INTRODUCTION -- UPDATES -- ROMANCE ARCHIVE -- LEMON ARCHIVE -- 2002 CONTEST ARCHIVE

NOTES:
Disclaimer: Not ours. We wouldn't be able to share anyway.
Genre: Romance, after-the-war-fic.
Warnings: 1x2 yaoi, bad language, sap, fluff, some mild angst, edgy!Duo, some possible lime.
Notes: Written together for the Moments of Rapture Fanfic Contest in November 2002.

A Time For Kindness
by Imo and Blue [aka Blue Taters]


"Alright, that does it!" Duo muttered in frustration, casting a dirty look at the ocean, "I happen to like my shoes dry and my toes warm!"

With that he shook off his sand-crusted sneakers and tied the laces together, slinging them over his shoulder. The sand under his toes was cool and wet; the salty night air clung to his thin clothes, sticking to his skin and his hair, and the oppressive clouds -- just visible by the sliver of the moon -- made him all the more aware of his exhaustion. The beach stretched out, dark and alien around him, until the sky completely enveloped it, leaving only the soft rush of waves rasping against the sand.

There had been no sign of life for a while now; he had passed a small fisherman's shack at dusk, but now, hours later, there was only curve upon curve of empty beach and cold air. He glanced at the starless sky and saw nothing; not even the lights of distant colonies pierced the clouds. Averting his eyes, he quickened his pace, feeling the heels of his sneakers slap against his back.

"Yup..." he grinned darkly. "This is exactly where I wanna be. Middle of fucking nowhere on a Saturday night... Cold, hungry, smelly, tired, dirty! Yup," he sneered. "I got it goin' on, that's fer sure.

"Because... yanno -- I'm here by choice! I love running from the law! Yes, yes my dear Duo, we fugitives are the cream of the fucking crop! Top o' the fuckin' heap! Enjoying every luxury known to man! Yanno... I bet I know some fancy-pancy aristocrats who'd pay thousands -- naaaw, millions to be in my shoes right now!

"Shit," he crowed wearily. "And I'm not even wearin' any.

"Yes-sirrie, Duo... You're one lucky guy. Life is beautiful."

The sky rumbled in irritation and he felt a cold, fat drop of water splatter on the tip of his nose. Needing no more invitation, the rain began to assail him from all sides. He stopped short and raised his hands in defeat. The water was already beginning to pool in his sneakers; he could feel the added burden on his shoulders.

"See what I mean? Fuckin' beautiful!"

He sighed and let his shoes fall until they dangled dejectedly from his fingers. "I guess I just wasn't meant to have dry footwear..."

"I can't believe this..." he exhaled hoarsely. "I mean, jeez, I'm a FULL-FLEDGED 'CITIZEN' NOW! Ya hear me, god? I don't deserve this type of SHABBY TREATMENT!"

With a guttural snarl of anger, he whipped around, throwing his arms out, his braid snapping; he thrashed like a child in a tantrum until his shoes flew from his fingers -- arcing out into the darkness -- and he ended up collapsed on the sand, spread-eagled and soaking wet.

"Woooo... that was fun," he sighed brightly, his mouth full of wet sand. "Ahhh, I'm so smart. Now I have no shoes."

And the rain continued to pour. He rolled onto his back and stared vacantly into the dark gray sky. Raindrops sprinkled gently over his face and down his grit-specked cheeks; he imagined the water was slowly pushing him into the ground.

One of his toes twitched, and he became acutely aware of how much colder everything had gotten, how black the sky had grown.

"Dammit."

He groaned, rolling over onto his hands and knees. "Here, shoooes.... here shooosie shoosie shoosie..." he sang halfheartedly as he crawled clumsily in the thick wet sand; his fingernails filling with grit as he groped blindly at the ground. "I'm coming to fiiiiind you!

"Here shoosie! Here -- oh..." His grasping hands came in contact with the thick, wet texture of dune grass. Turning his head and peering desperately through the rain he saw he had managed to drag himself up the slope of the beach, and in front of him now lay a blanket of thick dune grasses, wet and shuddering in the wind.

He pulled himself up and over the large dune and collapsed on the slippery embankment just below. The blades of sweet-scented grass tickled the skin on his wrists and feet; the sudden, jarring presence of light warmed his raw cheeks.

As the light finally registered in his waterlogged mind, he pulled himself into a half-sit, arms dangling over his knees, and peered through the rain. Some thirty metres away, tucked between two high dunes, stood the outline of a small wooden house.

"Well, I'll be damned..." he wondered aloud. Without even a second thought, he rose to his feet with a shrug. "Eh," he grinned, breaking into a trot, "what's another break-and-enter, anyway?"

Approaching the porch, he slowed to a walk, casting his eyes warily at the windows for signs of life. Catching a glimpse of only a small paraffin lamp in the front window, he sidled around to the back of the building. As luck would have it, a small window had been left open a crack, enough for him to dig his fingers underneath the rough wood and push.

He tumbled inside with tired grace, his hands finding purchase on a grainy wooden floor and the edge of a scratchy woolen rug. Through a doorway at the far corner of the room, a faint light filtered in, illuminating the outlines of a bulbous porcelain sink, a refrigerator, and a blocky metal stove. Against the opposite wall, there was a small table, its surface perfectly clear and a single chair tucked against its side.

Duo pulled himself to his feet, shutting the window firmly behind him; the sound of the rain and the rush of the waves died into a smooth murmur. He stepped out into the hallway and blinked, his eyes adjusting to the light. The floor felt soft under his feet, and he suddenly realized he was standing in the middle of a strange house, sopping wet, wearing nothing on his feet.

Duo laughed. "I am such a hobo..." With a resigned sigh, he glanced around, registering a large room ahead of him and a doorway to his left.

"Not that I have anything against hobos," he added as he opted for the closed door.

The door wasn't locked. "I think I'd make a very good hobo," he continued, pushing it open. "Don't you?"

Duo stepped into the room, his gaze taking in a tiny bed with thin sheets tucked against the single window, a small table and a large cedar closet.

"Oh, for christ's sake -- who am I even talkin' to?!"

"It's official," he grumbled, moving to the closet, his hand trailing absently along the wood face. "I'm going crazy. Fuckin' bonkers. Which is fuckin' great, of course; just think of what they could say about me now!" Throwing open the closet doors dramatically, he affected a thick, official accent.

"'Enemy of the government AND a complete nutcase!'" He clutched his thin belly melodramatically, closing his eyes in a self-satisfied way. "'Good ladies and gentlemen of the United Earth-Sphere Nation, is this a man you want prowling your streets at night?!'"

Duo snorted, opening his eyes and gazing critically at the contents of the closet. "Of course not..." he murmured, distracted, running his fingers over the hinges. "Not if you value your footwear, anyway..."

He paused suddenly, as if struck. "What the... hell...?"

Recoiling abruptly, Duo jerked back and slammed the closet door. The room suddenly felt too small, and he had made it all the way to the bedroom door before reining in his panic, and settled on running a frantic hand through his bangs as he paced.

"Sweet mother of -- There is only one... fucking person who wears those fucking shoes..." He shot a mistrustful glance at the seemingly innocent closet. "Only one fucking person..."

There was a muffled sound from elsewhere in the small cabin, rudely interrupting Duo's self-sustaining chatter. His ears pricking sharply at the distraction, he fell silent, heart pounding heavily as he controlled his first impulse to run hard.

Then his instincts took over. Could the owner be returning? Pushing aside the issue of who that owner may be, he spun around to survey the room again. There was a window on the far wall, over the bed. Hurriedly kneeling on the bed, he tried to wrest the wooden frame up. It was locked.

"Shit," he swore softly, noting the lock was no simple affair.

More sounds echoed down from the front room. Duo quickly sorted through his options. There was no other way out of the room, besides by the door, which would be a dead give away for anyone in the front half of the house. Which meant, one way or another, he had to get out the window.

The sounds were coming closer. Making a hasty decision, he grabbed a blanket from the bed, wrapped it around his skinny arm, and, turning his face away, smashed it through the window. The glass made a tremendous sound on impact, one Duo was sure could be heard throughout the whole district, and was followed by the soft tinkling of glass on the ground outside the window.

Just then, Duo realized he wasn't wearing any shoes.

He didn't have long to debate whether or not to jump onto the grass-strewn porch; the sound of hurried footsteps -- from the sound of the window breaking, no doubt -- and of a hand turning the bedroom doorknob made the decision for him. Clearing the excess glass with his cloth-wrapped hand, he hefted his body through the frame. As his first bare foot touched solid ground outside, he yelped as the shattered glass pierced his skin, pausing just long enough to glance back into the room and catch the outline of his pursuer in the hallway light. His eyes widened, heart racing, until he realized the other man had not yet made the same leap of recognition. Reassured by this slight advantage, he flashed a tight, cocksure smile and, with a burst of energy, turned and tumbled onto the porch. However, in the time it took to adjust to the sensation of the shards beneath his feet he had lost what little advantage he'd had; his slender arm was caught abruptly in a vise-like grip and pulled back to the window, where, one side of his back pressed awkwardly to the wooden frame, it was twisted behind him.

"Son of a bit--!!" He spat angrily, trying to wrest his arm away, and suddenly found himself sprawled against the porch railings, his back stinging from the impact. And standing in the light of the window, ringed by fragments of glass, was Heero Yuy, holding his hands out in front of him as if he had been burned.

Duo shivered slightly, and not entirely from the dampness of his clothes. "Holy fuck," he muttered.

"Duo?" Heero's fists clenched; his voice was heart-breakingly quiet.

"Oh, Christ." Duo scrambled to his tender feet, grasping at the railing of the porch for support.

"Duo," Heero reached a hand through the window, and Duo resisted the impulse to recoil violently. "What are you..."

"Stay the fuck away!" Duo snarled, his voice hoarse. Unable to control the urge to flee, he pulled himself over the horizontal porch rail, landing in the dirt and grass below on all fours, his sliced feet incapable of bearing his weight. The rain poured down on him; his bangs immediately plastered to his cheeks and forehead. He struggled to find purchase on the slippery ground, fumbling pathetically in the wet grass, looking for something solid to cling to.

Blindly spreading his hands on the ground, he accidentally shifted his weight onto his wrist, sharply twisting one arm, and before he could right himself he slipped and went tumbling down a dune face.

The rain and the grass and the chill air caught him full force; he hit wet sand and collapsed into a crumpled heap. He groaned, spitting sand from his mouth and clawing at the wet ground as he attempted to find his bearings in the dark, rainy, miserable night. The wind whipped the rain and sea spray against his face, into his eyes, and even the air stung the cuts and bruises on his skin.

With a sharp grunt of pain, he managed to raise himself to his knees, scrubbing at his face with both hands, wiping the grit from his eyes and cheeks. He blinked furiously, the cool rain doing little to quell the fire in his skull. Raising his eyes back up the hill he saw, through the rain and waning, moonlight the distinct outline of Heero Yuy standing on the crest of the dune.

Duo stared, almost petrified, for something glinted in the darkness of Heero's face; his penetrating eyes were even visible in the blanket of rain and night sky. And when Heero advanced a few slow steps down the hill, Duo braced his hands in the sand behind him as if he had been physically pushed.

Heero stopped at the foot of the dune, two feet away from where Duo was crouched on the sand. The rain poured down around them, and the shrieking gale roughly whipped their clothes, and Duo struggled to breathe -- as if winded -- but Heero regarded him coolly. He seemed not to notice the way his wet hair was plastered to his forehead, the droplets falling into his eyes, or the howling of the sea and the rushing of the clouds above his head. His gaze was riveted on Duo.

A bolt of distant lightning caught them full-flush in their agonizing tableau; the wind whipping about Heero and coursing over to Duo, avidly working up from the places where rain-diluted blood was quickly sopped up by dark, wet sand and blasting him sharply in the face with all the scents it had acquired on its short journey. The air about them smelled pungent and salty as the wind fell away, the flicker of lightning dimmed, and the slow rumble of thunder began to build, crest, and die.

"Wait."

Duo dug his fingers deeper into the sand as Heero drew closer still.

"No..." he heard himself whisper.

Heero was standing over him; the toe of his shoe stopped a breadth away from Duo's leg. He leaned forward, peering ominously over the wounded youth as if still trying to convince himself it really was Duo.

"You're..."

He knelt abruptly, a dark, puzzled expression on his face as he studied Duo, his hand hovering lightly over the injured feet. Duo shivered, averting his eyes, and pulled his feet towards his chest. A piece of exposed flesh grazed the fine sand; he stifled a grimace.

"Leaving." Duo hissed, daring a single, black glare before shying his gaze away again. "So just stay the fuck away."

Heero's first reaction was to withdraw his hand, another look of piercing disbelief crossing his face. His brows creased in hard thought as he scanned the surrounding beach, which thinned into barren darkness on either side. Suddenly his expression firmed, eyes becoming attentively bright.

"All right," he murmured.

"What?"

Heero cocked his head to the side, studying Duo's tender feet from a different angle. "If you can leave on your own, I won't stop you."

As Duo followed Heero's gaze a growl grew deep in his throat, the impossibility of the task looming tauntingly above him. There was no way he could stand, never mind walk off into the night. His expression contorted into a scowl that could have cut diamond. Unfazed, Heero leaned forward until his knees hit the sand, shifting the weight of his torso onto the balls of his feet and watching Duo with an expression that seemed to say "Well?"

Duo pursed his lips in something torn between a vicious snarl and a desperate glower. His options were few and far between. He shifted his legs, attempting to place weight on any part of his feet, but the slightest motion was enough to send the entire sole into burning pain. And Heero just kept watching.

"I don't have to play your games," Duo bit out. Heero raised his gaze intently, observing, answering with minute portions of silence.

All of Duo's skin was tingling; his heart began to convulse. Heero's very presence was gnawing away at him, and he doubted he could remain firm under so implacable a face for much longer. Inhaling sharply, he let his hands slide out along the sand behind him; then he curled his fingers and used the action to pull his body back, away from Heero. The cool water lapped briskly against his backside but he didn't react, save to slide his arms to the side and drag his body further along the water's edge. His chin jutting out defiantly and his gaze refusing to stray from Heero's face, he inched backwards on his hands and rump with an expression that seemed to say "Ya see that? Fuck yeah, I'm outta here."

He was able to make two more snail-crawl strokes over the sand before Heero stood and walked over to him.

"That's quite enough." Heero knelt brusquely, sliding his hands under Duo's startled, writhing form and hoisting him up, off the ground.

"H-Hey, waitasec... NO!" Duo protested, twisting his body violently from side to side as he struggled to break free. Hands clawed frantically at Heero's arms and shirtsleeves; legs flailed wildly in the air with the hope of throwing Heero off-balance. When nothing elicited a response from the now expressionless youth, who was already over the dune and heading up to the house, Duo -- cheeks flushed with fury -- was even tempted to land a blow on Heero's face, but realized that went far beyond the boundaries of propriety. Besides... he really had no idea what kind of response he'd get. Nor did he care to find out. The memory of a single slug in the gut was enough to compel him to some measure of composure. But not much.

"Lemme go!" he howled, incredulous and indignant. "Jeeesus fucking -- you're a fucking moron, yanno that? Put me down! Are you listening? Heero? HEERO!"

Heero reached the front door. Even with Duo contorting rapidly in his arms, he managed to extend a hand and turn the doorknob. More astonishingly, turning carefully, he finagled his writhing burden through the door without knocking him even once against the frame. Or the inset coat rack. Or the lamp.

He stopped before the only couch, pathetic though it was, which sat firmly in the middle of an almost barren front room, and stood as if stone.

Duo's chest clenched with vicious terror. "Put. Me. Down. NOW!" The last word erupted almost as a cry of desperation, and pain. Jogged out of his stationary pose by the sudden, animalistic snarl, Heero glanced once at Duo and dropped him unceremoniously to the couch, then drew back as if in agony, hands raised high and to the side as if they, themselves, were weapons of mass destruction.

Duo fell with a soft flop, legs dangling haphazardly over the arm of the old couch. Just as surprised at Heero's reaction as Heero had been at the cry, he looked up, horrified, vulnerable, and somewhat afraid. Then whatever survival instinct he owned kicked in, and by the time Heero had overcome his own shock, Duo had tensed defensively.

Heero squinted as if lost and still adjusting to his surroundings, and then his gaze swept thoughtfully over Duo, halting again over his feet. Brought back quickly to the situation at hand, the consternation in his brow fell away at once. Impassive, he looked Duo in the face.

"You're hurt."

Duo winced, shifting uncomfortably at the very mention of the word. "Is that your expert opinion?"

Without replying, or even hinting at any form of expression, Heero left, slipping into the bathroom and then his room. Duo let his head loll on the other arm of the couch as he waited, heart still pounding as he frantically attempted to figure what horrible twist of fate and dumb luck had landed him on Heero's property in the dead of night.

The sound of soft footsteps on creaky floorboards caught his attention. He raised an arm above his head, pulse resonating violently in his head, and stared at the dull gray ceiling, fighting back the instinct to retch. "Took you long enough. I've been painting pretty pictures on your floor. Hope you don't mind."

Even now there was a split-splat of warm, darkened liquid against wood. Heero regarded the small puddle shivering below Duo's feet with no noticeable reaction.

On the floor beside Duo's feet, Heero set down the contents of his hands: a pair of tweezers, swaths of bandages, and a portable basin full of warm water. Suddenly uneasy, Duo raised his head as far as he was able in his reclining position, eyes darting anxiously to see what was happening behind the side of the couch, which was out of his line of sight.

"What the hell d'ya think you're doing?" he demanded.

Heero lifted his head and turned to face Duo, one eye furrowed in slight incomprehension. "Helping."

"Oh no you fucking DON'T," he snapped, not knowing from where his sudden urge to add to the conflict had come, nor how or why. Heaven knew his heart was pounding harder than the heavy rumble of a herd of elephants charging through a midday marketplace. And yet, for whatever reason, he continued to antagonize the only man who could strike fear into his thoughts. "Don't think I don't know it hurts twice as much if someone else does it for you."

Heero didn't look up. Gripping one of the wounded feet firmly, but not tightly, he held the tweezers poised over a large piece of glass. "It's faster this way."

"But I'm more likely to twitch... in //pain//."

"You're more likely to let your feet fester."

"Yeah, well -- ..."

"And I'm at a better angle to take out the glass without cutting more skin."

Realizing Heero had cut off his last opportunity to argue, and realizing as well that he had nothing left to say, Duo's eyes darkened with the withered frustration of the helpless.

His expression affixed to the wounded feet, Heero showed no reaction to Duo's silence, save to deftly pull the first large piece of jagged glass from its tender bed of flesh and then continue to remove all the big shards.

It hurt, of that there was no doubt, but the pain in his feet was far surpassed by the immense burning sensation in Duo's chest. His throat, suddenly parched, seemed to choke on the very air around him. His hands trembled, blanched with anticipatory dread. The skin under and around Heero's unyielding grip tingled like the hairs on one's neck before a shower of sleet.

"Stop."

Numerous seconds passed before he realized the word was his, partly due to the fact Heero seemed not to notice anything had been said at all. By now, Heero had pulled most of the big pieces from both feet and, after checking both again for protruding glass, he abruptly grabbed each foot firmly by the ankle and guided Duo's legs off of the couch arm so the toes hovered just above the surface of the nondescript floor. Then he slid the portable basin over to the same side and gently eased the feet in until the swollen soles had been engulfed.

The water was deliciously warm, and at once the fire in Duo's feet subsided. His heart, however, continued to burn. There was a heavy, wrenching feeling in his gut and he shivered every time he caught a glimpse of Heero's calm, resolute face in the dim flicker of the ancient lamp, the room's only light source.

"Jesus, Heero, fuckin' -- please... please, Heero, just... just stop."

Again his voice changed as he struggled with his words, this time turning not to an animalistic cry, but thinning out into a tapered plea too soft, too strained to ignore.

And Heero couldn't. His focus drawn from the task at hand, he glanced at Duo as before, with sudden, razor-sharp concern. Caught off guard by Heero's reaction, Duo met Heero's gaze with as much defiant rage as he could muster, but, nevertheless, the rabid fear of a cornered mouse was painfully obvious in his bright, cautious eyes.

There was a long pause as Heero held Duo's gaze fast, searching the angered face for hesitation and doubt and finding only more confusion and defensiveness. At last, he turned his attention away, watching Duo's trembling hands with what looked to be mute disappointment before letting go of the wounded feet and lowering his head.

"I see."

Where triumph should have rested when Heero then stood and walked away, there was only more fear, shame, and desperate rage. Duo lowered his eyes, knowing with a sick feeling in his stomach that there was no victory to be had. Not tonight. Knowing Heero, maybe not ever. Even now, it hardly felt like Heero had backed away at all; Heero might as well have still been holding Duo's feet, still carrying Duo in from the rain, still running after him across the dunes.

Duo's shivering intensified, and, drooping his head over the couch arm, he glanced across the room to assure himself that Heero was no longer near him. Sure enough, Heero wasn't even in the front room anymore, but standing, stock-still, in the middle of the hallway. A cold spell dancing across his sore body, Duo forced himself into a sit and, rubbing his feet gently in the now lukewarm water, he slowly, painfully finished the job Heero had started. Knowing all too well his back was turned from Heero's, his breathing deepened as he worked, and the only things he could think of were how direly he wanted to finish cleaning the wounds and how much harder it was to do the job himself.

When, at last, his feet had been suitably numbed, aching but no longer in agony, he withdrew them and swaddled them carefully with the waiting dressings. Feeling the burning weight of Heero's presence on him still, he finished quickly and laid down, eyes wide with apprehensive alertness as he awaited whatever was yet to come.

"Thanks for the bandages." His voice was soft and uncertain.

The response was little more than a grunt. From where he stood in the corridor, Heero was studying the interior of his room, no doubt assessing the remains of his bedroom window from a distance.

"I take it you weren't planning to stay long." Heero said it quietly, knowing little sound was needed to carry its meaning down to where Duo lay on the couch.

Duo turned and, gripping the back of the couch with a hand in a death-grip, managed to raise his head above the simple piece of furniture. A single, dirty bulb in the hallway poured enough cheap light over Heero to make his stiff, slender profile strike a chord somewhere between terror and wistful regret.

"I'll pay for the window..." Duo offered quickly, only to bite his lip as he remembered how particularly non-existent his monetary funds were at present. He swore softly at his government pursuers and attempted to look Heero in the eye. "Soon as I have money, promise."

Heero regarded him impassively.

"Good night, Duo."

He fell out of the light, retreating into his bedroom, and shut the door. As he left the corridor, awash in a pale yellow sheen that separated the two of them, seemed to take on a sickly pallor. Duo's faded memories only further wearied him as he regarded the insurmountable distance, and he allowed himself to sink back to the cushions.

Sleep came most reluctantly, as it would for many nights to follow, bathed in a dizzying swirl of tension and pain. His mind abounded with an incensed anger, and yet the world government, which was still snapping briskly on his heels, flashbacks of ceaseless battles, and memories of grievous losses neatly tucked in the recesses of his sanity, had no hold in his dreams. No, there was only a single unidentifiable presence in his thoughts, one which kept watch on all the little nightmares that threatened to arise, sending chills down Duo's spine with the cool, dark efficiency of his thankless task. A part of Duo hated the new presence; the other was terrified of him.

There were moments when he thought he was going to suffocate, moments of cold-sweat fear from waking up on Heero's couch in the middle of the night, alone and immobile. A terrible, intangible loss would strike him; he'd shiver, struggling to turn in his half-slumber without sending rivulets of pain through his feet until, at last, the faint rush of water lapping up against a yielding shore lulled him back to unconsciousness. At the soft sound, his eyes would go wide like a child enthralled by a bedtime lullaby; he'd pull his blanket closer, and nod off without a whimper.

"I'll leave tomorrow, I swear. I'll be gone before he even wakes up."

But each morning for the next week began the same, with a firm nudge on the shoulder and the slow, horrible realization that he still hadn't left. Duo's eyes shot open, suddenly painfully alert, though the rest of him remained deathly still while Heero moved silently around the couch and drew aside the faded, threadbare curtains.

"I'm making pancakes. Would you like some?"

Duo shrugged with nervous indifference. "If you're making them anyway."

Heero made a gesture of assent so small it could hardly be distinguished, and slipped into the kitchen. Duo looked up guardedly at the pinkish-orange rays filtering into the front room and, rising to a sit, placed his swollen feet on the sun-swept floorboards.

The normal breakfast clatter soothed him, nearly making him forget all the months that had passed since he'd had any right to feel comfortable in such a situation. He hobbled painfully to the kitchen and sank into the nearest chair. The radio was on; singsong voices rattling off the most recent deaths and scandals. It was on every morning when Heero got up and again before they turned in every night. To check the weather, he'd said.

"-and in world news today, the hunt is still on to find the man accused of abandoning his duty as peacekeeper to aid the latest rebel faction in a violent, anti-government protest. Already these radicals have decimated numerous government facilities, and other mediators are scrambling to find a solution to what they say has been a terrible misunderstanding. Sources have not yet disclosed the name of the traitor, but it seems it will only be a matter of time before --"

Duo leaned over and turned it off, as had become his habit.

The first morning he'd been uneasy, glancing furtively at Heero to see if he suspected anything was amiss. Heero, however, seemed to have paid it no heed. Now Duo only stared listlessly out the window, to where the sky seemed blue without end, and listened to the soft crackle of pancake batter on the stovetop.

Duo ate his breakfast slowly, stalling for time as he now did monotonously, never quite willing to confront Heero with his questions and confusion, nor to probe into Heero's recent past and wonder what had happened to the older one, but wanting to prolong the possibility of discussion as long as possible. There was something almost comforting in the half-state they lingered in, something eerie but calming in the way he was ready to fight his beliefs to the death but would rather die than bare them to Heero's critical judgment.

"Will you be leaving before I get back?" Heero asked, as he always did now. They regarded each other with a measure of uncertainty, neither one completely sure how to place the other.

"Maybe," Duo replied vaguely, ritually, "If I don't have to go barefoot."

Heero nodded slowly, did his dishes, and prepared himself a lunch.

"What're you going to do today?"

"The same thing I always do, Duo." Heero turned with lunch in hand.

"Right," Duo muttered, "How could I forget."

"There's a lot of work that still needs to be done, Duo. A war-torn city can't be rebuilt in a day. We... could use your help."

"Jeez, Heero, you ask me that every day." Duo frowned. "Trust me, I'm not the man you want to be helping you with something like that."

"Someone needs to help. And if anyone should, it's us. After all, we're the reason..." Heero allowed his voice to drift off, as if to complete in his mind what he could not allow himself to say. "It's good, clean, peace-oriented work, Duo," he added at last.

"Precisely my point," Duo sighed.

"Meaning?"

Spuriously, he gestured across the kitchen to where half of Heero's bedroom door lay in their field of vision. "Did a damn 'clean, peace-oriented' number on your window, didn't I?"

"Fine," Heero said at last, making his way towards the front door. "Don't break any more windows. I'll be back before nightfall."

With Heero out of sight, Duo's lips parted gently, the weight of something he dared not utter resting tentatively on his lips. The front door closed firmly. A wave of indecision returned. The moment for courage had passed. Duo stared mutely at his last piece of syrupy pancake, and didn't move until the sounds of Heero's Rover -- revved engine, all-season tires crinkling on gravel -- faded away. Then, pushing the plate aside, he let his head and arms fall into a heap on the table, and watched the etchings of sunlight make their daily trek across the floor.

"What the hell am I still doing here?"

Images sprang up, unbidden, against his closed eyelids. Smiles, laughs, the gentle teasing and camaraderie that had existed when they were only 15, and felt so alone. The way Duo could coax a grin from him, and the special thrill he had when Heero seemed to be the only one who understood him. The way they had fought. The flaming look in Heero's eyes, his entire body vibrating with frustration when they had argued, and Duo had refused to explain and only shot back with furious circular words and the imperceptible slump of Heero's shoulders when it became clear that they just couldn't understand each other anymore. Not like they used to. That empty pleasure he had when he thought he knew what he was doing, and that terrible, sinking of his stomach when he realized that he didn't, and that he had left everything he'd ever wanted behind him. And then, the gentle look in Heero's eyes every night when he opened the door to the cabin and walked inside.

He opened his eyes, blearily tracing the patterns of sunlight on the floor.

"I'm a coward... s'all..." he murmured to the empty room and cold, cold walls. "Couldn't make the right choice to save my life... still don't know what the fuck I'm gonna..."

He didn't have the strength to move. What the hell would I do, he thought, if I had to leave again? He couldn't, he knew. Not with so many things left unsaid, not with him still reaching over every night to turn off the radio before it screamed to the whole world and Heero what he had done wrong. Not before he could...

"I ain't got it..." he mumbled wretchedly into his hands. "I don't have the fucking strength."

The morning stretched on, endless. Duo cleaned dishes, rearranged things that didn't need to be moved, and walked carelessly on the warm beach, finding that no matter which direction he set out in, he always ended up back on the crest of a dune, staring down at that hateful little cabin with its broken window and five-ton memories glaring back at him. And after lunch, the hours seemed to tumble into one another, time moving too quickly to count; it made Duo want to physically reach out and pull everything to a screaming halt in order to delay the minutes and prolong the time it took before Heero came home. Every second that ticked by made him want to yell -- "I can't //stand// another hour here! I can't live here, I can't leave here! I can't //see// him yet! -- but nothing could give him the words to explain.

And when he did come home, Duo knew they would trip around each other, offer meaningless words and he would be bitter and Heero would be calm and all that they would accomplish would be another wasted cycle of hours spent in frustration and misunderstanding. All because he didn't trust himself enough to let the damn words come. The realization of this only made him bitter and spiteful; by the time evening rolled around, Duo -- left alone to his anger-tinted world -- was usually little more than a fight waiting to happen.

He was curled up on the couch -- looking out onto the rolling waves with a silent sneer -- when the door opened with a soft creak, letting in the sounds of the surf and the rustling of the dune grasses.

"Welcome back, cowboy," Duo muttered, his teeth clenched in a tight smile.

Heero kicked off his shoes in silence, obviously choosing to ignore the seething sarcasm in Duo's voice.

His silence only irritated Duo all the more, and he twisted around on the chair, pinning Heero with a bitter glare. "Have a fulfilling day?"

Heero, running a callused hand through his bangs, looked quite tired. "Yes, thank you."

"Oh goody," Duo sneered, sinking back into the couch cushions and crossing his arms.

Heero spared him a quick, questioning glance, but said nothing, moving to the kitchen with quiet, measured steps. Duo, feeling unsatisfied and ignored, sprang up and followed after him, finding strength as he leaned up against the doorjamb, and fuel for his irritability with every cool, careful movement Heero made.

"I don't have the money yet," he groused, suddenly. "I can't pay for your fucking window."

"That's fine, Duo," murmured Heero, still not glancing his way.

"You don't care?"

"It's not a huge problem. You'll get the money when you can."

"Fuck, aren't you generous."

Heero's shoulders moved in a tiny shrug; the muscles in his back were drawn tight and his neck looked like a column of tension.

"What if I can't ever pay you back?" Duo blurted suddenly, glaring. "Would you give a flying fuck then?"

Heero paused, and straightened. He turned with deliberate slowness and let an exhausted sigh escape his lips. "No. Not particularly."

"God! Why are you always so fucking blasť about fucking everything?" Duo snapped, taking the bait. "You act like the world just doesn't exist outside your perfect, little sphere of atonement."

Heero regarded him with what looked like a slightly pained expression. "I don't really think it's appropriate for you to talk about me like that."

"What, Heero," he drawled. "Did I ruffle your feathers a bit? Can't deal with a little intellectual wedgie from //reality//?!"

"Duo..." Heero rubbed a hand over his eyes. "We shouldn't talk about this now."

"Oh, okay! Lemme know when it's a good time, //Heero//," he snapped with derision. "You do seem to be dictating everything else about my life recently."

"Duo..." Heero definitely looked pained. "I'm not keeping you here."

"Like //fuck// you're not!"

"Duo, it is entirely up to you whether or not you choose to stay here. If you're unhappy --"

"If I'm unhappy," he parroted. "If! I'm! Unhappy! For god's sake, of //course// I'm unhappy! I'm stuck living with a reformed psycho-military-teen who thinks the answers to life lie in building shitty little houses for shitty little people who don't got enough sense to depend on themselves!"

"Then maybe you should look elsewhere --"

"Where the fuck do you get off telling me how to live my life?"

"Why do you think it's appropriate to judge mine?" Heero returned sharply.

"Jesus, Heero, losing your cool...?" He mocked, as Heero blatantly turned away from him to face the sink. "I knew you couldn't keep up your fucking 'indifferent eyes' routine for very long," he sneered.

"Your attitude makes it quite difficult," Heero murmured, wiping his hands on a dishtowel, pointedly not looking up.

Duo gaped. "Excuse me, Mr. Sensitivity, but did you just comment on //my// attitude?!"

"Yes. I did."

Duo snarled. "Fuckwad. If I'm such a horror, then why don't you just kick me out? C'moo-on..."

"Duo, that wouldn't do you any good," he said, competing for breath over Duo's self-defacing taunts.

"Oh!" Duo barked, catching his words. "Is that it, then?" He growled, bracing both hands on the table, "am I part of your pity-game too? Do I make the cut for your fucking //contributions// to //society//?"

Heero turned sharply and threw the towel into the sink with a sick, wet, smacking sound, and Duo found himself hard-pressed not to flinch at the expression on Heero's face.

"You, Duo," Heero said, after a moment's chafing pause, "don't need anyone's pity. You need to grow up."

And he marched from the kitchen, pulling the bedroom door closed behind him with sickeningly firm finality. Duo stood alone in the echoing room, feeling no better, no more satisfied, and his aching stomach cramping with sick guilt.

He awoke feeling no better, the sunshine beating against his squinting eyes and the cramp in his thigh where the couch dug into his leg acting as painful reminders that he had not dreamed the whole episode of the night before, and the sounds emanating from the kitchen meant that Heero had not yet left for the day.

With a tortured sigh, he rolled from the couch, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and padding gingerly to the doorway of the kitchen. Peering inside, he saw Heero -- with his back to the door -- preparing a meal at the stove, the elements hot and the kettle steaming; two chairs still tucked against the tiny table.

Duo regarded him from the doorway, feeling hot shame against his cheeks, and that twisted fist in his gut berating him for all his repeated mistakes. He wanted to know why it was so easy for some people to simple open their mouths and the words -- "I'm sorry" -- simple spilled out. It didn't work like that for him. Not with the government, not with anybody... certainly not with Heero.

Duo coughed, and Heero spared him a short, soft glance.

"Good morning," was all he said.

"Hey."

"Want something to eat?"

"If you've got it made... already. I don't wanna make you, I mean... don't trouble yourself..."

"It's no trouble," Heero said, so calm and simple, as though everything was forgotten. "Sit down."

Duo sank gratefully into a chair, tucking his chin to his chest. "You... ah."

"Yes?"

"Goin' into town today?"

"Yes," said Heero, setting down a plate in front of him, on which Duo gladly focused all of his attention. "Do you need something?"

"No, no... ah," Duo muttered around a mouthful of eggs. "Jus' wonderin'."

"Hm."

Coming face-to-face with an opportunity for apology, Duo ducked and ran. Instead, he blurted the first thing that came into his head, and didn't have the bravery to look Heero in the eye. "Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?"

"This... this menial labour," he amended. "No one's even going to remember that you helped. With your background, shouldn't you be making a difference somewhere that's a little more... yanno... lasting?"

Heero seemed to consider that as he poured himself a cup of tea, though the effort seemed almost construed. "The school we finished last month should last at least forty years, if not twice that."

Duo scowled. "Don't."

"What?"

"Don't trivialize this," he ground out.

"Trivialize what? The fact that a community now has a means of educating its children?"

"Indoctrination," he muttered.

Heero's expressionless face hardened with firm resolve, lips thinning in obvious irritation. "Alright, Duo. What should I be doing instead?"

The tension was escalating quickly as they deviated from their normal, tentative breakfast exchanges. The thought chilled and exhilarated Duo.

"Didn't you want to be a Preventer?" his lips curled with notable distaste at the last word; the question almost came out as a sneer.

Heero was unfazed. "Your point."

"Well," Duo drawled with more bitterness than was appropriate; the tone was familiar to him. "Wouldn't you be making a bigger contribution if you worked for them? Why settle for something so... anonymous?"

Heero's expression softened without losing its deadliness. "Weren't you opposed to me joining the Preventers six months ago?"

"Still am." Duo's response came sharply. "But since when has my opinion ever stopped you?"

There was a small lull in their conversation as Heero buttered his toast.

"I'm sorry you feel that way," he said at last. "But the very fact that I'm trying to help is all that matters. It doesn't really matter how I do it, as long as I can look back and know I contributed something."

He stood abruptly, his slender form blocking out the sunlight from the window and casting a formidable shadow over Duo.

"Don't break any more windows. I'll be back before nightfall."

Only after he heard the door close shut did Duo realize that, this time, Heero hadn't asked him if he'd like to work down in town too.

And maybe this time... just maybe he did.

Duo didn't even offer words when Heero came home that night, only his help at preparing the meal and setting the small table for two; he didn't trust his voice to say anything that wouldn't be cowardly, angry or rude. He focused instead on Heero's gentle, measured movements, and the increasing familiarity of the sound of the radio at dinnertime.

"In another news, no new leads have surfaced in the search for the peacekeeper-defector responsible for recent vandalism and violent protests against the UESN government. He has been pinpointed as the UESN mediator who resigned from his post in protest during negotiations between the colonies and the earth-sphere government to organize some of the deadliest riots seen since the end of the Eve Wars. The identity of the mediator is still unknown, however --"

Duo leaned over to quiet the words of the newscaster, as he always did. Heero's hand caught him as his hovered over the switch. Startled, Duo quickly withdrew his hand and looked up, perplexed.

"There's no reason to keep ignoring these things," Heero explained without looking up from his meal. "Especially something that started over the relationship between a colony and the Earth Sphere Alliance."

"Oh," Duo mustered.

"And it's not as if either of us is ignorant as to what happened on the colony."

"So you heard about the protest, huh?"

"Snatches."

Duo tapped his fork nervously and looked up, only to wrench his gaze away and rest it on some nondescript piece of furniture the moment he realized looking up meant looking Heero in the eye. "And?"

"And what?'

A shrug. "Well, whaddya think?"

"I'm... sorry."

"Oh." His eyes softened hopefully, "For their plight?"

Heero sighed, carefully studying the rim of his plate. "For human nature."

"Oh," Duo managed again. His gaze strayed further still; a feeling of dread settled in the pit of his stomach. "I see."

He paused, expecting Heero to elaborate without fail, but the solemn youth said and did nothing.

"Why?" Duo said at last, the silence boring down on him.

Heero, leaning his elbows on the table, clasped his hands together tightly and rested his slender chin on the topmost knuckles. His sensitive blue eyes took on a shade of gray as he looked up at last.

"Because, Duo, we made these people realize they had the right to fight for freedom." He sighed. "But in the same fell swoop, we also attempted to create a world where they didn't have to fight to be heard.

"It's a shame they learned their lesson of revolt far too well."

Duo lowered his head and closed his eyes, trying to feel angry at Heero for sounding so logical and wishing he could argue the issue properly, but finding himself at a loss to respond.

"It wasn't necessary to turn so quickly to open protest," Heero continued. "They didn't even attempt negotiation."

"Why should they have? Their resources were being stolen from them!"

Heero's expression became unreadable. "No. An official report merely suggested they should be."

"What's the difference?"

Heero raised an eyebrow, paused, and then narrowed his eyes in a fashion that made x-ray vision seem plausible. Duo's stomach clenched defensively; he felt as if his very innards were being scrutinized. After a time that seemed to wear on forever, Heero pursed his lips into a frown, sighed, and, rising slowly to his feet, left the kitchen. Duo, at a loss to understand his colleague's reaction, slumped back in the seat and stared dully at the drab gray ceiling.

"Well, well, Duo ol' boy," he murmured in irritation, "What stupid thing have you done now?

"I'll say this much," he added, hitching his thumbs into his faded pants' pockets. "If you're in trouble cuz of this, I'm washing my hands of the whole affair, y'hear? You're on yer own."

Some part of him had an urge to leave before such trouble presented itself, and Duo would have been obliged to consider the option if not for the fact that something intangible seemed to hold him where he was, offering no choice in the matter. Weariness, he supposed. Before he could think longer on the matter, the sound of soft footsteps warned him of Heero's return. Heero shuffled quietly into the kitchen, sank into his seat, and pushed an object -- a photo -- across the smooth table.

Duo leaned forward and peered at the picture. The faces of Quatre, Rashid, Relena, Sally, Noin, Dorothy, Catherine, Hilde, and himself were smiling brightly. Heero, Trowa, Wufei, and Zechs regarded the camera coolly. Mariemeia looked lost. It was the photo Hilde had had the audacity to ask for after the Eve War; though all had surely wanted some record, none other had dared request something that almost seemed to make light of such a sombre day.

"That's the difference, Duo." Heero said softly, interrupting the braided vagrant's thoughts, "We tried to make a peaceful world, one where no one's rights would be suppressed, no matter how wrong they were. Granted, the idea to take property from the poor was ridiculous, but it was just a suggestion made within government debate, and had the colonists decided to counter the proposal from inside the system, this error in judgment would have been corrected."

Duo snorted contemptuously, but Heero was unfazed. "As it was, by striking out against the system -- the very system we all decided was our only hope to a peaceful society! -- they were almost asking the government to abandon the principles of lasting peace to deal with the problem at hand. And by giving the government an excuse to break these principles even once, the usefulness of our system is in doubt."

His face grew pained, and he tapped the picture with a slender finger. "If we can't accept that this system was set up so we could make changes without fighting for them, but by working with the government, then all our efforts, Duo -- our efforts!" -- he paused for a breath -- "They were wasted."

Duo cast his gaze away, a sick, wretched feeling squeezing painfully at his ribs.

"So you're saying...?"

Heero didn't return to his seat, but stood less than a foot beside Duo, mug in hand, his expression becoming suddenly gentle. "There was a time to be on the defense, to give one's whole life away for the sake of beliefs, or frustration. But that time has passed.

"And there was a time," he resumed after pausing to take a sip of tea, "To leave every troublesome situation, to run away in search of something temporarily better." Heero's voice grew hushed, and Duo was startled to note some measure of compassion in the tone. "But that time, too, has passed."

"Then what's left?" Duo almost pleaded, the weight in his heart becoming unbearable.

"Sometimes," Heero said firmly, "We have to accept that the future we're creating will stand the test of time, and that all improvements are possible through simple communication." He inclined his head a fraction of a degree, but that tiny tilt seemed to speak volumes. "We don't need to be defensive to get what we want."

Duo folded his arms across his chest and met Heero's gaze defiantly. "Right. So you say. But what guarantee do we have that we can make a difference? How do we know the system can work that way?"

"Well, Wufei and Sally have proven it," Heero started, rising to pour himself another cup of tea, "They're still Preventers, you know, and soon after their negotiator changed sides, they began the process of imposing a law against the seizure of colony lands and resources without majority approval of the occupants."

Duo's boldness fell away, and, stripped bare by Heero's well-argued points, at a loss at last to hide from his stark fears and grief, he found himself turning to ugly resentment. "Yeah, well," he snapped bitterly, "They've both been on the wrong side of things before."

Heero's lips arced into a sharp frown, but, disapproving as his gaze was, he understood the lack of conviction in Duo's voice, and knew it was an angry comment, nothing more.

"If it makes you feel better," he said kindly, "the civilians were only doing what they felt was right. It was unfortunate the negotiator agreed with them, because that made them all the more enthusiastic, and the government all the more irrational, but everyone was only doing what they felt was right, and for the right reasons."

"Like that excuse means a damn when, yanno, as you've so nicely put it, the protest only caused more trouble and nearly destroyed everything we all worked for," Duo argued irritably, "Like, I'm sure the damned negotiator will take it real well, Heero. Just try telling him he fucked everything up and then that he doesn't deserve to be blamed! Ha!"

Duo slumped lower in his chair, glowering viciously at the table as he tried to sort out the whirling, dizzying sensation lodged deep in his stomach and the nausea in his throat. So he had been wrong after all. All he had wanted to do was help the poor colonists, but, apparently, even that kind of good intention couldn't be spared from his irrational stupidity.

'Again,' he reminded himself bleakly before tucking the thought away, trying not to dwell on the notion of repeat failures for too long.

Heero, meanwhile, took to stirring his tea in slow, methodical sweeps with the spoon in his hand. It was some time before his attention could rouse itself from its attentive focus on the constantly broken surface of the dark tea. Then, tapping the spoon on the rim of the mug and putting it aside, he raised his eyes with the most hesitation Duo had seen from him all evening, and carefully, as if hardly sure himself whether he should or shouldn't speak, opened his mouth.

"I think I just did."

Duo paused sharply; his breath shuddered in his throat. Then his eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a dark sneer.

"What?" He hissed.

Heero didn't say anything, only raising the cup to his lips with his lashes lowered.

"What did you say?!" Duo snapped hoarsely, gripping the edge of the table with both hands, his eyebrows raised in indignant disbelief.

Heero set the cup down firmly, and his shoulders rose and sank in a slow sigh. He did not raise his eyes to meet Duo's livid face, nor did he make any action to respond to Duo's heated words. His cool movements, his composed face, even the calm and simple way he placed his fingers against the edge of the china saucer infuriated Duo all the more.

"Oh, for... for Christ's sake!" he cried desperately and pushed himself away from the table, the chair scraping and skidding on the floor. He stumbled to his feet, throwing a helpless glare at Heero's profile, clenching his fists and trying to find the words for his dry mouth.

"How did you..." He stammered, feeling more lost and foolish as each second ticked by. "Where do you get...

"Fuck!" he snarled. "Heero! What the hell?! I thought you said you didn't... know."

Heero, cool and still, was silent.

So Duo -- startled, ashamed and angry -- fled. He stormed angrily to the screen door at the back of the kitchen, making sure it shuddered on its old hinges as he slammed it shut. He threw himself to the edge of the porch; his hands gripped at the railings as he tried desperately to calm himself down. He tucked his chin to his chest and attempted to slow his breathing, but his mind refused to stop whirling, and his heart couldn't pause in its frantic beats enough for him to find purchase in reason.

"Look at you..." he muttered, disgusted. His fingers scraped against the wood of the railing. "Just look at you...

"You said you wouldn't let him get to you...

"You're such a fucking liar."

He kicked at the rails in frustration, and his shaking hands curled into fists. He glared at the setting sun, exquisite over the ocean horizon with its rubies and gold spread out over the glittering blanket of the ocean. It was all too perfect, dammit, and it sure as hell didn't belong to someone as laughable as himself.

He heard the sound of the screen door snapping shut, and the tiny creaks of the boards as Heero approached. Duo, not wanting to face him yet, swung his legs up over the top handrail and perched on the railing with his shoulders hunched and his hands clenched angrily against his thighs.

Heero came up beside him, and out of the corner of his eyes Duo saw him resting his elbows against the porch railing. He seemed to be scanning the deep rosy horizon with calm contemplation, the wind gently slipping through his hair. That serene, unfazed expression on Heero's face made Duo feel all the more ugly and irritable.

"You're lying," Duo snapped finally, exorcising his waspish and cranky feelings in a rush. "You've known all along. I bet you fifty fucking credits you've been following the news as close as the next person."

Heero shrugged. "And what if I have?"

Duo thumped his calves against the railings angrily. "Fucker. It means you've been pretending that you know jack-shit all about why I'm here, when really... you..."

"When really, I know that you've been accused of government conspiracy and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization? When really, I know that //you// were the negotiator?"

"Fuck you!"

"Duo, I don't understand why you're upset," Heero murmured.

"I'm upset because I didn't! -- Fuck! I didn't do any of that shit they said I did," he snapped, raking his fingernails against his thighs. "I left the Preventers. They wanted me to be their fucking middleman and I said 'fine', because I believed I could do something. Maybe I wasn't the right guy for the job, okay?! Fuck yeah, I had biases, but at least I //cared//! Which is more than I can say for some of the jackasses they had sitting at the other end of the table!"

He slammed his fist violently against his thigh, and a shudder coursed up the nape of his neck. "So I said 'Fuck you hypocrites, I'm gonna do something that counts', and they call me a traitor. So I stand up and //say// something for once, just //once//, about what I believe in, and they accuse me of a violent terrorist act."

"They were using you, then. They actually did frame you," Heero's expression was nothing if startled, and in the twilight his eyes seemed very expressive.

"Fuck yeah. I don't blow up the people I fight for, Yuy. That explosion was a fucking mistake. Anyone who knows anything about what the citizens were fighting for could tell you that," he explained, beginning to feel the anger overcome by complete exhaustion. He sighed deeply and propped his forehead against the heels of his hands. "I wasn't about to take the rap for some dip-shit the Preventers couldn't find. I sure as hell wasn't gonna be their fucking scapegoat."

He paused and weighed his next words carefully, continuing with a drowned smirk plastered on his face. "So I ran."

"I see," Heero said slowly, approaching the porch railing. Staring thoughtful at the scraggly turf beyond his house, he leaned his arms against the wood, and then glanced at Duo with an ever so slightly amused countenance. "And...just how exactly was that level of bravado supposed to help the citizens?"

Duo's upper back tensed, and he eyed Heero suspiciously while fighting an urge to lash out.

"Jeez, Heero," he grit his teeth, "Ya sure know how to make me feel like a fucking idiot."

"It's not too late to make the right choices."

"Yeah, that's easy for you to say; it's not your dignity on the line!" He shook his head in disjointed disbelief, rubbing the palm of his hand into his forehead, "Fuck, Heero, if you think I'm gonna give in to every nice-lookin', sweet-talking, know-it-all prick in charge, you're wrong, ya hear?"

Heero's lips curled into a minute smile. "We were talking about the government."

"So was I!" Duo shot back viciously, though his very demeanor became uneasy at the mere suggestion. Rattled, he slid off the railing and paced angrily to the end of the porch.

"Jeez, if you're so gung-ho about this whole thing, why didn't you just become a Preventer like you were gonna?"

"Duo, when the government makes a bad call, the worst thing we can do is to alter our relationship to it, because that gives the government a reason to change its relationship to us."

"That explains why we shouldn't 'try to fight from the outside,' but, if working with the government is so great then why not accept the damn position?"

Heero looked at him long and hard. "Because, to do so right after the negotiator changed sides would've created both a public conflict," -- he paused, his voice dropping to a whisper -- "and a personal one" -- the voice rose again -- "between the two of them, even though they were both fighting for the same thing."

Duo stared right back, a dark glare drawing his brows together, scrutinizing that hard, weighted gaze. "I'm not following you," he said finally, his voice grating harshly.

"Duo," Heero sighed quietly, breaking eye contact.

"What?" Duo snapped, irritated.

"You're not an infant. Please don't make me treat you like one."

"Oh, fuck you," Duo griped, digging his fingers into the railing. He looked away angrily. "You think... you think you need to spell it out for me?"

"Do I?"

"Fuck you, asshole!"

"Answer the question, Duo," Heero persisted, looking him directly in the eye. "Did you, or did you not understand what I just said?"

"Ooh, I understood," Duo laughed, sneering. "You and I --" he jabbed an accusatory finger through the air " -- got fucked over by me. I got it, okay? I got scared and I ran, big fucking deal! And you think you're some kinda hotshot 'cause you got a 'handle' on your feelings? Well, deal with it man, some of us aren't as cool-headed as you!"

"Duo --" Heero's hand started forward, but Duo slapped it away.

"I screwed up, okay!? I screwed up so much I don't even know where to begin! But'cha know what?" He growled, leaning into Heero menacingly, "I ain't going back. I think it's been pretty well proved that there's no place for me, and frankly -- Heero -- I don't give one, single, solitary shit what you, or the government, thinks of me. "

Heero stared calmly in the lingering silence that followed. "I don't believe that," he said finally, a minute smile forming on his lips.

Duo returned the smile with a sardonic sneer of his own. "Huh!" he snorted. "Isn't that... reassuring. You," he forced a smile, sickly sweet, "You don't believe that. You, who got dealt the hand that didn't screw you over. Congratulations, Yuy."

Duo turned away with a sharp laugh. "You're quite the fucking inspiration."

Heero regarded him in silence for a while, resting a slender arm on the railing. Cocking his head ever so slightly to one side, he studied the braided youth with quiet understanding. "They'll let you start fresh, you know, if you admit you acted irrationally."

"Screw it, Heero. I told you, I'm too stubborn to embarrass myself like that!" Duo spun around and glared at Heero. Heero's expression fell into one of hard-set complacency, pupils darkening.

"One way or another you're going to give in, Duo. And if you won't go on your own, there's only one option left."

"Oh yeah?" Duo mustered faltering enthusiasm. "Fine. I'd rather be dragged kicking and screaming anyway."

A flicker of displeasure streaked Heero's face like lightning fire. He drummed his fingers on the banister, thoughtful, before easing his body upright so they stood at opposite ends of the beachside porch.

"Why do you automatically assume the other option is violence?"

Duo's eyebrow twitched inquisitively; then, with an abrupt, cheerless laugh of disbelief, he raised his hands as if searching for an answer.

"Wha-- What the fuck is this, Heero? Are you counseling me?" He shook his head furiously and let his hand fall hard on the wooden railing. "Jesus, Heero, why shouldn't I, huh? It sounded like a goddamned ultimatum, ok? What 'm I supposed to think?"

Heero starting running a hand along the smooth barrier, and his body followed, quickly closing the gap between the two young men.

"I meant that you don't need to go back alone."

"Is that what you're suggesting?" Duo snorted. He watched Heero's face carefully, then scrunched up his nose and scowled. "Now that's a load of crap. Of course I'll be alone! I'm still the only one who has to face the fucking music. It doesn't matter who the hell is hauling my ass back."

"You're assuming you'll be forced back against your will."

"Fuck, Heero, one way or another, everyone who wants something uses force. That's the way of life, ok? Whatever I do, whatever I decide, it'll be under duress. Ya happy now?"

"You seem to know a lot about this."

"Fuck yeah. Born and raised."

"You almost seem to enjoy it, too. Being manipulated, I mean; always having something or someone to fight."

"Look Heero, it's just who I am, kay? You don't spend your whole life fighting the goddamn oppressors and then just wake up one morning and -- poof! -- everything's fucking sunshine. It doesn't work like that, awright?"

"And you're glad it doesn't. Because that would mean you'd have to change. Like the rest of us."

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with how I live, kay?"

"You care to put that to the test?"

"Huh? Dammit, Heero, make sense," Duo scowled, feeling vaguely uncomfortable at the lack of space that seemed to have occurred between Heero and himself.

"All right," and Heero leaned closer still, until his hands were braced firmly on the railing, one behind Duo's opposite hip and the other pressed against the side of Duo's thigh. His face was precariously close and Duo found it suddenly impossible to break eye contact. "Maybe I should speak a language you understand..."

"Uh... Heero..." Duo squirmed; he tried to twist his body away. But Heero raised a hand and grasped Duo's chin with fingers like warm steel before bending forward and crushing his lips to Duo's open mouth.

Duo choked automatically on the startled cry that rose up in his throat when Heero pried his lips open with his strong jaw and persistent fingers and slipped his tongue into Duo's mouth, their teeth clicking and the bar of the porch railing digging into Duo's back like hard iron. Only a few startled seconds slipped by before Duo let out a sharp sound of anger, and violently tried to pull away from Heero's grip; Heero's sharp teeth scraped the inside of his bottom lip.

"Sonuva-!!" He wrested his head free and found the shock had subsided enough to pull back with one fist and attempt to shove it into the side of Heero's face. But Heero, with his dark, unwavering eyes and hot weight still pressed mostly against Duo's body, caught Duo's hand with no visible effort, and without a single flinch.

Duo shuddered, wiping the warm saliva from his lips with his other hand, his fingers trembling with anger and embarrassment. His face felt unbearably hot, and his knees were coltish and watery; he knew he was flushed, he knew he was breathing hard and fast, he knew his eyes were burning, he could feel the pressure behind his glare and he tried to free the sticky words from his throat.

"Y-yo-" he choked, spitting blood, "You...!! 'the fuck?!"

He struggled in Heero's grip, but the other man didn't budge, and that heavy, dark gaze didn't falter for a second. Heero only curled his fingers tighter against Duo's fist and slowly brought it around to pin it behind Duo's back, leaning forward with the movement until his lips were against Duo's ear and the sound of his steady, hot breath pounded half-time with Duo's frenetic heartbeat.

"Who..." -- Heero's voice was like a heavy sigh -- "fights a first kiss from the person they love?"

Duo squeezed his eyes closed, shutting out the sight of Heero's tanned shoulder and smooth collarbone and the beautiful fringe of dark hair so close to his lips.

"I do..." he mouthed, certain he hadn't said it out loud.

"Why?" Heero whispered, and the hand gripping his tightened gently.

Duo swallowed heavily, embarrassed and confused. "I dunno," he mumbled, slumping against the rail, feeling the rage and the fight fall out of him as the sound of the tide and the call of seagulls were swept to his tired ears. "'Cause... 'm... I dunno. Fuck," he moaned. "Canya jus'... lemme alone...?"

There was a sweep of air against Duo's cheek as Heero pulled back, but Duo didn't dare open his eyes. "Duo," Heero said in the heavy silence, and the nearness of his voice made Duo shudder.

"I know what you want. And you can fight back, if you think it makes you look stronger. But understand this," Heero moved in again, even closer, until his thighs were pressed tightly against Duo's and the breath of his intensely low whispers fell hot against Duo's trembling mouth. "If you fight back -- and I'm almost certain you will -- I won't let go. Do you understand?"

Duo could barely even move enough to clench his hands tighter against the rail, let alone find the breath to respond.

"Not this time," Heero growled, his lips brushing Duo's so softly it felt like nothing more than tingling salt-sea air, but the words swept hot breath against Duo's mouth, and he couldn't stop the violent tremble that coursed up his spine. "I won't let you think that you can get away with being scared," Heero continued, letting his lips rub against Duo's with each murmur, "or being defensive, and I'll just let you leave. It won't happen. Believe me... I. Will. Not. Let. You. Go."

The kiss started so slowly and absorbed him so gently, Duo wasn't sure when Heero let go of his hands to press those bronzed fingers against his spine, or even when he himself reached up and found his own palms resting against Heero's warm neck and his own fingers sweeping through Heero's hair. Heero's kiss pulled him in, until everything around him was trembling and everything he felt was infused with Heero's passion. Duo could feel the sea breeze course along his skin like warm bed sheets, and the heat-soaked floorboards of the porch seemed like they were sending jolts of sobbing pleasure up through his bare skin. And when they pulled apart just enough, so that they could still feel the breath of the other on their flushed lips, Duo opened his eyes slowly, to take in all of Heero's face.

"Now..." Heero seemed a little out of breath; his mouth was smiling softly, all bee-stung and light bronze. The gold of the setting sun flushed his cheeks darker than they already looked. "That was a little better..."

Duo stared at him with an incredulous expression, before a long, slow blink brought an uncontained grin of disbelieving happiness to his face. "Fuck you, Yuy," he chuckled softly.

"Mm-hm," Heero murmured, nipping at Duo's upturned lips.

Duo tugged gently at Heero's hair, rubbing the tips of his fingers against the smooth skin of Heero's neck and rested his face in the gentle slope of Heero's shoulder.

"Well... I guess it ain't so bad..." he murmured, feeling his heart leap with every movement of Heero's fingers against his spine.

"What isn't?" Heero whispered, his lips still tickling Duo's ear, and the warm pull of a smile could be heard in his rough voice. Duo pulled back a little, enough to show Heero his face, show him the somber line of his mouth and the complete sincerity he hoped showed through his eyes more than his cracking voice.

"I ain't gonna fight this," he mustered. "I fucked up before, and... goddammit if-!!"

He broke off, desperately finding shelter in Heero's warm kiss and the lean arms that wrapped around his waist.

"I ain't gonna fight this," Duo tried again when he found the breath. "I want it too badly."

"I know," Heero murmured softly, teasing the edges of Duo's mouth with his lips. Taking his arms from around Duo's waist, he reached up and grasped at Duo's fingers still wound around his neck. With gentle, backward steps he led Duo back into the house, only the tips of their fingers touching with the whisper of the night ahead of them. And as the screen door clicked shut, the last rays of the sun faded away behind the waves of the ocean.

It was some time before the twinkle of a well-groomed sky -- ten thousand and three unblemished beauties rejoicing their midnight brilliance in tender silence -- was able to greet him as he stirred from half-sleep. He pried his eyes open, blinking slowly as he adjusted to his surroundings. The closet door was closed, but the one to the hallway wasn't, and dim, artificial light spilled onto the smooth wood floor paneling. It was... comforting, Duo realized.

There was an arm wrapped loosely over his waist; his fingers were still entwined with Heero's. His entire body was joyously warm, the ends of his fingers and toes still deliciously numb. He smiled and exhaled as slowly as he dared; his eyes focused intently on the quilt of stars spread over the world outside the window. The sky was clear, his mind slightly less so, but the soft sound of Heero's breathing reassured him and swept away the cold shudders threatening to slip under the cracks.

"You're all right," Duo whispered hoarsely in the silence of the room, tightening his grip on Heero's fingers. "This... is where you belong."

Slowly, imperceptibly, the sky outside lightened with the first hints of dawn, washed with the cool ice-blue light before the sun lit the clouds and spread diamonds over the ocean. Duo, still lying in bed, his eyes open and a quiet smile still brushing his lips, only noticed when the stars began to be absorbed by the sky. The coarse cry of a seagull swept in from the direction of the beach, and Duo -- with all the stealth and quiet he had ever gathered in his life -- crept from bed, slipping on his old jeans and sweeping a warm kiss over Heero's sleeping cheek, feeling foolishly giddy as he did so.

He swept his loose hair from his sweaty neck as he stepped out from the porch; the chill air, still recovering from the cold winds of the night, tingled against his warm skin; the sand was cool against his still-tender feet. The white clouds swept out like long feathers from the brightening ocean horizon, the slick, slippery pebbles clattered and clicked as the tide rolled over them; seagulls rounded in long, lazy arcs across the shoreline, their wings like sails.

Duo found quiet solace as he settled himself on the sand, facing out onto the brightening ocean, his legs tucked up underneath him, and his hair gentle fanning him with the gradually lifting breeze. The sharp rain and driving wind seemed so distant now, now that he was happy, now that he was sure, now that he had... what? A place? Somewhere to settle in? What was the world now, to him, when it wasn't trying to shake him up or hunt him down?

"Well," he murmured, wrapping his arms around his bare chest, "it ain't fucking paradise..." -- he grinned saucily, his mind slipping off to places visited only hours before -- "but I ain't gonna pretend it's hell..."

Behind him, he heard the soft smack of the screen door closing and then the sound of measured footsteps in the sand. The weight of a warm flannel blanket settled gently over his shoulders, Heero's hands guiding it and holding it in place with all the reassurance Duo needed. They were quiet for a while, and Duo resisted the urge to reach up and hold Heero's hand for dear life when the first rays of the sun slipped up into the clouds.

"Hullo, Duo," Heero said finally, voice recollecting all the inflections of the reuniting of old friends.

"Hey there," Duo grinned, feeling braver, as if they were sharing a very special secret unknown to the rest of the world. He pulled the blanket closer to his chest. "Heero Yuy. What're you doin' all the way out here?"

"Catching up," Heero said. "It's been a while."

"Sure has."

"How have you been?" Heero's hands slipped gently up and down his shoulders.

"Ahh," Duo smiled. "Up and down. You know me. But... ah... I dunno. Things seemed to have settled a bit."

"Well, that's good," even Heero couldn't hide the smile in his voice.

"Yeah, we'll see," Duo teased, fighting to keep his grin from growing any wider. "I needed a new flight plan anyway."

A soft chuckle emanated from Heero, but Duo kept his eyes trained on the growing light in the sky. "And you?" he asked finally.

"Me," Heero considered. "Breaking, building, waking up."

Duo, not able to control himself any more, laughed raucously, rocking back into Heero's warm chest, feeling Heero's fingers tighten pleasantly on his shoulders. "God. We are so full of shit," he chuckled.

"What?" Heero murmured. "You don't think we deserve a chance to try again?"

"Hey-hey, buddy -- relax," Duo admonished teasingly. "I never said that."

Heero ran a hand along the back of Duo's neck, brushing the soft hairs and guiding his fingers gently against the curve of his spine.

"But," Duo continued, tugging briefly at a thread in the blanket, shivering at Heero's touch. "I mean... we shouldn't. Pretend. That we haven't tried this before. Because God knows I need to remember, else I won't know what to do right."

"Duo."

"I just keep thinking I'm gonna run out of second chances."

"We won't need another one."

"No?"

"No."

"You can fucking promise me that?"

And Heero leaned in and kissed him, making gooseflesh rise on his bare arms and that tender ache somewhere in the vicinity of his ribs throb with every heartbeat. The sun rose over the crest of the flat horizon, and the ocean exploded in a display of shivering rose-gold.

"Why is it I keep thinking this was meant to happen?" Duo murmured, raking his fingers through the sand.

"Maybe it was," Heero said, his voice quiet and firm.

"Bullshit," Duo laughed, peering at him furtively. "You don't think that."

Heero shrugged, and his hands tightened on Duo's shoulders. "There's a time and place for everyone," he whispered, two fingers reaching out to brush the sweep of Duo's hair away from his neck. Then he bent close, his breath hot and his words gentle against Duo's ear, and Duo couldn't help but smile.

"Maybe this was yours."


The End
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