Crossing Part 2
It is time to write again.
So much has happened since the last time I wrote about him and me, and writing it relieved some of the... sadness, aloneness, pain... Telling the page helps, even though I know no one will ever read this. Somehow, the page feels sympathetic as it reflects my words back at me.
After I moved to L1, I continued to email him regularly and I traveled to the other Colonies often. I chose assignments that took me to L2 every few months like before. I would call him and we would go out -- the two of us for dinner and drinks and a quiet talk. More often than not, Hilde had some other commitment and couldn't join us. He would be my local consultant for the assignment I was working. He didn't argue about payment anymore, just said I didn't have to, but if it helped me, he would take the money.
It was on my fourth visit to L2 after leaving Relena. He and Hilde had an argument the second day I was there.
Of course, I offered him a place to stay.
As we lay in bed that night, he asked me if Relena and I argued and how we handled it when we did. I pulled the loneliness tighter around me and said, "Relena and I broke up over a year ago. I live on L1. Since the Colony tour we scouted together."
"Naaniiii???" When he says "nani" like that there are always at least three question marks after it. "Why the Hell didn't you tell me before?" He was truly angry. Punch me in the jaw angry.
I wondered why.
I shrugged. "Didn't think you would be interested."
That wasn't entirely true. It wasn't that I had tried to keep it from him, but I was trying to let go of what had been and not look at what couldn't be and telling him about it would have required more explanation that I had wanted to give in an email. And when we had been together since, I hadn't wanted to think about it. I had only wanted to think about how much I enjoyed sharing the time with him. So I guess the truth was, I hadn't been interested -- in talking about it.
"Damn you, you cold bastard." I could see him leaning on one elbow, glaring at me in the dark, though I was sure I was little more than a shadowy form on the bed beside him. I couldn't see it, but I could feel the dark glitter running through those violet eyes that, in the past, had always warned that Shinigami was near. "You're my friend, damn it. I care about anything that happens to you. You should have told me." He sighed and lay back on the bed. "How are you handling it?" the anger suddenly gone from his voice.
He had been, probably still was, angry because I hadn't told him -- because he cared. I had shut him out and he didn't like it, but now he wanted to know if I was having any problems coping and if he could help. I could feel that even through my lonely soldier cloak. It hurt, like a twenty-centimeter-long knife in the belly and, at the same time, felt warm, like the bleeding the knife causes. I have had a knife in my belly before, and that is exactly how his words and the sentiment behind them felt to me that night.
I shrugged again. "Well enough. I miss her sometimes," not as often as I though I should, "but she was right."
I could hear the waiting in his silence. I knew he hated waiting, so I waited for him to break. He lasted longer than I expected. A good thirty seconds passed before, "Wellll??? Why, for God's sake?"
Yes. That was what I had known he would ask. This was the delicate part. I didn't want to lie to him, but I couldn't tell him the whole truth or I would be breaking the promise I had made -- not to interfere with him and Hilde.
"I love someone else more." The truth in general. I tried to make my voice sound dead, frostbitten. A hint. Sometimes a shot across the bow works.
Ten seconds later. "Wellll??? Who?"
Damned nosy Amerika-jin.
I hadn't really expected him to give up, though. He wasn't the kind to let something like this drop easily. That was probably the only reason we had become friends in the first place -- because he was too damn stubborn to give up. If the warning shot doesn't scare them off and you don't want to actually shoot them, you only have one option left. Evade and retreat. "It doesn't matter. They aren't available." I was very good at evading and retreating when it came to him.
"Huh? You told her you're in love with some other girl but weren't gonna go after her and she dumped you anyway?"
"Aa. Something like that." Exactly like that, except for one detail.
"What a bitch."
"She didn't want to be second choice." Now we were back on safe ground. "I don't blame her."
He laid a hand on my shoulder. I remember it vividly. The tips of three fingers resting against my neck, thumb on my collarbone, little finger on my tag chain where it ran behind my shoulder blade. A warm, gentle touch of friendship. I had not expected it, wasn't prepared for it. I was certainly not prepared for the tingle it sent through me. I suddenly felt like I was a hundred kilometers behind enemy lines with only one bullet in my pistol and an army of millions between me and safety. I fought the urge to pull away from him.
It was one of the easiest battles I have ever fought in my life.
That was when I realized that my love for him went beyond even the deep friendship and wanting his presence that I had acknowledged. That was when I realized that what I felt for him was something more than platonic.
I wanted him.
I wanted to hold him. I wanted to feel him warm against me. I wanted his arms around me. I wanted to wake up in the morning looking into his face. I wanted... I wanted him to touch me... intimately.
Thinking that, I knew it wasn't quite true. I had no idea what a sexual relationship with him might be like -- if I would enjoy it or not -- if he would. I didn't really care. I just knew that I wanted him that completely and was willing to drop all my defenses and let myself be vulnerable with him in return. Nothing held back.
I recognized the feeling. It was how I had thought I would have to feel about Relena before I could marry her. That completely sold-out knowing that there is nothing and no one you will ever want more than that one person.
I understood. I was meant for him.
Too little. Too late.
I was meant for him.
Too afraid. Too bad.
But the fact remained. I was meant for him and couldn't be happy with anyone else.
"Heero?" He had turned his head and was looking at me. "I know there's something you're not telling me, Heero. If you ever want to talk about it, call me. Whenever. I mean that." Even if I woke him up in the middle of the night. I knew that was what he was saying. That was when I caught my first glimpse of how much he cared for me. He hates having his sleep interrupted. But he was willing to endure even that if I needed to talk.
I nodded, feeling the skin of my neck moving against his hand as if he were caressing me. "Thanks, Duo," I said so he would know I knew what he was saying. His hand only made it harder to feel what I felt and not say it, but I appreciated the contact anyway. I didn't try to explain that.
He moved his hand away and started talking about the surveillance he was helping me plan. Twenty minutes later, he was asleep.
For me, it was another sleepless night spent listening to the song in my head telling me I was crazy. And nodding silently in agreement. And considering. Sometimes life is a bitch. When it is, you have two choices. You let it destroy you or you accept it and find a way to deal with it and live. I have tried both and know that, while it never seems true at the time, dealing with it is ultimately the easiest course.
The surveillance went well. We were able to determine that the dissident the Preventers had feared was beginning to make herself a candidate for assassination -- he didn't know about that particular detail, of course -- was actually planning a complex and convoluted surprise party for her brother's birthday. It was coincidence that some of the people involved in the planning happened to be people who might know how to build a bomb capable of rupturing a Colony wall or who could gain access to restricted parts of a Colony's control systems. We listened to everything she said, read every email that she sent or received, and even crashed the party to confirm it wasn't a ruse. In the end, we agreed she was not a threat.
It was a relief. As much as I despise people who oppose the United Government, I don't like writing a report that I know will result in someone's death.
Funny, isn't it? I used to kill people wholesale during the war.
He went back to Hilde while I was there and I went back to L1 when the job was done. Before I left he reminded me once more that I should call him anytime if I ever wanted to talk about anything or needed anything. I knew what he meant, and I knew it wasn't going to happen, but I said, "Aa. You know you can do the same."
And it was true.
I don't mind my sleep being interrupted, but he had my unregistered number -- the one for the phone that is implanted in my skull. He could call me in the middle of a mission and, unless I or someone I was responsible for was in immediate danger, I would answer and talk to him.
We reminded each other of that availability every time we saw each other, but I was still surprised two years later when he called me out of the blue.
Shortly after moving to L1, I acquired, through a somewhat shady deal that would have made him proud, an old Taurus that had been retrofitted for Colony maintenance duty. Over the course of six months I had tuned and tweaked and enhanced it, with equipment and parts purchased through less questionable channels, until it was almost as fast and maneuverable as Wing had been, though it didn't have Wing's range and its only "armament" was a welding torch.
I took it out into space on the weekends and some evenings when I wasn't busy with work or any of the other humdrum activities of day to day living. At first I would hold mock battles against a piece of space junk or I would stalk inbound shuttles and freighters. But after a couple of months, I abandoned those games. They reminded me too much of the time when I might have had a chance with him if I had been able to understand what I was feeling. In their place, I found a better escape. I would take Wing Junior out to the edge of its range and shut off my spacesuit's heaters and float, a derelict in the shadow of Earth or L1, letting the icy blackness fill me with the alone, cold nothingness of space.
Trowa had told me once that tears were beautiful in zero-G. I didn't believe him until I looked up one day and saw it for myself.
I was drifting with my helmet off, letting the quiet, cold purge a bad week of thinking about him, trying to remember why being alone wasn't so bad, and trying to find the edges of my dark cloak so I could pull it around me again. And hoping that the words running through my head would be that day's last repetition of "... Crazy for crying, and I'm crazy for loving you." That is when the soft chime sounded in my ear. My phone was ringing.
I sighed, noticed I was shivering from the cold. I didn't want to be disturbed, but the people who had this number had it so they could contact me at any time. I twitched the muscle in my jaw that controlled the pickup switch and said softly, "Yuy." Simple. Direct. To the point. That is how I am.
"Duo? Why are you calling me?" The dregs of diplomacy I had picked up while I was with Relena -- thinking about her didn't hurt much anymore -- told me I had just put my foot in my mouth. "Sorry. You surprised me." He never would have called me unless there was a real problem. "How can I help?" I wanted to help, whatever it was.
I listened to the hiss and hum of L2 on the line -- InterColony Telecom has never upgraded L2's voice trunks to digital systems -- then he said, "I, uh... I need some help finding a place to stay."
"Aa." He and Hilde were on the outs again. But why the Hell was he calling me about it? I knew their arguments didn't always coincide with my presence on L2. I assumed he went to the homeless shelter those times, or maybe stayed with friends.
It didn't matter. If he wanted a room, I would get him one. "I can book you a room in the usual hotel for a few days." I could probably even find legitimate work for him to do that would give him something to keep his mind off being away from her and let me put his expenses on the Preventers tab.
"No, Heero." More L2 hiss. "I was thinking L1 might be a nice place to live, y'know. And maybe you could help me find a job too?"
That was a surprise. I sat in my cockpit staring out into the dark sky before me. Could I endure having him that close but not with me whenever I wanted to be with him? Maybe. Maybe not. I had a feeling that, with him so near, his presence would become something I needed more and more to be satisfied -- like a drug to an addict. Maybe I would need to move to another Colony. I could ask for reassignment and get it without much hassle.
"Anou... Heero?" I heard the faintest tremor of nervousness in his voice. He thought I was going to refuse. I needed to say something.
"I can help you look for an apartment. You can stay at my place for a few days. It will be crowded, but we can work something out. When will you and Hilde be moving?" I listened to the L2 hiss again for long enough that I thought the link had dropped. "Duo? You there?"
"Aa." Hiss. Then ten seconds later. "Hilde and I... we're splitting up."
I closed my eyes. The cold burning inside me had nothing to do with space or loneliness, it had to do with hope and fear and self-loathing. Hope that it was true. Fear that it was true and it was somehow my fault. Self-loathing because I was hoping and because I was crazy if I thought it made a difference. But I had already established that I was crazy, so the self-loathing was primarily because I was hoping.
"Just a minute, Duo." I twitched the mute on the phone, then brought up the computer display, fingers stiff from the chill tapping clumsily on the keyboard before me to pull up the Preventers' assignments system. I turned Wing Junior toward L1 and unmuted the phone and said, "I will be on L2 tomorrow morning on an assignment. It should take about a week. You can help me with it and then we can go from there."
"Thanks, Heero. I appreciate it. Could you bring some kind of apartment guide for L1? And maybe the employment ads?"
"Aa." He wasn't going to need them. I was going to talk to Hilde and they would be back together before I left. But I would bring them anyway. It would make him happy and would give him something to do when we weren't... I glanced at the assignment display again.
Performing a security audit for Colonial Trust Bank.
Damn. I had let myself forget that the Preventers aren't purely a paramilitary intelligence agency. Security audits always involved stepping on people's toes and were usually boring as Hell. "I don't have my flight information, but it will be the early morning shuttle from L1. Usually about 07:40 Standard. Check with Colonial Shuttleways."
I imagined him nodding on the other end of the line as he said, "Thanks, Heero. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Aa." I twitched the line off, then put myself on the assignment and keyed up CoSways' reservations system. I finished booking my flight as Wing Junior reached the L1 inbound pattern. Fortunately, it was late evening and there was no other traffic. I was directed straight into the hangar. Twenty minutes later I was on the monorail to my apartment. I had to pack and read the assignment briefing and figure out how I was going to pry the problem out of him without seeming nosy and what I was going to say to Hilde and get some sleep and make my flight, all in the next nine hours.
I saved the sleep for last. I knew I could catch a couple of hours on the shuttle to L2 if necessary, but the other things needed some thought so my brain could work on the solutions while I was asleep.
The next morning I rushed through shower, dressing and pulling the last of my gear together, running a schedule that was laid out down to the minute. I almost forgot the apartment guide and the "L1 Shimbun", but picking up my palm computer jogged my memory. I punched in the request and docked it. The download took nearly a minute. When it bleeped completion, I grabbed the palm comp and stuffed it into my jacket pocket, rushing toward the door.
I made up forty of the seconds I had lost by running instead of walking and that was enough to catch the 'rail I had to be on to make my flight. I squeezed through the doors as they were closing and found a seat. It was between bar closing and morning rush hour so there were only a dozen other people in a car that was designed hold eighty. I spent the ride to the terminal watching L1 slip by around me while I tried to assemble a coherent plan for accomplishing my mission.
As I took my seat on the shuttle, I realized that I was rushing to L2 to try to save his marriage and I had no idea how to do it. I hadn't been able to keep Relena and myself together. I wasn't sure how I was going to keep him and Hilde together. I really wanted him for myself, but my heart, my sense of right and wrong, my honor, whatever, demanded that I try to get them back together -- and that I make my best effort. If I let him leave her without trying, or perhaps without being certain that they were truly broken beyond repair, I would always feel a sense of guilt and uncertainty that would never let me be comfortable in his presence.
Maybe my motives weren't entirely selfless. Maybe there was some sense of a possible personal gain -- even if it was just being able to look him in the eye. I know this much is true, though: I was not going to L2 because I hoped to catch him on the rebound and be the friend who assuaged his loss with my love. If we ever became more than best friends, something that I knew would never happen, it wouldn't be because I took advantage of him. That would be a violation of our trust for each other.
I caught another two hours sleep on the flight.
When I walked up the stairway into the L2 terminal -- the L2 terminal doesn't have shuttleways that connect to the shuttle. You have to walk down a stairway the hangar crew rolls up to the shuttle, then across the shuttle bay and up a stairway into the terminal itself. When I walked into the terminal, he was waiting for me, large duffel bag full of everything he owned beside him, smiling. I saw it for the lie it was.
He says he never lies and I have to admit that I have never heard him tell a lie, though sometimes his version of the truth is incredibly creative. But his face often lies. It often smiles when he is hurting. It often smiles when he is angry. It often smiles when he is feeling anything but what the smile says. I knew there was no way he felt like smiling, but I didn't say it. Wearing the mask made him feel comfortable.
We shook hands, then he hugged me briefly, before I had a chance to realize what he was doing. It was the kind of hug I had sometimes seen brothers or close friends share when meeting after a long separation. He offered to take my bag, which I didn't let him do because he had his, then we headed for the hotel, not saying much, which was unusual for him -- and for me when we met like this.
At the hotel I faced the first challenge. One of the things I had debated the night before was whether or not I should ask for two beds. The three times he'd stayed with me after the first I hadn't known he would be until after I had checked in. Neither of us had complained about sharing the bed. But this time, I had struggled with the idea. It was dangerous. Because he and Hilde had said they were calling it quits, it might be easier to do something I thought I wanted to do but didn't, say something I thought I wanted to say but shouldn't.
In the end I decided against two beds because I didn't want him to read anything into it. He wasn't dumb. He would pick up on the change and know something was different between us now. I would rather endure the agonizing, sweet torture of having him a few centimeters away but untouchable than in another bed wondering why I was suddenly pushing him away. I would rather have him close in this short time we had together before he went back to her.
I briefed him on the assignment while we unpacked, then we set off for Colonial Trust Bank's L2 headquarters.
CTB's security director on L2 was a woman named Mara Arlis. She wasn't particularly happy that the bank's board had requested an outside security audit or that they had decided to pay the Preventers to do the audit. She was even less happy about the fact that the auditors -- him and me -- didn't wear suits or ties or shiny leather shoes and looked rather scruffy on the whole. I watched her looking disdainfully at his braid as if it were a dead snake attached to his head. That made me angry. The braid was beautiful. It was his memory.
I decided to start stepping on toes.
As I have said before, I am nothing if not direct, but that directness has been influenced by diplomacy learned under Relena's tutoring. I asked Ms. Arlis if there was an office where we could talk for a moment. Once the door was closed, I asked her to sit down, then politely explained who I was and who he was and that between the two of us her procedures and systems were about to be put through the most thorough and rigorous audit she had ever imagined or feared. She was literally sweating by the time I finished that part of my speech. Probably in part because I was giving her one of my worst glares, probably in part because the environmental controls on L2 aren't the best and it gets hot quickly during the day and air conditioning tends to be rare and goes to the computers first, even at a major bank. And probably in part because she had never faced a Gundam pilot before, much less two at once. We still have something of a reputation.
Now that I had her where I wanted her -- and had extracted my small vengeance for the way she had looked at him -- I softened the glare, turned on the diplomacy and offered her the olive branch. "While we are working, we will report risks to you as we find them." Yes, I could speak like a security consultant when I had to. "If you implement changes while we are auditing and they remove a risk to our satisfaction, we won't include that risk in our report." That got her undivided attention. We weren't going to air her dirty laundry if she cleaned it up. "Before we leave, we will give you a copy of our preliminary report so you can begin work on a mitigation plan. We will submit our final report to CTB's board one week later." Translation, you have a chance to show the board how good you are by giving them a plan to fix the problems as soon as they find out about them.
She was definitely feeling better. We weren't going to be easy on her, but we weren't going to tear her apart because we were trying to prove something. Neither of us wanted her job and I knew it. The life of a security director in a corporation like CTB is usually quite boring. Except when the security auditors show up.
So, the preliminaries out of the way, we went to work. Ms. Arlis was suddenly very cooperative. We spent the rest of the morning reviewing procedures, then visited several branches, observing how those procedures were carried out.
"Damn, this is boring," he said as we sat in the park drinking a beer together after dinner.
"Aa. Security audits always are." I shrugged.
"Thanks for making this trip for me."
I looked at him. "The assignment--"
"You took so you'd have a reason to come here." He watched me for a few seconds, then said, "I may not be the crispest cookie in the batch, but you said you'd get me a room, then after I told you what I meant you said you were coming to L2. And I've never known you to not know your flight unless you haven't booked it."
I looked for a way out, but there wasn't any. He had me. "Aa." I didn't usually make mistakes like that. The trip was one more stupid thing that I had done because I loved him. I shrugged again, not sure how to explain it. Then I remembered what he had told me all those years ago. "Friends help each other."
He nodded, smiled, meaning it this time, then said, "Now, about this assignment," changing the subject to ease my discomfort. "Maybe we'll find something interesting. Do you think someone could...?"
We spent the next hour discussing possible holes to poke at as L2's main lights dimmed to night. Eventually the temperature dropped enough that he was ready to go back to the hotel. L2 gets hot during the day, but as the night part of the colony turns away from the sun and the lights go down, it loses all that heat rapidly and the environmental systems switch from cooling to heating. The heating systems are less efficient than the cooling systems.
As we walked back to the hotel, I asked him the question I had wanted to ask since he had called me. "What is going on with you and Hilde?"
He laughed bitterly. "Nothing. That's the problem."
I waited silently, knowing he would explain himself eventually.
"We just had one fight too many," he said, staring at the ground as we walked. "Things've been getting bad for the past few months. There wasn't a week that we didn't have an argument." Meaning, he had spent a lot of time at the homeless shelter. "I got tired of it. She got tired of it. We talked about it -- two months ago. Somehow didn't fight when we did. We were really very adult about the whole thing." He smiled faintly, but I knew it was just another cover. "We tried to make it work one more time. Then kept trying to make it work." He stopped walking, so I did too and turned, but he was still talking to the pavement. "After the tenth 'last time', we realized it wasn't going to work. We thought it would, but trying to do it..." He shrugged, finally meeting my eyes. "It's hard, Heero. I mean, you gotta know that."
Yes, I knew. I hadn't been able to hold on to Relena. But that was different. And I could see the fear and uncertainty in his face as he said it. He had failed. That was what he thought. Maybe he had. Or maybe he had made a more fundamental mistake in marrying Hilde in the first place.
Maybe that was wishful thinking.
"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to drag her up." Meaning Relena, not Hilde.
"Aa." I was past hurting about Relena when I was with him. "But you *are* right." He was, and he needed to know I didn't believe it was his fault. "It *is* hard and I know." I laid a hand on his shoulder. It was, really, a daring, dangerous thing for me to do. I wasn't afraid that he would misinterpret my gesture of friendship and empathy, but I was testing the limits of my self-control -- and I had no idea where the line was. What would it take to push me to a point where I would do something I would regret? But I knew I needed to find the boundaries, and a hand on his shoulder seemed like a safe enough thing to start with.
The warm, firm, suppleness of skin, bone and muscle under my hand wasn't past the limit. I was relieved. It made the next part easier. "But what did you argue about that led to this? And why didn't you call me sooner? I would have tried to help." Not that I thought my help would have done much good.
"Nah. There wasn't anything you could've done." He sighed. "I guess it was kinda like you and Relena. Hilde didn't think my heart was in it. I'm not so sure she was wrong." He looked at me, a little scared. "It was a lot easier to call it quits than I thought it would be."
I could hear the hints of stress in his voice that told me he didn't want to talk or think about it anymore. I decided to let it drop. "Aa."
We were back to the hotel by then and walked through the door together and took the elevator to the eighth floor where our room waited. "What about the salvage yard?" I never called it a junkyard to his face. "I thought you would stay with that."
He blushed faintly, embarrassed, then said, "It's Hilde's, not mine. Everything's hers, really."
Oh. I hadn't known that. I could have found it out if I had bothered to check, but I had always assumed... Score another foot in the mouth for me. I seemed to have a habit of doing that with him.
We watched the vid screen together for an hour. He called up the classic cartoon channel. "No war. No women. No worries. Just wabbits and stuff acting silly." That was how he described it. Ten minutes later, I agreed. It made him laugh, and the laugh wasn't fake. It was a good choice and good reasoning.
We went to bed afterwards and, even though I could feel the warmth of his body on the other side of the bed, somehow I was able to sleep that night. Probably because I had a plan in mind.
We had finished most of the groundwork for the audit by Wednesday. That was going as planned. We had found thirty problems for Ms. Arlis to solve. She had already fixed four of them and expected to have two more done before we finished. Not bad. The rest were either small risks or required resources that couldn't be brought to bear so quickly or were issues of people not following sound procedures. On the whole, I told her, CTB's security was doing well. I didn't waste my breath explaining what that meant for her.
Wednesday I split us up. We were each to visit five branches and mentally stage robberies and frauds, walking through the steps we would take knowing what we did about the bank's security, which was a Hell of a lot more than anyone else was likely to know. We were to meet back at CTB headquarters at 16:00.
I, of course, was implementing my other plan. My last branch was near the junkyard and I finished it at 15:20, which gave me plenty of time to talk to Hilde.
She opened the door and stared at me for a moment as if she didn't recognize me, then growled, "What the Hell are you doing here, you bastard?"
I hadn't expected the hostility in her voice. I hadn't expected her to be overjoyed to see me, but I had never known Hilde to be less than civil.
I forged ahead with my plan.
"I wanted to talk to you about you and Duo." I kept my voice calm, quiet. "May I come in?" And searched for every drop of diplomacy I could muster.
She looked at me as if I was a street hustler asking her to bet a thousand credits on the three cards he was weaving in circles before her, then sighed. "Yes, Heero." The tension didn't go away, but at least she was acting more like I had expected.
I went in and she led me to the office and offered me a seat, which I accepted, and a drink, which I didn't. "I'm on duty." On duty is always a good excuse.
She poured herself a finger of bourbon, drank it, then poured another two and sat behind her desk, holding the glass, looking at me. I waited, debating whether or not to force her to speak first, but I knew Hilde didn't mind waiting, so I decided I should explain what I was about. "He says you both want a divorce." It was the first time I had heard or used the word for the present situation, but I didn't see any point in throwing euphemisms around with Hilde. She distrusted me for some reason so I needed to be completely direct and honest. "He evaded when I asked him why. I want to know why."
She stared at me. I had surprised her. "You have to ask why?" She shook her head. "I'm not stupid Heero. I've seen how you always rush to help him, like you're doing this time. Or are you going to tell me this trip to L2 was planned?" She was guessing, but she was right.
I shook my head. "I came because he called and was hurting and because I hoped I could help you get back together."
She shook her head again. "He always runs to you when he has a problem."
"Only if I happen to be here. This time it was bad enough that he called me."
"Heero," she snapped, frustrated, then sighed and took a sip from her glass. "Look, let's quit playing games, okay?"
I hadn't been, but she didn't give me a chance to respond.
"I saw the way you looked at him the times we went out together. I see the way you take care of him, how carefully you dance around him, afraid to get too close but trying to anyway. I've seen how he looks when you call and ask him out for drinks or to help you with whatever it is you do, and..." She threw herself back in her chair and stared at the ceiling.
"Hilde?" I wanted to as her what the Hell she was talking about, but I didn't. It wouldn't have helped.
She looked at me again, angry. "Damn it, Heero. He never looks at me the way you look at him, and I never see the same excitement on his face when it's me asking him to do something that should be fun." Her anger turned into that stare again, which I finally realized meant, "My God, how can you be so dense and still be alive?" I wondered what I was missing.
"He told me you left Relena because you were in love with someone else and she didn't want to be the second choice. It took all my strength not to laugh in his face when he asked if I thought it might be me."
Now I knew what she was asking -- implying she knew. The silence built between us. Finally, I gave up and said it aloud. "Duo. Yes."
That was what she had been waiting for. "I feel the same way." She laughed. It was ironic, dark, almost frightening. "I'm mad as Hell at both of you right now, but I can't bring myself to hate either of you and that just pisses me off more." She smiled, bitter. "But the real kicker is, why didn't I see it sooner?" She paused. "Did Relena say that?"
"She saw it almost from the beginning but didn't say anything about it." I was still desperately trying to understand what she was saying. Why should my feelings for him come between them? I had tried so hard to avoid that. I had never done anything, said anything, even hinted anything that would let him know. I had certainly never tried to get him to leave her. There were too many pieces and too many conflicting emotions running through the air from both of us. I let the words slip into my memory as I would a complex mission briefing. I could review them later and try to understand what had happened here. "I never have understood why she didn't."
"I do." Suddenly her whole attitude became calm, logical. Maybe I had looked distressed while I was thinking. Maybe she had her own lonely soldier cloak and had just put it on. "Take care of him, okay? He hasn't figured out how you feel about him. He hasn't figured out a lot of things." I wondered if mine was that obvious -- if I changed so visibly when I put it on.
I resisted the urge to shake my head. I had understood maybe half of what she was saying. All I knew for sure was that she wasn't going to take him back. I had heard the same finality in her voice that I had heard in Relena's. "I will."
She nodded, finished her drink and poured another. That was when I realized she was probably a little drunk. I could understand that, though. "Take care of yourself, Hilde. And if I can help--"
"Damn it, Heero. I thought you were the one who knew when to shut up."
"Aa. Take care of yourself." I wanted to say a hundred other things. Call anytime. I *will* make sure you know how to get in touch with him. I *will* make sure he stays out of trouble. If you change your mind, he really does love you. I still won't be telling him how I feel, just in case.
I knew that they would all be the wrong things to say. So I left it there and stood. "Goodbye." I saw myself to the door, then turned and wandered into the junkyard, staring at the heaps of castoffs and wondering what he would have seen and trying to understand what had just happened.
It was 15:49 when I finally gave up staring at a broken radio and trying to see something, anything other than a piece of junk, and realized I was going to be late for our 16:00 rendezvous.
Back at the street, I turned right, walking quickly toward the CTB tower. As I hurried past an alley opening a couple of blocks from the junkyard I heard, "Naaa, Heero." I recognized the voice and stopped and turned. "What'cha doing here?" He pushed off the wall of the building behind me and walked toward me.
I waited until he reached me, looking up four centimeters into his face. "My last branch was--" I saw the flash of anger in his eyes and changed my statement midstream without missing a beat. "-- only four blocks away. I stopped by the salvage yard to see Hilde."
He blinked. "I thought you were going to make up some lame story about just happening to be in the neighborhood. Sorry."
"I was." I shrugged. "But you would have known I was lying."
He nodded and let that part drop. "Pleading my case?"
"Didn't work, did it?"
He threw an arm around my shoulders and turned us toward the bank. "S'okay, Heero. I could've told you it was a waste of time."
At the moment I was desperately trying to control my desire to throw my arm around him in return. Somewhere in the back of my head I still entertained the notion that he and Hilde would get back together and I didn't want to do anything I would regret when they did. "I would have tried anyway." In a flash of insight that surprised me, I understood why he had been so uncertain before when we had talked about trying and how hard relationships can be. I understood what he needed to hear. "I think you both tried your best. Sometimes it just doesn't work." Understanding that for myself had taken a couple of months.
"Thanks." Then he stopped and looked at me. His eyes softened slightly as he saw that I really did understand, and I really did mean it. "Thanks, Heero." He grinned. "Now let's go see that Arlis lady and tell her what we found today, then we can go get something to eat. All this walking and dreaming about robbing banks has made me hungry."
I smiled faintly. "Aa." It would be better to get back to business, safely away from the things I didn't want to think about. "I noticed that the managers at three of the branches I visited had given their passwords to at least one teller."
He laughed. "That's nothing. At the Rey Street branch I was able to walk into the cash vault and look around for two minutes before anyone noticed me."
I stopped and he turned to look at me. "You did what?" I said, my voice cool, soft.
"Oh, get off it, Heero. I didn't take anything and I just acted surprised that it was a restricted area and they let me go without any problems. But you should've seen the way the branch manager was looking at the vault manager." He grinned. "I think that risk has been, uh, mitigated."
I didn't know what to say, so I resorted to, "Hn." We walked the rest of the way to the CTB tower defining the weaknesses we had discovered. In the end, we had four more problems for Ms. Arlis to fix, but we both agreed she could fix two of them by the end of the week.
Back at the hotel after dinner, he took my palm computer and sat in a chair, tapping away on it, occasionally entering something with the stylus. I watched him for half an hour, seeing his frown grow slowly deeper.
Finally, I did what I had told myself I definitely wouldn't do. "You can stay with me for a few weeks. That will give you time to look for a decent apartment and find a job so you know what you can afford." See, I told myself. Temporary. "I have an L1 directory on there too. You can look up the ju-- salvage yards and call around. You can use me as a reference."
He was looking at me as I thought he might if I told him how I felt about him. I began to think I had been too friendly. Then he said, "Uh, salvage yards usually don't care about references. And, um, I was hoping... uh... We always worked well together. I thought you might want a partner. You said you liked working with me."
I remembered the time I had told him that, at the end of the second war. I nodded. "The Preventers have a standing policy to accept former military with a recommendation from an active agent. I can recommend you."
He relaxed. I could see it move through his whole body from face to feet. "Thanks." He had been afraid I might say no. Baka.
"You still have to make it through Basic Training."
That made me smile. "Even I had to go through Basic. They like to be sure everyone starts from the same point."
"So you're telling me it's easy?" He didn't believe that.
"Iie. By the end of the first week I wondered why I was stupid enough to sign up." I shrugged. "It gets better after the first month."
He moaned. "Maybe I should just take a job at a salvage yard."
"Aa." The things I had just said began to sink in. Damn, I was stupid sometimes. I walked over to where he sat. "The next Basic starts in two weeks. You have a week to decide." I took the palm comp from him. "You can look for an apartment next week. I want to start the preliminary report tomorrow." I tapped up two files and handed it back to him. "This is the standard format we use. The second file is a report I did for ColonyBank two years ago. Familiarize yourself with them so you can write up the problems you found." I picked up my jacket and walked toward the door.
"Where're you going?"
"Out." It came out harder and more frigid than I had intended.
He knew me well enough to keep his mouth shut and let me go, but he didn't understand why I needed to leave. He probably thought he had said something that had pissed me off. I would need to make sure he knew I wasn't, but that would have to wait. Right then, I needed some dark, cold, quiet aloneness so I could clear my head.
Too bad I wouldn't be able to find any zero-G to go with it. I would have been nice to look at something beautiful.
We spent the rest of the week writing the draft report. Working with him like that wasn't as difficult as I had expected. Most of the time we were heads down on computers typing or thinking. Occasionally we would talk through some detail of the report together, but that was all. In the evenings I found things to keep us busy so I wouldn't have to say anything.
My ticket included a Saturday night stay to save money. The Preventers don't mind spending money when it needs to be spent, but they do have a budget. We left a copy of the report for Ms. Arlis Saturday evening, then flew back to L1 Sunday afternoon.
The bed in my apartment was only a double -- too close for comfort -- so he slept on the sofa. I offered, but he said he wouldn't put me out of my bed. Actually, he said, "There's no way in Hell I'm gonna sleep in your bed and make you sleep on the couch. Besides, it's more comfortable than the cots at the shelter." It was his "don't argue, just accept it" voice, so I nodded and gave him the spare pillow and a couple of blankets. L1 doesn't get as chilly as L2, but the environmental planners like cool nights for an early spring feel.
We were tired from the busy week and the flight, so we went to bed early. I heard him talking to himself -- my door was open. So I got out of bed and sat up talking with him for an hour and a half until he dropped off to sleep. Then I went to bed again. I don't know if it was the faint sound of snoring coming from the living room or if I was truly exhausted, but I fell asleep quickly.
I woke up at 06:30 Monday morning to noise in the apartment. My hand closed around the gun under my pillow, then stopped when I remembered it was him. I sat up and stood up and gathered a clean pair of underwear and a pair of jeans and walked across the hall to the bathroom. It sounded like he had the vid on one of the early morning news programs. I recognized Yuriko Watanabe's voice from the commercials on the 'rail which meant he was watching "Kon'nichi wa L1" -- but I couldn't identify the other sounds.
After showering, I walked up the hall in my jeans, toweling my hair dry. Something smelled odd and I noticed a faint haze of smoke in the air. I intended to find out what he had gotten into.
"Wait. Wait," he said when he saw me in the doorway. "Go sit there at the table and wait."
He was cooking something. That much was obvious. He had set out plates and silverware and glasses of orange juice on the table. He had even laid out a couple of white dishtowels as place mats. I never would have thought of that, but he does look at things differently than I do. I sat down and sipped my orange juice, noticing my dog tags and the violet ribbon that matched his eyes as I set the glass on the table.
I had barely draped the towel over my shoulders to hide the ribbon when he came dashing to the table with a bottle of syrup and a plate of pancakes drenched with butter.
"Ta da! Breakfast."
I decided not to tell him that I usually ate toast or a bowl of cereal for breakfast. He had obviously put a lot of effort into it -- Hell, he had been up before I was -- so I decided I could eat a couple of pancakes. He dropped five onto each of our plates and plopped down in the seat across from me and watched expectantly. I knew he was restraining himself and a certain, perverse part of me considered sitting there and waiting to see how long he would last. Only for a second. I poured syrup over my pancakes and handed the bottle to him, then started cutting them into pieces.
Looking at them, it was obvious they were overcooked. I knew something else was wrong when I started cutting. When I put the first bite in my mouth, I knew what else was wrong. But I had suffered interrogations, beatings and setting my own leg and hadn't let on that I was uncomfortable. This was easy. I chewed and swallowed and put another piece of pancake in my mouth, watching him.
He had been interrogated and beaten too, and though he had never broken, he had never been able to hide the pain as well as I could. Now, I almost laughed when he took his first bite and started chewing, then stopped, a distressed look on his face. I did feel a tiny smile on my lips as I took my third bite and he swallowed with an unsettled gulp.
"So, umm, how are they?"
"Nnn." I wasn't going to tell him.
"They don't taste right, do they?"
"You don't add salt and soda to self-rising flour." I took another bite.
He blinked, amazed that I had such a ready answer. I think because he saw I was going to eat them, he took another bite himself and got it down. "Uh, how do you know that?"
"Because I did the same thing the first time I made a cake."
"You made a cake?" His eyes almost fell out of their sockets. It made me smile again.
"Aa. Birthdays at the office, whoever had the last birthday brings the cake. It seemed more economical to make one than to buy it from the store." I shrugged. "Then I decided to learn how to cook more than microwave food."
He stared at me as I loaded up my fork again. "Heero, are you really going to eat those?"
I looked up at him and saw the embarrassment. I could have eaten them -- I had eaten worse -- but eating them would make him feel bad. I laid the fork on the plate. "Try again while I get dressed. Leave out the salt and soda. Flip them the first time when half the bubbles have popped. Only two for me." I stood up and walked back to my room.
I returned fifteen minutes later to find the table set with clean plates and forks, my orange juice glass refilled and him flipping the last pancakes out onto the serving plate. These were much better. He tasted his tentatively at first, then grinned. I was happy.
It scared me.
I had never really felt happiness like that before. Oh, I was usually happy when I was with him, but this was different. This wasn't working together or out remembering together or even being together. I was happy simply because he was happy.
And it was a deeper happiness. How can I explain it? Just... It was deeper.
"What?" he asked.
I focused again, realizing he must have seen something on my face. "Thinking." I wasn't sure what he might have seen, though. I know some people can feel what their face looks like, but I am not used to my own expressions, other than the calm, blank stares and the glares and occasionally a tiny smile, so I can't tell what my face is saying when it says anything else. "I usually have a light breakfast, but these are good."
"So what'cha want for dinner?"
I thought as I ate. "You decide. Something light and simple. You can use the vid screen to access recipes on the Net. The grocery store is five blocks spinward."
He shook his head. "Daring, aren't you."
"Hn." I finished, drank my orange juice. "I have to leave to catch the 'rail. I get home at approximately 17:45. You have my number if you need me." I stood and walked to the door.
"Anou, Heero," he said as I took my jacket from the coat pegs.
He looked at me for a moment, then said, "Just... ... Thanks."
When I got home, he was using the vid to look for apartments on the Net. I walked into the kitchen for a glass of water and was pleasantly surprised to find that he had cleaned up. His feet sounded on the imitation wood floor behind me and I turned to find him standing in the doorway.
"I got stuff for dinner."
"Aa." Then I thought about that and said, "How did you pay for it?" I kept my tone light, but I was thinking that I was a fool for not making sure he had money and I hoped he hadn't done something stupid.
"I had a couple of things that were mine and worth something that I brought so I could hock them." He frowned faintly and scratched his ear. It was then that I noticed the pale band of skin on his ring finger. I knew at least one of the things that he had sold. I didn't like it either. "So," he said as if he hadn't stopped. "I have enough cash to last for a while now. I can pay you rent until--"
"Go to Hell."
He grinned. "Well, I've been looking for an apartment. I was hoping you could tell me the parts of L1 I might want to avoid."
"Thanks. So when do you want dinner?"
"About 19:00? I want to get a shower." I know, I had taken a shower that morning, but I couldn't take a cold, lonely walk or an cold, black float in Wing Junior, so a cold, hard shower would have to do.
He just nodded. Maybe he understood that I needed a break or maybe he didn't. I finished my glass of water and walked back to the bedroom, undressed, then darted across the hall to the bathroom. As I closed the door behind me, I frowned at the three towels laying on the floor. I bent to pick them up and found them still wet.
I sighed. Some things never changed.
I tossed the towels into the dirty clothes hamper -- I needed to do laundry tonight anyway -- then I turned on the shower and stepped in, letting the stinging, freezing spray blast away the thoughts I couldn't let myself think.
After the shower, I squeegeed down the mirror -- he hadn't and there were spots and streaks from the condensation and, worse yet, fluff from where he had wiped it with a towel. I dashed back across the hall to my room and put on a pair of sweat pants and a loose T-shirt and lay on the bed with my eyes closed, floating in self-made, black aloneness.
I heard him come to down the hall, pausing outside the open door, but I gave no sign I was awake. He didn't go into the bathroom, so I knew he had come to check on me. He always seemed to worry about me. Even during the war, he had watched my back for me more than once when he had no reason to do it. I heard him move away and walk back toward the kitchen. Then I heard him start preparing dinner.
I opened my eyes at 19:00 and got up and went to see if dinner was ready. It was. He had made a salad, adding bok choy, sliced water chestnuts and crunchy noodles to the more traditional romaine lettuce, julienned carrots and red onions. It was topped with thin slices of steak, fried in a pan with only a drop of oil, and a ginger dressing. I knew the steak was the only thing he had actually cooked -- the ginger dressing was from a bottle, the noodles from a box and the julienned carrots from a bag -- but he had done the rest himself and learning how to cut up vegetables is a good place to start when you're learning how to cook.
"Good," I said around a mouthful.
"Thanks. I kept rerunning the guy who wears the green headband... Yamamoto?"
"Akira Yamamoto." Yamamoto was one of the cooks I had watched religiously when I was learning to cook. I may not be great in the kitchen, but I eat better than instant ramen thanks to him.
"Yeah. Him. I kept rerunning him chopping up stuff and decided, Hell, I could do that. I mean, I'm pretty handy with a knife."
"Aa." But I had never known Yamamoto to make anything like this salad. Which meant he had seen it somewhere else or made it up himself. And if he had made it up himself, he had the potential to be a very good cook.
As we ate, he asked about work. I told him I had finished the report for CTB and had brought it home for him to read tomorrow so I could finalize it and submit it by the end of the week. He said I should go ahead and get him into Basic. He had looked through the employment ads on the Net but hadn't seen anything that interested him as much as the Preventers.
After dinner, we got our laundry together and went downstairs to the laundry room. I began sorting clothes and loading five washers. After a moment he followed suit. I kept glancing over at him and, after a minute, realized he was mimicking my peculiar sorting method -- darks and lights split into permanent press and cottons and whites all in a lump. He "borrowed" some detergent from me while I started my washers. Then we sat in the chairs and I took my palm computer and, as he read apartment addresses off a notepad, I pulled them up on the map applet and told him why he didn't want to live there and he crossed them off his list. After the tenth, he stopped.
"Next?" I asked.
"That was it." He sounded depressed.
"I, uh. I may not be able to afford an apartment yet."
I looked at him, one eyebrow up. "You can stay as long as you want." I was already in way over my head. What was another meter? Then I tapped up a half dozen listings in decent neighborhoods.
He looked at them and frowned. "I'll be able to afford *that* much?"
"If you run a tight budget during Basic. After, you should be reasonably comfortable." That didn't improve his expression. I understood something then. He had never had to do this on his own before. Hilde had probably taken care of the finances and the cooking and everything else and let him play in his -- her junkyard. I could do the same. I could let him stay with me. I could fix the meals and make sure his bills were paid and take care of all the other details of living for him, but he needed to learn how to do it himself. It would make him feel better about himself.
I would help, though. "I can show you how to plan a budget and how I organize bills so they get paid on time."
He nodded, seeing I understood his predicament. "This isn't gonna be as easy as I thought."
"Aa." It had taken me a couple of months to adjust to being on my own, and I had known half the things he apparently didn't. "You get to go through two Basics at once."
That made him smile. "Yeah. You know me. Never do something the easy way when the hard way is so much fun."
"Aa." The first washers finished and we loaded the clothes into dryers. Then we worked on his budget.
Except for the laundry, most of the next twelve days followed a similar pattern. I got up and got ready. He made breakfast -- more than I would have normally eaten, but not as much as his first five-pancake serving. I went to work, came home, hung up his towels, took a shower, cleaned the mirror, took a brief rest on my bed to steel my self-control for the evening, then went out to find what he had prepared for dinner.
On the first weekend, I took Wing Junior out for a long break that I desperately needed. When I got back, he told me he had found an apartment and would be moving the next weekend.
I didn't know whether to be relieved or to tell him he could stay longer. In the end, I chose the harder answer and said, "Aa. I can help you get settled in."
His apartment was a half-hour 'rail ride away. He didn't have much to move, just the duffel bag. He had gone shopping at a second hand store and had a sofa and a chair, which was delivered that day, along with a couple of pots and pans so he could cook. I bought him a small vid screen at the same place -- not that I thought Basic would leave him much time to watch it the next three months, but he would need the Net access for some of the homework.
And I bought him a bed. He told me I was spending too much, but I told him he would thank me when he crawled home from the second day of Basic and got to sleep on the bed instead of the sofa.
He used the vid to call me that night and talked and talked until he fell asleep. I had half-expected him to do that. When I heard him snoring, I smiled to myself and wondered if he knew why he had called me. Probably not. I set my vid to drop the line in half an hour and stretched out on the sofa, listening to him snore as I fell asleep.
Sunday was quiet, but Monday was when it really hit me. When I woke up on the sofa, Yuriko Watanabe wasn't on the vid chatting with a movie star or telling viewers about a new trend popular among her upper middle class audience. No one was in the kitchen cooking too much for breakfast. I sat there for a moment, listening to the silence, then got up and walked to the bathroom to take my morning shower.
When I walked back up the hall from my shower and automatically laid the towel over my shoulders to hide the violet ribbon, the vid was still off and there was still no one in the kitchen. I poured a bowl of corn flakes and a glass of grapefruit juice and ate breakfast in silence, then went to my room and got dressed and left to catch the 'rail to work -- then went back and locked the door.
That evening, I came home and didn't have to hang up towels or squeegee down the mirror because it had been wiped with a towel and I felt that painful aloneness again. I decided this must be "missing someone".
I knew who. I had felt it for years now and had never recognized it for what it was. When I was with Relena, it hadn't been as strong, but it had still been there. I guess that is how it is when you love someone and are too stupid to know it.
After my shower I made a quick dinner, then sat in front of the vid, waiting.
Talking him to sleep over the vid, then listening to him snore until I fall asleep has become a new habit for me.