3-2-2003

Title: Winning Duo
Parts: 11 - 20 / 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 11:

Heero had silently listened to Wufei's entire explanation. He had learned quite a bit more about the other teen's past - for one thing, he had certainly never known that Wufei had been married. And it was a definite shock to discover that Wufei's rejection of Duo had been caused by the same thing as his own - confusion. Oh, the reasons behind the confusion were different, and the method of expression was certainly completely different, but it was disturbing how similar the two of them were. And even more disturbing to discover that he sympathized with his rival's situation.

Although Heero had initially been grateful that Wufei had chosen to go first in offering his explanation and apology, he became less happy with his own decision to wait as Wufei's explanation drew to a close and Duo forced him into an unequivocal declaration of his feelings. For a heart-stopping moment as Duo accepted Wufei's words and agreed to give him a second chance, Heero feared that he had lost his own chance entirely. In fact, in his overwhelming relief at Duo's statement that he too would have an equal chance to explain, he nearly missed hearing and understanding the rest of Duo's words.

'Never had a lover... doesn't do casual sex... commitment comes first... the emotions have to be there...' Heero clenched his fists tight enough to cut his palms with his own fingernails as the import of Duo's statement sank in. Duo had loved him back then. Had loved him *first*. And he had blown his opportunity.

It had been bad enough believing that Duo had been merely attracted to him and that he had ignored his chance to claim Duo and forge something deeper and more permanent out of that attraction. Knowing that the deeper emotions had *been* there and that he had wasted that opportunity was far, far worse.

The awful realization that he could have had Duo beside him through that unsettling first year of peace... The knowledge that he could have had Duo there to help him through the memories stirred up by the return to battle against Mariemaia's forces... The recognition that, if he had just managed to drop the damn icy facade for a few fucking minutes to ask for a little more time, he could have had Duo in his bed and at his side for over two fucking *years* instead of spending that time alone and, if not precisely *miserable*, pretty damn close to it... Heero closed his eyes for a moment in silent protest at the wastefulness of it all. 'And the damn message that made my laptop beep that day and distracted me from doing just that was nothing more than a reading confirmation message for the report I had sent J earlier that day. It wasn't even something important!'

"Heero? Heero?"

Snapping his eyes open again, Heero realized abruptly that he currently had two very intent gazes fixed on him. He was guessing that Duo must have called his name several times before he heard him since Duo looked somewhere between perturbed and concerned. 'Shit, Yuy, you have to pay closer attention. He's *already* upset over being ignored, the *last* thing you need to do is make him think you're deliberately shutting him out again!'

"I'm sorry, Duo, I was just - recalling some of the mistakes I've made," Heero told him.

Duo nodded slightly in acceptance of Heero's explanation. He had been distinctly unhappy that Heero was apparently ignoring him again, but he could believe that something either Wufei or himself had said might have made Heero become lost in thought. Heero looked as upset as he had ever seen him. Which, of course, meant that to the casual observer, he would seem completely expressionless. Only those who knew him quite well - or were so lovesick that they'd spent hours studying his expression, Duo thought self-disparagingly - would realize that he was displaying *any* emotion whatsoever.

"For my behaviour today, I am very sorry Duo," Heero offered quietly. "I did not intentionally ignore you. The single-minded concentration that I was trained to use on missions is not appropriate in other situations, but I have had great difficulty breaking the habit. Living alone has not made it any easier," he admitted.

Drawing a deep breath to help centre himself, Heero tried to marshal his thoughts. Explaining himself to Duo alone would have been difficult enough. Doing so in front of Chang was even more so. He just hoped that it would not prove *too* difficult for him to manage.

"My earliest memories involve guns and killing," Heero began abruptly. "Presumably at some point I must have had parents, but I have no memories prior to being combination cover story and apprentice for an assassin. When an assignment went wrong and he was killed, J found me. And so I went straight from guns and death to more guns and death." Heero dropped his eyes to the tablecloth, not wanting to see either pity or revulsion in either of the gazes currently directed at him.

"I was supposed to be a weapon for the colonies. Nothing more, nothing less. Emotions were useless at best, a hindrance at worst, so my trainers set out to extinguish any trace of emotion that I ever displayed. While I eventually learned to hide my emotions, I did not have the opportunity to experience a very wide range of them to begin with. Contact with anyone other than my trainers was severely limited and strictly monitored on those rare occasions that it could not be avoided. On the one occasion that I *did* avoid surveillance briefly while on a training mission, I met a young girl out walking her puppy." With an effort, Heero kept his voice flat and level as he continued, "She was kind to me. I had not realized that people could be kind without some sort of ulterior motive. I think the flower she gave me was the first thing anyone ever gave me freely, without a price attached to it."

Heero flicked a quick glance at Duo despite himself. While Duo was listening intently, he could not read Duo's reaction from his expression any more than he was able to read it when Chang was speaking. 'I am so accustomed to him showing his emotions clearly that I don't know how to read them when he is keeping them in check,' Heero thought. He had realized before that Duo too was capable of hiding his feelings behind a mask - though unfortunately not until after he had blown his chance with him - but it hurt to realize Duo was deliberately doing so now. Stealing a glance at Wufei provided no better results. Wufei had his hands steepled in front of his face in such a manner as to hide his expression. Heero was not even certain what reaction he wanted either of them to have. Pity from a rival would be almost as bad as pity from the one he loved. But revulsion would be even worse.

Drawing a steadying breath and dropping his gaze again, Heero continued, "The mission I was on went wrong. I made an error in judgement. The base was destroyed, but one of the exploding suits fell into a civilian apartment building next door to the base." Under the table, he clenched his fists tightly to prevent them from shaking and forced himself to go on. "The building was destroyed. There were no survivors. I returned carrying the flower and the dead puppy. My mistake resulted in - intensive - retraining." Raising his eyes briefly, Heero said bitterly, "If you think I mean my mistake that resulted in the apartment building's destruction, you're wrong. The mistake that required retraining was grieving for the civilian casualties. Weapons have no use for human kindness, after all."

Duo fought to control his expression as Heero clinically detailed a past that was utterly devoid of any form of even the mildest of affection. His own past was far from pleasant, but he had at least known love and caring first from the other members of the pack of street kids under Solo's leadership and later from Father and Sister Helen at the Maxwell Church Orphanage. Heero's so-called childhood made his own look like something out of an old TV sitcom. He wasn't sure how to react though. Pity would almost certainly not be welcomed. And considering that J was already dead, he couldn't very well do any of the things he would very much like to right now. Too bad. The L2 rat population wouldn't have minded if their dinner was a bit stringy and did a lot of screaming while they enjoyed it. And the street kids would have got a good few meals out of the payment for whatever scraps of metal and so on that the rats left behind.

Hiding behind his steepled hands, Wufei was dismayed at Heero's recounting of his past. His clan may have emphasized duty and honour over love and affection, but he had never doubted that his parents *did* care for him. 'O was never particularly warm towards me, but he had a strong sense of honour and treated me accordingly. Obviously, J had *no* honour whatsoever.' Wufei was certain that there was a great deal more behind Heero's very brief statements. The entire explanation sounded very much like a mission report. 'Of course,' he realized, 'that's how he's managing to relate something so personal. Remove the personal aspect, make it a completely accurate but very efficient report.'

Heero's heart sank as he still could find no clear indication of Duo's reaction to his story. He stopped speaking, wondering whether there was any point in continuing. If Duo was revolted by his past, further explanations would be meaningless.

Seeing a tiny flicker of something - fear, maybe? or despair? - pass over Heero's face, Duo realized that he was going to have to give him some encouragement. This was quite possibly the most he had *ever* heard Heero say at once. Revealing this much of himself to Duo had to be extremely difficult for Heero. And doing so in front of Wufei would only make it more difficult. Expecting Heero to make his entire explanation before receiving any indication of Duo's reaction was asking too much of the other teen. Yet at the same time, Duo did not want to risk making Wufei feel left out and rejected.

Reaching out, Duo caught hold of Wufei's wrist and tugged him along the U-shaped seat towards him at the same time as he slid along the seat and around the curved corner towards Heero. He didn't stop moving until he was right next to Heero, bodies lightly touching from knee right up to shoulder. And he didn't release Wufei's wrist until he was in the same position on Duo's other side.

Initially startled by Duo's sudden movement, Heero relaxed slightly in relief as Duo took up position close beside him. Judging by Wufei's startled yelp at Duo's actions in grabbing his wrist and dragging him along too, Wufei had also been caught off-guard. With Duo's indication of support and acceptance of at least this much of his explanation, Heero was sufficiently encouraged to continue.

"By the time I was sent to Earth for Operation Meteor, it had been thoroughly drilled into me that soldiers had no use for emotions. Then I met you, Duo. According to everything I had been taught, there was no way you could be an effective soldier. You laughed, you smiled, you frowned, you showed *everything* you felt, and you *felt* everything. I figured out eventually that sometimes you used one emotion to mask another, but at first it seemed as if your every feeling was on display for the whole world to see. There was no *way* that you could be an effective solder. But you were."

Heero spread his hands helplessly, momentarily forgetting the marks on his palms, as he said, "Duo, you made a mockery of everything I'd been taught! I didn't know *what* to think or how to react. You fascinated me and angered me at the same time. I'm sorry that I ignored you and shut you out, but I didn't know how to react appropriately to you. At times, it was a matter of either pretending you didn't exist or hauling off and slugging you. I really didn't *want* to hit you, and the former at least left other options open for the future.

"You had me completely lost and confused. If you could be a good soldier and have emotions, then my training was *wrong*. I started to *feel* things - to *want* things. I was *almost* ready to try responding to your offers of friendship - and then you started flirting with me, and stirred up even *more* emotions. I didn't know what all these feelings were even *called* and it wasn't like there was anyone I could *ask*. Mentioning them to J would have just got me ordered in for retraining again and while I might have been his obedient little puppet most of the time, *that* stupid I *wasn't*. There was no way in *hell* I was going through *that* again. I was finally reduced to looking up definitions of different emotions and trying to match them up with what I was feeling."

At this point, Heero had virtually forgotten Wufei's presence. Duo's rearrangement of the seating had shifted him from being directly in Heero's field of vision to being mostly hidden on Duo's far side. The small part of Heero's consciousness that recalled Wufei deliberately chose to pretend he wasn't there. The rest of this would be far easier to say that way.

Heero's voice had risen slightly as he spoke, but now it dropped again, becoming distinctly regretful. "I was just starting to make some sense out of it all. Then you stopped. Stopped flirting, stopped trying to draw me out, stopped *everything*. I didn't know what to do, how to react, so I didn't do anything. I just kept going as if nothing had changed. But things *had* changed.

"When you started flirting with Wufei, it didn't take me long to track down *that* new set of emotions. Jealousy. And regret. Working backwards from those, I finally found the names for at least some of what had me so confused before and still threatened to overwhelm me." Heero's voice became softer still, little more than a whisper as he named them off, "Attraction. Desire. Respect. Friendship. Love."

Heero was silent for a moment, then said quietly, "When Wufei managed to drive you off too, I dared to hope I might get another chance. I kept waiting, hoping against hope that someday you would give some indication that you were still interested. But anytime you had contact with me, you were so impersonally friendly... I *know* I should have made the first move myself earlier, but I didn't know *how*. By the time I finally became sufficiently miserable to work up the nerve to *try*, Wufei had reached the same point and we ended up spending all of our time blocking each other..." Heero let his voice trail off miserably. There really wasn't anything else he could say to plead his case.

Stunned, Duo realized that much of what had gone wrong with his attempts to attract first Heero, then Wufei had been *his own fault*. He had pushed too hard, tried to move too fast, and left them both too confused to respond appropriately to his advances. Had he taken things slower, built a solid friendship *first*, things would have probably worked out from the start.

But then, had he done that, he would have been with Heero all along and never even let Wufei know that he was interested. And if Wufei had really been attracted to him - albeit reluctantly - and if that attraction had developed into more even without him showing an interest, that would have still left Wufei unhappy and alone. And Duo wasn't entirely certain that he could have completely buried his own interest in Wufei. Not enough to keep Heero from noticing that there was something wrong. And that could have led to a whole *other* set of problems.

Sensing Heero starting to tense up beside him, Duo realized with a start that he was taking too long to respond to Heero's explanation. "I understand Heero. I wish you'd been able to just ask me to slow things down a bit, but I understand why you couldn't. I accept your apology and your explanation and I'm willing to give you a chance to prove your feelings to me, the same chance I'm giving Wufei. But you guys are going to have to cooperate a little here. I don't want to be caught in the middle, understood?"

Heero nodded in quick agreement as Duo looked back and forth between him and Wufei. Whatever it took, he would do. He would *not* risk losing this chance.

Wufei nodded his own agreement to Duo's request. If Duo really loved them both, any conflict between himself and Heero would inevitably end up hurting Duo. They had both done quite enough of that already.

Satisfied with their responses, Duo said firmly, "Good. Now, it seems to me that our orders should be coming pretty soon - uh, you guys *did* go ahead and order something for me, I hope?" Receiving nods in response, he grinned sheepishly and said, "Good thing, 'cause now that we've got a few things straightened out I'm feeling kind of hungry after all."

"But first, I think we'd better take turns getting washed up. Amusement parks aren't exactly the cleanest of places. And somebody'd better stay at the table in case they bring our order." Duo caught hold of one of Heero's hands and turned the palm upwards. "You first. Go clean those cuts, buster."

Heero flushed in embarrassment. He had hoped that neither of them had noticed what he had done to his hands. Yet at the same time, he was glad Duo *had* noticed and had cared enough to say something. Emotions were confusing things at times. Rising from the table, he headed off to wash up.

Before Heero had time to get very far, Duo turned to Wufei. "You too. But see if they've got a first aid kit around here someplace first and take care of his hands while you're back there."

Wufei gaped in astonishment. "Me? Why should I..."

Duo placed one hand over Wufei's mouth and told him sternly, "Because if *I* go, one or both of you is going to think I'm playing favourites and somebody's going to end up feeling hurt. *And* because he needs to know that you're not disgusted by what he just told us. You *are* his partner on Preventers missions usually, right? The one responsible for getting him back in one piece and seeing to it that he gets patched up if necessary?"

Shit. Duo was right, Wufei realized. He nodded in acknowledgement, then slid out of the seat and went in search of an employee to request a first aid kit.

Duo sagged against the seat back in relief. He hadn't been sure whether he could persuade Wufei to look after Heero. But he'd seen the glances Heero had been shooting at *both* of them as he spoke. Heero didn't make friends easily and even if he and Wufei weren't very close, Duo figured Heero *did* care what Wufei thought of him. 'Fei taking care of those cuts should be enough to reassure Heero even if he told him that Duo made him do it.

Drumming his fingers against the table thoughtfully, Duo considered the day so far. It certainly hadn't gone the way *any* of them would have hoped. But that might prove just as well in the long run. The explanations were out in the open now. He slowed the rhythm of his fingers as he realized abruptly that that was not *entirely* an accurate statement. To be fair, he really should do some explaining of his own.

Obviously one or both of them knew *something* about his background since they'd suggested sending the plushies to an orphanage specifically, but if *their* knowledge of his past was as patchy as his of theirs had turned out to be, it would be best to set the record straight. 'Sometimes, knowing a little bit is worse than not knowing anything. How's that old saying go - "Just enough knowledge to be dangerous"? I thought I knew quite a bit about them - and I did. But the *gaps* in that knowledge led me to expect too much of them and to make some incorrect assumptions about their behaviour.'

First, they'd see what could be salvaged of their plans for a day of fun at the amusement park. But later on, Duo decided, he would have to do his *own* bit of explaining. Which would be anything *but* fun.

Part 12:

Heero ignored the sting of soap in the shallow cuts as he washed his hands. They were nothing - not even worth mentioning, really. But Duo was correct that a public place such as an amusement park tended to carry a lot of germs and bacteria and *any* break in the skin had the potential to pick those up. It would be extremely foolish to end up with an infection because of something so minor.

His eyes automatically lifted to the mirror as he heard the door to the restaurant swing open. 'Wufei.' Hastily dropping his eyes again, Heero pretended to be busy concentrating on his hands. He had no idea what Wufei's reaction had been to everything he had said, nor was he certain whether some sort of reaction on his own part was required in response to Wufei's explanation.

Entering the washroom with the first aid kit in hand, Wufei caught the quick flash of blue in the mirror as Heero spotted him and dropped his gaze. He had worked with Heero long enough to catch the very slight defensive hunch of Heero's shoulders. It was a rare sight, but on the few occasions that a mission had gone bad, he *had* seen that reaction before. Usually just before Chief Une lit into them with some exceptionally caustic summation of their shortcomings. 'Duo was right. Heero *is* concerned about what I think of him.' The thought was surprisingly warming. He had learned to respect the former Wing pilot for his determination and dedication to his duty long before the war ended. Knowing that Heero thought highly enough of *him* to actually care about his opinion meant a lot to Wufei.

Setting the first aid kit aside for a moment, Wufei quickly washed his own hands and turned to catch Heero's wrist before he could leave. "Let me see those," he ordered, firmly tugging Heero back to where he had set down the first aid kit.

Startled cobalt eyes flashed to meet Wufei's dark ones. "It's nothing, Chang," Heero said defensively.

"You'd say the same thing if you had three bullets in you, Yuy," Wufei replied drily. "In fact, you *have* said the same thing under those circumstances. Now let me take care of those." Heero could have easily pulled free of his grasp, but instead he allowed Wufei to turn his hands over and take a look at the palms. 'Nothing major, certainly, but considering where we are, a little disinfectant and antibiotic cream would not be a bad idea,' Wufei thought after a quick examination.

Heero held perfectly still as Wufei efficiently cleansed his hands. It was far from the first time that Wufei had treated his injuries. Partners automatically took care of each other's scrapes and cuts that were too minor to be worth bothering Sally's staff over. But the fact that Wufei was bothering to do so now, when they were *not* on Preventers business and after Heero's revelation of a past that he was himself ashamed of, was reassuring. Hesitantly, he asked, "Did Duo make you do this?"

"Duo suggested that your hands should be taken care of and I agreed," Wufei answered. Raising his gaze as he finished his task, he added firmly, "Had I not been willing, I would not have done so."

Heero ducked his head in acknowledgement and quietly offered, "Thank you."

"You're welcome, Yuy," Wufei responded briskly. Handing the kit to Heero, he told him, "Just return that to one of the staff, please."

Heero nodded and started towards the door.

Wufei hesitated. He did not wish to overstep the boundaries of his relationship with Yuy, yet at the same time he felt the need to make his own reaction to Heero's past clear. Just as Heero pulled the door open, he came to a decision. "Yuy?"

Heero looked back questioningly.

"Heero... J was an honourless bastard. His pupil, fortunately, is his complete opposite, a man that I am proud to work alongside of." Wufei turned abruptly to needlessly rewash his hands and signal that the subject was closed. When he glanced at the mirror a moment later, the door had soundlessly closed and Heero was gone.

***

Seeing Heero returning to the table, Duo rose to take his own turn washing up. Noticing that Heero seemed a bit disconcerted, Duo asked, "Heero - you okay?" 'Shit, I hope sending 'Fei after him didn't backfire...'

Heero met Duo's eyes and answered, "I'm fine." Since Duo didn't look too convinced, he added more firmly, "Really," and managed a slight half-smile. He *was* fine, really. Just a bit - confused. Even if Wufei was *not* disgusted by his past, he would not have expected Wufei to be quite so nice to him after hearing that Duo had fallen in love with him first. 'Either he is very confident that Duo will choose him over me or he genuinely considers me a friend and wants to try to preserve that friendship no matter who Duo chooses.' He *hoped* it was the latter, for more reasons than one. Heero was reluctant to use the term "friend" to describe *anyone* without them having called him a friend first, but Wufei was one of the small group of people that he trusted and respected.

Duo decided that Heero *did* mean it - he seemed more confused than upset. "Okay then. Back in a few."

Much to Heero's relief, the waiter arrived at the table with their first course at the same time as Wufei returned, and by the time the beverages and salads were sorted out, Duo was back again. Heero didn't really know how to react to Wufei right now and would rather not be left alone with him until he had some time to figure that out.

Duo tried to keep the conversation on "safe" topics throughout the meal, staying well clear of any discussion of feelings or the past. He tried instead to find out a little more about Heero's and Wufei's *current* lives. Trying to drag conversation out of the other two, however, was exhausting. And his own thoughts kept spinning in circles. He understood why they had acted the way they had, really he did. He still wished they'd handled things a little bit differently, but he could empathize with them to a certain degree.

But while accepting their apologies was fairly easy, forgiving them - *really* forgiving them, deep down inside - wasn't quite so simple. No matter how much Duo still loved them. That would come with time and with actions proving that they really meant what they had said. For now, he would simply have to make do with *wanting* to forgive them and hope that would be enough to really give them a fair second chance.

As for forgetting - hah! - fat chance. Duo would *love* to just be able to forget how they had treated him. To start over with a clean slate. In fact, before today he had thought that he *had* forgotten most of the hurt. That he could honestly "forgive and forget". Wrong.

The events of the morning had made that perfectly clear. All those past incidents hadn't been forgotten. They were just buried out of sight, waiting for something to happen that would bring them back to him as fresh and painful as when they first happened. And part of him was a bit resentful that Heero and Wufei seemed so sure that his acceptance of their explanations and apologies and his offer of a chance to prove themselves meant that the past was gone and forgotten. They sure as hell weren't falling all over themselves to keep up their end of the dinner conversation. Something that was disturbingly familiar.

'Didn't I promise myself that I wasn't going to do this?' Duo thought wearily. 'That I *wasn't* going to be the one doing all the talking? That unless they made the effort to start a conversation and showed some real interest in what I had to say in response, I wasn't going to bother either?' Yes, he had. But - that was before the explanations and apologies...

Did giving them a second chance mean *him* making all the effort again? Glancing from one silent dinner companion to the other, Duo realized with a sinking heart that perhaps that *was* just what it meant to both of them. He had given up on conversation partway through the main course, and here they were starting dessert and neither of them seemed to have even noticed the silence that had descended on the table.

Duo sighed and poked at his cherry cheesecake a couple of times before giving up. He'd lost his appetite again.

Wufei had managed to respond to Duo's comments a few times early in the meal, but his thoughts kept returning to his and Heero's explanations and Duo's reactions to them. When it came right down to it, he had to admit Heero's story was more compelling than his own. Heero had far more excuse for his behaviour. And his behaviour had never been as bad as Wufei's in the first place. '*I* criticized and insulted. Yuy may have criticized Duo, but never in as personal or scathing a manner as I did. For the most part, the worst Yuy was guilty of was ignoring Duo. And Duo fell in love with him first. Why would Duo ever choose me over Heero?'

By the time he finished his main course, Wufei had himself fairly thoroughly convinced that he had little chance of winning Duo for himself. He was unenthusiastically toying with his dessert when the clatter of a fork drew his attention. He looked up just in time to see Duo pushing his untouched dessert away from him. 'Damn. And I was so sure I'd remembered correctly. I'm *sure* he likes cherries and I thought I remembered him liking cheesecake too. Guess I must have been wrong...'

"I'm sorry Duo, do you want to trade?" Wufei asked. "I thought you would like cherry cheesecake, but I guess I was wrong. You can have my Black Forest cake if you'd like..."

"No, this is fine. Guess I'm just not very hungry," Duo answered dispiritedly.

Abruptly becoming aware that Duo and Wufei were speaking, Heero realized with a sinking feeling that he had zoned out again. He had been so busy worrying away at his confusion over Wufei's earlier behaviour that he had eaten his entire meal without paying any attention to it or anything else going on around him. 'Damn J and his concentration training,' Heero thought bitterly. 'Short of someone pulling a weapon out, I don't notice a damn thing once I get focussed on something.' Any form of danger, anything that his subconscious picked up as a threat, would penetrate his consciousness immediately no matter how tightly focussed he was on something. Anything else, though - such as casual conversation - slipped right on by.

One look at Duo's face told Heero that something was wrong. A second look at Wufei's told him that Wufei had picked up on that too but seemed to have no better idea than himself as to what the problem was. 'Duo looks - discouraged,' Heero thought with concern. 'And maybe even tired.'

Wufei jumped slightly as his ankle was kicked rather sharply. He raised his head to ask Yuy just what the hell that was for, but before he could, Heero jerked his head sharply to indicate Duo, who was currently using his fork to draw patterns in the cherry sauce on his cheesecake. Wufei looked back at Heero and raised his shoulders slightly in a shrug. He didn't know what the problem was. What the hell was he supposed to do about it?

Heero stifled the urge to sigh. He had hoped Wufei would have some idea how to handle this. So far, *nothing* was going according to plan. Maybe... maybe it was time to forget about their plans. He couldn't see how any of them were going to enjoy an afternoon at the theme park with the way things were right now.

"If everyone's done eating, we might as well go," Heero said. "Duo, why don't you go on ahead while Wufei and I take care of the bill? We'll meet you outside."

Duo shrugged, "Okay." Might as well get on with the "fun". However they were going to manage to actually *have* any at this point.

Following Heero over to the cashier, Wufei watched Duo leave the restaurant. Something was very definitely wrong. He just didn't know *what*.

After splitting the bill, Heero caught Wufei's elbow before he could leave. His own uncertainty over how to deal with Wufei was completely forgotten in his concern over Duo's dejected behaviour. "Do you have *any* idea what's wrong? He seemed to be in a reasonably good mood right after our explanations, but *something* obviously went wrong during dinner..."

"I don't know," Wufei answered, shaking his head slightly. "I'm not even certain exactly when his mood changed. I noticed it when he pushed away his dessert, but..." Wufei hesitated, then admitted, "I'm afraid that I was somewhat - distracted - during most of the meal, so the problem may have started earlier than that. Did something come up in the conversation that upset him?"

"No... I don't think so..." Heero said, trying to remember exactly what had been discussed. "I was a bit distracted as well, but I don't recall anything that should have upset him. I know that he was asking some questions about our current lives..." 'Duo asked where I was living and I answered "an apartment". He asked how I liked working for the Preventers and I answered "it's okay"... Shit. And I don't think Chang's answers weren't much better...' Heero realized abruptly. "Fuck. Wufei, when he asked you where you were living, what did you say?"

"In an apartment in the Preventers housing complex," Wufei answered, wondering what that had to do with anything.

"And when he asked about your job?"

"That it was quite satisfactory."

"And that's it?"

"Yes..."

"And *my* answers consisted of 'an apartment' and 'it's okay'," Heero groaned. "Chang, we just fucked up again."

Wufei closed his eyes in dismay, replaying the entire meal - or at least what he recalled of it - and realizing unhappily that Heero was correct. "And not only did we give him completely meaningless answers to *his* questions, we didn't bother asking him any in return..." he muttered in disgust.

Both of them looked out the glass restaurant doors to where Duo was standing in the shade waiting for them. He had his braid over his shoulder and was fiddling with it again which was definitely *not* a good sign.

Heero sighed. "I think it's time to ditch our plans. Today is obviously a complete write-off. I don't think any of us will enjoy spending the afternoon here, so we might as well head out.

"When I checked in with Une this morning regarding working tomorrow, she told me that she had you and me down to do a preliminary security review of a conference centre here in California for a big trade summit that's coming up next month. And the day after that, she has us down to do some training and demonstrations for a couple of Preventers branch offices out here. After all, she can't schedule us for any real field assignments when we have Duo along since he isn't an active Preventers agent. So we don't have to head back to Sanc just yet. Why don't we get a suite at a hotel and try to finish hashing this whole mess out?"

"I believe that would be a wise decision. But... perhaps we should ask Duo what *he* would prefer rather than making any plans on our own? He *may* still want to stay for the afternoon..." Wufei's voice trailed off doubtfully. Duo did not seem in the mood for riding roller coasters at the moment. But perhaps asking his opinion would help to make up for their inconsiderate behaviour during dinner.

Heero nodded in response to Wufei's observation. As the two of them exited the restaurant and headed towards Duo, Heero thought, 'Chang's right. And maybe... maybe we should rethink our plans for the entire week... Duo's the important one here, after all. Maybe we should let *him* decide how he wants to spend our week together.' Tuesday and Wednesday were at least partially committed since he and Wufei had agreed to work, so they would have to follow through with that much of their plans. But if Duo did not wish to join them, he really shouldn't have to. And as for the rest of the week... Well, he would have to double-check with Wufei before bringing up the subject, but he intended to let Duo choose what to do with *his* days no matter what Wufei decided. Even if Duo chose to spend the time with Wufei rather than him.

Part 13:

Duo sighed and dumped his bags in the corner of the room. He didn't mind carrying them in himself; both Wufei and Heero had their *own* luggage to look after. But... it would have been nice if they had at least *offered* to help. He *did* have more luggage than either of them after all, since he'd had to bring enough clothes with him for the bachelor auction plus this week. And he'd had to bring considerable variety of clothing since he had no way of knowing whether he would need formal or casual wear.

Of course, since they were staying in California for at least part of the week, almost *none* of what he had with him was particularly useful. After all, it was all purchased with Sanc's climate in mind. 'Guess I'll have to find the hotel laundromat and wash my bachelor auction outfit and what I'm wearing,' he thought wearily. He only had one pair of jeans with him - the ones he had worn for the trip to the amusement park. His other pants were all warmer - cords and wool-blend dress pants, totally unsuitable for *this* kind of weather. And the tops were just as bad - sweaters and heavyweight long-sleeved cotton shirts. The t-shirt that he'd worn today had been bought at the hotel in Vegas after finding out that he needed cool and casual clothing for the day.

Duo was just glad he'd brought a couple of ball-caps along from habit; even with wearing one of those and a lot of sunscreen, his nose was starting to peel. And pulling one short sleeve up a bit confirmed that yes, his arms were distinctly pinker from the edge of the sleeve down as well.

'Great,' he moaned silently, 'just one more problem to deal with.' Much as he liked Earth, Duo had to admit that he was severely spoilt by colony life. He didn't think it was even possible to get a *tan* from L2's artificial sunlight, let alone a sunburn. 'Maybe it was just as well that we gave up on the theme park,' he thought ruefully. 'I hate to think how bad I'd have been burnt if we'd stayed all afternoon.'

Duo had been a bit surprised when Heero and Wufei came out of the restaurant and asked whether he really wanted to stay at the park and try to have some fun or if he would rather call it quits for the day and maybe come back some other time. Both of them were usually quite insistent on sticking to whatever had been planned, so he hadn't expected them to be so willing to alter their plans for the day. It had been a relief to admit that he didn't feel much like staying. The mood had been pretty thoroughly ruined by the events of the morning and the explanations during the noon meal. Between that, the emotional stress, the sun, and the fact that he hadn't slept too well the previous couple of nights, he was tired and really would have liked to just curl up and take a nap. But first, he needed to get a couple of outfits clean for tomorrow.

After changing into the coolest dress pants and shirt he had with him - thank god for air-conditioning or even that would have been unbearably hot - Duo checked the hotel information sheet. Having his clothes cleaned *for* him was out of the question; not only was it too expensive, but at this point in the day it was too late to have them done for morning. So that meant a trip to the laundromat.

***

Wufei frowned slightly as he looked around the small sitting-room. A door at one end opened into a tiny kitchenette while the doors on either side led to the two bedrooms. A suite with three separate bedrooms would have been preferable, but the hotel had not had one available. That left Heero and him sharing the room with two doubles and Duo in the room with just the queen-size bed. It hadn't taken long for either of them to get their luggage unpacked and now they were left waiting for Duo to emerge from his room. Which seemed to be taking an awfully long time. Surely Duo hadn't had *that* much luggage?

Wufei's thoughts were interrupted as Duo came out of his room, wearing an outfit that looked uncomfortably warm and carrying a small pile of clothing.

"Isn't that outfit rather - warm?" Wufei asked cautiously.

"Yeah, a bit," Duo shrugged, avoiding meeting Wufei's eyes. "I just need to go wash a few things for tomorrow. I'll be back in a while, okay?"

Heero rose from his chair, frowning slightly. Why would Duo need to do laundry already? He had had plenty of luggage with him... "Duo, those clothes are far too warm. Your face is already flushed. If you really need those things washed, why don't you go put something cooler on first?"

"Because this is all I've got with me," Duo snapped impatiently. "Look, the auction and the week were supposed to be in Sanc, remember? I packed clothes for Sanc's climate, not Nevada's or California's. Just let me go get this stuff washed and then I'll be set for the next couple of days, okay?"

Heero had moved closer to Duo as they were speaking and he abruptly realized that Duo's face wasn't just flushed. It was sunburnt. Shit. 'Bright move, Yuy. Take a fair-skinned colony-raised person to a theme park for the day and don't bother making sure he doesn't get sunburnt. It's a damn good thing we left there earlier than planned.' This week was *not* getting off to a good start. Reaching out, he snagged the pile of clothing out of Duo's arms. "*We* will go get these washed since it's our fault that we're staying here instead of heading back to Sanc. You go have a nice cool shower and relax for a while. And put something on that sunburn." Just in time, Heero spotted the rebellious gleam in Duo's eyes and added, "Please?"

Heero's high-handed orders had been almost enough to finish the job of unravelling Duo's control over his frayed temper. And then he'd gone and added that very hopeful "please" and completely deflated Duo's rising anger. "I don't have anything for the sunburn," Duo admitted. "I thought the sunscreen would be strong enough to do the job."

Wufei spoke up at that point, having moved to join the two of them, "Then while you go have your shower, the two of us will take care of getting your clothes washed and picking up something for your sunburn, okay?" A bit hesitantly, he reached out to lay the back of his fingers against Duo's cheek. "You're very warm..." he murmured worriedly. "Just how badly are you burnt?"

Duo was temporarily grateful for the sunburn since it prevented his flushed cheeks from showing. All of this sudden attention was a bit embarrassing at the same time as it soothed some of the hurt at their inattention earlier that day. "I don't think it's too bad," he said. "I've had worse a couple of times during the war..." Once when he'd fallen asleep on deck when he was on Howard's ship - Howard had had an absolute conniption when he'd found him - and the other time when he was staying with Quatre in the desert, after Heero had self-destructed. He hadn't been sleeping too well and had finally dozed off in the shade outside. Except that the shade had moved long before he'd woke up. Rashid had been the one to find him and have the fit *that* time. This sunburn was nowhere near that bad.

"We'll take the passkey with us so that we can get back in," Heero said. "So if you want to rest for a while after your shower, go ahead."

"Alright," Duo agreed, turning to go back to his room. He paused in the doorway and looked back at Heero and Wufei. "Thanks," he added before heading off for his shower.

Wufei opened his mouth to speak, but Heero shook his head silently and motioned towards the hallway door. Nodding in return, Wufei gathered up his wallet and followed Heero out of the room.

"Is there a Guinness World Record for most fuck-ups in a day?" Wufei asked rhetorically as soon as the door was closed behind them.

Heero snorted, "If there is, I'm sure we've managed to break it. How the hell did we manage to forget that he's not used to Earth's sun?"

Wufei shook his head, "Not to mention that he would have brought clothing for Sanc, not here..."

They walked in silence down to the elevator before Wufei said, "Yuy, if you don't mind taking care of the laundry, I'll see about getting something for his sunburn." He hesitated, then added questioningly, "And maybe a couple of outfits?" He was sure that there would be *somewhere* reasonably close that he could find something suitable at. He just wasn't entirely certain that Duo would thank him for interfering. Clothing was a rather personal item to just go out and buy without being asked to do so.

Heero nodded slowly, "That might be a wise choice. If he doesn't like what you get or if he feels that us buying him clothing is inappropriate, we can always return them. Split the cost?"

"Agreed," Wufei said. A quick check of the sizes on the jeans and t-shirt provided him with the only other information he needed. Then he and Heero parted to each complete his own task.

***

Wufei exited the mall and hailed a cab with a feeling of satisfaction. Not only had he purchased the necessary cream for treating Duo's sunburn, he had managed to get another pair of jeans and a couple of t-shirts as well as an outfit suitable for Duo to wear when he accompanied them to work and a slightly dressier outfit in case they chose to dine out in the evening. Hopefully, that would provide enough clothing to fill out Duo's wardrobe for the week without being so much that it would embarrass or upset him to accept the clothes from them.

During the ride back to the hotel, Wufei spotted a sign that caught his attention. 'I remember reading an article about them... Duo would love to go. I wonder if there's still tickets available...' It only took a moment to get the cabbie to drive around the block and park in front of the building.

"Wait here," Wufei instructed.

"Sure thing, mac. Meter's running."

"I will be back shortly," Wufei responded. Avoiding the hassle of getting another cab was well worth paying for the cabbie's time.

Much to Wufei's pleasure, there were indeed some tickets remaining for the Wednesday evening. They would be done the Preventers demonstration/training sessions in plenty of time to make it. And of course, that was *his* day with Duo, so there should be no problem with him scheduling the time.

"How many seats would you like?" the young woman asked brightly.

"Two - no, wait, make that three," Wufei said. Even as he paid for the tickets and exited the building to reclaim his waiting cab, Wufei was asking himself exactly why he had changed his mind and bought *three* tickets. 'Duo will enjoy the evening more if Yuy is with us too,' he told himself. 'That's all there is to it.'

The fact that he knew perfectly well that Heero liked basketball just as much as Duo did and would enjoy the evening had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.

***

Heero removed Duo's clothing from the dryer and carefully folded each item. He hoped Wufei had been able to find some suitable clothing to add to Duo's wardrobe. Otherwise, the hotel laundromat was probably going to see a lot of usage over the next few days. Of course, even if Wufei had managed to find a couple of outfits, that did not guarantee that Duo would be willing to accept them.

'Damn. I forgot to talk to Wufei about our plans for the week,' Heero thought. He still intended to let Duo choose what to do on *his* days, even if that meant including Wufei in their plans. He had a few suggestions for activities - and he *would* offer them so that Duo would know he wasn't just trying to get out of making any effort by letting him choose - but the final choice would be up to Duo.

Gathering up the laundry, Heero headed up to the room. Since Wufei had not appeared at the laundromat to get the key, he obviously wasn't back yet. Heero hoped he wouldn't be too much longer though - he really wanted to get that sunburn of Duo's taken care of.

Heero was just about to unlock the door to the suite when Wufei caught up to him. "I take it you were successful," Heero said, indicating the bags Wufei was carrying.

"Yes," Wufei answered. "And..." he hesitated, uncertain over whether to bring up the subject of the tickets just yet. Seeing Heero's expectant look, he drew a deep breath and continued, "And I hope you don't mind, but I got tickets for something on Wednesday night."

Heero winced slightly. He should have spoken up sooner. "Ah. I was going to talk to you about our plans for the week myself. I guess I should have said something earlier." Meeting Wufei's eyes, he told him, "I'm going to let Duo decide how he wants to spend 'my' days. Including who he wants to spend them with."

Wufei's eyes widened in surprise. That - was unexpected. After all their careful planning to evenly share the week, he had not thought that Heero would risk losing his exclusive time with Duo. But then - hadn't he just done the same thing, giving up having Duo entirely to himself for an evening because he knew Duo would rather have Heero there as well? Once again, Wufei firmly ignored the little voice that was pointing out that perhaps the fact that he knew Heero would enjoy the planned evening too might have had some small influence on his decision.

Realizing that Heero was still waiting for some sort of reaction to his statement, Wufei said, "That is - not an entirely bad idea, I think. Perhaps we should allow him the final say over the entire week and forget the schedule we had planned?"

Heero managed to keep most of the relief out of his voice as he answered, "I think that would be a good idea."

Wufei nodded in response, "Very well then. But I do not think that he will have any objections to the plans for Wednesday evening." Pulling the tickets from his pocket, he held them out to Heero. "Do you?"

Taking the tickets from Wufei, Heero read them with considerable surprise. This was not exactly the sort of thing he would have expected Wufei to come up with. And he had to admit, Duo would not want to miss this. Hell, *he* would have liked to go himself. "No, I don't believe that he will," Heero said a bit regretfully. As he started to hand the tickets back to Wufei, they shifted slightly in his grasp. Now that they were no longer neatly stacked, it became clear that there were not just two tickets here.

Heero looked from the tickets to Wufei's face. "Three?" he said disbelievingly.

Wufei snatched the tickets back, cheeks flushing slightly. "He would not enjoy it as much if you were not there," he said defensively.

"Thank you," Heero said simply, giving Wufei a slightly shy smile. Maybe Wufei *had* only bought the extra ticket to make Duo happy. But he would enjoy the evening too.

"You're welcome," Wufei grumbled, secretly pleased. Getting a genuine smile out of Heero was a truly rare occurrence. He couldn't help but feel a bit pleased at having managed to earn one.

Part 14:

Duo headed for the shower gratefully. It would be nice to get the last traces of sunscreen off of his skin and to cool down. Getting out of his too-hot outfit and having a refreshing shower would do wonders for his mood. Though the simple fact that Heero and Wufei had actually noticed something was wrong *and* offered to help fix it had already improved the way he felt.

The sharp sting of water hitting his sunburn made Duo wince a bit, but he couldn't entirely regret having gotten burnt. Not if it meant getting a little attention from the men he loved. 'And isn't that damn pathetic? They offer to do your laundry and get you some sunburn cream and you're delighted. Pathetic, Maxwell. Absolutely pathetic.'

Duo sighed as he unfastened his braid to wash his hair. Sure, Heero and Wufei had paid attention to him. But judging by the way things had been going so far, that probably meant that they'd come back and ignore him for the rest of the day. Was he really expecting too much of them? What if neither of them was *capable* of the kind of consideration he was hoping for? 'I don't think I'm asking that much... It's not like I'm expecting roses and champagne and poetry or something, after all... I'd just like to have them carry on an actual fucking *conversation* with me once in a while, for god's sake.'

Though a few caring touches like Wufei's light touch to his cheek earlier wouldn't exactly hurt, either. Duo *liked* to touch and to be touched. Liked the reassurance of simply having someone close. And other than holding him on the dance floor at the ball, Fei's touch to his cheek was the only time either of them *had* touched him. Well, unless you counted Heero grabbing his elbow at the park and he didn't. *He* was the one who'd pulled them all close enough to touch during Heero's explanation at the restaurant. They'd gone right back to sitting a good arm's length away from him once everyone came back from washing up.

Noin's cautionary words about making sure that he could be happy with them came back to Duo with painful clarity. Which would be worse - returning to L2 alone, knowing that they both said they loved him even if they didn't show it - or staying with one or both of them on Earth but never having his needs in a relationship truly fulfilled? Duo turned off the shower with a vicious twist. Neither option was very appealing, frankly. But maybe those were the only options he would end up with. After all, neither Heero nor Wufei had *ever* been overly fond of physical contact with *anyone* as far as he knew. He, on the other hand, craved it. One of the very, very few things he actually *missed* from his street gang days was the comfortable, secure feeling of waking up in a warm tangle of gently breathing bodies. Knowing that, at least for the moment, he was not alone.

When the gang was first taken in by the church, before Father managed to find homes for most of them, it used to drive Sister Helen crazy to walk into the dorm area and discover half a dozen kids sleeping in a tangled heap on a couple of mattresses on the floor instead of in their own beds as they were supposed to be. She never did understand why they didn't appreciate each having their *own* bed. She didn't understand that, on the streets, "alone" meant "dead". The kids had eventually given up on trying to explain and just made sure that they were up and the mattresses back where they belonged before she came around in the morning. Better to get a little less sleep than to sleep alone.

After the others were gone to new homes, Duo had finally resorted to sleeping *under* his bed. Sleeping on top had made him feel too vulnerable once he was alone in the dorm. Father had caught him under there one morning and had simply smiled sadly and gently ruffled his hair. Sister Helen was sweet, but Father... Duo sometimes wondered exactly what *his* background had been like. He *understood* in a way that Sister simply wasn't able to.

Duo finished drying off before carefully replacing the cross around his neck. He fingered it absently, caught up by the memories.

It had been worse after the church was gone. He had been a little too well-fed to safely join a new street gang. A little too pretty. And he'd discovered that, while "alone" did not *necessarily* mean "dead" on the streets, it wasn't damn far off either. He'd learned to sleep in short snatches, never hole up in the same place twice, always keep moving, keep running. It had been tough to go back to being dirty and hungry after getting used to being clean and well-fed. But he'd discovered it was safer to stay as dirty and smelly as he could stand. The hunger there wasn't much choice about, so he'd simply got used to it all over again. The toughest part had been getting used to being completely alone. Not that he ever *did* really get used to it.

Joining up with G and the Sweepers had been a relief. Not only was there actually enough to eat, the Sweepers lived in *very* tight quarters. It was almost impossible to be alone, day or night. And he'd only had to pull his knife once to convince someone that "no" meant "no"; he hadn't even had to actually cut the guy. A far cry from life on the streets.

Then Operation Meteor had gotten underway, and he'd been back on his own again. Deathscythe was the only constant in his life. And he'd spent more nights than he cared to remember curled up in Scythe's cockpit, trying to convince himself that as long as he had his Gundam, he wasn't really alone. He'd been desperate for a friend. Had hoped that the other Gundam pilots would be like the gang - support and comfort for each other. That he wouldn't have to be alone.

'God, I was a naive idiot,' Duo thought in disgust. He winced as he impatiently yanked the brush through a tangle. 'And then I compounded the idiocy by falling for Heero and Wufei. I thought maybe...'

Yeah, he'd "thought" alright. Thought that maybe if he could work his way into one of their beds, it would be the first step to working his way into their heart as well. That maybe he wouldn't have to be alone through the whole war and if, by some unbelievable miracle, they actually survived to see that elusive thing called "peace", he wouldn't be alone to figure out how to survive in such a radically changed world. And if they hadn't survived, as seemed much more likely - hell, Heero had already come damn close to dying by that point - they would at least have lived life to its fullest. Teenage hormones and a desperate wish to *belong* were a dangerous combination. 'Idiot. You're just damn lucky you didn't fall for somebody with less honour and more lust, Maxwell.'

Oh, he'd eventually become friends with Quatre and Trowa. The two of them and his occasional contact with Howard and the Sweepers had been the only things keeping him going at times. But Quat and Tro had been very close right from the start, best friends almost from the moment that they met. The closest *he* had come to a "best friend" so far was Hilde. And he had far too many secrets from her to really let her qualify for the position. He'd hoped...

Yanking the brush through another tangle with complete disregard for the amount of breakage he was causing, Duo told himself firmly that his eyes were watering from pulling out the tangles. Nothing else.

'Oh hell, admit it. You'd hoped either Heero or Wufei would be up to being a best friend as well as a lover. Or better yet, that they'd both qualify for both positions. Keep dreaming, Maxwell. You're asking too much.'

Duo set his brush aside and left his hair down to finish drying. He didn't like sleeping with it loose because it would be a tangled mess when he woke up; but if he braided it while it was still this wet it would never dry. Since it would be a while yet before the guys could possibly get back from doing the laundry, he might as well take a nap. Maybe then he would feel a little more up to dealing with this whole mess.

***

Heero and Wufei entered the suite quietly. Since Duo was not in the sitting-room, they headed towards the open door of his bedroom. "Duo..." Heero began, only to cut off his words abruptly at the sight before him. Duo was sprawled across his bed, sound asleep, hair spread all around him. Barely noticing that Duo was only wearing a pair of boxers, Heero's gaze fixed on his very red arms and face. Silently, he backed out of the room, Wufei following suit.

"I hate to wake him but that sunburn really needs to be treated," Heero murmured quietly.

"It looks worse than I had thought it was," Wufei said. "We were not out in the sun all *that* long. But then, he *is* very fair-skinned to start with."

"I don't think he will feel like going out for supper. Maybe we should order something delivered, then wake him and tend to the sunburn just before it arrives?"

Wufei nodded his agreement. "Perhaps pizza?" he offered.

"If I remember correctly, the only things he doesn't particularly care for on pizza are anchovies and pineapple..." Heero said as he moved into the kitchenette to check the small bar fridge. "Damn. I'd hoped there would be some juice or sports drinks in here... He'll want pop with the pizza but he's probably a bit dehydrated so I'd like to get something else down him first..."

Wufei closed his eyes, trying to visualize the contents of the vending machine he'd passed on his way back to the room. "I *think* there were sports drinks in the vending machine down the hall..."

Heero emerged from the kitchenette with the ice container in hand. "We need ice anyway, so I'll check the vending machine while I'm out there."

"Shall I go ahead and order the pizza then?"

'Probably half to three-quarters of an hour for the pizza to be delivered and it shouldn't take more than half that time to get Duo's sunburn tended to...' "Yes, you might as well," Heero answered.

"Anything you don't want on it?" Wufei asked.

"Mushrooms," Heero mumbled, embarrassed. J would have fed him nothing *but* mushrooms for a week if he'd ever mentioned not liking them. Soldiers were supposed to eat what was given to them without question. Personal preferences didn't enter the picture. But there was something about the very thought of eating *fungus* that just turned his stomach.

Wufei raised one eyebrow slightly, then admitted, "I don't particularly mind those, but I'm with Duo on the pineapple - ugh."

As Wufei turned to look up the phone number for the pizza place, Heero picked up the key and left to get the ice. Thankfully, Wufei was correct and there *were* sports drinks in the vending machine. Heero picked out several flavours in the hopes of getting Duo to drink several over the course of the evening.

Sunburn and dehydration frequently went together. And Duo's fatigue could be a sign of that. 'Or just a sign of the stress he's been under...' Heero thought unhappily.

Considering that both he and Wufei were *supposed* to be trying to make Duo happy, they didn't have a very good track record so far. 'We're just going to have to try harder,' Heero decided. An instant later, he realized, '*We*? Why *we*?' As Heero tried to shift the drinks and ice container around to free up a hand to unlock the suite door, it swung open for him and Wufei caught the ice container just before it fell. "Thanks, Wufei."

"I thought you might need a hand," Wufei answered, closing the door again once Heero was inside.

As Heero set the drinks down on the coffee table while Wufei took the ice away to put it in the fridge, Heero thought, 'That's why. We make a damn good team. I'd rather work together with Wufei than compete against him...' Waiting for Wufei to return before they went in to awaken Duo, Heero wished there was a way that all of this could work out without anyone ending up getting hurt. Because if Wufei loved Duo anywhere close to as much as he did, one of them *was* going to be hurt when Duo made his choice. Badly hurt. And if Duo still loved them both, that would hurt *him* too.

Assuming, of course, that Duo ended up choosing *either* of them. Which might be a rather large assumption, considering how badly they were doing at making him happy.

***

Duo reached for another slice of pizza, trying very hard to keep a goofy grin off his face. And it *was* difficult not to grin from ear to ear. It seemed that his concerns over being ignored for the rest of the day were completely unfounded.

From the moment he'd awakened to soft voices, Heero and Wufei had been making it quite clear that they *were* paying attention. The soothing aloe cream that Wufei had applied to his sunburn with a feather-light touch and the sports drink that Heero had gently insisted on him drinking had only been the beginning. Then Wufei had appeared with his brush and offered to brush his hair out for him. And Heero had braided it, doing a very neat job much to his surprise.

Next had come the revelation of the clothing they had purchased for him. He'd been a bit uncomfortable over accepting it at first, finally giving in on the condition that they let him pay them back later. They had resisted, insisting that it was their fault that he needed the clothing, but eventually had compromised by letting him pay a third of the cost.

Then the pizza had arrived. And the best part of the evening quickly followed. They were actually *talking* to him. Filling him in on what they'd been doing over the past couple of years. Describing their apartments. Talking about working for Preventers. About how bizarre it had been to take orders from Une at first, but how totally natural it now seemed. About how difficult it was to work with some of the other Preventers, former Oz or Alliance soldiers twice their age who nevertheless were lower-ranking than Heero and Wufei. Telling little stories about strange, amusing, or even aggravating things that had happened at work.

Heero let Wufei take over the conversation while he ate another slice of pizza. They were taking turns talking and Heero was surprised just how easy it really was to find things to discuss. Watching Duo's eyes sparkle as he listened to Wufei recounting a mission they had been sent on to check out a factory that was reportedly building mobile dolls only to discover that it was in fact a *doll mobile* factory - making baby mobiles consisting of half a dozen tiny stuffed dolls - Heero was simultaneously delighted that they were finally making him happy and disgusted that they hadn't done this sooner.

"You should have seen Une's face when Heero presented her with a 'sample'," Wufei chuckled.

Heero raised one eyebrow and said, "Well, that was nothing compared to the look she got when you suggested that it would look lovely hanging over her desk..."

Duo laughed so hard he fell off the chair.

Wufei exchanged a satisfied smirk with Heero. 'It's nice to hear Duo laugh again. It truly does not take a great deal to make him happy... Why then have we been doing so *badly* at it up till now?' Wufei wondered.

Duo picked himself up off the floor and wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes. The thought of Une with a baby mobile hanging over her desk... Oh, man...

As he prompted Heero for more details, the thought crossed Duo's mind that he really *should* be doing as he originally intended and telling the two of them about his past. But... Things were going so well right now. And he really did not know how they would react to his revelations.

What would Wufei, raised in the lap of luxury, think of him once he knew Duo had practically grown up dining on scraps from other people's garbage along with whatever he could manage to steal? What would Heero think once he found out that Duo had kept his virginity only by keeping himself filthy and smelly, by running fast and hiding well, by frequent and vicious, sometimes even deadly, use of his knife?

How would the two of them, thoroughly educated in a broad range of topics starting from a young age, react to the news that the time he had spent hiding out in schools during the war added up to more hours than he had ever spent in a school in his life? That while G had crammed university-level physics and chemistry down his throat along with specific topics in human physiology and other subjects, the gaping holes that left in his education were filled only with what he'd managed to teach himself from books? That he had just - finally! - managed to fill in enough of those gaps to get his General Equivalency Diploma?

Duo didn't know. And suddenly, now that things were going so much better, he was afraid to find out.

'If they ask, I'll tell them. I won't lie about it. But I won't just volunteer it either,' he decided guiltily. At least not before the end of the week. If - when? - the time to make a choice arrived, he would *have* to tell them first. He couldn't go into what he considered a life-long commitment with a secret that big hovering in the background. A lie of omission was still a lie. But by delaying his explanations, he would at least have this week to remember if they were unable to accept him after hearing about his past. 'So enjoy every moment of it, Maxwell. It might be all you ever have...'

Part 15:

Duo managed - just - not to burst out laughing at the man's bold claim that the convention centre's security was absolutely flawless. 'No need for the Preventers to review it and make recommendations, huh? Dream on, buddy...' Cheap locks, shoddy cameras with poor coverage, the list went on and on. And that was just what he could see from walking in the front doors. He hated to think what the service entrance was probably like.

Wufei said diplomatically, "Well, we're here now and our orders are to take a look at the centre's security. We're just doing our job, sir. Nothing personal."

Heero added, "We understand that the centre has never hosted anything similar to the trade summit before. There are certain considerations involved that may be different from your usual events."

The convention centre's head of security glowered. "I run a tight ship here and I have twenty years of experience in the security business. I fail to see what three *boys*," he sneered, "can possibly find to improve *my* security."

Wufei reined in his temper with an effort. This was far from the first time that he and Heero had encountered an attitude like this. Usually, they ended up having to call Une and let *her* handle the asshole. Duo shifted position slightly behind Heero, catching Wufei's attention. 'But maybe this time, there's a *better* way...' Not only would it illustrate precisely why this security review was necessary, it would also provide the perfect opportunity to show Duo that his skills were valued and appreciated. That there was a place for Duo with the Preventers if he chose to stay here on Earth with Heero or himself. 'That I genuinely did not mean all those derogatory remarks I made during the war...'

"Very well," Wufei made a show of checking the man's nametag, "Mr. Johansen, why don't we offer you a practical demonstration of a few little items that could stand some improvement, hmm?"

Johansen crossed his arms and glared. "Fine. What do you have in mind?"

***

Wufei threw a quick glance across the lobby to where the security chief waited impatiently. "I know you're probably not really equipped for this, Duo, and if you'd rather not do it, we'll just have to call Une and let her strongarm him into cooperating..."

Duo raised one eyebrow and said, "What do you mean, 'not really equipped', Fei?"

"Well, obviously you won't have your picks and so on, but I'm sure that you can think of..." Wufei's voice trailed off. He looked in disbelief from the picks that Duo had just produced from - well, *somewhere* - to Duo's smirking face.

"You just *happened* to bring lockpicks with you?" Wufei exclaimed.

Duo shrugged and answered, "Just call me a Boy Scout - always prepared!" 'Picks and knives were an essential part of life as far back as I can remember. I don't know if I *could* go out without them on me. I'd feel damn naked if I tried...'

Heero had pulled out his cellphone and made a quick call to Une as soon as Wufei started explaining what he wanted Duo to do. He agreed that it would be an effective demonstration of the convention centre's need for security improvements; but he wanted to make certain that all three of them were covered if anything went wrong. Informing Une that Duo was taking part as a "consultant" seemed the safest way to avoid trouble. 'It would really suck if that asshole of a security chief got mad and called the cops after having Duo waltz through his so-called security as if it isn't even there. Wufei and I would be covered by our Preventers badges, but Duo wouldn't!'

After seeing Duo calmly produce his lockpicks from seemingly thin air, Heero was *very* glad he'd contacted Une. 'If he still makes a habit of carrying those, I would not be the least bit surprised to find out he still carries his knives too...' And *that* thought raised some interesting speculation. *He* had great difficulty going anywhere without his gun; thankfully, his status as a Preventer meant that he rarely had to leave it behind. His habit came from the fact that he had carried a gun nearly continuously for almost as long as he could remember. Certainly he had been in the habit before J ever got hold of him. If Duo's habit of carrying lockpicks and knives was equally deeply ingrained...

'Shit. What sort of childhood did *he* have?' Heero wondered. Right after his first meeting with Duo, while he was still utterly humiliated at having been first shot then rescued by the brash American, he had tried to find out more about him. And had hit a complete dead-end. There was *nothing* anywhere on the net about Duo Maxwell. He simply did not exist. J had only been able to tell him that G had picked up an orphan from L2 and that the boy had only had somewhat less than three years of training. J had been convinced that Pilot 02 wouldn't last a month and had been absolutely *furious* that Heero had allowed the other pilot to "make a fool" of him. Heero had been exceedingly grateful at the time that there was far too much going on for J to recall him for retraining.

Heero shook off the memories as Wufei finished his explanation to Duo. Throwing a quick glance at Wufei, Heero decided that he had probably not caught the implications of Duo having those picks on him. Wufei simply did not have the background to understand that sort of near-compulsion.

Duo caught Heero's sudden sharp look after he produced his lockpicks. His stomach suddenly felt as if it had been invaded by a whole flock of butterflies. Did he *want* Heero to have guessed that his past was perhaps a bit - well, chequered, to put it mildly? If Heero's curiosity had been roused, it was unlikely that he would simply let the incident pass unremarked.

Duo's suspicion was confirmed as Wufei left to make a few final arrangements with the security chief and Heero approached him.

"Duo, are you carrying too?" Heero asked quietly.

Duo swallowed, then nodded slightly. "Just knives, though..."

Heero gave him a searching look, 'Damn, I've made him nervous. Duo, what are you hiding? *Why* are you hiding it? You've heard about *my* sorry excuse for a childhood; surely you can't think there's something in yours that will drive me away...' then nodded in return. "Okay. I've alerted Une to what we're doing and you're now acting as a 'security consultant'. So if Johansen decides to be an even *bigger* asshole than he already is and calls the cops, you're covered."

"Shit," Duo swore, eyes widening. "I never even thought of that..." 'Wouldn't *that* have been a bright move, getting arrested with professional lockpicks and anti-detector coated knives on me...'

"Neither did Chang," Heero said drily. "Don't worry about it, it's taken care of now. Wufei and I should have made sure you had some form of official status before bringing you along in the first place. We should have realized that permission to bring you with us as an observer wasn't going to be enough." As Duo's eyes flickered nervously away from his own, Heero was a bit sorry that he'd asked about the knives. He certainly hadn't meant to put Duo this badly off-balance. Attempting to remedy the situation, he added teasingly, "After all, we couldn't very well do a security review without calling on the stealth and break-in specialist of the group for his input, now could we?"

Duo jerked his eyes back to meet Heero's, uncertain whether he really meant that or not. It *was* said in a teasing tone, after all. Wufei asking him to do this had been balm to his soul, affirming that Wufei genuinely respected his skills. He *knew* he was good at what he did; but a part of him cried out for the reassurance that Heero and Wufei knew and recognized that too. In spite of their explanations and apologies yesterday, he *needed* that affirmation. The continual disparagement during the war had steadily chipped away at his self-confidence and self-image. Successful missions and G's occasional gruff acknowledgement of his capabilities had provided at least a partial counter-balance, but the acknowledgements that would have meant the most had never come. The closest he had *ever* got before was Heero's remark yesterday that he was "an effective soldier".

Heero's next words caught in his throat at the hungry, almost pleading look Duo gave him. 'What the hell? What did I say to trigger *that*?' He had no idea. Nor did he know how to answer the question that look was asking. Hell, he didn't know what the damn *question* was, how was he supposed to know how to answer it?

Just then, Wufei rejoined them, spoiling the moment before Heero could figure out what sort of response to make. As Wufei began to explain exactly what he wanted Duo to do, Heero regretted his delay in attempting to respond to that look. 'I should have just asked him flat out what he wanted to know,' he thought. Because he was pretty sure that he had seen a flicker of disappointment before Duo had turned his attention to Wufei. Meaning that - somehow - Heero had let Duo down. He just wished that he knew *how*.

***

Duo slipped silently through the building, pausing only briefly at various key points to leave behind a "calling card" to show he had been there. So far, he had used up a pack and a half of sticky notes in locations as varied as the control room for the ventilation system, the private conference rooms, and even the security chief's office. He only had a couple more stops left to make before he was through and so far there had been nowhere even remotely challenging to get in and out of unnoticed. The so-called security on this place was truly laughable. A fact that was *not* going to endear any of them to Mr. Johansen.

Johansen had refused to show them the centre's blueprints, claiming that it was impossible for anyone to get access to them and therefore a true test of the security system required that they not have seen them either. Duo had shrugged and walked across the lobby to pointedly study the clearly posted map of the centre. Sure, there were lots of details missing from it, but the damn thing even had all the offices and maintenance rooms clearly labelled along with all the entrances to the building. Johansen hadn't even caught the hint.

Frankly, the biggest problem with the security at the convention centre was the man in charge of it as far as Duo was concerned. Camera angles could be changed, camera coverage increased, and cheap locks replaced, but it wouldn't do any good if the head of security was a blockheaded asshole.

***

Wufei struggled to keep a smug smirk off of his face as the security camera reversed its sweep and a neon pink square that hadn't been there a few seconds earlier came into view. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Johansen's complete non-reaction. Obviously, the man had not noticed the tiny change. Neither had the security guard who was supposed to be watching the monitors.

With great effort, Heero managed to *not* reach out and bang the apparently-blind security guard's head against the monitor he was supposed to be watching. Sensing Wufei's gaze on him, Heero met his eyes. Wufei raised one eyebrow. Heero rolled his eyes in response. This was a total joke. The security here, from hardware to personnel, was completely unsuitable for something with as much potential risk as the trade summit meeting. His first recommendation would be to find a different venue. If that was impossible, then he would strongly recommend replacing rather than supplementing the security staff as well as upgrading the equipment.

Wufei choked on a snicker as the camera in the private "high-security" VIP lounge panned across a certain someone lounging on the couch and waving. 'So much for the "state-of-the-art" door alarms and locks that Johansen was so proud of,' he thought.

Heero shook his head slightly at the guard's continued oblivion to the images on his monitors as Duo grinned and waved at the camera. 'Five - four- three - two...'

"How the *HELL* did he get in *there*?!" bellowed Johansen as he finally noticed the figure relaxing on the VIP couch.

"And there, and there, and there, and..." Wufei said, pointing to the cameras displaying areas sporting neon coloured sticky notes.

Heero started wondering whether he should call an ambulance as the overweight head of security turned an alarming shade of purplish-red and started sputtering incoherently. Une would not be pleased if they had managed to give the man a heart attack.

"You... you insolent... Out! Get out of my building!" Johansen finally managed to choke out.

***

As they stood on the sidewalk waiting for a cab, Duo fidgeted nervously with his braid. "Uh, you guys aren't going to get in trouble with Une for me gettin' that guy so mad, are you?" he asked. He hoped not. He'd been careful not to give in to the temptation to write anything more than "Tagged" and the time on the notes. And he hadn't touched anything that he hadn't had to in order to do his task. But he supposed that maybe he should have just tagged the VIP lounge and left - met the guys at the security office or something - instead of making himself comfortable and waving at the camera. Johansen had got awfully mad about that.

Wufei had been busy mentally writing his report for Une. The centre's security was abysmal and the head of security totally unsuited for dealing with something as unpredictable and stressful as the trade summit would be. Duo's question caught him by surprise. "No, of course not," he assured him. "Heero told her what we were planning, Duo. And she remembers your abilities quite well from the war. You can add your observations to our reports. I'm certain that once she reads them, she will agree that extreme measures will have to be taken if the centre is to be used for the summit. Frankly, I believe that it would be better to simply relocate it."

Heero nodded in agreement. "And Duo, *you* didn't make him mad. We *all* did. He wouldn't have reacted well to *anyone* coming in and critiquing his security. The fact that all of us look so young - and therefore, as far as he's concerned, inexperienced - only made that reaction worse."

Seeing Duo finally stop toying with his braid and flip it back over his shoulder, Heero breathed a silent sigh of relief. When Wufei's assurance about Une hadn't been enough to stop Duo's fidgeting, he had wondered whether perhaps the real question wasn't about Une at all - especially since Duo had specifically said that *he* had made Johansen angry. 'He was worried that *we* were upset with him... Why would we be? It was Wufei's idea in the first place. Why would we blame *him* for Johansen getting mad?' It didn't take much thought for Heero to realize, 'Of *course* he thought that, Yuy. How many times during the war did you or Chang blame him for something that went wrong with a mission, whether it was his fault or not? Too damn many, that's for sure.'

Initially confused as to why Heero found it necessary to point out that Duo alone was not responsible for making Johansen angry, Wufei quickly came to the same realization as Heero. That Duo had thought they would be upset with him for making the man angry. And that he had good reason to believe that they would blame him for it, based on their past actions. 'How much damage have we done?' he wondered. 'Can we ever make up for it and really make him believe that we've changed?'

Wufei wasn't too sure about that. Duo seemed to have accepted Heero's assurances this time - he *had* stopped fidgeting, after all - but what about the next? Would Duo ever really have faith in either one of them or had they permanently destroyed any chance of that? That was a question that Wufei suddenly wasn't too sure he wanted to know the answer to.

Part 16:

Heero finished off his part of the security review and saved the file. Once Wufei finished his, they would combine the files and add Duo's observations as well. Then they would send the damn thing off to Une and have the rest of the day to spend as they pleased.

Looking around the hotel room, Heero realized that he was the first to finish. That was not altogether surprising. Wufei wasn't as fast at keyboarding as he was. And Duo probably had far more detailed observations regarding the actual security measures than either of them.

Heero had to smother the urge to laugh when he looked over at Duo. He had never been able to understand how anyone could type while laying flat on their stomach on a bed or, in this case, a couch. *He* certainly couldn't. And while at one time, the fact that Duo *did* work on his computer that way would have severely irritated him, now it just seemed so very *Duo* that he couldn't imagine the braided youth doing anything else.

Watching Duo work brought to mind his realization earlier that day that Duo seemed to carry his lockpicks and knives as automatically as Heero himself carried his gun. 'Should I ask for an explanation?' he wondered. Heero certainly *wanted* to know about Duo's past. Wanted to know what forces had combined to mold the quick-witted, creative young man he loved. What the shadows that sometimes darkened his bright eyes were caused by. What lay behind the dark nightmares that had haunted Duo's sleep on at least several occasions that they had roomed together during the war.

But Heero wasn't sure that he had the right to ask those questions. Despite the eagerness with which Duo listened to his and Wufei's stories the previous evening, Heero did not think that they had entirely regained the ground they had lost with their thoughtless behaviour earlier in the day. After all, the night of the ball had ended with hugs and kisses on the cheek from Duo. Last night had ended with nothing more than a "Good night, guys" as Duo headed off to bed.

'No, I won't ask,' Heero decided finally. 'When Duo is ready - when he decides that he trusts us - he'll tell us.' He was too uncertain of just where the boundaries were to risk asking for that information. Too unsure of what Duo would and would not accept from him. He couldn't risk overstepping his bounds and losing what little ground he had won back just because he was curious. And curiosity was all it really boiled down to. It wasn't like learning about Duo's past would change how he felt about Duo. He loved him; it was as simple as that.

Duo felt Heero's thoughtful gaze resting on him. It took a major effort to keep typing. At any moment, he expected Heero to bring up the subject of his lockpicks and knives again. And he wasn't too sure that he was ready to discuss his past yet. 'Just a little more time... That's all I want, just a little more time, a few more memories, in case they don't take learning about my past very well...'

When Heero's gaze moved away from him again, Duo relaxed slightly. At least for the moment, Heero was apparently not going to insist on answers. But in a way, Duo was sorry that he hadn't. It would have been somewhat of a relief to get the whole story out of the way. To find out just how deep the love that the other two claimed to feel for him was. Whether it would survive finding out just how squalid his past was.

Duo was very much afraid that it would not. Despite all the attention that Heero and Wufei had paid to him the previous evening, neither of them had made any attempt to give him so much as a hug. When they had all decided to get some sleep in order to be ready for work today, he had lingered inside the doorway leading from the sitting area to his bedroom for several minutes before finally telling them good night. Neither of them had made any attempt to initiate a good night kiss, much to his disappointment. Nor had there been any attempts at a good morning hug or kiss before they left the suite this morning. Duo couldn't help wondering just how strong their professed love could be if they had no interest in showing the least bit of affection.

Wufei finished off his portion of the security review and emailed it off to Heero before shutting down his laptop. "All done and it's on its way to you," he told Heero as he packed the computer back in its bag.

"Shit. Sorry, guys, I'll just be a few more minutes," Duo apologized, trying to wrap up his observations quickly. He didn't want to leave anything out, but he didn't want to hold up their report either. 'Dammit, Maxwell, it's not even your fucking report and you're taking longer than either one of them. Hurry up!' The headache that had been nagging at him most of the day became a little more insistent.

"No rush, Duo. I still have to join Wufei's part of the report with mine anyway," Heero said.

'And that'll take him what - about two minutes if that...' Duo thought, hurriedly finishing off his remarks. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to ignore the steadily worsening headache. 'Damn tension headache... I don't have time for this!' He saved his file, gave it one final read-through and made a couple of minor corrections, then sent it off to Heero. "Sorry I took so long," he apologized again as he shut down his computer.

"Do not worry about it Duo," Wufei said. "As long as Une receives the report this afternoon, she will be quite content."

Heero finished integrating his and Wufei's portions of the report just in time for Duo's email to arrive. Pulling up the file, Heero couldn't help smirking a bit as his earlier guess that Duo's observations would be longer than either his or Wufei's was confirmed. Detailed notes regarding the exact model of cameras used in various locations and the make and style of locks. Comments noting that some of the security *would* have been state-of-the-art when the convention centre was built ten years previously. A very diplomatic notation that the security chief was perhaps not particularly well-suited to deal with the sort of issues that would need to be addressed during something like the trade summit.

"Was that the sort of thing that you wanted?" Duo asked a bit nervously. He hadn't been certain how much detail to include, so he'd put down everything that he had noticed. This was rather different from anything he'd had to write up before. After all, mission reports during the war were more focussed on whether or not the mission goals were accomplished along with a few notes on how that was done rather than talking about the conditions that existed at the mission location. This was more the sort of thing that he would have *liked* to have had prior to a mission; security briefings back then had tended to be very vague and inaccurate.

Heero gave him a quick smile. "It's perfect, Duo. Your observations provide the justification for our recommendation that the summit be relocated to a more suitable venue if at all possible."

"Thank you for your assistance," Wufei contributed. "The report will be much more effective with the addition of your expertise."

"Good," Duo commented simply. He relaxed slightly, but by now the damn headache had too good a grip on him for that to do much good. He surreptitiously rubbed at his knotted neck muscles as he shifted to a sitting position.

"It's going to take me a while to cross-reference your observations with the rest of the report, Duo," Heero said, his attention still on his laptop screen. "Why don't you take a look at that list I gave you earlier and see what you'd like to do for the rest of the day? If there's something else you have in mind, that's fine too."

"Okay," Duo replied. 'Good. I left the list in my room, so I've got an excuse to disappear for a few minutes. Maybe I can work some of the knots out of my muscles while I'm gone.' "I'll just go find the list."

Wufei's eyes narrowed in concern as he watched Duo leave. Duo seemed to be moving with less than his usual grace. 'As if he has a stiff neck and shoulders, perhaps?' And Duo had seemed rather distracted ever since their little run-in with Johansen...

Reaching a decision, Wufei rose and followed Duo into his room. "Duo, is something wrong?" he asked hesitantly.

Duo dropped his hands away from the back of his neck. Damn. Busted. He hadn't wanted to admit to anything as weak as a fucking headache... But it was either that or lie. So - he prevaricated slightly, "Just a little headache, that's all. No big deal." Nope. Not at all. Having your head feel as if it was being crushed by a vise was hardly worth mentioning. He felt more like throwing up than picking out an activity for the afternoon, but they'd already wasted almost half of the previous day because he'd been too moody to have fun. If he wrecked this afternoon too, he wouldn't blame the guys for being disgusted with him.

'No big deal, he says. I can *see* the tension in his muscles from here!' Wufei thought. 'What did we do wrong *this* time?! There must be *something* bothering him to make him that tense...' "Come, sit down and let me see if I can help," he invited, pulling a chair away from the small dressing table.

Obviously Wufei had not bought his attempt to dismiss the headache. Duo sat on the chair reluctantly. 'As if getting sunburnt and needing treatment wasn't bad enough, now I'm needing help to deal with a fucking *headache*,' he thought disgustedly. 'Great impression you're making, Maxwell.'

At first, Wufei's massage of his shoulders and neck felt anything *but* good. Duo's muscles were too tense for that. But as the muscles gradually relaxed, the firm pressure of Wufei's hands began to feel better and Duo was able to enjoy the contact. "God, Fei, you can keep doing that for... oh, say, forever..." he mumbled under his breath. His head still hurt like hell, but at least his neck and shoulders weren't tied up in knots anymore. And the simple physical contact was helping just as much as the actual massage.

Wufei chuckled slightly. "I am decidedly out of practice at this sort of thing, Duo, so I do not think my hands will be up to massaging quite *that* long." He was relieved that Duo seemed to be relaxing now. He did not wish to press Duo for the reason for his tension just as he was starting to unwind. 'But I will need to speak to Heero and see if he has any idea what the problem is. We *must* be still doing something wrong... Perhaps if I can get Duo to take a nap while Heero finishes up with the report, we can talk before he wakes up...'

Wufei strongly suspected that Duo would have no problem dozing off once he was more relaxed. He had been exhausted the previous afternoon and they had stayed up quite late last night talking. And sunburn could cause fatigue as well.

"Duo, have you thought about what you would like to do this afternoon?" he asked.

Now that he was actually able to think straight, despite the continuing headache, Duo said, "Well, I've always kinda wanted to see Venice Beach and the Santa Monica pier... Heero had those on his list of ideas..."

Wufei winced at the thought of taking Duo - who *already* had a sunburn, though fortunately it had not blistered - to the beach, of all places. Particularly during the hottest part of the day. "Hmm. Perhaps it would be best if we stayed here till mid-afternoon, then went? That way we would avoid the worst of the sun. And by going later, perhaps we could stay at the beach to watch the sunset?" he suggested carefully.

"Sounds like a plan," Duo murmured a bit sleepily. Despite his best efforts, a yawn escaped before he could stifle it.

"The past few days have been rather tiring, have they not? If we are going to stay here for a while, why not see if a nap will help with that headache?" Wufei asked gently. "I should go help Heero finish the report. And I will let him know what you would like to do later, if that is okay with you?"

Much as he wanted to protest that he was fine, he didn't need a fucking nap, Duo realized reluctantly that if he wanted to be in any kind of shape to enjoy their plans, he probably *did* need to take one. "Okay," he sighed.

Wufei gave Duo's shoulders a final squeeze before removing his hands. Duo immediately missed the contact. Impulsively, he twisted in the chair to wrap his arms awkwardly around Wufei's waist before he had a chance to move away. "Thanks, Fei," he said, managing to summon up a bright if short-lived smile.

"You are very welcome, Duo," Wufei told him. He bent slightly to return Duo's hug before leaving the room and pulling the door shut behind him.

Duo curled up on the bed and tried to clear his mind for sleep. It wasn't easy. His delight over Wufei's thoughtfulness and over the approval of his skills expressed by both Heero and Wufei warred with his worry over their possible reactions to his past and the fact that neither of them had actually said they loved him again since admitting it during their explanations the previous day. Feeling his muscles begin to tense again, Duo deliberately forced himself to draw a deep breath and try to think about the plans for the afternoon instead. As he drifted off into an uneasy sleep, his mind was still caught up in worrying over his past. How would Heero and Wufei react to it? And why hadn't Heero pressed for an explanation regarding the lockpicks and knives as Duo had expected him to?

***

Heero paused in his work and shot another glance towards Duo's open door. Duo and Wufei had been gone an awful long time to just find that list. With an effort, Heero forced his mind back to the task at hand. 'The sooner you get this done, the sooner you can all do something else,' he reminded himself firmly. But he couldn't help wondering what was going on in there.

It wasn't that he thought Wufei was up to something or anything like that. Not exactly, anyway. But he *was* a bit concerned about Duo. Although his reassurances after the scene with Johansen had stopped Duo's fidgeting, the other youth had still seemed far too tense. Heero just didn't know what the problem was. At least not for sure. Though judging by Duo's nervousness after he asked whether Duo was carrying weapons, he had a pretty good guess. 'I just don't understand what could be so bad in his past that he would be afraid to tell us about it,' he thought. After all, Duo had heard all about *his* miserable childhood and Wufei had as well. 'Knowing what my past was like and that Wufei was not disgusted by it, why would Duo fear our reactions to *his* past?'

Heero shook his head slightly, unable to come up with an answer to that question, and tried to focus on finishing the job of tying Duo's comments into the report. He looked up again as Wufei returned, closing Duo's door behind him.

"Is something wrong?" Heero asked immediately. Wufei's brow was furrowed in either concern or concentration, and he had a strong feeling that it was the former.

Wufei sighed and shook his head slightly. "I'm not sure. Let's get that report out of the way then I think that we need to talk about a few things."

"Hn," Heero grunted and dragged his attention back to the stupid fucking report again. He finally finished referencing the last of Duo's observations, saved the report, and sent it off to Une in encrypted format. Even as his computer was shutting down, Heero turned to Wufei and demanded, "Where is Duo?"

"Sleeping, I hope," Wufei answered. "He has a 'little' headache. A *tension* headache, and judging by the knotted muscles in his neck and shoulders, it is far more than 'little'. Any guesses as to what we've managed to do to cause that?"

Heero ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "No - well, maybe a bit - oh, I don't know..." He didn't really want to mention his suspicions about Duo's past to Wufei. He didn't feel that it was his place to do so. They *were* only suspicions, after all, and very vague at that. If there was any substance to them, then it was definitely Duo's prerogative to decide if and when to bring the subject up. In response to Wufei's questioning look, he shook his head and said, "Only a faint, vague suspicion, nothing concrete. And even if I'm right, it would be up to Duo to explain."

'Well, that was comforting,' Wufei thought sarcastically. Though if Heero felt that his suspicions were something that it was Duo's right to choose to reveal or not, he couldn't blame Heero for keeping his silence. "Well, I hope he does so. Soon. He is going to make himself ill if he keeps this up."

Part 17:

"Duo... Duo, wake up..." Wufei called softly.

"If he is that deeply asleep, maybe we should just let him sleep," Heero whispered.

Duo stirred slightly and mumbled, "No, 'm 'wake..."

Wufei stepped closer to the bed and reached out to brush Duo's bangs away from his forehead. "How do you feel now? Headache better?" he asked as Duo blinked sleepily up at him.

"Mm-hmm," Duo responded. The headache was not entirely gone, but it had been reduced to a dull pressure. Nothing he couldn't live with. He couldn't resist turning his head to press his cheek against Wufei's cool fingers as they stroked his hair away from his face. Even that small bit of contact felt so nice... His gaze slipped past Wufei to where Heero stood. Now if only Heero would do that sort of thing once in a while...

"Wufei told me that you wanted to go to Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier. Is that still where you'd like to go?" Heero asked as Duo rose from the bed.

"Um, yeah... If that's okay with you guys?" Duo answered.

Heero nodded in response. "Leave in half an hour?"

"Sounds good." Duo promised himself firmly that he *was* going to have a good time this afternoon. No moping around allowed.

***

Heero and Wufei exchanged slightly indulgent grins as Duo darted from one touch tank to another, handling every sea star, sea urchin, starfish, sand dollar, clam, and crab that the aquarium had on display. It was nice to see him so excited. Including a stop at the Ocean Discovery Centre located beneath the pier was definitely a good idea.

"One would think he had never seen such things before," Wufei said, sounding puzzled.

Heero gave him an incredulous look. "And exactly where would an orphan from L2 have seen real, live, sea creatures?"

"Are not school field trips to aquariums a standard part of all school curriculums? They certainly were at my school," Wufei answered.

After checking to make sure that Duo was occupied and unlikely to overhear, Heero demanded in disbelief, "Have you ever *been* to an L2 colony?"

He had. Once. J had sent him there with one of his trainers for "urban combat training". Heero had been very glad when it was time to leave and even more pleased that they never went back. The neighbourhoods that they trained in didn't just *look* like war zones. They *were* war zones.

Admittedly, the area they had spent most of their time in was probably not typical of the entire colony cluster but even the least rundown areas they had passed through would have been considered ready for demolition on an L1 colony. And those knives and lockpicks that were apparently as natural a part of Duo's life as his braid were giving Heero the uneasy feeling that whichever part of the L2 cluster Duo was originally from had more in common with that colony than not.

"No," Wufei shrugged, "but are not all colonies more or less the same?"

Shit. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Heero didn't even know where to *begin* explaining the difference between an L5 colony, even a very old and rundown one, and the average L2 colony. And Wufei needed to understand, particularly if his own suspicions that Duo's past was rather closer to his own than to Wufei's had any truth to them. Earlier that afternoon, Heero had realized that while J had said G "picked up an orphan from L2" the actual word "orphanage" had never been mentioned. That thought had reinforced his own suspicions about how difficult Duo's childhood may have been. Not wanting to get involved in this discussion while they were supposed to be having fun with Duo, Heero simply growled, "*NO*. Far from it. Talk to me after he goes to bed tonight."

Somewhat taken aback by Heero's vehemence, Wufei said, "Very well." 'What is so different about L2?' he wondered. Admittedly, his studies had been rather abruptly ended before getting very close to the present in colonial history. All they had really studied by that point was the standard who-backed-which-colony sort of thing. About all he recalled about L2 specifically was one of his teachers saying something about it being no wonder that L2 produced so many rebel groups, having been founded primarily by a country that had its roots in rebellion against outside rule. But surely that would not have any real bearing on what colonies in the L2 cluster were like. Would it?

"Come *on* guys!" Duo urged. "There's still a few more exhibits we haven't seen yet!" This place was *so* cool. Getting to not only see but actually *touch* some of the creatures he'd read about was great, regardless of how slimy or prickly they might happen to be. Impulsively, he dashed back to the other two and grabbed their hands to drag them along with him as he backed towards the next exhibit. No sooner had he done so then he thought, 'Idiot! Maybe Wufei will at least not get mad about the physical contact in public - he *has* been voluntarily touching me after all - but Heero...' Heero had never seemed to like being touched during the war and the past couple of days hadn't shown any sign of that having changed.

"Sorry..." Duo said, letting their hands slip from his.

"Sorry for what?" Wufei asked, closing his fingers around Duo's before they slipped completely free. 'He was so happy and excited just a second ago... What happened?'

"I know you guys don't like physical contact. I shouldn't have grabbed your hands like that," Duo said in a subdued voice. 'Stupid, stupid, stupid!' he berated himself.

Heero flinched. He had done this. All those times that he had shrugged off Duo's touch or growled out a warning or even physically shoved him away came back to Heero in painful detail. How to fix this... Sighing, Heero offered, "It was never about not liking the contact; it was about not liking the emotional confusion the contact created. I missed all those casual touches once you quit, you know."

"Then why don't you ever touch *me*?!" Oh shit. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. And certainly not in a tone of voice that came damn close to qualifying as a desperate wail. But now that he had, Duo forced himself to meet Heero's eyes rather than avoiding his gaze as he so desperately wanted to.

"You... *want* me to?" Heero asked disbelievingly. "But... yesterday... you pulled away... I thought I wasn't allowed..."

'Yesterday? When the hell...' The only time Heero had touched him yesterday was when he'd grabbed his elbow after the arcade game debacle. What the fuck did *that* have to do with anything? "Heero, I was hurt and flaming pissed at the time! That was before you explained anything! Of course I pulled away from you then!"

Still struggling to process the fact that Duo *wanted* to be touched by him, Heero protested, "But the night of the ball you hugged me and kissed me on the cheek and last night you just said good night! I thought..."

As Heero sputtered in obvious confusion, Duo felt an almost overwhelming urge to scream in sheer frustration. As he raised one hand to rub his forehead in a vain attempt to prevent his headache from returning, he abruptly realized that Wufei still had hold of his other hand and was gently stroking the back of it with his fingertips and watching him with concern. 'I suppose it was too much to ask that both of them have some clue about how to actually be comforting... Guess I should just be glad that at least Fei does...' He gently squeezed Wufei's hand in silent thanks.

Wufei was becoming distinctly uncomfortable with the amount of attention the three of them were drawing. But he had no intention of interrupting a conversation that was apparently long overdue. 'It isn't like any of these people actually know us,' he thought. 'And at least Duo is finally *telling* one of us what we're doing wrong!'

He wasn't very happy about the strain this little confrontation seemed to be putting on Duo, though. 'His headache's coming back,' Wufei realized unhappily as Duo switched from rubbing his forehead to massaging the back of his neck while Heero continued to try and explain just where he'd gotten the idea that he wasn't supposed to touch Duo. Exasperated, he elbowed Heero sharply and snapped, "Yuy, shut up and just *hug* him for god's sake!" He accompanied the verbal push in the right direction with a solid physical shove for good measure.

The sharp order - and equally forceful shove - from Wufei had Heero in motion before he had a chance to second-guess the instruction. His arms closed awkwardly around Duo's disturbingly tense body almost instinctively, but then he had no clue what to do next. He turned his head to catch Wufei's eyes and frantically but silently mouthed, "Now what?"

Wufei clapped his free hand to his forehead in disbelief. Hadn't Heero ever hugged or comforted someone before? Or had someone comfort him? 'Actually, from what he said about his past, maybe not...' Okay, so Heero had an excuse for being clueless. One that Duo would probably understand if he wasn't quite so stressed out. And Duo would probably be happy to *teach* Heero how to hug properly and how to comfort someone under other circumstances. At the moment though, Duo was the one in need of comforting, specifically comforting from Heero, and Heero didn't have a clue how to go about it.

With a sigh, Wufei realized that *he* was going to have to instruct Heero. With only a passing thought for just how weird it was to be instructing his rival how to comfort their mutual love interest, Wufei set about doing just that. "Rub his back," he said silently, trusting that Heero would read his lips. Heero's determined look and sharp nod in response made him continue hastily, "Like this!" He placed his free hand on Heero's back and moved it in gentle circles. Heero's look softened and he nodded slightly again, reassuring Wufei that he'd understood.

Wufei stepped back a bit, certain that his face was flaming with embarrassment. He would have preferred to step a bit farther away as the three of them looked decidedly odd standing there together, but Duo's death-grip on his hand ensured that he wasn't going anywhere. Instead, he had to settle for turning to face slightly away from the two of them and glaring any gawkers into moving along.

Duo tensed even more as Heero's arms closed around him. He couldn't quite believe that Heero was actually hugging him. Pretty damn awkwardly, but hugging nevertheless. As Heero started to hesitantly rub his back, he began to relax, dropping his head against Heero's shoulder and accepting that Heero really *didn't* mind physical contact with him. 'I guess he's just really, really confused... Maybe I'm expecting too much again...' When a slight tug on his hand signalled that Wufei was trying to draw away from them, Duo's grip tightened automatically. 'No, Fei, please stay...' he thought desperately. He was relieved when the tug stopped and was not repeated.

Keeping a careful eye on the other visitors, Wufei decided after only a few minutes that they would have to move on. He was fairly certain that a couple of the gawkers had headed off in search of someone to complain to. Still facing away from Duo and Heero, he cleared his throat insistently. "Heero... Duo... I think we had best be leaving now. Before we are asked to do so."

Heero's face flushed at the reminder. 'Shit! How the hell could I forget we were in a public place?!' Simple answer really. He *hadn't* forgotten, at least not at first. He had simply judged it to be an unimportant fact compared to the need to reassure Duo. 'And after that, I trusted Wufei to "watch our backs" so to speak and didn't bother worrying about where we were...' "Duo?" he asked hesitantly as he drew back slightly.

"I'm okay," Duo answered, summoning up a rather weak but genuine smile. It may not have been the appropriate time or place for this, but he was glad they'd gotten this discussion out of the way. Maybe now they could make some real progress instead of all this one step forward, two steps back nonsense that had been going on.

They made a rather brief stop at each of the remaining exhibits, all too aware of the curious stares and whispers of the other visitors to the centre. Duo would have been worried about the unwanted attention's effect on Heero and Wufei if it weren't for the fact that they were each currently holding one of his hands and death-glaring anyone who dared comment.

After leaving the Ocean Discovery Centre, they stopped for an obligatory ride on the ancient carousel on the pier above. It, like the pier itself, had been restored many times but it was still in essence the same one that had been sitting there for literally hundreds of years.

Wufei smiled in amusement at Duo's antics as he bent low over his carousel horse's neck and pretended to urge it to go faster. On the other side of Duo, Heero shook his head and laughed in response to some comment of Duo's.

As Duo's laughter rang out too and he turned to flash a brilliant grin at Wufei, inviting him to join in on the fun, Wufei came to the jarring realization that the *only* times over the past couple of days that Duo had seemed genuinely happy had been times that they were *both* with him. Abruptly, he knew what at least one of the causes of Duo's extreme stress was. 'He doesn't want to choose. Maybe even honestly *can't* choose. He wants us *both*.'

That was - a distinctly difficult concept to wrap his mind around. Wufei wasn't quite sure how he felt about the idea. 'If I had to choose between giving him up or sharing him, what would I do?

'Dumb question, Chang. Sharing Duo - at least with someone you respect like Yuy - would be infinitely better than losing him.' But how would Heero react to that idea?

Feeling rather as if he had taken a hard throw during a sparring match, Wufei realized that the only times he had ever, *ever* seen Heero genuinely happy had been over the past couple of days. Most of those times had been in Duo's company... but there was also that small smile that *he* had earned. Perhaps... perhaps Heero would not be entirely adverse to sharing either, if that was what would make Duo happy and incidentally allow both of *them* to be happy as well.

Mind whirling, Wufei forced himself to stop speculating for the moment. The greater part of the week remained. He would wait and observe for now. He *could* be mistaken after all.

And if he wasn't... well, he would deal with that if and when the time came. But the simple fact remained that when it came right down to it, sharing Duo was a far, far better outcome than no Duo at all in his life.

Part 18:

"Hey, look! Bumper cars! Cool!" Duo exclaimed. "Let's go on those!" He turned and directed a hopeful look at Heero and Wufei who were close behind him. He grinned from ear to ear as they nodded in willing agreement. For once, all three of them were content to be the teenagers they still - just barely - were. He could hardly believe how much fun they'd been having. A small part of him kept insisting that things were going far too well, something would *have* to go wrong soon, but the rest of him was determined to enjoy this time for all it was worth. To just let himself live in the moment and not worry about tomorrow or the end of the week or anything else.

The Santa Monica Pier's Pacific Park was tiny compared to the amusement park they'd been at - god, was that only *yesterday*? no wonder he'd been so damn tired - but the few rides it had were supposed to be pretty good. Duo carefully stuffed his braid down inside his shirt before climbing into the bumper car; he had no desire whatsoever to get it caught on something. He couldn't keep a grin off his face as the others climbed into cars as well. This was just so much *fun*! 'And the guys aren't just tolerating this - they're having fun too!' he thought happily.

Heero fought off a grin for several moments. 'To hell with it!' he decided abruptly. J wasn't around anymore to tell him emotions were a weakness and punish him for showing any sign of them. Why was he still letting that nasty old man control his life? He let go of his control and allowed the grin to spread across his face. It had slipped past his guard a few times already, but this was the first time he'd consciously *decided* to let it show. It was silly that someone who'd flown a *Gundam* would get so excited over playing around in some silly bumper cars. But that didn't change the fact that he was.

Glancing across the ride, he saw the delighted grin on Duo's face and the eager look on Wufei's. He corrected himself, 'It's silly that *we're* so excited over playing around in some silly bumper cars... But that doesn't change the fact that we *are*!' Maybe it was just the fact that this was such a typical teenage thing to do and yet at the same time was something that they'd never had the *chance* to do before. Or maybe it was because Duo's happiness and enthusiasm was contagious.

It was hard to believe that he was enjoying himself so much. But he *was*. There was no question that Duo was having fun either. And Wufei seemed to be having a good time too. Heero felt a surge of warm gratitude towards the Chinese youth that so frequently partnered him on Preventers missions. 'He was certainly a wonderful partner today!' he thought. If Wufei had not been there to prod him into hugging Duo then coach him through attempting to comfort him, Heero would probably have been still standing there trying to explain himself long after Duo had given up on even listening. 'I didn't have a clue what to do - thank god Wufei did and was willing to help!'

That willingness had been a bit surprising. After all, they were supposed to be rivals. Sure, it could be argued that Wufei had helped him in order to keep Duo from being hurt. But Wufei could have stepped in and comforted Duo himself, leaving Heero out of the situation entirely and quite possibly eliminating any chance of losing Duo to him. But he hadn't, and for that Heero was extremely grateful.

Settling into the bumper car and fastening the safety harness, Wufei was surprised at how much he was looking forward to this bit of silliness. And it *was* silly - not at all the sort of thing that a scholar of the Dragon clan should be looking forward to. But he was.

Just then, Duo caught his eye and pointed from himself to Wufei, then motioned towards Heero with a mischievous grin before raising one eyebrow in inquiry. Wufei laughed and nodded in reply. Obviously Duo wanted to team up against Heero... Of course, the moment they cornered him, Duo would probably signal Heero to go after *him* next. Unless, of course, he teamed up with Heero against Duo first... Wufei grinned in anticipation and slammed down the pedal the instant that the starting bell sounded. This was going to be fun.

***

"Just a sec," Duo called back over his shoulder as he darted off. Heero wondered what he was up to. So far, they'd been on every ride in the park other than the ferris wheel, and that was supposed to be their next stop.

"He's having such a good time," Wufei observed softly. "We *all* are, are we not?"

Heero nodded in silent agreement. They were. This afternoon had gone much like they had originally hoped yesterday's abortive amusement park visit would. He had a sneaking suspicion that the difference today was that both he and Wufei were focussed on making Duo happy, *not* on "winning" him.

Wufei threw a glance towards the arcade area. The small plushy from the previous day was hidden away in his suitcase back at the hotel. Duo hadn't mentioned the prizes again and he hadn't dared offer it to Duo after how badly things had gone. He suspected Duo did not really want a reminder of that day. He had been tempted to simply dispose of the small furry bat with the huge leathery wings, but had ended up keeping it as a reminder to himself of the mistakes he had made both that day and in previous years where Duo was concerned. And he suspected that the small Snoopy wearing a bright red scarf, aviator goggles, and imitation leather cap and jacket that he had seen Heero tuck carefully away was being saved for the same reason. But he thought that perhaps Duo would not mind having a keepsake or two from *this* day.

He wasn't entirely sure it was a good idea, but he thought it was worth the risk. Taking Duo to the arcade area here and winning him a single, carefully chosen item might help soothe the sting of yesterday's debacle. Or it could upset him again. Wufei thought it was important to try though. 'He needs to see that we won't repeat the same mistake. And perhaps if we get him over there with the excuse that we want *him* to win something for *us*, it will be okay.'

Duo came bouncing back just before Wufei could broach the subject with Heero. Instead, he asked Duo, "What are you hiding behind your back?"

With a triumphant grin, Duo produced a pink and blue cone of spun sugar. "Cotton candy!" he proclaimed proudly. He'd had it before at Trowa's circus and knew that while he *did* like it, he didn't want very much of it. It was far too sweet to eat an entire cone. But he thought one cone shared three ways might be about right. 'Especially when shared the way I intend to do it...'

Heero gave the fluffy mass a suspicious look. The name seemed to imply that the brightly coloured stuff was edible, but frankly it didn't look like it.

"Try some!" Duo insisted, holding it out towards Wufei. He waved the cone slightly and ended up misjudging his distance and getting some on the end of Wufei's nose. "Oops, sorry," he laughed. "Just try a tiny taste..."

Mischievously, Wufei caught the waving cone and pushed it back towards Duo, getting some on *his* face.

Heero snickered. Then started to retreat as *two* mischievous looks focussed on *him*. Too late. "What *is* this stuff?" he asked suspiciously after wiping the cotton candy off his chin with his finger.

"Pure sugar," Duo grinned. "Just try it. You won't want much, it's too sweet - that's why I just got one cone for all of us - but it's traditional for amusement parks and circuses and so on." Duo pulled a tuft off with his fingers and offered it to Heero.

Unable to resist Duo's pleading look, Heero started to reach for the bright blue fluff.

"Just open your mouth," Duo instructed.

Heero's eyes widened. That stuff was sticky. How would Duo get it off his fing... Ohh... He opened his mouth obediently, letting Duo put the candy in his mouth before closing his lips gently around Duo's fingers to keep the candy in while Duo pulled his fingers out. As the sickeningly sweet stuff dissolved in Heero's mouth, he decided that he could manage to eat his share if Duo intended to keep feeding it to him that way.

Duo switched hands before pulling another piece off the candy and offering, "Fei?"

Wufei willingly followed Heero's example, then reached out and pulled a bit of the fluffy stuff off and offered it to Duo. He was careful to only take about half as much as Duo had given him. After all, if Heero and he were both going to feed it to Duo, that would give him the same amount as each of them.

Duo grinned in delight before letting Wufei feed him the cotton candy. He'd seen Quatre and Trowa share a cone like this once and he'd thought it would be kind of fun. He'd *hoped* Heero and Wufei would cooperate, but he hadn't been sure. This was the closest thing to flirting that he'd been comfortable trying. He was just glad they were willing to participate.

It didn't take very long for the cone to dwindle down to nothing when it was shared out that way. Duo shivered slightly as Wufei licked the last traces of sugar off of his fingers. They had all gradually gotten a little bit bolder as they went. Simply closing lips around fingers had gradually changed to lightly sucking or licking the candy off. His little cotton candy experiment had been even more successful than he'd hoped. Of course, now they all had sticky fingers and needed to go wash up, but he didn't think any of them would complain.

"Ferris wheel next?" Duo asked brightly once they had washed up.

Wufei said, "Actually, I would like to make one other stop first..."

"Okay. Where to?"

Wufei caught hold of Duo's hand and pulled him along, simply saying, "Over here."

Duo stiffened and tried to drag Wufei to a stop once he realized where they were heading. 'Not the arcade area!' "No! Wufei, *no*!" he insisted, bracing his feet firmly.

"What, you don't want to win your dates any souvenirs?" Wufei asked archly.

Startled, Duo lost his balance and ended up being pulled along again, unresisting this time. He wasn't sure which part surprised him more - Wufei referring to himself and Heero as Duo's dates, or Wufei's suggestion that *he* win something for *them*.

Heero wasn't sure what Wufei was up to at first. He was just about ready to intervene on Duo's behalf when Wufei had made his comment about Duo winning something for *them*. As Duo abruptly stopped resisting, Heero realized that Wufei was trying to replace yesterday's bad memory with a better one. Immediately, he started scanning the booths, looking for just the right prize.

In no time at all, Duo had won a cartoonish owl wearing glasses for Wufei and a falcon wearing aviator goggles for Heero. Neither was exactly what he would have preferred, but virtually all the prizes seemed to be wildlife related. Not a dragon or a pegasus in the lot.

After accepting his souvenir, Wufei asked, "Duo, will you let us win you one thing each?"

Duo hesitated. He didn't *really* think they'd do the same thing again, did he? No... not really... "Alright."

By the time they headed off towards the ferris wheel, Duo had a very silly cartoonish sea urchin in his hand and an amazingly lifelike sea otter tucked under his arm. Heero had actually *apologized* that the sea otter was so large, but there was only one size of sea otter available and he'd thought it was so perfect for Duo that he couldn't resist. Wufei had just smiled before winning him the silly sea urchin despite the fact that it was much smaller.

The large ferris wheel seat easily accommodated all three of them. As the ride slowly moved, Duo relaxed against the two arms behind his back. Heero's arm was around his shoulders while Wufei's was around his waist. All of their plushies were piled in his lap for safe-keeping. Despite his current happiness, Duo fought off a touch of panic at the thought of losing this when he finally confessed his past to them. Maybe... just maybe... they really *did* love him? Maybe even enough that they could overlook his past? He hoped so.

***

They had spent so much time at the Ocean Discovery Centre and Pacific Park that Heero didn't think they should try to make it to Venice Beach. Instead, they headed down to the Ocean Front Walk. It didn't have everything that Venice Beach did, but it *did* have plenty of foodstands and cafes as well as rental booths.

"Close your eyes," Heero instructed Duo.

Wondering just what Heero was up to, Duo obeyed.

"Keep them shut," Heero said as he took possession of the plushies before taking hold of one of Duo's hands while Wufei took the other. Together, they led him along the paved walkway to a rental booth. "Okay, you can open them," Heero said.

"Roller blades?" Duo grinned. Somebody had obviously been listening after all on at least one occasion during the war. He'd thought roller blading looked fun and had happily agreed to go on a dorm floor trip to a rink. Except that the mission they'd been waiting for had come in early and they'd been gone before the trip took place. He gave Heero a happy grin and said, "Cool."

By the time they rented a locker to store their plushies in and got all the safety gear as well as the actual roller blades on, the first faint hints of dusk were beginning to appear. Then they still had to actually learn basic starting and stopping before they could head off down the path, laughing at each other's wobbles and stumbles.

Finally reaching a hotdog stand along the path, they decided it was long past time to get something to eat. If they sat at one of the picnic tables to eat, then headed straight back, they would be back in time to return the equipment before having to pay for another whole hour of use.

Noting how busy the tables were, Heero suggested, "Wufei, why don't you wait here and save a table for us? Duo and I should be able to handle carrying our order back."

Wufei nodded in acknowledgement before turning to look at the tables. Yuck. They were definitely *not* very clean. Making a disgusted face, Wufei perched gingerly on the edge of the table's bench seat. 'I think that I will simply hold my meal in my lap,' he decided. The table was *far* too filthy to consider setting food on it, regardless of how well-wrapped the food might be.

There were quite a few people eating at nearby tables. Someone carrying a half-eaten hotdog sat down at the table next to Wufei's. After a few moments, Wufei's nose twitched. There was a very - pungent - odour in the air. Where was it coming from? A few cautious sniffs narrowed the source down. Turning, he took a good look at the person sitting at the next table. 'He hasn't washed in *days*,' he thought with revulsion. There was absolutely *no* excuse for such poor personal hygiene.

Duo arrived back at the table, wobbling slightly since he had his hands full and couldn't balance as well. "Hey, Fei. Here's yours," he said, handing Wufei a footlong hotdog. "They didn't have enough ready, so Heero waited for his and sent me on back."

Sitting down, Duo casually set his things down on the table. It was pretty dirty, but the food was all covered and it wasn't like he hadn't eaten off of worse surfaces before.

Wufei gaped as Duo nonchalantly sat his food down on the filthy table. "Duo, don't sit your food there! Didn't you look at it? This table is disgusting!"

Suddenly, Duo wasn't too sure he was hungry anymore. His fears regarding Wufei's and Heero's acceptance of his past came back with a rush.

"Got a light?" someone asked from behind Wufei.

Duo looked up to see a dirty, shabbily-dressed man holding out a half-used cigarette. "Sorry, man. I don't," he answered apologetically. 'Guess some things aren't much different wherever you go,' he thought grimly. 'So much for peace fixing everyone's problems. How the hell is L2 ever going to get straightened out when even Earth can't take care of her own homeless?'

The man coughed and staggered as he turned away, lurching and catching himself against Wufei's back. Duo watched closely to make certain that the stumble wasn't a cover for a little sleight-of-hand, but it wasn't.

Wufei cringed as that filthy *person* actually *touched* him. He couldn't even *breathe* with that pungent odour so close to him. As the man finally left, he let out the breath he'd been holding in a rush. "How could you even *breathe* with him there?" he demanded. "And he *touched* me - ugh. How can anyone stand being so *dirty*?"

Duo's eyes dropped to the table. Each word Wufei uttered sent a sharp stab of pain through him. 'He'll never understand...'

Keeping an eye on the man wandering down the path, Wufei was horrified to see him stop and lift something out of a *garbage can* and start *eating* it. "Oh. My. God," he breathed in shocked disbelief. "Duo, did you *see* that? He's eating something out of the *garbage*!! That is absolutely the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my *life*! How could anyone *do* that?!"

Snatching up his untouched food, Duo hastily rose from the table, stumbling in his hurry. "Yeah, well, not everyone has a *choice*!" he spat out before skating off towards the man. Thrusting his food into the man's hands, he said, "Here. Enjoy it," before dashing back along the path towards the rental booth. The only thought in his mind was to get away. Away from Wufei before he blurted out that the same mouth that had licked cotton candy from his fingers mere hours ago had eaten a great many meals out of garbage cans. Before he had to watch Wufei's caring gaze change to one of disgust.

Part 19:

Wufei sat at the table, stunned. What the hell had just happened? Belatedly, he jumped up, nearly falling as he had forgotten that he was still wearing roller blades. "Duo! Duo, wait!" he called vainly after Duo's rapidly moving form.

Returning to the table, Heero heard Wufei's shout and saw Duo speeding off down the path. With a feeling of dread, he demanded, "What happened?! Where's Duo going?"

"I... I don't know! We were sitting at the table and I was talking and then suddenly he just took off!"

"What happened just before that?" Heero urged. He was impatient to follow Duo, but he needed *some* idea what was going on first! Otherwise he might just make whatever was wrong even worse.

"There was this dirty, smelly person who came by the table and asked for a light. Duo said he didn't have one, and the man left," Wufei summarized. He shuddered, adding, "He stumbled against me as he did - ugh! - then walked away and pulled something out of a *garbage can* and started *eating* it! I asked Duo if he saw what the man was doing. It was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen!"

Shit. "Wufei, what *exactly* did you say?" Heero demanded urgently, dumping his food on the table.

Thinking back, Wufei answered, "I said, 'Duo, did you *see* that? He's eating something out of the *garbage*!! That is absolutely the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my *life*! How could anyone *do* that?!' Then he said something about not everyone having a choice and just took off!"

Shit, shit, shit. Heero's suspicions about Duo's past crystallized into certainty. 'Dammit, I should have at least given Wufei a vague idea what I suspected earlier. I *know* he would never have hurt Duo like that if he'd had any idea at all what his words would do...'

Heero yanked Wufei's hotdog and drink away from him and dumped them on the table with his own, then grabbed his arm and dragged him along the path in the direction Duo had fled. "Wufei, you have *no* idea what you just did," he growled, "and that is the *only* reason that I have not knocked you flat on your ass by now."

Wufei stiffened at Heero's tone and tried to wrench his arm out of the iron grip currently towing him along the path at an alarming rate. "What the hell are you talking about, Yuy?" he demanded.

Heero avoided answering the question directly. Instead, he said, "I told you earlier to ask me about L2 later on. Well, here's the brief version.

"The L2 colony cluster is quite simply the worst off of all the colonies. As a whole, it's poor, rundown, dirty, and poorly managed. Some colonies within the cluster are absolute hellholes.

"L2 was notorious for rebelling against the Alliance's stranglehold and it shows. Whole cities are nothing but war zones; buildings that would be condemned and destroyed elsewhere are still in use because they're better than anything else that's available. Hundreds if not thousands of people ranging from small children to the elderly end up living on the streets, scrounging out an existence that's difficult, dirty, and usually very short. They sleep in alleys and broken-down buildings, eat whatever they can scrounge from the garbage or steal."

Heero paused for a moment before moving from fact to conjecture. Conjecture that he was now 99% certain was correct, but conjecture nonetheless. "I think that Duo may have been one of those people."

Wufei stopped struggling against Heero's grip, allowing Heero to tow him along even faster. Oh no. "Oh god. What have I done?"

"Fucked up," Heero answered grimly. "And I have to take some of the blame on this too. I should have taken the time to explain as soon as I realized you had no idea what L2 was like." 'Too many secrets and not enough communication. That's going to have to change and *fast*.'

Meanwhile, Wufei was having similar thoughts. Suddenly, his "wait and see" attitude regarding his suspicion that Duo wanted *both* of them - or rather, *had* wanted both of them before he'd shot off his mouth about something he had no real understanding of, he corrected himself unhappily - seemed like an incredibly *bad* idea. "I don't know if it will even matter now," he said as they neared the rental booth, "but I realized earlier today that Duo doesn't - didn't - want to choose. He wants - wanted - *both* of us."

Wufei nearly fell as Heero jerked them both to a stop. "*What?!*" Heero exclaimed in disbelief.

"He loves and wants both of us. Or *did* before I fucked up. He is - was - only really happy when we're *both* with him," Wufei explained. He hesitated a moment before adding carefully, "And I would not be entirely adverse to such an arrangement."

That shocking revelation led Heero to reevaluate the past few days himself. What Wufei said about Duo was indeed correct. He *was* happiest when they were both there. Heero's own thoughts the previous day - that he wished there was some way for things to work out so that none of them ended up hurt and alone - came back to him. Unorthodox as they were, three-way relationships were not entirely unknown. And sharing Duo would be far better than losing him. And he genuinely liked and respected Wufei; it was not as if he were considering entering a three-way relationship with the man he loved and a complete stranger.

"I would not be either," Heero said simply before turning to cover the last few feet to the rental shop.

After confirming that Duo had indeed already returned his skates, they returned their own. Like most booths along the beach, the rental shop carried some basic beach items such as sunscreen, towels, and totes as a sideline to the rental business. Heero bought a large beach tote to put the plushies in for easier handling.

"You might want a first aid kit too," the clerk suggested. "That friend of yours must've taken a few pretty hard spills; his hands were all scraped up and the safety gear was awfully dirty."

Wufei's face whitened and he hurriedly turned and walked away. Standing well away from the counter, he distantly registered Heero's voice questioning the clerk regarding anything *else* he might have noticed. Like which way Duo had went.

'He hadn't fallen at *all* before. He always managed to catch his balance and stay on his feet. But now, he was too upset and in too much of a hurry to get away. Dammit, Chang, when are you going to learn to keep your damn mouth *shut* about things you know nothing about?!'

O had warned him again and again that being smart didn't mean anything. It was what you did with that intelligence that mattered. And after all this time and all the mistakes he'd made, he *still* hadn't learned his lesson. 'Arrogant. You're still the same arrogant, spoilt brat that you were back then.'

Wufei closed his eyes against the insistent stinging at the backs of them. Would Duo forgive him *again*? He hadn't known that he would hurt Duo with his words; certainly he hadn't *meant* to hurt him. But he'd been judgmental and self-righteous, making assumptions about that man that he'd had no business making. Never stopping to consider that there could be *reasons* for his behaviour. 'If Heero is correct and Duo *did* live on the streets, he will believe that I will react the same way towards *him*. That I'll be disgusted by him. Oh god Duo, I'm sorry!'

What was he going to do? How could he even *begin* to make this up to Duo? 'I love him; it doesn't *matter* what his past was like. I *care* about it because I care about *him*; I need to understand it so that I don't make a mistake like this again; but it certainly doesn't affect the fact that I love him!' Didn't Duo understand that? He'd *told* Duo that he loved him... 'Yesterday...' Wufei realized in shock, eyes snapping open again. 'Yesterday at the amusement park. But... not since then?' Frantically, he went back over the previous afternoon and evening as well as today. Surely he must have said it again at least *once*...

'But I *didn't*,' Wufei finally acknowledged, suddenly feeling very cold and ill.

Satisfied that there was nothing else the clerk could tell him, Heero slipped the recommended first aid kit and several flashlights with batteries into the tote along with the plushies and turned to join Wufei. His brow furrowed in concern as he realized that Wufei had his arms wrapped around himself as if trying to ward off a chill. The other youth's colour wasn't very good either. "Wufei?"

"Heero, have you told Duo that you love him since your explanation yesterday?" Wufei asked quietly, still gazing off into the distance.

"Of cour..." Heero stopped in mid-word. He *had*, hadn't he? A quick review of both days' events said otherwise.

"Fuck," Heero swore, furious at his oversight.

"I haven't either," Wufei admitted in a subdued voice. "Heero, we have to stop doing this. We just keep piling mistake on top of mistake. And Duo's too unsure of us to speak up and tell us what he wants. What he *needs*."

Heero nodded. "Agreed. We have to sit down - all three of us - and talk this out. Tomorrow - shit, tomorrow we're supposed to be doing those demos and training..." he remembered abruptly. Not good. They needed to get this settled before anything *else* went wrong. And he didn't think they'd get everything straightened out tonight. The last traces of sunset were already fading and they were clearly going to need the flashlights he'd bought just to try and find Duo. Taking one out, he handed it to Wufei, then pulled another out for himself.

"In a few hours, it'll be morning in Sanc. You're Une's favourite; call and get her to reschedule the sessions for - Friday, maybe. If she doesn't want to reschedule, then just tell her we're both sick and taking the day off," Heero decided as they started walking along the beach. Une would probably not be very happy with the last minute change in plans, but it couldn't be helped. And since neither of them made a habit of that sort of thing, she probably wouldn't get *too* upset. He hoped. Or they'd end up getting stuck manning the recruitment booth the next time a university held a job fair, one of Une's favourite punishments for those who had pissed her off once too often.

"Okay," Wufei answered. He would not ordinarily be amenable to such dereliction of duty, but under the circumstances, he felt that trying to salvage his relationship with Duo was far, far more important than a few training classes and demonstrations. "Did the clerk know where Duo went?" he asked.

"Just that he headed up the beach in this direction," Heero answered. "Though the clerk *did* mention that there's a cluster of rocks jutting out into the ocean up this way that have a reputation as a great sunset watching spot. Knowing Duo's fondness for sunsets, I would not be surprised to find him there. Have you thought about what you're going to say when we *do* find him?"

Thought? Yes. Decided? No. Wufei told him, "I have not quite decided yet. To some extent, it depends on how he reacts to me." They strode along in silence for a few minutes before Wufei said hesitantly, "Heero... if Duo will let me... will you be hurt if I kiss him? I don't know how else to prove that I'm not disgusted by him... I don't think words are going to be enough..."

Heero's breath caught at the question. He overrode his instinctive reaction that yes, of course he would be hurt, *he* wanted to kiss Duo first, dammit! 'I said I would be willing to share. Can I stand by that decision when the sharing is reality, not just words?' He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, mulling his answer over carefully. Finally, he said, "I don't know. I think you're right; words won't be enough and kissing him is probably the best way to prove your feelings. But..." Heero's voice trailed off for a moment, then he continued, admitting, "But it probably will sting a bit. You do realize that what we're talking about is probably Duo's first kiss, judging by what he said before?"

Stunned, Wufei realized Heero was correct. He hadn't even been thinking about that aspect of things; his only concern had been finding a way to convince Duo that he was not disgusted by him. Before he could say anything, though, Heero continued speaking.

"But maybe it's best that way anyway. You can give Duo *his* first kiss. He can give me *mine*," Heero concluded with a tiny shrug. There would be a great many compromises that would need to be made if they really were going to have a three-way relationship; this was only the first. And both he and Wufei would have to learn to watch the other together with Duo without being hurt or jealous.

"Thank you," Wufei responded softly. Maybe... maybe they really *could* make this work. If, that is, Duo was even still interested in doing so. If he hadn't finally made one mistake too many, hurt Duo once too often, and ruined his own chance at happiness.

As they neared the cluster of rocks that the clerk had mentioned, Heero caught a glimpse of something pale out towards the tip, where the spray from the breaking waves would reach. "Duo was wearing that long-sleeved white shirt over his T-shirt for sun protection. If that's him out there," he pointed towards that light-coloured blur, "he must be soaking wet!' Heero broke into a run, Wufei right behind him.

***

Duo shivered and pulled his legs up against his chest more tightly. He knew that he really should move. Go back to the beach, back to the hotel. Get out of his wet clothes, clean and dress his scraped hands, wrap the wrist he'd probably sprained the last time he fell, pack his things, and get the hell out of Dodge.

But he couldn't quite bring himself to actually *do* it. And now that the sun had completely set, he would have to wait a bit for his eyes to adjust to the dark just to make his way back across the rocks to shore.

'Why am I not on a shuttle back to L2 by now?' There really was no point in staying, bachelor auction contract or not. Why keep torturing himself with glimpses of what might have been his if he just... 'If I just hadn't been a dirty, smelly street rat who lived off what he could steal or pick out of other people's garbage. Might as well wish for the moon; I'd have a better chance of getting it,' he thought bitterly. It was perfectly clear how Wufei would react to his past; he didn't dare hope Heero's reaction would be any better.

'Though his past *was* at least a little closer to mine than Fei's...' No. He had lived on maybes and dreams for too long. It was time to face reality. If Hilde ever found out all his secrets, she probably wouldn't be quite so willing to treat him as her kid brother either.

Duo bent his head forward and pressed his face against his legs again, trying to hold back the tears threatening to break through his control. He hadn't cried since Sister Helen died; he wasn't about to do it now. Just because his dreams of love and a home were dying again, that was no reason to give in and cry...

Crying didn't change anything. It *didn't*.

But as the first sob tore its way out of his chest, Duo realized that it didn't matter. This time, he couldn't stop it. He was too worn down, too cold, too hurt, too *everything*. This time, the tears would not be denied. And he quit trying.

Part 20:

Heero jammed the tote between a couple of rocks. Hopefully it was far enough up the beach that it would be safe there for now. He didn't want it getting in the way while they went clambering over those rocks to find Duo.

As Heero turned to climb up onto the rocks, Wufei reached out and caught hold of his arm. "I think... I think I'd better stay back a bit. If he sees me and tries to run again..." It hurt to admit it, but Duo might take off again if he spotted him. And these jagged, slippery rocks were no place for something like that.

The depth of his sympathy for the pain in Wufei's voice surprised Heero. Impulsively, he pulled Wufei towards him in a one-armed, awkward hug. "You didn't mean to hurt him. Once we've reassured him and he's had a chance to calm down, he'll understand that."

Though initially startled by Heero's move, Wufei was grateful for the awkward attempt at comfort. "I hope so," he responded. "But..."

Heero shook him gently. "No buts. Have a little faith, Wufei. Duo *will* understand. Now come on, let's go get him."

As Heero released him, Wufei said gratefully, "Heero - thank you."

Heero nodded in return, then started climbing up the rocks with Wufei close behind him.

***

Duo's throat hurt, his chest ached, and his eyes burned. He was cold and exhausted; yet he still couldn't stop the great, gasping sobs choking him. He needed to get back to shore, but at this point he wasn't even sure if he *could*. For one thing, his vision was too blurred with tears to see the way back over the rocks even if there was enough moonlight to guide him. And he was so stiff and sore and tired that climbing and jumping back the way he had came seemed an impossible task.

A faint sound carried over the noise of the breaking waves and his own sobs. 'Oh god,' he thought in horror, 'it can't be... please, no...' The sound reached him again. Heero, calling his name.

Duo fought desperately to get his crying under control. 'I can't let him see me like this...' But all he managed to do was turn the tearing sobs into sobs interspersed with painful hiccups. His control was shot all to hell and he was out of time to rebuild it.

Coming up behind Duo, Heero called his name again. He didn't want to startle him. The rocks were too slippery to be jumping around on. He caught a glimpse of a pale face, wet hair straggling across it, as Duo glanced back at him, then quickly hid his face against his legs again. 'Oh Duo...' he thought unhappily. 'Why haven't you come back to shore?' The spray from the waves was surprisingly heavy and cold, a periodic shower rather than a mist. As he neared Duo, he realized that the slender form hunched before him was shaking. And not just with cold, either. 'Duo's... crying?!'

He had never, *ever* seen Duo cry. Not when he was beaten, or shot, or being stitched up. 'But *we've* managed to do this to you...' And Heero knew damn well that it was "we", not "Wufei". This wasn't *just* a result of Wufei's unknowingly hurtful words. This was a result of the past few days filled with glimpses of happiness interspersed with mistake after hurtful mistake on the part of himself and Wufei. 'And that's without even taking into consideration the two years before that of believing that we didn't want him...'

Heero shot a quick glance back over his shoulder. Wufei was standing and waiting nearly halfway back to shore. Ready to join Heero if needed, but keeping his distance until they were certain that his presence would not cause Duo to bolt again.

"Duo," Heero repeated, reaching out to touch Duo's hunched shoulder. Duo flinched away from his touch, sending a sharp stab of pain through Heero's heart. "Duo, look at me," he said firmly.

Slowly and reluctantly, Duo raised his head and turned it to meet Heero's eyes. He was prepared to see disdain there; after all, Heero had found him bawling like a baby and soaking wet because he was too foolish to get away from the water. Instead, he found sorrow and regret. "What?" he tried to ask, but it came out as a croak instead; his throat was raw and his voice hoarse from crying.

"Wufei told me what happened. Duo, I've *been* to L2; I know what at least some parts of it are like," Heero said.

'Oh god, he's *guessed*,' Duo thought in sudden panic. Despite his earlier determination not to count on a positive reaction from Heero, some small trace of hope had lingered. Hope that, if he handled his explanation just right, Heero *might* possibly be able to overlook his past. If Heero had figured it out on his own, any chance of that was probably gone.

"Duo, how could you possibly think that anything in your past would affect my feelings for you? Is your opinion of me really that low? Do you really think that I'm that shallow?" Heero genuinely *was* a bit hurt that Duo was so ready to assume the worst of him. He knew that his own past actions might not have left Duo with much faith in him but it still hurt to have that lack of faith confirmed.

Duo's eyes went wide at Heero's pained questions. He had never thought of it *that* way. He shook his head frantically, his voice still refusing to cooperate. It was *his* past that was the problem, not their reactions!

"I love *you* for the wonderful, caring person you are. I'd like to know about the events that shaped that person, but knowing about them certainly won't make me stop loving you," Heero told him firmly.

Heero was abruptly nearly knocked out of his crouch and onto his back as Duo flung himself against his chest, clutching desperately at Heero's shirt and hiding his face against Heero's neck. Heero managed to keep from going over backwards but only barely. He eased himself down onto his knees and brought his arms up around Duo, gently rubbing his back the way that Wufei had shown him earlier that afternoon. 'God, he's *soaked*! And so cold... We've got to get him back to the hotel and warmed up...' Heero beckoned for Wufei to join them.

"Duo, Wufei didn't know anything about L2 until I told him a few things after you ran off. He didn't mean to hurt you. He's afraid that you'll never forgive him; that he's lost you for good," Heero said carefully. "I told him that he was wrong; that you would forgive him; that he hadn't ruined his chance with you."

Duo's grasp on Heero's shirt tightened and he pulled his face away from Heero's neck, straining to see Heero's face in the dimming light from the discarded flashlight beside him. He was certain that he could not have heard Heero correctly. 'Fei's afraid I won't forgive him? He still *wants* me? What did Heero *tell* him about L2?' he wondered dazedly. 'Does he really understand how ugly my past is?' Then, an instant later, '*Heero* told *Wufei* that he hadn't lost his chance with me? But...' If Heero loved him and wanted him, why would he try to reassure *Wufei*? Unless... A faint spark of hope flickered back to life. Had they somehow figured out what he really wanted?

Bringing his lips very close to Duo's ear, Heero said, "You don't have to choose, Duo." He pulled away slightly, just in time to catch a glimpse of Duo's face as it lit up with hope.

Wufei arrived just in time to see that same flare of hope cross Duo's face. Dropping to his knees beside the other two, he said, "Duo?"

Duo flinched at Wufei's voice and hid his face against Heero's neck again. Despite Heero's encouraging words, he kept remembering the look on Wufei's face and the tone of his voice as he said "*disgusting*" and imagining that look and tone being directed at *him*.

Pain lanced through Wufei as Duo cringed away from him and hid his face against Heero. He gave Heero a despairing look. Heero glared at him and mouthed, "Have faith." Drawing a steadying breath, Wufei reached out and touched Duo's shoulder lightly. "Duo, please... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you! Please, give me a chance to make it up to you..."

'Fei sounds upset... Maybe...' Duo turned his head and cautiously peeked through his wet, tangled bangs at Wufei. With two flashlights now providing light, he could see a bit more clearly. And Wufei *did* seem pretty upset...

Duo shifted slightly in Heero's arms, turning a bit more towards Wufei and slowly raising his head. He was grateful that the sobs had finally died down while Heero held him and he now only had the occasional hiccup left to embarrass him. Though he was pretty sure that his red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks would clearly give away what he'd been doing anyway.

'He's been *crying*...' Wufei realized, horrified. 'I made Duo *cry*...' He had never seen Duo cry before, no matter how badly he'd been injured, no matter how badly awry a mission had gone. 'But everyone has a breaking point... He was already half-sick from tension this morning... Then this afternoon and evening had been so wonderful; we were all so happy and relaxed...' His words would have been a sucker-punch coming on top of the fun they'd all been sharing. "Duo, I'm sorry. I had no business being so judgmental about a person I knew nothing about, a person in a *situation* I knew nothing about. I certainly never meant any of what I said to apply to *you* - but I had no right saying it about *anyone*."

Encouraged by the fact that Duo was still listening, Wufei raised his hand to gently brush dripping strands of chestnut out of Duo's eyes. "I am not disgusted by you, Duo. There is nothing you could tell me about your past that would make me stop loving you."

Duo closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against Wufei's hand, pressing it in turn against Heero's shoulder. Wufei sounded sincere. And his touch was as gentle and caring as before. Maybe...

"I love you and I always will. Duo, may I kiss you?" Wufei asked, then held his breath, hoping desperately that his gamble would pay off. That Duo would take the kiss as the reassurance and promise it was meant to be.

Duo's eyes flew open at Wufei's request. Wufei wanted to kiss him? *Now*? When he was soaked with saltwater spray and dirty and messy from falling and crying? He opened his mouth to reply, then remembered whose arms he was in. Heero had said that he didn't have to choose, but surely letting Wufei kiss him while he was literally in Heero's arms was a bit much to ask...

Heero felt Duo tense in his arms in response to Wufei's question. He also felt the indrawn breath that was choked off before turning into an answer. Making a guess at the reason, he repeated, "Duo, you don't have to choose. It's okay. I promise. You can give me *my* first kiss, okay?"

"Okay," Duo managed to choke out. He could hardly even recognize his own voice, it was so rough and hoarse. And that single word was enough to leave him fighting off a cough as his raw throat protested. Meeting Wufei's eyes, he simply nodded, not daring to try to speak again.

This was going to be - damn awkward. Wufei gave Heero an apologetic look. Duo had a death-grip on a handful of Heero's shirt and didn't seem to intend to let go. Which meant that he was going to have to lean in front of Heero and kiss Duo while he was still in Heero's arms.

Heero gave Wufei a reassuring if slightly wry smile as he shifted Duo so that he could move one arm out of the way. Despite his earlier expectation that it would sting to see Wufei kiss Duo, he really wasn't going to mind what was about to happen. Not if it took the pain out of both Duo's and Wufei's eyes and voices. He had not been surprised by how much he felt Duo's pain. But it *was* surprising how much it hurt to see Wufei's. He had not expected that. It raised questions that he was not prepared to consider too closely just yet.

Wide-eyed, Duo watched Wufei's face for any sign of hesitation or revulsion. He *wanted* to believe everything was going to be okay. That both Heero and Wufei still loved him and wanted him, regardless of his past. But after the number of times he'd let himself get his hopes up only to have them dashed again, it was damn hard to believe.

Inching closer until his knees were pressing tightly against Heero's, Wufei leaned over. The anxiety in Duo's eyes drove him to repeat firmly, "I love you," before pressing his lips to Duo's. He was afraid for a moment that he would overbalance and end up falling on Duo, but strong fingers were suddenly gripping his shoulder and supporting him. 'Heero...' Trusting Heero to look after the practical end of things, Wufei concentrated on trying to pour all of his love for Duo into the kiss. Trying to show Duo how much he cared. Yet it remained a closed-mouth kiss. No sucking or licking or nibbling. No seeking tongue or teasing teeth. Just lips moving gently against lips. This kiss had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with love and tenderness.

Duo's lips softened and responded to Wufei's kiss. Once it became clear that Wufei genuinely *did* want to kiss him, Duo had feared that Wufei would move too fast, ask for more than he could give right now. He was just beginning to accept that he was loved and wanted; he needed time to adjust to that knowledge and to restore some of his faith in that love. Time to rebuild his battered trust.

Wufei's kiss, chaste but warm and tender, reassured Duo that he would have that time. That there was no rush; they loved each other and that was all that mattered right now. Everything else could wait until the time was right.

As Wufei finally drew back from Duo, he said once more, "I love you, Duo." Heero's fingers left his shoulder and he abruptly became very aware of the hardness of the rock under his knees and the cold seeping into him as the wind blew across his wave-dampened clothing. He realized with a start just how cold Duo's lips had been, how cold and wet *Duo* must be. "We need to get back to the hotel and get warmed up," he said, struggling to rise on stiff and uncooperative legs. Once standing, he held out a hand to help Duo up.

Duo reluctantly released his handful of Heero's shirt, caught hold of Wufei's hand, and tried to stand. "Tried" being the operative word. He made it halfway up before quite simply running out of energy. He sank back to the rock on suddenly rubbery legs. 'Oh *shit*,' he thought wearily. "How the hell am I going to make it back if I can't even stand up?" he muttered, keeping his voice low to avoid irritating his raw throat.

Having briskly rubbed the circulation back into his own legs, Heero rose and offered his hand to Duo as well. Together, he and Wufei managed to haul Duo to his feet again, but it became clear after only a few feet that he simply didn't have the energy left for this. "Look, we can either keep hobbling along and get back to shore in an hour or so," Heero pointed out, "or you can let me carry you and you'll be back at the hotel enjoying a nice warm bath by then."

Utterly humiliated, Duo gave in. "A warm bath sounds awfully good about now..." he croaked out hoarsely. As Heero went to lift Duo into his arms, he added, "Heero, just go ahead and use a fireman's lift. I'll feel like an idiot anyway, at least you'll be able to move faster and balance better that way."

Heero paused before following Duo's instructions. Looking Duo straight in the eyes, he said firmly, "Duo, needing help and accepting it doesn't make you an idiot. Denying that you need it and refusing it when it's offered does. After all, you're not going around setting your own broken bones, are you?" he teased.

Duo choked off a snicker. He was a little bit afraid that if he started laughing, he might not be able to stop. "No, but I *have* been using a wrist that's probably sprained," he admitted, triggering off a bout of coughing as his throat protested. "Bent it the wrong way the last time I fell on the way back to the rental place."

Wufei winced at the reminder of how upset Duo had been. Even if Duo had forgiven him, it would be a long time before he forgave himself for his ill-advised words and the hurt they'd caused.

***

Back at the hotel, it didn't take long to get Duo into that warm bath. Heero waited outside the door in case he needed help while Wufei took a quick shower in the suite's other bathroom. Then Heero went off to shower while Wufei helped Duo wash his saltwater-laden hair in the sink. Trading off again, Wufei headed off to call Une then to the kitchenette to heat up some canned soup since none of them had actually eaten their evening meal. Meanwhile, Heero tended to Duo's scraped hands and wrapped his sore and swollen wrist.

"You still need to tell us about your past, you know," Heero said quietly as he finished wrapping Duo's wrist. "Not tonight - your throat's too sore and you're exhausted. But we *do* need to know, if only so that we don't end up accidentally hurting you again."

Duo closed his eyes, then nodded. He wasn't looking forward to dredging up even more old memories, but Heero was right.

"We're cancelling the training and demos for tomorrow - no, actually, it's today now - so that we can all get some of this straightened out. We need to work out exactly what each of us wants and needs from this relationship if we're going to make it work. Oh, and Wufei has a surprise for the evening, so you'll want to be rested up," Heero continued. Catching Duo's anxious look, he assured him, "You'll like it. And all three of us are going - Wufei bought me a ticket too, even before he figured out that you didn't want to have to choose between us."

Wufei returned with the soup just then and there was silence for a while as they all ate. Duo ate almost mechanically, mulling over a request he would like to make. It wasn't exactly a *need*, and he didn't want either of them to take it the wrong way, but... Reaching a decision, Duo rose and found a pen and paper. Quickly, before he could lose his nerve, he scribbled out a note. He didn't think his voice was up to this much explanation; particularly not if he wanted it to recover enough to talk about his past later on. He handed the note to Heero and waited anxiously.

Heero read it through, then handed it to Wufei before nodding in response.

Wufei read the note as well, then said, "Of course, Duo. You have only to ask, you know." He smiled warmly and added, "We love you and want you to be happy. Unfortunately, neither of us has been doing very well at that so far. It will make things a great deal easier for all of us if you *do* ask."

Duo nodded in acknowledgement. He didn't think there were a lot of things that were important enough to him to actually make a point of asking for; but he would try to keep Wufei's request in mind. This time though, the request *had* been important to him. He was trying very hard to believe Heero's and Wufei's assurances; but it was difficult. This - would help. He hoped. As long as they really understood what he was asking.

A short while later, Duo lay in bed, tensely waiting. Had they understood? As first Heero, then Wufei, came into the room wearing jogging pants and t-shirts and slipped into bed on either side of him, Duo gradually relaxed. The amount of clothing that they were wearing when he knew perfectly well that they usually only slept in boxers confirmed that they had indeed understood what he wanted. That he wanted them all to sleep together. *Just* sleep. Nothing more.

Curling up with his head pillowed on Heero's shoulder and Wufei tucked against his back, Duo drifted off to sleep with real hope in his heart. Hope that maybe, just maybe, everything really *was* going to work out okay. That those he loved *did* love him in return. That they *could* make a home and a life together. Maybe...

- tbc -