2-22-2007

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gundman Wing, nor its characters. I just love playing with them.

Blood, Sweat and Tears
Part 21-30/?
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

 

There was a somber quiet in the locker room the morning following Darren's trip to the hospital. Everyone that had not been at the hospital was soon advised of the wide receiver's condition that would keep him out for the season. Along with that, there was a shocked response to the retelling of what Dorothy had done to assure that he was taken care of. Still, nothing would replace having him on the field.

Already, the second-string wide receivers were on edge in waiting to see who would be filling the fallen comrade's shoes. Both Scott Dailey and John Bolton were equally matched and hungry for the chance to prove themselves. Neither wanted it to happen under these circumstances, however. Occasionally, they would glance to the empty locker with Darren's name at the top.

Heero, Duo and their friends were just about finished securing their gear when the coaching staff entered. All eyes fell on the three men in anticipation. Taking a deep breath, Zechs looked to the two second-string receivers sitting beside each other.

"Dailey, Bolton," he began, "we've decided that it would only be fair to have the two of you trade off field time. It would be impossible for us to choose between either of you for a full-time replacement. "

Their eyes wide, both young men grinned widely and nodded with rushed words of appreciation. A small smile spread on the head coach's face in knowing how important this was to both of them. Wufei smirked in approval of the decision from the bench in front of his locker.

Howard spoke up and that moment to inform his new receivers, "Darren will be returning to practice next week to work with the two of you. I'm sure that you'll take everything he says to heart, considering how valuable he's always been on the field."

Again, Dailey and Bolton nodded with their 'You got it, Pops' and 'Yes, Sir' replies. Still grinning like two children in a candy store, they looked to their fellow offensive linemen and received warm smiles and winks of welcome from the lot.

Satisfied with that, Zechs announced, "Considering how hot and muggy it is out there today, we'll most likely be ending practice early. No sense in having any of you suffering from heat stroke out there. But, with the pre-season a month away, I am sure that you'll all be taking the extra time off to continue your exercises in the comfort of your homes."

All around, his team reassured him with a variety of affirmatives. "Good," the head coach nodded firmly. "Then let's get out there." Together, the team got to their feet and stormed out for the field.

* * *

Panting heavily, Duo wiped the sweat from his brow and half moaned, "You know... I can appreciate having to work on our own time for calling practice early. I just wasn't expecting to be sweating more in an air conditioned room than on the actual field." To emphasize the point, he wrung out a few, large drops from his deep purple tank.

Heero smirked and took up the fallen football. "I told you that I was going to work you today," he shrugged simply. His own exposed arms were shimmering from sweat under the lights of the spacious track and field gym. He used the hem of his soaked, red tank top to wipe at his forehead. Raising an eyebrow, he commented, "We could call it quits if you've had enough."

Shaking his braided head, the running back answered, "Nah. I'm up for whatever you've got to offer." He moved just behind Heero and planted his feet in preparation to run once again, face etched in resolve for the task.

The quarterback swallowed roughly, his mind instantly traveling into dangerous territory at that innocent comment. Quickly mentally shaking those thoughts away, he gave an impressed smile to his determined teammate. Turning, he nodded for Duo to start running. Once he was a couple yards ahead, the running back turned just as the ball was thrown to him.

* * *

Later that evening...

Trowa and Quatre smiled warmly to Wufei and Relena as they joined him at their usual round table at Murray's. "No Heero, huh?" the wide receiver snorted as he looked around the bar. "I can't say I'm surprised."

Shrugging, the blonde agent commented, "It's still pretty early yet." His blue eyes fixed on something just then and a sly grin spread on his face. Looking to the Asian football player, Quatre said, "Trowa mentioned that you said you would kiss Duo on the lips if he pulled off getting Heero here."

After taking a sip from his soda, Wufei nodded, "That's right."

With a smug smirk of his own, Trowa chuckled deeply, "Well you better pucker up sweet cheeks." Both Relena and Wufei quickly turned to the door to watch as Duo and Heero entered the bar together, looking for their friends in the crowd.

Relena lightly nudged her lover in the chest as she whispered, "You'll have to tell me what kind of a kisser he is. I'm dying to know." As Wufei sputtered and the other couple laughed, she stood and waved, "Hey, guys!"

Quickly spotting the cheerleader, Duo beamed and waved back excitedly. Gently taking his housemate by the arm, he led the way to their table. "Perfect timing," Quatre stated as he and the others made room for the new arrivals to take the last two seats. "We were just about to order something to snack on."

"Great! I'm starving!" the running back exclaimed. Just the thought of food had his stomach rumbling loudly. Pointing with his thumb to Heero beside him, he sighed deeply, "Captain America, here has been running me ragged for the last four hours straight."

At the nickname, the quarterback smirked and rolled his cobalt eyes. "You were the one that insisted we keep going whenever I offered a break," he reminded. Duo muttered something along the line of 'Details. Details' along with some expletives and Heero snickered.

Wufei took another sip from his soda can and asked, "So how are the catching practices coming? You've been on it for a few weeks now."

Shrugging, the American answered, "It's coming along, I guess. I'm not as consistent at it as I would like to be, but it's getting there." Heero nodded his agreement to the assessment.

Despite his cool demeanor, the team captain's stomach was churning with discomfort. Silently, he waited for the questions about how he was holding up or why he'd taken so long to get together with the others. If not questions, he was sure that he'd at least get a lecture for his hiatus here and there.

It was so much easier to avoid something like that at practice because everyone was focused on their jobs. But, at a social gathering like this, it would be impossible to dodge such a discussion once it started.

To Heero's wonder, Duo seemed to pick up on his tension when their eyes met and lightly nudged their shoulders together with a small grin. Unable to help himself, the quarterback flashed him a tiny smile of gratitude. Sodas and snacks were ordered as the tight-knit friends discussed everything from the weather to Darren and his unfortunate accident the day before.

Slowly and surely feeling more at ease with the situation, Heero began adding his own thoughts to the subjects brought up. Before long, it all started to feel familiar; it felt the way that it had before his parents passed away.

A couple hours into their social, Relena dipped a curly fry into the side helping of ranch dressing. "I'm going to be working all of this off like hell tomorrow at the gym when I'm finished instructing my classes," she muttered before finishing off the fry.

Wufei chuckled deeply and shook his head, "You know, a little junk in the trunk isn't a bad thing. You could go for a little more meat on those bones of yours." He gently pinched her hip in the way that always tickled her.

Laughing, the head cheerleader lightly swatted her lover and gave him a half-hearted glare. She stuck her tongue out as the others around the table snickered and laughed. As the cackles died down, Relena turned to the running back and asked, "May I ask a personal question that I've been dying to know?"

"Sure thing, darling," Duo answered. Folding his arms, he made himself comfortable in his chair and warned with a feigned seriousness, "Though, depending on the question, I can't promise you'll like the answer." He wiggled his eyebrows and his teammates laughed once again at the jester antics.

Practically bouncing in her seat in anticipation, the cheerleader inquired with a smirk, "Why did you end up punching Treize Khushrenada in the face after your last game?"

At one of the many questions that they had all wondered themselves, Heero and his friends all looked anxiously to the running back. Quatre released the breath he had been holding in worry of what the question might be. Knowing the answer, he just folded his arms behind his head and chuckled to himself.

Duo's own smile grew and he shrugged simply, "The guy's an asshole and I wanted out of my contract. It was the easiest way of blowing off some steam and accomplishing my goal at the same time with the added bonus of humiliating Treize on national television."

Blinking in shock, Relena commented, "Well, he much have been something vile for you to take that drastic of a measure. Most football players would kill to be on that team. The Cougars are almost always in contention for a championship. "

"There are more important things in life than championship rings and trophies, Lena," the braided athlete winked. "It's important to be happy doing what you're doing. And working with people you can't stand makes that impossible." His blood boiling at the thought of the smug coach, he gritted, "That bastard would give up his first born if it meant winning. He broke the wills and bodies of a lot of good players."

After a long drink from his soda, Heero frowned deeply, "The sad thing is that most people praise that kind of competitiveness."

Sighing deeply, Trowa nodded, "And coaches like Zechs are never taken seriously unless they have a championship under their belt."

There was a long silence amongst their group as Heero, Trowa and Wufei looked onto their teammate with a newfound respect. So many theories had been drawn up to his reason behind the incident. Not one of them had come close to being right. Quatre snickered to himself at picking up on the emotions running around the table.

Quickly glancing to his watch, Wufei winced, "It's after eleven o'clock already." Turning to his girlfriend, he suggested, "We better get going if we want to get to sleep at a decent hour for work tomorrow." Relena nodded and rose from her chair.

Blinking in shock, Heero looked to his own watch. He had enjoyed himself so much that he had completely forgotten to keep an eye on the time. For one of meticulous as he had become at making sure he was in bed before ten, it was quite the surprise.

Tightly wrapping her arms around the quarterback' s neck, Relena kissed his cheek and whispered, "Thanks for coming out, Heero. We've missed you." A small smile tugging his lips, Heero returned the embrace. When they parted, the cheerleader moved in on Duo as he lifted her from the ground in a bear hug.

Handshakes and 'good nights' were exchanged amongst the football players and every parted ways. In learning that Quatre was spending the night at Trowa's, of course Duo had to poke a little fun at him on the way out. Before long, everyone was back in their vehicles and heading back home.

The ride back to the Yuy household was relatively quiet. Duo chewed on the inside of his lip, wondering if the night went well enough for the quarterback to give this socializing another go. Finally breaking the companionable silence, Heero glanced away from the road to peer at his teammate with a quite, "Thanks for talking me into that."

Clearing his throat, the Japanese athlete looked ahead once more to make a turn. With his attention dividing between driving and what he was saying, opening up came much easier as he all but whispered, "I forgot how much I enjoyed those get-togethers. After everything that happened last summer, I... I didn't expect them to stay off certain topics that would make things uncomfortable. " A deep frown marred his face. "I should have trusted them more than to assume that."

Understanding and appreciation for the revelation filled Duo's violet eyes as he smiled, "Sometimes it takes moments like this to know who your real friends are. Even though it's been a year since you spent time with any of them, they've been waiting to welcome you back. They're a great group of people, 'Ro. You're lucky to have them."

Heero grinned a bit at that and nodded, "Yea. I am." Pulling into the drive way and turning the engine off, he looked over to his housemate and added kindly, "Don't forget that you have them, too. You've become quite the fixture in our group."

A warm feeling immersed the running back at those words. In truth, he was growing more than fond of these individuals. .. far more so than any other teammates he'd had in the past. It was nice to have that sense of family on a team for a change.

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Duo didn't trust his voice at that moment. He settled with a bright smile and a firm nod.

The air was as warm and muggy as it had been when the sun was out when they opened their car doors. Heading up towards the house, the pair fell into a companionable silence once more. At the top of the front porch steps, Heero asked, "Did any of them mention when the next get-together would be?"

His eyes widening at the question, the running back answered quickly, "Yea. Same time, same place every week from here on out. Anyone willing is welcome to show." At the end of his speech, he held his breath.

"Good," the quarterback commented as he pressed his hand to the scanner just beside the door. "I'm looking forward to it." Practically beaming behind him, Duo followed his friend into the house with a lightness in his step.

* * * *

The following morning, Duo hummed as he took a large bite from the pancakes that Lady Une had prepared for him. After the successful outing the night before, the he was far too excited to sleep. For a first, he was actually up and about just before the young maid made an appearance in the waking world.

Knowing that Heero would be out for at least another half-hour, and with Quatre still at Trowa's, Lady Une prepared only enough food for her braided friend and herself. The pair sat across from each other and enjoyed their breakfasts.

"So how did everything go last night?" the young woman inquired with a worried frown. It was a question that she'd been dying to ask, but had been afraid of the answer.

Duo smiled brightly after flushing down his mouthful with a gulp from his orange juice. "Couldn't have been better," he answered. "In fact, Heero's already mentioned that he's looking forward to next week's meeting at Murray's."

Her brown eyes widening and a wide smile spreading on her face, Lady Une gasped, "Really!?" Sighing deeply, she sunk heavily into her chair as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of her. "Thank goodness," she breathed. "I've been so worried about him and how he's been locking himself away from everything."

Small tears filled her gaze as she whispered brokenly to the running back, "Thank you. He never would have attempted such a thing without your insisting."

Handing over a clean napkin, Duo winked, "Don't mention it, darlin'. It was a team effort. I just happened to give the last push." He was rewarded a brilliant grin as the young maid dabbed her eyes with the offered cloth.

Slightly tilting his head, the braided athlete commented, "You know, there's something that's been bothering me about you for a long time now." Those brown eyes widened and blinked to him with a mix of panic and confusion. Leaning forward, he smirked, "How is it that such a sweet, gorgeous young woman like yourself manages to fend off the suitors that would love to be associated with you?"

Blushing vibrantly, Lady Une giggled and lowered her head shyly. "Oh, I wouldn't say that I'm gorgeous," she commented softly.

"You're right," Duo grinned. "Breathtaking. " Laughing, the maid was about to protest when the running back held up his hands and chuckled deeply, "Hey, how my motto. I may run and hide, but I never tell a lie. I wouldn't say it if it wasn't the truth."

The blush on the maid's face only reddened all the more as she giggled once more. Shaking her head, she shrugged, "To be honest, I've never considered a romance with anyone. I've been so preoccupied in looking after Heero that I never paid much mind to such a thing."

With a nonchalant wave of her hand, she quickly added with a smile, "But I'm happy. Love is a wonderful notion, but it's not meant for everyone."

As she rose from her seat to gather the empty plates, however, the plastered grin faded from Lady Une's face to be replaced by a look of sad longing just before she turned away.

Frowning deeply in concern, Duo hummed to himself as the wheels in his head began turning. Lightly tapping his chin, he thought aloud, "I'm just going to have to see if I can't stir up Cupid somehow."

 

Part 22:

Duo woke with a start at the sound of tires screeching around the corner and the wail of a siren. Quickly rising from his bed to peer out through his window, he looked down to the street as a car was being chased down by a police vehicle. People that had been crossing the street at the time cried as they ran out of harm's way.

Just as quickly as the scene began, it ended when both cars peeled around the other corner at the end of the block. With the sirens fading off in the distance, the running back sighed deeply, "God, I can't wait to get these kids out of this place."

Yawning widely, Duo stretched and changed into a black T-shirt and blue jeans followed by his black slippers. Hilde and Solo were also emerging from their room, obviously woken by the car chase as well given their disheveled looks. Together, they all headed downstairs and quietly went about preparing breakfast.

As she and her 'brother' worked on scrambling the eggs, Hilde sensed his tension and reassured quietly, "Just a few more months of this, Duo. Then we can finally put all of this behind us."

"It's still not soon enough for my liking," the running back frowned. His 'sister' rested her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it gently. To his other side, Solo gently nudged him with a small smile. Finally, the tension began to ebb just a bit thanks to those simple, understanding gestures.

Little Hope decided to walk in at that moment, rubbing her tired eyes. Quickly spotting her, Duo stopped his work and scooped her up with a smiled, "Hey, munchkin." The child brightened and wrapped her small arms tightly around his neck. Kissing her cheek, the running back rested his chin on her shoulder and closed his eyes. Silently, he willed his worry over the safety of his family away.

* * * *

That Monday, practice had just wrapped up and Duo was waiting for his teammates to wrap up in the showers. Humming to himself as he took his time removing his gear, he looked up at the sound of footsteps approaching the room. On his way past the doorway, Trent peered in and nodded firmly to the running back, "Nice work today, Maxwell."

Waving to the defensive coach, the running back grinned, "Thanks, Trent." The young man disappeared on his way to towards Zechs's office. His eyes violet widening at a sudden thought, Duo all but jumped to his feet and ran out into the hallway. "Hey, Trent! One sec!" he called just before retreating target turned the corner.

As the braided athlete approached, the blonde coach turned to face him with a patient look. "I don't mean to pry," Duo began, "But I noticed that you don't wear a wedding band and you keep referring to your 'in-laws.'"

Laughing, Trent replied, "Well, they're my in-laws through my sister. She married into a real peach of a family that I try to avoid like the plague. I've been enjoying the life of a full-fledged bachelor for two years now." Tilting his head, he asked, "Why the sudden interest?"

With a grin widening on his face, the running back answered, "Weeeell, I happen to know a beautiful young woman I would like to introduce you to."

"You mean like a date?" the coach blinked in surprise.

Shaking his head, Duo stated, "A night out, which is a big difference. She really needs a chance to get out and see the world a bit." He raised his hands and vowed, "I promise that there is no commitment expected other than maybe a nice dinner or something."

Trent chewed in the inside of his cheek as he mulled over the idea. "All right," he agreed. "I suppose that there is no harm in that." Folding his arms, he commented, "She must be something special for you to be going through this trouble."

Nodding, the American grinned, "She is." He extended his hand and said sincerely, "Thank you for this, man. I promise that you won't regret it."

Firmly shaking the offered hand, the young coach chuckled deeply, "I'll have to take your word on that." All business, he inquired, "So, how can I get a hold of her to work out a time and place?"

"That's easy," Duo replied with a grin, "Just ask for Lady Une when you call Yuy's house. She works and lives there. I'll give her a heads up that you'll be reaching her so that she's not totally caught off-guard."

Content with that, Trent nodded firmly, "Very good. I'll be in touch, then." That said, the blonde young man turned and headed around the corner on his way to the coaches' office. Still smiling from ear-to-ear, the running back ran in the other direction for the locker room.

* * * *

Gasping sharply, Lady Une nearly dropped the plate that she was drying as she spun in her braided friend's direction with wide eyes. "A date!?" she exclaimed. "But… but I haven't been on a date in ages!"

Slowly approaching her, Duo gently gripped her arms and reassured her, "Now, I never said the word `date,' do don't look at it that way. This is just a chance for you to get out, try something different." Raising an eyebrow, he smirked, "And do you really think that I would set you up with someone that wasn't a good guy?"

Unable to help giggling at that, the young maid shook her head, "No, of course not." The humor faded as the arms at her sides fell away and she frowned deeply, "It's just... I don't even know what I'm supposed to do when we do go out."

Very gently brushing back the long bangs from her brown eyes, the running back smiled sadly, "Because you've never given yourself a chance to enjoy yourself. You're so worried about looking after Heero that you forgot that you deserve to be happy, too."

"He's right," a familiar voice spoke up suddenly from the kitchen doorway. Both Lady Une and Duo turned in shock to find Heero standing there, leaning against the frame with his arms crossed. Pushing himself from the doorway, the quarterback locked eyes with the young woman and said quietly, "It's about time you did something for yourself for a change."

With a deep sigh of relief, Duo smiled to the quarterback in appreciation for his support. Heero's reaction was the one he was the most uncertain of. Biting her lip, Lady Une was at odds with herself as she whispered, "I'm nervous."

A small grin tugged the team captain's mouth. "Don't be," he shrugged simply. "It's not nearly as scary out there as you think." At that testimonial spoken from personal experience, the young woman finally eased and smiled. His chest swelling in pride at hearing those words from his teammate, Duo have him a wink.

Taking a deep breath, Lady Une nodded firmly, "Okay." She nearly jumped out of her skin when the phone rung at that moment. Nervously reaching for the hand-held phone on the counter, she placed the receiver to her ear with an almost weak, "Hello?"

Slowly, her smile returned as she greeted, "Yes, this is she. And you must be Trent. Duo was just telling me about you." A moment later, she laughed, "Oh no, he only had good things to say. Oh… tomorrow night at about six?"

Heero and Duo shared an amused look as they listened in on one half of the conversation. "Sure. How should I dress? All right. Well, thank you. I will see you tomorrow, then." Quickly hanging the phone back onto its cradle, Lady Une beamed, "Well, that was not as bad as I thought it would be."

"You see?" the running back cheered while rubbing her arm. "You're going to have a great time tomorrow." His smile grew as she wrapped her arms tightly around him in thanks. Returning the embrace, he chuckled deeply.

As she neared the quarterback, the maid asked softly, "Are you sure that you're all right with this? If you would rather I stay-"

Cutting her off, Heero shook his head, "Why would I not be fine with this? You know that I'm more than capable of taking care of myself. Now you can finally take care of yourself." His long-time friend hugged him tightly with a whispered `thank you.'

When they pulled away, Lady Une giggled, "I'm so excited! I need to start thinking about what I'm going to wear to dinner, how to fix my hair, maybe I should go and get a manicure before hand. And then there'…"

Her words trailed off as she walked out of the room, verbalizing the laundry list of things she needed to do for her night out. Snickering, the two football players shook their heads in amusement. Looking to his housemate, Duo commented quietly, "She never would have agreed if you hadn't insisted. That was nice of you."

"Well, you're right," Heero shrugged. "She needs this." Lowering his gaze, he frowned, "Ever since… the accident, she's been shut in here along with me. To be honest, it was pretty selfish of me to not have insisted on something like this sooner."

Quickly picking up on the signals, the running back stated softly, "She was the closest thing to your parents that you had after."

Clearing his throat roughly, the Japanese youth nodded, "Yea." Slowly raising his head to meet his friend's violet eyes, he all but whispered, "I was actually afraid that I might lose her, too. Pretty stupid, huh?"

Duo smiled sadly and replied just as softly, "No. I think it says a lot of how much she means to you… especially now that your own needs are being set aside so she can be happy. But you know she'll always be here for you." On his way out of the room, he squeezed his teammate's shoulder. "I'm proud of you, `Ro."

Heero gave him a small grin and asked, "Do you still have that video game you rented?"

"Sure do," the American answered. Violet eyes widening, he gasped, "Don't tell me you're actually going to play video games instead of working out in the gym on a practice night! That's unheard of!"

Raising an eyebrow, Heero snorted, "Well, if you're that afraid of getting your ass kicked, I guess that I could always hit the treadmill instead. I certainly wouldn't want to make you cry."

With a mischievous smirk, Duo growled deeply, "You're on, Yuy."

* * * **

The following evening…

Trent walked up to the Yuy household dressed in a sharp suit with a bouquet of a half-dozen roses in his hand. After pressing the doorbell, he adjusted his red tie. When the door opened, Duo' braided head poked out and he grinned widely, "Hey, coach. " Stepping aside, he offered, "Come on in and get comfortable. "

As the blonde entered, the running back got a good look at him and all but turned giddy. All day, he wasn't sure who was more nervous over this date- Lady Une, Heero or himself. Seeing that Trent was taking this one-night out seriously enough to bring flowers dress up was more than exciting.

Heero rose from the couch that he was sitting on when the defensive coach entered. They exchanged handshakes and polite greetings. "Lady Une should be down in a minute," the quarterback advised.

"Actually, I'm ready now," the young woman's voice called from the entranceway. When the three young men turned, their eyes widened at the sight that awaited them.

Dressed in a scarlet red, V-neckline silhouette dress that hugged her slender and stopped just below her knees, Lady Une stepped into the room. Her hair was swept up and secured by a gold clip in the back with her loose hair falling back in ringlets. Subtle makeup made her face glow and the strapped, gold heels on her feel gave her just a little extra height. The simple gold necklace, diamond bracelet and droop earrings were the finishing touch to the striking image that she made.

Just behind the maid, Quatre was smiling like a proud parent. Heero, Duo and Trent remained frozen in their places with their jaws nearly falling slack. The running back heard the defensive coach breathe, "Wow." Finally shaking himself from his stupor, the coach stepped forward with a wide grin. "My Lady," he greeted as he took her hand and bent to kiss the back of it.

Practically glowing, Lady Une smiled, "Very nice to meet you, Trent." She looked to Heero and Duo almost nervously for approval. The quarterback smirked and nodded as his braided teammate winked and gave a thumb up to the young woman.

Hands suddenly shaking, Trent held up the bouquet and sputtered, "I-I… uh… I thought that you might like these."

"Oh, they're beautiful," the maid gushed as she accepted the plastic-wrapped display. After a long smell of their fragrance, she gave the coach a soft and sincere, "Thank you."

Clapping his hands together, Duo announced, "Well, kiddies, you better get going while the night's still young!" Raising a finger, he warned, "Don't go doing anything that I would do." Trent and Lady Une snickered and shook their heads.

As he bent as the waist in a bow, the coach offered an arm and asked, "Shall we?" Nodding, his date slipped her arm in his. On their way out, Quatre took the flowers with a kiss to his friend's cheek.

When the door closed, Duo nudged the agent in the side with a smirked, "Nice work with the look, pal. I almost didn't recognize her."

Shrugging, Quatre chuckled deeply, "Well, having more than a dozen sisters does come in handy once in a while. You get to learn all kinds of otherwise useless things about makeup and jewelry… along with other things that I dare not mention regarding the joys of being a woman." He shuddered at that last comment.

The running looked back into the living room and found Heero staring out the window as Trent's car pulled out of the driveway and away from sight. Gently, he asked, "You holding up okay, there, `Ro?"

Looking away from the window to meet his friend's eyes, the quarterback nodded quietly, "Yea. I think so. Just this whole moving on and letting go and moving on things is… challenging at times."

"Yea," Duo nodded in a way that let Heero know he really did understand. "But you'll be amazed how much better you feel when you accomplish that." He turned on his heels and slipped from the room to give his teammate some privacy, his braid swinging behind him.

Alone with his thoughts, Heero sighed deeply and looked out the window once more, silently marveling at how Maxwell seemed to always know what to say. While it was nice to have that in his life, it was not helping the emotions that he was constantly confused over when it came to the mysterious running back.

* * * *

On their way to the front porch, Lady Une bowed her head a bit and said softly, "I had a lovely evening tonight, Trent. Thank you."

The young defensive coach smiled, "I did, too." Actually, he was amazed at just how good a time it was. Over their dinner conversing, he found to have quite a bit in common with the young woman. It'd been a long time since he was smitten so quickly with someone.

When they reached the front door, Trent lowered released the arm in his own and suggested, "Maybe we can go out again sometime? Like maybe this Friday?" He nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other and swallowed roughly in anticipation.

Quickly looking up to meet his eyes, Lady Une grinned brightly as she nodded, "I'd really like that."

"Great!" the young man replied excitedly, releasing the breath that he had been holding. "Maybe we could try something that we can dress a little more comfortably for," he smirked as he loosened the tie around his neck with a dramatic wince. "Maybe a movie or something?"

Chuckling deeply, the maid answered, "That'd be perfect." She took a deep breath and swayed on her feet a bit. "Well, good night," she managed nervously.

Trent sighed deeply, "I take it that you're not one to kiss on the first date, huh?" He forced a pout and blinked his eyes in a way that had his date laughing.

As she managed to contain herself, Lady Une shook her head regretfully, "I'm afraid not, though it's not for lack of interest in doing so. It's just a rule that I set for myself to keep from rushing things."

A warn chuckle bubbled from the coach's chest as he winked, "Well, I'll have to make sure that I earn it the second time around." With a hand at his waist, he bowed and said quietly, "Have a good night, my lady." Straightening himself, he turned to head back to his car.

Just before he could step off the porch, the young woman spun and called, "Trent!" He paused and was almost facing her once more when she was all but running towards him. "Oh, to hell with that rule," she muttered before pulling him in for a fierce kiss as her eyes drifted closed. It took her shocked date a moment to return the gesture.

Once the kiss ended, Trent was wide-eyed and grinning like a stunned loon. Clearing her throat, Lady Une's cheeks were burning as she smiled sheepishly, "Well... good night."

Gently brushing the side of her face, the coach whispered, "Good night, Lady Une."

"Anne," she breathed. At his surprised look, she giggled, "I don't normally let many people know my real first name since Anne Une sounds pretty silly together." [1]

Trent's smile only grew. Tilting his head a bit, he smiled wistfully, "Actually, I think it's beautiful... like you." Gently taking the surprised young maid's hand in his, he kissed the back of it and told her quietly, "Until next time, Anne."

The smooth departure he had envisioned was lost when his watery legs all but tripped on his way down the porch steps. Barely managing to keep himself upright when he reached the bottom, he laughed along with Lady Une.

Waving to each other, they turned and parted ways.

Nearly the moment she stepped into the house, the maid was all but bombarded with questions as Heero, Duo and Quatre rushed up to her.

Still giddy from her experience, Lady Une sighed deeply and sat at the couch as she went over all of the details of the dinner and dancing. At the end of her story, she giggled and pressed her hands to her reddened cheeks. "I feel like a school girl, again," she laughed. The trio of accomplices shared looks of relief and satisfaction at her excitement.

Kissing each of her friends' cheeks good night and thanking them once more for all of their help and support, she hummed to herself and stepped lightly out of the room while mimicking one of the waltzes she learned that evening.

Heero fell back into the sofa with a small smile and a deep sigh. Beside him, Duo did the same and patted his leg as he asked, "Now, wasn't the look on her face worth that little bit of letting go."

Unable to help his smile from growing a bit, the quarterback chuckled deeply and nodded, "Yea. It was." And maybe... just maybe he could get used to the feeling.

[1] After much debate and many replies to my question regarding Lady Une's first name. Anne was mentioned as being a fandom creation and I really liked it, so I am using it as a funny way of explaining why she would prefer to be called `Lady Une' as opposed to Anne Une.

 

Part 23:

The weeks winding down to the to pre-season were numbered to less than two. Already, the first signs of the quickly approaching year were made with the scheduling of interviews with local and national sports reporters. With the way that the Pittsburg Wolverines had ended their season the year before by not even reaching the playoffs, most 'experts' were predicting them to be out of contention again this coming season.

Zechs and his team, however, saw things differently.

Just in their practices, they were performing better than they ever had going into the pre-season. Thanks largely in part to Duo's dedication, his teammates were pushing themselves to limits they didn't think that they had in them. While not every area of the team was perfect, things were looking up for the possibility of moving on past the regular season for the first time in years.

After a long practice, Heero and Duo returned to the Yuy household drained and looking forward to the night out at Murray's with their friends. Quatre was the first to greet the football players with a firm nod to his braided client, "Randall Nemeth from the National Sports Network just called to schedule an interview with you. And I have to get back to three others that are looking for the same."

With a soft sigh, the running back commented, "And so it starts."

Quatre wiggled a raised finger before his friend's face and warned, "Now I want you on your best behavior. I know you hate interviews and how those reporters look to stir things up, but remember your promise to change your attitude for me this season."

"Yea, yea, yea," Duo replied, rolling his violet eyes and waving his hand nonchalantly. "I'll be good for those slimy bastards."

Heero just chuckled deeply and shook his head in amusement. Silently, he was grateful that he wasn't the one to have to sit and endure the probing questions. Lady Une was just passing by when she announced to her charge, "Heero, there are four interviews scheduled for you later this week. I marked them on the calendar in the kitchen."

Lowering his head as she disappeared, the quarterback hissed, "Damn it." 'So much for being in the clear for once,' he thought to himself. Duo snickered and patted his back in support. Well, misery certainly did love company.

* * * * *

"Better you two than me!" Wufei laughed as he lowered his glass of soda. "Luckily, I'm not exciting enough to have those vultures wanting to sit and talk with me too often. And I am perfectly happy with that."

Across from the Chinese receiver, Duo snorted, "Thanks for rubbing it in, asshole." Everyone at his table snickered and chuckled deeply as Wufei winked to him with a smug smirk. The conversation continued on around the topic.

Meanwhile, the television panel above the bar, along with every set stationed throughout the room, was playing the same sport network that the patrons followed religiously. Recaps of the earlier soccer games wound down as the sports newscaster's mug-shot reappeared to announced, "In preparation for the football season around the corner, we have some exclusive interviews with some of the athletes and coaches that will have all eyes on them through the season.

"We start with our first interview now with head coach Treize Khushrenada and his new running back, Alex Denton, of the San Diego Cougars."

His mouth still around the nozzle of his root beer bottle, Duo looked up to the screen along with his friends at the announcement. Several people at the bar called for the volume to be turned up, their attention fully captured.

A near hush fell over the room when Treize appeared on the screen. Off camera, the interviewer' s voice asked, "So how is it that you manage to keep your team in contention for a championship year after year? That's quite the accomplishment. "

Treize smirked and shrugged, "Thank you. I honestly think that simply having a winning mentality makes all the difference in this business. There is no room for doubt on my team and I have been working with my father-in-law to weed out the trouble and I believe that we have the right mix of young men that will carry go all the way to the top. The addition of Alex, here to the team is the last piece of the puzzle."

At the mention of the blonde running back, the camera pulled back to show the young man sitting beside his coach with a smug look on his face. The voice of the interviewer actually sounded shocked as chuckled deeply, "As opposed to having Duo Maxwell? He has the best standings of any running back in the league."

Alex's eyes narrowed and his face began to redden. "Maxwell's ride at the top is about to come to an end," he stated. "I've been training with the best and have been improving every day to improve myself. It's about time someone proved how overrated he is. He can't even catch."

Wide-eyed and frozen, the lot at the round table watched and listened in shock. Duo's skin paled as Relena reached to place her hand on his in a supportive squeeze. "He… he can't catch!?" the interviewer sputtered.

"That's correct," Treize nodded firmly. "I had been studying Maxwell's performances and realized that not once in his whole career had he attempted to catch a toss. Whenever the suggestion came up from my coaching staff, he fervently denied such a play be called. I challenge you to go back through every second of footage and prove me wrong." It seemed as though everyone in Murray's was glued to the televisions with slack jaws.

Once more, the announced pitched in, "And yet your cousin, Dorothy Catalonia, signed him onto the Wolverines as her first move as the new owner of the franchise. While it is only a one-year contract, she offered five million dollars to play. Do you think that she is in a little over her head to be spending such an amount without looking at every angle?"

All around, heated glares were turning to the table where Heero and the others were joined. For the quiet and peaceful part of town that they were in, most people just left the football players alone to their privacy. That was all changing now. Sweat forming on his brow, the braided running back swayed in his seat and muttered, "I think I'm gonna throw up."

Waving his hand, Treize answered, "Well now, I'm not criticizing my dear cousin entirely. Maxwell does have the most impressive standings, as you mentioned. I just think that she is still too young and green for this business to know everything when it comes to making a winning team."

His oily smile grew as he commented, "In the end, it is really up to the citizens of Pittsburg to decide if what she is doing with her funds is the right decision or not. After all, they're the ones who need a win more than anyone to help their economy."

The screen image changed back to the head anchor's mug-shot once more as he broadcasted, "You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. Tune in tomorrow when we talk with head coach…" Duo lost the rest of the words as he turned to his friends with a look of panic. More and more people were staring him down heatedly.

Gripping his housemate's arm, Heero suggested, "Let's get the hell out of here." Not needing to be told twice, the group quickly rose to their feet and headed to the door together with Duo pushed safely in the center of their mold to keep those angry eyes off of him.

Numb from head to toe, the running back allowed his friends to herd him through the bar and outside.

Once the warm night air hit them, the group all but darted for their cars. As they peeled out of the parking lot, a few drunken men ran out screaming and swearing while throwing beer bottles at their retreating vehicles. Stopping only for stop signs and lights, the three cars pulled into the parking lot at the Yuy household and piled into the residence breathless.

Lady Une rushed out to meet them with a worried, "I was just watching the news and was about to call and check on you. Is everyone all right?" She focused specifically on Duo, who still looked quite ill, violet eyes just staring off. Biting her lip, she gently told Heero, "Get him to sit down. I'll make some tea for everyone." That said, she rushed off for the kitchen.

Gently resting his hand on the small of his teammate's back, Heero urged him into the living room and got him to sit at one of the sofas. Trowa and Quatre turned the flat-screen television on to a quiet volume. Scanning the sports networks, they looked for any further coverage of the interview, or any word of fallback regarding it.

Wufei was pacing back and forth with a very irate look on his face, hissing, "I don't know what the hell got into Alex to start acting like this. He was never one to take shots at another player, even if they were on another team."

Relena frowned deeply as she sat at Duo's free side to rub his back gently. "His being traded must have hit him harder than we thought it did," she commented. Looking over to the still running back, she reassured gently, "Don't take anything that they said to heart, Duo. No one can even come close to your stats on the field, even without catching."

Shaking his braided head, Duo finally seemed to be coming out of his trance. "I could care less what anyone thinks of me," he stated while turning to meet the cheerleader' s gaze. "It's what they said about Dorothy that has me upset. She's going to be taking a lot of heat over this and she doesn't deserve it."

At his other side, Heero shook his own head, "No. She doesn't." Rubbing his face with his hands, the quarterback sighed deeply, "This is a great way to get started just before pre-season."

"It's Treize's style," the running back gritted. "I should have known that he would be looking for something on me to throw in my face as well as Dorothy's." Straightening, he looked to his housemate and said, "We have to get a hold of her and let her know what's going on."

A smile tugging his lips, Trowa looked over his shoulder and said, "I think that she already does." All eyes turned to the screen as he turned the volume up.

Dressed in a skirt-bottomed blazer attire, Dorothy appeared on the screen of one of the local networks with dozens of camera flashes lighting her as she approached a pedestal in the center of the room.

Bowing her head when she reached the microphone, the team owner smiled, "Thank you, everyone, for coming here on such short notice. I've been expecting this low blow from my cousin for some time now, and wish to explain myself to the citizens of Pittsburgh regarding my decision."

With a deep breath, Dorothy pronounced, "I was well aware of Duo Maxwell's inability to catch before signing him, as no good owner signs on a new player without looking at everything they do and do not have to offer."

Instantly, voices of reporters behind the video camera were asking why she agreed to the trade if she knew. Waving off the rush of questions, the young woman answered with a question of her own. "What football player out there is without flaw? Name me one," she challenged.

A heavy silence fell on the room with the exception of the cameras that continued to flash on the Wolverine's owner. Pleased with that, she nodded firmly, "Exactly. No athlete, no coach and no owner comes without their own challenges. The fact, however, remains in the numbers and Duo Maxwell's beat out any other running back's standings."

Her features saddening a bit, Dorothy said quietly, "I love this city and I love the people in it. And there are many suffering from the unstable economy here. To have a chance at a championship would mean so much to this town, drawing in the kind of revenue that spectators would bring in. While it would not be the only answer to our problems, it would be a wonderful start in the right direction.

"And even if we do not reach that goal, Maxwell has already proven his weight in gold. I have received many reports from Zechs and the coaching staff to how his own drive has pushed the rest of the team to performing their own bests. Whatever happens, this will be, by far, the best season the Wolverines have seen in years."

Tilting her head, Dorothy smirked, "And so, to my dear cousin Treize and Alex, we'll simply have to see who the better men, or man and woman are." She bowed her head to the reporters and told them, "Thank you, everyone and good evening." Quickly turning, she left the podium to the shouts of further questions from the press.

Quatre snickered and shook his head as he turned the television off. Sagging in relief on the couch, Duo chuckled deeply, "Damn, I love that woman." Heero, Trowa and Wufei nodded their heads in agreement with amusement on their faces.

* * * * *

The following morning, Dorothy entered the locker room as the team was getting ready for the day of training. Everyone paused what they were doing to watch as she headed right for Duo and Heero while asking, "Are the two of you still working on the catching issue?"

Blinking their wide eyes at the sudden interrogation, the running back and quarterback nodded.

Satisfied with that, Dorothy nodded firmly, "Good." Her eyes narrowing, she growled deeply, "I want you to rub Treize's face in the mud so badly that he'll be embarrassed to show his face for the remainder of the season. No one attacks my team the way that he did."

Wide smiles spread all around. Raising his arm to salute, Duo winked, "You got it, doll. Trust me, no one wants that to happen more than I do." At the endearment, Heero and the rest of the team gaped in disbelief.

Brushing down the hem of her green, silk blouse, the team owner smirked with a sincere, "I know."

Sharply turning on her heels, she addressed the remainder of the team, "Treize and Alex drew first blood. I would sincerely hope, for the good of this team and the faith that the city is putting in us, that you'll be ready to answer with your actions come the regular season. I don't want anyone saying that there was a single person that did not give everything they had on the field, with or without a championship in the end."

Faces gripped in determination, the football players shouted as one, "Yes, ma'am!"

With a deep sigh, Dorothy smiled, "Thank you. I'm very proud of you all already." As she headed out, every eye followed once more. Those who had yet to witness the team owner in action sat in stunned silence as they looked to one another in awe. Very slowly, the team went back to what they had been doing.

The coaching staff entered the room. Wheeling up behind the trio, Darren smiled to his friends as they cheered and eagerly welcomed him with handshakes and embraces. The last to greet the wide receiver as the others ran out for the field, Duo bent at the waist and shook his hand firmly. "Good to have you back, man," he grinned.

"It's good to be back," Darren sighed deeply. Clearing his throat, he said quietly, "I never got to thank you for watching out for me on the field. The doctors said that if you hadn't been there to calm me down, I would have gone into shock from the pain and the cold of being in that rain all day."

His smile warming, the running back patted his shoulder and shrugged nonchalantly, "I didn't do anything that any one of the others wouldn't have done." He wiggled his eyebrows while adding with a smirk, "I was just faster at reaching you."

Chuckling deeply, the short-haired brunette replied, "Well, at any rate, I thank you." Quickly sobering he tilted his head a bit. "Actually, I was wondering if you were all right with the idea of me stick around to watch you work with Yuy on your catching.

"Maybe I could give you some pointers, as someone who catches the ball as their job. I know that Wufei is busy with his own training and well…" He gestured to his wheelchair, smirking, "I'm obviously not going anywhere for a while."

Duo's eyes widened. "Really!?" he exclaimed. "You would do that for me!?"

More than excited at the idea of this new challenge as another way to help his team, Darren nodded, "What are teammates for, right?" He offered his right hand and asked, "So what do you say?"

Tightly gripping the hand in a firm shake, the running back replied, "I say we'll see you at Yuy's place after practice, then!"

Bending at the waist, he tightly hugged the wide receiver with a rushed, "Thank you." Darren patted his teammate's back as he laughed.

"Better get onto the field," the new coach suggested when the embrace ended. Gripping his wheels, he spun his chair and headed for the door. With a dramatic, `yes sir,' and a salute, Duo followed close behind.

* * * *

Dorothy was just about to shut down for the night when her telephone rang. Picking up the receiver, she answered, "Dorothy Catalonia."

"M-Miss Catalonia! You're never going to believe this!" the voice of her secretary shrieked over the line.

The team owner sat back down in her leather chair with a deep frown and replied worriedly, "Grace? What is it?" Preparing herself for whatever the news was, nothing could have prepared her for what came next.

Grace cried, "I just heard from the box office. The entire regular season games at this stadium just sold out! Sold out!!! That hasn't happened in decades!"

With a sharp gasp, Dorothy breathed, "Sold out." Smirking, she chuckled quietly, "Well, they do say that no press is bad press."

* * * * * *

Treize sipped his brandy and looked out to the skyline of San Diego from his office. In the background, the television was displaying another recap of Dorothy's press conference from the night before.

A dark smirk tugged his lips as he growled, "Well, cousin, the war is officially on.

 

Part 24:

"Sold out!? For the whole regular season!?" Zechs shouted. Howard and Trent's jaws dropped as the team reeled from the announcement. "I've never seen the stadium full before!"

Dorothy chuckled deeply and shrugged, "Well, it has been quite some time since that has happened. And we have confirmed that eighty percent of the ticket holders are coming from all around to see first hand just how this whole drama brought on by the recent interviews plays out.

"That revenue coming in will be a tremendous help to Pittsburg. To be honest, I was expecting a few sold out games, but not the whole season." Chuckling deeply, she added, "And I never would have expected such a thing before the season even started."

Slowly scanning the wide eyes of her team, Dorothy advised, "So I just wanted to deliver the wonderful news in person. And to celebrate, there will be a party at my house tomorrow night after practice that I hope that you will all attend."

Warm smiles spread all around her in response.

Nodding firmly, the team owner wished kindly, "Have a good practice, gentlemen." That said, she turned and quietly left the locker room.

In little more than a breath, Wufei blinked in shock, "Sold out." Shaking his head, he snickered, "I sure hope nobody gets performance anxiety."

Not one face in the room gave off the least bit of nervousness in knowing so many eyes would be on them. On the contrary, there was only excitement and anticipation to show everyone what they could do.

If there had been any doubts as to whether or not this would be a good season before, there was not a one amongst the team now.

Grinning widely, Zechs spoke up, "You heard the lady. Let's go." With whoops and cries, the Wolverines rose to their feet and stormed out of the room for the field.

Throughout the practice, the team looked up to the empty stands and imagined what they would look like packed with cheering, screaming spectators.

* * * *

After two days of watching and studying Heero and Duo work on the running back's catching, Darren was able to identify the problem. His green eyes widened in realization from where he was perched, watching his teammates make try after try without rest.

Cursing and growling deeply following another failed attempt, the braided athlete picked up the fallen football after another failed attempt. "Son of a bitch," he hissed. "We only have one more week before the preseason and I still can't keep a hold of this thing."

Heero sighed deeply in his own frustration as he opened his hands to accept the ball being tossed back to him. Being the one who's job was only to throw or hand off the ball, he was at a loss of what to suggest. Even his reassurances were starting to sound the same after these weeks of this one-on-one practicing.

Quickly wheeling up to his friends, Darren shouted, "You're thinking too much!" Laughing, he spread his arms open and cried excitedly, "That's your problem! It was the same issue I had when I first started as a wide receiver in high school!"

Both Heero and Duo blinked at him in shock and confusion. "Is it really that simple?" the quarterback wondered aloud. Looking to his housemate, he asked, "What is going through your head when the ball's coming to you?"

Duo scratched the back of his braided head and sighed, "Oh, different things... 'I hope he didn't throw that thing too hard,' 'My hands better be where they need to be,' 'What if I can't get a good grip'..." Violet eyes widening in the new revelation as his voice trailed off at the end of his thought, he yelled, "Oh shit!"

Cheering, Darren threw his fists in the air and whooped, "I knew it!

I could tell because you face changed every time you looked back for the throw, like you were concentrating too hard." He looked over to the stunned quarterback and explained in a reassuring tone, "Only someone who catches the ball on a regular basis would have been able to pick up on that. It's one of our early plagues that we have to get over as receivers."

A bit relieved that the simple fix was not something he should have noted himself, Heero nodded firmly with an inward sigh of relief.

Gazing up to the running back, Darren gave him a hardened look and ordered, "Whatever it takes, get your head clear before the ball's thrown. Just let your instincts kick in and take care of the rest."

"Got it," the American nodded while wringing out his brown tank-top.

As the wide receiver wheeled back out of the way, Heero and Duo got into the positions once more. The quarterback moved back a couple steps with the ball raised as he would if the ball were snapped to him as his teammate sprang past him a couple yards.

Turning, the braided football player watched as the ball was hurled to him and forced himself to just focus on his target. His arms seemed to move on their own, reaching out and gripping the ball easily. When they continued to hold on without so much as a slip, he shrieked out in excitement.

Before allowing himself to celebrate too long, Duo suggested a few more rounds to see if it stuck. The next ten passes were caught with the same effortlessness as the first. On the last throw, he raised his arm and hurled the ball to the ground with a screamed, "Yes!"

Joining in with shouts of his own, Heero ran forward and all but tackled Duo to the ground in a bear hug. Darren whooped and hollered as he wheeled back into the scene. Turning to face his instructor, the running back bent at the waist to give him a one-armed hug. As he caught his breath, he a very relieved and sincere, "Thank you."

Gently patting his back, Darren grinned, "No thanks needed. Just glad I could help." His smile turned into a smug smirk as he commented, "I just wish that I could see Treize's face when he sees that you can catch now."

He raised a finger and warned, "Just don't get discouraged the next time you do miss. Not every pass will be as easy to hold onto when there are defenders trying to stop you. Even Wufei and I never made every catch."

"Right," Duo smiled.

Moments later, Darren's wife made her way around the bend to collect him. Only then did Heero and Duo notice that the sun was already setting. After waving their friend off, neither one of them was ready to call it a night yet and went on to continue their drill. Once again, every catch was made even with the change ups that the quarterback threw into the mix.

The sunlight was nearly gone by the time the pair had worn themselves out. Running around and shouting out, Duo did several back flips before tackling his housemate to the ground. Heero laughed and rolled onto his back. "I can't believe this! I can catch!" the running back exclaimed as he rolled onto his own back.

Closing his eyes, Duo sighed deeply and soaked in the feel and small of the freshly cut grass beneath him. All around, the chirp of crickets filled the air along with the soft sparkle of fireflies. Millions of stars twinkled in the darkening heavens with a half moon glowing brighter by the second.

There had been… very few other times when he had felt so at peace.

He turned his head to find the quarterback watching him with a warm smile, their faces inches away from each other.

Instantly, their chuckles died and their breaths hitched at the close proximity. Maybe it was the adrenaline. Maybe it was the heat. Or it may have been the sheer relief of having worked through a challenge together…

Whatever the reason, before either of them knew it, their eyes were closed and their lips were touching in a soft kiss.

Gasping sharply when he realized what was happening, Heero sat up in an instant, crying, "I'm sorry!" Without looking back at his teammate, he crawled up to his feet and ran into the house before the running back could react.

Slowly sitting up, Duo blinked his wide, violet eyes and touched his fingers to his lips. His heart pounding in his chest, he breathed, "W-what the hell just happened?"

The sound of the back patio door slamming closed brought everything back in a rush.

* * * * *

Dinner that evening was an uncomfortable affair.

Lady Une and Quatre eyed their unusually quiet friends. Neither Heero nor Duo looked up across the table to look at each other once as they rushed through their meals. Warily looking at each other, the maid and agent shared a silent conversation of worry.

After seeing how far the two had come along in their friendship, it was troublesome to see that they were clearly ill at ease with each other once again...

…though there was clearly something different about this.

After all but inhaling his food, Duo rose from his seat and pecked Lady Une on the cheek. "Wonderful meal as always, darlin'," he winked before making a quick escape from the dining room. The moment that he left, Quatre excused himself and followed close behind.Sighing deeply, Heero's shoulders sagged as he dry-washed his face with his hands. Lady Une folded her hands together on the table and frowned deeply, "What happened?"

Roughly swallowing, the quarterback lowered his arms and stared at the empty spot that Duo had occupied. "I kissed him," he answered in little more than a breath. Gasping sharply, the maid's eyes widened. Slowly turning his head to meet her gaze, he asked brokenly, "Are you disgusted of me?"

"Oh, Heero," Lady Une whispered as she quickly rounded the table to sit beside him. Taking one of his hands in hers, she gently brushed back his bangs and smiled sadly, "I had hoped that you would know me better. I could never be disgusted of you." The relief in those cobalt eyes made her heartache that he had been so worried about what she thought of him.

Biting her lip, her eyes shimmered with small tears as she breathed, "I know that I'm not old enough to be your mother. And I would never want to replace that wonderful woman. But, I consider you like a son to me. Whatever you do, or whatever you become I will always be proud of you. I just want you to be happy." The heartache grew when small tears filled those cobalt eyes watching her.With a deep breath, then young woman inquired, "You have feelings for Duo, then?"

Heero nodded, "Yes." His brow creasing, he shook his head, "No." Sighing deeply, he frowned, "I don't know. I-I know that I'm attracted to him, but I don't know how much further my feelings go beyond that."

Rising, he paced around the table and thought aloud, "I still don't know anything about him, other than what little he's shared with me and our friends." The frustration in his voice grew as he thrust his arms in the air and laughed, "How the hell can I know what I really feel for someone who admittedly keeps secrets from me? He obviously doesn't trust me enough if he's not willing to share them with me."

The maid tilted her head slightly and shrugged, "Well, I wouldn't say that the trust is not there if he admitted to you that he is hiding things in the first place. You don't know his reasons for holding back." She chewed on the inside of her lip before stating, "Besides, it's not as though you have a lot of ground to stand on when it comes to opening up."

His back to his friend in mid-pace, Heero froze at that. "I'm sorry," Lady Une told him, "But you cannot argue that one. And you have your own reasons for bottling your feelings."

Slowly sliding back into his chair, the quarterback nodded and whispered, "You're right."

Biting her lip, his friend pressed, "So, who initiated the kiss to begin with? Maybe that would shed some light on something here."

The team captain chuckled bitterly, "I'm not even sure. I've been trying to figure that out, myself, and I can't say for sure who moved first. We were just laying outside and the next minute, we were kissing…" His voice faded off at the end. "Then I ran away before I could get a reaction," he admitted regrettably.

Running a hand through his hair, he frowned deeply, "I'm so damned confused right now I don't know what end is up. Ever since Quatre told me that Duo wasn't seeing anyone, my thoughts and feelings for him have been one big mess."

Another smile tugged Lady Une's lips as she whispered, "That sounds like a lot more than just an attraction to me, Heero."Heero swallowed roughly at that.

~~

Meanwhile…

Upstairs, Duo threw the door to his room open and fell into his bed face-first with a frustrated growl. Just as the door was swinging back closed, Quatre stopped it short and stepped inside. Throwing the light switch on, he closed the door gently before sitting himself in the computer desk's chair.

"So what happened between the two of you?" the agent asked softly after a long and heavy silence.

Sighing deeply, the running back pushed himself up into a sitting position to face his friend, legs crossed underneath. "We kissed," he answered with a deep frown.

Eyes widening, Quatre exclaimed, "You're shitting me!?" Silently, he was thankful that he was sitting when that lovely bit of news came out, lest he have landed on the floor otherwise. "Well which one of you started it!?" he cried.

Duo opened his mouth to answer, then stopped and thought a moment. "I'm not really sure," he finally stated. "And it was just this innocent thing that couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds." A defeated look marred his face as he said, "Then he ran off without even looking back."

The agent's frown saddened at his friend's loss. Before he could say anything in support, Duo rose to his feet and started pacing. "Anyway, it doesn't really matter who started the kiss," he commented, waving his hands in the air. "The point it that it happened! And he clearly doesn't want anything to do with me on those terms."

"You don't know that," Quatre insisted. "Heero's dealing with a lot right now, on top of possibly just realizing that he might be attracted to you." Folding his arms, he smirked, "You know, a few weeks ago, he was talking about Hilde assuming she was your girlfriend based on one of the pictures he found in your room."

Instantly, the running back froze and spun to look to him with wide eyes. His grin growing, the agent continued, "When I essentially told him that you were not seeing anyone, he had this look of relief on his face. This must be the first time that he's been dealing with feelings like this towards another person and he just needs time to sort it out."Biting his lip, Duo thought aloud softly, "I don't know what would be more difficult... If he finds out that he doesn't want something, or if he does. There's the being crushed with the first and with the second..." He lowered his braided head.

With a deep sigh, Quatre finished for him, "Then that means you'll have to let him in on the things that you're keeping from him. No real relationship can really work if you can't trust him enough with everything." The football played nodded shallowly without looking back up.

Slowly rising from the chair, the Arab walked up to his friend and placed his hands on either shoulder. "Whatever happens," he vowed quietly, "you know that I'll always be here to help in any way that I can."

Clearing away the lump that formed in his throat, Duo met his gaze and whispered brokenly, "Thanks, Quat. That... means the world to me."

A warm smile graced Quatre's face as he squeezed his client's shoulders once more before releasing them. "I know it'll be hard, but just give Heero time," he suggested. "He'll come around when he's ready."

"Yea," the running back replied softly. Patting his friend's back, Quatre headed out of the room to offer some privacy.

Duo fell back onto his bed with a grown and closed his eyes, knowing that sleep was going to avert him that night. Sighing deeply, he frowned, "Just when I thought things couldn't get more complicated. "

 

Part 25:

Just like breakfast that morning and dinner the night before, the car ride to practice was made without a word spoken between Heero and Duo. Neither one knew how or when to open up dialogue after that kiss. What was the appropriate thing to say?

The silence continued as they headed for the locker room through the long corridors. And the moment they stepped into the room, everyone on the team could sense the tension between them. Without so much as a word to anyone they passed, the quarterback and running back opened their lockers and removed their gear.

Across from their stations, Wufei and Trowa shared a concerned look. Smiling in thinking of a way to get his friends talking, the tall center laced up his sneakers and asked, "The two of you are going to Dorothy's party tonight, right?"

His grin faded when Heero simply grunted and Duo shrugged. Nearly panic-stricken, the Chinese turned to his Latin friend with wide eyes.

Zechs and the coaching staff soon entered to announce Darren's absence that day for doctor visits. That said, they called for the start of practice.

* * * * *

All day, Heero and Duo had effectively managed to address one another only if it involved their plays. And when they did, they never looked at each other. Rumblings of the apparent rift between the two started spreading through the team as a real concern began to grow.

While both players performed to the best of their abilities, as always, they did so mechanically. The connection that had been built up between them over the last months was missing and it was showing.

Even the excitement that had come with Duo's learning to catch was lost. The whole event was never shared with anyone, and so the call was never made to try a throw to the running back during the skirmishes.

Despite their own worry, neither Zechs nor Howard pressed the matter. Clearly, whatever was going on needed to be handled without their interference. All they could do was hope that the problem would be remedied before the season started.

The only person that was thrilled over the strain was Mueller. Putting on an air of concern, he was having the time of his life seeing the two at odds with each other. Surely this was going to be the beginning of the end.

In the shower room, Wufei looked to the stall beside him and inquired, "So, what's going on between you and Maxwell? Everything was going great between you two before this morning."

Sighing deeply, Heero finished rinsing out the shampoo from his hair and met his friend's gaze. "It's... complicated, " he answered in a tone he'd hoped would give the receiver and everyone around the hint to leave him alone on the matter.

Wufei got the message loud and clear. Frowning deeply, he nodded, "Okay. Just let us know if you need to talk, all right?" The quarterback nodded in appreciation and the remainder of the time in the room was spent in that looming silence once more.

~~

Moments later, cleaned and changed in fresh clothes, the team began bidding their farewells until that evening's party. Duo remained slumped on his bench until the last person slipped from the locker room, leaving him alone with Heero.

The quarterback was taking his time putting his things away in his locker, waiting for his housemate to head to the showers when he suddenly heard in little more than a whisper, "I was an orphan from the time that I was three."

Blinking and freezing in shock, Heero's eyes widened. Quickly looking over to the running back beside him, he breathed, "What?"

Duo swallowed roughly and turned his head to meet the cobalt gaze on him. Rubbing his hands together nervously, he repeated a bit louder, "I was an orphan from the time that I was three. My parents abandoned me on a doorstep and I went from foster home to foster home for the next four years."

His legs almost turning limp, Heero sat down on the bench beside the braided athlete as he continued, "Not long after I turned seven, I was taken in by this one guy who looked great on paper but..." With a shaky breath, Duo's shook his head and looked away.

Clearing his throat, he stared off into the dark memories of those years and muttered, "He was different behind closed doors. He's lock me in this dog crate over the weekends and... well a lot of other bad things that he'd threatened me with an inch of my life to not tell another soul so I kept my mouth shut."

Unable to breathe, the quarterback blinked in shock but remained quiet. "Anyway," the American shrugged, "one of his favorite things to use on me when I 'got out of line' was this belt that he fixed with metal hooks."

Hands shaking, Duo reached to the hem of his grass-stained T-shirt and lifted it over his head before he gave himself a moment to reconsider.

As the zigzagged scars that covered his friend's torso, sides and back were revealed, Heero gasped sharply, "Duo." Slowly, he reached forward to run a hand lightly over the angry markings The skin just beneath his finger tips shivered a bit at the touch. "H-how did you get away?" he managed.

Taking a deep breath, the running back finally turned his head back to watch the quarterback as he answered, "I lost consciousness from one of those beatings and woke up in a hospital almost a week later. The doctor told me I was found left for dead in a city dumpster. I'd lost so much blood the hospital staff was shocked that I made it out alive."

"God," Heero whispered, washing his face with his hands before shaking his head. "Why are you telling me this now?" he asked quietly.

Small tears began to fill Duo's violet eyes as he answered, "Because I can't stand this silent treatment that we've been giving each other. I know what happened last night isn't easy for you to talk about, so I decided to talk about something that makes me uncomfortable. .. to let you know that I trust you."

A lump formed in the quarterback' s throat at that. Leaning forward, he pressed their foreheads together and whispered, "Thank you. I... I needed to hear that."

Even though many questions were answered even more spurred up from the answers. Still, Heero was happy to leave them be until his housemate was ready to go on with his story. What he already shared had clearly taken a toll on him.

"So… we're okay, then?" Duo questioned in a near sob.

"Yea," Heero nodded reassuringly. "We're okay."

All but jumping to his feet, the running back threw his shirt back on with grinned, "Good." He bent at the waist to gather up his pile of clean clothes, hair products and soap while promising, "I'll try and make this shower quick."

Chuckling deeply, Heero shook his head in amusement, "You always say that. And yet, somehow, I'm sitting here for at least thirty minutes before you're finished."

Duo almost cried in relief at how easy it was for their usual banter to return. Smirking, he dried the shimmer from his eyes and shrugged, "Well, it's either that or put up with my lovely body cologne all the way home."

The quarterback smirked back, "I'd never live through it. Take your time. I'm not going anywhere." Not lost to the running back was the real meaning behind that last statement. His grin widening, Duo winked and headed out of the room.

Sighing deeply when he was alone at last, Heero took in everything that he'd just learned. Along with shedding light on a large part of his past, his teammate had also put the ball of communication into his court. "Now how the hell do I bring up that kiss?" he frowned deeply to himself.

'And where will it lead when I do?' he thought to himself.

* * * * *

Together, Heero and Duo made their way up the front porch Dorothy's grand estate later that evening. The home's tall windows glowed with a warm and welcoming light. "Damn," the running back muttered, "and I thought that your place was big." He adjusted his red, form-fitting dress shirt and brushed his hands on his black jeans self-consciously.

For his part, the quarterback was doing his best not to openly eye his teammate up and down. Swallowing roughly, he tugged at the seemingly tight collar of his deep green shirt.

Before they reached the top step, the large crystal-edged front doors opened to reveal Dorothy in a black cocktail dress that hugged her body nicely. Smiling widely, she greeted, "I'm so glad you both could make it."

Duo whistled through his teeth. Taking the team owner's hand and kissing the back of it, he straightened and grinned widely, "Wouldn't have missed this for the world, beautiful. You look great!"

Heero just rolled his eyes behind his friend's back with a smirk. A blush coloring her cheeks, Dorothy playfully hit the running back in the shoulder and giggled, "Charm comes as natural to you as breathing, Maxwell… though I do appreciate the sentiment."

As he winked a violet eye, Duo bowed at the waist in a flourish.

Still chuckling, Dorothy gestured for her guests to follow her in. As they entered, the large doors closed on their own behind them. Leading them up a spiral staircase to the second level of her home, the team owner headed down a long corridor. At the end of the long hallway, she opened the closed double doors and stepped aside.

Gasping sharply, Duo gawked at the cathedral ceilings, chandeliers, elaborate paintings on the cream-colored walls and shimmering floor that looked to be sheer glass. His own eyes wide, Heero took in the ornate details of the ballroom.

Instead of classical music, more lively and current songs from the radio played through a DJ station. Another set up had a catering staff serving a variety of foods and beverages. Filling the center of the space, members of the team, coaching staff, administration and cheerleading squad danced and mingled.

Sharply turning on her heels, Dorothy smiled, "Good food, good music and most importantly, good company. Enjoy, gentlemen." Bowing her head, she rejoined Zechs, Noin, Darren and Aubrey at their table just beside the dance floor.

"All right," Duo grinned as he rubbed his hands together. "Well, I don't know about you, man, but I am famished. Race you to the food station," he said with a light nudge to his housemate's arm.

Smelling the heavenly aromas from the other side of the room, Heero's empty stomach started grumbling. "You're on," he replied with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. Springing forward, they darted for their target while laughing all the way.

~~

An hour later, when the entire team was present, Dorothy stepped up to the DJ station as he faded the music out. Clearing her throat, the blonde young woman took up a glass of champagne with her free hand and spoke into the microphone, "May I have everyone's attention, please?"

The talking amongst the guests died down and all eyes turned to the team owner. With a wide smile, she began, "I just wanted to thank every one here for all of your hard work and dedication to this organization. Thanks to all of your efforts, as you all know, the entire regular season seats have been sold." Whoops, whistles, cheers and applause filled the air at that.

Gesturing to the table where an older man and woman sat along with the new administration, Dorothy said, "It's always been my wish to make my father proud." She cleared her throat when her voice cracked a bit. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "Filling his shoes as the new owner of this team has not been easy, but I think I'm starting to get the hang of it."

Small tears filling her father's eyes, he smiled lovingly and nodded. Her mother took his hand in hers and blew a kiss to their daughter.

Lightly wiping the single tear that was rolling down her face, Dorothy looked to the faces of her team and grinned, "In addition to this celebration, Zechs and I agreed that you have all earned this coming week off before the pre-season. There will, instead, be a brief refresher of your drills next Saturday, the day before your first pre-season game.

"You've been pushing yourselves very hard and I would hate to see that burn anyone of you out. This will give you time to be with your families and loved ones to rejuvenate yourselves before bearing down for the long haul." She was rewarded with wide smiles and bows of heads in appreciation.

Raising a finger and an eyebrow, she smirked, "Though don't think that we'll be going lightly on you when the season starts. I won't be afraid to sic Pops on you if I feel like you're slacking off."

"That's right, ladies!" Howard yelled from the table that he shared with his fellow coaches. Everyone laughed as glasses of champagne were handed out by the catering staff.

As she lifted her glass, Dorothy toasted, "To the new season. May every one of you stay healthy and safe. And may Pittsburgh get the ride of its life this year." Cheering, her guests all raised their own glasses before taking a swig of their champagne.

After her own sip, the team owner bowed her head and offered, "I hope that you all enjoy the rest of the evening. You've earned it."

Enthusiastic applause and shouts followed her on her way off the DJ stand. The music returned and the dancing resumed. Back at the coach's table, Trent whispered something into his date's ear. Nodding with a wide grin, Lady Une rode from her seat. Hand-in-hand, the couple headed to the dance floor.

Needing a bit of air, Heero stepped opened the doors to the balcony overlooking the beautiful grounds of the estate. The breeze, while warm, was a relief that he welcomed with a sigh. He still held his glass of champagne and took a small sip while admiring the view.

In the far off distance, the lights of Pittsburgh rose over the trees to add to the glow of the moon and stars overhead to add to the serenity of the environment.

Just behind the quarterback, the doors opened as Duo stepped out with a whistle. Wiping a few drops of sweat from his brow, he chuckled deeply, "Man, I thought that Zechs, Howard and the whole team were going to bawl for joy when they saw that you and I are talking to each other again! We must've given them a real scare at practice today."

Standing beside his friend with his own glass of champagne still in hand, the braided running back asked quietly, "You all right?"

Heero continued to look ahead with unreadable expression. "Just trying to clear my head a bit," he answered as another gentle breeze played with his unruly hair. "There's been a lot on my mind still."

Quickly sensing the hesitance to actually bring up the event, Duo decided to come to his aid by calling it to attention himself. Folding his arms on the balcony railing, he looked out to the city and asked, "You're talking about that kiss last night?" Swallowing roughly, the quarterback nodded.

"Well, if it's any consolation, I didn't mind it at all," the American admitted in a lightly mumbled breath.

His cobalt eyes widening, Heero finally looked over to his housemate and sputtered, "Y-you mean you're gay?" His friend just smiled to him innocently with a tilt of his head and raised his glass. Flustered, the team captain all but shouted, "Why didn't you tell me!?"

Shrugging, Duo questioned, "Would it have made a difference to how you felt about that kiss?" Not able to argue that it would have, Heero shook his head with a deep frown. "That's why I never brought it up. I know where I stand in this," the running back explained.

He pushed himself off of the railing and turned to lean his backside against it as he continued, "You're just finding things out for yourself; which is why you need to be the one that decides whether or not we continue where we left off." Smirking, he added, "You're the one that ran away, remember."

With a quiet snort, Heero commented, "I figured that you would remind me of that." Taking a deep breath out and releasing it slowly, he looked back over to the city lights. "I've been going back and forth to what I really want," he thought aloud. "It's been a long time since I really allowed myself to consider my feelings and where they lead."

Slowly looking back to his teammate, the quarterback finally stated, "I'd like to… see where things go with this. If you're willing to try."

Duo's smile faded a bit and it was his turn to take a deep breath. Heero felt his heart drop into the pit of his stomach at the clear hesitation. Quickly picking up on his friend's misunderstanding, the braided athlete reassured, "I really would like to give this a shot, too."

As a clear relief spread on his housemate's face, the running back said, "It's just that there's only one thing left before we do this."

"What's that?" Heero asked, blinking his cobalt eyes in confusion. He heard himself all but begging, "Just name it."

Sighing deeply, Duo replied in little more than a whisper, "You need to meet my family."

 

Part 26:

"Would you please stop pacing? You're starting to make me nervous," Quatre commented with a small smirk. Propping a hand on one of the pieces of luggage beside him, he added, "Considering how expensive the carpet in here looks, I don't think that Heero would be very thrilled about having to replace it."

Duo sighed deeply and paused in mid-stride. All but collapsing onto the couch beside his friend, he sagged heavily and frowned, "I'm nervous as hell right now, man. There are too many people involved to have this go wrong. I just wish that I knew I was doing the right thing here by having Heero go along with me to meet the kids."

Gently cupping either side of his client's face, Quatre turned his head so their eyes met. "You're doing the right thing," he reassured quietly, "...for all parties involved." He smiled warmly and released his friend's face while shrugging, "If I really thought otherwise, I would have said something against this." The running back did seem to ease a little with that bit of logic.

Relaxing deeper into the plush couch, the agent inquired, "When you really look at every angle, what's the worst that can happen? Heero doesn't strike me as the type that would betray the trust you're showing him by telling anyone about your family."

"No, but he could have second thoughts about wanting more than a friendship with me," Duo answered, his frown deepening at the possibility. "This dating another guy thing is still a new concept for him. But dating another guy who's a single parent maybe too much for him to swallow."

Quatre tilted his head a bit and grinned, "You really are falling for him, aren't you?" He chuckled deeply when the running back fixed him with a glare that screamed 'Duh!' His smile saddening a bit, the Arab admitted, "There is always that chance. Still, better for him to find this out now than to surprise him with it later."

Nervously fidgeting with the end of his braid, Duo replied with a quiet, "Yea."

Footsteps approached the living room and the two friends looked up just as Heero entered with a suitcase in each hand and a duffle bag strapped around his shoulder. Lady Une followed close behind, her hands folded neatly at her waist. Nodding to his teammate, the quarterback asked, "Ready?"

With a forced, wide smile, the American threw his own duffle over his shoulder. "Ready," he answered while taking up the two suitcases by the couch.

After bidding Lady Une and Quatre their farewells, Heero and Duo headed out to the garage.

Little was spoken during the drive to the airport. For his part, Heero didn't wish to stir up his friend's building tension. The smiles that the running back was giving him never reached his eyes as a sure sign that he was putting on an air. Over the time that they had lived with each other, it was becoming easier and easier to read one another.

In all honesty, the quarterback had to admit that he was nervous, himself. Getting the chance to meet Duo's adoptive family was both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking at the same time.

Before long, the lack of communication was starting to get to Heero. Deciding to 'fill the air' with one of their classic debates, he peered out of the corner of his eye and smirked, "So, which do you prefer: 'Star Wars' or 'Star Trek?'"

His violet eyes blinking in surprise for a moment at the sudden question, Duo turned away from his view outside his window. Smiling warmly at his housemate's attempt to take his mind off the impending meeting, he answered, "The originals, of course! You can't mess with the Force! That series is a classic! Though I think that more of the books should have been incorporated in the actual films, because you kinda loose some of the..."

As Duo continued on with his rant, Heero chuckled deeply. 'Yea,' he thought to himself, 'I like that sound better than the quiet.'

* * * *

Coming up with topics to debate and discuss worked all the way through the wait at the airport and the flight to Chicago. On the plane, the stewards would snicker and shake their heads in amusement whenever they passed the two young men that never seemed to stop talking except to take a sip from their drinks.

Hidden under the protection of baseball caps, no one recognized the pair as two professional football players. Duo, of course, added his sunglasses to the mix so his infamous violet eyes wouldn't tip anyone off.

When the pilot announced that the craft would be landing shortly, the running back quickly turned quiet again. A worried frown on his lips, he looked out the window beside him to watch the city lights of Chicago grow larger and larger in their decent. He nearly jumped when a hand wrapped around his own with a squeeze.

Slowly looking over to his friend, Duo's breath hitched in his throat when Heero gently lifted the sunglasses from the bridge of his nose. "It'll be all right," the quarterback reassured with a small grin. With another squeeze, he released his teammate's hand before it became too uncomfortable for either of them.

After all, they hadn't fully committed to anything more than a friendship yet.

Biting his lip, Duo smiled back and nodded with a whispered, "Yea."

He lowered his sunglasses back down onto his nose and peered out the window once more. 'God, I hope it'll be all right,' he sighed inwardly. His hand still tingled from the calming touch.

* * * *

As Heero stepped out through the doors to the waiting room of the airport, Duo paused beside him to scan the crowd. A voice called the running back's name over the happy reunions taking place all around. Looking to his right, the quarterback watched as the same short-haired young woman that he now knew as Hilde came running up.

Just before she reached Duo, she froze with wide eyes that stayed on Heero. Smiling, the braided athlete stepped forward to hug the stunned woman. "Good to see you, Hil," he greeted. When she did not respond, he stepped back to wrap an arm around his housemate's shoulder and said, "I'd like you to meet Heero. He's going to be spending the week with us."

He turned his braided head and grinned to the team captain, "Heero, this is Hilde. We'll work out background details later." Duo lifted his shades a bit to fix a stern warning on his 'sister' when she turned to face him. "But I'm sure that the two of you will get along just fine," he stated in a matter-of-fact tone that seemed to serve it's purpose when the young woman stiffened.

Swallowing roughly at the awkwardness of the situation, the Japanese youth adjusted his baseball cap and extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Hilde," he offered kindly.

A nervous laugh escaped Hilde as she took the offered hand, her wide eyes fixating back onto the quarterback' s face. With a firm handshake, she replied quietly, "Nice to meet you, too, Heero. I hope that you both had a good flight." He nodded his head in appreciation.

With a wide smile, the short-haired young woman gazed on her 'brother' and shrugged, "Well, you and I will certainly need to have a talk later and... catch up." It was Duo's turn to swallow roughly, but he held his ground. Heero peered from one face to the other, wondering why there was a tension over his presence-announced or unannounced.

~~

After a visit to baggage claim and a quiet ride back through the streets of Chicago, Hilde pulled up to the large apartment complex.

Heero eyed the surroundings almost uncomfortably. Having never spent time in a town that could be considered a slum, it was a bit unsettling to be staying in such an unkempt place for a week.

It was a shock to him that this was where Duo and his family stayed. Surely, he could have found and afforded better living arrangements.

Slowly climbing up the stairs behind his hosts, Heero felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising at the feeling that there were eyes on him. A quick glance over his shoulder proved his instinct right. Several people that had been talking in the streets had stopped to watch him. Quickly turning away, he tried to get his heart to stop pounding.

"Just don't make eye contact with anyone," Duo muttered with a glance back to his teammate. "They'll make it an excuse to start trouble." Heeding the advice given, the quarterback kept his cobalt eyes on the swinging braid before him.

Hilde pressed her hand to the scanner beside the door. When it opened, Heero breathed a deep sigh of relief and all but ran inside after the others. Lowering his bags, he removed the duffle bag with a shudder. As the door closed behind them, Duo bit his lip before calling, "Hey, gang! I'm home!"

A voice from inside the living room cried, "Daddy's home!" Several more voices chorused things like 'Daddy! He's back!' Lowering his bags, the quarterback frowned deeply in confusion. Just then, a little face of a boy no more than six with Asian features and a head of blonde hair peered out from around a doorframe and beamed, "Daddy!"

Frozen, Heero's eyes widened when seven more faces seemed to appear from all around. Springing forward, the youngsters cheered and all but tackled the running back to the ground with tight hugs. Just managing to keep on his feet, Duo laughed and returned every embrace that he could.

The happy gathering stopped when the young ones all looked with wide eyes to the "Stranger!" the little Asian boy gasped, pointing to the quarterback. Clinging onto his father's leg, he cried, "Daddy, there's a stranger here!"

Lightly picking up the child in his arms, Duo grinned, "He's not a stranger, Sun. This is one of my teammates, Heero Yuy." Blinking at the introduction, the team captain managed to feel his limbs and reached up to remove the grey baseball cap from his head.

At the sight of those haunting cobalt eyes and that unruly head of hear, Flora gasped and gripped the towel wrapped around her head. "Oh my god!" she cried. "Heero Yuy's here and I look like a mess!" She darted off upstairs to dry her hair before anyone could blink. Marcus and Tai's jaws dropped as they openly gawked at one of their idols.

For the younger ones that did not quite get the whole celebrity part that came with football, they just gave friendly smiles to the man. If their Daddy knew him, then he was a good person.

Solo entered the room, his eyes wide on the quarterback as he wrapped an arm around his worried wife's waist. "Is that who I think it is?" he breathed. Hilde just nodded, watching the scene anxiously.

Feeling something pulling at his right leg, Heero looked down into the wide, green eyes of a little curly-haired brunette girl with freckles that ran a trail across her tiny nose. She smiled widely in a high, little voice, "I like you."

Duo fought the urge to snicker when his panicked teammate snapped his head back up at him. "That's Jamie," he grinned. "She has a tendency to get attached pretty quickly." Wrapping her arms tightly around the quarterback' s leg, the little one giggled.

Heero ran a hand through his hair as the room almost began to spin on him. Shaking his head, he announced quietly, "I think I need to sit down for a minute."

~~

After a brief introduction of all of his charges, and following a couple glasses of water that his guest quickly finished off, Duo took up one of Heero's suitcases and led him upstairs to the second level. The spare rooms are the ones with the cracked open doors. You can have your pick of any one of them," the running back offered in an attempt to start some kind of conversation.

Coming across the first open room, Heero shrugged, "This will work." His mind still spinning from the day's events, he was surprised that he was managing more than grunts. Duo seemed to be relieved that he finally had said something and nodded firmly. Nudging the door open with his side, the American led the way into the room while flipping the light switch.

Inside, there was a twin sized bed with all the fixings. A simple dresser and a small table beside the bed with the lamp were the only other furnishings. The walls were a faded blue that matched the drapes covering the plain window on the opposite side of the room.

Duo cleared his throat and said, "Well, make yourself at home, 'Ro. I'm going to see if Hilde and Solo need any help getting dinner ready."

Just as he was about to leave, he froze when Heero asked softly, "So you're really going to be adopting all of those children?"

Turning, the running back replied, "Yea. Every single one of 'em. Personally, my birthday isn't coming up quick enough for it to be official."

With a deep breath, Heero shook his head. "I'm sorry I've been so quiet," he stated. "It's just... a lot to process right now. I mean I never would have thought..."

"I know, man," Duo reassured with a small grin. "You don't have to explain yourself. But you understand now why I needed to bring you here. And I'm sure you also know the amount of trust I'm investing in you with this." The quarterback nodded that he did beyond the shadow of a doubt, a lump forming in his throat.

Lightly tapping on the doorframe with his knuckles, the braided athlete smiled, "Good. Marcus and Tai are in this section of the building. Just holler if you need anything."

The moment that he stepped into the kitchen, Duo could feel the tension from Hilde. Her back to him, she stood at the counter slicing up some meat. Solo was at the stove cooking what shavings she passed on to him. Taking up one of the spare knives, the running back stood beside his 'sister' at the cutting board and took up some of the vegetables to dice.

Hilde glared out of the corner of her eye and growled deeply, "Would you mind explaining to me why you thought it was a good idea to bring him here? And why didn't you at least have the decency to call and warn us?"

Pausing in his work, Solo turned to his wife and warned, "Hil. This isn't-" He stopped when his braided friend raised his hand and shook his head. Taking a deep breath, the tall blonde returned to his work and just sat back for whatever was about to unfold.

Slowly lowering the blade in his hand, Duo faced the young woman and gritted, "This is exactly why, Hil. I knew that it was going to start an argument with you. Somehow, you have this idea that I don't think ahead when my family's involved."

When Hilde raised her head and opened her mouth to protest, the football player raised his hand once more. "Now, granted," he continued with his violet eyes narrowing, "you and Solo spend more time with my kids than I do during the week. I can't tell either of you how much I appreciate everything that you've done to look after them when I'm away."

Leaning forward until his nose almost touched hers, Duo's voice slowly rose as he stated, "But I'm the one spending every waking second worrying and doing everything that I can to provide for them.

"There is not a goddamned thing that I do without them in mind! So I would appreciate it if you would stop patronizing me when it comes to raising my kids!" After nearly screaming his last comment, he quickly turned away and went back to slicing the carrots that he started.

Her mouth opening and closing, Hilde stood shock-still. Swallowing roughly, she took a deep breath and considered the words that she knew to be true. Very slowly turning back to her own work, she wiped a stray tear from her cheek.

At the stove, Solo smirked in pride for his 'brother.' As much as he loved his wife, the blonde knew that she was quite opinionated. And her opinion in the case of the running back's parenting skills was terribly wrong.

There was a long silence before the young woman made the first attempt to speak. "You're right, Duo. I don't have the right to second guess you the way I do after everything that you've done for those kids." she said quietly without looking over to her 'brother.' "I'm sorry."

Satisfied with that, Duo slowly leaned into her with a soft nudge and he muttered, "'s all right... Even though you really can be a pain in the ass sometimes." He laughed when Hilde swatted him in the shoulder with a smirk. Solo just snickered and shook his head in clear relief that a sense of normalcy had returned.

Resuming her chopping, Hilde commented, "So I take it things must be progressing pretty well for you to trust Heero enough to invite him here."

A deep frown marred Duo's face. "Things are... complicated between us right now. I'm not really sure how it's all going to work out," he answered while pausing in his task. Slowly looking over to his 'sister,' he nodded, "But I do trust him."

She met his violet gave and returned the nod. Taking a deep breath, she replied with a small grin, "Then, in that case, he's right by me." Gently resting her hand atop of his on, she squeezed it. "And for both your sakes, I hope that the complicated details sort themselves out," she said softly.

"Me too," the running back sighed deeply as he turned back to the vegetables. The three friends continued the remainder of their preparation in a companionable silence.

All anyone could hope was that it wasn't the calm before the storm when it came to Heero.

 

Part 27:

Early the morning following his arrival to Chicago, Heero lay awake in his bed. Staring up at the ceiling, he regretfully recalled how he turned down the offer to join Duo and his family for dinner.

Having to come to terms with everything that he had learned was a bit too much. So, he closed himself away in his guest room and retired to bed early.

That look of disappointment on the running back's face when he declined still haunted him. Despite the fact that his teammate quickly covered the hurt with that fake smile, Heero knew that he had hurt him. The guilt of that was eating him alive.

It was just a little after sunrise now and outside, the city began to wake with sounds varying from laughter to cars driving up and down the street. His appetite returning in full force, the quarterback turned onto his side and stretched. Slowly climbing out of bed, he pulled on a pair of grey workout shorts over his boxers and a white T-shirt. Once he slipped on a pair of socks, he headed downstairs.

Silently thankful that there was no one else up and about yet, Heero moved into the spacious living room. As hungry as he was, exercise needed to come before food. No sense in changing up that routine during his stay.

Positioning himself in the center of the room, he lay down on the carpeted floor and started his sit-ups. Eyes closed, he mentally counted his reps and focused in his conditioning. The world went away as he willed all of his stresses away. By the time he reached his hundredth sit-up, he lay back down and calmed his breathing.

When he opened his eyes and looked to his side, the quarterback nearly jumped out of his skin in finding a little face just a few inches from his own. The five-year-old Arab boy named Abdul was lying on his stomach and smiling widely. "Hi," he greeted with a cheerful voice.

Blinking in shock, Heero sputtered, "H-hi."

The child blinked his brown eyes and tilted his head of short-cropped, dark hair and asked, "Whatch `ya doin'?"

"I'm working out," the team captain answered simply. He frowned deeply, "Shouldn't you be in bed still? Is anyone else awake to look after you?"

Abdul shook his head with a bright grin, "I'm always up now. Cartoons are on." That said, he crawled up to the large, flat-panel screen and turned it on to a station with talking animated animals.

Making himself comfortable, the boy sat up on the closest couch and curled up on a cushion.

With a snort, Heero shook his own head. "Cartoons," he muttered to himself. "Of course." In seeing that the youngster was perfectly content watching his program, he rolled over to fix his hands flat on the floor and started his push-up reps.

By the time he reached ten, he was once again faced with the wide and curious eyes of his little companion. "Do you need help?" Abdul asked. "Daddy lets us help when he works out. I can help you, too."

There was an anxiousness in that small face much like Duo's when he had visited the quarterback' s room to announce that dinner was ready. As rough as it had been to disappoint his teammate, he couldn't imagine doing the same to such an eager child.

Lowering himself onto his stomach with a small sigh, Heero thought of how in the world he could get the boy to help him. Abdul waited patiently as he gently rocked himself back and forth. An idea suddenly coming to mind, the football player smiled, "Actually, there is something that you could do to help me out and still watch your show."

With a sharp gasp, the little one beamed excitedly.

~~

Not long later, Duo stepped into the living room to check on Abdul. Knowing how much his son loved the early morning cartoons on Saturdays, he knew that he would find him on the couch before the television. What he actually found made him freeze with wide violet eyes.

Giggling, Abdul was sitting atop Heero's flat back as the Japanese athlete continued his push-ups with the added weight to amp up his workout. Lightly counting his reps to himself, the quarterback actually had a small smile on his face at the boy's light laughter.

The moment ended when the little Arab looked up and grinned from ear-to-ear. "Hey, Daddy!" he waved. "I'm helping Heewo!" His own eyes widening, the quarterback paused just as he lowered himself to the floor. When they reached the ground, his charge carefully scurried off of his back and ran to his father with arms opened wide.

Duo smiled warmly as he scooped his son up in one arm and rubbed the top of the boy's head with the other. Chuckling deeply, he winked, "Looks like you were doing a good job, too, Abdul. That was very good of you." Abdul's grin grew as he tightly wrapped his arms around his daddy's neck.

Heero rose to his feet and nodded firmly to the little one with a small smirk of appreciation. Biting his lip, the running back said to his teammate, "I was just going to get breakfast going." Hope, Sun, Jamie and Camille entered the room and migrated to the television as the cartoons continued to play.

Lowering Abdul so he could join his siblings, Duo winced slightly when he looked back into the cobalt eyes that were watching him. "Would you mind keeping an eye on them while Solo, Hilde and I work on breakfast? The older three are still sleeping in." Gesturing to the lot watching the television, he stated, "That will keep them occupied until we're finished."

Not seeing the harm in such a simple thing, Heero agreed with a shrug, "Sure. They shouldn't be a problem." Nodding his head, the American quickly turned and slipped from the room. The guilt of his actions from the night before returned full-force for the quarterback. Chewing on the inside of his lip, he sat himself on the floor besides where the children were gathered.

Camille pushed back her dark hair from her little face and grinned down at their guest. Kicking her feet back and forth, the Hispanic girl said quietly, "Daddy really likes you." Cobalt eyes widening, the Japanese athlete snapped his head to peer up at the group that now had all eyes on him.

"How do you know that?" Heero inquired.

Just beside Flora, Hope's red hair glowed in the sunlight explained with a giggle, "Daddy only brings people he really likes here." The way that the youngest of the lot said those words, it was as if she thought everyone knew that fact.

Leaning forward so his little head was past his sisters', Sun added, "Only Uncle Quatwa been here, too."

That realization hit the quarterback like a punch to the chest. The whole time that he had been reeling over the fact that Duo was about to become a parent, he never took into consideration the fact that he was sharing the most important and private part of himself.

Suddenly, the guilt reached a whole new level that made him sick to his stomach.

Broken from his thoughts at the feeling of something wrapping around his arm, Heero blinked and returned to the present. Looking down, he found Jamie hanging on in a firm grip. "If Daddy likes you, I like you," she grinned sweetly.

Swallowing roughly, the football player frowned deeply and muttered to himself, "I don't like myself much right now."

* * * *

At the breakfast table, Heero was amazed at just how different Duo was when he was with his family. The moment that they all sat down, the family joined hands and the running back said Grace. The children were terribly patient and polite as the food was passed around. Every one of them had something to tell their `dad' and he was more than eager to listen to them all.

What struck Heero the most about his sitting and watching the family interact was how different Duo was. While the braided athlete still had his humor and quick tongue, he was ... peaceful. Much more so than whenever he was back at Pittsburgh. Whenever he was away from his kids, it was as if he was on edge just beneath the surface.

Almost snickering to himself at recalling how much he dreaded having to work with the famed 'bad-boy' of football, Heero shook his head in amusement. The running back was nothing more than a big teddy bear when it came to his family.

But then, a sudden thought came to him.

Ever since Duo's arrival to Pittsburgh, there was a change in his demeanor compared to how he had behaved on and off the field prior to that. This was a guy who had committed everything from DUI's to assault to vulgar gestures at spectators and vandalism. How could a person just turn that off so quickly in a matter of weeks?

There really was only one answer. And as soon as it hit him, Heero straightened with wide eyes. At the same moment that he came to his realization, the quarterback snapped from his thoughts when some of the little ones finished up their meals and left the dining room.

Stretching as he rose, Duo announced, "I'll get to work on filling the dishwasher."

Just as Hilde and Solo were about to offer their assistance, the team captain spoke up, "I'll help." The young couple looked at him with wide eyes. Still, no one looked more shocked that Duo, his jaw own eyes like saucers as he froze in the middle of gathering a couple plates.

A bright smile lit those violet eyes for the first time in days. "All right. Thanks, man," he replied with a small nod.

Quietly, with small grins of their own, Hilde and Solo made their way from the table and out of the room to check on the youngsters.

In a rush, the quarterback rose from his seat and gathered the silverware and plates set around him. Each taking one half of the table to clear off, the pair worked in silence at first. Once they reached the counter with their piles dishes, however, Heero couldn't hold his tongue a second longer.

"So it was all an act," he began. Nearly dropping the plates in his hands as he set them down, Duo looked to his teammate in wide-eyed confusion. "Before you were traded to Pittsburgh, everything that you said and did was just an act so that people would pin you as an asshole," Heero stated with all certainty.

Much to his surprise, a small smile tugged the running back's mouth. "You figured it out," he said quietly. Taking up a washcloth, he turned the sink faucet on and advised, "You're one of very few to know that about me."

Heero shook his head as he all but shouted, "But why!? Why would you willingly risk ruining your reputation like that!? Did you want to get traded constantly!? "

Calmly meeting the cobalt eyes that were watching him, Duo answered, "Actually, yea. That's exactly the reason for it." Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the sink and began rinsing off a few plates. "At least, that was the point until the team that I wanted to be traded to decided to sign me," he shrugged.

The frown on his face deepening, the quarterback repeated, "The team you wanted...? What team is that?"

Finally unable to concentrate on his work, Duo sighed deeply and turned the water off. Turning so that he faced his teammate, he folded his arms and responded, "Where I plan on building a new home for my family. Over the years, I did a lot of research to some of the safest areas with the most respected schools where I could raise those kids because I don't want anything but the best for them.

"Green Bay was at the top of the list, and so that's where they'll be living once the adoption is final. We break ground in a few months there." Roughly swallowing, the American frowned sadly, "And I want to be able to go home to them every night, Heero. The days I have to miss them during the week are killing me."

Snorting, Duo continued, "Now, granted, I might have gone a little overboard in trying to get traded this last season especially. But, like I already told you, I hated that whole organization on top of wanting to get in enough trouble that they'd want to trade me."

His braided head lowering, he muttered, "But nobody wanted to touch me then. Hell, the only reason that Dorothy signed me is the fact that she actually found someone that hated her bastard of a cousin as much as she did. I would have been out on my ass with nowhere to land. I had to pull back or else I'll never get to see my family on a normal basis."

Slowly taking a deep breath, Heero took it all in. Every bit of it made perfect sense. Everything was executed for a reason, with a clear goal in mind. Suddenly, his housemate wasn't such the enigma any longer. And he was lucky enough to be one of the few to see and know the real Duo Maxwell. He'd been willing to sacrifice everything-his reputation, his career, his talent... everything for his family.

Along with what was already riding on a successful season for the Wolverines, so was Duo's chance to be the father that he wanted to be. And that would mean leaving Pittsburgh if he was to be traded.

Clearing the lump in his throat, Heero gently took one of his teammate's hands in his own and squeezed it. When Duo looked back up at him, there were tears shimmering in his violet eyes.

The sight of that pain in his friend's face made the quarterback' s heart ache. It was all that he needed to know that what he was starting to feel was deeper than a mere lustful attraction. "I'll help any way that I can to keep that from happening," he vowed quietly.

Biting his lip, Duo protested, "The damage has already been done. I don't think that Green Bay will ever want to work with me. And let's just say that they do... What would that mean for us? You know that if I do end up being traded that we'll have to-" He was silenced with a soft brushing of lips against his own that made him gasp.

Heero gave him a small smile and shrugged, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there. For now, we just worry about today and let the rest sort itself out." The running back blinked in surprise and a small grin tugged his lips. Gently brushing back the long bangs from his housemate's gaze, the Japanese athlete told him, "I'm sorry it took me some time to come around during my stay here."

Wiping away the unshed tears from his eyes, Duo chuckled deeply, "Better late than never." He took a deep and shaky breath as the hand on his chin fell away. His stomach in knots, he asked, "So does this mean that I haven't scared you off yet?"

Unable to help the deep chuckle that bubbled out of his chest, Heero smirked, "Not yet."

Very slowly, they leaned in for a chaste kiss.

* * * *

Once the dishes were set side in the dishwasher and the table was cleared, Heero and Duo headed back towards the living room. "You know," the running back snickered, "Marcus and Tai are two of your biggest fans."

In shock, the team captain turned to his teammate and blinked widely, "Really?"

Nodding, Duo replied, "They've been following your career for the last two years. They really look up to you for being one of the very few great quarterbacks that comes from a minority." He raised an eyebrow and smirked, "You haven't noticed the fact that they get that 'deer in headlights' look and loose the ability to talk whenever you're around?"

"Actually, I did," Heero admitted. "But I thought it was because they were just surprised that you actually brought one of your teammates here. I didn't realize it was because I was one of their favorite players."

His smile growing, the running back nodded, "Second only to me. And that's for the obvious reasons." Shaking his head, he sighed, "I'm sure that it was a dream of theirs to meet you. Now that they have, they don't have a clue what to say or how to act around you." He peered out the corner of his eye to watch the thoughtful look on his friend's face.

A plan coming to mind, the quarterback grinned and nodded firmly.

Stepping into the living room first, he headed right to the couch where Marcus and Tai were playing with their hand-held games. When their guest approached, they stopped instantly and looked up at him with those wide eyes. The sounds from their battleship game continued without them.

Politely bowing his head, Heero inquired, "Do you guys happen to have a football?" The two boys nodded numbly, their jaws hanging from their hinges. "Good," the Japanese youth smiled. "Would you mind catching some passes so that I could stretch arm out?"

Instantly finding his voice, Marcus gasped, "Y-you mean it, sir!?" Tai held his breath in waiting for the answer, sure that they had misheard the running back.

Wincing a bit, Heero answered, "Yes, but I'm not old enough to be called 'sir.' Heero's just fine."

The boys sprung from the chair, whooping and jumping around. From his place on the couch with the youngest children, Duo smiled widely at the scene. "We have a football!" the Tai exclaimed to his idol. "And we can head to the roof for the space that you need!"

"All right," the quarterback chuckled deeply. "Lead the way." Still cheering and yelling excitedly, Marcus and Tai all but ran from the room. Shaking his head in amusement, Heero followed their voices.

Hope and her siblings all looked up at their braided parent as she asked, "Can we go watch, daddy?"

Lightly kissing the top of her head, Duo winked, "Of course. I wouldn't let you guys miss this for the world." Together, the family rose to their feet and quickly followed after the others.

 

Part 28:

A wide grin of relief spread onto Quatre's face as he spoke into his cell phone receiver, "That's good to hear that things are going well over there. I got the feeling that it didn't go terribly when Heero wasn't back here the day after you arrived. And Hilde is behaving, then? I know how protective she gets."

Duo readjusted the cell phone propped against his shoulder as he finished up with the dishes. "Yes, she's coming along," he answered. "It was a little uncomfortable at first, but she knows that Heero's not about to tell anyone else about the kids. They're actually getting along really well now."

"I'm glad," the agent smiled. "Now... how is the rest of it working out between you and Heero? Any progress there?"

A slight blush crept on the American's cheeks at the question. Silently thankful that he was not using the vidphone for his friend to see, he replied, "It's all right." Taking a deep breath, he sighed deeply, "Slow." After a brief pause and with a deeper sigh yet, he added, "Really damned slow."

Snickering, Quatre sympathized, "Well, this is the first time either of you have been in a relationship. And I don't need to remind you that Heero's still dealing with just realizing that he's gay. You've been well aware of that for a long time now." Duo pouted. "Stop pouting," the Arab urged gently.

Nearly dropping the cell phone into the sink in surprise, the running back quickly recovered and exclaimed, "How the hell did you know I was pouting!?" Before his agent responded, he shook his head, "Never mind. You always did know me better than anyone." He could almost hear the smile on his friend growing over the line.

"Anyway, I know all of that," Duo frowned deeply. "But you know that patience was never one of my strong points. And trying to do any more than a few pecks here and there when isn't exactly appropriate with the kidos running around."

Quatre shook his head in amusement, "True." Shrugging, he commented, "But even in the worst case scenario, say you have to wait until you get back home this weekend, I'm sure that you can hold off until then."

With a small sigh, the American mumbled, "If I must. Even if that is a whole four more days away."

Flora came into the room, her long dark locks pulled up in a ponytail and a little make up on her face. Smiling to his teenage daughter as she approached him, Duo said, "I gotta go, Quat. I'll give you a call in a couple days." After a brief salutation from his agent, he reached up to close his cell phone and lowered it onto the counter.

Chuckling deeply, the running back took up the last pile of plates to rinse and asked, "Are you really going to keep up with dolling yourself up so much for the rest of the week?"

With a wide grin, Flora shrugged, "Well, I guess it would be pretty silly to do that considering the two of you are an item." Duo's eyes widened and his hands fumbled with the plate in his hand.

Just as he recovered and spun in her direction with his mouth opening, she grinned, "You would never have brought Heero here if there wasn't something going on. And we've noticed the way you two look at each other."

"'We?' You mean Marcus and Tai know, too?" the braided youth blinked in shock as he turned the sink water off. Not long after his bringing the three into his care, Duo had told them that he was gay as for it not to become a shock later. They couldn't have handled the news better and had been extremely supportive over the matter.

Chuckling deeply, his daughter replied, "It's nothing to be worried about, Dad. I think it's cute!" Leaning over the counter and holding her head up with a dreamy-eyed look, she inquired, "So how long have you two been dating?"

Gingerly stacking the rinsed dishes into the washing, the running back answered, "Only a few days, as a matter of fact. And honestly, I'm not really sure that it can be considered 'dating' just yet. We're taking it slow." Sighing deeply, he muttered, "Really damned slow."

Pulling herself up to sit on the counter's edge, Flora suggested, "You two should go out on a date, then."

As he straightened himself, Duo stated, "Your Aunt Hilde and Uncle Solo are finally getting some time alone now that Heero and I are here. I'm not about to cut in on that by asking them to stay home so that we can go out on a date."

Flora nodded firmly, "Exactly why I'll watch the younger ones with Tai and Marcus. You know that we can handle ourselves for a few hours. You don't have to spend every second with us while you're in town. And I'm sure that Heero could go for the change in scenery, too. Neither of you stepped out of this place for the last two days."

Her father frowned deeply and folded his arms. "Why are you so insistent on this?" he questioned. "You know that none of us can get our hopes up that this thing is going to work out."

Biting her lip, the girl responded with a deep frown of her own, "I know. It's just... It's just that you don't do anything for yourself. It's always about us. And you deserve to be happy the same way that you make us happy."

Caught off guard with that, Duo's eyes widened. Blinking a few times to fight off the urge of tears, he wrapped his arms around her tightly and cleared his throat before whispering hoarsely, "You're a good kid. You know that?"

Returning the embrace, Flora fought her own tears and breathed, "Thanks, Daddy." When they pulled back, she smiled, "So you're going to go out, then? And not worry about us?"

The running back snickered and shook his braided head in amusement. "Yes, ma'am," he winked as he rubbed the top of her head. "Thank you," he said sincerely. Grinning from ear-to-ear, his daughter threw her arms around his neck once more.

"Great!" Marcus's voice cheered as he and Tai entered the room with wide smiles. "We get to rule the roost for a change!" He and his brother exchanged a high-five.

Placing his hands on his hips as he took in the three teenagers, he said sternly, "Yea, well, there are going to still be some ground rules. I know that between the three of you, you're more than capable of handling the others for a little while, but I don't want you thinking that this gives you total free reign to do what you want. If you want to be able to be unsupervised again, you'll have to do a good job tonight."

Tai saluted, "Yes, sir! We'll listen to whatever you say."

Duo took a deep breath, held up an index finger and began, "All right. Then there will be no inviting school friends over." Lifting the same hand's middle finger, he added, "No impersonating your favorite wrestler moves." The next finger went up. "No snooping into Heero's belongings. If you do and try to cover it up, I'll figure it out." The pinkie finger rose. "If you break something... "

While their father went on with his rules, the trio nodded firmly with smiles of anticipation to prove themselves spreading across their faces.

* * * *

At the prospect of an actual date, Heero readily agreed to the suggestion. Later that evening, Flora headed into the living room. Her face cleaned and her hair down for the first time in days, she joined in on a board game that her siblings were playing at the table.

Looking up from his spot to the Hispanic girl, Heero acknowledged, "You took off your makeup." Blushing a bit, she bowed her head shyly. The quarterback' s smile grew and warmed as he commented, "You're a pretty girl without it, Flora. If there's every a guy you like that can't appreciate that, he's not worth the trouble."

Her eyes widening, the teenager's head snapped up to meet his gaze. Beaming, she said quietly, "Thanks, Heero." With a wink, the team captain looked back down on Jamie in his lap and pointed at which card in her hand she should use on her next turn in the game.

Duo entered the room, rubbing his hands together nervously as he nodded firmly to his teammate, "Ready?" Returning the nod, Heero carefully lifted Jamie from his lap and settled her onto the chair when he rose from it.

Hugging and kissing his family, the running back turned to his eldest three. "Okay," he began, "I have the emergency numbers by the telephone for my cell as well as Hilde's and Solo's. If there's anything that-"

Marcus shook his head to cut him off, smiling, "We got it, Dad. Don't worry."

Chuckling deeply, Heero rested a gentle hand on his date's shoulder and squeezed it. "You heard him, Duo," he smirked while gently pulling him towards the doorway. "Let's go."

As they waved the couple off, the youngsters chorused sentiments like `Have a good time' and `Love you, Daddy.'

Once they were outside, Duo forced himself to relax and just enjoy himself for a change. Taking the wheel of his car, he drove to the outskirts of the city while staying close enough for a quick return home in case he was needed. Just to be safe.

Already knowing one of the best places to go for some privacy, he went to the observation needle that rose high over the city. A tourist attraction by day, the tower saw few visitors in the evening. It was easy to find an empty bench with no one close enough to bother them.

From the balcony at the top of the needle, the running back sighed deeply at a gentle breeze. Sitting back in the soft cushions of the bench, he said, "The city doesn't seem nearly as bad from this height."

Just beside him, Heero nodded as he took in his surroundings. Millions of lights shown in an array of different colors and intensities. Much like the stars in the skies above. Even he had to admit that the city made a beautiful sight from where they were. Biting his lip, he slowly moved his hand to slide over the one resting next to him. It reacted instantly at the touch and turned over to hold onto his own.

That simple touch sent shockwaves through the quarterback. Silently, he was in awe over how something as simple as holding hands could stir up a world of feelings. "I still don't really know what I'm supposed to be doing," he heard himself admit.

Shrugging, Duo leaned his head back against the bench and smiled to him, "It's okay. I'm just as new at this part of the game. I guess we just do whatever feels right and if either of us gets uncomfortable, we pull back a little."

A smile of relief tugged Heero's lips as he nodded firmly, "I can work with that." Releasing the hand in his own, he slid closer to his teammate and wrapped his arm around him. Duo chuckled deeply and rested his head on the quarterback' s shoulder. With a deep sigh of contentment, his violet eyes closed.

"This is nice," the team captain acknowledged quietly after a long pause. His housemate hummed in agreement. Lightly wrapping Duo's long, braided rope of hair around his fingers, Heero stated, "I've been thinking... your family doesn't need to wait for your house in Green Bay to be finished to move. They're welcome to stay at my estate... if that's all right with you."

Just the mere offer made the running back's heart skip a few beats. Slowly looking up to meet the gaze locked on him, he whispered, "God, Heero, you have no idea what that means to me." Biting his lip, he frowned deeply, "But I can't accept."

Stunned, Heero's eyes widened as he retorted, "Why not? I know that you don't like their staying here. It's not a safe place for them. If you're rejecting because you're too proud-" At the fervent shaking of his partner's head, he cut himself off.

Sighing deeply, Duo explained calmly, "I can't accept because it's ordered by the court that they can't leave town until after the adoption. My life became an open book to the judge that is overlooking the process. I had to come clean about being gay. It's not nearly the strike against me that it would have been even a couple centuries ago, but I still have to be watched more than a straight person looking to adopt."

The running back's body language and voice rose in frustration as he continued, "I'm under a damned microscope. There are social workers that come to interview me and the kids one-on-one every weekend to be certain that I'll be a fit parent when the time comes.

"It all goes away when I turn twenty-one this February, but until then my hands are completely tied!" After nearly shouting that last bit, Duo looked out to the city once more with tears in his violet eyes. Heero swallowed roughly as he regarded his partner.

Life was indeed not always fair. But Duo's was nothing but a constant uphill struggle. His irritation and anger were more than understandable, especially considering the fact that he now had children involved.

A bitter laugh rumbled from the running back as he stated, "The most messed up part is that I came right out and told the judge the things I was going to pull so that I could be traded away to Green Bay. The DUI and worst of my acts always happened when I was in town playing against Chicago so that he could get me out of my charges when I entered his court.

"The law is willing to overlook those things, but not something that I have no control over," he breathed as he continued to watch the city stretched out before them.

Gently placing a hand under the other athlete's chin, Heero turned his head so that their eyes met again. Cupping the side of his face, he wiped a stray tear away. "I'm sorry," he breathed sincerely. "I had no idea."

Sniffling, Duo leaned into the touch and replied, "I know. Sorry that I kinda lost it there. It's just... those kids are the world to me. They have as many demons here as I do. February's no going to get here soon enough for me to get them the hell away from this place."

Not knowing what to say, the quarterback pulled him into a tight embrace. Clinging on tightly, Duo closed his eyes and buried his face against a strong shoulder. Some time had passed before they broke apart. Running a hand through his partner's long bangs, Heero inquired quietly, "Better?"

"Yea," the running back smiled as he raised his head. "Actually a lot better. Thanks." Wincing, he added, "And sorry for ruining our first date."

With a small grin, Heero shrugged, "I wouldn't say that it's ruined. The purpose of a date is for two people to know each other better, right?"

Chuckling deeply, Duo nodded, "Right. I guess that I forgot that part of it." He raised an eyebrow and smirked, "But would you mind it if we change the subject matter to something a little… lighter?"

His smile widening a bit, the team captain replied, "I've already got that covered." Folding his arms, he asked, "So how do you think Treize is going to react when we drop the bomb that you can catch now?"

Already loving the new topic, the American grinned mischievously.

* * * *

Two hours later, Heero and Duo returned to the apartment building laughing quietly and still holding hands as they ascended the front stairs. "I still can't believe that you actually made one of your teammates on the Cavilers think that you were sleeping with his mom just to piss him off," the quarterback snickered.

"Yea, but if you knew the guy you'd know why he had it coming," Duo smirked. "It was our first year in the big leagues and he was the first to let it get to his head. Truth of the matter was his mom loved the hell out of me and we did go out for dinner a few times. He just jumped to conclusions and made those innocent outings into something more. I wasn't about to come out and tell him otherwise."

Shaking his head, Heero chuckled deeply, "Well you do know that our first regular season game is against the Cavilers, right? Last I checked, Williams was still with them."

That smirk on the running back's face only grew more mischievous as he removed the keys from his pocket. "I always did like happy reunions," he commented. "At least you'll know why I'll be receiving death-glares from him during the game from across the field." Turning the key and placing his hand against the scanner as a second barrier of protection to his family, the door slid open for them.

Carefully scanning the area as he moved, Duo headed for the living room. Marcus and Tai were sitting on the floor in front of the vid screen, engaged in a video game while Flora was reading on the couch. At the football players' entrance, the trio looked up and smiled widely.

Lowering her book, Flora rose from the couch and informed, "The others are all tucked in and sleeping. We followed every order just as you asked." Her bothers nodded excitedly as they neared, folding their hands behind their backs.

After an appraisal of the room, the running back smiled warmly, "You all did a great job." Pulling them in for a tight hug, he kissed their heads and told them sincerely, "Thank you." The three teenagers beamed proudly. Quickly falling back into his parental role, Duo said, "Now, off to bed with you, too. It's after eleven-so it's past your curfew."

In seeing how happy their father and Heero seemed, not one of the youngsters needed to ask how the date went. Grinning widely, they bid a good night to the couple and headed upstairs to their rooms.

Slowly approaching his partner, Heero smiled, "They're good kids."

Nodding, Duo replied quietly, "Yea. They are." He cleared his throat and looked down to the ground, a blush coloring his cheeks. "Um... thanks for the date." Suddenly, he was pulled into a deep, fierce kiss. With a soft sigh, he closed his wide eyes as he returned the favor.

Only a breath passed when the quarterback pulled away with a grin of wonder and content at the same time. "Thank you," he stated softly. Gently brushing a few stray wisps of hair from his teammate's face, he bid a whispered, "Good night." That said, he turned on his heels and left the room.

"G'night," the running back answered the empty room, numb from head-to-toe after that passionate exchange. The shock soon ebbed and a wide smile lit his face. Sighing deeply, he fell back onto one of the couches and closed his eyes.

For the first time in his life, everything seemed to be working out just fine. It was a nice change.

 

Part 29:

Two days before the final practice before the pre-season, Duo got a visit from one of the social workers on call that week. Patient as always, he went through the weekly drills of the inspection and the interview. By the end of his interrogation, Marcus was the first of the children to be called into the study where the social worker had taken her station.

When he stepped back into the living room, the running back nodded firmly to his oldest. Sighing deeply, the African-American boy rose from the couch and headed out. Jamie was sitting in Heero's lap, which she seemed to have deemed hers ever since the quarterback started warming up to the youngsters. Abdul, Sun and Camille sat at either side of him, huddling close as they watched one of their favorite programs.

It was a lot for Heero to just sit there and not say anything to the social worker regarding the constant invasion of privacy. Something was very wrong with the system if someone as trustworthy and caring as Duo had to be babysat constantly. As far as the quarterback was concerned, he never knew a better father short of his own.

On the opposite couch, Hilde and Solo sat beside each other with Flora and Tai flanking them. Each one had a look of apprehension and frustration. "This is so stupid," the Asian boy hissed through his teeth finally, his eyes narrowing. "You would think that after a year of this crap, they would get the hint that everything is just fine."

Duo warned, "Watch the language around the little ones, Tai." His son winced and flashed him an apologetic, sheepish smile. With a deep frown, the running back shrugged, "It's only for a few more months. We can put up with it for a little longer."

Sighing, Tai muttered, "I guess." Solo smiled sadly and wrapped a sympathetic arm around his 'nephew's' shoulders, pulling him into a one-armed embrace.

Hilde rose to her feet and announced quietly, "I'll be on the second floor balcony for some air." Her husband gave her a concerned frown, but made no move to protest. Lightly kissing Flora's head, she gave the anxious girl's arm a squeeze before leaving the room.

The thought of getting a breather was more than appealing to Heero. Jamie giggled as he lightly lifted up while he climbed to his feet. "I think I'll join her," he told Duo. Nodding in understanding, the running back opened his arms to his daughter. The child laughed as he tickled her when she was in his care.

Quietly slipping from the room, Heero headed up to the second floor. When he neared the back balcony, he was surprised to find Hilde out there with a lit cigarette in her hand. Gazing out to the hustle and bustle below, she never even heard her guest approaching.

Careful not to startle her, the quarterback stated quietly, "I didn't know that you smoked."

Looking over to him as he stood beside her, Hilde blinked her wide eyes before smiling sadly. "Only one cigarette a week," she explained with a light trail of smoke that she had been holding snaking out. "During these damned social worker visits to calm my nerves. It's a far cry from how bad I used to be with this habit."

"Ah," Heero replied as he looked out to the people going about their daily lives. Hilde took a long drag from her cigarette and sighed deeply in relief. They stayed in silence for a while, the warm breeze picking up a bit to play with their hair.

Hilde breathed a frustrated sigh and shook her head, "I'm amazed at how damned understanding those social workers and the judge were over Duo's act. Granted, when the big things like the DUI and other things came up, he told them before it even happened and gave them his reasons for his actions"

She took another drag from her cigarette and frowned deeply, "They'll forgive those things, but not who he is. It's just not right." The quarterback remained quiet, not wanting to open his own floodgates on the issue. He simply nodded his head.

Roughly swallowing past the lump in her throat, Hilde quickly changed the subject. Her eyes locking on brilliant cobalt, she said, "I'm sorry that you and I got off to a rough start at the airport. I was concerned for the kids and not thinking rationally that Duo would never bring someone into their lives that he didn't trust."

Heero met her gaze and smiled warmly, "No apologies needed. You and Solo have invested a lot in looking after his family. I would think less of you if you didn't react the way that you did." An appreciative grin tugged her lips at that. "What do you say we start over?" the team captain suggested.

With a bright grin of relief, his hostess snuffed out the remainder of her cigarette in the ashtray sitting on the ledge. Extending her hand, she said quietly and sincerely, "I'd like that. My name's Hilde."

Easily accepting her hand in a firm shake, the athlete smirked and nodded firmly, "Heero. Nice to meet you, Hilde."

Chuckling deeply, she shook her head and commented, "I also want to thank you for being so great with the kids this week. They're really taking a liking to you."

His smile growing a bit, Heero replied, "They have been growing on me quite a bit." He snickered, adding, "Well, literally in Jamie's case." Hilde laughed fully at that, her head falling back.

Momentarily sobering, she began to warn, "And when it comes to Duo-"

The quarterback' s shoulders squared as he fixed her with a firm gaze and vowed, "I have every best intention when it comes to Duo, just as I do for his children. I promise that I have no plans to hurt him."

A satisfied and impressed expression fell on Hilde's face at the heart-felt sentiment. Nodding, she said softly, "I believe you. Enough said. I'm glad that he finally found a good guy to put his trust in."

It was Heero's turn to give a grateful grin. Offering his arm in a gentlemanly fashion, he asked, "Shall we head back?"

Slipping her arm into his, the young woman smiled warmly, "I have to say that's not a bad idea." Together, they left the balcony and headed back downstairs.

After the social worker finished her visit, Heero treated the whole family to ice cream.

* * * * *

It was with a heavy heart that Duo hugged and kissed his family members goodbye the next morning. Now matter how long he had the chance to stay with them, it never seemed long enough. The children were strong, as always. Even if it this drill never was easy on any of them.

As he watched the scene with a small and sad smile, Heero blinked in surprise when the little ones moved to hug him after parting with their father. When Jamie came up, he chuckled deeply and picked the little girl up for a firm embrace. Pouting, the child muttered, "Bye, Heewo. Will you be back?"

Everyone in the room paused whatever they were doing to watch him for his reaction. Duo held his breath, nervously biting his lip. Without hesitating, the quarterback rubbed the top of her head and nodded, "Of course. As long as it's all right with your daddy."

Releasing the air in his lungs, the braided running back nodded when the eyes turned on him. With a happy giggle, Jamie threw her arms back around Heero's neck. Marcus, Tai and Flora were the last to shake their guest's hand and or hug him farewell.

Suitcases in hand, the two football players headed outside with Hilde in the lead. As any time he had to leave his children behind, Duo placed his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose to hide the slight shimmer in his eyes. Beside him, Heero gently nudged his shoulder in a sign of support.

Looking over at him, the American flashed him a small, grateful smile.

* * * * *

Following a grueling day of practice, the team was gathered in one of the large session rooms before the stadium. Zechs stood at the front of the room with his hands folded behind his back. "As we all know, the next four games will not count since this is just the pre-season. With that in mind, we'll be taking it easy on the field to prevent injury before the regular season."

At that, Duo cleared his throat and raised his hand. Slightly surprised by the gesture, he head coach nodded, "Yes, Maxwell?" Everyone turned to the braided running back as he rose to his feet.

"No offense, coach," he began, "But I think we should be a little more aggressive for the first game tomorrow." Eyes widened as several of his teammates listened in disbelief that he was actually arguing with their head coach.

Instead of feeling the least bit slighted at the retort, Zechs smirked in amusement. Folding his arms across his chest, he asked, "And what makes you say that?" Heero's eyes were asking the same questions as he looked up to his partner.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Duo explained, "It's just that a lot is banking on our keeping eyes on us. No offense, but for the last few seasons, you've lost the first pre-season game and it kinda set a pace for the regular season. You're going to lose a lot of people's interest if they assume it's going to be another rough year with a loss tomorrow."

There was a low rumble of talking amongst the team, some arguing the pros and cons of pushing themselves before a win or loss actually counted. Trowa and Wufei exchanged a look that said they agreed with their braided friend. The idea certainly had its merit.

Howard, Trent and Darren nodded their heads shallowly in agreement, an impressed expression on their faces as they watched Maxwell from their coaching staff table. Even Zechs seemed at a bit of a loss as he blinked his widened eyes.

Mueller rose not far behind Duo. "I can see the argument on Maxwell's part," he shrugged, "But we can't risk losing another key player like Darren just because *some* of us want to showboat. We have four free games to take it easy and save ourselves for when it matters."

His eyes narrowing, Zechs spoke in the running back's defense just as Duo looked over his shoulder to say something. "Maxwell is not suggesting that we 'showboat,' Mueller. He's simply suggesting that we play to win. There's a huge difference. I suggest that you learn it."

Swallowing roughly, the wide receiver slowly returned to his seat with a few heated glares on him from those that were siding with the idea of an actual win on their first game.

As he rubbed his chin, Zechs thought aloud, "A win wouldn't guarantee that we would keep a loyal following through the season, but it wouldn't hurt either." He gazed around the room and stated, "It's a decision that I can't make on my own, as it affects everyone here. This is going to by your call as a team. We'll have a show of hands. All in favor of Maxwell's idea?"

Hands rose all around the room, Mueller's the only one that remained down. Wide-eyed, the receiver looked around the room in disbelief. Smirking, Zechs didn't even bother asking who was opposed in seeing that there was only one naysayer. Duo grinned from ear-to-ear as he took his seat beside Heero once more.

"Very well," the head coach announced, "We'll push for a win tomorrow." Behind him, a large projection screen descended at Howard's command from his laptop. "Since the pre-season is a way for us to get to see what the other teams have to offer, and this is only the first game of that, we don't have anything other than last year's footage to go on in how to deal with the Hawks tomorrow..."

* * * *

Back in the locker room to gather their belongings, Wufei and Trowa caught up with Heero and Duo. "We're going to try and brave an outing to Murray's for dinner tonight to celebrate the end of our spring training," the Chinese receiver announced. "Enough time's passed and I think that Dorothy did a good job of keeping the die-hard fans out there from attacking us again."

Chuckling deeply, Heero replied, "Sounds good to me." Duo was enthusiastically nodding his own agreement to the idea. "We'll meet up with you there in about an hour." After a brief exchange of farewells, the group parted ways.

* * * *

Alex rubbed his right bicep as Professor O extracted the needle from it. Moving to his station behind the medical table where the football player sat, the tall man filled the next syringe with his concoction. Treize was watching his charge, back leaning against the wall with his arms folded against his chest. "It's going to be a big day for you tomorrow," he smirked. "The world will finally have a glimpse of the new Alex."

"I just wish that I could see Zechs's face when he finds out about my performance, " the blonde running back grinned smugly. "It'll show him for letting me go." With a deep growl, he tightened his arm muscles and growled deeply, "Before long, no one will be bragging about what a great athlete Maxwell is. 'Bout time that asshole was knocked off his throne."

Already, he could feel the drugs in his system running its course. By the morning, he would have three times the strength and endurance that he would have without the enhancer.

His smirk growing, Treize nodded firmly, "It will be quite the surprise." Professor O nodded to him that he was ready for his next patient. Slapping Alex on the back, the head coach ordered, "Now, rest up. I want you fresh and ready to go when you get back here tomorrow morning."

"Yes, sir," the running back grinned. Pushing himself off of the medical table, he headed out of the room.

On his way through the door, he nodded and waved to his teammates that were lined up outside of the physical therapist's room.

It was going to be a great day, indeed.

* * * *

Wufei's prediction had been correct, thankfully for him and his friends. The crowd at Murray's had moved on since the interview with Treize and Alex. Giving the football players their respective space, a few patrons smiled and nodded firmly to the table.

Sighing deeply as he took his seat, Duo commented, "Well this is a lot better than our last visit." Inwardly shuddering at the memory of narrowly escaping the irate bar crowd, he muttered, "Amazing what a difference a little time makes."

To his left, Relena chuckled deeply with a supportive pat to his back. "Sorry we forgot to mention that the fans out here can be a little… passionate."

Snorting at her other side, Wufei mumbled, "That's putting it nicely." Reaching for his soda, he added in a low rumble, "A pack of damned heathens is more like it." Trowa snickered and nodded his head.

Quatre raised his soda can and grinned, "Well, here's to a great start to the year for all of you." Everyone raised their drinks and joined them at the center of the table. After taking a sip from his beverage, the agent snickered, "You know, I almost feel bad for the Hawks. Most likely, they're expecting an easy win tomorrow."

Nodding, Trowa stated, "Well, given our track record for the pre-season, I wouldn't be surprised if everyone expected us to not put up a fight. Hopefully, we can actually pull off the win, though. That team is always high on the rankings for our conference. [1] And everyone knows that coach Browning hates to lose."

Heero shrugged, "Guess he'll just have to get used to the idea." Smiles tugged his teammates' faces at the sentiment.

Raising his glass of milk, Duo laughed, "I'll drink to that!" Once more, the group met their cups and cans in the middle of the table.

* * * *

Later that evening, Duo was sitting out on the back patio for a quiet moment. Heero stepped out onto the deck and slipped into the couch beside his partner. Sighing deeply, the running back smiled and curled up against him.

Gently draping an arm around his shoulders, the quarterback kissed the top of his teammate's braided head. "Are you nervous about tomorrow?" he asked quietly.

Duo shrugged, "I never get nervous before a game. I'm more anxious to get out there and do my thing." Looking up into the cobalt eyes locked on him, he inquired, "You?"

Shaking his head, Heero replied, "No. I'm looking forward to it, actually. I've missed playing against another team. Not to mention the fact that it'll be a surprise to a lot of people if we pull off a win tomorrow." He settled deeper into the couch, reveling in just how comfortable he was becoming in having his housemate so close to him.

"It's gonna be a hell of a show," Duo snickered, his eyes drifting closed. "The straight-as- an-arrow quarterback and the rogue running back of the league working together. Who would have thought?"

Unable to help snickering, the team captain shook his head in amusement. "It's sure to make the front page news for the sports magazines." His partner chuckled deeply, wrapping his arms tightly around him.

Win or lose, it was going to be something.

[1] In football, there are two divisions... the National and the American. Then within those two divisions, they are broken down into National or American North, South, East and West conferences. (Each of those consists of four teams)

During the regular season, two teams the National and American divisions rarely square off against each other as most of the time they play against their own. At the end of the regular season, the playoffs are fought between the teams of the same division with the best standings/most wins at the end. For example, the best American West team players against the best American East and so on until there is only one American team remaining.

Finally, the National and American teams left standing in the end go on to play against each other in the Super Bowl for the championship.

In this fic, the Wolverines are in the American conference and the Cougars are in the National conference.

 

Part 30:

Game day came with a perfectly clear sky. Though the air was warm, the breeze was cool- a sign of what was to come with fall quickly approaching. Spectators were beginning to fill the massive Patriot Stadium in Pittsburgh for the early afternoon kickoff. Announcers were in their booths, making their predictions and bringing up some of the news leading up to the pre-season game.

Instead of wearing their own clothing for the field, the team arrived in their uniforms of red and gold. Like their jerseys, their pants were nearly all red with gold lines running down the sides of their legs. Their shining helmets of red with the image of a deep claw scratch running down either side finished the arrangement.

As they strapped on the last of their gear before suiting up, Heero leaned over to his housemate and asked quietly, "Should we try to have you make a catch today? It's your call since everyone watching to see if you can pull it off."

Tempting as the idea was, Duo replied, "Nah. We'll save it for when it really matters." As he wrapped his long braid into a bun at the back of his head that he secured with a couple pins, he smirked, "Better to leave people hanging in waiting, right?" The quarterback chuckled deeply more than happy to agree with the decision.

Zechs, Howard, Trent and Darren entered the locker room and all of the banter amongst the team ended. Smiling warmly as all eyes fell on him, the head coach began. "We've been preparing a long time for this. And just so you know all of the commentators are expecting you to lose by a wide margin."

Just as he`d hoped, the fuel was added to the fire as eyes narrowed and fists clenched all around the room. This was a very different team than the one he had worked with in the past. Now they knew that they were as good as any other team out there. And now they would finally get their chance to prove that.

"Let's see what they al have to say when you prove them wrong," Zechs smirked. Heads nodded and anticipation burned in the gazes watching them. After gathering into a tight ring, a small prayer was said and pleas of a safe game were murmured, the coach said, "Have a good game out there, guys. Let's go."

Cheering and hooting loudly, the young men gripped their helmets by their faceguards and charged down the corridor. Stopping just short of the doorway, they waited as their opponents were announced. There was a thunderous mix of cheers and boos from the sold-out audience. In the stands, there were just as many black and deep green jerseys for the Hawks as there were red and gold for the Wolverines.

When the starting line-up was almost finished being called, the cheerleaders for the Pittsburgh team moved to create a line at either side of the entrance. Their red and gold pompoms sparkled as they waved them over their heads. "And now, ladies and gentlemen," the announcer's voice called over the loud-speaker system, his voice echoing through the arena. "Your very own Pittsburgh Wolverines!"

The crowd screamed and cheered as they rose to their feet. With Zechs and his coaching staff in the lead in the lead, the second and third-stringers ran down the runway that the cheerleaders made and headed for the sidelines. Back in the entrance way, the starters waited. "The starting line up," the announcer began, "Number eighty-five, wide receiver Chang Wufei!"

On his way out to the field, the Chinese athlete winked to his lover. "Good luck!" Relena cried over the shouts and cheers from the crowd. Mueller and his fellow linemen were called after.

"Number fifty-three, center Trowa Barton!" the voice proclaimed. Smiling widely, the Latin player waved up to the stands as they yelled and applauded him on. Quatre whistled through his teeth from his place in the stands beside Lady Une.

Winding down the list of the offensive team, the presenter broadcasted, "Number twenty-one, running back Duo Maxwell!" As the newest member of the team ran onto the field, the atmosphere changed as most of the cheers turned to heckling and angry boos.

From the stands, a few statements like, "You suck!" "Go back to San Francisco!" amongst others could be made out. Sighing deeply, Duo just smiled all the more to himself. "Ah, my adoring public." Lowering his helmet when he reached his teammates, he blew kisses to the crowd, only to elicit more scoffs from the attendees.

Heero snorted and shook his head in amusement. The remainder of his team was doing the same while their opponents rolled their eyes and glared heatedly at the display. "That's my Duo," Quatre snickered, knowing this scene all too well. Lady Une just grinned warmly on the running back, knowing that few people had the pleasure of really knowing him the way she was lucky enough to.

"And finally, number one, quarterback Heero Yuy!" the announcer called. Every last jeer turned into a cry and shout of elation as the team captain past the cheerleaders. Over the deafening noise, he moved to send a message by going right up to Duo and slapped his shoulder with a friendly smile.

Winking at him with a grateful grin, the running back returned the gesture and nudged his partner with his shoulder.

Two sports announcers that were broadcasting live from one of the high booths watched on in shock. "Well there's something I never wouldn't have believed if I didn't see it!" the first all but shouted. "Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell looking like they've been friends for years! With totally opposite personalities, I never would have dreamed them ever seeing eye-to-eye!"

From her booth high above, Dorothy looked down on the quarterback and running back with a proud smile. "This is a very nice sight," she said quietly. All around the stands, murmurs were starting as the crowd took in the surprising exchange. No one could have seen their beloved Heero Yuy actually getting along with the arrogant Duo Maxwell.

A young woman stood on a little stage at the center of the field. "And now, please remain standing for the National Anthem," the voice beseeched. Making a line at either end of the field, the two teams placed their hands on their hearts during the song. At the end, the crowd erupted once more and took their seats.

At the coin flip, Hawks won and announced that they would receive the ball first. Sitting at the sides, Heero and his offensive team watched their defense try to fend off their challengers. A few throws, a couple runs and more than ten minutes off of the clock, the Cincinnati team was close to scoring. [1]

Zechs was pacing the sideline, growling deeply, "Hold them guys." Trent looked on with his arms folded and his eyes fixed in a stern glare on his defensive team. With only two yards to go and their last attempt to score at fourth down, the Hawks' offense was tense with the pressure on them.

At the ball snap, the quarterback looked for a receiver frantically before he was taken down by a Wolverine defender that he never saw coming. Jumping from their benches, the remainder of the team cheered along with the audience. Now it would be time to have possession of the ball for a chance to score.

Moments later, the ball was kicked and marked at the twenty yard line with a hundred and forty yards to go before the Wolverines could score. Licking the fingertips of his right hand, Heero positioned himself a couple feet behind Trowa. "Set! Set!" he cried. "Hike!" The ball met his hands and he turned to hand the ball off to Duo.

With the same ease that he showed during their training, the running back somehow managed to find a hole in the black and red wall. Punching through, he was off and charging down the field. The crowd was on their feet, cheering him on. One of the back defenders just managed to get a hold of him, bringing him down with a tackle from behind, but not before he ran the ball for eighteen yards.

Not bothering with a huddle, the Wolverines got back into position at their new spot on the field, now with four more tried to get ten more yards. Already knowing that the ball was going to be thrown on the second snap, Wufei and Scott readied themselves at either side of their line. Once Heero had the ball again, the barreled past their blockers.

First to break free of his challenger, Wufei looked back and raised a hand that he was ready. Quickly spotting his friend while dodging the defenders that broke through, Heero hurled the ball for him with a loud grunt of effort. Jumping to catch the ball, the Chinese receiver caught it with ease and was off a total gain of thirty-two yards before being shoved out of bounds.

Only twenty yards from scoring in just two plays.

The spectators were on their feet in anticipation. Heero called his teammates in for a huddle to give the details of the next play.

On the other side of the field, Coach Browning's pale face was growing more and more red by the minute. Yelling into his headset, he stalked up and down the line like a wild animal ready to strike.

"Run it in or throw it?" Trowa asked as he and his teammates huddled. "We only need to get ten yards for the next four tries for another ten. We had more than that with the ball on the ground and in the air."

Smirking to his housemate, he suggested, "Let's try the ground again." Duo grinned like a sly Cheshire cat at the chance to prove himself again.

At the snap, Duo found a hole and broke through, most of the defenders not even aware that he passed them during their struggle with the offensive line. All too late, one of the back guards ran after the braided young man, but couldn't keep up. Screams and cheers filled the air as the running back walked the last couple steps into the end zone.

Laughing and shouting, Heero was one of the first of his teammates to reach his partner. Both shared a brief hug and patted each other's backs as the others caught up and celebrated the score of the game.

~~~

The game wore on for three more quarters. With only three minutes left in the game, the Wolverines were down by three points at a score of 24 to 21. After showing that they were not going down without a fight, the pride of the Hawks' coach made him push his own men harder. Now, both their offense and defense was tiring from the strain. They hadn't prepared for such a fight for a pre-season game.

Now screaming at his players on the sideline for allowing the game to be that close between one of the 'lesser' teams in the league, Browning had many of his young men swallowing roughly and lowering their heads. Zechs smirked and shook his head in amusement from his own side of the field. Even if his team did lose, they certainly proved they were no longer the pushovers that most thought them to be.

Huddling, Heero looked to his teammates after hearing the call from Howard in his helmet. "We're not going for a tie with a field goal," he told the others. "If we pushed this far, we go for the win with a touchdown." [2]

More than satisfied with that, his comrades smiled as they panted from their efforts up to then. Looking to Scott, the quarterback nodded firmly, "It's your play. You haven't had the ball thrown to you this whole game, so they won't see it coming."

Darren's replacement hid his rough swallow and nodded back. Breaking from the huddle, everyone went to their positions.

With his eye on the end zone thirty yards ahead, Scott dug his cleats deep into the grass and dirt beneath him. "Set! Set!" Heero called down either half of his line. Raising his hands, he yelled, "Hike!" Trowa snapped the ball back to him with trained ease and the play began. He turned for a fake hand-off to

Duo, who made to look as though he here accepting the ball and all focus was on him from the pack that was pushing through the offensive line.

Just as predicted, the back defenders did little to cover the back-up receiver and left him almost completely open as he charged on. Just as Duo was narrowly avoiding the hands of his opponents, Heero turned and spotted his mark. Waving his hands twenty yards ahead, Scott let him know that he was ready.

Before any of the Hawks could see the open receiver, the ball was hurled to him for an easy catch. Not able to hear anything but the explosion of sound from the stands, Scott ran without opposition into the end zone.

Jumping and shouting, the rest of his team ran to celebrate with the wide receiver. On the Wolverine sideline, most of the back up stringers were dancing and standing on the benches, waving their towels in jubilation. Howard and Trent were sharing a tight, one-armed hug as they laughed and hooted. Darren whistled through his teeth and waving his ball cap in the air for his replacement. Zechs remained poised, but looked on to his returning offensive line with a wide smile.

With a loud, frustrated cry, Coach Browning ripped his ball cap and headset off and hurled them to the ground. With no time left to answer the score, the Hawks were forced to take a knee when their quarterback next had the ball in his hands. [3]

Elated, the Wolverines charged the field as they embraced and slapped the back of their defensive team with the coaching staff joining them. Walking very slowly towards them, the Hawks congratulated the victors. Extending a hand, Coach Browning to Zechs mumbled under his breath, "Good game."

The tall blonde gave him a firm shake and smiled, "Thanks, you too." Most of the athletes on both sides were enjoying a little banter over the game. With the game over, the rivalry was set aside and warm sentiments were shared amongst them. All the while, the crowd in the packed stands remained on their feet, clapping and screaming in excitement.

* * * *

As the Wolverines continued to celebrate on their way back below the stadium, an elated Relena ran up to throw her arms around her boyfriend's neck. Kissing her soundly, the receiver lifted her from the ground in a right embrace. Catherine soon caught up with her brother for a hug and kissed his cheek.

Zechs led the lot to the conference room where they found a smiling Dorothy and her administrative staff. Noin and her boys sprung for the head coach for a warm reunion. Over the cheering and excited talking amongst the team, Dorothy whistled loudly and sound stopped as all eyes turned to her.

Smirking, the team owner turned on the large screened television just behind her. The two announcers that had been broadcasting the game were shaking their heads in amusement as the first laughed, "Well, folks, I can easily say that this was the most exciting pre-game show I have had the pleasure of watching in years."

His counterpart grinned, "I have to agree, Jim. The Wolverines came out with guns blazing as if this was the last game of the season. It was pretty obvious that the Hawks were caught off guard in having to fight as hard as they had to. They clearly expected to walk away with a win, just as we all thought they would." Snickers and nodding heads were found all around the room from teammate and administrator alike.

Jim looked over to his fellow commentator and nodded, "Right you are, Adam. This is already a very different team from the one that we've seen over the last three years. Clearly, the addition of Duo Maxwell was a brilliant call on Dorothy Catalonia's part. That was clearly the missing link that was needed to catapult this team." The administrators smiled to their leader and bowed their heads in agreement while those closest to Duo nudged him with deep chuckles.

"If today was a hint of what's to come, the Wolverines will be a team to really watch this year," Adam stated with a firm nod of his head. A loud cheer went up from the team as Dorothy turned the television off to look on her assembly.

Raising her arms, she waited until everyone was still once more. "I cannot tell you how proud I am of you all," the team owner spoke with a near hitch in her voice. "Even though the victory does not count in the standings, this was a very important game. It will only assure that we, that Pittsburgh, are not forgotten this season. And in the end, that's what matters the most."

There was a real swell of honor amongst the team at her words, their smiles widening. Clearing her throat, Dorothy grinned, "Now, get showered and get out of here. I hope that you all have fun at your well-deserved celebrations tonight." Her team laughed and applauded her as she stepped from the room.

All eyes turned to Zechs in anticipation, waiting for what he had to say of their performance. Chuckling deeply, the head coach shrugged, "I couldn't have said it better than that. You've earned the day off tomorrow. We'll see you here on Tuesday at eight sharp for practice as always."

Whistling and celebrating once more, the team filed out and headed for the locker room.

* * * *

Later that evening…

"Good night, everyone. I'll give you a call tomorrow," Duo said into his cell phone. Through the speaker phone on the other line, his family chorused their own `good night' and the running back flipped his lip closed.

Stepping into the living room with a sigh, the braided athlete curled up to his partner lying on the couch. "The kids say hello," Duo announced quietly as an arm wrapped around his waist, pulling him close. His eyes staying closed, Heero hummed an acknowledgement as the small smile on his lips grew. Chuckling deeply, the running back shook his head, "They're practically bouncing off the walls after watching the game."

The quarterback' s cobalt eyes slowly opened to meet the violet watching him. "Well, it was something," he grinned. "Even if it didn't count, it felt… really good. I almost forgot how winning felt."

Lightly kissing his cheek, Duo muttered, "Well, I'm pretty sure you'll be getting used to the feeling a lot more." Heero's grin widened and he leaned in to kiss his teammate soundly before resting his head back down onto the cushion.

Easily finding a position where they were both comfortable with their arms around each other, the fatigue set in and the two football players drifted off.

Lady Une entered the room, her eyes widening and warming at the sight. Quietly and carefully, she placed a blanket over them and slipped back out while turning out the light.

[1] A football game is made up of four quarters of fifteen minutes each. Every time the ball is thrown out of bounds, or a player with the ball falls out of bounds (over the side lines), the clock stops. It also stops only for time outs which a team only has so many of each half of the game and when there is a score. So, the games can go on for a long time.

After the second quarter, there is `half-time'- an intermission of sorts.

[2] A field goal is when the team kicker kicks the ball through two upright posts at the end zone. It's worth three points if they make it while a touchdown is worth seven points.

[3] Taking a knee is when the quarterback is snapped the ball and he kneels on one knee. It's done at the end of the game if there is too little time to do more than hand bow in defeat so to speak. The game is considered over then.