"Hey," I answer softly, smiling. I lift a hand to rub at my eyes. "Time?"
"Yeah. Sorry to wake you, even if you did tell me to."
I shake my head. "Wasn't sleepy."
"Yeah?" His expression turns playful. "Then why were you sleeping?"
That wasn't my intention. I just zone out sometimes, lost to my thoughts as Zero and I work to get my brain back up to speed. Left to my own devices, I'd stare out into space, but it makes him uncomfortable. It reminds him of how they found me in that room at Olin, upright and breathing, but obviously not quite there. As a courtesy, then, I at least lie down so he knows I'm taking a planned trip elsewhere. I'm still with him. But lying down makes it easy to fall asleep.
Answering takes too much effort, so I just shrug. He ruffles my bangs, and then his hand trails down to cradle my cheek as he studies me with concern. "Are you sure you're okay? It's been a week, and your brain's still mush. Not that you're not adorable when you're mushy, but..."
"Not adorable," I pout, pushing myself upright with his aid.
He kisses me on the forehead. "Cute, then. Whatever. Look. I'm all about the whole 'not showing weakness in front of others' thing, and the 'doctors suck' thing, but really, Heero. You gather all your strength to make yourself presentable to the docs, and then we get you back here and you pretty much pass out again."
"Getting better," I protest. I pass out for shorter periods of time, don't I? Things got much better after those stubborn doctors stopped zapping me with their EM 'therapy'. Of course I need to show them my strength. Otherwise they'll decide I need another 'treatment', and everything's going to go to hell again. Just a little more time to defrag my brain, and I'll be good as new.
He takes my hand, watches his thumb rub over it. "I'm just... worried, that's all."
I flip my hand over and squeeze. "I'm okay."
I woke up, not remembering how I got here. Disoriented, I blink my eyes open until they focus on the upholstery mere centimeters from my face. It looked like a sofa. A vaguely familiar one. Not the one in our apartment. Not the one at work.
It took a minute, but it finally came to me. The company suite Quatre had lent us after I finally convinced the doctors to let me go. Duo had helped me with that. I'd still had to go in every day and check in with them, but we'd managed to persuade them that I would do better out of the sterile environment of the infirmary. Duo had promised solemnly to watch over me during my recovery. He'd taken his job seriously.
How had I ended up here? My mind must have taken that logical leap. I was recovering from a period of enforced de-sync again. This place had been safe the last time that had happened.
I started to stretch slowly, finally thinking about flipping over and getting a better look at the apartment when I realized that someone was in the room with me. I whipped around, and the room kept spinning long after I had stopped moving, but luckily, my guest wasn't hostile. At least, I didn't think he was. It was still hard to think through the haze in my head. Everyone seemed like an enemy right now. But if he had wanted to hurt me, he would have done it while I had been unaware of my surroundings.
He waited patiently for me to gather my thoughts on the sofa across the coffee table from mine. I stalled, asking a meaningless question to buy me some time. "How did you find me?" My voice came out raspy and harsh.
He smiled. "I wish I could say that I'm just that good, but in truth, I was just alerted when the suite was opened without it being scheduled. I'm staying in one of the other suites while I'm in town, of course. The security for all of them is tied together."
I forced myself into an upright position, pondering his boyishly innocent expression. I was sure that part of that was true, just as sure as I was that Quatre really was just that good. "What are you doing here?"
His smile faded. "You were gone an awful long time, Heero."
"How long?" I asked, needing to know before he told me anything more. Knowing what day it was would help me orient myself.
That long? Or that not-long? My mind kept flip-flopping on its perception of time, unable to decide between judging my period of incarceration to be a short eternity, or being worried at how much time had slipped away from me. I glanced out the window. The sun had gone down recently.
He watched me critically as I reset my internal clock, and then continued when he deemed me ready. "I knew that IAB had more than a few questions in mind, but I hadn't expected you to disappear like that. I made some inquiries. They told me you were put on administrative leave, pending investigation of your unauthorized possession of the Zero system. And then they started questioning us." He paused for another smile, though this one had a bit of a chill to it. "You should thank them, Heero. They gave Duo someone else to be mad at for a while."
"I tried," I whispered. "I tried to stop them. I..." I shook my head. My efforts had probably just made things worse, but what was done was done. "Aren't you... Shouldn't you be..."
He brushed my concerns aside with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry. The world hasn't fallen apart yet. In any case, you have some good friends, Heero. RJ came to see us."
"RJ?" I repeated dumbly, taking a second to connect the name to a person. He was the researcher down in R&D who would have led the Zero project, if Brisbois hadn't stolen it before that could happen. He had continued with his interest in neural applications, despite his lack of a specimen to study. I'd kept in touch with him, helping him out occasionally, or being helped out in turn, though he probably didn't know it.
Quatre leaned back casually in his seat. "Apparently, IAB thought he could be informative. We thought they were just holding you -- of course, we wanted to get you out, as soon as we could find you -- but we didn't think you were in any danger until he came to us. They'd asked him some strange things, about EM effects, how Zero works, how neural interfaces work. They asked him about you, your history and your 'therapy'. He thought things sounded fishy, and thought you should know. I gather the two of you have spoken a lot about such things over the years? He tried to contact you, but you weren't answering your e-mails or your phone. He asked around, heard you were on leave, but also that you were working with us. So he dropped by looking for you. Told us some interesting things."
"You didn't find me." I wasn't sure if that was an accusation or not.
"You broke out," he answered pointedly. "And unfortunately, the world hasn't fallen apart yet, but it will soon. We had to hope you could take care of yourself for a while, because goodness knows this world can't handle its own affairs very well."
A lot of questions came up, but the one that made it to the top of the list dealt with self-preservation. "Why are you here?"
"I have no intentions of telling anyone where you are. Even the others don't know yet. You're safe here." My expression must have showed some doubt because his eyes narrowed intently. "I know you aren't feeling very trusting right now, Heero, but believe me, we're on your side. We want to protect you."
He was right. I wasn't feeling very trusting right now. "Sherwood said the same thing."
"Sherwood was an idiot."
Images cascaded haphazardly through my mind, leaving tantalizing pieces of the whole picture, but not quite enough to put things together. "I... fought some people. What happened to them?"
"Don't worry. No one's dead."
"Not even Sherwood?"
"Not even Sherwood," he repeated, a wry tilt to his lips. He heard what I did, that cross between fear and hope. I'd later blame it on my unstable state of mind at the time. "Which helps you, of course. It's always hard explaining away corpses. We'll get this straightened out, Heero."
I still didn't believe him, but I would continue talking to him with that same sense of inevitability I often felt around Quatre. If he wanted something out of me, he'd get it anyway. Given his mystical powers, I sure hoped he was on my side. "Was Duo on my side?" I asked, unable to stop myself.
"Of course he was. Do you really think he'd be on their side?"
I covered my face briefly with my hand. "I saw it so many times..." I shook my head to banish the images, but I could see he understood my meaning.
"I'm sure you saw a lot of things, Heero," he said, his voice serene and intense. "Don't let them get to you. Duo's... He's had a few days to put things in perspective. And you know that, no matter how angry he is, he'll protect you. You're one of us."
I probably showed doubt again. I could separate the dreams from the reality, now that I had a clearer mind to work with, but that didn't mean that sense of alienation had faded yet. Ignoring Quatre for a moment, I devoted some time to trying to allay my own fears. I decided that I may or may not have been one of them, but if there was one thing I was sure of, it was that Duo wouldn't side with the IAB. Especially when they were sure to ask questions that hit a little close to home. Especially not when they were asking questions during a world crisis. "Yet? The world hasn't fallen apart yet?'"
He shifted slightly in his seat, somehow becoming slightly less conversational. "A man was shot and killed by authorities on Wednesday during a protest that turned violent. He's become a martyr to the cause now."
I winced, seeing the futures spin wildly out of control. Now that I was in a clean environment, Zero was back to normal, but I couldn't recover as quickly as the computer could. I needed a few seconds to rein in the possibilities before I was ready to continue. "The radicals have taken the next step, then?"
"Not officially. We suspect they'll want everything in place for their coming-out party before they send out the invites. It's easier for them to work before tipping their hand. But they're out there alright, working the crowd, spreading the word."
"And the government?"
"About as you might expect. Too little, too late, and all self-righteous when it comes to dealing with terrorists." He sat straight up in his seat and smoothed some wrinkles in his shirt. "I need to be getting back. There's an APB out on you right now, as a 'rogue' agent, no doubt armed and dangerous, with a bit of the implication that you may have something from your job that you'd be willing to sell to the radicals. Please feel free to stay here as long as you'd like. You needn't worry about the lights. We have people in and out of our suites all the time. I'll register this place as used so you won't have to worry about anyone else dropping by. We keep our suites well-stocked and ready for guests at all time, so there are non-perishable foods in the kitchen. Not very delicious, I'm sure, but they'll keep you going. Please do avail yourself of our complete toiletry sets. I don't think I've ever seen you with that much growth on your face, and it really doesn't suit you."
I stared at him. "I... don't remember this place being so well-stocked."
"Well, we've acquired a hotel chain since then. It's really the amenities that make the difference. There should be a small washer-dryer hookup in one of these closets. We don't have any spare clothes on hand for you, but there should be a fluffy bathrobe somewhere in here that you can use, so you'll survive."
I was pretty sure he was just making fun of me by this point, but I still appreciated it. "Quatre..."
He paused in the act of getting up and pinned me with an open, expectant look. He probably knew what I was going to say even before I did, but he was still going to make me say it. Bastard.
"I..." I stared at my knees, feeling suddenly that I had traded one prison for another. But at least this one came with fluffy bathrobes. Which hardly mattered to me at the moment. There was only one thing that kept floating to the top of my mind. "Does he... Could you..."
He settled back down on the edge of his seat cushion, leaning forward intently until I looked up and he pinned me with his eyes. "Like I said, Heero, you ought to thank them. Duo was quite angry with you -- even for disappearing again -- but then they brought him in for questioning, and he got angry at them. And then he listened to what they were saying, and thought some of it sounded mighty familiar... Like I said, Heero. He's still quite angry at you. You're just not the only one anymore."
It almost made sense to me, but I studied him instead, not quite willing to believe. In all the times that I had seen it happen, things had never once turned out in my favor. Maybe he really had gained some perspective on things. But I had made him angry. I started this. I was responsible for Sherwood making him angry. And whatever he had heard from Sherwood, it had probably hurt to realize, and I was responsible for that, too. Things still weren't working out well for me. "What broke him?" I asked softly, resigned to knowing the extent of my crimes.
Quatre adopted another of those barely-civil smiles. "Do you promise not to kill anyone?"
A flash of protective anger washed through me, here and gone again in the blink of an eye. "No."
"Do you promise to at least think it through first?"
"I always think things through."
Good enough for him. "Your friend RJ told us some interesting things. Thankfully, not all right away, or Duo would have hurt someone, first time he was in for questioning. They've decided they're interested in Zero, you know. And they've also figured out that they aren't getting Zero out of you any time soon. So in exploring the possibilities with your scientist friend, they may have asked a question or two hinting at carving your brain up for the sake of science."
::And they wonder why we would be so willing to kill them all without remorse.::
::Down, Zero.:: I didn't like the way Quatre was looking at me, as if he knew what dark thoughts were running through my mind. Not just knew, but knew. There was a reason he hadn't needed Zero in those final battles at the end of the war, I realized abruptly. He hadn't needed Zero at all.
He smiled again as he stood. "Enjoy your vacation, Heero."
I watched as he left the suite, listening for the beep that announced the locks sliding home. As soon as it went off, I went to the door and recoded the keypad. It wouldn't stop him from getting in again if he wanted to, but it could at least stall him for a bit. Once that was done, I dropped the blinds, prowled the apartment a few times to make myself feel better, and noticed a case sitting next to Quatre's seat that probably didn't belong there. Warily, I opened it to find a laptop within. I knew better than to think Quatre had left it behind accidentally.
I grunted irritably and let it be for now. The suite was secure enough for me to finally think about standing down. With very few choices at my disposal, I did as Quatre had commanded and made use of the suite's facilities. There really was a fluffy bathrobe in one of the closets. I tossed my clothes into the washer-dryer and took a shower.
Quatre was probably taking liberties with his paraphrasing of the situation. I repeated that to myself several times to convince myself of that. But Duo had probably taken liberties with his interpretation as well. He seemed to have a habit of doing that, especially as his temper drifted toward the more volatile end of the spectrum. I thought about their insinuations, and I thought about Duo, and instead of feeling hope, I just winced. For him, for me, for this big stupid mess we'd gotten ourselves into.
Feeling more in tune with myself, but no more rested, I took a quick inventory of the apartment, dined on an breakfast-to-go cereal bar and a bottle of water, and then collapsed into the bed and fell asleep before I could miss my own.
"I said you could come by any time, didn't I?"
There's the briefest of moments when the expression of a shy little boy crosses his face, but it's quickly replaced by a nervousness hidden with the dissembling of a person long used to hiding. "And you don't mind me taking up space in your bed?"
"Have I ever? I even have a whole full-sized one this time."
"Welcome change from a bunk, yeah, but..."
"What, are you volunteering to sleep on the sofa? I'm not." It's a fine piece of furniture to sit on, but not so much for the sleeping. Honestly, I don't spend much time on it.
He eyes it critically. "Yeah, it would be a bit of a snug fit. But hey...." He snags my arm and pulls me down onto the cushion with him. Our hips bump against each other. It's not a particularly spacious two-seater, especially with his jacket slung over the arm on one side, one of my lab books on the other, but it fits well in my small apartment. "Makes a good date sofa, a good loooooveseat. Yuy, you sly dog, you."
"I bought it from a senior that was graduating," I inform him as his arm settles over my shoulder. I regard the appendage with a bit of bemusement, but let it be. "Good way to pick up cheap things you don't really have to think about."
He assimilates that piece of sideways advice before he grins. "At least you don't have to think about whether or not the guy ever had sex on the sofa. Unless he was really short."
My nose wrinkles in distaste. "I hadn't ever thought that, thank you very much."
"Hey, you gotta think about these things, where things come from."
Clever of him, to throw my words back at me, though in an entirely different context. "Alright, well, I've thought about it. Can I stop now?"
His smirk goes mischievous. "You know the best way to stop thinking that stuff is to christen the sofa for yourself, yeah?" He kisses my cheek, but before he is gone, I have my face turned to meet his. Our lips brush hesitantly, our first of the night, of several months, but we fall back into the groove with little effort.
He leans into me and I start to give way, but then I remember to think, and with a soft sigh, I hold my ground, push back until he is willing to follow my lead, and then I let the kisses trail off. "Why are you here, Duo?" I ask softly against the corner of his mouth.
Refusing to yield immediately, he tries to pretend I didn't say anything, but the nuzzling comes to a resigned halt soon enough. He tries to back off a little, but I follow, wanting nothing between us but our warmth. His eyes flicker back and forth with a repressed anxiety, but he blinks it away and prepares to speak.
"Don't be flippant, Duo," I forestall him gently. "I know I said you should come out here some time. Yes, of course I meant it. But you didn't come out here, just because I invited you." I shut my eyes and let my forehead rest against his, keeping him in place with an arm draped over his shoulder. "You don't need to tell me, if you have an answer to that. I wasn't even planning on asking you. But whyever you came here... I hope it wasn't just for this."
His hands glide thoughtfully down my arms, over my back. In the end, he sighs. "We don't even know what this is, Heero." He pulls away just a little, just enough to look me in the eyes. "I like you, Heero. In a package deal kind of way. I said that before, yeah? But, hell, Heero, you're... you're a big complex package. I don't know half the things in that package. Think you could let me explore your package?" He unveils a hopeful grin at me.
We kiss until we nearly fall off the sofa, then decide it's time for bed. I have an exam in the morning.
"You can read it if you like." I catch a peek of the cover before it slides back into its place. Something from one of my philosophy classes. "I said you can poke around whatever you want."
His hand skims the spines. "You have a lot of books."
"I have more in the closet."
"No way?" He looks to me as if in permission, and when I wiggle my fingers in the direction of the door, he heads over to take a peek inside. I proceed with pulling off my shoes and dropping off my bag. When I note the silence from the closet, I go to stand by his side. "You still have it?" he asks softly, without prompting.
"Hm?" I crane my neck to look around the doorframe at what he's talking about, but he pulls out the item in question instead. My Preventers jacket. "Of course."
He fingers the bump in the collar. "I don't know what I was thinking..."
I got the full story out of him during my recovery, when I finally had the time to remember what I had seen from Zero's visual feed at Olin. The signal from the requisitioned car had led them to the base. The tracer in the jacket Duo had given me had led them to my position within the base. He'd stuck the bug in there in a fit of pique, or maybe humor. He hadn't wanted me to disappear without a trace again. When he finally confessed and offered to remove it, I told him to leave it where it was. "So you can always find me," I remind him with a smile, laying my fingers atop his.
His expression goes soft with the memory before he shakes his head with a small laugh and puts the jacket back on the rack.
"Well, you can find my closet, anyway," I say to lighten the mood a little, knowing he isn't feeling receptive to such things at the moment. "I don't wear it much, for obvious reasons."
He shuts the closet door and we head back toward the sofa. "It'd make an impression."
I detour to the kitchen for a glass of juice. "I have a cover story, by the way."
"Mm-hm. I was a member of the Sanq National Guard, though I don't spread it around much."
"Hmm. Yeah, I guess that sort of explains a lot of things, doesn't it? Not bad."
"If I ever slip up about knowing someone I probably shouldn't, luckily everybody who was anybody probably passed through Sanq at some time. And by the way, Ian thinks Noin is 'totally hot'." Duo chortles, stopping short of a guffaw by strength of will. I continue. "Fortunately, Relena isn't his type. She's only 'kinda cute'."
"Which is good," he squeezes out between laughs. "Otherwise you'd have to castrate him, and I don't think all the cover in the world is going to explain that away."
The morning was quickly approaching noon by the time I woke up again, but it had been real sleep this time, haunted only by memories, not visions. Memories I could deal with.
They lingered for a bit, causing me to pause for reflection before rolling out of bed. Had that been about where things had gone sideways? I had a cover story prepared to explain my political stance, and whatever combat-oriented quirks I might have had that I couldn't suppress, but only in case someone had ever asked. It hadn't been a total lie, anyway. I had spent time in Sanq while Noin had been organizing her defenses. I'd fought on Sanq's behalf. I met enough people while I was there to put down valid references. I'd gotten part of my scholarship money based on that story, knowing that Relena wouldn't mind. Given the opportunity, I was sure she'd choose to fully fund my education, but that wasn't what I had wanted.
But the cover had been a mask to protect my past, not distort my present. I'd gone there for the learning, both academic and social. College hadn't just been a way to pass the time while I sorted myself out.
Maybe that was why Duo hadn't managed more than a few semesters. He'd always seen his time in school as a pit stop on his way to somewhere else. He'd always been so impatient to get to that 'somewhere else', too, measuring himself against some unknown standard and deciding he had fallen behind the curve. He rushed it. I let him, thinking that maybe I was wrong. We all had our own paces, after all. Hadn't I said that often enough?
And then later, when I'd had the time to reconsider, maybe it was too late. I'd thought we could still work on it, but by then, he'd decided he was done with the 'transition' phase. Done with this self-exploration thing and ready to tackle the real world.
I sighed and forced myself out of bed. It was too early in the morning to be hurting so much.
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST