by Trixie

Relena was wearing a soft pink pantsuit with a string of pearls around her neck. She looked every bit the world leader that she was, but more than that she really looked like an adult, in a way that Trowa had never considered. They had gone to have their breakfast in a small nook off from the room where the breakfast buffet had been set up, so that they would have privacy. The room was essentially a large window with a table before it, looking out over the exquisitely trimmed garden maze.

Trowa placed his plate on the table reservedly. He had not intended to actually eat this food; he had gotten it for Duo. He had not intended, in fact, to speak to anyone. He had the perfect excuse to get away from any social obligations that might have reared their ugly heads. After all, someone had to take care of Duo.

There was something so confident in Relena's demeanor, he felt drawn along almost magnetically. Even the suggestion that she might be able to shed light on Duo's behavior was enough to entice Trowa to pretend to eat breakfast.

Relena smiled at Trowa, presumably to set him at ease, but it only made him clench his teeth. He didn't have anything to say to her, and he thought that maybe she was waiting for him to speak.

"I'll be blunt with you, Trowa, since we don't know each other that well. I know you've had problems with depression in the past, so I hope you won't be offended if I ask how you and Duo are doing?" Relena politely sliced her sausage into small bites. Trowa found himself fascinated by the gentile dissection.

"What is it that you know about Duo?" Trowa pushed some eggs around on his plate, sorting the crumbles of scrambled eggs into three distinct piles.

Relena sighed nearly imperceptibly, and ate a piece of sausage. "I suppose the main question is, how much do you know about Duo? But I won't ask you that... I just. I would really like to know. How is he doing? Is he still clean?"

Her eyes were so perfectly clear, like crystals floating in milk. Her face was blank and expressionless. The only emotion she conveyed was the tightly reigned concern in her voice.

Trowa found himself caving to it instantly.

Delaying the inevitable, he contemplated a danish. "He drinks. Smokes. Goes out. Takes E... maybe more, I don't know that much about drugs."

Relena's shoulders slumped in a way that could only be described as regal. "I see."

Trowa examined her face carefully for signs of judgment. After a moment, he nodded, and looked down at his coffee. It was black in way that he found disturbingly soothing.

Relena took a sip of her tea carefully, as if it were too hot. "I had hoped... Does Duo still... Do he and Heero still...?"

"Not since he moved in with me." Trowa was amazed at the sound of his own voice. He didn't even sound upset.

"Well, that's good. I had hoped..." Relena's eyes drifted, her gaze turning to the garden vista. There was a wistfulness to her tone that made Trowa stop and look at her.

She really was an effective leader. She just had an unconscious ability to make people pay attention to her.

"I had hoped that things would have been... different... between them. I had hoped..." Relena sighed, and put her hands in her lap. "It seemed like they were such a good match."

Trowa didn't respond. He turned to look outside as well, somewhat disgusted by the excess of sunshine that was just beaming around everywhere. Just the idea of Duo and Heero together made his stomach clench.

"I had thought that maybe they could, I don't know, help each other... Well, that's not the way things turned out, is it? They aren't exactly good for each other." Relena's eyes fell to her hands in her lap, her voice strained.

Trowa narrowed his eyes, directing his ire at a garden gargoyle. "No. I thought *you* were interested in him."

Relena turned her attention back to the table, straightening as she tried to laugh it off. "Oh, well... A girl can be forgiven for her childish infatuations, can't she? At any rate, I knew... I knew as soon as I saw Heero's eyes after he recovered from his injuries from the Barton incident. He and I... just aren't compatible."

She seemed willing to move on, but something vindictive in Trowa made him press the issue. "But you are engaged."

Relena blushed right down to her roots. "Ah, yes, well... He is doing me a favor. It is... generous of him, I suppose, but it is also, in a way, no more than he owes me."

Trowa hid his intrigue jealously. "He owes you?"

She joined her hands, tenting her arms and resting her chin on her knuckles. Smiling coyly, she sighed. "That's part of a long story. But tell me... You and Duo are in therapy together, right? Has he talked to you, or in sessions, about his past, about how his troubles started?"

"Troubles?" Trowa's eyes pierced into Relena's relentlessly. "I think those began when he was orphaned as a toddler on the streets of L2."

Relena flushed again, which caused her to lose the look of authority and maturity. "I meant... well, obviously, but I was referring... Oh, dear, I'm doing this all wrong, aren't I?" She shifted in her seat and rearranged her napkin on her lap. "Let me start over again.

"It began five years ago. There was a movement in the colonies to resurrect White Fang, at least politically. It was called True Justice. They believed that the accords that were signed after the war and the Barton incident were nothing more than continued efforts on the part of the governments of Earth to enslave the colonies. They wanted to continue the work my brother had done in White Fang, and gain the rights of self-determination for the colonies." Her voice was steady and direct, her eyes unblinking. Trowa had the uncomfortable sense that she was telling him something that was very important.

"Of course, the UESA Colonial Accords of AC 202 pretty much made the whole issue moot as it gave each colony all the rights and privileges of any nation. But, even though their goals had been accomplished, and the party disbanded, there was still funding being funneled into the organization. Commander Une decided to launch an investigation, which discovered that..." Relena's eyes became distant, and her hands moved absently over the tablecloth. "The political party was just a front so that they could get information.

"It was actually a cabal, a would-be triumvirate of men who had been leaders in White Fang. The man who was at the center, the instigator, was called Fabian Lestarte. He had been in White Fang, and before that, he had worked under my brother in Oz." Relena sighed just a little, her eyes shifting downward in some form of modesty.

Trowa nodded, his lips curling into a smile of understanding. "Your brother does have a habit of inspiring fanaticism."

This seemed to depress Relena, but Trowa could hardly be bothered with feeling guilty over telling the truth. "That is certainly true. This man Lestarte, he was conceivably the only person in the known universe who *actually* believed that my brother to be dead." Trowa could not help smiling at that, and bolstered by the effectiveness of her little joke, Relena plowed onward with more energy. "He got together with two of his closest comrades from White Fang, a man named Julius Crane and another man named Crandall Desmond, and he plotted revenge for my brother's death. Naturally, he blamed *me* for my brother's actions, and Commander Une's investigation found evidence that the cabal was planning on attacking me.

"Now, there are plenty of people out there who want me dead, and the Preventors are keeping an eye on all of them, but Lestarte was found to have obtained from various sources the makings of a dirty bomb, which he was keeping in New New York, where the Peace Summit Meetings were to be held to celebrate the Colonial Accords and help integrate the colonial governments into the UESA. Une decided that they could not wait for any judicial process.

"She signed an order for assassination." Relena sighed with acceptance, and she picked up her tea, draining the cup quickly. "She had no choice. There were just too many innocent lives in danger to worry about details. I suppose... If my brother had not been out of transmission range, he could have been called in, but... As I said, there were too many people in danger to be bothered with details.

"Heero was called in. He was an assassination expert. He was supposed to be the best for the job." Relena smiled, and Trowa was struck by how strange it was to see Relena being sardonic. "And he did his job well. He tracked them down, found their hideout, tracked and recorded their movements... He was ready for the kill. He had them in his sights, and he was ready to take them all down in three quick shots, Lestarte first. But..."

Trowa absently ate a forkful of eggs. More than the story, the tone of her voice and the way her eyes drifted over the table entranced him. She had become so mature, but she was still the same girl he had known in the war. There was a trace of disillusionment in her voice, and Trowa felt an unaccountable kinship with her. He had once had Heero Yuy on a pedestal as well.

Relena's eyes were distant, a small warmth making her cheeks plump as she spoke. "He had sworn that Mariemaia was the last person he was ever going to kill, and he couldn't bring himself to kill again, even though he knew it was necessary. He couldn't stop himself, though, before he pulled the trigger, so instead he jerked the gun so that he would miss the target. He didn't kill anyone.

"But he did alert them to his presence." Relena sighed heavily. "After that, they became impossible to find. They had bunkered themselves in their hideout, and there was no way to get to them without going in.

"The Preventors' needed an expert in infiltration and execution, someone who could slip in unseen and get past some of the best security in the world."

Relena's voice got slower, betraying a weariness that suggested a sense of guilt. Trowa felt something dark eating at his gut.

"Duo often did jobs for the Preventors, often ones that were completely top secret. Given his past, he was the most logical choice. Chang Wu Fei was never good at stealth, and no one else would was 100% reliable was available." Relena took a deep breath, and smiled wryly. "He was perfect.

"And he did the job, perfectly. Within four days of being assigned, and two days before the Peace Summit Meetings, he was able to bring down all three of the conspirators, and he took down their headquarters, which was an abandoned office complex in a run down section of town."

Relena seemed to be holding back tears, which puzzled Trowa, though not enough to actually try to comfort her or speak. He waited patiently for Relena to compose herself, while slowly eating more eggs.

"Afterwards, though, he seemed to be in shock. It was an unpleasant mission, and he had had to kill three people in cold blood..." She cleared her throat, and shook her head, a small smile turning up the corner of her lips. "He was so... heroic. But the toll... the toll had been great. He became withdrawn, he refused to talk about his mission in any detail, and he was alternately hostile and defensive. It was at this time that he and Heero met again for the first time since the end of the last war. At first, I had hopes that the two of them could heal the wounds the wars and their lives had left them with, but... Heero was so angry, with himself for failing in his mission, and with Duo, for completing the mission. And Duo... Duo seemed to *want* to be punished."

She made a girlish show of dabbing at her eyes with her lace handkerchief. Trowa swallowed down his disgust with some cold toast. An unreasonable anger bubbled inside of his chest. She had caused Duo pain, and made Duo the man he was today. Unwittingly, of course, but that didn't excuse her. Oh, it had been that terrorist, of course, but it had been protecting *her* that got Duo into trouble. It was always about her protection, and Trowa couldn't help but feel that if she were less feeble, a lot of trouble could have been spared.

"They... they became involved, but there was obviously... obviously something wrong. And the longer they were together, the... the worse it seemed to get. And then it became clear that Duo was using." Relena sighed, her shoulders shaking as if she were holding in sobs.

Trowa tossed his napkin down on the table, sick of listening to her babble.

"I pushed Une to offer him a permanent position with the Preventors once Hilde fired Duo for losing his license. There was... an accident. So, you see, I'm responsible for the troubles Duo has had recently, and I want you to know... I want *him* to know... anything I can do, anything at all, to help, please, all either of you have to do is ask. He's my hero, you know?"

She tried to smile at him, but Trowa's eyes were narrowed dangerously. "He's your hero, is he? I suppose a good pacifist needs someone like him, a garbage collector, as it were, to take care of the unpleasant things in life. Doesn't really matter what he's gone through to ensure your safety, as long as you and your powerful friends can lead a peaceful life, the torment of the people who built that peace is secondary, right?" Trowa's voice was unusually lively, and he felt like he was unwinding a bit as he spoke. He closed his mouth into a tight line when he had his peace, unwilling to let go any more.

"Oh!" Relena's eyes widened, and her hand drifted to her mouth, her shock evident. "No, that's not what I meant at all!" She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her actions erratic. "No, no, that's not what I meant at all! I meant, he *knew*, you see? He *knew* what he was getting into, what it would cost him, and he did it anyway. He didn't do it for me, he did it for *peace*, for the people... because someone had to, and he didn't want anyone else to have to suffer. *That's* why he's my hero, because he's just so... so... *noble*. I mean, really noble. I'm sorry, I'm not being very coherent..."

Trowa struggled for a moment, looking to the ceiling as he resisted the inevitable. "No, I'm sorry. I made an unfounded assumption."

Relena's whole body bled relief. "I don't know if there is anything I can do, but please, remember, if there *is* anything, just... just ask, all right?"

Trowa spared a moment to look her in the eye. She was desperate, begging him. He sighed. "I can't promise you anything. I don't know... I don't know if he wants anyone to *help*."

"I know. But if something comes up, anything at all...?" She leaned forward in her seat, pushing her stomach against the edge of the table so that her chest was practically in her plate.

Trowa looked away, annoyed. "We'll see."

Relena smiled brightly, as if he had just promised to grant her all her wishes for the next fifty years. "Thank you! Here, let me give you my card... I'll write my private number so that you can reach me at any time at all... Here." She wrote down the number quickly, and then handed him the card with a grin.

He took it resignedly. "Thank you."

She stood up, and walked around the table to kiss Trowa on the cheek.

Trowa was so stunned, he remained seated for the whole procedure.

"Thank you, Trowa. I really hope... Well, I hope that you and Duo are both happy. I think..." She blushed, her cheeks like apples as she smiled. "I think you two are very sexy together." She winked at him, and then rushed out of the breakfast nook, moving quickly as she chuckled to herself.

Trowa just sat there, stupefied.

Scowling, he stood up and gathered up what remained of Duo's bagel and danish. This morning had not gone as he had planned.

He kept to the shadows and walked quickly through the halls, hoping not to be caught again. Relena had confused him, and he needed time to process.

There had been a mission, and Duo had succeeded where Heero had failed. That explained a lot. Duo had gone into some sort of shock afterward, and had become a junkie. That explained less, although Trowa supposed that other people might be less blase about murder than he was.

Relena considered Duo a hero.

Trowa found himself not disagreeing with that.

When he opened the door to their room, he found that there was an odd tingling beneath his skin. He needed to touch Duo, to hold him, and to fuck him madly.

The room was full of filtered sunshine, the thin curtains still drawn, though the thick brocades had been pulled back. Duo was flat on his stomach on the bed, just as Trowa had left him, his messy braid trailing like a snake losing its skin over his back. At the sound of the door opening, Duo groaned, and shifted as if he were trying to turn over, but not quite making it.

Trowa put the rolls down on the table next to the bed, and crawled over Duo, flopping on the other side of the bed with relish, stretching his legs out in front of him. Leaning on his elbow, he looked down at Duo, lightly running his fingers around Duo's hairline, pushing the thick braid off to the side.

One sleepy eye cracked open, and Duo grinned up at Trowa with half his face. "Took you long enough. Didja bake those danishes yourself? Didja hafta track down real Danish people?"

Trowa smiled gently, suddenly very fully aware of Duo's nudity, and his scarred beauty. His fingers moved to trace Duo's tattoo, and he watched with abject wonder.

Duo sighed sleepily. "Are you trying to seduce me, Mr. Barton?"

Trowa did not respond verbally. He let his hands drift down the skin of Duo's flanks, and he tasted the skin over Duo's spine with a long, wet lick.

Duo woke up with a groan. "Oh, you *better* be seducing me..."

"Now, why would I want to do that?" Trowa put his hands on Duo's hips, and opened his mouth, putting his tongue and his teeth on Duo's ass, sucking gently on a large mouthful.

Duo nearly flipped over, except for Trowa's control of him. "Now you damn well *better* be seducing me!"

Trowa rested on his side, grinning at Duo as he lazily ran his hands over Duo's ass. "Don't you think we should get dressed? I think there were planned activities on the agenda."

"The only planned activity on your agenda is screwing me, boy." Duo sat up, grabbing for Trowa's wrists. "And you are way too overdressed as it is."

Trowa wrestled with Duo, slipping out of his grip and pinning flipping him over, pinning him to the bed as he held Duo's hands above his head. Duo squirmed under him, arching his back to push his erection into Trowa's pants. "Please, Trowa."

Trowa looked down into Duo's eyes, wide and vibrantly colored. Duo's skin was flushed, begging to be touched and tasted and kissed and sucked. Duo's hair trailed off the bed, wildly out of place. Duo's long, slim neck was arched, the lines of his trachea visible, his Adam's apple bouncing as he swallowed hard. Duo's nipples were peaked and bright pink. Duo's legs were attempting to wrap around his waist, wriggling like the tentacles of an octopus as they enveloped him. Trowa kissed Duo's arms beneath the wrist, kissed the inside of his elbows, kissed his shoulders, along his collarbone, up his neck, his chin, and then his mouth, sucking on Duo's lips and tongue. "I am very pleased, yes." Trowa's voice was unrecognizably throaty, and his body shook with his emotion.

Duo laughed, a manic, breathy sound. He arched and thrashed in Trowa's hands. "Oh, yeah, baby, please, please, please, let go, let me take your clothes off..."

Trowa grinned. "No." He pushed his tongue in Duo's mouth, and lay his body down on Duo's naked flesh. Duo groaned, and ground himself against Trowa's body. Trowa ran one hand down Duo's flank, and in between Duo's legs.

Duo screamed as Trowa took a hold of his balls gently, and then Duo dug the top of his head into the mattress as he arched his hips even higher up into Trowa's hips. Trowa pushed his hand back, and circled Duo's anus with his thumb.

"Do you want me?" Trowa spoke into Duo's ear, keeping his voice as level as he could.

"*Please*, damn it, Trowa, fuck!" Duo writhed, throwing his leg around Trowa's waist, digging his heel into the small of Trowa's back.

"Fuck, Duo?" Trowa pulled up, groaning, and used his free hand to open his pants. He pulled Duo up, flush against his chest, and threw Duo's arms around his neck. Duo helpfully began to chew on his neck, which did incite Trowa into sitting up on his knees, pulling Duo's hips against him.

"Lube?" Duo panted, opening the buttons on Trowa's shirt quickly.

Trowa grunted, and leaned back long enough for Duo to finish opening his shirt and for him to grab the lube and condoms off the nightstand. Trowa pushed his shoulder blades against the wall above the headboard, and he pushed his pants down to his knees. Duo put his knees on the pillows, straddling Trowa's waist, and quickly lubed up Trowa's cock and his anus.

Trowa pushed into Duo, and Duo pushed down into Trowa. There was sound, and heat, and sensation. Trowa dug his fingers into Duo's hips, and opened his mouth to scream, though no sound came out. He thrust against Duo's body, and his brain prickled with the perfection of the friction.

Duo moved like a wild man. Trowa's eyes were closed tightly, but he could feel Duo's panicked movements. He could taste Duo's sweat. He pushed into Duo's body, and he felt like Duo was seeping into his own.

When he came, he made a noise like a balloon deflating slowly. It was a pristine moment.

He opened his eyes.

Duo was draped over his chest, his sweaty hair sticking to Trowa in thin threads. Duo was heaving, unable to suck enough air into his lungs, his hands on Trowa's arms weakly.

"I'm awake now, Tro."


"Kinda hungry for breakfast now."

"It's there on the table."




"I talked to Relena. That's what took so long."

"Oh?" Duo tensed minutely. "What'd ya talk about?"

Trowa sighed, letting the bad air drain out of him. "I think she thinks about us naked."

Duo smiled, and then he started to laugh.

Trowa closed his eyes, and slept.

Duo's wardrobe continued to amaze Trowa. Today, he was bedecked in a black velvet jacket that went down to his knees, a black silk shirt, and black pants of some shimmering material that begged for Trowa to touch it. He did, several times, before they left their rooms, but when the afternoon started to edge its way to the evening, Trowa decided it was time to leave the protection of their rooms.

There were planned activities spanning the whole day, but naturally, they were all voluntary. Most people seemed to prefer to lounge around the many private sitting rooms in the palace and talk. Without question, there were dozens of political and financial deals being made as Trowa and Duo made their way around the hallways, looking to find someone else that they knew.

Trowa steered them to the billiards room, figuring that since the 'group' had been having such a great time there yesterday, there was a good chance that they were there again today.

Duo had his hands in his pockets as he walked, and he was whistling quietly under his breath. It was a soft, off-tune, breathy sound that annoyed and excited Trowa at the same time. He retaliated by staring straight ahead and ignoring Duo completely.

It didn't bother Duo nearly as much as Trowa would have liked, but he didn't care enough to try harder.

They got to the billiards room with little difficulty, asking only one maid for directions. As Trowa had expected, the room was occupied entirely with people from their former group of allies. Sally and Wu Fei were currently holding court at the table, and Miss Noin and Quatre were chatting politely in the corner as they watched.

Duo smiled and waved, offering a cheery hello, which was returned by Sally and Wu Fei. Quatre's gaze immediately went to Trowa in something that appeared to be reproach, and Miss Noin's back stiffened, and she made a quick exit.

Trowa watched her go without interest. Noin was someone that he never thought about, and therefore had no emotional reaction to at all. Sally scowled as she left, and Wu Fei looked honestly confused.

Quatre turned to Duo. "What was that about?"

"Why are you blaming me?" Duo asked with some amusement. "Maybe it's Trowa she objected to."

Quatre looked as if he seriously did not believe that to be possible.

Duo shrugged, moving quickly to the small bar on the left side of the room. "I don't know what her problem is. Miss Noin hasn't liked me for a while. I don't know, maybe it's because she's so protective of Relena, and she feels like, somehow, I'm a bad influence or something. Maybe she's just a bit leery, because of where I'm from. Or," Duo affected a thoughtful look as he poured himself a large glass of port. "Perhaps she's still upset about that time I gave Zechs a blowjob."

Wu Fei scuffed his cue over the green felt of the table, blowing his shot, and Sally laughed so hard she nearly fell over. Quatre cried out, "Duo!"

Trowa inched closer, intrigued.

"What?" Duo asked Quatre, innocently. "Do you think that was it?"

Quatre's face was turning beet-red, and one could have been forgiven for mistaking him for an embarrassed virgin. "Duo! How could you? Have you no shame, getting involved with someone in a relationship? That's really crude, Duo."

Duo was not affected by Quatre's assessment of his moral character, but he did make a face at the port before he continued to drink. Trowa was now standing next to Duo, his arm stretched behind Duo on the bar. Duo answered Quatre as an afterthought to his bitterly sweet drink. "Well, Q, if Zechs was really that involved, wasn't *he* the crude one, to drop his pants for the first person who came along?"

Quatre sputtered, and Trowa smirked. Leaning closer to his lover, Trowa asked casually, "So, Zechs. What was that like?"

Duo turned, a little surprise brightening his eyes. "Oh, I don't really remember that well. I was as high as a kite at the time. Why, you have a thing for the Lightning Count?"

Trowa shrugged, dismissively. "He's hot, I suppose. Just quite a conquest, really."

Duo poked Trowa in the ribs, smiling wickedly. "You just want to know if you're bigger."

Trowa examined his fingernails absently. "Oh, do you remember that much at least?"

"This is not appropriate!" Quatre sputtered, his face red and his arms shaking at his sides.

Sally stopped laughing long enough to sigh. "Ah, Lu is a really a great person, Duo, but she does tend to get a bit irrational where that man is concerned. Sorry for the trouble."

"You don't need to apologize for her," Wu Fei snapped. "If she cannot keep her head level on her own, it is her own concern. That woman..."

Sally thwacked Wu Fei on the rear, causing him to miss another shot. "That wasn't a misogynistic comment again, was it, Fei-Fei?" Her eyes sparkled as she watched Wu Fei's face bloat with rage.

"Woman, I told you to stop calling me that! And I wasn't talking about all flighty, irresponsible, emotional women, just one! Now back off!" Wu Fei's hand was clutching the cue hard enough to crack it, and the end quivered from his rage.

Duo looked them over as he finished off the nasty port, grinning. "Wow. She's really got you wound up, Chang. I mean, it's great, really. There's an age difference there, but I've heard that older women really know their stuff, right?" He winked at Sally, who winked back, choking back her laughter.

"*Maxwell*!! What are you suggesting?" Wu Fei was so horrified, he actually dropped his cue.

Trowa leaned forward and kissed Duo on the cheek. "I'm going to call Catherine. Wish her a happy Christmas."

Duo caught Trowa's wrist before he could leave. "Give her a thrill, why don't ya, and actually sit in front of the damned camera for a change."

Trowa smirked, and walked out as Quatre started to lecture Duo.

He went to find a servant, rather than a 'phone, as he didn't want to take a liberty that wasn't being offered. In the main hall, there was a butler who was able to direct him to a communications room. Trowa sat down at the desk, flicking the 'phone on, and looked around a bit nervously.

He wasn't thinking at all about the fact that he was following Duo's order automatically, but he wasn't entirely comfortable in the small room. The walls were paneled with dark wood, and the ceiling was painted a warm brown. It was confining.

He fumbled as he tried to dial the number, not remember the exchange properly because he was so used to using the programmed dial on his home system. He had to go through the directory to be sure that he was getting the right number, and he had to wait for it to ring six times before she answered.

He was so startled by her face popping up on the screen, that he didn't say anything in greeting.

"Trowa!" Catherine was stunned as well, staring at her 'brother' for long moments before she could react. "Trowa!! What a wonderful surprise! You look good; you look great, actually. Wow, you're hair has gotten long, hasn't it? How are you, are you having a good Christmas break?"

Trowa rubbed his palms over his thighs, nervous. "Catherine. Happy Christmas."

"Thank you!" Catherine was beaming brighter than the gaudy tree in the corner of her trailer. "It's so good to *see* you and hear from you, Trowa. It's been too long."

Trowa shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. "I would have come to visit you for the holiday, maybe, but this thing came up..."

"Oh, man, would I love to be there with you! All those famous, important people... Remember that you are one of them, Trowa, and represent the colonies well. I know... I know you don't really consider them home, but we are all very proud of you here, so please remember that."

Trowa nodded, keeping his head ducked down.

"How is Duo? He's there with you, right?" Catherine leaned forward, smiling eagerly.

Trowa smiled just a little. "Yes. He's... good."

"If you had come to visit, I could have met him properly." Catherine sounded wistful. "I know that I wasn't... supportive when you first told me about your relationship, but I suppose I still remember him as the boy who tried to get you back into the fighting of the war so long ago. You'd think that I would dislike Quatre, since he was actually successful, wouldn't you?" She laughed.

Trowa wasn't amused. "It was my choice, Catherine."

"I know." She sobered instantly. "I'm sorry, Trowa. I always say the wrong things, don't I?"

He shook his head carefully. "Not always."

She smiled at him brightly. "I'm glad that you called. Ten years already... hard to believe, isn't it?"

Trowa rubbed at his forearms absently, looking off to the left. "Yes."

"The Ringmaster still won't let us perform any time near Christmas, for fear of it." She laughed again, although it was clear that she didn't find it funny. "Peace is a good thing."

Trowa bit his tongue before he could reply.

Catherine sighed, although Trowa could not tell over the 'phone line whether she was happy or not. "Thank you for calling, Trowa. I wouldn't have known how to get a hold of you myself."

Trowa nodded, and chewed on his lip. "It's... good to hear from you, too. Everything ok?"

Catherine took a deep breath as if she was preparing to launch into the whole story, and then she just let the breath out. Smiling, she replied, "Everything is great, Trowa."

He nodded. "Good."

"How are you, really?"

He didn't look at her. "Don't worry about me, Catherine. I'm taking care of myself now."

He didn't see how she responded, and it was a few moments before she spoke again. "I know, Trowa, but forgive me if I still worry about you. I love you, you know."

Trowa's chin dropped until it was nearly touching his chest. "Yes, I know."

Catherine sighed, content. "Well! We shouldn't take advantage of Her Majesty's generosity. Thank you for calling, Trowa, and I hope that you have a very happy Christmas indeed. Call me again on New Year's, all right?"

Trowa nodded, and smiled just a little for her. "Thank you. You too. And I will."

"Love you, Trowa..." Catherine waited for him to disconnect, which he did with a small amount of reluctance.

He stayed in front of the monitor until he could stand up confidently.

He wandered around the hallways a little, not heading for the billiard's room directly. It was totally by accident that he ran into Duo as he turned a blind corner.

Duo grinned, seemingly expecting to find Trowa right there. "Hey, finally. We're supposed to go to some picture thing or something." Duo rolled his eyes. "Heero came to inform us, and then throw in how disappointed he was in us for breathing." Duo rolled his eyes with a grin, taking Trowa's arm loosely.

Trowa let himself be led, although he felt as though his body was leaden. "Pictures?" Trowa wished that Duo had picked out his clothes, so that he would feel as confident as Duo looked.

Duo just sighed. "It's no big deal. Some press thing. Afterwards, there is this reception thing before the big dinner thing, and then another night of boredom thing. Hopefully, they'll have better liquor."

Trowa nodded abstractly, and followed Duo's lead unquestioningly.

It was chaos, directed by a photographer.

They were posed and positioned. There was much chatter as they each dutifully got into place, but it was the harried noise of people being shepherded into an order that was not their own. Heero scowled and held up each photograph until the photographer finally accepted the fact that he wasn't going to smile. Quatre kept making weak jokes that he expected people to laugh at, and Wu Fei's patience got thinner and thinner until the photographer feared him as much as he feared Heero.

Duo kept casually slipping his hand down the back of Trowa's pants unobtrusively.

Finally, most of them were dismissed and only Relena, Heero, and some dignitaries were left behind for more pictures, and they made their way, en masse, to the reception.

Duo went straight for the tables of champagne. Trowa trailed after him, mostly because Quatre was trying to get him to go in the opposite direction. Duo downed one glass quickly, and snagged a few more as he stepped away. Trowa took one glass, simply so that Duo didn't have to hold both of them at once.

Wu Fei had gone to join the small knot of people from the Preventors, and Trowa saw that Commander Une was there with a girl that must have been Mariemaia. Quatre had his arm around the thin waist of an extravagantly elegant young woman of strikingly exotic Arabian features.

Duo nudged Trowa with his elbow and indicated the direction of his gaze by jutting out his chin. "Is that Quatre's wife?"

Trowa did not sigh, because he clamped his jaw shut in response. "Yes."

"Hm, she's pretty." Duo sounded distracted. "Pity he doesn't feed her. I don't think that's very nice."

Trowa lowered his head to prevent any possible humor from being expressed.

"Either that, or she's a heroine addict, in which case I think it's not nice of her not to share." Duo sniffed, raising his chin and his nose in derision. "At the very least, Q could stop looking down his nose at me for enjoying pleasure."

Trowa put his hand on the small of Duo's back, and rubbed his thumb in a circle. "Let's go meet them."

Trowa had never met, or cared to meet, Quatre's wife. She was considered to be quite a prize, and a coup for the young heir to the Winner fortune to have won. She had a PhD in astrophysics, and was a beauty queen in her youth.

She was perfect for Quatre in almost every way, and Trowa resented her for every virtue.

He slipped his arm around Duo, and squeezed his hand on Duo's hip, pulling Duo closer. Duo complied easily, and Trowa imagined that Duo understood perfectly what he was thinking. They waited patiently for Quatre to have a free moment from the throng that automatically swarmed around him.

As pleased as Quatre was to have Trowa coming over to visit with him, he was overtly less pleased to see Duo there as well. Good breeding overruled poor judgment, and he treated both of his former comrades relatively the same.

"Trowa! Duo. Please, let me introduce you to my wife, Malakeh. My dear, this Trowa Barton, the first person I ever met who could pilot a Gundam excepting myself. And Duo Maxwell, another ally." Quatre released his wife's hand to Trowa with a grin, his eyes shining as brightly as a child who was hoping that an old friend and a new friend would become fast friends themselves.

Trowa took her hand, and not knowing what protocol might be in this situation, merely squeezed it as he bowed briefly. As soon as he had released her hand, Duo took it, bowing fully from the waist to kiss her hand on the knuckles.

"My lady," he murmured quietly, "it is a great pleasure to meet you. I trust your parent's feel their high hopes for you have been met."

Malakeh started, and then blushed with pleasure. "Thank you, sir." She smiled at Quatre, putting her hand on Quatre's arm demurely. "No one has ever made me feel more like a queen than my king, and husband."

"How..." Duo smiled, too brightly and too effusively to be real, and Trowa cleared his throat to keep from smirking in response to Duo's sarcasm, "sweet. Love is such a beautiful thing, isn't it?"

Quatre's eyes narrowed, but again, his ability to detect and identify mockery was impeded by his lack of experience. "Thank you, Duo. I think we are both quite lucky to have found each other."

"Oh, I know what you mean," Duo replied, looking up at Trowa in a parody of adoration.

Trowa was definitely having a good time.

Quatre started to cough, leaving a confused Malakeh to pat him uselessly on the back while Trowa smirked. Duo cleared his throat diplomatically, and offered Quatre a black handkerchief, which he refused.

Wu Fei displayed an excellent sense of timing, and showed up with Sally at his elbow just then. Quatre reintroduced Malakeh to Wu Fei and Sally, and polite, inane chatter filled up the time until the dinner bell discreetly rang.

Trowa watched as Duo managed to snag six glasses of champagne in that time. Quatre noticed too, and tried to give Trowa a sympathetic look, but Trowa purposefully did not acknowledge Quatre's glance.

The dinner was very much like the one the previous night, only the speeches were longer and more boring. Duo drank at least as much as he had before, but he was different. Whereas yesterday he had been jovial and bubbly, tonight he seemed restrained and bitter.

Trowa put his hand on Duo's thigh from time to time, squeezing gently, but he wasn't sure whether Duo found it comforting or not.

There was a grand ball as soon as the dinner was over, the music swelling loudly as the doors to the ballroom were opened. Relena and Heero ceremonially danced the first dance, although Heero looked supremely uncomfortable throughout. Halfway through the song, more couples joined them on the floor, including Quatre and Malakeh who glided effortlessly together, and the party was in full swing.

Duo would have been content to hold up a corner of the open bar with Trowa, but as soon as the first dance ended, Relena swept over determinedly and dragged Duo off for a dance. Trowa watched Relena's white sparkling gown sweep over the floor, brushed occasionally by the black of Duo's pants.

They actually made for a very attractive couple, and Trowa could see people murmuring from all around the perimeter of the dance floor, their eyes glued to the queen and her dance partner. Trowa imagined that by the time the ball was over, and they had all toasted for Christmas, there would rumors flying all the way out to L5. Perhaps when Relena was ready to retire from the public life, and break off her engagement with Heero, those rumors would resurface, and people would quietly come to the conclusion that Duo had broken up the Perfect Couple.

Trowa sipped Duo's gin and tonic nonchalantly. He considered how things might have turned out if a million little things were different. If Relena had been freer, and spent more time with Duo after his traumatic mission, if Heero had not gotten involved in Duo's life, perhaps then Duo would have fallen in love with Relena, and they would preparing for their real wedding.

The thought tied Trowa's stomach into a twisted knot, and he drank down the last of Duo's drink without pleasure.

One dance ended, and another began. Sally dragged Trowa out onto the dance floor, and it was several dances later before he was able to extricate himself from the crowds and leave the dance floor again. He scanned the floor for Duo, but he saw no sign of a long black coat or braid, so he circled the room, keeping close to the walls to avoid attention as much as possible.

His eyes caught a flash of something intimately familiar, and he fixed his attention on the far corner of the ballroom. Heero's back was facing the room, but Duo's face was visible. Duo seemed quite consternated, and he was fidgeting as if he were keeping his eyes sharp for an escape. Heero was unavoidably aware of this, however, and he kept pressing Duo back, into a nook that lead somewhere that Trowa could not see.

Trowa narrowed his eyes, and made to follow, but he found his way blocked after he took only a few steps.

"Trowa!" Quatre brushed his bangs aside, beaming. "I was hoping I could take a few minutes of your time."

Trowa watched as Heero and Duo disappeared from view. "This isn't a good time, Quatre."

Quatre sighed, and wore that look that reminded Trowa of an impatient schoolteacher. "But it's never a good time, is it, Trowa?" He took Trowa's wrist, and determinedly headed off to a private room.

Trowa's wrist was getting pinched in Quatre's grip, and the only way for him to break free was to make a scene. He would have done so anyway, but a sense of defeat silently killed any intention of refusal.

Quatre lead them through the maze of people and hallways until he had located a small drawing room that was unoccupied. He sat down on the small, cushy sofa, pulling on Trowa's wrist so that he sat down next to him.

"Thank goodness," Quatre gushed, "I had begun to think that we would never get any time together."

Trowa did not react to Quatre's beaming expression.

"Trowa, I really want to talk to you. I've been... I've been so worried about you." Quatre put his hand on Trowa's thigh, and looked up at Trowa with what could only be described as watery eyes.

Trowa felt a bit repulsed, but he had no room to inch away from Quatre, nor could he bring himself to touch Quatre's hand to remove it.

"I mean, I keep thinking about your... your... I keep thinking about, I mean, what had happened to you, and what *might* have happened... And I can't help but feel like I'm responsible."

Trowa was immediately concerned with the possibility that Quatre might start crying on his shoulder.

Quatre picked up Trowa's hand, and caressed it between his own. "Trowa, the truth is, I still love you as much as I ever did."

Trowa did not doubt that in the least, although he was now uncertain as to what that meant about their relationship in the past. He gently pulled his hand out of Quatre's grasp, but that only caused Quatre to move even closer into Trowa's personal space.

"And I think about you all the time. I wish that we could... I wish that we could just bridge whatever gap there is between us, so that we could maybe *connect* like we used to. Don't you miss that, Trowa?" Quatre was so earnest and needy, it almost reminded Trowa of what attracted him to Quatre in the first place.

It was like looking down at the world from the sky. Everything made sense, but he was distanced from it. "I used to."

Quatre flinched, turning his face away as if he had been struck. "I've hurt you."

Trowa thought about it. "No." It was true, really. What he had expected and not gotten from Quatre was not his to expect. It wasn't that Quatre had hurt him; he had been hurt long before he knew Quatre.

"I have, and now there's this distance between us that I never wanted. And you're with Duo..." Quatre choked on his words, raising his hand to his mouth, overcome with emotion.

Oddly, Trowa envied Quatre's melodramatics.

"I just don't understand it. You and he... you have nothing in common. What could possibly draw you to him?" Quatre did not disguise his horror or his regret.

"He is great in bed." Trowa wasn't offering an excuse, but he did wish that he were here with Duo instead.

Quatre turned to face Trowa, folding one leg under him as he leaned over Trowa's body. "Give me another chance, Trowa, and I'll promise that I won't disappoint you this time." He put his hand on Trowa's heart, and leaned forward, putting his face right in front of Trowa's. "I can erase all your pain and doubt, and give you everything you ever wanted. Please, Trowa, just let me in..." Quatre leaned forward, his eyelids fluttering shut as puckered his pink lips for a kiss.

Trowa stood up and brushed his pants off compulsively. It made him sick in the deepest regions of his guts to think that there had been a time, not so long ago, when he lived from breath to breath waiting for Quatre to make just that offer. "I have to go. Please, don't... don't make something of this, Quatre." He turned and left immediately, still rubbing his hands over his pant legs.

He walked with erratic quickness, trying to remember the way back to the ballroom. There were more and more people littering the hallways, so Trowa kept his head down so that he wouldn't make eye contact with anyone.

He needed to get far away from Quatre, and he wanted to find Duo. He didn't understand what Quatre expected of him. Did Quatre have other lovers? Did Malakeh know about Quatre's intention to attempt to seduce him? It made his thoughts swirl.

Trowa navigated his way through the halls, and slipped back inside the ballroom. The music was even louder than before, having transitioned from traditional swing band music to more modern music. People were clustered around tables, watching the packed dance floor. Trowa had more trouble pushing his way around now, and he had to keep his head up to look for Duo.

He started in the direction of the darkened nook that Heero had pushed Duo to, but he hadn't gotten very far when he noticed Heero sitting at a table, talking to Noin and a few of Relena's other advisors. Trowa stopped in his tracks, and turned around.

Duo might have been in the middle of the dance floor, and it would have been difficult to see him there, but Trowa kept to the fringes of the room regardless. Near the bar, he saw Wu Fei and Sally talking with few other people Trowa recognized offhandedly as Preventor field agents.

Sidling up along Wu Fei's open side, Trowa unobtrusively got the other man's attention. Wu Fei held up his index finger to excuse himself from the group, and turned to Trowa.

"Have you seen Duo?" Trowa got straight to the point.

Wu Fei shrugged his shoulders. "No, I haven't. Is everything all right?"

Trowa shrugged noncommittally. "I'm sure." He wandered off, his eyes scraping over every inch of the ballroom.

Duo *could* be dancing, but Trowa wasn't so sure of it. Duo certainly wasn't enjoying himself, and Heero had taken Duo off for some reason...

Trowa spied the open French doors that lead outside, and became intrigued.

There was a wide terrace with steps leading down to the garden where people who were tired and hot from dancing were congregating en masse. Trowa didn't bother to look for Duo amongst the crowd, but instead walked straight for the gardens.

It was already getting late, and the lights from the party and the palace were washed out by the darkness almost as soon as he entered the path to the delicately manicured English garden. The path was nothing more than flat, smooth stones placed near each other, leading off in a rambling but orderly web dissecting the garden. Trowa walked carefully, keeping his feet well within the limits of the stones, his eyes cast down to keep himself steady. The sky was black, so there must have been clouds, but the only evidence of them was visible on the fringes of where the moonlight shone. The darkness cloaked the garden so that all that was visible of the shrubbery were blotches of darkness lurking on the grounds.

It was comfortingly bleak.

Trowa had no direction to his steps, nor was he consciously seeking out Duo. When he heard a sound from a little deeper in the garden, he knew right away the source without surprise.

Duo was sitting on a bench, his hands clutching the bench behind him. He was leaning back with his head thrown all the way back so that he could watch the sky. There was a bottle of something next to his right foot, and left foot shuffled quietly through the short grass.

He was completely still, and his face bore no expression. He was like a work of art, the sort that people puzzled over for centuries, trying to discern the workings of the mind of both artist and subject. He was painfully beautiful to Trowa.

"Lovely night for a walk." It was no surprise to Trowa that Duo was aware of his presence, and no apparent surprise to Duo that Trowa was there, although Duo did not abandon his perusal of the heavens.

Trowa sat down on the bench next to Duo, careful not to come so close as to touch the other man. "So it appears."

Duo grinned, just the corners of his mouth moving, as he did when Trowa amused him. "Weren't you enjoying the dancing?"

"As much as you were." Trowa leaned back, very aware of where he was placing his hands in relation to where Duo's hands were.

Duo laughed, a sharp sound that pierced the quiet for just a moment, like a clap of thunder. "Ah, well, probably better that we're out here, anyway, eh? We're the types to make people uncomfortable, don't you think?"

Trowa didn't care to follow along with that line of thinking. He had a feeling that it didn't lead anywhere. "Heero dragged you off."

"So he did."

"What did he want to talk to you about?"

Duo closed his eyes, and considered. "What did Quatre want to talk to you about?"

"He wanted to seduce me." Trowa didn't miss a beat.

Duo smiled, and leaned forward, picking up the bottle absently as he did. He moved as slowly and as deliberately as an old man. "Poor Q. He's had a tough life, you know."

Trowa snorted, and looked away.

"I mean, everyone has their troubles," Duo continued to himself as he drank, "and I don't think anyone's troubles are diminished by wealth. But I also... Sometimes I don't think that Quatre is fully aware of how good he's had it."

Trowa took a deep breath, enjoying the crisp bite and freshness of the air. "Did you forget that I asked you about Heero?"

"No," Duo responded quickly, turning the bottle in his hand reflectively. "I did not."

There was a pause that became a lull until it reached a critical mass that Trowa recognized meant that he would have to wait for Duo to break the silence. He focused on the tightly massed branches of the bush next to him, and the way the glossy leaves seemed to reflect the night.

"I don't know, Tro, what do you think? Do you think that people have learned anything in the last ten years?" Duo was not looking at him, and Trowa had the half-formed suspicion that he wasn't talking to him either, but his name was used, so he tried to formulate an opinion.

"I think people are, for the most part, prosperous. So there is no reason for them to test the peace." Trowa pulled a leaf off of the bush, and pressed it between his fingers.

Duo stood up, stretching his arms out, holding the bottle above his head. "People are the same, though, aren't they? The same impulses and instincts and intuitions are informing their choices. Given the right stimuli, people will act the same as they always have, won't they?

"People can't be taught to be peaceful. It isn't in their nature."

Trowa watched Duo intently, finding no compulsion to reply to the truth. "I take it then that you are enjoying the party."

Duo's laugh was bitter and honest. "I would enjoy it a lot more if I were high. Fuck."

Trowa flinched, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. He had no faculty with which he could assist Duo. "At least there's plenty of free liquor."

"It's like filling in a canyon with spoon. I can't keep up." Duo moved so that he stood apart from Trowa and the bench, his back facing the other man.

Trowa examined Duo apathetically, his limbs comfortably still. "You don't want to start again, though, do you?"

"Do you?" The question hung out there, and Trowa almost welcomed how it cut him. "It's impossible, Tro. You get that better than anyone, right? It hurts *all* the time. I can't be expected to live like this, can I?"

Perhaps it was the night, the blackness of it, the distant sound of revelers. Perhaps it was the time of year. Perhaps it was because they couldn't see each other that well from only a few feet away. Trowa rubbed his hands over his thighs, nervous with the rawness of Duo's voice.

"What else can we do, Duo? Maybe that's what the therapy is for, I don't know. But we can't keep... We have to keep going on."

Duo snorted and took a long drink from the bottle. "Going where, and to do what?"

Trowa eyed Duo critically. "You prefer the alternative?"

Duo shivered, an involuntary motion he quickly tried to hide. "No. I don't mean that. I just... want some release from this, you know?"

Trowa leaned over his hands clasped between his knees, and looked down at the nothing between his feet. "I know."

Duo sat down next to him, suddenly invigorated. "I crave it, you know, right down to the very center of every atom in my body. And I don't even fucking care right now if it's wrong or whatever the fuck. Like I'm supposed to take morality lessons from the example of people like Heero or Quatre. What the fuck do they know? They don't even fucking care. Whatever doesn't fit into their narrow little view of the world is just automatically wrong and evil, and they don't even fucking see what's really going on. Fuck. I would sell infants into slavery for something right now. Any fucking thing."

Trowa looked up at Duo, his face still down, his hair almost completely blocking his view of Duo. The pale, filtered moonlight and the reflection of the light from the party highlighted Duo's features, shading his face with light that served to exaggerate the bones and lines of Duo's face.

He looked much older than he was.

"Did Heero want to have sex with you?"

Trowa didn't know why he had asked, but he didn't need to say it out loud to know the answer. The question that he didn't know the answer to - why Duo had said no - became too important for Trowa to risk asking. He succumbed to the desire to hurt Duo in the best way he knew how.

"Is this really all because of a mission? Because you had to kill three people?" It sounded like such a simple thing when Trowa said it, he believed that it was stupid. "What could have happened that would change you so much?"

Duo stood up jerkily and walked five steps away.

"Relena told me about it," he added superfluously.

Duo snorted. "Relena doesn't know as much as she thinks she does."

Another pause drifted into a lull, and Trowa was hyperaware of how far away from him Duo was standing. He felt an oppressive need to make amends, although he didn't really feel any remorse. "I shouldn't have said that."

Duo made some sort of noise that expressed his opinion of that statement and he finished off the bottle, tossing it into the garden when he was done. It made a shattering sound that filled the night for the moment.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm sick of dancing for tonight. I mean, we should have just danced together before instead of around each other like this." Duo crossed his arms over his chest, and in his drunken state, he appeared petulant.

Trowa smiled to himself. "It would have been fun watching everyone else if we did."

Duo shook his head. "Fucking bigoted shits, all proud of themselves for crap they had nothing to do with and don't even fuckin' understand. I hate them all."

Trowa looked up at Duo, and for a moment, in the dark, they looked into each other's eyes, though neither could actually see the other's.

Cocking his head to the side, Trowa pondered. "Were we going to have sex in the throne room?"

Duo started to laugh after a moment, and all the tension evaporated at the sound. Coming to sit on the bench, Duo put his hands out to touch Trowa. "Were you tempted by Quatre?"

Trowa answered, realizing abjectly that he could not ask Duo the same for the exact same reason that Duo was able to ask him. "No."

Duo kissed his lips, and for a moment all of Trowa's senses were consumed by the taste of Duo. Duo's fingers were on his face when their lips separated. "Do you know the way to the throne room?"

Trowa shook his head.

Duo shrugged. "Eh, who cares. Here is as good as there."

Trowa let Duo drag him down, pushing his back into the grass, his fingers and his lips ravenous for Duo. They were frantic and haphazard, fumbling with each other like virgins. When Duo peeled Trowa's clothes back, the cool night air rushed over his skin, and Trowa felt cold as Duo pressed his body against his. Duo's eyes were only inches away, but Trowa couldn't read Duo's expression at all. Trowa could only clutch at the hair at the base of Duo's head, Duo's braid falling to the side, a heavy weight on Trowa's arm.

They moved against each other out of sync, no rhythm making a pattern to their passion. There was only Duo's hair between Trowa's fingers, and Duo's hand cushioning the back of Trowa's head, and Duo's body over and under and in Trowa's, and Trowa's body under and over and around Duo's, their bellies rubbing together, their noses bumping, and their eyes no more than an inch or two apart ever.

Trowa pulled Duo closer to him, their chests both heaving and the space between Trowa's legs messy, warding off the chill with Duo's skin. He loathed the idea of getting dressed again, and of sleeping in the garden.

"Do you think there will be a time when we won't want each other? When I'll touch you, and nothing will happen? When whatever biochemical reaction is behind the way you excite me becomes less responsive, and we lose the verve for it?" Duo spoke with a small voice right against the skin of Trowa's neck, and Trowa had no way of responding except to take Duo's braid in his hand and kiss Duo's temple.

He hoped that they passed a lot of guests, including Heero and Quatre, when they went back inside.

There was no sun in the morning. A Christmas rain was predicted for the afternoon, and the morning was cloudy and as dark as dusk. Trowa pulled the sheet and blanket back so he could touch Duo's bare skin, tracing the pattern of his tattoo with his fingertips.

It was a pleasant way to wake up for him.

Duo's braid was a mess, as he hadn't brushed it last night when they got back to the room, so it looked like the braid might fall apart at any minute. Trowa delicately moved it around to avoid damaging it, doing his best to keep it intact even as he played with the wisps of hair that released themselves from the confines of the braid. After a while, Duo's skin got cold, and even though he was nearly shivering, he kept his eyes squeezed shut, refusing to wake up.

Trowa did not push it. It was Christmas morning, and there were big plans for the day, but neither Trowa nor Duo wished to participate, so they could lay abed a few hours more and there would be no harm.

Duo turned over, flipping his braid over his shoulder with an exasperated sigh, and burrowed into Trowa's naked belly. Duo's arm snaked over Trowa's midsection, and Trowa ran his hand up and down the length of it. Duo's arm was surprisingly boney, his elbow sharp. Trowa squeezed Duo's bicep gently before running his hand over the protrusion of Duo's elbow.

Duo made a noise that was generally associated with an awake person, and shut his eyes more determinedly.

Trowa let himself smile, and he began toying with the hair around Duo's face, brushing locks back and tucking them behind Duo's ears, then tracing his finger along the bone of Duo's nose, sweeping up to run his finger over Duo's cheekbone.

Duo sighed through his nose, and spoke blearily. "Why are you waking me up?"

"I'm not," Trowa replied reasonably, "I'm just touching you."

Duo squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could. "Isn't that the same thing?"

"No," Trowa opined, "because it's your fault for lounging around naked. It's like begging to be touched."

"But Tro," Duo countered softly, a restrained laugh in his voice, "you were the one to undress me last night."

"Your clothes were dirty."

"You got them dirty."

"You were the one to push me down into the grass."

"That was your fault," Duo cracked an eye open, smiling up at Trowa, "for being so damn fuckable."

Trowa nodded. "It is."

Duo laughed, and opened his eyes, pushing himself against Trowa. "Merry Christmas, Tro."

Trowa ran his hand down Duo's neck, letting his fingers linger over Duo's jugular. "You too."

"Do you have a present for me?" Duo's question was without guile or artifice, something that he had a talent for.

Trowa nodded slowly. "I do."

Duo grinned brightly, pushing himself up into a sitting position. "Me too! Let's trade, ok?"

Trowa would have to have been a far stronger man than he was to refuse Duo's child-like glee. Trowa had tucked his present for Duo away in the drawer of the end table on his side of the bed, anticipating the morning ritual. Apparently, Duo had thought of the same thing at some point, because neither of them had to get out of bed to get their gifts. Duo sat up, so Trowa propped himself against the headboard, admiring the way the sheets pooled at Duo's waist, covering nothing.

It was a shame that his gift was so small and wrapped in plain red paper, but Trowa was relieved to see that Duo's gift was also small, although it was wrapped in shimmering silver paper that had a holographic effect, even in the low light. They swapped gifts wordlessly, Duo making a noise of excitement as he started to rip into the paper.

Trowa methodically tore at the seams of the wrapping, keeping his eyes on Duo as he did.

Duo uncovered the small jewelry box with a puzzled expression, and Trowa couldn't help thinking that Duo looked cute with his mouth unconsciously forming a pout. Duo opened the box, and his eyes widened and his body went still.

Trowa fidgeted, focusing on his gift. He pulled the paper off, and unwrapped the tissue. Trowa blinked four times before he pulled the object out of the tissue paper.

Duo chuckled harshly. "I guess we both wanted to reclaim something from the past, eh, Tro?"

Trowa nodded once, and set the paper aside, turning the tin whistle over in his hands. It was the first instrument that he had ever learned to play, although he was certain that Duo could not know that. Raising his eyes to meet his lover's, he smiled his gratitude. "Can I put that on for you?"

Duo swallowed, and looked down at the gold cross. "You shouldn't have gotten me something so nice. I'm not even Catholic, you know."

"You don't like it." Trowa did not betray his reaction in his voice, although his eyes searched Duo's body language for more information.

Duo shook his head. "It's not that..."

Trowa put the tin whistle down on the bed between them and took the jewelry box out of Duo's hands. Pulling the chain out from the box, he opened the clasp and leaned over to Duo. He put his hands around Duo's neck, and leaned his head over Duo's shoulder so he could see.

Duo was breathing rather deeply, and he put his hands on Trowa's body with such hesitance that Trowa was afraid to lean back. Duo's eyes were closed, and with the cross on his chest, his hair wildly braided, and his body nude, he looked like a debauched angel fearing repentance.

Trowa kissed Duo's lips gingerly, until Duo parted his lips and they kissed with dignified passion, their only contact their mouths. Duo's eyes opened, and Trowa could not interpret what he saw in them.

Trowa pushed Duo down onto his back, and smiled at Duo. Picking up the tin whistle, he offered, "Shall I play for you?"

Duo smiled, and Trowa played. The music of the whistle was airy and soulful, like the mournful tune of a fairy. Duo watched Trowa as he played, toying with his braid. When the song ended, and Trowa put the whistle aside, Duo pulled his head down, and they kissed.

Trowa spread Duo's legs out, and lifted Duo's balls tenderly, kissing the skin above Duo's groin. Duo arched his back, and groaned.

Trowa kissed Duo's cross as he moved inside of Duo, tonguing the skin and the gold wantonly, and Duo cried for more.

They fell asleep wrapped around each other, and Trowa could still hear Duo's moans mixed with the song of the tin whistle.

Duo was still complaining as they entered the small, private dining room.

"It wasn't such a big deal for you to get me breakfast yesterday! I don't see why I had to get my own today." Duo scuffed his shiny shoe against the soft Persian rug.

"Duo, it's three in the afternoon." Trowa was past the point of being reasonable. Now, he was only replying because it would have been rude not to do so.

It did not deter Duo. "But that was your fault. You were the one who wanted to play your whistle for me." Duo leered as he spoke, and Trowa felt the urge to blush, casting his eyes about to see who might have overheard.

Trowa stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Wu Fei choking, holding a napkin over his mouth. He took a moment to be mortified, and then went to sit with Wu Fei.

"Chang." Trowa nodded as he sat down opposite the other man, not even bothering to look to see if Duo was following him.

"Barton," Wu Fei choked out, not quite meeting Trowa's eyes.

"Hey, Fei! Don't tell me you've joined the ranks of the lazy afternoon breakfast eaters?" Duo flopped down in his chair with much more noise than necessary, completely out of pique.

Wu Fei spared a brief smile for Duo. "Maxwell, I had breakfast hours ago. I decided to meditate in the late morning, and I missed the lunch."

Duo rolled his eyes. "I'm sure you were devastated."

Wu Fei actually appeared to enjoy Duo's joke, much to the surprise of Duo and Trowa.

"So, we *can* still get breakfast, right?" Duo looked around nervously, aware that they were not really in a restaurant.

Trowa shrugged. "Go to the kitchen and see. I'm sure they'll make whatever you want."

Duo rubbed the back of his neck, grinning nervously. "Oh, I don't want to put anyone out."

Trowa rolled his eyes, but Wu Fei smiled warmly at Duo.

"Barton, be a good boyfriend, and get Duo some breakfast."

Trowa and Duo stared at Wu Fei exactly as if he had just sprouted six heads.

Wu Fei ignored them, calmly sipping his tea. "After all, you've kept him from it with your whistle-playing all morning and afternoon. That was rude."

Duo laughed out loud, and Trowa decided that getting up was easier that dealing with a humorous Wu Fei.

Trowa did not rush as he made his way to the kitchen. There had to have been a reason that Wu Fei had teased him into leaving, and Trowa found that he trusted Wu Fei alone with Duo. Perhaps Wu Fei would say something meaningful to Duo; he certainly was smart enough to think of meaningful things.

The kitchens were a busy place to be on this sort of occasion; it seemed like there was a teaming mass of hundreds of cooks and cook assistants, mixing things in bowls and fussing over pots on stoves and sticking things in ovens. The gleaming white walls and floors reflected off of the shining metal pans and appliances, the polished natural wood of the table warming the visual banquet.

Trowa hated kitchens. He did not understand how they worked, and therefore felt at a disadvantage while he inhabited them. This kitchen was the largest and busiest kitchen he had been in for as long as he could remember off the top of his head, and it left him feeling distinctly out of place.

Trowa stood in the doorway, and waited for someone to notice him. Several people saw him, but none moved forward to speak to him for several minutes. Trowa waited patiently, his eyes darting from station to station around the room, as he tried to discern the pattern in the chaos.

A young girl in a too-large white apron had to clear her throat to get his attention from the sight of the pastry chefs working on tonight's desserts. "Can I help you, sir?"

Trowa nodded shortly. "I need a breakfast tray for two. Nothing fancy, please. Just some toast, a bagel, that sort of thing."

The girl nodded happily. "Eggs? You want eggs, too, right?"

Trowa blinked. He was pretty sure he had already placed his order.

She smiled brightly, totally oblivious to his disdain. "Do you like them over easy, sunny side up, or scrambled? I can make omelets too, but that's probably too fancy."

Trowa swallowed deliberately. "Just the toast and bagels, please."

"Oh, you need protein! I'll whip up some scrambled eggs in a jiff. What about some cinnamon rolls? We made a huge batch this morning, and I'm pretty sure we still have some ready to pop in the oven. What kind of spreads do you want? Butter, honey butter, margarine, jam, jelly, peanut butter? Do you want juice, coffee, tea, milk, soda?" She rattled along cheerfully, speaking fast and thinking of new things every heartbeat.

Trowa blinked five times, and answered, "Yes."

She looked at him, and then started to laugh in a decidedly girlish fashion that reminded Trowa of Catherine. "Ok! What dining room are you in? I'll have it delivered in just a few minutes."

Trowa shook his head once. "I'll take it from here."

"Oh, sir," she objected, "that's not necessary. We can't have guests delivering their own meals!"

Trowa leaned back against the wall. "It's fine."

She smiled at his passive determination. "All right, I guess. Just give me a few minutes to get it all together." She took three steps away before stopping and looking over her shoulder at him. "Um, sir?" She didn't seem like she really wanted to go on. "You're... you're a Gundam pilot, right? You're with Duo Maxwell."

Trowa's eyebrows rose minutely, and he lowered his head fractionally so he would not appear to be disapproving of her.

She blushed, and rushed forward. "I'm from L2. I'm the same age as you, too, really. We all... We are all really grateful for everything you've done for us, all of you. Why, my father's cousin still tells people about the time he helped out Duo. He's a real hero on L2, you know."

Trowa's lips twitched as he imagined how Duo would respond to that. "He's a hero here, too."

She completely burnt up with embarrassment, and stammered, "Oh, I know, I didn't mean to say, that is, I'm sorry, it's not coming out right, that is, I never expected to actually be able to talk to one of you..."

A cry of 'Angela!' came from deeper in the kitchen, and the girl flushed even deeper. Trowa took pity, and pushed himself away from the wall. He put his hand on Angela's shoulder, and tried to smile genuinely. "Thank you."

Her eyes got watery, and she gasped with delight, before turning and running into maze of tables and stoves and ovens. Trowa sighed, and went back to leaning against the wall next to the door.

It didn't take as long as he thought it would. It seemed that hardly any time at all had passed, but then Angela returned, pushing a cart that had three levels to it. On the bottom, there were a half dozen carafes, presumably filled with every beverage deemed suitable for breakfast. On the middle shelf, there were plates, cutlery, napkins, glasses and cups, and small pots of every conceivable condiment. On the top, there were multiple covered dishes.

Angela smiled demurely at him, and Trowa presumed that she was embarrassed still about her behavior. The polite thing for him to do would be to console her and assure her that she had done nothing wrong, but he didn't have the slightest idea how Duo would do that.

Instead, he smiled and thanked her solemnly, and got out of the kitchen as soon as he could.

The cart rolled soundlessly down the carpet, and Trowa thought about Wu Fei and Duo alone in the dining room. Duo had a strange fixation on the people he considered to be his friends from the war. There had been a time when Trowa knew firsthand that they could ask anything of Duo, and he would do his best for them. So, Trowa knew that Duo was probably happy to see Wu Fei, and spend time with him again, just as he was probably happy to see Quatre, despite the fact that Quatre was not happy to see him.

But there was something else going on with Duo, and Trowa felt a small tinge of guilt. He probably should not have fled so quickly.

He paused before opening the door, and considered the fact that somehow *he* had become the person that Duo was most at ease with. It made him feel something in his chest that he was unaccustomed to feeling.

He opened the door, and immediately the sound of Wu Fei laughing slipped out into the hall. Trowa didn't move for a second, because he was sure that he had never heard Wu Fei laugh before.

Duo was sitting just where he had been, but he was leaning as far away from Wu Fei as he could, looking at the other man laugh with a blend of disbelief and horror.

Trowa cleared his throat, and pushed the cart over to the table.

Duo's eyes widened, and he whistled. "Damn, Tro, what did you do? Take over the kitchen staff? How many people did you think we were going to be feeding?"

"This is apparently what two Gundam pilots eat for breakfast." Trowa sat down, and looked at the cart as if he had no idea how to proceed.

Duo chuckled cynically. "I had no idea. Did you?" Trowa shook his head, and Wu Fei laughed again.

"No wonder you two are so skinny." His charcoal eyes were twinkling merrily, and Trowa was reasonably certain that it was the first time he had ever seen Wu Fei do anything that vaguely resembled 'twinkling'.

Duo protested immediately with a "Hey!"

Trowa nodded. "I'm not skinny."

"Hey!" Duo smiled and poked Trowa in the ribs. Trowa only half moved away from Duo's touch.

Wu Fei shook his head. He reached out suddenly and took Duo's wrist in his hand, reaching around it with his middle finger and thumb. "How can you deny it, Maxwell? Look how thin you are. Please. Try to take better care of yourself."

Duo flushed brightly, and pulled his hand out of Wu Fei's grasp quickly. He reached over and took a plate, turning his back on Wu Fei completely. "Don't worry about me, Fei." His tone of voice was serious and bitter, which was only partially masked by how quietly he spoke.

Wu Fei sighed, and drained his teacup. "We do worry about you, Duo. But we also trust you." He smiled at both Duo and Trowa, and stood up. "I don't want to interrupt your breakfast, so..."

Even obviously uncomfortable, Duo looked up at Wu Fei and tried to stop him. "No, you don't have to go..."

Wu Fei shook his hands in front of him, grinning dangerously. "No, if Barton gets to whistle-blowing, I certainly don't want to be around."

Trowa picked a piece of toast off the tray and ignored Wu Fei. Duo laughed. "Tin whistle! I got him a tin whistle for Christmas!"

Wu Fei blushed at the misinterpretation that Duo allowed him to think that he had made. "Regardless. I will see you at dinner. I should find that damned Po woman and make sure she hasn't gotten herself into any trouble." He waved cheerfully at them goodbye, and Trowa paused in his eating to reply.

Duo watched the door close apprehensively. "Do you suppose he and Sally are really...?"

"She's twice his age." Trowa spread some buttery substance on his toast, and sighed at the piles of food that were destined to be left uneaten.

"She's not that old!" Duo protested with a grin. "She's only, like, what... well, she was a doctor in the war..."

"She's old," Trowa dryly replied.

Duo sighed, and winked at Trowa. "Love looks not with the eyes."

"Still. It has taste." He poured himself a drink from the first carafe he put his hand on, enduring the cranberry juice out of laziness.

Duo winked at Trowa. "I don't know. I put up with your crap..."

Trowa sniffed with dignity. "Please. You are lucky to have me."

Duo seemed ready to reply, but then he bit back what he was going to say. He examined his bagel wistfully. "Wu Fei said that he... he always admired me. Wanted to be more like me." Duo paused, his bagel dipping lower and lower until it rested on the plate. "Why would he say that?"

The look in Duo's eyes and the tone of his voice were so authentic and earnest, Trowa found himself searching for an answer that would satisfy. "I suppose he said it because it was true."

Duo searched Trowa's face for a moment, narrowing his eyes. "How could that be?"

Trowa took a sip of the cranberry juice, and softened his expression. "Maybe he's always wanted really long hair."

A pause, and then Duo started laughing so hard that Trowa was afraid he would fall out of his chair.

Christmas dinner was much more relaxed than the previous dinners. They had set up the grand dining room with so many trees that they formed a maze, affording each table some privacy. Relena had presents for all the Gundam pilots at her table, and she gleefully hugged and kissed the cheeks of each pilot, even Heero, who tried to squirm away from her.

Duo blushed when saw the palmtop computer that Relena got him. It was a much more lavish and expensive gift than she gave anyone else, including Heero. Duo mumbled some apology about not getting her anything, but Relena scoffed at his apology. She kissed him again on his cheek, and Trowa had to repress the desire to laugh at the sight of Duo's blush.

That night, they stayed up late, sitting around a fire, sometimes talking, sometimes listening to music. Quatre wanted Trowa to play with him, but Trowa just pulled Duo closer into his arms. It was quiet.

The next morning, Duo and Trowa packed their bags to leave. They were going to be the first ones of the 'Gundam Five' to go, and they couldn't get out of there fast enough. It was annoying to wait for a porter to come and get their bags when they could easily carry them themselves, and it was annoying to stand in the grand foyer, where anyone could just come and congregate and watch, and say goodbye to people neither had seen in ages, in a parody of a tearful occasion.

Relena tried to convince them that they didn't need to leave, but Duo remained adamant, and finally Relena gave up, throwing her arms around Duo's neck, and speaking into his ear. Trowa watched, his arms folded over his chest, his eyes piercing.

Heero appeared next to Trowa while Trowa was watching Relena and Duo. "They look cute, don't they? Ah, in another world, perhaps, where Duo isn't such a raging bottom."

Trowa smirked, his attention still focused on his lover. "That's right, you've never had the pleasure of feeling Duo move in you, have you? Ah well."

Snorting, Heero shot back, "Please. A man can take a piss in the sewer, but he isn't going to wash himself in that filth."

Trowa sneered. "What you need, Heero, is to go off someplace where there are no people, and take the time to fuck yourself royally."

Heero grinned. "You think you have things so well settled, don't you? You think he's yours, but he won't ever be. He swore to me that he would love me until the day that he died; he is *mine*. And you don't even know him at all. Look at him, shaking like a leaf just because someone is hugging him. You know what he needs, don't you? But you can't give it to him, can you. Do you think he'll go without, be the good boy and stay by your side? Or... do you think he'll go to where he knows he can get it, and get it good?"

Trowa felt his blood freeze, a coldness that got darker and deeper with each venomous phrase. If he could have broken the ice to respond, he wouldn't have had time. Quatre was there to say goodbye, and Malakeh demurely bowed a farewell. Then Wu Fei was shaking their hands as they left, and Relena gave them each one last kiss, and they were in the car to the airport.

Trowa was numb. He could feel Duo's tension, and a part of him wanted to reach out and touch Duo, reassure him, comfort him, just put his skin on Duo's skin, but he was frozen.

The shuttle was late leaving, and they were delayed in getting off the shuttle because the airport had had a power outage earlier, and some gates were still locked down. The walk to where the car was parked seemed infinitely longer than when they had left, and by the time they got back to the car, it was pitch black outside.

Trowa let the car run for a minute to get the heat going, and Duo picked through his bags nervously, looking for his cigarettes. He pulled out the palmtop that Relena had given him and threw it in the back with derision.

Trowa wanted to tell him that it was a nice gift, and he should take better care of it, but he really didn't care that much.

They both slept that night with their boxers on.

Trowa placed his coffee cup down. He thought he had *placed* it down, but coffee sloshed over the edge of the cup, and spilled onto his desk, staining the edge of some documents. Trowa did not sigh.

He had not been sleeping lately. He had not been having sex nearly as often. He was tired. And when he got home tonight, there would be at least three calls from Heero logged on his vidphone.

Trowa had decided to hate Heero. He hadn't really decided what to do with the hate. He didn't encounter Heero that often, and if he did, he didn't think that he would hit him or confront him. Unless, of course, Heero confronted him. Which he was almost certain to do. But still.

Trowa's boss was being particularly nasty ever since the holidays had ended. He had, apparently, been gunning to get an invitation to Relena's party from Colonel Une, but was passed over in favor for more competent managers. Since Trowa had not only been at the party, but also seated near the Queen herself, and photographed with her often, his boss decided to exercise his ire on Trowa.

Pushing aside the large pile of reports he had to work on, Trowa cleaned up the coffee spill, and took a sip of coffee, even though it was still too hot, to make the cup less full.

He checked his email, and clicked uselessly on some folders and links. There was nothing new in his inbox, and nothing interesting in any folders to distract him. He wanted to go home, and have sex with Duo for several hours.

The last time they had really taken their time with one another was on New Year's Eve. They spent most of the day naked, touching and holding and licking and moving in one another. Then, Duo had insisted on going out, and Trowa spent most the next day nursing Duo back to health.

And Duo was spending more time talking to Heero. Trowa could tell from the logs. It worried him.

Just as Trowa began the actual work part of his day, Duo showed up in his cubicle.

Duo sat down in the chair in his cubicle, put his feet out in front of him, leaned back, put his hands behind his neck, and craned his neck back so that he could watch the ceiling.

Trowa continued to type, watching Duo from the corner of his eye carefully.

Finally, Duo leaned forward, putting his forehead in his joined hands. "I don't know why you put up with my shit."

Trowa paused from his typing, his fingers still over the keyboard. "I don't mind."

"Yeah." Duo rubbed at his forehead, and Trowa had the impression that there was something Duo was trying to get out. "Well. I cussed out my boss today, and he's put me on notice. I'm kinda fucked right now."

"It'll be ok." It was banal and useless to waste the air necessary to say that, but Trowa didn't know if there was anything that wouldn't have been banal and useless.

Duo laughed humorlessly, and Trowa thought that there were probably other people in the office who were afraid of that laugh. "No, not really... I'm not going to therapy today. I don't feel like being ogled by perverts."

Trowa had forgotten about therapy. "We'll both skip."

Duo shook his head. "You'll get in trouble for nothing. Forget it."

"No," Trowa turned to face Duo, "it's no big deal. I'll just call us in sick."

Duo sighed, and started to rub his forehead again. "He'll know I got written up anyway. It's pointless. I've been a bad boy, Tro."

"I like it when you're bad." Trowa spoke quietly, and he wasn't entirely sure Duo heard him. He picked up the phone quickly, and dialed Dr. Clarkson's office.

Duo watched him from behind his hair. Trowa knew that it had been over a week since Duo had washed it from the way it limped, and didn't catch the light.

"Hello? Yes, this is Trowa Barton. I'm calling to cancel the appointment for Duo Maxwell and myself. ...No, we're not feeling well. ...I can call later when we're ready to reschedule. Thank you."

Duo shook his head. "He's never going to believe that."

Trowa shrugged. "Who cares?"

Duo smiled weakly. "I still don't know why you put up with me. I don't want to spoil anything for myself, but you can do better."

Trowa pushed his chair over so that he was right in front of Duo. He put his fingers on Duo's chin, tracing the line of the bone. He pushed Duo's hair out of his face, smoothing it back. He put his face very close to Duo's and traced Duo's eyebrows and cheekbones. Trowa smiled at Duo.

"Stay? You can keep me company."

Duo blinked. He had been holding his breath, his lips barely parted as if he were anticipating a kiss. He shuddered as he breathed again. "Won't your boss get mad?"

Trowa winked. "Let me tell you a secret..." Trowa leaned forward, his cheek to Duo's cheek, the friction of their combined scruff sending a thrill down Trowa's spine. He spoke with his lips touching Duo's ear, his voice soft and as seductive as he could make it. "I hate my boss."

Duo started to laugh, and he leaned forward and put his hands on Trowa's waist as his laughter became more frantic. He put his chin on Trowa's shoulder, and stopped laughing instantly. His arms snaked around Trowa, still loose, but now his hands touched Trowa's back. "Thank you, Trowa. I think I... I guess I will stay with you.

"Since you've got nothing better to do anyway."

Oh, and the sex scene in the garden? Inspired by this pic by Wingless the Flightless found here.

Isn't it nifty beyond words? *happy sigh and goes back to staring at pic*

On to part nine. Back to part seven.