1-19-2007

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gunman Wing, nor it's characters. I just love playing with them.

Blood, Sweat and Tears
Parts 11-20/?
Pairings: Eventual 1x2 and other pairings that I am working out
Warnings: Swearing, violence, mentions NCS, lemony goodness
BY: SkyLark
Betaed by Rebecca
Archives: http://www.gundam-wing-diaries.150m.com/gw/SkyLark/gwSkyLark.htm and http://www.mizunoamy.bravepages.com/skylark/skylarkfics.html

 

Part 11:

Quatre bit his lip in thought before he moved one of his pawns on the chessboard. "Well, three whole days have gone by now and no blood has been spilt yet. That's always a good thing." His eyes still on the board, he frowned, "I just wish that they would talk to each other more. You would think that being stuck in the same room together they would so more than just lay back and watch television in silence all day."

Smiling warmly, Lady Une shrugged, "Baby steps. The fact that they haven't locked themselves in their own rooms is very promising. Remember, they still have to rebuild the bridges that they both burned before any real communication can begin. Once one of them opens the door to that, it should be smoother sailing from there."

His frown deepening, the agent replied, "Well, you're right there. But one of them has to suck up their pride to be the first one to apologize. I've known Duo too long to think that he would be the one to do such a thing. He still sees Heero as being the one to step out of line first, so he should be the one to apologize first."

"And I would have to agree with him in that," Lady Une sighed while moving a rook into a very nice position. "The day following the incident, I really thought that I got through to Heero when we discussed the situation."

Realization filled Quatre's blue eyes as they widened. "I remember not long after the incident, he had called our house and asked to speak with Duo when he was away on one of his family visits," the blonde young man recalled aloud. "Heero asked me not to bother with taking a message and I didn't think much about it after the fact." Biting his lip, he considered, "I wonder if he was trying to apologize then."

Lady Une hummed and nodded, "Quite possibly. I'll try and get him alone so I can talk to him. For all of this time to pass without some sort of apology, Heero must have been hoping that the whole thing would just go away on its own." She shook her head with a sigh, "And of course, that only makes for more bitterness and hard feelings."

The agent smile and offered, "I'll talk to him. Sometimes a new perspective can help in matters like this." After a brief study of the board, Quatre moved his Queen a step, not realizing that the King was now in a very compromising position with a couple of Noin's knights. "If you wouldn't mind talking to Duo, however, I think that would help the process go a lot smoother."

Nodding, the young woman replied, "I think that I can manage that." A sly smirk tugged her lips as she moved one knight into the final position. Taking up her teacup, Lady Une announced quietly, "Check mate."

His eyes widening, Quatre looked to the board in disbelief. Chuckling deeply, he grinned, "Very well played, my dear. I never saw that coming."

"And hopefully our friends won't see have in store, either," Lady Une smiled.

* * * * * *

It was later that afternoon when Quatre and Lady Une had their chance. Heero had left the living room to sit on the enclosed back deck of the house. It was his favorite place to sit and relax while watching the peaceful scenery that his land offered. The weather was perfect and several creatures were out and about to enjoy the sun. Taking a deep breath, the quarterback closed his eyes and reclined back into the soft sofa that he was sitting on.

Lightly knocking on the wooden doorframe, Quatre peeked his head into the room. Finding the Japanese athlete, he smiled and entered with a tray carrying two tall glasses of orange juice. Hearing the footsteps approaching him, Heero opened his cobalt eyes and sat up. "I thought that you might be thirsty."

With a small grin of appreciation, the quarterback coughed lightly before replying, "Thanks. I better keep up with the Vitamin C before Lady Une gives me a hard time over it." The agent chuckled deeply as he handed over one of the glasses.

Gesturing to the empty place on the sofa, Quatre asked, "Would you mind if I join you? It's really nice back here-reminds me of the home that I grew up in."

His eyes widening a bit at that, Heero nodded, "Sure. I didn't know that you and your family had an estate with this much land."

Gracefully taking his place at the other end of the couch, the Arab responded, "Yea. My father is the owner a pretty successful company based just outside of Chicago where we lived." Raising an eyebrow, he grinned, "I'm sure that you've heard of Winner Enterprises. "

"Winner Enterprises! ?" the football played exclaimed. "Of course I heard of it. I just never realized that you were from the same family that ran it." Intrigued, Heero inquired, "Why did you leave that lifestyle behind to become Duo's agent? It can't be nearly as exciting as traveling the world for your family's business. Or hell, you wouldn't have to work a day in your life if you didn't want to and still be more than set financially. "

After taking a long sip from his own orange juice, Quatre smiled simply, "It's not what I wanted. Not long before we graduated from high school, Duo received a call from an agent that was looking to bring him on to a professional football team."

Taking another sip from his drink, the Arabian continued, "He was hesitant to agree at first because he didn't know anyone he could trust to look out for him. He needed someone who understood contracts and the legality side of being signed on to a team- not to mention a dozen other odds and ends that an agent needs to handle."

With a nonchalant shrug, the blonde young man finished, "Duo asked me to be that person and I said yes."

Blinking his eyes, Heero shook his head in disbelief, "And you agreed to do it just like that? You dropped everything to help him out as simply as that?" A skeptical look crossed his features. "Is that because of how he defended you when you were being attacked?"

Quatre's smile grew at the query. He had hoped that Trowa would let the rest of the team in on how he and Duo had become friends in school. It was already serving its purpose in helping them see there was so much more to his friend than he let on.

"That was not the reason so much as just the knowing that he would have done the same for me in a heartbeat," was the agent's response. "And I honestly don't regret the decision for a second. I have experienced more through helping him than any posh place in my family's business could have offered me."

Heero sat back in the soft cushions with a thoughtful look on his features and an occasional sip from his drink. Wanting to give him more to think about, Quatre said quietly, "Duo is the closest things to a brother that I've ever had. He protected me the first day that we met and has been doing that ever since. Which is exactly what I intend to do for him now."

Confusion filled the quarterback' s eyes as he turned to face his houseguest. "How do you mean? What do you need to protect him from now?"

Lowering his glass onto the tray at his feet, Quatre frowned deeply, "Trowa has brought it to my attention that Duo is having trouble making friends on the team. My belief is that you all had an opinion of him before the ink on his contract had enough time to dry. Those opinions have undone any wish to really get to know him."

Those cobalt eyes narrowed warningly as Heero hissed, "He certainly didn't help change our opinions with the words that he threw at me that night. You have no idea what my parents meant to me and how what he said hurt."

Nodding, the agent said calmly but firmly, "And you don't know what it did to Duo when I told him you had lost your parents after the incident." His own eyes narrowing, he leaned close. "Now let's get one thing perfectly clear here," he spoke slowly and deeply, "No one values family more than my friend. Not even you."

A bit taken aback at the intensity on those light blue eyes boring down on him, Heero swallowed hard before getting his bearings. "If that's so, then why the hell hasn't he apologized for his actions?" he growled deeply.

Quick to reply, Quatre answered with a question of his own, "Why haven't you?"

It was like a punch to the chest, knocking the wind right out of Heero lungs. Stiffening with wide eyes, he tried to think of a good response. But in the end, there really was not one to offer.

Refraining from smiling at finally getting through, the agent took a deep breath. The edge in his posture and voice faded away as he sighed deeply, "I am not saying that Duo was not out of line with what he said. But, along with holding family in the highest regard, he also values trust.

"You opened a very old and deep wound by insulting the trust he showed by opening his house to you and the team for that party. Many people have let him down by taking advantage of his trust in the past." Finally pulling back to sit up straight, Quatre shrugged, "But then, you wouldn't have known that because you never took the time to learn more about him by simply asking."

Roughly swallowing that bitter pill, Heero seemed to shrink within himself. His skin took on an almost greenish color that had nothing to do with his cold.

Deciding that enough was done to make his point, the blonde young man smiled, "Duo is a very complex person. There are many sides to him and just when you think you've cracked the surface, you haven't even started. You happened to see a less than pleasant one of those sides, but it's not all that there is to him. I really think that you two would get along if you just took a moment to see past the opinion you made."

With a tilt of his head, Quatre suggested, "And it's about time that you stopped allowing your frustration to rub off on the remainder of the team. He deserves better than the treatment he's been receiving. He would never complain about it to me, but I know that it bothers him."

Stomach churning from guilt, Heero nodded with a weak, "A-all right." Meeting the eyes watching him, he said sincerely, "I'll try."

More than satisfied with that, Quatre smiled warmly, "That's all I ask." He extended a hand with a sincere, "Thank you." Shaking the offered hand, Heero gave a lopsided smirk and nodded firmly. Taking the tray back up, the agent announced quietly, "I better go and check on Duo."

As his housemate left, the quarterback looked back out to the green hills in silent thought. After having his eyes opened, there was a lot to consider when it came to how he had been handling himself for the last few months.

* * * * * *

Chewing the inside of his lip, Duo mulled over Lady Une's recap of the discussion that she had with Quatre regarding Heero and his parents. Revisiting what happened that night after months of burying the incident had been difficult to say the least.

"You must not like me much for the things that I said to that night," the running back frowned deeply while rubbing his tired eyes. "I swear that I had no idea that his parents were killed when those words came out." Wincing, he muttered, "Not that that really makes a difference in what I had said."

Lady Une just grinned kindly, "I know that in the heat of the moment, words spoken in anger are never considered before they come out. And I am not atoning to Heero's actions by any means. I am just hoping to shed some light on what his parents really meant to him. They were not the typical rich parents spoiling their son that most assume."

Tilting her head, the young woman said gently, "Based on both that temper of yours that you show from time to time and your grounded maturity, I get the impression that you've been through some challenges of your own growing up." Duo shifted uncomfortably in the sofa that he was lying on.

Quickly raising her hand, Lady Une assured him, "You don't need to share any of those difficult times if you're not ready, but know that you can trust me if you ever do feel the need to talk. One thing a person can never have enough of is someone that they can consider a friend that will listen."

Her smile growing, she added, "And I really believe that Heero could be that for you as well, if you gave him a chance. You have a lot more in common than either of you will admit. Your stubbornness is just one of those things."

The tension in the air dissipated at that and Duo laughed with his head falling back. "You can say that again," he chuckled deeply. "I admit that I can be pretty bullheaded some times."

Slowly, he met the housekeeper' s brown eyes and he sighed deeply, "Thanks, Lady Une. Ever since I stepped in here, it's felt like I've been staying in a house of guilt with the family pictures hanging around. I guess enough time's past that I should just bury the hatchet and give Heero a fair shake."

Rewarded with an appreciative grin from the young woman, the running back felt himself smiling back. "And thanks... for not judging me," he almost whispered. "There aren't many people that don't have some kind of set opinion of who I am."

"Well, you never have to worry about that with me, Duo," Lady Une winked. "I appreciate your listening." Unfolding her legs to rise from the end of the couch that she was sitting on, she offered, "I can heat up some of my homemade chicken soup that you like so much, if you're hungry."

Gasping, Duo blinked his widened eyes as a child would when trying to look cute. "Pretty please with a cherry on top," he begged. Laughing, the housekeeper patted the top of his braided head before stepping from the room.

Quatre was just past the doorway with a brilliant smile and a mouthed, 'Nice job.' When Lady Une asked with her eyes how things went on his end, the agent gave her two thumbs up. Containing their excitement, the two conspirators walked to the kitchen arm-in-arm.

* * * * * *

Later that evening, Heero and Duo were lying at the couches across from each other in the living room after another long day of not saying a word to each other. There was a noticeable change in the silence, however, with their two lost in their thoughts.

With the night growing late and his cold just on the verge of breaking, the running back yawned widely. "Better head upstairs for some beauty sleep," he muttered. Rising from the deep-blue-cushioned loveseat, he took up his comforter and headed for the doorway.

"Duo," Heero called without looking away from the big screen television. His heart jumping in his stomach, the braided young man froze and slowly turned towards his teammate. Finally stealing the courage to meet the uncertain gaze watching him, he began quietly, "Listen, I-"

Before the words came out of the quarterback' s mouth, Duo decided to dive in to relieve his own conscience that had been eating away at him all day. Opening his mouth, they both said at the same time, "I'm sorry about that night." Freezing, the pair looked at each other with wide, disbelieving eyes.

After a brief pause, Heero took a deep breath and moved to sit up on the couch. Folding his hands atop his lap, he chewed on the inside of his cheek before stating, "I should have known better than to go into your room like that. And I'm tired of making excuses for what I did when there aren't any. I promise that I won't do anything to invade your privacy like that again."

Duo reached up and rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he replied, "And I didn't mean what I said that night, man. I crossed a line that I shouldn't have and you had every right to slug me for it. I never meant to disrespect you or your parents like that."

Another silence fell over the room as the apologies were taken in. Slowly, it was as if the weight of the world was being lifted. Very slowly, the lips on the two athletes crept up into appreciative smiles. "Well, good night," Duo said at last with a small shrug.

"Good night," Heero nodded firmly. Nodding back, American turned and left the room. His small smile growing just a bit with relief, the quarterback sighed deeply and let his head fall back. Everything wasn't perfect between them, but they had taken a pretty big step in the right direction to working things out.

And who knew? Maybe they actually could get along.

* * * * * *

By the time the weekend rolled around, the two rivals were actually conversing about some of the programs that they were watching along with making idle chit-chat. Lady Une and Quatre were elated in seeing how well things were going, even if they did have to give their friends a little push to get there.

Come Thursday, Duo was back to his full health and was able to travel to see his family. Heero's cold finally left him the day after. And before long, it was Sunday once again. When the running back returned to the Yuy household, he was in good spirits and jovial.

Sitting at the table together that night, the group of four enjoyed a finely crafted dinner together. Since Quatre and Lady Une had prepared the meal, Heero and Duo offered to take care of the dishes and cleaning up.

"You know," Duo smirked as he rinsed a soapy plate under the running sink water, "We could have a lot of fun with Zechs and the coaching staff when we get back to training tomorrow." He raised an eyebrow to the quarterback as he approached with another load of bowls and smirked, "If you're up for it, that is."

Unable to help his own mischievous grin, Heero asked, "What did you have in mind?"

* * * * * *

Zechs, Howard and Trent were sitting together at the round table in the Head Coach's office when they heard two familiar, laughing voices echoing down the hallway, their heads snapping up from the notes that they were looking over, the three men looked to the closed door with wide eyes.

"Is that... Heero and Duo?" the eldest coach asked in disbelief. Trent and Zechs thought the same, but knew that it couldn't have been. It just wasn't possible to think of the two young men sharing such a laugh.

A light knock was all the warning the coaches had before the door opened. Peering in, Heero and Duo were just beginning to contain their laughter. With his teammate's arm draped around his shoulder, the quarterback waved, "Sorry to barge in like this. We just thought we should check in with you both before we got suited up for training."

Shocked stiff, the three coaches watched the pair with wide eyes. Lightly punching Heero's chest with his free hand, Duo chuckled deeply, "God I love this guy! Always on top of shit!" There was no change in Zechs or his staff as they stared dumbfounded.

Heero announced, "Well, we better get to the locker room." He turned to his teammate with a wide smile and pat his chest with the back of a hand as he chuckled deeply, "Hey, tell me again about that prank you pulled on that school bully. That story never gets old." Both laughing once again, the two football players disappeared and closed the door after them.

Zechs, Howard and Trent remained still. "Whether she wants it or not," the grey-haired offensive coach began without looking away from the door, "I am going to kiss Dorothy full on the lips next time I see her." Numbly, the other two nodded.

 

Part 12:

"Good. Yuy and Maxwell are back," Wufei sighed deeply in relief to Trowa as he watched Heero and Duo entered the locker room after their week-long recovery from their cold. He paused when there was no sign that there had been any kind of physical altercation between the two housemates. And they were both actually smiling.

Mueller picked up on the same thing and leaned close to whisper, "Well this is unexpected. I would have put money on at least one of them having at least a black eye by now." Wufei nodded. Trowa just grinned in satisfaction that the new living arrangements were apparently running much smoother than expected.

As the quarterback and running back neared, the tall center greeted with a nod to each, "Heero. Duo. Good to have you back. You both seem to be doing well."

Removing his sunglasses from the top of his head, Duo patted Trowa's back and grinned, "Yep. Things are just peachy now that we got to shake that bug off." His violet eyes scanned over the relieved eyes that fell on him and his housemate. "I take it things were pretty rough on your end here, too, huh?"

Before the Latin young man could answer, Brian Austin entered the room. His eyes instantly falling on Heero, he all but shouted, "Oh thank God! You're back!" Terry Fellows was right behind with the same look of relief in seeing Duo.

Closing the distance between himself and his team captain, the second-string quarterback sighed deeply, "Last week was a nightmare. We still can't get past my nerves whenever I'm out on the field. Even at a training session!" Just behind Brian, the backup running back lowered his head in embarrassment.

With a reassuring smile, Heero told him, "Try not to get discouraged. You both have only been on a pro team for two years now with not much time to see any action. I'll talk to Howard about possibly working you second stringers harder during the training season than he has been. There's always the chance that we may need you during the regular season if something happens to me again."

Duo raised his hand and offered, "Yuy and could even request some one-on-one time with you the two of you. That way, we could show some of the tactics we use when we're working together on the field. Maybe that'll help." Beside him, Heero nodded his agreement to the suggestion.

In hearing that the two rivals were actually offering to work together, Wufei and Muller turned to each other with wide eyes. Trowa's smile only grew all the more.

Blinking in shock, Terry sputtered, "Y-you would really do that for us?" Afraid that they might have misunderstood somehow, Brian held his breath anxiously.

"Sure," Heero replied. "It's a good idea. You can't get any better if you're not given the right direction." Looking to his braided teammate, he shrugged, "As much experience as we have combined, we should be able to help with that. Duo's one of the best running backs I've ever had the chance to work with."

A wide grin spread on Duo's face at the compliment. Slapping the Japanese athlete on the shoulder, he added, "And I can't think of a better quarterback out there. So, you won't be able to find better teachers." Heero's cobalt eyes widened and he turned to face the American with a grateful smile of his own.

Wufei and Mueller's jaws dropped. Trowa folded his arms and chuckled quietly to himself.

Laughing excitedly, Brian exclaimed, "That'd be great! Thanks, you two." Terry gave his own word of appreciation before they moved to their own lockers to get ready for their training warm up. Heero and Duo followed suit, lowering their duffle bags from their shoulders onto the floor and setting to dressing into their gear.

When the team was called to take the field, Mueller and Wufei waited until the braided running lost in the crowd before moving in on Heero. "Okay," the Chinese frowned deeply, "who are you and what the hell have you done with Yuy?"

Mueller glared heatedly and shook his head, "First you actually smile at that son of a bitch then you go and suggest you work more with him? And what was with that compliment you gave him?"

Instantly halting, Heero allowed the rest of his team to go on without him. Taken aback, Wufei and Mueller froze along with him. Once they were out of earshot of the remainder of his teammates, the quarterback stated calmly, "Duo and I came to an understanding last week. There's no need for any of us to keep up our grudge with him since he never did anything to intentionally hurt anyone."

Focusing on Mueller, the Japanese young man told him, "And as for that compliment, I meant every word. You know as well as I do that we've had a better running back on our team before. Not to mention the fact that he only proved how much work most of the team has in store if we hope to have a shot a decent season this year."

Stunned, Wufei blinked his wide eyes. "So you two put everything that had happened between you aside… just like that?" he asked with astonishment in his voice.

A small smile tugged Heero's lips in recalling a similar conversation that he recently had with Quatre. He nodded simply, "Just like that." Placing his shining, red helmet on, he locked the chin strap in place and said, "It's about time that we all grow up and just play nice."

As Heero ran to catch up with the rest of the team, the two remaining players looked to each other once more. Finally, Wufei put his helmet on and shrugged, "We still don't have to like the guy, but I suppose that if Yuy can be a little more accommodating, after what happened that night, then we can at least try. He was the only one of us that had any direct reason to hold a grudge, anyway."

Picking his feet up, the receiver ran down the remaining stretch of the empty corridor. His eyes narrowing, Mueller slowly pulled his own helmet on before quickly following.

A couple hours into the training day, Zechs was watching another skirmish from the sidelines when he heard a familiar voice call his name. Looking back to the entrance to the locker rooms beneath the stands, he found his wife and two sons heading towards him. With a wide smile, he laughed, "Hey, there." Derek and Gavin ran to close the distance between them.

Easily scooping the boys up in his arms, the head coach kissed their heads. "Well this is a pleasant surprise," he greeted to the beaming faces looking up at him.

Gavin pushed back his blonde, shoulder-length hair from his eyes and yelled excitedly, "We wanted to come see the team!" Derek vigorously nodded his own head of short, dark hair with a wide smile.

Biting her lip as she neared, Noin said quietly to her husband, "I hope that you don't our coming unannounced. They really wanted to come." As she gazed to the giggling children in their father's arms, she chuckled deeply, "And you know that I have a hard time denying them anything."

Gently kissing his wife's lips, Zechs reassured her, "Of course I don't mind." He gestured with his head to the bench just behind him and carefully lowered his charges. "Make yourselves comfortable. " Noin's smile grew as led their sons by their hands to have a seat. Both Howard and Trent smiled warmly as they made their way to the trio for a round of hugs and greetings.

At the completion of the play that was unfolding, the tall blonde blew the whistle that was hanging around his neck. Once the team turned to face him, he announced, "All right. Get some water and get ready to jog for a couple laps around the field."

Quickly following orders, the suited players headed back to the sideline to collect their bottles. The second and third stringers at the benches were already drinking down their own beverages in preparation of the next drill.

Instead of heading for his own pile of belongings. Duo moved right for the three visitors. Removing his helmet to reveal the black, horizontal lines that he had painted under his eyes, the running back grinned widely to the boys, "Hey there, kiddos. You're just in time to give me a hand." Noin and Zechs shared a confused look, but remained quiet.

Their eyes wide, the children looked up to the tall football player. "How can we help?" Derek questioned. "We're too little."

Chuckling deeply, Duo waved his hand with a smirked, "Naw. Actually, you're just the right size. I'll bet the two of you combined weigh just enough." From where he was standing close, Howard was already on to what the braided young man was thinking. With an amused snort, the old coach went to a wheeler cart used for certain training techniques.

As Howard approached with the cart, Duo nodded to him then explained to the youngsters, "See, when I'm given the football, a lot of guys come after me and try to stop me from getting far. Sometimes, they get a hold of me and I have to try and drag them along for as far as I can before I'm brought down. During the jog, would you two mind jumping into this cart, here, so I can pull you along?"

Gasping sharply, the two brothers bounced on their feet and shouted excitedly, "Yes, sir!" and "Oh boy!" along with an assortment of other cheers. Quickly, they piled into the little cart and sat down.

Quickly hydrating himself, Duo stood between the two long, metal polls hooked to either end of the cart. Turning his back on the wooden box, he gripped the poles tightly with his gloved hands and headed towards his teammates that were waiting at the starting point at the first corner of the field. "I never knew that he was so good with kids," Noin commented with a wide smile as she rose to her feet for a good view of her boys.

"Neither did I," Zechs laughed while shaking his head in amusement. Once everyone was in place, he raised his hand to call them to attention. Raising the whistle back to his lips, he let out a loud signal and the team was off.

Looking over his shoulder, Duo winked, "Hang on, now." The children did as instructed just before the running back started his charge. Loud hoots and hollers filled the air as the youngsters enjoyed their ride.

From his place in the front, Heero looked back just as his housemate ran up to catch him. Blinking in surprise, the quarterback shook his head in wonder. "Who would have thought," he muttered to himself.

The rest of the team all had the same shocked looks as the running back passed them. The boys were giggling and waving to the players that they knew and were rewarded with pats to their heads and kind greetings.

When the five laps were done, Duo still manages to stay close to the front of the pack even with the added weight. Panting lightly when he came to a stop, the American turned to his assistants. "Thanks for the help there, guys," he managed between puffs of air. "I needed that.'"

Piling out of the cart, Derek and Gavin wrapped their little arms around his legs. "Thanks, mister!" "That was great!" "So much fun!" they cried in a rush of words together before running back to their parents. Scooping his sons up once more, Zechs gave the braided running back a firm nod and a smile of appreciation.

Quickly getting his breath back, Duo approached to gently take the young woman's hand and kissed the back of it. "You must be Noin," he stated with a wiggle of his eyebrows. "Zechs certainly is a lucky man." Stepping into the scene in time to catch the exchange, Heero rolled his eyes in amusement along with Zechs.

Her cheeks blushing, Noin giggled, "Great with kids and a charmer, too. Very nice to finally meet you, Duo. As I'm sure you've already imagined, I've heard quite a bit about you."

"Oh, I'm sure," the American smirked. "My reputation has a way of preceding me." The short-haired woman laughed. Rubbing his hand atop the youngster's heads, Duo complimented, "You have two great kids, here." Derek and Gavin beamed up at him as he addressed them, "I better get going. You both be good for your parents. If you are, I'll try to talk them into bringing you out more so you can help me out again."The boys cheered and thanked Duo again as he walked off to hydrate himself.

Smiling, Heero moved in and kissed the young mother's cheek. "Good to see you, Noin."

"Heero," she grinned back. "Always a pleasure. How have you been, dear?" They caught up in a quiet conversation.

One-by-one, other members of the team took their chance to reunite with the family. For as long as Zechs led the Wolverines, his wife and their children were their biggest fans. To many of the players, Noin was like a second mother. She remembered every name and what was going on in their lives. If any of them were in trouble, she would drop everything to try and help in any way that she could.

The remainder of the practice was much more relaxed and loose with Derek and Gavin cheering from the side lines. All the while, Noin never lost her proud smile as she watched her husband in his element.

At the end of the day, Heero was sitting on the back patio watching the sunset over the horizon, lost in his dark thoughts. Seeing the whole Marquis family together earlier only reminded him once again of how grave this upcoming season was for them. Staring off at nothing, he didn't hear the footsteps entering the room. "Hey, man," a familiar voice spoke, nearly making the quarterback jump out of his skin.

His eyes widening at seeing his housemate start, Duo raised his hands and frowned, "Sorry. didn't mean to scare 'ya like that. I just came to let you know that dinner is going to be on the table soon."

Sighing deeply once he managed to calm himself, Heero shrugged, "It's all right. I just didn't hear you come in."

Without bothering to ask for permission, Duo plopped down on the other end of the sofa as he remarked, "Now that you mention it, you have had your head in the clouds ever since practice ended. What's going on?"

Surprised to hear the concern in the running back's voice, Heero turned his head to regard him better. He was even more taken aback that the worry seemed sincere, reflecting in the violet eyes watching him. Despite all of that, it was still difficult for the Japanese athlete and be open to someone who was once the last person in the galaxy that he would have trusted.

Duo sensed the trepidation in the quarterback and played with the end of his braid nervously. "Look, I know that we're not exactly the best of friends, 'Ro. But something is obviously eating at 'ya. Maybe talking about it will help."

The fact that he had no one else to talk about what he knew was the only reason Heero heard himself saying, "Fine, but this goes no further than this room. I was entrusted with this information and not even Lady Une knows about this. That should say enough of how important this is."

Eyes widening once more at that realization, Duo nodded. He was all too aware of how close his teammate was with the housekeeper. Frozen, he waited as the quarterback took a deep breath before stating quietly, "If our team doesn't win at least a conference championship this year, Zechs is going to be removed. He found out from Dorothy's administration not long before you were signed on to the team."

Instantly thinking of the kind man and his family that he just had the pleasure of meeting, the running back cried, "What!?" Rising to his feet, he started pacing back and forth as he argued aloud, "But... but that doesn't sound like something that Dorothy would do! Zechs is a great coach, not to mention the fact that he has a wife and a couple kids to feed!"

Heero's shoulders sagged heavily. "Well, apparently, none of that matters to her. This summer was when she first came on and making that decision was her first order of business. Zechs told me not long ago that he found out through a letter. She didn't even have the decency to tell him to his face," he informed.

Pausing in his footsteps, Duo looked back to his team captain. His eyes narrowing in thought, he muttered, "That doesn't sound like her at all." Spreading his arms out, he inquired in a rush, "Did either of you go to her for an explanation for her decision?"

With his cobalt eyes widening as though he were looking at a two-headed creature, Heero shook his head, "What difference would that make? Her mind has been made up." Shuddering, he added, "Not to mention that she scares the shit out of me."

Dry washing his face with his hands, the running back took a long and calming breath. Giving himself a moment to really consider everything that he had learned, he lowered his hands and repeated with even more certainly than before, "It still doesn't make any sense. It's just not how Dorothy works."

Slowly rising from the couch, the quarterback shrugged, "You only met her once, Duo." Raising an eyebrow, he smirked, "And in that same meeting, she ordered that we move in together. I'm pretty sure that it's exactly how she works." As he walked back the braided American, he reminded him quietly, "Dinner's waiting."

Biting his lip, Duo stayed in the room alone for a moment to examine his feelings against what he knew. It only served to prove his argument even more.

More determined than ever of what he needed to do, the running back pulled his cell phone from its clip on his hip. Opening the flip, he searched his list of contacts. His fingers typed in the number once he found it and pressed the phone to his ear.

After a couple rings, the familiar voice greeted a polite 'hello.' "Hey, Dorothy," Duo smiled. "Listen, doll, I was wondering if you couldn't pencil me into your schedule for a meeting before practice."

Nodding, he grinned, "Eight o'clock works perfectly. Thanks, babe." That said, he closed the cell phone and replaced it onto his hip. Rubbing his hands together, the braided young man told himself, "I'll get to the bottom of this one way or the other."

 

Part 13:

At eight o'clock on the dot, Duo was knocking on Dorothy Catalonia's office door. When it slid open, he found the lovely young woman sitting at her desk with a warm smile. "Good morning, Duo. Please have a seat," she greeted while lowering the paperwork in her hands.

Taking the seat before her desk, the running back nodded his braided head, "Good morning, Dorothy. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. I know how busy you are with getting things ready for the regular season."

With a nonchalant wave of her hand, she reassured him, "I always have time for my team, you know that. And considering how upset you sounded over the phone last night, not to mention the fact that you're right on time for this meeting, I get the impression that whatever it is you need to discuss is quite urgent."

Raising an eyebrow, Dorothy smirked, "I just certainly hope that you're not trying to get out of your living arrangements. After receiving some very fierce hugs from your coaching staff, I was advised that things have improved between you and Heero."

Duo chuckled deeply, "No, that's not my reason for meeting with you. Actually, Heero and I are getting along a lot better now." His smile fading, he stated, "Actually, it's something that he brought up to me last night has me pretty damn confused. I was hoping that maybe you could shed some light on the subject for me."

The team owner straightened a bit and folded her hands over her desk with no little amount of interest in her pale blue eyes. "Well, it would depend on the subject matter how much help I can be. But, I will certainly do my best," she answered.

Leaning forward, the braided young man told her, "It was revealed to Heero by Zechs himself that you had sent him a letter advising that this would he will be removed as Head Coach if we do not win at least a Division Championship this season."

Dorothy's eyes widened and her skin paled a couple shades. That shock soon faded into tightly-leashed rage as her eyes narrowed heatedly. "Really?" she asked. "That is quite interesting to hear, since I have absolutely no intention of such a thing. Zechs has been nothing but a loyal asset to my family's organization."

Even though he truly expected to hear those words from her, Duo couldn't help but sigh deeply in relief. Smiling, he commented, "That's why I wanted to bring this up. I knew that something wasn't right about the whole thing." His brow creasing in his own confusion, he tilted his braided head as he wondered aloud, "Then who did send that letter?"

Folding her arms, the young woman sighed deeply, "My father's administration must be acting without my authority. Not one of them was thrilled with the idea of working under a female owner.

"They must have sent the letter knowing that Zechs, not being the type to make waves, would just keep quiet about the whole thing. That way, they could remove him and have a replacement before I even knew what happened. By then, a new contract would have been drawn and signed before I could overturn their decision."

Dorothy's eyes narrowed once more as she gritted, "I'll have to remedy that little problem." Using the speaker button on her phone, she typed in a number and waited as he secretary greeted with a pleasant, 'Yes, Miss Catalonia?'

Keeping a smile in her voice, the team owner said, "Grace, it's about time that we did some spring cleaning around here. Would you please advise the maintenance staff to access the administrative offices with their master keys? Give them the order to pack up any and all personal belongings they find. I then want the boxes left out in the hallway and the access codes to the locks changed immediately.

"I'll give you the details of the letter that I would like drafted to go along with the boxes that the administrators will find when they arrive later this morning. Contact security and have them waiting by your station to show them the door in the event of a scene." Blinking his violet eyes in shock at what was unfolding, a sly grin tugged Duo's lips as he folded his arms behind his head and leaned back in his seat.

There was not the slightest pause or shock in the receptionist's voice as she replied, "Yes, ma'am. I'll contact the maintenance and security teams now. I'll keep the line open after for your next call involving that letter you want me to type up."

Nodding firmly, Dorothy grinned, "Thank you, Grace. I will be down there shortly." She reached over to her phone to disconnect the call. "There," she smirked in satisfaction. "They'll receive the same treatment that they've shown Zechs. No personal meetings to explain my decision. Only a letter."

Slowly sitting back up, Duo lowered his arms and laughed, "That was the coolest fucking thing that I ever saw!" The team owner laughed along with him and shook her head in amusement. Running his hands together, the running back smiled, "Man, I just wish that I could be around to see their faces when they get in!"

A slight frown of realization marred the owner's face as she sighed, "I just wish that Zechs confronted me about that letter. He wouldn't have had to spend these last few months thinking that I was looking for a reason to get rid of him. He should have known better of me." Biting her lip, Dorothy tilted her head and grinned sadly, "I would appear that you and I both have a knack for being misunderstood. "

"Well, we birds of a feather gotta stick together," Duo shrugged. "Once you weed out the assholes, I'm sure that Zechs and the team will have a better idea of who you are." Rising from his seat, he nodded firmly, "Seeing how busy your morning is starting, I better get going. Thanks again for meeting with me, Dorothy."

The young woman smiled warmly and extended her hand. "Thank you, Duo," she replied sincerely. "I appreciate the fact that you were willing to give me a chance. Few people have been willing to do the same."

Giving her a wink, the running back replied quietly with a smirk, "Just returning the favor, doll." A bit surprised at those words, Dorothy's eyes shone as she chuckled deeply and nodded. Turning on his heels, Duo headed from the room with a wide grin of relief on his face.

* * * * * *

Panting heavily, Alex smiled as his teammates ran up to him in the end-zone after he ran in a touchdown. From the sidelines, Treize watched alongside his fellow coaches and the team physical trainer with a smirk.

"That boy is certainly coming a long way from how he started off this training season," his offensive coach commented. "I don't think he's ever performed this well before in his whole career."

With a firm nod as he watched Alex being pat on the back by his teammates, Treize replied, "He's hungry for this now. I don't think there is another player out there that wants to prove himself more and it's starting to show."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the personal trainer grin slyly to himself. Doctor O would be one of the few to know the real reason for Alex's success, being the one who administered the drugs to the young man every week.

Running to the sidelines, a thrilled Alex smirked to Treize before heading over to his teammates for the next play. "With Alex filling in Maxwell's spot as well as he is already, this is sure to be a wonderful season for our team," the head coach chuckled deeply. Around him, his coaching staff nodded in agreement.

The offensive team regrouped and huddled close once they caught their breaths. One of the wide tight ends nudged Alex on the shoulder with a grinned, "Nice work, there, man. You've been doing a hell of a job finding those gaps to break through."

Snorting, the blonde running back replied smugly, "Of course. It's about damned time people started seeing what I can do." With a cocky quirk to his mouth, Alex commented, "I should have held out for more money before signing on. This organization is getting a bargain with what they're getting me for this season."

Just within earshot of that statement, Treize's eyes narrowed.

At the end of their long practice, the team headed out of the shower room cleaned and changed into fresh clothes. Alex was one of the last to step out into the hallway, lugging his duffle bag over his shoulder with a smirk still in place. Saying good night to his teammates, the blonde young man moved down the long corridor for the parking lot.

Behind him, Treize called, "Might I have a word with you before you leave, Alex?" The running back looked over his shoulder the tall man grinned, "No need to worry about any of your evening plans. This won't take long at all."

Shrugging, Alex replied, "Sure." Silently falling into step behind his head coach, he stepped into his office. As the door slid closed behind him, he began, "So what did you need to ta-" gagging at the end of his thought when a hand clamped down tightly around his throat, his eyes widened as he was slammed up against the door.

Ragged gasps that could not gain a full breath pulled from the white-faced athlete. Terror filled his eyes as they looked up to the enraged face watching him. Leaning in with narrowed eyes, Treize hissed quietly, "You're getting a little too cocky for your own good. A word of advice. Do not bite the hand that feeds you. Without the drugs that I've been supplying to you, you'd be nothing, you little shit.

"That 'bargain' that you claim we made by signing you on is only true because I made it so. Otherwise, you would have been an over-paid second-stringer. I can still make that the case, if you get out of line the way you did with that comment of yours earlier today," the coach gritted, ignoring the wheezing gasps from the young man in his grasp.

Tightening his grip more, Treize growled deeply, "Do I make myself perfectly clear?" He released his hold only enough for the struggling football player to take a harsh gasp of air to answer.

Alex coughed and panted raggedly before managing to nod and reply in a strained voice, "Y-yes, sir." Instantly, the head coach removed his hand and the running back hunched forward to struggle to get his breath back.

Lightly patting his player's back, Treize smirked, "Good talk, Alex. Now, get home and get some rest for tomorrow." Nearly tripping over himself in his rush to escape the office when the door slid open again, the running back dashed off down the hall.

Folding his arms as he watched the young man run off from his doorway, Treize sighed deeply, "It's so hard to find good help these days."

* * * * * *

Later that evening…

Noin's eyes widened in surprise after opening the front door to the Marques home. "M-Miss Catalonia," she sputtered. Quickly stepping aside, she urged kindly, "Please, come in. Would you like something to drink?"

Smiling, the Wolverine team owner entered and answered politely, "Thank you, Noin, but no need to trouble yourself. And you know to simply call me Dorothy." As she headed towards the living room, she said, "I do apologize for showing up unannounced, but what I need to discuss with you and Zechs should not be handled any other way than in person."

Roughly swallowing, Noin wrung her hands together. "Oh," she blinked. "Well, Zechs is just tucking the boys in now, but he should be down any minute." As soon as she spoke the words her husband started his descent down the stairs behind her. Turning to meet his eyes when he neared, she forced a grin and announced, "We have a visitor, dear."

Instantly freezing in place once he entered the doorway, Zechs's own eyes widened. "Dorothy," he managed to choke out. A nervous laugh escaped him as he gestured to the couches in the living room, "Please, make yourself comfortable. "

Her smile growing at the young couple's hospitality, Dorothy shook her head, "No need, Zechs. What I have to say will not take very long, as I do not wish to interrupt your evening more than I already have."

It was the head coach's turn to swallow roughly and he nodded stiffly, "A-all right."

Folding her hands behind her back, the blonde young woman stated, "It came to my attention this morning that you had received a letter from my father's organization regarding your standings as head coach of my team."

At her choice of words, Zechs's brow creased in confusion. The realization hit him hard and quickly as he gasped, "You mean you didn't send that letter? But… but I thought… I mean they even forged your signature…"

"Which is why they are no more," Dorothy put simply. "Before you had your team on the field for today's training session, ever last administrator was fired. I wanted to tell you in person that regardless of our standings at the end of this coming season, you will have a job as head coach for as long as you wish to stay with us. I apologize for the grief that the letter you received must have been causing you both these last few months."

Both Zechs and Noin let go of the breaths that they had been holding in a pair of huffs. Their shoulder's sagging in relief, the couple looked to each other with barely contained elation. Small tears filled the coach's eyes as he breathed to his boss, "Thank you, Dorothy. I really don't know what to say."

Raising an eyebrow, the owner smirked, "Just promise me that the next time a problem arises you will come directly to me to discuss it." She gazed to the short-haired mother and smirked, "Or your wife." When the pair seemed at a loss to what she meant, Dorothy explained, "I have one more seat in the new administration that I have been busy rebuilding. The position is yours, Noin, if you would like it."

"Me!?" Noin exclaimed, a hand on her own chest. "Well, I would love to try. I've been anxious to do something to help with supporting my family, but do you really think that it would be a fit for me? I mean the job itself and the hours while trying to take care of the boys…"

Dorothy grinned, "You're a perfect fit. A lot of what you would be responsible for is looking after the player's needs. Those young men love you. I've seen how you all interact. They would have someone that they know and trust to be their voice at the administrative meetings. I will have it that you can work from home. The weekly meetings can be held as a conference over your computer, so you would not have to miss any time with your children."

Her own eyes filling with tears, Noin whispered brokenly, "I would love that. Thank you so much."

Zechs was at a loss for words. Wrapping an arm around his wife's shoulders, he pulled her close in a one-armed embrace. He knew, more than anyone, how perfect she would be to handle such a responsibility. The opportunity that was being offered was far more than he could have dreamed for their family.

With a bow of her head, Dorothy announced quietly, "And now, I'll be leaving you." As he headed past her new administrator, she said, "Expect a call from me a little past nine tomorrow morning. We'll go over the details of your position more thoroughly."

Beaming, Noin nodded excitedly, "I'll be waiting, then. We really can't thank you enough for all of this, Dorothy." Her husband swallowed past another lump that had formed in his throat, still unable to move lest he stir himself from the dream that he surely much have been experiencing.

"No thanks needed," the team owner reassured her with a grin over her shoulder. "Have a pleasant night." That said, she stepped out of the living room and through the front door. As if waking from a dream, Zechs's wide eyes blinked and he sprung into life to quickly run after his employer.

When he stepped outside, his guest was at the bottom of the tall stairs leading to the front porch. "Dorothy!" the coach called before skipping two stairs at a time on the way down to her. "Wait!" Her eyes wide, she turned to him just when he reached the sidewalk and waited patiently for him to catch his breath.

Finally able to get his wind back, Zechs frowned deeply, "I should have known better than to think that you would look to get rid of me like that. I should have gone to you directly, and I am sorry that I thought so little of your intentions. You have every right to me disappointed, but I hope that you'll forgive me for not trusting you more."

A warm smile tugged Dorothy's lips. "Forgiven. I'm just glad that I found out what was happening before I didn't have a say in the matter. You're a fine coach, Zechs, whether we win or lose."

Humbled, the young man lowered his head with a sincere, "Thank you. It means a lot to hear that." Lifting his gaze, he stated, "But I would like to know how you found out. The only people that I told were Noin and Heero. And I know for certain that neither one of them would have approached you for answers."

Chuckling deeply, Dorothy answered, "Well, you're right about that. It would seem, however, that the latter of the two found an unlikely ally to confide in. One that is no so quick to hold his tongue."

The realization dawned plain on Zechs's face. "Maxwell," he thought aloud with the wonder of it all in his eyes. He smiled and shook his head in amusement, "Who ever would have thought..." Leaning in, he kissed the team owner's cheek and whispered, "Thank you again, Dorothy. You've looked after my family and I won't forget your kindness."

Blushing slightly, the young woman giggled, "My pleasure, Zechs. Now, rest up. I'm sure that you have another busy day planned for the team tomorrow." Dorothy turned on her heels and headed towards her car.

Alone on the sidewalk, Zechs sighed deeply to himself, his head falling back. Looking up to the star-filled heavens, he took a few deep breaths of the cool night air. Running a hand through his bangs as he raised his head, the coach headed back up to his home with his mind still spinning after the recent events.

 

Part 14:

"We should probably ask Pops if we can get more time to work with Austin and Fellows today," Duo suggested as he weaved through the stadium parking lot with his housemate. "They're still a ways off from being able to keep their heads in an actual game." Readjusting his sunglasses to block more of the morning sunlight from his eyes, he muttered, "It is way too early in the morning to be this damned bright out."

Heero chuckled deeply to himself at the last comment and smirked, "It's this bright every morning at this time. But, I seem to recall that somebody couldn't turn down a late night marathon of Monty Python films instead of going to bed when he should have."

Gasping, the running back snapped his braided head in his captain's direction. "You expect me to turn down such a collection of classics!?" he cried. "Don't you realize that there are more important things in life than bodily needs like sleeping or eating!?"

Slowly turning his own head to gaze into the shaded eyes locked on him, Heero raised an eyebrow. "A Monty Python marathon is really more important than those things to you?" he asked with an amused tone.

"Of course!" Duo shouted, raising his arms to the skies. "Those movies are classics!" Lowering his arms, he leaned in close as if wishing to share something vitally important. He covered the side of his mouth and whispered into the quarterback' s ear, "You know, there is a lot more to the world than just football. I know that must come as a shock to you, but I wouldn't shit you on that."

With a snort, Heero rolled his eyes. "I know that. Don't fault me for knowing better than to stay up until two in the morning before a long day of practice." Shrugging, he admitted, "Maybe I am a little more dedicated to what I do compared to most people."

Duo feigned a cough that came out sounding like, "More like anal."

With a deep sigh, the quarterback defended, "But I do have a lot of added pressure to worry about in being the team captain." Quickly returning to the original topic of discussion, he said, "But you're right, we should work more with our back-ups. Every little bit of experience will help them." The running back chuckled deeply to himself, choosing to let the obvious change of topics go without mention.

As they stepped through the doors of the stadium, Duo removed his glasses with a relieved sigh. "Ahhh. Blessed shade."

On their way down the long corridor, they passed the opened door of Zechs's office. The tall man was working away on his computer when the two football players passed. "Yuy, Maxwell," he called without looking away from the screen.

Both Heero and Duo froze and shared a look before peering into the room. Finally looking away from his computer to meet their gazes, the head coach told them, "There is something that I need to discuss with the two of you. I'm too busy preparing for today's session, so I would like to speak with you both after practice."

Nodding, Duo replied with a cheerful, "Sure thing, coach." Heero bobbed his head in kind with his own affirmative. As they made their way back down the hallway, the running back bit his lip and inquired, "What do you think that's about?"

"Actually, I was going to ask you the same thing," the quarterback responded. "Guess we'll just have to wait to find out. At least he didn't seem worked up over whatever he needs to talk to us about."

Already thinking ahead to his evening's plans, the braided American frowned, "So long as it doesn't take too long. My flight is booked to leave at eight tonight. I don't want to have to shave off a whole day of seeing my family if I can help it."

Glancing out of the corner of his eye, Heero commented, "You care an awful lot about your family to go out of your way to spend every weekend with them. I have to admit that it's something I never expected out of you before we met."

Duo smiled, "Well, like I told Trowa, family's everything. There really isn't anything that I wouldn't do for them." Knowing that just in seeing the running back's actions, Heero couldn't help the small grin that tugged his lips.

While neither one of them was comfortable with admitting it out loud, it seemed as though they actually did have quite a bit in common after all.

* * * * *

After another grueling practice, the team was sent back to the locker room to change and clean up. As his teammates stripped out of their protective gear before heading to the showers, Duo just sat at his bench and asked, "So, guys, who agrees with me that Yuy's just too uptight when it comes to this football stuff?"

Glaring over his shoulder to the running back, Heero bent down to remove his shin guards. Trowa was working away his shoulder pads as he snickered, "Well, I don't know that uptight is the right word." The quarterback was smirking in victory when the center added, "Obsessed would be a better choice of words for that."

"What!?" Heero cried. Removing his shirt, he turned his narrowed eyes to his Latin friend. "I am not uptight and I am not obsessed! Excuse me for leading by example by being devoted to what I do! This is my job, after all."

To the center's right, Wufei was kicking off his cleat-bottom sneakers while he laughed sharply. Meeting his friend's gaze, he said, "Yuy, you are so uptight that if you were to stick a chunk of coal up your ass, you'd have a diamond the next day! I can't remember the last time you let yourself relax a little. I hate to admit it, but Maxwell and Barton are right on that one."

The group laughed at the sentiment, while some of the players in ear-shot nodded in agreement.

Mueller threw a towel around his waist and growled deeply, "All right, guys, the sooner we finish our showers, the sooner Maxwell can get that stench off of him. Best not keep the little prince waiting." Not bothering to wait for a reaction, he headed from the room.

His violet eyes narrowing, Duo watched the guard walk off with a muttered, "Asshole." Even Wufei looked more than perturbed with Mueller's lack of tact.

Lightly slapping his braided friend on the shoulder, Trowa grinned reassuringly, "Don't worry. Mueller's underwear tends to stay in a bunch for longer than most. He'll just have to get over the fact that you're not going anywhere just because he doesn't like it."

Smiling at that, Duo looked up and replied quietly, "Thanks, Trowa. Sticks and stones, right?" The Latin center winked and tightened the towel at his waist before heading to the shower room. Wufei soon followed with a firm nod of respect to the running back. After a rough swallow, the nod was returned.

Tying on his own towel, Heero watched his American teammate staring at Mueller's locker across from them. Lightly clearing his throat, he informed, "I'll wait for you to finish up in here, just like always. Zechs sounded pretty anxious to speak with us when we came off the field."

"I really am trying here," the running back frowned deeply, his voice little more than a whisper. The way that the phrase came out, it seemed as though he didn't realize he had said those words aloud. It was the first time that the quarterback could remember hearing hurt in Duo's tone. Those violet eyes never looked away from Mueller's locker.

Slowly making his way around the bench to step before the braided young man, Heero waited until their gazes met. "I know," he nodded. "We all know that you are. Even Mueller." Duo blinked in surprise at the kind words and gave a small smile of sincere gratitude, not willing to trust his voice at that moment.

Nodding once more, the team captain headed out of the room. On his way to the locker room, he had a time recovering from seeing the normally cocky running back so distraught by someone's opinion of him.

One of the first to return from his shower shortly after was Wufei. Judging by the look on his face, Duo could tell that the receiver cut his shower shorter than usual so that they could talk. His assumption rang true when their eyes met and he could see the swirl of emotions in those dark orbs.

Lowering his shower supplies onto his bench, the Chinese athlete kept his back to his teammate and threw on a fresh, red T-shirt to go with the new pair of blue jeans he was wearing. His back still turned, he began, "I know that you mean well by trying to tell Yuy that he needs to lighten up. But, it's pretty much a lost cause, I'm afraid."

A frown deepened on Duo's face, but he remained quiet. Using a spare towel from his locker to dry his loose hair, Wufei continued, "Ever since his parents died, a part of him went with them. He drives himself into his work as a means of distraction. " Lowering the towel from his head, he sighed deeply and sat on the bench, facing the American.

The receiver chewed on his bottom lip for a moment before he finally looked up into the violet eyes watching him. "Just between us, I don't think he ever gave himself a chance to really mourn. The only day of training he missed that summer was on the day of the funeral," he confided in a low voice that the rest of the team could not pick up.

"Heero never discussed how he was doing with any of us, so we just never brought it up," Wufei frowned sadly. "Sometimes, I wonder if that was the wrong thing of us to do, but none of us wanted to push him.

"But then, he started changing. He just became more withdrawn and cynical. He stopped hanging out with the rest of us, unless it was something that would benefit the team in some way. That party that you threw was the first that he ever attended since last summer. But then, it was only because it was an effort to get to know his new teammate better."

A long silence fell between the two football players. Finally, shaking his head, the receiver chuckled deeply, "I don't even know why the hell I'm telling you all of this. It's just... your comments about Heero being uptight is bringing it all to a head again." Taking a deep breath, he shrugged, "To be honest, I always wonder if our keeping quiet was the right choice or not."

"You did what any friend would have done," Duo reassured him. "I wouldn't have acted any differently if I had been in your shoes." Wufei's shoulders relaxed as if a couple tons had been lifted from him. Straightening himself where he sat, the running back folded his arms and pondered the situation.

Now that he was starting to get to know the quarterback a little better, Duo couldn't help but admit that he was a good enough guy. He was actually starting to like him. Now if he could just get him to open up a little more...

Bound and determined by his self-imposed mission, the braided young man thought aloud, "Sometimes things like this need to be handled by someone who's not as emotionally involved. I'll see if I can't help get Yuy out of his shell."

A louder laugh escaped Wufei at that. "Well, I wish you the best of luck there," he stated. "You're going to need it. Rising from the bench, he pulled his damp hair back in its tight ponytail. His gaze lowering to the floor, he muttered, "Um... thanks for listening."

Duo smiled, "Don't mention it." Raising his right hand, he vowed, "And this goes no further." An appreciative grin tugged Wufei's lips as he nodded firmly. The rest of the team began to pile back into the locker room, laughing and talking amongst themselves. Grabbing his pile of fresh clothes, the running back announced, "That's my cue. I plot better when I'm cleaned, anyway. See you tomorrow, Chang."

Silently watching his new teammate walk off, the wide receiver shook his head with an amused smirk on his face. "Best of luck," he repeated quietly.

* * * * **

Moments later, Heero and Duo entered Zechs's office together. Lowering the file that was in his hands, the head coach smiled, "Thanks for staying after to meet with me." His players took the two seats before his desk as he announced, "Duo, I know of your flight plans, so I do intend to keep this very short."

Sighing in relief, the running back grinned, "Thanks, man." He leaned back in his chair, shoulders relaxed. "So, what's up?"

"Well," Zechs began with a small smile, "I thought it best to speak to the two of you at the same time on this matter. But first and foremost, Duo, I have to thank you." Blinking his violet eyes, the American tilted his braided head. Heero shared a confused look of his own, gazing from the coach to his teammate and back again.

The coach chuckled deeply in amusement and shook his head, "Dorothy came to my home last night to reassure me my job here for as long as I am willing to keep it."

Eyes widening, Heero sputtered, "B-but she was about to fire you." Then another thought hit him and he looked over to his housemate. Duo was nervously fidgeting with the end of his braid by that time as he chewed on his bottom lip. "You went and talked to her!?" the captain exclaimed with a heated glare. "I told you about that letter in secrecy!"

Glaring back, Duo snapped, "And I told you that the way it was handled didn't sound like Dorothy! Shit, she told the two of us to our faces that we were going to be living together! Besides that, she's not the cold and scary person that you've all pinned her to be."

Zechs broke in, "And he was right, Heero." The quarterback met his calming gaze and his hands that were clenching his arm rests eased. "Dorothy never sent that letter. Her father's administration had. They knew I would keep quiet while they signed a contract with a new coach without her ever knowing or having a say in the matter. And it would have happened if Duo hadn't confronted her about it."

Chewing on his lip again, the running back played with the end of his braid uncomfortably. His shoulders sagging, Heero's eyes widened as it all sunk in. Folding his arms, the head coach continued, "And he didn't do it for recognition. Dorothy only helped me figure out who went to her when I insisted on knowing."

"It's really not that big a deal," Duo muttered, his head lowered and a blush coloring his cheeks. "I just wanted to know what was going on."

At that, Zech's smile only grew. Rising from his seat, he rounded the desk to sit on the front edge. He folded his arms and spoke quietly, "It's a much bigger deal than just that. I had made a very poor judgment in not talking with Dorothy and would have lost my job over it. Thanks to you, not only is my job spared, but Noin was given a position on the new administration. "

Duo's head snapped up with sparkling eyes as he grinned, "Really!? That's awesome! Tell her I said congratulations! " Beside him, a dumbfounded Heero sunk deep into his seat.

Extending his hand to the running back, the head coach said sincerely, "I honestly can't thank you enough for what you did, Maxwell. If there is anything you need-"

"Bah. No need for that. I can take pretty good care of myself," the braided athlete interrupted with a nonchalant wave. "Besides, if Heero hadn't told me in the first place, I wouldn't have known about that letter."

The quarterback sunk down even further from his guilt of yelling at his teammate earlier. "I'm just glad that things worked out as well as they did for you and your family," Duo smiled as he reached out to shake the offered hand firmly.

Looking to the watch on his other wrist, Duo whistled. "Speaking of family," he began, "I better get going so I can be with mine."

Zechs nodded, "Of course." Pushing himself off his desk, the tall man patted the quarterback' s shoulder and commented, "It's good to see that things are going so well between the two of you. I never would have thought you to be comfortable enough to confide something so personal in Maxwell. Obviously, my possibly leaving had upset you a great deal if you had to talk to someone about it. I am also in your debt."

Numb from head-to-toe, Heero accepted and shook the hand tightly. "Don't worry about it, coach," he managed before rising to his feet along with Duo. "Please extend my own congratulations to Noin on the administrative position."

"I'll do that," Zechs grinned. "You two get going. Maxwell, have a good flight and we'll see you both Monday morning. Bright and early as always." He raised a blonde eyebrow and smirked, "Don't think that I'm going to go easy on you after all of this."

Chuckling deeply, Duo replied, "Sure thing, coach. Have a good weekend." His braid swinging behind him, he led his silent teammate out of the office.

* * * * *

The ride back to the Yuy household was made in complete silence. Sensing his captain's distraught thoughts, Duo opted to drive them back. When they pulled into the garage, the pair grabbed their duffle bags and shuffled into the large residence.

Quatre and Lady Une were sitting together in the living room when their charges entered. Heero walked off silently while Duo all but ran towards his agent. "Hey, Quat," he whispered. "Could you do me a huge favor?"

About an hour later, Heero was sitting on the back patio with a cup of tea. Staring out into the darkening fields behind the estate, his mind was wandering back to the meeting he had with Zechs. Somewhere in the middle of it all, Duo peeked his head into the room and announced, "Well, I'm off, man. Have a good weekend."

Quickly standing, the quarterback called, "Wait." Just as his housemate froze in the doorway, he stalked towards him with a frustrated glare. "You broke my trust," he snapped. "You specifically went behind my back with something that I told you in confidence because of a hunch."

Swallowing roughly, Duo lowered his head just as the glare on him faded. "Thank you," Heero said in little more than a breath. Blinking his widened violet eyes, the running back's head snapped back up. With a deep breath, the team captain admitted softly, "Zechs is the closest thing to a father that I have. And you defended him when it should have been me. I just... I feel like I let him down."

"Don't think like that, man. You did what you thought was the right thing," Duo replied. Lightly patting the other player on the shoulder, he grinned, "Remember, I wouldn't have been able to step in if you hadn't brought the whole thing up. Somehow, I don't see Zechs ever feeling let down or disappointed with you. You'll always be his favorite."

A small smile slowly tugged Heero's lips and he nodded firmly. Clearing his throat past the lump that seemed to have formed there, he sighed deeply, "Well, have a good flight."

Duo took up one of his bags and replied, "Thanks, man." Looking over his shoulder, he smiled, "And I had Quatre pick something up for you, just in case you need a good laugh since I won't be around. It's waiting in the living room." He waved with his free hand with a bright, "Later."

Quietly slipping into the living room, Heero looked to the entertainment center where there was a large book-like case of DVD's that was new. Raising it, he read the cover aloud, "The Monty Python Movie Collection." He shook his head and chuckled deeply.

Reading over the titles, the quarterback shrugged, "Why the hell not? It's been a long time since I've seen these." Carefully removing the one titled 'The Quest for the Holy Grail,' Heero slipped the DVD into the machine and settled onto the couch for a night of humor for a change.

 

Part 15:

The moment he arrived home for the weekend, Duo went right to work tucking his little ones to bed. When he pulled the last bedroom door closed, he leaned his back against the wall and sighed deeply in relief at knowing that his charges were safe and sound. Everything was right in the world now that he was back home with his kids.

Hilde and Solo were sitting and waiting at the kitchen table when their braided 'brother' sauntered in lazily. Smiling warmly, the young woman pushed the extra cup of steaming tea towards Duo as he took the seat across from her. He winked a violet eye and took a small sip from the drink that had been made just to his liking.

"Well, no black eyes or bruising from what I can tell," Hilde smirked while appraising the running back's face. "Things must still be working out between you and Heero. It's a good thing that I didn't put money down on the bet I had with my husband, here, on how long that would last. I thought the honeymoon would be over long before now."

Snorting, Duo rolled his eyes, "Thanks for the vote of confidence there, Hil." He looked to the blonde beside her and nodded, "At least you gave me a little more credit at keeping my cool, bro. Thanks for that."

At that, Solo winced, "Actually, I only won by three days."

Choking on his tea, Duo sputtered and shot him a glare as he caught his breath. To his defense, the blonde young man shrugged, "Come on. The two of you had a knock-down, drag-out fist fight. I was sure that at least one of you, if not both, would have been hospitalized by now."

Finally able to breathe again, the running back muttered something about 'lousy, no good siblings' before taking a careful sip from his drink. Hilde and Solo just chuckled deeply to themselves. Duo lowered his mug and stated, "I'll have you both know that Yuy and I are both adults and we managed to come to an understanding. "

When his 'brother' and 'sister' looked ready to open their mouths, the braided athlete raised a finger in the air and added, "Granted, that was thanks to Quatre and Lady Une's meddling; but we still managed to work things out just fine, thank you very much." Lowering his hand, he frowned deeply, "Actually, to be honest, I kind of worried about the guy."

Hilde tilted her head and asked, "Worried? Just a few weeks ago, you hated him. What has you worried about him all of a sudden?"

Not wanting to break his trust with Wufei, the running back only shared what he, himself had been observing with Heero's behavior. When he was finished, Duo rested his chin on a propped arm and said quietly, "He might have everything he could possibly want, but he's miserable and he doesn't even know it. I just wish there was a way I could get the guy to loosen up and enjoy something other than football."

By the end of his speech, both Solo and Hilde had smirks on their faces. Gazing from one to the other, the American glared at them. "Why are you giving me those looks?"

"You're totally crushing on him," the blonde chuckled deeply.

Laughing with his head falling back, Duo struggled to catch his breath. Wiping at a teary eye, he snickered, "Crushing on him!? Are you crazy!? We're oil and water."

All the more sure of her assumption, Hilde folded her arms and grinned, "Well, opposites do attract. The whole time you were talking about Heero just now, you had this almost dreamy look in your eyes. Maybe Yuy's not the only one oblivious to his own feelings." Raising a hand to keep the words from coming out of the mouth that opened to argue with her, she demanded, "Just tell me this- have you ever checked him out?"

Duo rolled his violet eyes once more. Throwing his arms in the air, he shouted in annoyance, "Of course I did! I'm gay and I'm a guy! I checked out everyone on the team a few times! You can't base your crazy theory on that alone!"

Quick to throw in, the young woman smiled triumphantly, "Ah! But when you did glance him over, did you like what you saw? Have you checked him out more than the rest of your teammates? And remember, you never tell a lie!"

His mouth snapping closed, the running back clammed up for a long pause. Closing his eyes, he put his nose in the air and replied, "I don't have to dignify that with an answer."

Nearly falling out of their chairs in fits of laughter, Solo and Hilde started cheering things like 'Yep!' and 'I knew it!' Sighing deeply, Duo made quickly finished his tea. His friends were still recovering their breaths as he rose from his seat and growled deeply, "Whatever, guys. You're reading way too much into this."

With a wide yawn and a long stretch, the fatigue from his long flight finally caught up with him. "I'm going to bed," the football player muttered, "G'night." Still giggling, the young couple wished him good night as he stepped from the room.

On his way upstairs, Duo snorted to himself, "Yea, I've got a crush on Yuy. What's next? Dogs and cats mating together?" He sniggered at that last thought. Considering how different he and the quarterback were, it would have to alter the course of the world as everyone knew it if they ever got together.

Besides, there was absolutely no way in hell that he was attracted to Heero. Yes, they were becoming friends now that their past issues were behind them. That certainly didn't mean that he was pining over the guy. Far from it, in fact! Sure, he might have checked him out a couple of times, but what was the harm at looking ever now and then!? It wasn't his fault that Yuy had an incredible physique for wandering eyes to roam over!

Shaking his thoughts from his head, Duo huffed out a breath of air and entered his bedroom. Closing the door behind him, he turned on the lamp beside his bed and slipped out of his black T-shirt. His work boots and the jeans soon following to pool on the floor, he crawled under his deep purple comforter and turned the light back out. Once his head hit the pillow and his eyes closed, the running back sighed deeply and drifted off.

* * * * * *

"Hey," Duo called as he stepped back into the Yuy household after his weekend home. "Anyone home?" There was no immediate answer. Shrugging, the running back headed upstairs to his room with his bags.

Respectfully bowing his head to the picture of Heero's parents at the top of the stairs, he turned and headed down the long hallway. Entering his room, he lowered his suitcases with a sigh of relief. "You're home," a familiar voice greeted from the open doorway.

Startled, the American spun and his mouth went dry at the sight that awaited him. Only a white towel wrapped around his waist, a very damp Heero smirked with an arm propped against the doorway. "Sorry," he chuckled deeply, "I didn't mean to scare you."

The words really didn't register in Duo's mind. All that he could think of was the rigid and perfectly built body before him. That unruly hair was still dripping wet at some of the ends and a few of the droplets were running down the washboard abs. It took every ounce of the running back's strength to not let his gaze follow those wet trails.

Swallowing roughly, Duo forced himself to look up into those cobalt eyes that pulled him into their depths. "I uh..." he attempted weakly, his voice failing him in the end. His mouth just opened and closed a couple times without so much as a peep.

Heero's smirk only turned all the more mischievous. Pushing himself from the doorframe, he stalked slowly to his frozen teammate. In a sultry voice, he asked, "When are you going to stop staring from a distance and start doing something about what you're feeling?"

Their faces only inches apart, Duo's breath hitched in his throat. The only sound he could hear was the blood rushing in his ears. He could feel his heart pounding and their breath mingling in the short distance between them. The only things that he could see were those deep blue oceans that he was drowning in.

Every last nerve in his body tingled and his hairs stood on end. Just when his legs felt like they were going to give out, a strong arm wrapped tightly around his waist, pulling him up against that strong chest.

Leaning so that their lips brushed together when he spoke, Heero whispered huskily, "Or are you still so convinced that you don't want this?" He pressed their lips firmly together as his eyes slid close. Duo gasped sharply at the sheer fierceness and hunger that he felt pulsing from his teammate. As soon as his mouth opened for that quick pull of air, the quarterback' s tongue slipped inside to probe and explore.

Unable to fight his need and want any longer, Duo closed his own eyes and met the kiss with just as much intensity. His fingers buried themselves into Heero's damp locks as their tongues danced and swirled together. When they finally pulled back for air, he lost himself in those heavy-lidded eyes and breathed, "God, I've wanted this for so long."

"So have I," Heero sighed just before pressing their lips back together. He whimpered as the running back's hands moved to roam over his torso.

Making it his mission to hear that wonderful sound again, along with many others, Duo maneuvered his fingers around the tie of the towel at his housemate's waist. Without even looking, he eased the knot away and heard the fabric fall to the floor.

With a loud cry, Duo sat up in his bed. Sweat rolling down his face as he panted heavily, he gazed anxiously to his dark surroundings. When his eyes adjusted to recognize his room at his home, he sighed deeply in relief. Falling back into his bed, he willed his heart rate to finally calm. He pushed the dream away along with the feelings that it stirred.

At a wet feeling in his boxers, he quickly sat up with wide eyes. Slipping a hand inside, he confirmed what he feared and groaned, "Goddamn it!" He flopped back into his pillows with a hand over his closed eyes.

A few sleepless hours later, Duo finally decided to get up at he first signs of light through his drawn drapes. He stepped out into the hallway, his braid disheveled and dark circles under his eyes, and shuffled to the bathroom with a couple towels in hand. Along his way, he ran into Solo and Hilde as they stepped out of their own room. Fixing the couple with a heated glare, the running back muttered, "I hate you guys."

What concern had once been on his friends' faces when they got a good look a him faded into smug grins when they quickly rationalized the reason for the threat. Shrugging, Hilde chuckled deeply, "From the look of things, someone had a pretty sweet dream." She and her husband laughed as they just managed to duck away from the towels that were thrown at them.

* * * * * *

Flora bit her lip as she returned home, her stomach in knots after her weekend band practice. The hand carrying her flute case gripped the handle tightly. 'Aunt' Hilde was right behind her with a saddened look of her own in having heard the news on the way back from picking her up at school.

Wrapping an arm around the girl's shoulders, Hilde reassured her quietly, "Whatever happens, you know that he still loves you, even if he can't be there all the time." A few small tears filled Flora's brown eyes as she nodded.

Duo was sitting at the table in the middle of the large room along with the youngest children of the lot. Having a gook look over all of their homework assignments and helping where needed, the braided young man was smiling and giving praise in the form of high-fives and pats on the head.

Looking up at his daughter and 'sister' approaching with deep frowns, Duo rose from his seat with a worried, "What's wrong, Flora?" He wrapped her shoulders in his arms and held her close in support. "Something happen at band practice?"

The Hispanic girl leaned into his embrace and sighed deeply, "My school music director announced the date for my band's last concert. It's this Tuesday night."

Instantly understanding why his daughter was so distraught, Duo pulled back and nodded, "I see." Up until then, he had been fortunate enough that most, if not all of his children's school events and sports took place on the weekend.

What with pre-season games opening in a couple of months, every training session was growing more and more important. But, he would have to miss out on a couple of practices to be able to make the concert.

Smiling warmly, the running back ran a hand over his daughter's dark hair and winked, "Don't worry. I'm not about to miss your last concern of the school year for anything. I'll work something out so I can be there."

Her brown eyes widening, Flora gasped, "But... but pre-season's right around the corner. Your coach will be mad if you miss any practices." Lowering her head and looking to her flute case, she shrugged, "This is just a stupid concert."

Gently lifting her head back up with a finger under her chin, Duo met her gaze and told her quietly, "I's not stupid, Flora. You've put a lot of time and work into this concert and I'm not about to miss it. Nothing is more important to me than you and your brothers and sisters. I haven't missed an event yet, and I'm not about to start now. Now, I said that I'd work something out and I will, so don't worry about it."

Flora smiled with shimmering eyes as she breathed, "Really?" Hilde was sitting at the table with the youngsters and wiped at her own eyes a bit at the touching scene.

Kissing the girl's forehead, Duo smiled, "Really." His daughter threw her arms around his neck tightly. Lightly patting her back, the braided athlete said, "I'm going to start dinner with Hil soon. Mind keeping an eye on the others while we're busy?"

"Sure thing," the girl smiled as she wiped the last of her tears. Kissing the running back on the cheek, she whispered, "Thank you, Dad." With that, she headed to the table and joined her little brothers and sisters.

Hilde patted the girl's shoulder as she followed her friend out of the room. On their way towards the kitchen, she frowned deeply, "How will you be able to convince Zechs to let you miss a couple practices? I'm sure he wouldn't be too thrilled with the idea this late in the training season."

At that, Duo smirked, "Zechs isn't the one that I need to convince. His wife is, now that she is a very influential member of the ownership board. Besides, as grateful as he was that I helped him out, I really don't think he'll have a problem with my missing one practice. I'll leave tomorrow so I can be there on Monday, fly back that night. After the concert, I'll fly back to be there on Wednesday."

Chuckling deeply, Hilde shook her head, "You really would do anything for those kids. And to think that you were once scared that you might not be a good father." Duo blushed a bit and her smile grew.

As they stepped into the kitchen, the pair set right to work on removing the ingredients needed for the meal they were planning. "So what are you going to tell Noin when you discuss your reason for missing out on a practice?" Hilde asked while removing a gallon of milk from the refrigerator.

Duo removed a few ripe tomatoes from the plastic bag waiting by the cutting board and shrugged, "The truth of course."

Nearly dropping the milk in her hands, the young woman's eyes widened as she all but shrieked, "You're going to tell her about the children!? You've never told anyone outside of this house about them before!?"

Aiding his friend before she dropped the container, the running back set the milk safely on the counter. "I really need a friend that has some pull with the team," he explained. "I need someone that I can trust besides just Quatre; someone who'll understand. I really think that Noin is a great choice for that."

"Well, you know her better than I do," Hilde sighed deeply. "If you think she can be trusted to keep this secret, I can't argue with the logic in having another confidant." She tilted her head and warned, "Just make sure you're one hundred percent sure before you go through with it. You said it yourself that the last thing these kids need is to be pulled into a media circus."

The braided young man tapped the end of her nose with a finger and promised, "I'll be careful." Satisfied with that, his friend nodded firmly. Taking up opposite sides of the kitchen, they worked in silence.

* * * * * *

"Hey," Duo called as he stepped back into the Yuy household after his weekend home. "Anyone home?" There was no immediate answer. Shrugging, the running back headed upstairs to his room with his bags.

Respectfully bowing his head to the picture of Heero's parents at the top of the stairs, he turned and headed down the long hallway. A chill ran up his spine at the sudden realization of déjà vu. His violet eyes widening, he quickly entered his room and threw his bag on the floor to make a quick escape before…

"You're home," a familiar voice greeted from the open doorway.

Jumping out of his skin with a cry, the American spun on his heels. Posed just as he was when he first saw him in the dream, Heero had an arm up and was leaning against the frame with a smirk on his face. Only this time, he was fully clothed without a hint of dampness.

What startled Duo the most was his instant disappointment.

"Sorry," the quarterback chuckled deeply, "I didn't mean to scare you."

The American replied quickly with a high squeak, "Just-" Clearing his throat, he tried again, "Just caught me a little off guard. No problem, man."

Heero grinned in amusement and nodded, "Well, I hate to admit it but it's good to have you back. It's been too quiet around here." Not waiting for a response, he turned on his heels and disappeared down the hall.

Loudly huffing out the breath he had been holding, Duo fell back to sit on the edge of his bed. Wiping the little beads of sweat from his brow, he groaned, "Shit. I think I might be attracted to him, after all."

 

Part 16:

Duo closed the flip of his cell phone with a sigh. His conversation with Noin had gone extremely well and their meeting had been set for an hour after practice. As fate would have it, Dorothy was away on business and had given her new administrators full liberty to make decisions as they saw fit.

Throughout the call, Noin had been more than accommodating and understanding when asked for a face-to-face that evening. Their talk moved on to the new administrator talking about her children and checking on how things were at the Yuy household. By the time he hung up the phone, the running back was feeling pretty good about his decision to tell her about his family…

Even if he was still a bit nervous over the whole thing.

Stepping out of the kitchen with a pitcher of orange juice, Lady Une smiled to the braided young man at the dining room table. "Good morning, Duo. Breakfast is almost ready. Would you mind letting Heero know? You know how he likes doing his stretches first thing in the morning."

"No problem," Duo winked while rising to his feet. On his way out, he lightly kissed the young woman's cheek with a grateful, "And the food smells wonderful." Lady Une chuckled deeply with a blush.

Heading for the gym, Duo whistled a merry tune to himself. Finally reaching the gym door, Duo opened it and announced, "Hey, Heero, breakfast is se-" the words caught in his throat at the image that greeted him.

Back facing the door, the quarterback was dressed only in a pair of black mesh shorts as he was stretching his arms overhead. A light sheen of sweat coated that perfect body after a rigorous stretch routine.

In the center of the fully-loaded gym, standing on tip of a deep blue floor mat, Heero was displayed on the tall mirrors that lined the four walls. Every angle of each taunt, shimmer muscle was captured perfectly in each reflection.

Looking over his shoulder, the Japanese youth asked, "What was that?"

Quickly tearing his eyes from the pert cheeks of his housemate's rear, Duo swallowed to dampen his throat. "Oh, breakfast is almost ready," he grinned.

At a familiar tightening down below, the running back added quickly, "Gotta go now." Turning on his heels, he all but ran out of the room. Heero blinked in confusion before shrugging and relaxing his body.

Moaning to himself as he charged down the halls, Duo nearly knocked Quatre over when his agent suddenly appeared around a corner. With a sharp gasp, the blonde reached up just in time to get a hold of his friend with a startled, "Duo! What on Earth-!?"

The braided American looked back around the corner with a panted, "I can't let Yuy see me like this!"

"Like wha-oh!" Quatre cut himself off when he looked down to find his client covering his crotch with his hands. Smirking, he asked, "So, is that a football in your shorts or were you just happy to see him?"

Duo growled through clenched teeth, "I really don't need this, pal." Desperate, he darted off for the nearest bathroom. Closing the door behind himself, he threw off his clothes and jumped into the shower. Tightly gripping the removable showerhead, he fired a spray of ice-cold water at his groin.

Biting his lip, the running back stifled a sharp cry at the initial contact and allowed the chill to sink in. "So what brought this on?" Quatre's amused voice asked from the other side of the closed shower curtain.

The running back nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden intrusion. Peeking his head out from behind the curtain, he met his friend's gaze and answered through chattering teeth, "Hilde and Solo. They started putting these damn thoughts in my head over the weekend and I haven't been able to shake them since."

Quickly poking his head back in for a quick inspection, Duo sighed in relief at finding his unit limp and turned the water off. A hand appeared with a towel before his face as his agent's tone smiled, "Ah. So you're finally realizing that you're attracted to Heero."

"What!?" Duo cried while drying himself off, shaking yet. "You mean to tell me that you knew about this… thing!?

On the other side of the curtain, Quatre smirked and shrugged, "Now what kind of a friend would I be if I didn't notice something like that? To be honest, at the rate that you were going, I thought it'd be months before you figured it out for yourself."

The curtain flew open as Duo stepped out of the tub with the towel around his waist. Those long, angry scars that crisscrossed his chest glared along with his violet eyes. Quatre turned his back to him to give a moment of privacy.

Pulling his boxers back on, the athlete inquired in frustration, "How is it that I was the last person that knew how I felt?" he inquired.

At that, the agent grinned, "Denial. You never knew someone that you could actually consider an equal. Now that you have, you're afraid of what it's doing to you. It's a typical reaction for someone who's been on his own as long as you have."

Fully dressed, Duo sat at the edge of the tub, his shoulders sagging heavily. "What the hell am I going to do, Quat?" he frowned deeply, his tone letting on to how lost he was. "I never let myself even consider being drawn to someone else, let alone someone who I live and work with every day."

Shaking his braided head, he snorted, "It's going to suck if I have to try and find a cold shower every time I get a sudden hard on around him."

Quatre turned to face him and smiled reassuringly, "Well, I have a feeling you're get a handle on that pretty soon. You're finally accepting what you're feeling, so the… inconveniences will work out. As for the rest of it, like your emotions, just take it one step at a time." Raising an eyebrow, he commented, "You know, Heero led on to which way he swings."

His lips curving in a smirk, Duo replied, "That's because he never gets out. And even if he was gay, or bi, I highly doubt that he'd be interested in me." With a sigh, he raised his right hand towards his face and said, "I'm doomed to a solid, intimate relationship with `Mister Righty' for the rest of my life. He's never let me down."

The agent laughed, his head falling back. Catching his breath, he shook his head with a grin and suggested, "We better get going. Breakfast is probably on the table and I'm sure Lady Une and Heero must be wondering what happened to us."

Reluctant to leave the protective shell that the little bathroom had become, Duo slowly rose from the edge of the tub. "All right," he muttered. Following his friend from the room, he continued to battle the emotions that were waging war with his reason.

* * * * * *

"What is wrong with you?" Heero growled deeply. His cobalt eyes glared through the shadow of his helmet at the running back across from him. The rest of the offensive team huddling together stared at a nervous-looking Duo with frustration in the own eyes. Even Trowa seemed to be at his wits end with his braided friend.

Shaking his head, the team captain snapped, "It's perfectly legal for you to accept a throw so long as you're within a couple yards from of me. Why the hell do you keep brushing off that suggestion when it comes up?"

With a deep breath to keep the edge out of his voice, Trowa reasoned with the American calmly, "All the defensive team has to do is see Heero turning to you and they'll know you're going to run the ball. Unless Heero fakes the hand off well enough to catch them off guard, they'll be able to predict every move we make." [1]

Duo swallowed roughly, silently grateful that his own helmet was on to hide the sweat forming on his brow. "Look, I just run the damn ball. Even if they were able to predict some of our plays, you know I'll find an opening to break through." Focusing specifically on his housemate with a glare of his own, he said, "Just hand me the ball and I'll make magic happen."

At the quarterback' s right, Wufei rolled his eyes. "It's just a change up that we'll only use once in a while, Maxwell," he sighed deeply. "Quit making such a big deal about it and just try it. I don't get what your problem is with the whole thing."

Finally losing the last of his reserve on the topic, Duo's eyes narrowed heatedly as he shouted, "I have a problem with it because I can't catch worth a damn! That's why I have a problem with the suggestion! Are you all fucking happy now!?"

At the end of his rant, the running back panted heavily and gazed from one face to the other, challenging some sort of response. He was only answered with wide eyes and a few slack jaws. Mueller, however, was not about to stay quiet. His head falling back, he laughed, "That's a fucking riot! A football player who can't catch the damn ball!"

His face reddening, Duo bit his tongue roughly. Much to everyone's surprise, Wufei was the one to speak up with a hissed, "Knock it off, Mueller." The tight end's laughter died instantly as he turned to the receiver with wide eyes. "Considering the way you've been performing this week, you don't have a lot of room to be giving anyone a hard time," he warned none too kindly.

Mueller looked about ready to spit nails at clearly having lost his last ally on the team when it came to disliking the running back. A silent battle of wills began as the receiver and tight end glared heatedly at each other. Duo, Trowa and the remainder of their team looked to one another in shock. Not one of them ever expected to hear Wufei to speak up in the Maxwell's defense.

Annoyed over the whole situation, Heero ordered, "Enough." Reluctantly, the two dueling athletes turned to face their captain. "There will be time to work on the weak spots later. For now, we'll just go with what we know works," he demanded. Locking gazes with his housemate, he reassured him, "The ball's yours this round. No fancy plays, just what we've been doing. Find a hole in the defense and get through."

A relieved smile tugged the running back's lips. Nodding firmly, he replied, "Got it."

From the sidelines, Howard cupped his mouth with both hands and yelled to his huddling team, "What the hell are you ladies gabbing about over there!? Call a play and let's go! I'm not getting any younger over here!" Zechs and Trent snickered amongst themselves.

"You heard the man," Heero smirked. "Let's go. On three. One. Two. Three." Together, he and his team clapped their hands and shouted, "Break!" Turning out of their huddle, they took their positions to meet the defense head on.

At the end of practice a couple hours later, Mueller was still stewing over the earlier incident. Wufei had not forgotten either and matched the glares being fired at him the whole way back off of the field and into the stadium. They only ended their silent struggle when they parted ways to sit at their lockers.

Duo plopped down at his bench and began to remove the padding from his legs with a deep sigh of relief. Just a couple spots down, Mueller smirked, "So, you're not so fucking perfect after all. You're nothing but a damn joke."

The sleeping bear could no longer ignore the poking another moment.

Duo was on his feet and stalking towards the tight end with his fists clenched and rage in his eyes. Mueller faced him with his chin sticking out and his own hands balling at his sides in preparation of the fight about to happen.

Just before either athlete could get close enough to throw a punch, Wufei stepped between them with his dark and narrowed eyes fixated on the tight end. Tilting his head a bit, he smirked, "Let's talk." Before Mueller could protest, the receiver grabbed him rightly by the back of the neck and pulled him from the room.

Both Heero and Trowa were by Duo's side as he took a deep and calming breath. Resting a hand on his friend's shoulder, the tall center asked gently, "You all right?"

"Yea," the running back sighed deeply while rolling his shoulders back. "I'll be all right. Just need a minute to shake things off." He turned to meet the concerned green eyes and smiled, "Thanks, man." Trowa nodded and squeezed his shoulder before pulling his hand away.

Heero peered to his housemate from the corner of his eye and shook his head, "He's just trying to rile you and he's not worth it. Just keep being the bigger person and he'll have to keep his trap shut eventually. Either that or he'll find himself without a friend on the team."

Out in the hallway, Mueller managed to break himself free and spun to have his teammate with a heated glare. "What the fuck is going on with you?" he spat. "Since when did you speak up in that prick's defense!?"

Raising a finger before the tight end's face, Wufei snapped, "Since you've done nothing but act like a complete asshole even after Yuy called a truce. He was the one that had the reason to be angry with Maxwell and they've been able to put their problems behind them.

"You need to grow the hell up and stop blaming Duo for Alex being traded. That was the ownership's decision, not his. And frankly, I agree with their choice. As much as I liked Alex, he just wasn't pulling his weight." Leaning in until their noses almost touched, the receiver said quietly, "Even as his lover, you have to admit that much."

Mueller's eyes widened then narrowed threateningly. "How the hell do you know about that?" he breathed in a low rumble.

Wufei smirked, "I notice little details that most people miss. I have to give you credit, though. You both did a real nice job of covering up your relationship. It took me some time to realize that you were more than just good friends."

His eyes darkening with rage, the tight end pulled back and asked, "So what now? You use what you know about us to blackmail me into playing along? Is that how this works?"

Smirking, the receiver answered, "No. Your life is yours to live. I just wanted to tell you that if you still want to have friends on this team you had better stop playing the pissed off boyfriend. Start more of this shit with Maxwell and no one will be there to keep him from pummeling you. No one would blame him and you would be the one sitting on the bench for the season."

With a deep breath, Wufei continued, "See, the one thing about Yuy and Maxwell is that they're the only two members of this whole team that can't be replaced. No one else, not even you or I, can say the same thing. If you're not willing to be a member of this team, fine. I hope you like watching the games from the sidelines, if you're not traded all together."

"And bottom line," he began with a small grin, "I actually am starting to like the guy. He's already made me step up my own game, along with everyone down to out third-stringers. What's more, he came into this team an outsider that was never given a chance, but he took it all in stride and continued to work as a member of the team. For that and more, he's earned my respect. Learn something from that."

Lightly patting his colleague's shoulder, Wufei grinned, "Whatever happens from here on out is up to you. The way that we're shaping up, this is going to be the best season that this team has ever seen. It's your choice to whether you want to be a part of that or not." Turning on his heels, he headed back into the locker room.

The weight of the world seemed to have fallen on Mueller's shoulders as he watched the receiver walk off. Sighing deeply, he shook his head and followed.

For the remainder of the day, he didn't have another word to say.

* * * * * *

Later that evening, Duo laughed as he was all but tackled by a cheering Derek and Gavin when he stepped through the door. Picking both boys up and spinning them around, he chuckled, "Hey, you little ankle biters! Have you both been good for your parents like I asked?"

"Yes," they both giggled when they were lowered to the ground again. Zechs and Noin smiled warmly from their post at the doorway to the living room of their home. His eyes wide with excitement, Gavin asked, "That means we can help you again when we go to practice, right?"

Gently running the boy's heads, the running back winked, "That's right. I can use all the help that I can get." Cheering again, the youngsters hugged his long legs tightly.

Pushing himself from the doorway, Zechs said, "Boys, Duo and Mom are going to have a talk. Let's go into the den and watch some of your cartoons, okay?"

Her sons chorused, "Okay, Daddy." After receiving a tight hug from Duo, they took either of their Dad's hands and followed him down the hall.

Noin approached the football player, chuckling, "They can't stop talking about how they got to help Duo Maxwell, one of the best running backs to play the game." Tightly hugging her guest, she added, "Who Zechs and I are in great debt to."

Returning the embrace, the braided running back grinned, "Don't mention it. I'm just glad things worked out."

When they pulled back, the young woman gestured with her head towards the living room and invited, "Please, make yourself comfortable. I have tea ready."

Taking a deep breath and wiling his nerves to ease, Duo followed her into the room, closing the rolling doors behind them.

[1] A fake in this case is a legal move where the quarterback turns to the running back behind him when the ball is in his hands. It makes the defensive team think they're going to keep the ball on the ground so they push harder to stop the running back. But just before the running back accepts the ball, the quarterback can keep it for himself to turn and throw it to one of the receivers down the field when it was not expected by the defense.

 

Part 17:

Duo took a seat at one end of the long couch as Noin took the other end. There was a steaming teapot and two mugs atop the table beside them. Reaching to pour the brew into one of the cups, the young woman smiled, "I want to start this meeting by saying that everything that we discuss will stay between us. I may be Zechs's wife, but I'm here to be a confidant to you and your teammates and I will not break that trust."

Easing a bit at those sincere words, Duo accepted the mug handed to him with a grinned, "Thank you, Noin. I was glad to hear that Dorothy hired you for this job. I can't think of anyone who would be better at it."

Her eyes brightening at that, the young woman lowered his head in a respectful bow and smiled, "I appreciate that." Taking a sip from her own mug, she lowered it back down to meet her guest's violet eyes and folded her hands in her lap. "Now, how can I help you?"

With a deep breath, the running back lowered his own mug and began, "Well, I know how important practices are going to be from here on out with the pre-season right around the corner." He chewed on the inside of his lip nervously before stating, "But something's come up that would make it difficult for me to make tomorrow's practice."

Noin's eyes widened in concern. "Is it a family emergency?" she asked.

"Not... exactly," Duo winced. Quickly choosing his words, he added quickly, "But, I came to you because it is something that only another parent would understand." Ducking his braided head, he closed his eyes tightly in fear of what the reaction would be.

Gasping widely, the administrator' s eyes grew and blinked. "A-another parent?" she whispered in disbelief. Shaking her head, she frowned, "I'm afraid I don't understand."

Leaning forward a bit, the football player explained, "I've been a foster parent to eight children for the last two years. A judge has declared me fit to become their legal guardian through adoption when I turn twenty-one this coming February."

The wind seemed to be knocked from Noin's lungs. When she was finally able to catch her breath, he managed weakly, "How... how on earth have you managed to keep something like that a secret?"

"Quatre and two childhood friends of mine are the only other people that know about this," Duo stated as he played with the end of his braid nervously. "I know what kind of media frenzy something like this would cause and I don't want the kids involved in that. Even I have a hard time handling the press sometimes."

Numbly, the young woman nodded, "Yes, of course. Children have enough to worry about as it is. And those vultures that call themselves reporters would have a fiend day if word ever got around." The shock of the revelation began to clear and she smiled warmly, "Do you have any pictures?"

Quick to return the smile, Duo reached into his back jeans pocket to remove his wallet. "Never leave home without them," he chuckled deeply. Opening his wallet, he pulled out a small, electronic display. Noin moved in close for a good look at the screen as the images were paged through.

The first image to appear was a family shot with the braided athlete in the center and his children surrounding him. Pointing to each of the little ones, Duo went down the names. Using the paging buttons, he went through the slideshow of pictures he had saved. Transfixed, the short-haired administrator shook her head in wonder as her smile grew.

At the end of the display, Noin sat back and appraised the young man before her in a whole new light. The pride and love that he had for his children was evident. "Whatever made you want to become a parent so young?" she inquired.

Braid back in his hands, Duo replied, "I was adopted, myself, just before high school, so I know how hard it can be to never know where you're going to be from one day to the next." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and shrugged, "It only seemed right to be part of the solution when I was able to help. Solo and Hilde helped me track down a couple of tough cases. Before I knew it, I had eight kids to look after and I couldn't turn any of them down."

His eyes losing focus as his head lowered, the American all but whispered, "They've all seen some pretty rough times. No kid should have to go through the things they have."

There was a pain in his voice that could have only come through his own personal experience, Noin realized quickly. Not wanting to force him down a road that he might be uncomfortable with, she decided to change the subject. "Well, they're all beautiful children, Duo," she told him quietly as she reached for his hand to squeeze it. "And they're very lucky to have you looking out for them. I think it's wonderful that you're doing this."

Brought back to the present, the running back blinked his eyes and focused back on his coach's wife. Returning the smile and squeeze, he didn't trust his voice at that moment. Instead, he nodded firmly in appreciation and cleared the lump from his throat.

Noin pulled her hand back and inquired, "Now, I believe you were mentioning something that came up with your family."

"Oh!" Duo grinned sheepishly at recalling his initial reason for their meeting. "Flora's freshman year is up by the end of this week. She plays in her school band and their last concert is tomorrow night. I'm not one to miss out on any of their games or events when I can help it." To seal the deal, he rushed, "If I could just have tomorrow off, I promise that I'll be back in plenty of time for Wednesday's practice."

Shaking her head, the young woman told him, "Nonsense. Take the rest of the week off and enjoy more than a long weekend with your family for a change. " Noin's eyes shimmered with mischief as she smirked, "And don't worry about Zechs. He won't have a problem with you taking a much-needed vacation."

Taken aback by the offer, Duo's violet eyes widened. "A-are you sure?" he stammered. "It's really no trouble to get back here if there is any trouble. I mean, with pre-season not far from now, I know that-"

Waving her hand to stop him short, Noin reassured him, "It won't be any trouble. You need to be with your children. That's far more important that anything else." She tilted her head and winked, "As parents, we both know that. I promise you that there will not be any trouble in your spending the time away."

Unable to help himself, the running back lunged forward to hug her tightly. "Thank you," was all that he could manage.

Chuckling deeply, Noin returned the embrace and smiled, "You're welcome." As they pulled back, she raised a finger and jokingly ordered, "But I want you back fresh and ready to work hard next Monday. Don't think that because of this break you're allowed to slack off from here on out."

His braid swinging with his laughter, the American saluted, "Yes, ma'am." Rising from the sofa, he looked to his watch and whistled through his teeth. "I'd better get going soon if I want to make the last flight out tonight," he thought aloud.

The administrator rose to her own feet and nodded, "Go on. I'll pass the word on to Zechs. And Dorothy entrusted me with decisions like these, so she won't question it when she returns from her meetings later this week."

She reached out for her guest's hand and squeezed it once more. "Thank you very much for sharing this with me, Duo. I'm honored to have your trust and I promise that your secret will stay safe with me. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask."Gently kissing her cheek, Duo said quietly, "I won't." Squeezing her hand gratitude, he winked and followed as she led the way to the front door.

With a wide smile, Noin saw him out and wished him a safe flight. Closing the door after the running back, she sighed deeply. She shook her head in amusement over the thought of the well-known trouble making running back being an adoptive father. "Wonders never cease," she grinned to herself as she headed down the hallway.

Opening the door to the study, Noin stepped in to find her husband and their children sitting together on the couch before the television set. The head coach looked up to her and smiled lovingly. "So, how did it go?" he asked.

"Just fine," his wife replied. Settling onto the couch with their boys curling up to her, she kissed his cheek and said simply, "I gave Duo permission to miss practice for the rest of the week."

Zechs's eyes widened at the announcement, but he soon recovered. While he was hoping to have all of his first-stringers at practice for the next few weeks, he knew that the running back was still one of his strongest players on the team. A few days off wasn't going to hurt him on the field in any way. Not to mention the fact that he was in Duo's debt. If he needed some time off, he would have it.

What was more, he was not about to question his wife's decision. Instead, he just smirked and nodded firmly, "All right. You're the boss."

Leaning up against him, Noin giggled, "Good. I knew you would finally figure that much out." Zechs's head fell back as he laughed.

* * * * **

Heero was had just finished cleaning up after his evening training in the gym when he found Duo, Quatre and Lady Une at the front door with two suitcases standing by. As the two childhood friends shared a quick hug, the agent requested quietly, "Tell the family that I say 'hello.'"

Tilting his head as he neared, the quarterback repeated, "Family?"

He looked to the suitcases and frowned, "You're going home tonight?"

Duo turned to him with a sheepish smile. "Yea. Sorry for not saying something sooner, but I wasn't sure I'd be granted leave," he explained. "I have some family things that I need to take care of. Nothing too major, it's just that they need me right now."

His cobalt eyes blinking owlishly, Heero answered with a surprised, "Oh." Quickly getting over the initial surprise of the news, he gave a small grin and extended his hand with a friendly, "Well, have a safe trip, then."

The running back's smile grew at that and he shook the offered hand firmly. "Thanks, man. I'll see you all again Sunday night." Just behind him, Quatre and Lady Une shared amused and pleased smirks in seeing once more how far their friends had come.

When the handshake ended, the young maid moved forward to kiss the braided youth's cheek and requested, "Let us know as soon as you get into Chicago. You know that Quatre and I will be staying up until we know that you're back safely."

Chuckling deeply, Duo nodded, "I will. Thanks, Lady Une." After fastening the sunglasses at the top of his head securely, he bent at the waist to take up his suitcases. Quatre held the door open for him as he stepped out into the warm evening air.

Overhead, the stars began to shine through the darkening skies that late-June night. In the distant west, the lights of Pittsburgh rose over the hillside. Dozens of fireflies twinkled throughout the grounds as Duo headed down the white cobblestone path weaving through the long front lawn. The small lampposts at either side of the walkway began to burn at the fading natural light.

Just as he was about to reach the garage, the braided athlete froze when he heard his name called. Looking over his shoulder, he watched as Heero ran towards him. "Hey," the quarterback began as he came to a halt just before his teammate. "When you get back, maybe we could work together on that catching problem of yours on our own time."

Stunned, Duo's eyes widened. "Really?" he managed in barely a whisper. It was difficult for him to believe that he actually heard his housemate correctly.

Heero shrugged, "Why not? Teammates look out for each other, right? We'll talk about it more when you get back."

"Yea," the running back replied with a wide grin. Quickly lowering his bags, he held out his right hand with a sincere, "Thanks, `Ro." An unexpected lump formed in his throat that he swallowed past roughly. "No one has ever offered to help me with that," he commented.

Lowering his braided head, Duo frowned deeply and muttered, "Actually, not many people have ever offered to help me with anything before." He nearly jumped when a strong hand gripped his own to shake it firmly. When he looked up, he found a warm smile and bright cobalt eyes.

With a deep breath, Heero commented, "Maybe it's because not many people have had the chance to see the real you." Chuckling deeply, he added, "And it doesn't hurt to swallow your pride from time to ask for help in the first place."

Duo laughed, "I guess that does kind of make of difference." Reluctantly releasing the quarterback' s hand, he sighed quietly. "Well, I better get going," he announced with a forced smile as he took up his luggage once more.

Grabbing one of the bags, the team captain and led the way to the garage. The running back followed and gladly accepted the assistance in packing his car. Once the cases were sealed in the trunk, Heero gave a friendly pat to his housemate's shoulder. "Take care," he said quietly.

"You too," Duo answered. "Tell the others to take it easy on Terry. Lord knows that the last thing we need is having him panic if he's ever needed during the regular season. This week might be just might give him the boost in confidence he needs."

Heero smirked, "You got it. See you on Sunday." That said, he waved and headed out of the garage.

Shaking his head as he opened the driver door, the running back chuckled deeply, "Wonders never cease."

* * * * * *

After a long night's sleep Flora blinked her brown eyes open. Checking her alarm clock beside her bed, she sighed deeply and stretched her arms over her head. She reached over to flip the alarm button before it went off in two more minutes. Pushing herself out of bed, she went over to her little sisters and started waking them up for another day of school.

Before long, the two upper floors of the converted apartment complex was crawling with youngsters as they washed up and did their morning routines. Together, the lot made their way down to the ground level. The smell of eggs, bacon along with an array of other breakfast foods filled the air as it always did at this time of the day.When they reached the dining room, however, something was drastically different.

At the string of hot pans stationed at the counters of the adjoined kitchen, Duo was working along with Solo and Hilde. Spotting his wide-eyed children, the running back grinned widely, "Good morning." The youngest of the group cheered and ran to their guardian.

Chuckling deeply, the braided young man scooped as many up at a time as he could with kisses and tight hugs. After greeting each of the smallest kids, he clapped his hands together and told them, "Get your plates. We have a half-hour before we have to get you all to school."

Much more awake than they had been before entering the room, the little ones gave affirmatives and did as asked. Solo and Hilde began filling each plate that passed with bright smiles of their own.

Tears filled Flora's eyes as she approached her foster parent along with Marcus and Tai. "You made it," she whispered brokenly.

Wrapping his arms around her, Duo replied, "I promised I would." As he pulled back, he gently wiped a stray tear from his daughter's cheek and winked, "I told you that I wouldn't miss your concert for the world." Flora giggled as he kissed her forehead and gently urged her to get something to eat.

Marcus and Tai, being the oldest at thirteen and the 'men' of the kids, welcomed their 'father' with one-armed hugs and firm handshakes. It was evident in their faces, however, that they were just as thrilled as the others to have him back home.

"And the two of you are coming to the concert tonight, too," Duo ordered. Before either of them could groan or argue he held up a finger and reminded, "We're a family and we support each other. Flora's come to every one of your baseball and football games."

Smirking, the boys nodded and gave their affirmatives before grabbing a plate. "I just hope that this thing isn't too lame," Marcus commented. Looking over her shoulder to her older brothers, Flora stuck her tongue out. Duo just shook his head and laughed.

It was great to be home.

* * * * **

At the end of the concert that night, Duo was waiting with his whole family in the back of the high school gymnasium. His braid tucked up in the baseball cap that he was wearing and shades to hide his violet eyes, he smiled proudly when Flora finally managed to push through the crowd to reach him.

Handing over the wrapped, red roses that he'd been holding, he hugged her tightly and said, "You were great, kiddo."

"Thank you, dad," she grinned as she returned the embrace. Taking a good whiff of the flowers, she beamed with excitement.

Marcus neared with a shrugged, "That actually wasn't as lame as I thought it'd be." He laughed when his sister lightly hit him with her flute case.

"All right, all right," Duo snickered. "Let's get ready to go out to dinner to celebrate." His lot looked up to him with wide eyes.Tai frowned, "But don't you have a flight so you can be at practice tomorrow?"

His smile widening, the running back shook his head, "Nope. I'm home 'til Sunday." Elated, the youngsters cheered and cried as they all but tackled him to the ground. Lost in the midst of the group hug, Duo just laughed and returned as many hugs as he could.

'Yea,' he thought to himself, 'it's great to be home.'

 

Part 18:

As he and his teammates finished packing up their gear and belongings following their showers, Heero looked over to the abandoned locker beside his own. It had been two days since Duo left to be with his family for the week and practices just didn't seem the same without him around.

...More than that, nothing was really the same without him around. The house was quieter. Practices were pretty uneventful and almost boring. As a whole, nothing seemed exciting anymore.

While he would have never admitted it aloud, the quarterback was beginning to miss his housemate-something Heero never would have thought possible just a few weeks prior. He even missed their debates over things that had no significance just to 'fill the air' as Duo called it.

Now, the braided young man was with his family and his lovely girlfriend. Recalling the picture of that short-haired young woman that he had found in his teammate's room, Heero imagined that the young couple was enjoying their extended time together.

For whatever reason, whenever he thought of the two of them together, he always wanted that thought to go away... quickly. It was an oddly unsettling notion.

Still, there was one good thing that came out of not having Duo at practice…

Considering how he had started off, Terry had improved leaps and bounds thanks to his one-on-one time with Maxwell at practice. He was nowhere near the caliber of a running back that his mentor was, but he could at least hold his own now. Zechs and Howard were thrilled with the progress that Fellows was making.

"Hey, Heero," Trowa's voice called through his thoughts. Looking over his shoulder to the tall center, his friend informed, "Wufei, Relena, Quatre and I were going to meet up at Murray's for a couple. You're more than welcome to join us if you'd like."

Those emerald eyes led on that the Latin already knew what the answer would be. It was the same answer every time he asked. It was the same reason that Wufei had stopped asking a long time ago.

Shaking his head, the captain replied, "Thanks, but I'm just going to turn in early for practice tomorrow. Maybe another time." It was always 'another time.'

Trowa's smile saddened a bit as he shrugged, "Sure." He turned to throw his red T-shirt on and grabbed his duffle bag. "Have a good night, then," he said with a wave of his free hand before heading out to leave his friend alone in the locker room.

Lowering his head, Heero frowned deeply with a quiet, "Good night."

In the empty room, his voice echoed off the walls. Zippering his own duffle bag closed, he gripped its handles and headed for the door.On his way to the car, he was reminded how the ride home seemed longer without having Duo to talk to.

* * * *

"So do you think that Heero might be gay?" Quatre asked innocently enough as he and Trowa waited for Wufei and Relena to join them at their table.

Choking on his drink, Trowa fought to catch his breaths between coughs. "What!?" he finally managed to shout over the loud music. Thankful that his lover kept his own voice down that none of the other patrons could hear him. Raising an eyebrow, he smirked, "You're not trying to leave me for another guy already, are you?"

The blonde agent chuckled deeply and lightly hit his partner in the arm. "Of course not," he grinned, "I'm just curious." That smile faded into a saddened frown as he commented, "I don't hear about him ever having been with anyone."

After a careful sip from his rum and coke, the center remarked, "That's because he never was with anyone. His first love is what he does and he's committed to that before anything else." His frown creasing, he frowned deeply and thought aloud, "You know, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure which way he swings. In all the time I've known him, I've never seen him give a girl or a guy a second glance."

Slightly tilting his head, Trowa inquired, "Why do you really want to know? It seems pretty odd that you've developed this sudden curiosity out of the blue."

Quatre quickly threw back the rest of his own drink as a means of stalling. As soon as he lowered the glass back onto the table, he found Wufei and Relena enter the bar hand-in-hand. Silently thanking whatever deity had come to his aid, the agent waved excitedly to the young couple searching for their friends in the crowd. "Over here, guys!" he called over the music, laughter and talking.

Wufei smiled to his friends and gently let his girlfriend through the throngs gathered by the bar. As the couple approached, Trowa shook his head in amusement to his lover, "We'll continue this conversation later."

Swallowing roughly, Quatre forced a widely grinned, "Of course."

Wufei and Relena greeted the center and agent as they took their seats at the round table. As long as they were around, the agent had time to think of a way to get out of his predicament.

And he was just about to give the most brilliant excuse when he and his friends called it a night. The moment he and Trowa were alone and on their way to his car, Quatre turned to his lover and opened his mouth to give that excuse when the center met his eyes and grinned, "You're asking on Duo's behalf."

The wide-eyed agent's immediate response was to think to himself, "Oh shit." His blue eyes widened further when he realized, to his great dismay, that he had actually squeaked out that little thought.

* * * *

The following night, Heero sighed deeply as he stepped into his home. The door automatically closing behind him, he lowered his duffel bag and kicked off his sneakers. When he entered the living room, he found Quatre curled up on one of the couches with a book that he was engrossed in.

Looking up, the blonde closed his reading material and smiled brightly, "Hey, Heero. How was practice?"

All but falling onto the opposite couch, the quarterback shrugged, "All right." Leaning his head back against the cushions and closing his cobalt eyes, he admitted, "To be perfectly honest, practices have been pretty boring this week without Maxwell around."

Quatre chuckled deeply, "Well, Duo certainly has a way of keeping things interesting. I always joked that he could turn a funeral into a party."

Snickering, Heero raised his head and smirked, "That he could. I never thought I would say it, but I'm actually beginning to miss him." His eyes narrowing, he quickly added in a warning tone, "If you tell him, or anyone else on the team, I will kill you."

The agent's head fell back as he laughed. Containing himself, he nodded firmly and raised a hand. "I promise that it will go no further," he vowed. Inwardly, he was cheering in knowing that his housemate was actually missing Duo.

Heero bent down to take up the football beside the couch and spun it in his hands. "I imagine his family and girlfriend are happy to have him home," he muttered with his eyes on the ball in his possession.

Brow creasing, Quatre frowned deeply, "Girlfriend? "

Stilling the football, the quarterback blinked in confusion. "Yea, his girlfriend." With a sheepish wince, he explained, "I saw her picture when I was in Duo's room. You would have to know about her, being one of his closest friends."

Realization filled the agent's widening eyes. Moving his hands in vague gestures, he described, "Short, dark hair. Blue eyes, wearing a pink beret? That's who you saw in the picture?" When the Japanese athlete nodded, he laughed loudly-nearly falling off of the couch.

"I don't see what's so funny," Heero commented, his eyes narrowing.

Wiping tears from his eyes, Quatre reduced his laughter to sporadic chuckles as he replied, "She.. hehe.. she's not his…ahha… girlfriend!" Taking a deep breath, he said calmly, "Hilde's just a good friend of ours. She and Duo are like brother and sister. Not to mention the fact that she's married to another friend of ours named Solo."

His own eyes widening, the quarterback repeated quietly, "Friend? Married?" Instantly, he recalled the image if the running back with the girl that he now knew as Hilde alongside a blonde young man. That must have been Solo.

Quatre grinned in amusement, "Duo's never been in a relationship before. He's far too busy with his career and personal life to really devote the time." Biting his lip, he sighed deeply and shrugged, "Though I think that he just uses that as an excuse."

Intrigued, Heero heard himself ask, "An excuse for what?"

A small, sad smile tugged the agent lips as he answered, "You remember my telling you earlier that Duo is a very complex person." Once more, his housemate nodded. "You still haven't even begun to scratch the surface to understand him," Quatre stated, shaking his head. "In time, you'll see that for yourself."

One of the many burning questions on the team captain's mind came out in a very quiet, "Why does he insist on showering alone?"

There was a flash of what could only be translated as pain in the blonde's expression at the inquiry. "I'm afraid that I can't answer that for you, Heero," Quatre answered with that sad smile. "Maybe sometime Duo will, but it will have to come from him. I can tell you that it's not because of a bloated ego, contrary to the popular belief amongst the team."

Heero never did believe that theory to have been true. The more he came to know the braided running back, it didn't seem like him to make such a demand just because he could. Quatre's initial reaction to his question only proved that.

"For the record," the agent began with a smile. "I miss him, too. Even though I do want to strangle him with his own braid from time to time."

And with that, the looming tension in the air dissipated as the two young men shared a good laugh. Moments later, Lady Une appeared to announce that dinner was ready.

* * * *

Alex frowned deeply at the sullen image of his lover on his vidphone. After hearing, in detail, how the Wolverines were being won over by their new running back he had to admit that he was hurt. He thought that he was close enough to his old teammates that they would have made it at least a little more challenging for Maxwell to earn their favor.

What also had him worried was learning that Wufei had picked up on his relationship with Mueller. Even if the receiver promised not to use that information against them, he could always change his mind down the road. "You're just going to have to play along with the others," the blonde running back finally suggested.

Gasping sharply, Mueller's eyes widened with a shouted, "What!?" Those eyes quickly narrowed as he hissed, "I don't care if I have to sit the bench for the season. I'm not about to kiss that bastard's ass."

"Well, I care about what will happen to you," Alex replied. "And you're forgetting that Chang could always turn around and go to the press about us. As much as we care about each other, neither of us want that. We saw what Trowa went through when he came out."

Mueller bit his lip at that and nodded shallowly. Smiling, the running back reassured him, "We still have our visits on the weekend and we call every other night. It's not like you've lost me in the trade. There really isn't any reason to just go with the flow and act nice." The smile darkened a bit as he added, "Sometimes being close to the enemy helps lower their guard for when you can strike them later."

Snorting, the tight end smirked, "You do make a point." Reluctantly, he sighed deeply, "I suppose that I can play along. He is only signed on for this season. Hopefully he'll just be traded to yet another team when we're finished."

With a firm nod, Alex chuckled, "See. It won't be that bad to put on an act for a few months. And as much as I hate to admit it, the guy is one hell of a running back. Just take advantage of having him onboard."

"He's not all that he'd cracked up to be at times. It would just be nice if the guy knew how to catch. You have him beat there," Mueller griped.

Stiffening, the running back's eyes widened like saucers. "Maxwell doesn't know how to catch?" he asked quietly. His lover nodded. Laughing, Alex cheered, "How fucking hysterical! A football player that can't catch! Who knew!?"

The tight end checked the clock and shrugged, "Yea, well, I better get going. It's pretty late and we still have one more practice tomorrow." Eyes shimmering with hope, he inquired, "So, we're still on for this weekend, then?"

Alex gave him a warm, loving grin and nodded, "I'll pick you up at the airport tomorrow night, as always. Have a good night." Returning the smile, Mueller replied in kind before the connection was cut and the screen went black.

Folding his arms behind his head, the running back snickered to himself, "So Maxwell can't catch. I think I'll have to have a word with Treize on that."

* * * *

Refreshed from his week-long visit home, Duo made his way into the Yuy household with a suitcase in each hand. Moving right up the steps to unpack, he found Quatre pacing anxiously outside his bedroom door. When he heard the running back approaching, he spun on his heels and their eyes met.

Quickly raising his hands as if to fend off an attacker, the agent squeaked out, "We need to talk. Just... please don't kill me."

Worry filled Duo's violet eyes as he frowned, "Ooo.. kay. You know, that's not the best way to start a conversation when I just got back." The attempt to lighten the air fell flat, if not made matters worse.

Nervously rubbing his hands together, Quatre stepped aside for his friend to unlock the door and took up one of the suitcases.

Once they were both inside, the running back closed the door as his agent sat at the desk chair. "So what's going on?" he asked with a slight edge of concern in his tone. Quatre wasn't one to fret... not unless it was over something big.

A strangled sound escaped the damp-browed blonde. Just wanting to get the news over with, he said in a rush, "TrowaknowsyourgayandintoHeero! " Gasping sharply at the end, he squeezed his eyes closed and prepared for the worst.

Violet eyes wide, Duo stood stiff as stone. His skin paling, he breathed, "W-wha? But how?" The initial shock ebbed into rage as his face reddened and his hand clenched into fists as his sides. Glaring heatedly, he gritted, "What did you do?"

Quatre's eyes shot open as he cried, "I swear, Duo I didn't mean for him to know. I just asked him if he knew whether or not Heero might be gay! He figured out on his own why I was asking! I had to tell him the truth when he asked me!"

Pacing rigidly across the room, the American forced himself to relax and burn off some of his anger. Finally getting a hold of himself, he took a couple deep and calming breaths before looking down on his friend. "Does anyone else know?" he questioned.

The agent shook his head quickly, "No. And Trowa swore that it won't go any further. He knows that it's like to be in your position. He's been through hell ever since he publicly announced that he was gay, so he would never put you in that situation." Biting his lip, he fought a few small tears and whispered brokenly, "Even so I'm so sorry, Duo."

Gently pulling on his friend's arm, the braided athlete got him to his feet and hugged him tightly. "It's all right," he reassured quietly. "It was an accident." Sniffling, Quatre returned the tight embrace and got his own bearings together. When they pulled back, Duo asked gently, "You all right?"

Nodding, Quatre wiped his eyes dry and answered, "Yea. I've been going out of my mind worrying about having to tell you what happened." A watery smile tugged his lips as he said, "Thanks for not killing me."

"Aw, you know I can never go through it when you start crying," Duo chuckled deeply as he rubbed the top of his friend's head with his knuckles. Quatre laughed and pushed the hand away. Slowly bouncing on the balls of his feet, the running back asked, "Well?"

Blinking in confusion, the agent tilted his head. "Well, what?"

Exasperated, Duo threw his hands in the air and yelled, "What did Trowa say about Heero!? Is he gay or not!?"

Laughing, Quatre replied, "Oh! That!" His friend looked as though he was going to jump out of his skin in anticipation. Sighing, he stated, "He's not sure. In all the time that they've been friends, he was never able to figure that out."

"Damn," Duo muttered.

Suddenly, Heero appeared in the doorway dressed in a tight pair of black, stretch shorts and a grey tank top that hugged his torso tightly. A bright smile tugged his lips when he looked to his braided teammate. "I thought I heard you come in," he greeted. Holding up the football that was in his right hand, he asked, "Are you up for some practice on your catching while it's still light out?"

Ever ounce of strength was used on the running back's part to refrain from staring at the perfect body before him as he swallowed roughly. Forcing a wide grin, he answered, "Sure thing, man. I'll get changed and meet you out back." With a firm nod, the quarterback disappeared.

Quatre waved his hands before Duo's eyes, but his friend continued to stare at the doorway without so much as blinking. Patting his client on the shoulder, he was successful in getting those violet eyes to meet his own. "Well, I better let you get ready," he smirked before heading out and closing the door after him.

Falling back onto his bed, Duo covered his eyes with an arm as he moaned, "Fuck. Nothing is ever easy."

 

Part 19:

Nearly falling from his seat, Alex cried, "You knew!?" He shook his head in disbelief, "You knew that Maxwell can't catch and you haven't done anything to publicly humiliate him yet!? The son of a bitch broke your nose!"

Smirking, Treize leaned back in his chair behind his desk and shrugged, "It's not time yet. You see, my dear boy, if you wish to deflate your enemy, it's all in the timing. The pre-season is weeks away. What better time to strike than right before all eyes are on him? The pressure will surely break him before the regular season even begins."

His cool eyes narrowing, the head coach added, "Once the word is out, my sweet cousin, Dorothy, will have to scramble into explaining to her irate city why she paid such an significant amount of money on a football player who can't even catch.

"Pittsburgh is in a lot of financial trouble. A lot is riding on the success of this team to draw in business. In one swoop, the news will deplete any hope of that and it will all be Maxwell's fault for not being the perfect athlete that so many people claim him to be."

Alex blinked his wide eyes before smirking darkly, "You really are a crafty bastard."

Chuckling deeply, Treize nodded firmly, "And don't forget it." The tone that he used was empty of any warmth or humor. Swallowing roughly, the blonde running back suppressed a shudder.

* * * * *

The following morning, Heero and Duo were walking down the long corridor beneath the stadium towards the locker room. Engaged in yet another one of their lively morning debates, the running back shook his braided head, "But how could the chicken have come before the egg? It didn't just appear out of midair."

A smirk tugged the quarterback' s lips as he remarked, "So an egg just showing up without anything to produce makes perfect sense?" Chuckling deeply, he asked, "How the hell do you manage to get me into these ridiculous discussions? "

"Charm," Duo grinned innocently. Heero just laughed and shook his head in amusement, not about to argue that sentiment. "Besides," the American shrugged, "You know that I need to fill the air when it's too quiet."

After taking a sip from his bottled water, the running back asked, "So were any of the guys mad about my being off all last week? Just in case I might have to dodge some thrown objects when they see me on my first day back."

"If anyone did have a problem, they kept it to themselves," Heero answered. "Zechs made it very clear that your being allowed off was approved by Noin. Dorothy returned from her vacation and explained to everyone that she backed the decision. Even Mueller kept quiet about the whole thing."

Just then, the said tight end rounded the corner and approached his teammates at spotting them. "Speak of the devil," Duo muttered under his breath. Both he and Heero paused in their steps as he neared.

Nodding to each of the football players, Mueller greeted, "Yuy. Maxwell." His eyes met the violet watching him cautiously. "I was hoping that you and I could have a word. Alone," he said politely enough. It still did little to put either young man at ease.

Heero didn't seem about to move, his back stiff and a warning gaze on the tight end. Swallowing roughly under the weight of that stare, Mueller waited patiently for a response. Gently resting a hand on the captain's shoulder, Duo reassured him quietly, "It's all right, Ro. I'll meet back up with you in the locker room."

Muttering an affirmative, the quarterback walked off with his threatening gaze lingering on Mueller until he disappeared around the corner.

Silently breathing a sigh of relief, the dark-haired athlete began, "Look, Maxwell, I know that I haven't been the most... accommodating of people in welcoming you onto the team."

The running back slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and folded his arms. "That's an understatement, " he snorted bitterly.

Lowering his head, Mueller frowned deeply, "Well, I'm finally realizing that you never did anything directly to me to deserve the way I've been treating you." He looked back into the eyes locked on him and extended a hand. Clearing his throat, he said, "I'm sorry. You have every right to be angry with me, but I hope that you'll eventually forgive me so we can start working as a team."

Duo chewed on the inside of his cheek as he regarded the hand held out to him. The words seemed sincere enough and considering Mueller's personality, he knew that apologizing was not a thing that came easy to him. With a small smile, he accepted the offered hand in a firm shake. "All right," the American said quietly. Raising a finger in warning, he stated, "Forgiven, but not forgotten."

A small smile of relief spread on the tight end's face. "Of course," he replied and shook the hand in his own again before they broke free. With a firm nod, he whispered, "Thank you.' Shifting on his feet, he shrugged, "I'd better get going. I was on my way to a meeting with Coach, so I'll see you back in the locker room." That said, they parted ways.

Rounding the corner, Duo smirked to one of the darkened doorways close by, "You can come out now." With a sheepish look on his face, Heero stepped out of the shadows. Shaking his head, Duo chuckled deeply, "You didn't have to keep an eye out for me, but I appreciate the backup."

The quarterback smirked back, "You would have done the same for me I'm sure." Without waiting for a response, he looked back around the corner. "Looks like Mueller's finally getting his act together," he muttered. "About damned time."

Silently, the pair started walking towards the locker room once more. "You're right, you know," Duo spoke up. When his teammate turned to him in confusion, he grinned, "I would have done the same thing for you."

Heero smiled warmly at that and responded quietly, "Thanks."

* * * * *

Two weeks later...

Sweaty and panting, Duo shook his head with a deep frown. "I'm just... not getting it, man," he said between huffs of air. His navy blue tank and black shorts were sticking to him like a second skin. Straightening himself from his hunched state, he caught his breath and sighed deeply, "I can get my hands on it, but I just can't hold onto it."

An equally sweaty Heero dressed in a soaked white tank and dark brown shorts took up the fallen football and replied, "That's still a step up from how you started. Just two weeks ago, you couldn't even get your hands on it. You haven't missed one throw all day. Hanging onto it will just come with more practice." Looking up to the fading sunlight, he suggested, "We probably should call it a night."

Duo readily agreed, "Not a bad idea. I need a shower bad." The side of his mouth curled up in a smirk. "I'd give you a handshake, but I don't thing either of us smell pleasant enough for that. But I really appreciate the help again."

Heero shrugged with a grinned, "Don't mention it. That's what friends are for." Friend. It was the first time that he called the running back that aloud. Shock was quickly replaced with appreciation as Duo flashed him that smile that reached his sparkling violet eyes.

Mentally shaking his thoughts from the trail that they were heading down, the quarterback led the way back into the house. His braided housemate followed close behind. Together, they entered the large back patio of the estate and parted ways towards their respective bathrooms as Heero wrestled with his confusion.

Over the course of the last couple weeks, the team captain was finding himself more drawn to be around Duo whenever he could. That week away from the running back only served to make Heero appreciate things about him more... his laugh, his smile, the way his braid swung behind him when he walked.

If he allowed himself to dwell on it, Heero was convinced that he actually might have been attracted to Duo. Those sweat-drenched clothes that stuck to the American during their one-on-one practices certainly were not helping the situation when his cobalt eyes started wandering on their own accord.

The fact that he was coming to understand that he might be gay wasn't what scared Heero. It was the fact that he was damned sure that the source of his sudden interest was not. And he was pretty sure that Duo would give him hell if he ever found out.Stepping into his bathroom, the quarterback sighed deeply to himself, "Nothing is ever easy."

* * * *

"I swear to God that boyfriend of yours is worse than a girl," Duo sighed dramatically as he handed over a glass of soda to his guest. "He's been getting ready for this date of yours for the last half hour."

Trowa smiled in appreciation as he accepted the drink and settled deeper into the living room sofa. "It's all right," he chuckled deeply. "The movie doesn't start for another twenty minutes, so there's plenty of time."

Settling onto the other side of the couch, the running back bit his lip in consideration of his next words. "Look, Trowa," he all but whispered while folding his hands together in his lap. His friend's emerald eyes met his own as he said sincerely, "I've been meaning to thank you for keeping my little secret between us. That means a lot."

With a warm smile, the tall center nodded firmly, "It's no one's business but your own. I just happened to make a lucky guess."

Hanging his braided head a bit, the running back frowned deeply, "You must think I'm a pretty big coward for not just coming out like you did."

At that, Trowa shook his head, "Like I said, it's no one else's business. Not unless you want it to be. You're not a coward for wanting something like that to be kept quiet. I only came out because it was something I had to do." Taking a sip from his drink, he stared off ahead and muttered, "Honestly, there are times I wish that I just kept my damned mouth shut."

Duo's frown saddened as he asked quietly, "What happened?"

Taking a deep breath, the center turned to his teammate and answered, "Some of my favorites were words like 'faggot' spray-painted or carved into my car during a game. At other stadiums, I would get cat calls and laughed at by some of the spectators. The team that we had then had a few guys that would mutter things whenever I was around, or they would run from the shower room whenever I went in."

His green eyes glanced away, clouded over as he shrugged, "Things like that. Over time, a lot of those problems went away... but it's still not the same. I'm looked at differently in most cases. Treated differently. "

"I'm sorry that you had to go through that, Tro," the running back told him sincerely. Shaking his head, he thought aloud, "Being athletes, most people expect us to live up to their standards of what they think we should be like. They forget that we're human, too."

With a small smile, Trowa replied, "Exactly. So, back to your earlier question, I would not think any less of you if you kept this from the public. Coming out takes just as much strength as it does to keep it in."

Much to his surprise, Duo felt a small lump in his throat that he had to clear away. "That means a lot, Trowa," he managed while squeezing his friend's shoulder.

And like a switch flipping, the Latin young man brightened once again. "By the way," he smiled, "A few of us are going to be hitting Murray's after Wednesday's practice just to get together. We decided to move it to a night when you're actually here so you can join us if you like."

From ear-to-ear, Duo grinned, "Awesome! Thanks, man! I'll see if I can talk Heero into going, too!"

Snorting, Trowa rolled his eyes. "Good luck with that one," he commented. "Last week was my last time trying to invite him. It's the same excuse every time. Hell, even as stubborn as Chang is, he gave up long ago for the same reason."

The running back wiggled his eyebrows and smirked mischievously, "Ah, but have either of you just told him that he was going to hang out? That one never fails."

Blinking in shock, the center chuckled deeply, "Telling him?" That chuckle grew to a full out laugh as he stated, "I'd like to see you pull that off with him! He'd kick the shit out of you then come up with some excuse for missing out."

Footsteps approached the living room. After living with the quarterback for some time, Duo recognized that it was him. "Okay," he nodded firmly. "Watch and learn, pal." Folding his arms, Trowa sat back with an amused expression.

Heero, unsuspecting of anything, walked into the room and exchanged a friendly greeting with their guest. "Hey, Yuy," the braided one smiled. In a very matter-of-fact tone, he advised, "You're going to Murray's with us after practice on Wednesday."

Freezing like a deer caught in headlights, the quarterback frowned, "What?"

"You're going to Murray's with us after practice on Wednesday," Duo repeated simply. "Trowa just invited us."

Dumbstruck, Heero made some unintelligible sounds as he struggled to gather his thoughts. No one had ever brought up such a meeting without giving him the option to bail out before. Suddenly, he heard himself answer, "A-all right."

Trowa's lower jaw fell slack and his eyes widened in disbelief. Another wide grin lit Duo's face as he cheered, "Great!" Slapping the center on the back, he winked, "We'll work out the time and details later."

A finely-dressed Quatre decided to enter the room at that moment to find Trowa in a state of shock, Heero in a dazed confusion and Duo grinning like a loon. Before he could ask what was going on, his braided friend exclaimed, "Well, it's about damned time, princess! I was about to send a search party after you!" Sighing deeply, the agent gave him the finger.

Finally shaking himself alert, Trowa rose from the couch and approached his lover. Gently kissing his cheek, Quatre asked quietly, "Ready?" Nodding numbly, the tall young man followed him from the room. "Don't wait up, guys," the Arab called to his housemates.

"Have fun," Duo replied, waving goodbye.

Once he stepped out into the warm, early evening air, the tall center came to life. "So, what happened back there?" his lover asked in concern.

Smiling, Trowa replied, "I'll tell you about it on the way to the theater." Their arms joined at the elbows as they descended the front stairs. "You know, that Maxwell is something else," he said, shaking his head.

Quatre chuckled deeply, "You're preaching to the choir, love."

Back inside the house, Heero was just getting over his own stupor. "What the hell did I just agree to?" he wondered aloud.

"A night out with your friends," Duo answered as he rose from the couch with a worried frown. "You can break your routine for one night to spend some time with them for a change. You need this."

His cobalt eyes narrowing, the quarterback hissed, "What the fuck do you know about what I need?"

Without so much as a flinch, the running back leaned in until their noses almost touched. Eyes widening, Heero held his breath at the close proximity. Giving a glare of his own, Duo snapped, "I've lived with you long enough to know that you're throwing your life away.

"You're barely twenty-one and you prefer to stay at home and shut the world away. Well guess what, pal, it's still out there and moving on without you. Your friends are worried and frankly, so am I. The least you could do is humor us for one goddamned night out." Roughly swallowing that bitter pill, Heero remained still.

Stepping back, the braided athlete raised his hands. "Just give it a shot. That's all I ask," he urged. "And if you honestly don't enjoy yourself, I swear that not one of us will ask you out for another social again."

There was a long silence before the captain took a slow and deep breath. "One night," he agreed at last. Slowly turning, he headed out of the room.

All but collapsing back onto the couch, Duo rubbed his suddenly heavy eyes. Resting his head back, he repeated in little more than a breath, "One night."

It didn't seem like much, but it had been one hell of a step in the right direction. Now to see that it went well enough that there could be a second step.

Part 20:

"You're shitting me!" Wufei cried, his hands instantly pausing in their tightening his shin guards. "You really mean to tell me that Maxwell just told Yuy that he was coming along and he agreed!? Just like that!?"

Trowa just grinned and shook his head to his wide-eyed friend. "I saw it for myself," he replied. "It knocked Heero back enough that he didn't have much of a choice but to accept it. He looked like a deer caught in headlights."

Chuckling deeply, the receiver shook his head, "I'll be damned. All this time that was all we had to do." The smile on his face faded and he shrugged, "But then again, he does have until tomorrow night to back out, so let's not consider it a done deal yet."

Gently clearing his throat, the tall center gestured with his head to the door as Heero and Duo entered. Both drenched from the downpour outside, they headed to their lockers and removed their light windbreakers. Smiling brightly as he wrung out his braid, the American greeted his teammates, "Hey guys. Lovely day for a practice."

Wufei and Trowa smiled in agreement. All of the players preferred when it rained to see how they adjusted to the different weather conditions. Not every game was going to take place on a clear, comfortable day. The real test would be when it turned cold again. Between the hard ground and blinding snow, anything could happen during a game.

Throughout the entire locker room, the excitement was building for the challenge that lay ahead. It'd been a long time since Pittsburg had seen such a heavy rainfall. Smiling like children, the team strapped on their gear as Zechs and the coaching staff entered wearing rain ponchos.

"All right, everyone," the tall blonde began, "Let's use our heads out there and have a safe practice. This is a great opportunity to see what you've got, but be careful not to get killed out there."

Howard turned to give Duo a pointed look and stated, "That means you too, Maxwell. I appreciate your heart out on the field, but there is no sense in getting hurt out there. As slick as the ground is, it'd be real easy to end your season before it even begins."

With a reassuring smile, the braided running back nodded firmly, "Got it, Pops."

Satisfied with that, Zechs grinned to his team, "Let's go." Cheering, the young men stormed out of the locker room with their helmets in hand. Just behind, the head coach shook his head in amusement.

* * *

The day wore on and the blinding rain had yet to let up. Mud caked the athletes both on the field and on the sidelines from their jogging and skirmishes. From wading around in the thick slop all around, the fatigue was finally sinking in towards the end of the practice.

Panting after running back from the sidelines, Heero announced to his huddled offensive team, "Zechs just gave the word that we only have two more chances to score before he calls it a day. Pops wants the ball on the ground the first time then in the air if we need a second shot."

Rain bouncing off of their helmets, the others nodded and gave their affirmatives to what lay ahead. Clapping their hands together, they broke the huddle and got into position. Duo readjusted his chin strap to tighten the hold as he took his spot right behind the quarterback.

Trowa's hunched over and his long hand wrapped over the grimy, slick football. Mueller and the blockers dug their cleats into the soggy ground for better leverage as they bend over to stare into the fierce eyes of the defensive team. A fog was beginning to settle as the sky darkened with thicker clouds that were rolling in. Even the lampposts shining down on the field stood in rapt attention to what would unfold.

"Set!" Heero cried over the deadening pelting against his helmet. His hands clenched and opened in anticipation. "Set! Hike!" At the signal, Trowa snapped the ball back through his spread legs and grunted as he held off the defender charging forward onto him.

Gripping the football, Heero turned quickly to hand it to Duo and the running back was off. Somehow finding a gap in the mass of bodies, he charged through and headed for the end zone. Dodging and weaving through the hands that tried to grip him, he kept his eyes on the prize just ahead. Every step kicked up a high splash of mud that made the next movement even more difficult and weighed down.

Just when he was three yards from scoring, the braided athlete's right foot could not get a good grip and went out from under him. On his way two the ground, two of his pursuers fell atop of him to make certain that he stayed down. Crashing to the ground, Duo felt the wind get knocked out for a brief second as it was forced out in a rush.

On the sidelines, Sally gasped sharply with wide eyes. Zechs, Howard and Trent all held their breaths as they anxiously watched for any movement from the down players. Heero, Wufei and the others on the field ran up just as the defenders finally rolled off the running back with worried faces.

Sliding to a stop on his knees beside his teammate, Heero shouted over the drone of the rain, "Duo!?" Groaning, the American pushed himself from the sloppy earth and looked up to the concerned cobalt watching him.

Quickly turning his head to see that he was two yards short of the end zone, Duo laughed loudly. "Two more fucking yards and I would have had it! But noooo… I had to go and slip! Son of a bitch! "

Blinking in shock, Heero's own mud-splattered face lit up with a relieved grin. The rest of the team on the field joined in on the laughter. It was just typical that the running back be more concerned with how close he was to scoring as opposed to how he narrowly missed being badly injured.

All around, sighs were breathed. Howard snickered and shook his head, "That bastard just about gave me a heart attack." Sally chuckled deeply and patted his shoulder. Zechs and Trent shared a relieved look.

The head coach cupped his mouth and called to his players, "All right, guys. Let's make this last play and get the hell out of this storm."

Heero offered his hand to Duo and helped him back into his feet as the others took their places. Leaning close when his housemate was standing, he asked softly, "You sure you're all right?"

"Just catching my breath after a good knock back there," the running back admitted. "Other than that, I'm just dandy." Nodding, Heero patted his back and together, they situated themselves behind their offensive line.

Bending over once more, Trowa held onto the football placed at the spot where Duo had gone down. "Set!" Heero yelled behind him. Holding his hands out, the quarterback cried, "Set! Hike!" In a blink, the ball was snapped back into his hands.

Mueller and the blockers held back the initial shock wave of the defenders charging into them, but they were losing the fight quickly on account of the slick ground. Looking left and right to the end zone, Heero tried to see through the thick rain for anyone from the offense to catch his throw.

The seconds seemed like hours as the defenders were nearly through the line protecting the quarterback. Darren, one of the wide receivers, broke free into the end zone and waved his hands to the team captain. His eyes narrowing on his target, Heero hurled the football with a grunt of effort just before he was taken down by a defender that he never saw coming from the side.

Darren had to jump high into the air to catch the ball intended for him as his opponents did the same to try and bat it away. Having managed to get a few more inches in altitude, the wide receiver caught the football easily before coming back down to the earth. Heero, Duo, Wufei, Trowa and the entire team stopped what they were doing to watch the final unfolding of the play from their spots on the field.

Just as Darren's right foot touched the ground, it stuck roughly into the ground in a bad angle and he folded down onto it. A loud, sickening snap filled the air and the wide receiver screamed in pain. Time stopped as the rest of the team froze in shock at having witnessed such a gruesome thing fall upon one of their own. The cries ran chills up every spine.

By the time everyone was alert once more, Duo was already at Darren's side and squeezing his shoulder. Quickly removing his fallen comrade's helmet, along with his own, the braided running back soothed, "Hang in there, buddy, Sally's almost here." Biting his lip, the wide receive rolled onto his back carefully with his teammate's help and sobbed through the agony.

In the calf of his right leg, there was a large pump pushing against the skin like a second elbow. A few of the athletes had to turn away as their stomachs wretched at the sight. Heero was close by, his own helmet gone as he kept the remainder of the team a safe distance for Sally to work as she ran into the scene with her medical bag. From the sidelines, Zechs, Howard and Trent were shouting orders for some of their charges to get the med vehicle.

Taking up Darren's right side, Sally worked her fingers tenderly over the wide receiver's calf. When he moaned, she urged gently, "It's going to be all right, Darren. We're going to move you inside to examine this." Just as she said that, the med vehicle pulled up. Moving in, Heero and Wufei assisted Duo in gently lifting their injured teammate onto the wheeled flat bed.

Zechs, the panic and concern clear in his eyes, was at the wheel and Sally took up the little space that there was beside him. Once Darren was secured, they rolled off towards the entrance beneath the stadium. Those with their helmets still on slowly removed them as they watched their friend being taken away. Eyes wide and filled with worry, they looked from wet and muddy face to the next for some sort of optimism that everything was going to be all right.

There was no such relief to be found.

* * *

After an examination in her office, Sally had Darren rushed to the hospital for further assistance. Due to the lack of space in the waiting room, most of the team had to stay behind save for a few. Those that did stick around never even bother to clean themselves up, their only concern being their teammate. The whole of the coaching staff remained as well, waiting for Sally to return with the final word on Darren's condition.

Even Dorothy dropped everything to so that she would be available for the news firsthand. The moment that she arrived, she stayed close to Darren's pregnant wife-Aubrey.

Howard had been beside himself, the guilt of being the one to make the call for the ball to be thrown weighing heavily on him. It had taken some time for Zechs, Trent and Dorothy to reassure him that what happened to the wide receiver was not his fault. Those players still around all told Pops that he made the right call. Finally, the old man was beginning to feel at ease with his remorse. Still, the worry over Darren's condition kept him on edge.

After Wufei had called her about what happened, Relena rushed to the hospital and all but ran into the waiting room. When she found her shaken boyfriend, she just embraced him tightly and comforted him as best she could. Quatre arrived to keep his own lover company, leaving Heero and Duo to sit together in silence on the opposite side of the room in their own corner.

More than an hour after their arrival to the hospital, Sally entered the waiting room at last. Everyone rose from their seats in anticipation.

Looking tired and deeply saddened, the braided young woman frowned deeply, "It's a double fracture. Several tendons and muscles were torn that will need to be operated on as soon as his cast is removed. There will be weeks of recuperation and therapy to follow just so that he will be able to move normally again." She took a deep breath and announced, "I'm afraid that Darren is going to be out for the whole of the season."

With a sharp gasp, Aubrey covered her mouth and closed her eyes against the tears filling her blue eyes. Dorothy wrapped her arms around the brown-haired young woman and whispered reassurances to her.

A heavy silence fell on the room as the devastating news took its tall. There wasn't a person on the team or in the organization that didn't like Darren. He always gave everything he had and his heart made of gold. To hear that he was going to be sitting on the sides for the entire football season shook everyone to the core. All around, there were only wide-eyed expressions of shock, disbelief and sorrow for the young man.

The first to break the long stillness, Dorothy inquired gently, "May we see him?"

"Of course," Sally sighed deeply. "I know that he'll appreciate seeing all of you." Turning on her heels, she led the way from the waiting room as the others filed in behind.

When they reached the patient room at the end of the hall and slipped in, the lot stepped aside for Aubrey to enter first. She let out a sharp cry when she found her husband sitting up in a wheelchair, his whole right leg encased as he finished slipping his brown T-shirt back on.

Smiling sadly, the brunette embraced his wife tightly and gently whispered, "Shh, A. I'm all right." Despite the reassuring words, the disappointment was heavy in his voice. Reluctantly, the young woman pulled away with a nod as she wiped her eyes.

Zechs cleared his throat past the rough lump that had formed there. "Darren," he greeted as he squeezed his player's shoulder. "I'm so sorry that this happened to you."

Looking from the head coach to Howard, the wide receiver shrugged, "It's not your fault, coach." He kept his eyes on the old man and smirked, "And I'm sure you've been beating yourself up over this too, Pops. No one's to blame for what happened. It's just… shitty luck." Howard gave a watery smile of appreciation for the sentiment.

Dorothy walked ahead of the group and told her fallen athlete, "I have already advised the staff to forward any and all medical bills and future care to me. And your salary for this year will not be lost for this."

Both Darren and Aubrey's eyes widened at the announcement. Sputtering, the wide receiver protested, "B-but… but I'm going to be sitting out of the whole season. I'm useless to the team like this."

Shaking her head, the team owner smiled, "Not as an assistant coach to Wufei and the other wide receivers. We can really use someone with your nerve backing and mentoring them from the sides." A wide smile spread on the said Chinese player and he nodded fervently.

His mouth opening and closing, a few tears filled Darren's eyes. "I don't know what to say," he breathed. All around, there were wet gazes as a few of the visitors wiped their own tears away in knowing what this generosity meant to the young man and his family.

"Just say yes, Dorothy. I'll be more than happy to accept," Dorothy grinned.

Laughing, the wide receiver nodded, "Yea, Dorothy. I'll be more than happy to accept." He reached a hand out and said sincerely, "Thank you."

Graciously accepting the offered hand and shaking it firmly, the team owner winked, "I'm the one who should be thanking you. Now, I am sorry, but I must be leaving. Catch up with your friends, here and rest up." That said, she turned and headed from the room.

Blinking in shock as he watched her depart, Trowa whispered to Wufei, "She really does care about us." His friend nodded numbly. If neither of them had seen it for themselves, they never would have believed it. It was nearly unheard of for a team owner to go that far in looking out for one of their own.

* * *

Later that evening, the rain had finally died down to a light drizzle. Heero and Duo discarded their mud-caked shoes and clothes and shuffled into their showers. Once they were cleaned, they reheated the meal that Lady Une had made that had to be stowed away until their return home. They ate in silence, replaying the events that led up to Darren's injury over and over again. Sounds of those bones snapping and their friend's screams rang through their ears.

Once their meal was finished and their dishes cleaned, the quarterback and running back parted ways.

It was nearly midnight before Duo decided to finally get to bed. Turning off the television, he pushed himself up from the sofa and left the dark, empty living room. From the hallway, he turned to the only source of light in the whole house that was coming from the back patio. Frowning deeply, he followed the soft glow.

Heero was staring out into the darkness past the screened doors, listening to the soft pitter-patter of the drizzle falling on the roof overhead and the greenery outside. Finding his teammate like that, Duo greeted quietly, "Hey, `Ro." He walked towards the couch and asked in concern, "You all right, man?" Much to his shock, he found red-rimmed eyes looking up at him and he barely suppressed the gasp at the sight.

Taking a deep breath, the quarterback looked away and whispered bitterly, "If I hadn't thrown the ball that high, Darren never would have had to jump for it. He wouldn't be in this situation if it wasn't for me. I'm the one who should be held accountable. "

Violet eyes widening, the running back replied quietly, "Whoa, hold up a sec, pal." Quickly sitting beside his housemate, he reminded, "Darren said, himself, that there is no one at fault. It was just shitty luck. It beyond sucks that it happened; but we make risks like this every time for this job." Heero just bit his lip and remained quiet.

Leaning in, Duo stated, "You did what you had to in that situation. So did Darren." With a shrug, he smiled, "Besides, look at it this way, he's not going to miss a game or paycheck. If you're going to beat yourself up over this, consider the fact that you gave him an easy season of sitting back and watching the rest of us get our asses kicked. Who wouldn't want that job!?" He actually won a laugh from the quarterback.

"I guess I never looked at it that way," Heero snickered as he shook his head in amusement. In the end, he had to agree with his teammate that maybe he was being a little hard on himself. Honestly feeling much better simply because of his teammate's presence, he flashed him a small grin and a quiet but sincere, "Thanks."

The small smile that he returned faded quickly as Duo shook his head, "I'm sorry that I didn't catch onto your feeling like this sooner. Some friend I am, huh?"

Wincing a bit, Heero shrugged, "I'm pretty good at hiding my emotions." He met the violet eyes watching him and commented softly, "We're both really good at hiding things."

Roughly swallowing at that, the running back whispered, "Yea." It was his turn to look away as he rubbed his arm from a chill that settled on him. A heavy guilt fell on his shoulders and his heart actually ached at still not bring able to open up to the quarterback.

"I just… need time," he heard himself say in little more than a breath. "I've been burned before by people that I thought that I could trust." Slowly, he looked back to the cobalt eyes that shined in the dim light from the lamps spread throughout the room.

Even that confession had taken a toll and Heero knew it as a genuine smile spread on his face. "It's all right," he reassured. "I understand."

Nodding his appreciation, Duo cleared his throat and looked down for a moment before asking, "I'm sure you want to be alone again. I'll get going."

It took an effort on the team captain's part not to sound desperate as he replied quickly, "You could stay if you want." A bit at unease in having to open up a bit, himself, he admitted, "I could use the company."

A brilliant grin lit Duo's face at that. "Sure thing," he responded quietly.

Sitting there on the back patio until the wee hours of the morning, the two athletes put aside the difficult events of that day by finding a silent, calming comfort from each other.