3-7-2007

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gundman Wing, or its characters. I just love playing with them.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Parts 31-40/?
Pairings: Eventual 1x2 and other pairings that I am working out
Warnings: Swearing, violence, mentions NCS, lemony goodness
BY: SkyLark
Betaed by Rebecca
Archives: http://www.gundam-wing-diaries.150m.com/gw/SkyLark/gwSkyLark.htm and http://www.mizunoamy.bravepages.com/skylark/skylarkfics.html

 

Part 31:

"So who is this for?" Wufei asked as he signed the football used for the first pre-season game. Once he was finished, he passed the marker and nearly covered ball over to Trowa.

Looking over his shoulder as he fished around his locker, Heero answered, "A kid that I know who is a huge fan of ours. Some other time, I'd like to use another game ball for his brother and sister. I know they'd appreciate it." A satisfied grin tugged the corners of his friends' mouths.

Every one on the team had a soft spot for their younger fans.

After Trowa signed the ball and handed it over along with the marker, the quarterback appraised it. The entire starting lineup had written their autographs, with the exception of Duo. "Thanks, guys," he said sincerely before placing the ball back into his duffel bag to hide it once more.

'Not a moment too soon,' he thought to himself in spotting his braided housemate returning from his meeting with Howard. He wanted his gift to be as much a surprise for Duo as it would be for his children.

With a shudder as he reached his own locker, the American frowned deeply, "Narrowly avoided a full kiss on the mouth from Pops when I told him that my catching problem's been handled. I like the guy and all, but that crosses the comfort line by a few leaps and bounds."

From his spot on the long bench, Mueller's eyes widened and his head snapped up. Wufei and Trowa froze in their own changing, their own eyes glued on the running back. Heero snickered to himself and moved his shirt to strap on his shoulder pads.

"You can catch!?" Trowa yelled when his jaw finally started working again. Several heads turned in their direction as the rest of the team caught wind of that exclamation.

Shaking his head, Wufei yelled, "Why the hell didn't you tell us!?"

Duo winced and rubbed the back of his braided head. "Sorry, guys," he replied with a sheepish smile. "I didn't mean to leave you out of the loop, but I guess that with some other stuff that was going on at the same time, I kinda... forgot to mention it."

Trowa blinked his emerald eyes as he dissected the statement. Catching the simple and brief glance between Heero and Duo that came next, he quickly figured out exactly that 'other stuff that was going on' was. Knowing that Wufei was just as observant as he was, he shared a knowing look with the Chinese receiver.

With a smirk, Trowa stated, "All right. You're forgiven. But, we better start working on that more at practice so that you keep it up." The running back saluted with a wink before securing the gear over his clothing.

Stomach churning, Mueller swallowed roughly and finished with his own equipment.

~~

At the end of practice, Mueller was about to spit nails in having witnessed Duo make every pass thrown to him. 'I have to let Alex know about this as soon as I get-'

That thought was interrupted when Wufei's voice called from behind him, "Mueller." Looking back, the guard found that he and his teammate were alone in the long corridor. He turned fully to meet the onyx gaze settling on him. "I wanted to have a word with you," the receiver said with a smile that was almost cold.

Leaning close, Wufei spoke in a quiet but threatening tone, "I know that the news about Maxwell not being able to catch was based solely on Treize's findings in having coached him before. However, I find it a little too ironic that Alex was there with him to make that announcement.

"If word ever got back to your boyfriend about how that problem's been fixed so that he and Khushrenada can do damage control before Maxwell makes his first televised catch, I'll know exactly who's responsible for that. And you will not want to know me then."

His eyes narrowing, Mueller growled deeply, "Who the fuck do you think you are threatening me like this? You have no right to make accusations that you have no proof to back up."

No longer wearing that sinister grin, Wufei glared heatedly. "No proof yet, my friend," he replied.

"And as far as threats go, I'm not the only one that you need to be looking out for. I'm just the only one that's giving you a chance to do the right thing before I strike. Don't think that we forgot your little hissy fit back at Maxwell's suggestion that we actually try for that win just to pick a fight with him."

All of the air was knocked from the Mueller's lungs at that. So he really had strained his relationship with more than just a couple teammates.

Regardless of how much as he wanted to tell Alex about the fact that Maxwell could catch now, he knew that he couldn't. His lover was not one to keep his mouth shut and would go right to Treize with the news. And from there...

Barley managing to keep calm, Mueller told his teammate simply, "I haven't sold out any information on our team before and I won't now."

Satisfied with that, Wufei nodded firmly, "Then we won't have a problem." With a slap to the tight end's shoulder, he smirked, "Good talk." Brushing past him, the receiver headed the rest of the way towards the locker room.

Alone once more, Mueller leaned his back against the wall at the feeling of his knees nearly giving out. "I've got to work like hell in getting their trust back," he muttered to himself, knowing that it was going to be an incredibly long year if he didn't.

* * * *

With the season underway, the practices were much shorter and only lasted a couple days during the week to prevent injury. That made for a three-day stretch for Duo to be back home with his family.

Heero boarded the plane with him for the extended break.

An excited, cheering bound of children greeted the football players the moment they stepped into the door. Flocking between the pair, the youngest of the lot wrapped their arms around whatever limbs and they could get a hold of. The quarterback chucked deeply as he lifted Jamie so she could hug his neck tightly. "You're back!" she cried in joy.

"I told you I'd be back," Heero smiled. Carefully setting her down so she could reunite with her father as the others switched their attention, he greeted the others.

Just as before, Marcus, Tai and Flora stayed back a bit for their younger siblings to have the first chance to see their father. As Duo was finally able to move towards them to hug them and kiss their heads, Heero went into one of his own suitcases to remove the football covered in autographs.

When his partner stepped aside for him to move in, the quarterback grinned to the lot. "This is the first of three that I intend on getting for you," he announced, holding out the football. "It's the one that we played with for our first pre-season game win."

Gasping sharply, the trio's eyes widened in shock. "No way!" Marcus cried. With nearly trembling hands, he was the first to get his arms and hands to work in getting them to stretch out.

Duo looked to his partner with wide eyes of his own and his jaw almost hanging. "It's the whole starting lineup!" Tai exclaimed as he and Flora examined the gift in their brother's hands. "Wufei Chang, Trowa Barton," he read aloud.

"It even has the coaches' autographs!" Flora beamed in finding the names of Zechs Marquise and his staff. Before Heero could blink, the three teenagers nearly knocked him over when they hugged him tightly with shouts of thanks and adulation.

Chuckling deeply, the team captain returned the embraces. "Well, there's one more name that's missing," he smirked as he looked into the shocked eyes of his teammate. He retrieved the marker from his pocket and passed it over to the stunned running back.

A wide smile lit Duo's face as he etched his own autograph onto the ball, right next to Heero's. Once he was finished, his children ran shouting into the living room with their gift. Hilde and Solo shared a warm grin and followed their charges to give their friends a little time alone.

Just managing to find his voice, the running back breathed, "Heero, that was... I mean... you have no idea what that meant to them... to me." Wrapping his arms tightly around the other football player's neck, he whispered, "Thank you."

"No thanks needed," Heero replied quietly as he slipped his arms around his partner's thin waist. Pulling back, he lightly pecked Duo's lips and said, "I'll get unpacked while you spend more time with them."

Nervously chewing on his bottom lip, the American responded, "Yea... um... about that..." When the quarterback tilted his head in question, Duo took a deep breath a deep breath and offered in a rush, "You could always just crash in my room if you'd like." Instantly wincing, he added, "No pressure if you're not ready yet, of course."

Blinking his wide, cobalt eyes, Heero considered the proposal a moment. Really, there wasn't any reason to decline. There had already been a couple occasions now where they had fallen asleep together on the couch at his home. But... that was the couch. Staying in the same room had a completely different meaning behind it. Something... far more intimate that he wasn't sure he was ready for yet.

At the hesitation, Duo forced a smile and shrugged, "Hey, don't worry, 'Ro. If you're not ready for something like that yet, it's no problem. I know you're still sorting things out as we go along." He was silently amazed how steady his voice was during that reassurance.

Heero frowned deeply and rested his forehead against his partner's with a whispered, "I'm sorry. It's nothing against you. And I do want things to progress... eventually." Sighing in frustration, he stated, "It's just that I need a little more time."

"I know," Duo nodded. "Don't worry about it." Gesturing towards the living room, he shrugged, "I better go check on the kids." As he turned, his smile slipped away and his shoulders slumped a bit the moment he was out of the quarterback' s view.

Lowering his head, Heero cursed quietly before taking up his luggage and heading up to the Marcus and Tai's wing.

* * * *

The weekly sports update was underway as Tim Crenshaw smiled to the camera, "Well, everyone, with the first weekend of pre-season games under our belts, we'll be reporting on the top stories to come out of that. Of course, we have to begin with the rivalry that got everyone going before the first official kick off of the year.

"Starting with the San Francisco Cougars, there was no surprise in their victory. However, their most surprising news from that game was just how well Alex Denton, freshly traded from the Pittsburgh Wolverines, performed. Coming out of the gates with impressive runs, he was like a completely different player out on the field. After this last weekend's press conference, this was what he had to say."

Alex's image appeared as he sat at a table with a dozen microphones and camera flashing on him. His face grim, he stated, "My being traded was more than the push that I needed to improve my performance. I want to be able to prove the Pittsburgh administration wrong for seeing me as the weak link in the team." He smirked, "Maxwell's time at the top is coming to an end this year and I'll be the one to take his place. I'll be proving that in the weeks to come."

Marcus growled deeply and folded his arms. Sitting between Tai and Flora on one of the living room couches, he glared at the screen, "Not bloody likely, pal." Duo snickered and shook his head as he gently ran a hand over Hope's red hair as she napped with her head on his lap.

Sitting beside him, Heero was equally amused with a lopsided grin on his face.

It was Treize's turn to flash onto the screen, the footage from the same press conference. That smug smile in place, he shrugged, "Alex was slighted by the trade and now has the most to prove. Already, he's been stepping up and performing better than he ever has. It only a matter of time before people will be seeing just how overrated Maxwell is."

Fists clenching and eyes narrowing, Tai and Flora's faces reddened at the image of their father's former coach. "Easy, gang," Duo urged gently. "We all know that it's just like Treize to talk trash about his opponents. It all comes with the territory. Sticks and stones, right?"

"Right," the trio muttered. Nodding his braided head firmly, the running back looked back to the screen. Heero watched him from the corner of his eye, in wonder once more over how well his partner was handling his parental role.

Adam Bradley's grinning face reappeared as he announced, "Back in the American conference, the Pittsburgh Wolverines were making their own headlines. Coming out of the gates with everything that they had, they took over the favorite Cleveland Hawks. Even knowing that a win would mean nothing, the Wolverines made it well-known that they are not to be taken lightly this year."

Footage of recaps of Duo's many runs began to play. "There's our Dad!" Flora cheered as she pointed to the screen. Heero smirked and nudged his grinning partner.

"Regardless of what Khushrenada or Denton might have to say, Duo Maxwell only continued to prove on Sunday why he's considered the best running back in the sport. He had more rushing yards than Denton and won over the crowd after they booed him onto the field at the start of the game. In his defense, actions clearly spoke louder than words this week."

The anchors flashed back into vision as Tim stated, "What's more regarding Maxwell is his surprising relationship with Heero Yuy. No one ever expected these two polar opposites in personalities to get along." The teenagers and the two athletes laughed at the comment.

"If only they knew how well we get along," Heero smirked as he shook his head in amusement.

With a frown, Tim commented, "With the growing tension between the Wolverines and the Cougars, it's a shame that they're in opposing conferences and won't be facing each other during the regular season. The only chances of that match-up would be if they both made it to the championship. Many sports fans are wishing that they could see a face-off between them."

Snorting, Duo smirked, "What I wouldn't give for that. I'd get to see Treize's face firsthand when I made my first catch during a game." Heero nodded at the sentiment. It almost was a shame that they wouldn't meet up with the Cougars for a showdown.

* * * *

The following morning found Dorothy in her office. Typing away at her computer, she looked over at her telephone when it started ringing. As she reached over, she cleared her throat and greeted with a bright, "Yes?"

"Miss Catalonia, Evan Meyers, the Vice-President of the National Football League is on line one," her secretary replied almost nervously, and not without reason.

The team owner blinked her widening blue eyes. It was very rare to ever receive a call from the higher-ups in the association. They only made themselves known at a few get-togethers. .. or when an official decision of theirs was coming down the pike. If the Vice-President was the one making the call personally, something very big was going to happen.

Straightening in her seat, Dorothy said, "Put him through, please." The call way patched into a three-way conversation as the secretary addressed the Vice-President of the transfer. Using the moment to catch her breath, the Catalonia made sure to smile so that it remained in her voice to cover her nerves.

When her secretary disconnected from the line, the team owner greeted, "Mister Meyers. To what do I owe the honor of your call this morning?"

The deep voice on the other line chuckled, "Actually, Miss Catalonia, the pleasure is all mine to be speaking with you. I must say that you've made quite an impression in the league over these last few weeks. Well done on how you've been handling everything. I must say that you've really impressed me."

For her to receive a compliment from one of the league's higher powers was almost as overwhelming to Dorothy as receiving such kind words from her father. Almost.

Blinking in shock, her smile grew as she replied, "Well thank you, sir. That means a great deal to me." With a small smirk, she added, "Though I know that you did not just contact me simply to bestow such remarks, being the busy man that you are."

Once more, the organization' s Vice-President chuckled in amusement. "Just like your father," he mused. "And you are correct that this is more than just a social call." Dorothy took a deep breath and prepared herself for whatever came next.

"As you are aware, my colleagues and I that run the league are at liberty to change schedules as we see fit," the young man began, "Considering the fact that you and your cousin are causing such a stir amongst the sports fans that we have decided to have your teems meet up in the pre-season since it is the only time other than the Super Bowl in which they can challenge each other. The match-up is going to bring in the best ratings for a non-championship game that we have ever seen."

Dorothy sat stunned in her chair. While the idea of going up against her cousin was more than appealing, she wasn't sure if her team was up to the challenge this soon. They were only getting used to the idea that they actually could become one of the top teams while the Cougars already established themselves as such for years.

But knowing what a draw the game would bring in support of not only her establishment but the league as a whole, it was all too difficult an opportunity to turn down.

Her smile returning, the team owner answered, "I think that is a fine idea, Mister Meyers. Which of the last three pre-season will we be changing then?"

* * * *

Fifteen minutes later, Treize laughed into the receiver of his telephone. Leaning back in his leather seat, he exclaimed, "Wonderful idea, sir! I will let the team know that you last pre-season game will be changing over. I can already tell you that they'll be more than looking forward to it. Thank you for your call, Mister Meyers."

As he disconnected, the head coach laughed and rose from his seat to gaze out his window to the San Francisco skyline. "Oh, cousin, I hope that you realize what you just got yourself into," he smirked as he shook his head. "Your career and your team will be in shambles before the official season even begins."

 

Part 32:

Dorothy brushed down the front of her black, knee-length skirt and stole a deep breath before entering the locker room at Howard's nod to her that the team was decent. Everyone watched her as she placed herself in the middle of the space. Slowly turning her head to meet all of the eyes watching her, she smiled, "Good morning, everyone."

Many heads nodded and other players quietly returned the sentiment. "Well, I wanted to inform you before you get underway with your practice this morning that there has been a change in our schedule for the pre-season match-ups," she the owner began. Taking a deep breath, the announced, "The league officials decided that our last game will be played against the San Francisco Cougars."

Duo's violet eyes widened along with most of his teammates' gazes. His jaw nearly dropping, he looked around to the widely grinning young men that he had forged a camaraderie with over the months. Swallowing roughly, he focused back on the team owner.

"Now I know that you will be feeling a lot of pressure considering how many people will most likely be following that game," Dorothy said quietly, "But whatever the outcome, I'll continue to remain proud of you so long as you just give your best, just as you always have. This change in the schedule only proves how much of a buzz you've all managed to help create amongst your competitors and spectators alike. I'll leave you to practice for tomorrow's game."

As she turned on her heels, the young men of her team were already talking excitedly amongst themselves over the news. "We're really going to show them," Wufei smirked as he nudged Trowa with his elbow. "I've been itching to get a chance to square off against those smug bastards." Similar conversations were going on throughout the locker room.

Heero smirked to his partner, "Looks like we're going to get our wish after all."

Forcing a smile, Duo nodded and rose to his feet. "I'll be right back," he muttered and quickly left the locker room before the quarterback could respond. Turning the corner, he found the team owner walking off towards the elevator. "Dorothy," he called, jogging to close the distance between them as she turned to face him with a deep frown.

"What the hell were you thinking when you agreed to this!?" the running back whispered harshly. Pointing back to the locker room, he shook his head, "We don't stand a chance against the Cougars with what we have! We're going to get massacred out there!"

Dorothy met his violet gaze without so much as flinching. "I know," she replied. "But it's not as if I had a choice in the matter. It's not as though I can tell the Vice-President of the NFL that I don't like their suggestion for the game."

Rubbing the back of his neck, Duo sighed deeply, "You're right. I'm sorry. It's just..." He shook his braided head and frowned, "It's just that the guys are so damned excited from that first game. It would have been nice if they were able to get into the regular season on a high note, but that won't happen with a loss against the one team they really want to beat."

As he paced back and forth, the running back continued, "As much as they want to prove themselves, they'll never match up to the team that Treize and Noventa formed. Those bastards are ruthless on the field. They'll take any cheap shot they can if they know they're not being watched. Not to mention that more than half of the guys there are fucking giants!"

Biting her lip, Dorothy lowered her head a bit. "I understand your concern, Duo. But some things are just out of our hands. All that we can do is hope that if it does turn out as we fear it will that they'll be able to pull themselves together for when the wins and losses do count."

Suddenly pausing, Duo's violet eyes widened as a sudden though came to mind. Spinning on his heels, he told his friend, "Well, we still have one ace up our sleeve with my being able to catch now. What better chance to make that known that at a game against the same coach that threw the gauntlet down first? If I am able to pull it off, it would make a hard loss feel more like a wash since we managed to get one over on them."

A wide, relieved smile brightened the team owner's face as she thought to herself, `Very good, Duo. I knew you would figure it out.'

His brow creasing in confusion at the smile, the American realized aloud, "You had that in mind all along?" Shaking his head, he growled deeply, "Why the hell didn't you just come out and bring it up yourself? You had me sweating bullets here!"

Dorothy's grin spread further as she shrugged, "Because I didn't want to be the one to put that sort of pressure on you. I wanted you to be the one that suggested it as showing that you were up for the challenge. It is as important to keep the morale of the team up as it is to actually win games. Not every challenge will end in a victory, but if the drive to win is lost then we all might as well stay home."

Chuckling deeply, Duo smirked, "You make one hell of a team owner, doll." Now feeling the weight of his responsibility settling on his shoulders, he nodded firmly, "I'll do everything that I can to pull this off when we need it."

"I know that you will," the young woman winked. "So long as you do that, whatever the outcome may be, there is no need for disappointment on either of our parts." That said, she turned and continued on down the hall for the elevator.

Heero slowly appeared from around the corner. Duo turned to him without so much as a startle, knowing that his partner wouldn't have stayed behind in the locker room. "I was afraid that it might be as bad as you said," he commented with a small sigh. "The team's come a long way from the last few seasons, but there's still a way to go if we want to beat a team like the Cougars."

Taking a deep breath, Duo replied quietly, "Yea. It's going to be a damned bloodbath."

As he neared, the quarterback asked in a quiet, concerned tone, "And you're all right with the pressure that you just put on yourself? A few catches during practice are far different from catches during an actual game against blockers and defensive men like theirs."

Lightly chuckling, Duo and opened his arms a bit and stated, "I have to be all right with it. There's no other way to keep the game from becoming a total disaster. Normally I don't have a problem with handling pressure because I usually don't care what happens on the field." He bit his lip and looked to the ground as he admitted softly, "But I care now."

The quarterback felt a sad smile tugging his lips as rested a hand on his teammate's shoulder. Squeezing gently, he inquired, "Is that such a bad thing?"

Snorting, the running back smirked, "No. Except at times like this, when so many people are involved." He shook his head from those thoughts and met his housemate's cobalt eyes. "Mind working with me after practice again? I know we have a couple weeks, but I'd really like to make sure I have this catching bit down."

"Of course," Heero grinned warmly. Briefly wrapping his arm around the other athlete, he told him quietly, "Come on. We better finish getting ready for practice."

Allowing himself to be led back around the corner, Duo raised a finger while adding, "And make sure you're wearing those black spandex shorts that I like on you so much. I need to see if I can keep focus with distractions around me."

With a bright laugh, the team captain vowed, "Anything that you think will help, Duo."

* * * *

"Well, men," Treize began as he folded his arms and smirked to his team in the locker room. "With my old man away on business trips, I received a call from the Vice-President of the NFL. We're going to be facing off against the Wolverines at their stadium as our last pre-season game."

Alex's eyes widened as he looked up from finishing with his shin guards. All around, his teammates were nudging each other with sinister grins. His heart hammered in anticipation at knowing that he was going to be able to show Maxwell up at his own hometown field.

The head coach raised a finger and warned, "This changes nothing for the next two games. We go in to win just as we always do." His smirk darkening, he chuckled deeply, "But don't just settle for winning the way you did this last game. I want that team shaking by the time we meet after they've seen what we're capable of. Then we finish them off."

Laughing and cheering, his men were nodding and high-fiving throughout the room. "Now, let's get out there so we can make our flight in a few hours," he ordered.

His team jumped to their feet and stormed from the room. Nodding to Alex when the running back was the only one left, he stated, "I don't need to tell you that your performance needs to be flawless that day. A lot of people are looking to make a comparison between you and Maxwell. If you don't want to embarrass yourself or me, you best be on your A-game." [1]

"Sure thing, coach," Alex grinned. "You can count on me. I'm not about to let you down after everything that you've done for me."

Grinning in satisfaction, Treize replied, "Good man. Now go join your team." As the running back headed out, he muttered to himself, "For all of our sakes, I certainly hope that you don't."

* * * *

On a chartered plane heading for Tennessee to face-off against the Warriors the next afternoon, Heero and Duo took their seats beside each other with Wufei and Trowa beside them across the idle. Silently, the braided running back was dreading that night of sleep in a hotel room. 'More like attempted sleep,' he thought to himself as he opened his pint-sized back of peanuts.

Whenever he slept somewhere new, those nightmares came back. Years of moving from place-to-place in his early years, sleeping in one bed and then another constantly, was most likely the reason for it. Strangely enough, the only time that those dreams didn't come when he settled into new surroundings was when he moved into the Yuy household. He slept lake a baby there every night.

"Are you all right?" Heero asked quietly, a look of concern in his cobalt eyes as he regarded his teammate. Slowly leaning in, he commented in a low whisper, "You seem pretty... tense. The last time you were like this was on our first trip to Chicago together."

Not even aware of it, Duo was rubbing the gold cross pendant that was always around his neck and under his clothes with the fingers of his right hand. If he was nervous, he fidgeted with his braid. If he was downright scared, he was fiddling with his pendant.

Having only seen the cross charm when his partner revealed his scars, Heero quickly picked up on just how unsettled his partner was. Slowly reached out, he wrapped his hand around Duo's holding the pendant. As if waking from a dream, the running back looked down at their hands with wide eyes at finally realizing what he had been doing.

"What's wrong?" Heero asked a bit more urgently, the worry creasing his brow.

Lightly sighing, Duo thought to himself, 'I never tell a lie.' Knowing that he couldn't just blow off his actions and tension as nothing, he muttered, "It's complicated. I'll tell you when after land. Just... not here."

Squeezing the hand in his own, the quarterback nodded firmly and released his hold. He turned his head to gaze back out the window beside him to enjoy the view of the sunset from their elevation.

Carefully hiding the pendant under his orange shirt once more, Duo looked over to see that Wufei and Trowa were sound asleep in their reclined chairs. A quick look ahead and behind showed that no one else was stirring about. Even the stewardess had taken her seat in the back to enjoy a book.

As he settled into his own chair once more, Duo reached over to hold onto Heero's hand. Looking away from his view, the team captain smiled to his teammate and gave another light squeeze. They remained joined like that until the pilot announced that they were preparing for decent and the cabin came to life once more.

* * * *

At one of the finer hotels in town, room keys were handed out and the team parted ways for their two-bed arrangements. Once they entered their room with their luggage, Heero and Duo allowed the door to close behind them. "Do you want the half closer to the window or the bathroom?" the quarterback asked before lowering his bags.

Without hesitating, the running back was already heading to the bed of choice as he answered, "Bathroom." With a sigh of relief at losing his heavy luggage, he sat on the edge of the mattress and removed his sunglasses to rub his tired eyes. Already, he felt like he was about to jump out of his skin knowing what he was in for that evening.

Heero began unpacking his uniform and other belongings as he watched the back of his partner. "So what has you so wound up?' he questioned gently while unfolding one of his neatly folded T-shirts.

"Nightmares, " Duo answered. "I always have them when I'm sleeping somewhere new. Must be because of my moving from place-to-place early on in my foster home days. They get pretty nasty sometimes."

Pausing in his chore, the quarterback frowned deeply. Looking over his shoulders so their eyes could meet, his teammate said, "I used to demand my own room whenever staying in another town while I was on the other teams. But you know the rougher patches in my life, so you wouldn't need me to explain anything if I wake up in a cold sweat or need to run to the bathroom to hurl."

Slowly lowering the clothes in his hands onto his bed, Heero moved to sit beside the braided athlete. Running the fingertips of his right hand over the gold chain that was barely peaking out of the collar at the back of the slender neck. "I could tell that it was something pretty bad when you were fidgeting with this," he said gently.

Duo bit his lip and just nodded. Pulling the charm out of its confinement, he shared, "This belonged to Sister Helen. She was the one that found me in that dumpster that I was left for dead in. She stopped by to see how I was every night after and more or less adopted me. She got me caught up in my classes and enrolled me into the high school where I was discovered."

He swallowed roughly, his fingers rubbing the gold metal of the pendant in with a reverent gentleness. Clearing his throat, Duo's eyes looked forward and lost their focus. In almost a breath, he continued, "All the while she acted like a mother to me, she was fighting cancer. I was with her when she passed and just before, she gave this to me."

With a deep sigh, Heero shook his head. Silently marveling at how strong his partner was after everything that he had gone through, he couldn't help the ache of sorrow that he felt for him. Suddenly, his own loss and his own struggle over the loss of his parents came rushing back after hearing of how the running back lost the closest thing to a mother he ever knew.

And yet… as difficult a thing as that was, Heero almost felt guilty for feeling sorry for himself from time to time. Duo had all the reason in the world to do that and never did. In fact, he was taking his experiences and using them to improve the lives of the children that he was adopting so they wouldn't have to endure as much as he had.

Blinking, the running back returned to the world of the living and gazed down to the cross in his hand. "I better take a shower," he thought aloud and rose from the bed without looking back at his teammate. Stripping his shirt on the way into the bathroom, he closed the door behind him.

Heero remained on the bed for a moment before slowly rising to finish unpacking.

* * * *

Sweat running down his face, Duo panted heavily as he ran. Without looking back over his shoulder once, he ran as quickly as he legs could carry him. From out of nowhere, a pair of large and strong hands gripped him from behind. Slamming the braided youth's back against a stone wall that materialized out of nowhere, the attacker growled deeply.

The impact from the blow had the boy's teeth hurting and his ears ringing. With a strangled cry, Duo's large eyes widened up to the tall man looming over him. The attacker chuckled deeply and bent at the waist until his stubble-peppered face and long nose were inches away from his prisoner's.

Those brown eyes that always seemed to follow the child bore into him once more as that deep voice smirked darkly, "Always running. You'll never be able to run fast or far enough from me, boy."

Raising one of his arms, the man's fist was suddenly gripping the lone belt that he had transformed into his favorite torture device. With a whimper, Duo shook violently and squeezed his eyes closed just as the arm came down on him.

"No! Please don't!" the running back shouted. The arms on his shoulders gripped tighter as he shook his head back and forth. Curling into himself, he was suddenly aware of something wrapped tightly around him.

Finally, another voice that had been just a shout in the distance was yelling just over him, "Duo, wake up! It's me!"

With a sharp gasp, the sweat-covered athlete opened his violet eyes widely. As his senses came back to him, Duo realized that the bed sheets were all but cutting off circulation they were wrapped so tightly around his body from thrashing in his sleep. The last to come into focus was the worried pair of cobalt orbs watching him.

Gently cupping the side of his partner's soaked face, Heero's deep frown relaxed a bit in seeing him coming back from the nightmare that had gripped him. "Its all right," he whispered, "He can't hurt you anymore." Whimpering, Duo threw his arms around his neck as if it were his life line.

The quarterback wrapped his teammate in his own arms and carefully shifted so they were lying on their sides. After a brief eternity, the trembling calmed and Heero lightly kissed an exposed temple. "Are you all right?"

Swallowing roughly, Duo looked up at him and nodded shallowly. "Stay?" he begged in a small voice.

Heero readjusted the sheets to cover them as he vowed quietly, "I'm not going anywhere." Sniffling, the running back settled against him, resting his braided head on a strong shoulder. Like two pieces of a puzzle slipping into place, so did they.

Before long, a peaceful, dreamless slumber claimed them for the remainder of the evening.

[1] Slang for be at your best. I know not everyone has heard of that one.

 

Part 33:

A few golden rays peeked through the drawn curtains of the suite that Heero and Duo were sharing for their stay at Tennessee. With a soft sigh, the running back's closed eyelids squeezed tighter when the light ran across them. Turning his head, he burrowed it deeper into the firm and bare chest beneath him.

The sudden realization that there was a firm, bare chest beneath him had Duo's violet eyes snapping open. Underneath him, the chest rumbled with a deep and tired chuckle. Ad he slowly looked up, he drowned in half-lidded cobalt oceans. "Good morning," Heero murmured before kissing the top of his braided head.

Stunned, all that Duo could think to himself was that his partner had actually spent the night with him… in his bed. Not on a couch that they ended up passing out on… he stayed with him in the same bed.

"Did you sleep all right?" Heero asked in concern, slowly pushing himself up a bit. He wrapped his arms back around his teammate and ran his fingers through long bangs for a better look into his eyes.

Smiling warmly, the running back nodded and whispered, "Yea. Thanks to you." Another realization hit him that had his cheeks burning. "Were you watching me sleep?" he asked almost shyly.

Another chuckle filled the quarterback' s chest. "For a little bit before you woke up," he admitted in little more than a breath as if afraid speaking too loudly would break the spell that had fallen on them. "I'm usually up around sunrise."

With a rough swallow, Duo frowned deeply, "I hope I didn't ruin your night's sleep too much. And I'm sorry if I scared you."

Gently lifting his housemate's face from under his chin, Heero leaned down to brush their lips together. "You didn't scare me," he reassured quietly. "I was just worried about you. And I was asleep right after you were."

Breathing a deep sigh of relief, the running back laid his head back down against his partner's shoulder. A hand was rubbing soothing circles along his back. After a long pause, Duo inquired, "So… what was it about this sharing a bed with me that had you so scared?" The hand on his back paused in place.

Heero chewed on this inside of his cheek and replied, "I guess… it's the whole intimacy part of it that's implied. It's not that I don't want to sleep with you, it's just that I don't think I'm ready to `sleep' with you the way that it would suggest."

To his surprise, Duo snickered. That snicker became an all-out laugh as his braided head fell back. Lightly hitting the confused quarterback in his arm, he exclaimed, "You idiot! I know you're not ready for sex yet! Hell, I'm not ready either! Though it's not for the lack of wanting to!"

Blinking his widened eyes in shock, the Japanese youth sputtered, "Y-you're not!? But I thought that… I mean you just seemed to want that."

Quickly pushing himself up to pin his teammate beneath him, the running back lowered himself until their noses were touching. "Like I said," he smirked, "It's not for lack of wanting. But I don't want to rush and potentially ruin things between us. Having this work between us is more important to me than a roll in the hay." His smirk grew as he shrugged, "I'm pretty sure you're more than worth the wait."

Like a weight being lifted from his chest, Heero took a deep breath. To hear that Duo had the same interest in making their relationship pan out before rushing things meant the world to him. Reaching up, he brought the face over his own down for a fierce kiss. Breathless when they pulled away, he whispered, "Thank you."

"So you trust me, then?" the braided athlete asked softly. Smiling, his partner nodded. "Does that mean we can share the same bed and not worry about being pressured into something we're not ready for?" Again, Heero nodded as his smile widened. Carefully sinking onto the other football player, Duo grinned, "Good."

And they sealed their pact with a lingering kiss.

Only after they were breathless did they part and rise from the bed to change for breakfast. It was going to be a very busy day ahead for them. And they were in for a good fight for another pre-season win.

* * * *

Relena was one of the first to welcome the team back into the Pittsburgh airport after their stay at Tennessee. As soon as her eyes fell on Wufei, she ran or him and threw her arms around his neck. Dropping his luggage just in time to catch her, the wide receiver kissed her soundly.

When they finally parted, the cheerleader beamed, "Just about the whole town is talking about how you took down the Warriors at yesterday's game! And all of the sports `experts' are saying what a shock it is that you won two pre-season games in a row!"

Smiling widely, Wufei replied, "Is that so?" He looked over his shoulder just as Heero, Duo and Trowa were walking up. "Looks like we'll have to head to Murray's tonight to celebrate. We never had the chance after the first game." His friends grinned and nodded in acceptance of the suggestion.

Quatre and Lady Une stepped into the waiting area and walked up to their group. "You all were amazing this weekend," the young maid greeted with a bright smile. Embracing Heero and Duo first, she kissed their cheeks. "And it's so good to have you back home."

The blonde agent greeted Trowa with a firm hand squeeze and a loving grin that reached his eyes. `Missed you,' his lover mouthed. Together, they walked off for some privacy for a more proper reunion.

Noin and her children were the next to arrive. As Zechs stepped out of the walkway, the boys cheered, "Daddy! Daddy!" They ran to him and were instantly scooped up in strong arms to be lifted from their feet.

A small, wistful smirk tugged Duo's lips as he watched the tender moment between parent and child. With a heavy sigh, he slid the sunglasses resting at the top of his head to fall on the bridge of his nose. Heero picked up on that longing look before the running back hid it away. Discreetly rubbing his back, he whispered, "Just a couple more days and we'll see them again."

Not missing the word `we,' the braided youth turned his head towards him and gave a tiny smile of appreciation. It meant the world that Heero seemed to be looking forward to spending time with his family as much as he did.

Once all of the team had reunited with their loved ones, everyone parted ways after orders were given to be at the stadium at eight sharp as always.

* * * *

It was a very different Murray's experience from the ones past that evening. The moment they entered the room, Heero, Duo and their friends were given a welcome like none other that they had ever experienced there.

All around, patrons were turned to face them as they whistled and applauded them. Several cheers went up as the group moved to their usual table. On their way, the athletes were polite enough to smile and wave to the crowd.

"Told you," Relena chuckled deeply as she took her place beside Wufei. "I haven't seen support for the team like this before. It's amazing how fickle their attitudes are. Lose and you're worse than nothing to them. Win and everyone loves the hell out of you."

Gesturing to her braided friend with an extended hand, she said, "Like you for example, Duo. Your first game here, you were booed and taunted onto the field. Now that you're actually helping the team in their running game, you're a hero."

With a shrug, the running back replied, "It's pretty typical of sports fans, Lena. Nothing to get worked up over. Hopefully, we'll be able to keep up the pace enough that they won't be throwing things at us again."

The others snickered and nodded, shuddering inwardly at recalling the night they narrowly escaped that angry mob. The waitress went around the table to get their orders. As she stepped away, Trowa leaned in and "You know, you both make a great couple."

Nearly coughing out the drinks that they were in the middle of swallowing, Heero and Duo sputtered and struggled to catch their breaths. "H-how the hell did you know!?" the quarterback managed first, his cobalt eyes wide. At his teammates' smirks, he shook his head, "Right. I forgot that nothing gets past you two."

Chuckling deeply, Wufei reassured, "Don't worry. You know your secret's safe with us."

"Personally, I think it's about damned time," Relena snickered as she propped her head on her hands. "I was beginning to wonder when the two of you would get a clue and just start dating like you both wanted." The pair turned to her in shock. Shrugging, she grinned simply, "Woman's intuition.

Quatre smiled, "And eventually, anyone close to the both of you didn't even need that to see what was going on." Focusing on Heero, he stated, "For weeks, I thought that Duo was going to explode before you both finally came clean about your feelings."

The quarterback blinked and turned to watch his partner flushing from embarrassment. "Thanks a lot, Quat," Duo muttered. Winking, the agent took up his own drink.

Wufei smirked, "And don't look so shocked, Yuy. I caught you giving him the glance over a couple times in the locker room when you thought no one was looking."

It was Duo's turn to gaze on his housemate in surprise as Heero blushed. With a mock glare on the receiver, the Japanese athlete grumbled, "I appreciate that, Chang." Wufei and Relena were hardly able to contain their laughter.

As he lowered his can of soda, Trowa spoke up, "Well, we might poke fun here and there like any friends would, but we are really happy for the two of you. And like Wufei said, this goes no further." Quatre, Wufei and Relena all nodded with warm grins.

Heero and Duo shared a relieved smile before the running back told the others sincerely, "Thanks, guys." Reaching for their drinks, they both took another sip carefully.

Just as they were about to swallow at the right moment, Relena asked, "So when is the wedding? I certainly hope that I'll get to stand up in it." When the couple began coughing and sputtering again, she and the others enjoyed a good laugh.

* * * *

Interviews were one of Heero's least favorite things. At least he didn't have to go it alone for this particular interrogation. Ever since the first pre-season game, the phones were rigging off the hook with requests from interviews looking for a chance to talk to the quarterback and the reckless running back who no one believed would get along.

Eventually, they had to comply. No press was bad press.

Duo was grumbling to himself as he brushed down one of his nicer, silver-colored shirts that went with his black trousers and black dress shoes. Uncomfortable in his own deep blue shirt and dark brown slacks, Heero felt his pain and offered a sympathetic smirk. A backdrop with the Wolverine logo on it was lowered behind where they sat as a crew team was busy setting the lights and cameras.

Entering the studio, Tim Crenshaw and Adam Burkley smiled to the athletes as they neared. Being they were the most popular sports announcers on the most watched network, they had been looking forward to interviewing the most talked about duo in the game. Handshakes and polite greetings were exchanged and the broadcasters took their own seats across from their guests.

A few more touchups were finished and one of the crewmen pointed to Tim just before the red light on the camera aimed at him turned on. Grinning widely, the tall man began, "Hello, everyone. We have a real treat for you tonight. We have Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell of the Pittsburgh Wolverines in their first interview together." He looked over to his guests and said, "Thank you both for being here."

The camera focused on the football players turned on. With pleasant smiles, Duo nodded and Heero replied, "Thanks for having us here." 'And make this quick,' he added mentally.

Looking like a child at Christmas morning at having the opportunity laid out before him, Adam leaned forward and commented, "Now the one thing that has many people shocked is how well the two of you seem to be getting along."

He gestured with a hand to the quarterback, explaining for those who didn't already know, "Heero, you are, by far, one of the most clean-cut players out there with the respect of peers and fans alike. In fact, there are few that have anything but wonderful things to say about you." Humbled by that, the Japanese youth lowered his head a bit.

The hand moved to the smirking running back as he continued, "And then we have the complete opposite with you, Duo. Labeled as the 'bad boy' of the league, friends seem to be few and far between where you're concerned. So how is it that the two of you are able to work together so well on the field? Or is it all an act to just get through each game?"

Shrugging, Duo answered, "Well, you know how they say opposites attract. Besides, we have enough in common to keep us from killing each other." Their interviews chuckled deeply.

"I think we actually compliment each other pretty well and that's the biggest contributor to how well we work together," Heero stated. "And I don't believe that people are being fair in how they perceive him. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time."

A blonde eyebrow raised on Tim's brow as he snickered, "But not everyone makes the mistakes of having a DUI or punching their head coach on national television."

Sensing his housemate tensing up beside him, the quarterback responded, "And not everyone has eyes on them constantly, waiting for them to fall short in some way. There is a lot of pressure on our shoulders to keep up with what most people expect of us."

Both Adam and Tim leaned back in their chairs with wide eyes, clearly not having thought of such a notion.

His shoulders easing, Duo threw in, "I was emotionally in a different place during those times than I am now. The worst being when I was playing for San Francisco. I have my reasons for what I did and they're a bit too personal for me to be sharing them. So, I'd appreciate it if I could have at least that much respect to have the topic dropped."

Adam smiled and nodded firmly, "Fair enough. Well, one thing I would like to discuss is your clear tension with Treize Khushrenada. He was the one that called you out, with evidence from his time working with you, that you can't catch. There's clear that there is bad blood between the two of you going into your face-off in two weeks. What if you were to fail against him?"

With a small snort, the running back replied, "Win or lose, it's my performance that I'm the most concerned with, just as it should be for everyone on the team. If you perform to the best of your ability, there's nothing more to worry about." Heero nodded beside him.

At that, Tim proclaimed, "Well, the one thing that you both do have in common is that you're arguable the best at what you do in the entire league. Performance never really was an issue for either of you."

He turned to the quarterback and questioned, "With that in mind, Heero, how frustrating is it for you to be one of the best at your jobs and yet never get close to a championship? After so much time in this line of work, it must be discouraging to be on stuck on a team that can't seem to make things happen."

Put on edge by the suggestion, Heero tried not to let it show and answered, "I consider myself very fortunate to be on a team where I honestly like everyone I work with. There are few players in the league that can say the same.

"Of course a championship would be nice, I'd be lying if I said that it's something I don't think about. But I have a lot of history in this city and with this organization. Some things are just more important than my having a Super Bowl ring on my finger. And honestly, I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this season."

More than impressed with that response, Adam grinned, "Well, we do with you both the best of luck this year. That's all the time that we have right now and we thank you again for your time to talk with us." Sighing inwardly, both Heero and Duo said their own words of thanks as they smile for the camera's sake.

Tim looked into the lens locked on him and announced, "Stay tuned, folks, for a lot more football coverage. Up next, an interview with Coach Simmons of the Carolina Stars." The red light on the camera went out and everyone relaxed in their seats.

One of the crewmen called that the recording was a wrap and the four young men removed their microphones. "Nice chat, guys," Adam smirked as he shook his guests' hands. "We'll have that ready for airing on our show tomorrow night."

Handshakes and farewells were shared and the lot parted ways. Standing in the studio doorway, Quatre smiled warmly to his client as he approached, "Well I must say that I'm impressed, Duo. Things were getting a little touchy there, but you kept your cool."

Nudging his partner, the running back stated, "Thanks to `Ro, here. Those reporters know just how to push things just to that line of comfort." Heero chuckled deeply and nodded his agreement.

As they headed out together, the quarterback asked, "Shall we try to get a little more practice time in when we get home?"

"So you have those black spandex short ready?" Duo asked in return as he wiggled his eyebrows.

With a snicker, Heero answered, "You know it."

Placing his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, the braided athlete smirked, "Then hell yes."

 

Part 34:

With the last practice of the week under their belt, plans were made for Heero and Duo to head back out to Chicago for a three-day break.

After the happy reunion, the family went out to the movies together in the outskirts of town to enjoy the film in one of the nicer neighborhoods. Strolling the streets together, each with an ice cream cone or dish in hand.

Peering from under the brim of his baseball cap, the quarterback asked Tai, "So school starts up for all of you again next week?"

Quickly swallowing his spoonful of sundae, the boy nodded, "Yep. This will be Flora, Tai and my sophomore year at high school. And the babies are moving on up to either first grade or kindergarten. " He shook his head and mused, "They grow up so quick."

Heero chuckled deeply and took another bite from his waffle cone. Flora beamed, "Just one more semester to get through before we're in our new home. I can't wait to see what Green Bay is like once the adoption is final."

Biting his lip, Tai frowned deeply to his idol, "Heero, if our Dad does get traded to Green Bay, will you still come out and visit us?"

Lightly rubbing the top of the teenager's dark-haired head, the team captain winked, "Of course I will. You've all been growing on me quite a bit." He peered down to his right leg and smirked, "Right, Jamie?"

The child was standing on his foot with her free arm wrapped tightly around his ankle as she held onto her cone with the other. "Yep!" she smiled brightly up at him. Heero and the others around snickered while they continued on the way to the large van that they piled into. Solo took up the driver's seat with his wife occupying the passenger side as to not have attention drawn to them.

A sudden thought crossed Flora's mind that made her gasp. Taking a seat beside the quarterback as Jamie crawled into his lap, she thought aloud, "If Dad does get traded, you could always get traded to Green Bay, too, you know! I'm sure any team would love to have you onboard with them if you were interested."

Duo snapped his braided head peered around his partner to warn his daughter, "Flora, that's a lot to be suggesting to Heero. He's not in the situation where we need to get out of our situation. There's a lot going for him in Pittsburgh, let alone the fact that it's where he grew up."

The Hispanic girl lowered her head a bit and said sincerely, "I'm sorry, Heero."

It was a thought that had crossed Heero's mind several times since learning of Duo's intentions to leave. Gently patting her back, he grinned, "It's all right, Flora. We'll just have to see how everything works out. Whatever happens, something will work out, I'm sure." Put at ease with that, she smiled and nodded.

* * * *

As the crowd gave a mix of cheers and boos, Duo ran up to Heero and jumped into his arms. Laughing, they were soon greeted by their teammates in the end zone after yet another touchdown in their favor. "Touchdown, Duo Maxwell," the announcer's voice echoed through the stadium.

On their way off the field, the running back removed his helmet and took a seat beside his partner after a slap to his rear. "Gotta take advantage of these celebratory hugs and smacks while we can," Duo smirked while leaning close when his housemate removed his own helmet.

The black grease drawn in a thick, horizontal line under each violet eye was finally beginning to show a hint of smearing thanks to his sweating throughout the game. "Yet another thing that I love about football. No one thinks twice when two guys get a little 'touchy-feely on the field after a big play.'" [1]

Chuckling deeply, Heero replied, "It is quite the convenience." Looking up to the stands that were beginning to clear out with many disgruntled spectators he commented, "I don't think that the Miami crowd is having as much fun as we are."

After a long drink from his water bottle, the braided athlete shrugged, "Well, considering the bitch slap that we're giving their team, I suppose I can't blame them. I don't quite see their coming back to take the lead when they're down by twenty-one points with three minutes left in the game." His housemate just snickered and shook his head in amusement.

Pacing back and forth before his team as they rested, Howard was grinning like a loon. "I'm so damned proud of every one of ya's!" he exclaimed as he threw his arms up in the air. "You know, I always did consider you all like my own little shits."

"Thanks, Pops," the offensive team laughed and snickered at the same time.

On the other half of their sideline, Trent was praising his own young men before they had to go back on to the field. As always, Zechs remained still and unreadable. His arms folded, he looked at the field with his notes and playbook resting at his feet. There would be time to celebrate after the game was officially called to an end. Until then, he remained all business.

Wheeling up to his stand-in for the day, Darren complimented, "Nice going today, John. You and Scott are really starting to come into your own. And you both already have a touchdown to make a notch on your belts now."

Lightly nudging the injured young man's shoulder, John replied sincerely, "Yea, well, we have a great coach to help us. You left some pretty some pretty big shoes for us to fill." Sitting beside him, Scott nodded fervently. All the more proud, Darren's smile just grew.

"Just one more pre-game left before the real show," Wufei stated as he wiped the back of his neck with a towel. "It won't be nearly this easy, but it should be a good game either way. Just the chance to play against one of the best teams in the league is an honor enough."

His heart falling into his stomach at being reminded of the challenge that lay ahead, Duo frowned deeply. As much of an honor he was sure the team felt it was, it was not going to be the opportunity that they were hoping.

Peering out of the corner of his eye, Mueller saw a slither of an opening to stir something. And it was his intention to pry it off its hinges. 'He never tells a lie,' he thought to himself.

Eyes narrowing, the tight end asked, "Why the long face there, Maxwell? You don't think that we stand much of a chance against the Cougars?"

Any and all conversation that had been taking place stopped that instant and all eyes around turned to the running back. Frozen stiff, Duo's eyes widened and he looked from one expectant face to the other. Heero swallowed roughly at the sudden turn of events. As much as he wanted to speak up, he knew that his teammates only wanted to hear from one person and one person only.

Taking a deep breath and composing himself, Duo gazed defiantly to his comrades and answered honestly, "No. It's not going to even be a close match up. They're just too good of a team and we still have a lot of work to do to reach their level." All around, jaws were dropping and eyes were widening in disbelief at what was heard.

Mueller rose from his place on the bench and gritted through his teeth, "And when you say 'we' you don't mean yourself included, do you? Duo Maxwell can do no wrong, isn't that right?" Several players around were murmuring amongst themselves, some agreeing and some opposing the idea that the running back thought he was better than all of them.

Heero, Trowa and Wufei were on their feet right along with Duo as they glared heatedly on their teammate. "I never said that I was fucking perfect, man," the braided football player hissed. "We all could use some work, myself included. Don't you ever put words like that in my mouth again, asshole." Those closest to the quartet were nodding their heads and folding their arms.

Stalking close, Mueller sneered, "Oh, don't tell me that all of this press about how wonderful you are and how you're the biggest reason we've been improving hasn't gone to your head. And you know, I'm a little tired of how the rest of us get shit on when it comes to our efforts getting recognized." Even more of his teammates were grumbling to themselves in agreement. "Hasn't anyone told you that this is a team effort?" the wide receiver snapped.

Near at the end of his rope, Duo's violet eyes narrowed further as he growled, "When have I not mentioned that everyone has been doing their part, Mueller? I'm not trying to steal the spotlight from anyone of you, I'm just doing my goddamned job the best that I can! I give more of a crap about this team than you ever have or ever will, you little bastard!"

Taken aback by that, Muller's eyes widened before his face reddened along with a fierce glare.

"You son of a bitch!" he cried while lunging forward to land a square punch into the running back's jaw. Instantly recovering, Duo swung and landed a swift blow to his attacker's stomach that knocked the wind from his lungs in a loud grunt.

Finally able to get their bearings enough, the others pounced and moved to break up the fight. Tim and Adam blinked in shock from their post high in the stadium. The former announced into his microphone, "There seems to be a commotion on the Wolverine sideline. From here, it looks to be mostly between Duo Maxwell and Mueller Clayton."

All action on the field stopped as the players on both teams watched the struggle in shock. The Torrents on the other side of the field, in their green and silver-accented uniforms, looked on with wide eyes and slack jaws. Even their coach was at a loss as the referees blew whistles to stop the play clock at the disturbance.

In the stands, the few Miami supporters that stayed to watch the end of the game were cheering and yelling at the fight as the first bit of real action that they could enjoy. The coaching staff rushed into the scene from where they had been taking together a few yards away. "Break it up!" Trent hissed as he pushed some of the players away with Howard right on his heels.

First to reach the scuffling pair, however, was Zechs. With the help of Heero and the others trying to hold Duo and Mueller back, he pushed them all back with ease and threw his headset off as he cried, "That's enough!"

Panting, the head coach eyed the two bruised and bleeding young men. With a finger pointing to the door leading under the stadium, he ordered, "Both of you get your asses in the locker room! Trent, Howard, keep an eye on them until I get back there when the game's over."

Sally was rushing up with her medical bag as Howard turned to Heero and demanded, "Who struck the first blow?"

Not even looking at his coach, the quarterback' s cobalt eyes were narrowed on the tight end wiping at his bleeding lip. "Mueller," he answered in a growl. "But I wouldn't have blamed Duo if he was the one to do it." Wufei, Trowa and all of his teammates that were near nodded their heads in agreement.

Blinking in surprise at that, Sally and the coaching staff drew their anger on the said instigator. Mueller met their stares without so much as a word of argument in his defense. A fierceness still in his eyes, he turned his head to spit out some blood.

His shoulders relaxing with a quiet sigh, Duo took in the small bit of comfort that came with his being let off the hook. Still, there was not a real resolution to the problem and so he couldn't take off all of the edge that was brimming in him.

Gripping Mueller by the back of the neck roughly, Howard sneered, "You're with me." Finally showing the first sign of panic, the tight end swallowed roughly. Sally gripped her bag and stayed right behind them.

As they headed off, Trent walked up to Duo, a sad smile on his face and a light pat to the running back's shoulder before leading him into the tunnel after the others.

Just before his partner walked off, Heero lightly squeezed his arm and he offered a reassuring look when their eyes met. Put at even more ease at that gesture, Duo wiped the blood running from a deep and long cut over his right eye and gave a small smile of appreciation. Slowly, he followed the defensive coach into the dark entrance and disappeared from sight.

One of the referees sprinted up to Zechs and asked, "Have you managed to control your team, Marques? There's still time left on the clock and we'd like to finish this game up."

Sighing deeply, the head coach nodded to him, "Yes, the situation has been handled. Thank you." Satisfied with that, the referee blew his whistle on his way back onto the field in an announcement for the players to be ready to go.

Zechs ran a hand through his long bangs and shook his head in frustration. Gesturing to Heero, he waited for the quarterback to draw near. Slowly leaning down at the waist, his blue eyes had a grim determination. In a voice that he fought to keep calm, he stated, "I want to know everything that happened."

* * * *

Wincing as another stitch went into the long laceration that ran over his right eye, Duo sighed inwardly. The aching in his ribs worsened and he slouched forward further in his sitting position atop the medical table. Sally worked with a steady and careful hand at sealing the wound. After the seventh and final stitch near his temple, she smiled in relief, "There. That'll take about a week to heal enough for those stitches to come out."

She turned to Trent and asked, "I need a moment alone with my patient here." With a bow of his head, the defensive coach stepped out of the physical trainer's office and closed the door behind him. The moment they were alone, Sally ordered, "Off with the shirt, Duo. I need to make sure you don't have any damage to your ribs. You never slouch the way you are now, so you're clearly in pain."

Violet eyes widening, the running back stiffened. That kind smile returned to the braided young woman's face. "I know about the showering alone agreement that you have," she said quietly. "Whatever it is you're hiding, I promise that it's safe with me. If you want to be difficult about it, I'll have to order you to see at the nearest hospital here."

If it wasn't for the burning sensation in his chest thanks to the blows he had been dealt, Duo would have argued. 'Better to have someone I know have a good look,' he thought to himself. Very slowly, he reached for the hem of his red and gold jersey. Before he lost his nerve, he removed it with his eyes squeezed closed to whatever reaction the trainer might have.

He never heard so much as a gasp. A pair of gentle hands rested on his abdomen and he finally peered into the concerned eyes that were scanning the deep bruises that spotted his scar-covered chest. "Take a deep breath," Sally gently ordered. Doing as asked, the running back winced once more at the pain it caused. "Again."

After a few reps, the braided young woman sighed in relief, "You ribs are a bit bruised, but not broken. I'll have to ask you to keep your chest taped for the next five days." Pulling out a large roll of medical gauze, she began to unravel it as she continued, "You should be healed up in time for next week's game so long as you take it easy between now and then."

To his shock, Duo noted that there were no lingering stares at his scars. There were no questions. And there was no pity in those eyes as Sally worked the gauze around him. When she was finished hooking the two butterfly clasps at the end of the long tape, she handed the jersey back over and announced, "All finished."

Carefully rising to his feet, the football player slid his jersey back on. Biting his lip, he spoke in little more than a whisper, "Thank you, Sally." He was sure to convey in his voice that he was thanking her for more than just her looking after his injuries.

A wide grin warmed her face as she nodded, "Thank you for trusting me." Together, they stepped from her office and met Trent in the hallway. At the coach's anxious look, Sally reassured, "Just a week of taking it easy and he'll be good as new for next Sunday."

Unable to hide his relief, Trent sagged heavily with a long sigh. "Good to hear," he managed and gave the running back a friendly slap to the shoulder. "Let's get back to the locker room, then." On their way, they met up with the rest of the team returning from the field at the last whistle that ended the game.

Heero quickly headed for his partner and walked beside him. "Status?" he asked softly, the worry dripping from his voice.

"Bruised ribs for the worst of it," Duo replied. "I'll be good to go next week after resting up these next few days." Letting out the breath he had been holding, the quarterback physically eased at the news.

Everyone filed into the locker room where Howard was standing in front of Mueller with his arms folded and eyes narrowed on the wide receiver sitting on the bench. Not the least bit concerned with the trouble he was in, the football player just stared up at him with his own arms folded.

That changed when he saw a red-faced Zechs stalking close.

When they were inches apart, the head coach bent at the waist until their eyes met. "Ever since Maxwell came onto this team, you've been a thorn in my side and the sides of your teammates. You just earned yourself a nice view from the bench for next week's game," he gritted. "And that's just the start. Dorothy just called to make sure that you meet with her personally the moment we get back to Pittsburgh tomorrow morning."

A sharp gasp pulled through Mueller's swelling lip and his eyes widened. While everyone had witnessed the team owner's kindness, no one had seen her angry yet. And everyone was more than sure they did not want to. Had he known that his little stunt was going to earn her chagrin, he might have reconsidered his actions.

Instead, he would have to accept whatever punishment she had in store for him... and she had a whole day to think on that punishment.

Swallowing roughly, Mueller collected himself to stand by his actions. He met the blue eyes locked on him sternly and nodded, "Yes, coach."

"Get showered and get the hell out of my face," Zechs commanded in a growl. "I don't want to see you again until tomorrow at the airport." All too happy to leave the eyes that stayed on him as he moved, the tight end moved quickly from the room.

Trent ran up to the head coach and whispered Sally's diagnosis of Duo. Sighing deeply, Zechs dry-washed his face and appraised the braided running back now sitting beside Heero at the bench. "I'm not about to risk making your injury worse," he stated, "But I would like it if you could at least sit out and help Terry out from the sidelines at practice this week."

Nodding firmly, Duo answered, "Sure thing, coach." He flashed a smile to his second-stringer. Terry beamed and seemed all but ready to jump out of his skin at a chance to get some real practice time in with his newfound confidence.

Slowly looking on everyone on his tem, Zechs smiled sadly, "Let's not let this ruin the face that you had a great game today. I'm proud of all of you. Clean up and get enjoy the rest of your stay here." That said, everyone rose from their feet and headed from the room.

It came as no surprise that Mueller was nowhere to be found the rest of the evening.

[1] For those who ever wonder what those lines are for, they actually serve a purpose by cutting off the sun glare so a player can see better.

Part 35:

Duo shifted a bit on the hotel bed so that he lay a little more flat to take any weight off his chest. With his cell phone on the pillow beside him on speaker, he continued on with the conversation he was having. "So, there's no need for any of you to worry about me. I'll be healed up in a few days."

Hilde's voice rang through, "Just be sure that you follow your therapist's orders and take it easy. I know you like staying active, but you can't risk missing the season just because you're bored with sitting things out."

Snorting, Duo replied, "Yes, Mom." The sound of a raspberry came through the receiver. His children giggled and snickered through the speaker phone on their end. "Just be sure to keep that worrywart of a wife of yours doesn't give herself a heart attack, Solo."

"Don't worry, I'll make sure she doesn't," Solo's voice smiled. "We'll see you in a couple days, little bro. Rest up."

All of the little ones chorused, "We love you, Daddy!" Catching that last part as he stepped out of the bathroom after his shower, Heero chuckled deeply with a warm grin. He reached up to towel dry his wet hair some more as he looked over to his partner.

Once Zechs had dismissed them after the game, the quarterback was more worried about getting his teammate home to lie down than he was concerned about cleaning up at the stadium. They drove back to the hotel in silence, both still reeling after the incident that broke out on the sidelines.

As soon as they reached their room, Duo received a worried call from his family. Seeing the fight that broke out on their television had the kids pretty shaken and he needed some time alone to reassure them that he was all right.

His fists clenching as he looked to the long laceration over the running back's right eye and the large bruise that was darkening under the left, Heero fought to control the rage welling up in him once more. The entire team was stunned by Mueller's actions. Whatever seed he tried to plant into them at Duo's expense was quickly washed away when he physically attacked as he had.

Smiling widely, the braided athlete replied, "I love all of you, too. I'll see you soon." There was another chorus of a good bye before he reached over to close the flap of his cell phone. With a deep sigh, he lowered his head back onto the pillow and stared up to the ceiling.

"It took five minutes to calm little Hope down," Duo frowned deeply. "She just kept crying and..." his voice trailed off in a hitch and he struggled to keep his own tears back. He could endure any kind of injury, but he couldn't stand when any of his kids cried. It was even more difficult when he wasn't there to help them.

Gently brushing back the long bangs, Heero gave him an understanding smile. "But she's okay now, right?" he asked quietly.

Sniffling, the running back wiped away a strap tear and nodded, "Yea. I started cracking jokes until she laughed. I think she'll be all right now." His eyes narrowing, he growled, "I'm more pissed off at Muller for upsetting my kids than for what he did to me."

The quarterback moved his hand to lightly run his fingertips over the brown medical wrap that nearly covered his housemate's chest. After a long silence between them, he asked in concern, "Are you all right?" It had been the first time he was able to manage the question.

With a shrug, Duo looked up into his gaze and answered, "My chest is still pretty sore, but that's to be expected."

Heero shook his head, "That's not what I meant when I asked that."

Quickly picking up on what he was really asking, the braided youth closed his eyes as he sighed deeply. "I'm just frustrated," he commented. "There were a lot of people on the team who seemed to side with Mueller in thinking that I'm trying to take the spotlight from them."

Opening his violet eyes to lock onto the cobalt watching him, he said, "They don't even get that they're actually seeing the real me and not the asshole that I was playing before. I guess I can't blame them for not being able to see the difference. But I am really trying to earn their trust here."

"I know," Heero responded quietly. "Whatever damage Mueller may or may not have done, I know the others will come back around. The positions that you and I hold are the ones that draw the most notice just by their nature. They also come with a lot of responsibility that not many can handle. They'll remember that."

A slow sigh pulled from the quarterback' s lungs as he stated, "I just never imagined that Mueller could fly off the handle like that. He had been a challenge ever since you joined the team, but I didn't think that he was capable of something like this."

Yawning widely, Duo replied, "Neither did I." The prescribed pain meds that he had taken when they arrived at the hotel room were beginning to take their toll on him, causing his eyelids to becoming heavy.

The team captain smiled and leaned down to kiss his forehead. Just beside an ear, he whispered, "Get some rest. I'll start packing our things so we won't have to bother with it later tonight. I'll wake you up in a couple hours for dinner."

His eyes already closed, his partner mumbled, "'k. Thanks, `Ro." In a moment, the rising and falling of his chest evened out as sleep claimed him.

It was the most rest he ever had while staying in a hotel room.

* * * *

Mueller chewed on the inside of his cheek as he sat across from Grace. The young receptionist was busy typing away at her computer. Occasionally, her green eyes would peer out the corners and through her black-framed glasses to the football player. Uncomfortable under her silent scrutiny, the tight end shifted in his seat like a child that was waiting to be sent to the principal's office.

Garnishing a bruised left cheek that was only then starting to lose its swelling along with his lip, his hands fidgeted in his lap. The right side of his face was sporting three little cuts that were closed off with a tiny band-aid on each.

Finally, the telephone rang. Swaying her head a bit to move her full curls of brown hair from her ear, Grace placed the receiver to her ear and greeted, "Yes, Miss Catalonia." There was a brief pause before she smiled, "Very good. I'll send him in."

Lowering the receiver onto its cradle, the secretary's smile faded as her expression turned cold. "She is ready for you now," she announced grimly. Mueller brushed the back of his jeans as he rose to leave the room. Turning left, he headed for the office at the end of the hallway.

Just before he reached the door, it slid open to him. With a rough swallow, the athlete stepped into the office to find Dorothy behind her desk with her back to the large windows overlooking Pittsburgh. Her elbows propping her folded hands up, the team owner's icy gaze watched him. "Have a seat, Clayton," she ordered.

As he headed for the chair before her, Muller heard the door slid closed behind him. Taking his time in seating himself, he looked back up into those haunting, cat-like eyes. "I know that I must have disappointed you this weekend," he began.

Dorothy laughed, "Disappointed? " Her laugh grew but was empty of any humor or joy. "Oh, Mueller," she sighed with a shake of her head. Her eyes narrowing, she stated, "Disappointed does not even to begin to describe how I feel towards you right now.

"I tolerated your loathing towards Duo for longer than I should have. Instead, I gave you chance after chance to make a turn around just as your fellow teammates had. Somehow, I thought better of you and then you let me down with your stunt yesterday during a televised game." Folding her arms and leaning back in her leather chair, the owner gritted, "And so I am well beyond disappointed right now."

Small beads of sweat dampened Mueller's brow as he lowered his head. Finding it difficult to swallow, let alone find his voice, he held his tongue.

Dorothy informed coolly, "You're to sit the bench at the next game just as Zechs had advised. After that, you will no longer be a part of this team."

Gasping sharply, the tight end's head shot up with wide eyes. "What!? B-but… you can't do that to me!" he cried. "I've been a part of this team for three years now! And what about my contract!?"

Calmly, the young woman answered, "Part of your contract states that I may terminate it at any given time should I feel that you are not living up to your end of the arrangement. As far as your time spent with the team, you have not been a part of the team since Alex was traded.

"All that you are concerned with is yourself to the detriment of your teammates. There is no reason for me to hold onto someone who does not want to be here. You made your own bed and now you will have to lie in it."

When her soon-to-be-former player opened his mouth, Dorothy raised a hand to keep any words from escaping. "I have also been informed of just how close you and Alex are. I am keeping you on the team through the next game only to keep an eye on you that you do not leak out Duo's ability to catch before then." The air rushing out of his lungs in a rush, Mueller struggled to remain upright.

Folding her hands together on her desk, she warned, "If you leak anything to Alex or Treize and they manage to prevent him from catching next week, I promise you that there will not be a single owner out there that would sign you on. What you pulled yesterday already turned most of them off to you."

A smirk tugged the owner's lips as she continued, "And the rest, like my dear uncle, are homophobes. You're holding something over my head. I get to hold this over yours. And I get the feeling that my little secret on you is far juicier."

Struggling to catch a breath, the stricken young man asked, "So you plan to end my career, then?"

"No," Dorothy shook her head. "If you play nice, you have my word that I will not tell a single soul about your preference. That little detail will remain between us. Knowing my uncle, he would love to sign you on as a slap in my face after next week's game. I won't fight him in doing so, as you are a good player who should not be left without a team to work with."

Put at a bit of ease as that, Mueller was finally able to swallow. Knowing the hand that he was being dealt, the last thing that he wanted was to out on the street with nowhere to go. As tempting as it was to get back at Dorothy and Maxwell, he needed to look out for himself. He would just have to explain things to Alex later.

Nodding firmly, he agreed, "All right. I promise- not a word on my part about Duo's being able to catch."

Satisfied with that, the team owner nodded back, "Good. I'll be keeping an eye out during the game. For your sake, I hope you live up to that. If I have even the slightest hint that you went against your word, I won't hesitate to make your relationship to Alex front page news." A long eyebrow rose as she smirked, "And I do not bluff."

Mueller bit his lip. There wasn't any doubt in his mind that she was bluffing.

Rising to his feet on unsteady legs, the tight end bowed his head and asked, "So that's it, then? We're finished after this week?"

With a deep sigh, Dorothy replied, "Yes. It really is a shame, you know. You are not even aware of the opportunity that was laid out to you by being on this team. All of your efforts these last three years have been wiped completely away by one bad choice. This is by no means something I am taking enjoyment in, but it must be done for the better of my team."

Despite his anger at being pushed out the door, Mueller couldn't help but appreciate the fact that he was being given a chance to still do what he loved. It all could have been taken away from him without any chance of getting back to his feet.

There was a sharp pain in his chest in now realizing just what he was losing thanks to his actions. Not only were there his friends and teammates, but there was this wonderfully understanding owner that was willing to do everything in her power to see that her athletes were taken care of… even when they wronged her.

"I-I'm sorry, Dorothy," Mueller said sincerely.

A sad smile tugged the young woman's face. "So am I," she said in kind. Taking a deep breath, she repeated, "So am I." Dorothy waved her hand as she cleared her throat. Looking away, she frowned deeply, "Now, I have a lot of work to do. I imagine that you have quite a bit of packing that you need to get started on."

That declaration really made the fact that he was finished at Pittsburgh hit home for the tight end. This really was the end. Lowering his head in another respective bow, Mueller turned on his heels and make a quick departure from the office.

Once she was alone once more, Dorothy sighed deeply as she reached up to wipe a stray tear. Shaking her head, she whispered, "Such a shame." Quickly regaining her composure, she turned to her computer and buried herself back in her work.

Leaning his back against the closed office door, Muller took a moment to actually muster the strength to push himself off and head down the long hallway. 'When one door closes, another opens,' he thought to himself. Snorting bitterly, he shook his head.

This was one door that he closed on himself. All that he could do was hope that the next one to open to him would be just as good to him as the one he was walking away from.

* * * *

"You're off the team!?" Alex yelled in shock over the vidphone. Shaking his head, he commented, "I mean, granted, you caused a pretty big disturbance at the game by pulling Maxwell into a fight. But I can't believe that bitch is cutting you loose!"

Eyes narrowing, Mueller hissed, "Don't ever call Dorothy that again. She's giving me a chance to sign on to another team after next week's game. She could have really pushed for me to be kicked out of the league as a whole, but she's not."

Taken aback by his lover's protectiveness of the Pittsburgh team owner, Alex blinked in shock. Even he had to admit that she deserved a bit of respect for not just wiping her hands of him completely. "Sorry," he muttered. "Didn't know that she had a heart like that."

Sighing deeply, Mueller shrugged, "It's all right." As he leaned closer to the screen, he asked, "Do you think that you could pull any strings with Khushrenada and Noventa to sign me?"

A smirk tugged his partner's face as he replied, "I'm sure that I can work something out. As much as they would love to see someone else from Dorothy's camp switching to them, I can't see them turning you down. You're a hell of a player and we could use you."

Finally able to fully relax, the tight end sagged in his seat. At least he would be on the same team with his lover again. There was also the benefit of being signed on to one of the best teams in the league. Considering how the day had started, things couldn't have been looking better now.

Tilting his head, Alex questioned, "So why the hell would Dorothy want to keep you one more week just to make you sit on the bench? That doesn't make any sense." His eyes widening, he inquired, "You don't have anything over her head, do you? Something that we could use to our advantage?"

Mueller was not the least bit surprised that his clever lover was able to put the pieces together for that conclusion. Without the hint of any doubt or worry, he shook his head, "No. She probably just wants to send a message to everyone watching who the real instigator of that fight was by publicly punishing me. Like some damned kid sent to the front of the classroom when they misbehave. Then she'll cut me loose."

Easily accepting that excuse, the blonde running back nodded. "I see. Well, at least she's not making you sit out of the whole season." He smiled, "At any rate, it'll be great to be on the same team with you again if it all works out the way I'm sure it will."

"Yea. It will be," the right end grinned widely. Looking to the time on his monitor, he winced in finding that it was drawing late. "I should let you go," he suggested. "You'll need some rest for tomorrow's practice."

Alex glanced at his own clock and responded, "Yep. Treize will be pretty pissed if I'm not at my best this week, considering the next game coming up." A smirk pulling his lips, he commented, "No offense, but It's going to be great kicking the shit out of your team on Sunday."

Chuckling deeply, Mueller shook his head in amusement. "Good night," he said quietly. After a brief exchange of salutations, his screen went black at the disconnection of the call. Lightly tracing the edge of the monitor, he frowned deeply, "I'm sorry I had to lie. But you'll just have to understand."

* * * *

Six days later...

Zechs was pacing back and forth outside physical therapist's room as Sally was busy examining Duo's progress. The following day was going to be the biggest of the season that had not even officially begun. Maxwell was going to be needed now more than ever on the field to rally the team up to what he'd hoped would be another victory for them.

"You look as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs," the running back smirked as he and Sally stepped out of the room together.

Snickering, the braided young woman smiled as the head coach shot his wide eyes to her for the diagnoses. Lightly patting her patient's shoulder, she announced, "He's good as new just as promised. Thanks to his following my orders to take it easy, of course."

His shoulders falling with the weight lifted from them, Zechs fought the urge to hug the both of them. "Thank God," he sighed deeply.

Duo just chuckled deeply and shook his head as he walked past. "See you bright and early tomorrow morning, coach," he called over his shoulder. "By the time we're done with those bastards, Treize won't want to show his ugly face around for months!" 'Even if it's only because of calling him out on my not being able to catch,' he thought to himself.

The moment that he was alone with Sally, the tall blonde let go of his restraint and nearly cut off her air as he threw his arms around her in a tight embrace. Laughing as she tried to catch her breath, the physical therapist patted his back. "There, there," she soothed with a grin.

In the locker room, Heero was in mid-pace when his braided partner entered. Cobalt eyes wide in anticipation, he asked, "How did it go?"

"Clean bill of health," Duo smiled. "I'm good to go for tomorrow's game." Letting out the breath that he had been holding, the quarterback smiled widely in relief. As he reached for his duffle bag, his housemate frowned deeply, "I just wish that we had more of a chance to practicing on catching this week. By the time we get back to your place, we won't have any light to work with."

Still smiling, Heero shrugged, "You don't need it. I'm convinced that you'll be able to catch for tomorrow's game. And that's simply because I know how badly you want to rub this in Treize's face."

Practically beaming, the running back replied quietly, "Thanks, 'Ro." As he slung his bag over his shoulder, he placed his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose and asked, "Ready?"

Nodding, Heero took up his own bag and they headed through the locker room doors together.

That night, neither of them managed to get a minute of sleep.

 

Part 36:

The hum of the fax machine coming to life filled the air of Treize's office.

Carefully looking over the document that he just received, the head coach smiled widely while taking the seat at his desk. Holding up the signed document, he smirked to the screen of his vidphone, "Fortunately for you, trades in the middle of a season are not unheard of this day and age. That said, congratulations, Mueller. As of this coming Monday, you will officially be a Cougar."

With a deep sigh of relief, the tight end grinned, "Thank you, Mister Khushrenada. It will be an honor working with you and Mister Noventa."

Nonchalantly waving his hand, the tall man responded, "We're on the same team, now, my boy. Just call me Treize. And the pleasure is all mine. We could use someone like you here. I look forward to meeting you in person after the game this weekend."

Exchanging farewells, the call ended. As the vidphone screen went black, Treize looked over the contract once more with a deep chuckle. "You suffer yet another loss, dear cousin," he smirked darkly.

* * * *

After a week of preparation and anticipation, game day came with a chill in the early-September air and a clear sky. Humming to himself, Duo burrowed deeper into the bare chest underneath him. "Don wanna wake up," he slurred sleepily while willing the sunlight to go away.

Heero chuckled deeply and kissed his braided head gently. "We have to start getting ready, Maxwell," he chided lightly. "You don't want me to call Quatre in here to make sure you get up, do you?"

Quickly sitting up, suddenly alert and wide-eyed running back exclaimed, "Hell no! That guy's a regular sadist when he gets in his `agent' mode." He all but jumped out of the bed and headed for his half of the dresser that he and his partner had been sharing.

Duo moved into Heero's room the same day they returned from their stay in Tennessee- after where the nightmares returned and their intentions were made clear. And it was something that they were both enjoying. Falling asleep and waking in each other's arms was better than either of them imagined such a thing to be.

The quarterback slipped beside his teammate for his own half of the dresser. Without looking over as he removed his socks and other articles of clothing, he asked, "So are you ready for the game?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," the running back shrugged. Reaching for the hem of his deep blue nightshirt, he lifted it to reveal the scars on his body and the gold cross that lie securely against his chest. "How about you? Nerves getting to you yet?" he asked while slipping on a long-sleeved black top.

Slowly pulling on a deep green T-shirt, Heero replied honestly, "Actually, they are a little bit this time. There's a lot more at stake today than any other game that I've played to date. Hopefully, the others are holding up."

Duo remained quiet as he zipped up the front of his blue jeans, but nodded. This game held a great deal of importance for all parties involved. There were going to be a lot of people watching the game to see which team could walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Once they were finished changing, they headed downstairs for the breakfast that Lady Une was preparing for them.

* * * *

Within the locker room, the Wolverines could hear the crowd stomping their feet and clapping their hands in the stands above them. From the time that they arrived for an early warm up before dressing, there was a line of people that had camped out from the night before waiting to get in.

The whole morning, there was an energy in the air around Pittsburgh in anticipation of the game that millions had been looking forward to.

All over, the game was making headlines before it even began. 'The Cougars against the Wolverines, sure to be the best pre-game face-off in history,' is what the experts were already calling the event.

Using the mirror at the back of his locker, Duo smeared on a black line of grease under the length of each eye. Heero was lacing up his cleats. The remainder of the team prepared themselves in a rare quiet moment in the locker room.

In the air, there was a tension like no other time before. Eyes glanced nervously from one fact to the other, shoulders drew taunt and sweat was already starting to bead on several brows.

Zechs and the coaching staff entered with grim expressions. As the young men looked up to them, the head coach smiled warmly just before beginning his pep talk.

In their booth high in the stadium, Tim and Adam smiled widely into the camera on them. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to witness the most anticipated pre-game match-up in decades. This is sure to be a David verses Goliath confrontation that will leave everyone on the edge of their seats," the former announced.

Nodding, Adam added, "Already, there has been an interesting turn as Mueller Clayton will be sitting the bench for this game. After the fight between him and Duo Maxwell at the Miami game last week, I think it's pretty clear to who was the instigator." The said tight end was already sitting on the bench in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt with his head lowered a bit so the cameras couldn't get a good shot of him.

On the field, the Cougars were introduced to the roar of boos from the crowd. The white lettering and the deep blue of the players' uniforms shimmered under the sunlight as they waved up to the stands, ignoring the less-than-pleasant greeting.

A smug smile on his face, Treize took his place at their sideline and waited for their opponents to be welcomed into the stadium. Walking to his starting running back, he asked, "Are you ready for this?"

"I've been born ready for this," Alex replied with a sneer. His own eyes highlighted with grease smears, he looked back to the other side of the field as the Wolverines charged out to the deafening cries and cheers from the hometown crowd.

For the coin toss, Heero, Duo and Trowa represented their team as Alex and two of his own comrades met them in the middle. The whole time that they were walking towards each other, the two running backs were locked in a stare down. Nodding firmly to his former teammate, the Japanese quarterback greeted in a friendly tone, "Good to see you, Denton."

Snorting, Alex kelp his eyes on his braided replacement and growled deeply, "Whatever, Yuy. Just make the damn call." Heero and Trowa shared a surprised look. Clearing his throat, the referee turned to the Wolverine captain.

With a deep breath, Heero called, "Heads." The coin was flipped and when it landed, the referee raised his hand to announce that it had fallen to the ground on tails. At that, the Cougars' captain said that they would have the first possession of the ball. Wishing the players good luck, he picked the coin back up and ran to the sideline.

A smirk tugged Alex's lips as he chuckled deeply, "Be sure to pay attention, Maxwell. You're about to witness greatness firsthand." His violet eyes narrowing, Duo watched as the trio walked off laughing. Just as taken aback by the comment, his own teammate remained on the field with him before they returned to their own sideline.

~~~

Only eight minutes into the game, Alex was on a streak in breaking through the defensive line. No matter what the Wolverines tried to throw at them, they just couldn't keep the Cougars from making a quick and steady progression down the field. "Fuck, he's good," Duo muttered to himself as he watched Alex taken down close to the end zone after a fifteen-yard run.

"Come on, you guys," Trent growled deeply in frustration, his hands folded on his head as he watched his team get back into position. "Make something happen and stop those bastards. They're already making you look like idiots out there."

Zechs remained calm and cool as always as he looked on. Howard was pacing back and forth, prepping his own men for when they would have their turn.

On the next ball snap, Alex easily charged into the end zone as the crowd yelled and booed the poor efforts of their team to stop him. "And at no surprise, the Cougars are first to put a score on the board," Trent commentated as the running back was hugged and slapped in celebration by his teammates.

As he was on his way back to Treize's side, the blonde removed his helmet to point and smirk smugly at Duo on the other side of the field. Growling deeply, the braided running back's eyes burned and his face reddened. Tightly gripping his helmet, he slid it on and made himself ready for his turn to strike.

With their first possession of the ball, Heero handed Duo the ball for the first four snaps. Each time, the braided athlete had ten or more yards run in, but they were still out of reach of scoring with twenty-six yards to go.

"I have to say that after that exchange from Denton earlier, Maxwell is sure throwing that attitude right back in his face with his own skills. But the Wolverines will have to start changing their tactics soon now that the defenders are gaining strength," Alex stated.

Knowing that, Heero opted to throw the ball. As soon as the ball was in his hands, two guardsmen broke through the offensive line while nearly trampling Trowa in their efforts. Wide-eyed, the quarterback tried to backtrack and avoid them but was taken down by one of his attackers. During his fall, the ball snapped loose and was covered by the second guardsman for the Cougars to regain possession from that spot.

"Goddamn it!" Howard cried, throwing his baseball cap to the ground. Wufei aided a shaken Trowa onto his feet as Duo did the same for Heero. Along with their teammates, they ran back to their sideline in growing aggravation at not having scored.

Two more touchdowns for the Cougar later, the Wolverines still did not have the chance to answer with a score of their own. All the while, neither head coach showed any emotion as they watched and made calls from their lines. Well into the second quarter, desperation was sinking in and taking hold of the Pittsburgh team. Heero grunted as he threw the ball for Wufei more than thirty yards down the field.

As he jumped for the catch, the Chinese receiver was knocked from the front and back by two blockers in mid-air that he didn't even see coming. With a sharp cry of pain and surprise, he crashed to the ground roughly enough that he bounced from the force. There was a groan from the crowd as Relena rose from her place on the bench with wide eyes and a sharp gasp, crying, "Wufei!"

The blockers bent down over their fallen target. "This is a man's game, boy," the first of the pair sneered through his helmet. Groaning, Wufei pushed himself onto his stomach to glare up at them heatedly. "You kids better get back home to your mommas before you get hurt." Laughing, the pair ran back to their team.

Shaking his head, the wide receiver moaned as he got himself to his feet. From her place on the sideline, Relena lowered the hands from either side of her face with a deep sigh of relief. Catherine and one of the other cheerleaders at either side of her rubbed her back and offered a one-armed hug in support.

Mueller snickered quietly to himself, shaking his head in amusement. "That's how the game's supposed to be played," he said to himself, looking on to the Cougars as they laughed and congratulated each other on the other end of the field.

Zechs did all he could to rally his men during the half-time intermission back in the locker room. There was no strategy that he could clearly come up with when trying to outman such a dominating opponent. In just the first two quarters, they had thrown nearly everything they could at the Cougars only to have it fail.

By the fourth quarter, a good number of people in the stands were beginning to clear out of the stadium. Tim fought back a yawn as he informed the listeners and viewers, "At no surprise to anyone, the Cougars have been domination over the Wolverines for the entirety of this game, folks.

"Pittsburgh has possession of the ball but if they cannot gain at least two more yards for this first down for their next attempt at ten, San Francisco will then regain. The score is 35 to 9 with only ten minutes left in the game. It looks as though Goliath has won this match."

Groaning deeply, Trowa pushed himself back up off the ground after being taken down by the defenders he tried to hold back once again. "They're so damned strong," he shook his head as he got back into his team's huddle. "I just can't keep a good hold on them." His fellow offensive line panted heavily and nodded in agreement.

Heero sighed deeply. "I know." Rubbing the back of his neck, he repeated, "I know. We're all tired and out of options here."

Cobalt locked with violet and Duo nodded firmly, "Let's do it, then. Throw it to me." The quarterback smirked and nodded firmly.

Looking to the offensive line, Heero ordered, "Whatever you have left, use it to keep those sons of bitches off Maxwell's ass. We can't come back to win, so this is the only shot we have to keep from looking like total asses today."

Duo swallowed roughly and groaned to himself, "Yea, no pressure, Yuy." Quickly finding their third wind, Trowa and his line nodded with a grim determination etched on their faces. Clapping heir hands together, the offensive team shouted, "Break!"

Everyone set into their positions alongside where the ball was placed thirty-one yards away from the goal line. "Let's just get this over with," Treize grumbled from his spot. "There's no way they're going to score."

Standing behind Trowa as the center bent over to place his hand on the ball, Heero held his arms out and called, "Set! Set!" Bending at the knees, Duo dug his cleats into the hard ground, eyes narrowed and focused straight ahead. "Hike!" the team captain yelled.

The moment that the ball reached his partner's hands, the running back charged just a couple yards ahead of him and turned. Eyes wide, Treize froze stiff and cried, "What the hell is going on!?" Alex and the rest of his teammates jumped from the bench and onto their feet to watch the sudden change of play in shock.

Howard folded his hands together and squeezed his eyes closed. Trent was gripping his hair as if he were about to pull it out of his head from nervousness. Zechs held his breath as his own players charged to their line to gape. "Come on," he whispered. "Come on."

Turning to face his housemate, Duo opened his arms and Heero tossed the ball to him just as a few guardsmen were charging through their protection, only feet away from the running back. The cries of his oncoming attackers reaching his ears, the braided athlete screamed as his fingers gripped the ball tightly.

The heat off of him once all attention turned to his partner, Heero cried out, "Yes!" He began to remove his helmet for a better view as all of the defenders stopped and watched Maxwell with wide, disbelieving eyes.

From where they were watching the television in their living room, popcorn and other snacks flew in the air as Hilde, Solo and Duo's children started jumping and crying, "He caught it! He caught it!"

Quatre and Lady Une were already on their feet as the elated agent raised his arms and shrieked, "He caught it!"

"Duo Maxwell just caught a toss!" Tim shouted as he and Adam jumped to their feet, eyes wide in shock. Laughing, he yelled over the outburst of cheers from the crowd, "Duo Maxwell just caught a toss! I don't believe it!"

Treize ripped off the headphones from his ears with a cried, "Goddamn it! That did not just happen!" He threw the headset to the ground as the Wolverine sideline was busy erupting in excitement. Stunned, Alex's mouth hung open as he shook his head in disbelief at what he had just witnessed.

Quickly turning on his heels, Duo met his oncoming attackers head on, dodging and weaving past each as he had if he had just been handed the ball. One pair of hands avoided after the other, he made his way through the thin opening left for him and was soon running alongside Wufei without any opposition catching up. "Run, you son of a bitch!" his Chinese friend laughed wildly just as his own steam ran out. "Keep running!"

Without looking back, Duo charged on into the end zone to the thunderous applause and cheers from the crows all around. "Unbelievable! Touchdown, Pittsburgh!" Adam screamed as he bounced up and down. "And head coach Khushrenada is showing the most emotion I've ever seen him display during a game!"

Knocking over the water jug beside the benches, Treize hollered, "Fuck!" Several of his men backed up and away in fear. "Someone tell me that did not just happen!?" the head coach ranted at the top of his lungs.

Running towards each other, Heero and Duo laughed and hooted loudly. Jumping into his partner's waiting and open arms, the running back threw his helmet off and raised his hands in the air with a shrill cry, his braid coming loose from its bun. The others soon caught up and nearly knocked the pair down in a round of hugs and celebration.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Zechs replaced his baseball cap and just smiled widely as everyone around him jumped and yelled. Dorothy folded her hands just before her face with a proud grin from her box high in the stadium. Even Mueller had a little smirk on his face as he shook his head I watching his teammates on the field.

As he and his teammates headed back to their sideline, Duo looked to the other side where Treize and Alex were standing together with red faces. Smirking, he pointed and winked to them before blowing a kiss. Their faces reddening even more, the coach and running back looked away.

Shaking his head in wonder, Tim announced, "It may not be an actual win for the Wolverines, but they've managed to keep this game from being a disaster today! What a rollercoaster ride this turned out to be!"

The moment they stepped into their sideline, both Heero and Duo were bombarded by their teammates and coaching staff. In the stands, Quatre and Lady Une were still on their feet, cheering and yelling for their friends along with the spectators around them.

Allowing a moment for everyone to greet and congratulate him, the braided running back politely excused himself while pulling Heero aside. "I'll be right back," he whispered into his partner's ear. "I have to make a call to my family."

With a warm smile, the quarterback nodded, "Tell them I say `hello.'" Duo winked and ran off into the locker room for his cell phone. Sighing deeply, Heero looked back to the stands as the audience continued to cheer and applaud as if celebrating a win.

All things considered, it actually was a huge win.

 

Part 37:

Dozens of lights from cameras flashed as Treize entered the room that had been sealed off for a press conference immediately following the last pre-game of the season. Taking his seat at a desk with a bouquet of different microphones at the head, he nodded to the many faces of the press that were waiting anxiously to ask him questions. "Good afternoon, everyone," he greeted pleasantly enough.

Hands shot in the air, each with their owner calling, "Coach Khushrenada! "

Turning to a young woman in a business suit standing beside her camera man, the head coach gestured for her to go on as the other became quiet. The petite brunette smiled brightly at being called on first and began, "First off, congratulations on your win against the Wolverines, Coach Khushrenada. No doubt, you're proud of your men today."

Inwardly sighing in relief at how the conference was starting, Treize grinned, "Why thank you. Yes, I am very proud of how they all performed. They're a hard-working team and I think that we all now know who the better of the two teams is and will always be."

Slightly tilting her head, the same young woman asked, "And what of your reaction to Duo Maxwell's catch? Did you feel that he was saving up something like that just to throw back your comments about him early on this year?"

'And just like that, the moment is gone,' the head coach sighed deeply in thought, a deep frown marring his face. Hands raised again when he didn't answer right away, all asking about the braided running back' s catch during the game.

* * * *

Relena- still dressed in her red and gold, mid-drift revealing, short skirted cheerleading outfit- was running for the physical therapist's room. When she arrived, the door was just beginning to open as Sally was stepping out. Their eyes met and the braided young woman smiled warmly before gesturing with her head for the cheerleader to enter.

Without hesitating, Relena flew into the room and gasped sharply at the deep bruises that spotted Wufei's chest as he carefully buttoned the front of his grey blouse. When he looked up to find the worried eyes on him, he pushed himself the padded examination table onto his feet. Opening his arms, he chuckled deeply when his lover flew into them with her bead burrowing into his shoulder.

"I'm all right, Lena," the wide receiver reassured quietly. Rubbing her back, he explained, "I just had the wind knocked out of me. It looks a lot worse than it actually is. Nothing to fret over." Against his shoulder, the cheerleader just nodded and held on as tightly as she could while mindful of his bruises.

As they finally pulled back, Wufei kissed his girlfriend soundly and took her hand in his own. Looking up, he found that Catherine and the remainder of the cheerleading squad where making their way into the doorway with relief in their eyes at finding the Chinese athlete fairing well.

His smile saddening a bit, the wide receiver gently brushed back his lover's bangs from her eyes and told her quietly, "I have to get back to the locker room. Zechs said that Dorothy was on her way to talk to the team. It shouldn't take very long."

Fighting off her teams of relief, Relena still couldn't trust her voice. Instead, she just gave him a bright grin and nodded. With a friendly smile, Catherine entered the room and rubbed her squad leader's shoulder. "We'll be waiting here with her, Wufei. Better not keep the owner waiting."

"Thank you, Catherine," her Chinese friend replied sincerely. Lightly kissing his girlfriend's gold-glittered cheek, he quickly headed down the hall.

In the locker room, most of the team was engaged in a lively whispering discussion when the wide receiver entered. Duo, Heero and Trowa all ended their own quiet conversation when their friend joined them. Frowning deeply, Wufei asked, "What's going on?"

An icepack taped to his chest, Trowa gestured towards Mueller's opened and empty locker. Blinking in shock, the raven-haired athlete muttered, "Well, shit." His friends all nodded to the sentiment.

Just in time, Dorothy entered with a wide smile for her team and the coaching staff right behind her. "Hello, everyone." The players responded in kind as those standing around took their seats at the benches. All eyes on her, the owner noted the anticipation and tension in the air. "I want to begin by telling you all that I know you all played to the best of your ability out there. For that, I could not be more proud of you," she began.

Several heads bowed and faces winced at having to remember the way that the game turned out. While they knew that the Cougars were a force to be reckoned with, they never could have imagined what they were really up against. A large piece of the morale that had been building up was gone.

"Now, as we all know, next week begins the regular season and so the wins and loses will start counting," Dorothy went on. "I have no doubt that you will all be able to shake this off before then. It will be another home-field game, so we will have that to our advantage."

Looking to the empty locker that several eyes were glancing to, the team owner sighed deeply, "As I am sure that you have already assumed, Mueller is no longer a member of this team. I simply could not stand for his behavior last week, but I was not about to keep him from playing for the league, either. I have recently confirmed that he had signed on with the San Francisco Cougars."

Gasps and loud murmuring spilled throughout the team. Wide-eyed, the young men looked from one stunned face to the other. Raising her hand, Dorothy brought the room to a still once more as all attention drew back to her. "I hope that you all understand my position. And again, thank you for giving everything that you had out there. Good day, gentlemen."

At that, the blonde owner turned and headed out of the locker room. Clearing his throat when the discussion between his team stirred up once more, Zechs ordered, "All right, everyone. Clean up and head home. We'll be back here first thing in the morning to go work more on our biggest problems from today."

There were a few groans of aches and minor pains as everyone started getting to their feet. Shuffling from the room, they made their way down the hall for the showers. Rising from his spot on the bench, Duo moved to the empty locker with a deep frown. While a part of him was glad that he wouldn't have to deal with the trouble that the tight end caused him, he was also disappointed that Mueller couldn't see past whatever made him so angry to get to know him better.

Suddenly, the running back was spun around and pressed back against the cold metal as his lips were taken in a fierce kiss. His violet eyes widening, Duo quickly saw that the locker room was empty all but for himself and Heero. Moaning, he closed his eyes and met the kiss wholeheartedly. Hands gripped hair and clothes tightly as they held on to each other as if they were drowning. When they finally pulled back, their lips were swollen and they were panting heavily for air.

With a satisfied smirk, Heero said breathlessly, "I've wanted to do that ever since that catch. You were amazing out there."

A blush heating his face, Duo pressed their foreheads together and grinned widely, "Thanks, Ro. But I wouldn't have been able to pull it off if you hadn't been patient enough to practice with me."

Tilting his head, the quarterback lightly traced a finger over his partner's jaw. "Well, you were the one that put the real work in," he commented. "I'm proud of you." Quickly closing the distance, he pressed their lips together soundly before winking and walking off for the showers.

All but falling back onto the bench, Duo was smiling like a love-sick high schooler. Glancing down, he sighed, "Well, its gonna be another cold shower for you in a bit, buddy."

* * * *

That evening...

Mueller headed up to the hotel where he knew Alex was staying. A baseball cap on his head and a heavy sweater on his back to block the cool night air, no one was aware of his identity. When he reached the designated room and knocked, he was gripped by the back of the neck the moment the door opened. Gasping out in pain when he was slammed up against the wall, he looked with wide eyes into the fierce gaze burning into him.

As the door slid closed to lock in the sound-proof room, a panting and red-faced Alex screamed, "Why the hell didn't you tell me that Maxwell could catch!? That bastard's press conference was on earlier and he said he had been working on it for months now!"

Caught off guard, Mueller sputtered, "I-I only knew about it for a couple weeks now." Just as his partner opened his mouth to yell some more, his own eyes narrowed as he shouted, "I had to watch my own ass, Alex! Dorothy only gave me the chance to sign onto this team once she was sure I hadn't leaked that out to you! I would be out on the street now if I went back on that!"

Slowly calming at that, the blonde running back took a few deep breaths and released the hold on his lover. His face losing its red and wild look, he shook his head, "I'm sorry. It's just... that kept today from being what it should have been. Now, the others actually have something to be excited about."

Rubbing his right shoulder against the throbbing, the tight end snorted, "Christ, man. If I knew that you were going to take it this hard I would have told you about it."

Alex shook his head again, "No." Gently rubbing the back of his teammate's neck, he met his eyes and sighed deeply, "I'm really sorry that I hurt you like that. You're right, you had to look out for yourself in that situation. I don't blame you for that. I'll take to Treize and let him know what's going on, since he wasn't too thrilled either. But it'll be fine."

With a small smile, Mueller shrugged, "All right. How about we go out and get some air? Maybe we can go to dinner and catch a movie or something."

Completely easing at that, his partner smiled and nodded, "Sound like a plan to me." Heading for the closet, he removed a windbreaker. In the doorway, he carefully rolled up the long sleeves of his shirt to look over the puncture holes inside his elbows. Pulling them back down, he turned back to his teammate and asked, Ready?"

* * * *

Meanwhile…

Pushing back a couple wisps of red hair from the side of her face, the social worker smoothed them with the others pulled back in a bun at the back of her head before. She adjusted her dark framed glasses and jotted a few notes in her memo book.

"Well, I must say that you have a beautiful home, Mister Yuy," she complimented with a warm smile as she headed towards the front door with the quarterback. Closing her memo book, and extending her free hand smartly, she stated, "I will certainly pass on my highest of recommendations on to the Chicago office upon the return to my own here in town."

Heero took her hand and shook it firmly as he replied, "Thank you very much, Mrs. Flannigan. I appreciate your taking the time for this inspection."

A polite exchange of farewells later, he saw his guest to her car and closed the front door behind him on the way back inside. Quatre ran out of the living room after having listened in on the results of the look through the house.

Beaming, the agent was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet as he informed, "I just got off the phone with Hilde. She and Solo were able to get clearance with the kids' teachers since this isn't even a full week of school for any of them."

The pieces of his puzzle falling into place, Heero rubbed his hands together nervously. "That just leaves one more thing to do." The sound of a car pulling into the parking lot had him chuckling deeply, "And not a moment too soon."

Duo and Lady Une soon entered with a bag of groceries in each hand from their `emergency' run to the supermarket before it closed for the night. Clearly confused, the running back asked, "Who was that we saw pulling out of the driveway just now? This place is too secluded for a lost fan to get lucky enough to find it."

Snickering, Quatre took the bags from his client's hands. Just as confused as her braided friend, Lady Une looked over her shoulder as she followed the Arab to the kitchen. When they were out of earshot, the agent whispered to her, "We'll explain in a moment." Satisfied with that, the young maid smiled and nodded firmly.

His violet eyes filling with worry over how quick Quatre left as a sure sign to give some privacy, Duo questioned, "What's going on?"

Taking a deep breath, Heero answered, "That was a social worker from the office here at Pittsburgh. She was making an inspection of the house and going over some of the details of the law when it comes to your situation."

Brow furrowing, the braided running back frowned deeply, "Okay. What for?"

"Well, I wanted this to be a surprise for you and the kids," the quarterback explained. "You've been saying for some time how you have your family at every first game of the regular season. I hope that you don't mind, but I took the liberty of seeing if it were possible to have the children stay here with us for a week instead of only staying at a hotel for a day or two at the most for the game this weekend."

Stunned, Duo's jaw fell slack and his eyes widened like saucers. For a moment, Heero winced in fear that he had overstepped his bounds.

Finally finding his voice, the American breathed, "Y-you mean that you went through all of the channels so that you could do this for us?" Biting his bottom lip, his partner nodded.

Throwing his arms around the team captain's neck, Duo kissed him deeply. "So what's the verdict, then!?" he inquired in a rush when he pulled away, panting heavily.

Heero blinked in shock at the sudden kiss. Smiling, he wrapped his arms around the slightly shorter football player and replied, "Well, she's giving the all-clear to the Chicago office for a week-long stay here. The only rule is that you have to have them back at the apartment building so they can be interviewed next Tuesday. Hilde and Solo also cleared the leave with everyone's teachers."

With a sharp laugh, Duo hugged his neck tightly. As he rained kisses on his teammate's face, he said with each one, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." Small tears filled his eyes and his voice hitched in his throat. Strong arms wrapped around him securely when he became silent.

After a long time in each other's embrace, the running back pulled back to meet brilliant cobalt as he wiped at his own eyes. Smiling, he sniffled and asked, "Do the kids know about this yet?"

Gently wiping a tear that his partner missed, Heero grinned and responded quietly, "Not yet. I wanted you to have the honor." Looking to his watch, he suggested, "But you may want to tell them soon so they can get packing. Their flight leaves tomorrow afternoon and lands just after our practice wraps up."

Not needing another word, Duo ran into the living room and sat before the vidphone at the coffee table. Flipping the monitor open, he dialed his home. Solo answered in a couple rings and his image appeared.

In seeing his friend, the blonde smiled, "Hey, little bro." Already knowing what the call was most likely about, he winked, "I'll get the kids for 'ya."

Heart pounding in his chest, Duo grinned, "Thanks, Solo." It only took a moment for his 'brother' to gather up Hilde and the little ones to get together before the vidphone. Chucking deeply, the running back thought aloud, "Thank God for wide screen."

Jamie sat atop Flora's lap as she smiled and waved, "Hi, Daddy!" The others followed in suit. Heero stood behind the monitor with a smirk on his face and arms folded as he listened in.

"Hey, gang," the braided athlete waved back. Forcing a frown, he sighed deeply, "Well, I just needed to call and let you know that I won't be coming home this week." His children all gasped, but did their best not to show their disappointment. Quickly regaining his smile, Duo said, "Because you're all coming out here for a week!"

Wide-eyed, Marcus was the first to process his words and shouted, "You mean it!?" Nodding, the young father-to-be laughed as his children jumped around with shouts and cheers. Solo and Hilde just laughed and accepted hugs from their little charges as they continued to whoot and holler. Heero snickered to himself and shook his head in amusement.

Allowing them a moment to celebrate, Duo waved his hand once more and called, "Okay. Okay. But I need you to listen." His children all gathered in close again, the anticipation in their eyes. "You need to get packing tonight because your flight leaves tomorrow afternoon," he informed. Looking up to his partner, he smiled, "And make sure to give Heero a hug and a big thank you for all of this when you get here for making this happen."

Flora nodded enthusiastically, "Sure thing, Daddy." Her siblings all responded with their own happy affirmatives. Through the receiver, Heero heard all of the children give a chorused, 'Thank you, Heero!' His smile growing and his heart warming, he eagerly looked forward to those hugs.

As he blew a kiss to his family, the running back promised, "We'll see you all real soon. Have a good night, everyone.""Good night, Daddy!" came the cheerful reply.

The celebration resumed with more jumping and cheering on the other line as Duo closed the vidphone with a wistful smile brightening his face. Rising to his feet, he wrapped his arms tightly around his teammate. "I don't know how to thank you," he whispered while burying his head in a strong shoulder.

Lightly rubbing his back, Heero replied just as softly, "No need. I'm glad that I could do this for all of you." They pulled back for a quick kiss. A smirk tugged the quarterback' s lips as he said, "Now to tell Lady Une that they're coming."

Chuckling deeply, Duo suggested, "We just better make sure she'd sitting down at the time." He quickly removed the digital picture display that he always kept on him and smirked, "Better have this on hand for proof, too." Hand-in-hand, the pair laughed as they made their way to the kitchen.

Part 38:

Quatre and rose from his seat at the announcement that the plane that he had been waiting for was docking. Rubbing his hands together, the agent looked about to implode from excitement. Finally, the doors leading to the jet way opened. A few people began filtering in luggage in hand as they reunited with their parties.

Looking into the long walkway anxiously, the blonde Arab beamed when he spotted Duo's lot making their way into the airport. Camille was the first to spot him. Instantly, her eyes widened with a sharp gasp. "Uncle Quatwe!" Quickly spotting him, the other children shouted in kind and ran for him.

With a loud laugh, Quatre bent at the knee and scooped up the first wave of little ones. Kissing their heads, he allowed his nieces and nephews to hang on to his legs as he straightened to hug Marcus, Tai and Flora. "It's so good to see all of you," he smiled brightly while appraising the whole family.

Little Jamie looked up and asked, "Did you miss us, Uncle Quatwe?"

Chuckling deeply, the agent bent down to hold her tightly once more. "Very much, Jamie," he replied. "Very much." Solo and Hilde brought up the rear of their group and reunited with their friend in another round of embraces and kisses.

Hope gripped her little brown teddy bear close while scanning the crowed room. "Where's Daddy?" she pouted.

Quatre rubbed the top of her head and winked, "He should be just about finished with work. What do you say we collect your things so we can go see him?" The little redhead and her siblings all grinned widely and nodded at that.

Flora, Marcus and Tai each took the hands of the younger ones as they led the way to the baggage claim. Right behind them, Hilde and Solo took the moment to catch up with their friend.

* * * *

Duo was pacing in the living room of the Yuy household, his eyes glued to the driveway just past the large windows. Back in the kitchen, Heero was helping Lady Une with beverages and snacks that they had picked up for their guests. As she finished cutting a large block of cheese, the maid shook her head in wonder, "Eight children. I never would have dreamed."

Placing the last glass on the counter, Heero smiled. Ever since learning of Duo's family the night before, his friend seemed to be in a constant state of shock. "I never would have believed it if I hadn't seen it, myself," he commented.

"They're here!" the running back's voice cried from the living room. Quickly aiding Lady Une in setting the last pieces of cheese onto the tray they were making, he all but ran to the entrance way with her. By the time they arrive, Duo was already opening the front door and running out into the crisp air.

Several voices cheered, "Daddy! Daddy!" When they reached the doorframe, Heero and Lady Une watched the braided youth hugging and kissing his little charges as they piled out of the large van Quatre had driven. Once he was able to greet everyone, including Solo and Hilde, the children all looked up to the grand estate with wide eyes as their first real look.

"Woooow," Sun drew as the first to find his voice. "It's like a castle."

Chuckling deeply, Heero stepped outside and shrugged, "Not exactly, but close enough."

Jamie was the first to cry the quarterback' s name as she sprung for him, the others right behind her. Bending down to wrap the girl up in his arms, he laughed and reunited with all of the youngsters. The young maid stepped forward with a warm smile and her hands folded at her waist.

As he held a hand out to her, Heero introduced, "Everyone, this is Lady Une. She's been a very good friend of mine for a long time." From there, he moved along to help Duo, Quatre, Solo and Hilde with the luggage.

Grinning, the little ones all waved and spoke their hellos. Camille tilted her head and breathed up to her, "You're really pretty." Her siblings all nodded in agreement.

Lady Une blushed deeply and placed a hand to her chest. "Why, thank you very much. And I think you're all just darling," she said sincerely in little more than a whisper. Those grins widened on each small face. At a light breeze, she shivered and rubbed her arms. "Well, we best get in from this chill," she suggested with a warm smile. "We have snacks and juices ready in the kitchen for you."

When she lowered her arms, Lady Une was taken aback only briefly when Abdul took one hand and Hope the other. Giggling, she led the youngsters into the house and to the back for some refreshments.

'Every one of you are little charmers,' the maid thought to herself in amusement. 'Just like your father.'

* * * *

After an emotionally charged day, Duo was tucking the youngest of his kids in for the night. Hilde and Solo were retiring as well to beat their jetlag. Tai and Flora were still too excited to sleep on their first stay at the Yuy household. Heero watched the brother and sister battling each other in a futuristic battleship war videogame in the living room.

Rising from the couch, the quarterback stretched and headed for the back patio for is nightly meditation. When he found Marcus sitting at the couch in the sparsely lit space, he grinned from the doorway, "So you found my favorite spot in the house."

The boy looked up in alarm and said in a rush, "I can go if you want me to. I didn't mean to barge in or anything without asking."

Heero quickly raised a hand to stop him and shook his head. With a smirk, he reassured, "It's all right, Marcus. I'm not upset. My house is your house as long as you all stay here." His guest relaxed with a soft sigh and smiled. Slowly stepping into the room, the team captain sat at the other end of the couch.

Together, they looked out and up through the glass walls to the stars in a serene, companionable silence.

Biting his lip, the African-American child turned to his idol and inquired, "Is that a picture of your parents at the top of the main stairs?"

Not entirely surprised by the question, Heero met his dark eyes and nodded, "Yes."

Marcus nodded his own head and peered out to the heavens once more. "I'm sorry about what happened to them with that accident," he offered quietly. Losing himself in his own thoughts, he shared, "I never knew my parents. My dad never looked after me and my mom died from a heroin overdose when I was two."

Frowning deeply, the quarterback told him softly, "I'm very sorry you had to go through that. No one should have to go through life without knowing their parents."

With a shrug, the boy replied, "That part never really bothered me, since I never knew either of them." He looked over to the football player and commented, "It made losing them a lot easier than if I actually had memories of them."

His eyes widening at such sage knowledge from someone so young, Heero soon realized how true the notion was. His parents' death had been the most difficult thing he ever had to deal with after years of their being the center of his life. A lump formed in his through at the thought of his mother's bright laugh and his father's proud smile.

"I had it pretty easy compared to the others," Marcus spoke up as he folded his arms behind his head. "All I had to worry about was when and if I was going to be transferred to another foster home. Some of the younger ones saw more than I will in my lifetime." Just the thought of some of those things sent a chill up his spine that made him shudder.

Smiling widely, the child stated, "But now they have Duo and their oldest brother to look out for them now. I might only be a couple months older than Tai and Flora, but that's still enough to make me the one the others look up to."

A small grin tugging his lips, Heero responded, "That's a pretty big responsibility. But, if anyone could handle it, I'm more that sure that you're up for that challenge." Marcus beamed in a way that made the stars above seem dim.

They both looked up once more to the skies for another moment of quiet reflection.

Peering out of the corner of his eye, the teenager questioned, "Do you love my dad, Heero?"

Not entirely surprised by the honest question, Heero gazed over to the boy and gave him the most honest answer that he could offer. "I care a lot for him. It's a little too soon for me to say for sure that I'm in love right now."

Satisfied with that, Marcus nodded, "Cool. I was just curious because I want him to be happy." Frowning, he sighed deeply, "He's so busy making all of us happy that he forgets he needs to be happy, too. He's sacrificing his reputation and everything that he can give up so we can live together."

The quarterback grinned, "Well, that's what good parents do. They always worry about their children before they worry about themselves."

His young guest shrugged with a deeper frown and turned his eyes back up to the stars. "I just don't want him to be lonely anymore," Marcus spoke in little more than a whisper. "Even with all of us around, I know he's felt alone. And I know about the things that he went through growing up." He shuddered again. "He deserves more than anyone else I've ever known."

"Well, I completely agree with you on that," Heero smiled. Biting his lip, he heard himself ask, "So it really doesn't bother any of you that Duo and I are... dating?"

Marcus straightened himself and laughed, "Why? Just because you're both guys doesn't mean that you shouldn't have feelings for each other." With his eyes locking onto the cobalt watching him, he grinned, "The only thing I don't like about it is that I can't brag about your dating my dad to my friends!"

At that, Heero's head fell back with a loud and full laugh. Composing himself, he reached over and rubbed the top of the teenager's head. "You're a good kid, Marcus," he smirked as he reclined deeper into the couch to peer upward.

Beaming, his young friend replied, "Thanks, Heero. You're not so bad, yourself." Both snickering, they resumed their star-gazing in silence for the remainder of their stay on the back patio that night.

* * * *

Treize was just about to head out of his office after another successful practice when there was a knock at his door. Stopping at mid-reach for his light coat, he settled back into his leather chair and called, "Come in."

As the door slid away, the head coach gasped sharply with wide eyes. All but falling as he stumbled to his feet in a rush, he greeted, "Hello, sir. I was not expecting you to still be here this late."

Waving his hand, the white-haired Marshall Noventa chuckled deeply, "Save the formalities, Treize. You know that you can always just call me 'dad' if you so wish. After all, you are married to my precious Sylvia." [1]

Once the doors closed behind him, the old man smirked, "I just came to inform you that I received the test results of last week's random drug test on our team. You really have outdone yourself this time, my boy."

"I told you that you had nothing to worry about," Treize grinned. "We are the only team in possession of a drug that is undetectable through any examination. It's going to help carry us all the way through the championship. Nothing will be able to stop us."

Raising a hand, his father-in-law warned, "One week at a time, son. One must learn to crawl before they can run. This is, after all, the first season that we were able to talk nearly the entire starting line-up into taking the enhancer."

Marshall reached up to run his chin as he snickered, "Though the effects have already proven to be more than promising for what we have to offer. Just be sure not to have too much attention drawn to the team if you can help it. The last thing we need is the league officials suspecting anything out of the usual."

With a firm nod, Treize reassured, "If need be, the men are ready to lose a game here-and-there to keep that from happening. One thing about me, I know how to cover my bases."

"That you do," the team owner smiled. "I also came here to invite you and Sylvia to dinner with myself and the misses this Saturday." Raising an eyebrow, he added, "It would be in your best interest to accept the summons. Seven o'clock at the Red Mill. I expect you to be prompt, as always."

His heart pounding in anticipation of what he hoped such a meeting might mean, the head coach answered with a wide grin, "Of course, dad. I am looking forward to it." Bowing at the waist, Marshall turned and headed out of the office.

As the door closed, Treize ran a shaking hand through his hair. Could it be... was Noventa finally preparing to retire from his ownership. 'He would have to soon,' he thought to himself. 'The old bat certainly can't have much longer to go before he'll turn senile.'

Not about to get his hopes up too high, he went to reach for his coat once more when there was another knock at his door. Sighing deeply to himself, he called, "Come in."

Alex walked right up to the edge of Treize's deck before the door was finished opening. "Coach, I need more of those drugs," he demanded, face etched in grim determination.

Treize blinked in surprise and frowned deeply, "You need more? Whatever for? You're already performing better than all of your seasons in the league combined. You're faster and stronger than any running back I have ever had on this team before you."

Shaking his head in frustration, Alex gritted, "Because that bastard Maxwell is still beating me in the numbers. Everyone still sees him at the top player in my position. I should be leveling his standings right now, but I'm barely within reach of simply matching him."

"Which is a feat not to be taken lightly," the head coach stated, folding his arms. "I told you before, when we first met, that there are people who are simply gifted. Maxwell is one of those lucky few. The drugs I am providing cannot suddenly make talent appear, they can only enhance what you have to offer."

The running back shook his head fervently, "But there has to be something that you can do. Maybe with just a little stronger of a dose than what I'm being giving me is all that I need to make a difference."

His eyes narrowing, Treize informed, "You are already receiving the maximum dosage that I am willing to allow. Any more and there is a chance that the drug might become detectable. Professor O has the measurements down to a science as to what levels can and cannot be picked up by every test out there."

Placing his hands on the edge of his desk, the coach leaned forward and explained coolly, "Regardless of that, a stronger dose of the serum would not push your body further than where you are right now. You will simply have to keep working on your performance on your own from here."

When his player opened his mouth to protest, Treize raised his hand to stop any words from flowing. "I understand that this steroid, like all others, can become addictive," he commented in as friendly a tone as he could muster. "Don't let it affect your better judgment. If it does, we will have a serious problem on both our hands."

That choice of words was enough to get through the running back. Straightening stiff, his eyes widened. "You wouldn't cut me off of the serum, would you?" he managed with a strangled whimper.

"If I must," his coach threatened. "And if I do, then I would have no choice to cut you loose as I would not longer have a use for you. Should that happen and you run to someone about what I am doing, you know fully well that I would be able to make you look you like a fool for it. Do you really want to risk your career over a little craving?"

Swallowing roughly, Alex felt his head shaking. "No, coach," he breathed. "I-I'm sorry. I just want to prove myself."

With an understanding nod, Treize smiled, "I know. But you are making more of a mark than you realize. As I was trying to explain earlier, you're closer to catching up with Maxwell than any other running back. It's entirely possible that with more work on your part you may eventually reach your goal of besting him."

A small grin of relief tugged the young athlete's face. "Right," he replied. Looking back to the door, he suggested, "And make sure that Mueller doesn't know about any of this. He is a bit of goodie-good when it comes to playing by the rules."

Humming an affirmative, the tall man responded, "I'll make sure to keep that in mind. It won't be difficult to keep him out of the loop since there are a couple others that are in the dark on the matter for the same reason. Thank you for the tip."

"Sure thing. Thanks for the talk," Alex said as he met the eyes on him. "I'll be going, then." They exchanged their goodbyes and the running back made a quick exit like an animal with its tail between its legs.

Treize sat back in his chair, kicking his feet onto his desk as he chuckled deeply. Folding his arms behind his head, he smirked to himself. "Yes, that is something to know about me… I know how to cover all of my bases."

[1] Of course, I am aging Sylvia Noventa if she is going to be married to Treize. In this fic, she is twenty-three.

 

Part 39:

Sitting before the lit mirror of her large vanity set, Sylvia was brushing her long hair when Treize entered their room. Instantly brightening at the sight of her husband, the she lowered her soft brush and rose to meet him with a kiss to the lips. "Hello, darling," she smiled lovingly. "How was practice today?"

Inwardly groaning, the head coach put on his best grin and kissed the back of her hand. "Just fine," he answered. "I am more than sure that we'll win the first regular season game tomorrow, so I am happy with today's practice."

"Well, winning or losing does not matter," Sylvia giggled innocently. "As long as everyone gives their best effort, no one can be disappointed. "

Treize forced his smile to grow at her naiveté. It was a constant torture for him to have to endure a marriage to someone with such a sweet and simple outlook on life. He never did care for Sylvia, but their nuptials were needed for him to get close to her father. As far as he was concerned, so long as he won over the ownership of her family's legacy, he could endure her sickening demeanor.

At the very least the girl was good in the sack.

Gently pulling back from the arms around his neck, Treize asked, "Are you almost ready for tonight's dinner? We should be leaving soon if we want to be at the Red Mill by seven to meet your parents."

All too happy to please, his wife nodded and gestured to the clothes lying on the bed. "I even set out one of your favorite suits for you," she replied. "I just need to change into my dress and put on a bit of makeup. It won't take me more than a few minutes."

Chuckling deeply, the head coach ran a hand over her golden locks in a husbandly way. "That's my efficient girl," he smirked. He placed a soft kiss on her forehead and moved towards the bed. "So has your father given any hint to what this get-together is all about?" he inquired while removing his shirt.

Sylvia moved to the closet for her long-skirted, figure-hugging red dress of choice.

The side of her lips curled up as she answered, "Of course not. You know that my father doesn't tell me anything."

'And with reason," her husband thought to himself. 'If she were to ever find out about the steroids that we're providing to the team...' He shook his head of that notion and finished buttoning his white blouse.

Moments later, the couple was dressed and heading for their car arm-in-arm.

* * * *

The Noventas smiled as they watched their daughter and son-in-law approach their table. "Perfect timing," Marshall greeted. "We were just seated a moment ago." Embraces and handshakes were exchanged before the family sat down.

Once their meals were ordered and the waitress stepped away, the team owner grinned widely to the pair across from him. "This is a very special occasion for all of us," he began. Treize reached for his water as his heart began to race in anticipation. Reaching over to take his wife's hand, Marshall grinned to her, "The Mrs. and I are realizing more and more that my time of carrying the family legacy will not last forever."

Eyes widening, Khushrenada did his best to keep the hand holding his glass from shaking. Beside him, Sylvia's own eyes widened with a short gasp in realizing what her father was leading the conversation. Her own hand reached over for her husband's to squeeze it.

Raising an eyebrow to his son-in-law, Marshall smirked, "You have been a patient lad, my boy. And you have proven many times your abilities in leadership as well as your devotion to this family." Unable to trust his voice on account of his dry throat, Treize finally lowered his glass and bowed his head lowly in appreciation.

"This shall me my last year as owner of the San Francisco Cougars," the old man announced. "You are the first to know of it." Sylvia's hand squeezed on tighter with a smile widening on her face. Raising a glass to the head coach, Marshall offered, "And I would be honored if you would be the one to take my seat, Treize. I cannot think of another that I could trust as much as I do you for the job."

Sylvia giggled excitedly, knowing what this meant for her husband. She knew more than anyone how much he wanted to prove himself worthy of the position to carry on her family's heritage. Stunned, Treize blinked a couple times before breathing, "T-thank you, sir. I don't know what to say."

Years... years of doing whatever it took to get him into a position of ownership was finally about to pay off. All of the lying, scheming, planning... everything. It was all about to pay off to help him achieve his ultimate goal. It was all too good to be true.

Marshal chuckled deeply, "Just say 'yes', my boy. Say 'yes' and by next spring, you will be the newly named owner of one of the most promising teams in the league. That will give us plenty of time to go over the details of your new responsibilities. "

Without hesitating, Treize smiled widely and nodded firmly, "Yes. I promise that I will not let you down, sir. And I thank you deeply for the opportunity. "

Unable to contain herself any longer, Sylvia leaned over to kiss his cheek and wrap her arms around his neck. "Congratulations, love," she whispered.

Cathy Noventa gave her kind regards while her husband called for the waitress to bring them their most expensive bottle of wine for their celebration. Lightly wrapping Sylvia in his embrace as she continued to hold on to him, Treize's grin spread further.

Finally... everything was falling into place just as he was sure that it would.

* * * *

Duo closed his cell phone flap and gripped his duffle bag's handles in his other hand. Looking at his family seated at the couches in the living room, he stated, "All right. That was Noin and she said that she has everything covered. Now you all know the plan, right?" His children all smiled widely and nodded along with Quatre, Lady Une, Hilde and Solo.

"Good," the running back grinned. Heading around the room, he hugged and kissed each of his charges. "We'll see you soon then," he waved while meeting with Heero at the doorway. The quarterback winked to the youngsters and pushed himself off the frame that he had been leaning against. Together, the pair headed for the front door.

Waving, Flora called, "Have a good game, Dad and Heero! Be careful!" Her siblings followed suit, sending their own regards.

Stepping outside, Duo descended the steps and sighed deeply, "I hope that this works out. It would really be the icing on the cake for this trip if Noin can pull it off."

Heero gently nudged shoulders with his partner and reassured, "Trust me. She'll pull it off. There are few as tenacious as her when it comes to helping out kids." Smirking, he added, "And as anxious as she's been to meet your family, she'll move Heaven and Earth to make this happen if she had to."

Unable to argue with that, the running back snickered, "True." Carefully throwing their bags into the back of the silver SUV, the pair took their seats and headed off for their warm-up practice just before the game.

* * * *

As the crowd was filtering into the stadium, Dorothy watched from her high box office. Several members of her administration were filling in behind her as she smiled to herself, "I still can't get used to seeing the stadium packed like this."

"Dorothy," Noin called as she entered the room with a slight pant to her breath, On hand holding onto Gavin and the other Derek. When the team owner approached her with worried eyes, she frowned, "I'm sorry to be bothering you right now."

Shaking her head, Dorothy replied gently, "It's quite all right, Noin. What's wrong?"

The short-haired woman bit her lip and answered, "Well, I was going through the stands and ran into a Quatre and Lady Une and took some time to talk to them. They were seated next to a family with eight foster children who happen to be very big Wolverine fans."

Swallowing when her throat became dry, Noin went on, "I know that this is a bit last minute to be asking this but, this is their first game. Perhaps-"

Already knowing where her administrator was headed, Dorothy cut her off with a widely grinned, "Done. It's a wonderful idea. I would love to have them enjoy their first game here in the owner's box."

Opening her arms to the many soft-cushioned seats and elaborately designed room, she said, "There is more than enough room for all of us. And please extend the same invitation to Quatre and Lady Une as well. I watch after Gavin and Derek while you're gathering them up."

Noin smiled, "I will bring them up, then. I just know that this would be something they would never forget." Quickly kissing her boys' heads with the promise to be back soon, she turned on her heels and made her way out of the room just as a member of the wait staff entered.

With a raised hand, Dorothy called the black-and-white suited young man over and advised, "We will be having a few little ones joining us today. Please inform the remainder of the staff that they are to be looked after the same as any of my guests here." The waiter grinned and bowed at the waist before parting from the box office.

Moments later, Noin was giggling to herself at the excited banter going on between Duo's children as they rode the elevator up to the upper levels of the stadium. "I can't believe we're going to the owner's box office!" "We're going to meet Dorothy Catalonia" and other such exclamations filled the air.

Whistling through her teeth, Hilde called for all eyes on her and a moment of silence. "Now this is your father's boss that we'll be spending time with, so you all know to be on your best behavior?" she asked while carrying Sun in her arms.

In tune, the smallest ones answered, "Yes, Aunt Hilde." Marcus, Tai and Flora all winced along with the adults at the title.

Turning to face the children, Noin corrected politely, "'Mom.' Remember that you need to call Hilde 'Mom' and Solo 'Dad' while we're here." She chuckled deeply at the sheepish grins and nods that she received. The freight came to a stop with the sound of a bright bell. "Here we are," the administrator announced as she turned to the opening doors.

As they entered the box office, the group was greeted by a smiling Dorothy. "Hello, everyone," she addressed the slack-jawed children as they looked to their surroundings. "I understand that this is your first time in this stadium."

Marcus, Tai and Flora in particular looked like they were about to jump out of their skin at meeting the lovely team owner. Their voices failing them, they nodded numbly. Chuckling deeply, Hilde closed the Asian boy's jaw with a free hand as she said, "Yes, it is, Miss Catalonia."

Solo lowered his head and spoke sincerely, "Thank you so much for this opportunity. You have no idea what this means to them."

Quietly snickering at the faces filled with wonder, Dorothy did not have to imagine just how excited her young guests were. "It's my pleasure," she responded while shaking a hand with the two guardians. "And please, just call me Dorothy. I look forward to having you here for the duration of the game."

Her ice-blue gaze appraised the Wolverine jerseys that the oldest three were wearing. The number 21 on each sleeve gave away which player's name was on the back. With her grin spreading, she commented, "I see that you're all fans of Duo Maxwell. Not a bad one to follow, I must say. He certainly knows how to keep things… interesting around here."

Flora found her voice first and answered with a bright, "Yes, ma'am." She winced and quickly corrected, "I mean, Dorothy. He's the best running back in the league." At either side of her, Marcus and Tai nodded enthusiastically.

"Well, I am inclined to have to agree with all of you there," the team owner winked. Holding an extended arm to the large, cushioned seats, she offered, "Please, make yourselves comfortable, everyone. We have a staff in the back that can provide any snack or drink that you so choose. Feel free to order what you like."

Thanking her with wide smiles, Solo and Hilde led the youngsters to the seating area. More gasps and wide eyes went through the kids as they peered out the large, glass wall to the great view of the field. Grinning from ear-to-ear, Noin introduced her `little men' to the family so that the youngest of the children could entertain each other.

As the family started making orders, Dorothy greeted her two friends with tight embraces. "Always good to see familiar faces," she stated. "And how are the two of you?"

Quatre and Lady Une made light banter with the young woman for a short while before it was announced that the Massachusetts Cavilers were about to take the field for introductions. Everyone took their seats and watched as the orange-and-tan- clad team was welcomed to the field with a loud mixture of cheers and boos.

After their own round of introductions moments later, the Wolverines filed onto their sideline. Looking up to the owner's box, Duo smiled widely in spotting the excited faces of his children there. Heero lightly nudged his partner with a knowing smirk that told him he knew their plan would work out.

From across the field, a tall and muscular Caviler was standing right at the white sideline and glaring heatedly at the braided running back. Choking back a laugh when he spotted those narrowed, brown eyes, Duo muttered, "Oh, shit. I almost forgot about him." He raised a hand to wave at his opponent with a huge smile.

When Heero looked over to see who his housemate was waving to, he struggled to contain his own laughter.

The crew-cut blonde continued to keep his fiery gaze on Maxwell, not the least bit amused by the antics.

Wufei moved over to his teammate and smirked, "Friend of yours?" Trowa shared the same amused expression as he folded his arms, peering over to the stocky man on the other side of the field.

"Can't you tell?" the running back chuckled. Looking out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Heero lowered his head, his chest bouncing with a barely controlled fit of hysterics from knowing exactly what was going on.

Before Chang or Barton could ask, the announcer called for everyone to rise for the singing of the National Anthem. Hands on their hearts, the players lined up neatly side-by-side. At the end of the song, applause filled the air and it was about time for the coin toss.

Heero, Duo and Trowa were heading for the middle of the field just as three of the Cavilers stalked towards them. One of those titans in orange was the blonde that had been glaring at Maxwell from the sideline. And that fiery stare continued.

Leaning in towards his partner, Duo muttered, "Just trust me, all right?" The quarterback flashed him a look of concern before nodding almost reluctantly. Opening his arms as if to offer a hug, the American walked towards his irate opponent, grinning, "Hey, Maynard. Why doesn't your Mom call me anymore? I miss her."

With a sharp gasp, the defender's brown eyes widened. "You fucking prick!" he cried, face red and eyes thinned to slits as he charged forward. It took both of his teammates to hold him back. The black-and-white uniformed referee growled as he assisted in trying to get through to the young man.

His own eyes wide, Tim gazed out to the field and announced, "Well, it looks as though there is tension already at the coin toss, folks. I suppose that happens when former teammates meet up to face each other. Remember that Maxwell's first team in the pro games was with the Cavilers. He only lasted a year before bad blood ran between him and his colleagues. Mike Maynard was one of those that he couldn't see eye-to-eye with."

Trowa turned to his teammate as the scuffle continued and frowned, "His Mom? You had an affair with his Mom?" Heero was almost red in the face from holding back his laughter while watching the defender being restrained.

Shaking his breaded head, Duo winked to his friend, "I'll tell you more about it later. This will get him so charged up to get at me that he'll burn himself out before we're half-way through the game."

At realizing the reason for the verbal haze, Trowa's green eyes widened. Smirking, he chuckled deeply, "You are a crafty little bastard, Maxwell."

"Guilty," the running back smiled. Shaking his head in amusement, Heero just snickered and waited for Maynard to finally calm down.

Coin in hand, the referee sighed deeply when he took his place between the trios of rivals. Looking to the Wolverine's team captain, he nodded firmly, "It's your home field, so you make the call."

Once the silver was flipped into the air, Heero called, "Heads." All eyes followed the spinning orb to the grass below.

Where the coin landed, the referee bend at the waist for a good look. Raising a hand, his voice carried into his microphone, "It's heads."

The crowd cheered as their three on the field grinned to each other at finally winning a coin flip. Looking back to Heero, the young man asked, "Would you like to receive or kick the ball away for the first possession?"

Not needing a moment to consider, the quarterback answered, "We'll receive." Blowing his whistle, the referee raised his hand to signal the players to make ready. Still glaring at the running back, Maynard slowly turned back with his teammates for their sideline.

Heading back to their own end of the field, Heero smirked to himself, "Never a dull moment with Duo around."

And frankly, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Note: By request, here are the names and ages of Duo's kids from oldest to youngest:

Marcus- 13 (two months older than Tai)
Tai- 13 (one month older than Flora)
Flora- 13
Abdul- 6
Camille- 5 1/2
Jamie- 5
Sun- 5
Hope- soon turning 5

 

Part 40:

Tai gasped sharply as he caught the football that Heero tossed to him when he and Duo returned to the Yuy household following their victory that late afternoon.

Just as the running back had predicted, Maynard and his fellow defenders burned out all of their energy early in their efforts to get a hold of him and they never recovered. From there, it was a pretty easy win-another first for the Wolverines to conquer right out of the gates of the regular season.

Looking over the signatures covering the football in his hands, Tai's wide eyes turned up to the smiling cobalt watching him. "It's the same one I used today," Heero commented. "Considering the fact that this was the first time we won the first regular season game, it'll be worth something in time."

Instantly shaking his head, the boy grinned widely, "I'll never sell this!" Quickly hugging the quarterback with one arm, he gave a quiet 'thank you,' before sitting at the couch to take a longer look at the precious gift in his possession.

Duo chuckled deeply as Hope ran up to him with her arms spread wide. Scooping her up, he turned to his family and asked, "So, how was the view from the owner's box?"

His little ones all took a deep breath before they started talking excitedly about their experience at the same time, their words a blur as they all shared something different. 'So cool!' 'Dorothy is awesome' and other such statements bled out through the confused babble. Laughing, the two athletes sat amongst his kids and listened to each of them recant the events.

* * * *

The next morning, Heero and Duo were at the airport alongside Lady Une and Quatre to bid farewell to the children. At the announcement that the plane was to be boarded soon, hugs and kisses were exchanged amongst the large group. Shades in place, the running back hid the slight shimmer of tears in his eyes at having to say farewell to his family.

No matter how many times he had to part with them, it never got any easier.

Quatre and Lady Une accepted the warm embraces from the youngsters as they bid their farewells. The young maid handed over a couple homemade brownies to each little one that she had made for their trip home. The agent also gave each child a little wrapped gift that he picked up for them.

Snorting, Duo rolled his eyes, "Spoiling them as always, Quat."

The blonde stuck his tongue out and placed his hands on his hips. "As their uncle, it's my right" he smirked before returning his attention to his 'nieces' and 'nephews'. Chuckling deeply, the braided athlete shook his head in amusement.

Hilde wrapped her arms tightly around Heero's neck and whispered brokenly, "Thank you. You really don't know what this meant to him and to these kids."

Smiling, the team captain returned the embrace and responded quietly, "It was my pleasure. Have a safe trip, Hil." The young woman grinned up at him and kisses his cheek before taking up her luggage. Solo moved up next to exchange a firm handshake with Heero. With firm nod to each other, they silently said their parting words and wishes.

On their way through the gate, the family waved back to Duo and the others. Waving back, the quartet waited until every last one of them was out of sight before lowering their arms. Quickly heading for the large windows, the running back kept a silent vigil until the plane pushed onto the runway and lifted off.

Just as the jet vanished from view, Lady Une complimented softly at his side, "You have a beautiful family, Duo. And I am honored that you trusted me with this secret of yours." A fresh sting of tears filled his violet eyes, but he squeezed her hand tightly and gave a small nod in appreciation.

Adjusting his baseball cap to shield his eyes better, Heero came up to his partner's other side and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Ready to head back?" he asked gently.

Roughly clearing his throat, Duo replied, "Yea." Together, the much smaller group headed out of the waiting area for the parking lot.

Somehow, the Yuy household seemed bigger and emptier than it ever had when they returned.

* * * *

Duo sat on the back patio couch to stargaze for a while after dinner. Lost in thoughts of his kids, he smiled in thinking of the week they had just spent together. A light knock on the entrance doorway pulled him from his daydream as Heero peeked into the room.

His smile growing when their eyes met, the running back patted the open cushion beside him in response to the unspoken question. Quietly seating himself, the quarterback wrapped him in his arms tightly and questioned, "Did you hear from Hilde or Solo yet?"

Resting his head on a strong shoulder, Duo answered, "Solo called my 'cell a few minutes ago to say they got back home safe." A firm nod of acknowledgement replied.

A long, companionable silence followed as the pair watched the heavens for a while. Finally, the braided athlete whispered, "Thank you, Heero." He pushed himself up just in time to place his fingers to the lips that were just beginning to open in protest, stilling them.

Eyes locking on to one another, Duo said, "I know you don't think it was a big deal to have my family out here, but you'll never... *never* know what that meant to me. I wish there was some way that I could repay you, even though you wouldn't ask or expect me to do that."

Lightly removing the finger from his lips, Heero responded, "The look on your face every time you were with your kids this week was worth simply opening my doors to them. I just want you and your family to be happy. You all deserve at least that much."

Wrapping the braided rope of hair around his fingers, the quarterback stated quietly, "Ever since I was a kid, I always wondered what it would be like to be part of a large family." His violet eyes blinking in surprise, Duo remained still and allowed his partner to continue. A small smirk tugging his lips, Heero shrugged, "With your kids, I get to see what that's like and almost feel like a part of it somehow."

"You are part of it, 'Ro," the quarterback reassured with a grin. "And you can be as long as you want." Lowering himself back down to lean against his teammate's firm chest, he sighed deeply in content.

After another long pause, Heero smiled, "I have an idea." Eager violet turned up to watch him. "I have a few dozen bottles of wine and champagne in the cellar. What do you say we indulge just a little?"

Duo laughed, "On a practice night!? I do believe that my alter ego is starting to wear off on you." They both snickered as he winked, "Lead the way."

* * * *

The following morning, Heero sighed deeply as he came back to the world of the living after a peaceful night's sleep. Cobalt eyes cracked open to take in the surroundings. Judging by the deep red of the light peeking through the blinds, the sun was just beginning to rise. Softly mumbling in his sleep, Duo nuzzled closer to him and his knee brushed up against something else that was rising as well.

Moaning, the quarterback stifled a sharp hiss at the sensation. Weeks of sharing his bed with someone was making the morning stiffness issue difficult to ignore. And it was not just the morning, either. Seeing Duo in action on the field, sweaty and muscles rippling, Heero's cock was making its presence known more than it ever had.

Being honest with himself, the team captain wasn't entirely sure how much longer he would be able to refrain from some sort of intimacy. The more his attraction and affection grew for the misunderstood running back, the more he wanted their relationship to progress.

Where that was concerned, Heero was more than sure that Duo was waiting for him to make that decision. His partner had been incredibly patient and understanding over the weeks following their first kiss. And just like that incident, Maxwell was putting the ball back into his court to make the first move.

Maybe it was time to start moving things along… once he got the courage to actually do something about it.

Stirring, Duo slowly blinked his eyes open and looked up to the cobalt eyes watching him. A smile slowly curled his lips as he mumbled, "G'mornin'."

Heero's lips curled up as he replied in kind, sealing the sentiment with a soft kiss to those pouting lips. With a soft sigh, Duo returned the exchange before they parted. Carefully pushing himself from the bed, the running back sauntered his way over to the dresser. Watching his firm ass the whole time it walked away, the quarterback groaned inwardly and threw an arm over his eyes.

It was going to be a long day.

* * * *

And to say that it was going to be a long day was an understatement.

Of course Duo couldn't have just gone with any of his loose mesh shorts or sweatpants to wear. No, he went for a much more form-fitting set of black stretch pants and an equally clingy long-sleeved dark silver top for that afternoon's practice.

Slowly but steadily growing more and more frustrated by the minute, Heero was almost convinced that he was trying to torture him. Almost. Whether he was fully aware of what he was doing or not, that thin thread of restraint that the team captain was holding on to was threatening to snap. And soon.

Following the whistle blow to announce the end of practice, the team was just finishing up their showers and heading home for the night. Duo waited patiently for the last person to finish up as any other time while Heero changed into his fresh set of clothes. When the braided football player headed for the shower room, the locker room began to empty out.

Wufei and Trowa parted with a `good night' to their friend as two of the last to leave. Gazing around the empty locker room, Heero began thinking of his partner alone in the showers. His throat drying at the thought and the mental image that it presented, his feet began leading him out to the hallway.

No longer allowing himself a chance to over think his actions, the quarterback just allowed his impulses to take over for a change. While initially a scary thing, it soon became a very freeing experience that became easier with every step.

After a careful check down the corridor, Heero watched Zechs and the coaching staff head from their shared office to walk away from him on their trip to the parking lot. That was the last of anyone else lingering around the lower level of the stadium.

Taking a deep breath, the quarterback gathered up his courage and headed for the shower room. Along the way, he shed the brown T-shirt and began unbuckling the belt at his waist.

With a deep sigh of content, Duo stepped under the warm spray of water of his usual stall of choice at the middle of the room. His long hair was loose and all around him as it began sticking to his dripping body. Allowing a moment to let the droplets relax his muscles, he quietly hummed to himself and reached for his basket of soap and shampoo.

Just before he could reach it, he froze when he heard footsteps approaching. Violet eyes wide, he spun around just as his partner stepped into view without a shred of clothing on him. Stunned, the running back straightened and gaped at his partner. "He…`Ro?" he managed to squeak past his suddenly dry throat. "W-what are you-"

Before he lost his nerve, Heero stepped forward into the fall of water and silenced his teammate with a deep, heated kiss. Gasping sharply, Duo hesitated for only a millisecond before responding with just as much vigor. Skin pressed against skin and hands buried into drenched hair as hip began to grind together almost on their own accord.

One of Heero's hands moved to gently run over the long scars on his partner's chest. Breaking the kiss, Duo's eyes filled with panic as he looked down at the grotesque markings that marred him… that haunted him.

Instantly pinning what was going through the other player's mind, Heero cupped the side of his face with his free hand. "They're beautiful, Duo," he breathed. "They're a part of you and they're proof of how strong you are." Bending at the waist, he placed soft kisses along the lines that crisscrossed one another.

Tears filled the running back's eyes, spilling out to mix with the shower droplets rolling down his face. Reaching down, he gently brought his housemate's face back up to kiss him deeply again. Hands resumed their roaming and gripping until they wrapped around their counterpart's hardened units. Time lost all meaning and the surroundings were a blur.

Gasping, whimpering and moaning, the pair just allowed their instincts to take over as they pumped each other close to the edge. "Oh God… Oh God," Duo whispered over and over through harsh pulls for air and rough kisses, his head falling back.

With a deep groan, Heero lowered his head on his partner's shoulder and began to tremble as he reached his climax. Whispering the running back's name, his seed seeped out with some jumping onto their stomachs.

That being the last his senses could take, Duo cried out as his own cock leaked a warm stream of semen onto the hand gripping it.

Both trembling from the aftershocks of their climaxes, they clung onto each other tightly. Panting heavily through the combination of water and air, they finally managed to catch their breaths. When they finally felt steady enough, they pulled back just enough to gaze into each other's eyes for a moment.

A small smirk on his face, Duo was the first to find enough of his voice to speak up first. "Wow," he said in little more than a breath. Chuckling deeply, Heero nodded his agreement to the sentiment. "Not that I am complaining, but what the hell brought that on?" the long-haired athlete inquired.

Heero grinned sheepishly and shrugged, "I thought that I was going to explode if something like that didn't happen soon." Lightly running a hand down the side of his lover's face, he said, "I hope you don't mind."

Laughing, the running back exclaimed, "Mind!? Hell no! I thought my right hand was going to fall off as many times as I've had to masturbate over the last couple months!" The quarterback joined in on his laughter before they leaned in to kiss once more.

As he reached up to push his soaked bangs from his eyes, Heero winced as the water began to chill. "I think we better finish cleaning off back home," he suggested. "Apparently, we took a little too long for the water heater."

"Mind washing my back for me when we get there?" Duo questioned with a raised eyebrow while turning the shower off.

The team captain smirked back, "So long as you don't mind washing mine."

* * * *

Following their shower upon their arrival back home, Duo towel dried his hair in the bedroom he shared with his lover. At just the thought of the word `lover,' he paused. But he supposed that it was true. Another towel draped around his waist as he sat on the edge of the bed, he went back to drying his long locks with a smile of content on his face.

Heero watched from the doorway leading to the adjoining bathroom for moment, entranced by the sight of his partner with his hair down. In all of the weeks that they had been dating, he had yet to see the running back without his trademark braid. Without it, he looked… like a mystical creature that couldn't be touched.

What had the quarterback even more taken aback by the simple moment was that he did not miss the intimate meaning behind it. The fact that his teammate was allowing his hair down spoke volumes of the trust and comfort level that he felt around him.

At the feeling of eyes on him, Duo looked up and grinned, "Hey."

Pushing himself off of the doorframe, Heero smiled back with a quiet, "Hey." His hands tightening the towel at his own waist, he seated himself beside the other athlete. Raising a hand, he gently ran his fingers through the wavy tresses.

"You can brush it for me if you want," the running back offered. Not trusting his voice, his partner nodded. Handing over a fine brush, Duo turned his back to the other athlete and closed his eyes.

Carefully running the brush through the knots from tips to root, Heero lost himself in his task. As the knots were worked out, the chestnut strands moved through his fingers like silk. A few soft moans escaped Duo throughout the pleasant experience of having someone else brushing his hair for him.

Once all of the knots were out, the team captain was walked through the steps of how to braid. Tying the end with a rubber band, he passed it over for inspection. Duo looked over the plait and complimented, "Very good for your first time, `Ro."

Spinning so that they were facing each other, the American bit his lip. "Heero?" he began with a nervous frown. He gazed down to his scars and asked, "Do you really think that I'm… that these things are beautiful."

Heero smiled sadly as he gently lifted his lover's head so their eyes met. Gently wiping a stray tear away from that heart-shaped face with the pad of his thumb, he replied quietly, "Actually, I didn't use the right word." There was a flash of panic in those violet eyes just before he stated, "You are breathtaking."

Duo gasped lightly, his eyes widening. Quickly leaning in, he kissed the quarterback's lips firmly, spilling all of his appreciation into it. But when they pulled away, he still felt the urge to breathe sincerely, "Thank you." Before his teammate could answer, he rose from the bed and headed back to the bathroom for his clothes.

Smiling widely, Heero lay back onto the mattress to stare at the ceiling. As realization hit him, he whispered, "I think I'm falling in love."