10-20-2003

Title: Fragments
Chapter: 1-40/40
Author: Calic0cat
Genre: Shonen Ai/Yaoi, Adventure/Ops, Drama, Romance
Pairing: 1+2
Rated: R(?)
Warnings: AU(?), OOC, Swearing
Archives: Also at Lev's Lair http://www.gwaddiction.com/levlair/ and at http://calic0cat.freeservers.com/ (my site) and at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: First person POV switches between chapters.

'Thinking'
"Speaking"
*** Time passing or scene change

Author's Notes: *mutters about pushy muses and rabid plot bunnies* I did research the medical info for this so it's not too terribly off-base but I do not guarantee complete accuracy by any means. Feedback is appreciated.

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Part 1:

"*Shit!* H - honey, come on, stay with me here... Odin, baby, sweetheart, wake up! Let me see those beautiful baby blues..."

I struggled to open my eyes, hurting all over. My head felt like it was about to explode. Was the voice talking to me? Was Odin me? I - didn't know. I managed to pry my eyes open for a few brief moments, catching a brief glimpse of worried violet - violet?! - eyes and a long chestnut braid. "Who..." I started to say but then the darkness rose up and snatched me away again.

***

I pulled the sheets around myself more tightly but they didn't banish the cold seeping through me. The chill of realizing that I knew nothing about myself, about my life. Only that I was married - a newlywed, according to the doctor, here at the resort hotel with my husband (I was *gay*?!) on our honeymoon. There had been an accident and I'd been injured. The doctor had assured me that there was nothing seriously wrong with me (other than the fact that I had *amnesia* for god's sake) and would be released from the infirmary just as soon as he brought my husband in from the waiting room.

"Odin Wells," I murmured softly, staring at the gold band on my finger. It didn't *sound* familiar. Though my husband's name, Max Wells, did seem at least a little bit familiar and I had a funny feeling that those unusual violet eyes and long chestnut braid that I half-remembered seeing earlier belonged with that name.

'Husband...' I shivered and huddled down in the covers again. I was being sent home - no, not home, back to our hotel room - with someone I didn't remember. Though I didn't really want to stay here either; for some reason the medical equipment in the room made me tense and uncomfortable. I closed my eyes and concentrated again, trying to remember something, *anything*, but all I did was make my headache even worse.

'I must love my husband - Max... The doctor said that I dove into the path of the falling scaffolding to knock him to safety. That that was how I hit my head; I flung Max clear but didn't quite make it myself...' But I was still worried and, though I hated to admit it, frightened as well.

There was a brief, light knock on the door before it opened and my doctor entered. "Odin? I've brought your husband to see you..."

I shrank back against the pillows, almost afraid to meet the man. Why couldn't I *remember*? I lifted my eyes hesitantly as the man - 'My *husband* - Max,' I reminded myself - followed the doctor into the room. My breath caught as I met anxious violet eyes. 'He's worried about me... That has to be a good sign, doesn't it? And he's gorgeous...'

He moved to the bedside and took my hand in his gently. "It'll be okay H - honey. Don't worry about a thing, Odin. The doctor says that your memory could come back at any time and I'll take care of everything till it does." As the man - Max - turned his head slightly to speak to the doctor, his braid slid over his shoulder, catching my attention. I caught hold of it and raised it to my face, fascinated by the length of it. Its faint spicy, citrusy scent seemed somehow familiar and reassuring.

"Odin?"

I flushed slightly at the quizzical look Max was giving me. I supposed that rubbing his braid against my face and sniffing it was a little odd but... "It smells familiar..." I offered softly and sheepishly.

His eyes softened and he gave me a reassuring hug. I brought my own arms up and hugged him tightly in return, burying my face against his shoulder where the braid trailed over it. 'Safe. He feels - safe. I trust him...' I realized with relief. Suddenly it didn't matter that I didn't remember him. Max was my husband; I knew everything would be okay if I was with him.

***

Back at our room, Max tucked me into bed then perched on the edge of it facing towards me. "Get some rest now Odin. I'll wake you when our meal arrives; the hotel's giving us free room service and reversing the charges for the room as an apology for the accident so I ordered a really nice meal for us. No champagne though - at least not unless its non-alcoholic - you shouldn't have alcohol with the pain medication they gave you."

"What happened?" I asked curiously. "The doctor said something about scaffolding..."

"Yeah, we were walking through part of the hotel that's still under construction and some scaffolding fell. You pushed me out of the way and got yourself hurt instead. Good thing you've got such a hard head, buddy. Must be from all the times you've fallen on it." Max chuckled quietly. Then his gaze became very intent, almost expectantly so. Looking me straight in the eyes, he continued softly, "You were a real hero - a regular knight in Gundanium armor..."

His shoulders sagged slightly when I flushed and averted my eyes in embarrassment. Whatever response he'd been hoping for, it obviously wasn't that. He rose from the bed and started towards the door.

'He's leaving! I don't want to be alone; he's the only thing that's even a little bit familiar!' I pushed the covers aside and stumbled from the bed. 'Oh shit...' The room spun and my head started to pound. "Max..." I moaned. I swayed and started to fall.

Strong arms caught me before I hit the floor. "Aw shit... Odin..." He picked me up and put me back in bed again. "Just take it easy for a while, okay?"

"Don't leave me alone..." I begged. "Please, Max..."

He sighed and climbed in bed beside me. "Okay. They'll knock when they bring the food; I should be able to hear them from here."

I curled against his side, head resting on his chest and his arm draped around me. For the first time since I woke up in the infirmary, the chill left me. I was warm and safe.

Part 2:

I could *not* fucking *believe* this. I had never in my entire life had a mission go so damn bad so damn fast. One minute Heero and I were mere days - maybe even only hours - away from finding the evidence we needed to prove that the resort hotel was merely a cover for a weapons manufacturing plant and the next I was throwing construction materials and scaffolding off of my partner's pale, still body and trying to figure out whether it was just bad luck or something more ominous that caused the damn thing to collapse right when we were walking by. 'Retrograde amnesia. Of all the stupid fucking things to go wrong... After all the times he's hit his head before why the hell did he pick this time to end up with *amnesia* for god's sake?!'

Now my partner thought we were really married and was clinging to me in a way that would have had me over the moon with delight if he was in his right mind. But we weren't and he wasn't and I was going to have to walk one hell of a narrow line for the next few days. Heero's confused, frightened face reminded me all too clearly of Trowa's when I found him at the circus that time after he'd lost *his* memory. Vulnerable and so damn easily hurt...

Seeing Heero like that was doing some seriously nasty messing with my mind. I had thought that I'd killed those wishes for something other than a damn good working relationship a long time ago. Turned out they were just biding their time, waiting to catch me with my guard down. Seeing Heero like this, with *his* guard down, with all those damn emotional shields from his training gone without a trace, was tearing *my* defences down faster than I could shore them back up again.

It would be bad enough dealing with him in this vulnerable state if he at least knew what the hell was going on. But he didn't and I couldn't fill him in. Not only was I none too sure that he could handle the whole truth right now but that "accident" had my street sense screaming "trap" for all it was worth. I didn't dare take the chance that we weren't being monitored and try telling him who we really were and what we were doing here. Heero himself would be the first one to agree.

The Preventers had been watching this old resource satellite for quite some time now and they were pretty damn sure it was home to a large weapons manufacturing plant. Not mobile suits, just weapons - but heavy ones and a lot of them. The resort hotel that had been - and was still being - built was just a cover for all the deliveries and the heavy resource usage.

But pretty damn sure wasn't good enough. We needed concrete evidence before we could justify a raid on it. And thus Max and Odin Wells were sent off on their honeymoon at the resort.

It had been a damn awkward mission from the start. Holding hands and calling each other koi and love and darling and sweetheart and a dozen other pet names. Me playing the slightly ditsy, loud, brash American and Heero starring as the quiet, introspective, long-suffering Japanese unfortunate enough to have married me; me keeping people distracted and him surreptitiously taking photos and planting bugs.

Me enjoying all the contact that Heero was allowing me to get away with in the name of the mission and wishing that it wasn't all just pretend.

But it was and the problem had just gotten a hell of a lot worse. Heero believed we were really married and was looking to me for comfort and reassurance. Which I'd be more than happy to give him - except that I had to remember that sooner or later *he* would remember and things would go back to the way they were. Assuming that I hadn't let myself get too far out of line and wrecked our working relationship that is.

Then there was the mission itself which was now thoroughly screwed. And I couldn't even call for backup; not when I strongly suspected that if we hadn't actually been made, we were at least under observation. Now that I had a partner needing protection instead of providing backup, I was going to have to be damn careful if I wanted to get us both out of this alive. Especially if I intended to finish the mission too.

I looked down at where Heero was curled trustingly against me and stifled a sigh. I'd hoped that those few vague references I'd worked into my conversation with him would be enough to trigger some memories but evidently not. I didn't dare to try anything more obvious. Even if I swept the room for bugs *again*, there were plenty of ways to eavesdrop without leaving visible evidence. And if there was anything there, I couldn't do anything about it without tipping off whoever was monitoring us that I was onto them anyhow. So there wasn't a hell of a lot of use wasting time searching for bugs. Oh, I'd check when I got a chance but it was safer to just assume that nothing that was said or done in the entire place was ever completely a secret.

'This mission is *so* screwed...'

If Heero was going to cling this closely to me, I really didn't know how the hell I was going to finish the mission. We'd had everything all set for me to do a little "nighttime" reconnaissance tonight but I didn't think I could leave Heero alone for that long; the concussion alone made that a bad idea even without the amnesia to complicate matters. Plus I really would prefer to know I had backup available if I needed it before I started getting too adventurous. We'd had an agent - a pretty good one - who had infiltrated the workforce here go missing a month or so ago; never did find a trace of him and frankly I didn't think we ever would. Trash incinerators burned damn hot and the hotel had one hell of a big one.

'We're supposed to check in with more info in two days. If we miss that check-in, Wufei and Sally will come in after us. I think the best bet is to just sit tight, keep playing the part, and skip the check-in. Let the mission ride till they show up and I've got some backup again. Who knows, maybe Heero will get his memory back before then and we'll be able to wrap this up ourselves after all.'

And if he didn't - well, I'd at least have a few days of "let's pretend" to remember. I just had to keep reminding myself that it *was* just pretending and make sure I didn't take advantage of the situation. No matter how tempting it might be.

Part 3:

I woke from confusing, frightening dreams into the confusing, frightening reality of another day without my memory. Woke *alone*, which sent my heart racing frantically. "Max?!"

"I'm here Odin; s'okay. Just lettin' them in with our breakfast, babe," Max called from the sitting room. His voice dropped to a low rumble and another voice answered, then the hall door opened and closed.

"Max?" I asked hesitantly. I didn't want to go out there in just my T-shirt and boxers if the hotel staff was still there but I needed to see Max *now*. None of my dreams had been particularly pleasant but the one in which I was wandering the streets alone, cold and hungry, a small child with nothing to call my own but the shoes, thin shorts, and tanktop I was wearing, left me wanting the reassurance of my husband's presence. The security of his arms.

"Just a sec, I'll bring breakfast in there, 'kay?"

There was a clatter of dishes then Max came into the bedroom, carefully balancing two trays in his arms. As soon as he set them down on the small bedside table, I slid out of bed and flung my arms around him. 'He's here; I'm not alone.' "Just a bad dream..." I mumbled quietly.

"What was just a bad dream?" Max asked, his arms closing around me and starting to rub my back.

I shook my head, not wanting to make it more real by talking about it. "Doesn't matter," I said, lifting my face and kissing him to turn his attention away from the subject. He stiffened in my arms. I broke off the kiss and pulled away immediately. "I'm sorry..." I apologized unhappily. "I thought... We're married and..." I gave up trying to explain. Obviously I'd been wrong. Either there was something wrong between us or he was angry because I'd gotten hurt and ruined our honeymoon or...

"Hey, nothing to apologize for," Max said gently, pulling me back into his arms. "You just caught me by surprise, love. I didn't think you'd want to kiss me when you couldn't remember me, that's all."

"Oh..." That made sense. I sagged against him in relief. "Maybe I don't remember you but you feel - right. Like we fit together. Like we're two parts of a whole..." That sounded corny but it *was* how I felt about Max. Like he completed me somehow, even with the huge hole that my missing memories left behind.

Then it was Max's turn to say, "Oh..." in a stunned voice. I looked up and caught a very odd look on his face. Part delight, part something that looked an awful lot like - regret? pain? longing? a weird mix of sadness with those other emotions? He saw me looking at him and smiled, banishing that disquieting look. "Y'know, I think that's the nicest thing that *anyone* has ever said to me. Whatta you know, I married a romantic and I didn't even know it." He hugged me and dropped a kiss on the tip of my nose. "Now let's eat before all this gets cold, 'kay?"

"Okay," I agreed. But I remembered that look and filed it away. Didn't I usually say things like that to Max? And if not, why the hell didn't I?

***

I still wasn't feeling too well but I wanted to get out of the room for a while, so Max took me to the hotel's huge conservatory for a walk. Despite my worry over my missing memories, I felt safe and content as long as Max was with me. His gentle assurances that everything would be alright, that my memories would return with time, let me put my fears aside and just enjoy being with him.

Max was kind and considerate and he tried to make sure that I wasn't overdoing things - but he didn't fuss to the point where I was ready to scream. If I said that I was okay, he let the subject drop and just led me into another part of the gardens. He seemed to understand my need for activity to distract me.

He must have taken a hundred photos of me when we were in the butterfly conservatory and the delicate, fearless, little creatures kept landing all over me. Between the ticklish sensation of their contact, the wonder that the beautiful creatures were so unafraid, and Max's gentle teasing, I smiled and laughed so much that my cheeks hurt. And he kept taking pictures. When I asked him why so many, he just smiled and kissed the tip of my nose. "Because you're gorgeous when you smile," he told me.

But why would he need to take so many photos of that? Didn't I smile very often? What was I usually *like*?

I was starting to think that my normal self needed a good swift kick in the ass. Max seemed so surprised when I said nice things to him or complimented him or held his hand or kissed him or smiled at him... Why the hell did he marry me if all those things were so unusual? I didn't understand...

And the odd flashes of - memory? dream? - that kept slipping through my mind from time to time, triggered by a sound or a reflection of light, were even more confusing. Blood and guns and fighting... A tall man with light coloured hair cleaning a gun... My own hands, tiny beside his, copying his motions... The same man crouched beside a campfire... Him bleeding and dying on the floor of a cold building... Me wandering the streets, cold and alone, very young and lost... Angry and frightened and angry at myself for the fear... Grieving...

Were these memories? Or dreams - nightmares? If they were memories... I shivered, not sure that I wanted to know the answers to the questions that they raised. Was that tall man my father? Why would the small child I seemed to be in those memories be handling guns?

I was afraid to ask Max about the images. If they were memories, would I have told him about them before? Or would they be an ugly secret in my past, kept hidden to protect my current life from their sordidness? I didn't want to risk spoiling my relationship with him by saying or doing something wrong.

But why was Max so surprised when I was affectionate towards him? Was I usually colder, more reserved? Was that why his expression turned wistful at times as he watched me? Because he wished that I was always like this?

'So many questions... Will I ever remember everything? And if I do, will I remember what's happening *now*? Will I remember that I want to make sure Max never has to look wistful like that again? That he never has to be surprised at me wrapping my arm around his waist and snuggling against him as we walk?'

I considered that for a few minutes. Maybe I would forget all this when I remembered my past. But I didn't *want* to! Making Max smile, making him laugh, made me feel so good - so warm inside... I didn't want to forget that!

We were walking slowly back to our room after having lunch at a patio restaurant in the conservatory. I spotted a few shops off to one side. Maybe I could make sure that I remembered this... "Max? Could we go in there for a few minutes?" I pointed towards the souvenir store.

"Sure, Odin," he said with an affectionate smile. "If you feel up to it..."

I was getting tired and my head was starting to ache a bit but I really wanted to take care of this now. "It'll only take a few minutes," I assured Max. His raised eyebrow and slight headshake told me that he'd noticed the way I dodged the question but he turned our steps towards the store anyway.

'All I need is a notebook and pen... If I can just write down what I'm feeling and thinking now, then at least when I get my memory back I'll have something to remind me what it was like. Maybe that'll be enough to make me change...' I hoped so. And if it wasn't - maybe I didn't really want my memory back at all. Maybe I'd rather stay the way I was now.

Part 4:

Glancing into the bedroom, I saw that Heero had finally fallen asleep, the notebook he'd been so insistent on purchasing laying on the floor beside the bed where it had evidently fallen when he dozed off. I didn't know what he was writing - he hadn't offered to show it to me and I wasn't about to snoop - but he'd kept at it for a good hour despite the fact that his head seemed to be aching quite badly.

I'd probably let him overdo things this morning. But it was so damn hard to say no when he looked so hopeful and happy... I'd never, ever seen Heero look like that before. 'And probably never will again once he gets his memory back,' I reminded myself firmly. 'So don't go getting used to it, Maxwell.' I sighed at the depressing thought and used the camera to take a picture of him sleeping peacefully, sprawling carelessly across the bed in a way that he would never let himself under normal circumstances.

I'd already used the hotel's photo service to order prints of the photos I'd taken earlier and had the original digital photos placed in the photo service's reorder database. If I was really, really lucky, the Preventer assigned to monitor the hotel's communications and so on would be Wufei or Sally or someone else who would take one look at those pictures of an open, smiling Heero and know that something was really fucking wrong and get some damn backup here *fast*.

With even more luck, the photos would still be around when we got out of this mess and I'd be able to keep them, my guilty little secret from this screwed up mission. My little reminder that there *was* one hell of a nice guy deep inside of Heero and that I needed to stop just accepting him the way he was and start digging that nice guy out the way I'd tried to a few times during the war. Before I'd been cold-shouldered for my efforts a few times too many. Before I'd put up my own emotional shields to protect me. Before I'd decided to just be grateful that Heero and I worked so well together as long as I kept things strictly professional and let things go at that.

Oh, we'd gotten a *bit* closer than that over the years; completely professional partnership had given way to cautious friendship. But cautious friendship was about the most I'd been prepared to try for. I'd been frozen out too many times during the war to open up more than that around Heero. After being around "Odin" though... Well, I guessed that I'd have to take a few chances and try again. That little bit of Heero that was "Odin" deserved it.

With a final glance at Heero's peacefully sleeping form, I turned and walked over to flop down on the couch. I had a lot to think about. And too damn much time to do it. There sure as hell wasn't anything *else* I could do right now.

One good thing about Heero's amnesia - there was no way that anything we'd done today was even remotely suspicious. We'd been a couple of honeymooners enjoying the resort and nothing more. That could throw the bad guys off if they bought it - or it just might make our watchers even more suspicious and paranoid, wondering what we were up to.

The thought of anyone coming after us right now scared the shit out of me. Heero was completely vulnerable. In a hand-to-hand fight he might do okay, kinetic memory and the fact that his damn training is so deep it's pretty much instinctive might just be enough to get him through in one piece. But I wasn't sure about that. And if bullets started flying, I *really* wasn't sure how he would handle it.

If the situation triggered off the return of memories, we'd really be screwed. He'd admitted to a few flashes of confusing images today - stuff caused by a sharp noise or the glint of light off metal or a raised voice - and each incident had resulted in him freezing, eyes closing and hand raising to rub his forehead. If he did that in the middle of a firefight... God, the thought was scary as hell.

If I thought they'd actually let us leave, I'd have us both on the next shuttle out of here. Let Wufei and Sally come in and finish things up later. But leaving early when our stay was "on the house" due to Heero's injury would be damn suspicious. Just the confirmation of something not-quite-right that would convince our suspect that we needed to be taken care of permanently.

'I need my partner back. Much as I lo - like him the way he is right now, I need Heero, not "Odin". I need my paranoid, professional, always-prepared-for-everything partner.' At least, I needed him if I was going to get us *both* out of there safely, mission accomplished.

There were pretty damn good odds that I could get myself out of here and accomplish the mission. Even better odds of just getting myself out and scrubbing the mission. But getting both me and Heero out of here safely while Heero was in his current state, mission accomplished or not... Well, those were odds I didn't like. Not at all.

'Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the accident was just that, an accident. Maybe it was a coincidence that it happened right after we made our first check-in call. Maybe we're not a hairbreadth away from our cover being totally blown. Maybe I just have to sit tight for the next few days and wait for backup.'

Yeah, right. Maybe. But I wasn't counting on it.

The knock on the door a few minutes later didn't help my tattered nerves any. I just about jumped out of my skin when it startled me out of my introspection. 'Great. Wonder what the hell this is about; didn't order anything from room service...'

I checked the peephole before removing the silly safety chain. 'Oh my *god*. We are in such deep shit...' I swallowed hard and pasted on my best "gosh darn I'm happy to meet you" grin before I opened the door to greet the man I'd seen through the peephole. The man who *owned* the fucking hotel. The man we were there to investigate. Oh, and of course, the two bodyguards that accompanied him everywhere. Bodyguards that Rashid would look downright puny alongside of.

"Hello!" I exclaimed brightly. I let my eyes widen and gasped, "Oh my - aren't you..."

He smiled - a typical false politician-type smile - and held out his hand. "Yes, I am. Jules Mattis, owner of the Starlight Resort, at your service, Mr. Wells."

I shook his hand enthusiastically, "It's such an honour to meet you Mr. Mattis. You've done wonders with this abandoned old satellite. Such a wonderful way to reuse the place - the hotel is beautiful." I winced internally and slipped in my persona's necessary gauche remark, "It must've cost an awful lotta money to build it. You must be awfully rich..."

Mattis's smile slipped a bit as he retrieved his hand from my over-enthusiastic grasp. He recovered nicely though, politely overlooking "my" social ineptitude. "Yes, well, I get by. Now, I just wanted to stop by and see how you and your spouse were doing after that dreadful accident. Is there anything you need?"

"Oh no, not a thing. We're just fine. Everyone's just been so *nice* about everything. I'd invite you in, but - well, Odin overdid things a little earlier and he's sleeping now. I'd really rather not wake him..."

"No, no, of course not. I hope that he's feeling better soon. I just wanted to invite the two of you to a private party that the hotel will be holding in two days. Dinner and dancing will be held in the new arena to celebrate the grand opening of the new sports complex," he explained. "Formal dress is, of course, required. The hotel's men's clothing boutique will be delighted to outfit you and your husband, compliments of the resort of course."

"We'd *love* to come," I gushed, then hurriedly added, "Assuming that Odin feels up to it, of course..."

"Of course," Mattis agreed, inclining his head slightly. "My secretary will have the invitations delivered to you and inform the boutique to be expecting you both. I must be on my way now but please do feel free to contact the resort's main office if I can be of service. My apologies on behalf of the resort and myself personally for the dreadful accident that has so marred your time with us. Please rest assured that we are taking every precaution to ensure such a thing will not happen again."

"Thank you, I'm *so* happy to hear that, and I'll be sure to tell Odin everything you said," I answered. We exchanged polite goodbyes and I closed the door as he and his silent escorts turned away.

'Oh *crap*...' I dropped onto the couch with a groan. That damn party was going to put me right where I needed to be to sneak into the supposedly unused part of the satellite. Having that opportunity handed to me on a silver platter was just a *little* bit too good to be true. Giving us those invitations was just good PR if we were just a couple of guests who happened to have been in a rather nasty little accident during our stay. It was also one hell of a good way to set a trap if they did know or even just suspect who we really were.

And how the hell could I leave Heero alone at the party and go sneaking off to investigate the suspected weapons factory while he was in his current state? I'd be gone half, three-quarters of an hour *minimum*, and probably considerably longer than that. Not only would he be on his own for that long but he'd have to cover for me. Which meant I'd have to find a way to tell him *something* to explain what I was doing. I massaged my temples and sighed.

"What's wrong, Max?" a voice asked from behind me.

I jumped halfway off the couch, heart racing. "Shit. Don't *do* that to me, Odin," I scolded. "Don't sneak up on me like that..." 'How the hell did he get that damn close without me noticing him? He may not remember anything but he still moves like Heero when he wants to be quiet...'

"I'm sorry, I just didn't want to disturb you; you seemed to be thinking very hard about something..."

I slumped back against the couch and sighed again, "Nothing too important Odin. Mr. Mattis, the hotel owner, just came by to invite us to a party in a couple of days. I was just wondering whether you'd be feeling up to something like that by then." Not quite a lie, but not the whole truth either. Just as much of it as I dared say out loud. I rubbed my forehead again, wishing that the headache that was starting would go away. Cool fingers pushed my own away and started to massage my temples. I tensed for a moment, caught off-guard yet again by an unusual gesture of tenderness from Heero. Forcing myself to relax before I hurt his feelings, I murmured, "Mmm, that feels good."

"If it's still a couple of days away, I think I'll be okay. Do I like parties?"

I managed not to choke at the innocent question. Just. "Uh, you go to them sometimes," 'when Quatre gives you The Look or Une makes it a direct order that is...' I added silently before finishing, "but you're not exactly a party animal, Odin."

Part 5:

I set my pizza down for a moment. Max had already said that he didn't think he should tell me about my past, that it would be better for me to remember it on my own. But - well, I couldn't help trying. I asked curiously, "How did we meet, Max? Was it love at first sight?" I thought perhaps it had been considering that I had already fallen in love with him all over again.

Max's reaction to my question surprised me. He started to laugh. In fact, he laughed so hard that he fell off the couch. His laughter was contagious and I ended up laughing too, even though I had no idea what was so funny. When he finally got his amusement under control, he said, "Only if I was Cupid's stand-in that day, babe. And I don't think that was the case since it took me a while just to persuade you that we made better partners than rivals." Seeing my confusion, he grinned wryly and shook his head. "Don't worry about the details. You could say that we worked for the same company but in different departments and it just took a while for us to learn to work together let alone become friends or anything else."

"So we were friends first? Before we..."

"Yeah, long before anything else. Friends and - coworkers," he told me before asking what I wanted to do for the evening.

I gave in to the change of subject gracefully, guessing that I wouldn't get anything more out of him right now. "Cuddle up on the couch and watch movies?" I suggested hopefully. I didn't really feel like leaving our suite but after sleeping a good part of the afternoon I wasn't ready for bed either. Max hesitated for a few moments before finally agreeing.

It didn't take long for us to choose an action movie and make ourselves comfortable on the couch. I snuggled contentedly into Max's arms, loving the feeling of warmth and security that they gave me. Yet at the same time, deeply grateful that he didn't seem to expect anything more - intimate - from me. Though the thought of making love with him didn't frighten me the way that it would have yesterday. Even though I still didn't remember anything about our past together, I was comfortable with Max. Comfortable with him and in love with him, despite the fact that I still knew nothing about his past. Or my own, for that matter.

But the things that I was guessing based on Max's reactions towards me now were leaving me distinctly perturbed with my "real" self. How could I possibly be married to such an attractive, caring, wonderful person and not let him know how incredible he was? How could I *not* make a habit of kissing him? 'I don't understand...'

***

I woke to an empty bed again. Apparently Max was an earlier riser than me; either that or the head injury was making me need more sleep. Unlike yesterday morning, I didn't panic, despite the disturbing dreams I'd had again. I knew Max wouldn't leave me alone for long. That he wouldn't actually leave the suite without telling me first.

It still bothered me that I couldn't remember anything more than confused fragments of sound and image and scent. That my dreams were confusing and disturbing, filled with blood and violence and pain. Especially since Max wouldn't fill in the huge blanks of my past for me except in the very vaguest of terms. But in spite of his evasiveness, I still trusted him. Something deep down inside told me that trusting him was right. That he would never do anything to hurt me.

"Max?" I called quietly.

"I'm here, Odin," he called back from the bathroom.

My breath caught in my throat as he emerged from the room and approached the bed. That incredible hair was unbound, floating loose around him as he walked towards me. I slid off the bed and stepped close to him, running my fingers through his hair in amazement. "It's so soft and silky..."

Max gave me an oddly wistful look. "You like it? You don't think it's - impractical? That I should cut it all off?"

'Cut it off?!' I thought in horror. "*NO!*" I tried to imagine Max without that long rope of chestnut silk and failed miserably. "It's beautiful! Don't you dare cut it!"

He gave me a soft smile and said, "Okay."

As he started to brush his hair, I reached out and took the brush from him. "May I?"

Max gave me a startled look, then nodded slowly, "If you really want to..."

"I do."

He sat down on a chair and I started brushing his hair, careful not to pull or to get the brush tangled. Max kept giving me these odd little looks out of the corner of his eye. Sort of a wondering disbelief. Evidently this was another one of those things that the "real" me didn't do.

Well, I didn't care. The "real" me needed his ass kicked. I sincerely hoped that when my memory came back, I wouldn't forget what was happening now. Wouldn't forget that I wanted to keep doing all the things that I apparently didn't do before. Hopefully if I *did* forget, the journal that I'd started yesterday would remind me.

I set the brush aside and sat down on Max's lap, wrapping my arms around his neck and kissing him. He wrapped his arms around me and leaned his head against my shoulder. I couldn't reach his lips anymore, so I settled for just dropping a kiss on top of his head. "So what are we going to do today?" I asked him.

"Well, we didn't get as far as the exotic animal sanctuary yesterday. How about starting there and just seeing how things go? Oh, and I guess we should get fitted with clothes for the party tomorrow if you think you'd like to go..."

I laid my cheek against Max's head and thought about that for a few minutes. I didn't really know whether I *did* want to go to the party. Whether I wanted to have to share Max's attention with everyone else who would be there. I knew it would be different from just casually encountering people as we walked around the resort. That we would be expected to socialize. Maybe even to dance with other people. I didn't like the thought of that very much. The thought of letting anyone else that close, of letting them touch me, bothered me for some reason.

But I kind of thought maybe Max wanted to go. And I had to admit that part of me *would* like to go, just to show off my handsome husband. The man that my normal self - despite his apparent shortcomings - had had the incredible good taste to marry. "I guess the party sounds okay..." Abruptly, a thought occurred to me. "Uh, Max? Do I even know how to dance?"

He chuckled and assured me, "Yep, you do. Pretty damn well too. Though you *do* always insist on leading..."

"But - what if I don't remember how..." This amnesia business was confusing. How could personal memories be gone yet memories of how to do things remain?

"Hmm... well, if you're worried about that, maybe we should just try it and find out, huh?" Max lifted me off of his lap and stood. He stepped in front of me and bowed with a dramatic flourish. "May I have this dance?"

I laughed. "Why of course... But there's no music..."

Max just grinned at me and started to hum. I held out my arms and he stepped into them. He took the lead at first but suddenly I realized what he was humming - a waltz, though I wasn't quite sure which one, I just recognized the rhythm. He let me take the lead as soon as I tried.

I don't know how long we danced around the suite. Max changed tunes and my body automatically changed hand positions and steps without any conscious thought. While we were dancing like that, held in each other's arms, my amnesia didn't matter at all. Nothing did except Max's quiet, slightly breathless humming and the warmth of his body against mine.

Part 6:

Heero vanished off towards the bathroom as I twisted my hair into a quick ponytail and went to answer the door. I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck as I walked, trying to stave off the inevitable tension headache that was already creeping up on me. Our breakfast order being delivered had rudely interrupted our dancing. And it was a damn good thing too. I'd been dangerously close to forgetting that none of this was real. That Heero wouldn't really pull me into his arms and dance to my slightly off-key humming like that.

I really wasn't sure whether we were better off out in public or locked up in our room as far as keeping us safe mission-wise went. But for the sake of the future of my friendship and working relationship with Heero, the more time we spent out in public and the less time we spent alone in private, the better.

Today was our scheduled check-in. We were going to skip it; even if Heero had his memory back we could use some backup for the next bit of the investigation and it was safer and easier to skip a risky check-in than it was to make it and request backup. And considering that the scaffolding accident had happened right away after our first check-in, I didn't think "risky" was too strong a term in this case.

Skipping a check-in to get backup wasn't all that unusual a tactic amongst the undercover agents. Une wasn't too fond of that method of calling for assistance but she was more interested in results than procedures so she let us get away with it. So - skipping today's check-in would get us backup. But unless Wufei and Sally were already enroute thanks to those out-of-character photos of Heero, they wouldn't arrive for at least thirty-six hours. And that was assuming that they were waiting at the nearest colony, not back on Earth. That was too damn long. *Way* too damn long. Even *without* worrying about whether or not our cover was shot and whether I should do some snooping during the party tomorrow night.

Heero was getting more and more comfortable with touching me and kissing me and I was starting to enjoy that a little too much. To respond a little too readily. To be a little too close to forgetting that none of this was real.

So far I'd restricted my own kisses, carefully staying away from Heero's lips. Just dropping little pecks on his temple or his cheek or his chin or the tip of his nose. The sort of kisses that we'd been using already in this mission. Nothing too intimate. Nothing to land myself in hot water with Heero when his memory came back.

But Heero wasn't being nearly so reticent. He went for my lips every time. And while his kisses had started out chaste and hesitant, that hadn't lasted long. They were getting deeper and more confident, more passionate, all the time. I'd tried dodging them or pulling away a few times but the look on his face when I did that left me feeling like I'd just kicked a puppy. He couldn't understand why his husband didn't want to be kissed by him and hell, I couldn't blame him for being hurt and confused. And it wasn't like I didn't enjoy the kisses. So I'd pretty much quit resisting and resigned myself to being miserable later because I'd know just what I was missing. I'd just have to hope that if he remembered all this once he got his memory back, he'd also remember that he started it.

The question now was just how far I was going to let him coax me into going. Those long, deep kisses that left us both flushed and short of breath were bad enough; what the hell was I going to do if - no, *when* - he started looking for more?

If I was partnered with anyone other than Heero on this mission, I wouldn't even have to ask myself that question. I'd just pick a nice big public argument with my "husband" and spend the next few nights sleeping on the couch. If his feelings were hurt, well, too damn bad. Hell, with anybody else I'd have already done that by now and gotten out of those intoxicating kisses as well. Of course, with anyone else they wouldn't have *been* intoxicating to begin with.

But this *was* Heero, not someone else. I couldn't bring myself to spoil his current happiness by rebuffing his kisses, let alone staging a big argument with him. It was far more enjoyable for us both to just go along with his misconception about our relationship and let him kiss and cuddle. I knew it was a temporary thing and I knew I was going to pay one hell of a steep price even if this didn't end up wrecking our partnership because I now knew just what I'd been missing all along and what I'd be missing in future. Knew just how wonderful it was to be kissed - really kissed, not just for show - by Heero.

And I had to admit that letting him make love to me was a damn tempting thought. This might very well be the only chance I ever had after all.

But it would be wrong. I knew that. Wrong on so many levels and in so many ways that I couldn't even begin to list them all. And in the end, it wouldn't be Heero - the Heero that I'd known and loved since the war, despite my best efforts to pretend otherwise - making love to me anyway. It would be "Odin", someone who didn't even really exist except as a small part of Heero, somewhere deep down inside hidden behind all the training he'd been put through. Letting him make love to me under these circumstances would be betrayal of the worst kind. Damn close to rape when it came right down to it because it would not be *Heero* making the decision for himself. Wouldn't even be "Odin" making the decision with full knowledge of the true situation - he *did* believe we were married after all.

So - no making love. Absolutely positively not.

The problem was how the hell was I going to manage that without hurting Heero. Without making him feel insecure and unwanted. Unloved. Without wrecking his trust in me.

And that last part was absolutely critical. I could *not* damage my current relationship with "Odin" because if the shit suddenly hit the fan he was going to need to trust me absolutely or we were both going to end up very dead.

***

I snapped more pictures of an uncharacteristically open and expressive Heero as we strolled through the exotic animal sanctuary, viewing the animals through the tough, non-glaring windows that lined the pathway. And purely incidentally ending up with some more proof that there was no way in hell that the resort could possibly be legit.

I knew enough from Trowa about the circus's ongoing struggle to feed and care for its small number of animals - lions and elephants are *not* light eaters and their vet bills aren't exactly cheap either - on its not-too-shabby ticket take to know that it was impossible for the resort to be bringing in enough money to buy, feed, and care for the many rare and endangered species in its sanctuary and still show a profit. Especially when they were also carrying out massive construction projects to expand the resort even further. Like the sports complex that we'd be attending the grand opening of tomorrow night.

My wish to take advantage of the opportunity created by the party to explore the adjacent, supposedly unused, segment of the satellite was growing in leaps and bounds. There must be some way to pull it off without putting Heero in too much danger. But if I couldn't come up with one, I wouldn't try it. There was no way I'd put Heero at risk if I could help it. Especially not while he was in his current condition. Right now, he counted as one of the innocents we both fought to protect, first during the war and now as Preventers. I would not put him in harm's way. If that meant that the mission stayed sidelined indefinitely - so be it.

Part 7:

I stood to one side and watched as Max tried on shirts and vests. I had already been outfitted with the required pants and a single-breasted shawl-collared dinner jacket in midnight blue. The black vest with a fine blue grid pattern and its matching tie went with the suit perfectly. Max had insisted on a "white *wing* collared shirt" to go with it and he'd given me one of those expectant looks that turned disappointed when I didn't get whatever reference he'd hoped I would. He'd given me a gentle smile and told me not to worry about it when I apologized for missing the joke.

But I couldn't help worrying about it. About my amnesia in general.

Max was being very patient with me. Very understanding and undemanding. But we were on our *honeymoon* and, thanks to my amnesia, we hadn't exactly been acting like a typical pair of newlyweds. It had to be disappointing for him at the very least.

And I wasn't entirely sure that I wasn't a bit disappointed that he wasn't *more* disappointed. That he was so willing to wait, to delay being intimate. To put off making love. I appreciated how understanding he was being, how careful he was to let me set the pace, but - well, it would be sort of nice to have him make the first move sometimes. To know that he *wanted* me.

I knew that Max cared about me. That was clear in everything from the tone of his voice to the way he touched me. But I wasn't as sure that he desired me.

Or that he loved me. Oh, he called me koi and love and babe and sweetheart and a whole bunch of other pet names. But he hadn't actually come right out and said that he loved me. Why? Was that simply part of his "no pressure" policy brought on by my amnesia? Or was our marriage actually one of friendship and caring rather than love?

I didn't know what to think. I hoped that Max was just trying not to pressure me. The thought that he might not love me the way that I loved him made my throat ache. I didn't know whether I'd fallen in love with him all over again or whether my love for him was strong enough that it had beaten the amnesia but there was no doubt that I loved him. Loved him and wanted him.

"Odin? You okay?" Max's concerned look made me realize that he must have been trying to get my attention for a few moments.

I nodded and apologized, "I'm sorry. I was just a bit - distracted." I managed a small smile for him.

"S'okay. What do you think?" He pirouetted like a fashion model and struck a dramatic pose. Despite my worries, I had to smile and laugh. Which of course was what he was after. He grinned triumphantly at having banished my gloom.

"You look terrific," I told him honestly. Max had opted for black from head to toe. Trousers, jacket, vest, and tie. Only his standup collar shirt was white and if the double-breasted peaked lapels of his jacket were drawn across the front it wouldn't even show, leaving him completely in black.

That thought sent my head whirling as a sequence of images ran through my mind, blurry except for one thing that was present in sharp clarity in each and every one of them.

Max.

Max dressed all in black with only a tiny hint of white at his throat, even his head covered by a black cap pulled low over his eyes.

Swaying slightly, dizzy and disoriented, I closed my eyes and reached up to rub my forehead. Hands - Max's, I knew that without even looking - caught my shoulders, steadying me. "Odin?" he asked softly.

"You - like black, don't you?" I said just as softly. "You used to wear it a lot..."

He pulled me against him and murmured in my ear, "Yeah, I did. It has its uses. You got another one of those flashes of memory, huh?"

I nodded silently, still trying to sort through those fragments, knowing how fast they would slip away again. Max waited patiently until I opened my eyes and told him, "I'm okay. But it's been a long day. Could we go back to the room now?"

"Sure," he told me immediately. He drew away from me, making sure that I was steady on my feet before crossing to the changing room. I sank into the nearest chair to wait. This latest flash of memory only deepened my growing suspicion that my dreams weren't just dreams. They were memories.

***

Back at our room, Max sat down on the couch and turned on the television "Go ahead and lie down for a while, Odin. I'll just stay out here and watch a movie."

I hesitated, then made a decision. I really needed some answers. Rather than going to lie down, I sat on the couch facing Max and placed my hand lightly on his knee to get his attention. "Max, I know you said I needed to remember things myself but I'm really confused. The dreams I've been having are so strange... Guns and explosions and..."

Max's hand against my lips silenced my words. He turned up the volume on the television then leaned towards me. He shook his head infinitesimally at me and silently mouthed, "No Odin. Dangerous." He cupped a hand around my ear casually as if to caress it - but something deep inside told me it meant something very different, that someone was listening - and flicked his eyes vaguely around the room. His face was serious - almost grim. The look in his eyes told me that he was deadly serious about this. Suddenly, I had all the confirmation I needed that the dreams were really memories.

Out loud, he chuckled, "That's what you get for eating cold pizza at midnight and watching too many action movies, sweetheart. All sorts of really weird dreams."

Even as Max's voice was so light and teasing, his eyes continued to warn me to drop the subject. I stared in shock, my heart racing. 'What the hell is going on here?' When he mouthed back, "Complicated. Trust me," I realized that I had automatically mouthed that question to him, not just thought it to myself. Just like I'd read his lips without even thinking about how unusual such a skill was for someone who had perfect hearing. Just like I'd instinctively known that the hand cupped around my ear meant something other than a caress.

I crawled onto Max's lap, wrapped my arms around him tightly, and ducked my head against his neck, shaking. Who *were* we? *What* were we? What the hell was I caught up in the middle of?

I wasn't sure that I actually wanted to know the answers to those questions.

Part 8:

I held Heero's trembling body close and wished I'd been able to think of another way to handle that. I'd pretty much just tipped him off that those dreams weren't dreams at all. That they were memories. Depending on which ones he'd been reliving, that could be pretty damn tough to find out. And I was going to be extremely lucky if this didn't end up messing up his trust in me. We'd originally gotten off to a pretty rough start after all; I mean, hell, I'd *shot* him. And not just once either. If he remembered that but not the times we'd helped each other out... This could be very bad.

But what the hell else could I have done? I couldn't risk him talking about those dream- memories; if someone *was* listening in - and I was pretty damn sure that the bugs and hidden cameras that had been added to our suite in the past couple of days weren't just part of the decor - there might be enough info in his dreams to let them get a positive ID on us. Assuming that they didn't already have that.

I shifted Heero so that I could put my lips very close to his ear. With surveillance equipment as good as it could potentially be even this was a slight risk but he needed something more than what I'd given him so far. "I promise I'll explain when we go home. But we have to stay here a little longer and there's a lot we can't talk about here. I'm sorry." I kissed his ear and his cheek and his temple, hoping that would hide the fact that I hadn't exactly been murmuring sweet nothings in Heero's ear. Faint though it was, I was still clinging to the slight chance that they were merely suspicious of us. Hoping that if we continued to act like a couple of newlyweds, they'd just keep watching us and not take action. Hoping.

Well whatever Heero's dreams had been about, he'd evidently decided that he still trusted me. He stayed wrapped in my arms for one hell of a long time before finally stirring to pull away.

Now that Heero at least knew there was *something* strange going on, I figured that he might as well know what sort of weaponry he'd been carrying around without even knowing it. I managed to get him into one of the parts of the room that was a blind spot for the video surveillance. Then I very, very quickly showed him how to convert his belt buckle to the tiny knife and lockpick it really was and how to get the small shuriken out of his shoe heels. I wasn't sure whether he'd be able to actually use any of that stuff even if he managed to get it out but at least now he knew it was there.

Heero went a really unhealthy shade of gray and swayed again at the sight of the weapons - which I was guessing meant he'd had another flash of confusing images - but he repeated my actions to confirm that he could get the things out himself. I knew all of this had to be confusing as hell for him but the whole situation was so damn complicated I didn't even know where to *start* as far as clarifying matters went. At least not as long as we were under surveillance.

I wished for the hundredth time that we weren't on a fucking resource satellite in the middle of nowhere; if we'd been on Earth there would have been one hell of a lot more options. As it was, there wasn't even anywhere I could take him to get away from the damn security cameras that surveyed practically every inch of public space at the hotel. Even the gardens we'd wandered the previous day were under constant surveillance. From a safety standpoint, it was great; crime at the resort was absolutely nil. No muggings, no assaults, nothing. From a privacy standpoint however, it sucked. Where the other guests would at least have privacy in their own rooms, we didn't even have that. Which left me with absolutely nowhere safe to discuss things with Heero.

I have to admit that I'd hoped - in vain, unfortunately - that Heero's memory would be jolted back into existence by finding out about his hidden weaponry. Well, the little of it I'd chosen to show him that is. I didn't think he was ready to handle finding out that all the personal hygiene products we'd brought with us were in double-walled bottles with less innocuous things than deodorant and shampoo between the walls. Or finding out that the portable music player laying on the bedside table was receiving, recording, and encoding the sounds picked up by the bugs Heero had planted in several locations, getting the data ready to be transmitted for analysis along with the legitimate voice feed whenever we made a check-in call. Or that the little handheld gaming system he was now playing solitaire on was really the fastest little piece of computing power you could ever want, specially designed and optimized for hacking into all sorts of types of computer systems.

And even if I'd thought that he *was* prepared to handle that kind of thing, I still couldn't show it to him. Not with the bugs and cameras that I knew were in our suite. Hanging around in those few small areas that were out of camera range would get suspicious pretty damn fast. Just showing him the few things I had was a bit risky; the wrong exclamation in reaction to them could have spelled disaster. But he needed to know and fortunately his reactions were silent ones.

As long as Heero didn't remember *anything*, it was safer for him to remain completely in the dark. He would act more naturally that way and things were way less complicated and confusing for him to deal with. But now that he was starting to remember bits and pieces, it was more important that he know enough to realize that he had to be careful. That he couldn't talk about the things he was remembering. That there was potential danger all around us.

I hated seeing the open happiness he'd been displaying be replaced by worry and fear. Seeing the confusion he had already been experiencing replaced by an even deeper confusion. Seeing faint flickers of the "real" Heero begin to superimpose themselves over the incredible, affectionate man that I'd been getting to know.

But they were only faint and only flickers. The instant that his face went blank and cold as his fingers pulled one of the shuriken from its hiding place. The single heartbeat that it took for him to copy my demonstration of how to hold the shuriken ready for throwing. Then those flickers of the Heero I knew were gone and he was Odin again, looking even more confused and frightened. Alarmed by those split-second moments when his body knew what to do even when his conscious mind did not. When procedural memory took over despite the fact that the actual training episodes were forgotten.

And for the first time I truly understood what Catherine must have gone through when first I, then Quatre, showed up at the circus seeking Trowa. That surge of protectiveness. That desperate wish to leave the past in the past, to let all the pain be forgotten.

But unlike Catherine, I knew better than to try and stop the inevitable. Knew too, from things that Trowa had said, that even the painful memories were better than the blankness of not knowing. Better than that feeling of loss, of *being* lost. Of being nothing.

Though I didn't know whether Trowa had ever been as happy during his amnesia as Heero had been at times over the past couple of days. I knew that the person I had gotten to know over that time was probably what Heero would have been like without all the training. Without all the experiences that had made him build such strong emotional shields.

I had learned to love "Odin" just as much as I loved the Heero that I was more familiar with. And I couldn't help hoping that at least a little bit of that more open version of Heero would manage to survive him regaining his memory. That maybe a little bit of "Odin", maybe even the bit that seemed to care for me and to be attracted to me, the bit that I almost dared to hope might even love me, might stay.

Part 9:

Despite having spent a very restless night, my sleep frequently disturbed by more of those confusing dreams, I still woke alone. Max was already up again this morning.

I was still very confused about everything. About exactly who or what we were. About what was going on that made Max warn me not to talk about my dreams. My memories. About the hidden weapons I carried and which, I assumed, Max must as well. But after a great deal of thought and doing a lot of sorting through the fragmentary bits of memories and scattered impressions of scents and sounds and feelings, I had come to one major conclusion.

I still loved Max. And the corollary to that was that I still trusted him. He still felt - safe. Right. He was the only thing that *did* feel that way in the midst of all the confusion.

Despite the fact that I still knew nothing about his past and very little about my own. Maybe I was wrong to be so trusting, to have so much faith in him. But if that faith was misplaced - I wasn't sure that anything else mattered anyway. Wasn't sure that there was anything else in my life that could possibly make up for that.

I *had* to trust Max.

Sighing, I rolled to my side and prepared to get up. The bathroom door was open a tiny crack and I heard the shower turn on. Should I? We *were* married after all... And I was curious to see whether he was as attractive with his clothes off as with them on...

My cheeks flushed and my heart pounded with nervous anticipation as I slipped from the bed and headed for the bathroom. My memory might come back tomorrow or it might never completely come back; I wasn't about to waste my life waiting for its return. So I couldn't remember our first date or the first time we'd made love or our wedding. Big deal. I'd just make new memories to replace them. Now was as good a time as any to start.

I stripped and opened the door of the shower stall. Max jumped and yelped, "H - hey, Odin, what are you..."

Stepping in and pulling the door closed behind me, I said simply, "Showering." My cheeks were very warm and Max's were rapidly flushing too.

"Uh - the shower's a little small for two," he squeaked. I smirked slightly at the way he was struggling to look anywhere but at me. I certainly wasn't wasting my own opportunity to look at *him*. And he was even more attractive with his clothes off; not that I'd ever really doubted it.

Max was lean but well-muscled. And very definitely male. The long wet hair clinging to him did nothing to detract from his masculinity. Nor did the faint tracery of old scars that crossed his skin in a number of places detract from his attractiveness though they *did* make me curious as to their cause. There were - quite a few of them. But they didn't change the fact that he was absolutely gorgeous and he was *mine*.

"I don't mind being in tight quarters with you," I said, taking a small step closer to him.

Eyes wide and startled, he backed into the wall. I winced at the sharp crack as his head hit the tiles. He didn't even seem to notice. "Uh, look Odin, I really need to wash my hair and it kind of takes a lot of space to do that so I think..."

I leaned forward and kissed him. Max really was cute when he was trying to be noble. I knew that he didn't want to pressure me but he wasn't; I wanted this. Wanted it very badly.

Max resisted the kiss for a moment, then gave in and parted his lips with a low moan. I stepped closer and leaned against him, a moan of my own escaping as our naked bodies came in contact. Bracing one arm against the wall, I slid the other hand down Max's side, from shoulder to hip, and started to slide it around behind him. Suddenly, with something that almost sounded like a sob, Max was sliding down the wall and ducking under my arms. "Max? Did I do something wrong?" Damn, I didn't mean to sound that - pathetic... But I really didn't know what the hell was going on here! Didn't he want me the way I wanted him? We were *married*; he *must*... 'He *has* to...'

Max stopped in the middle of pushing the door of the shower stall open. His shoulders slumped. "No, not you Odin. You didn't do anything wrong. Look I just - feel odd about - well, getting intimate - while you still don't have your memory back, okay? It feels weird, like I'm taking advantage of you. I know that probably doesn't make much sense to you but I can't help feeling that way."

"But what if I *never* get my memory back entirely?" I whispered unhappily. "Is our marriage through if I don't remember?" The question was painful to ask but I needed to know. I was in love with Max; I couldn't change that. I didn't know what I'd do if he didn't feel the same way about me now that I'd lost my memory. The mere thought made me feel even more empty and lost than my amnesia did.

Max sighed heavily, then turned to face me. He dropped one of those tiny butterfly kisses on the end of my nose and I realized with a sinking heart that he'd never once initiated a kiss on the lips. Those were all started by me. Max kissed me on the cheek, the forehead, the chin, the nose, the ear - but never on the lips.

"If you don't remember on your own by the time we go back home, I'll tell you about your past. Then - well, then we'll take things one step at a time from there, okay? I'm sorry, really I am. God, you have no idea... But that's just the way it has to be..."

The way it has to be.

In other words, we were through. My worry yesterday that Max didn't love me the way that I loved him, that he didn't *want* me, was justified. He didn't love me, didn't want me. Max had just been kind enough to humour me while I was so - needy and vulnerable.

I ducked past him and out of the shower, not even bothering to grab a towel on my way. All I wanted was to get away. To be left alone while I tried to contain the pain and loss that were threatening to overwhelm me. While I tried to find a new anchor amidst the confusion of my amnesia. One that wouldn't fail me.

I didn't get very far; Max caught me before I got more than two steps back into the bedroom.

"Odin, wait!"

I jerked my arm to free my elbow from his grip but his fingers only tightened and he stepped closer to me. Started to turn me towards me. 'No! He can't see me like this. Can't see how much it hurts...' I had to get away but now that he had hold of me with both hands, I couldn't shake him off. I struggled ineffectively for a moment, then suddenly a wave of knowledge hit me.

In an instant, I went from not knowing how to break his hold to knowing ten different ways, all involving varying degrees of injury to Max. Several involving his death.

Part 10:

God, I'd fucked that up. I'd known that I'd have to deal with it sooner or later but he'd taken me totally by surprise with both circumstances and timing and I'd done a lousy job of handling the issue. Not that I really knew how the hell else I *could* have handled it.

I knew that I had to stop Heero, had to get him back into the shower where the noise of the water would at least partially mask our voices, then try to straighten this out. Try to explain things before he took off and put himself in danger. He was struggling to escape my grip but I had no problem holding him at first. Then things changed.

For an instant, as Heero went rigid in my grasp, I was seriously afraid. He'd just gone into pure soldier mode and I didn't think I could stop him if he turned on me now with the intent to maim or kill. Fuck, I *knew* I couldn't; the guy could bend steel bars with his bare hands after all. And with his Swiss-cheese memory, god only knew what the hell was going through his head. But then he was suddenly plunging towards the bathroom, gagging. Stunned, I guided him to the toilet and steadied him while he lost what little was in his stomach. 'What the hell...'

Once he seemed to be done, I flushed the toilet and led him into the shower stall. Thankfully, the resort seemed to have a virtually unlimited supply of hot water. Heero needed it right now; he was shaking like a leaf after that little episode. I sank down to the floor under the spray, pulling Heero with me. He didn't resist, even when I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and drew him close to me. But he didn't lean into me the way he would have mere minutes ago, before I'd fucked things up. And he wouldn't meet my eyes, not even for a second. His gaze stayed firmly fixed on the floor.

With my lips close to Heero's ear, I started to whisper, opting for Japanese rather than English for two very important reasons. First, Japanese always got through to Heero faster and more effectively than English, especially when he went into soldier mode. Whether it was genuinely his mother tongue or whether the effect came from his training being conducted in that language I didn't know and it didn't really matter. I just knew that it worked better than English when I really needed his full attention. Second, the resort and Mattis himself had ties to L3 with its European background. Anyone monitoring the bugs would definitely know English but it might require a little effort for them to find someone with a good knowledge of Japanese, particularly a good enough one to deal with the distortion from the shower masking my words. Doing this at all was one fucking huge risk but Heero hadn't exactly left me a hell of a lot of choice. I either tried to explain or risked him taking off and putting himself in danger.

"Listen to me," I whispered fiercely. "We are partners. Friends. We're Preventers, peacekeeping agents. We're undercover, not really married. As much as I care about you, as much as I would like to make love with you, I can't while you still don't remember. It wouldn't be right. You've never given me any indication before that you would be interested in me in that way; I have to take that into consideration.

"We can't talk like this for long; it's dangerous. Suspicious. And there's ways to filter out the interference from the shower. But I couldn't leave you thinking that I didn't want you. Didn't care for you."

Heero was silent for several very long minutes. I had a counter running in the back of my mind, keeping track of exactly how long the shower had been on, how long we'd been in here together. How suspicious this was. Long before it hit critical level, he said hesitantly, "Just care?"

I swallowed hard. This was more than I'd been prepared to discuss just yet. "No, not just care." I was going to leave it at that but Heero literally was holding his breath so I forced myself to continue, "Not just care. I love you." Carefully, not wanting any room for misunderstanding, I clarified, "Not just Odin. I love *you* - both the normal you and Odin." I leaned over - slowly, giving him plenty of time to pull away or stop me - and pressed my lips to his tenderly in a chaste kiss. Heero responded after a moment, a bit hesitant but willing. I didn't continue the kiss for long; I was all too aware of the passing of time.

As I drew back, I said softly, "Okay for now?"

Heero nodded very slightly, eyes still not quite meeting mine.

"We've been in here a long time - want to help me with my hair?" I offered. The offer wouldn't mean nearly as much to "Odin" as it would have to Heero; he didn't know how important my hair was to me. Didn't know how unusual my allowing him to brush it yesterday morning had been. But he seemed to really like my hair, to find the sheer length of it fascinating. I was hoping that getting him to help me with it would smooth over the discomfort that was hovering between us right now.

His eyes finally met mine, startled. I smiled at him as warmly as I could and gently brushed his own dripping hair away from his eyes. He finally nodded slightly, eyes still locked on mine.

"Great," I said, switching back to English. As I stood and turned to reach for the shampoo, I let a tiny sigh of relief escape. That had been close. Too close. And I wasn't entirely sure that things were truly okay even now. All I could do was hope that they were good enough to last for a while.

***

Since we were going to the party tonight, we decided to take things easy today. Heero was very subdued. Serious. The smiles and laughs that I'd learned to expect from Odin were gone. Whether that was entirely my fault for fucking up so badly this morning and hurting him or whether he was getting more memories back, I didn't know. But despite how badly I wanted, needed, my partner back to himself I hated seeing the changes taking place. Hated seeing the emotional shields start to return.

We went for a walk in the late morning, finally ending up at one of the hotel's restaurants in time for lunch. Then we headed back to our suite for an afternoon nap, making one small sidetrip to pick up our new suits at the boutique, altered and crisply pressed, ready for wear.

Yesterday, I'd decided that if I did try sneaking out of the party, I would need to do so without having to take the time to change clothes. Thus every possible bit of my outfit was black. I'd have even opted for a black shirt if I'd dared but I thought that would be pushing my luck. It wouldn't really matter anyway. By the time I turned up the jacket's collar and crossed the lapels in front, the shirt would be completely hidden. The only extra thing I'd need to take along was a pair of dark gloves.

Now the only thing I still needed to do was figure out how the hell to explain to Heero that I was going to be leaving the party for a while and that he would have to stay there on his own and cover for my absence. Well, now that we'd done it once, weird and embarrassing though it was, I supposed that it wasn't particularly unusual for newlyweds to shower together. That would give me the opportunity to explain, now all I needed was the explanation itself...

Part 11:

I wasn't sure what to think. Whether to believe that Max and I were partners working undercover. Whether to believe that we weren't married. Whether to believe Max's claim that he loved me, both as I usually was and as Odin. Whether to keep trusting Max.

But something deep inside me kept insisting that I had to trust Max. That he would never *deliberately* hurt me. That he was truly sorry that his rejection this morning had.

And that same instinctive something was telling me that Max was right. That we were in danger. That we were being observed with more than casual interest when we were in public together.

Then there was the whole question of the dreams and the memories that still kept slipping through my mind. How much of that was real? Was it all part of my past? The thought made me shudder.

If all of the dreams, all of the fragments of images and sounds and smells, were real - were memories - then I wasn't sure that I wanted them back. Many of them were ugly and sickening. Frightening. But I wasn't exactly going to have a choice about remembering them. The wave of knowledge, the cold calculation of exactly how I could take Max down and get away, that had washed over me this morning and had literally made me sick had made that clear. I wished that I could forget that particular knowledge all over again. Though... If we were really in danger, I might need it. It might make the difference between me being a liability and an asset to Max. The thought of actually using some of the things I'd remembered made me feel slightly nauseous - but if I had to do it to protect Max... I didn't think that I would even hesitate.

And that made me even more confused. Max had said that I had never shown any indication of being interested in him before. But I couldn't understand how I could love him so much after only a few days yet have not cared for him at all before that. Had I cared but hidden it for some reason? Or had it taken losing my memory to make me really *look* at Max and realize what an attractive, incredible person he was? I didn't know and frankly that was one of the things that I wanted to remember the most. I *needed* to know why Max and I weren't really together. Weren't really married. Because I wanted that so damn bad... How could my "real" self not feel the same way?

I hadn't known how important the knowledge that he was *mine*, that we were joined in marriage, was to me until I found out that it wasn't true. That there was no promise, no commitment, binding us to each other. I wanted to *make* it true, and I wanted to do it *now*. I didn't want to have to wait until we were "home", wherever that might be, and Max was able to tell me about my past. Didn't want to wait for the return of memories that might or might not actually come back.

But I - reluctantly - had to admit that I understood Max's position. It wouldn't be fair - either to my "normal" self or to him - to take things any further right now. At least not until I knew more about myself, even if I hadn't actually remembered things on my own. I didn't think that my feelings towards him would change; couldn't imagine how that could even be possible. But then I was so completely lacking in knowledge about the situation that I really couldn't be sure. No matter how much I might want to believe otherwise.

I sighed and flopped onto my back. All of this thinking was completely defeating the purpose of our return to our room. I was supposed to be resting for the party, not lying here worrying. The fact that Max had chosen to stretch out on the couch instead of in here with me wasn't helping matters any. "Max? Are you sleeping?" I asked softly. I didn't think he'd hear me if he was. But if he wasn't...

"No. I'm not, Odin. You can't either?" Max's response was just as soft as my question had been.

"No. Join me?" I requested hesitantly. There was a moment of silence, then a creak from the couch as he rolled off of it. Once he crawled onto the bed with me, I curled against him the way I had that first day that he brought me here after the accident. Soaking up his warmth and the feeling of safety that still went along with Max, despite all the confusing events of the past two days.

"Hey Odin - once we get up, before the party, you want to shower together again?"

I knew that despite his suggestive tone, he wasn't talking about having a little - fun - in the shower, not after the discussion we'd had earlier. And I didn't think that he was just talking about saving time by taking our shower together. He was offering a chance for a few more brief words on topics that were otherwise forbidden. Whether he had things he felt I needed to know or just wanted to give me another chance to ask some questions didn't matter. I'd take whatever I could get that might help resolve some of my confusion. "Sure."

"Okay," he said, yawning. He dropped a casual kiss on top of my head as he wrapped his arm around me. As his breathing slowed and he dropped off to sleep, I relaxed and followed suit, hoping that the dreams would let me rest peacefully this time.

***

For once, I didn't wake up alone. Max was still sleeping, his arm still draped around me. And I didn't wake up with everything a complete blank either. There were still great, gaping holes in my memory. But now I knew that I'd had a very - odd - childhood. That my earliest memories were of travelling with an assassin who went by the name of Odin Lowe. That he'd died and I was later - recruited - by a creepy scientist who went simply by the name Dr. J and that he trained me to be a Gundam pilot.

I still didn't know whether Odin was my real name. Lowe himself had called me "Kid" or "Boy" or "Junior". J had called me either "01" or "Boy". Whether I was simply still missing that piece of information or whether I somehow hadn't actually had a name was something that I didn't know. There were a few gaps during the time that I was in training too. Considering that some of what I remembered were things that I would have rather left forgotten, I didn't think I was in any rush to recover the bits that were still missing.

And I didn't know what happened after I was sent on a training mission that went wrong. I remembered a pretty young girl and her cute little puppy. I remembered screaming a protest as a mobile suit fell in the wrong direction. But that was it. That was when I'd gone from asleep and dreaming to wide awake in a heartbeat.

Part 12:

I woke abruptly and realized instantly what had awakened me. Heero was shaking violently; his face tightly drawn.

"Bad dream?" I asked softly. He nodded silently and pressed more tightly against me. I wondered which memory he'd just encountered. Obviously it had been a bad one. "Let's go have that shower." I made my voice become a little louder and teasing for the benefit of the bugs, making sure to keep my eyes on his so that he'd realize I wasn't really dismissing his dream that lightly, "Maybe we can make you forget all about that old nightmare, eh Odin?"

He nodded slightly and answered in a tone that was flatter than I liked to hear, "That sounds like a good idea."

By the time we got into the shower, Heero had the shaking under control. And that didn't make me as happy as it should have. It was too much of a sign of his usual behaviour returning. He waited until I had the shower running before stepping close to me. Taking his cue from my actions this morning, he spoke Japanese. Or rather, *mouthed* Japanese silently, taking my own precautions earlier one step further. "An accident, a training mission that went wrong..."

I winced. Okay, that was a bad one. There was only one training mission that went wrong that I was aware of and that damn nightmare had the power to make him shake like a leaf even under ordinary circumstances. It was one of the few things that would leave him actively seeking contact with another human being. I'd held him in its aftermath on more than one occasion back during the war. Of course, after showing that much vulnerability he would inevitably be even more closed off and cold for days afterwards.

"You've dreamt about that before. It always upsets you," I told him simply, mouthing the words rather than vocalizing them. I slipped one arm around his shoulders and gave him a reassuring hug, careful not to pull us too closely together. I sure as hell wasn't ready to deal with those issues again and I really doubted that Heero was either.

He shook his head and pulled away, turning his head to meet my eyes, making sure that I could read his lips. "No. Not just that. I remember everything up to that. Or - almost everything... It's hard to be sure. And after that - there's still only disjointed fragments."

Ouch. No wonder he'd woken up shaking. Comparing that to a similar-sized chunk of my own past - I might not know everything about Heero's past but I did know that he hadn't had a true childhood anymore than I had - getting it all at once like that would *not* be pleasant.

His brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed in concentration, then he shook his head again and rubbed his temples. "You know who I was?"

I nodded silently and mouthed in return, "01," grateful that we were able to avoid speaking even in whispers. "I was 02."

Our identities as Gundam pilots had never been widely known and I hoped to hell that Mattis wasn't aware of that detail even if he knew that we were Preventers. I didn't think he was; he would have taken much more aggressive action against us if he knew. Either that or cut his losses and run like hell. Depending how brave he felt.

Well. Heero remembering as much as he had solved one dilemma for me. If he remembered his training, or at least a large part of it, then I wouldn't feel so bad about leaving him on his own to go explore the "unused" part of the satellite. He would be perfectly capable of protecting himself. Assuming that I gave him the contact info and so on in case he had to get himself out alone.

Assuming that he was up to the party at all. I gave him a sharp look. Heero was rubbing his head again; evidently he had another headache. Not uncommon following concussion but still enough to make me a little concerned. Though the returning memories were a good sign; the fastest improvement in mild to moderate head injuries usually came within the first one to six weeks afterwards. And he'd passed the magic forty-eight hour mark without exhibiting any symptoms of more serious problems from the injury.

"You okay? No dizziness or nausea? Blurriness or double vision?" I asked just to be on the safe side. I went ahead and spoke aloud this time; nothing in that was inappropriate for our cover.

"Just the headache," he answered, dropping his hand away from his head and meeting my eyes. "Nothing more severe."

"Okay." He probably knew the symptoms just as well as I did now that he remembered at least part of his training. I went back to merely lipping the words as I explained, "After the war we joined the Preventers, a peacekeeping force." Just a *slight* oversimplification of the whole time between what he remembered and now but it covered the pertinent points. "We're here to verify that there's an illegal weapons manufacturing plant operating in the unused part of the satellite. The party's being held in the right spot to get into that area easily. It's almost too convenient but I don't want to pass up the opportunity. If we go, I'll need you to cover for me for oh, a good hour probably, while I check some things. You up to it?" I undid my braid and started wetting my hair down as I "spoke". My hair did *not* need to be washed again but I wanted to be sure our little shower trip was convincing when we got out.

Heero hesitated long enough to make me wonder whether he had an objection, then finally said, "Yes." He poured out some shampoo and moved behind me to start on my hair. I realized with a certain amount of wry amusement that we were both very carefully keeping our eyes at chest level or higher. He worked the lather through my hair in silence for a few moments, then whispered cautiously, "I don't know whether you should try that, Max. It really does seem too convenient." I could tell that he was feeling his way carefully, not sure whether I would accept his input or not.

I thought about it for a few minutes. What did it really matter if I *didn't* try tonight? If it was an innocent coincidence I would have passed up a good opportunity. But I could find a new one once our backup arrived. And if it wasn't coincidence, if it was a trap, then me passing up the chance might throw them off. Make them second-guess their suspicions. This wasn't like during the war after all. We weren't operating on extremely tight schedules. A few days longer on the mission would mean more weapons potentially making it onto the market but they would still be a drop in the ocean compared to the total output of this factory alone. Not worth taking unnecessary chances over.

And where before there was some urgency because I wanted a bargaining chip, some evidence squirrelled away in case we landed in trouble and I needed something to trade to at least buy my amnesiac partner's safety, I wasn't as concerned about that now. If he was even partially back to normal, we'd stand at least as good a chance without that sort of thing. And if, now that he had a portion of his training memories back, Heero didn't think the reconnaissance mission was a good idea... Well, we were damn good partners for a number of reasons and listening to and seriously considering each other's opinions was one of the big ones. He was a little more cautious than me and I was a little more creative than him. We each had our strengths and weaknesses and we'd learned to balance each other out. Heero might not remember that but I did.

I think Heero had decided I wasn't going to even answer him by the time I finally did. I twisted around to face him and reverted to silently mouthing the words. "Okay," I told him simply. "You're right. It's not worth the risk. But I think we'd better go to the party anyway, at least for a while. Skipping it completely would be too suspicious but if your head's still bothering you it will give us an excuse to leave early."

I was pretty sure he sighed in relief before he said simply, "Okay." As I turned back around and let him tilt my head to rinse the shampoo out of my hair, I hoped that things *were* going to be okay. Hoped it - but wasn't too sure it was very likely. There were just too damn many things that could still go wrong.

Part 13:

I dressed for the party quickly despite my aching head. I felt as if I was being torn in two. I still loved Max - but the training that I now remembered was screaming caution. Reminding me that I had no knowledge of my present situation except what he had told me. That I had no way of verifying that he had indeed been a Gundam pilot as well. That we were friends and partners.

No way of verifying that I should trust him at all. He had hidden things from me previously, after all. Perhaps with good reason - or perhaps not. There was no way to know for certain.

The conflict between my heart and my head was nearly crippling. I wasn't sure how I was going to manage to function.

The training answered that question immediately. Meditation and control. I could not function efficiently in my current condition therefore I would have to use meditation techniques to bring my emotions under control.

'Soldiers have no need of emotions...' A half-remembered lecture drifted through my mind. I suppressed a shudder at the memory. I was *not* liking the things that were coming back to me. How could I have believed such nonsense? How could a soldier fight without having something to fight *for*? Wouldn't fighting to protect those you cared for make you fight even harder?

But then, I was only a child in these memories. A child, then a teenager. A youth being moulded to fit someone else's ideals. Questions were not encouraged; instant obedience was.

"Odin? Are you sure you're up to this? I can just go put in a brief appearance on my own if you're not..."

Max's query brought me out of my reflections with a jolt. I realized abruptly that I'd been standing in the middle of the room, one shoe on and the other held in my hands, for an unknown length of time. Probably a considerable length, judging by the worried look in Max's eyes.

"I'm fine," I stated flatly as I donned the other shoe. This was *not* an acceptable state of affairs. I could not go into a potentially dangerous situation in such a distracted state. Nor could I allow Max to go alone. If his story was true, he could be in danger. If it wasn't... I would need to accompany him in order to avoid being trapped or tricked myself.

Ruthlessly, I suppressed the heartache that thought caused. I could not afford to ignore the possibility that Max might be lying to me. That he might betray me. 'A good soldier trusts no one but his superior officer. Betrayal can come from anywhere else; a superior never betrays a soldier in his command because anything that happens to the soldier is part of the superior's overall plan. A superior always has the right to send his subordinates to their death for the greater good.'

Another damn lecture that I'd rather not have remembered. But it was true; I couldn't trust anyone at the moment. Hell, I couldn't even trust my "superior officer" because I had no idea who the hell that might be. J? His superior? Someone else? Maybe whoever it was who headed the "Preventers", if Max had been telling the truth?

If. Such a small word to cause so much pain.

'What the hell am I going to do?'

***

I stood beside Max along the edge of the dance floor. We'd danced only a single dance so far and it had been an unmitigated disaster. The entire time that we'd been dancing, I'd been tense and anxious. I'd stepped on Max's feet repeatedly and bumped into other couples more than once. The crowd of people around us left my fingers twitching, yearning for the gun I was not carrying. Waltzing around the dance floor had made me feel as if I had a giant target painted on my back. It had been nothing like those magical moments dancing with Max in our suite. Those moments before I began to remember. Before I realized that I could not have faith in that instinctive urge to trust Max. That paranoia was a soldier's watchword.

Just standing here I felt conspicuous and out of place. Soldiers did not belong on or even near dance floors. They did not belong in social settings, period. I wanted to leave but we had not been here long enough yet. Max had suggested that we stay for at least an hour. We hadn't even been here half of that time. It felt like an eternity. The only thing keeping me together was the meditation technique that I was using more-or-less continuously.

"Ah, my dear Mr. Wells, how nice to see you again. And this must be your husband, Odin, I presume?"

I stiffened as the man spoke. I wasn't sure who he was but something about him put me on my guard even before I noticed the bodyguards hovering discreetly nearby.

"Mr. Mattis! Jules - I can call you that, right? I'm so happy to see you again! I thought you might be too busy keeping this lovely party running smoothly to mingle but I'm delighted that you aren't! Yes, this is Odin; Odin say hello to Jules. He owns the resort and he's the one who gave us the wonderful invitations for this lovely party! Isn't that nice?!" Max bubbled enthusiastically.

I gave him a cautious look, wondering why the hell he was acting like such an idiot. This was *nothing* like the Max I knew. Or at least, *thought* I knew. Gingerly, I allowed Mr. Mattis to shake my hand. "How are you doing?" he inquired solicitously. "Is the amnesia clearing up at all?"

Knowing that I was acting differently than I had been, I realized that I couldn't claim that I still hadn't remembered anything. It would be too suspicious. "A bit," I admitted cautiously. "Though the memories are very confusing and patchy. Just childhood ones so far." I hoped that would be enough to satisfy his curiosity yet not give away too much about my current condition. Knowledge was power and something told me that this man was not someone I wanted to give that to. Max had filled me in on just enough details that I knew Mattis, the resort owner, was dangerous - if Max was telling the truth, that is. If he wasn't... I didn't know what to think.

All the mental circles that I was spinning through were beginning to make me feel dizzy. This amnesia business was easier when I didn't remember anything. Knowing bits and pieces was even more upsetting and confusing than knowing nothing at all.

Mattis shook his head and clucked his tongue sympathetically. "I'm sure you'll remember more soon," he assured me.

I made a noncommittal sound that he apparently took for an affirmative. Mattis made a few more inane remarks then strolled off, his burly bodyguards in tow. I was relieved to see him go. Going back to our room would make me even more relieved but we still had at least a little more time to put in here.

"Odin? You sure you're okay?" Max asked.

His question and concerned look made me realize that I was unconsciously rubbing my forehead again. I lowered my hand. "Yes," I replied abruptly, wishing that we could get out of here. I was confused and tired and stressed and my head hurt and my heart ached with the uncertainty over Max's true role in all this... 'And J would schedule you for retraining if he could hear your whining, Yuy. Get your act together, soldier.'

"Listen, we *could* leave earlier if you need to..." Max began.

"I said, I'm *fine*," I snapped. Part of me regretted the sharp retort immediately as a hurt look crossed Max's face for an instant. The trained soldier in me pointed out that if he really was 02, he was a soldier too and he shouldn't let himself be so damn sensitive. Or at least he shouldn't show it. It was a weakness, a vulnerability, and could be turned against him.

Or so my training said anyway. My heart said differently and it ached even more as Max's expression changed, closing off and becoming more distant. "Fine," he said in a very calm, cool tone. "We'll stay another half hour then. Might as well mingle. I'll meet you back here in half an hour." He avoided my eyes as he moved off into the crowd.

I bit off the instinctive apology and let him go, dropping my half-raised hand back to my side. Maybe it was just as well that we split up. Maybe a little time to myself would give me the chance to reconcile the conflict between my heart and my training. Maybe I could reach some sort of conclusion about whether to trust Max or not.

But I doubted it. I needed to remember more before that could happen. Needed to know whether he was telling me the truth - that we were friends, partners - or not. Loving him wasn't enough anymore.

Part 14:

I mingled with the crowd, making small talk and even dancing a few times. The new ice arena worked quite well as a dance floor; the thick pads over the ice surface kept it from being too cold yet the arena didn't become unbearably hot and stifling the way that some ballrooms did as the evening wore on. I occasionally caught a glimpse of Heero standing off the edge of the dance floor, holding a glass of punch that he pretended to sip from time to time.

Just watching him hurt. I'd known that he would probably go back to his old self once his memories returned but I'd still hoped... 'You hoped a lot of damn fool things, Maxwell. He's only got part of his memories back and he's pushing you away again already. Get used to it.'

With a gracious smile firmly pasted on my face, I turned my latest dance partner over to her date and continued on my way. I'd spotted a few familiar faces in the crowd, people that I knew were among the most trusted employees of Mattis. I couldn't imagine them discussing anything too terribly important here but it wouldn't hurt to do my mingling in their general area. The fact that hanging around them would put me about as far away from Heero as possible without leaving the arena had nothing to do with my decision. Nothing at all. Not a single solitary damn thing. Really.

'And pigs fly. Get your head together, Maxwell. Which means get your damn mind *off* the fact that Heero's reverting to his cold, distant self and *on* the mission. With him well on the road to recovery, there's no excuse for not getting back to work. He sure as hell won't appreciate you hovering and fussing so you might as well get your mind back on your damn job. It's not like you've never worked with him while he was acting like this before. Just deal with it.'

I pushed away the hurt at the way that Heero was shutting me out and forced my focus back where it belonged. On the still-incomplete mission and finding a way to come back here later tonight or tomorrow in order to sneak from this section of the resource satellite into the section suspected to contain the weapons factory. With surveillance in our room, it would be just as well to try it in the midst of the resort's "day" when we'd be expected to be out of the room wandering around.

I strolled along past the displays advertising all the new sports facilities that were now available. The low-g and zero-g sports rooms sounded extremely interesting but considering how easily an "accident" could happen in one of those, I really didn't think that we'd be trying them out. Despite how conveniently close they were to the access to the next section of the satellite. I had no desire to end up plummeting from near the very, very high ceiling to the floor like a rock when the room's gravity controls "accidentally malfunctioned". Call me paranoid but I just wasn't going to take that chance.

Really, the best option looked like a trip to the rollerblading park. It was on the side of the section that I needed to be on and there should be enough people around to keep my absence from being too noticeable if anyone was watching through the surveillance cameras or actually tailing me. I wasn't entirely certain whether Heero would be too thrilled about the idea of staying behind to cover for me now that he had some memories back; he might insist on going exploring with me. If that was the case it was even more critical that we "disappear" from someplace with lots of people to temporarily hide our absence.

The earliest that our backup could possibly arrive would be the afternoon shuttle tomorrow, assuming that they left on the very next flight after Heero and I missed our check-in time. The resort only ran two shuttles per day, both leaving from the same L3 colony, one arriving here in the early morning and one in the late afternoon. And those only ran if at least a few seats were booked six hours in advance.

Private transportation to the resort was - strongly discouraged. There simply wasn't really anywhere to park private craft during a guest's stay. The resort charged an incredibly huge premium for the use of the very, very few spots that did exist. Even booking a docking slip for private craft to drop someone off or pick someone up was expensive. Sending backup in on anything other than the standard resort shuttle would be far too conspicuous.

Late tomorrow afternoon was too damn far away.

I didn't want to wait for backup to continue the mission. Not now. I wanted this over and done with so I could go home and have a nice little breakdown in solitary peace while Heero finished getting his head back together, put his fucking emotional shields back up, and decided how the hell he was going to treat me after this whole damn mess.

The past few days had taken a heavy toll on my own emotional shielding and I was going to have to do some serious reconstruction work myself. I still intended to try and dig for that nice guy deep inside of Heero - but not right now. A little time to put this whole mess behind me and put the hurt of having what I wanted so damn bad held in front of me then snatched away was required first. Then maybe I'd be able to handle it.

I glanced across towards Heero and caught his eye for a moment only to have him look right through me as if I wasn't even there. 'Or not...' I acknowledged painfully. Now I remembered quite clearly just why I'd quit trying before. Why I'd raised my own damn defences so fucking high around him. Why I hadn't been willing to try for anything more than a cautious friendship and good working relationship with him.

Because every fucking time that he rejected my attempts to dig the man out of the soldier, it cut to the bone.

Maybe I'd talk to Quatre when this was all over. See if he felt up to the challenge of dragging that little bit of Heero that was "Odin" out into the light of day. Because I wasn't too sure that I could handle it myself. Quatre didn't have the same degree of emotional involvement so he could probably take the deepfreeze treatment without it hurting quite so damn bad. Right now, I wasn't entirely sure that I was going to be able to handle even partnering with Heero when this was all over with. Not unless I could get my own emotional guard back up again and make the whole thing a little less personal. Not unless I could manage to forget just how wonderful being kissed and cuddled and treated affectionately by "Odin" had been.

Reluctantly, I realized that Heero and I were drifting pretty far away from our cover right now. Honeymooners would *not* spend substantial chunks of time wandering around a party individually. They'd either be out there on the dance floor together or off in a dark corner somewhere pretending that the two of them were all alone. Stifling a sigh, I began to thread my way back across the room towards Heero. It wasn't like I'd heard anything interesting hanging around Mattis's flunkies anyway and sticking around there any longer was just going to start looking damn suspicious.

"Having fun?" I inquired brightly as I finally reached Heero's side again. The glare and inarticulate sound I received in response were all too familiar.

"Now Odin, surely the party isn't all *that* bad," I scolded with forced cheerfulness. "Someone on his honeymoon shouldn't be such a party pooper. Come dance with your hubby like a newlywed *should*." I gave Heero a pointed look. We *did* have a cover to maintain here after all. "Just one dance then we can go back to our room," I promised. "I'm sure your head is aching again by now..."

He nodded once, sharply, then took my outstretched hand and let me lead him towards the dance floor. At least this was just a slow dance rather than something formal like the waltz we'd mangled so badly earlier. My feet and the other couples around us might actually make it through this unscathed.

My heart however was another story altogether.

One that I wasn't going to think about right now. I was on a mission with my partner. That's all this was. Nothing more.

I stepped into his arms and we began to move slowly to the music. 'Just a mission. Just my partner. Nothing more.'

No matter how much I might want it to be.

Part 15:

I held Max stiffly as we danced. He was right, we needed to do this in order to keep our cover intact, but... 'But dancing together like this *hurts* after how wonderful it was before...'

Before Max told me that we weren't really married. Before I'd started to remember. Before I'd had to think about whether Max was telling the truth. About whether we were partners, whether I should trust him, whether my love for him had any chance of surviving the return of my memory. Any chance of surviving in the face of reality.

Whatever the hell that might be.

I didn't know what to think. What to do. Whether this horrific conflict between my head and my heart had any chance of being resolved in a way that would leave me in a state anywhere even close to happiness.

In the absence of any sure knowledge of the situation, all I could do was fall back on my training. Training that said to wait, to watch, and to maintain my distance. Not to allow emotions to cloud my judgement. Not to reveal my emotions to anyone.

Because soldiers weren't supposed to have emotions and if they did, they'd better make damn sure that no one found out. 'Because showing emotion has consequences...' My hands tightened involuntarily as memories of those consequences flickered through my mind, vague and fragmented, but still far clearer than I liked. 'A man's voice, sharp and annoyed, saying, "Weapons have no need for human kindness" and J agreeing... And then the retraining began...' All because I'd been foolish enough to show regret for the training accident that destroyed that apartment building and took innocent lives...

"Odin. *Odin!*" Max hissed sharply. I blinked and focussed my eyes on his face with an effort, temporarily pushing aside the painful memories that I'd just encountered. "You're holding on too hard," he said in a tightly controlled voice.

"Sorry," I managed to force out. With an effort, I loosened the grip I had on him, appalled at the force I'd been applying without realizing it. "Sorry," I repeated apologetically, knowing that I'd probably left bruises. He just gave me a tight nod in response.

'See what happens when you lose control? When you let emotions get in the way?' I blocked out the echoing memory rebelliously. It wasn't the emotional response to the memories that deserved the blame for me inadvertently hurting Max. It was the damn genetically engineered strength in combination with the pain of remembering some of the nastier bits of my training that did.

Dealing with the memories was - odd. Remembering the response of a child, then a teenager, who'd been thoroughly indoctrinated to unquestioningly and unswervingly believe and obey from the perspective of a far less gullible, less easily manipulated adult, one who had been free of that indoctrination even if only for a few brief, wonderful days...

It was difficult to deal with. Part of me was pulled towards falling into the pattern of that training, towards unthinkingly accepting the lessons that I'd been so thoroughly and painfully taught. The rest of me... The rest of me wanted to say 'to hell with this crap', forget it all, and go back to the way things had been before I'd started to remember. To go back to a time when loving Max had been enough.

But it wasn't quite that simple. If I accepted the things that Max had told me as truth or even partial truth, then I still was involved in missions that required much of my training. And if he was lying, then that was almost certainly the case as well since I would have no value to anyone outside of my skills and knowledge. There would be no reason to attempt to trick me if I wasn't involved in some sort of mission.

So at least some of my training was necessary, I couldn't simply reject it all. 'And even if I were to choose to reject it, to try to be the person I was before I started to remember, it isn't like I could just - flip a switch - and have it all go away again...' No matter how much a part of me wished that I could...

The song drew to a close and we stopped dancing. I released Max. "I want to leave. Now," I said flatly. Cover or not, I couldn't do this anymore. Time and privacy were the two things that I needed at the moment. The memories were still returning piece by piece and I needed a chance to put them all in their proper places and figure out what the hell was really going on. Turning, I stalked off the dance floor and headed towards the exit. A subdued "Okay" reached my ears as I went and I could hear Max's light steps following me.

I knew that I was hurting Max with my cold, distant attitude. Either that or he was one hell of a good actor, and after seeing the "ditzy American" routine that he'd put on for Mattis, I wasn't completely ruling that out. But I really didn't know what else to do. Falling back on my training was the only thing keeping me from breaking down under the continual influx of memories. None of them were good ones; about the most I could say was that some were at least not as painful or revolting as others. My hands were so stained with blood that I half expected to actually see it on them. All I really *wanted* to do was curl up on Max's lap and let him soothe the trembling the way he had - god, was it only last night?

But I couldn't. The conditioning I'd been through and that I now actually remembered wouldn't let me show that much vulnerability. Particularly not to someone that, despite my love for him, I wasn't even sure could be trusted.

When we reached the arena's main entrance, the area was roped off and the floor was wet. A woman in the resort's guest services uniform apologized for the inconvenience and directed us down a hallway to another exit. I could feel the tension rising in both Max and myself as we followed her instructions. Innocuous as the situation seemed at first glance, it felt - wrong. Max dropped back to walk just behind me as we headed down the hall. Both of us were moving lightly and cautiously, making as little sound as possible in the dress shoes we were both wearing.

The dim glow of the "EXIT" sign was in sight when the wrongness that I'd been feeling was confirmed. "Leaving so soon, gentlemen?" Mattis enquired. I turned towards his voice in time to see him stepping into the hall from one of the rooms. His bodyguards, guns drawn, flanked him immediately. Max swore sharply, looking over my shoulder towards the exit. I followed his gaze to spot two men, guns in hand.

"Somehow, I don't think they're with guest services," Max muttered grimly, his voice so low that I doubted anyone else could hear him. More loudly, he demanded in an agitated, querulous voice, "Mr. Mattis, Jules, what's this all about? Who are these people and why..."

Mattis clapped his hands, interrupting Max. "Good show and a nice try, my dear 'Mr. Wells', but it's a little too late." He drew his own gun and motioned with it, saying, "Come along quietly now, I really don't want to disturb the other guests."

Max's eyes met my own. His gaze flicked towards the exit and he raised an eyebrow questioningly. I nodded infinitesimally in response and we both flung ourselves at the armed men standing between us and the exit. They were big and burly but we caught them by surprise. It was the work of a moment to wrest the gun from my target and drag him into position between myself and Mattis. Beside me, Max disarmed his man and did the same.

"Go!" he ordered sharply.

The soldier in me heard the snap of command and went. I held my living shield between me and the unknown as I flung the door open. No one was outside. "Clear!" I barked.

Max backed through the door, then shoved his hostage back inside and slammed the door shut. "Ditch him and run, don't look back!" he snapped as he pulled something from his braid and began to fiddle with the lock.

I reversed the gun and rendered my prisoner unconscious with a single sharp blow to the head before dropping him unceremoniously. Seeing Max still working frantically over the lock, I hesitated. "Max?"

"*GO!*" he ordered.

I went. Gun in hand, I ran down the stairs and headed for the dubious shelter of the next building. The sensation of movement beside my face and the sound of a bullet hitting the pavement sent me into a diving roll. 'So much for not looking back...' Half-crouched, I looked back towards the stairs. My mind barely registered the body tumbling down the steps; it was too busy dealing with the memories triggered by the braided figure standing on them, backlit by the lights from the arena. The figure with the gun pointing in my direction.

"He *shot* me... Max *shot* me..." My fingers touched my arm, tracing the faint scar that I knew was there. The pain and betrayal threatened to overwhelm me and I reached for my training. Reached for an anchor that wouldn't betray me. Unlike Max.

"*RUN*, dammit!" he screamed. His gun raised slightly. My own moved in automatic response, sighting on the man I loved. The man who'd shot me in the past. Who had obviously been lying to me. Friends and partners didn't shoot each other. I couldn't believe a damn thing he'd ever told me.

'He doesn't love me...' flickered through my mind. Reflexively, I pulled the trigger of my own gun as I heard the tiny sound of his firing.

He crumpled and fell even as I heard a noise behind me. Spinning, shocked that Max's bullet hadn't hit me, I found myself gazing in horror at the fallen body of the woman it *had* hit. The woman who'd sent us down the hallway and into the trap. And at the gun that she'd dropped as she fell.

'He wasn't aiming at me. He was aiming at her. Protecting me. Oh god, what have I done...'

Shouts and a bullet striking the ground all-too-near prodded me into action. I had to get away and try to fix this mess. Somehow...

'Run...' Max's order echoed in my head. And I ran.

Part 16:

I dropped into position slightly behind Heero as we walked down the hallway we'd been instructed to follow. Something about the entire situation just *screamed* wrongness. But without any tangible evidence, there wasn't much we could do but follow the woman's instructions. I didn't want to unnecessarily blow our cover in a fit of paranoia. But every street instinct I possessed was on full alert, warning me that we were walking into a trap.

A warning that was confirmed the moment that Mattis spoke from behind us. Spoke in perfect, flawless, Japanese. A language that the Preventers' records on the man did *not* list amongst those that he knew. Suddenly, the risk I'd taken in telling Heero who we were this morning took on new proportions. Obviously finding someone to translate the conversation wouldn't have required the extra effort that I'd been hoping for. I'd known it was a fucking huge risk but it wasn't like I'd had a whole hell of a lot of choice at the time...

I made a brief attempt at bluffing our way through this. I didn't expect it to work but there was nothing to lose by trying. I barely had time to be grateful that Heero had remembered most of his training before we were springing into motion. Disarming the men between us and the exit was simple; they might have known how to handle guns but they clearly had very limited training in hand-to-hand combat. In almost no time, Heero and I were outside and I was leaning hard against the door we'd just came through, desperately attempting to jam the distinctly uncooperative lock. I'd already ordered Heero to go but so far he hadn't left. I wanted him out of there; at least one of us needed to get away and if only one of us made it, I wanted it to be him. I just hoped that he'd managed to retain the contact information I'd given him during our second shower together. Quatre would be surprised to be contacted but I sure as hell couldn't tell Heero to contact Une or Zechs with his memory in its current state. That would have really been asking for trouble.

"Max?"

"*GO!*" I repeated, struggling with the lock while holding the knob firmly in the latched position. Evidently I'd put enough of the snap of command in my voice this time to trigger the automatic obedience he'd been trained for because I could hear him leaving. Another moment of fighting with the damn lock and... "Finally!" I muttered in relief.

I turned to follow Heero just as a figure in the garb of resort security came running along the side of the arena. The guard levelled his gun towards Heero's retreating back. 'No!' I snapped off a shot of my own even as he fired. Mine hit its target, his didn't; the guard went tumbling down the steps. Heero dove and rolled, coming up to crouch facing towards the arena, obviously looking for the shooter. Behind him, a woman stepped out of the narrow gap between two buildings. Light gleamed faintly off the gun in her hand and I raised my own, sighting on her.

"*RUN*, dammit!" I shouted. I could hear the door I'd jammed creaking as heavy weight slammed into it. It wouldn't take long for those hulking bodyguards to ram their way through; even if the latch held, the hinges and frame wouldn't take that kind of punishment for long. I seriously doubted that we'd both get away but if at least one of us did, there would still be a chance of making it out of this alive.

Vaguely, I was aware of Heero raising his own gun and wondered whether yet another enemy was behind me. There was no time to look, though. I fired and heard Heero's gun go off a millisecond behind my own.

The impact of the bullet tearing into my shoulder sent me staggering. Unsure of where the shot had come from - my heart didn't want to believe what logic was telling me about that - I let myself fall as the pain blossomed. It would be harder for a second shot to hit me if I was on the ground; the lights from the arena behind me would have made me a very conspicuous target for that first shot. I tried to drag myself away but my arm wouldn't cooperate; it was all I could do to stay conscious. There seemed to be rather a lot of blood soaking my shirt and jacket and I was sure that I could feel bone grate against the bullet when I tried to move my shoulder.

Behind me, I heard the door finally give way to the assault it had been under. More shots rang out and I caught a brief, blurry glimpse of Heero finally fleeing before a pair of well-polished shoes appeared in my line of sight. Mattis spoke in a voice that practically dripped oil, "How very rude to leave so early, my dear 'Mr. Wells'. I really must insist that you stay awhile.

"Harris, help Mr. *Maxwell* to his feet, please. He appears to be in need of some assistance."

Despite my grogginess, I attempted to summon up an appropriate response. But then Harris grabbed me by the shoulders and yanked me to my feet. The bullet wound flared with agony and I welcomed the black void that rose up to take me away from it all.

***

"Duo. Duo, wake up. *DUO*." The feminine voice was vaguely familiar but I couldn't bring myself to make the necessary effort to figure out why. I wanted to return to the embrace of nothingness that I'd been in. I didn't want to have to think about everything that had been happening.

"Maxwell. Status!" another familiar voice snapped. The voice was sharp but - not quite right somehow.

I forced my eyes open reluctantly. "Wufei?" I mumbled. I tried to sit up and nearly passed out again. I'd forgotten how bad being shot hurt. "*Shit.*"

"Easy, Duo. They gave me a few things to patch you up a bit but you lost a lot of blood." Firm, slender hands steadied me.

I turned my head. "*Sally?*" I looked beyond her and spotted Wufei seated on the floor, leaning against the wall. He didn't look too good. His face was bruised and swollen and one arm was in a makeshift sling. "What the hell..." I twisted my arm to check the date and realized that my watch was gone. I didn't think I'd been out long enough for them to have arrived and been caught though. Especially not if my wound hadn't been treated till Sally arrived; I'd be in even worse shape than I was in that case.

"Wufei took one look at those pictures filed in the reorder database under 'Max Wells' and we were on the next shuttle for the resort," Sally said. She sighed and pushed loose wisps of hair back from her face. "Unfortunately, we were not a good choice for undercover work on this one..."

"You mean *I* wasn't," Wufei said bitterly. His eyes - or rather, the one that wasn't swollen mostly shut - met mine. "Mattis supplied arms to Barton's army during the Mariemaia incident apparently. I never met him but..."

"One of his men recognized Wufei and knew the name he was using was false," Sally finished quietly.

I groaned in dismay. Great. Just fucking terrific. The backup I'd been waiting so anxiously for had arrived ahead of schedule but had gotten caught. This mess just kept getting better and better.

"Maxwell, those pictures..." Wufei's voice trailed off inquiringly.

"There was an 'accident' and he got hit on the head. He's got retrograde amnesia and he's just starting to remember things," I said flatly. "As of yesterday afternoon, he still didn't remember any of us." Gingerly, I raised my opposite hand to touch my injured shoulder before adding gloomily, "But I'm guessing he remembers meeting me now since I'm pretty sure he's the one who shot me." I was *not* going to get into all the ugly little details of Heero's amnesia and the hatchet job it had done on my heart right now. Fei would undoubtedly drag them out of me later - he *was* my best friend after all and just as damn stubborn as me - but I couldn't handle talking about it just yet. Besides which, it was pretty much a given that we were under surveillance. None of this was exactly news to our listeners but they really didn't need to hear my little sob story.

Utter silence greeted my explanation. Finally, Wufei swore explosively and at considerable length in Chinese. He didn't have much volume and the words were a bit less than clear due to his swollen jaw but it was a damn impressive exhibition of profanity. I added a few new expressions to my own vocabulary and Sally actually looked slightly shocked. It took a hell of a lot to shock her - she *was* commander of a rebel group during the war after all - but Wufei was being quite - creative.

When he fell silent, I nodded and agreed simply, "This mission is *so* screwed..."

Part 17:

'WhathaveIdoneWhathaveIdoneWhathaveIdone...' The endless refrain running through my head along with the never-ending looping image of Max crumpling and falling was driving me mad. The only thing I could be thankful for was the tiny fraction that I'd shifted my aim at the last instant, turning a perfect heart-shot to a shoulder one. My heart had overruled my training and bought at least that much of a concession.

But if I hadn't shifted it enough... No, I wouldn't think of that. I *had* to believe that Max was alive. Injured and captured but alive.

Injured and captured and it was all my fucking fault. Because I'd let the fucking training take control and ignored my emotions that kept insisting that Max could be trusted. Because I'd let my damn screwed-up head overrule my heart and I'd shot the man I loved...

'Enough! Stop angsting and *do* something! You have to get your head together if you're going to fix this, Yuy!' I stopped in the midst of stripping off the tuxedo, abruptly realizing that I'd started thinking of myself by that name earlier. It had been an insignificant detail amongst all the other memories. 'Yuy? Heero Yuy... That's my name, not Odin Wells...' No surprise really, Max had already told me that we were undercover; his name probably wasn't "Max Wells" either. But even "Heero Yuy" had no real significance; the name was merely another codename among many I'd used over the years, the one J had given me before I left on Operation Meteor. Shaking my head dismissively, I resumed changing, silently cursing hands that shook so badly I could barely manage the buttons and zipper as I changed into the maintenance uniform that I'd stolen from a staff locker room. It really didn't matter which name I used, none of them were truly *mine*. Considering that I still didn't remember *having* anything other than a codename however, I supposed "Heero Yuy" was as good as any to use.

I rolled up my discarded clothing and stuffed it inside the uniform shirt for the moment; I'd dispose of it somewhere else, maybe in the bottom of a sanitary waste container in the ladies' room or a diaper disposal container in a family washroom. Someplace no one was likely to dig through searching for it.

'First things first. Trying to contact outside help is too risky; I'd have to break into resort communications and I don't have my equipment with me. There's no time to wait for help to arrive anyway. I need to find Max, find the evidence we need, and get us both the hell out of here.'

Assuming that Max was alive and capable of escaping. Assuming that Max would even come with me. That he would trust me that much after what I'd done. After I'd shot him.

'But - he *did* shoot me before... I'm *sure* of it; I remember him doing it and I have the scars to back up the memory... Why? There *must* have been a reason...' I concentrated on the memory, trying to bring it into clearer focus.

'A girl... There was a girl I was - threatening?'

More bits and pieces of memory dropped into place. I didn't know who she was or why I'd intended to kill her and at the moment I didn't care. All that mattered was that there had been a reason. That Max had shot me back then for a good reason, to protect someone else. He'd been protecting her then just as he'd been protecting me tonight. My heart had been right, not my training. I'd followed my training instead of my emotions - ignored the advice Odin had given me so long ago - and Max was paying the price for my mistake. I just hoped desperately that he *was* paying, not *had* paid. That he was still alive...

'Enough thinking, Yuy! You're wasting too much time. You need to get moving...' With an effort, I managed to still the trembling of my hands and finish fastening the uniform shirt. I couldn't afford to fall apart like this right now; Max needed me. I had to fix the mess that I'd made.

I listened carefully before opening the closet door and slipping out, pulling a loaded cleaning cart with me. The gun tucked in my waistband was an uncomfortable but comforting presence. I just wished that I had more ammunition for it than the single clip it currently held. I was completely on my own now and despite the fact that all of the training I remembered was specifically aimed at that scenario, I didn't want to be. I wanted Max back at my side, watching my back.

Back where he belonged.

Even though I knew that wouldn't happen. That there was no way he could forgive the mistake I'd made. Why should he? I didn't think that I could ever forgive myself.

***

It had taken hours. Too many hours. But I was finally in the supposedly unused portion of the resource satellite.

I'd located the security monitors in the main part of the resort and had knocked out the guard watching them hours ago. After cycling through every view several times, it had been clear that neither Max nor Mattis nor any of the guards we'd fought last night were anywhere that the security cameras reached. Which left here. The part of the satellite that was *not* part of the resort. And now I had to be very cautious; there were no large crowds of guests nor a steady stream of staff to hide in.

Getting in here had been tricky; the ventilation system was completely independent of the resort's and therefore was not an option. But hanging around in the new sports complex near the access door had paid off as I'd hoped. The door was too visible to try to break through in the middle of the day and I really didn't want to have to wait for evening to attempt it; everything seemed to be taking far too long as it was. Fortunately, Mattis had a press conference scheduled for noon to discuss last night's grand opening party and, right on schedule, he and his bodyguards had emerged from the access door to meet the reporters and escort them on their tour of the now-open facilities. While they'd been hurrying off to meet the press, I'd slid through the door before it could completely close. The resort security guard's uniform that I'd - acquired - was probably not going to blend in here, however; this was a whole separate operation. 'It was much easier when a single Oz uniform would get you virtually anywhere on base...'

The instinctive thought was a mistake; it triggered off a flood of memories, fragmented images of uniformed soldiers and half-familiar faces. I grimly fought to keep part of my mind clear long enough to duck into a storeroom and wait out the confusion. Functioning under the weight of the returning memories was extremely difficult. They came back in a jumble of sights and sounds and smells. Some were vague, unclear. Others were so sharp and clear that it was hard to tell whether they were reality or memory.

I was in no condition to be carrying out a mission, rescue or otherwise, and I knew it. But there was no choice. Assuming that he was still alive - and I *was* working under that assumption, I couldn't face any other possibility - I *had* to save Max.

Once the bewildering return of pieces of my past ceased again for the moment, I searched the storeroom and was fortunate enough to find access to the ventilation system for this part of the satellite. The edge of the security guard's ID badge worked quite nicely as a makeshift screwdriver and in no time, I was inside the duct work, silently cursing the extra height and weight I'd gained since the war. This was not such an easy fit anymore.

With no idea of the ventilation system's layout *or* where they might be holding Max, all I could do was systematically explore the shafts. I fell back on an old maze-solving technique, simply following the left-hand wall wherever it led. When a side shaft dead-ended, I just treated its opposite side as a continuation of the side I'd followed down it and went back out and on my way.

It quickly became clear from what I could see and hear through the ducts that the weapons factory *did* exist - but not for much longer. They had already shut it down and were well on their way to clearing everything out. Judging by the number of people working on the task and the speed with which they were carrying it out, that wasn't going to take more than another day at most. They might even manage it by early morning. 'Which means I have to find Max and get him out before then. Until they have the evidence destroyed, he's a potential bargaining chip. A way for Mattis to possibly buy his way out of here. After that, though...'

After the evidence was gone, Max would be a liability. I had to find him, rescue him, and find a way off this damn satellite before that happened.

I forced myself to crawl a bit faster - though still not as fast as I'd have liked, that would be too noisy - and hoped that I didn't get hit by too many more returning memories right now. They made it hard to concentrate and slowed me down while I dealt with the disorientation they brought. The almost permanent headache didn't exactly help matters. I was getting tired and hungry too; I'd had no sleep since yesterday afternoon and the only food I'd had was the apple that I'd stolen along with the guard's uniform.

'Hold on Max. I'll get you out of this mess somehow...'

I had to. It was my fucking fault he was in it in the first place.

Part 18:

I shivered and bit my tongue as the shivering set the bullet wound throbbing even harder than it had been. Lying here on the floor of the empty room that was our cell was damn uncomfortable but I couldn't stay sitting up for long. It made me too dizzy and lightheaded. Didn't exactly take much thought to figure out why; blood loss and shock were never a fun combination. Throw in the fact that they hadn't bothered to give us anything either to eat or drink since I'd been captured and the fact that I was lying on bare metal and I was one thoroughly miserable individual. Not that it was going to matter too much if we couldn't come up with a way to get the hell out of this mess. The fact that they'd tossed me in here with the others, unconscious and bleeding like a stuck pig, given Sally little more than a glorified first aid kit to patch me up with, then never bothered to come back didn't exactly say a whole lot of positive things about how important we were to them.

Movement beside me drew my attention away from my contemplation of the tiny air vent in the ceiling - nothing bigger than a cat was getting out that way - and towards my companions. Sally gave me a concerned look. "Cold?"

"Nah, just a bit chilly," I said dismissively. No point dwelling on it, we didn't have any blankets or anything. Unfortunately, I shivered again and ruined the effect of my flippant response.

Sally touched my face and frowned. "Duo..."

I scowled at her. "Never mind; nothin' you can do anyway." I knew what she was frowning about and we didn't need to be discussing my thoroughly lousy condition. My clothing was wet enough with sweat that even the bloodstained shirt had lost its stiffness. I was alternately burning up and freezing. She'd gotten the bullet out and at least most of the cloth that had gone in with it but the wound was obviously getting infected anyway. After all the stress I'd been under - and I hadn't exactly been sleeping too well since Heero got hurt either - my immune system probably wasn't exactly in the best of shape. With neither antibiotics to fight the infection nor painkillers to help lessen the shock there wasn't precisely a whole hell of a lot that Sally could do.

Wufei growled something that sounded suspiciously like "Baka" and awkwardly slid across the floor to my side. He eased down, careful of his own injuries, to lie along one side of me while Sally took up position on the other.

I appreciated the gesture - their body heat was almost enough to stop the shivering - but the situation felt damn weird. It had been one thing to cuddle up with the guys during the war in order to keep warm in some drafty old safehouse or cave we were hiding out in; it was a different thing entirely to lie here between Wufei and his fiancee like this. I knew better than to object though. "Thanks," I said simply, grateful for the reduced shivering and the resulting reduction in the throbbing of my shoulder.

All three of us were silent for a while. Then Wufei asked a bit hesitantly, "Duo? What was he like? He seemed very - different - in the pictures..."

I choked off a snort of bitter laughter. "Oh yeah, he was different alright. He laughed and smiled. Talked to me. Was honest-to-god *happy*.

"He thought we were really married. He kissed and cuddled and complimented me and..." I blinked rapidly and bit off the "acted like he loved me" that wanted to slip out. "And then he started to remember." My voice wavered and I had to stop and fight for control before I could continue, "And he stopped doing all those things and started to push me away again. Even before he remembered anything at all about me. Then - well, I guess he must've remembered our first meeting. Guess he decided to even up the score, eh, Fei? Least he only shot me once!" I was proud of the light, half-amused tone I managed to finish with.

Well, I was until Wufei reached over to squeeze my hand gently and said quietly, "I'm sorry, Duo." Then I was back to fighting off the urge to just spill the whole damn sob story in all its pathetic detail to him the way that I had years ago in that Oz prison cell. Back then, we'd barely been friends, held apart as much by my own misconceptions of what he thought of me as anything else.

Heero had almost seemed concerned about me when I was tossed in there with the two of them but he'd gone right back to coldly snubbing me again and it had frankly been a relief when Trowa came and took him away. When he left with a cold remark, never looking back, I hadn't been able to hold off the emotional distress any longer and it hadn't mattered that I didn't want to look weak in front of a fellow pilot. I'd let Heero's previous rescue of my decidedly battered self from Oz custody get my hopes up and this latest cold shoulder - coming on top of a rather nasty beating from Master O, which had aggravated injuries from my previous enjoyment of Oz's hospitality that were still only partially healed - had dashed them once and for all. The tears I'd successfully held at bay during the beating would no longer be denied.

And instead of sneering at me the way I'd thought he would, Wufei had massaged my sore, spasming back muscles and coaxed the whole sorry tale out of me. Then he'd told me about his own hopeless love for a wife he'd only begun to appreciate in time for her to die in his arms. I think his intent was in part to even things out by exposing a painful bit of his own life in exchange for what I'd revealed and in part an attempt to demonstrate that people changed and I shouldn't give up hope. I'd accepted the exchange and rejected the hope; hoping hurt too damn much, something I'd just had proven to me all over again. But at any rate, by the time we finally escaped from there, we were the best of friends.

If Sally hadn't been here with us, I might have gone ahead and let it all out again. Told Wufei every damn painful detail then let him talk me through some meditation exercises to set it all aside and start putting my defences back up again. But she was there and despite the fact that she was a friend as well as being engaged to Wufei, I couldn't do it. Couldn't expose that much of myself to someone else's scrutiny. Knowing that Fei understood how much this all hurt was almost as embarrassing as it was comforting; I really didn't want Sally to know too.

So instead, I just squeezed his hand back in silent thanks for his sympathy and understanding. After a moment, he said gruffly, "Try to get some rest, Maxwell." He left unspoken the promise that I would need it to help in our escape. I knew that I should really be trying to come up with some sort of plan too but I just couldn't manage it. I hurt and was exhausted so I just closed my eyes and let the unconsciousness that I'd been holding off take me away from it all.

Part 19:

I was beginning to get extremely anxious. The time continued to tick away and the factory continued to be dismantled but I still hadn't located Max. And much of the ventilation system had turned out to be inaccessible; the duct work narrowed to the point where only a small child might manage to wriggle through. I was going to have to get out of the ducts and find a new disguise so that I could search more freely.

I backtracked through the ventilation system to where it had opened into an office near the loading dock area. Once those ships loaded with weapons and manufacturing equipment left, there would be no evidence to prove Mattis was doing anything illegal. It would be strictly his word against ours and with Max in his custody he would undoubtedly make sure to eliminate at least the witness that he had ready access to.

'But if the ships can't leave, at least not immediately...' A smirk tugged at my mouth as I kicked the grill out of the duct's opening. No one would notice the noise; the racket made by the bins and carts loaded with machinery as jitneys towed them down the hall would hide it easily.

Dropping down into the office, I waited inside the door, impatient but well aware that I could not afford to get caught. I held my position - and my breath - as a security guard stomped past, muttering his displeasure at having been ordered to make extra patrol rounds. Once he was gone, I darted out into the hall and hitched a ride on a flatbed cart loaded with machinery. Slipping between two massive pieces of equipment, I crouched and rode right into the ship's hold undetected. I wasted no time getting away from my ride once inside and it didn't take long to find a lone worker to "donate" a new disguise for me.

I was careful how I disabled the ships. I used a different method for each and hid the traces of my tampering as well as possible. Hopefully it would not be immediately obvious that sabotage was involved. One ship should completely fail to start and the other's engines would start but then the controls would be completely dead. On the third ship, a small space yacht that obviously was Mattis's personal craft, I pulled an entire circuit board out of its controls then hid the board on the ship. *That* fast little craft with its remote control to open the doors for the launch airlock was going to be our ride out of here; I couldn't afford to do anything to it that we couldn't fix in mere minutes.

Despite the fact that I still hadn't been able to locate Max, I was determined that it would be "we". I had no intention of leaving without him.

Before leaving the loading bay completely behind me, I looked back down the hallway at that small, fast ship one more time. I doubted that my partner would be in any shape to pilot it but it was just the kind of ship he'd like. 'Duo will be highly annoyed that I get to fly it instead of him.

'Duo...'

I staggered and rammed my shoulder against a doorway. The pain cleared my mind long enough to duck inside the room and out of sight while more memories flooded back.

'Duo... Not "Max"....' I fought to breathe as more fragments of memory snapped into place. 'Oh god... I shot Duo...'

Duo. One of the first friends I'd ever made, though I'd held him at a distance for so long that when I finally *would* have let him get closer, he no longer even tried. The only person to ever last more than a single mission as my partner in the Preventers; anyone else I'd been paired with had refused to ever work with me again.

The memories kept coming and my throat tightened painfully. I finally had the answer "Odin" had wanted so badly.

I'd fallen just as fast and just as hard the first time around.

But the training had interfered; I'd been terrified of the consequences if J had found out how I felt about Duo. That I'd fallen in love with a fellow pilot. That I'd fallen in love with *anyone*. Soldiers weren't supposed to have emotions, after all. Especially not J's "Perfect Soldier".

Looking back, I didn't know how I'd thought that J *would* find out as long as I wasn't dumb enough to tell him. Or for that matter, how I'd thought he'd actually get his hands on me for "retraining" if I'd refused to go. I could have snapped the bastard's scrawny neck without even trying; how the hell would he have forced me to do *anything* by then?

I didn't know why I'd thought the way that I had back then. Perhaps J had had absolute control over me for so long during my formative years that he'd become all-knowing and all-powerful in my mind. At any rate, the conditioning - both against disobeying J and against showing emotion - simply was too fresh and ran too deep for me to break free of it at that point.

So I'd pushed Duo away time after time. Occasionally, I would weaken and let him a bit closer, but then I'd remember how dangerous emotions could be, how high a price revealing them could carry, and I'd freeze him out again.

I'd shut him out over and over, telling myself again and again that J had *promised* that when the war was over, I would be free. That he'd leave me alone. I told myself that then I'd be able to do whatever I wanted. To act on my feelings.

At the time, it had made perfect sense. Just wait till the war ended, then stop shoving Duo away and let things progress from there. No more conflict between my heart and my training. Between the soldier and the human being. No more reason to deny my feelings and keep my distance. Instead of pushing him away, I'd be able to let him in.

But I'd never bargained on Duo giving up on me. On him shutting me out just as thoroughly as I'd shut him out.

Oh, we'd ended up as quite efficient partners before the war ended. He'd kept his distance from me sufficiently that I didn't even have to push him away anymore; something that I'd been foolish enough to be grateful for at the time. And we'd eventually become friends when we ended up as partners in the Preventers. It had taken a damn long time to happen though. And he'd never let me as close as any of the others. He kept me at that same careful distance. Close enough to work together as a nearly perfect team but no closer.

Right at the exact point beyond which I'd always frozen him out before. He had it calculated to perfection.

I'd had no idea how the hell to change things. He never showed any signs of wanting anything more from me. At least not anymore, that is, though I didn't think that the signs I thought I'd seen during the earlier part of the war were entirely my imagination. And I'd discovered that the fact that I didn't have the threat of retraining hovering over me didn't mean that I could just forget all that damn conditioning. I was completely unable to open myself up enough to make the first move, especially when I had a sinking feeling that it would not be welcomed. That I'd permanently destroyed any interest Duo might have had in me with my wartime behaviour. And the few occasions when I *had* managed to try to at least deepen our friendship bore that feeling out. Suggesting a trip to a ballgame or motorcycle race or some other activity that I knew he liked would inevitably result in a polite refusal and an excuse.

In the end, I'd reluctantly decided that I'd lost my chance and resigned myself to settling for a damn good working partnership and a slightly distant friendship. And that was the way things had been when we were sent on this mission.

It had been sheer torture from the very beginning. Duo was one hell of a good actor, a natural at undercover work despite his aversion for lying, and he'd taken on his role as my spouse with his usual very professional enthusiasm. He'd been in more physical contact with me in the first day of the mission than he had in the entire past *year*.

Sticking to the very impersonal kisses that we'd agreed on had taken a lot of willpower on my part. I'd been extremely careful not to do anything that would seem out of line yet I'd also made damn sure that I did not do anything to discourage anything that he did. To do nothing that might chase him away. I didn't care that it was just pretend; I'd take what I could and hope that maybe a bit of his more open attitude towards me would carry over when the mission ended. That maybe the "torture-mission" would turn out to be an opportunity.

And it had been, though not at all in the way I'd expected. I remembered quite clearly how Duo had opened up to "Odin". How attentive and caring he'd been.

How he'd told me that he loved me.

But then the fucking training had ruined everything once I started to remember. I'd pushed him away, hurt him, the same way that I had during the war and he'd started to close himself off again. I'd doubted him, mistrusted him.

And I'd shot him.

The shooting he might actually forgive me for; forgiving myself would be more difficult. The doubt and mistrust would be harder for Duo to forgive; that struck at the root of our partnership, the faith in each other that was part of what made us such a good team.

And freezing him out again... That I wasn't entirely sure that he *could* forgive. He'd lowered his defences and I'd responded by shoving him away and hurting him the same way I had in the past. Even if he wanted to forgive me, I didn't know whether he'd let me close again. Whether he'd be willing and able to take that risk.

Whether I even deserved to have him do so.

I forced my mind away from the subject and back to the task at hand. Duo's feelings towards me would be a moot point if I didn't find him and get us the hell out of here. Once I had him safely out of Mattis's reach and had treated the bullet wound I was responsible for *then* I could worry about treating the emotional wounds I'd caused.

Setting my jaw grimly, I made sure that my weapons were accessible but hidden, checked for patrolling guards, then slipped out of the room and down the hall again. I had a rescue mission to complete.

Part 20:

Time dragged by in that small room. I drifted in and out of a half-sleeping, half-unconscious state from time to time but I hurt too much and in too many ways to really get any rest. It wasn't like I hadn't been in equally bad shape before but I was having trouble drumming up much optimism this time. Our chances of escape didn't look too good.

Sally was the only able-bodied one of the three of us and even she had a definite limp. Wufei had obviously gone down fighting or he wouldn't be such a mess and she would have been fighting just as hard right at his side. She'd been a pretty decent fighter even before partnering up with Wufei and she'd gotten a hell of a lot better since. They'd been training together - martial arts, target practice, obstacle course, you name it - practically every damn day since they got engaged. That was part of the deal they'd made with Une to let them keep on as partners. As long as their scores held or improved from what they were prior to their engagement, she'd let them keep partnering each other. It was the same deal that she'd cut with Noin and Zechs a year earlier.

If they'd been regular operatives, partnering with each other wouldn't have been an option but they weren't. Neither were Heero and I come to that. We'd all been lumped in together as a "special ops team" (including our emergencies-only members, namely Trowa and Quatre - oh, and Dorothy, of all people) instead. It had kind of been a necessity at the start since the Preventers required recruits to be 21 and even Zechs, Noin, and Sally hadn't made the cutoff at the time they'd joined. Hell, *Une* had barely been 21 and she was in *charge* of the damn organization! There were a lot of rules that applied to regular operatives that were waived when it came to us; if we'd had to adhere to them most of us would've bailed a long time ago.

I had one lonely pick left in my braid - the other one having been sacrificed to jamming the arena door - and that was it in terms of equipment; our captors obviously knew at least a bit about Preventers agents since they'd taken away our shoes, belts, and jewellery. Even my "wedding ring" was gone; this sort of thing was the reason I'd quit wearing my cross on assignments quite some time ago. There were a few useful things in the medical supplies they'd given Sally but a few needles, a scalpel, scissors (now torn apart to give us two halfway decent stabbing blades) , and a pair of forceps weren't exactly going to do us a hell of a lot of good.

Especially not when no one had even checked on us in hours; you couldn't very well take a hostage if no one came within arm's reach. The last time we'd heard from anyone was when Sally had pounded on the door and yelled till someone finally yelled back. She'd - requested - the use of a washroom. A few minutes later, there'd been the grate of at least two bolts sliding and the door had been opened long enough for a bucket to be thrown inside. Sally had counted no less than three guns aimed at the doorway while it was open. I was guessing that we had the guy who'd recognized Wufei to thank for that; they knew that they had a former Gundam pilot in here and weren't taking any chances. And I had a sneaking suspicion that they knew I was one too; if they had enough info to know my name was Maxwell, odds were good that they knew a hell of a lot more than that.

Unless Heero remembered a few more things and came looking for me I figured we were in pretty deep shit. The door opened inwards but the hinges weren't a type that could be torn apart with the makeshift tools we had available. Both the door and its frame were steel. It was bolted shut from the outside and, while the three of us working together *might* - maybe, if we were really, really lucky and didn't mind breaking a few bones in the process - have been able to bash it down even in our current beat-up state, it would take a fucking *long* time and make one hell of a lot of noise. Even if the guards weren't standing right outside, somebody would hear and come before we could get it down and be gone.

For now, we were being good little captives and playing up our injuries. Not that my own condition required much exaggerating, it had taken both Wufei and Sally to get me on my feet and over to the damn bucket a while ago. But hopefully, whenever our captors finally did come back to dispose of us, they'd underestimate us and we'd be able to find an opportunity to try an escape. Not exactly the greatest plan any of us had ever come up with but we didn't have a whole hell of a lot to work with at the moment.

I wondered how much longer Mattis would want to take the risk of keeping us alive. My guess was that he was dismantling the weapons factory and shipping out the evidence right now. Once that was done - well, holding Preventers agents captive would be highly inconvenient.

Mattis apparently wasn't the type to gloat; he had no interest in rubbing our noses in our failure or he'd have been back here to do so by now. Nor was he interested in even trying to find out from us just how much the Preventers knew. He was just cutting his losses and covering his tracks. By the time the Preventers got around to sending someone to look for us, there would be no sign of us *or* the weapons factory. No evidence, no case. And Mattis would get off scot free. *If* he managed to eliminate the other possible witness - Heero - as well.

Assuming that he hadn't done so already. The thought made me feel even worse than I already had. Ordinarily, I wouldn't think there was much chance of Mattis's goons getting anywhere near Heero, regardless of the fact that they seemed to be at least semi-competent. But with the amnesia and the headaches and the confusion... I wasn't quite so sure. I *hoped* that he was still more than capable of handling the situation but there was that little tiny bit of uncertainty nagging at me.

And even if Heero managed to stay free and safe, I had no idea whether he would remember enough in time to decide to rescue me. I hoped that he did. Not just for the sake of Sally and Wufei and myself, but also for Heero's own sake. If one or more of us ended up dead because of his amnesia, he might never forgive himself. He might not be the most friendly person in the universe but he would at the very least be upset at his "failure" to aid his fellow agents. Okay, fellow agents and friends, he *did* at least consider us friends nowadays even if we weren't really close. I kind of suspected that Heero would be pretty pissed at himself over shooting me as it was, that wasn't exactly part of the code of behaviour for partners after all. He didn't need any more guilt or self-directed hatred to add to that particular fuck-up.

I really didn't blame Heero for shooting me; I'd been aware of the danger of him remembering our first meeting from the very start. There must've been a better way to deal with the whole mess; I just hadn't been able to think of it. Him remembering the wrong things at the wrong time and me ending up hurt was my own damn fault for not handling this better. I still didn't know what else I could have done but there must've been *something*.

And the amnesia sure as hell wasn't his fault; if it was anyone's, it was mine. He'd gotten hurt protecting me in the first place. I was the one who'd been in the path of the falling scaffolding; he'd jumped *into* the danger to knock me out of it.

I sighed and shifted position a bit, trying to make my damn shoulder at least a *little* more comfortable. What I really wanted to do was pace but I knew that I couldn't afford to waste what little strength I had on something so foolish and useless. 'Not to mention that I'd probably fall flat on my face 'cause I'm so fucking lightheaded...' I sighed again and shivered as another round of chills set in.

"Maxwell. He *will* get us out of this. You know that as well as I do," Wufei whispered in Chinese next to my ear.

I made a noncommittal sound in response. Wufei hadn't been around Heero over the past few days. He had no damn idea how fucking confused Heero was. I really wanted to believe that Heero would get his head straightened out and come charging to the rescue like the "knight in Gundanium armor" I'd called him right after the accident. But I'd stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago. And I don't think that Heero ever did.

Part 21:

I hoped that I was getting closer to where Max - no, Duo, I corrected myself - was being held. I was running out of places to search and all too aware of just how much time had passed since I made that damn mistake. When I *did* find him, I had no idea what condition he would be in. How much damage my bullet had caused. It was entirely possible that Duo would be completely unable to assist in his own rescue; he could very well be unconscious. Or even... No, unconscious was the worst possibility that I was going to consider.

There were very few regular workers around in this area. It was well into the satellite's "night" period and the manufacturing facilities had given way to storage rooms and offices. Matching the rooms against my mental map of the ventilation shafts that I'd explored made it clear that this region was one of those that I had been unable to reach. That alone was enough to raise my hopes a bit. My latest disguise - a janitor's uniform and a cart with a large garbage can loaded on it - had served me well so far. Without knowing how the security patrols worked - check-in times and patrol routes and so on - I was highly reluctant to take out a guard and take his place but the janitor's uniform gave me nearly as much freedom. It allowed me to stick to a tried-and-true tactic that Duo tended to favour in such situations - boldly and openly walk down the hallway as if you know exactly where you're going and have every right to be there. It worked in a truly staggering number of cases; people just didn't tend to question someone who acted very sure of himself. They simply assumed that you had a legitimate reason for being there.

Strolling nonchalantly down one of the few hallways that I hadn't explored as of yet, I spotted no less than *four* security guards loitering outside a closed door. 'That must be the room I want... There's no reason for that many guards to be just standing around in the hall...' I turned into a room before getting too close to the guards and emptied the wastebasket into the large garbage can I was pushing around. That bought me a few minutes to consider my next course of action.

Four guards were going to be a little tough to take out all at once without drawing too much attention. And I couldn't be sure just how long it would take me to get Duo out of the room. If he was capable of walking at all, I couldn't expect him to move with his usual speed and agility. Getting him from here back to our escape vehicle was going to be tricky.

First things first, worrying about how to get Duo from the room to the shuttle could wait till after I figured out how the hell to get four guards out of the way. Time was not on my side; I needed something fast and effective. Quiet was virtually impossible; there was no time to arrange to drug them and I had nothing like that with me anyway. But trying to take out four at once by myself, preferably without having to kill them all, was a rather steep task to take on. A distraction would - hopefully - split them up so that I could deal with one or two separately. So - distraction time.

I climbed up on top of the desk to check exactly which type of sprinklers the place actually had. 'Good. The heat-activated type; no chance of them turning on for this little bit of smoke.' It looked like the fire alarm was the same type, heat-activated rather than smoke. My little garbage can fire wouldn't put out nearly enough heat to set either of them off. I dug through my pockets for the cigarette lighter I'd "obtained" along with one of my previous disguises. Lighter in hand, I hesitated, reconsidering. Yes, we'd used a fake fire as a successful distraction in the past but not usually when there were so many unknowns about a situation. The fire wouldn't keep the guards busy for more than a few moments and they might call for assistance rather than even check it out themselves; Mattis's men seemed to actually have a smattering of intelligence. If I only needed a few moments to slip past them it might work but under the circumstances - no.

Something else was needed. Something more like Duo's usual method of operation than my own.

I stuck the lighter back in my pocket and eyed the filing cabinet in one corner. Testing its weight cautiously by rocking it up on its edge, I decided it might do the trick. I took the garbage can off the dolly I'd been pushing it around on and set it out of sight behind the door, then pushed the cart over to the filing cabinet. I lifted the entire cabinet with an effort - it was damn near too heavy for even me to handle - then dropped it, letting it hit the edge of the dolly so that the cart scooted away and hit the wall noisily. I started cursing - loudly - while I rocked the cabinet up on one edge and carefully slid one foot under the corner. It didn't take long for two suspicious guards to appear in the doorway.

"Get in here and help me get the damn thing off my fucking foot already!" I snarled impatiently. "Stupid supervisor, scheduling one person for a three-man job..." I called my imaginary superior a few distinctly disrespectful names and smacked the filing cabinet with one hand. The two guards exchanged faintly amused looks, relaxed, put away their weapons, and called an all-clear down the hall before entering the room. The man moved to the opposite side of the filing cabinet from me while the woman pushed the cart back over. "Damn cabinet weighs a fucking ton," I grumbled.

The guard opposite me said unsympathetically, "Then you should have known better than to try to handle it by yourself."

I gave him a disgruntled glare and said grumpily, "Lift on three. One... two... three!" We heaved together - then I lifted it even higher and shoved the full weight of it in his direction, tipping the top towards him so that he would overbalance. He went over backwards, taking the cabinet with him. I rammed the cart into the other guard with one foot before the first guard even hit the floor. Guard number one shrieked as several hundred pounds of paper-loaded metal cabinet crashed down on his torso. He would have broken ribs at the very least but I didn't feel particularly guilty; he worked for a man running an illegal arms factory after all.

Guard number two was sent flying into the wall by the cart and I silenced her with a single quick strike. Working rapidly, I grabbed her weapons and com unit before silencing the still-shrieking man pinned under the cabinet and disarming him. My mind counted off the seconds, urging me to hurry.

I flung myself into the corridor and fired off a quick shot, shattering the com unit that one of the remaining guards had raised. My second shot struck the other man's gun-hand, sending his weapon flying. "Drop it!" I snarled as the first man started to draw his gun. "I have nothing to lose by shooting you," I pointed out icily as he hesitated. Petulantly, he tossed his gun away from him - and in the opposite direction from me. Well, he had guts, I'd give him that much.

"Open the door," I ordered sharply. I fired a warning shot that just grazed his foot as he hesitated rebelliously. "*Now!*" He didn't waste any time in drawing the two bolts back and pushing the door open. "Hold it! Back away from the door!" I snapped as he moved towards it. I wasn't giving him the chance to try a little hostage-taking of his own.

"Max!" I called sharply, hoping desperately that I would receive a response.

"Odin?!"

I winced both at the note of disbelief in his voice - he really hadn't believed I'd come back for him and despite the fact that he'd had good reason to think that, it hurt - and at the weakness of his response. He didn't sound too good. I moved closer to the door, keeping a careful eye on both guards and listening for any sounds of movement from the ones in the office down the hall. "Can you get out here on your own?" I asked urgently. I didn't want to risk stepping in there myself if I could avoid it, nor did I want to chance sending one of the guards in at gunpoint. Both courses of action carried a higher risk than I liked.

"Uh - sort of. A couple of friends of ours are here too, Odin... I don't suppose you remember Wufei and Sally?"

The names triggered a few more memories and I gritted my teeth, fighting to stay in the present. I had most of my memory back but there were still substantial chunks missing. "I do..." I said briefly. I remembered enough to know that they were friends and fellow Preventers agents at least. Though what they were doing *here*, I didn't know. "Hurry, we probably don't have much time," I urged. It was highly unlikely that the gunshots would go unnoticed but unless there was a patrolling guard in this immediate area that I hadn't spotted, it would take a few minutes for anyone who was an actual threat to reach us.

The three of them came through the door and I flicked a quick glance over them. Sally had a few bruises and was limping. Wufei's face was swollen and he had one arm in a makeshift sling. And Duo... Oh god, Duo... My heart lurched at the sight of him. Sally and Wufei were both supporting him. He was so pale... And his shirt so stained with blood where the suit jacket hung open in front... His bangs and shirt clung damply to him, clear signs that he was or had been sweating heavily. 'Blood loss, fever - which means infection - oh god, Duo, I'm sorry...'

As soon as the three of them were clear of the room, I motioned sharply and ordered the guards to go into it. I confiscated the second guard's com unit and all their spare ammo as they passed me. Yanking the door shut, I slammed the bolts home. When I turned back, Sally had retrieved both guns from the floor and was checking to be sure they were in working order. She handed one to Duo - even using his non-dominant hand he was a pretty damn good shot, though it looked like staying on his feet was requiring most of his strength even with Wufei's good arm around his waist - and kept the other for herself. Duo murmured something softly and Wufei reluctantly drew away, leaving Duo to stand on his own. I handed one of my extra confiscated weapons to Wufei. He wasn't as close to ambidextrous as myself or Duo but even a bad shot would be better than nothing.

Duo swayed slightly as Wufei moved away, then steadied. I fought off the urge to just pick him up and carry him. If he thought he could manage on his own, I would at least let him try. Despite how long we'd worked together and how much I loved and respected him, he never failed to surprise me with just how damn tough he really was.

"Let's go," I said simply, leading the way down the hall. I forced myself not to look back, relying on my hearing to confirm that all three of them were following me. None of them had shoes so they moved very quietly; it was a good thing that we weren't likely to encounter any rough terrain between here and the ship. Sally's steps were uneven but light while Wufei's were as ghost-light as my own. Duo's were heavier than usual and not as quick, clear reflections of his poor physical condition, but still lighter than the average person and reasonably steady. A tiny part of my attention continued to monitor his movements for any sign of faltering but the rest of it returned to the main objective: getting us all out of here alive and hopefully without any further injuries.

It was going to be one hell of a long trip back to the docking bay. Of that I had no doubt.

Part 22:

Despite the fact that I'd known there was only one real possible cause for the gunshots in the hallway, it was still a shock to hear Heero calling for me - well, for "Max". His voice sounded almost concerned as he asked whether I could get out of there on my own but I dismissed that notion as the foolishness it was. Any concern he had was purely for me as his partner; there was no point raising my hopes only to have them dashed yet again.

Wufei and Sally had hauled me to my feet as soon as the first shot rang out so by the time that the door opened, the room had stopped spinning enough that I was able to walk with their assistance. As the adrenaline started to flow, I pushed the pain from my shoulder aside, blocking it out as much as possible. I could not afford to let it slow me down or distract me.

The pain wasn't the worst problem however. The blood loss and fever were far worse. They were what was making me dizzy and weak. Not too weak to manage on my own, though. I hoped.

We needed all of us armed and ready to shoot, which meant that I was going to *have* to stay on my feet by myself. Fei couldn't hold me up and use a gun as well when he only had one good arm. And as the most able-bodied of the bunch, Sally and Heero were going to have to be prepared to bear the brunt of the escape; neither of them could afford to be dragging my sorry ass along too.

I took the gun that Sally offered me and murmured quietly, "Let go Fei. I can manage now." 'I hope...' I added silently. Now that I'd been on my feet for a few minutes, the dizziness had subsided. I was still pretty lightheaded but I figured that I could manage as long as I didn't try bending over or anything equally foolish. I stuffed my hand in my coat pocket to take some of the strain off of my shoulder, biting my lip at the renewed throbbing caused by the movement. Really I should have had a sling but I'd needed the warmth of the intact shirt and jacket more than a sling while we were merely lying on the floor conserving our energy and waiting for something to happen. And now there was no time to waste messing around with making me more comfortable.

Heero gave me only the briefest of glances before saying abruptly, "Let's go," and moving off down the hall, never looking back. I swallowed painfully, missing "Odin" sharply and aching for even the smallest sign of happiness to see me or worry about my condition. Sally dropped in behind Heero and I waited for Wufei to follow, intending to take the rear. He glared at me and motioned emphatically for me to go. I sighed and went; I didn't have the energy to argue with him over it despite the fact that I was the better shot, especially since he had one eye swollen mostly shut.

We made it out of that hallway and partway down the one it met before Heero abruptly halted and signalled us into the nearest room. We pressed ourselves tightly against the wall, guns up and ready, while footsteps ran past, heading towards the area we'd just left. Heero cautiously peered into the hall and motioned us back out again, moving more quickly as we continued onwards. The jog we'd broken into was pressing the limits of my endurance and I was seeing black spots by the time Heero turned us down another hallway and slowed our pace again. I stumbled a bit, drawing a concerned, "Duo? Need help?" from Wufei as he moved up beside me.

I started to shake my head dismissively and realized that was a dumb idea as the dizziness threatened to return. "M'okay, Fei." Obviously, that didn't sound any more convincing to him than it did to me judging by the disbelieving look he gave me.

I drew a breath to try again but was interrupted by a sharp, impatient, demand of "Status?" from Heero.

"Fine," I replied with as much force as I could manage - which wasn't very damn much. Evidently Heero believed me because he turned and started moving again.

Wufei snorted and muttered, "Whatever happened to 'I don't lie', Maxwell?" I gave in to temptation and spared the energy to stick my tongue out at him in response. Firmly, I tamped down the hurt that my best friend hadn't been the least bit fooled by either response yet Heero had. Or if he hadn't, he still hadn't been sufficiently concerned to pursue the subject. Obviously none of "Odin" had survived the transition back to "Heero". Despite the fact that I'd known that would probably be the case, the disappointment of having that fact confirmed was painful.

I automatically pressed myself up against the wall as Heero and Sally did so ahead of me. We all held our breath as a jitney pulling an empty cart rattled past the end of our hallway. It was making far too much noise for us to be heard by its driver but the instinct to be as silent as possible still made us act as if he could possibly do so. Heero peered cautiously around the corner after it, then slipped back down the hall, motioning for Sally to come with him.

We huddled close, still watching both directions for trouble, while Heero hurriedly explained, "They're still loading the ships with equipment. We're heading for the small personal yacht in the docking bay. The next load that goes past in the opposite direction from that empty one, I want Sally to try to get on and hide. Get off as soon after entering the bay as possible, hopefully before you get taken right inside one of the transport ships. Head for the yacht unless you can find a good place to wait and be prepared to provide covering fire if necessary.

"Wufei, you go with Sally if there's room, otherwise wait for the next one. Then Duo, then me. Got it?"

Sally and Wufei both nodded sharply and agreed. I kept my mouth shut and considered the likelihood of me managing to dash out and hop on one of those things even if it *was* moving slowly. It wasn't too promising a prospect. I was starting to feel pretty damn dizzy even while standing still at this point.

Heero apparently took my agreement for granted since he motioned the others towards the junction of the hallways. He followed them and I brought up the rear slowly. I leaned my good shoulder against the wall wearily once we were in position. Wufei was closest to the corner, then Sally, then me. Heero had moved to the back of the group to keep an eye on our back trail. I absently noted Sally slipping past me to join him briefly before returning to her own spot.

While we waited for a suitable "ride" to come along for Sally and Wufei, I debated the odds of me managing this move. I really, really hated to have to admit that I didn't think I could do it. Despite how well Heero and I worked together, I always felt the driving need to match him. To not let him down or appear weak or incompetent. His cold snubs and obvious disapproval of me at times during the war lingered on in my memory all too clearly; I dreaded messing things up and drawing that disdain again. And I was pretty sure that a little thing like a bullet hole in his shoulder wouldn't keep him from doing anything he damn well needed to. I felt like a real weakling debating whether I could handle hopping a ride on a damn cart pulled by a jitney. The thing would only be travelling a little faster than walking speed.

Better a little disdain for being weak than getting us both killed by trying to do something I wasn't capable of at the moment, though. I waited while Sally darted out and jumped on the back of a load of equipment, Wufei close behind her. He had to put away his gun in order to make the jump, needing his good arm free to grab hold of a piece of equipment and keep his balance as he landed. They both crouched low and moved out of sight. Seeing how awkwardly Wufei handled that with one arm confirmed for me that there was no way in hell that I was going to manage it with one arm and dizzy spells.

Before the next cart drew close, I admitted reluctantly, "I don't think I can do this. I'm too dizzy." I didn't turn to face Heero as I whispered; I'd rather not have to watch his face go all cold and disdainful. I couldn't remember not being able to hold my own on a mission since way back during the war; admitting that I couldn't now hurt.

Heero's complete lack of response left me wondering whether for some reason he hadn't heard me. Or whether I'd been so badly distracted that he'd slipped away to check the other end of the hall again without me noticing him leave. I hesitantly glanced over my shoulder to confirm that he was still behind me. He was. And he was scowling rather darkly which confirmed that he must have heard me too. I flinched at his obvious disapproval and turned my head back to watch the approaching jitney in silence. I should have been suggesting an alternative plan but my mind was too fuzzy with pain and exhaustion to think of one. I was about to suggest that Heero take this "ride" and I'd try the next - at least that way if I messed this up he would be safely on his way - when abruptly I was slung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. I bit my tongue to choke off my startled yelp. It probably wouldn't have been audible over the racket from the approaching vehicle but I was causing Heero quite enough problems already. Then as he sprang into motion, I bit my tongue even harder, trying to hold back the pained outcry as the jolting and awkward position made my shoulder flare with agony.

As Heero landed in a crouch and slid me off his shoulder, I managed to murmur an apologetic, "Sorry," before the pain and dizziness took me over and everything faded to black.

Part 23:

As we slipped through hallways, ducking into rooms as necessary to dodge security, I struggled to keep my mind where it belonged - on our escape - rather than letting it drift to worry about Duo. I avoided looking at him as much as possible; the guilt I felt whenever I saw his pain-drawn face and bloodstained shirt was overwhelming. I couldn't allow myself to dwell on his condition or the fact that I was the one responsible for it; I needed to stay focussed on getting us safely out of here. Apologies would have to wait. I was just thankful that we were able to take a more direct route heading back to the ships than the one I'd taken during my systematic search. We were well over halfway back and the second half should be covered quickly though I was expecting trouble at the loading bay. It was the obvious place for us to be heading after all.

As we moved from the small hallways of the office areas into one that met the wide hallway joining the manufacturing areas to the loading dock I slowed our pace to a walk again. I had been able to hear Duo's breathing becoming more laboured over the past few minutes but I hadn't dared slow down before this; we were too exposed in the hallway we'd been in before. Behind me, I heard Duo stumble as he slowed. I turned and demanded, "Status?" I was afraid that he was pushing himself too hard; he should have at least let one of us assist him.

"Fine," Duo replied abruptly.

I bit off the protest that he sure as hell didn't look *or* sound like he was "fine" and made myself turn and continue on. The way that I'd treated him as I started to remember my training had already damaged the relationship between us quite badly; I couldn't risk making things worse by nagging at him now. At least he would have a chance to catch his breath once we hopped a ride on one of the loads of machinery still being towed down to the ships.

Assuming that he could handle that part of our escape. Duo's lack of response to my explanation of the plan worried me. I let it pass for the moment and kept a close eye on him. Sally slipped back to join me, touching my arm lightly to catch my attention. She gave Duo a worried glance. He was leaning his good shoulder against the wall, eyes gazing blankly towards the corridor junction ahead of us. She silently mouthed "Blood loss... fever... dehydrated... dizzy..." I swallowed hard and nodded my understanding. She was telling me that she didn't think he was up to this. Sally gave me a stern look, silently ordered, "Watch him," then slipped back past Duo to rejoin Wufei at the corner, ready and waiting for their opportunity.

I observed Duo carefully while he watched Sally and Wufei dash out and hop on their "ride". Hopefully he would admit it if he wasn't up to this; I was of the same opinion as Sally. He had hit his limit; the bullet wound had taken too heavy a toll on his strength for him to keep going.

Duo's shoulders tensed and, as Wufei and Sally vanished from sight, he admitted softly, "I don't think I can do this. I'm too dizzy."

The weary defeat in Duo's voice increased the guilt I was already feeling. He had to be in very bad shape to admit that. And it was all my fucking fault. My fault for listening to my damn training instead of my emotions. My fault for shooting him.

He glanced over his shoulder at me and flinched. He looked away again, leaving me wondering what was wrong and wishing that he would tell me what was bothering him. I kept my silence while I struggled to get my emotions under control again; I was furious with myself right now over this entire mess and needed to calm down before I ended up making a careless mistake.

The next load of dismantled manufacturing equipment approached our location. I hurriedly draped Duo over my shoulder in a fireman's lift, silently apologizing for the pain this would undoubtedly cause his wounded shoulder. His only reaction was a sharp hiss of breath between his teeth. I dashed into the corridor and jumped onto the loaded cart, quickly crouching and sliding Duo off my shoulder. As I eased him down, he met my eyes for an instant and mumbled, "Sorry." Then his eyes rolled up and he went limp in my grasp.

Frantically, I fumbled to check his pulse. It was there but far too shallow and rapid to suit me. And he was burning up with fever. I cautiously shifted his suit jacket away from his wounded shoulder and grimaced. Fresh blood was beginning to soak through the already bloodstained shirt. The last thing he needed was more blood loss but there was nothing I could do for him right now. I hoped that Mattis's fancy little yacht had a decent emergency kit on board for Sally to make use of. Duo had gone without proper treatment too damn long already; I didn't want him to have to wait till we could get him back to a colony hospital.

I arranged Duo as comfortably as possible for the ride to the ship, propping his head and shoulders against my legs as I knelt. If I had to move quickly, I could slip clear of him or pick him up easily yet the position also provided him with at least a bit of protection from the rough ride we were taking. Every seam in the metal flooring jolted the cart badly.

Stroking my fingers gently over his pale, stubbled jaw as I steadied him against me, I wondered how the hell I was ever going to make up to him for all the mistakes I'd made. Both in the past and on this mission.

How I was going to make up for shooting him. For mistrusting him. For pushing him away and hurting him time after time. For not being able to make myself vulnerable and tell him how I felt long ago.

And for the fact that I still didn't know whether I would be able to manage that without his own confession of love having already taken place. Without knowing that he'd already admitted that he loved me both as my usual self and as "Odin".

Despite the circumstances that admission had taken place under, I had to believe that it was the truth. That he hadn't said it just to prevent "Odin" from running off into danger. He had been so careful in the way that he worded it, so precise in making it clear that he loved *me*, not just a part of me... I really didn't think that he'd only said it as part of our cover. God, I *hoped* that he hadn't only said it as part of our cover.

Convincing Duo that I felt the same way about him and that I wouldn't suddenly freeze him out again might take time and effort but I didn't care how long it took or how difficult it was now that I had hope things would work out. Once Duo understood that I wouldn't shut him out intentionally - or for very long on the occasions that the conditioning kicked in before I realized what was happening - I hoped that he would be willing to help me learn to open up emotionally. To at least treat *him* the way that "Odin" had even if I could never learn to be that open with everyone.

Duo deserved more than I could give at the moment and I really did not deserve for him to give me a chance after all the mistakes I'd made. But it had been years since the war ended; he'd had plenty of opportunities to find someone else and he hadn't. I was going to be decidedly selfish and ask for a chance. Whether he would give it to me or not... Well, I was just going to have to hope for the best.

As the jitney towed us into the loading bay, I hoisted Duo over my shoulder again, holding him in place with one hand and drawing a gun with the other. The jitney lurched to a halt as a shot rang out. I swore silently and risked a peek around the edge of the equipment sheltering us. Armed security guards crouched amidst scattered crates on one side. I glanced around the other side and spotted Sally for an instant as she darted from behind one support pillar to another. Wufei provided covering fire from behind the shelter of a huge packing crate as she went.

I flicked the safety back on my gun and slid it back in my waistband. The shots would all be coming from behind me; I needed both arms free so that I could carry Duo cradled in front of me. Carrying him over my shoulder would leave him in too much danger. It was my fault that he'd been shot once already; I wouldn't let him be hurt again. I held him close while I waited for my opportunity to make the first dangerous dash towards escape. Before launching myself from our shelter, I pressed a single kiss to his sweat-dampened bangs, wishing that there'd been a chance to do that while he was still conscious. And then it was time to run. So I ran.

Part 24:

Hot.

Pain.

Thirsty.

Noise.

Vibration.

I sensed things before anything really made sense.

Before I struggled back to consciousness enough to realize that the noise I was hearing was that of a ship's engines coming online without proper warmup. That the vibration was that of a ship lifting off.

Disoriented and confused, I forced my eyes open and found myself strapped in a chair in the cockpit of a small ship. Sally was in the seat beside mine, twisted slightly so that she could apply pressure to my wounded shoulder. That explained the pain; the wound must have opened and started bleeding again and she was trying to get it stopped.

I swept my eyes anxiously around the small area, then released the breath that I'd been holding as I confirmed that both Heero and Wufei were present and at the ship's controls. The viewscreen showed the open door of the launch airlock for an instant as we passed through it; then we were moving through the launch corridor and hovering while the inner door closed. There was a pause while the launch chamber's air was removed. The ship's engines roared and the ship itself vibrated in protest as Heero redlined it immediately when the outer door irised open. The force of launch slammed me back against the chair, pain flared into agony, and everything went blissfully black and silent again.

***

I don't remember much of the trip after launch. Just a few blurry, feverish memories.

Sally cursing whoever stocked the ship's medical kit.

Fei and Heero holding me down while she did something damn painful to my shoulder. Namely, cleaned the infected wound with whiskey that must've been about 100-proof from the ship's bar - which was far better stocked than the medical kit according to Fei.

Somebody always being at my side whenever I was conscious and coaxing me to swallow a few sips of a sugar/salt/water solution to try and counter the dehydration and blood loss. Finding out just how many units of blood they'd given me once I arrived at the hospital made it clear why that hadn't really improved things though it had at least kept me from getting a whole hell of a lot worse.

And then there's the things that seem like memories but obviously aren't. Like Heero holding my hand and murmuring things that I can't quite hear in a tone that makes my heart leap before he leans over and kisses me tenderly.

Damn fever-induced hallucinations.

If there'd been any truth in those hallucinations at all, then I'd have woken up in the hospital with Heero by my side. Or at least a fucking *note* for god's sake.

Instead, I woke up with Wufei there to tell me that Heero and Sally had gone back to the satellite to join the team that had made the actual bust. Yep, I'd definitely been hallucinating.

"Maxwell, have you heard a thing I've said?"

I gave Wufei a sheepish forced grin and admitted, "Not a thing after the bit about our partners joining forces since we were both unfit for duty. I've been too busy planning what kind of mayhem the two of us can get up to while they're gone."

He saw right through me - as usual - and said gently, "He only agreed to go after Sally assured him that you would be fine once you were given a blood transfusion. Out of all of us, he was the one with the most thorough knowledge of the factory part of the satellite. And besides that, it wouldn't be fair for someone else to get all the credit for the bust after everything you two went through on this assignment. This way, he's representing you both."

I glared at my much-too-observant best friend and said drily, "Yeah right. And Heero Yuy is always so gosh-darned anxious to make sure he gets the proper credit, now isn't he. Don't try and pretty it up, Chang.

"Duty's the most important thing to him, same as it's always been. With his memory back again, everything just went right back to the way it used to be as far as Heero's concerned. Why wouldn't it? His temporary aberration of behaviour caused by the amnesia is over and done with.

"I'm the one who was dumb enough to fall in love with an 'aberration' the same way I fell in love with the real thing in the first place. Only difference is that the aberration acted like he might've felt the same way in return. But the aberration's gone now, so..." I shrugged without thinking and bit my lip as my injured shoulder protested.

Wufei frowned. "Duo, he *did* talk to you alone before he left. Are you sure that you don't remember that? On the ship, while we were waiting for medical transport to arrive, before he and Sally left?"

That damn hallucination reared its all-too-tempting head. I hesitated before admitting, "I'm not sure. There's *something* but it doesn't make much sense." Wufei raised one eyebrow in inquiry and I shook a finger at him, "Don't even bother to ask 'cause I'm not telling. It's just a hallucination from the fever and everything else anyway."

He shook his head and gave me a steady look. "Duo, don't dismiss whatever it is too lightly. He *was* worried about you. He shielded you with his own body while he carried you to the escape ship. Maybe you should give him the benefit of the doubt, hmm?"

I turned my head away to avoid Wufei's insistent gaze. I didn't want to talk about this anymore. Heero hadn't said or done anything from the time he broke us out of that small room onwards that even faintly implied he thought of me as anything other than a partner. Not that I could be sure of. Hell, he'd hardly spoken to me at all. Couldn't even seem to bring himself to *look* at me most of the time. When he did, he scowled. And...

"Duo..." Wufei's voice was quiet but insistent.

"Fei, he *knows* how I feel. I flat-out *told* him, okay?" My voice cracked and I stopped to steady it before continuing, "I told him *before* he went all cold and shut me out again. I overstepped that damn invisible line again, Fei. And he did the same damn thing he's always done." I heard Wufei take a breath as if to speak and I sharpened my voice, cutting him off before he could speak. "Don't you dare lecture me about giving him the fucking benefit of the doubt 'cause there's no doubt left. That invisible line isn't just a line; it's a fucking high-voltage electric fence and I'm sick and tired of gettin' electrocuted. I just..." I closed my eyes and shook my head. "If he really does care - and I do mean *if*, don't jump to the conclusion that I'm agreeing here, Chang - if he cares, he's the one who'll have to prove it. Next move is up to him."

I left my other thoughts unspoken. That even if he cared, that didn't mean he actually was interested in a relationship with me.

Just because "Odin" had seemed to feel something deeper than casual friendship or a working partnership that didn't necessarily mean that *Heero* would want to pursue it. If the feelings were there but he wasn't willing or able to express them... Well, in that case, their existence didn't exactly mean a whole hell of a lot.

Part 25:

I turned the com over to Wufei and headed back to the main cabin to take Sally's place watching over Duo while she joined Wufei to report in. We'd sent a general report, a request to be met by a med-ship, and a request for troops to shut down the satellite *immediately* the moment that we'd cleared the satellite's jamming range but we'd put off filing a more detailed report until after Sally tended to Duo. It had taken both Wufei and myself to hold him down while she probed the wound and found a tiny bit of cloth that she'd missed previously then flushed the wound with whiskey from the ship's bar. I'd been relieved when he'd finally passed out; he'd been in so much pain... Pain that we *still* couldn't give him anything for; the only painkiller in the ship's medical kit was aspirin and there was no way that Sally was about to give Duo something with blood-thinning properties under the circumstances. She'd had a hell of a time stopping the bleeding again as it was.

Standing in the cabin's doorway, I watched Sally coax Duo to swallow a few more sips of fluid before he slipped back into unconsciousness again. He was so damn pale...

"Sally? Wufei requested that you join him to make your report. I'll stay with Duo."

She stood and gave me a dark glare. "I'm surprised Wufei is willing to let you be alone with him," she commented coolly.

I found myself having trouble meeting her eyes. Wufei had - had words with me on the subject. He'd made it perfectly clear that while he understood why I'd acted the way that I had he still held me responsible for Duo's condition. I'd freely admitted my guilt and told him that I realized my amnesia was not sufficient reason to have shot Duo. That I knew I owed Duo a great deal more than an apology. My response surprised him, I think. He'd been silent for a few very long moments and I'd had to make a real effort to continue to meet his intent gaze. Finally, he'd nodded sharply and told me to go relieve Sally so that she could make her report together with him.

After waiting for a few moments for me to say something, Sally finally pushed past me towards the doorway. She stopped in it with her back to me and said flatly, "You missed the brachial artery by a hairbreadth. When they brought him to the cell, I thought at first that it *had* been hit, he was bleeding so badly. I almost couldn't get it stopped. If he'd been put in that room alone or if the artery had been hit..." She shook her head slightly then left without finishing her sentence.

I sank into the chair Sally had been using, horrified by what she'd just told me. By the knowledge that I had come very, very close to killing the man I loved.

***

"Heero? How's the headache?"

"Gone again. The painkillers were effective." Sally was already returning her attention to her computer's screen by the time that I remembered to belatedly add, "Thank you."

The startled look and slight smile she gave me as she said, "You're welcome," reminded me just how badly I usually fared at that kind of thing. At those little niceties of social interaction that came so naturally to others.

'How am I ever going to keep the promise I made to myself and act like I did while I was just "Odin" when I have trouble with simple things like saying "Thank you" to a friend? How can I display happiness and affection openly when I have trouble even showing gratitude?' I gave the duffle bag in the corner a frustrated glance, thinking of the notebook inside it. While searching the offices in the factory part of the satellite, we'd found a box containing most of the things that Duo and I had left behind. Getting the notebook back was a decidedly mixed blessing. I didn't really need it as the reminder it was originally intended to be. I still remembered the things that I'd written about in it. Still wanted those things just as badly. But I wasn't sure how I was going to go about managing to accomplish them. Especially with Duo in an L3 hospital and me here on the resource satellite.

I could have requested medical leave myself based on the lingering effects from the head injury. I was still missing some memories; those immediately preceding and including the accident might never come back. And I was still getting the headaches that were an inevitable part of the aftermath of any head trauma. But I hadn't requested leave; I needed to see this through. To know that I'd done everything in my power to make sure that Mattis and his cohorts got what they so richly deserved - a one way ticket to jail. Both because they were putting weapons on the street and endangering peace and because they'd nearly killed my partner, the man I loved.

Oh, I was the one to pull the trigger; there was no denying that. That severe error in judgement was mine and mine alone. But the cause of the situation - my amnesia - was their fault; we'd gotten one of Mattis's employees to admit that the scaffolding "accident" was no accident at all. They'd been monitoring all of the satellite's communications closely enough to note the discrepancy in transmission size between the size that a vid call *should* have been and the size that our check-in call was with the data from the bugs added to the signal. They hadn't been able to positively identify let alone crack the encoded part of the transmission but they'd been aware that something was unusual. That had been more than enough to make them suspicious of the ones placing the call. More than enough reason for them to arrange an "accident" that would either get rid of those individuals - namely Duo and myself - or draw us out into more open action.

The fact that Duo had ended up as seriously ill as he was at one point was their fault too. If Sally and Wufei hadn't been in that cell with him, he would have died. Would have bled to death before I ever found him.

Remembering the simple, flat way that Sally had told me just how close he'd come to bleeding to death even with her there, I had to suppress a shiver.

It was going to be difficult facing Duo with that knowledge in the back of my mind. It was just another reminder that I really had no business even asking him for a chance. A reminder of just how fucked-up my head was; that I'd let my training override my feelings for Duo. That I couldn't guarantee even now that I could break free of the conditioning enough to give Duo the open, loving relationship that he deserved.

'But I *did* tell him how I felt and kiss him before I left...' I suppressed a sigh and admitted to myself that I couldn't count that. I knew damn well that he hadn't been lucid. If he remembered any of that, it was probably only a vague impression that I'd been there.

His condition had been stable, maybe even beginning to improve a tiny bit by then. Sally's treatment of the wound - removing that scrap of cloth and flushing the wound with alcohol - together with the fact that we'd managed to mix a simple rehydration solution using basic ingredients from the ship's galley and get some of it down him had been enough to turn things around. He wasn't completely better by any means but he was on the road to recovery. If it hadn't been clear that Duo was going to be alright once he had a transfusion, I wouldn't have left. As it was though, Sally had said that he was going to be fine. She didn't even expect the hospital to keep him more than a few days. And since Wufei's broken arm left him on medical leave for at least a few days as well, he would be able to keep Duo company.

'And by leaving when I did, I didn't have to face Duo yet...' Didn't have to face him and try to admit my feelings face to face when he was both conscious and lucid. Didn't have to face the possibility that the love he'd admitted to "Odin" was just a necessary part of our cover. Or worse yet, that the love had been real but I'd destroyed it with my later actions.

Part 26:

I flopped down on my very own saggy, beat-up couch - it might be damn ugly but it was *comfortable* - and sighed. Despite the fact that collapsing like that made my shoulder throb, I felt better than I had in days. "Oh *god* it's good to be home..."

The door clicked shut behind the cabbie and Wufei shoved the luggage that the man had brought in for us against the wall. He turned towards me and ordered, "Alright. Now spill, Maxwell. What the hell *happened* between you and Yuy on that mission?"

I groaned. I should've known Wufei wouldn't let things go with the little that I'd already told him. He'd just been waiting till we got home and I let my guard down to nail me on this. I could either try to fob him off again with generalities or I could go ahead and actually tell him at least part of it. Well, maybe telling him would help me come to terms with things a bit better myself...

"I fucked up, Fei. That's what happened. He thought we were really Odin and Max Wells, newlyweds on their honeymoon, and I let him keep thinking that because we were under fucking *surveillance* all the time. He was so damn affectionate that I had to work damn hard at remembering none of it was *real*. And then he started to remember stuff and he was confused as hell. And he started - uh, pushing - the whole honeymoon thing. So I had to start giving him a little bit of the truth in order to keep him from blowing our cover and hope nobody overheard us. But somebody *did* overhear us plus I couldn't tell him *everything* and so he ended up remembering the wrong thing at the wrong time and..." I shrugged and swore under my breath as my shoulder protested. "But he started shuttin' me out way before he shot me. I think it's pretty obvious that he's just gone back to the same old don't-get-too-close iceman that he's always been." Yeah, I was skipping a lot of details there but, despite the fact that Fei was my best friend, that whole shower thing was just too damn personal to go into even with him.

Wufei crouched on his heels in front of the couch and met my eyes steadily. "Duo, I *know* there has to be more to it than that. You're hurting too much - *hiding* too much - for there not to be. But I think I can make a pretty good guess what kind of 'pushing' he did and what kind of response your sense of honour would have demanded you make."

The heat flooding my cheeks gave him more than enough confirmation of his guess. He sighed heavily and shook his head. "Duo, I don't think you 'fucked up' as you so elegantly put it. You didn't have very many options to work with." He hesitated, then asked, "Is that when you told him how you felt?"

I nodded silently.

Wufei's brow wrinkled slightly in thought. "He may not be sure whether you meant it, you know."

I flung myself off the couch, narrowly missing knocking Wufei over. "Look Fei, he *knows* that I don't fucking *lie*! Especially not about something that damn important! And that's when he started freezing me out again; no real surprise there. I overstepped the line for the first damn time in *years* and he did the same fucking thing as always! I think the situation's pretty damn clear!"

Standing, Wufei frowned and pointed out sternly, "He knows that *you* don't lie. Yes. But you're a damn good undercover agent, Maxwell, and if he remembers *that* he may not be too sure whether the whole thing was just part of your cover."

"Yeah, and maybe my fairy godmother will show up and make everything work out peachy-keen," I retorted irritably. I did *not* need Wufei of all people encouraging me to think positive about this. I was more than capable of building up false hope all by myself. I'd done it enough damn times in the past; I sure as hell wasn't going to do it again.

Wufei's voice softened slightly as he said, "Duo, I just think that you should keep an open mind about this. Be fair. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Is it really so surprising that he would react the same way he did during the war if he was just *remembering* all of those things?"

I shook my head silently and dropped back onto the couch. Maybe - just *maybe* - Wufei had a point. Maybe I wasn't being fair in assuming that Heero was just reverting to his old self. *Maybe*.

But I wasn't going to get my hopes up. They'd been crushed too many times before.

***

"Dammit..." I muttered in frustration. Gingerly, I lifted my arm for one more attempt and bit my lip at the stabbing pain that caused before finally admitting that there was no way I was going to be able to do a damn thing with my hair. I just didn't have that much range of movement back in my injured shoulder yet. Trying for more hurt like hell, regardless of whether I'd actually taken the prescribed painkillers or not. The wound's usual dull ache was something I'd learned to ignore but the pain that resulted from too much activity was a different story entirely. I'd managed to do a halfway decent job of washing my hair one-handed as well as getting it mostly brushed out but there was no way I could even manage a ponytail let alone a braid without both hands.

"Great, first day back to work and I'm going to have to go in with my hair down." I scowled irritably at the mirror. I *never* went out in public with my hair down. It was just too damn personal. Looked like this time I wasn't going to have any choice though. Sighing, I stuck a couple of elastics and a comb in my pocket. Maybe I could get one of the secretaries to fix it for me. Not that I really wanted anyone else handling my hair but I wanted to spend a whole day at work with it down even less. I wouldn't have minded getting Fei to do it for me; he had a couple of times during the war when I'd been injured. So had Quatre. But Q was at home on L4 and Fei was one-handed himself. His arm had been pretty badly broken and he was *not* supposed to be using it at *all*. I wasn't sure what he'd been doing about his own hair for the past week; while I was in the hospital, he'd left it down every day till he came to visit me then between the two of us we'd managed to get it pulled back in a tail. That had been damn awkward and he didn't have nearly as much hair as I did; I didn't think we could do the same thing with mine.

Wufei had been back at work for a week; he'd gone back on light duty as soon as we returned to Earth. We'd flown back from L3 together the day after I was released from the hospital. I'd been extremely grateful that Une had sent a Preventers shuttle to pick us up; I really hadn't been looking forward to taking public transit back home and I'd refused to impose on Q's generosity by asking him to send a shuttle to give us a lift.

Fei had either dropped by my place or called at least once every day. I knew that he would have stayed with me or I could have stayed with him while my shoulder was out of commission but he had his own injury to deal with; he couldn't really help me much nor could I help him. And frankly, I needed my space right now. Needed to nurse my emotional wounds as well as the physical one in private. My best friend knew me well enough to understand that without it even needing to be said. He made sure that I knew he was available if I needed him for any reason; made sure that I was doing okay. But he didn't hover or nag at me. Though I knew he'd be on my case in an instant if he thought I wasn't looking after myself properly.

Wufei had been keeping me up to date on the case against Mattis. Heero and Sally were due back from the resource satellite any day now. They'd finally finished the preliminary inventory of evidence. It had taken a long time because Mattis had left all the old files, office furnishings, etc. from the satellite's previous use intact and buried the weapons factory's records in the midst of all the old files. Not too bad a tactic; it might have even passed a superficial inspection. As it was, it had made one hell of a lot of work for the whole team of Preventers onsite. And it had worked against Mattis a bit too; in order to make sure that all of the evidence was destroyed he'd had to order *all* of the old files destroyed. He'd considered that a lower priority than getting the manufacturing equipment dismantled and shipped out so they'd barely begun hauling files down to the incinerator by the time the Preventers arrived.

There was no shortage of evidence, be it paper, electronic, or other. Most of the electronic records had been erased but Heero had recovered them pretty easily. And as for physical evidence... Hell, one of the ships that Heero had sabotaged was still sitting in the loading dock, fully loaded with incriminating material, when the Preventers had arrived. The other one had been limping along with only partial power from its engines and they'd had no problem catching up to it.

I wasn't entirely looking forward to Heero's return. Sally's - yes - I'd already warned Fei that I planned to take her out to a very nice restaurant for dinner as thanks for the wonderful job she'd done taking care of me. It wasn't *necessary*; I knew that. Sally was a healer at heart; she'd help anyone who needed it. And she was fiercely loyal to her friends. But I wanted to do something special for her anyway. I owed her my life several times over by now; she'd patched me and the others up many times during the war and over the years since. I just wanted to be sure she understood just how much I appreciated that fact.

Especially considering that I'd probably called her a great many very uncomplimentary things while she was cleaning my shoulder wound.

But Heero's return was going to mean facing the whole god-awful hornet's nest of feelings that the fucked-up mission had stirred up. I owed him a "thank you" too for putting his own life at risk dragging my unconscious ass out of there. Yeah, he was the one who'd put me in that condition in the first place but with his head as screwed-up from the amnesia as it was I really hadn't expected him to go out of his way to save me.

And I was going to have to figure out whether I could handle being his partner now. Whether I could lock away those memories of being kissed and caressed by "Odin" as just a foolish dream.

Whether I could deal with my cool, distant partner on a day-to-day basis without feeling like I was having my heart ripped out over and over again.

I was still keeping Wufei's comments on the subject in mind but... I just couldn't allow myself to take them too much to heart. Better to assume the worst; that way I wouldn't end up disappointed.

I managed to get my tie on though it was far from the neatest job I'd ever done and took far too long to accomplish. Glancing at the clock, I groaned in dismay. So much for getting in early and finding someone to do something with my hair before I had to report to Une. I'd known it would take forever to get ready with one arm having severely restricted movement so I'd gotten started over an hour earlier than usual but I'd used up virtually all of that extra time already and I still had to get my shoes on and call a cab.

Halfway to the phone, I stopped and groaned again as the damn doorbell rang. If that was a salesperson of some sort, they'd picked the wrong day to annoy me. On the other hand, it was vaguely, distantly possible that Wufei might have had his own cab swing by to pick me up on the way in. I would have thought he'd have called first if so but... I crossed my fingers hopefully and headed for the door.

Part 27:

I stared at the vidphone, finger hovering over the key that would actually connect the call. And, like virtually every other time I'd done this over the past week, I moved my hand and hit the cancel key instead.

I'd only actually gone through with the call once. And that time, Duo had been asleep and I'd told the nurse not to wake him. I really didn't know what I was going to say to him anyway. But I had a deep-seated need to see him, to hear him. To know that he really was recovering.

So far, that need hadn't managed to outweigh my uncertainty over how he was going to react to me. I had made do with hearing Wufei's reports to Sally on Duo's condition instead. It wasn't enough but...

'But I don't think seeing and hearing him on the vidphone will be enough either. And I don't think that I can say the things I need to say like that; I need to apologize face-to-face.'

Then of course there were the *other* things that I needed to talk to Duo about. Like the fact that I loved him. Had loved him for a very long time.

And then there were the questions that I wanted to ask. Like whether he really did love *me* or if that had just been part of maintaining our cover. Whether he was willing to give me a chance to prove how I felt about him. Whether he was willing to help me learn to open up to him. And to put up with the mistakes I was very much afraid I would make in the process. The inevitable occasional backsliding into the habits so deeply conditioned into me by my training.

I didn't think that any of those things were suitable topics of conversation for a vidphone call. Especially not in a public location like the hospital. And now that he was back home... I still couldn't bring myself to broach those subjects over the phone. Doing so in person was going to be difficult enough, assuming that I could manage it at all. At least then I would have a chance to stop him and try to fix things if I said something upsetting and he tried to leave; on the phone he could just hang up and there would be no way to continue the conversation. To correct whatever I had said that was wrong.

'Wait. I'll just have to wait. We'll be heading back to Earth in a few days; I'll be able to talk to him in person then.'

I turned away from the vidphone and headed for the door. There was plenty of work left to do over the next few days. The faster I got it done, the sooner we could leave.

The sooner I could face Duo and find out just how badly I'd fucked things up. Whether he could forgive the mess I'd made and give me a chance. Or whether it was too late.

***

'Dammit Yuy, you've been sitting here staring at the damn house for the past ten minutes. Get *out* of the damn car and go knock on the door before he ends up calling a cab.'

I forced myself out of the car with an effort. I had originally intended to come see Duo yesterday but the shuttle had been so late arriving that I'd decided not to. Beginning the conversation that I needed to have with him while tired and short-tempered from travel would not have been a good idea.

Of course, having it when we were supposed to be leaving for work wasn't exactly a great one either. But then, I didn't intend to tackle the entire discussion right now. Just the apology and hopefully his reaction to that would give me some idea of how receptive he was going to be to the rest of what I had to say. If the apology part went smoothly... Well, then I'd make arrangements to meet Duo after work and try to get through the rest. Or at least to make a start on *showing* him that I cared by spending time with him outside of work.

I headed up the sidewalk and rang the doorbell. I thought that I heard footsteps inside but since the door didn't open, I wasn't sure. I knew that Duo had been planning to call a cab; Wufei had rather pointedly mentioned that when I dropped Sally off at his place last night. Surely Duo hadn't left even before I first arrived? He would have been at work *very* early in that case and while Duo was never late getting in, he wasn't usually exceptionally early.

Ringing the doorbell again, I wondered whether maybe he was actually running late. Wufei had told Sally that Duo wasn't supposed to be using his arm much yet. I wasn't sure how he would manage all that hair with just one arm.

I rang the doorbell one more time. I was just beginning to debate whether I should try breaking in, just to make sure that Duo really had already left and hadn't had some sort of accident due to his injury, when the door finally opened.

Duo appeared in the doorway. His hair was down, tucked behind his ears. His cheeks had a faint hint of colour in them instead of being as ghostly pale as the last time I'd seen him. The shadows were mostly gone from around his eyes. His tie was just a bit lumpy and crooked. There was a bit of stubble that he'd missed on the underside of his jaw.

He was absolutely breathtaking. Everything I'd planned to say deserted me.

"Good morning, Heero. I didn't realize you were back yet. Did Wufei ask you to pick me up? I was going to just call a cab but..."

I hadn't heard Duo babble like that in a very long time. He only ran on like that when he was unsure of himself or nervous. Very, very nervous. This was *not* a good sign. I needed to say *something* but I was still off-balance from that first, wonderful sight of him alive and clearly well on the way to recovering. "Duo..." was all I managed to get out. He stopped speaking immediately, flushing.

Duo apologized, "Sorry. Just need to get my shoes on and I'll be ready." He turned and hurried back into the house. I stood in the doorway for a moment, watching him. The tension I'd already been feeling settled to a sick lump in my stomach. He hadn't met my eyes even for an instant. We were *not* off to a good start.

I swallowed hard and followed Duo into the house. I had to try and fix this. Had to at least get my apology out of the way and try to make Duo feel more at ease with me.

Stepping up behind Duo, I opened my mouth to speak just as he turned around and nearly ran into me. He stumbled as he tried to avoid a collision and I quickly caught hold of his waist to steady him.

"Sorry," he apologized, flushing again.

Touching him was distracting but I didn't want to let go. It was a struggle not to just pull him right into my arms but I didn't have the right to do that. "Duo, I..."

He pulled away from me and interrupted, "I'm ready."

Forcing down the feeling of rejection caused by his hasty retreat, I gave him a shocked look. "Your hair?" Duo *never* left his hair down in public. I could count the number of times that *I'd* seen it down on one hand. Only one of those predated this last assignment. I realized that I didn't really like the idea that everyone at work would see him like that.

"Uh, I can't do anything about it with one hand."

I tamped down the hurt that he would rather leave it loose than ask me to help. I'd thought that our partnership was close enough that he would feel comfortable with doing that even if he didn't know how much more I really wanted. Despite the fact that I'd known the events of the mission could have damaged our working relationship too, I hadn't realized just how far-reaching the effects might be. But even if he wasn't comfortable asking for help, maybe - just maybe - he would be willing to accept an offer... "Do you want me to..."

"No." The answer came so quickly that he obviously hadn't even considered it. I winced internally, acknowledging that perhaps I'd even damaged our partnership beyond repair. But then he gave me a hesitant glance as he continued, "We don't really have time, do we? I don't want to make us both late..."

"We have time," I answered quickly. I didn't care *how* late it made us. He'd let me brush his hair when I was "Odin"; maybe doing it now would help show him that I still cared for him. That even though I was having a great deal of trouble bringing myself to express my feelings, they were still there. Une owed us plenty of favours for times we'd worked late or through lunch; she could live with us being late one damn morning.

"Well... if you're sure..."

"Where's your brush?" I asked simply.

"I'll get it..." Duo gave me another of those uncertain glances as he headed down the hall. I hesitated, debating whether to follow him or not. He hadn't invited me to but he hadn't told me to wait here either. He was already so obviously uncomfortable with me that I finally decided to give him a few minutes alone to settle his nerves. Maybe picking Duo up for work hadn't been a very good idea after all.

Part 28:

The sight that greeted me when I peered through the security peephole left me seriously tempted to pretend that I wasn't home. If I was really, really lucky, Heero might decide I'd already left.

The doorbell rang again and I admitted that wasn't too likely. He'd probably heard me walk over here and was wondering why the hell I hadn't opened the door yet. But I really wasn't ready to face him; I'd hoped that I'd have a couple more days to get my head straight and my emotions under control a bit better before he got back.

The doorbell rang again. I drew a deep breath, pasted a polite smile on my face, unlocked the door, and swung it open.

"Good morning, Heero. I didn't realize you were back yet. Did Wufei ask you to pick me up? I was going to just call a cab but..."

"Duo."

I realized that I was babbling and shut up. Heero had never had much patience for that sort of thing and I really did not want to get the day off to a bad start. Well, a *worse* start. It was already pretty bad as far as I was concerned. I kept my gaze where it was, just a bit shy of actually meeting Heero's eyes, and apologized, "Sorry. Just need to get my shoes on and I'll be ready."

Leaving the door open, I hurriedly went to get my shoes. I'd tied them already; I just had to shove my feet in them. Not too good for the shoes but with the shape my shoulder was in, I didn't think that I could handle tying them after I put them on. I'd be starting physiotherapy for it by the end of the week but I wasn't supposed to overstress it before then. I'd basically been told not to do anything that made it hurt. Which pretty much translated to "don't use it" since *everything* I tried to do hurt. Which reminded me that somewhere around here there was a sling that I was *supposed* to be using...

Feet successfully crammed into my shoes, I turned and stumbled as I nearly ran into Heero. I'd been so preoccupied with trying *not* to think about the fact that I was going to have to deal with him that I hadn't heard him come up behind me. Which really did not bode well for my chances of learning to deal with him as a partner again; I'd get us both killed if I got distracted like that on a mission. "Sorry," I apologized automatically. I tried to ignore the fact that Heero had caught hold of me by the waist to keep me from falling.

"Duo, I..."

His hands on my waist were too painful a reminder of the way we'd danced in our suite. Or rather, the way that "Odin" and I had danced. Maybe I could eventually convince myself that "Odin" was a completely different person, one who was dead and gone. Maybe then I'd be able to handle Heero touching me so impersonally. Right now, I couldn't. I stepped back and Heero let me go, confirming that he'd only been trying to keep me from causing myself further injury. "I'm ready," I said with forced cheerfulness. Forget the sling, I didn't want to spend any longer alone with Heero than necessary. Time to get out of here.

Heero gave me an odd look. "Your hair?"

"Uh, I can't do anything about it with one hand," I said awkwardly.

"Do you want me to..."

My first reaction was to say no. *Hell*, no. I remembered too damn well what it had been like to have "Odin" brush my hair; there was no way I wanted to be comparing that tender, affectionate care with the business-like way Heero would undoubtedly go at the task now. But I'd barely got the "No" out before I belatedly registered the hesitancy with which Heero had made the offer. Whether he was just trying to smooth things over between us for the sake of our partnership or whether he was offering for some other reason, I didn't know and I didn't think I wanted to consider it too closely at the moment, but it wasn't fair to throw away the offer like that just because I was feeling a little oversensitive. It was too late to take back that first word so I had to work with it as best I could. "We don't really have time, do we? I don't want to make us both late..."

If he'd only offered out of a sense of obligation, I'd left him a perfectly legitimate out. If he'd offered for some other reason, on the other hand... Well, I guessed I'd deal with worrying about what that "other reason" might be later.

"We have time."

Okay, so maybe it wasn't just obligation. That response had been very quick; he hadn't had to consider it at all. I flattened the hope that was trying to rise; just because he was being thoughtful that did *not* mean he was interested in a relationship. Let alone capable of one. "Well... if you're sure..."

"Where's your brush?"

Typical Heero. Abrupt and to the point.

"I'll get it..." I gave him a hesitant glance before heading down to my room. I wasn't sure what to make of this. Was he just being polite? Trying to at least get things back to the way they'd been before the mission? Or did I dare hope...

'No. No hoping. Absolutely not. Any sign of interest from Heero is going to have to be a hell of a lot more obvious than that for me to take it seriously,' I decided firmly. I'd let little things get my hopes up during the war and it had been for nothing; I wasn't going down that road again.

And I sure as hell wasn't going to be dumb enough to overstep that damn line he'd drawn years ago. Not again. If he was going to be his pre-amnesia self, I wasn't going to risk wrecking that by overstepping my bounds again. That cautious friendship and damn good partnership had meant a lot to me despite the fact that they weren't *all* I wanted. If I could have those back, I wasn't about to get out of line and lose them because I let myself foolishly hope for more.

No matter what Wufei might say, I *had* told Heero how I felt about him. That I loved him. If he brought it up, asked me if I still felt that way, I wouldn't lie about it. But I wasn't going to say anything further on the subject myself. The ball was in his court now.

Grabbing my brush, I headed back out to the livingroom with my mind made up. I would try to treat Heero the same way I had before this mission started. To just pretend that none of this mess ever happened. It wouldn't be easy but it was the safest option to choose. *But* - I would also follow Wufei's advice, at least in part, and try to keep an open mind about Heero's feelings towards me. Given some definite evidence that Heero was interested in changing the nature of our relationship, I would give him a chance to prove that he meant it.

But it was going to take a hell of a lot more than offering to brush my hair to convince me. A *hell* of a lot more.

Part 29:

I drew the brush through Duo's hair gently, careful not to snag it and pull. But despite how careful I was being, Duo kept getting more and more tense. He'd barely said a word since he handed me the brush and sat down on the chair. The silence was so heavy that I was almost afraid to break it. It was far from the comfortable kind of silence that we'd shared at times in the past. Even further from the warm silences we'd shared during the early part of my amnesia.

I couldn't help wondering whether Duo was remembering the first time that I'd done this. Or rather, that "Odin" had done this. And wondering too what his reaction would be if, instead of plaiting his hair, I duplicated my actions then. Would sitting on his lap and wrapping my arms around him be a good way to show him how I felt since I was having so much trouble finding the words? Or would it upset him because I hadn't even apologized for shooting him yet? Let alone for treating him so coldly as the memories returned... No, sitting on his lap wasn't really an option; I didn't have that blissful ignorance of the real nature of our relationship the way that I had before. I couldn't bring myself to do something so bold without being sure that it would be welcome.

"That's good enough, Heero, just pull it into a ponytail and let's go. We're going to be late," Duo said sharply.

"It would only take a few minutes longer to braid it," I objected. I didn't want to leave for work with this *distance* still between us. I *had* to at least get the apology over with.

"I don't want to be late. A ponytail will be fine."

"Duo, please... It's my fault that you can't do it yourself, please at least let me fix your hair the way you always wear it."

Duo's muscles tensed under the hand that I very carefully laid on his shoulder as I spoke. He was silent for a moment, then sighed and said, "Fine. Go ahead and braid it then.

"But it's *not* your fault Heero. I knew you might remember our first meeting out of context and that it could really mess things up but I still didn't find a way to avoid having that happen. I just - didn't handle the whole amnesia thing very well. It's my own fault I got shot. Hell, you getting amnesia in the first place was my fault. You wouldn't have gotten hurt if you hadn't dove into the path of the collapsing scaffolding to knock me out of the way. You were more alert than I was and spotted the danger; I missed it and you ended up getting hurt. You don't owe me an apology for shooting me; it was my own damn fault. The whole mission was one big fuck-up after another on my part."

I paused in the midst of separating his hair to braid it and gaped at him. How the hell could he possibly think it was *his* fault that he got shot? *And* blame himself for me getting amnesia? I might not remember the actual accident but I had no problem figuring out why I would have acted the way I had. He'd obviously written it off as strictly a "partners" kind of thing but I doubted that the fact that he was my partner had much if anything to do with my reaction at the time. No, that would have been spurred by the fear of losing him. The man that I loved far more than my own worthless life.

"Duo, I almost *killed* you! I ignored the way you'd taken care of me since the accident and let my training take control and I *shot* you! That is damn well *not* your fault! It's *mine*!" I forced my fingers to stop shaking and keep braiding. I didn't want Duo to turn around right now; I was having trouble keeping my facial expression under control and I didn't want him to see it and misunderstand who the anger it was undoubtedly showing was directed at. That was definitely *not* the emotion I *wanted* to express to him and certainly not an acceptable substitute for the one that I *did* want to express but was having so much trouble figuring out *how* to.

Duo sighed and gave a snort of something that was almost-but-not-quite laughter. "Fine. Then it was *both* of our faults. Call it even and forget about it?"

I bit off the objection that sprang to my lips. It *wasn't* his fault at all; it was mine entirely. But I didn't want to argue with him. That would only make things worse between us. But maybe... maybe I could make use of his insistence on sharing the blame. "On one condition. You let me help you with the things that you can't do by yourself because of your shoulder." That would give me the excuse to stop by here every morning and bring him home every night at the very least. Surely I could find a way to smooth over our friendship and confess that I wanted more than that if we were spending that much time together outside of work...

There was a long pause before Duo responded. I'd finished braiding his hair and fastened it off with an elastic from the brush's handle by the time he finally spoke. "Deal."

***

The morning crawled by. We *were* late getting to work. Not by much, but enough that Une cancelled Duo's meeting with her, rescheduling it for later in the day. Which meant that he went straight to his desk to start working on the case against Mattis. He'd turned in a verbal report while he was still in the hospital but now he had to do his written one and familiarize himself with the evidence that had been gathered on the satellite. Duo and I shared an office and by mid-morning I was searching desperately for excuses to get out of it.

I didn't know how I was going to live with this. He was polite. Distantly friendly. Just like he had been before the mission, in fact. A perfectly competent, agreeable partner.

And it hurt like hell. I wanted "Max" back again. The man who, despite the danger we'd been in, had laughed and teased and given me real, genuine, heartfelt smiles.

Just like Duo had early in the war. Back when I'd first fallen in love with him. Before I'd pushed him away so many times that he'd quit trying to get closer.

So now I was back in the situation I'd been in for the past few years. Loving Duo. Wanting Duo. And being carefully held at arm's length. Just the way I'd held him away for so long.

And just like before, I wasn't sure how to go about changing things. How to make him understand that I'd changed. That despite my relapse into cold behaviour right when I was remembering my training, I wanted to be closer to him. *Much* closer.

It was a relief to go to lunch. Duo was waiting to go for a late lunch with Wufei and Sally so I left him working and headed off on my own. I wasn't particularly hungry but I needed to do some serious thinking. There had to be a way to either show Duo how I felt or guarantee that I would manage to get the words out.

I spent my entire lunch break walking and thinking. The only real answer I came up with was that I was just going to have to keep doing things that would hopefully show him that I cared and keep trying until I managed to tell him how I felt. I didn't think either actions or words alone was going to be enough.

As I neared our office, I could hear Une's voice. 'She must have gotten back early from her other meeting and decided to just talk to Duo when she got in rather than waiting till his afternoon appointment with her...' I paused in the hallway, wondering whether I should make myself scarce for a few more minutes while they finished talking.

I should have left instead of thinking about it.

"Are you going to be able to keep working with him after everything that happened?" Une's voice asked. "After him shooting you? Will you be able to trust him again?"

"It's not quite that simple..." Duo's voice was so soft and discouraged that I had to strain to hear him at all. And even then, I couldn't make out every word. "...I don't know, Une. I hope so. But I honestly don't know whether..."

I turned to flee before they opened the office door and caught me eavesdropping. I shouldn't have listened to as much of the conversation as I had; it was only going to make things even more uncomfortable between Duo and myself. I didn't blame him for being unsure whether he could keep working with me or not. Even if he didn't consciously blame me for shooting him, I'd shaken his trust in me. Partners *had* to trust each other implicitly. Especially in the kind of situations that the members of the Preventers "special ops" team were sent into on a regular basis. There was no room for doubt on those operations. 'But hearing him say that still *hurts*...' Oh god, did it hurt...

"Heero?"

I just raised a hand in acknowledgement of Wufei's call. I didn't want to talk to anyone right now. I'd just disappear until they left for lunch then go back to the office. Hopefully by the time that Duo got back, I'd have my head straightened out again and my emotions under control.

Part 30:

I was both relieved and disappointed when Heero left for lunch so early. Relieved because the morning had been damn awkward and uncomfortable. Disappointed because he hadn't waited to go to lunch with the rest of us. Contradictory as hell but still the way I felt.

God, I had no idea how I was going to handle having him hang around to help take care of things that I couldn't do with my shoulder in its current condition. Agreeing to that little "deal" with him had been an incredibly idiotic move on my part. I just... hadn't quite been able to make myself give up hope that he'd offered out of more than guilt. Which was really stupid; I was *not* going to let the fact that he'd been careful brushing my hair turn into some foolish idea that he cared for me as more than a friend and partner. Memories of what had happened when "Odin" brushed my hair had made it extremely difficult to sit through having Heero carry out the task. It would have been easier if he'd briskly brushed and braided it the way that I'd expected him to. The fact that he'd *hadn't* behaved that way had left me fighting with those damn crazy wishes for more.

It had taken me all morning to get rid of those notions. But they were pretty thoroughly squashed now. If I'd needed any further confirmation that things were back to normal and I was silly to think Heero might have genuinely changed, I'd gotten it when Heero had taken off on his own for lunch rather than waiting and going with the rest of us. Nobody really cared what time we took lunch at; sticking to scheduled lunch times only really mattered for the secretarial staff since *someone* had to be around to answer the phones. We went pretty much any time that we wanted over the two hour period bracketing noon. Heero could have waited and gone to lunch with the rest of us. He knew damn well that he was always welcome. Hell, even before this last mission he'd joined us sometimes.

But not today. Today, he'd cut and run as early as possible. Guess he figured having lunch didn't count as one of those things that my injured shoulder could interfere with.

Which pretty much made it obvious that he really *had* only offered to help because he still felt guilty over shooting me. Not because he wanted an excuse to spend more time with me. And the amount of hurt caused by that damn realization made it clear that despite all my good intentions, I'd let myself hope again anyway.

At least I hadn't been dumb enough to let it show this time. I was pretty sure I'd managed to stick to my decision to just be Heero's competent, reliable partner, the same as I'd been before. So at least we were just sticking to the status quo instead of me getting frozen back to distant, barely tolerated, acquaintance again.

I sighed and forced my attention back to my work. I was having a very rough time writing up the detailed report on the mission; there were a lot of things that were just too damn personal to include. And they really didn't have any bearing on the mission itself. But if I left them out and Heero put them in... Or if the surveillance of our suite turned up in the evidence... I groaned and pinched the bridge of my nose to try and banish the rapidly developing tension headache. I had been becoming far too familiar with the damn things since this whole fucked-up mission first got underway.

And the way that my shoulder was throbbing wasn't helping matters any either. I never *had* gotten around to tracking down that damn sling this morning and I'd been regretting it for the last couple of hours. I'd been trying not to show how bad it was because I didn't want to make Heero feel any guiltier but it was getting pretty hard to deal with. I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to make it through the rest of the day at work other than by taking painkillers. And if I did *that*, I'd be pretty much useless anyway since they made me groggy.

And then of course there was the fact that I hadn't exactly had a very nutritious breakfast this morning, which was only adding to the headache and general feeling of malaise... This had really *not* been a good day so far.

A firm knock on the doorframe jolted me out of my distraction. "Maxwell?"

I jumped slightly, startled, and jarred my shoulder. "*Fuck*..." escaped my mouth involuntarily at the sharp pain that caused. I turned my chair towards the door and apologized sheepishly, "Sorry, Commander Une." She really didn't like profanity in the workplace; said it wasn't good for the agency's public image and there were too many politicians and reporters in and out to risk it being overheard. So it was strictly forbidden. And one of the few rules that she would *not* waive for us "special ops" agents.

"Just this once... I didn't hear a thing," Une said calmly. She gave me a conspiratorial wink before turning more serious and asking, "How are you doing? Or do I even need to ask after what I *didn't* hear a few minutes ago..."

I grimaced and admitted, "I've been better. The shoulder aches most of the time." There was no point trying to hide it; I'd given that little tidbit away with the pained swearing when she'd startled me.

"And is that *all* that's wrong? Or is there something else?" Une pushed the door shut behind her before crossing her arms and leaning one shoulder against it. She gazed at me steadily, waiting.

I had a sudden sinking feeling that she wasn't talking about physical complications from the mission anymore. And also that I really didn't need to worry about what I should or shouldn't include in my report. I had a feeling that she already knew most of what there was to know.

"Other than the fact that being one-handed is incredibly awkward and annoying, especially with this much hair?" I really hoped that I was wrong and she *didn't* know all the squicky little details of just how fucked-up the mission had really been. Specifically, all the squicky little *personal* details.

"Yes. Other than that."

"Uh - nothing I can't deal with." 'Eventually,' I qualified silently.

Une sighed and straightened away from the door. "Duo, the surveillance tapes from your suite were among some of the first things shipped back here."

I was very glad that I was sitting down to hear this. My ears roared for a moment and the room wavered a bit before the blood rushed back to my head and I went from ice cold to burning with embarrassment. "Oh," I squeaked out.

"Noin and I are the only ones who've seen them," Une assured me hastily. "And I doubt that they will need to be brought officially into evidence; they have very little if any bearing on the actual case.

"She only watched enough to realize what they were and that they were..." Une hesitated, then continued, "rather - personal."

I was abruptly very glad that Noin was on restricted duty due to her pregnancy. If *someone* had to see those recordings, I'd rather it was her than one of the regular agents. Well, her and Une since I had the distinct impression that Une herself had viewed at least some of the surveillance. An impression that she confirmed with her next words.

"She gave them to me. I haven't watched or listened to all of the footage by any means but it's clear that there may be - repercussions - in your partnership. For a number of reasons. I don't know whether the two of you have addressed this yet but it will need to be dealt with before I consider sending you on any assignments together. Either the personal issues or the trust issues related to the shooting alone would be more than sufficient reason to reassign you both to new partners.

"Are you going to be able to keep working with him after everything that happened?" Une demanded. "After him shooting you? Will you be able to trust him again?"

"It's not quite that simple..." I answered reluctantly. I dropped my eyes to the floor and admitted softly, "The shooting's not the real issue; I can handle that. But the rest of it..." I swallowed hard and forced myself to meet her eyes and speak more firmly. "I don't know, Une. I hope so. But I honestly don't know whether I can put the rest of it behind me and work with him that closely again or not."

She nodded slightly, her head tilting quizzically. "He seemed very... different... without his memories..."

I started to laugh and choked it off. It would be too damn easy to get a little hysterical. "That's an understatement," I told her.

Une's eyes narrowed in concern and she opened her mouth to speak again. I was distinctly relieved when a knock on the door interrupted her.

"Was that all?" I asked quickly. "I'm supposed to be going for lunch with Wufei and Sally; that's probably them..."

Stepping away from the door, Une said, "That will do for now.

"Think about what we discussed. I'll need a definite decision from you but not till you're ready to come off of light duty." She opened the door and greeted Wufei and Sally before adding, "Oh and Maxwell - if that shoulder bothers you too much - *go home*. Don't overdo it on your first day back."

Part 31:

When I'd fled from the conversation that I'd been unfortunate enough to overhear, I ducked into the file room, figuring that I could easily kill five or ten minutes pretending to be searching for something. That would give Duo and the others more than enough time to have left for lunch. Then I could go back to our office and try to get sufficiently immersed in work to keep the hurt from showing when Duo returned. As it turned out, I didn't have to spend much time in the file room at all. Une had spotted me as she walked past and requested that I accompany her to her office.

Which was how I'd ended up standing in Une's office fighting desperately to keep my composure as she casually mentioned that she'd decided that perhaps Duo and I would prefer to screen the surveillance from our suite ourselves. Just in case there was anything there that was actually relevant to the case. Though the sections that she and Noin had already checked didn't seem to be. "They seemed rather... personal..." she remarked.

I swallowed hard and tried to get my voice to work. I could not believe that I had completely forgotten about the probable existence of those recordings.

"Unless you would prefer that one of us finish checking the footage?" Une asked, raising one eyebrow.

I scowled and snatched the disks from her hands. "No," I answered abruptly. "I will take care of it." Pivoting, I started towards the door. My cheeks burned at the implication that Une and Noin had seen any of the things that had gone on in the suite. The kissing and cuddling and dancing...

"Yuy!"

The sharp snap of Une's voice halted me in my tracks and I belatedly realized that I had not been dismissed. "Yes Commander?" I waited with my back towards her, hoping that she wouldn't order me to turn around. I was still fighting to get my expression under control and I knew that my face was flushed with embarrassment.

"I've already spoken to Maxwell. The two of you are going to have to decide whether you're going to be able to put all of - *this* - in perspective and work together again or not. The shooting as well as the - other things. He said that the shooting wasn't an issue but he did not have an answer for me regarding the rest of it. I'll need that answer from both of you by the time that he's ready to go back on regular duty again." Her voice softened a bit as she added, "So think about it, Heero. Talk to him. Figure out whether you're going to be able to continue as partners."

I forced myself to loosen my grip on the disks in my hand; breaking them wouldn't solve anything. "Yes ma'am," I answered flatly. "Will that be all?"

Une sighed heavily - and, I suspected, disappointedly - and told me, "Yes. Dismissed, Yuy."

Silently, I left. As I walked away, I ran my thumb over the surface of the top disk in the thin stack I held. By rights, I should wait until Duo was there too rather than viewing these alone. But I wasn't sure whether I could handle that. At least, not without having watched the footage first. If I knew exactly what was on it, then watched his face while he was viewing it... Maybe I could confirm how he felt about me?

'Or I could make him angry with me if he comes back and catches me watching it alone...' And that was the *last* thing I needed; our relationship was already under severe stress. I didn't need to do something that would make things even worse. If there was more time left before his return, I might risk it but he could be back in as little as half an hour.

Regretfully, I tucked the disks safely into one of my desk drawers and locked it. I didn't want to risk anyone *else* picking those up and finding out what was on them. Too many people knew already as far as I was concerned. And I wasn't exactly looking forward to mentioning them to Duo either now that I'd thought about it a little more. If he was even half as embarrassed as I was by the very existence of these...

I winced and started sorting through some of the files in my inbox. Rather than dwelling on Duo's reaction to the disks, I would try to get some work done before he got back. Then... well, then I'd have to bring the subject up with him. And hope that somehow his reaction to the disks and their contents would give me a better indication of how he felt about me.

And maybe the opportunity that I needed to help me tell him how I felt about him.

Maybe.

***

I looked at my watch and frowned. Duo was late. *Very* late. I hesitated, then stood. He was supposed to have gone to lunch with Wufei and Sally. I'd just go see whether they were back yet or not. They'd probably just gotten stuck in traffic or something. But I couldn't help worrying; Duo's shoulder had seemed to be bothering him quite a bit this morning. I had to wonder whether perhaps he'd started back to work too soon.

Reaching Sally and Wufei's office, I knocked sharply on the frame of the open door to catch Sally's attention. "Sally? Didn't Duo come back from lunch yet? There's some things we need to go over..."

"Oh, sorry Heero. I didn't know you were waiting for him," Sally answered. "No, we didn't actually end up *having* lunch. I drove Duo home instead. Silly idiot didn't wear his sling this morning. Wufei stayed with him to make sure that he ate, took his painkillers, and rested. Honestly, I don't know what it is with all you Gundam pilots and not taking care of yourselves..." She shook her head in exasperation. "Funny how Wufei will get on Duo's case for not taking care of himself properly when I have to keep getting on *his* case for the same reason!"

The sick knot of guilt that had never completely left me since I made that damn mistake and pulled the trigger got a little bit bigger. I'd never even thought of the fact that Duo probably should have been wearing a sling this morning. And I hadn't realized that his shoulder was bad enough that he needed to go home and rest. I'd been too caught up in worrying about how to tell him that I loved him. So much for my intentions to *show* him how much I cared. Not to mention my offer to help him; I'd been too self-absorbed to even notice that I should have *been* helping him.

At least his best friend apparently wasn't falling down on the job the way that I was.

"Oh. I'll just go ahead and take care of things here myself then..." I offered lamely in response to Sally's expectant gaze. I hesitated, then asked, "Is Wufei staying after work? I'd offered to help Duo with anything his shoulder interfered with but..." But if Wufei was going to be there, my assistance probably wouldn't be needed. Especially if Sally was going to be joining them.

Sally gave me a startled look that turned to a pleased smile. "If you're going by there, then he won't need to. Good." Her eyes sparkled and she added, "Which means that I can pick Wufei up instead of joining them. It would be nice to have the evening to ourselves. But only if you're going to keep Duo company and help out; I promised to change the bedding for him and a few other things."

I managed to give her a small smirk as I assured her, "I'll be there. I'm sure that you and Wufei have - other things you'd rather be doing..."

She choked back a startled laugh and replied, "Oh yes... I'll leave Duo's laundry to you quite happily; I have more - interesting - plans for the evening..."

"I'm sure you do," I told her drily before heading back to my own office.

Well, that changed things. If Duo wasn't coming back this afternoon... I closed the office door and took the surveillance disks out of my drawer. I'd go ahead and watch them myself , then decide what to do with them. And maybe... just maybe... that would turn out to be taking them to Duo's house tonight.

I slid the first disk into the computer. 'Let's see what this whole mess looked like from the outside...'

Part 32:

"Oh and Maxwell - if that shoulder bothers you too much - *go home*. Don't overdo it on your first day back." I groaned in resignation at Une's parting shot. She'd just kicked Wufei into full-blown my-best-friend-the-worrywart mode. Suddenly, I really, *really* regretted not taking the time to find my sling this morning.

Wufei took one look at me and demanded, "Where's your sling?"

I clapped my good hand over my face and peeked out between the fingers. "Err, I don't know? Someplace at home, I think..."

He growled something under his breath. I decided that it was probably just as well that I hadn't quite caught whatever it was. I might have had to get seriously pissed off at him if I had. The tone was pretty clearly one of exasperation and rebuke though.

"Hey, we were late as it was; I didn't want to make us later by looking for it!" I said defensively.

"And what was Yuy thinking to bring you in without it?"

"He didn't know I was supposed to be wearing one! It wasn't his fault I was in such a hurry to..." I bit off the rest of the sentence abruptly, recalling Sally's presence and the fact that there were undoubtedly others in hearing range too. "Fei, just - let it go, okay? Please?" Ouch. My tone had slid from defensive to pleading. Not good.

Wufei's eyes narrowed and he gently but firmly caught hold of my good elbow and steered me towards the elevator. "Fine. For now. But don't think the subject's closed permanently, Maxwell." He changed the subject abruptly, demanding, "Did you eat a balanced breakfast this morning?"

"I ate..." 'A couple of slices of toast...' I added silently. There hadn't been *time* for more than that. Ordinarily it wouldn't bother me but I wasn't quite back up to par after all the blood loss; I should have had a better breakfast and I knew it.

My attempt at prevarication didn't do much good; Wufei knew me a little too well. "You ate. No mention of *what* I notice... What about your painkillers?"

"Feeeiii..." Terrific, now I was *whining*. Things were going from bad to worse.

Sally had the unmitigated gall to snicker. I glared at her but obviously my glare wasn't up to its usual standards because she *laughed* at me.

I wrenched my elbow out of Wufei's grasp and stalked into the elevator. "Enough. Can we just go get something to eat and forget about the interrogation please? Or should I just go get something from the cafeteria by myself? 'Cause I'm really *not* in the mood for this kind of..." I bit off the word "crap" and substituted "...garbage - right now."

I deliberately fixed my gaze on the back wall of the elevator and waited. There was a quiet exchange between Wufei and Sally, then the elevator doors shut and it started to move. A hand touched my good shoulder very lightly and squeezed it gently. I reluctantly let Wufei turn me to face him. Sally was in the far corner with her back to us. And thank god for that because the long, searching look that Wufei gave me did a pretty good job of wrecking what was left of my composure.

"Agreed. That's enough. I think you've had enough of *everything* for today, Duo. I'm taking you home," he said in a voice that brooked no argument.

A protest half-formed in my mind, then I let it go. I didn't have the energy - or the desire - to argue. Home sounded pretty damn good right now.

***

I ate my soup in silence, very aware of the fact that Wufei had already finished eating and was watching me thoughtfully. It was pretty clear that I wasn't going to get away with slinking off for a nap without any further discussion of just why I was so damn off-balance. I didn't think Fei would buy the excuse that it was just discomfort from the shoulder causing me to be so miserable.

"You didn't have to stay," I said guiltily as Wufei stood and carried the dishes over to stack in the sink one-by-one. "I'm not *that* helpless..." Or in so much physical pain now that I had my sling on to support my arm and take some of the stress off my wounded shoulder. And I'd be even better off once the painkillers I'd taken with lunch had a chance to kick in.

"I know," Wufei said simply. "But you need to talk." He sat back down at the table and asked, "What happened between you and Yuy this morning? I'd thought that he would probably join us for lunch but since he was headed away from your office in a very big rush when Sally and I got there, obviously..."

"What?!" Oh god... If Heero had been there while Une was talking to me... Shit, what exactly had he heard? I tried to recall the conversation and realized that if he'd heard anything, he'd probably heard her question about whether I was going to be able to work with him or not. And maybe at least some of my response... I'd been speaking pretty softly but Heero had exceptional hearing... Fuck, he already felt guilty; I didn't want him feeling even guiltier. And he would if he'd heard much of that; it would just be another reminder that he'd shot me. But none of this was really his fault. "What do you mean, he was headed away from the office in a rush?"

"I called his name and he just waved and kept going," Wufei responded.

I frowned. It was hard to say whether that was just typical Heero behaviour or if he might have actually been upset. "Well, he'd gone for an early lunch so he must've just been coming back. I suppose he might have heard Une asking me whether I was going to be able to handle partnering with him anymore... She mentioned him shooting me and he already feels awful guilty about that..."

"*Are* you going to be able to still be partners with him?"

Grimacing, I gave Fei the same answer I'd given Une. "I don't know..."

He quirked an eyebrow and waited expectantly. I hesitated, then decided to go ahead and talk about it. Maybe it'd help me put the whole mess in perspective.

"Hell Fei, he's got me so fucking *confused*... He keeps giving off these damn mixed signals!" I shoved my chair away from the table and started to pace as I spoke; all my nervous energy needed *some* sort of outlet and neither Fei nor I was exactly up to sparring at the moment.

"I mean, this morning he shows up here out of the blue to give me a ride to work. Okay, fine. Makes sense; he's my partner and I'm not capable of driving myself right now. Nothing all that unusual there. But then he offers to help me with my hair. Now *that's* unusual. But it could just be guilt behind the offer, right? Right. But he's real careful and gentle; he doesn't just treat it like a necessary task and do it quickly and efficiently. Not exactly typical Heero behaviour."

Both my words and my pacing picked up speed as I talked. The only thing keeping me from waving both of my arms around for emphasis was the sling; I motioned rather wildly with the good arm though. "But then he apologizes for shooting me and it's pretty obvious that he's feeling guilty so maybe this is all just guilt-motivated. And he makes a deal with me to help me with stuff that I can't do because of my shoulder and I kind of dared to think that maybe that meant he wanted to spend more time with me which sort of got my hopes up again but then he goes running off for lunch alone instead of waiting to go with the rest of us and I realized it was really just the guilt thing after all..." My voice cracked slightly and I forced out the rest of it, "Then Une shows up and it turns out that she's seen the surveillance from our suite and knows about everything and..." I stopped abruptly and admitted, "And I just want to go crawl in a hole somewhere and hide till all this stops hurting and goes *away*..."

Damn it that came out awfully close to a despairing wail.

"What the hell am I going to do, Fei?"

Okay, and *that* was a defeated whimper. This had turned out to be a *really* bad day. I should have never gotten out of bed this morning.

Wufei stood and pulled me into a reassuring one-armed hug. "The same thing as always, Duo. Grit your teeth and keep doing whatever you have to." I leaned my head against his shoulder and soaked up the comfort of having somebody who was willing to *listen* and just *be* there for me. Regardless of whether he could do anything more than that to help or not. That kind of friendship is worth one hell of a lot.

After a few moments, I sighed and drew away. "Thanks, Fei. But I still don't know what the hell I'm going to do about this mess."

Grasping my good shoulder, Wufei squeezed it as he ordered firmly, "Talk to him. Get it out in the open once and for all; then deal with whatever happens next. You're not doing either of you any favours by trying to turn back the clock; you can't just ignore everything that happened on that mission, Duo. I'll be here for you whatever happens. But you can't keep going on like this."

I shuddered involuntarily at the suggestion. Wufei was right; I couldn't keep going like this. Pretending none of it ever happened just wasn't going to work; today had made that pretty damn clear. But talking to Heero about it all? I wasn't too sure *that* was going to work either...

Part 33:

I paused the video and wished for the hundredth time that the quality was a bit better. It was hard to make out Duo's expression clearly; I couldn't be completely sure whether there was something more than concern for a partner on his face as he watched me sleep or not.

There was a lot of footage here but obviously the equipment must have been set to only record when motion was detected because there was no real "dead screen" time on any of the disks that I'd checked. Though there had been segments that I'd fast-forwarded through. Bits where we'd both been napping or just watching a movie. Reading or playing video games. Or Duo had been reading or watching me as I slept. I had spent even more time sleeping during the first couple of days after the accident than I'd realized.

And he'd spent a lot of that time just - watching me. Surely that had to mean that - at least at that point - he cared for me more than just as a partner...

Though it might not mean anything *now*. After the way that I'd treated him as my memories started to return.

I wasn't looking forward to watching *that* footage at *all*.

I ejected the disk from the reader and put in another disk. They were all time-stamped but of course they overlapped each other at times, showing views from different cameras during the same time period. But judging from the starting time listed for this one...

The video on the screen confirmed my guess. I watched as my image sat up in bed and called for "Max". Watched as Duo entered the camera's range, his hair a glorious cloak that floated around him as he walked. As he surrendered the brush to me and I brushed his hair. As he kept giving me those sidelong glances; ones that I understood all too well now.

It was far from surprising that he had given me such wondering looks; I'd never really done anything before to lead him to believe that I might even be capable of acting so tenderly. Let alone that I would *want* to. It was just so damn *difficult* to set the training aside like that now that I remembered it...

Part of me wished that I'd never remembered anything beyond what I'd known at that moment. That instead of me doubting Duo and shooting him, I'd kept trusting him implicitly and let him get us out of there. That I'd never shut him out again; never triggered off his own emotional retreat. Never destroyed the promise that our interaction on the video I was watching seemed to hold; the chance at something truly wonderful that the effortless dancing in each other's arms suggested was ours.

But the rest of me knew that there was no point dwelling on what might have happened. It was equally possible that if I hadn't remembered anything, we *all* would have ended up captured. Or that Duo would have managed to get the two of us out without ever knowing that Wufei and Sally had been caught. And he would have never forgiven himself if they'd arrived as our backup and ended up being killed.

I continued to watch even after the dance ended. The video recording jumped from scene to scene as we left the room and returned minutes or hours later. Duo had been so *open* with me then, despite the secrets that he'd been keeping. Despite the worry that must have been eating away at him over our safety. I *had* to believe that the caring he'd shown was more than just part of our cover. He was a good undercover operative and one hell of a good actor but I couldn't quite believe that none of that had been real.

The disk reached its end and I added it to the small pile of those I'd checked. Glancing at my watch, I realized that I didn't have much time left before the end of the workday. I didn't want to be late leaving; I'd told Sally that I would take over from Wufei so the two of them could spend the evening together. There was no way that I would get through *all* of the remaining footage this afternoon.

I dug through the remaining disks, looking for a specific time and camera code. Once I located the disk I wanted, I sat and stared at it for a few minutes. Was I really ready to watch this?

Probably not. But I needed to.

I shoved the disk in the player and hit the "play" button decisively. I didn't know how much the surveillance equipment in the bathroom would have picked up that last morning but I intended to find out.

***

I forced my fingers to unclench from the steering wheel as Sally's car pulled into the driveway behind mine. My mouth was dry and my heart was racing as I climbed out of the car. I was determined to do this - to face Duo and get everything out in the open - but that didn't change the fact that I was incredibly nervous.

"Yuy? What are you doing here?" Wufei asked as I followed Sally into the house.

"I promised to help Duo while his shoulder's healing," I answered simply. That wasn't the *whole* reason I was there by any means but the rest of it was strictly between Duo and myself. I'd spent all damn afternoon psyching myself up for this while watching those surveillance recordings; I wasn't going to back down now.

Wufei frowned slightly and said, "I thought that Sally and I..."

"Heero had already volunteered this morning," Sally said firmly. "*We* have other plans since our presence is not required."

"I don't know whether..."

I cut Wufei off, saying, "It's my fault that he needs the assistance in the first place; it's only fair that I should be the one to help." I *had* to do this now. While every tiny indication that Duo cared for me as more than a partner was fresh in my memory. While I clearly remembered every encouraging little thing he'd said or done that the surveillance cameras in our suite had captured.

Duo stepped out of the hallway, his hair a bit mussed as if he'd been sleeping. "Heero, I already told you, it's not your fault. I don't hold you responsible for anything that you said or did while you had amnesia. None of it was real. You don't need to..."

"What if I want to be held responsible?" I interrupted quickly. I'd promised myself that I would take advantage of the first opportunity to set things straight. To tell Duo how I felt. This chance had happened sooner than I'd expected and with an audience that I'd have preferred not to have but if I didn't say something now I might not ever do so. Based on my past record, I might just keep waiting and waiting for the "right" chance and never find it.

Duo froze and his eyes widened slightly. I ignored the knot in my throat and pressed on determinedly, "What if I want it to be real?" I heard the outside door open and close behind me and realized that we no longer had an audience. Silently, I thanked Wufei and Sally for their tact. This was going to be difficult enough as it was; I didn't need extra observers. I stepped close to Duo and slid my arms around him carefully. I swallowed hard, met his confused eyes, and murmured softly, "What if I need to do *this*?"

And then I kissed him.

Part 34:

I'd been lying on the bed trying to persuade myself that it was time to get up for several minutes before I heard the knock on the outside door. Checking my watch confirmed that it was probably Sally. I dragged myself off the bed and straightened my clothes. Halfway to the door, I backtracked to don the sling; I really didn't want to give Wufei an excuse to get on my case about taking care of myself properly again.

"Yuy? What are you doing here?" I froze at Wufei's question. I knew that I needed to talk to Heero but I hadn't expected to have to do it so damn *soon*! I stayed out of sight and listened to the conversation, wondering whether maybe Heero wouldn't stay. He might be satisfied with simply having made the gesture if he was only here out of guilt. If he stayed even though someone else had offered to help out, maybe this wasn't just about appeasing his conscience over the shooting...

But when his words made it perfectly clear that, although he wasn't going to leave, he *was* here out of guilt, I had to make my presence known. I didn't want him here if that was the only reason. It wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.

Stepping out of the hallway, I said, "Heero, I already told you, it's not your fault. I don't hold you responsible for anything that you said or did while you had amnesia. None of it was real. You don't need to..."

"What if I want to be held responsible?"

I stopped in mid sentence. What the fuck was *that* supposed to mean?

"What if I want it to be real?" Heero asked, his eyes intently fixed on me. I stared at him disbelievingly, vaguely aware that Wufei and Sally were leaving. He couldn't possibly mean what I thought he meant. Could he?

As he wrapped his arms around me and whispered, "What if I need to do *this*?" I decided that I hadn't really woken up. Obviously, I was still in bed and dreaming. There was no other explanation for the fact that I was standing here being kissed so very warmly and tenderly by Heero Yuy. And if I was just dreaming, there was absolutely no reason why I shouldn't kiss him back.

I parted my lips and deepened the kiss, anxious to get as much out of this dream as I could before I woke up. It *had* to be a dream. Couldn't *possibly* be real. I started to wrap my arms around Heero and realized that I couldn't because one of them was held against me by a sling. And that my shoulder ached a bit. And that I really needed to breathe about now... 'This isn't a dream!'

My eyes had drifted shut but now they snapped open and I broke off the kiss, gasping for breath. "What the *hell* is going on here?!"

Nice as that kiss had been, I needed an explanation. Hell, I *deserved* an explanation. Heero could *not* just walk in here and kiss me and expect me to fall into his arms just like that. Not after all the times he'd shut me out. Including the most recent one. *Especially* the most recent one since it had come after he'd acted like he lo... - cared - for me. After I'd admitted that I loved him.

Heero flinched very, very slightly at my demand. Most people wouldn't even have noticed the slight twitch of his facial muscles but since we were literally close enough to kiss, I did. I'd known him long enough to realize that even that tiny reaction was a pretty unmistakable sign of something actually getting through those damn emotional walls of his. His arms dropped away from me and I suddenly felt chilled. "I'm sorry," he apologized softly as he started to back away from me.

Oh *shit*. I had no idea what the fuck was going through his mind right now but I didn't want to send him into full retreat either. If I drove him off after he'd stepped this far out of his normal pattern of behaviour, I really doubted he'd ever try again. I stepped towards him and flung my good arm around his neck, forcing him to halt or pull me off balance and risk hurting my injured shoulder. "Oh no you don't," I growled. He was *not* going to get away with backing off again after *that*. I needed some answers and I was going to get them.

"I didn't ask for an apology, Heero. What I want is an explanation. And I want it *now*," I demanded sharply. I was proud of the fact that my voice didn't shake the way I half expected it to.

I felt his throat muscles move as he swallowed convulsively and raised his eyes to meet mine. He didn't answer me though. He asked *me* a question instead. "What you said in the shower that day... Did you mean it? Do you still..."

I was really, seriously, severely tempted to insist that he go first. It didn't seem fair that I had to restate my feelings when he hadn't given me an answer yet. When he hadn't actually told me how *he* felt.

But then again, this was Heero who'd never been much for talking and he'd just taken one hell of a big chance by kissing me. Actions *had* always spoken louder than words where he was concerned... 'You promised yourself that you'd tell him if he asked, Maxwell...'

I set my jaw and answered, "Yes. I love you. Suki da. Ai shiteru. Take your pick; they all apply." I suddenly realized just how tense Heero had been as the shoulder and neck muscles my arm was pressed against relaxed a bit. I waited for the words I was starting to dare to hope he would respond with. Waited - but didn't ask. If he couldn't manage to figure out that much on his own, to *offer* that much on his own, I wasn't too sure that any of this meant anything in the long run. I didn't expect him to suddenly become "Odin" in private let alone in public but he had to at least be willing and able to tell me how he felt about me. That much, I didn't think I could live with compromising on.

"I..." Heero swallowed again and his eyes dropped. I shifted just a fraction closer to him and he brought his eyes back up to meet mine. "I... I think we'd better sit down; this will take a while."

I bit my tongue. Hard. All I wanted right now was three little words. Hell, just *two* in Japanese.

But no, he was going to give me the damn explanation I'd asked for instead. And obviously, it wasn't going to be a short one. "Fine," I ground out. He winced but this time I was sufficiently pissed off that I didn't try to soften my attitude. I pulled away from him and stalked over to sit in the armchair rather than on the couch. Petty? Probably. But Heero had me so damn far off-balance that I didn't care.

I looked over at Heero just in time to catch a faint flicker of hurt cross his face before he stilled it to impassivity again and sat stiffly on the couch. But that flicker of hurt was enough to remind me that he *was* trying to open up to me at least a little bit. He was intending to give me an explanation and Heero Yuy did *not* make a habit of explaining himself to *anyone*. I'd have no one but myself to blame if I ended up driving him back behind his protective barriers again.

Dragging myself out of the chair, I walked back over to the couch and joined Heero. "Okay. Now *talk*," I ordered.

And much to my surprise, he did. And it *did* take a while. A *long* while.

He started way back with that training mission that went bad and the retraining he was put through because of the emotions - the compassion and regret - that he displayed after it.

He told me all about that bastard J. About the fear of J ordering more retraining that he had carried for so long despite the fact that in retrospect he could see just how irrational the fear had been.

About how he'd fallen in love with me back then - god, what I would have given to know that at the time - but had hidden it because of J and that fear. How he'd thought that everything would be okay when the war was over. That he'd be able to stop pushing me away and admit his own feelings.

Except of course things hadn't worked out that way. I'd been frozen out too many times and I'd been very careful to maintain the precise distance he'd always held me at in order to make sure it didn't happen again. And he hadn't known how to change things. Hadn't been able to set aside all of his conditioning against showing his feelings enough to take the initiative himself.

And, somewhat reluctantly, I had to admit that I understood. Someone who hadn't been through all the things that Heero had during his training would have been able to make their interest clear enough that I would have opened up in return. But Heero couldn't make himself that vulnerable when he had no guarantee what my response would be. And I hadn't exactly made things easy for him; my own emotional shields had been pretty damn thick where he was concerned.

We sat in silence for several minutes after Heero finished speaking. Me considering everything he'd said. And him - well, waiting for my reaction I guess. He had his gaze firmly fixed on the toes of his shoes, just the way he'd kept it through his whole explanation. I'd had to bite my tongue rather hard a few times *during* that explanation but I'd managed to keep my silence since I'd been afraid that if I said or did anything to interrupt, he might not finish it. And I had definitely needed to hear it all.

Part of me wanted to just accept everything that Heero had said and jump right into the relationship that we'd pretended to have during the mission. But the rest of me knew that there was no way that would work. We didn't have the foundation between us that was needed. All the deep background knowledge of each other, of our respective pasts. Heero had told me a lot just now but there was still a lot that I *didn't* know. And I was pretty sure that his knowledge of my own past was equally sketchy. We were good partners at work - but only rather distant friends, barely more than acquaintances, outside of it.

Even more importantly, though, I wasn't sure how well Heero was going to handle learning to be more open with his emotions. Hell, I wasn't sure how well I was going to handle letting *him* inside *my* guard. The idea that the pattern of the past - him letting me get a little closer then freezing me out again - could repeat itself was distinctly less than pleasant and I couldn't quite dismiss that possibility from my thoughts. I wasn't too sure that I could just let go of all my defences around him; I'd been hurt too many times for things to be quite that simple.

And even if Heero didn't shut me out completely in future, there was no way that we could build a solid relationship if he didn't learn to be more open with me than he had ever been in the past. Well, more open than any time except while he had amnesia, that is.

Love was a start. A damn important start. But all by itself, it wouldn't be enough to make a relationship between us work. It was going to take time and one hell of a lot of effort from both of us to make that happen. I was going to have to learn how to trust Heero on an emotional level and he was going to have to prove that I *could* trust him that way.

None of that changed the fact that I loved him and wanted him - but it did mean that I wasn't about to just rush headlong into anything.

I needed to know *exactly* what Heero wanted and what he needed so that I could decide if and how I could fulfill those wishes and needs. And I needed to know that he understood what *I* wanted and needed - and that he was prepared to do his best to meet those requirements. If we didn't get those details straight now, it would only be a matter of time before things fell apart.

There were a lot of unanswered questions left to be dealt with and it was pretty clear that Heero was waiting for me to make the next move. Quietly - and rather wearily, it had been one hell of a rough day emotionally - I asked, "So... where do we go from here?"

Part 35:

I waited silently, my explanation over with. I continued to keep my gaze fixed on the floor just as I had the entire time that I was trying to give Duo the explanation that he wanted. Just telling him all of this had been difficult enough - I hated admitting just how badly J had had me cowed during the war and that was just for starters - there was no way that I could have brought myself to look him in the eyes while I talked.

I wasn't sure what I'd expected to happen when I kissed Duo; just that what *did* happen wasn't it. Kissing him had seemed like the best way to *show* him how I felt in no uncertain terms. And those first moments when he'd started to respond to the kiss had seemed so promising...

But then things had fallen apart. He'd broken off the kiss and been - decidedly less than happy with me. He'd admitted that he loved me but he hadn't exactly been encouraging in either tone or expression as he'd said it. And although I'd known that I would have to explain my past behaviour to him, I'd hoped that the explanations would come later. Maybe while the two of us were curled up on the couch together the way that "Max" and "Odin" had before. Definitely not while he sat across the room from me and waited almost impatiently. Duo *had* ended up joining me on the couch but he hadn't made any move to touch me and I didn't dare touch him again without his permission. Not after his reaction to the kiss.

I really would have liked some sort of verification that his love for me meant that he would give me a chance. Just the lightest touch of reassurance. The slightest sign of acceptance...

Finally, Duo's voice broke the silence. "So - where do we go from here?"

I licked dry lips before asking, "What do you mean?" Was he referring to our partnership? Any possibility of a deeper relationship? I thought I'd made it clear earlier that I wanted what we'd seemed to have when I was still "Odin". The love and tenderness and commitment... It was just a matter of whether he was willing to give me a chance considering how many times I'd pushed him away and hurt him before.

"I mean..." Duo huffed in exasperation, then reached out and caught hold of my chin firmly, forcing me to turn and meet his eyes. "That's better..." he muttered. "I mean, you've said that you've loved me since the war. You've explained why you kept pushing me away back then and why you've never said anything since. Okay, I still don't like it and I *really* don't like the reasons behind it - J's damn lucky he's already dead - but I do understand.

"What I need to know is what do you want *now*? What exactly about this last fucked-up mission do you want to be real, Heero?" Duo's gaze was deadly serious and his voice almost grim as he spoke. "I need you to be perfectly clear what you want from me because I can't live on an emotional roller-coaster. I don't expect you to turn into 'Odin' overnight by any means but I *do* need to know that you're going to be as open with me as you can manage. That I won't find myself gettin' the deepfreeze treatment again because I overstepped some invisible boundary."

I kept my eyes locked on his as I answered, "I want the relationship that I thought we had while I still didn't remember anything. The love and the comfort and the commitment... The kissing and just - being together... *All* of it." I hesitated for a moment, hating to admit that I might not be able to meet his requirements. But I couldn't lie to Duo of all people. Couldn't make a promise that I might not be able to keep, no matter how much I wanted to and how hard I tried.

So I forced myself to add, "I can't guarantee that I won't backslide sometimes; that my training won't make me cut myself off. I wish I could but I can't. I'm sorry but it's hard to break years of habit. I'll do my best to..."

Fingers touched my mouth gently, stopping the words. "It's okay. I don't expect perfection, Heero. Just an honest effort and the promise that you'll keep trying. And that you will *never* shut me out on purpose again. *Never*. I mean it, Heero."

He drew his hand away and his face hardened, eyes narrowing and lips thinning, as he continued harshly, "Because I can *not* handle you blowin' hot and cold all the time the way that you always used to. It hurts too damn much. An occasional short-lived, subconscious slip-up is understandable and I can live with that. I still won't be happy about it and you'd damn well better apologize once you realize what you've done. But I can live with it as long as I know you're doing your best to avoid doing it and that you're trying to get better.

"But I can't and won't take having my hopes raised and crushed on a regular basis. I have to know exactly where I stand with you and that you're not going to change your mind."

"I love you and I want you; I'm not going to change my mind about that," I promised fervently. That much I *could* guarantee him.

Duo's expression lightened, his eyes softening and the corners of his mouth lifting out of the flat, unhappily determined line that they'd been set in. Even that much of a positive response gave me the impetus I needed to keep talking. "I... I know it's going to take time to prove that; I don't expect you to just take my word for it." I consciously forced myself *not* to flatten my tone, to let the depth of my yearning show. To let my voice and my expression become pleading. "Just... please..." Cautiously, I reached out and touched his hand lightly, finding encouragement in the fact that he didn't pull it away. "Please Duo... just give me the chance to show you how I feel. That I really do love you and I'll do whatever I have to in order to make a relationship between us work. That's all I'm asking for right now."

Not all that I *wanted*. Not even close. But I knew that I'd hurt him too many times in the past to expect him to make a deeper commitment just like that. I'd settle for a chance to show him that I really *could* change. That a relationship between us - that *marriage* - would work.

Duo's brow wrinkled slightly in thought and I held my breath, hoping. He only hesitated for a few moments, examining my expression carefully while I tried to let my love and longing show, before nodding and saying, "Okay. I love you, Heero. If you're serious about wanting the kind of relationship we pretended to have on the mission... That kind of commitment and ease in each other's company... It'll take a lot of work..."

I met his eyes levelly, acknowledging what he was saying. I was well aware that I had a lot of changing to do. But if he was willing to give me a chance, I would do it no matter how difficult it might be. I *had* to.

His eyes searched my face again and he must have found what he was looking for because he nodded very slightly and his hand turned beneath mine to clasp it firmly. He repeated softly, "A *lot* of work... But I'm willing to try if you are. Starting with just spending time together."

Overwhelmed with relief, I simply nodded in return and tightened my grip on his hand. 'I won't blow this chance. I *will* make this work...'

The serious look on his face was abruptly banished as he flashed me a sudden grin. "Well, spending time together... and... I guess some kissing and cuddling would be okay too..." He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head slightly to one side as he invited, "Starting now?"

I didn't need a second invitation.

Leaning forward, I pressed my lips against Duo's lightly. Cautiously. Despite the invitation he'd issued, he was tense and the kiss started off very awkward. Almost as if it was the first time that we'd kissed and, in a way, it was. It was certainly the first time that we'd kissed with us both fully aware of what was going on. Duo gradually relaxed and his lips softened against mine. I slid my arms around him, careful not to jar his shoulder, and felt his good arm raise to curl around my neck as he started to respond to the kiss. "Awkward" was replaced by "warm and tender" and well on the way to "passionate".

And then the phone rang.

I tried to ignore it but Duo broke off the kiss. "Sorry. I've gotta get that, Heero. Unless you want Fei showing up back here..."

Reluctantly, I released him. He let the phone ring a couple more times while he got his breath back, then answered it.

"Hello... Yeah, Fei, he's still here... Yes, I'm okay..."

I half expected Duo to take the phone down the hall but he didn't.

"Yeah, we talked... Yes, about *that*... Yeah, we're working things out... *WUFEI!*" I watched in fascination as Duo's cheeks flushed. "Yes, you did interrupt something and no, I will not put Heero on the phone so that you can grill him." Duo was silent for a few moments, the embarrassed flush still darkening his cheeks. His tone made up of equal parts of exasperation and affectionate amusement, he said firmly, "You're my best friend not my older brother, Fei. I'm a big boy; I can take care of myself. Stop fussing. Good night, I'll see you tomorrow." He listened for a moment more and smiled slightly. "I know, Fei. Me too. Bye." He put the phone back in its cradle.

Offering me a faint smile, Duo shrugged his good shoulder and said simply, "Sorry." I realized immediately that he wasn't just apologizing for the interruption. The mood had been broken and we were back to "awkward" again. I wasn't surprised when he said, "There's a few chores that I'd kind of like to get taken care of tonight, we haven't even had supper yet, and the evening's disappearing fast. Guess we'd better get started."

Automatically, I tried to hide my disappointment as I stood and replied, "Okay." I realized my mistake as soon as I spoke. I'd promised to be more open with Duo and I was already breaking that promise. Maybe it was going to be even harder to keep than I'd expected...

Part 36:

I awkwardly wrapped a towel around my hair before climbing out of the shower. This one-armed business was getting really old really fast. I hadn't really intended to wash my hair this morning but it was a routine that never failed to relax me and help me to get my thoughts in order and I needed that right now.

I checked my watch and realized that I was going to have to hurry if I wanted to be dressed before Heero arrived. He was coming early so that he could help me with my hair and fix a more substantial breakfast to share with me before we had to leave for work. I felt a bit bad about making him go home for the night; it really had been late and I'd caught the wistful glance he'd thrown at the couch when I'd remarked that I was pretty tired. But I'd needed the space. Needed some time to process all of last night's revelations without him here.

Last night had been almost - surreal - at times. Wonderful and uncomfortable in turns. Sometimes even both at the same time.

Heero's kisses were still just as intoxicating as I'd found them during the mission; part of me would have been perfectly happy to spend all evening in his arms. Which was precisely why I was intensely grateful that Wufei had called to make sure I was okay. The call had broken the mood and given me a bit of a breather to get my head together again.

Heero had some major convincing to do regarding his ability to meet my emotional needs in a relationship; I had no intention of letting myself forget that in the heat of the moment. If - I didn't quite dare think in terms of "when", at least not yet - we made love, I didn't want there to be any regrets. Jumping into a physical relationship before getting our emotional one straightened out would definitely cause a few.

So after I'd gotten off the phone, we'd spent the rest of the evening just talking while Heero helped me with the chores that I couldn't handle too easily with my bad shoulder. Most of the conversation at that point had been a bit less personal and a *lot* less intense. I at least had needed some relief from all the emotional strain and getting into discussions of our respective pasts would *not* have been too likely to provide that. Instead, we'd talked about the latest news from Quatre and Trowa, about some of the social reforms that Relena was trying to get passed by the Earth Sphere Senate, about a dozen other topics of casual conversation.

It had been kind of weird and awkward at first. I don't think I'd talked to Heero about much of anything other than work and maybe some superficial talk about the other guys since those days early in the war when I'd tried so damn hard to get close to him. I kept half expecting him to go silent and leave. But he didn't. Even when it was obvious that he was finding the whole situation just as strange and uncomfortable as I was. And as we'd persisted, struggling to find neutral topics that weren't *too* damn dull, it *did* get better. Not exactly *easy* - but better.

And as we'd kept talking and started to get a little more comfortable, things had gotten just a bit more personal. I'd admitted my sneaking fondness for old James Bond movies and *really* old black-and-white Westerns, the kind where the good guys and bad guys were clearly defined by the colour of their hats and the good guys always won and rode off into the sunset to save someone else another day. And in turn I'd found out that Heero had a secret liking for old Alistair MacLean and Tom Clancy novels and the movies based on them. That he hardly ever touched his computer other than when using it for work, though he admitted that up until now he'd spent quite a bit of his evenings working since he hadn't had anything better to do. He'd added quietly and a bit uncertainly that he hoped that wouldn't be the case anymore and I'd rather cautiously agreed that I hoped so too.

It had been a long time since I'd deliberately allowed myself to hope for much of anything where Heero was concerned. It was too risky; I'd been painfully disappointed too many times. But as the doorbell rang to signal Heero's arrival, I acknowledged that it was a risk worth taking.

***

I fought the urge to crawl under the table as Wufei grilled me about exactly where things stood between me and Heero. Just like he'd said on the phone last night, he really did think of me as "family" just as much as "best friend". And I did consider him family too. But I had a sneaking suspicion that even if he really was my brother, I'd find his concern just as hard to deal with. I was half touched that he was so concerned about the possibility of Heero hurting me again and half annoyed that he was butting in. Judging by things I'd heard Quatre say about his sisters, that was actually a pretty typical sibling reaction. Fei wasn't asking for "kiss and tell" type details; he just wanted to be sure that Heero and I really had talked things out. But it was still damn embarrassing, especially considering that Sally and Heero could get back with our lunches at any moment.

"Fei, *enough*, okay? I think... I think he really does *mean* what he says; he *is* trying to be more open with me. But it's going to take some time to see if that really counts for anything."

"I'm sorry, Duo," Wufei apologized with a sigh. "I hope that things do work out for the two of you. I just don't want to see you get hurt again."

"Yeah, well I'd rather not *get* hurt again," I replied drily. "Unfortunately, the only way to find out whether that's going to happen or not is to give him a chance. And I do think he intends to really try to make this work. I just don't know whether that'll be enough. I *hope* it will but..." I started to shrug, remembered that was a bad idea, and only shrugged my good shoulder instead. "So I'll take things slow. Give Heero a chance to prove that he won't shut me out again. See where things go from there. No deadlines, no target dates. As long as he's honestly trying, I'm willing to do the same."

Time really wasn't an issue here; it wasn't like I was going to suddenly stop loving Heero, fall out of love with him and in love with someone else. Shit, I'd been in love with him with no hope of it ever being mutual for years now; I sure as hell wasn't about to give up when there was a chance of things actually working out between us. I could wait. However long it might take, I could wait.

***

Lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, my mind was too active to let me sleep. Over the past couple of weeks, Heero had quite faithfully shown up at my place early enough to share breakfast and help with the dishes as well as helping with my hair before we left for work, then stayed for supper and to help with chores when he brought me home again, plus spent time with me on the weekends. It had become increasingly obvious that not only was he really trying to change but that he *had* been doing so for a while now. Or maybe hadn't ever really been quite the way I'd thought he was, which was probably a more accurate assessment of the situation. I hadn't realized just how well he really knew me. How many little things he'd noticed about me over the years we'd worked together.

Little things like the fact that I liked my French toast made with whole wheat bread, not white. That I ate waffles with whipped cream and fruit, not syrup. That I liked my eggs over-easy but the yolks still soft.

How the hell had I not noticed him noticing?!

I'd been asking myself that question quite a few times lately. Like after Heero fixed my favourites for breakfast without having to ask what they were. And after he put the right brand of shampoo and conditioner in the cart when the shopping list didn't specify that detail. Well, or more accurately, the list just said, "Hair stuff," and he figured out what the hell that meant without me telling him.

And tonight - or rather, this morning since I'd spent most of the night lying here worrying away at that damn question - I'd finally been forced to admit that I hadn't noticed him noticing because *I'd* quit noticing *him*. On purpose. Because it had hurt too damn much and I'd made a conscious decision to stop watching him like that.

Realizing that Heero was actually quite a few steps ahead of me in the whole process of getting to know each other - that I was still expecting him to react certain ways based on his wartime behaviour because that was all I'd allowed myself to see, all I'd allowed myself to expect of him - kind of sucked. He'd been trying damn hard long before this last mission and not only had I not noticed it then, I *still* kept expecting him to ignore me or, worse, freeze me out again.

Yet if I tried to remember a single instance - other than while his memories were returning and counting that was just damn unfair and I knew it - when he'd frozen me out since the war, I couldn't come up with one. I supposed that, in part, was because I hadn't ever dared try to get any closer and therefore the possibility hadn't even come up.

But there was another reason behind that lack of freeze-outs. Namely, that the situation had reversed itself since the war ended. Maybe not to the same extreme as when Heero had been the one pushing me away but... Well, looking back with the knowledge I now had, I could see the times when Heero had tentatively tried to get closer to me and I'd quite politely but firmly ignored the attempt. Or worse, had nipped it in the bud by making an excuse that would have been terribly transparent to Heero.

Which made me feel damn guilty. Even if he'd only been looking for a closer friendship, I shouldn't have been so suspicious and unwilling to give him a chance. I'd only been trying to protect myself from being hurt again but it hadn't been right.

I hadn't been fair to Heero then and I wasn't being fair to him now by dwelling so much on the past. I had to stop expecting the worst of him. The fact that expecting the worst of him meant that I couldn't be disappointed and hurt wasn't a good enough reason for the way I'd behaved previously and it sure as hell wasn't a good enough one for being so damn suspicious of him now. I had to start trusting Heero - really and truly trusting him, not just thinking that he meant well yet at the same time doubting that he was really capable of living up to his promise to change.

Trust Heero. On an emotional level.

Easy enough to say, not as easy to do. But if I focussed on the things he did right - like the breakfasts and the way he was so careful when he brushed my hair and the tender way that he kissed me and the way he struggled valiantly to find interesting but not intrusive topics of conversation - instead of picking away at every time he instinctively resorted to a noncommittal sound rather than a true answer or let his face fall into that still, blank expression he automatically tended to don, it should be a lot easier.

I added that to my list of things to do today - focus on the positive. And I made a mental note to point out to Heero that me being able to drive myself to work from now on didn't necessarily mean I *had* to do that every day and that even if I *did* drive, I wouldn't mind sharing breakfast. It was time I started making a bigger effort to meet him halfway on this.

Question answered and decision made, I rolled over and finally drifted off to sleep.

***

"Joining us for lunch?" Wufei asked from the doorway.

"Might as well," I muttered disgustedly. I slapped the keyboard impatiently, blanking and locking the display. One of those rare office procedures that actually made *sense* considering the highly sensitive information that most of us were working with on a regular basis. Rising from the desk, I stalked toward the door, fuming silently. Wufei raised one eyebrow, obviously picking up on my bad mood. I gave him a glare that warned him to just not even go there. I was too pissed off to talk about this right now, especially since I'd spent half the damn night convincing myself that Heero had really changed, was still changing, and that it was only a matter of time before we had the relationship that we both had said we really wanted.

Then after all that, I'd walked into the office this morning, said good morning, and been absently grunted at. And that had been the sum total of my conversation with Heero today. Oh, that and another grunt when I'd suggested lunch a half hour ago or so. First damn morning that he hadn't had to come by my place for breakfast and to drive me to work and he hadn't so much as *looked* at me today. He'd just sat there in front of that fucking computer, typing and staring at the fucking screen and damn well *ignoring* me.

Yeah, I was definitely pissed off.

A state of being that Sally appeared to share judging by her impatient, "I'm going," as she stalked down the hallway, leaving Wufei and I to follow.

"Isn't Yuy joining us?" Wufei asked curiously.

"Heero, it's lunch time. Are you coming or not?" I demanded, already knowing what the answer would be.

"Hn." Heero didn't even flick a glance towards us.

"Guess that's a no," I shrugged with forced nonchalance and started down the hall. I tried very hard to ignore the little voice that was pointing out just how quickly he'd reverted once he didn't have to wait on me due to my injured shoulder. That wasn't a fair interpretation of the situation. This wasn't the same thing as freezing me out; there was nothing personal in this whatsoever. I doubted he'd even heard Wufei ask me to join them for lunch.

Really, this had nothing to do with me personally. Really.

It might have been easier to convince myself of that if I'd even had some idea what the hell he was working on that was so damn interesting. Hell, maybe it was even important and urgent enough to justify ignoring me all morning.

But I doubted it.

"Duo..." Wufei said very softly.

"Chang, unless you want me as pissed at you as I am at him and Sally appears to be at you, I'd strongly suggest that you *butt out*," I growled. This was not open for discussion; at least not till after Heero re-entered the real world. He owed me an apology and an explanation. If he managed to figure that out by himself and provided both... And if I was satisfied with them... Then the whole thing would be a closed issue. If he *didn't* do any of those things, on the other hand...

Well, in that case I'd probably be looking for someone to bitch to and Wufei would probably be the individual fortunate enough to receive that "honour". Lucky him.

Part 37:

'Well, damn...' I was ready for work far, far earlier than necessary. This was the first morning in weeks that I didn't need to go to Duo's house to help him but here I was, ready in time to do so anyway.

I'd been a little - hurt - by how quick he'd been to inform me that he was now allowed to use his arm freely and therefore I wouldn't have to help him get ready and drive him to work this morning. I could understand *why* he'd been delighted by the physical therapist's decision; I knew that Duo was extremely independent and didn't like having to rely on others. Being able to do things for himself - especially being able to drive again - would naturally make him happy. I *wanted* him to get better of course - but I'd really enjoyed all the time we'd been spending together. There had been awkward moments, yes, and I'd had to get up well over an hour earlier than usual every day but...

But I was going to miss brushing and braiding Duo's hair and fixing breakfast for the two of us and all of those other things that he was now able to do for himself again. My ready-made excuse to spend virtually every waking hour in his presence was a thing of the past. He wouldn't *need* me the same way. I had to wonder just how much of an effect that was going to have on the time we spent together.

Duo had accepted my company readily enough over the past few weeks but he hadn't actively sought it beyond those times that he'd asked me to help him with tasks that his injured shoulder made difficult or impossible. At no point had he asked me to come over just to watch television or to go to a show. Only to help him houseclean or shop or something else practical and necessary. Oh, once I was there, he would usually invite me to stay and we would spend some time together talking and kissing. Doing a little light making out on the couch. And if I asked to come over, he would willingly agree.

But he hadn't made the first move at any point. And I couldn't help feeling that he was still keeping a certain distance between us. Protecting himself.

Intellectually, I knew why. Knew that Duo was waiting for me to prove that I wouldn't revert to my wartime behaviour around him. But I wasn't sure what it was going to take *to* prove that. Wasn't sure what it was going to take to turn that "chance" I'd asked for into an actual relationship. A *permanent* relationship, not just something that we were both "trying".

'Sometimes I wonder whether I *can* prove myself. Whether there *is* anything that I can do to really convince him...

'Whether he's as willing to work at this, as willing to try as he said that he was. As *I* am...'

I shook my head sharply, not wanting to follow that line of thought any further. It had only been a few weeks and I had spent *months* freezing him out during the war. It wasn't reasonable to expect him to be convinced yet that I wouldn't revert to that behaviour.

It didn't pay to be idle; my mind wandered into thoughts - doubts - that I couldn't afford to harbour. It was still early but I might as well go into work anyway. We hadn't finished tracing all of the financial transactions to and from the accounts belonging to Mattis personally and the resort itself; carrying out that particular task should keep my mind occupied and away from worrying about whether Duo would ever trust me enough, let me close enough, to have the relationship I wanted with him. The fact that I might actually manage to find a data trail leading to one or two of the suppliers or buyers that Mattis had dealt with was just a bonus.

***

Noting another company for further investigation, I realized that the name sounded vaguely familiar. They were supposedly in the salvage business; maybe Duo would either know something about them or be able to find out through his contacts with the Sweepers.

Swivelling my chair around, I began, "Duo, do you know anything about..." I stopped in mid-sentence as I realized that I was alone in the office. Which was strange, since I seemed to recall that I'd acknowledged a "good morning" from him when he arrived...

Yes, Duo had obviously been here, his computer was on but the display was blanked and locked. Thinking back, I had the vague impression that he'd said something to me a while ago but I wasn't sure what. 'And I think I heard Wufei's voice too...' A cold lump settled in my stomach as I looked at my watch and realized in shock just how late it was. They'd probably gone to lunch - a *late* lunch at that.

And I hadn't actually *seen* Duo - or really *spoken* with him - all morning. Despite the fact that he'd obviously been in the office and I *did* vaguely recall hearing his voice.

'Shit, shit, shit... I completely ignored him all fucking *morning*... I let myself get wrapped up in my work so that I wouldn't keep thinking about him and worrying and doubting and so I ended up *ignoring* him...'

Just like I used to during the war.

God, I'd just blown the past few weeks all to hell and proved he was right to doubt that I'd really changed.

I rubbed my arms and shivered, suddenly chilled. How the hell was I going to make up for this? What if he wouldn't even let me try? What if I'd just completely ruined the chance I'd asked for?

I hadn't *intended* to shut him out, to ignore him. I'd just - needed to distract myself for a while. I'd known that concentrating on work would do it and it had.

But unfortunately it had also resulted in me falling back into an old, bad habit. The slightest thing out of place or dangerous in my surroundings would have instantly yanked me out of my concentration on my task but Duo was a trusted, familiar presence so I'd just kept working without really noticing him. If he'd touched me, I would have noticed *that*, but I'd taught myself to tune out his voice during the war when we'd had to share a room at a school. Then, it had been pure self-defense; I'd have never gotten *anything* done if I'd let myself listen to him. His voice was always so warm and vibrant; it had been so hard to resist back then. But my determination to keep my distance until after the war had proven stronger and I'd learned to block him out while I worked.

Unfortunately, I'd learned that skill a little *too* well apparently.

For a moment, I considered going down to the cafeteria in search of him. But I had no idea how long ago he'd left for lunch and there was no guarantee that he hadn't gone elsewhere to eat. And I certainly had no interest in eating myself. Not with my throat tight with worry and a cold, heavy lump in my gut.

All I could do was sit tight and wait for him to come back. And hope like hell that he would be willing to accept an apology and give me yet another chance.

***

I had no idea just how long I sat staring at the door before Duo returned to our office. It seemed like forever while I was waiting yet once he was actually there, I half-wished that he wasn't since I really didn't know what to say. His eyes met mine levelly but his expression was unreadable. He stopped and pushed the door closed behind him without looking at it. Folding his arms, he leaned back against it and simply waited silently, his eyes still locked with mine. Obviously, I was on my own with this.

I stood, moving away from my desk and closer to Duo before beginning, "Duo, I'm sorry. I didn't... I shouldn't... I just..." I stopped and drew a steadying breath, then started over, "I'm sorry that I ignored you this morning. I didn't intend to; I just got caught up in tracing Mattis's financial transactions and I guess old habits kicked in. Old, bad habits. I'm sorry, Duo, please give me a chance to make up for it. Please don't give up on me..."

Duo sighed and asked quietly, "Why'd you get so caught up in that, Heero? We were supposed to start work on that today, yeah. *We* were. *Together*. After we finished going over our final notes on that big inter-colony drug trafficking case that's going to court next week."

I winced at the reminder. We really *did* have to go over those notes; *our* part of that case was wrapped up months ago but we still had to testify now that it was finally going to court. We needed to go over our notes to refresh our memories of the whole damn thing. But reading case notes wouldn't have been sufficient distraction so I'd started the day off with the data trace instead. "I needed the distraction," I admitted reluctantly. The last thing I could afford to do right now was dodge Duo's question and make him think that I was shutting him out.

Forcing myself to explain, I continued, "I was early because you didn't need me to pick you up this morning. And I was..." God, it was hard to come right out and say this... "I was worrying about what would happen now that your shoulder's getting better and you don't need my help. Whether we'll still be spending as much time together. Whether I was making any progress in persuading you that I've changed." I added derisively, "Guess that doesn't matter now; I completely blew *that*, didn't I."

Slowly pushing away from the door, Duo walked over to stand directly in front of me. He frowned slightly and shook his head. "No. Not really," he said, the words emerging almost reluctantly. "You... backslid. Like you warned me you probably would. But you realized what you did and you apologized. And..." He grimaced slightly, then admitted, "And I haven't been very fair about all this. Haven't been giving you as much support as I should. I could have tried harder to get your attention this morning. *Should* have tried harder instead of just letting it go. Instead of just getting pissed off."

Scarcely daring to hope, I asked, "Then - you're not giving up on me? On us? I didn't completely wreck things?"

"No!" The prompt response was a relief. "No, Heero, you didn't wreck things and I'm sure as hell not giving up. I just... I did a lot of thinking last night. And I realized that I was clinging to the past too much. Not really being fair to you.

"I finally realized that there's lots of things that show you've changed; things that I should have noticed a long time ago if I hadn't been so damn determined *not* to notice because I didn't want to get hurt anymore...

"Then I came in to work, determined to apologize for that and to try not to make so damn many assumptions about you - and - well, let's just say it was really not the best time for you to backslide, Heero," he said wryly.

I swallowed hard and nodded silently. No wonder he hadn't tried very hard to get my attention. "I really am sorry Duo," I offered quietly.

"Okay," he said simply. "I *was* pretty pissed off but, well, Sally spent the whole lunch hour royally pissed at Fei - I never *did* actually find out why but since he was grovelling quite nicely by the time lunch was over, I'm guessing he did something pretty damn stupid and knew it..." he smirked.

Duo's expression turned serious again as he continued, "Anyway, it just reminded me that *every* relationship has its rough patches. We're all just human and we make mistakes. We just have to admit it and try and fix things when we do." That mischievous, teasing grin that had been so rarely directed at me since the war flickered into existence as he added, "Besides, I'd be an idiot to give up a guy who makes the greatest French toast in the Earth Sphere *and* gives kisses that should be on the controlled substance list as addictive just because he gets a little too intense when he's working on something and forgets about the rest of the world."

I had to laugh in sheer relief. It was going to be okay. The quick, firm hug that Duo pulled me into and his suggestion that we tackle the case review now so that we would be done work in time to grab a quick meal and maybe go see a movie made that clear. He really did intend to try and make things work between us and he *was* starting to believe that I'd changed. That a relationship with me would work.

Yes, I'd screwed up - but things were still going to be okay. I wasn't perfect but neither was Duo. And, more importantly, he didn't expect me to be.

Part 38:

I took the car out of gear and gave Heero a considering look. I knew that he was tired and needed rest but - well, I kind of thought he might just maybe need some company too. Specifically, mine. I'd missed him this week and our relationship was solid enough by now that I was pretty damn sure he'd missed me too. "Hey, want me to come in for a few minutes? Have a cup of coffee maybe?" I offered quietly.

Despite how tired he looked, Heero gave me a small smile as he answered, "Sure. C'mon in."

I climbed out of my car and followed Heero into his apartment building. It had been one hell of a long week, made longer by the fact that Heero and Sally had spent most of it several thousand miles away on a kidnapping case.

Over two months after being injured, Wufei and I still had not been cleared for field duty; neither of us could manage the full count of chin-ups required. He was still trying to rebuild the strength in the arm that had been so badly broken and I was having major problems getting the full range of motion back in my injured shoulder. The Preventers really couldn't afford to have two teams stuck on desk duty for an indefinite time period so Une had decided several weeks ago that Heero and Sally might as well partner each other in the field until the physiotherapist gave us the okay to return to active duty. They'd had a few assignments together but this was the first one that had involved more than an overnight trip.

Cases involving kids were always tough; we all had a tendency to push ourselves to our limits and beyond on those. Heero and Sally had gotten the politician's little boy back safely - scared and hungry and fortunately with nothing worse than some nasty scrapes and bruises - but it had been a pretty damn close call for the poor kid. His captor had threatened to send a body part with the next note and judging from the guy's record - this wasn't exactly his first "alleged" offense though he'd never been convicted of anything - he probably hadn't been bluffing.

I had a sneaking suspicion that neither Heero nor Sally had slept more than a few hours during the entire five days that they were on the case. Heero in particular; that intense concentration that used to drive me crazy during the war *did* actually serve a very important purpose at times. But it also took its toll on Heero; I'd finally figured out just how difficult it was for him to step back *out* of that mode. And it had only taken me *how* many fucking years to realize that?

At any rate, I knew that he needed to relax and unwind. I was hoping that I could help him with that. Nothing much, just a little quiet comfort and some of that TLC that he'd provided me with during those early weeks of my recovery. A chance to demonstrate my own commitment to our steadily deepening relationship.

Inside Heero's apartment, I gave him a gentle push towards the bathroom. "Go shower," I ordered. "I'll fix some coffee or something for us, okay?" He just nodded and walked slowly down the hall.

By the time Heero padded into the kitchen, hair still damp, feet bare, and his Preventers uniform replaced by sweatpants and a faded T-shirt, I had soup and a fried egg sandwich waiting for him. Along with a cup of chamomile tea; he needed sleep not caffeine. His eyes widened slightly at the sight and he protested, "You didn't need to..."

I cut him off firmly, "Yes, I did. Sit and eat, Yuy." His expression changed slightly at my words, stilling and beginning to blank, and I realized that he'd misunderstood. Had taken the use of his last name the wrong way. I had meant it in the way that Wufei and I used each other's last names - to scold, to tease, to make a point - but Heero was more accustomed to me using *his* last name to distance myself with polite formality. 'Shit. Real bright move there, Maxwell.'

Stepping over to Heero, I hugged him tightly. "I *need* to look after you because I love you and I missed you," I said simply. "Missed spending time with you. Missed *this*..." He was tense at first, stiff and unyielding in my embrace, but as our lips met in a tender kiss, that changed. His arms closed around me in return and his body relaxed, leaning into mine. Warmth, tenderness, and comfort were freely shared.

The smoke from my own fried egg blackening in the pan on the stove behind me finally broke us apart. I had to throw it out and start over again. And reheat Heero's meal since he insisted on waiting to eat until I could join him. I didn't mind; the embrace we'd shared was more than worth it.

***

Once supper was over and the dishes washed and put away, we relocated from the kitchen table to the livingroom couch. Heero told me a little bit about the kidnapping case but for the most part, we just sat together, alternating quiet kisses and caresses with casual talk about inconsequential things. Like the upcoming office baby shower for Zechs and Noin.

"So anyway, Wufei suggested that we just go in with him and Sally on the baby gift, that way we can get one of the bigger items on the list. I think he said she'd suggested the car seat. I told him that sounded good to me. What do you think?"

A soft snore was the only response I received. The exhaustion had finally caught up to Heero. I *should* have probably woken him and helped him stagger down the hall to his bed then headed off to my own. But his warm weight leaning against me felt pretty damn good and he *was* sound asleep - it seemed awfully unfair to wake him just to move him to his bed. And I didn't feel much like leaving, frankly; this just felt *right*. It reminded me of those days that we'd slept together as "Max" and "Odin". Of the moments back then when the danger that we were in had faded into the back of my consciousness, lost in the simple pleasure of spending time with the man I loved.

So instead of waking Heero, I wriggled and shifted and finally managed to get us both lying down, spooned together on the couch, without waking him up. I dragged the blanket off the back of the couch and shook it out over us. And despite the fact that I knew damn well I'd be stiff and sore after spending the night sharing a couch with Heero, it didn't take long at all for me to join him in slumber.

***

"You stayed..."

I managed to drag my heavy eyes open and looked directly into Heero's. He'd managed to roll over to face me without knocking me off the couch. I was impressed. "Yeah, I did," I answered with a faint half-smile. "I love you, I missed you, and I didn't feel much like leaving. So I stayed."

He shifted to lean his forehead against mine and said softly, "I'm glad."

"Me too."

We simply stayed there watching each other and half-dozing for a while. I was just glad that today was our usual day off so we didn't have to worry about rushing to get ready for work. Finally, I brought up a subject that we hadn't really discussed since the first night it was raised. The closeness and quiet comfort we were sharing at the moment made this a very appropriate time to bring the subject up.

"Heero, when we talked before about what parts of that mission we wanted to be real, we were in agreement that we wanted the relationship we'd been pretending to have to be fact, not just fiction. We agreed to try and reach that goal." I smiled softly and brushed the tousled hair away from Heero's face. His eyes were dark and serious, his face very still, but I could still see the faint hint of worry.

Completely unnecessary worry. I'd had a lot of time to think things through while he was away and I'd reached some important conclusions and made an even more important decision. We'd made a lot of progress in our relationship. We still fucked things up sometimes but we'd learned to talk about things that bothered us rather than just ignoring the problems until something little and insignificant became something really big and important. Our relationship wasn't perfect by a long shot but we were still working on it and it was getting pretty damn good.

It was time to take another step. To make the implicit commitment that already existed between us into something more openly acknowledged.

Softly, I admitted, "I realize that in a way we'll always have to 'try'. Good relationships don't just happen; they require on ongoing effort from *both* people involved.

"But I think that we've both proved that we want this..." I kissed him tenderly, "...and are willing to work damn hard in order to have it." I met Heero's eyes - eyes no longer dark with worry but beginning to brighten with happiness. Taking a deep breath, I continued, "I love you. I trust you. I know that you love me." I smiled and pressed my lips to his faintly curving ones before murmuring casually, "Think we can get Une to let us have a couple of weeks off after Mattis's trial?"

Heero blinked in confusion. "Probably. Why?"

I managed to keep a straight face as I responded, "Well for our honeymoon, of course."

Stunned, Heero repeated, "Our - honeymoon?"

"Yeah, honeymoon. It *is* traditional for couples to go on one after the wedding..." I didn't get to say anything further; Heero had other plans for my mouth and I certainly wasn't going to object. The trial date was over eight months away and the trial itself could easily run several weeks; there would be plenty of opportunities to discuss things between now and then.

Part 39:

Zechs Merquise as a co-worker in the Preventers I could live with; he was a perfectly competent agent. Being partnered with him, no matter *how* temporarily, was another story entirely. Partners were supposed to cooperate, not compete, but with our past history that simply did not happen. Merquise was constantly trying to outdo me. The man annoyed the hell out of me when I was forced to be in contact with him on a regular basis. Three days of stakeout duty, trapped in a car with him for twelve hour shifts, had left me falling back on every concentration trick and shred of control that I'd ever used during the war just to keep from knocking him out and locking him in the trunk for the duration.

Sally and I had worked quite well together; I'd hoped to remain partnered with her until Duo was given clearance to return to full field duty but unfortunately things hadn't worked out that way. Wufei had been cleared for field duty over three weeks ago, Sally had returned to her usual partner, and I'd been stuck with Merquise since Noin was now on maternity leave.

I just hoped that their son took after *her* family, not his. Noin didn't deserve to be stuck with *two* men like Zechs in her life.

Pulling up Merquise's report on the stakeout, I gritted my teeth and forced myself to plow through his version of events. Despite the fact that *his* report was at least three times as long as my own, it *did* actually match up in every important way. 'If he thinks I'll be impressed by his vocabulary and style of writing, he's definitely on the wrong track. All of this excessive verbiage is just making me even more annoyed...'

It wasn't like there was a whole hell of a lot to *say* about the damn stakeout. We and another team spent three days in total sitting and watching a warehouse. And *nothing* happened. No deliveries, no pickups, nothing. Fortunately, the teams watching the *other* target location had better luck; they actually caught the suspect in the midst of a narcotics transaction, which brought the operation to an end, thus eliminating the need for a *fourth* day on stakeout with Merquise. Thank god. Now if only Duo's shoulder would heal up enough for him to get off desk duty and back in the field with me. Preferably before I got stuck working with Merquise again...

Scowling at the screen, I checked through my list of cases, hoping to find something to justify staying in the office for at least a few more days. A case heading to trial, maybe. I focussed my concentration intently. There had to be *something*. *Anything*...

"Heero. Hey, buddy, what's so da... darn interesting?" The voice barely penetrated but the file folder that slid between me and the monitor definitely broke my concentration.

'Oh *shit*.' I turned my head and guiltily met Duo's gaze, realizing that there had been a background rumble - probably his voice - for at least a few minutes. "Sorry..." I sighed. After three days of steadfastly tuning out Merquise, I'd backslid and ended up tuning out Duo again. Shit.

But instead of finding irritation on his face, I realized that he was grinning slightly and shaking his head indulgently. "S'okay, Heero."

I blinked in confusion. "You're - not upset?"

"Nope."

Why wasn't he upset by this? I'd ignored him again, albeit unintentionally...

Duo leaned over and, in a voice too soft to be heard by anyone other than me, murmured, "Realized there's another way to look at that concentration of yours." He smirked and continued huskily, "I'm looking forward to having all that intensity focussed on *me*. In, oh, say six-seven months or so..."

It took a moment for the implication to sink in but when it did, my cheeks abruptly became very warm. Duo winked at me and left the office again before I had a chance to find a suitable response.

Suddenly, those months between now and our wedding seemed *very* long.

***

"Well?" I demanded eagerly as Duo joined us at the cafeteria table.

He grinned broadly and answered, "Medical gave me the all clear. I'm back on full field duty starting Monday."

"Thank *god*," I breathed in relief.

The others all laughed.

"Why Yuy, one might almost think that you didn't want to have to work with Merquise anymore..."

I gave Wufei an irritated glare. "One might be correct," I growled. I'd had two more missions with the damn man since the stakeout; I wasn't sure whether I could restrain myself from doing something - drastic - if I was stuck working with him again.

"Yeah, well I'll be glad just to get out of the office," Duo said as he looked suspiciously at his lunch. "Une gave me *filing* to do yesterday and I spent the entire day before *that* doing *photocopying*. Whatever happened to 'a paperless society'?" He gave the pale coloured lump on his plate a tentative poke with his fork. "What the hel... - darn Une and her no-swearing-at-HQ rules - What the heck is this stuff supposed to *be*, anyway?"

"Lasagna," Sally said drily. "Couldn't you *tell*? Just because they seem to have forgotten the tomato sauce..." She shook her head in mock disappointment.

Duo wrinkled his nose and shoved the plate away. "Okay, I am *not* a picky eater but when I can't even cut it, I think that's a pretty good sign that it's inedible."

"The garden salad is passable today," I told him. "Not great, but passable. Just don't try to eat the tomatoes; they're - somewhat less than fresh." I surveyed my salad unenthusiastically. We hardly ever ate in the cafeteria but there was a new cook so we'd thought we'd give the guy a chance. Well, he'd had his chance. I for one had no intention of giving him another one.

"Passable is good. I can actually *eat* passable," Duo decided. He picked up his plate gingerly and headed off to brave the order counter again. I watched his movements, glad to see no sign of him unduly favouring his previously injured shoulder even after all the tests that he'd undoubtedly been subjected to before receiving his all clear. There was some slight stiffness there, yes, a hint of hesitation when he extended his reach, but that was only to be expected. There had been too much muscle damage for every trace to be eradicated in just under five months.

Damage that I was ultimately responsible for, no matter how much Duo insisted that he didn't blame me. No matter that Internal Affairs had cleared me with respect to the "unfortunate incident" as they termed it. *I* still blamed myself. Even after going through the mandatory counselling sessions that went along with any shooting.

Yes, it was a unique set of circumstances, and no, it wouldn't have happened if my memory hadn't been so damn full of holes at the time - but none of that changed the fact that it *had* happened and I *was* the one who pulled the trigger. That was the simple, unchangeable truth and I just had to live with it. I understood all too well why Duo's eyes darkened any time that he happened to catch a glimpse of the scars I carried from our first meeting. The whys and wherefores, the justification, none of that mattered. None of it stopped the truth from hurting, the guilt from biting. You just had to accept that it happened, accept the guilt and self-blame, and live with it.

***

Almost four whole months had passed since our engagement and we'd *just* finally announced it to our friends. We'd had to tell Commander Une a bit earlier in order to book time off for our honeymoon. We'd asked for two weeks; she'd given us a whole month. We'd both hit the ceiling for accumulated vacation days and literally *had* to use at least that much time before the end of the year.

Commander Une had been politely pleased at the news of our engagement and had readily agreed not to mention it to anyone else. We'd delayed telling the others both to give us time to get used to it ourselves and to give us time to arrange the wedding itself the way that *we* wanted. We had known perfectly well what would happen once the initial congratulations were over with, at least in one particular case.

"Thanks for the offer, Quatre, but we've already made the arrangements," Duo said gently. "Just a civic ceremony with our closest friends in attendance."

It was nice of Quatre to offer to arrange and pay for the wedding as his wedding present to us - he'd done the same for Sally and Wufei and theirs was going to be absolutely perfect - but Duo and I wanted something simple, private, and very personal. The list of invitees was *very* short. The other Gundam pilots and Sally. Commander Une was a good boss but not really a personal friend and none of our other co-workers met that criteria either. We had debated inviting some of the Sweepers and Maguanacs but the question of which ones was far too complicated and we weren't prepared to invite them *all*; neither of us had really had a lot of contact with either group since the war ended.

"Oh, but Duo, there's no need to cut corners like that. I can easily..." Quatre protested.

I stepped up closer beside Duo, moving more fully into the vidphone's pickup range. Sliding my arm around his waist, I interrupted firmly, "Quatre, we do appreciate the offer. But we're not 'cutting corners'. This is what we want. Exactly what we want."

I felt a little guilty about refusing Quatre's gesture - he looked *very* disappointed. But Duo and I were in complete agreement on this. We did *not* want a big wedding. Neither of us wanted the important part of the wedding - the commitment between us - to be obscured by all that fuss and formality.

"Hey Quat, y'know, we haven't actually arranged our honeymoon yet..." Duo suggested hesitantly, giving me a questioning look.

I nodded slightly and tightened the arm around his waist for a moment. "We've got a few general ideas but that's all," I contributed. "Commander Une's promised us a full month because we have so much accumulated vacation time..."

Quatre's disappointment turned to a brilliant smile. "What did you have in mind?"

I took a deep breath and hoped that he wouldn't get *too* carried away. "Absolutely *no* resorts..."

***

I tapped Sally's shoulder lightly. "May I cut in?" I barely even heard her surprised, laughing agreement. I was too busy enjoying the startled but delighted grin spreading across Duo's face. He stepped into my arms for the fourth time ever and for the first time that I knew exactly what I was doing and why. For the first time that a mission had absolutely nothing to do with it. And on this occasion, like on the very first, we danced as one without even having to think about it. It was nothing at all like the two thoroughly miserable dances that we'd suffered through during that disastrous grand opening at the resort.

Ignoring the attention that we were drawing from the many friends and acquaintances who were also guests at Sally and Wufei's wedding wasn't as difficult as I'd expected it to be. I was even able to give Duo a loving if rather small smile and received a radiant one in return. He had finally truly accepted that I wasn't going to deliberately close myself off from him again and had completely dropped his guard around me. It had taken weeks - months - for us to reach this point but now that we had I was finding it much easier to be open with Duo, especially in private. Every small bit of honestly expressed emotion from me was so generously rewarded that it became more and more natural to show him how I felt. I was still uncomfortable with displaying too much of my feelings in public but I was gradually getting a little better at it.

The music changed, one song ending and another beginning. I simply pulled Duo a bit closer and kept dancing. His duties as best man were over for the evening, at least until it was time for the newlyweds to leave. I saw no reason why we shouldn't spend the time until then in each other's arms. After all the time that we'd wasted between the war and now, I had no intention of letting an opportunity like this go to waste.

Part 40:

When Heero cut in on my dance with Sally, I expected him to invite *her* to dance, not me. I was delighted to find out that I was wrong. Dancing the evening away in his arms - dancing smoothly and seamlessly - brought sharply home to me the fact that we really *had* managed to achieve the relationship that we'd pretended to have during that disastrously fucked-up mission. Or at least, we'd achieved *most* of it. And of what little of our goal remained to be reached, the actual marriage would be accomplished with our own wedding, now just a few short months away.

Wufei and Sally were leaving for a two-week honeymoon and once they returned, preparations for our part in the Mattis trial would kick into high gear. The Preventers' legal team had things well in hand but there would be a number of last-minute details to take care of. There always were when cases finally headed into court. The case itself was expected to last several weeks; we'd allowed a couple of extra, both in case of unexpected delays and to give us time to hand over any open investigations to other agents. There weren't a lot of those currently on our desks anyway; the Mattis trial was expected to take over most of our time in the coming weeks and very few new cases had been assigned to us.

As the music changed and Heero merely pulled me closer and kept dancing, I deliberately pushed all thought of the next few months away from me. There would be time enough to deal with the trial and other Preventer business in the days ahead. Tonight, I was simply going to enjoy the moment.

***

Heero took my hand in his as we followed the restaurant's hostess. She was leading us to the private room where the "victory party" for the whole team of Preventers involved in the Mattis case was being held. I squeezed Heero's hand and gave him a contented smile. He'd come a long, long way over the months since the investigation into Mattis started. And in all honesty, I had as well. He had learned to be more open with me; I had learned to trust his feelings for me and to be realistic in my expectations. To accept the differences between us. Our relationship had strengthened and deepened to the point where it was even better than I'd dared to hope it could become. And now that Mattis was safely behind bars along with a large number of his cronies and we could afford to take time off, we were going to take the next step.

Marriage.

In just over two weeks, we would be getting married. The ceremony would be very simple and informal. Nothing more than an exchange of vows and rings, witnessed by our closest friends. Wufei, Sally, Quatre, and Trowa. The only other person present would be the justice of the peace responsible for the legal end of things. There would be no real "wedding party", though Sally and Wufei would hold the rings for us until the moment that they were needed. Fei would stand beside me, Sally with Heero. He had chosen to ask Sally since, other than Fei and me, she was the only person who was really very close to him. With Quatre and Trowa both living in the colonies and the rest of us here on Earth, Heero hadn't really gotten much closer to them as of yet. He *did* consider them friends - but not nearly as close as those of us who were working together on a regular basis.

Working *and* socializing; Fei and Sally had double-dated with Heero and myself a number of times and we often had lunch as a group. Sally had even had Heero give her away at their wedding since she didn't have any close family to perform the task. So it made sense that she was the one person that he'd been comfortable asking to stand up with him at our own wedding.

Although Quatre had been disappointed by our refusal to let him arrange a big, fancy wedding for us, our agreement to let him arrange our honeymoon as our wedding present had made up for it. We'd specified the duration - the full month that Commander Une had given us - and a few general requirements for location. For one thing, absolutely *no* resort hotels were to be considered; we wanted complete privacy. And we wanted it to be on Earth.

Neither requirement was a problem for Quatre; the Winner family owned property all over the damn Earth Sphere that sat empty virtually all year. He'd promised us that we'd *love* the "quaint little mountain cabin" that he'd picked out for us. If it had been anyone other than Quatre talking, I'd have been decidedly nervous about that description; "quaint" was generally one step up from "dilapidated to the point of collapse" in real estate terms. But somehow I didn't think that would be the case when it was a Winner property being described.

Heero kept hold of my hand as we moved through the small crowd of assorted Preventers' staff, ranging from other field agents to lawyers to secretaries. He released our handclasp briefly when people wanted to shake hands but resumed it again each time. He made no secret of our relationship, not even when the attention that it drew bothered him as it sometimes did. I'd told him repeatedly that it really was okay if he wanted to be a bit less obvious; I was secure enough in his love and commitment by now that I wouldn't get upset. But he was determined to overcome his discomfort so he persisted.

Wait staff circulated through the room handing out glasses of champagne as Une made a little speech about how hard everyone had worked for the victory over Mattis's organization and how we should all be proud that we'd played a role in removing another potential threat to peace. I took a glass reluctantly, as did Heero. I hated the damn stuff, it tasted like carbonated vinegar at best. But we were all stuck with drinking at least a few sips. It was a given that Une would propose a toast at the end of her speech; a speech that bore a definite similarity to countless others she'd given over the years since the war's end.

Sometimes, the fact that her speeches - or rather, the problems that prompted them - continued to occur was very discouraging. Human nature as a whole didn't change, unfortunately.

I was just grateful that *some* people *did* change. And for the better.

As Une called for the toast and we raised our glasses, I caught Heero's eye for a moment. Impulsively, I smiled at him and his mouth twitched into a slight smile in return, his gaze turning soft and warm as it met mine.

Oh yes, he'd changed. And very, *very* definitely for the better...

***

"Only a Winner would call this place a 'quaint little cabin'," I muttered under my breath. I snickered as I carried the suitcases upstairs to find the "loft bedroom" that had been mentioned.

It wasn't hard to find. The entire second floor *was* the bedroom and its accompanying bathroom. My grin got a little broader at the sight of the king-size bed and I fought not to break out into laughter. Obviously Q had given rather specific instructions to the caretaker. I seriously doubted that white silk sheets strewn with roses - *dethorned* roses, thank god - and rose petals were the normal way this place was decked out. I shook my head in disbelief, unsure whether I necessarily *appreciated* this particular gesture. It was a little - over the top?

Not quite our style at any rate.

'Not that I'm about to *complain* about a few dozen roses...' "Especially considering the *other* little touches..." I murmured, crossing to the bedside table. I lifted the bottle out of its chilling bucket and grinned. At least Q had taken our tastes into consideration a little better with *this*. A nice relaxing glass of wine was *far* nicer than the bubbly bilgewater more commonly known as champagne.

Curiously, I lifted the lid of the basket sitting beside the bucket. And promptly felt my face becoming very warm. "Shit Q, we *did* come prepared ourselves. Just 'cause we chose to wait till the honeymoon, that doesn't mean we have no clue what we're doing," I muttered, hastily closing the basket. I decided that I'd done enough investigating for the moment. I wasn't too sure what other little surprises might be waiting but I figured that I'd discovered my share. I'd let Heero find whatever else was lurking around here to embarrass us with Q's idea of the necessities for a honeymoon.

I sank down on the edge of the bed to wait, my thoughts drifting back over the past months. Over their high spots and their low ones. We'd had our share of setbacks getting to this point. And they definitely hadn't all been Heero's fault either, though he'd certainly blamed himself for them. I'd been so hyper-sensitive to the slightest bit of perceived coolness from him that I'd turned him into a nervous wreck for a while. Even after I'd stopped overreacting, he'd been absolutely paranoid about upsetting me. It had taken time for things to really settle down between us. We'd had our ups and downs like any other couple but we'd built a solid, stable relationship, one capable of handling a few rough spots along the way.

I heard the outside door open and close. "Duo?"

"I'm upstairs in the bedroom, Heero!" I called. "Join me?" Quick, light steps sounded on the staircase in response to my words, bringing a grin to my face. A slightly *nervous* grin despite the fact that we'd both been looking forward to this. I was admittedly a bit anxious that things wouldn't quite live up to expectations after we'd been anticipating this for so long. Waiting had been a mutual agreement and it had seemed like a really good way to start our marriage at the time we'd decided it - but now I was wondering whether we'd built this up so damn far out of proportion that it couldn't help but be a disappointment.

I stood and crossed the room to meet Heero, half-tempted to try and talk him into going back downstairs and doing something else after all. "Got the car put safely away?" I asked.

"Mm-hmm..." he murmured, pulling me into his arms. The moment our lips met, all thoughts of delaying things any further deserted me. I responded to the kiss eagerly, not even noticing that we were walking as we kissed. It was only when the back of my legs hit the bed that I realized we'd crossed the room.

Heero broke off the kiss as his fingers set to work on my shirt's buttons. He smiled at me - that beautiful, genuine smile that I'd first seen on the face of "Odin" months ago - and quite deliberately echoed what I'd told him that day we'd finally talked things out. "I love you. Suki da. Ai shiteru. Take your pick; they all apply."

I smiled back, rejoicing in the fact that, at least when it was just the two of us alone together, Heero *could* show his emotions so clearly now. As my own hands moved to dispose of *his* clothing, I grinned mischievously and murmured simply, "Ditto." Heero laughed and kissed me again. After that, our mouths were far too busy for talking.

And I really shouldn't have worried about our first time together being a disappointment.

It wasn't.

All the pieces, all the fragments, of our crazy, fucked-up lives came together. And we were both finally whole...

- end -

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End Notes:

Just wanted to post a link to the gorgeous gift pic that Sunhawk had commissioned for my fic "Fragments". It's by P.L. Nunn and it's posted on my website on the Fanart page http://calic0cat.freeservers.com/catalog.html

Just click on the thumbnail to see the fullsize version of the pic. Enjoy!

For the curious, here's some of the resources I used for info on amnesia:

General Head Injury Info: http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?t=28082&p=~br,IHW|~st,9339|~r,WSIHW000|~b,*\

Concussion Info: http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?t=9740&p=~br,IHW|~st,9339|~r,WSIHW000|~b,*|

Amnesia Info (specifically addressing the dispelling of media myths about amnesia): http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/31393/31474/345689.html?d=dmtICNNews

I looked up info through the Mayo Clinic and several other online resources as well but found the Intelihealth articles listed above the most useful. There were other Intelihealth references within the above articles which were helpful too.

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