They stared suspiciously at each other, eyes searching for the slightest weakness, five battle-hardened warriors caught up in yet another skirmish. It was like any other, a battle of strategy, a game of intimidation where ultimately the biggest guns and the most determined player would end up victorious. The price of defeat this time, however, was dearer than money or blood; it would be paid in skin.
Each of the warriors glared at their opponents, sizing up the possibility of defeat, evaluating their own chances. Of course, the process took quite a bit longer than their normal swift battle reflexes. They were all more than a little drunk.
Heero's hand flicked out. "I'll see your two and raise you another two."
Duo and Ariodh looked appalled. "Damn, Heero, you must have a really helluva good hand!" the American pilot wailed, regarding his dwindling supply of chips with a mournful sigh. He was down to jeans and socks. Ariodh fretted two chips between her teeth; she was left only in a skimpy halter top and little shorts.
"I fold," the white-haired youkai declared, throwing her cards on the table and sulking. She grabbed the bottle of sake from the middle of Kurama's kitchen table.
Hiei merely shrugged, casting two chips on the table and reaching for his cup of sake. He was bare to the waist, and drunk enough that he didn't care if he lost another article of clothing.
Kurama eyed Heero with suspicion, then smiled his infuriating little smile and tossed two chips on the table. "I call," he pronounced in his soft alto. "Duo?"
Duo agonized, glanced at his cards, glanced at Heero's stone-chiseled profile, back again, and sweated. Then he flipped his cards down on the table. "Fold," he conceded with an overdone display of reluctance. He wiggled his sake cup suspended in the air over his mouth, trying to get the last drops.
Hiei tossed his cards face up on the table and reached for the bottle, wrestling it away from Ariodh, who sat back in her chair and sulked. "Three queens," he murmured in his deep voice, tapping the wild card and blinking owlishly around.
Kurama and Heero stared each other down, daring the other to put down his cards first. Finally the redhead shrugged, laying his cards out. "Full house," he smiled, an infuriating not-quite-smirk worthy of his youko self.
Heero's eyebrow twitched. With a casual flick of his hand, he pitched his cards onto the table one at a time. Duo whistled appreciatively. Hiei growled a curse.
"I folded, I folded," Ariodh caroled triumphantly, then giggled as she smirked at her partners. "And you have to strip!"
"Royal flush," Kurama breathed in disbelief, then buried his brilliant red head in his hands. Hiei growled again and started tugging at his belt. Kurama sighed and started to take his shirt off. He'd had good luck so far. Heero, wearing his ever-present green tank top and having worn his biker shorts under his jeans, reached for the pile of chips and gathered it up.
"Strip! Strip!" Ariodh and Duo cheered as Hiei tossed his belt aside. Kurama grinned impishly and began to remove his shirt sloooowly, glancing seductively at Hiei, who snorted and reached for his cup of sake.
Ariodh picked up the deck of cards and tried to shuffle. "Oooh- kay," she sighed, trying to bridge the cards and spraying them all over the table. "What's the wild card for this game?" Duo yelped as cards flew into his face. Heero just flicked his fingers at the ones that headed his direction.
"Let me do that," Kurama said hastily, gathering up all the fallen cards. "We're not going to play fifty-two pick up."
Ariodh frowned, then got up and stretched, then plopped herself into a startled Heero's lap, poking at his arms. "Have you got an ace up your sleeve?" she asked him, wide-eyed. She ran her index finger over his forearm and up his bicep. Duo made a strangling noise. "You're not even wearing sleeves!" Her tone was accusing.
"Hey!" Hiei snarled possessively as Ariodh snuggled up on the startled Japanese pilot's lap, butting her head against his collarbone. Duo's face was a motley of complex emotions that settled into a neutral mask.
"Ariodh!" Kurama hissed at their female partner, as Hiei began to mutter menacingly in Heero's direction.
"What?" Ariodh looked up into Heero's frozen face, then over at Duo's carefully neutral expression. "Oh, I'm sorry. . . are you two lovers?"
"ARIODH!" Kurama yelped. The white-haired youkai frowned.
"Did I just break a stupid human custom?" she inquired. Then her face dissolved into a mischievous grin as she looked back and forth at Heero's icy expression, and Duo, who flushed and dropped his eyes. Hiei made a grab for her and seriously misjudged the distance, wobbled on his chair, missing and ending up in a sodden heap on the floor. Duo grinned at that, and he and Kurama chuckled.
"Oh, Heero," Ariodh pouted, pulling back and regarding his mask of a face. "You're so stupid! Kurama, why are all men so stupid?"
"We can't all be prodigies like you women, love," the youko replied uneasily, wondering where she was going with that tack.
"Well, it's perfectly clear to me what you should do," Ariodh said solemnly, enunciating carefully to avoid slurring, poking Heero in the chest for emphasis.
"What's that?" Heero's face was closed, suspicious.
"I think that you should - "
Hiei bounced to his feet. Kurama looked alarmed.
" - take Duo by that huge-ass braid of his - "
Hiei grabbed her by the waist, expression determined.
" - drag him into the spare room there - "
He lifted her off Heero's lap.
" - lock the door - "
Hiei wobbled at the weight, falling back into his chair. Ariodh fell into his lap and continued unchecked.
" - and screw him into kingdom come!" she finished happily, giggling and clapping her hands, pleased with her simple solution.
Hiei belatedly clapped a hand over Ariodh's mouth. She bit him.
Heero and Duo's faces were a study of amazed stupefaction. The Japanese pilot shifted slightly in his chair, glared daggers at the drunken, giggling youkai, then proceeded to do a remarkable imitation of a marble statue. Poor Duo, on the other hand, was the very picture of shocked mortification, speechless for once, his face doing a slow burn. He stammered something unintelligible, shot a bleak, hopeless look at the statue of Heero who remained unresponding and unmoved, and fled the room.
"Now you've done it," Kurama told Ariodh in disgust, torn between running after the American pilot, who had bolted out of the kitchen, through the living room, and onto the balcony, and wondering if he'd be better off alone. He glanced at Heero, who looked, if anything, even grimmer than before. Heero's eyes flicked to the empty seat where Duo had been, then he picked up his cup and drained it dry in one long swallow.
"'R you just gonna pretend like nothin' happened?" Hiei asked him, sounding vaguely curious but not overly shocked. Absently he petted Ariodh as she squirmed in his lap, curling her arms around his neck.
"What does it matter? That's the best thing for him," Heero replied in a dry, emotionless voice. "He'll forget about it when he sobers up."
"It does matter," Kurama said, appalled. "And he won't forget; he'll just smile and act cheerfully the way he always does, and pretend you didn't reject him!"
Heero's expression became bitter and self-mocking. "Reject him?" he echoed quietly, eyes glittering. At last something had provoked a reaction out of him, but would Kurama's kitchen survive the results? "Me? Reject him!? Why do you think he ran out of here? He was so repulsed by the thought of me he couldn't bear to be in the same room!" With a growl, Heero grabbed the bottle of sake and tried to pour another cup but his hands shook so badly that he gave up and just took a swig from the bottle itself.
They regarded Heero in shock. Then Ariodh blinked, breaking the tense silence of his self-loathing and despair. "Idiot, he ran away because he was embarrassed that I hit on the truth!" Ariodh declared self-righteously, her eyes crossing. They righted and she glared at Heero. "And because he thought you rejected him!"
"Didn't you see the look he gave you?" Kurama added gently. "No, of course not. Heero was too wrapped up in his own self-pity to realize that Duo was hurt by his complete and utter lack of response. . . lack of interest, he probably thought."
Heero glared at him, slamming the bottle of sake back on the table.
"Duo's probably on the balcony right now, crying his eyes out," Ariodh offered helpfully. Heero stiffened.
"Shut up, Ariodh," Kurama and Hiei told her. She pouted and burrowed her face into Hiei's neck again.
"What should I do?" The Japanese pilot's voice was pitched so low they barely heard the reluctant question.
"I told you!" Ariodh piped up again. "Grab Duo by that big-ass braid - "
"SHUT UP, Ariodh!" Kurama and Hiei chorused, mortified. Hiei clapped his hand over her mouth again, to be sure. She glared up at him. There was a slight quirk to Heero's lip that might have been - if he weren't Heero, that is - the beginnings of a smile.
"Go tell him how you feel," Kurama urged.
Ariodh bit Hiei and wriggled free. "At least get him to stop crying." She paused, considering. "And then grab him by that huge-ass braid and drag him into the spare room and - " Hiei let go of her, his face set, and Ariodh fell to the floor in a heap. She bounced up, wobbled, and fell again, complaining loudly.
Heero sat there for a long moment, face expressionless. Kurama couldn't tell what he was thinking. Abruptly he surged out of his chair, toppling it over, and turned, squaring his shoulders like a determined soldier about to go into battle. Then he pivoted, grabbing the sake bottle again and taking a long hit. He put it down, wiped his mouth, and marched out.
"Think he'll do it?" Kurama asked Hiei. Ariodh hiccuped.
Hiei's eyes glittered with amusement. "Not a snowball's chance in the path of Kokoryuuha."
Ariodh levered herself up off the floor successfully, glaring balefully at Hiei, and went over to sit in Kurama's lap. "Hey, you. . .what should we do now?" she inquired, snuggling up to him.
Kurama tapped the cards on the table. "How about Go Fish," he suggested, frowning down at her.
The quiet voice intruded on the American pilot's wallowing in misery and the huge amounts of embarrassment and thwarted longings Ariodh's blunt suggestion had produced. Heero had been his usual immobile self, returning Duo's tentative glance with a cold stare. He had left to avoid the further shame and chagrin Heero's retort would undoubtedly have invoked. No - he'd fled. Because he already knew that rejection faced him. Heero had Relena. He had . . . he had Shinagami. And that was all.
Duo turned from the railing, plastering a bright smile across his face and sniffing back tears, scrubbing at the ones that already tracked down his cheeks. He was vaguely aware that he was drunk and probably overreacting. But because he was drunk he couldn't help it anymore. He turned, expecting to meet Kurama's gentle, compassionate gaze.
What he got was Heero, standing stiffly at attention, face closed and wary, fists clenched at his sides.
"He-Heero?" Duo faltered, and gulped. "What are you doing here?" His smile began to crumble at the edges.
"I thought. . ." Heero stopped, eyes searching his, still carefully expressionless. "You're crying."
"No I'm not," Duo denied, sniffling.
Heero hesitated for a moment, then stepped closer, flicking one finger over Duo's cheek. A small drop of moisture flew up, sparkling in the air. Duo flinched minutely.
"Liar." Heero's voice was quiet, his expression unreadable. "Yes, you are."
Duo turned away from him, gripping the railing. "So what?" he demanded, voice raw with emotion. He didn't care anymore; the warm haze of the sake gave him unnatural courage to speak his mind. He was tired of trying to hide his feelings behind the jester's mask, good and fed up. "It's not as if you cared."
Hard hands closed on his shoulders, rough strength was spinning him around and Duo's eyes flew open, wide, shocked, to stare into Heero's, who stared back with fierce intensity. It seemed for a moment as if Heero, the real one, was finally peering through the hardened mask of his impassive armor, focused within his eyes.
"Duo. . ." Heero began, and stopped. He frowned fiercely, and Duo relaxed, oddly put at ease now that it was Heero at a loss. At least he was trying to say something for a change. "Duo, I. . . I. . ." He stopped again, releasing the American pilot's shoulders, and his face shut down.
"What is it, Heero?" Duo prompted, realizing how hard his friend was struggling to say. . .what? That he did care? Duo refused to allow himself to hope. His alcohol-fogged brain offered some interesting possibilities to complete Heero's sentence. "You wanna run away with the circus? You wanna go bar hopping? You wanna take the strip poker pot and go to Vegas?" Heero glowered at him. "Duo. . .I don't hate you," he blurted out, clenching his fists.
Duo's face fell. He couldn't help it. Immediately to cover up the lapse, he covered his face with the biggest smile he could summon up. "Well, of course you don't hate me, Heero!" he said brightly. "I'm one of your fellow Gundam pilots!" And that's all, he added mentally as he struggled to keep the bitter edge out of his voice.
"Stop it." Heero's tone was flat, his dark eyes boring into him.
Duo forced out a jovial chuckle. "Stop what?" He gave him a wide, innocent smile.
"That." Heero slammed him up against the railing, hands digging into his arms almost hard enough to leave bruises. Duo almost freaked, hoping Heero wasn't about to make good on his "I will kill you" line. It was a long drop from the balcony. "Stop pretending nothing happened. I'm drunk but I'm not stupid! I. . . I. . ."
He halted again, face only inches away from Duo's. He was breathing faster, warm sake-tinged breath washing over Duo's cheek. His eyes were curiously intense, with something in their depths that might have been a spark of . . . desire? . . .longing? For the first time, Duo allowed himself to hope. Then his heart fell the way his face had, as Heero's eyes became the glassy, impenetrable orbs they always were. He must've just seen only the reflection of his own desires.
"Why did you come out here?" Duo asked, his quiet, almost hopeless tone undercutting Heero's fierce intensity. Heero seemed to realize this and released him, backing away, a twinge of what might have been - if it weren't Heero, that is - uncertainty crossing his face.
"To tell you I. . ." He stopped, glaring daggers, and struck the balcony railing with such force the whole frame reverberated. He fixed Duo with his best "I will kill you" look. "To tell you I. . . I don't hate you." He folded his arms as he repeated that, scowling darkly as if to belie his words.
Duo began to understand, like a dawning wash of light after a moonless sky. Or maybe the knowledge just had to sink in past the layers of haze that wrapped his brain right now. Heero couldn't say it. But it didn't mean that he didn't feel it.
He smiled finally, tentative, unforced. "Thank you," he said softly. "I don't hate you, too." He turned back to the balcony railing, content to receive just the vague abstraction of Heero's admission of feeling. It was enough, for now.
Apparently, not for Heero.
That hard hand was on his shoulder again, insistent, ruthlessly turning him from the balcony, from a passive acceptance of simple words, moving beyond useless breath into action, which Heero had always preferred.
"Damn you," Heero rasped, his eyes smoldering coals, and Duo's eyes went blank with shock as he wondered frantically what he'd done, and if Heero was going to hit him, or push him over the balcony after all. He tensed up.
Heero moved, and for a surreal moment Duo tried to puzzle out why Heero would try to hit him with his face.
If its supposed to be a punch it's the softest one I've ever felt, Duo thought inanely as Heero' s lips met his. Then he melted, seizing this extraordinary, crazy, unexpected opportunity, kissing back with all his skill, hands drifting back to settle against Heero's chest.
Eventually they had to come up for air and broke, both gasping a little. Heero released him and moved back, his eyes watchful. "Well?"
Duo grinned. "Heero, you're drunk," he admonished playfully.
Heero growled at him and his eyes went flat and dangerous. Duo held up his hands protectively and would've backed up further but for the cold, hard railing against his spine. "H-Heero - what are you doing!?" he stammered as Heero began to move.
"Ariodh was right," the Japanese pilot muttered, and his hand snapped out, seizing Duo's thick braid. He turned and hauled on the handful of hair and Duo yelled as he was dragged along, falling as his balance was fouled by the liquor. He squawked and gibbered as Heero, with an inexorable grip on the "huge-ass braid," drew him back into Kurama's apartment, past the wide, surprised eyes of their hosts, and hauled him determinedly into the spare bedroom. Heero locked the door.
"So what comes next?" Duo asked, breathless and already knowing the answer. He couldn't control the silly grin that spread across his face.
Heero turned to him with a glint in his eye, scooping him up and moving towards the bed. "Stupid, I'm gonna screw you into kingdom come."
Duo gave him a delighted smile. "Oh, good."
Heero paused. "You don't have a problem with that?" He sounded almost surprised, even after the obvious proof of Duo's feelings. But that had been words and not actions, the American pilot reminded himself.
"Do something with your mouth other than talk," Duo ordered, almost laughing at himself at the irony of his own statement.
A glimmer of a smile cracked the corners of Heero's impassive mouth, and he bent his head to kiss him again.
Before he turned his complete undivided attentions to Heero's lips, Duo decided that he was thoroughly pleased with the wild card Ariodh had dealt them.