- 18 -

I wasn't surprised by the knock I got on my door that night.  The circumstances were the same: same time, same 'melancholy'... it seemed only natural that I get the same knock on my door.  I padded over to the door and opened it, barely even giving my visitor a glance of welcome before stepping to the side to let him in.

His hand didn't go towards the light switch this time, but I was prepared.  Some strange sense of nostalgia or something had made me activate the faint nightlight installed on the wall next to the bathroom door.  While the door was still open, Duo took advantage of the greater light from the hall to plop himself aggressively down on my bed, favoring me with a frustrated look.  "You know, Yuy, sometimes you... you just... augh!"  He threw himself down onto the bed in a huff.

Blinking, I shut the door, cutting off the light with some vague hopes that perhaps in the pseudo-darkness, everything would make sense again.  I waited for my eyes to adjust before taking a seat at the foot of the bed next to him.  "What did I do this time?"

He leveled a glare at me.  "You're doing it again!"

"Doing what?"  I didn't feel the need to keep the exasperation from my voice.

He deflated rather suddenly, surprising me.  "Doing... being all... calm and stuff."

"When have you known me not to be calm?" I asked pointedly.

A tired, edged laugh came forth from his mouth.  "Alright, fine.  You know, even when you were screaming at yourself and pieces of a spaceship about succeeding and living and stuff... I always thought you did it rather calmly, like you were just stating a well-known fact.  Dammit, you were going to live through that; you were going to beat it and it was gonna like it.  End of story."  He laughed again, flailing his hand a bit on the covers until he could pat me on the knee.  "Heh, you are such a crazy sonuvabitch sometimes."

I wouldn't disagree.  "Is that what I was doing this time?"

A sober silence fell between us.  His fingers pressed into my leg as they attempted to curl with tension.  I put my hand on top of his and convinced it to relax.  "You scare me sometimes, Yuy," he said quietly, still staring carefully at the ceiling.   "You understand it too well."

There was no question what 'it' was.  I tried to make light of it.  "That is what I was called in for, isn't it?"

"'World's foremost expert', was it?"  He snorted.   "Who the hell made that title up?"

"Wasn't me.  I certainly didn't ask for the position, either."

"Heero... Really truly... Is Zero just a computer to you?"

I shook my head.  "Far from it.  Well, yes, it's just a computer, as in it's not the monster that hides beneath the bed, but... it's no more 'just a computer' than Deathscythe was 'just a mobile suit'."

"You're fond of the mobile suit analogies, aren't you?"

I shrugged with a wry smile.  It was easier to speak in analogies than it was to speak of more momentous, personal things.  I could express more without having to say anything at all.   I'd have thought Duo would seize such an opportunity to speak indirectly.  "Stick with what you know, right?"

He smiled faintly in response, but it faded.  "And you know Zero."

"Not in a biblical sense."

"Ack!"  He shuddered violently, lifting his hands to his eyes to scrub vigorously at the image being presented on the inside of his eyelids.  "Get it out!  Get it out!  Oooh, make it stop, Heero!"

Oops.  Had I traumatized him?  I'd been told my sense of humor could have that effect on people.  I reached out tentatively and touched him on the shoulder.  His whimpering stopped, his fingers cracked apart, and he peeked through the spaces at me.  Two seconds later, his hands were removed altogether and his body untensed, but his expression remained pensive.

Finally, he took my hand in his own and stared at it.  "You know... I keep looking over, expecting to see the boy I knew..."   He turned his eyes to the rest of me.  "Only to see the man I'm getting to know."

I took possession of our hands and went over his with my own, conducting a surface examination to find familiar calluses and trace life lines and love lines and all the other lines whose meaning I had never learned.  "Why do you keep being surprised by what you find?"

His brow rose in an inquisitive fashion.  "Do I?"

"You do," I confirmed.  "Just now... I think you were startled by my sense of humor."

He hid behind a small laugh.  "Oh, so that *was* a joke.  Phew."

"Or when I was cooking," I continued, not about to let him stop me.  "Or any time I mention a friend of mine from school.  Or when I laugh.  Or--"

"Hey, I have a right to be surprised by you having green hair."

"It's only a little green."  That mild response seemed to be my new standard.  "I'd be more surprised if you dyed your hair green."

"Oh, nuh-uh, not gonna happen."

I smiled, and caught him at it again.  "There.  See?  You're doing it again."  Only as an afterthought did I notice I had echoed his words from just minutes previous.

"I am--"  He halted before a complete denial could come from his lips.  "Well... okay, maybe just a little.  Come on, you said it yourself.  The war was a different sort of time."

I nodded amiably.  "It was.  Still... you never quite seem... happy with what you find when you look at me.  Is that..."  I stared at our hands for a few moments, trying to reconcile the difference in impressions.  "Is that just how it is these days?"  If that was the case, then it just seemed pointless to have brought up the matter of our physical intimacy.

It was gratifying when he chewed on his lip for a moment in thought, idly swinging our joined hands back and forth a bit.  In the end, he shrugged uncomfortably.  "Yeah, maybe a little.... I should probably stop doing that, huh?"

Another shrug sufficed for an answer.  "Can you?"

He pinned me with a curiously intent look.  "Do you want me to?"

The day I was cowed by another person's gaze would be a long time in coming.  That didn't mean I couldn't shift slightly in my seat in a manner that might have been construed as uncomfortably.   "It'd be nice.  Why aren't you liking what you're finding?"

"Hm."  His thoughts turned inwards for the space of several long breaths.  "It's silly, really.  I do like what I'm finding.  It just... I dunno.  Rubs me the wrong way or something.  Makes me feel inadequate.  Piques my curiosity.  Maybe I just don't like surprises.  Whatever.  I dunno."

I picked up on the 'inadequate' part, despite his half-hearted effort to bury it with other possibilities.  There it was again, him expressing dissatisfaction with the way his life had turned.   With an impulse I had never experienced before, I felt compelled to give him a hug.  I played with his hand instead, watching as my fingers danced their way down his arm to rest against the warm, firm curve of his bicep.  His frame had gained some substance over the years.  "What did you come in here for?"

"I..."  He avoided eye contact and chose to stare at the ceiling again.  "I was just talking to Trowa... and Quatre... about you and Zero.  About how... well, I may have said some less than complimentary things that I may or may not have meant.  And he was telling me how... unforgiving some of that may have been.  And I listened to him and agreed a little... and then I left and started disagreeing again, even though I knew I shouldn't... then I guess just came over here to..."  He shrugged awkwardly.  "I dunno.  Vent?  Point a finger?  Confirm what they said?   Something.  Everything.  Heh, I'll give you this much, Yuy... you sure know how to make a comeback."

"I haven't even done anything."

"And yet you still manage to do nothing I expected."

"What did you expect?"

Having started out at a diagonal, he pushed himself a little farther up the bed, lifting one leg and laying it on the mattress, his foot dangling over the end of the bed.  I enjoyed the subtle flexing and relaxing of his muscles beneath my hand.  "Dunno.  Something extreme, maybe.  You'd either still be uber...whatever you were during the war, or else you'd be what I least expected -- well, theoretically, anyway -- and go all to rot now that you had the freedom to do so.  You'd be all laid back, with a pot belly, drinking beer, with a hand scratching your crotch.  You know."

"...Not really."  Could he really imagine that?

He laughed with a weak humor.  "Yeah, I guess not.   But you've... you've defied expectation."

At least he didn't say that I had changed.  "By being normal?"

"By being normal."

"Did you really have so little faith in me to begin with?"

That startled a reaction out of him.  He rose up on one elbow and threw me a stricken look.  "No, of course not!  I just..."  The idea sunk in and took root.  "That's... that's really not what I've been implying... is it?"

I just looked at him and let him think over his own words.  When he came to an unpleasant conclusion, he collapsed back onto the bed again.  "I'm sorry," he apologized softly.  "That's really not what I mean to say.  You haven't... yes, you have surprised me, but I think... I've surprised me more.  You've only exceeded my expectations because... I had higher expectations of myself.  And that's never so clear as it is in comparison... What do you think of me, Heero?"

"Huh?"  I was thrown off by the sudden question.

He projected almost a need to know.  "Did you have any expectations of me?  Am I where you thought I'd be in life?   Hell, where do you think I am now?  What do you see when you look at me?"

I quite nearly hissed at the necessary delicacy of my response.  That was a very tricky question, but it was one I knew I couldn't answer with half-truth and misdirection.  "I see a man... who still cares a very great deal about the things that are near and dear to him.  Who's willing to go forth and do things about them, or for them.  One who's not too proud to take a step back and consider things from another's angle."

He frowned, not hearing what he wanted to hear.  I could give him that, too.  Some things just needed to be said first.  "But I also see a man who... is unhappy with where he is in life.  I see a man who wants to change that somehow, but just hasn't been able to figure out how just yet.  I see a restless man, searching for something that has eluded his definition thus far.  I see a man... beginning to fear he will never find it."

He used a bit of fleeting levity to cleanse his palate of the heavy taste to the air.  "Heh, right now, I'm looking at a man that's a lot more perceptive than I ever gave him credit for... even though I probably should have known better.  I wonder why... I think you're right.  You haven't changed as much as I think you have.  Maybe it's just the years granting me wisdom to see what I never did before."  He snorted wryly.  "Too bad I can't turn a little bit of that wisdom on myself.  No, wait, I have, if realizing just how empty my life is can be called a bit of wisdom.  Things have gotten truly pathetic when I'm so self-absorbed I can't even be happy for a friend."

That impulse to comfort returned, and in situations like this, we had always comforted in a few set ways.  I leaned down to kiss him softly on his lips, maybe just to reassure him that this hadn't evaporated.  After we parted, he blinked, expression blank as he tried to process it, but it was an analysis I ruled as unnecessary, so I moved his mind on to other things.  "Just what have you been doing these last five years?"

He blinked some more, then switched gears.  "This and that.  Really.  I mean, I've kinda... bounced around a bit.   Spent some time slumming around L2.  Overstayed my welcome with Hilde.  Hung out with Howard.  Hitched a ride or three on some other Sweeper ships.  Tripped around Earth a little, catching some sights.  Checked in with Lena.  Bummed with Quatre, Wufei.  Thought about joining up with Fei, kept promising a someday, never followed through.  Ignored every other e-mail from Q 'cuz they made me feel bad.  Man, you know, I've had this apartment for the last year, and I've probably spent more time out of it than in?  I didn't even know why I bothered, except to have a permanent mailing address, which was pretty much useless anyway, but it made me feel better.  Finally thought I'd try living there a few months ago, unpacked my bags and bought a little furniture and everything.  Got me this job at a bookstore down the street, thinking maybe I could meet some interesting people, but it's not even one of those small cozy ones, but one of those chains, so we don't even get much interesting traffic through there.  All in all, this whole damn thing's been a bust, and I've been staring at it for the last few months with that sitting there staring right back at me."

I pushed at him a bit, then laid down on my side beside him, curling my legs over the one of his still hanging over the edge of the bed until he took the hint and moved his leg out of the way.  One of my legs straightened out alongside his.  The other stayed bent and rested comfortably on top of his.  "Where did you think you'd be right now?"

He sighed, blowing his breath up into his bangs.  "I don't know.  Well, okay, I do know.  I just don't want to admit-- okay, fine, I'll admit it.  I already did anyway.  I thought things would be more... you know.  The other way around.   Like, I'd have this neat apartment I called home, with friends and hobbies and stuff."

"And I wouldn't."

"Well--" he started defensively.

I chuckled.  I should have stopped finishing the thought he was too polite to say aloud, but it continually amused me.  That, and it was good for Duo to hear it aloud if a comparison between the two of us had been bothering him.  "It's okay, Duo.  I didn't think I would either.  And that thought helped motivate me to change things.  I spent a year wandering around, too.  Then I decided that I'd had enough of that, so I found something else to do.  I'll say this again: the only difference between you and me is that you've just taken a little longer to get to that point than I did."

He laughed outright.  "'A little bit longer'?"

"Just a little."  I reached up to pull one of my pillows down to rest my head on instead of using my hand.  As an afterthought, I snagged the other pillow and nudged it at Duo's head until he lifted it enough for me to slip the pillow underneath.

He adjusted it with one hand, then heaved another one of his sighs.  "After this is all over, I guess I should take some time to think about things... Maybe stop staring at it and kick it in the nuts instead.  That'll show it."

I don't know why I found that so delightfully humorous.   "Why wait until this is over?"

"What, no time like the present?"  He made a face at the saying.

I shrugged.  "The longer you wait, the easier it is to make excuses to wait even longer."

"You... really bug me sometimes."  He put on another sour expression.

I laughed again.  I don't think I'd ever laughed so much in so short a time.  That nearly made me laugh again.  It was a good feeling.

He started playing with the hand I had lying on the bed between us, eventually letting out another audible puff of breath.  "You bug me, and yet... and yet... here I am."

There was a serious answer to that lurking somewhere on the edge of my consciousness, but it danced away from my searching thoughts.  I selected another option.  "And is that okay?"

It would be too easy playing poker against him if he always stilled when pondering solemn matters.  Finally, he turned to me and engaged my compliant lips in a contemplative kiss, rolling the taste carefully around in his mind after it was done.  "Hmm.  I guess it must be."

That was probably a statement I could have run through my mind for the rest of the night, trying to come up with new interpretations of it, but I had better things to do, so I put it off for another time and just accepted it at face value.

There was a note from Sally waiting for us when we got back to the office after lunch.  We called her back to visit us in our office since it was probably a little much for all five of us to crowd into hers.  She arrived waving a disc at us.  "I hope you all realize just how much of a mess some of the Federation records are."

"Of course," Duo chirped cheerfully, pulling out the spare chair for her.  She turned it down in favor of perching on the tabletop.  "And we knew you were wonderfully qualified for the task."

She raised her nose imperiously into the air.  "I had to call in favors, so now you boys owe me."

"Of course," Quatre said, his tone a little less flippant than Duo's.  "Thank you for doing this for us.  What did you find?"

"Well," she started, affecting a put-upon air.  It wasn't as if she could have refused our request.  This was still a high-priority investigation.  "First of all, this base, Olin.  Quite an interesting place.  The commander there was very interested in research that was, shall we say, outside the box?  He entertained thoughts of biomechanical enhancement, ostensibly for replacing limbs or functionality lost by soldiers in the wars, though rumor had it that his ultimate goal didn't involve waiting for injured soldiers to come to him.  There was also some mobile suit design being conducted on the base, trying to develop something that was suitable for ground, air, space, and underwater combat without any necessary modifications."

"Bet they never got very far on that project," Duo commented.

She smiled briefly.  "No, they didn't.  They did make some interesting progress on their missile guidance systems.  When the base was closed, some of the engineers on that project team were rerouted to another base.  Most of the others went into the private sector, according to reports, as was true for your Zamora character."

Quatre sought more specifics.  "Do you know what he was working on in particular?"

She put her disc down on the table top and pushed it towards him a little.  "An autonomous robotic probe that could be sent into dangerous areas for delicate work, such as navigating through a mine field, disarming a bomb, doing recon in a hostile environment.   Interesting stuff."

Wufei snorted.  "I think I would have been happier hearing he was on the guidance system team.  At least the applications for such a thing are well-defined."

"There's no guarantee that he maintained an interest in his project beyond its end.  He could have something else entirely in mind for the Zero system.  I believe he was also attached in some way to the biomech department, but not in an official capacity."

Quatre hummed thoughtfully.  "That is fitting with what we know about his interests today, in his education, research, and side hobbies.  This disc has the details?"

"What I could find.  There were a number of proposals and abstracts written up on the topic, but I'll have to dig deeper if you want the actual reports, if indeed there are any on record."

He shook his head.  "We'll work with this for now.   See if it has any hints that pursuing this any further will be useful to us."

Duo was eyeing me suspiciously, and finally he poked me in the upper arm.  "You're thinking something again, aren't you?"

I cast him a mild look.  "Nothing dark and sinister this time."  Not that I ever really considered my thoughts to be dark and sinister.  It wasn't my fault that the others often didn't like the conclusions that I drew.

Rather than voicing his question again, Duo just poked me in the arm a few more times.  I took the hint.  "I'm just thinking about J.  Sort of hard not to when the issue of cybernetic prosthetics comes up."

"What happened to his arm, anyway?" Quatre asked, a morbid curiosity on his face.  "I have to admit, the first time I saw him, I thought of space pirates."  Duo snickered, and Quatre turned to him with a shrug.  "Come on.  You know you thought it, too."

"He had a claw, not a hook," I reminded them.  I'd never really thought much about J's prosthetic.  He'd had it ever since we had met, and at the time, I was still young enough that I could simply accept things like that without question.  Of course, Odin had taught me to analyze my surroundings for things that were out of place, but after a while, J's claw was mundane.  I'd seen stranger things before, after all.  "I never asked what happened to his arm.  Seemed rather personal to me, and no one else really went around talking about it, either.  Although maybe there were hints of some sort of accident.  I don't know.  It served him well enough, and that was all that mattered."

Duo laughed darkly.  "Man, I bet if G had one of those, and I asked him, he'd come up with a different story every time, each one more outrageous than the last."

I couldn't sympathize.  That wasn't J's MO at all.

"Well, I'll leave you to that, gentlemen," Sally said.  "If you need anything else from me, let me know."

Quatre smiled.  "Thanks for all your help, Sally."

She stood, knocking off some file folders as she got off the desk.  "Got it," I said automatically since they were right next to my seat.  I knelt down to pick them up, straightened, and planted a hand on the edge of the desk as I put them back where they belonged in order to minimize the swaying on my feet as I recovered.

Sally caught the slight deviation in my balance and pinned me with stern look.  "Yuy."

I blinked innocently at her.

"My office.  Now."

Such an exchange would not go unnoticed.  Sitting next to me, Duo interjected an interrogative syllable.  "Huh?"

I favored Sally with a steady stare, which she returned with admirable skill.  Finally, I let out a minute sigh and turned briefly to the others.  "I'll be back."

Though questioning looks were directed at my back, I let them bounce off harmlessly as I followed Sally out of our office.  She wisely didn't question me in the halls, knowing that I would probably be less than forthcoming in a possibly public forum.  Once we were safely ensconced in her office, she pointed at the chair in front of her desk with a one word command, and I obeyed, sitting down to await my fate as I plotted strategies for how to escape from her office with the minimum of fuss.

She rummaged through one of her cabinet drawers amid chatter of frivolities and came up with a sphygmomanometer in hand.  As she approached me, pressure cuff unwrapped and ready for use, I stopped her.  "That won't be necessary, Sally."

"Really?"  She leaned against the side of her desk.   "Then you can tell me what your blood pressure is right now?"

"It's well within my normal operating parameters."

"That's nice," she answered blandly.  "Mind telling me what 'normal' is for you?

I sighed.  We didn't need to play this game.  "Look, we know I'm not the standard definition of normal."

She nodded agreeably.  "Which is fine.  But that doesn't mean that your blood pressure can't be low, even for you."

"It was just a moment."  If there was one thing that I admired about Sally, it was her ability to stay calm and level-headed in the face of a stubborn Gundam pilot.

"Is that normal for you?"

One way or another, she would have her answers before I left this office.  Might as well make it relatively painless for the both of us.  "Only on occasion.  I'll admit it.  Lately, I've been running a little short on sleep, my diet has been erratic, and exercise has been limited.  I also haven't been as good about taking the pills you gave me as I should have been.  Once this mission is over and we've found Zero, however, I fully anticipate that this will come to an end, and you'll have no further cause to worry."

"Heero."  My name was quickly becoming a chastisement on the lips of the right people.  "We talked about this.  You know you can't just abuse your body and expect it to bounce back as good as new anymore."

"And normally I'd agree with you.  But whereas a few bullet holes might represent a problem, a little lost sleep won't kill me."

"You're weakening your system either way, Heero, even if only by a little.  It's a cumulative effect, and the weaker it is, the more easily it'll break the next time around."

I couldn't tell if she was trying to scare me into caving in.  She was just concerned about my health.  Someone had to be, I suppose.  "The last time we spoke about this, I never said I would take it easy for ever after.  I think finding Zero is a worthy cause, don't you?"

"There's no reason for this to be a high-stress mission for your body, Heero.  Is it too much to ask that you eat three meals a day?"

"No.  But it is too much to ask that I get a full night's rest every night."  Thinking about what had occupied two of my nights thus far, I thought that, too, was a worthy cause.  I would likely have spent that time brooding anyway, so really, maybe having Duo keep me company those nights had actually been of a benefit to me.  "There don't seem to be enough hours in the day, sometimes."

She sighed with a note of resignation.  "You push yourself too hard, Heero."

"That's who I am, Sally."  It didn't really enter into my worldview that I could give something less than one hundred percent.  If I did something, it would be to the best of my abilities.

"But you won't be able to be that person if your body can't handle it anymore," she suggested softly.

I shrugged philosophically.  I would deal with that when it happened.  "I'll still be able to give it my all.  It just won't be as much as it used to be.  I'm already here as a 'consultant', Sally.  You can't ask me to sit out any more than that."

"You're not as young as you used to be."

I smiled faintly.  "Believe me, I'm well aware of that."  Though maybe I hadn't changed that much, as I liked to insist, things had changed.  My core was the same, but I had gained wisdom and experience, and paid the price for that.  I wouldn't take it back.  "I do pay attention to what I'm doing to myself.  Even if I choose to dismiss it as a necessary evil.  And I'm fully prepared to accept the consequences of my actions."

"You're not the only one that has to deal with the consequences, Heero," she said sharply.  "I don't care if you've been gone for five years. You're still--"  She broke off, trying to find the words before she tried another approach.  She sighed.  "I wasn't surprised when you came back.  I always knew you were out there, watching out for us.  You as much as promised me you'd be back if we needed you.  Well, threatened, more like, since I told you not to.  I found it comforting, nevertheless.  It'd be... disheartening to know that could no longer be the case."

Her faith in me had not been shaken by my absence, it seemed.  I found that comforting in turn.  "I appreciate your concern, Sally.  Trust me, I have no intentions of getting completely out of the game yet.  If this is it, then that's that, but if it's not, then I'll be back for more.  Even if it's against my doctor's orders."

She laughed her deep, smooth laugh.  "As your doctor, I probably shouldn't find that so reassuring.  Oh, but there's probably not a thing I could do to stop you anyway."

"You've armed me with knowledge.  Now it's up to me to use that knowledge."

"I don't suppose you'd let me increase my wealth of knowledge by allowing me to run a test or two?  Maybe a scan?"  She wielded a set of puppy-eyes on me with a reasonable degree of failure.

"Maybe after this is all over," I conceded.  "Just to keep track of things.  But right now... it's pointless.  There are things to be done, regardless of how well I'm holding up under the circumstances."

She shook her head at me.  "You both frustrate me and impress me, Heero Yuy."

"I get that a lot.  Though usually more of the 'frustrate' part."

She laughed again.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST