Disclaimer: Don't own any part of Gundam Wing or the characters, more's the pity. This is for fun...no profit involved.

Warnings: AU , yaoi, swearing (lots), some OOC (probably), violence, drugs, sex, vague references to long- past NCS, a naughty Duo (i.e. he has a potty mouth and is a bit, er, slutty)…if you are wedded to the "pure, chaste" version of Duo, he might be a bit dark and crude for your taste…ditto for the other characters in here…hey, Quat's a lawyer…how much lower could he get?

Pairings: 1X2X1, 3X4, 5XC, (past 2X3X2, 6X2)

A/N: I'm stopping at 69 chapters, since that's Duo and Trowa's favorite number in this fic, and it seemed appropriate. Plus, the "witness protection" has ended, and now it's on to the "happily ever after." However, so often in this fic, it would have been nice to be able to show you Duo's point of view…so I have started a companion fic I'm calling "Diary of a Protected Witness." It'll be short, choppy segments of Duo's point of view, and you'll need to know the plot of "Witness" in order to really know the details of what's going on, I think. I'm not going to re-hash the whole story again. I just wanted to post glimpses of Duo's perspective on moments in the story. So, watch for it?


Chapter Sixty Nine: Where the Heart Is

"Quat and Tro' are here!" Duo blurted, dashing from the kitchen towards the front door, his braid flying out behind him.

I followed at a more sensible rate of speed, reaching the front hallway in time to see him fling open the door and launch himself into Trowa's arms.

"God, I've missed you guys!"

Trowa grinned at me over Duo's shoulder, and winked at my weary smile. "What? Not jealous any more, Yuy?" he teased.

I shook my head and crossed my arms, smiling smugly. "Y'know what, Barton? I'm so grateful he's alive, that I've got no room at all for jealousy."

Duo turned a brilliant smile my way. "I love you too, 'Ro," he said easily, his eyes sparkling with warmth. He disentangled himself from his former lover and hugged Quatre every bit as enthusiastically. "Aw, Quat—I'm so glad you could make it!"

Quatre's eyes were suspiciously bright. "I've been counting the days, Duo. It's wonderful to see you healthy again—and likely to stay that way now that Khushrenada's gone and the syndicate is a thing of the past."

Duo grinned smugly. "Yeah—the best part is that Zechs was the one who compiled the information that brought 'em down! Nobody blames Heero an' me at all!"

"Not that many people even know you're alive, let alone living a quiet life in a seaside cottage with an ex-cop," Trowa pointed out.

"Who'da thought?" Duo chuckled. He returned to my side, slipping an arm around my waist and tucking his head against my shoulder.

"I would have," Quatre asserted, looking terribly smug. "The minute I saw you two in that interrogation room—I knew there was a spark there."

I snorted at that. "Yeah—kind of like a lit match and gasoline."

Duo melted against me, giving a low growl. "Hot stuff, Yuy."

"That you are," I agreed readily.

"Flatterer!" He pulled away and we helped Quatre and Trowa bring in their luggage, and the insanely expensive bottle of wine the lawyer brought as a gift, since they were going to be spending the weekend with us.

It was Thanksgiving Day—and the first time our friends were seeing Duo since that awful scene in the courthouse. We'd spoken on the phone, of course, but only briefly.

We'd been in Euphoria for just over two months, Duo and I. Once I had him back in my arms, there was no way I was going to let him out of my sight—ever. So as soon as we came up for air, after a couple of days of eating and making love and sleeping, and pretty much repeating that pattern non-stop with an occasional shower thrown in, we had some serious decision-making to do.

He didn't want to go back to the city in any hurry, for a lot of reasons. At the top of the list was Agent Alexander, who still had an APB out on him—trying to retrieve "the one that got away."

Not that he needed any testimony from Duo, but it was an embarrassment having a protected witness get attacked by his keeper and then leave the man tied up with his partner—naked.

Yeah, Duo hadn't mentioned that right off the bat. Took him a couple of days to get around to telling me just how pissed he'd been at the guy who'd tried to strangle him with a garden hose.

He'd been pissed enough to strip the guy right down to his birthday suit and duct tape him to his equally naked partner—face to face—tightly.

I'd laughed my ass off when he told me. Seriously. It was the fuckin' funniest thing I'd ever heard! Two straight guys—who'd been openly contemptuous of Duo's blatant admission of homosexuality—taped together cheek to cheek and dick to dick.

I still chuckled when I thought about it.

Alexander had probably burst a blood vessel when he found them like that. Apparently that was where he'd rushed off to the day I gave him the FBI black list. He'd called to talk to the one agent with Duo who was not on the list, only to have Duo answer the cell phone and tell him he had a fucked-up organization and he should go retrieve his "heads-up-their-asses goons" before "they got hard for each other and had an inter-office romance."

Duo fuckin' cracked me up sometimes! Did I mention how much I loved him?

At any rate, we'd both decided we owed Alexander nothing. Wait—scratch that—I owed him another big, fat punch in the jaw, which I delivered when I went in a couple of weeks later to drop off my resignation to Captain Po.

As it turned out, initially she had not been included in Alexander's little plot. When she'd showed me those fake autopsy pictures, she believed they were real—which was the only thing that saved her from getting the same treatment as the FBI agent. I was not above hitting a woman, if I felt she deserved it.

But Alexander only brought Captain Po "into the fold" after Trant was killed, since by then he was considering putting Duo back in the care of our people. He never got the chance, only because Duo took off before he could proceed.

I was plenty pissed that the Captain hadn't see fit to share with me once she was in on the secret. I mean, she'd guessed there was more than a professional relationship between Duo and me. She had to know his absence was sheer torture. But when I confronted her with that fact, she cited a promise of confidentiality she'd made to Alexander, as well as the concern that if she told me Duo was alive and then he ended up dead at the hands of a rogue agent, I'd have suffered all the more.

Yeah, I thought that was bullshit, too, and I told her so. I also told her my resignation had nothing to do with the whole incident; I merely wanted—correction, needed—to be wherever Duo was.

She'd asked where that was, and I'd laughed in her face and told her there was no way in Hell I was going to reveal our location so she could run to Alexander with it. And then I'd left. I wasn't followed, either, or they'd have found a couple more guys duct-taped together.

I really liked the way Duo thought.

"Wow—this place is lovely!" Quatre said, as Duo took his coat and Trowa's and hung them in the closet. "Look at the view out the picture window!"

Trowa slipped an arm around his lover as they walked over to the aforementioned window and took in the view of the ocean. "It's great, Quat," he said agreeably. "Y'want something like this for us?"

Quatre looked up at the dancer in surprise. "Does that mean you decided to say 'yes' to moving in together?"

"Yeah, I guess it does," he said quietly.

"Aw—Kodak moment!" Duo crooned, throwing an arm around each man's shoulders and pulling them into a group hug. "You two are really gonna shack up?"

"Duo!" chided Quatre.

"Well what else would ya call it?" shrugged my lover. "Y'can't get married—so you've just got to 'live in sin,' like 'Ro an' me."

"But Angel—," Trowa began teasingly.

"Don't you call me that!" Duo huffed, his glance sliding over to me, and then a smirk settling on his perfect lips. "It's reserved," he added loftily.

"Ah. I see," replied his friend. "Does that mean he can't call you Shini?"

"I can call him anything I like," I said smugly, walking over to peel him off of our friends. "Seeing as he's mine."

"Oh yeah. You own my ass," Duo asserted.

"The whole package," I reminded him.

He gave a throaty chuckle, rubbing his "package" against my thigh. "You got it, lover."

"Jeeze—get a room—," Trowa chided.

"Oh—speaking of that!" Duo chirped, doing a quick one-eighty. "Lemme show ya where you an' Kitty-Quat will be humpin' each other for the weekend." He grabbed Trowa's hand and dragged him off towards the stairs to take him up to the guest room we'd prepared.

Quatre looked at me with a warm smile and sparkling eyes. "Thank God he hasn't changed."

"Did you think he would?"

"I—wasn't sure. He's been through so much. I was afraid he'd be less—."

"—alive?" I finished for him. "Nope. If anything, he's more alive than ever—like he's making up for lost time." I gave a little shrug. "He knows he got lucky—got a second chance—and he's not wasting a minute of it. You should see all the sketches—and the new meals—. He's even got a little garden out back. He grows herbs."

Quatre grinned wickedly. "Legal ones?"

I shifted my weight. "Mostly."

The lawyer raised an eyebrow, stepping back to look at me in shock. "You are not serious!"

"Well, I'm no botanist—but there's a suspicious-looking patch of some tall, leafy things in one corner," I shrugged. We shared a mischievous look. "Could I plead ignorance, counselor?"

"Insanity, maybe," he smirked back.

"C'mon upstairs before they decide to try out the bed," I suggested, ushering him towards the stairs.

I was joking—completely joking. I trusted Duo—heart and soul.

But I also knew he'd do almost anything just for the shock value.

We found him flinging the curtains wide, and showing Trowa how he could see the entire bay and out beyond it to the open ocean.

"—and from the balcony, you can look out over the garden and see down to the beach." He gave a teasing leer. "Most of the beach—but there's plenty of private spots—you can sunbathe totally nude an' no one can see—."

Trowa threw his head back and laughed—a rare sight indeed. "Shit, Duo—y'think I care if anyone sees? I've shown it to anyone who'd pay the cover charge, remember?"

Duo laughed with him, reaching to tuck back a strand of chestnut hair that had escaped his braid. And I couldn't keep from walking over and running my fingers through the loose wisps and smoothing a few more back.

"C'mon Angel," I whispered. "Let's show them the rest of the house."

The rest of the house. Yeah, it was a good-sized place, with a huge master bedroom and four roomy ones for guests; the previous owners had run a bed and breakfast there. We also had a Jacuzzi out on the back deck—aw, c'mon; did you think Duo wasn't going to have his precious hot tub after the memories from the lake house? And we had a wrap-around porch on the other three sides of the house. There were several acres of land, and most of the nearby property belonged to some state park, which prevented development, as well as traffic.

There were no moose, though. Not a one—at least not that we'd seen—yet. But wild blueberries grew all over some of the nearby hills, and we'd actually glimpsed a bear one time—from our back deck—with binoculars. And that was as close as either of us ever wanted to get.

We'd completed the grand tour of the upstairs, and had no sooner gotten back downstairs when a knock on the door heralded the arrival of our other two guests.

"It's Wu-baby!" Duo crowed triumphantly, dashing past me to fling open the door. "Wuffers! Cath!"

Wufei and Catherine stood on the doorstep, the former with suitcases in hand, and the latter with a huge flower arrangement.

"Come in—come in!" Duo waved them both inside, taking one of the bags and passing it to me, and then holding out his arms. "Give us a hug, you Oriental Adonis!"

With a long-suffering sigh, Wufei set down the second bag, and allowed Duo to wrap him in a crushing bear-hug. "Good to see you alive, Maxwell—honestly," he gasped.

"You too," said my lover, pulling back and winking cheekily. He turned to Catherine, eyes widening at the sight of the blossoms. "What's all that, Cath?"

She craned her head around the flowers to smile brightly at him. "Not from us," she explained with a little shrug. "Captain Po wanted to send her regards—and since we refused to give away the address—."

I grabbed the arrangement at once, stalking into the dining room and placing it on the table, before dashing upstairs for my surveillance scanner.

Ignoring wide-eyed stares and disbelieving smiles, I came back down and spent several minutes checking for bugs, tracking devices, or monitors of any kind.

"'Ro? I don't think there's a bomb tucked into the begonias," Duo whispered in my ear.

I gave him a sidelong glare. "I'm taking no chances," I said evenly. "Captain Po and Agent Alexander are far too chummy to be trusted—."

"He's got bigger fish to fry," Duo reminded me. "He's lost interest."

"Bigger fish indeed," Wufei smirked, walking over to shake my hand, when he could pull my attention away from debugging the flowers.

I've gotta say here, aside from one tiny aphid, there were no bugs at all—heh, heh. (God, Duo had rubbed off on me, hadn't he? But then I'd rubbed off on him—and in him, if you catch my drift.)

At any rate, I took my former partner's hand and pulled him into a one-armed hug. "Good to see you, Chang."

"You too—and as I started to say—Alexander's got himself neck-deep in work these days. Since he brought down Oz, they've put him in charge of an organized crime task force. And he's been trying to recruit Captain Po as his second-in-command."

"Really?" Duo crooned dangerously. "Well maybe they are two little peas in a pod."

Catherine slipped up to give Duo a hug then, and a big, wet kiss on the cheek. "Bygones," she urged. "The Captain sent you some nice flowers and a card apologizing for all she put Heero through. So be the bigger man and accept her attempt at reconciliation."

My lover snorted, his eyes narrowing. "She fuckin' showed Heero fake autopsy pictures, Cath. I'm not at all sure I'll ever forgive that."

"Not even if she made a sizable contribution to your favorite orphanage?" Wufei asked, holding out another envelope, with a return address of the Maxwell Church Orphanage. "Here's the thank-you Father Maxwell sent her for the donation, telling her what sorts of things it will provide for the kids, and commending her generosity. She asked me to pass it along to you, so you can see it for yourself."

Duo accepted the envelope, sliding the letter out and reading for a moment. "Whoa. Generous indeed!" he exclaimed. He looked at me almost accusingly. "How much they payin' cops these days, 'Ro? She laid a lotta dough on the old homestead, y'know."

I took the letter he held out, my own eyes widening at the figure mentioned in the text. "So she did," I agreed. I looked up at him with a conspiratorial smile. "It won't get her invited to Christmas dinner—but maybe we can send her a card."

"Without a return address!" he cautioned.

"Of course."

As a matter of fact, the only people from our old lives that knew our exact location were Wufei, Trowa, Quatre and Catherine. A few others, such as Father Maxwell, had been told Duo was alive after all—but had not been advised of our whereabouts. We were still uneasy about detection, and jealousy guarding our privacy. After all Duo had endured, I thought the least he deserved was a quiet, undisturbed sanctuary from the chaos he'd known before.

Besides, since I didn't actually get to hold Khushrenada's severed head in my hands, I wasn't willing to discount the distant possibility that he'd somehow survived five direct hits to his heart (assuming he had one), and was in witness relocation himself, helping Alexander dismantle Oz, in return for immunity from prosecution. Hey, after all we'd been through, I trusted no one! And even though Wufei had assured me he personally attended the funeral and viewed the body in the open casket, I was still keeping an open mind, and a paranoid attitude.

Of course, Chang had eased many of my fears by tracking down the bastard who'd trashed my apartment and run him and Catherine off the road. He'd sort of made it a personal crusade—and worked at it day and night until he nabbed the dumb prick and sent him to the hospital. The guy supposedly resisted arrest; either that, or my tendency to play rough with suspects had rubbed off on my partner.

At any rate, the guy had been apprehended, and immediately turned State's evidence and spilled his guts—giving the police names of both accomplices and clients. His only condition was that they keep "that crazy Chink cop" the hell away from him.

I was proud of Chang.

In other news, Trowa and Quatre had sort of taken over Duo's mentoring of the orphans—bringing them on circus outings and assuring them a place at upcoming Winner-sponsored summer camps. We'd decided that perhaps by the next summer, Duo could make an appearance to reconnect with the kids he'd been so fond of—but not until we were sure every last threat had been eliminated.

Speaking of threats—Une was no longer one, having finally succeeded in her third suicide attempt, after leaving a letter saying that she had to "be with Treize once again." She was not missed.

Relena—well, she had ended up in the priciest sanitarium on the East Coast. Her father pulled some strings and lined up a veritable chorus of doctors who proclaimed her unbalanced and in need of long-term psychiatric care. It had cost him his job—as the mayor didn't appreciate the appearance of favoritism. And Captain Po was actually put in as the acting Chief, until a new one could be selected.

I'd thought they might offer her the position permanently, but since Chang just told us that Alexander was trying to recruit her, I had no idea where she'd eventually end up. Frankly, I didn't care.

I was perfectly happy as an assistant to the local constable in Euphoria. In return for his promise of anonymity, I'd agreed to replace the old-timer who retired to join in Pops' daily games of gin rummy. My limited duties consisted mostly of writing parking tickets and helping little old ladies get their cats out of trees. Or at least that's what it felt like, compared to working vice and homicide for the past few years.

I took the job mostly for Duo—who went into a panic when he found out I was considering looking for one in a police department a half an hour away. His fear of losing me was very nearly as strong as my fear of losing him. And neither one of us could really handle being apart for any more time per day than was absolutely necessary.

Of course, with the money Zechs had left to Duo, which Quatre had skillfully kept off the FBI radar, neither of us really needed to work. After buying our house, and sending Father Maxwell a chunk that made Captain Po's donation look puny, we'd put most of the rest of the money into savings and long-term cds, salting it away for emergencies. We could have lived very comfortably on the interest.

But Duo loved cooking, and so he still worked at The Gull's Wing—and had even managed to teach Mary not to totally destroy whatever she attempted in the kitchen. He also loved his sketching, and gardening—which were so totally out of character for the brassy young punk I'd first taken him for, that it still made me shake my head in wonder.

I'd bought an antique car that I was restoring on weekends, in the big attached garage, and was working three days a week with the local constabulary, which provided me a diversion, and Duo and me a bit of extra income.

"So—I've gotta check on the turkey," Duo announced, giving Wufei and Catherine a little nudge in my direction. "Show the happy couple the estate, would ya, love?"

I nodded, eagerly helping our newest guests out of their coats, and then walking them through the house. Quatre and Trowa tagged along to complete their tour as well.

"It's really lovely here," Catherine spoke up, as we peered out the French doors at the steaming hot tub. She gave me a sly sideways look. "Glad I brought my bathing suit."

"Duo never bothers with one," I blurted before my brain caught up to my mouth.

Wufei gave me a horrified look, and then turned it on his fiancée. "You will not go into that hot tub with that naked—. With Duo!"

"I, uhm…" I cleared my throat nervously. "I'm sure we can convince him to behave—and to wear a suit."

"What've I gotta dress up in a suit for?" Duo asked, walking out of the kitchen with his face damp from the heat and steam of the oven—those little chestnut wisps curling around his cheeks.

"Not that kind of suit! In the hot tub, Maxwell!" Wufei said sternly. "I won't have Catherine in there with you—nude!"

Duo smiled easily, not taking offense at all. "Fuck it, Chang, y'think I'm a fool? Between her knives, Trowa's talent with whips, and your freakin' martial arts—y'think I'm gonna mess with Cathy? I've got too much to live for."

He slipped an arm around my waist and leaned up to kiss me, his lips still warm from the heat in the kitchen. "Come help me haul that big-assed turkey out of the oven?"


We left our guests to get comfortable in the living room, and I helped Duo take the turkey from the oven and drain the juice so he could make gravy.

"Hey—can you open the wine Quat brought? He said it needed to 'breathe.'" Duo chuckled after he said it, and shook his head. "Haven't heard uptown talk like that since Zechsy and I were an item."

"Miss it?" I teased, a tiny trace of insecurity still nagging me from time to time.

"Fuck, no," came the quick, decisive reply. "Told ya before, 'Ro. You are the guy for me—not to mention the best time I've ever had. No regrets, love. Not a one."

He didn't see me smile and surreptitiously run a hand across my eyes before he turned and shoved a bowl of mashed potatoes into my hands. "Put that on the table, please?"

"For you—anything."

He leered appreciatively. "Later."

We were busy for a bit, putting the final touches on the meal and getting it laid out on the table, and then while Duo ran to comb his hair and put on shirt that wasn't spattered with flour and dotted with droplets of gravy, I called everyone into the dining room.

When my lover returned moments later, and slid into his seat beside me, he was positively beaming with happiness.

"Okay, guys—I get to go first," he said without preamble, picking up the glass of wine I'd poured for him. "It's Thanksgiving—and Father Maxwell used to make all us kids tell everyone at the table something we were thankful for—something specifically about that person. So—here goes."

He fixed his gaze on Catherine, who blushed before he even started. "I'm thankful, Cathy, that you are so smart and pretty and talented that even a picky guy like Wufei couldn't resist your charms. You an' he deserve all the happiness in the world." He gave a cheeky wink. "I'm also thankful you can throw knives well enough to hit a bull's eye from forty yards—or an assassin's eye."

"Oh, gross!" she teased, waving a knife menacingly. "Not over supper, Duo!"

"Wufei—," Duo continued, undaunted. "I'm grateful that you are so damned honorable that even when you hated my guts, you would've died for me. Your sense of duty and obligation are just—scary, man."

"Quat," he went on warmly, gesturing to the lawyer with his glass. "Thanks for being the smartest lawyer ever—pushing me to cooperate with the cops—giving up your nice houses and cars to keep me safe. I'll never be able to repay you—an' I mean literally never. On top of all that, you gave me your friendship. In return, I'm giving you the greatest guy on Earth—next to Heero, that is."

He winked at me, and looked over at Trowa. "Tro'—I can't even list all you've done for me, man. You've been a lover, a friend, a brother, a teacher—shit—you were just my rock, y'know? I can't ever repay you for all that, except by keeping you as my best friend, and maybe by sharing some of what I grew in the garden this summer—."

"Duo—," I cautioned with a stern glare.

He gave me his most impish look. "Herbs, lover. Tro' just loves oregano—."

"Right," I growled.

"As for you," Duo smirked at me. "I gotta say I'm thankful you've got the biggest—."

"Duo! Lady present!" Chang barked out sharply—dangerously.

"—heart," Duo finished, giving my former partner a perfectly wicked grin. "'Ro's got the biggest heart and it's all mine. An' I'm so thankful for that, I could just bust."

He got the laugh he was going for, and then he squeezed my hand. "Okay…the way the rest of this works…'Ro has to say something nice about Quatre. Something he admires. And then Quat does it for Tro', and, and it goes 'round the table like that." He gave Wufei a sly smile. "Last one's Wuffers, who has to wrack his brains and find something about me he's thankful for."

"I'm thankful you said 'heart,'" Wufei offered with an innocent look. "Isn't that enough?"

"Nope." Duo nudged me in the shoulder. "Go on, 'Ro. Say something nice about Quatre."

"Nothing like giving me a challenge," I teased. "Compliment a lawyer? Jeeze, Duo—why not just make it something impossible?"

"'Ro." He actually looked sternly at me, and that alone was almost enough to crack me up.

"Okay. Sheesh." I fixed a warm look on Winner. "I'm thankful I got to find out there's much more to you than just a sharp mind and killer instincts," I said playfully. "There's a very warm, caring person under that professional exterior, and I'm thankful for all you did for Duo."

Quatre blushed and ducked his head, looking more like a flustered teen than a polished lawyer. But he smiled his thanks and then turned to Trowa. "I'm thankful for getting to know you better, and finding that you are a sweet, sensitive guy, with a great sense of humor and the most beautiful green eyes I've ever seen."

And I thought Quatre blushed? Trowa went from normal to crimson in two seconds flat.

He covered his embarrassment by turning his attention to Catherine. "I'm grateful that you are safe," he said firmly. "When I heard all that happened at that amusement park, I felt awful about getting you involved, and I'm just thankful you're okay, and that you're happier than I've seen you in years."

He leaned across to give his friend a kiss on the cheek and everyone gave a collective "Awwww—."

Catherine's eyes danced as she looked at Wufei. "I'm thankful you've got the biggest—."


"—intellect I've ever encountered in one of the male species. You are intelligent and articulate, and at the same time loving and kind. I'm glad I got mixed up in this whole crazy mess, since it brought you to me."

My former partner was almost as flustered as Trowa had been, but blinked a few times and pulled himself together. Then he looked slyly at Duo. "I could say so many things, Maxwell..."

Duo eyed him warily. "I'm sure you could."

"But I'm just thankful you are alive, and that you helped me learn that people are far more than they appear on the surface, and that being judgmental only prevents you from finding the treasures inside others. I learned many valuable lessons from you, Duo, and I'm glad I can call you my friend."

He surprised us all by standing up and pulling Duo into a firm hug.

"Way to upstage everyone," Duo teased, but I noticed he brushed at one cheek as he pulled away. "Okay, then." He raised his glass. "Now we get to have a toast to us!"

We all complied, happy to acknowledge the absolute joy we were experiencing in each other's company.

And then we dug into our Thanksgiving meal, passing around potatoes and gravy, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and all the usual side dishes—all made with Duo's personal touch, and hopefully only the legal herbs he'd grown.

"So when's the big day, Wuffers?" Duo asked between bites.

Chang rolled his eyes, but couldn't suppress a smile. "Catherine and I thought a summer wedding might be nice—next summer—perhaps near the ocean?"

Duo's eyes widened. "Euphoria would be perfect," he suggested quickly. "There's the beach, and the cliffs…lots of nice dress shops…"

Catherine smirked and Wufei got a positively wicked gleam in his eyes. "Funny you should mention that. We were thinking, since Heero's already agreed to be my best man, that you'd make a lovely maid of honor—."

At Duo's horrified gape, we all pretty much lost it, laughing so hard it's a wonder we didn't hurt ourselves or choke to death. And eventually, even my lover joined in.

"Okay, 'Fei—I guess I had that coming."

Wufei gave a mock-innocent look. "But I did so love seeing you in stockings—."

Duo glared and then turned his charming, impish grin on Catherine. "So, sweet cheeks, you want me to jump out of a cake at your bachelorette party? Or is a plain old striptease more the ticket for you an' your gal pals?"

She giggled, while I glared. "Duo—you are not stripping for a bunch of drooling women!"

He pouted at me. "But 'Ro—I'm good at it. Think of all my talent going to waste—."

"It's not," I assured him. "You can strip for me any time you like. Just me."

"But you've seen it all!"

"Doesn't mean I don't still enjoy the view," I snarled back.

Trowa grinned widely. "That reminds me—I've got something for Duo." He stood and trotted up the stairs, leaving us gazing curiously after him.

But Quatre picked up the thread of conversation, by asking more about Wufei and Catherine's wedding plans. As it turned out, the girl was planning on giving up her circus career to move in with Chang right after the wedding. And they were already talking about finding a house with a yard for kids.

Kids! I was just floored by that. Much as my partner had talked about wanting a wife and family some day, I just hadn't imagined it happening so soon—or ever. It was all pretty overwhelming, especially when Duo and I weren't even sure we were responsible enough for a pet.

But then, Chang was definitely the responsible type, and I could imagine Catherine being a very capable mother. I pitied the person who ever even considered abducting a child of hers.

A few minutes after dashing off, Trowa returned with a package wrapped in red foil with a big golden bow.

"Wow." Duo accepted the box rather warily, eyeing his former lover. "What's the occasion?"

"Consider it a gift for hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year," Quatre spoke up, a devilish twinkle in his blue eyes.

"But then it should be for 'Ro, too," Duo pointed out. Before I could say that having him was the greatest gift of all, Trowa cut me off.

"Oh, it is for him, Shini. It is."

That brought a curious gleam to my lover's eyes and he deftly unwrapped the box, setting aside the lid and lifting out a dark garment.

"Oh, holy Hell," I muttered under my breath, as Duo held up the priest outfit from his stripping days.

"Hey! My costume!" Duo crowed happily, grinning at his former dance partner. "Awesome. I thought someone at The Jungle would've nabbed it right off."

"Nope. Ms. Noin wouldn't let anyone else perform in it," Trowa chuckled. "She said it was sacrilegious."

Wufei looked confused. "Did she mean the outfit was sacrilege—or that allowing anyone other than Duo to use it was?"

Trowa shrugged. "She never quite said—but I notice she's still got the pictures on the wall behind her desk of Duo in that getup."

I glared heatedly at him. "But Duo doesn't work there any more. Why's she keeping his pictures?"

Trowa just gave me a "well, duh" look, and shook his head.

Duo leered happily at me over the fringed shirt. "I'll show ya why later, love," he promised. He tucked it back into the box then, giving a wink and a "thanks" to his former dance partner before resuming his meal.

"Since we're kind of on the subject of careers, did Trowa mention he's going to start taking some classes in the spring?" Quatre spoke up.

His lover looked a bit embarrassed, especially when Duo turned a startled gaze his way. "Are you?"

"Yeah," came a rather shy response. "Thought I'd study to be a counselor. I like working with the kids—an' Father Maxwell thought I'd be good at counseling teens."

Duo smirked at his former lover. "He musta figured if you could straighten me out, you could work wonders with anyone—."

"What I'd really like," Trowa confessed, "is to work with kids and animals. They've got therapy dogs that go into nursing homes and stuff—so I'm betting the same approach would work with kids. Teach 'em about caring for animals, and they'll learn responsibility as well as have a lot of fun."

Quatre cast a perfectly adoring look at Trowa, while addressing Duo. "I think he's onto something with that, and I know he's smart enough to get certified as a counselor."

"Hell, yeah. Tro's smart as a whip," Duo asserted. He smiled warmly at the stripper. "You'll be great."

"Hope so," Trowa mumbled, busying himself with his meal while he blushed under the scrutiny.

I just laughed and shook my head, wondering how a guy could take off his clothes on stage, and yet get so flustered at the attention of a few friends. Go figure.

"Ah—speaking of animals," Duo said to Trowa while sliding a sidelong glance at Wufei. "Heero and I wondered if you've got any llamas for adoption at the circus. This place kind of needs something, y'know?"

"Hey! We talked about a dog!" I said quickly.

"Yeah, but 'Ro—llamas make good watchdogs," my lover insisted, still looking for a reaction. "Supposedly they can even scare off coyotes—or bears." He finally looked squarely at Chang. "And they've got excellent aim, right 'Fei?"

"So do I," said my partner, not missing a beat. "You might want to keep that in mind."

Duo eyed him warily, apparently not sure whether he was referring to his aim with a firearm, or perhaps his own ability to spit. "Grouch," he finally mumbled, smirking into his glass as he finished his wine.

Trowa wisely remained silent on the topic, but Catherine piped up with "I'll ask around for you, Duo." She looked over at Wufei, flashing a charming smile. "Unless you'd rather I keep one for us?"

"No. We agreed on a cat," Chang replied firmly.

The meal passed quickly, as we caught up on each other's lives a bit more—finding out that Quatre had been able to trace a cash transaction from the Schbeiker girl to Tsubarov and had the vile man facing a review board and potential disbarment. Noventa was handling the details, of course, and no doubt loving every minute of it.

All in all—we pretty much had everything to be thankful for—a definite high point in all our lives.

And after our wonderful meal, with all the trimmings, and the best company we could have wanted, everyone pitched in with the cleanup, despite Duo's and my best efforts to convince them guests weren't supposed to work.

We were almost finished, when I noticed Duo drop his drying towel and pull Wufei off to one side, and I casually slowed my scrubbing efforts, wondering what he was up to.

"—one room or two?" he was saying in a very discreet undertone.

Shit. That clever little brat! We'd discussed whether Wufei and Catherine would share a room, considering my partner's archaic sensibilities when it came to women and chivalry. But I'd honestly expected Duo to just blurt out the question.

His tact took me by surprise.


"—twenty-first century, 'Fei. No one will make any assumptions or judgments."

"—and I'll ask her. But you keep out of it—."

"Scout's honor."

Wufei sauntered over to Catherine to discuss the rooming arrangements privately, and I smiled as Duo sidled up to me.

"That was surprisingly—tactful," I murmured, leaning to nuzzle his ear.

"Well I didn't want Chang to eviscerate me, love. Just wanted to let him know there are two guest rooms available—but that if they're comfortable sharing, considering they're freakin' engaged—I'd make it a point not to tease."

"You are a sensitive and gracious host," I told him frankly, pulling him into a hug.

"You must be a good teacher."

I snorted at that. "I've been an anti-social, reclusive bachelor my whole life, Duo. I don't know how I could possibly have taught you anything about human interaction."

Those gleaming indigo eyes threw me a lustful glance. "Oh, baby—you wanna 'interact?' Just say when."

I gave him a teasing shove. "We've got guests to take care of first. I still have to put extra towels in the guest bathrooms."

"Meet you in the bedroom?" He leaned in for a quick, hungry kiss.


I headed off to complete my chores, wondering if later we could indulge in a little Thanksgiving celebration of our own, without disturbing our guests. Duo did tend to be a bit vocal in bed—but I could try muffling the noise with kisses—and if they overheard a bit, well, they had to know Duo was irresistible, so it would probably not come as a surprise—.

Hey—I already said I wasn't a particularly good host!

At any rate, I'd gone to the linen closet and grabbed the armload of towels, taking one batch to each guest room, and was just finishing up when I heard footsteps on the stairs and Duo's low, sensuous voice in the hallway.

I didn't mean to eavesdrop, really—but as I've said before, I was cursed with keen ears.

"…sorry about the shit that Alexander pulled…"

Ah—Duo was still apologizing to all of us for the trauma we'd endured—from the hospital scene, to the funeral, to the protracted game of deception. He'd tried to take the blame for Alexander's cruel hoax.

"You said that before, Shini. It's really okay," I heard Trowa respond.

"No, it's not. If you saw the way Heero was when he got here—. He was so—raw."

"Should've seen him when Po came out into the waiting room and said you didn't make it."

I heard a choked cry, and then Trowa's voice murmuring soothingly. "No, babe. Not your fault. Jesus, you were fuckin' unconscious on an operating table when all that happened."

Was Duo crying?

"…love him so much, Tro'. And put him through Hell…"

"He chose it, love. He chose you." There was a pause. "And you chose him."

"Yeah, I did, didn't I?"

"I'm glad it worked out—that you're happy with him. You're a special guy, y'know, and you deserve the very best."

"I have it—the best love anyone could have." There was a pause and I heard warmth in his voice as he spoke again. "The best friend, too, y'know. You've always been there for me, Tro', and no matter how much I love Heero, you'll still be my best friend—always."

"That's good." There was a funny little pause, and a slight shift in Trowa's tone when he spoke again. "I hate t'say it, Duo. And don't take this the wrong way, but I always felt kind of left out around you an' Zechs. I know you tried to include me—but it was pretty obvious I'd have lost you to him, if it went on much longer."


"Yes," came the firm reply. "He wanted you all to himself, Shini—didn't want to share you with anyone—even your friends."

"He was learning, Tro'. Really, he was. Like he said in his letter, he knew he couldn't stop me from helping at the orphanage. He knew where my priorities were. And he also knew I'd hang out with you when I damned well felt like it—."

"But he didn't like it. He didn't really like me. Or trust me."

Duo hesitated, and when he spoke, he sounded defensive. "So maybe he was a little jealous. Isn't that natural? Heero was, too."

"But Heero got over it. He figured out that I care as much about you as he does. And he's secure enough to know that my love for you is pure friendship—that your heart is all his, in spite of what you an' I shared and what we still have."

"Yeah—he is. And he should be. God, Tro'—I've never wanted anyone the way I want him—never loved anyone like that before." Duo blew out a huff of breath. "It's so fuckin' intense sometimes it scares me."

There was a soft, understanding chuckle. "I know what you mean. I feel that way about Quatre, too. Like I don't deserve someone so—amazing. Not that you aren't amazing—but then, maybe I didn't feel like I deserved you either."

"Shit, Tro', it was the other way around. You got me off the drugs—helped me find work. You did so much more for me than I could ever do for you—."

"You underestimate yourself, love. If you hadn't shared a bed with me, and an unconditional friendship—I'd never have had the confidence to approach someone like Quatre. No matter how much I wanted him the first time we met, I'd have held back if I didn't look at you and think to myself that if a smart, gorgeous guy like you wanted me, I must have something to offer."

"Aw, Trowa—you've got so much going for you—!"

"And you proved it to me. You made me secure enough that when the time came, I dared to think I was worthy of a hotshot lawyer like Quat."

"And you are," came a third voice, as Winner joined the other two in the hallway. "Don't ever think otherwise—because I'm pretty sure I'm the one who's undeserving here. You're a smart, sexy, desirable man, Trowa Barton."

Duo laughed then, probably at the puppy eyes the other two were exchanging. "Fuck—you're worse than Cathy and 'Fei! I'm goin' downstairs before the sap and sweetness kill me—gonna need a freakin' dentist, anyway—."

"Duo!" Trowa's voice must have stopped him at the top of the stairs. "I hate to say I'm glad Zechs died. But—I always knew you could do better. And you did."

"So you approve?"

"I've approved since our first night at the lake house. I saw the way you looked at him—and the way he looked at you—and I knew he'd die for you, or kill for you—he'd do anything for you."

"All he's gotta do is live," came the quick response. "With me. Forever."

Shit—if hearing that didn't bring a rush of warmth to my heart! I was starting to think Duo had a bit of poet in him, too.

I heard footsteps patter off down the stairs and made it a point to make noise, closing the door to the linen closet rather more loudly than was necessary, and then rounding the corner to where Quatre and Trowa were still making eyes at one another.

"Hey lovebirds," I teased.

"Eavesdropping again?" Quatre asked with uncanny accuracy.

"Still calling the kettle black?" I joked back.

He grinned unrepentantly. "Couldn't help but hear them as I came up the stairs. What's your excuse?"

I hefted the couple of towels I still held. "I was just coming from stocking the bathrooms with towels. These are for the hot tub."

They exchanged a look, and I narrowed my eyes dangerously. "Don't get any ideas. I'm not draining and refilling that damned thing tomorrow!"

Trowa's eyes widened. "What are you implying, Yuy?"

"You figure it out," I growled warningly.

Quatre looked puzzled, and I realized he probably never knew they'd been caught on surveillance at the lake house. I wished I still had the footage—it would have made great blackmail material.

"Just behave yourselves," I cautioned. "Chang and Catherine might want some time in the tub, so you'll have to share."

"We'll play nice," Trowa promised, sounding just like Duo at his cheekiest.

Speaking of "playing nice," I decided to head downstairs and convince Duo it was time for bed.

Not necessarily sleep...but definitely bed.

"—second door on the right," Duo was saying to Wufei and Catherine as I trotted down the stairs. "Make yourselves comfortable, and tomorrow I'll whip you up the best breakfast you ever had."

"That sounds wonderful," Catherine cooed happily. "This is just a lovely home, Duo. And you—you've come so far. I'm proud of you."

"Be proud of Heero; he's the one who put all the effort into getting me on the straight and narrow, so to speak."

"But you did the work," Wufei reminded him. "He may be your reason for it, but you are the one who made something of yourself. You two built this life together. And I'm glad Yuy has a partner I consider worthy of him."

"Aw, Wuffers—," Duo teased. Then his voice turned serious. "I don't think I ever got the chance to thank you for being there for him when I wasn't. But he told me how you guys looked after him—made him eat—made him keep living. And—just, thanks. A lot."

"You're very welcome."

I didn't try to hide my presence as I reached the last step and turned the corner. "Jeeze, Duo—you are just a sentimental sap today, aren't you?"

He blushed and turned from our guests, shrugging self-consciously. "Just have a lotta catching up to do. When you spend a couple of months 'dead,' you rack up a lot of debt."

I shuddered at the memory of him being "dead," and then forced a smile. "I'm going to lock up now. Why don't you show Wufei and Catherine where they'll be staying?"

"Sure." He smiled slyly. "An' then I'll go turn down the covers for us, so hurry back."

"I'll be right up."

Yeah, let the innuendoes fly.

I took my time, locking the front and back doors, and checking the windows. While I didn't expect any trouble, I refused to be careless. Our life there was too precious—and too new to take for granted. Duo was too important to ever take for granted.

When everything was secure, I turned out the last of the downstairs lights, and headed upstairs.

Duo was folding up the fringed shirt when I padded into the bedroom, and he looked over his shoulder with a smile. "Hey, lover."

"Hey." I walked over and slipped my arms around him from behind, pulling him back against me. "Putting away the past?" I asked, noticing he'd dropped the outfit back into the box and set the lid on it.

"Yeah. I'm kinda busy living in the moment, y'know?"

He leaned his head back onto my shoulder, looking up at me with a smirk as I nuzzled his hair with my face. God, I loved that hair!

"Do you miss it?" I couldn't help asking.


"Dancing? The applause and appreciation? Being the center of attention and knowing you're the sexiest man alive?"

He chuckled warmly. "First off, as heady a feeling as it was, having all those guys lusting after me—that's all it was—lust. And I might've enjoyed the flattery and the popularity, but I also knew the applause of a bunch of half-drunk guys was just hollow praise. What I've got here, with you? That's real. That makes me feel like the sexiest man alive. You make me feel that way."

I smiled into his hair, and he turned around in my arms to face me. So I brushed my fingers through the wisps framing his cheeks, and kissed him gently. "You know—if you ever wanted to perform again—if you did miss it—I'd let you."

"You'd let me parade around naked in front of a roomful of drunk guys?" he asked with a disbelieving smile.

"I would. I trust you," I assured him. "And I'd do anything to make you happy."

He shook his head, giving a wry snort. "I don't deserve you, 'Ro." Those brilliant indigo eyes dropped to half-lidded pools of lust, and the faintest hint of a smirk touched the full, perfect lips. "I never want to go back to the stage, love. I'm retired now. I only do private performances—for an audience of one."

And damn—was I glad I was the one—as he pressed his mouth to mine, coaxing it open and then kissing me so deeply I could feel it to the tips of my toes.

He was my personal Jesus, my Angel, and my Shinigami—everything I could ever want all rolled into one teasing, sensuous, gorgeous braided beauty.

"Take me to bed, 'Ro," he whispered, low and husky.

And I never could say "no" to him...