4-12-2003

Title: Winning Duo
Parts: 21-30 / 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 21:

Wufei woke with an unfamiliar warm weight across his chest. At first his sleep-muddled mind couldn't make sense of the odd sensation. Then a rush of memory had him forcing his eyes open to gaze in wonder at the chestnut head pillowed on his chest. He half lifted one hand, wanting to smooth the wisps of hair that had escaped from their confining braid, then forced himself to set it down again. Duo needed the sleep. And he... he needed to just enjoy a moment he had been afraid he would never get to experience.

'So many mistakes,' Wufei thought sorrowfully. 'So damn many fucking mistakes...' His chest tightened painfully at the memory of seeing Duo's distraught, cold, and wet form huddled in the dark the night before. Of the decision that he would stay back rather than risk sending Duo fleeing them both. The agonizing wait while Heero carefully approached Duo. Duo cringing away from Heero's touch, only to fling himself into Heero's arms moments later. His own simultaneous relief that Duo had accepted Heero and fear that the same acceptance would not extend to him.

'When Duo flinched from me and hid his face against Heero, I thought it was truly over. That I had hurt him too badly for him to ever forgive me. I feared that even trying to explain would only hurt him more. Thought that perhaps I should simply let him go. But Heero...' Heero had not let him give up. And Duo *had* forgiven him, had even let Wufei kiss him. Kiss him in Heero's arms, with Heero's full understanding and cooperation.

Wufei turned his head to look across the bed. Heero's back was pressed against Duo's and his even breathing suggested that, like Duo, he was still asleep.

Wufei let his eyes rest on Heero's broad shoulders for a few moments. 'There is so much more to him than I had ever guessed. Had someone told me a few days ago that I would be sharing a bed and sharing *Duo* with Heero Yuy, I would have thought them insane. I always knew that there had to be more to Heero than "the Perfect Soldier" - but I never made the effort to find out how *much* more.' Heero had been incredibly understanding and supportive, explaining his mistake and helping fix it rather than decking him for hurting Duo so badly. Wufei did not know if *he* would have kept as cool a head had the situation been reversed. He had a regrettable tendency towards impulsive action when his emotions were strong.

'And that may present a problem when Duo tells us about his past,' Wufei realized. 'Heero's brief explanation of L2 leaves me with the distinct feeling that I am going to be angry at a great many people by the time Duo's story has been told. If Duo thinks that I'm angry with *him*...' That would be a *very* bad thing. Very, *very* bad. Wufei resolved to try extremely hard to keep his temper under control.

Duo shifted, snuggling a bit closer to Wufei with an indistinct murmur. Wufei reached out and tugged the blanket up over Duo's shoulder, suspecting that he was perhaps a bit cold. Which brought a new worry to mind. They had all been thoroughly damp and chilled by the time they left the beach last night; but Duo had been soaking wet, cold, and exhausted. 'I hope he does not end up getting sick. More than enough things have gone wrong already, we do not need that added to the list!'

Heero woke much more gradually than usual, slowly becoming aware of the warmth against his back. He puzzled over that oddity for a few moments before the events of the previous evening returned to him. He could scarcely believe that he had made it through all of that without adding any new mistakes of his own to the mess. If he hadn't had that little tutorial on comforting from Wufei earlier in the afternoon, he doubted that things would have turned out quite so well. He would have frozen when Duo clung to him; Duo would have thought he was being rejected again; and... Heero shuddered and firmly put an end to that line of thought. It hadn't happened like that; best to not think too closely about all the things that could have gone wrong. There were enough things that could *still* go wrong to worry about.

Carefully rolling over without disturbing Duo, Heero discovered that Wufei was also awake and gazing a bit disbelievingly at the head pillowed on his chest. He didn't bother resisting the tiny smirk that tugged at the corners of his mouth. He knew that he had probably had a similar look on his face last night - or rather, earlier this morning to be more accurate - when Duo had barely let him get in the bed before curling against him and resting his head on Heero's shoulder. After all the regrets and wishes and dreams, having the reality right there was a little hard to believe.

'Odd. Instead of feeling jealous that Duo is curled up against Wufei this morning, I am - almost content?' Heero wondered silently. Almost content because although Duo was curled up against Wufei this morning, he had curled up against Heero last night? Or because he was tucked snugly against Duo's back? Or because...

Heero shied away from that last thought, then forced himself to face it. 'Or am I almost content because, while I don't feel as deeply about Wufei as I do about Duo, I *do* care about and respect him and seeing him happy as well takes most of the sting out of knowing that Duo's affections are not solely mine?' He considered the possible implications of that thought and discovered that they weren't *quite* as disturbing as they had seemed when they first occurred to him last night.

Checking his watch, Heero was shocked to discover that it was nearly noon already. Evidently Duo hadn't been the only tired one. Part of him wanted to get up, get dressed, and go buy some groceries so that they could fix their own meal. He would prefer that they be able to stay here in their suite until it was time to go out for the evening. They had a lot of talking to get through and he would really prefer that it *not* end up happening in a public place this time.

But at the same time, Heero thought it would be best if they were both still there when Duo woke up. 'If he wanted us here with him badly enough to come right out and *ask*, I think he would be very hurt to waken with one or both of us gone.' And Duo *must* have wanted it very badly indeed to have actually requested that they all share a bed. After all, he had not been making *any* requests up till now. Heero couldn't help but think that it was almost a bit of a test. Maybe not a conscious one, but...

With that thought in mind, Heero discarded any notion of getting up. And he knew Wufei wasn't going anywhere either. Trying to would almost certainly wake Duo up; something that was *not* an option after how exhausted he had been last night.

Wufei was relieved to see Heero settle down and tuck himself a bit more snugly against Duo's back. For a moment, he had feared Heero intended to get up and that would *not* have been a wise choice. 'Duo needs the reassurance of us both being here when he wakes. We've damaged his faith in a relationship with either of us so badly; it will take time for him to learn to trust our love.' And they were going to have to be careful not to move too fast. To make sure that Duo didn't end up believing that they were more interested in sex than in building a life together. His comments that day at the amusement park had made it clear that that was one of his fears. 'The wait will only make it all the sweeter when we *do* reach that stage. And merely being *with* Duo, holding him or having him cuddled against me like this feels pretty damn wonderful after all this time.'

Duo didn't want to wake up. *Wouldn't* wake up. If he did, he was very much afraid that he would wake to find himself cold, wet, miserable, and alone, laying on a rock after crying himself to sleep. That he would wake to find that everything else that had happened had been just a dream. 'It can't have been real. I *never* get what I want. Why would I start doing so when it's something so important to me?' But... The surface under his cheek was warm and rose and fell evenly. And the steady beat of a heart was clearly audible. And the warmth against his back felt very much like a living, breathing body too.

Hardly daring to hope, Duo slowly opened one eye a crack to confirm that he was in his bed at the hotel, not on a rock jutting out into the ocean. Then maybe... "It's real?" he breathed softly.

Wufei and Heero exchanged pained glances at the hesitant question. "Yes, Duo, it's real," Wufei said gently. "I'm here and I love you." He stroked his hand over the mussed head still resting on his chest.

"And I love you too," Heero added softly.

"I'm so very, very sorry for all the mistakes I've made. All the hurt I've caused you," Wufei said. "I want to spend the rest of my life making up for that."

Heero contributed, "I just want to make you happy."

Duo's breath caught sharply and he fought a brief battle with tears. This time, unlike last night, he emerged victorious. He boosted himself up on his knees and twisted around to see both Heero's and Wufei's faces. He tried to tell them that he loved them too - but the words wouldn't come. "I... I..." He just couldn't get them out. Not right now. "I can hardly believe this is real. It seems too good to be true," Duo finally substituted, summoning up a grin.

"Believe it," Wufei said softly but firmly. He stroked his fingers gently over Duo's cheek in a caress that was rapidly becoming a habit.

Duo leaned into the touch willingly, his grin softening into a more genuine smile. "I'll try..." he answered honestly. That was the best he could do for now. He'd been disappointed too many times to simply accept that everything had changed; that everything was going to be okay.

Heero watched and wished that he could make those little gestures that seemed to mean so much to Duo. That he knew *how* to make those little gestures. And a part of him wished as well that Duo would touch *him* like that. The way that Duo responded to it made him think it must feel pretty nice. 'You had your chance during the war and ruined it, Yuy. You will be lucky if you can *ever* convince Duo to take the initiative in touching you again. It isn't *his* fault that you now crave the very thing you fought so hard against accepting back then.' Heero firmly pushed away that wish to be on the receiving end of a little comfort - he'd lived his whole life without it, it wouldn't kill him to continue to do so - and made a mental note to talk to Wufei about how to figure out when and how to try touching Duo like that as right now he was uncertain of a million little details such as how much pressure to apply. Had Wufei not given him an example of how to rub Duo's back, he would have done so more quickly and firmly like a brisk massage, and he did not think that would have had the appropriate comforting effect after feeling the difference. He firmly squashed the traitorous little thought that maybe Wufei would demonstrate some other gentle touches for him the same way that he had shown him how to rub Duo's back comfortingly.

"Heero? What's wrong?" Duo asked. Heero had looked distinctly wistful as he watched Wufei stroke Duo's cheek. He hoped that Heero wasn't changing his mind about him not having to choose.

Heero forced a small smile and answered, "Nothing. Just thinking about what our options are for lunch."

Quickly following Duo's concerned look, Wufei caught a glimpse of the look on Heero's face too before the other youth managed to banish it. "Weren't you the one who said we needed to talk things out?" he said pointedly.

"It's nothing," Heero insisted.

"Yuy..." Wufei growled.

Heero flinched. Wufei reverting to calling him by his last name *hurt*. He swung himself out of bed in one smooth motion and said evenly, "I don't know about either of you, but I would like to get dressed and get something to eat. I believe that the hotel restaurant offers breakfast items all day; I will be going down in about fifteen minutes if you would like to join me."

Heero walked quickly off to the other bedroom, not wanting to give away too much of what he was feeling. He needed to get his emotions back under control. Maybe not as much as what J had always insisted on, but he would have to put a partial wall back up. He had to at least be able to control the hurt at Wufei's resumed distance and the yearning for touch. 'I *want* it, yes. I want to know what that feeling is that makes Duo lean into a caress like that. I want to know what makes it a "caress", not just a touch. I want to be able to give that to Duo. And I would like to have it given to me. But while I *need* to know how to give that to Duo, I don't *have* to have it for myself. I've lived without it up till now, I can continue to do so.' It would, however, be difficult, he admitted, now that he had at least a vague idea what he was missing.

He finished changing and was ready to go down to the restaurant in well under the fifteen minutes he had specified. Was there any point in waiting? The low murmur of voices from the other room and the fact that Wufei had not come to their room to get dressed led to the conclusion that neither of them was even beginning to get ready. He might as well go down alone now as wait five minutes for people who obviously weren't planning to come with him.

Heero closed his eyes and tried to set the hurt and loneliness aside again. He had deliberately broken down his defences, allowed his emotions free rein, tried to be more open, knowing that he would need to do so in order to have any chance of making Duo happy. And he had, for the most part, succeeded. Had found that there were benefits beyond simply making Duo happy. That he could have fun and enjoy himself too. But the price was that he had left himself vulnerable. Open to hurt and loneliness, things that he had always been able to set aside with at least reasonable success before. Now - he couldn't seem to do it.

***

"Fei?" Duo said as Heero left the room. "What..." His voice trailed off uncertainly.

Wufei blinked in astonishment. Heero had - flinched? - when he called him Yuy? 'But I call him that all the time...' No, he realized suddenly. No, he *used* to call him that all the time. And Heero *used* to call him "Chang". But over the past few days, they had both almost entirely dropped that habit, using each other's first names instead. 'I don't think Heero has called me "Chang" since we were at the amusement park that first day. And the only two occasions yesterday that *I* called him "Yuy" were when I was - unhappy - with him.'

Remembering the first of those occasions, at the aquarium while Heero was at a loss as to how to comfort Duo, Wufei also realized what that wistful look just now might have been about. "Duo, I know that you've been upset and maybe you haven't had a chance to really *think* about what Heero said the other day. Do you realize that he doesn't touch you and comfort you because he doesn't know *how*? Because no one has ever done that for *him*?"

Duo's eyes went wide with shock. He *hadn't* realized that. 'I've been too busy feeling sorry for myself and jumping to conclusions to really and truly *think* about what *either* Heero or Wufei said,' he thought disgustedly. "But... at the aquarium, he *did* hug me and rub my back... And again last night..."

Wufei admitted, "He was completely lost at the aquarium and asked me what to do. It's not that he's unwilling, Duo, he honestly doesn't know what to do and is afraid of making a mistake if he simply tries to guess."

That explained the aquarium, then. And Heero had really just done the same thing again later that night, come to think of it. "So, just now, he wasn't really reconsidering what he said about me not having to choose? He was just maybe feeling a bit left out?"

Wufei nodded and added, "And I may have hurt his feelings by calling him 'Yuy'. We have been..." He hesitated, searching for the best way to express this. Somehow, "becoming friends" seemed - inadequate. "We have been becoming much closer over the past few days and my return to a more distant form of address was - thoughtless."

If Heero and Wufei had become that much closer this quickly, then maybe Quatre *had* read them correctly, Duo thought. Maybe they *would* learn to love each other too and they could have a real three-way relationship, not just "share" him.

And if Heero really hadn't had *any* experience with touch as a form of comfort... 'God, that's *awful*. But then, who *would* have hugged and comforted him? *J*? Hah! As if! And J got hold of him pretty young... No wonder he said he'd missed me touching him after I quit! He'd probably just started to get used to it by then,' Duo realized.

Hearing steps heading towards the hall door, Duo hurtled out of bed. He didn't want Heero to have to go down and eat all by himself, especially not if he was feeling hurt and left out already.

Part 22:

"Heero, wait!" Duo called, rushing out into the sitting area of the suite.

Heero stopped with one hand on the doorknob, his back still facing the room. "What is it, Duo?" he asked, carefully keeping his voice level. He did not want Duo to think that he was angry with him because he wasn't. He didn't blame Duo for preferring to stay and talk with Wufei rather than go down to the restaurant with him. Wufei was better at casual conversation as well as being more able to give Duo the contact he seemed to crave. 'But I *will* get better at it,' Heero promised himself. 'I *will* learn how to give Duo what he needs to make him happy. I *have* to.' "Did you want me to bring you something to eat when I come back?"

Staring at Heero's back, Duo hesitated. A few moments ago, it had seemed obvious what he needed to do. 'Just run out here, grab Heero's hand, and drag him back into my room to wait while I got dressed. Maybe even get him to do my hair for me while Fei got ready; my wrist hurts enough today that I'd rather not do it myself. But...'

But it wasn't nearly that easy when facing Heero's stiff back. It reminded Duo too much of all the times in the past that he'd tried to touch Heero and ended up getting pushed away, whether verbally or physically or both. Heero had never actually physically hurt him when he pushed him away; but the emotional hurt was hard to forget. "I... I'm not ready yet. Would you mind waiting a few more minutes while I get dressed?" he asked. Hurriedly, before he could completely lose his nerve, Duo added, "And maybe you could help me with my hair while Fei gets ready? My wrist is kinda sore still..."

'Does he really want to come down with me? Or does he just want to get something to eat?' Heero let his hand slip off of the doorknob and turned to face Duo. "You don't have to come down. I can bring something back for you," he said as Wufei entered the room too. "For," he hesitated, uncertain whether to say Wufei or Chang, then avoided the issue by simply saying, "for both of you."

"I'd rather eat together," Duo answered. He wasn't quite sure - did Heero *want* to be left alone right now? Or did he just want to be sure Duo really wanted to come along?

"If you help Duo with his hair, it really won't take us long to get ready, Heero," Wufei added. "I would prefer that we all dine together as well."

"If that's what everyone wants..." Heero said. He didn't really *want* to go down by himself. 'Wufei called me "Heero" this time... Why now and not before? Does he consider me a close friend or not?' He didn't know *what* to think.

Duo grinned in relief and automatically reached out to catch hold of Heero's hand. He nearly let go again when Heero stiffened, but Heero's fingers curled carefully around his before he could. "Come on, then," he urged, tugging Heero towards his room.

'Idiot! Duo actually took your hand and you froze! You almost blew that one, Yuy - he was going to let go and he might not have tried again,' Heero thought as he followed Duo into the bedroom. He was glad he'd managed to unfreeze quickly enough to keep that from happening. He just wasn't *used* to being touched and it usually took him a moment to respond appropriately. But after all the times he'd rejected Duo in the past, there was no reason that Duo would understand the difference.

"It'll only take me a minute to change," Duo promised, releasing Heero's hand and hurriedly locating a pair of jeans and a shirt. He darted off to the bathroom, calling over his shoulder, "I'm not sure where my brush is. It's not in here; maybe you can find it? I think Fei was the last one to have it last night..."

Thinking back, Heero was pretty sure that Wufei had been brushing Duo's hair out in the sitting area. Maybe it was still there. A quick look around located the brush under one of the throw pillows on the couch. He carried it back into Duo's room, arriving just before Duo returned.

"Oh good, you found it," Duo said when he spotted the brush. "Umm, you don't mind doing my hair, do you Heero? 'Cause I *can* do it myself if you'd rather not..."

"I don't mind," Heero answered. As Duo took a seat in the chair, Heero continued softly, "I don't mind at all." He didn't know what or why, but he did know that Duo's hair meant *something* important to him. Duo allowing him to handle it meant a lot to him. 'And that's without even considering the fact that I love the way it feels,' he thought as he slipped the tie off the end of the unravelling braid. Heero hesitated, uncertain how to go about this. He had braided Duo's hair for him the other day, finally getting to make use of a skill he had painstakingly taught himself in one of his more optimistic moments. But he had never brushed it before. And there was so *much* of it. He didn't think that he could just drag the brush through it the way that he did his own...

Duo couldn't help smiling at the half-reverent tone Heero had used. 'I guess he *does* like my hair,' he thought happily. *Most* people did, but he'd been a little bit afraid that Heero still considered it the impractical nuisance he'd called it during the war. 'Wonder why he hasn't started brushing yet? It's been a good minute or two since he took off the tie... He hasn't even finger-combed out what's left of the braid...' Duo twisted to look up at Heero, who had a rather lost expression on his face. "Heero? Is something wrong?" he asked curiously.

"I... I don't know where to start," Heero admitted, feeling very foolish.

'Shit. Of course. Fei knew how to brush it out because his hair's long too. Heero's never dealt with long hair before!' "Yeah, it's a little overwhelming," Duo grinned. "Don't worry about it - I'll talk you through it. Just start by using your fingers to untangle what's left of the braid, then you can start brushing. Make sure to start at the bottom and work your way up. That makes it easier to get the tangles out and causes less breakage too."

Heero followed Duo's directions, being very careful not to pull. It took less time than he'd expected to get Duo's hair completely brushed out. He hated to stop brushing; but he reluctantly set the brush down and started to braid.

Duo was surprised at how gently Heero brushed out his hair. He pulled on it harder when he did it himself. But then, if Heero was unsure of himself, he supposed that he *would* be extra careful. As Heero set the brush aside and started to separate the hair into sections for braiding, Duo said curiously, "When you braided my hair the other day you did a really good job Heero, like you'd had lots of practice at it. How'd you get so good at braiding?"

Heero hesitated before answering, "I used to imagine you letting me do this; so when I finally decided to try and see if there was any chance that you were still interested in me, I bought a book on different types of braiding and found the one that looked like I remembered your braid did. Then I bought some really thin yarn and practised." Heero felt as if his face was on fire with embarrassment. He had hoped Duo wouldn't ask him that question. Practising braiding yarn in hopes that someday the one he loved would let Heero braid his hair just sounded so totally... lame? desperate? "Pretty pathetic, I know..."

Pathetic? Hell, no. Duo's throat closed with emotion. That was so *sweet*. Not caring that he was wrecking Heero's half-finished braid, Duo swiftly turned around, rising to his knees on the seat of the chair to put himself eye to eye with Heero. "No, not pathetic at all. More like - sweet. Wonderful. Touching."

'Sweet?! Wonderful?! Duo thinks my pitiful little braiding practice was *touching*, not pathetic? I did something right?' Heero felt lightheaded with relief. He had been afraid that Duo would laugh; he'd never imagined that he would react like *this*!

Duo smiled gently at the startled look on Heero's face and brought his hands up to rest on Heero's shoulders. A small burst of confidence generated by Heero's confession led him to say, "You know, it seems to me that I owe you something. Something we never quite got around to last night..." As he spoke, Duo slid one hand across Heero's shoulder to curl behind his neck. He brought the other hand up to rest lightly against Heero's cheek as he continued, "I think maybe I should give it to you now, hmm?"

Heart pounding, Heero realized what Duo was referring to. Already heady with delight over the fingers cradling the back of his neck and pressing lightly against his cheek, he managed to nod slightly in response to the question.

Duo let the back of the chair support him as he leaned forward to press his lips against Heero's. He certainly hadn't had much experience at this - just Wufei's kiss last night - but he tried to put all the love he couldn't seem to vocalize into the kiss. All the warmth and tenderness and caring that he wanted to give to Heero but was having difficulty expressing when old, bad memories of the results from past attempts got in the way.

Heero leaned into Duo's kiss, savouring the warmth of Duo's hand cupping his cheek and the touch of the fingers threading through the hair at the nape of his neck almost as much as the lips moving against his own. His eyes drifted shut as he gave himself up to the sensation, overwhelmed by the contact with the one he loved. With *Duo*.

***

Wufei quickly got dressed and ready to go down to eat. While he did so, he scolded himself again for slipping up and calling Heero "Yuy". 'He wouldn't even meet my eyes out there,' he thought. 'I *did* hurt his feelings. I need to be more careful. To remember that Heero has been changing, opening up and becoming more friendly. Things that would not have bothered him before may do so now.'

Once he was ready, Wufei headed for Duo's room to see whether he was ready to go yet or not. He paused just outside the door, listening to see whether he would be interrupting something if he entered right then. Duo might be trying to get Heero to tell him what had been bothering him. What he heard instead was Heero's hesitant confession about practising braiding. 'Pathetic? Somehow, I doubt that Duo will agree with that assessment...'

When he realized that Duo was about to kiss Heero, Wufei hesitated over entering the room. Both because he felt that they should have a little privacy and because he wasn't at all sure that he *wanted* to see Duo kiss someone else, even if that someone was Heero. 'But we are all going to have to get used to this if we are truly going to make this work. Heero and I will both have to accept the other seeing us together with Duo as well as watching each other with Duo.' Drawing a deep breath to brace himself, Wufei walked into the room.

Duo was kneeling backwards on a chair, leaning against the back of it. A partial braid was in the process of unravelling down his back. One hand cupped Heero's cheek; the other cradled the nape of his neck.

Wufei watched silently, surprised that it *didn't* hurt the way he had expected it to, as Duo pressed his lips to Heero's. And Heero - melted. Wufei didn't know how else to describe it. Heero's entire body relaxed and his arms came up to reach over the chair back and very carefully encircle Duo, drawing himself closer to the chair. Closer to Duo.

Any faint lingering doubts that Wufei may have had over sharing Duo with Heero vanished. 'He truly does love him just as much as I do... Heero may have difficulty showing it because of his unnaturally cold and isolated childhood and the harshness of his training, but the emotions are there.'

As Duo broke off the kiss and drew back slightly, his hands slipping back to Heero's shoulders, Heero made a soft, involuntary sound of protest. He didn't want to give up that closeness so soon... He opened his eyes reluctantly and slowly withdrew his arms from around Duo.

Before Heero could step back, Duo brought one hand back up to his face, gently stroking the thumb across his cheek while cradling his jawline with the other fingers. Heero leaned into the caress immediately, suddenly understanding exactly why Duo responded that way to Wufei's caress. It made him feel... 'Loved. Important. *Cherished*.' And the touch itself was very light, barely even a noticeable pressure. The sort of touch that one would use to handle something very valuable and very delicate.

Watching Heero's response to his touch, Duo finally accepted that Heero had meant what he said. That he didn't mind physical contact with Duo. Maybe even *wanted* it. "You really *do* want me to touch you..." he said softly, half-questioningly.

Heero's eyes widened. Duo believed him? "Yes..." he breathed hopefully. Maybe... maybe Duo *would* be willing to give him those comforting touches after all? But if he was caught off guard and froze again... Hesitantly, he added, "I'm just not used to being touched and sometimes it takes me a few moments to respond; it doesn't mean I'm rejecting you..."

Duo wished fervently that J were still alive. He would very much like to introduce that sorry excuse for a human being to some of the nastier aspects of L2 street gangs. Denying human contact to *anyone* to the point where they would freeze and be unsure how to respond to a hug or someone taking their hand... He gave Heero a gentle smile and said simply, "Okay."

Wufei was having similar thoughts. He would very much like to have J there, alive and facing his sword. Perhaps the man would be a little more willing to admit that simple things like comfort were *necessary* after having a few non-essential body parts removed. 'Perhaps it is just as well that he is dead. I suspect that by the time Duo and I were done with him, we would be looking for a place to hide the body.'

Pleasant as that thought was, Wufei had to admit that it was more likely that they would have ended up getting J arrested on charges of child abuse and the creepy old bastard would have gotten off on some technicality. There *were* at least some advantages to not having to function within the law that he occasionally missed.

Spotting Wufei out of the corner of his eye, Duo said, "Oops, looks like Fei's ready. Guess I'd better let you finish braiding my hair."

Heero flushed, startled that he had not noticed Wufei come in and wondering exactly *when* he had. 'When he came in doesn't matter. You have to get used to him being around all the time. You will *both* have to get used to that.' Though that was definitely easier said than done. Particularly when he was having difficulty figuring out exactly what Wufei considered him. Friend? Partner? Acquaintance? He had *thought* that yesterday they had definitely been good friends at the very least. But this morning... This morning, he seemed to be little more than an acquaintance...

Seeing Heero's discomfort, Duo leaned forward and murmured, "You got to watch him kiss me last night, remember?" then dropped a light kiss on the tip of Heero's nose before turning to sit properly in the chair again. He flashed a quick smile towards Wufei and said, "All set, huh?" as Heero started the braid over again.

"Yes," Wufei agreed. He watched as Heero fumbled and had to start the braid over again a second time. 'He seemed comfortable around me before. Now, he is not. How do I fix this?' He wasn't sure. Confronting Heero did not seem like a good option. It was more likely to make him defensive than to smooth things over. 'I will simply have to wait and watch for an opportunity to show him that I did not mean to distance myself by calling him "Yuy" instead of "Heero",' he decided. Hopefully it would not take too long to discover one.

Part 23:

Duo's brow wrinkled slightly in concern. He glanced from Wufei back to Heero again, wishing that they weren't in the middle of a restaurant so that maybe they could get things straightened out. 'Heero's so uncomfortable with Fei right now. And Fei's getting discouraged. He keeps trying to draw Heero into the conversation, but Heero won't even meet his eyes...'

Seeing Wufei about to try again, Duo bumped his leg under the table to get his attention, then shook his head slightly. 'Better to let it go till we're back upstairs. I'll have to see if I can get Heero to tell me exactly what's wrong. Trying to draw him out now is just making things worse,' he thought.

Wufei realized with relief that Duo was going to step in and help him out. He hadn't realized how much he'd come to enjoy the new, friendlier Heero until suddenly he was dealing with the old, silent Heero again. 'Only worse... *This* Heero won't even look me in the eyes,' he thought unhappily. He hadn't *meant* to push Heero away by calling him "Yuy". It had been a simple slip of the tongue; an old habit taking over in a thoughtless moment.

'But Heero obviously thought it was more than that. And after how close we all were yesterday, and particularly after how understanding and helpful he was over my mistake with Duo, it is not entirely surprising that he would be upset at what must have seemed like a deliberate snub.' Wufei mechanically finished off his French toast, wondering why every time the three of them got close to working things out, something *else* would go wrong. 'Will we ever manage to work things out?' he wondered in discouragement.

Heero tensed as it appeared that Wufei was about to ask him something again, then relaxed slightly as Wufei subsided without saying anything. Between his confusion over how he felt about Wufei and why the thought that Wufei didn't at least consider him a good friend hurt so much and his confusion over exactly how Wufei *did* think of him, he just did not know how to deal with Wufei right now. The only thing keeping him from simply excusing himself and leaving was Duo's presence. Heero relaxed a bit more when a moment later Duo's hand gave his arm a gentle squeeze and he looked up to meet a quizzical smile.

"Done eating Heero?" Duo asked.

Glancing at the thoroughly shredded pancake still on his plate, Heero flushed slightly, then answered, "Yes." He *had* eaten one of them. He thought. Though with the state that the remaining one was in, it was sort of hard to be sure. But he definitely didn't want to eat any more.

"Okay. I'm done and it looks like Fei is as well, so we might as well go back upstairs." Seeing Heero start to reach for the bill, Duo leaned over and snatched it up first.

Reaching to take the bill away from Duo, Wufei said, "No, Duo, let us get it."

Duo shook his head and held the bill out of reach. Firmly, he said, "I want to be a partner, not a freeloader. I'm not exactly penniless; I *can* afford to pay my share you know. "

Wufei jerked his head up, eyes widening in near panic, "Duo, I didn't mean to imply that you couldn't! I just..." He couldn't seem to come up with the right words fast enough. Heero's words about L2 and his own mistake the previous evening left him floundering for a way to explain. He *liked* paying for Duo's share - or, more accurately, splitting that cost with Heero and paying half of it. It was just a normal, caring thing to do for your date. He didn't intend to imply that Duo wasn't capable of paying his own way!

It took a moment for Duo to realize why his words had upset Wufei so badly. He really hadn't meant to remind him of the previous evening's events. He just thought it was time to get his act together and start acting as if *this*, the three of them, *were* a permanent arrangement. That meant pulling his own weight in a whole lot of ways; paying his share of the bills was only one of them.

Reaching out, Duo laid his hand on Wufei's arm. "Fei, it's okay. I'm not upset. I know you guys have just been treating this as one long date. I understand that. What I'm saying is that dates go both ways. We can either choose to split the costs all the time or to take turns picking up the whole bill or some other arrangement that we work out. And I won't pretend that I don't have to be careful how much I spend. The salvage yard *is* starting to show a profit now, so I'm not dead broke, but I'm not exactly rich either. But paying for a few meals or trips to the movies or something won't leave me penniless. And if I *do* start running short, I promise I'll speak up. I'll admit that it's possible - I run on a pretty tight budget most of the time."

Duo looked from Wufei over to Heero, who was completely silent and studying the table in front of him rather intently. Duo casually set the bill down and laid his other hand reassuringly on Heero's arm before asking, "That sound okay to you both? I'll get this bill and we can decide later how we want to handle that sort of thing?"

Wufei nodded in relief, "Yes, that sounds fine to me." For a moment, he had been afraid that he had made another huge error. And at this point, he wasn't too sure he could *handle* making any more mistakes.

"Okay," Heero agreed quietly. He had feared that they were about to end up with another very public scene. While he had managed to get through the previous ones, he did not feel up to handling another. He just really, *really* wanted to get out of the restaurant and back in private before that happened.

"Okay! I'll go pay the bill and meet you guys out by the elevator," Duo said, sliding his chair back from the table. He was hoping that he could pick up some cough drops or something at the cash. He thought they'd had a glass case with that kind of thing in it. All that crying yesterday had left him with an awfully sore throat and he had a lot of talking to do this afternoon if he was going to tell Heero and Wufei about his past.

With an effort, Duo stifled the panic that threatened to flare up at the thought. 'They said they love me and that my past won't change that,' he reminded himself. 'I have to trust them. To trust their love.' He needed to do that and he knew it. But... it was difficult. Duo shivered, suddenly chilled. 'Damn hotel air conditioning...'

***

Back at their suite, Wufei headed off to call Une and find out whether the training and demonstrations had been rescheduled or simply cancelled. By now, she would have had time to try to work out alternate scheduling with the offices in question. While he was busy doing that, Duo drew Heero into his room and pulled him down to sit on the edge of the bed. Duo drew one leg up on the bed so that he could turn to face Heero more directly.

"Heero, what's wrong? You seem so uncomfortable around Fei today... But yesterday, you two seemed to be getting along so well... You... you haven't changed your mind about me not having to choose, have you?" Duo asked hesitantly. 'Please, please, don't let that be the problem... Because I honest-to-god *couldn't* now that I know they both love me and want me...' He firmly silenced the little voice that reminded him that maybe he wouldn't have to worry about choosing by the time he finished telling them about his past. 'Trust them. I have to trust them,' he repeated to himself.

Hearing the worry in Duo's voice, Heero suddenly felt very guilty. He hadn't realized how his discomfort around Wufei might affect Duo. Hadn't thought about the fact that Duo might fear he had changed his mind or was jealous. "No, Duo, of course not," he assured him hurriedly. Heero drew one leg up on the bed, mirroring Duo's position so that they directly faced each other. Meeting Duo's eyes, he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you. I just... I just don't know how to act around him right now. Yesterday, he was calling me 'Heero' and I thought... I thought he considered me a friend. But this morning, he called me 'Yuy' again and I realized I must have been wrong. Then he started calling me 'Heero' again and I don't know *what* to think!"

Relieved, Duo scooted up on the bed completely so that he could get close enough to hug Heero. "Heero, I don't think Fei called you 'Yuy' on purpose. I think he just spoke without really thinking about it and said that from habit."

Heero slid his arms around Duo in return, dropping his head on Duo's shoulder and relishing the closeness. He hesitated, then, remembering that Duo hadn't laughed at his braiding practice confession and trusting that he wouldn't laugh now either, he admitted, "It hurt when he called me 'Yuy', Duo. I don't have any real friends. I pushed you away and no one else has made the effort to try to get close. But Wufei and I are partners and he's probably the closest thing that I've *had* to a friend since the war even though I was always 'Yuy' and he was always 'Chang'... He's one of the only people that I can really *talk* to and feel like they understand... I don't feel the same about Wufei as I do about you, but I do trust him and respect him and care about him and I *thought* we were getting closer... I guess I must have misunderstood..." Heero's voice trailed off dispiritedly.

All of a sudden, *Duo* was feeling very guilty himself. 'By cutting myself off from Heero after I gave up on a relationship with him, I left him stranded. I drew him out just enough that he'd started to think friendship might not be a bad thing, then left him on his own. I shouldn't have done that. But I didn't think I could handle just being friends when I really wanted more. And I hadn't realized that he *was* ready to try friendship. I thought maybe we really were just too different; that he would never be interested in more than a very polite friendship, something just slightly beyond merely being acquaintances. And so that was how I treated him...'

Which meant that Heero had been left wanting to try friendship but with no one to show him what being friends was all about or to teach him how to make new friends. 'And with his background, he wouldn't have known how to do that on his own. If Quat hadn't gone back to L4, he might have made picked up on what Heero needed and made the effort to draw him out, but with both him and me gone...' With them both gone, and Trowa too, that left Wufei. And Wufei, with his very proper, formal upbringing, wouldn't have been willing to *push* hard enough to get Heero to really open up. He would have accepted whatever Heero offered and not been so impolite and forward as to press for more. Which didn't necessarily mean that he wouldn't have *liked* more...

"I don't think you misunderstood, Heero. Fei told me that the two of you had been getting closer over the past few days," Duo offered. He looked up and said, "Didn't you, Fei?"

***

Wufei frowned as he finished his conversation with Une. They had hoped that things would be rescheduled for Friday, not tomorrow. He and Heero had planned to have Duo participate in the demonstrations and an extra day of rest would have been preferable after the previous evening's events. 'The sore wrist we can work around; it's not really a problem. But with us going out for the evening tonight, he's likely to still be tired tomorrow. That first session starting at 9:00 is going to make things difficult. We were planning to arrive early and do a practice run...' Wufei sighed. Obviously, they would either have to revise their plans or get a very early start in the morning.

Wufei walked slowly back towards Duo's room, hoping that Duo had managed to talk to Heero and find a way to smooth things over between Heero and himself. 'Now that I've seen what the *real* Heero is like, I don't want to go back to dealing with the *old* Heero....'

Reaching the bedroom door, Wufei was just in time to see Heero turn into Duo's hug and hear his admission that he was hurt by Wufei calling him "Yuy". As Heero continued to talk, Wufei realized with a pang that he *hadn't* made an effort to get closer to Heero before. That he had accepted his superficial reserve and self-sufficiency at face value and hadn't bothered trying to get past it. 'Heero is probably the closest thing that *I've* had to a friend too... Sally Po comes close, but I still don't feel as comfortable speaking with her as I usually do with Heero...'

Wufei's breath caught at Heero's dejected tone during his final words. He hadn't realized that Heero had let him in that far. That his words or actions had the power to hurt Heero quite that deeply. 'But I should have. He looked to me for help at the aquarium when he didn't know how to comfort and reassure Duo. He agreed to share Duo with me if that was what Duo wanted. And he tried to comfort me last night when I was afraid that I had hurt Duo too badly to ever be forgiven. Those are not the actions of someone who is just a partner. They are the actions of a friend. A *close* friend...' A very close friend in fact, when he took into consideration that the "someone" in question was Heero, someone with little to no experience with real friendship.

Just then, Duo looked up with a welcoming smile and asked, "Didn't you, Fei?"

"Yes, I did," Wufei answered, stepping into the room. "Because we *have* been getting closer over the past few days."

Heero tensed when Duo's question made it clear that Wufei had entered the room. He left his back to the door and his head on Duo's shoulder, once again unsure of exactly how long Wufei had been there and how much he had heard and not particularly willing to face him under those circumstances.

Duo gave Wufei a pleading look and mouthed hopefully but silently, "Fei? Join us?"

'Join them? What...' As Duo flicked his eyes meaningfully from Wufei to the spot on the bed behind Heero, Wufei took a guess at what Duo meant. Sincerely hoping that Duo knew what he was doing and that this wouldn't make things worse, Wufei moved around the bed to sit behind Heero. "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, Heero," he began hesitantly. "I didn't mean to snub you. But I've been calling you 'Yuy' for a long time now and I may slip up occasionally." Giving Duo a rueful smile, he admitted, "I have to consciously remind myself not to call Duo 'Maxwell' sometimes too. Old habits are hard to break."

Heero stiffened in Duo's arms as Wufei took a seat behind him on the bed. Duo started to rub his back gently, trying to get him to relax.

Listening to Wufei's apology, Heero felt a bit of his hurt slip away. A slip of the tongue was understandable. But he still didn't really know where he stood with Wufei. Whether he was a friend or not. And if so, how close a friend Wufei considered him to be.

Meeting Duo's expectant gaze over Heero's shoulder, Wufei knew what he had to do. He wasn't sure that this would work. It seemed very... presumptuous... But he didn't actually *mind* doing it either. Drawing a deep breath, Wufei said softly, "Friends are something that I don't have very many of either. But you, Heero, are definitely one of them." Even as he spoke, he turned and leaned to wrap his arms around Heero in a cautious hug, leaning his cheek against Heero's shoulderblade and hoping all the while that he had correctly understood Duo's intentions and that Duo knew what he was doing. He didn't particularly wish to get decked by Heero for being too presumptuous.

'I hope this works,' Duo thought worriedly. He was pretty sure that it would. Fei seemed - understandably! - hesitant but not actually reluctant. And once past the initial uncertainty, Heero seemed to respond extremely positively to touch. Duo just hoped that Wufei remembered to give Heero a few moments to adjust before deciding whether to hold on or let go.

Heero froze in surprise as Wufei's arms slid around him, closing in a hug just below where Duo's arms wrapped around him. The warm pressure against his shoulderblade was almost certainly Wufei's cheek. He felt the last of the knot of hurt confusion in his chest loosen and slip away at Wufei's clear statement that he considered Heero a friend. And as it did, his surprise over Wufei's hug slipped away too, letting him relax and genuinely appreciate the comfort of being held by two people who cared about him. It was... a rather heady feeling after so many years of being alone.

Wufei was almost ready to release Heero and start apologizing for his forwardness when Heero suddenly relaxed. After a few moments, Heero said quietly, "Apology accepted. And... I consider you a friend too, Wufei."

"Thank you," Wufei said. He tightened the hug momentarily before releasing Heero, not wanting to hold the hug to the point where either of them became uncomfortable with it.

Duo gave Heero a quick kiss before releasing him, then scooted past him to kneel behind Wufei. Not wanting Wufei to feel left out, he leaned over his shoulder and gave him a kiss and a hug as well. He was just thankful that things had worked out okay, at least for the moment. But he had a feeling that a change of subject was in order to keep anyone from dwelling too closely on what had just happened.

Part 24:

Sliding off the edge of the bed, Duo asked, "What did Une say, Fei? Do you guys have to do those sessions Friday or are they off?"

"Actually, they are on - but for tomorrow," Wufei answered with a frown.

"Tomorrow? When?" Heero said, not particularly happy with that schedule.

"One in the morning, starting at 9:00, and as it is a good hour's drive from here, we will need to get an early start if we are to have time to set up and do a practice run. The other is for later in the afternoon as the attendees have to drive in from another branch office. I am simply glad that Une chose to make them come to us so that we will only have to do our setup once and we will have a chance to relax between sessions," Wufei answered.

Heero made a noncommittal sound. He did not like this schedule at all. "Duo, we had planned to have you help us out with the demonstrations. We are supposed to demonstrate a few fighting techniques and we had thought that your style would be a good addition to the mix. Plus we could demonstrate how to handle facing multiple opponents. We would have to work around your sore wrist..." Heero let his voice trail off, suddenly reconsidering the rest of what he had been going to say. He was afraid that mentioning that Duo might be too tired after their evening out tonight would probably come across as either critical or patronizing rather than caring. And that would have the exact opposite effect to the one that they had *intended* requesting his assistance to have.

Duo's eyes lit up with delight. "Really? You want me to help?" He could hardly believe it. His fighting style had been one of the things that they had criticized the most heavily in the past, calling it everything from inelegant (true) to ineffective (most definitely *not* true). Sparring seriously limited his options because many of the most effective street fighting moves were simply too nasty to use in a sparring match. But in a staged demonstration, they could work things out in advance, which would let him actually use some of those moves without anyone getting hurt.

About to point out that Duo might be too tired after this evening to take part, Wufei took one look at the delighted excitement on Duo's face and changed his mind. There was no way that he was going to dampen that excitement and see it turn to hurt disappointment. 'And it would hurt him if you came right out and said that an evening out might leave him too tired to take part tomorrow. Ordinarily it wouldn't be an issue; it's only the stressful events of the past few days that make it one. But you've damaged his self-esteem enough times in the past, you most definitely are *not* going to do so again, Chang!' Aloud, he simply said, "Yes, Duo. Of course we do."

Impulsively, Duo flung himself at the other two, knocking them backwards onto the bed they were still perched on. "Thank you!" he said happily, one arm wrapped around each one's neck. He pressed an enthusiastic kiss to Wufei's cheek, then turned his head and kissed Heero's too.

Startled by Duo's "attack", Heero had to consciously repress his conditioned response that urged him to fling away his "attacker". But having done so, he wasted no time in bringing his free arm up to wrap around Duo, happy that Duo was feeling comfortable enough with him - with *both* of them - to indulge in an impulse like this.

With Duo sprawled half on top of Heero and half on top of him, Wufei couldn't help but smile at Duo's enthusiastic reaction. It was a smile tinged with regret, however. He knew that much of Duo's excitement that they would want his assistance was caused by the fact that they had criticized him so much in the past. That their previous unfairly harsh remarks made Duo that much more responsive to a positive one now.

Duo would have pushed himself up and off of Heero and Wufei but when each of them placed an arm around him, Heero in a simple hug and Wufei reaching up to gently stroke the back of his head and partway down his braid, he had no objection to staying put. Wrapped in the security of that closeness, he felt brave enough to give them at least a bit of his past. He offered softly, "You guys probably wondered why I wanted us to share a bed last night. 'Specially since all I wanted to do was *sleep*." He paused, pressing his cheek against Heero's shoulder for a moment, reminding himself again that they both said his past wouldn't change how they felt about him. "On the streets," he began carefully, "you learn early on that alone means dead. Usually, anyway. And nights were cold. The gang would sleep together in one big pile for warmth and security. It's one of the only things I've ever actually missed from that time - that feeling of being safe and secure, waking up to other warm bodies around you, knowing you weren't alone..."

Duo's voice trailed off and he closed his eyes, waiting tensely. Knowing that he'd given them enough to confirm Heero's suspicions about his past. Knowing that there was more to be told, much more, but also pretty sure that he couldn't handle just sitting down and telling them the whole story. That he couldn't just start from the beginning and tell them everything all at once. Not if he wanted to get through it without completely breaking down and humiliating himself. There were just too many painful memories.

Through a tremendous effort, Wufei managed not to let his steady stroking of Duo's hair falter as the words "On the streets" left Duo's mouth, confirming Heero's suspicions. He could feel the tension in Duo's body as he spoke; could hear it in his voice. Knew that the tiniest mistake now would have huge repercussions. And was terrified that he would say or do the wrong thing.

Heero's throat tightened as Duo verified his guess about Duo's background. Duo's explanation left him intensely grateful that he had *not* left the bed prior to Duo's waking earlier. He tightened his hug slightly, searching for a response. Trying to find something to say that would not come across as either dismissive or pitying. Hoping that Wufei with his greater ease of communication would find a response first.

Feeling Duo's growing tension, Wufei forced himself to speak. No response would be almost as bad as the wrong response. "Then we shall have to make sure that you never have to wake up alone again, hmm?" he said gently, hoping that there was nothing in that simple question that could be taken the wrong way. "Won't we, Heero?"

Relieved that Wufei had indeed found a response, one that sounded so much better than anything he had managed to think of, Heero agreed, "Wufei is right, Duo. Surely between the two of us we can manage that."

Duo went limp. His eyes itched with unshed tears of relief. It was only one small piece of his past but if they could accept knowing that he'd been in a street gang, maybe they really wouldn't let his past affect their feelings for him. Maybe everything really *would* work out alright.

***

Wufei lay on his side, curled against Duo's sleeping form. On Duo's other side, Heero mirrored his position. After Duo's initial hesitant offering from his past, they had all shifted further onto the bed, making themselves more comfortable. And slowly and hesitantly over the next hour, Duo had revealed more bits of his past. There were chunks of time missing still, gaping holes that would need to be filled at some future date, but the picture that had slowly taken shape contained more than enough detail to leave Wufei furious at the complete and utter failure of a government to care for those that it was responsible for. It was a fury he had managed to hide; he had been far too worried about giving Duo the wrong impression to let any trace of it escape. Instead of venting his anger, he had turned all of his energy towards reassuring Duo. Holding him, rubbing his back or stroking his hair, murmuring soft words of love. Promising that he need never be alone again.

And Heero had been doing much of the same. They had both done everything in their power to make sure that Duo understood that they loved him. That his past didn't matter. That he could tell them absolutely anything and trust that it would not make them turn away.

Yet some of the most disturbing things, the biggest questions that Wufei had, came not from what Duo had said, but from what he *hadn't*. He had mentioned attending school while in the church's care - but that was the only time the subject had come up. And Wufei was left wondering whether school *had* been part of Duo's life at any other point in time. And if it hadn't - where and when had he become so knowledgeable? If G had only had him for a few years and he had virtually no schooling to start with, how had he managed to learn advanced physics and human biology? To calculate fuel ratios and trajectories, to create explosives from almost anything that he could find, to set broken bones and stitch cuts and the hundreds of other things that he had done as a Gundam pilot? Surely he hadn't managed to cram all that into the brief time that he had been with G?

And what had happened to land him back on the streets after being at the church? It had to have been bad; Duo had struggled with tears and a voice that refused to cooperate for a few minutes before skipping over those mysterious events and picking up his story with simply "After the church, it was tough being back on the streets." Very little detail had been revealed about that time on the streets either. Though based on what little Duo *had* said, Wufei had some guesses that left his heart aching. Duo's statement that he had been too "pretty" to join another gang; that even the more aggressive predators liked their prey best if it wasn't too filthy and smelly; his quiet admission that his skill with knives had been developed then; his even softer confession that he had killed before ever being picked as a Gundam pilot; all those things added up to a picture that left Wufei fighting the urge to draw Duo close and promise to protect him. Fighting the urge because Duo was more than capable of protecting himself and Wufei had no wish to imply otherwise or to make Duo think that he pitied him.

Instead, Wufei had kissed him and repeated again that he loved him. Had curled more closely against him in a silent reminder that he was with him. And he thought - hoped - that perhaps this time, Duo truly believed those assurances.

Across Duo's now-sleeping body, Heero met Wufei's eyes briefly. He had wondered how Wufei was reacting to Duo's story. Seeing eyes burning with a protective urge as great as the one filling himself, he knew the answer to that question. Knew that Wufei's heart was aching as much as his own. That, far from having his love for Duo diminished by learning how difficult his life had been, it had rather been increased. Deepened. That his respect for the gorgeous, good-natured youth lying between them had grown with the knowledge of how much he had been through without allowing it to make him bitter or cruel. Just as his own had.

Not that Heero had really expected anything less from Wufei. His only concern had been that either Wufei's sheltered upbringing or his strong sense of justice might have led him to react in such a way that Duo would misinterpret it and believe Wufei was disgusted by or angry with him. Heero himself was angry with a system that could allow children to be forgotten so easily. Left to fend for themselves on the streets. Left cold and hungry, with neither food nor shelter beyond what they could scavenge or steal.

And Heero was amazed by the things he was guessing from what was left *unsaid*. At a guess, it sounded as if Duo had only had somewhere between a few months and a year of formal schooling prior to G finding him. And yet G had managed to cram everything that Duo needed to know about physics and chemistry and human anatomy and all the other subjects that a Gundam pilot *needed* to know into those few brief years of training after that. Duo's spotty grades and dread of school missions suddenly made a great deal more sense to Heero. There would have been huge gaps left in Duo's knowledge, simply due to lack of time. It was no wonder that he had done so poorly in subjects like pre-colonial history and had struggled with Shakespeare and Chaucer in literature class. G had jealously guarded Duo's files, never letting so much as a hint of his piloting scores or IQ leak out. For Duo to have done as well as he had, Heero wondered just what that IQ must *be*.

There were many questions still to be answered. Many things about Duo's past still untold. And Heero wanted to know more about what Duo had been doing since the war as well. Unless his memory was incorrect, he was pretty sure that Duo's grammar had improved substantially since then. That his tendency to use slang had decreased though not disappeared entirely. That his Japanese, on the few occasions he'd spoken it in the past few days, had improved dramatically as well. All leading Heero to the conclusion that in addition to getting a struggling salvage business back on its feet, Duo had been doing some serious studying. 'Earning his GED perhaps?' he thought. 'It would not surprise me if he has...'

Though the Japanese would not have been required for that. In fact, Duo would have had no real use for Japanese *period*. 'Which could only mean that he studied it because of me... Which means that he has probably been studying Mandarin as well because of Wufei...' Heero's heart swelled at the thought that Duo had continued to learn a language he had no real use for simply because of him.

Heero checked his watch and decided that there was no need to wake Duo just yet. They had an hour or so before they would need to go get some supper before the game. He set his watch alarm as a precaution, then settled down to watch Duo sleep and to enjoy having the right to do so.

***

Duo rinsed the last traces of sleep from his eyes. He couldn't believe he'd fallen asleep after telling Wufei and Heero about his past. Couldn't believe that he hadn't had nightmares after digging up all those memories. It had really only been a short nap, but he was still surprised. He hadn't realized that he was still that tired.

He popped another cough drop in his mouth and frowned. That was the last in the package and his throat was still sore. It had been years since he'd last cried, but he couldn't remember his throat having been so sore afterwards. He hadn't talked all *that* much this afternoon. 'And I shouldn't still be chilled from last night either,' Duo thought. He'd checked the thermostat earlier and the air conditioning was *not* set to keep the room exceptionally cool. So why was he so cold? The only real answer to that question, he admitted reluctantly, was that he was getting sick. That the stress and the exhaustion and the chill last night had done a number on his usually tough immune system and left him open to - something. Some sort of cold or flu, probably.

'Shit,' he thought unhappily. 'Just when everything was going so well...' If Heero and Wufei found out, they would undoubtedly want to cancel whatever surprise Wufei had planned for tonight. And they would probably insist that he stay at the hotel and rest tomorrow instead of helping out with the demonstrations. *If* they found out.

Duo chewed his lip thoughtfully. He didn't really know for *sure* that he was getting sick; the sore throat *could* still just be from the crying and the talking. And he didn't feel all that bad yet; maybe he wouldn't get any worse. They were going out for supper as soon as he finished washing up. If he managed to get to a drugstore... Maybe he could treat the symptoms so that the sore throat and so on wouldn't become an issue, take some echinacea and Vitamin C to try and fight the actual cold, and no one would ever have to know?

Well, it was worth a shot anyway. He'd messed up enough plans; he didn't want to be responsible for wrecking any more. He wasn't about to let a little cold or flu interfere with what was planned. He'd just have to fight it off without anyone finding out, Duo decided firmly. He ignored the little voice reminding him that while he hardly ever got sick, when he *did* he usually got *very* sick. That a cold or flu virus nasty enough to bring him down usually turned into bronchitis before it was through.

Part 25:

"Just a little farther, Duo," Wufei said, guiding him along the sidewalk.

Duo followed his lead, unable to even peek with Heero's hands covering his eyes. 'We must look really, really silly,' he thought. Not that he was complaining. If Heero and Wufei were willing to look silly in order to surprise him, *he* certainly wasn't going to complain about it.

Wufei turned Duo so that he was facing the sign advertising tonight's game. He gave Heero a grin and said, "Okay, Duo - you can open your eyes now."

Heero pulled his hands away and shifted to the side so that he could see Duo's expression.

Duo opened his eyes and blinked a couple of times, letting them adjust to the light after being closed. Wufei reached out and put a couple of fingers under his chin, directing his gaze up. Duo read the sign, blinked, and read it again. '*Wufei* thought of this?' was his initial reaction. He hadn't even thought Wufei would have remembered how much he liked basketball... Then he realized that Heero had said Wufei bought a ticket for him too, and realized that Wufei knew more about Heero than he'd thought he did too. Which was definitely a good thing.

Right on the heels of those thoughts came the delight at exactly *which* basketball team was playing, his excitement only magnified by the fact that *Wufei* had thought of this as a surprise for him. Duo grinned broadly and cheered, "Cool! I've heard of these guys before, they're supposed to be great basketball players and a lot of fun to watch too! Thanks Fei!" He reached out and caught Wufei's hand to give it a firm squeeze.

Much as he would have liked to kiss Wufei, that was a really, really *bad* idea for two reasons. First, there were a *lot* of people around. And while Duo didn't care what other people thought, he wasn't too sure that Wufei or Heero would like the attention him kissing either of them in public would attract. And second - well, he *was* getting sick and kissing the guys and giving *them* whatever the hell he was coming down with would be really stupid. He just hoped he hadn't *already* done so.

Wufei held on to Duo's hand when he went to pull it away again. He was a bit surprised at how subdued Duo's reaction to the surprise had been; he'd been prepared for a huge hug at the very least, probably a kiss. 'Is he afraid that I would disapprove of that in such a public place? Or is *Duo* uncomfortable with such an open display of our relationship in public?' Seeing the brilliant smile sent his direction in response to keeping hold of Duo's hand, he decided that the former answer was more likely. And in all honesty, he *would* be a bit uncomfortable with kissing in public. It seemed too intimate an act to put on display like that. Even touching and holding hands broke so many of the cultural rules that he'd been brought up with...

But Duo was a very tactile person, he thrived on touch, and Wufei wasn't about to deny him that much. 'Besides which, against cultural traditions or not, I like the contact myself.' Seeing the admiring looks that Duo was attracting from some of the girls waiting in line, Wufei moved a step closer and raised their joined hands slightly to point out a poster to Duo, hiding a smirk when the interested looks turned to disappointed ones. 'And making it clear that he's taken and he's *mine* - well, *ours*,' he corrected, seeing Heero move closer and take Duo's other hand after someone tried to squeeze between them, 'might have something to do with it too...' Wufei admitted to himself guiltily. He didn't think Duo would mind him being a bit possessive, at least not very much, as long as he didn't get carried away and start acting as if he owned Duo. And that wasn't his intention. He just couldn't resist the urge to gloat a little over the fact that the gorgeous, vivacious, intelligent youth holding his hand wanted *him*. In spite of all the fuck-ups he'd made in the past.

Heero hated crowds. People were so damn pushy and inconsiderate... He growled under his breath, moving closer to Duo and taking his hand as someone tried to push through between them. Duo gave him a startled look that turned into a beautiful smile then threaded his fingers through Heero's for a firmer grip.

Heero decided that maybe crowds weren't so bad after all. He might not have reached for Duo's hand if he hadn't been tired of people pushing them apart. 'I have to remember that he *does* want me to touch him. That he *likes* being touched,' Heero thought. He just wasn't *used* to doing that sort of thing. Seeking physical contact was new to him and it was going to take a while for him to get used to it. To train himself to make the effort. 'But I *will*,' he promised himself. Not just because Duo liked it, but because he was discovering that he liked it too.

***

Now that they were finally seated, Duo decided he'd better take care of the tickle that had been bothering his throat for the past few minutes. They'd eaten at the hotel, so he hadn't had a chance to get anything for his cold/flu/whatever-the-hell-it-was yet. He'd had to settle for buying up virtually the whole stock of syrup-centred cough drops that the hotel restaurant had along with several of those tiny travel-packs of ibuprofen to try and stave off the fever and the headache that he was developing. He'd *also* bought a couple of packs of chewy fruit candies. The packs looked very similar to the cough drop ones and the candies themselves were similar in size and shape. He was hoping that if he offered *those* to Heero and Wufei, they would assume that was what *he* was eating when he had to take a cough drop. It wasn't lying - quite. Though it was close enough that he was already feeling a bit guilty.

Heero hesitantly took one of the fruit candies Duo offered him. This was another of the "not used to" things. J had strictly forbidden any sort of candy and he'd had a hard time breaking that conditioning. 'At least it's fruit,' Heero thought, trying to convince himself that he really wasn't doing anything *wrong* as he popped the candy in his mouth. After a minute, he decided that it really wasn't all that bad and if Duo offered him another one, he'd probably accept. Duo *did* have a whole roll of them, after all...

Wufei accepted the candy from Duo and popped it in his mouth a bit reluctantly. He wasn't too fond of sweets... But this wasn't particularly sweet, he realized. It was fruity, not sugary or chocolatey or any of the other things he'd automatically assumed Duo would have bought. He winced internally at the realization that he *still* was making assumptions about Duo based on those silly notions he'd came up with during the war while trying to find reasons *not* to like him. 'And how many of them were accurate?' he asked himself. Not many - in fact, none that he'd actually confirmed.

Duo *didn't* eat constantly, didn't always choose junk food or eat ridiculously large amounts when he *did* eat, didn't overdose on sugar or chocolate or caffeine, wasn't hyper, wasn't careless or clumsy, wasn't thoughtless or lazy... The list went on and on. And Wufei had thought that he had managed to put those assumptions behind him. It was a nasty shock to discover that he hadn't entirely succeeded. 'I spent too much time convincing myself of all those things while trying to persuade myself that I couldn't possibly care for Duo, let alone love him,' he thought unhappily. With the result that *forgetting* those assumptions was damn near impossible. Obviously, he was going to have to try harder.

As the Globetrotters came into the arena to the familiar whistled tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown", Duo started to cheer along with the rest of the crowd and triggered off a coughing fit. Eyes watering, he managed to get it under control and signal that he was okay to his two alarmed companions. "Swallowed my candy," he wheezed out, wincing at the half-truth. He *had* accidentally swallowed what was left of his cough drop, but that was a result of the coughing, not the cause of it. 'Shit, shit, shit. Getting worse fast,' he thought anxiously. He was going to *have* to come up with a way to get to an all-night drugstore on the way back to the hotel. Cough drops and ibuprofen were *not* going to slow things down enough to get through tomorrow's demos, let alone get rid of whatever he was coming down with. Or maybe... maybe he should just admit he wasn't feeling well?

But after all the times in the past that Heero and Wufei had called him weak, now that they'd finally admitted that they hadn't really meant it, Duo hated to prove their previous words right. No, somehow he'd get through this without them finding out. Somehow.

"I'm okay, really," Duo managed to say with a weak grin in response to Heero and Wufei's concerned inquiries. 'Of all the fucking lousy times to get sick...' he thought disgustedly. Not only did he not want to spoil the plans for tomorrow, he also felt a bit foolish. Getting sick just because he'd been overtired, overstressed, and stupid enough to let himself get wet and chilled. 'I am *such* an idiot...'

Wufei settled back in his seat, at least partially reassured by Duo's insistence that he was okay. That cough really had sounded more like one caused by a cold, though... 'But Duo doesn't lie. He said he swallowed his candy, that must be what happened.' Dividing his attention between the game - which didn't particularly interest him *anyway* - and Duo's (and Heero's, he was a bit taken aback to realize) reactions to the game, Wufei couldn't help wondering whether Duo's flushed cheeks and bright eyes were entirely due to excitement. Or whether, perhaps, they were attributable to something else entirely. Like a fever.

'Stop it, Chang. You're overreacting. Just because he was soaking wet, chilled, and exhausted last night and has been under severe stress for the past few days, that doesn't mean he's going to get sick.' Well actually, when he thought about it *that* way, he was even *more* concerned. 'Duo *would* tell us if he wasn't feeling well - wouldn't he?' Wufei wondered. Or... would Duo be afraid of how they'd react and hide it? Would he be too worried that they would think him weak?

Wufei turned to check on Duo again, trying not to show his concern. He noticed in passing that Heero was leaning just as far forward in his seat as Duo was, intent on the game, eyes sparkling with interest and a faint smile on his face. Seeing Heero showing so much emotion was going to take some getting used to, he thought. But it was a nice change. Heero really had a very nice smile. And...

'And what the hell do you think you're doing, sitting here staring at Heero? You were supposed to be checking Duo for signs of him getting sick, Chang! Not mooning over the *other* member of the group!' Mooning over? Wufei snapped his head sharply around to stare at the game, cheeks flushing. He hadn't just been... Had he?

Wufei suddenly decided that he really should be doing the players the courtesy of watching the game taking place, not focussing his attention on his companions. He would just make sure to keep an eye on Duo later, when they went back to the hotel for the night.

Heero leaned forward, watching the game intently. According to what he'd read about the team, the first part of the game would be very serious basketball. No real clowning around. Only once they had a 10 to 15 point lead established would they begin their trademark antics. During the momentary pause of an out-of-bounds call, Heero gave Duo a quick look, making sure that he was okay after that little coughing episode. He seemed to be, meeting Heero's look with a happy grin and offering him another of the fruit candies. Heero accepted readily and gave Duo a small smile before turning his attention back to the game. He really was glad Wufei had bought him a ticket too. He was enjoying this a great deal. He'd have to see if he could think of something that Wufei would enjoy doing as well as Duo and take them. Just as an appropriate thank-you for Wufei, of course.

Duo slipped another cough drop in his mouth and tried to think of a reason to visit a drugstore on the way back to the hotel. The twinge that his wrist gave as he unthinkingly bent it to tuck the roll back in his pocket answered that question. He could use the excuse of getting a proper wrist brace as a safety precaution for the demos tomorrow. It would be a good idea anyway as the tensor bandage wouldn't provide enough support to protect his wrist if he forgot and used that hand to block or throw a blow. 'Yeah, they'll go for that explanation,' he decided. 'Have them wait in the cab so we don't have to get another one and they don't see what I buy... I'll just have to be quick enough to pick up the cold medication while I'm at it without them realizing I'm taking too long.' Duo tried to ignore his growing feeling of guilt over hiding this, reminding himself again that he didn't want the guys to think he was weak or something, giving in to a damn *cold* for god's sake.

Once the basketball game shifted from straightforward, by-the-rules basketball and the fancy dribbling and silly antics made their way into things, Wufei found himself reluctantly fascinated, despite his usual boredom with spectator sports. And even more fascinating than the on-court hijinks were the expressions of his two companions. Realizing that he was once again watching Heero almost as much as Duo, Wufei jerked his glance away, flushing again. He could *not* understand why he was so drawn to watch Heero tonight! 'At least I don't have to worry about either of them noticing,' he thought thankfully. 'They're both far too interested in what's taking place on the court to notice that I'm watching *them* more than the game...' Maybe it was just the fact that Heero was letting himself show so much emotion that was fascinating him? 'What else could it be? Certainly I'm not watching him for the same reason I'm watching Duo...'

Was he? No, of course not... He couldn't possibly be fall... be attracted to Heero too. 'Absolutely not,' Wufei told himself firmly. Heero was a friend. Someone he liked and respected. That was all, no more, no less. Right?

Wufei pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the headache that suddenly seemed to be developing. 'Heero is a *friend*. I am *not* fall...' he cut himself off abruptly and started over again. 'I am *not* attracted to him. Heero is a *friend*,' he repeated firmly to himself.

A very *attractive* friend, mind you... Wufei swore silently in three different languages, frustrated at his wayward thoughts, and once again turned his gaze back to the basketball court. He wasn't sure whether he wanted the game to hurry up and be over with in hopes that these unexpected thoughts would go away once they were out of this particular situation or whether he wanted it to last longer because someone was bound to notice if he kept staring like this once they were no longer distracted by the game.

Wishing that he didn't have this damn cough and headache annoying the hell out of him, Duo tried to concentrate on the game. He *was* still enjoying it - just not as much as he would have if he wasn't feeling so lousy. At least the ibuprofen he'd managed to take earlier was finally getting the headache under control. It had taken most of the game for it to really start kicking in, though.

Duo couldn't help grinning at Heero's obvious enjoyment of the entertaining game. Not that most other people would consider it "obvious"; only someone who knew Heero quite well would read that faint, tiny smile - not a smirk, an honest-to-god, genuine *smile* - and sparkling eyes as being an exceptionally obvious display of emotion for Heero. Seeing Heero like this really showed just how much he had genuinely changed, reaffirming Duo's hope that everything was going to work out okay with their relationship.

'And Fei is enjoying this too,' Duo thought, turning his head to catch Wufei watching him yet again. 'Not that he's watching the *game* all that much,' he admitted, giving Wufei a happy smile in response to his query as to whether Duo was having fun. Wufei was watching *him* more than the game - which was making it a little hard to sneak cough drops as frequently as necessary. But he *was* still managing to sneak them. Usually while Wufei was watching *Heero*.

Duo smothered the urge to laugh as Wufei suddenly realized that he was watching Heero again, flushed, and turned his attention abruptly towards the court. 'Don't fight it, Fei,' he urged silently. If Wufei would just admit he was attracted to and cared for Heero, Duo was pretty sure it wouldn't take much to get Heero to return the favour. He already liked and respected Wufei. And although Heero was still pretty unsure of himself where emotions were concerned, Duo figured that the *degree* to which he was upset and hurt by Wufei's perceived snub earlier meant that Heero maybe felt at least a little more than that. A genuine display of caring on Wufei's part might be enough to tip the balance.

Turning to ask if Duo had any more of those fruit candies, Heero caught Wufei watching him. He was startled when Wufei flushed and quickly turned his head away. 'Why would he be embarrassed that I saw him looking at me?' Heero wondered. 'It isn't like he was *staring* or something... He just happened to look past Duo and catch my eye... Didn't he?' Just then, the ref whistled for a penalty, drawing Heero's attention back to the game, Wufei's odd behaviour forgotten for the moment. Though a small corner of his mind continued to puzzle over it, noting that actually Wufei had behaved similarly earlier in the game as well. And that was only the occasions that he'd *noticed*. 'Why *is* Wufei acting like that?'

Heero couldn't come up with an answer, and as the game drew to an end, he decided that he would have to keep thinking about it. He never *could* leave a question unanswered.

Part 26:

Duo grimly measured out the maximum dose of cough suppressant and downed it with a grimace. Yuck. He *hated* taking medication. And *this* stuff - well, this stuff was just *gross*. But the pharmacist swore it was the most effective cough medicine he had. 'Ugh! "Been around for years," he says. "You'll get better just to avoid having to take it," he says. Didn't realize he wasn't fucking *joking*!' Duo thought, gagging. He recapped the bottle of Buckley's hastily and stuffed it into his duffle bag. God, that stuff was awful. Though it *did* seem to do the trick. He'd got through the night without coughing - or at least, without coughing enough to wake up Heero or Wufei at any rate.

He checked the time - still too early. Damn. Duo perched on the edge of the bathtub, waiting. He'd managed to be in bed and "asleep" last night before Wufei and Heero joined him, thus dodging the whole goodnight kiss issue. And this morning, he'd joked about having terrible morning breath and fled to get ready. Now, he just needed to kill enough time to be running late so that they wouldn't be thinking about a good morning kiss. He felt kind of bad about dodging the kisses, but he really did *not* want to give whatever he had to Wufei or Heero.

Of course, he felt even *worse* about hiding the whole getting-sick thing from them to start with, but he just couldn't bring himself to wreck the plans for the demos *or* to let them find out he was so pathetic he couldn't handle getting wet and chilled without getting sick. 'I just... can't. But if I keep dodging kissing them... Shit. They're gonna end up thinking I'm mad or something...' Duo thought unhappily. Obviously, he couldn't keep up the facade for long. The question was, how long *could* he safely keep the fact that he was feeling a little under the weather a secret?

'Okay, there's pretty much no chance either of them will be expecting kisses in public, so things should be cool right through the demos. But afterwards... I guess... I guess if I'm still feeling lousy, I'll have to 'fess up. I don't want to give them the wrong impression with the whole not-kissing thing, and I don't think I'd better let it go past the twenty-four hour mark or I *will*...' he decided with a sigh.

Duo was pretty sure that he *could* get through the demos okay. Yeah, he was starting to get a little short of breath, but the cough medicine was keeping the cough itself at bay. And his head hurt, but the ibuprofen should take care of that shortly, and it wasn't like he was actually getting dizzy or anything. The fever - well, the ibuprofen should handle that too and it wasn't all *that* high, or at least he didn't *think* it was. He'd forgot to pick up a thermometer while he was at the drugstore.

Duo checked his watch again. Just a few more minutes...

***

Heero frowned and checked his watch. It wasn't like Duo to be this late. And he had seemed so eager to help out with the demos...

Wufei was getting worried. Well, not really *getting* worried, he'd *been* worried ever since he woke up to realize that either someone had turned the heat *way* up last night or one of his bedmates - namely Duo - was putting out an awful lot of body heat. When he put that together with Duo's coughing spell at the game last night... and the rather long time it seemed to have taken him to just pick up a wrist brace from the drugstore... and that half-awake memory of hearing coughing in the night... and the way Duo had dodged kissing them last night and this morning... 'He's sick. He *must* be. But if I say something and I'm wrong, he's going to think that I still think he's weak... Even though I know better and I've *told* him that...

'And even if I'm right, he'll think that because that's the only reason that he would have for hiding being sick in the first place... So I *can't* say anything without hurting his feelings. But if I *don't* say anything and he overdoes things today and gets *really* sick...' Wufei massaged the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on.

He was stuck. Caught in the trap of his past insults again. Regardless of the fact that he was motivated by love and concern for Duo, saying anything to imply that he believed Duo was ill was almost certain to be interpreted as criticism. So he *couldn't* say anything. 'I'll just have to keep a close eye on him,' Wufei decided reluctantly. 'And maybe warn Heero?' He'd hesitated too long, however, and Duo was hurrying into the room, apologizing for being so pokey and sweeping them out the door and on their way without so much as a good morning kiss. And without Wufei getting a chance to mention his very strong suspicion to Heero.

***

Duo enthusiastically dove into the rehearsal of the planned demo. They'd been able to get practice weapons from the branch office's training facility and while the balance on them was kinda weird, having "knives" to fight with - even if they *were* little more than rubber - definitely added to the realism level. 'Maybe it was just the twenty-four hour flu and I'm almost over it,' he thought hopefully. It had been an hour, maybe two, since he took the medication and he was feeling pretty good right now. No headache, not too light-headed, very little urge to cough. Still a little short of breath, but hey, that was only to be expected. He hadn't done this kind of thing in a while, after all. Teaching a few self-defence classes at the local women's shelter as a favour to one of Hilde's friends was a far cry from sparring with Heero or Fei.

Watching Duo rehearse the first demo with Heero, Wufei had to admit maybe he was wrong. Duo certainly didn't *act* sick right now. 'God, he's gorgeous,' Wufei thought as he watched Duo ducking and whirling to sweep Heero's legs while he was still re-balancing from the kick he'd just thrown. 'So vibrant. Graceful. And he's still so damn *fast*...' Despite himself, Wufei found his gaze drifting to Heero as well, noting the power and strength that was so clearly present. The well-defined muscles and tight... 'Stop that, Chang!' he scolded himself automatically. 'You love *Duo*. *Heero* loves Duo. You should *not* be ogling Heero... What would Duo think if he caught you?'

Actually, Duo would probably grin and ask what took him so long, Wufei realized abruptly. 'If anyone would understand, it would be him. I have no problem believing that he cares for Heero and myself equally deeply. That he loves us, even though he hasn't quite come out and said so since that first indirect admission at the amusement park. Would it be so unbelievable that one or both of us would learn to love the other as well?

'I don't know if I feel as deeply for Heero as for Duo... I haven't really let myself *think* about it. But I do care for him and like to see him happy... And he's definitely very attractive...' Obviously, he was going to *have* to think about this a little - no, a *lot* - more. But if he *did* discover that he felt more for Heero, or could *learn* to feel more for him... and if Heero was willing... Would Duo mind sharing Heero with Wufei as well as Wufei and Heero sharing him? 'Probably not,' Wufei decided, mind only half on the rehearsing pair in front of him. 'As long as he truly believes that we love him...'

And there lay the catch. If Duo *was* feeling ill - hard though that was to believe watching him right now - and was keeping it a secret because he feared they would think him weak - well, Wufei had to wonder whether Duo really *did* believe them yet. Whether he ever *would* genuinely, deep-down, *believe* that they loved him. Or whether the damage caused by their past words and actions ran too deep to be overcome, no matter how much Duo *wanted* to believe them and to trust their love for him.

***

Heero stood to one side and watched as Duo and Wufei ran through their portion of the demo for the first group of agents. It was hard to be sure, but it seemed like Duo's reaction times were maybe just a touch slower than when they had rehearsed their own demo earlier. But then, that shouldn't be too surprising. After all, Duo himself had admitted that he hadn't really had a good sparring session since the war. The types of exercise that he *had* engaged in had been sufficient to maintain his physical condition, but there was no real substitute for the real thing.

'He just doesn't have the same degree of conditioning. That will come back with practice. I should have thought of that when we were rehearsing, though, and stopped after just one run-through. There wasn't much time between our second practice run and the start of the actual demo. At least the break for lunch should be long enough for him to recover and be ready to go again this afternoon,' Heero thought.

Heero's attention slid over to Wufei for a few moments. He hadn't missed the way Wufei had been watching him this morning. That didn't mean that he *understood* it - but then, he wasn't sure that Wufei understood it either. There seemed to be a fair amount of confusion in those dark eyes while they watched him. Along with a mixture of interest... appreciation... and maybe even a hint of - well, lust? Attraction at the very least. And when he put that together with the sort of caring/interested looks that Wufei had been sneaking last night... He ended up with something suspiciously similar to his *own* mixed-up feelings towards Wufei. Those feelings of part-caring, part-attraction that didn't quite match his feelings for Duo but came a little too close for comfort. Feelings that he had *no* idea what the hell he was going to do about.

Duo blocked a blow from Wufei and let himself be pulled towards him as the "blow" turned into a grab instead. He could hear Heero start to explain what he was doing as they moved into this less-than-conventional part of the demo. Some of this stuff was what he'd taught in those self-defence classes. Really dirty fighting that didn't necessarily require a lot of skill and was basically designed to temporarily incapacitate your attacker while you ran like hell. Which was why Heero was explaining it, because despite the fact that Fei was wearing a certain amount of safety gear, they could only semi-demonstrate most of this, having to fake the actions and response for the most part. At least this part would give him a chance to catch his breath since they were slowing things down in order to let the group see exactly what was going on.

Even through the padding wrapped around his shins, Wufei could feel Duo's boot heel scraping down the front of his shin. 'That would be *very* painful without the padding,' he winced. The front of a shin had no real fat layer for protection, meaning that the pressure from the heel was transferred virtually directly to bone. When he and Duo had worked this demo out earlier this morning, he had been surprised just how much someone held in classic "hostage" position - back to attacker's chest, arm around neck - could *do*. Smash the attacker's nose with a hard toss of the head. Bite the attacker's arm. Scrape a heel down the attacker's shin, hard, then follow up by grinding the heel into the attacker's toes. He'd been a bit surprised to discover that even if face-to-face, a knee to the groin was generally considered an error - it left the person doing it off-balance and easily taken down as well as being easily blocked by a simple twist of the hips or shift of one leg - and that the alternative move had the advantage of working in this back-to-chest position as well. He wouldn't be surprised to see the men in the audience suddenly crossing their legs protectively after this one.

Duo's hand reached back between them, seemingly pinned and ineffective. Except that it *wasn't*. It had more than enough manoeuvring room to reach down and grab - in *this* case, only grabbing cloth, though the real move would grab considerably more - pull, and *twist*. Hard. Wufei loosened his grip and drew back, doubling over slightly in a convincing response to Duo's move, leaving Duo more than enough space to twist around and go for the eyes with extended fingers. He pulled the blow well clear of Wufei's face - too far clear to look convincing, really, but Duo had stood firm in his insistence that there was no way he was taking a chance on seriously hurting Wufei just for the sake of a demo. Wufei completely released Duo as he raised his hands to his face in response. By the time he dropped his hands again, Duo was on the far side of the room, commenting, "And for the final move, you run like *hell*."

Duo grinned at the number of crossed legs and hands laying protectively over laps after that little piece of the demonstration. It *was* a particularly nasty little move if done correctly. And even if it wasn't, it was still less hazardous than lifting a leg completely off the ground and well into the air to try kneeing the groin area. He felt his chest tighten and decided not to offer any further comments of his own. Holding off a cough was becoming harder by the minute. And he was *really* getting hot. Apparently fever and exercise were not a particularly good combination. The ibuprofen was either wearing off or unable to handle the fever now that he'd heated his body up with exercise. At least that was the last demo for *this* group. Hopefully, if he dosed himself up again at lunch, he'd make it through the afternoon group okay too.

***

Struggling not to cough, Duo looked at the clock and worried. He hadn't had a chance to take any more medication. Several of the top-ranking personnel from the branch office had taken the three of them out to dinner and he hadn't been able to slip off to take the medication before they went out. Now here they were, back again, the next group already waiting for them to start, and he *still* hadn't found the opportunity to dose up on cough suppressant and ibuprofen. He was hot, tired, short of breath, and his head hurt like hell. And he was starting to feel a bit light-headed again. None of which boded too well for getting through this session as well as he had the previous one. The question was, what should he do. Try to do it and hope he didn't screw up? Or 'fess up that he was feeling ill and sit this out?

But at this stage, it was a little late to change plans. If he didn't take part, Fei and Heero would have to rework everything on-the-fly. If he'd warned them earlier on that he might not make it through, they could have had a backup plan in place. Hell, if he'd confessed earlier, they wouldn't *need* a backup plan because if they'd even let him take part they wouldn't have let him do quite as much and he wouldn't be in such rough shape. Not to mention he wouldn't have had to worry about trying to sneak medication; he could have simply taken it openly. 'Too late now, Maxwell. Now you're not only going to look weak for getting sick, you're going to look like an idiot for hiding it.' At least he'd deserve the idiot part.

Duo hesitated, then, while Heero was explaining the first demo - facing two opponents - he slipped over to Wufei and *partially* confessed. "Fei, I'm kinda running out of steam. Dunno if I'm going to be able to get through all three demos this time, so that last one of ours might not work out..."

Wufei turned his head sharply, taking a good look at Duo. Looking for the signs that he'd noticed earlier and ended up deciding he'd imagined. Shit. He hadn't. And they were worse. He laid his hand against Duo's forehead and swore. "You're burning up! Duo, you can't..."

But Duo wasn't paying any attention. He'd already pulled away and headed towards where Heero was waiting. Unwilling to make a scene, Wufei followed. He'd just have to hope that they could get through this portion of the session okay. Then since *he* was supposed to do the intro to the next session, he'd just change it and make it a standard sparring demo between Heero and himself, something they'd done enough times before that the lack of a rehearsal shouldn't matter. And he would do that whether Duo agreed or not. Because although he'd made a mistake in not confronting Duo about his suspicions earlier, Duo shouldn't have tried to hide this from them. They were supposed to be trying to build a relationship and relationships required trust and communication from *all* parties involved.

Heero's brow furrowed as the demo commenced. Wufei seemed distracted. And Duo - Duo seemed a bit off. His response times were down even more than earlier. Nothing that Heero couldn't compensate for, but... Something was definitely wrong here. He continued through the routine that they'd planned, but the flow wasn't there. Not like in practice or in the morning session. Both of his "opponents" were very slightly out of position on most of the moves. The timing was slightly off. 'What the hell is going on here?' he wondered, pulling a punch that was far too close to actually hitting.

Wufei fought with half his mind on his own moves and the other half on Duo. Attention divided between blocking and dodging Heero's blows and keeping an eye on Duo. Making sure that he was okay. And because of that, he saw/heard the choked-off cough as Duo faltered slightly, recovered, then was wracked by a coughing fit at the worst possible time. Saw Heero try to pull his kick. Realized that Duo was so far out of position that Heero couldn't completely avoid hitting him with most of the force still behind it. And *moved*, shoving Duo out of the way just in time to catch the kick himself with his guard completely down.

Part 27:

Duo opened the suite door and stepped aside while Heero carried Wufei in. His gaze flickered guiltily over Wufei's pale face and Heero's set expression before he silently turned to close the door. 'God, I fucked up *so* bad... I shouldn't have hid the fact that I was getting sick. Shouldn't have tried to do the demo.' Shouldn't have, shouldn't have, shouldn't have. But he *did*. And now Heero and Wufei were paying the price for *his* mistakes. Wufei in the form of a broken arm and two cracked ribs. And Heero in guilt over having caused those injuries.

Duo hesitated in the sitting area, expecting Heero to take Wufei into their room. He wasn't too sure Wufei would want to share his anymore. Not after what happened. He opened his mouth to say as much, then closed it without speaking when Heero turned towards his room. Maybe he was wrong to let Heero put Wufei in his room. But... 'At least I'll have him close one more night... Even if he can't forgive me, I'll have one more memory to store away...'

Heero carried Wufei into Duo's room, waited while Duo pulled back the covers, then gently placed him on the bed. Wufei had been insistent that he did *not* need to be admitted to the hospital, glaring and swearing at the middle-aged doctor that tried to insist. Heero had finally added the weight of his own glare and the doctor had caved in on the subject, but he'd insisted on administering a painkiller before Wufei left. Wufei had refused, Duo had protested, and Wufei had finally agreed on the condition that Duo get properly checked out.

Which of course led to discovering the *second* mess that they had to deal with. Bronchitis. Fortunately, *just* bronchitis, no bacterial infection. Yet. So no antibiotics. Basically, Duo just had to keep doing what he had already been doing - take ibuprofen for fever and a cough suppressant to control the cough as necessary - plus drink lots of fluids and *rest*. The doctor had been extremely displeased to discover that Duo had been engaged in something as tiring and temperature-raising as sparring. Heero suspected that the doctor's extreme irritation with the whole bunch of them had led to him dosing Wufei with a sedative type of painkiller. Probably the man had hoped they'd give in and let him be admitted if he couldn't walk out on his own. Heero had just given him an even nastier glare for the trick and carried Wufei out to the taxi.

'What a mess,' Heero thought as he stepped away from the bed, trying not to limp, while Duo stepped forward to remove Wufei's shoes and make him at least a bit more comfortable. He was pretty sure he'd pulled a couple of muscles trying not to hit Duo with that kick. 'And as it was, I still ended up hitting Wufei. Hitting him damn hard too since where he moved *to* was the direction that I was pulling the kick *towards* in my attempt to miss Duo.' He didn't know whether he'd ever forget hearing the sickening crack that told him his blow had broken something even before Wufei crumpled to the ground.

'Would I feel any worse if it had been Duo that I'd injured?' Heero wondered. He wasn't really sure. He wasn't too sure that he *could* feel much worse. He'd gone through that scene in his head repeatedly over the course of the past few hours and he just couldn't find a way to avoid what happened. Not once he'd started that kick. 'But things should have never reached that point. I should have called a halt once I realized just how "off" they both were. Even if I *didn't* have any idea that Duo was sick...'

"Why?" Heero asked quietly as Duo drew the covers over Wufei and moved away from the bed. He reached out and caught Duo's chin, forcing Duo to meet his eyes. "Why didn't you tell us you were sick? Why did you hide it?"

Duo swallowed hard. He really didn't have a good answer to that question. The one that he did have was just going to hurt Heero even more. But it was time to stop the half-truths. Time to stop dodging questions. He'd created a big enough mess already, he didn't need to make things even worse by continuing down the same path of misleading answers. "Everything was going so well. You both actually wanted my help. I'd wanted your approval, Fei's approval for so long..." He had to stop as a coughing fit interrupted him. Recovering, he continued, "And I didn't want to prove that you were both right before, that I *was* weak after all. Getting sick just from being damp and chilled and stressed out. I thought I could just treat the symptoms and keep going. That I could get through the demos at least. Figured I'd tell you afterwards, when it wouldn't matter as much. When I'd have already proved that I could hold my own even if I *was* weak enough to get sick so easily." Duo's voice dropped off and he whispered guiltily, "I never thought anyone else would get hurt. I wouldn't blame Fei if he never forgives me. Wouldn't blame you, either, Heero. I'm sorry..."

Heero rubbed his hand across his face wearily. Maybe this was all for nothing. If Duo still didn't believe that they loved him no matter what, that they were sorry for all the things they'd said and done in the past... Didn't believe that he could trust them, trust their love for him... Then what was the point? "What will it take to make you believe me? Believe Wufei?" he asked in discouragement. "How are we supposed to ever convince you that we love you when you don't even give us a chance to prove it?"

Heero slumped down on a chair, suddenly exhausted and abruptly aware of every strained or pulled muscle in his body. "Dammit Duo, how do you think I feel knowing that you've been getting sick since sometime yesterday, have *known* that you were getting sick, and that you deliberately hid it from me? From *us*? Knowing that I missed the signs that you weren't feeling well? Signs I shouldn't have needed to look for because YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME?!" Heero drew a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down again before adding wearily, "How do you think I feel knowing that you don't trust me, or Wufei, or our love for you, enough to tell us something that important?"

Duo listened, horrified, to Heero's words. That wasn't it at all! Or... was it? Had he really thought that they would turn away from him if they knew? Suddenly, he wasn't sure exactly *why* he hadn't told them. He'd told himself that he needed to prove his skills to them by taking part in the demos; that he was afraid they wouldn't let him if they knew he was getting sick; but why had it been so important that he prove his skills? Hadn't the fact that they'd even asked him to help out showed that they respected his abilities? "I just... I needed to show you that I really could help... That I could be a partner..." he whispered.

"Partners trust each other and help each other," Heero said flatly, staring at the floor in front of him. "They don't hide things from each other and they *do* ask for help when they need it. It seems to me that *you* were the one who first tried to teach *me* that during the war. How the hell are we going to make a relationship work if you don't trust us?"

"I... I'm sorry," Duo managed to gasp out. "I... I just..." Just can't believe it's true. Which was exactly what Heero was accusing him of in that defeated tone. 'I've wrecked it. I had just what I've been dreaming of for so damn long now and I fucking *wrecked* it. If Heero feels like this, what's Fei think? Probably the same damn thing... And I can't even deny it. Still can't even manage to tell them how much I love them both.' "I'm sorry," he repeated, blinking rapidly as tears threatened yet again. "God, Heero, I'm so sorry..." Duo turned and fled the room, instinctively heading for the hall door and reaching for the knob.

Heero jerked his head up sharply as he realized that Duo was leaving. He lunged to his feet, wincing as over-stressed muscles protested, and headed after him. 'Not again, dammit! I can't leave Wufei here alone and in a drugged sleep while I go chasing Duo all over the damn city!' He hadn't meant to send Duo into flight again! But then this was just more proof of the problem. 'He probably has himself convinced that he's wrecked everything and we don't want him anymore,' Heero realized with a heavy heart. He reached the sitting area just in time to hear the hall door click shut again - with Duo still on the inside. Heero sagged against the end of the couch in relief. 'He stopped...'

Duo stood with his hand on the knob, struggling with his torn emotions. He had his wallet, there was nothing stopping him from hopping a flight back to L2. And if he'd really wrecked things with Fei and Heero, that was exactly what he should be doing. But if they really loved him, maybe... maybe they'd be willing to forgive him. Maybe he hadn't wrecked things beyond repair. If he wanted this badly enough to make the effort. If he could trust them enough to try...

"They say they love me... No, I can't keep thinking of it that way... Not 'they say they love me'... They *love* me. I have to trust them... Have to try... Maybe they can forgive me... Maybe we can still fix this..." Duo murmured quietly.

"If you're willing to really try, of course we can," a voice answered.

Duo jumped, startled, and turned around. "Heero..."

"I'm hurt and upset and a little bit mad at you, but I still love you," Heero said carefully. This was such new territory for him. He desperately wished Wufei were awake and here to let him know whether he was doing the right thing or not. Prompting Duo to run from him, from *them*, had not been his intention and he was a bit afraid of making things even worse. But Wufei wasn't available and he would have to handle this himself and just hope he didn't screw things up even more than they already were. Heero opened his arms and waited tensely, hoping Duo would take the invitation, hoping Duo would believe what he had said.

Duo took one hesitant step, eyes searching Heero's face. 'He means it. All of it. He *is* hurt and upset. He's even kinda mad at me. But... he still loves me...' The next step turned into a rush of steps, carrying him across the room and into Heero's arms.

Heero held Duo tightly against him, stroking his hair and back as he'd seen Wufei do before while Duo poured out a litany of apologies and mangled explanations. 'He stopped on his own. Stayed on his own. Maybe he *does* believe us at least partially...' As Duo's stream of words became broken by coughs, Heero started to shush him gently. "It's okay, Duo. You made a mistake and you've apologized. I accept your apology and I'm sure Wufei will tomorrow once he's awake and aware again. He wouldn't have done what he did if he didn't love you, you know. Just don't ever do something like this again, please?"

"Promise," Duo said earnestly. 'I won't. I *can't*. Hiding things and keeping secrets just got everybody hurt one way or another. Fei got the worst of it physically, but Heero's pretty upset about all this too. I know he feels bad 'cause Fei got hurt by him even if it was accidental.'

"Come on now, let's see if they've replenished the soup supply in here so we can eat and get some rest, okay?" Heero suggested.

Duo nodded against Heero's neck before reluctantly pulling away from him. "Okay," he said softly, trying not to strain his voice any more. He was tired. Very tired. And not very hungry. But he knew that the steam from the hot soup would help ease his breathing and he needed the nutrients too. Almost as much as he needed to rest. But nowhere near as much as he needed Wufei to wake up and accept his apology and tell him that he still loved him.

***

Heero waited for Duo to climb in bed next to Wufei as usual. Duo hesitated, twisting his braid nervously. He wasn't sure that was a good idea. For one thing, he tended to end up sprawled all over his bedmates and he could hurt Fei if he did that tonight. And - well, there was also the fact that he wasn't too sure Wufei would want to wake up with him in close contact even if he didn't hurt his ribs or arm. There hadn't even been a chance to apologize properly between the accident happening and Fei unwillingly giving in to the sedatives. There'd been too many other people around and too many things going on. He *hoped* that Wufei would forgive him. But even if he did, that didn't mean he wouldn't be a wee bit... 'Pissed off at me. And with good reason. After all, it's my fault he got hurt. Why would he want to wake up with my head on his shoulder even if it was his uninjured side?'

"Duo?" Heero said quizzically. "Aren't you getting in?"

"Uh, I think you'd better take the middle tonight, Heero..." Duo said hesitantly. "I sprawl all over you guys in my sleep and I don't want to hurt Fei even more by doing that..."

Heero closed his mouth on his instinctive protest. Duo had a good point. The times that they'd shared a bed had invariably both started and ended with Duo lying partially on top of one or the other of them. He liked the feeling himself and he was pretty sure Wufei did too. But with a broken arm and cracked ribs to deal with too - err, no, that would not be a very comfortable sensation. "Alright," he agreed, crawling in beside Wufei. 'I just hope he gives me a chance to explain if he wakes up before I get up in the morning!' he thought only semi-jokingly. They'd been sharing a bed, true, but they'd never actually been close enough to touch before. Heero barely got himself comfortably situated before Duo was crawling in beside him and starting to curl up with his head on his shoulder.

"Umm, this is okay, isn't it Heero?" Duo suddenly asked. "I mean, I'll understand if you're still mad and you don't want..."

"Duo," Heero cut him off firmly. "Don't be an even bigger idiot than you've already been today. I love you, remember?"

"Okay," Duo said meekly, shifting even closer to Heero. "I just..."

"Duo. Go to sleep," Heero ordered gently. "No more talking. Just rest."

"Okay," Duo said again, snuggling against Heero's shoulder. "G'night Heero..."

"Good night, Duo. I love you."

The room fell quiet for several minutes, then, so soft that Heero wasn't entirely sure that he'd heard correctly, a sleepy mumble said, "Love you too, Heero."

***

During the night, Wufei half-woke from his drugged sleep and realized that he felt a bit cold. He still had a full set of blankets over him, but he was missing the warm body that he'd got used to having draped over him. He started to roll onto his side, looking for Duo, then was reminded of why Duo might *not* be draped across him by the awkward cast and a sharp twinge from his ribs. Probably Duo hadn't wanted to risk hurting him. But he missed the contact after even just a couple of nights of it. Maybe...

Carefully, Wufei shifted across the bed, towards the nearest slumbering body. Part of him noted that it was unusual for Duo to be sleeping on his back, but that was convenient for his purposes. He rested his cast between himself and the sleeper and put his head down on the other's shoulder, only to have his ribs twinge. After a little experimenting, he discovered that the only way he could get comfortable was to get close enough to support himself against the person's body, drape one leg over theirs, and put his head on their chest with his casted arm angled across the torso. After a moment of comfort, Wufei suddenly realized that there was another head resting on the chest. A head with a long braid that flopped across, nearly touching his hand.

'If Duo is over *there*... Then...' Oh shit. He was draped all over *Heero*. 'I should move,' Wufei thought reluctantly and a bit muzzily. But... he was awfully comfortable. Maybe Heero wouldn't mind too much. He could always blame it on the drugs... And maybe Heero's reaction would help him figure out whether he was the only one wondering exactly how he felt about the non-shared member of their threesome. 'I really *am* comfortable...' he decided sleepily. Wufei shifted his casted arm a bit, gathering Duo's braid into his hand, and drifted back off to sleep.

***

Heero woke up slowly, feeling almost uncomfortably warm. 'Damn. Duo's fever must be up...' he thought, struggling to pry his eyelids open. Odd though, he would only expect one side to be warm if Duo was draped over top of him. He blinked in disbelief, convinced that he must still be dreaming, as he finally opened his eyes to find not one but *two* bodies sprawled across him. 'No wonder I'm so warm...' he thought dazedly. Evidently Wufei must have missed having someone draped all over him in his sleep and sought out the nearest warm body - *his*. 'This - could be very - err - *awkward*...' To put it mildly. How *would* Wufei react to waking up with his head on Heero's chest, one leg thrown across Heero's, and his arm in its cast resting on Heero's abdomen? He wasn't too sure he wanted to know.

Part 28:

Leery as he was of Wufei's reaction to waking up draped all over him, Heero really couldn't do anything about it. For one thing, trying to work Duo's braid out of Wufei's hand so that he could slip out from between them would almost certainly wake one if not both of them. And of course, trying to move Wufei could hurt him. And both Duo and Wufei were so soundly and peacefully asleep... And they both *needed* the rest... And it was still *very* early in the morning... And...

'And you don't actually *want* to move. Admit it, Yuy. It feels good having them both so close. Knowing that they're both here and safe.' Or at least *relatively* so, he thought with a wince as his eye was drawn to Wufei's cast. Accidents happened sometimes in sparring matches. The occasional bruise or black eye or strained muscle was almost expected. Broken or fractured bones, on the other hand... 'I should have called a halt as soon as I realized they were both not completely on track,' Heero castigated himself silently. Hurting someone he... he *cared* about... was *not* acceptable. 'And I *do* care for Wufei. That much I have figured out. It's just the whole issue of exactly how much and in what way I care for him that has me a bit - confused...'

He shifted the arm around Duo in order to rub his back gently as Duo started to cough. 'Damn. Cough suppressant must be wearing off.' Duo settled again, cough subsiding, and thankfully didn't quite wake up. 'He really needs the rest...' When he did eventually wake, Heero hoped he would agree to take some more medication, eat a bit of breakfast, then rest again. He wouldn't really mind spending most of today resting himself. Though he needed a nice hot bath or something to loosen his stiff muscles at some point. They'd been sore enough last night; he could imagine how bad they'd be this morning. Especially after lying in the same position all night with - err, other people - using him as a pillow.

'Shit, and Wufei's painkillers must have worn off by now too,' Heero realized. Hopefully Wufei would agree to take something for the pain rather than just toughing his way through it. Otherwise, every little twinge was going to have Duo getting more upset. Not that *he'd* be exactly happy about it either... But he was more concerned at the moment over Wufei's own discomfort and Duo's reaction to it. Duo was *so* sensitive to the least hint of one of them being upset with him and he was already feeling so guilty over his mistakes...

Heero was pretty sure that Duo had been damn close to giving up last night. But he hoped that maybe, just *maybe*, he'd finally gotten through to Duo. That Duo had finally accepted that he really did love him and that a few mistakes wouldn't change that fact. That softly murmured "Love you too" from Duo, the first time that Duo had actually *said* those words to him, seemed to indicate that.

But Wufei was still going to have to persuade Duo of his own love. And if Duo was too busy beating himself up over getting Wufei hurt, that wasn't going to be easy. Duo had some major trust issues to work out with both of them. And he couldn't quite believe that was *entirely* because of their past actions and words. Heero had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with those bits of Duo's past that had been skimmed over so lightly. Those gaping holes in what he *had* told the two of them about his life before becoming a Gundam pilot.

***

Wufei woke slowly, reluctantly dragged to consciousness by a growing throb in his arm and a dull ache in his side. 'Ow. Shit, that hurts. Forgot just how painful broken bones - or cracked ones - actually *were*...' At least he wasn't cold like he had been when he'd woken earlier... With increasing wakefulness came the memory of exactly *why* he wasn't cold this time. Because when he'd woken up earlier, he'd draped himself all over the nearest warm body thinking that it was Duo, then had decided to stay put even after realizing that it was in fact *Heero* he was using as a pillow. 'Why did staying put seem like such a good idea?! Maybe I really *should* blame the drugs...' Well - yes and no he admitted. The drugs had something to do with him being sufficiently uninhibited to stay put - but not with the wish to do so.

'I am attracted to Heero. And I care about him. A lot. Maybe almost as much as I do Duo. But do I love him? Am I in love with him?' Wufei wasn't sure. Not too long ago, he would have said that it was impossible to be in love with two people at the same time. Now... well, he didn't doubt that Duo loved both Heero and himself, that Duo was in love with them both. And if he was in love with Heero as well as with Duo, or could learn to be... Well, that would probably make things much simpler in many ways.

'*If* Duo genuinely believes we love him,' Wufei reminded himself unhappily. 'And knowing that he kept his illness a secret, I am not certain that he does...'

He had to admit he was - upset - okay, maybe more than upset, maybe something awfully close to angry - that Duo had hidden his illness. That he hadn't trusted them enough to tell them that he wasn't feeling well. 'And I am not precisely happy about what happened as a result either,' Wufei thought rather sourly as the nagging pain gradually became more insistent. But while he would give a great deal to be able to go back and relive yesterday, this time confronting Duo about his suspicions, he would not change his own actions if things reached the same point again. He would still push Duo out of the way even with the foreknowledge of his own injuries. Because he still loved Duo and did not want to see him hurt if there was anything that he could do to prevent it.

But aside from a certain degree of irritation over his own injuries, Wufei was also upset on Heero's behalf. There was no doubt in Wufei's mind that Heero blamed himself for Wufei being hurt, despite the fact that it was Duo's secrecy and Wufei's own actions that caused it. Right when the accident happened, while Duo had crouched on the floor coughing uncontrollably, Heero had been scrambling to *Wufei's* side, demanding to know exactly what had broken so audibly, even as he threw anxious glances at Duo's ashen face. 'And Heero's colour wasn't any too healthy looking either. He was extremely upset over hurting me. More than if it had been someone else, perhaps?' Perhaps. Certainly not as much as he probably would have been if the kick had indeed hit Duo, but...

But he really didn't know. 'You are going to have to address this issue. And soon,' Wufei told himself firmly. 'I will have to discuss it with Duo and with Heero too. After the mess caused by lack of communication yesterday, I know that I can't afford to keep my confusion over the matter secret. There is too much of a chance of a misunderstanding occurring if one or both of them realizes I am attracted to Heero without me admitting it.' Because in that case, they would be left wondering just why he *had* kept it a secret. And if Duo didn't believe in his love and assumed that Wufei was falling for Heero as a *replacement* for him, rather than in addition to him... 'No, I cannot take that chance. I have to bring this up and discuss it, no matter how embarrassing it may be...'

And speaking of embarrassing, just how the hell was he going to explain to Heero why he was lying half on top of him? Especially if Heero was uncomfortable with being used as a body pillow by someone other than Duo? He really didn't know *what* to say. In a way, it would be simpler if he could move away before Heero woke up...

A moment later, Wufei realized that Heero was definitely already awake as his "pillow" shifted slightly in response to Duo coughing. As the coughing fit continued, Wufei opened his eyes and tried to sit up. He swore sharply as the movement made it clear that the painkillers were definitely no longer in effect.

Duo managed to get himself partially propped up as coughs racked his body. Heero's hand rubbing his back helped a bit, keeping him from tensing up so badly, but he couldn't quite get the coughing stopped. Movement drew his attention to Heero's far side, and he realized abruptly why Heero hadn't been able to pull him into a sitting position, as Wufei was draped along Heero's side. Sharp swearing in Mandarin made him cringe as he realized his coughing must have woken Wufei and that Wufei was trying to sit up but was in pain from his injuries. "Fei?" he managed to choke out between coughs. 'Please don't hate me, please, please...'

Realizing that his rubbing Duo's back wasn't helping enough and that Wufei was awake, Heero shifted to help Wufei sit up, then quickly slid off the bed and hurriedly limped to the bathroom for a glass of water. 'Should have thought to leave some by the bed last night...' He wasn't sure that Duo could stop coughing long enough to safely drink, though. So he turned the hot water tap in the shower and the one in the sink both on full and pulled the door almost completely closed so that the steam would build up before taking the glass back over to the bed.

Wufei managed to shift himself across the bed towards Duo, wrapping his good arm around him and rubbing his back. "Shh, don't try to talk," he scolded gently as Duo tried to speak to him. "Yes, you owe me an apology and an explanation," he said, guessing at what Duo was trying to say. "You owe *both* of us an apology and an explanation. But not right this minute. Just relax and let the coughing finish." He drew Duo close to his good side before continuing, "I still love you even though I am rather," he discarded his first choice of "angry", deciding that Duo was in too much distress to add to it with such a strong word, and finished, "*upset* with you right now."

Duo let Wufei draw him close, grateful that he was still willing to do so. He just wished he could stop the coughing long enough to give Fei the apology he deserved.

"Duo and I already settled things between us last night," Heero said from beside the bed. "He's promised not to do anything like this again and I *trust* him to keep his word."

Duo flinched at Heero's emphasis on the word "trust". He'd never thought his secretiveness would hurt Heero so much, but it definitely had. He was going to have to do something to really prove that he *did* trust them. Which probably meant he would have to tell them the rest of his past. Tell them about the church. 'Explain that it's not exactly *them* that I don't trust... That I just can't quite trust being happy and loved because any time I have been before, something's always happened to take it away...'

That part Duo had figured out last night, lying in bed and repeatedly going over his own twisted and confused reasoning that had led to keeping his illness a secret. He'd finally figured out that it wasn't *just* about not being able to believe that they really loved him because of things they'd said and done in the past. No, it had a whole hell of a lot to do with not being able to believe in happiness, or at least *his* happiness, period. He was going to have to explain that before he managed to fuck things up even worse.

But first, he needed to stop coughing for longer than a few seconds, Duo thought as he tried again to get a sip of water down only to start coughing again and nearly choke.

Heero leaned over and scooped Duo off the bed, ignoring protesting muscles, then carried him to the bathroom and pushed the door open. He set Duo down on the edge of the tub and crouched beside him, steadying him. Before he could reach out to shove the door shut again, Wufei came in behind them, pushing the door closed before crossing to Duo's other side and carefully perching on the edge of the tub beside him.

Between Wufei rubbing his back and the steamy air, Duo's coughing finally calmed. He dropped his head against Heero's shoulder where he crouched beside him and rested for a few minutes, exhausted.

"His cough medicine is on the table," Heero told Wufei. "Could you..." He was relieved when Wufei nodded and cautiously stood. He wasn't too sure he was going to have much luck getting up. 'Crouching was a *bad* idea,' he thought ruefully, keeping one arm around Duo while using his other hand to massage his cramping thigh muscles. He'd definitely pulled a couple yesterday.

Returning with the medication and a spoon, Wufei raised an eyebrow at the sight in front of him. "Don't tell me you hurt yourself too..."

Duo's head lifted in alarm. "Heero?"

"Just a couple of pulled muscles," Heero assured them. "And a little stiffness from not being able to move all night."

"Oh," Wufei said, flushing slightly. He moved to turn off the tap in the sink but left the shower running to replace the steam lost by opening the door.

Heero hesitated, then offered softly, "Not that I minded. It was sort of - nice..." Nice in what way, he wasn't quite sure, but he did know that it was - nice. And he really wouldn't mind if it happened again.

Wufei paused for a moment, not sure what to say in response to that, then settled for simply, "Oh" again. He finished measuring out Duo's cough medicine over the sink before turning around. "Open up," he ordered, holding the medicine out to Duo.

Duo made a face but obeyed, swallowing the nasty tasting stuff. "That stuff is *gross*."

"Then it should work. My grandmother always said that medicine was supposed to taste bad. That was how you knew it would work," Wufei commented drily.

The room was silent for a few minutes, other than the noise from the still-running shower. Wufei finally reached out and shut it off, judging that there was sufficient steam to last for a while.

"Fei? Aren't you going to take *your* medicine?" Duo asked hesitantly. "The stuff the doctor gave you must have worn off by now..."

"You two aren't going to let me get away without it, are you," he observed, noting Heero's questioning look as well. Two heads shook in response. Wufei sighed heavily, then conceded, "Fine."

"I think we should have breakfast before getting into any of the discussions that we need to have," Heero commented.

"That sounds like a good idea," Wufei agreed. Particularly since he hadn't eaten since lunch yesterday, a fact his stomach was starting to remind him of. He wasn't too sure he wanted to go to all the hassle of getting ready in order to go down to the restaurant for breakfast, though he *did* need to get changed, seeing as he was still wearing yesterday's clothing. "Shall we have breakfast delivered rather than going downstairs?"

"I think that would be best," Heero agreed. He volunteered to handle ordering for them all, leaving Duo to help Wufei get changed.

Trailing Wufei into his own room, Duo felt absolutely miserable. He was tired and his chest hurt from all the coughing, but that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was every time *Fei* winced or swore under his breath. Despite Heero's suggestion to delay discussions until after breakfast, he couldn't put it off that long. "Fei?"

Wufei turned from pulling clean clothes out of his suitcase, attention caught by Duo's miserable tone. He took one look at Duo's guilty, unhappy face and held out his good arm. "Come here, Duo."

Duo stepped into Wufei's one-armed embrace and pressed his face to Wufei's shoulder. "God, Fei, I'm so sorry. I never thought I'd end up getting one of you hurt! I just... just didn't think things through very well and I really fucked up. I thought I had good reasons for doing what I did, but I was wrong. I'll try and explain later, 'cause even what I talked about with Heero last night doesn't really cover it, or at least I don't think it does now that I've thought about it some more..." He muffled a cough with one hand as his body protested all the rapid talking he was doing. "I promise I won't ever hide something like that again..."

A cough broke off Duo's words again and Wufei pressed a kiss to his temple and stroked his hand over Duo's braid. "Shh, that's enough for now. I accept your apology, Duo, though I do still want to hear your explanation. I accept your promise too. Now do *you* accept that I really do love you and I'm not going to turn away because you get sick or make a mistake or anything else?"

"I... I do, but it's not quite that simple, and that's the bit that I haven't talked over with Heero yet either..." Duo answered softly. He hesitated, gathering his resolve, then, face still pressed against Wufei's shoulder, managed to finally get the words out, just as he had for Heero last night. "And I do love you too, Fei..."

Wufei closed his eyes for a moment, throat tightening. At last. Duo had actually come right out and said it. Despite whatever was "not quite that simple", he'd finally said it. Hugging Duo as tightly as he could manage without causing further discomfort to his arm or ribs, Wufei dropped another kiss on his temple. Maybe things would start to go more smoothly now.

Part 29:

Heero watched as Wufei carefully settled himself on the other side of Duo, leaning back against the headboard. While Duo had been elsewhere, the two of them had quickly agreed that the best place for whatever it was that Duo intended to tell them was the place he seemed happiest and most secure. Which meant between the two of them. And the small couch - only a loveseat, really - simply was not designed for three. So here they were, back in the bedroom again.

Seeing Duo fidgeting with the end of his braid, Heero's heart sank. He'd been so sure that Duo had finally accepted that his past wouldn't drive them away... But this nervousness seemed to be saying otherwise.

Brow wrinkled in concern, Wufei reached out to rescue Duo's braid before it started unravelling. "Duo, I - we - love you. Whatever you have to say won't change that." He winced a bit at the frustration that was clearly audible despite his attempt to keep his tone level and understanding.

Duo looked up, startled. "Sorry - I'm just..." He gave an exasperated huff, then started over. "I know you both love me. If yesterday's fucked up mess did anything good, it at least finally got that fact through my thick skull," he added with a sheepish grin. Turning serious again, he took a deep breath to gather his resolve and continued, "I love you too. Both of you. This stuff is just - really hard to talk about. I've never actually told all of it to *anyone* before. G didn't even know most of it.

"It's not exactly your reactions that I'm nervous about. More like, I'm nervous about digging up all these memories. If I hesitate, or stop, it's not 'cause I doubt either of you, okay? There's a lot of other stuff going on in this mixed-up head of mine and I kinda think it's at least partly responsible for the problems we've been having...

"This is some of the stuff I sort of skipped over when I told you about my past before. It wasn't really about not trusting you to listen and understand even then; I just couldn't handle reliving all that crap at the same time. So I skipped some of the most painful stuff 'cause I didn't want to end up breaking down in the middle." Duo stopped for a moment to take a sip from the bottle of water he'd brought with him. He wasn't sure it would do much good to prevent the coughing, but Heero and Wufei really needed to hear this *now*; he couldn't afford to put it off until his bronchitis cleared up.

Heero felt a bit of the tension drain from his muscles at Duo's explanation. He could understand being nervous over digging up old memories. He hadn't exactly gone into great detail while telling about his own past for the same reason. Just mentioning the training accident and the retraining that followed had been difficult enough; he wouldn't have wanted to remember the details of the retraining on top of that.

"Are you sure you can handle this much talking?" Wufei asked a bit reluctantly. He really *did* want to know what Duo had to say but Duo's voice was a bit hoarse to begin with and if he was already sipping at his water, Wufei was a little concerned over whether this much talking was a good idea.

"No," Duo answered honestly, "but I owe you both an explanation for my behaviour. And I think you *need* to know before we end up having any more misunderstandings..."

"Go ahead then," Heero said. "Tell us as much as you can, then if the memories are too painful or your cough gets too bad, just stop for a while and take a break. Okay?"

"Okay," Duo agreed. He took another small sip of water and marshalled his thoughts. There were two specific things that he figured he needed to cover. Solo. And the church. The church was a fresher wound, fresher and a little more painful. Best to leave it till last. It would make more sense covered in chronological order anyway.

Duo started abruptly, "I don't have a lot of good memories from the streets. The whole sleeping-in-a-pile thing that I mentioned before is one of them. The others all have to do with the kid who led the gang I was in. Solo's the one who found me and looked after me till I was old enough to hit the streets begging and picking pockets with the rest of the gang. He was probably at least a few years older than me but it's hard to say 'cause malnutrition kept everybody a little on the small side. I don't remember anything before being with him and the gang. Nothing about a family or anything. As far as I was concerned, Solo *was* my family. Big brother and parent all in one.

"With Solo running things, we usually had a semi-decent place to hide out for the night - some sort of shelter if it was rainy or really cold - and at least a bite or two of food and a little water every day. He took good care of us. Made sure we got to play a little bit even. Taught us how to play catch with an old rubber ball he found someplace; somebody'd thrown it out I suppose 'cause there was a chunk missing so it didn't bounce properly. Taught us how to play hopscotch by scratching lines in the dirt. Even started teaching us how to read and write letters and numbers. Not much, I don't think he knew an awful lot himself, but enough to sort of figure out signs and labels on boxes and cans.

"We didn't have much, but we were happy. Most of us couldn't remember anything better than what we had now, so we just counted ourselves lucky to be alive and have somebody who cared about us."

Happy with a bite or two of food and a little water every day. Wufei swallowed at the reminder of just how privileged his own childhood had been.

"It didn't last though," Duo continued, staring down at the braid he was again twisting in his hands. "The L2 slums have a big problem with viruses. On the streets, they call'em plagues but really they're just things like variants of influenza. Plus some of the regular childhood diseases that kids elsewhere are vaccinated against - stuff like measles and so on. But let that kind of thing get started in an area where nobody's been vaccinated, where everybody's malnourished and there's no shelter or medical care available..." He shrugged miserably. "All of a sudden, something that most people would just get a little sick from turns into something downright deadly." He went silent for a few minutes, fighting for control. He hated crying, didn't want to do it at all if he could help it, but knew that it was probably unavoidable before he was through. Not yet though, he had too damn much left to tell them to give in to tears already.

Heero bit back the urge to say something. To tell Duo that he really didn't have to tell them all this. Didn't have to dig up memories that were obviously so painful. Memories that clouded his eyes and left his cheeks pale and drawn. Duo had said that they needed to hear this, interrupting him would only make things even more difficult. Painful as this obviously was for him, painful as it was to watch him force out the words, it was necessary.

Almost automatically, Duo drank a bit of water before picking up his story again. "We lost almost half the gang. I'm pretty sure it was just an influenza variant, but it was a nasty one and the weather was cold and damp 'cause the colony's weather controls were malfunctioning again. Solo started getting sick too. He'd got sick before but he'd always pulled through. This time though, too many of us had been sick. Too few of us were out working the streets and there wasn't enough food to go around, so Solo hadn't been eating his share, he'd give it to somebody else almost every time. Usually me 'cause I was still healthy enough to be out working. His fever kept going up and he wasn't eating or drinking enough and - well, he didn't pull through. Solo died and things weren't the same anymore."

Duo swallowed and angrily wiped the moisture from his cheeks, disgusted at his lack of control. "I was the oldest one left, so leadership fell to me. That's when I became Duo. But I wasn't ready to lead. I made some bad decisions; took too many risks. We had to resort to stealing from a grocer just to get at least a few bites every day. There wasn't any energy left over for playing, let alone time for it. We just kept getting more desperate. That's when I led the few kids left in the gang on a raid. We went after food stores on an Alliance base."

Heero's breath caught sharply. A gang of street kids raiding an Alliance base? One kid alone, maybe. The Alliance tended to be pretty cocky back then; a single person might have made it in and out again undetected. But a whole gang, even a small one? The odds against success would be astronomical.

"They shot at us. I mean, I knew when I took the kids there that we could get in real trouble, but they actually *shot* at us, a bunch of *kids*!" Duo shook his head unhappily. "I really fucked up. We were lucky. None of the kids were seriously injured and we all got away. But the people in the neighbourhood got mad because of all the attention we'd attracted. They got together and knocked down the abandoned house we'd been using for shelter. That's when the church took us in."

He sighed and despite the knowledge of what eventually happened, Duo couldn't help smiling slightly. "For a while, things were pretty good. I was damn suspicious; nobody ever gave you something for nothing, after all. There had to be a catch someplace. But I couldn't find one. And we were happy again. We didn't get just a bite or two every day. They gave us *three whole meals* every day. And we had a complete roof over our heads and four whole walls with windows that actually had glass in them. Life was great. Even after the other kids got adopted and I was left behind, things were pretty good.

"Then I fucked up again." Duo's voice wavered and cracked as he admitted it.

Heero reached over and gently pried Duo's clenched hands apart, taking one in his own and stroking it reassuringly. Wufei slid closer to Duo, wrapping his good arm around Duo's shoulders and pulling him against his side.

Duo let his head drop against Wufei's shoulder. He closed his eyes and drew as deep a breath as he could without triggering off the coughing. "Some rebels showed up at the church and used it to hide out. Father and Sister Helen helped tend their wounded. Father kept telling them that they shouldn't be fighting. That the colonies shouldn't be fighting. Finally, they hit him. Sister Helen intervened and they hit her too. Threatened them both. One of the rebels had mentioned something about needing just one mobile suit. So..." His voice wavered again. 'Almost done. Just *finish* it, dammit.'

"So I told them that I'd steal one but that they'd have to take it and leave. And I did it. I stole a transport with a suit on it and took it back to the church. But I took too long. And the Alliance knew I'd done it. I don't really know whether it was 'cause I took the suit or if they knew the rebels were there already, but they bombed the church while I was gone. Everybody died. And I was alone and back on the streets again." Duo stopped for a moment, fighting off a cough.

"See, it's not exactly that I don't trust *you*. Not that I don't trust your love. But anytime I've ever been happy, it hasn't lasted. Something's always happened to wreck it. Or I've fucked up and wrecked it. It's being happy that I don't trust..." Duo let his voice trail off on his admission. He left his stinging eyes closed and his head resting against Wufei's shoulder, desperately needing the contact right now.

Heero tightened his grasp on Duo's hand and shifted his gaze from Duo's unhappy, tear-streaked face to meet Wufei's eyes. He didn't know how they were going to handle this. Duo had good reason not to trust happiness. And they couldn't promise him that nothing would go wrong. They were both Preventers and on active field duty. The possibility of injury or death was always there on every mission. Not to the same degree as during the war, but it was still there. And even if they were to resign from the Preventers, that didn't automatically guarantee safety. The chance of being killed in a car accident or contracting a fatal illness would still exist.

Meeting Heero's eyes, Wufei saw confusion as great as his own looking back at him. How could they overcome this? Duo obviously understood the problem himself; that was why he'd been so insistent that he tell them this *now*. But acknowledging its existence didn't automatically make it go away. He was actually relieved when after a few minutes the change in Duo's breathing and the heaviness against his shoulder made it clear that Duo had fallen asleep, exhausted by his illness and the emotional strain.

"He's asleep?" Heero asked very softly.

"Yes," Wufei answered.

Between the two of them, they managed to shift Duo into a more comfortable position without waking him. Heero stroked his fingers gently down one tear-stained cheek before raising his eyes to meet Wufei's again. "Where do we go from here?" he asked quietly.

Wufei shook his head slightly. "I don't know. As long as he knows this is a problem, I think we can eventually get past it. But it's going to take time. And a lot of patience and reassurance from both of us."

Heero nodded thoughtfully. "Security. Someplace to call home. When we get back to Sanc..." He stopped abruptly. When they went back to Sanc, they were going to have a problem. They had two very small single-person apartments waiting for them. And... 'Oh shit.' Heero looked at Wufei, horrified. "Wufei, we've never actually discussed anything beyond this week with him." He scrambled out of bed and grabbed Duo's wallet off the dresser, hurriedly searching it. "And he has a ticket back to L2 for Monday morning!"

"When was it purchased?" Wufei demanded, hoping desperately that it had not been bought within the last few days.

Heero sagged against the dresser, relieved, as he found the information they needed. "At the same time as his ticket to Earth for the auction, thank god."

"We *have* to talk to him about this and the sooner the better," Wufei said. "I can't believe we've never actually asked him to stay..."

Shuddering at the oversight, Heero agreed, "That is a very large mistake on our part." He climbed back in bed and settled beside Duo again. "Neither of our apartments is going to handle three people," he observed.

Wufei winced at the thought of even trying to cram three of them into the double bed that was all that would fit in his bedroom. Or Heero's, for that matter, since they lived in identical apartments. "No," he agreed.

"We *could* just get a bigger apartment. But..." Heero hesitated. What he was going to suggest would be a very big step for all of them. However he didn't think a rented apartment would provide the kind of security that Duo needed. "But I think buying a house would probably be better. More - permanent? secure?"

Initially startled by Heero's suggestion, Wufei realized after a moment's thought that he was correct. An apartment or even a rented house didn't suggest the same degree of permanence or commitment as a house that they owned together would. And for three people to share even a moderately sized apartment would put considerable additional stress on their relationship that they really didn't need. He nodded slowly in response to Heero's questioning look. "You're right. We'll have to finance it though..." He was abruptly glad that he hadn't drained his savings account for the sake of the auction. He didn't really regret that the hacked money was gone, though. It might have allowed them to pay cash up front for a house but he didn't think any of them would have been comfortable with living in a house paid for with Oz money.

"Assuming that Duo even agrees..." Heero qualified. After all, Duo was part-owner of a business based on L2. Was he really going to want to sell out, move to Earth, and join the Preventers?

"Agrees to what?" Duo murmured sleepily, struggling to wake up. He didn't think he'd been asleep very long; he was still awfully tired. But the quiet voices sounded pretty serious.

"Agrees to stay with us," Wufei answered, smiling slightly at Duo's obvious struggle to pry his eyes open.

Provided with sufficient motivation, Duo managed to get his eyes open and drag himself into a sitting position. "Umm..." He hastily discarded the first responses to come to mind, deciding that "Really?" or "Do you mean it?" carried way too much doubt.

"Uh, I'm going to have to go back to L2 at least long enough to help Hilde hire a yard manager to take over from me and teach him or her the ropes... But..." Despite his best efforts, Duo couldn't *quite* manage to keep all the doubt out, "But if you're sure you really want me to, then yeah. I'll stay.

Part 30:

"Of course we want you to stay," Wufei said firmly. He regretted the fact that they hadn't made that clear much sooner. Maybe if they had, Duo would have had enough trust in their love to have admitted he was getting sick. 'Or maybe he wouldn't. There's no way to know and you could "if only" your way right back to the war and it still wouldn't change a damn thing, Chang. Just remember what all this has taught you and keep the lines of communication open this time. No more assumptions, no more secrets.'

"We were just discussing the fact that we will need a new place since both of our apartments are far too small for three people," Heero added. "We thought maybe we could buy a house if you would like that."

Duo froze, heart racing. "*Buy*? A *house*?" Would he *like* that? More like *love* that! "Uh yeah, that sounds kinda nice..."

Heero was a bit puzzled by Duo's surprisingly subdued response at first. Then he realized that Duo probably wouldn't show much excitement over things he *really* wanted, not when he was so cautious of happiness. Placing too much importance on something would just make the disappointment greater in the long run when things went wrong, after all. Well, only time would serve to prove that this time, the happiness would last.

"Good. Then that's what we'll do. Do you think that you can put off your trip to L2 long enough for us to house hunt before you leave?" Heero wanted Duo to know that the house was there waiting for his return. That *they* were waiting for his return.

"I'll have to try and switch my ticket but yeah, Hilde should be able to handle things for another week or so on her own," Duo agreed.

"Are you going to finally give in and take Une's offer?" Wufei asked. He knew that Une had made an open offer of a position to Duo right after the Barton uprising over a year ago.

Duo nodded. "I think so. I woulda before but... well, I didn't think I could handle being around the two of you if you still acted like you used to, not when I was still in love with you. It woulda just been too uncomfortable. Now though, that won't be a problem, so it should work out okay."

"What about your share of the salvage business?" Heero inquired hesitantly. He was really hoping that Duo would sell out. If he didn't, if he kept that share, Duo would be keeping a bolthole open in case anything went wrong. And Heero was a bit concerned that having that bolthole waiting for him might make Duo a little too likely to *use* it.

"Oh, I'll just..." Duo's voice trailed off as he realized that he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. The business was doing well enough that Hilde could probably afford to buy him out; the bank wouldn't balk at loaning her the money. And the money should easily cover his share of a house with enough left over for a few improvements. But once he sold out, he wouldn't have that to fall back on. Wouldn't be able to go back to running the yard if things didn't work out.

And that was precisely why he *had* to sell out, Duo acknowledged reluctantly, looking from one anxiously waiting face to the other. Because selling out was a commitment. A commitment to *making* things work. "I'll just sell out and use the money to pay for my share of the house," he forced himself to say. The relieved smiles that greeted that remark made the slightly panicky feeling that gripped him bearable.

"Well, now that we've settled that," Wufei said, "there is something I need to talk to you both about. But Heero, if it is okay with you, I'd like to speak to Duo alone for a few minutes first..." He was a little nervous about bringing this subject up, nervous and embarrassed too, but he knew it had to be addressed. 'You promised yourself that you would discuss it with them, now live up to your word Chang.'

Assuming that Wufei probably wished to settle things between Duo and himself regarding yesterday's sparring accident, Heero readily agreed. "It's getting close to lunch time, why don't I go out and get something for us? I think there were several takeout restaurants nearby..."

"I think that sounds like an excellent idea. Duo, what would you like?" Wufei asked.

Duo shrugged, "Surprise me? I'm not very picky really; I'll try most stuff at least once..."

'Not very picky because he grew up eating whatever he could find,' Heero thought. He suspected that someone who'd had to survive off of other people's garbage wouldn't be likely to be too finicky about whether their chicken was fried, broiled, or broasted. "Okay," he nodded. "Wufei?"

"You have a fairly good idea what I'll eat," Wufei said. "So just surprise me too."

They'd sent out for food enough times when they were working late or on a stakeout that Heero did have a pretty good idea what Wufei would eat. He nodded again, then slid off the bed to go get his wallet and head out, muttering a bit at his stiff muscles as he went.

Duo hunched his shoulders as the door closed behind Heero. "Okay, go ahead and yell," he muttered in resignation. He knew he had it coming to him. Wufei had been really understanding, but he'd fucked up badly yesterday and even with the painkillers Fei was obviously awfully sore and uncomfortable. He deserved a good scold and he knew it. He was just glad that Fei hadn't done it in front of Heero; he was going to be humiliated enough as it was.

Wufei's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Yell? Why would I yell, Duo?"

"Because of yesterday. I mean, I know you said you forgive me and everything but I really fucked up and you're the one who got hurt and you've got every right to yell at me but I really wish you'd just do it and get it over with because..."

Wufei leaned over and kissed Duo, his good hand reaching behind Duo's head to hold him firmly in place. "Hush. You know you were wrong, you apologized, I accepted, end of story. I reserve the right to yell at you the next time you unnecessarily put your own health and safety at risk, but yesterday's incident is a closed case."

Duo blinked in surprise, then gave in to Wufei's gentle tug, curling against his side and putting his head on Wufei's shoulder. "Oh. Then... what did you want to talk to me alone about?"

Drawing a deep breath and summoning up his resolve, Wufei started with simply, "Heero. Duo, if I were to..." he faltered, uncertain how to word this, then tried again. "Over the past few days, as I have gotten to know Heero better, I have discovered that I am - attracted - to him." Despite his burning cheeks, Wufei forced himself to continue, "I care about him a great deal, maybe even almost as much as I do you. I'm not certain whether I am in love with him or not, but, given the opportunity, I almost certainly could be. Obviously, this affects all three of us and I will have to tell Heero too but I wanted to find out how you felt about it first." He paused, then before Duo had a chance to respond, hastily clarified, "This doesn't change how I feel about *you*, Duo. It's as-well-as, not instead-of."

"I was kinda hoping the two of you would learn to love each other too," Duo admitted quietly. "Otherwise, it's gonna be awful hard for me to keep things balanced. Overlapping couples we might manage to make work but a true threesome would be a lot more stable. And I can understand the as-well-as part, 'cause I love both of you."

"I thought you might be okay with it. I just wanted to be *sure*," Wufei said. "There have been far too many misunderstandings already." He was silent for a few minutes, simply holding Duo. Then he added, "It may be a moot point anyway. I do not know what Heero's reaction will be. He may not be interested in changing the nature of his relationship with me. And even if he is, I think that all of us need to get to know one another better before... Well, before things go any farther than they already have."

"Heero's kind of confused about how he feels about you right now, I think," Duo offered. "Knowing that you're - umm, interested - might be enough to help him figure out what he's feeling. And you're right, the little bits and pieces we've all shared with each other aren't really enough. We need to get to know each other better. Learn each other's likes and dislikes and figure out how to handle arguments. That kind of thing."

Wufei made a soft sound of acknowledgement. 'One down, one to go. Now all I have to do is hope that I don't spontaneously combust while trying to explain myself to Heero...'

"Fei? Do you want me there while you talk to Heero, or would you rather talk to him alone?"

'Good question. Which would be the better choice?' Wufei wasn't sure. Discussing this with Heero in front of Duo would add to the embarrassment factor for both of them. But it would also ensure that Heero knew Duo did not have a problem with it. "I... am not sure..." he admitted. "Alone would probably be better... but he needs to know that you are aware and approve too..."

"Okay," Duo said. "Then when you're ready to talk to him, just let me know and I'll tell him that you've already discussed things with me and it's okay, he should do whatever he wants and it won't upset me. Sound okay to you?"

"Yes, that sounds fine," Wufei answered. 'Now I just have to find the right time to broach the subject with Heero...'

***

Wufei had been watching Heero closely all through lunch. 'He's very stiff. Between the muscles he strained trying to pull that kick yesterday and the fact that he couldn't really move most of the night, I guess that isn't exactly surprising.' Heero really needed a good massage, but Duo was still favouring the wrist he'd injured rollerblading and *he* was certainly in no condition to offer one either. 'What a sorry bunch we are,' he thought in wry amusement. He had a few stiff and sore muscles of his own and he was pretty sure Duo did as well, from the coughing if nothing else. Maybe...

A quick check of the hotel 'Facilities & Services Guide' confirmed that his idea was at least a possibility. It should help with some of their sore muscles and provide a relaxing way to spend part of the afternoon as well.

"Heero, you're obviously stiff and sore; I'm sure Duo has sore muscles from all the coughing earlier; I have some as well... Why don't we all avail ourselves of the hotel's hot tub?" Wufei suggested.

"The chlorine fumes may aggravate Duo's bronchitis," Heero pointed out reluctantly. A nice soak in a hot tub *did* sound awfully tempting though.

"If my cough flares up, I'll just have to come back to the room," Duo shrugged. "It's worth a try..."

"What about your ribs and arm?" Heero asked Wufei.

"I'll just keep the cast out of the water," he responded. "And we can change the wrappings on my ribs afterwards."

"Come on, Heero, we'll be okay," Duo urged. "Doesn't a nice soak in a hot tub sound nice?" The fact that he'd get to enjoy seeing his two boyfriends - err, that sounded odd - future lovers? - that sounded odd too... Well, the fact that he'd get to see *them* both in just their bathing suits had *nothing* to do with liking the idea. Not a single solitary thing. Nope.

Well, okay, if he was completely honest, Duo admitted, maybe it did have just a *teensy* influence on his enthusiasm for the idea. Though watching the cautious way Heero had been moving so far today had a far greater influence. Heero was obviously *very* stiff and sore.

"Alright," Heero gave in with a sigh. He was still a bit concerned over whether this was a good idea for Duo and Wufei, but - well, he'd just have to take their word for it.

"Good," Wufei said with satisfaction. He hesitated a moment, debating whether or not now was a good time to discuss things with Heero. 'I guess that now's as good a time as any,' he decided nervously. "Duo, once you're ready, why don't you go pick up spare towels for us downstairs then meet us at the pool area?" he suggested. "Heero can help me get changed this time."

Duo was only startled for an instant before he realized why Wufei wanted him to go on without them. 'He wants to talk to Heero alone now...' "Okay," he agreed readily.

"Why not wait and we can all go down together?" Heero protested.

Moving over to Heero, Duo kissed him gently. "I think Wufei would like to speak to you privately for a few minutes. We've already discussed this and it's fine with me," Duo told him earnestly. "I'll see you guys downstairs." He headed off to change, ignoring Heero's confusion. The explanation and question were Wufei's, not his; he wouldn't have said as much as he did except for the fact that Heero needed to know that this was okay with him.

Following Wufei into their room, Heero said hesitantly, "Duo said you wanted to talk to me alone?"

"After we're ready," Wufei answered. He thought it would be best to wait till after Heero was finished helping him with his shirt before bringing up the potentially embarrassing subject.

By the time that they were both changed and ready, Heero was extremely curious and admittedly a bit concerned. Had Wufei changed his mind about being willing to share Duo? "What did you want to talk to me about?" he demanded.

Uncertain how to word his explanation, Wufei said simply, "This." He slid his uninjured arm around Heero's neck, burying the hand in the hair at the nape of his neck, and kissed him firmly.

Heero froze in shock. Wufei was kissing *him*?! And it felt - good. Not the *same* as when Duo kissed him, not quite, but still - good. Very good, in fact.

Wufei was almost ready to break off the kiss in discouragement at Heero's unresponsiveness. Before he could, however, Heero's mouth softened and his hands raised, one coming to rest against the small of Wufei's back and the other cradling his jaw. 'That is *much* more promising,' he decided with relief. He had almost forgotten Heero's warning to Duo that he needed time to react properly to unexpected touches. 'And I think that this would *definitely* qualify...'

Finally breaking off the kiss, Wufei couldn't help smiling slightly at the confusion clouding Heero's eyes. "You are - very - attractive, Heero," he said, somewhat more at ease now that he knew Heero was not exactly uninterested. "And I - care for you very much. It - would not take a great deal for me to fall in love with you too." He struggled on in spite of his very warm cheeks, "We have already agreed to share Duo; he has agreed that he would be - glad - to share us with each other as well." Before Heero could respond, Wufei touched a finger to Heero's lips and shook his head. "I don't expect a response right now. Take your time and think about it first."

Heero nodded slowly, still in shock. "I - will..."

- tbc -