--- AC 210

     "Don't make me come up there!"

     "Duo, stop yelling at the ceiling." There was a rustle as Heero turned the page, and his soft voice picked the story back up before it was interrupted by the sound of several shouts from upstairs and a dog's loud bark.

     "Your turn." Duo stood in the living room, staring up at the ceiling, then glowered at the other man.

     "I'm reading."

     "I can do that. It's your turn."

     With a sigh, Heero divested his lap of the two youngest, handed the book to Duo, and trudged up the stairs. Duo grinned at the dark-haired twins on the sofa, and settled down with them.

     "Now, where were you," he said, reviewing the page quickly. "Ah, so the prince set off..."

     Upstairs, a single thump was followed by complete silence. A second later, the three downstairs could hear the sounds of industrious splashing. There was a click of paws as the Doberman came padding down the steps to cross the living room to lie on the rug by the sofa. Duo glanced up, grinned, and hugged the two-year-olds closer. "I bet Heero's making them scrub behind their ears, too."

     The two boys in his lap giggled and poked Duo to keep reading.

     They were fifteen when the news had broken, but at fifteen they were too busy saving people from war to pay attention to a small medical discovery. Most of the world was too busy, too focused on other things. When so many people were killed on a daily basis, one more disease was a mere pittance in the world's accounting. The scientists had their theories, and the general populace had their biases. For two teenagers, the information wasn't important. When you're fifteen, after all, you're invincible, even if your everyday life tells you otherwise. Dying in battle, dying of injuries, wounds, these were important and logical risks. Diseases were for old people.

     The ramifications developed slowly, and the world changed. A new plague could be added to those the world faced, and it was simply one more thing, with cancer, Ebola, and smallpox. When it struck, the person died. Maybe not immediately, maybe not for a long time, but death was inevitable. To the young pilots, death was inevitable already. One more method was not important.

     By the time they were in their twenties, settling into a routine life of discovery with each other still watching the other's back, the disease was a fact of life. No one had a cure, but with practical application, the disease could be avoided. Stay away from crows, and the chance of catching one virus was reduced. Be monogamous, and another chance was eluded. Avoid raw pork, and a third was avoided. It was just the way the world moved. The fact that they were in a high risk group blamed for the very existence of the disease was irrelevant. They were too busy making a life for themselves, a life they'd never expected to have in the first place.

--- AC 214

     "There's no way we can manage to do something big," Duo said, and pushed the travel brochures away from him in disgust. "Everything's too expensive. Isn't there something we can do during our vacation that doesn't require robbing a bank?"

     "Camping."

     "That's the only suggestion you have?" Duo flipped his braid back over his shoulder, annoyed.

     Heero glanced up from the paperwork he was trying to finish. His blue eyes were sharp, but his tone softened as he smiled for his partner. "I don't see what your issue is with staying for a week in the woods."

     "For starters, it's in the woods." Duo sat back and checked the issues off on his fingers. "With wild creatures, and mosquitoes, and fire pits that six year olds can fall into."

     "The twins know what the word hot means."

     "But still..."

     Heero grinned and shuffled the papers into order. "You just don't like being out of the city."

     Duo had the grace to blush. "The city's got everything. Museums, public transportation, arcades, the zoo..."

     "Noise, traffic, pollution, crime..."

     "You'll never forgive me for making you compromise on the suburbs, will you." Duo threw up his hands. "You can organize the trip. You will, anyway."

     "Mm-hmm." Heero rested his chin on the heel of his palm and smiled at Duo. "By the way, have I told you today that I love you?"

     Duo pouted. "Once or twice."

     "Well, I do. Just so you don't forget."

     "Tell me a few more times."

     "Love you."

     "Likely story."

     "And I'm sticking to it." Heero grinned and leaned across the table to kiss Duo on the forehead as he got up. "I'm going to file these, and then we'll start planning this year's trek into the wilds of North America."

     "Oh, goodie."

     He knew there would always be a bias, at least in his lifetime. When he watched his partner's face relax into a grin, the kind of open expression Heero had never worn when they were young, Duo knew that what other people thought didn't matter. It didn't matter when he was fighting for his survival, and then for the planet's, and it didn't matter now. What mattered was that he'd found someone to spend his life with, and if someone had problems with what they did behind closed doors, that wasn't something he'd lose sleep about.

     It still bothered him, sometimes, as he left youth behind and moved into his middle years. The four foster boys were growing, with the eldest, Eric, about to start seventh grade. When the neighborhood kids pummeled Eric for having two fathers instead of a father and a mother, Duo wasn't sure whether to collapse or bring out Shinigami. He'd protected the world from bastards like OZ, and now he couldn't protect a single child from bigotry. Late into that night, he and Heero had stayed up, simply holding each other as they spoke softly.

     Heero reminded him that for nearly two hundred years, the American people still struggled with the after-effects of slavery. Bigotry and hatred had swept through the country repeatedly, and only subsided as the generations passed. Even now, four hundred years later, dregs hung on. Homosexual relationships treated on a par with heterosexual had been a legal reality for a hundred and fifty years. Perhaps by the time they'd raised four strong boys, things would be better. Perhaps their grandchildren would find the world a kinder place.

     The point was, Duo thought, as he whispered his nightly prayers into his lover's body, that once they could change the world by doing something. Now they could only change it by being something. And that second method was so much slower, now that he was anxious for those better days to come.

--- AC 218

     "I'm not fifteen anymore." Duo sighed and stared at the wrinkles that formed around his eyes as he squinted.

     "This is news to you?" Heero glanced up from the stack of coupons with a sly grin. "It's been awhile."

     "It's the birthday thing."

     "Relena refuses to be older than twenty-nine. Don't see why you can't, if it's that important to you."

     "Do we need dog food?" Duo dragged his attention away from his reflection in the microwave and back down to the list in his hand. "I thought we weren't buying anymore oatmeal."

     "We aren't. Is it on the list? Tonio's still boycotting it." Heero leaned back and rubbed his forehead. "The car's got to go in the shop next week. I'll need to drop you off at work."

     "Car, check. Oatmeal's marked off." Duo muttered to himself as he opened the fridge door and studied the contents for several minutes before shutting the door again. "Milk, yogurt, and eggs."

     "Yogurt." Heero made a face, and Duo grinned behind the other man's back.

     "It's good for you."

     "It's repulsive."

     The back door slammed and Eric came pounding into the kitchen, accompanied by two of his friends. A minute later Kaiwen appeared, his face hopeful as he watched his older foster brother.

     "Duo, I'm ready," Eric called, waving the car keys. "Let's go."

     "I'm almost done with the list. Here," Duo said, handing the tall teenager the list. "Anything else you want? Hey, Mark, Nick." The three kids replied politely, keeping their distance from Heero at the kitchen table. The man carried the mantle of a former Gundam pilot, inspiring awe where Duo seemed to inspire admiration.

     "Why'd you mark off oatmeal?" Eric waved the list at Duo, who grinned and shrugged.

     "Tomas is boycotting it. I didn't know you wanted it."

     "Tonio," Heero corrected, and Duo nodded absently.

     "Coach says it's good for you," Eric replied, writing it back on the list. "Let's go already. I'm driving!" A second later the kitchen was empty of teenagers, except for Kaiwen hanging in the doorway.

     Heero got up, stopping by Kaiwen. The thirteen-year old was still small, and beginning to despair about his Chinese heritage making him short and dark where his lanky foster-brother had Scandinavian good looks and grew like a beanpole. The older man smiled, putting his arm around Kaiwen's shoulder as he guided him away from the kitchen. "Come on, Kaiwen, show me the program you were working on."

     "But Eric," the boy started, tentatively.

     "Eric's hanging with his friends," Heero replied. "Let's me and you hang together now."

     "You and me," Duo corrected from the front door where he was slipping on his shoes. Standing up, he pushed his braid back over his shoulder with a soft curse. "One of these days I'm going to chop it all off." It was a common complaint. Kaiwen's eyes went wide, despite having heard the threat a hundred times just in the past year.

     "Ignore him," Heero whispered to Kaiwen, who grinned impishly.

     "I heard that," his partner cried. "Alright, I'm off, assuming Eric's not left without me. Love you."

     Heero waved over his shoulder. "Love you, too. Come back safe."

     It was their standard form of goodbye.

     When Eric graduated from high school, Duo nearly cried. He didn't, though, being too astonished at the fact that Heero cried instead. But then, the dark-haired man, once so taciturn, had proven to be an avid recorder of all things kid-related. Their fridge was decorated with pictures and postcards, a collage of the years passing under their watchful gaze. Eric's first car accident, Kaiwen's first date. Blackmail pictures of Tonio and Tomas, naked in the backyard and covered with dirt from Duo's vegetable garden.

     Duo liked to tell Heero that for every memory, the man had a gray hair. Heero would scowl in response, a faint echo of his wartime coldness, and finger the silver hairs taking over in his unruly mop of hair. They had celebrated their eighteenth anniversary the same year they'd seen their first foster child off to college, and yet Duo wasn't convinced he was really more than twenty-five at the most. Some mornings, waking up to see Heero's eyes slowly opening at the same time, he suspected he was still twenty and falling in love with his best friend. Just because the mirror showed him gray hairs and lines that flickered when he smiled didn't mean he couldn't still be young and crazy. It was just harder, when the fridge was always empty and the media room was always full, and not always with just their remaining three boys.

--- AC 220

     "Heero?"

     "It's Tonio's turn to mow the lawn."

     "That's what I thought." Duo put his hand on his hips and shook his head at the black-haired twelve-year old who stared in through the kitchen window. Tonio stuck out his lower lip at Duo, a look of disgust on his face as he pointed at his twin brother, who was busy preparing to shout in his own defense. Duo grinned and waved a hand dismissively. "Heero agrees. Your brother mowed last week. Don't argue with me."

     "Yeah," Heero called from where he lay on the sofa reading a book. "If he did, you'd cave in, anyway."

     Duo snorted, coming into the room to lean over the back of the sofa and fix Heero with a stern glare. "You're undermining my authority as a parent figure."

     "And I love you anyway." Heero put the book down and tilted his head back with a smile. "Kiss?"

     "You're spoiled," Duo complained, but leaned over the back for a quick kiss nonetheless. "Spoiled rotten," he added as he pulled away.

     "That wasn't enough of a kiss," Heero said, his eyes still closed.

     "And greedy," his partner added, leaning down again. The second kiss was a little longer, but still chaste.

     "Wait," Heero cried softly, catching a hold of Duo's shirt before the long-haired man could pull away. Duo's braid slid over his shoulder and thumped on Heero's chest. The former pilot grinned and let go of the shirt only long enough to grab the braid. "Another kiss."

     "Any reason why?" Duo pretended to glare. "I'm still recovering from being undermined."

     "Come back here and let me mine you properly, then," Heero taunted.

     This time Duo didn't lean back from the kiss for several long seconds. When he did, his face was a little flushed, but he was grinning. "The twins will be arguing over the yard for at least twenty minutes. Wanna..." He let the question hang.

     "In the afternoon?" Heero raised one eyebrow.

     "When was the last time we messed around during daylight?" Duo held onto his braid to keep Heero from pulling his hair accidentally, and leaned away. Heero smiled slyly and held on, levering himself up with the braid as tow rope.

     "After colony two-sixteen," he replied smugly.

     "That long," Duo said, walking backwards as Heero guided him towards the stairs. "Maybe I've forgotten how. Kiss me again to make sure."

     "Forgotten?" Heero grinned through another kiss. "It's just like at night, except it's during the day."

     Duo nearly stumbled backwards at the landing, but Heero caught him. Duo grinned, backing up the steps as he let his fingers run through Heero's silver-shot hair.

     "A-see two-sixteen," Duo repeated, and kissed Heero on the nose, a quick peck. "That must have been when we sent the hellions to stay with Quatre."

     "Right," Heero replied, reaching behind Duo to open their bedroom door. "And it was a week later that Quatre swore off ever having kids of his own."

     Duo chuckled, and the sound turned into a laugh as Heero tickled him until the bed hit the back of his knees. Duo wriggled backwards on the bed as Heero climbed up to poise over him with a leer.

     The phone rang.

     "Let the machine get it," Heero whispered, his fingers seeking skin under Duo's shirt. Duo giggled and shook his head, trying to reach out with one hand.

     "What if it's Eric? And Kaiwen's out with the car," he replied, his voice muffled as he nuzzled Heero's neck.

     "They'll live," Heero said. "They're boys. They bounce. Now shut up," he ordered, pulling Duo's shirt over the other man's head and covering Duo's face with it. Duo yelped, and wriggled a few more times just for Heero's benefit.

     Heero's fingers stopped moving, and the tension in them alerted Duo.

     "What?" Duo yanked the shirt down, his eyes searching his lover's face.

     "That voice," Heero breathed, launching himself across the bed to grab the phone by the bed. "Quatre?"

     Beside him, Duo sat up, straightening himself as he watched his partner listen carefully. Heero's face fell, crumpling into his true age, and he handed the phone to Duo without a word. Heero's sapphire eyes were suddenly bright, tears catching on his lashes. Startled, frightened, Duo took the offered phone and lifted it to his ear.

     "Duo?" Quatre's baritone echoed through the lines. "Wufei is..." He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't need to. Duo already understood.

     One of the drawbacks of time is that things change. Nothing can stay as it is. It seems as though it's only the next day and the child just learning to walk is already driving. Parents worry about these things, the visible action of time dancing on the stage before their very eyes. To grow up, to grow old, one accepts that children will someday no longer be children. What sneaks up on a person is their own change, and that of those that seemed once to be invulnerable. One's childhood playmates, high school friends, college roommates, will be perpetually fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty.

     When he looked back into his memory, Duo saw Quatre permanently as that young fifteen-year old, standing in the desert city, accepting flowers from two pretty girls. The open, childlike pleasure on Quatre's face, the joyful hope that their conflict could have a painless resolution. Trowa, for Duo, would always be seventeen, at the war's end, laughing in genuine pleasure as the three of them toasted peace, and Quatre's recovery, with empty glasses in a hospital room. Heero would always be sixteen, stepping out of his Gundam in the docking bay of the Peacemillion, his eyes open and happy for the first time. For Duo, that would always be the point when he first decided he wanted Heero to never lose that look again.

     And Wufei, Duo thought, will always be that proud fifteen-year old who told them to stop fighting. Wufei, who had the gall and the strength to step out of his Gundam and berate four strangers for fighting when they should be allies. Wufei, the scholar, the poet, the warrior. A year after Wufei's death, Duo clung to Heero, smiling numbly as Wufei's daughter Meiran accepted her high school diploma. The man's widow, LiYou, and his adopted sister, Sally, were flanked by the four remaining pilots. Quatre was solemn, while Trowa cried openly, quietly. Duo glanced over, seeing Heero's closed eyes as the man struggled for composure.

     People are supposed to look both ways before turning, Duo thought, watching the parade of blue-cloaked youngsters. They should see the oncoming traffic, but someone didn't see Wufei, despite the loud pipes, the cherry-red faring on the motorcycle. Seven times, the doctors tried to revive him, and seven times he went under. He was thrown through the air, and crashed down only to slide for a hundred feet. The lacerations slicing through his leathers would have been enough alone to kill the average man.

     Duo watched Wufei's daughter accept her diploma and refused to think of his old friend as dead, as suffering the fate of an ordinary man. In his mind, Wufei would always be arcing through the air, powerful and free.

--- AC 222

     "Which of us is picking Kaiwen up at the airport?" Duo studied the month's calendar and chewed on the pen cap.

     "Thought you were. I've got a huge meeting all day that day." Heero snagged the pen, removing it from Duo's lips before giving his partner a quick kiss. "Stop that. Love you."

     "Love you, too," Duo replied automatically. "I notice you have a strange talent for all-day meetings when daytime errands are involved."

     Heero smirked. "That's the benefit of being a director."

     "That, and the big head." Duo poked Heero in the ass with the pen.

     "I'll show you big," Heero teased, leaning back in for another quick kiss, then sighed. "But you're right. I'll pick Kaiwen up. I imagine he's managed to talk the airline into giving him plenty of alcohol. We don't need a repeat of you and Eric."

     "I was not that angry," Duo said, and made a face. "And you don't have to pick him up. I can do the conference call from the car."

     "I don't like you driving and talking at the same time."

     "I did it all the time in a Gundam."

     "That was almost thirty years ago. You wear reading glasses now." Heero took the pen and signed his name next to the note on the calendar, indicating that he'd be doing the errand.

     "Enough about the reading glasses." Beside him, Duo crossed his arms and sulked.

     "They're adorable," his partner replied. "Any plans for today? Errands, chores?"

     Duo shook his head, still mildly grumpy.

     "Good," Heero said, and wrapped his arms around Duo. He leaned his forehead against his partner's and smiled. "I've got a surprise for you."

     "A surprise," Duo replied, his tone petulant but his eyes already crinkling in pleasure. Pretending to think about it, the long-haired man slipped his arms around Heero's waist and nuzzled his partner's neck. "Come on, tell me."

     "Then it wouldn't be a surprise." Heero saw Duo's look, and laughed. "Give me a kiss and I'll tell you."

     Duo kissed Heero on the cheek.

     "That's not a kiss," Heero chided.

     The second kiss lasted a little longer, but this time it was planted on Heero's nose. Duo even nibbled before pulling away.

     "No kiss, no tell."

     The third kiss made Heero smile, and the two men pulled apart long enough to let their tongue-tips touch, open-mouthed. It was an old tease, and Duo chuckled at the sensation, then squeezed Heero quickly to prompt him.

     "I guess that'll have to do," Heero drawled, slowly, then grinned shyly. "We have an appointment this afternoon. One of the younger Preventers is moving out of the city, and has a two-floor loft downtown. I thought..."

     The rest of his words were drowned out as Duo leapt into the air, making sounds that fell somewhere between a shout and a squeak. The braid whipped around as Duo spun in place before throwing his arms around Heero's neck again. "No more townhouses! No more mowing! No more homeowner's association!"

     Heero couldn't keep from grinning, watching his lover bound energetically around the kitchen. "Duo, hold on," he finally said. "We've not even seen the place yet. It could be a dump! It could be in a horrible neighborhood, and we've still got the twins..."

     "Any neighborhood is just fine," Duo retorted, pressing himself happily against Heero. "As long as it's with you, that's all that matters."

     "So you're okay with moving to the country?" Heero couldn't resist.

     "Only if you can arrange for a subway stop within walking distance."

     A good relationship is about compromise. Eventually, over years of little compromises, the lines between two people are blurred to the point of the relationship becoming one wide boundary. So little is left of each person. Duo watched Hilde's divorce, second marriage, and second divorce, and did his best to support a good friend despite wondering whether too-high standards would undermine the compromises required for a marriage to last. But then, Duo would tell himself, a good friend doesn't always say the truth. A person, however, would also sigh in relief when a friend finally settles down, achieving a relationship that slowly stretches from several months, to a year, to a decade.

     The toothbrush goes to the right of the bathroom sink; the sponges and scrubbies sit on the left of the kitchen sink. Glasses go in the right sink bowl, and screwdrivers are arranged by type and height on the workshop racks. Laundry is done when there are no more clean socks, and sheets are cleaned when someone remembers. Most often Duo washed the sheets because he was the one eating in bed, anyway. Heero would stay up, reading, and Duo would wake up from the light of the bedside lamp. Unable to get back to sleep, he'd go downstairs on the pretense of checking the twins, only to return with crackers, ice cream, or a snack of leftovers from dinner. Even after the twins moved into Eric and Kaiwen's old rooms, the excuse still stood.

     Heero had twenty-two years to overlook a night of crumbs before stripping the sheets the next morning. And Duo had twenty-two years of nodding politely as Heero dictated the proper way to install and uninstall the boys' game consoles. Before, they had feared compromise, seeing it as concessions unneeded in a friendship. As a couple, it was crucial. They could compromise with each other, and accept that after two decades they existed completely within that space between them.

--- AC 225

     "What do you want for your seventeenth birthday, Tonio?" Heero looked up from the mail as the tall teenager pushed the loft's front door open. 

     "World peace, but now's probably not the time to ask," the kid quipped, ducking as Heero threw a booklet at his head. Scrambling, Tonio caught it, wrinkling his brow at the title. "Massachusetts colleges," he read off slowly. "Nice flowers. What's this book for?"

     "Ask Duo," Heero replied with a shrug. "I'd bet he's the one ordered it for you. Flowers are for Duo, not you. Where's your brother?"

     "College?" Tonio looked a little uncomfortable, holding the book. "Oh. Tomas went down to the bodega. Duo called when we were on the bus. Gave him a grocery list. Happy anniversary."

     "Yes, college," Heero said, easily tracking Tonio's several conversational threads. After thirty years of knowing Duo, Heero figured he could manage multi-tasking conversations with anyone, let alone an amateur like one of his foster children. "Thanks. You let Tomas go alone? It's getting dark already."

     "He'll be fine. No one can mess with Tomas," Tonio said, tapping Heero on the head with the rolled up booklet before heading up the open stairs into the loft's upper level.

     "Duo," Heero called, dropping the mail on the kitchen table. He could hear a muffled sound from the study. Duo was under the desk. "What are you doing? Did you break something again? I left directions on loading that new game on the console. Didn't you find them?"

     "I found them." Duo's voice became clearer as he pulled himself out partway from under the table. "They worked fine, but the network is down, and I need to print the employee reviews for tomorrow's meeting."

     "Why didn't you do it at work?"

     "I meant to, and forgot. But I had the disks with me." Duo was back under the desk again. Heero kicked at his partner's foot, lightly, and was rewarded with a soft complaining squeak.

     "I got you something," Heero said softly, then sighed when Duo didn't reply. "Print those in the morning, when you get to the office."

     "That would require waking up early." Duo's grumpiness was evident, even if his voice was muffled as he pushed the network cable back into the computer's drive-box. "You're going in late, so I thought it'd be a chance to cuddle."

     "We could do that right now." Heero glanced at his watch. "We have two hours before Dorothy and Michael get here." It was Duo's and Heero's twenty-fifth anniversary, but with everyone's schedules they'd decided to celebrate it in June instead, when all their friends could make it. Dorothy and her husband were in town for a conference, and said they'd stop by anyway.

     "Shit!" Duo sat up, knocked his head against the desk, swore again, and crawled out from under the desk. "Is Tomas back? I forgot to get tomatoes, and we're out of milk. Freesia?" His dark blue eyes were delighted, and he grinned widely as Heero handed him the bundle overflowing with the scented purple flowers.

     "Happy anniversary. Milk?"

     "My favorite... The flowers, not the milk. The six-year old will need milk with dinner. Can't remember the kid's name."

     Heero took advantage of Duo's momentary confusion to kiss his lover hello. "Have I told you yet that I love you?"

     "Not since you got home."

     "Well, I do." Heero smiled at Duo's pretend pout, and kissed the long-haired man on the lips, a quick welcome-home action. "And I think the kid's name is Timothy. I think she said it in the email."

     The front door slammed, and Duo was out of the study in a flash. Heero could hear him talking to Tomas, followed by a frustrated shout. Shaking his head, Heero leaned against the doorjamb and watched as Duo stared at the bag of tomatoes.

     "Tomas, it was tomatoes and milk. How difficult could that possibly be?"

     "I forgot," Tomas said.

     Tonio, sticking his head in the open archway between the kitchen and the rest of the loft, shook his head. "He probably ran into Betta, that girl who lives on the fifth floor."

     Tomas swore.

     "Don't even," Duo spat, dropping the flowers unceremoniously on the countertop. "You do this repeatedly. When you have a task, Tomas, complete it before you socialize!"

     Heero could see Tomas' hackles going up, and rolled his eyes. Where Eric took after Duo's amiable extroversion, and Kaiwen had his own shy streak, Tomas was stubborn. Sometimes his bull-headed tendencies were so much like Duo's that Heero was tempted to ask Child Services if there was any remote chance the two really were related. In the living room Tonio had thrown himself on the sofa and picked up the new game console, clearly intending to stay out of the way if Tomas and Duo were about to have another showdown.

     "Hey," Heero called, as Tomas opened his mouth to retort. "Enough, you two." Stepping forward, Heero slipped naturally into his role of peacemaker. Turning to Duo, he kissed the man quickly. "I'll go get the milk. It'll only take a minute. Love you."

     Distracted, Duo nodded, returning the kiss while still glaring at the recalcitrant teen scowling in the kitchen doorway. "Love you too. Come home safe."

     Heero waved over his shoulder. He flashed a consoling smile to Tomas, hoping the two stubborn idiots would calm down soon. Hopefully, they'd be back to their cheerful selves before Dorothy got there and prickled the twins back into an adolescent fury over some political issue they'd been ignorant of before she provoked them into thinking they should care. Heero grinned as he slipped his coat on, jingling the keys in his pocket as he left.

     The other thing about change is that it's never expected. What a parent expects is a child's change; what a lover expects is a continuation of the status quo. What is now, is what will be. The automatic things we do, the way we see the world, the words we use that we say because for a hundred, thousand times before now that was all that needed to be said.

     Living in the city, police sirens and ambulances come and go. For Duo, these were the noises of life around him, down to the subway rumbling underground, the steam vents billowing in the winter chill, the life and bustle of pedestrians flowing around him. In the first fifteen years of his life, he achieved peace. In the next thirty, he achieved a family. Eric was engaged, and Kaiwen was talking about taking a year after college and traveling with his girlfriend, riding the rails. The twins were debating college together or apart, and in a year, it would be back to Heero and himself. At the age of forty-five, they would be twenty again, with no one but themselves.

     It would always remain with Duo, that sensation in his chest as something tightened, constricted, tensed, and pulsed. He'd felt a flash of it when Eric fell down the stairs at age eight, a hint when Kaiwen broke his arm rough-housing with the neighborhood kids at age eleven. Standing in the kitchen, staring at the glistening red interiors of the tomatoes, Duo felt it pounding through his body. In that moment, he knew life had changed, again. It was only a matter of determining how irrevocably.

     Fleeing downstairs, out onto the street, Duo halted outside his building, ignoring the need for a jacket, ignoring his foster children shouting his name. His feet were bare, and the braid flapped uselessly behind him as he turned in place, staring up and down the street. Police cars were parked askew on the street, a block away, as the ambulance next to them dimmed its lights. Duo stopped breathing, his feet thudding on the street as he pushed past the gawkers up to the police man, reading a preliminary report over the car's radio.

     Multiple bruises, lacerations, broken leg, two broken arms. Head bashed in, that's right, sir, medics will take the body once the crime photographer is done here. Duo could see the body just inside the frame of his reference, and he wondered vaguely when he'd stopped letting his lover buy yellow sneakers. They were still fifteen. They were going to be young forever. It took everything he had to bring his focus away from those plain brown shoes, the bloody cuffs of those jeans, to see the policeman's face.

     It's the neighborhood, sir. Hate crimes still happen. Did you see anything? Any information at all would be a help. Without eye witnesses, there's really little chance of catching the kids who did this. There's not really any face to identify, but we'll be notifying the family. He was carrying a wallet, was coming back from the store. The cop's voice was calm, polite, and he didn't recognize Duo. He spoke for the benefit of the crowd. Duo struggled to comprehend it, to understand the smell of blood, the memories not given form in thirty years. In the end, he could articulate only one simple statement.

     Twenty five years.