Imperfect Kisses

Being happy doesn't mean everything's perfect. It means that you've decided to see beyond the imperfections.

The door slammed, hard, and once again Duo Maxwell sighed, even more heavily. He'd been expecting this ever since Relena had called him that morning – to complain once again that Heero was being 'difficult' and couldn't he please do something? To which he had given his standard answer of, "I'm not getting involved." Which only meant that he'd be there for Heero to talk to, but he wouldn't give any advice to either of them.

Being Heero's roommate – they shared a two-bedroom apartment in the Preventers barracks – Duo typically got more information about his and Relena's relationship than he ever wanted. Really, why would he want to know that Relena had a fantasy involving Heero, an OZ uniform, and a 'detainment' cell in one of the abandoned OZ bases? But he felt it was his duty as Heero's best friend and partner to help him out.

Plus, if Heero were in a bad mood, Duo's life would be made that much harder, having to deal with 'The Ice Man' as Heero was called behind his back at work occasionally. Although, truth be told, he was starting to get rather depressed about the whole thing. He'd made his decision in good faith, but…maybe he'd had faith in the wrong things.

Knowing that Heero would be performing his ritual of deep breathing to calm himself down before entering the apartment proper, Duo waited – and brooded. He'd thought Heero wanted Relena. He knew Relena wanted Heero, but unless Heero felt the same way he never would have encouraged their burgeoning relationship. And Heero had indicated – at least Duo had thought so – that he wanted to try a relationship with Relena. So Duo had put his own feelings aside and concentrated on helping Heero attain the happy, normal romantic relationship with his princess that he wanted.

Instead of offering himself as an alternative. An alternative that definitely wouldn't be normal – never mind the fact that he was a boy, he was a former Gundam pilot with all the fucked up emotional baggage that entailed…just like Heero – and most likely not romantic (unless one considered cleaning guns together romantic), but…

Duo would have done his very best to make Heero deliriously happy.

Although Duo was starting to think that even if Heero had wanted a relationship with Relena…the other pilot was quickly becoming disabused of the notion that any relationship they'd have together would be 'normal'…or even happy. Heero and Relena were just too similar in all the wrong ways; both driven, stubborn, determined people. Both were perfectionists in everything they did, only Relena expected perfection of everyone, whereas Duo had helped Heero get over that unreasonable expectation during the first war and even now he accepted less than optimal performances from himself. Both were supporters of peace, even though Relena was a devout pacifist, and Heero would never stop fighting.

Speaking of fighting…

"I take it the date didn't go well?" Duo asked Heero needlessly as the other man flopped on the couch next to him.

Heero just glared at him, his expression a silent declaration of 'Duh!' The breathing exercises calmed him down – and made him less likely to blow up or explode – but they didn't take away the anger completely.

That was the reason why they had both their beds in one bedroom and used the other as a home gym/office – so there was a place to hang Heero's heavy bag.

Rolling his eyes, Duo said, "There's no need to take it out on me, man." He knew Heero didn't want a shoulder to cry on – and he only ever needed one when the nightmares got really bad; same with him, natch – but someone who would tell him when he was being an ass and when he wasn't overreacting, like Relena said he was.

According to the Princess, Heero seems to be 'overreacting' more and more as their relationship continues, Duo thought with a mental snort of derision.

Heero glared harder at him, but there was no heat behind the gesture; it was more out of habit than anything else. Duo annoyed Heero, Heero glared at Duo, Duo grinned back and said something baka-ish, and Heero threatened to kill him. It was just the way their friendship worked; and Heero was glad of it. Over the three years that they'd known each other, his and Duo's relationship was one thing that had remained more constant in his life than his Gundam.

Considering Wing ZERO was currently a bunch of atoms circling the moon right at that moment, it was actually a pretty comforting thought. Especially when Relena was acting as if she'd borrowed Une's 'Colonel' personality and was taking it out for a prolonged test drive.

"So what'd she do this time?" Duo asked. He wasn't positive that Heero would answer him. Half the time his quieter friend only needed someone to sit with him while he brooded; it was the other half of the time when he needed someone to bitch to.

Heero pursed his lips and looked away. If he had been anyone else, Duo would have sworn his cheeks turned pink. "Duo…do you remember what we talked about last time?" Heero finally asked in a quiet voice. He didn't need to clarify that 'last time' meant the last time one of his dates with Relena had gone south. It had happened often enough that Heero was starting to think of fights as par for the course in relationships. He'd started off with high hopes for his future with Relena, but little by little Relena's overbearing attitude was whittling them down to nothing…along with his self-esteem.

There was almost nothing he and Relena hadn't fought about. They had fought about everything from where to eat out (she loved expensive French restaurants because they could eat by candlelight, which she thought was romantic, and he preferred places where he could actually pay for the meal for once, instead of letting her pay for everything); how much affection to express in public (she tended to drape herself all over him, and while he wasn't traditional Japanese, he did prefer to keep some things private); whether or not Relena should take Heero as her date to Zechs and Noin's wedding (when he hadn't been invited and it was supposed to be a very small, private ceremony); to behavior while Heero was on bodyguard duty (he was great at multi-tasking, but he couldn't keep track of his surroundings and carry on a conversation with her, let alone kiss her at the same time); to religion (he wasn't sure he believed in God, and she was a card-carrying Catholic who kept trying to make him attend Mass with her); and politics (he was a very liberal liberal, and she was a very conservative conservative).

Heero couldn't help but think that he'd never had this many fights with Duo, however. They took turns paying when they went out together for meals (and it was always someplace reasonably priced); Duo may have liked to touch people, but he always respected Heero's personal space in public; Duo hadn't invited Heero along with him to Hilde's wedding until he'd read that the invitation was for Duo Maxwell and guest; he never distracted Heero while he was on duty (mostly because Duo was on duty with him); Duo didn't believe in God, either, but he went to church sometimes to honor Father Maxwell, and while he'd invited Heero a few times, it had been more about sharing a piece of his past with his friend, than about religion; and Duo was possibly more liberal than he was.

Though maybe having fought a war at someone's side made one a little more willing to compromise with them.

Duo nodded, trying not to wince at the memory. Heero and Relena's last fight had been when he'd found out how kinky Relena was; she'd gotten rather tipsy at the Preventers Ball and had apparently pounced Heero once they were both in her limo.

Duo had heard about that night second-hand from Heero, so hadn't gotten any of the juicier details – not that he wanted any – but he knew first-hand that Relena had started pushing the physical side of her and Heero's relationship in addition to the emotional side. While her behavior would have been perfectly excusable because of her inebriation, Relena hadn't apologized. She'd shown up at their apartment the afternoon for her and Heero's planned movie date, and, far from apologizing for her lack of decorum, Relena had told Heero that she'd meant every word and thought they should take their relationship to 'the next level.'

Heero had…disagreed…to put it lightly. Loudly, and at length, with various Japanese invectives peppering his speech. Relena had thankfully left before he started insulting her in English.

Remembering how Heero had turned to him with that lost expression in his eyes and asked, "Sex is nothing more than hormones and bodily reactions. Is it so much…to want to truly care about someone before you get that close? To want to…make love?" made Duo's heart ache. He more than cared for Heero – loved him, most likely, though he didn't dare admit it even to himself – but Heero was oblivious. And worse, stuck on Relena, so there was nothing he could do about it.

"She get fresh with you again?" Duo asked, fiddling with his braid, eyes carefully not focused on Heero. It would be difficult enough having this conversation without adding in eye contact. Guys just did not talk about sex other than to boast about their conquests. Stereotypical, yes, but the subterfuge allowed two former Gundam pilots turned Preventers Agents – two young men who were still struggling with normalcy – to talk about things they otherwise wouldn't have.

Face coloring, Heero shook his head, then frowned and nodded hesitantly. "She…broached the topic of us becoming…closer," he said gruffly, shifting uncomfortably on the couch.

"She's all for it and you want to wait?" Duo guessed, hiding his wry smile. What a stereotypical role reversal – the girl is horny, and the guy is unsure. But really, why was Relena expecting anything more of Heero? Heero never did anything halfway; it was all or nothing, and unless he could give Relena his whole heart, he wouldn't give her his whole body. To Heero's way of thinking, what was the point of doing something if you weren't going to give it your best shot? And Heero was giving every part of his relationship with Relena everything he was capable of giving. Emotions were new to him – at least, allowing himself to express them was. He'd felt quite a few of them – though mostly negative ones – but having no way to put names to them, and having kept them suppressed for so long, Heero's emotional growth was still stunted.

The fact that Relena was being selfish and demanding things Heero couldn't give – maybe yet, maybe never – was simply unthinking cruelty on her part. It wasn't deliberate, but that almost made it worse. That Relena didn't know him well enough to realize what she was doing to him. Heero kept thinking that everything in his and Relena's relationship was his fault, when it wasn't; Relena just wasn't happy with less than perfection. Never mind that perfection was unobtainable in real life; she wanted it anyway.

Heero nodded hesitantly. "I don't know…what she really wants," he admitted. "One minute she's all over me, trying to get me to kiss her, and…and touch her, and pushing me for…other things…" His flushed cheeks rivaled Duo's in color as he continued, eyes on the floor, "And the next she's complaining that she doesn't want to because I'm…I'm not doing it right." Now his blush surpassed Duo's; it really hit a guy in his ego to hear someone – especially his girlfriend – denigrate his kissing prowess.

Face flaming, Duo tried frantically to think of something to say. When in doubt…go with the truth. "I don't see how that could be," he said honestly. Kissing isn't rocket science, after all. Then again, Heero is good at rocket science… Shaking off that whimsical – and completely illogical – train of thought, Duo turned to face his friend. "I think 'Lena's probably just getting frustrated with waiting and is taking her frustration out on you. Once she realizes that she's expecting too much too fast she'll settle down." …and stop being such a …well, the word 'bitch' works, Duo added silently.

Heero snorted. "I wish," he said. "She's started hinting about…" he swallowed, a faint flicker of unease crossing his face, there and gone by the next breath, "…marriage," he whispered, the apprehension evident in his voice if not on his face.

To say Duo was surprised would be putting it mildly. Stunned, shocked, gobsmacked, flabbergasted, and damn well taken aback would have all been more accurate adjectives. Talk about rushing things… "But you've only been dating for four months!" he protested.

"I know," Heero replied, voice strained. "But it's like she has this…agenda…this schedule…for how our relationship is supposed to go."

And she's forcing you to go along with it, Duo thought, heart sinking. Seen from that perspective…Relena's behavior made a lot more sense. If she'd planned out how everything in their relationship was supposed to proceed, and Heero wasn't following her plan – well, Relena was as inflexible about her 'plans' as Heero was about his missions.

Only difference is, Heero's become more flexible, and Relena is still as rigid as ever, Duo thought. She's probably got everything organized down to the last detail. Month One – Kissing. Month Two – Emotional Involvement. Month Three – Physical Involvement. Month Four – Engagement.

Month Five – Marriage?

Duo shivered at the very thought that Heero could end up living such a…pre-planned existence, with no room for error, spontaneity, fun, or real, honest-to-God emotion. Relena had preconceived notions, and if she wasn't willing to give them up…

"And she seems to think it's a forgone conclusion that–" Heero broke off, a disconcerted expression on his face. It was obvious he hadn't intended to say that last.

Shifting slightly closer to his friend, Duo laid a hand on Heero's arm. "What's a forgone conclusion?" he coaxed tentatively.

Heero ducked his head, seemingly entranced with a loose string on the couch cushion he was sitting on. "That our relationship will work out," he mumbled.

Duo blinked. Surely Relena couldn't be that…unrealistic. Could she? Just because two people wanted a romantic relationship between them to work out, didn't mean it automatically would. If that were so, there would be no need for marriage counselors or divorce lawyers. "But you guys have been having so many problems…" Duo let himself trail off; he hadn't wanted to bring that up and discourage Heero about his relationship with Relena. But then again, Relena seemed to be doing a pretty good job of that herself; it was ironic that by trying to become closer with Heero she was only driving him farther away from her.

"I know," Heero agreed regretfully. "But Relena doesn't see it that way. She thinks of them as obstacles that are easily overcome." It was left unsaid that she considered the obstacles to be Heero's alone to conquer, though they were obstructing both their paths.

"Love ain't easy, Heero," Duo said truthfully. Especially when you're in love with someone who's in love with someone else. One of the few things that gave Duo hope was that Heero had never said he loved Relena.

"Relena seems to think that as long as we do things a certain way, it will be," Heero told him, exercising his rarely-used tact. That 'certain way' was almost assuredly Relena's way. Which didn't necessarily make it right… "I'm…I'm not even sure if I do love her."

I'm not sure you don't. I wish I was. "And what do you think?" Duo asked his friend pointedly. Seeing the consternation reflected on his friend's face, Duo knew he was right in thinking that Relena rarely ever considered Heero's own feelings. She was just too wrapped up in trying to make everything perfect to realize she was actually ruining everything.

And taking Heero down with her.

"I think…" Heero cut himself off and sagged back against the couch. "I think I need your advice," he admitted.

Duo started. Heero hated admitting when he needed help – not because he had a problem accepting the help itself, but because he had a problem accepting that there were some things he just couldn't handle by himself. Duo nodded before he'd thought things out. He'd been trying not to give Heero a lot of advice – he didn't want to let his own feelings for Heero influence the other boy the wrong way and cause him and Relena to break up. Relena was doing enough of that already. But they're already on a downward spiral…as long as I don't purposely try to make things worse… "Sure, buddy," Duo said. "Ask away."

"Duo, do you think…" Heero paused for a moment, seemingly ordering his thoughts, before bursting out with, "Do you think Relena's and my relationship…is worth it?"

Duo blinked, uncomprehending. He ran over Heero's words once, twice, three times – and still didn't understand what Heero was getting at. He decided just to voice his confusion and hope Heero would spell out exactly what he was asking. "Huh?"

Sighing in exasperation, Heero clarified, "Do you think that any relationship Relena and I might have is worth everything that she's – that we're both going through now?"

The part of his heart that was in love with Heero wanted to just say, "No!" and throw himself into Heero's arms, telling the other boy that he was worth it. That same part of his heart, however, compelled him to be honest, knowing that a relationship based on lies, however well meant, wouldn't have a solid foundation. "I think that if you're asking yourself that, then you're already having doubts," Duo replied seriously. "And you already think whatever relationship you two might have isn't worth what she's putting you through."

Heero's gazed dropped at that, and he nodded fractionally. "I know," he admitted, shamefaced. "I just…I didn't want to admit it." He sighed, running a hand distractedly through his messy brown hair. "I don't like giving up," he mumbled.

Failing the mission, you mean. "Love isn't a mission, Heero," Duo told his friend, a serious expression on his face. "You can't fail at – sometimes people just aren't meant to be together." Seeing Heero's barely-concealed doubt, he added, "And staying together when you're miserable would be a failure."

Heero sighed and nodded. Then he snorted, a wry smile twisting his lips. "I just wish Relena would see that." He thought for a moment, and then perked up slightly. "Though given what happened tonight, perhaps she has." The lack of conviction in Heero's voice made it sound as if he was trying to convince himself, however.

Duo's brow furrowed. Wonder what happened? "Did you guys break up?" he asked, half-joking.

"Yes," Heero answered shortly.

Duo almost fell off the couch from shock. He blinked rapidly at his friend. "N-Nani! I was being sarcastic, 'Ro," he sputtered.

"I realize that you were being sarcastic," Heero said caustically. "I'm not."

"Seriously?" Duo asked, still slightly stunned. No way could I be this lucky… He quashed those thoughts before they started running rampant around his heart. It wouldn't do to count all his mobile suits before he'd shot them down."You guys really broke up?"

Heero frowned in puzzlement, his anger dieing down as quickly as it had been reborn now that he had a willing ear to kvetch to. "I think so," he said slowly. "She said that we should 'take a break' from our relationship." Turning to Duo, a beseeching expression on his face, he asked, "What does that mean?"

Hell if I know, Duo thought, but gave it his best shot to explain. "Ano…well, basically it means that you guys stop dating for a while to let the tension between you cool down, and then when it has, you start dating again." I knew I wasn't that lucky, he silently swore, quickly squashing his disappointment so as not to let Heero see anything amiss.

Heero frowned deeply at that, not looking pleased that he and Relena were still apparently together. "How will I know when the tension's gone?" he asked.

Duo shrugged. "Probably when Relena calls and harangues you for not asking her out," he said half-seriously. Just because she thinks she's perfect, she thinks Heero has to be as well. He knew he was being a bit unfair; but he wasn't that far off the mark. As a diplomat, Duo had the utmost respect for Relena. As a woman…not so much. Relena saw herself as the perfect pacifist, and she wanted to have the perfect relationship with the 'Perfect Soldier' and wouldn't settle for anything less.

Only problem was, Heero may have been a nigh-unto-perfect soldier – in the past – but he wasn't a perfect man, then or now. And Relena couldn't seem to understand that no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't make Heero conform to her vision of perfection.

"I don't think I want to ask her out again," Heero admitted shamefacedly. "She's…she expects…she wants too much from me."

More than Heero's willing to give…at the moment, anyway. If Relena hadn't kept pushing Heero, Duo knew his friend would have eventually been able to open up more. As it was, Duo was just thankful Heero hadn't closed back up emotionally. "She still trying to have the 'perfect' relationship with you?" Duo asked softly.

Grimacing faintly, Heero nodded. "She…she doesn't seem to realize that nothing can be perfect." Ducking his head, he added, almost low to be heard, "And that she isn't."

Duo patted Heero's shoulder comfortingly, at a loss as to what to do now. Considering the conversation so far, Heero was pretty much in limbo about his next move. And Duo didn't want to offer any unsolicited advice in case he tipped his hand and caused Heero to choose wrong and ruin his relationship with Relena.

Never mind the fact that it isn't just me who think Relena is wrong for Heero – 'Fei, Quat, and Tro all think the same thing.

"So it isn't…giving up?" Heero asked, his eyes flicking to Duo's and then back to the floor. "If Relena and I break up?" he clarified after a moment of confused silence from Duo.

"No," Duo assured his friend, careful to keep the vindictive glee out of his voice. He's really gonna do it…

Heero finally tore his eyes away from examining the grain of the wood flooring – the staining was uneven, but it was otherwise structurally sound – and looked Duo straight in the eye. "Are you sure?" he asked, plainly searching for more reassurance.

"I think the fact that neither of you can manage to have a relationship without me as the intermediary is pretty telling," Duo said, bluntness softened by the warmth in his voice. That is true, and about as unbiased as I think I can get. "Aside from disagreements over what to have for dinner, I don't think the two of you have ever managed to solve an argument without running to me for help."

Heero appeared to give that some thought, face falling deeper into a frown with each passing moment. "You're right," he mumbled. "I need to…break up with her. Don't I?" he asked, looking crushed.

"I'm afraid so, 'Ro," Duo said softly. For sure she's not gonna break things off – not as long as she thinks she's got you on a leash and at her beck and call. He was being rather unkind again, but Relena never would have suggested a relationship 'break' if she wasn't positive Heero would still be waiting for her when she deigned to end the 'break.' Relena was just so sure that with perseverance she could mold Heero into the perfect husband – and would not be dissuaded from that assurety.

The girl needs a reality check. And she needs to grow up, Duo thought decisively.

"How exactly do I do that?" Heero asked.

Duo was tempted to say, 'Don't ask me!' but even though he'd never had to break up with someone, he had more relevant life experience than Heero did. "Well, you need to figure out what you're going to say beforehand," Duo hedged. "And then arrange to meet her in neutral territory." Sounds like we're trying to plan an infiltration mission, he thought wryly.

Heero thought for a moment, then suggested, "Like a restaurant?"

Duo shook his head vigorously, holding up his hands in a warding gesture. "Don't take her to dinner to explain this," he advised Heero. "She'll think it's a date, and then when you tell her…" He grimaced, imagining how Relena would react. Heero almost never took the initiative in asking for dates anymore – something Duo wished he'd noticed earlier; it was just another thing that had changed with Relena's complaining – and for him to do so now would give Relena the wrong idea. "It won't be good," he said lamely, knowing that was an understatement.

Heero frowned, then nodded. "Then should I just call her on the vidphone? Get it over with as soon as possible?"

Duo winced. He understood where Heero was coming from – dealing with crying women wasn't one of his favorite things either (but somehow he thought that Relena was a screamer) – but if for no other reason that his own peace of mind, Heero need to do this in person. "You don't wanna break up with her over the phone. That's rather cruel and impersonal. You guys dated seriously for four months and are pretty good friends; she deserves to hear this face to face."

Heero sighed, a resigned look coming over his face. He'd never handled emotionally explosive situations well, and preferred to just avoid them if at all possible.

Duo gave his friend a sympathetic grin. This was part of the reason he'd not dated – not wanting to have to deal with the inevitable break-up, because he knew he'd never care for anyone else like he cared for Heero. The other, larger part was that if he couldn't have Heero, he really didn't want anyone else. "And, er, try and be…not-so-blunt, okay? Exercise some tact and don't make it sound like it's all her fault." Even if it is. "Otherwise your friendship might go down the tubes as well as your relationship."

The pinched look on Heero's face managed to communicate that he wasn't too sure it wouldn't anyway, but he nodded gamely

Maybe now that Relena is out of the picture…I'll have a chance to show him how I feel, Duo thought, daring to let himself hope, as he hadn't hoped since the day Relena had asked Heero out.

Unfortunately, his chance wouldn't come for another two months.

Heero did break up with Relena. The following Monday, in fact, at Preventers Headquarters after a business meeting they had both attended to discuss the security for the next summit meeting. However, Relena had never been one to give up easily. Persistence was normally a valued trait, but the woman didn't seem to know when to give up and make a strategic retreat. For a diplomat, she certainly hadn't mastered the art of giving in gracefully.

At first she was convinced Heero had misunderstood her suggestion of a relationship 'break.' Once assured that Heero had understood her suggestion, she thought Heero had taken it the wrong way – that he'd failed in his relationship 'mission.'

Relena had grown up quite a bit since the beginning of the war. She'd had to; losing her adoptive father, finding out who her biological parents were, and having the responsibility of being the heir to the Sanq throne thrust upon her within the span of a year had changed her. She was no longer the fresh-faced innocent with idealistic pacifist dreams.

But Heero had never been a child, and was light-years ahead of her in the maturity department by the time he was ten. Truthfully, all of the pilots had become adults before their time. But Heero, while he was behind his peers in emotional maturity, had, after defeating Dekim Barton, thrown himself into correcting that self-perceived flaw with enthusiastic zeal. Relena just…couldn't seem to understand that the Heero pre-peace and the Heero post-peace were very different people, feelings-wise. She thought he was still in 'Mission Mode' ninety-nine percent of the time.

Never mind the fact that in the years since the second war, Heero had made great strides toward throwing off the mantle of the Perfect Soldier. Heero had changed immeasurably – he was now well on his way to becoming an imperfect civilian soldier, just like the rest of the Preventers – but Relena either hadn't noticed, or was more focused on how he hadn't changed than how he had.

In any case, Relena was still calling Duo to complain about Heero – just for a different reason. Heero was being too 'stubborn' according to her. She wanted them to get back together; Heero didn't. And Relena couldn't see to accept the fact that while it took two to make a relationship work, it only took one to break it.

Heero was miserable and there was nothing Duo could really do about it. While it might have been a stretch – more like a gross exaggeration – to say that it broke his battle-scarred heart, Duo nevertheless felt that the organ in question was somewhat dented by his inability to do anything to help his friend.

At that moment, the subject of his thoughts arrived home. Heero had gone once more to try and talk Relena out of pursing him. Duo had expected Heero to return exasperated, frustrated, and just generally pissed off, a loud slamming of the door signaling his arrival, as had been par for the course in the past eight weeks.

Duo hadn't expected an almost exhausted and emotional drained Heero, accompanied by the soft click of a gently closed door. Heero opened the door with the proverbial whimper instead of a bang – well, almost. But Heero's quiet closing of the door – instead of being the usual enraged slam whenever he was pissed off with Relena – coupled with the defeated slump of his shoulders, instantly had Duo on the alert.

"Heero?" Duo asked worriedly.

Looking up momentarily, Heero's lips turned up in a bona fide, if weak, smile. "Taidaima," he said softly.

Duo hid a grin at this; Heero rarely ever felt comfortable enough to use Japanese, even at home. Ever since Relena complained about how he couldn't stop slipping 'those weird words' into conversations with her and 'couldn't he please speak like a normal person?' Duo was glad to hear it again; he had missed the sound of those lyrical syllables rolling off Heero's tongue. "Okaeri," he returned, firmly squashing thoughts of what else he'd like Heero to do with his tongue. Watching as Heero dropped bonelessly onto the couch, closed his eyes and heaved a mountainous sigh, he couldn't resist saying teasingly, "Rough day?"

"Aren't they always, when Relena is involved?" Heero shot back without opening his eyes.

Duo would have been glad that Heero could joke about his failed relationship with Relena, but he could hear the pain in Heero's voice. The other boy had wanted things to work out so badly – and they hadn't. Relena had dealt him a crushing blow by being so rigid and now he was doing his best to pick up the pieces of his life.

"I don't know; I haven't spent much time with her," Duo replied truthfully. Being around Relena had always reminded him of the fact that Heero had chosen her over him – even though Heero hadn't know he'd had a choice.

And then there was the fact that Relena didn't like him much; the two of them really didn't have anything in common besides Heero. If Relena hadn't chosen him as her relationship councilor, then she probably would have continued to think of him as the person who took up all of Heero's free time.

"Wish I could say the same," Heero murmured, and finally managed to pry his eyes open. Turning a weary countenance to his friend, Heero said, "I'm at the end of the my rope, Duo. If Relena doesn't accept that we're not together anymore…" He gave a frustrated sigh and turned away. "I can't take much more of this."

Neither can I, Duo thought, but did not say. Even dealing indirectly with Heero and Relena's former relationship was enough to make him exhausted; he couldn't imagine how Heero felt. "Well, what did you tell her today?" Duo asked instead of voicing his thoughts.

"I tried being polite like you said, I really did," Heero told him, and only Duo could have detected the hint of defensiveness in his voice. "But Relena… She's so stubborn, so…childish." Heero frowned and sighed, running his fingers through his messy hair in an unusual outward sign of frustration. "I got tired of being the only one exercising any maturity."

Duo manfully kept himself from laughing at the mental image that popped into his head at Heero's last words – Relena as Little Miss Muffet, in a pink dress with more frills and bows than was healthy, and throwing a temper tantrum because she had frightened away the poor Heero-spider with her addiction to curds and her-own-whey.

Duo then had to shove away thoughts of exactly what Heero would be like in bed – or on a tuffet, whatever the hell that was – if he had eight hands. He couldn't keep himself from shivering with lust, though thankfully the air conditioning had just kicked on, and if Heero noticed anything, he wouldn't question it.

"I don't think that when this whole…altercation…is finally over, that Relena and I will still be friends," Heero admitted sullenly. "I've tried to keep from being cruel and…vindictive…but she…" He broke off, flushing slightly in false shame.

"She hasn't?" Duo asked softly, knowingly. That was Relena through and through – she'd cut off her nose to spite her own face. It was all or nothing with her. If she couldn't have Heero as her boyfriend/lover/husband, then she wouldn't have him as a friend. Despite the fact that Heero was the best friend anyone could have – Duo could certainly attest to that.

Heero shook his head. He turned to Duo, brightening. "But I finally got her to leave me alone…I think," he added as a qualifier, though his tone of voice made it sound more as if he was certain of his statement but didn't want to push his luck.

Duo blinked. "How?" he asked, surprised. I never thought Relena would give up so soon – she's the Princess of Persistence, after all.

"I made a list," Heero replied.

Snorting, Duo said, "Well, that's very illuminating. A list of what?"

"Of every quality I have that she ever complained about," Heero murmured, eyes focused on the floor. "I hadn't even gotten halfway through the first page before she was all red and sputtering."

Ah, righteous indignation can't stand up to the truth, ne? Duo thought. Then his eyes narrowed. "There was more than one page?" he said disbelievingly. That bitch! he mentally swore.

Heero nodded, depression writing all over his features.

In an effort to make his friend feel better, Duo offered, "People complain about a lot of things because of momentary frustration. But when that moment is over…" He trailed off leadingly.

Heero snorted. "I thought of that. And I only included the qualities that she complained about on at least three separate occasions."

Duo winced. Ouch.

"Every tactless blunder that I made in private, every faux pas that I committed in public," Heero continued. "Every single mistake that she was sure I made, and never forgave me for – not even when I'd changed." He let out a shuddering breath and added, in a whisper, "Just for her."

"You should only change for yourself, Heero," Duo said softly. "Never for anyone else." How can anyone be happy with who they are if the only reason they changed was for someone else? That was something Duo could never understand; how Relena could expect that of Heero. To become someone who he wasn't just to fit her ideal of him.

Head lowering until he was staring at the floor, Heero murmured, "I know. It's just… I thought that…that romantic relationships were about mutual affection."

"They're supposed to be," Duo agreed, his voice soft so as not to derail Heero's train of thought.

"And…" Heero swallowed thickly. "I thought…that loving someone…" He broke off with a frustrated sigh and paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, then continued with, "That loving someone meant you accepted them as they were, faults, flaws and all."

Duo nodded slowly. Battle scars, neuroses, trigger-happy reflexes, etc. "Yeah…" he breathed out. I love him like that, he couldn't help but think.

But Relena didn't. And Relena was the one that Heero had wanted to love him like that. Duo's acceptance hardly made up for the lack of her understanding.

Looking beseechingly at his friend, Heero demanded, "Then why did Relena constantly try to cover up my faults and fix my flaws?" His frustration was evident; equally as obvious was that this topic had been weighing heavily on his mind for quite some time.

"Shit, Heero, I don't know," Duo said honestly, running a hand through his hair to vent his own frustration.

"Guess," Heero prodded. He'd often found that when it came to emotional situations, Duo's guesses were more on target than his logical deductions. That was no surprise to the Japanese man; one of the few things he'd figure out about emotions was that they were not logical.

Duo rolled his eyes, imploring the ceiling tiles for an answer and finally came up with, "Because she wants perfection? She's grown up a lot since the wars, but she still thinks that being in love means everything's going to be perfect, like a fairy tale, happily-every-after ending."

Heero's brow furrowed. "But that makes no sense," he said, couching his bluntness in a mystified tone of voice.

"It does if you look at it from her perspective," Duo replied, a glimmer of an explanation making itself known to him.

Heero turned inquisitive blue eyes on his friend. "Oh?"

The glimmer solidified into a more concrete explanation and crystallized into a clearer rationalization for Relena's behavior. "Yeah. She thinks that if everything's perfect in your relationship, you won't have any problems. So she was trying to make everything perfect," Duo stressed to his friend.

"But all Relena and I were having were problems," Heero pointed out, not needing to add that it was, ironically, because of Relena's attempts to make things perfect and get rid of possible problems.

Duo winced. "Yeah, well I never said her perspective involved reality, now did I?" He clamped his mouth shut on those words, knowing he'd been a bit crueler than usual. But his irritation at Relena was building and since he couldn't take it out on the appropriate target, it was spilling over into his relationship with Heero. Something he did not want.

"Realistic…is one word which doesn't apply to Relena's ideas of romance," Heero agreed reluctantly.

"What exactly did Relena's ideas of romance involve, anyway?" Duo asked, morbidly curious. She'd wanted the requisite soft music and candlelight, most likely, but Heero had given her those things – hell, the man spent more on flower bouquets than he did on ammunition, and for Heero Yuy that was saying something! – and she still hadn't been happy.

Maybe it was because what she'd thought she'd wanted hadn't been what could really make her happy.

"She…has a very dominating personality," Heero said slowly, as if reluctant to impart this information. "She always had to be in control; we always had to do things her way."

Brow furrowing, Duo said, "That doesn't sound very romantic." But it sounds exactly like Relena. Another thing she and Heero have in common – control freaks, the both of them.

Only Heero had loosened up a lot since the wars. Relena couldn't afford to when she was swimming in the shark pool known as politics.

"It wasn't – at least not to me," Heero replied. "I spent all my time trying to make her happy – and I never accomplished it. And she didn't ever try to…" Face falling, he hung his head.

"She didn't ever try to return the favor? Make you happy?" Duo asked empathetically. Bitch.

Heero nodded dejectedly. "She wanted me to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted it. And she completely disregarded what I wanted – when she could be bothered to find out," he said, unusually bitter. He'd never been one to say anything really bad about Relena…mostly because he'd been too busy blaming their failing relationship on his own failings. "And half the time what she wanted was the opposite of what she'd wanted the day before."

"Gives new meaning the word 'mercurial,' I gather, ne?" Duo asked, trying to lighten the mood.

Snorting, Heero said, "Definitely." He fell into a brooding silence, looking off to the left of the middle distance as he pondered about his problems.

Duo, not wanting to let his friend linger in the land of lovelorn limbo, asked, "What did she complain about that's bothering you the most?" The list thing was bad enough on its own, but he knew there had to be a specific reason for Heero's bad mood, or else he would have (mostly) shaken it off by now.

Heero heaved an explosive sigh, and turned to him – only to flush slightly and duck his head once more. Finally, he said, "She kept complaining about…about the way I kiss. And I can't help thinking that you never had any problem with it." Then he frowned unhappily, cheeks still pink. "Did you?" he asked, voice soft and tentative as if he wasn't sure he wanted the answer, fearing it would be in accordance with Relena's.

Duo managed to beat back the flush that wanted to color his own cheeks. It wasn't as if he was ashamed of having kissed Heero – far from it! – but it was never something he and Heero had talked about.

At least…not in words.

It had started after New Edwards. Hero had been stewing in his undeserved – so Duo thought – guilt. Duo had been boiling with anger at Treize – which Duo thought the 'good' General deserved all of and more.

They'd been talking – for once it had been an actual conversation, not just Duo chattering on and on with Heero giving the occasional annoyed grunt of acknowledgement – and Heero had said something that had made Duo's heart ache:

"I ruin everything I touch."

To make his friend feel better, Duo had kissed Heero to prove him wrong. Neither of them had time to think before the kiss was over; a breath, and their lips touched, held for one eternity of a moment, and then parted. Duo had grinned – a rather wobbly grin, since that kiss had been…indescribably…something.Warm and soft, and just…everything… – and said teasingly, "See? I'm not ruined."

Heero had smiled – a small smile, but a real one, and not the tiny smirk he sometimes gave – and said sincerely, "Arigato."

After that, whenever the ravages of war got particularly hard to bear, one of them would drag the other off…and they would kiss. They weren't particular arousing kisses; that wasn't the point of them. Chaste wasn't the right word to describe them, either, because they held a lot of unspoken emotions. Friendship, camaraderie…a tentative sort of caring that might have been the beginnings of love. Those kisses hadn't been about sex, or even romance. They were about sharing tenderness and trust, giving each other a bit of comfort in the midst of war.

At the time.

Many nights since the war – the second war, what had been termed the 'Endless Waltz' of humanity, from Mariemaia's little speech – Duo had dreamed of those kisses. Not just as they had been, but becoming more than just a closed-mouth pressing of lips together.

Something hot rather than warm, romantic rather than friendly… Something born out of a deep love, instead of a steady friendship.

And Duo ached with thought that he'd never get to experience that kind of kiss with Heero…except in his dreams. For while – once the war ended – Duo had wanted more than those kisses from Heero…

Heero had wanted Relena.

At least…Duo had thought so. And now that Heero was single once more, he might have a chance…

Duo cleared his throat and did his best to shove those thoughts way down deep inside his heart…the only place he could lay claim to Heero. "N-no, I d-don't have a problem with them," he stuttered in answer to Heero's implied question, only realizing after the fact that he'd used the present tense, instead of the past.

God, what I wouldn't give for him to kiss me again, Duo thought. It was a short list, that. Pretty much consisting of only his soul, and even that was negotiable.

Heero blinked, slight surprise etched across his features. "You…don't?" he asked, quite clearly catching Duo's little verbal misstep.

Face flaming, Duo could no longer hold back his embarrassment. "No, I don't," he said firmly, if tentatively. Let Heero take that in whatever way he would – Duo was beyond caring about hiding his feelings anymore. He had planned on waiting a few more months before starting to drop hints about how he felt – he didn't want to catch Heero on the rebound – but Heero wasn't with Relena, and Duo was through with waiting for the right moment to reveal his feelings to just arrive. Duo figured that he should just try his best to make this the right moment. If nothing else, he could plant the seed in Heero's thoughts; whether it grew and flowered into love on the other boy's part, only time would tell.

"Duo…what…what do you mean by that?" Heero asked, voice shaking.

Taking a deep breath to fortify his faltering courage, Duo said bluntly, if not ungently, "I like you, Heero."

Heero blinked in incomprehension. "I like you, too, Duo." It was obvious he didn't understand the subtler connotations of Duo's words. As if to prove it, he added, "You're my best friend."

It made Duo's heart warm to hear those words spoken by Heero with such simple sincerity, even as he was biting back a growl of exasperation at the other boy's denseness. "No, I mean…" Duo sighed in frustration. English could be so damn vague; sometimes it was just easier to use Japanese. "Suki da, Heero," he said softly. He did like Heero best, and he wasn't sure it was a good idea to go from friendship to love all in the same breath. He'd be almost sure to scare Heero off with that – if he hadn't already.

Heero froze, as still as a statue – and then, in a flurry of contained movement, began blinking rapidly. Duo counted at least nine blinks before the other boy's jaw dropped open. "Nani?" Heero whispered faintly.

"You heard me," Duo shot back, hiding a furious blush by tucking his head down into his crossed arms.

"You like me," Heero said with the kind of awed disbelief most likely used by Joseph-Louis LaGrange, when he first discovered what would come to be known as the LaGrange points, and invented the novel concept of space colonies. "Like Relena likes me?" he asked, head tilted to the side in bewildered bemusement.

Duo's head shot up to stare at his surely all-of-the-sudden insane friend. "Hell no," he stated, frantically pushing aside all thoughts that he could end up being as controlling and egotistical as Relena the Perfectionist Princess. He'd promised himself two months ago that he'd never take Heero for granted as she had, and Duo Maxwell never broke his promises.

Heero, far from looking relieved at this assertion, looked crushed. "But you said…"

Seeing that his friend, love interest, and hopeful soon-to-be boyfriend didn't understand, Duo hastened to reassure him. "I do like you, Heero," he stated firmly. "Just not in an obsessive, stalkery way, or a 'I want to completely change you until you fit my idea of perfect' way." After listing some of Relena's poorer attributes, Duo added some of his own finer ones. "More in a 'until death so us part' way. An 'I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy' way. Or even a 'If I were a girl I'd want to have your children' kind of way." He grinned self-deprecatingly, hoping that latter suggestion would cut through the fog Heero's mind seemed to be in with its irreverence. Irreverent, but sincere; Duo knew, however, that even if he were a girl, his first choice would be adoption. Heero's too, he thought.

"Oh," Heero said faintly, looking more-than-slightly unsettled. After a moment of stunned silence, he let out a sigh of pure relief, a tentative smile blossoming on his face. "You…really?"

"Yeah," Duo confirmed softly. He tried not to squirm in his seat as he waited for Heero's reaction; he'd seemed to rather like the idea, but one could never be certain. The ZERO (AKA Insanity 'R Us) System had had the entire second half of the first war to warp Heero's mind more than a little. And the verdict is…

Brow furrowing, Heero asked, "Why did you never say anything? All this time…" He shook his head, at a loss.

Duo sighed. Ah, the crux of the matter. Hoping Heero would understand his rationale, he said, "I thought you wanted Relena. And then you were with her, and I didn't want to break you up." I'm still not sure if I didn't, Duo thought miserably. Uncertainty, thy name is Duo Maxwell.

Heero started. "You wanted me even before I was with Relena?" he asked incredulously.

Duo nodded, biting his lower lip while he tried his best to keep the upper one stiff. Heero did not sound happy. But about what, specifically? he wondered.

"Since when, exactly?" Heero asked – more like demanded – bluntly.

Self-control finally faltering, Duo began to fidget in his chair despite himself. "Since we became partners," he said, eyes focused on the floor. His intense perusal netted him the knowledge that the honey-colored stain hadn't been applied to the wood evenly, and the knothole next to the floor lamp looked like a rose. And underneath the coffee table was a scratch that looked like a knife – a rather bloody knife, if one took into account the shadows…

"That was almost two years ago…" Heero murmured.

Duo nodded jerkily and stayed silent. He couldn't bear to look the other boy in the eye – he felt as if he'd shatter if he had to see his rejection coming as well as hear it spoken.

A brooding silence settled over them, and Duo tried his best not to hyperventilate. The next few moments could make or break his and Heero's relationship – friendship-wise or more. A look from underneath his bangs let him see that Heero had an inscrutable look on his face, one that he only wore when he was very deep in thought.

"I…have a few things to say," Heero started off quietly.

Duo nodded perfunctorily, hoping with every breath he took that Heero wouldn't blow him off.

"After the second war, I felt lost," Heero started abruptly. "I was drowning in a sea of my own doubts – doubts about what I was going to do with my life, whether or not I could continue to live as a civilian after having been a solider again, even for a day, doubts about if the peace would last for more than another year – and I was searching desperately for an anchor." Locking his gaze on Duo's own eyes, he said, "When you showed up at Preventers Headquarters and volunteered to become my partner, you provided that anchor."

I did? Duo thought, little realizing he'd voiced his thoughts allowed.

"You did," Heero confirmed, enjoying the flush that lit up those pale cheeks, yet not quite understanding why. "And I selfishly clung to you for almost a year before I realized that I was holding you back."

Duo started to protest, but was quickly silenced.

"I started…trying to find my own way in the world, trying to discover who I was beyond our friendship, our partnership. And I soon discovered an…emptiness inside myself. There grew a…need…inside me, for something more," Heero said uncomfortably, that pinched look on his face that meant he was having trouble finding the right words to articulate his thoughts. "I didn't know how to fill that emptiness, but I also didn't know how to ask you for that 'something more' – or even what that 'something more' was." He sighed heavily. "When Relena asked me to start a romantic relationship, I thought that maybe that's what I was missing – a deeper connection than friendship. And that's why I couldn't find it with you, because you didn't have romantic feelings for me."

Duo was appalled at his own lack of observation. How had he not noticed Heero distancing himself from their friendship? It was obvious in retrospect – but then hindsight was always 20/20. Heero had grown more quiet and introspective in the months before he and Relena had started dating, but since Heero had never really shut him out, just cut down slightly on their time spent together, Duo had written it off as his partner brooding over a hard case or old memories bothering him. "But…" …I do have romantic feelings for you, Duo finished silently.

"That's what I thought at the time," Heero continued, a knowing glint in his eye telling that he was aware of what Duo had almost said. "And I was so busy trying to make my new relationship with Relena work that I never stopped to think about whether or not I actually had any romantic feelings for her." His eyes cut away from a suddenly too-intense indigo gaze. "Or for you," he added in a whisper.

Duo's breath caught in his throat. It was the moment of truth…

"And she never understood me…and you always did, even when I didn't…but she offered…and you didn't; you encouraged her…and I care for you both, but I like you more, and…" Heero seemed to run out of verbal steam, pausing for a breath and to order his thoughts once more. He shook his head from slowly from side to side and bared his teeth in suppressed frustration. "This is why I don't talk much," he admitted in rueful exasperation. "Because nothing ever comes out right."

Duo, for his part, was stunned. "Oh, I'd say everything came out right," he said in a dazed tone of voice. "You…you like me?" he couldn't help but ask. Heero had used English, after all.

"Hai," Heero agreed softly. He reached out with one hand and drew Duo into the circle of his arms. "Suki da mo, Duo."

"R-really?" Duo asked, part of him still unable to believe even as the rest of him was straining towards hope.

"Aa," Heero confirmed. "More than I ever liked Relena," he added.

Giving his friend a watery smile, Duo teased, "And you just figured it out right, now ne?"

Heero shrugged. "I suppose I knew it subconsciously. I just needed for it to be brought to the forefront of my mind." He sighed in exasperation. "I just wish you'd said something sooner."

It was Duo's turn to shrug, cheeks heating up self-consciously. It had seemed like a good idea at the time…

"Why, Duo? Why suffer in silence for so long?"

Duo snorted at that – he hadn't exactly been suffering, and he definitely hadn't been silent – but he knew what Heero meant. "Because I could live without being your lover, but I'd die if I couldn't be your friend," he said frankly. People think it's cliché to die from a broken heart – but if I hadn't had the rest of the gang to look after, or my revenge to get, I would have done it already.

Heero blinked. "Duo, you'll always be my friend," he said, as if that fact was never in question.

And maybe it hadn't been. Maybe it had just been Duo's own insecurities making him doubt the strength of their friendship. The strength of a friendship that had withstood three years, two wars, and countless near-death experiences and suicide attempts.

You just couldn't get closer than that – emotionally.


Now or never… Duo decided, and nerved himself. "Kiss me?" he asked, reaching up tentatively to place a hand on Heero's arm and coax him closer.

Heero smiled, more with his eyes than with his mouth, but it was the most sincere smile Heero had ever gifted him with. "Aa," he agreed, placing his free hand on Duo's shoulder.

And then they were moving towards each other, jerkily, slowly, but inexorably leaning into each other's embrace…and heading towards something beyond the friendship they already shared, but strengthened by it. Heero's arms wrapped tentatively around Duo's waist and he held him close; Duo's arms twined around Heero's neck to tilt him down the scant inches needed for their lips to meet.

And they did.

It was…not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. Despite the fact that this was not their first kiss, neither of them had any real experience. Their noses bumped, and they were both too tense for the first few seconds to actually move their lips. When they finally, did, the kiss was slightly clumsy, mostly tentative, and very…right. It was, also soft and comforting, heartwarmingly beautiful…

And it smoothed out not only the dents in their hearts, but also the scars on their souls.

Breaking apart from his new – boyfriend? lover? reason for living and loving? – Duo panted for breath, staring with glazed eyes into blue orbs that looked just as dazed as he felt. "Wow," he breathed.

"Yokatta," Heero agreed breathlessly.

Smiles – extremely sappy smiles – spread across their faces simultaneously, and neither could tell who reached for whom first; but the kiss was shared equally.

The kisses that came after that were by turns sloppy and wet, and calm and chaste. But no matter how intimate the kiss, there was one thing they all had in common:

They were perfectly imperfect.