Time of Day: Afternoon
Part 3: Man in Motion
Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. Some hold great meaning while others mark a passage of sorts into understanding.
It was the first afternoon I was in Meloney's apartment that I had an understanding. Over the years, in many forms of media, I'd heard that sharing a moment with someone special was one of the best feelings a person can have. It had never concerned me before, had never taken more thought about it than to decipher the words. Standing in Meloney's living room before the floor to ceiling twin windows, letting the sunlight shine down over me, I knew that the moment would have been even better had Duo been there with me.
Thinking of him in that moment reminded me of the times he had been there to share other moments, both large and small ones, even if I hadn't recognized them as such, then. Duo was the first one I greeted upon securing Wing, after destroying what was left of the Libra. Duo was there when I bought my first, legal car.
At that moment, more than anything I wanted to turn around, find Duo sitting on Meloney's sofa-sleeper, and pull him up next to me to watch the way the sun reflected prism-like through the beveled glass of the window, to see how it shined on the honey warmed hardwood floors. But, he wasn't there, and probably never would be there to share the sight.
The moment ruined, I turned away, pushing it from my mind. I was alone, and I accepted that. Being alone was far from a new experience; the bite of loneliness, a novel one.
Throughout the night, I ached to return to the apartment, to see Duo again, to sleep in my own bed. I slept little, and neglected my morning run. Instead, I explored what there was of Meloney's apartment, noting the lack of any sort of electronic entertainment, including a basic vidscreen. Though, there was an empty spot on one of the bookshelves, and a handful of music discs filed away in a tasteful disc case. I assumed the music player went with her.
Meloney had warned me that her place was a studio, but not tiny; warned me that it sat at the top of a five-story walk up and that I might have issue with privacy. If I hadn't been in such a daze after arriving, I might have had an issue. The move was only temporary, and I didn't need much in the way of space or extraneous comforts. It was acceptable for my needs.
Keeping my back to the windows, the sun, and the view of the skyline, I picked up my cell phone from the end table where I'd tossed it the night before. I had to force my fingers from the memory button I wanted to press to dial Wufei's number instead. He answered on the first ring, voice clipped without being curt, instantly agreeing to meet me at the Preveners' gym in a half hour, to spar, to spot, to keep me company while I tried to exercise this need from my thoughts.
For my first call on Monday morning, even though I had expected it, Quatre's call came almost as a surprise. He wanted to know how I was doing, if I needed anything, if I wanted to talk. And then, he wanted to know if I'd spoken with Duo since leaving. My one word answer didn't sit well with him.
"You need to keep in touch with him, Heero," Quatre was telling me, his look through the vidscreen earnest and worried. "Communication is the only way to resolve problems no matter what the issue is."
"We will most likely have lunch together," I informed him, curbing my impatience with the topic.
"But that doesn't give you privacy to talk !" He leaned forward, peering into the screen. "You do still want to remain friends with Duo, don't you?"
As hard as I tried not to, I found myself glaring at Quatre. "Of course I do," I snapped.
"Good," Quatre told me quietly, leaning back and smiling softly. He dropped his gaze for a moment, and frowned slightly. "I should let you get back to work-"
"It's always good to hear from you," I responded quickly, reaching for the disconnect button.
"-I wonder if Duo's busy, if he has time to talk?" Quatre pondered, his look becoming internal, as though I were no longer there.
"Leave him alone," I demanded, glaring at him again.
Quatre's eyebrows rose as he focused on me. "Whatever do you mean, Heero?"
I refused to fidget, but from the look Quatre was giving me, I knew my expression was doing some shifting of its own. Peering over my arm at Wufei, I discovered him still pretending not to pay attention to my call. "He doesn't need anyone to harass him about this," I said in a low voice. "He feels badly enough."
His face gentled immediately, and when he spoke, his voice reflected that gentle manner. "Then shouldn't I - as his good friend - call my friend and offer him my unconditional support? An ear if he needs it? A shoulder if he wants it?"
My eyes lowered to stare at a paperclip lodged under the vidphone stand. "As a friend, yes."
"Alright then, Heero," Quatre said in more of his normal voice. I glanced up in time to catch him wiggling his fingers in a goodbye gesture before the screen went black.
Closing my eyes, I released a pent up sigh, and resisted the urge to immediately call Duo and warn him of the imminent inquisition.
"Has our participation in this daytime drama ended?" Wufei drawled from his desk.
"God, I hope so," I groaned, rubbing at a sudden ache between my brows.
"Good," he stated. "We have a team briefing in ten minutes."
An ache of another sort came to life, and I glared at Wufei for the reminder. He was giving me his version of the 'Maxwell grin', and I had to laugh. One day I vowed to catch him on film making that face. Grinning at that thought, I turned back to my computer and brought up the necessary file for the briefing, wondering if Duo would be there.
It was only a comment overheard in passing, a bit of gossip, but it left me standing frozen in the coffee room, a plastic glass of ice water in hand. Agent Maxwell had been seen 'getting cozy' with that cute new recruit. I knew the 'getting cozy' hadn't happened at lunch, since Duo had joined Wufei and I on the walk to the Chinese place on the corner. The clock showed at half past two. Not even Duo worked that quickly. I dismissed it as being gossip, even if there might have been a grain of truth to it.
But, I couldn't help recalling other overheard comments, half-sly looks directed toward me or my (temporarily) ex-housemate. Innuendo and gossip were not uncommon in the office, mostly harmless flirtation or of a teasing nature. But, the comments were changing, becoming more frequent, personal, and seemed to be focused on Duo's libido. I tried to remember when the change had started, or if it had always been that way, and only my own growing interest in Duo's libido made me more aware. Sitting back at my desk, I attempted to direct my attention on the security log printouts I was supposed to be reviewing; I wondered if Chang would think I was beyond redemption if I'd asked him if he knew.
And, the more aware I became, the more comments and rumors I heard.
Evidence of his philandering wasn't apparent at work. Other than the one cafeteria tete-a-tete, I had not observed him behaving in any other manner but his normal slightly unprofessional one. Certainly, I never found him emerging from the custodian's closet with rumpled clothing, or spotted smudged lipstick on any exposed skin. Those were, then, only the rumors and speculation by those who hadn't shared a bit of Agent Maxwell's libido.
At least, it was only rumors until I was present for the confirmation of one as fact.
The Friday after moving out of our apartment, Quatre made one of his visits, and The Five sat across from one another at the trendy sandwich shop on the ground floor space of the building across the street from the Preventers' Headquarters. Our orders taken at the counter were made while we waited and watched. On one side of the table, I sat next to Quatre, with Trowa on his other side, and across from me, Wufei pulled out his chair. Duo took the seat across from Trowa, but I noticed the little frowns he sent my way.
Barely seated, a voice called out Duo's name in greeting. Five heads rose in unison to watch a fellow agent rise from his single table, picking up the tray holding his meal, and slipping into the seat between Duo and Wufei.
"Am I glad you all are here," he was saying, organizing his lunch in its new location. "I hate eating on my own, and hey, we're all brothers under the uniform, right?" His grin was nearly as infectious as Duo's could be.
"Then welcome," Quatre told him gracefully with a smile.
"Duo's talked about you guys so much, I feel like I know you all," he laughed. Duo frowned at his friend and replaced his sandwich on its paper wrap. I watched Duo, shooting glances to the man seated at his side.
"I haven't said that much," Duo began.
"He hasn't mentioned you to us," Wufei said, turning back to his lunch and his hunt for stray onions.
"Agent Sharp," Duo interjected. "We worked together gathering some paperwork a couple of weeks ago."
Duo's friend gave him an almost shy smile, and turned back to the table at large. "Yeah, paperwork."
Wufei grunted, and finally deemed his sandwich good enough to eat. Quatre looked to Duo, then to Agent Sharp, and back again. Trowa never stopped eating. Duo threw a look in my direction, and flushed, dropping his gaze, his sandwich suddenly becoming interesting.
Lowering my eyes to my own sandwich, I said slowly, "Paperwork can be very involved."
"You got that right." And he chuckled, elbowing Duo with a slight movement. I heard Quatre's quiet gasp, and felt his hand on my arm.
"Paperwork can take all day and sometimes until late at night," I added, dropping my hands below the table, and forming fists on my thighs.
Agent Sharp barked a laugh, but didn't reply, taking a large bite of his sandwich instead. But he winked at me. Duo was looking away now, his sandwich shoved away from him, nearly on top of Trowa's sandwich wrapper. I could feel eyes on me, and refused to look up to meet Wufei's eyes, and Quatre's grip on my arm tightened.
"If an agent knew what he was doing, he wouldn't need help in the archives," Trowa contributed. He reached out and snagged Duo's pickle spear and took a bite before adding, "In fact, an agent would have to be pretty damn stupid to have to continually call upon a senior agent for assistance in finding his own paperwork."
I wasn't the only one looking in Trowa's direction. The scowl that had settled on Duo's face lifted, and he gave Trowa a wry grin. Agent Sharp had the grace to blush, and duck his head.
"Well, some agents believe it's worth the possible reputation of being a little 'dim' if they can catch the attention of certain senior agents." The stupid, dim agent was grinning again, and his eyebrows flagged in a suggestive manner. "I can tell you that it was anything but dim when we were doing paperwork -"
"Shut the fuck up," Duo demanded roughly.
Standing abruptly, I picked up my tray. "I have to go," I intoned, and jerked away from the hand Quatre threw my way.
"Heero!" Duo called out from behind me, but I shoved my lunch, tray and all, in the trash chute, ignoring him. "Damn it, Heero." A chair hit the floor, and I was out the door, heading for the street and the imagined safety of my office.
Wufei had little to say when he returned to the office; his expression guarded, his eyes even more so. From his actions at the sandwich shop, I half expected Duo to make an appearance, but he hadn't by the end of the day. I shuffled log printouts around, wanting to finish up and go 'home', wanting to stay and wait it out. Wufei had been silent for most of the afternoon, but he stopped in front of my desk on his way out.
"If it helps, Duo had words with that agent. I don't believe the man will dare show his face around us again." He snorted softly. "I doubt he'll ever have lunch at that shop again, either."
In a small way, it did help, and I gave Wufei a nod. I knew that whatever had happened between Duo and Agent 'Dim' was superficial at best. But even knowing that didn't stop the image of Duo kissing the man. The image of the two doing paperwork deep in the archives late at night with the security monitors covered, and the archive librarian gone for the day.
Security logs stowed, and my workstation locked up for the night, I was on my way out the door when Quatre caught up to me. He insisted on my joining him and Trowa at Trowa's place for dinner. My Friday evening plans were tentative at best, and spending the evening at my old apartment watching movies with Duo didn't seem to be an option I wanted to take.
Dinner was a quick affair, with Trowa and Quatre trading places in a near dance as they put something together in the small kitchen. I was regulated to the stool at the breakfast counter with a cold beer. Conversations were kept as light as the meal and neither spoke of what had happened during lunch. Or Duo. The table cleared, the stove and counters wiped clean, and the dishes rinsed and put in the washer. More beer and I found myself seated between my two friends on Trowa's monstrous, overstuffed couch. Some ancient thriller flickered away on the vidscreen.
It was late into the night, and I was on my sixth beer, drowsy, and comfortable. Trowa had put in the third such movie, and I suspected he shared a fondness for the absurd with Duo. When Trowa rose to change the first movie disc for the second, and while Quatre headed down the hall for a pit stop, I shifted from the couch to the chair. I understood what my friends were trying to do, but I didn't want to get in the way of what little time they had with one another.
I was about half-asleep in the chair that could have swallowed New London, when I thought I heard Trowa murmur, "Duo shouldn't shit in the sandbox he plays in." I thought I dreamt it, but Quatre's light laugh that he quickly stifled confirmed I wasn't.
"He'll outgrow it," Quatre said in a quiet voice. I found myself watching them, lying chest to back, legs entwined, wrapped up together - belonging together, and felt the ache of wanting choke me. Quatre's head lifted as he looked in my direction. "Heero?"
Shaking my head, I turned back to the movie, and drank from the bottle in my hand. When had life gotten so complicated? Love and being with someone who made you happy used to be such an easy concept. How could I dream of having something special, something lasting with Duo when our two friends who were so obviously in love - in love in the way it counted, deep and saturating - weren't together for more than a handful of days in a month's time?
I left before the third movie ended, accepting the hug Quatre gave, and returned Trowa's nod. After six beers, I should have stayed or called a cab. But, I walked back to Headquarters, and the gym, staying away from the heavy bag, this time and concentrated on the free weights.
The rumor mill churned and the scene from the sandwich shop added fuel to the grist. I spent the day dodging or ignoring pitying looks, avoiding heads tucked together in whispered conversations hidden behind upraised hands.
Another Monday, another resource meeting, and it seemed the list of departments requiring temporary and permanent transfers increased daily. I listened with only part of my attention on the division director and part on the temp assignment sheet in my hand.
Moving out had helped in distancing me from Duo's nightly activities, kept me from knowing his comings and goings, his phone calls, his dates. But, spending the last week enmeshed in talk of Duo and his liberal libido brought back the near hopeless feeling of loss, and poking in my chest.
I needed another change. Another temporary, distancing change. Something that would give me space, give me the chance to find that longed for perspective.
It was interesting that Wufei seemed to have the same idea, and mentioned that the both of us should take on temporary assignments. None of the duties listed contained fieldwork, tasks generally assigned to agents, duties that normally held Wufei's interest. The description of a TDY on a security tour of the colonies seemed to intrigue my partner. There was an opening for three agents, and he urged me to sign up with him. But, while I wanted distance, physically removing myself from any contact with Duo wasn't part of that package.
A midnight shift in Ops support tugged at me. It appealed to my sense of control, stimulated the need to manage several events at one time, and conclude the mission successfully. I had performed as Ops support before; all field agents were required to put in at least one hundred hours during training. Monitoring, setting up retrieval and extractions, and 'catching' packages thrown back to headquarters were only the tip of the iceberg in what Ops performed for the average agent. The temporary assignment was to cover for an agent on maternity leave, due to begin the following Sunday night, and was expected to run for ten to twelve weeks. And it within the timeframe of Wufei's security tour. Neither of us would be apart from one another for more than a week on either side of the temporary assignments.
Our current cases were in the wrap up stages; two pending trail dates, and one ended in the suspect's death by his own hand. All other cases were inactive, and could be turned over to another team for monitoring and maintenance. There was nothing on the horizon that was keeping either Wufei or I where we were. Unless, of course, an unknown terrorist group was suddenly to make itself known.
Approval for both requests was granted before the end of the day.
Office gossips picked up on both transfers, and assumptions were created as to why longtime partners were separating and going in different directions. I heard everything from an assignment gone wrong to 'he did him wrong' to a farfetched ménage de trios complete with jealousy and a knife fight.
I was beginning to think no one at the headquarters building had anything to do but make up stories fit for vid serials.
Coming back from meeting with the Ops Support director Wednesday afternoon, I found Wufei missing, and Duo pacing in long angry strides between the two desks. Two steps in the door, and Duo was in front of me, his face a contorted mask of fury.
"Is it true?" he spat out.
"Is what true?" I asked, a little uncertain where the anger was coming from, or what the hell he referenced.
"You're transferring out? You're quitting being an agent?"
Not quite sure how to answer his question, I edged past him, and went around my desk to take a seat. Duo immediately loomed over me, his arms braced on my desktop.
"It is true that I've accepted a temporary position in a non-agent capacity," I finally told him, meeting his glare.
Hurt flared in his eyes and was gone instantly. "Why?" he ground out, and I narrowed my eyes.
"You should know why."
"Is it because of that-" Duo sputtered for a moment, straightening to fling an arm in the general direction of the rest of the offices on the floor. "Because of last week? Because if it is, I can tell you right now that what happened with Sharp was weeks ago - long before you..." his lips worked shaping words he attempted to say.
"And how many others, Duo?" I asked him softly. "How many 'Sharps' will there be telling the world of something I can't have. Something that's been denied to me."
Duo sat abruptly, his anger fleeing like leaves on the wind. "You don't want what the Sharps had," he told me softly.
Inclining my head, I acknowledged the truth of what he said. "Regardless, I don't want to hear about it."
"You don't have to leave, to give up your job, Heero. Shit! I know how much you love what you do." Duo's hand was threaded through his bangs, pulling on his hair, his frustration evident.
"It's only temporary, Duo. Ten weeks - twelve at the most," I said gently, wanting to touch him, wanting to hold him.
His eyes closed, and his hand dropped to his lap. I counted to forty before he sighed and opened his eyes to stare at me. "Your 'temporaries' are beginning to feel more like permanents every day." His voice sounded tired, his tone one of defeat.
Having no answer for him, I remained silent for there was the possibility that these temporaries could become permanent.
My first week in Ops support went as much as I suspected it would. Regulated as the 'newbie', I sat with a senior colleague who instructed me on the basics, who reminded me of the processes and procedures in place. And who showed me the unofficial shortcuts that cut through wasted time and bureaucracy.
By my third night, I was working on my own, handling several smaller operations. By the end of my first week, I soloed on an involved op with an agent live on the mission. I wasn't left on my own; my mentor jacked in to listen from time to time, and pulled up a dup screen to monitor the action and what my responses were. But, she left me to handle the situation. It was... thrilling, in a detached way. Leading the agent through a foreign government's military headquarters building, hi-jacking their computer by remote, and finding the intel our operative was sent to extract put me in tandem with the agent, as though I was there sharing the danger, anxiety, and fear of exposure.
Being the agent in UC situations before, I hadn't given a lot of thought to the voice on the other end of the ops line. If nothing else, this temporary duty gave me a new respect for those in a support position.
Two hours after my solo ops command, my work email box held a message containing a simple 'thank you' from the agent in the field.
Work ended late, after nine that morning. It seemed that no matter where a person worked within the organization, there was no escaping reports to write up and file, and debriefings to attend. When the knock sounded later that afternoon, I was asleep, tangled in the top sheet. I woke abruptly, forgetting in that instant where I was, and wondering who the hell had put daisy-printed sheets on my bed. By the second knock, I was up and stumbling to the door. Seeing who was on the other side, I almost returned to bed, and ignored the knock.
"Going to invite me in?" Trowa drawled, but he held up a take out bag and a couple of tall drinks, condensation rolling down their waxed sides.
Stepping back, I waved him in, shutting and locking the door behind him. I stood by the door as he looked over the place. If he had anything negative to say, he was keeping it to himself. After his quick scan, he set the bag and drinks down on the nearest end table.
"Cozy," was all he said.
I shrugged and moved passed him to the other side of the folded out bed, taking a seat on the armchair. "It's efficient." That seemed to end the matter; Trowa nodded and sat on the bed I'd vacated.
"Hungry?" he asked, reaching for the bag. "I brought that sub you always order from Roberto's." He held out the elongated, paper wrapped sandwich, and my stomach growled as I leaned over to take it from him. Trowa's lips lifted briefly, the amusement in his tone steady. "I'll take that as a yes."
Snorting softly, I sat back, opened the sub, and took a sniff of the pungent aromas wafting up from the still warm bread, meatballs and sauce tucked neatly inside. Trowa passed over the drink he'd brought with a handful of napkins, and we ate in a comfortable silence.
"Are you planning on staying away for the duration?"
The last quarter of sub folded back into its wrap, and I set it aside, no longer having an appetite. "No."
Trowa glanced up at me, held my gaze for a moment. Turning away, he put the remains of his lunch back in the bag and passed it over to me. "I put in for a transfer."
I frowned at him. "What's happened?"
"Nothing." Trowa laid back with his head resting on my pillow, feet draped off the side of the bed. "I'm going back to L4. There's an opening in branch security." One of his large hands flashed out and he snatched up an item Meloney left behind. "I'll be going whether the transfer's approved or not."
I offered a slight smile, attempting to define the emotion trying to push its way out. "Then you and Quatre are..." I left the question hanging.
"Yes," he answered softly, still staring at the rounded face of the bear he was holding.
"What about Duo?"
His eyes lifted to mine, and I felt him gauging what might be behind my question. "He encouraged the transfer. Said it was about time."
The short laugh surprised me, but it lightened the air between us. "He's right. It is about time."
"Besides, my sentence at being his partner was up two months ago." I smiled at his jibe, hearing again Duo's challenged packed comments about not having a partner that could keep up with him for more than a couple of months, and none longer than six.
"When did you start sleeping with a teddy bear?" Trowa lifted the caramel colored fuzzy animal and waved it in my direction.
I shrugged slightly, smiling. "He came with the bed."
Trowa drew the bear close to his chest. His eyes locked on mine. "Don't give up, Heero. Hold onto that passion. Don't settle for less." I had the feeling his words held a hint of warning.
"Duo's passionate." But I was no longer watching him. Instead, I leaned back in the chair, put my feet up on the edge of the sofa's mattress, and stared up at the ceiling. "It's in everything he does."
"It is," Trowa spoke softly. "He misses you."
"He knows where I am."
"I think he's holding out for an invitation," Trowa laughed softly. "He blames himself for you changing jobs."
I snorted in exasperation, and lowered my head to glare in Trowa's direction. "I've already told him why I transferred."
Trowa shrugged. "Your move was his fault, if indirectly."
A minute ticked by, and I turned to watch the sun slip through the windows and shine on the hardwood floor. "I'll talk to him," I said at last. Focusing on Trowa again, I saw he had relaxed into a near slumber, Meloney's bear still clutched to his chest. "If the transfer's approved, when do you leave?"
"A month," Trowa mumbled, not opening his eyes.
"About the time Wufei returns from his security tour." It made me wonder how often and when The Five would meet up in the future.
We settled into silence; I half dozed, watching the sun climb over the floor, and Trowa napped on my (temporary) bed, with my (temporary) bed companion in his arms.
After Trowa left, I showered, straightened the studio, and planned my days off. Wufei was scheduled to leave Monday morning. Despite his assurances he would email, and might even manage a vid call or two, I couldn't let him leave without giving him a proper goodbye. We had plans to meet on Sunday, to spend the afternoon sparring, and have dinner. Wufei was my partner for over four years, now, and if this situation worked out as I hoped it to, he will remain my partner for many more.
Standing in the sunlight streaming through those twin windows, I called Duo at work and we talked about Trowa's transfer for a few minutes before I asked him if he wanted to catch a movie. I wasn't comfortable going back to the apartment and watching vid disc to dawn, and I didn't want to think about the nuances of having dinner together. Duo took a moment before replying, and I was about to offer him an out. But he accepted, and even named a new release I'd barely heard of, and was already logging onto the theater's web site to pre-purchase tickets for the seven-ten showing. I was buying the popcorn and drinks.
I closed my eyes against the bright glare, turned my face to the sun, and let Duo tell me about his day. Tell me about the new case he and Trowa had been assigned; about how he might have to dust off his infiltration, and quite possibly his demolition, skills. I had the idea that Duo had had plans, a date, or a rendezvous prior to my call. But, I didn't want to think on what he might have had; I wanted to... bask in the warmth that for the first time in several weeks, he had put me before anyone else.
Another week passed, Wufei left on schedule, and Trowa receive the approval for transfer to L4. I enjoyed my new, if temporary role and the adjustment to the change in hours wasn't a difficult one. However, working the overnight shift was different in many aspects. The presence of companions I had long since considered friends was not there. Conversions of shared pasts and experiences, both of a quiet and loud nature, no longer existed. I was not part of a team, and the sense of respect as an experienced and proven agent wasn't automatically given.
One change tendered in the wake of my new schedule was the time of my daily run. My body was used to rising by five, stretching, and expending energy before it began its day. I discovered on the first week that my body rebelled at exercising directly after work, minutes prior to lying down to sleep. The shift from waking at five in the morning, to waking at three in the afternoon to rise and begin my daily run went smoother than I thought it would.
Thursday afternoon, at the end of my second week as I returned from my run, I encountered one of Meloney's neighbors. He was a young man, about a year or two older than I was, juggling dual stacks of folders, clipped together papers, and several thin pamphlets. Just before the door to my borrowed apartment, the balancing act failed, and one armload tumbled to the hallway carpet.
"Shit!" The man swore softly, trying to keep his other armful from joining the first.
I hurried forward, and bent to assist gathering the papers. From the top sheet, and the few underneath I caught glimpses of what appeared to be copies of an instruction manual for beginning computer skills.
"Hey, thanks, man," the man told me, his arm extended to accept the restacked bundle.
Hesitating for a moment only, I offered hurriedly, "I can help carry them, if you need it."
"Oh..." He seemed startled, but recovered quickly, to accept with a grin. "You bet I'll take you up on that." He shifted his armload from one arm to the other and stuck out his right hand. "I'm Tim, by the way. Tim Calvert, and a new neighbor."
Moving my own bundle to free a hand, I shook his briefly, keeping my introduction even briefer. "Heero Yuy." I nodded toward the door behind and to his left. "Neighbors."
"Great," he announced, and gestured to the stairs I'd just come up. "My car's parked at the curb out front."
We headed down the stairs, his boots making heavy thuds on the uncarpeted, concrete steps. "I'm the assistant director at the ALC off-campus, and am putting a new course offering together."
"ALC?" I asked, though I had an idea on what he meant.
"Adult Learning Center," Tim supplied confirming my guess. "Courses in Simple Meals, Child Care as a Business, and Basic Accounting Practices are currently running. But the Basic Computer instructor lined up quit last night." He threw a hasty grin over his shoulder. "The course starts tomorrow at six, and I guess I'm the substitute until another sucker can be found."
I chuckled softly. "You speak in such high regard for your instructors. I can't believe any would want to leave."
Tim's laugh was loud and it rang up and down the narrow vertical hall. "Oh but I do have the highest respect for all the instructors." He grimaced slightly. "Most all the instructors," he amended. "But I still say we're all suckers, since the pay is abysmal, and the majority of the students have little appreciation for what they're being taught."
"Aren't they... adults?" I asked, somewhat confused. We had reached the ground floor, and I drew abreast of him as we crossed the entryway to the front door.
He made a slight humming noise in agreement. "Technically, all the students are considered adults. But, most are former high school dropouts, who had to leave for one reason or another. A few are there as part of a rehabilitation contract, or are relearning skills for a marketable future." He shrugged. "Some just want to get off one welfare program or another and the ALC is usually the first step."
We were at his car now, and he freed an arm again, reaching into a pocket to pull keys out and unlock the passenger side door. "After you," he told me, standing back.
I waited until he was arranging both stacks on the seat, running a hand through my hair, lifting it to cool sweaty skin, and asked, "What credentials does a beginning computer instructor have to have?"
He jerked upright, bumping his head on the doorjamb, and swearing softly under his breath, he gave me a look. "Why? Know someone who might be interested?"
Nodding, I told him, "Maybe."
"Good with computers? Not easily riled?" Tim was giving me a steady look, the jovial friendliness put away.
"Yes, and not usually," I answered. "It would depend on when the class is scheduled, and how long it lasts."
"Tuesday and Friday evenings from six to nine, and each course block runs in six week sets."
"I... would like to know more."
"Great," he said, the open friendliness he'd shown upstairs returned. "I've got to get down to the center, but if you can drop by, we can talk, I can show you around, introduce you to other staff members, and maybe sign you up." He gave me a laser printed business card, asked if I could be there by five, and drove off, muttering something about being late - again.
After a shower and a quick meal, I headed down to the ALC. In my mind, becoming the new computer instructor was only a matter of paperwork. And I was right. The center was a large two-story building, with offices on the front ground floor, home craft courses taught in the rooms behind the offices, with general education, English as a second language, and technology courses taught on the second floor.
My first class was the following Friday, and I returned to Meloney's apartment with the current handbook, computer training printouts, and the basic instructor's manual. I was told to arrive by five the next day, and Tim promised to help me set up what I needed for class, and to guide me through course paperwork to verify registered students.
At once, my days of standing at the twin windows absorbing the afternoon sun, listening to the silence in Meloney's apartment ended. Tim calling the ALC's instructors 'suckers' became apropos in my case; I found myself spending more and more time at the center, getting sucked into the weekly activities, and assisting in the resource center.
Another week ended, concluding the first full month at my temporary position, and I realized it had been a number of days since I'd heard from Duo, let alone seen him. A call to his cell rang straight to his voice mail, and when he didn't pick up his desk phone, I called his partner.
"He's UC," Trowa informed me. "Went under over a week ago."
"Estimate duration?" I asked, allowing myself to lean against the wood window frame.
"Another week, maybe as long as a month," Trowa said.
"He never said anything." I knew my voice sounded peevish, reminding me of some of the students at the center. "At least, he told me about the new assignment, but said nothing about going under cover."
Trowa was quiet for several minutes. "Maybe he believed it didn't matter to you any more."
"Why..." I choked out, straightening abruptly. "Of course it matters to me!"
"Maybe you should remind him," Trowa suggested. "When he gets back." I nodded into the phone. "You've been successful in putting yourself at a distance. Maybe too successful."
"What do you mean?" I forced the question out in a harsh whisper.
A long moment passed, and I heard Trowa sigh. "Did you know he's stopped all the dating, all the flirting you've seen in recent months? That the only time he's been to the clubs was with me, and once with both Quatre and me?"
"What does that mean, Trowa? Is he-does he..." I wasn't sure I what I wanted to know, if I wanted to know.
"I think you need to ask him when you see him again," Trowa told me again. There was a loud beep from Trowa's end, and he muffled the phone for a moment. "I have to go, Heero. But remember, talk to Duo when he gets back."
I disconnected the call, and lowered the hand holding the phone slowly, staring sight unseen out the window.
Three nights later, after the call with Trowa, an emergency code came over my com control. In flash bursts, the codes relayed the request for a full data dump at highest priority, followed by agent in imminent danger, and the coordinates for an emergency extraction site.
Fingers flew over my keyboard, and I barked orders through my headset, giving the agent's coordinates, and demanding the lift team scramble to await further orders. The agent's transmitter had limited receiving capabilities, but I forced assurance through the line, and gave the go ahead to begin transmission.
The file transfer began immediately, and I directed it off to a segregated parcel on the Ops mainframe. Taking a moment while the transfer buzzed in the background, I pulled up the agent's transmitter codes on my com console and matched it to its assigned agent. For a moment, my blood ran cold, dread pounding in my chest.
The agent in trouble was Duo.
I had to get him out of there; I had to find out where there was, and what sort of hot spot he'd landed in. On my secondary console, I flipped through the pending operations, pulling his to the fore, and read through the pertinent data.
Policy would have me notify the agent's immediate supervisor. Skipping that step, I tossed my cell to the senior Ops coordinator, Jana, and told her to contact Trowa, tell him to get his ass down to headquarters. The hell with procedure. I woke the division chief and put him on stand-by for authorization codes to enact contingency protocols.
With Duo's ass on the line, instigating a war to pull him out wasn't about to stop me.
"That's why agents make the best - and the worst - Ops coordinators," Jana commented at my shoulder. Her hand gripped my upper arm in a gentle squeeze. "You're all so personally involved."
"Some a little more personally involved than others," I muttered under my breath. If Jana heard me, she didn't say anything, but released my arm and returned to her own console station.
The transmission complete, I directed Duo to a possible equipment cache, leftover from a weapons sting from two years previous. Vancouver Canada had never been a hot bed of terrorist activity, but being within hours of international waters, and the expansive spaces between areas of Northwest United States, and several Canadian territories, it made an excellent jump-off spot for other illegal activities.
Duo was investigating black-market sensitive electronics, with possible links to earth-wide smuggling. His cover had seemed fail proof as a universal aircraft pilot highly skilled but a temper and arrogance to keep him unemployed and hungry enough to fly for a less than honest company. Duo had the skills, and his temper and arrogance was legendary. Very little acting would have been involved.
The data parcel was encrypted, and I executed the decryption program against it, keeping an eye on my connection to Duo's transmitter. It was moving, and the street map overlay showed me he was nearly to the cache site. I sent its location details with access codes to the strong box that should contain the equipment. It was a waiting game now. The EVAC team was en route with an ETA of thirty minutes.
"God damn, mother fuck," a familiar voice swore behind me. I swiveled in my chair, and acknowledged Trowa's presence, wondering briefly how he'd gotten Jana to give up her console.
"Have you seen this?" He asked me, and I spared his screen a peek. A minute's scan told me what kind of shit Duo had sent.
"I didn't have time," I told him. "Duo doesn't have a two-way link."
Trowa was shaking his head. "He wouldn't. His transmitter was hard enough to disguise and keep hidden."
A blip flashed in the corner of my eye, and I turned to my console instantly. It was Duo's transmitter, letting me know what frequency he set for his two-way communicator. Keying into his channel, I noticed his tracer was in motion, and moving fast.
"Agent Night," I said clearly into my microphone.
"Heero?" Duo's sounded surprised. "Well damn, buddy."
"Status?" I inquired, getting ready to relay any injuries and medical needs to the flight crew.
"Fucked, but still running," he said. He was breathing hard; sounds of traffic - heavy traffic - could be heard in the background.
"Are you injured?" I clarified, pinpointing his position, and tried to find a safe spot to wait for extraction.
"It's not going to slow me," Duo dismissed it. "Where am I heading, Heero-buddy? I've got a tail on me about five deep, no weapon, and would like to stop dodging the firepower now."
"EVAC ETA, twenty-two minutes," I told him, keeping my voice even. "How close is your tail?"
"Ah shit, I don't know. Stopping for this headset just about got me killed, though." I heard him grunt. Impact, I thought. "Fucking retaining walls. Should be illegal." He was running again, and I found a place to stash him for a few minutes.
"Maintain current heading point-six-five kilometers," I told him. "Dinty's Storage Yard will be on your left. Unit B-four-three-five. Security access to follow."
"Roger that, Ops." Duo was beginning to sound tired.
"I can send in the locals," I offered. "Might run them off, slow them down."
"No can do, buddy," Duo said.
"Data indicates local law enforcement might be involved," Jana told me, her chair pulled up between Trowa and me. "It's going to be a drop and grab. No time for prep, so it might get rough."
Shit. "Duo," I said, taking my mic off mute. "Find that unit. You can have ten minutes, then you need to be out and ready for pick up or there might not be another chance."
"Copy, Ops. I'm at the fence now." His blinking dot appeared stalled, and I patched in an emergency override to cut the security lights and shut down the cameras at the storage facility. "Why are these damn fences so high? And what's with the razor wire?" He groused. "Fuck! Add another injury to the list."
"What list?" I asked, putting a hint of amusement in my tone. "So far I've got 'fucked, but running'. That doesn't make a list."
Duo laughed in a breathless rush. "Yeah, well I'll show you where the cut is when it scars."
"Asshole." Duo grunted. "On B block now. What's the code?"
I gave it to him, while bringing the cameras back online, and flooding the common areas with light. "No sign of pursuit," I informed Duo. "EVAC ETA, fifteen minutes."
"Good. Wake me up in ten, will ya?"
He wouldn't sleep, I knew, but he would rest and take care of any injuries needing urgent attention. Most safety units contained basic needs - water, ration bars, and first aid kits. Some of the more sophisticated spots held small arms, automatic weaponry, low-intensity explosives, clothing, money, and vehicles. The storage unit Duo was using was one of the more basic spots.
Two minutes passed, and I verified ETA with the extraction team. They were making good time, and Duo had to move. "Duo," I called softly through the line. "Time to go. Flyboys caught a good tailwind."
"Five more minutes, ma," Duo muttered, but I could hear the rustle of clothing as he rose to his feet, could almost hear the groan of strained muscles and aching limbs.
"Almost over, hotshot," I told him. "EVAC ETA, six minutes." I verified the flight path, checked that the storage complex was still clear, and confirmed pick-up coordinates. "I need you to head straight to the back fence, climb over, and head west for two blocks. There will be a vacant lot, and rescue two will drop a line."
"Drop a line? You're saying that I have to climb my own ass up to safety?"
"It's a hot drop, Duo," I let him know. "Air space is compromised." The thought occurred, and I asked urgently, "Will you need assistance?"
Duo chuckled. "Will you be manning the harness?" Jana laughed beside me, and I shot a glance her way. "Guess that's a no, huh? Nah, I'm good, but thanks for asking."
"Maybe next time," I offered. It wasn't the time or place to imagine sharing a carry harness, with Duo sitting chest to chest in my lap, dangling from a safety line hundreds of feet above the ground. But, I knew that image would play a part in nighttime fantasies to come.
"Yeah, next... oh fuck!" Duo cried out, and for several breathes, he continued to curse, not responding to my hails. "I didn't get the chance to blow anything up!"
My heart rate limped back to a more normal rate, and words dried in my throat.
"Cut the shit, Duo. You're giving Heero a heart attack."
"Tro?" Duo nearly shouted across the line. "What the hell are you doing there?"
"Can't have a party and not invite me, can you?" Duo chuckled. "The data you've retrieved has been delivered. I'll be heading down to Planning, and putting a team together."
"What about me?" Duo was eager.
"No can do, buddy. We need to jump on this now, before they have a chance to clean up."
"EVAC ETA two minutes," I interjected. "You should be in position, Duo."
"Yeah, I'm there, just hanging back in the shadows," Duo let me know. "Sitting fucking duck out there, yanno."
"I won't be here when you get back," Trowa added. "But you'd better be ready to assist on the mop up, hear?"
"You got it, Tro. Hey Heero, where the fuck are they?"
I confirmed with the flight crew, and flipped back to Duo. "Coming over the high rise now."
"Alright! I can see them. Gotta go, buddy."
"Not until you're in secured space," I told him sharply. "You will remain in contact until I release you, agent."
"Yes, sir!" Duo yelled. "Line's been dropped and things are going to get a little windy."
And they were. The connection whistled with noise, half-heard shouts and instructions, curses, and the rustle of clothing. The sudden stillness and near silence spooked me. "Duo?"
"He's on board, Ops," the EVAC chief was on Duo's com unit. "Had to remove his communicator to dress an injury."
"Multiple abrasions, contusions, a severe laceration on the rear of the upper right thigh, possible broken ribs - bruised," the chief listed each injury with a brief pause between. I assumed he was verifying with Duo where the next one was located. "Patient does not appear to have internal bleeding, but he's taken a beating. Have medical meet us at the hanger with x-ray on standby."
"Roger that," I said, turning to Jana. Only then did I notice that Trowa was gone, and remembering what he'd told Duo, I knew he was upstairs in Operation Planning. Jana was at her console, queuing up the medical team, and giving them the run down on Duo's condition.
"Laceration to the left temple that will need stitches."
"Is there any place that isn't injured?" I asked, trying to picture what was coming through the line.
"Very damn little," the chief chuckled. His laugh was cut short, and he swore. "GSW to the LLQ-"
"He's been shot?" I demanded, suddenly on my feet.
"Entry and exit?" I asked hands forming fists at my sides.
"Through and through, yes," the chief said calmly. "It is a surprise he's not in shock, but it could be he's too busy giving my medic a hard time." The amusement in the man's voice did more to reassure than his words.
"ETA?" I asked, resuming my seat. Jana pressed a bottle of water in my hand, and made drinking motions.
"Fifteen minutes," I was informed. "We are in European air space now."
"Roger that, Rescue two," Jana cut in. "I have you on scope, scheduled to set down on H-2." She muted her mic and turned to me. "Get out of here, Heero. Head over to the hanger or the medical wing, if you can't make it up the stairs."
I stood, my legs feeling like jello. "Thank you."
"And don't come back until tomorrow night," she added, before turning back to the console, and picking up where she'd left off on directing the EVAC team.
Preventer's headquarters had two landing pads, and both were on the roof, up fifteen flights of stairs. I wouldn't be running them tonight. At two-thirty in the morning, the building was normally quiet, but as the elevator rose, I got the sense of urgency, of movement behind the doors. My hand crushed the water bottle Jana had given me, and I tossed it out the moment the doors opened on roof access level.
Medical personnel were already stationed, a gurney I knew Duo would refuse to use standing by. A slender woman in blue scrubs with her hair pulled up high and tight into a tail and a stethoscope hanging from her neck was turned away from the heli-pad, a headset on and her hands pressed to her ears. She called out orders to staff members behind her, and the treatment cart was prepared. I moved closer, trying to determine what they expected.
The quiet beat of rotors sounded, and I looked up barely able to discern the black, sleek copter lowering to the roof. Its runners landed gently, and the rooftop exploded with motion, the helicopter doors flew open, the medical team ran forward at a crouch, and I trailed behind, wanting to catch sight of Duo.
"I can walk!" his voice carried over the sound of the blades and motor. The medico in charge, tried again to force him up onto the gurney, the rescue chief shook his head and gestured, his words lost in the distance between us.
I was standing back, but suddenly had a clear path to Duo. He was protesting, pulling his arm from the orderly's grasp, and in an instant, he went still. He'd seen me. His mouth opened; I saw him sigh, and suddenly I was moving, pushing past those standing between us.
My arms went around him, embracing him tightly for a moment, and he leaned into me. I could feel the trembling in his muscles, could feel the weariness that surrounded him.
"Get on the gurney, Duo," I told him in a hushed voice. "You've already proven what a hardheaded asshole you can be. No need to die showing everyone."
"Heh, would be new, huh?"
"Would be stupid, yeah." I released him slowly, carefully, and guided him to the gurney, helped him to sit on its edge, and to lay back on it. The medico came forward, gave me a short glance before reaching for the blood pressure cuff already wrapped around his arm. I was going to step back, let the medical team do their work, but Duo clutched at my hand.
"See me home, Heero?" he more mouthed than said aloud.
The gurney was on the move, and I trotted along beside it, Duo's hand in mine. His eyes were closing, his breathing evening out; the exhaustion was winning. He was alive and home and I didn't have to start a war to get him there.
His injuries were serious, but non-life threatening. There were no broken ribs, no internal bleeding, and fewer stitches than originally believed. Even his hospital stay was limited to two days, with follow up orders to convalescence at home for seven more. If he passed the medical phase one review, he would be allowed to return to desk duty in four-hour work intervals.
After spending what free time I had with him in the hospital, I returned to my routine, adding periodic calls to Duo during the morning before I went to bed, in the afternoon when I woke up, and at night before work.
Duo was not reticent in voicing his boredom, his enforced rest, and lack of anything to do. The day after Duo was released from the hospital, Trowa found him hobbling down to his car, planning to go for a drive. Trowa took Duo's car home with him, and refused to bring it back until after the medical review.
On day seven of his convalescence, Duo called me two hours after I'd gotten home from work to let me know he'd passed the medical and would be back at work the following day. I forced myself to stay awake, and listen to him talk, listen to him tell me about the assignment he'd been involved in, what had gone wrong with his cover, and what Trowa had relayed to him on the case status.
I was half-asleep, listening to the cadence and flow of his voice more than the words. He stopped talking suddenly, and sighed.
"I never see you any more, Heero."
Giving him a disagreeable grunt, I had to fight to remember when I'd last gone to see him. "Hasn't been that long," I murmured. "Three days?"
"But not every day. Not like before."
Ah. I shifted in bed, and reclined against the back of the sofa. "It's only for a couple of more weeks, Duo."
"Will you move back to the apartment then?"
I closed my eyes, and tried to remember when Meloney told me she was expecting to come back. A month. But, I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay away another month. "I don't know yet," I temporized.
He sighed again, and fell silent. I listened to him breathe, listened to the clock on the wall tick in the still of the morning, and drifted into a doze.
"Can I at least come see you?"
Eyes snapping open wide, I asked almost wildly, "Now?" And cast a look around the apartment.
Duo laughed softly. "No. Tomorrow? Next week? Any time I want?"
"Okay," I told him, nodding my head. He laughed softly again.
"You're really pliant when you're half-asleep," he told me. "I kind of like that."
I made an agreeable noise, content for the moment with his comment.
"I have PT every day for the next couple of weeks," he continued. "But I scheduled it for the morning to leave the afternoon free. So, maybe if you're not busy, we could spend some time together."
"Sounds good, Duo,"
"Loan me a kidney, Heero?"
"When you need it." But I laughed lightly.
"Go back to sleep, Heero. I'll see you later, okay?"
"Okay," I told him. But, I don't think I hung up my phone. It was beeping an annoying broken line noise when I woke up later that afternoon.
As I went through my afternoon routine after waking, I thought about what Trowa told me, thought about the conversation I was supposed to have with Duo, about the one we had, and remembered the trials of my training.
In most everyone's view, the training I'd received was harsh, too rough by normal standards. I would not disagree, but, there had been lessons instilled I would never have learned in any other manner. Each phase of training, each mission up to and including Operation Meteor, I had been offered options, usually between three and four, but sometimes only two, to choose my own path. The path of least resistance, enough to get the job done, but only barely. The hardest route, the most dangerous, but one that if completed would be successful. And always, the last option would be to remove myself from the equation.
Taking my own life was no longer an option; had not been an option since before the Eve War ended. The question I now struggled with was, was the path of least resistance to give into Duo's request, return to the apartment, to my own room and bed, and hope that the situation changes to what I wanted it to be? Or would my return be the rougher path, become the most dangerous, leaving me vulnerable, but with its completion, the most successful?
Dressed for my daily run, I sought solace in that routine, in the sound of my running shoes meeting the pavement, the steady rhythm of my heart beating in my ears, and the near euphoria the distance brought.