6-2-2007

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gundman Wing, or its characters. I just love playing with them.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Parts 61-70/?
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 61:

Before he took his first step into the conference room, photographers were snapping pictures as Duo opened the closed doors. The flashes did not stop as the running back headed for the table at the front of the large space, nor did they when he sat down. Video cameras rolled and journalists crowding the room had a variety of tools in hand to record or write down whatever was said.

Looking up to his audience, the braided athlete smiled in relief that his supporters were in the middle of the seating arrangement just in front of him. His children all grinned and waved to him. With a quiet chuckle, Duo began, "Good morning, everyone. Thank you all for coming here on such short notice. As I imagine, you're all most likely wondering why Heero and I are here in Chicago instead of Pittsburgh for this afternoon's game against New York." Heads nodded around the room and another quiet round of murmuring stirred up.

Over the low hum, the star athlete took a deep breath and stated, "For the last couple of days, I've been here with my family and visiting one of my sons who is now in the hospital thanks to a drive-by shooting." The air was filled with gaps. Many reporters paused in their writing with slack jaws and wide eyes.

Nodding to the little ones in the center of the room, Duo smirked, "Everyone, I would like you to meet my kids. As of this coming February, I will officially be the proud legal guardian of them all. My oldest is faring well and will be released from the hospital in just a few days." Unable to keep their voices down to a hum, the journalists and camera men turned to each other to talk excitedly amongst themselves.

Huddling close, the little ones gazed over the many faces watching them.

"Before there are any assumptions to why I would be adopting eight children," the running back spoke up over the noise, "I do have a few things that I need to share with all of you about my history that so many of you have been trying to dig up for years now."

That was enough to have a quick hush settle as all attention turned back to the focus of their press conference. Slowly breathing in, Duo stated, "My birth name is Samuel Conner. And most of my life, I had been moved from home to home as an orphan. They're some of my earliest memories."

Sure to take his time and catch his breath even needed, Maxwell went on to explain the horrendous things that had happened to him with his first adoptive parent. Stunned silent, the audience listening in had a variety of reactions to what was being shared with them. A few times, some of the kids had to wipe their eyes in having experienced somewhat similar, and sometimes worse, experiences in their own short lives.

Clearing his throat, Heero had to blink back the shimmering in his own eyes throughout the rehashing of his lover's past. Like Hilde, Solo and Quatre, he had his arms wrapped around the little ones closest to him in support while offering quiet reassurances to them. Dorothy, Noin, and Lady Une all had red eyes by the time Duo finally got through explaining his history.

From his bed in the hospital, Marcus watched the live airing with a proud smile on his dampened face. Sally sniffled lightly as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue sat at his bedside. "That's my Dad," the boy whispered in awe as his eyes remained on the screen across from him.

Brushing away a couple of tears from his own face, Duo cleared his throat and stated, "Knowing more about me, I'm sure that you can all understand now why I thought it was my responsibility to help as many children in the same situation that I had been in. Even with the eight that I have now, I don't feel like I'm doing enough. But... it's a start..

"Where my behavior on and off the field in the past is been concerned," he continued, "there is a reason for all of that as I have been setting up a safe place for my family elsewhere. My hopes were to be traded to that city so that I could be with them every day, which the courts are well aware of." Blinking in surprise, Dorothy frowned sadly in hearing that bit of news.

A small smile curled his lips as the running back looked to his little ones while commenting, "And my kids know that whatever they see daddy doing to get in trouble is not allowed for them to try." Flora and Tai smiled widely to their father-to-be while everyone else in the room laughed and snickered in amusement.

Swallowing roughly, Duo a bit sobered to proclaim, "I am very sorry that I could not be with my teammates today, as I know that Heero is as well. However, I have to be here with my family right now." His violet eyes locking to the cobalt watching him, he smirked, "And Heero's been my strength these last few days. I'd be falling apart right now without him. He's been wonderful to my kids and he's been sacrificing a lot for all of our sakes."

The quarterback just smiled lovingly to his partner with a slight flush to his cheeks as some of the reporters gave quiet hums and looked to him. Hope and the other children giggled quietly amongst themselves.

Folding his hands on the table, the braided athlete concluded, "Tomorrow afternoon, it will be decided whether or not I will be able to move my family back to Pittsburgh with us until the adoption is final. Once the dust's settled after that, Heero and I will return this week to rejoin our team. Hopefully, we'll be bringing eight other faces back with us."

Iria leaned close to her little brother beside her and whispered, "Brilliant move on his part. This will put pressure on the judge to side with moving the kids by making the hearing public knowledge." Grinning from ear-to-ear, Quatre nodded.

In reaching the end of his speech, Duo looked to all of the journalists and told them, "My family is the most important thing in the world to me. I would hope that all of you would remember and understand how difficult growing up in and of itself is. They've all had to grow up faster than they should have and they don't need to be constantly being berated by the press or deal with fabricated stories created just to sell papers, online articles and ratings."

Leaning forward, he concluded simply, "By coming forward with this, I am putting a lot of trust in all of you to take care of them just as you would hope for your own children." All around, eyes widened at that last comment. Having never considered the whole situation in such a light, it was like a splash of cold water of realization to everyone in the room.

Briefly closing his eyes, Duo took a calming moment before gazing on his audience once more. "Are there any questions, then?" he asked and held his breath.

Unlike any other press conference that he had witnessed, there was no shouting or hand raising. In fact, the room stayed silent as the reporters looked to one another. The little ones scanned the room anxiously.

After a long pause, one young woman rose from her seat to turn to her fellow journalists and spoke, "In light of everything that we learned today, I suggest that perhaps we refrain from any further questions at this time." Several voices rose and heads nodded in agreement.

Releasing the breath that he had been holding in a deep sigh, Duo lowered his braided head. Slowly raising it back up, he replied quietly and sincerely, "Thank you."

That said, his audience began to file out of the conference room. Several reporters stopped to smile and wave to the children. Happily waving back, the lot was almost taken aback at actually being recognized by other people. For most of their lives, it felt to them as though they were invisible amongst both their peers and adults with the exception of their Dad, Heero and their friends.

When the last cameraman left the room, Duo's support team quickly headed to meet him as he stood from the table. The first to greet him, Heero wrapped his partner tightly in his arms and kissed him full on their lips. Cupping the heart-shaped face, he told him softly, "You did great, love."

On the verge of tears once more, the running back returned the small smile before kneeling down to hug his children. Quatre and Iria joined in next with Lady Une, Noin and Dorothy right behind.

As the team owner neared, Duo swallowed roughly and frowned, "Dorothy, about my being traded, I..." His voice cracked a bit, making him clear his throat before trying again, "I just..."

Shaking her head, Dorothy smiled sadly, "It's all right. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. Let's just focus on the here and now." A long eyebrow raised as she smirked, "Which means that I still own the best running back in the league." Strong arms looped around her in a tight hold of appreciation. Chuckling deeply, she pat the back of her friend's braided head.

"Let's head over to the hospital so that we can check up on Marcus," Heero suggested with a grin. The kids all cheered at the notion. Each adult took a little hand as the group headed out of the conference room together.

* * * *

By the end of the press conference, Karen was sealing the last box containing her belongings in her office. Her back to the door as it opened, she did not need to look around to know who was storming in. "How the fuck could you do this to me!?" Gallow's voice bellowed. "You're the only person that knew about the story I've been working on all weekend to warn him!"

Smirking, the dark-haired woman turned towards her red-faced associate and commented, "You know, this job used to mean everything to me. There wasn't a celebrity that I was not willing to destroy for my benefit."

The smirk on her face faded in place of a heated glare. "With the exception of children," she hissed. "You were about to cross a line that even my own pride could stand behind. And now knowing what Maxwell is really like, I'm sorry that I ever got involved in your obsession to hurt him."

Nathan raised his fist clutching a few papers that carried the words of the work he had been fine-tuning. "Thanks to your sudden morale awakening, I'll be crucified if this story ever sees the light of day," he gritted. "As your signed on partner, I can sever our ties whenever I wish. So you, my dear, are-"

"Save your breath," Karen cut him off sharply. Pressing the button to the speaker phone on her desk, she announced, "He's here." A quick affirmative that the message went through was given just as she took up her last box.

Meeting Gallow's fiery gaze, the female reporter grinned smugly, "I quit. And not being able to have your little story get out is the least of your problems right now. There are two police officers on their way to arrest you as we speak under charges surrounding your unethical ways of attaining information throughout the years. Breaking and entering, bribery, threats- all just the tip of the iceberg."

Eyes wide, Nathan froze stiff. "Oh," Karen added, "I almost forgot that I passed on your story idea to the head of the organization. Seems you're out of a job, yourself. Maxwell is becoming quite the beloved hero and your twist on his relationship with the family would have devastated his media circuit. Expect a personal visit from him while you're in your cell. I don't think that he'll be arriving to post your bail."

When his partner walked past him for the door, Nathan spun to watch her leave and shouted, "And what about you!? Don't forget that you had a part in all of this!"

Peering over her shoulder, the young woman shrugged, "Yes, and I have come forward to the authorities with it. My new lawyer, Iria Winner, managed to come up with a bargain for my releasing everything I knew on you. I'll be receiving a slap on the wrist compared to what you'll be receiving."

Just then, the door slid open to reveal two officers. The first to enter moved directly towards the wiry journalist. "Nathan Gallow," he began, "we have a warrant for your arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you…"

As the man continued his speech and the second cop placed the handcuffs on Gallow, Karen smirked and winked to her former associate. Glaring at her back as she retreated until the door closed after her, Nathan was left only to his thoughts and fears in knowing the laundry list of things that he had done over the years that he was going to be held accountable for.

Suddenly sick to his stomach, Gallow swallowed roughly and paled in realization. He really was alone without a friend in the world now.

`What an unfortunate turn of events,' he thought to himself as he could already hear he cell door closing in his mind. `As many people's lives as I've ruined, I have no one to defend me when I need them.'

If it wasn't for what that meant for him, he might have laughed at the irony.

* * * *

From Marcus's room, Duo, Heero, Dorothy and Noin watched the Wolverines battling New York on the television across from the boy's bed. Biting his lip, the team captain muttered a couple reassurances to the image of Brian Austin as the second-stringer scanned the field for a receiver to accept a catch.

Two gold-and-black clad Troopers broke through the offensive line and charged towards the back up quarterback. "No, no, no! Run!" Heero yelled to the screen as his friends all moaned and cried in their own frustration at the struggle.

Brian caught sight of the oncoming trouble at his sides a split second too late. He sprinted forward as far as he could before being brought down by the linemen with a gain of only two yards for the Wolverines.

Adam's voice came over the roar of the New York crowd, "Well, we expected this to be a challenge enough for Pittsburgh even with their whole starting lineup. New York has had a strong run all season and is giving the last push for the playoffs. But without Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell on the field, the Wolverines have not been able to keep up."

"Which is at no direct fault to Brian Austin or Terry Fellows," Tim stated. "They've both been holing their own to the best of their abilities and they actually look comfortable under pressure. It's far more than what could ever have been said of them in seasons past. Today just is not their day is all. The scoreboard is now at 31 to 20 in favor of the Troopers with less than a quarter to go. I just don't see the tide changing."

Marcus bit his lip as he watched Heero and Duo frown deeply at the screen. "I'm sorry, Dad," he all but whispered sullenly.

Violet eyes widening, the running back turned to his son and replied, "This isn't your fault, Marcus. I'm staying back for the hearing tomorrow to get you and your brothers and sisters out of here, too, remember."

Smiling, Dorothy reassured the boy, "And I would think less of either one of them if they went through with the game. In the end, it was their decision to stay behind and I complete support their choice." At her last sentiment, she looked to her players so that they could see the serenity in her eyes with those words. Shoulders sagged in relief and everyone was able to breathe a bit easier after that.

With another play being run, Adam spoke up, "In speaking of Maxwell, I am sure that I speak on everyone's behalf in wishing him and his family the best at this time. I think that we're all still reeling at finally getting a look at the real person behind the persona that we've all grown accustomed to."

"Indeed," Tim commented. "Just as Zechs and the Wolverines that we had a chance to talk to before the game have said, our thoughts and prayers all go out to them at this difficult time."

Blinking in surprise, Duo's face slowly lit up with a wide smile. Heero smirked and wrapped an arm around his partner. Pulling the braided athlete close, he kissed his temple.

Everyone stuck around and watch the game until Austin took a knee for the last time to end the game. Just as Tim had predicted, there was no change in the tide and the scoreboard remained as it had at the start of the quarter. During the press conferences, coaches and players from both teams continued to express their warm wishes to Maxwell and his kids.

Iria appeared in the doorway, knocking lightly to get her friends' attention. Focusing on the running back, she smiled sadly, "Sorry to have to take you away, Duo, but you need your rest for the long day we have ahead tomorrow. And don't try telling me you're fine even after that press conference this morning."

Snorting, Duo nodded, "All right. All right. I'm coming." As he rose to his feet, he leaned over the side of the bed to kiss his son's head. "Sally said that she can talk to the doctors here to have you attend the hearing, too. So you better get some sleep, yourself." Beaming, the teenager saluted with an excited affirmative.

* * * *

Despite how emotionally and physically exhausted he was, Duo was wide awake and a bundle of nerves when they returned to the apartment complex. Just as the night before, his visitors all took over seeing to the youngest of the family to bed. There was a brief rehashing of how the hearing would work with Iria before she decided to call it a night.

Knowing how his partner was not going to get a wink of sleep without assistance, Heero entered their shared bedroom with a glass of water in one hand and two small sedative pills in the other. Sitting on the edge of the bed where his lover was reclining with his back against the wall, he said gently, "Take these. I know you hate pills, but you won't be any good at anyone if you don't rest."

With a deep sigh, Duo was too preoccupied to argue. Throwing the pills back and chasing them down with the water, he handed the glass back to his lover and lay himself down under the covers.

Heero removed his shirt and turned the light out before stretching out beside him. Pulling the running back close, he kissed his teammate's lips softly. For a long, quiet moment he gently ran his fingers over the back of his braided head soothingly and whispered, "I love you."

"Love you, too," came the mumbled reply. Duo's breath soon evened out with a soft sigh. In his slumber, he curled up as close to the quarterback as he could get. Closing his own eyes, Heero said a silent prayer to whoever was listening for all to go well at the hearing the next day.

* * * *

Alex fought the urge to throw the remote in his hand at the television as yet another newscast discussing Maxwell's press conference aired. Shaking his head in frustration, he growled deeply, "I'm damn near beating his numbers thanks to his missing today's game and still no one cares."

Looking over to where his partner sat on the other end of the couch, he snapped, "Do you have any idea how fucking sick and tired of hearing about Maxwell I am!?"

Without gazing back at him, Mueller gritted, "Do you have any idea how fucking sick and tired I am of hearing how sick and tired you are!?" Rising to his feet, he finally met the wide eyes on him and glared, "I'm going to bed. Maybe you should consider asking O to lower your dosage." That said, he stormed off and clammed the door to their room closed behind him.

Sitting on the edge of their bed with a deep sag to his shoulders, the tight end dry washed his face. If there was ever any guilt over his behavior towards Maxwell before, he certainly felt it now. And if there was ever any doubt in his judgment of who to back up, there was not any to be found now.

Lost in his thoughts as he stared out ahead, Mueller frowned, "I chose the wrong side."

 

Part 62:

Breakfast was a quiet affair Monday morning. The kids had been called out of school so that they were present for the hearing should any of them be asked to take the stand. For even the little ones, they were much more muted in clear anxiety in understanding what was at stake that day.

Stepping into the crowded dining room, Sally smiled, "I took the liberty of pulling a surprise together." With all eyes on her, she stepped back out to return pushing a wheelchair carrying Marcus. Instantly, the kids shouted and bolted from the table to greet their beaming brother.

As Duo and the little ones reunited with the teenager, Heero walked up to the physical therapist and commented, "I was wondering what the hold up was with you." Looking to Dorothy, Lady Une and Noin, he smirked, "Nice job coming up with an excuse for her." The young women chuckled deeply.

Raising a finger in warning, Sally announced politely to the children, "Just be careful with your hugs there, everyone. Marcus still has some stitching that we don't want pulled." She smiled warmly at the affirmatives and stepped away for the reunion to continue.

On her way for the stairs out in the hallway, Duo slipped out of the room to follow after. "You know," he began, "I knew that there was something with your getting away with diagnosing and treating certain problems that other physical therapists would never be able to pull. I just never put two and two together that you might have been an actual doctor once."

"It's not exactly something that I go around bragging over," Sally replied as she stopped to face her friend. "Well, unless I need to see something happen in cases like Marcus's. Doctors tend to respond better to other doctors when things need to be done."

Frowning in worry, the running back asked, "So what happened to make you quit that to become a physical therapist? I would think that's a pretty steep step downward in the medical field."

Sally smirked and shrugged, "It is. But, like many people in other professions, I just burned out. I had the unfortunate habit of getting too close to my patients."

Her smile faded as she continued, "And I lost quite a few good ones despite my best treatment efforts. So, I decided to pull back enough that I could still use my knowledge and have a much slimmer chance of actually losing a patient. Zechs has been a friend to my family for years and he pulled the strings that got me in the door to work for him."

Duo wrapped his arms around her tightly, smiling, "Well we're lucky as hell to have you, Sal. And I can't thank you enough for your help with Marcus."

Giggling, the physical therapist returned the embrace and responded quietly, "It's my pleasure." When they pulled back, she winked and headed up the stairs to change. Silently watching her depart for a moment, the running back grinned and headed back to his family to advise them to get ready for the hearing.

* * * *

Fidgeting with his red tie nervously, Duo felt like it was cutting off his airway. Seated beside him at head table before the empty judge's podium, Iria leaned close and whispered, "Just breathe. It wouldn't be a good thing to have you start hyperventilating now."

A sheepish grin tugged the corners of his mouth as he replied quietly, "Sorry." Doing as ordered, he forced a long and slow breath in. By the third round of that, he was slowly easing a bit.

Glancing over to his shoulder, the running back looked to Heero and his family seated at the benches beyond the railing that separated them. His lover and charges smiled and waved to him. Their friends all gave a nod or some gesture of support.

Suddenly, the doors at the back of the courthouse opened. Everyone looked back to see Theresa Endures, the head of the Chicago branch of social workers enter. Along with her were five members of her team, all of whom had at some point taken the time to visit the apartment complex to interview the kids on a weekly basis.

From his own history with Theresa, Duo always knew her to be a strong and fearless young woman. She stood by every letter of the law when the protection of children were involved, It was her argument in defense of the strict rules and regulations regarding gay adoptive parents that the judge had no choice but side to with.

The lovely Hispanic woman was savvy and hard-nosed. However, there was no question of her devotion to the children she protected.

Much to Duo's shock, he found the director's brown eyes to be red-rimmed as if she had been crying. Her staff all had varying degrees of distress on their own faces. When they sat down at the benches across from the family, not a one of them could look over at the children. Iria shared a surprised look with him in wondering if the whole display was a good or bad sign.

Before they could discuss anything, a tall and muscular bailiff entered from the judge's quarters at the front of the room beside the podium. "All rise," he ordered in a commanding voice. Once more, the judge's quarter doors opened to reveal the balding, black-robed judge as everyone stood. "The Honorable Judge Toplin presiding. Court is now in session."

Smoothly taking to his leather chair, the thin judge raised his hand and said kindly to his audience, "Be seated." As those in attendance sat back down, Toplin sorted through the papers at podium.

Adjusting the wire framed glasses on his long nose, he turned to the running back and began, "Just so there is no confusion, this is a hearing to decide whether or not the foster children of Duo Maxwell are in danger and should be moved from the living arrangement that had been ordered by the courts."

Those dark circled, clear blue eyes turned to Iria. "Miss Winner, I thank you for your thoroughness in forwarding me the transcripts and letters speaking in favor of Mister Maxwell. I have spent the last two days and nights reading every one and they will be taken into consideration in this proceeding."

With a deep sigh of relief, the lawyer bowed her head and replied, "Thank you, Your Honor."

"Now," the judge went on as he looked to Theresa, "the next order of business is that I must hear from Mrs. Endures. Please come up to the witness stand to be sworn in." Deeply lowering her head of long, dark hair, the director rose and walked up to the podium. All the while, every eye in the room followed her.

Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Duo could feel a few beads of sweat forming on his brow in knowing that this was the one person that could make or break his chances in getting his kids to a safe place. And there really was no sure way of knowing what stance she was going to take.

Hand on the Bible, Theresa was sworn in. Seated between Solo and Heero, Hilde squeezed on to both of their hands tightly. Flora and Tai each had an arm wrapped around one of their little siblings. In his wheelchair, Marcus wrapped around Hope while as she sat carefully in his lap. Quatre, Lady Une, Dorothy, Sally and Noin held their breaths in anticipation.

Slowly turned towards the witness bench beside his own, Toplin asked, "Mrs. Endures, please advise the court of your opinion and understanding of the law to what would be best for these children."

Taking a deep and shaky breath, the director raised her head to face him and answered, "Your Honor, the law stated that in the matter of gay foster parents, the children must be closely watched and monitored for at least a year before the adoption process can go through. In cases where the foster parent is both under age and gay, they are additionally forbidden to move the children from their original residence."

A defiant look on her face, she straightened in her seat and stated, "I believe in this law as being a mandatory measure in ensuring the protection of the children involved in such cases. The system was made for a reason and I have fought for it with everything in me. To this day, I still believe in every word of it."

Duo lowered his head with a defeated expression. Stomach churning in his chest, he could feel the initial sting of tears in his eyes. Resting a hand on his back, Iria bit her lip and mentally prepared herself for the argument she would be presenting. Heero held his tongue and Hilde could hardly hold back the moan that escaped her.

Slowly looking over to the running back, Theresa's breath hitched and her eyes began to shimmer. "But in Duo Maxwell's situation, the system failed," she whimpered. "And I failed for supporting it so strongly."

Gasps went around the room from Duo's camp and his braided head snapped up. Violet eyes wide and wet, he gazed on the director in disbelief that he heard her last comment correctly.

Without looking away from him Theresa wiped at a stray tear running down her cheek and said, "For almost a year now, he has proven to be nothing but a loving, sure and selfless guardian to his children. And yesterday, Duo showed the nation that he is willing to go through great extremes to protect his family.

"My staff has come back from their visits with nothing but positive things to say of their interviews and inspections. When learning of this hearing, they all cancelled their scheduled plans to be here to testify if needed." From where they sat, her said team nodded their heads as the three young women of the group dried their own eyes.

Throughout the room, there were sighs of relief, smiles and tears. Hands held tightly onto other hands and bodies nearly shook from the release of tension that had been building up to that moment. Heero closed his cobalt eyes and bowed his head in a silent prayer of appreciation as the others all reacted in their own quiet ways.

Just barely containing a small sob, Duo paid no mind to the drops running down his face. Theresa looked back to the judge and told him in a broken voice, "Your Honor, this family has been through enough. There is no reason to prolong their ordeal any longer. I have no doubts in Mister Maxwell's abilities as a parent. He has abided by the every order given to him without restraint or argument and should be treated with the respect that he has shown."

Holding her head high, she advised, "In addition to allowing him to move his children, I would like to ask the court to order the end of all weekly visits and interviews from this point on for the duration of the wait for his adoption to be finalized."

Unable to help himself, Quatre clapped his hands with an elated, "Yes!" Instantly covering his mouth and blushing, he scanned the eyes on him as his friends snickered. Sheepishly grinning to the judge watching him with a raised eyebrow, he chuckled, "Sorry, Your Honor." The snickering grew into laughter.

Toplin shook his head in amusement and smirked, "All things considered, I'll excuse the outburst, Mister Winner." Turning to the social director, he nodded firmly, "Thank you, Mrs. Endures. You may step down."

Theresa bowed her head once more before rising and returning to her staff. On her way past the table where he and Iria sat, Duo mouthed 'Thank you' to her. She directed a small that smile lit her face as she finished drying her tears.

Folding his hands on his deck, the judge focused back on the braided athlete and said, "Mister Maxwell, I am in complete agreement with everything that was just said. It is in the best interest of your family that they are moved to a safe location as soon as possible." Stunned, the wide-eyed running back's jaw fell as his children and friends jumped to their feet cheering and celebrating behind him.

Hugs, kisses and high-fives went all around. Grinning from ear-to-eat, the social workers looked on. Iria patted her braided friend's back with an elated smile. "It's finally over," she said softly to him. Sill unable to move so much as to blink, Duo just stared up at the chuckling judge.

Allowing the little celebration to continue a moment longer, Toplin raised his hand to quietly call everyone to order once more.

Once everyone was settled back down, he addressed the lawyer, "I am sure that in the event of this happening, you have a new location already picked out."

Iria smiled and rose to her feet. "We do, Your Honor. Heero Yuy is opening his estate to the family. I also have a statement sent to me by a social director by the name of Autumn Flannigan. She had visited the household to approve a brief stay there for my client's children."

Holding up the document in her right hand, she continued, "In her statement, Miss Flannigan expresses that the residence is more than adequate to support everyone in a safe and peaceful environment. What's more, my client will be able to spend time with his children on a daily basis."

With his blue eyes focusing on the quarterback, the thin-haired judge requested politely, "Please stand, Mister Yuy." As the athlete did as requested, Toplin said, "To move things along, I will spare the formalities of swearing in and simply take your word. Are you still willing to have your home opened to this family willingly?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Heero answered without hesitating. Duo peered over his shoulder to watch his lover with a loving smile.

The judge raised an eyebrow and commented, "This is quite a selfless act. You are aware of what a burden that looking after eight children may turn out to be? Raising a child is difficult enough at times."

Heero turned to the little faces watching him and grinned, "They are anything but a burden, Your Honor." His cobalt eyes locked onto the violet watching him as he declared, "I may not have any direct experience in raising children, but I'm learning how to do that from the best."

Duo blushed deeply at the sentiment, but his smile grew all the more.

Judge Toplin chuckled deeply, "Well put, young man." Raising his gavel, he announced "The court rules on the side of Mister Maxwell's request. His family is free to be moved immediately. All inspections and interviews from child care authorities are hereby ended."

The gavel fell with a loud bang over the shouts and cheers from the friends and family section. Rising to their own feet, Theresa and her workers applauded with wide grins on their faces for their charges that they released to the sole care of their father-to-be.

For a moment, Duo just sat with wide, disbelieving eyes. Between the unexpected things that came out of the social director and the swift ruling in his favor, he was silently terrified that he was in a dream that he would soon wake from.

Reading her client's mind, Iria smirked as she across her side of the table where she stood to pinch his arm. When he nearly jumped out of his skin with a start, she winked, "You're not dreaming." Gesturing with her head to the approaching judge, she warned, "And you're about to have a visitor.

All but jumping up, the running back rounded the table to shake the grinning man's hand firmly. "I... I don't know how to thank you, Your Honor."

Shaking his head, the judge replied sincerely, "No thanks needed. You've done all of the hard work and you have put up with a great deal. It's about time you were rewarded for that. With any luck, more role models like you will help change the system to make the adoption process easier for gay foster parents."

Over the course of his life, Duo had been called many things. 'Role model' was never one of those names. A lump formed in his throat over it.

Unable to trust his voice at that moment, he just nodded his braided head in a sign of thanks. Toplin's smile grew in understanding. Lightly patting the athlete's back, he moved past the short gate to bid his wishes to the children.

Finally coming out of his stunned stupor, Duo threw his arms around Iria tightly and kissed her cheek. Giggling, the lawyer returned the embrace. When they pulled back, the slight shimmer in their eyes when they met said everything between them. After almost a year's struggle, their fight was ended at last.

Biting his lip, the braided football player looked to the crowd behind them that continued to share hugs, cheers and laughs. Scanning the group for the first person he wanted to see, he found Heero weaving his way around everyone to reach him.

With a small sob, Duo held onto his lover with everything he had in him. Chuckling, the quarterback wrapped his own arms around his trembling teammate and kissed his temple as everything else around them faded away.

* * * *

Following the hearing, there was a celebratory dinner at one of the finer restaurants outside of town on Dorothy's treat. Much to their pleased surprised, Theresa, her staff and Judge Toplin were also invited. In the end, the only thing they all wanted was what was best for the children.

The team owner also informed her star athletes that she had already taken the liberty to contact a trans-state moving company that would oversee the bulk of what needed to be transported from the apartment complex the following morning. And at first light, the family and their friends would head to Pittsburgh on Dorothy's private jet.

So, it was agreed that everyone would dig in and pack when they returned to the apartment complex. With so many hands helping, it wouldn't take more but a couple of hours.

In the back seat of the car that Solo was driving, Duo rested his head on Heero's shoulder. The emotional and physical toll that the last few days were finally catching up to the running back and he struggled to keep his violet eyes open. By the time they reached the apartment complex, he was sound asleep.

As the car was parked alongside the sidewalk, Hilde looked up to the building and sighed, "I can't wait to put this place behind us. I know no one is more ready for that than you, Duo. " She looked over back the passenger seat to see her braided friend when he did not respond.

Turning away from the window he had been peering out, Heero looked to his partner and smiled warmly at finding him lost to the world. Solo peered to the back to the scene and grinned along with his wife.

Carefully slipping from the back seat, the quarterback watched as the children in the van behind them came running up. Hinting for them to be quiet with a finger against his lips, he leaned back into the car to take his lover into his arms. Duo mumbled in his sleep and curled up close without removing his head from the shoulder it rested on. The kids all giggled quietly and led the way up to the complex.

Inside, Quatre and Solo took over seeing to the packing by giving assignments to everyone so that it went as smoothly as possible. With Duo still in his arms, Heero asked when everyone else was given something to do, "What should I take care of?"

Lady Une chuckled warmly, "You go and get Duo to bed." Gently running a hand though the running back's long bangs, she said softly, "Been through enough these last few days to have to worry about this."

Walking up, Noin added, "The same goes for you, Heero. Head on upstairs and get some sleep. No use trying to tell us that you're not tired after taking up the reins whenever Duo needed your help."

"You're outnumbered here, pal," Hilde smirked when her friend opened his mouth to protest. "We've got this. You both can stand down tonight and let us take over." Everyone round them nodded their agreement.

Unable to argue on account of his fatigue when his own eyes were growing heavy, Heero simply offered a small smile and a word of thanks. Saying his goodnights, he carried his teammate upstairs for their room.

Gently pushing the door closed behind them, the quarterback lowered Duo onto the bed and gently removed his clothing. Once they were both down to their boxers, he slipped the covers over them. The moment that he was lying on the bed, he smiled lovingly as his lover instantly curled up to him with a soft sigh. Closing his cobalt eyes, Heero gladly welcomed the pull of sleep.

For the first time in what seemed an eternity, they actually looked forward to the morning in knowing that everything was going to be all right.

 

Part 63:

The sun broke over the horizon the morning following the hearing. Sighing softly, Duo's nose wrinkled as the first signs of his return to the waking world. Violet eyes cracked open and blinked a few times to gain focus. Heero soon followed suit and smiled down on his lover, mumbling, "G'mornin'."

A wide smile spreading on his own face, the running back replied in kind before quickly kissing the quarterback. Sitting up, Duo peered around the room and breathed wistfully, "It's my last time in this room."

Heero sat up beside him with a low hum. His hand moving almost on its own accord, he rubbed soothing circles along his partner's scarred back. "Do you need some time alone?" he asked softly. "Over a year is a long time to spend in one place."

Meeting the cobalt eyes watching him, Duo grinned and shook his head, "No. I'll be all right. This was never going to be a permanent home, so I knew not to get attached in anyway. Besides, my kids are my home, not where we happen to be staying at any given time."

The quarterback smiled at that and nodded in understanding. Lightly brushing back the long bangs from those violet eyes on him, he suggested, "Well then, we'd better get dressed. We have a busy morning ahead." Not needing to be told twice, the running back all but jumped out of bed and headed to the dresser.

As busy as it was going to be, it was going to be a great day.

* * * *

Most of the things that could be packed already were by the morning thanks to Quatre, Hilde, Solo, Dorothy, Lady Une, Noin and Iria. Greeting the football players with smiles and breakfast in the kitchen when they emerged, they went over the few things that still needed to be tended to before the moving company arrived. Duo's jaw nearly fell off its hinges in learning at how quickly his friends had worked as he slept.

About an hour later, the moving company arrived with their trucks and the lot headed out to the airport with what they could carry. Iria said her goodbyes when they arrived to the closed off terminal to return to her law firm.

Wide-eyed and gasping, the children gazed around the inside of Dorothy's private jet when they were ushered inside. Even Heero let out a low whistle at the comfortable and yet lavish surroundings.

All throughout the flight, the children talked excitedly amongst themselves in anticipation of staying at the Yuy estate. Marcus took each of his smaller siblings for a ride in his wheelchair with him as he went up and down the aisles with his passenger in his lap.

His braided head resting on Heero's shoulder, Duo sighed, "At least Gallow had the decency to not post that story he had been planning, hopefully we won't be hearing from him again any time soon."

Across the aisle from them, Quatre looked away from the window and smirked, "Oh, don't worry about that. Iria and Karen are making sure that he stays out of everyone's hair from here on out." His eyes narrowing, he growled, "Though the time he's sure to be spending in prison seems hardly enough punishment. I really wish that you let me at him."

Duo snickered, "No way, man. I know how vicious you are when you get mad. I wasn't about to have you get in trouble for our sakes." Closing his eyes, he stated, "I'll be perfectly happy with a long prison sentence. At least when he does get out, he won't have a shot at a career like the one he's lost."

Nodding, Heero rested his head on top of the braided one resting on his shoulder and commented, "That in and of itself is enough for me. With any luck, he'll be made an example to other journalists who might think of pulling the things that he pulled."

The remainder of the flight went on smoothly. With a perfect landing, the jet pulled into the closed off hanger at the end of the field. Dorothy's staff greeted her and her passengers kindly when they stepped out. Hugs and thanks were exchanged between group before Dorothy, Noin and Sally parted their separate ways.

Using the two vehicles that Quatre and Lady Une had driven to the hanger, the remainder of the lot headed for the Yuy household. A quickly growing Mary wiggled excitedly in Flora's lap for the entire trip.

When they pulled past the tall gates leading to his household, Heero peered back to the children behind him and grinned, "Welcome home, everyone." At the wheel, Duo's smile grew as his family cheered and yelled.

It came as a pleasant surprise to the running back how smoothly things went. His children were so happy to be staying at the quarterback' s home that they were more than eager to help with the unloading of whatever they could carry. The move in went by in practically no time with the bigger items due to arrive the next evening.

All but collapsing onto the couches and soft cushioned chairs in the living room at the end of the day, six adults caught their breath. Lady Une looked to her companions and chuckled, "I certainly hope no one minds if I just call in for pizza instead of cooking tonight."

Solo chuckled and shook his head, "You'll have no complaints here. I can barely move, myself." The children gathered around with Mary nodded their heads enthusiastically. They left with the young maid for the kitchen where she could take their requests.

Looking over to the telephone on the table beside him, Heero inwardly groaned at the blinking warning that there were messages waiting. He paged through the caller ID window to find that there were over a dozen calls from different journalists and stations. No doubt every reporter out there was hoping to be the first to sit one-on-one with Duo after the press conference.

Quickly figuring out what was preoccupying his lover's attention, the braided athlete threw his head back on the couch. Pulling an arm over his eyes, he groaned, "Great. More interviews. Just what I need right now."

"Don't worry about any of that," Quatre responded. "As your agent, I'll take care of them. Right now you just start resting up for tomorrow's practice."

Practice. The team. Suddenly sitting up with wide eyes, Duo turned to face his teammate and asked, "Where are we in the standings after that loss this weekend?" If anyone would have kept track of that, he knew that the team captain would.

Swallowing roughly, Heero hesitated before answering, "We're now tied for the lead with Cleveland. The wins and losses in the league worked out that we took a bigger hit than we thought that we would." He was quick to add before anyone started blaming themselves or thinking the worst, "But we're still at least in the top spot. We could always get it back."

Hilde grinned, "And I don't doubt that you'll all be able to pull off enough wins to make the playoffs."

'Down but not out,' Duo thought to himself. There was still a chance to get back the ground that they had lost. Now that his personal life was getting coming back together, he could focus on his work.

There was a twinkle in his violet eyes as an idea came to mind. Grinning, he looked to his lover and said, "I need to get a hold of Zechs."

* * * *

In the locker room the following morning, the team got to their feet with cheers and whistles when their star quarterback and running back entered. The relief clear on all of their faces, everyone made their rounds at welcoming the couple back. Mixed in with the banter were questions like 'How are the kids?' and such.

Trowa and Wufei stayed back to be amongst the last to reunite with their good friends. Lightly nudging shoulders and patting each other's backs, the four laughed and quickly caught up before Austin and Fellows entered the scene with sullen faces.

Extending a hand, the back-up quarterback said, "Good to have you both back. Sorry that we let the two of you down while you were away." Terry's head fell deeper in embarrassment from his display over the last game.

Heero shook hands firmly and smirked, "Are you kidding? You two held your own pretty well out there." The second-stringers' eyes widened as they looked to him in disbelief.

"B-but we lost the game," Terry sputtered, his head shaking.

At that, Duo gave them a reassuring grin. "Neither of you are responsible for that," he said. "New York needed that win more than we did. Even if 'Ro and I had been playing, they would have given us a run, too. We watched the game and you both did everything you could on each play. We wouldn't have done anything differently. "

Nearly falling over, Brian cried, "Really!?" Both Heero and Duo nodded. Turning to his counterpart, the back-up quarterback exclaimed, "You hear that!?" Fellows beamed as he practically shook from excitement in hearing from two of the best that they performed well.

Zechs entered the room with his coaching staff. Reaching the center of the space, he ordered, "All right, everyone. Finish getting suited and let's hit the field! We have a long day ahead and there's a good storm blowing in later tonight. Let's get all the time in that we can."

Quickly changing, the team charged down the corridor and onto the field. When they reached the ground level and stepped outside, they were greeted with a round of cheers and whistles.

Looking around, the players found Duo's family alongside Noin and her boys. Duo grinned to his teammates and held an arm out to the bundled little ones in the stands. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet my kids."

The Wolverines' faces lit up with warn smiles as Hilde and Solo led their charges down to the field. There was a round of introductions as the star-struck children were brought face-to-face with the athlete that they had been watching.

Her eyes widening, little Carissa pointed up to the tall center and wide receiver gasping, "You're Twowa and Wufei." Instantly melting, the pair smiled and bent to their knees to introduce themselves.

Noin and her husband met up with a chaste kiss and turned to watch their own youngsters excitedly talking with the players that they had known from almost the time they were born. Their son Gavin charged up to the braided running back and opened his arms, crying, "Duo!"

Laughing, the American scooped him up into a tight hug. Derek was right behind and received the same greeting. "Are you doing to need our help, today, Duo?"

With a wink, Duo answered, "You know I could always use your help." Leading the boys to the cart that they had used for the first practice that they visited, he carefully placed them in the back. More carts had been built since then and numerous heavy items were placed inside for the other players use for their training.

Heero gestured for Jamie and Abdul to meet up with him by a cart and helped them inside. Wufei led Hope and Sun. Trowa took up Hope and Marcus was carefully placed in the back with her. Last but not least, Tai and Flora each got into a cart of their own to be pulled by other members of the offensive line. At the head of his team, Duo signaled to Zechs that everyone was ready.

A smile on his face, the head coach blew his whistle to announce the start of their laps around the field. Hilde and Solo laughed at the sight of the little ones yelling and cheering behind the athletes pulling them along. Noin wrapped her arms around her husband's waist and sighed in content, "This is sure to be something they won't forget anytime soon."

Chuckling deeply, Zechs kissed the top of her head and responded quietly, "I know that I won't."

* * * *

Through the snow and bitter temperatures, the Wolverines conditioned and practiced tirelessly. When they were not training themselves on the field, they were working out in their home gyms or finding other means to prepare themselves for the next game.

By the end of their first week back following the hearing, Sally took up a temporary residence at the Yuy household to provide on-site care for Marcus. Placing herself in charge of the physical therapy that he would need over the course of the next few weeks, Duo knew that his son was in good hands.

It also helped to have the young woman on hand to keep an eye on the football players as well. Sally was not one to hold her tongue if she thought that Heero or Duo might have been pushing themselves too hard on their own time. It was good for them to have a constant reminder not to injure themselves by being foolish.

Quatre preoccupied his time with screening out the reporters that continued to call for an interview with his friends. It became clear that eventually, they would have to go forward once again to appease the growing public interest in them. Finally, after much consideration and a good number of turndowns, Tim and Alex had been chosen and a time was set aside for them to meet the following week.

The amount of letters and other tokens of support nearly tripled from its volume in the past. Many teddy bears and other gifts were sent to be given to the Maxwell kids from other players in the league as well as fans. At the overwhelming wave that the mail came in, Hilde and Solo were able to assist by writing personal thank you letters for Heero, Duo and the little ones to sign.

Finally, after a grueling week, it was Sunday morning. In their hometown for a face-off against Baltimore, they woke to a blustery day. Wisps of flurries danced in the air and the temperature dropped to a cool eighteen degrees.

The last time that they had faced off against Baltimore, Pittsburgh suffered its first loss of the season during a downpour. This time, however, they were playing in their element. Far more used to this environment, the Wolverines suited up anxious for payback.

Overhead, the packed stadium was alive with feet stomping and hands clapping to the beat of a song playing through the speaker system. Quiet discussions took place throughout the locker room as plays were suggested and weaknesses in the Baltimore lineup were brought up.

Sitting beside each other on the bench before their lockers, Heero and Duo remained silent with their arms lightly touching for an unspoken request and offer of comfort. Just across from them, Trowa finished taping his shin guards tightly into place as Wufei stuffed his hands into fingerless gloves.

Out of the blue, the players froze when there was en eruption from the crowd after a muffled announcement that rang out from the announcer.

Nearly running into the room with Trent, Howard and Darren right behind, Zechs panted heavily as the he raised his hands to end all talk. "Cleveland just lost their game," he breathed.

Faces paled, eyes widened, gasps rose and then a deafening stillness fell.

Cleveland lost. The Cincinnati Cleveland Hawks lost. The reality of those words took time to sink in.

The way that the cards had fallen up through the season, the wins and losses of every team in the league were riding much on these last two games before the playoffs. Being tied with the Hawks, it would only take one slip for a clear leader to be established.

And with only one regular season remaining after this against Baltimore remaining for the Wolverines, that only meant one thing…

Zechs took a deep breath before stating, "If we win today, regardless of what happens next week, we're in the playoffs."

Dumbfounded, the team sat with jaws dropped and stunned gazes. Breaking the silence, Howard grinned widely, "No pressure." It was just enough to break the tension in the room for the players to breakout into laughter.

"We'll give you all a chance to collect yourselves before we head out," Zechs smirked for the athletes' sakes. Nodding firmly, he turned along on his heels with the coaching staff and headed out quietly.

Left to themselves, the `brothers' looked to one another. The fear, anxiousness, excitement, elation… the entire spectrum of emotions that could possibly run through them at that moment was in all of their gazes.

For a long measure, the silence continued before Duo bit his lip. "Y'all know I'm not usually one for this," he began, "but is anyone else in for saying a prayer?"

Instantly, his teammates rose to their feet and gathered into a circle in the middle of the room. Putting their hands into the center of their ring, they lowered their heads.

High up in the commentator box, Adam grinned widely to the camera, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, talk about a `do or die' moment! This crowd has been listening to private radios and headsets all morning long for the results of the Cleveland game. Now that they know the Hawks have lost their game, they know what is at stake for their team winning today."

"That's right, Adam," Tim nodded firmly. "We all could be here in witness to the very game that puts Pittsburgh into the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. If that happens, this city will go absolutely crazy after their long wait! I can't even imagine the pressure that the Wolverines are feeling right now."

Shaking his head, the other commentator chuckled, "And what a team to have to defeat to reach their goal-the same team that dealt them the first blow in their winning streak this season! It's going to be a match to remember right here!"

A loud, pulse-pimping song filled the air through the speakers and once again the crowd clapped and stomped in time with it. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Patriot Stadium!" the announcer cried over the system. Roaring, the audience remained on their feet in their red-and-gold sweaters, makeup and jerseys.

Joined at the entrance of the tunnel on their half of the arena, the Wolverines stood with their helmets in hand. Looking out to the field, they waited patiently to be called out…

And waited for whatever fate had in store for them when they were.

 

Part 64:

"Please welcome the Baltimore Romans!" the announcer said over the audio system of Patriot Stadium. The Pittsburgh crowd booed and hackled loudly as the gold-and-brown clad team ran out onto the field. Ignoring the taunts the athletes just grinned smugly and waved to the stands.

As the starting lineup was introduced, the Wolverines watched and took mental notes on the few first-stringers that were missing due to injuries. Having to mentally shift some of their strategies based on the strengths and weakness of the second-stringers now added to the mix, the odds were stacking up to make this a pretty even match up.

Once the last Roman was called out, the music started up again and the Pittsburgh cheerleaders formed a line at either side of the doors where the team waited. Making a runway, they raised their shimmering pompoms high and shook them to catch the hazy sunlight peering through the clouds above. Relena and Wufei shared a private smile and wink. Catherine and Trowa did the same.

With a grin in his voice, the announcer's voice cried, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, your Pittsburgh Wolverines!" The shouts, cheers and applause that filled the air was explosive as the red-and-gold uniformed players ran out to their sideline while the first-stringers stayed inside the doorway.

Starting with the defensive lineup, each starter was introduced one-by-one. The special team and offensive line were next until only Heero and Duo remained. Finally, the announcer shouted over the crowd, "Number 21, running back, Duo Maxwell!"

If it was possible, the audience grew even louder as the braided athlete took the field. Looking up with wide eyes, he looked to the many signs and banners with his name and a variety of messages saying things like 'Maxwell- Bad Boy No More!!' or 'One of the Good Guys!' Many faces had the number '121' painted on their cheeks in support of his relationship with Heero by combining their numbers.

Up in the owner's box, the running back's family looked on with Dorothy, Quatre Lady Une, Noin, Gavin and Derek. Chuckling deeply, the head coach's wife smiled, "This is a pretty far cry from how it had been for him his first game here."

"And rightfully so," the team owner smirked in amusement. Sitting beside her, the little ones were all wearing their Maxwell jerseys with eyes sparkling in excitement.

Back on the field, Duo bit his lip as the crowd continued their celebration of him. Violet eyes shimmering, he bit back the small sob that threatened to escape him. Joining the line that the offensive starters were making, he shook Trowa's hand and the center leaned in to whisper, "Don't start crying now. You'll spear your grease lines." Laughing, the running back pat his back in thanks for breaking up the intensity of the moment.

Once more, the announcer's voice retuned to shout over the crowd, "And last, but certainly not least, the team captain." Throughout the buildup, the thunderous cries from the crowd grew. "Number 1, quarterback, Heero Yuy!" All around, the air just seemed vibrate from the deafening accolade.

Smiling, the quarterback raised a hand in greeting as he ran towards his teammates. When he reached his lover's side, he pulled him in for a one-armed embrace and shook hands with the other starters as they gathered around.

The usual motions were run between the singing of the anthem to the coin toss. After winning the call, Baltimore took first possession of the football for the chance to score first. Watching from the sideline, the offensive line and back-up players yelled to their comrades on the field.

Just within the first few plays, it was pretty clear that Baltimore was being affected by the cold wind that shifted direction constantly. It opened a few windows of opportunity for the Wolverine defense. The Romans' quarterback was taking too long to find someone open to throw the ball to and was sacked during one of the plays during their first possession.

In the end, Baltimore was held to a failed field goal kick attempt. While the kick by the punter was good, it was not strong enough to hold its course in the wind and was blown well out of range of the field posts.

Jumping and cheering along with the crowd, the Wolverines of the sidelines celebrated. After the kick to Pittsburgh, the ball was placed at a mark of sixty-eight yards to the end zone. Howard and Darren quickly assembled a string of plays to run in succession based on the factor they believed the weather would play. Given the rundown, Heero secured his helmet in place and led the offensive line's charge onto the field.

Quickly huddling with his teammates, the team captain spoke loudly over the crowd, "Throw, hand off, fake toss turned hand off, toss. We don't want them to have time to regroup after each play, so we're not huddling again until after the fourth play. Remember the order. Throw, hand off, fake toss turned hand off, throw." The others all nodded, the determination in their eyes and faces.

Breaking, they took their places, glaring heatedly at the players facing them. Wufei dug his cleats into the hard ground as far as he could for the best traction. Trowa's taped hand gripped the chilled football tightly. Duo bent down low behind his partner as not to tip their opponents off that a throw was coming. Heero stretched his arms out in preparation of the snap.

"Set!" the quarterback cried. "Set! Set! Hike!" Fluidly, the ball was pushed back into his waiting hands and he scanned the field to see which receiver would find an opening first. Growling deeply, Wufei dodged and weaved his blockers as best he could, but remained tangled.

On the other end of the field, Scott Dailey managed to break free of his aggressors. Looking over his shoulder, the receiver raised his arm high to show he was ready. Heero took a couple sidesteps to avoid being taken down by a lineman that punched through the offensive team. Target in sight as it continued to run ahead, the quarterback pulled his arm back and launched the football with a grunt of effort.

In the owner's box, everyone held their breath while watching the long, high soar of the ball. Seeing the wind begin to snarl the ball on its way towards him, Scott slowed his pace and shifted to the right in order to be able to catch it. While his hands were able to hold on, there was enough of a delay that his blockers caught up and took him out before he could gain another yard.

But, the damage had been done with a gain of fifteen yards and now for more chances to get at least another ten. On their feet, the fans renewed their cheering and applause.

Just as discussed, there was no huddle. The offensive team just ran to their new place on the field and dug into their positions before their adversaries had a moment to talk over the situation. Trowa gripped the ball and stared heatedly at the linemen at either side of him. "Set!" Heero yelled. "Set! Hike!"

The moment the ball was in his hands, the quarterback turned to hand the ball off to Duo. Like so many times before, the running back found an opening where most would not have seen anything but bodies. Pounding his way through, he broke free of the arms and hands extending to stop him. Once in the open, he bolted onward as fast as his legs could carry him. Twelve more yards gained, he was brought down by a tackle from the side.

Shaken up by the speed at which the Wolverines were getting into their places, one of the Baltimore blockers scrambled to reach his mark as he breathed, "They're so damned fast!" He never had a chance to get anywhere near his teammates to collect himself.

Cobalt eyes narrowed, Heero looked up and down the line at either side of him as he shouted, "Set! Set! Set! Hike!" Another smooth snap and he was running backwards with his arm raised as though he was about to throw. It was enough to trick the blockers into working their way for the receivers to keep them from making a catch.

At the last second, the quarterback turned to hand the ball off to his partner. This time when Duo broke through, there was no one close enough to stop him as he ran the remaining forty-plus yards in for a touchdown.

"Touchdown Pittsburgh!" Tim screamed in the commentator tower. "Unbelievable! That was one of the fastest transitions and scores the Wolverines have made all season!"

It was nearly impossible to hear over the thunder of the crowd as the offensive line celebrated in the end zone. First to greet the running back, Heero laughed excitedly as he wrapped his arms around the slender waist and lifted his lover off the ground. Raising his arms overhead, Duo let out a loud, "Wwhhooohhhooo! "

Everyone on the Wolverine sideline jumped and joined in the party their own way as the players on the field returned. Raising his arm, Duo flashed a peace sign to the stands as he headed back with his teammates. "And with that long run, Maxwell is well on the way to pushing the gap for the best personal standing between himself and Alex Denton into a wide margin." Alex stated. "He is just a monster out there!"

Grinning, Tim nodded, "It's very good to see that the straining events of the last week have not affected his heart during a game. In fact, he seems even more driven and stronger than he's looked all season, if that were possible! It just stands to reason, beyond any prior doubt, that the weakest link in the chain was removed and replaced by the right bolt to solidify the whole when he was traded onboard."

Adam shook his head, "And steady as ever, Yuy knows how to lead his team through his example and patience. We're looking at a quarterback who has come into his own and only gets better every time he takes the field. Because of him, we get to see a tight bond amongst the team that few others reach. There just seems to be no shaking the Wolverines any time soon with the right mix of players that they have."

"It's still only the beginning of the first quarter," the other commentator reminded. "We'll have to see if Pittsburgh can keep up the momentum."

Still dancing and cheering, the children in the owner's box hugged and shouted. Dorothy watched with a wide smile and her arms folded. Noin giggled quietly before looking back to the field as the next kick off was being set into motion.

A fire was lit under the Romans following that first touchdown. The snowflakes thickened and actually held when they landed to begin forming a thin white blanket on the ground. Even with that, Baltimore pushed themselves to not have the weather affect them as they allowed it to in their first possession. They managed to score the second time around.

Holding back his frustration, Trent welcomed his defensive team with pats on the back when they returned. The fact that the score was now tied was at no fault for a lack of effort on the players' parts. Even the Roman kicker seemed to find the rhythm he needed to make his kicks hit their mark despite the wind factor.

"Watch it out there, boys," Howard warned the offensive lineup as he pulled the hood on his coat over his head to fend off the snow. "If their own offense is getting their footing, you know that means their defense will be, too. Just don't make any mistakes if you can help it." Heads nodded as the first stringers slid their helmets on.

Unfortunately, that mistake did come a couple of possessions later. After neither team scored for some time, Trowa could not get a good enough grip on the slick football and his snap was anything but clean. It bounced off the ground before it even reached Heero's hands. Scrambling to get it, the quarterback tried to land on it before anyone from Baltimore could.

There was enough of a confusion from the slip that the offensive line crumbled, exposing gaps for the Romans to break through. As the football slipped from one person to the next in their attempt to recover it, the end result left a pile of bodies from both teams.

Referees ran in to separate the players and determine who had possession. Crawling from the bottom of the stack, a brown-and-gold lineman ran out with his prize in hand as he held it high for all to see.

A collective groan, sigh and round of 'boos' rose from the crowd. Throwing his head back, Trowa took a shuddery breath with a muttered, "Goddamn it." Shaken by the rare error on his part, the center turned and headed back to the sideline with his teammates so that the defensive line could take the field to stop the Baltimore push.

Hands covering his mouth, Quartre's wide eyes watched all through the clear glass shielding the owner's box and whispered, "Shake it off, Trowa." Noin was chewing on her lip nervously, Lady Une was quietly beginning to pace and Dorothy remained still with an unreadable expression.

Back in the commentator' s tower, Tim frowned deeply, "Well this is a very unexpected turn of events, folks. Trowa Barton, one of the best at what he does, brought on a costly fumble. If there were going to be any errors due to the wet snow today, that was not one that I would have predicted happening."

Throwing his helmet off, Trowa sat down on the bench. Leaned forward, he covered his face with his hands.

In four plays, the Romans managed to capitalize on the opportunity presented to them and scored to take over the lead. With the extra point, they were up 14-7.

Throughout the whole of the Baltimore possession, Trowa kept his head lowered and his teammates gave him his space to sort his head out. If the game was lost because of that mistake, the blame would rightfully fall on his shoulders. He couldn't bear to look at his teammates, knowing fully what was at stake. With one slip, he could have cost them all the opportunity to see the playoffs.

A hand cam to rest on his shoulder and a familiar voice reassured, "Shake it off, man. The game's nowhere near over, so we need you right now."

Sad emerald looked up into calm violet. Heero, Wufei, Howard and Zechs were standing close with concern on their own faces. "I'm sorry," was all Trowa could manage quietly.

"No apologies needed," the Chinese receiver answered. "We've had worse mistakes and dug out of bigger holes than this. Like Maxwell said, we need you."

Zechs nodded, "Get it together, Barton. You're up as soon as the ball is placed after the kick." Howard bent at the waist to pat his center on the back before heading off with a wink. Together, the two coaches headed down the line to check on the remainder of the offensive team.

Offering a hand that was firmly grasped, Heero helped his tall friend up to his feet and handed over his helmet. Their eyes locked, he stated, "I still wouldn't trust another center more than you out there. Don't you start doubting yourself now."

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Trowa nodded and accepted his helmet with a muttered word of thanks. The remaining members of the offensive line came up to him with hand shakes and slaps to his shoulders for support. With a deep breath, the center charged back out to the field once the football had been marked.

~ ~

With less than one quarter remaining, the score was still in Baltimore's favor at 24 to 21. Close as the game was, it only took one point for the winner to be decided. Frustration and a bit of fatigue starting to take their toll thanks to the slick situation, Pittsburgh was grasping tightly to any opening they had to make something happen.

That came when Heero stretched his hands out for the snap of the ball with thirty-one yards to go before reaching the end zone. "Set!" he yelled over the crowd. "Hike! Hike!" Eyes arrowed in determination, Trowa tossed the ball back with ease and instantly wrapped his long arms around the oncoming defenders.

Sticking to their plan, Duo races out a couple of yards ahead of Heero and turned back. Arms up, he caught the toss directed to him and spun to break through the wall of bodies forming ahead of him. "Maxwell makes the catch!" Adam cried. "And off he goes, folks!"

Without looking back at the players barely on his heels, the running back sped off ahead and did not stop until he reached the end zone. A wild roar went up from the crowd. "Pittsburgh takes the lead 27 to 24!" Tim yelled. "With the extra point kick coming up, they'll be at a less than comfortable four-point lead!"

Still celebrating on their way back to the sideline, the offensive line patted the backs of the special team and their kicker as they stepped out to take over. From the sideline, Duo's reddened hands shook from the cold as he poured a cup of warm tea for himself. "Man, those bastards are giving us a time out there, huh?" he chuckled to his comrades.

There was a sudden startle of gasps and cries from the crowd just as one of the Wolverines shouted, "Oh shit! It's not going to make it!" Spinning to look to the field with wide eyes, Duo and the offensive line saw the reason for the disruption. In disbelief, they watched as the football, freshly kicked for the extra point, was carried by the wind and bounced off the right goal post to miss its mark.

Dropping the paper cup in this hold, Duo's hands reached up to the back of his head. "Oh fuck!" he yelled as the team around him reacted in shock and fear. "The kick was missed!" Tim gasped. "And the Romans have time on the clock to score a touchdown to win or kick a field goal to tie for overtime!" [1]

Heero dry-washed his face before looking to where the football had fallen just to see that he hadn't imagined what happened. The wide eyes all around him and the despondent crowd were all the proof he needed to know he had actually witnessed the failed kick. Head low and shaking from side to side, their kicker slowly returned to the sideline with the rest of the special team. Many rushed to reassure Brent, knowing the pressure that had been put of the young man's shoulders to make the kick.

Nearly falling out of his seat, Adam exclaimed, "With six minutes on the clock, this game is not over yet, everyone! After slips and misses from both teams during this face off, there is still a chance for Baltimore to rip away Pittsburgh's lock for the playoffs. If they do lose, the Wolverines will have to put every bit of their effort in the last game of the season next week."

Helpless to do anything, the offensive line could do nothing but sit, watch and wait as the defense took the field. Cheering their teammates on, every Wolverine on the sideling was on their feet.

Baltimore used the same strategy that had been used against then, taking only one huddle for a stretch of plays. Just as it had worked for Pittsburgh, it worked for them. They gained momentum and gained well more than ten yards after each snap.

Throwing the baseball cap off his head, Trent screamed, "Come on, you guys! Stop those bastards!" a lot of eyes both in the stands and on the sidelines looked away, afraid to watch any more as the Romans drew closer and closer to the end zone.

Despite the quick change over from play to play, the clock continued to wind down. When the time reached down to less than a minute, the Roman quarterback raised his hands to signal the use of their last timeout.

Leaning over his desk for a better look at what was happening below, Tim relayed, "It looks like Baltimore is bringing out their kicking team. Not a bad call since they are at their last attempt to make for a first down with five yards away for that and total of twenty-four total yards to score a touchdown."

Adam nodded, "It's the only move that they can make now, Tim. With only twenty seconds left in the game, this is going to be the last play. Luckily for the Romans, Gary Nomas had kicked successful field goals from as far as forty-one yards away from the posts. He has almost half that distance to go for this attempt. After all of their hard work in this impressive season, it all comes down to this for Pittsburgh."

Everyone on the Wolverine sideline was on their feet, waiting and watching anxiously as Nomas and his spotter gagged the direction of the wind and adjusted their positions accordingly.

"OhmyGodohmyGodohmy God," Duo muttered over and over as he bounced from one foot to the other anxiously. Heero's hands were gripping the back of his head, Wufei bit his lip nervously and Trowa folded his arms tight against himself. Of anyone on their sideline, only Zechs was in a state of calm, as he always was.

Breaths hitched in throats at the snap of the ball to the spotter. Holding it up and in place, he turned to watch the kicker running up to him. Throwing back is right leg as he neared, Nomas let off a powerful kick to launch the ball high and fast. The inertia behind the football had it spinning and fighting the wind gusts to stay on track, straight and narrow.

Eyes wide, the Wolverines and Romans alike witnessed the ball soar the first fifteen yards on target. Then, it began to hook in the wind and at the last moment, was pushed too far left to fly between the posts to soar wide by mere inches.

For just a second, there was a stillness before the crowd erupted. "Pittsburgh is in the playoffs!" Adam yelled. "Pittsburgh is in the playoffs!" Water, towels, helmets and anything that was in the Wolverines' hands on the sidelines were thrown in the air as they shouted and jumped around.

in the owner's box, Dorothy's guests were cheering, embracing and dancing around in elation over the close win. A hand covering her mouth, the team owner fought the urge of tears from her eyes as she just stared down on the field. beside her, Noin turned to the young woman with her own eyes shimmering and smiled, "Congratulations. You've officially created a team to be respected and reckoned with."

Lowering her hands to fold them against her breastplate, Dorothy kept her gaze on her team. A wide and proud smile lit her face as nodded.

Zechs showed the most emotion her ever had on the sideline as he wiped a stray tear at finally making the playoffs for the first time in his career. The moment lasted but a moment before Heero, Duo, Wufei and Trowa hoisted the huge water jug to douse him with the gallons still inside from behind. From their place, Sally, Howard and Trent had a good laugh at the sight. Laughing loudly himself, the head coach ignored the cold and embraced his players tightly.

And the crowd never stopped cheering or applauding their heroes.

Whatever the playoffs held for them, every last soul involved with the Wolverines-whether they were a fan of a member of the organization- was never going to forget that day.

 

Part 65:

The thrill from the victory over Baltimore carried into the locker room as the team exchanged hugs, handshakes, slaps to backs and shoulders and laughs.

It was decided by all that rather than focus the praise on only one or two players just after the win that Zechs would be the only one interviewed at the press conference. After all, he was the one who guided his coaching staff and players on their journey to the playoffs.

His eyes quickly adjusting to the constant flashes from cameras as he sat at the table before dozens of reporters, the head coach smiled at the many words of congratulations. "This has been quite the year for your young team," the first reporter called on stated. Electronic pen and pad in hand, she asked, "What do you think your chances will be when the playoffs actually begin for you in three weeks?"

Taking a deep breath, Zechs answered, "I try not to expect anything when going into any situation. Things happen that are beyond your control and so you adjust accordingly for the best possible outcome. With the exception of Maxwell, no one on this team has ever been to the playoffs before, so it would be impossible to predict anything right now."

As he watched the live press conference in his father-in-law's office, Treize snorted bitterly, "Why the hell is everyone making such a big deal about their getting lucky enough to get in this time? They'll be knocked out of the first round."

Behind his desk, Noventa shrugged, "Everyone loves an underdog, my boy. We're expected to always be in there, so there are no surprises where that's concerned." Gesturing with his head to the now empty field behind him, he stated, "We've been locked in for the playoffs for the last two weeks. That's why there is not a commotion over our win this afternoon."

Still frustrated, the head coach chewed on the inside of his cheek. Raising an eyebrow, the owner smirked, "No use being jealous, Treize. That team is nothing more than a bunch of children in a man's sport. Just as you said, they'll be taken out of the playoffs their first game. Luck won't stay on their side forever. Remember, this is still our year. The moment Pittsburgh is out of the running, the attention will rightfully stay on us."

While he also believed that this was their year, Treize could not help the resentment at having the season also be one of Duo Maxwell's finest moments. In mere months, he went from being the hated and disrespected rebel of the league to a beloved hero. Ever since his sharing of his past and his family, the running back was revered by most. And his being involved with one of the most admired players of their time- Heero Yuy - only helped boost how the public viewed him.

He was far from the only one fuming over the day's events.

* * * *

Alex was livid at watching his recording of the Pittsburgh game. Maxwell had once again widened the gap between their stats for the season. Not only that, but the commentators were making comments about the Wolverine's seeming to have replaced the 'weak link' of their team.

Weak link. They were suggesting that Denton was the weak leak.

Growling deeply, the blonde running back threw the remote control that was in his hand at the television screen. On the other end of the couch, Mueller jumped an inch from the sudden display. Unable to handle his lover another moment, the tight end rose to his feet with narrowed and hissed, "I'm getting some air."

"In other words, you're getting a drink," Alex snorted. "Have fun at the bar." Not bothering to look back, Mueller grabbed his black coat and stormed out. The door swished closed behind him as his hands began shaking with the need for something to take the edge off.

'That goddamn that bastard,' the tight end thought to himself. For nearly a year up until that point, Mueller had been sober. An alcoholic for some time, he enlisted the help of his teammates and friends in the Wolverines to get through his addiction. Now, all that he wanted was to be numb again. Hard as he worked in getting clean, he could not handle his situation any longer.

As things stood, the only person whom he really needed to be loved and understood by was Alex. And now their relationship was in shambles. The team that they were on was led by a crazed owner and coach hell-bent on winning the championship at any cost. His teammates were not the type of people that he would ever consider friends off the field.

Much as he wanted to step forward and reveal everything that Treize and Noventa were doing, Mueller knew that there would be no future in football for him. Fingers would be pointed back at him by the coach and owner in a blame game that would have no end. No one would respect him or come to his aid, thanks to his burning bridges with the only people he could trust.

There was no spark of light in the dark hollow life that the tight end now led... and had no one to blame for it all but himself.

... Yea... Being numb was a pretty good thing.

* * * *

Joined together at Dorothy's estate that evening for a celebration where all friends and family were invited, the Wolverines danced and enjoyed each other's company. Relena, Catherine and the whole cheerleading squad were ogling over Duo's children. Marcus and Tai were wide-eyed and all smiles at being asked by them for dances through the night.

Watching the teenage boys from the table he shared with Heero, Quatre, Trowa and Wufei, Duo smirked as he shook his head in amusement, "Lady killers. Just like I thought they would be." His lover and friends snickered around him.

Noin approached at the start of the next slow dance and asked the quarterback, "May I have this next dance." Politely accepting, Heero rose and led his long-time friend to the floor by her hand.

Alone with the running back, Trowa and Wufei shared a look before leaning over the table. "So," the center began quietly, "you've been to the playoffs before. What do you think our chances will be out there?"

Smiling sadly to his teammates, Duo shrugged, "Sorry, guys, but they're the most exciting time of the football year for a reason. You never know what's going to happen. And I haven't played for the American league for some time to know who brings their A-game in the post-season. "

Deflated by that, his comrades' shoulders sagged. Duo grinned, "But, hey, we can take it easy during the last game of the regular season next week and we're off the following for the wild card face offs. If anything, we'll be more rested than most of the other teams that we'll meet up with." [1]

Quatre threw in, "You'd all be best off just relaxing and enjoying the party. Win or lose, this has been the best season that you've all played."

Unable to argue that, Trowa and Wufei brightened a bit. Standing, the receiver went to join his girlfriend on the dance floor as the center and agent followed hand-in-hand. Heero returned shortly after to sit beside his partner once more. Lightly kissing the braided athlete's temple, he smirked, "Any chance you'll be awake for some private celebrating after we tuck the kids in?"

Chuckling deeply, Duo leaned his back against his lover's chest and purred, "Oh, I'm sure that can be arranged." His own smirk widening, Heero wrapped his arms around the running back's middle and held him close as they watched their friends spread throughout the ballroom.For a while, they just sat in silence as they took the moment in.

* * * *

It was nearly bar time when he finally cut himself off for the rest of his outing. Bleary-eyed, Mueller looked to his watch and mumbled a cursed to himself. Through his haze's state, he knew he would be dealing with a tremendous hangover if he did not get to bed as soon as possible. At least there wouldn't be practice to have to deal with that day.

Pushing himself off the bar that he was slumped deeply over, the tight end threw on his windbreaker and slipped through the emptying bar unnoticed. There was a light mist hanging in the San Francisco air that early morning. Stumbling a couple of times on his way to the parking lot, Mueller's less than cooperating hands fumbled for the keys in his jeans pocket. Finally coming up with his keys and cell phone, he smirked in triumph.

Simply out of curiosity, he turned the cell phone back on to see that Alex had tried to call him almost a dozen times. With a small snort, Mueller tuned the phone back off in case his lover tried to call and act like he cared again. It took a few attempts to get it back into his pocket.

And it took even more tried than that to get his keys into the ignition after he all but fell into the driver's seat. Much as he would have loved to stay away from that apartment and his partner, Mueller knew that it was time to head back and deal with his sad reality.

…at least until the next time he could get away for a few rounds to reach his comfortably numb state once again.

Finally, the car started rumbling to life.

Quietly chuckling to himself, the tight end smirked in recalling how many times he was told that he was not able to handle himself when he drank. If he was able to reach his car and start it after a night of drinking, there wasn't anything that he couldn't handle.

Slowly pulling out of the lot and onto the streets, Mueller blinked to clear his blurring vision against the misty haze around him. For just a second, the voice in his head screamed in fear that he was making a mistake. Just as quickly as it came, it echoed off into the numb distance.

To hell with that voice. To hell with anyone that said he couldn't do anything. Even if he had to grip the wheel so tight that it felt like his fingers were shaking.

He was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

* * * *

He sun rose over the San Francisco horizon hours later and Alex was still pacing the living room floor of the apartment. Running a hand through his blonde hair, he sighed deeply, "Where the hell is he?"

Mueller never stayed out this late. Alex knew that. No matter how bad their fights would get, he would never stay out of reach this long. The pit of his stomach churned in knowing that something was definitely not right about this.

Frustrated and scared, he grew tired of waiting and grabbed his windbreaker. Just as he was on his way to the door, the telephone rang. Eyes wide, the running back ran to answer the call with a rushed, "Hello,' when he placed the receiver to his ear.

"Alex, it's Treize," the head coach's voice announced. There was a hint of something in that tone that the young athlete could not place- but he did not like it. After a pause, there was the sound of a slow and deep breath on the other line before the tall man asked, "Are you sitting down?"

Nearly dropping the receiver when his hand went slack, Alex gripped the edge of the bar where the telephone sat. Swallowing roughly, he replied roughly, "What is it?"

* * * *

Only a couple of hours later that same morning, in Pittsburgh…

Heero and Duo sat before a camera across from Tim and Adam in their national station's studio. Cards of questions in hand, the ladder of the journalists leaned back in his chair and began, "First off, congratulations to you and your fellow Wolverines on officially making it to the playoffs. You've all been impressive to watch this year." Kindly, the athletes nodded and gave their words of appreciation.

Tim folded his arms and addressed the running back, "So, Duo Maxwell, in the blink of an eye you have gone from being called the bad boy of football to a role model for everyone. That's quite the feat."

Both football players chuckled as Duo replied, "To be honest, I'm still getting used to being called a role model. It's not exactly something that I ever thought I would hear. But I'm very honored by it, as well."

A frown of concern crossed Tim's face when he commented, "The most important question that we have is something that I know many are wondering. How is your oldest son faring after the shooting that he was involved in?"

"Marcus is recovering very well, thank you," the braided athlete answered. "His physical therapy is coming along and he does not need the assistance of a wheelchair any longer, so we're through the worst of it now."

Grinning, Adam sighed in relief, "That's great to hear. We wish all the best to him." He then bowed his head to the quarterback and stated, "And a very special congratulations to you, Heero in finally reaching the playoffs. I can imagine that after so many disappointments in the past this must be a pretty surreal thing for you."

A wide smile spread on the team captain nodded, "It's been an incredible season for everyone on the team. I'm just glad to be able to enjoy it with the team. Everyone's played a huge role in our success this year." Duo nodded his braided hear in agreement.

Shaking his own head with a smirk, Adam said, "Always nice to hear you give your fellow teammates the credit that they deserve instead of taking all the glory for yourselves. It's just another reason to why so many people like the two of you."

"And many seem to like the thought of you being together, as well," Tim remarked. "I don't think anyone could help but notice all of the one-two-one' s- combining your jersey numbers- on signs and markings in the stands during this last game. Did either of you imagine that you would receive such a show of support for your relationship from the fans?"

Once more, the couple snickered. "We would have been happy with our fans just understanding, " Heero responded. "But they've been amazing at going out of their way to show more than just that. It was very overwhelming to see that yesterday." One of his hands gently falling on his partner's leg, Duo smiled warmly when their eyes met.

Leaning forward a bit, Tim smirked, "So how are things at the Yuy household with a small army of children living there?"

Duo's smile grew as he shared, "Well, the kids are loving it, that's for sure. I don't know if they're happier to be staying with me or Heero right now." His lover, Adam and Tim laughed at the statement.

Shrugging, the running back grinned, "But really, this last week has been the happiest time of my life. I go home to them every night after a long day of practice. I wake up to having breakfast with them before they're off to their new schools and I'm off to practice with Heero." He paused when his voice hitched at the end at the first signs of a lump forming there.

Heero looked to his partner with a small frown of worry. Biting his lip, Duo shook his head and gripped the quarterback' s hand for a tight squeeze before he focused back on the interviewers to explain, "I've wanted this for my family for more than a year now, and it's finally here. None of this would have happened without `Ro's help. I'll be indebted to him forever for this."

"It's all right," the quarterback whispered as he rubbed the back of his lover's neck soothingly when those violet eyes began to shimmer. Tim and Adam sat back, remaining silent as they allowed the couple a moment of peace. Both fathers themselves, they knew the heavy burden of looking after another life that was completely dependant on them.

With his head bowed, Duo leaned heavily against Heero as he collected himself. With a small smile, the team captain took over as he stated, "This last week has been the best of times for myself as well. For most of my life, I wondered what it would have been like to be part of a large family and now I have the privilege of knowing that. I would open my doors to those kids any day." Swallowing roughly, the running back's hand squeezed onto his once more.

The sports commentators both looked on in awe at the raw show of emotions and nodded with grins on their faces. "Well, I think that we could leave the personal questions at that," Tim suggested much to the players' relief.

Adam tilted his head a bit when Duo pulled himself together and inquired, "So, any hint to whether or not you'll be taking it easy on the last game of the season this weekend?"

More than happy to have something easy to answer, the braided American sniffled back the last of his emotional wave and snickered, "We haven't taken it easy all year, including the pre-season, so why start now?"

That remark earned another round of laughter.

* * * *

In the back of the room following their interview, Heero and Duo had a moment to collect themselves. Pulling back from the lips pressing against his own after a long round of soft kisses, the running back sighed, "Thank you." He paused before adding, "For everything."

A small smile spread on the quarterback' s face as he shrugged, "Just like I've been telling you, there's nothing to thank me for. If anything, I should be thanking you for everything."

Laughing, Duo raised an eyebrow and commented, "You realize that we're becoming one of those sickeningly cute couples, don't you?"

Heero chuckled, "Is there anything wrong with that?"

Quickly leaning back in to claim those lips once more, Duo kissed his teammate deeply and soundly. Wide-eyed for only an instant, the team captain's cobalt eyes drifted closed with a soft moan as he pulled the smaller athlete close. If anyone walked in on them at that moment, neither of them was about to care.

"No," the running back breathed when he finally came up for air. Violet eyes smiling along with his mouth, he shook his head, "There's nothing wrong with it at all."

The sound of a throat clearing had the pair looking to the doorway of the dressing room. Standing there was a pale and grim-faced Quatre. In the agent's white-knuckled right hand was his cell phone.

Frowning deeply at the sight that his friend made, Duo stepped towards him with a worried, "What's wrong, Quat?' Heero stayed close, hand on the small of his partner's back in the event that he would need immediate support. Seemed the only news lately seemed to surround the running back in some way.

As if in a daze, the agent shook his blonde head and announced quietly, "Trowa just called me with something he saw on the news an hour ago." His friends remained in place with anxious eyes on him before he informed them, "Mueller Clayton was killed in a car accident this morning. His body was just identified."

[1] The Wilde Card games happen between those teams that were not solid locks for the playoffs, but had the third and forth best standings. They go against each other to see who progresses to the actual playoffs.

 

Part 66:

The air in Duo's lungs came out in a rush. Feeling the hand on the small of his back fall away, he instantly turned towards Heero just as his partner's knees buckled enough to make him fall forward. Easily catching the stunned quarterback and holding him close, he looked back to his agent and breathed, "W-what?"

Looking down to the cell phone in his hand, Quatre replied quietly, "Apparently Mueller had been out drinking pretty heavily before he got behind the wheel. He ran head on into a guardrail when he pulled into the wrong lane of the freeway while heading back to his apartment. It took time to determine who he was due to the extent of the injuries."

"Oh my God," Heero managed weakly, nearly green with nausea.

Carefully, his braided partner led him to one of the chairs nearby so he could sit. "H-he was clean for so long," he said in a voice that his friends had to strain to hear even though they were standing at either side of him.

Rubbing the quarterback' s shoulders, Duo was at a loss as to what to say as consolation. While his own experience with Mueller was less than pleasant, he never wished any ill on him. Certainly nothing like this. But for Heero and the other Wolverines, they had worked together for years.

Traded away under bad terms or not, they still had that bond with him.

After a long moment, Heero was finally coming out of his mixture of shock and disbelief. "I don't even know who to start calling to see how they're taking the news, if they even know."

Violet eyes widening at the question, Duo knew the answer to that. With a deep frown, he responded, "Dorothy."

* * * *

When the team owner answered the front door to her large estate, her eyes were red and wet. At the sight of Heero and Duo standing on her front porch, Dorothy sobbed and crumbled into the latter's opening arms. Gently kissing the top of her head, the running back held her trembling form close. Together, the couple led the distraught young woman into her lavish living room.

Rocking Dorothy gently on one of the couches, Duo whispered, "Sshh. It's all right." Heero quickly gathered up the half-full box of tissues that had been sitting on the table. Sitting on the other side of the owner, he held out his offering when she slowly sat herself upright.

Her face drenched in fresh tears, she reached over with a broken, "Thank you." Tissues in hand, she started wiping her nose and the wet traces from her cheeks. "I swear that if I had any idea this would happen, I never would have traded him," she whimpered.

"This isn't your fault, doll," the running back reassured gently. "You did what you thought was best for the team. That's your job as the owner. No one questioned your decision."

Nodding, Heero rubbed the blonde young woman's arm and stated, "He's right. Mueller was the one who stepped out of line many times. You had no way of knowing that this would happen."

Dorothy sighed and dabbed her wet eyes with a clean tissue as the reason of their words started sinking in. Lightly rubbing her back, Duo told her, "The trade alone can't be the only reason why he took up drinking again.

"Obviously, he had a lot of other issues that pushed him to that. Someone that volatile would have gone back to their addiction eventually; and in his case that would have happen either here or in San Francisco." Heero nodded his agreement.

Taking a deep and shaky breath, the team owner nodded at last, "Yes. Of course." Slowly looking from one face to the other, she said sincerely, "Thank you." Dorothy took her time to rise to her feet and thought aloud, "I better get a hold of my publicist so that we can start working on a public statement."

With his head tilting in confusion, Heero asked, "Publicist? I didn't realize that you had a publicist."

"Ah," the young woman smiled sheepishly as she turned back to face her players. "I forgot that I had not mentioned my hiring Karen ... for the new position. Who better to fend off the media than someone who worked for the press, herself?"

Both Heero and Duo smiled at the news. After all of her help in taking care of Gallow and pulling the plug on his story, they were both happy to hear that the journalist was able to land on her feet by working for their organization.

Clearing her throat, Dorothy shared, "I'll be looking into the details of Mueller's service. All that I know is that he'll be buried here in Pittsburgh, since his family is here. As soon as I know anything, I'll spread the word."

An exchange of thanks and well wishes later and the football players headed out to catch up with their friends.

* * * *

Early that evening, the usual group of six gathered at their table at Murray's. All sullen-faced, the lot nibbled at their snacks and sipped their waters and sodas almost mechanically. Of all of them, Wufei seemed the most taken aback by their former teammate's death. He had already briefly discussed the several personal confrontations that he had with the tight end prior to the trade.

At the end of his discussion, Wufei shook his head, "I wish that I could take back a lot of the things that I had said. There are a lot of ways that I could have handled myself without his leaving the team thinking that I hated him the way I'm sure he did."

Trowa replied, "We all could have handled ourselves better around him, Wufei. And the bottom line is that he could have conducted himself in a more constructive way, as well. As much as we all look at ourselves, we can't forget the trouble that he caused for himself and the team when he was still here."

Shaking her head, Duo stated, "I still can't believe that he and Alex were seeing each other without anyone noticing, but it sure explains a lot of Mueller's attitude towards my taking Denton's place on the team." He reached forward for a few peanuts and muttered, "Working for Treize couldn't have been easy on them."

Relena blinked in confusion and asked, "What do you mean?"

With all eyes on him, the running back answered, "Treize is one of the biggest homophobes I've ever known. He's always made it clear to his team that he by no uncertain terms would ever allow a `faggot to play on his team.'"

Heero and the others winced at the harsh remark. Biting his lip, Duo frowned, "Yet another reason I just `loved' working for the guy. As far as he's concerned, there's no one lower that a gay person."

Sighing, the quarterback said, "Something like that could have been a big factor in Mueller's drinking." Whatever the reasons behind the tight end's reason to take up the bottle again were, the end result would remain the same.

Practice for the next two days had been canceled on account of the funeral that was to take place. With Christmas right around the corner, and to keep the media from invading their privacy as they grieved, Mueller's parents wanted the service handled as soon as possible.

Arrangements were made between the friends of where and when to meet up for the service before they taking their leave for the evening. On their way to the parking lot, everyone wished each other a safe trip home.

* * * *

The morning of the funeral was a somber one at the Yuy household. Just before breakfast, Heero and Duo entered the full dining room dressed in dark suits and ties appropriate for the service.

Ever mindful of their guardians' feelings, the kids kept to themselves to allow them time to handle the difficult situation. After all, they all had come to be acquainted death in some fashion.

When he sat at the head of the table, Heero blinked in surprise when Jamie quickly moved from her seat to crawl into his lap for a tight hug. Fighting back the tears that he knew would be in supply for a good part of the day, the quarterback smiled and returned the hug with a whispered 'Thank you, little one.' From his place at the other end of the table, Duo gave his partner a sad grin.

An hour later, the football players headed out to pay their respects.

~ ~

To say that things were a bit awkward at the funeral home was an understatement. The Wolverines stood on one half of the room while the Cougars stood on the other. Quietly making conversation with their own teammates, there were the occasional glances over to the other team to size them up. Dorothy, Zechs, Noventa and Treize were no exception to that.

At the front of the room, the marble casket bearing Mueller's remains stood amongst a large floral display. Pictures of the tight end from his youth to days before his passing were hung throughout the parlor in a sobering reminder of how short his life had been.

Everyone had taken the time to extend their condolences to the grieving family members spread throughout the space when Alex finally arrived, clearly shaken over the loss of his lover. Red-eyed, he moved to the front of the room towards the closed casket. Standing before the grand display, he bit his bottom lip and fought a small whimper as tears tolled down his face. Head bowed, he gave his silent farewell before moving to give his regards to the family.

For a time, everything moved along peacefully. Members of both teams took up the casket when it was time to progress to the church for the actual funeral.

The service was an emotional one. Of all of the athletes, the Wolverines were clearly having the most difficult time over their former teammate's death in having known him for so long. Alex, however, remained the only Cougar the most affected. His new teammates and coach only saw that as being due to his own long history as Mueller's friend.

Throughout the funeral, the blonde running back would glare over to his biggest rival and his former teammates. Eyes narrowed thinly, he would stare at Dorothy Catalonia and her administration. Sickened by the sight of all of them, Alex stewed and bottled the rage that had been building within him until it was time to confront them all.

Mueller was gone because of all of them. They were the ones responsible for the events leading to his death. Everything would have been fine of Dorothy had just given Alex a chance to prove himself before trading him for that braided son of a bitch. Had it not been for that, his partner would still be alive.

By the time the service moved to the graveyard, there was a light mix of snow and sleet falling. The casket was lowered and more words and prayers were offered. More tears fell and heads were lowered. Finally, everyone was allowed a moment to say their last farewells before parting ways. Slowly, the large assembly began thinning out. Embraces and offerings of support were exchanged.

One of the last to leave, Dorothy stepped away on her own for a moment. Just when she reached her black car at the top of the hill and out of sight, the team owner gasped when she was suddenly spun from behind to stare into Alex's heated eyes. "I hope that you're happy with your decision to trade Mueller, Catalonia," he growled with tips their noses nearly touching.

Her ice-blue eyes wide as he gripped her shoulders, Dorothy sputtered, "A-Alex. I swear that I didn't know this would happen."

"That doesn't make you any less responsible for what happened!" the running back yelled in her face while shaking her trembling form. Before he do say or do anything more, a pair of strong hands gripped him from behind and pulled him away in a forceful rush. Back slamming up against the car, he peered into enraged violet eyes.

Duo briefly glanced over to where the team owner was being looked after by Heero, Trowa and Wufei. Seeing that she was shaken but safe, the braided running back growled at his captive. "Let's talk," he hissed darkly under his breath before pulling Denton behind him none too gently. Leading the way around a nearby live-sized statue of an angel with its wings spread, he finally came to a halt.

Roughly pulling himself free, Alex's rage focused on his long-time rival in their first face-to-face meeting. "You're just as responsible for Mueller's death as the rest of the team," he snapped. "I hope you rot in Hell for ruining what little was left of his life."

Unwilling to listen to any more, Duo raised a finger to the other running back's face and gritted, "You listen to me. Say whatever the hell you want about me, but don't you fucking dare threaten or blame Dorothy or any of the others for this. I care about everyone that works for this team like my family and i don't take well to anyone causing them trouble."

Slowly leaning close to the blonde athlete, the American snapped, "The blame for Mueller could just as easily fall on your shoulders, pal." Alex's eyes widened and his skin paled at that.

Pulling back, Duo straightened himself and stated in a low voice, "You were his partner and you didn't do a damn thing to save him from himself. Maybe you were the whole reason for him relying on the bottle to solve his problems."

Just as quickly as the fist flew to make contact with his face, the braided athlete's right hand snapped up to catch it just in time. Eyes shimmering, Denton's face reddened with a hissed, "Fuck you, Maxwell."

"You were the first one to step out of line," Duo retorted before releasing the trembling first in his hold. "I was just returning the favor." Violet eyes narrowing once more, he said, "I'm sorry for your loss. Now stay the hell away from my friends." Having said his peace, he turned on his heels and headed back to where the others were gathered around Dorothy.

Fists clenched at his side, Alex cried after him, "You go straight to hell, Maxwell, you son of a bitch! I'm twice the athlete and man you'll ever be!"

Ignoring the other running back, Duo walked around the statue and headed back up to the top of the hill until he was out of sight. Just when he was about to charge after him, Alex froze at the sound of a throat clearing behind him. Spinning, he found Treize and Noventa approached looking none too thrilled with him at the moment.

With a rough swallow, the blonde athlete bowed his head when they neared. Folding his arms, Treize stated calmly but firmly, "I know that Mueller was your friend, Alex, but you really should know better than to make a scene like this."

Noventa added, "We're all stricken by this tragedy. Losing someone as tragically as this is devastating, my boy. But, do you really think that Clayton would want you or any of us behaving like this at the sight of his burial?"

At that, Alex winced and shook his head, "No sir. I'm sorry." His head hung lower as he promised, "I'll do better to compose myself."

Resting a hand on his player's shoulder, the white-haired team owner winked, "I know you will. I know that it won't be easy, but the pain will eventually start to ease. Now, take some time alone to clear your head. We won't return to San Francisco until tomorrow, so you have the rest of today and tonight to unwind. You must have some pleasant memories of this city, so be sure to take them in to help with your grief."

More than happy with that idea, Alex nodded and quietly headed off for his vehicle. The moment he was out of earshot, Noventa smirked, "Damn near convinced myself that I really cared with that little speech."

"Very well handled," Treize chuckled. Looking over the field behind them to the sight of Mueller's open grave, the head coach commented, "If it wasn't for the fact that our absence would not have gone unnoticed, I would like to have skipped this whole trip. Clayton was not a contributor to the team, more of a side note in the broad scheme of things."

Shrugging, Noventa replied, "So we miss a couple of practices." A smile tugging his lips, he snorted, "It's not as if the team really needs it." Unable to argue that, Treize smirked and nodded. Patting his son-in-law's back, the old man told him, "Just look at this as a little vacation before we really have to settle in for our push to the Super Bowl."

The head coach grinned wickedly, "I must say that I like your thinking." Quietly laughing, they headed off for the parking lot together.

Dorothy seemed to be much better off when Duo returned to his friends at the top of the hill. Heero had a look of worry for his partner that was only relieved when he received a smile and small nod from him.

Wufei sighed deeply, "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I think it'd be best to get the hell out of here." There was no argument to the suggestion.

* * * *

That Sunday, for their last game of the season, it was a very quiet in the Wolverine locker room as they prepared to take the field. Quietly, the coaching staff entered to look over the team to see how they were fairing.

With a deep breath, Zechs smiled sadly when the eyes settled on him. "I know these are not the best of terms to be playing our last regular game of the year," he began. "And you may not have the heart to put much effort in this time around. But whatever you can give, let's dedicate it to Mueller. He would have done the same for any one of you."

Heads nodded and a few smiles even began to spread around the room. Extending his hand palm down, the head coach requested, "Bring it in, guys." The athletes rose to their feet to make a ring with all of their hands atop each others' in the center.

A quiet prayer was said for Mueller before everyone headed down the long corridor of the Oakland, California stadium.

In the end, while a win or loss would not have made a difference in their standings, the Wolverines defeated the Vultures by a landslide.

 

Part 67:

"I certainly hope that this is to your liking, Mr. Yuy," the young woman behind the counter smiled as she handed over a small box covered in black velvet. "The concept you gave us when you called last week is very different from anything that our crafts team has ever created, but it turned out quite lovely."

Opening the lid to the box for an inspection, Heero smiled, "It's perfect." Quickly closing the lid, he extended a hand for a firm shake to seal the deal. As the jeweler placed the box in a gift box, the quarterback gazed to the front entrance anxiously. Hiding the box in one of the many store bags at his feet, the quarterback quickly gathered up the handles and turned to head back out to the mall.

Nervously biting her lip, the older woman spoke up, "If I may be so bold, Mr. Yuy. I just know that Mr. Maxwell will love it and your secret is safe with me." Almost blushing, she shrugged. "I just wanted you to know that I wish you both the best."

The team captain blinked in surprise and turned back to face her. Smiling kindly, he nodded with a sincere, "Thank you. Merry Christmas." A wide grin spreading on her face, the jeweler returned the sentiment just before he client quickly headed out.

Much to his relief, Heero did not run into any familiar faces when he stepped back into the busy wing of the mall that he and his lover had been shopping in. A quick glance to his watch showed that he was due to meet Duo in the cafeteria in a few minutes. On his way there, the quarterback couldn't help the wide smile on his face.

~ ~

When they met in the cafeteria, the couple went over the gift list that they had split up between them for the kids. Dressed in their heavy sweaters and baseball caps, the pair was virtually unrecognizable amongst the crowded area. As always, Duo had his infamous braid tucked away and the brim of his cap low to shield his violet eyes. Satisfied that they had taken care of everything, they settled down to eat. Halfway through the meal, Duo kept watching his partner and just smiled.

Chuckling, Heero asked, "Why are you looking at me like that?"

The question only served to make the quarterback' s smile grow. "Oohh, nothing to be worried about. I was just thinking how nice it is to have someone to do my Christmas shopping with." Almost embarrassed, he focusing back on his salad, moving some lettuce around with his fork as he shrugged, "It's a nice change."

Not caring what anyone around might think if they witnessed his next move, Heero reached across the table to gently lift his lover's face from underneath his chin. "It's a nice thing for me, too," he said quietly with a small smile. Duo beamed as the finger under his chin fell away.

Apparently, the little gesture was enough to draw enough attention for a few people sitting around them to take a close look at them. One young woman's eyes widened with a sharp gasp. Pointing to the couple, she shouted, "It's Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell!" All around, everyone stopped what they were doing turned to the frozen football players.

Those sitting quickly rose from their chairs and those on their feet quickly approached as the crowd cheered and yelled excitedly. Snickering, the running back shook his head and muttered to his partner, "I better call the house and let the family know we're going to be a little later than planned." As he spoke, his hand was already moving for the pen that he always carried on hand in the back pocket of his jeans. Heero was doing the same as he smirked in amusement.

* * * *

That evening…

Flora, Tai and Marcus slipped into the den with confused faces after they had been summoned. Closing the door behind them, Heero turned to them and asked, "Did your dad see you coming here at all?"

Shaking their heads, the teenagers sat together on one of the couches available. With a deep sigh, the team captain's tense shoulders eased. "Good," he muttered while running a hand through his bangs. "We should probably still keep our voices down just in case he might be close enough to hear."

A deep frown of worry on his face, Tai inquired, "What's going on, Heero?"

His right hand reaching into his jean pocket for a key there, the quarterback headed for the ornate oak desk just beside the couch. "Normally the tradition is that anyone intent on proposing needs to ask their significant other's family for permission before doing so," Heero grinned.

Eyes wide, Flora gasped and sputtered breathlessly, "P-propose?"

Smiling, Heero removed the velvet box that he had locked away to hold it out to the shocked trio. Marcus was the first to reach it and opened the lid. At either side of him, Tai and Flora leaned close to gaze on the ring inside.

The white gold band consisted of two interweaving 'ropes.' One of those lines was highlighted with diamonds and sapphires while the other bore diamonds and amethysts. Flora sniffled as tears filled her eyes as she and her brothers looked up in surprise to the quarterback.

"I am requesting your blessing of my asking your father to become my life partner," Heero said quietly. Clearing his throat, he added, "And with that, I am hoping that you'll accept me as a second parent."

Instantly, the teenagers launched themselves at him to embrace him tightly. Pulling back, Tai nodded excitedly, "You have our permission!" Marcus and Flora nodded their own heads in agreement. Wrapping his arms around the lot, Heero chuckled deeply.

* * * *

Wanting to keep fresh in preparation for the upcoming playoffs, the Wolverines requested a practice the day before Christmas Eve. What with the holiday right around the bend, many of them would be away on family vacations for several days. Better to get as much time in as possible.

Everyone was feeling the pressure during the workout. Unlike any other practice before, there was actual tension amongst the players when they went through their skirmishes. In the back of their minds, they kept the realization that while they may study what their competition was made up of, nothing was for certain when it came down to a single game where the winner would move on and the loser would be sent home.

What they did have as an advantage was that anything could happen. Even to that day, there were a lot of people doubting them. It would be what would keep them motivated on and off the field to prove the doubters wrong.

Making it to the playoffs was a wonderful thing. But a team did not make it to the playoffs without the big dance in mind. It was no different for the Pittsburgh team.

Shoulders rigid in authority as he watched from the sideline, Zechs blew the whistle hanging around his next to call the end of practice. "Good work, everyone,'" he called when he had the players' attention on him. Smirking, he added, "A bit tense at times, but not too bad."

All around, there was nervous laughter while heads nodding. "Well, hit the showers and enjoy your break for the next three days," the head coach grinned warmly. "Try and get your nerves out of your system before we meet again on Friday. This may be your first trip to the playoffs, but that doesn't mean that we won't be able to move on so long as we keep ourselves together. We did something right to make it this far, after all."

Relief washed over the team at his words. Knowing the truth behind what he was saying, those that had the more difficult time with handling the pressure committed those statements to memory. Slowly, the athletes began heading back down the tunnel leading to the warm locker room.

Once there, Duo sat at the bench before his locker and watched as his teammates stripped down to towels around their waists before laughing and heading off for the showers. Heero bend at the waist to kiss his partner's braided head. "See you in a few minutes," he winked as he always would before walking off with the others.

Lowering his head, the running back rubbed his long-sleeved arms. After such a long time if secluding himself from something as simple as a shower, he was growing tired of the whole thing.

His entire life had been shared with the world and his teammates accepted him without any hesitation. They offered support and friendship even in the light of what some people might have considered `flaws' about him. . `And what kind of show am I making to the others if I can't even trust them enough to take a shower with them?' he thought to himself.

Taking a deep breath once he resolved himself, Duo rose from the bench and began to shed his grass-smudged clothes. Not paying any mind to the angry scars on his body lest he lose his nerve at the last minute, he grabbed a fresh towel from his bag and wrapped it around his thin waist.

Mentally forcing himself to order one foot in front of the other, he made his way down the long hallway once he had his shower items in hand. Nearing the showers as steam poured out, he could hear the conversations and laughter going on inside. With one last deep breath, the running back strode inside without allowing himself a moment to pause.

The teammates at each cluster of stalls he passed fell silent as the young men watched Duo with wide eyes. At the last cluster, Wufei and Trowa turned to see the reason for the sudden quiet. When they spotted their braided friend, they froze with wide eyes. Heero was the last to wipe the soap from his eyes to see his lover nearing.

Stunned, the quarterback' s cobalt widened. Without halting for a moment, Duo stepped into the last open stall beside his lover. Making quick work of removing the tie from his long hair, he loosened the strands and turned the spray on.

Just as the silence was becoming uncomfortable, Wufei smirked and looked back to the rest of the team. "I hope to hell that the Hawks win their wild card game this weekend so that we take them on," he called. "I want to see just how red Coach Browning's face can actually get."

Quickly catching on to his friend's hint, Trowa chuckled, "I think the shade would be something between Popped Blood Vessel Red and Lava Eruption Red." Laughter filled the air once again and everyone fell back into their light-hearted banter back and forth as they went about their own business.

Brushing his wet bangs back from his face, Duo flashed his comrades a wide grin of appreciation. The center and received nodded their heads before paying more mind to their own showers. All the while, Heero had a proud smile on his face. When his lover met his gaze, he winked and reached for his bottle of shampoo as to not make a big deal over the running back's big step in trust.

Duo sighed quietly in relief and gazed around the room. There were no longer any lingering gazes as the other players went on like there was nothing out of the ordinary around them. A small smirk tugged his lips at that.

Now he really felt like a part of the team. And it was a nice change.

* * * *

It was a snowy Christmas Eve night when Duo's kids hung their stockings over the fireplace in the living room. Once that was out of the way, they moved to the grand tree that Heero and Duo finished stringing with multi-colored lights. Boxes of ornaments were opened and sorted through as the little ones worked together in decorating the branches.

Lady Une arrived with a tray filled with hot chocolate and homemade cookies for the youngsters and eggnog for the adults. Joining the guardians sitting at the couches, she sighed and watched the kids as they started to sting the silver tinsel up and around the tree first. "It's so nice to have Christmas here again," she smiled wistfully. At either side of her, Quatre, Solo and Hilde grinned widely at the sentiment.

On the opposite couch, Heero and Duo were curled up together. Resting his cheek against his teammate's braided head, the quarterback mused quietly, "I wish that my parents were here to see this."

"They are," Duo whispered before bringing his lover's hand up to his lips to kiss the back of it. His own free hand was lightly rubbing his cross pendant between his fingers. "Just like I know Sister Helen is." His heart warming at the notion, Heero's lips curled up and he snuggled closer to the running back.

Marcus, Tai and Flora took turns having their younger siblings on their shoulders to the taller branches could be reached. When they were finished with their part of the decorating, only the gold star remained for the top. Taking up the ornament, the oldest of the lot walked over to the football players.

"We decided that you should put the star on, Heero," Marcus announced. Holding the decoration out, he explained, "We wouldn't have a Christmas here if it wasn't for you." The other children stood behind the boy with nodding heads.

Smiling warmly to his kids, Duo winked and pulled away from his stunned partner. Cobalt eyes wide, Heero slowly reached out to carefully take up the shimmering ornament.

The last person to ever set the star at the top of the tree was his father. Biting his lip, the team captain looked to the children and gave them a quiet, "Thank you."

Ever the emotional one, Hilde wiped her eyes as her husband snickered at her quietly. Lady Une was a bit misty-eyed, herself, while Quatre looked on to his nieces and nephews in pride of their thoughtfulness.

Slowly rising to his feet, Heero moved to the ladder aside the tree. Climbing to the top, he gingerly placed the star onto the top bough. Easily finding a spare connection to plug the ornament in, the bulb within glowed and spun. Dozens of tiny pin-thin holes in the center gave a tinkling effect as the rays poring through danced on the ceiling and walls all around.

Gasping, the awe-struck kids breathed as one, "Wooooow." When he reached the floor, Heero smiled up to the glowing star for a moment. Duo walked up to wrap his arms around his partner from behind.

After a long moment to take the serene scene in, the running back turned to his kids and winked, "All right, everyone. Off to bed. I don't want to hear anyone sneaking around for while we get things set up down here." Giggling, his children hugged and kissed him goodnight before doing the same with Heero, Quatre, Solo, Hilde and Lady Une. Mary followed her playmates upstairs to settle down for the evening, herself.

Once the little ones were off and out of sight, the sextet worked together in getting the wrapped gifts out of their hiding places to place them under and around the tree. Sighing as he worked, Duo commented, "One of the nice things about having kids that already know Santa doesn't exist is that I don't ever have to disappoint them by telling them, myself." He shuddered, "I don't think that I would ever be able to do that to them."

Finished with his presents, Quatre sat at the couch before the large bay windows with a cup of egg nog. "I can't see you having to break a little heart like that either," he smiled. Peering out to the window, he watched the snow continue to fall and stated, "This will be their first white Christmas in some time."

"And it will be the first year that they'll actually be able to go outside and enjoy it," Hilde added with a grin as she put the finishing touches on her ribbon work. Lowering her voice just in case there may have been ears listening, she said, "I can't wait for them to open the sleds that Solo and I got them."

Solo lowered the last, little sled tied with a bow in Hope's corner. "I don't think it's the gifts that they'll be the most thankful for, anyway," he shrugged. "They're good kids who know that they've been given a huge break by being taken in. The most important thing to them will be that they'll have a family to spend the holiday with."

Nodding her head, Lady Une replied, "I agree. I've never met such a grounded group of children." She focused on the running back and smiled, "My compliments to their father for raising them to be that way."

His braided head lowering a bit, the father-to-be blushed, "Thank you."

Everything was sorted into sections for each child. Lady Une placed little signs that she made up with each youngster's name before their pile. Much to Duo's relief, all of the sections were pretty even with the number of gifts. There were no favorites when it came to his kids. And he made sure that whatever he did for them made that perfectly clear.

Just enjoying each other's company for a bit longer, the pack of friends sat around the living room for some light-hearted conversation. As the night grew later and later, the group became smaller and smaller as a few went off to bed. Only Heero, Duo and Quatre remained when the braided athlete rose and bounced on his feet. "I'm too excited to sleep!" he grinned widely.

Gesturing with his head to the large pile of letters and cards sitting at the table, his agent smirked, "Well, you could always go through your fan mail over there for something to do. That would keep you busy until dawn."

His smile widening, Duo nodded, "That's actually not a bad idea." Heero snickered and shook his head as he watched his partner all but run to the table to begin sorting out the envelopes for letters and those colored ones for holiday cards.

"So will you be meeting up with Trowa tomorrow, then?" Heero asked his blonde friend across from him.

Quatre nodded, "He'll be picking me up after breakfast tomorrow to meet with his family. Obviously, my family and I do not honor Christmas the same way as any of you. But, I am always in support of family and friends getting together to celebrate something."

The quarterback smiled and nodded at that. He hoped that in the morning Duo and his family would have a lot more to celebrate than just the holiday when he proposed.

From the table as he continued to sort out the mail, the running back suddenly froze with wide eyes. In his tightly clutched and shaking hand was a plain, white envelope. Sitting up with a concerned expression, Heero asked, "What is it, Duo?"

Swallowing roughly, his partner answered roughly, "The letter to me was sent from Kyle Newbright." With their own eyes widening and their frames freezing in place, Heero and Quatre let those words sink in.

There was no need to go into who Kyle Newbright was. Everyone associated with the professional football league knew.

He was the owner of the Green Bay Gladiators.

 

Part 68:

Slowly rising from the couch, Quatre approached his braided friend sitting on the floor. Aquamarine eyes stared at the letter gripped in the running back's trembling hand. "Kyle Newbright?" he breathed, his face paling.

Nodding, Duo quickly tore into the envelope. Hands shaking, he unfolded the letter within. Heero sat up in his seat. With a deep breath, he silently willed his pounding heart to calm before it thumped out of his chest.

Once he finished unfolding the letter, the American read aloud, "Dear Mr. Maxwell. Congratulations to you and the Wolverines on making it to the playoffs this season. Now that the regular season is at an end, it is my knowledge that your contract is as well.

"Forgive me for discussing business around the holidays, but I wanted to ensure that I was the first to express my interest in signing you. Please contact me after the holiday season so that we can discuss this further. Sincerely, Kyle Newbright- Owner of the Green Bay Gladiators."

Tears were running down Duo's face when he finished the letter. Wiping his face dry, he whispered brokenly, "Oh thank God." All but jumping to his feet, he threw his arms around Quatre tightly.

Just barely able to stay on his feet, the blonde agent returned the tight embrace. Looking over his shoulder, Quatre swallowed roughly at the sad smile on Heero's face. It was a bitter sweet moment indeed. Torn between his excitement for his long-time friend reaching his dream, he was also at a loss over the quarterback' situation.

Not wanting his lover to think that he wasn't happy for him, Heero pushed himself onto his feet and headed over to rub Duo's back. When their eyes met, the running back gasped softly as his violet orbs widened. Suddenly stricken by guilt, he bit his lip and released his hold around Quatre to hold his partner tightly.

Kissing the braided head against his shoulder, the quarterback said sincerely, "Congratulations, Duo. I know you've been waiting a long time for this."

Beside himself as to what to say, Duo just leaned up to kiss him in appreciation. Clearing his throat, Quatre suggested, "Considering the late hour that it is now and how early the kids will be getting up, we ought to get ourselves to bed."

Grateful for the distraction, the running back pulled back from his teammate. "Good idea," he nodded. Taking Heero's hand, he led the way upstairs to their room. As soon as they were alone, Duo closed the door behind them and spun to face the team captain. "I swear that I didn't mean to offend you by any of this," he said in a rush. "It's just…"

"I know," Heero reassured, interrupting the other athlete's words. Cupping the sides of his face, he smiled lovingly, "This has been something that you wanted for a long time now. I'm just proud of you for all of he sacrifices you've made for those children. It's about time that all of that paid off for you."

Unsure how to bring up the discussion to what this all would mean for them, Duo felt his stomach churning over the matter. In the end, he couldn't afford to be selfish with his own wants. The kids came first, as they always did. They deserved the best that he could offer them. And if that meant having to break his own heart so that could happen, it would just have to be.

On the verge of a near emotional breakdown, all that the running back could do was breathe, "I love you." Not as willing to trust his own voice at that moment, Heero leaned in to kiss him soundly. The smile on his face said that he understood.

Letting their actions speak on their behalf, the pair began removing each other's clothes as they slowly made love. Not a word spoken between them, they simply expressed themselves with every kiss, touch and movement. When they found their release and collapsed beside each other, they curled up tightly and allowed their exhausted minds and bodies to drift off.

* * * *

Not long after the sun rose over the snow-covered horizon, Hope and Abdul slipped out of their bedrooms. Giggling on their way down the hallway, they were soon joined by Jamie, Sun and Camille. When they reached the master bedroom at the end of the hall, they took a deep breath and shouted together, "Merry Christmas!"

Instantly, the door opened to a fully changed Duo. Grinning widely, he cheered, "Merry Christmas, kids!" Quickly bending down, he scooped the smallest of his lot. As the little ones squirmed and laughed when he tickled them, the running back kissed their heads.

A bit more sluggish in their movements, the three teenagers entered the scene. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Flora chuckled, "I knew we could count on them to be our alarm clock this morning."

Smirking, Duo rose to his feet. He also knew all too well how excited the youngsters would be and so he made sure to be up and ready before they were. One-by-one, everyone who had been sealed away began making their way out into the hallway. Hilde and Lady Une had their cameras ready in hand as they headed downstairs with Solo and Quatre to be able to capture the reactions.

Freshly showered and changed, Heero made the scene with a wide smile. His smile crew as he was chorused a 'Merry Christmas' from the youngsters just before being ambushed with hugs. Snickering, he greeted each child with an embrace.

Once the reunion was over, Duo folded his arms and called over the excited voices, "All right, everyone. Ready to head downstairs?" Every little head nodded excitedly as cheers rose in response. "All right," he smiled. "Head on down."

In a rush, the kids charged down the remainder of the hall to the stairwell as they cried out. Taking their time, Heero and Duo followed with their hands joined. It was not long before they could hear gasps and wrapping paper being torn apart downstairs. The voices of their friends laughing chimed in.

His face bright with a wide grin, the running back stopped at the top of the stairs to turn to his partner. Squeezing the hand in his own, he whispered, "Merry Christmas, 'Ro."

Easily matching the brilliant smile, the quarterback nodded firmly, "Merry Christmas, Duo." He leaned in for a long kiss that was met with just as much fervor. When they pulled back, the couple descended the stairs together.

* * * *

It only took a few minutes for the children to tear into all of their presents. With so many hands around, it took even less time to clean up the crumbled paper and discarded boxes. As the kids played with Mary and enjoyed some of their new gifts, the adults were able to have their own gift exchange.

Gasping sharply when she opened the velvet box in her hands, Lady Une placed a hand over her chest. Eyes wide, she took in the exquisite diamond necklace and earrings inside. "Heero, this is too much," she breathed.

The team captain sat across from her with Duo curled up close as shook his head and smirked, "Nothing's too much for you. Not after everything that you've done for me." Winking, he added, "Wear it with the dress you picked out for your time with Trent and his family tonight."

Biting her lip, the young maid's eyes shimmered. Quickly rising to her feet, she all but ran across the room to embrace her friend tightly.

Hilde and Solo looked with on with the matching robes that they picked up for each other for their gifts draping them. Chuckling deeply, they looked to each other and shared a chaste kiss. In the young woman's hands were the tickets to a week-long the trip to the Bahamas that Duo had given them as a gift for a second honeymoon.

Opening the box in his possession, Quatre's own eyes widened. "Duo Maxwell," he laughed. Removing the gold watch within, he grinned widely, "How did I know that you catch on to my need for a good watch?" Sitting up from where he knelt beside the couch, he hugged his snickering friend in appreciation.

The gift exchanging continued until all that remained was for Heero and Duo to offer their gifts to each other. While the kids had been watching the adults before, they had also been enjoying their gifts. Now, all of their attention fell on the football players.

Almost nervous, Duo swallowed roughly while a grinning Jamie brought his large present to Heero from under the tree. Smiling nervously as he took the silver-wrapped gift up, he shrugged, "I really had no idea what to get you for Christmas at first, 'Ro." The team captain just grinned in understanding and rubbed his partner's tense shoulder.

"Umm... M-Merry Christmas," the running back stammered as he handed the present over.

Still grinning, Heero carefully accepted the gift and pulled back the shimmering paper. Inside of the box was another, smaller box wrapped in snowmen-printed paper. His head falling back, he laughed, "Oh no!"

Everyone around fell into laughter with him as he opened the second box to find, of course, another smaller wrapped box inside. The same continued for two more boxes of the same until all that remained was a small, red velvet box.

Tilting his head, the quarterback opened the lid to find a silver chain and cross pendant inside. Fashioned after the gold cross around his lover's neck, the pendant was an exact replica.

Cobalt eyes widening, Heero ran his hand over the pendant as he breathed, "Duo." Slowly, he removed the chain from its confinement to hitch the clasp behind his neck.

After a moment to admire the way the silver shimmered in the glow of the multicolored lights from the tree, Duo explained, "I thought it might be cool for us to have something in common. It might be kinda corny but-" he words were cut off when his teammate kissed him.

When he pulled back, Heero smiled to the wide violet eyes on him, "I love it. Thank you." A wide grin of relief spread on the running back's face. Quickly, he closed he distance between them for another kiss.

Flora, Tai and Marcus shared an excited look as the football players pulled away. On the edge of their seats in anticipation of Yuy's gift, they held their breaths.

Suddenly under the gaze of everyone in the room, the team captain felt the air rush out of his lungs. Up until the night before, he had his mind set and ready to his proposal. Now, with a pending deal coming from Green Bay, he was suddenly very unsure over the whole matter. Heart racing and palms sweating, he thought of what to say or do until he heard himself tell his partner, "I need a little more time to finish getting your gift together. I'm sorry."

Their hearts falling into the pit of their stomachs, the teenagers' jaws dropped in shock. Unbeknown to him what was originally intended as his gift, Duo just blinked. "Hey, no problem," he replied sincerely. "It's not about the gifts anyway." That said, he leaned in to kiss his lover soundly once again.

A thick and heavy chain of guilt wrapped around the quarterback' s chest as he returned the gesture. Turning to the family, the braided athlete winked, "Breakfast will be up in a few minutes, kiddos."

Lady Une, Hilde and Solo all rose to their feet to give Duo a hand in the kitchen. As they left the room, Quatre cast a sullen looking Heero a worried glance. Something about the what he had said to his braided friend just seemed off to the agent. His hunch was confirmed when he saw a pitiful threesome of teenagers ignoring everything around them with their heads lowered.

Quickly and without a word, Heero got to his feet and stepped from the room. The footsteps carrying from the hallway gave away that he was heading upstairs. Alone with the youngsters, Quatre lowered himself to his knees to join Marcus, Tai and Flora in their corner on the floor. "Would someone mind telling me what's going on here?" he asked quietly.

Upstairs in the main den, Heero was all but tearing the room apart for something that he could use as a replacement gift to his lover. Somewhere in his estate, there had to be something that Duo would like. But there was nothing to be found in his fevered search through drawers, closets and safes.

Growing more and more frustrated, the quarterback growled deeply and slammed the last drawer that he was sifting through closed. Tears prickled his cobalt eyes as he ran a trembling hand through his unruly hair. A few deep breaths were needed to calm his ragged breathing.

There was nothing in all of his home that Duo would want. He was not the materialistic type. Even if he never gave him a single thing, Heero knew that his teammate would not think a thing of it and love him all the same. That was what was making the whole thing so much more difficult to deal with.

"You missed a spot," a familiar voice informed quietly from the doorway behind him. Spinning, eyes wide, Heero found Quatre standing their with a sad expression on his face. As he stepped into the room, the agent closed the door behind him.

Determined in his steps, the blonde made his way to the ornate oak desk at the far wall. Tapping the small top drawer, Quatre stated, "You haven't checked in here yet."

A lump formed in the team captain's throat as he stared at the drawer hiding the engagement ring that he had fashioned for Duo. Lowering his head, he closed his cobalt eyes and sighed, "So the kids told you, then."

Quatre smiled at that, "Of course. Someone has to be the voice of reason here. Who better than one of their favorite uncles?"

Shaking his head, Heero frowned deeply, "You know as well as I do that if I can't propose to Duo after receiving that letter from Newbright. He's been waiting for this opportunity, sacrificed for it so that his kids could live there. If I propose now, he'll feel forced to choose between his dream and me. I can't do that to him."

Patiently nodding his head in understanding, the agent responded, "I can appreciate your concern, Heero. And I think that it's wonderful that you're being so selfless about this." He tilted his blonde head and asked, "But have you considered that maybe he's hoping you'll be still in the picture of what he's been planning all along?"

The quarterback swallowed roughly, unable to trust his voice enough to answer. He honestly wasn't sure if he could hope for such a thing to be.

A quiet knock at the door had the two friends turning to watch as Marcus, Tai and Flora entered.

Closing the door behind them, they fell in line before their uncle. Her ryes red-rimmed, the Hispanic girl sniffled, "We want you in our family, Heero. You're not going to go back on what you told us about wanting to be a second dad for us, are you?"

Marcus bit his lip and reminded quietly, "You told me that you love our dad. People who love each other work things out, right?" Tai held his tongue, but the sad and expectant look on his face was enough to express his own distraught state.

"I... I..." Heero's mouth opened and closed as he tried to get the words out only for them to hitch in his throat. A fresh batch of small tears shimmered in his cobalt eyes as he turned his head away for a moment.

Stepping forward, Quatre rested a hand on either of the team captain's shoulders. "Duo told me that you did not want him doubting what you have," he said in little more than a whisper. "Don't you do and start questioning it now. Not after everything that you've been through together."

For Heero, those words acted like a fist to his chest. What little air was still in his lungs came out in a rush. Looking up to the aquamarine eyes locked on him, he nodded firmly, "You're right." Slowly casting his gaze to the teenagers, he said sincerely, "I'm sorry."

Each taking a deep breath of relief, the youths smiled and nodded back. "It's okay," Tai shrugged as the spokesman. "Sometimes we kids need to be the adults from time to time." Both Heero and Quatre enjoyed a good laugh at the truth in that statement.

Flora rubbed her hands together anxiously as she inquired, "So… you're still going to propose, then?"

Smirking, Heero walked over to the oak desk while removing the key hidden at the side. With everyone's eyes on him, he removed the small black velvet box from the top drawer. Turning to the others, he nodded simply, "Yes." Within the blink of an eye, he was nearly tackled by the laughing kids in a group hug. Quatre just looked on with a wide grin on his face.

Gently wiping away the tears from Flora's face, Heero suggested to the lot, "You all better head down for breakfast before your father starts wondering where you are." Gasping, the teenagers darted from the room.

Quatre stepped towards his friend and smiled, "I've known Duo for a very long time. And I always hoped that he'd find someone that would really care for him and his family the way that he needed. I'm glad that he found you, Heero. You're a good guy."

Taking the hand that was offered to him for a firm handshake, the quarterback grinned kindly, "Thank you, Quatre."

Hands still joined, the Arab pulled the Heero until their noses almost touched. Cobalt eyes wide and aquamarine smoldering, Quatre raised an eyebrow and warned, "But hurt him and no one will be able to piece your body back together."

Fully knowing that the threat was not an idle one, Heero's smile grew as he reassured, "I'd gladly let you see to that if I ever do."

More than happy with that response, the agent nodded. Slapping his friend on the back, he winked, "We better make our own presence known before the others send out a search party."

"Do me a favor and stall for me if anyone asks for me," Heero requested. Holding up the box, he said, "I need a little time to get things in order."

Smirking, Quatre replied, "You got it." He turned on his heels and headed out of the den. On his way out, he closed the door behind him.

His mission in mind, Heero took a deep breath and focused on what he needed to do. Smiling widely, his anticipation for the proposal returned. Whatever it took, he was bound and determined to make that day one of the best in Duo's life…

…the best in both their lives.

 

Part 69:

"You were his partner and you didn't do a damn thing to save him from himself."

Maxwell's words ran through Alex's mind as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. Ever since the braided running back had made that comment to him, it ran through his mind dozens of times through the day.

Growing more and more frustrated with himself, Alex couldn't fully understand why he was allowing such a remark to get under his skin. It certainly wasn't because it was true…

…was it?

The moment that question entered his thoughts, the blonde running back turned the cold water of the sink on. Bending at the waist, he cupped the stream into his hands and splashed his face vigorously. His breathing came in pants as he turned the faucet off and reached for a towel to dry himself.

"Bastard," Alex muttered to himself as he hung the hand towel back on the rack. Goddamn that Maxwell for putting lies into his head. Mueller meant the world to him. He would never have let him down that way.

...Then again, there had been some serious issues between them over the last few months. And those issues all seemed to stem from a certain blonde running back's drug use.

With a deep growl at that reminder, Alex ran a hand through his hair. Gazing on himself once more in the mirror, hands gripping either end of the sink for support, he took in the dark circles under his eyes and pale skin.

Sleep had come sparsely to him over the last week. The nights were the most difficult times when his doubts and fears started creeping through the haze of his rage and frustration. If only he could someone convince Treize or Professor O for another shot to help him through. But he knew that there was no chance of that happening since they were convinced he had enough in him to last for the holiday break.

A knock on the bathroom door made Alex jump, his heart racing as he placed his hand on his chest to let out a long sigh. "Sweetheart, are you going to join us for breakfast?" the voice of his mother called from outside.

"Yea, Ma," he replied. "I'll be out in a minute." Quickly, Alex splashed water on his face and dried it once more to collect himself. When he descended the stairs to find his family at the dining room table, he took his seat beside his father.

The running back's older, taller version of himself pat him on the shoulder and snickered, "I thought that you got yourself lost up there with how long you were taking. 'S been so long since you've been home that it wouldn't have surprised me if you did."

Alex just smirked and filled his plate. Taking her seat at the other head of the table, his mother took in the family of five gathered. "It's so nice to have the whole family home for Christmas." She gestured to her youngest and commented, "As busy as you're going to be with the playoffs coming, I was afraid that you wouldn't be able to join us."

Seated across from Alex, his older brother and sister nodded their agreement to the sentiment. With a shrug, he reassured, "Nah. You all know that I wouldn't miss being here for the holidays." Nearly as soon as the words left him, he regretted having spoken them in knowing what was coming.

Eyes narrowing a bit, his father turned to him and corrected, "You would have if you had a practice to attend. I'd better not find out that you've skipped out on any time preparing for the most important game of your life up to now."

Lowering his head a bit, the running back shook his head, "No, Dad. I'm not skipping out on anything. The whole team is off until next week." His mother and siblings kept their gazes low as they ate silently.

The 'old man' folded his arms and nodded firmly, "Well that's good. The last thing that you want is to give the upper hand to your opponents by not being ready." Leaning close, he smirked, "What's my motto that I've taught you since you were old enough to understand it?"

From memory, Alex recited, "If you can't be the best, there's no use trying."

"That's right," his father grinned. "Good lad." Cutting into his eggs, he stated, "It's about damned time your hard work started showing in your stats. Just keep pushing yourself a little harder and you'll finally beat Maxwell. Until then, you know you'll always be in his shadow. No one cares about second place."

And the automatic answer, "You're right, Dad."

Half finished with her meal, Alex's mother lowered her silverware and announced shortly, "I believe that I've had enough." When she rose and stormed from the room with her plate, everyone knew that she was not just referring to the food. She never did handle her husband's views of what he considered success well.

Back to his youngest years, this was what the running back knew as his family life. His father was the hard motivator and his mother was the patient one who loved her children no matter what. Since it took work to please their Dad, Alex and his siblings did whatever they could to win at whatever it was they did in life.

More and more, Alex could understand the 'old man's' notion. All anyone gave a damn about in life was who was at the top. If he couldn't be the top running back, he might as well not even try to be one.

'But at what cost?' that voice of doubt asked. 'Wasn't Mueller enough?'

Shaking his head to clear those questions, Alex focused back on his meal. He never tasted a morsel of it.

* * * *

Everything was ready by the time Heero rejoined Duo and his family at the dining room table for breakfast. Lightly kissing the running back's cheek as he sat beside him, he winked when those bright violet eyes turned to him. The meal continued on with the children taking excitedly about the morning and their plans for the day.

As the table was later cleared when everyone had their fill, the quarterback leaned in towards his partner and whispered, "Your present will be ready later tonight, if you don't mind waiting a little longer."

Blinking in surprise, Duo replied quietly, "Heero, you didn't have to do anything." Any further protest ended when his lover suddenly kissed him. When they pulled apart, the braided athlete sighed in content, "Okay, I'll wait." Snickering, his teammate kissed his forehead before rising to assist in the clean up.

His head still spinning from the kiss, Duo just sat at his chair with a wide smile. Shaking his head to return to the would of the living, his thought drifted to the thoughts of what Heero might have planned for him. While he truly did not care if he never received a present from him, it was exciting to look forward to something.

In the kitchen, Heero smirked to the three teenagers sorting the dishes into the washer. The 'troublesome threesome,' as Duo called them, just grinned widely back. To their credit, they had managed to refrain from hinting to their excitement in knowing what was being set into motion.

They were able, however, to share a private smile with the quarterback.

* * * * *

There was a light knock on Alex's bedroom door before his mother's head peeked inside. Her long, red hair shining under the light, she asked softly, "May I come in, son?"

Lowering the book that he had been reading as he lay on his bed, the running back nodded, "Sure, Ma." He sat up when she took a seat on the mattress beside him. Their eyes meeting, he inquired, "What's on your mind?"

A small, loving smile lit her face. Gently running a hand through his hair, she replied, "I just wanted to tell you how proud of you I am. I know that you don't hear that enough." His mother's smile faded and her brown eyes narrowed as she added, "Your father certainly never said such a thing to you."

Sighing deeply, she shook her head of red hair and said, "Stubborn and bullheaded as that man is, I do love him so. But that does not mean that I always agree with the things that he believes. It's always been my faith that so long as a person does the best that they can in any situation, they've succeeded regardless of the actual outcome."

While a lovely thought, Alex knew that his father would scoff at such a notion. Still, it was a nice thing to hear that somebody was proud of him and his accomplishments.

'Influenced accomplishments, ' that irritation voice snorted bitterly. 'But whatever gets the job done, right?' it chided.

Easily ignoring that little source of doubt more and more, the running back just smiled warmly, "Thanks, Ma." The young woman leaned in to kiss his forehead with that loving grin of hers. Winking, she rose to her feet and headed from the room.

Once the door was closed again, Alex lay back on the bed as he sighed quietly. There was nothing that was going to keep him from reaching the top. Not when he was so close. Not when he had given so much to getting there.

Little voices be damned, there was no turning back now.

* * * *

"Can I take the blindfold off now?" Duo asked.

At the wheel, Heero looked out the corner of his eye to his lover and grinned, "Not yet. And don't even try peeking. If you do, the knot that I made will only get tighter. I earned a badge in the Boy Scouts for how good I was with ropes."

Purring, the braided football player replied, "You'll have to show me put some of those rope tricks to more use with me some time." Cobalt eyes widening, Heero gripped the wheel when the car started drifting to the right a bit. Feeling the change in the ride, Duo snickered deeply in amusement.

With a smirk, the quarterback shook his head. "One of these times," he promised. It was the running back's turn to flush a bit. Still, there was a grin on his face.

The remainder of the short trip was made in silence. Duo never moved to try and remove the black cloth blindfold from his eyes. For his part, Heero was a bundle of nerves. His original plan had been to propose with his partner's family and friends around. When that did not happen, he decided to make the occasion something much more private. Something more personal.

Soon finding his destination, the team captain announced quietly as he pulled into the cleared and empty parking lot, "We're here." This day and age of AC201, any snow that fell on the roads and gravel was instantly melted thanks to the thermal sensors. It was nice to have the safe roads and dry lots to park in while also being able to appreciate the beautiful accumulation on the surrounding landscape.

Shutting down the car ignition, Heero stepped out and rounded the vehicle to open the passenger side. He took the running back's hand in his own and helped him to his feet. "It's a short walk from here. We won't have any ice or snow to worry about slipping on,:" he reassured. Nodding, Duo just tightened his grip on the hand he was holding and allowed his lover to take the lead with all of the trust in the world.

Carefully guiding the way to the glass building at the top of the hill they were climbing, Heero worked at calming his racing heart. As much as he looked forward to what he was about to do, there was still that worry over what the answer to his question would be.

But, as Quatre had told him earlier that morning, he could not start doubting what he had with Duo now. It was better to allow the braided athlete to know how devoted he was to their relationship.

Placing his hand against the palm reader beside the double doors, the quarterback smiled when the lock slid away. Thanks to a call to the owner for a favor, an easy patch in a computer system from his residence granted the access needed. Slowly, the doors parted and Heero led the way into the large observatory.

As they entered, Duo felt the warmth and smelled a variety of flowers and other foliage. "This seems like a nice place already," he commented while the doors slid closed once more behind them.

"My parents would always bring me here during the winter," Heero stated. "It was one of my mother's favorite places to visit this time of year."

The running back's braided head turned toward the sound of his partner's voice as he smiled, "Really?" Squeezing the hand in his own again, he whispered, "Cool." Fully understanding what it meant for Heero to bring him to a place that had so much meaning to him, he remained silent for the remainder of their walk.

As they headed deeper and deeper into the building, the team captain shed their coats and heavy sweaters as the temperature grew. Down to their jeans and short-sleeved T-shirts, they progressed on. It was a wonder to Duo how it felt just like a warm summer day. Every smell only added to the sensation.

Without pausing in their walk, Heero peered over his shoulder and said quietly, "I brought you here so that you can understand what you mean to me. Before we met, I closed myself off from the world. I forgot what it was like to be happy. Everything was cold and dead to me and nothing could get through the walls that I built up."

Swallowing roughly, Duo nodded in understanding. The depth of the emotions spilling through those words rendered him speechless. Finally, they came to a halt. He could feel the quarterback' s hands untying the knot of the blindfold at the back of his head as he told him softly, "Then you came along and I the world changed for me."

When the cloth fell from his violet eyes, the running back blinked them a couple of times to adjust to the light. With a sharp gasp when his gaze focused, those eyes widened as he looked all around him.

The couple were standing atop the peak of a white-paved bridge that bowed over a running stream. For as far as one could see at either side of the bridge, there was fresh grass and flowers in full bloom with fresh dew drops on them. There were trees of varying sizes with lush green leaves basking in the warm glow of the `sun' overhead. Butterflies of different shades flew and danced together in the air.

In every sense, Duo felt like he was transported to a field where only he and his lover existed. The sheer beauty and wonder of it all left his breathless. To add to the surreal surroundings, just beyond the clear glass that sealed the little world away, the falling snow glowed in the moonlight like falling stars.

Just barely able to catch his breath, the running back breathed, "Heero." When he turned to look to his teammate, froze at seeing small tears shimmering in the cobalt eyes watching him.

Clearing his throat, the quarterback held an arm out to the field around them. "This is what you did for me," he spoke in a cracking voice. "No matter how cold and lonely the world may be, it does not touch me when I'm with you. You've brought a joy and warmth to my life that I've never thought I would ever experience."

Duo bit his lip as his on eyes shimmered. Unable to trust his voice, he just held onto his partner's hands and squeezed them tightly. Gently wiping away a droplet that rolled freely down the braided athlete's cheek, Heero smiled lovingly and slowly fell to a knee. With another sharp gasp, his lover fought a whimper that built in his throat at the sight.

Looking up into the violet eyes that he would gladly drown in, the quarterback reached into his pocket to remove the black velvet box hidden there. Opening it to reveal the ring inside, Heero said softly, "I do not ever want to go back to that world outside again, Duo. You and the children mean everything to me. And I don't care where you go-whether it's here, or Green Bay or anywhere else- I want to be with you for the rest of my life."

A lump forming in his throat, he cleared it away before managing, "Will you marry me?"

Crumpling to his own knees, Duo rested their foreheads together. Tears running down both their faces as they looked into each other's wet eyes, he whispered, "Yes. God, yes." Throwing his arms around his partner's neck, he sobbed quietly.

Heero returned the embrace with a light laugh in a release of all of the tension that had been building up. When they pulled back enough, they kissed deeply to seal their promise. Removing the ring from its box, the quarterback slid it easily onto the trembling left hand's ring finger.

Sniffling, the running back took a moment to admire the sparkling band with wide eyes. A brilliant smile lit his heart-shaped face as he gazed back to his life partner and breathed, "I love you, Heero Yuy."

"And I you, Duo Maxwell," the team captain answered just as softly before they leaned in for another deep kiss.

When their lips parted, Duo chuckled, "I can't wait to see the kids' faces when we tell them about this." Heero snickered and nodded to his own anticipation of that moment. Looking to the beautiful scene around them, the braided athlete requested, "Would it be all right if we stayed here a little longer?"

Easily sliding close to his fiancé and curling an arm around him, Heero grinned, "I'd like that." Nestling close together on the top of that bridge, they sat in silence as they contemplated their future together.

Together. It was a word that they knew they would easily get used to.

 

Part 70:

Hand-in-hand a beaming Heero and Duo entered the Yuy household. Quickly shedding their coats, they moved to the living room where the children were sitting around with their new Christmas gifts. Quatre and Lady Une had returned from their visits with their significant others' families. Along with Hilde and Solo, they looked up when the football players entered the room together.

Clearing his throat, the running back grinned, "Everyone, we have an announcement to make." The youngsters looked up to their guardian, a certain trio of teenagers and agent looking particularly anxious.

With a knowing smile for each other, the athletes looked back to the faces watching them and announced at the same time, "We're getting married."

Eyes wide and jaws slack, the children gasped in shock just before jumping to their feet screaming. Charging forward, they threw their arms around Heero as Duo stepped back laughing at the sight. It wasn't long before even he was pulled into tight hugs of his own from Quatre and his friends.

Little Abdul loosened his hold around Heero's neck to ask him, "So you're really gonna be a second Daddy for us now?"

"That's right," the team captain grinned as he held the Arabian boy in his arms. "We plan on marrying before the adoption so that we can both be named your legal guardians at the same time."

Gripping one of his legs, Jamie looked up and stated, "Then that means we can't call you Heewo anymore. You need a new name like Daddy."

Sun tilted his head and reminded his sibling, "But he can't be Daddy `cuz we already have Daddy." He pointed to the braided running back as though the others had forgotten who he was referring to. Duo just snickered and shook his head in amusement.

A smirk on her face, Flora rubbed her chin and said, "Well, he certainly does make a point there. What other title could we use, then?"

Raising her hand, Hope smiled, "Daddy number two!" Everyone looked to the youngest of the lot with empathy at her attempt. Suddenly, nearly a dozen other suggestions were called out from the kids. `Father,' `Papa' and other common terms were suggested but nothing really stood out as something that really fit.

"How about Otou-san?" a voice asked over the others. Everyone turned to Duo as he explained, "It's a Japanese word for Dad or Father." None looked more surprised that he knew that than Heero, his cobalt eyes wide on his partner.

The running back blushed a bit and shrugged, "I've been doing a bit of research in the language for a while now."

Just when he thought he couldn't love his fiancé any more than he already did, Heero's heart warmed in learning that he had taken the time to understand something special to him. A wide, loving smile tugged his lips as he mouthed, `Thank you.' His blush deepening, Duo just grinned and winked in response.

Breaking the silence, Marcus nodded, "I like Otou-san." All around, his siblings voiced their own acceptance of the new title for their second guardian. More embraces and happy tears were shared before the youngsters were sent up to bed for the night.

Once only the adults remained, Lady Une ran to her dear friend and threw her arms around him. "I'm so happy for you, Heero," she whispered in his ear as he held her tightly back.

Wiping her face dry when she pulled away, she told him sincerely, "You're going to make a wonderful father." Almost becoming emotional at that sentiment, the quarterback kissed her cheek in appreciation.

Hilde was holding Duo's left hand to appreciate the sparkling ring up close once again. Bouncing on her heels, she exclaimed, "This is so exciting! I can't believe my little brother is getting married!" With a giddy laugh, she jumped into the braided athlete's arms, nearly knocking the wind out of him with a loud `oof!'

"Just try not to kill him before the big day, sweetheart," Solo chuckled deeply. As his wife removed herself from Duo, he moved in to pull him in for a one-armed hug. "Congratulations, bro," he offered kindly. Moved beyond words at that moment, the running back just pulled him into a tight embrace.

Already having had a chance to congratulate his best friend and agent, Quatre moved to shake Heero's hand firmly. "I would like to be the first to officially welcome you to the family," he winked.

There was a swell of pride in the team captain's chest in being reminded that he was going to be a part of a family again. As much as football meant to him, it would never come close to being a father figure and a good life partner. Nothing would ever compare, and he would never devote himself to anything more, than his new roles.

It was not long before a bottle of wine was found and opened for a celebratory drink amongst the group. Laughing and discussing the upcoming wedding, it was shared by the football players that it would be a small and private affair. Since they could not marry in a church, they would be joined by a Justice of the Peace to be named official life partners.

Leaning close to her husband as they sat curled together on one of the couches with a glass of wine in their hands, Hilde inquired, "So have you two discussed an actual date for the ceremony, then?"

Seated across from them, Duo rested his head on his lover's shoulder and replied, "Well, we don't have an official date yet. But, it would have to happen in the next couple months before my birthday in February when we'll both be the legal age to adopt."

"We'll have plenty of time after the championship game," Heero stated. "Better to not have any ties to the season and take away the thunder from the teams lucky enough to get to the Super Bowl if word of the wedding gets out."

Raising his half-filled glass, Quatre smirked, "That's a true gentlemanly act on both your parts. But it would be something if you were able to be one of the teams in the-" Before he could finish his sentence, everyone cried out for him to stop as they waved their arms and shook their heads frantically.

Quickly remembering `the curse' of the `jinx, the agent winced. "Hehe," he snickered with a chagrined smile. "Sorry. Almost forgot about that."

Slowly raising his own glass, Duo smirked, "One game at a time. We won't even know who we'll be up against for the first official playoff game for another couple of days yet."

* * * *

On the afternoon of the Wildcard game between Cincinnati and Denver, Heero and Duo met with their usual group at Murray's to catch up following their Christmas break. Gushing, Relena was hugging both athletes' necks tightly. "I'm so happy for the two of you!" she whispered excitedly in caution of any of the other patrons overhearing the conversation.

When they were finally released and able to breathe normally, the pair offered their thanks to the cheerleader. Trowa and Wufei offered firm handshakes and words of their own well wishes upon learning of the engagement.

As their beverages and snacks arrived to their round table, the running back rubbed his hands together and smirked, "Should be an interesting game. Considering the two teams, it'll be a close one for sure."

Nodding, Trowa added, "It's also nice that we'll also have the chance to watch the competition that we'll be up against next week. You can never go by how well a team does during the regular season. Every team that's still in the running has a shot at making it to the end, so they'll be playing hard for their spot."

"That's also how a lot of injuries happen," Wufei remarked. "Being too ambitious and reckless can take out some key players to a team. Just look at Cincinnati. They were on our heels for the whole of the regular season then injuries at the end knocked them back to a Wildcard spot instead of being a shoe-in in for the playoffs. It'll take a lot for them to come back from missing some of their better athletes."

An eyebrow raising, Relena snickered, "Knowing how well Coach Browning handles losses, I'll just bet he's thrilled with that. It's the first time in a few years since his team hasn't gone straight to the playoffs before."

Quatre suddenly piped up to ask, "Would it be horrible to hope for some injuries during this game to better your chances next week?" He was answered with wide eyes and slack jaws when everyone looked to him.

Shaking his head, Duo took up his glass of soda and muttered, "It's always the nice, quiet ones that you have to be careful of." The sentiment was loud enough for the others to hear and brought them to a round of laughter.

There was a wound of applause when the large television screens spread throughout the crowded bar displayed the National Football League's logo as a sign that the game was about to begin. A hush soon fell upon the crowd gathered with all attention drawn to the displays.

An image of Tim and Adam in their commentator booth appeared after the introduction music. Smiles wide on their faces, they looked every bit as anxious for the face-off to start as the fans watching. "Welcome to the first Wildcard game of this year, ladies and gentlemen," the first announcer greeted in his friendly voice. "And we have quite the match up for you today with the Cincinnati Hawks taking on the Denver Avalanche."

On that cue, Adam nodded, "That's right, Tim. And no doubt there are thousands of Pittsburgh fans watching this particular game closely to see who will be going up against their Wolverines next week."

Every mug in the bar was raised with a loud cheer from the Murray's patrons at that. Laughing, they nudged their friends and fell into quiet discussions amongst themselves. As soon as the gears shifted to the kick off to start the game, there was a stillness settled once more.

~ ~

Throughout the game, the Wolverines sat in awe in witnessing how both teams were performing. Having played against both challengers before, they thought that they knew everything that they had to offer. Instead, the Hawks and Avalanche threw some new plays and strategies that they had been saving up.

Every violent hit and tackle made the Pittsburgh athletes wince. There was not a player from either team that was safe from some sort of brutality. Much to everyone's surprise, however, the Hawks were able to keep up and excelled in several advances despite the losses in the team that they suffered.

Just as any postseason game, the two teams played knowing that it could very well be their last game. And up until the last quarter, it remained a very close race.

With a sudden push at the last few minutes, Cincinnati managed to turn the tables in their favor by forcing an interception and a fumble by Denver that gave them a lead by two touchdowns. If there had been more time in the game, the Avalanche may have been able to respond and catch up. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be for the grey-and-black clad warriors.

The final score was 34-20 when the Denver quarterback took the last knee with ten seconds left in the game. Deflated, the Avalanche headed to the middle of the field to congratulate the celebrating victors.

"So it is official," Adam's voice called over the footage. "Next week's first playoff game will be between the Cincinnati Hawks and the Pittsburgh Wolverines. The Denver Avalanche season is over with high hopes for next year."

It was an odd mix of emotions amongst the table of friends watching. While there was the anticipation of going up against a team that they had beaten twice during the season already, there was also the concern of knowing that this was not the same Cincinnati team by any means. These Hawks were faster, meaner and hungrier for a win than before.

Along with that, everyone's hearts went to the Denver Avalanche players. Knowing full well what it felt like to be denied their chance at a championship, they could relate to the frustration and defeat that those athletes were feeling at that moment. It would be a long flight back to their home state of Colorado, and an longer wait until the next season to show what they could do.

Looking over to the Chinese receiver, Duo shrugged, "Well, you got what you wanted. Now we'll get a chance to see how red we can make Coach Browning's face."

Wufei's eyes remained glued to the screen overhead as he laughed nervously, "Oh yea. That's great." Heero, Trowa, Quatre and Relena also kept their frightened attention on the television even though the programming had already switched over.

The running back took a deep breath and released it slowly as he raised his glass for another sip. No doubt the rest of the team was on the verge of panic after watching that game. Smiling, he slapped Heero's back and told his teammates, "Welcome to the playoffs, gang. It's going to be a bitch of a ride!"

Slowly, their gazes still on the screen, his friends nodded their heads.

* * * *

In the locker room the following day, there was a somber quiet amongst the Wolverines as they suited up into their gear and sweat clothes for practice. Only a few very lowly spoken conversations were spoken regarding the Wildcard game.

Just as Duo suspected would happen, most if not all of his teammates looked skittish and unsure of themselves for the first time since he had joined the team. It did little to help his own growing nerves over the upcoming game. The last thing that they needed at this moment was to question if they were up to the challenge they needed. One seed of doubt could undo all of their hard work up to that moment.

Before long, Zechs, Howard and Trent entered the room with an air of confidence that their players lacked. It was enough of a show that all eyes turned to them immediately, much the way that a plant is drawn towards sunlight. His voice loud and clear, the head coach called, "Gather round, everyone."

Rising to their feet, the Wolverines drew as lose as they could around their leaders. With a sad smile, Zechs stated, "I want to begin by apologizing to all of you." Several faces turned to each other in confusion over the odd start to the speech.

"Over the next few practices that we have, you are not going to like us very much," the head coach continued. "We watched Denver, one of the best teams in the league, get sent home without any acknowledgment of the successes that they did accomplish this year. That is all forgotten when your season is over."

Making a point to take in every player, he proclaimed, "I do not want that to happen to this team. You have all come so far and worked too hard to just have it all taken away from you. No one believed that you would get this far. And even more are expecting you to be knocked out of the running this coming game."

With a smirk curling his lip, Zechs shook his head, "But I'm not one of them. I know that you can take out Cincinnati and any other team that you have to. You've beaten the odds time and time again this season so why should it be any different for the playoffs?"

Slowly but surely, those words were making an impact on the team as backs straightened and heads rose proudly. "Yes, the Hawks performed better than they have all year in the Wildcard game," the head coach admitted. "But they had to. They've been fighting an uphill battle all year and now it's do or die for them. Of course they'll throw everything they have at you, but you're more than capable of besting whatever tricks they have."

His arms spreading, Zechs challenged, "Name one team out there that wants this more than you. Name one team that deserves this more than you. Even one." Only silence answered as the faces watching him grinned and smirked.

Chuckling deeply, the tall blonde nodded, "Exactly. There is no other team to name. And that's why I believe in every one of you." Slowly, his voice rose in a steady build, "This is our year. And I know that you're not about to let someone else take that away. Because I don't know about you, but I'm not about to sit by and let our team be sent home, forgotten the way we have been every year before!"

Determination and grit filling the eyes on him, Zechs informed, "Now to keep that from happening, we're going to be treating all of you with tough love during practice. You're going to be worked and conditioned like never before to keep you up to speed with your competition. As I said, there are going to be moments that you're not going to like myself, Howard or Trent very much. But it's only to help you get the recognition that you deserve."

With a deep breath, the head coached asked, "With all of that said, is everyone on board with what needs to be done?"

Violet eyes sparkling with mischief, Duo smirked. "Hell yea," he growled deeply.

Instantly, voices rose yup in cries and yells as fists were thrust in the air. Hands clapped and feet stomped loudly to add to the electricity in the room. The coaching staff shared pleased smiles and nods to the response.

Practically swelling in pride, Zechs folded his arms and grinned, "Good. Hit the field." Grabbing their helmets, the players shouted and ran down the long corridor.

When they were alone, Howard and Trent patted their boss on the back. "Hell of a speech there," the old man complimented. "Think that it'll do the trick?"

Sighing, Zechs replied, "We'll know for sure if they're still standing by the end of the week."

TBC