The fall air was surprisingly chill so I set down my bag and dug out a lightweight windbreaker. Even with it on I was still a bit cool but that would change soon enough once I started hiking.
"You sure this is where you want off? I mean, sure, there's a bus stop here but it doesn't generally get used once the campground's closed for the season..." the driver said uneasily as he finished his task.
Cheery grin firmly in place, I assured the man, "Yeah, I'm visiting somebody who lives just a few miles from here, up that road." I gestured towards the closed gate of a narrow dirt access road on the far side of the campground's entrance. "A little hike in the fresh air'll do me good." Either that or kill me; I wasn't too sure which. I hadn’t been back on Earth for long; full gravity was still exhausting. My damn joints ached all the time and it didn't take much to set my muscles aching right along with them. Good thing I’d turned down a second tour on Mars; I’d hate to think how tough it would be to readjust after being there twice as long.
There wasn't a single damn thing in the whole fucking universe that Preventers could have offered to bribe me into staying on that godforsaken planet for another four years. My assignment there had been about as challenging as watching paint dry and I'd resented both the lack of privacy and the isolation like hell. No, that wasn't a contradiction in terms; there really had been both a lack of privacy and a sense of isolation.
There were plenty of people stationed on Mars, too many at times - Preventers, scientists, environmental engineers, and a whole ton of other specialists - but there was nobody that I'd particularly connected with. The scientific and military communities tended to keep aloof for the most part; the scientists and environmental specialists in general regarded a Preventer presence at the project as an unnecessary waste of resources that would be better utilized by more researchers. And while I could be friend*ly* with the men and women under my command, I couldn't truly become *friends* with them. As their commanding officer, I had to be careful not to do anything that might hint at favouritism. My social life had been pretty damn pathetic. I'd made acquaintances, not friends.
Plus, I'd missed my best friend one hell of a lot more than I'd expected. Sure, we'd been in contact occasionally but email was a pretty poor substitute for actually spending time together. Besides which, non-essential communications between Earth and Mars were erratic and slow at best. At worst, nonexistent.
It had been damn close to a year since the last time I'd heard from Heero.
A sly, curious glance from the bus driver was accompanied by the seemingly-casual remark, "You must be talkin' about that fellow that bought the ol' Landers place. Odd sounding name..."
I just gave a non-committal "mmm" as I strapped my duffle to my backpack and shrugged into the pack's straps. I nearly staggered under its weight and once again cursed the day I'd been assigned to take over command of the Preventers' detachment on Mars.
Partway through his tour of duty, Merquise had abruptly lost interest in both the project and Preventers, resigning his Preventers commission as impulsively as he'd accepted it in the first place. The last that I’d heard, he was going under the Peacecraft name again and had accepted a position as figurehead for a group trying to raise money for deep space exploration. Dragging poor loyal Noin along behind him as usual. I wondered how long he'd stick to *that* before flitting off on some other spur-of-the-moment change of career. Maybe he already had.
Reluctantly, I tuned back in to the bus driver's rambling just as he observed, "Odd sorta fellow... Rumour is, he was one o' them there Gundam pilots... Hard to believe one o' that lot would be livin' like a hermit way out here..." I ignored the blatant hint, adjusting my pack's straps and preparing to head on my way. The man waited until it became obvious that I had no intention of responding before continuing with obvious curiosity, "Fellow never comes into town. Just has deliveries dropped off at the front gate once a week, regular as clockwork. Sure seems strange..."
"He's always liked his privacy," I said flatly, cutting off any further observations. I had no intention of gossiping about Heero. Giving the man a tight, no-nonsense nod, I said simply, "Thanks." I started to walk towards the access road, setting a faster pace than I intended to keep once I was out of sight. Assuming that I could maintain it even that long.
"Hope yer friend is expectin' you! Bus won't be back till this time next week - just be here and flag me down!" the bus driver shouted after me.
I waved a hand in acknowledgement and pushed my pace a bit faster. I didn't know for certain whether Heero was expecting me or not. I'd sent a message but hadn't received a response before I'd started on my way here. According to the others, no response in answer to a proposed visit was unusual. Receiving a very curt, negative one was more to be expected.
All three of the other former Gundam pilots claimed that Heero had turned down requests from them to visit as well as invitations to visit them. Sally Po was making ominous noises about post traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia among a variety of other assorted psychological problems.
Oh, something like that was *possible* - Heero had never been particularly sociable and god knew we all had plenty of reason to suffer from PTSD - but I wasn't entirely convinced. It was equally possible that Heero had just gotten tired of being constantly on display. First as the Vice Foreign Minister's bodyguard - and, for an even longer time, presumed boyfriend - then as Une's golden boy, the famous - or infamous, depending where one's sympathies lay - former pilot of Wing Zero, now a hotshot Preventer agent, the one given all the high-profile - but frequently low-importance - assignments. I had definitely been getting that impression even before I'd been given the Mars posting.
Back then, I'd run interference for Heero quite a bit. Not that I’d ever been any too fond of the media myself but I'd been a bit better at playing their game - giving them a few meaningless sound bytes in exchange for a little breathing room. Heero's scowls and curt "No comment" just made the press more determined to get something "juicier" from him, whether he was willing to cooperate or not.
It made sense that he wouldn't want to visit the others - the media exposure would be just as bad as ever around them since they were all still in the spotlight. Plus, reporters aside, there was no such thing as "privacy" in a Winner household, let alone at the circus or in Preventers' on-base housing.
And he *had* let them visit when he first moved here.
Reading between the lines of what the other three ex-Gundam pilots had told me about that visit, I knew damn well that they'd spent the entire time trying to drag Heero back to active duty either with the Preventers or with Quatre's security staff. They'd even resorted to having Relena drop in for a surprise visit. She'd taken her own turn at trying to persuade Heero to "rejoin society" as part of her entourage again. I didn't blame Heero in the least for not inviting any of them back. I wouldn't want my peace and quiet invaded by well-meaning but pushy friends either. Why the hell they were so damn sure that *they* knew what was best for Heero... Why they couldn't just accept that Heero might not want to be actively involved in security or law enforcement, let alone that he might simply want to enjoy peace and quiet and privacy...
Okay, so maybe Heero was taking things to an extreme by cutting himself off so completely but I could certainly understand the feelings behind his desire for solitude. Heero had never been very comfortable in social situations. In part due to his intensive training - hair-trigger, violent, potentially lethal reactions to being bumped, crowded, and jostled were *not* a good thing but keeping those nearly-instinctive responses in check was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting - and in part due to his very - well, I guess "reserved" was as good a term as any - personality. I wasn’t exactly comfortable in crowds myself and my training had been nowhere *near* as intense as Heero's.
Right now, though, I was just as much in search of solitude. And in dire need of a change both of scenery and career. I could definitely empathize with Heero's decision to get away from it all.
Of course, the others - well, mostly the three former pilots (and friends though not for much longer if they didn't wise up and butt the hell out of my business), though Commander Une hadn't exactly been thrilled - had all had a few things to say when I’d stated my own intention to resign from the Preventers. None of them the least bit supportive of my decision.
What a bunch of nosy, pushy, interfering, condescending, supercilious bastards. I was a damn adult who'd spent four fucking years in a command position; where the hell did they get the idea that they knew what I needed better than I did myself? Annoying assholes.
Reigning in my temper with an effort, I slowed the fast, clipped pace that I'd unconsciously slipped into as I'd remembered the "discussions" they'd instigated. They'd been my friends for quite a few years now and I supposed that they meant well but I was sick and tired of their meddling. Hard to believe that after looking forward to seeing them again for the past four years, I'd been completely fed up with them after a mere two weeks.
I'd finally agreed to use up my accumulated leave time before making a final decision, just to shut them all up for a while. Let'em think what they liked, I wouldn't be changing my mind. Returning to Earth didn't change the fact that my rank left me quite firmly in a non-field position, something I'd learned to truly loathe during my tour on Mars.
Administrative work and Duo Maxwell did not a good match make.
At any rate, I could *definitely* understand why Heero would've cut himself off from the lot of'em. And it didn't have a damn thing to do with being "emotionally and psychologically disturbed". Preferring solitude was *not* automatically a sign of serious psychological problems; Heero could have a hundred perfectly good reasons for wanting to be left alone. And hell, even if he *was* agoraphobic, if he was content with his life I really didn't think it was anybody else's damn business.
I’d developed a distinct aversion to crowds myself during my time on Mars. The planet wasn't actually habitable as of yet - terraforming was slow, tedious work - and the domed main camp was extremely crowded. Overcrowded, really. Privacy was nonexistent; all offices were shared, all meals were eaten in the commissary, and there were no private living quarters, only barracks. I’d broken all kinds of rules, written and unwritten, by scheduling myself into the patrol duty roster just so that I could get away from base once in a while. Not that flying over Mars's dusty plains checking for signs of unauthorized settlement or other illegal activity was exactly a thrill-a-minute. But it *was* good for a few days away from "civilization" every month.
Despite having slowed my pace considerably, I had to stop and take a breather. Four years spent at one-third Earth's gravity were making their influence known. The long trip back to Earth under gradually increasing gravity and a fortnight of additional testing and therapy once I'd returned to Earth had helped ease the adjustment but I was still far from being in peak physical condition. I'd already filed a recommendation that agents be rotated off of Mars in two years rather than four. One year would be better yet but I knew Preventers would never go for that. Too much time would be lost in training and acclimatising personnel to the planet's unique conditions.
But four years stationed on Mars was definitely too damn long.
Wistfully, I observed aloud, "Y'know Heero, if you happen to be monitoring this road, I wouldn't say no to a lift about now, buddy." After a few minutes of rest, I forced myself to start walking again. Even if Heero did have surveillance equipment covering the entire route - and I knew there was *some* out there, I'd spotted a few things along the way - there was no guarantee that he would be actively monitoring it. Let alone that he would actually come pick up his uninvited guest, best friend or not. That was one reason for the heavy backpack; I was equipped to literally camp on Heero's doorstep if necessary. I didn't really expect it to be - but it was safer to be prepared. Plus there was always a chance that Heero might not be home. The fact that he hadn't visited any of the other pilots or the closest town didn't necessarily mean that he never travelled. I wasn't about to let myself into his home if he was away; he deserved his privacy and I wouldn't intrude on it to that extent.
As I hiked, I wondered whether Heero would be glad to see me or not. Despite being best friends, we hadn't exactly had a lot of contact over the past few years, just the occasional terse email. That hadn't been a surprise; Heero knew too damn much about the insecurity of the medium to put anything the least bit confidential (which ruled out work-related subjects) or personal (which ruled out just about everything *else*) into his messages. And after my first few, I hadn't had much of anything to write about period. After all, I couldn't very well have spent a lot of time writing about the fact that I was homesick for a planet I'd only lived on for a couple of years or that the thing I missed most about Earth was spending time with Heero. I was dwelling on those little discoveries more than enough as it was. So I didn't have much left to write about other than general bitching about the job, the accommodations, the food, the crowding, the lack of privacy, and every other damn thing about the Mars terraforming base.
I'd started the assignment off eager, nervous, and ever-so-slightly-flattered at being promoted and handed command of the Mars Preventer detachment. That had lasted less than six months beyond my arrival on that goddamn planet.
In my entire time stationed there, we'd shut down one drug lab that had set up operations on the far side of the planet, caught an enterprising young spacer collecting and carving rocks for sale as "Genuine Artifacts of Ancient Martian Civilization!" to gullible suckers back on Earth, and broken up about a million petty fights between members of the terraforming project.
Correction - *we* didn't do those things. The Preventers under my command did them per my instructions while I sat in the fucking *office* being a good little officer and following regulations. Filling out forms in triplicate and carrying out barracks inspections and all that other boring crap.
So much for promotion being a reward. If I hadn't started working myself into the patrol duty roster despite the fact that it was a blatant violation of regs - what were they gonna do, *demote* me? I'd have thanked'em! - I'd have gone abso-fucking-lutely *crazy* long before my tour was up. I'd *lived* for the day that I'd get the hell off that fucking planet and out of the damn Preventers. I wasn't about to ditch my commitment partway through my assignment like my predecessor had but that kind of shit was *not* what I'd signed up for. Certainly not the promised "productive use" of my skills that had lured me into the organization.
Much like Public Relations appearances at political functions and bodyguard duty for visiting politicians weren't what Heero had signed up for. In fact, he'd left Relena's employ expressly to get away from all of that only to end up doing the exact same kind of shitty escort jobs as a Preventer. No wonder he'd decided enough was enough.
The grade of the road rose and I started to seriously consider taking a prolonged break. I wished that I hadn't put on that damned windbreaker; it was too fucking hot now and my shirt was clammy with sweat beneath it. My joints and muscles ached even more than usual, my lungs burned, and my heart pounded. Either I'd seriously overestimated my physical condition or I'd seriously underestimated the terrain.
The road curved sharply ahead, vanishing into heavy forest. Promising myself a real break and a drink of water once I reached the shade, I trudged wearily around the corner - and nearly walked right into the jeep parked on the shoulder. The backpack pulled me off-balance when I stopped so abruptly and I ended up flat on my ass. Fuck.
Heero looked down from his perch on the jeep's hood and shook his head disapprovingly. "You're late. Late, inattentive, and out of shape," he observed. "I was expecting you half an hour ago."
God, it was good to see him again.
I glared halfheartedly and tried to sit up, only to find that the backpack was too damn heavy and awkward to allow that. "You try spending four years pushing paper in an office in a one-third grav environment and see how well *you* handle climbing a goddamn mountain," I grumbled, dropping into our old familiar bickering with surprising ease. Feeling very much like a turtle stuck on its back, I fumbled with the backpack's straps for a minute before giving up in disgust. "You just gonna sit there smirking like a smug bastard or are you gonna help me?" I demanded irritably.
He snorted and his mouth quirked slightly in amusement but he hopped down, grabbed my outstretched arm, and hauled me to my feet with humiliating ease. My joints and muscles protested vigorously and I couldn't quite catch my balance to stop the forward motion. I crashed right into Heero's chest, knocking the breath out of me. Heero chuckled quietly, "Sorry. Guess I don't know my own strength." He didn't push me away; instead he slid his hands around me, slipping them between my waist and the bulk of the pack.
I spent about two seconds thinking that I really should move before I decided to hell with it. Heero wasn't one for beating around the bush; if he didn't want me plastered up against him, he'd let me know. And it felt damn good standing here leaning against him like this.
Even if he was a smug bastard.
"Yeah, yeah, yuck it up buddy boy. Just wait'll I get re-acclimatised," I warned him grumpily. "Revenge is sweet."
"Give it your best shot; just remember that two can play at that game." Damn, it was great to see that familiar half-smirk again.
I hugged him impulsively. "God, I missed you."
His arms slid further around me, pulling me even tighter against him, and he admitted with a sigh, "Missed you too."
I hated to move but, after a few minutes, I didn't have much choice. I'd really overdone it today; my body just hadn't been ready for the hike, let alone the weight of the backpack. "Help me get this damn pack off. My back's killing me."
"The readjustment to Earth is rough?" Heero moved behind me and took hold of the pack, lifting most of its weight off of the straps and providing the necessary slack to get it off.
"Oh yeah," I said fervently as I shrugged out of the pack. "Every damn muscle, joint, and bone in my body aches. And that's when I'm just standing still. Adjusting to full grav again *sucks*." With his usual powerful grace, Heero tossed the pack into the back of the jeep while I watched wistfully. Dammit, I hated being weak, achy, and clumsy. "It's not as bad as it was the first couple of days but it seems like it's taking for-freaking-ever for my body to get used to Earth grav. No strength, no stamina... I feel like a goddamn wuss." I hesitated, then confessed sheepishly, "Po didn't really want to release me from medical supervision yet but I *had* to get the hell out of there. I was so fucking fed up with everyone telling *me* what *I* 'needed'. So I made a damn nuisance of myself till she agreed to let me off-base. She wouldn't give me medical clearance to drive, though. Said my reaction time was too slow."
Heero frowned at me. "You should have told me you were - unwell - when you said you were coming. I'd have met you at the road instead of waiting for you at the halfway point."
Halfway. Yeah, Heero'd always been willing to meet me halfway, whether we were trying to decide what movie to watch or researching a case. It made sense that he'd waited for me halfway today. Me making the climb that far without any indication of welcome from him proved that I really did want to see him; him meeting me halfway said that I was welcome there. It also made sense that he'd have met me at the road if he'd known I wasn't a hundred percent yet; he'd have figured that making the effort to get that far when I wasn't quite up to par would be enough to count as meeting halfway.
"I should've," I admitted reluctantly but honestly as I climbed into the jeep. "I really did think I could handle the hike but I guess I overestimated my recovery and underestimated how tough the uphill climb would be. It's pretty steep in spots. I just hate being so damn... *wimpy*."
"Listening to your body and taking appropriate precautions to allow it to recover is sensible, not 'wimpy'," he pointed out reasonably as he slid into the driver's seat.
I made a non-committal sound in response, acknowledging the truth of his words but still feeling a bit embarrassed by my poor physical condition. Especially face-to-face with Heero's perfectly toned body; *he* definitely wasn't out of shape. I didn't really want to talk about my own body's substandard state anymore right now.
Heero must've realized that because he dropped the subject. We rode the short distance to his house in companionable silence. The ease with which we'd slid back into our old friendship was a pleasant surprise. We were picking up right where we'd left off - as friends understanding enough to know when to just shut the hell up and close enough to be comfortable with silence between us. I'd heard other people talk about friendships like that, people who could go for years with little to no contact and just pick right up where they'd left off whenever they did meet up again. Finding out that my friendship with Heero was like that was a damn nice discovery.
A few minutes later, we turned onto a gravel driveway and a sturdy iron gate swung open automatically at our approach. We passed through another few hundred yards of forest before emerging into a sunny clearing with a long, two-story log-and-stone house at its centre.
"Nice place, Ro," I said appreciatively.
"Thanks." He drove around to the house's side and pulled into a garage. He turned off the jeep and climbed out before saying casually, "You didn't say how long you were staying..."
"Umm, till you get sick of me and kick me out, probably." I shrugged. "Don't really have any other plans right now." I honestly had no idea what I'd do after this visit was over. Maybe try and find someplace to live close enough to drop by fairly regularly; I'd missed Heero too damn much over the past few years to want to rely on long-distance contact only. For the moment, I was just taking things one day at a time.
"Ah, so you're moving in permanently then." He grabbed my pack and swung it over one shoulder. "Good."
Halfway out of the jeep, I froze and stared after him. Moving in? *Permanently?!* Was he joking or serious? With Heero, it could be pretty hard to tell sometimes.
This was definitely one of those times.
Heero's voice drifted back to me from outside the garage, "Come on, Duo. I left a couple of steaks out to thaw; by the time we get you settled in they should be ready to barbeque for supper."
Okay, supper was good. I could do supper. I knew he was serious about *that*; he knew better than to kid around about something as serious as *food*.
Dragging myself to my tired, achy feet, I followed my best friend into his home to find a bedroom equipped with comfortable furnishings of some kind of really dark wood (rosewood, Heero told me when I asked) and shelves filled with books by my favourite authors. A room that had pretty clearly been prepared just for me.
Maybe he had been serious. Maybe he really did want me to stay. Permanently.
Huh. Guess he'd missed me as much as I'd missed him.
I offered to pay rent - I could certainly afford to, I had plenty of money saved up from my time on Mars since there hadn't been any place to actually *spend* it - but Heero got kind of pissed off and offended so I dropped the subject. I wasn't about to be a complete freeloader, though. At the very least, I could do my share of the housework. That, he didn't have a problem with.
So, over the next couple of weeks, Heero and I gradually settled into a routine. At first, I had to ask him what he wanted me to do. I mean, I didn't want to disrupt his life too much; permanent houseguest or not, he was both my friend and my host, I wasn't about to make him regret his hospitality. So I asked whether I should fix dinner, wash dishes, weed the garden (after he showed me the difference between the good stuff and the weeds, that is), do laundry, dust, sweep... But after a bit I started to get a feel for what needed to be done around the place and I just went ahead and did it.
I needed to build my muscle strength back up again so Heero and I designed an exercise routine that would do just that - without letting me overdo things the way that I had on the day of my arrival. A single narrow room ran the length of the house at the back. It looked newer than the rest of the house and Heero explained that he'd had it built on after he bought the place. The addition featured a long, skinny pool designed for swimming lengths and basic exercise equipment - a stationary bike, some weight and resistance equipment, nothing too elaborate. I used the equipment some but - since swimming helped me build muscle tone without putting more stress on my joints - I spent a *lot* of time in the pool. And outside, on the deck that wrapped around the front and one side of the house, was a hot tub that did a terrific job of soothing aching joints and muscles after a particularly strenuous workout or an exceptionally busy day.
We started most days off with a workout. Heero had his own routine to go through while I went through mine. Once I started to get some vague semblance of my old speed and strength back, we'd probably work the odd sparring match into the mix but right now I just wasn't up to it.
Breakfast came next, then we'd take care of household chores till lunchtime. There were a surprising number of chores to be dealt with; I'd never lived in a *house* before so I'd never really realized just how much work that entailed. It seemed like there was always some little thing that needed to be taken care of - a loose shingle on the roof, a fresh crop of weeds threatening the vegetables in the garden, an eavestrough clogged by a bird nest... The list went on and on.
We spent one morning scraping the flaking - and ugly - brown paint off the garage door before starting to apply a fresh coat of dark green paint. Of course, we then spent a few hours trying to remove said paint from our own skin after I made the mistake of teasingly waving my paint brush at Heero and saying "En guarde!" I had a little too much paint on it for that sort of foolishness and it spattered Heero. He gave me a disbelieving look and I just had to laugh at his green-spotted face. He started to scowl, then the scowl changed to a smirk and I knew I was in *deep* shit.
It was a damn good thing that Heero'd bought latex paint; most of it actually did come off with soap and water. Though we had to make a special trip into town to replace the can we'd wasted before we could finish the paint job. The hardware store clerk's eyes just about popped out of his head when he realized that one of the guys bickering in the paint section was the area's infamous "odd" recluse.
Most afternoons, Heero would work on his freelance computer programming contracts while I'd go lie down to take some of the pressure off my joints and give my back a break. I'd usually start off reading but end up falling asleep - full gravity and a strenuous exercise routine were a tiring combination. I was kind of embarrassed about it at first but Heero's calm acceptance of my current physical condition went a long way towards convincing me to just relax and give my body time to adjust without trying to rush the process. He didn't baby me or treat me like an invalid but he'd speak up if he thought I was pushing myself too hard - or, for that matter, slacking off. So although he'd let me sleep for a while, he'd always wake me up in time to help fix supper.
After the first couple of weeks, I wasn't feeling quite so tough by afternoon. Instead of reading in my room, I decided to grab a book and go sit in Heero's office. The sound of him clicking away at a keyboard was familiar and somehow relaxing, as was the low hum of the half dozen or so development computers lined up along two walls. One whole wall was taken up by a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard while the fourth was a huge bay window. I curled up on the windowseat and started to read. But I'd been doing a lot of reading lately and I had trouble keeping my mind on the book. My eyes kept drifting from the page to watch Heero working, his brow lightly furrowed in concentration. No matter how many times I dragged my attention back where it belonged, it ended up back on Heero again.
It certainly wasn't the first time that I'd found myself watching him instead of doing what I should have been. He'd always fascinated me, even back when we'd just barely met. He always put such *intensity* into whatever he was doing that I found it hard to resist watching him, whether at work like now - or working out like this morning. I'd almost gotten caught then; he'd wondered why I was just standing around instead of getting started on my weight routine. I'd pretended that I'd been debating whether to increase the weights or just add a few more reps to the routine. Not that I was really ready for either but that was better than admitting that I'd been busy appreciating the flex of his back and thigh muscles as he'd climbed out of the pool. He'd frowned a little and recommended that I stick to my current routine for a few more days. I'd agreed that maybe that would be best but I'd noticed him keeping an eye on me through the rest of my workout. Guess he'd been concerned that I was going to do something stupidly stubborn and overdo it anyway.
"Book not holding your interest?" Heero inquired, swivelling his chair to face me. "This is the third time I've seen you staring at me instead of it."
Oops. Busted. "Not really," I admitted. "Guess I'm getting tired of reading. Need to find something more challenging to keep my mind occupied."
Heero gave me a thoughtful look, then nodded decisively. "Pull up a chair. I'm having some trouble with this one subroutine; it works but it's consuming more resources than it should..."
He didn't have to invite me twice. I enjoyed programming anyway; working together with Heero just added to the invitation's allure. Within a few minutes, we were both caught up in the intriguing challenge of a tricky bit of programming - though I have to admit that sitting close enough to feel the warmth radiating from Heero's body had a certain very pleasant appeal of its own.
I kind of overdid it that first afternoon. My back started aching after awhile but I ignored it because I was caught up in the program that Heero and I were working on and I didn't want to stop and go lie down. I mean, I was just sitting around in a damn chair for god's sake. I wasn't about to be *that* much of a wuss.
Well, that ache flared into agony when Heero called it quits for supper and I tried to stand. Muscles cramped and spasmed painfully in my neck and back. Just *breathing* hurt. I nearly threw up and I would have fallen if Heero hadn't caught me. The spasms were too bad for me to get in the hot tub and we didn't have any muscle relaxants so Heero suggested trying a massage. I was desperate enough to agree, despite knowing that it would actually hurt worse at first. And it did. It hurt like hell. But Heero kept at it and between the gentle massage and the hot, damp towels he used as compresses, the pain gradually eased into just a residual soreness in the muscles.
That whole episode set me back a little - I had to spend the next couple of afternoons lying down again - but on the third day, I rejoined Heero in front of the computers, just for a couple of hours at first. I was careful not to overdo it and if I did happen to forget, Heero would remind me. I even managed to get a few more backrubs out of him. And if I couldn't quite help imagining what those strong but gentle hands would feel like on other parts of my body - well, at least I was lying on my stomach so I didn't embarrass the hell out of us both.
In the evenings, we usually went for a long, leisurely walk and watched the sunset from a good vantage point before heading back in to spend the evening relaxing together. Sometimes we watched movies or listened to music, sometimes we read, sometimes we played chess or Go or mahjongg.
Most of the time, we talked. Talked about all kinds of things - politics, the economy, investments, sports, you name it - but mostly about ourselves and our experiences over the past few years. About all the things that we hadn't been comfortable discussing in those occasional messages that we'd exchanged.
We talked about my experiences on Mars - beyond the basic bitching I'd done in my emails - and about my discovery that I hated being in a command position. About my determination not to return to Preventers, the insistence of certain other individuals that it was where I belonged, and my complete irritation bordering on outright fury at the sheer arrogance of their assumption that they knew what was best for me. And, of course, we talked about my body's frustratingly slow readjustment to life on Earth and how damn much I hated feeling so fucking *weak* all the time.
We talked too about Heero's experiences during the past few years and his ultimate decision to leave Preventers. About his frustration with our friends' apparent inability to accept his decision and his relief that I not only accepted it, I understood it.
And - eventually - we talked about the fact that, yes, Heero did have a slight case of - well, agoraphobia for lack of a better term. Nothing that he couldn't handle on an occasional basis - he did make regular trips to meet with his programming clients and he usually spent a few days in whatever city that meeting took place in - but it was simply too wearing for him to be around large numbers of people too often. It took too much concentration, too much effort, for him to keep his hair-trigger reflexes under control in public places. When he was in a crowd, he lived in constant fear of injuring someone with an instinctive reaction to a bump or jostle.
"I just... couldn't do it anymore," Heero admitted with a resigned shrug. "I was constantly tense and on edge and the fact that I kept getting assigned to bodyguard or escort duty for ambassadors and senators didn't help matters. All those goddamn receptions and parties... The damn reporters were forever in my face, looking for a story." Shaking his head, he gave me a sidelong glance and a faint, rueful half-grin. "I hadn't realized how much I'd relied on you running interference for me before. And not just with the media, either. Whether we were on assignment together or just out for an afternoon at a ball game, I knew that you had my back. It let me relax, tone down my reactions.
"It wasn't something conscious; I had no idea that I was doing it. I only figured it out after you'd been gone a while and the instinctive reactions started to get harder to control."
"Crowds really aren't my idea of fun either," I told him dryly. "My training wasn't as..." I hesitated, searching for a nonjudgmental way to say it, knowing that Heero didn't see J's training methods as the unnecessarily severe excesses that I did, "...as thorough - as intensive - as yours, my reactions aren't quite as instinctive, but I still have to consciously control them. It was tough on Mars because it was so damn crowded and there was basically no privacy.
"I spent a lot of time in my office because at least I just had to share it with the Project Director. And I spent a lot of time in the dome's crappy little gym pounding the hell out of the heavy bag to burn off some of the tension. Even then, the monthly solo flights on planetary patrol were about the only thing keeping me sane for the last year or so that I was there. So I know what you mean about the constant exposure to crowds just wearing you down."
"Thank god you do. The others just..." Heero blew out an exasperated breath and shrugged. "They just don't get it. They think it's just a matter of more exposure to crowds. Of getting used to it."
"Desensitization." I shook my head. "For run-of-the-mill afraid-of-embarrassment agoraphobia, yeah, that's the usual treatment. For this - uh, *no*, I don't think so; more frequent and prolonged exposure makes it worse, not better. But then, I don't think they really get *why* crowds bother you. I don't think any of them have quite the same reaction as we do." Heero frowned, looking ready to protest. I held up one hand and said, "Listen, just bear with me on this for a minute, okay?" He subsided, willing to listen to my theory even if he wasn't too sure about its validity just yet.
"Okay, look, Quatre only had a few years of Gundam pilot training, right? And before that he lived a pretty normal life. Well, normal for a spoiled-rotten rich kid anyway. Same with Wufei, only substitute overeducated aristocrat brat. They've got the skills - but they're just skills, not deeply ingrained instincts.
"And Trowa - well, his life wasn't *normal* but he was part of a *group* of mercenaries for a long time. None of this live-or-die-you're-on-your-own shit that we had to deal with from a young age. Plus most of his pilot training and a lot of his missions were based on infiltration; the whole focus was different. Survival meant blending in, conforming - not having instinctive, potentially lethal reactions. Killing or even knocking out the first officer to touch him without warning would've been just a little bit counterproductive.
"You and me... Well, we're different from them. You not only had more - intensive - training than any of the rest of us, you had more years of it. I didn't have any more years of pilot training than the other guys but I had a pretty - uh, unconventional, I guess - life before that. I wasn't part of a gang for the last few years I was on the streets; I was on my own and fought hard and damn dirty to stay independent 'cause most gangs had certain - expectations - I wasn't willing to fulfill. I got used to not letting strangers close enough to touch, to reacting quickly and decisively if someone did get their hands on me. I didn't have those reflexes drilled into me for as many years as you but they're still pretty damn strong.
"The other guys just don't *have* the reflexes at that really instinctive level."
"You could be right," Heero admitted thoughtfully. Smirking faintly, he added, "And when you put it that way, I can see where all of their arrogant presumption comes from too."
I grinned. "Yep. Wufei was raised to be an arrogant prick; it's not his fault the training took so damn well. Quatre was trained to be head of his family - a position that carries pretty much absolute authority in L4 society - and, unfortunately for us, he considers us family." Heero's smirk grew a little wider, as did my grin.
He contributed, "And Trowa still tends to try not to stand out and since he pretty much accepts Quatre's authority as leader of our little group and head of the Gundam pilot 'family', he supports whatever Quatre says."
I nodded. "Yep. That pretty much explains why they're so damn pushy. Of course, that still begs the question of why they're all so damn sure that Preventers is where the two of us 'belong', especially considering that we haven't exactly been using any of our unique skills on the job..."
Thinking out loud, I continued, "Umm... Commander Une's reasons are pretty obvious - she doesn't want to lose two of her most famous agents since media exposure helps bring in funding. Wufei's got that weird 'Once a warrior, always a warrior' shit going on - you know, that thing where he thinks you're the ideal warrior and destined to be that till your dying day - the same kinda crap that made him challenge you during that whole mess with Mariemaia. Me, he just thinks unqualified for anything else.
"Umm, and Quatre still has that weird notion that you're the 'heart of space', whatever the hell *that's* supposed to mean, and he thinks that means you need to be in Preventers..."
"Or married to Relena," Heero interjected with a snort of annoyance, "but I think I've finally disabused him of *that* notion."
Recalling Quatre's email complaints about the way that Heero kept trying to steer him in Dorothy Catalonia's direction every time that Quatre brought up the subject of Heero and Relena getting together, I couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, I think he finally got the hint. He made a remark about me transferring to Preventers' L2 detachment in order to be near Hilde. *Hilde*, for god's sake. I mean, I guess she's a nice enough girl but I haven't even *talked* to her since shortly after I moved to Earth to join Preventers." I sighed and shook my head in disbelief. "Anyway, I countered with the observation that maybe I should mention to Dorothy that the estate next door to his was up for sale. Man, did he ever drop *that* subject in a hurry." I shook my head again, half amused and half perturbed at Quatre's ongoing attempts to meddle in everyone else's lives. If he wasn't a friend, I'd have clocked him a good one a long time ago.
I still wasn't ruling out the possibility if he didn't wise up and butt the hell out of my life.
"Anyway, Quatre's been pretty vague about why he thinks I should stay in Preventers. I kinda suspect he either thinks I'll snap once I quit or else he's trying to avoid coming right out and saying that I don't have the education to do anything else - like Chang did." I gave Heero a conspiratorial grin and a wink.
"They don't know?" he said, surprised.
I shook my head. "Nope. Nobody does, 'cept you. They all think I've just got the General Equivalency Degree that I had to have in order to join Preventers." And I'd just barely passed the damn thing at the time. I'd had, like, *zero* warning that I'd be writing the test or I'd have been better prepared.
I'd showed up for the first day of orientation and been handed *that* instead of an information packet. The entire history section had been pre-colony period - something I'd had no damn reason to study - and I'd never heard of most of the stuff in the literature section, though I did my damnedest to bluff it out. When the hell would I have had the time or opportunity to study Chaucer or Shakespeare or Swift, for god's sake? I'd been a little too busy learning how to build bombs and calculate fuel consumption and re-entry vectors to waste time on non-essentials like that. In the end, I'd guessed my way through most of the economics, bombed spelling and grammar since it was based on Earth rather than colonial standards, aced the math and physics and chemistry portions, sailed through the programming, and got about half the biology questions - the human anatomy ones since that was important for both assassination and first aid - correct. It had been thoroughly unpleasant but I had managed to squeak a pass out of it. Just.
That test was *not* a fond memory. Particularly since the bastards had publically posted the damn marks alongside our newly-assigned Preventer ID numbers. Like matching those up with names was any kind of challenge.
Chang had given me pitying looks for *days*. Till we'd run the obstacle course against each other and I'd kicked his sorry ass. He'd toned down the condescension after that.
Heero laughed and smirked evilly. "I want to be there when they find out."
"You can be the one to tell them," I offered generously. It was only fair since Heero was the one who'd helped me find a good, reputable, and very discreet university that offered a wide range of courses through distance education. Their offerings had included high school, undergraduate, and graduate level courses and they'd been very flexible about allowing me to mix and match to design a course of study.
With Heero's encouragement, I'd filled in most of the gaps in my general education and completed a Bachelor's in Computer Science - a field that I was very comfortable in - by the time I'd left for Mars. Then I'd worked on a project for my Computer Science Master's as well as course material for a Bachelor's in Colonial Literature while I was posted on Mars. I still had a few requirements to fill but I'd probably have both degrees completed by year-end. I wasn't sure whether I'd bother with any more degrees; I'd proved what I'd needed to myself. I might take some individual courses, though, just for interest's sake. Maybe a few more psychology courses; the ones I'd picked up to cover my Social Science requirements had been kind of interesting.
He gave me a quizzical look. "Don't you want to tell them yourself?"
I grimaced. "Not really. Quatre will be all delighted surprise and gushy support and I'll end up feeling like he's being condescending even if he doesn't really intend to be. Trowa - well, he probably won't do much beyond nodding and saying 'Congratulations' so I guess he'll be okay. Wufei'll come across as sceptical and condescending. I know he doesn't really mean anything by it, that's just the way he is, but it still makes me want to haul off and knock him on his arrogant ass." They were my friends but honest-to-god I sometimes thought the only thing that kept me in contact with them was the fact that we'd all been Gundam pilots. One of them tended to bore me to death while the other two annoyed the hell out of me anytime I spent more than a couple of hours in their presence. We just - didn't have a whole hell of a lot in common.
Heero looked for a minute as if he was going to object to my summary of their probable reactions, then he shook his head. "Point," he acknowledged ruefully.
"Of course, you telling them means that you'll actually have to talk to them again..." I observed.
His turn to grimace. "I guess I can't ignore them forever. Okay, I'll see them but not here; they're not welcome here till they learn when to mind their own business. You have to make a trip back when your leave's up; I'll go with you and we can see them then."
"Sounds good to me." I snorted in amusement and added, "Hey, we can watch each other's backs - ward off Q's matchmaking attempts and everybody's damn interference." I didn't get the snicker in response that I'd expected. Instead, Heero ducked his head and looked a bit uncomfortable.
"Umm, about those matchmaking attempts..." he said awkwardly. "I - ah - realized..." He flushed and fumbled for words for a moment, then blurted out hurriedly, "It wasn't just Relena in particular that was the problem; it's women in general."
"Oh." Now it was my turn to be at a loss for words. I'd figured my own preferences out a long time ago; I hadn't realized that maybe Heero hadn't worked his out at an equally young age. Though it shouldn't really have been a surprise. His background had meant that he was somewhat behind in certain areas of emotional and social development just as my own background had put me behind in certain academic areas. We'd both just needed the time and opportunity to catch up.
Sounding half apologetic and half defensive, he continued, "Maybe I should have told you when you moved in but I wasn't completely sure yet... But I am now - sure, I mean - and it's only right that you should know..."
I was adding two and two and getting five all of a sudden. "Umm, Heero, sorry if I'm jumping to conclusions here but - uh - is there a *particular* reason I should know or is this just for general information?"
"That - depends..."
He had to know that I was bi; I *had* dated people of both genders before I'd been assigned to Mars. But then again, I'd only dated casually; he might not be sure that there'd been a difference between the times that he and I had gone to a ball game together as buddies and the times I'd gone out on a date with a guy. Or he might think I'd just been experimenting, trying to figure out where my preferences lay. It wasn't like it was something we'd really talked about. Bluntly, I asked, "You do know I'm bi, right?"
He relaxed a bit and admitted, "I thought so but - I wasn't sure."
"So now that you know..."
Following my train of thought easily, he said, "It still depends. If you'd like there to be a particular reason..."
I didn't have to think very much about that question. It wasn't like I'd never noticed that Heero was one hot guy, after all. I was certainly attracted to him. And considering how damn much I'd missed him while I was on Mars and how totally comfortable and at home I'd felt since moving in here, it wasn't as if it was a strictly sexual attraction either. He was the one person that I missed most when he wasn't around, the one person I felt the happiest and most content just being near. "Yeah, I'd like that," I assured him with a grin.
He gave me a relieved grin in return. "Good. Then - yes, there is a particular reason."
"Good." An awkward pause followed. Heero looked a little lost, uncertain what to do or say next. I wasn't sure either but I didn't want to let the awkward moment stretch too long. Time to fall back on an old standby - humour. I patted the couch beside me and - deliberately acting very campy - widened my eyes and fluttered my lashes. "So - wanna make out?"
Just as I'd hoped, that hit Heero's rather quirky sense of humour dead on. He snickered, choked, then just about killed himself laughing as - eyelashes still fluttering madly - I crooked a finger and invited, "C'mon, gorgeous, you *know* you wanna..." My words ended in a started yelp as he grabbed my wrist and jerked me down the length of the couch to land sprawled over him.
He reined in his laughter and promised, "Oh, I 'wanna' alright..." Then he pulled my face down to his and kissed me, a little tentatively at first. My enthusiastic response changed that in a hurry. Lips, tongues, and hands got pretty adventurous during that make-out session. By the time we finally called a halt, our clothes were throughly dishevelled and we were both sporting hickeys in a number of interesting places.
From then on, we had even more pleasant ways to spend the evenings.
Strip chess can be a helluva lot of fun.