"You good?" he asked casually, eyes fixed on the backs of the pilot and co-pilot walking some twenty meters ahead. If it weren't for the gear, I would have flown commercial. If it weren't against regulations, I could have flown myself. I had the license -- ha, license! -- but I was sent out to assist in intel and assault, not fly. The Preventers bureaucracy didn't like muddling their waters by mixing things up.
I bumped my shoulder against his, deliberate enough for him to know I wasn't just stumbling from exhaustion or injury. I just wanted to feel him against me, no matter how briefly. "I'm good."
"You gotta report?"
"Yeah. Have to turn the gear back in to Reqs, first." He held out his hand in a silent offer, and though I didn't need to, I accepted, passing the handle of the wheeled cart over to him. Its drag and weight had been negligible, but somehow now, I felt at liberty to tilt my head one way, and then the other, to loosen up my neck muscles.
"Too bad your case isn't officially linked to mine," he commented idly. "Then you could report to me."
"It'll probably end up back on your desk for correlation. Or Wufei's desk. The local field office down there is taking care of following up on all of the supplies we found, in conjunction with the local law enforcement. I'm sure something in there will track back to one of the international circuits you've been working on."
"Great, give me more work, then. If I end up working late this week, you've got no one to blame but yourself." I smiled obligingly at his teasing, and he smiled back. "It's all them, then?"
Briefly, I lifted the case I carried in my other hand. "Dead hard drive. I've got data recovery to do."
"It get toasted?"
"Bullet." I had warned Friedman that there was little I could do against one of the alleged terrorists putting a hole in the data units, but there was maybe a little something I could pull out of my hat, now that it was after the fact. Reconstruction made my job harder, of course, but tech support here at HQ was the finest center for such things in the world for good reason. I had been allowed to walk away with the drive because there wasn't any unit down there that could get anything useful out of it, but still, it was strongly implied that I was to share whatever data I found with the locals. And I would, so long as I didn't think it was something they didn't need to know.
"Working late, then?"
I shook my head. "Think I'll get some sleep tonight instead, get a good start in the morning. By the time I finish with the reports, it'll probably be late enough. I can set some scans going tonight and have it ready to go for tomorrow."
"How late did the raid go?"
"You know how it is. The raid itself is over almost before you know it. It's the cleanup that takes you to dawn, and that's just what's on-site." Anticipation kept a person's edge sharp for a while, and then the adrenaline brought a person through the action to the other side, but after a certain point, it was just sheer stubbornness that kept a guy going. Maybe I had gotten my hands on the data without too much fuss simply because I managed to outlast the people I had been discussing the matter with.
"Don't suppose you slept on the plane."
With two strangers at the helm? Right. I twitched the strap of my backpack with my free hand, implying the presence of my laptop within. "Got an early start on those reports."
"Mind if I drop a snack off at your desk while you're reporting?"
I glanced at him sidelong and made an amused sound.
He held up a placating hand. "Hey, I'm not questioning your ability to take care of yourself or anything here. But you do forget to attend to the basics sometimes."
"Hey, I'm not the only one that forgets to eat or sleep every once in a while."
"No, but the next time I forget, it'll be your turn to fuss. This time, it's mine."
Couldn't argue with that logic. I hid a lopsided smile. "Fine. I won't object if you should leave me something on my desk, then."
He released a ghost of a chuckle. "Just for that, maybe I shouldn't."
"I wouldn't object to that, either."
His laugh this time had a little more substance to it. "I know Sally's given you the go-ahead on this stuff, man, but that doesn't mean-- No, wait, you were like this even before Sally okayed you. Never mind."
"I do what I have to." Despite the mild-mannered tech geek persona that I apparently cultivated without even trying, I would still do what I had to.
"Some things just don't change, do they?" he sighed cheerfully.
The wheels on the cart made a different sound when they transitioned from the concrete of the airfield walkway to the tiled interior hall. The regular beat as they hit the grout marked the moments that passed as I contemplated his rhetorical question. "Some things."
He seemed ready to question me on the topic, but something gave him pause, and whatever it was, it lasted long enough for us to get to the end of the hallway. Our paths would part here. He handed the rolling cart back to me with an almost apologetic air. "Well, break's over. Back to work. Dinner's on me tonight. If you're not done for the day when I get to your cube, I'm making you done for the day. Got it?"
"Okay." He squeezed my shoulder, letting his hand fall away via a smooth glide down my arm. "I'll see you later then."
"Aa." I watched his retreating back for only a few seconds before I resumed the long trudge toward the office of requisitions.
I grunted neutrally at Frasier, letting that serve as both an answer and a greeting, and flicked the bobblehead toy affixed to the top of his cubicle wall as I passed. Frontlines, indeed, only I would be referring to the Offices of Triplicate. Naturally, they were running short-staffed, and there was a wait before someone could process the return of my gear. After signing on three different lines, I got to visit the evidentiary office to get the damaged hard drive certified. Four stickers, three bags, and two signatures later, I was finally allowed to sink back into the comfort of my private domain. It was an open-air cubicle, but everything was where I wanted it to be. No one walked past it on their way to somewhere else unless the building was on fire. It was filled with my clutter, and while an eyebrow or two might be raised, there was no one to suggest I have it any other way.
I logged in to my workstation, scanned the messages that had stacked up in my inbox while I was gone, then committed myself to finishing with the bureaucracy before getting too settled. I got up, waved to Trix on the way to my CO's open door, and knocked on the frame. He gestured at me to enter and close the door behind me.
"Yuy," Schafer said, pointing at the chair in front of his desk. "You look beat."
Did I? I must have been getting old, then. "I just got through with processing," I answered, seating myself. I liked the chair in my office better.
He snorted derisively. I liked him. He didn't have too much patience with all the red tape. Actually, he blamed me for having to put up with it -- if I'd just taken the damn job, he wouldn't have had to. What would he do if he knew I'd supported his promotion in my place? "You'll be happy to know, then, that I called ahead to Minchella's office for you."
"Not really," I murmured, knowing I wasn't sotto voce, but maintaining the illusion anyway.
He maintained the illusion, too, and pretended he didn't hear that. "The AD's busy for the rest of the day, so he'll make do with your written report. You lucked out, Yuy."
"Ah." Now that I could be happy about, and I expressed my gratitude with a tip of my head. Minchella had jurisdiction over interdepartmental affairs. My marching orders usually came from Schafer through him, and I would have been reporting to him next. The assistant director wasn't an inherently annoying man, but he worked under the shadow of Une. Any other office, and he'd be a fairly important man, but it was hard to aspire to greatness when the ultimate in rank sat in an office several floors above you.
Schafer waved his fingers toward his computer monitor. "I just got the preliminary report from the guys in the local branch. Looks like everything ran smoothly down there."
I nodded. He'd also be getting a copy of my written report.
"I hear you saw some action, too."
It was barely worth mentioning, in my opinion. "I was the most qualified on the team for splicing into the network and power lines."
Schafer blinked at me for a moment before shaking his head. "I heard you took out two guys on your own."
Oh. That. Also hardly worth mentioning. "They presented an imminent threat to the mission. I was the only one available to take them out."
"You weren't expected to take part in that kind of action," he commented mildly.
I took no offense. I wasn't, after all. "I apologize if that generates extra paperwork for you."
He coughed, covering his amusement. "This is the part where I remind you that there are people on the company payroll that are always available for you to talk to, if you find yourself dwelling on the violence you unexpectedly encountered." I kept a steady look on him, and he laughed. "Hey, it's part of the script. Don't blame me."
I waited until I was able to say something with a straight face before I spoke. "I'll keep that in mind, sir."
"I'm sure you will," he retorted dryly. He didn't know my complete history, but he knew my history in the organization, which was more than enough to prove the reminder unnecessary. "You brought work home with you?"
"Yes, sir. Hard drive with a hole in it."
"Will you be needing any help with that?"
"Enough with the 'sir'," he grunted impatiently, almost but not quite rolling his eyes. "You and I both know where you stand in this department."
"I stand within the department, sir," I answered blandly.
We swapped steady stares for a couple of seconds before he dropped his eyes. "God knows why," he muttered, but he let the matter pass. "Matthews will be your contact again when you have something you need to pass along to the locals. Sounded like they had plenty of other evidence to plow through, though. Do what you need to do today to make yourself feel like the overly responsible agent you are, then get out of here for the night. Understood?"
I left his office, and nearly ran into Trix around the corner of a cube as I made my way back to my area. "Hey," she greeted cheerfully. "Good trip?"
I made a neutral sound and continued along my way, with her trailing along behind me. I've never quite understood the completely banal questions people asked after missions. It wasn't as if I were being recruited for surveillance at a tropical resort.
"Oh, and your boytoy came by." I ignored the peevish note in her voice. "Dropped something off at your desk, I think."
I kept my smile to myself as I reached my sanctum and found a ration bar and a juice box sitting squarely in the middle of my workspace. I plucked the post-it note off and read the scrawl that was Duo's lazy handwriting, the one he used when he didn't want the casual passerby to be able to interpret his words. Best the breakroom has to offer. Sorry. Make it up to you tonight.
Even without eating the gift, I found I suddenly had the energy to answer at least a couple of pointless questions.
"Then why I am the one getting the foot rub?" He squirmed happily on the sofa, the rest of his body expressing the joy his toes could not while held within my hands.
I rubbed soothing shapes into the sole of his foot, imagining that I was marking him, branding him with my special, hidden symbols. It wasn't good to be possessive, to try to lay claim to a free man's soul, but it was reassuring to think that some sign of me could linger on with him, wherever his life's journey led him. "Because I find this relaxing."
He sighed contentedly as I switched to his other foot. "Well, hmm. I feel like I should argue with that, but this is too damn good."
I couldn't help feeling smug. "Then stop complaining, and question not life's simple pleasures."
"Mmmm. Simplify," he murmured to himself, and I wondered if he could feel the way I wanted inscribe the word into his foot, that maybe from there it could seep gently into his heart. He felt receptive to me. I made a note to myself to turn his mind to goo more often. "It was quiet in your office today. Was someone out?"
Though I had come to know him for five years, and slept by his side for three, I still had difficulty seeing how his mind leapt from one thought to the next. Trying to discern the patterns made for an interesting hobby, one Zero had long since surrendered into my hands with a furious huff of exasperation. "No, not that I noticed."
"Hmmm." His heel shifted as he pushed forward into my massaging thumbs. I discreetly coerced his foot a little farther from my crotch. I wanted to relax, but not that way. Maybe tomorrow night. "I usually get a little more noise when I drop by to visit."
"Maybe because I wasn't there."
"Heh, since when are you the life of the party, Yuy?"
"The noise is meant to tease me, not you." If there were more women in the office other than just Trix, I could imagine there being catcalls and whistles. Instead, some things were said about balls and chains and sweethearts, announcing his presence in the office, along with a few 'hey, how's it going's. The others spotted him earlier than I could at the back of the office. There was that small disadvantage, but the benefits outweighed it.
He made a sound to express mock disgruntlement. "I can be teased just as much as the next guy."
"Do you remember that time earlier, who was it, Joel? He told me my girlfriend was here to see me, and then you got in his face and smiled and told him to say that again?"
There was a short pause, and then he levered himself up on his elbows to look at me down the length of his body. "Did I do that?"
"Oh." He settled back down with a thoughtful look on his face. "Must have been having a bad day or something, then. I didn't mean anything by it."
"Hn." Didn't mean anything personal or offensive, sure, but that didn't mean he hadn't been serious. There were still some old barbs stuck beneath his skin, the wounds healed and scarred over with the needles still embedded within.
"And that Trix of yours," he mused toward the ceiling, shifting to pull his braid out from under him. "Was she having a bad day today, too?"
"Not that I'm aware of," I answered cautiously, wondering how long they had spent in each other's company unsupervised. Just long enough for Duo to drop by my desk, I had thought. I hadn't been in with Schafer for that long. "Why?"
"She didn't look happy to see me at all. I know she's not jealous or something, you said, but seriously..." He took a moment to twiddle with the tuft at the end of his hair. "I don't think she likes me that much."
I couldn't help it. I suppressed my snicker enough to turn it into a choked snort, but that was as much as I could manage.
He got up on one elbow again to shoot me a mild glare. "What?"
Since I had already given myself away, I let the laugh bloom into more of a chuckle. It faded as his silence stretched, and then I was left blinking at him. "...You're kidding, right?"
"Um, no. What's so funny? Am I right?"
"Just a little," I hedged uncomfortably, trying to infuse my answer with humor. Sure, they weren't at each other's throats, but when they smiled at each other, they were baring their teeth.
"Really?" He sat up entirely, pulling his feet out of my lap. One went to the floor. The other he drew inward almost defensively. "Well, why not?" He stared impatiently at me while I treated him with a faintly incredulous look. "No, really. Why not? Is it that obvious or something?"
Duo was no Quatre, but I'd always believed him to be pretty decent at reading people. Reading anyone except him and me, anyway. "Well.... you don't like her very much, either, you know."
He looked genuinely confused. "What are you talking about? She's nice. We get along..."
I turned in my seat to face him more squarely, using the time the action bought me to think. It was difficult enough to explain that I generally preferred not to try. When I did try, something somewhere was always sidestepped and missed. But now the issue had been brought forth plainly. Duo had asked himself. And if he wanted to understand this, then I would do what I could to help. There could be no better time than now. But would it break that fragile balance? Or perhaps the better question to ask was, did I want to break that balance?
"You two get along because you know I'm not happy when you don't get along. I consider myself fortunate to have people with such regard for me."
"You're stalling." His eyes had narrowed, and I didn't know whether that was because I was putting off his question, or because I had implied an equality between the two of them.
I sighed softly. I wanted to break the stalemate, but I didn't want to break the balance. But I knew as well as anyone else that sometimes, things had to be broken before they could be put back together. "I get the feeling that... you don't like it that the two of you know a different Heero Yuy."
He processed that for a few long seconds, and I imagined that I could see the dark thoughts flickering in his eyes before he grinned. "Yeah, but at least I know the real Heero Yuy."
Frustration swept through me, and I couldn't banish it quickly enough. At least I stopped myself from snapping at him, but the irritated edge still crept in there. "No, you don't, Duo. Or at least, the Heero you know is no more or less real than the Heero she knows."
"Whoa, I was just kidding, Heero." He held a hand up in that universal 'calm down' gesture.
"I'm not." He really did consider his answer a joke, but I refused to let him get away with that, not this time. "The two of you knew me at different times in my life. That's it. If you saw different things, then it's only because of the different circumstances, but it was all me. I don't know why you can't accept that. You didn't miss anything. Anything that I was then is still here now." I remembered having a conversation like this, once upon a time. Once upon several times, really. Every time I thought I had him convinced that it really wasn't so strange that I seemed different from what I had been when he had first gotten to know me during the war, it turned out I was wrong.
"Hey, wait a minute here. Are you pinning this whole thing on me? You think I'm jealous of her or something?"
I could see the annoyance and pique that jumped into his expression, and needing just a few moments away from that, I got off the sofa, grabbed my empty mug of tea off the side table and headed for the kitchen. Obviously, I had misjudged something. This wasn't where I had wanted this conversation to go.
I heard his quiet footsteps come to a halt at the threshold of the kitchen, but I stubbornly ignored him as I rinsed my mug out far more thoroughly than necessary. Yes, I was going to finish this discussion, but only after I figured out where I wanted it to go from here. When I had pushed the limits of decent cup-washing and finally had to set the thing down in the drying rack, I took my time drying my hands on the dish towel hanging near the sink, and only when the spaces between my fingers were most assuredly dry beyond reproach, I turned.
He was leaning against the doorframe, watching me warily. I watched him back, and then because it was my turn to speak, I did. "I don't think you're jealous of her."
He waited a few seconds to see if I would continue, but when I didn't, he took it upon himself to prompt me. "But you obviously think something."
It was a little bit of a question, a little bit of a challenge. "I think..." I hesitated, then committed myself to what fraction of my thoughts I wanted to share tonight. "... that for whatever reasons... you aren't fond of those five years I spent away from everyone. And I think you take that out on her, just because she's a part of that time."
There was no immediate response to that. I went to his side and slid my arms around his midsection. "All of me," I murmured over his shoulder. "What you see and what you don't. It's all right here, right in front of you, for whenever you want it."
I disengaged and went into the small room of our apartment that served as a home office, closing the door halfway behind me. I didn't want to shut him out, but I thought the both of us would appreciate a little time alone with our thoughts.
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST