6. Subjective Equations
by Saro and Merellia
The subway car swayed lightly around them, smelling of old
newspapers and tired plastic as Duo and Heero clung to the straps. The crowd of rush hour workers crowded into
the available space; Duo was close enough to Heero to smell the warm musk of
his aftershave and study the way the hair at the nape of his neck refused to
lie neatly flat. Even the close-cut
bits bristled with as much vigor as the tips of his eyebrows. You
know you've it got bad for the guy, Duo thought in amusement at himself, when you start thinking eyebrows like his
His arm ached from holding to a strap meant for a much
taller person, so under cover of another sway as the train rounded a curve, red
lights flashing by in the darkness outside the windows, Duo let go of it to
slip an arm around Heero's waist, resting his chin on Heero's bony
shoulder. Heero stiffened, but when he
didn't immediately shove Duo away, Duo added it to the list of ways the day
already bid fair to be a good one. "Penny
for your thoughts," he murmured in Heero's ear.
Not unsurprisingly, Heero responded with his usual penchant
for directness and literality. "You
don't have a penny."
Duo humored himself by slipping deft fingers into the pocket
of the man standing next to him and pulling out a fiver by feel alone. "Nah, but I've got five creds for you," he
said, and held the chip forward for Heero's inspection.
Oblivious to its source, Heero just grunted and, as Duo had
expected, didn't take it. Duo slipped
it back into the man's pocket after a quick focus on the likelihood that he'd
get caught, Heero saying in the meanwhile, "I was just thinking about work."
Duo arched his eyebrows; getting Heero to talk about work
this week had almost been as hard as breaking onto G's ship the first time.
"What about work?" he asked, insinuating his free hand into Heero's pocket this
time. Heero's own left hand was there
already; Duo cupped it in his.
"The educational equivalency exam from Tuesday." The train began to slow as it neared the
next station, only a lessening in the rush of air past it to indicate the
"Oh yeah?" Get your
scores yesterday, too?" Pressed against
him in mimicry of their fellow tightly-packed commuters, Duo could feel the way
Heero's diaphragm contracted with the minute percussion of his grunt. "What kind of scores did you get?"
Coming to a stop at the station, bright florescent lights
flooding the windows, the door of the train hissed open to allow the passengers
to exit. Duo restrained a sigh as Heero
moved away to claim a vacated seat. Duo
grabbed the one next to him, dropping into it just in time to earn a glare and
a muttered comment from another businessman, sweaty in a winter wool suit. He gave the guy a wide smile before
directing his attention back to Heero.
"So?" he prompted.
"College postgraduate equivalency in physics and a step
below that for math," Heero said begrudgingly.
Duo turned a grin on him.
"That's great, man. So J ran you
through astrophysics training sort of like I got, I guess."
Heero shifted his knees away from the corner of a brief
case, striving, Duo suspected, to look unconcerned. "You?"
With a smile, Duo propped a foot on his knee, giving the
impression of studying the black pants leg of his Preventers uniform
trousers. He approved of the choice of
color. "Postgraduate equivalency in
both math and physics."
Even the air around Heero seemed to cool in the wake of that
answer. "They should have had an
Duo couldn't resist a sidelong glance at him to see what a put out Heero looked like. Much like a
normal -- hah! -- Heero who wore a scowl that knotted his brows, but his mouth
hadn't tightened and turned down at the corners. "They should have," he agreed sympathetically. "Idiots not to. Everyone should know engineering. Basic part of the human experience."
Heero paused for a moment, then asked, "How did you do on
the writing portion?"
Ouch. Stung. Heero
still could pick a good target, not that Duo hadn't been asking for it. He tried to breeze through it with, "Oh, not
too bad, not too bad. Tenth grade
level, though I s'pose it could've been worse.
At least I write better than newspapers." The air around Heero warmed.
He was gloating, the bastard, Duo decided, and asked the question he
knew Heero was waiting for. "You?"
"Second year college," Heero said. Definitely with a smug
"All those reports you had to write for J came in handy for
something, I guess." Duo fixed his gaze
earnestly on a BSO poster tacked just below the ceiling above the train window
opposite them. It announced a
performance next month of "political commentary of the musical persuasion from
L5 to Mexico City" -- consequences of living in a government city, Duo guessed:
even the music was affected.
Heero shot him a sharp look at the implication that his
reports had had little other purpose, but began, "Didn't you . . . ?" before
stopping with the query unfinished.
"For the following question, make your selection from one of
the multiple answers," Duo announced in the style of the exam, pitching his
voice too low to be overheard even by briefcase-man in front of them. "Faced with the quandary of foiling
Operation Meteor, you: A, destruct Deathscythe and murder G and his assistants;
B, steal Deathscythe and engage in guerilla warfare; C, join a pacifist movement;
or D, do nothing."
The subway train lurched forward again and began
accelerating. "That's why you were
always generating your own missions," Heero surmised.
"That's why I never wrote reports," Duo said, allowing his
voice to return to its proper tones.
"But you keep in touch with G now."
Duo inhaled the coffee scent rising from the mug held by a
woman who had come to stand next to the briefcase guy with no small
longing. "Well, yeah. Guy rebuilt Deathscythe for me, didn't
he? And I was with him a little over
two years -- never hung around anyone else that long that I can remember. You don't set something like that aside."
Duo volunteered, "Did better on the reading portion,
"How much better?"
Heero said with open smugness this time, "College junior."
Duo's mouth twisted wryly; it was like the times they'd
played basketball during one of their brief boarding school stints. Heero had a thing about winning. "My physics knowledge can kick your reading
comprehension's ass any day, Yuy."
He almost laughed aloud when Heero, in one of his rare
displays of humor, chose to reply in kind.
"Only if my reading comprehension had a hand tied behind its back."
Duo changed his mind and did laugh. "No way," he protested. "My physics knowledge has the power of
relativity. Nothing can beat the power
Heero considered that in silence for a moment before he
countered, "My reading comprehension has the ability to identify fallacious
theses at one hundred meters."
"Fellatious theses?" Duo asked wickedly. "What kind of books did J have you reading,
The subway train roared into another station, magnetic units
revving as it slowed. It was their
stop. Duo didn't stop chuckling at the
expression he'd caught on Heero's face even when Heero left him stuck behind a
snarl of businessmen at the base of the escalator to exit the station by
Heero watched as Noin wrote out her mission report. She sat straight-backed in her swivel chair,
fingers flying over the keyboard in neat, crisp strokes. She didn't speak as she worked.
Tap, tap, tap.
Her typing formed a brusque staccato against the backdrop of
office sounds; the hum of the ventilation system kicking in, the mutter of
lowered voices, the odd sound of someone sneaking a potato chip or cracking
their knuckles. Heero heard them all
clearly without Duo's familiar conversation to distract him.
He had met up with Noin when he arrived to shadow her as
part of his Preventers training procedure.
Since then, he had sat quietly while she typed her mission report,
noting the formatting and the length at which she described events. "... followed suspect to X address on Y
street... " He skimmed over the short
paragraphs. The older agent didn't
waste words in her write-up.
Information she deemed important was laid out in quick, precise
It wasn't so different from what he had written for J,
during the war. Maybe it was a
different font size, or the outcome evaluation was given a different
priority. There were more people,
agencies and divisions referenced. The
nature of what she wrote was on a smaller scale. She hadn't demolished whole bases on her own. But over all, the gist was the same, and the structure was familiar, if not identical.
Tap, tap, tap.
The florescent lights droned overhead, a low, consistent
murmur that almost seemed to come from inside his ear. The white light they produced played with
his eyes, making odd afterimages if he looked at one place for too long. Taupe cubical walls, beige plaster, and
speckled grey tiled floor. There wasn't
really much to see.
Most of the other cubicles were empty. The office space had been designed to accommodate
more people than the Preventers currently employed. It stood to reason that Une, as well as others, hoped to expand
beyond their present stature. Only six
field agents. Eight, now, with himself
and Duo. That was hardly an impressive
number, considering the kind of the incidents that they hoped to have them able
Tap, tap, tap. Click.
Noin paused in her typing and closed the mission report
window, only to open another. She
introduced the new form as "Mission Expenditures." Given the problems with funding, it wasn't terribly surprising to
Then she was typing again.
Tap, tap, tap.
"If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask," she had
told him that morning. He hadn't had
any. The mission reports weren't much
different from the ones he'd written for J, during the war...
Tap, tap, tap.
Didn't I... ?
Heero shook his head, attempting to gather the train of
thought that had frayed at some point while he watched Noin, but the room
didn't follow the movement of his head the way it should have, tilting just a
little, not keeping up. The loss of
sync panged in his abdomen.
Swallowing with a throat suddenly gone dry, he reached for
the bottle of water on the edge of Noin's desk, only to pull back his shaking hand. Clenching his fists hard, Heero concentrated
on his vitals. Heart rate and
respiration were both accelerated.
Blood pressure above normal levels -- he could hear it, rushing through his
ears along with the buzz of the lights and the grumble of the heating. His stomach twisted again and this time he
identified the feeling as something he had experienced only rarely in his life:
Almost reflexively, he fell into the exercises his first
mentor had taught him, concentrating on the rhythm of his heart and lungs. He could control them. Could control all of his stats if he had
to. He'd been trained in it since
before he could remember, and physically, he was at the advantage.
But instead of calming, the roar in his ears grew louder,
melting into the quiet office sounds.
He couldn't hear the tapping anymore.
There was something else, though, something vaguely familiar. Like the harmonics of metal under
pressure -- the hull of a ship in outer space, or the groaning of Gundanium under
water. It was just there. Just on the edge of his hearing.
The room was too hot.
A film of sweat broke on his skin.
He could feel it on his forehead, his upper lip, trickling down his back
and sides. The air felt recycled. He could barely breathe it, as if there wasn't
"I'll be back in a second," Heero said, standing, not
bothering to wait for a response from Noin.
Instead he focused on walking straight and not showing how the floor
seemed to be rising up to meet him.
He made it out of sight before he was forced to catch
himself sharply against one wall, leaning against it until he got to the men's
restroom on their floor. It was,
luckily, empty. Fumbling with the first
faucet he came to, Heero splashed cold water over his face, fighting down the
heave that threatened to bring up his breakfast.
The porcelain of the sink was cold and reassuring under his
hands. The tiles drew some of the heat
out of him. For a while, he just stood
there, leaning against the sink, head bowed over the drain.
He wasn't quite sure how long it took for before his stomach
settled, and the strange sense of vertigo which had overtaken him faded away,
leaving him with the raw feeling of unburned adrenaline.
Straightening, Heero raked his fingers through his hair and
glanced over his reflection in the mirror.
He was a little pale, and there was still a tremor in his right
hand. Not noticeable if someone didn't
know him well, or wasn't looking.
Looking himself in the eye, he asked wordlessly, What the
hell was that?
His reflection was predictably silent.
Setting the question aside for later, he dried his hands and
his face, and hurried back to Noin's cubicle.
Hopefully, he hadn't been gone long enough to be missed.
Duo flipped through his new ID cards with mixed
feelings. Social security number and
everything. He was in the system
now. Sure, he could get out of it if he
needed, and the other identities he'd saved were still tucked safely away in
his wallet, but Duo Maxwell was a real person as of today. The thought was mildly disturbing. He could almost picture the electronic
ESUN citizenship, he noted with flash of wry humor as he
looked at one of the new cards in particular, rather than Earth, or Colonial,
or specifically L2. It's even politically correct.
The elevator chimed his floor, and he put the new cards in
his back pocket before stepping out.
The office was nearly empty, with most of the staff already having
cleared out for lunch. He could see
Noin waiting with Chas near his desk, tucked into a corner cubicle. There was another man with them, not much
taller than Duo himself, with short black curls and dark stubble shadowing his
cheeks and jaw.
Noin waved to Duo, a smile lighting her features. Chas nodded, talking to Noin about something
or another. The stranger raised one
eyebrow appraisingly. Duo met his look
with one of his own, one that clearly said he didn't see any hot shit here, and
walked up to Noin.
"What's up, Chas?" he asked, leaning against a partition.
"Not much," the older agent told him cheerfully. "Now that you're here, we're just waiting
for Zechs and Yuy to show up before we head off for lunch."
"Why are you waiting for me? Or us, I guess." Duo
turned from the other man to Noin. "And
where is Heero, anyway? I thought he
was with you."
"He was. He went to
the bathroom a few minutes ago," she said, pointing down the hall. "I imagine he'll be back before too
long. We were waiting for you because
it's Friday, and on Fridays, the field agents get together and go out for
lunch -- at least, all of them in the city and not undercover do. Today that's
you, me, Chas, Zechs, Heero, and Stepan."
"Whom," Chas continued, "I believe you haven't met yet. Stepan, this is Duo; Duo, Stepan."
"A pleasure," the black haired man said. His accent was vaguely Russian, not thick,
but lurking. Duo took his hand when he
offered it and shook it once with enough force for him to feel it.
"Not all yours, I hope," Duo responded lightly.
"I'm sure the pleasure will be mutual," Noin said playfully,
still smiling. "And I think I see Zechs
coming this way. Which means we're only
The Deathscythe pilot grinned back. "I'll go make sure he didn't get lost. Or fall in.
"We'll be waiting," Stepan offered. He smiled, too. Duo wasn't sure if he liked the look of it or not -- it gave the
impression that he knew something Duo didn't.
Tossing a hello Zechs's way, the new agent trotted toward
the bathroom, only to almost collide with Heero as he turned into the
hall. The possibility flashed through
his head just early enough to save himself with a quick back-pedal. "Hi, babe," he greeted, "Noin was just -- You
Duo blinked. Heero
looked less than a hundred percent, which was rare for him. His hair was wet around the roots, and his
face looked a little grayish under the natural tan of his skin. There was a little water on his shoulders
and dripped down the front of his shirt, as though he had splashed his
face. Duo's forehead wrinkled in
concern. Heero didn't get sick, no more
than he did.
"It's nothing," Heero told him, his tone firm.
"You sure?" Duo pressed, ignoring the note of finality in
his friend's voice. "You don't look so
"Thanks," the other pilot said tightly, then changed the
subject. "What were you saying about
"Oh." Duo shook his head, shrugging past his surprise. "She's waiting for us with the other
agents. Says they all go out to lunch
Heero nodded sharply, then marched away at a fast enough
clip that Duo had to jog a few steps to catch up with him. Fine, he thought, irritated, if
you need a few minutes to cool down or whatever, I can deal with that. Snorting discontentedly, Duo followed his
roommate to where the others stood, Chas talking animatedly about some mission
or another where the local PD had made fools of themselves.
"Looks like we have everyone," Noin said as they
arrived. Zechs was standing behind her,
sitting on the edge of Chas's desk, eyes hidden behind a pair of expensive
sunglasses and one gloved finger absently tracing a pattern around the rim of
the mug holding Chas's pens. Duo nearly
smirked at the sight of the two -- there was a fairly good chance, in his
estimation, that they would be the next engagement announcement he got, though
it was not fixed.
"So where are we going?" Duo asked, watching Heero
surreptitiously from the corner of his eye as the other grabbed his
jacket. Shit, is he trembling? The hand in question was stuffed in a pocket
before Duo could confirm what he'd seen.
He had to be mistaken.
Heero Yuy did not tremble. Not
for anything less than a battle of wills with the Zero System. He didn't shake when he was suffering blood
loss from two bullet wounds, or when he had a broken leg. He didn't shiver in the cold, even if it was
almost freezing. It did not
happen. It didn't matter if Heero was
pointing a gun at someone's head or pouring himself a glass of milk, he was
Heero avoided meeting Duo's eyes, keeping his own fixed on
the ground, like a new pickpocket trying to avoid attention. But he was too tense. He'd stick out in someone's memory when they
tried to figure out where they'd lost their wallet or their watch, instead of
fading into the crowd of faces they saw everyday.
"Is that alright with you two?" Zechs inquired politely, and Duo belatedly realized he'd missed
the answer to his own question. Heero
made an indifferent noise, casting a glance at the other pilot that planted the
decision on his shoulders.
"Sure. I'll try just about
anything at least once."
"Are we all ready to go, then?" Noin said, her trainer's
voice pre-empting a response from Stepan.
"Good. Let's go."
They took the elevator down to the ground floor, through the
lobby, where the same security officer who'd met them the first day was on
duty. Duo winked at the man as they
passed, unable to resist the temptation.
It cheered him up a little to think of the false IDs he'd given the
guard when they'd met.
"So I've been meaning to ask," he said as his thoughts
bounced from the topic of identifications and driver's licenses and birth
certificates to names. "How do you guys
get your code names? I heard Sally's is
Water. Noin's Fire, I think, and Zechs's
is Wind, right? What about the rest of
you? You just make something up?"
"Zechs just made his up," Noin agreed fondly, bumping
shoulders with Zechs as he walked beside her.
"Sally and I had ours assigned, but Une decided to let people choose their
own if they really felt the need."
"Mine was assigned, too," Chas told him, glancing over his
shoulder at Duo as they walked along the glossy black-glassed front of another
skyscraper. Like the one the Preventers
rented space in, this one had the imposing design and a recessed entrance
flanked by steel-sheathed columns that reeked of monied bureaucracy. "I don't mind it, though."
"What is it?"
"Stone," the agent replied.
His cheek ticked when he did, as though he were trying not to grin.
"As in stone-faced?" Duo asked skeptically. Chas certainly didn't seem like the stoniest
character he'd ever met.
"It's the balls that have to be made out of stone around
here," was the quick reply.
"I'd have guessed brass."
Laughing, Duo turned his attention on Stepan. "What about you?"
"It's Krov," he said, hooking his thumbs through his belt
loops. They paused at a street
crossing; far down the side-street, Duo could see a lone sidewalk vendor
peddling something: probably off-truck electronics, from what Duo guessed by
his lack of a lunchtime crowd and the faint blinks of green and blue liquid
crystal displays. "It means 'cold' in
Russian. I thought it fitting. What about you? Did you have something in mind?"
Duo considered that.
He didn't really have anything in mind per se, but he'd rather decide
his code name himself. He had chosen
every other name he could remember anyone calling him; it didn't seem like the
time to stop. After a moment, he said,
"No. I'll have to think about it. How about you, Heero?"
"Wing," Heero answered without pause as they passed by a few
shops tucked discretely into the bottom story of a high-rise. He then grunted softly, as though he'd
surprised himself with that one, too.
"Wing?" Duo repeated.
He opened his mouth to ask what the fuck his housemate was thinking, but
bit back the words so quick he almost caught his tongue. Heero still looked pale, the winter sun
turning him more jaundiced than the artificial light inside had.
The store fronts developed more animation on the next block,
brass name plates and wooden placards with gilt lettering giving way to
brightly lit signs, paint, and the occasional flash of neon. Carefully arranged plantings of trees and
convoluted metal sculptures likewise yielded place to potted bushes and
evergreens; traffic in automobile and on foot increased and grew colorful as
fashion overtook somber suits and dark sedans. Duo scanned the passing
pedestrians with a practiced eye; upmarket clothing meant money, but also
suggested more plastic than cash on hand.
"This is it," Chas announced, stopping at a bistro; in
response to the day's sunlight and relative warmth, perhaps, tables were set
out for patio dining. "Gustav's" was
written across one of the restaurant's wide front windows in flaking yellow
paint. A green-and-white striped awning
protected the outdoor patrons from the weather, and gave the place a rather
cliché look in Duo's opinion. "I don't see any seating for six, though.... "
Stepan shrugged. "Shift
one of the tables out a little and steal some chairs."
Before he was asked, Heero moved closer to one of the
tables, braced his feet at shoulder width, and tugged it away from its
neighbors. The heavy table moved
grudgingly, its cast-iron feet scraping a complaint of metal against
concrete. Cringing at the sound, Duo
looked down at the source and saw something he hoped to God no one else had
noticed: the table had been bolted to the ground.
"I think that's enough," he suggested, concentrating hard on
keeping his voice natural as he took an extra chair from a table waiting for
clean up. He almost sighed with relief
when Heero let go and took a seat beside him.
"Wing, eh?" Chas provided a welcome distraction. "That was your Gundam, right? Old habits die hard, I guess."
That was too close.
"It was just the first thing that came to mind," Heero said,
his gazing intently at a blank spot on a sandstone wall across the street.
After a moment, a waiter appeared from inside bearing a tray
of water glasses and an armful of menus.
After distributing his load and firing off a quick round of questions,
he left with two orders for black coffee, one for café latte, one cola, and two
more assurances that just water was fine.
Under the table, Duo caught Heero's hand, running his thumb
over the other's palm; the skin was thick, and calloused, and very well
known. The former Wing pilot tensed at
the contact, throwing Duo a black look, which he ignored. Cocking his head at a questioning angle, he
mouthed "What's up?" behind his menu.
Heero pulled his hand free, covering the motion by taking a
drink of his water. The sudden squaring
of his shoulders, the flexing of the jaw, the way his brows drew down over his
nose and the corners of his mouth tightened all said in that loud, silent way
Heero had that his companion's concern was neither warranted, nor appreciated.
Duo watched Heero's profile, stung, for a long second before
turning back to the list of lunch special.
Okay, he thought, gritting his teeth and trying to brush aside a
flash irritation. His call. He turned his attention back to the list
of lunch specials.
He'd picked up enough German to puzzle out most of the
dishes. Cheese fondue, pasta with cream
sauce, a wide variety of sausages -- he decided it was probably safer to stay with
what he knew. At the moment, he wasn't
in the mood for surprises. Making up
his mind, he set the menu aside and tried not to let his gaze drift to the
rust-stained holes in the cement where the table had been bolted. They all but flashed a neon sign in their
call for attention -- but the waiter hadn't said anything. Duo would keep hoping he didn't. "Any suggestions?" he asked into the quiet
of the others' reading.
On Heero's far side, Noin shook her head, saying briefly,
"Never been here before." She tapped
something on her menu and tipped it towards Zechs. "Split with you? What are you going to have?"
tafelspitz with kohlroulade and salad," Zechs replied coolly.
Duo couldn't decide if the tone in his voice implied he was
making the best of a bad deal or was merely indifferent to whatever was put
before him. Tafelspitz -- beef with some
sort of sauce, he thought -- couldn't be that bad.
Before he could decide, Stepan spoke over Zechs' further
reply to Noin, following up on her earlier comment with, "The beginnings of a
new tradition, in fact." He wore an odd
half-smile when he replied to Duo, as if partaking in some private joke.
Heero looked up from his menu as Duo glanced between Stepan
and the others. "New tradition?" Heero asked.
Chas shot Stepan an obviously irritated glance. The Russian agent's smile curved a little
more widely and made Duo change his mind -- Chas was being baited, here, not
him. "What was the old tradition? I thought you said you got together Fridays
Zechs slid an ironic look at Chas, folding his hands
together below the tabletop. Belatedly remembering
a comment of Relena's made while she'd been visiting him during that state trip
of hers last fall, Duo removed his elbows from the table and leaned back in his
chair. "Occasionally traditions come up
for re-election," Zechs commented lightly. "This leads to new campaign promises."
Appealing to the agent seated opposite him, Chas said, "Lu,
you agreed with me."
"Only that they might not be interested, Chas," she replied,
nodding her thanks to the waiter when the man reappeared to distribute their
"You said you thought lunch was a good idea!"
"And it is," Noin protested. "But I didn't think in replacement of, I thought in addition to."
Stepan took his glass in hand, glancing down the table at
Chas. "You were the one who brought age into the equation." He had a look Duo easily recognized as
adding fuel to the fire and waiting to enjoy the results.
"Age?" Duo asked carefully; it was obvious that the 'they'
spoken of was himself and Heero.
"Chang wasn't coming, either, so I thought -- " Chas said
defensively. "Oh, hell! I give
up." He picked up his menu and
ostentatiously held it in front of his face.
"Sally, Chas, and I started getting together Fridays after
work when we first started," Noin explained to Duo. "None of us have lived here before, so we didn't know anyone else
to go out with in the evenings."
"We went to bars,"
Stepan said chidingly, "And played pool. It isn't like we did nothing but drink."
"So," Duo said, aligning all the pieces together with too much
ease and taking care to keep from sounding as exasperated as he felt, "you
decided to stop doing that because we're underage?" He listened to Chas' spluttering
explanations of "know you're not a kid" and "carded all the time" with only
half an ear. Damn, it was too bad Wufei
hadn't been here for this. Duo would
have to make sure to be the first to tell him. With Chas standing nearby, if he
could arrange it.