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If You Love Me (Part 1)


Part One

 

The sky was split in two by shining silver wings. Face upturned, a lean

body with a remarkable braid of long chestnut hair fought his way to the

edge of the tarmac, where a jumble of civilians and media reporters

fretted anxiously at the ropes that barred entry. A wedge of heavy-duty

bodyguards cut through the crowd and Duo's head turned enviously. He

wished he were bigger to push a path so easily through the knot of people

barring his way.

 

"Wing Zero...Wing Zero...!" The susurration rifled through the crowd.

 

With a scream of thrusters the airborne mobile suit shuddered close to

the landing pad. Duo gave his neighbor a nasty glare and clutched at the

 

ropes, his heart doing an unexpected skip.

 

This was it. This was the crux of their entire war-torn existence, this

was finally the moment where peace became possible for them and they

could leave the fighting behind. The glittering metal wings beat once,

twice, stirring up debris from the concrete, and then the mobile suit had

landed.

 

Heero was back.

 

Duo elbowed his encroaching neighbor and growled, ready to burst out onto

the tarmac and greet...

 

"Heero!"

 

The voice made his head snap around. It gritted along his spinal cord

like someone were pinching the nerves to see them twang. What the hell!?

 

The flying wedge of bodyguards brushed him aside and he reeled back

against another body who shoved him unsympathetically. Then Relena

Peacecraft was sweeping over the tarmac with a regal step, passing the

line without qualm. Like a burst floodgate the gaggle of reporters

followed her, waving their press passes and shouting out raucous

questions.

 

The cockpit had just sprung open, a space-suited figure garbed in black

stepping onto the ramp, and Duo's head snapped around as that familiar,

high-pitched voice rang over the tarmac.

 

K'so! That little bitch! She'd promised never to...

 

Duo's attention was fixed on the Gundam. Heero stood stiffly on the

opened hatch, weariness evident in every line of his black space-suited

body, but only because Duo was looking for the infinitesimal cues.

 

"Heero!" the girl called out again, rushing across the landing area as

the Japanese boy dropped to the tarmac.

 

K'so! Duo growled and started after her, breaking free of the crowd and

nearly tumbling over the rope onto the concrete. He bounced to his feet

and made a beeline for the Wing pilot, braid spraying out behind him.

Part of his reaction was outrage at being brushed aside -- and part of it

was sheer jealousy. She was beating him to the chase.

 

A swarm of press and news reporters had taken her cue and followed,

crowding thickly around the slender figure that had hopped from the hatch

to the tarmac.

 

"Heero, you're back! Yokatta ne!" her voice proclaimed as she reached

him first, her hand resting lightly on his arm. Heero's slender body

stiffened even further as Relena glided up to him, her posture inclusive

and intimate. He shrugged her off and his eyes moved piercingly over the

launch pad, a searchlight stare. Duo jumped up and down and waved. The

cobalt eyes gleamed recognition.

 

"Heero -- like the Heero Yuy, leader of the colonies?" one reporter

queried him.

 

"Miss Peacecraft, what role did this young man play in the war?"

 

"A very crucial one," Relena responded promptly. She latched on to

Heero's arm again. "He's responsible for helping to create the peace

that we will maintain."

 

Heero's eyes went wide and blank.

 

"Uh-oh," Duo recognized the warning signs. The last time he'd seen Heero

give her that look, his fist had crashed into her face. He elbowed aside

another reporter, ignoring the injured yelp, and threw himself at Heero.

 

"Heero! Oi, Heero man, we did it! We won the war!" Duo whooped, seizing

him in an enthusiastic hug. Heero's body was motionless in his arms for

a moment, and then the arms came up to grab him back, slipping around his

waist and tugging him fiercely close. "We did it!"

 

He pulled back, still grinning with the whimsy of Heero's return embrace,

one arm still slung around Heero's neck. Turning to face the reporters

with Heero's arm around his waist, he gave them all a wide smile, then

shot a glance at Relena. She was white-faced, her mouth compressed to a

thin bitter line.

 

"Miss Peacecraft, who is this?"

 

"Another Gundam pilot?"

 

"Just another Gundam pilot..." Relena began evasively.

 

"This is Duo Maxwell," Heero interjected, sweeping the host of reporters

with an indifferent stare. "One of the other four Gundam pilots who

helped end this war."

 

Duo quirked an eyebrow at Peacecraft-san, who seemed to have forgotten

his name in all the fuss. No doubt she was furious at his interruption,

but if he hadn't stopped whatever she was about to say, Heero might have

caused an incident on live television. Punching the Minister of Foreign

Affairs in the mouth was *not* exactly good publicity, and it would

hardly help them to settle down in one place, now that the war was over.

 

It was over.

 

They endured the storm of curious questions for another full five

minutes, and Duo could feel Heero's body vibrating like a tense wire.

Shit, they needed to get out of here -- Heero probably needed to shower

and catch a good long sleep after a meal. Now that things were over,

finally done with, he was going to make sure Heero took good care of

himself.

 

If he didn't what kind of spouse would he be?

 

"Heero-kun! What are you going to do, now that the war is over?"

 

They froze just as Heero was starting to pull away, directing them

inexorably out of the cluster of reporters. Heero turned and leveled the

woman with a calm stare.

 

"Get some sleep," he replied simply.

 

"Duo-kun? What--"

 

Duo gave them a broad impersonal grin, lifting a finger to cut off the

question. "I'm going to get someone a Christmas gift."

 

They stared in blank incomprehension. "Nani?"

 

His laughter trailed back at them as Heero seized his braid in one hand,

hauling him off the tarmac and away from the reporters -- and Relena.

 

"Owowowowow...let up some, willya!?"

 

* * *

 

Heero was nearly passed out cold, but still managed to mumble something

vaguely appreciative as Duo's skilled hands worked over his shoulders and

trailed firm soothing pressure down his back, fingers and the heels of

his palms digging out the tension.

 

A brush of a kiss was placed on his nape and then Duo flopped beside him,

violet eyes glimmering at him. Heero managed to move one arm, throwing

it over Duo.

 

"Better?" Duo inquired, bright-eyed.

 

"Mmph," he responded. He rolled onto his side and Duo squirmed over the

comforter, plastering himself up against him. Light, undemanding kisses

fluttered over his collarbones, the hollow of his throat, the point below

his ear.

 

"Go to sleep," Duo enjoined him, placing a last kiss somewhere in the

vicinity of his lips. Heero's eyes were getting foggy, anyway.

 

"Oyasumi..." he mumbled, drifting into the darkness that was, for the

first time, a welcome relief. And Duo would be there when he woke up,

for certain sure.

 

Duo smiled and nuzzled at his throat, ready to fall asleep next to him.

Then the knocking started up. Hesitant at first, and then harder. Duo

pulled away from Heero's possessive arm and got out of bed as quietly as

possible, loathe to disturb Heero now that the Wing pilot had finally

fallen asleep. He considered grabbing a shirt but decided it wasn't

really necessary -- pants were good enough.

 

"Nani--?" he grumbled half-heartedly as he opened the door, royally

pissed that someone was disturbing them just as he had a chance to fall

asleep in Heero's arms, for the first time in a damned long time.

 

Relena stared him coolly in the face. Then red crept up into her cheeks

once she realized he was wearing pants, and nothing else.

 

Duo blocked the door with his body and eyed her back, a cold feeling

creeping into his guts.

 

"What do you want? You promised not to bother us again. As far as I see

it, you've bothered us twice today. If Heero wakes up and finds you

here, he's not going to be happy."

 

"I need to speak with Heero, not you," Relena replied calmly.

 

"Ojousan, we've been through this before," Duo said with growing unease.

"Remember? I'm not going to let my guard down this time." He braced

himself against the doorframe, wary and alert. "Don't make this get

ugly."

 

Relena, to his great surprise, bowed her head. "About that...I'm sorry."

 

"Eh?" He stared at her in shock, brows rising into his hairline.

 

"I didn't mean -- I never....well, I never expected to find Heero had

been..." She blushed furiously and halted, her mouth working.

 

Duo sighed and leaned up against the door frame. At least she was

trying.

 

"So I'm sorry. I was--" She bit her lip. "Upset. But you have to

understand. Ever since he came to Earth, I followed his descent. For

me, he's always been..."

 

Duo waited expectantly.

 

Her brows drew together. "You have to understand. I'm better for him.

He's always been for me -- I knew when he said he would kill me, and

failed." Her pale blue eyes were sincere. "He saved me. And I..." She

stopped abruptly. "What you have isn't natural -- iie, it may be the

natural result of companionship during war." She looked down again,

blushed some more. "But it can't last."

 

Duo sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. She was eyeing him

watchfully, as if he expected to begin a slew of protests. He just

folded his arms, and eyed her back. "I accept your apology, Relena-san.

But I still don't know why you want to see Heero, right now."

 

Relena's brow puckered. "I simply need to speak with him about matters

that occurred before we returned to Earth."

 

He tipped his head at her, eyes narrowing further. "He's sleeping."

 

Her blue eyes were acquiring a hard sheen that he recognized all too

well. It made Duo yearn for a cup. The last time she'd gone straight

for the groin. "I just need a minute," she insisted. She looked as if

she would cry. No, she wasn't here to hurt him -- she was being honest

when she said she just wanted Heero.

 

Duo lifted a finger. "Iie, Relena-san, he's sleeping and I'm *not* going

to disturb him." He grinned a bit fondly in spite of himself. Heero was

an absolute bear after being awoken.

 

Her eyes flickered and Relena focused on his hand, her face growing

intent and motionless. Fixing on the gleam of gold at his ring finger.

She was fixated on his wedding band, her lips quivering. Her mouth moved

without sound.

 

"You--" she choked, face crumpling. She was visibly ready to cry.

 

Duo took a step back and scowled, easing the door shut. He had no

intentions of letting this escalate into another ugly little fight, or

waiting until she *did* start crying, and have to deal with the results.

So he tossed out his parting shot. "Ojousan, I won't do anything to you

for showing up here. But if Heero wakes, I can't tell you what he might

do."

 

"He can't hurt me," Relena retorted as he was closing the door.

 

"Hunh?"

 

"He owes me." Her voice was overridden with an unshakable complacency as

he shut the door over her unwavering eyes.

 

Duo puffed out a relieved sigh and leaned against the door. Then, very

deliberately, he locked it. His eyes skipped at once to the prone form

of his lover -- Heero was still flat out on the bed, his soft snores

bubbling up from a tilted mouth. Sound asleep. Duo's posture softened

and relaxed.

 

"Kawaii," he chuckled, quiet so as not to disturb his sleeping Heero. He

crossed the room and joined him on the bed, bracing himself by elbows to

trace the contours of the sleeping face with eyes alone. Heero was

beautiful like this, unguarded as he was only on two occasions, sleeping

or the instant following release. And he must really be sleeping,

because Duo knew he'd be decked if Heero ever heard him call him

'kawaii.'

 

Relena's uncanny visit struck him for a moment longer. Damn, that girl

was persistent -- even after everything that had happened, she *still*

sought Heero out. But...she hadn't been violent. She'd even apologized.

Why? Was she really sorry? It was puzzling. But she had come for more

than one reason, that was for sure.

 

'He owes me.'

 

The look in her eyes had been a deadweight sum of her breathless

expectation. She wanted Heero -- she always wanted Heero -- and maybe

she thought *he* was the only thing stopping him. Whatever it was, she

could not be shaken from her unswerving purpose.

 

Duo quirked his mouth at the slumbering lax face of his lover. Something

had happened, he guessed -- something to infuse fresh life into Relena's

obsession for Heero. He frowned, lifting one finger to lightly delineate

the shape of the devourable mouth. Heero was definitely a worthy object

of anyone's obsession, he had to admit. *He* had succumbed to it. But

Heero slept, so he would have to wait. Then he fisted his hand, eyes

catching the glitter of his wedding band.

 

"You're too late, Relena-san," he whispered to himself, reassuring

himself with the solid presence of Heero's slumbering mouth.

 

Whatever scheme or claim she sought to hook him in with now, it was

useless. Heero was his.

 

* * *

 

It was the utter silence that snapped him to wakefulness finally, severed

from the empty dreams and drifting anchorless in space. Heero blinked

for a moment, disoriented, Relena's proprietary features giving way to

the welcome relief of Duo's heart-shaped face and watchful, heavy-lidded

purple eyes. The room was quiet, a startling contrast to the hum of

machinery he had grown accustomed to sleeping around lately. Which

accounted for his waking -- it was so quiet in their room.

 

"Ohayo," Duo murmured, voice thick and husky. He purred the word like a

lazy lion, and the arm around his waist tightened.

 

Heero shifted, squirming a little. "Were you watching me the whole

time?" It was a slightly unnerving thought.

 

"I dozed," Duo replied, a dusk whisper. "But mostly it was nice to watch

you sleep, without worrying about having to wake you for anything." A

sudden grin lit his face. "You looked so peaceful."

 

It was a sudden slowly-unfolding burst of realization. The war was over.

They could do whatever they liked... He turned hard into Duo's body,

seizing him in a cradling tight grip that crushed Duo up against him.

Duo gasped then turned his mouth into Heero's neck, kissing him with

fervor. "I missed you." He drew him as close as humanly possible, Duo's

body pressed to his from mouth down chests and thighs, as close to be

uncoupled.

 

"Me too," Duo admitted, as hoarse as he.

 

Heero buried his face in his lover's neck. Duo smelled good -- not just

for his own unique scent of musk-spicy skin and sweet-smelling shampoo,

but for being here in his arms. Being here, breathing in Duo with

nothing more compelling to do than lie jumbled together for however long

they wished...

 

"It doesn't feel real." His voice was clinical and detached.

 

"Eh?" Duo nuzzled at him with slow deliberation.

 

"It's over."

 

"Mm-hmm," Duo agreed, his mouth forming a distracting pulse against an

artery. Then he subsided, breath cool-gusting over his warm skin as he

butted his head gently to Heero's, and kissed him again. "I love you."

 

"I..." Heero trailed off, then fit his lips to the comfortable place in

the hollow of his throat. "You know."

 

Duo smiled at him and rubbed his nose lovingly against Heero's cheek. "I

know."

 

"What now?" he prompted, loathe to move. They breathed together in a

simple harmony that was two bodies entwined, a familiar sensation that

belonged to them alone, now.

 

Duo made a 'hmm'ing noise of consideration. "Eto...well, where do you

want to live?" He grinned and his lips danced over Heero's nose.

"Koibito."

 

Heero growled at him and mock-snapped at the retreating lips. Duo's eyes

went wide and then he started giggling uncontrollably. "What?" he

demanded, surly.

 

"Heero, do you want to eat me?" Duo blinked at him, pretending to be

solemn.

 

He lifted one eyebrow. "Ha, ha." Then he turned his mind to the

earlier, more serious question. "I think I'd like to live on

Earth...but..." Considering Relena, his face turned dark. When she had

found out about he and Duo -- in what had to be the worst way possible,

but no excuse for her actions -- she had reacted violently. True, she

hadn't shown any indications of doing so ever again -- had even showed

remorse. But she hadn't given up on *him,* either.

 

Duo's face was wistful. "Me, too. But the colonies aren't so bad, ne?"

 

*Why have we come to this colony?*

 

*To abandon you.*

 

Heero pushed aside those harsh matter-of-fact memories and focused

completely on his lover's expectant face. "No...they're not so bad." He

closed his eyes and felt Duo shift, pressing against him as he fitted his

head against his neck, below Heero's chin. "As long as I'm with you."

 

"We could leave tomorrow," Duo suggested. "Avoid all the big fuss -- the

end of the war celebrations."

 

There was a subdued note to his lover's voice and he cracked open one

eye. That was Duo suggesting what he thought *he* wanted, and unlike his

lover's personal choice. Duo was the one who'd want to be dancing in the

streets and parading around, hauling him off to get buzzed and drinking

in the heady sensation of victory until they stumbled home in the wee

hours of dawn and passed out.

 

"No, we can stay for a bit longer," Heero replied. He set his mouth

grimly. He could endure ridiculous partying, he supposed. If only to

see how much of a fool of himself Duo really could make.

 

"Heero sugoi!" Duo cheered, showering him with ecstatic kisses. A pair

of very determined hands began to express their appreciation.

 

"Hm..." Heero relaxed and pulled his lover closer. He could endure it,

as long as Duo was available for distraction.

 

"Let me show you *how* much I missed you," Duo suggested, his grin

falling prey to sensuality.

 

"I'll show *you,*" Heero returned, and with Duo's husky laughter ringing

in his ears they both began to wrestle fiercely for top.

 

***

Part Two

 

The bright lights bled hot pinpoints into his eyes and the press of

bodies surpassed congenial closeness, but he kept his arm around Heero's

waist and together they slogged through the noisy, thick sea of

triumphant civilians. Iie, he had to remind himself -- they weren't

fighting anymore, they were no longer soldiers. So they were civilians,

too.

 

Blaring street music filled the air along with streamers fluttering from

building tops and confetti given wing by eager hands. Everyone was

celebrating -- dancing, partying, crowding together and sharing food from

street vendors who'd reduced their prices for this one occasion. The end

of war.

 

The start of a new era.

 

"You hungry?" he yelled in the general direction of Heero's ear. The

slim body twisted in the circle of his arm and intense blue caught at his

eyes, shooting him a quizzical look. He repeated his question, ducking

close to Heero, smiling as the noise gave him an excuse for such close

contact. Heero shrugged.

 

"Well, I am," he declared, looking around. "And I wanna dance, too."

 

"I'll go get something," Heero responded, and before Duo could manage a

'matte' Heero had disappeared into the crowd.

 

"K'so!" How would Heero find him again? A lazy smile touched his lips.

*Heero* would be able to find him.

 

He wandered by another band, a group of young rockers playing modern

music with graceful abandon and he grinned. Dancing *did* sound like

fun, and Heero wasn't much for dancing anyhow. Maybe that was why he'd

left for a moment-- even though Heero had come with him tonight. And

what he'd said before they had left...

 

"What if people think we're a couple?"

 

"Then they figured it right."

 

"But you're not embarrassed? I mean, what if people call us names..."

 

"Then I'll beat the shit out of them."

 

"Wai! You're so romantic, Heero-ch--"

 

"You call me 'Heero-chan,' and I'll beat the shit out of YOU."

 

He grinned again with the remembrance. The war was over, and not only

did they not have to worry about being thrown into battle after battle,

moving mobile suit pawns in a war where the enemies always weren't so

clear cut... But he and Heero could be together. And Heero didn't care

what anyone thought -- the whole world could know.

 

Duo was starting to dance, moving in a living rhythm that thrummed

through his bones, dancing with the sort of abandon he hadn't felt in a

long time. Bodies bumped against him, some tried to clutch and laughing

he spun away. Male, female, it didn't matter -- he didn't want *any* of

them. He had his Heero, now and forever.

 

Another bump nearly caused him to tumble face-first onto the pavement,

and someone grabbed at his shoulders, keeping him upright. Duo's eyes

widened.

 

"Aiyah...be careful, ne? Wouldn't want to..." The lilting tease of her

voice trailed off when she recognized him.

 

"Oi, fancy meeting you here!" he favored the girl with a wide grin.

 

Hilde blinked back at him, then returned the expression with a hesitant

smile. "Hi, Duo. It's been awhile, ne?" She seemed suddenly subdued.

 

He bobbed his head, feeling awkward all at once. There had never been

anything between he and Hilde but the girl's own expectations -- yet

unlike Relena, she had recognized it. And once he told her about Heero,

she had been upsurgingly embarrassed -- and hadn't looked at him quite

the same ever since.

 

"How are you?" he asked, gentling his tone.

 

Hilde's face brightened all at once, a beacon of determined cheer.

"Terrific! Everything is terrific now, ne? The war is over!"

 

"Everyone's saying that," Duo grinned. "Like no one can really believe

it yet, but everyone is relieved and happy." His grin widened and he

looked out over the crowd.

 

"Looking for him?" Her voice was wistful.

 

"Aa, he went to go get some food. Heero's not much for dancing."

 

"How are you two doing?" Hilde sounded genuinely interested, not like

she was forcing herself to be polite. She had always been a sweet

person, one who was thoroughly in touch with her feelings.

 

Duo simply grinned like a fool and fished the ring out out his shirt,

from where it hung on a chain. It dangled, a simple gold wedding band.

 

Hilde gasped. "Oh, Duo...ometedou!" Her bright smile wavered for a

moment, then firmed. "I'm happy for you. You both deserve the happiness

together, after everything that happened. After the war."

 

Duo nodded, rubbing a hand sheepishly over his head. "Well, I never

would have thought it -- but Heero, well...he gave it to me." Carefully

he slipped the chain off, then tugged at the ring and showed it to her.

"He didn't ask me -- I don't think he *could* -- so he let this speak for

him."

 

The dark-haired girl took it, examining the inscription. *Forever

together.* When she looked up, her eyes were bright with moisture.

"It's beautiful. I never thought Heero-kun was a romantic." She smiled

bravely.

 

"Ch', I never thought he was, either! I think mostly he was just

chickening out on the actual asking part..." Duo gave her another grin

and Hilde bobbed her head, handing the ring back. "Having fun tonight?"

 

"Eh," Hilde replied, nodding her head again. Her eyes were sparkling in

her fresh round face. She gave him a sly, mischievous look. "There are

plenty of handsome young ex-officers to go around."

 

Duo started, then gave a guffaw of laughter, slapping her on the back.

Hilde was still smiling.

 

"That's the spirit! Ne, I better go find Heero -- I'm not entirely sure

where he went..." He peered at her, wondering whether he should ask her

to join them. Heero would probably resent the intrusion, but Hilde was a

friend.

 

"Go, go and find him," HIlde made shooing motions with her hands. She

gave him a thumb's up. "You're happy with him, Duo, and that makes me

glad too."

 

Duo hesitated, then gave her a last broad grin before he dove into the

crowd.

 

Hilde looked after him with wistful eyes once he'd departed. What she

hadn't said - what she couldn't ever say -- was that he was the first

love for her, the one that she would never forget and didn't want to.

Just seeing him hurt, but it was a sweet ache because Duo was just...Duo.

But not *her* Duo; that place was reserved for another.

 

Something jangled under her foot over the concrete and Hilde looked down,

startled. A gleam of gold flickered at her.

 

"Matte -- Duo, wait up!" she called out loudly, but Duo had been

swallowed by the sea of close-packed bodies. She stooped and grabbed up

his wedding band. The chain was unfastened; it must not have caught when

he thought it had. Hilde fisted it tightly and tried to push her way

in the direction Duo had gone. Heero-kun would undoubtedly be pissed if

his lover lost their wedding band.

 

Hilde sighed and blew a wisp of bang out of her eyes. "That baka. He's

the same as he ever was, that reckless..." A smile touched her lips.

"Loudmouthed baka."

 

She edged her way through the dense undertow of people. Duo had

disappeared completely; he was beyond sight. It struck her for a

piercing second, how bitterly amusing this was. Searching for the boy

she loved, only to give him the ring that bound him to another. Another

boy, even, which had startled her. She hadn't thought Duo's preferences

lay that way. He hadn't seemed the type...then she chided herself for

such bigoted thoughts.

 

She jolted up against another girl in the pressing crowd and the blonde

cried out. Hilde steadied her, nearly dropping the ring.

 

"Sumimasen!" Hilde apologized frantically, catching the ring and holding

it up with a puff of relief.

 

"That's all right," the blonde replied, and then her eyes narrowed.

"Where did you get that!?"

 

Hilde took a step back and was bumped from behind. The blonde's eyes

were riveted to the ring, with an intensity she'd never seen from anyone

but Heero-kun before. Chotto...wasn't she... "Relena Peacecraft-sama?"

Hilde wavered.

 

"Yes, that's me," Relena responded with a dismissive wave. Her hungry

eyes fastened on the ring again. "Where did you get that?"

 

"Why?" Hilde returned, on guard. The other girl was a little *too*

curious, *too* intent.

 

Relena waved her hand around airily. "Because it looks like Heero's."

 

Hilde raised an eyebrow. "Duo-kun dropped it."

 

The fine blonde brows raised up in astonishment. "Honto? What was *he*

doing with my ring?"

 

"Y-your ring...?" Hilde echoed, astonished. Impossible. Duo didn't lie.

"You must be mistaken. This is Duo's ring. Heero-kun gave it to him."

 

The pretty features hardened and Hilde suddenly wondered if she could

just slip away into the crowd and get away from the girl, who suddenly

looked as if she would hit her.

 

"Heero is *my* sweetheart," she replied, tossing back long blonde

tresses.

 

Hilde took a step back. What was the girl up to? It wasn't worth

fighting for; she had to get away and find Duo, to give the ring back to

him. "Excuse me," she murmured, edging further away. Relena grabbed at

her wrist.

 

"You're not going anywhere."

 

"N-nani?" Hilde tried to step back but the other girl had her wrist

latched in an implacable hold.

 

Relena's eyes widened and she suddenly ducked close to Hilde. "Put the

ring on."

 

"Whaaaat?" Hilde replied dazedly. Relena's fingers plucked at the gold

ring. "What are you doing?" Hilde tried to twist away but Relena's face

was stomy and intent, and she couldn't be pried away from her objective.

Now Hilde was really confused. "What are you talking about, why--"

 

"Just put it on!" Relena wrenched the ring away from her at last, and

slipped it roughly onto Hilde's ring finger, bruising the joint in her

strength and haste.

 

"Relena-sama, wha--"

 

"Why Hilde, what a positively lovely wedding band!" Relena gushed, her

expression metamorphosing yet again, into a pleasant expression this time

of social congeniality.

 

"What?" Hilde uttered dazedly, completely thrown off guard by the girls'

sudden transformation from a determined attempt to take the ring to this

sweet, attentive young lady. A mask had fallen into place, impenetrable

and honey-fooling. She was reeling from the girl's strange attitude.

What was she up to!?

 

"Where did you get it?" Relena's eyes were piercing and intent.

 

"Relena-sama, you know very well that Duo--" she protested.

 

"Proposed already? How wonderful!" Relena cut her off, smiling

brightly. "Ometedou gozeimasu."

 

Hilde reeled. Why was Relena doing this? It was so cruel! She could

never be Duo's wife, yet it was the one thing she longed for most in the

world. It was also the one thing that would never happen. And to have

it shoved in her face now, the gold gleam of his wedding band winking up at

her from her own finger, when she knew who the ring really *was* for, and

from whom -- it made something in her chest clench up with clawing hurt.

 

"Why?" she managed numbly, the small sound devoured by the roaring surf

composed of the crowd's hundred throats.

 

A compact muscled body shouldered past them and Hilde stumbled against

Relena. Then as he disappeared once more into the crowd, Hilde recognized the tousled mop of dark hair, the body held stiffly upright at enduring attention. "Heero-kun!" She started after him. "Chotto matte, Heero-kun!"

 

Her arm was seized in a pincher grip and Hilde gasped, turning into

Relena's matter-of-fact eyes. "He can't hear you," the blonde girl said

coolly.

 

Hilde was struck with the force of the girl's duplicity. "But he heard

*you,*" she breathed. K'so, what would Heero do once he found Duo now,

after hearing Relena's lie? Thinking he had given away their ring. A

betrayal. And Relena had... "Why did you do this!?"

 

Laughing, the Peacecraft released her. "Thank you." Relena gave her a

short, appreciative bow. "Maybe now he'll realize Duo is nothing to

him."

 

"You..." Hilde was frozen. Words failed her. As much as she had railed

at Duo's choice in her own mind -- Heero seemed so cold and unfeeling --

and had entertained thoughts of doing something drastic, never in a

million years would she have sought to separate them. Duo was obviously

very much in love. She cared about Duo, and seeing him happy was better

than being with him, and having him miserable. Even though she... "How

could you? Heero's going to think that Duo betrayed him!"

 

Relena smirked.

 

"You want Heero," Hilde exhaled, horrified, seeing it in the girl's eyes.

"Oh, no...I have to find him!" She plunged into the packed street of

bodies, hurrying away from the triumph dwelling in Relena's pale

blue irises.

 

Relena smoothed out her skirt, satisfied. The damage had been done -- a

better opportunity than she had planned, herself! And now she could find

Heero and offer him her sympathy, her comfort... But at the very least,

she had given him the excuse to break off that unnatural relationship.

 

She turned away, into the crowd, ignoring the little voice in the back of

her head that had withered under Heero's searing glance. His face had

been rigidly expressionless, the very lack of emotion telling her he had

probably been upset. It was the wrong way to go about things.

 

But she *had* to get Heero away from Duo.

 

She *had* to have a chance to explain things, the chance he had never

given her.

 

* * *

 

He fought against the crowd, pushing more against the bitter familiar

emptiness that welled up inside his chest than any impediment of bodies.

*This* was why, this was the reason he'd kept himself apart, rigidly

separating emotion and logic. Feelings were a weakness, a chink in his

armor where hurt could follow. He'd trusted Duo.

 

It hurt.

 

Why had Odin Lowe urged him to follow his feelings!? It only resulted in

this...

 

Why? Why!?

 

The ring that he'd given Duo -- the ring Duo had asked for, before they

sealed the promise with a kiss, 'Forever Together,' -- he'd seen it

gleaming bright on Hilde's finger. It was unmistakably the same band,

with its delicate pattern of herringbone filigree. And all too clearly

he remembered *not* seeing it on Duo's finger, together in their bedroom.

He had asked Duo to wait for him, to put it on a chain and keep it until

They could set the war aside. A promise together.

 

Yet he'd seen it. Duo's ring on Hilde's finger.

 

Heero broke into a run, evoking startled protests from the faceless

people he shoved aside. He had to find Duo; he had to know why.

 

If it had only been Relena, grabbing his arm and saying to his face that

Duo had given away their ring, he would have simply snorted and walked

away.

 

"Relena-sama, you know very well that Duo--"

 

"Proposed? Congratulations."

 

And the ring on her finger.

 

There was a sick tightness to his ribcage where before only the emptiness

had dwelled. He couldn't understand why Duo had been so soft with him

earlier, why he'd been keeping vigil while he slept. Why he'd awoken to

those soft, considering eyes. And then realization hit his gut and Heero

sucked in a breath, lungs burning. He could feel his face harden in

response, to keep any emotion from registering.

 

What if Duo had meant to break it off in that moment? What if...he'd

been trying to figure the best way to do it? Pondering it, all that time.

 

And then, what had followed...that had been the last time.

 

Why? WHY!?

 

When was Duo going to tell him it was over?

 

He tracked down the pilot of Shinigami by the long braid of gold-threaded

chestnut hair. Heero reached out and tugged it, receiving a yip in

reply.

Duo whirled around.

 

"Oi, man, hands off the -- Heero!" He broke out into a huge welcoming

grin. "Oi, Heero, I was looking all over for you!" Duo was giving him a

goofy, doting expression.

 

Heero ignored it and stood immobile, clenching his fists. They worked

open and closed as he struggled to control the sudden upsurge of anger.

How could Duo seem so...so...happy?

 

"Heero -- something wrong?" Duo blinked at him, one hand reaching up.

 

He seized the hand in his own and Duo flinched at the sudden bruising

pain. His expression turned bewildered as Heero examined it, bringing the hand up to his scrutiny. The ringless hand.

 

"Where is it, Duo?"

 

"Hunh?" Duo's eyes widened at him in genuine confusion.

 

"Where is it? Our ring?"

 

"Oh!" Duo's face lit up in comprehension and he dipped his free hand

into the neck of his red shirt, groping around. "Eto...uhm..." He frowned,

fingers scrabbling at the nape of his neck. Then his face turned

chagrined.

 

Heero watched with impassivity.

 

Duo's face fell. "Heero...I don't know. It was just here, on the

chain...now the chain's not even here..."

 

"Let me refresh your memory," Heero gritted, interrupting him. "You gave

it to Hilde."

 

Duo blinked. "Sou ka!" His face lit up again and Heero stared for a

moment, shock tangling his guts. How could he be so...so...!? "I showed

it to Hilde, and it must have fallen!"

 

Heero's lip curled. "It was on her finger, Duo."

 

It was Duo's turn to stare in shock. "Nani?"

 

Heero frowned. Duo's surprise was too genuine to be faked. "Hilde...was

showing it to Relena..."

 

"Relena," Duo echoed, abruptly expressionless. "Heero, I didn't know the

ring wasn't around my neck. That's where it was ten minutes ago, before

I showed it to Hilde. I swear to you--"

 

"Hn," Heero replied, eyes turning inward as he thought back on Relena,

her attitude and Hilde's, and how the Peacecraft had done most of the

talking. Hilde had seemed more stunned... But no. Relena was just crafty enough to take advantage of that kind of opening. He'd underestimated her; he

hadn't thought she would have the audacity to meddle with them again.

 

But after what had happened so recently, it wasn't surprising that she

thought she still had a chance.

 

"You don't believe me?" Duo asked, voice growing heated, mistaking his

reflective pause for dubiousness. "Damn it, Heero, if you love me..."

 

"If I love you, what?" Heero repeated, tone flat and dangerous. He was

on a quivering knife's edge, both from the shock of thinking Duo had

betrayed him, and the success of Relena's trick, and his own resonating response

to the ultimatum crouching in Duo's words. He didn't take ultimatums.

 

Duo plowed on, heedless to the threat in Heero's voice. Maybe hearing

and not caring anyhow. "If you love me, you wouldn't question me like this.

You should know me better than that." His eyes were snapping with anger,

his cheeks flushed.

 

It was a sinking feeling. Maybe he *should* know better. But that

wasn't the part that struck out, squirming nastily to strike at Duo the way he'd

felt stricken.

 

"Then maybe I don't."

 

The words popped out of his mouth before he could stop them. They drove

hammering under his ribcage with wrenching finality.

 

Duo's face went white.

 

"Heero -- " he choked, then violently tore his hand away, where Heero

still had it in a loose grip. In an almost detached moment, Heero noted

the band of whitened skin around the ring finger. It was lost, yet Duo

still wore a pale shadow.

 

His mouth worked but he couldn't force the words past the choking sum

total of his own pride. But if he didn't say *something,* Duo might

believe the words, the false sounds that had sucked up the hollowness out

of his own chest and somehow taken on a horrible life of their own.

Creating a gap between them.

 

Duo was trembling. "How...how could you believe that I would just toss

it away to a girl, after all I went through to get it? To get *you!?*"

Duo's eyes hardened with anger. "Damn you, Heero -- k'so! If you don't

believe I really love you, if you'd doubt that even now..."

 

More ultimatums.

 

"Then what?"

 

It was someone else. It had to be some stranger, forcing out those cold

impersonal words into the space between them, widening the gap. A

*stupid* stranger, to throw away the warmth of Duo's love!

 

The American drew himself up, body still trembling with the aftershocks

the hard separation his words implied. "Then we're finished."

 

The words were nearly swallowed up by the roar of the crowd, triumphant

delighted refrains of songs, snatches of laughter and happy celebration

filling his ears. It was a horrific counterpoint to the almost surreal

breaking that was happening here, between himself and Duo. But he could

still see Duo's lips and the impact of those words was sharper than a

rifle. The war couldn't break him. Losing Duo could.

 

Yet Duo was right. He had doubted him. He had believed Relena's

deception, the shock of Duo's ring seated on Hilde's finger drilling into

his head.

 

*If you don't believe I really love you...*

 

He lunged forward and covered a surprised Duo's lips. Duo blurted in

surprise then grabbed him, hands sliding automatically to settle on his

waist. Heero kissed him with intensity, a mounting desperation to

memorize the shape of the lips beneath his own. Duo's tongue pressed

against his lips and he parted them, letting him in, their tongues

dancing tag in a slow motion moment as everything else rushed by. He cupped the round flushed cheek under one hand, and pulled away. Duo murmured a

protest.

 

"Heero...I..."

 

Heero disentangled himself. He captured Duo's eyes and held himself

stiffly, holding back a wracking shiver with resolve. He knew what he

had to do.

 

"Sayonara, Duo."

 

Duo's violet eyes shattered. "Wh-what?" he mouthed against the backdrop

of the crowd.

 

A wrenching sensation tugged at his chest. This was stupid, this was a

stupid thing to do...but he was even stupider; he'd proved it -- he'd

doubted Duo. He turned away and mechanically began walking. The crowd

swallowed him more thoroughly than the loss that engulfed him at once.

 

He turned almost immediately as the sensation threatened to bring him to

his knees. He couldn't do it. If it was a weakness, he didn't care --

Duo was the only thing for him that remained after the war.

 

He turned to go back to him, to somehow fumble for the words to fix

things.

 

Duo was gone


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