Warnings and Disclaimers: It's official, I can't write Heero to save my life…

Duo groaned as he helped clear away the after-dinner mess. "For the last time, Heero, I'm fine! It's just a side effect!"

Heero glared at him. "One these people have never seen before. What if it's not as harmless as you think?"

"Then I'll handle it! I'm not freaking defenseless!" Duo dumped the rest of the dishes in the sink with a loud clatter and stormed out of the kitchen.

"Well, that could've gone better," Shin commented wryly, grabbing a rag and a dish. Heero didn't answer, and he sighed. "Look, you know he can take care of himself. He's been doin' it for years, was doin' it before I came along. An' he's takin' this training really seriously."

"I know," the pilot finally muttered. He began wiping down the table with brisk, efficient movements. "I just..." Heero avoided his eyes when the yami turned to look curiously at him.

Why, had the Perfect Soldier just almost admitted he felt something? Shin felt a grin spreading and didn't bother trying to hide it. It was about time the bastard came out of denial... "You worry," he said triumphantly.

Heero's head came up, and he glared daggers, bullets, and other forms of painful death at the yami. "I do not," he got out through gritted teeth.

Shin snickered. "If you say so." He reached for another plate, turning his back on fuming silence.


"Ya know, there's an awful lot of this goin' around," the yami told Duo a few minutes later. His hikari was lying on their bed, in the middle of a furious sulk.

Duo sent him an annoyed glare, made all the more potent by his Shadow-darkened eyes. "Ah. Practicin' again, are we?"

"I can handle this," Duo growled, waving a hand and summoning a tendril of darkness.

Shin settled down next to him. "I never said you couldn't. An' if you think about it, neither did Heero."

The boy looked away, his face set. "Sure sounded like that was what he meant."

Sighing, Shin reached over and tugged on his braid until Duo met his eyes again. "You know better than that," he said quietly.

After a long moment Duo closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the Shadows had faded. "Why won't he just trust me?" he asked, his voice very small. "He did before, why can't he just..."

The yami pulled him against his side. "He does trust you. It's the magic that's got him all tied up. And can you really blame him? It ain't exactly the kind of thing you expect to run into every day. He's still tryin' to figure out how ta handle the whole damn thing."

A worrying thought had occurred to Duo as he'd been practicing. "But what happens the next time we have a mission? The only reason we've survived some of those things was that we trusted each other to do our jobs. Is he going to hesitate now because he knows about us?"

Shinigami had no answer for that.


Heero glowered at the screen, fingers pounding away at the keys. How dare that little... Duo was an asset, an excellent pilot, and anything that impaired his function needed to be dealt with! That didn't mean he cared about him!

Against his will, a picture flickered in the back of his mind, a smoke-like mirage of a memory: two bent, longhaired heads so close together that a wave of dark emotion made his fists clench even in recollection.

The pilot closed his eyes and took a deep breath. What the fuck was wrong with him? Ever since they'd come to this city, it seemed, nothing had been the same. Shinigami, magic... even his own emotions were changing into something he couldn't recognize. And it was all centered around one Duo Maxwell.

Who probably didn't even have a clue how much he was confusing things for his partner.

With a growl, Heero brought up his e-mail. When he'd checked just after returning to the safehouse, there had still been no response from the doctors about Shin's 'coming out.' Under questioning Duo had admitted he wasn't sure Professor G had ever told his colleagues about the two of them, and the pilots could only imagine what was going on in the ranks above them while they waited for orders.

To his surprise, though, there was a deeply encoded message from J. The teen clicked on it and inputted the passwords that allowed the translation program he'd designed to begin working. Then he settled back into his chair to wait it out.

Long minutes later, Heero was reading over the results, astonished. No wonder the files had been so heavily encrypted... He'd known the other pilots had undergone the same rigorous testing he had, to gauge their ability, but he'd never seen any of the others' actual scores before. Duo's- and Shin's, apparently G had put him through the same tests- were... startling. To say the least.

Shinigami was physically stronger than Duo, while the hikari had much, much better reflexes. Possibly even better than Heero's own, though he knew training had as much to play in proper reactions as speed did. He'd been right in thinking that Duo was the stealth expert, but he was surprised to find that he was also the one who specialized in explosives; apparently, it was purely him to blame for the incident at the school.

If Duo had nearly always handled the base-invasion part of their missions, Shinigami almost exclusively flew Deathscythe. Duo was marked as an excellent pilot of civilian craft, but his scores in flying while operating weapons during battle were much lower than the yami's. Similarly, Duo was a good hand-to-hand fighter; Shin was exceptional. In his notes G postulated it was because the opponent was terrified out of his wits when confronted with glowing red eyes and such obvious bloodlust.

Heero smirked at that discovery. Imagine Chang's surprise, had he ever actually managed to catch the pilot after a prank...

When it came to weapons, guns and knives, the two were at about the same level, though still not quite matching Heero in the first area. Analysis indicated that Shin was the actual Gundam pilot, while Duo was the doctors' almost uncannily skilled assassin. Heero could only imagine what OZ would think of him now, with the American's shadow magic added into the mix.

He almost missed it; it had been tacked onto the end of the briefing as though it were only an afterthought. Heero scanned it through once quickly, then read it a second time for content. There was nothing unusual in the order, and he rose, closing the laptop with a quiet click.

Usually he and Duo roomed together, as they had when they'd first come here, but after Shin appeared Heero had moved into a spare room he'd fixed a cot in. It was only a few doors away, and he was standing in front of Duo's half-open door almost before he knew it. Inside, he could see yami and hikari sitting together on the bed, facing away from the hallway. The pilot was about to tap on the doorframe when suddenly, as he took in the way Duo leaned into Shin's side, that unknown emotion rose up again and froze his hand in midair.

What...? It felt... almost like anger, but it wasn't quite the same. It always came when he saw Duo-

No, he corrected himself mid-thought. It came whenever he saw someone with Duo. Someone close to Duo. Heero's hand drifted back down to his side as he considered the implications of that. The thought of someone close to Duo made him angry. Why?

Because Duo was his peace, not theirs. Because Duo shouldn't be with them, he should be with...

Heero paled. Oh, fuck. He was jealous.

"Heero?" The pilot looked up to see Duo had turned and was watching him with concerned eyes. He rushed to blank his features, for some reason terrified that the braided boy would read his thoughts off his face.

Further analysis of whatever turns his emotions had decided to take on him would have to wait. "We have a mission."


The next day.


Bakura settled into the desk with a resigned grimace. Kon had been absolutely adamant that he couldn't pull them out of classes until the week had ended, something about update schedules and personnel references. So he and the other Itemholders were stuck with one last day of school.

And then glorious, glorious freedom...

The classroom door opened and two of his protégé's friends walked in, Quatre Winner and the ever-silent Trowa Barton. Bakura's interest flared as he saw the blonde; out of the five teenagers, Winner had been the only one Kon had managed to find anything on so far. Mostly because he was one of those Winners, the family that owned damn near a quarter of the civilized world. The only male heir of that family, too, according to the hacked records. Which really begged the question of just what a multi-billionaire was doing living with an ex-street rat, for one. How in the world could bring such two polar opposites together?

And another question was why he was living so far beneath his means. He would have expected the Arabian to be living in a place more like the Kaiba mansion than a suburban house, even a large, expensive one like what he currently called home.

The two teenagers settled into desks across the room. The tombrobber turned his gaze to the door to watch for Duo, his mind still poring over the many questions inspired by the results of their search. The minutes passed… and passed some more… and finally passed until the bell had rung, still with no sign of the American.

"What the hell…?" Bakura muttered, glancing over at the other two. They were watching as the teacher began to take roll, not looking at all concerned that their friend wasn't in class. Was Duo just skiving off? Strange, none of his friends seemed the type to approve of his breaking rules…

Bakura? Yuy's missing.

The thief's head snapped up. :What:

He could feel his hikari's impatience. Yuy. Is. Missing. Clear enough?

If it hadn't been for the fact Duo was as well, Bakura would have passed off that knowledge as Ryou's continued mistrust of the Japanese teenager. But now… :So is Duo.: he admitted. :Winner and Barton are here, though.:

:Yami says so is Chang, and that the kid looks a little tense.:

Bakura stole another glance at the two boys. Barton was as impossible to read as ever, and Winner looked as relaxed as relaxed could be. Either nothing was going on, or they could make a living raking in the poker chips.

What do you think it means?

:I don't know.: Bakura had to answer. :I just don't know…:

A/N: I'm just not going to comment on this one… Tired of saying it feels weird, 'cause it feels like that every time I update on this one lately. Things in RL are a bit hectic right now; Grampa died Friday (and while it sounds horrible to say it, he isn't really being mourned; he was the Man Without a Conscience), there's the memorial to go to, andsome other things are happening too. Found out today I'm getting my picture in the Arizona Republic, which is one hell of a headtrip...

Oh, and I'm rushing things a bit from what I was originally planning. This story's stretching on just a tad, and this chapter pretty much begins the actual plot that leads to the ending.

Hugs to reviewers!

9 February 2006