Time of Day: Evening
Part 4: Misguided Angel
It was too early for the sun to set, but I stood at the large picture window overlooking the riverside dock anyway. Behind me, the maître d' welcomed a newly arrived couple in low, modulated tones, and escorted them into the dining interior. I didn't need to look at my watch to know that my dinner companion was running late; Relena always ran late shortly after returning to earth's orbit.
Abnormally busy for a Thursday, I hadn't yet reached a conclusion from my afternoon deliberations after Duo's wake up call by the end of my run only to find a message Relena had left, asking me to meet her for dinner. It had been a number of weeks since I'd last spoken with her, even longer since we'd last gotten together. I knew it would be a subject she'd broach, if only to mildly chastise.
Seeing her reflection in the glass, I was turning even as she called my name. I smiled for her, returned her hug, and let her lips brush my cheek - her standard greeting for old friends. She laughed and wiped at the lipstick left behind with the pad of her thumb, as she always did. And then she took my hand and pulled me toward the dining room, telling me her appetite was on Colony schedule, and she was starving. I managed a nod to her bodyguard in passing, and received a short nod with a definite smirk in return.
There had been a time I had been in their shoes and knew just what it was to follow Relena about; I did not envy the position.
We were barely seated, water glasses so fresh the sides hadn't begun to form condensation, and I was still in the process of opening my menu when Relena asked.
Perusing the appetizers a moment, I replied over the top of the menu, "seemed fine the last time I spoke to him."
Her eyes were scanning her own menu selection, her brow slightly puckered in concentration. "And when was that? Two weeks? A month ago?"
I deliberately glanced at my watch, and told her with a serious tone, "Seven hours, and thirty-five...six minutes ago."
She looked at me with a curious gleam in her eyes, her lips parting slightly, and her menu forgotten. "He really is fine, then? And you are back together?"
Frowning at her choice of words, I turned back to my menu. "Yes, he is physically fine, or will be once he's through physical therapy. As for 'back together', we would have had to have been together in order to get back together." Making my selection, I closed the menu and set it aside.
Relena sighed exasperatingly and added her menu to my own. "You know what I meant. Why are you always so literal?"
"Why be imprecise when it is as easy not to be?" Her lips twitched, and I knew that if we were in a more private setting, I would have a bruise on my shin. She's done it before. Relenting, I told her, "We are friends, still talking and doing activities together as friends, and I am still living in Meloney's apartment."
She continued to stare at me, her mouth slightly pursed. I wondered what scheme was churning behind those too innocent eyes, what she would say next, what plan she was developing. But her response surprised me. "Alright, I promise to not question you about it any longer." Her gaze turned to the window and she pretended to watch the watercraft on the river for a moment. "As a friend, I hope you will feel comfortable enough to confide in me."
As if I'd ever confided my private thoughts to her; as if I'd talk of such a personal issue with anyone, even a friend. "When I feel the need to talk, you will be one of the first people I would feel comfortable turning to, Relena." Her look was skeptical, but she was mollified enough to say no more.
The thought dawned on me as our orders were taken, and the server left leaving a basket of wisp thin breadsticks - where had Relena heard about Duo and me? I knew the last time we'd spoke had only been days after 'The Weekend', and it was still too raw for me then to speak of it to anyone. But, she had just returned from a colony trade conference on L4. Quatre.
"You've been gossiping with Quatre," I accused.
"What?" She jumped, the breadstick she'd been nibbling on snapped in her fingers. "Gossip, Heero? I don't gossip about my friends."
"Alright, you and Quatre were talking about us," I amended. "It's still gossip, even if it is friends."
"But Heero, that's not fair." Relena pouted in her mock little girl way. "I merely inquired about all of my friends I knew Quatre had been in contact with recently. He was very brief and discreet in what he told me." She bit into her breadstick, and chewed thoughtfully, watching me. After a sip of water, she said, "It was Wufei who told me what happened."
I nearly choked on my own water. "Wufei?" He was even more closemouthed than I can be, and didn't indulge in gossip of any sort.
Looking back out the window, a brush of color tinted her cheeks. "I might have hinted I knew more than I did when I ran into him."
"He was on L4 as well?" I tried to remember where and when his security tour placed him.
"Oh yes. He was there with several others to observe and evaluate the conference security set up and personnel."
My grunt in response bought me a tiny glare. As her bodyguard in the early days post Mariemeia's aborted rise to power, a grunt as an answer or acknowledgement would have garnered a fifteen-minute 'talk' about expressing myself properly. I quickly learned to be more verbal and less uncommunicative. It was a lesson I continue to value.
Relena changed the topic of discussion to unintrusive matters when dinner arrived. By dessert, I knew of all the quirks and odd habits of the current ruling senate, and several cabinet members. Apparently, she and Quatre had a contest to find as many mannerisms displayed at the conference as they could, and once dismissed for the day, they compared notes. I smiled remembering her little games to keep boredom at bay while she absorbed and analyzed the discussions and debates going on around her.
Our server slipped the padded check folder by my side once assured we had both eaten enough. Relena made the slightest displeased noise, and reached for it even as I moved it away.
"Heero," she warned. "You are my guest."
"And in the years you've known me, when have I ever let you pay for my meal?" I rushed on, knowing what she'd say. "A meal with only the two of us meeting as friends, not as part of a collective group or function I've attended."
A frown flashed. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't let me, at least once."
"Next time," I answered lightly, already pulling the bills from my wallet and laying them between the leather bindings. She snorted in a very impolitic fashion, and smiled brightly at my look.
Leaving the dining room, I walked her down the thickly carpeted stairs of the members club to the entryway, her arm tucked into mine. She made the slightest of pauses, and turned into me, giving my arm a squeeze. I looked down into her face, and couldn't help the smile I gave her.
She returned the smile, her palm rested briefly on the lapel of my dinner jacket, her fingers touching the white button up beneath. She sighed softly, and continued her descent.
"You are really a most handsome man, Heero."
Now, I almost paused, but gave her another smile and a quiet 'thank you'. Relena had never been frugal with her compliments, but she wasn't free with flattery. We shared a silence then, waiting inside the club until the uniformed doorman indicated Relena's driver had arrived.
I was about to hand her into the vehicle when she hesitated, turning to me. "Heero," she began in a low voice and stopped. With a quick look around, she pushed against my chest with a gentle hand, and backed me up several steps, away from the car, her bodyguard, the valets, and the doorman.
"You are sure, about... Duo?" she asked in an uncertain voice, and worried at her lower lip looking up at me.
Even understanding where her concern was coming from, anger flashed and was gone. I thought of Duo suddenly. Thought of him as he'd sounded that afternoon, as he'd been that weekend, and the change in who he was in the weeks following.
"Yes," I told her sincerely. "I am more sure about Duo than I am of anything else in this life."
Her smile was soft; the kiss she gave impulsive. Eyes too bright, she said, "Good."
And I knew it was.
Before the debriefing meeting Friday morning, the division director of Ops Support stopped at my console station. He watched at my shoulder for a moment before asking me to join him in his office before leaving.
I agreed and watched him walk away only to find Jana's eyes on me. She smirked in a knowing way, and I scowled. Though I knew I hadn't done anything wrong (other than by-pass protocols and procedure skipping to bring Duo home) nothing in the past week that would require the director's personal attention.
"What?" I demanded.
"You'll find out in a few minutes," she said turning back to her console and beginning turnover protocols.
Turning back to my own console, I began my own turnover. Two can play at that game.
Jana was right; in less than thirty minutes later, I sat in a padded chair across the desk from the division director. He met me at the door when his assistant announced me, and offered refreshments before escorting me to the chair personally. I had the idea I wasn't there to receive a personal reprimand.
"I know it's been a long shift for you, so I'll get right to the point," he began. "Your duty as a temporary replacement Ops Support Coordinator will be over in two weeks time," the director glanced down at the open folder he had on his desk. "After your Thursday night shift." His eyes found mine.
"Yes, sir," I confirmed, wondering where he was going.
"It has been brought to my attention that you are an exceptional ops coordinator, Agent Yuy."
I blinked in surprise. "Thank you, sir." Not certain what else I should say.
"In fact, I have received no less than two recommendations from agents in the field that you've worked with, and one from a colleague." He was smiling without the fake façade often present in upper management. "There is a special opening, one I believe will fit your abilities, and utilize your skills perfectly."
"A... new post?" I asked, frowning. "I already have a position, sir."
The director nodded. "That is understood, Agent. However, a man of your talent should be given the opportunity to be selective where he can." He pulled a sheet from the stacked pile and slid it across the desk. "As with your current position, duty hours are standard, but will be governed by project, special assignment, or mission. If you accept the position, you will be working in the Jump Squad."
I looked up sharply this. Considered the elite of the elite, the Jump Squad was often the first team on site in the hot bed activity, ready for firefight and battle conditions no matter the terrain. "What would this position consist of? What are the duty requirements?" I wasn't about to 'jump' into the fire.
"Your primary focus would be Ops support, in charge of your own operations command." The director gave an acknowledging nod as he added, "And if required, back up mission support including combat, hostile take-down, civilian rescue, and as part of the arresting force."
Nodding, I scanned through the job description and parameter scope again. It sounded... intriguing. But, there were other factors than my own inclination. Wufei was expected within the next two or three days, and there was Duo. I couldn't do anything until I spoke with both of them.
"It's an interesting offer, and I'm flattered you believe I'm qualified for it, sir," I said, setting the sheet back on his desk. Meeting his eyes, I asked, "Do you need a decision today?"
"No, not at all," the director said and stood. "However, the position needs to be filled quickly-"
"I will have an answer for you on Monday morning," I interrupted him, rising to my feet and holding out my hand.
"Very good, Agent Yuy. Monday morning it is, then." He shook my hand briefly.
"Thank you, sir," I replied. I half turned to go, but lingered a moment longer. "If it's not confidential, I would like to discuss the offer with my partner." I didn't add Duo, believing that he was at least the same rank and clearance as Wufei, and if granted for one, it would be for the other.
"Of course. You have had a long-term agent partner, and it is acceptable to talk it over with..." he glanced at the file on his desk again. "Him."
"Thank you, sir." I gave him a short nod, and made my way toward the door, the director following on my heels.
"I'll see you back here after the debriefing on Monday." Another acknowledging nod and I was out of his office.
Jana waited for me down the hall from the director's offices, leaning against the wall with a tall gourmet coffee in a disposable cup. My steps faltered on seeing her, but I continued toward the elevators. She swung into step beside me, giving me that knowing smirk again.
"So?" she prompted.
"Classified." She probably knew about the offer already, but I wasn't going to be the one to confirm what had taken place.
She snorted and played with a row of bracelets on one wrist while we waited for the elevator. I studiously avoided looking in her direction, but noticed she kept glancing at me. She waited until we were behind elevator doors before she spoke.
"I think you'll do very well, Heero."
Taking the chance that she was guessing, I raised an eyebrow at her. "I'll do very well at what, exactly?"
Jana's laugh was anything but friendly innocence. "I'm sure you do very well at most everything you do." She took a drink from her coffee cup, and closed her eyes in that fix-addiction bliss. "He asked me about you. What my opinion was of your abilities and how I thought you'd do under high pressure situations." Her eyes opened slowly. "I told him he'd be a fool to look at anyone else."
I snorted, and shook my head laughing. "A 'fool'? The director?"
Her shoulder lifted and the elevator doors slid opened. We shuffled out on the ground floor between those wanting to go up.
"My actual words were 'it would be a wise decision to promote Agent Yuy, sir', meaning it would be a foolish one not to."
Stopping at the headquarters entrance, Jana jerked her chin out the glass doors. "Got to run. Chelsea's waiting, and that girl hates to wait."
"See you Sunday," I called out to her retreating back, and stood watching her race to the silver SUV. Seeing Jana outside of work, seeing her with her family lent a surreal feel to the moment. Tall, independent, and a commanding, non-nonsense presence in Ops Command, to a loving wife and mother outside those doors.
I wasn't surprised to find I was smiling as I made my way to my car.
Friday evening was hot, with high humidity. At five minutes past four, or so Tim told me, the air conditioning unit in the Center gave a rattling, gasping breath and died before Last Rites were administered.
By seven, not even the fans arranged in every classroom with all but the most necessary lights shut off could cool the building down to acceptable levels. I had to caution Tim about running electronic equipment in the heat, and he made the decision to cancel all classes until Monday when a cool front was expected (and hoped the air conditioner could be repaired before then).
Packing up for the night, I helped Tim cart items too delicate to withstand the heat to his car, and offered to help carry them upstairs to his apartment. He accepted and I remembered the moniker he'd christened Center instructors.
Clearing the stairs to the fifth floor landing, I nearly ran into Tim's back. He'd stopped walking (and talking) so suddenly.
"Tim?" I asked, stepping around and up to his side. A figure lounged in a slouching lean on one side of Meloney's apartment door.
"I think you've got company," Tim stage whispered in an aside to me. "And it looks like he's getting hotter by the moment."
I snorted at Tim's comment, knowing Duo would be getting impatient and wondering how it was I hadn't let him know what I was doing on Friday evenings. "Duo," I said warmly approaching him.
"Heero." His eyes flicked from my face to Tim standing behind me. "Gonna introduce me to your friend? "
For a moment, the bite of his tone confused me. I gave him a puzzled look, but gestured to Tim with my chin. "This is Tim. He's a neighbor in five-oh-nine." I hefted the plastic tote I was carrying. "He needed some help bringing a few items upstairs."
"Yeah, there's a sucker born every minute," Tim added with a little eyebrow wiggle.
"Tim, this is my friend Duo."
"Nice to meet you," Tim offered, waving his fingers from under the box he carried.
Duo acknowledged his greeting with a nod. "Same here."
I shot him a frown, and he raised an eyebrow in my direction. "Here," I said, shifting the tote to hold up against the wall and a hip. I dug into a pocket and produced my key ring. "Door key's the larger silver one," I told Duo, taking the tote back in my arms. "Go ahead and let yourself in, and I'll finish helping Tim unload his car. It shouldn't take long."
"I can take care of the rest, Heero," Tim jumped in, shifting his glance between Duo and me. "Stay with your friend."
Already shaking my head, I told him, "You'll pass out in this heat. It won't take but another trip or two, and Duo can wait that long."
"Yeah, I can wait," Duo drawled, flipping my keys around his finger by the ring. If he hadn't been injured, I would have cornered him into helping.
"Alright, I give. I wasn't looking forward to carting all those boxes upstairs by my self," Tim said with a smile. "I'll go down and unlock my door, and wait for you there," he added even as he turned and started down the hall.
"Nice fella," Duo said, looking after Tim with narrowed eyes. I watched Duo with my own eyes narrowing.
"Yes, he is. Runs the Adult Learning Center on Martha," I told him. "You should get inside, turn down the AC, and get comfortable." His head jerked around to look at me, his eyes widened. "Your face is flushed, and you look like the heat is affecting you."
"Ah..." Duo fumbled with the keys and turned to the door. "I'm good. Just need some water and a little cool air."
"Affirmative." I nodded and started passed him toward Tim's. "I should be back in ten minutes."
"Got ya," Duo said, opening the door, and hesitating on the wrong side to watch me.
"Go on inside," I said, continuing down the hall.
It took a little longer than ten minutes, and I was hot and sweaty, my shirt soaked and my calves were twinging. Duo had left the door unlocked, and I was stripping off my shirt the moment the door was closing behind me.
"Fuck, that is the last time I volunteer for something like that," I mumbled coming into the living room. Duo was there, a tall glass of water in one hand.
"Here." He shoved the glass at me, and I drank it down, letting the excess escape my lips and run down my chin. Never had anything tasted so good.
Seeing Duo standing there watching me, I realized I'd closed my eyes while drinking. He had on a tiny smile, and his eyes couldn't seem to settle on one place for longer than a moment.
I handed the empty glass back, and wiped a forearm across my brow. "I'm going to grab a fast shower and change clothes real quick," I told him, already heading toward the bathroom.
"Sure, I got all night." I turned quickly to look at him, but he smiled and waved his hands at me in a 'get out of here' manner.
When I emerged five minutes later, toweling off my hair and wearing only a clean pair of running shorts, Duo was standing in front of those twin windows, watching the sun cross the sky. He turned and I saw the leap in his expression, the lick of lips, and the hitch in his breath. It wasn't a deliberate decision to wear as little as possible. I wanted to cool down as quickly as possible, and if what I wore heated Duo up, I saw it as an additional benefit.
"Hey," he croaked.
"Hey." I smirked and tossed the towel over the back of one of the breakfast bar stools. "How long were you waiting?" I asked, coming closer.
"Not too long," he muttered, looking back out the window, but casting darting glances my way. "You said I could visit whenever I wanted, and... I didn't know you were going to be out."
I released a long breath, and faced Duo, standing in front of him to block his view out the window. "I'm 'out' every Friday evening," I started. "Tuesdays and Fridays, from six to nine, I teach basic computer skills at the ALC."
"Basic... teach?" Duo frowned, but then, his expression cleared. "That guy, Tim. You're teaching with him?"
"In a sense, yes." Duo's eyes narrowed to slits in an instant. "He's the assistant director for the center, and is charge of staffing the courses."
"And how did you become a part of his staff? "
"We met, I helped him out, and he told me of the bind he was in." There was a certain hostility coming from Duo I'd never seen before. Cutting and dark. "It sounded interesting and since I wasn't doing anything on Friday evenings-" Duo let me get no farther.
"Not doing anything! Shit, Heero. We've had Friday nights booked for years, and suddenly, you're no longer around."
My mouth clenched shut, teeth biting on words that wanted to escape. "I could say the same of you," I said softly.
Duo shut his mouth so fast I heard his teeth click. "That's different." His arms folded across his chest. "At least I don't have some perverted academic lusting after me."
"Perverted academic?" I choked out, retracting from him. "Tim?" The very idea alternately repulsed me and made me want to laugh outrageously.
"Yeah, Tim. Mister 'Sucker-born-every-minute' himself. I saw the way he was checking you out." Duo's finger stabbed at my chest. "He wants a piece of your ass."
"Tim?" I asked for confirmation again, and at Duo's sharp nod, I had to laugh. "You better not let his wife know. She'd be upset."
His anger deflated; his face scrunched in confusion. "Wife? He's married?" I nodded. "Well, shit."
"Duo," I called softly. He didn't want to meet my gaze, but I called out to him again. The embarrassment he felt was evident on his cheeks. "Were you... jealous?" I asked cautiously.
Duo barked a short laugh. "Damn right, I'm jealous! I was counting on those Friday nights, you know." His mouth twisted up in a wry grin. "Then I find you getting all sweated up with some good looking guy, what am I supposed to think."
Shaking my head, I didn't bother to answer but leaned into him, resting my forehead against his. "I promise that after this course run, I will keep Friday night's clear for you from now on."
His eyes were so blue in the sunlight coming through the window; I held my breath, waiting for what he'd do next. His hand was on my waist, his palm warm on my skin. His lips parted, and I felt the wash of breath rush over my mouth, parting to cross my cheeks.
"I can live with that," he whispered, keeping his tone low. I felt the kiss on the air between us. But, his lips closed, and his eyes followed. His arms encircled my waist, and he crushed me into his body. "I've missed you, Heero," he murmured into my ear.
Lifting my arms, I embraced Duo tightly, let my eyes close as I breathed him in, felt his hair tickle the side of my face, let his breath warm the skin on my throat.
"Missed you, too."
"Are you planning to move back?" Duo was still murmuring into my neck.
"Maybe," I stalled, not wanting to talk about that just yet. "Probably."
"Christ, Heero." Duo's hold tightened. "What can I do to bring you back home? Name it."
I closed my eyes tighter; debated the wisdom of giving him my demands; doubted that I might not be able to follow through just yet if he was agreeable to them. "Not yet, Duo. Not yet."
"Shit," he said, pulling away, but leaving his hands around my waist. "Not yet, you won't move back? Not yet, what?"
Running a palm up and down his arm, I smiled softly. "Not yet, I'm not ready," I told him. "Not yet, you're not ready."
His eyes clouded, and I had the idea he knew what I would ask of him. I felt the shudder, as slight as it was, and I saw the shift in his eyes.
"No, not yet." His hands squeezed at my waist, then fell away. "Are you okay with me asking you, my friend, out for something to eat? Maybe find a late night movie we can catch after?"
I lowered my arms and offered a slight grin. "I can live with that."
Saturday afternoon was becoming evening, and I stood in the small space between Trowa's dining room and living room. Drinking from the cold bottle of water from out of the refrigerator, I surveyed the room. Taped and labeled boxes lined up along the walls, waiting on the moving truck expected Monday morning. Most of his furnishings were pushed out of the way, regulated to the far corner of the room, waiting for the donation truck - also on Monday.
In less than a handful of days, Trowa's life in the apartment would be over. His presence at once comforting and disquieting would no longer be readily assessable; the neutral zone his home had always offered, more than a trip across town. Hearing the light laughter from the master bedroom down the hall, I knew my loss was nothing when compared to what he - and Quatre - would be gaining.
Finishing off my water, I tossed the bottle in the recycle box, and headed back to Trowa's guest room. The room he'd been using to store boxes, and items to ship off planet. The double bed that once took up the majority of space had been taken apart, the mattress, box springs, and headboard leaned upright against the wall. The chest of drawers was empty, I already knew, since I'd been the one to empty it. But, after spending a couple of hours in the room, most of the boxes, totes, and larger items he planned to ship were now in the living room.
From across the hall, I could hear Duo teasing his soon-to-be ex-partner, and heard Quatre's laugh. I glanced out the open door, wondering what it was this time; wondered if I should give up on the last two or three boxes the room had yet to yield and spend Trowa's last hours on Earth with him.
I gave a little shake, and moved to the closet. In his early days of packing, Trowa has shoved the first boxes up on top of the closet shelf. 'Out of the way,' he'd told me. 'Pain in the ass to get down,' I thought as I reached up over my head and tugged on a box.
Its give was unexpected, its weight overbalancing me, causing me to stumble backwards. I was expecting to land on my ass with the small, heavy cardboard box landing on me. I wasn't expecting to be brought up short by a solid wall of flesh behind me. And I certainly wasn't expecting a pair of arms to circle my waist, with hands taking a firm grip along my own on the box.
I gasped softly; turning my head slightly, I confirmed who my body told me was my 'savior'. Duo was looking at me with his grin wide and friendly, and his eyes shining.
"Now that I've caught you," he murmured quietly, "what am I going to do with you?"
Suddenly, swallowing was a hard concept, and breathing nearly impossible. I knew what I wanted him to do, and a simple flip of the bed in the corner would facilitate that wish. Still, a quick fuck wasn't what I wanted. To again become another notch on Duo's leather belt was out of the question.
Giving him a returning grin, I told him, "These are catch and release waters. Afraid there's not much you can do at the moment."
"Right," he intoned. But his arms remained around me, and he buried his face into my neck. I closed my eyes in response, letting my head fall back on his shoulder, and released the stiff tension that had gripped my muscles upon his words.
With a sigh, he brushed a light kiss against the skin on the side of my throat, and straightened. "I guess being a man of the law I should follow them, mmm?" I gave a slight nod, not wanting to agree.
"You have hold of the box now?" He asked, and I felt his hands loosen their grip beside mine. Giving him a positive answer, I was suddenly supporting all of the box's weight. "I'll let you go now," he said softly. "For now."
"For now?" I asked, turning to watch him back away several steps, giving me room to maneuver.
He tilted his head to the side, a soft smile on his lips. "Until you're out of these waters."
"And if it takes awhile?" I asked quietly.
"Then it takes awhile," he answered with a shrug and a wink. "Are you planning to hang onto the box until Monday?"
I shook my head and laughed, exiting the room to drop the box off on top another stack.
The sun was setting, the evening on the cusp of night, and my phone rang. I stared at my cell for a moment, wondering who it was, and noting it wasn't the ringtone Duo had chosen for his number. After leaving Trowa's, I'd returned to the apartment, showered, and pulled the easy chair next to the window. My attention alternated between the book I was reading and the sky outside the window.
The cell rang again, and I flipped it open with a neutral sounding greeting.
"Heero!" Meloney. "How's it going?"
"Good," I said, setting my book aside. "Sounds like you're having a party."
"What?" She shouted, and then laughed. "The student group is holding a party, and the noise is kind of loud."
I chuckled, knowing she couldn't hear it. "I got that idea." Getting to my feet, I headed for the kitchen, thinking a beer sounded nice.
"Listen, Heero. I just wanted you to know that I'm not coming back on the fourth, like I thought."
"You're not?" I froze, hand clutching a beer, hip holding the fridge door open, and my other hand suddenly gripping my cell. "When will you-"
"No, I'm not." The noise bleeding through the speaker stopped instantly, and Meloney sighed in relief. "Jeff found me a nice quite corner."
"Jeff?" Shutting the fridge, I twisted off the bottle cap, and headed back to my seat. "Meloney, I think you might have had too much to drink."
She laughed, light and free, and sounded much younger than I remembered. "I'm drunk, Heero, but not by anything alcoholic." Meloney practically purred into the phone. "I've met someone."
"Oh," I answered with a grin. "As in, 'he's so cute I want to dish him up with ice cream'? or 'he's the one I'm taking home to mother.'?"
"As in, I'll be the one being taken home to mother." Her laugh burst forth again, short though it was, and it ended with a choked sob. "Oh God, Heero. What the fuck am I going to do?"
"Knock her socks off," I replied immediately. She laughed again without the near hysterical edge, and I asked quietly, "Do you love him?"
"Yes," she breathed at me.
"And he loves you? And you're sure?"
"Yes and yes. I'm scared half to death, and frightfully happy, I want to sing and dance, and throw up."
I leaned back and stared out at the darkening sky. "I know the feeling."
Her tone sobered immediately. "Duo?" I made an agreeing noise, and she asked, "How has it been? Better?"
"Yes, much better." I thought of that afternoon, of Duo's arms circling me, of his words, and the sincerity behind them. "I think I'm the hold out now."
"That sure of him?"
I nodded, though I knew she couldn't see it. "He scares me, what he makes me feel." I drew a deep breath and let it out. "But, I need him."
"I know," Meloney said softly. "I know what you mean." Then she laughed again. "We're a couple of love-sick fools, aren't we my friend."
Smiling easily, I raised my beer in salute. "Better than to never have been one at all."
"I need to return to the party now, but I wanted to let you know that I'll be spending an extra couple of weeks at Jeff's. The place is yours if you need it."
"Thanks, Mel. I'm not sure how much longer I will need it, though." She gave me a hurried goodbye, and hung up before I could reply with my own.
I took another drink from my bottle, reviewing our conversation, remembering Duo's look when he understood what I was going to ask from him. It might not be time yet, but it was getting closer.
Friday night, while Duo and I were at the movies, Wufei had called to let me know he'd returned. In his message, his voice sounded weary, and his words confirmed it. He let me know that he was home and off special detail, that he would be spending most of Saturday sleeping, shopping, sorting mail, cleaning, and doing laundry, but he requested that I join him for an early dinner Sunday evening. One of his Chinese special dinners.
My answering call went directly to voice mail, and I accepted his invitation, confirming the time he'd requested my presence. I had to speak to him about the job offer, gauge his response, and base my acceptance or decline on what I knew of what he didn't say.
Several times over the weekend, I had wanted to broach the subject with Duo. But, until I talked with Wufei, until I knew what I as going to do, I hesitated. Late afternoon on Sunday, I headed out, trying to not think too much on what I wanted to happen.
Wufei owned a condominium on the renovated side of town. Sitting on the corner of the block in the middle of a five-block center 'reclaimed' by housing and city civic leaders, looking to lessen the blight time, war, and poverty brought to the area. Wufei was the only one of us who owned a bit of grass and a garden on Earth. He met me at the door, and waited while I removed my shoes, before leading me to his kitchen.
"Have a seat," he said, gesturing to my traditional place at his table. "I'll begin dinner in just a moment." He brought the tea tray and sat it on the long, narrow granite island in the middle of the large kitchen.
"No hurry," I told him, taking my seat, and accepting the cup of tea he poured for me. Dinner at Wufei's was a ceremony, without rush, without negative chi.
He took his place on the opposite side of the island, his head bowing in offering over his cup before drinking. The brief homage complete, Wufei stared at me sharply.
"You are still living in that woman's apartment?"
I nodded in agreement. "For now," I said, unconsciously repeating Duo's words.
"Have you decided what you're going to do?"
"No, not yet." I picked up my cup and sipped slowly.
"Have you looked into making the move permanent?" he asked, and I recognized the interrogation tone he often used with suspects, the one that entreats a person to spill what they know.
Smiling wryly, I looked over at him. "I haven't made that decision yet, and when I do, Duo will be the first to know." Wufei snorted softly, knowing I'd caught him out. "I'm not sure making it permanent will be necessary," I offered quietly, maintaining eye contact.
"Why is that? Has he said anything?"
"It's Duo. He's always saying something." Wufei barked a short laugh. My thoughts returned to Friday evening and Duo's expression then, and I thought of his actions, his words that hinted promise of what was to come. "No, not directly," I answered honestly. "But, I think it's only a matter of time."
"Your business is none of my concern, but I wish you both prosperity and happiness."
With a graceful move, Wufei rose from his seat, and moved to the large six-burner stove, a wok perched off to the side, and implements of his craft hung from a rack overhead. A small stockpot simmered on one back burner, and the bamboo dim sum steamer topped another pot.
Wufei stood before the drop counter grill, testing the heat of the coals, and gave a nod of approval. "Ready for grilling," he said, giving me a look before uncovering a glass dish and laying two small whole fish on the grill. The room instantly filled with the light seasoning Wufei used to marinate the fish. My mouth was watering before he moved down to the stove.
His grilled fish was one of my favorite of his traditional meals, and he knew it. He gave me another look and began gathering the ingredients for stir-fry. "No hot pot today," he said, turning the gas flame up high on a front burner.
"Too hot," I agreed, sipping my tea, and testing the scent on the air, comfortable to watch.
Oil sizzled as each ingredient was added, and Wufei's body shook as he swirled the wok over the flames. Resting the dish its burner, he shifted down to the grill, flipped the fish with chopsticks, and was back to the wok, tossing the ingredients once more.
On the counter beside the stove was a tray, a large serving bowl centered, two smaller bowls to one side, and the long fishplate on the other side. With a flourish of hand and wrist, Wufei lifted the wok, and transferred its contents to the serving bowl. In a few short minutes, soup was poured into its waiting bowls, rice was produced, the dim sum basket added to the tray, and the fish plucked from the grill.
Dinner was served.
More tea was poured, and we began to eat, began to talk of Trowa's immediate departure, of work, and of our temporary assignments. I held off mentioning the director's offer, waiting until after our meal was finished. Listening to him speak of his assignment, I had the idea that he enjoyed it, and that he wouldn't be opposed to accepting another temporary assignment position again.
Sitting back, I replaced my chopsticks on their rest. "You have honored me with a fine meal," I told him.
Wufei finished off his rice and pushed his bowl away. "You honor my house with your presence," he answered formally.
"Duo will be unhappy he missed this," I said, thinking of the meals shared in the past.
"Bring him with you next time," Wufei told me immediately. "If I had been thinking, I would have invited him myself." He stood to refresh the teapot, and clear the communal tray. "Having said that, I did want to speak with you about another matter."
Brought up sharply, I frowned. "If dinner was to soften an imagined blow, it must be something I won't care for."
He inclined his head, and poured me another cup. "I believe it might cause some... agitation."
"Does it have to do with Duo?" I barked out sharply, taking Wufei aback.
"No!" He stated emphatically. "It's about... something else."
I settled back immediately, wondering at my assumption. "I too have some possible agitating news as well."
Wufei waved to me with his teacup. "My news can wait a moment longer. Your news first."
It was time, and I sought the solitude of my partner's friendship, of his steady and fair-minded attitude. "I've been offered a position on the Jump Squad," I said in a rush, watching Wufei as I spoke.
A rueful laugh wasn't what I was expecting.
"You mean-" I paused.
"Oh not on the Jump Squad," Wufei hurried to answer my unspoken question. "I was asked to join the security task force commission as a permanent consultant." It was his turn to pause, to gauge my reaction.
"And you want to accept?" I asked with a small smile.
"Yes," he answered simply, his eyes never leaving mine. "And you? You want to accept this offer as well?"
I nodded. It was over, our paradigm was coming to an end; we each were moving in new directions. A bittersweet pill and one I swallowed with eager regret.
"What does Duo think about the offer?" Wufei asked, dropping his gaze to stare into his tea. A pill of his own to swallow?
"I haven't spoken to him of it yet." At Wufei's look, I added quickly, "I wanted to discuss it with you first." An eyebrow arched, and my lips twisted up on one side. "If you had any objections, I would have declined the offer, and there would have been no need to potentially upset Duo."
"And now that you have your answer from me?"
"Acceptance will still be based on Duo's reaction," I said firmly, and ran a hand through my hair. "He's been unsettled by all the changes I've handed him the past couple of months."
Wufei snorted. "He's an adult, Heero. He'll adapt."
A long sigh and I stared at the marbled tabletop. "If I want a partnership with him, a relationship, there has to be open discussion on opportunities that can impact both of our lives."
"You are correct," Wufei apologized immediately. "I retract my less than considering comments."
I glanced at my watch, noting the time. "If you don't mind, I would like to leave early," I told Wufei. "I have to give my response in the morning, and I don't know how Duo's going to take it. How long I'll need with him before work."
"Go, Heero." Wufei stood, preparing to walk me to the door. "Even if I accepted the position tomorrow, it wouldn't take affect for two more weeks."
"Then I'll call you tomorrow evening before work," I offered, and slipped on my shoes. "Goodnight, my friend, and thank you for dinner."
His head inclined slightly. "We will gather together again, soon," he promised, and I left his home feeling less troubled, less bereft.
It took several minutes for Duo to answer my knock, and for a moment, a stab of misery jolted through me. I should have called, should have made sure Duo was alone, wasn't busy.
But, his hair was tousled, his shirt rumpled and pulled free from his shorts, and as he opened the door, he was rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Heero?" he questioned, waving me inside the apartment. "What's wrong? And why the hell didn't you use your own key - it is still your apartment, too."
Flushing, I waited at his side for him to close the door. "I-didn't think of that." Had it been so long that I'd forgotten it was my home, too? Maybe it was time I returned.
"So, what do I owe this surprise visit?" Duo asked, scratching lazily on his stomach.
I watched his hand for a moment, but raised my eyes to his when he cleared his throat. He was smiling softly, no longer blurry-eyed. I flushed again, but barreled on. "I need to talk to you about... well, a situation's come up, and I want to discuss it with you."
Duo's eyes went wide, and then narrowed, becoming guarded a moment later. He wet his lips, and gestured toward the kitchen. "Let's find a seat first, okay?" Turning away from me, he led the way. "My short power nap turned into a four-hour session, and I'm thirsty."
"I didn't mean to wake you," I said, following behind him.
"It's okay. I needed to get up." He held up a can of cola and a bottle of water. I took the water, opened it, and dropped into my usual chair at the table.
"Since when did you start taking naps?" I teased gently, liking the rumpled, slightly confused look he wore answering the door.
"Since I had the shit kicked out of me," he retorted, taking his usual seat, and popping the tab on the soda he chose. "I haven't needed one in awhile, but with moving boxes yesterday, and the extra PT hours today..." He took a deep drink, sighing with satisfaction when he swallowed.
For the third time since my arrival, I found myself flushing, and I couldn't meet his eyes. In the past few weeks, I'd become self-centered. "It seems impossible, but I'd forgotten."
"Hey now," Duo said softly, his hand touching my arm. "You're not here everyday. You haven't been seeing me at my worst since the hospital." His fingers continued to caress the skin over my wrist. "I'm rather glad you've forgotten. Means I must be shoring up better than ever."
"Or I'm just blind and narrow focused," I snorted, but gave him a smile for the attempt.
Not agreeing, but also not disagreeing, Duo smirked and took another drink. "So, what is this situation that you needed to rush over here to see me about?"
I stalled for a minute, phrasing how I wanted to introduce the subject to him, and lining up my arguments for his imagined ones. Taking a deep breath, I told him. I started with being called into the division director's office; I told him of the director's offer; what the job description included. And I ended with the dinner with Wufei.
"On the Jump Squad, huh?" Duo asked. He'd been quiet the entire time, giving a nod or a shake of the head to show he'd heard that he was listening. His eyes were shuttered, and his face expressionless.
"Yes." I kept my answer simple.
"You want this, don't you?"
I lowered my eyes to watch his hands. He wasn't giving me anything to gauge his reaction, but his hands were relaxed, holding his cola can easily. "Yes, I do," I answered, meeting his eyes again. "But, if you had any valid objections, I would reconsider."
His eyes widened, and a short smile touched his lips. "You would, wouldn't you?" He let out a chuckling breath, shaking his head. "Damn, Heero. You are in this deep."
"Over my head," I told him.
His hand touched my wrist again, and he turned his face away from me to frown at the wall. A minute or two ticked by, and I could almost see the thoughts churn in his mind. His lips twitched, breaking the mild frown he wore.
"You know what's so ironic about this situation?" He asked, quietly.
"Wha-" I cleared my throat and tried again. "What's that?"
Duo shot a glance my way, turning back to his contemplation of the wall a moment later. "About a month after Trowa moved down, I was approached by one of the Jump Squad captains." His smile was rueful.
"He wanted me on his team. But the timing was off. There was a lot of training I'd have to go away for, and we were still sorting through what was going on with Trowa 'n Qat. You and Wufei were neck deep in that UA op from hell." He laughed roughly.
"You never said anything-" I began only to be interrupted.
"Of course not!" Duo glared at me. "You would have accepted for me. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead." He dropped his gaze to his hands, and said in a calmer voice, "I've been asked a couple of times since. Even thought about bringing it up with you, but it never seemed to be the right time, you know?"
"So, are you telling me not to accept-?"
"No," Duo interjected strongly. "I'm actually going to tell you to go for it." The smile he gave me was simply Duo, and I knew his words to be true and sincere. "But, I just wanted you to know that if I'm asked again, I'm going to jump on it."
"Then we'd be working together," I concluded in a hushed voice.
His fingers were caressing my wrist again. "Could you handle it, Heero? Being right there as we're going through hell, chest deep in the blood, and shit, and vomit?"
I grimaced, but slid my arm down to take his hand in mine. "You make it sound so attractive, how could anyone refuse." He chuckled, and watched me closely.
Inhaling deeply, I stopped to give it some thought. Duo was right; he would be in it deep, no matter what 'it' happened to be. Every mission would put him in harm's way each jump, each raid, each landing. I wasn't ignorant. I knew his position as a field agent held the same potentials, but I was rarely ever faced with Duo in danger.
And then I remembered working with him in ops command to bring him in safely. I could do this, and facing him again, I nodded slowly. "I wouldn't always like it, but yes, I could handle it." I gave his hand a squeeze. "And if we're working together, I would be the ops control in charge to bring you back safe." to me.
"Then it's settled?"
I nodded again. "I believe so, yes." Duo leaned forward and swiftly kissed my lips.
"For luck," he whispered, drawing back again.
With little pomp, I met with the division director, and accepted the position. In five minutes, it was over, and in two weeks, and a trip to Human Resources, I would have a new job.
Duo was waiting in the hallway after I left the director's office, pretty much like Jana had the Friday before. He fell into step beside me, and offered to take me to breakfast to celebrate. I agreed, as long as it wasn't the HQ cafeteria.
A few minutes and a short walk later, he was sitting across from me at the waffle house two blocks from HQ. He asked how it'd gone, and if I'd been told anything more about the new position.
"Other than when the start date is, no. Salary, hazard duty differential, per diem, and change in benefits are to be discussed at my appointment with HR later in the week." I took a cautious sip of the coffee Duo ordered for me. "Three days of orientation, though."
"Yeah," Duo agreed adding a spoonful of sugar to his cup. "Ellison," he glanced up at me, "The captain I told you about, told me how they run you through course after course. Physical, confidence, small arms, HEs..." His lips twitched. "Psychological."
"And you thought you could pass?" I teased.
"Hey!" He protested, tossing the empty creamer cup at me. "Contrary to popular belief, all my faculties are fully functional, thank you."
A slant of light splashed over his shoulder, highlighting his hair and augmenting his smile. I felt the stutter in my chest, and I wanted to kiss him then, right there in the crowded restaurant amidst the soggy waffles covered in syrup and butter, and the bitter coffee in cheap white cups. I wondered how much longer I would be able to resist his plea, if he were to ask again. And mostly, I wondered why I wanted to any more.
"My orange for your thoughts," he said, plunking the chunky slice on the plate beside my own orange.
"You'll tell me, won't you, when Captain Ellison asks you again?"
His brow furrowed slightly, and I think he knew that wasn't what I'd been thinking. But he let it pass, and nodded. "I was thinking about dropping in on him this afternoon, see if he's still interested."
"You see him often?" Through the years, I'd discovered Duo knew Preventers from all branches, all divisions, and he generally made it a habit to 'visit' when he could.
He hummed noncommittally, chewing on a waffle piece. "Not so often, but he can tell a story, Ellis can. Used to be he'd look me up every three or four months. Now," he shrugged. "It's about every three or four weeks, and I'm hobnobbing up there more than he slums."
"Trowa flies out tomorrow?" I changed the subject.
"Yeah," Duo nodded. "Going to miss the fucker."
"We'll have to work out a schedule. To keep in touch." Duo nodded, taking another bite. "So many changes."
"And more to come," Duo quipped with a smile.
"Good ones," I said quickly.
"Hear, hear!" Duo chimed, rising his coffee cup. "Here's to only good changes from now on."
I smiled as I drank to his toast, as improbable as it was. But, each of the changes in our lives these past few weeks have been positive, even if they carried a share of pain with them.
Without pain, there was no growth. And that thought followed me into sleep that day, had me wonder how much growth would Duo and I continue to experience. There had been so much pain between us individually, and now, so much between us together.
It was becoming a habit of Duo's to wait for me after work, take me to breakfast, and leave me at the garage with a hurried kiss as he rushed upstairs to meet his PT appointment. It was new. It was exciting. And it was our time.
I'd asked him once after the third time, and his explanation had me wondering why I stayed away. 'I miss having breakfast with you, spending morning time with you." He'd said.
Soon, I decided. I would return home soon. That elusive ingredient was missing, but I felt it was close. That it was a matter of moments in the scheme of our lives.
After my last Friday night class, Duo met me at the Center, his rear perched on the hood of his car and in his hand he carried a small plastic bag bulging with movie discs.
"Meloney doesn't have a vidscreen or even a vidplayer," I told him, unable to stop myself from running a palm up his bare arm.
"What? She from the stone age?" Duo demanded.
"Hardly. She's a grad student, and whether it was personal preference or lack of available funds, I don't know."
"Well, if you're okay with it, we can go back to the apartment." Duo jumped off his car and his hand reached for me. "I promise to behave myself." His eyes twinkled, but his hand still slid from my waist to palm my butt.
I stepped closer to him, ignoring those behind us, those around us, leaned into him, and brushed my lips over his. "What if I don't behave?"
"Then call me the winner," he whispered. He kissed me then, slow and tender, with closed lips and a soft touch.
Sighing as I pulled back, I asked so very softly, "Does that mean we're ready?"
Duo crooked his fingers through my belt loops and tugged me closer. A hand slid free, and rubbed gently up and down my back. "No, not yet," he finally replied, hopeful regret tingeing his tone.
I nodded and gave him another kiss. "Then let's grab some pizza, and watch some movies."