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Long Road Home

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We have an apartment. It's not very big, but it doesn't really need to be. It's not like we have a bunch of stuff to keep in it.

We... Heero and I... have an apartment.

Stop laughing at me. I've never had anything like this before. I mean, I know it's not ours exactly, we rent the thing, but we have a lease and as long as we keep the rent paid, nobody can make us leave.

I know, every day, where I'll be sleeping that night. Every day! Do you get that part? When I get up in the morning, I know that I'll be coming back to the same place that very night. And the night after. And the night after that.

I'm not living under an assumed name. We don't have to sneak in and out by the windows only after dark. I don't sleep with a knife strapped to my arm and Heero doesn't have a loaded gun under his pillow. We don't keep all our clothes and vital belongings in a duffle bag at the end of the bed in case we have to run. We actually unpack and hang stuff in the closet. On hangers. We bloody well own hangers.

It's such an alien concept sometimes, that I'll find myself just standing in the middle of one of the rooms, staring at whatever's in front of me. The bed... the single dresser... the couch. Just staring and trying to get my head around the fact that that bed is mine. That dresser is mine. Well... ours. Which is an alien concept all on its own, but a whole other topic.

We haven't lived here very long, and we still need a lot of things. A second dresser would be nice; the closets are kind of small. We've talked about another couch or at least a chair for the living room, and I want a coffee table for in there. Right now we only have two kitchen chairs and it's pretty awkward if we want to have anybody over for a meal. At least the apartment came with the major appliances.

There's an afghan on the back of the couch. It's made in this strange wave-like pattern out of a bunch of shades of brown, ranging from cream all the way to walnut. Sally Po gave it to us as an apartment-warming gift. We own an afghan.

But best of all, though I won't admit this out loud to anybody, is the little doily on the dresser in the bedroom.

We don't have jobs yet, but Quatre has helped each of us get started with a bit of financial backing. So Heero and I have purchased most of what we do have at garage sales and auctions. Heero found, at one of those garage sales, a pile of those crocheted doilies like we both remembered from that safe house we'd been consigned to due to 'stress' issues. He'd bought one for me, because I'd told him once that I wanted a home like that one some day. It's kind of ugly, really, and I think he had meant it as a joke. It's crocheted with a variegated thread of tarnished orange and white. There are three-dimensional flowers crocheted and attached around the edge of the lacy thing in shades of blue with green leaves. It lies on top of our dresser and my CD rack sits right in the middle of it. I spent a lot of time in those early days, organizing and filing my twelve CDs.

Until Heero took to calling it my 'shrine to materialism'. Then I settled on alphabetical order by artist and left it alone. We don't own anything I can play them on yet anyway. I'd had a player once, but I think I lost it on one of those occasions that we'd had to abandon everything and run for our lives. About the only thing that I had managed to come through the war with, besides my cross, was my pair of hunting knives. Only because I had seldom not had them on my person in those days. They're in the bottom of my underwear drawer now. I sometimes missed the comforting feel of their weight. And I sometimes thought about throwing them away.

We had ended up staying with the other guys at Quatre's estate for a couple of months. It had taken us that long to get ourselves figured out. Or maybe we'd just needed that buffer between 'war' and 'not war'. We'd talked a lot. I don't much like to think about that period of time, so I'm not going to talk about it. I'll just say that I think I was the one, out of all of us, who had the most trouble adjusting, and leave it at that.

Wufei had been the first one to pack his bags and move on. He had decided to hook up with the new Preventers organization that Lady Une was starting up. Commander Une, they call her now. Wufei had wanted in on the ground floor, to be involved right from the beginning. He'd gotten himself an apartment and jumped right in to life with both feet. I sometimes thought he was the most grounded, together, one of us. And sometimes I thought he was just trying to move faster than his memories.

I think Quatre would have been next, if not for his convalescence. Winner Industries was more than ready for him to move in and take over the reins of power that his father had let fall. And Quatre seemed eager enough to step up to the plate. He seemed to feel a certain obligation to his family and to his father's memory. But I always thought a little bit of it was Quatre's own brand of flipping the bird to the old man's ghost. The guy hadn't thought too much of Quatre's life choices, and I think it gave our boy a bit of a rush to step into his father's place with his ideals intact and proven quite sound, thank you very much.

As it was, Heero and I were the next to go, leaving Trowa to make sure Quatre didn't drive himself back to work before he was ready. I think the two of them kind of needed that time to themselves anyway. They had their own adjustments to make. Adjustments that I think were just as difficult as Heero's and mine... only in different ways.

We'd had no idea where in the hell we wanted to go. Where we wanted to live. In the end, we had followed Wufei, our decision made by the possibility that the two of us might just follow him right on into the Preventers. Heero's reasoning was to make that our fallback plan. We'd both been offered positions, so we knew we had jobs waiting for us if we chose to accept them. This way, if nothing else panned out, we wouldn't have to move half way around the world to take those jobs. Leave it to Heero to plan our lives out like a mission.

We had found a nice little second floor, walk-up apartment that we felt we could afford for quite a few months on Quatre's gift alone, if it came down to that. It would give us time to take a breath and get used to the idea of living together, before the pressure of dwindling funds forced us to make some sort of move.

It had turned into some kind of weird... honeymoon period.

I will cherish those first months in my heart for the rest of my life. They weren't perfect; hell, sometimes things were almost awkward, but it was wonderful all the same.

It shouldn't have seemed all that strange by then, we'd been staying together in Quatre's house for months prior, but it wasn't the same, somehow. It felt different... in a lot of ways. Scarier, without the other guys there as some sort of strange backup. Liberating, without the other guys there as a constant presence.

We moved in with nothing. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word. We walked in with a duffle bag apiece containing our respective laptops, about three changes of clothes each, and a double handful of miscellaneous stuff like my knives and my new CDs... some of them still in the wrappers.

There's a little fireplace in the apartment and we'd gone out the afternoon we moved in and found an army surplus store that sold camping gear. We spent the first week sleeping on the floor in the living room next to the fireplace, rolled up together in a double sleeping bag.

I swear to the Gods, we spent the first two or three days just holding on to each other. I don't know about Heero, but I had trouble getting my head around that whole 'living together' concept. I kept waiting for a damn mission to come. Kept waiting for someone to kick our door down and come bursting in with guns blazing. The sound of car doors slamming outside in the parking lot was enough to bring me scrambling from sleep. And the Gods forbid people in the neighboring apartments raised their voices at odd hours. It somehow didn't seem to bother Heero as badly. Though the night that Wufei showed up for a visit unannounced, would go down in our collective history as one of those things we never let each other forget about. Wufei's calm, reasonable knock on the door had sent us scrabbling for weapons we didn't have on us, rolling to opposite sides of the room. We'd been laughing our asses off when we finally got around to answering the door, but it was mostly to cover up how bad we were shaking.

We're a bit removed from those days now. We have a bed, though the sleeping bag had converted into a comforter because Heero plans ahead that way. We can offer our company a place to sit, though Heero and I have to drag the kitchen chairs into the living room to sit down with more than one other person. So we're a bit removed... but we're not.

I still have trouble believing in it all. Heero still has trouble with letting me out of his sight. And we're getting real close to the money running out. I suppose you could say the honeymoon is just about over.

Maybe that was what brought about our first big fight; that stress of uncertainty. That sub-conscious knowledge that we were to the point where a decision was going to have to be made... and soon.

Ah hell... it wasn't a fight, really. We just scared the crap out of each other and didn't know how to handle it, I guess. It was a nightmare that started the whole thing, but for a change... it wasn't one of mine.

We hadn't owned the bed long, were still at that loony stage of play-wrestling over who got which side when we turned in at night. It had been a good day. One of those where the sun seems to be shining just for you? You know what I mean? Gods, we probably would have made Wufei gag if he'd been around us that day.

So it was kind of a shock when Heero's cries woke me out of a dead-sound sleep in the middle of the night. It was that dark hour, well after midnight, we'd been in bed for hours. I wasn't sure what to do at first, Heero has bad dreams now and again, but he usually wakes right up from them. This time, he was moaning and thrashing, obviously lost in it, and I wasn't positive that trying to shake him awake was such a great idea.

But then he called my name, and the fear in his voice was evidence of what he was dreaming about. So I started calling out to him, calling him back. 'Heero... I'm right here. Everything's all right. You're dreaming... come on, wake up... it's all right.'

When his eyes finally snapped open, all I saw at first was raw panic. I'm not even going to swear he knew who I was. But then recognition came clear.

'Duo!' he fairly sobbed, and grabbed on like a drowning man. 'Oh Gods... oh Gods... '

I wrapped him close and stroked my hand over his hair, trying to calm him down. I could feel his heart against my chest, beating so fast I couldn't tell the beats apart. 'Hush, love... hush. It's all right. I'm here, I'm right here.'

He just... couldn't seem to get close enough. Didn't seem to know whether to bury himself in my arms, or try to drag me into his. He was trembling, panting harshly, obviously fighting with tears. That alone was enough to frighten me. All I could do was hold him tight.

'Can you tell me about it?' I whispered softly and got nothing for a minute but a violent shake of his head.

'Don't want to think about it,' he finally choked out. 'Don't... want to make it more real.'

He wouldn't say, so I can only guess that the nightmare involved some harm coming to me, because his protective streak suddenly kicked into high gear. He seemed to want me close. Seemed to want me protected. He squirmed from my embrace to crawl on top of me; it felt like he was doing his best to tuck me completely underneath him, safe and covered. Wrapped up in his arms, pressed in tight against his chest, my name was a murmured mantra on his lips.

'We're safe,' I told him, as best I could with my face buried in his shoulder. 'Everything's ok, Heero. I'm here... you're here... we're all right.'

He just seemed to need more contact, his trembling was easing, but he just couldn't seem able to touch enough of me. Like he was all that was keeping something horrible from ripping me away. He was starting to... frighten me.

'Damn... Damn... Oh my Duo,' he choked out, arms tightening around me even more. I started to fear he might crack bones. 'Oh Gods... ' He just wasn't making any sense.

But then he began kissing my neck, lips moving almost frantically up my throat, hunting for me, taking my own lips in a hungry frenzy. I could barely move, couldn't keep up, couldn't half think about responding. He was just so... desperate. I'd never seen him like this, and there was a sudden shift in what I was feeling. His weight, pressing me down into the bed, a thing that had brought me comfort on more than one night, was suddenly... oppressive. Instead of shielded, I felt trapped. Instead of protected, I felt... overwhelmed. I began to panic.

'Heero?' I ventured, when his lips left mine long enough to allow it. 'Heero... please... '

His knee was trying to find purchase between my thighs to press my legs apart. I have no idea what he had in mind. I have no idea if he was even thinking. I have no idea why I was suddenly so scared. We weren't even naked for the Gods sake! We owned a pair of pajamas, and on chilly nights, Heero wore the bottoms and I wore the top. It had been a chilly night. It was all just... happening too fast, and Heero wasn't talking to me, wasn't making sense. It felt like he wasn't altogether in there. He wasn't hurting me, but... I panicked.

'Heero, stop!' I begged, trying to push back a little, trying to lose that trapped feeling. 'Please!'

Something, some coherency, came clear in his eyes and he gasped, levering off me in a heartbeat. He scrabbled backward, away from me, until he fell clear off the bed, landing on his ass on the floor. There was this frozen moment while we just stared at each other; I thought we just needed a minute to get our breath, to engage our brains. But he seemed to need more than that.

'I'm sorry,' Heero whispered, voice so soft and broken, I almost didn't hear him. His eyes were wide and he looked... stricken. Horrified. I was struggling with just what the hell to say, when he suddenly scrambled up and ran from the room.

I was still sitting in the middle of the bed doing a damn fine impression of a deer in headlights, when I heard the front door of the apartment slam and I realized he was doing more than just leaving the bedroom.

'Heero!' I hollered after him, damned with what the neighbors thought, but it didn't do any good. By the time I got my shit in gear, jerked on a pair of pants and went after him, he was so far gone I couldn't even guess a direction.

So, three o'clock in the morning found me sitting in a huddle on the front step of our apartment, wearing nothing but yesterday's dirty jeans and a pajama top, trying to figure out what in the hell had just happened.

I was swinging like a pendulum between kinda pissed off and kinda scared. Trying to decide if I wanted to kiss him or deck him.

I wasn't really angry over his frightening me. I mean, I can't deny that he'd scared me, but I wasn't afraid of Heero, I could never be afraid of Heero. I had not for a minute, truly believed that he was going to hurt me. It had just been a knee jerk reaction to feeling trapped, a response ingrained so far down in my psyche that I really couldn't hide it. Though, in that moment, I wished to the Gods that I could have.

No, I was angry with him for running off like this. I was angry because I was scared. But I wasn't scared about what had happened, I was scared because he'd run off.

Thoroughly confused? Me too.

Yeah, I had that moment of stark terror that he wouldn't come back, but come on... really; it was three in the morning, he was only wearing half a pair of pajamas, he had no money on him, where the hell else was he going to go?

I was kind of confused about the why, though. I was kind of stunned, if the truth be told. I mean... this was my stunt. Heero had never run out on me before.

I couldn't stop thinking about it, couldn't stop replaying the damn thing in my head. What had I done wrong? I obviously hadn't handled his nightmare well... what should I have done? Would it have been better if I had tried to shake him awake? Would it have been better if I'd left him alone and let the nightmare run its course? That didn't seem right, but I just didn't know where I'd messed up.

Because sitting on the cold front steps at three in the morning was obviously pretty messed up.

But the more time passed, the more I leaned toward scared. Where was he? Was he all right? Would he come back? Should I go looking? It was bloody chilly out, and he was practically running around naked. But where the hell would I look? He'd been... so upset.

And then it started to rain. Just to cap the evening.

I suppose I should have gotten up and gone back into the apartment. I could have waited for him just as easily in the nice, warm, dry living room as I could out front. But I didn't. This is going to sound somewhat asinine, but there was this perverse voice in my head that said if Heero was going to end up soaked and miserable, then by the Gods I would end up soaked and miserable too. I'm not even sure if it was a 'fuck him' voice, or a 'fuck me' voice.

The end result, by five in the morning, was that I was indeed pretty damn soaked and miserable. Huddled on my step and shivering like hell, hair and clothes fairly well permanently plastered to my body. The anger was gone. The fear was even a little numbed. I was just kind of baffled, really damn cold, and getting tired of sitting on the hard step.

I think I saw him before he saw me. If I am any judge of Heero posture at all, he was pretty damn soaked and miserable too. He came walking across the parking lot, his shoulders sagging as though he were carrying the weight of the world there, the rain pouring down and drenching him. I thought to get up and run to him, but that would have required uncurling from my ball of soaked misery, and he seemed to be headed my way anyway, so I just waited.

It was a couple of long minutes before he noticed me, and I did scramble to my feet then, because he stopped walking and I was afraid he was going to run again.

But he didn't, coming to meet me on the sidewalk in front of the building the minute I moved his way. He hesitated in front of me, so I just threw my arms around him, right there in the damn parking lot, though I suppose there was no one to see us at that hour anyway.

'Where... '

'... I'm so sorry... '

'... have... '

'... Gods, you're freezing... '

'... you... '

'... forgive me... '

'... been!'

'... so damn sorry... '

'Inside... let's take this inside.'

I practically had to lead him by the hand, and he made me feel like I'd kicked somebody's puppy. He let me pull him, unresisting, inside the building, and we left puddles of water all the way up the stairs.

He stopped me once we were in the apartment, taking me by the arms with an oddly tentative touch. 'Duo... I am so sorry. I swear to you I never meant... '

'That's enough of that, Yuy,' I grumbled, not liking this strange uneasiness in him. 'You did not hurt me. I never thought you would hurt me.'

He frowned, looking uncomfortable. Looking pretty damned miserable. 'I scared you,' he whispered. 'Don't try to tell me I didn't... '

I sighed and moved closer to him, trying to get him to put his arms around me. 'I was not scared of you... I was a little confused, and the situation alarmed me.'

His frown deepened. 'Damn it... ' he began, but I cut him off.

'I mean it, Yuy,' I growled, putting my arms around him and jerking him against me, squeezing hard. 'I got a little... claustrophobic, and I said 'stop'. And you stopped, no questions asked. End of story.'

His expression cleared a little and I could see him searching my face, my eyes, wanting to believe. 'Duo,' he breathed, and his arms finally came up to slide around me, but you still would have thought he was holding a carton of eggs. 'I love you so much... And I... want you, sometimes... so damn much. I... '

'Hush, love,' I told him, laying my head on his shoulder. 'You don't have to explain to me. You don't have to apologize. Heero, you just woke up from some kind of nightmare... don't you think I can understand that?'

'I could hurt you,' he blurted. 'My Gods... so easily. Sometimes... sometimes... '

'Stop it,' I whispered, bringing a hand up to the back of his neck to pull his head down to my own shoulder. 'You would never hurt me. Never. You stopped, Heero. Why can't you see that? You did nothing wrong. You did not hurt me.'

'But I could... I could,' he whispered and I couldn't even begin to untangle his thinking. I pushed back, putting a little distance between us.

This was unnerving. This was scary. Scarier than sitting on the front steps in the rain, wondering where my lover had run off to. I hate when he gets like this... he can beat himself bloody over the damnedest things. I didn't like him looking at me with that weird fear in his eyes.

'The hell,' I said simply and then swung at him for all I was worth. He just stood there, imitating my imitation of a deer in headlights. If I hadn't pulled the punch at the last possible nano-second, I probably would have broken his jaw. So we stood there for a minute staring at each other, my fist stopped not a hair away from his face, his mouth hanging open in shock.

'Duo?' he choked out, voice tight with confusion.

'Why isn't my arm broken?' I asked him flatly. He just gaped at me, blinking stupidly. 'If I were any other person on the face of this planet, my ass would be on the ground right now. Why am I still standing here?'

'I couldn't... ' he murmured and stopped, staring at me.

'That's right,' I whispered vehemently, closing the distance between us until we were standing practically nose-to-nose. 'Because I'm so far inside you, that you couldn't raise a hand to me even to defend yourself. The same way you're inside me. Face it, Heero... you couldn't hurt me if your damn life depended on it.'

It won me a sorry little smile, and maybe a bit of lightening of the shadows haunting his face. I was disappointed that he still didn't reach for me, but when I slipped my arms around him again, he did at least embrace me.

'I'm just so sorry,' he couldn't help saying, even while he was holding on. 'I didn't mean to frighten you. I just wanted... I just needed... to be close to you.'

'It's ok for you to need, Heero,' I told him gently. 'I thought you were getting over that idea that I'm made out of glass?'

'Not like that,' He hissed, voice full of self-loathing. 'Gods in Heaven... never like... like... '

'Sexually?' I murmured, feeling him quiver convulsively, but he wouldn't speak. 'That was a very long time ago, love. I don't think about those things when we're together. Not for a minute.'

The... whatever you wanted to call it; argument? Was waning, the heat of the moment fading, and we were starting to become aware of just how bloody cold we were.

'Damn it, Duo,' he murmured suddenly, and I wondered if it weren't as much to change the subject as anything. 'Why did you wait out in the rain? You're frozen!'

'And you're not?' I quirked a grin, ignoring the slightly accusing tone. 'How about we go get out of these wet clothes and take a hot shower?'

'That's a good idea,' he said, sounding almost nervous. 'You go first... you're going to catch pneumonia.'

I blinked at him in confusion for a moment before it sank in what was going on. With a sound somewhere between a heavy sigh and a growl, I grabbed him by the wrist. 'Don't be an ass, you moron. There is no damn reason in the world that we can't go in there together.'

He gave me token resistance, but didn't seem up to truly fighting me. 'I... don't mind waiting... ' he tried lamely and I tossed him a look over my shoulder that told him he wasn't fooling anybody. He flushed and looked down, but followed his trapped wrist.

'I'm not going to let you do this to us,' I explained firmly. 'So just get the hell over it.'

He was docile as a lamb, which was disconcerting as all hell. I led him to the bathroom and he just stood quietly while I turned on the heater and started the water running. When I began to peel my wet clothes off, I caught him carefully not looking at me. I refrained from growling. 'Unless you're planning on showering in those, I suggest you take them off,' was all I said, nodding my head at his still dripping pajama pants.

I dumped my own sopping clothes in the sink where they could drain until later, and turned my attention to working my wet hair out of its braid. That's harder then you'd think it would be. Heero didn't move to help me, standing mutely while I struggled with it. I sighed and took him by the hand again, pulling him into the bathtub with me. He came, but seemed to be intent on keeping his distance. I slid the shower doors closed and turned the spray on, hissing and flinching as the water hit my too cool skin, making the water feel too hot. I saw his hands come up automatically, thinking to shelter me... but then they dropped again.

I was starting to get a little irritated.

After the initial shock, the water was pure, unadulterated bliss and I just let it run over me for a minute. It racked a final storm-cloud shiver out of me before I began to warm. I turned around under the spray to find Heero standing well back from both me and the hot water, and I sighed again.

'Come here, Heero,' I said gently, and held out my hand.

'Duo... ' he said, and just looked completely unsure of what he wanted to tell me.

'Come here,' I repeated and he finally took my hand. 'What's wrong, love?'

He looked troubled. Troubled and pained. 'I... ' he began, and hesitated. 'I just... '

'You need,' I told him, translating his half sentences. 'It's all right for you to need, Heero.'

His faint frown turned into something... distressed. There was an infinitesimal lessening in the distance between us, and I don't even think he was aware he'd moved.

'Tell me what you need,' I whispered softly, and moved to match the lessening.

'You!' he burst out, and I was scarcely ready for the suddenness of his surrender. I swear, every fiber of his being was screaming for him to take me in his arms, but he was still holding back. Still unsure.

So I took him in mine, pulling him under the fall of water, warming him with the shower and my body. I wasn't prepared for the sudden, harsh sob that broke from his lips.

'I'm here,' I breathed, letting him hide his face in my shoulder. 'Talk to me, Heero... tell me what's going on.'

I finally got to hear about the nightmare. I'd known I probably would sooner or later; we don't have a lot of secrets from each other, after all. But I would not have imagined that he would be sobbing in my arms while he told it. Wouldn't have imagined that he would be sobbing in my arms, period. I could count the number of times that that has happened... with two fingers.

Dreams don't make sense. Mine don't. His don't. I'd be willing to bet that yours don't. It was some kind of twisted combination of the end of the war and my knee surgery. The gist of it was that I was the one who went after Zechs Merquise during that awful last battle. But I was in my knee brace, my arm taped, immobile, to my chest, making it impossible for me to fight. I'd gotten trapped beneath that plummeting chunk of Libra and died screaming for Heero. That seemed to be the really sticky part, not that I it surprised me, that I'd called for his help and he'd failed to save me. If I were a therapist, I'd have to say that was at the root of most of Heero's issues; fear of failure.

'I couldn't get to you,' he choked out, finally holding me as tight as we both wanted. 'I couldn't get Wing to respond... all I could do was listen to you beg for my help... listen to... '

'Shhhh,' I soothed, rocking us in the steam and the heat. 'It was just a dream, just a bad dream. The Gundams are gone... The war's over... It's all over... '

He was quiet for a space, getting himself under control, and I just held him. Maybe you don't have nightmares like that. Maybe you can't understand. I've listened to other people talk and I sometimes wonder about it. I think it's because we fed our sub-consciouses so damn many... realistic images to create the pictures in our heads. That dream-making part of our brains has so much more raw material to work with than most people's do. They're always so damn real feeling, and so close to what had been reality for us, that when you wake up, it's hard to figure out which is the waking and which is the... other.

There was nothing but the sound of his raspy breath, muffled under the rush of the water for a little bit, and then, 'I was rough with you. I swore I'd never, ever do that... I am so sorry. I can't even begin to tell you... '

It had the sound of a practiced speech, one I think he'd probably been working on while he'd walked around, but he lost the thread when I snorted softly. 'That wasn't rough, Heero. Rough involves hitting. Rough involves knives. You were not too rough with me.'

'There was fear in your eyes when you looked at me,' he whispered, and we might finally be getting down to the meat of the damn issue.

I sighed. 'I was not, have never been, and never will be... afraid of you.' I drew away to look him square in the face, so he couldn't mistake my sincerity. 'I over-reacted for two damn seconds to feeling trapped. Please tell me you're not going to let that mistake come between us?'

'Nothing will ever come between us,' he blurted, the spark of my Heero coming back for the first time in hours.

'That's better,' I smiled and he was suddenly drawing me close again, his hands pulling my head against him so that he could whisper to me in a ragged voice.

'Promise me we'll always be together.'

We make these promises. We swear things to each other that we both know are impossible. Things that are completely out of our control. But we swear our solemn lies because it's what we need to hear. It's what we need to bolster our courage when the dark is full of things we can't face alone.

'Forever, love,' I promised gently. 'Until the stars are all gone from the sky and there's nothing left in all the universe but you and me.'

'You'll get bored,' he teased, though his voice still held the edge of his distress.

'I'll have you to entertain me,' I smiled against his neck, and then kissed the spot. He shivered. 'Make love to me.'

I felt him flinch and I tightened my grip around his neck, afraid he might run again, giving him another tiny little kiss. 'I won't let this happen. I need you. I want you. And I think you need me too.'

'Too much,' he almost whimpered. 'Please... I can't tonight. I... I don't trust myself.'

'I trust you,' I told him simply, and finally managed to catch him enough by surprise to steal a kiss. It was odd, for a moment, to be kissing him and him not kissing back. But while his concentration was there, his rebellious arms pulled me in tight against him. With a wavering groan, he gave in, letting me invade him, letting me taste him.

He might be telling himself no... but his body was saying yes. He fought me, but it was the most half-hearted battle he ever waged... and it was mostly with himself, his need warring with his fears. He wanted, every bit as much as I had thought he did, and eventually he gave in to the need.

We left the shower for the bedroom and made love, gentle and urgent by turns, until well after sunrise. His touches were desperate and hesitant, and he seemed to need the joining as much as he needed the sex. Was content for a time to simply be inside me. To be as close to me as it was possible to get. He seemed to want me astride him, seemed to need me to guide us. For a while, the caresses were all verbal. Brushes of tender words, our voices grown husky with emotions let run. We traded promises and vows. We whispered endearments and shared our fears.

'... so sorry... '

'... no more apologies... '

'... die if I ever hurt you... '

'... always there for me... '

'... want to protect... '

'... be there for you too... '

Until the needs of our bodies overcame the simple desire for union, and the quiet words weren't so quiet anymore.

'... Gods! Yes... .'

'... don't stop!... '

'... more... '

'... so close... '

And then the words weren't really even words at all.

Afterward, we cleaned up and curled back in bed together, sated and worn-out, but loathe to face a day that somehow seemed harsh, despite the muted daybreak the rain had granted us. Heero, seeming very tired, was able to lose himself in sleep again. I was too uncertain about dozing off so soon after talking about... the past, and forced myself to stay awake. I would not risk one of my nightmares on top of everything else, not for anything. If I woke screaming from that one, it would convince Heero that he had indeed hurt me in some way. It would undo all the reassurances I had given him, and that was a risk I would not take. Given more time, the memories would fade again, but in that moment, the conversation in the bathroom had them too sharp... too clear. So I just lay awake and watched him sleep. Watched the watery daylight glide with infinitesimal slowness across the floor. I listened to the soft sound of Heero's breathing. Listened to the noises of our neighbors as they started their days.

It seemed terribly decadent to still be in bed while the rest of the world was rising, dressing and making its way to a job somewhere. Downstairs, in the apartment below ours, Miss Renwick would be leaving for work, her purse and her lunch sack in her hand, trying to juggle her umbrella and her car keys without getting wet. Up the way, near the end of our building, Mr. Littlejohn would be racing his little daughter to his truck. They would laugh and wave goodbye to Jenny's Mom and then he would drop her at school before going off to whatever office job he held. Mrs. Littlejohn would stand on the step, under the overhang until their little dog had done his business and came running back in. Then she would start her chores.

They would all be living their lives. Working, earning money, and making their way in the world.

Our gift from Quatre was almost gone. We were standing on the edge of a great height and needed to figure out where we were going to go from here. How we were going to make our own way.

We really hadn't even tried looking for jobs. I'm not sure I can say why. Maybe just because we had needed this time to try and settle in. To try to turn off the soldiers that lived in our heads. I know it all sounds strange; I guess you just had to be in the war to understand. Try adjusting to 'real life' when step one is convincing yourself it's all right to go to the grocery without a gun. When you can't bring yourself to stand in a lighted room after dark without all the windows covered. Those knives in my underwear drawer? One of them had stayed on my forearm for at least the first week.

Are you married? Been that way a long time? Take your wedding ring off and try to go all day without putting it on. It will nag at your subconscious constantly, and when your conscious mind registers the loss, you will get this spark of momentary panic, before you remember that it's ok.

Our not being in a state of constant 'battle readiness' weighed on us like that. Ate at us like that. Not in any huge way... but constantly.

We had pushed it aside with domestic bliss. Ignored it in favor of learning to be a couple. Of learning how to make a home together. In being able to enjoy all the things that had been denied us up until now.

Maybe that had been a mistake, because here we were, nearing the wire, and didn't have a clue what we were going to do.

That kind of scared me. And though I doubt Heero would ever admit to it, I think it scared him a little bit to.

There was always the Preventers, and I wondered sometimes if Heero's lack of any other preparations was because he was secretly hoping to be pushed in that direction.

I'd had my doubts about the whole thing when Wufei had first mentioned it to us. I've had enough experience with organizations pretending to be for the good of the people, that I mistrusted the whole idea. But... Wufei seemed happy there. He seemed content and spoke rather highly of the set-up and his commanding officers. Commander Une, apparently, was not the damn daunting woman I remembered so vividly. At least, Wufei claims she's not.

I still wasn't convinced, wasn't sure I wanted to put the armor back on, as Wufei said. Though... I'm not entirely sure I'd managed to shed it to begin with. Oddly, Heero and I hadn't really talked about it all that much. I wasn't sure why, because it was something we needed to make a decision about. Maybe he thought I just wasn't interested? Maybe he was afraid I didn't want to join, but would if he wanted to?

I vowed, lying there with my head pillowed on Heero's shoulder, to see to it that we started talking about this stuff. I didn't want to have to go back to Quatre and ask for more money, though I had no doubt he'd give it to us without so much as blinking, if we asked. But it really was time we stood on our own two feet. Four feet? Respective two feet? Ah hell... you know what I mean.

'It's nice to see that you can entertain yourself when I'm not around,' came a sleep-gruff voice and I looked to see Heero awake and watching me.

I grinned. Well, grinned wider, because I'd apparently been smiling at my own weird thoughts to begin with. 'Morning sleeping-beauty,' I murmured.

He snorted, rolling me off so that he could prop up on one elbow and look down at me. His eyes gave me a critical once over and he frowned slightly. 'Couldn't you sleep?'

'Not really tired,' I hedged, and traced a fingertip along his bicep, wondering if I could distract him.

Distract Heero Yuy. Yeah... right.

His hand came up to cup my face and his eyes got that pained look again. 'I made you think about... bad things, didn't I? Duo, I am so sorry... '

I couldn't quite help rolling my eyes. 'If you freakin' apologize one more time, I'm going to smack you up the side of the head!' I growled. 'You did nothing wrong. Well, except that running off in the rain and scaring the hell out of me part. Apology accepted, already! Ok?'

A sheepish little grin found its way to his lips. 'Well, it wasn't raining when I left,' he justified.

'And it would have killed you to come back when it started?' I retorted.

His little ghost of a grin faded away completely. 'I am... '

'Ah, no you don't!' I cut him off, and gave him a wide grin, trying to win his back again. 'If the next word out of your mouth is sorry, I'm going to... to... explode or something!'

The smile did creep back, tugging at the corner of his mouth a little. 'I am... very remorseful.'

I gave him a mock glare and dead-panned, 'Kaboom.'

I got the grin, so I rewarded him with a kiss. 'I love you, you dumb shit,' I smiled up at him.

'You're such a romantic,' he murmured, then laid his head on my shoulder, and well... snuggled down next to me.

'You've gotten so lazy in this peace time,' I sighed, and wrapped my arms around him, savoring the feeling of him taking comfort in me.

'I never knew what it was, to laze around in bed, until we moved here,' he said, voice soft and a little distant. 'I could learn to like it.'

'Me too,' I whispered and kissed the top of his head.

We were quiet for a little while, just listening to the sounds of the world going on about its business.

'What's your favorite color?' I suddenly blurted, following a train of thought that could only be defined as random.

'What?' Heero chuckled, his fingers coming to brush lightly across my stomach.

'I don't even know what it is,' I told him guiltily. 'I mean... we're like a couple now... we should know these things.'

His chuckle took on an odd tone. 'We're only like a couple?' he teased.

I caught his fingers and stopped his tickling. 'You know what I mean... '

He was quiet for a second, letting me hold his hand in mine. 'Color?' he pondered out loud. 'Never really thought about it much... green, I suppose.'

I grunted. I guess that figured, he used to wear it so much back during the war.

'So?' he prompted.

'What?' I asked, looking down at what I could see of his face. He looked amused and gave my fingers a squeeze.

'What's your favorite color?' he prodded, tilting his head up to look at me.

'Mine?' I blinked, thinking about it. 'Black... I suppose.'

'Is that even a color?' he asked.

I snorted. 'Red then. Though purple is kinda nice... a color with an attitude.'

He shook his head as best he could. 'I should have known you couldn't decide.'

I made a little sound of derision and he laughed at me.

He settled back against me for a bit and I guess we thought about things. Colors maybe. Then he raised his head again and looked up at me. 'Do you have a favorite food?' he asked and his tone had gentled.

I couldn't help a little grin and felt a faint blush rising. He looked bemused and pushed himself up so that he could look at me without twisting. 'Don't laugh,' I told him. 'But I love those little oranges that Quatre had that one time. They're like little tiny... packages. You have to unwrap it before you get to the good part.' He stretched up and gave me a soft kiss, eyes looking oddly contemplative. 'You?' I had to prompt.

He put his head back down and slid his leg up further to twine with mine. 'Fish, I suppose,' he told me. 'I can remember eating sushi... a long time ago. It has good memories.'

I knew he was talking about way back, before his days in Gundam training and I found my arms pulling him close again. I nodded in understanding, remembering the comforting taste of oatmeal fixed just so.

By the not-rules of our not-game, it was my turn to ask again. Before I quite knew what was coming out of my mouth I blurted, 'What do you want to do with our lives?'

He seemed to grow very still in my arms and I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting for him to speak, waiting to hear that he'd had some master plan all along.

'What do you want to do?' he murmured at length and I snorted in frustration.

'No way, Yuy!' I told him. 'I asked first!'

'I don't want to push you toward something you might not want,' he hedged.

'I'm a big boy, Heero,' I pointed out. 'And we're not joined at the hip. I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions.'

'I know that,' he murmured, squeezing my fingers. 'But I don't want to pressure you... I wanted to let you decide first.'

I sighed, feeling the stirrings of frustration in my gut. 'We're running out of money, love. We have to start talking about this.'

'I know,' he said, the breath of his own sigh warming my chest.

'This is so unlike you, Mr. Boy Scout,' I teased gently. 'Where's our three escape routes and our backup plan?'

He snorted and pushed up to prop on an elbow again, looking me in the eye. I suddenly realized that he had his mission specs, his damn mission plan, but I wasn't privy to it. I glared.

'That's cold, Yuy,' I grumbled, and he had the good grace to blush all the way to the roots of his hair.

'I just wanted to enjoy... this,' he said softly, voice a little sheepish.

'This?' I queried, giving him a hard look.

'You?' he clarified and brought his hand up to brush lightly along my jaw. 'Us. Just being together. I've ached for this for so long... I didn't want to spoil it.'

I... softened, quite despite myself. 'You make it damn hard to stay irritated with you,' I complained.

'Are you irritated with me?' he asked, his expression that of a wide-eyed child.

I chuckled. 'Gods, I should never have told you what a killer look that is.'

He ruined the effect with the touch of a smirk, and we laughed together. But then he straightened it all back around by leaning in close and whispering softly, 'I love you, Duo Maxwell.'

'Heart and soul,' I grumbled, frowning up at him. 'You know that, but this is a partnership, and you're holding out on me.'

He sighed, looking down at me with a kind of... wistful intensity. 'I'm sor... ' he began, caught himself, and gave me a tiny little grin. 'I'm... remorseful. I was just worried for you. You were... so upset, for so long... I didn't want to ruin things when you seemed to finally be relaxing.'

I flushed, and I'm sure it was a spectacularly fast color change. Upset. Now there was something I would just as soon not talk about. Not now. Not ever.

So I simply skipped the topic. 'Well, our grace period is running out, Yuy. We aren't going to make more than the next rent payment. We have to decide what we're going to do.'

He rather surprised me then, by pushing up to sit cross-legged beside me. He was gnawing on his lower lip, which told me just how hard he was thinking. I curled an arm around his knee and waited.

'Do you have any ideas at all?' he finally blurted.

I repressed another sigh and looked up at the ceiling. I suppose I might just as well stop fighting it, I'd learned a long time ago that you couldn't push Heero Yuy into talking about something he wasn't ready for. 'Well,' I admitted reluctantly. 'I had entertained the idea, at one time, of going back and begging Howard for work on his salvage crew.'

He looked startled and I shook my head before he could even begin to voice his objections. 'I know... I know... that would require a move half away around the damn world. I didn't say I was still thinking about it. We decided to live here and that pretty much precludes working there.' I caught my own lower lip in my teeth, realized I was mimicking Heero, and made myself stop. 'I guess I have it in the back of my mind as a back-up plan.'

'Anything else?' he prompted and I fought down a touch of frustration.

'It's a two way street, lover-boy,' I grumbled. 'Let's hear some of your ideas. So far, all you have is a back-up plan with no....' I caught something as it flickered in his eyes and I suddenly realized what I'd missed up until now. I sat up and looked him square in the eye. 'You asshole... the Preventers isn't the backup plan... the Preventers is the plan!'

He ducked his head, which pretty much gave me my answer, but he mumbled a quiet, 'Well... I was thinking about it... '

I gusted a heavy sigh. 'Why didn't you just tell me?'

'I told you,' he said gently, catching my hand in his. 'I didn't want you to feel pressured into something just because I was considering it.'

'When are you going to take the kid gloves off, Heero?' I asked him quietly, and I felt the hand that was holding mine flinch. 'When are you going to stop treating me like one of the walking wounded?'

His eyes came up to hunt for mine and I met his gaze. His was... a little pained. A little guilty. A tiny bit of stubborn. 'All I want in the world is to make you happy, love,' he told me softly. 'If you want to deliver pizzas for a living, then I will be thrilled to deliver pizzas. If you want to work at the zoo, I will be happy to shovel animal shit for the rest of my life. I just want you to have... everything you ever wanted.'

His hand that wasn't busy clutching mine had found its way to cup my face and I couldn't help chuckling at him. 'I so can not see you cleaning up after elephants and water buffalo.'

'You doubt me,' he smiled, stroking his thumb over my cheek. 'I'm hurt.'

I snorted. 'It would make me happy to have you stop treating me like I'm still in that damn leg brace, love.'

He sighed and leaned in to kiss me softly. 'Can't help it... according to Wufei, over-protective is my middle name.'

I laughed out-right and shook my head, giving the argument up as one of those things that had no serious resolution. 'Come on lazy-butt, let's get going,' I told him instead and scrambled up to get dressed.

'Where?' he asked in confusion.

'We are going to go garage saleing,' I informed him. 'We need another kitchen chair.'

'Now?' he grumbled, glancing from me to the bedroom window, which clearly showed it still raining.

'We'll get a better deal,' I told him, dragging out a clean pair of jeans. 'And we need the extra chair if we're having Wufei over for dinner.'

I met his gaze while I snapped and zipped and he frowned, opening his mouth to object. But I grinned wickedly before he could speak. 'It'll make me happy,' I fairly purred and it bought me a disgusted little snort of a laugh. I knew I'd won.

We did find a chair, though we spent more money at the hardware store buying the glue we needed to put the rickety thing back together, than we had on the furniture itself. It didn't match either of the other two, but then... they didn't match each other, so it was a set, of sorts I suppose.

We found that we had most of what we needed for a spaghetti dinner, but decided to walk down to the market for the stuff to make a salad, since we were having company. Or, at least, we hoped we were having company. We probably would have made do with what we had, otherwise.

The rain had slacked off almost completely and the walk wasn't all that far. We stopped off downstairs to use the pay phone first and Heero made a quick call to Wufei while I exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Roberts who had come out to get his mail. Heero made arrangements with our intended guest and I cautiously tested the waters to see if anyone had noticed our little, early morning romp in the rain. Mr. Roberts is a nice old guy, tall as they come, almost skeletally thin, and the apartment complex gossip. I found out that Mrs. Brooks from 52B was more than likely sleeping with Mr. Mayfair from three doors down, but not a mention of Heero's and my argument. I was relieved. I liked our apartment and worried sometimes that we might have trouble if our neighbors figured out that Heero and I were a little more than just roommates.

Heero finished the call and waved to signal that he was ready to go. I excused myself to Mr. Roberts and jogged over to where my partner waited, then we headed across the parking lot toward the market.

'You know,' I grinned, as I fell into step with Heero. 'You could have come over and said hello to Mr. Roberts.'

He gave me a snort and a sidelong glance. 'I never know what to say to that man,' he grumbled. 'He wants to tell me things that are none of my business and I never know how to answer him.'

I laughed. 'The guy really doesn't want answers,' I informed him. 'He just likes to gossip. All you have to do is say 'no shit?' or 'really?' every three or four minutes and he'll carry the conversation for you.'

Heero looked doubtful. 'That's what you call a conversation?' he asked skeptically.

I grinned. 'It is with Mr. Roberts. I think the guy is just bored since he retired. He used to be an electrical engineer, you know.'

Heero looked at me, and his expression was kind of odd. 'How did you know that?'

I chuckled wryly. 'The old guy has figured out when I go out to get the mail and manages to run into me almost every day. We talk.'

Heero stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk and it took me another couple of steps to realize. I stopped and looked back at him expectantly. 'He... is staking out our mailbox?' he asked incredulously.

I had to laugh out loud at the horrified expression on his face. He took the couple of steps and caught up to me. 'Not like that, Heero,' I soothed. 'He doesn't stalk, exactly, he just likes to... visit.'

Heero was frowning at me and I felt a little funny just standing in the middle of the sidewalk. I took a tentative sidestep, resuming our walk, and was relieved when Heero came with me. I sighed. 'He's just a lonely old man. He does it to everybody.'

'He doesn't do it to me,' he growled and I did my best to hide the grin.

'Well, you're not very... approachable,' I informed him as diplomatically as I could manage. It bought me a glare and I tried again. 'Heero, I've seen the man hide dog biscuits in the cuffs of his pants so that the Littlejohn's dog will come over to him, just so he has an excuse to talk to Mrs. Littlejohn when she has to come after the mutt. He lives all alone and he just likes to talk.' His scowl faded a little bit and I smiled softly. 'It's all right, he's just a lonely, harmless old man.'

'You're too trusting,' Heero mumbled, but it was pretty weak.

'You're too paranoid,' I returned, and decided that I needed to officially introduce Heero to Mr. Roberts at the next opportunity.

I looked away from him as we paused to check traffic before crossing the street and he softly said, 'I guess we balance each other.'

I grinned and felt a tiny little pang, wishing I could reach out and take his hand. 'I guess we do,' I agreed. 'You keep me safe from vigilantes, and I'll try to keep you from becoming a social outcast.'

I'd meant it as a joke, but I didn't get the laugh. Sometimes Heero Yuy is something of a tough crowd.

Then we were there, and the conversation was dropped.

The little grocery isn't much to write home about, you aren't going to find anything truly exotic in there. In fact, when we want meat other than simple hamburger, we take the time to go the extra six blocks to the meat market, but it has all the essentials, and the bonus of a decent produce section.

We had picked over the heads of lettuce, gotten some carrots and were trying to decide if we wanted bell peppers or not, when Heero thought about the dressing.

'Wufei likes that vinegar based salad dressing,' Heero reminded me.

'We're not going to find that here,' I frowned, glancing around.

'I can make it from scratch,' he informed me. 'Go get a bottle of vinegar and I'll get the herbs, I think we have the rest of the ingredients at home.'

I agreed, and wandered off into the bowels of the place, looking for the cooking aisle. I couldn't believe how many different types there were, and it took me a few minutes to decide between white and whatever the hell the other stuff is. I was just heading back, bottle in hand, when I heard a voice being raised. A woman's voice, already high and getting higher. It was when it finally got loud enough for me to hear the subject matter that I broke into a jog.

'... but a criminal! Just a damn killer! You should all have been locked up!'

I contained an animal growl by simple force of will as I came around the end of the aisle into the produce section, to find Heero backed up against the potato bin. He had our little basket of vegetables clutched in front of him, the only barrier between him and the woman screaming at him. The look on his face was completely indescribable. Horrified? Humiliated? Pissed off? Threatened? Confused? All of the above? I didn't know where to start. If I hadn't been able to see the look on his face, it might almost have been comical; the woman that had him pinned wasn't half his size, and was probably four times his age. But I could see the look on his face and my hackles were up so fast I would probably have knocked flat anybody who had tried to get in my way.

'... completely shameful that you weren't all sent straight to prison!' the woman was ranting, waving her finger in Heero's face for emphasis, getting in his personal space with a fearlessness that only comes with advanced age. 'Nothing but cold-blooded killers, every one of you!'

That was the point where I arrived and I tapped the woman gently on the shoulder. 'Excuse me, Ma'am. I need to get through here... I need some radishes.'

She blinked at me, but gave a little ground with a funny, aborted grunt. Something I've learned over the years is that most people, if you are polite, can't quite seem to keep from being polite in return. Unless their ire is directed at you, and since she was ranting at Heero, she hadn't registered me as part of the equation yet. Her instinctive response to 'excuse me' was to get the hell out of the way.

I had my ass between her and Heero the minute she gave me enough ground to do it. I took hold of Heero's elbow and began steering him the hell out of there. 'Thank you, Ma'am,' I blithered, snagging a package of radishes just to keep up appearances and dropping it in the basket in Heero's hands. 'We'll just be getting out of your way. Thank you very much and you have a good day now. Don't get wet out there and it was very nice to have met you... ' my mouth was on total autopilot and it took her a couple of minutes to realize what was happening. I had Heero half way to the cashier's before she understood that we were together.

'They should have shot you all like dogs!' she shouted after us and I felt Heero flinch beside me. I tightened my hand on his elbow and just kept us moving.

'Quite possibly, Ma'am,' I called back without looking. 'I think it was on the list of probable solutions. They decided to give us medals for saving the planet instead... maybe next time.'

There was the sound of a disgusted little noise of indignation, but she finally shut the fuck up.

It was all I could do to get the grocery basket pried out of Heero's fingers, but I got us checked out and then got us the hell out of that place. I let him carry the sack, because he needed to have something in his hands. I was glad the clerk double bagged the stuff, because I thought Heero was going to twist the handles right off the thing before he was done.

I wished to the Gods I dared put an arm around him, he really, really needed the contact. But I knew it would only make this situation worse.

'Just a crazy old woman, love,' I told him when we were back on the street. 'It's all right. Not the first time someone's taken a shot at us, and it won't be the last.'

He didn't speak immediately and I looked over at him worriedly. His hands were shaking and I took a moment to curse that woman with... dysentery or something equally painful. Mange, maybe. Can people get mange? I hoped that woman found out.

When he did speak, his voice was hard and terse. 'This way,' he growled and led me across the street in a totally wrong direction. I sighed internally, but bit my tongue and let him take the long way home. I honestly didn't think the woman was going to track us back to the apartment, but if Heero needed this, then I'd walk around for the rest of the damn day to make him feel better, to give him the time to cool off.

He took us a winding path, a good six or seven blocks out of our way, going down a couple of alleys and sitting on a bench for a solid fifteen minutes before he managed to assure himself that no one was tailing us. I just stayed close and followed his lead, trying to decide if he was upset over the 'attack' itself, or what the woman had said. We didn't talk much until he finally felt secure enough to take us home. I still waited until we were safely inside our own walls again.

I trailed him into the kitchen and watched him put the groceries away. Watched as he got out pots and pans, waited until his hands weren't shaking quite so much. Then I moved in behind him and slipped my arms around his waist, laying my head on his shoulder. 'It's all right,' I told him simply and felt him heave a sigh.

'Thank you,' he murmured, letting his head drop back against me. 'I... didn't know what the hell to say her.'

'You don't say anything to people like that, Heero,' I admonished. 'You just get away from them.'

He snorted and I felt another shuddery intake of breath. 'You certainly had enough to say.'

I chuckled. 'I couldn't tell you what the bloody hell I said to her,' I confessed. 'It was all just to keep her off balance while we made our escape.'

He tried on a laugh, but it didn't come clear and he suddenly turned in my arms, grabbing on tight. 'Do you think it will ever... just go away?'

'Eventually,' I soothed. 'People have short attention spans... it'll fade.'

'Gods,' he sighed, 'I hope so.'

'It'll be all right,' I whispered, stroking my fingers through his hair. 'As soon as something happens that's more news worthy than the near end of the world, they'll stop running those damn reports with our faces plastered all over everything. People will stop recognizing us then.'

He pulled me closer and rubbed his face against my hair, squeezing almost fiercely. 'I don't want you going out alone anymore,' he suddenly blurted.

I opened my mouth to object, but then thought about how I really didn't want him going out alone either. 'All right,' I agreed gently and felt him relax. 'We're pretty pathetic though, Yuy, when we need to guard each other's backs against little old, blue haired ladies.'

He laughed lightly with me, though there was little real humor in it. I guess, quite despite ourselves, we couldn't stop thinking about what the woman had said. We wouldn't talk about it, because there was really no refuting all of it. We had been terrorists. We had killed. And even though we both felt that we had done what we had to, the words always hit a little bit too close to home. Pulled the scabs off wounds that were still pretty damn fresh.

'We need to get dinner started,' I told him after a bit. 'Wufei's going to be here in an hour or so.'

'I know,' he sighed softly, but his arms didn't let go, and I wouldn't draw away as long as he needed me there. 'Have I ever told you how glad I am you're with me?' he said then, his voice so intense that it made me shiver.

'We're partners,' I told him firmly. 'I'll always be right there with you.'

He did straighten then and gave we a wan smile. 'You'll protect me from little old ladies?' His embarrassment at not knowing how to handle the situation was plain, and painful, to see.

I grinned and kissed the end of his nose. 'Always, lover. No little old lady can get past me.'

He tried to brighten the smile a little and then we set to making dinner. I can manage a salad without too much trouble and bent to work there while Heero started the spaghetti and put the meatballs on. I tried to keep a relatively innocuous conversation going, but I could see him brooding about the encounter whenever there was a lull.

He'd have done better if the damn woman had just pulled a stupid knife on him. A clear threat, he would have dealt with as swiftly and surely as ever. It was these 'civilian', not-really-threatening incidents that threw him. He didn't know how to respond. He never knew what to say, how to get away from people like that, and I knew it bugged him. Threw him off balance. It made him so damn mad, just as mad as it made me, but you had to rein that in. Had to just take what they said, because arguing only made things worse.

We managed to have dinner just about ready to go on the table on time, despite the delay. I noticed Heero watching the clock like a hawk, and he deliberately positioned himself so that he was the logical one to get the door when Wufei's knock came. I couldn't quite decide whether to scream, or laugh, and finally just ignored it, letting him think that I hadn't noticed. He carefully checked out the window for Wufei's car before going to look through the peephole and finally letting the man in. I wondered how long he was going to suffer with the 'twitches'.

We've had Wufei over to our place a score of times, and he's invited us to his in turn. He always arrives as though we have offered him the highest of honors. He never fails to bring something, some gift or some food. Our set of four 'good' plates had come from Wufei after he had eaten off our washable plastic ones once.

'Those are supposed to be disposable,' he had said.

'But you can wash them!' I had exclaimed.

'They were cheap,' Heero had interjected.

The next time he ate with us, he had arrived with a wrapped package and insisted that it was only proper that dinner guests should bring gifts. He had no idea how we had fussed and fumed the next time we had dined at his home, trying to figure out what to bring.

This time, he brought a small basket with sliced garlic bread. I hadn't even noticed that Heero hadn't made bread with dinner until I had accepted the gift, and I realized they must have discussed it on the phone. It did explain what had taken Heero so darn long.

Heero took Wufei's coat while I took the bread to the kitchen and began pouring our drinks. I could hear the murmur of their voices in the living room and finally had to call them to the table. How the hell long does it take to hang up a coat?

'We're eating in the kitchen you guys!' I called in exasperation, and they came sheepishly to my summons.

'Sorry,' Heero murmured, and he must have still been a little off balance over that mess at the grocery, because he was blushing. He set to work taking our dinner up.

Wufei trailed him into the room and immediately latched onto the new chair as a topic of conversation, teasing us unmercifully about our 'décor'.

'You should try to get on one of those home decorating shows,' he chuckled as we sat down to eat. 'Where they come in and redo your living space?'

We both looked at him a little blankly and he rolled his eyes. 'When are you two going to break down and get a television set, so you know what's going on in the world?'

I snorted, dishing up meatballs and handing the bowl to Heero. 'When we become gainfully employed?'

Wufei raised an eyebrow in polite question and Heero chuckled. 'According to our bank account... soon.'

'Are you having any luck finding jobs?' Wufei asked as he carefully dished up a helping of spaghetti.

I snorted and shook my head. 'That implies that we've actually been looking.'

That got me another raised eyebrow and the quirk of a grin. 'Expecting to win the lottery or something?' he teased.

'Actually,' I informed him, ignoring the barb. 'That's part of why we asked you to dinner.'

Wufei indicated to Heero he wanted the bread with a flick of his fingers while he gave me a mock glare. 'Oh? It wasn't just my sparkling dinner company that you were after? I think I'm hurt.'

I delicately blew him a raspberry and accepted the bread as he handed it across. 'Of course we invited you for your witty conversational skills,' I informed him. 'But if you can employ those skills discussing the Preventers... that's simple economics.'

'Two birds with one stone and all that?' he asked archly.

I nibbled at my slice of bread and grinned appreciatively. 'Hmmm... three birds; you can cook too!'

Heero chuckled and gave Wufei a little inclination of his head, having taken a bite of the bread as well. 'It is very good, thank you.'

Wufei looked pleased. 'Just... what is it you want to discuss?' he asked, seeming to word the question slowly, as though watching his phrasing.

'Well,' I told him, elbowing my partner gently in the ribs. 'Our buddy here, has apparently developed an interest in your little organization, but has been afraid to ask.'

Wufei looked to Heero with a touch of uncertainty in his eyes. 'Afraid?' he repeated after a second, waiting for some clarification.

I had hoped that Heero would jump into the conversation once the opportunity offered itself, but he remained silent, chewing a mouthful of spaghetti and obviously waiting for me to elaborate. I sighed. 'He seems to be afraid that I will feel obligated to join if he does, or some other obscure Yuy reasoning,' I told Wufei and gained a twin set of odd looks. 'Hey!' I grumbled, giving Heero a glare. 'I wouldn't have to make this shit up it you'd just tell me what the hell you're thinking!'

Wufei couldn't quite contain a chuckle and Heero turned his odd look in that direction. Something strange seemed to pass between them, and I just hoped that Heero wasn't irritated with Wufei for laughing at him.

Wufei looked down at his plate, carefully spearing a forkful of salad and chewed it for a moment, seeming to consider his words. When he had swallowed, his fork found its why back into the salad bowl, but he just stirred things around.

'Actually,' he said, not looking up at me. 'I do have something that I thought you might be interested in, Duo.'

I took a drink of my soda and waited, watching him stir salad. I wondered why he seemed so uncomfortable, was it because he was offering a position to me specifically, and not Heero. 'What is it?' I prompted when he fell silent.

He took a breath and did look up at me then, rather searchingly. 'Commander Une has been having problems finding a Network Administrator for the Preventers computer network. The last person couldn't handle the job, didn't seem to... appreciate the level of security necessary for the organization.' He paused and smiled at me, seeming to lose a little of his discomfort. 'She was rather impressed with your... skills during the war and has... agreed with me that you would be perfect for the job.'

I blinked at him. 'Me?' I couldn't help asking.

He snorted and raised his own glass, saying, 'Well you did manage to hack into every damn system the woman ever had control over. She thinks you might be qualified,' before taking a drink.

Beside me, Heero was being awfully quiet and I glanced his way to find his attention completely focused on his plate. 'What do you think, Heero,' I asked, afraid his feelings were hurt that Wufei hadn't asked him.

He finished his mouthful and then grinned, looking at me sidelong. 'It beats the hell out of shoveling shit for a living.'

I laughed out loud at the reassurance that he wasn't angry, then glanced across at Wufei and laughed even harder at the confused look on his face.

'Shoveling... ?' he began, but then just shook his head. 'Never mind. I don't want to know.'

I bent back to my dinner, and sat that idea out in the middle of my brain to consider it. Wufei and Heero fell silent, letting me think about it. There was an odd, almost electric feeling in the air and I wondered about it.

The Network Administrator for the entire Preventers organization. That was something of a daunting thought. I'd have to do some research to catch up; I was a couple of months out of the technological loop. Things changed fast in that business and I wouldn't be able to fall behind. Not with those kinds of databases under my protection. It was kind of intriguing. It was kind of scary. It was kind of daunting. I already used that word, didn't I? I guess that's because it fits the most. Daunting. Damn, but I suddenly had a million questions. The one that bubbled to the top of my suddenly percolating brain first, was rather embarrassing; I wonder if I'll have to wear a tie? I decided not to ask that one.

'Do they have anything set up... ' I began, but Wufei raised a hand to forestall the questioning.

'I honestly don't know all that much about the position,' he informed me. 'But if you're interested, I can arrange a meeting with Commander Une as soon as tomorrow.'

I blew out a breath and didn't tell him that I'd rather talk to someone else, that the woman unnerved me. I hesitated and glanced over at Heero. His eyes were bright with approval and he smiled encouragingly, giving my shoulder a nudge. 'Go for it,' he said softly, and I felt oddly warmed.

I turned back to Wufei and found that his attention was on his dinner again. 'Ok, man,' I told him. 'Set up an appointment with the scary lady, and I'll talk to her.'

His head snapped up and he gave me a look somewhere between appalled and relieved. 'Maxwell!' he rebuked. 'You do not call Commander Une a 'scary lady'!'

I grinned rather unrepentantly. 'Well... not to her face, I won't.'

He replied with a roll of his eyes and we finished our dinner in that vein, Wufei teasing me about showing up for a job interview in jeans and a t-shirt, and me ribbing him about working for a psychopath.

Things seemed to... relax somehow, though I'm not really sure why they'd had that underlying tension to begin with. It wasn't something I could put my finger on. Maybe Heero had just needed some distraction to forget the incident at the market. Maybe Wufei had been worried that Heero would be upset that he'd offered that job to me and not him. I wasn't sure, but I was glad when the mood lifted and we began laughing and talking like normal.

Dinner was finished soon after, and Wufei insisted on helping with the dishes. Since Heero had cooked, I washed and Wufei dried while my partner sat at the table and kept us company. I had a harsh moment of missing Trowa and Quatre, but it passed, washed away in the banter. Wufei entertained us with job stories and Heero told him about our 'stalker' neighbor. We carefully didn't mention the trip to the grocery and when the dishes were done, went to sit on the couch for a little while, before Wufei had to go home.

'... couldn't believe that Noin made the shot,' Wufei was saying as we settled in the living room, finishing a story he had started about betting on the shooting range at work. 'I lost five credits on that one, and Noin wouldn't let me forget about it for weeks. That's all I heard for the next three assignments.'

I frowned, thinking about that one. 'I thought Sally Po was your partner?' I asked, and watched in some confusion as his cheeks flamed. What the hell had I said?

'I don't really have a permanent partner yet,' he mumbled, looking down at his hands and not at me. 'Right now I'm just tagging in where I'm needed.'

That made me feel like shit, talk about putting your foot in it! I leaned over and laid my hand gently on his arm. 'I'm sorry, Fei,' I told him. 'I didn't mean to make you feel bad. I'm sure you'll find somebody you can work with soon.'

The room seemed to go as dead quiet as a tomb, and Wufei stiffened under my hand. Damn; it must really be a touchy subject for him. I tried to think of something else I could say to make things better, but finally decided I should just keep my mouth shut, I obviously didn't understand the situation at all. I gave his arm a squeeze and then let go.

'Never would have taken you for a betting man,' Heero interjected quietly and the conversation turned back to safer ground. The mood lightened almost immediately, and I was glad that my slip hadn't caused permanent damage; it had been a pleasant evening and I was thankful I hadn't spoiled it.

We sat and visited for a while longer and then Wufei had to go.

'Some of us do have to get up for work in the morning,' he grinned as he slipped into his coat and prepared to leave.

'Well,' Heero chuckled, moving up behind me and giving my shoulder a squeeze. 'Maybe that will change come tomorrow.'

'Then you'll be the only unemployed one, Yuy,' I grinned, glancing over my shoulder at him and catching the strangest look on his face.

'I would call you tomorrow if you two had a damn phone,' Wufei interjected with a smirk. 'So you're going to have to haul your sorry butts out of bed in the morning and call me instead.'

Heero snorted. 'I think we'll manage,' he said, and then a little more seriously, 'maybe I'll come down to headquarters with Duo.'

They looked at one another for a minute and then Wufei smiled broadly. 'Sure thing, Yuy. I heard there was a janitorial position open too.'

I couldn't help but laugh and Heero poked me in the ribs by way of retribution.

Then Wufei was gone and the evening was over. I went to turn down the bed while Heero went through his routine of checking and double-checking all the doors and windows before coming to join me.

I had meant to talk to Heero about the impending interview. I had meant to ask if he knew why Wufei had gotten so upset when I had questioned his lack of a steady partner. But when he came into the room, there was a smile on his face that told me he was thinking of other things besides talking. He came and settled his hands on my hips, pulling me close and nuzzling gently at the side of my neck.

'You know,' he whispered in my ear, low and husky. 'Network Administrator... that's kind of sexy.'

I laughed with delight and wrapped my arms around his neck. 'You're turned on by tech geeks? Why didn't you ever tell me?'

'Never thought about how... suggestive some of the jargon was before now.' He murmured and began working at the buttons on my shirt.

'Hmmm... ' I sighed. 'Interfacing?'

'Oh yeah,' he groaned in mock passion. 'Downloading... Upgrading... '

'Talk dirty to me,' I snickered and we were suddenly laughing so hard we fell on the bed in a tangle.

Then the talk was gone and very soon, so were the clothes. The laughter faded as the passions started to rise. He forgot about jobs and markets, forgot about Wufei and dinner as he teased me with lips and hands, making me forget about questions, forget about talking, forget that I had to face scary Colonel Une in the morning.

We lost ourselves in each other and just forgot it all. Finding that place we could give, one to the other... that place where nothing else existed.

When I thought I would explode with the frustration of being held back, when I was starting to wonder if he would ever let us finish, he suddenly rolled us over until I was looking down into blue eyes so dark with passion, they didn't even look like his.

'Take me,' he growled and spread himself out beneath me like some offering to the Gods.

Later I would realize what it was about. Would know that this was brought on by his fears of hurting me, that he was still unsure of himself, still worried about being too rough. But in that moment, my mind was too far gone to care, my body had forgotten how to breathe, and I just answered his demands. Answered our body's demands.

Somehow, over the months, our roles had begun to settle in, and this was his position more often than it was mine. I had forgotten how it felt to be the aggressor, had forgotten that rush of pure, animal control that fills you. Had forgotten how looking down into his upturned face, twisted with passion, filled me with... Gods, I don't know, endorphins maybe? It just made me feel like I could do anything... be anything. Made me feel strong and assured, protective and possessive.

It was overwhelming. I think I screamed with my release. I know he did.

Sated and exhausted, I collapsed across his chest and felt only irritation when he prodded me to go clean up.

'Don' wanna,' I mumbled into the side of his neck, and he chuckled at me.

'You'll be sorry later if we don't,' he teased.

'That'll be then,' I groused. 'Don't wanna move now.'

'Come on, love,' he said, and continued to nudge until I finally moved.

'Sadist,' I mumbled and followed him to the bathroom.

I almost don't remember climbing back into bed. He's always known what to do to keep me from thinking too much about things I can't do anything about anyway. Has always known what things will prey on my mind and when I need to be kept from thinking.

'Love you,' he practically purred in my ear, sounding quite satisfied with himself, as I struggled to stay awake long enough for our goodnights.

'Heart and soul,' I managed and then I was gone.

Morning found me alone in bed and I had to grin up at the ceiling, knowing that Heero was downstairs on the payphone the minute he knew Wufei would be at work. I couldn't help wondering again why in the hell he hadn't just told me that he was interested in checking into the Preventers. I swear he was as excited about my applying for this Administrator job as I was.

It's funny, I should have been nervous about what was amounting to my first ever job interview. But underneath it all somewhere, I guess I knew I probably pretty much had this job if I decided I wanted it. That sounds kind of... conceited, but come on; we'd already been offered positions. I don't much like to go around blowing my own horn or anything, but let's face facts... I'm a Gundam pilot. Was a Gundam pilot, anyway. I probably knew more about computers, computer technology, hacking, and system security than any two administrators twice my age out there anywhere. Not that I'm like... Super-technology guy or anything, but I'd had some of the most advanced training the colonies had to offer, and field experience the likes of which most people could only dream about. I don't go around rubbing people's faces in it... but I know my shit.

I guess the only odd doubt I had, was why Command Une hadn't offered the position to Heero. I'd never admit it to him in a million years, but he's better than I am. Not necessarily smarter or a faster learner, but his training had started years before mine had. He had one hell of a head start on me. Give me enough time and I had no doubt I could catch up and maybe even pass his expertise... but why not start with the best in the first place?

I glanced at the clock and decided I'd better get up and shower or Heero might not give me the time to take one. Colonel Une made me nervous enough, the last thing I needed to do was show up in her office smelling like sex. I wasn't particularly bothered by the prospect of the job interview itself, but I will more than freely admit that I wasn't too keen on meeting with a woman who'd had a hand in scheduling my public execution.

Standing in the bathroom, unbinding my hair, I thought about that a little bit. I'd always wondered... had it been in her date book? Eight hundred hours, meeting with Engineering. Nine hundred, troop inspection. Ten hundred, execute wayward Gundam pilot on camera. Eleven hundred, have nails done.

Forgive me; I had a lot of time sitting in that cell to think about my impending broadcast debut. I had imagined her secretary calling on the intercom, 'Excuse me, Colonel... you're late for your ten o'clock.'

Let's just say the woman had unnerved me and leave it at that.

I was scrubbed as clean as I could get myself, and standing in the closet doorway trying to figure out what to wear, when Heero came back into the apartment. All I could think about was Wufei's teasing cracks about me showing up in jeans and a t-shirt. Truth be told... I didn't own a hell of a lot else.

'Damn, Heero,' I muttered holding up my black jeans and deciding it was probably the best I could do. 'Wufei's never going to let me hear the end of this.'

There was a chuckle and I turned to find my partner standing with a sack in his hand. 'Here,' he said simply, and held it out to me.

The sack bore the logo of the department store in the mall up the block and I couldn't help gaping at him. 'Heero!' I blurted. 'I thought we agreed neither of us would go out alone anymore!'

He managed a sheepish look, and moved closer, still holding the sack out like a damn little kid on Christmas morning. I suddenly realized that he'd never actually agreed to his not venturing out alone. He had only told me he didn't want me doing it. I wanted to be pissed, but he had this damn... expectant look on his face, and I just couldn't be angry with him.

'What did you do?' I asked instead. 'We can't afford... '

He smiled at me, opening the sack when I still didn't reach for it, and pulled out a pair of black dress slacks. 'As of ten o'clock this morning, you are going to have a job and we aren't going to have to worry about money so damn much.'

'And what if I don't get hired?' I asked, taking the pants from him and watching in dismay as he reached back in to pull out a dress shirt and tie.

He gave me a disdainful little snort as if there was just no question, and began undoing the packaging on the shirt.

What the hell could I do? I got dressed.

Well, I guess it explained why it had taken him so long to come back to the apartment.

Heero had to help me with the tie, and I couldn't stop a heavy sigh as my own hands lifted to try to help, dropped to get out of the way, tried to stuff themselves into my pockets and finally ended up crossed in front of me.

Heero smiled gently at me. 'Not going to throw up, are you?'

'Gods... why am I so nervous?' I groused. 'This is ridiculous!'

'Uncharted territory?' he suggested as his fingers and his attention stayed on the tie.

'I guess,' I sighed. 'I didn't exactly have to fill out a resume for Dr. G.'

His eyes met mine for a second, with a penetrating intensity. Our respective... mentors were something that we just didn't talk about all that much. It was a sign how much I was thinking about the past, that that name had popped out of my mouth.

'Duo,' he said to me, his fingers leaving the knot and stroking down the length of the tie, as though straightening it. 'Do you want this job?'

I took a deep breath and thought about it for a minute. 'I think so,' I finally told him.

He gave me a funny little quirk of a grin. 'You think?' he prompted.

'Well,' I temporized. 'I really don't know all that much about it yet.'

He nodded. 'You aren't obligated,' he said firmly, his hands settling on my hips. He gave me a little squeeze for emphasis. 'Not for a damn second. If you don't like the sounds of it... you walk away.'

I frowned and nodded my understanding of the statement.

'Duo,' he warned and I had to sigh. He knows me too damn well.

'All right,' I agreed grudgingly and won a soft kiss.

He drew away and there was the spark of something in his eyes. 'You look... damn handsome,' he told me and reinforced the statement with another, less-soft, kiss.

Then it was time to go.

Heero splurged again and we called a cab. I couldn't believe how damn free he was suddenly being with the money. It was rather overwhelming to realize that he honestly had no doubts that by the end of the day, we would have no money problems what so ever. I tried to imagine having a steady income. Tried to imagine not having to save every scrap of aluminum foil to be used over and over. Wondered what it would be like to buy more fresh vegetables and less of the cheap, canned kind. That led me to thinking about a kitchen table with matching chairs. Enough matching chairs, in fact, that we could have all the guys over for dinner. I wanted more seating in the living room first though, and maybe that television that Wufei kept teasing us about not having. And something to play my music with. Gods... I wasn't sure where to start!

First though, we needed to pay back Quatre. I knew he'd fight us on that point, but it was something I wanted to do and I thought Heero felt the same way about it. I didn't like the idea of starting out on our own in someone else's dept. It would feel damn good to be standing on our own for the first time.

Of course, the down side was going to be all those lost mornings. No more lying around in bed together. No more lingering talks while the sun came up. Gods but I would miss that. Life was going to become very... regimented, and that was going to harken back to the only other part of my life that had ever run on a schedule. Training. Not some of my better memories. Though I suppose they were pretty damn far from the worst.

'Stop that; you're giving me a headache trying to keep up,' Heero said softly, mindful of the cab driver.

'What?' I muttered, and looked up at him, pulled out of my reverie.

'I think you've managed thirty-five mood changes in the last two minutes,' he chuckled at me softly. 'What are you thinking about so hard?'

I flushed until I'm sure I was a lovely shade of scarlet and ducked my head. 'Nothing really,' I told him. His hand lifted from the seat and for a moment I thought he would forget himself and reach out to me, but he didn't and I was a little sorry. He looked troubled and I had to sigh. 'Come on, Heero. You have to admit the irony of going in for a job interview with a woman who tried to have me executed is a little... bizarre.'

He snorted, a rather surprised little sound, and I don't think he'd meant to do it. 'She's... changed a lot.'

'Says Wufei,' I grumbled.

'He's right, she really isn't... ' he hesitated and I looked up at him, wondering how he could be so damn sure of her. He blinked, seeming suddenly at a loss for words. 'I mean... think about it,' he suddenly blurted. 'She wouldn't have the damn job if she was still... like she was.'

'I suppose that's true,' I muttered and looked away again.

We were quiet for a bit, it was too hard to talk with some stranger sitting within arm's reach if one of us had leaned forward to bother. The guy didn't seem to be paying any attention, but you never knew. I was kind of glad that I hadn't eaten any breakfast to speak of; I really didn't feel all that great. Did I want to do this? I guess I had thought when we got the job offers, that the positions would be like Wufei's; field agents. I'd never really thought much about this kind of job. A desk job? Working inside, in the same office, all day? Granted, there'd be some physical labor involved with that kind of occupation, but... I'd just never thought about it before. What if I couldn't deal with that kind of tedium? What if it drove me crazy? But I didn't have a lot of choices, did I? If Une seriously offered me the position, I couldn't afford to turn it down.

A hand settled over mine where they rested in my lap and I realized that I was worrying at that scar on my palm. I stopped immediately and looked up at Heero guiltily.

'Sorry,' I sighed. 'I don't know why this is so... nerve-wracking for me.'

'It's all right,' he said softly, giving my hand a squeeze before withdrawing. 'I'm a little nervous myself.'

'You? Why?' I blurted and frowned over at him.

A grin spread slowly across his face. 'Well, I am applying for that janitorial position.'

I couldn't help the laugh that bubbled up, and some of the tension eased from my belly. I gave him a grateful smile. 'Well, if I get the job, maybe I can put in a good word for you,' I quipped, and he gave me that look. The one that makes me feel like his arm is around me even when he's clear across the room.

'It's perfectly normal to feel apprehensive about a new situation,' he reassured. 'This isn't exactly the sort of thing that was handled in training.'

I smirked at him. 'Wouldn't you have thought they could have squeezed in job interviewing between 'setting your own broken bones' and 'field stripping your weapon in the dark with your teeth'?'

'Maybe we just skipped class that day,' he said gently, like that was an actual possibility. Kind of hard to 'skip' when you're the only pupil taking the course. We didn't speak of the real reason none of these life's lessons had been taught; no one had expected us to ever need them.

'Thanks,' I murmured, and made a conscious effort to keep my hands away from each other, to make sure I didn't start that rubbing again.

'You're going to do fine,' he told me, and he made it easy to believe.

'You can say that because you don't have a ten o'clock appointment with the scary woman,' I told him in a melodramatically put-out tone and, oddly he didn't have an answer to that.

Then we were there and climbing out of the cab. Heero reached for his wallet, while I stood beside him and tried to take in all the details of the building we were standing in front of. It was... bigger than I had thought it would be, a massive four story brick and stone thing, with tinted windows so it was impossible to look up and see if Wufei was looking down from any of them. It was actually kind of disconcerting to realize that there could be somebody standing in each one of those windows staring down and I wouldn't have known it. Creepy. Made my soldier's instincts twitch.

My attention was drawn back to Heero and the cab driver when I heard the guy say, 'Put your money away, kid. I'm not taking it.'

'What?' Heero said, sounding confused. My first thought was to move in and get my partner away from yet another pissy Earth citizen, but then I realized the cab driver was grinning from ear to ear.

'Just consider it a little thanks,' he said and reached up to deliberately reset the meter. He pulled away before Heero could do much more than mutter a bewildered, 'Thank you.'

We looked at each other for a second and then Heero smiled at me. 'Looks like we can afford lunch after all.'

I didn't know whether to laugh at the joke, or worry about how we were going to eat until my first paycheck came in.

He turned and led me inside then, and I forgot all about the money issue.

There was a security guard at a front desk and my head was so far into scoping out the security that I almost missed it when he addressed Heero by name.

'Mr. Yuy,' he smiled, handing over a couple of already prepared visitor's badges. 'Commander Une is expecting you and Mr. Maxwell in her office.'

'Thank you,' Heero said, nodding curtly and taking the badges to sort mine from his. He handed me mine and easily clipped his own to the waistband of his pants. I pulled my eyes away from the monitors on the guard's desk long enough to smile at the man and then followed Heero to the elevator bank, fumbling with my badge as I went.

The elevator doors closed behind us, as Heero punched in for the fourth floor. Then he turned to me with a smile and reached out to straighten my tie. 'You look wonderful. You are wonderful. You are going to get this job. Commander Une is not nearly as scary as she used to be.'

I chuckled and shook my head. 'Thanks, Dad,' I grinned. 'And just what are you going to be doing while I'm sweating my ass off in scary Colonel Une's office?'

He laughed, his fingers leaving the tie to sweep up and brush a lock of my hair into place. 'I'll go and sit in Wufei's office until you're done. He's down on three. And stop calling her 'scary' before you slip and call her that to her face.'

I was just getting ready to retort to that, when the elevator doors swept open and we were staring at an imposing woman sitting behind a receptionist's desk. 'Good morning, Mr. Yuy,' she said, smiling and standing up. I cringed; the woman was going to tower over us. 'This must be Mr. Maxwell?'

Heero was holding the elevator door open with one hand and he gestured me out. 'Morning, Pat,' he smiled. 'Yes, this is Duo. Will you direct him to Agent Chang's office when the Commander is done with him?'

'Certainly,' she said and came around the desk to shake my hand.

'Good luck,' Heero murmured to me, and then the doors slid shut and he was gone.

It took me a heartbeat to take the woman's hand and respond to her well-mannered greeting. I'm not sure if it was the intimidation factor of finding myself nose to... breastbone, with the tall blond, or the sudden realization that Heero had been here before. This woman had known him, and not just by reputation.

She said something about the weather, and began leading me down a hall. My mouth, on autopilot, was replying with something witty and I followed where she led. But I couldn't help wondering.

Commander 'not-scary' Une is not near as tall as her secretary, thank God, but she's still an intimidating presence. I was somewhat surprised, and relieved, to find her wearing a tailored business suit and not a uniform. I have no idea why I was expecting a uniform. I guess I'd never seen her in anything else, except on the propaganda vid-feeds during the war.

Pat handed me deftly into the good Commander's care, offered coffee or tea and then saw herself out when I declined.

'It was good of you to come in, Mr. Maxwell,' Une said, and despite my fervent wishes otherwise, she came around her massive desk to shake my hand.

I didn't let my nervousness show on my face, giving her one of my more beguiling smiles and took the offered hand without reservation. 'Good of you to see me, Commander, and please... call me Duo.'

She gestured me to a seat but then leaned herself against the corner of her desk, right in front of me, rather than returning to her own side of the damn massive piece of furniture. I almost shivered, lost in memory, remembering the woman standing over me once before, those cold brown eyes locked with mine as she backhanded me hard enough to make my skull bounce off the damn wall. I resisted the urge to reach up and rub the back of my head, and wished I hadn't sat down. I wondered if she'd done that on purpose; assumed that stance. It was kind of funny, really; with her hair down, and in that business suit, she hardly seemed like the same woman. The eyes weren't near as cold and hard, but I could still see scary Lady Une peeking back at me.

I ran my Heero inspired mantra through my head a couple of times and prepared to deal with the woman.


Not scary Une. Not scary Une. Not scary Une.

And she certainly couldn't have me thrown into the brig, that was a bonus. Nor command her lackeys to beat the living crap out of me... again.

'Duo then,' she said, and gave me a tight little smile. 'Or perhaps I should call you Oh-two?'

She was looking at me in a rather calculating way and so I just grinned, leaning back in the chair and getting comfortable. 'I've been known to answer to a variety of things over the years,' I drawled. 'It's your call.'

She smiled and straightened almost nonchalantly from where she had almost been perched, returning to her side of the desk. I felt like the exchange had been some kind of test, and I wasn't sure I'd passed.

I waited for her to retake her seat; the ball was on her side of the net after all.

She shifted some papers around, but I had the vague impression they were just props and camouflage. 'Agent Chang has given you quite the recommendation, Duo,' she told me and I tried to keep the faint, pleased flush from rising too much.

'I'll have to thank him,' I said softly. 'Though, I have to admit, I didn't know about this position being available until last night.'

She raised an elegant eyebrow. 'Well the Preventers organization did offer each of the five of you positions as soon as the peace treaties were signed and sealed.'

'True,' I nodded, expressing my appreciation of that fact. 'But I don't recall that... specific jobs were presented. I confess that I assumed the offers were for field agent positions.'

Those graceful eyebrows drew ever so slightly together, and I was somewhat surprised to realize that she was picking carefully over wording. 'Is that... what you had in mind?' she finally asked.

'Not necessarily,' I assured her, wishing I knew what was going on inside her head. 'I was just... surprised.'

She nodded and glanced down to shift papers again. 'But you're interested?'

I smiled and leaned forward, bracing my elbows across my knees. 'Well, I suppose that depends,' I said. 'Wufei really couldn't tell me all that much about the position, other than the fact that the previous man... didn't work out.'

The corner of her mouth twitched ever so slightly, and I suspected that 'didn't work out' was a gross understatement. 'His background was from a slightly more... relaxed environment,' was all she would say.

I flashed one of my patented smiles. 'Well... I hope you aren't expecting a long list of references from previous employers.'

It won a sudden, surprised laugh from her, which she quickly suppressed. 'I think I have enough first hand knowledge of your qualifications that I can waive the reference list,' she told me with a slight inclination of her head.

I returned the gesture, and couldn't hide a tiny little smirk. Yes, Lady, I hacked your damn systems more times than either of us can count. 'So what, exactly, is my mission here?' I asked, using old phrasing just to make my other, unspoken, point.

She smiled a smile that was more soldier than lady and I knew she was acknowledging my victories on the playing field we were discussing. 'Exactly?' she queried. 'I need you to make sure that other people like you stay the hell out of my network,' she said bluntly. 'You will be completely responsible for the intranet within this building. E-mail. File servers. Security. Access to the Internet. At some point in the future you may be responsible for satellite offices if this organization grows the way I hope it does.' There was a flash in her eyes of something... hard, and a little intense. I caught a glimpse of Colonel Une sitting across from me and wondered that I wasn't moved to recoil from the sight.

I'm not at all sure what demons drove this woman, and she was very obviously driven, but there was something about her that was... tempered. Wufei had been right; not quite the scary Colonel Une from the war. Though I think she could still be scary as hell if she really set her mind to it.

'Does total responsibility come with total control?' I asked, warming to this idea just a little bit.

'We do have a budget,' she admitted. 'And you will have to adhere to it. Otherwise, I'm hiring you for your expertise and I will damn well listen to your advice.'

I nodded, mulling that one over and when I didn't speak immediately, she interjected almost softly. 'Your... background suggests that you won't be frivolous with my money.'

Our gazes locked for a second and I felt kind of cold way down in my gut. Maybe I had been wrong, maybe those papers on her desk weren't just camouflage. I wondered just how much she knew about my... background. It felt like another damn test.

'I'm never frivolous,' I informed her, doing my best not to let that cold creep up from my gut into my voice. 'But the war is over and I won't try to do this job with bubblegum and Band-Aids.'

I heard the acceptance in my voice at the same moment she did, and she grinned at me, standing to extend her hand to me. 'Welcome to Preventers, Duo Maxwell,' she said, and there was a certain amount of self-satisfaction in her voice.

I sighed, my brain not at all sure that the rest of me had just made the right choice, but stood and took her hand anyway. What the hell; I guess I could always quit later. 'Thank you, Colonel,' I smiled and watched the corner of her mouth quirk again.

'It's been a pleasure talking with you Oh-two,' she fairly purred, and I thought she would give me that full-fledged grin again, but she didn't. A button was pressed on her desk-phone and the intimidating secretary reappeared. 'Pat will show you down to the Human Resources department. I look forward to working with you.'

It was a dismissal if I'd ever heard one, and I gave her the polite and appropriate response before following Amazon-secretary out of the office.

Fuck. I was employed.

Pat did indeed deliver me to the afore-mentioned Human Resources department down on two, where a woman named Shirley proceeded to run me through a paper work gauntlet for the next hour. I wondered a couple of times what Heero was doing and if Wufei was annoyed yet about having him camped in his office all day, but there was just no escaping the clutches of the 'fill it out in triplicate' woman.

I signed insurance forms and filled out emergency contact paper work. Was delivered to an office nurse who made me pee in a cup and took a blood sample. Was issued a stack of polo shirts with the Preventers logo over the left breast. My brain was starting to atrophy before I thought I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I had been reduced to just nodding at the bustling clerk and had to quash the desire to cheer out loud when she finally said, 'Almost done, Mr. Maxwell, just let me pop over to Security and see if they have your permanent badge and pass card ready.'

I heaved a heart-felt sigh of relief and found myself just sitting in the chair in front of the woman's desk, massaging my cramped writing hand and staring. Damn. What the devil had I gotten myself into? I sure as Hell hoped this shit wasn't indicative of what the job was going to be like, or I'd be a screaming wreck within a week.

Looking for something to distract myself from my growing sense of impending death-by-tedium, I stood to look at the pictures on Shirley's desk. I had to grin at the trio of little pink-cheeked kids in the photographs, probably grandchildren judging from the woman's apparent age. If I looked real hard, I could see the family resemblance.

And that was when I saw the folder on top of the woman's in-basket with 'Yuy, Heero' typed neatly on the tab. I blinked at it for a whole sixty seconds. Then I strolled casually over to the door, glanced up and down the hall to make sure that Shirley was nowhere in sight and went back to open the thing up.

Don't give me that look. Tell me you wouldn't have, in my position.

The folder was full of copies of all the paperwork that I was more than familiar with from just having filled mine out. Heero's insurance and tax forms. His emergency contact information. It was all there. Heero was also employed by the Preventers... as of sometime that very morning. I dug a little deeper into the folder. Employed as a field agent. Not exactly the janitorial position we'd joked about with Wufei.

I carefully put the folder back where I had found it and sat gingerly down in my chair.

I can't tell you what I felt, because I'm not really sure. Just confused, I guess, I'm just... not sure. I still didn't have it all sorted out by the time Shirley came back with the last of my new acquisitions. 'Here we go, Mr. Maxwell,' she beamed at me, taking my visitors badge from me and replacing it with my employee one before I had a chance to blink. 'You have a full level-one clearance and can go anywhere in the building you need to, and here's your pass card. That will get you into the building after hours and into the computer room in the basement.'

'Computer room?' I echoed, latching onto something familiar in the tide of chaos. 'Would it be possible to tour that?'

'Certainly!' she smiled at me. 'You can go anywhere you need to with that badge. Just go back to the elevator bank and go down to the basement level. There's nothing else down there but the furnace room. You can't miss it.'

I gathered my things and prepared to leave the room, still feeling shell-shocked and off balance, but she stopped me one last time. 'Oh my, before I forget again... here's your sign-on bonus check. You're scheduled to start tomorrow morning.'

I think I stared at her. Tomorrow morning? Basement? Bonus check?

She gave me the most beatific, mothering smile and patted my arm. 'You're going to do just fine, sweetie.'

It was another dismissal, so I took my ass out of there and headed for the elevator bank. If I was right, the computer room would be completely empty since the former Administrator was no longer among the employed. I really, really needed a few minutes to myself and I just didn't know where else to get it. I was in the elevator before I happened to glance down at the check still clutched in my hand. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I blurted, 'Shit!' right out loud to no one at all, when I finally registered the four-digit number on the damn thing. I hastily folded it up and stuffed it in my pocket, juggling and almost dropping my bundle of plastic wrapped shirts.

The elevator doors opened and I stepped out into a... basement. Tile floor, cinder block walls, obviously not a window in sight; it could not have been anything else. I also came face to face with the most gorgeous damn soda machine it has ever been my privilege to meet. I went straight to it and bought a can of ice-cold Mt. Dew and downed half of it before I bothered to look any further. Damn, what a day.

There was a set of double doors off to my left that were clearly labeled 'furnace room' and an office type door to the right. I tried my new pass card in the card reader next to the door and was gratified to hear it click open.

I stepped for the first time into a room that would become both the bane of my existence and my greatest sanctuary, though I hardly cared at the time. I was just eternally grateful that the damn room was indeed unoccupied. I went in, dumped my load of shirts and paper work on the first desk I came to, and sighing gustily, threw myself down in the chair next to that desk.

My partner was a Preventers agent.

I had to think about that for a long damn time.

Ok, the obvious first point was the simple fact that Heero would not have just done that on the spur of the moment because he 'happened to be in the neighborhood'. He had known he was going to take a job here when we had left the house this morning. Hell... he'd probably know before that.

When I thought about it, it certainly explained a few things about our dinner conversation with Wufei last night. Those weird looks they were exchanging. The strange hesitations and sudden changes of subject. Damn, but that rankled; that Heero had obviously confided in Wufei a secret that he had kept from me.

The more I thought, the more I realized what a dumb fuck I'd been. How could I have missed all those clues? Heero hadn't had to ask anyone for directions through the building. Heero had known right where Wufei's office was. The guard at the front desk had known him. Commander Une's secretary had known him. Gods, but I felt stupid.

But... why?

I flung myself to my feet and stalked around the room, looking without half seeing, wondering if someone would come and contest my right to be here. Strictly speaking, I didn't start work until the next day, so I suppose I didn't really have any business being in that room. But I just didn't know where else to go.

The last guy might not have been security conscious enough, but he'd been a stickler for labeling, and I found the half a dozen servers clearly tagged with all the pertinent information. Including the administrator passwords. Dear Gods... the man had been a security nightmare! I found myself intrigued despite my irritation, or maybe I was just looking for a distraction, and began to poke around to see just what I had here to work with. It was a fairly typical little network, Windows based, with the standard DNS server, file server and mail server. There was a firewall, which eased my mind a bit, but then I found that all the damn things were at least four months out of date on the critical system updates. It probably wouldn't have mattered if I let it go until the morning, but the lapse just nagged at me and without really thinking about it, I began updating. While I was waiting, watching the little blue status bars run, I noticed the server labeled 'Security'. Curious, I punched the KVM switch to that address and was rather surprised to find that I had a direct link to the PC at the guard station at the front desk. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that the system upstairs was actually downloading the video stream to the server, making a backup. Someone had left the monitor software running.

So I entertained myself for a few minutes, watching the surveillance video from the four security cameras. One view actually showed the lobby and I was surprised to see Heero and Wufei wander into view. Without really thinking about it, I toggled through the split screen video display and pulled their portion into full screen. There was no audio, but they were walking toward the camera, which seemed to be mounted above the elevator bank.

I read lips.

I saw Wufei address the guard at the desk, his back to the camera for a second and the guard shook his head, saying, 'No, Agent Chang, he's still in the building. He hasn't come back through the lobby.'

Wufei turned back to Heero.

'Where in the world do you think he's gone?' I saw Heero say, and could make out the slight furrowing on his brow even on the monitor.

Wufei said something, but movement obscured part of it. '... Shirley in HR did mention... '

They turned and began walking toward the elevator bank again.

'Heero,' Wufei said, facing the camera dead on. 'I'm... not sure I'm entirely comfortable with this... deception.'

Heero frowned as they stopped in front of the elevators, Wufei reaching to punch the call button. 'I know,' I watched Heero say. 'He's going to be... not very happy if he figures this out. I just... I want him out of danger, Wufei... that's all.'

Wufei gave Heero a rather penetrating look and a small smile tried to creep onto his face. I saw Heero reach to impatiently push the elevator call button again. 'Isn't that just a bit... hypocritical?'

Heero glared at him, his eyes glittering strangely in the black and white video feed. 'I fucking suppose it is, but I don't give a damn. I've come so close to losing him so damn many times... I... I just... ' His lips snapped shut on the rest of it and I imagined he was blushing mightily.

Wufei touched his arm and started to speak, but then the elevator finally came and they were gone from camera range.


Well fuck.

How do you seriously stay mad when your lover says something like that? I'll be honest; I tried to... but I couldn't. Not really.

Irritated, I suppose. A little hurt. But I couldn't really maintain any full-blown anger.

You want to know the truth? I'm not positive I would have taken an agent's job to begin with. When the war had been over, it had been somewhat... difficult for me to let go of the soldier. I still hadn't done it entirely, and maybe I never would. I just looked at things differently than your average John Q. Public. I had trouble sitting with my back to doors. I instinctively made a mental map of all the exits whenever I went into a new building. Things like the security set-up upstairs at the front desk just naturally drew my full attention. But I was letting go, a little bit, and I'm not at all sure I would have wanted to... shoulder back into that armor. Wasn't sure I wanted to pick up the sword again.

But it would have been nice to have been allowed to make that decision. It would have been nice to have had all the cards on the table and at least had a chance to play the damn game. I didn't like being manipulated. I didn't like being made into the fool. I didn't like being coddled and lied to.

Sitting there in the chill air of a room that would become my second home, I suddenly wondered just how many people had been in on this little charade. What had Heero done, bargained for my... safety? 'I'll agree to join, if you see to it Duo has a nice, safe desk job'? Is that how it had gone? Obviously Wufei had known... had actively participated. Une had to know, there was just no other explanation for her actions. Had Amazon-woman been a part of the game? The security guard? Shirley in HR? I felt a little bit like a laughing stock. Did I even have this job for my own skills? Or had Heero bargained for more than my protection? 'You want to hire me, you have to hire Duo too'?

I felt... a little ill.

Somewhere inside, I wanted to be angry. I wanted to march out there and find them, deck them both, storm upstairs to tell Shirley not to bother filing the damn paper work, and quit. I didn't need a fucking job that had been negotiated for me behind my back. That anger boiled around in my gut so suddenly that I quivered with it. It was in me to walk out that door, run off and join the damn Sweepers. I had no doubt Howard would take me in.

But the anger wouldn't stay. Hard as I tried to cling to it, it gave way to a strange melancholy that I was becoming more than familiar with. There really just wasn't any point in fighting this. I can't say that I cared for Heero's methods, but I suppose the results weren't all that bad. Mostly. The part where my partner was now a Preventers agent didn't overly thrill me.

If I took a deep breath and was totally honest with myself, I have to own up to the fact that we would very likely have ended up right where we were even if Heero had been up-front with me from the beginning.

Much as I hated to admit it, I suppose I'd known somewhere deep down in my heart that Heero was meant for this kind of job. If he hadn't signed on with the Preventers, he would more than likely have gone into law-enforcement in one form or another. Maybe a cop. Maybe a fireman. I don't know... but there really wasn't much doubt that he'd have never settled for that job at the zoo, no matter the pretty words.

And as much as I hated to admit it, I'm not positive that kind of life appealed to me. I would very probably have opted for the Administrator's job even if I had been offered both positions. I have to confess that the idea of strapping on a gun again was just a little bit... unattractive.

And I'm not a total moron; I understood the whole deal with Wufei and the cryptic comments about a steady partner now. He had meant for Heero to be that partner all along.

So; to summarize. If I kept my mouth shut and just went with the flow, everybody was happy. Wufei got his partner. Une got Heero. Heero got the job he wanted, with me safely tucked away in the basement. Quatre was lightened a couple of freeloaders, and Heero and I were self-sufficient.

And if I decided to get pissy about it? If I really did storm out of the damn building and ran back to Daddy-Howard? I couldn't leave Heero. Not for good. Sooner try to give up breathing. He might irritate the shit out of me sometimes, but I couldn't live without him, and I damn well knew that. So I'd just put Howard in the middle of a family dispute, would give Wufei a guilt complex the size of Texas, and cause Shirley a lot of extra paperwork.

Hardly seemed worth all that, just over the principal of the thing.

So by the time Heero and Wufei found their way to my server room, I was perched on a stool at the back wall, nursing the dregs of my can of soda, finishing up the critical updates and resetting all the passwords.

This was a done deal. No matter how I had gotten here, I was the Network Administrator for the Preventers. I would not do a bad job of it.

Wufei must have high enough security clearance, because his pass card got them into my room and I heard a tentative, 'Duo?' right after I heard the door open.

I had opted not to be pissy about it.

'Back here,' I called cheerfully. 'Welcome to the inner sanctum of the Network geek!'

'Maxwell,' Wufei chuckled at me. 'I don't think you were supposed to actually start work until tomorrow.'

'I came down for the tour and couldn't walk away from the train wreck,' I grinned back at them as they came to stand beside me. I waved my hand expansively at my row of systems and watched with delight as their eyes flew wide.

'Are those... the actual administrator passwords?' Wufei asked, voice incredulous.

'Yep,' I confirmed, and bent back to work.

They watched for a minute, before Heero ventured, 'we were thinking of going out to lunch. We've been looking all over for you.'

'Sorry guys,' I told them airily. 'But I'd just as soon look this mess over before tomorrow. There's more security holes here than your average piece of Swiss cheese.'

'Duo... ' Heero began, brow furrowed in consternation and I laughed at him.

'Get used to it, Heero,' I grinned at him unrepentantly. 'You're rooming with a tech geek now... if I'm going to do this damn job; I'm going to do it right.' There might have been a teeny, tiny bit of bitterness in there. I truly had not meant for there to be, and I swallowed the last of my can of soda in an effort to cover it.

Wufei seemed to suddenly just drift away. I honestly think he knew somehow, that I was well aware of what they had done. To this day, I don't know. I'll never ask him. I just don't want to have that conversation. But he gave us the space.

'Duo?' Heero said softly, reaching to rest a hand on my shoulder. 'What's wrong?'

I tilted my head up in open invitation, and I saw his eyes flick in Wufei' direction. I knew he wouldn't deny me... but I also knew he wasn't comfortable with it. If his furtive glance hadn't told me... the blush would have. But he kissed me all the same.

'I love you,' I told him, smiling gently. 'But the next time you want me to do something... just tell me.'

Damn. I had not meant to reprimand him. I had not meant to bring it up at all. I had fully intended to let the sleeping dog have his damn nap.

He flushed so dark, for a minute I thought I should leap up from the stool and make him sit down. He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again. His jaw worked and his eyes filled with a guilty kind of pain.

'Take Wufei and go to lunch,' I told him gently, reaching a hand up to brush over his cheek. 'Then go on home. I'll see you later tonight.'

His eyes widened and he reached to catch at my hand. 'Duo... ' he sighed, but I really just didn't want to discuss it right then.

I squeezed his fingers. 'Go on,' I urged. 'I just... want to be by myself for a little while.'

That pain that I had seen, in the backs of his eyes, flared brighter, and his fingers clenched tight. 'Please Duo... I'm sorry,' he whispered.

'Don't,' I said, voice steady and calm. 'I think I understand, but I just want to be alone right now.'

I took my hand back, turning my attention to the monitor in front of me. He hesitated for a long time, standing close enough behind me that I could feel his body heat. 'I do love you,' he said softly. 'Maybe... a little too much sometimes.' Then he went to collect Wufei and they were gone.

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry or to run the hell after them.

You want to know the really oddly funny thing? I think I was hurt as much by Wufei's part in things as Heero's.

I think of Chang Wufei as my best friend. He is probably second in my heart only to Heero. Why hadn't I been considered as a candidate for the position of his permanent partner? Why Heero instead of me? That stung as much as any of the rest of it.

Is that weird? That I have almost come to accept Heero's over-protective nature? That these things don't really shock me all that much anymore? I'm not saying I like it. I'm not saying I condone it. It's just that... it's a part of Heero, and I've almost come to expect it. Like fruit in the fruit bowl. I don't really understand it, I think I've done or said something at some point, because it very definitely has something to do with me. But I don't care how close we are on the week's budget; I can always count on Heero finding a way to make sure there's fresh fruit in the apartment.

When we walked down the street, he always walked on the curbside. Whenever we had roomed together during the war, he had always taken the bed closest to the door. It's just the way he is. Sometimes it seemed endearing and just melted me where I stood. Other times it was damned annoying and just pissed me off no end.

I was kind of on the fence about this one. I could almost hear Heero's voice from that video feed, 'I've come so close to losing him so damn many times... I just want him out of danger.' It did make me feel... strangely cherished. Oddly warmed. Or was that warmed with anger?

I didn't think so. Maybe. Ok... a little bit.

The whole thing made me feel... inept. Which was stupid, because I knew the motivation behind it as well as I knew the back of my own hand. Heero Yuy is the most over-protective, anal-retentive human being on the face of the planet. He protects what is important to him with a single-mindedness that can be overwhelming as hell. I am important to him. So that part always leaves me with this almost breathless quivery feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I just couldn't help but feel like their conspiring to keep me out of fieldwork somehow reflected their opinion of my abilities. Made me feel like... like the damn baby brother toddling along after his adored, indulgent older siblings.

All right... not anger, so much as hurt.

Yeah, it's petty. Sue me; I can't help how I feel.

But this little mental train track I was on was just going around and around in circles. There really wasn't much point in sitting on my ass all day in a cold room on a hard stool, stewing about my partner's tendencies to treat me like a fragile family heirloom. Worrying at a thing that was already resolved, like a dog trying to eke something out of a hundred year old bone.

So I gave myself over to learning my room. Staking my claim. Patching what holes I could and making lists of things I needed to talk to Une about. That looping train track really just came back around to one thing; it was a done deal and I had a job to do. I just needed to get the hell over it.

When I finally felt I could seriously do no more, I signed off all the consoles, and went to check out the other, office, side of the room. I had one of those cheap, metal office desks and there were still some generic supplies in it. The PC sitting on it was something of a crap box and I wondered what the previous guy had done... supply the building from one of those second-hand, refurb places? I made a mental note to bring my laptop from home; no way was I fighting with a dog slow system all day. I also, obviously, needed to take an inventory of the building to see just what I had on my network. That made me wonder what files I had been left by my predecessor and I opened up a couple of desk drawers. I had enough paper and pens to stock a small department, an old cracked coffee cup that I chucked into the trashcan under the desk, and a single file folder labeled 'meeting notes' that proved to be full of terse little notations from every meeting the guy had ever had with Lady Une. Looked to be about three of them. It was good information to have... Commander Une gave you three strikes before she threw you out on your ass. I vowed to not even get that first one.

I was gratified to find more than that on the PC. The guy had been a real stickler for documentation and I found electronic copies of all the invoices for everything that had been purchased on the man's watch. I was pretty sure the poor sap had come away from his talks with Une having heard only one thing; budget. I had a lot of evaluation to do... upgrade or start over? Gods, what a mess.

I finally decided it was time to quit when I realized just how chilled I had gotten and my back started to ache from sitting still for so long. It crossed my mind that I was going to have to start running with Heero in the morning if I didn't want this job to turn me into a desk chair potato.

I had also been pleased to find a neatly folded up grocery sack in the bottom drawer, Gods only knew what the last guy had hauled to work in it, but it was mine now, and I used it to dump my new shirts and paperwork into.

When I got upstairs, the lobby was empty except for the security guard and he gave me a slightly puzzled smile. 'Thought you didn't start until tomorrow, Mr. Maxwell?'

I flashed him a grin and went to lean against his desk. 'Guess I was just a little... surprised at the... uhmmm... state of things, and couldn't quite keep my hands off of it,' I said, unsure of the wording. It's never a good idea to bash somebody verbally before you found out how the person you're talking to felt about them. The last guy might have been inept, but that didn't preclude his being well liked.

But the guard, whose nametag read Dent, only grinned at me and rolled his eyes. 'State of things?' he smirked. 'That was very diplomatically put.'

It surprised a bark of laughter from me and the guy chuckled right along with me. 'Well... it needs some work,' I ventured.

When I finally left the building, I was on a first name basis with Lester and had gotten a long list of his personal system complaints. Oh yeah... I had bitten off a pretty large chunk of something, here, and only hoped I didn't choke to death on it.

The substantial bonus check burning a hole in my pocket not withstanding, I opted to skip the more expensive cab and take the bus. Just because we had money now, didn't mean we could go nuts and not watch our spending. Besides, this bus thing was going to get old fast and we should probably start thinking about saving for a car.

I settled in a seat near the front and reflected that Heero would probably have a cow if he knew I'd done this. I'm sure he had expected me to call a cab, or he'd have never walked out and left me to get home alone. And I had to admit, sitting there in a bus full of strangers without my wingman to watch my back was making me twitchy, but damn it... I didn't mean to go hide in the apartment for the rest of my life. Letting the handful of fruitcakes out there drive me into seclusion was the same as letting them win, as far as I was concerned. I'd bought this peace with my blood... screw them if I wasn't going to get to enjoy it.

At the next stop, a mother and daughter got on, the mother juggling several packages, a purse and a bundle of flowers, and took the seat directly across the aisle from me. I could see the kid sneaking decidedly unfurtive furtive glances at me. I gave her a little smile and then just tried not to notice her. You have to be damn careful about kids, when half the world views you as a terrorist. People can get darn hackles-up pissy if they think their kids are in danger. I just entertained myself staring out my window and trying to be unobtrusive. It got harder when the mother and daughter started talking in low tones and I heard the word 'Gundam'. I almost got the hell off the bus the next time it stopped, but then didn't. They were keeping their voices down and it had been my experience that people with kids in tow were not generally the first ones to get in your face about your supposed war crimes.

Still, I was a little edgy by the time I was within a couple stops of my own, and jumped like I'd been shot when the kid suddenly came darting across the bus to scramble onto the seat beside me. I'm sure I looked like a total moron, with my mouth hanging open and my eyes wide as saucers. To compound my consternation, I found my hand on my forearm, reaching for a weapon that wasn't there, and my face flushed red as a beet the minute I realized that I had just tried to pull a knife on a little kid.

'You're Duo Maxwell, aren't you?' the kid blurted and I found my head nodding of its own accord. She grinned wide enough to split her face and stuck a little handful of flowers out to me. 'My Mom said I'm s'pposed to say thank you.'

I tore my gaze away from the handful of lilies to look across the aisle. The mother was carefully rewrapping their bundle of flowers, having pulled the green paper off to get the lilies out. She was smiling gently; her face pinked, but didn't look up at me.

'You... you're welcome,' I managed, looking back down at the grinning, upturned face.

'Did you really fly a Gundam?' she whispered and I think she was venturing from the script that Mom had given her.

'Yeah,' I confessed, clutching my flowers in my hand.

Then she gave me one of those weird, 'I'm gonna break your neck if it's the last thing I do' little kid hugs. I had to close my eyes to get the damn lump swallowed out of my throat.

'Thank you,' I managed, when she let go. 'For the flowers.'

'You're very welcome,' she intoned solemnly, and it sounded like something she'd heard somebody else say. Then she grinned again and flitted back to the other side of the bus.

I almost missed my damn stop. I couldn't help waving as it pulled away.

It's a two block walk from the bus stop to the apartment and I kind of made it in a daze, grocery sack dangling from one hand, flowers in the other. It had been something of an up and down kind of day.

I saw Mr. Roberts out in front of his apartment and waved. He gave me an odd, up and down look and I realized how I was dressed.

'You get yourself a job, kid?' he hollered across the parking lot.

I grinned and nodded. 'Just started today.' He flashed me a thumbs up sign, but I swear I saw a hint of disappointment on his face. 'Guess I'll be getting my mail in the evenings after work now.' I called and watched him grin and nod.

The climb up the stairs seemed twice as long as usual and a little bit of the warm fuzzy feeling the encounter with the little girl had given me was fading by the time I got to the top. I unlocked the door and slipped inside, taking a deep breath and trying to hang on to that somewhat calm place I'd found while working.

'Honey!' I quipped. 'I'm home!'

Heero appeared in the kitchen doorway looking just a tiny bit like a whipped dog, but I couldn't really find it in me to feel overly sorry for him. He'd done it to himself, if you asked me.

I dumped the sack of shirts on the end of the couch and headed for the kitchen, registering the smell of dinner cooking. I dropped a small kiss on Heero's cheek as I moved by him. 'Smells good,' I murmured and went to get a water glass down to put my flowers in. The stems were a little bent from the grip I'd had on them, and I took a second to do what I could with them before setting the glass in the middle of the table. They looked kind of pathetic sitting there in a container twice the size it should have been, but cheery all the same.

'Do I have time to change?' I asked, and turned back to the doorway.

'I didn't know when... I... ' Heero began, off balance as all hell. 'Yeah... you do,' he finally blurted.

'Great!' I beamed and slipped by him again to head for the bedroom. I took my sack of shirts and dropped them on the bed. I really needed to get them out of their packages and hung up. I wondered if I should wash them before using them.

I loosened the tie, considered leaving it knotted and just slipping in on over my head the next time I had to wear it, but decided that was probably a bad idea. Heero would help me with it again if I needed it.

I moved to go lay the thing on the dresser and found Heero's new badge and gun resting there next to my CDs, his security pass next to them. I carefully placed the folded tie off to the side and looked at the strange still life it all made, while I unbuttoned my shirt.

My music. Heero's gun. One of my hair wraps. Heero's badge. The tie we would probably share. All almost artfully arranged against the backdrop of the little, crocheted doily. I let the shirt fall to the floor in the designated 'laundry' spot and found my fingers picking up that badge. I shivered, feeling the cold metal of it under my fingers. Damn... he had a badge already? They issued him a gun on the first morning? I shivered again, thinking about Heero sitting in Shirley's office, filling out paperwork. They had issued me polo shirts. They'd issued him weapons. That said something, didn't it? I just wasn't sure what.

I fished my own building security pass out of my pants pocket, where I'd stuffed it when I left the Preventers building, and carefully placed it next to Heero's, aligning the edges and turning the clips so they lay in the same direction. That reminded me of the bonus check and I pulled it out too, adding it to my artistic little pile.

Your whole world can change on an indrawn breath, you know that? I certainly knew that; I'd been through enough changes in my life. Wonder why they always hit me like this? When it happens... as it happens, you don't even realize. But there's always a moment later on, when the smoke clears and it's way too late, when you suddenly realize that things will never be the same again. There's never any road signs to tell you if this is a good thing or a bad thing, there's just this crystal clear moment where your brain catches up and says 'holy fuck!'.

I shivered again, staring at that shiny new badge and wondered where this road would lead us.

I jumped when warm hands settled on my shoulders. 'Duo... love,' Heero said softly, his breath stirring the wisps of hair on the back of my neck. 'You told me it was all right for me to need,' he hesitated, even though this had the faint sound of something he had worked out in his head before he spoke. 'I know I don't... have the right to ask right now, but I really need to know that you don't hate me.'

I snorted softly and tilted my face down to rub my cheek gently across his fingers. 'Hate you why?' I asked gently. 'Because you're an insensitive, over-protective asshole, or because you got a cool badge and I didn't?'

There was a funny little sound, kind of a hitch of breath, and then he was turning me around to envelope me in a tight embrace. 'Oh Gods, Duo... I thought you would never get here,' he whispered into my hair and his voice was... not steady.

'I'll always come home to you,' I chided. 'You know that.'

His arms tightened almost painfully and I worked my own arms up around his neck, holding on tight. This? This was worth putting up with all the rest of it. This was home, with all our attendant baggage, all our flaws and all our uncertainties... this would always be home.

'I am so very sorry... ' he began, a hand stroking soothingly up and down my bare back.

'Hush,' I stopped him, placing a little kiss on the side of his throat. 'I spent all afternoon getting past this. I don't want to talk about it any more.'

He stiffened in my arms, his hand stopping its movement. 'But Duo... '

'No buts,' I said firmly. 'It's all done and over with. This is a new road and it's too late... we're already on it. We'll just have to see where it takes us.'

'I love you,' he blurted, voice low and almost husky. 'So damn much. I just want to protect you... I need you safe.'

I sighed and didn't even launch into the ages old argument about how I could take care of myself. About how I was a big boy. He has issues with losing what he loves, every bit as much as I do. His just manifest themselves in a slightly more... aggressive way. There was just no point in having this conversation again.

So I just whispered in his ear, soft and low, 'heart and soul... you jerk.'

I thought, for a surreal moment, that he was going to cry with relief. Then I thought he was going to lift me clear off my feet. But then the timer in the kitchen began to beep plaintively and he fled the room. I finished changing clothes.

I joined him in the kitchen and we moved around each other in a practiced dance, setting out dishes, stirring things on the stove, pouring drinks, serving up our dinner. We did it in relative quiet, though it wasn't a completely uncomfortable silence.

He'd made Trowa's chicken and shrimp Jambalaya, something I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt we hadn't had the ingredients for. Shrimp was something we hadn't even thought about buying since we'd been out on our own, it's too damn expensive, but I'd developed a bit of a taste for it while living with Quatre. I realized that the dinner was a small little apology, and it kept me from reprimanding him for spending the money. For the obvious trip to the market alone.

'It's very good,' I ventured softly, after a few bites, accepting the gift.

'Thank you,' he responded quietly, his eyes on his plate. 'The flowers are... nice. Where'd you get them?'

I grinned, swallowing another forkful of dinner, determined to enjoy it. It truly was a rare treat and it would be a shame to spoil it with bitterness over the day. 'Would you believe a little girl on the bus gave them to me?' I told him without much thought. 'She says thanks for saving the planet, by the way.'

I had been delighted with his attempt to make conversation. Safe conversation. And I had meant the comment to be funny, but I saw my mistake when he went still as a stone and finally looked up from his plate. 'You... took the bus all the way from downtown by yourself?' he asked, his voice deceptively quiet.

I got... angry. All my work of the afternoon to put it all aside and just move on, blew right out the window in a lurching heartbeat. 'Yeah, damn it!' I snapped. 'Just like you went to the fucking grocery alone! What the hell makes you such Gods damned hot-shit that it's all right for you, but it's not for me? Who the hell died and made you my keeper?'

Well... so much for not spoiling dinner.

He looked a little shell-shocked. He looked a little chagrined. He looked like he wanted to argue. But my mouth had opened and I couldn't seem to get it stopped. I slapped my fork down on the table and just said fuck calm. 'This stinking double standard shit of yours has got to stop, Heero!' I growled. 'You expect me to duck and cover like a good little boy, while you go right ahead and do whatever the hell you want!'

'I'm just trying to keep you from getting hurt,' he grumbled, voice bordering on petulant.

'Why?' I asked and he blinked at me.

'What?' he said, confused and showing it.

'Why are you trying to keep me from getting hurt?' I pressed, glaring across the table at him.

He got a kind of fire in his eyes, and met my gaze head on. 'Because I love you. Because I swore I would keep you safe.'

I cocked my head, some of the anger bleeding away a little bit. 'And why is your love for me any better, or any stronger than mine for you?'

I was resisting the urge to keep track, but damn it... I scored one there.

'I... ' he began, and lost some of his intensity, some of that self-righteous confidence that he was right and I was wrong. I could see him turning it around and his eyes showed me when he saw how it looked from the other side. He tried to defuse it with that sense of humor of his, the way he always does. 'Are you saying we're arguing about who loves who best?' but it fell a little flat, and his broken smile told me he knew it.

I reached across the table and took one of his hands in mine, squeezing tight. 'No,' I told him. 'We're arguing about your right to manipulate me into doing what you want.'

He had the good grace to flinch, his fingers tightening on mine as though afraid I might pull away. 'Gods, Duo... I don't know what to say. I just seem to keep apologizing to you lately.'

I sighed and picked my fork up again. 'Just get your head out of your ass... you're not my mother,'

He was quiet a moment, before giving me that tilted head look, the one where he peers up at me through the fall of his bangs. 'It's a good thing I'm not, I suppose, because that would just make this relationship truly weird.'

It took me a heartbeat, but the asshole won the laugh he was looking for.

'Jerk,' I muttered.

'I love you,' he muttered back.

'That's painfully obvious,' I told him.

He quirked a grin and stroked a thumb over the back of my hand. 'Am I so awful?' he asked wistfully.

'A beast,' I informed him.

'But I'm your beast,' he said, and smiled.

'Just eat your damn dinner,' I snorted and we fell quiet, finishing our meal one handed because neither of us was quite willing to let go of the other.

When we were done and I started to rise to see to the mess, he tugged gently on my hand. 'Wait a moment?' he asked almost shyly.

I sank back into my seat and waited to see what he was about. He took our plates away, setting them on the counter before turning his attention to the fruit bowl. He picked up something and returned to the table with it cupped in his hands like it was a precious thing. Sitting down and offering it to me, with a hopeful expression in his eyes that made me feel like I'd been kicking puppies all afternoon.

I lifted the gift from his palms and held it up. It was one of those little oranges like Quatre had all that time ago.

'Where did you find it?' I couldn't help but ask. 'I haven't seen one since staying with Quatre at his sister's house.'

He looked pleased with himself. 'It's called a Clemintine, and they're apparently only in season for a short time. I just got lucky.'

It's so damn hard to stay mad at him. He's so bloody... attentive. He would give me the world if he could manage it, the sun, the moon and the stars thrown in just for the hell of it. It worried me a little bit, the fact that he would actually have money now. The Gods only knew what he would be buying me next. I gently placed the orange back in his hand. 'Peel it for me?' I asked, a little surprised at the sound of my own voice.

He seemed taken aback, but took the fruit and began removing the skin, baring the almost papery looking orange underneath. The scent filled the air the moment he pierced the peel, tangy and sharp. Oranges are so damn... cheerful. Such a bright, sunny color, the tang of their flavor making you feel that something of that sunlight was captured inside. While he worked, I rose and went around to his side of the table. He looked up in surprise, but when I made my wishes plain, he scooted his chair back and made room for me. I straddled his lap and smiled down at him. 'Feed it to me,' I whispered, and couldn't help a tiny grin at the almost wide-eyed look I got.

He didn't speak, put pulled the fruit in half, setting one half aside before pulling the sections apart. He was almost hesitant in raising the first one to my lips. I leaned down and took it delicately from his fingers. I watched him swallow convulsively and he was quick to pull off the next piece. He wasn't so quick to relinquish it though, making me nibble his fingers to retrieve it.

'Is it... good?' he asked, seeming to have trouble catching his breath.

'It's sweet,' I told him with a soft smile, and taking the next slice he offered me, bent my lips down to his to share the flavor. He sought it hungrily, moaning softly.

When we drew apart, I took the next slice and fed it to him. He took it, sucking on my fingers greedily. 'Duo... ' he groaned, his voice taking on a hint of need.

'I'm not done with my orange,' I chided and was quickly rewarded with another piece. I did my best to bring him over the edge just from suckling his fingers.

'Fuck the damn orange!' he suddenly growled, and surged to his feet, not letting me go. I yelped, and caught at his shoulders, my legs wrapping the rest of the way around his hips in an effort not to end up on the damn floor.

I'm not that much smaller than he is, but he made it as far as the couch before we went over in a tangle of limbs, lips searching eagerly, hands pulling impatiently at stubborn clothing.

Almost, I lost myself in the moment. Almost, I missed what was happening. Almost... but not quite. My senses came back when I suddenly found myself stretched out atop him, grinding our hips together.

There was some need deep down in my soul that wasn't being met, and when I slowed and looked, when I drew away from the passion and made myself truly see Heero, I could tell it was the same for him. He was still holding back from me, still afraid of hurting me.

I leaned in to kiss him gently, able to taste the tang of the orange on his tongue. 'I won't let your fears steal this from us,' I whispered, echoing his words to me all those months ago, when I had lost my sight and faltered in this.

'Duo love,' he said, voice laced with his doubts. 'Please don't... '

'Stop it,' I commanded, though not roughly. 'You know what I need... you always know what I need. Don't deny me.'

'Please... ' he whispered, voice almost lost.

'I need you,' I urged him gently. 'I need the weight of your body against mine... I need to feel you inside me... I need to see you above me. Please don't take that away from me.'

His almost desperate groan told me I'd won, and I rose from the couch, taking his hands and tugging him to his feet. He followed me as though he wouldn't know what else to do if I didn't tell him.

We found the oil... we found the bed... and then we found each other.

His weight, pressing me down, was the sanctuary it had always been. I didn't feel afraid, I didn't feel trapped and I could have wept knowing that I hadn't lost this.

His voice was almost a broken sob as he found what he needed in me. I urged him on with course and gentle words, and we were soon rocking together in a sweat soaked mesh of bodies. Our hearts beat as one heart. Breath flowed out of one and into the other. Voices rose and mingled in a song older than time, and we found the unity we'd somehow lost.

'... you're always... '

'... there... '

'... when I... '

'... need you... '

Everything else paled next to that moment. All the irritation of the situation, all the anger and hurt, was swept away by the merging of our bodies and our minds. In that rare and precious moment when we can finish each other's thoughts, when we feel with each other's skin, when we breathe in complete syncopation. When we find 'home' in each other's arms.

What I did for a living suddenly just didn't seem all that important. How I had arrived where I was, just didn't matter. The woman in the grocery... Scary Lady Une... Heero and Wufei's little deception, none of it seemed worth a second thought, as long as at the end of the day, Heero was the place I came home to.