Heero woke to the beep of his alarm, moving instantly to turn it off and sit up. When he looked to the other side of the bed, to the emptiness beside him, he closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. What had he done? Why had he let Duo go?
"Because you had no right to keep him," he said in a low voice.
He had been over this a dozen times in his head, but he felt no better. If it had been the right thing to do then why did it feel so wrong? But he knew the answer to that, too. What was wrong for him was right for Duo.
Maybe what stung was that Duo had gone. After all the revelations between them, all the lovemaking, Duo had rushed away from him as though it had been nothing more than a business transaction. And maybe it had been at that. Treize had seen fit to "compensate" Duo for his time and trouble, but in so doing he had cheapened what Heero had come to believe was a beautiful thing. Now it might as well have been only a dream.
He didn't regret letting Duo go, or not telling him how he felt. There was no point in expressing feelings that could not and would not be returned. But it left Heero with an emptiness he had never experienced before. Even the loneliness that his life had been before Duo didn't compare to the void he felt now. He had realized his love too late.
He flexed his right hand. The swelling was down, but it was still purple with bruises after punching the armoire. Luckily, he hadn't fractured any bones or he would have had to fess up to another violent outburst. He could no longer afford such behavior. Continuing the liaison program was not an option in Heero's eyes, and no one was arguing in the program's favor. Though it had accomplished what Doctor Po had theorized it would do, the overall sentiment seemed to be that it had been a failure. More trouble than it was worth.
Doctor J and Professor G were now working with Treize and Sally to modify the "cocktail." The side effects were beginning to outweigh the benefits. In the meantime, Heero was given a rigorous exercise schedule and encouraged to do yoga at least twice a day. He had taken the exercise recommendation even further, and spent most of each day in the training salle. It kept him out of his apartment and his mind off other things.
He showered quickly, dressed for his workout, and threw a change of clothes in his duffel. Breakfast was a protein bar and water. The next two hours and fifteen minutes were spent swimming laps, lifting weights and doing yoga. He showered again in the salle, dressed in street clothes and headed to Doctor Po's office for his 9 o'clock appointment.
When he arrived Lucrezia was just getting settled at her desk.
"Good morning, Heero," Noin said with a smile.
"That color looks nice on you."
Heero looked down at his clothes, not remembering what he had grabbed out of his closet to wear. He was dressed in a sage green dress shirt and olive green slacks, accented with a brown leather belt and shoes.
"Thank you," he said, politely, but not truly registering the compliment. This was the first he had seen Lucrezia since Duo's departure and he remembered that he had a message for her. "Duo was in a hurry when he left, but he wanted me to be sure to tell you 'goodbye' for him."
"Oh, that was sweet. It felt like we were becoming friends. I'm certainly going to miss that smile of his."
Heero nodded and turned away. The memory of Duo's smile made him ache. He had never realized until Duo came into his life that a smile could be so many things from mischievous to sarcastic to downright charming. And now Duo was out there in the world, giving those smiles to someone else no doubt.
He stepped into the doctor's office to find her standing at the window, looking onto the campus.
"It's nine o'clock," he said, coming up beside her.
The view was especially good from this window. He should know. He had spent enough time gazing out, searching the campus for any glimpse of that braid.
She glanced at him and turned her eyes back out the window. "It's a wonderful view."
"Do you still think so?"
He looked at her, his brow tightening. "I've always thought so."
Sally nodded and turned away to take her seat. Heero followed, sitting across from her.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"Good. I got in a swim, squat lifts and yoga this morning."
"You've been logging a lot of time in the salle. It probably feels good to keep busy."
"I'm following the recommendations to maintain optimum readings."
Sally nodded. "You're exceeding recommendations, but your readings are borderline acceptable."
"Only borderline? How can that be?"
"It's a bit early for concern. It will take weeks before a new serum is developed to replace the cocktail. That should put things right."
"But the readings are acceptable?"
"Yes. You're doing well under the circumstances. Are you masturbating?"
"I haven't felt the need."
She gave him an odd look. "How is your health? Any complaints?"
He shook his head, and turned his hand so that the bruises didn't show.
"You were recently very sexually active, it follows that your libido would demand release."
He stared at her, silent. He woke each morning with an erection, but he had hesitated to touch himself. He didn't know what it would be like to go back to that or what memories it would bring.
"Heero, it's healthy for you to masturbate. You shouldn't deny yourself pleasure."
"I will... in time."
"Would you like to talk about Duo?"
"I'm sure you won't be satisfied until I do."
"It's for your benefit that we have these sessions. I understood from Treize that you made the request for Duo's release. That was very generous of you."
His brow tightened. "It was selfish of me to keep him."
She nodded, and he knew he had played right into her psychiatrist's trap.
"At what point did you begin to feel that keeping Duo here was selfish?"
"Doctor," he said in a warning tone.
"All right. We can get back to that... Do you have any idea where he's gone?"
"Really? You didn't place a transponder in his bags?"
"I wanted him to be free, doctor. And that meant not tracking him."
Of course, Duo was being tracked, the most telling way was his credit card use, but Heero did not want access to that information. Duo's whereabouts and safety could become a distraction and Heero needed to remain focused.
"I don't think I would've been surprised if you had gone with him."
Heero blinked. Duo had asked him to leave with him to live a "normal life," but not that last time. Maybe with freedom in his hands, Duo no longer needed Heero in tow.
"Oh, gosh, look at the time," Sally said, apologetic. "We have to be at the meeting in just a few minutes."
Heero looked at his watch. The hour had passed quickly.
The two made their way to the Project's conference room. It was rare for the entire team to meet. Smaller work groups regularly conferred and each member was accountable to Treize who oversaw everything. This meeting was the kick-off to a new era. The team was expanding.
The scientists, Heero, Sally and Lady Une gathered in the conference room to await Treize and Zechs Merquise. The fact that Zechs had arrived the previous day and no one had yet to meet him was curious, but not entirely surprising. Rumor had it that Treize was getting more than just a new operative in this deal.
At last, the couple arrived. Treize dressed in a dove gray suit and pink shirt, and carrying a red rose, and Zechs in a white suit and light blue shirt. Zechs's hair was white blond and hung down his back. His eyes were intense and sharp like ice. He scanned the room as he entered with Treize, and let his new boss make the introductions.
"Thank you all for assembling here on this magnificent day to welcome the newest addition to our family." Treize used the rose to gesture to Zechs who smiled. "As you know, the Project's great success prompted me to begin looking into ways of expanding the operation. I had the pleasure of meeting Zechs some months ago and immediately realized we had found our man. Zechs has been the top operative for the Treasury for years, and is ready for new challenges. I present to you, Zechs Merquise."
Next to the Project, the Treasury was the most sophisticated operative agency in the world. It was no small matter that Treize had wooed away their best man. All were eager to learn more about the man who had so quickly captivated Treize Khushrenada.
"Thank you, Treize. It is a great honor to be selected to join the Project...." Zechs went on to explain in a low, almost velvety voice about himself and his willingness to participate in the Project's cutting edge training program.
Treize then introduced each member of his team to Zechs, making concise and flattering remarks about each person.
"I know all of you are quite busy, so I've arranged for us to have dinner together this evening to get better acquainted. Please join me in the penthouse at eight o'clock."
As Heero waited his turn to speak with Zechs, Treize came over to him. It was the first they had spoken since Duo's release.
"It's a new day," Treize said, smiling as his eyes wandered to Zechs briefly.
"It sounds like Zechs is adept at deep under cover operations," Heero said.
Treize coughed. "Y-yes, I believe he is."
Heero swallowed a grin, realizing somewhat belatedly the sexual nuance of that statement. It seemed clear the liaison program was not dead afterall.
"I know you have not requested the information, but it should please you that your Mr. Maxwell has landed safely in---"
"I'd rather not know the location, but thank you for informing me he's fine."
Treize raised an eyebrow. "It's all or nothing with you, is it? You would rather he was here, but since he is not you won't impinge upon his freedom. I admire that even if it is naïve."
"Dear boy, you must be aware of the invisible leash we keep on him. Maxwell can do as he likes, so long as he maintains his end of the bargain. And I must be certain that he is."
"He won't betray us," Heero said, feeling uncharacteristically agitated toward Treize.
"So, you've said."
"If you don't trust him then why did you let him go?"
"For love, of course. Your sacrifice was too beautiful to be denied." Just then Zechs approached, and Treize tapped him on the shoulder with a rose. "What do you know of love, Zechs?"
"It's troublesome," he said, seeming amused. He held out a hand to Heero. "At last we meet."
Heero shook Zechs's hand, noting the steely gaze in the man's eyes. "We've been anticipating your arrival for weeks."
"I hope I live up to the hype," Zechs said with a chuckle.
"Now, now," Treize said, patting Zechs's back. "It's not as if I put out a press release."
They spoke for several minutes, long enough for Heero to determine that Zechs was as competitive as he was. Even though they wouldn't be sent on the same missions, he was sure a friendly rivalry would develop in training sessions. So long as it was good for the Project he would enjoy some healthy competition.
Zechs had a solid reputation, but it would take time to trust him. Perhaps Heero would ask him at dinner how much he was willing to sacrifice for the Project. Life, limb... love? The answer could be very telling.
~ ~ ~
Three months later.
Duo locked the door to his apartment and slung his backpack over one shoulder. He was late and he knew the campus would be difficult to cross at this time of day as students trekked between classes.
The university was spread over 500 acres with buildings interspersed between oak and hickory groves. He had chosen this school because of its top ranking in mathematical studies. And if he was honest with himself, he had also chosen it because it looked nothing like Bremen Enterprises. Everything he had found so attractive about Bremen months ago-the clean, modern lines of the architecture, white and gray palette, and statuary gardens-now made him shiver to remember. This university was Bremen's complete opposite with its historic, brown brick buildings evocative of a bygone era-an era that Duo likened to a slower pace and a lack of kidnappings.
As he stepped out of his building and onto the sidewalk, he looked both ways. He wasn't crossing a street, but he always had the feeling that he was being watched and could be snatched away again without warning. It was something for a therapist's couch, but Duo knew better than to share his story. Who would believe him? Certainly not the nice, trusting folk of this college town.
Until he had actually gotten off the private jet at a commercial airport and boarded another plane of his choice with a multitude of passengers, Duo had not taken an easy breath. After what they had done to him he could never be 100 percent sure that they wouldn't snuff him out-either on that gray afternoon or some other day. And so, he watched his back.
He was double majoring in geospatial engineering and mathematics, and doing quite well academically. Actually, he was doing well financially, too. The hush money, or whatever they were calling it, was more than enough to fund his education, housing, wardrobe, vacations, a car if he wanted one or two... Hell, he could buy a house! But he knew the money had strings attached. Strings that led all the way back to Bremen's corporate tower. He was no fool. He was sure they knew exactly where he was and what he was doing. But did Heero know as well? Did he care to know where Duo had landed?
On his first night of returned freedom, Duo sat in a hotel room looking at his family photo album. He sat on the king-sized bed with the album next to him, and his room service tray at one end strewn with a half-eaten meal. He turned the pages of the album, wiping his hand across the plastic sleeving as if to re-connect with those memories and those times. He looked into the eyes of his parents and wondered how different his life would've been had they lived. But he had no regrets. He had done the best he could, and liked to believe that his last foster family was glad he'd run away.
Silly thing was, as he turned the pages, what he really hoped to find was a memory of a different kind. Not one from his childhood, but much more recent. So fresh he could still taste, smell and touch it if he closed his eyes. What he wanted was a photo of Heero among the pages. He looked three times, even going so far as to lift the plastic page covers to check if a photo had been tucked behind another. But it wasn't there. What did that say that he thought a picture of Heero belonged on these pages?
Forget all the crap they had done to him. What he needed to know was that when he had made love with Heero it had meant something. At the time, he thought it had. He had felt the difference in Heero's touch, and had seen the spark of blue fire in his eyes. Now, months on, he was starting to believe that he had imagined it all. In his captivity he had created a fantasy in which he and Heero had made a connection, had cared about one another-a fantasy that had been fabricated simply to ease the pain and anxiety of being a prisoner.
But even as he jogged across the commons to make it to class on time, dodging his fellow co-eds, his thoughts raced back to Heero. How was he doing? Was he on another mission? Did he still sit in the loft and read in the evening? Had he started cooking for himself? Did he miss Duo?
That last thought took Duo by surprise. He gasped and doubled over as if he'd been hit in the chest by a brick. A few people stopped to ask if he was all right. He waved and nodded, pretending to be simply out of breath, but that wasn't it at all. Where the hell had that question come from? Was he completely off his rocker? How could he have a thing for Heero after all that?
"Shit," Duo said.
He stood and got his bearings before getting underway again. Maybe if he tried harder he could tuck all the memories of Heero away. Vivid memories of Heero's eyes, and hands, and mass of dark chocolate hair, and chiseled body.... And that wicked grin that curled at the edges of his lips when he said something witty and disarming.
In class, Duo took notes and nodded at all the appropriate times during the lecture, but after an hour and a half he walked out of the room not remembering a thing that had been discussed.
Hours later, Duo sat at a small table at Puchi's Bistro with a cappuccino on his left, and class notes on his right. The coffeehouse was off campus, but very popular with students and locals. Duo liked it because of its Old World charm, and the fact that they made great coffee and pastries and didn't mind if you took up space as long as you spent money.
Duo looked up, having trained himself to respond to his new name. He caught sight of a hand waving at him through the line of customers.
"Hey, Wade," he said with a smile.
The first week of class, Wade's backpack had split open dropping all its contents onto a hallway floor. Though he was a gentle giant and could easily carry the weight, he had overloaded the bag, plain and simple. Duo had been the only one to stop and help. Several cups of coffee later, Duo had learned all about Wade's plans to finish college and marry his girl back home. After that day, Wade popped-up in his life on a regular basis. It turned out neither one of them took life too seriously or worried about what he ate. No matter Wade's thick middle.
"You going to the prof's party tonight?" Wade asked, sitting down with a harumpf.
"Nope, I need to review these notes and study for the exam. I figure I'll be up late enough with that."
"Yeah, I hear ya'. You seemed a little distracted today in class, but I've been to his parties before. All the really cool profs will be there, and if you're looking to be a grad assistant you need to be seen, you know?"
Duo had been angling for one of the highly prized assistantship positions, but not for the money. Most of the professors kept their academic careers going by doing extensive research in their field, and publishing books or studies on the results of that research. It was no small thing to be part of those endeavors, to gain the experience and firsthand tutelage an assistantship offered.
"Maybe I'll worry about the assistantship next year," Duo said, taking a sip of his cappuccino. He was good at running away and putting things off. So why not put this off for a year?
"You haven't gone to one party this year. I thought for sure this one would appeal. Sure there'll be some drinking, but the point is networking. You don't even have to smile if you don't want to."
"That's an odd thing to say."
"Max, be honest with me. How many friends have you made this semester?"
"I know this is your first year, but go on and count 'em on your hands."
Duo's brow scrunched, perturbed with the implication of this challenge. He held up his left hand to begin the count. "Well, there's Vivian... Russell and Kay... oh, and Herb---"
"Like I thought."
"What?" Duo blinked.
"Vivian owns this Bistro, Russell is the school librarian, Kay is your landlady, and I believe that Herb is a groundskeeper."
"Okay, so what's your point?"
"You don't hang with them do you? You just know them because you're doing business."
"No... I talk to Herb whenever I see him on campus." Duo was feeling defensive, cornered. Why was Wade hasseling him about this?
"Someone do you wrong?"
"Huh?" Duo gaped.
"It's like you got hurt along the way and you're holding yourself back. Even though you smile easy enough, and talk to lots of people it's all in passing."
A shiver raced through him. Is that what he'd been doing? Keeping people at a distance? That couldn't be right. He wanted to be with people, he was surrounded by hundreds all day long. He didn't want to think that his experience at Bremen Enterprises had made him distrust the world.
"Look, you need to come to that party tonight."
Duo blew out a puff of air, stirring his bangs. "I don't know. It's complicated."
Wade laughed. "When isn't life complicated? So, something did happen?"
Duo nodded. "Yeah."
"You got dumped."
"What makes you say that?"
"Just a hunch. Harder to get over a girl when you're the dumpee."
Was that why he couldn't get Heero out of his mind, because he'd been dumped? Why else would Heero let him go?
Wade leaned forward, ready to listen, and Duo found himself suddenly opening up about the guy he "worked" with at his previous "job." It felt like a weight coming off his shoulders. He even blushed once or twice. But it didn't take Wade long to notice the lack of details.
"Your guy some sort of secret agent?" Wade asked, laughing.
"God, don't say that!" Duo looked around them to see if anyone was listening.
"I'm only joking, but it sounds like you got yourself tied up with some big wig."
Duo really didn't like Wade's choice of words. "Yeah, well, it's over now. I'm trying to move on with my life, best I can."
"You still love this guy, huh?"
Duo's mouth dropped open. Was Wade simply trying to be provocative? "Love? I...."
"Yeah, I know... it's complicated between you two." Wade chuckled. "But what you really want to know is if that guy's still thinking of you. If you got under his skin."
"You been through this before, Wade?"
He shrugged. "You should send him a note."
"Yeah, right." Duo snorted uncomfortably.
"I'll pick you up at eight and we'll head over to that party together." Wade got up and gave Duo a long, thoughtful look. "I'm sure something good will come of it."