11-2-2003

Title: Winning Duo
Chapter: 31-38/38
Author: Calic0cat
Story Started: Jan. 2003
Genre: Yaoi, Romance, Humour, Angst
Pairings: Working towards 1x2x5; 3x4; 6x9; others may be implied
Rated: R
Warnings: OOC, Swearing, Shifting POV, Threesome
Archives: Also att Lev's Lair http://www.gwaddiction.com/levlair/ and at http://calic0cat.freeservers.com (my site) and 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*). Feedback is appreciated.

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Part 31:

It didn't take long for Duo to realize that the chlorine fumes were indeed going to aggravate his bronchitis. 'Shit. And I really wanted to be able to stay...' he thought unhappily. He decided to wait until the urge to cough became too strong to resist, then he would leave voluntarily before either Heero or Wufei forced him to. Unless of course one of them asked him whether the fumes were bothering him first. In which case he would have to admit it and leave...

'Dammit,' Duo silently groaned. 'I'm doing it again...' He hadn't realized how often he *did* that kind of thing. Bent his "no-lying" rule until it shrieked in protest. But he'd more or less promised *not* to do that anymore... Right now though, the feeling of the warm water and the very attractive company he was in left him awfully tempted to not say anything.

Heero stole surreptitious glances at Wufei from time to time. Their trip down to join Duo at the hot tub had taken place in silence. Wufei evidently felt that he had said all that he needed to say while he himself simply didn't know *what* to say. 'I do care about Wufei... I'd already decided that I cared about him almost as much as I care about Duo... And he *is* very attractive...' Images flickered through his mind of Wufei doing katas in the Preventers gym. Of him in the locker room, one towel around his waist and another draped around his shoulders to catch the drips from his hair. Of that silky black hair hanging loose around his face for a few brief moments before being dragged back into a tight tail. Of the softness and warmth in Wufei's dark eyes as he gazed at Duo. And of the tenderness in the way he caressed Duo's face and Heero's own previous half-formed wish that Wufei would touch him like that. Had he already been subconsciously thinking along those lines even then? Heero wasn't sure.

'Could I fall in love with Wufei too?' Heero wondered. It was a tough idea to wrap his mind around. Love itself was such a foreign concept to him and he had had so much trouble accepting his feelings for Duo that the thought of being in love with someone else as well was rather - overwhelming. Though not necessarily in a *bad* way...

Heero was pulled away from his thoughts by a sigh from Duo. "The fumes are kinda bothering me," Duo admitted with obvious reluctance. "But it's not bad enough to make me actually cough yet... Maybe I could stay a while longer?"

Wufei was drawn from his own contemplation of Heero's possible reaction to his suggestion by Duo's words. He could certainly understand why Duo didn't really want to go back to the room; the hot tub felt very good. And all of them had been enjoying the - view - so to speak. Duo openly and he and Heero a bit more surreptitiously, particularly when eyeing up each other. But chlorine irritation would linger for quite some time after Duo left the area; Wufei didn't really think remaining right until he started coughing was a good idea. "How long has it been bothering you?" he asked.

"Err, more than five minutes?" Duo offered timidly.

In other words, long enough that he'd obviously considered hiding it and changed his mind, Wufei thought. Considering that Duo *had* confessed though, Wufei hated to insist that he immediately leave and get out of the fumes. "But less than ten, I hope," he said drily.

Duo winced and admitted, "Just barely."

Heero sighed and suggested, "Five more minutes then we'll all go up together?" The hot tub had done a good job of relieving his stiff and sore muscles and although he wouldn't have minded staying longer, he didn't really want to send Duo up without them. He hoped that not insisting on leaving immediately would keep Duo from feeling like they were trying to boss him around yet five more minutes shouldn't be enough that he would end up coughing for the next few hours.

Shooting Wufei a hopeful look, Duo asked, "Fei?"

Wufei nodded in agreement. "Five minutes. Unless you think you're going to start coughing," he amended.

Duo grinned, relieved that neither of them had chewed him out for taking so long to tell them. He would get better at not hiding things, he promised himself. But he'd been doing it for a long time and he suspected that it was going to be a hard habit to break.

***

Wufei stole another quick glance at Heero who was seated across the table from him. Since they had all wanted something a bit more substantial than takeout for supper, they had ended up going out to a nearby steakhouse recommended by the hotel receptionist. The food was excellent but Wufei was not entirely enjoying his meal. Because despite the fact that several hours had passed since his - conversation - with Heero, Heero had yet to respond to his earlier actions which was starting to make Wufei a bit nervous. He *had* told Heero to take his time and think about it but still... His thoughts were thankfully interrupted by a question from Duo.

"So when are we s'posed to fly back to Sanc?" Duo asked curiously. "Or do we still need to get tickets for that?"

"There's a Preventer shuttle taking some new recruits there for training tomorrow. We can all catch a ride on that flight if none of us particularly want to spend the whole weekend here," Heero suggested. "I had checked into that yesterday and completely forgot about it after everything else that happened."

"Umm, yeah, that sounds good to me," Duo said, throwing a guilty look at Wufei's cast in response to Heero's oblique reminder of the previous day's disastrous events. Heero didn't seem to be limping anymore, thank god, but Wufei's injuries were going to provide a reminder of his mistakes for quite a while yet.

"That is fine with me as well," Wufei contributed.

"I'll call and confirm the departure time when we get back to our room then," Heero said. The mention of returning to Sanc had reminded him as well that they were going to have to figure out living arrangements for the next few days to a week while they house-hunted. 'Not to mention deciding whether to move in before he returns from L2 for good or not...' If they *did* move in before Duo's return, that would leave him sharing the house with Wufei for a month or so unless Duo managed to help hire and train a yard manager in less time than that. Sharing a house and - if they started out with the rooms set up the way they intended to keep them once Duo returned - sharing a bedroom as well.

Which brought Heero back to the *other* decision he was still putting off. How to respond to Wufei. He had pretty much made up his mind what his answer was; he just needed to figure out how to convey it.

***

Heero threw a quick glance towards the doorway. Judging by the faint sounds he could hear, Wufei was still getting ready for bed. Turning to Duo, he said softly and a bit nervously, "Duo, you're sure that you don't mind if Wufei and I end up - well, sharing each other too?" He knew that Duo had already said it was okay but he wanted to be absolutely *sure* before he committed himself. Getting as far as they had already had been so difficult and there had been so many misunderstandings that he didn't dare run the risk of another one.

"I'm sure," Duo assured him. Judging by that question, he guessed Heero was getting ready to give Wufei his answer. And from the sounds of things, it was the one that both he and Wufei had been hoping for. He stepped closer to Heero and hugged him reassuringly. "It'll make things easier in the long run for all of us. I'm not sayin' things will ever be quite as simple as in a regular two-person relationship; balance is always gonna be pretty critical for the three of us. But a true three-way relationship should be a lot more stable than just overlapping couples. And it won't leave all the responsibility for keeping things balanced on just me; I was kinda worried about that..." he admitted.

Nodding his understanding of Duo's point, Heero hugged him back. Seeing Wufei approaching the door, he said to Duo, "Time for a goodnight kiss, don't you think?"

Duo grinned and nodded enthusiastically. He responded willingly to the kiss Heero pressed to his lips. Once Heero released him, he crossed the few strides separating them from Wufei and kissed him as well.

Wufei slid his good arm around Duo, holding him close as they kissed. He didn't think he would ever tire of these simple, tender kisses even after their relationship progressed beyond the stage of merely kissing and cuddling. As Duo slowly pulled away from him, Wufei was startled by just how close Heero was standing.

"My turn?" Heero asked a bit hesitantly. He had intended to just go ahead and kiss Wufei but found that when it came right down to it, he couldn't quite manage that. Despite Wufei's earlier actions, he simply wasn't that sure of himself. All of this was just too new to him and he was too afraid of making a mistake and wrecking things.

Eyes widening in surprise, Wufei managed to nod slightly and say, "If you want it to be..."

Heero stepped forward and slipped one arm around Wufei the way he had when Wufei kissed him earlier. Cupping his other hand around the back of Wufei's neck, he tilted his head and brought their mouths together in a still slightly hesitant kiss.

Wufei responded readily to Heero's kiss; relieved to finally have Heero's answer. Couched in no uncertain terms too.

As Wufei and Heero separated again, Duo ducked under Heero's arm and squeezed in so that he could wrap an arm around each of them. "Love you both," he murmured, dropping a quick kiss on each one's nearest cheek. "Guess there's one little thing we kinda need to talk about, 'specially now that you two have decided to - well, explore some possibilities at least."

"Why don't we get settled for the night first?" Wufei suggested.

"Okay," Duo agreed. "Uh, Heero, do you mind taking the middle again? 'Cause I really don't think Fei's ribs and arm need me draping myself all over them and I don't think I can keep myself from doing that in my sleep..."

"No, I don't mind," Heero responded. He would just have to do some stretches and take a hot shower in the morning to loosen his muscles up. The pulled muscles from yesterday weren't really bothering him anymore but another night of acting as a pillow would probably make them pretty stiff again. He climbed into the bed, Duo close behind him.

Watching Duo curl up and pillow his head on Heero's shoulder, Wufei hesitated. Draping himself all over a sleeping Heero while semi-sedated and half asleep was one thing, doing so while they were both wide awake was rather a different story. But it *had* been quite a comfortable position...

"Aren't you coming to bed Fei?" Duo asked curiously.

Prodded into motion, Wufei got in bed and slid over close beside Heero before hesitating again. "Umm, Heero, do you mind if..."

Heero managed not to snicker at the flush flooding Wufei's cheeks. Of course, his own felt rather warm too... "No, go ahead..." he managed to say.

Duo waited while Wufei got himself settled, wincing a bit at the twinges of discomfort that crossed Wufei's face as he did so. He really had a lot to make up for... He actually felt a bit guilty that his cough medication was doing such a good job; it seemed as if he'd gotten off awfully lightly compared to Wufei.

"What was it that you wanted to discuss Duo?" Wufei asked, trying to ignore the fact that he was carrying on a conversation over top of Heero's chest while lying with his head on Heero's shoulder.

Keeping his voice low to avoid irritating his throat and lungs, Duo began, "Uh, well, Fei, you mentioned something earlier about us all needing to get to know each other better before taking things any further. I think you're right, 'specially now that we're talking about making things a true threesome. For one thing, I think that me going any further with either of you should wait till you two have figured out what you want from each other as well. Now that I know you guys love me and want us to be together, I'm not in a big rush."

Duo hesitated, then continued, "I wasn't really before either. During the war, I mean. Yeah, I was a horny teenager but I was just kind of trying to find a way to get close to one of you. I sorta thought that maybe if I could get a sexual relationship going, I'd eventually be able to turn it into more. Probably not exactly the brightest idea, but..." He sighed before adding, "I was just so damn *alone*. And I hate being alone. And there was a hell of a good chance that at least one of us would get killed before the war ended, *if* it ended. I fell in love with Heero and the fact that I hadn't been having much luck even turning him into a friend didn't seem to matter; I was in love and that was all there was to it. Trying for friendship first didn't work, or at least didn't work fast enough for me to realize that it was going to, so I figured maybe hormones *would*. But then they didn't either, so I backed off for a while, watched to see if he noticed the difference - and he didn't seem to."

Duo hastily touched a finger to Heero's lips as an indrawn breath warned him that Heero was about to protest. "I know now that I really was rushing things too much, Heero. I'm not blaming you; the whole mess was just as much my fault for pushing too hard and expecting too much, too soon. But what I'd managed to find out about your background didn't really give me any reason to understand how new and confusing this all was for you. So I figured maybe you were straight; the odds weren't really in my favour after all. And the whole not-making-friends thing could have just been because we were too damn different to ever be more than casual acquaintances."

Duo removed his cautionary touch as Heero subsided with a soft sigh. "So then - well, I already knew that I cared about Wufei a lot and was attracted to him, and once I let myself think about him that way..." Duo shrugged one shoulder awkwardly, "I realized I was in love with Wufei too. And I already knew that friendship hadn't worked 'cause I'd been trying to be friends ever since we met, so I moved straight on to hormones and - well, it didn't take long to realize that wasn't going to work with Fei either." Speaking hastily to forestall any objections, Duo added, "And again, I'd found out just enough about your background, Fei, to think I knew a lot about you, everything I needed to know, but really I didn't know enough to understand why you reacted to me the way you did. I rushed things too much with both of you 'cause I always had that thought at the back of my mind that each time we saw each other could be the last. And for a while there, it didn't seem like the war would *ever* end; at least not unless it was because we all got killed."

Duo sighed before continuing, "Couldn't completely forget about either of you, but I sort of shut down to being politely friendly 'cause I just couldn't keep trying anymore. And even if neither of you exactly responded *positively* to that, at least you didn't respond negatively so I kind of figured that was about the best I could hope for."

"I had wondered why you seemed to be in such a rush during the war yet were content to take things slowly now," Wufei admitted. He could certainly understand why the hazards of war had added such a feeling of urgency for Duo. And now that he understood how important simple contact with another person was to Duo, he could also understand why Duo had felt so alone. Of their entire group, the only one that would have been likely to be provide that sort of casual contact would have been Quatre. And while the blond and Duo had occasionally had missions together, Duo had been partnered with either himself or Heero far more often.

Heero offered quietly, "I think that the two of you are correct about getting to know one another better. We all have rather distinctly non-average pasts; undoubtedly there are other things that need to be shared before they become the source of an accidental misunderstanding." He hesitated, then confessed, "And taking things slowly may help me to get past some of my issues with not knowing how to respond to touch. I am - not sure how fast I would be comfortable with proceeding." He was embarrassed to admit it but Heero really wasn't sure how fast he *could* proceed. For so much of his life the only thing that touch had meant was pain, whether from a blow causing an injury or the rough treatment of an injury, that he was sometimes surprised that all he did in response to unexpected touch was freeze temporarily.

On either side of Heero, two people wished again that they had J in front of them and at their mercy. Not that mercy played any part in what they would have liked to do to the cold-hearted bastard. Both Duo and Wufei suspected that their contempt for J would only continue to grow as Heero revealed more of his childhood to them.

"Since we're all in agreement, slow it is," Duo said, careful to keep his anger out of his voice. "Now, I don't know about you two but," he yawned widely, "I think I'm ready for some sleep. 'Specially since we've got a pretty early start tomorrow to catch that shuttle. G'night Heero, Wufei..."

"Good night, Duo," Wufei responded. "Good night, Heero."

"Good night," Heero answered, giving in to temptation and dropping a kiss on top of the head pillowed on each shoulder. The temptation itself surprised him almost as much as his impulsive decision to give in to it. 'Maybe falling in love with Wufei won't take quite as long as I thought after all...'

Part 32:

Standing in the doorway of what *used* to be Heero's livingroom, Duo looked across to where Heero stood at the other end of the mattress they'd just carried down from Wufei's apartment. He grinned happily at him, still stunned that Heero and Wufei had been willing to go to all this trouble for the week or so that he would be staying in Sanc while they house-hunted. 'I figured that I'd just have to sleep at their places on alternate nights or something. I never thought they'd be willing to go to all this effort and disrupt their lives so much just for that little bit of time...'

The two mattresses took up pretty much the entire floor of the room. Heero's coffee table now resided upside down on top of the box spring in his bedroom down the hall. In here, the loveseat had been shoved tightly into the corner of the room and the nearest mattress just barely missed touching it. There had been enough space beside the loveseat for the small entertainment centre to be pushed out of the way and it didn't *quite* stick out in front of the doorway. And there was just enough room to walk down one side of the room without having to step on the mattress. Just.

It was damn inconvenient and Duo hoped that Heero didn't have any company drop by or they were going to have some very awkward explanations to make - but they could keep sleeping together like they had at the hotel. And it was one more little bit of proof that Heero and Wufei really did intend to make this work. The three of them together.

Duo still had trouble believing it sometimes. Still half expected to wake up and find out that the whole thing had been one really cruel dream. Cruel because it was what he'd wanted for so damn long... 'But if it was just a dream, I don't think anybody would have gotten sick or hurt. So it really is real...'

Heero couldn't help smiling a bit at the ear-to-ear grin on Duo's face. 'Seeing that happy grin and knowing that I - that *we*,' he corrected himself, 'put it there makes all this mess and fuss worthwhile.' He threaded his way down the side of the room and gave Duo a hug. He didn't know whether he would ever be able to manage that kind of thing as easily as Wufei but Duo always responded so enthusiastically to even the smallest bit of contact initiated by him that Heero was consciously looking for opportunities now. He hid his own grin against Duo's hair as Duo hugged him back happily.

"Want to come with me to help Fei bring down some clothes and the pillows and stuff?" Duo asked.

Heero tightened the hug for an instant before stepping back and agreeing, "Okay." He held out one hand a bit hesitantly as they left the apartment. Duo caught hold of it immediately, giving Heero another delighted grin. Heero could feel a grin of his own tugging at the corners of his mouth. Duo's happiness and excitement were absolutely contagious.

***

Wufei added a couple of movies to the pile of miscellaneous "stuff" to be taken down to Heero's apartment. His pain medication was already down there; they had simply left it there when they arrived. He had already collected every pillow he owned and piled them near the door. And he had packed a few clean outfits to take with him as well. By the time Duo came back up to help carry things, he should be all set to go.

Wufei wasn't entirely happy that Duo had helped carry the mattress to Heero's apartment - the other youth was still favouring the wrist he'd injured rollerblading after all - but he wasn't exactly able to help and they hadn't really wanted to involve anyone else in this yet. It was still too new for them to be prepared to explain why they wanted enough room for the three of them to sleep together, something that would certainly have been necessary in order to request Trowa and Quatre's assistance in rearranging things.

Returning to his bedroom in search of a forgotten book, Wufei shook his head slightly, a wryly amused smile on his face. It was strange to see the bed frame with only a box spring on it. The entire room was decidedly disordered from all the packing and rearranging. Though nowhere near as much as Heero's entire apartment was. 'All of this for the sake of the week or so that Duo will be here while we look for a house...'

Not that he regretted it. Duo's delight at the entire arrangement was obvious and as for Heero and himself... 'Neither of us is precisely complaining about it either. And it is not merely the sleeping together that makes this worthwhile. It is the simple fact that we will be continuing to spend time together and to learn about each other throughout the week.' And that was good for all of them and for the development of every aspect of their relationship.

'And the close contact we will be in will be good for Heero. He is getting a bit better about contact already, I think. Contact with Duo in particular but he doesn't freeze up as badly in response to simple casual touches from me either. Just a tiny hesitation.' Which was a start. Heero hadn't been finding excuses to touch him yet, only Duo, but then he and Heero were much more tentative with each other anyway. Wufei was sure that would change with time but, after all, the two of them had only just admitted to mutual attraction and caring and the willingness to explore that. And while their relationship with Duo was only a few days further along they had at least been mentally preparing for that for quite some time.

As his apartment door opened and Duo entered with Heero close behind him, Wufei was again assured that, awkward and unconventional as their new relationship might be, it *was* right for the three of them. The happy smiles on their faces and the warm feeling that those smiles created in him were proof of that.

***

Duo tossed another house listing in the "not a chance" pile and eyed the rapidly dwindling stack of listings that they had yet to go through. Heero had printed out a very large pile of them off the net and they were each going through a portion of them sorting them into simple "yes" or "no" piles. Once they were through, they would swap "yes" piles and narrow things down some more. Hopefully by the time they'd all gone through every listing, they would have a manageable group left to go over together.

Wufei picked up another listing and noticed that there weren't very many left to be sorted. A quick glance confirmed that Heero's "yes" and "no" piles, like his own, were roughly equal in height. Duo's piles on the other hand were rather drastically different. 'Either he is being much less picky than we are or he has happened to get a better set of listings to start with,' Wufei thought. He turned his attention back to his own task, stifling the desire to sigh. He really hoped that the three of them could find a decent set of houses that appealed to them all.

Heero watched as Duo tossed the very last listing onto his taller stack. He moaned internally at the thought that he was going to have to read that many more listings as he silently handed his own "yes" pile over to Wufei. Then he was left stunned as Duo handed him the *short* stack. "Umm, this is all?" he asked hesitantly. He peered across and realized that the listing on the top of the tall stack was one that he'd thought that Duo would really like when he'd printed it out. 'I wonder what was wrong with that one...'

"Mmm-hmm," Duo nodded, already engrossed in the next listing. He frowned slightly and started a new "no" pile.

Glancing up at Heero's question, Wufei was startled by the discovery that Duo's tall pile of listings was his "no" pile, not the "yes" one. 'Maybe he got all the really *bad* listings instead of the good ones...' But as the top paper from his own "yes" stack became the first in Duo's new "no" stack alongside of the tall one, he became even more surprised. 'That was a really nice house... A big yard, indoor pool, lots of square footage and both an attached garage and a workshed... Maybe a bit pricy but...' Wufei froze in the midst of his own sorting. He snuck another quick glance at Duo's stacks and noticed that the "no" one was growing rapidly. 'Oh shit.' Looking over at Heero, Wufei saw the tiny hint of a crease between his eyebrows that indicated a frown.

Heero re-read the listing in his hands, trying to figure out what had made Duo put it in his "yes" pile. The house really had very little to recommend it. It barely even met the minimum requirements that he'd specified when he searched for listings. About the only thing that it had to recommend it was its price... 'Oh fuck...' Heero raised his eyes and met Wufei's. Silently, he held out the listing. Wufei gave him a quizzical look before reading through it. The faint frown on Wufei's face as he looked up and over at Duo matched his own. Heero sighed and took the listing back again. They'd better deal with this now, before things went any further. 'We should have discussed price,' he admitted silently. But it hadn't even occurred to him that price would be an issue. He'd specified a maximum as one of his search criteria; none of the listings he'd printed out were beyond what he'd figured the three of them could handle mortgage payments on. But then he'd never lacked for *material* things; had never had to scrounge and scrape and steal just to survive.

Bracing himself for what could well be the first argument of their relationship, Wufei cleared his throat and asked tentatively, "Duo, would you mind telling me what's wrong with all those listings?" He *knew* what the problem was, the "yes" listing that Heero had handed him confirmed that. But he wanted to hear Duo's explanation of it, hoping that it would give him an idea how to approach this without upsetting or insulting Duo. Knowing Duo's own background plus knowing that he'd been helping to get a cash-strapped business back in the black ever since the war ended, he could understand why Duo would be cautious in spending money. But a house was a lifelong investment and they weren't exactly a penniless young couple looking for a "starter" home. They all had some savings and the Preventers paid well; Wufei doubted that they would have any real difficulty getting a mortgage. He was looking for a house that they would call home for the foreseeable future, maybe even for the rest of their lives; he had no intention of pinching pennies in making such an important decision and he doubted that Heero did either.

Duo looked up, startled by Wufei's question. "They're way too much money," he said simply. "We don't need three full bathrooms or an indoor pool or any of that kind of thing. So long as I've got a roof over my head, there's a kitchen and a bathroom, and the bedroom's big enough to handle a king-size bed or at least a queen, I'll be satisfied."

"With three of us to get ready for work every day, I think more than one bathroom is a good idea," Wufei suggested diplomatically.

Shrugging, Duo said, "Well, I suppose two might be handy but we could get by okay with one; we'd just have to make up a schedule, that's all."

Wufei gave Heero a pleading glance. He could really use some support right now...

Heero swallowed uncomfortably and gave Wufei a tiny nod. He knew that Wufei was very nervous about discussing money-related issues with Duo; knew that Wufei feared making the contrast between his own relatively wealthy upbringing and Duo's poverty-stricken one too evident. "We could 'get by', yes," he said slowly, "but Duo, we're talking about the place we're all going to call home from now on, not some sort of temporary accommodation. Why settle for 'getting by'? I took our incomes from Preventers into consideration when I entered the search criteria for the listings; none of these houses are really out of our budget range; meeting the mortgage payments won't be a problem. Why not pick a house that you really like? One that has all the extras that you think you'd enjoy?"

Duo bit his lip and looked back at his first tall "no" pile. There were some awfully nice houses in that bunch but they were so expensive... "But they're so much money..." he protested weakly. "It doesn't seem right to spend so much money just to have a few luxuries..."

Biting his tongue at the thought of considering an extra bathroom a "luxury" when there were *three* of them who would need to use it every morning before work, Heero drew a deep breath and said carefully, "We've all worked hard to earn that money and we'll continue to do so. I know that we don't *have* to have all those extras but wouldn't it be nice to have a hot tub to soak in after a long day at work? A shower that's big enough for at least two of us to use it together, maybe even one that's roomy enough for all three of us? Enough spare bedrooms to have some of our friends over to stay once in a while?"

Torn, Duo wavered between the selfish wish to have some of those things and the knowledge that those really were *luxuries* and he didn't actually *need* any of them. "I... But they're so *expensive*..."

Wufei winced. Duo kept throwing longing glances at that tall stack of "no" listings but they were very *guilty* longing glances. Maybe... "Would it make you feel better if we all put a bit of money aside from each paycheck to donate to a charity?" he suggested. "Maybe the difference between the payment on the most expensive house in your 'yes' pile, the one that Heero has right now, and the least expensive in ours?"

"Could we?" Duo asked hesitantly, turning his gaze towards Heero.

Heero nodded in agreement, glad that Wufei had managed to find a practical solution to the problem. "Of course." He immediately started flipping through the pile to find the most "expensive" listing that Duo had picked. Not that "expensive" really applied to *anything* in this pile...

"Alright then," Wufei said firmly. "You stop worrying about the price on those houses and just pick based on which you like best and *I* will resort your 'no' pile." He leaned over and pulled the tall stack towards himself. 'Hopefully I can figure out which listings were drawing those longing looks...' He would have let Duo resort the pile himself but he suspected that those particular listings would have still landed back in the "no" pile simply because Duo felt so guilty over wanting them in the first place.

Duo recombined his "yes" and "no" piles from this second set of listings and started over again. He set aside the least expensive house from Wufei's choices before starting to sort. He still felt a bit guilty about considering some of these houses but... 'But you're not the only one who's going to be living in it. Remember that, Maxwell. Heero and Wufei have to live there too and they want something a little nicer than what you're willing to settle for. So forget about "settling" and try to think about "wanting" instead...'

Heero finally gave up on the pile that he'd received from Duo and simply dumped them all in his "no" pile. Price was really the only thing that any of those houses had going for them and that wasn't enough. He watched as Duo resorted Wufei's listings, relieved to see that a few more of them were making their way into the "yes" pile. A glance over at Wufei showed that most of Duo's old "no" stack was getting a "yes" vote from Wufei. 'I wonder if money is going to always be an issue,' he thought. 'It may be, Duo seems to feel pretty strongly about not "wasting" it on "unnecessary" things...' It was definitely going to be something that he and Wufei would have to keep in mind in future. Right now though, Heero was just glad that they'd managed to settle this particular situation amicably.

***

Curled against Heero's warmth, Duo closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day. Most of the listings that had ended up on the "short list" for all three of them were having Open House on Sunday and since it was the last day that Heero and Wufei had off they were going to have to get moving in order to go to as many of them as possible. Any places that they didn't get to then would have to be visited during the week either by him alone or by all three of them after work. And he really didn't want to go house-hunting on his own. Prices that Wufei and Heero didn't even bat an eye at left him gasping in disbelief. You could buy an entire L2 neighbourhood for the price of some of the houses in Sanc and those were just the ones that hadn't exceeded Heero's price limit. If he'd had any idea how much money this was going to cost, he would never have agreed that a house sounded like a good idea; he would have insisted that they just get a bigger apartment instead.

Heero lifted his hand and stroked Duo's back soothingly. He could feel the tension in him and he had a pretty good idea *why* Duo was so tense. He'd managed to pull up some L2 housing prices while Duo was getting ready for bed and one quick look at them had been enough to make Wufei and him realize that this was going to continue to be a problem despite their earlier deal with Duo. Sanc housing prices were over triple the cost of a comparable house on an L2 colony - assuming you could even find something that nice *listed* for L2.

Listening to Duo's breathing, Wufei was relieved to realize that despite a couple of coughing spells earlier on, Duo sounded no more congested than he had the previous night. 'But he also does not sound as if he is slipping off to sleep...' Duo's breathing was too shallow and rapid for that. Shifting a bit, Wufei moved even more tightly against Heero so that the hand of his injured arm could reach where Duo's also rested on Heero's chest. He stroked Duo's hand gently without speaking. There was no point repeating the earlier discussion regarding housing prices. Duo had already agreed to trust that they would speak up if they thought a price was too high and to let them be the final judge of just how high *was* "too high". But that didn't mean that Duo could let go of his reservations on the subject quite that easily. They were just going to have to be patient with him regarding this and hope that he could eventually get by it.

Part 33:

Duo looked at the third house they'd been to so far and cringed. 'My god, it's fucking *huge*...' He tucked his hands in his pockets, not wanting to accidentally touch anything while they were inside. He'd made the mistake of touching the polished wood banister at the first house and had been completely embarrassed when the home owner promptly whisked out a rag to polish off the oils left behind by his fingers. And at the *second* house, the home owner had whipped out a rug rake (or at least that's what Wufei said it was, he'd never heard of something so idiotic) and had raked the deep plush carpet after they had walked across it and left footprints behind them all the way simply from their stockinged feet crushing the pile. 'What the hell good is a carpet that you can't even walk on?!' One look inside the door of *this* house confirmed that it was more of the same. The sick knot in Duo's stomach tightened even more. He couldn't imagine actually *living* in one of these places; they were just as fancy as some of Q's houses and he was always on edge the whole time he was in one of those.

Out of the corner of his eye, Heero noticed Duo cramming his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders defensively. He had to admit that he wasn't entirely comfortable with the houses they'd looked at so far either. 'But if we were the owners, things would be different. It wouldn't matter if we left fingerprints on the woodwork or crushed the carpet pile...' Though he did sort of wonder whether that feeling of being an interloper would ever go away. The houses - including the one they'd just entered - just didn't feel right. Almost as if the houses themselves were rejecting their presence. It was a silly notion, the sort of thing that would have got him in big trouble from J, but he still felt that way.

Wufei ran an appreciative eye over the beautiful woodwork in the entryway. The tile floor was completely scratch-free and polished to gleaming perfection. There were some truly beautiful homes on their viewing list today. It would be hard to narrow their choices down with such lovely houses to choose from...

***

Duo took one look at the next house on the list and stopped in his tracks. He was *not* going in there. This was just another one of those snooty fancy places that felt like they should be a museum. Not one of the places they'd been to felt like a *home*. Not at all like someplace he wanted to live. He wasn't going to go suffer through another uncomfortable tour.

"Duo? Aren't you coming?" Wufei asked, pausing partway up the sidewalk to the front door.

"No," he said shortly. He walked back to Heero's sturdy little car and hopped up to perch on the hood. "Go ahead, I'll wait here. I just need a little fresh air, that's all." His heart sank as Wufei took him at his word and continued up to the house. Heero gave him a concerned look but when Duo made a shooing motion, Heero followed Wufei.

'What the hell am I going to do? Fei loves these places we've been looking at. Heero - well, I'm not sure what he thinks but he hasn't been complaining so I'm guessing he's okay with them. But I can't imagine having to live in one of them...' Duo shivered at the thought. Yes, these were beautiful houses. No argument from him on that one. But they weren't *homes*. And they were too damn expensive no matter what the others thought. His entire share from the salvage yard wouldn't even pay for a full third of one of these houses.

Duo drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, burying his face against his legs. He didn't want to live in a place like this. Hell, *could* he live in one of these houses without being completely miserable? 'If Fei and Heero are there - yeah, I guess I can... I mean, it's not like I haven't lived in worse places before...' But the very fact that Wufei *liked* these kinds of places pointed out all over again just how different they were. Just how different their backgrounds were. And Duo started to wonder just how the hell any of this was ever going to work.

***

Heero followed Wufei into the house reluctantly. Duo was definitely not happy. Heero suspected that it had a lot to do with the whole housing cost issue that they'd discussed last night. But he didn't think that it was *just* the price of these places bothering Duo today although he was pretty sure that was part of the problem. No, he thought that it was the whole atmosphere and he wasn't overly thrilled by it either. Most of these houses reminded him strongly of when he and Quatre had stayed at Relena's palace here in Sanc during the war while it had been serving as an upper-class boarding school. He wasn't entirely sure what a real *home* felt like but he didn't think that any of the places they'd been in so far qualified even remotely. 'But Wufei has liked them all... Will he be as uncomfortable in the less fancy places on the list as Duo has been in these ones? God, I hope not... Or we may have a real problem...'

'Another beautiful house... I'm glad that we started with this neighbourhood. We may not even need to work our way through the whole list,' Wufei thought, regarding the beautiful brass fittings and gleaming mahogany woodwork. 'Duo really should have come in to see this one. It's truly a gorgeous house.' The sunroom with the hot tub was a very nice touch too. "Heero, we should go get Duo. He really should see this one. I think he'll love the hot tub in the sunroom and the huge bay window in the master bedroom."

Sighing, Heero forced himself to be truthful. "No, he won't. Wufei, he's afraid to even *touch* anything in the places we've been in so far." Dropping his voice to a near-whisper, he added, "Hell, *I'm* not comfortable in them either. They're beautiful houses but they're not someplace either of us would really want to live. Duo won't say anything because he knows that you *are* comfortable in them and that you like them."

Stunned, Wufei looked around the beautiful room they were standing in and said, "But they're beautiful houses - why wouldn't you want to live in them?"

Heero groped for words, reminding himself that he was talking on Duo's behalf here too and while he didn't want to hurt Wufei's feelings the other youth had to understand that the surroundings that seemed so natural to him were completely foreign to Duo and himself. "They *are* beautiful. In fact, they're showcases Wufei. And that's why we wouldn't want to live in them. We're looking for a *home*." He stopped, unsure how else to explain this. Glancing out the window towards the sidewalk, Heero noticed the way that Duo was sitting curled up on the car's hood. Wordlessly, he pulled Wufei over to the window and pointed.

One look at the way Duo was miserably hunched over was enough to confirm that Heero was right. Thinking back to the houses that they'd already visited, Wufei realized that Duo had been very quiet and subdued throughout each visit. And that although he had eagerly listed off the best features of each house, neither Duo nor Heero had seemed particularly enthused. Heero's reticence he had simply dismissed as his usual reserve but Duo's... 'I was so thrilled over the gorgeous houses we were looking at that I didn't really notice that Duo *wasn't*,' he admitted unhappily. Pulling the list of addresses out of his pocket, Wufei skimmed down through the next group, skipping over the remaining ones in the same general neighbourhood as those they'd already visited. "Let's try this one next," he suggested to Heero. If he remembered correctly, that was more of a middle-class neighbourhood. Maybe they would have better luck there.

***

Duo slid slowly off the car hood as the others returned, bracing himself for another enthusiastic description of the house by Wufei. 'It isn't Fei's fault that he's used to nice things and likes being around them. But that's just not *me*...'

Halting beside Duo, Wufei reached out and raised Duo's chin to make their gazes meet. "Truth now Duo," he said gently but firmly. "Would you want to live in any of the houses we've been to so far?" He could have simply let this pass but if Duo started out by just going along with what either he or Heero wanted they were going to have big problems somewhere along the line. Heero had caught this one but maybe next time neither of them would.

"I... Well, not really," Duo admitted hesitantly. In a rush, he continued, "But I know that you would and I'm sure that I'd get used to it eventually..."

"I wouldn't be comfortable in one of these houses either, Duo," Heero contributed. "It's not just you."

"So let's go look at some different houses and see if we can find something that suits *all* of us, okay?" Wufei offered. Duo's nod and relieved smile in response made up for the pang of disappointment that giving up any thought of buying the truly spectacular houses they'd looked at so far caused. 'Compromise,' he reminded himself. They'd talked Duo out of simply settling for the cheapest houses the night before; it was only fair that he give way on this and let the really fancy houses go.

***

Heero wished that there was a way to simply prevent Duo from knowing the asking price for the houses that they were looking at. He had positively blanched and completely lost interest in the last one when the real estate agent mentioned what a great deal the house was at such a low price. 'Low for Sanc but not for L2...' Heero thought with a grimace. Duo was really trying but it was obvious that he was very unhappy with the prices of the houses that they were viewing. Heero, on the other hand, was just getting tired of looking at houses. While none of them exactly screamed "buy me" to him, there had been plenty that would have been acceptable. Except that either Duo or Wufei didn't like those ones either. He sighed heavily. 'This is *not* going to be an easy task...'

The house was nice enough but the price... Duo winced and wished that he hadn't snuck a peek at the list Wufei was carrying. It might have been easier to work up some enthusiasm if he didn't know that the damn house was worth more than his and Hilde's entire business. 'And for what? A neighbourhood that's got a good school - which doesn't *matter* to us since it's not like any of us are equipped to be having kids anyway - and a landscaped yard that you wouldn't dare have a game of baseball on 'cause you might tear up the grass and it really isn't big enough for that anyway. And then there's the *other* stuff on top of that. The pool and the whirlpool and the three car garage and...' And a whole bunch of other things that they didn't *need*. Yet this was far from the most expensive place they'd looked at in this neighbourhood. Which he *also* wasn't overly thrilled with. It was full of families and the three of them were going to stick out like sore thumbs.

Wufei looked around the house with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. There wasn't really anything *wrong* with it. But it wasn't nearly as nice as the others they'd seen earlier in the day. 'The ones that no one else liked, so just stop thinking about them Chang.' Of course, he didn't think anyone else was overly thrilled with *this* place either. Or any of the others that they'd looked at so far. "Maybe we should call it quits for today," Wufei suggested wearily. "The last few places we've looked at are all running together in my memory and I don't think any of us was really interested in any of them anyway... Maybe we'll have better luck if we take a break." Instant agreement from the others greeted his suggestion and they all headed back towards the car.

'Maybe we'll have better luck another day... But I'm not too sure about that,' Wufei admitted reluctantly to himself. They all had such different tastes... Different things that they wanted in a house... 'What if we *can't* agree...'

***

Duo snuggled against Wufei's shoulder while Heero was off getting some popcorn in the kitchen. They had piled up the pillows so that they could sit propped up against the wall and watch movies on the TV installed in the entertainment centre against the far wall. The current arrangement of things in Heero's apartment really wasn't very convenient but it *was* only temporary after all. Or at least, it was *supposed* to be. At the rate they were going with the house-hunting, Duo was starting to wonder about that. "Fei? I'm sorry about those first houses we looked at; I know you really liked them..." he said apologetically.

Wufei sighed and dropped a kiss on top of Duo's head where it rested against his shoulder. "It's okay Duo. We need a house that we'll *all* be happy with, not a place that one of us likes and the others tolerate."

Heero returned with a large bowl of popcorn and several cans of soft drinks. He set the refreshments down within easy reach of the others before crawling across the mattress to take up position on Duo's other side. "There's plenty of places left on our list," he pointed out. "Tomorrow you can just take my car and go take a preliminary look at some of them Duo. Then in the evening we can all go together and check out any that looked promising."

"Yeah, I guess..." Duo muttered reluctantly. He really had hoped not to have to do things that way. It would have been a lot nicer if they could have picked out a place today when they were together.

***

Duo spent most of the morning dawdling around the apartment. Doing some laundry, washing the breakfast dishes, calling Hilde to make sure things were okay at the yard... 'Avoiding going house-hunting...' He grimaced unhappily and sighed in resignation. He was out of excuses to put this off. And Heero and Wufei would be disappointed if he didn't have at least a couple of places for them to all go view tonight.

Pulling out the list, he decided to skip all the way to the bottom and work his way back up. At least that way he'd start off dealing with houses that weren't *quite* as ridiculously expensive.

***

Looking around the small, neat house, Duo tried to compare it to the list of things that Wufei and Heero had seemed to like in the houses that they'd looked at yesterday. 'Okay first off - bathrooms. One full bath, one half-bath... Well, that's not *too* bad... But there's no way in hell that you'd ever get more than one person in either the tub or the shower stall...' And there wasn't even a hot tub or whirlpool to make up for that lack either. And the garage would barely hold Heero's car; there was no way they could squeeze Fei's motorcycle in too. Reluctantly, Duo crossed the house off his list. It was such a nice, homey little place... And reasonably priced too... He left the real estate Open House behind and set off to his next destination just a few blocks away.

Duo took one look at the next house and didn't even bother getting out of the car. The front lawn was about the size of a postage stamp and the "garage" was actually just a carport. It didn't matter how nice the house itself was, the guys would never go for that.

Six houses later, Duo was ready to admit defeat. There were several places that he would have been perfectly satisfied with but when he tried to imagine Wufei's reaction to them... Well, he knew that they wouldn't pass muster. Checking his watch, he realized with a mixture of relief and chagrin that he really didn't have time to visit any more houses if he wanted to be back when the guys got home from work. 'But I don't have anything lined up for them to go look at tonight either... Fuck...' And the next listings were back up in the more expensive range. The ones with umpteen dozen luxuries. But a couple of them were more-or-less on his way back to the apartment so he *could* at least drive by them. Then if the houses looked at all promising, maybe they could come back later...

Except that the neighbourhood that the houses were in was not at all promising. Block after block of perfectly landscaped, perfectly manicured, perfectly *identical* yards in front of perfectly identical houses. Well okay, maybe not *perfectly* identical. There *did* seem to be three different house designs that repeated. And the door colour and siding differed slightly though there only seemed to be about five or six different shades to choose from. Parked in front of one of the listed houses, Duo looked up and down the street and tried to imagine having to check the house number in order to make sure he was pulling into the right driveway every day. And failed miserably. "No fucking way," he muttered. And two more houses were crossed off of the rapidly dwindling list.

Part 34:

"Sorry guys but there just wasn't anything worth going back to take a second look at," Duo said apologetically. "We could go drive by some of the ones that I didn't get to I suppose..."

Considering how unenthusiastic Duo's offer to spend the evening looking at more houses was, Wufei didn't think that there would be much point. And looking at the number of houses that were scratched off the list and how few remained, he couldn't blame Duo for feeling a bit discouraged. "There aren't all that many listings left to check out - why not leave them till tomorrow? We could go out to dinner and a movie tonight instead," he suggested.

Duo winced at the suggestion. They'd spent so much money eating out and doing things *last* week and now they were house-hunting... "We've got plenty of videos here to watch and since we got groceries when we got back Saturday there's lots to eat... I don't mind taking my turn to cook if you guys just want to relax after being at work all day..."

"That sounds like a good idea," Heero responded, relieved at the thought of *not* having to go running all over the place again tonight. The idea of having to get changed and go out to eat then go to a noisy movie theatre just did *not* appeal to him. Not after being at work all day.

Reluctantly Wufei conceded, "Okay." He had to admit that he had no idea whether Duo *could* cook. Well, obviously he could fix basic meals, things to get by on, their trainers had ensured that they were all capable of preparing nutritionally complete meals for themselves during the war. That was about all that he could fix even now; he just found it simpler to eat out if he wanted something fancier than basic pasta or rice. But whether Duo could cook anything beyond that... Well , that was something he simply didn't know.

Rolling his eyes, Duo insisted, "Believe me, I *am* capable of fixing something at least halfway decent..." He gave Wufei a quick smile to show that he wasn't really upset by Wufei's apparent hesitation over leaving him to fix supper for them all. He wasn't a gourmet chef by any means but he *could* fix simple, tasty, nourishing meals. He'd tended towards the frozen and canned stuff during the war but Hilde had taught him to fix slightly better things than that since they shared all the household chores. And he'd ended up being a better cook than her since she had a tendency to get distracted and let things burn. He didn't because he couldn't stand to wreck good food that way. He didn't mind cooking when he had really good stuff to work with like what you could get here on Earth. On L2 meat was pretty much all frozen or smoked or dehydrated or canned and fresh produce was awfully expensive and usually not particularly *fresh*. Cooking with actual fresh ingredients - that was a definite treat.

***

"Umm, I hope you guys don't mind but I ended up just doing omelettes and stuff for supper," Duo said hesitantly. "It was kind of late to do anything else 'cause there wasn't any meat other than lunch meat and bacon that wasn't frozen..." He chewed his lip nervously as Heero and Wufei sat down at the table and helped themselves to the salad. He'd tried to add enough other things to the meal to keep it from seeming too much like breakfast but the fact that he'd taken over responsibility for supper on the spur of the moment meant that he had to make do with whatever was ready for use or else delay the meal considerably while he thawed things then cooked them.

"I'm sure that whatever you fixed will be fine, Duo," Wufei assured him. He took a large helping of salad, expecting that the omelette wouldn't be very filling, and making a mental note that evidently Duo would be better off fixing breakfast rather than the main meal of the day.

Heero glanced at the counter and noticed just how much stuff Duo had out. Lunch meat and the bacon... Cheese... Then there was a small pile of potato peelings beside the eggshells... All of his frying pans were in use... '*Just* omelettes and "stuff"?' he thought quizzically as he reached for the salad and took a small portion. "Do you want some salad, Duo?"

"Nah, I nibbled while I was fixing it," Duo said distractedly, keeping a close eye on the contents of the frying pans. He hoped that he had these timed right so they wouldn't be done too much before the guys were ready for them. The toaster popped up and he quickly buttered the slices from it and added them to the stack on one plate before dropping another couple of slices in to be toasted.

Heero ate his salad quickly then joined Duo at the stove, reaching over to stop him from making any more toast. "I think you've got enough for now, Duo," he said, eying the teetering stack of toast.

Duo followed the direction of Heero's gaze and winced, "Oops. Might've overdid that. But I know you guys were at work all day; I figured you'd be pretty hungry..." Damn. Well, if there was too much toast he'd just eat more of that himself and leave the bacon; that would keep and could be used for a sandwich or broken up and frozen for use on pizzas...

"Don't worry, I think you've got plenty here to fill us up," Heero said, glancing over the stove top. "Need some help serving?" he offered.

Wufei looked up from his salad, wondering why Duo would need help serving omelettes. His eyes widened as Heero brought a plate stacked high with toast and another buried in a mound of neatly cubed hash browns then turned to get a plateful of bacon as well.

Duo brought the omelettes over to the table one by one, sliding one onto Heero's plate and one onto his own. Holding the pan containing Wufei's he asked, "Uh Fei, do you want this now? I didn't realize you weren't done your salad yet - I can put it back on the stove to keep it warm for a few minutes..."

"No, I'll eat it now and finish my salad afterwards," Wufei said, hurriedly pushing his salad bowl aside so that Duo could put the omelette on his plate. Eying the thick, fluffy mass of egg, he silently amended that statement to, 'I'll finish my salad if I have any *room*...' He realized after a few bites that not only had Duo added cheese but he had used some of the sliced ham that they had bought for lunches too.

Glancing anxiously between Heero and Wufei, Duo decided finally that if they were a little disappointed in having "breakfast food" for supper they were at least enjoying the taste. He started on his own meal, keeping a close eye out to make sure that he didn't need to cook up the rest of the bacon or make some more toast.

Heero ate slowly, enjoying the treat of having something homemade that he hadn't had to cook for himself. He didn't mind taking his turn cooking but it would be nice to be able to share the task with someone else. He'd had Wufei's idea of cooking before and - well, if you didn't mind a diet that consisted predominantly of rice, he supposed it was okay. Though Wufei's rice was - edible - rather than particularly tasty. That was why he never really argued when Wufei suggested ordering in rather than offering to cook when they were working after hours at Wufei's apartment. He himself had made the effort to learn how to cook reasonably well at the same time as he had taught himself how to braid. And for the same reason - for Duo.

Heero had remembered how Duo's eyes used to light up when Trowa took over cooking duty during the war. It wasn't that Duo ate a whole lot more than usual. And Trowa didn't really make anything fancy. Duo just appreciated a good homecooked meal and Trowa could always be counted on to fix one. Quatre always ordered delivery or heated up something precooked. Duo usually fixed precooked things too while Wufei had pretty much stuck to rice (and it was usually either overcooked or undercooked). And his own skills hadn't extended much beyond that back then either. But remembering how much Duo had enjoyed those simple homecooked meals, he had made a point of learning how to cook like that. And since Duo himself was clearly no slouch in the kitchen now either, they would be able to take turns fixing meals. 'We can always give Wufei dish duty part of the time rather than making him cook...'

Wufei had nearly half his omelette gone before he realized how quiet everyone was and noticed the anxious glances Duo kept flicking towards Heero and himself. "Duo, the meal is excellent," he offered. "I hadn't realized eating 'breakfast food' for a different meal could be so filling."

"Hilde 'n' I fix omelettes for supper pretty often. 'Specially when we've had an extra-long day and just want to eat and go to bed. They're quick and simple to make and they're easy on the stomach but they're still filling and nutritious." Duo wrinkled up his nose and admitted, "And pretty cheap to make too. Eggs are just about the only protein source that L2 produces locally so they're actually cheap *and* fresh."

"Well the practice shows. This is very good," Heero told him with a small smile. But even as he was doing so, he was realizing silently, 'And there's that word again. "Cheap." He's so used to working on a really tight budget... Who makes hash browns from raw potatoes? He's obviously done it before or he'd have never gotten them so perfectly chopped... I wonder whether his reasons for not wanting to go out to dinner and a movie were the same as mine. Somehow I doubt it. I just didn't want to deal with the hassle. But I bet Duo didn't want to waste the money...'

Heero had to admit that they would have to watch their money more carefully than either he or Wufei was used to once they bought a house. There would be more expenses to deal with on a regular basis in addition to needing to make mortgage and insurance payments. But he didn't think things would be nearly as tight as what Duo was used to. They would all have to adjust their spending habits somewhat. Just another adjustment that they would have to make. 'So why do I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn't going to be quite that simple?'

***

Meal over and dishes done, they ended up sprawled across the mattresses watching a movie. A really old, really bad, martial arts movie that had all three of them laughing at the terrible dubbing job and ridiculous plot. And laughing even harder at the badly choreographed fight scenes. By the time the end credits rolled, they were all completely relaxed.

Duo hit the off button on the remote and crawled across the mattress to set it safely on the entertainment centre. When he turned around, Heero and Wufei had moved to sit propped up against the wall. He really wanted to talk to them about the whole house issue but he hated to spoil the good mood that they were all in. Maybe a light-hearted approach would work...

Duo flopped down on his back across their outstretched legs, flung the back of one wrist across his forehead and proclaimed dramatically, "Oh no, tomorrow I must leave on the evil house hunt again! It will be a long and dangerous journey, and..."

Wufei gave Heero an amused look and raised one eyebrow. Heero smirked back and they both pounced, tickling Duo.

"Aack!" Duo doubled up, trying to protect his ribcage from the double attack without flailing around and hitting Wufei's arm or ribs. This wasn't quite what he'd had in mind! "Uncle, uncle!" he managed to gasp out between shrieks of laughter.

"Hmm, think we should accept his surrender?" Wufei asked, fingers stilling.

"I suppose..." Heero said, "...but I think he needs to pay a forfeit..." He held Duo's wrists lightly in one hand, careful not to accidentally squeeze too hard and bruise them.

"Uh-oh. What kind of forfeit?" Duo said, still gasping for breath. 'Shit. Gonna start coughing again...'

"I think a kiss..." Heero broke off as Duo started to cough. He hurriedly lifted Duo into a sitting position and off of Wufei's legs so that Wufei could get up.

"I'll get some water," Wufei said, scrambling off the bed. 'Ouch. Okay, that wasn't the brightest of ideas...' he thought as he bumped his arm in his hurry. 'For either Duo *or* me...'

Heero rubbed Duo's back gently. "I'm sorry, Duo. You've been so much better that I forgot about the bronchitis..."

Duo waited until the coughing settled and Wufei returned with a glass of water for him before trying to reply. After a couple of cautious sips of water, he said ruefully, "You're not the only one." He took another sip, then added, "Forgot my cough medicine today."

Wufei turned and went back to the kitchen for the medication. He downed one of his own pain killers while he was at it, realizing that his arm was going to spend the rest of the evening throbbing otherwise. 'At least I didn't bang the ribs too.'

After they were all settled back on the mattress, medication taken, Duo gave a single snort of laughter and said, "Fine bunch we are. Big tough former Gundam pilots who can't even handle a little bit of horseplay - well, except for Heero who came through unscathed." 'And that was just pure good luck that he only strained a few muscles and is all better again now. Fei's arm and ribs and my own damn cough are all my fault for being such a secretive idiot last week. I know that I've gotta talk to them about the house issue again - but I think that right now I'd rather pay that forfeit Heero started to mention...' The house discussion could wait until tomorrow. It would make more sense to look at the rest of the places on the list first. He might get lucky and find just the right place for them amongst the remaining listings and his worries over what they'd do if they *couldn't* find a place before his week was up would be a moot point. Bringing that up tonight could potentially keep them up half the night arguing and considering what time Heero and Wufei had to leave for work in the morning, that was not a good idea.

"So - what was that forfeit that you had in mind, Heero?" Duo asked with a grin.

It took a moment for Heero to realize what Duo was referring to. But once he did, he grinned back. "Ah - the forfeit. I think he owes us each a kiss, don't you Wufei?"

"That sounds fair to me..." Wufei hesitated for a moment, then smirked over at Heero, "And I think that *you* owe *me* one too for starting something that neither Duo nor I was in any shape for." He made sure to keep his voice teasing; he and Heero were still on pretty uncertain ground with their relationship and he didn't want Heero to think he was really blaming him. Especially since technically *he* was the one who started it.

Initially startled, Heero caught on to Wufei's teasing and simply said, "Deal." He didn't mind kissing Wufei in the least; Wufei's kisses were just as welcome as Duo's now. But he still wasn't comfortable either asking or offering to exchange kisses with Wufei. Not yet.

"Okay, so I owe you each a kiss. Who first?" Duo asked, looking from one to the other questioningly.

"Heero." "Wufei."

Duo snickered at the simultaneous deferral to each other. "What, are you guys gonna have to play Rock, Paper, Scissors to figure this out?"

"Hmm, that's not an entirely bad idea..." Wufei started, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

"Don't you dare!" Duo exclaimed, slapping Wufei's hand down as he started to stretch it out towards Heero. "Just for that, Heero gets his kiss first." He sniffed and raised his chin disdainfully, then spoilt the effect by grinning.

Wufei raised both eyebrows and smirked. "That's fine by me. I'll just sit here and enjoy the show..." He snickered as both Heero and Duo flushed at his remark.

The reminder that Wufei was going to be watching the kiss made Heero feel a bit self-conscious. This was still so new to him and he was just really getting used to the fact that Duo enjoyed his kisses and Wufei seemed to like them as well. 'You're going to have to get used to being watched, Yuy. One of them will almost always be watching while you kiss the other. And you'll be able to watch the two of them kiss too.' Gamely, he forced himself to smirk back at Wufei and say, "Then I guess we'd better give him something worth watching, hadn't we, Duo?"

Part 35:

"Then I guess we'd better give him something worth watching, hadn't we, Duo?" Heero said.

Heero's response to Wufei's teasing caught Duo by surprise. But when he turned his head to look at Heero, he saw the flushed cheeks and slight hint of discomfort in his eyes. 'He's trying to get past feeling uncomfortable about kissing in front of Fei; the comment was an attempt to match Fei's teasing mood. They're both really tryin' to make this work...' "Yep, we'll have to give him a good show," Duo agreed with a conspiratorial grin and a wink. He shifted up onto his knees and crawled over closer to Heero. Draping his arms over Heero's shoulders, he leaned forward to kiss his earlobe first. He whispered, "Want to have some fun and really give him a show?"

The mischief in Duo's voice almost made Heero say no. But he knew that Duo wouldn't get *too* carried away. He trusted Duo; he knew that Duo wouldn't deliberately embarrass him. He murmured softly and a bit hesitantly, "Okay..."

Hearing the hesitation in Heero's response, Duo adjusted his idea slightly. He'd let Heero take the lead, that way he wouldn't accidentally push Heero too fast. Heero had come a long way over the past few days; he barely hesitated over unexpected contact from him now and he was getting a lot better about contact from Wufei too. But it would still be better to let Heero get things started. He kissed his way lightly across Heero's cheek, teasingly pecked the tip of his nose instead of his mouth, then brushed the other cheek on his way across to the so-far-neglected ear on that side. Softly, he whispered, "Okay. Push me over backwards across his legs and just - experiment. Have some fun; explore a little; I trust you."

'What *is* he up to?' Wufei wondered silently. Duo seemed to be doing a lot of teasing and whispering. He hadn't so much as brushed a kiss across Heero's lips yet, though he seemed to have kissed just about every other part of his face. Even as he thought that, Heero's eyes flickered shut involuntarily as Duo gently brushed light kisses around them, then on his closed eyelids. 'That must be very - frustrating - on the receiving end. Heero must be getting impatient for a proper kiss by now...' So he wasn't surprised when Heero suddenly moved his hands from where they'd rested at Duo's waist to his shoulders. But he *was* surprised when Heero pushed Duo backwards across *his* outstretched legs.

Heero smirked into the kiss as he brought Duo's teasing to an end, capturing his lips as they landed. Wufei had actually yelped in surprise as he and Duo suddenly landed virtually in his lap. He could feel Duo grinning against his lips too. They'd definitely caught Wufei off-guard. Duo's idea was working quite nicely already. 'Experiment, have some fun, and explore...' Well, he really didn't know what Duo had in mind... But there were a few things he'd been wondering about...

Duo parted his lips readily when he felt Heero's tongue brush tentatively against them. He'd been considering trying that for a couple of days now but he hadn't been sure that Heero was ready for it yet. And he wouldn't start something with Wufei that he didn't do with Heero too. He had to keep his physical relationship with them both in balance. Especially right now, when the three of them were just starting to figure out how to make this - the three of them together - work. 'Letting Heero take the lead and giving him explicit permission to experiment was an even better idea than I realized... Maybe I'm making too much of an allowance for his relative newness with physical contact...'

Wufei closed his jaw with a snap. 'I guess he really meant it when he said they'd better give me something worth watching...' He was pretty sure that there was tongue involved in that kiss. And their hands were doing a fair bit of wandering too. Not to mention the fact that Heero was - well, lying mostly on top of Duo. 'And that they're *both* basically in *my* lap!' Not that he *minded*... He had a *very* good view from here... A little voice inside pointed out that he obviously had unsuspected voyeuristic tendencies and he really shouldn't be enjoying the show quite *this* much. Shouldn't he be feeling left out? Jealous? After all, this was considerably more than just Duo paying *a* kiss that he owed. But before he could pursue that train of thought too far, the kiss was breaking off and Heero was pushing himself up to a kneeling position before offering Duo a hand.

Duo gave Wufei a smug grin, "Enjoy watching the show, Fei? I know that *we* sure enjoyed putting it on, didn't we Heero?"

Heero's cheeks became even warmer but he managed to smirk and agree, "Yes." He definitely had. 'And I didn't even freeze when Duo ran his hands up under my shirt!' he exulted silently. Maybe only because he already had one under Duo's so that it wasn't entirely unexpected? Well, it didn't matter, he hadn't frozen even briefly and that was the important part. And although he'd *mostly* been able to forget that Wufei was watching them, he hadn't forgotten completely. He'd remembered that they had to be careful not to leave Wufei out of things for too long and had broken things off before he was really ready to because of that. It wouldn't have been fair not to. Despite how much he'd been enjoying himself.

"Yes, I did," Wufei admitted, his cheeks flushing. A small part of him - that hidebound, traditional bit - protested faintly but he ignored it. He *had* enjoyed watching them kiss. Which was a good thing, considering the relationship that the three of them were going to have together. "Hopefully we can entertain Heero just as much," he added, shooting Duo a mischievous look. Though he *was* a bit limited by the fact that he only had one good arm and his ribs were still damn sore.

"Hmm, well, we can sure try..." Duo answered. He crawled over to straddle Wufei's lap, facing him. Wufei's ribs and arm limited things a bit; this was the best way he could think of to let him get at least almost as close as he'd been to Heero without hurting Fei. He braced one arm against the wall to keep from leaning too heavily against Wufei and slid the other around him.

Meeting Duo's kiss, Wufei wasn't too surprised when the tip of Duo's tongue ran lightly over his lips. 'I *thought* there was tongue involved in their kiss...' He opened his mouth eagerly, accepting the welcome intrusion. Sliding his good hand up under Duo's shirt, he pressed firmly against Duo's back, pulling him closer, not caring that his injured arm and ribs twinged at the increased pressure.

His cheeks warm with slight embarrassment, Heero leaned one shoulder against the wall while watching Duo kiss Wufei. His lips were still tingling and he could still taste Duo. He wouldn't have minded doing a little more "experimenting". 'But now that I know Duo doesn't mind, I can always take the lead another time...' He hadn't tried to before because he was a little hesitant over possibly doing something - well, silly. Of reminding the others just how inexperienced he was at simple human contact let alone kissing and making out. But he hadn't done anything wrong; Duo had seemed to enjoy the kiss as much as he had.

'Just as much as he and Wufei are enjoying their kiss...' And - he was enjoying watching them. More than he'd ever have believed he would. 'Maybe because Duo and I already had ours? And I know that when they're done, it's my turn to kiss Wufei?' Maybe. Heero was just glad that it didn't make him feel hurt and left out.

Duo let Wufei pull him closer, trusting that Fei would be careful of his own injuries and not let Duo hurt him. He slipped his hand up under Fei's shirt, enjoying the feel of warm skin and firm muscle. Enjoying the unique taste of Wufei's kiss just as he'd enjoyed that of Heero's. 'Sometimes, it's still hard to believe this is all real...' he thought in wonder as he finally broke off the kiss. He smiled at Wufei before turning his head towards Heero. "So how was the show?" he grinned.

Heero flushed and admitted, "Nice."

Wufei gave Heero an understanding smile. "It feels odd to admit it, doesn't it?"

Heero nodded in agreement. He was glad to hear that Wufei had the same reaction. Enjoying watching the others kiss yet at the same time not being entirely sure that he *should* be. Or that he should be very willing to admit to it.

As Duo carefully climbed off his lap, Wufei met Heero's eyes. "Guess it's our turn to entertain Duo now..." He held his good hand out in invitation. "Right, Heero?"

"Yes..." Heero crawled across the mattress towards Wufei. Kneeling beside him, he hesitated. He wasn't sure whether he should duplicate Duo's action and climb on Wufei's lap or not. 'I'm not sure whether Wufei would mind that or not... We haven't been in that close of contact before...'

Watching Heero, Wufei saw his hesitation and guessed what was creating the uncertainty. He caught hold of Heero's arm and tugged. "Make yourself comfortable like Duo did," he invited.

Heero settled himself straddling Wufei's legs, careful not to jar Wufei's broken arm. He placed his hands carefully, one cupping Wufei's neck and the other behind his back. 'Should I kiss him the way I kissed Duo or is that too intimate for us still? I'm not sure where my boundaries are with Wufei...'

Seeing the hesitation still lingering in Heero's eyes, Wufei realized, 'He's still not sure... We need to get past this; he has to understand that his touch and kiss are as welcome as Duo's...' He *could* just take the initiative himself - but that wouldn't address the real issue. He raised his hand to stroke Heero's cheek lightly. "Heero - don't worry about it so much..." he said softly. "You won't do anything wrong. You are just as welcome as Duo. Okay?"

Leaning against the wall beside Wufei, Duo smiled gently as the uncertainty slowly faded from Heero's face. It didn't *completely* disappear; that could only come with time. 'But it's a start. He's been fine with touches or kisses that Fei initiated once he got past that initial brief freezing in uncertainty at any form of contact. But he hasn't been comfortable initiating anything with Fei. He just hasn't been sure that he's welcome. I'm glad Fei realized that and made a point of telling him that he *is*.' He watched happily as Heero and Wufei kissed. It was definitely a slower, more cautious kiss than either of them had shared with him but they both seemed to be enjoying it.

Wufei held himself in check, not wanting to take the lead. Whatever Heero initiated, he would respond to - but this time he thought it was important that he leave it up to Heero to make the first move. 'He has to accept that he won't do anything wrong and make me mad. That the relationship we're building between us is just as important as the one each of us is building with Duo.'

'He said that I was as welcome as Duo; that I wouldn't do anything wrong...' Heero reminded himself. Cautiously, he parted his lips and touched his tongue to Wufei's mouth. When Wufei's lips immediately allowed him entrance, he gained confidence and deepened the kiss.

Duo watched carefully, waiting for the moment that Heero and Wufei began to break off the kiss. As soon as they began to separate, he moved to kneel beside them, leaning so that he could wrap one arm around each of them, pulling them into a group hug. "I love you both," he said softly, pressing a kiss to each one's cheek. 'We *will* make this work. We all want it to; we'll do whatever it takes...'

***

"Duo, were you planning to drop by Preventers HQ this morning to see Une?" Heero asked. It was only Tuesday but the week would disappear in no time. He knew that Duo had planned to talk to Une about taking up that standing job offer she'd made before he went back to L2.

"Umm, actually, I think I'll call and set up an appointment for tomorrow if I can get one," Duo said as he started clearing the breakfast table. "I figured I'd better try and get through the rest of the list of houses today. Even after we find one, we still have to arrange a mortgage and everything. That's going to take a couple of days just to get things started. And I don't really think I can put off going back to L2 again." He couldn't leave Hilde in the lurch indefinitely; he'd have to go back and help hire and train someone to do all the things he'd been doing. She'd known that he wasn't completely content at the yard and even though he hadn't given her any details beyond the fact that he was going to join Heero and Wufei in the Preventers, she'd been perfectly understanding regarding the fact that he wanted to sell out his share of the business. She'd put things in motion on that end right away. By the time he went back at the end of the week, she'd have the financing lined up to buy him out and the first batch of applicants scheduled for interviews.

"Why don't you set up an appointment so we can get preapproval for a mortgage too?" Wufei suggested. "Schedule it for lunchtime or late afternoon; I'm sure we can manage to take a little extra time for lunch or leave a bit early and make the time up the next day if need be. That way there won't be any delay once we find a house; we'll be able to make a firm offer right away."

"Okay," Duo agreed. He and Hilde had dealt with enough financial institutions while they were struggling to get the yard back on its feet that he would have no problem getting that lined up. And it would take a tiny bit of the pressure off in terms of how quickly they needed to find a house. If the financing was settled in advance, it would save quite a bit of time when they actually went to buy the house. Assuming they could *find* one...

Glancing at his watch, Duo commented, "You two better get going or you'll be late." He set the dishes aside so that he could kiss Heero and Wufei goodbye. "I'll see you tonight. Hopefully with a list of a few houses for us to go look at..."

"Bye Duo," Heero said, hugging him firmly before heading for the door.

Wufei wrapped Duo in a warm one-armed hug. "Don't worry too much about the house," he said. He'd known that Duo was worrying about it last night but really hadn't wanted to talk about it after a long day at work. A long, *frustrating* day since he was of course stuck on desk duty until his arm healed up, a fact that Une had seemed much too happy to inform him of. "We'll find something. I'm sure there've been more houses listed for sale since we printed out that list."

Duo leaned into the hug gratefully. He hadn't wanted to bring the subject up until he finished off the list and was sure that it was necessary but it was nice to know that Wufei had noticed he was worrying about it. "Thanks, Fei," he murmured. Reluctantly, he drew away. "Go on now. I'm fine and Heero's probably holding the elevator for you."

"See you tonight," Wufei said with a smile as he turned towards the door. Hurrying out of the apartment, he discovered that Heero was indeed holding the elevator for him. He gave in to the temptation and gave Heero a quick hug and brushed a kiss across his cheek on his way into the elevator. Heero took a quick step and brushed an equally brief kiss across his cheek, drawing a startled but pleased smile from him.

A faint flicker of a smile tugged at the corners of Heero's mouth as he followed Wufei into the elevator. 'Wufei caught me by surprise but - I didn't freeze up! I kissed him back and he liked it. I'm getting more comfortable with him too...'

Part 37:

Duo groaned and marked yet another listing off the list of possible houses. Then he sighed and carefully erased the line, putting a question mark beside the house instead. It honestly wasn't all that bad. Yeah, it was way more money than he'd like but it looked like that was something that really couldn't be helped. Housing in Sanc was simply that expensive; even fairly average houses were double or triple the cost of something even vaguely comparable on L2.

And the neighbourhood wasn't *too* bad either; the houses weren't cookie-cutter identical like some he'd viewed. He didn't really like the fact that throwing a Frisbee in the yard would probably mean it would land in the neighbour's yard but at least there were privacy fences between them in the backyard and hedges in the front one. 'But I *don't* like the fact that the neighbours are nosy...' Well, maybe not really *nosy*; that was probably an unfair assessment. But he wasn't too thrilled about the fact that several different people had made a point of coming over to greet the real estate agent and incidentally grill *him* none too subtly about his age and occupation and marital status and a hell of a lot of other things that were none of their damn business. He'd pretty much avoided answering the questions but it brought home to him just how badly three young men sharing a house were going to stick out in suburbia.

'Three young *gay* men. Three young gay men in a relationship together...' Duo looked around the neighbourhood again and shook his head slightly. If they lived somewhere like this, they were going to have to either keep their relationship firmly *inside* the house, out of sight and knowledge of the neighbours, or resign themselves to being the neighbourhood curiosity. If they were lucky, all they'd draw would be curious stares. If they *weren't* so lucky... Well, same-sex relationships were far from universally accepted and threesomes weren't exactly commonplace either. A same-sex threesome was probably going to draw a *lot* of attention - a lot of *negative* attention - in a community like this.

'Someplace with a few less neighbours and a lot more privacy would be good. *Very* good,' Duo decided.

Before the real estate agent could start her car and pull away, he hopped back out of his and hurried over to rap on her window. "Sorry," he apologized as she rolled it down. "I was just wondering whether you had anything similar listed that wasn't in a subdivision? Working for the Preventers is pretty stressful and I'm starting to think that someplace a little more - uh - peaceful," he winced as a couple of small kids playing in a nearby yard shrieked and one started to wail at the top of her lungs, "and with more privacy would be kinda nice..."

The realtor frowned slightly, thoughtful. "Yes, I do have a couple of properties that might fit your needs. We also have a couple of build-to-order lots listed just outside of the city; perhaps you would be interested in those if none of the houses are exactly what you're looking for."

"Hadn't really considered building but at this point..." Duo shrugged with a sheepish smile. "I wouldn't exactly rule it out. Would there be time to look at any of those today?"

She checked her watch and nodded, "Certainly."

"Great."

***

Wufei swore and reached awkwardly over the stacks of files cluttering his desk to grab the phone. Irritably, he snapped, "Preventers, Chang speaking."

"Umm, hi Fei. Is this a bad time?"

Irritation vanishing, a faint smile tugged at the corners of Wufei's mouth as he answered, "No, of course not, Duo."

"You're sure? I don't want to interrupt anything important..."

"Believe me, you're not. The only thing you're 'interrupting' is the development of a nasty headache from all the files I've been reading," Wufei assured Duo. He leaned back in his chair more comfortably before continuing, "Une has me going through every open but inactive case dating back to when the damn agency was *founded* looking for any new leads to pursue. I've been at this all day, I can certainly afford to take a break and talk to you for a few minutes."

"Oh. Good. I won't keep you long; I just wanted to let you guys know that I might be a little late getting back tonight."

Wufei's forehead creased slightly in concern. "There isn't anything wrong, is there? I didn't think that you had that many houses lined up to look at today..."

"No, nothing's wrong, Fei. I've already been to the places we had lined up but, well..."

'He sounds a little bit excited... no, more like anxious - nervous?' Wufei thought. "But..." he prompted carefully.

In a rush, Duo continued, "Well, the realtor's going to show me a few places that weren't on our list. The ones I looked at already weren't all bad but - well, there's not a whole lotta privacy in subdivisions and I thought maybe it'd be a good idea to see some places that were a little better that way so I asked her if she had anything similar that would have more privacy and she does and she said she could show them to me today and I'm meeting her at the first one in a few minutes but I didn't want you guys to worry if I wasn't back yet when you got back to the apartment so I thought I'd better call and let you know I might be running kinda late. Umm, and I wanted to ask whether it'd be okay if the drive in was a little longer than we'd originally figured on 'cause these places are kind of on the outskirts of the city; one's even in a nearby town..."

Wufei wasn't surprised when Duo ended up coughing after that long, breathless rush of words. He waited until Duo had his breathing back under control before replying, "That sounds like a good idea, Duo. Privacy *is* important to all of us; I think that a slightly longer drive is a fair trade if we can find someplace that we all like."

"Okay, just wanted to check. Oh, and she mentioned some build-to-suit lots... Should I look at those too?"

Remembering the horror stories told by one of the secretaries, Wufei was severely tempted to say absolutely not. She and her fiance had very nearly ended up calling off the wedding before their house was finally completed; they had fought nearly nonstop during the building process and apparently that wasn't particularly unusual. He wasn't particularly thrilled at the thought of deliberately putting the very new and fragile relationship between Duo, Heero, and himself at that kind of risk. But if it was the only way that they could find a house to suit all three of them, it probably wouldn't put any more strain on their relationship than buying a house that one or more of them was unhappy with. "It wouldn't hurt just to take a look," he said cautiously.

"Okay," Duo agreed. "Umm, and you'll tell Heero what I said, right? Or do you think I should talk to him myself?"

"I'll tell him," Wufei answered. "He's out doing a security and emergency evacuation plan evaluation over at the university right now anyway; Une's not about to leave him sitting around the office just because I'm on desk-duty. There's plenty of assignments she can give him that can either be done solo or with a temporary partner."

"Makes sense. See you guys tonight, then. Bye, Fei."

"Goodbye Duo." Wufei hung up the phone, half-regretting that he hadn't added a "Love you" to his farewell. But the three of them hadn't exactly discussed how open they intended to be regarding their relationship and all calls to the office were automatically recorded... Something that he guessed Duo had thought of as well, since nothing that he'd said really went beyond what was appropriate for friendship. 'One more thing that the three of us need to talk about...' He sighed and made a mental note to bring the subject up, then turned his attention back to the stacks of files on his desk. They'd figure it out later; for now, he had work to do.

***

Duo followed the real estate agent around the last house she thought might suit their requirements, scribbling notes as he went. These places were definitely better privacy-wise than anything he'd seen previously though they weren't nearly as attractive, at least not at first glance. The first one would have been practically perfect - if it weren't for the fact that it was practically next door to the city airport and one of the main flight paths went directly overhead. He didn't think jet engines roaring over their heads would be good for their nerves.

This one didn't have that sort of problem, nor did the basement have visible water damage and cracks in the wall like the second place they'd been to, but both bathrooms would need to be completely torn out and redone. One because the tile was cracked and falling off the wall and the other because the plastic shower enclosure was badly stained and the taps leaked. Plus the fittings in general were in poor shape. And pretty much every room in the house could use a fresh coat of paint plus new carpeting plus the woodwork all needed to be refinished...

And the in-ground pool needed work; he wasn't sure how *much* work because he really didn't know anything about pools but the filter motor sounded like it was on its last legs and the water looked and smelled a bit brackish. They'd definitely have to have someone take a look at it and provide an estimate before even making an offer on this place and there was no way that they'd pay the asking price but the house *did* have potential. It was just really not very well-maintained. Even the lawn was in poor shape; half-dead and full of weeds.

'I can't imagine Wufei agreeing to this one,' Duo admitted silently. 'It just needs too damn much work done to it.' Which was really a shame because underneath all the neglect, it *was* a nice property. At one time, it would have been almost as much of a showplace as some of the ones they'd looked at that first day that they went house-hunting. In its current state, though, he doubted that he could even sell Heero on its potential. Hell, he wouldn't even *try*. If he didn't have to go back to L2, he might have considered trying to convince them based on him taking full responsibility for getting the place fixed up. It would be a challenge but not all that different from the challenge he and Hilde had faced in reviving the failing scrapyard. As it was, though, he couldn't in all fairness ask either Heero or Wufei to take on the task. And although he liked the place and could see the potential in it, he wasn't completely enthralled by the house.

'Maybe we *will* have to build...' he thought reluctantly. He didn't really like that idea very well; they'd either have to wait till he came back from L2 or Heero and Wufei would have to take full responsibility for the whole thing. He *had* kind of liked one of the lots that the realtor had shown him; the small woodlot on the site had appealed to him. But the neighbouring house was very close to the property line and the lot was deep but narrow. They would either have to build very near to the existing house - and thereby sacrifice a lot of their privacy - or tear out the woodlot that was the whole reason he liked the property in the first place.

Stifling a sigh, Duo thanked the realtor for her time and assured her that she'd given him a few possibilities to consider. She headed off to meet another client while Duo pointed his vehicle back towards the city. He had directions from her to get back without retracing their entire route but it didn't take long to find himself facing a construction detour. "Bridge out. Shit," he muttered unhappily. He hoped that this didn't take him *too* far out of his way and that the detour was well marked; he'd already discovered that neither his Sanc map nor the car's onboard GPS was much good out here. Half the local roads didn't *exist* as far as those were concerned; the GPS was currently insisting that he wasn't even *on* a road.

He followed the detour signs carefully, not wanting to get lost on these backroads. Finding his way back on his own would take a lot of time and he didn't want to be *too* late getting back to the apartment. Duo was concentrating so hard on finding the next detour sign that he almost missed the small "House and Woodlot For Sale by Owner" sign by the side of the road. He threw a quick glance in the rearview mirror to make sure no one was behind him then slammed on the brakes. "Probably just a waste of time, but what the hell..." he muttered, backing the car up in order to pull into the driveway.

***

Heero checked the lasagna and grimaced. They were going to either have to go ahead and eat without Duo or they could wait and just reheat the meal for all of them; the pasta was going to dry out if he left it in the oven any longer no matter *how* low he set the temperature. "Do you want to go ahead and eat?" he asked Wufei. "I can reheat Duo's portion when he gets home..."

Wufei frowned slightly, "I didn't realize he meant that he'd be quite *this* late... I'm not sure whether we should wait to eat or not..." He didn't want to make Duo feel bad because they'd waited for him in order to eat but he also didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable because they'd gone ahead and eaten without him. He really wasn't sure which was the best thing to do.

"It's never quite as good reheated," Heero noted, setting the pan on top of the stove. He wasn't too disappointed though; it wasn't as if he'd made the lasagna himself. It was from a small pasta place that made everything from scratch and sold some ready-to-cook dishes. He'd picked it up on the way home since Wufei had told him that Duo wouldn't be home in time to fix dinner. It was less trouble and cost than going out to eat but a lot better than any frozen packaged dinner would be and a lot quicker than making something from scratch.

"Perhaps we should go ahead and eat then," Wufei decided. "I need to eat before I take my pain medication anyway." He hated to have to take it again but sitting in one position and working at his desk all day had made his ribs ache and his arm throb. Trying to pull some additional files that he needed out of a filing cabinet hadn't been the brightest move either. If he wanted to get a good night's sleep, he was going to have to take the painkillers.

Frowning, Heero asked, "You're in that much pain? Maybe you should have Sally take another look..."

Wufei shook his head and admitted, "Not really pain, more like an ache. I just overdid it a bit today. I *could* get by without the painkillers but I probably wouldn't sleep very well - which would mean that neither you nor Duo would either." He added silently, 'And both of you feel bad enough over this already; you don't need any more guilt over my injuries...'

Heero ducked his head and made a soft sound of acknowledgement as he cut the lasagna. He still felt guilty that he hadn't realized Duo wasn't up to the demonstration that day and equally guilty that he hadn't been able to avoid hitting Wufei when things started to go wrong. He suppressed a shudder at the memory of the sickening crack when his kick had broken Wufei's arm.

Noticing the tension in Heero's muscles, Wufei stepped up beside him and gave him a one-armed hug. He could make a pretty good guess what was going through Heero's head right now. "Stop blaming yourself; it wasn't your fault." In response to the disbelieving snort that greeted his statement, he qualified, "Or at least accept that it wasn't *just* your fault, Heero. All three of us made mistakes that day; I certainly don't blame you."

The reassuring arm wrapped around him felt good and he was glad that Wufei didn't blame him but that didn't change the facts. Heero said quietly, "It's not that simple. I'm supposed to have better control than that; I *have* to have better control." He shrugged slightly, adding even more softly, "I'm too dangerous without it." It was the simple truth. Between his strength and his training, he *had* to be observant and in control. Mistakes had too much potential to be deadly.

Wufei observed simply, "The circumstances were highly unusual. And as I said already, we *all* made mistakes. Don't place too much significance on that single instance; your control is exceptional, Heero." He tightened the hug for a moment and brushed a light kiss over Heero's cheek before stepping away and changing the subject. "Hopefully Duo's this late because he's found some good possibilities for us."

Grateful for the change of subject - and equally grateful for Wufei's support - Heero agreed.

 

Part 37:

"Finally," Duo muttered as he signed the last form. He'd had his appointment with Une right after lunch then spent the entire remainder of the afternoon filling out paperwork. He would have to come in later in the week for a physical and to go through the weapons certification process. But by getting all of that out of the way now, he would only need to do the standard orientation sessions and pass the exam testing familiarity with Preventers procedures and regulations once he came back. And if he worked his way through the regulations and procedures manuals while he was on L2, it wouldn't take long at all to complete the orientation process and start field work.

'And at least it kept me busy... Too busy to worry about what Heero and Wufei are going to think of the house...'

Duo handed his paperwork over to the Human Resources clerk with a good-natured grin. "All set?" he asked hopefully.

"All set," she confirmed cheerfully. "Just present this," she handed him a single sheet of paper, "when you get your physical. And this form is for the weapons certification." Duo accepted that sheet as well, thanking her politely. Then he hurried off to meet the others. He might have to kill a few minutes but it was very close to time for them to get off work. They'd be grabbing a quick bite to eat then heading out to take a look at the houses he'd short-listed yesterday.

***

Wufei watched Duo's reflection in the rear-view mirror thoughtfully. Duo had been excited when he'd finally gotten home last night, though he'd tried to hide it. Obviously, one of the houses he'd looked at had really appealed to him. It was equally obvious that it was one of the ones that they were all viewing tonight; there was a definite air of nervous anticipation about him.

"Did you manage to book an appointment with the home inspection service?" Heero asked. They'd decided that it was worth scheduling a visit despite the fact that they hadn't chosen a house yet. If they couldn't agree on any of the ones that Duo had chosen for them to visit tonight, they were going to have to sit down and seriously consider either letting it go until after Duo's return or buying a lot and having a house built to their specifications. 'Though I'm not too sure that we can agree on what to build, either...' Heero admitted silently. 'But Duo admitting that we're going to have to spend more than he'd thought no matter what happens should help, regardless of whether we buy or build. Sanc is simply a much more costly place to live than L2 and Duo's starting to understand that.'

Not that Heero had any illusions that money had ceased to be a concern for Duo. He realized that Duo would probably always be the most spending-conscious of the three of them. But once Duo adjusted to the pricing differences - and the income difference too - it would hopefully not be quite such a big issue. 'And if we're going to be making mortgage payments and paying for the upkeep of a house, we'll *need* to be more thrifty than in the past. Duo may be used to budgeting carefully but neither Wufei nor I have really needed to bother. Our salaries were more than enough to cover our spending and still have some left to save.'

"Uh, yeah. They said they could fit up to two inspections in tomorrow afternoon; if we want more than two done, the extra will have to be scheduled in for another day," Duo answered. "I doubt that we'd have more than two houses that we were serious enough about to bother having an inspection done anyway, so I said that'd be fine." He was kind of hoping that they'd only need to have one inspection done, frankly. But he didn't want to come out and say that. The others might prefer one of the other houses over the one he liked and he didn't want to unduly influence them before they got a chance to see any of them.

Wufei leaned forward. "Are there only two houses that you really liked, Duo? Why don't we skip the other two, then, and just concentrate on the ones you preferred?"

Flushing slightly, Duo muttered, "Well, you guys might like one of the others better..."

"Duo, why don't we at least *start* with the ones you like best? We can always go to the others afterwards if necessary," Heero suggested. He turned in his seat, meeting Wufei's eyes and quirking one eyebrow. They'd both noticed Duo's tightly restrained excitement last night. Any house that had made him *that* excited had very little chance of being refused by either of them. Not after how discouraged he'd been by the house hunt up until now.

"But..."

"No buts, Duo," Wufei interjected firmly. "Start with whichever ones you liked best."

"One," Duo admitted hesitantly. "Not 'ones'. Just - one."

"Then let's start with it."

Heero nodded in agreement with Wufei's statement. There was no point wasting their time looking at the others. And unless there was something very seriously wrong with the house that Duo preferred, looking at anything else *would* be a waste of time.

***

"It's kinda out in the middle of nowhere..." Duo said nervously as he turned onto the road he'd been detoured down the previous evening. "But the privacy would be nice... The three of us would be pretty conspicuous in the middle of a subdivision..." He hesitated, then blurted out anxiously, "Not that I'm ashamed we're together but I'd rather not have neighbours snooping and making comments. People can get awful nasty when they feel threatened..."

Gently, Wufei interrupted, "Agreed. And a same-sex threesome would certainly bother a lot of people." He hadn't really thought too carefully about it before but Duo was correct. There was no point in adding unnecessary stress to their lives together. "In fact, that reminds me of something I'd intended to bring up last night. How open do we intend to be about our relationship? How do we act at work? In public? I think we really need to make a decision together regarding that."

"I think," Heero said slowly, "that work - is work. Our relationship is - not-work. It simply - does not belong in the office..." He grimaced, not sure whether he was making himself clear. Talking about this kind of thing was so new, so awkward... 'And I don't want to say the wrong thing and upset either of them. I don't want to *hide* our relationship. But I don't want it to cause unnecessary problems for any of us at work either...'

"We're all friends... and partners..." Duo volunteered hesitantly. "I think Heero's right. Anything other than that - doesn't belong at work. In public, though..." He bit his lip, uncertain how to explain. He'd loved how open they'd been about their relationship when they were in California. But that had been when they were away from where they worked and lived. He wasn't sure whether Heero and Wufei would really be comfortable with being that open here. "I... I like being able to hold hands and stuff..." he finally said, shrugging slightly. "But I'd be okay with keeping that just at home, I guess..."

"But you'd rather not," Wufei observed.

"I... um, yeah. I'd rather not." Duo stole a sidelong glance at Heero, then flicked a quick peek at the rearview mirror in order to check Wufei's _expression. The quick glance was too brief to interpret Heero's inscrutable face. Wufei just looked thoughtful.

"Work - I agree. I would feel more comfortable if we keep things professional there. In public..." Now it was Wufei's turn to hesitate. He had enjoyed holding hands and sharing cotton candy and the other things that they had done together last week. But they had been far from home and those around them were all strangers. The circumstances had been unusual; he had been trying very hard to make up for all of the times he'd hurt Duo in the past. But such open displays were counter to everything he'd ever been taught; he wasn't sure whether he could continue that kind of behaviour in the long run. "In public," he repeated cautiously, "I think... holding hands is okay. But - discreetly?"

"That would work for me," Duo agreed readily. "Heero?"

"That will be fine," Heero responded. He was glad that they were in agreement on this. He wasn't surprised that Wufei was a bit hesitant regarding public displays of affection now that they were back in their home city; his upbringing had been very traditional and such displays would have been frowned upon. As far as he himself was concerned... Well, he hadn't been supposed to feel affection, let alone show it. Responding to affection from the others still required a conscious effort and he felt a bit awkward and uncertain even then. And as for being the one to initiate something like handholding... That took a real effort. Despite the fact that he was getting better at it. Keeping things discreet in public was fine by him.

Duo slowed the car, watching carefully for the small "For Sale" sign. Spotting it, he flicked on his turn signal and pulled in the driveway. "Well, guys, this is it..." he said nervously.

The copper sheeting on the stone chimney reflected the car's headlights and the light from the huge livingroom windows glowed invitingly in the early twilight, an almost-perfect recreation of Duo's first view of the house last night. He didn't dare peek at either Heero's or Wufei's expression; he was too worried that they wouldn't like the place as much as he did. Turning off the car, he climbed out and started towards the house, listening as car doors opened and closed behind him and quick steps hurried to catch up. 'Please, please, let them like it too...' he wished silently.

The moment that they stepped into the house, Heero knew that it fulfilled the one thing that had been on *his* personal wishlist. Unlike most of the houses they'd viewed before, this house felt like a *home*. Warm, inviting, and *alive* in a way that those others were not.

The livingroom was the full two stories in height; its focal point the beautiful stone and copper fireplace in one corner. Open space led towards the dining room and a door opened out onto a covered porch along the way. The dining room in turn led to the kitchen and another small porch. Yard lights lit the immediate vicinity but did not reach to the back of the yard.

Surveying the dark yard and remembering how isolated the house was, Heero decided that the first improvement would need to be a good security system. He doubted that whatever the current owners had would meet his approval. 'Not that there's a system on the market that *would*...' he admitted silently. It didn't matter, though. The three of them could put one together from scratch and they'd have something better than the best one commercially available.

The house owner showed them the laundry room - with its door to the garage - at the end of the short hall leading away from the kitchen. Between the kitchen and laundry room lay one of the two downstairs bedrooms - currently a study - on one side, the downstairs bathroom with its door leading into the guestroom on the other. Passing through the guestroom led them back into the livingroom again.

Wufei hid his surprise with an effort. He hadn't really known what to expect but he hadn't expected something that looked so much like a log cabin on the outside to be so beautiful *inside*. He stole a quick glance at Duo and realized with amusement that all of the previously ill-concealed excitement was now well hidden behind polite interest. 'His business experience showing through... He's not about to let the owner see how much he likes the house.'

As they followed the owner over to the staircase leading up to the loft and the master bedroom, Wufei asked curiously, "May I ask why the house is for sale?"

The man answered as they climbed, "I've been retired for several years; my wife is retiring at the end of the month. Our children both live on one of the L1 colonies and we'd like to spend more time with the grandkids. We're going to move out there once we sell this." He ran an appreciative hand over the loft railing, looking out through the livingroom window and smiling a bit wistfully. "We'll miss the place. Lot of memories here. But making memories for the next generation - that's more important." He shook his head once, sharply, and turned to lead them into the master bedroom.

Despite his best efforts, Wufei felt his eyes widen as they entered the master bedroom and *another* fireplace came into view. 'A see-through one that's shared with the bathroom... Which has a whirlpool tub...' Any remaining reservations over the fact that the house was log, inside and out, vanished.

Heero approved silently of the bedroom's balcony. It had no stairs but any of them could easily scramble down from it - with or without the aid of a rope ladder - in case of a fire or some other need for an emergency exit. Spacious walk-in closets in both the bedroom and bath would provide enough space for all three of them without needing to resort to storing some of their clothing in one of the downstairs bedrooms. And the whirlpool tub would be greatly appreciated after a long day at work.

The final room to be viewed was the studio over top of the garage. Duo could see the calculating look in both Heero's and Wufei's eyes and knew that they were seeing the same potential that he had. It would make a perfect workout room slash dojo. The room itself was spacious and inviting. The balcony at the far end was slightly larger than the one off the master bedroom and provided yet another exit from the second story, this one with stairs leading down. And the small bathroom in one corner of the studio would be convenient in the mornings when they were all trying to get ready for work at the same time.

'Three full baths, a whirlpool, a garage, three bedrooms, and an all-purpose studio. About the only criteria - other than a swimming pool - it *doesn't* meet is my *own* for price. But for *this*, I can live with it,' Duo thought. He waited patiently while the house owner excused himself, leaving them alone in the studio to talk.

"There's no swimming pool," he admitted. "And I know it's a long drive in to HQ. It's definitely more money than I originally wanted to spend - but it's well under the maximum that we'd set...

"And it's pretty isolated - two miles to the nearest neighbour in any direction. But..." Duo shrugged slightly, "...there's plenty of privacy. Lots of space if we want to have guests. And it just..."

"Feels like a *home*," Heero interrupted softly. "Or at least, what I think a home is supposed to feel like..." He didn't really have anything to compare it to, after all. But it definitely felt more comfortable than most - maybe even all - of the houses that they'd looked at before.

"We can always put in a pool later," Wufei said simply, quirking a smile at Duo. "I guess it's a good thing that you booked the house inspection service for tomorrow. And that we got pre-approval for a mortgage during lunch hour."

Duo grinned and threw his arms around both of their necks and pulled them into an enthusiastic group hug. "I can't believe it - we finally found someplace we agree on!"

Part 38:

"We should never have made that promise," Wufei muttered grimly, then corrected himself, "*I* should never have made it." He *was* the one who'd brought it up at the time; Heero had just agreed with him.

Heero grimaced. "He needed it. And we *meant* it. We just..."

"...can't keep it," Wufei finished, scowling. He could not believe that he hadn't thought of this sooner. That *neither* of them had. Now Duo was leaving in just one more day, going back to L2 to help Hilde hire and train someone to take his place, and neither of them was going to be with him.

And they'd more-or-less promised that he would never have to wake up alone again.

Wufei sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He and Heero had spent their entire lunch trying to find a way around breaking their word. 'Now that we finally *remembered* and realized what was going to happen...' He sighed again, irritated with himself for not thinking of this sooner. 'It wasn't *exactly* a promise... But that was certainly the implication...'

"You're sure that giving him a wake-up call every morning is out?"

"Yes," Heero answered firmly. "We could probably afford it but he'll never agree to it. He'll see it as a waste of money and feel guilty; the expense would bother him more than the reassurance would be worth."

"I wish he wasn't quite so... so..." Wufei searched for a word to properly express his feelings without going overboard.

"Frugal?" Heero suggested, the corner of his mouth twitching as he resisted the urge to smirk at Wufei's obvious dismay. "Thrifty?"

"Penny-pinching," Wufei growled irritably, then immediately took it back. "No, that's unfair. You're right, he's just very budget-conscious. Which is an admirable trait. Though rather - frustrating - at times."

Heero simply shrugged in acceptance. "He knows what it's like to not have enough money even for the most basic of necessities. Of course he's going to be careful not to waste it."

"I know. But it's still..."

"Frustrating," Heero finished for him.

"Yes." Wufei glanced at his watch and frowned. "We need to head back to the office." He rose and started out of the restaurant, Heero close behind him.

On the way back to the office, Heero spotted a pet store. He stopped in front of the window and gave Wufei a questioning look. "A pet?" he suggested. It certainly wouldn't be the same as having them with him but it would at least be a reminder of them. Something to help keep the loneliness at bay until his return to Earth.

Wufei stopped and looked in the window thoughtfully. "A dog?"

"No."

The flat refusal made Wufei blink. Almost immediately, he remembered what Heero had told them about his past. 'The girl and the puppy... Chang, you're an idiot...' He leaned his shoulder against Heero's casually. "No, you're right. A cat would be better. With the long drive and our hours as Preventers, a dog would be left alone too much of the day for it to be happy." He checked his watch and said, "We've got a few minutes. Let's take a quick look."

Heero followed Wufei into the pet store, grateful that the dog idea had been so easily dropped. He knew that Wufei must have realized why it bothered him; he was glad that the other man hadn't made an issue out of it. He listened while Wufei inquired about breeds and price and supplies. Frowning, Heero shook his head when Wufei looked for confirmation before putting a deposit on one of the kittens. It was far too expensive; Duo wouldn't appreciate them spending that much money on a pet. Not when there were dozens of them in shelters in dire need of homes. "We need to get back to work, Wufei; we'd better come back later," he said aloud.

Surprised at Heero's sudden resistance, Wufei agreed immediately, thanking the sales clerk for her time before following Heero out of the store. "Heero?" he said quizzically as they hurried towards HQ.

"They're too expensive. One from a shelter would be better," Heero explained.

"Ohhhh." Heero's reasoning made complete sense to Wufei. He wished that he'd thought of that himself. He nodded decisively, "Of course."

***

Duo set the candles in the middle of the table and stepped back. He eyed the table dubiously, not sure whether maybe the vase that was already in place was a little over-the-top. He was trying for a nice, romantic dinner - it seemed appropriate for his last night here - but at the same time... 'We're all guys... Maybe the rose is a little too girly...' He finally decided to leave it alone for now; he still needed to finish fixing supper. Worrying about how the table looked could wait.

As he washed the lettuce and fixed the salad, Duo wondered whether maybe he should tone down the mood a bit anyway. He didn't want to give the wrong impression; didn't want to imply that he was ready to move their relationship to the next stage. Picking the night before his departure to take things beyond the fairly mild kissing and making out that they'd been doing all week would *not* be a good move. Not just because they were all still getting comfortable with touching and being touched but also because it would leave them all with far too much time to second-guess their actions before they would be together again. 'And if everything didn't go absolutely perfect, we'd all have *way* too much opportunity to worry about it before we'd have a chance to try again...' And the odds of everything going perfectly the first time... were probably not very good.

And if by some miracle everything *did* go perfectly... Well, then he'd have a whole month of knowing *exactly* what he was missing before they were all together again.

'Leaving tomorrow's going to be tough enough anyway; I don't need any more reasons to regret it.' Duo swallowed past the unhappy knot that formed at the mere thought of leaving. He didn't want to go. But he couldn't just leave Hilde in the lurch either. She'd been a damn good friend and a great business partner since the end of the war. She'd kept him from moping over his non-existent lovelife. Helped him learn how to live a more-or-less normal existence. She'd never minded getting a call or visit at some god-awful hour because the nightmares had been bad and he'd needed to hear a friendly voice. He *had* to help her get things arranged so that his departure wouldn't cause her a lot of problems.

But it was going to be tough.

***

"Duo? We're home..." Wufei called as he stepped into the apartment. He waited while Heero entered, cat carrier in hand, then pushed the door shut. Gratefully, he removed the duffel bag of supplies that he had been carrying from his shoulder while Heero put the carrier and the other bag of accessories on the floor. It was astonishing just how many things they'd needed to buy for one small marmalade cat. And thanks to *his* injured arm, Heero had gotten stuck carrying most of it.

"Great! I was expecting you earlier; I was starting to worry that supper would be wrecked. I turned the oven down so it wouldn't burn. The baked potatoes are getting a little crispy, though, and I hope you like your steaks well done..." Duo said as he appeared in the doorway.

"It smells delicious," Heero offered apologetically. They hadn't called to warn Duo that they would be late because they hadn't wanted to tell him *why*. They'd wanted the cat to be a surprise.

Apparently the cat thought that supper smelled delicious too because it gave a plaintive yowl.

Duo hadn't noticed the cat carrier before; he'd just looked at Heero and Wufei's faces. Now, however, he turned a startled look in its direction. "Uh, guys?" he queried.

"Surprise?" Wufei suddenly wondered whether perhaps they should have talked this over with Duo before going ahead with it.

Heero knelt and removed the cat from its cage. Rising, he carried it over to Duo and held it out. Duo stared at the animal suspiciously, not offering to take it. "Guys?" he repeated insistently. "An explanation would be good... Preferably before our supper shrivels away to nothing..."

"He's for you," Heero said uneasily. This - wasn't exactly the response they'd been expecting.

"For me," Duo echoed. He racked his brain, trying to recall ever mentioning that he wanted a cat but completely failed. It was not a topic of conversation that he remembered ever coming up. 'I know about two damn things about cats. One of which is that their litter boxes have to be emptied regularly. Why the hell did they buy me a *cat*?!' He opened his mouth to ask them just that question - and saw the worry in Heero's eyes and the tension of Wufei's jaw - and with an inner sigh of resignation, realized that he couldn't do that. For whatever reason, they'd thought he actually would like a pet and they'd gone out and bought one for him. 'It's the thought that counts,' he reminded himself silently. "What's his - or is it a her? - name?"

Relief rushed over Heero. For a moment, he'd thought that he'd made a mistake in suggesting this to Wufei. "The shelter said his previous owner called him Max. We couldn't possibly have taken another cat after we learned that."

"*Max*?" Duo sniggered. That was - quite a coincidence. He held out his arms and let Heero put the cat in them.

"Unbelievable - but true," Wufei commented drily. "His previous owner was elderly and had to go into a nursing home. So Max here ended up at the shelter."

"Uh, guys, sorry, but - I've gotta go save our supper," Duo said apologetically. He handed the cat back to Heero and scratched its chin for a moment before turning to hurry back to the kitchen.

Heero stared after him for a moment, the cat draped comfortably in his arms. He turned to Wufei and asked uncertainly, "Was that how you expected him to react?"

"Ah - not really, no," Wufei answered hesitantly. "But - we didn't exactly explain, did we?"

"No... And - we are late... and he mentioned steaks..." Heero sighed, "We - didn't handle this very well, I think..."

Ruefully surveying the cat lying in Heero's arms rather than Duo's, smelling the faint tinge of smoke tainting the delicious smell of supper, and realizing rather belatedly that Duo had not been wearing casual clothing but rather dress pants and a deep blue sweater, Wufei agreed, "As Duo would say, 'No shit'.

"I think we'd better hurry up and get cleaned up for supper before we mess things up any worse..."

***

Lying in bed and trying *not* to wake up just yet - because once he woke up, he would have to *get* up and actually get ready to *leave* - Duo's nose started to tickle. He opened his eyes and glared balefully at the orange cat that had made itself comfortable on the pillow beside him, its fur just barely brushing his face. "Damn cat," he mouthed silently. The cat's tail twitched. The tickle turned into a hastily smothered sneeze.

Duo scowled and pushed the cat out of the way gently so that he could roll away from Heero without waking him up. Wufei was snoring softly on Heero's other side. For a moment, Duo was tempted to lie back down but a glance at the time told him that wasn't really an option. 'If I get up now, I can have my shower done before they wake up for work, then I can fix breakfast for the three of us while they get ready... Sounds like a plan,' he decided.

***

Waking, Heero was surprised to discover that Duo was already up. He could hear the shower running and realized that Duo was obviously trying to get done in the bathroom before he and Wufei got up for their turns. 'Considering that Duo has to be at the spaceport for check-in less than three hours from now, that's probably a good idea,' Heero thought regretfully. 'But it would have been nice to all wake up together this morning since it's the last time we'll even be in the same place for a while...'

***

Slipping quietly into the kitchen, Duo heard the mattress creak as one of the others crawled off of it. A few minutes later, the shower turned on which confirmed that Heero was the one who'd gotten up. Wufei still needed assistance covering his cast before he could shower.

The instant that Duo opened the fridge door, he acquired an assistant. A four-legged, furry one.

He scowled at the cat wrapping itself around his ankles and muttered, "I really do *not* need your help, Max. Honest to god, I don't." Trying not to step on the creature and trying equally hard not to say anything he might regret someone overhearing, he set the table and started to prepare breakfast. Pausing to feed the cat did *not* help matters any; Max remained convinced that whatever Duo was fixing was vastly preferable to the food in his own dish. Duo bit his tongue, counted backwards from ten in three different languages, and managed not to swear out loud in his annoyance. Barely.

"Good morning, Duo."

"Morning, Heero," Duo said, crossing the room to greet him with a kiss. "You fix Fei's cast so he could shower?"

"Yes," Heero answered. He slid his arms around Duo's waist and hugged him. "You sure you don't want us to take you to the spaceport?" he asked softly. "I'm sure Une would let us..."

Duo shook his head. "Nah. I'd rather say our goodbyes in private. It's gonna be tough enough getting on that shuttle without knowin' you guys are standing there watching me go." He kissed Heero tenderly then pulled away to start the French toast, narrowly avoiding tripping over the cat as he went.

***

Wufei showered quickly, not wanting to waste what little time they had together this morning. He still felt a bit guilty about last night; the candles and single long-stemmed rose on the table made it clear that Duo had planned a romantic evening for the three of them. Instead, they'd ended up playing with Max and reading the book on cat care that Heero had selected and purchased with the pet supplies. Duo hadn't complained and he'd laughed till he coughed at the cat's playful antics but... 'It still was not what he had planned...' Wufei thought ruefully.

***

Hearing the shower shut off again, Heero took over the breakfast preparations from Duo, suggesting, "Why don't you go help Wufei? That will give the two of you some time together..."

Duo grinned thankfully at Heero and agreed, "Sure!" He brushed a quick kiss over Heero's cheek before heading off to assist Wufei with unwrapping his plastic-covered cast and rewrapping his ribs.

"No, Max," Heero said firmly, blocking the cat's attempt to hop up on the counter. "Go eat your own food." He checked the time and decided that the cat's food could be left out for another fifteen minutes but then it would have to be picked up. When he and Wufei had contacted the spaceport yesterday to arrange for the cat to travel with Duo, they'd been given a list of recommendations for travel with a pet. No food for several hours before the trip - specifically, before launch in the case of shuttle travel - had been one item on the list. Duo's check-in time was only two hours away but launch was a little over an hour after that.

'So little time left...' Heero thought regretfully. He just hoped that it wouldn't take Duo very long to help Hilde hire and train someone to take over his job as yard manager. 'It would be nice if he would be back when we take possession of the house...'

He knew that was somewhat unrealistic though. Not impossible - but not too likely either. Duo had told them that he really needed to be there at month end to show the new employee the routines followed at that time. Which meant that Duo would be gone at least a full month and they would be taking possession of the house in just over three weeks. He and Wufei had both given notice on their apartments, so they would have to move out the week after that, at the end of the month. Meaning that they would probably already be in the new house when Duo returned.

But Heero still wished that Duo would be able to come back sooner. He and Wufei would spend time together, keep increasing their degree of comfort with one another, keep deepening their friendship. And they would be in touch with Duo regularly - daily through e-mail in addition to weekly phone calls. 'But I'll still miss him...'

***

"Ribs okay or have I got them wrapped too tight?" Duo asked.

"They're fine," Wufei assured him. "Leave that for a minute." He pulled Duo's outstretched hand away from the uniform shirt he'd been reaching for and tugged Duo towards him instead. "I - we - will miss you," he murmured softly before pressing his lips to Duo's. He broke the kiss off before they could get too caught up in it, all too aware of the passing time.

"I'll miss you guys too," Duo replied, tucking his head into the crook of Wufei's neck and hugging him carefully. He swallowed hard and pulled away before the emotions could overwhelm him. "At least you two will have each other for company."

"Yes, we will. And I am sorry that neither of us can take time off to..."

Duo stopped Wufei's apology by kissing him again. When he drew away, he said firmly, "We've been through all that already. This is just the way things have to be. None of us like it but we can live with it. It's only for a month or so, anyway."

Wufei nodded and observed, "And at least you will have Max for company."

With an effort, Duo managed not to roll his eyes. "Uh, yeah." He'd have Hilde too and frankly, he'd take her company over the cat's any day.

***

The brief time before Heero and Wufei had to leave for work passed all too quickly. In what seemed like no time at all, they were standing just inside the apartment's door, preparing to say goodbye.

"Take care of yourself," Heero said. "You're not completely over the bronchitis yet. You still cough too much and I thought I heard you sneezing this morning."

Duo just grinned. 'Heero Yuy, Perfect Worrywart,' he thought in amusement. "I will," he promised. "You just make sure Fei doesn't overdo things before he's properly healed."

Heero smirked slightly. "I will," he agreed, trying to match Duo's lighthearted, teasing tone. There was no way to make this parting, however temporary, easy - but Duo's attempt not to let things get too serious and intense might help make it bearable.

"I am perfectly capable of judging my own capabilities," Wufei protested.

"Capable of judging them, yes. Capable of abiding by that judgement, on the other hand... Need I mention the Morrison case?" Heero inquired drily.

Wufei flushed at the mention and Duo's grin became more genuine. "Oh, a story I haven't heard yet..." he said enthusiastically. "And a *good* one judging by Fei's reaction..."

"Never mind," Wufei muttered, hastily clapping a hand over Heero's mouth. "We're going to be late if we don't leave now. No time for stories." 'Thank god.'

Pulling Duo to him, Wufei said seriously, "Safe journey and a quick return. Remember that we love you and miss you." He kissed Duo deeply before he could speak, then turned and exited the apartment quickly before his composure deserted him entirely.

Duo blinked and swayed slightly after Wufei released him, startled and a bit dazed by his sudden actions. "Love you," he called softly before the door closed completely behind the Chinese youth's exit.

Heero stepped towards Duo, hands raising to cup his face. "Hurry home," he said simply before pressing their lips together in a kiss that tried to say all the things that he couldn't seem to find the words for. He pulled away reluctantly and turned towards the door.

A quiet "Love you too..." followed Heero out of the apartment. He hurried down the hall to find Wufei holding the elevator for him. He wasn't sure which of them reached out first but, on the way down to the lobby, their hands met and squeezed almost painfully tight, only releasing when the elevator doors opened again.

It was going to be a very long month.

***

Duo stood and stared at the closed door for a few very long minutes, fighting to regain his composure. "And they wondered why I didn't want them to take me to the spaceport," he finally muttered to himself. "Shit. Saying goodbye *sucks*."

Then he picked up the phone, called for a cab, and tried to figure out how the hell he was going to manage his own luggage plus the cat carrier and all the cat supplies. In the end, he made several trips from apartment to elevator, loaded everything in the elevator, then had to drag everything out of the elevator and through the apartment building's lobby to get to the cab.

At the airport, he just decided "to hell with it" and rented a luggage cart. The cat had more fucking luggage than he did and he was getting damn tired of lugging it around.

By the time that the shuttle was preparing for launch, Duo already missed Heero and Wufei so damn bad his stomach was tying itself in knots, he was sneezing on a regular basis, and he was even more sick and tired of lugging the damn cat around with him.

It was going to be one hell of a long month.

 

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

Omake Theatre, courtesy of Sunhawk and her "perverse sense of humour":

Hilde : And then they gave you a cat as a going away present?! Without even asking? What were they thinking?!
Duo : *heavy sigh* Oh, it was their stupid code of honor. They made some totally unrealistic promise that they would never let me wake up alone again and...
Hilde : *snickers* So they gave you a cat?
Duo : Yeah. *rolls eyes* It's not like I didn't know it was just one of those promises lovers make. It was nice to hear at the time, but I never expected them to get so damn caught up in it.
Hilde : But Duo... you're allergic to cats!
Duo : *groans and wipes nose* You don't have to tell me!
Hilde : *falls out of chair laughing*

 

Calic0cat: *snickers and grins* Take Sunhawk's little contribution as seriously as you like... But Duo *was* sneezing after the cat showed up...