'

"I'm not sure whether you know this or not, but before the war, I was married. It was an arranged marriage and - well, Meiran and I were *not* a good match." Still no discernible reaction from Duo, though Heero's head had lifted slightly. Coming from Yuy, that tiny indication of interest was as good as a loud gasp of surprise from someone else. Evidently Heero didn't know as much about his background as Wufei would have assumed he did. On the other hand, *he* didn't know very much about Yuy's background either, he realized abruptly.

"We both knew our duty to the clan, however, and did as the elders ordered. By the time Meiran was killed defending the colony against an attack, we had at least a grudging respect for one another. Had we not been forced into marriage, we might have been friends. But there was never any love between us." Flushing slightly, Wufei dropped his gaze to the tablecloth before he added, "Or any desire, though we did manage to consummate the marriage when the elders finally specifically ordered that we do so."

Wufei couldn't bring himself to check Heero's reaction to being privy to the intimate details of his marriage. He could barely bring himself to raise his eyes to Duo's again. "Discovering that I was attracted to a fellow Gundam pilot - to another *boy* - was a shock to me. Suddenly, I was feeling things that duty dictated I *should* have felt for my dead wife - and I was feeling them for someone that my clan would find totally inappropriate." Catching Duo's wince, he hurriedly explained, "Not because of anything to do with *you* personally - but because I was, since birth, determined to be one of those responsible for carrying on certain lineages within the clan. I was not supposed to *have* a choice in the matter of a life partner, let *alone* choose another male."

"As long as you were..." Wufei hastily discarded the first term to come to mind - saying that Duo was *pursuing* Yuy would *not* be an appropriate description - and continued cautiously, "...showing an interest in Yuy, I was able to pretend my attraction to you did not exist. I was somewhat more - irritable - with you than the others, but nothing too excessive."

Noting that Duo's set expression had shifted a bit, Wufei was somewhat encouraged. Duo was at the very least interested in what he had to say. That offered at least some hope that Duo would understand why Wufei had behaved so badly even if he was unwilling to forgive that behaviour.

"When you finally gave up on Yuy and then switched your - attention - to me, I truly did not know how to react." Wufei was trying very hard to watch his wording right now. He could not afford to be careless in his choice of words and end up *adding* to the hurt and insult that he had already given Duo. "Part of me wanted to respond positively to your - overtures - while my conscience screamed that even the wish to do so was a betrayal of Meiran and my duty to the clan. I was torn and confused."

Dropping his gaze to his hands resting on top of the table, fingers interlaced in an attempt to prevent nervous fidgeting, Wufei admitted softly, "In my confusion, I reacted badly. Very badly.

"Not only did I rebuff your overtures, I did so in a manner that was thoroughly unbecoming a member of the Dragon clan. I took all my confusion and my anger at myself out on you. I blew your behaviour entirely out of proportion and threw deliberately hurtful insults in your face. I was unnecessarily cruel and cutting. Later, I realized that what I *should* have done was explained to you that I was not currently prepared for a relationship and asked you to give me some time to come to terms with my feelings."

Forcing himself to meet Duo's gaze once again, Wufei finished, "The problem was not that your advances were unwelcome, Duo. The problem was that they were *too* welcome and I could not reconcile that with my duty to my clan and to Meiran's memory. I am truly sorry for my behaviour."

With a sinking heart, Wufei discovered that Duo's face was still nearly expressionless. He could pick up no real indication of Duo's reaction to either his explanation or his apology. The glance he stole at Heero out of the corner of his eye showed more reaction on *his* face than was currently visible on Duo's. Heero looked distinctly thoughtful at the moment, though the thoughts did not appear to be altogether pleasant.

Some of Wufei's explanation simply confirmed what he had already known, but the details were definitely new to Duo. He had assumed that there had been at least some affection between Wufei and his wife and that Wufei had been in mourning during the war. Instead, Wufei had apparently felt nothing more than grudging respect for her and had felt guilty because of that.

While Duo could sympathize with Wufei's confusion and could certainly understand now why he had reacted so strongly against Duo's advances, there was still something important missing from this explanation. Well, *two* somethings really. What, precisely, the "feelings" Wufei had alluded to were - was physical attraction, desire, all that was there, or had he felt something more? And if Wufei *did* have feelings for him, why had he waited so long to do anything about them? Without those two details, Duo wasn't too sure whether there was any possible future for the two of them.

Duo hadn't really intended to assist either Heero or Wufei with making their explanations at all, but he abruptly decided that perhaps expecting them to figure out everything he needed to know was asking a bit too much of them. "Two questions. First, why haven't you made any attempt to so much as get to know me better since the war, let alone explain any of this?"

Wufei cringed mentally at that question. He did not have a very good answer for it. 'Somehow, I don't think "I was waiting for you to make the first move" is going to go over too well. Unfortunately, it's the truth...'

Cautiously, Wufei began, "It took a while for me to finally come to terms with what I was feeling, and by then I was mixed up with Mariemaia's army. Afterwards, I was uncertain of what to do. You and Hilde seemed to be very close. And although you e-mailed us all regularly, it was always a message to the whole group. Never anything the least bit personal. It seemed very likely that I had destroyed any interest you had in me. It was only when I finally accepted that you really were *not* going to make any further attempts that I decided I would have to make the first move. But I could not bring myself to attempt it from a distance through e-mail or a phone call, so I waited for Relena's party when I could approach you in person. But Heero had the same idea and - well, it just didn't work out very well for either of us."

Carefully keeping his expression blank, Duo nodded slightly in acknowledgement. He was not particularly happy about the fact that Wufei had passively waited for him to make the first move, but then he supposed expecting romance from someone raised with the idea of arranged marriages was perhaps expecting too much. One big question left. "Is physical attraction - lust, to be more blunt - all you feel?" he blurted out abruptly.

Shocked, Wufei stared at Duo for a moment. Hadn't he made that clear already? That he loved Duo as he *should* have loved Meiran? Quickly reviewing his explanation, he discovered much to his dismay that he had *not*. In fact, he had more or less said instead that he desired - or, to use the less attractive term, lusted after - Duo in the way that he *should* have desired his wife.

"*NO!*" Wufei exclaimed fiercely, hastily dropping his volume before continuing, "Of course not! Dammit, I've managed to screw this up too...

"Duo, I..." Wufei threw a despairing glance in Yuy's direction. He *really* would have preferred not to have an audience for this. But it was quite clear that Yuy had no intention of politely wandering off for a few minutes, and he really couldn't blame him since *he* had no intention of considerately disappearing while Yuy confessed *his* feelings either. "Had it been only lust, I would not have *ever* made an attempt at making the first move. It was only the realization that my empty life would *stay* empty without you in it that finally prodded me into deciding to do something instead of just waiting." Throwing caution to the wind, Wufei hesitantly reached out to touch Duo's arm lightly as he told him earnestly, "I don't *just* desire you. I don't *just* want you in my bed. I want you in my *life*. I love you, Duo."

Duo's heart leapt in delight at Wufei's declaration. But his head cautioned that those words were easy to say, harder to prove. And reminded him that flinging himself across the booth to kiss Wufei without having even heard whatever Heero had to say would be a pretty clear declaration of a choice. Something he was *not* ready to make.

Meeting Wufei's anxious gaze, Duo sighed. "Okay. I accept your explanation and your apology. And I'm willing to give you a chance to prove your feelings to me. But Heero still has the opportunity to explain himself to me too, and if I accept what I hear, he'll have the same chance. And I've gotta warn you two - I can't take much more of this competitive crap. I'm *not* one of those prizes you were tryin' to win in that games arcade out there. *I* decide who I'm gonna be with, not you two. I don't *have* to pick *either* of you.

"I've got a perfectly good life waiting for me back on L2. A home, a thriving business, and a very good friend that I share those with. And that's what she is - a *friend*, almost a sister. Not a lover." Almost defiantly, he added, "I've *never* had a lover. I don't do casual sex. As far as I'm concerned, the commitment comes *first*. The emotions have to be there before I'll even consider it."

Staring at Duo's brightly flushed cheeks, Wufei put what Duo said together with his behaviour during the war and got an answer that left him even more horrified by his own past actions. 'If Duo believes that the emotions and the commitment come before sex - and he's never had a lover - yet he flirted and carried on with me the way he did... Oh my god... Chang, you *really* fucked this one up... He loved you then... Maybe - no, probably - still does, or he wouldn't bother giving you another chance...'

No wonder Duo had been so hurt by Wufei's behaviour both then and now. His *and* Yuy's. Oh shit. Duo had loved (still loved?) Yuy too according to *that* theory. Loved him *first*, in fact. Damn, did that ever complicate things.

- tbc -