DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gundman Wing, or its characters. I just love playing with them.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Parts 51-60/?
Pairings: Eventual 1x2 and other pairings that I am working out
Warnings: Swearing, violence, mentions NCS, lemony goodness
BY: SkyLark
Betaed by Caroline *hugs*
Archives: http://www.gundam-wing-diaries.150m.com/gw/SkyLark/gwSkyLark.htm and http://www.mizunoamy.bravepages.com/skylark/skylarkfics.html

Part 51:

In a press conference following the victory against Miami, Zechs gazed out to the reporters and photographers behind the table where he sat alongside Heero, Duo, Brian and Terry. Cameras flashed and video recorders filmed.

The first journalist called on rose from his seat and began, "First off, congratulations on a huge win against Miami today, everyone." The quintet smiled at that and gave sincere words of appreciation.

Electronic notepad in hand, the young reporter addressed Zechs, "So, coach Marquise, what was your reasoning behind bringing Austin and Fellows into the game? Considering their track record in the past, you had to be leery of making that call."

Brian and Terry both snickered at the honest question. Heero and Duo just smirked to them like proud parents. Grinning, Zechs shrugged, ""Since summer training, Yuy and Maxwell took it upon themselves to work personally with Austin and Fellows to help them approve. It was also their suggestion that they have a chance to prove themselves today."

Some surprised murmuring went through the reporters before the next stood to her own feet. With a nod of her head to the two starters, she inquired, "And so neither of you felt the need to keep the spotlight on you, even though most look to the two of you as the stars of the team?"

Leaning towards the microphones a bit, Duo replied, "Neither Heero or I are foolish enough to believe that we carry the team. Everyone is valuable, including the second and third stringers that wait in the wings. Austin and Terry worked very hard with us for the last few months and it was about time they got to show that on the field." Beside him, Heero nodded.

Wide eyes went through the room as the surprised murmuring continued. Brian spoke up, "I don't think that Maxwell is taking enough credit here. Fellows and I owe a lot to him and Yuy for all of their help over the months. We wouldn't have performed half as well as we had today if they hadn't taken the time or had the patience that they gave us."

"And they believed in us when no one else had," Terry added. "It means the world to just know that someone you look up to and aim to be actually has faith in you and your own abilities. That alone went a long way for the both of us." Brian grinned and nodded to the sentiment. Heero and Duo bowed their heads humbly.

Quickly jumping in to voice his question, the next journalist stood with his recorder and turned to the team captain to ask, "Since it is pretty clear that Joel Simpson had every intent to hurt you because of your relationship with Maxwell, are you at all concerned that there will be other incidents like this in the games to follow?"

Taking a deep breath, Heero frowned, "What Simpson did was... unfortunate. But I'm not at all worried that there will be other scenarios like this one. Most players tend to have a more level head than that."


Solo's head fell back as he laughed, "Good slam there, 'Heero."

The quarterback sat at the other couch with Duo curled up alongside him as they watched the re-air of the press conference. A satisfied grin on his face, Heero nodded firmly in appreciation. Hilde snickered in accord, her head resting on her husband's shoulder.

In that late hour, the children were already sound asleep in their beds for the night. Following a very busy day of traveling back to Chicago for their three days off, the football players were grateful for a peaceful moment with their friends.

Slightly tilting his head, the Solo asked, "What ever did happen to that asshole after the game? He got more than a slap on the wrist for what he pulled, right?"

Duo lifted his head from his lover's chest and answered, "The league officials fined him twenty thousand dollars from his salary and a suspension from the next five games. I'd say it was a pretty good punishment."

With a wide yawn, Heero stretched his arms and concurred, "It's more than enough to keep him from trying anything like that again. If he ever did, the league officials are banning him from ever playing for a major league again."

Hilde sighed in relief, "Good. I still can't believe that he just went and did something like that at all. He would have to be a complete moron to try it a second time." Frowning in concern, she inquired, "You're sure that your back's all right?"

Shaking his head, the quarterback chuckled, "For the fifth time since we got here, I'm fine, Hil. The stitches will dissolve in the next couple days and I'm not in any kind of pain." He smiled warmly, "But I do appreciate the worry." The young woman gave him a friendly grin in return.

Gently running a hand through his wife's hair, Solo commented, "I thought poor little Jamie was going to jump out of her skin when she saw that. She really has taken a shine to you."

Unable to help his smile from growing at that, Heero recalled how it took some convincing on his part to get the tearful child to believe that he was all right. When Duo had called the house when they returned to their hotel room following the game, Jamie was sniffling over the phone asking if 'Heewo' was all right.

Changing the subject, Hilde grinned, "So now that your team is still at the top of its conference at 6 to 1 and you're half way through the season, you actually have a good shot at being in the playoffs-"

Instantly sitting up, the football players cut her off with their heads shaking and exclamations for her to stop. Blinking in confusion the young woman waited for Duo to sigh deeply and explain, "You don't ever say anything like that before it happens. Hell, you don't even think it! You could jinx the whole thing!"

Heero nodded, "He's right. There are still ten more games to go for the regular season. And with the fact that this particular team has never come close to that before, we're not even considering the chance right now."

Laughing, Solo shook his head, "I can't believe that the two of you are actually being superstitious over just the mention of the word playo-" Again, his friends waved their hands and cried to cut him off.

Once his `brother' and `sister' were both reduced to snickers, Duo threw a pillow at them. "Well, if we don't make it," he smirked, "It's going to be your faults. Not ours." The married couple just fell into hysterics with that statement.

* * * *

Wufei sat at the sidelines towards the end of the half-time intermission of the next game. His head bobbing back and forth in time to the music that Relena and the cheerleading team danced in their sequin uniforms of red and gold. Watching the routing that he had seen time and time again, the receiver was not aware that his arms were moving along with each movement that the young women made.

Finally back at their home stadium in Pittsburgh that cold day, the Wolverines were able to take advantage of having the chance to play on their own turf. On this seventh game of the season, they were in a good lead over the Buffalo Boars at a score of 20-10.

Chuckling, Heero, Duo and Trowa watched Wufei as he continued to unknowingly follow along with the cheerleaders. Suddenly aware of his friends' eye on him, the receiver turned them with his hands in mid-air where they were frozen in a pose. His eyes widening, he quickly lowered his arms and blushed.

"You should try out for the squad, Chang," Duo snickered. "You have some pretty good moves there." Heero and Trowa both burst out into full on laughter in not being able to hold back any longer.

His nose in the air, Wufei harrumphed, "Yea, well it's hard not to know each routine like the back of my hand when they up spending most of their practices at my estate." At the change in music, he held up his hand to pause any further argument and looked back onto the field just as Relena started swaying her hips to the beat.

Before long, the routine ended and the young women waved to the crowd while running off the field.

Grinning like a child on Christmas morning, the receiver exclaimed, "Goddamn, I am a lucky bastard!" Spinning back to face his teammates, he grinned widely, "Did you all see that!?" Duo joined in on the new round of laughter that went down the sideline.

A few feet away, Zechs just smirked, "All right, guys. Get your game faces back on. The big show's about to start up again." He didn't need to ask again as the athletes gripped their helmets by the facemasks and prepared to take the field again.

It was during a play when the Wolverine defensive team was on the field that disaster struck.

Donnie Richardson, one of the Pittsburgh blockers, got tangled in midair with a Buffalo receiver while trying to keep him from the ball. When they collided, their arms hooked just right and on the way down, there was a loud snap and a sickening pop. Both young men crashed to the ground and screamed out in pain.

The benches on both sides were cleared as the teams rose to watch the scene with wide eyes. Gripping either side of his head, Duo bit his lip in worry. Shaking his head, he muttered "Goddamn. Did anyone else hear that crack?"

"Yea," Heero replied quietly, his cobalt eyes on the fallen athletes as Sally and the Buffalo physical therapist ran to the scene. All that the offensive and special teams could do was stand around and watch.

Before long, two med vehicles pulled in and with the assistance of the players on the field, the injured young men were lifted onto the flatbeds. As he was wheeled past his team with Sally looking over him, Donnie received reassuring pats to his good shoulder and words of encouragement from his teammates.

Lightly jogging to catch up with the vehicle, Zechs and Trent gazed down to the pained face of their blocker. "Sorry," the African American frowned deeply up to them in a moan when another jolt of pain shot up his left arm. "I didn't think we'd get caught like that."

A small smile on his face, Trent replied, "No apologies needed, kid. It was just a shitty break." He winced, "No pun intended." Despite his discomfort, Donnie laughed goodheartedly at that remark.

Sally kept her hands over the point of fracture in a careful brace to buffer against any bumps they might hit on the way to her examination room. At Zechs's gaze on her, she sighed sadly and shook her head.

That only meant one thing. Complex fracture. It would not be something that she could set back on her own that it would heal before the end of the season.

Forcing a smile, the head coach squeezed the injured athlete's right shoulder. "Hang in there, Donnie," he told him. "I'm going to have Sally keep me posted on your condition. We'll be around to check on you as soon as the game is finished."

Sweat running down his face, the blocker grinned and nodded firmly, "Thanks, coach." Looking back over his shoulder, he called to his teammates, "Keep giving them hell, guys! We've got this one! Don't worry about me!" His comrades in arms waved him off with more words of support and well wishes.

Finally coming to a halt as the vehicle rolled under the tunnel at the start of the long corridor below the stadium, Zechs and Trent shared a disappointed and concerned look. Running a hand through his blonde hair, the offensive coach stated quietly, "I'll get Tyree prepped to fill in Swanson's place. He's the most ready of the second-string blockers."

His eyes still gazing down the tunnel ahead of them, Zechs nodded, "All right. The officials will want to get the game started up again, so make it quick." Not needing another word, Trent ran off calling for Tyree to take the field.

Shaking his head, Zechs slowly looked away from the tunnel. Regardless of how often injuries came up in football, it was never easy losing a player. Especially a good one like Richardson when they were needed the most.

* * * *

"To Dawson," rose the chorused toast as glasses of soda and water were clinked together. Pulling their drinks back, the gathered lot took a long sip before lowering their glasses again.

Even with their big victory that day, what happened to the blocker put a damper on the whole thing.

Relena rested her head on Wufei's shoulder with a quiet sigh. He turned his head to kiss her forehead gently. "So how did Donnie take the news that he's out for the rest of the season?" she asked hesitantly to the solemn faces around her.

His hand joined with Quatre's, Trowa replied, "As well as could be expected. Dorothy stopped by the hospital the same way she had with Darren. She won't be able to offer another coaching position, but she said his earnings won't change and he can at least stay on the sideline with us whenever we play."

Taking another sip from his water, Heero added, "A couple of the starters that have been out the last couple games with pulled muscles will be coming back next week. Hopefully we'll be able to keep them in the lineup for a while."

Duo shook his braided head and snorted, "So long as no one else we know brings up the `P' word again."

Both Wufei and Trowa lowered their glasses with a thud onto the table with wide eyes and slack jaws. "Someone mentioned the `P' word to you!?" the Chinese receiver exclaimed. "No one *ever* mentions the `P' word unless it's a sure thing that we're making it!" Quatre and Relena rolled their eyes at the well-known superstition amongst the team.

Shrugging, the running back responded, "That's what Heero and I tried to explain to them, but they just didn't believe us." The quarterback nodded and took a handful of peanuts from the snack tray.

"Now come on," the agent chuckled deeply in amusement. "You don't really believe that someone mentioning a certain word is the reason for Donnie's being taken out for the season, do you?"

Trowa raised and eyebrow to his lover in a silent answer. "You're all crazy!" Relena cried. "I can't believe that every one of you is that superstitious! "

Holding up a finger to end her tirade, Heero reminded her, "We're athletes. If there is anyway to turn something around into a superstition, we will. Any sport is a combination of talent and luck. You need both if you want to get ahead. The last thing that you do is tempt fate." Duo, Trowa and Wufei all nodded fervently.

Duo winked to his two surprised friends, "So, no mentioning of the `P' word around us, whether we have a shot or not. It's waaaaay too soon to be making any assumptions like that right now with eight more games to go this season."

Lightly tapping the tip of his girlfriend's nose with a finger, Wufei commented, "This is going to be one of the most difficult stretches ahead. For a lot of teams, they know it's do or die for them, so they'll be pulling out all the stops to come up with wins."

"Everything we've seen up to now will seem like a stroll in the park," Trowa threw in. "Since we're one of the teams at the top of the pack, everyone we face is going to want to knock us down."

Relena raised her hands and giggled, "All right. All right. I get it. No mentioning of the `P' word until it's a done deal. You sold me." Quatre nodded his own agreement to keep a lid on the mention of the word.

Their friends smiled in satisfaction. A couple of tables down, Karen turned her head away from the round table. "Nothing interesting enough for me to work with yet," she sighed to herself in frustration. Finishing her drink, she continued to strain her ears to listen in on the conversation over the noise of the bar crowd.

* * * *

After two days of staking out the gates of the Yuy household, Karen was about ready to pull her hair out. There was little change in the routine of the quarterback and running back. Other than going to practice and making the occasional stop at Murray's with their friends, they rarely left the house.

And now knowing that the couple was off from practice for the next three days, the journalist was dreading a most boring stretch of no activity. After her story hinting that they were gay had become front page news, she imagined that the two athletes were being especially careful with what they did.

Just when she was about to pull out of her hiding place a few yards from the gates for a reprieve, the platinum doors opened for a black Civic to pull out. With Heero in the driver's seat and Duo beside him, they turned right heading for the highway.

Soon spotting what appeared to be luggage in the back seats when the vehicle turned, Karen's eyes widened. Quickly turning the ignition of her own car, she hurried off to keep her target in sight.

At the end of the journey, they wound up at the Pittsburgh Airport. Knowing that she would not be able to follow the couple on such short notice wherever they were going, the reporter still followed at a safe distance to at least learn their destination.

By the time she caught up to the gate where the disguised football players were sitting, Karen looked up to the stewards' desk. In bold letters, the station's message board had the location of the flight's arrival destination.

"Chicago, Illinois," she read to herself. Smirking, she turned and walked back off. "Curiouser and curiouser," she muttered while lowering her sunglasses on the bridge of her nose.


Part 52:

Duo was sound asleep on the couch with an arm draped around Abdul, the five-year-old also resting on his father-to-be' s chest. Coming in from a run for groceries, Heero and Hilde paused to smile at the sweet scene. Quickly lowering the bags in his hands, the quarterback reached for the digital camera on the table beside him and took a picture.

Appraising the image on the screen, he grinned, "Cute."

Upon arriving the night before, it was brought to Heero and Duo's attention that the little Arab boy was coming down with a fever and couch as a sure sign of a cold coming on. With it being the beginning of November in the final transition to the colder weeks ahead, it was to be expected.

When Abdul's cold only worsened with his cough, Duo called the boy out sick from pre-school that morning. Thanks the confidentiality laws of parent to teacher and visa versa, none of his children's educators could come forward with his being prepared to adopt.

Misses Jamison of the Truman Preschool just loved the braided running back from the moment they had their first meeting at enrollment for Abdul, Jamie, Sun and Camille. In her late fifties with graying hair, she was every bit the picture of a loving grandmother for the little ones.

That particular morning, she had been very understanding when she received the call to expect one of her pupils out for the day. A smile in her voice, the preschool teacher reassured that any activities or assignments missed would be sent home and offered her well wishes to both Abdul and Duo.

Hilde peered over Heero's shoulder to gaze on the picture and chuckled quietly. I'm surprised that they stayed up as long as they had, considering neither of them got much sleep last night.

His smile growing, the quarterback thought back to the night before where Duo demonstrated his attentive parenting skills yet again. Instead of sharing their usual bed together, the running back took up a cot and slept on the floor in Abdul's room to be on point should his son need anything.

Between getting up to check the child's temperature when he stirred awake with coughs and getting water when it was requested, it had been a long night for the official parental figure of the house. At breakfast, Duo's braid was disheveled and there were dark circles under his eyes and yet he put on a smile and his gests for the others as they prepared for school that day.

For Heero, wonders never ceased when his lover was concerned.

"Good thing we've been loading up on the vitamin C ever since our colds this last summer," Heero smirked as Hilde gently placed her hand on Abdul's forehead. "Last thing we need right now is to come down with another bug that takes us out for a couple days."

Snickering, the young woman replied, "Yea. Something tells me that Zechs and Dorothy wouldn't be too excited about losing either of you for the rest of the season."

A relieved smile tugged her lips and she pulled her hand away. Turning to take up her bags once more, she said quietly, "His temperature seems to be going down. Now that the cough medicine is finally kicking in to let him at least get a decent rest, he should be over the worst of his cold soon."

Heero sighed softly in his own relief while removing his baseball cap to run a hand through his unruly hair. When his partner told him that the worst thing in their world for him was to see his kids hurt, crying or sick, he now understood and agreed completely.

What with all of the other youngsters off at school, the apartment complex was too quiet and empty. Solo returned from his own errands just as Heero and his wife were finishing putting the groceries away in the kitchen.

The quarterback urged the married couple to get some time to themselves for a change. More than happy with that suggestion, his friends offered their thanks and headed out for a while.

Situating himself in the recliner beside the couch where Duo and Abdul were still sleeping, Heero leaned the chair back and turned the television on to a quiet volume. Occasionally, he would look over to his charges with a warm smile on his face.

After about an hour into his watch, the team captain heard little Abdul stirring. Duo shifted his head, but remained asleep as his son's eyes blinked open. Searching the room with his gaze, the child soon found Heero grinned down on him. "Hey," he greeted quietly.

Rubbing his tired eyes, the Arab boy mumbled, "Thirsty."

With a quiet chuckle, Heero carefully helped Abdul off of the running back without waking him. "Well, let's get you some water, then," he said quietly. Once he was on his feet, Abdul latched onto the quarterback' s hand as they headed for the kitchen together. After the little one had his fill, they headed back to the living room hand-in-hand again.

Not wanting to wake his father, Abdul waited for Heero to sit back in the recliner before tiredly stretching his arms up to him. Smiling to him, the team captain scooped him up and leaned the chair back. Snuggling up close next to him, the child rested his head on a strong chest with his eyes drifting closed.

Lulled by the even breathing beside him and the quiet whisper of the television, the quarterback drifted off soon after.

In mere moments, Duo was suddenly alert when the spot where Abdul had been lying on him cooled. Looking around frantically, the braided athlete gasped at the sight on the recliner next to him.

As quietly as he could, the running back rose from the couch and tip-toed over to the digital camera. Snapping a picture of his lover and son curled up together and sleeping, he chuckled quietly, "Cute."

* * * *

By dinner that evening, Abdul was feeling well enough for a large bowl of soup and crackers. So as not to make his little boy feel ousted by not being in too close of contact with his family, Duo allowed dinner to be enjoyed in the living room. Sitting up in the couch, the recovering child watched television along with his siblings as they sat on the floor a couple feet ahead of him.

Carissa had been a sweetheart in helping her brother with the two assignments that Misses Jameson had given them that day at school. With his temperature having completely weaned off, Abdul was starting to get more color back in his face along with a bit of energy. Mary was curled up beside the child on the couch in her own silent guard of him.

Once the meal was finished and the dishes cleaned, Heero and Duo reentered the living room together with bright smiles. "Everyone, we have an announcement to make," the running back grinned to his family.

All eyes turning to watch them, the father-to-be nodded to his partner to take over. Clearing his throat, Heero began, "Your dad and I decided, that you're going to be returning to Pittsburgh in two weeks for your Thanksgiving break."

Gasps and excided cries filled the air as the little ones leapt to their feet and nearly took the quarterback down in a wave of hugs.

His braided head falling back, Duo laughed as his lover tried to stay on his feet with a wide smile on his face. "I think they like the idea," he snickered while scooping up a beaming Abdul from the couch.

Lightly tapping on his son's chest, the running back winked, "That means you really have to take it easy and get better so you can enjoy the trip."

"I will, Dad," Abdul nodded excitedly. "I promise I will." he coughed lightly before throwing his arms tightly around his father's neck. Chuckling, Duo kissed his cheek and basked in the glow of his children's celebration.

* * * *

One week later...

"Chicago, Illinois?" Gallow frowned deeply. "For two weekends in a row now? What on Earth could be there that they would make a regular trip of seeing?" Swinging the seat of his leather desk chair in thought, he mused aloud, "Or perhaps it's a 'whom' out there and not a 'what.' Maxwell is from the city, after all."

Displayed on his vidphone, Karen shrugged, "Well, that is the question. They always leave the same time every Monday and return every Wednesday night in time for the next morning's practice. It's a strong enough pattern that I don't think it's about to change any time soon."

Straightening himself as he lowered his feet from where they were propped on the edge of his desk, Nathan nodded, "Very well. I'll have a flight booked for you on the six o'clock flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago within the hour. Do your best to see what it is about the place that had their interest."

A dark smirk curling the corner of her mouth, Karen replied, "Will do. I'll keep you posted as soon as I learn anything interesting. "

The screen on the vidphone went black at the end of the transmission. Gallow folded his arms behind his head and grinned wickedly, "I'm looking forward to it."

* * * *

Gazing through his sunglasses around the airport terminal as they sat in waiting at their gate, Duo asked quietly, "Did you ever get the feeling like you were being watched, 'Ro?" Just beside him, his lover looked up from the laptop that he was typing at.

Slightly tilting his head, Heero shrugged, "We're football players. We're always being watched." He chuckled deeply when his teammate slugged him in the shoulder at the teasing comment. Quickly turning serious, the quarterback frowned, "Why do you ask? Something have you on edge?"

"Yea," the running back nodded. Rubbing the back of his neck at the prickles growing there, he commented, "I don't see anyone outright staring at us since we're pretty well disguised, but I just have a weird feeling."

Reaching over to squeeze his partner's hand when no one was watching, Heero reassured, "It could be a lot of things. We just won another game yesterday, so we're at the top of our league's standings at the official half-way point of the season. Everyone on the team's a little on edge over that."

Duo knew that very thing was, in fact, playing a factor in his nerves. Perhaps it was playing more of a role in his unsteadiness than he realized. "You're right," he finally sighed. "I'm probably just overreacting to everything thanks to the pressure that's on us now."

All around, there were people wearing Wolverine jerseys, jackets and hats. Thanks to their early success that year, everyone on the Pittsburgh team was now a household name in the city again.

Considering what the purchases of the merchandise and stadium tickets was doing in aiding the hurting economy there, everyone was appreciative to have something to cheer for that gave them hope.

It was more than a little pressure on the team.

Even at their celebration in the locker room and at Murry's following the game, there was as much joy and excitement amongst the players as there was nervousness and tension. Especially for the seasoned Wolverines who had been with the team the longest, they had never been in this position before.

Smiling to his lover, Heero suggested quietly, "To be honest, I'm not holding up much better, myself. Let's both just try and enjoy the trip. We both could use it." Duo matched his grin with his violet eyes shining in appreciation. He squeezed the hand in his own before they fell away from each other once more.

A couple rows of seats away from them, Karen peered over her shoulder discretely. Smirking, she turned her head forward once more to read the magazine in her hands just as the steward at the gate desk announced that the first class passengers could begin boarding the plane.

* * * *

When they arrived in Chicago, Karen was pleased to see the high rise buildings all around that made her feel at home since she was normally stationed in New York. Keeping a safe distance behind her targets after picking up her rented car, her trepidation grew deeper and deeper as they drove into the less than friendly looking neighborhoods.

"Must have to get through these to get to the nicer suburbs," the journalist though aloud to herself with a bit of unease in her voice. That hope was soon put to ruin when the car she had been following turned its right blinker on to take the approaching exit.

In seeing what lay ahead at the end of the exit ramp, Karen swallowed roughly. All around, there were row houses with broken windows, burnt sidings. Off in the distance, the sounds of sirens swelled and faded. There was littler almost everywhere. Here and there, some questionable looking individuals were lurking about.

The deeper they drove into the area, the worse the surroundings became. "What in the hell?" the young woman muttered in frustration and growing fear.

Finally, the red car carrying the football players pulled in to a parking spot in front of a large apartment complex. Her eyes narrowed in focus, Karen veered to a halt a few blocks back to watch. Smiling and laughing, Heero and Duo moved to the back of their own rented car and removed their luggage from the trunk.

When they reached the top of the front steps, the running back placed his hand on the scanner beside the door. Being a gentleman, the quarterback nudged the door open with his shoulder and stepped aside with a deep bow for his partner to enter the building first. On his way past, Duo gave Heero a brilliant, loving smile.

And then the door closed behind them.

Digital camera in hand, Karen quickly stepped out of her vehicle and headed for the apartment complex. Pausing on the sidewalk on the opposite street, she snapped a couple shots just before a catcall of a whistle made her freeze where she stood.

Very slowly turning her head to peer to the row houses behind her, the reporter's heart began to pound in her chest. Sitting on the front steps of a ratty looking residence were eight young men of mixed races but all wearing the same all-black clothing that marked their gang. Each leering eye ran it's way up and down the young woman's body.

Forcing herself to breathe, Karen turned and began walking backwards for her car. "What's the matter, sugah?" one of the hoodlums asked as he and his friends began rising to their feet and stalking towards her. "We just want to play."

Unwilling to hear any more, the journalist cried and spun to dash for her car. With the gang right on her heels, she threw the door open and dove inside. Quickly closing and locking the doors, her trembling hands searched for the car keys and started the ignition.

Laughing and banging their hands on the car, the gang members puckered their lips and make crude gestures until the vehicle peeled out of the parking lot and back onto the street.

Karen peered to the rearview mirror to see the young men laughing and waving her off. "I have to get the hell out of here!" she whimpered with tears stinging her eyes.

Back at the apartment complex, Duo pulled back the shades of the living room window in time to see eight members of 'The Claw' high-fiving and talking amongst themselves. Where they stood on the street, there were long, black tire treads and smoke still hung in the air from where the exhaust that had been there moments ago.

"What the hell was that!?" Heero asked as he quickly entered the living room.

Closing the blinds once more, Duo shook his head and sighed, "Just some of our neighbors making 'friends.' Good news is that it looks like he or she got away just in time." Heero nodded in relief and together, they headed back to the kitchen.

* * * *

"What do you mean you want out of there?" Gallow frowned into the receiver of his cell phone. "You only arrived twenty minutes ago. In that short a time, you couldn't possibly have come up with anything news worthy."

Pacing back in forth in her posh hotel room in the safety of suburbia far from the city, Karen growled deeply, "I'm not being paid enough to risk my life like this. I just narrowly avoided being raped or worse by a gang, Nathan! There is absolutely nothing that would be worth my going back to those slums!"

His eyes widening, Gallow finished his sip of brandy in a rush and repeated, "Slums? Yuy and Maxwell traveled all the way to Chicago to stay in the slums of the city?"

Karen placed her free hand on her forehead and sighed, "Yes. In some rundown apartment complex that I managed to take a couple shots of before I had to run for my life."

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she kicked off her heels and almost pleaded, "There should be something that we can make a story out of that. Maxwell lived the life of luxury while he has family living in poverty that he won't help out. That would be something we could make up, even if he's not here to actually see family."

Nathan shook his head, "Not good enough. We need something more." At his partner's whine over the line, he smiled, "You don't have to go back to that part of town if you're uncomfortable, Karen.

"There should be something there that we can dig up on Maxwell's past that he's managed to keep hidden all this time. Start with his high school. Make up a some human interest story that you're doing research on. I know how tenacious you are."

Finally starting to ease with that idea, Karen bit her lip and replied, "Yes. I... I could do that. His high school isn't far from here."

Inwardly sighing in relief, Gallow smiled, "That's my girl. Be sure to get back to me as soon as you find anything." After an affirmative, the young woman closed her cell phone flip and lowered herself back onto the mattress.

Staring up to the ceiling, she commented quietly, "Look's like it'll be a few more days in paradise."

* * * *

On their return to the Yuy household, Heero and Duo removed their luggage from the back of the quarterback' s Civic and headed up the front steps. The quiet conversation that they were engaged in came to a halt when the door opened before they reached it.

Trowa, Wufei and Quatre stepped out on the top step with a worried and sad look on his face. Lowering their bags to the ground, the football players shared a concerned peer out of the corner of their eyes. Reluctantly, Duo was the first to ask, "What's wrong, guys?"

Swallowing roughly, the tall center answered, "Pops was just rushed to the hospital about an hour ago. He had a heart attack."


Part 53:

The ride to the hospital was made in silence with Heero at the wheel, Duo in the passenger seat and Trowa and Wufei in the back. When they arrived, at the facility, they all but ran to the reception area in the mordancy room. First to reach the wide-eyed nurse behind the desk, the running back greeted, "Hi, we're looking for-"

"With all of the technologies that we have this day and age, you people still can't come up with robes that cover a person's ass! Where are my pants!?" a familiar voice bellowed from down the hall.

At the sound, the football players smiled in relief and chuckled. "There's Pops," Wufei smirked. Nodding in appreciation to the giggling nurse, the quartet headed down the corridor to find a very amused doctor stepping from the room at the end.

To the eyes on him, the tall man in the white medical coat grinned, "Ah. Mister Marquise said to expect a few members of the team. The coach and his wife are in the room with Mister and Misses Reeds now."

Heero bit his lip before asking, "How is Howard?"

Laughing, the doctor answered, "A bit peeved at the moment. But other than that, just fine. Nothing more than a bad case of indigestion that his wife fears might have been the start of a heart attack. But for his age, Mister Reeds is in excellent health."

Their shoulders sagging, the four athletes sighed deeply before slowly falling into chuckles at the scare that turned out to be nothing. And they all knew just how 'peeved' Howard must have been over the whole situation, indeed. Thanking the doctor and letting the man on be his way, the group headed into the room.

Inside, Zechs, Noin and Trent were fighting back laughter as they kept their backs to Howard while the old man finished buckling his black pants. Norma Reeds, her hair just as white as her husband's and just as slight in frame, was glaring at him with his arms folded. "You should take these sort of things more seriously," she warned. "You're not a teenager anymore."

Snorting, Howard retorted indignantly, "I think I know the damn difference between a heart attack and indigestion! All I mentioned was my chest was tight and I couldn't catch my breath! Next thing I know, you're on the phone calling for a damn ambulance when it's you're fault with that cooking of yours!"

With a sharp gasp, the old woman gave another verbal lashing as Zechs and Noin spotted the four in the doorway.

A smile on his face, Zechs told the group approaching, "As I'm sure you know now, things were not nearly as bad as we had thought, thank goodness. I'm glad to see that you all could make it here." Trent and Noin continued to choke and giggled in their attempt to refrain from full laughter as the arguing continued behind them.

Finally, before long, it appeared that Norma had won the fight just as she always did. She was the only one who could put Howard in his place when needed. His head lowered, the old man muttered some sort of an apology to his wife and an affirmative to whatever she had just said before looking up and grinning widely.

"Hey, boys," he waved while heading over to the lot. "Come to see the dying man?" He shot a raised eyebrow and a smirk to Norma in a way to say 'That's another point for me.' His old lady just sighed and rolled her eyes.

Snickering, Duo walked up first to exchange a firm handshake with the offensive coach. "You gave us one hell of a scare for a moment. Good to see that you're still with us, Pops," he winked. Heero, Trowa and Wufei all gave their own handshakes and one-armed hugs with their relieved greetings.

Arms folded, Zechs met the old coach's gaze and stated, "Well, one thing that the doctor would like to see is you finally enjoying retirement as opposed to holding a stressful job like you are now.

"Some time this week, we'll have to sit down and discuss our options for a second offensive coach that will take up the reins when you do decide you've had enough. Last thing any of us want is for another scare like this to be the real thing."

Howard huffed and placed his hands on his hips. "First off, I am not as old as I seem. And, as the doctor informed, I am in top shape so I'm not going to be croaking anytime soon." Norma cleared her throat and fixed her husband with a glare that rivaled Heero's when he was angry.

Gulping, the offensive coach turned to Zechs and relented, "Well, maybe a full-time assistant wouldn't be a terrible idea to take some of the pressure off."

More than pleased with that, everyone in the room smiled and the head coach nodded firmly, "When Dorothy returns from her business trip, I'm sure we could work something out that will make everyone happy."

Lightly patting his old friend's back, Zechs suggested, "Let's go home. Everyone knows how crabby you are at practice if you don't get a decent night's sleep." Heero, Duo, Trowa, Wufei and Trent all muttered their agreement to the sentiment.

On their way out the door, Norma looped her arm through her spouse's and grinned, "Well, since you're in such good shape, dear, perhaps you can clean out the garage this weekend instead of putting it off the way you have been for months now."

"Are you crazy, woman!?" Howard cried. Placing his free hand on his chest, he huffed, "I'm an old man! I could croak at any second and you want me to exert myself like that!?" As another battle of words began, the others just shook their heads and smirked in amusement.

* * * *

Rubbing his temples against the headache that was building, Nathan sighed, "You really couldn't find anything on Maxwell? Nothing at all?"

Karen's dark-circled eyes narrowed from the other side of the desk. Holding up the file in her hand, she replied in a short tone, "Like I already told you, any personal files on him are under lock and key with security around. All that I was allowed to get my hands on were his high school yearbooks. I made a copy of every page with his picture on it."

She tossed the file onto the desk. With the copied images spilling out haphazardly, the young woman stated clearly, "That was all that I could get my hands on. I'm sorry for thinking that there would be more out of my trip, but sometimes hunches are wrong. I'll be more than happy to continue to stake the Yuy household out, but you could not pay me enough to go back to that rat's nest of a city."

Nathan smiled that sly smile of his and held his hands up. "All right," he spoke soothingly. "All right. You've made your point. So we've reached a dead end. We'll just find another angle for another story."

Waving his hand, he said, "You know what, take the next two weeks off. I'll see that you're still paid for the time. It'll give you a chance to collect yourself after all of this stress that I've put on you."

Her dark eyes blinking in shock, Karen commented, "Well, I suppose that I am due for a break. Thank you, Gallow." Rising she gathered up her long, black coat and smirked, "Sometimes I wonder how people have such a bad impression of you."

"It's a mystery to me," Nathan chuckled with a shrug. "When you return, I expect you to be ready to go after that great story." Winking over her shoulder, Karen stepped from the office without another word. There were no other words needed. Gallow knew that she was his best in digging things up.

Sighing deeply, the young journalist took up a few of the pictures spread out on his desk.

Most of the pictures were of Maxwell in his blue, white and gold high school football uniform either in action on the field or in a group shot with his teammates. There were several images of the running back with Quatre Winner in the midst of having lunch together or posing with bright smiles and their arms around each other's shoulders.

Holding one such picture close, Nathan sneered at the faces grinning back at him. "You win another battle," he growled deeply. "But the war is far from over."

* * * *

Laughing as he jumped into Heero's arms, Duo threw his helmet off and let out a loud cheer. "Touchdown Pittsburgh!" Adam exclaimed. "That's another one for the power team of Yuy and Maxwell! Looks like they're going to seal away another victory, folks! What an amazing season this has been for the team!"

On their sideline, the Cincinnati Hawks reacted in a variety of ways-none of them being a very happy response. Now down by two touchdowns with half of the last quarter to go, their chances of recapturing the lead were slim to none.

The stands had a mix of boos and cheers as fans for both teams filled the Cincinnati stadium. All around, there were almost as many red and gold football jerseys as there were black and deep green.

Considering how few fans they were used to seeing outside of Pittsburgh, it was a sight to behold for the Wolverines.

Tim shook his head with a smile. "Well, even in this cold snap of only ten degrees, the Pittsburgh team hardly seems affected at all. I don't think they even notice just how bitter it is out there the way that they've been performing today."

"Fuck it's freezing!" Duo cried once he and his teammates reached the sideline, helmets in hand. Shifting from one foot to the other to keep moving his breath made puffs of vapor as he chuckled, "Nothing like a day like this to wake your ass up!" Those in earshot snickered and nodded their agreement.

Darren was talking with his fellow receivers, coaching the stringers that had been filling in for him and patting them on the back for their good work. Adjusting his crutches, the assistant offensive coach worked his way further down the line to work up the third-string receivers in preparation for their shot at taking the field.

Keeping in mind the lead that they had, Zechs made the call to have a lot of the supportive players have their shot at playing again. It would keep the first string starters fresh and safe from injury. And it gave the nod of appreciation to those back-ups for all of their effort.

Howard watched Darren from his post beside Zechs and Treize. Arms folded, the old man's lips curled up in a small smile in witnessing just how good the young man was at what he did. For one who had never coached before, the injured receiver took to his new role as though he had been doing it for years.

At the sense that there were eyes on him, the old offensive coach turned to find Zechs and Trent watching him with smirks on their faces. It was pretty obvious that they were all thinking the same thing. Sighing deeply, Howard tolled his eyes. "All right, all right," he huffed. "I'll talk to him about taking up a more permanent role with me."

Trent walked around the head coach to pat his friend's back. "Good man," he replied. "I think the two of you will make one hell of a team." Wincing, he added, "So long as we can get him to accept. He might still be looking forward to returning as a starting receiver come next season when he's well enough for it."

With a wave of his hand, Zechs halted any further discussion and warned quietly, "We'll all sit down and talk about it after the game. Now's not the time with so much going on. But, I do have to say that I like the idea." Smirking, he nudged Howard in their shoulder. "And we're not trying to kick you out the door, Pops," he reassured. "We're just looking out for you so you can spend a lot more time with us."

A wide smile spread on the old man's face at that. While he knew how much Zechs and Trent cared about him and respected his role on the team, it was always nice to hear. Touched by the sentiment, he suddenly started to feel pretty good about the decision to let someone else take up some of his responsibility. `Maybe a change wouldn't be so bad in the end,' he thought to himself.

Clearing his throat, Howard muttered sincerely, "Thank you."

Suddenly, the crowd got to their feet with an eruption of cheers and boos once more. Quickly looking back to the field as their sidelined players celebrated, the coaching staff saw the Cincinnati quarterback on the ground, ball in hand. Two of the Wolverine linesmen jumped and slammed chests in midair in celebration of their sack.

Thrusting his fists into the air, Trent shouted, "That's my boys! Waahhoo!" Zechs and the rest of the team applauded the defensive line as they returned from their successful run at holding the Hawks back from another score.

Famously known for his tantrums when his team was not faring well, Coach Browning was amazingly calm on his side of the field. While not the perfect picture of happy at the moment, he also did not look ready to punch the first person that dared to speak to him in the face.

There was a reason for his relaxed mood. While his Hawks did not have the best standing in the division, they were well secured in second. So long as they could hold up in that position, they were posed to make the playoffs. A loss to the leaders of the pack was not going to worsen their standings at the moment. Better to not push his team to the point of risking injury.

At this point in the season, every game would be handled like a chess piece on a checkered board. Some would need to be sacrificed for the better of the whole. The trick was knowing which games those were and when to strike hardest. One wrong move and it would be check mate against any chance for a championship.

With the clock rolled down to the last minute of the game, the Hawks quarterback took a knee when the ball was snapped into his cold hands for the last time that day. A roar from the stands filled the air once more. Most of the stadium was cleared by then with the majority of Hawks fans wanting to beat traffic knowing that there was nothing more for them to see.

But those Cincinnati fans that had stuck around until the end rose to their feet along with the rest of the crowd and applauded the efforts of both teams. Though their home team had not taken the victory, it was still inspiring to see the heart of the Wolverines in this being their huge breakout year. Everyone loved an underdog story.

Handshakes, laughs and well wishes were exchanges between the players of both teams in midfield. Being the team with the youngest lineup in the league, the Pittsburgh athletes once again felt like kids in a man's game when they were approached by their competition. Many of those seasoned players complimented the youthful group on their abilities and growth.

Coach Browning smiled to Zechs as the two met to shake hands. "I have to hand it to you," the Cincinnati coach began, "You've been doing one hell of a job with this team of yours. Glad to see that they're coming into their own. I always did like a challenge."

Laughing, the taller head coach replied, "Coming from you, Ian, that's quite the compliment. Thank you. With any luck, we'll be meeting up again postseason. Good game." They exchanged a firm pat on each other's backs before moving on to greet the players of the opposing teams.

Back in their booth, Tim and Adam smiled for the camera. The later stated, "Well, folks, there are only six games left in the regular season. Looking at the match-ups to come, now it would be safe to start talking about the playoffs and who has the best shot at getting there.

"While San Francisco and Green Bay are the heavy favorites to move on in their division, the biggest shock of all is this Pittsburgh team that we just had the pleasure of watching again today. Not only are they in heavy contention to make the playoffs, they are still the leaders in their league."

Nodding, Tim continued, "No one would have ever believed that either of those feats would have been possible for the Wolverines prior to the pre-season. While they had never been a bad team, they just never got the momentum that they needed. This year, they found that momentum and they're still running with it."

His own team finished with their earlier game, Treize watched the television report in his living room. Eyes narrowed on the screen, he listened in on the praises sung of the Pittsburgh establishment. Despite all of his hard work, his Cougars remained in the shadow of another team. And not just any team, but one that had previously been all but a joke up until then.

The fact that he knew Maxwell was loving every minute of his team's success had the head coach's blood boiling.

"Enjoy it while it lasts, boys," he said quietly. "You won't be able to keep this up forever."

* * * *

Later that evening…

Duo stepped out of the shower, his dryer-blown hair dried and loose, and collapsed into the bed in exhaustion. Curling up to him, Heero chuckled quietly while pulling him close. Dressed only in their boxers, the couple pulled the covers over themselves and got into a comfortable sleeping arrangement for the night.

It had been a physically taxing day for the two of them, but it had been a good day as well.

Gently kissing the top of his lover's head, the quarterback breathed, "Thank you."

Blinking his violet eyes in confusion, the running back looked into the cobalt watching him. "For what?" he mumbled.

Heero shrugged simply, "For everything."

That simple phrase warmed Duo's chest as a loving smile spread on his own face. Leaning up, he kissed his partner's lips gently. He pulled back only enough that their mouth still brushed together when he whispered, "I love you, Heero Yuy."

"I love you, Duo Maxwell," he team captain replied in kind. The light was switched off and they settled themselves down for a peaceful sleep, both looking forward to what the next day held for them now that they had someone to share it with.


Part 54:

More than two weeks had passed since Heero and Duo announced their relationship to the public. It was enough time that they both decided it was time to finally start answering the requests for one-on-one interviews. As often as they were being called for such an arrangement, it was about time.

It was agreed that there would be only one interview. At Quatre's suggestion, it would be handled with a female journalist. `Women are sympathetic ears when it comes to matters of the heart,' the agent smiled to his friends in explanation of his proposal.

When it came to the world of sports journalists, there were few more sympathetic than Stacey Swanson.

Smiling brightly into the camera, the short-haired redhead began, "To end the silence following their shocking proclamation of their romantic involvement, Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell have taken the time to sit with me for a personal interview."

Looking to the sharply dressed pair across from her, she told them, "Thank you both so much for being here."

The couple nodded with small grins and kind words of their own. Sitting as close together as they could in their seats, their hands were faintly touching where they lay on their thighs. Whether it made the viewers comfortable or not, they wanted it clearly known that they were serous about their commitment to each other.

Introductions out of the way, it was time to get down to business.

Sitting straight in her chair, Swanson stated, "Now, the first question that I am sure most people are wondering right now is what kind of response you have been receiving since your announcement. "We all saw two games ago when Joel Simpson of the Miami Torrent made such a horrific attack that not everyone is very accepting of your being both gay and involved. But, how has the overall response been for you on and off the field?"

Duo smirked and shrugged, "Overall, it's been a lot more positive than negative. Of course we do get glares and less than pleasant letters, but that was to be expected. We've been pretty surprised at how more people either seem to either not care about our preference or are in complete support."

Heero nodded, adding, "I think the fact that so many other professional athletes out there have been coming out as well has made a big difference. We'll never be completely accepted, but it's a step in the right direction."

Tilting her head, Stacey asked, "No regrets for either of you, then?"

Without hesitating, the football players shook their heads. Gently taking his lover's hand into his own, the quarterback turned to face him and smiled, "Duo's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I would never regret being with him, or making that known." Blinking in surprise, the running back blushed a bit and returned the loving grin to his partner.

Stacey's own, emerald, eyes widened at the openness of the couple's adoration for each other. Her smile threatened to split her face as she looked as though she just wanted to hug them. In seeing that, both Heero and Duo knew that Quatre's suggestion had been the right one. Just behind the camera, the blonde agent had a pleased smirk on his face.

Quickly shaking her head, Swanson cleared her throat. "Well, I think that it's wonderful that the two of you found such happiness with each other," she said sincerely. "Now that we have all of that out of the way, let's talk about this season. You both must be thrilled with how this year has been progressing for your team."

Inwardly breathing a sigh of relief, the two athletes were more than happy for the change in subject. Again, just as their friend predicted, win the girl over and she'd see that things did not become uncomfortable for them with questions that were too personal.

From there, it was smooth sailing through the remainder of the interview.

* * * *

Relena raised an eyebrow as she finished her glass of water. "You don't think that it's sexist to just assume that a female reporter is easier to win over emotionally than a male? Isn't that suggesting that we're all soft?" she smirked in amusement.

"It's not sexist or closed-minded if it's true," Wufei snickered in Quatre's defense. Their friends at the table laughed when his girlfriend hit him in the arm for the remark. Grinning, the receiver started tickling her until she managed to announce her submission through her fits of hysteria.

Once she was released to recover, the cheerleader quipped, "Then it wouldn't be sexist to assume that all men are perverts." Without hesitating, her friends all raised their hands and laughed while nodding their heads with phrases like `Guilty!' Totally true!' and such. Relena just rolled her eyes and smirked in amusement.

Sighing deeply, Duo commented, "I'm just glad that the whole thing's over now. Hopefully, it'll keep those vultures off our backs for a while."

Beside the running back, Heero nodded, "It would be nice to be able to turn the house phones back on and not have them ringing off the hook for a change."

Trowa shuddered and shook his head, "I can't say that I miss having to go through that. Now that you have this interview behind you, eventually the interest will move on to something else. It always does."

A few tables away Karen had her electronic notepad in hand while listening in on the conversation over the regular Murray's crowd at the bar. Sighing deeply in frustration, she fought her boredom at again not having a single thing that she could use for a story. Patience never was one of her strong points.

Karen had allowed herself a few days off just as Nathan had insisted. It wasn't long before her curiosity over the two football players renewed and had her back in he hunt. Now if only she could get something to work with.

Shifting in his stool so that he could lean up against his tall lover, Quatre changed the subject by asking, "So what are everyone's plans for Thanksgiving next week?"

Instantly brightening at that, Relena answered, "My family will be flying in after this next game to stay with Wufei's family so we can spend the whole week together. I can't wait!" The wide received chuckled quietly and kissed the excited cheerleader' s forehead in a silent way of expressing that he was also looking forward to it.

"'Ro and I will be spending the holiday at his place," Duo shared. He only went as far as to add, "We have some of our own plans for the holiday." He shared a smile with his partner.

Karen's ears perked up in hearing that. Luckily she didn't have any plans for the day, herself. It was pretty obvious that she would be standing by to see what 'plans' her prey had in mind.

Grinning, Trowa stated, "Well, I was going to save this as a surprise for Quatre, but I may as well tell everyone here." His friends' eyes turned to watch him, his lover showing particular interest in what he was about to say. "My family is going to be flying in from Madrid to stay with me for the week," the center informed.

Wide eyes and sincere words of excitement went around the table. It was well known how little rare the Bartons were able to get together with their living in separate countries. Never having had the chance to meet his partner's family, Quatre swallowed roughly but put on a brilliant smile before kissing him soundly in congratulations.

As he wrapped an arm around the blonde agent, Trowa smirked, "And they're all looking forward to finally meeting the man that I've been telling them about for months on end now." Blushing, Quatre ducked his head at the cat calls and whistles that the others were giving off in a good-spirited ribbing.

"That's great, love," the Arab managed to say through his embarrassment and growing fear. He was surprised that his voice didn't crack or squeak.

Raising a glass, the braided running back toasted, "Here's to the rest of this week going by quick, then. The sooner we get this next game over with, the sooner we can get some serious down time."

Everyone around raised their own glasses to clink them together in the middle with a chorused 'Here here!'

* * * *

The game had not gone at all as well as what was hoped.

Just as predicted, with the regular season winding down every team was throwing all that they had to come up with some wins. In their face off against Kansas City, the Wolverines came up just short to lose the game by only a two-point difference.

As difficult as the loss was, Pittsburgh was still in the lead. It made the sting a bit more tolerable. Still, they knew that they could not take for granted the fact that the teams behind them were inching closer to bridging the gap between them.

With where they stood at that time, another loss would make things very hairy for them. Two losses would be devastating. Three losses and their chance of making the playoffs could possibly be taken from them entirely depending on the overall standings in the end.

Once the team was free to leave the stadium following their showers and meetings with the press, everyone parted ways to enjoy their holiday week off with their loved ones. Wishes for safe trips and a happy Thanksgiving went amongst the players as they headed for their cars in the parking lot.

* * * *

Later that same night…

Quatre was in his room with two different tops in each hand as he stood before a tall mirror. Frowning in worry, the agent held up a different shirt in front of his torso. "No," he sighed deeply before trying the next shirt. "No," he shook his head.

All around, there were shirts lying here and there haphazardly. Not liking a single option from what he was holding, Quatre moaned quietly before throwing them up into the air in disgust. "What the hell am I going to wear?" he asked himself quietly.

"Hey, Quat, Trowa's waiting for you outside," Duo called from the hallway. When he reached the room, the running back's violet eyes widened at the mess inside. "Okay, now I know today's loss was frustrating, " he snickered. "But you didn't have to tear your room apart over it."

Rolling his eyes, his agent replied, "Very funny, Maxwell." He eyed his room and winced at the horrific sight that greeted him. "I have no idea what to wear for a first meeting with his parents."

Duo leaned against the doorframe and folded his arms. "You've really been stressed out over this meeting all week." His friend's eyes widened on him. Shrugging, he explained, "You hid it well, but I also know you enough to pick up on it. Why is this getting to you?"

Slightly lowering his head, Quatre replied, "What if they don't like me? I love Trowa more than anything and I couldn't imagine what would happen if his family didn't approve-" He stopped when a hand fell on each of his shoulders.

Looking up, the agent peered into warm violet eyes as Duo said quietly, "Quatre, I can't imagine a person in this world not loving the hell out of you. You're one of the nicest, most selfless, compassionate people that I've ever met." There was a slight pause before he elaborated with a chuckled, "So long as no one pisses you off, of course."

Quatre swallowed past the lump that formed in his throat and breathed, "You really mean that?"

"Of course I do," the running back nodded. "Just be your sweet self and they won't be able to help but think the world of you." Taking up a red silk top that was nearly falling off the bed, he unbuttoned the top to remove it from the hanger.

Making easy work of removing the white T-shirt that his friend was wearing, Duo pulled the top on him and started buttoning from the bottom up. "Now," he stated, "remember to breathe and don't worry about anything."

When he was finished buttoning, the running back stepped back so that the agent could tuck the bottom of the shirt into his blue jeans. "Perfect," he nodded firmly. Carefully brushing a few wrinkles from the shirt, he said, "I'm glad that you found someone that makes you care this much."

Biting his lip, the Arab flung himself forward to wrap his arms around his best friend's neck. "Thank you, Duo," he sniffled.

His own eyes filling with tears, Duo returned the tight embrace and rubbing his agent's back. "Come on, now," he soothed. "You're going to get me going." When they pulled back, he suggested, "Better not keep Trowa waiting any longer."

Nodding, Quatre wiped his shimmering eyes and closed the door to his room behind them when they headed out.

In the living room, Heero and Trowa were having a quiet conversation. As their lovers entered the room, the center chuckled, "We were just about to send out a search party." His smile grew when Quatre neared and kissed him soundly. Blinking in pleasant surprise when the kiss ended, he asked quietly, "Is everything all right?"

"Everything' s great," Quatre answered with a wide grin. "Ready?" Hand-in-hand, the pair walked headed from the room.

One arm wrapped around Heero's waist and the other waving their friends off, Duo called, "Have fun kids. We won't wait up." Their friends laughed on the way out and offered their `good night's.'

Alone at last, Heero turned and pulled Duo close. A smile on his face, he questioned, "Getting excited for tomorrow?" There was no need to remind what the next day held. He was sure that the running back had a mental countdown to the minute that the plane carrying his family was scheduled to arrive.

Humming, Duo kissed his lover gently. "Well, I already know I won't be able to sleep tonight thinking about it," he commented. Leaning do the tips of their noses touched, he asked in a low and sultry tone, "Think that you might be able to keep my occupied?"

With a low rumble in his chest, the quarterback replied, "We could always keep busy testing out what rooms we can hide in for some… personal time this week. I don't know about you, but I know I won't be able to keep my hands off you for more than a few hours at a time if we can help it."

"That will work," the running back purred against his lips. Grabbing onto a hand firmly, he led the way from the living room. "I think the closet will be a good place to start," he winked over his shoulder.

* * * *

When she knew that something was coming, Karen was a patient person.

Ever since hearing that Heero and Duo had something planned for their week off, she was more than happy to sit in her car waiting and watching. Well out of sight of anyone yet still able to see the road leading to the tall gates easily, she settled herself down for a long observation.

Barton and Winner had pulled out of the estate together moments ago.

Had they left any time sooner, they would have run into Karen as she headed for her hidden spot in the foliage across from the gates. It had been a close one-enough to keep the journalist on her toes for the remainder of her stakeout that night.

An hour passed. Then two. Other than some movement in the lit windows of the grand house at the top of the hill, nothing happened.

Yawning well after the sun had set, Karen checked her watch to see that it was nearly eleven. Intent to only rest up for a few minutes, she rested her head back on the car seat and closed her eyes.

Her eyes slowly blinking back open, she was alarmed to find that it was bright out once again. Automatically checking her watch again, Karen was stunned to read that it was nearly nine o'clock that morning. Sitting up, she groaned at the crick in her neck from her awkward sleeping arrangement.

Uncomfortable, hungry and in much need of a shower, the reporter decided that it was time to give herself a break from her observation. Just as she was about to start the car ignition, the sound of a vehicle pulling up the road reached her ears. Freezing, she watched a black van pull into view.

There was a young man with blonde hair at the wheel and a young woman in the passenger seat with short, dark hair. Neither face was familiar to Karen from all of the time that she had devoted to following the football players. Her interest in them went to the windows in the back of the van while it parked at the large, metal gates.

Gasping sharply, the journalist found several children behind those windows. At a variety of ages and races, the youngsters were clearly talking excitedly amongst each other. There was a loud buzz before the tall gates opened to the visitors for them to pull inside.

Slowly opening her car door, Karen slipped outside and hunched down behind the tall brushes around her. Creeping up to the closing gates when the van was just out of sight, she removed the compact binoculars from her heavy coat. Breath hitched in her throat, the young woman placed them to her eyes just in time to witness Duo Maxwell running from the house with an elated smile.

The braided running back scooped up the first of the children that he could get to as the little ones shouted, "Daddy! Daddy!" Heero stepped out not long after his partner to a chorus of his own name before being nearly tackled down in a surge of hugs from the tots.

"Oh my God," Karen breathed as she lowered her binoculars, her skin paling. Stumbling back from the gates, she kept her eyes on the happy reunion taking place at the top of the hill. When she finally came to her senses, she spun and ran back for the car.

Hands trembling as she fought to get the right key to start the ignition. Once the engine roared to life, she closed the door behind her and all but peeled out of her hiding place.

With a bit of effort, Karen managed to find her cell phone with one hand and opened the flip to hit one of her speed dial options. When she heard the call get picked up on the other end, she cut off any verbal answer by speaking up first in a rush. "Gallow. It's me. We need to meet. Now."


Part 55:

"So you drove all this way to tell me face-to-face that there is nothing more for you to find on Yuy or Maxwell?" Nathan frowned behind his desk. "Nothing at all?"

Karen shook her head, "I've followed them everywhere they went and listened in on every conversation. I have nothing to work with that would be of any interest." Brushing back the dark bangs from her eyes, she shrugged, "Sometimes celebrities are not nearly as interesting as we assume them to be."

His frown deepening, Gallow thought aloud, "But there's that apartment that you saw them enter in Chicago. There has to be something to that worth our looking into."

Folding her arms, the young woman glared heatedly at her associate. "And I already told you that I am not going back there," she stated clearly. "Besides, the place has a security grid outside that only allows residents to enter. I'm not about to try breaking and entering just to see what's inside the place."

The disappointment grew on the wiry journalist's face. "There just has to be something else," he muttered. "Some other angle that we're missing here."

With a sigh, Karen rose from her seat and commented, "You've known me for years now. If there was anything story-worthy here, I would have found it by now. You need to let go of this obsession to get back at them for walking out on your interview. A lot of time and energy's been wasted here when we could be focusing on someone else that could be making our headlines a lot more interesting. "

Leaning back in his leather chair, Nathan propped his elbows on either armrest and folded his hands before his face. He took a long moment to consider his colleague's words and finally relented, "All right. I'll take your word on this one." He locked eyes with hers and nodded firmly, "I appreciate all of your efforts in this. Shift gears onto something else."

Karen fought back the relieved sigh that nearly left her at that order. Bowing her head, she grinned, "Thank you, Nathan." She turned on her heels and stepped from the office with the door sliding closed behind her.

Eyes narrowing, Gallow spun his chair to look out to the distant skyline of Pittsburgh through his large windows. "If you want something done, you just have to do it yourself," he proclaimed quietly.

Closing the door to her own office closed behind her, Karen finally was able to release the breath she had been holding. Dry washing her face with her hands, she headed for her desk and lowered herself into her leather chair.

Silently, she thanked whatever deity was listening for having the meeting go as it had. Now that she was able to hold Nathan off and convince him to just drop the whole 'getting even' bit, those children of Maxwell's were going to be left alone.

While she knew it would come as a shock to most, Karen actually did have a conscience when it came to kids. Celebrities and professional athletes were used to the goods and bads that came with fame. Children were an entirely different matter. They never asked or wanted to be the focus of millions of people's interest. And they certainly did not deserve the harsh things that the press could bring on to them.

The whole experience of seeing Maxwell with his children put an entirely new light on him where the reporter was concerned. Instead of the selfish, cocky bad boy persona that followed him around, he genuinely seemed to love and care for those little ones. All it took was an instant to see him with them to know that beyond any doubt.

A small smile tugged Karen's lips in recalling the touching scene.

Shaking her head to return to the present, she looked to the pile of rumor-filled story tags that had been faxed in and waiting on her desk. The young woman smirked to the ever-growing lot of papers and removed a few sheets from the top. "Hello my lovlies," she grinned. "Let's see what lovely bit of juicy news you have for me today."

* * * *

Thanksgiving afternoon found Lady Une entering the kitchen as Heero, Duo, Solo and Hilde finished their preparations for their large meal planned. Dressed in a long, emerald green dress that hugged every inch of skin it touched, her hair was pulled up and a few pieces of jewelry were in place to finish the exquisite look.

Inhaling a deep breath, the young maid smiled, "It smells delicious in here."

Gaping, the foursome eyed their friend up and down. Whistling through his teeth, Duo complimented, "And you look good enough to eat." Lady Une blushed and snickered as she lightly hit the running back in the shoulder.

"You really do look beautiful," Heero stated with a small grin. "Trent's a lucky man." Hilde and Solo both nodded vehemently. Folding his arms before the flattered maid could respond, the quarterback asked, "You know to call if you're going to be out too late, right?" He snickered when his old friend rolled her brown eyes and ignored the question to check the turkey in the oven.

Carefully inspecting the temperature of the bird, Lady Une closed the over door and announced, "It should be ready to pull in about fifteen minutes. I've made enough of these to know." When she straightened, she frowned to the running back, "I hope you don't think of me as rude for having dinner with Trent and his family."

Waving his hand, Duo reassured with a wide smile, "Are you kidding!? Of course not! You should be with him for Thanksgiving. I wasn't upset when Quatre asked if he could spend the day with his family and Trowa's, either. Just have a good time."

The maid smiled warmly and kissed his cheek before hugging him tightly. Doing the same with Heero, Hilde and Solo, she moved to the living room where the children were gathered before the television. The lot turned to her with wide eyes, gasps and quiet 'ooohhhh's.'

Still not used to receiving such attention, Lady Une felt her cheeks burning once more. "I hope you all have a wonderful dinner and a happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I'll see you all in the morning." All of the children rose to offer embraces and kisses.

One of the last to reach her, Carissa grinned, "You look like a fairy princess."

Her eyes widening and burning with a few tears at the sweet sentiment, the maid wrapped the little girl up in her arms tightly and kissed her head. "I will never receive a better compliment, little one," she breathed.

At the sound of a car horn beeping outside, Lady Une hurried to finish her goodbyes before taking up her leather coat and purse. With one last wave back to her friends, she headed outside to meet with her lover.

* * * *

Turning towards his family, Duo informed, "Dinner is going to be ready in a few minutes, everyone, so make sure your hands are clean before you start passing food around. Marcus, Tai and Flora, we could use some help setting the table."

Marcus moaned, "Aw, but Dad, the last Thanksgiving day game starts in about thirty minutes. It's San Francisco against Chicago. We're going to miss the kickoff." His fellow teenage siblings nodded and pouted.

Duo's violet eyes widened at being reminded of just who was playing that afternoon. Shaking his head, he folded his arms and stated, "As much as I'd like to watch that one, this is Thanksgiving and we're going to enjoy dinner as a family."

~ ~

Everyone was gathered in the living room at the large table that had been moved before the television. Humms and sighs of content filled the air as the family enjoyed their food. 'Compromise is a wonderful thing,' the running back thought to himself.

Heero was more than willing to allow the moving of furniture since he was also interested in the game. San Francisco was at the top of their game and anything that he could learn by watching them could only help in the end.

Eyes widening, Tai pointed to the screen and cried, "It's starting!" All eyes turned to the television as Tim and Adam appeared with bright smiles.

As the commentating introduction began, the youngest of the group occupied themselves by playing with Mary. Duo never really condoned their watching football, as violent a sport it was. The rare times they would catch a glimpse was only when he was playing.

The time that Jamie had seen Heero kicked in the back by Simpson was just because she happened to look up at the wrong time. Even as she played, the little girl stayed as close to the quarterback as she could.

Thanks to so many hands helping, the table was cleared and the dishes were cleaned and sorted away not long into the second quarter. During the half-time intermission, the table was moved back to its original spot and everyone spread out in the living room.

Hope, Jamie, Carissa, Sun and Omar were playing a board game on the floor as the others sat on the couches and chairs around them.

Leaning up close against his lover as the Cougars came up with another interception, Duo shook his head and muttered quietly enough that the younger ears couldn't hear, "Damn those bastards are good." Cobalt eyes glued to the screen, Heero nodded in agreement.

Bottom line, the Cougars were damn near poetry in motion as far as football teams went. There was not an opportunity wasted or an ounce of energy spent in vain. Never was there a lapse in the communication between the players so every play was executed perfectly.

Flora leaned her head back to smile at the football players, "I still think they're overrated compared to the Wolverines. They just got really lucky when they beat you during the preseason."

Chuckling, Duo reached over to pat the top of her head in appreciation as he replied, "I wish that I could agree that it was just luck, sweets. But they were the better team that day." A thought crossing his mind, he looked to his partner and shrugged, "Though we have been improving as a team since then."

"That we have," Heero replied. "Not many people expected us to get as far as we have, including some of our teammates at first." Smiling, he took the running back's hand into his own and said quietly, "We have you to thank for a lot of our success this season."

Duo shook his head, "Nah. I just lit a little of a fire under the ones that needed it. Everyone had to actually do the work, so I have no credit there."

Any and all further discussion ended when the offensive line took their marks in preparation for a snap. The ball was tossed back beautifully to the quarterback and handed off to Alex to be run in. Instantly spotting a hole in the wall before him, the running back charged through while knocking a few opponents out of his way to make the hole bigger.

"Denton breaks away!" Tim's voice cried over the roar of the crowd. "Unbelievable! I didn't think that there was any way that he would make it through that line!"

Both Heero and Duo watched with impressed expressions as the former Wolverine charged down the field with incredible speed. Any lineman, tackler or blocker who tried to keep up could not get close enough to bring the running back down. "He's at the twenty yard line!" Adam's voice exclaimed.

On Alex's way down the field, the announcers shouted together, "The fifteen! The ten! The five!" Unmatched, the athlete took the last five yards at a leisurely stroll into the end zone. "Touchdown, San Francisco!" The hometown crowd in the stands were on their feet cheering and applauding the efforts of their own.

Removing his helmet, Alex smirked to the camera and slammed the ball to the ground. Mueller and the remainder of the offensive line joined him in the end zone for a celebration before heading back to their sideline. Arms folded and a smug grin on his face, Treize nodded firmly to his team as they ran past him.

An impressed look on his face, Duo spoke quietly, "I have to hand it to the guy, that was pretty good. He made the break away and run look pretty easy. And his numbers have been right behind mine all season long. Who knew he had it in him?"

Heero had a small smile in place as he responded, "I'm happy for him. Alex was a good guy and he worked as had as he could to improve every year. Looks like he just needed some motivation for the last push. The trade must have done the trick." Frowning, he muttered, "Though he does seem to have grown a pretty big head now that he is performing so well. He wasn't like that before."

"Well, success will do that to people," the braided running back responded nonchalantly. "And he is a man with a mission to prove that he is someone to be reckoned with on the field."Seated beside the quarterback, Tai turned his head towards him and informed, "He's bound and determined to beat Dad's records. It's all he ever talks about when he's interviewed. I don't think that he cares about anything else."

Marcus smirked from around his Flora's shoulder, "That's because Dad's the best running back that ever lived. But he'll never beat him." His brother and sister both grinned and nodded their agreement to the sentiment. Heero chuckled warmly at the children's unwavering faith in their father-to-be.

Duo smiled to his kids, "Well, I would never say that I'm the 'best that's ever lived,' though I appreciate the compliment." Turning back to the screen that was now showing Alex talking with Treize at the sideline, he stated, "As far as the numbers for the season go, I always did like a challenge. It keeps things interesting. "

It came as no surprise to anyone that San Francisco ended up winning the game by more than fifteen points. There was never a chance for Chicago to catch up at any point in the face-off with the gap between them widening each time they lost possession of the ball.

With Alex and Mueller being the youngest players on the team, the Cougars as a whole made the Wolverines look like children in a big man's sport. Then again, most of the other teams in the league made them look like that. Dorothy and her father had purposely structured a young team that would be fresh and anxious to prove themselves.

After the Chicago quarterback took a knee to end the game, Tim and Adam reappeared on the screen. "Well, San Francisco just showed everyone in the league how it's done," the latter smirked. "This team is in the best form I have ever seen it in. I don't think-" his words were cut off when Heero turned the television off.

Rising from the couch, the team captain stretched and thought aloud, "I better keep my arm warmed up." He turned to the teenagers to ask, "Anyone up to catching a few rounds out back?" Instantly springing to their feet, the threesome charged from the room to get into some warmer clothes.

Solo raised his arms over his head while pushing himself onto his own feet. "If it's all right, I'd like to have a go at that." Heero scooped up the football at his feet and lightly tossed it to his blonde friend with a smile.

The running back snickered as he lowered his stomach onto the floor to join in on the board game that the smaller of the lot were playing. "You all have fun," he grinned with the wink of a violet eye. "I have to see if I can't beat these little monsters in a game for a change."

"Now that's more up my alley," Hilde chuckled. She moved from the soft mattress beneath her to sit at the board game across from her 'brother.'

Those activities eventually turned over to dessert and then movies. Each in their own sleeping bag, the family was sound asleep on the floor in the living room with the television still on.

* * * *

Following their Thanksgiving meal with their families, Trowa and Quatre stepped from the center's house hand-in-hand. "I hope that your sisters don't mind that it will take me some time to remember all their names," the Latin smirked.

The agent snickered, "Don't worry. They're used to it. Catherine seemed pretty excited at there being so many of them."

"She always wanted a sister of her own, now she has plenty," Trowa grinned. Reaching his lover's car, he pulled his lover close and kissed his lips gently. "You were nervous about meeting my family, weren't you?" he asked quietly.

Nodding, Quatre admitted, "I didn't know what they would think of me. And I didn't want you to be in an awkward spot if they didn't like me." His partner opened his mouth to speak so he cut him off in a rush, "I know it was silly but I couldn't help it. Duo talked some sense into me before we went to pick your family up from the airport this weekend."

A relieved smile warmed the center's face as he nodded, "Good. Because my family does love you, just like I knew they would. They told me, themselves. But, even if they didn't, that wouldn't matter. No matter what anyone thinks of you, and that includes my family, that I would never let that change my feelings for you."

Trowa gently brushed back a few long bangs from his lover's face and whispered, "I love you and I don't plan on going anywhere."

Deciding against saying anything further, Quatre threw his arms around his partner's neck and poured all of his feelings and words into a fierce kiss.

* * * *

When they returned to the estate early that morning, Quatre and Lady Une peered in on the sight with warm smiles. Lightly tiptoeing around the wrapped little ones, the maid turned the television off before rejoining her friend in the doorway.

"Adorable," the young woman whispered with a wistful smile. Quatre just grinned widely and nodded. Together, they moved away to head for their bedrooms.

Slightly stirring when the drone of the television was no longer there, Duo sat up a bit to get his bearings on where he was. Quickly recalling the late-night movies and scanning to see that all of his sleeping children were accounted for, he smiled and lowered his head back down.

Just before his eyes closed his smile grew when an arm from behind snaked around his thin waist and pull his back up close to a strong chest. Heero leaned over to kiss his lover's cheek with a whispered, "Happy Thanksgiving, Duo."

Turning to pull his partner's head down to brush their lips together, the smaller athlete breathed, "Happy Thanksgiving, Heero." They snuggled close as their eyes drifted closed to return to the world of dreams.


Part 56:

Over the course of the next two weeks following Thanksgiving, the Wolverines had been drilling themselves for the wind down of the regular season. Still the leaders of their division after two more wins under their belts, they needed to seal the deal in the last three games remaining. Things were looking up for them considering their last games were up against teams that they had beaten in the past.

But, nothing was to be taken for granted in football.

Two of those four teams had a chance to make it into the playoffs, themselves, if they could pull off some wins. No win would be bigger than bringing down Pittsburgh. So from there on out, the team would have to pull together and give everything that they had.

Snow fell from the skies during an intense day of practice just three days prior to the next game. Zechs, Howard, Trent, Darren and Dally stood by on the sidelines in heavy coats. Their heads shielded with either hoods or hats, they watched the drill being run on the field.

Dorothy emerged from the tunnel leading to the locker room, bundled in her own winter attire, and joined the coaching staff. "How is it looking?" she asked the head coach quietly, her eyes trained on her young team as they continued to run plays.

"Very well," Zechs answered without looking over to the team owner. "Now that wherever we play will be cold like this, there is no need for any special techniques to prepare. The snow that we've been getting these last few days only helps all the more."

Thanks to the cold, the football was hard as granite and bitter to the touch. That made for some interesting changes in the way that it was handled.

Regardless of how long as his hands were, Trowa put in extra effort to get a good grip for a clean snap. Wearing gloves that covered all but his fingers, Duo had to focus even harder on pushing past his opponents before the chill of the ball got to him....

Heero needed to adjust his own throwing technique to have the ball go where he wanted it to go for as far as he wished it to travel. Wufei and the other receivers had to be careful not to have the rock that the football had become hit them in the chest or in a way that could hurt them. Even an easy catch was a painful one at times.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to changes in playing that came with the cold and snow. There were also visibility, footing and other issues to be concerned with when it came to this weather.

Now that they were so close to reaching their goal of a trip to the playoffs for the first time in their careers, everyone was willing to put in whatever extra time and energy they needed to see that it panned out.

Pressure and tension were building higher than they had ever been for the team this late in the season. Every year before by that time, they were no longer in contention for the playoffs. It had been a lot easier to cope with practices when they knew there was nothing to lose.

When it neared time for the sun to set, Zechs blew the whistle to call the end of the long day. The players headed to the locker room and prepared to hit the showers just as Dorothy entered with the coaching staff.

Smiling warmly to her athletes, the team owner began, "I know that I have expressed this before, but I cannot say enough just how proud I am of all of you. It's been a joy to watch how you've all come into your own and made this a remarkable season."

Heads bowed and smiles lit the room at the sincere words. Nodding over to Darren and Howard, Dorothy smiled, "And we have an official announcement to make. Darren has accepted a permanent, full-time position as assistant offensive coach. He and Howard will be sharing the burden and I know that they will make an excellent team together." Everyone applauded and cheered the two said, grinning men.

Folding her hands behind her back, the blonde young woman continued, "As it is nearing Christmas time, I would like to extend an invitation to my estate for a holiday party that I have been planning for all of you. There will be food, music and campaigners who are now very interested in asking many of you to be sponsors for their products."

Several hoots and claps rose at that one, making Dorothy chuckle deeply. "The event will take place tomorrow night after practice and I hope that you all will be able to attend. Have a good evening and drive safely home in this weather." That said, she turned and gave the floor to Zechs by stepping out to a round of applause and shouted words of thanks.

Biting his lip, Duo leaned close to Heero and muttered, "Looks like we'll have to cancel our trip to Chicago until Friday. I'd hate to be a no-show after everything that Dorothy's done for us." His partner nodded in agreement. Few owners like her ever came around. Best to show their appreciation.

Rubbing his hands together, Zechs smirked, "Nice work today, everyone. Hit the showers and head on home." Not needing to be told twice, the team rose from the benches and gathered their belongings.

* * * *

At the dinner table later that evening, Lady Une gently blew on her forkful of lasagna before stating, "Trent has been pretty worried about the game coming up this weekend. I can't recall another time all season that he's been this tense."

"He's not the only one," Duo replied from his chair across from her. "Just because we beat Denver in our first game against them this season doesn't mean that it's a sure thing this time around. Even if they are coming to our house and won't have their dome stadium to use to their advantage, they are used to the cold."

Nodding, Heero added, "They also won't have the altitude issues to worry about by coming here. And they're a chance that they'll have a wild card slot to get into the playoffs, so they will be fighting." [1]

Quatre chewed on the inside of his lip before supplying, "And both teams have something to lose in this case. Even with your being at the top right now, it's not a guarantee that you'll stay there now that there are other teams on your heels. A loss or two could seriously turn the tide."

Duo smirked, "Thanks for reminding us of that, Quat." Both he and Heero both snickered when the agent gave them a sheepish grin.

Cutting another piece of his helping, the quarterback shrugged, "It'll be a good game either way. I personally can't say that I mind the challenge. I just hope that the rest of the team will be able to hold up since this is a first for all of us."

The brief silence that followed was ended with the ringing of Duo's cell phone from where it lay on the kitchen counter. Excusing himself, the running back rose and went on to answer the call. From the dining room table, Heero heard his partner greeting, "Hello?" A pause. "Yes, this is he. Who am I speaking to?"

Quatre blinked in confusion at the introduction. Besides his braided friend's family and teammates, no one know his cell phone number. "Oh, that's right, I didn't recognize your voice for a second there." Duo's voice laughed in the kitchen. "Tomorrow? That's great! Thank you for the update, Jonas! Keep me posted."

All but running into the room, Maxwell cried excitedly, "That was the head contractor that I've been waiting to hear from! He and his crew break ground for the new house in Green Bay tomorrow!"

Eyes widened and stomachs churned, but the three at the table all forced smiles. "That's wonderful news, Duo," Lady Une was the first to grin kindly. Rising to her feet, she embraced her friend tightly with a sincere, "Congratulations. " The agent followed suit in offering a hug of his own.

Swallowing roughly, Heero stood and kissed his teammate gently on the lips. He didn't trust his voice to say anything at that moment. Keeping his arms wrapped loosely around the quarterback' s waist, Duo sighed deeply, "I just can't believe that after all of my blood, sweat and tears over the years, everything that I've been working for is finally happening."

Nonchalantly wiping a stray tear that slipped past his defenses, the American smiled, "I have to tell the kids!" Running off with his cell phone in hand and braid swinging behind him, he disappeared into the living room.

Heavily sinking into the chair closest to him, Heero frowned sadly and covered his face with his hands. Lady Une sat to his right and Quatre to his left. Gently resting a hand on the team captain's shoulder, the Arab reassured quietly, "It's going to work out somehow, Heero. The building of this house does not mean the beginning of the end for the two of you."

Lady Une rubbed her charge's back and nodded, "He's right. First off, Green Bay never offered him a career with them. And even if they do, there are ways around it."

"I know," Heero replied, his hands falling to his lap. "To be honest, I was just hoping that maybe he would have called off the whole idea and just have his family stay here. Now that he gave the go ahead, I know that won't happen."

Taking a deep breath, Quatre offered a small smile and explained, "Duo has had this dream in mind ever since he was in high school. Something like that is very difficult to give up, especially when there are children are involved. But it's not for any lack of affection or devotion towards you that he's going through with the build."

It was not a hard thing for the quarterback to know the truth in those words. Reminded of his lover's feelings, he became a bit more relieved over the matter. Nodding, he gave the agent an appreciative grin.

This was not a time for him to be selfish. Duo had put a great deal of himself into seeing this build through and even if it did hurt a little, Heero was bound and determined to be happy for him.

* * * *

The following night...

Parked a few yards from the gates leading to Dorothy Catalonia's estate, Nathan removed his binoculars to watch Heero and Duo rising up the tall front steps arm-in-arm.

Opening the front doors to her home, the team owner stood dressed in a red silhouette evening gown with droop gold earrings and a simple bracelet. Her hair pulled up to cascade around her in ringlets, she smiled brightly to the athletes as they approached.

Violet eyes wide, Duo whistled through his teeth and smirked, "Hey there, sexy. If I were straight, I would think that I was having a wet dream right now!" Dorothy's head fell back as she laughed at the comment. Heero just rolled his eyes and snickered in amazement over how the running back could get away with the things he said to her.

Lightly pecking her players' cheeks in greeting, Dorothy winked, "This way, gentlemen." Turning on her heels after closing the doors behind them, she led the way to the ballroom just as she had the last time they were in her estate. Quickly spotting Trowa, Wufei, Quatre, Relena, Trent and Lady Une, the couple made their way towards them.

Sharing the same table, the lot enjoyed the music, food and beverages available as they talked about everything from their plans for Christmas to the approaching game. Each of the young men accepted offers to have a dance with Relena and Lady Une throughout the night. Dorothy was making her rounds at saying hello to all of her guests and finally made her way to their table just as the dance music turned to another slow number.

Just as the team owner approached, Duo stood and bowed at the waist. "May I have this dance?" he grinned in request.

With a brilliant smile, Dorothy curtseyed and replied, "I would be honored." Heero sat back in his seat and watched the pair head towards the dance floor. Smirking, he winked to his partner when he looked over his shoulder to see him.

Easily settling into each other's arms for the slow dance, the running back and team owner moved across the floor in a lovely movement. "I gotta hand it to you, doll," Duo began, "You've done a hell of a job with the organization this year."

Brightening at that, Dorothy said quietly, "Thank you, Duo. Though I can't exactly take full credit for the whole of it. I've been very fortunate to have a great administration, coaching staff and team to work with."

Gracefully spinning his dance partner, the running back brought her close again and commented, "You know, you always let me get away with murder with my pet names for you. If it offends you, just let me know."

The team owner giggled and replied, "It does not bother me in the slightest." Her smile turned wistful as shared said quietly, "You know, from the time I was very little, I always wished for a brother. Anytime I imagined what it would be like, I pictured it to be a lot like what you and I have."

She explained when Duo blinked in surprise, "I could always picture him teasing me and challenging me, yet able to confide in me. You know, in many ways, you and I are nothing alike. But in the most important aspects of who we are, we are exactly the same. That's what I always imagined it would have been like if I were blessed with a brother."

Raising an eyebrow, Dorothy warned, "Now, if you go telling anyone about any of this, I'll kill you."

His chest rumbling with a deep snicker, the braided athlete leaned in and kissed her cheek. Pulling back, he grinned widely, "And I would consider myself pretty damned lucky to have you as a sister, doll."

At the end of the song, the pair shared a tight embrace before they left the dance floor hand-in-hand as the music picked back up. Rejoining the group at the table, Dorothy took a seat and took a moment to catch up with her friends there.

* * * *

Elsewhere, in Chicago…

It had been a slow week in the drug ring. Little action from any female companionship only added to the frustration. It was time for some sort of action. The whole neighborhood had been too quiet for some time now.

At the arrival of the gang leader, it was announced that they would be hitting the road… and that everyone was to bring their guns.

Finally, something was going to be shaken up.

* * * *

Hilde sighed deeply in looking over the ingredients for the dessert that she had planned. Scanning the refrigerator, she frowned, "Not enough eggs. Solo won't be back from picking Flora up from ballet class for a while yet."

The concoction that she had been mixing up until then sat flatly in the mixing bowl on the kitchen counter. "I'll just have to toss out what I have so far since it'll go bad by then."

Entering the room, Marcus heard his aunt's dilemma and offered, "I can run to Sam's store right around the corner. It'll only take a few minutes." While he was always willing to help out any way he could, the teenager was also more than happy to finally have an excuse to get some air for a change.

A smile tugging her lips, Hilde shook her head and turned back to the counter. Gathering up the mixing bowl, she replied, "That's all right, Marcus. I can always just make up another batch of brownies lat-" She froze at the sound of the cabinets that sealed away a short stack of money behind her quickly opening and closing.

Spinning quickly, the young woman just managed to catch a sight of the boy running out of the room. With a sharp gasp, Hilde charged after him, crying, "Marcus, get back here!"

On his way to the door, the youth grabbed his coat and called back over his shoulder, "It's no big deal, Aunt Hilde! I'll be right back!" In a rush, he threw the front door open and closed again when he made it outside.

Coming to a halt, the young woman sighed and shook her head at the closed door. Really, what was there to be worried about? It was just a short walk around the corner and back. She certainly couldn't expect the kids to stay cooped up inside all the time.

* * * *

After a shared slow dance, Heero and Duo headed out to the balcony where they had their `big talk' following their first kiss. Compared to the warmth in the ball room, the cold air was more than refreshing and made them sigh in relief.

Humming in content, the running back leaned up against his partner as he wrapped his arms around Heero's waist. Lightly chuckling, the quarterback kissed the braided head resting on his shoulder. "Ready to head home?" he asked softly.

Duo nodded with a hummed affirmative. Looking up, he leaned in for a gentle kiss. Once again, his cell phone rang to interrupt another peaceful moment. Removing it from his pocket, the American checked the called id in on the screen.

"Why would someone from home be calling at this time?" he muttered before opening the flip and placing the phone to his hear. "Hello?" he greeted.

Hilde's voice moaned on the other line. "Duo, you have to come home now," she wailed.

Paling at the sound of his `sister's' falling into sobs, the running back straightened stiffly. Violet eyes wide, he insisted, "Hilde, what's going on?" Heero frowned in concern at the near panic in his lover's voice.

There was another moan before Solo spoke clearly over the line. A bit more collected, the young man still sounded a bit beside himself when he stated, "Duo, there was a drive-by shooting down our block. Marcus... he was shot."

SkyLark: *quickly builds protective fort of Gundanium around herself with a waving white flag* Uumm… please don't hurt me.

[1] Each season, there are four teams for each conference- the American and National- that are locked in as known to be going to the playoffs for having the best records. When the regular season is over, those teams that came closest to being locked in are the 'wild cards' that will face off against each other for one last game to see who will also move on.

It's 'do or die' for every game thereafter. Whatever team loses is out and the winners move on to face the winners of the other face-offs until they get to the best of each league for the Super Bowl.


Part 57:

His knees shaking, Duo gripped the railing of the balcony where he and Heero stood. Face pale and eyes wide, he breathed, "W-what…?" Numb from head to toe, he was amazed that he kept his cell phone pressed to his ear.

There was no possible way that he heard Solo right. Marcus shot? It just couldn't have been what he said. Everything came to a halt with the exception of his mind as it raced with dozens of thoughts.

Placing a hand on his teammate's shoulder, Heero whispered worriedly, "Duo?"

Solo's voice spoke quietly over the line, "He was just rushed to Saint John's Memorial Hospital. I'm getting ready to head out there now. Hilde will be staying with the kids. We'll give the details later just… get here."

Unable to find his voice, the running back closed his phone and turned to his lover. "Marcus was shot," he whispered brokenly with tears shimmering in his eyes. "He was just rushed to the hospital."

Like a punch to the stomach, the breath in the quarterback' s lungs left in a rush. Cobalt eyes wide in disbelief and fear, he struggled to find his own voice. Throat dry, he managed a strained, "Oh my God…"

Shaking his braided head, Duo suddenly forced off his panic to focus on what he needed to do. "I need to go. Now," he stated firmly, his expression etched in determination as he roughly dried the tears from his eyes.

Instantly following suit and training himself on the task at hand, namely getting to Marcus and the children, Heero nodded firmly. Taking his lover's arm gently, he led the way back into the ballroom. Quickly, they made their way through the crowd of their friends, teammates and other guests.

When they were near the door, Dorothy all but ran up to them. "Is something wrong?" she asked in concern. "You both seem to be in an awful rush to be off."

Swallowing roughly, Heero bowed his head and spoke on both their behalves, "I'm sorry to be leaving like this, Dorothy, but something just came up that we have to get going. We don't have a lot of time to explain."

Clearly seeing the distress in the couple's postures and expressions, the team owner decided against pressing. Neither of them would have taken such a hasty leave if there was not something wrong. Quickly hugging them, Dorothy requested, "Just please keep me posted when you can. If there's anything I can do to help, you know I'll see to it."

A lump forming in his throat, the running back muttered a sincere `thank you' along with his partner before they rushed off. Grabbing their coats on the way out, they paid no mind to the people watching their hasty departure with wide and worried eyes.

Just as they raced to the car, the football players were stopped when Lady Une and Quatre cried after them. Turning, they saw their friends hurrying close. "What's going on!?" the agent panted heavily when they came to a stop.

"Marcus was shot," Duo answered without allowing his own words to take hold. "We're going to be with him and the kids." Frozen still from shock, the agent and maid paled white as sheets at the news. `Allah' and `God, no' left them in harsh breaths.

Running a hand through his hair, Quatre ordered, "I want a full report as soon as you hear anything." Not about to hold them up for another moment, he pulled the athletes into fierce hugs and stepped back for Lady Une to kiss their cheeks while requesting the pair to be safe in their journey.

Everything else passing in a blur, Heero and Duo got into the car and pulled out of the lot as quickly as they could. From his post, Nathan sat up straight in his car seat and followed his targets at a safe distance.

After a frenzied return to the Yuy household, Gallow spied on the couple as they hurried from the estate with two suitcases on each of them. His instincts kicking in, he reached into his pocket for his cell phone and dialed the airport for an emergency ticket for the last flight to Chicago.

Lucky for him the last flight had plenty of openings.

* * * *

Unaware of a certain reporter seated five rows behind them, the two athletes sat in silence. Lost in their own thoughts and terrors to what awaited them when they arrived in Chicago, their hands stayed joined under the armrest that separated them.

Staring out the window, Duo silently willed for the city to come into view. Every minute that he remained helpless and unknowing of his son's condition was excruciating. The only solace came from Heero's hand squeezing his own every few minutes to remind him he was not alone in his trial. Tightly squeezing back, he hoped that he was able to convey his appreciation.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the lit skyline of Chicago came into view over the horizon.

* * * *

Practically giddy, Nathan lowered the digital camera that he had used to snap a few images of Yuy and Maxwell running into the Saint John's Memorial Hospital. Any other reporter would have been discouraged in trying to find the story involving a medical facility. Hospitals were known for their confidentiality laws and unless you were a direct family member, there would be no sharing or exchanging information.

In normal circumstances, any other reporter would have stopped their search for answers with those pictures. Gallow, however, knew that everyone had a price. It was only a matter of finding who was willing to accept an offer.

And he would wait all night for the opportunity if he had to.

Being ushered into the waiting area just beyond the closed emergency room section of the hospital, Heero and Duo searched the nearly empty room. They quickly spotted a familiar frame standing out the windows with its back to them. Shoulders sagging, the running back sighed, "Solo."

Quickly turning, the young man smiled sadly to the braided athlete, "Hey, little brother." Nodding firmly to the quarterback in the doorway, he greeted, "Heero. Glad you both could make it."

Sniffling, Duo closed the distance between them and they threw their arms tightly around each other in a much needed reach for support on both their parts. Reality quickly catching up to them, their eyes filled with tears and they started to tremble at thinking of the unknown.

"What happened?" the braided athlete questioned when he finally pulled back to wipe some wet traces from his face. Heero walked up to gently rub circles along his lover's back soothingly. His cobalt eyes watched the blonde young man in interest to understand the situation.

Almost hesitant, Solo took a deep breath and explained quietly, "Hilde was working on making brownies earlier when she made a comment about needing eggs. I was in the process of picking Flora up from her dance school and so I wasn't able to get there in time to do anything about it. Marcus happened to overhear her and offered to go around the corner to pick up some eggs at Sam's, but of course she said no."

Shaking his head, he frowned deeply, "She only turned her back on him for a second, Duo. He took some money that was stashed in the cabinet and ran off." Throat turning rough, Solo paused to clear his throat before continuing, "It was about ten minutes later when Hilde heard this hail of gunfire not far off and..." His voice broke and he looked away as fresh tears began to fall. "She never meant for this to happen."

With his 'brother' falling into a fit of sobs, Duo pulled him close again and whispered reassurances in his own cracking voice. Once they pulled away once more, Heero decided to speak once more on his shaken partner's behalf. "Has there been any news on Marcus's condition?" he inquired softly, but with an air of authority in having to be the strong one of the group.

Roughly wiping his face dry, Solo shook his head, "He's been in surgery since he got here almost two hours ago. There hasn't been any update since." Nodding, the quarterback led his friends over to the chairs and had them sit before disappearing to gather some beverages from the cafeteria.

For the next twenty-some minutes, the trio sat in waiting. Light conversation was made to pass the time and to keep their fears from building. Duo made a call to Hilde back at the apartment building to reassure her that he was not the least bit angry with her, nor did he blame her for what happened. His 'sister' was almost inconsolable when he first got a hold of her, but she eventually came around enough before they disconnected.

Then, at long last, a tall man in green scrubs spotted with blood entered the room. Brown eyes instantly focusing on the infamous braided running back, he nodded firmly, "Mister Maxwell." Frozen with wide eyes at the sight of the blood on the doctor, Duo could only manage a nod in response.

Gazing down on himself, the surgeon smirked sheepishly, "Normally I change before these announcements, but thought that you deserved the decency of hearing the assessment right away. As a parent, myself, I know that I wouldn't want to wait another moment if I were in your shoes."

Relief started sinking in at the doctor's lighthearted banter. If there was bad news to be delivered, he would just get to it. At least, that was what Duo was hoping beyond hoping at that moment. Heero gently assisted his teammate to his feet. Nodding to either friend at his side, the running back advised, "They can be here for this."

A smile spread on the bald surgeon's face as he shared, "Marcus is going to be fine. The three bullets that hit him managed to avoid any major organs and arteries." A small sob escaped the American and his hands went up to cover his face as he shook. Heero wrapped his arms tightly around his lover and kissed his braided head. Both he and Solo had unshed tears of relief in their own eyes as they handled the announcement.

Once the running back was calmed enough to listen again, the doctor went on the details of the bullet that went through the right thigh, the second that had lodged in the left shoulder bone and the third that narrowly missed spinal damage on its way out through the upper torso. There was a bit of fluid in the lungs that needed to be removed and two blood transplants were needed.

"But I expect him to make a full recovery from this," the surgeon concluded. "He's a very, very lucky young man. There were two other victims from the same shooting that were not so fortunate and three others are still in surgery right now."

Stomach churning anew with the realization of the tragedy that had taken place, Duo's face turned flush and green. Extending a hand, he said sincerely, "I don't know how to thank you for taking care of him."

The doctor accepted the hand in a firm shake and grinned, "No need for thanks, Mister Maxwell. It's all part of the job. We'll go over the details of Marcus's recovery time and eventual physical therapy that he will need for his shoulder and leg when they're healed enough later. Normally, overnight guests are not allowed to stay overnight with any of our patients in ICU, where he'll be staying for at least the next two nights for close monitoring."

At the running back's defeated expression, he smirked, "But I am willing to overlook it. So long as only one person sticks around. He was unconscious when he arrived here so it'll come as quite a scare to him to wake in a hospital room hooked up to several machines. Having a familiar face with there with him will make the transition back to reality better."

His shoulders sagging in relief once more, Duo breathed, "Thank you." Bowing his head, the doctor turned and took his leave. Smiling, Solo and Heero hugged the elated father-to-be and took in their own moments to collect themselves from the close call.

Of course, there was no question that Duo be the one to stay the night at the hospital. With a hug, kiss and a request to his partner to try and get some rest, Heero headed out into the night with Solo.

* * * *

The building was dark and quiet when they arrived. Down the block, yellow tape blocked off the crime scene as investigators continued to search the area. Several outlines of bodies had been marked out on the street and pavement. Heero shuddered while looking away from the eerie sight.

Where normally people would be crowding the area, even at this late hour, there was no one to be found other than several officers patrolling around on foot. It was that eerie silence and stillness that was the most sobering change.

Scanning his hand against the entry panel, Solo stepped back for the automatic locks to the front doors to come undone. He stepped aside for Heero to enter first. Slowly heading through the dark entranceway, the quarterback headed for the dimly lit living room.

Inside, Hilde and all of the children were gathered around. The smallest of the family were crying and clinging to their Aunt, Tai and Flora. Both teenagers seemed to be on the verge of tears, themselves, while trying to provide some support to their younger siblings. Despite their having already received the word that Marcus was going to be all right, the horrific events proved to still have taken too great a toll on the lot.

Heero's heart sunk into his stomach at seeing the youngsters in such a state. Clearing his throat, he managed quietly, "Hey, everyone."

There were small gasps as wide, shimmering eyes turned to him. With wails and sobs, the children all rushed to their feet and threw their arms around any inch of an arm or a leg that they could get a hold of. Locked in the tight group hug, the quarterback returned as many of those embraces as he could while kissing each head in his reach. Hilde was already in Solo's care in the doorway, still shaken by everything that had happened.

Suddenly realizing that once more he was to be the strong one to look over after the others, Heero gently pulled back from the arms around him to properly greet each youngster individually. When he was finished, he told them quietly, "Go on upstairs and get your sleeping bags. We'll all sleep here tonight." Sniffling, the children brightened a bit at the thought of not having to return to their rooms. Quickly, they headed out to change and get their things.

Once they were alone, Heero headed over to Hilde as the young woman slipped from her husband's arms and into his own. Burying her head against his shoulder, she sobbed, "I only turned my back on him for a second, Heero. Only a second..."

Rubbing her back and holding her tight, the team captain whispered, "You can't keep blaming yourself for this, Hilde. You had no way of knowing this would happen."

Solo took hold of the package of cigarette sticking out the back of her jeans pocket. "And these are not going to help you," he stated while crumpling the box in his hand. "You're quitting for good as of right now."

Hilde swallowed roughly against the hiccups that threatened to come on. Placing a hand on either of her shoulders, Heero locked eyes with her and spoke firmly, "Those children need their Aunt right now. If they're ever going to get over this, they need to have some sense that as the adults we're going to get through it first."

Like being splashed in the face with cold water, the young woman came out of her haze of grief and worry. Knowing that her friend was right, that the kids needed her to be strong for them, Hilde wiped the tears from her face. "You're right," she nodded, much more lucid than she had been since hearing those gunshots.

An idea coming to mind, she smiled brightly, "Warm milk. Some of the youngest ones won't sleep well without having that to drink. I can go make some." Just happy to have something to do that would be of use, the short-haired girl quickly moved for the kitchen.

Breathing a bit easier at his wife's return to the world of the living, Solo offered to his friend, "I'll help you get the bags from the car." Heero nodded in appreciation and followed silently.

It wasn't the happiest of reunions, but oddly enough he still considered himself at home.

* * * *

Duo kept himself occupied with a crossword puzzle book that he purchased at the hospital gift shop. Writing with one hand and the other holding Marcus's hand as he sat at his bedside, he read the clues in the glow from the machines and dimmed overhead light.

After a couple hours of sitting there, the running back straightened when his son began to stir with a deep moan. His closed eyes squeezing closed tighter, the teenager turned gave himself a moment before slowly opening them. As the boy blinked, Duo sat close to that he would see him and greeted softly, "Hey, pal."

Gaze focusing on his father-to-be, Marcus frowned in confusion and asked hoarsely, "Dad? Wha...?" He gasped sharply when looking down to their joint hands and spotted the needle to his IV going into his arm. A brace kept him from moving the other shoulder and his right leg was shielded in a cast from hip to toe. "Oh God," he groaned at the instant recollections of hearing bullets fired on the way back with the eggs his aunt needed.

Quick to calm his son, the running back rubbed the distressed boy's head and whispered reassuringly, "It's all right, Marcus. You're going to be fine."

Marcus shook his head, tears rolling down his face. "I'm so sorry, Dad," he whimpered. "I shouldn't have disobeyed Aunt Hilde like that."

Smiling sadly, the running back replied, "Well, I have a pretty good feeling that you've learned your lesson enough tonight." Carefully leaning in, he kissed his son's forehead and whispered, "I love you. And don't ever scare me like that again if you can help it, all right."

The African American youth smiled. "Promise 'n love you too, Dad," he muttered as the drugs slowly dripping into his system took hold once more. His eyes drifting half closed, he asked tiredly, "You stayn'?" Through the worn tone, there was a strong hint of almost fear at the thought of being left alone.

"I'm not going anywhere," Duo vowed as he squeezed the hand in his own. "Just get some rest now. I'll be here when you wake up again."

Eyes drifting fully closed, Marcus mumbled a soft ''K' before sighing and drifting off. Keeping watch for a while to be sure that he would sleep for some time, the braided athlete leaned his top half down on the side of the bed. He rested his head atop the pillow that he made of his folded arms and finally let his guard down.

Soothed by the slow and steady beep from the heart monitor, Duo's violet eyes closed.

* * * *

He was tall, rather well-built and most likely in his mid-thirties. Dressed in fresh scrubs under his winter coat, the man ran a hand through his thick red hair and stopped at the top of the ramp leading to the emergency room of Saint John's.

Everything about his stature, dark-rimmed eyes and frayed appearance screamed opportunity to Nathan. With a friendly smile, the journalist climbed the ramp just as the man was removing a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. "Allow me," Gallow called while removing a cigarette from his own box. Handing it to his target, he grinned, "Least I can do for a man who spends his days saving lives."

The scrubbed young man blinked in surprise and smiled, "Even if that guy's just a nurse?"

"Just as important as the doctors or surgeons... Steven," Nathan grinned, supplying the name for himself by leaning in to see the burse's nametag. "Looks like you've had a rough night," he frowned in put-on worry.

A solemn look crossed the nurse's face as he looked out into the night. "'Rough' ain't the half of it," he snorted. "Had a drive-by that took out a few people that we couldn't save." Shaking his head, he commented quietly, "Seen too damned many of these cases."

Handing over the cigarette, the reporter insisted, "Well then, by all means, this one is on me." He removed a lighter with his other hand and set a spark.

Steven smiled as he took a puff from the small flame lit for him. Taking a long drag, he let it out in a long puff of smoke mixed with vapor from his breath in the cold air. "Damn I needed this," he sighed. Raising the cigarette to the reporter, he nodded firmly, "Thanks, man." A frown marred his face suddenly as his head tilted. "You look awful familiar for some reason."

Chuckling deeply, Nathan supplied, "Well, you may have seen my face on the television before. Follow any sportscasts? "

Green eyes widening, Steven exclaimed, "Hey! You're that reporter, Gallow! Holy shit!" His free hand snapped out for a firm handshake. "What the hell brings you here at this hour!?"

Slyly grinning from ear-to-ear, Gallow answered, "Well, now that's something I was hoping that maybe you could help tell me." Not allowing the nurse a moment to wonder what he meant, he explained, "I followed Duo Maxwell and Heero Yuy here. Any chance you might know who they rushed here to see? Perhaps one of the shooting victims?"

Nearly choking on his next drag, Steven's face pale in suddenly realizing what he was being pulled into. Quickly shaking his head, he glared heatedly, "That's confidential information, Mister Gallow."

Raising his hands in defeat, the journalist replied, "Ah, but you would remain an anonymous tip-off. You have my word that not another soul would know of your involvement in this." He lowered his arms with a sigh and shrugged, "But then, you still look like a stand-up person. It was wrong of me to assume that you were looking for a way to improve your situation by just giving me a little bit of information. "

With a deep, dramatic bow at the waist, Nathan said to the blinking nurse, "I apologize for bothering you. I will take my leave now in search for someone that will take up the opportunity that I am offering." Turning on his heels, he headed down the ramp.

Steven took a deep breath and called, "Wait!" Sprinting to get ahead of the reporter, he turned to meet his eyes. The corners of his mouth curling up, he asked, "So... how much is this story really worth to you?"

Nathan gave him a dark smirk.

Yes, indeed... everyone had a price.


Part 58:

Between the discomforts of not actually being in a bed, the occasional change in sounds from the machines around him and the nurses coming in periodically to check on Marcus, Duo had known of much better nights for sleep. When his son woke up after sunrise, the running back's braid was a bit disheveled and there were dark circles under his eyes.

Yawning as his eyes blinked open, the teenager took his guardian in and smirked, "You look like hell, Dad." Head falling back, the athlete laughed. Soon after, the nurse arrived with breakfast for her patient. Gathering up his own meal from the cafeteria, Duo and Marcus spent their meal in quiet conversation.

Lightly knocking on the door about an hour later, a familiar face peered into the room. Brightening at the sight of him, Marcus gasped, "Heero." Duo snapped his head to the door to take his lover in. Smiling, he leaned in as the team captain neared and bent down to kiss his forehead.

"I'm here to relieve you," Heero said quietly. Reaching over to squeeze the boy's good shoulder, he greeted, "Good to see you, Marcus." He decided not to dwell on the incident, knowing that the youth was going to be dealing enough with that on his own. Relief and appreciation filled the child's eyes as he grinned widely.

At the thought of leaving his son behind, Duo frowned in worry, "I can stick around for a while longer, 'Ro. There's no rush for me to leave yet."

Folding his arms, the quarterback stood in defiance and stated, "You need rest. Don't try telling me that you got more than an hour's sleep last night." The corner of his mouth curled up as he added, "You also need a shower."

The running back gave an undignified look while Marcus laughed. Wincing after a couple good pulls at his chest from the laughter, the boy smiled to his father, "He's right, Dad. You're starting to smell a little."

Duo huffed and folded his arms. Sticking his nose in the air, he sighed, "Well, I never." He tried to keep up his frustrated look despite the small hint of a smile. Heero and Marcus snickered.

Lightly kissing his partner's head, the team captain reminded, "You also have your other children anxious to see you. They've been asking when you would be around."

That, more than anything, was enough to motivate his lover to hand over the reigns. Duo turned his wide, violet eyes to his charge in a silent request for approval. Without hesitating, Marcus smiled and nodded, "I'll be fine. Get going. Give the others a hug for me."

"Will do," the running back promised before leaning in to gently embrace his kid as carefully as possible. Turning to hug his teammate tightly, he whispered, "Thank you." They shared a quick and chaste kiss before the braided American left with a wave to the pair.

Marcus focused on the black box that had been under his visitor's arm and asked, "What's that?"

Smirking, Heero set the empty breakfast tray from the table over the bed and lowered the box to sit there in its place. "I picked this up on the way over to keep us occupied," he explained as he opened the top lid. Removing the chess pieces and board, his grin widened at the teenager's lit up face.

While the quarterback set the game up, Marcus bit his lip and asked quietly, "So are you in love with my Dad, Heero?"

Instantly recalling the last time that the boy had asked him the same question months before when he and his family first arrived to his estate, the Japanese athlete chuckled deeply. That time that they had spent just talking on his back porch was one of his favorite memories.

From that time to now, the answer had changed. Smiling, he replied, "Very much."

A bright grin brightening his face, Marcus said quietly, "Cool." With the use of his good arm, he assisted the quarterback in setting the chess game up.

* * * *

There was a changing of the guards a few hours later when Hilde went to stay with her nephew. Returning to the apartment after their 'hand off,' Heero went in search of his lover. He had hoped to find Duo catching up on some much needed sleep, but heard his voice in the kitchen. Greeting the children that he passed along the way, he followed the sound.

Braid tip in one hand and cell phone pressed against his ear with the other, the running back was pacing back and forth. "Thank you, your honor," he sighed in relief. "I appreciate your taking the time to oversee this on such short notice. We'll see you soon." Closing the flip he turned and had a start in finding his partner standing in the doorway.

Quickly shaking off his momentary fright, Duo raised his cell phone and informed, "That was Judge Toplin. He's been the one in charge of looking over everything in preparation for the adoption. Under extreme circumstances like this, I have the right to call for an emergency hearing to have the kids moved to a safer location before I have sole custody. Quatre's sister, Iria has been my lawyer and she told me my chances of winning are pretty good."

Cobalt eyes widening, Heero breathed, "That's great news, Duo."

Biting his lip, the American frowned, "All that's left is naming where they'll be staying for the next few months. You've already done so much for them, I feel guilty asking if... if they could..." His words for halted when his lover closed the distance to kiss his lips gently.

"You don't even need to ask," the quarterback smiled lovingly. "Of course they can stay at my estate with us." Unable to trust his voice, Duo's eyes shimmered with unshed tears; but a glowing smile lit his own face. Gently brushing back a few long bangs from the smaller athlete's gaze, Heero asked, "So when is the hearing?"

His smile fading quickly at the inquiry, Duo answered, "Monday. It was too short of notice to be squeezed today, just before the weekend."

Monday... a day after their next scheduled game. There was no question that Duo would be staying behind for the weekend. Between preparing for the hearing and Marcus's being in the hospital, there was nowhere else he planned on being without his having to say as much.

Had it been a year prior, Heero would never have dreamed of missing such a vital skirmish. Now, however, he knew that there were far more important things in life.

Nodding firmly, the he insisted, "Then I'll stay here with you. Austin and Fellows can take over for us this next game. There's just no way I'm heading back to Pittsburgh without you or the kids."

Eyes sparkling, Duo gave a relieved smile. "Okay," he nodded in response. Opening his cell phone, he thought aloud, "I'll give Dorothy and Zechs a call so that they know not to expect us for-" Once again, he was cut off. This time it was with his teammate's strong arms wrapped tightly around him.

There were no words. Just a simple embrace of support.

Blinking in surprise, Duo reached up to loop his own arms around the taller athlete's neck. He buried his face in a strong shoulder and took in the comfort being offered. A hand rubbed the back of his braided hear as a few tears spilled from his violet eyes.

For a long time, they just stood in the middle of the kitchen like that. During that time, the running back realized just how badly he needed to just be held… to be loved and to know that he wasn't alone in the turmoil that was his life at that moment.

Heero somehow understood that and offered everything that he needed through that sweet gesture.

After a long, silent moment, the quarterback loosened his grip enough so that their eyes met. Tenderly wiping away the wet traces from the heart-shaped face, he suggested quietly, "You need to rest first. Everything else can wait." Raising an eyebrow, he smirked, "And you can't tell me you managed to get more than a few minutes to sleep when you got back here."

Sheepishly, Duo admitted, "Well, I did managed to take a shower, but then I wanted to spend time with the kids. Then Iria called after Quatre got a hold of her and…" A finger fell over his lips to still them.

"Come on," Heero urged with a light tug on a hand. Leading the way through the hall, he guided his lover up the stairs and to their room. Closing the door behind them, he slowly began undressing Duo and himself until they were down to their boxers.

All the while, too tired to fight and appreciating being taken care of for a change, the running back remained still. He allowed himself to be taken to the bed when the blankets were pulled back for their bodies to curl up together. Sinking into a warm embrace once more, he rested his head on a shoulder and closed his eyes.

Gently kissing his teammate's forehead, Heero whispered, "I'm here. Just rest, love." Lulled by those words, Duo finally allowed the call of slumber to claim him. Not until he heard the even breathing did his partner join him.

* * * *

The atmosphere in the house was very different that night compared to how it had been the evening before. There was laughter once more. With Marcus scheduled to be moved from ICU the next day, things were looking much brighter for the family.

Duo informed his charges of the upcoming hearing since their presence was required, but was careful not to get their hopes over the prospect of moving in with Heero. Nothing was a guarantee where the case was concerned. Following dinner, an expected new arrival entered the apartment building along with Solo.

"Aunt Iria!" the children cheered at the sight of the tall young woman. Smiling brightly, Quatre's sister knelt down to scoop up the smallest of the lot and kiss their heads. Like any good aunt, she took her time reuniting with each of her nieces and nephews before hugging her braided client and dear friend.

Grinning widely, Iria told him quietly, "It's so good to see you again, Duo."

The running back pecked her cheek and replied, "Same to you, hon." He took a moment to introduce Heero.

* * * *

Always the gentleman, following their handshake and polite hellos, the quarterback took up the lawyer's bags and showed her to her room. Iria followed after with an impressed look on her face in light of his polite manners.

Not long after, Solo returned from the last 'shift' in watching Marcus. Lounging in the living, everyone caught up with their guest. The youngest of the children were sent to bed for the night and the last round of tea was finished before it was decided that it was time to get to business.

In the dining room, Heero and Duo sat across from Iria as she opened up her briefcase to remove a few files. Setting the paperwork on the table, the lawyer peered to the team captain and told him, "As the one that will be opening his doors to the children, Heero, I just want you to be aware that you be asked by the judge to stand and attest that as your intention. It's not much, a simple question and answer bit with him, but I don't want you to be caught off guard when that does happen."

Heero nodded firmly, "All right." The warning certainly was much appreciated. Her prep work of her clients so that there were no surprises in the courtroom was a sure sign of just how good she was at her craft.

Opening one of her files, Iria turned her attention to her braided friend. "Now, our only challenge in this hearing will be the social workers. We don't know what stance they are going to take in this. By the law, they must have the children stay here before the adoption is finished since you are both gay and not of age to take them in yet. Then again, they may very well turned around and be in support of getting them out of here. It just depends what they believe to be in the better interest of the children."

His throat turning dry, Duo swallowed roughly and asked, "What happens if they think they need to stay here? They're the ones that Judge Tipton has been siding with since day one because of the damn law."

Iria smiled reassuringly, "That's what we're going to prepare for now. I'm already been building a strong case in your defense. As their caring parent-to-be, you're not the danger to the children. That's what I'm going to prove to the courts with the help of the witnesses that I have managed to pull together who are willing to testify on your behalf."

Relaxing quite a bit at that bit of good news, Duo released the breath he had been holding. Iria opened up the file on the top of her short pile and advised, "I believe it would be best for us to begin discussing our course of action and response to an argument against your moving your family."

Tightly dripping his lover's hand, the running back nodded firmly, "All right. Let's get started, then."

* * * *

Early the following morning...

Karen was working in her office on a story that she had been working on for the last few days when her door slid open. Turning, her brown eyes widened at the sight of an elated Nathan all but running in while shouting, "You will never believe what I've got on Maxwell!"

The young woman blinked in surprise and heard herself remark, "Maxwell? I thought that you were dropping the whole search on him."

Chuckling deeply, Gallow pulled up a chair to sit before her desk. "No, you were the one that decided to put it to rest when you came up short on finding anything on him." He waved a raised finger and smirked, "You should have been more tenacious, my dear. We would have missed a gold mine if I did not stick it out."

Her breath hitching in her throat, Karen was almost afraid to ask what had been discovered. She asked anyway. Grinning widely, Nathan folded his arms behind his head and answered, "He's about to become an adoptive father of eight. Thursday night, he and Yuy rushed to Chicago because one of them had been injured in a drive by shooting."

"My God," his assistant breathed her skin paling. Gripping her armrests, she sputtered, "A-are they all right?"

Waving his hand nonchalantly, Gallow rolled his eyes and answered, "He's fine. He'll be out of the hospital in less than a week." A sly smirk tugged his lips as he commented, "But imagine the things that I can make this story to be. Negligence. Abuse. Hell, I'll even throw in a suspicion of child molestation if I feel up to it! Just say that the information came from a 'reliable source' and that bastard will never be able to show his face anywhere!"

Karen's eyes grew wide as she struggled to catch her breath. "But, without solid proof," she began, "No one would believe a word if it!"

Smirk growing, her colleague held up a printed image that peered into a hospital room. Sleeping soundly in the bed was an African American boy in his early teens. Beside him, the braided running back lay with his head on the side of the mattress.

Gallow pulled the picture from his stunned associate's face and explained, "Taken by one of the nurses on staff that night. For a good lump sum, he took the shot from his cell phone. And it was worth every penny."

Forcing herself to appear happy over the find, Karen snickered, "You sneaky little bastard." In her head, the tone was much snider.

Nathan smiled and bowed his head. "Thank you," he replied. Sighing deeply, he gazed on the picture and informed, "I'm not going to have this hit the press until tomorrow. I want this on the cover of all of our papers and website articles Monday morning when we have the highest volume of purchases. It will be talk at every office, home and venue by the end of the day."

Rising from his seat, the dark-haired journalist winked, "And now, my dear, I bid you adieu." He tapped the photo in his hand and said, "I have a lot of work ahead of me on this one." Turning on his heels, he headed for the door.

With a smile, Karen waved him off, "Have fun." Her hand came up to cover her mouth when the door slid closed after Gallow. "Oh my God," she muttered. Just when she had thought that she managed to protect those children, something far worse than anything she could have imagined was beginning to brew.

Now that Nathan knew Maxwell's secret, it was only a matter of time before the world knew a skewed version of it. The way that those children greeted the running back with such excitement and the way that he held and kissed each of them in greeting that Thanksgiving morning, Karen knew that they were in good care with him.

And now her partner in crime was about to ruin all of that.

Pulling herself to her feet, Karen began pacing back and forth anxiously. Time to keep that from happening was already slipping away. Even if there was something that she could do, should she act and risk losing her career by going behind Gallow's back?

She froze in the middle of her office, contemplating her options. Eyes narrowing in grit determination, the reporter stormed to her desk and picked up the receiver to her telephone. Dialing for the front desk receptionist on staff that weekend morning, she waited for the pleasant, "Yes, Miss Clarkson? How can I help you?"

Her hand gripping the receiver where she had I placed against her ear, Karen replied, "Leona, this is to stay only between you and me."

"Of course," the receptionist responded without hesitation. It was a well known fact that no one went against Clarkson's wishes. The woman had a way of making life miserable for anyone who crossed her.

Swallowing roughly, Karen said, "I need your help tracking someone down. Before either one of us leave this building today, I need to talk to Dorothy Catalonia."


Part 59:

"You're both going to miss the game?" Zechs blinked in shock to the vidphone. "But... but why?"

Displayed on the monitor, Heero answered, "Duo and I need to be here with his family and I need to be with him right now. One of his closest relatives is in the hospital here in Chicago and will be for weekend." Frowning, he stated, "Zechs, you know that as important as we both know this game is that we would never stay behind if it wasn't for a good reason."

A sad smile tugged the head coach's lips at that. "No. I don't doubt that for a second," he replied. "Family is far more important than a game. Have you contacted Dorothy to advise her, then?"

Nodding, the quarterback responded, "I spoke to her just before reaching you. Think you'll have enough time to bring Austin and Fellows up to speed that they'll be playing tomorrow?"

Zechs shrugged, "Shouldn't be a problem. Thanks to you and Maxwell, I don't have to worry about them trying to leave the state in panic when I tell them the news." That last sentiment was shared with a smirk that quickly faded as he requested, "Please tell Duo and his family that I send my best and to keep me posted if you need anything."

The team captain smiled sincerely, "Thank you, Zechs. I'll be sure to tell them. We'll be back the middle of next week, once his relative is back home from the hospital."

After an exchange of farewells and well wishes, the coach and quarterback disconnected their call. Staring at the dark screen, Zechs leaned back on his coach and sighed to himself. A family man himself, he couldn't argue against his players' decision to stay with Maxwell's family. It wasn't their fault that the timing for a family emergency to come about.

He could only hope that the Pittsburgh fans would be as forgiving over losing their two key players for a critical game.

* * * *

Marcus looked up from the hand-held game that he had been playing with wide eyes. "You're not going to the game?" he gaped. "Dad, this is like one of the most important games of the season! You can't just skip out! I'm fine and you could go and be back in plenty of time for the hearing the next day."

Sitting beside the bed, Duo lowered the same gaming device that they had been networking through and shrugged, "I'm not leaving while you're still here. Even thought you're fine, I won't be happy to leave until you're back home safe and sound. Everything else can wait."

Unable to trust his voice, the teenager just smiled widely with small tears in his eyes. There really was no need for words at that moment. Chuckling deeply, the running back leaned in and kissed his son's head quickly before smirking, "Now, let's get back to my kicking your butt in 'Gundam Wars.'"

"Yea, uh, who's about to kick whose butt?" Marcus snickered. With a wink, he added, "I've just been taking it easy on you, old man."

Duo's braided head fell back as he laughed, "Old man!?" looking back to their game, he grinned, "That's it. You are so going down, kid." They continued to chuckle throughout the remainder of their little battle.

In the end, they called it a draw.

* * * *

It was early afternoon when Karen finally pulled into the parking lot of Pittsburgh's Patriot stadium. After a long, roundabout way of reaching the Wolverine team owner, Leona was finally able to get a hold of the young woman. Briefly talking to Dorothy, the journalist decided it best that they discuss the matter at hand in person. Thankfully, her office was only a couple of hours away from the arena.

Security escorted the reporter to the elevator and up to the top level, saying that Catalonia had informed them of her pending arrival. On the ride up to the administrative floor, Karen swallowed to dampen her dry throat.

While never having met Dorothy before, it was known through their brief talk how protective she was of her team and all involved in her organization. It was a trial for Clarkson to keep her from disconnecting the call when she announced herself and her connection to Nathan Gallow.

Little was discussed in that conversation, only that they needed to meet and discuss something vitally important involving Duo Maxwell. The specifics of that were not going to make Dorothy very happy.

The doors to the elevator opened and Karen was led down the hall to the closed office door with the team owner's nameplate shining in the sunlight that peered through the large windows overlooking the football field. Slowly taking a deep breath, the journalist tried to calm her escalating heart rate as the door slid open at the guard's knock. Stepping aside, her escort gestured for her to enter.

Karen forced one foot to step before the other. Before the large bay windows was an ornate desk. Behind that sat none other than Dorothy Catalonia. Grinning to her security guard, the young woman nodded, "Thank you, Damien." Her eyes narrowed and locked onto the reporter as she said, "I certainly hope that you don't mind waiting outside in case I need to have Miss Clarkson removed from the building if I don't feel like listening to her."

Freezing at that, Karen's brown eyes widened. Damien, his body broad in every way, smirked, "I'll be waiting." With another smile and word of appreciation to the guard, the team owner pressed a button under her desk to close the sliding door.

A forced smile spread on Dorothy's face while she held a hand out to the chair before her. "Please, have a seat, Miss Clarkson," she offered. Despite the smile, there was a bite to the tone of her voice. "I must say that your article on Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell's relationship a few weeks back was an interesting read. Congratulations on intruding in on their lives and making things difficult for them."

Once more, the reporter swallowed roughly. Oh, Dorothy was indeed protective of her team. This could be even more painful than she had originally thought.

Taking her seat, Karen informed quietly, "You have every reason to not like me, Miss Catalonia. What I did by spying on them was wrong and I am sorry for my actions. I was acting under orders of Nathan Gallow and-"

"You do have a mind of your own, do you not?" the team owner was quick to cut off. Folding her arms, the blonde young woman glared, "I know of Yuy and Maxwell walking out on Gallow's interview when he crossed a line that he should not have. But for you to go along and try to dig something up on them makes you just as guilty."

Dorothy's icy blue eyes bore down on her visitor as she continued, "I have very little patience for people like you, Miss Clarkson. So-called 'journalists' like you and Gallow and the lowest walks of live where I am concerned. The only reason that you're here is because you believe that there is trouble coming for one of my players. Now, I suggest that you get to the point before I have Damien come back in to show you the door none too kindly."

Not willing to test that threat, Karen nodded, "Very well."

If she was going to be taken seriously, she needed to prove that she knew something. Nathan had mentioned that Maxwell's son was going to be in the hospital until the following week. She couldn't imagine the running back anywhere other than his son's side after he'd been shot.

Taking a deep breath, the journalist stated, "I believe that by now you would have received a call from Heero and or Duo saying that they will not be playing in tomorrow's game against New York."

With a small gasp, Dorothy's eyes widened in a sure sign that such a call actually had taken place. Pressing a button for her intercom, she stated, "Thank you for waiting, Damien. You may return to your post at the front gate."

"Yes, Miss Dorothy," the man's voice replied.

Releasing the button to her com, the team owner fixed her guest with a firm gaze as she leaned forward. "All right," she began. "I'm listening."

* * * *

Visits at the hospital for the remainder of that day were made in shifts just as before, only this time the kids were able to tag along a few at a time. Actually seeing their brother smiling and faring well, considering, had done wonders on the children. For Marcus's part, he was happier than he had been since first waking up after the shooting in being reunited with the others.

News of the fatal attack came and went as it was an almost common occurrence in that part of Chicago. The investigation for the people involved was ongoing, but Duo wasn't about to hold his breath in waiting for the killers to be found. He knew they never would be. Instead of dwelling over that, his focus was on getting himself ready for the upcoming hearing.

Iria had been as attentive an aunt as she was a lawyer during her stay at the apartment complex. If she was not working on details of the case that she was building following her own visit to the hospital, she was spending time with her nieces and nephews to give her friends a break when she could.

As Solo and Hilde went about preparing dinner, Duo headed up to his room for a shower in an effort to try and relax. Worrying over what might or might not happen in court was beginning to wear on him, and there was still another whole day to get through before it actually took place.

Once he entered the bedroom and closed the door behind him, he was surprised to find Heero sitting on the edge of their bed with a small smile for him. "I was hoping that I might be able to join you for your shower," he said quietly.

Rising, the team captain slowly crossed the room and kissed his partner soundly. "Or at the very least, I could help you actually need to get cleaned," he offered in a husky voice with their lips brushing together when he spoke.

Duo shivered at both the tone and the suggestion. His body aching for release of tension as well as the want to just escape from the world for even a moment, he knew that he would never deny such a proposition. Rather than answer with words, he leaned in to claim his lover's lips in a fierce kiss.

In moments, their clothes were removed and their bodies moved to the bed. Straddling Heero's waist, Duo shifted himself into a position where he could both move easily and hold onto the quarterback tightly. A rhythm was soon found and breaths panted heavily as they worked up their love making.

The coupling lasted a long time, neither one of the players looking to separate from their tight hold on each other anytime soon. Finally, the urge to find release pushed them on until they were both crying out in release at the same time. Slick from sweat and an added mix of semen, they shared another deep kiss before reluctantly separating to shuffle into their adjoined bathroom.

Soft words and more kisses were shared under the warm spray of the shower. Lovingly cleaning each other, the couple stepped back into the bedroom to change. Rejuvenated from their little `escape' from everything, there was a wide smile on the running back's face for the first time in a while.

The first to throw his clothes back on, Duo began to twist his wet hair into a braid when there was a knock at their door. Being the closest and the most decent for viewing, he winked to his boxer-clad partner, "I'll get it." Heero smiled in appreciation as he grabbed a fresh shirt.

When he opened the door, he frowned when he found his 'sister' waiting on the other side with a concerned look.

Frowning deeply, Hilde held out two cell phones and announced, "Both your lines had been ringing off the hook just a moment ago. Since it seemed urgent, I checked the caller id and it's-" She was not able to finish her sentence before Heero's phone rang loudly.

Fully dressed, Heero quickly came around to take up the call. Together, he and his lover checked the glowing caller id. Sharing a wide-eyes look, they said in one voice, "Dorothy."

A concerned look on is face, the quarterback opened the flip and pressed the phone to his ear to greet, "Hello?"

There was a sigh of relief on the other line as the team captain muttered, "Thank God. I'm sorry to make this short, Heero. If Duo is there with you, I need you both to get to a private room with vidphone and call me at my office as soon as possible."

Stomach unsettling at the pressing tone in her voice, Heero eyed watched his partner bite his lip while answering, "All right. We'll call you back in less than five minutes." An affirmative was given before Dorothy disconnected. Closing the cell phone, the quarterback announced simply, "The den downstairs."

Together, the couple was off and stepping into the small room. Closing the sliding doors behind them, they sat at the couch before the vidphone there and dialed their owner's office. It only took one ring for Dorothy to appear on the screen with another young woman sitting beside her that they had never met before. The worry on both of their faces did not serve to help either football player's anxiety over the urgent call.

First to speak up, Dorothy smiled sadly, "I am very sorry to be interrupting you both like this, but we have a serious matter to discuss and not much time." Gesturing to the woman beside her, she introduced, "This, my friends, is Karen Clarkson."

Eyes widening, the pair looked to the nervous reporter. The shock wearing off in a heartbeat, Duo glared on her heatedly and spat, "You're the one that works for Gallow's agency that wrote that article on us weeks ago. What the hell do you want?"

Raising a hand, Dorothy soothed, "It's all right. She came to see me in hopes that I would be able to reach you to warn of something that is coming. I've listened to what she's had to say and I'm convinced that we can trust her."

Heero and Duo shared a glance. They knew how seriously their friend and team owner took to protecting them. If there was any reason to doubt this Karen, she would have shown her the door none too kindly. Knowing that, they took a deep breath and looked back to the screen. "Okay," the quarterback nodded firmly. "What is this all about, then?"

Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, the reporter swallowed roughly before stating, "Nathan knows of your family, Duo. He followed you and Heero to Chicago when you rushed to be by the child that had been shot Thursday night."

There was a long, stunned silence as the two athletes stiffened with wide eyes and paling skin. Heero's hand covered Duo's and squeezed tightly. Of all the people to find out about the children...

Unable to handle the silence and those shocked faces, Karen locked eyes with the running back and continued, "He's building up a story to be featured Monday morning. The things that he intends to accuse you of, I..." her voice trailing off and tears shimmering in her gaze, she shook her head. "I just couldn't sit back and let it happen without warning you."

"What accusations will he be making?" Duo gritted in a way that a chill ran down the spines of his listeners. Hands clenching, he was almost starting to hurt Heero in forgetting that he was holding on to him. Turning to his partner, the quarterback held his tongue as he frowned in worry.

A small moan left the reporter at the question. Dorothy lowered her head and closed her eyes. Shaking her head again, Karen replied quietly, "I-I don't think that will help-"

The running back cut her off as leaned towards the screen and repeated in a yell, "What accusations will he be making!?" Heero winced, Dorothy's head snapped back with wide eyes, and Karen jumped in her seat. Despite his pretty sure assumption to what the answer to that question was, Duo wanted to actually hear it.

Gasping in a sharp breath with tears running down her face, Clarkson replied, "He's going to call the incident proof to child abuse and neglect." Her mouth opened and closed with no sound before she managed to squeak out, "He may even try to suggest molestation. "

On his feet instantly, Duo started pacing vigorously back and forth. Heero fell back into the couch with his hands covering his face. While they knew not a one of those charges to be true, the public at large did not. As far as they were concerned, the running back still had his 'bad boy' and 'rebel without a cause' stigmas on him. Anyone outside of their little bubble would be more inclined to believe that he was harming the kids.

Finally pausing in his irate walking around the room, Duo sat back down beside his silent lover. Heero reached his arm around to massage the back of the American's neck soothingly. "I need time to think this out," his voice grated out, shoulders sagging and arms folding together where they hung over his knees. "I need to talk to this over with Heero and my lawyer to what I should do."

Nodding, Dorothy requested, "I would like to fly out there, if I may. If there are any others that you would like to have come along, we could all be there for the both of you through this. You've already been dealing with enough."

Moved beyond words by the offer, the running back bit his lip and nodded back. Lowering his head when his eyes filled with tears. Heero turned to kiss his partner's braided head and told the team owner, "I'll forward the numbers of who to reach and we can make arrangements so that we can get you at the airport."

Brief farewells were exchanged between Dorothy and Heero before the call ended. Sighing deeply, the team captain rubbed his distraught lover's back while feeling completely helpless in how to best help the situation.

For almost two years, Duo had managed to keep his children safe from the world's prying eye. Now, it was only a matter of days before everyone knew about them. It was bad enough as a young adult celebrity to handle the pressures of the press... but for a child... the quarterback shuddered at the thought.

Unsure of anything else to say, the quarterback and asked softly, "Is there anything that I can do?"

Duo looked over to him with a tear-dampened face. Brokenly, he pleaded in little more than a whisper, "Can you just hold me for a while?"

Tightly wrapping his arms around the smaller athlete, Heero answered softly, "Come here." Pulling his sniffling lover close, he kissed the top of his brained head once more and rested his chin atop.

For a long moment, they just clung to each other… silently willing for the storm raging around them to give them a reprieve that was nowhere in sight.

NOTE: Love scene inspired by one of many wonderful pics by ASIA:



Part 60:

Iria, Hilde and Solo sat in stunned silence following the retelling of Dorothy's call. On the other side of the table where they sat, Duo dry washed his face before turning to the young lawyer and asking, "There's really no way around this is there?"

Frowning deeply, Iria shook her head, "We may be able to stop the story in light of the illegal way Gallow went about obtaining the information on the children, but you know as well as I that it'd only be a matter of time before word got out anyway. If he was able to find out about your family, it's only a matter of time before someone else does."

Heero had already thought the same, himself, and he was certain that his lover had as well. He placed a hand on the smaller athlete's back to rub soothing circles along it. Weary lines across his face, Duo looked exhausted and mentally defeated over the events of the last few days. That call seemed to have broken him.

Quick to try and make the situation better, Quatre's sister reassured, "I can give judge Toplin a heads up on what you've learned so that when the story comes out the morning of the trial, he won't be surprised. Anyone involved in the court system knows how the press loves to manipulate and twist even the most innocent of findings."

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Hilde said quietly, "But that won't help the overall public view since they don't know what's going on. They'll wonder how anyone with accusations of abuse and worse could be allowed to adopt children. His celebrity will be blamed for his getting away with something that he's not even guilty of."

"Not to mention what the kids will have to hear from their classmates and friends over this," Solo added solemnly. "They'll be asked questions, sent to school counselors and who knows what else when they're away from our watch."

Duo shuddered at the thought of his kids having to go through that. He needed to protect them from such a fate, whatever the cost on his behalf. In little more than a whisper, the running back announced, "I'm going to call for a press conference tomorrow morning. I need to tell the media about my family before Gallow's warped version gets out." Wide-eyed, his friends' heads snapped to watch him.

Blinking in surprise, Heero breathed, "Duo... are you sure?"

Slowly raising his head to meet the cobalt gaze on him, the braided athlete admitted quietly, "No. But it's not like there's any other choice. If I pull the rug from under Gallow, so to speak, then he'll look like the villain for trying to twist my relationship with the kids.

"Even if he's known for being a slimy journalist, going after someone's family like that would ruin him. It gives him a whole day to think over whether he's willing to let that happen to his career. It might be enough to scare him into pulling the story all together before it hits the presses for Monday's news."

Iria laughed and clapped her hands together. "That's brilliant!" she exclaimed. "I could help write up the wording of your speech in a way that it would make keep any reporter away from the little ones. The first person to attack them would become public enemies."

While still not ideal that the family was going to become known to the world, it was the best option... It was the only option.

Nodding firmly, Duo stated, "All right. That's what we'll do, then." He turned to his lawyer and requested, "If you could help in getting that speech together and setting up that press conference-"

"Taken care of," Iria winked before he finished. She reached across the table to squeeze her friend's hand and told him gently, "You're doing the right thing, Duo. As your legal council, I can tell you that." Gently squeezing the hand in her own once more, she quickly rose and left the room for her cell phone.

Heero shifted his seat closer to his lover's to pull him into a comforting hold. All but collapsing against him, Duo rested his head on a strong shoulder and closed his eyes.

Looking to the clock, Solo turned to his wife and suggested, "We better get to the airport. Dorothy's private jet will be landing before long." Hilde nodded and climbed to her feet. Together, they rounded the table and offered their 'brother's' shoulder a squeeze along with quiet words of support before heading out.

After a long, companionable silence, Duo said softly, "I need to tell the kids about this before anything. They need to know what's coming." Heero nodded, his chin brushing against the braided head that it was resting on.

* * * *

A conference call was arranged in the living room. Using the speaker phone on his end, Duo had the children sitting all around him as he asked, "Can you hear me, Marcus?"

Receiver of his private hospital room phone to his ear, the boy replied, "Loud and clear, Dad. What's going on?"

Taking a deep and calming breath, the running back began simply, "Well, it looks like the secret about us won't be a secret much longer. There's a reporter that followed Heero and me to the hospital and found out about all of you." There were gasps and wide eyes all around and there was a groan over the speaker.

"Someone knows about us?" Jamie gapped from where she sat on Heero's lap across the room.

Smiling sadly, the braided athlete nodded, "Yes." He turned towards the speaker phone beside him to reassure, "And don't blame yourself, Marcus. It was only a matter of time before this got out. You didn't ask for what happened to you." The teenager muttered a quiet but relieved ''Kay' over the line.

Violet eyes gazing over the little ones watching him, Duo frowned deeply, "The story that this reporter is writing up on is... bad. And it's going to make things very difficult on all of us if I don't come forward about you first."

Tai and Flora shared a concerned look, already imagining just what 'bad' fabrications could be made up around their relationship with their father-to-be. "We only have a day to act, so I've called a press conference for tomorrow morning so that the public hears the truth before any lies get out," the running back explained.

His eyes suddenly shimmering, Duo took a sharp breath and breathed, "I've promised all of you that I would look after you and keep you safe. Do you all remember that from the first time I met each of you?" Without hesitating, his kids nodded. "Well, that's what I'm trying to do now," he continued in a rough voice. "I don't know how it'll all work out, but I'm going to do everything I can that none of you get hurt by this."

A few tears fell around the room as a still silence fell over everyone. Wiping a stray drop from his face, Heero whispered something into Jamie's ear. The dry-eyed little girl smiled up at him and nodded before climbing down from his lap. Silently, she made her way around her siblings and crawled up into her father's lap as he continued to cry silently.

Blinking in surprise, Duo wrapped his arms securely around the child in his arms as she stretched up to kiss his cheek. "We love you, Daddy," she whispered with that sweet smile of hers. "You do good to keep us safe." Nearly sobbing outright, her guardian hugged her tightly in appreciation with a kiss to her own cheek.

"She's right, Dad," Flora breathed. Face wet with tears, she held onto the running back from the side. "You'll do the right thing for us. We trust you." Tai and the other little ones all gathered close into a group hug. Heero waited until the last of the children were wrapped around each other before joining in.

Marcus's voice called, "We're with you, Dad!" Tai and the others all voiced their own affirmatives as they continued to hold onto one another.

Duo bit his lip and squeezed the his family close. "Thank you, guys," he managed. "You know there's nothing more important than you are." Looking up, he met Heero's shimmering gaze and stated firmly, "All of you." His lover gave him a loving smile at that.

Mary was quickly alert from where she was laying at the sound of the front door opening.

Running, she headed to see who was coming in. Gently kissing his children's heads , Duo called to the speaker phone, "Sounds like company's here. get some rest, Marcus. I'll call you in the morning before the press conference."

Goodbyes were said before the call was ended. Filing into the entrance way, the family was greeted with the sight of Hilde and Solo assisting with luggage.

Right behind them was Dorothy. Looking to the red-eyed running back, she smiled warmly, "Good thing I came with a good supply of tissues for this trip." She lowered her bags to embrace Duo tightly. Returning the gesture at full force, the running back kissed her cheek in greeting.

"Uncle Quatre!" the kids cheered at the same time as the Arab entered the apartment complex. Iria was just on her way down the stairway when she spotted her little brother. The two shared a warm grin while the agent was busy reuniting with his 'nieces' and nephews.' After greeting them all, he moved to catch up with his sister.

Lady Une was next to step inside. Instantly on her knees, she scooped up as many youngsters as she could get her arms around at once. Just after her, much to everyone's surprise, Noin appeared. Elated in seeing her, Heero held her tightly with a smiled, "I wasn't expecting to see you here. This is a pleasant surprise."

The young woman chuckled deeply and replied, "Dorothy figured out on her own that I knew about the kids from when I helped get them into the owner's box months ago. As soon as she told me what happened, I packed my things, left the boys with their grandparents for a few days and told Zechs I was needed for an emergency business trip."

Biting her lip, Noin stated, "And I hope that the two of you wouldn't mind, but we took the liberty of inviting someone else who can be of help." That said, she and her friends looked to the door as Sally entered.

Both Duo and Heero's eyes widened at the sight of the physical therapist. Her own shocked gaze took in all of the little ones around her. "I never would have believed it if I did not see it with my own eyes," she muttered to herself.

Grinning when the football players neared, Sally advised, "Dorothy briefed me on the situation during the flight here. I believe that my medical background can come in use when Marcus is released from the hospital I was once a physician for some time before I became a therapist."

Instantly throwing his arms around her, Duo sighed, "Thank you, Sal." The reunions continued on until everyone had a chance to see, or were introduced, to everyone else.

* * * *

As the hour grew late, Dorothy, Noin and Lady Une assisted in getting the children ready for bed, insistent that their hosts not have to worry about a thing now that they were there.

Sally and Quatre took charge of getting some tea together for the adults for their discussion and catch up on what had taken place since the last time Dorothy had contact with her star players.

Once informed of the running back's decision over the press conference, the team owner nodded to him firmly, "You're making the right call here, Duo. I'll have to give Karen a call about this since she's been thinking of her next course of action. I'm sure that if your coming forward doesn't scare him into pulling his rendition of the story, she'll see that it's handled." Duo breathed a small sigh of relief in hearing that.

"I can assist in having things ready for a press conference tomorrow morning," Dorothy offered the lawyer of the group. "You certainly have enough on your plate with the upcoming hearing, and I have quite a bit of experience in assembling these things."

Looking to his sister, Quatre added, "I'll be happy to help with the speech you're working on." He raised an eyebrow and smirked, "You know how I am with words when I want to get a point across for people to leave well enough alone."

Iria snickered, "Oh, I do know that all too well, little brother." A since smile tugged her lips as she turned to both assistants and said sincerely, "I really would appreciate both of your help so I can focus on Monday's hearing."

Raising her hand, Sally stated, "I'll be heading to the hospital after the conference for a full rundown of Marcus's condition. If he is going to be released in a couple of days, I'll see to it that he has everything that he needs for his return home."

Lady Une gazed on Duo, Heero, Hilde and Solo as she spoke up, "Noin and I can take care of the children as far as preparing their meals and any other such needs. We both have experience in child care so that the four of you won't have to worry for anything while we're here."

Nodding, Noin concluded, "And we'll stay here for as long as you need us. If all goes well with this hearing and we can move the children to Pittsburgh with us, we leave when you leave to help with getting everything together."

Unable to find his voice, Duo's mouth opened and closed in his attempt to express his gratitude for everyone's thoughtfulness. Smiling in understanding, Heero wrapped an arm around his partner's shoulders and kissed his temple. "I think he's trying to say thank you, everyone," he grinned to their friends. The running back nodded vehemently.

One by one, the lot started staying their good nights and moved upstairs to their rooms for the night. Last to leave of the guests was Quatre. Turning to his braided friend, eh asked, "So how much are you going to be revealing tomorrow morning, then?"

Without hesitating, Duo answered, "Everything. My whole life is going to be an open book tomorrow."

Straightening in shock, Heero and Quatre's eyes widened. "E-everything?" the quarterback sputtered. "But Duo, you don't have to dig up your past when you're only focusing on your relationship with the kids."

"My relationship with the kids involves my past," his lover frowned. "I want everyone to understand why I want to adopt or they'll always wonder. Once everything is out on the table, I don't have anything to hide from or deny anymore." His violet eyes becoming almost wistful, Duo said quietly, "I'll finally be able to be… free from all of this."

Not looking at it in that light, Heero's breath hitched in his throat. Quatre's eyes shimmered the slightest bit in knowing how badly his longtime friend felt like he was constantly looking over his shoulder in fear of the world. Now that it was only a matter of time before the public knew of his family, it only made sense to just bring everything to light.

It was time that everyone knew who the real Duo Maxwell really was.

His mission assigned, the blonde agent grinned and shrugged, "Then, there won't be much that I would be able to prepare as far as a speech is concerned. Something like this will have to come directly from you." Duo nodded in agreement.

Quatre closed the distance between himself and his friend for a tight hug. "Be sure to get some sleep, then," he suggested quietly. A quiet affirmative and a few 'good nights' later and the agent was on his way up to his own room to retire for the evening.

"You heard the man," Heero smirked as he took hold of his lover's hand to lead him out of the living room. Turning the light out behind them and guiding the way up the stairway, the quarterback was lost in his own thoughts and worries regarding the press conference.

It was only his natural instinct to want to protect Duo as much as the children. The thought of his teammate opening the doors to his past for public knowledge had his stomach churning. But... the longing look in his partner's eyes at finally being free of the secret chains was enough to keep him from saying anything against it.

When all was said and done, Heero knew that there was nothing in the world that he could deny Duo.

The door to their bedroom was closed behind the couple and the light was turned off as a silent stripping down began. Once they were down to their boxers, they climbed under the covers and wrapped their arms around each other in their usual hold for the night.

Lying there in silence, Heero was suddenly more and more aware of something that was at odds with his emotions of concern and sadness. Finally aware of it, that feeling overcame everything else and swelled in his chest.

His hand lightly running over the exposed scars of his love's back, a small lump formed in the team captain's throat. Lightly kissing the braided head on his shoulder, he whispered in a thick voice, "I am so damned proud of you, Duo."

Breath hitched in the running back's throat at those sincere words. Tightening his arms around his partner, he closed his eyes in relief at last. If Heero was behind him, everything was right in the world.

Sleep came easily for the pair after that.

* * * *

From where they were waiting in the lobby of the closest hotel, Duo and Heero peeked through the closed door of the largest conference room. Inside, a slew of reporters and cameramen filled the space. As another familiar sight, a table sat before them with a variety of microphones set up in a large bundle.

The biggest difference of the whole sight was that it was only a single table with one seat as opposed to a long table where several people could be interviewed at once. As the focus of the press conference, Duo would be all on his own this time.

Swallowing roughly, the running back pulled away from the door. Hands shaking, he adjusted his silver shirt and brushed a few wrinkles from his black slacks. Heero placed a hand on his shoulder with a small frown. "Think you're still up for this?" he asked.

"No," Duo admitted quickly. A nervous smile tugged his lips as he shrugged, "But I'll get through it." Just then, his friends and children entered the lobby. Somewhat settling at the sight of them, he was greeted with warm hugs and words of encouragement.

After everyone had a chance to wish their best to the braided athlete, Dorothy led the way into the conference room. Inside, a lot of murmuring amongst the reporters and staff could be heard. When the children entered, the sound only grew.

The last to leave, Heero turned to his partner and kissed him. "I love you," he whispered. "Just think-in a few minutes, all of this will be behind you."

Biting his lip, Duo nodded and wrapped his arms tightly around the taller athlete's neck. "I love you, too," he managed in little more than a breath.

With one last, lingering kiss, the quarterback reluctantly parted. On his way to the room, he held on to his partner's hand for as long as he could before their arms and fingers couldn't stretch out any longer. Gazing over his shoulder for a final glance, Heero stepped into the conference room to the flashing of cameras and continued murmuring.

Alone in the lobby, Duo paced back and forth. Gripping and fidgeting the end of his braid, he worked on calming himself as best he could. Finally, he headed for the doors just before pausing for a deep breath. "Well, here we go," he told himself before raising a hand to push one of the double doors open.